Chapters 51 - 58

Chapters 51 -to- 58. For size reasons, Chapters 59 and 60, the last two chapters, will get their their own page. 

Chapter 51

The Last of Charles Longstreet

        Inside his father’s mind, in his memories, Mike saw the point where his family’s destiny took a screaming left turn into darkness.
The moment Charles Longstreet met Araboam Sinestri.

It happened one night, when Charles Longstreet had returned from work. The apartment building where he and his family lived had an underground parking garage. Charles parked and exited his car---and almost walked right into an imposing figure he hadn’t seen was there.
The figure stepped out from the shadows.
He was a tall, ancient-looking man, with fiery eyes that looked demonic in their intensity. He had a grey beard and goatee cut like an arrow pointing down; and a thin moustache that curled up at the ends. His grey hair was short, and his long thin fingers ended in yellow, pointed, nails. He was wearing what could only be described as a wizard’s robe; black as night, with four lines of cabalistic writing crawling along the tattered hem, done up masterfully with silver stitching.
“Oh! Excuse me!” Charles said. He realized he was all alone in the darkened parking garage with what had to be a raving lunatic of some sort. He tried to walk past, but all of a sudden found movement of any kind impossible.
The old man lifted his hand, put his finger on Longstreet’s forehead, and pushed; tipping him backwards into a hard fall. Charles fell on his back, and the back of his head hit the cement floor in a painful explosion that should have knocked him out, but didn’t.
What is happening to me? Charles thought to himself, as talking was also beyond him right now, WHY is this happening to me?
The stranger towered over him.
“My name is Araboam Sinestri,” he said, his voice low and resonant, “And you, Charles Longstreet, will do as I say.”
Here, he took a stylized knife from the pocket of his robe. He flicked it’s sharp end across the pad of his pinky. A thick droplet fell, and spattered on Longstreet’s forehead.
Charles Longstreet grimaced and groaned in pain as the droplet burned its way through his skin. He tried to fight, tried to scream; all to no avail. A dead calm came over him, as darkness took him over.
I will do as you say, Longstreet thought; voice was still denied him.
“No need to talk, I can read your mind.” Sinestri said, “And I know you will do everything I ask; the tainted blood I’ve given you brooks no argument. Malevolencia, it’s been called of old; the stain of darkest magic. It is the crux of this very matter. However, the task I have for you will require years of your life; and being a mere Pah’jec, you will not last much more than a week before the Malevolencia renders you unusable.”
Sinestri put away his knife, and from another pocket, retrieved a ring. The band was of sparkling silver, with a small black stone pyramid. 
It matched the one Sinestri himself was wearing.
“Yes, like mine.” Sinestri said, catching Longstreet’s stray thought, “This ring will hold back the effects of the Malevolencia. When I put it on you, you will forget everything that has happened here, and everything I am about to tell you. You will seem to go back to normal, but you will do everything I am about to command you to do, anyway. You will think you are doing it of your own volition.”
What do you want me to do?
“You will take your children away from here; away from their mother. Out of the city; far away. Be gone before morning rises. I have cast a deep sleep upon your wife and children, so you will have no problems with them. Make no extensive preparations; just leave. Raise them and watch over them; I will have need of them later.”
When they are older they will ask questions.
“Tell them nothing. The mystery of it will pique their curiosity about their missing mother; and that will play into my plans, when the time is right.
“Now remember: never take the ring off. If you do, the full force of what has been held back will wash over you; as will memory of this moment. Not that the dam will hold forever, mind you. As time passes, minor leakage will occur, so to speak, darkening your personality. More and more as the years go by, I’m afraid; that cannot be helped. When the day comes that the ring is removed, be assured that you will see me again soon after, with new instructions.
“One last detail: after it has been removed, do not touch the ring again! With all the darkness it will have absorbed throughout the years, touching it will hasten your dissolution. Is all that understood?”
“Good. Now raise your hand.”
Charles did as commanded; Sinestri bent down and placed the ring on the finger of his uplifted hand. The hand remained in the air.
“I’ll be watching.” Sinestri said. He turned and made a gesture with his hands. A great tear in reality opened up into a large hole. Beyond it, an aqua-colored abyss waited. Sinestri turned back to Longstreet and said: “You can wake up now, slowly.”
He stepped into the hole, and it closed behind him.
Charles Longstreet awoke in slow waves on the floor of the parking garage, and wondered how the hell he had gotten there.
The pain in the back of his head led him to deduce that he had slipped and fallen, no doubt knocked unconscious. He got up, and walked toward the elevators, not feeling any different from the man he was before the fall.
When he got to his apartment, and looked down on his sleeping wife, however; a strange and powerful repulsion came over him, and he came to the realization that he had to get himself and his children away from this woman and this city, as soon as possible.

Mike saw it all…
He saw his father pack away several things he was going to need in the back of his old station wagon. He had purchased a new car two years prior, but had kept the wagon in good condition in order to sell it. Now he figured the wagon, rather than the car, would be better suited for a long voyage with children, such as the one he had in mind.
He worked without haste; somehow he knew his wife and kids would not wake up for hours. When at last he was ready to get his children, he went back to the apartment, and entered their room.
He bent over to lift Michael from his bed, when he caught sight of his own reflection in the dresser mirror, and froze.
Something in the eyes of that other Charles Longstreet staring back, terrified him; something unfamiliar and alien. A shudder passed through his body and into the depths of his soul. It was like looking at a monster hiding in his own skin, bending over his son.
Longstreet held his breath and closed his eyes for a moment; when he opened them again, his reflection was his own.
Mike saw his father take him and Callie, and drive out of Cathim.
They passed through another, if smaller, city, some towns, and then the Vawx Woods on the old Gavalin Road, which was much better kept back then. He saw their stop at Murgent for gas (that small idyllic town was still six years away from Zedda’s terrible vengeance). He saw their passage through Metromax City, through the Rough Country, through Kraddok (where they stopped at a Mom and Pop store that stood where Friq’s Food Farm now stood). Day after day of traveling. Places familiar to Mike rolled by; Gough, then Crayton, finally Noah’s Oak. Back to the house where Charles Longstreet’s journey had begun; as well as theirs. The place he had so longed to escape, to find his destiny.
The children did not take well to this situation, at first; but their father calmed them with lies that their mother would join them soon.
Mike at least quieted down, for a time; truth be told, he enjoyed traveling, and could be absorbed for hours in looking out the window and enjoying the scenery in silence.
But Callie wanted her mother, and NOW. She threw a major tantrum when they were passing through Murgent, and her father did something he had never done before, and had never thought he would ever do.
He slapped her. Hard. 
Slapped her on the very cheek he would one day hit with a closed fist.
As Callie exploded into a crying jag, her father’s face became a miserable mask of conflicted emotions and self-loathing.
The slow and agonizing death of the good and kind man he once was, had begun.

Mike now felt a hard slap at his cheek, and realized Callie was trying to get his attention.
Then, his father’s memories went dark, and a suffocating coldness descended upon the entirety of his father’s mind. Mike slipped out of it as quick as he could.
“MIKE, GET THE HELL OUTTA THERE!” Callie screamed, damn near shattering his eardrum.
“I’m out already!” he yelled.
He did. He knew already what he was going to see, but it was still startling nonetheless.
Their father was turning into a man-sized pillar of thick black goop.
“It just started,” Callie said, “It spread real fast. I didn’t know what would happen if you were still in his mind when he went full gooey; that’s why I slapped you.”
“I know.” Mike said, “Thanks Cal.”
As the three watched, the black goop utterly consumed the last of Charles Longstreet. Then, the pillar collapsed on itself into a gelid mass of black putrescence, of loathsome odor.
“GAA!” said Callie.
“UGG!” said Jon.
“Behold the wonders of magic.” said Mike.
The three backed away, hands over mouths and noses, both to avoid the stench, and to keep from vomiting.
“JEESH! Even Kitty didn’t smell like that when she went gooey.” Callie said, “And this stuff doesn’t seem to be turning into those black snake-like things either.”
“She didn’t have it in her system for eleven years, like Dad.” Mike said, “Hers was still new, his was played out. That’s my guess anyway.”
“What did you find out in there, Mike?” Jon asked.
“Dad was an innocent victim of Sinestri, not a willing accomplice; at least not until that stuff began its work on him. He was a good man; a loving husband and father. Sinestri destroyed him.” Mike said, “I saw him, Callie. I saw how he did it.”
Into Callie and Jon’s minds, he poured everything he saw in his father’s memories.
“Woah!” Jon said, putting his hands on his head.
“Oh! Sorry about that, Jon.” said Mike, “I just felt you should know everything we know, as you are taking the same risks. Callie had no problem with the brain exchange; I figured you wouldn’t either.”
“I’m okay,” Jon said, “I was just…startled. That was interesting, though. Kind of ironic, how you two have inadvertently taken the same route to Cathim, that he took, going away.”
“No wonder he always knew where we were going.” Callie said.
“That’s my fault.” said Mike, “I must have retraced the whole route by memory, without even knowing I was doing it.”
“No reason to change now.” said Jon, “Only these woods and some towns stand between us and Cathim.”
“And Sinestri seems to have run out of lackeys to set against us.” Callie added, “That we know of, anyway.”
“And we may not have to walk to Cathim after all.” Mike said, “I doubt very much that Dad got here on foot, or on Babbidaz’s back.”
“On that subject,” Callie said, taking out a pair of keys on a keyring, “I got these out of Dad’s pocket while you were in his head; a few seconds before he started to go bad.”
“What would I do without you, Cal?” Mike asked.
“You don’t want to know, doofus.”

They trudged through the woods until they reached the road. On that road was a busted up station wagon (beyond repair), bracketed by logs, and an ash grey car parked behind it.
On the other side of the road stood Bell, with five other Bufaaru; they all held aloft sharpened weapons crafted from sticks and bones. Mike, Callie, and Jon walked over to them.
A quick sweep of their minds showed Mike that there had been seven; the other two had been sent to bury Edward’s body at the place where they had just buried the body of their leader. These here planned to go and search for the beast that had murdered Tullam.
“It’s dead, Bell. We killed it.” Mike said, and sent the images of Babbidaz’s final moments into their minds.
The five Bufaaru with Bell were startled and frightened at this trick, despite the fact that Bell had told them about Mike and Callie’s powers. They looked at each other to register that they had all shared in the vision, then they stared at Mike and Callie with open-mouthed awe; as if they were looking upon gods.
Bell remained stoic, but looked worn out. She had done much crying for her lost Tullam; and finding Edward’s body here had shocked her. She had been unaware of his death, though she had suspected the possibility.
“While you’re looking around in there,” she said to Mike, pointing to her head, “You will also see that I have some news for you.”
“Your group decided not to help us.” Jon said.
“You read minds too?” Bell asked him.
“No, just a guess.” Jon said, “Tullam’s death probably didn’t speak well for our plight.”
Bell’s composure threatened to fall apart upon mention of Tullam, but she held it together. “No, it didn’t.” she said, “You three are dangerous to know; and we have enough of an enemy in the Frellam, to go taking on yours.”
It doesn’t matter anyway, Mike thought to himself, We don’t need you anymore; we have a car now.
“Thank you for trying anyway, Bell.” Callie said, “And I’m so sorry about Tullam. We lost Edward to that monster as well.”
At Edward’s name, Bell’s face and heart softened.
“Edward stayed behind to save me.” she said, “I’ve sent his body to be buried where we bury our own. It’s all I can give him in return.”
“Thank you.” said Jon.
There was no more to be said. Bell motioned to the others, and they turned to depart into their side of the woods.
“Goodbye and good luck to you.” she said, as she and the others took to the trees and disappeared into their foliage.
“To you and your people as well.” Mike said.

The three took everything that was salvageable in the wagon, over to the car Charles Longstreet had so thoughtfully provided for them.
Callie used her power to move the wagon and the logs off to the side of the road, and out of their way. Jon took the opportunity to change his torn and bloody shirt with one from the duffel bag he had brought with him from Metromax. He then helped Mike clear the smaller obstacles (shattered glass, the wagon’s spilled guts, branches that had snapped off the logs, and the back hatch) off the road.
Then, the three stopped for a moment to contemplate the ruins of the station wagon.
“She served us well.” Mike said, sadly.
“When she wasn’t getting stolen.” Callie replied.
“Or impounded.” Jon added.
“Or beaten into a useless pile of wreckage by a pair of hairy giants.” Callie continued, “Speaking of which…”
“Yes, let’s get out of here.” Mike said, and turned to go.
“Goodbye, Edward.” Jon said, looking into the woods, “And thank you for everything.”
The three got in the car, and soon they were off.

Chapter 52

Shadows Present, Shadows Past

Mike was dreaming.

