And here we are, the final two chapters of Dark Roads.
It was blessedly dry inside, and warm.
Mike and Callie entered a long vaulted hall. Ornate pillars with silver and gold hanging lamps hung between them greeted the Longstreets on both sides of the hall. The floor was a checkerboard of white and black marble tiles.
Once they reached the end of the hall, they entered the main chamber of the mansion.
Mike and Callie gasped.
The main room had to be hundreds of yards across and in area; the ceiling was so high, it was lost to sight. The far-flung walls were rounded, and a staircase spiraled up and around its sides, with many and various halls and doors along its way.
Taking up much of the real estate on the ground floor of this grand chamber, was what could only be called a little town. Homes and huts and small one-storey buildings made up this diminutive town, as well as roads and alleys. Wagons were ridden through those roads; pulled by beasts of burden that looked like a cross between ponies and sheep. The town (and to a lesser extent, the mansion) was inhabited by a small pallid people, with black horizontal stripes either painted or tattooed across their faces, arms, hands, and (theoretically, at least) entire bodies. None of them were taller than five feet high. They all dressed in identical grey hooded cloaks.
About fifty or so feet above the center of the city, a miniature sun shined, providing light and warmth.
“WELCOME TO MY HOME, YOUNG LONGSTREETS.” Sinestri’s baritone voice boomed all of a sudden, from somewhere in the heights above them, “WELCOME TO ROANATH! DO NOT FEAR THE DEDDENS, THEY ARE MERELY SERVANTS. THEY MEAN YOU NO HARM. IN FACT, THEY HAVE PREPARED A SUPPER FOR YOU IN THE KITCHENS. YOU HAVE MY ASSURANCE, UPON MY HONOR, THAT THE FOOD IS NEITHER POISONED NOR DRUGGED IN ANY WAY. WHEN YOU HAVE EATEN YOU FILL, COME UP AND VISIT ME. WE HAVE MUCH TO TALK ABOUT.
“YOUR MOTHER AND I WILL BE WAITING.”
With that, the booming voice stopped.
“What do you think?” Mike asked.
“Well, I trust Sinestri only as far as I can throw him.” Callie said, “But on the other hand, I am so fricking hungry!”
“I think you could probably toss him a good distance.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I agree,” Mike said, “I’m hungry too.”
From the little town now came forth a Dedden on one of those wooly ponies, with an empty open two-seat cart behind it. It plodded towards them at a brisk, if quiet, pace.
“I think that’s our ride.” said Callie.
The sheepony (as Callie now referred to it, in her mind) stopped in front of them. The Dedden on its back had his hood down, which revealed him to be bald, and showed that the tattoo stripe went all around his head, and ended in a spiral at his crown.
“Mraw.” the Dedden muttered, and motioned them to the cart.
Mike and Callie got on the cart, and sat down. The Dedden lightly slapped the sheepony’s rump, and it started off; it’s heavily padded feet making hardly a sound on the marble floor.
They were taken, not into the Dedden town, but towards a wide arched doorway a bit far off in the wall of the chamber, close to where the massive stairway began.
There was a line of Deddens exiting through this doorway, removing their hoods as they made a beeline towards their town.
As they approached the doorway, Mike and Callie could see that beyond it was a kitchen of enormous size. A long wooden table, enough to seat an army, took up its center, with two equally long wooden benches on either side of it. The table top was empty except for the section closest to the entrance, upon which was set a small feast of meats and fruits and vegetables of many, if unfamiliar, kinds; along with goblets and glasses of varied juices. By the time they reached the doorway, the kitchen was entirely empty.
Despite not knowing what most of these foodstuffs were, Mike and Callie’s bellies groaned with impatience.
The Dedden stopped his pudgy steed short of entering the kitchen. Mike and Callie needed no further prompting; they stepped off and dashed into the kitchen posthaste.
The Dedden and his sheepony turned around and headed for the town, but Mike and Callie paid him no heed; they sat opposite each other, on either side of the table, and dove into the food like impoverished orphans at a rich man’s dinner party.
They ate their fill. Ate until they were ready to burst. Still, they did not exhaust half the bounty laid out before them.
“I guess we’ll leave this for the Deddens to clean up.” Callie said when they were done.
Mike’s reply was a long and obscene burp.
“That’s nice!” Callie said, but could not suppress one of her own.
Mike laughed. “Not so hoity-toity after all!” he said.
“Alright.” Callie replied, “Should we go, or what?”
“Let’s go, then. We didn’t come all this way to dawdle.”
The two got up, and exited the kitchen.
They made for the stairs.
“Great. More walking.” Mike said, as he looked up the long climb ahead. The insane interior spiral upwards seemed to invert the insane exterior spiral they had just completed.
“Screw walking!” Callie said.
She grabbed Mike’s arm, and the two started flying up the stairs like a rocket. They zipped up along the stairway; the hallways and doors along the way whooshing by like blurs. Occasionally, they had to detour around Deddens roaming the place; but the higher they went, the less and less there were, allowing Callie to speed up even further.
They made three complete circuits of the great chamber, before Callie had to stop and rest awhile.
“Whew!” she said, breathing heavy, “I think I just chopped a few hours off our trip.”
“Sit down, take a break.” Mike said.
They were at the entrance to a hallway. The two slid down the wall of this hallway, and sat on the floor.
“How’s the power level?” Mike asked.
“Barely put a dent into it. Still good to go.” she said, “I just got a migraine from the effort. I’ve been pushing myself too hard for some time now. I doubt the levitation ability has ever been put to such a harsh field test before; and by a rookie, to boot.”
“I wouldn’t try again too soon.” Mike said, “Take all the time you need to refresh yourself. We’re gonna need to be at our best when we make it to Sinestri’s floor. Gods only know what awaits us there.”
Callie nodded, and the two fell into a relaxed quiet.
Eventually, Mike got up to stretch his legs, walked over to the handrail of the stair, and looked down. The miniature sun was now slightly below them, but close enough to make Mike squint when looking at it.
It was an amazing sight, and Mike found the more he looked at it, the less he needed to squint. After a few seconds, he could make out dark moving splotches out of which no illumination passed.
“Looks like Sinestri’s sun is dying.” Mike said, absently.
