The Fourth Ten Chapters

Chapters 31 through 40.

Chapter 31

Someone of Consequence

It wasn’t until about forty-five minutes after leaving Metromax City, and their Dreadnik friends, behind; that Mike and Callie discovered they had a stowaway.
They had been driving in silence for some time, when the distinct sound of snoring could be heard, coming from the back seats.
Mike glanced at Callie, and with a quick head movement, motioned her to check out the sound. He pulled over to the side of the road and brought the car to a stop, as Callie removed her seatbelt and climbed over to the back.
There, on the floor of the car, hidden under the blankets and pillows Rynza and Carissa had given them, Callie found Edward curled up in a fetal position; sleeping soundly.
Callie twanged his earlobe with a flick of her finger.
“Oww!” he said, as he woke.
Seeing that he had been found out, he smiled sheepishly.
“Hi Callie!” he said.
Callie grabbed him by the ear, and brought his head up so Mike could see who it was.
“Mike, we have a problem.” she said.
“Okay, you got me,” Edward said, “Let go!”
Callie released his ear.
“Edward?!” Mike said, “How are you here? WHY are you here?!”
“I like you guys!” Edward said, “We’ve been through stuff together. I wanted to come with you, but I knew you’d say no.”
“Yeah, for a REASON.” Mike said, “What are we supposed to do with you now?”
“Take me with you, what else?” Edward said, “Unless you want to drive all the way back to Metromax.”
Mike and Callie looked at each other.
“I say we leave him here and let him walk back.” said Mike.
“Sounds good to me.” said Callie.
“C’mon, guys! I could be a real help to you. An extra pair of hands and feet; something you might need in a sticky situation!”
“More like a fifth wheel.” Mike said.
“Another mouth to feed.” Callie added.
“Come ON!” Edward reiterated.
“Edward, it isn’t that we don’t want you around; it’s just that we’re driving into unknown dangers.” Callie said, “We don’t know what crazy crap we have waiting for us. There may be no coming back.”
“I understand that, Callie. I saw your father bring Kitty and Corrina back from the dead! I saw the black snakes! I was there with you. What I’m saying is that I want to help.” Edward said, “Is it so hard to believe that you might need me?”
“What about the Dreadniks, Edward?” Callie asked, “What about your friends back there?”
“I love them, I will miss them, and I will be forever grateful for all they’ve done for me.” Edward answered, “But they don’t need me. Not really. You two do. I can feel it.”
Unspoken sibling communication passed between Mike and Callie with a single look.
“Okay, Edward,” Mike said, “If you want to, you can stay.”
“Yes!” Edward said. He bounded up and down on the back seats with great enthusiasm.
“Don’t celebrate too much,” Mike said, “You may come to regret this decision, and it's too late to turn back now.”

Late afternoon found the three travelers parked at a rest area.
Nearby pavilions with picnic tables beneath provided a place for them to take a break from the road, and eat the food Rynza and Carissa had provided them.
Mike noticed Callie staring past the food in her hands with a grim look on her face.
“What’s got you so glum, Cal?” he asked, “Besides our impending doom, that is.”
“Huh? Oh. Just thinking,” she said, “Exactly one week ago today, at about this time, I was preparing supper for Dad. Just like every other day in my stinking life up to that point.”
“Has it been a week already?” Mike asked, “Damn, it feels like that was months ago.”
Callie nodded in agreement.
“Call me crazy,” Mike continued, “But it almost feels like our lives didn’t really start until that day; like we were living in a fog, or something, before then.”
“Friday I bashed Dad on the head. Saturday we took off.”
“Reached Kraddock on Tuesday night.” Mike added.
“Crossed the Rough Country Wednesday, reached Metromax City, met Rak, lost the wagon, met Jon and the others. Found the wagon yesterday, got it back.”
“And then lost it again today.” Mike said, “But the Dreadniks lost more than that. A whole lot more.”
Callie sighed. “I really kinda hoped…”
“That it would last?” Mike asked.
She nodded. “At least a little while longer.” she said, “Yet here we are, running away again. Our friends scattered and imprisoned.”
“Turned into black snakes…” Edward added helpfully.
“And where are we? Eating sandwiches on the side of a road.”
“Callie---” Mike started to say.
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Edward interrupted, “But night will be coming soon. Where are we going to sleep when it gets dark?”
“In the car, of course.” said Mike, “Like Callie and I did on our way to Metromax.”
“Yeah, but you had a wagon then, and there were only two of you.” Edward said, “We, right now, have a car, and there’s three of us. How do you suggest we work this out?”
“Well, you’re just going to have to sleep outside.” Mike said.
“I can’t sleep outside!” Edward exclaimed, indignant.
“You should’ve thought of that before stowing away.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“You can always sleep under the car.” Mike replied.
“Or on top of it!” Callie added, her somber mood now broken.
“Then again, there’s always the trunk!” Mike grinned.
“Come on!” Edward said, horrified, “Really?”
Callie laughed and mussed up his hair with her hands. “Just kidding, silly!” she said, “You can sleep on the floor of the car, like before. You seemed comfortable enough there earlier.”
“Thank you!” Edward said, relieved.
When they finished eating, they got back on the road.

Still far off, was the town of Murgent.
In the heart of Murgent, in the center of town, stood a three story building that had once been, in better times, the Sarrgoset Hotel. For the last five years, the building had served as the home of Zedda Stanetta; Murgent’s tormentor.
On the top floor of this hotel, Zedda had her divination room. She was there now, drawing the stones.
From a brown cloth bag she drew, one at a time, nine flat jade stones with a different symbol carved into each. She took these stones and placed them on a small, ornately decorated, table. On the tabletop was carved and painted a red circle with a square inside. The square was subdivided into nine smaller squares; each with its own symbol drawn in its center. Each symbol had its own meaning, and each stone drawn was then placed on a square in a prescribed order.
Zedda studied the layout, and frowned.
Like all the other divination methods she had tried of late, the Majisrune stones gave her contradictory readings. The Dragon stone lay in the House of Belethene, the Phoenix stone was placed on the House of Passenon; while the Tasmata, the stone bearing her own symbol, had landed, inexplicably, in the House of Nelloquim.
The last time the Majisrunes had been this cryptic was three months ago; a day before the Nurrek had fallen into her net.
The only thing the stones assured her of, without contradiction, was that someone of consequence was coming, and soon.

In the basement of the Sarrgoset Hotel was a large wooden box, a cage, surrounded by magical circles of containment.
In that cage was imprisoned the only thing in the world that Zedda Stanetta still feared. 
If the promise of great power it presented wasn’t so grand, she would have had it destroyed on sight.
In it’s box, the Nurrek dreamed it’s mind free, soaring over the very building in which it was caged. From there, it launched itself beyond Murgent, beyond Zedda’s sphere of influence. On and on it went, for miles and miles, until it found itself over a road; drawn to a single car.
It’s mind came closer to the car until it was right on top of it. There were three children in that car, two older than the third.
Their path would inevitably bring them into Murgent.
“The time is near…” the Nurrek thought to itself, and grunted horribly in it’s sleep.

Chapter 32


It was late morning when Edward woke. He found himself alone on the backseats; Callie must have moved him. The car was not moving, but it was clear that they had done some driving while he was asleep. They were stopped at a gas station; Callie sat in the front passenger seat, Mike was outside somewhere.
Callie turned and saw that he was up. “Well good morning, sleepy-head!” she said.
“How long have you guys been up?” Edward asked.
“Oh, some time now.” Callie said, “You were so deep asleep, you didn’t even stir when I picked you up and moved you over to the seats.”
The driver’s side door opened, and Mike popped in. “Hey Ed! You up already?” he asked.
“Good. We’re gonna stop somewhere around here and have breakfast.” he said, as he got into the driver’s seat, closed the door, and started the car.

The town they were in was called Praxa, and there they went to go eat at a fast food joint called BurgerMeister.
The place was busy. After the three ordered their breakfasts, Callie went to hunt down a table while Mike went to the soda fountains to fill their cups. Edward, meanwhile, snaked his way between tables to get to the napkin and condiments tray. A hand from one of the tables to his right shot out suddenly, and grabbed his forearm in a death grip.
Startled, Edward turned and faced a wizened old woman with mad eyes and a demented smile, sitting with a family. She pulled him close, and whispered in his ear: “Bubba Death can smell you!”
“Dammit, Gladys!” a man’s voice said, “Getter off ‘im!”
The man was obviously the old woman’s son-in-law, and husband to the old woman’s daughter; who sat between the two, and across from the four kids too busy stuffing their chubby faces to comment on the contretemps.
“Sorry, kid,” the husband said to Edward, as “Gladys” tried to pry her mother’s nigh-skeletal, yet unyielding, hand off his arm, “But SOMEONE,” here he glared at Gladys, “Forgot to give Gramma her crazy pills!”
“Dammit, Ma!” the red-faced Gladys said, “Let ‘im go!”
“He’s coming for you!” Gramma cackled, as she finally let go of Edward’s arm, “You and your friends!”
Edward hurried away. 
“He’ll probably get you first, old bag!” he muttered under his breath.
When he returned to Mike and Callie with the napkins and such, he told them of his little misadventure. They all shared a good hearty laugh; Bubba Death notwithstanding.

After breakfast, they were back on the road.
At lunchtime, they stopped at a small town called Erinville; and ate lunch at a small diner called Erinville’s Only Diner. True to its name, it was Erinville’s only diner.
“They’re gonna hafta change the name if another diner ever opens up there.” Callie joked.
After Erinville, the towns they passed seemed to get smaller and smaller, until they seemed to run out completely.
Not that there weren’t homes here and there, and the occasional ranch; but many of these looked lonely and decrepit.
In time, the landscape gave way to tree-spotted plains, in between patches of light-to-heavy woods.
It wasn’t until later in the afternoon, that they hit another town.
A bullet-holed sign on the side of the road read: MURGENT, in blunt black letters. Mike felt a strange fluttering sensation in his stomach as they passed it.
“Whoa!” he said.
“You felt that too?” Callie asked.
“Like I just left my stomach behind.” Mike said.
Callie nodded. “What about you, Ed?”
Edward nodded as well. “It was kinda like that feeling you get, when the rollercoaster takes a big nosedive.” he said, “Only not as fun.”
“Whatever it was, it’s gone now.” Mike said, “So that’s good.”
They passed through a time-worn wooden bridge, over a lake of filthy looking water. The bridge groaned a little, under the car, and they were all relieved when they made it to the other side.
“They better get that fixed before someone gets killed.” Mike said, “That lake don’t look too hygienic either.”
“That’s the least of their problems, Mike.” Callie said, “This place is all wrong. Look at the trees, the grass, the weeds---everything’s dried out and used up.”
Callie was right. Everything in Murgent had a desiccated and bleached look to it. Even the houses looked that way; they rotted empty in the sun, looking ancient, sentient, and evil.
In the town’s main street, the stores and places of business looked like they had met with violence at some point in their past; their windows broken, their facades charred.
The only place that looked alive was a three story building up ahead, with a wooden sign proclaiming it: THE SARRGOSET HOTEL.
It was the only place that didn’t look abandoned. Its lawns were green and lush, and its trees and flowers flourished in a circle of vitality around the hotel’s premises.
“They’re looking at us.” Callie said, in a spooked voice.
“What?! Who?” Mike asked.
“The people in that hotel.” Callie said, “Don’t you see? There are eyes peeking out of the windows at us.”
“She’s right.” Edward said, “I can see faces in some of the windows, but they’re young faces…”
Kids.” Callie said.
Without warning, a figure ran out from behind a gnarled tree and threw himself under the wheels of their car. Mike didn’t react fast enough, and they felt the hideous bumps as the car ran over him.
Mike hit the brakes, and brought the car to a stop.
The three rushed out of the car and over to the ragdoll-like figure lying behind it.
“He came out of nowhere!” Mike stammered, “He was under the wheels before I could even think!”
They were all then startled to see the figure, an old and frail gentleman with a bald pate and a stick thin frame, get up to his feet like he hadn’t just been run over. He seemed brittle enough to have been broken by the fall, much less the two sets of wheels that should have crushed him; but there he was, standing.
“Sorry…so sorry…” the old man muttered, “Shoulda known, though. Worth a shot, though.”
“Are you okay, mister?” Mike asked.
“So sorry, though.” the old man continued to mutter, smiling mirthlessly, showing his blackened gums, “The name’s Merro, though. Merro Lhaisuber, though. Thanks you for stopping by, though. Sorry for you, though. So sorry…”
The old man pointed to the Sarrgoset Hotel with a shaky hand and bent finger. “There you go, though. There she is, though. End of the road, though. Soooo sorry…”
He limped away, still muttering his apologies.
“What the hell is going on here?” Mike asked.
“He’s insane, Mike.” Callie said, “This whole place is insane. We’ve entered Crazy Town.”
“I vote we get the freaking hell outta here.” Mike said.
“I second that emotion.” Callie said.
“Ditto.” said Edward.
The three ran back into the car post haste.

