Friday, May 20, 2011

Chapter 58

The Dark Mansion

          It took Callie a long second to summon forth her powers of levitation, and stop her fall. When she did, the bat-thing lost it’s grip on her pant-leg, and continued on it’s trip down.
Callie levitated upward, though not at the speed or ease she had gotten used to; her power level was on the wane. She would not be able to self-levitate like this for much longer.
She looked up and saw fireballs take out the last of the remaining bat-things. They fell past her; the sound of their shrieks dragging behind them into the darkness of the abyss.
Callie reached the ledge. Mike stood there with fire emanating from his open hand. He looked alright.
“Took you long enough.” he said, when he saw her. He helped her step onto the ledge with his free hand. “For a second there, when you fell, I forgot you could levitate. If you hadn’t warned me about the bat-thing above me, I might have jumped after you!”
“From here on out, let’s not press our luck.” Callie said, “My levitating days are about over. My power level isn’t what it used to be.”
“Bottom of the barrel?” Mike asked.
“Not yet, but getting there fast.” Callie replied.
“It has been in heavy use of late.” Mike said.
Callie noticed something missing from Mike. 
“What happened to the backpack?” she asked.
“That’s what I’ve been wanting to tell you.” Mike said, “The damned bat-monster that swooped in from above me; it grabbed hold of it and tried to cart me off. Actually got me about a foot off the ground, before the sticky straps gave way; unfortunately, batty dropped the backpack, with our food supplies, down the mountain.”
“Crud.” Callie said.
“If it’s any consolation, I turned batty into a crispy critter not two seconds later.”
“Oh well,” said Callie, “We’ll just have to make do without food. Can’t be too hard, right?”
“Let’s get moving.” Mike said, extinguishing the fire in his hand by closing it, “The sooner we get to where this ledge is going, the sooner we can get the hell off of it.”
They continued on their way.

Half an hour later, Mike began to make out the outline of a door, on the outcropping he had noticed earlier.
“Do you see that?” Callie asked, seeing the outcropping at last in a fortuitous flash of lightning.
“Yes.” Mike replied.
“What is it?”
“It’s just a bump in the mountainside.”
“Are we supposed to go around, or over?”
“Through.” Mike said, “I’m pretty sure I see a door.”

