Year of the Spectre - Episode II:
"Summer Twilight"
Page 3

        A tunnel of light stretches out before me, luminous strands of energy blurred and distorted by the speed of my movement. It draws me in, pulling me through its fathomable depths with unseen power, a loving childhood embrace taking me through the very heart of the universe and beyond.

        I feel warm. Every instance of human contact, human touch suddenly recurs to me, sending my every sense reeling with sensation. There aren't very many, I realize, far too late to do anything about it.

        Loneliness spreads its wings and takes flight.

        Cascading images clash violently amidst the spiraling turmoil of the tunnel, whisking me through oblivion, its speed exciting and thrilling me. Worlds come and go, disoriented, lost in the wake. We change course abruptly, and for an instance I can see phantoms chasing after me, haunting spectres of the past chasing my afterimage through the light. Their forms coalesce and divide in the same moment, and just as I begin to see why they are there, the light thickens around me, seeping through every pore, every crevasse in my soul. As suddenly as my journey begins, it ends.

        Once more I am surrounded by light.

        
Nabob's eyes opened slowly, gradually and defiantly.

        His mind still spun, a dozen images conflicting and battling at the forefront of his mind but fading even as he tried to remember them with clarity. A journey. From where? To where? Had he arrived yet? Why had his small little world suddenly stopped spinning?

        A rough hand tried to pull at him up to his feet. Voices, indistinct and distant, seemed to speak, rising to a crescendo of garbled nonsense. Nabob shook his head, once, twice. The words clarified themselves.

        "Leave him be, Torvan!" a female was saying. "This was his first time through."

        "I have seen children with more fortitude…"

        The Chimneysweep blinked, sleep clearing from his eyes. Light poured out from everywhere to greet him, but not the light that he had seen before. This was a gleaming blue light, shining, almost pulsating from somewhere nearby. He could make out the still-blurry forms of what he assumed to be people as well. A friendly voice was beside him.

        "Nabob? Nabob, can you stand?"

        He could, although he didn't consciously remember doing so.

        "You're Home, Nabob."

        Home.

        Could I really be home? It's been so many years, so many years since I last saw her. I left her standing there, angry and trembling, storming away and vowing never to come back. Tears…I remember tears. Were they hers or were they mine? Perhaps both. But that is what home is made of. Tears. Shattered hearts and broken dreams, always remade but never fixed. Loss. Tears.

        "He won't be coming back."

        "I…feel weird…" he managed to stammer.

        
"I thought this might have been a bad idea," another voice, full of contempt and unconcern. It was familiar too, and the name Jabez sprung to mind. "He isn't magically anchored to the world like we are. Sending him through the divide was like sending a rowboat down a whirlpool without a rope. His mind might not have come through properly."

        "Will he be all right?"

        "I think he'll live."

        "Think is not good enough. Not this time. Let's get him inside."

        "Wait!" Nabob had to focus very thoughts and force his lips to move the way he wanted them to…very, very slowly. Vertigo lapped upon the shores of his conscious mind like a corrosive tide, and for an instant he almost lost the distinction between the two of them.

        Then the rest of his mind caught up with him.

        It hit him with a psychic backlash not altogether unlike the sensation of snapping an elastic band. The exertion knocked Nabob back down to his knees before anybody could catch him, and he knelt there for a moment, breath coming in short, sporadic gasps. He forced himself to relax, though, and forced himself to open his eyes again.

        The world was considerably clearer. Surrounding him he could now make out the distinct features of Kali and Jabez huddled close, with Torvan standing not far off, arms folded with contempt. He could see several other faces too, these ones unfamiliar. Everything and everyone was awash in a pale blue light that seemed to be periodically pulsating in its intensity. He glanced around as far as his neck muscles would allow before rebelling in bouts of pain. There were numerous buildings, all built out of the same charcoal-silver material, arrayed in a crescent half-moon bordering a deep pit, probably half a mile wide at the center. It was from this pit that the throbbing blue glow was emanating from, bathing the entire little town in the incandescent radiance. The word quaint lodged itself firmly in the forefront of his mind. The entire area, as far around as he could see in any direction, was surrounded by what seemed to be giant walls of solid mist, stretching up to form a sort of dome over the town site and the glowing lake.

        Kali breathed a sigh of relief in the Chimneysweep's face. "Thank the Divinity. I thought we were about to lose you."

        "I'm – not that easy to get rid of…" Nabob said, eyes savagely boring a hole into Jabez.

        The Rogue mage, for his part, immediately backed up. He was rather frail and could not have hoped to stand up to Nabob if the Chimneysweep had decided to pounce. "Hold your temper, Guild-Slayer. I didn't know that was going to happen…"

        "You said you thought it might."

        "It…crossed my mind, perhaps…but if you think I knew then you really are out of your mind. We've never brought an outsider through before. Lucky enough you got here in one piece."

        The urge to leap the gap between them and forcefully send the Rogue's head and torso in opposite directions was suddenly blunted as he noticed a murmur that rippled through the growing crowd around them. It was just a single phrase being repeated and passed on from lip to lip.