From her window in the third floor of the Sarrgoset Hotel, Zedda Stanetta watched with interest the exchange between her new guests, and Lhaisuber. It was Merro’s umpteenth suicide attempt, and he still didn’t get the picture. She had to keep an eye on him, though. Even in his insanity, there was still a sliver of the old Merro left in those squinty eyes, blade-thin nose, and down-turned mouth.
She would have him stew and flail and burn in his madness, until that sliver was bleached out. Him and the others.
As for her new guests…
“Shall I bring them in?” asked the tall shadow standing in a dark corner of the room.
“No, Mr. Blessure, they will come to us.” Zedda said, “When they see that they have no other choice.”

“They’re kids alright.” Mike said, as they drove slowly by the front of the hotel.
From the windows of the first and second floor, young faces peered at them through curtains. Their faces were difficult to read. Were they fearful? Hateful? Apathetic? Callie couldn’t tell.
From a window on the top floor, Callie saw only one face peer out at them, but it wasn’t a child’s face. She couldn’t tell if it was a male or female face, but there was something about it she definitely did not like; something in the eyes. A hunger.
Soon, and with some relief, the hotel and its mysterious inhabitants were behind them.
They left the main street, and entered the more residential part of town; and at last got a good look at the citizens of Murgent.
“Good gods…” was all Mike could say, and it was barely audible.
Callie and Edward’s mouths opened, but made not a sound.
The townsfolk came and stood by the side of the road, like gawkers at a parade; and watched them pass by. Some laughed, some gibbered, some sobbed, some just stared with blank faces. Some seemed to have clawed out their eyes, and moved their heads at their passing in a mockery of sight; watching them with their horrible black pits.
All bore the mark of madness.
“What happened to these people?” Callie whispered.
“Mike, hit the gas. Let’s just go!” Edward pleaded.
“I’m afraid to,” Mike said, “What if they start throwing themselves in front of the car, like the old man?”
“It won’t matter,” said Callie, “Look!”
Some of the trees on either side of the road were decorated with bodies swinging from nooses; bodies that still moved.
“What the hell IS this place?!” Mike shouted. He banged his fist on the steering wheel, and accidently hit the horn.
As if switched on, the townsfolk all seemed to wake from their trance-like state upon the horn-blast, and began to run wildly after the car in a rabid froth.
They threw their bodies against and under the car. A few jumped on the hood, and banged on the windshield. All of them screamed like the damned.
Those inside the car screamed as well.
“LOCK THE DOORS!” Mike yelled, swerving not to hit any of them. Failing that, Mike heeded Edward’s advice, and hit the gas.
The ride grew bumpy, as they ran over those throwing themselves under. These would then get up and join the others in chasing the car.
Callie locked her door, then closed her eyes and put her hands to her ears to drown out the sights and sounds. Edward looked back and saw a woman grinning madly at him through the back windshield as she held on somehow to the back of the car. She lost her grip and fell off, into the crowd behind them; tripping many.
Soon, the bumps stopped, as the townspeople thinned out and were left behind.
“Are they gone?” Callie asked, opening her eyes.
“Yeah,” Mike said, “They’re gone.”
Behind them, Edward poked his head out from under some blankets.
“You okay, Ed?” Callie asked.
“I’ll live.” he said, but looked doubtful.

They came to a bridge almost identical in design and age to the one they had passed upon entering town.
Mike had to slow down the car to cross it. On the other side was a weed-strewn clearing that prefaced the start of a dense wood. The road continued on into the woods, like a long snake in high grass.
There was a sign in the clearing, at the side of the road. It read: YOU ARE LEAVING MURGENT. SEE YOU AGAIN SOON!
“This is it.” Mike said, “We’re getting out of this damn town.”
“Thank the gods!” Edward said.
Upon reaching the sign, the car hit something solid, and came to a complete, sudden, and violent stop. Mike, Callie, and Edward were jerked forward a bit. 
“Is everyone okay?” Mike asked.
Callie and Edward nodded.
“Lucky we were still going slow from the bridge,” Mike said, “Otherwise that might have been bad.”
“What did we hit?” Callie asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t see anything. Let me back up.”
Mike put the car in reverse and backed it up a tad, but still couldn’t see what it was that they hit. There was nothing there.
“Let’s try that again.” Mike said.
“Slowly Mike.” Callie advised.
Mike took the car out of reverse and drove them ahead slowly, as Callie had said; and again seemed to come up against an unseen, and unmoving, obstruction.
“Oh, what the shiggedy crap is this?” Edward wailed.
Mike and Callie looked at each other.
“We’re gonna hafta get out and see, you know.” Mike said.
“We lead interesting lives, don’t we?” Callie retorted.
“That we do.” Mike said, and cut the engine.
The three scanned the area behind them for any sign of townsfolk. Once they were sure that there weren’t any close by, they got out of the car and began to look around.
“I don’t see a damn thing.” Mike said, before walking into a wall that wasn’t there.
“Oww! What is this?!” Mike said. He placed his hands against something solid as stone, which could not be seen.
He turned to Callie and Edward. “Invisible wall.” he said with forced calmness, “So help me, we are now dealing with an invisible wall.”
“Thanks for clearing that up.” Callie said, as she and Edward felt along the wall, looking a bit like mimes.
“Nothing is ever easy, is it?” Edward said.
“This has to be some kind of magic…umm…thing.” Mike said.
“You think so?” Callie snorted.
“How high up do you think it is?” asked Edward.
Mike, the tallest of the three, jumped and slapped his hand at the wall. “It’s higher than us.” he replied.
“I’ll bet it encircles the whole town.” said Callie, “Remember that weird pit-of-the-stomach feeling we had when we entered?”
“I see where you’re going.” Mike said, “A magical mouse trap. We mice come in, but we can’t get out.”
Callie nodded.
“Which means we’re trapped here.”
“Certainly the townspeople never got away.”
“But who did this?” Edward asked, “And why?”
“I have a feeling we’re going to find out.” Callie answered.
“I think we all know where we have to go,” Mike said, “The hotel. It’s the only place that looks alive in the whole town.”
“You mean just show up at the door, knock, and say ‘Hi! We’re just passing through. Could you maybe show us the way out of this hell-hole’?” Callie asked.
“Basically, yes.” Mike said.
“Does the possibility occur to you that whatever messed up this town and its people is maybe inside that hotel, and will probably do the same to us?” Callie asked.
“Don’t say I never take you anywhere.” Mike replied.
“That means we’ll have to go through the townspeople again.” Edward said with a shudder, “Doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” Mike answered, “I’m afraid it does.”
The three looked back toward the town, which waited for them in eerie silence, in the haze of the afternoon sun.

Chapter 33

The Sarrgoset Hotel

Mike had to back the car through the bridge, as the invisible wall that kept them from escaping the doom-haunted town of Murgent left little room for any kind of U-turn. This he did with great care; though the going was slow, and was no help to their already jangled nerves.
Once they were free of the bridge, Mike turned the car back towards the way they had come; back towards the center of town.
“Okay,” he said, “Brace yourselves.”

However, as it turned out, they had no further problems with the townspeople on the way back; as they seemed to have returned to the state they were in before Mike hit the horn.
Still, Mike had to drive cautiously, and occasionally stop to allow a batch of them to cross the road in their slow and shambling gait.
“Whatever you do, Mike.” Callie whispered tersely, “Do not honk the shigging horn!”
“Thanks for the tip.” Mike muttered.
“Would you two shoosh?!” Edward hissed from the backseats.
At last they got past the townspeople, and reached the empty main street. They drove up to the Sarrgoset Hotel, and parked the car.
“Let’s go.” Mike said, as he took the keys out of the ignition, and opened his door.
Once Callie and Edward were out of the car as well, Mike hit the lock button, closed the door, and pocketed the keys.
The three walked up to the hotel’s front door, and rang the doorbell.
“Oh man,” Edward said, with a shaky voice, “I don’t like this at all. Not one dang bit.”
“With you there, Ed,” Mike said, “If there was any other way…”
“There isn’t, and we all know it.” Callie said, her voice as nervous as Edward’s, “Whatever the hell is going on in there, let’s just try to stick together and work it out, okay?”
Mike and Edward nodded.
There came then the sound of someone on the other side of the door turning the handle.
“This is it.” whispered Mike, “Here we go.”
“I don’t think the door was even locked---” Edward started to say, but cut short his own sentence as the door was opened.
On the other side of the doorway was a boy of about Mike’s age, staring back at them. Although young, his eyes had a weary cast to them.
“Hello,” the boy said, “My name is Egann Ackbe.”
He moved aside, to allow them room to enter. Once they were in, he closed the door behind them.
“Zedda’s been expecting you.” he said.
Mike, Callie, and Edward followed Egann down a long arched hall, furnished with tapestries and hung with burgundy cloth. The hall was lit with rose-colored light, which gave it a surreal quality, then opened up into a large foyer. The front desk was parenthesized by two gold-painted banisters which met at a second floor balcony, from which dozens of kids looked down at them. All of them with the same weary eyes.
There were more kids, lining the twin stairways, and entering the foyer from side doors.
“EEEEGANN!” a horrid and shrill voice from the second floor called out, “Why deedn’t you tell me they were heeeere?”
The voice belonged to a tall, stick-thin figure rushing down the stairs in a manner that could only be described as insectile. Kids shrinked back as the figure passed near them.
“That’s Mr. Balooda.” Egann said, “Do whatever he says. You DON’T want to see him mad, believe me.”
Mr. Balooda wore a shiny black vinyl-raincoat-looking-thing, which went down to the floor and covered his whole body, down to his feet. He was hunched over, and his hands were extended in front of him like a praying mantis. He was bald, except for a tuft of bright red hair at the top, and he wore thick spectacles that magnified sickly eyes already much too big. But his most disturbing feature was his huge grin, which showed off long, rectangular teeth.
Mr. Balooda reached them, and clasped his hands in pleasure.
“What brave leeeetle boys and girl!” he cackled, like a witch in a fairy tale, then turned towards the stairs. “Follow meee, pleeese. Meestress Zedda wants to meeeet you!”
His exaggerated accent sounded more like an affectation than an actual speech pattern; but follow him they did, up the stairs past the other kids, to the second floor.
“The rest of you get back to work!” Mr. Balooda turned and snapped.
The kids in the gallery, stairs, and foyer scattered.
Mr. Balooda led them to a smaller, less impressive stairway, which led to the third floor. This floor was empty and silent. They passed through a hallway of closed rooms, to a door. The door was painted black, and had symbols drawn all over it in red paint. The central design was a circular seal, with another symbol inside of it.
There was no knob on the door.
Mr. Balooda murmured, “Maqwa tevvis geffah jammuk!” while tracing the circular seal clockwise with his finger. The door opened wide on its own, without even a “click”.
That might be useful to remember, Edward thought, and tried to memorize the words Mr. Balooda had just spoken.
Mr. Balooda entered, and the three followed. The door closed noiselessly behind them.
The room they entered was big; ballroom big. It was also dark; the windows were covered up and the only light was that coming from candles flickering at the far end. The candles were placed in a semi-circle around a luxurious red velvet couch.
The couch was empty though.
The right side of the room was lined with tables. On those tables were cards, stones, sticks, bones, crystal balls, and all manner of objects of the divinative arts; as well as a tripod upon which was placed a marble basin of some liquid that shimmered with an eerie green glow.
The left side of the room was taken up with viciously spiked sculptures of mysterious black forms, of tenebrous design.
Before they got to the empty couch, a tall shadow separated itself from the general darkness around them, and spoke.
“Thank you, Mr. Balooda, I’ll take it from here.”
Unlike Mr. Balooda’s shrill voice, the shadow’s voice was deep and throaty, with an undercurrent of threat.
“Thank you, Meester Blessure.” Mr. Balooda replied courteously, but not without a shading of irritation.
He turned and stomped off.
“Follow me.” the shadow named Mr. Blessure said, and led them the rest of the way. Once they reached the warm glow of the candles, they got a better view of him.
He wore a black greatcoat, and a matching broad-brimmed hat. He seemed to be even taller than Mr. Balooda, but perhaps only because his back was not bent. His face was an impassive pallid mask.
“They’re here, Mistress.” he said.
“Thank you, Mr. Blessure.” A hoarse voice called out from all around them, disembodied and reverberant, “Would you please remove the coverings from the windows, so our guests can see a little better?”
Sheets were dislodged from their places. Light entered and illuminated the room.
They still couldn’t see their hostess, until Edward yelled, “LOOK!” and pointed up.
Floating near the high ceiling, like a feather on a light breeze, was a woman. She seemed to be somewhere in her mid to late thirties, and a bit on the obese side. She had long black hair that floated all around her, and some kind of dark stain on her forehead. She wore a red satin robe that billowed and fluttered beautifully, as if she were underwater.
Despite her physical appearance, there was something quite gorgeous and fantastic about her. Mike, Callie, and Edward stared at her with open mouths as she slowly descended.
She floated down into a sitting position on the couch before them. Once gravity took over, her hair and robe stopped their billowing, and slumped down, as if a switch had been flicked off.
Only now could they see that the dark stain on her forehead was some kind of oversized birthmark, or mole. The skin there was bumpy, and its outer edges seemed to have little extensions, like “feelers”, that made the thing look like a black splat.
Or, perhaps, a spider.
“All three have tasted despair in their lives,” Zedda said, “This one especially…” she pointed to Edward, “But the other two are slim pickings, I’m afraid. Hardly worth draining, except for information. Some time under Mr. Balooda’s care should change that, though.”
“Perhaps a visit to the Ick Box.” Mr. Blessure suggested.
“Yes.” Zedda smiled, “That always does the trick. Though Mr. Balooda tends to overuse it, methinks. He’s getting lazy.”
“Uhhh, excuse me---” Mike started to say.
“NEVER INTERRUPT ME, BOY!” Zedda snapped, and Mike was thrown back violently, almost all the way to the door. He stumbled to a painful stop. Callie and Edward ran to him.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Mike assured them, as he got back to his feet, “Just got the wind knocked out of me a bit. Didn’t see it coming.”
“We do things a little differently here,” Zedda said, “Like not speaking unless spoken to. Since you three are new here, I’m cutting you a little slack, this once.”
“You call this ‘cutting us a little slack’?!” Callie asked.
“Careful, girl. Unless you want to go flying too.” Zedda said, “First things first: you…” she pointed to Edward, “Come here.”
Callie stepped in front of Edward.
“He’s not going anywhere.” she said, but was knocked sideways and out of the way; struck hard by an invisible hand. Mike moved in to protect Edward, but himself was knocked aside.
Edward turned to run, but felt himself lifted off his feet. He was turned around in midair, floated over to Zedda, and set down before her.
Zedda put her hands on his shoulders, brought his face close to hers, and gazed into his eyes. Edward tried to turn away, but the pull of her eyes was too strong to resist. They were hypnotic in their power. Before he knew it, he was lost inside of them.
Mike and Callie got up and started running over towards Zedda and Edward. They saw that Edward was no longer struggling and looked to be in a trance. Zedda’s eyes were open wide, taking something from him; and the black stain on her forehead rippled and darkened like a thing alive.
“What the hell is that?!” Callie cried, “What is she doing to him?”
“I don’t know, but we have to stop it.” Mike said.
The two almost reached Zedda’s couch, but Mr. Blessure was there before them in an instant. He grabbed Mike and Callie by their necks, and lifted them up.
“You’ll have to wait your turn.” he said.
He set them back down on their feet, but did not let go of their necks. Mike and Callie fought for release, hitting and kicking at him, but to no avail; he was as unmovable as a bronze statue.
“EDWARD!” Callie screamed.