Yet, there was something mesmerizing about the mini-sun. Mike realized he could see pulsating colors past the yellow “sunshine”.
“You should see this, Cal, it’s quite beautiful…” he said, his words slurring. He suddenly became aware that he was being drawn into a trance, but this knowledge came too late to be of any help.
Callie had closed her eyes against the dull throb in her head. She was about to say something to the effect that, now that the miniature sun was below them, maybe she could fly them straight up to the top floor without having to follow the stairs (after a suitable interval of rest, of course). Then Mike made his comment about Sinestri’s sun dying. Something in his voice troubled her, but she knew not what until he spoke again, and she heard the sluggishness in his voice.
She opened her eyes, and looked over at Mike. His back was to her, and he seemed to be staring down at the mini-sun with rapt attention.
She knew something was wrong.
She got up, and made to go over to him.
“Callie!” someone behind her called.
It was a familiar voice; a tantalizingly familiar voice, that made the hair on the back of her neck rise.
In spite of herself she turned, and saw a cloaked and hooded figure standing at the end of the hall. At first she thought it was another Dedden, but the figure removed the hood, and smiled at her.
Callie’s heart stopped.
It was Jon.
“Jon?” Callie called out.
Jon smiled, “Got something to show you, babe.”
He turned and walked into an intersecting hall, and out of her view.
“JON!” Callie cried out.
She turned to Mike, still entranced by the sun, and then turned back to the way Jon had gone, and ran that way.
She ran, and caught glimpses of Jon here and there, always ahead of her, always just turning a corner; but when she’d turn the corner, he’d be ahead at the next turn.
“Jon! Stop! Wait!” she cried.
He led her down a maze of corridors, until at last he stopped at a door, and entered. Callie reached the door, and entered behind him.
She stepped inside, and entered a thick tangle of vegetation. The room seemed to have opened into a jungle. There were dense vines hanging all around her, and the floor beneath her feet was carpeted with moist dirt. She pushed past the vines until she entered an area clear of vegetation. There was a sofa, and Jon laid there with his hands behind his head.
He smiled up at her.
“Hello, beautiful.” he said.
He sat up and patted the spot beside him on the sofa. Callie sat next to him, and they faced each other.
“Jon. How?” was all she could muster.
He smiled patiently at her.
“Give us a kiss.” he said, and leaned in to do so.
His lips touched hers, and she could not deny him. She leaned into him and returned in kind. For a moment, it was heaven.
Then his tongue entered her mouth, and she felt it split in two.
Callie pushed him back and found herself face to face with a creature with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and a serpent for a tail.
“Ha! Ha!” it said, “Fooled you!”
Mike snapped awake from his trance.
He shook his head and blinked his strained and blurry eyes.
Had he heard a scream? Or had he imagined it?
He turned away from the stair and saw that Callie was no longer in the hallway. How long had he been mesmerized?
“CALLIE?” he called out, but there was no answer.
Then, there was another scream, faint and far off. It came from somewhere beyond the hall, and it was definitely Callie.
“I’M COMING!” Mike yelled, and started running toward where the sound had come from; but trap doors swung open beneath him, and he plunged down a dark rectangular chute.
Mike screamed, as his Ma’jai eyes perceived the bed of spikes and spear-points that awaited him at the bottom of the silver-lined chute; and without a Conjuura around, there was no denying gravity.
The room was different now.
It was a blindingly white room without windows or door; and unfurnished except for the sofa, which alone hadn’t changed.
“What’s this?! What’s this?!” Callie cried, getting up and backing away from the patchwork creature on the sofa.
“Wanna liplock summore?!” the creature grinned, then stuck it’s forked tongue out at her, “What you need, hotstuff, is some more of my SALIVA! Here, hava batch!”
It opened it’s mouth and fire poured out at Callie. She screamed the scream Mike would follow into the trapdoor, and extended her power before her, slanting the fire away.
“Oh, you’re gonna be FUN!” the thing said, retracting it’s fire.
“What are you?!” Callie asked.
“We is Jiskijik.” it said, “We is many!”
Jiskijik began changing it’s body parts into a constant stream of animal parts; some known, some unknown, and some insane. The flow of transformations upon transformations increased until the sight of it hurt Callie’s eyes and Callie’s mind.
“STOP IT!” Callie yelled.
Jiskijik stopped, and it was Jon again.
“C’mon, hunnybucket,” the fake Jon said, “Let’s bop!”
“How do you know about Jon?” Callie asked, “When and where exactly did you see him?”
An idea had entered her mind, and a faint and fragile hope had entered her heart.
“Is he HERE?! IS HE ALIVE?!!”
Perhaps, she hoped against hope, the mess back in that Cathim building had been an illusion, left there for her to find, by Sinestri. Perhaps Sinestri had actually brought Jon here, for some purpose. More importantly, perhaps she could find and rescue him!
“Aww, sorry honey!” Jiskijik said, transforming into Charles Longstreet. It got up off the sofa, and the sofa disappeared, like the vegetation before it. “Hate to burst your bubble, snookums, and trample on your dreamy dreams; but your boyfriend isn’t here. He’s in a dozen little pieces back in Cathim. Our master merely let us watch along with him, as you and your little group made your way across the wasteland. Facinating viewing, by the way; riveting!”
Callie was crestfallen.
“That’s the thing about Jiskijik, luv.” it said, now looking like Babbidaz, “We step on your heart, before we eat it!”
It lunged at her.
As Mike fell, he produced a sekari shield. He hit bottom a split-second after its completion, and the shield held against the spear and spike points, which seemed to be welded to the floor of the trap, since they did not turn, fall, or get pushed aside by the shield. Nor was there anywhere for Mike to step, or place a foot, as the spears and spikes were all too close together, and took up every inch of space.
“Oh crap!” Mike said.
How the hell do I get out of this?! he thought to himself, I can’t hold this shield forever!
Indeed, it was taking him great power and focus to hold the shield’s form and keep it solid against the uneven surface of the spikes and spears that threatened to burst it.
It occurred to Mike, that the only way out was the way he had entered, and there was only one way he was going to do that.
He drew in power from the Voss Vedu’un, and channeled it into the shield.
