Chapters 21 – 23

21 – Perfect Structure

 

Pinada descended to a clear space on the roof, watching the throngs gathered at the hex doors. Some were standing amid the six pillars that marked the boundary, some were pounding at the controls. Pinada spoke into his microphone.

“You aren’t leaving,” he said. “And King isn’t getting any more of your toll money. You might as well use it to go buy a snack.”

As others fought to get down the wide stairwell, Caldera fought the flow. He charged at Pinada, his domed hat bobbing and his fingers alight.

“Pinada!” he cried, the flame in his hands growing. “I’m taking you with me! I’m taking you with me!”

His teeth were clenched and the fire trailed in a long streak behind him. He leapt over Donzel’s body, nearing the case. Pinada dropped the microphone and directed both hands at Caldera. He clenched his fingers together.

Vornis squeezed his eyes shut as a muffled boom pounded the roof. A glass box was covering the spot where Caldera had been: black smoke swirling beneath the surface and hissing through cracks. Pinada gestured and the walls unfolded, releasing a plume of ash that rose into the sky. The glass walls vanished, leaving a charred, smoldering heap.

“Gracious!” Pinada exclaimed. “He was going to blow everyone up. Did you see that, King?” he asked, looking over. “It’s a good thing I’m here; I’m the most helpful person there is. I am the wonderful hero, Pinada.”

He twirled his case around and the hem of his coat spun with him. King looked away from the spectacle, kneeling to where Parlay was crying. His fingers were frantic on a remote control that he held.

“Parlay–you need to listen to me,” he began. “The only way to get the hex doors active again is a total reset of the system. It will rescind the toll; remove all restrictions. I think you’ll survive this. I need you to–hey!” He reached down and touched her by the shoulder. She stared at the floor, the whites of her eyes glossy and pink.

“But I caused this,” she sobbed. “I didn’t–I caused this–”

“You didn’t!” King assured her. “But I need you to listen–there isn’t much time–I need you to be strong.”

“I’m not,” she whined. “I’m really not.”

“You are,” King said. “You’ve been strong to endure so much. But I need you to be strong again. It looks like the Jesians aren’t affected by this; I need you to escape with them. Tell their kind to never come here. I have a lab in Teery Mine–the one from the Hellzoo attack–there’s something there that can help you reach their planet.”

Pinada approached them, and a square of reflected sunlight inched up King’s back. King turned. A streak of light shone across Pinada’s case.

“Yes, go to the Teery Mine,” Pinada said. “It was such a nice, quiet place to run all of my tests. After all–I was the one in charge of sealing it up, remember?”

King picked himself up and spread his hairy arms out. “Run, Parlay–get out of here! Take the others!”

“You don’t want her to hear your secrets, King?” Pinada chuckled. “How your ‘hall’ experiment was what lead the monster here in the first place?” He shifted the cube and the glint of sunlight was thrown to the jewels on the rory’s broken shell. King looked at the scattered fragments and then at the hex doors at the far end of the roof. With a flash the people standing inside the doors vanished.

A regretful smile crossed King’s face as he was torn out of sight; his velvety clothes imploding and his crown dropping in a whirl. Parlay’s face hit the floor and she screamed, drawing her legs and arms in, writhing. A few more soft ripples echoed over the roof and faded.

“I was wondering if you would survive it,” Pinada told Parlay. She convulsed and gasped, tiny veins bulging at her brow. Her sliced hair was slick with sweat, sticking to her head in uneven strands.

“I suppose you thought something like this would never happen to you,” he said, watching her. “Just because you found some trick to control cells doesn’t mean you’re the only one that can handle viruses without risk. Containment is my specialty, after all.” He knelt down with a long grin. “But at least you can feel good about saving yourself. All these dead people would probably be impressed.”

He lingered there as Parlay sniveled and wept on the ground. Her eyes were open and she struggled to breathe in between gasps. Behind Pinada, back by the bleachers, she noticed Mean and the rest watching.

“Tome, let me go out there,” Mean pleaded. “I can’t let him do this to her. I thought I’d be able to watch, but–”

“It’s only for a little more,” Tome stated, standing between her and the scene. “It’s almost four-thirty.”

“But he’ll still be here!” Mean shot back. “He could find her–kill her!”

“And then we’d be dead too!” Tome barked. “Mean, don’t you think I want to be out there!? I tried to kill Pinada before I even had a good reason! I know he can’t be fought now; we need to go back and plan out how to stop him.”

“But what if Vornis is right?” Darrow squeaked. “What if Pinada set this up? And if it wasn’t King’s hex doors that change time; then it would be that virus. It would be in all of us right now.”

Tome grew silent. Dark put his hand on Mean’s shoulder while Trisk kept staring ahead. One of the few people remaining on the rooftop was rushing over to where Pinada and Parlay were.

“Oh, you’re still here,” Pinada groaned. In a flash of yellow, Eon thundered up and tackled the case.

“Parlay, get up and run!” he boomed. His massive arms gripped the corners of the glass cube, and he planted his huge feet on the ground. Parlay fought to rise, staggering away from the two.

“Remember what I said,” Eon shouted back to her. “You’ll need to be that person. The one I saw in the ring. If you want to survive, be that person again!”

Pinada peered around Eon’s head. “If you leave now I’m not coming after you, Parlay!” he laughed. “If you want to die you’ll have to do it yourself!”