        'Guild-Slayer.'

        "I'll kill you later," he managed, "when a lynch-mob isn't around."

        "They are not a lynch-mob," Kali said emphatically. "They have just never seen a…"

        "Guild-Slayer?"

        She nodded somberly.

        "Perhaps you should also be aware," Jabez said, "that in this particular culture the term Guild-Slayer is something of a – how do I put this? – strong use of language."

        "Jabez!" Kali growled, half-warning and half-threat. The male Rogue nodded slightly in an apologetic fashion and stepped away from where Nabob continued to kneel. "Forgive him," she whispered, leaning close. "He does not trust my judgment the way he should."

        "Why should he? Because you're the leader here?" Nabob's voice sizzled with a rising trepidation.

        She hesitated. "For several reasons, but yes. Are you going to be all right, or should I call for a healer?"

        "I'm fine, but…"

        "Kali?"

        She rose and turned uneasily, coming face to face with yet another Rogue. He looked to be in his mid-fifties, with a thin, knife-like body that carried a perpetual unsaid threat. His complexion, as with Kali and Jabez, betrayed a hint of oriental ancestry.

        Kali bowed slightly in stiff formal respect as he approached. "Maliki."

        He returned the gesture. "Kali. Your safe return…pleases us, but…" His shifty eyes turned towards Nabob and fixed there. "This is a very serious matter."

        "I know."

        "I do not believe that you do. If you truly did, you would have sent advance warning, or not have attempted such a…stunt at all." The man – Maliki, his name seemed to be – drew closer. "Justinian has warned you about recklessness, child."

        Kali, however, met his glare in ferocity. "I would not expect you to understand or sympathize. What I've done was for the good of all of us, and…and…" her voice trailed off, "…no…"

The ground beneath their feet began to shake.

        "This is new," Nabob heard Jabez comment nonchalantly.

        What began as a dull tremor quickly erupted into a forceful – and particularly violent – jostling motion beneath them. The Chimneysweep looked around frantically, but his body was still getting over the shock of having been separated from his higher mental functions, and for that if no other reason he was unable to force himself to dive for cover. There wasn't much cover to be found, anyway. The ground splintered, rose slightly as though under tremendous seismic pressure, then splintered again.

        Screams ricocheted through the grinding moan of twisting rock formations. One of them, Nabob realized, was his own. But even that was drowned out an instant later by a horrible screeching sound that seemed to come from both nowhere and everywhere at once. The whine was almost electric in its nature, ripping through the audible wavelengths like a Canuckalisk on crystal meth. Nabob tried thrusting his hands to his ears, burying his forehead against the glossy sand in which he knelt, but to little avail. The sound kept coming and coming…

        He looked up again, movement snaring the corner of his eye. The mist wall…something was happening to it. Streams of blue electricity ran up and down its length nearest to where the Chimneysweep and his companions had materialized. For a horrible instant it almost looked as though the entire wall was going to buckle and come cascading down upon them.

        And then it stopped, as suddenly as it had begun.

        Slowly, warily, the people gathered around the teleportation site looked and finally stood up. The ground was still splintered badly, and several glaring crevasses had formed, but nobody looked to be hurt, and from the looks of it the tremor had been too short-lived to do any real damage to the nearby town.

        Torvan had moved away from the fallen 'Guild-Slayer' and was helping some of the gathered Rogues back up, while Jabez was likewise gently pulling Kali back upwards. Again, Nabob saw that fleeting intimate air between the two of them as they caught each other's eyes. Only for an instant, though, before the feeling passed. Nabob shrugged it off. There were more important things to worry about at the moment.

        "What…was…that?" he demanded, pulling himself up to his feet. His palms were chapped and bloodied from pressing into the sand.

        "It felt like causality feedback."

        "Oh, yes, of course, causality feedback! Now why didn't I think of…ACK!"

        A stone about the size of a man's fist – jarred loose from the ground during the tremor – smashed into the side of his head, and he finished his sentence in a jargon of painful exclamations and crude obscenities. Stars flashed in front of Nabob's eyes, and his body, already in a partial trance from the teleportation sequence, buckled beneath him.

        "This is what you have done for the good of our people, Kali?" roared the man called Maliki as he stood, feet firmly planted against the ground, an almost tactile field of magical energy rippling around him. Nabob could see several other rocks literally pry themselves loose from the rubble surrounding him and begin to hover in the air at eye-level, held in place by some telekinetic force. With a brisk gesture another rock was sent careening towards Nabob…only to be snagged in mid-air by another invisible telekinetic hand.

        "STOP!" Kali shouted, stepping between Maliki and the prone Slayer, a similar field of magic shimmering around her willowy form. "Have you gone mad, Maliki? Assaulting a stranger?"

        "You saw what he did! His blasphemous form trying to pass through the barrier nearly sundered it apart."

        "I didn't do anything, goddammit!" Nabob hollered, nursing his throbbing cranium. "Leave me the fuck alone!"