Twenty minutes later, there was no doubt. There was a door. It was made of dark varnished wood, with metal bands that braced the edges, and criss-crossed its span like a black X. The wood of the door looked heavy, and there were some deep talon scratches sunk into it.
Mike turned the stylized lever that served as a doorknob. The latch clacked, and the door opened inward with a loud creak.
Inside was a small cavern about the size of a storage shed. There was a bench on one side, and a thick bed of furs on the floor, on the other. There was also a wooden chair bolted to the floor, with a hole in its seat that corresponded to a hole in the cavern floor that opened to the sheer drop below the cavern, outside.
A toilet, Mike thought, with an interior snicker.
Beside this was a sheaf of rough-looking paper.
Yikes! Mike thought, Not exactly a four-star establishment!
There were two oil lanterns hanging in each corner. Mike lit them with his fire. Their illumination of the cavern was adequate, if dim.
Callie entered behind Mike. “Oh cool!” she said, “A rest stop!”
She went to the bed of furs, and burrowed under them.
“Thank Holy Gloeis in the sky!” she exulted, “We’re out of that damn cold and rain and wind and maddening thunder!”
“For a little while, at least.” Mike said.
“Killjoy as always.” Callie muttered under her breath.
Mike closed the door.
There was a locking plank bolted onto the side of the doorway. Mike brought it down into its holding clamp on the other side of the door. He noticed the door on the opposite side of the cavern also had a locking plank. He walked over to the other door, and locked it down as well.
“I guess these are to keep the beasties out.” he said.
Callie sat up against the wall of the cavern. She had one of the furs wrapped around her like a mink coat.
“These are WARM, Mike!” she said, “I’m taking one with me when we have to leave!”
“Good idea.” Mike said.
He grabbed one of the furs, wrapped it around himself as well; and sat down next to Callie. He found the bedding of multiple furs to be thick and comfortable.
Thunder roared outside, but sounded muffled and faint in the cavern.
“I think we’ve earned ourselves a little R and R.” Callie said. She was still trembling in spite of the fur’s warmth.
“More than that, I think we need some sleep.” Mike said, “We don’t want to face Sinestri exhausted or fatigued.”
“Should we take turns keeping watch?” Callie asked.
“No, I think we’re pretty well locked in here.” Mike said, “But I want to try something first, before we snooze.”
“Just a quick spirit travel expedition; I want to see what’s at the end of our road. Can you keep watch while I’m gone?”
“Can and will.” Callie said.
“Okay, here goes.” Mike said.
He sat back, closed his eyes, and detached from his body. It was easy for him now. 
He moved through the wall of the cavern, floated out some distance, and turned to face the mountain.
In this state neither cold nor rain could touch him. In the Voss Vedu’un there was no darkness; all things glowed, even the mountain itself. When lightning flashed, Mike could see the ripples and roils it caused in It.
Mike looked down at the abyss below him, but his astral self felt no vertigo. He then willed himself up, higher and higher, faster and faster; until he reached the top.
And there it was…as he had suspected.
The tip-top of the mountain seemed to have been scooped off, as if by the hand of a titan, and on this lot was built a black, massive, and windowless mansion, that looked like the abode of the gods (and not the pleasant ones). Thick dark thunderclouds poured rain upon it. Lightning danced above and around this structure; yet, somehow, never struck it.
Without windows, Mike found it difficult to figure how many floors the highest central section of this complex edifice had; but it had to be in the double-digits. From a higher perspective, it looked like a small city had been forcibly mashed together into forming a single vast building, with varying rooflines, towers, flying buttresses, and the like.
Only an egomaniac, with delusions of Godhood, would make a place like this his home, Mike thought.
He moved closer, to get a peek inside.
He got as far as a few yards from its walls, when he hit some unseen force that circumferenced it. He was knocked back down into his body so hard and so fast, he gasped upon opening his eyes.
“What happened?” Callie, beside him, asked.
Mike showed her all that he saw.
“Yeah, that looks like the kinda place Sinestri would call home.” she said, “It’s gonna be a heckuva long slog to get there, though.”
“Yeah, I know.” Mike said, “So let’s take full advantage of this place while we got it.”
They made pillows out of rolled up furs, and they laid themselves down, blanketing themselves under the warm furs. Their tired bodies fell into sleep within minutes.
They slept deep, and for untold hours.

When they awoke, they did so almost at the same time; though they did not rise just yet. They just lay there for awhile.
“I don’t wanna leave.” Callie said.
“Neither do I, but we gotta get going.” Mike said, “Did you not sleep well?”
“Oh no, I slept great. And I feel refreshed and all…I just don’t want to go out there in the cold and wet again.”
“Ditto, but…”
“I know, I know. We gotta.” Callie said, “I understand that. I just hope there’s some kind of daylight now. I’m so sick of the constant dark! And I hope that damn thunderstorm is over; my nerves got frayed from jumping at every crack of thunder!”
“Me too.” Mike said, “Me too.”

Despite not really wanting to, the two got up.
They availed themselves of the primitive toilet; an embarrassing necessity, though a necessity nonetheless (at least the toilet paper wasn’t as harsh as it had seemed at first look). Both took turns staring at the opposite wall while the other “took care of business”.
They unlocked the planks on both doors (as a courtesy to whatever poor bastard might have to pass this way at some point), and blew out both lanterns. 
They were both cloaked in furs.
Mike opened the door. The ledge awaited them.
It was still cold and dark; and the thunderstorm still raged.
“I hate this place.” Callie grumbled, “I really really do.”
They closed the door behind them, and began to walk again.

They walked for hours.
The wind went from being an irritant to an active danger, as they entered a point where their mountain and a neighboring mountain created a natural wind tunnel. They had to grasp their furs tight, as the wind sought to rip them away. They did not speak to each other at this point, as it was impossible for them to hear each other above the din of the screaming wind. Mike maintained an open connection to Callie’s mind, in case one of them needed to communicate something to the other.
Then they reached a point where the ledge was damaged (possibly by an avalanche). It was busted up and in places down to a foot in width. This slowed them down considerably, and it took them a long tense hour of cautious movement with their backs to the mountain, to get past the damaged region. And it was worse for Callie, who was in the dark (except during lightning strikes), and had be carefully directed with mental images of the ruined ledge from Mike’s Ma’jai-enhanced vision.
Sometime after that, they passed beyond the wind tunnel.
“Finally!” Callie said, “I couldn’t take another minute of that damned wind! I thought I was gonna go insane!”
They continued onward.