She slipped and looked over her shoulder as she ran to the hex door, turning away the moment she saw Mean staring back. With a pop she departed and Pinada cackled louder.

“What a waste of a person,” he said, giving the cube a sharp twist to fling Eon away. “And stop touching my case; you’ll put fingerprints on it.”

Eon thudded to the floor, rolled, and came to rest. He glanced over at the hex door that Parlay had left though. “Sing be with you,” he muttered. Pinada snickered.

“Oh, you’ve got to be joking,” he said. He touched his glasses, peering down at him. “You’re still pulling that act? I was there; I saw him die.”

“He lives on,” Eon said. “We all witnessed his magic.” Pinada toyed with his scarf.

“So let’s say he’s here,” he began. “I knew Sing; he doesn’t care what happens to you. He’d watch you die without lifting a finger.”

Pinada backed off, his glass case sliding to the dead center of the roof. He lifted his arm and a thick, tall glass plate arose: It was one of the walls used to surround the ring during the matches. It lifted to full hight, towering over Eon.

“How about this:” Pinada offered as he spoke into the mic, “Renounce Sing and I’ll let you go. You didn’t arrive here via hex door and you avoid magic; there’s a very good chance that you didn’t catch the virus.” He pushed his palm forward and a crackling noise came from the glass wall’s base. “You’re the only one that never called me a hero. I just want to hear you say it. ‘Please let me go, Pinada the hero.’ Just utter those words and you can leave.”

Eon sniffed, wiping his face with his yellow sleeve. “I won’t. He was right to attack you all those times. Your power is unnatural–you are the most evil thing in this world!”

With a snap the wall broke loose from the floor; with a heavy, slow whoosh it fell forward. Eon crawled a few frantic feet before the plate flattened him: sending out plumes of dust from its edges. The roof resounded with a massive clang; piles of clothes jumped and Caldera’s ashes were tossed about. As the others covered their faces Tome stared though the haze: his eyes fixed on Pinada, who laughed.

“Well?” Pinada asked, lifting his palm. The massive plate uncovered Eon, bringing in a swirl of dust as it rose into the air. Eon’s body was shivering, and he turned his eyes up.

“Sing, I saw you,” he gasped. “Why won’t you come? I saw you.”

Mean looked over at Tome: his teeth were clenched and his eyes wet. Pinada slammed the glass wall down again. Another boom rang out, sending more dust into their faces. The plate lifted, and Eon was panting in short breaths: his yellow clothes stained with dark, slick splotches.

“Sing, help,” he whispered. “Help me.”

Pinada gestured, grinning, and the glass wall rose higher into the sky. The flat surface glimmered in the sunlight as it swiveled in place: stopping as the sharp edge that had cracked off from the ring faced straight down.

“What’s that?” Pinada cried. “You said you want to be chopped in half!?”

“Tome!” Mean said, her words reaching his back; he was already on his way over: his eyes yellow and wild. The glass wall fell. Tome tipped his head at it: it bounced sideways as if struck, flipping end-over-end. It swooshed through the sky and fell below the pyramid’s roof with a glimmer.

“What?” Pinada uttered, following it with his eyes as it dropped out of sight. He looked back to Eon and Tome was there, standing between them. Tome thrust out his arm and Pinada’s case was knocked backwards; Pinada’s face met the glass, bounced off, and he staggered as the case came to rest. A shockwave rippled over the floor from the bottom of the cube, Pinada’s knees gave out and he dropped. The glasses he wore fell from his face and clattered still against the lower plate; his scarf hung past his neck as his arms wobbled, straining to keep his body up.

“My, my,” he gasped as shadows closed in: the three sections of bleachers lifted up and gravitated together. Vornis ducked as the steel flew over him; he held his ears as the metal collided, converging at Pinada’s location. With a shriek the bleachers clashed and compressed, folding upon Pinada’s cube. The metal warped and compacted; it glowed–then blazed. The rooftop flared with brilliant light as Tome swished his hand: the mass rocketed away with a deafening whoosh. The railing at the far edge broke, bursting outward as the fireball was launched from the roof. It streaked above the barren fairgrounds, crashing into a forested hill and igniting the foliage with a flash as it exploded. Trees were torn up from their roots and flung out in a circle; debris spread from the impact in a cloud. Mean, Dark, Vornis, and Darrows shielded their faces as twigs, dirt, and pieces of metal rained back upon the roof. The pyramid trembled, tilting to the side. Loose rubble rolled across the floor as the valley echoed with noise.

“Holy crap,” Mean spat out, touching her chest as the shockwave resonated through.

“Geez, Tome blew him away!” Darrow said, staring off at the hill. A haze-filled crater yawned back at him: ringed by smoldering trees stripped of their leaves.

Tome turned to Eon as the pyramid hummed, tipping level again.

“You’re him,” Eon said, gazing up at his face. “You’re Sing. You came. You heard me. I knew you’d save us.”

Tome let out a weak chuckle. “I don’t know where you got all those strange ideas,” he admitted. “I’ve never saved anyone before.”

Eon grinned back, pushing himself up with one arm, wincing.

“Here: let me help,” Tome said, leaning over and taking Eon’s hand. He clasped it and it was torn away with the rest of his body; Eon vanished and the large, yellow jumpsuit was sucked into the void he left.

Tome swore as the clothing settled out of his reach. He clutched at his hair, shaking his head. Mean walked over to him, taking careful steps around the fallen debris.