        "He is through now, and is here with us as our guest," she said calmly. "Hurting him serves no purpose."

        Maliki reared back in disgust. "You…invited him. You disregard eight hundred years of antiquity's well-learned lessons and bring one of our gravest enemies into our Home. How dare you? How dare you!" The magical energy around him crackled threateningly.

        Before she could reply, another figure moved in quickly, and the enraged Rogue sorcerer found himself staring down the gleaming blade of an assassin's punching dagger.

        "Threaten the princess again," Torvan whispered, his voice sharper than the blade he held at Maliki's throat, "and you pay for it with blood."

        "This is not the time or place for a magic duel, Maliki," Jabez said, also stepping forward. "The Guild-Slayer is here for a reason."

        "I don't care about your petty reasoning. Nothing justifies the liability you have created. Or the potential for harm to us all."

        "Justinian is the one who will decide that, not you," said Kali, keeping her cool as much as possible. "I stopped answering to you a long time ago."

        "Yes," he leered. "You did. If you still answered to me, you would find yourself in a most uncomfortable position right now…"

        "Stand down, or I will kill you," Torvan snarled. "I've been wanting to for a very long time."

        "I'm certain you have."

        "Just give me one more reason…"

        Maliki sighed wearily, not taking his eyes off of the crumpled figure of Nabob. "Take him before the Potentate quickly then, child. You never know what accidents might be waiting." Turning, he disappeared into the crowd.

        Kali was quick to drop her defensive magical field and return to the Chimneysweep's side. "Nabob, are you…"

        "I said leave me the fuck alone!"

        He could tell his words stung her, but right now he didn't care. He didn't care about anything. What was I thinking? Trying to delude myself into believing that I could make a difference of some sort, that's what I was thinking. I never could before. Why the hell would I be able to now?

        "Nabob, I'm – I'm sorry…"

        Her apology dug deep. Memories tried to flash back into his mind, but everything was still disoriented, and his head still throbbed pain from the impact of the rock, so he stayed in the present.

        "Did I…cause that…?"

        "The tremor?" she bit her lip. "It was not your fault. It was mine. I didn't realize what bringing an untrained soul across the gap, even with a crystal, would do."

        "Did…I…cause it?" he repeated, slowly and with rising force.

        "…"

        "Did I?"

        "Yes." She sounded hesitant, remorseful. "You were never trained in how to navigate the transition between Earth and Home smoothly. I thought…I thought that with a crystal it would matter less. I was wrong." She hung her head. "Your essence caused…some damage to the pocket dimension on its way through. Causality feedback."

        Anger swelled in the Chimneysweep's breast. Anger at her, anger at himself, anger at the whole damned world. "How much damage?"

        "Imagine if you will," sighed Jabez as he knelt down in front of him beside Kali, "that the normal transition process between our two worlds is like slipping a piece of paper through a small hole in a plate-glass window. Your entry would be better equated to haphazardly tossing a baseball through. Only with a slight time-delay as the causality feedback surge caught up with the rest of you."

        "Oh God…" he buried his burning head in his arms. "Oh God…why did you bring me here, Kali? This is a mistake. This is all one horrible, horrible mistake…"

        He couldn't see her do it, but he felt her grab his hand and squeeze it tightly. "No! This is not a mistake! No permanent damage was done…Justinian managed to stabilize Home before any could be. Nabob, what we're here to accomplish is nothing less than the end to all of the anger and frustration that you see in these people! Uniting our people is the greatest goal we can possibly undertake in these dark times…it cannot possibly be a mistake!" She shook him forcefully. "We need to see Justinian at once. He will see how important this is. I promise."

        "Like you promised that I wouldn't come to any harm?"

        That hurt her even more, and this time Nabob felt a pang of guilt at doing so, even though he knew that he shouldn't. He owed this woman – and these people – absolutely nothing. He had helped to save them, not the other way around.

        But she believed. In what she spoke about. In reunification. In him. And in a world that had tried very, very hard to dishearten, discredit, and discard him, that meant something. Nabob couldn't let that slip by.

        "Okay," he murmured after a few tense moments. "But first I'm going to need some ice…"

**********



        Kris Binder sat on the crown of the building's roof looking down in shivers at the slow trickle of bar patrons. One in. Two out. They came and went slowly and soon enough the right one would emerge and he would have to do the unthinkable. His bloodlust had days ago overcome his dying capacity for rational human thought. If he could have employed mortal logic he'd have found his situation revolting; the way he crouched over the roof gripping Spanish tile with clawed bare feet; the way he shivered uncontrollably with thoughts of acrid crimson gore dominating his every whim; the way he looked upon a race he used to cohabitate with as the equivalent to the lobsters one might pick at a seafood restaurant before a night of fine dining.

