The Fifth Ten Chapters

Chapters 41 through 50.

Chapter 41

The New Arrival

“I’m looking for my friends, Mike, Callie, and Edward.” Jon said, “That’s their car parked right over there. Are they here?”
        “Yes, they are,” said Egann, “Come on in.”
        From where they watched and waited, Edward and Ray saw Egann walk in from the hall, followed by Jon. Edward had to suppress a squeal of joy when he saw him.
        “What is it?” asked Ray, “Do you know him?”
        “It’s my friend Jon!” said Edward.
        “Don’t be too happy,” Ray said, “He’s now stuck here too.”
        Edward smiled wide. “Ray, the chances of our getting out of this hell-hole just got a little bit better!”
        “Speaking of chances, there goes Balooda. Let’s go!”

        “Ahh! A neew guest!” Mr. Balooda said, arriving, “Eeegan, who ees our neew friend?”
        “I’m Jonathon Grash,” Jon stepped forward and said, “I’m looking for my friends. I’m told they are here.”
        “Friends?” Balooda asked.
        “Our previous guests.” Egann replied.
        “I see!” Balooda said, and turned to Egann, “Take him to Zedda.”
        “You’re…not taking him?”
        “No need.” Balooda said, “Hee’s nothing special---just another toureest.”
        Balooda turned back and headed for his office.
        Tourist was Balooda’s euphemism for those poor, unfortunate outsiders who still blundered into Murgent, from time to time. The adults would be driven bonkers by Zedda’s still operative insanity spell, and would join the rest of the crazy populace. If there were kids with them, they would end up joining the hotel workforce.
        That was much too fast, Egann thought, If Edward and Ray aren’t out of Balooda’s office with the egg by now, they’re screwed.
        There was nothing for it, but to continue onward.
        He turned to Jon, “Follow me.” he said.

        Ray had stayed near the entrance of the hall as a lookout, while Edward had gone into Balooda’s office to get the egg.
        Edward crouched down low and extended his arm to reach under the desk. He caught the egg with his fingertips, but the egg skidded further away. Edward groaned at his own incompetence, got down on the floor and crawled under the desk, over to the egg, which was now under Balooda’s chair. Edward stretched out his hand and grabbed the egg. He was getting out from under the desk, when Ray came to the door in a panic.
        “He’s coming!” Ray hissed.
        “I’ve got it!” Edward said, getting to his feet.
        “Let’s go!” Ray said, but upon turning saw Balooda’s shadow enter the hall before him.
        In a flash, Ray entered the office, grabbed Edward, and the two slipped behind the wall before Balooda could see them. They now had seconds, before Balooda entered the office.
        “Wadda-we-do? Wadda-we-do?” Ray muttered under his breath, looking around in a panic for a lifeline.
        His eyes fell on the small broom closet, and the two slipped in there right before Balooda stepped in.
        It was dark inside, but in the quick second they had opened the door for ingress, light had spilled in and shown a small empty space with some pails, sponges, and such; tucked neatly aside. There were no actual brooms in the broom closet, thankfully. There was just barely enough room for the both of them.
        They heard Balooda enter the office.
        A small sliver of light from a crack in the wood of the door (probably from when Balooda slammed Mike against it) provided the only illumination in that dark confined space.
        “What now?” Edward whispered.
        “We wait.” Ray whispered back.

        Mike got down to the basement in time to see his body start work on the last magic circle. The final, desperate, and most intense phase of their battle began.
        Despite Mike’s renewed energy, the beast in the box still had the advantage of time.
        And bit by bit, that last circle became less and less.

        Egann and Jon stood in front of the door to Zedda’s divination room. Egann made to knock, but the door was opened just then as Alixa shambled out; her face a blank.
        She looked at Egann and Jon. “Another one.” she mumbled, then continued on her way.
        “What’s wrong with her?” Jon asked.
        “You’ll see shortly.” Egann replied.
        They stepped inside.
        Inside were eight kids, still waiting their turn. Callie was working on a girl named Connie. No longer able to just watch, Zedda had taken the next kid in line; a boy named Daniel.
        “CALLIE!” Jon cried out, upon seeing his beloved.
        He ran over to her, but Mr. Blessure stopped him before he could reach her.
        “Callie, it’s ME!!” he yelled, struggling against the unmovable hand at his neck, “Let me go, damn you!”
        Callie did not even look up from her labors. She was so deep into Connie’s memories, his voice did not penetrate.
        That something was wrong with this town was something Jon had realized the minute he had entered Murgent (and the crazy townsfolk wandering around in the night like a horror show was a big hint too); but worse than all that was the realization that something was terribly wrong with Callie as well.
        What the hell was happening here?
        Mr. Blessure brought Jon over to Zedda.
        Egann followed close behind.
        Zedda finished up with Daniel, and shoved him aside. “Is this our new guest?” she asked.
        “Yes.” Egann answered.
        “Why didn’t Mr. Balooda bring him up himself?”
        “Mr. Balooda figured he’s just another tourist.”
        “Oh, but he’s much more than that, isn’t he? I distinctly heard him call out Callie’s name.” Zedda said, “Release him, Mr. Blessure.”
        Mr. Blessure did as commanded.
        “Why are you here?” Zedda asked Jon.
        “I came to find her,” Jon said, “Callie, and my other friends.”
        Callie finished with Connie, and pushed her aside impersonally, not unlike Zedda had just done with Daniel.
        “This should be an interesting reunion then.” Zedda said, “Callie, dear! Someone's here to see you!”
        Callie turned, and at last caught sight of Jon.
All the color drained from her face
        “Callie!” Jon said, and ran to her.
        They embraced.
The hunger tried to cajole Callie once again, but was trodden down under foot by Jon’s voice, Jon’s touch, and Jon’s kiss. Jon’s very presence rendered it small and mute.
“Ah…so it’s the boyfriend.” Zedda muttered.
From where she sat, she could sense the diminution of the hunger that had bound Callie to her up to now; but Zedda was not troubled. She knew of a way to turn the boyfriend’s freeing effect against itself; cleaving the hooks in even deeper.
“I hate breaking up a lovefest,” Zedda said, “But I think it’s time for Callie to return to her new vocation.”
“I’m not returning to anything.” Callie said, “I’m done with this.”
“I’m afraid you are mistaken about that.” Zedda said.
Jon suddenly felt himself forced down into a kneeling position, by an invisible hand that could not be resisted.
“Not only are you returning to your duties,” said Zedda, “Boyfriend here is going to be your next drainee.”
“What? NO!” Callie said.
“If you don’t, I’ll have Mr. Blessure rip his arms and legs right off in front of you. He’ll live, of course, but it won’t be a pleasant sight.”
Zedda let Callie think on that a few seconds.
“Mr. Blessure, if you please---“ Zedda said.
“NO! STOP!” Callie said, “I’ll do it.”
She stepped over to Jon.
“I’m sorry.” she said.
“It’s not your fault.” Jon replied.
“Oh Jon, but it is.” she said, and began.

The battle was over, and Mike had lost.
The last magical circle of containment finally eradicated, the beast released Mike’s body and returned to it’s own; it no longer needed Mike for what was left for it to do.
Mike floated toward his body, and crammed himself into it. It felt weird and cumbersome at first, like a fat suit; but he acclimated to it enough to sit up and scootch himself over to the wall, facing the cage. It would be a long time till anyone came down for him anyway, so he figured he might as well stay and see what the boogey in the box would do once it freed itself.
Though the basement was now in total darkness, he was amazed that he could still see; his spectral vision had not departed with his return to his body. Mike wondered how long that would last.
A sudden metallic clank startled him.
One of the bolts that secured the metal bands to the wooden box had popped off, hitting the wall a few feet above his head, before ricocheting off to the back somewhere.
Mike watched and winced, as other bolts unscrewed themselves, popped off, and hit the wall all around him like shots fired by a blind man; yet not a one hit him.
Why doesn’t it just bust through the box? Mike wondered, It certainly looks big enough to accomplish that.
Whatever the reason, it would soon be free nonetheless.
All Mike could do now was watch and wait.

She was done with him.
At Zedda’s call, Egann helped the zoned out boyfriend up to his feet, and walked him toward the door.
“I’m ready for more.” Callie said, her face unreadable.
Young love dies hard, Zedda thought to herself with self-satisfaction. She nodded her approval, and allowed Callie to continue.
Egann and Jon exited the room.
“I wish I could have warned you,” Egann said, “But I couldn’t risk Zedda finding out.”
“Find…? What…?” Jon mumbled.
“Me and your friend Edward, along with a friend of mine named Ray, are trying to find a way to end this situation.”
“You…friend of Edward?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“Good.” Jon said, straightening up, “I don’t have to act loopy any more, which is a relief. So, where can I find Mike and Ed?”
Egann was caught by surprise. “She didn’t drain you, did she?”
“No.” Jon answered, “She has other plans.”
“What other plans?”
“We’re taking down Zedda tonight.”

Chapter 42

The Time is Now

Callie had faced the well of Jon’s memories, and was not swayed.
        Jon’s re-entry into her life, after she thought she might never see him again, had an effect far beyond Zedda’s surmise.
        Callie found herself again.
        Instead of draining Jon, she communicated with him. From her own memories, she had shown him what had transpired since her arrival in Murgent with Mike and Edward.
        If we are ever to get away from here, she had said to him mentally, It has to be tonight. Tonight or never.
        What do you suggest? Jon had sent back.
        I will have to take on Zedda, Conjuura to Conjuura.
        There is no way you are ready for that, Jon said.
        I’m not fighting to win, but to keep her busy, Callie said, You, Mike, Edward, and whoever else you can recruit will have to find some way to deal with Balooda and Blessure. This isn’t so much a plan, you see, as a shot in the dark. I’ll give you as much time as I can, before I challenge Zedda. After that, things will happen quickly; either for us or against us. Time is of the essence; so work quickly, my love.

        “That’s a dangerous game she’s playing.” Egann said, when Jon finished his description of the mental communication he had just had with Callie, “Zedda’s has years of power stored up, she’s gonna squash your Callie like a bug. However, I may just know a way to even the odds a little, thanks to your friend Edward.”
        They exchanged information, and split up.
        Jon went downstairs to get Mike out of the basement.
        Egann stayed on the third floor. 
        He turned the corner and sprinted up to Zedda’s private room. He said the magic words as he traced the circular seal with his finger, and the door opened.
        He wasted no time; he flicked the lights on, and went straight for the painting. He opened it. When he saw the eggs, he realized he needed something in which to carry them. It would not do to just sneak a few away in his pockets, he needed all of them. He needed to destroy them all, preferably at the same time, before Zedda figured out what was happening and tried to stop him.
        He was not sure they were even breakable; and even if they were, he had no means of doing it quietly here.
        A bold stroke was needed.
        Egann looked around and saw a small end table with a decorative tablecloth. He removed the items on the table, and then removed the tablecloth. He laid the cloth out on the floor, went over to the shelf, and started taking out all the crystal eggs. He put them all on the tablecloth, and picked up the ends; creating a sack. He tied the corners and cinched them tight.
        He went to the window, and opened it. It was heavy, and did not go up easily, but he forced it.
        Egann poked his head out the window, and looked down. Below him, three stories down, was a semi-circle of lush lawn.
        “Damn,” he said, “This is gonna hurt.”
He lowered himself out of the window, grabbed the sack, and let go; pushing against the wall with his feet. As he fell, he tucked the sack of eggs to his stomach, and hugged it to cushion it against impact.
        There was a muffled thud, then no other sound. Egann lay sprawled on the lawn next to the bag of eggs, unmoving.

        Mike’s enemy loosened it’s last bolt. It darted across the basement, struck the wall, and ricocheted off; leaving behind a gash mark.
        The crisscrossing bands of iron collapsed in a heap of metal.
        The beast was free.
        It shambled forth, towards Mike. As it passed beyond the confines of the box, it blurred out of coherent vision. Only when it stopped right in front of Mike, did it clear up again.
        Only now, it wasn’t a monster at all. It was pallid, frail-looking boy of about eleven or twelve; with dirty clothes and unkempt hair.
        “Hello Mike,” he said, “I’m the Nurrek.”

        Edward and Ray started to sweat in the dark confines of the broom closet. Balooda was still in his office, and didn’t seem likely to get out of it any time soon.
        Edward could resist temptation no longer and took out the crystal egg from his pocket. It was too dark to see, so he brought it to where the single sliver of light coming from the small crack in the wood of the door could hit it. When it did, the egg glowed with a bright light.
        “Oh…” whispered Edward, as the glow got brighter, and illuminated the broom closet.
        As Edward and Ray stared at the miniature Sarrgoset Hotel with rapt attention, they saw a tiny facsimile of Mr. Blessure look out the third floor window and up at them.

        “It’s happening again.” Mr. Blessure said, looking out the window, “We’re being watched.”
        “Can you get them yet?” Zedda asked.

        The glow of the egg was so bright, light shone out from under the door. Mr. Balooda saw this light, went to the broom closet, and yanked the door open.
        “WHAT EES THEES?!!” Balooda yelled.
        Edward was so startled that he dropped the egg. The egg’s glow shut off, and rolled to a stop at Balooda’s feet.
        “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HEER?!!” he bellowed.
        Balooda saw the egg, and picked it up.
        “THEES BEELONG TO ZEDDA!” he roared, and held it before his eyes to confirm that it was indeed Zedda’s.

        “GOT HIM!!” yelled Mr. Blessure, and with his mind, PULLED.

        Balooda looked into the egg for just a second---but at the worst possible time. His eyes suddenly bulged outward in a grotesque fashion, and he screamed a bone-shattering scream that could be heard in all of Murgent.
        In the tightening death-grip of his hand, the egg shattered.

        Outside, in the town of Murgent, Balooda’s scream shook the townspeople from their lunatic endeavors, and united them in purpose. For the spell that had for so long protected the Sarrgoset Hotel and its surroundings from their violent intentions was broken; and they now hastened in their shambling way towards that edifice.
        At long last, it was time to settle unfinished business.

        Though Balooda’s scream could be heard down in the basement, the two down there barely registered the sound.
        “Nurrek?” Mike asked.
        “That’s Zedda’s little joke at my expense.” the boy replied, “My actual name is Sparo Ivinic. Anyway, you gave me quite a battle there, pal. Then again, considering the box’s illusion spells, how could you have done otherwise?”
        “What ARE you?” Mike asked.
        “You’ve heard of the Ma’jai, right?”
        “You’re a Ma’jai?”
        “Don’t sound so surprised, Mike. You’re one too!”
        “Guna shaal isanno a’dahj, Mike. You are one of us. Do you think you could have fought me the way you did if you were just an ordinary person? Or see me now so clearly in the dark?”
        Before Mike could formulate a denial to Sparo’s incredible assertion, there came the sound of the basement door being unlocked and opened.
        “MIKE! You down there?” shouted a voice.
        It was Jon.
        Egann awoke.
        He picked up the bag of eggs, and ran to the front of the hotel.
        Once there, he saw them.
        There were about forty to fifty townspeople facing the hotel, looking up at the third floor window. Egann recognized Merro Lhaisuber, the old man Mike and Callie had run over, among them. More were coming. When the right critical mass was reached, they would strike.
        “The time is now.” Egann said.
        He smashed the bag of crystal eggs against the concrete sidewalk.