Chapter 34

Moments of Despair

Edward was lost.
Far off somewhere, too far to be of any help, he heard Callie call out his name. But he was lost. Lost in his own past, reliving his life; or rather, the worst parts of it.
He was back home, a toddler; watching the first time he ever saw his father beat up his mother. Then another time, then another; rolling down the years of his early life. Before too long, he was also on the receiving end of his father’s wrath.
Again and again, his life was fast-forwarded to moments of fear, pain, and despair; as if someone was skimming through his memories.
He and his mother’s escape into the cold city streets.
The horrible night his mother was murdered in front of him.
His cowardly escape into the night, leaving behind the body of his mother; the days and nights of deprivation and fear that followed.
He went through it all again, felt it all again; but as soon as they passed, the power of these memories was leached away, like old photographs losing the brightness of their colors.
Consumed by eyes that devoured.
The trip into his past ended at last, and Edward found himself back in the present. Zedda released him, and he fell back on his haunches; his face blank.
Zedda, on the other hand, had the satisfied look of a cat after a morsel of mouse. “Mmmmm…” she purred, “That well was deeper than I thought… And oh-so-sweet!”
She looked down at Edward and made a flicking motion with her finger. Edward was catapulted back to where he had been before she had summoned him. He landed on his back, but did not get up. He just looked up at the ceiling with glazed eyes.
“Are you okay, Ed?” Mike asked.
“yeah…” Edward replied half-heartedly.
“Release the girl,” Zedda said, “She’s next.”
Mr. Blessure did as commanded.
“We can do this easy, girl,” Zedda said, “Or we can do this rough. The choice is yours.”
Callie walked over to Zedda.
Mike struggled in vain against the hand at his neck. “DON’T DO IT, CAL!” he yelled, “She’ll do to you what she did to Edward!”
“There’s not much of a choice.” Callie said.
“Smart girl.” Zedda replied.
Callie stood before Zedda, and got down to her knees. Zedda put her hands on Callie’s shoulders, and her eyes became black holes into which Callie’s mind was pulled.
Mike saw Callie surrender to Zedda’s trancing eyes, and the black stain on Zedda’s forehead begin to ripple and darken again. He knew his turn would come soon enough.

Under Zedda’s control, Callie went through what Edward had just undergone; a reliving of all the worst moments of her life. 
Even things too far back to remember consciously, she now relived.
The night her father took her and Mike from their mother; when they awoke from a deep sleep to find themselves in the station wagon, as it left the city of Cathim, the city of their birth, behind.
The first time her father slapped her in anger. As they were passing through, of all places, Murgent. Only then, Murgent was a thriving town.
Once that memory was played out, she was taken directly to her next moment of despair; no time to appreciate the bitter irony that she and Mike had been here before, if only for a few minutes, on their way to Noah’s Oak.
All those years with her father, the verbal and emotional abuse, she went through it all again. When she at last reached the moment last week, when her father had hit her and cut her cheek with his ring, something strange happened.
The gash on her actual cheek, long since healed, tore open anew.
Callie flinched, reliving her father’s fist hitting her face; as blood flowed from the new gash. The sudden pain of the new wound, playing over the remembered pain of the old, awoke Callie in the middle of the memory; as if in a lucid dream. She realized where she was and what was happening to her, and found she had a measure of control over it.
She wrenched herself free of the tidal pull of her memories, and Zedda’s presence in her mind was laid bare.
Zedda had never experienced such an occurrence before. She panicked, and withdrew from Callie’s mind.
As Zedda fled back into her own head, Callie discovered it was in her to follow close behind. She gave no thought as to how she was doing this; she merely did it intuitively.
There was a disorienting topsy-turvy feeling for a moment, then she was through; she was in Zedda’s mind.
She caught Zedda by surprise, and before she could fight back, Callie shoved her into the deep well of her own memories.
Callie watched as Zedda’s memories bubbled to the surface. The juiciest ones were the dark ones.
She watched as Zedda went through her early childhood being battered by her young, selfish mother, who resented the loss of independence Zedda represented.
She watched as Zedda suffered at the hands of her fellow schoolmates, who taunted her for her weight problem.
She watched as both Zedda and her schoolmates suffered under their teacher, Mr. Lhaisuber; a fanatical disciplinarian who was fond of punishing and humiliating his students in cruel ways.
(Lhaisuber saved especial, and unreasonable, antipathy toward young Zedda; and she bore the brunt of the worst he could muster. Every day she would come home crying…to a mother who couldn’t care less. Every weekday morning she faced the dread of another school day; another round of emotional torture.)
And every time Zedda relived a moment of pain, fear, despair, or hopelessness, Callie felt an intoxicating and overwhelming burst of euphoria surge through her; a feeling of increase. She was somehow drawing and absorbing something powerful out of Zedda’s remembered pain.
She watched as young Zedda’s torment outpaced her fear, leading her to run away from home, and Murgent itself.
She watched as Zedda swore to return one day, and wreak her vengeance upon the town and its people---

An enraged scream startled Callie. Zedda crawled out of the memory pit, and severed the link between them.
Callie felt the sudden snap of disconnection, the disorienting return to her own head, and the physical sensation of being hurled bodily upward and backward.
Callie landed just short of Edward’s position. Edward had since sat up, but the anesthetized look in his eyes was still there.
Zedda looked livid with anger.
“Little BITCH!” she shouted.
Mr. Blessure turned to look at Zedda, but did not let go of Mike’s neck. “What has happened?” he asked.
“Tevvis EnCha Razu Veddum Geffah KunChuura!” Zedda exclaimed.
Mr. Blessure glanced over at Callie with an intrigued expression on his face. “Um EnCha KunChuura, vud SaFa?” he asked.
Mike also looked at Callie, and mouthed the words “What happened?” to her. Now back on her feet, Callie saw him, but did not respond. She understood now the look of satisfaction on Zedda’s face when she had drunk from Edward’s pain. She wasn’t sure what it was that she had just done, or how; but she wanted more. More than anything, she wanted more. Right now, Mike and Edward were the two least important things on her mind. Right now she would do anything for another taste of sweet despair.
Zedda, meanwhile, had regained her self-control.
“Mr. Blessure, please take the boys downstairs, to Mr. Balooda,” she said with forced calmness, “I need some time alone with Callie here.”
Mr. Blessure bent down and grabbed Edward by his shirt’s collar with his free hand, and pulled him up to a standing position. Edward showed no resistance, but Mike started to struggle anew.
There was something different about Callie; something frighteningly wrong. He wasn’t sure what, but he had to find out.
Edward had returned from Zedda’s grasp with something missing; Callie had returned with something new; a disturbing look of hunger that distorted her otherwise kind face.
Mike’s renewed resistance was to no avail; Mr. Blessure dragged both he and Edward back to the door with minimal effort. The door on this side had no symbols drawn upon it, and opened on its own without prompting.
Callie turned around.
On her heretofore unblemished forehead, Mike spotted a small dark spot; a miniature version of Zedda’s spider splotch.
Then, the door slammed shut between them.

The two were alone now.
“You reversed that link with uncanny ease,” Zedda said, “Who taught you that?”
“No one taught me,” Callie answered, “I’m not sure how I did that myself.”
“LIAR!” Zedda shouted, and a powerful force shoved Callie back and off of her feet.
Callie got to her feet again. 
“I’m not---” she started to say, but was shoved back to the floor.
She tried to stand up again, but was knocked to the floor once more.
“STOP IT!” Callie shouted, and Zedda’s head whiplashed to one side; struck by an invisible hand. She rocked back a moment, then balanced herself out.
Callie blinked. She had done that.
How had she done that?
“I knew it,” Zedda said, “You’re a natural.”
“A natural what?”
“Conjuura, of course!” Zedda said.
“What the hell’s a Conjuura?” Callie asked. The feeling of euphoria she had been swimming in since drinking from Zedda’s memories had diminished some; as if used up in the expenditure of force. She realized then that Zedda had deliberately provoked her.
“A Conjuura is a type of sorceress; or witch, if you prefer.” Zedda said, “I am a Conjuura, and I believe you have the makings of one. Otherwise, you could not have done what you did, or use what you took from me in the manner you just did.” She rubbed the side of her face, which now looked raw and red.
“But you have to be born to it, don’t you?” Callie asked, “I’ve never been able to do anything like this.”
“You’re confusing Conjuuras with Ma’jai.” Zedda replied, “There are no born Conjuuras; it has to be taught. But there are those for whom it comes easier than the rest. Prodigies like you. Most of the time these are those born with a little extra: psychic powers, and the like. But the would-be Conjuura needs a teacher. I had the good fortune to apprentice under Uraja Jeuke, an ancient Conjuura of tremendous knowledge. It was she who taught me the power of the Malignium.”
“The what?”
Zedda pointed to her forehead.
“That yucky spot?” Callie asked.
“That’s just a side effect,” Zedda said, “The Malignium refers to the whole process of absorbing the power of despair, and projecting that power outward, to various ends. It took me weeks of step-by-step progression to learn it all; but you seem to have grasped it intuitively. With training, you could become quite…powerful.”
“Does that mean I can have more?!” Callie asked.
The unabashed greed with which she asked made Zedda smile.
The girl was hooked.
“Oh yes,” Zedda said, “Of despair, you’ll have your fill.”