“He’s gone. They all are,” Tome said. Dark followed Mean along with Trisk and Darrow. They stood on the roof and the sky grew blacker as the dust from the blast rose to cover the sun. Hollow laugher rang out.

The center of the roof was bulging upward. It split, slid apart, and the top of Pinada’s cube emerged. He was slouched inside it as it lifted him back up, his glasses held in one hand and the microphone in the other. He brushed his bruised cheek with the back of his palm.

“Can’t even save one person, can you?” he chuckled. “Just face it, Sing: Some of us aren’t cut out to be heroes.”

He held the glasses’ lens to his eyes to peer at the group, standing at full height again. “So. Here we are–you’re the only ones left.” He squinted over at Vornis, lowering his glasses and wiping them with his scarf. “I suppose you think I’ve been ignoring you all.”

Vornis growled, pulling his leg free from the floor with a jerk. Pinada set his glasses on his nose and swept his fingers through his disheveled black hair. Tome glared at him, his hands shaking and his lips drawn tight.

“Well, let me take this time to bid you welcome:” Pinada went on, “I am Pinada. This is my world.”

The cube rested on the roof as the floor below him sealed up again.

“Sing. How are you? That isn’t a disguise this time; you found a new body. I didn’t think your possession trick could take hold with the owner’s mind in the way. What did you do, kill somebody?”

“It was given to him!” Darrow defended. Tome hushed him with his palm.

“A soul that isn’t my own will force me out of the body,” Tome said. “But I met someone who gave it freely. Someone a thousand times better than either me or you.”

“Or another delusional mess like Eon,” Pinada hummed. “But these others with you really are from the other planet, aren’t they? How many years did it take? For you to find a body, friends”–he paused, placing two fingers on the glass and walking them up the side–”for me to find you again and send you back here.”

Tome hissed through his teeth. “That’s what you wanted. You wanted me to see you do it. You–”

“I imagine I did,” Pinada said. “I never doubted that I’d finish the time pattern, but I’ll need live subjects before I try it myself. I was going to hunt down that brat Parlay, but it seems you all will be so eager to volunteer in her place.”

Vornis stomped his clawed foot. “Can’t believe it. Can’t believe I fell for it.”

“You all must be incredibly stupid,” Pinada laughed. “What did I tell you? ‘Go save the world?’ Because it looked like you’ve just been playing games this whole time.”

He cackled and spun around in his case. Darrow looked at his watch and whispered to Mean, Dark, and Trisk.

“It’s almost time. We just need to keep him busy until we go back.”

“Yeah,” Mean said. “Then we stop this sicko.”

Pinada stopped twirling. “And you all whisper so loud!” he exclaimed. “I’m in a glass case and I can hear you! Are you really going back? Did I really construct a pattern that complex? Ooh-this is exciting. I can’t wait to see if it works.”

“Darrow, listen,” Trisk said. “Just get back. Stop him.” She put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed it. “I won’t be coming with you guys, so you’ll need to do it without me.”

“What?” Darrow gasped, keeping his eyes on Pinada. Mean rushed over.

“Trisk, don’t,” she said, standing in front of her. Trisk smiled.

“I don’t think I have a choice in this,” she said in a soft voice. “I checked the hex door pictures in the cave–you were on the phone and Darrow was talking to Dark–you only checked one but I checked the rest. I wasn’t there.”

“Pictures?” Pinada repeated, looking past Tome at the others.

“It doesn’t mean anything!” Darrow argued, taking her hand. “You’re not going to die.”

Trisk shook her head. “I think it’s already happened,” she said. “When Parlay healed me. She told me she changed my body back to how it was over a month ago.”

“Oh deary dear dear,” Pinada drawled. “That might have reverted you to pre-infection. Naughty Parlay, always messing with people.”

Trisk sniffled, smiling. “And if that’s the case, then I would be wide open. I could have caught one of the viruses after that.”

“Trisk, shut up!” Darrow pleaded, “The virus already passed; you’re fine!”

“Actually, no,” Pinada said, sliding to the side with his hand on his waist. “Only four waves have occurred. And I said there were five. Now, she could have caught your version of the virus again, but gosh–hasn’t she been around Tenny this whole time?”

“I’m sorry,” Trisk said, still smiling at Darrow. “I wanted to make it easy for you all. I tried to stay away as much as I could.” She sniffed and looked up for a second. “It’s why I sort of had a fling with him. I mean, I wouldn’t be hurting him since we’d die–you know–at about the same time.”

“You selfish idiot,” Mean spat, shaking her head. “You selfish, selfish–”

“I really am,” Trisk agreed, her eyes tearing up. “But I wanted it. Even for a short time.”

Darrow held her hand tight and Dark stood still, watching them. Pinada pretended to cry.

“Shut up!” Mean barked, “It’s because of you–you’re the one killing everyone!”

Pinada gazed over the top of Mean’s head, to Trisk. “I think you’re to blame. If you had worked to overcome that fainting weakness you could be smashing my face in right now. But since you obviously thought it was more important to go on dates, we’re left with this: a weak lump. Another waste of a person.”

“She’s the strongest person I know,” Mean argued. “She’s the most reliable individual, along with Dark–”

“Individual!?” Pinada broke in. “Individual doesn’t cut it. I realized that in order to get what I wanted I had to be more.” He pointed one finger at Trisk and the other at Mean. “I had to be unique.”