In his dream he saw a great battle; a battle of Ma’jai against Ma’jai. 
It took place in a stone valley surrounded by grey mountains; a vast and lifeless basin at the center of which stood the ruins of a long-abandoned temple carved out of the rock. There was an evil aspect to the place that suggested that the temple was once used for the worship of unspeakable gods.
Fireballs and sekari were hurled and deflected; wild animal were controlled like puppets and set against each other and enemy combatants. Some Ma’jai tossed glowing packets of earth and seeds, which upon hitting the ground exploded forth ferocious beasts made of vegetation. Some threw vials that flashed brightly upon impact, and blinded their enemies. Some threw explosive concoctions half practical, half magical. Others merely engaged one on one, sekari to sekari.
Mike recognized two faces in the battle. The first one was a young Rufus Kantry. The other he saw later, and almost didn’t recognize him: an even younger Araboam Sinestri. 
Though they weren’t fighting each other specifically, Mike could tell they were on opposite sides of the fight.
Kantry’s side was trying to stop some black-cloaked sorcerer types from performing a ritual within a circle of stylized pillars in the center of the temple ruins. Sinestri’s side was in their way, protecting the sorcerers.
After an interval of deadlock, a tipping point in the battle was reached, and Kantry’s group began to overtake Sinestri’s (although Mike lost track of Sinestri in the chaotic fray).
Sinestri’s side started to fall apart, and the battle became a massacre, as Kantry’s brigade wiped out their opponents; however, before they could take out the sorcerers…the ritual was completed.
A massive tear in the fabric of reality appeared within the circle of pillars, announced by a thunderous crashing roar like that of giant boulders rolling down a mountainside. The tear expanded without warning, and consumed both the pillars, and the sorcerers that had conjured it; along with the bodies of the dead that had fallen close by.
Out of that black hole poured forth a putrid, yet material, darkness that polluted the Voss Vedu’un, like filth discharged into a pristine river. 
It was darkest magic in its purest form.
Behind it followed a swarm of hideous monsters; all mouths and fangs, with red, raw, and asymmetrical slits that passed for eyes. These tore and gnawed at the edges of the hole, forcing its further expansion.
Kantry’s battle-weary group now took on the monsters; firebombing them off the edges of the rift. Half the monsters broke off to take on the Ma’jai, while the others remained on the job.
The voice belonged to the leader of the Ma’jai; and those he referred to as Rashas seemed to be an honor guard or something. They were dressed finer than the others, and their position in the front lines of the battle suggested they were perhaps the most powerful Ma’jai of the group. Rufus Kantry was among their number.
Their leader was tall, dashing, and charismatic; the fierceness of his green eyes would put Callie’s to shame, in comparison.
The Rashas now worked on sealing the rift, while the rest of the remaining Ma’jai took on the monsters.  
Then, from beyond the palpable darkness of the rift, Mike saw two great cyclopean eyes open; insane alien eyes, evil beyond description. Mike screamed with a soul-shattering fright almost beyond endurance. Screamed to wake or die; anything, rather than to look upon the owner of those horrible awful eyes! Eyes that grew larger as they approached the rift.
Someone shook him to wakefulness. It was Callie.
Mike never loved his sister more than at that moment; when her voice and hands saved him from the dreadful vision.
He was sweating, and his heart hammered in his chest faster than he thought possible.
“Are you okay?” Callie asked, concerned. She had crossed over to the backseats to awaken him. “Another nightmare?” she asked.
“No.” Mike said, in gasps; he was still having trouble getting his breath, “No nightmare that bad ever. It was a vision.”
He noticed that the car was not moving. Jon had stopped the car, and was looking at them from the driver’s seat.
“A vision of what?” he asked.
“Something horrible from the past.” Mike replied.
“Well, show us.” Callie said.
Mike sent into their minds a replay of the dream, from start to finish, as best as he could remember; though already, certain details had started to evaporate to where forgotten dreams go. When they got to the part about the infernal eyes, though it was but a paltry recollection of the image, with only a fraction of the power of the original; it was strong enough still that both Jon and Callie were taken aback. Jon with a shout, Callie with a squeal of terror; both shuddered and paled.
“Damn!” Jon said, “I’m sorry I asked!”
“No wonder you screamed.” Callie said.
“Tell him what he said, Callie.” Jon said.
“I said something?” Mike asked.
“Right before you screamed.” Jon said.
“What did I say?”
“You said ‘Shadaro’, or something like that.” Callie replied.
“Shadaro?” Mike asked. 
Something about the word felt familiar, but it also sounded wrong.
“Best guess.” Callie said, “It went by so fast, we can’t be sure.”
“That might be the thing’s name.” Mike said, “And whatever IT is, I think that it’s the true source of Malevolencia, not Sinestri.”
“So, what does that make Sinestri?” Jon asked, “A servant of this Shadaro?”
“I don’t know,” Mike said, “But it was his group that summoned it.”
“A more important question is,” Jon continued, “Is this Shadaro something we’re gonna hafta face somewhere down the road? Because if it is, I’m gonna hafta depart this happy troupe right here and now, cause there is no way I’m gonna wanna face THAT. Ever.”
“I don’t think so.” Mike said, “It was clearly an image from long ago. If Rufus and his group had failed to seal the rift before IT got through…believe me, the history of the world as we know it would’ve been a whole lot different; and not in a good way.”
“Well that’s good,” said Jon, “I was beginning to get nervous.”
Feeling a little calmer now, Mike looked out the window and noticed the afternoon cast to the daylight. The last thing Mike remembered before falling asleep was switching driving duties with Jon, and eating a late lunch in the backseats alone.
“How long did I sleep?” he asked.
“Three hours or so.” Callie said, as she climbed back to the front passenger seat.
“Three hours?!”
“It was less a nap, than a coma.” Jon said with a laugh, “That battle with Babbadabba, or whatever the hell it’s name was, must have wore you out more than you knew.”
“I don’t remember feeling worn out.” Mike said.
Then again, he had been channeling so much Voss Vedu’un energy through his body, it was possible that he had somehow fried its ability to transmit feelings of tiredness. Perhaps his body had kept on going until taking the first opportunity shown it to shut down and recuperate.
“Well,” Mike said, “I’ll have to remember to pace myself better, from here on out.”
“Pace yourself later,” Jon said, “I’m tired of driving.”

An hour into Mike’s shift, as the three enjoyed a supper of sandwiches and sodas, the Vawx Woods dwindled away, and were replaced with what appeared to be ghost towns. Abandoned buildings, empty homes, overrun lawns, and silent, unlit streets greeted them at every turn.
“Were these towns cursed too?” Callie asked.
“I don’t think so,” said Mike, “I think after Cathim got cursed, these towns just dried up. They must have felt isolated; between a cursed city on one side, and the wilderness we just passed on the other.”
“Don’t forget Murgent.” Jon added, “After Cathim and then Murgent got screwed over, they must’ve felt like they were next.”
They continued onward.

As the sun undertook the final leg of its descent, the first hazy spires of Cathim could be seen in the distance; unlit and lifeless.
For the next hour, as darkness fell, the three talked to keep a growing sense of uneasiness at bay. They talked of Edward, of their battle with Babbidaz, of what might await them when they reached Cathim.
When darkness in its totality at last cloaked everything around them, Callie turned on all the interior car lights; making them feel like a tiny bubble of light and warmth, in a cold and dark world.

Then, as they knew it would, the car ran out of gas.
Their vehicle came to a shuddering stop, and left them in the dead center of an intersection.
“Well, that’s that.” Mike said.
“What do we do now?” Callie asked; she looked out the windows at the forbidding landscape around them.
“It’s too dark to undertake anything now,” Mike said, “I say we call it a night. We can start walking to Cathim tomorrow.”
“Sleep in the car?” Callie asked.
“Well yeah, hon,” Jon said, “Unless you want to go look over some of those nice empty houses in the dark…”
“Umm, no thanks.”
“The car it is then.” Jon said, “There’s gonna be some space issues, though. This car is kinda small, compared to the wagon.”
“That’s a problem you two are gonna have to work out between yourselves.” Mike said, raising the cup holder/auxiliary compartment in the middle of the front seats, up into its recess, “I got the front seats!”
With Mike taking the front seats, Callie and Jon had to work out how they were going to divide their space in back. As much as they might have liked to share the backseats; they were simply not wide enough for the both of them, so Jon had to lie on the floor of the car with a strategic placing of blankets, bags, and pillows, to even out the low parts with the hump in the middle. Callie shared her covering blanket with him, though.  
They turned off the interior lights, locked their doors, and settled down for the night.
“G’night, Mike.” said Callie.
“G’night Callie.” said Mike.
“G’night Callie.” said Jon.
“G’night Jon.” said Callie.
“G’night Mike.” said Jon.
“Oh, just shut it already.” said Mike.
Callie and Jon snickered in the dark.

Sleep did not come easy to any of them. Aside from the discomfort of sleeping in a car, they were surrounded by a dark dead world outside that, despite its emptiness, still emanated threat and menace. 
They kept their eyes at the windows, lest some tenebrous force should attack.
Still, weariness took its toll, and the three eventually, one by one, fell into a deep sleep.
The fierce glowing eyes of Araboam Sinestri appeared in mid-air outside the car, and looked inside at the sleepers.
Soon, children, Sinestri thought to himself, Oh, so soon…

Callie and Jon awoke the next morning to find that Mike was not inside the car. They got out and found him sitting on the roof of the car, looking towards Cathim. That city’s visible towers seemed to float on a cloud of haze.
“How long have you been up?” Jon asked.
“Not long.” Mike said, “Woke up early, couldn’t get a wink after. Too much thinking about things I don’t understand and can’t control. So I got out and sat up here, to clear my head.”
“Too bad,” Callie said, “It was half-empty already.”
Jon snorted with laughter.
Mike ignored the jibe. He turned and slipped off the car to join them. He pointed to Cathim’s towers. “By the look of that, how far do you think Cathim is?” he asked Jon.
“Walking?” Jon asked.
“Unless you can fly.”
“Uhhh---I don’t know. Jon replied, It’s hard to say, the haze is really funky; it makes judging distances difficult.”
Mike nodded. “I’m having the same problem, even with my Ma’jai-enhanced vision. That haze is screwy.”
“But what is it?” asked Callie, “It doesn’t look…natural.”
“Well, we damn well know it’s not natural.” Jon said, “The million-dollar question is: is it dangerous?”      
“We’ll just have to find out when we get there.” Mike said.
“Are we really gonna hafta walk?” Callie asked.
“I'm afraid so, Cal.” Mike said, “I don’t think I’ve seen a single viable vehicle since we left the woods.”
“We’ll have to pack light.” Jon said, “Anything we carry will feel like three tons after several hours of walking; I speak from experience.”
“We have to carry food, though,” Callie added, “Have you two taken a gander at any of the store-fronts we passed along the way? Nothing but empty shelves. The people who lived here might have left---but they took the time to take everything useful with them.”
Mike nodded, “Alright then, we take as much food as we can, no blankets or pillows or extra clothes to bulk us up.”
“I brought a duffel bag and a backpack with me from Metromax,” Jon said, “We can fill those with what’s left of the dry foods. One of us can carry the little ice chest with the more perishable stuff.”
“What about the sodas?” Callie asked, “We can’t lug the big ice chest around, it’ll slow us down too much.”
“We can put some in a plastic bag and carry it.” Mike said.
“Looks like a plan.” Jon said.
“Fantastic,” said Callie, “Now let’s eat. I’m hungry.”

They ate a quick breakfast, and then were ready to go.
Mike carried the small chest with the foil-wrapped sandwiches, burgers, and hot dogs in it; Jon wore his backpack and carried his duffel bag (both loaded with goodies); and Callie carried the plastic bag (double-bagged, for safety) with the sodas.
They started walking.

Chapter 53

The Galapansky Bridge

They walked.  