He willed it to expand.
As the sekari shield grew, it bore him up. Like a balloon in a bottle, it conformed to the shape of the chute. Up and up he went, until his back was confronted by a barrier.
The trapdoors. They had reclosed after his fall.
They did not open upwards.
“Uh oh!” Mike said.
He was trapped between unopenable doors on one side, and his own overinflated sekari shield, on the other. The hell of it was, he knew precisely what it would take to break through the doors; but it was going to hurt like hell, if it didn’t kill him.
Then there was the question of whether his body would be thrown free of the hole or merely thrown upwards. If the latter occurred, he’d simply fall back into the hole, which would not be good at all.
Mike decided it was worth a try.
He continued expanding the sekari shield until he was flattened against the unyielding doors in a painful squeeze; but continued to push the sekari to its limits.
Then it exploded, and Mike felt a split-second of unbearable pain and flight, before the world went black.
Jiskijik (as Babbidaz) lunged after Callie and might have had her if the sound of an explosion somewhere nearby hadn’t distracted it in mid-trip. This was all Callie needed. She grabbed Jiskijik with her power, lifted it up in the air, and hurled it against the opposite wall with great force; whereupon it broke and burst into eleven separate pieces. Each piece transformed into lizard-like creatures, each a different bright color. Those eleven lizards then split into twenty-two smaller lizards.
They all turned and looked at her…and curtsied.
“What the hell?!” Callie said.
“We is Jiskijik.” the lizards all said in unison, “We is many.”
They tittered with unrestrained glee, and then split up dashing in all directions; like cockroaches when the light is turned on. Some ran toward her along the floor, many ran up and along the walls, some continued onward up to the ceiling, and ran upside down.
Callie understood what was about to happen, and extended her power around her like a sphere of protection.
The lizards launched their attack from every direction at once. Every time a Jiskijik tried to get on her, or spew fire at her, she smacked them off with enormous violence. The Jiskijik in question would then hit a wall, and disperse into smaller giggling pieces.
“TIME TO CHANGE THE RULES!” the Jiskijiks all shouted, and upon this utterance, the room exploded into a moving and swirling nightmare of primary colors; like a madman’s acid trip. The colors were not just on the floor, walls, and ceiling; they moved all around her like three-dimensional waves of liquid hues.
Bad enough she could no longer see where the Jiskijiks were in this mess; the exhibition was making her dizzy and nauseous, as well as exacerbating her migraine.
Worst of all, she had an idea that the colors were intended to entrance her, like the miniature sun had Mike; so the little monsters could take her out at their leisure.
Not today, jerks! Callie thought.
She closed her eyes, and felt immediate relief. That was better. Without the visual noise, she could “see” the room and the Jiskijiks, with the extension of her power.
She walked to the center of the room, swatting the little bastards off all the way.
Time to bring this party to an end!
Callie concentrated. Hard. She extended the sphere of her power until she could feel every Jiskijik in the room. Then she grabbed every single one of them in her mental grasp.
The giggling stopped.
Callie opened her eyes.
The room was white again, and damn if there wasn’t a door there after all.
She brought and held all the Jiskijiks in the air before her, and squeezed. They squealed and squirmed, but could not escape her grip; nor, in their pain, were they able to access their gift for illusion.
“No more jibes? No more laffs?” Callie asked.
“LET US GO!!!” the Jiskijiks squealed in unison.
“I get the feeling that if I tear every one of you apart, I’ll only make more of you.” Callie said, “So maybe I’ll go the other way!”
She brought every Jiskijik, and slammed them all together into one mass; and began to crush it.
“NO! STOP!! PLEASE!!!” they cried, in quavering voices, “YOU’RE KILLING US!! YOU’RE KILLING US!!!”
“That’s the thing about Callie, luv,” she said coldly, “Step on my heart, and I’ll squash you like a bug!”
With one powerful squeeze, she did just that.
Jiskijik screamed a high awful shriek, as it became a single mass of colors bleeding into each other, until they merged into a dark brownish color, like feces; and it’s multiple flesh melted into a loathsome goop.
Then, it screamed no more. Callie released it, and it plopped to the floor with a disgusting flatulent sound.
Callie walked to the door, and exited the room.
Mike woke up, feeling like crap.
He had been blown free of the hole as he had hoped (and just barely at that); which was good, because the trapdoors had been blown off. One of which had landed on top of him.
Sekari bursts were explosive in effect, but not fiery (as opposed to fireballs, which were); so Mike wasn’t burned in any way. But being in one still hurt like a mother, nonetheless.
Mike groaned, and pushed the trapdoor off of him. He tried to get up, but his head swam, so he flopped back to the floor.
He closed his eyes and summoned forth healing energy from the Voss Vedu’un, into his own body.
“What the hell happened to you?!” a voice said.
It was Callie.
“I could ask you the same question, but I need a minute or two to get my crap together.”
Callie went over to the hole Mike had so recently exited, and looked down.
“What was in there?” she asked.
“A great many pointy and unpleasant things.” Mike answered, “And where the hell were you when I needed you?”
“When YOU needed ME?! I just barely escaped with my life from a roomful of tiny monsters, to find YOU lounging around on the floor like the King of Happytown!”
“Hey! I was nearly skewered to death here! I literally had to EXPLODE myself out of that hole, to escape.”
“Pish posh! I had to fight a swarm of shape-changing, fire-breathing, illusionist lizards!”
“Really? Damn. Alright, you win.” Mike said, “Help me up, would’cha?”
Callie grabbed Mike’s arm and pulled him up. They walked past the hole in the floor, and were back on the stairway.
“Are we done here?” Mike asked.
“Well then, let’s get up there.” he said, pointing to the top floor, “Can you pull that off, or do you need more rest?”
“Actually, I need more rest now than I did when we got here.” Callie said, “However, Sinestri’s little traps are getting on my nerves, and I can’t wait to throttle the bastard. So let’s go. I can rest when I’m dead.”
Callie and Mike linked arms, and the two floated over the handrail of the staircase, and shot straight up the center of the main chamber.
They reached, at last, the top floor.