Mr. Blessure took Mike and Edward down to the first floor. On their way, they passed children of varying ages, all engaged in some menial chore or another. Some swept, some mopped, some dusted, some cleaned windows; all worked like their lives depended on it.
Mr. Blessure dragged Mike and Edward into a hall located behind the front desk. The hall ended at a door marked OFFICE. Without bothering to knock, Mr. Blessure opened the door, and threw Mike and Edward in.
“Here are our new guests.” Mr. Blessure said.
Mike and Edward got to their feet. They looked around at what was a rather spacious office; with all the regular and everyday things one expected to find in an office such as this one: a desk, bookshelves, drab carpeting, even a door to what might be a broom closet.
The bizarre and disturbing figure of Mr. Balooda sat behind the desk like he belonged there; adding a surreal aspect to the surroundings.
There were other kids in there with them, too. One was shining Mr. Balooda’s boots (which were already a shiny and lacquered black); another was futilely attempting to remove an ugly yellow stain in the grey carpeting with a toothbrush and dishwashing liquid.
Neither seemed to want to be there.              
“What about thee girl?” Mr. Balooda asked.
“She is still with the Mistress.” Mr. Blessure replied.
Mr. Blessure eyed Mike, Edward, and the two other kids in the room with suspicion; then said, in secretive tones, “FesKa Parra, Vass RaUmFa Shessa um KunChuura.”
Mr. Balooda’s freaky eyes widened.
“No sheet?!” he asked.
Mr. Blessure shook his head.
“What does shee want mee to do with theese two?”
“What you will.” Mr. Blessure replied. He then turned and departed.
Mr. Balooda smiled his ghastly smile at Mike and Edward.
“Well, well! What should wee do with you?” he said.
He stood up and kicked aside the boy shining his boots. He walked around the desk toward Mike and Edward, giving the girl on her knees, still working hard on the stain in the carpet, a cursory glance. He then spat a massive gob of obscene yellow phlegm close to her. The phlegm sizzled into the carpet, leaving behind another ugly yellow stain.
“Meessed a spot!” he told her, with undisguised jocularity.
The girl sighed a heavy, world-weary sigh, and continued her labors on the original stain she had yet to remove.
Mr. Balooda stopped in front of Mike and Edward, and bent over to face them.
“Now, what are your names, leetle boyees?” he asked.
Mike spat in Mr. Balooda’s face.
“Meesed a spot!” he said, in perfect imitation of Mr. Balooda.

‘Twas the girl’s weary sigh that did it.
Without Callie’s reasonable presence to hold it at bay, Mike’s rash and righteous anger had taken all that it could stand, and could stand no more. So he spat…and very quickly came to regret it.

Mr. Balooda’s face turned into a mask of rage that increased in size as it’s skin bubbled like the blood underneath was boiling.
A look of unadulterated horror came over the faces of the two kids in the office, as the violent transformations in Mr. Balooda’s physical state sped up, and he grew to twice his size, almost too big for the room.
“YOO LEETLE ROTTER!!!” Balooda bellowed, as his black vinyl raincoat became hard black scales, with the topography of tree bark; his large round eyes became yellow slits; and his rectangular teeth became fangs.
Where once had stood a man(-ish) thing, now stood a monster.
Edward scurried to a corner, and cowered. Mike made to back away, but was not quick enough; Mr. Balooda’s hands had become oversized talons, one of which grabbed Mike by the waist, and picked him up.
“YOO!! NEED!! LEARN!! MANNERS!!” Balooda growled, slamming Mike to the floor with great force after every word.
Mike was knocked unconscious with the first slam, but Balooda continued; slamming him against the walls and the desk as well.
But the worst was to come.
Balooda stopped slamming Mike and started squeezing him so hard, Edward (who had his eyes clamped shut, and his palms against his ears) could hear bones cracking.
Mike was a mess. 
Blood poured from his mouth, nose, ears, and eyes, onto the grey carpet.
At last Balooda dropped him on the floor, his rage sated.
But he did one last thing.
He brought his foot down on Mike’s face, with great force.
And for Michael Longstreet, that was pretty much that.

Chapter 35

The Corridor and the Cave

“EEEEGAN!” bellowed Mr. Balooda.

From his place in the kitchen, Egann Ackbe shivered. Everyone in the place had heard Mr. Balooda’s rage and violence.
“Dammit, I knew those new kids were going to be trouble.” he murmured to himself.
He motioned to two boys to go with him, but they looked back at him with scared eyes, and shook their heads.
“COME ON, dammit! Or I’ll tell HIM you refused to help!”
That did it.
Egann and the two boys entered the hall that led to Mr. Balooda’s office. Upon seeing them, Mr. Balooda kicked Mike’s body into the hall, right in front of them.
“You know what to do with THAT.” he said.
By now, Mr. Balooda had regressed to his previous size and configuration. He grabbed a gibbering Edward by the scruff of his shirt and tossed him also into the hall.
“Put thees one to work.” he said.
Mr. Balooda turned to the two kids still in the office: the boot-shine boy and the carpet stain girl; both of whom looked scared crapless.
“And you two…” he said, “CLEEN UP THEES MESS!!”

Egann and the two boys carried Mike’s lifeless body out of the hall.
Edward followed them. The apathetic expression that he had worn on his face since leaving Zedda’s room was now replaced by shock.
The boys carried Mike through the foyer, and a side door; down another hall, to a luxurious bathroom. There, they laid the body on the tiled floor; and then left to start cleaning up the trail of Mike’s blood that had spattered here and there along the way. Egann, however, stayed behind with Edward.
Edward put his ear to Mike’s chest to see if he could hear a heartbeat. There was none. No heartbeat, no breathing, nothing.
“Mike’s dead.” he said, in an empty voice.

“What the hell was that?!” Callie had asked Zedda, when the loud racket from below first reached their ears. 
“It is none of your concern.” Zedda responded.
Callie might have agreed, had she not had a gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach that Mike and Edward were in trouble of some sort. She made to leave, but only got as far as a few steps.
“Leave now and the training ends.” Zedda said.
That stopped Callie in her tracks.
“Leave now and the full power of the Malignium will never be yours.”
Callie suffered a moment of terrible indecision, trapped between doubt and desire.
“No more sweet, sweet despair.” Zedda added.
That did the trick. Callie turned back, and pushed Mike and Edward out of her mind.
Zedda smiled.
Look how quickly the hunger devours her, she thought, Just a little bit more, and those two boys will mean nothing to her.  

Edward put his head in his hands and began to sob.
“Sorry, kid.” Egann said, “I know there was no way you could have been prepared for that, but calm down. Wait.”
“Wait?” Edward looked up, “Wait for what?!”

Mike was alone in the dark.
Suddenly, a pinpoint of light pierced the darkness. The pinpoint grew into a line; broadened until it became a pillar. The pillar came closer, until Mike could see that it wasn’t a pillar at all, but a corridor. A long narrow corridor of light.
From the depths of the corridor, a voice spoke.
“Guna shaal isanno a’dahj.” it said.
“In my heart, not in my head.” Mike replied, and walked inside.
He had gotten only a few steps in, when everything changed. He now found himself in a vast cave of black rock. All around him were sections where the rock was polished smooth and reflective, like a house of mirrors. Only what was reflected back was not him, but a different moving image for each polished section.
In one, he saw an image of Edward, falling.
Another showed Callie, surrounded by blood and gore, her face contorted in a full-throated scream.
Still another showed Rynza Adreynac, conversing with Rufus Kantry.
Mike turned and turned, trying to drink in all he could see.
He saw:
His father, looking down upon a dead body, and smiling.
His mother; a knife held to her neck by the blood-smeared hand of someone standing behind her.
A blasted landscape, lit only by flashes of lightning.
A dark mansion on a mountaintop.
A dying sun.
An open door, slowly closing.
Then, one by one, the images started to blink out.
Mike noticed that they were disappearing at the same rate as the door image was closing; and the door was now a crack away from closure.
He reached for the polished rock with the door image, and his hand went through the black rock as if it were not there. The image, however, was solid. He grabbed the knob, opened the door, and jumped through.

“Here he comes.” said Egann.
“What?!” Edward asked.
Egann pointed to Mike’s body, which began to show signs of life. The physical damage done to it seemed to be repairing itself.
“How can this be?” Edward asked, “He was dead!”
“Don't you see? That’s the hell of it.” Egann said, “We can’t die. No one can die in Murgent. Didn’t you see the townspeople? They try and try, but can’t. Zedda’s magic keeps us all alive, against our will.”
A tortured gurgling breath escaped Mike’s lungs, as they began to work again.
“See?” Egann said, “He’s breathing.”
Mike’s broken nose and smashed face righted themselves. Blood stopped flowing as open wounds and broken flesh sealed themselves up. Though still smeared with blood, Mike no longer looked messed up or dead.
“Will he wake up?” Edward asked.
“Yes.” Egann said, “But it will take a while longer. Heavy blood loss tends to slow down the process.”
“You talk like this is an everyday occurrence.” Edward said.
“Around here…” Egann said, “It IS.”
A blonde-haired girl peeked in.
“Oh good, Donna; could you help me here?” Egann asked.
The girl walked in, and glanced down at Mike. “Jeez, Balooda really did a number on the new guy.” she said.
“Could you please take---“ Egann turned to Edward, “What’s your name, kid?”
“Could you please take Edward here to the kitchen, and get him set up there? I’d hate for Balooda to catch him not working yet. I’ll stay here and help this one---Mike, you said?”
Edward nodded.
“Help Mike here get it together. Oh, and tell Ray we’re gonna need some clothes, until the blood gets washed off of these.” he motioned to Mike’s blood-sodden clothes, “About my size, would you say?”
“Yeah, that’s about right.” she said.
She turned to Edward, “Come with me.”
Edward was unsure; he did not want to leave Mike.
Egann nudged him toward Donna, “Go on,” he said, “I’ll let you know when Mike is up.”
Edward followed Donna.

She led him to a large kitchen, where several other kids were busy working, preparing a large meal.
“Supper-time is only two hours away.” Donna said.
“Is this food for everybody?” Edward asked.
Dropped utensils and sudden gasps silenced the noise and activity in the kitchen. Everyone stared at Edward as if he had uttered a blasphemy.
“No Edward.” said Donna, slowly, as if to a slow-witted person, “All of the food is for THEM.” She pointed upward, “For Zedda, Mr. Blessure, and Balooda. Don’t ever even THINK about tasting their food. They’ll know; and you’ll bring their wrath upon us all.”
“Well, when do you all get to eat?” Edward asked.
“We don’t.” said a boy of about Edward’s age.
“We don’t eat or drink anything.” Donna said, “Zedda’s magic alone keeps us alive.”
“Don’t you get hungry? Thirsty?!”
“Oh gods, YES!” Donna said, “But we’re not allowed to taste their food, or sip their water; not even the wash water. Zedda knows everything that happens here. She sees every secret.”
Edward started to ask another question, but Donna cut him off.
“Enough questions! We better get you started on something.”
She led him to a sink, and a pile of dirty pots, pans, and dishes; which was being worked on by a tall red-headed girl.
“This is Alixa.” Donna said, “Alixa, this is Edward.”
The girl gave him a perfunctory look. “Hi.” she said wanly.
“Edward’s taking over for you, Alix. I need you to take over for me a minute.” Donna said.
Alixa nodded and dried her hands.
Donna turned to Edward. “Start working.” she said, “Wash ‘em and dry ‘em. Be fast, be thorough; and for the love of all that is holy, don’t break, crack, or chip anything!”
She turned and left the kitchen.