After another long interval of silent trudging, Callie spoke up again. “I’m hungry.” she said---almost whined.
“I second that emotion.” Mike replied.
“We haven’t eaten since the cave, last night.” Callie added, “Or last…umm…whatever. I don’t even know what time or day it is anymore! It’s always dark here!”
“Next critter we run into, I’ll fry for you.” said Mike.
“As long as it’s not disgusting.”
“Better disgusting chow than starvation.”
“I don’t know, I’d hafta be pretty skeletal before I’d eat certain things,” Callie said, “My gag reflex is a harsh mistress.”
“Give it another hour or two, and you’ll be humming a different tune.” Mike said.
“Hmmm…I wonder how it went with the Cathim people.” Callie said, changing the subject without a hint of subtlety.
“It just occurred to me that we pretty much left them in the lurch back there, without much answers. They have no food, no electricity, no help, and no idea of what kind of world they now inhabit.”
“Just like us, wouldn’t you say?” Mike asked, “And like us, they’ll have to figure it out on their own.”
“I just hope they don’t descend into cannibalism.” Callie said.
For some reason, this struck Mike as hilarious, and he began to laugh uncontrollably.
“You crack me up, Cal!” he said, as he wiped tears from his eyes with his hand, and had to stop a moment. When finally he stopped laughing, he turned and faced Callie. His mood went from amused to serious.
“This is ridiculous, Callie,” he said, “We’re not putting up with another hour of this shigging mountain.”
“What do you suggest?”
“I suggest we fly.”
“Sorry, tanks too low. I’ll tap out at twenty or so feet, and then we’ll fall to our deaths in a most unhappy fashion.” Callie said, “Besides, that mansion’s WAY too high up there. Even fresh off that brain-drain with Babbidaz, I couldn’t pull that off.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have expected you to fly us all the way to the top in one leap. This ledge does spiral up and around the mountain; so you could just fly us to the next ledge section above us, rest, then up to the next, until we reach the top.”
“Huh, I didn’t even consider that.” Callie said, “That’s actually a good idea, but the point is academic. I don’t have the power anymore.”
“You just need to refuel.” Mike said.
“Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”
“You can’t honestly say it hasn’t crossed your mind.”
“Well, I’m not gonna lie and say it hasn’t, cause it has; especially since we found ourselves on this stupid pile of rocks.”
“I know.” Mike said, “It’s crossed my mind as well; but fear and selfishness have kept me from putting my brainwaves on the line. Of all of us, I’m the only one who didn’t have to undergo that particular procedure, and I was kinda hoping to keep it that way; but this shigging mountain’s gonna do us in---unless I allow this.”
“Are you sure?” Callie asked.
“No, but that’s never stopped me before. Come on now, before I change my mind.”
“Alright then,” Callie said, “I assume you can see my eyes in the dark; so we don’t need to do this the hard way.”
“Yup, just don’t let me fall if I get woozy or something.”
“Don’t worry, I got you.” Callie said, putting her hands on his shoulders, and pulling their faces close.
Callie’s eyes began their trancing effect, and she felt it when he fell under their power.
Like a hypodermic needle allows the passage of fluids through the barrier of flesh; the Malignium pierced into Mike’s mind with ease, and allowed Callie to slip right in.
Because of the depth of powerful emotions, the mental energy of most people pooled into their moments of despair and suffering; forcing the subject to relive these memories, allowed the Conjuura access to this energy. Mike’s mind was different. It was reminiscent of Babbidaz’s, in that his mental energy was unmixed with any emotion; it was simply there for the taking, like water from a river.
And what a mighty glowing river it was! More than could ever pass through the tiny spigot of his current level of Ma’jai ability. More than had resided even in Babbidaz.
Callie immediately understood several things at once: This is why Zedda so wanted to drain Sparo, once he came in to his full power, she thought, And this is also why she was afraid of him; why she had him caged and surrounded by all those circles of containment. The Ma’jai are walking power plants! No wonder Mike was able to kick Babbidaz’s mental ass!
She drank deep of this bounty. Drank until she felt her head would explode; drank until a curtain of green fell over her vision.
When she disengaged from his mind, for a moment, she could see the night as he did; she could see the Voss Vedu’un at last. Then, it faded away.
“Was that it?” Mike asked.
For him, there had been a woozy moment, when he was tranced; then the session had come to an end.
“Yeah…” Callie said, looking woozy herself, “That’s it.”
“It was not what I expected. I don’t even feel any different from before. You look more numbed and put out than I do. You okay?”
“For a big dummy, your mind was a lot more densely-packed than I expected.” Callie said, rubbing her temples like she had a headache, “I got a lot more from you than what I got from Babbidaz; but even that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s there. No wonder you didn’t feel a damn thing; you’re a freak of nature!”
“It goes without saying,” Mike replied, “But is it enough?”
“More than enough!” Callie answered.
They turned toward the mountain, and linked arms.
“Up yours, mountain!” Callie yelled, and the two flew straight up.
Mike kept a live feed to his spectral vision running in Callie’s head, so she could see the wall of the mountain become a grey blur as they ascended at an ever increasing speed.
In the end, Callie was so juiced up; they only had to stop at three separate points on the ledge, to take three fifteen minute breaks.
In this fashion, they soon reached the top.