There was only one hall here, and only one door at the end of it. The hall was high-ceilinged, and filled with vast hung tapestries, whose geometric designs danced and changed with kaleidoscopic frequency; and sinuous sculptures, that writhed like living things and threatened to reach out and grab at them.
“Don’t look at them, Callie.” Mike said, “They’re distractions. Look straight ahead.”
The door ahead of them seemed to be the apotheosis of all doors; a tall, heavy thing, varnished to within an inch of its life. Its dark woodgrain was almost elemental against the white of the marble walls.
Upon reaching the door, they saw something. Carved deeply on it with some sharp implement (recently, perhaps, for there were still wood shavings on the floor below it), was writ the following:
VRAS SALORA ETAYALI.
“What does that mean?” Callie asked, “I’m assuming you know, since it is no doubt meant for us.”
Mike nodded. “It’s Vaunto for: ‘the burning awaits’.”
“What does THAT mean?”
“Aside from the literal meaning of the text, I don’t know.”
“Sounds fricking ominous.”
“We didn’t come all this way to turn back now.”
“This is really it, isn’t it?” Callie asked.
“Yes it is.” Mike replied, “Let’s go.”
He grabbed the doorknob, and gave it a turn.
The door opened.
Mike and Callie entered a circular room that was almost primitive, compared with the excesses of the rest of the place. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all wood; the grain as dark as that of the door through which they entered, though they were not varnished. Oil-burning lamps were hung all round this wide room, in a complete circle; and they were all lit.
There were two wooden thrones, facing each other from opposite sides of the room. The closest one to Mike and Callie was empty; but in the one opposite it, a figure was seated.
It was not Sinestri.
Mike and Callie walked toward this figure. They circumnavigated a large square wooden table to do so. Above this table, in the exact center of the room, a heavy crystal chandelier hung, reflecting the light from the lamps.
They reached the figure, and gagged.
“Shig! It’s Dad and Kitty all over again!” Mike said.
“Yeesh! It smells about the same!” Callie replied.
The seated figure, male, was three quarters of the way through a nasty case of Malevolencia poisoning; its body, in its entirety, was consumed by the substance. The figure sat fused to its throne. Half of its face was taken over; only one eye was clear of the muck. The eye was wide open, and stared past them at infinity.
But whereas both Charles Longstreet and Kitty were, when taken over, turned to worms on the one hand, and quasi-liquid goo on the other; the Malevolencia on this person seemed to have stopped, and gone no further.
Mike tore off a splinter from the side of the throne, and tapped it on the Malevolencia.
“It’s hardened.” he said, “Look.” He tried to stick it in the stuff, but the tip of the splinter broke off. “Somehow, the Malevolencia was stopped, before it could finish the job. Not that it helped this poor son of a bitch.”
“His name was Oggishi Makeel.” a voice from behind them said.
Mike and Callie whirled around.
Araboam Sinestri sat majestically on the throne that had been empty when they had walked in.
“Sinestri!” Callie hissed.
“Where’s our mother you bastard?!” Mike spat out.
“Vras salora etayali.” Sinestri said calmly, as if he were in the middle of a different, and more sedate, discussion, “Do you know what that means, young Ma’jai?”
Mike glared at Sinestri.
“Trying to read my mind, are you?” Sinestri asked, his lip curled in a sneer, “Don’t you know? Ma’jai can’t read other Ma’jai; much less influence or control. Not unless you’re an Icarin, which you are not; and even then, I hear, it’s not exactly easy. Come now, I asked you a question: do you know what ‘vras salora etayali’ means?”
“The translation, not the significance.” Mike replied.
“It is a reference to Ma’jai history,” Sinestri said, “Back to the golden age of the Ma’jai guilds. Some of these groups would send their young Jah’ruhn off into the world, to be on their own, have adventures, get into trouble, and not to come back until they were full-fledged Ma’jai. They were sent off with ceremonial cry of ‘VRAS SALORA ETAYALI’. The Burning Awaits! The trials and tribulations they went through were believed to be the fire that would burn away weakness and frailty, and bring forth the gleaming edge of Ma’jai power.”
“Is that what all this has been about?” Callie asked, “Some TEST?!”
“Have not your trials made you strong?” Sinestri asked, “Have they not brought out your hidden powers? Look at the enemies you’ve faced and defeated. The places you’ve braved. You have passed across the face of a MOUNTAIN to get to me.”
“I doubt this was done for our benefit.” Mike said, “Nor does it explain what you did to Cathim, or our parents.”
“True. But if you want all the answers, they lie in the forgotten past; before you or even your parents were born. Back over a hundred years ago, during the aforementioned golden age of the Ma’jai.
“Many Ma’jai guilds emerged back then. Some big, some small; few lasted very long. They would break up, and reform in different ways. Some were strict in their membership: Ma’jai only. Some were more inclusive, and allowed Rahu’ra into their ranks.”
“Non-Ma’jai magic-makers,” Mike translated for Callie, “Sorcerers, Conjuuras, Necromancers, and the like.”
“The greatest of the Ma’jai guilds was the Summara Zerume.” Sinestri continued, “It was a strict membership guild, and every Ma’jai who heard of it was drawn to it. It’s MainLodge was a sight to behold, and boasted secret archives of priceless Ma’jai books and artifacts; like the Kalafand, the Revelations of Murmurel, and four of the five original talking Ilgidin Stones, which were thought to be lost in the mists of Time…”
“You sound impressed.” Callie interrupted.
“I was!” Sinestri said, “So much that I joined up in 3548, when I was eighteen. It was there that I met my friend and mentor Hissig Shiffat, who took me under his wing. He was on the ruling Rasha Council.”
“So far, everything sounds rosy,” Mike said, “What went wrong?”
“The head of the Rasha Council was an Icarin of great power. His name was Oristo Threed. He was, by the way, your great-great-grandfather.”
Mike shrugged. “Never heard of him.” he said.
“Of course not; at some point in the bloodline, the Threed name was changed to protect his descendants. But I digress.
“As with all Icarins, Threed knew his very birth was an omen of a coming darkness he would have to lead other Ma’jai into battle against; so he slowly transformed the Summara into his personal army. In the process of looking for whatever the hell was coming down the pike, they thwarted dark sorcerers, meddled in the affairs of other guilds and groups, and rigorized the moral and ethical rules for those within the guild. This made them many enemies, both within and without.