        Only a week prior Kris Binder had been a middle-aged dentist who enjoyed his bachelorhood and the charade of pretending he was still 25 that came with it. Before the change he was making just enough money to wine and dine the ladies without worry of funding, taking them out on the town in his BMW and eventually charming them into bed. Sometimes he pulled this pattern off twice before sunrise. Sunday he would recover. Monday it was back to work. Wednesday he would do it again. And again the following Saturday. He was comfortable with his life despite the inevitable emptiness it brought him. Most other men his age had kids and wives. Some men his age were only 10 years from retirement.

        Then he met Rebecca. He thought she was to be another conquest, but the predator was really meant to be the prey that night. Before he could reach for a condom she had knocked him senseless and had begun feeding on his life blood. She had thought she had charmed him. She had thought he would just lay there naked and helpless until she had drank him dry and into death, but for some reason he managed to regain consciousness and avoid panic. While the unholy brunette fed half-naked through small puncture wounds in his neck he decided then and there that he wouldn't go without her remembering this victim. He knew death was but moments away and maybe it was instinct that drove him to fight back, but it was that instinct that would lead to the curse that had him crouching in torn jeans a week later on the roof of a bar looking for something satisfying to feed on.

        He saw her ear. It reminded him of a bull's eye. A target for him to bend his neck and bite with his last dying mortal strength, and so he did. The sultry vampire didn't know exactly what to make of her predicament. Rebecca was so infatuated with the meal she had scored that shock set in far before the pain could. She knew he was moving. She knew he had made a sudden and violent motion. Then as she sat up she was him lying there, blood dripping from his neck with something in his mouth, surrounded by still more blood. It was her ear. And the blood on his face was hers.

        "Eat this you bitch!" he mumbled with a full mouth of cartilage as he spit her blood and ear back into her undead and horrified face. He was a natural. Who could have guessed? In her panic Rebecca did that night a week ago what every vampire in Irvine and the world at large was strictly forbidden to do. She abandoned her prey, prey that had tasted of her very own tainted and unliving gore, and left him there to die of his wounds. A situation that would surely lead to his turning.

        All this, Kris Binder had pondered the preceeding week as he slept the days away, growing more and more sensitive to light; as his steaks tasted better the redder he ordered them; as the wounds on his neck refused to heal; as his palor turned so grey that he started wearing ladies' makeup to hang onto his artificial tan; as he was no longer drawn to his woman conquests curves but more to their neck. Finally his diet had turned strictly to meat. Everything else tasted vile, and the meat itself might as well have been still living and warm. He no longer sought chocolate and pizza when hunger came calling. He wanted blood, and slowly, irrevocably, the blood that at first satisfied him in aged and cold form from the butcher's cattle remains would no longer suffice. It had to be warm and fresh.

        He turned to warming blood bought from the butcher in the microwave and that held him for awhile, but as humanity abandoned him at a startling pace, he struggled to ignore the cravings that were driving him towards human prey by feeding his bloodlust with the red gore of rats, wild hares, birds, and even domesticated animals. His mind was going though, and he knew deep inside that the only thing that would bring his mind back was fresh human blood; the thing his body could no longer produce but needed to exist.

        And so Kris Binder, barely a man and a very poor and alone vampire, crouched in filthy blood-caked clothing on the Spanish tiles of Tampico's Tequila Bar and waited for the one who would be his first prey. The one who would bring rationality back to the insanity that had become his life; the cursed existance that his survival instinct had led him to. If he had only given in and died when he was Rebecca tearing at his throat wound with blood-stained canines.
Here was his moment. Two young ladies, barely old enough to get into the bar legally, were leaving Tampicos. One of them had gotten there early and parked right near the entrance. The other had arrived later and was forced to park behind the line of cars on the street in front of the popular pub some four blocks away; four very dark blocks away.

        They parted ways. One of them, a petite girl in a denim skirt with dirty-blond hair and an oh so lovely neck strolled on shaky-drunk legs atop platform shoes to the car she would drive home in; his first victim would have a lot of alcohol in her blood. Kris wondered if it would make him drunk. Would inebriation replace the frenzied bloodlust he was experiencing? Would he ever feel clear-headed again?

        He jumped down from the roof and onto the trailer of a Budweiser delivery truck, then onto a brand new Volkswagon beetle without making a sound. As she stumbled for her keys he heard a chirping sound and saw a pair of headlights on a blue Chevy Silverado light up. She had disabled her car alarm by remote. He knew where she was headed now and it was a simple matter to play the shadows and silently sneak up to her car which was conveniently parked as far between two street lights as a dark parking spot could be.

        Kris belly-crawled under the car and waited for her to arrive. He would grab her by the ankles and pull her under the vehicle. He would have his first real undead feast and leave the body there where it wouldn't be found until daylight. After he fed, then he'd be able to concentrate and figure out what was wrong with him. After he would drink he knew the world would be a sane place for him again.

        Her footsteps were very close now. They were short and quick as her legs weren't very long. It almost sounded like a child in high heels approaching. Then he saw her platform shoes arrive by the car. Reaching out with dirty-clawed hands he suddenly saw the shiny keys drop inches from his grasp with a loud sound.

