When Jon awoke from his long sleep, the first thing he saw was Callie’s smiling face.
“Good morning, sunshine.” she said.
“Morning?” he asked. He sat upright.
“Well, it’s closer to noon.” Callie said, “We all had breakfast already.”
“Except you, of course,” she added, “Bear felt it would be better if you were allowed to sleep off the effects of the stuff.”
“Stuff?” Jon asked. He blinked with bleary confusion, “So…where’s everyone now?”
“Most of them are off on their rounds. Bear’s downstairs, Kitty and Corrina are sleeping in their room, and Mike, Peggy, and Edward took off in the wagon to run down the last seven Shales in the phonebook. I decided to stay here and keep an eye on you.”
Jon rubbed his bloodshot eyes. “Callie, what the hell happened last night? What happened to me?
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Braneegan throwing me out of his shack. Everything’s a blur after that. I think I jumped on his back, I’m not sure.”
“You did---and then Mike accidently injected you with Tullaxiffan. You went out like a light.”
“Oh.” said Jon, “That explains why I feel like crap.”
“It’ll pass,” he replied, “But tell me, how did the febwith go?”
“It was a success,” Callie said, “Eventually.”
Downstairs, Bear sat alone at a table. She heard voices and looked up to see Jon and Callie coming down the stairs.
“How ya feeling, Jon?” Bear asked.
“Like I spent the night in a concrete mixer.”
“Yeah, you look it.”
“I see you decided to stick around here this morning.”
“I figured at least one semi-conscious palabrin should keep an eye on things here.” Bear replied, “You want some breakfast? There are still some left-overs left over.”
“Nah, I’ll just wait till lunchtime.” he said, as he and Callie sat down, “Callie was just filling me in on everything that happened last night.”
“You missed a funfest, from what I hear.” Bear said.
“So, Callie,” Jon asked, “What do you and Mike intend to do, now that you’ve got the wagon back?”
“Continue to look for our mother, I guess.”
“You could always stay here with us.” Jon said.
Bear watched them, but said nothing; she did not seem surprised.
“I’ve…we’ve…considered that possibility.” Callie said.
“We haven’t decided anything, yet.”
Mike, Peggy, and Edward suddenly entered through the back door; talking and laughing. They walked over to where Bear, Jon, and Callie were sitting.
“How’d it go?” Callie asked.
“Sorry Cal,” Mike said, turning serious, “Not a single one panned out.”
Callie did not look particularly distressed by this news. “So what’s our next move?” she asked.
“Peggy says we should go see Rynza.” Mike said.
“The psychic?” Callie asked.
“Yes,” Peggy replied, “She’s really good. If we leave right now, we could get back in time for lunch.”
“Alright, count me in.” Callie said.
“Can I tag along with you guys some more?” Edward asked.
“Sure,” said Callie, “There’s room enough in the wagon, now that all our stuff was cleared out of it.”
“Then I think I’ll go too.” Jon said.
“Sure,” Mike replied, “You can ride in the back like last night.”
They all laughed.
Rynza Adreynac’s home and business were located on Wedgewood Street; situated between a rowdy bar, and an empty, boarded-up building that used to be a rowdy bar (before it’s owner got shot). The front window of the place had a neon sign (underneath the security bars, of course) with pink glowing letters that read: PSYCHIC, beneath a representation of an open hand with an eyeball staring out of the palm, and licks of flame above each digit.
“This is it.” said Jon.
Mike parked the wagon in front, and everybody got out.
There was a SORRY! WE’RE CLOSED! sign on the door of the building, but the door was opened for them nonetheless, by a pudgy woman in her early forties. She let them in and locked the door behind them.
“Rynza, I presume?” Callie asked.
“Carissa,” the woman said, “Her sister. Come with me to the Spirit Room. Rynza’s been waiting for you.”
They were in a small empty waiting room, which had a burgundy colored vinyl sofa and matching chairs, as well as an oval table with old magazines set upon it in haphazard piles. The five of them followed Carissa through a door which opened into a large circular room.
The room was windowless, and painted black from floor to ceiling; decorated all around with mystical symbols and writing and designs in gold paint. On the ceiling was drawn a celestial map of stars and constellations. The room was illuminated by three white plastic globes which hung about a foot down from the center of the ceiling, equidistant from each other; Mike figured there was a light bulb inside of each globe, as they glowed brightly.
In the center of the room was a round table, the top of which was black marble; with ornate calligraphy also drawn in gold. There were six chairs around this table, and an empty spot in which sat a woman in a wheelchair, about three or four years younger than Carissa. She was thinner than her sister, and had short, raven-black hair.
“Please come in and sit down.” she said, “We have much to talk about. You two sit across from me. What are your names, please?”
“Mike.” said Mike.
“Callie.” said Callie.
They all sat down.
“I’m Rynza Adreynac.” she said, and turned to Jon, “I don’t think we need to go into that note I sent you the night before last. The choice was yours to make, and you made it. All that remains is to deal with the consequences of that choice.”
“What note?” Peggy asked, “What choice?”
“We’re not going into that now.” Jon said, with finality.
Peggy got the message, and pressed no further.
“Okay, you two.” Rynza said, turning once more to Mike and Callie, “Tell me your story, and this time include all the interesting bits you didn’t share with the Dreadniks.”
“What do you mean?” Mike asked.
“You know,” Rynza said, “Something to do with a ring…and an old man with a dog…or something.”
“You read minds too?” Mike asked.
“No. I just pick up things from the psychic stream.” Rynza said, “Bits and pieces. Sometimes, I get enough to put a picture together.”
“I thought you had spirit guides or something.” Callie said.
“I do.” Rynza answered, “One of them has been rather troubled since you two entered the city. Her name is Valtina. But we’ll get to that soon enough; after you two tell me all about yourselves. C’mon now, spill it.”
They spilled it.
Mike and Callie told Rynza the same story they had told Jon, Bear, and Dom two nights ago; only this time, Mike described his father’s reaction to the removal of his ring, and how his eyes had seemed to go black for a second, when Mike had looked at him the next morning. This he had never even told Callie.
When the story got to the part about the Rough Country, and Rufus Kantry, Rynza stopped them.
“Are you telling me you two met THE Rufus Kantry? The Ma’jai?”
“Yes.” Mike said, “Do you know him?”
“Valtina does, or rather did, when she was alive; over a hundred years ago. Go on.”
Mike and Callie went on to describe their meeting with Kantry, and what he had to say about their unseen enemy.
“Typical Ma’jai,” Rynza muttered, “Always stingy with crucial information.”
“You think he knew who our spellcaster was, and didn’t tell us?” Mike asked.
“I do.” Rynza said.
“Do you know?” Callie asked.
Rynza weighed her words carefully. “I believe I just might. Some of the bits of information you’re giving me are snapping into some puzzle pieces I already have, and a picture is beginning to emerge. If I am correct, and that’s a big if, I might also know where your mother is, as well.”
“WELL?!” Mike said, making “gimme” motions with his hands.
“In due time,” Rynza said, “Finish your story. Tell me everything.”
Mike and Callie finished describing their encounter with Kantry, then hurried through the rest of their story: their entry into Metromax, meeting Rak, the Dreadniks, the febwith, and then at last they were done.
“Okay, thank you.” Rynza said, “Now show me your father’s ring.”
Callie retrieved the ring from her shirt pocket, extended her hand, and dropped it on the table in front of Rynza.
It was an innocent mistake, but a nearly catastrophic one.
Immediately, all the gold mystical lettering on the marble table went black, as did the writing on the walls and ceiling. The lights went out, and a feeling of great menace fell upon them all like an oppressive weight. A living, suffocating darkness, like a thick black cloud, encircled and surrounded them; while eldritch murmurings, like the despair of generations, filled their ears and assailed their spirits.
“TAKE IT OFF!!” Rynza shrieked.
Callie tried, but could not move. All she could do was writhe in her chair. None of them could move, not even to escape and run away.
They were all screaming now; their voices overwhelmed by the infernal din of the abyss.
Somehow Mike, with great effort, got his arm to move and grab at the ring; but found it stuck to the spot like a powerful magnet. He pried his fingers under its obscenely vibrating mass, and wrenched it off with a violent jerk that nearly sent him tumbling back over with his chair.
The darkness and the murmuring receded upon the instant; and little by little, light returned, the lettering on the walls and on the table came back, and their paralysis broke. They all sat there sweating and breathing heavy as if they had just run a marathon.
“What the…what the hell was THAT?!!” Peggy gasped.
“Darkest magic…” Rynza, at last able to speak, said. She looked over at Mike and Callie with alarm, “You two are in terrible danger; and you’ve endangered everyone around you!”
The first thing he realized was that his wrists and feet were bound. He was curled up in a dark, smelly, and bumpy place that could only be the trunk of a moving vehicle. He tried to yell, but his mouth was taped over; all that came out was a muffled cry. Panic threatened to set in, but Rak forced himself to calm down. He moved his bound hands down the side of his leg, hoping to find the form of the syringe of Tullaxiffan in his pocket, but it was no longer there. The wallets he had deposited in his shirt when he was out pounding were gone too.
The vehicle came to a stop.
Rak heard the driver’s side door open. Seconds later came the sound of a key being inserted and the lock being turned.
The trunk was opened.
Rak’s eyes were blinded by the sudden sunlight. A shadow figure was outlined in the bright blur.
“Good, you’re awake.” the shadow said, “Here, let me help you with that.”
The tape over Rak’s mouth was removed.
“Don’t bother screaming for help. No one will hear you, and I will have to hurt you.”
“You’re going to hurt me anyway, bastard!” Rak spat out.
“That cannot be helped.” the shadow said, “But the time for screaming will arrive soon enough; there’s no need to get ahead of yourself.”
At last Rak’s eyes began to acclimate to the light, and the visage of his abductor began to become clear. It was not a face he knew, but there was an oddly familiar cast to it.
“Let me introduce myself,” the shadow said, “My name is Charles Longstreet. I’m Mike and Callie’s father.”
Charles Longstreet took out a pocketknife from his back pocket, and unfolded it. The blade was not long, but looked sharp.
“This will be unpleasant, I’m afraid.” Longstreet said, “But when it’s over, you’ll see things my way.”
Rak had a terrible moment of revelation: this was not going to go well for him. His luck had at last run out, as he had been warned many times that it would. Jon had been right all along; if only he had listened.
Panic set its claws into him, and he began to scream.
“HELP!! SOMEBODY HELP ME!!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, as he struggled against his bonds.
Longstreet silenced him by putting his hand over Rak’s mouth.
The feeling of Longstreet’s hand on his face was so utterly loathsome, Rak began to vomit. The hand was removed, but the feeling of revulsion remained.
“The knife is not for you.” Longstreet said, smiling horribly, “But you will wish soon enough that it had been.”
He took the knife and cut deep across the pad of his left hand’s pinky finger.
“What do you call the tainted blood of one who has been touched by dark magic?” Longstreet asked.
Rak had no idea what the madman was talking about.
“Malevolencia.” Longstreet said, as he extended his left hand over Rak, and tipped his cut pinky over; spilling black blood on Rak’s face, “And as you’ll see, it has some interesting properties.”
Rak screamed and shook violently, as the blood burned and somehow absorbed through his skin.
After a time, his shaking became seizures, and his screams became moans. Then, he fell silent.
“That’s better.” Longstreet said, “Now tell me…where do you live?”
At Rynza’s orders, Carissa scurried Mike, Callie, Jon, Peggy, and Edward out of the Spirit Room, and back into the waiting room.
“My sister has to perform a ritual to cleanse the Spirit Room of any residual traces of dark magic.” Carissa said, “This is for your safety as well as hers. She’ll be ready to see you in a few minutes, okay?”
They all nodded. Carissa turned and re-entered the Spirit Room, to assist her sister.
“Where’d you put the ring, Mike?” Callie asked.
“It’s in my pocket.” Mike said, “I should never have given it to you, Callie.”
“There was no way you could have known.”
“I should have suspected something.” Mike insisted.
“Well,” Callie turned to Jon, “I’m sorry we didn’t tell you guys the whole story. We didn’t lie, but we kept things from you.”
“It’s understandable,” Jon said, “There was no way we were equipped to handle that information.”
“I’m not sure we’re equipped to handle it now.” Peggy added.
“Yeah, but we’ve put you guys in danger.” Mike said, “That’s a pretty big breach of trust. I wouldn’t hold it against you if you threw us out for that.”
“No one’s throwing anyone out.” Peggy said. She meant it to sound like a confident comment, but it ended up sounding more like a question. She looked at Jon, “Right?”