In the empty stillness, their footsteps echoed eerily, as though they were being followed. They talked little, as their voices sounded too loud in the surrounding silence. One empty town gave way to another, then that one too dwindled away behind them. As noon approached, buildings began to appear, signaling their entrance into a city; albeit a minor one.
A billboard to their right announced: WELCOME TO ZAGSO! Cathim’s little brother!
The illustration below the text anthropomorphized the city of Cathim as a tall, stern big brother beaming proudly down at its scruffy, but lovable, little brother.
Too bad the brothers got whacked, Mike thought to himself.
“Look at that.” Callie said, breaking the silence.
She pointed at a large water fountain in front of a building ahead to their left. The fountain wasn’t on, but it was only a short distance out of their way, and in a shady area.
“Let’s take a breather over there.” she said, “I need a break.”
“Alright, let’s rest a bit.” Mike said, “We should go ahead and have lunch there while we’re at it.”
The building had a sign in front of it, half of which was illegible due to a dark purple fungal growth, which was halfway through the process of obliterating it. The still-legible half said: URIST CENTER.
They reached the fountain, and looked in.
At the bottom of the pool, aside from a few rust-colored coins, was a thin film of the purple fungus stuff.
“Oh, ick!” Callie said.
Still, the benches in the shade around the fountain were clean enough to sit on; and so they did, releasing their burdens to the ground beside their feet with great relief.
Callie took out three sodas, while Jon removed his backpack. Mike rummaged through the small ice chest.
“The sodas aren’t that cold, I’m afraid.” Callie said, passing the cans to Mike and Jon, “If the ice in the big chest hadn’t turned to water, I woulda tossed a couple of cubes in the bag.”
“Wanna dog?” Mike asked her, lifting a hot dog.
“I’m more of a cat person.” Callie said, then laughed at the look Mike gave her, “Yeah, give it to me.”
Mike gave her the dog, and then got one for himself, as Jon busily constructed a ham sandwich.
“I wonder what this place is,” Callie asked, as she munched on her hot dog, “Or was.”
“It’s a Tourist Center.” Jon said, “I guess if you were a tourist, they’d tell you where stuff was and such. They’d give you pamphlets and flyers with hotel numbers and restaurant locations; junk like that.”
“I guess they don’t have much to brag about these days.” Mike said, “Zagso’s not exactly a beehive of activity anymore.”
Jon, sandwich still in hand, walked over to the front of the building, which faced them.
“Let’s check it out.” he said.
The door of the building was glass. Jon put his head against it to get a good look inside. The glass moved, and he saw the door was open.
“Hey!” he turned back toward Mike and Callie, “They left it open! Can you believe that?”
“Don’t go in there, babe.” Callie called out.
“Why not?” Jon asked, looking back inside, “I’m a tourist.”
Jon opened the door, and entered.
From where they sat, Mike and Callie could see him look around, then walk beyond their line of sight.
“Some monster’s gonna jump out and bite his head off in there.” Mike said, “You know that, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Callie said, through a mouthful of hot dog, “I know.”
Jon soon re-emerged from the tourist center; the final remnants of his sandwich in one hand, and an old yellowed pamphlet in the other.
“I found something.” he said, waving the pamphlet.
“Hey Jon,” Mike said, “Have you ever in your life seen a scary movie? Do you know what happens to idiots who break off from the pack to go investigate the old dark Tourist Center by themselves?”
Callie ignored him. “What was it like in there?” she asked.
“Empty, creepy, and smelly.” Jon replied.
“Hey! Just like our house now, Cal!” Mike said.
“There’s a lot of that purple fungus crap in there too,” Jon continued, “On the walls, the carpeting, everywhere.”
“What did you find?” Mike asked.
“An old pamphlet.” Jon said, “The only one. Found it at the bottom shelf of an otherwise empty pamphlet rack.”
He looked at the front section, and read it aloud: “Welcome to Zagso! The little city beside the big city!”
He unfolded the pamphlet.
“Oh, there’s a map!” he said.
Mike and Callie moved in to get a closer look at the map.
It was a map of both Zagso and Cathim. It wasn’t very detailed; Zagso was a small amorphous blob, Cathim was a big amorphous blob, and both blobs were connected by the Galapansky Bridge, which spanned the Caracul River. The map also showed, in a basic fashion, some of the major arteries (drawn as thin red and blue lines) in both Zagso and Cathim; as well as pictograms depicting all the favorite tourist haunts.
“This could be useful for when we get to Cathim.” Mike said.
“Yes, because you know I can’t wait to go see the Fantasta-Dome.” Callie said sarcastically, “I hear it seats thousands.”
“You won't have to wait in line, at least.” Jon said.
He folded the map, put it in his pocket, and dropped the crust of his sandwich in the fountain. It plopped silently on the thin film of purple fungus, which then began to ooze over the crust, and devour it.
The three got on the road again.

After another hour of walking, their road dipped and passed under four freeway overpasses. The area underneath was nice and shady, but something of a wind tunnel. It was also spooky as hell, as the wind seemed to shriek like a banshee around them.
Then, their road became a freeway itself, rising up over the other roads, and affording them a scenic view of devastating emptiness.

As they descended once more to ground level (they came to love the descents, they made walking easier), something in the parking lot of a big-chain grocery store off to their right, caught Jon’s eye.
“Hey! Look at that! Do you see what I see?” he said.
“What?” asked Callie, “The Bes-Mart?”
“The parking lot, I mean.”
“It’s a nice parking lot, as parking lots go.” Callie said.
“I think he means the stray shopping cart IN the parking lot, Cal.” Mike said, in his best ‘I’m talking to an idiot child’ voice.
Callie flashed them a sly smile. “Yes, I know!” she said, “C’mon. Let’s go get the damn shopping cart.”
For the second time that day, the three veered off their road. They ran into the empty, oversized, Bes-Mart parking lot.
Jon reached the cart first, and gave it a roll. The wheels were sticky at first, but remembered their long-forgotten vocation, and began to roll better after some pushing.
Jon looked up as Mike and Callie neared.
“It’s rusty, and one of the wheels is a little loopy, but she’s good to go.” he said, putting his backpack and duffel bag into the cart.
Mike and Callie followed suit, and likewise unloaded their burdens into the cart.
“Dammit.” Callie said, “The child seat is rusted shut, and here I was hoping for a ride.”
“We can take turns pushing it around.” Jon said, “A half-hour per person. And since I was the one who saw it first, I’ll go last.”
“And since Callie was being a smart-ass,” Mike said, “She can go first.”
“Alright,” Callie said, grabbing the cart’s handle bar, “But if we get another good descent, I’m jumping in there and riding this mother down!”

They walked ever onward.
An hour passed, then another.
Yet another still.
Callie was into her third shift with the cart, when they finally arrived at the entrance to the Galapansky Bridge.
There the three stood and stared at the bridge span before them, which started in clarity, then disappeared at the half-way point into the haze which covered all of Cathim like a pall.
“You guys ready?” Mike asked.
“Yeah.” said Callie.
“Let’s do it.” said Jon.
The Galapansky Bridge received them with open arms, while Cathim beyond it awaited their arrival in dead silence.
There were a few abandoned vehicles on this half of the bridge, but their path was clear. Below, the dark waters of the Caracul River shimmered like black satin. The air all around them seemed pregnant with both breathless expectation, and sinister intent.
“We’re being watched, you know.” Callie said.
“Have been, from the very beginning.” Mike replied.
“Stop it.” Jon said.
Upon reaching the cut-off point, where the haze just seemed to start, as if held back by an invisible plane; the three stopped.
Mike, ahead of the other two, extended his hand in a slow and cautious manner, to touch the surreality before him. His hand slid into the haze side, to no apparent ill-effect. Mike walked into the other side, and the others followed.
They entered a twilight world, where the sun’s rays struggled to pass through the thick mesh of haze. That something was wrong here, Mike already knew; but now he could feel it as well. The Voss Vedu’un was not only polluted, it was lifeless; like water in a dirty jar, left to stagnate on a dusty cupboard shelf for years and years.
Callie sensed it too, and looked repulsed. Jon alone seemed unaffected…but that was about to change.
“AHHH!” Jon shouted all of a sudden, and then doubled over, as if sucker-punched.
His face contorted with pain, and choking sounds emerged from his mouth, as he fell to the ground and went into a fetal position.
Callie and Mike went to him, and saw Jon’s eyes and fingernails begin to blacken; as did his veins, which snaked thin traceries of darkness across his face and arms.
“What’s happening---?!” Callie started to ask, but cut herself off with a screeching yelp, as she too doubled over and collapsed in agony.
Before he could react, Mike spasmed with what felt like a sledgehammer blow to the stomach. He fell to his hands and knees as mind-blowing pain blossomed throughout his whole body, like an electric shock. His throat swelled to the point that all vocalization was impossible; and every inhalation felt like acid in his lungs.
As his eyesight began to darken, he looked over to Callie and Jon. They were both convulsing on the ground, too far gone in pain for rational thought; as he too would be within seconds.
Then all would be lost.
They had walked only a few steps into the haze, but the cut-off point between haze and clarity might as well have been a world away. Mike stretched his hand toward it, but it was beyond his reach; and movement was now impossible.
His hand still outstretched, Mike called forth the Voss Vedu’un; not the dead one within, but the living one outside.
To his despair, whatever power it was that circumscribed the haze was also a barrier to the Voss Vedu’un outside. He could sense it strain against the barrier, eager to reach him; but the barrier held it back, and Mike could no longer force the issue.
With the last of his strength of will, he sent a thin streamer of fire from his hand, up towards the barrier, and through to the other side. 
He hollowed out the streamer to make it, in effect, a straw; through which he siphoned untainted Voss Vedu’un energy from beyond the barrier.
The Good Stuff poured in through the fire straw, and flowed down, right through to his outstretched hand.
Relief, like undiluted joy, followed as he pulled more and more fresh energy into his body; using it to heal and reverse the effects of Sinestri’s curse on his body, pain being the first of these.
Now healed, Mike no longer needed the fire straw. His power and focus now at full strength; he pushed the Voss Vedu’un on the other side to break through the barrier, and come to him. It obeyed.
He went over to Callie and Jon.
They were almost too far gone. Both had their eyes, mouths, and nostrils sealed up with what looked like shiny black tar, along with their backs and extremities; and there were places where their clothes merged with the “tar” as well.
Mike laid his hands upon them, drew the Voss Vedu’un into and around them, and worked hard to bring them back. Not an easy task, as the curse had taken deeper root in them than it had in him.
After two minutes of concentrated effort, he drew them back from the brink, and completed the healing process. The black tar withdrew and disappeared, and even their clothes were now back to normal.
Mike sat back against the railing, and breathed a sigh of relief.
That had been altogether too close.
Jon got up with a heavy groan. He sat up and looked over at Mike.
“Okay, what the hell was THAT?!” he asked, “Was it just me?”
He looked, and saw Callie beside him; still out.
“Not Callie too?” he asked, dismayed.
“All of us.” Mike said, “It was the curse. Once we walked in here, it hit us like a sack of bricks. It was touch and go there, for awhile; but I managed to pull us out of it.”
“What was happening to us?” Jon asked, “Was it like what happened to your Dad?”
“No. What happened to my father was dissolution.” Mike said, “What was happening to us here was transformation. Sinestri’s curse was turning us into something.”
“What were we turning into?”
“I don’t know, but the people of this city were all stricken by this curse; and that includes my mother.”
Callie moaned and stirred.
Jon went to her. “Is she gonna be alright?” he asked.
“Yes.” Mike replied.
Callie opened her eyes and saw Jon looking down on her.
“Good morning, sunshine.” he said.
Callie smiled. “Mike saved the day again, didn’t he?”
Jon nodded, and helped her up.
“So is everybody okay?” she asked, looking a tad woozy.
“Everybody but you, hotcakes.” Jon said.
“That hurt like the purest hell, dinnit?” she asked, “I’m gonna hafta check my underwear after that seizure!”
“Thanks for the imagery.” Mike said, “Are you gonna need a privacy moment?”
“Nah, I’m okay. It’s just that---Hey! Look at the haze!”
Mike and Jon looked up and noticed that the haze, at least around the bridge area, was dissipating. Mike could see the Voss Vedu’un pour in through the hole he had made in the boundary; renewing and reabsorbing the stagnancy within. Though the city was still thick with it, the dissipation factor would soon plunge clarity and light deep into its murky heart.
“What does this mean?” Callie asked, “Is the curse lifted?”
“No,” said Mike, “This was the city’s Voss Vedu’un. It was unable to flow like it’s supposed to, because of the strict boundaries of Sinestri’s curse; so it went to rot, and turned into this haze.”
“What the hell is a Vosveduwon?” Callie asked; though the word sounded familiar to her. Perhaps she had heard it before, at some point.
“It’s the invisible sea of magic all around us. It’s sort of like water; when it flows, it’s clean and clear and life-sustaining. When it doesn’t, this happens…” Mike gestured with his hand toward the haze, “So I made a hole in the barrier to let some of the good stuff in and, like the proverbial crack in the dam, it’s starting to break through. But the curse is still active; the haze was just a side-effect.”
“If it’s still active,” Jon said, “Won’t it affect us again?”
“If it was going to, I think it would have done so by now.” Mike said, “We can consider ourselves immunized.”
“Which leads to the big question,” Callie said, “Just HOW do we put a stop to this curse? It’s what we’re here to do, isn’t it? No one has said it in so many words but, what the hell are we here for if not that?”
“If so, then it’s up to you, Mike.” Jon said, “You’re the Ma’jai.”
“If that’s true, then we’re screwed.” Mike replied, “Because while I was able to stop the curse from taking us over individually, pre-transformation; to free the entirety of the long-ago transformed people of Cathim, I would have to break the curse. A curse is like a spell; you take it out with magic words and gestures and the like. Remember Rufus Kantry in the Rough Country? Remember how he removed Sinestri’s spell? I don’t know how to do any of that.”
“You’ve gained a helluva lot of new talents since we left Murgent, Mike.” Jon said, “So it’s possible that the answer to this problem still lies within you as well.”
“Either way, I think we should get going again.” Mike said, Cathim awaits.”

Chapter 54


The second half of the Galapansky Bridge, unlike the previous, was strewn with vehicles. There was evidence of violent crashes, here and there; more than a few cars had broken through the side rails, and had either fallen into the river, or were protruding outward in a dangerous fashion.

It was like a maze. They made their way around this mess at a slow but steady rate. When they reached an impasse, the three would clamber over the obstructing car to the next open path, then Callie would lift the shopping cart with her power, and bring it to rest in front of Mike (whose turn it was to haul it around).
Most of the vehicles (those whose doors weren’t open), had either broken windows, or windshields, with black tarry stuff caught at the edges of the shattered glass; inside, the seats were inevitably stained and smeared with more of the same.
“You know this didn’t end well.” Mike said, as he looked through the broken windows.
“You think any of these vehicles might be usable?” Jon asked.
He had not failed to notice that most, if not all, of the cars still had their keys hanging from their ignition switches.
“After eleven years?” Mike asked, “I doubt it.”
“But not everyone in this city was in their cars when the curse hit,” Callie said, “There should be a lot of parked cars in good shape, don’t you think? How long can a car battery lie unused before it becomes useless? Or gas, for that matter?”
“I have no idea.” Mike answered, “It doesn’t matter anyway. The city’s streets are probably just like this, so driving isn’t likely in the cards.”
They continued on.
When Jon began his shift with the cart, they had finally gotten to the end of the bridge. Cathim lay ahead; already half clear of the rapidly disappearing haze.
“We should stop here and rest a bit, before we go on.” Mike said, “Give the Voss Vedu’un a chance to finish its work.”
“Well, if we’re gonna stop here, let’s go ahead and eat something.” Callie said, “I’m hungry and we might not get the chance later.”
Jon nodded in agreement, so they got their food out of the cart, sat on the hood of a car a few feet from Cathim’s threshold, and ate; not knowing that this would be the last time the three of them would share a meal together as a group.