        "Fuck!" cursed the girl as she backed a step away from the car and went to reach for the keys.

        What if she sees me?! thought the instincts of what was left of Kris Binder's mind. The truth was that if E.T. had landed in the parking spot right behind this drunk bimbo and offered her some Reese's Pieces she still wouldn't have noticed. Picking up her keys and completely forgetting she had a remote keyless entry button on the same key chain as her car alarm the girl struggled to get the proper piece of metal into its hole.

        Binder could not wait anymore and reached out both arms, each for one of the girl's ankles, but his arms never made it to their targets. The thirsty vampire watched as the farther he reached for her barb-tattoed ankle, the farther it seemed to be from his claws. It was then that he reasoned he was being silently pulled away from her. Looking up he realized he was no longer under the Chevy at all. There, looming over him in the shadows was a dark figure in a hat with two menacingly purple glowing eyes fixated on him. He inhaled to release a threatening hiss towards the interfering mortal, but before he could finish drawing the breath, GAVAL the Evil-Slayer knocked the naive vampire across the head and threw its unconscious form over his back.

        Before the dirty blonde-haired girl could throw her purse into the Silverado, the Cajun had leapt over a hurricane fence with a vampire over his shoulder, his boots crunching against the gravel of the roadside. Looking up the girl tried to make out what was going on outside her pickup truck, but there was nothing to be seen.

        "Hello?" she called. Only the crickets and rain frogs answered. She would never know how close to death she had come.

**********

        "The Potentate will see you presently," the orderly, a wise and brooding old woman who barred the way from antechamber to throne room, said to the gathered Slayers. "Make your visit as brief as you can, Kali. He is not well."

        "Justinian has 'not been well' for years now, Marissa," Kali said carefully.

        "The strain of stopping the feedback from tearing Home asunder taxed him greatly."

        Nabob, standing beside Kali – with Torvan and Jabez a stone's throw behind them – felt the orderly's grim eyes fasten on him. He wasn't certain if they were as accusatory as he suspected, but judging from the dirty looks he had already received walking through the Rogue village, he decided that it was a safe bet that they were. Nobody else had tried to stone him or bring any other magic into use against him, though, so as far as the Chimneysweep was concerned they were entitled to whatever dirty looks they wanted to give. He was the stranger in the strange land, after all.

        "He needs to hear what we have to say in its entirety," said Kali. "Much depends upon it." The orderly glared reproachfully. "But we shan't try his powers for a moment longer than necessary."

        "I never thought you would, princess," Marissa gave a half-smile and stepped away.

        Kali was the first to enter, stepping through the dividing archway between antechamber and Justinian's personal residence. The first thing that struck Nabob about it was that it was fairly small. While many of the Rogue buildings here on Home were utilitarian and even bordering on Spartan, he had at least expected their Potentate to dwell in something approaching luxury. Or, barring that, an illusion of splendor. But in this room there was none. Its circular shape was carved from the same charcoal-silver stone that set the foundation for every other building in the pocket dimension. While a number of framed pictures and tapestries hung upon the wall, they did so with a studied resignation, as though exhausted by years of thorough examination. A small attached bedroom could be seen through a doorway to one side.

        Most fascinating of all, however, was a stone-hobbled well in the exact centre of the room from which emanated a virtuous blue light, identical to the larger radiant pool that illuminated the outside. So far Nabob had seen only well-maintained globes of daylight providing indoor lighting.

        And there, settled in a dignified fashion in an armchair facing the light well, was an old man.

        At first that was the only term that sprang to Nabob's mind as a descriptor. Long curls of wild white hair were tied back, while his elegant white moustache and beard of the same colour were neatly trimmed several inches below his chin. Sharp features and high cheekbones gave an even more distinct hint of Asian ancestry than either Kali or Jabez displayed, and he was clothed in a long white robe with gold trimming and cabalistic symbols. There was a sense of ease and natural trustworthiness that emanated from him in a perpetual aura.

        "Potentate," both Jabez and Torvan murmured respectfully, falling to one knee and bowing their heads. Nabob did likewise, although slowly and with caution. Kali, however, did not.

        "Father!" she exclaimed with equal parts respect and loving enthusiasm, at once answering Nabob's forgotten question as to why she was being referred to as princess. Why she hadn't told him this earlier was what now perplexed him. "You have donned the ceremonial robes?"

        "This is an important occasion, child," he spoke, voice sounding as old as he looked. The Potentate glanced over at her and smiled. "I am glad to see you Home safely."

        "We lost Alpri."

        "He will be mourned, but he died as he would have wanted to, so we should not weep for him long. We should envy him." The ancient man's eyes fell upon Nabob. "But we are not here to discuss the past, obviously."

        The Chimneysweep swallowed. "Sir, my name is Nabob, A.S.G., and I was asked to come here to…"

        "I know why you are here," Justinian smiled. "You are here because my daughter is impulsive and idealistic…just as I once was."