Jon looked down at his hands, his brow furrowed in thought. He looked like someone on the verge of a big decision.
“For the good of the Dreadniks,” he said, “I have no other choice. A Palabrin must look to the good of the group first.”
“Look Jon,” Mike said, “If you have to throw us out, we understand. There are no bad feelings from our end. You’ve all done a lot for us, and we’re thankful. Besides, with our wagon back, and Rynza about to tell us the whereabouts of our mother, there’s little reason for us to stick around anyway.”
“Isn’t there?” Callie asked. She looked at Jon.
“I guess not.” Jon said, but perhaps not to the question Callie had in mind, as he seemed lost in his own thoughts.
The five of them were left in an awkward silence that remained unbroken until Carissa at last returned from the Spirit Room once more, and beckoned them to go in.
“You can come in now.” she said.
They walked in. Carissa stopped Mike at the entrance. She held up and opened a small blue drawstring bag that looked shiny on the inside.
“Rynza says I should hold the ring for you outside the Spirit Room, to prevent further contamination.”
“You can keep the damned thing.” Mike said. He reached into his pocket, withdrew the ring, and dropped it inside the bag.
“You’ll get it back.” Rynza said, once Mike was seated, “My intuition tells me you will have need of it, somehow. You can keep it in the bag. It’s made of Sarsarin silk, which should provide ample protection.”
“What about all that time we had it in our pockets?”
“Unless one of you put it on your finger at some point, you should be okay.” Rynza said, “Neither of you ever put it on, did you?”
“No.” said Mike. Callie shook her head.
“Good.” Rynza said, “The bag is just for extra safety.”
“So...why did all hell break loose when Callie put the ring on the table?” Mike asked.
“This room and this table were designed to amplify my psychic powers. When the ring hit the table, the table must have amplified the dark magical forces within the ring. This radiated outward to the room, which amplified it further. If it wasn’t for you, Mike, I shudder to think what would have become of us---or what we would have become, for that matter.”
“Yay, Mike!” said Peggy.
“How did you do that, Mike?” Jon asked, “I couldn’t move a muscle.”
“Me neither.” Edward added.
“Beats the hell out of me,” Mike said, “I suppose the paralyzing effect wasn’t quite finished with me, or something.”
“Back to the subject at hand,” Callie said, “What’s the deal with the ring? What is its purpose?”
“I don’t know.” Rynza replied, “So let’s work with what I do know. I assume most of you have heard of The Lost City?”
All but Edward nodded.
“It’s in Goskoh, ain’t it?” Mike asked, “Not all that far from here, the cursed city of Cathim.”
Rynza nodded. “It was once a big city---not Idus Alth big---but certainly on par with Metromax. In fact, had Cathim not fallen, Metromax City would never have grown as much as it has, to take its place. No one knows who cursed it, and all attempts to undo the curse have ended badly, for those making the attempt.”
“So, who cursed it?” Mike asked.
“Nobody knows, dingleberry.” Callie said.
“You do, don’t you?” Mike said, looking at Rynza, “You wouldn’t be telling us all this if you didn’t, right?”
Rynza nodded. “I know, because my spirit guide, Valtina, knows, and told me. The one who cursed Cathim, all of its citizens, and all who may yet venture beneath its hazy mantle, was a powerful and evil Ma’jai named Araboam Sinestri. And I believe it is this very same Sinestri who is your unseen enemy.”
“Who is this guy?” Mike asked, “What’s his damage? What the hell does he have to do with me or Callie?”
“I cannot see his plan or purpose.” Rynza said, “That’s one of the pitfalls of psychic ability…sometimes you know the WHEN, the WHERE, sometimes even the WHY; but never all at the same time. Though I do think you’ll find the date of Cathim’s cursing provocative.”
“Why? When did it happen?” Callie asked.
“Eleven years ago,” Ryza answered, “In 3642.”
“That was the year our father took us away from our mother!” Callie said, “You don’t think…?”
“Yes,” Rynza replied, “I believe Cathim is the big city Mike remembers from long ago, the city where you two were born, the city where your mother may yet be found, among the accursed. You two and your father may have been among the last to see Cathim before it was damned.”
“You think he knew it was going to happen?” Callie asked.
“I think it went beyond mere knowing.” Rynza said, “Where could your father have picked up a dark magical ring, I wonder?”
“From a practitioner of dark magic, of course.” Mike said, nodding, “Say…an evil Ma’jai?”
“A gift from Sinestri, then?” Jon said, “A symbol of a pact?”
“You think he had a hand in it?” Callie asked.
“Foreknowledge does suggest some species of involvement.”
“That’s an odd statement from a psychic.” Callie retorted.
“Perhaps,” Rynza said, “But there is this: your father is here in Metromax, and he’s looking for you.”
Mike and Callie’s blood froze.
“He entered this city last night. He went to visit Crellat Mallacharr early this very morning. He knows you two are with the Dreadniks, somehow. He and Mallacharr are joining forces to catch the lot of you.”
Everyone leapt to their feet, but Rynza. “My spirits could not stand to be near your father for very long,” she said, “They told me he was foul with dark magic. Till the ring incident just now, I didn’t realize how dark.”
Rynza fixed Mike and Callie with a stern look. “You two must leave Metromax City immediately. You must draw your father and Sinestri away from here, before something terrible happens to our mutual Dreadnik friends.”
“Then what?!” Mike asked, “How do we deal with this Sinestri person?”
“I don’t know,” Rynza said, “But you have to confront him, of that I am sure.”
“How do we even find him?” Callie asked.
“Find your mother, and you will find Sinestri.” Rynza said, “To do that, you must travel on to Cathim.”
“And if we don’t?” Callie asked, “What’ll happen if we just head off in another direction?”
“How long are you two willing to be on the run? How long will your father give chase? How long before Sinestri comes and gets you in his own time and on his own terms?”
Mike squinted. “Are you implying that Sinestri is working on a timeframe?”
“No, I’m implying that Sinestri doesn’t seem to be playing at a level commensurate with his power---yet. Then again, a cat doesn’t always eat its prey directly upon capturing it; sometimes they toy with their food.”
“Cathim it is, then.” Mike said, “What do we do when we get there?”
“I wish I knew.” Rynza said.
Back at the frain station, in the office of the Raishera; Siana Nandehl sat at her desk, and drummed her fingers on its metal top.
Today had not been a good day for her, so far. Her long power struggle with Crellat Mallacharr over his job (she wanted it, he wanted to keep it), had come to an unexpected junction.
Here she had him over a barrel; weakened and prone for the kill (it helped that she had weaseled herself into the Vignach’s good graces, which gave her an unfair advantage over Mallcharr: he could not strike back at her with impunity). Then fate had appeared out of nowhere and had given Mallacharr a big sloppy wet kiss in the form of Charles Longstreet, who said he could find the Dreadniks.
Siana had sent a car to tail him, as he left the station, but somehow Longstreet had given them the slip. Her two usually competent compatriots had returned with embarrassed looks on their faces. They had no idea how Longstreet had shook them.
Siana had then contacted the frain station in Noah’s Oak, New Heedol, and found out that Longstreet was a low-profile kind of guy; no criminal record, no traffic tickets, no overdue books, no useful information on him beyond the fact that he owned a house there.
Now, to top it all off, came word that Mallacharr had just put in an order for a sweep team. This could only mean one thing: Longstreet had made good on his word, and had located the Dreadnik’s hideout. Frain sweeps were too much of a bureaucratic pain-in-the-ass to be ventured upon without some certainty of success; and Mallacharr’s last one had turned up nothing.
If Mallacharr succeeded now in capturing some or all of the Dreadniks, his position would be strengthened, and hers weakened. With new confidence and job security, he would be able to take her out, and she would no longer have protection against his reprisals. Mallacharr would act quickly.
So Siana Nandehl sat and drummed her fingers on her desk. She would not go down easy. Even now, she bent her will to the task of finding a way to rob Mallacharr of his victory (should his net catch the desired fish).
However it went, it was going to be a long day.
The consultation was over.
Mike, Callie, Jon, Peggy, and Edward, along with Rynza and Carissa, congregated in Rynza’s waiting room. Carissa gave Mike the blue silk bag, with the ring inside.
“So are you guys gonna take off from here?” Edward asked; a little sadly.
Since last night’s febwith, Mike and Callie had grown on him to an amazing extent. They had risked their own lives to save his, after all. He felt he could follow them to the ends of creation, if they’d let him (which, of course, they wouldn’t).
“I think we should probably drop you guys off first.” Mike said.
“I think you two should have a last lunch with us.” Jon said, “Plus, we can set you up with food and supplies.”
Rynza looked at Jon askance. “I’d skip the lunch.” she said.
They said their good-byes to Rynza and Carissa, got in the wagon, and headed off, back to the Wherehouse.
Rynza clenched and unclenched her hands (a nervous habit) as she watched them go.
“I have a terrible feeling, Rissa,” she said, “That things are going to go badly, if they haven’t already.”
The Last Gathering
It was already past noon, when the green station wagon pulled in at the back of the Wherehouse. All of the other Dreadniks, save one, had already returned.
Jon gestured Peggy, Edward, and the Longstreets to follow him to the planning table; the one with Woodrow’s chalk diagram of Finorio Braneegan’s Car Dump still visible on it.
“I need everyone down here!” Jon called out, “I have an announcement to make!”
Jon turned to Mike and Callie, “Let me do the talking.” he said, as one by one, the Dreadniks began to join them at the table.
Corrina and Kitty sat side by side at the bottom of the stairs, thick as thieves, as usual. Corrina spotted a piece of crumpled paper stuck to Kitty’s sneaker with gum.
“You got some crap stuck to your shoe, Kitty.” she told her.
Kitty stood up and lifted her foot up to her back. Corrina unstuck the paper and used it to remove the gum. “There you go, it’s off.”
Kitty didn’t bother sitting down again; she headed to the planning table to see what was going on.
Corrina was about to toss the paper, but recognized that it was Rynza Adreynac’s stationary. Curious, she removed the gum and was about to uncrumple the note, when Kitty turned back and called her. “C’mon, Corrina! Quit lollygagging!”
Corrina tucked the note in her pocket for later perusal, and went over to the table, where everyone else was already seated. The note, however, was not alone in her pocket. It shared that space with the syringe of undiluted Tulaxiffan in it.
Corrina took a seat at the table like the others, ready to hear what Rynza had told the Longstreets; and if Jon even suggested that they join the Dreadniks, Corrina was quite ready to kill the Callie shank right then and there.
Jon surveyed his assembled invidium. “Are we missing someone?” he asked, “Where the hell is Rak?”
The Dreadniks looked around at each other.
“He never came back?” Wes asked.
“He’s probably still out pounding.” Kevin said, “You know how he is, sometimes he loses track of time.”
“Don’t tell me he went out alone again.” Jon said, “Woodrow, aren’t you supposed to be his partner?”
“Not that that matters much!” Kitty said.
“What do you mean?” Jon asked.
“Kitty, SHUT UP!” Woodrow said. He knew where this was going.
“Let her speak!” Jon said, “What did you mean, Kitty?”
“Everyone knows that Rak and Woodrow go off on their separate ways after just a few blocks.” Kitty said, her voice giddy with the unbridled joy of troublemaking, “Then they join up again at some point on the way back, to fool you into thinking they’ve been working as a team.”
Jon put his fingers to the bridge of his nose and crinkled his eyes shut. Woodrow braced himself for the unavoidable (and probably well-deserved) tongue-lashing.
Instead, Jon opened his eyes and said: “You know what? I’m not dealing with this right now. As for Rak, one of you can fill him in when he shows up.”
Woodrow looked relieved. Kitty looked disappointed.
Jon continued: “As you all know, we went to go see Rynza, to see what she had to say about Mike and Callie’s mother. Well, she had a lot to say. First of all, their mother isn’t here in Metromax, but...in another city.”
Corrina’s head perked up. She liked the sound of that.
“What city?” Dom asked.
“Doesn’t matter. Another city in another state is all you need know. More important, Rynza said that Mike and Callie’s father has followed them here, and knows they’re with us. He has joined forces with Mallacharr to find us all. Rynza says that for the good of the group, Mike and Callie must leave Metromax City. Today.”
It took all of Corrina’s self-control not to jump and cheer at that moment. The shank was leaving!
“And I’m going with them.” Jon added.
Corrina felt the air get knocked out of her. Nor was she the only one. The other Dreadniks looked at each other and at Jon with shock.
“WHAAAAT?!” was all Corrina could say.
“Jon, are you crazy?!” Bear asked in disbelief, “We need you! You can’t just up and take off! What are you thinking?!”
“Up to now everything I’ve done has been for the group,” Jon replied, “This I do for me. The Dreadniks will still have you, Bear. You can lead this invidium as well as I can. You and Dom together.”
“Why are you doing this?” Dom asked.
Jon struggled with how to best answer that question, and decided only the plain unvarnished truth could: “Because I love Callie, and I want to be with her wherever she goes.” he said.
Corrina thought she was going to have a heart attack. She clamped her hands over her ears to keep from hearing Jon’s traitorous words; words that should have been only hers to receive, and treasure forever.
“If you care for my happiness,” Jon continued, “You’ll let me go.”
“NOOOO!!” Corrina stood up and shrieked, “YOU’RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE!! YOU DON’T LOVE HER! YOU LOVE ME! ME!!”
The room fell silent. Everyone was looking at her.
Corrina’s face went deep red as she realized what she had just said out loud. In her humiliation, she forgot all about killing Callie, and ran off up the stairs. Kitty ran after her.
That was when it happened.
Through the open windows of the Wherehouse, they all saw a congregation of frain vehicles screech to a sudden stop in front of the building, and in the back.
Mallacharr’s frain sweep had arrived.
Chaos erupted as frain swarmed into the Wherehouse. The Dreadniks scattered, time seemed to slow to a crawl, and many things happened at once.
Jon, Dom, Woodrow, and Wes (though not all at the same time) threw themselves at the frain to give the others a chance of escape, and were thus the first caught.
Kitty and Corrina ran up to the third floor. They were on the roof in no time, and headed down the ladder. No frain were at that side of the building as it had no doors or windows, and they had not yet caught sight of the ladder.
Kitty and Corrina made it down safely, and fled.
Bear, Spencer, Kevin, and Peggy ran up the first floor stairs to do likewise. At the end of that line, Peggy looked back to see the frain closing in behind them on the stairs, so she hurled herself at them, creating a tangled logjam of bodies falling backward down the staircase. By the time some of the frain managed to get past this and up to the roof; Kevin, Spencer, and Bear were already down the ladder, and on the run.
Meanwhile, inside the Wherehouse; Callie rammed her knee to the groin of an officer trying to manhandle her into submission. As he collapsed, she grabbed his dropped baton and gave him a good whack. She then ran over and used it to club the shin of an officer that had Mike in a headlock. The frain yelled with pain, and released Mike. Together, the Longstreets weaved and dodged all the way to the kitchenette.
Edward got there at the same moment, having just escaped a tall officer by hunching down and running between his legs. The three closed and locked the door behind them.
Mike opened and looked out of the kitchenette’s small and only window. It was close enough to the edge of the building that Mike could see the wagon at the back, surrounded by frain. Thing was, none of them were looking their way.
Mike and Callie hoisted Edward out the window with no problem. Callie slipped through lithely as well, even as the frain inside started breaking down the kitchenette’s door. Mike, however, got stuck halfway through. He looked at Callie and Edward, “Leave me.” he said.
Callie and Edward looked at each other, and then at Mike.
“No.” they replied.
Elsewhere, Jon, Dom, Wes, Woodrow, and Peggy were led outside, their hands cuffed behind them. They were to be put in the back of the frain’s prisoner transfer wagon.
Jon shouted “NOW!”, and each of them lifted a foot, and brought it down hard on the toes of their keepers. They shrugged off the hands of the frain upon their moment of pain and surprise, and ran off in five different directions.
“AFTER THEM!!” came the wholly unnecessary shout, as the frain dispersed after them.
At that same moment, Callie and Edward pulled Mike out through the window. The frain ran inside, seconds too late to grab Mike, saw the three now outside, and ran back out to get to them.
Mike considered a run to the wagon, as it had been left unguarded when the frain dispersed after Jon and the others; but there was no way to reach the wagon before the frain ran out the back door and intercepted them.
The wagon was lost to them. Mike let it go.
“Run like hell.” he said instead.
And they did.
In the end, the frain managed to recapture four of the five handcuffed runaways (Woodrow somehow gave them the slip); and after all that effort, and the element of surprise even, those four were the only ones they had to show for it.
“ONLY FOUR?!” Mallacharr yelled at his frain officers, as he surveyed the aftermath on site at the Wherehouse. He had just arrived, and had expected to see Dreadniks piled inside the prisoner transfer wagon.
“Those kids fought like sailors, sir!” one of the bolder officers complained, “And they ran like cwarnas!”
Mallacharr rubbed his hands over his face.
“Well, I guess four is enough,” he muttered to himself, “It’s not what I was hoping for, but it’ll have to do.”
“Uhhhh sir…” one of his lieutenants spoke, “If it’s any help, one of the four we caught is the leader of the group.”
“The Grash kid?”
Mallacharr lightened up. “Yeah, I think that might just be enough to impress the Vignach.”
He turned to go, then remembered something and turned back.
“I almost forgot!” he said, “Was there a Michael or Callindra Longstreet among the captured?”
“No sir,” the lieutenant said, looking at his clipboard, “Just Grash, Hansen, Goreth, and Spyre. That, plus some beat-up old station wagon we impounded that was on the premises.”
“Damn.” Mallacharr muttered, “Longstreet is not going to be happy.”
Inside the frain’s prisoner transfer wagon, the four captured Dreadniks sat.
“Well, that went well.” said Dom.
“At least the others got away.” Wes added.
“Bear will lead them now.” Jon said, “She’ll find them all and find a safe place.”
“And what do WE do?” Peggy asked, “Besides end up in Ragginarck?”
“We stay alert,” Jon replied, “Sooner or later, a window of opportunity always opens.”
Mallacharr returned to his office. The phone rang.
It was Charles Longstreet, and after Mallacharr answered his initial question, he became rather vocal.
“The information you gave us was correct, but your kids and several of the Dreadniks escaped our sweep.” Mallacharr tried to explain.
Longstreet hung up on him.
Mallacharr put the phone down. He didn’t care about Longstreet or his kids. He had got what he wanted, and the Vignach had been satisfied with the result.
Mallacharr finally had some elbow room, with which to elbow that Nandehl bitch out of his way. The sooner the better.
Charles Longstreet banged his fist on the table.
“They didn’t get them!” he shouted.
He and Rak were in Longstreet’s room at the Caprice Motel. From there Longstreet had called Mallacharr to inform him of the location of the Dreadnik’s hideout; to no apparent benefit.
Longstreet walked over to Rak, who sat staring into space.
“Where will the remaining Dreadniks go, now that they’ve lost their hideout?” he asked.
“There’s lots of places they could go,” Rak said, his voice lifeless and dull, “Some old hideouts that are still usable.”
“Come with me,” Longstreet said, “You are going to show me these places until we find them.”
The two left the motel, got into Longstreet’s stolen car (the one with MACATTO INSURANCE writ on its sides), and drove off.
When the Boxwood Bookstore went out of business some time back; the squat empty building served as the Dreadnik’s first home. When the building was later leased to another business; they had had to move out and find another.
To Corrina and Kitty’s delight, the place was now empty again. They broke in through the back door, and entered.
Inside it was dusty and cobwebby, but nothing they hadn’t dealt with before. The previous leasers had left behind some rusty folding chairs in the back, as well as a weather-worn sign that read: “WAXLEAF MAP CO.”, loitering in a corner.
“Businesses always leave something behind when they vacate a building.” Kitty said.
Corrina said nothing in reply.
They unfolded the two least rusted of the folding chairs and sat down near the boarded up front window. The board had been attached haphazardly, and from beneath it, they could see anyone walking toward the building from the front.
“Do you think anyone else escaped?” Kitty asked.
“I don’t know,” Corrina answered sullenly, “And I don’t care.”
She still hurt from Jon’s pledge of love for Callie, as well as from her self-inflicted humiliation. She kicked herself for not taking the opportunity to kill the shank when she had the chance. As for Jon; better that he go to Ragginarck, than go away with HER.
She remembered then, the crumpled note in her pocket, and pulled it out.
“What’s that?” asked Kitty.
“It’s the paper you had stuck to your shoe back at the Wherehouse,” she said, “It’s Rynza’s stationary.”
“What’s it say?”
“Let’s find out.” Corrina answered, and unfolded it.
It read: They bring trouble with them. DON’T let them stay!
“I’ll be damned…” Corrina said. She felt her anger rising again, like toxic black fumes from a chemical fire.
“It’s a warning!” Kitty said, “Rynza was warning Jon not to let the Longstreets in! That they would bring trouble! Why would Jon disregard her advice like that? Disregard the safety of the invidium?”
“Because of HER!” Corrina said with bitter fury, “He ignored Rynza’s warning and the danger to us all; all because of that SHANK!” she spat the last word out like a wad of phlegm, “If I ever see her again, I swear I’m gonna KILL HER!!”
If there was ever a worse moment for Callie, Mike, and Edward to have the spectacularly bad timing to show up, it was this one.
And, of course, this was the moment they did just that.
Edward had led Mike and Callie there, thinking that maybe the others might be found there should the place be empty. It was, and when they saw the broken-in back door, that seemed to confirm it. So they had entered.
“Speak of the devil.” Kitty said.
But Corrina was beyond words.
“SHANK!!” she screamed, and hurled herself at Callie.
She wrapped her hands around Callie’s neck and squeezed as hard as she could. “YOU STOLE MY JON!!” she screeched.
Callie grabbed Corrina’s hands and forced them off of her neck. “He’s not YOUR Jon, and he NEVER WAS!!” she yelled back at Corrina, “Grow up, you stupid silly girl! LIVE WITH IT!”
Callie shoved Corrina back hard. Corrina stumbled back a bit, straightened herself out, and went for the syringe of undiluted Tullaxiffan in her pocket.
Kitty saw this, and walked in between Corrina and Callie; presumably to play peacekeeper, but in actuality to block everyone’s view of what Corrina was doing. “C’mon, girls, STOP this!” she said, sounding almost sincere, “This is helping nothing!”
Behind Kitty, Corrina took out the syringe, flicked off the cap, and turned it so it rested with her thumb on the plunger.
Mike and Edward had closed in on the two, ready to pull them apart; but now it seemed further violence had been averted by Kitty’s intervention. They backed off, thankful they hadn’t had to break up a girl fight; thus were not in position to be of any help when what happened next, happened.
Kitty stepped aside, and there was Corrina, weapon held high in her hand, like a dagger. She lunged at Callie.
Callie saw the syringe, and understood intuitively what it was, what it meant, and what she had to do.
As Corrina came within striking distance, Callie bolted forward and grabbed her by the wrists. Like a dancer, she used Corrina’s weight and momentum to whirl her around and around, and then let her go.
Corrina, unable to stop herself, ran right into Kitty, and the two of them tumbled and fell over the chairs they had been sitting on earlier.
They both sat up at the same time, and looked at each other. The moment was almost comical.
The hypodermic needle had embedded in Kitty’s arm, and Corrina had inadvertently depressed the plunger all the way down.
Corrina quickly took it out, but it was too late; the Tullaxiffan was all gone. Corrina and Kitty looked at each other in utter horror.
Kitty’s eyes then rolled up in their sockets in a horrible fashion, and she fell back; her head hit the bare wood floor with a loud and resonant THUNK.
Corrina stared at the body of her dead friend (the only close friend she had ever known or ever would know) with a look of complete incomprehension on her face.
Then, she screamed.
She screamed and screamed and SCREAMED.
When at last she stopped, she stood up. The others moved back, prepared for violence, but it did not come. Her face was empty. Something inside of her had jarred loose and come undone.
She walked past them, and out of the building, in a daze.
Outside, a white car parked on the curb. Two people came out of the car and walked toward her. One of them was Rak.
He looked awful. There were dark shadows under his eyes, and he seemed pale and clammy; almost as ghoulish as the man with him.
When the two reached her, the man asked, “Are they in there?”
She didn’t know who this man was, or who he was referring to; but at the same time, she did. Who else could it be at this point?
“Yes.” she answered.
The man seemed happy about this. He turned to Rak, “Is this girl one of the Dreadniks?”
“Good!” he said, and brought his hand out of his pocket, as if he meant to shake her hand; only there was an opened pocketknife in it.
In one quick motion he sliced Corrina’s throat open with it, and had it closed and back inside his pocket before her body hit the ground.
“Bring her along.” he said to Rak, “It’ll add to the fun.”
Inside the building, Mike, Callie, and Edward looked down on Kitty’s body.
“What should we do?” Edward asked.
“I think we should leave as soon as possible.” Mike said.
“Where will you go?” a voice asked.
The three looked up, startled.
“Gods!!” Callie gasped, “It’s…”
“Dad!” Mike finished her thought.
Charles Longstreet walked over to Kitty’s body, and looked down on her with a smile.
“How did you find---?!” Mike started to ask, but stopped when he saw Rak enter, dragging Corrina’s body in by the ankles.
Callie suppressed a scream when she saw her cut throat.
“Rak!” Edward cried, “What are you doing? Who---?!”
Callie put a hand on Edward’s shoulder, and pulled him back behind her. “I don’t think Rak’s himself anymore, hon.” she said.
“Perceptive as usual, Callie.” her father said, as Rak put Corrina’s body next to Kitty’s.
He took his pocketknife out, cut a red slit across his extended middle finger, and let the blood drip from it, to Corrina and Kitty’s dead faces.
“What are you doing?!” Callie shouted.
“I’m showing you what it is you are dealing with,” he said, as the blood absorbed, with sickening speed, into the skin of the two dead girls, “You should have at least a glimpse, before the end.”
Kitty and Corrina’s eyes fluttered open.
“Behold, the wonders of magic.” Charles Longstreet said, as the two reanimated corpses stood up and faced Mike, Callie, and Edward. Together, the four stood between them and the open back door.
“How is this happening?!” Edward wailed.
Both Kitty and Corrina drooled, and looked devoid of all thought and personality.
“And now…” Longstreet said, emerging from behind his new creations, “I think it’s long past time I dealt with the little bastards that tied me up and left me to rot.”
Callie and Edward ran to the front door, but it would not open.
Mike stood his ground, rooted to the spot by a sudden flash of memory. Back when they were at Rynza’s, Carissa had asked to hold their father’s ring so it would not further contaminate Rynza’s spirit room. Mike had told her to keep the damn thing, but Rynza said they would have need of it later.
If it’s not now, it’s never, Mike thought, and took the little blue bag with the ring in it out of his pocket. He fished the ring out, and held it up in his outstretched hand. “I believe this belongs to you.” he said.
Fear flickered across his father’s face, and he stopped in his tracks. “The ring!” he said, “You still have it with you?!”
“Of course!” Mike said, “Did you think I’d throw it away? Pawn it? This precious family heirloom?”
“Something like that.”
Mike realized his father was backing away from him, back behind the resurrected Kitty and Corrina.
“Why would I do that?” Mike said, “When it belongs to YOU!”
Mike threw the ring at his father’s face. His father shoved Kitty in front of him, like a shield, so that the ring hit her instead of him.
The ring hit her on the left cheek, and upon contact with her flesh, Kitty immediately turned into a living, writhing, twisting pillar of thick black gelatinous gunk, which wavered for an instant, then collapsed on the floor; whereupon it broke up into a multitude of wriggling ropes, like long black snakelets, which untangled themselves and darted off in all directions.
Some crawled up the walls, but most crawled up the legs of Charles Longstreet, Corrina, and Rak; ignoring Mike, Callie, and Edward altogether. Something landed on Mike’s shoulder, startling him, but it was Callie’s hand.
“Let’s go!” she shouted.
They ran around the besieged three, and out the back door. Mike took one last look back and saw his father and Rak struggle to remove the black snakes that threatened to envelope them. Corrina did not struggle. She simply fell, and was swarmed. She opened her dead mouth, and it was soon filled. Her dead eyes looked back at Mike with utter vacuity; before they were obliterated by the black snakes pushing through them on their way in.
When Callie, Edward, and then Mike made their way out the back, they saw the car their father had arrived in.
“I think I’ve seen this car somewhere before.” Mike said.
Callie was more on point. “I’ll bet the idiot left the keys in the ignition,” she said, “He was always doing that.”
She was right. They got in.
“Where do we go from here?” Callie asked.
“After what we just saw, I think we better give Rynza Adreynac another visit.” Mike said, "Things are a helluva lot more disturbing than we thought they were."
Mike, Callie, and Edward drove back to Rynza Adreynac’s place in Charles Longstreet’s stolen car. At Rynza’s, they found that Bear, Woodrow, Spencer, and Kevin were already there. Woodrow was no longer wearing handcuffs, as one of the others had picked the lock open.
“I didn’t know this many had escaped the sweep.” Mike said.
“Some weren’t so lucky.” Bear said, “By the way, have you guys run into Kitty and Corrina? They were up the stairs before anybody, so I know they got away.”
Mike, Callie, and Edward looked at each other.
“We did but…it’s complicated.” Callie said.
“Today seems to be our day for complicated stories,” Bear said, “Rynza’s been telling us a doozy about you two and your father.”
“I told them everything.” Rynza said, “I thought it was about time someone did.”
“Wait till you hear the new stuff.” Edward said.
“Do tell.” Rynza said.
Rynza, Carissa, and the four Dreadniks listened in rapt silence to Mike, Callie, and Edward’s recitation of what had happened when they met up with Kitty and Corrina at the Boxwood Bookstore, and then what had transpired afterward, when Charles Longstreet and Rak entered the picture.
“So Rak’s like…evil, now?” Kevin asked.
“He’s under our father’s control somehow.” Mike answered.
“That would explain how the frain found us.” Bear said.
“How did your father do that?” Woodrow asked.
“Probably the same way he resurrected Kitty and Corrina.” Callie said, “He must have used his blood. It was black as ink.”
“Valtina says the blood of someone corrupted by dark magic has of old been called Malevolencia, because it has the ability to corrupt others; but nothing anywhere near the level of what your father is doing.” Rynza said.
“Can they be brought back to the way they were?” Bear asked.
“There’s no coming back for Kitty and Corrina, obviously,” Rynza said, “But Rak? It’s possible, but only a Ma’jai could do it.”
“The city employs Ma’jai all the time.” Spencer said, “Some even sell their services; you can find them in the phonebook.”
“There are Ma’jai, and then there are Ma’jai.” Rynza said, “For something like this we need one of the more powerful kind; someone with experience in this sort of thing. Valtina says she knows someone who meets these criteria.”
Callie snapped her fingers. “Rufus Kantry!” she said.
“Yes, exactly.” Rynza said, “Though first we would need to get Rak away from Longstreet, somehow; assuming he survived the black snake things.”
“Speaking of the black snake things, what DID happen to Kitty anyway?” Spencer asked, “And why was Mike and Callie’s father afraid of the ring? It was HIS ring, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Mike said, “I never saw that ring off of him until I pulled it off myself.”
“In taking that ring off, Mike, you may have started this whole thing rolling.” Rynza said.
“I think I’m beginning to understand the ring’s true role in all of this.” she replied, “When we talked earlier, I theorized that your father was complicit in what happened to Cathim; that the ring was a symbol of a pact, as Jon called it, between him and Sinestri. But the things that ring has done, and your father’s reaction to it, makes it clear that matters are not as simple as that. I believe now that your father was more of a victim, than a co-conspirator; ensnared by Sinestri the same way Rak was ensnared.”
“With blood,” Callie said, “Sinestri’s Malevolencia.”
“Yes.” Rynza answered.
“We’re assuming, of course, that Sinestri is the primary source of this Malevolencia,” Spencer said, “What if he isn’t? What if he’s as much a servant as Rak and Longstreet, to something even worse?”
“That is beyond my knowing.” Rynza said, “And about that, my spirits are silent.”
“So where does the ring come in to all this?” Bear asked.
“Perhaps it was meant as a safety valve, to slow down the effects of the Malevolencia to a minimum. A measure of control, like a dam holding back a river, except in regulated amounts.”
“But why would Sinestri want to do that?” Mike asked.
“Maybe he wanted to control your father, but needed him to look and act normal and unchanged, for whatever task he was intended. When you removed the ring, Mike; he must have received the full blast of Malevolencia in one fell swoop. This would explain why you saw your father’s eyes go black after the ring was removed, and not before.”
“Why was he so afraid of it though?” Mike asked, “And why did it do to Kitty what it did?”
“Your father had already received the full dose. A mortal frame can only absorb so much before it collapses into darkness itself. Kitty’s dead form was corrupted first by your father’s blood, then by the ring. The ring may have been a safety valve when first worn, but after so many years of holding back Malevolencia, it now exudes it. Not enough to affect the uncorrupted, like you and Callie; but your father must have known what would happen to him if the ring touched his flesh again.”
“Black snakes.” Callie said.
“Wait, my father cut Callie’s face with that ring,” Mike said, “It broke the skin, and wouldn’t stop bleeding at first.”
“That’s probably why it wouldn’t stop bleeding,” Rynza said, “Her body was flushing out any blood that had come into contact with the ring.”
Mike slapped his forehead. “And I was the idiot trying to stop it from bleeding!”
“Callie’s fine,” Rynza said, “As are you. My spirits would have sensed anything otherwise.”
“Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, shall we?” Bear said, “We need to break this down into chewable bites. The question of the day is: what do we do next? Suggestions?”
“First things first, we need to get Jon and the others out of the clink.” Woodrow replied.
“We’ll need to get Rak away from Mike and Callie’s dad, somehow.” Spencer said.
“And then find this Rufus guy.” Kevin added.
“Callie and I can do that.” Mike said, “We even have a car---“
“NO!” Rynza shouted, startling them all, and cutting Mike off in mid-sentence, “You two must get going onward to Cathim! The sooner you leave, the safer everyone here will be.”
“We can’t just leave!” Mike said with indignation, “All the bad things that have happened to the Dreadniks are our fault! We have to help them save the others, and save Rak!”
“Your continued presence complicates matters, and will only make things worse; I can promise you that. If you want to help, you must leave. The sooner Sinestri and your father are out of our affairs, the sooner we can do what we have to do.”
Mike and Callie looked at each other and nodded.
“Alright then.” Mike said, “We’ll leave.”
The inside of what was once the Waxleaf Map Company (and before that, the Boxwood Bookstore) fell quiet. Both Rak and Charles Longstreet stood, looking like they had just crawled out of an oil slick. All around them were those black snakelet things that Kitty had become; most crushed under heel or squished in hand. Some of them were half-crushed, with their uncrushed portion wriggling like mad.
Unseen, one of the stubbier ones shoved itself into the dropped and forgotten ring, till the ring was lodged around it’s halfway point. It then crawled into a knothole in the wooden floor, and disappeared.
To what fate, is another tale entirely.
Corrina had not been as lucky as Longstreet and Rak; many of the black snakes filled her mouth and throat and eye sockets. She was now undergoing the same transformation Kitty had gone through, only a slower and messier version of it.
“We better leave before she ripens.” Longstreet said, looking down on her body, which was turning a bruised purple; and darkening.
From the corners of her eyeholes and gunk-filled nose, black droplets fell, and turned into tiny versions of the black snakes.
“Tadpoles.” Rak said in a flat monotone.
He turned and followed Longstreet out of the building. They exited only to discover that their mode of transport was gone.
“They pounded the car.” Rak said.
“You’re a thief, steal me one.” Longstreet said.
“I don’t do cars. I was a pick-pocket.”
“Crap.” Longstreet said, “I guess we’ll just have to take one the hard way.”
“That depends. Where do you think Mike and Callie would go?”
Rak thought it over. “They’ve just witnessed some weird crap. They’ll have questions. They’ll go see Rynza.”
“Do you know where this person lives?”
“Then I’ll go see Rynza too.”
They were ready.
Carissa prepared them some travel food. Rynza donated some of her sheets and pillows for when they would have to sleep on the road; these were placed by Edward and Kevin in the back seat of the car while Mike and Callie still stood in Rynza’s waiting room, saying their goodbyes. Kevin finished first and entered the building.
“Listen, I’m really sorry about all that’s happened.” Mike was saying to Bear, “We’ve ruined everything for you.”
“Just go do what you gotta go do,” Bear said, “We’ll take care of our own.”
“If--when--you see Jon again,” Callie said, “Tell him that I’m sorry he couldn’t come with us. I suppose it just wasn’t meant to be.”
“Any message for Peggy, Mike?” Bear asked.
“Tell her it’s been fun,” he said, “Tell her I’ll miss her.”
“Remember what I told you,” Rynza said, “Just keep going straight from here, until you reach Cathim. There are many shadows in your path. Be careful.”
Mike dug into his pocket and took out the now useless station wagon keys, and handed them to Rynza.
“Here,” he said, “A memento of our visit.”
“Trust me,” Rynza said, “No one is ever gonna need a memento to remember your visit.”
She took the proffered keys nonetheless.
Mike and Callie turned and exited through the front door. They got into their father’s stolen car and drove away; leaving Metromax City and their Dreadnik friends behind.
After Mike and Callie had departed, Rynza called the Judicial Complex and made some inquiries. Once she had all the necessary information, everyone migrated to her kitchen to make their plans.
They discussed the myriad obstacles they would have to overcome to free Jon, Dom, Peggy, and Wes from the holding cell where they were being held, pending trial.
Out of the blue, Kevin asked: “Has anyone seen Edward?”
They all looked at each other and shook their heads. In the depth of their calculations, they hadn’t even missed him.
“Last time I saw him, he was with you putting the supplies in Mike and Callie’s car.” Spencer replied.
“I know,” Kevin said, “That’s the last time I remember seeing him as well. I went inside before him, and I guess I just assumed he came in after me at some point.”
“Check the restroom.” Bear said, “Woodrow, check outside.”
Rynza closed her eyes and looked into the psychic stream. Though its waters were often muddy; they did, on occasion, clear up.
Both Kevin and Woodrow returned empty-handed.
“Where could he have gotten to?” Bear asked.
Rynza opened her eyes.
“He’s gone,” she said, “With Mike and Callie.”
“He snuck into the back seat of their car while they were still saying goodbye. He intends not to show himself until they are far enough away that they cannot turn back.”
“Why? Why would he do that?” Kevin asked.
“I can’t say for sure,” Rynza said, “My guess is, he felt they would have more need of him than we would.”
Bear put her head in her hands. “Aw cripes, Edward.” she said, feeling the full weight of the responsibility she alone now carried, “It’s like Jon all over again.”
“What is it with those Longstreets that everyone they meet wants to help them, run off with them, or kill them?” Woodrow asked.
“They are a wrecking crew.” Spencer said.
“Edward’s made his choice; it’s out of our hands.” Bear said, “In the meantime, we still have work to do.”
Rynza suddenly dropped her glass of tea, which shattered on the floor, startling everyone.
“What is it, Rinnie?” Carissa asked.
“Mike and Callie’s father!” she gasped, “He’s coming!”
“HERE?!” Bear asked, standing up.
“He’s on his way!”
The first thing Charles Longstreet did, upon successfully divesting an ash-grey car from its previous owner (who was currently engaged in bleeding to death in a parking lot), was to drop Rak off in front of the Caprice Motel.
“Go to my room and wait for me there.” he said, as he handed Rak the room key. Rak had already given him directions to Rynza’s place.
“I’m not coming after all?” Rak asked.
“No. Some of your friends might be there, and try to retrieve you from me. I don’t need those hassles. I just need to know if Mike and Callie are there. I’d send the frain if I didn’t think they’d muck it up again.”
“What am I supposed to do until you return?”
“I would suggest a bath. I intend to take one as well, when I get back. We both look like we just lost a battle with tar.”
“I have no change of clothes.”
“You’re a thief, steal some. There’s a laundromat across the street. Try your luck there.” Longstreet said, and peeled off.
He arrived, soon after, at Wedgewood Street. Adreynac’s place was not hard to find; the neon sign kind of gave it away. The blinds on the front windows and door were pulled down. The sign on the door said “SORRY! WE’RE CLOSED!”
The door, however, was unlocked.
He opened it and walked in.
Inside, the Dreadniks and the Adreynacs were waiting for him. Rynza had a rifle pointed at him, Bear held a bat, and the others had implements both sharp and blunt. Still, none of them were quite prepared for just how alarming he looked, covered in black ooze.
“I think you better stop right there.” Rynza said, fighting to keep her voice from quavering.
“That rifle looks ancient, lady; do you even have bullets for that thing?” Longstreet asked. He took a slow menacing step toward her. “Could you even shoot me if you did? Blood would fly everywhere.”
Bear stepped out in front of Rynza and extended the top of the bat against Longstreet’s chest.
“Back off.” she said.
“Just tell me where Mike and Callie are, and I won’t have to snap your neck.” Longstreet said.
Bear grinned mirthlessly. “Mister, I’d like to see you try.”
“They’re not here.” Rynza said from behind Bear, “We sent them away. They were too much trouble anyway.”
Longstreet looked over at Rynza. “And where did you send them, witch? To their mother? To Cathim?”
Rynza sat dumbfounded.
Longstreet laughed an unpleasant, grating laugh. “Ahh, I see you did. Just as well. I can catch them up in no time. They probably just left too, didn’t they?”
“Get the hell out.” Bear said, “You are not wanted here.”
“Why did you leave the door unlocked then? You could have locked me out. Why didn’t you? Were you hoping to see someone? A certain little thief, perhaps?”
“Where is he?” Rynza asked, “Where’s Rak?”
Charles Longstreet smiled, turned, and opened the door. “You’re the psychic,” he said over his shoulder, “You figure it out.”
The door slammed shut behind him.
Woodrow, Kevin, and Spencer ran to the front windows and lifted the slats of the blinds to take a peek outside.
“Is he gone?” Bear asked.
“He’s getting in his car…” Spencer said, “Okay, he’s gone.”
Bear turned to Rynza. “Do you see him coming back here?”
“No. He got what he wanted from us.” Rynza said, “He’ll go after Mike and Callie now.”
“Still, we have to leave.” Bear said, “I wouldn’t put it past him to inform Mallacharr of our presence here. We need a new place. Preferably, someplace Rak doesn’t know about.”
“I have a friend who owes me a favor,” Rynza said, “She owns a motel.”
“Good. Call her.”
“What about Rak?” Kevin asked, “If Longstreet goes after Mike and Callie, he’ll take Rak with him. We’ll lose any chance of ever getting him back, or getting him to that Rufus guy.”
“Don’t you think I know that?!” Bear snapped, looking pained, “But rescuing Jon and the others has got to come first. While they’re still in a Judicial Complex holding cell, we have a window; but that window grows smaller as the day grows older. Once they put them put on the bus to Ragginarck, it’s over.”
Rak was in the shower when Charles Longstreet got back, but had left the room door unlocked. Longstreet entered and went first to the telephone. Though he felt no particular antagonism against the Dreadniks, he felt it was necessary to repay the hospitality they had shown him on general principles. The gesture had to be made.
George Mallacharr couldn’t resist a smile as he finished up the paperwork that would put Siana Nandehl in her place.
Even with his position strengthened, some subtlety had been necessary; his maneuver did not seem unduly punitive on the surface, even if it did cut her off at the knees.
The phone rang. He picked it up and heard a familiar voice.
“Hello again, Crellat Mallacharr.” the voice said.
“What is it, Longstreet? I’m a busy man.”
“Oh, I’m sure you are, but I’m also sure you won’t be too busy for me when I tell you that I happen to know where the rest of the Dreadniks, the ones that escaped your sweep, are hiding out.”
“Where?” Mallacharr asked. His voice betrayed more eagerness than he had intended to convey; but if he could get the rest of the Dreadniks, he’d be golden. Then he could stomp Nandehl into a pale grey smear once and for all, without the necessity of half-measures.
“If you remember, Crellat Mallacharr, the last time we made a deal, and I provided information, you got what you wanted; whereas I got nothing.”
“What do you want?”
Longstreet laughed. “Lucky for you, you no longer have anything I need. So consider this a gift. The remaining Dreadniks are being aided and abetted by a woman named Rynza Adreynac. She runs a psychic business on Wedgewood Street. Even your useless men can’t miss it; it has a neon sign and everything. Happy hunting!”
The phone went “click” in Mallacharr’s ears, and he put it down.
He wondered if this wasn’t just a trick to get back at him for not delivering his end of their bargain. The fact that he didn’t ask for anything in return for this information only made it seem more so.
On the other hand, what if it wasn’t?
It was worth his while to check it out. Certainly not another frain sweep, not yet; but sending out some officers in an unmarked car to have a look-see didn’t sound too risky.
Siana Nandehl stepped out from inside the storage room.
She hurried past Mallacharr’s office, and went to her desk.
Through the vent, she had heard him talking with Longstreet on the phone. Though she couldn’t hear Longstreet’s voice, Mallacharr’s responses gave her more than enough information to deduce what they were talking about:
What is it, Longstreet? I’m a busy man.
An overexcited, Where?!
And finally, What do you want?
Then Mallacharr had called for two officers in an unmarked car to check out an address in Wedgewood Street, a psychic shop run by someone named Rynza Adreynac.
Siana Nandehl didn’t give a damn about the Dreadniks; but Mallacharr had already used them once to strengthen his position.
She could not let him succeed twice!
She flipped through her phonebook till she found Rynza Adreynac’s name and number.
She dialed it up and, to her surprise, an older girl’s came on the line.
“Who is this?” the girl asked. She sounded like she had neither the time nor patience for anything but pithy replies.
“Listen close,” Siana said, “You don’t know me, but the frain know the Dreadniks are there; and they’re coming. Right now. Whatever it is you’re doing, drop it, and get the hell out of there.”
“We figured as much already.” the girl said, “The question is: who are you and what do you want?”
“We need to meet.” Siana said, “I can help you free your friends.”
There came two seconds of silence as the girl weighed her options. “Do you know where the Caprice Motel is?” she asked.
“If it’s in the city, I can find it.”
“Meet us there in half an hour.”
“I will. I’ll be the blond haired woman in the light blue suit.”
“Come alone or it’s off.” The girl replied, and hung up.
Had she considered the matter, Bear might have let Rynza’s phone ring and not answered it; but as she was the closest to it when it rang, she had picked it up without a thought.
“Are we sure that was wise?” Spencer asked, once Bear described the content of the call, “What if she’s a frain?”
“Of course she’s a frain,” Bear replied.
“It’s a trap, then.” Woodrow said.
“If I thought so, I wouldn’t have agreed to have her meet us.” Bear answered.
Just then, a red pick-up truck stopped in front of the building.
“That’s Clyde,” Rynza said, “Our ride.”
Clyde Diggins was a twenty-something young man with light brown hair and a tall thin build. Moderately wealthy by an inheritance Rynza had helped him to uncover, Clyde was only too happy to be of assistance. The pick-up was a survivor of his scrap yard days, and a constant reminder of his humble beginnings.
“Are you ready, Rinnie?” he asked, upon entering.
“Yes, we’re ready.”
They exited the building. Kevin had composed a note that read:
The note was taped to the front door window.
Once they were all outside, Clyde lifted Rynza out of her wheelchair, and put her in the passenger seat. The wheelchair was folded and placed in the back of the pick-up, where the Dreadniks were going to ride (except Woodrow, who was short enough to be squeezed in between Clyde and Rynza, to his horror). Carissa locked up, and joined Bear, Kevin, and Spencer in the back.
The truck pulled away from the curb, and off they went.
Rak stepped out of the shower feeling unburdened of the sticky black mess he’d been coated in. He dried himself, and put on the clothes he had taken from one of the dryers at the laundromat. The trousers and shirt were about two sizes too big, but he made do by rolling up the leg bottoms on the pants, and cinching it at the waist with his original belt; which was amenable to washing off and towel-drying. The shirt he just let hang long. He threw his soiled clothes in a corner.
“C’MON BOY!” Longstreet yelled from outside, “I need to wash this crap off before it congeals any further!”
While buttoning up his new shirt, Rak caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror, and stopped cold.
There was something wrong with his reflection, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it; something wrong with the eyes.
Rak put his face very close to the mirror.
“What are you looking at?” he whispered.
“You.” the mirror Rak whispered back.
For a moment, Rak was unsure he had really heard that, or just imagined that he had; then the mirror Rak spoke again.
“You don’t belong there.” he said.
Suddenly Rak understood what was wrong with his reflection; the eyes of the Rak looking back at him from the mirror were not the dead eyes of the Rak Longstreet’s Malevolencia had created; they were the eyes of the old Rak.
“What can you do about it?” Rak replied, “You’re trapped in the back of my head. Imprisoned.”
“No prison can hold me.” mirror Rak said. He extended his arm across and through the mirror plane, grabbed Rak by the hair on top of his head, and pulled.
Rak’s head hit the mirror, but it was he who shattered.
Longstreet was about to bang on the bathroom door, when it opened.
Rak walked past him.
“All done.” he said.
Longstreet only got as far as removing his shirt, shoes, and socks, when there came an insistent knock on the bathroom door.
“What is it?” he shouted.
There was no answer.
“Dammit boy, answer me! I command it!”
No answer, but the knocking started once again.
Longstreet growled, got out of the shower, and opened the door.
There was Rak, standing there, waiting for him. Longstreet felt a sudden stabbing sting on his side, then collapsed to the floor; the now-empty hypodermic syringe jutting out of his ribs like a tiny flagpole.
“That bath will have to wait.” Rak said.
He looked down on Longstreet’s face, and kicked it…hard.
“Bastard,” he said, kicking Longstreet’s face again, “This is for making me betray my friends, you SON OF A BITCH!”
He kicked Longstreet’s face again, and again, and again. By the time he stopped, he was sobbing. Charles Longstreet didn’t so much as grunt, deep under as he was; black blood oozed from his mouth, nose, and various points of broken skin.
Rak turned and went back to Longstreet’s duffel bag. There he had found the forgotten syringe of Tullaxiffan. Now he went and took the money out of the wallets he had pounded earlier, back when the world had been brighter, and darkness was but a shadow.
He was about to leave the room, when a ripping, searing sensation tore through his body like an electric shock, and made him double over in pain.
Rak fought through the pain, until it abated.
There was no hiding from the truth: the darkness deep inside him, the darkness Longstreet had given him, wanted to take back control; and it would not stop trying until it succeeded in doing so.
When the Dreadniks and the Adreynac sisters arrived at the Caprice Motel, they were met by its owner, Madelyne Caprice; a woman of about fifty or so, with faded red hair and a pale, slightly wrinkled, face.
“It’s good to see you again, Rinnie,” she said, giving Rynza and Carissa warm hugs, “Rissa.”
“It’s been too long, Maddy.” Rynza said.
“Funny, I thought about calling you last night.” Madelyne said.
“Oh, nothing really; it’s not important.” Madelyne said, “Just me being silly.”
“I’ll be leaving now!” Clyde called out to Rynza, once everyone was off of his pick-up.
“Oh, okay, thank you!” Rynza called back, “Send my love to your sister for me!”
“I will!” he replied. He waved, got in his truck, and drove away.
“Anyway, sorry to intrude on you like this,” Rynza said, turning back to Madelyne, “But we need a place to lie low for a little while.”
“How many rooms will you need?”
“Just one,” Rynza said, “I don’t wish to presume on our friendship more than I have to.”
“Oh, presume away,” Madelyne retorted, “I have the rooms for it; we’ve had a lot of sudden departures this morning.”
“Well, one for now, will do.” Rynza said.
“Suit yourself. So, who are your young friends here?”
“Well…the less you know about them, the better.” Rynza replied.
The Caprice Motel was a long connected line of short, squat rooms laid out in a squared U-shape, with a modest pool and a swing set taking up the center, between the two lines of rooms facing each other. The whole set-up was painted a faded pink, for reasons known only to its owner.
The room Madelyne gave them consisted of two beds, a television, a small dining table, and a bathroom.
“Keep an eye out for our guest.” Bear said to Woodrow and Spencer, who were manning the heavily curtained window next to the dining table.
Bear turned to Rynza and Carissa. “If I’m wrong, and this does turn out to be a frain trap…” she said.
“I’ll be too cumbersome for a quick get-away.” Rynza said.
“WE’LL be too cumbersome.” Carissa corrected.
Bear nodded grimly.
“We understand,” Rynza said, “For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is a frain trap.”
“Neither do I.” Bear replied.
“But I do feel some roiling in the psychic stream,” Rynza continued, “Something feels wrong around here; and my spirits haven’t returned since Longstreet’s visit scared them off.”
“You are not gonna believe this!” Spencer exhorted from his post at the window.
“I don’t shigging believe it!” Woodrow added.
“What is it?!” Bear asked.
“It’s Rak!” said Spencer.
Bear and Kevin rushed over to the window.
There was Rak, shambling like a drunkard by the rooms on the other side of the swimming pool.
“Go get him boys.” Bear said, “Quick and quiet.”
Spencer and Kevin zipped nimbly around the dining table and dashed out the door. When Rak looked up and saw them running toward him, the relief and gratitude on his face was palpable.
Spencer and Kevin picked him up between them, and half-carried half-dragged him back to the room.
Woodrow opened the door for them, and closed and locked it once they were inside.
They sat Rak down on one of the chairs from the dining table.
“Go watch the window.” Bear said to Kevin.
The rest huddled around Rak. His deathly pallor and dark hollow eyes chilled them all to the bone.
He held his sides and wept. “I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…” he moaned, “I betrayed the group. I betrayed you all. But I couldn’t help it!”
“We know.” Rynza said, in a kind voice, “It wasn’t your fault. But how did you escape? How did you break out of his control?”
Bear was more to the point. “Where is Longstreet now?”
“He’s deep asleep,” Rak said, “I injected him with a large dose of Tullaxiffan. He’ll sleep till tomorrow.”
“But where is he?” Bear insisted, “Is he here?”
Rak seemed to fight for words; then exhaled, defeated. “It won’t let me say.” Rak said, “It won’t let me betray him.”
“What won’t?” Spencer asked.
“His BLOOD.” Rak answered, “I was able to break its control, but it’s still there, trying to wear me down. It won’t stop until I’m too tired or weak to fight it anymore. If it takes me again it’ll be the end of me.”
“It won’t come to that.” Bear promised, “We’re gonna get you to a Ma’jai who can help you; but we gotta free the others first.”
Rak wiped his eyes. “For them, I’ll hold out as long as I have to.”
Bear patted his shoulder, “Now that’s the Rak I know.”
“HEY, she’s here!” Kevin shouted, “The frain woman is here.”
“Is she alone?” Bear asked.
“Alright, go meet her and bring her here.” Bear said, “Carissa, help Rak over to the restroom. Keep him company there while we hash this out. Rynza, you’re with me. The rest of you just sit on the beds there and let me and Rynza do the talking.”
Everyone moved and did as ordered. Bear sat herself down at the dining table, and left the remaining chair empty for their guest. Rynza wheeled herself next to Bear.
The door opened, and Kevin and the woman entered. Kevin joined Spencer and Woodrow, while the woman sat at the chair clearly meant for her.
“My name is Siana Nandehl.” she said.
“I’m Bear.” Bear said.
“I assume you’re the one I spoke with on the phone.”
Siana continued: “As you’ve probably already guessed, I’m involved with the frain.”
“Involved?” Bear asked; her voice and expression innocent, but the effect, sardonic.
“Well, I am a frain. A Raishera, in fact.”
“Well, well, a Raishera!” Bear said, “How fancy!”
“It’s not as impressive as it sounds,” Siana said, “There are many Raisheras of varying importance and power.”
“And why be a mere Raishera, one among many, when you can be the sole Crellat, right?” Bear asked.
Damn, she’s quick, Siana thought.
“And what better way to undercut the current Crellat,” Bear continued, “Than by robbing him of his victory.”
“And here I thought Miss Adreynac was the psychic.” Siana said, “You are correct. Crellat Mallacharr is indeed standing in my way. I believe you know him already.”
“We do.” Bear said with distaste.
“Did you know also that Mallacharr was a hairsbreadth away from getting booted out of the Crellacy, when he caught your friends?”
“We know a lot more than you think we do.” Rynza said.
“Ah yes, the psychic,” Siana said, “The point is, Mallacharr used your friends to get back into the Vignach’s good graces…”
“And now you want US to help you do the opposite.” Bear said.
“Correct. The Vignach will drop Mallacharr like a bad habit for a good enough reason.”
“Why didn’t you just try catching us yourself?” Bear asked, “We told you where we were going to be. You could have set us up.”
“Is that what you suspected this was? A set-up?”
“I would have been a fool not to consider the possibility.” Bear replied.
“And yet you rolled the dice.”
“I don’t play dice with my friend’s lives; it was a risk, yes, but a calculated one.” Bear said, “Now answer the question.”
“Yes, I did consider catching you all myself.” Siana admitted, “But it wouldn’t have worked. Because of the frain power structure, Mallacharr could simply have taken credit for it.”
“How do we know you won’t come after us after you become Crellat?” Bear asked, “Assuming we succeed.”
“Oh, I probably will.” Siana replied, “But you will have gotten your friends back on the playing field. I think that’s as fair an exchange as you’re likely to get in this world.”
“I assume you have a plan?”
“I do. I also have access to parts of the Judicial Complex. I called in a lot of favors to get your friends at the lower end of the docket.”
“Alright then,” Bear said, “We’re in.”
“Good. Now, there are some things we’re going to have to acquire, to pull this off.” Siana said, “And we’re going to need an extra vehicle.”
Rynza dug into her pocket and took out a set of keys; they were the keys to the Longstreet’s station wagon.
“Do you have any pull at the impound yard?” she asked.
In his office, Crellat Mallacharr assessed the facts.
Longstreet’s tip was a bust. Mallacharr had suspected as much. No matter, he was glad to have Longstreet out of his hair; the man was a ghoul. Mallacharr hadn’t felt right since meeting him; like the color of the world was slowly draining away.
As for Siana Nandehl, she was missing in action, and Mallacharr was beginning to worry. Nandehl was not the type of person to curl up and wither away upon defeat. She was probably out there right now, plotting.
Oh, to take a bat to that woman’s head, Mallacharr thought to himself.
He sat back, put his feet up on his desk, and allowed himself the pleasure of that reverie.
In the large holding cell of the Judicial Complex, Jon, Dom, Peggy, and Wes, along with other teenage offenders, sat and waited.
The four found an empty spot on the long sitting bench against the wall, and sat together as a group.
A tall skinny Sardossian kid slid over to Jon. “Hey, do you guys know what judge is presiding over the juvenile cases today?” he asked.
“I heard a guard mention a Judge Hopper.” Jon answered.
“Judge Cobb Hopper?” the kid asked, “Oh man, we’re all screwed.”
“What---do you know him?” Peggy asked.
“No, but I’ve heard he’s a mean old bastard. I hear he’s been known to send sixteen and seventeen year olds straight to Rolom, instead of Ragginarck.”
“Really? That can’t be right.” Peggy said.
“Probably just a rumor.” Dom said.
“Well that’s what I heard.” the Sardossian kid said. He left them to spread the bad news around to the others there.
“What if he’s right?” Peggy asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Jon said, “Because we’re not going to either Rolom or Ragginarck.”
“How can you be so sure?” Wes asked.
“Because I know us,” Jon replied, “And I know Bear.”
The Judicial Complex was a big redbrick building, as was the Municipal Complex. Like a pair of twins, the two nearly identical buildings stood side by side in the thick of the city; the Municipal to the left, the Judicial to the right. Children and those below the age of eighteen were not allowed in either building unattended by an adult.
At four o’clock, the Longstreet’s green station wagon parked at the side of the Municipal building. Bear was at the wheel, Rynza sat in front with her; Spencer, Woodrow, and Kevin sat in the back seat. Carissa was left behind at the motel, with Rak.
Siana arrived in her own car, and parked in front of the Judicial building.
Bear stepped out of the wagon. She looked different than her usual appearance, as she had on a nice professional woman’s business suit and shoes Siana had purchased for her so she could pass through unattended. She also had on make-up that had come from Siana’s purse. She looked uncomfortable, and not a little embarrassed.
The boys clambered out of the wagon and took out Rynza’s wheelchair from the back. They helped her onto it. Rynza put her hands on her lap, and allowed Kevin to push her.
The group hurried over to the Judicial building. They met Siana there at the door.
“Spencer and Woodrow with me, Kevin with Rynza, and Bear goes alone.” she reminded them, “When we get in there, spread out, get some people between us on the line; don’t everyone clump in the same place.”
“We know.” Bear said, “This isn’t our first jamboree.”
They went in.
Inside, it was packed. They got in line with those waiting to get past the two frain officers standing sentry at both sides of the metal detector. Bear was the first of them to go through, and passed without incident.
When it was Siana, Spencer, and Woodrow’s turn, Siana flashed her badge. “Raishera Nandehl, officer.” she said.
“And these two?” the officer asked.
“Witnesses for the Copely trial,” she said, “It’s already started, and I have to get them in there fast. There was no time to process them through the usual channels.”
The officer was uninterested; he yawned as he gestured them to go on. When they passed through the metal detector, it started shrieking its alarm. Siana gave the officers a weary “I don’t have time for this crap” look. They nodded, waved them through, and reset the alarm.
They went on, until they met up with Bear. The four then walked into a service elevator. Siana took out a set of keys from her pocket and inserted one into a lock hole set into the bottom of the button pad. She turned the key and pushed its companion button.
They went down.
What few people know, Siana had told them earlier, as they ironed out their plans, is that the Municipal and Judicial Complexes are connected by underground passages that criss-cross under both buildings. There is also a control center down there, where power and security for both is managed. These passage-ways are forbidden to most, but I have a friend there who’ll help us.