        Edward and Ray covered their ears with their hands to shut out Balooda’s loud screaming. Before their eyes he doubled in size and transformed into the gargoyle-like thing with cracked crocodile skin. In it’s talons, the shards that had once been a crystal egg fell.
        The thing that was Balooda began to claw at it’s eyes.
        Unable to exit the room, Edward and Ray backed themselves back into the broom closet, as Balooda thrashed against the walls of the office like a wild animal in a panic.

        “GOT HIM!” Mr. Blessure had said triumphantly; but triumph had turned to horror as his head exploded in size.
        ”NOOOOO!!” Mr. Blessure screamed.
        The shape of his head fluctuated wildly, as if some feral animal was trapped inside, trying to tear it’s way out.
        “WHAT IS IT!? WHAT IS IT?!” Zedda yelled.
        Blessure bent over, hands on head, perhaps trying to contain its contents; perhaps trying to flush it out. From his eyes, copious amounts of vile-looking sludge poured.
        Callie (who was between drainees) and the other kids in the room watched with horrified fascination.
        At last Blessure seemed to rid himself of his burden, and his head shrunk back to normal size; but it was now a messy and disfigured version of what it had once been. He straightened up and looked at Zedda with his broken face and gunky eyes.
        “It was BALOODA!” he said, his chest still heaving.
        “What?!” Zedda asked, “How can that be? Morrtogs cannot betray their Conjuuras!”
        “It was a mistake, not a betrayal. Two of the boys, Edward and Ray, stole one of your Sarsarin Eggs. He discovered them, but looked into the egg at the wrong moment.”
        Rage bubbled up inside of Zedda; someone had dared to trespass into her private room, and had stolen her property!
        Along with the rage, however, arose fear. She had been so focused on Callie, it had distracted her from keeping an eye on the goings-on in the hotel. How could she be so blind?
        Only now, as she opened her mind to the psychic stream, did she sense its chaotic vibrations. Things were wrong on multiple levels. 
        A Sarsarin egg had been stolen, but which one?
        She had to go see.  
        “Go get the boys that did this, Mr. Blessure. An especially harsh example of them must be made! Bring them here and wait for me; I have to go check my room.”
        “You.” she said to Callie, “Continue.”
        Both she and Mr. Blessure left the room.
        Callie turned to the remaining kids left in the room with her.
“Go.” she said.
“But…Zedda said…” one of them protested.
“GO!” Callie shouted, “Things are about to get noisy and unpleasant around here.”

Balooda finally stopped slamming himself against the walls of his office, and fell in a spread-eagled heap.
He remained, though, in his monstrous form.
“Is he dead?” Edward whispered.
“I don’t think so.” Ray whispered back, “He’s still breathing. We should try to get out of here before he gets up again.”
As quietly as they could, Edward and Ray walked out of the broom closet, and made their cautious way past Balooda. The office was in a shambles and any careless move might make a noise loud enough to wake him, so they had to take it slow.
They were almost at the doorway.
Balooda opened his eyes.
“YOU!!” he bellowed.
“OH SHIG!!” Edward shouted.
The two made a run for it, but Balooda jumped to his feet and grabbed them both.
“STOP!” a hard voice commanded. It was Mr. Blessure, standing at the hall entrance. He looked messed up.
He walked down the hall to the office, and faced Balooda.
“Zedda wants them!” he said.
But Balooda was beyond the niceties.
You!” he seethed, dropping Edward and Ray (who both scurried to a corner of the room to get away from what was coming). In his monster form he towered over Mr. Blessure.
“It was a mistake.” Mr. Blessure said, “On both sides.”
Though his words were conciliatory, the undercurrent of threat in his voice was unmistakable. It said: you do NOT want to mess with me right now.
“MEESTAKE THEES!!” Balooda shrieked, and struck Mr. Blessure with an upward swing of his talon that sent him flying backward across the hall, and crashing through the front desk.
Blessure got up, and within a second, transformed into a beast not unlike Balooda, only meaner-looking. He galloped down the hall, launched himself at Balooda, and slammed into him hard enough to smash him against, and through, the wall of his office. The two actually ended up outside of the hotel. Before Balooda had a chance to get up, Blessure jumped on him and commenced pounding his head side to side with his talons; ripping deep gashes into the sides of his face.
Edward and Ray looked out of the hole in the wall in both horror and wonder, then at each other in disbelief at what they had just witnessed. Then, they sprang out of the office and ran up the hall. Behind them came the sounds of an infernal wrestling match as Balooda knocked Blessure off, and the fight between them was on in earnest.
“We have to find Egann!” said Ray.
“We have to go get Mike!” Edward countered.
There came then a crashing sound from the front of the hotel. Edward and Ray ran through the ruins of the front desk in time to see the front door wrenched open. From outside flowed in a mass of Murgent’s mad townspeople; and with them came Egann.
“EGANN!” yelled Ray.
Egann turned and saw them. 
He ran over to them as the townspeople spread themselves inward.
“What’s this?!” Ray asked.
“This is the end, Ray!” Egann said, “It all ends tonight! Zedda is no longer protected by her spells!”
At that, the townspeople started rushing up the stairs.

Chapter 43


In the midst of their battle, Blessure and Balooda suddenly stopped fighting. Their instincts told them that their mistress was in danger. Zedda’s enemies would be upon her if they didn’t move fast.
        Still in their monstrous forms, they dashed back into Balooda’s office through the hole in the wall, and up the hall to the ruined front desk. There they saw the townspeople flowing up the stairways.
        With a bound, they both leapt up and landed on the second floor balcony, before any of the townspeople reached the second floor. There they separated, and moved to block both stairways.
        As the fearlessly insane citizenry reached the top of the stairs, the two Morrtogs tore into the onrush, ripping them to shreds, not allowing a single one to pass through. The stairs ran red with their blood. Bodies, body parts, and gore began to litter the foyer below.
        “They’re not getting through!” Egann shouted.
        “At this rate, we’re gonna run out of townspeople real fast.” Ray said, “Then what?”
        “Maybe I can help.” a voice said.

        Zedda returned from her room.
She did not look happy.
        She had always understood that her thrall over Murgent would not last forever; that at some point the status quo would break apart, and she would have to move on to something else. Still, the shock of how after so many years of near omniscience to the goings-on all around her, she had been so easily blinded, chilled her to the marrow.
        It was the girl, of course; Mr. Blessure had been right about that all along.
She walked into her divination room, and found Callie waiting for her there, alone.
        “Are we finished already?” she asked.
        “Yes.” Callie replied, “I think we are quite finished here.”
        “It’s over Zedda.” Callie said, “I think you know this.”
        “Really?” Zedda said. Her voice was calm, but it was a deceptive calm; Callie could sense the fury and fear bubbling underneath it. “I think I’ll be the judge of that.” she said.
        With a gesture from Zedda’s hand, Callie was shot into the air, smashed against the wall, and held there.
        Callie felt pressure crushing her lungs. She struggled to breath and couldn’t. Nor could she move a muscle.
        “I decide when things are over.” Zedda said.
        She pushed Callie slowly up the wall.
        Callie began to suffocate.

        Egann, Ray, and Edward turned to see Mike, Jon, and some kid sprint towards them. It was the unknown kid who had spoken.
        The six met.
        “Who are you?” Egann asked the stranger.
        “I’m Sparo. I was the monster in the box.”
        “Don’t ask.” Mike said to Egann.
        “Okay, how can you help?”
        “Watch.” Sparo said.
        He walked to a position between the stairways and lifted his hands, palms up. Into both appeared a translucent blue glowing sphere; each about the size of a tennis ball.
        He hurled one, then the other, at Blessure and Balooda.
        Blessure got hit first. The sphere hit him in the chest, and burst on impact with an explosion of force that blew Blessure back and through the wall behind him; into the empty room beyond.
        Balooda got his a second later, to the same effect.
        This was all the townspeople needed; they pushed forth into the second floor. Blessure and Balooda recuperated quickly, and tore into the mob again, but too many had crowded into the second floor, and many made it past the two.
        “How did you do that?!” Egann asked.
        “You guys need to get up to the third floor to help Mike’s sister.” Sparo said, ignoring Egann’s question, “There’s not enough townspeople left to keep the Morrtogs busy. I’m gonna have to draw them down here. When they come down, you go up.”
        “Shouldn’t they be coming back to life again?” Edward asked, pointing to the bodies and body parts of the townspeople that littered the foyer.
        “That spell is over.” Egann said, “The eggs are broken.”
        “Then why are YOU guys still alive?”
        “I’ve been wondering about that myself.” Egann said.
        “Because Zedda herself is the final egg.” Sparo said, “Your life force is tied to hers. While she lives, the children of Murgent live.”
        “And when she dies, we die.” Egann nodded, “But to be rid of her, every child of Murgent would gladly die.”
        “Not so fast!” Sparo said, “If we’re lucky, there might just be another option. But first things first...”
        He raised his hands again; palms down this time. Twin streams of fire sprayed out from them and engulfed both Blessure and Balooda.
“GO NOW! RUN!” he shouted.
Unable to avoid the fire, the two enraged Morrtogs jumped to the ground floor, to meet Sparo head on; as Mike, Jon, Edward, Egann, and Ray bolted up the blood-drenched stairs with the last of the townsfolk.

“Fight me, girl!” Zedda taunted the helpless Callie, “Or have you accumulated nothing?”
Callie tried, but could not loosen herself, nor could she affect Zedda. As her vision began to blur, she caught sight of Zedda’s marble Seer’s Basin, and sent it flying into her as hard as she could.
It hit Zedda on the side and knocked her over.
Zedda shouted in pain and surprise, and Callie fell to the floor, coughing and heaving great amounts of air.
Through glassy eyes she saw Zedda get up. Her dress was all wet with the basin’s luminescent water.
“I must say you disappoint me, Callie.” Zedda said, “You’ve chosen to challenge me muchmuch too early; you must know that. On your first day!? Really? Are you kidding me? Who do you think you are?”
Zedda floated up into the air.
“Fine,” she said, almost sadly, “Let’s do this.”
Callie felt an invisible hand tighten around her throat. She was levitated and brought right up to Zedda; face to face.
“Anymore tricks?” Zedda asked, “Because now is the time.”
She put her hands on Callie’s shoulders.
“No? Too bad. I was hoping you’d be a little more powerful when it came time to do this, but beggars can’t be choosers.” she said, “What a waste. Goodbye, Callie. Enjoy being a vegetable.”
Zedda’s eyes grew large and hypnotic.
She initiated the Malignium.
From below there came a sudden clamor, as the townspeople that had gotten past the Morrtogs bashed and scrabbled against the closed and knobless door; trying to get in.
The noise startled Zedda. Her eyes stopped their trancing effect and the grip around Callie’s neck loosened.
Callie saw her opportunity. She moved her head back and head-butted Zedda as hard as she could.
Both yelped in pain, and both fell screaming to the ground.
Callie wasted no time getting up. She made to run for the door, but Zedda grabbed her ankle and tripped her.
Again came the invisible hand of Zedda’s power. Callie was lifted off the ground. Still on her back, Zedda sent Callie up to the ceiling, and slammed her up against it hard.
The two Conjuuras looked at each other across the vertical span of the room. Callie tried to focus on something to launch at Zedda, but Zedda lowered her a bit, then slammed her against the ceiling again, making her see stars.
Then, the door opened wide, and a contingent of mad townspeople ran into the room, along with Mike, Jon, Egann, Ray, and Edward, who had opened the door for them.
They saw Zedda on the floor, and threw themselves upon her.

Down on the first floor, Sparo faced off with the Morrtogs.
He chucked a blue sphere at Balooda, and struck him in mid-leap; the one in his other hand he grew and thinned out into a shield-like shape that repelled Blessure backward, and sent him crashing into the section of the front desk that had remained standing.
He summoned two more blue power spheres into each hand, but this time he elongated them into two long thin blue cords that coiled, whiplashed, and stretched themselves like living tendrils.
Balooda and Blessure attacked from opposite sides. One cord snapped at Balooda’s face, impaled him in the forehead, and passed through to the other side of his head; while the other one wrapped itself around Blessure’s neck, and tightened mercilessly.
“Now,” said Sparo, as he flattened his cords to a blade-like width, “Let’s see what you two are made of…”

Forgotten by Zedda, Callie began to fall.
She summoned forth all the power she had accumulated from the Malignium and halted her descent about halfway down.
She was levitating.
Wow, I AM a natural! Callie thought.
She looked down and saw the townspeople tearing at Zedda with their bare hands and teeth. Some pulled her hair. Some kicked at her. Two or three had knives and sliced at her most incompetently.
Zedda managed to throw some of them off, but they would only get up and attack again. One of them was sent flying with such force, that he hit Callie in midair and sent both crashing down on one of the tables. The table turned over and spilled the two to the floor with a crash.
Callie got up and recognized the one who hit her; the old man they had run over earlier: Merro Lhaisuber. The fall seemed too much for him; he did not get up again like the others.
Zedda somehow got to her feet.
She was a bloody mess. Her hair had clumps missing, some of her teeth had been knocked out, her dress was in tatters, her nose was crooked, and one of her eyes was sealed shut with blood. She had deep bleeding gashes on her arms, legs, and body, where some of the townspeople had hacked at her; inexpertly perhaps, but with cumulative effect.
Yet she still stood.
The townspeople also got up, and went after her again.
Callie limped over to Mike, Jon, Edward, Egann, and Ray; who were all still standing at the doorway, watching the spectacle.
Mike saw her, and the two hugged.
Though the last several hours had not been the longest the two had ever been separated; in a way it was.
“You okay?” Mike asked.
“I’m okay.” Callie said, her voice hoarse.
“It seems Zedda’s goose is cooked.” Jon said, sidling up to give Callie a hug as well.
“Oh how I wish I could believe that.” Callie replied.
No sooner had Callie spoken, when Zedda lifted all her remaining attackers into the air…and tore them all in half.
The bloody halves fell to the floor with gruesome thuds.
Zedda turned and faced Callie and the others.
“Is that it?” she asked mockingly, “Is that all? Was that the extent of your rebellion?”
You haven’t reckoned with me yet, Zedda.” a soft voice spoke.
Sparo Ivinic entered the room.
Fear crept into Zedda’s face.
“Your Morrtogs are dead, Conjuura.” Sparo said, “I left them in pieces.”
“Are you sure you’re up to fighting me, Nurrek?” Zedda asked, “You are so very young, and have developed only a fraction of your powers. It must have taken much effort to kill my Morrtogs. You must be so tired.”
“You’re not fooling anyone, Zedda.” Sparo replied, “It is you who are tired. Your spells are broken, your protectors are dead, and you’re bleeding out all over the floor. How long do you think you can last this way?”
“I still have POWER!!” Zedda shouted.
She lifted her hands high and every table, every sculpture, every large object in the room, floated up into the air and was sent hurling towards Sparo and the others.
Sparo instantly created a shield, as he had before, in his fight with the Morrtogs; only now, the shield grew large and covered him and the whole group standing around him.
The projectiles smashed against the shield, and were repelled violently enough to smash them to pieces. Zedda even had to deflect some large pieces of shrapnel that flew back at her. And with every contact between object and shield, Sparo grimaced with exertion.
“Were you trying to piss her off?!” Jon asked.
“Actually, yes.” Sparo replied through gritted teeth.
At last the barrage stopped, as Zedda had nothing more to throw at them. Sparo wasted no time; his shield disconnected from his hand, flew at Zedda, and was upon her faster than she could react. Still connected to Sparo’s hand through a blue cord, the shield encircled her and encapsulated her, like an oblong bubble; trapping her within.
Zedda began to scream as the bubble changed color from blue, to a sinister red.
“What are you doing to her?!” Edward asked.
“Don’t worry, I’m not killing her.” Sparo said, “I’m just draining her of power. A suitable punishment, I’d say; though not as gentle a procedure as the Malignium.”
When he was finished, the bubble dissipated away into nothing, and Zedda was revealed; on her knees and hunched over, with her head in her hands. She looked up at Sparo; defeated.
“What will you do with me now, Nurrek?” she asked him, “I know you won’t kill me. The children of Murgent will all die if you do that. But a living Conjuura, even powerless, is not without recourse; and still quite dangerous.”
“Give her to me, I’ll kill her myself!” Ray said, “I die, but with a smile on my face.”
“No one need die today,” Sparo said, “For there is another option; one you created yourself, Zedda.”
Zedda’s eyes widened.
“Ah, you know what I’m talking about! The very cage you constructed to hold me will hold a Conjuura as well; easily. There, the children of Murgent will make sure you live a verylongtime.”
“I should have killed you when I first saw you.” Zedda said, “I see that now. I could’ve, you know. You were powerless then.”
“I was,” Sparo said, “Then.”
“Sooo sorry, though…” a thin voice added; and suddenly all eyes fell on a figure that had somehow crept behind Zedda unnoticed.
It was Merro Lhaisuber, who had not been killed by his fall after all, but merely stunned. In his upraised, upswinging hands was a butcher knife that had been dropped by one of the now-dead townspeople.
“NOOO!” they all screamed, as he plunged the knife with surprising force, deep into the small of Zedda’s back.
Zedda turned, grabbed Merro by the neck, and snapped it with a powerful squeeze.
She released Merro, and he dropped like a sack. She turned back to the assembled company, gurgled something unintelligible (yet still somehow mocking) then fell forward and facedown with a horrid THUMP.
Upon that instant, Egann, Ray, and Mike, along with all the other children of Murgent scattered throughout the hotel (most of them hiding from the chaos), fell to the floor...dead.