“We should leave the cart here.” Mike said, when they had finished, “It’s become a liability, and is slowing us down. Let’s just stuff everything we have left in the backpack, and take turns carrying that.”
“It was gonna be my turn next with the cart,” Jon said, “So I guess I’ll carry the backpack around for awhile.”
They proceeded to transfer their remaining supplies to Jon’s backpack. Jon slung the heavy pack over his shoulder, and ran his arms in through its straps. 
“Ready to go.” he said.
“We can leave the chest and the duffel bag with the cart.” Callie said, “They’re just dead weight now, anyway.”
They walked over the threshold into Cathim.
“From this point on,” Mike said, “Things are likely to get a little weird.”
“Which should be a nice change of pace.” Jon replied.
“Less talky, more walky!” Callie said.
They entered the city.
Massive vehicular asymmetry greeted them on the streets of Cathim. Cars of all kinds were rammed against each other on the road in jagged diagonals. In places, they had been knocked over on their sides; victims of wrecks, sideswipes, and cascading pile-ups. More than a few cars had gone off the road altogether, and had rammed into buildings. Evidence of long-ago fires were scattered everywhere.
The damage stretched as far as they could see.
The three quit trying to negotiate the road, and instead climbed, and started hopping from car to car; which was easier.
“The Domino Effect was not these people’s friend.” Callie said, as she transferred from one car hood to another.
“Looks like the curse hit during rush hour.” Mike said, “Whether morning or evening is anyone’s guess.”
“Has anyone seen any bodies?” Jon asked, “Curse or not, a lot of catastrophic events happened here; crashes and fires. Some people had to have died before their transformation was complete.”
“I don’t think death was an option for these people.” Callie said, “If we learned anything from our experiences in Murgent; it’s that a powerful spell can hold back death.”
“That would explain the absence of bodies,” said Mike, “But that only leaves us with another question: where are the transformed peoples of Cathim now? I sure as hell don’t see ‘em; the place looks empty.”
Neither Callie nor Jon could answer that.
Mike himself didn’t know…but he had a hunch.
Since entering Cathim, a growing sense of déjà vu had settled over him. Not so much a feeling that he had been here before, as much as a feeling that he had done this before.
How this could be, escaped him at the moment; but revelation was dancing on the tip of his mind, awaiting its moment to arrive.

Empty skyscrapers like vast grey monoliths, surrounded them.
Not for the first time they marveled at the scope of Sinestri’s curse. It bespoke a power beyond their imagining; a power they were setting themselves against. A power dwarfed by the malice of he who wielded it. Mike and Callie’s meager talents seemed infinitesimal in comparison.
“Does anyone know where we’re going?” Callie asked, “Or are we just gonna wander around until we hit something?”
“Into the heart of the city.” Mike said, “That’s where we’re going. Something is waiting for us there.”
Callie and Jon looked askance at Mike.
“How would you happen to know this?” Callie asked, “And would you mind sharing it with the rest of the class?”
“I don’t know how I know.” Mike answered, “I just know that I know. When I know how, I’ll let you know.”
“That’s very illuminating, thanks.” Jon said.

Time passed.
The backpack went from Jon’s back, to Callie’s, to Mike’s.
They came to a point where the cars were so packed, they could not have gotten so naturally. They had been moved, and not by gentle hands. The sides of these vehicles were all bashed in, and smothered with black gunk. Mike, Callie, and Jon were able to step from car to car, with little or no hopping necessary.
They went on.
It was almost Jon’s turn with the backpack again, when the landscape changed once more. They could see that at some point ahead the road became devoid of all vehicles, not just on the street they were on, but on the intersecting streets as well; almost as if a large, spherical, area had been cleared out by a work crew.
They arrived at the last car, looked out at the street before them, and saw a heavy criss-crossing of oily black streak marks. Up ahead, about a quarter mile away, at the central crossroads of Cathim; a massive hole in the road, big enough to drop a good-sized house in, could be seen.
Mike opened his mouth as revelation at last washed over him.
“I can’t believe I forgot about this…” he said.
“What?” asked Callie.
“Remember our first day on the road, Cal?” Mike asked, “We stopped to eat supper in a field somewhere, under a tree…?”
It was now Callie’s turn to open her mouth in remembrance.
“The dream!” she said, “This is that dream!”
“What dream?” Jon, out of the loop, asked.
“I saw all of this in a dream I had Saturday before last; even your participation in it, Jon.” Mike said, “Four days before we even met you. Funny, you didn’t strike me as familiar when we first met; but by then, the dream was long-forgotten. I hadn’t remembered it until now.”
“And that hole?”
“That’s where THEY are…the cursed citizens of Cathim.”
As if summoned, a series of pig-like grunts rang out from the direction of the hole. Startled, the three stopped talking, and looked over at it.
A single “citizen” flopped out of the hole. At first blush, it looked kind of like a seal; in that it was shiny oil-slick black, and had a seal-like shape. In size and heft, though, it was closer to a sea-lion. It had no eyes or ears or any orifices whatsoever; no appendages either. Yet, it moved it’s “head” from side to side, as if looking around. Mike tried to read it’s mind, but got the mental equivalent of static.
“What the hell is that?” Jon whispered.
“The answer to your earlier question.” Mike whispered back, “That is what Sinestri’s curse was turning us into.”
“Shhhh!” Callie shushed, “It’ll hear us!”
“With what?” Jon hissed, “It has no sensory organs!”
“Nonetheless…” Mike said.
The thing swiveled it’s head-like protuberance toward them and, as if seeing them at last, let loose a loud ear-shattering squeal.
As the three covered their ears, the hole disgorged an innumerable flow of “citizens” onto the street; all of them grunting and squealing in that horrible pig-like way. Mike, Callie, and Jon could even feel the ground beneath the car they were standing on tremble with the multitudes moving underground. They were moving as a whole.
And they were headed their way.
“What do we do, Mike?” Callie asked.
“Run like hell!” Mike replied.
The three turned and did just that.

When the front line of Cathimites hit the cars, the three felt it, though they had run back a good distance. The force wave of crunching cars rolled toward them, and when it got to them, Callie lost her footing and fell into a crevasse between two cars.
“CALLIE!” yelled both Mike and Jon, and ran over to help.
Callie levitated herself up, and back onto the car she had fallen off; just in time too, as the crevasse squeezed shut behind her.
“Look!” she said, pointing back.
Behind them they could see a wave of cars thumping up and down violently. The wave was approaching fast.
“They’re moving under the cars!” Callie said, “And we can’t outrun them!”
“Then we fly.” Jon said.
Mike pointed to a building to their right, with large tinted windows.
“Second floor,” he said, “I’ll take care of the window.”
Callie took Mike and Jon’s hands with hers, and levitated the three of them toward the building Mike had pointed to, just as the wave of thumping cars arrived beneath them. Mike called a sekari into his free hand, and threw it at the office window, shattering it so completely that not one shard of glass was left on the frame.
The three floated into the office building. There was damage here, and not all due to the sekari; a violent overturning of chairs and desks and partitions that told of a catastrophe comparable to what had happened on the streets. Everything was smeared over with dried black sludge.
“This stuff is becoming oppressive.” said Callie.
“I’ll bet the inside of every building is like this.” said Jon.
“Look!” said Mike, pointing outside.
Callie and Jon turned and looked back outside.
The Cathimites had left the road, and now moved toward their building. Beyond that, the hole still poured forth a constant stream of them like there was no tomorrow.
Crashing sounds from the floor below met their ears.
“I can’t imagine they’ll use the elevators.” Jon said, with a nervous laugh, “Right?”
“The elevators won’t be working anyway, hon.” said Callie, “Now if they can go up stairs…that might be a problem.”
“Let’s find out.” Mike said.
They found a door marked STAIRS, and it led to the building’s main staircase. They leaned over the handrail in time to see the Cathimites break through to the ground floor below them. They flowed up the stairs with spooky ease.
“Oh you are kidding my ass!” Callie said.
“What now?” Jon asked.
Mike pointed up. The building’s staircase was a square spiral, all the way to the top; with an open center.
“Can you get us to the top?” Mike asked Callie.
“Yeah. Lucky for us, I got a boatload of telekinetic go-go juice from that Malignium with Babbidaz.” she said.
The three locked arms, and began to levitate. Once out at the open center, they rose at a quickening pace that became an upward rush at stomach-churning speed. The stairs spiraled around them in a dizzying fashion. The squeals and grunts below fell further and further away, until they couldn’t be heard anymore.
They slowed as they neared the top. 
Once there, Callie set them down at the topmost landing.
“I’m gonna need a little breather.” she said.
Without waiting for a reply, she went to a corner and sat on the floor. Jon joined her. Mike took the other corner and sat alone.
“They won’t come up all this way, will they?” Callie asked.
“I’ll check it out.” Mike said.
He closed his eyes and detached from his body. 
He travelled down the stairwell at five times the speed with which they had gone up. The Cathimites, he saw, were still ascending the stairs with relentless speed. Their ululating bodies defied gravity and seemed to be slipping and sliding upwards, leaving behind oily black streaks that, by all rights, should have the whole lot of them flippeting and floppeting all the way down like greasy sardines on a steep incline; but didn’t.
Suddenly, all of the Cathimites turned their “heads” toward him, and squealed even louder than before.
Good gods! Mike thought, They can sense me, somehow! They know I’m near!
Mike zipped as fast as he could, back to his body.
He opened his eyes and looked over at Callie and Jon.
“They’re coming.” he said, “And fast.”   
“How fast?” Jon asked.
“They’ll be here in ten minutes, fifteen tops.”
“Why are they coming after us?” Callie asked, “What do they want?”
I don’t think it’s you or Jon they’re really after, Mike thought, but instead said: “I don’t know. Their minds are closed to me.”
“What do we do when they get up here?” Jon asked.
“I’m open to suggestions.” Mike said.
“You could throw fire balls at them.” Callie said.
“Yeah, great, and set the building we’re in on fire, in the process.”
“What about those power sphere thingies?” Jon asked.
“I couldn’t get all of them,” said Mike, “There’s so many.”
“Maybe we can lead them to the roof, and Callie can use her mind power to sweep them all off.” Jon suggested.
“Again: too many of them. They’d just keep coming. Callie would tap out before we saw the last of them. Besides, we’re here to help these people, not hurt them.”
“I thought you said that they can’t die, like the kids in Murgent.”
“Maybe not, but we might damage them somehow, and make their suffering worse.”
“What does that leave us with,” Jon said, “But to escape?”
“Escape where?” Mike asked, “To another building? The same thing would happen. To the street below? They’d swarm us. There’s a whole city of these things out there, and they know we’re here now. They have no eyes or ears, but they know. Wherever we go, they’ll be there.”
“Why are we here?” Callie asked, out of the blue.
“What?” Mike asked.
“You said we’re here to help these people, right?”
“Well…Mom specifically; but yes, by extension, all of these people as well.”
“How can we help them if we keep running away from them?”
Mike blinked, not quite sure what she was getting at.
“You say there’s no place to hide, no way to escape them. Well, if we’re screwed anyway, why not face them? See what happens?”
Mike considered her words.
“You know, I think you may have a point there, Cal.” he said.
“What?!” said Jon, “Are you guys crazy?”
“Pretty much.” said Mike, getting to his feet.
“Is it too late to quit this crazy train?”
“Pretty much.” said Callie, getting up as well.
Jon got to his feet. “Alright then, how do we do this?”
“We’ll need to get down to the street.” Mike said.
Callie nodded. 
“Let’s get to the roof.” she said.

There was a padlock on the door which led to the roof, but Mike’s sekari made short work of it, and they kicked the door open.
Outside, the sun shone bright, now that the haze had been cleared out. The three went to the edge of the roof, and looked down.
The hole was still pouring forth what now looked like a single black mass that surrounded the building. The cars between their building and the hole had been crunched further back, with many of the vehicles crushed by the unstoppable force of the Cathimites.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
Holy Gloeis in the sky!” Callie shouted. Unlike Mike and Jon, who were looking over at the hole, she was looking across the street. The building there had mirror-like tinted windows, through which she could see their own building reflected.
Mike and Jon followed her gaze and saw in the reflection, a shimmery black coating moving up the side of their building.
“HOLY CRAP!” shouted Jon, “How can they do that?”
“After everything we’ve seen, you can ask that?” Mike said.
The situation was the same on all four sides of the building; the Cathimites were coming, and were already a third of the way up.
“The flow is headed in this direction, but the area on the other side of the hole is clear.” Mike said, pointing down to the street, “That’s where we’re going; but we’ll have to take the long way round.”
“How do you mean?” Callie asked.
“We hop from rooftop to rooftop, in that direction; about three or four times. Then we zip down to the area I just mentioned.” Mike said, “And we gotta do this fast, before they catch on to where we’re going.”
“And once we’re down there, what next?” Jon asked.
“We'll see what happens.” Mike said, keeping his true plans to himself, as Ma’jai are wont to do, “You up for this, Callie?”
“Not near to running out of juice yet.” she said.
“What about you, Jon?” Mike asked, “You ready for this?”
“You know me,” Jon said, “I love a half-assed plan.”