“Some left voluntarily, like me. Some were expelled in disgrace, like Shiffat, who was booted from the Rasha Council for a trifle.
“In 3550, Shiffat and I, in conjunction with the sorcerer Oggishi Makeel and the Conjuura Uraja Jeuke (both of whom had been frustrated by the interference of the Summara), decided to unite the enemies of the Summara into a single group: the Tauraka Valaad. Our numbers swelled very quickly, and we spent the next two years in direct aggression against the Summara. There were some vicious battles fought. But, despite our accumulated forces, the Summara was always triumphant.
“Then, in late 3552, Makeel thought he’d found a way to turn the tide in our favor. He was always trying to make contact with other-dimensional forces, that was his thing, and had succeeded in contacting a being of tremendous power, that called itself Sha’dao.”
Mike shuddered in recollection of his dream of a dark beast pouring forth darkest magic; of those Cyclopean eyes that had caused him to scream in his sleep. Only he had not screamed Shadaro, as Callie and Jon had misheard; he had screamed Sha’dao.
“You fools!” Mike exclaimed, “Was that the obscene monster you were trying to free?! Had you succeeded, it would have devoured you and then the rest of the world!”
“Yes, we were fools.” Sinestri admitted, “But it was so helpful to us at first. It poured power somehow, through the contact link Oggishi had created. The power and ability of every Tauraka member doubled that night.”
“But it wasn’t just power, was it?” Mike asked, “That was just the bait. It was, in effect, its Malevolencia, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. We fell into the trap. It told us how we could open a rift big enough for it to pass through. How it would lay our enemies low. How it would make us immortal. How we would rule at its side forever.”
“And you believed it?!” Callie asked, incredulous.
“Of course!” Sinestri said, “It had its stuff in our heads now, turning our wills to its purpose. We began then the Great Work. The Sha’dao’s realm, called Craa, was unreachable by regular methods; it was a special place, locked up tight and jammed into a dark corner somewhere. No mere Ma’jai Realm-rift would do; a major hole would have to be torn into the fabric of reality. We found an out-of-the–way place with enough dark magical residue to guarantee success, and began our preparations; not only for the ritual, but for battle, should the Summara try to stop us---which, of course, they did.
“Ironic. That in the process of preparing the Summara for the coming darkness, Threed himself had set into motion the very forces that opened the way for the darkness to come.
“Anyway, during the battle, my mentor died at Threed’s hands. I swore vengeance on Threed, and fought him; but I was defeated, wounded, and had to crawl away. You saw what happened next.”
“Yes,” said Mike, “Despite your increased power and strength of numbers, your group was decimated anyway; first by the Summara, then by the opening of the rift itself. What I didn’t see was how you and your friend Oggishi here, escaped.”
“Oggishi was one of the Rahu’ra sorcerers you saw trying to open the rift; but before it actually opened, he was struck by some primal fear instinct, and backed away. We met, and he told me that we had to leave FAST. I was about to counter that we weren’t going anywhere until my mentor’s death was avenged. Then the rift opened, and I saw the dark things that started coming out of it, and changed my mind. I realm-jumped the both of us out of there.
“This realm, Sellavellan, was the first place we came to; and we found this mansion already here. The Deddens alone were living here; from them we found out that this place was once the abode of a Titan that had built it. He brought many Deddens to this place, and they saw him as a god, and served him. They called him Loorsee; but He had left them, ages ago, and never returned.
“In time the Deddens came to see us as gods too; if lesser ones. So we reigned here in luxury for many years. Trouble was, Oggishi was no Ma’jai, and wasn’t standing up to the Malevolencia as well as I was (at first, anyway). His slow decline was disturbing for me to witness; as it was a whiff of my own future. In the end, Oggishi just sat there on his throne one day and never got up again. Which was a great improvement, because for awhile prior to that, he actually wanted me to take him back to Statamer to try and open the door to the Sha’dao again!”
“Hadn’t he learned his lesson?!” Callie asked.
“Here’s the thing. Though the puppet-strings had been severed, and the Sha’dao was no longer controlling us directly; its stuff was still in our heads, and it whispered to us in the dark.
“Sometimes, I’d have dreams of going back to finish the job. Or I’d find myself humming the chants the sorcerers had used in the Ritual of Opening. I was able to resist, being a Ma’jai; Makeel was not, and it broke his mind. Unable to realm-jump, or convince me to take him, he went bonkers for awhile. In time, that too passed. He inevitably succumbed to the lack of volition Malevolencia causes in its final stages; its lethargic downward pull. Like I said before, one day he sat down, and never got up again.
“Not that I cared, or noticed. I had made a discovery, in the black stone of the mountain. Brakker, a rare stone of magical properties; the whole mountain was made of it! I made myself a ring with it that holds back the effects of the Malevolencia poison that even now courses through my veins. I made one for Oggishi, but it was too late to be of any help to him, as you can plainly see.
“There was still the matter of avenging myself on Threed; and if Threed had not survived (as it seems he hadn’t), I would have to find and avenge myself upon his descendants. Thing was, the Malevolencia was getting to me. The ring held it back for years, but it was still seeping through; still doing its work. If vengeance was to be mine, I would first have to find a way to cleanse myself of this accursed condition; or I would sit myself into a black lump, like Oggishi. Alas, my condition was far beyond the reach of even the Words of Fire. A gaggle of Ma’jai could not help me; I was poisoned through and through.
“The breakthrough happened with the unexpected visit of Amurist Rant, an old friend from the Tauraka that I did not know had survived the Battle of Iaqa Aiwi. Rant had something momentous to show me. Like every other Tauraka member who had taken the Sha’dao’s gift of power; he had been afflicted with Malevolencia. Only now…he was not. He had somehow managed to cleanse himself of it!
“It seems he had been traveling the realms of the Zotium, and had encountered a sophisticated race of necromancers, who shared with him a complex ritual for the cleansing of one’s body of hostile magical elements. Now the ritual is dangerous and potentially lethal; the formula is precise and exacting; and the ingredients are difficult in the extreme to find and arrange. The whole thing requires years of preparation and work, with a slim margin for error; but it had worked for Rant, and I was desperate enough to give it a try. But here now we come to the crux of the matter, and the explanation of many things.”