Trisk placed her hands on Mean’s shoulders and moved her out of the way. She marched forward, up to the glass. Pinada’s case backed away, keeping pace with her.

“I saw you fight,” Pinada told her, his voice hollow through the case. “There are several things you can try: You could teleport in, but you’d have to finish me off fast. You could shift to static–try to survive the virus when it hits–but you’d have to time it within a few seconds.” Trisk kept advancing, driving him back. “So what will it be? Which of your spectacular, one-shot failures do I get to experience?”

Trisk halted and Pinada slid a few more inches before stopping. “None of them,” Trisk said. “My friends are going to stop you–I’m not doing anything.”

Pinada kept his hand poised near the glass. “You’re not going to try anything,” he stated. “Why wouldn’t you?”

Trisk held her head up, and her dark eyes stared forward. “I don’t think I know why,” she said.

Pinada rose his eyebrow over the rim of his glasses. “What?”

Her body vanished with a loud snap, sending the clothes that she wore spiraling down.

“Trisk,” Darrow whispered. “Trisk, you’re gone.” He held his hand to his mouth, crying as he watched her sweater land.

“We’ll all–we’ll bring you back, Trisk,” Mean said. “We’ll stop this–we have to–”

Pinada dropped his hand. He blinked, chuckled, and gliding forward. His bottom plate flattened Trisk’s clothes as he moved over them. “You aren’t stopping me. I know where you’re going. I’ll know when you’ll come back. You’re all mine–I know where everything is. Now that I don’t have people around me–patterns that are always present; always pressing in. Patterns that I can’t change: that strangle me and suffocate. This world is my structure now. Now you’re the one in the box.”

Mean stepped back, next to Dark. Vornis looked over at Tome, who met him with a grim stare. Darrow kept sobbing. With a rippling noise, the five vanished: all but Dark leaving their trappings behind. Pinada smiled. He checked behind him, then forward. With a precise movement from his fingertips, the sides of his glass case parted and swung out to the floor. A thin vapor fell from his coat and he stretched his arms out. He relaxed with a deep breath.

The debris, dirt, and piles of clothing sat silent on the roof. Smoke still rose from the far-off hill, and the surrounding forests stood with their trees wavering in the breeze. The fairground below was empty, and the shadow of the Imperial Pyramid was cast over it. Pinada hummed out a happy sigh.

“Now, what was that about pictures?” he wondered. With an absent gesture he caused a sharp piece of rory shell to hover over to where Dark had been standing. “Did they check the hex door travel logs to see if they’d made the trip?” He scratched an “X” on the roof, then moved the shard over to where Mean had been. “I suppose I could tell them that King made ‘time’ hex doors.” He snorted, carving another mark. “His junk is down in the mine, after all–shouldn’t be too hard to whip something up.”

He kept humming and muttering to himself, carving marks on the spots where Mean’s group had been standing. When he was done he discarded the fragment and it clanged to the ground with the rest. He put his hands in his coat pockets, walked to the stairwell, and headed down. A gentle breeze nipped at the items that remained on the roof, where they would all lay for the next five years.

 

22 – Two Worlds to Save

 

Mean watched as Pinada vanished, the debris around her shifted and the floor grew a shade dimmer. A helicopter was now sitting on the far edge of the roof where the railing was split. Thin clouds overshadowed the scarred hill that Tome had struck. Its crater had been overgrown with thatches of fresh green. Mean flinched: Glass walls had been placed around her in a cube.

She gasped and staggered back, bumping into the pane behind her. Checking to the left she spied Dark inside another glass case. Darrow was standing in one as well, with Tome and Vornis trapped in separate cases further back. Vornis mouthed unheard curses while Tome spun, searching the grounds with his yellow eyes.

Mean looked down at her clothes: the yellow sundress she had worn a week ago hung from her shoulders. She brushed her fingers over the material.

A face appeared at her side and she jumped again. It was an image, glowing on the inside of the glass wall: Parlay’s face, along with Eon, Tenny, and others. Their portraits popped up on all sides of her–King, Kello, people that Mean had seen in the crowds–they covered the walls, the ceiling, the floor. She shook her head, sniffing, gritting her teeth.

Words appeared on the walls next: “COME GET YOUR PRIZE, WINNER,” it read.

There came a loud pop and the six glass panes vanished. Mean saw Dark beside her: they were standing in the chilly, wooden Brinkland gazebo.

“Dark, there were pictures–”

“I know,” Dark said. Fir trees swayed behind him, past the gazebo’s struts. A path lead out toward several buildings. The grass had encroached on the path and road, jutting out over edges and poking up through cracks. Among the tall weeds and brush long, smooth objects were laid out. They were polished, wooden. Black.

“Coffins,” Mean said.

The side of the nearest building had bright letters spelled out with paint: “NOW YOU’RE THE ONE IN THE BOX.”

Tome was racing out of the far right gazebo along with Vornis. The fir trees cast long shadows over a sign he passed. It read: “SAY CRICKETS!” in a sharp, scrawled font.

“Guys, we need to get back to the cave!” Mean called out, emerging with Dark from the gazebo at the end.

“Why!?” Vornis boomed. He tore the sign out of the ground, tossing it far into the brush. “He knows we’re here! He planned it all out! Geez–he played us like wide-eyed suckers!”

“We need to try, though,” Mean said. “I stood aside while it happened so that we’d have this chance. I’m going back, whether you’re with me or not.”