Chapter 44

Sparo’s Tale

“Mike!” Callie cried out, and knelt by the body of her fallen brother.
        “Wait!” Sparo shouted, “I might still be able to bring him back!”
        “What?” Callie said, “You can?”
        “Yes,” said Sparo, rubbing his hands together, “He’s not as far gone as the others. He’s just within the grasp of my power. I just hope I have enough strength left in me.”
        Sparo knelt beside Callie and placed a hand on Mike’s forehead, and the other on his chest. He closed his eyes and furrowed his brow in intense concentration.
        Edward and Jon crouched around Callie and watched along with her, as a healthy glow steadily crept back into Mike’s face.
        Mike gasped back to life like a man awakening from a nightmare; startling the hell out of the four around him. He sat up.
        “SHIG!! What the---! What happened just now?” he asked.
        “He’s back!” cried Callie, embracing him.
        Mike’s bewildered face looked at the people around him. “Did I go somewhere?”
        “You were dead, again.” Edward said, “And you were brought back from the dead; again.”
        “This is becoming a habit with you, it seems.” Jon added.
        “Dead? How---?” Mike asked.
        “Zedda’s final spell was broken.” Callie explained, “All who were kept alive by it, including you, fell dead when she was killed. This guy, Nurrek---”
        “Sparo.” Sparo corrected.
        “He was able to bring you back.”
        “Why only me?” Mike asked.
        “You still had some life force in you,” Sparo said, “Not having died multiple times, like the others.”
        Mike turned his head and looked over at the bodies of Egann and Ray. “I feel so sorry for those guys,” he said, “Without their help I don’t know how much of this victory would have been possible.”
        “At least it’s over for them.” Edward said, “I mean, I wish they could have lived to enjoy life without Zedda, but…at least their nightmare is over. They can finally rest in peace.”
        “That’ll have to do, I guess.” Mike said.
        He got up to his feet, the others did as well.
        “What now?” Edward asked.
        “I don’t know about you guys,” Sparo said, “But I’m hungry.”

        They went down the red and sticky stairs, to the kitchen.
        It appeared to be empty, but they found two dead kids in the lower cupboards, where they had hidden themselves during the night’s noisy and chaotic battles.
        “Oh, poor things.” Callie said with regret.
        They respectfully removed the bodies to another room. They cleared out all the trays on the preparation table, and then scrounged around for chairs to set around said table, until they found the necessary five.
        They prepared for themselves a quick supper, and then sat down to eat, and talk.
        They began by comparing notes. What each had done and gone through since they were separated. Mike, Callie, Jon, and Edward each told their tale; when they were done, they turned at last to Sparo.
        “So what’s your story?” Callie asked.
        “MY story,” Sparo said, “Is a bit long and involved.”
        “Just give us the hits, then.” Edward said.
        “Okay,” Sparo said. He organized his thoughts for a moment, and then jumped straight into it: “Up until three months ago, I was just another ordinary kid from an average family. Or so I thought. I had not the slightest inkling that I was, in fact, a Ma’jai.”
        “How could you not know such a thing?” Callie asked.
        “It’s complicated.” Sparo said, “Ma’jai powers are hereditary, but they don’t tend to appear until one is in his or her late teens, thereabouts. Now, unless one or both parents are Ma’jai themselves, most don’t know what they are until their powers begin to arrive. That’s how it was in my case; both of my parents were ordinary.
“It turns out magic doesn’t always follow hereditary rules; it’ll disappear from families for generations, for no apparent reason, then reappear just as mysteriously. Or, one child in a family will be one, while the others will not. And then there are many different types of Ma’jai. Not just variations in strength, but variations in abilities. There are powers common to all, powers only some have, and powers that are very rare. There are Ma’jai who specialize in only one or two, and some who have a smidgen of everything.”
“What kind are you?” Jon asked.
“I’m an Icarin.” Sparo answered, “The most powerful and rarest of the Ma’jai. The rule of thumb on Icarins is, that one appears maybe once every hundred years or so; although there have been some notable exceptions to that rule. Most of my powers are still dormant, though; Zedda was right about that. And I am much too young to have developed what little I have, but I’ll get to that.”
“I doubt your powers seemed ‘little’ to either Zedda, or her Morrtogs.” Mike said.
“True enough.” Sparo replied, “Anyway, as I was saying, three months ago I was ignorant of all this. My parents and I were visiting relatives in Briston, and on our way back home, we missed a crucial turn or something, and got way off course. We ended up in Murgent.”
“Rotten luck, man.” Jon said.
“Zedda knew I was coming, and what I was; she also knew that my powers were as yet latent. She and her Morrtogs built a special box to contain me. Once in the box, I would be encased within its spells; even after my powers developed. That way, when the time came, she could drain me at her leisure; without a worry.”
“Why didn’t she just drain you right off the bat?” Edward asked.
“No powers mean nothing worth draining.” Sparo said, “She had to be patient, for once.”
Callie nodded silently, in understanding. How enticing it must have been for Zedda, she thought, At the prospect of draining a Ma’jai! How much power, I wonder, could be had from such a transaction?
Sparo continued: “Upon entry into Murgent, my parents were struck mad by Zedda’s insanity spell. Then, Blessure and Balooda descended upon our car, tore the roof off, and plucked me out. The car kept going until it hit a tree. I was thrown screaming into a crate of some sort, and taken to the hotel, the basement, and finally the magic box of illusion that would become my cage for the next three months. Zedda drew the circles of containment, and I was left there in the dark; in shock, and alone.”
“That’s awful.” Callie said.
“My first week down there was hell. I was terrified, and when Balooda started sending kids down there as punishment, it was worse. I tried to talk to them, plead with them, but never got any reply other than screams and whimpers. I didn’t know that the box translated my appearance to something monstrous, and my pleas to terrifying roars.”
“Why did Zedda allow Balooda to lock kids down there?” Jon asked.
“She had faith that the illusion was fearsome enough to prevent anybody from tampering with either the box, or the circles drawn on the floor around it. That’s what the illusion was created to do, and it worked. Most kids were too terrified by the sounds to even come down the stairs and have a look at me. As a plus, for Zedda, the experience added a new level of torment to their despair…and mine.
“With nothing to do, nothing to see or hear, I turned inward; and the first faint whispers of my power arrived, much earlier than they should have. I didn’t know where these powers came from, or why I had them; but I had all the time necessary to study them. Very soon I was able to see the movement of time itself. I saw many great events of the past, accumulated much knowledge, and thus came to know the history of my kind. 
“What I was…what I was born to do.”
“What were you born to do?” Callie asked.
“To fight against a coming darkness. That’s what all Icarins are born for; why the birth of one is considered a bad omen.” Sparo said, “It is a sign of a terrible struggle yet to be fought.”
Sparo visibly shuddered. 
He continued: “I had at last found myself, but too late. I could not break through Zedda’s magic circles. Nor could I communicate with anyone. I was, however, able to set my mind free and explore beyond the confines of Zedda’s sphere of influence. I saw you guys coming, and knew you’d be instrumental in getting me out.”
“Why us?” Callie asked, “And what was so different about Mike that you were able to get him to fall asleep and take over his body, and not any of the others who had been brought down there in the past?”
Mike groaned inward. This was the subject he had been dreading.
“In order for me to influence a mind through all of Zedda’s magical encumbrances, it had to be a mind on the same wavelength, if you will, as mine.” Sparo replied, “It had to be the mind of a fellow Ma’jai.”
Callie, Edward, and Jon’s mouths hit the floor.
Mike shook his head.
“Yes, Mike, you.” Sparo insisted, “I made contact with you upon your entrance into Murgent, though you did not know it consciously. It was I who influenced you into spitting in Balooda’s face, because I knew it would get you thrown in the basement.”
“It was I who decided to spit in Balooda’s face!”
“Yes, but it was I who suggested it to your conscious mind.” Sparo retorted, “Like a whisper from the back of your head. I regret what you had to undergo, but it was necessary; plus I knew you’d come back to life. What I didn’t foresee was that your death would kickstart some of your powers, as my imprisonment kickstarted mine. You know what I’m talking about, though you glossed over it in your recounting. How you fought me tooth and nail, when I started taking over your body. Your strength was impressive, but not enough to stop me.”
Callie, Edward, and Jon, meanwhile; were still reeling over the initial revelation.
“Did I hear you right?” Callie asked, “Did you just say---?”
“You heard me.” Sparo said, “Why are you so surprised that your brother is magically-inclined, Conjuura?”
“That’s different,” Callie said, “Zedda had to teach me---“
“Please!” Sparo interrupted her again, “How many would-be Conjuuras do you suppose could levitate on their first day of training? Or intuitively figure out how to reverse a mind-link, for that matter?”
Mike cut in. “Look, whatever I saw or did after you put me to sleep had to have been a fluke, no doubt caused by all the weird magical crap in this place. Besides, how could it be true? In all my life, I’ve never done any of these things before. Not once.”
“That’s why they’re called dormant powers.” Sparo said.
“Why are we having such a hard time believing this?” Jon asked, “Sparo’s clearly a Ma’jai, and if he says Mike’s one too, why don’t we take him at his word? Callie levitated before our eyes, and we took it in stride. Sparo says Mike’s a Ma’jai, and we freak out! Why?”
“Because I’m nobody.” Mike said, “I can easily believe Callie is something special. But me? Besides, if I was a Ma’jai, Zedda would have known it, like she knew about you, Sparo. But she didn’t, did she?”
“You can’t go by that.” Sparo countered, “Divination is an art, not a science. It’s possible Zedda mistook Callie to be the ‘person of interest’ her readings perhaps foresaw.”
“He’s got you there, Mike.” Edward said.
“Alright already,” Mike said, throwing his hands up in surrender, “Let’s say I AM a Ma’jai. Fine. What the hell does that entail? Do I get a pamphlet or something?”
“Just go on with your life, and don’t worry about it.” Sparo said, “These things unfold slowly. When they begin to show up, you’ll know how to use them.”
They had all finished eating by this point, and a feeling descended upon them that the time for talk was coming to an end.
“So, what will you do now, Sparo?” Callie asked, “Where will you go?”
“There are people I must find now, and join,” Sparo said, “Brave Ma’jai who guard against the coming dark.”
“Well, we have an extra vehicle now,” Mike said, “Since Jon brought us our wagon back. Can you drive?”
“If I sit on a thick enough pillow, I can.” Sparo answered, “For a little while, at least. Once I start hitting the towns, I’ll probably get funny looks.”
“Yeah, that might be a problem.” Mike said. He took the Macatto Insurance car keys out of his pocket, and handed them to Sparo. “I wouldn’t let the frain see you either. You don’t look a day over eleven.”
“I AM eleven.” Sparo said, “But don’t worry about me, I can take care of myself. After taking down two Morrtogs and a Conjuura, I doubt the frain will be much of a challenge for me.”
“Any further matters to discuss, before we take our leave of this hell-hole?” Mike asked.
“What about our dead friends?” Edward asked, “Are we just gonna leave them here to rot? Without Egann and Ray, we couldn’t have put a stop to Zedda’s reign.”
“Ed’s right,” Callie said, “We owe them big.”
“What can we do?” Jon asked, “We can’t bury them all. I don’t know how far behind your dad is, Callie; but I do know he will be showing up sooner or later, and we don’t want to be here when that happens.”
“Funeral pyre.” Callie replied, “We can set the hotel on fire. Burn it to the ground. What do you think?”
Mike shook his head. “This whole town is kindling. If we set the hotel ablaze, it’ll spread fast and consume all of Murgent.”
“Which is bad why?”
“Because Murgent is nestled right up against the same woods we intend to enter.”
“I’m afraid we can’t do anything for our dead friends, Ed.” Jon said, “Perhaps in time, the woods will retake this place. As for us, we have to keep moving.”
“I understand.” Edward said, “Let’s go.”
The five got to their feet.
“Can I ask you one last question, Sparo?” Callie asked.
“Sure.” Sparo replied.
“Why the hell did Zedda keep calling you ‘Nurrek’?”
Sparo smiled. “That was Zedda’s little joke at my expense. Well, less a joke than a jibe. In XaliXal, the language of the Morrtogs, ‘Nurrek’ means ‘Monster’.”