“Thank the Gods.” Callie said, “I’m getting tired of listening to you prattle on endlessly.”
Sinestri continued on, unfazed by Callie’s remark, “The formula demands the sacrifice of two child siblings of different magical types, provided they’re not too far apart in age. Their abilities must be brought to bloom at nearly the same time under similar conditions.
“Well…when I at last located a descendant of Threed, living in Cathim, can you imagine my surprise upon seeing that she had two children; one already destined to become a Ma’jai, the other with the potential to be a Conjuura, if I played my cards right? Can you imagine the possibilities that danced in my head?”
“I don’t think I have to.” Mike said.
“It was a miraculous turn of events! I could avenge myself upon Threed’s descendant, and use his great-great-grandchildren to free myself of the fruits of his meddling; a wonderful double revenge!
“Things had to be planned for; things had to be thought through, years in advance. I separated you from your mother, via your father. I cursed her, and the city that had hidden the Threed bloodline from me for generations. When I sent your father against you, I kept him on a tight leash---perhaps too tight; afraid that if he caught you too quickly, you would not yet be ready to deal with him. I kept him in the dark too long, I see that now. With Babbidaz, it was the opposite; I feared I had sent something too brutal and powerful for you to deal with; but your performance surprised me.
“After Babbidaz, I knew you could deal with anything. And now, here you are; your lives a mere post-script to events of great importance…and a prelude to my freedom. Any final questions, before we move on?”
“Why did you kill Jon?” Callie asked.
“He had no business in these matters.” Sinestri answered, “I tolerated the meddling of your friends in this affair far more than I intended to; but if left unimpeded, this Jon would have come with you into Sellavellan. That I could not allow. So I removed him.
“Besides, it lit a fire under you, did it not?”
Callie seethed. “We’re going to kill you.” she said.
Sinestri arose from his seat, and stood to his full height. “If you think you can,” he said, calmly, “Now’s the time.”
There was a single second of silence…then it was on.
Callie’s power tore the chandelier violently from the ceiling, and sent its hundred crystal daggers flying at Sinestri even as Mike hurled sekari. Sinestri produced a sekari shield that thwarted both, then flung it at them. Mike created a shield of his own and Sinestri’s shield glommed on to it. A horrible screeching sound arose as Sinestri’s shield tried to crush Mike’s.
Callie wrenched Oggishi Makeel, throne and all, and chucked it over her and Mike’s heads, at Sinestri. Sinestri had to jump out of the way, and thus lost his concentration; allowing Mike to defeat his shield.
Oggishi and throne smashed into Sinestri’s throne with such force that every lamp in the room smashed to the floor in unison. A wall of fire bloomed all around them, and crawled up the walls and along the floor.
Sinestri sent a massive sekari up to the ridged ceiling, and blew a wide hole in it. From his hands came long blue sekari cords, which snapped at Mike and Callie in a whip-like onslaught. Mike had to create another shield to protect him and Callie.
“Haven’t quite mastered the full range of your sekari, have you?” Sinestri asked, mockingly. His sekari cords then planted themselves along the sides of the hole in the ceiling, and bore Sinestri up and through it, and onto the roof; away from the raging fire that now threatened to engulf the throne room.
Callie linked arms with Mike, and they followed him up.
They found themselves atop the topmost roof of the mansion, the unusually wide and flat ridge beam of which was about a foot across and about thirty feet long. Beyond the width of the ridge beam, the roof slanted down steeply on both sides. All around and above them lightning flashed dangerously close, and thunder roared like the screaming of the Gods. The wind was cold and hard, and rain fell in endless sheets. Below them, the bizarre and broken landscape of the mansion’s rooflines spanned like a dark and compacted city. Beyond THAT, was the vertiginous blackness of the yawning chasm that surrounded the mountain. Verily, it was as if they stood atop the whole of creation.
Sinestri stood, not ten feet away, on the other side of the smoking hole in the roof; a sekari in his upraised hand. He threw it.
Mike produced a shield, but the sekari was not aimed at them. It hit the roof at their feet and sent them both tumbling down opposite slopes.
Callie fell face-down, feet first. She scrabbled at the wet roof until she reached a small, two inch ledge that protruded out horizontally from the eaves. She caught on to this and looked up in time to see a huge fireball fly down toward her, scorching a trail of burnt roof behind it. Callie let go of the ledge and fell into gravity’s arms. She looked up and saw the fireball fly over her head and hit some unseen structure behind her somewhere. She used her levitating power to glide down diagonally to the next closest rooftop; which was a castellated tower. She looked around.
Where the hell is Mike? she wondered.
Mike had fallen head first down his side of the roof, and rode it down on his back; half-formed sekari shield still emerging from his hands. He zipped past the end of the roof and found himself in freefall. He looked up at the shield, and got an idea. He willed the shield to expand into a curved glider shape. It worked! His descent slowed, and Mike glided down to the peaked top of a domed roof. He released the shield and held on to the peak. There was a small area of flatness around the peak that allowed him to stand. He held on with one hand and swung around, looking for Callie.
Callie levitated to the bridge arch of a flying buttress, when a huge sekari came from somewhere above her and smashed into the bridge right next to her. The bridge arch collapsed and Callie went with it. As she fell, she saw a thin blue glowing cord whip its way down toward her. It caught her, coiled itself around her, and carried her up. Callie struggled upon seeing that she was being carried toward Sinestri.
Sleep now. Sinestri’s voice echoed through her mind.
And without really wanting to, Callie did just that.
Not being able to levitate, Mike was hesitant to do anymore sekari gliding; as he would only go down to lower areas, when what he wanted was to go UP, to look for Callie. He hoped she was alright, but knew she’d be no match for Sinestri on her own.
Not that he’d done any better himself.
The only way up, besides climbing, was to figure out how to do that weird sekari whip thing Sinestri had done.