Chapter 55

The Lost, The Found, and The Taken

The first rooftop they had to get to was almost level with theirs, only a floor or two lower; the problem was its distance. There was a large parking lot between the two buildings.

Mike, Callie and Jon linked arms, and Callie levitated them across. Although power-wise, this was no problem (thanks to Babbidaz); the concentration necessary to accomplish this was an exertion. Mike and Jon remained silent, so as not to distract her; nor did they make any unnecessary movement (not an easy task considering that every look down brought a massive dose of vertigo with it). Still, she flew them across the span at a considerable clip.
Once on the second rooftop, they looked back. 
The Cathimites had not yet caught on to their escape. The three ran over to the opposite side, to see where the next jump would take them.
Another level rooftop, across another long span.
Again, Callie got them across. 
Again they ran across to the other side to see the next building.
There was a problem with this one.
The next building was closer, but at least twice the size of the one they were on; its rooftop was not even visible to them.
“That one might take some doing.” Callie said.
“The hell with that.” Mike said, “Let’s just go through this one.”
He summoned a sekari into his right hand and launched it at the building, where it hit and shattered a window.
“Give me a few seconds, would ya?” Callie said, rubbing her head.
“Sure, Cal.” Mike said, “Take a breather.
He and Jon walked back to the side they had just landed on to see if they could detect any change in the Cathimites. Although they could see the top of the building they had first entered, they could see one side of its body through the reflection off the tinted windows of another of the buildings on the other side of the street from it.
They gasped.
The Cathimites that were now about halfway up the sides of the building, were dropping off in droves, as if whatever magic that allowed them to defy gravity was being shut off in each of them from top to bottom. The cascading effect was almost beautiful.
“They know we’re not there anymore.” Mike said.
“And you were worried about hurting them.” Jon said with a smile.
They ran back and told Callie what they had just seen.
She got to her feet.
“Let’s go then.” she said.
The three linked arms and flew across to the next building; in through the broken window. To their surprise, the inside of this room looked clean and ready for business. It was a conference room, with a large table.
“It must have been closed up when the curse fell.” Callie said.
The door was indeed locked. They unlocked it and exited the conference room.
They entered the more familiar sight of violently overthrown offices and workrooms smeared with dried goo.
They made their way through the building, until they reached a corner office. One set of windows looked across the street; the other across to the next building on that line.
Jon and Callie looked through that one.
“Next jump’s a doozy.” Callie said.
“No need,” Mike replied, “We’re here.”
Callie and Jon walked over to the window Mike was looking through. From it, they could see that they were just about across from the hole; which still disgorged an unending supply of Cathimites, though they were flowing slower than they had been.
Mike used a sekari to break the window, then used a chair to cleaned out the shards.
“One more jump, then.” Callie said.
“Not for you two.” Mike said.
“I don’t have time to explain this. I have to go down there alone. It was a Ma’jai who did this, and only a Ma’jai can put it right. You guys have done your part, you got me here…now let me do mine.”
“What if something happens to you?” Callie said, “What if they kill you? What the hell do we do then?!”
“You can escape.” Mike said, “It isn’t you they’ve been after, it’s me. They sense somehow that I’m a Ma’jai, like the one that cursed them. They won’t go after you two.”
Escape to WHERE?! Callie wanted to exclaim, What about Sinestri?! she wanted to shout; but her arguments collapsed before she could compose them, and she understood then what was happening.
Mike had his sneaky mental Ma’jai fingers in her and Jon’s heads, instilling passive acceptance of his order; there was no time for any other tack. No time left to argue or debate, though that was what she wanted to do most at that moment; to argue him out of doing this alone. Already, though, she felt passive acceptance suffuse her mind.
“Send me over there, Callie.” Mike said.
He stepped out on the ledge. Callie and Jon followed.
“You better not die,” Callie said, “Or I swear I’m gonna kill your ass.”

Callie floated Mike off the ledge and toward the street. The sudden speed and the vertigo of it made his stomach lurch, but he retained control of his innards. The flight had a downward trajectory, and once he was over the massive hole in the heart of Cathim, he looked down.
The hole was alive with a moving mantle of Cathimites. As he flew over them, they all raised their head-like protuberances, and followed him as if they had eyes.
Then, they began to squeal en masse, and changed the direction of their movement.
Hurry it up, Cal! Mike thought, but didn’t send the thought to Callie; as it might disturb her concentration. He doubted being dropped bodily into the hole would be good for anyone; least of all him. He was moving fast enough, though it didn’t seem so at the moment.
At last he cleared the hole, and was set down some distance beyond it. There was the usual momentary weirdness of getting his legs to accept the weight of his body again, but he reasserted his balance quick enough.
Not a moment too soon, as the Cathimites now poured out of his side of the hole, and surged toward him like a dark tide.
“Okay…” Mike muttered under his breath, “Now what?”

From their perch in the building, Callie and Jon looked over at the scene unfolding below; Mike, a single solitary figure, about to be overrun by an army of Cathimites.
“What’s he going to do?” Jon asked.
“I don’t know,” said Callie, “And neither does he.”
“Great plan.”

Michael Longstreet stood before the storm; eyes closed.
Like a pilot flying over a dark fog, he searched the landscape of his memory, looking for a flicker of light to lead him home. He remembered Jon telling him, after the bridge incident, that the answer to Cathim’s problem might just lie within him. He believed this to be true, so he rifled through his own mind and memories, looking for something---anything---that might reveal the answer.
And there it was.
A golden key hidden in plain sight.
A single word.
Hiding in his memory where Rufus Kantry had placed it, when he broke the spell Sinestri had put on them in the Rough Country. That was why bright green sparks had flowed from his hands; it was overkill. The Word of Power he had used was a lot more than what was necessary for the task of breaking that particular spell.
It wasn’t for that spell: it was for this curse.
Kantry had known somehow that Mike would come to this point, and had left a Word of Power lodged in his memory like a time-bomb; harmless and forgotten until the right moment.
At the time, the Word was gibberish to Mike’s ears; but now that he had come into his Ma’jai powers, the word, now recalled, glowed and throbbed in his head like a living thing. The Voss Vedu’un itself, shuddered in anticipation of its utterance.
Mike opened his eyes.
The Cathimites were almost upon him. The span of time between the closing of his eyes and the opening of them had been mere seconds; but the Cathimites had not dallied in the interim. Mike raised his arms and sucked in breath at the same time as he summoned the Word of Power from out of his memory, and into his voice.
At the top of his lungs, he shouted: “ABRESIIM!”
The Word took hold of Mike’s vocal cords and boomed out of his mouth as through a megaphone. Its effect was like an electric current. The Cathimites stopped dead in their tracks, and writhed and convulsed as if being shocked with high voltage.
The Word also affected Mike. Its power flowed through him, using him as a conduit; and like any channeled force, it expanded the parameters of the conduit. Latent talents unfurled within him. The ancient language of the Ma’jai, Vaunto, unspooled in his mind like a vast parchment. The other Words of Power made themselves known to him. They were not Vaunto, but scraps of an older and more powerful language from which Vaunto was derived.
He had the curse where he wanted it.
Now he had to break its back.
Each word shook the Cathimites with more violence than the last; and the final word sent them into merciless paroxysms. The shiny black stuff on them dulled, and then cracked like parched land during a drought. Each Cathimite seemed to expand, then burst into flame; but it was the black tar stuff that combusted off of them. What was left behind was an unconscious man, woman, or child, lying on the ground. They still had the clothes they had been wearing eleven years ago when Sinestri had cursed them.
The strain on Mike throughout all this had been tremendous. The power he had channeled had taken its toll.
He looked over at the citizens of Cathim.
“There,” he said, “Done.”
He then collapsed onto the ground alongside the others.

Witnessed from the ledge of a broken window, on the building they were still on; the preceding events had passed quickly for Callie and Jon.
The small, far-off figure of Mike had stood, about to be stampeded to death by wave after wave of rushing Cathimites. He had raised his arms, and said something.
The word had been spoken loud enough somehow, to be heard clearly by Callie and Jon; though it meant nothing to them. But its effect on the Cathimites had been miraculous.
They had stopped. One would think that, at their speed and oiliness, they would have slipped and slided a bit; but they didn’t. They shook and shuddered like worms with their tails pinned to a table.
Mike then spoke some gibberish (at least to Callie and Jon it was gibberish), and that seemed to batter the Cathimites even more. At the final word of his chant, a ring of bright light sprang out of Mike, and passed over the whole city. This caused the tarry gunk to blow up like fireworks; not only on the Cathimites, but on the streets and cars and buildings---even in the room in which Jon and Callie stood.
What was left behind were the people, as they looked the day the curse took them. The curse had transformed them, but it had also kept them hermetically sealed.
Then Mike had collapsed.
“Mike!” cried Callie, and flew down to him upon the instant; forgetting Jon and leaving him behind, and alone, in the building.

Jon considered calling after her, but decided against it. Better to let her go to her brother and see if he was okay. She would remember him sooner or later, and come to get him. If not, he could always find the stairs and get down there on foot; now that the crisis was over.
So Jon relaxed; content to stand there on the window ledge, look down upon the incredible scene below him, and take it all in.
Oblivious to the dark figure closing in behind him.

Callie reached her brother and found, to her relief, that he was alive and well; merely unconscious.
A sound behind her startled her, and she turned to see the citizens of Cathim waking up.
“Oh! Dearest Gloeis! It’s over!” a balding man in a white shirt said, “What a nightmare! Was it just me?”
Similar statements were spoken as more and more Cathimites awoke. All of them expressed shock in discovering that they had not been alone in the experience. Not only that others had gone through it, but that the entire city had, as well.
They all seemed to crowd around Callie, as if she could supply answers.                                 Well, she could…a little.
“What happened to us? WHAT HAPPENED?!” the chorus went.
“An evil Ma’jai put a curse on you. ALL of you.” Callie said to the thickening multitude.
“Curse?” the crowd murmured, “CURSE?!”
“Damned Ma’jai!” someone shouted, “Nothing but trouble. They should be shot! ALL magic-makers should be taken out and SHOT!!”
The crowd murmured some more.
“It was a Ma’jai who saved you!” Callie said, pointing to Mike, “MY BROTHER broke the curse, and saved all your asses! And it wasn’t easy, as you can see!”
Again, the crowd murmured, but they were interrupted by screams coming from the hole; there were still people in there, and countless more underground. Many of the growing crowd ran to help them, but most remained with Callie.
“Why would anyone curse us?” someone asked.
“I don’t know.” Callie answered.
“Young lady,” the balding man in the white shirt said, “How long have we been out?”
Callie hesitated, and then said, “Eleven years.”
Dropped jaws and gasps met this information; many refused to believe it, many wept bitter tears. These reactions expanded outward, as the news spread out through the teeming multitudes.
“Eleven years?! I had a LIFE!” someone cried, “I had THINGS TO DO! PLACES TO GO! I HAD A LIFE DAMMIT!!”
“MY CHILDREN!” a young woman in her late twenties yelled, “WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN? WHERE’S MY HUSBAND?”
She was not the only one shouting; others shouted out for lost children and parents and siblings and friends. Amongst the crowd wandered children, alone and scared; the younger ones shrieked for their mamas. Although she couldn’t see any offhand, Callie knew that somewhere there had to be babies. Could they have survived the process of being cursed, then uncursed? The thought of it boiled her blood.
She posed a question to the balding man, as the others were still reacting to the news that they had, in effect, taken an eleven year nap.
“What did it feel like?” she asked him.
“Terrible stomach pain, at first.” he said, “Like some kind of gastric attack. Everything went dark, though the pain remained. Terrible feeling of suffocation, like my mouth and nose were full of mush. After an endless interval of that, the pain was gone, and it felt like…” he scratched his bald head, looking for a proper description, “It’s like when you’re sick and feverish. When you sleep sick like that, your dreams aren’t regular dreams, at least mine aren’t; they’re broken and in pieces. It’s like being insane. A flood of meaningless images you can’t escape until you wake up; only this time, I couldn’t wake up! Until now, that is. Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” said Callie, “Everyone else is.”
“What the hell have we been doing for eleven years? And how did we all end up here?”
“Perhaps I can help with that.” a voice from behind Callie said.
It was Mike; he had awoken.
“Mike!” said Callie, “Are you okay?”
“Slightly brain-fried, but mostly okay.” he said.
“So this is the Ma’jai who freed us.” the balding man said, and shook Mike’s hand, “Ted Macwadden, great to meet you.”
“Michael Longstreet. This here’s my sister Callie.” Mike said.
The crowd around them had not dispersed. Some talked amongst themselves, some listened, eavesdropped on the conversation, and passed on the information to those further away from the epicenter of interest.
“I can answer your question,” Mike said; to Ted in specific, but also to the folks surrounding them, “But not with words.”
Into as many minds as he could, he sent an image of the Cathamites in their former state, flowing out of their hole. Some gasped at the image, most cried out at having foreign thoughts brought into their minds.
“Good Gloeis!!” said Ted.
“I can’t do that for everybody, so those of you who got it will have to describe it to the others.” Mike said out loud.
“Michael? Callie?” a voice in the crowd called out, having just received that piece of information, “LONGSTREET?!”
Callie recognized the voice as that of the woman crying out for her children and husband moments earlier.
“MICHAEL! CALLIE!” the woman’s voice moved closer and closer.
The multitudes then parted between the woman and Mike and Callie, in a manner almost slow-motion and dreamlike; as if Fate had parted them with an invisible hand. As if the crowd understood intuitively that this was a moment Meant To Be.
“Who’s that?” Callie asked.
“It’s Mom.” Mike said.

She looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties. She had green eyes and long black hair like Callie, pulled back into a ponytail. In fact, she sort of looked like a grown-up version of Callie.
She ran to them, and when she reached them, she stopped and looked at them; shaking her head, unable to understand.
In her mother’s heart, she knew it was her children; but only what seemed like yesterday ago, Michael had been five years old, and Callie three. She had expected to find them unchanged, like her.
She had expected to find her babies.
“H-How?! When?! How!?!” she stammered.
So many questions, and she wanted to ask them all at once.
“We weren’t here when it happened, Mom.” Mike said, astounded at being able to speak with his mother, a dream long denied, “Dad took us away before it happened; before the curse. Eleven years did not pass for you, but it passed for us.”
Elizabeth Shale Longstreet put her hands on the cheeks of her children. “My babies,” she said, tears running down her face, “All grown up.”
The three of them hugged then and there.
Elizabeth and Callie cried. Mike, despite his best efforts, did as well.
When they separated, their faces were blurry and red. The mass of people around them moved back, and gave them their privacy. They disassembled as a large mass, and reassembled into smaller clumps.
“I can remember it so clearly,” Elizabeth said, “How it happened. It’s still so fresh, in my mind. Like it just happened an hour ago.”
“Tell us.” said Callie.
“I woke up late that morning, which is strange because I’ve always been an early-riser; my parents were like that too. When I saw that it was nine o’clock, I just about fell out of bed! It felt like someone had drugged me, I was all sluggish. I went to your room, but neither of you were there. I got scared and called Charley, but he wasn’t there either. I went into a panic, going from room to room, looking for you.
“Then, this awful-looking man appeared out of nowhere. He looked like a wizard or something, and his eyes were terrible! He had this triumphant look on his face like someone who’s about to do something they’ve been dreaming about for years and years.
“He said: ‘My vengeance is upon you, descendant of Threed, and this city that has hidden you and those before you from me for so long! In the name of Hissig Shiffat, I wreak my curse upon you all!
“Then he began to speak in some language; it sounded like gibberish to me. Of course, I would have run off at the first syllable from his mouth, except that I couldn’t. I was frozen to the spot! Then the awful pain began, and what came after.”
Suddenly, at that moment, a black-sleeved and bloody hand appeared from behind Elizabeth, and placed a blood-smeared knife against her neck.
It was the very same knife that had been used to corrupt Charles Longstreet eleven years ago. The blood on it drew a red line across their mother’s neck, like a marker for surgery.
Callie shrieked and jumped back a step at the suddenness of the hand’s appearance; and now, stepping out from behind their mother, but with knife still held at her throat, came Araboam Sinestri.
“I hope I am not interrupting a private discussion.” Sinestri said, his voice a deep baritone.
He didn’t seem to have changed much, from when their father had met him; and he still dressed in a black sorcerer’s cloak, though there were dark stains on it here and there.
“It’s YOU!!!” Elizabeth screamed, but did not move lest the sharp blade flick and take out an artery, “THIS IS THE ONE WHO DID THIS TO US!!” she yelled at the top of her lungs.       
The crowd murmured, and began to close in.
“Now, now,” Sinestri addressed the crowd, “This is a private matter and none of your business. What was done to you once, can be done again.”
The threat sunk into the crowd, and they drew back.
“You will shush now, lady,” he cooed, “If you value your life. I have pressing business with your children.”
Sinestri pressed the blade tighter to Elizabeth’s neck, to underscore his instruction. The blade’s sharpness now tasted a bit of Elizabeth’s blood. She squealed a little, but controlled herself into silence.
Mike realized then that the dark stains on Sinestri’s cloak were blood stains, and fresh. But who’s blood…?
“I must say, young Ma’jai,” Sinestri said, “You have impressed me with the way you’ve dealt with these matters. You as well, little witch. But playtime is over children, and your dark roads are nearing their destination.”
“What do you want with us?!” Mike asked, “What did we ever do to you?! Why did you curse these people?!”
“Why did you ruin our father?” Callie added, “Ruin our lives?”
“What do you want with our mother?!” Mike continued, “What is all this ALL ABOUT?!”
“Excellent questions, but the answers are not here.” Sinestri said.
With a circular gesture from his free hand, a rift in reality opened beside him, and expanded into a door-sized hole large enough to jump through. An aqua-colored void awaited beyond the rift.
Some of the people of Cathim marveled, some screamed; but all backed away even further. None of them wanted anything to do with this; they’d all had more than enough of magic for a lifetime. This didn’t mean they weren’t interested in watching.
“If you want answers…” Sinestri said, “If you want her back…” he jerked his head toward his hostage, “You’ll have to follow me.”
Mike called a sekari into his hand.
“You’re not taking her ANYWHERE!” he said.
Sinestri laughed.
“Vlah norati,” he sneered, “Fah zann ey ushi Ma’jai!”
“Krollok guna!” Mike shot back, “I’ll do it!”
“But if you do, you’ll miss out on the surprise!” Sinestri said.
“What surprise?” Callie asked. She didn’t like where this was going, and a growing feeling of having forgotten something was gnawing at her.
“The small gift I left for you in yon building.” Sinestri said, and pointed to the building where Callie had left Jon.
Now at last, Callie remembered what she had forgotten; and a terrible possibility froze her blood.
Without preamble, she flew towards the building; astounding the hell out of some of the people in the bargain.
Mike, slow to realize the implication of Sinestri’s words until he saw it in his sister’s mind, turned to stop her, to warn her that it might be a trap; but she was gone.
In Mike’s distraction, Sinestri grabbed Elizabeth, who shrieked, and the two disappeared into the rift.
Mike turned back to see the rift begin to seal itself up quickly. He stretched out his hand, and willed the rift to remain open.
Then, he heard Callie scream.

“Please be alright! Please be alright! PLEASE BE ALRIGHT!” Callie repeated again and again, like a mantra, all the way to the window ledge.
“JON?” she called out upon getting there, “Jon, PLEASE be there!”
Callie stepped into the room, to see that Jon was indeed there.
Jon was in one corner, in a little pile. Jon was in another corner. Jon was smeared on the wall, on the floor, on a desk, even on the ceiling, hung like office decorations.
Sinestri had made damn sure Mike would not be able to bring him back this time. Nor ever again.
It occurred to Callie in that moment, that she would never be able to remember Jon: his beautiful eyes, his darling smile, his goofy wit; without the memory being sullied by the horrific image before her. All she would ever have of him now was memory; and not even that.
Callie screamed.
She sceamed and screamed and SCREAMED.
Then, when she was done screaming, she spoke a single word.
Sinestri!” she hissed, with enough venom and fury to peel the paint off the room.
Callie, I’m so sorry about Jon! Mike spoke in her mind, But we can’t let that bastard Sinestri get away! Get back down here, or I’ll have to go after him by myself.
“I’m sorry, hon.” she said to the mess that was once Jon, “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have forgotten you. Shouldn’t have left you alone. We’re gonna get that sonofabitch Sinestri, and make him pay, I promise you.”
Tears coursing down her face, she turned and went to the window ledge where her Jon had stood, alive and well, not moments ago.
“Goodbye, my love.” she said, “Goodbye.”
She flew down to where Mike waited.

“Are you ready for this?” Mike asked.
He was holding the rift open somehow, with an outstretched hand, fingers forward.
“Let’s go.” Callie said. Her face was wet, but her eyes were set.
For the first time since they met Rak in Metromax City, it was just the two of them again; on their own.
Arm in arm, they jumped into the other side; and the rift sealed itself shut behind them.

Chapter 56

A Path of Monsters

Mike and Callie floated in what might be considered space; if space was neither cold, dark, hostile to life, nor a vacuum.

They discovered they could breathe in this place between places; though, it was not like breathing oxygen. The sensation of it was bizarre, but not unbearable.
And in this blue space resided the Realms of Creation.
What a sight to behold!
Perfect spheres of varying hues and patterns of color; gigantic in size (at least compared to Mike and Callie), but tiny compared to the worlds somehow crammed within. They floated like pearls in gelatin; in no particular order, with no rhyme or reason to their ordering, yet always somehow equidistant from each other. They moved with the flow of blue space, but exceedingly slowly; like the hour hand of a grandfather clock. The number of Realms seemed to spread out into infinity.
“Hello? HELLO?” Callie shouted out; wondering if, and how, sound moved in this place. Her voice sounded muffled, as if she had shouted into her cupped hands.
“Weird.” said Mike.
“How are we supposed to move?” Callie said, “I tried to move us just now, but my power has no purchase here.”
“That’s my job, methinks.” Mike said.
His Ma’jai instincts told him that the aqua-colored space around them was, in fact, another form of the Voss Vedu’un; and the ability to move the Voss Vedu’un (or have it move you, in this case) was a power inherent in every Ma’jai. So, Mike moved them forward; though his inexperience, and the extra weight of Callie, slowed things to a crawl.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Callie asked.
“Yes.” said Mike, and pointed to a sphere of dark grey, shot through with strands of black and red.
“How do you know he went there?”
“He left us a trail.” Mike said, “Take a close look at the area between us and that Kaadu.”
“That what?”
Mike shook his head, “Oh, sorry…I just recently had the entire Vaunto dictionary dumped into my brain, and things pop up from time to time. What I meant to say was: take a close look at the area between us and that Realm-sphere.”
“Oh, is THAT what they are?”
“Yes, now look carefully.”
Callie looked where Mike said. She couldn’t see anything at first, but after some blinking, she finally made out what he was talking about: a thin seam, like a thread, running from their position, all the way to the grey sphere they were moving towards. The seam seemed to be dissipating from their end onward, like a long fuse working its way to the dynamite.
“That’s a mighty faint trail.” Callie said, “No wonder I couldn’t see it; I could never read a thermometer either. How do you know it isn’t designed to lead us right into a trap?”
“We’ll know soon enough.” Mike said.
Callie looked down.
“What’s keeping us up?” she asked. (Whatever feelings of vertigo Mike had felt when Callie had levitated he and Jon over between rooftops, was nothing compared to what she felt now, seeing the infinite drop below her.)
“I don’t know,” Mike said, “But my guess would be that there’s no up or downs here, except from your personal point-of-view. How are you gonna fall if there’s no down?”
“So you just float in place until you decide to move?”
“I figure.”
“So if you were to leave some non-Ma’jai person here, they would just float in place until they died of starvation?”
“I…suppose so.” Mike replied.
Callie turned to look back.
“I think we should get a good look at what our own Realm looks like,” she said, “So we can find it on the trip back; should there be one.”
“Not exactly a safe assumption, is it?” Mike replied, bringing their forward motion to a stop, “But it’s a good idea, Cal.”
Mike turned them completely around, to face the Realm from whence they came (turning, at least, was easy).
It was a pale green sphere, with light blue bands encircling it; pretty, but something of a plain Jane when compared to some of the others around it. Nothing special.
“I can feel its vibrations in the Voss Vedu’un,” Mike said, extending his free hand towards the Realm, “We’re still close enough.”
A smile appeared on Mike’s face.
“It’s talking to me!” he said, “It’s alive!”
“What’s it saying?” Callie asked.
“It’s telling me it’s name!” Mike said, eyes full of wonder, “It’s name is Statamer!”
“That’s great. Tell it ‘hi’ for me.” Callie said, severely, “But we got places to go, remember? We don’t want the trail to get cold; or give Sinestri too much of a head-start.”
“Alright.” Mike said, turning them back around.
They resumed movement toward the grey Realm.
“Do you know what THAT one’s called?” Callie asked.
“No. We’re still too far,” Mike said, “Or maybe it’s just not in the mood for talking.”
“Maybe it’s dead. It LOOKS dead.” Callie said, “Can those things die? And if they can, what would it be like for those inside?”
“I don’t know and can’t imagine.” Mike said, “I suppose if they CAN die, it would be like cells in a dead body; after awhile, everything inside would die too.”
Callie’s face crumpled.
Mike kicked himself.
“Cal, I’m sorry, I---”
“No, don’t.” Callie said, her voice tremulous, “It just…hit me, all over again right now. My own damn fault; I was the one who went there with the stupid morbid questions.”
She wept quietly. “It’s not just about what happened to Jon; it’s the GUILT! It’s the damn GUILT that chews on the wound and makes it worse every damn time!”
She put her free hand over her eyes, and tried to regain composure.
“Look, Callie,” Mike said, “You can’t blame yourself for what happened to Jon. You weren’t the one that killed him, it was Sinestri. You didn’t make Jon join us; he made that choice for himself. It was not your fault.”
“Oh Mike, but it WAS!” Callie shouted, though the sound didn’t carry, “IT WAS! And it was YOUR fault too!
“If you hadn’t pulled Ma’jai rank on us back in Cathim, we would have stood right beside you and faced the Cathim-things with you! And when you passed out, we would have been there to help, and I wouldn’t have forgotten Jon back in the building, and he’d be alive right now, and right here with us! But NO! YOU had to be the big shigging Ma’jai and go it alone!” she took a deep trembling breath, “So, yes Mike! It WAS YOUR FAULT just as much as it was mine, because YOU didn’t trust us enough to let us come with you and help you!”
“Alright, Callie.” Mike said, “If it makes you feel better, you can go ahead and blame me.”
Callie growled: “Awwg! I HATE it when you do that! You always take the ‘noble’ way out, so you don’t have to argue or defend yourself, and you can pretend to be the reasonable one, when what you are is a coward!”
Mike bit his tongue, and said nothing. He knew Callie’s pain would make her unpleasant for a time. It would do no good to say something in the heat of anger that would only make things worse; so he kept quiet.
The two fell into an uncomfortable silence; and the silence between them remained until they reached the grey Realm.