        "Forgive me, father," she spoke again, voice trembling with unease. "This good-hearted Guild-Slayer…he wears the Amulet of Karvalle. To me it could only mean one thing…"

        Suddenly a violent spasm ran through the old man, and for a few seconds a field of magical energy was clearly seen surrounding him. Justinian shuddered, his feeble back arching with sudden pain and a startled yelp rose and died in his throat, leaving his mouth gaping for words. Kali was immediately by his side, while Torvan and Jabez quickly sprang to their feet to assist.

        "Father!" Kali shouted, bending down to see to him. "Father!"

        The static field faded abruptly, and Justinian slumped back down into his armchair, even wearier than before. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead, and an expression of relief – the kind of relief that one gets when suddenly released from an unbearable pain – was chiseled on his narrow features.

        "Potentate, what was that?" Jabez asked, bowing humbly.

        "It was…Home," the old man wheezed. "When you passed through, Kali, with our…guest…the impact was great. You felt it for yourselves when the feedback struck." His tired eyes turned towards his daughter. "Our world is old and frail like me now, and neither of us has the power left in us that we once did. Your destructive arrival may have been a death knell for Home."

        She gasped. "Surely not…"

        Justinian shook his head sadly. "This dimension can no longer stand on its own, Kali. It has been destabilized beyond natural repair. Only my magic keeps it from crumbling as we speak…and my magic is no longer what it once was, just as I am no longer what I once was…"

        "Father, don't speak like that. Your power still exceeds all of ours combined!"

        Again the old man shook his head. "It never did, child. And now I am reaching my limits."

        "There must be something that can be done!" Torvan protested. "We cannot abandon our Home! Not because of a single Guild-Slayer!"

        Nabob's gaze headed towards the floor.

"
Please forgive me for this, father…" Kali said, tears beginning to stream down her face as she knelt at her father's feet. "I never meant for this to happen…"

        Justinian lay a comforting but weak hand upon her head. "What was done was done with noble intention; intention that must be dealt with soon. For now, though, more pressing matters adorn our table. Our world has been compromised."

        The renegade Chimneysweep wondered what the old man meant by that. Did he mean that the integrity of the spatial ambiance surrounding the pocket dimension had been compromised, or did he mean that their society had somehow been violated by his presence here? He couldn't be certain.

        "How long do we have left?" Jabez asked.

        "I cannot be certain," Justinian answered. "Weeks, perhaps, if I focus my power and turn to total isolation. But our world cries out, and cannot be appeased so easily. Eventually my powers will fail."

        "What then? Do we simply die?"

        "If we do not flee, then yes. The mist barriers will collapse, and Home will be washed away on the tides of eternity from which it was formed."

        A long, breathless pause filled the room.

        "Excuse me?"

All eyes turned towards Nabob, who was still leaning against the charcoal-silver wall, a thoughtful expression on his face.

"Can I ask what's the deal with this world?"

        "It exists as something of a polder – land that has been reclaimed from the sea – in a trans-dimensional sense," Jabez said, voice irked with weary indignation. "Our magic has allowed us to form a pocket-dimension out of the space-time ambiance that we had to pass through to get here. Normally it behaves itself, but lately the magics have begun to deteriorate, as I'm sure you know. Passing through them without the benefit of a crystal damages the magic – the mist barrier, we call it – and your passing through managed to do the exact same thing tenfold." He bowed his head. "Now our worthy Potentate has taken it upon himself to directly intervene with his own power. For now it is the only way to prevent the collapse of this dimension."

        There was a long pause.

        "So in effect I may have destroyed this whole quaint little arrangement you've got."

        "Yes." Torvan rumbled.

        "Great," he sighed. "Just great." Another good intention turned into disaster. And this time I didn't even need the Guild to help me do it. Maybe up there on top of those buildings I was right…the only way to go was down. Maybe I made the wrong choice in not taking the plunge…

        Then he stopped.

        A thought crossed his mind.

        It was a fragment of a report that he had read, buried deep within mounds of collected Chimneysweep archives on the subject. Some piece of vital intelligence data that a Chimneysweep had given his life to obtain that had never been acted upon. Something that would have been forgotten long ago by most of the bureaucrats of the ASG, relegated to the trivial as more pressing matters took the forefront stage of their attention.

        But it was something that might just work now, even though it would require doing the absolute last thing in the world that he would ordinarily volunteer for.

        "…begin plans for evacuations?" Jabez was saying to Justinian, hope drained from his voice and replaced by a meandering desperation.

        "Wait!"

        Torvan's impatient glare burned through Nabob. "What, Guild-Slayer?"

        "I think I might be able to help."

        The burly fighter snorted, the idea below contempt. "We do not have time for this…"

        "Let him speak!" Justinian commanded, nodding to the Chimneysweep. "Say your mind, Nabob of the ASG."

        "There might be a way to reinforce the magic around this dimension permanently. I don't know for sure that it will work, but I think that it might be worth a shot."

        Kali straightened, a slightly puzzled look on her face, as though she hadn't expected him to really care about the situation at hand. "What is it?"