Mike produced a sekari on his free hand, and concentrated hard on turning it into a whip shape. It took him a few minutes, but at last a thick clumsy sekari cord extended from the palm of his hand about five feet, and wriggled about, like a tentacle. He willed it toward the smoking roof he and Callie had fallen from, and the sekari zipped towards it, thinning as it expanded. It connected with the black stone wall, and dug into it like a spike. Mike then let go of the dome’s peak, and created another sekari whip with his newly freed hand. It came easier than the first, and dug into the stone wall a little higher.
“Here goes nothing.” Mike said, and willed the sekari to lift him.
They did, but it was a bit freaky. The cords lifted Mike up and over towards the roof he had so recently departed; a roof with a big smoking hole in its center. Despite the rain, the out-of-control fire had consumed the sides of the hole, making it much bigger. The roof now looked as if some giant had taken a bite out of it; only two small sections of the roof ridge remained to stand on.
Sinestri was there, waiting for him at one end.
Mike took the other.
There were no words exchanged; the thunder was too loud and constant for any words to be audible.
From behind Sinestri arose something that had been hidden from Mike’s view. One of Sinestri’s sekari whips. Entangled in its grip, was Callie. Mike couldn’t tell if she was dead or merely unconscious.
Sinestri brought her up from behind him, and extended her towards Mike, as if to give her to him. She disappeared over the smoking hole and then---Sinestri dropped her into the raging inferno of the room below.
“NOOO!” Mike screamed and, without thinking, jumped in after her, into the mouth of fire.
His world exploded into searing pain that lasted eternities, before darkness at last, and blessedly, took him.
“…mike …Mike? ...Mike!”
This oddly muffled call echoed through the darkness.
This startled him awake.
He was alive, and to his relief, unharmed in any way.
It was Callie who had awoken him. She was alright as well.
They were in separate vertical tubes of what seemed like thin clear glass, about three feet apart in the center of a vast cave of black rock. On one wall were sections where the rock was polished to a smooth and reflective surface, like a house of mirrors. In each of these sections different moving images played out. The largest of the sections went down to the floor, and was about the size of a doorway. On it, various landscapes---some run-of-the-mill, some fantastic, some barren, some hellish---would shimmer into view for a few seconds, and then change into something else.
Something about this place gave Mike a strong sense of déjà vu, like he had seen this place before, somewhere; then his attention was diverted away by the sudden realization that he was bereft of his powers.
“We’re under some spell, Cal.” he said, “My powers are out.”
“I know, look at the floor.” Callie said.
Mike looked and saw magic circles painted on the floor around his and Callie’s tubes.
“Our powers are being contained.” Mike said. He tried in vain to overturn his tube by slamming his body against the walls of the tube, from side to side; but the tube held fast. “I don’t think these tubes are really glass…maybe some kind of crystal.”
“What’s that third circle for, I wonder?” Callie asked.
There was yet a third magic circle, ahead of theirs; but it had no tube. Lines and mystical writing linked the three circles together into a triangular design, around which was yet a greater circle.
“I don’t know.” Mike said.
“Do these tubes have air holes?”
“I’m sure they do…somewhere.” Mike replied, “I doubt Sinestri went to all this trouble just to suffocate us.”
Just then, through an iron door, entered Sinestri with their mother beside him; she seemed a bit stiff, and he was half carrying her.
Their mother’s face was slack.
Sinestri led her to a bench in an empty corner, and sat her down.
“I’m afraid one of the prerequisites of your mother being here for this, is to be placed under a paralysis spell.” Sinestri said, “She is able to see and hear everything, but unable to move or make a sound unless I allow it.”
Sinestri closed and locked the door through which he entered. Mike noticed a sheaf of old yellowed papers tucked under his arm.
He walked over and faced them.
“I call this place, the Brakkery. It’s deep beneath the mansion. From this wall I can see into other realms; and travel to them, if necessary.” he said, “The two of you have been quite entertaining, I must say. Even though you did unleash my Calaphasto, and utterly destroyed poor Jiskijik. However, the time now comes to cleanse myself of this wretched Malevolencia once and for all; a procedure neither of you will survive, I’m sorry to say.
“I have done all the other steps required for the ritual; all that remains is you two. These magic circles hold your powers at bay, this much you know. They do much more than that, but we needn’t go into all the details. The formula forbids me from using any power or spell to hold you in place, so the tubes are necessary to keep you two from walking out of those circles. I will speak the Words that will transform the both of you into pure energy. Then, I will bring both your energies into the third circle, and conjoin them into a single cleansing force. Into this fusion I will walk, and it will absorb all the Malevolencia from my body.”
“And what do you intend to do with our mother once you’re free?” Callie asked, “What further vengeance could you possibly want?”
“Oh, I have plans for her, but I will not share them with you.” Sinestri retorted, “The time for questions and answers is over.”
Sinestri turned and walked away from them to study the loose pages in his hand one last time to be assured he had covered all of his bases thoroughly, and had phonetically memorized all the alien words of the ritual down to the exacting measure they required. (It would not do to have gotten this far, only to stumble at the last moment.)
Mike and Callie looked at each other, and saw fear and finality in each other’s eyes.
“We failed, Mike.” she said, “Now we’re going to die.”
“Callie, look at me!” Mike muttered low under his breath, so Sinestri couldn’t hear him, “Our minds have gotten used to working together. I’ve been in your mind, you’ve been in mine. If Sinestri’s ritual is going to join us into a single energy, let’s use that to our advantage! We might not be able to save ourselves, but together maybe we can save Mom!”
“But how do we do that?!” Callie asked.
“I…don’t know.” Mike admitted, “I’m grasping at straws here; but we can try. Clear your thoughts, no matter how bad things get, no matter how painful; just try and keep your focus on me. I’ll focus on you.”
Callie nodded, but said nothing, as Sinestri had now tossed aside his papers and strode toward them.
He closed his eyes and lifted his hands.
“KARRAVAS! VESHUREEM! MELLAROON!” he shouted, and the circles around Mike and Callie started to glow.
“Here it comes, Callie!” Mike cried out.
“I love you, Mike!” Callie yelled.
“I love you too, Cal!” Mike yelled in return, “Now, FOCUS!!!”
Sinestri wasn’t even hearing them, he was in the throes of the ritual.
“VELLAMASS KOR AVEEL!!” he intoned, “KOR AVEEL! KIN AL DURAK! KIN ANDIN OKK FEN!”