There it was.
Sinestri’s mansion.
About twenty yards away, the double-doors to this abode were swung open wide; looking in to a well-lit (and dry!) interior.
“Looks like we’re expected.” said Callie.
“I feel at home already.” added Mike.
The two walked toward the open doors.
Mike looked down and saw a metal ring set flush into the smooth stone floor of the mountain-top; encircling the mansion, like a perimeter. The metal was a dark, blotchy, copper color; and about six inches in width. On this ring was etched writing of the mystical and cabalistical type. This writing appeared as silver, so the copper color was, perhaps, a mere discoloration of the surface. The fine cursive strokes of the delicate letters looped and linked each other, all the way around (at least as far as Mike could see).
It was a magic circle.
Mike remembered how he got knocked back into his body when he had tried to spirit travel into the mansion. This magic circle had no doubt been responsible. 
But what else would it do?
They approached the threshold of the ring, and passed without a problem. Mike breathed an interior sigh of relief. What happened next happened so fast, it caught them both off guard.
A glowing pair of orange wedge eyes appeared between them and the mansion, and flew towards them at tackling speed. As it did so, a dark purple body (gaseous at first, then quickly gaining an inky, gooey, solidity) pulsated into existence around it.
“What the hell---?!” was all Mike managed to get out, before the thing slammed into both of them so hard, they went tumbling and rolling back to the unprotected edge.
Callie managed to catch the ledge, but Mike went over.
“MIKE!!!” Callie yelled.
Her fur coat was lost to the wind, as she pulled herself up (which was just as well, since it had gotten smeared with the sticky grape jelly-like goo the thing was made of and had slathered all over them, on contact).
“MIKE!!!” she screamed into the abyss.
I’m here, Cal! came the response, from inside her mind, Look.
He sent her an image of himself: his fur cloak snagged on a protruding rock, some distance down; and he hanging from it. But his grip was slipping, because the cloak was sodden from the rain (and gooey with the purple gunk as well).
He had seconds; before he either lost his grip, or the fur tore away from the rock.
Callie extended her power downward, and found him. She levitated him back up to where she stood. He released his fur as he cleared the edge. The wind caught it, and it flapped away into the night like some great dark bird.
“Okay, now I’m pissed off!” Mike said, as he and Callie turned to face the mansion again.
Their purple friend was nowhere to be seen.
“Can you see him, Mike?” Callie asked.
“No, but I know he’s here somewhere.” Mike said, “Stay right here, Cal, and be ready in case he whacks into me again.”
“Okay,” said Callie, “But be careful.”
Mike walked up to the metal ring. With fire from his hand, he illuminated it for Callie.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Our friend’s leash, if my guess is correct.”
Mike cautiously set his right foot past the ring, like a swimmer testing the warmth of a pool. He leaned into the foot, as if to step further in.
Immediately, the orange wedge eyes returned, and its purple gooey body slobbered into existence as well.
“I see it!” said Callie.
The thing barreled toward Mike.
“Get outta the way, Mike!” Callie cried.
Mike removed his foot, and the thing slammed into an invisible wall the magic circle represented.
“It can’t get me outside the circle, see?” Mike said.
The thing, now angry, slammed itself again and again against the invisible wall, trying to get at Mike.
“It’s like a guard dog.” Mike continued, “Just a dumb creature set there to protect the place against intruders. Invisible, so we’d blunder into it’s territory, and get slammed off the mountain. Another of Sinestri’s traps.”
“And it worked, did it not?” Callie replied, “Pure dumb luck is all that saved us right now, let’s be honest.”
“That’s the best kind of luck!” Mike said.
“What I wanna know, is how we get past Rover here, and get inside?” Callie asked.
Mike turned to the newly-named Rover, and sent streamers of fire from his hands, into the guardian; but Rover’s body did not catch fire nor seem affected by it in any way. Nor by fireballs. Mike threw a sekari at it, but the sekari (like the fireballs before it) disappeared into the goo to no effect. Finally, he tried trapping it in a sekari shield. That seemed to work at first, Rover was entrapped; but then it disappeared, then reappeared outside the shield, still unperturbed.
“Well, I’m out of ideas.” Mike said, “I’d try to take over its mind, but there seems to be no mind there to take over. I don’t even think this thing was created with Ma’jai magic; the writing on the circle isn’t Vaunto. Do you think you can levitate it, Cal?”
Callie walked over to Mike’s side and tried, but her power seemed to go through the guardian as if nothing was there.
“Sorry,” she said, “Can’t do a damn thing to it.”
The two scratched their heads.
Rover seemed to tire of them, and disappeared once more.
“I’d hate to be the mailman around here.” Callie groused.
Mike hunched down to take a closer look at the metal ring on the ground. The strange unfathomable writing on it was etched light and delicate, like the strokes of a fountain pen. That, in conjunction with Callie’s mailman comment got him to thinking, and when he stood up again to face her, he had a smile on his face.
“Uh oh,” Callie said, “That’s your patented ‘I have a crazy idea that’s gonna put us both in terrible danger’ smile.”
Mike nodded. “Why do you suppose Rover is circumscribed like this?” he asked, “Why not let him run free?”
“Well, he’s probably not too bright, like you said,” Callie replied, “Without the leash, he’d probably just run off---“ and then it hit her, “---The cliff! He’d just zip right off the precipice like a dope!”
“Bingo!” said Mike, “Break the circle, break the leash!”
“You think you can do it?”
“All I need to do is bust the ring up enough to break the spell.” Mike said, summoning a sekari into both hands, “Just be ready for your part.”
He hurled both sekari down, one after the other, down at the metal ring; at the same location. The ring broke apart at that point, and even popped up a little at the broken ends, as if it had been under some tension that was now relieved.
Mike and Callie linked arms, and took two steps into Rover’s domain.
Rover felt the infraction, and burst forth into existence.
“He’s coming!” said Mike.
Rover, in his rage, rocketed toward Mike and Callie, but at the last second, Callie levitated them up and out of reach. 
With no invisible wall to stop him, Rover zipped past the broken metal ring and, without even a yelp, flew over the edge and disappeared into the chasm.
Mike and Callie floated back down.
“Do we kick ass or what?” Mike said.
“No time for getting cocky, Mike.” Callie replied, “Let’s get inside, quick. For all we know, Rover can fly.”
“Good point.” Mike said.
The two hurried to the entrance of the mansion. Without a second thought, they walked into Sinestri’s abode, and closed the doors behind them.