        "A…comrade of mine once reported of several powerful artifacts that have come into being back on Earth within the last two years. I believe he called them the Darkskulls, and…and…" he fought for the proper wording, "…he said in his report that they could somehow strengthen reality, make it overlap or defy what was there before. It sounds like something that might be able to save this place."

        Justinian considered for a moment, and then nodded sagely. "You lack the arcane lexicon, but I hear the meaning of your words. Such an artifact may work as you believe."

        "Where can it be found?" Kali asked.

        "That's…the catch," Nabob let out a shuddering breath full of every trepidation and hesitation that he had ever experienced. "They're in the Shadowlands. All of them."

        "The Shadowlands…" Jabez murmured. "Lord Nighteye's realm."

        "I take it that you've heard of it?"

        "We are not that out of touch," the Rogue sorcerer snorted. "It's somewhat hard not to notice when a realm full of demons suddenly takes form on your adopted planet."

        "It gets better," Nabob continued. "The Shadowlands act kind of like Home does…an area that has been literally carved out and retaken from what was previously there. What was formerly Siberia hasn't just been transformed – it's been replaced."

        "And these Darkskull artifacts that you mentioned," Justinian motioned, "are what anchors the Shadowlands to your reality?"

        "Precisely. We don't know how many exist, but we know they do exist. As the Shadowlands continue to expand, there's likely more being forged, too."

        "An anchor…" Kali murmured. "It might just work. If we were to bring one here and use it to channel and strengthen our magics…" Her voice trailed off as her mind raced through speculations.

        "Wait." Jabez looked about him with angry astonishment. "You cannot be serious. You cannot be serious. You propose to steal one of these artifacts from the Shadowlands, Guild-Slayer?" He practically spat the last two words, clearly intending them in their vulgar meaning. "Maybe your mind really was damaged coming through the ambiance, because what you speak of now is madness! Suicide! An army of Slayers, your kind and mine alike, could not hope to penetrate that demon land!"

        "I don't need an army," Nabob replied with a confidence he didn't feel inside him. "I'll do this myself."

        "You are mad."

        "A hundred men can slip by where a thousand men can't. A dozen men can slip by where a hundred can't. One man can slip past where a dozen can't." His eyes narrowed. "I was born and raised for getting into places that should be impossible to penetrate. I was responsible for what's happening to this place, accident or not. Let me try to do this for you."

        A long silence prevailed while Justinian considered. Then he gave a short, curt nod and looked the Chimneysweep full in the eye. "Your courage does you considerable credit, Guild-Slayer, as does your noble heart. I can see that my daughter's trust is not ill-placed. There will be much to speak about upon your return." He drew in his breath sharply, as though undertaken by a sudden pain. "I will hold the barriers for as long as you can, but if this is to work, you must hurry."

        Nabob nodded. "I have friends who can help to speed up the journey."

        "But how will he get away from Home again?" Jabez challenged. "This madman caused enough damage bridging the gap between our worlds the first time. Throwing him through again will only worsen your burden, Potentate. It might even doom us all."

        "Kali, you claimed that he wore the Amulet of Karvalle?" the old man looked to his daughter, who nodded wordlessly. "Let me see it."

        Nabob hesitantly took a step forward. He didn't feel like taking the amulet off, not even for an old man. It had helped to protect him from the magic of the Rogues once, and he was willing to wager that it would do so again in a pinch. He felt responsible for what had happened to the barrier protecting this dimension, and he was willing to take a risk – even a huge risk – to himself to secure this world again. But he knew full well that there weren't many among the Rogues who trusted him yet. There were many who feared and hated him, two of them in this room alone. The amulet could very well be his only safe ticket back to Earth if things grew ugly.

        He didn't want to begrudge the old man such a small thing, though, so he pulled the amulet out from beneath him jacket and, leaving it around his neck, walked up to the seated Potentate.

        Jabez and Torvan gasped. An outsider dared to approach their leader?
        But Justinian merely chuckled softly and wrapped a frayed hand around the gleaming bejeweled amulet, giving it a cursory examination that could not possibly have determined anything about it. "A powerful artifact indeed," he said. "And an obvious stroke of great luck that you have recovered it."

        "I doubt it, sir," Nabob replied airily. "Whenever I play games with luck I always end up on the losing end."

        "You haven't been playing for very long. Perhaps that is why." He allowed the amulet to drop back down around Nabob's neck. "Let us hope you do not lose this new game we are about to indulge in. The Amulet has the power to shield your mind, as our own magic shields our minds during the transition between worlds. If you invoke it, we might yet stave off the uncontrolled passage that caused so much damage before."

        "Invoke it?"

        "I will help you with that," Kali said quickly. "It should not be hard."

        Another spasm rippled across the old man's body, but he fought it down this time, with considerable effort. "Then go!" he commanded. "If the polder is to hold even temporarily I must begin the casting immediately. A safe journey to you, Nabob of the ASG. Prove to us that our fear of your kind holds no weight."