It loomed before them, getting larger and larger until it dominated their entire view. When they were close enough, Mike reached out and tried to touch the sphere; but his hand could not get close due to an opposing force that repelled his hand back, and made it feel numb. It reminded Mike of trying to get two strong like-sided magnets to connect.
Like Statamer, this Realm was alive. It’s name was Sellavellan.
Mike made a circular gesture, as close as he could to the Realm, and opened a rift into it as smoothly as cutting a slit into a ripe peach with a sharp knife. He motioned it to widen, and it did; into what Callie saw as a pitch black world. Mike’s Ma’jai sight, on the other hand, could see what appeared to be the inside of a cave.
“Let’s go.” he said.
They entered. Then, something flashed red in the dark.
“What was that?” Callie asked.
Mike saw it almost too late. He pushed Callie clear, as bolts of red lightning struck him full on, and blasted him backwards through the opening of the rift; which then started to close.
“MIKE!” Callie shouted.
His push had sent her sprawling into a deep depression in the uneven floor of the cave. She landed in time to see Mike blown back into what she thought of as “Blue Space”. Then, everything was swallowed in darkness again, as the only light was that coming through the rift.
She put her hands on the ground, in order to get up, and touched some hairy, yet prickly little thing with her right hand. It hissed, and bit her on the thin flap of skin between her thumb and index finger.
She uttered a shriek; not only at touching something unexpectedly hairy, but because the bite hurt like hell.
She set the pain aside, got up, and ran towards the rift, which was now a slit; too thin for her to cross, but wide enough to see through.
She saw Mike falling away from her, end over end; limp as a rag doll.
“MIKE!” she shouted.
She tried forcing the rift open, with her mind power, then with her hands; to no avail.
The rift sealed shut; leaving her alone in the darkness.

Callie sobbed openly. The bitter irony that she had called her brother a coward moments before he sacrificed himself to save her life was not lost on her; but the sound of movement scared her out of her misery.
Whatever had zapped Mike was still there with her.
Not having a Ma’jai’s spectral vision, Callie could not see her hand before her face; or what was moving around in the dark, grunting like a heavy-set man trying to exercise.
Red light flashed, illuminating the surroundings for a second. Enough time for Callie to make out some pudgy beasty that had something sticking out of it’s head that generated the red electricity.
Callie closed her eyes, stretched her hands forward, and focused the full emanation of her ability before her. The thing shot out at her it’s red lightning, which crossed the distance between it and her in a millisecond, and hit the invisible wall of her focused power. Callie bent it’s lightning upwards, to the ceiling of the cave (taking out a slew of critters nestled up there), and then folded it back toward its originating point.
With great satisfaction, she opened her eyes to see the beasty get the full measure of it’s own medicine, until the lightning stopped, and the thing fell over; encircled with little wormlets of electricity still running over it’s body, making it shudder and spasm.
“That was for Mike, you SHANK!” she shouted.
Once again, the cave went dark. Although she couldn’t see anything, Callie realized she could get a feel for things by extending her mental power around it, as if to levitate it. She now sent that power over the creature.
During the confrontation, she had gotten only a vague sense of it’s size and shape. Now she could get a better “look”.
It was short, but stout. It’s shape was roughly cylindrical, with stubby legs and thin stick arms that ended in claws. It had a light bulb shaped head and no discernable neck as far as she could tell. It had holes in the sides and back of it’s head that might possibly be ears. Of it’s eyes, Callie could only sense that they were large and saucer-shaped. It’s mouth was wide, and arrayed with can-opener teeth that would shame a shark. It had long hairs, like cilia, that grew out of the top of it’s head, and stood up, as if under water. Red currents of it’s electricity buzzed between the hairs.
That’s how it does it, Callie thought, It sees or senses something it wants, or is threatened by, and it points those hairs at it and zaps ‘em. Once it’s toast, it trundles over and has an easy meal. It may not look like an impressive predator, but I’ll bet it’s the most feared creature in here. It can kill from a distance.
The Shanky (as she now referred to it in her mind) let out a hiss of breath.
It’s still alive! Callie thought.
That could mean one of two things: the Shanky had a strong constitution, capable of getting zapped without getting killed; or, the red electricity was used to stun prey, not kill it outright. If the latter one was true, then Mike might still be alive!
Something growled in the dark, and Callie realized that she and the Shanky weren’t alone in the cave.

Callie sent her mental power in the direction of whatever had growled, and found it. 
It was as big as a gallanash, and as muscular as a cwarna. It moved toward her in slow, cautious steps.
Callie dashed nimbly, and skipped over the Shanky, putting it between her and her stalker. A quick application of her power lifted the Shanky to it’s feet, and held it there. She hoped her pursuer would be startled by the Shanky’s apparent awakening.
Instead, it growled again, and the growl shifted closer as it’s owner leapt toward them. Callie lifted the Shanky into the air, and the Growler hit it head on. Callie felt the hit, and hurled both Shanky and Growler a good distance away.
They hit the ground with a good meaty THOOMF!
The Shanky then awoke, as proven by both the sudden lighting up of it’s “hair”, and it’s horrible scream, as the Growler tore into it. The Shanky poured it’s lightning into the Growler (which, in the intense red light, looked like a cross between a possum and a panther), but the Growler’s jaws had locked tight in it’s seizure.
This had the wonderful effect of illuminating the cave for a good few seconds. Enough for Callie to get a good look at her surroundings.
The cave she was in was high ceilinged, wide as a high school auditorium, and long; far longer than the shifting red light could penetrate. The walls and ceiling of the cave were honeycombed with holes along its run. Some were just niches, others were connectives to other sections of the cave; and most were occupied with beasties. Callie could see their eyes, reflecting in the red light. Most were watching the Growler vs Shanky show with great interest; but a few had noticed her.
Callie realized that her only way out of this place was to travel the length of the cave, for who knows how long, in the dark, along a path of monsters. It gave her no joy knowing she’d been right: Sinestri had indeed set them a trap.

Out of one of the holes in the side of the cave, Callie sensed a pack of what were either baby Growlers, or perhaps a smaller species of the same. These Growlies were interested in her, and made their advance.
Callie felt around and detected a pile of bones on the other side of the cave. She rocketed these at the Growlies, hit every one of them hard, and sent them whimpering back to their hole.
The Growler attached to the Shanky was at last torn off; but the Shanky did not get a chance to relax it’s electric hairs. Five other Growlers now encircled it, perhaps thinking that this was their golden opportunity to take down a nice fat wounded Shanky.
They weren’t the only ones. Callie could sense the other creatures of this portion of the cave leaning forward. Ready to take over if the Shanky (which had lost a lot of blood) somehow managed to bring down the Growlers. One way or the other, that Shanky was gonna get his.
This is my chance, Callie thought. When those Growlers attack, this place is gonna light up again. If that Shanky’s a die-hard, it’ll give me the chance to run a good distance. The more ground I cover, the sooner I can get the hell out of this cave.
The Shanky smelled it’s peril, and lit up again.
The Growlers pounced.
Callie turned and hauled ass in the opposite direction.
She heard a cacophony of growls, animal screams, and the buzz of electricity behind her, as she ran. The quality of the light shifted, fluctuated, and at last flickered out.
The Shanky had joy-buzzered it’s last opponent; and Callie was in the dark once more.
She kept on running.
The dark around her was not quiet. The battle for the body of the Shanky had now started. Callie could hear different creatures fighting over the meat; but the sounds were falling further and further behind.
She so wanted to levitate, but feared an overuse of her ability might leave her defenseless at a crucial moment. Her power supply (so to speak) was not infinite. There was no way to know how long this cave ran, or what other dangerous creatures she might still have to face; then there was Sinestri to deal with, at some point after.
So she ran in the dark, with her mental power extended forward; against the possibility of hitting a wall or some creature.
Neither happened; instead she stubbed her foot on a rocky protuberance and went sprawling to the ground. The landing was painful and disorienting. Still, she lifted her head, and prepared to rise again.
From somewhere above her, there came a flapping noise, and then a heavy weight fell on her back. Callie screamed as strong ropy arms wrapped around her upper waist, and sharp fangs sunk deep into her left shoulder. The thing had leathery wings, and began to flap them.
Callie felt herself being lifted.
She fought to disengage the hands, but they held tight. Her head swam, and she found it difficult to focus enough to use her power against her attacker. With horror, she realized that the bite was poisonous; meant to incapacitate her.
The bat-thing (which stunk like the pit) flew straight up into a hole in the ceiling of the cave. They went up and up and into a whole other section of the cave altogether.
Callie felt the pain of the bite travel deep, moving toward her heart. She was dropped on a pile of sharp bones that cut her like broken glass wherever they came into contact with her.
I’m gonna bleed to death, she thought. If that thing doesn’t tear my head off first!
The thing that had picked her up had flown deeper into that section of the cave, leaving her be for the moment.
Or so she thought.
Suddenly she sensed something shuffling towards her in the dark. A LOT of somethings; smaller, much smaller, than what had brought her here.
Then it dawned on her.
Holy Gloeis! This is a NEST! And those are…
She didn’t have time to finish the thought, as the children of the bat-thing were now upon her.
They attacked her from all sides; biting and scratching her raw. They gnawed at her fingers, they sliced up her legs, and they snapped at her face. One jumped on her shoulder-blades, pulled her hair back, and bit her on the top of her head.
She was dizzy, in pain, and couldn’t see a damn thing.
Below, somewhere, pandemonium erupted. Things growled and screamed and something like thunder roared.
Oh Gods, I’m in hell! 
Hell or not, the sounds gave her the direction of the hole; and, except for attacks on her eyes, she quit trying to fend off the Batlings, and crawled towards it. Her hands and knees felt shredded with each inch earned, but she continued regardless. One of the things bit off the lobe of her left ear. Callie screamed and smacked it off.
The poison in each of their bites weakened her with every second that passed. If she didn’t make it to the hole soon, she would be eaten alive by the baby monsters.
At last she found the edge of the hole. A dim light came from it. A light that drove away the little beasts. She wondered if more Shankys had waded into the battle; but the light was not red.
She crawled down into the hole, then let gravity take her.
She did not have the strength or focus to catch herself in midair with her power. That no longer mattered. Not avenging her brother, or Jon, or saving her mother. A choice of deaths was all she had before her, and right now she would settle for a quick one.
A talon caught her by the foot about two thirds of the way down.
“NO!!!” Callie screamed, knowing that the bat-thing had caught her, and would now fly her up back to it’s children, “LET ME GO!!!”
She began to writhe and shake, so it would drop her; though the pain it caused her foot was unbearable.
The thing sunk it’s talon deeper into Callie’s foot, piercing through her sneakers, and Callie shrieked, but continued to shake; unbalancing the thing’s attempt at flight.
The thing dropped her. Callie fell to the ground painfully, rather than lethally. She felt the thing land in front of her. She looked up and could see it’s demonic shape because of some light source behind it.
Suddenly, it was blown away by a fireball that sent it flying and shrieking over Callie, and to the ground a short distance away, in a burning heap of crispy bat-thing.
“CALLIE!!” she heard, and damn if that wasn’t Mike standing before her; the cave behind him lit up with many piles of burning monsters.
“Ah, Mike!” she said, her voice weak, “Thank Gloeis for you!”
Then she closed her eyes, and darkness took her.

Chapter 57

The Route of Ascencion

Mike carried Callie back to the cave end (the section they had first entered this Realm from); which was now well-lit by many fires, and devoid of creatures. Those Mike had not firebombed, had scurried off in terror.

He placed Callie in one of the cleaner niches, and began the work of healing her many wounds. The most grievous of these was the poison in the bite on her shoulder; as well as the smaller bites of the bat-babies.
From her memories he catalogued every harm done to her; down to the small bite on her right hand: between her thumb and index finger. Nothing escaped his attention.
At last, there was nothing left to do but let her sleep. 
And she slept for a very long time.

Callie awoke to find Mike hovering over her with concern in his eyes.
“Hello, sleepyhead.” he said with a smile.
Callie grabbed and hugged him tight. 
“What the hell took you so long, dumb-ass?!” she asked.
“Well, I woke up in that blue place, badly disoriented. It took me awhile to get my bearings straight and get back here. Then I couldn’t find you, and had to tear up the joint.”
“My adventure was a little less mellow than that.” Callie said.
“I know.” Mike said, “I saw.”
“Have you been perusing my private brainwaves again?”
“Just a tad,” Mike said, “I had to know all the damage that was inflicted on you so I could heal you.”
“A likely story.”
“I’m afraid that left ear’s gonna have to go on being lobe-less, though.” Mike said, “I looked everywhere for it, but couldn’t find it.”
“I hope that bat-baby chokes on it.” Callie said, “Not that I was ever much into earrings anyway. No big loss.”
“Other than that, you’re good to go.” Mike said, “Are you hungry?”
“What are you offering?” Callie asked, “If it’s toasted critter, I’ll pass.”
“No, look.” Mike said, turning his back to her.
On his back was the backpack with their travel food; Callie had forgot all about it.
“It was Jon’s turn to carry it, around the time we first saw the Cathimites; but in the middle of that whole situation, we forgot to switch it over. I’ve had it on since.”
Mike took the pack off his back, and set it down before her. He unzipped it and retrieved two sodas and two sandwiches.
They ate quickly and silently.
Once finished, they got up and began to walk down the length of the cave. 
Illuminated by Mike’s many fires, Callie could now see with her eyes how the cave was pock-marked with holes all along its sides and (she shuddered) along the ceiling. Those, she knew, led to upper regions.
“We’re gonna have to be extra careful with those.” she said.
“Don’t worry. I firebombed a whole batch of them while you slept.” Mike said, “Then took out everything that tried to escape.”
“Still, there are a lot of hollows up there.”
“Yeah, but all the beasties I’ve met here have one thing in common: they all fear light…and especially, fire.”
Mike hurled more fireballs into the darkening area ahead of them. As they lit up areas of the cave, creatures big and small scampered away from the light, and into their holes.
“I think we should try another route.” Callie said, “Make another rift, I mean. Enter this realm through another point; preferably somewhere outside of this damn cave.”
“We might lose track of Sinestri, if we do that.”
“Wake up, Mike. This place was a trap, and it worked.”
“Perhaps,” Mike replied, “But Sinestri had to pass through here to set it; which means we’re on his trail. If we try another route, there’s no telling where in this world we’ll end up; maybe a thousand miles away from where we need to be.”
There was a far off flickering of red.
“Shanky, up ahead.” Callie said.
“Yes. We’ll have to be careful.”
They continued onward, in silence.
Fifteen minutes clicked by, before one of Mike’s fireballs were met with more red flashes just up ahead of them.
“Get behind me!” Mike said.
As Callie did so, Mike extended forth his hand and summoned a sekari into it; only this sekari flattened itself into a curved shield, that grew within a second to about Mike’s size.
From the darkness just beyond the light of Mike’s last fireball, came a rush of red lightning. It hit the sekari shield and lit it up like fireworks. The lightning fought to penetrate, but the shield held up to the assault.
Mike released the shield, and sent it toward the Shanky. It hit the Shanky, encased it, and made it visible to Callie’s non-Ma’jai eyes. Then it crushed it to death with an audible crunch, before dissipating.
Mike sent a quick succession of fireballs, one after the other, into the dark. They revealed a section of the cave, up ahead, wider than what they had seen so far. The holes at the sides where larger than in the rest of the cave, and from them emerged dozens and dozens of Shankys. They lined up along the sides of the cave, like a gauntlet, and seemed to await them.
“It seems we hit the jackpot.” Mike said.
“Oh booger.” Callie retorted.
The length of Shanky territory was about a hundred yards, and beyond that was the opening of the cave. The dark of night made the world outside the opening indistinct, but occasional flashes suggested a thunderstorm was currently in process.
“I’ll take the left side, you take the right.” Mike said, “We watch each other’s back.”
“As always.” Callie replied.
“Let’s go.”

They ran headlong into Shanky country.
The response was immediate. Every Shanky close enough to attack, did so. With one hand Mike produced a sekari shield that protected him from their lightning, while with the other hand he lobbed fire balls that hit and ignited individual Shankys, and blinded the wide sensitive eyes of those near them; disrupting their line with chaos and confusion.
Meanwhile, Callie bent back the lightnings of four Shankys that launched a simultaneous attack on her. She had the lightnings take out various other Shankys, before she had them take out the four that had produced them. She then levitated the stunned Shankys, and tossed them at the advancing troops on her side of the cave; knocking them over.
On his side, Mike took over the mind of one of the Shankys, and had it zap it’s fellows, before one of it’s fellow Shankys took IT out. Then, Mike took over another, then another after that. He dipped in and out of different Shanky heads, just long enough to have each zap one of it’s brethren, before he moved on to another. Soon, he had them so unhinged; they began to attack each other without provocation.
Mike no longer needed his shield; he was able to use both hands to pick off the Shankys with fireballs and sekari.
As they cleared out whole sections of Shankys, Mike and Callie moved closer and closer to the opening of the cave. They managed to reach the halfway point, when the remaining Shanky troops still ahead of them funneled into the main central walkway before them, and headed for Mike and Callie en masse.
“Uh oh! They’re swarming!” Callie said.
Mike produced a massive sekari and threw it into the heaviest concentration of Shankys between them and the cave opening; the explosive effect of which cleared out the path ahead of them, and knocked over every still-standing Shanky into two piles.
“RUN FOR IT!” Mike yelled.
They ran.
When they were just past the Shankys, Mike stopped, turned, and sent two offhand fireballs into the two piles and disrupted their attempts to stand and resume their attack.
Mike turned and ran. He caught up with Callie, and the two reached the end of the cave.
They ran out through the opening…and almost off of a cliff.
Callie’s intuition stopped her, a step or two before the edge; but Mike stopped too late and teetered on the precipice. Callie grabbed the back of his shirt collar, and pulled him back.
The cave, they now understood, was inside of (and about three fourths of the way up of) a mountain; a big one. Outside the cave opening was a ledge about the width of a sidewalk. To their right, the ledge snaked downward; to their left, the ledge spiraled upward, around the sides of the mountain (presumably, all the way to the top).
As for the landscape, it was all grey mountains against a backdrop of dark night. Heavy thunder clouds prevented the seeing of any stars or moons; and if it wasn’t for the constant flashes of lightning that seared the darkness, little could be seen by non-Ma’jai eyes.
It was cold and wet and harsh. 
It made the cave seem like a comfy environment in comparison.
Mike and Callie looked down into the bottomless drop they had almost blundered into, and gave each other a look.
“This just keeps getting better and better, dunnit?” Mike asked.
They backed off a few steps from the edge. Something on the floor of the ledge caught Mike’s eye.
“So, which way do we---?” Callie started to ask, but a clap of thunder from above that sounded like the hammer of the Gods, startled the both of them.
“Where else?” Mike said, and jabbed his thumb to their left.
“How do you know?” Callie asked.
Mike hunkered down to his knees, and Callie followed suit. He produced fire from his hand, and held it close to the ground, like a torch. Callie looked and saw an arrow etched there on the stone floor of the ledge; it pointed to the upward path. The etching was light, like a quick sandpaper rub on a fine wood desk; done, no doubt, with a sekari.
“Damn.” said Callie.
From behind them, in the cave; the buzz of Shankys neared.
“Time to go.” Mike said.
They turned left, and started on their way up.

Though the ledge was wide enough for two to walk side by side, neither of them wanted anywhere NEAR the edge; so they went single-file. Not only that, but they went sideways as well, with their backs to the wall of the mountain; slow and cautious.
Mike led the way, and Callie followed.
And if any Shanky dared to poke it’s head out of the cave opening, Callie would be more than happy to shove it over into the abyss.
None did, however; Mike and Callie were out of sight, and thus out of mind, as far as the Shankys were concerned.
“I hate thi-i-i-s!” Callie whined, “This is insane! I’m on the side of a shigging mountain in a thunderstorm on another world! How the hell did we get to this, Mike?!”
“With one bizarre situation after another.” Mike replied.
They were now soaked, and every fresh gale of wind chilled them to the bone. Another clap of thunder overhead made them wince.
“I may be wrong, but shouldn’t the thunderclouds be below us at this altitude? We are pretty high up here!” Callie said, “Come to think of it, shouldn’t we be having trouble breathing or something? I don’t mean to be annoying; I just have a lot of questions.”
Mike shrugged. “Different worlds, different rules, I guess.”
“Great. Another answer that answers nothing.” Callie retorted, “You’ve gotten really good at those! Is that a Ma’jai trait?”
“Yeah,” Mike said, “It comes with the kit.”

 After about half an hour of slow sideways movement, that hassle of walking with their backs to the mountain overrode their fear of the unprotected edge, and the two began walking right; though still in single-file, and at a cautious pace. They wished to hell there was a guardrail, or handrail, or something; but there wasn’t, and they had to get used to it.
At one point Mike’s foot slipped on the wet stone, and he fell forward. He uttered a high shriek, afraid he was headed over the edge, but merely fell to his hands and knees.
But he succeeded in scaring the crap out of Callie as well.
“Don’t DO that to me!” she yelled, “DAMN!”
Mike got to his feet.
“Watch your step, for Gloeis's sake!” Callie continued, “Do you think I wanna be stuck up here all alone?”
“Sorry, Cal.” Mike said, his breath ragged, “I thought it was all over there, for a moment.”
Callie shivered in the wind.
“We’re gonna catch our death of cold up here.” she said.
“Nah,” Mike said, “This place will probably kill us long before that!”
They continued onward and upward.

Sometime later, Mike saw something up ahead, around where the periphery of the mountain began to disappear from his line of sight. 
It was still far off, but it looked like a bump on the mountainside. The ledge did not go around this, but stopped right at it; as if one was expected to climb over this outcropping, to get to the ledge on the other side (if there was one).
“What the hell is that?!” Callie asked, all of a sudden.
“What?” Mike asked in return. He stopped and turned around to face her, and saw that she was looking outward.
“I thought I saw something moving, during a lightning flash.” she said, “Over there, somewhere.”
She pointed.
Mike’s eyes needed no lightning flash; he now saw what looked like a small black cloud, about level with them. It was moving towards them; closer and closer.
“Oh shig.” Mike said.
“What? What is it?” Callie asked.
“It’s your old friends…the bat-people.”

Lightning illuminated the landscape once more, and Callie got a clear look at the horde of bat-things that approached. They smiled toothy open-mouth smiles, licking their chops, as they flew toward what they no doubt thought was easy pickings.
There had to be about fifty of them.
“Damn the luck.” Callie said.
“Damning our luck is like damning the wind, Cal,” Mike said, “It’s gonna blow regardless.”
“How long have you been hoarding THAT chestnut?”
“Oh, ages.” Mike smiled.
He extended his hands forward and produced a sekari shield in each. The two shields grew and met, and melted into each other; forming a single half-shell shield all around them that stopped at the wall of the mountain behind them. They were sealed in.
Mike scrunched down a little, and braced himself for the onslaught. He looked at Callie. “Be ready with the---“
But there was no more time for words; the bat-things attacked.
They hit the shield and were repelled with explosive force. The individual bat-things were thrown back, fell, regained flight control, then attacked again and again. The sound of these things, as they hit the shield, was like giant bugs hitting a giant bug zapper.
“Can’t these things take a HINT?!” Callie shouted over the noise.
Mike’s face was a grimace of exertion. The constant attacks forced him to pour more and more power into the shield to keep it from collapsing. Callie could see sections of the shield where the now-familiar blue glow was getting threadbare.
“These things are a bit more obstinate than I anticipated.” Mike said through gritted teeth, “We’re gonna have to switch to offense.”
“I’m so there.” Callie said.
“Just keep them off of us while I light them up.”
“Got it.”
“Oh, and I’d hold my breath about now.”
Fire erupted from Mike’s hands, and grew along the inside curve of the shield. Callie got the picture, and took a deep breath.
The fire flowed out of Mike’s hands and pooled vertically into the tub of the shield in a mockery of gravity. Mike’s hands became lost to sight below the wrists; immersed in liquid fire.
“hereweGO!” Mike yelled, and released the shield.
The shield flew forward and out, and behind it unfurled a great sheet of fire. The shield enveloped one of the bat-things, and it dropped like a brick to the abyss below. The sheet of fire, propelled forward by Mike’s Ma’jai will, ignited a good twenty or so bat-things. These, in turn, flew around in a panic. They would bump into others, and light them up too. Quite a few flew right into the wall of the mountain below and above Mike and Callie; knocked themselves out, and fell to their deaths.
Mike wasted no time. Once able to, he sent out long streamers of fire from his hands, like flame-throwers. These he aimed at every unignited bat-thing within the flame’s reach. Within a minute, another twenty bat-things were on fire; either by Mike’s hands, or their panicking compatriots. The drenching rain was of little help to them; Ma’jai fire does not snuff out as easily as natural fire.
Callie watched for advances from above and below. Mike’s fire lit up the night, allowing her to see everything now. Whenever a bat-thing would zoom in for a sneak attack, Callie would use her mental power to catch it in flight, and slam it against the mountain-side.
One of these fell too close to her, and managed to grab on to her pant leg, on its way over. Callie screamed as her foot was pulled out beneath her; she fell, and was dragged over the edge. She managed to get a handhold on the ledge at the last second.
“CALLIE!” Mike yelled.
He bent to the edge, to help her up. Callie looked up at him and saw a bat-thing descend upon him from above.
“WATCH YOUR BACK!!” she screamed at Mike, as the weight of the wounded bat-thing hanging off her pant leg caused her to lose her grip on the wet stone of the ledge.
She plummeted into the abyss.

Chapter 58

The Dark Mansion

It took Callie a long second to summon forth her powers of levitation, and stop her fall. When she did, the bat-thing lost it’s grip on her pant-leg, and continued on it’s trip down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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