When at last they reached the bottom, the doors swished open; revealing an ill-lit and claustrophobic hall descending into infinity. Its walls were concrete grey, and its lights flickered incessantly. Along both ceiling and walls crawled tubes, pipes, cables, and electrical wires.
“I think we’ve entered Hell.” Woodrow said.
At that, the lights along a stretch of hall up ahead gave out, plunging that section into darkness.
“This place must be a maintenance nightmare.” Spencer said, inspecting the wires, “And a fire hazard too.”
The group walked quickly down the hall, their footsteps echoing loudly along its length.
“Are all the underground passages like this?” Bear asked.
“As far as I know; although some, less frequently used, passages are rumored to be much worse.” Siana said, “And I’ve heard there are some sections so bad, no one will go there; not even to replace the lights.”
“Has anyone ever gotten lost in these?” Woodrow asked.
“I heard once about a maintenance worker who disappeared for hours. When they found him, he was gibbering in a dark corner of a rarely used passage. He said he saw---“
“Siana, cut the campfire crap.” Bear said, as they passed through the dark section of hall.
Siana smiled a malevolent little smile, but did as requested.
As they walked on, Spencer noticed that other passages intersected with theirs. He also noticed something else. “Siana, are those cameras looking down on us, every twenty yards or so?” he asked.
“Yes, but don’t worry.” Siana said, “That’s where my friend comes in. He works in the control center. He’s taking care of that little problem for us. Not that much attention is given to these halls anyway. They mostly look at what’s happening above.”
“He’s taking a rather big risk, isn’t he?” Bear asked, “What’s in it for him?”
“I promised him a cushy promotion, when I’m the Crellat.”
“Guys, I hear something.” Woodrow said, stopping.
The others stopped as well, and listened.
In the distance, footsteps echoed; faint, at first, but getting louder.
Once they were past the checkpoint, Kevin rolled Rynza down a crowded hall, to courtroom 7A.
The courtroom was large, and descended obliquely towards the judge’s box, which was set against the wall, flanked by doors on either side.
Judge Cobb Hopper was currently presiding; rushing through cases like a man who’s had a long day and just wants to go home and get drunk.
Kevin parked Rynza close to the exit, and sat down next to her. He stole a quick glance at the fire alarm switch on the wall right behind where they sat.
According to Siana, the fire alarm systems in the Judicial Complex were antiquated, and their wiring seemed to have been installed by incompetents, or madmen. The pulling of one alarm would set off all the others in the building, in a cascade of increasing noise. The city government had had the similarly screwed-up alarms in the Municipal building fixed, but costs had spiraled out of control. Thus the budget for the Judicial building’s repairs was still in a state of bureaucratic limbo.
Rynza noticed Kevin’s antsyness. “Relax, I’ll let you know when the time is right.” she said, “Are you always this nervous before a Febwith?”
“Not really,” Kevin said, “I’ve just never been this deep into the enemy’s lair.”
The footsteps came closer, until a short, balding man of about forty came into view. He wore a white short-sleeve shirt with black pants. The lenses of his black plastic frame glasses were so thick, they magnified his beady eyes to insectile proportions.
“Sorry I took so long,” he said, “I couldn’t get away.”
“Did you fix the camera problem?” Siana asked.
“Obviously, or your little party here wouldn’t have gotten this far.” he answered, looking Bear, Spencer, and Woodrow over, “After awhile, there are no more cameras, though. Too expensive, it seems, to cover all these walkways with cameras.”
“Okay, here’s where we split up.” Siana said.
She retrieved a small set of tools from inside her suit pocket, and handed them to Spencer.
“Bear goes with me, you two with Herb here.”
“See you guys later,” Bear said, “Good luck.”
“Don’t worry about us.” said Woodrow. He and Spencer turned and followed the man called Herb down one corridor, while Bear and Siana entered another.
Herb led Spencer and Woodrow down a few turns, until they entered a large open area, filled with giant tubes and dark machinery, humming noisily. As ill-lit as the corridors, it would be easy to get lost in this maze. Being accustomed to the place, Herb moved through it with quick ease, while the two Dreadniks strove to keep up.
Herb motioned them to stop. Under the cover provided by a huge, refrigerator-sized thing with thick cables emerging from its sides, they could see the control center. It was ahead of them, like a magic cottage surrounded by the dark forest of vast machinery.
Essentially a small building inside of a building, its walls were sheet metal on the lower half, and clear plastic on the upper half. Inside the well-lit station, bored-looking men dressed just like Herb worked at busy consoles, looked at video screens, or milled around aimlessly, looking over each other’s shoulders, paper cups of coffee in hand.
Herb and the boys gave the control center a wide berth, and once beyond it, continued onward. The machinery gave way to corridors again, and their route turned and turned, until Spencer and Woodrow lost all sense of direction.
At last they came to a point where four corridors intersected.
“Here we are.” said Herb.
He pointed to a large metal box on the wall. A multitude of wires and cables snaked out of it in many directions.
“This junction here is a soft spot in the electrical system. If you know what you’re doing, and don’t flash fry yourself, you can kill the power to most of the Judicial building; and it’ll take the power guys forever to figure out where the problem is, and even longer to fix it. Anyway, my part of the deal is over. Here, take this---“
He handed Spencer a flashlight.
“If you succeed, this place is going to be as dark as a tomb.”
“Are we gonna be able to hear the alarms from down here?” Spencer asked.
“Oh yes!” Herb said, “In this crumbling deathtrap, when an alarm goes off, every alarm goes off! Don’t worry, you’ll hear it. One last thing---your escape route. Listen close! Follow that corridor until you get to another intersection like this one. Then turn left down that corridor, until you get to an open area where there is an elevator---“
“Which, of course, won’t work.” Herb continued, “But beside it will be a stairway. Go up the stairs until you get to the ground floor. From there you can exit the building. Okay? I’m outta here.”
Herb scurried down the corridor they had come through, and was gone; his footfalls echoed on the corridor walls until they were too far away to hear.
Spencer unrolled the set of tools Siana had passed through the metal detector for him. It held all the tools he would need. He gave Woodrow a screwdriver, and together they removed the lid of the metal box. Inside, hierarchies of wires were laid bare before them. To Woodrow, it was impenetrable mess, but Spencer knew what he was looking at.
“Now we wait.” he said.
Siana and Bear’s windings through the corridors that ran beneath the Judicial and Municipal buildings led them eventually to a stairway. They went up this stairway until they stopped at a locked door with a small window. The window was of thick glass, reinforced with thin wires that criss-crossed the pane.
Siana and Bear looked through the glass.
On the other side of the door was a plain hallway.
“This hallway runs between the holding cells and Judge Hopper’s courtroom.” Siana said.
She retrieved her set of keys and a small flashlight from her pocket.
“I can’t unlock it now, or it’ll trip an alarm. Of course, once the alarms go off---“
“It won’t matter.” Bear said, finishing the thought, “How many guards will we have to deal with?”
“Two, most likely; four at the most,” Siana answered, “But we’ll have the element of surprise.”
Judge Hopper’s court, while not crowded, was full of people that day. Rynza and Kevin sat at the back, waiting for their friends to be trotted out.
They sat through a few cases. At the moment, a Sardossian teen was being brought out, through a door to the judge’s left. Before the door was shut though, Rynza caught a glimpse of the next defendants in line; waiting in the wings, as it were.
“Get ready, Kevin.” Rynza said, in a terse whisper.
Kevin quietly got up from his chair, and took a position behind Rynza, as if he was about to wheel her away.
“Don’t do it until I say so,” she continued, “At least one of them has to see us, so they’ll know it’s going down.”
“Okay.” Kevin whispered back.
Judge Hopper sentenced the Sardossian kid to Ragginarck. The kid seemed almost relieved as he was carted off. Then, Jon, Dom, Peggy, and Wes were brought in.
As they were led before the bench, Rynza caught Dom’s eye. It was only for a second, but Rynza saw recognition turn to a smirk of merriment. He turned to the others, and nodded.
“Kevin,” Rynza said, “Now.”
As their friends were turned to face the judge, Kevin backed up until he was at the wall, next to the red fire alarm. He lifted the plastic sheath, grabbed the switch, and pulled it down.
Immediately, the clamor began.
Kevin threw himself to the floor to avoid being seen, but the cacophony of loud ringing bounced off the walls and sounded like it was coming from all around.
The people in the courtroom looked at each other as if trying to find someone to tell them what to do. They didn’t panic, but they did start heading toward the doors in a semi-orderly rush.
The running and panic set in a moment later, when one alarm after another began to go off in the building.
Kevin, now standing again, kept Rynza away from the flow of increasingly frantic people.
Jon, Dom, Peggy, and Wes, and the other as yet unprocessed juveniles, were quickly bundled together by the frain, and sent back to the holding cell area. From there, all the detainees could be evacuated together.
Upon giving the order, Judge Hopper slipped out through the door at his right, and got the hell out of there.
Deep under all of this, Spencer and Woodrow heard the alarms.
“It’s time.” Woodrow said.
Spencer took his clamps and wire cutters, and went to work.
Moments later, the power went out in both the Judicial and Municipal buildings.
Herb’s “soft spot” had succeeded too well!
When the lights went out, several women screamed. The alarms had been cut off, but since the courtroom and hallway had no windows to provide light, the place was now plunged into a pitch black darkness.
Outside the courtroom doors, Kevin and Rynza could see moving light beams, as security officers with flashlights helped lead the frightened masses out.
“Maybe they’ll finally fix this place up.” Rynza said.
“No they won’t.” Kevin retorted.
“Either way, it’s time to go. Our work here is done.”
Kevin rolled Rynza out of the dark courtroom, and into the crowded, flash-lit, hall. A beam of light fell on them, and a security officer approached.
“Oh shig.” Kevin muttered.
But the officer merely said, “Here, let me help you there, son.” as he took Rynza’s wheelchair handles from Kevin, “Just follow me, I’ll get the two of you out of here.”
“Thank you officer.” Rynza said.
He led them all the way outside. Rynza thanked him again as he turned to re-enter the darkened building. Kevin wheeled Rynza in the direction of the Municipal building’s parking lots, where the Longstreet’s station wagon was parked.
When the alarms started, Siana used her key to unlock the stairwell door. As she and Bear watched through the window, Jon, Dom, Peggy, Wes, among others, were marched right past them, by two officers.
Then the lights went out, and Siana and Bear went through the door. From yonder came the sounds of a short scuffle.
The sudden revelation of Siana’s flashlight showed the two frain officers unconscious on the floor. The chained-together kids had jumped them, knocking them out before they had a chance to go for their stun guns.
“Well, Bear,” said Jon, “What took you so long?”
“We stopped for lunch.” Bear said, as she and Siana rifled through the officer’s pockets for the keys to the chains.
“Who’s this?” asked Peggy, referring to Siana.
“A long story.” Bear answered, pocketing a stun gun.
Siana found the keys, and soon all were freed.
“I suggest those of you not coming with us get the hell out of here, while you have the chance.” she said.
They didn’t need to be told twice; they scattered. Only the five Dreadniks remained.
“This way.” Siana said, and pointed down the stairway she and Bear had arrived through.
They bounded down the stairs and then through the corridors. Siana led the way.
They reached another stairway. They went up these, and ended up in the Municipal building. The lights were still out, and beams of light danced along the walls and ceiling as officers tried to lead people out.
“Over here.” Siana said, and the Dreadniks followed. They entered through a door marked: No unauthorized personnel beyond this point! They scooted past recently emptied offices and conference rooms, to a door with an EMERGENCY EXIT sign on it.
Siana pushed the door open. Afternoon light blinded them as the six stepped through the door to the outside.
In the parking lot, next to the Longstreet’s station wagon, Rynza and Kevin were waiting for them.
“Hey, guys!” Kevin said.
There were hugs all around. Only Siana remained the outsider, looking around nervously at the frain cars and fire trucks beginning to surround the Municipal and Judicial buildings.
“Mike and Callie’s wagon!” Jon said, “Does that mean---?”
Bear shook her head. “Sorry Jon. She’s gone.”
“Have Spencer and Woodrow shown up yet?” Siana asked.
“Oh my, I forgot about them,” Rynza said, “No, they have not.”
“Should we wait for them?” Bear asked.
“No,” Siana said, “There’s going to be frain swarming around here. You guys go back to the motel. I’ll go back in and find them. When I do, I’ll bring them back in my car.”
“I’m coming with you!” Jon and Bear said at the same time.
“No Jon, we just got you back,” Bear said, “We can’t lose you again. Plus, you’re an escaped prisoner; they’ll be looking for you. I got Spencer and Woodrow into this, they’re my responsibility.”
“You are no less important to this group than I, Bear---“ Jon started to say, when Siana cut him off.
“Neither of you are coming with me.” she said, “It’s going to be a hornet’s nest in there, and you two will only slow me down.”
“How do we know we can trust you?” Bear asked Siana, “How do we know you won’t screw us and use Spencer and Woodrow for some advantage. For that matter, how do we know this wasn’t a set-up, cooked into the plan from the beginning?”
“You don’t.” Siana answered, “But if I’ve learned one thing about you, Bear; it’s that you have a gift for discernment. Use it now. Look at me when I say to you that I will bring Spencer and Woodrow back to you.”
Bear looked hard at Siana, for an uncomfortable moment.
“See you at the motel,” she said, at last, “Good luck.”
Siana nodded, and re-entered the Municipal Complex alone.
Bear turned to Jon. “Jon…” she began to say.
Jon smiled. “If you trust her, that’s good enough for me.”
“Oh, I don’t trust her,” Bear said, “But I know when people are lying to me. She wasn’t.”
They turned and piled into the station wagon, and got on the road back to the Caprice Motel. Along the way, Bear told Jon and the others everything that had transpired after the frain sweep.
After Spencer and Woodrow took out the lights, they were engulfed in a darkness whose totality was only slightly mitigated by the flashlight Herb had given them.
“You know, this place is quite oppressive in the dark.” Spencer said, “Herb should have given us a bigger flashlight. This thing is pathetic; no shigging help at all.”
“Let’s get out of here.” Woodrow said, “Which is our corridor?”
“This one.” Spencer said, pointing with the flashlight.
The two ran down the long corridor, until they reached another intersection like the one they had left behind.
“What did Herb say?” Woodrow asked, “Go right?”
“He said left, dummy!” Spencer snapped.
“LEFT!!” Spencer growled.
Woodrow snorted laughter. “For a pointy-headed freak, you are so easy to mess with!”
“Remind me to kill you later.” Spencer said.
They went left. They ran down this corridor a long time; almost too long. Then they reached a dead end.
“Oh shig! This is wrong!” Spencer said, “We sharfled it somewhere. We should have ended up at a stairway.”
“Do you think we took the wrong corridor?” Woodrow asked.
“Maybe,” Spencer said, getting angry, “If you hadn’t been horsing around, we might have paid more attention---“
“Don’t try to pin this on me, crapstick!” Woodrow retorted, “You’re the brains of this operation, why didn’t YOU---“
The unexpected sound of distant footfalls silenced them.
“Did you hear that?” Spencer asked.
Whoever it was, was now running.
“We need to get out of this dead-end.” Woodrow said.
“Agreed.” Spencer replied.
They started to run, then realized that the owner of the footsteps had entered their corridor, and had them hemmed in. This person had a flashlight stronger than theirs, and shined it at them.
“WHO’S THERE?” Spencer called out, shining his lesser flashlight back at the other person.
“Brilliant maneuver, brain-boy.” said Woodrow.
“Guys?” the other person called back.
It was Herb’s voice.
“Herb?! Is that you?” Woodrow yelled.
“Yeah! Thank the gods I found you guys! I was in such a hurry when I left you, that I accidently gave you the wrong directions!”
“Smooth move, Herb.” Spencer said.
“Yeah, good job getting us lost there, pal.” Woodrow added.
The three met halfway down the corridor.
“When I realized my mistake,” Herb continued, “I figured Siana would kill me if something happened to you two, so I came running back to look for you guys.”
“Well, you found us.” Spencer said.
“We have to get out fast, this place is gonna be crawling with frain.” Herb said, “Well…more than usual.”
“Lead the way.” Woodrow said, “Just don’t get us lost again.”
Off they went.
Herb led them through the twists and turns of the corridors with the same expertise as before. At last they reached the stairs. There, on their way up, they ran into Siana; on her way down.
“Where were you guys?” she asked.
“I accidently gave them the wrong directions.” Herb said, with a sheepish smile.
Siana rolled her eyes. “You clod!” she said, and gave Herb a lighthearted smack on the forehead. “I’ll take them from here, thank you.”
“Just remember our deal,” Herb said, “When you’re the Crellat.”
“I always pay what I owe.” Siana said.
Jon remained silent throughout Bear’s telling of the events that had transpired during his absence. Bear could see that he took hard the deaths of Corrina and Kitty, as well as Rak’s misfortune. Had Corrina succeeded in killing Callie, it would have broken him.
“This is all my doing,” he muttered, “All of this.”
Bear and the others tried to talk Jon out of this notion, but he wasn’t in any mood to listen. When at last they arrived at the Caprice Motel, they all clambered out of the Longstreet’s station wagon, and helped Rynza to her wheelchair. Carissa and Rak were waiting for them at the room.
This was Jon, Dom, Wes, and Peggy’s first glimpse of Rak in his current state.
“I’m sorry I let you down, Jon.” Rak said, his voice tightened by pain, “You were right all along; about the Holdfast, about me going off by myself…I should have listened to you.”
“Just hang in there, buddy,” Jon said, patting him softly on the shoulder, “Don’t worry about any of that right now.”
Jon turned to Bear and Rynza. “How do we help him?”
“Rynza thinks this Rufus Kantry guy is the answer.” Bear said.
“If anyone can help Rak, it’s him.” Rynza said.
“Then we have to get Rak to him as soon as possible.” Jon said, “Bear, get Dom over here. The four of us need to have a talk; and you’re not gonna like what I have to say.”
A short time later, there came a sharp rap on the door. The door was unlocked and opened, and Spencer and Woodrow stepped in.
“What the hell happened to you two?” Bear asked.
“We got lost,” Woodrow said, “But it wasn’t our fault.”
“My friend gave then the wrong directions by accident.” Siana said. She stood at the threshold of the door, but did not come in. “I have to go now.” she said.
“For what it’s worth, thank you for your help.” Jon said.
“I was just helping myself.” Siana said, “Our aims happened to coincide. And for what it’s worth, take my advice. Once I’m in as Crellat: do not cross my path.”
With that, she turned and left.
“Boy, that’s a scary broad.” Dom said.
“I wouldn’t worry about her.” said Bear.
“Why?” Jon asked, “What do you know?”
Bear motioned to Rynza. “Tell him.” she said.
“Let’s just say,” Rynza said, “That woman will never be Crellat.”
It was time for a meeting.
The eleven people crowded in the room quieted down and gave Jon the floor.
“Bad news first. This will be the last time I preside over you as palabrin.” Jon said.
Like before, there was open dismay amongst the Dreadniks; but now there was an air of resignation to it.
Jon went on. “Nothing has changed in my decision to hand over the reins of this group to Bear and Dom. If anything, recent events have solidified my resolve. And certainly Bear has proven herself more than capable of running the show.”
There was a smattering of hoots and handclaps for Bear.
“Anyway,” Jon continued, “As you have probably guessed, I still intend to go after Callie and Mike. I have their station wagon, and I intend to get it back to them. But before then, we have another matter to deal with: getting Rak to Rufus Kantry. Rynza has volunteered to lead a small group into the Rough Country to find him.”
“If anyone has half a chance of locating Kantry in the heart of the Rough Country, it’s me.” Rynza said.
“Are you sure you wanna do that, Rynza?” Peggy asked, “Shouldn’t you discuss this with Carissa first?”
“Rissa goes where I go; she’ll tell you that herself.”
“In what?” asked Wes, “If Jon is taking the station wagon, what are you guys going in?”
“I’ve already called my friend Clyde,” Rynza said, “He agreed to loan us his pick-up. Dom has already volunteered to drive, as neither Rissa nor I can. Well, I used to, before the accident…” she pointed to her useless legs, “But not anymore.”
“You’re gonna have to lay up somewhere along the way, you know,” Jon said, “There’s no crossing the Rough Country come nightfall; and you will not get there before then.”
“I know,” Rynza said, “I just hope Rak can hold out.”
“And the rest of us?” Peggy asked, “What do we do?”
“We go on, like always.” Bear replied, “Tomorrow we start looking for a new place.”
About twenty minutes after Rynza called him, Clyde Diggins sent one of his people down with the pick-up, and another in a car, to pick up the first one and drive him back.
“Good luck.” Jon said to Rynza, once she, Carissa, Dom, and Rak were in the pick-up, ready to go, “Any last words of advice for me?”
“I’d advise you not to go, if I thought you’d listen.” Rynza said, “So I’ll give you this advice instead: take care of yourself. Mike and Callie walk upon some very dark roads. I’m not sure anyone is meant to walk with them. Watch yourself.”
“I will.” Jon said, and waved them off. The pick-up rolled out of the motel parking lot, and went out into the world.
When they were gone, Jon turned to Bear.
“If we never see each other again, Bear” he said, “I want you to know that you’ve been the best friend I’ve ever had. You were there before anyone else. I wouldn’t have survived without you.”
“Likewise.” Bear said.
The two hugged for a long time.
“The Dreadniks are now in your hands, palabrin” Jon said, “Take good care of them.”
“I will, Jon.” Bear said, “You know you can trust me. Go on and find your girl. We’ll be alright.”
Jon gave each of them a final hug. When he hugged Peggy, she whispered in his ear: “Tell Mike I’m sorry I couldn’t come with him. This is the only family I have, and I just can’t leave. Okay?”
“I’ll tell him.” Jon said.
“Oh, and give him this for me.” she said, and gave Jon a soulful kiss.
“I’ll tell him you said hi.” Jon said, when he regained composure.
That was that. Jon got into the Longstreet’s station wagon, waved his friends goodbye, and drove away.
The remaining Dreadniks filed back into the motel room, only Bear remained outside.
“It’s been a long day.” she said, and sighed.
As for Siana Nandehl, she got what she wanted. Mallacharr was indeed fired by the Vignach, who needed a scapegoat to absorb the scandal after the Judicial Complex incident.
That Monday, after the week-end, Siana Nandehl was called to the Vignach’s office to be officially promoted to the position of Crellat.
Unbeknownst to her, the disgraced ex-Crellat, George Mallacharr, entered the office behind her; loaded gun in hand. The Vignach looked up at her, then at him. His brow furrowed and Siana turned around, to see who Freath was looking at behind her.
She had one blessed second to realize how all her machinations had come to naught; then Mallacharr blew her head off.
Blood and brain matter splattered all over the Vignach and his office, and Freath managed to take his final stammering breath, before Mallacharr took his head off as well.
Mallacharr saved the last bullet for himself.
As for Siana’s friend, Herb; he had to make do without the cushy job Siana had promised him, but he had no reason to complain.
In the chaos and confusion caused by the sudden vacuum of power at the top, and the bitter internal power struggles that came after; the investigation into the Judicial Complex affair ended up being heroically inept.
Herbert Macwadden, and the nameless others who had helped Siana pull strings at Judicial were questioned, but none were ever implicated in anything.
Early Saturday morning.
As Dom, Rynza, Carissa, and Rak met with Rufus Kantry in the heart of the Rough Country; Charles Longstreet, back in a motel room in Metromax City, came to wakefulness in slow waves.
For a time, he did not know who he was or where he was; nor did he care to know. Recollection eventually returned unbidden, but he was still confused. What time was it? How did he end up on the floor? Why did his face hurt?
He looked down the length of his body, and saw the empty hypodermic sticking up out of his side.
Now he remembered.
Just how Rak had broken the chains of Malevolencia, he could not fathom. From his own experience, once it was in you, it rolled over you like a tidal wave. Resistance was unthinkable. Sooner would a flea think to resist the will of the gods.
And yet, somehow, Rak had done it.
Longstreet removed the needle; it slid out quite easy. A thin streamer of black blood followed the tip out like a strand of dark hair.
He got up. There was a moment of dizziness and nausea, but it soon passed. That hung-over feeling, however; did not.
He went to the bathroom and washed his face with cold water. He looked at his reflection in the grubby, but intact, mirror. The kid had worked his face over pretty good.
He went ahead and took his long-awaited shower.
Once out, he packed his things quickly. Mike and Callie were headed toward Cathim, and they had a helluva good head-start.
Luckily, Rak had not taken the car, and by nine-thirty am, Charles Longstreet was ready to go.
The room across his, on the other side of the pool, was already empty. Its temporary occupants had left early.
Had he known of their presence, the enormity of the coincidence might have given him pause. Perhaps a hand greater than Sinestri’s had it’s fingers in this affair, he might have thought; perhaps deeper issues were at stake, than anyone suspected.