“Yeah, standing aside,” the beast grumbled. “I saw you all doing that. While he killed Donzel, Tenny–”

“Alright, enough,” Tome said. “We all know what happened and we all feel guilty.”

Vornis bit his lip, his clawed finger hanging in the air.

Mean sniffed. “Trisk wouldn’t want me to dwell on it. You can if you want to.”

“Fine,” Vornis muttered. “But what’s the plan gonna be? He won’t just let us back into his cave and mess with his stuff. Can you hold him down? Do you know any way to bust that glass open?”

Tome shook his head. “Pinada is completely sealed off; he uses his magic to keep it impenetrable. I can’t even see thoughts in there. If he wants to do something outside his case he uses hand motions to signal the four devices on the top corners of the box.” He nodded at Mean. “You might be able to help me hold him. If we can keep him still then Vornis can get close enough to destroy those transmitters. If we can get him immobile–keep him stalled–one of us might be able to go get his time machinery figured out.”

Vornis slammed a fist to his palm. “Yeah, got it. Let’s go.”

The group moved through a sidewalk into the middle gazebo, where Darrow was standing, his eyes still moist.

“We’re going to get her back, Darrow,” Mean said. She wiped at her eyes and stood next to him. “You don’t have to go with us, though. It’s going to be more dangerous this time.”

Darrow shook his head, wiping his palm across his flowery shirt. “You guys need me to figure out his time stuff. And besides, I’m not staying here with these coffins.” Tome, Dark and Vornis entered the hex door. Darrow gasped at Dark as they all crowded in.

“Don’t say anything,” Dark told him, turning to the side. “He could be listening.”

“Alright, take us to Droldragia,” Tome announced. The forest of pine trees disappeared, and a bright field of yellow grass took its place. A paved road stretched across it. Muddy tire tracks lead down the asphalt toward a far-off site: cranes and construction vehicles labored around the skeletal steel frames of half-finished buildings. The group took cautious steps out to the road. Vornis glanced in the left, where the street terminated into the field.

“Okay,” Vornis said, taking a heavy breath. “I can carry Darrow and Tome–Mean, can you take Dark?”

“Don’t bother,” Tome uttered. “He’s here.”

Tome was staring across the road, where the yellow plain wavered in the sun. Pinada’s glass cube was soaring across the tops of the thick grasses, headed for the group.

“Mean, you’re the fastest–get to the cave,” Tome said. “Vornis, attack him like we planned–the rest of you run for it as soon as I say.”

“Got it,” Mean answered back. “Dark: I’ll take you with me. If you can grab Darrow I’ll pull him along too.”

“Oh man,” Darrow repeated to himself, stepping closer to Dark as he watched Pinada approach. “Oh man, oh man–”

The cube jerked to an abrupt stop as it reached the road, and Pinada braced himself against the front plate with his arm.

“How’d it go guys?” Pinada announced. The cube lowered to the road with a clack. At the top of each corner four new spires were affixed: with objects and clothing impaled upon them.

“You monster–” Tome uttered, seeing King’s crown jammed through one of the spines. Above it, Kello’s umbrella hung in tatters along with a bit of Trisk’s sweater.

“Hm? Did you guys sort it out?” Pinada pressed. He rubbed his hands together. “Did you save the world? I left you a really good clue.”

“Mean, go–!” Tome shouted, and she knelt to spring: spinning toward the direction of the cave.

“Where are you going, Mean?” Pinada asked, pointing upward. “Don’t you want to see your dad?”

“What!?” Mean squealed, stumbling, catching herself. She brushed her hair back and turned: Pinada was pointing at a tatty headband hanging from his spire. A shoe dangled next to it.

“I was just speaking with Hatchel, you know,” Pinada said. “He seems worried. Hasn’t seen you in a week.”

“What did you do to him!?” Mean shouted. Pinada’s case trembled and he braced himself.

“Nothing–yet,” Pinada replied, calming the tremors with a gesture. “It’s just that I’ve been waiting here for so long. And since you all love games so much I thought we’d play another.”

He tipped his head off toward the site far down the road, where the vehicles were kicking up clouds of dust.

“I was here when that city fell,” he began. “And there was a person falling with it. He was going to get killed! Can you believe that? I  can’t let that happen. I am the hero, Pinada.”

“A person?” Darrow gasped, looking at Dark. “Who was left up there? Dhaston?”

“Mackaba,” Mean said.

Pinada snapped his fingers. “Yes–that’s who it was! Officer Mackaba with the something something. He wanted revenge for some silly thing so I spent these boring weeks teaching him to–ooh–get back at people. Untrustworthy authority figures! Imagine that.

“Right now he has your leaders held hostage up on that cliff. He’s going to force them to bomb the buildings from the cliff. It’s not a whole world, but it’ll make sure Hatchel and Trisk’s family are killed, at least. Yes, I followed you around after I left that diner.”

“So you want us to choose,” Tome stated. Pinada slid over to him.

“Yes,” he said. “If you choose to stop Mackaba I’ll immediately head back to the cave. I infected myself with the completed time virus as soon as I saw it had worked, and I’ll spend my last hour here dismantling everything. However, if you choose to go to the cave, I’ll spend that time helping Mackaba demolish your ‘Jesice’ country instead.” He flipped his palms up, shifting them as if on a scale. “I’m just so curious: You were happy to live on this world when it was empty; you were happy to leave your home country behind. You don’t seem to value them any more than I do, so I was wondering which you’d pick.”