Mike awoke at last, groaning in pain.
Egann helped him to sit up.
“Sit still for a few minutes,” Egann said, “If you try to stand up too fast, you’ll fall flat on your ass. You’re not gonna have any balance right now. You gotta give the process a good five minutes at least, to finish up all the detail work; and with all the blood you lost, I’d give it ten or fifteen. I don’t know what you did to piss Balooda off that bad, but it must’ve been something supremely stupid.”
“I spit in his face.” Mike said, his voice gravel.
“That was unwise; and after I warned you explicitly not to tick him off.” Egann said, “You have made trouble for all of us; when Balooda loses his temper, he spreads the suffering around. I shudder to think of what poor Jimmy and Rosy are going through right now.”
“The two who were with Balooda in his office; who are probably still there, trying to get your blood out of the carpet.”
“Sorry.” Mike said, and coughed up a clump of congealed blood.
“Sorry doesn’t cut it around here.” Egann said, “Just don’t pull another stunt like that again. How much do you remember?”
“Everything, up to where he grabbed me.”
“Hmmm. The first time I died, it blew out my short term memory; I lost that whole day. The others had to tell me about it. But then, different people are affected differently.”
“Died?” Mike sat up straight, “What do you mean, ‘died’?”
“Balooda killed you. In a rather brutal fashion, I might add. Take a look at yourself, you were dead.” Egann said, “But now you’re back.”
“How is that possible?!”
“The answer to that is rather complex; but you’ll need to know.”
“Can you get me a drink of water first?” Mike asked, “My throat is groggy and sore as hell. It feels like I just swallowed some kitty litter.”
“No.” Egann said.
“Why not?”
“Just sit there and shut up,” Egann said, “Rather than answer these questions piecemeal, and risk confusing you all the more; I’ll tell you how things got to this point. The story of Murgent’s fall, so to speak.”
“Alright, let me hear it.” Mike said. 
He sat back and rested his throbbing head against the wall.
Egann took a deep breath, and began.

Chapter 36

Once Upon a Town

“Most of what I’m about to tell you is gleaned from what I know and saw with my own eyes; mixed with what others have told me, and also
some speculation based on bits of information Zedda has let slip.” Egann said, in a precise manner that reminded Mike of Spencer.
        I wonder what the Dreadniks are doing right now, Mike thought to himself, Peggy especially.
“I don’t know if Zedda was born here in Murgent,” Egann continued, “But I do know she spent most of her childhood here. From what I gather, it was a lousy childhood.”
“She has my sympathy.” said Mike, with no small degree of sarcasm.
“When she was old enough,” Egann went on, “Maybe even before then; she left Murgent. She was gone a long time, twenty some odd years, by my calculations. At some point in that span, she gained access to a buttload of magical powers.”
“No duh.”
“Here, speculation ends; and the true facts, as I know them, begin. Five years ago, Zedda came back to Murgent, and she didn’t come alone. With her, came the one we know as Mr. Blessure.”
“What about Mr. Balooda?” Mike asked.
“He didn’t come until later. Anyway, the day Zedda came back was the worst day in the history of Murgent, and only the first of many. She worked fast; setting up the invisible force field upon arrival. Then, every animal other than human keeled over and died: cows, chickens, fish, horses, dogs, cats, etc. Birds fell from the sky in a rain of thuds; and every creature that died, putrefied in minutes.
“Zedda had only just begun.
“Soon after, every town water source: the tap, the well, the lake; became foul and undrinkable. Even the thirstiest person in creation would not be able to stomach even smelling it. Boiling didn’t help; it just made the stench more pungent.
“Vegetation came next. Every crop, fruit, vegetable, flower, blade of grass, and weed in Murgent took on a yellowed and desiccated look. Trees became dark, twisted things.
“Of course, nothing was edible; anyone doing so would suffer violent spasms and horrible horrible hallucinations.
“Stocked away foods fared no better. Frozen, refrigerated, and pantried food all went bad overnight. Canned foods, boxed foods, preserves, the whole deal. You’d open up a jar or can of something, only to get squirming maggots, or rotting filth.”
“Didn’t anybody realize it was her doing all this?” Mike asked.
“Eventually,” Egann answered, “But there was a lot of confusion in the beginning, as you can well imagine. Zedda and Mr. Blessure took over the Sarrgoset Hotel, after driving everyone in it out, with dread illusions. By then, the people of Murgent had put two and two together.”
“Did they try to stop her?”
“Oh yes. But nothing worked. Any gun or rifle aimed at her would jam, and then turn red hot, burning the would-be assassin’s hand. Anyone getting close enough to attack her would be torn to ribbons by Mr. Blessure. They tried burning down the hotel, but the fire wouldn’t take, even with gas. Some tried lobbing explosives through the windows, but they wouldn’t go off, until Zedda had them fly back to the throwers.
“It was impossible to communicate with the outside world, as well. Help could not be called. At last, the townspeople decided to go after Zedda and Mr. Blessure en masse, with torches, knives, and clubs.
“Zedda made them all go insane.
“In one fell swoop, with one powerful incantation, every person in Murgent, above the age of fifteen, went stark raving bonkers. They started attacking each other, and other buildings in town, but never the hotel. They never get too close to the hotel. That’s a method in their madness Zedda made sure of.”
“Why did she spare the kids?” Mike asked.
“I was getting to that.” Egann said, “That night, the night all the adults went nuts, we were all summoned. An irresistible urge to go into the hotel possessed all the youth of Murgent. It was like we were sleepwalking. Only when we were there, did we awake to where we were. Zedda addressed us all from the balcony, and told us that this was our new home, and that from now on, our lives were to be lived in her service.”
“I assume that didn’t go down very well.” Mike said.
“No, but with the Bitch Goddess and her thug on one side, and insane townspeople running amok on the outside, we had no real options but to comply. Some did try to rebel, or escape; but there was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. Those were the first to taste death at the hands of Mr. Blessure, and the awful return to life. Zedda had him kill us all, one by one, slowly; and everyone else was forced to watch.”
“Damn.” Mike said.
“After that, everyone pretty much fell into line, myself included; my rebellious days are long behind me. I’m sure my parents, were they sane, would be amazed.
“Anyway, at first Zedda ran the show around here hands on. She wasn’t as heavy as she is now; she could still run things herself, with Mr. Blessure as back-up. Then, about a year-and-a-half later, she introduced us to Mr. Balooda, who started running things down here, while she and Mr. Blessure retreated to the top floor. Now, we only see her when she summons us up to be brain-drained.”
“Where did Mr. Balooda come from?” Mike asked.
“Haven’t you guessed? Blessure and Balooda are not human.” Egann said, “They’re some sort of demon, summoned by Zedda’s witch magic, to serve her.”
“I figured it had to be something like that.” Mike said, remembering how Balooda had grown monstrous and oversized, when he spat on him. He shivered at the recollection.
“I’ve heard her refer to them as Morrtogs.” Egann added.
“Morrtogs, huh? The name certainly suits ‘em.” Mike ruminated, “Wait a minute! I just thought of something.”  
“Where are the older kids?” Mike asked, “You said that everyone below the age of fifteen was spared the insanity. That was five years ago. Those who were fifteen then, are now twenty; but I haven’t seen anyone around here that looks that old.”
“We’re here,” said Egann, “But the same spell that keeps us from dying, keeps us from visibly ageing. We have six and seven year olds among us who still look like toddlers. I myself am pushing twenty.”
“Okay,” said Mike, “Next question. If the food and water and vegetation all went bad, and all the animals died; what do you people eat? What does Zedda eat, for that matter? She lives here too, doesn’t she?”
“The hotel is the only place in Murgent where good water runs from the tap, and pantried foods stay fresh. Once every other week, Zedda sends Mr. Blessure to the nearest towns to get food and other supplies. He goes in a truck that used to belong to the grocer, and returns with the truck full of stuff. Neither the force field, nor the townspeople, gets in his way; Zedda controls both. The food, though, is only for them. Zedda’s spell is all that keeps us alive,” Egann said, bitterly, “We’re not allowed to take the merest sip of water, or the slightest taste of food. Punishment is severe for any infraction, and Zedda always knows.”
At that moment, a boy of about (seemingly) twelve entered the bathroom. He carried a bundle of clothes with him, which he handed to Egann, who handed them to Mike.
“These will do until we get the blood out of yours.” Egann said, “By the way, this is Ray.”
“Hi, I’m Mike.” Mike said, offering Ray his hand.
“I heard.” Ray said. He took Mike’s hand and shook it. “I also heard you pissed off Balooda big time and he messed you up good.”
“He spit in his face.” Egann said.
“Whoa!” Ray said, “You’re either very brave or very stupid.”
“It’s a combination.” Mike replied.
“Ray is working the laundry room this week.” Egann said, “Before you put these on, feel free to use the sink here to clean up; there’s washcloths in the shelf there. Just don’t taste a single drop of water, no matter how thirsty you are, if you know what’s good for you. Don’t ask how Zedda can possibly know; she just does.”
“Need help getting up?” Ray asked.
“Nah, I think I got it.” Mike said, but when he tried to get up, the walls started to move on him, and he had to fight to keep from swooning.
Egann and Ray helped him up. Once up, Mike stood and tried to get his bearings straight.
“Death’s a bitch, ain’t it?” Ray said.
“It’ll pass,” Egann said, “Once you’re clean and dressed, you’ll find me in the kitchen; I’ll have to put you to work somewhere. You can go ahead and leave your dirty clothes in the hamper there; I’ll have Ray pick them up later. Any further questions?”
“Where’s my friend Edward?” Mike asked.
“I have him working in the kitchen.”
“Is he okay?” Mike asked, “He looked kind of vacant when Zedda was finished with him.”
“That’s just a temporary side effect of the brain-drain,” Egann replied, “Though, the shock of your death seemed to have knocked it out of him sooner than usual.”
“Oh yeah, he was there, wasn’t he?”
“He saw the whole thing.” Egann said.
“Crap,” Mike said, putting his hand to his face, “Poor Edward…”
“Mind if I ask you a question?” Egann asked.
“What happened to the girl who came in with you and Edward? Why didn’t she get sent downstairs?”
“The girl? That girl is my sister, Callie,” Mike said, “And that’s a question I’d like answered as well.”

Chapter 37

The Ick Box

When Donna returned from her errands, she retook her post from Alixa, who in turn returned to her washing duties. Edward was relegated to drying and storing.
The pile never seemed to diminish, since new batches of dirty dishes, silverware, pots, and pans were added every few minutes. The enormous table in the center of the kitchen was quickly filling up with trays of food: from meats and vegetable platters, to pies and cakes.
Edward spotted Egann as he entered the kitchen. He put down his drying cloth and ran over to him.
“Hey! Where’s Mike? How is he?” Edward asked.
“He’s better now.” Egann said, scrutinizing the food on the table, “He’ll be here in a moment. Go back to your post. If there’s time later on tonight, I’ll fill the both of you in on the house rules in detail.”
We didn’t come here to follow the shigging house rules, Edward thought to himself, but said nothing aloud.
He returned to his duties.
When Mike at last found his way into the kitchen not five minutes later, Edward shouted “MIKE!” aloud; incurring a spate of shushes from the other kids.
“Oh go shush yourselves!” Edward shot back at them, defiant.
He ran to Mike and wrapped his arms around him.
“I am sooo glad to see you!” he said, “I thought we’d lost you there, pal.”
“I’m glad to be seen!” Mike replied.
“It’s so hard to believe!” Edward said, releasing Mike at last, “You were dead, really awfully dead, but…there you are! Alive!”
“I know, it’s bizarre.” Mike said.
“You’ll have to compare notes later,” said Egann, walking in among them, “Look.”
He pointed to a kid entering the kitchen. The kid saw them and started walking toward them. Both Mike and Edward remembered him as the kid in Balooda’s office, polishing Balooda’s boots.
“I don’t think Balooda’s quite finished with you yet, Mike.” Egann said.
The kid, whom Egann had referred to earlier as Jimmy, had the wretched look of someone who had just gone through hell, and still had more yet to go.
The kid walked up to Mike and said: “Mr. Balooda wants to see you. Now.”
“Do try to behave yourself this time, Mike.” Egann said, “Be humble and apologetic.”
Mike gave him a look.
“I’m serious!”
“He wants you there too, Egann.” Jimmy said.
“Oh,” said Egann, “It’s to be the Ick Box, then.”
“The what?” Mike asked.
“Tell you later. C’mon, we gotta go now. Hurry!”
Edward watched as the three rushed back to Balooda’s office.
Now what? he wondered.