Mike and Callie felt a sudden feeling of terrible pressure, screamed, then exploded into two glittering clouds of glowing energy.
And just like that, Mike and Callie Longstreet were no more.
Forgotten on her bench, tears rolled down the sides of the paralyzed Elizabeth Longstreet’s face.
“VELLAVEM KOR AVEEL!” Sinestri incantated, “KOR AVEEL! KARRAVAS OKK VESHUREEM, KIN ANDIN MELLAROON!”
The two clouds of glowing energy now passed through the walls of the tubes, and entered the third circle.
“KURROOSH!” Sinestri bellowed, “KURROOSH KOR AVEEL!”
The two energies mixed, conjoined, and glowed bright white.
“Beautiful.” Sinestri said, the ritual now completed; he stepped back and out of breath, “Absolutely beautiful.”
At long last, the fruit of many long years of planning, preparing, and waiting floated there glowing before him; pure and perfect, promising ablution and absolution.
“But now it must be darkened,” he said, “That I may be freed.”
It was time for him to walk into the circle, and let that bright whiteness wash over him and cleanse him of his curse. It was the ting he had worked and waited for, for so long.
The thing he most wanted to do right now.
So why couldn’t he?
With growing panic, he realized he could not make himself walk into that circle. He pushed and pushed, with all his considerable power; but a greater will held his in check.
Then, something like eyes opened in the bright whiteness; and it’s terrible contemplative gaze fell upon him.
What troubles the great Sinestri? a Voice spoke inside his mind.
It was the voice of Mike and Callie combined, but at the same time, it was not. It was not anything like them.
It was something Other.
“GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” Sinestri screamed, “WHAT ARE YOU?! THE FORMULA SAID NOTHING ABOUT THIS!!”
I am the one brought forth from the two…of the two, but beyond the sum of the two…I am the shadow of the Mandaghast…the voice of Destiny…and you, Araboam Sinestri, have avoided yours for much…too…long!
An earthquake then, rocked the mountain to its core. A great crack, deep and wide, opened in the stone floor of the Brakkery, and into it Sinestri stumbled and fell; but managed to grab hold of the edge by his fingertips.
You will no longer have any use for that ring, where you are going, the terrible Prescence said; and upon those words, Sinestri’s ring frittered away into nothingness.
“NOOO!!!” Sinestri screamed, as his hands (along with the rest of him) began to turn into the black goop, and were no longer able to hold his weight. The fingers broke off at the knuckles, and Sinestri (what was still left of him) plummeted screaming into the chasm.
The Prescence Sinestri had inadvertently conjured from the combination of Mike and Callie’s energies, now turned to the two empty crystal tubes in which they had been held. First, it obliterated the magic circles around them; then, it poured it’s energy into both tubes. It’s brightness diminished as it did so, until it was almost completely gone; leaving only a faint afterimage of what had once been there.
Elizabeth found she could move again, and got up. She saw Mike and Callie reappear inside the brightly lit tubes, like people walking out of a thick fog; until the light disappeared, and only her children remained.
Mike and Callie’s eyes blinked open. They looked at each other and blinked some more.
“What the hell---“ Callie started to say.
“---was THAT?!” Mike completed the thought.
The crystal tubes they were in now had a yellowed and denatured look to them. Mike pushed it with his hands, and it shattered and crumbled to the floor like tiny ice cubes. Callie took hers down as well.
Elizabeth, though no longer under any spell, still stood as if paralyzed, at the odd and unexpected return of her children; but this paralysis broke when Mike and Callie turned and saw her standing there.
“MICHAEL! CALLIE!” she cried, and the three ran to each other, and hugged and kissed.
“How did you---?” she started to ask.
“It wasn’t us.” Mike said, “I mean it was---but it wasn’t! It’s hard to explain! Me and Callie were like one mind, speaking in one voice---“
“But it was also its own thing!” Callie blurted, “Something with its own mind and will! It was weird!”
“But it was also awesome!” Mike said, “Like we were part of this greater thing----powerful---unstoppable---godlike!”
“What was that whole ‘Shadow of something, Voice of Destiny something’ about?” Elizabeth asked her children.
“I don’t know,” Mike said, “That part wasn’t us.”
“It was the Other.” Callie added, “We knew what we were saying when we were saying it, but now, not so much. I don’t even know how we did what we did.”
“Maybe THAT knows.” Elizabeth said, pointing behind Mike and Callie.
They turned around and saw the faint ghostly residue of the Prescence that had destroyed Sinestri. It floated there, seeming to wait patiently for one final task it had to complete before exiting stage right.
Mike walked up to it.
“What are you?” he asked.
“i am for later...” it whispered lightly.
“What does that mean?” Mike asked.
“you will know, when you reach the Darkling Gate…” it said, then faded away into nothingness.
The Brakkery then shook, with another sudden quake. A diagonal crack appeared across the viewing wall; the viewing surfaces affected shut off, like they had been unplugged.
“Time for us to go!” said Mike. He made a circular gesture with his right hand---and nothing happened.
“Uh oh!” Mike said, “I think the special magical qualities of this Brakker stone that Sinestri was talking about, is messing with my ability to create a realm-rift.”
“We zipped into the cave easily enough.” Callie said.
“Yeah, but the stone there wasn’t honed and focused like it is here, in the Brakkery.” Mike explained, “We need to get out of this room, before I can realm-rift us out.”
“The stairway Sinestri brought me down here from is long and steep and narrow.” Elizabeth said, “Hewn out of the rock itself. If another quake hits while we’re in there…things might get tight.”
“There might be another way.” Callie said.
She pointed to the wall of many sights, most of which had blinked out; but the door-sized one at the bottom, with its tantalizing landscapes, remained.
The three nodded and went up to it.
They linked arms, chose their landscape, and jumped in.
They ended up on an empty beach somewhere, they knew not where; not that it mattered very much. The beach was nice, the water was beautiful, and the shade was lovely.
More important, they were together; and as far as they knew, they had all the time in the world to get to know each other again.
And for a little while at least, that was all that mattered.
From out of the living arose a sigh,
From out of the dead, a rattle.
From out of the blue arose Ma'jai,
And unto their foes, gave battle.