“Mean,” Dark said. “We need to get to Ley Ledge. It’s the only way we can win this.”

“He didn’t even give us a way to win,” Vornis growled. “This is just another scam.”

“I think you might be right, Vornis,” Tome said. “I’m not playing your games, Pinada.”

Dark inched back toward the gazebo. “Tome, I have a plan, but I can’t say anything with him listening.” Pinada rolled his eyes. “I need you to trust me,” he went on. “I think I know the way through this.”

“You’re sure about that?” Pinada hummed. “Trusting people blindly can get you killed. I think I heard that somewhere.”

Mean grabbed onto Dark’s arm. “Pinada, you never asked for people to trust you,” she shot back. With a scuffle of gravel at her feet, she and Dark dashed to the gazebo.

“I see you’ve made your choice, then,” Pinada called after them, swiveling in the other direction. In a blur Vornis leapt and crashed down onto the top plate: punching one of the spires as he landed. It popped off the case and hit the street, sending a whirl of accessories scattering over the pavement.

“Oh, that’s disgusting; get your feet off me,” Pinada said, jerking his cube back and sending Vornis thumping to the road.

As Mean and Dark stepped into the hex door, Dark told her “We need something from your room at the hotel first.” They vanished with a pop.

“Back, Vornis!” Tome shouted; the beast obeyed. Pinada staggered. The grasses by the road swayed toward the cube and calm was broken by a gravelly crackle. Pinada stood up straight again, his fingers at the side of his case.

“You know you can’t hold me here,” Pinada said, pushing his glasses up with his other hand. “You just wasted your power blowing up that mountain, remember? You’re weak; I’m rested.” The glass in his casing vibrated against the concrete. “Or maybe you do know: I haven’t left you any way out of this.”

 

—–

 

The still of the hotel hall was broken by frantic footsteps. Mean dashed to her room at the end, with Dark following.

“I need your bracelet,” Dark told her. “The one that tracks magic.”

Mean sprinted past the rows of open doors on both sides of the hall. “Yeah, okay,” she said. “It’s been here a week so it should be charged up.” She reached the single door that was closed, stopping to twist the handle. “Why do you need it?”

The two stepped inside. “I need to find something: If Pinada is really sealed off in there he’ll need air to breathe. My suit just takes oxygen from outside and teleports it in. But I don’t think Pinada does that. He’d have to find another source–otherwise he would have been infected by his own virus.”

Mean took long strides into a bedroom. Dark remained in the kitchen, where some plates were sitting with mold-spotted bread. Mean came out again, holding a lens with leather straps fixed to opposite sides. “But it was all over the world,” Mean said, handing the bracelet over. “Dark, you don’t think he’s taking air from Jesice, do you?”

Dark slapped the lens on his wrist. “Ah, could you help me tie it? These gloves–”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mean said. She took the leather in her tiny fingers, looping them around the black material of his armor.

“Thanks,” Dark told her. “And yes, I do think he’s getting it from the cliff somewhere. He could have set it up after we first saw him at the diner. And earlier, during the tournament, Tenny broke into his case. Pinada was coughing. I don’t think he likes the air from this world. But when he was on Jesice– when he opened up his case and shook hands with Tome–he seemed fine.”

Mean tightened the knot with a tug. “But would it still be working?” she wondered. “And wouldn’t that be a hassle to set up? He’d have to send his air-transporting machine back at least five years!”

“You are making this plan seem a bit unlikely, yes,” Dark admitted. “But let’s just say I have more than one. I’d love to explain but–”

“Yeah, let’s just go.”

Again they rushed down the hall, out of the room and back to the hex door.

“We’ll go to Dad’s first, then I can fly you up with me to Ley Ledge. If there’s anything magical that bracelet will find it.”

“I know he’s okay,” Dark said. “And I know you’ll get Mackaba.”

Mean laughed. “Ha! I suppose you would, wouldn’t you?”

They entered the pillars and vanished.

 

—–

 

Mean flew alone above the Ley Ledge plateau. She held her arms tight to her body, shivering; fierce winds whipped over the cliff’s top from the west and down the east side. The currents met rows of turbines that were attached to the sheer rock face, spinning them as they whistled through. Far below ships traversed an ocean. Mean banked away, toward the west edge where large, vertical buildings were affixed to the cliff side with struts. On the ground another city lay beneath a soft blanket of blue haze. She reached the citadel that was above it all, perched on the brink.

The fortress was flying the flags of Jesice: a zig-zagging line bisected by many straight ones from below. The banners were all whipping full in the wind. As Mean drew closer she noticed a faint blur surrounding the building. She touched down, feet-first. Before her was a grid that wrapped around the structure, its lines intersecting to form countless diamonds.

Mean stuck her hand through it, meeting no resistance. She stepped through.

A guard in a muddy-brown uniform was stationed at the side entrance. She was enveloped in a thick gel, her arm frozen where it had reached for the door handle. She strained to twist her head.

“Go. You’ll be stuck,” she told Mean.

“Just hold on; I’ll get him,” the petite girl replied. She tugged the door open and entered; more bodies were suspended in place: some were positioned toward the door in mid-stride, fleeing, while others in uniforms had weapons drawn. These guards were all facing the front of the massive room, where a wall-sized window displayed sky and city. The grid outside marred the view. Mackaba was standing at a pulpit set off in the corner, dressed in a black robe with a yellow sash crossing his chest. His eyes flew wide when he noticed Mean enter.