        He closed his eyes, and at once a magical vortex began to form around his aged and withered form, a coalescing shimmer of every colour imaginable. The battle to save Home had been engaged.

        "We must leave quickly." Kali whispered. "His mind needs total calm and quiet to work at its peak. He must be alone."

        Without another word, the Slayers – Guild and Rogue – stepped away from the brilliant form of the Potentate, and back out into the antechamber.

        "All right, teach me how to, ah, invoke this thing," Nabob said to Kali once they were outside, the cobbled walls no longer reflecting the intense energy of Justinian's protective spell. "Then let's get to the nearest crystal and send me on my way. We might not have much time."

        "I know," she said softly. "I will accompany you."

        "Oh no you won't. You aren't trained for infiltration."

        "And you are trained to fight demons? You need firepower in an emergency."

        "I have firepower." With an elegant flick of the wrist he brought his Beretta pistol out of its concealed holster under his jacket.

        "I have more." She took a step closer to him, and for a second he found himself lost in her dark eyes. "Nabob, this is…is…" she fought to find a word. "Crazy, no? But you followed me without hesitation once before. Let me help…for the good of my people and the good of our people. Please."

        He sighed. She was right…it was crazy. The Shadowlands were the last place on Earth that any right-thinking Slayer would want to go to. He was crazy for offering. She was crazy for wanting to follow him. But it was too late to turn back now, and try as he might Nabob could not honestly make himself believe that he wouldn't need the help.

        "Fine." Her eyes seemed to swallow him again. "Thank you."

        "Ashes of the Divinity, the madness is spreading!" Jabez said in disbelief. "Just to let you know, I will not be going, no matter what reasoning you spew. If anything, I will see what I can do to help stabilize Home. I won't be dragged willingly into Hell."

        "I would not have expected you to come anyway."

        "Good."

        "I will accompany you." The low, unenthusiastic rumble came from Torvan's throat – or perhaps his boots.

        "You?" Nabob blinked. "Why would you want to?"

        "The princess' well-being is my foremost concern."

        Kali sighed. "Oh Torvan…"

        The Chimneysweep had to suppress a snicker. "So you're a…bodyguard, then? For her Highness here?"

        "He is my assigned protector," Kali said quickly, before Torvan had a chance to bark anything back. "A formality that stretches back generations for our people."

        "We're going to have a little talk about this whole princess thing later. For now we've got to get moving. You told me that you have crystals scattered all over the Earth for easy transportation to Home, right? Where's the nearest one to the Shadowlands?"

        "There is one in Kiev, in the Ukraine…"

        "Perfect. I'll get in touch with my people once we arrive. Now…about this Amulet…"

        "Before you hurry off, might I have a word with the Guild-Slayer?" Jabez added. "Alone, please?"

        Kali eyed him warily for a moment, but evidently couldn't see any true malice in his bitter smile. "Very well. Come Torvan. We shall be nearby making the preparations." They stalked out of the obsidian antechamber, leaving Jabez and Nabob by themselves.

        "I shall clarify something immediately, Guild-Slayer," the sorcerer said, folding his arms. "I don't like you. I don't like your style, I don't like your goal, and I don't like how you have eyes on Kali, either."

        "You two are, ah, involved, aren't you?"

        A smile flickered. "One could say that. Which brings me to the point: Kali is headstrong, and nobody can keep her from accompanying you if she has set her heart to it, which apparently she has. I want you to look after her in the Shadowlands. I know better than she does what an unforgiving realm it is; I have been there before. That is why I refuse to set foot there again."

        "I thought Torvan was a bodyguard…protector, sorry, already. He seems more than capable enough."

        "Oh, capable he is," Jabez continued. "But he turns his back on Kali during battle all too often for my tastes." He eyed Nabob, half with suspicion and half with approval. "I do not believe that you will have that problem."

        The Chimneysweep glared at him. "Look, if you think there's something going on between…"

        "I know that there is nothing. Just be sure to keep it that way in my absence. As a show of my good faith, however, please accept a small gift from me for your journey. You will find it useful…I know that I did." From beneath his robe he produced a slender short sword. "It's an enchanted weapon. I call it Blaze, but what you name it is rather immaterial, since it isn't one of the sentient weapons."

        Nabob took it from the sorcerer and swung it a few times, striking down targets made out of air. It was light and fairly small, but it felt sturdy. It had been a rather long time since he had last used a sword, though, and he said as much. "What exactly does it do?"

        "Some rather impressive things involving a particular fire spell that I enjoy," said Jabez with satisfaction. "You will figure it out, I'm certain. And while this will be a vast improvement over your stakes and toy pistol, I fully expect it back once you return. I will be…disappointed if it fails to return to me."

        He laughed. "If you don't receive it back, then that means that I haven't returned to give it to you. And if I don't return, then upsetting you will be the least of my concerns."

        "Fair enough," Jabez nodded. "Now go. And remember: take care of Kali for me."

        "You have my word." He brandished the sword in a mock salute. "And thanks."



Year of the Spectre Episode 2 - Page 4