K said...

Hi laz
So sorry to have fallen behind, life had be pretty pinned lately. That said, I am almost glad that I've been behind because it gave me four back to back chapters to read.
I love the way your writing style has changed to match the change in Callie and Mike. They have had to mature and focus in a hurry given their immediate and life threatening challenges. I love their ability to work together to over come things.
Very brave of Mike and Callie to do the brain drain. That grape jelly guard do is something else! And that crazy critter that breaks into many pieces...the jiggerwhatsyhoozit? I feel like I am reading a serious tale, but still you never fail to make me laugh. I adore that touch of levity you always drop into the story. More than anything, I love the way you make things terrifyingly tough and yet give them a way out. I am enjoying this story. Please don't tell me that Chapter 60 is going to be the end...Say it ain't so!

lazlo azavaar said...

Hi, K! Thanks for commenting! Yes, I'm afraid Chapter 60 is going to be the concluding chapter of Dark Roads. It's gonna be longer than usual in order to provide a thorough explanation of what it's "all been about", and still give Mike and Callie a suitably exciting climax.

Then, at some point, I will tackle the sequel, which will be called "The War of The Ma'jai". Any news of when and where that will show up will be posted (and linked to) here on this site. So keep an eye out for that.

Until then, I got one last chapter left to write, and it's a biggie.