“You! You again!” he announced, jabbing a wooden gavel in her direction. He nodded over at Lord Ley Lickwolf. “See–she’s the one. She’s the one that ruined your city while you all turned a blind eye.”

Lickwolf was seated and encased in the gel. His bowl haircut bobbed about his scalp. “Lady, I don’t know who you are, but you’d better get out. Unless you want to take part in the most boring filibuster ever.”

Mean walked to the aisle that lead through the fifty-five tiered desks. Nearly every Lord Ley seated at them was frozen: Vail in his white lab coat, Prayler in his pin-striped suit. Hinge was unaffected; he sat in his seat with his hands clasped upon his wide belly. He turned to Mean with his sharp nose and expectant eyes.

“She’s the one always breaking everything,” Mackaba told his audience. “And if you’re going to let her do it–why not let me, right? We’re going to break the support struts, Sandy-Brown. We’re going to drop their city, just like they dropped mine.”

“Don’t call me that,” Mean shot back, feeling a resistance against her body as she walked.

“You cheeky trollop,” Mackaba accused. “Don’t you remember what these people have done? They left us on the other world! They forgot about us! They didn’t even remember. You–!” He left the gavel at the podium and stepped off the stage. He pointed at Lord Ley Tecker. “You didn’t even remember my name.”

Tecker’s grey suit jacket was hung on the back of his chair; his empty holster was strapped over a sweat-stained white shirt. He was twisted around in the gel, watching Mean.

“You’re the woman from the party!” he called out to her. “What are you doing? You need to get out of here!”

Mackaba banged on the nearest desk. “I knew it!” he exclaimed. “You admit it! You were the one with her! In the armor!”

Mean walked through the aisle, stepping to the side of Tecker’s desk. She looked him in the eye, then flinched away. “Tecker, just–just stay there. Mackaba, you need to let these people go. There are things going on that you don’t understand.”

Mackaba chuckled, folding his arms across his yellow sash. “Sorry, that won’t work,” he said. “I’m the one that has help this time.” He narrowed his eyes. “I’ve met someone from the other world: An alien. The last of his kind.”

“The last–” Mean sputtered, laughing. “Mackaba, you are so stupid; he’s using you! And I was trying to tell you about an ‘alien’ back when you were pouting in Hardpan; I’m an alien, for crying out loud!”

As she spat out the last word bits of gel appeared in the air; they coalesced into a blob around her. “Get your crap off me!” she wailed. She writhed and the liquid clung to her dress, growing thicker and darkening.

“I was taught to focus my magic,” Mackaba said. “Spreading the water out in large volumes is a waste. Now it’s thin as air, normally. It’s only when it senses a certain mind pattern that it reacts: turning the space around that person into a concentrated sludge.” He smiled as Mean fought her way forward. She swung her arms in slow arcs, inching toward him.

“Do you want to know what the pattern is that it looks for?” he asked, backing away. “Do you want to know what emotion I picked?”

Mean bared her teeth, kicking her feet against the slime.

“It’s anger,” Mackaba said. He retreated to the large window, and Mean remained encased in the blob. Mackaba snatched the gavel from the judge’s pulpit, directing it at the Lords Ley. “Anger is the only thing I can count on from you people. It’s the only thing others have ever shown me.”

“Mackaba, just let us out!” Mean protested as her brown hair swished about her face. “You don’t know what’s been going on; there are people in trouble; I don’t have time for this!”

“Oh, of course you don’t,” Mackaba whined, tipping back his head. “You just barge in, do your damage and leave. You don’t even stop to think what I’ve had to go through. No one does. All my life I’ve been at the mercy of uncaring brutes like you.”

Mean ceased with her struggle, dragging her arms to her sides, staring him down. Mackaba sneered, pacing forward. He lifted a foot onto one of the desks and leaned on it.

“Show me,” he said. “Show each other. We’re just all angry, seething animals, aren’t we?”

“We aren’t,” Mean replied. “Not even you can be angry all the time.”

“Of course I am,” Mackaba growled. “It’s what drove me to do this. Otherwise I’d still be sitting in that ruin you made.”

“You couldn’t have always been,” Mean went on. “When you”–she paused, swallowing–”when you poisoned me at the hotel. You said you were going to kill me. I thought I would die.” Mackaba shifted back, letting his leg drop from the desk. He glanced at one of the frozen guards near the back.

“But you left me alive. And you didn’t try to find me again; you knew it was wrong.” She pressed her face forward and her hair swirled back. “I’m sorry things turned out this way. When this is over–when there’s time–I want to explain things to you. And maybe you can even tell me your side of the story.”

The gel encasing her faded into the air, leaving a slick sheen on her skin. Mackaba staggered back.

“I’m not angry,” Mean said, settling to the floor.

“You’re–you’re not?” Mackaba gasped.

“No,” Mean replied. She stared ahead with half-open eyes, setting her lips straight. “It’s like Trisk. I need to be like Trisk.” She dipped, sprung, and flew forward.