They raided the hotel’s pantry, and loaded up the vehicles.
Sparo finished first, and pulled Mike aside for a private conversation; the subject of which would come to importance…later.
When they were finished, they gathered between the vehicles, in front of the hotel.
“So Sparo, this is goodbye.” Callie said, giving him a hug, “Thanks for saving Mike’s life, as well as our collective asses.”
“Take care of yourselves.” he said.
“I noticed you never asked us where WE are going.”
“I know where the road you’re taking leads.” Sparo answered grimly, and left it at that.
Sparo got in his new car, while Mike, Callie, Jon, and Edward turned toward the station wagon. Edward dashed to stake his claim to the wagon’s front passenger seat.
“Mike can drive first.” Jon said, “After all, he spent most of his time here asleep.”
“Funny.” said Mike, but he was already getting in behind the wheel.
Callie and Jon got in the back seats, and snuggled.
Mike looked through the rearview mirror, and saw Sparo drive away in the direction they had entered Murgent from; back toward civilization.
“Something just occurred to me, Mike.” Callie said from behind him, “What if Dad and Sparo cross paths, and Dad recognizes the car? What if he tries something?”
“We should be so lucky.” Mike said, “If that happens, my money's on Sparo.”  
He put the key into the ignition, turned it, and the wagon came to life. Mike gave the steering wheel a light kiss. “Glad to have you back, ol’ girl.” he said.
They drove through the now empty town, and reached the rickety bridge that led out of Murgent. They passed over the groaning bridge, reached the “YOU ARE LEAVING MURGENT. SEE YOU AGAIN SOON!” sign, and crossed it unobstructed.
“We’re through!” Callie said, with a sigh of relief.
Jon kissed her and held her tight.
Ahead of them, the road seemed to stretch forever, bracketed by a dense and dark wood.
“Here we go.” said Edward.

Chapter 45


A little more than an hour after the departure of Mike, Callie, Jon, and Edward; an ash grey car drove into the desolate town of Murgent. It stopped in front of the Sarrgoset Hotel.
        The car door opened, and Charles Longstreet stepped out.
        He walked over to the hotel; its front door was ajar.
        Longstreet entered the hotel, passed through the hall, and walked into what appeared to be the aftermath of a full-scale slaughter.
        “Gods!” Longstreet said, “Those kids are a wrecking crew!”
        He went up the sticky red stairs; then up another flight of stairs, to the third floor.
        He found the room he was instructed to find.
        The door was open.
        There he found more bodies, more blood and gore.
        He found the one he was looking for: a hefty woman with a knife in her back; she looked cut up and battered, to boot.
        He removed the knife from her back and, with a grunt of effort, turned her over; face up.
He took the knife, and sliced across the palm of his hand. He poured his thick polluted blood into the body’s open mouth.
Longstreet smiled. “Behold the wonders of magic.” he said.
Zedda’s eyes fluttered open, and her terrible scream could be heard for miles.

It was about an hour ago, as his children were leaving Murgent, that Charles Longstreet had received a communiqué from his current employer, master, and all-around string-puller; Araboam Sinestri.
He had been driving as fast as he dared, in the night; trying to make up the running head-start Mike and Callie had on him. Suddenly, the radio in his stolen car turned itself on, and tuned itself, to a static-filled realm between stations.
The static thinned out, and a voice spoke.
Hello again.” it said.
“You.” said Longstreet, “I wondered when I’d hear from you again. I take it you’re none too pleased at my rate of success. Well if that’s the case, you only have yourself to blame; you’ve been of no help to me at all. You give me very little information and no back-up of any kind; you throw me out here and expect me to do it all on my own. Well I’m sorry, that’s going to take some time---“
On the contrary,” the voice interrupted, “All things are going as planned. Do not think for a moment I had not taken your incompetence into my calculations. As a variable, it has been quite predictable; and yet more useful to my ends than you can imagine.”
“Oh.” Longstreet said, unsure of how to take that.
Nor will you be alone in your task for very long. I have instructions for when you reach Murgent, and you must follow them to the letter.”
“I will do as you say.” Longstreet replied.
Listen close…”

Zedda wouldn’t stop screaming, and Longstreet was about out of patience.
“Stop that!” he shouted.
Zedda stopped screaming; but began, instead, to moan. 
“Leave me be!” she said, “Let me stay dead!”
“No.” Longstreet said, “You’re a witch, you know how this works; you gotta do as I say.”
“I’m of no use to you as a corpse,” she said, “My power is gone.”
“That's not entirely true, now is it? There’s still one thing you can do.” he said, “One little thing, and I'll return you to your final rest.”
What do you want? I'll do it!”
“I want you to conjure up a Morrtog for me.” he said.

Longstreet cleared an unbloodied area of loose debris, as Zedda went to her room, to fetch some manner of magical paraphernalia. She returned with colored chalksticks, and a golden ceremonial knife.
“There are more elegant, safer, and…genteel versions of the ritual I’m about to perform,” Zedda explained, “But this is the quickest way; the ancient way.”
She handed the knife to Longstreet, and bent down to her knees and drew a crude circle about twenty inches in circumference, with one of the chalksticks. Using various colors, she drew strange runes around the inside wall of the circle, and a major symbol at its center.
“Jammuk Jarru” she said, “The Door In.”
She put aside the chalks, got back to her feet, and started removing her bloody and tattered clothes; until she stood naked before him, and utterly unabashed about it.
“This next part requires blood.” she said.
She handed him the chalksticks, and took from him the golden knife.
Its blade was shiny and sharp, and with a single flick, she cut across the tops of her index and middle fingers. The blood that came forth from these openings was not red, but a darkening burgundy. She used this blood to draw another circle, this time on her ample belly. A runic symbol, different to the one on the floor, went in the center of the new circle.
“Jammuk Parra.” Zedda said, “The Door Out.”
“Swell.” Longstreet said.
He was anxious to get back on the road.
“Before I begin, I must warn you.” Zedda said, “The code of my order forbids any Conjuura from summoning more than one Morrtog in her lifetime. I myself broke that code, among others, when I summoned my second Morrtog, Mr. Balooda.”
“Was he out of control?” Longstreet asked.
“No, it wasn’t a problem of control. Balooda was just as servile as Mr. Blessure, my first. It was a problem of palatability. Balooda came out just skewed; demented in both appearance and character. It’s a matter of diminishing returns, you see. Every time one reaches into that bag, one gets a less stable specimen. I shudder to think what a third summoning, from a dead Conjuura with corrupted blood no less, will produce.”
“We’ll soon see, won’t we?” Longstreet said.
Zedda stepped into the chalk circle.
“Now begins NiyaChakNya, the dark summoning,” she said, “You must not touch nor interrupt me in any way; no matter what you see.”
“No problem there.”
“The Jammuk Parra will expel the Morrtog in it’s true form. I must give it a name before it’s free. So it is important that you not make a sound or distract me---“
“Understood!” Longstreet shouted, getting antsy, “Let’s get on with it!”
Zedda interlaced her fingers and brought them up behind her head. She arched her back to an unpleasant degree, and closed her eyes.
“Peyya Korrien, MorrCha Ard sah KunChuReen!” she spoke in a loud voice, “Ussa Zedda Stanetta, um KunChurra, NaGarr tevvis Jammuk NaHwa Xalix shessa Maqwa! Umma um MorrTog, ChaNya sah MorrCha, shessa agraffa ChunTra!”
Silence alone, answered.
Minutes ticked by.
Zedda’s eyes remained closed. Her unsettling posture did not waver in the slightest.
Then…there came a sudden and awful ripping sound, like flesh being torn, from the vicinity of Zedda’s midsection.
“It has begun!” Zedda gasped, as a hole appeared on her stomach, in the shape of the blood circle.
Longstreet’s mouth gaped, as a horrid red light poured forth from the hole, along with what sounded like a million lions roaring over the aural backdrop of exploding suns. Worse yet was what he could see. A hellworld painted lava red; burning so bright it lit up the rest of Zedda’s torso like a candle in a pumpkin. And in that hellworld could be seen moving mountains of crawling black beasts that climbed over each other like a swarm of roaches; mountains that that tottered, fell, and rebuilt themselves.
“GODS!!” came out of Longstreet’s mouth in a dry croak.
“QUIET ASS!” Zedda screamed, her voice almost lost in the din. Her eyes were open now; so wide, they looked as if they might pop off.
“Ussa, KunChurra, NuallYa ChunTra YanNya Xalix um MorrTog, um ChaNya sah MorrCha, NaHwa grawpus!” she recited.
At this a massive talon came through the hole and grabbed the side of it. Another talon appeared and grabbed the other side, and a black bumpy head consisting of needle-sharp teeth and red eyes pulled itself through, and roared. It looked at up Longstreet and smiled.
The beast pulled it’s arms through, one at a time, then popped it’s shoulders out. The hole showed no sign of expanding beyond the borders of the blood circle, so the Morrtog had to squeeze itself through mercilessly, to climb out of the hole. It’s talons now reached the floor, and it skittered at the hardwood, looking for purchase. The good thing about all this was that it blocked and muted the sounds and visions of that other place.
Throughout all this, Zedda continued to maintain her arched posture; a vision of surreality beyond even Longstreet’s experience.
The Morrtog was now halfway out; the rim of the hole at it’s middle (around where it’s navel would be, if it had such a thing). It was coming much faster now, and would pull itself free in seconds.
Zedda removed her hands from behind her head and placed them gently on the thing’s jagged back.
“I NAME YOU…” she began to say.
Then something unexpected happened.
Upon Zedda’s first word, the Morrtog somehow turned itself around within the hole until it faced up, bent itself toward her, and grabbed her shoulders. All this lightning quick.
As it’s talons sunk into her, her pronouncement was cut short. Her mouth opened in that deep intake of breath before a shattering scream. Then, with an upward thrust, the creature lunged at Zedda’s neck and chomped off enough of it that the head fell backward; where it met her back, kept from falling off by a single strap of flesh. Eyes open in horror, mouth open in a scream that never came.
The Morrtog propelled the rest of it’s body all the way out of the hole so fast, it was out before the body could fall. 
Behind it, the hole to it’s realm faded away and turned to flesh once more.
The Morrtog arose, as Zedda’s ruined body at last succumbed to gravity, and collapsed.
The Morrtog turned toward Longstreet; grunting in a gravel-filled voice something like: owwmm! eeyowwmm! eeyowwmm! eeyowwmm!
The sound of that cut through Longstreet like a knife, but he showed no outward annoyance or fear. He stood his ground as Sinestri had instructed him.
“KenJa ved RaFa ChorrGen?” it asked in it’s throaty voice.
“Speak Thrist.” Longstreet said.
The Morrtog looked at him with curiosity. It looked back at Zedda’s body.
“She brought me forth, but she was not my master.” it said.
“Neither are you.”
“No.” said Longstreet, “But I serve the one whose dark blood brought you forth. Do you wish proof?”
The Morrtog shrugged. Longstreet lifted the hand he had cut to resurrect Zedda, and held it under the Morrtog’s snout. It sniffed at the caked and clotted blood at great length, and made that annoying “Owwmm! Eeyowwmm! Eeyowwmm!” noise.
“Is that sufficient?” Longstreet asked, with disgust.
The Morrtog bit off his pinky and ring finger with such quickness, that Longstreet didn’t know what had happened until he saw his fingers in the Morrtog’s mouth; when it started chewing them with open-mouthed glee.
“It’ll do.” It answered, opening it’s mouth and showing him the black gristly mess on it’s forked tongue.
Black blood poured from the stumps like warm syrup, but Longstreet felt no pain; only a minor throbbing that dissipated within seconds.
Sinestri’s Malevolencia, Longstreet thought to himself, It’s numbed me. In more ways than one, no doubt.
With his good hand, he took out a clean handkerchief, and wrapped the damaged hand; but already, the black blood was down to a dribble.
It’s getting thicker all the time, thought Longstreet, How much time do I have, before it solidifies? Could that be why Sinestri wants this creature? To take over for me when I turn into a useless lump of coal?
But those were questions for later.
“You will not do that again.” he said.
“As you wish.” the Morrtog said with feigned servility, as black drool ran down the sides of it’s mouth.
“And you will take a more human-looking size and form.”
“As you command.” the Morrtog replied. It closed it’s eyes and began to shimmer, decreasing in size, just a bit. When the shimmering stopped, a tall and pallid man stood before him. He had long jet-black hair and wore a black raincoat. His eyes, however, remained red; and his smile was still an alarming array of white daggers.
“Close enough, I guess.” Longstreet said.
“What name will you bestow upon me?” It asked.
“Name yourself.” Longstreet said. He turned and walked out of the room, down the two sets of stairs, and out of the hotel. The Morrtog followed. When Longstreet got back in his car, the Morrtog joined him in the passenger seat.
“Babbidaz.” It said, “My name will be Babbidaz.”
“Good,” said Longstreet, and started the car, “What does that mean?”
“Death.” Babbidaz replied.

Chapter 46

The Frellam

“Something bad is coming.” Callie said, all of a sudden.
        Everyone’s head perked up.
        It was now several hours since they had left Murgent. The morning sun had risen. Breakfast had been enjoyed by all. Jon had relieved Mike of the wheel some time ago; Callie sat beside him in the front seats. All around them, the woods grew thick and close; but till now had shown only minimal signs of life. Callie’s words broke the comfortable silence into which they had all relaxed.
        “Is this a Conjuura thing?” Mike asked, “Or one of those ‘woman’s intuition’ things?”
        “I don’t know, I just work here.” Callie replied.
        “Is it something behind us? Ahead of us?” Edward asked, “From the woods maybe?” 
        He glanced nervously out of his window.
        “Beats the hell out of me.” Callie said, “It’s just a vague feeling; a sense of unease.”
        “Should I go faster?” Jon asked.
        “What part of ‘I don’t know’ are you people having a problem with?”
        “I’ll go faster.” Jon said, and stepped on the gas.
        “There is a way to find out.” Edward said.
        “How?” Mike asked.
        “YOU, Mike. You’re the Ma’jai. You can use your wizbang powers to scope things out.”
        “My wizbang powers haven’t quite checked in yet.”
        “That’s not entirely true.” Callie said, “Last night you were able to astral project, or whatever the hell they call it. Maybe you should try that now. See if you can see anything up ahead of us.”
        “I didn’t do it on purpose, it just sort of happened on its own.” Mike said, “I wouldn’t even know where or how to begin.”
        “If you are a Ma’jai, it should come naturally, no?” Jon asked, “Just rattle around in your noggin a bit, and see what pops out.”
        “Alright, I’ll give it a shot.” Mike said.

        Mike spent the next several minutes trying to recreate his out-of-body experience. He closed his eyes, relaxed, and tried to find that place within himself that already knew how to accomplish that feat.
        After some searching, he found at last the outer edges of that mysterious place that had always been there, hidden away. Once found, it was only a matter of mastering the controls.
        Mike detached himself from his body, and floated up through the roof of the station wagon; keeping pace with it as he ascended. Looking down, he realized that, if he tried hard enough, he could see through the wagon’s roof at Callie, Jon, Edward, and his own body. Knowledge of this ability came to him as easy as in a dream; as if he had always known, and was now merely remembering.
        He flew above the tree-tops, and the exhilaration was incredible. The trees were glowing bright green with what Sparo had told him was called the Voss Vedu’un. The same power he had drawn on to rekindle his strength, during his tussle with Sparo in the basement of the Sarrgoset Hotel.
        The trees graciously gave of their bounty to him, but he had to stop himself from taking all that was offered; he had a task to perform.
        He pulled ahead of the wagon, and looked through the trees, until he saw a sight that sent him flying back to the wagon in a headlong rush.
        He dropped back down into his body like a lead weight.
        His eyes flew open, and he yelled: “JON, STOP THE WAGON!”
        Jon slammed the brakes as a large log, with branches still sticking out of it, landed in front of the station wagon. They stopped short of hitting the log, but were all jolted by the sudden stop. Had they not stopped when they did, the log might have crushed the passenger compartment.
        “What the hell?!” said Jon.
        “Reverse, Jon!” cried Mike, “Back up!”
        But he was too late, and another log fell behind them, trapping them.
        “Lock the doors!” Mike yelled.
        “I don’t think that’s going to help.” said Jon, pointing at what had thrown the logs.
        Two seven-foot tall hairy men, broad of shoulders and wide of body, walked out of the woods and slouched toward the wagon. They were dressed in sewn-together tattered rags that served as pants, girded with ropes.
        “Are those…Ridlaks?” Edward asked.
        “Yes,” said Mike, “But they’re not alone.”
        From behind the Ridlaks came forth a horde of wild men of more human size. They were dressed in a fashion similar to the Ridlaks, and were about as hairy. They moved quickly to surround the wagon.
        “Azzamats?” Callie asked.
        “Worse,” said Jon, “Frellam.”
        The first Ridlak reached the wagon, and bashed down on the wagon’s hood, again and again. It then peeled off the hood like the skin off a grape, threw it aside, and began to work on the wagon’s innards.
        Callie turned her back on the destruction.
        “What do we do, Mike?” she shouted over the din.
        Before Mike could answer, the other Ridlak reached the back of the wagon, and smashed in the back window. A rain of shattered glass filled the back cargo area. The giant tore off the back door hatch, with a grunt.
        “CALLIE GET DOWN!” Jon cried.
        Callie turned to see the front-side Ridlak take a swing at the windshield. Jon pushed Callie down to the floor of the wagon and hunkered down over her as the Ridlak’s arm and fist crashed through and showered them with broken glass.
        Meanwhile, the Ridlak at the back walked over to Edward’s door, and punched through the glass. Mike pulled Edward to him as the Ridlak grabbed the door with both hands and pulled it off its hinges. It tossed the door aside, reached in, and grabbed Edward’s legs.
        Edward held on tight to Mike, as the Ridlak tried to drag him out. 
        “MIKE!” he shouted in panic, “DON’T LET IT GET ME!!”
        Mike tried to hold on to him, but the creature pulled hard and yanked Edward out. Mike went after him, but once out of the wagon, a Frellam grabbed him. Jon and Callie were likewise forced out by the Frellam. The Ridlak with Edward had him hanging upside down by the legs, and started to swing him around. It smiled with malice as Edward screamed and yelled; until the other Ridlak came over and gave him an open-handed whack on the back of the head. It dropped Edward and snarled at the other.
        “Fatta ozga, Gridumpidu!” it growled, “Krada nootch gra nalanan!”
        “Ovudo ozga bujog, Grogguch.” the other replied.
        Edward got up and started to run over towards Mike and the others, but one of the Frellam grabbed him and cuffed him on the side of the head hard enough to knock him out.
        “HEY!” Mike yelled, and tried to run to him. As he started to do so, he saw from the corner of his eye, Jon and Callie falling to the ground. He understood what was about to happen a second before he felt the blow to the back of his head.
        Then came darkness.

        Mike awoke to the sensation of being carried.
He was strung over the shoulder of one of the Frellam; his face irritated by it’s coarse back-hair (not to mention it’s awful stench). 
He turned his head, and saw Callie, Jon, and Edward also being carried over Frellam shoulders. He couldn’t tell if any of them were awake yet.
There was no telling how long he had been out, but he could at least find out where they were being taken.
Mike closed his eyes, and concentrated on detaching himself from his body. The act came easier this time; Mike willed himself up beyond the treetops, and looked down.
There were about thirty Frellam in the group, plus the two Ridlaks, who followed at the rear. Most of the other Frellam carried sacks of animals big and small that they must have caught hunting. They had carried Mike’s group deep into the woods.
They now approached a clearing with a large encampment of primitive huts. There were more Frellam there: females, children, and those males left behind to guard them.
At the center of the encampment was a huge black cauldron. It looked like a communal area. Many bones were scattered around its perimeter; from small stick bones, to thick and substantial bones.
A meal had been had here, and recently.
Nearby was a deep rectangular pit, with a wooden house door set into it. The door was locked with an iron latch.
Mike looked through the door at two forlorn figures, trapped inside. Curious, Mike willed himself down into the pit to get a better look at them, as they were of a race he had never seen before, except in books.
Treehoppers! Mike thought, in wonder, Bufaaru, they call themselves. What are they doing here? They only live in the vast Ferren Forest, where the trees are HUGE.
The two Bufaaru in the pit were male and female; the female lay with her head on the male’s chest, and the two were holding hands. Their prehensile tails were intertwined. They were about five feet tall, they were furry, like monkeys; but their faces were hairless and human-like.
The two looked up at Mike, and gasped.
They can see me! Mike thought, until light filled the pit, and he realized that they were reacting to the opening of the wooden door; perhaps fearing that their time was up.
But it wasn’t; not yet.
The Frellam that had captured Mike and the others had reached the hole, and had opened the door to deposit their new catch.
Mike turned towards the opening, in time to see his own body tossed down, through, and past himself. When his body landed, Mike felt himself jerked back into it. He opened his eyes and got up, only to have Jon fall on him, followed by Callie, Edward, and several sacks worth of dead animals. The Frellam then shut and locked the door, leaving them in darkness.
The others had already regained consciousness, and now they fumbled around blindly in the dark (except for Mike, who could see in the dark, but was at the present moment pinned at the bottom of the pile).
“My HAIR! Someone’s caught my HAIR!”
“Oh, is that what that is?”
“AHH! Who hit me with their elbow?”
“What is that SMELL?!”
“The stench of death, I believe.”
At last they unpiled themselves, and felt around their new prison.
“Why does everyone we meet want to lock us up?!” Callie lamented.
“It must be our sparkling personalities.” Edward replied.
“Is everybody okay?” Mike asked, “Considering the Concussion-Fest we’ve all just gone through…”
“I come for the head trauma, I stay for the service.” Jon said.
“I’m okay.” Edward said.
“Me too.” Callie said, “I could do without the luxurious aroma of dead things. Any chance of a good breeze?”
“No chance of that.” Jon said, testing the door’s give by pushing up on it with his hands, “The door’s shut tight. I think they must have put something heavy on it.”
“No, there’s a metal latch thingy.” Mike said.
“By the way, we’re not alone.”
“What?” Callie asked.
“There are two Bufaaru in here with us.”
“Treehoppers?” Jon asked, “Here?”
“Yeah. Gimme a minute and I’ll go see what’s up.”
“Last time I checked, you don’t speak ‘Jingo’, or whatever the heck the name of their language is.” Callie said.
“I think it’s ‘Jargo’.” Mike replied.
“Actually, it’s ‘Jogo’.” the male Bufaaru said, “But we can speak Thrist as well. Our race learned it long ago, in order to trade and barter with the Thrist. My name is Tullamigannan, and with me is my companion, Bellaillazuu.”
“Just call us Tullam and Bell.” the female said, in a delicate voice, “Bufaaru family names are always so needlessly long. Anyway, we were captured by the Frellam just as you were; but there were ten of us.”
“What happened to---” Edward started to ask, but stopped when Mike gave him a gentle nudge, “Oh…sorry.”
“Yes,” Tullam said, his voice sad, “They saved us for later. In case the hunters came back a little low.”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Mike said, “What are Bufaaru doing in these here woods?”
“I could ask the same of you.” Bell replied.                                        
“Granted, but isn’t your race situated predominantly in the Ferren Forest?”
“Yes it is,” Tullam said, “But about nine years ago, the Gistren, the most powerful of the tree-tribes of Ferren, began a war of conquest. Many trees were conquered. Bell and I were leaders of the Sedare tree-tribe. We and our allies fought hard against the Gistren Alliance for nine long years; but in the end…”
“We lost,” Bell said, “And were exiled.”
“Exiled?” Callie asked, “To the ground?”
She remembered reading that, for the Bufaaru, being expelled from the tribal tree, to scrounge a living off the forest floor, was a great humiliation; and tantamount to a death sentence, since the forest floor was full of predators.
“It was worse than that.” Bell said, “They gathered up the surviving heads of the tribes that had allied against them, and exiled us and our families; not just from our trees, but from Ferren itself, on pain of death.”
Bell stopped, and Mike could see a silent tear stream down her face.
Tullam continued for her: “Bell and I led them out of Ferren, enduring many painful losses along the way. These were the closest woods available to us, so we came here; only to discover that a tribe of Frellam from the north had also made their home here.”
“And the Frellam are always hungry.” Bell added.
“So how did you get captured?” Jon asked.
“Like the Frellam, we have to eat too.” Tullam said, “These trees are not as rich in sustenance as those in Ferren; and we’ve had to start hunting for food on the ground. A dangerous proposition, let me tell you. So we instituted a ground-hunting force.”
“It worked well,” Bell said, “Until last night…”
“And now eight of my friends are dead.” Tullam said, shame and grief palpable in his voice, “Food for the wretched Frellam!”
Mike saw Bell take Tullam’s hand, and kiss it.
“So now you’ve heard our sad story,” Bell said, “What is yours? How did you get here?”
“Long story short: we’re running away from one ruthless enemy, toward an even worse one.” Mike said, “It’s complicated.”
“Confusing as well.” Edward added.
“The Frellam somehow knew we were coming.” Mike went on, “They attacked us and destroyed our vehicle.”
“How could they have known you were coming?” Bell asked.
“I don’t know.” Mike replied, “But I can guess.”
“So what do we do now?” Edward asked, “Wait to die?”
“No.” Mike said, “We’re getting out of here. All of us.”
“You have a plan?” asked Callie.
“Nope,” Mike replied, “Something better.”

Chapter 47

Ma’jai Rising

“Back in Murgent,” Mike said, “As we were making our preparations to leave; Sparo pulled me aside for a private chat.”
        “About what?” Callie asked.
        “This…” Mike said, gesturing their surroundings in the Frellam pit, “Not this specific situation, of course; but of the possibility of our running into such a situation.”
        “What did he say?” asked Edward.

        “I hesitate to bring this up,” Sparo had said, “But considering the road you have chosen to take, or has chosen you, as the case may be; you might need to know this.”
        “What?” Mike had asked.
        “Remember when I said that your Ma’jai powers would come in slow; that it would be a long while before you’d have to worry about all that?”
        Mike nodded.
        “What I didn’t mention, was that there is a way, a known way, to jump-start that process; to force some of your powers into play much sooner, and develop quicker, than they would have otherwise. But this practice has its dangers; which is why it has always been discouraged, and why I hesitate to tell you about it at all. But I would be remiss to a fellow Ma’jai, if I didn’t.”
        “Why would I want to do that anyway?”
        “The time may come when you are the only thing that stands between your sister and your friends, and certain death.”
“I see your point,” Mike had said, “Let’s hear it, then.”
        “I want you to think back, during our battle in the basement, when I sent you flying up and out of the hotel. You were worn out and exhausted when I sent you up; yet when you came back down, you were re-energized. Do you remember how you accomplished that?”
        “Yes.” Mike said, “There was this greenish life-light inside everything that I was somehow able to summon to me. It gave me the strength to go back and continue the battle.”
        “We call that life-light, the ‘Voss Vedu’un’.” Sparo said, “It is the Divine Sea of Magic which every Ma’jai, great or small, can see and access. A free and abundant energy we use for strength and healing. It can also be used to jump-start a Ma’jai’s higher powers.”
        “How?” Mike had asked.

        “Well, what did he say?” Callie asked.
        “We don’t need to go into that,” Mike said, “Just know that I know, and can do it.”
        “You just don’t want to worry me about the dangers, do you?”
        “True, but its main danger is no worse than what you have faced, and will face again, when I ask you to do what I’m gonna ask you to do.”
        “I’m afraid you lost me there, hoss.” Callie said.
        “Even after I’ve jump-started my powers,” Mike said, “I’m still going to need your help. How much Conjuura ‘juice’ do you still have?”
        “A tad.” Callie replied.
        “We’re gonna need a lot more than that.” Mike said, “Can you do the creepy-eyes thing in the dark?”
        “The Malignium? I don’t know.” Callie replied, “Even if I could, I’d rather not. You don’t know how close I came to losing myself completely with that stuff. If I start up again, I don’t know what will happen.”
        Mike took her by the shoulders: “I can’t save us without you, Cal. You’re just going to have to be strong.”
        “Besides,” Jon said, “You’ll have US this time.”
        “To keep you from going bonkers again.” Edward added.
        Callie sighed deeply. “Okay, but who do I…?”
        “Tullam and Bell.” Mike said.
        The two Bufaaru looked up. They had been quietly listening to the conversation, but not understanding most of it.
        “Yes?” Bell asked.
        “How badly do you want to get outta here?” Mike asked.
        “That’s a ridiculous question,” Tullam retorted, “We would do anything to get the hell out of here!”
        “Good, cause we’re gonna ask something of you; something you might find it off-putting, or repellant.” Mike said, “But it will be necessary.”
        “We’ll do whatever you ask,” Bell said, “If it helps our escape.”
        Mike turned back to Callie. “Explain to them what you’re gonna try to do, and why. They both have nine years of war, grief, and loss with which to fuel you up. They may even thank you for the emotional release afterward. As for me, I’m gonna need some quiet time.”
        Mike sat down on the ground, got comfortable, and closed his eyes.
        In seconds, his spirit rose beyond the confines of the pit, and ascended to the heights. The ease with which he was now able to effect this was heartening. Below him, he saw the Frellam encampment, laid out like a map.
        He headed towards the deepness of the woods, and summoned the Voss Vedu’un to him.
        From the trees, ground, and living things, the greenish glowing energy rushed into him; like moisture to a sponge. He filled himself to bursting, but did not stop there.
        The key to the procedure was saturation, Sparo had informed him; that was also the chief of its dangers.
        Many were those who had tried a jump-start, stayed too long, and were unable to break away. Their spirits became lost in the Voss Vedu’un, and their bodies soon died without them.
        Mike filled himself still more, till his spectral vision was a green blur. The euphoria was almost beyond bearing.
        That was another danger. For some, the euphoria was addictive. They would return to the procedure again and again, for that buzz.
        Constant saturation for its own sake, Sparo had told him, Will dull a Ma’jai’s senses. It will stunt and blunt his powers to the point that the Ma’jai is no longer a Ma’jai. He will lose all of his powers bit by bit, until even the ability to summon the Voss Vedu’un is taken from him. Then, that Ma’jai will go mad.
        Mike kept the faces of his sister and friends before him, against the dangers of ensnarement. When at last he reached the crunch point of irresistible pull, he tore himself away, and returned to his body.
        He opened his eyes.
        “Mike’s back.” Edward said.
        Both he and Jon were looking at him strangely.
        “What are you two---?” Mike said, “Wait! You can see me?!”
        “It’s your eyes, Mike,” said Edward, in a creeped-out voice, “They’re glowing!
        “Your eyes started glowing green behind your lids, Mike.” Jon said, “When you opened them, they looked bizarro!”
        Mike blinked, and shook his head.
        His vision was still tinged green, but he could feel the change in himself; the power. It extended itself within him like long-dormant wings, flapping open for the first time…aching to be used.
        The procedure had succeeded.
        “Callie’s finished.” Mike said. It wasn’t a question.
        “Yes,” said Edward, “She’s finished with both of them. You were out of town for awhile.”
        Didn’t feel long to me at all, Mike thought. He looked over and saw Tullam and Bell, looking numb and out of sorts; slumped in each other’s arms. Callie turned around, and Mike could see the euphoria of empowerment in her smile. He could relate.
        “I couldn’t trance ‘em in the dark.” Callie said, “But it turns out you don’t need the trance if your ‘victims’ are willing; and helpful, to boot. I had them clear their minds and focus on me, and was able to create a mind-link that way. It was difficult and clumsy, but it got the job done. What about you? Was the---?”
        “Yes, it was.” Mike said, “Now I think it’s time to go.”
        He held his hands out before him, and closed his fists tight. Into each, he willed a concentration of power.
        Something began to grow in those fists; began to push back. As his fingers were forced back, they could all see two deep blue glowing spheres, sparkling from within. They grew to about the size of tennis balls.
        “I’m gonna blow open the door.” Mike said, “What I need from you Cal, is to levitate me out of this hole. Then yourself, then the others.”
        “Will do.” Callie said.
        “And what do you intend to do, when the Frellam notice us flying out of here?” Jon asked, “Fight them all?”
        “All I need to do is scare the hell outta them.” Mike said.
        “I hope you’re---“
        “I am.” Mike said, “Now, everybody, get down.”
        The spheres flew up from Mike’s hands, and burst on contact with the door, creating an upward explosion that shredded the door to splinters; and sent the splinters several feet in the air. The sound was deafening.
        “CALLIE, NOW!” Mike shouted.
        Callie sent Mike flying upwards with a little too much force than necessary. He cleared the hole, an additional three feet, flipped over in mid-air, and landed on his back outside the hole’s perimeter.
        “OWWW!” Mike yowled.
        “Sorry!” said Callie, as she zipped out of the hole, “Still new at this!”
        Mike got up fast. “Start getting them out, Cal!” he said.
        Roars rang out, as Frellam started running towards them, fangs bared.
        The nearest of them leapt several feet into the air, in their direction. Mike raised a hand in a warding motion, and a large fireball erupted from it, hitting the Frellam square in the chest. It lit him up like dry brush, and sent him flailing backwards in a smoking arc of descent.
        Mike looked at his hand with bewilderment, as tiny tongues of flame danced on his fingertips, like pilot lights; the skin of his hand unaffected by any heat.
        “Well that’s even better!” he exclaimed.
        The fireball had come quicker to his hand than the blue sphere; easier too, as he had had to focus to create the sphere.
        Mike threw several successive fireballs at the nearest Frellam heading their way. These were smaller, and golf ball sized; just as incendiary, but with less kick.
        Now every Frellam in the encampment knew what was happening, and growls and roars filled the air.
        “Everyone’s out!” Callie shouted, from somewhere behind Mike.
        “Watch my back Cal!”
        No sooner had he said it, than Callie saw a young Frellam throw a spear at Mike’s back. Callie caught it with her power mid-flight, and sent it back at the Frellam, running him through.
        The Ridlaks then waded into the battle, but were buffeted with flaming Frellam hurled at them by Callie.
        Mike took his time with his next fireball, and produced an explosive wallop that sent both Ridlaks falling over and rolling on the ground.
        The Ridlaks got up, but backed away. Unaccustomed to being knocked on their asses; they switched over to a “wait and see” attitude.
        This seemed to deflate the situation.
The Frellam had them surrounded, but kept a fearful distance; there were no more outright attacks.
“What now?” Callie whispered.
“They don’t want to attack, but they’re not quite ready to let us go just yet.” Mike said, “I’m gonna hafta push ‘em a little more.”
Most of the Frellam with toasted hair and flesh burns were males. Yet despite their charred appearance, they still looked formidable, and capable of ripping arms off.
“Don’t get cocky, Mike.” Jon said, “We’re still in a shigload of danger.”
The first Frellam Mike had sent flying back aflame, worked his way to the head of the crowd. He had been put out quickly, but the singed hair on his chest, arms, and midsection, was beyond recall.
The other Frellam held him back. “Ru kel fa gar kruma, Sin!” they said to him, “Prok ralla!”
Kruma’s their word for sorcerer, Mike thought, Now how the hell do I know that?!
Mike realized for the first time that their minds were open to him; had been, perhaps, since he opened his eyes from the jump-start. He had simply been oblivious to it. Even Callie, Jon, Edward, and the Bufaaru’s minds were open to him. It was like being surrounded by bins without lids; at a mental glance, he could see what was on the top of their heads.
And if he should delve? Was that possible?
He tried, and found that it was.
He dipped into the mind of the rash Frellam being held back by his friends, and found the ease of doing so almost sickening; like a sharp knife sinking into a gut.
Sinsak was his name; the Frellam whose mind he was invading, and he was the leader of this tribe of Frellam. The tribe had lost a turf war with another Frellam tribe, and had come down south from the Skidderex Mountains, following the curving arm of the Vawx Trail all the way here. They found the two Ridlak brothers along the way, doing the same (themselves the last members of a family that had died out in the cold waste of Sartholter in the north), and took them in.
They were ferocious peoples, the Frellam and the Ridlaks; but ingrained within them both was a deep fear of magic, and those who wielded it. That fear was all that was holding them back from pressing their numerical advantage.
Better yet, Mike saw hidden in Sinsak, a terrible childhood fear that had traumatized him then, and haunted his nightmares still. A demonic figure called Skrudsraac.
Created by the ravings of an insane brother who had died young (perhaps murdered by his parents in the night), and his own dark imaginings; Skrudsraac was Sinsak’s personal boogieman from childhood. His fear of madness, personified.
Mike now had his weapon.
“SINSAK!” he shouted.
The Frellam stopped arguing among themselves, and looked over at Mike; their faces struck with fear.
“How do you know my name?” Sinsak asked, in his guttural language. He was now free of the arms that had been holding him back, but showed little desire to attack anymore.
Mike chose the necessary words and inflections of their language from Sinsak’s own head.
“Are you not Sinsak, of the Nukker Kleetch?” Mike asked, “Are you not the Kabazgah of this Kleetch?”
“Yes.” Sinsak answered, “And who are you, besides food?”
The threat was empty; Sinsak was creeped out.
Knowing the face of his fear, Mike bent Sinsak’s mind into seeing what he wanted it to see. To his horror, Sinsak saw Mike’s face melt away like hot cheese, and the mad gaze of his childhood terror gape back at him.
“I am Skrudsraac!” Mike intoned, making sure his voice sounded to Sinsak’s ears like a demonic growl, “He who sent your brother Kitchik into madness! I have come back for YOU!”
“You are NOT Skrudsraac!!” Sinsak shouted, but his voice quailed.
Mike was ready for this. “You would test me then? Fine, have a taste of madness!”
Mike flooded Sinsak’s poor head with a rush of all the nightmare images he could muster, taken from Sinsak’s own dreams, even the ones he had forgotten.  
“KEENAA!!” Sinsak screamed, covering his eyes with his hands, and falling to his knees.
The other Frellam looked shocked at his reaction. Their fear of Mike increased exponentially.
At last, Mike stopped.
“Try to harm us,” he whispered, his voice a low gravel to Sinsak’s ears alone, “And Kitchik’s fate is yours.”
“Let them go!” Sinsak yelled, eyes still shielded, “LET THEM GO!!”
The Frellam pulled back, and an opening appeared.
Mike, Callie, Jon, Edward, Tullam, and Bell walked through the main body of Frellam, all of whom shrank back as they passed.
Once they cleared the encampment and entered the woods again, they began to run.

Chapter 48


After some time spent running, Mike, Callie, Jon, Edward, Tullam, and Bell stopped for a rest. They were all sweaty and heavily breathing. They collapsed to the ground in a semi-circle.
        “That was amazing what you did back there!” Tullam said to Mike, “How long have you had these powers?”
        “Oh, about fifteen minutes or so.” Mike replied.
        “What did you do to that Frellam?” Callie asked, “And since when do you speak Ugora?”
        “Did I mention I can read minds now?” Mike said, “Part of the Ma’jai Powers Expansion Pack, I suppose.”
        “It was more than that,” Callie said, “You…influenced his mind, right?”
        “Can you read ALL our minds?”
        “Can you also---“
        “Well!” Mike said, clapping his hands together, “I think it’s time for more running.”
        “Wait a minute, why are we running anyway?” Jon asked, “It isn’t like they’re going to follow us, not after the royal firebombing you just gave them, Mike; or the mental de-pantsing of poor Sinsak.”
        Edward reacted to that image with a bark of laughter.
        “Jon has a point, Mike.” Callie said, “The Frellam will be too busy licking their wounds to come after us again.”
        “But how much will their fear hold them back once their hunger returns?” Mike asked, “We have a reprieve, yes; but will it last?”
        “Well, the wagon’s totaled.” Edward said, “Unless your powers include instant automotive repair, it’s gonna be a helluva long walk to Cathim.”
        “How long would that take?” Callie asked.
        “I don’t know.” Mike shrugged, “Days.”
        “If the Frellam do decide to come after us again,” Callie said, “We could be in for a running battle all the way.”
        “Even if they don’t, the woods hold many dangers come nightfall.” Tullam said, “My people could help you make safe passage out of these woods, in gratitude for saving Bell and me from the Frellam pit.”
        “Where is your group right now?” Jon asked.
        “About ten miles north-east of here.” Tullam replied.
        “That’ll take forever.” Edward said.
        “Not for us.” Bell said, “Me and Tullam can get there faster, tree to tree.”
        “Good idea,” said Mike, “You two go find your group; we’ll meet you halfway, or as far as we can make it.”
        “Too bad you couldn’t just carry us.” Edward said, half-jokingly.
        “I could carry you, child.” Tullam said to Edward, “You’re short and light of weight; but your friends are too big for us to carry.”
        Could I?” Edward piped up. The thought of traveling the treetops with the Bufaaru sounded wondrous.
        “If Tullam says it’s okay, sure.” Jon said, “But it’s your decision, Edward; you don’t need our permission.”
        Edward looked back at Tullam.
Tullam nodded.
        “Maybe I shouldn’t…” he said, suddenly indecisive, “The last time we got split up was disastrous. I’d feel guilty if something happened to you guys while I was gone.”
        “Likewise.” Mike said.
        “It’s your call, Ed.” Callie added.
        Edward considered it.
        If there was no further Frellam attack, he would simply be saving himself a ten-mile hike through the woods, by going with Tullam and Bell. If he didn’t go, and there WAS another attack? Well, Mike could defend himself, Callie could defend herself, and Jon (even without benefit of magic powers) could defend himself. But he? He would have to be protected.
        Better to go with the Bufaaru, than stay and be in the way.
        “I’ve decided,” Edward said, “I’ll go with Tullam and Bell.”
        It was a decision they would all come to regret.

        “You probably won’t see us for awhile.” Jon said to Edward.
        “Cause you know, we aren’t gonna be running the whole way.” Callie said, “Maybe fast walking, but not running.”
        “We should get going.” Bell said, “The sooner we’re off, the sooner we get there.”
        “Right.” Tullam said, “Come on, Edward. It’s time.”
        Edward first went and gave a hug each to his three friends.
“Until we meet again, take care of yourselves.” he said.
“You too, Ed.” said Callie.
“Have fun!” Mike said.
“Catch you later.” said Jon.
Edward waved goodbye, then got on Tullam’s back, and wrapped his arms around his neck. “Are you sure I’m not too heavy?” he asked.
“You’re more bulky than heavy.” Tullam said, “You’ll slow me down a little, but not too much. Take it easy on my neck, though.”
Edward was carried aloft as Tullam and Bell clambored up the nearest tree with amazing speed and agility.
Once at limb level, they threw themselves at far limbs with a remarkable abandon. Hand to hand from limb to limb they swung; upward and upward, followed by a downward release into gravity’s arms, just in time to catch another limb and start the upward climb again. Edward held on tight, as Mike, Callie, and Jon got left further and further behind.

“Alright guys, let’s go.” Mike said.
“I hope they’ll be okay.” Callie said.
“They’ll be okay,” Jon said, putting an arm around Callie as they walked, “Tullam and Bell are in their element. It’s us I’m worried about."

For Edward, it was an exhilarating ride; especially whenever they hit a pocket of trees that were very tall. They would travel up into dizzying heights. Deadly heights, if one was not on the back of a Bufaaru. During these points, Edward would tighten his grip until Tullam made choking noises, as a none too subtle hint to loosen up.
But after a while, having to hold on to Tullam’s neck got to be a chore. Edward’s arms were getting stiff and achey.
So, it was to Edward’s relief when they finally arrived at the road where they had been attacked by the Frellam. This, they would have to cross on foot, as the gap between the trees on one side of the road and the other, were more than could be jumped; even by Bufaaru.
Tullam and Bell climbed down the tree near the side of the road, and walked toward the back end of the demolished station wagon.
“Is that what you and your friends came in?” Bell asked.
“Yes.” Edward said. He wiggled his arms at his sides as he walked, to get blood circulating in them again.
Suddenly, Tullam and Bell both jerked their heads toward the road behind the wagon. Their Bufaaru ears twitched.
“What is it?” Edward asked.
“A vehicle approaches.” said Tullam.
“Someone is coming.” Bell added.
Edward looked at the road from whence he and his friends had come. He heard the sound of an automobile engine; faint at first, but getting louder as it got closer. Then he saw it.
It was a car…coming in fast.
There was no doubt in Edward’s mind about who it was.
“Oh no!” he said, as his stomach went queasy with dread.
“What is it, Edward?” Bell asked.
“It’s Mike and Callie’s dad.” Edward replied, “Crap, we gotta go! WE GOTTA GO! NOW!!”
They ran into the woods to the left of the wagon; his agitation alone told Tullam and Bell not to waste time with questions. Edward got on Tullam’s back again. They zipped up the nearest tree and were on their way.
Even as they sped through the trees, Tullam could feel the anxiety in the deathgrip Edward had on his neck.
“Could you loosen the noose a little?” he asked.
“Sorry.” Edward replied, and softened his grasp a bit.
“Why do you still fear?” Tullam asked, “Surely that man cannot follow us up here.”
“Perhaps not,” Edward said, “But the farther and faster we are away from him, the better. BELIEVE me.”
Influenced by Edward’s palpable fear, Bell chanced a look back, and saw something that made her gasp.

When Charles Longstreet saw the three figures running towards the woods, he knew right then who the short one was; he had been with Mike and Callie when Charles had cornered them in Metromax City.
“Bring that child back to me alive! NOW!” he shouted.
Upon the command, Babbidaz sprung out of the open car window in a single fluid leap. Once out, he reverted to his true form; and bounded with great leopard-like strides to where the figures had fled.
He took to the trees with the skill of a Bufaaru, and sliced through them with a speed that rivaled their own.

“Tullam!” Bell cried, “Look!”
Tullam stopped, looked back, and saw a monstrous beast in the distance, moving toward them with alarming rapidity.
“What the hell is THAT?!”
“Oh shike!” said Edward, “It’s a Morrtog! Go faster!”
Tullam turned and started moving. Having no burden, Bell moved faster, and was now ahead of them. They entered an area of really tall trees, and started their ascent.
No longer able to see where the Morrtog was behind them, Edward feared feeling it’s talons at his back.
(Bubba Death can smell you!)
Could almost feel them.
(He's coming for you! You and your friends!)
He saw Bell, ahead of them, take a quick look back; and the look of horror that passed through her face said it all. Tullam, who was starting to heave with tiredness, saw Bell’s face too, and had to stop to see; as well as to take a quick breather.
He stopped on a large tree limb, and looked back.
The Morrtog (as Edward referred to it) was still back there, working it’s way to them; it had lost little ground.
Bell joined them on the limb.
“Edward, let go.” Tullam said.
Edward did as told. He looked over at the approaching Morrtog; it would reach them in a minute, if they didn’t start moving again.
“What are we doing?” Edward asked.
“I can’t outrace that thing with Edward on my back.” Tullam said to Bell, “He’s slowing me down and tiring me out.”
“What are you proposing?” Edward asked, nervous at where this conversation seemed to be heading.
“You take him, Bell. I’ll wait for the thing here, and try to distract it as long as I can.”
“WHAT?!” asked Edward, “Are you crazy?! That thing’ll rip you to shreds!“
“Tullam,” Bell pleaded, “The boy’s right! You can’t---“
“THIS ISN’T A DEBATE!” Tullam shouted, “TAKE HIM, WIFE!”
Bell gave Edward her back; Edward took hold.
She and Tullam exchanged a quick and passionate kiss, then Bell departed with Edward.
“This is nuts!” Edward said.
Once Bell and Edward were gone, Tullam grabbed a long thin branch from above him, and broke it off it's limb. He held it before him, like a staff.
The Morrtog came in fast. It had no intention of stopping; and it had no intention of letting Tullam live, either.
It had to die. It and it’s female.
On general principles, but mostly to satisfy his itch to ram his talons into something alive, and make it dead.
It extended it’s arm, to catch Tullam on the fly, and dispatch him without having to stop; but Tullam leapt at the last moment, and hit Babbidaz on the back of the head with the branch, on his way over him. Caught by surprise, the Morrtog missed the limb he had intended to catch. Instead he hit another one at his midsection, doubled over, and fell.
Alas, Babbidaz did not fall to his death.
He managed to take hold of the tree itself, with his taloned claws, and began to crawl up it with roach-like skill.
Tullam fell too, but caught a limb with his tail, and flipped himself around and up; landing on his feet upon the limb. He did this with such speed, that he turned in time to see the beast double over the tree limb, and fall; but did not see it catch on. He strained to see where it had fallen, but saw no body. He wanted to leave, and rejoin Bell and Edward, but he had to make sure the beast was dead.
He jumped around, from limb to limb, looking for him; but Babbidaz skipped and jumped with demonic skill, out of Tullam’s field of vision. Until the time was right.
“Where are you?!” Tullam hissed under his breath.
“Right here.” a voice said, from behind him.
Tullam had no chance to turn around. Babbidaz shoved his talons deep into his back. There came then the horrible sounds of tearing flesh as Babbidaz picked Tullam up, held him aloft, then tossed him overhead.
Tullam died all the way down.

At the exact moment of her husband’s death, Bell was granted full knowledge of its happening. A lifetime spent by his side in happiness and great pain accorded her this smidgen of mystic connection; it hit her like a psychic hammer to her heart, shattering it.
“TULLAM!” she cried out.
She stopped on a limb, and turned around. Tears streamed from her eyes, and she hung her head in grief. The beast was coming, she knew; but no longer cared. There was no outrunning the beast.
“Ummm…Bell?” Edward said.
“I know.” she replied, but moved not one inch.
Edward let go of her, and sat down on the tree limb.
“Go, Bell.” he said.
“I’ll let it take me.” Edward said, “It’ll have to let you go.”
“I can’t---“
“Yes you can!” Edward said, “Together we won’t make it. You know that. It's after ME anyway! Now hurry! There’s no time!”
She turned to go.
“I’m sorry, Edward.” she said, her back to him.
“I’m sorry too, Bell.” Edward said, “I’m sorry for everything. It’s all my fault.”
She took off.
Edward turned, and saw the Morrtog arrive. It had blood on it’s hand; Tullam’s blood. It stopped at Edward’s limb.
“Here I am.” said Edward.
“Such a brave child.” Babbidaz said, “And where, perhaps, is the charming female creature? My talon longs to rip her flesh!”
“Gone.” Edward replied.
“Oh, but I can still smell her! Owwm! Eyowwmm! Eyowwmm! She’s not far! I can still catch up to her! Owwm! Eyowwmm! Eyowwmm!”
To Edward’s horror, the Morrtog started to go off after Bell.
Babbidaz stopped and turned around. “Yes! And I will come back for you, once I’m finished with her! After all…you’re not going anywhere!”
Edward was dumbstruck.
The Morrtog was right. If he tried to move from this spot, he would fall and die. At this height, he had nowhere to go. The Morrtog could go after Bell, kill her; then return at his leisure and retrieve him. Take him back to Papa Longstreet, where he would be made to betray Mike and Callie’s whereabouts. Then, of course, they would kill him. Worse, Longstreet might do to him what he did to Rak.
Edward had but one card left in his hand.
Was he strong enough to play it?
For the love of his friends…he found that he was indeed.
“HEY MORRTOG!!” he shouted as loud as he could.
Babbidaz turned around.
“CATCH ME!” Edward said, and pushed himself off the tree limb.
“NOOO!!” shouted Babbidaz, as Edward plummeted.
With astonishing speed, the Morrtog bounded back to the tree Edward had been on, and launched itself down after Edward, to catch him.
Edward fell a long time, or so it seemed to him. He turned as he fell, and at one point faced up to see the Morrtog, in free fall right above him; willing itself to reach him. Straining to do so. Then Edward’s body turned again, in time to see the ground rush up to meet him. His last thoughts were: I hope that stupid monster forgets himself and hits the ground after me!
No such luck. Babbidaz admitted defeat, and caught a stray vine, as gravity slammed Edward mercilessly into the ground.
Babbidaz slid down the vine, and walked over to where Edward had landed. He turned the body over; the boy’s eyes were open.
All thought of catching and killing the female Bufaaru left the Morrtog’s mind. The boy’s startling act of self-sacrifice had clearly been intended to buy her escape time.
Babbidaz was impressed. He wondered if Longstreet’s children had half the iron spine this child had just shown.
If so, their pursuit would be interesting.
With great respect, Babbidaz closed Edward’s eyes.
He picked up the body, and set off back to the road. He did not know if Longstreet would defile the boy’s memory by bringing him back with his polluted blood; but that was beyond his purview. He was a Morrtog, after all. His master’s wishes were law.

Chapter 49

A Clash of Powers

Charles Longstreet sat on the hood of his stolen car, awaiting Babbidaz’s return.
He had felt nothing upon seeing the remains of the destroyed station wagon. True, it had been his for ages; but not long after Mike and Callie had taken it, he had stopped thinking of it as his. It was Mike and Callie’s wagon...but no more. After only nine days in their possession, the wagon had definitively bitten the dust.
Babbidaz appeared out of the woods, carrying a body.
“I get the distinct feeling I’m not going to like this bit of news.” Longstreet said.
“The boy fell. I didn’t catch him in time.” Babbidaz explained.
“And the two creatures?” Longstreet asked.
“One I killed; one got away.” Babbidaz answered.
He shimmered into his slightly less alarming persona, as he set Edward’s body on the ground before Longstreet. “I brought the body in case you wanted to resurrect the child.”
Longstreet considered it. “No, he’s too young. They’re not very informative when you bring them back from the dead too young. They tend to come back drooly and messy; good only for shock value.”
This was true, as the girls he had resurrected in Metromax had proven. But that wasn’t the real reason he decided not to bring the boy back. He was no longer sure that the black molasses currently solidifying in his veins could turn the trick anymore. He was not even sure he’d be able to stand unassisted for another twenty minutes. All body warmth and energy seemed to be draining from him at a frightening rate.
“I wanted him alive.”
“Sorry.” Babbidaz said; though he didn’t sound at all apologetic.
“Okay, well, no use crying over spilt boy. Let’s see if you can smell where my kids went off to.” Longstreet said.
Babbidaz walked over to the destroyed station wagon, and sniffed around the inside. He could make out four separate scents. One of them he recognized as the dead boy’s. He got out of the wagon, and sniffed around outside of it.
“They were attacked.” Babbidaz said.
“I coulda told you that.” Longstreet snorted.
“A force of about thirty or so foul-smelling creatures smashed the vehicle and took the four of them---“
“Four?” Longstreet asked, “Where the hell do Mike and Callie recruit these kids to help them all the damn time?!”
Babbidaz pointed to the woods. “---that way.”
“Lead away, then…and hurry,” Longstreet said, “I don’t think I have much time.”
The two ran into the woods.

Mike, Callie, and Jon were picking the dark red berries off a Jandraberry bush they had found, when Callie suddenly swooned. Jon caught her, and laid her on the ground.
“Callie! What’s wrong?!” Jon shouted.
Callie didn’t answer. Her eyes were wide open, but she seemed to be in the grip of a powerful vision.
Mike, who had been working on another bush a few paces away, ran over to the two. He looked down on Callie, with a look of concerned alarm spreading across his face.
“Mike, what is it?!” Jon asked, “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s not alone in her mind,” Mike replied, furrowing his brow, “She’s receiving a message of some sort, but---“
Callie came to with a gasp, cutting him off. She looked at Jon, and then at Mike; then broke into tears.
“What is it, Callie?” Jon asked.
Callie seemed unable to answer him at the moment; instead, she put her face in her hands, and wept openly.
“Oh no…” Mike said, as the waters of Callie’s mind at last cleared enough for him to see. The color drained from his face.
“What?!” asked Jon, getting frustrated.
“It’s Edward,” Mike said, “He’s dead.”
“What?! How?”
“He came to me in a vision.” Callie said, lifting her tear-streaked face and speaking at last, “He said our father is here; and he’s brought a Morrtog with him.”
“The Morrtog killed Tullam,” Mike continued, in a dead voice, “And Edward sacrificed himself to save Bell.”
“Bubba Death came for him at last.” Callie whispered.
“Oh man…Edward…” Jon said, as the weight of it sunk in.
“He said for us not to grieve,” Callie continued, “That the choice was his to make. He’s safe now, where no danger can ever reach him again.”
“But we’re not.” Mike said, “Dad is on his way.”
“I’m done running from that man.” Callie said, wiping her tears away with her hands, “But it’s the Morrtog that worries me.”
“We’ll deal with it.” Mike said, “Like we dealt with the Frellam.”
“Thing is,” said Jon, “This isn’t the Frellam encampment; you can’t go tossing fireballs around, Mike. You’ll start a forest fire.”
“Crap. I didn’t think of that,” Mike said, “I guess I could always just break his mind---“
“I wouldn’t try that either.” Callie said, “I remember Mr. Blessure trapping Mr. Balooda in HIS mind. Dad’s Morrtog may or may not have the same power; but if he does, trying to mind read him might be iffy.”
 “That does cut down our options a tad.” Mike said.
“I suggest we find as many branches as we can, and weaponize them.” Jon said, “As a sort of back-up, in case we have an interruption of service, magic-wise; if you get my drift.”
“Good idea.” Mike said.
“But how do we sharpen them?” Callie asked, “We don’t have a knife.”
“You don’t need a knife,” Mike said, “You have a Ma’jai.”

They worked fast.
Time was of the essence, and they knew it. Within five minutes, they had gathered ten branches. All but one were considered too thin or brittle to use as a spear, so they were broken into smaller pieces, so Callie could hurl them into the air, like projectiles.
Mike created a small power sphere he used to scorch spear points onto both ends of each piece of wood they had collected. When done, he squeezed the sphere until its power reabsorbed into his hand.
“Waste not, want not.” he said.
The stakes were spread out in a row, on the ground. 
Jon took possession of the one good spear.
“Now we wait.” Mike said, “Remember: the Morrtog is the greater threat; but it’s ignorant of our abilities. The element of surprise gives me one free shot. So I’m gonna try to take it out with my first sphere, but if I fail…it’s gonna be all out war with this thing.”
“Understood.” said Callie.
She glanced at Jon, beside her. He nodded.
They were ready.

Charles Longstreet stopped, and leaned against a tree, no longer able to go on.
“They’re close!” Babbidaz said, “Owwm! Eyowwm! Eyowwm! Very close! I can smell them from here; your children and the other one. They are alone! I don’t smell the creatures that attacked them.”
“Which means they must have escaped their captors.” Longstreet said, “Tricky little bastards, they always find a way! Well, I’m done playing Sinestri’s game.”
“Yes. Sinestri wanted me to kill them, true; but not quickly. It was important to him that I terrify them first of all.”
“So he could watch them die in horror and despair from wherever the hell he is, I suppose. I don’t know. I’ve never really known.” Longstreet said, “All of my hostility toward Mike and Callie came from his Malevolencia. I know this; but knowing changes nothing. It once burned in my veins like lava; giving me fury and purpose. Now it runs like cold syrup. It saps my strength and blunts my will. That’s why Sinestri had me bring you forth, I think; my usefulness to him is at an end.”
“What do you want me to do?” Babbidaz asked.
“No more games!” Longstreet said, “Go after them, Babbidaz! Kill them all, and bring me their shredded remains! I want to see their dead faces before darkness takes me.”
“As you wish.” Babbidaz said.
He changed into his true form, and disappeared into the woods; to follow what would be his master’s final command.

After what felt like an eternity of anxious waiting, the moment of crisis at last arrived.
Mike saw the Morrtog first, while it was still far off; it galloped on all fours in it’s true form, headed right for them.
“It comes alone.” Mike said, “Damn, it’s fast though.”
Mike held his hand behind his back, and created as concentrated a power sphere as he could muster. Small, but incredibly powerful; its color went from sparkling blue to a bright burning red.
Sekari. They are called sekari. The thought streaked across the sky of his mind, out of nowhere, like a forgotten memory.
Mike did not know where this information came from, but he was as sure of its truth as that of his own name. But now was not the time for such conundrums; he shook his mind free of the distraction, and focused on the pressing matter at hand.
“Here we go,” he said, “EAT THIS, BITCH!”
He flung the crimson sphere, the sekari, at Babbidaz. It crackled with energy and shrieked like a missile toward the Morrtog.
Babbidaz saw it, and tried to jump over it, but a second too late. The sekari hit him in the stomach, and the explosion at contact threw him backwards into a tree with such force, that the tree snapped in half. Both Babbidaz, and the broken half of the tree fell backward.
“YES!” Mike exulted.
The Morrtog writhed and doubled over in pain. His entire midsection was in searing, piercing, burning agony; and for a creature born in the burning lava hellworld of Xalix, that was saying something.
Why didn’t my idiot master tell me his children were magic users?! Babbidaz wondered. Now he would have to change tactics. Alright, let’s try this again, Babbidaz thought, and got back on his feet.
“Mike, he’s up again!” Jon said.
“Damn!” Mike replied, “Get ready!!”
 The Morrtog looked at them, smiled, and jumped; shooting up like a rocket and disappearing into the tree’s dense foliage.
“Uh oh.” said Mike.
“Do you see him?” Callie asked.
“Yeah, he’s moving toward us.” Mike said. He marveled at how sharp and clear his eyesight had become.
Mike sent into Callie’s mind an image of what he wanted her to do. Callie nodded.
“Okay…NOW!” Mike said.
Callie sent the stakes at her feet flying straight up at lethal speed into the tree cover above them, in a wide cone of dispersal. This worked too well, as the Morrtog fell from right above them, with a stake lodged deep in it’s thigh. The three managed to avoid getting crushed by the heavy mass that hit the ground with a painful “THUD”, but they were all knocked off balance and onto the ground; even as the stakes returning back to earth rained down all around them.
Babbidaz moved fast. He sat up, took the stake out of his thigh, and hurled it at Callie. The stake impaled her in the left shoulder, and Callie screamed in pain.
Jon, who had fallen closest to the Morrtog, reached for his spear; while Mike, who had fallen furthest from Babbidaz, sat up and sent a streamer of fire from his fingertips, direct to the Morrtog’s face. 
“CALLIE! JON! MOVE!!” he yelled, as he summoned a sekari into his free hand to slam into the Morrtog.
Before either could do any such thing, Babbidaz freed one of his hands from shielding his face, and viciously plunged its talons into Jon’s back.
Jon’s eyes rolled upward in their sockets, and his mouth opened in a silent scream Mike could hear in his mind, as Babbidaz picked him up and used him as a shield against Mike’s fire.
Mike stopped the fire.
Jon’s eyes closed and his head slumped forward.
“NOOO!” Callie screamed in fury.
Babbidaz turned his head to see her. She had the stake impaled in her shoulder fly out at him, and bury itself into his eye.
Babbidaz roared in pain. He dropped Jon face-down on the ground, grabbed the stake end, and yanked it out with a yowl.
It turned to attack Callie, but she had already rolled out of the way; and with a clear shot at last, Mike released his massive sekari, and blasted it at Babbidaz point blank.
This exploded Babbidaz upwards and backwards, and when he landed, Mike ran over to him, and did it again.
“DIE BASTARD! DIE!!” Mike shouted.
Babbidaz was sent flying into the air again.
As Mike continued to do this, Callie went to Jon; the intense throbbing pain from the flesh wound in her shoulder but an afterthought. She lifted the ripped and bloody back of his shirt, to survey the damage. She sensed that he was still alive, but fading fast.
Then she remembered something.
“MIKE!” she yelled, “COME HERE QUICK!!”
Mike stopped. He looked down at the Morrtog; it didn’t seem like it would be getting up any time soon. He ran back to Callie, already seeing what she had in mind.
She thinks I can heal Jon the way Sparo healed me, he thought, Who knows? Maybe I can. I don’t think I’ve reached yet the limits of my power.
“I know what you want.” Mike said, kneeling down beside Jon, “I don’t know if I can, but I’ll give it a shot.”
“He’s still alive, Mike.” Callie said, “You were dead when Sparo brought you back.”
“I’ll try, Cal.”
Mike focused his power into his hands. He allowed the energy to remain unintentioned; he merely gathered it together.
He then placed his hands on Jon’s wounds, and channeled the energy into them. When a green haze tinted his vision, he realized he was seeing the Voss Vedu’un with his eyes open. He could see it flutter with every thought, like a mist at the slightest breeze. He directed the energy to do its healing work, and the Voss Vedu’un obeyed.
After a moment, Mike removed his hands and saw the wounds start to close up.
The torn flesh sealed itself to its former unscarred appearance, as if nothing had ever happened to it.
Jon groaned and stirred.
“You did it!” Callie cried.
“Don’t sound too surprised.” Mike replied.
They helped Jon turn around and sit up.
He blinked his bleary eyes. “Was I just stabbed?” he asked, as Callie rained kisses on his face, still oblivious to her own bleeding wound.
“The Morrtog ripped up your back pretty bad.” Mike said.
“How am I alive then?” Jon asked.
“My whizbang Ma’jai powers.” Mike replied.
“Oh…” Jon said, “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” Mike said, “Ever.”
Jon then saw Callie’s wound. “Callie, what the hell?”
“What? Oh!” Callie said, remembering the bleeding, throbbing, hole in her shoulder, “Oh yeah. That does hurt a bit.” she said, and immediately fainted dead away.

She wasn’t out long, but when she came to, Mike had already healed her shoulder wound.
“Wake up sunshine.” he said.
“Aw damn, I fainted, didn’t I?” Callie asked, sheepishly, “I always swore to myself I’d never be a ‘fainty’ girl. Was I gone long?”
“Nah, you’re back just in time.” Mike said, as he and Jon grabbed her arms and helped her to her feet.
“In time for what?”
“Round two.” said Jon.
Callie followed his gaze. Some distance away, where Mike had left him, the Morrtog was slowly getting to it’s feet. It looked worse for the wear; but not quite enough. It brushed itself off, gave them a look with it’s good eye, and started galloping towards them on all fours.
“Are you ready?” Mike asked his sister.
The stakes that had fallen to the ground all around them levitated into the air, every one of them, and gathered themselves in front of her.
“Oh yes,” she said, “Let’s end this.”

Chapter 50

The Face of the Enemy

Callie sent half the stakes before her flying toward the Morrtog as it galloped on all fours toward them.
Babbidaz was ready for them this time. He turned on a dime and jumped onto a tree. Callie tried to grab hold of him, with her power, but there was an aspect of metaphysical slipperiness to him, and she found that she could not affect him directly in any way.
Mike threw a sekari at him. Babbidaz dodged it, and hopped onto another tree.
“Quick mother, innit?” said Jon.
The sekari hit the tree Babbidaz had just departed, and cut it in half. As the top half fell, Callie caught it with her mind, and swung it at Babbidaz, like a giant club in an invisible hand. With acrobatic agility, Babbidaz did a flip over the tree---and right into Mike’s next sphere.
“Not quick enough!!” Mike yelled.
The sekari exploded Babbidaz back and upwards. 
Callie swung the tree top like a bat once more, and connected with Mike’s pitch. Babbidaz got whacked into a rolling tumble to the ground.
Callie then threw the tree top at Babbidaz. He managed to avoid getting hit by jumping over it, but wasn’t as fast as last time; he was tripped by one of the limbs, and found himself chin to the ground once more.
He got up fast, in time to dodge another of Mike’s sekari.
Callie rocketed her remaining stakes at him.
Babbidaz sprung into a nimble forward somersault. As he vaulted over the stakes, he grabbed one with each hand in mid-air, and upon landing, tossed them twirling back at Callie.
Two of Mike’s sekari rendered the stakes into splinters. A necessary distraction, but a distraction nonetheless; as Babbidaz had jumped, and now landed among them.
Callie and Jon were smacked aside like afterthoughts.
The Morrtog grabbed Mike by the neck, and disappeared up into the treetops with him.
“NO!” Callie yelled, and levitated herself up after them; leaving Jon and his spear all alone below.
I hope this ends well, he thought.

“You’re my main problem!” Babbidaz said to Mike as he took him to a high limb, “Without you, the others will be easy pickings! Owwm! Eyowwmm! Eyowwmm!”
        Babbidaz squeezed hard on Mike’s neck to choke the life out of him. Mike poured Voss Vedu’un energy into his arms and hands, grabbed Babbidaz’s wrists, and pulled them loose. The Morrtog’s good eye boggled as the puny child, whose physical strength should have been akin to a wet noodle compared to his, pulled his hands away from his neck.
        Callie whooshed up from below, trancing eyes at full blast, and stopped at eye level with Babbidaz.
Their eyes met, and Callie initiated the Malignium.
Babbidaz dropped Mike, and Mike fell, but managed to grab hold of the limb on which the Morrtog stood.
What the hell is she DOING?! Mike thought. After warning HIM not to try to mind-read the Morrtog, here she was, doing the same damn thing; risking her mind and life doing it.
She’s trying to save YOUR worthless hide, twit! came the answer from within. As always, this self-loathing aspect of his psyche spoke to him in his father’s caustic voice.
Mike hoped she’d win, and soon; his arms were getting tired.

Callie entered the Morrtog’s mind with suspicious ease. Way too much ease, as it turned out. Before she could do anything, the mental equivalent of fangs bit deep into her mind, and began to drag her in deeper.
Callie lost control of her levitation, and began to sink; but Babbidaz caught her by the arms, and kept her at eye level.
Mike looked up and saw this happen.
Uh oh! He thought, NOT a good sign!

As Callie's mind writhed helpless under foot, the Morrtog’s laughter boomed painfully within her skull.
“Can you defend against a Ma’jai in your head, jackass?” Mike’s voice barged in. 
To Callie, it was like the voice of salvation.
Mike’s mind attacked Babbidaz’s with a ferocity and power the Morrtog was not ready for, and he retreated, releasing Callie.
Only now, both Longstreets attacked him in tandem.
Round and round the three minds battled. 
Hard fought the struggle was, and vicious. They cut him deep, and he slashed back at them with savage fury.
The girl tired first, and to the Morrtog’s relief, she backed out of the fray. But the boy was unflagging; his infuriating tenacity and ceaseless Ma’jai strength wore Babbidaz down. Until at last, the Morrtog’s mind was held down as helpless as it had held Callie moments ago.
“CALLIE! TAKE HIM!” Mike said, and she knew what to do.
She started the Malignium again; and this time, she thought, Babbidaz would not be able to stop it.
She drunk in Babbidaz, in big mental gulps. 
Mike could see the exponential increase in her power.
Judging that she could take over from here, he retracted his mind from the Morrtog’s, and reconnected to his own body; which was not pleasant. His arms hurt like hell, and his fingers were numb; he had but a few seconds of hold left in him.
He called forth the Voss Vedu’un into his hands, arms, and shoulder. Relief flowed through him as renewed strength ebbed back into tired muscles and flesh.
He retightened his grip on the tree limb, and looked up.
Callie had retaken control of her levitation at some point, and the Morrtogs hands were at his sides.
At least they had been. Only know, Mike saw Babbidaz move his left arm slowly back, and the hand start to rise.
The mind of a Morrtog is most unique. As Babbbidaz’s lay seemingly helpless under the thrall of Callie’s Malignium; a primal and unseen portion of it had branched off, in a last desperate attempt to retake control of the situation. The attempt cost him dearly, but he was able to access movement of his left arm. Now he pulled it back, so he could plunge his talons into the girl’s belly, and rip out her intestines.
There was no time to send Callie a warning, or to try to take control of the Morrtog’s body, before the killing blow. And a sekari at this close range might startle or hurt Callie, and cause her to fall.
Instead, Mike grabbed the Morrtog’s ankle with one, then the other, hand. Babbidaz was pulled off balance, his foot slipped off the limb, and the two of them fell.
Startled by the sudden breaking of the mental link, Callie lost control, and fell after them.
Below, Jon looked up and saw the three figures falling to what would be (for at least two of those figures) a bone-breaking height.
“Oh shig.” he said, and got the hell out of the way.

Callie’s mind snapped back to itself, confused; not knowing what had happened, or why she was falling. She could see, in the slow-motion with which the mind deals with disastrous and fast-moving events, Mike and Babbidaz tumbling below; as well as the ground rushing towards them, eager to crush their bones.
Three-fourths of the way down, she managed to reassert her levitation, and grabbed Mike a second later.
From below, Jon saw Callie and Mike slow to a stop in midair.
Babbidaz, on the other hand, hit the ground like a sack of bricks.
Callie lost her grip, though; and the two fell the rest of the way three seconds later. Their landing, while not a happy one, was nonetheless a less painful one than Babbidaz’s.
Ever the die-hard, however; Babbidaz was the first to rise.
From behind the Morrtog, Jon saw his chance.
He ran up to the Morrtog and, with all his strength, jabbed his spear into the small of it’s back as deep as it would go. The spear broke off at the tip, and Jon lost his balance and fell to the side.
Babbidaz arched his back and let out a roar of pain.
Mike saw his opportunity, and took it. He hurled a small sekari straight into the Morrtog’s open mouth, the explosive content of which blew the top half of Babbidaz’s head clean off, and spinning into the air.
The Morrtog’s body collapsed, never to rise again. The top of his head hit the dirt seconds later, a bit further off; eye wide open and surprised.
“That was for Edward, you SHANK!!” Jon shouted, as he kicked the corpse and spat on it.
Mike and Callie looked at him, then each other, and began to laugh; Jon joined them.
Callie then smacked Mike on the back of his head with her hand.
“OWWW! What?!” Mike said.
“WHY did you do THAT?” she gestured toward the tree-limb they had just vacated moments ago, “And WHY didn’t you warn me you were gonna do that?! I almost didn’t catch us in time!”
Rather than try to explain, Mike sent into her mind the image of Babbidaz about to gut her while she floated before him, oblivious.
“Oh,” she said, “I see. Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” Mike said, “I admit I didn’t think that through; but there was no time. I had to do something.”
“So what happened up there?” Jon asked.
“Just a minor difference of opinion.” Mike said, standing up, “It wanted us dead.” 
“We said no.” Callie added. 
“I’m glad you won the debate.” Jon said.
Callie, still sitting, put a trembling hand to her head.
“Are you okay, Callie?” Jon asked, “You look nauseated.”
“It was that Malignium with Babbidaz.” she said.
“The Morrtog.” Mike said, “Callie brain-drained him.”
“It lasted only several seconds, but the raw POWER that I got from it in that time was incredible. I’m juiced up, but also sickened. Kinda like overeating on something you like until it makes you wanna puke.”
“Are you gonna need a privacy moment?” Mike asked.
“Nah, I can handle it.” she said, and stood up.
“Alright then, let’s go.” Mike said, walking in the direction Babbidaz had arrived from, “We’re one down, one to go.”

Charles Longstreet fully expected to see Babbidaz show up with the carcasses of his children, draped over his shoulders.
It was the surety of this visual image becoming reality that allowed him to wait as long as he had without submitting to worry; despite his deteriorating condition.
But that wasn’t what happened.
Incredibly, Mike and Callie (as well as some unknown boy) appeared out of nowhere, and caught him by surprise.
“How did you---?!!” was all Longstreet managed to get out, before he felt his brain come under the grip of an ice cold wrench.
Unable to move or speak, he realized that Mike was the wrench.
“Hello dad,” Mike said, “I’ll be just a moment. There are things I need to know; things I need to see for myself.”
Mike delved past his father’s surface thoughts, and went deep into his earliest memories.
He saw…
His father’s childhood, the only son of Terren and Jade Longstreet, growing up in Noah’s Oak, New Heedol; in the very same house Mike himself, and Callie, would later run away from.
A good son of kind parents, Charles nonetheless yearned to break free of small town life, and go live in a big city: Cathim, Mirridin, perhaps even Idus Alth, to find his destiny. At the age of eighteen, he purchased a used green station wagon (it was cheap, and all he could afford), and left home soon after. He spent some time in Metromax, and then moved on to Cathim. In Cathim he found a good job, and was happy there, living on his own. Then, in early 3636, he met Elizabeth Shale, and the two were soon married. Late in the year came the birth of their first child, Michael. Two years later, they had a daughter: Callendra. The family had another happy and blissful three years. Then, in 3642, it all came to a crashing stop.
Charles Longstreet’s destiny had at last found him.
And it was there, through the medium of his father’s memories, that Mike finally got a look at the face of his and Callie’s real enemy: Araboam Sinestri.