Mike, Egann, and Jimmy entered Balooda’s office.
Mike’s blood had been removed from the walls and the desk, but the girl, now joined by two others, was still having a difficult time getting it all out of the carpet. Jimmy, having delivered Balooda’s message, went back to work with the others at this labor.
“There you beee!” Balooda smiled his big ugly smile at Mike, “How nice to see you again! Are yoo feeleeng better now?”
His voice dripped with sarcasm blunt as a sledgehammer and about as subtle; his humorous bearing as trustworthy as a crocodile’s smile.
“Are wee readee to tryee again?”
Mike considered the situation.
If he was to find a way out of this mess, he would need time to think and observe. That goal would not be well served by being at the wrong end of this dangerous and black-hearted freak in front of him.
Mike swallowed his pride; and it was bitter as hell.
“Yes… Sir.” he said.
“Good! Veree good, boyee!” Balooda crowed, “Now tell meee, what ees your name?”
“And your seester’s?”
“And your leetle friend’s?”
“Good! Good! Now…aren’t yoo sorree yoo speet at mee?”
“Yes what?”
“Yes SIR.”
“Veree good! Now, as puneeshment for your prior eensolence, yoo weell bee taken to thee basement. There yoo weell spend thee rest of thee day and thee rest of thee night. Unteel tomorrow morneeng, weell yoo bee let out. Eeegan, see to it!”
“Yessir.” Egann said, and motioned Mike to follow him out.
Is that it? Mike wondered, befuddled.
Once out of the hall, Mike asked, “What was that all about? What’s so bad about the basement? What kind of punishment is that?”
Egann led him through the hotel, to a large utility room in the back. In there, was a door marked BASEMENT.
“Up until three months ago, there was nothing wrong with the basement,” Egann said, “Other than cobwebs and cockroaches, the basement was little more than storage space.
“Then one morning, three months ago, Zedda called both Mr. Blessure and Balooda up to the top floor. She sounded excited, or frightened; maybe both. They were up there the whole day; the Morrtogs coming downstairs only to scrounge for wood, metal, and tools. The basement had a lot of all that stuff, then. They cleared it all out. I know, because many of us were sent down there to sweep and mop the floor. The sound of something being built could be heard from above. Then came the sound of some sort of ritual.  
“That evening, we were all told to go to our rooms and go to bed early; which is unusual because a lot of us on any given day don’t get to bed until very late.
“That night, Balooda and Blessure carried something big and heavy down to the basement. Everyone heard it; it made a loud thud when they dropped it on the basement floor. Not long after that, the two Morrtogs went out somewhere. I know this because my room window looks out the front of the hotel. They took some sort of crate with them. When they came back, there was something inside the crate; struggling. I think it was screaming, or shrieking, or something, but I can’t be sure; the windows in the rooms don’t open, except on the third floor of course.
“They took it down to the basement. Then Zedda went into the basement. Some with rooms on the first floor say they heard more ritual sounds wafting up from below. She and the Morrtogs were down there a good long time. No one is quite sure when they came back up. Our days are long and tiring, and we all tend to fall asleep pretty quickly; no insomniacs here.
“Next morning, everything was business as usual, as if nothing had happened. Of course, nobody dared to ask questions. Two weeks later, Balooda started using the basement as a punishment; locking people down there for hours. We’ve come to call it ‘The Ick Box’. It’s one of the punishments we dread the most.”
“Why? What’s down there?” Mike asked.
“A monster.” Egann replied. He took a key hanging from a nail, and unlocked and opened the basement door.
All Mike could see of the basement was a long narrow stairway going down into darkness.
“Are you telling me there’s something down there worse than Balooda all bugged out?”
“Yes, but not in the way you think.” Egann replied, “Don’t worry though, it can’t get to you; it’s locked in a box. The box is a cage surrounded by magic circles to keep it from escaping.”
“And it’s in a cage to boot?” Mike asked, “What’s got everyone freaked out here?”
“You’ll see,” said Egann, “It’s horrible down there.”
“Has anyone ever had to spend the night down there before?”
“Nope.” Egann replied, “You’re the first. You really made an impression on Balooda.”
“Lucky me.”
“The record is six hours. Daniel Pebcry, about five weeks ago. When we got him out, he was a basketcase. A blubbering and useless mess, until Zedda drained him. Believe you me, when Zedda drains you after your time in the Ick Box, you’ll call it a blessing.”
“Is there even a light bulb down there?”
“There used to be,” Egann answered, “But the bulb was never replaced after it went out.”
“Fantastic.” Mike said. He looked down into the blackness of the Ick Box, and took his first few steps down the stairs. He turned and looked back up at Egann, “This is going to be harsh, isn’t it?” he asked.
Egann nodded slowly. “See you tomorrow.” he said.
He closed the door, and locked it.
Mike was left in the dark, but not alone. From the pitch blackness somewhere below, the thing locked in a cage suddenly knew that there was someone close by, and bellowed in an impossibly loud and blood-freezing manner that tore a jagged hole in Mike’s nerves, and sent a dagger of mortal dread into his soul.
Mike grabbed the handrail with both hands, and closed his eyes; as much to still his heart, as to acclimate to the darkness.
There was no way he could have been prepared for the effects brought on by the monster’s roar. Above and beyond the terrifying nature of the sound itself; it had about it a supernatural quality that attacked the core of one’s being with the depths of existential terror, and almost spiritual despair. Had Mike not faced a similar sensation before (when Callie put their father’s ring on Rynza Adreynac’s Spirit Table), he might have been reduced to screaming and scrabbling at the door, pleading to be let out (with a wet patch on the crotch of his new pants, to boot).
But Mike had faced such an overwhelming sensation before, and had been the stronger. He used the memory of that to steel his resolve.
He opened his eyes.
The stairway no longer seemed the black pit it had a moment ago. Gloomy, yes, but there was some manner of light here.
The long stairway was enclosed like a hall, and one had to reach the bottom to get past the wall. Once past the dividing wall, there was a turn to the right, and you were in the basement proper.
Mike figured he should get a look-see at his companion, while there was still some light left in the day. There would be time for cowering in the stairway, when night fell, and all light was gone.
He took a deep breath, and (as quietly as he could) descended the stairway to its end, and turned the corner.
The basement was actually better illuminated than the stairway; lit by the afternoon sun filtering through a single grimy little window near the top of the ceiling. The window was no more than a rectangle of glass, too small to squeeze through. The basement itself was large and empty, except for that which occupied its center.
There it sat; a large, heavy wooden box about five by five by five: a perfect cube. There were magic symbols burned into the sides and top of the dark cherry wood. The front of the thing had crisscrossing metal bands set into its frame with sturdy bolts.
All around the box on the concrete floor, drawn with different colored chalks, were magic circles within circles within circles; with the box at the bull’s-eye. Between the circles there was writing, in some cabalistic script, in heaven knows what language.
But it was the creature inside the box that commanded Mike’s complete attention.
That it had daggers for teeth, malevolent red eyes, and razorblade claws was easily ascertained. Beyond that, it’s exact shape was difficult to make out. It constantly shifted out of focus whenever the eyes tried to pin down it’s exact dimensions.
Visually incoherent, it hurt Mike’s head to look at it too long.
The thing in the box was not silent throughout Mike’s observations; it kept roaring in it’s marrow-freezing manner. Mike’s whole body clenched whenever the thing made a sound, even when it just shifted it’s weight.
He wondered how many others, if any, had ever gone this far down the stairs to look upon that which made such terrible noise.
That’s enough of THAT, Mike thought, and went back behind the wall and up the stairway a few steps, this is gonna be a long night.
He had no idea.

Egann returned to the kitchen, to find Edward there, waiting to accost him with questions.
“Where’s Mike?” he asked, “What happened? Balooda didn’t kill him again, did he?”
“No, he’s okay.” Egann said, “He’s in the basement.”
“The basement? Why the basement?”
“It’s just one of the punishments Balooda makes us suffer. He’s in there till tomorrow morning. I wouldn’t worry about him, he’ll be okay. Now get back to work.”
Egann went back to his supervision of the food preparation. Edward went back to his drying. Donna had brought him a footstool, so he could better reach the sink. So now he stood side by side with Alixa.
Edward understood, in his gut, that every moment that passed with them still trapped here, the possibilities for resolving their sticky situation dwindled away like forgotten dreams. However, with both Mike and Callie currently unavailable, it now fell to him to do the resolving.
Well, you wanted to be needed, Edward thought to himself, Here’s your chance to prove your worth.

Mike was startled awake.
Had he fallen asleep? He had, but it couldn’t have been for more than a few minutes. He had just leaned back on the stairs, to get his thoughts together. Now he was here.
But where was here?
He wasn’t on the stairs. He seemed to be face down on the basement floor, a few feet away from the monster in the box; facing it. Mike looked up at it, and it looked back at him with focused malevolence. What had awakened him was not it’s sounds, but it’s silence; which, in a way, was more unsettling.
Mike started getting up, and noticed that the palms of his hands had a yellowish powder on them. When he realized what this was, he looked down with a gasp.
A good size section of the outermost magic circle, which his outstretched hands had reached, was smudged off. He had smudged it during his nap. Some of the writing within the circle had also been rendered a yellow blur.
“Oh snot.” Mike said.
Even as he wondered whether the other magic circles would be enough to “hold the fort”, so to speak; he was hit with a wave of drowsiness beyond his ability to resist.
“What is…this…?” he muttered, as wakefulness became a burden too great to bear.
He slumped back face down on the floor, and was almost asleep again, when some part of him realized what was happening; and panic brought him up from the quicksand.
“IT’S YOU!” he yelled at the beast, “You’re…doing this!”
The thing made no sound in response; it just stared at him.
Mike tried to get up, but his sluggish body was too heavy. He fell back to the floor with a thump. He turned onto his back and tried to slap himself awake, but the energy required to do so was denied him.
“oh gods…no…” was the last thing he managed to say, before sleep overtook him.

Chapter 38

Edward Proves His Worth

It was supper time when Edward saw his chance.
        There were trays of food to be taken upstairs, and Edward managed to get in with the tray brigade. They trudged single-file up the stairs in a cautious, but speedy, fashion.
Speed had to be sacrificed when they started up the second floor staircase, which was steeper, and whose steps were less wide. Once on the third floor, they filed into a room whose door had been left open for their ingress. It was the room opposite Zedda’s divination room.
The room they entered was an ordinary one, emptied of all but a long table and three chairs. They set the food trays down on the table in no particular order. Two girls, who carried nothing but silverware, dishes, and napkins, set these items in their proper places. Each diner would decide what to put on their plates, and extra plates were left so they would always have clean dishware every time they ate something different.
The beverage bearer did his job last.
With this done, the group (all of whom looked upon the food spread before them with undisguised longing) filed out of the room. Edward lingered, and was the last one out. When the group started their way downstairs, Edward backtracked, headed in the opposite direction, and turned the corner.
Just then, the door to Zedda’s room opened. Zedda stepped out, followed by Mr. Blessure. Edward wondered whether Callie would also step out; but she didn’t.
Edward held his breath and hoped neither of them would come his way. That would be bad. They seemed, however, to be headed to the dining room that had just been prepared for them. They tarried awhile, in the hall, speaking in the same strange language Edward had heard Blessure and Balooda speak earlier.
What they were saying was this:
Mr. Blessure: “May I ask again why you are apprenticing this girl? Granted she’s Conjuura material, yes; but may I remind you what happened to Uraja Jeuke when she taught it to you?”
“Uraja was an ancient, and weary of life, when I challenged her.” Zedda said, “That wisp of a girl is no threat to me, and I’ll have dealt with her well before she becomes one.”
“Perhaps you’re underestimating her. She did give you a nasty surprise when she reversed the link on you.”
“She merely caught me by surprise. I seriously doubt she has any more surprises left in her. After only a taste of despair, she is utterly enslaved by the hunger. I’ll let her have all she wants, and strengthen its hold over her. When the time is right, I’ll add her power to mine.”
“How will you know when the time is right?”
“There’s a reason why the Conjuura code forbids teaching the Malignium to someone that young: it tends to blow out their moral center. They become selfish, arrogant, and rash.”
Mr. Blessure raised an eyebrow. “Like you?” he asked.
Zedda ignored his jibe. “Sooner or later, she will consider herself strong enough to challenge me. A tragic decision as, unlike Uraja Jeuke, I am still a Conjuura in the plenitude of my powers.”
“Still…I’m not sure I like how training this girl has distracted you from your established routine.” Mr. Blessure said, sounding concerned, “You haven’t even consulted your Seer’s Basin once, since she’s arrived.”
“My omniscience is already a well-settled matter amongst the children. I need not constantly re-prove my ability to see what is hidden; their own fear keeps them docile. You worry too much, my old friend.”
The two continued chatting, but took their conversation into the dining room, closing the door behind them.
Edward wondered what they were talking about, and what language they were speaking in. Although he spoke only Thrist, he had heard a smattering of Yapul and Sardossian spoken; but this didn’t sound like either of those.
The sound of footsteps coming up the stairs broke his train of thought. Edward peeked around the corner and saw Balooda walk up the hall and turn into the dining room. He opened the door, and went in.
Edward went to the door Zedda and Blessure had emerged from; the door without a knob. He looked at the circular symbol drawn upon it and remembered that Balooda had traced the circle with his finger as he spoke the words that opened the door; words that Edward had made it his business to memorize.
Maqwa Tevvis Geffah...
“Crud.” Edward muttered under his breath.
What the shig was that last word? he thought, straining his memory, Something with a “J” sound…and an “M”… Jimmy? Jammy? Jammook… Jammuk… Ah! That was it! It was JAMMUK!
Edward traced the circular seal clockwise with his finger and whispered: “Maqwa Tevvis Geffah Jammuk.”
The door opened, and Edward stepped inside Zedda’s divination room.
Up ahead, on Zedda’s couch, Callie sat; her eyes closed. She seemed to be meditating, or concentrating very hard on something. She didn’t seem to notice his presence.
He walked up the center of the room intending to talk with her, but instead veered off to look at the tripod upon which there was an ornate jade basin, filled with eerie green glowing water. He remembered having seen it when they were brought in front of Zedda; but hadn’t, at the time, had the opportunity to check it out.
He went over to the basin, looked into it.  
“Show me my future.” he whispered, half-kidding.
The water shimmered and swirled for a few seconds, grew dark, then returned to its regular glow. Edward slumped, disappointed.
Oh well, he thought, was worth a shot, though.
“What are you doing here?!” Callie’s voice pierced the silence.
Edward was so startled he bumped into the tripod, and knocked it onto only two of its feet. A slosh of glowing water went up in the air, as he stopped the tripod and its basin from falling over. A spillage of its mysterious liquid seemed inevitable, but to his astonishment, the liquid hung in the air. He reset the basin in its place, and watched as the water began to fall back into the basin in slow-motion; without even so much as a drop lost or splashed.
“What are you doing here, Edward?” Callie asked again.
“I suppose I could ask you that very question.”
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Neither are you.” Edward countered, “You’re supposed to be with us. Instead you are here. Why?”
“You wouldn’t understand.” Callie answered, “You should get out now, before Zedda finds you here.”
“I don’t think so.” Edward said, “Not until I get some answers.”
A thought then entered Callie’s head.
A terrible and un-Callie-like thought.
Before Zedda had left to go eat, she had given Callie some mental exercises to do while she was gone; promising her that before the day was done, she would get a chance to use the Malignium. The exercises were to strengthen and ready her mind for her coming exertions.
Callie felt ready right now, and even had a victim in sight.
“I’m sorry Edward,” she said, “Come on over here and we’ll figure things out, together.”
As she walked towards him, a hungry look passed over her face. Edward knew that look well; he had seen it on Zedda’s face before she had brain-drained him.
This was no longer the Callie he knew.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Edward asked, feeling the familiar pangs of fear and loss enter his heart, “Get away from me!”
He turned and ran. 
When he got to the door, it opened for him; and shut itself behind him.
Callie was left alone. The look of hunger on her face was now replaced with a look of confusion. The fear that was visible in Edward’s eyes (fear of her!) disturbed her greatly.
Gods, what was I thinking? she asked herself, but knew well the answer to that question.
Oh Edward…I’m so sorry…
She turned and walked towards the tripod and basin Edward had almost overturned. She looked at her reflection in the water.
“I’m losing myself.” she said to her reflection, “What am I becoming?”
The water shimmered, and then a face appeared in the water.
It was Zedda’s face, or so she thought at first. Then, the truth of it hit her harder and cut her deeper than her father ever had.
It was her.
Rather, an older version of her, with a forehead splotch identical to Zedda’s. It was her as she would be, years down the road, if she let things continue as they were. 
“No! Please no!” she cried, and clapped her hands to her eyes to blot out the vision.
But the obscene hunger inside of her also spoke.
Oh yes! It said, And when the time comes, you won’t be strong enough to resist me!

Leaving behind, for the moment, the depressing conundrum of Callie’s upsetting behavior, Edward decided to risk checking out another room. He went to the end of the hall and turned the corner. Doors to rooms were arrayed before him; all of which looked alike, except one. 
At the end of the hall was a knobless door painted in a manner identical to the one on Zedda's divination room.
He went over to it, traced the seal on the door with his finger, and said: “Maqwa Tevvis Geffah Jammuk.”
The door opened, and he entered.
He immediately realized that this had to be Zedda’s private room. 
There was a lush, four-poster bed on one side of the room, an antique rocking chair next to the window, and a large roll-top desk.
On one wall, there hung a painting of a dark forest. Edward wondered if there was a safe behind it, like in the movies, and tried to move the painting. It swung open, like a door. Behind were shelves, built into the wall like a medicine chest. On the shelves were clear crystal eggs, on little stands; with things encased inside of them.
Some of these were stones with symbols drawn on them, odd geometric shapes, tiny scraps of paper with runic designs, and some even had colorful gems inside.
Two in particular caught his eye. One had a tiny version of the Sarrgoset Hotel in it; the other had a tiny scale model of the town of Murgent itself.
Edward decided to take one of these eggs for closer inspection later. He chose one, closed the picture door, and departed the room.
He turned the corner and ran right into Egann.
“There you are!” Egann whispered in an angry voice, “Alixa told me you didn’t return from the tray brigade. What do you think you’re doing?! Do you want to get us all in trouble?!”
Egann didn’t wait for an answer. He tightened his grip on Edward’s shoulder, and led him back down the stairs. Once they were on the second floor, Egann breathed easier, and released Edward from his deathgrip.
“What were you trying to do?” Egann asked again, “Get yourself torn to shreds? Trust me, it’s rather unpleasant.”
“I was information gathering.” Edward replied.
“Well...did you gather anything useful?”
“Not really.” Edward said, thinking it best to keep his stolen trinket a secret for now, until he could study it in private.
Egann sighed. “Edward, I used to think like you do, a lot of us did. We thought we could think our way to a solution. We plotted and planned, to no avail. Nothing has worked; Zedda is as protected by her magic as by Blessure and Balooda. She can’t be killed; not by the likes of us, anyway. We just have to deal with the fact that while she’s alive, we’re stuck here; and she’s gonna stay alive for a long time.”
“But if we could find a way to negate her magic…” Edward said.
“You’re forgetting one thing,” Egann said, “Zedda’s magic keeps us alive---all of us who have died at the hands of Balooda or Blessure. This includes your friend Mike, remember? If Zedda dies, so do we; and if we go, he goes too.”
Edward had to admit he hadn’t thought of that.
Their situation now seemed even more insurmountable than it had before.

Chapter 39

Disparate Measures

Mike was flying.
Over a field of moving colors he flew, at tremendous speed. Below him, lines of bright colors ran along at a speed equal to his. Millions upon millions of these lines ran, intersected, collided, and bifurcated; each line exploding into thousands of new lines every second. The constant detonation of color was a sight to behold.
Mike realized that, while he couldn’t stop or even slow down, he could turn and look back. Behind him there was no movement, and no color. A massive trail of stone grey lines, like fossilized remains, extended behind him into infinity.
What was ahead of him though, was chaos.
The lines rammed themselves into a Gordian knot of unthinkable proportions. That the massive tangle of lines didn’t stop the waterworks completely was miraculous. Yet the knot always remained about the same distance away; both knotting and unknotting itself at the same time.
Mike looked down and saw that he was connected to the blue line right below him. Upon just looking at it, the blue line pulled him down into itself. Mike was not startled, as this felt totally natural and nonthreatening.
He descended into the blue, and found himself suddenly in the basement again. Only he was floating over his own body. His body, despite his absence, looked quite busy.
It was erasing the chalk circles of containment around the monster’s box, in a systematic fashion. It had already eradicated the first four outer circles and the writing around them. It still had several left to go. The monster’s eyes were clamped shut in this effort.
It’s trying to free itself, Mike thought, and it’s using MY body to do it!
Mike still had time to think. His body’s slow and lethargic movement demonstrated the creature’s difficulty at controlling it.
It’s manner was to smudge one circle at a time; going around and around the box, running Mike’s hands over each. A slow and clumsy process that made Mike wonder if there was a magical reason for doing it that way, or if the monster was just being anal retentive.
Mike doubted the latter.
Perhaps the right step, he thought, was to regain control.
He floated himself down over his busy body, and tried to reoccupy his own space.
Immediately, a force stronger than Mike pushed him harshly out of his own skin. Mike was thrown back and passed through the wall of the basement. The effort of pulling himself back into the basement was substantial.
Mike saw his body collapse as a shadow slipped out of it.
It was the monster’s spirit, or essence, or mental force; Mike wasn’t sure what the hell the terms were, but understood the basic concept. It had lost it’s grip on his body, when it had expelled Mike out. It now floated back, to re-enter.
Oh no you don’t! Mike thought, and hurled himself toward his body to beat the beast to the punch. The two collided into his body at the same time, causing the body to react with spasms as they fought for control. The result was that both lost their grip, and the body collapsed once more.
The two shadows now faced each other across Mike’s body.
This was going to be a fight.

When it was time for the tray brigade to go up and retrieve the dirty trays and dishes, Edward decided not to go up again (not that Egann would have let him if he wanted to).
He had not yet had a chance to study the crystal egg.
Nor would he, for awhile. The tray brigade returned with a mountain of dirty dishes, silverware, and trays to be washed and dried. If that wasn’t enough, Mr. Balooda was making his rounds, supervising work, punishing laxity with severity, and spreading his brand of good cheer all over the first and second floors.
When he came around to the kitchen, he walked regally about, looking over their clean-up work. When he left, everyone breathed easier.
Donna took a team to clean up the dining room. Alixa went along with her, leaving Edward and two others to toil with the dirty dishes. Egann and the remaining members of the kitchen team cleaned up everything else: the floor, the ovens, the countertops, the appliances, etc. When someone finished a job, they were put to work on something else. At no point was anyone allowed a moment’s rest.
Once all the work in the kitchen was finished, the team was scattered to different parts of the hotel, to other work.

Mike and his enemy fought hard.
They knocked each other through the walls, into the earth, and out of the hotel. When one was busy trying to get back, the other would seize control of the body. Not for long, though; as the ejected one would soon get back in and slam the other out.
The basement was getting dark, but both opponents could see everything in it with spectral clarity. The beast was down to the last five magic circles.
Mike realized that his efforts to retake his body were exhausting him, as was getting back into the basement every time he was thrown out of it.
There was no use trying to take back control of his body; his only chance lay in holding back the creature’s work on the circles until morning came, and he was let out.
Mike had many hours of battle ahead of him, and already he was beginning to tire.

Evening found Edward polishing the furniture in the entrance hall and the foyer. When he got around to working on the front desk, he noticed a lull in traffic in the area, and decided to take a moment to inspect his ill-gotten egg.
He crouched down beside the front desk, and took the egg out of his pocket. It was the one with the miniature Sarrgoset Hotel encased inside of it.
The crystal was flawless; solid, except for the tiny hotel frozen in its center. Edward wondered how such a thing was made. Then, some movement in it caught his eye.
In the third story window of the miniature, a tiny figure passed by; then returned, to look out at him.
It was a miniature Mr. Blessure.
The sudden sound of Balooda’s loud voice startled Edward so badly, that he dropped the egg. It didn’t break, but rolled around in a wide arc, to the back of the front desk.
Balooda was close, but was busy browbeating some kid for sloppy work. Edward had only a few seconds to retrieve the egg before Balooda passed by him to enter the hall that led to his office.
Edward crawled around to the back of the front desk in time to see the egg roll with a mind of its own down the hall, through Balooda’s open office door, and right under Balooda’s desk, where it finally came to rest.
“Oh shig.” Edward said.
The office was empty right now, but there was no way he could get to the egg before Balooda arrived. He would have to come back for it later, when Balooda left his office again.
He just hoped to hell Balooda didn’t find it first!

“What is it?” Zedda asked Mr. Blessure.
He was looking out the window with a furrowed brow.
“It’s gone now,” he answered, “But for a few seconds there I had the intense sensation of being watched, from out there somewhere.”
“Should I be concerned?”
“Perhaps. There was a definite presence there. Some veil of invisibility hid it from my eyes. A few seconds more and I could have broken through, but it was gone too fast.”
“If it happens again….”
“If it happens again, I’ll pierce it’s veil, drag it’s mind out screaming through it’s eyes, and devour it’s sanity before I send it back.”
“Yes, that should about do it,” said Zedda, “But right now, I think it’s time to feed our fledgling Conjuura.”
She referred to Callie, who lay asleep on the couch. They had found her this way upon their return from supper.
Zedda handed Mr. Blessure a list.
“Call these up.”
Mr. Blessure took the list, and departed.
Zedda shook Callie awake.
“It’s time, Conjuura.” she said.

Mr. Balooda passed Edward without noticing him, entered his office, and closed the door.
Edward tarried as long as he dared, then gave up and went on to other jobs. He wondered how long the egg would remain undiscovered.
As for him, he ended up working in the laundry room with Egann and Ray. He suspected Egann wanted to keep him under his watchful eye, in case he attempted another ill-advised fact-finding mission.
They worked in silence, until Mr. Blessure’s booming voice came down from the second floor balcony.
“The following will come to the top floor with me: Alan, Alixa, Connie, Daniel, Fred, Grigg, Junu, Lannie, Myra, Rosie, Sorret, and Tupra.”
“Oh hell…” said one of those working in the laundry with them.
“Sorry Fred,” Egann said.
“I just went the other day!” Fred groused, “Zedda must be messing with the rotation again, or something.”
Fred left the laundry room.
“What’s going on?” asked Edward.
“Zedda’s gonna feed.” Ray said, “Every day is brain-drain day for someone, around here. Although it’s been awhile since she’s called up so many of us at one time.”
Edward remembered the hungry look on Callie’s face and shuddered, thinking: I don’t think she’s gonna feed alone this time.
“What does Zedda get out of it?” he asked.
“Wow---freshman question.” Ray said, “You’re better at these, Egann; you answer that.”
“Well, firstly,” Egann said, “She gets information about you; she sees your memories. But, I think, that’s mostly incidental; what she gets from it is power, pure and simple.”
“Yeah, but even that is incidental at this point.” Ray cut in, “What need does she have of any more power? She’s HAD her revenge on Murgent already. Several times over, I would say. So why is she still here? Why does she need us?”
“My guess is that she never intended to stay this long,” Egann said, “But got fat and cozy here; what with a constant supply of tormented kids to feed off of---“
“Enter Mr. Balooda to keep us all in a constant state of misery for her.” Ray added.
“Also, I think she gets some kind of euphoric high out of it.” Ray continued, “I swear, every time I’ve seen her do it, she gets this blissed-out look on her face.”
“I think she’s addicted to it.” Egann said, “And that has her as trapped here as we are. That’s why she’s still here. That’s why the status will remain quo as long as she and the Morrtogs can hold it.”
“Ironic, yet depressing.” Ray said, “So does any of that answer your question, kid?”
“More than I expected.” Edward replied.
Indeed, the discussion only deepened his worries about Callie. If she began feeding on the children of Murgent, like Zedda, she would become as addicted to it as Zedda. He and Mike could lose her forever. Time was running out quickly, and he realized he couldn’t save her on his own. With Mike currently unavailable, all he had were these two: Egann and Ray. But could he trust them?
There was no longer any choice.
“I have to tell the two of you something,” Edward said, “I have no one else to turn to…”

Chapter 40

A Call in the Night

Edward told Egann and Ray everything.

        Of what had transpired between Zedda and Callie, when Zedda tried to drain her; of his disturbing meeting with Callie; of his entry into Zedda’s room, and the crystal eggs behind the painting; of what he saw in the egg he stole, and later dropped; and finally, of the egg’s present location under Mr. Balooda’s desk in his office.

        Egann and Ray looked flabbergasted.

        “Holy Gloeis, Ed!” Ray said, “How can this be? Zedda usually knows all and sees all, yet you managed to sneak into two of her rooms and steal that egg right under her nose!”

        “It’s the girl.” Egann said, more to himself, than to them. He had the look of someone whose mind was racing, putting things together. “If Edward is right, and Zedda is really initiating this Callie girl into her evil ways; that means, right now, Zedda has all her attention focused on her. Which means she is distracted.”

        “A window of opportunity!” Edward chimed.

        “For what? What are you proposing?” Ray asked.

        “If the egg is what I think it is, we need to retrieve it!” Egann said, looking more animated than Ray had seen him in years, “As well as the other ones in Zedda’s room.”

        “Why? What do you think they are?” Ray asked.

        “A glimmer of hope.” Egann said, “For the first time in a long time, a glimmer of hope.”

        Meanwhile, in the basement, the battle raged on.

        Mike’s body was down to the last three chalk circles of containment; while Mike’s pilgrim shadow was down to his last dregs of energy.

        The beast’s shadow spirit kept going back to the body with relentless determination to free itself. Perhaps with each circle it eradicated, it got stronger. It certainly felt that way to Mike. The damned thing never seemed to tire.
Mike knew now that he could not keep it from finishing off all the magic circles until morning. He was exhausted, and night had only just fallen. Even disregarding his energy level; there were simply too many hours left to go, and too few circles IT had to get through.

Still, Mike had to try.

He gathered up his remaining strength and hurled himself at his enemy. The beast seemed to know the attack was coming, and was ready for him. It fought back hard, and the two tussled until the last of Mike’s strength was gone.

The beast then took hold of Mike, and chucked him upwards.

Up Mike flew. He passed through the basement ceiling, the first, second, third floor ceilings, and up into the air, a dizzying height above the hotel. When momentum at last dwindled away, he came to a dead stop; and just floated there.

His energy now all depleted, Mike was out of the game.

The beast had won, and would soon be free.

“No.” Callie said.

By now, all those Mr. Blessure had called up to the top floor stood single-file in the long room, like a line to a bank teller’s window, and waited to be summoned.

“No?” Zedda asked.

“I won’t do it.” Callie said.

“Awhile ago you begged me---“

“I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to be like you!”

“Can’t you sense their despair?” Zedda asked, “It’s yours for the taking! Why resist temptation, when it is so much easier to give in?”

Callie was sorely tempted; not by Zedda’s hard-sell, but by her own hunger. She could indeed sense the despair within those waiting in line to be drained, and it was driving her up the wall.

“In this world,” Zedda continued, “You are either predator or prey. Take what is yours, or get in line with the rest of the cattle!”

She’s right, the voice of her hunger spoke, in its sinuous and insistent manner, What will it avail you, or Mike, or Edward, to resist? You’ll just be another one of these kids: powerless and trapped. But, if you can grow in power, perhaps one day you’ll be powerful enough to take Zedda down and free everyone!
She only half bought it, but it was enough.

“Alright then,” Callie said, “Bring them to me.”

Mike looked down on the Sarrgoset Hotel.

From his vantage point, he could see most of Murgent; even though it was dark already. And while Murgent was a dead husk of a town, there was a healthy circle of lawn and garden surrounding the hotel.

In his metaphysical state, Mike saw everything alive below him as if it were lit from the inside by a spectral green light. The hotel itself glowed with the life-light of those living within its walls.

As this light came under his regard, Mike saw swatches of it separate and waft up towards him from the living things below. They came up to him and joined with him, lending him their energy.

Refreshed, Mike wished for more, and more came. He began to understand that he was the one drawing the energy. So he summoned even more, until he felt strong enough to return to the battle.

Thank you, life-light, he thought, and sent that thought down to the living things below.

Something moved in the darkness of Murgent’s streets; a familiar object that made Mike’s heart sing.

Matters are ripening fast, he thought; and willed himself downward, I just hope to hell I’m not too late.

“This won’t hurt a bit.” Callie told her first drainee.

“I know.” The boy, named Alan, replied.

He was, like everyone else there, a veteran of the procedure.

Callie stared into his eyes, and started hypnotic effect Zedda referred to as the “Trancing Eyes”; the first step of the Malignium.

Callie felt Alan fall into the trance, and commenced the mind link. Before her, Alan’s memories unspooled like a ribbon; the parts of it rich in pain and suffering glowed with power, and were thus easy to find.

Euphoria washed over her, and Callie gave herself up to the pleasure. When she came at last to the end of Alan’s despair, she could not resist the urge to drain him dry of everything.

“That’s enough.” she heard Zedda say, as she gripped Callie’s arm painfully; forcing her to break the link. “If you drain him completely, you’ll kill him.”

“I thought no one can die here.” Callie said.

“He wouldn’t stay dead, of course; but he’d come back a vegetable.”

“Give me another one, then.” Callie said, tossing Alan aside like a used up wad of gum, “I want MORE!”

Mr. Blessure removed the vacant-eyed Alan, and motioned Alixa, the next in line, to go to Callie. Alixa wasn’t quick enough for Callie, and was pulled forward, like a dog on a leash.

As Callie started in on Alixa, Mr. Blessure walked over to Zedda.

“You were right,” he said, “She IS a natural.”

“And she’s mine now.” Zedda said.

“You think they’re what?” Ray asked.

“Spells.” Egann answered, “I think, encased inside those eggs, or perhaps the eggs themselves, are the spells Zedda used to enslave us all. We need to get the one in Balooda’s office and the ones in Zedda’s room.”

“And do what?!”

“Break them, of course.” Egann said, “Break the eggs and we break the spells.”

“What if you’re wrong?” Ray asked.

“Then it’s back to square one.” Egann said, “We’ll suffer for the attempt, and horribly; but at least we’ll suffer for having tried something. If we don’t try, the lost opportunity will haunt us forever.”

“Even if you’re right about the eggs,” Edward said, “Breaking the spells may not be a good idea.”

“I’m sorry about Mike, Edward,” Egann said, “But if we don’t break those eggs, nothing will ever change. Zedda and the Morrtogs will continue to torment us for years and years, and I cannot allow that to go on, knowing there might be a way to stop it. You don’t know, Edward; you don’t know what it’s like…living without hope. We would rather die than go on like this. Do you understand me?”

“I understand.” Edward said.

“I suppose we’ll have to do this by ourselves.” Ray said.

“Yes. Just us three,” Egann said, “The less people know about it, the better.”

“Where do we start?” Edward asked.

Egann was about to answer, when something unexpected happened: the doorbell rang.

Callie was still draining Alixa, and was too deep into her memories to notice the doorbell.

Zedda and Mr. Blessure, however, were taken aback.

“That’s odd,” Mr. Blessure said, “Two arrivals in one day.”

“What’s odder is that I foresaw the one, but not the other.” Zedda said, “Either the Majisrunes failed me, or I missed something.”

“Do you wish me to check on it?”

“No, Mr. Balooda can take care of that. Whoever it is will get brought up here, and then we’ll see what’s what. I want you here in case our peeping tom tries to sneak another peek.”

“As you wish.” Mr. Blessure said.

The two looked over at Callie. 
She was now finished with Alixa, and tossed her to the side.

“More!” she said.

“Now’s our chance!” Egann said, “I have to get the door, but Balooda will have to come to see who it is.”

“When he does, we zip into his office and get the egg!” Edward said.

“Yes, but you’ll have to be fast.” Egann said, “I don’t know if Balooda will want to escort our mystery guest up to Zedda himself, or not.”

The three hurried out of the laundry room.

Egann headed for the foyer; Edward and Ray lagged behind and hid in a dark alcove, to keep an eye out for Balooda.

Egann approached and entered the entrance hall.

He walked to the front door just as he had done hours ago, when Mike, Callie, and Edward had entered the hotel.

He opened the door.

A teen-age boy stood there. He had come in a green station wagon, and had parked it next to the white MACATTO INSURANCE car.

“Hello,” he said, “My name is Jon.”