“Who is Trisk!?” Mackaba gasped as Mean tackled him. They both slammed to the floor: shaking the base of the judge’s pulpit. With two tiny fists Mean grabbed the sash that Mackaba wore; she planted a foot on his chest. With her eyes blank she tugged the sash up. A quick tear ended it: the fabric ripped from his shoulder. Volumes of odd water splashed free from the people encased. She hovered, landed, and threw the sash down to the floor. On the upturned side the word ‘HILO’ could be seen. Glittering, reddish fibers spilled out from the two frayed edges.

A uniformed guard from the side of the room bolted to the stage and trained his pistol on Mackaba. Others thundered forward, some calling in support with radios and others attending to the Lords Ley that had been affected by the gel.

“Okay, I give up,” Mackaba told them. He rolled onto his stomach, spreading his arms from his body.

Mean let out a sharp sigh, wobbled, and she fell into an empty seat.

“Good show!” Lord Ley Hinge said, standing and waddling through the pools of water on the carpet. Lord Ley Tecker went to Mean.

“How did you do that?” he asked, sweeping his wet, shoulder-length hair back. “How did you break his spell?”

Mean hesitated, then spoke. “A friend taught me how; it’s like going to different floors of a tower.”

“But it looked like you flew!” Tecker said. “Was that sash magic!? There’s so much about that world we don’t understand. It must be amazing.”

Mean let out a chuckle. “It is. It can be.” She stood up, flatted out her sundress, and stretched. “Yeah, it can be. Sorry, I need to go now. There really is a bigger problem than this.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Tecker asked. He followed her to the door as she walked back through the aisle. “That person was going to make us drop the city; they probably want to thank you.” He turned an eye back, spying one of the officers heading toward them. “Or ask how you just suddenly appeared at the seat of Jesian government during a crisis. They might possibly want to know that.”

“Possibly,” Mean laughed. “Can you keep them busy while I leave? We might need some help near the Hardpan site too. An ambulance or something.”

“Right,” Tecker affirmed. “I wish I knew what was going on, but–”

“Miss, we need to ask you some questions,” the officer hurrying behind them announced. Mean and Tecker reached the exit, where the previously-frozen guard nodded. Odd water soaked the floor and Tecker took a crooked step, slipped to the side, crashed into the wall, and dropped into the wet carpet.

“Lord Ley!” the officers both said at once, hurrying over and helping him up.

“Sorry, I fall down a lot,” Tecker told them. The officer that had been pursuing them gave a hurried salute and turned back to the exit. He stepped past the open door, seeing nothing but a wind-swept plateau.

“Where is she?” he asked.

 

23 – Burial

 

A noise stirred the garden for the first time in a month: Parlay’s slim form entered from the six-tree hex door. Her hair was greasy, short, and uneven; her shirt and vest were wrinkled and tinged with stains. She had returned home.

“She’s not here either,” she said, looking past the lush plants bordering the path. “Nobody is. There’s nobody left.”

Her shoe crunched on an empty rory shell. She dropped her gaze down, lifting her foot. With raw, pink eyes she saw the tiny husks speckling the stone path.

“And I can’t get away from it, can I?” she asked. “There’ll always be something.” She stomped her foot and smashed another shell into dust. “Something to remind me of all the people I failed.”

She marched ahead, running her hand across the grasses, flowers, and reeds at her side. As she brushed against them they twisted and the color faded; the moisture bled out, shimmering in the sun. For every plant that she touched the similar kinds were affected, every species that decorated every spot in the yard. The garden rustled and cracked as she walked: branches falling and buds bursting apart from their stems. As she reached the front stairs the path behind her was withered and rotten.

“This is my great prize–for being so nice,” she uttered, pushing the door open. A small package sat on the foyer table. She picked it up with a swipe. The label read “To: Mean.”

“Friends I can’t ever see again,” she cried, flinging the box across the room. “People that only understood me for one, stupid day!”

Tears trickled from her eyes and she rubbed at them with her palm. She laughed through a sob, snapping up an amulet from the table. Squeezing it tight, vein oozed out between her fingers.

“Are you watching?” she shouted into the vast room. She drew out the red matter into a crude, jagged blade. “This is funny to you, right!?”

She swung the vein and hacked into the table, leaving deep dents in the wood. Pieces shattered off as she flailed at the couch, tearing the upholstery and spilling it out. As she lashed out with the vein it fragmented upon the floor, until nothing but a cracked stump was left. She hissed through her teeth at the rest of the room as the red pieces writhed upon the tile, sinking into the cracks. With the vein in her hands, a slow groan worked its way up through the mansion’s high walls, and the chandelier above Parlay shook.

“I just want it to end,” she said as the walls broke open: flashes of red zig-zagging from ceiling to floor. Sharp spines pressed up through the tiles, growing up in straight needles through the couch and the furniture; piercing them, widening, and ripping them apart. The pots surrounding the pit with the lily all jumped as the vein shot in from below; they shook and shattered, spilling the dirt in every direction along with the leafy plants they held. The chandelier’s chain snapped and the golden frame fell with a clang to the floor, where it was wrenched apart by the vein daggers waiting there. The room filled with the whirring of the bladed vein teeth; every object was shredded and Parlay strode through the dust.

“I don’t want want to be me anymore,” she said, walking into the pit where the lily was. She fell upon the brown leaves and clutched at her hair, drawing her legs in and wailing.

“I don’t want to remember–” she cried out as her skin split and shifted. “I don’t want to think; I don’t want to remember.”

The dust covered her and the vein withdrew. Her sobs gave way to deep laughter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *