Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

I Think This Place is Haunted, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 7

They found the door that Browbeat had discovered, which opened as they approached it. Beyond was another room, also softly lit. They entered, and the door whispered closed behind them.

"Here," a soft voice said.

It seemed to come from everywhere, and nowhere. But even so, Charlie was certain that it came from directly ahead of them. Kippy gave his arm a squeeze, and pointed with his chin in the same direction, as well. "Over there, I think."

They moved forward, the others right behind them. The room was spacious and open, but the light so soft that they could just barely see the other side. The walls were hung with what looked like fine curtains of silk, which tended to deaden sound, and their footfalls were muted as they crossed the polished stone floor to the center of the room.

"Here", the whispered voice said again.

Kippy turned his head to the right, and Charlie followed suit. There, by the wall of curtains, was a structure that looked very much like a canopy bed, also hung with the curtains of silk.

"I hope she's not sleeping," Adrian whispered.

"I think not," Jol said, softly. "Shall we?"

They approached the canopied structure, and one of the curtains pulled back as they did so.


They stopped by the side of the 'bed', and looked within.

Charlie's first impression was of a large snake...but that wasn't right.

There was a long body, coiled as it lay, not on a mattress, but upon a raised dais of polished stone. There were legs, like those of a centipede, maybe, but only a half-dozen or so, down each side. The upper body was more familiar, with two somewhat reptilian arms terminating in shoulders, upon which sat a head on a short neck. The face had two eyes, now closed; a nose; and a slit of a mouth. Long, curling tendrils fell down the sides of the head, looking much like dark, scraggily hair, save for the fact that each tendril writhed slowly with a life all its own.

Charlie was reminded of the Medusa of ancient legend, and found the face a fitting one for a witch in any world. But that this was simply an alien visage he knew, and he managed to find a nobility in it that was not at first apparent. There was time there, as age; and wisdom; and...amazingly, a hint of a sort of kindness that one would not expect to be present in such a form.

The eyes opened then, and fixed upon them. They were dark, with round irises a startlingly luminescent shade of lime green. "You have reached me."

Jol stepped forward then, and bowed his head in greeting. "I am Jol, the Baron Ulren's representative. I come bearing his greetings, and to convey his hopes that you might assist this group, who are sent by the Madracorn on a mission of great importance to the layer."

The green eyes moved among them, found Horace, and stopped. They watched the man a moment, and then the oddest thing happened: Tanna Terail smiled. "You are all welcome here."

Charlie understood now that the voice did not issue forth from Tanna's mouth. How it was generated was not clear, but he was clearly hearing her words, and not sensing them within.

He turned to Horace, and smiled at him. "You seem to have found a friend."

Horace nodded, looking absolutely serious "I think a kindred spirit, if nothing else."

"The antagah," Tanna said, in her whispery soft words.

Charlie found his own voice. "You know about that?"

Those amazing eyes fixed upon him. Charlie maintained his gaze, trying to look deeper...and felt an amazing flash within, from none other than his second presence!

Again, amazingly, Tanna Terail smiled. "You are leader here."

Charlie's eyes widened at that.

"That's right," Kippy said, before Charlie could answer. The green eyes shifted to him, and it was Kippy who smiled first. "I hope you're good with that," Charlie's boyfriend continued.

Was that laughter they heard now? A soft sound, pleasant, like the wind rustling the trees in warm sunshine.

"If you are good with it, I am, as well."

"We all are good with it," Kippy returned, looking happier now. "I just wanted you to know who speaks for us." He cast a quick glance at Jol, who spied it, and smiled.

"I am here in the capacity of advisor," the man said then. "And to convey to you that the Baron Ulren would greatly appreciate any assistance you might be able to render to this group."

"I understand your connection to the Baron," the soft voice replied. "You need not explain more."

That seemed to make Jol happy. He breathed a small sigh, and nodded to Charlie. "All yours, my friend."

Charlie nodded, and let his gaze go back to Tanna Terail. "As you said, we are here about the antagah that is causing problems at Engris."

"I know of it. It is restless and unhappy."

Charlie leaned forward. "Why?"

Again, inside his head, he felt that odd twinge, as the eyes of the distant antagah once again turned his way. Its gaze lasted longer this time, and was more potent this time, and seemed to ask a question this time: who are you?

The reaction of the others around him told him that they felt this new attention now, too. Kippy's grip on his arm tightened, and Charlie felt a quickening of his own pulse in response.

But then it was gone again, as quickly as it had come, the question still hanging there before them, unanswered. Who are you?

"They sense your interest," Tanna Terail told them. "And it alarms them."

Charlie shook his head. "Why?"

"They live in fear. Of this place."

Charlie considered that, and nodded. "You mean of the layer, not this specific reality."


"Do you know why?"

The answer was a moment coming. "They seem not to know they have died."

Kippy gasped. "How could they not know?"

But it was Horace who spoke first. "It isn't all that uncommon. Many people meet their ends in such a sudden fashion that they literally never know what hit them."

Tanna Terail smiled at Horace again. "Most have some time to adjust to their own ends in the upper layer. Most have at least some knowledge of what is coming. These did not."

Adrian licked his lips, and squinted at the alien. "Do you have any idea who they are?"

A note of...not quite surprise, but of definite interest, crept into Tanna Terail's gaze. "You don't know?"

Adrian frowned. "I wouldn't ask, if I did."

The alien's magnificent eyes found Charlie again. "They are your own kind. It is why the Madracorn approached you for help."

Charlie was stunned, and felt that same flow of amazement coursing through the others. Except for Jol, perhaps, who simply closed his eyes and nodded, as if to himself.

"Our kind!" Adrian finally managed. "Humans?"

"If that is how you are called," Tanna Terail agreed. "I am not familiar with your people."

Charlie's shock ran deep. What was it that Dollen had said, back in the tavern, when he had been asked if he knew what people constituted the antagah?

Heard they were from some backwater planet, with a primitive society and a pre-spaceflight culture...


It all made sense now. Why Eseffa and Jorli had seemed so vague about some things, and why Charlie had been so certain that there was something he was not being told. The two Madracorn had felt that no one would quite understand human motivations and reasoning more than...other humans.

And yet, the two Madracorn had to have known that at some point they would find out...

Certainly, they did. Eseffa had even said so.

"Believe me, that this is the best way to handle this situation. You will not understand fully until later..."

For a moment, Charlie's resentment at being kept in the dark warred with his certainty that Eseffa and Jorli wanted this situation to work out. If the antagah could not be reasoned with, could not be kept away from blockading would have to be destroyed. Or, sent to a lower layer, which would amount to the same thing for those members of that collective. If anyone had any real chance of understanding what was motivating this collective, it would be other people of the same kind.

Eseffa and Jorli were giving the antagah the best fighting chance at survival that they could.

Kippy squeezed Charlie's arm. "They had good reasons, Charlie. Eseffa and Jorli. They really wanted to help the antagah."

"I know. I was just working that all out, myself."

"Sometimes the long route around is the best one, Charlie," Ragal said. He smiled. "We will help you to save your people."

"I sure will!" Casper called.

"Me, too!" Browbeat said, enthusiastically. "I've got your back!"

Charlie smiled at that, and nodded to them all.

"We'll all do our part," Uncle Bob said, carefully. "Now that we know the stakes are even higher than we first imagined."

"Indeed," Horace agreed, solemnly.

Charlie turned back to Tanna Terail, who was watching them, the same interest still in her eyes. "You will help them?"

Charlie nodded. "Yes. We'll do what we can for them."

The alien closed her eyes, and went very still. Among the gently waving tendrils upon her head, one gained a new life, and twitched hard. In a moment it had separated from the head, and dropped to the polished stone of the dais.

Tanna Terail opened her eyes, and bent to examine it. "Go to him. Assist."

The tendril spun, and slithered, snake-like, to the edge of the dais, where it dropped to the floor. There it turned, took aim at Horace, and raced towards him.

Charlie and the others were frozen in amazement, and watched as the tendril sidewinded its way to their friend. Horace watched it come with a mix of alarm and fascination, but seemed unable to resist squatting as it came near. The tendril stopped, just out of reach, and seemed to shrink then, even as it turned from black to blue. It spun, grasped its own tail, formed a circle, and grew still. In a moment it had changed completely, from something bursting with life, to something completely inanimate.

Horace reached for it, picked it up, and held it up for all to see. In his hand was a blue circle that looked to be of glass, or perhaps some gemstone. Horace stared at it, nodded to himself, and slipped it over his hand. It seemed to stretch to allow that, and then settled comfortably against his wrist.

"To aid you, on your journey," Tanna Terail told him.

Horace smiled at her. "I understand. Thank you."

"And that will be all. You may leave me now. Good journey."

Charlie blinked at being so suddenly dismissed. "Um...just a second--"

But Horace raised his hand with the blue circlet on it and waved it, and looked insistently at Charlie. Let's go!

Charlie stared at the man a moment longer, and then managed a smile to offer to Tanna Terail. "Thank you for your assistance with this."

"It is a just cause. Luck be with you."

The curtain at the edge of the dais closed again, cutting off their view of the Bathorn, At the same time, they heard a sound, and turned to see that the door they had entered through was again open.

Charlie blew out a breath, smiled at Kip, and turned to go. "Shall we?"

Jol fell in beside them as they headed for the door. "You feel our visit here is complete?"

Charlie shrugged. "Horace seems to think so, and I trust his judgment. We'll talk more when we get back to the ship."

They exited the chamber, and again crossed the gangway to their runner. Once aboard, that ramp withdrew, the railing slid closed, and the main door their vessel had entered through ground its way open.

Uncle Bob came to stand beside Charlie. "Looks like we're being given the bum's rush!"

Browbeat, hovering near, looked disappointed. "Didn't even get to explore the place!"

Charlie frowned. "I just think Tanna Terail feels our business is concluded. Come on into the bridge, and let's get Bellux to get us out of here."

The head responded to the command with the same cheerful alacrity as always, and their runner pulled out onto the desert and stopped. Behind them, the big door rumbled shut, and their visit was officially completed.

"Kind of anticlimactic," Ricky said, turning to stare a last time at the big door. "I was expecting more, somehow."

Ragal smiled at Charlie. "I suspect we have been given a major assist here, and just don't understand that yet."

Charlie turned to Horace, and leaned closer to examine the blue circlet on his wrist. "Any idea of what that does?"

The older man looked enchanted. "Are you kidding? This thing is talking to me, Charlie! I can sense...well, I can sense a lot through it." He closed his eyes. "I can see the antagah."

The others gathered around him.

"You can see it?" Chirka repeated, sounding amazed.

"Yes. I mean, I can actually see it. And I know where it is. It's nowhere close to this reality now. It's still hanging around the...the doorway into Engris."

"Doorway?" Kippy repeated, in a somewhat hushed voice. "There's a doorway to Engris?"

Horace opened his eyes and looked uncertain. "It isn't a door. I just said that because I don't know what else to call it. It's a doorway only in the same way that the tree was that allowed us to come to The Tors from outside the Library. That sort of doorway, only very much larger."

"An interface," Chirka supplied. "From this side, Engris presents as just another reality to the spirits here. But a very large one, with a very open door."

"But it's not open to the anatagh," Horace said. "And they are not happy about that."

Charlie pointed at Horace's hand. "The wristlet that Tanna Terail gave you? It's some kind of sensory device?"

Horace shook his head. "It's not a device at all. It's part of Tanna Terail herself. It has simply adapted to me so that we can work together."

Kippy raised an eyebrow at that. "So, we have to bring it back when we're done?"

"No." Horace looked slightly amazed. "The feel I get from the circlet is that we are somehow bonded forever. It was a gift, not a loan."

That brought a moment of silence. But Charlie thought he better understood now what had happened. The Bathorn could not accompany them, and apparently couldn't help them much from where she was. So, she had sent a part of herself to go with Horace, to be with him when and where that help was needed.

Charlie voiced this idea, and Horace nodded. "I think you're right."

Jol looked intrigued by the conversation. "So, we can proceed with this operation just as if the Bathorn was with us?"

Horace frowned at that. "Well...we can proceed as if some of her ability was with us." He raised his hand to display the blue circlet. "Right here, anyway."

Adrian moved closer to Horace to examine the circlet. "So, you can sense the antagah now? And see where it is? Do they sense this attention? Will it bring them to us?"

"No." Horace emitted a surprised laugh. "They don't sense this attention. It's somehow very different than asking about them."

"How?" Ricky asked.

Horace laughed again, still amazed at the new things he was experiencing. "Well...say you walked into a very large room full of people, and asked about a specific one in the loudest voice imaginable. That person would hear you, and turn to look. That's what's been happening up until now. We ask, and they know."

"And what you're doing now is different?" Charlie asked.

Horace held up the circlet and eyed it in wonder. "Yes. It's like walking into the same big room, but knowing instantly where that person you're interested in is standing. You don't need to ask anyone about them. You can simply turn and look and watch what they're doing, and they are completely unaware of the attention." Horace blew out an excited breath now. "And, there's more. Not only can I see them - observe them - but if I choose to confront them...I can call them to me."

"Ah," Jol said then, nodding in understanding. "The power to summon is a Bathorn ability. It has been gifted to you. I see."

Casper was looking from one face to the next. "This makes things easier, doesn't it? We can now call the collective, if we want to?"

"But do we want to?" Adrian asked. "Won't that be dangerous for us?"

"No big bunch of nasties is going to absorb me," Kippy said pointedly.

Charlie held up his hands. "Wait a moment, everyone. Um...we need a plan."

Tchk-tchk-tchk. "Always a good first move," Chirka offered.

"I know of a place," Jol said then. "A secure place. The Baron Ulren uses it to study magic here."

Kippy frowned at that. "Study power users, you mean?"

Jol smiled at that. "One way of looking at it. But this reality is specifically designed to translate the abilities of power users into magic. You've probably already learned by now that your own abilities are, well, different here."

"You mean enhanced, or even changed," Kippy stated bluntly.

"What is magic, after all?" Uncle Bob said, smiling. He held up a hand, and something appeared in it - a something that looked like a cross between a toad and a cactus plant.

"Say hello to the nice people, Groat," Uncle Bob said, peering closely at the creature, while being careful of the spines on its back.

"Groat," said Groat, not looking at all impressed with those around him.

Uncle Bob waved a hand over the little horror, and it vanished once again.

Jol raised his hands and clapped gently. "Wonderful! You're a practitioner of the art!"

Uncle Bob smiled. "Back home, I am an illusionist. Here, I seem to have found the real thing."

Jol held up a hand, and Groat reappeared there. The Alsaran brought it closer to inspect it, and then grinned. "How repulsive! Where did you get it?"

Uncle Bob laughed. "Oh, a little here, a little there. Snips and snails, and puppy dog tails."

Jol's eyes glowed with humor. "Oh, I like it, I like it. Very good!" He sighed. "It's so nice to meet a fellow magician."

"Groat," said Groat.

The Alsaran waved a hand, and the little monster vanished once again.

"But not carried to the point of adopting such creatures," Jol finished, smiling.

He turned to Charlie once more. "As I said, I have access to a place the Baron uses to study magic. It has certain safeguards in effect, which may allow confronting the antagah to be done more safely."

Kippy frowned at that, studying Jol intensely a moment, and then smiled at Charlie. "Let's go!"

Charlie turned and looked back at the serrated tor looming above them. "Well, we can't do much just sitting here." He smiled at Jol. "Where is this place?"

The man smiled winningly. "Oh, it's about, someplace. I can instruct your head very quickly, if you like."

Charlie held up a hand to indicate Bellux, and nodded. "Be my guest."

Jol turned to Bellux, who watched him expectantly. "Code 124118."

The head blinked the green lenses of its eyes. "Yes, sir?"

"Take us to Circeran tor."

The head turned back to look out the forward view, and the runner glided smoothly into motion. "About four hours travel time, sir."

Jol nodded. "I know." He turned back to Charlie and the others. "Time to have a bite to eat, perhaps?"

Ricky patted his stomach, grinning. "About time someone had a good idea!"

They turned to the inner stairway, and started down.

Charlie cast a backwards glance at Bellux, briefly wondering just what sort of agent of the Baron Ulren Jol actually was. The others may not have noticed it, but Charlie thought that the head's response to Jol's command had been...interesting.

Circeran tor, when it finally appeared, was an eye-grabber, to be sure. And the way it appeared was even more stunning. They were moving across an open stretch of desert, with tors visible on the horizon to each side and to their rear, but none close by at all. The midday sun directly above them created faint waves of heat in the air before them, causing the desert to waver back and forth, to rise and fall, almost like a mist. If there were tors ahead of them, they were lost in the eye-deceiving motion of the air.

Even so, it was in the middle of one of those waves that something finally appeared in front of them, seeming to hover in the air above the ground.

"A mirage, it looks like," Ricky said, squinting at it. But then he frowned. "Or...maybe not."

They watched in silence as the apparition grew closer, all the while getting larger and larger, and slowly extending itself down to the ground, until with a suddenness that was startling, a tor appeared out of the shimmering desert air.

"Whoa," Ricky said, staring. "That was weird."

Charlie had to agree. As they neared the tor and more details became visible to the eye, it also became apparent that this was like no other tor they had seen before. It more resembled a small mountain, with a blunt peak that seemed open to the desert air, like the caldera of an extinct volcano. But the sides of the tor were too straight for that, the angle too steep, for it to have been created by the flow of magma. It was simply odd-looking, a freak of nature on any world.

"It looks made," Ragal finally said, eyeballing the tor curiously.

Jol laughed at that. "Exactly." He waved a hand at the desert around them. "The tors here are the result of a set of algorithms defining a purely natural process, that of ocean eroding a bed of limestone with granite inclusions. In such a way, a template for this world was made." He pointed at the tor ahead of them. "That tor was a special instance, where a very specific structure was needed, but one that would basically blend with what the world already looked like."

Charlie got it then. "Oh. The baron laid out a general template for what the world looked like, and then added extras as necessary."

"That's about it."

"You need to be a mathematician to create a reality in this layer?" Adrian asked.

Jol shook his head. "Not at all. But the more clear your instructions for creating your reality, the more orderly it will be. You can always add new things, or remove ones you don't like. The rules are entirely up to the creator."

"It's a lot of work to create a reality," Browbeat observed airily. "That's why I just visit them, not make them!"

That brought some nods of understanding.

"It's usually a process organized by a group," Ragal put in. He smiled at Jol. "Although some individuals seem quite adept at the job on their own."

"It's a labor of love, definitely," the Alsaran returned, smiling.

"This place is huge," Ricky said then, his excitement plain.

"There is an entry ahead," Bellux pointed out, as they neared the base of the tor.

Charlie leaned forward along with the others to peer at the base of the mountain, and was surprised to see a large doorway that looked like a copy of the one through which they had entered Illorum tor to visit Tanna Terail.

"Must be the standard model," Ricky mumbled.

"How do we open it?" Kippy asked. "Do you have to call to it like you did at Tanna's place?"

Jol shook his head. "No. It will open automatically."

Charlie frowned at that. "It opens for everyone that arrives here?"

"Actually, it does." Jol smiled at him. "Since no one can find this place unless they have very specific knowledge, no one that doesn't belong here will ever arrive here. A very simple security measure."

The door rumbled back into the wall of the mountain as they neared, and Bellux took them inside. The door immediately closed behind them, and darkness surrounded them, save for a circle of reddish light far ahead of them. That circle grew steadily, and Charlie realized they were in a long tunnel, and that he was seeing sunlight ahead of them at the terminus.

"Don't be too surprised at what you see," Jol said calmly, as the tunnel's end neared.

Charlie took that to mean they would be surprised, and so had prepared himself by the time the runner emerged from the tunnel.

It was into sunlight they emerged. The blood red sun hung directly above the tor, casting its sullen light down into the open interior. That interior was vast, at least a good two miles to the far wall, if not more.

The interior wall was circled by a ring of structures that marched away to each side of them, tall towers, perhaps as wide at the base as their rented runner was long, and tapering as they rose to a level of several hundred feet. Each tower terminated in an etched silvery ball, looking almost like some exotic flower which had yet to open its petals to the sun. There was a small building at the base of each tower, perhaps two floors, but each showing only a doorway and no windows.

"Proceed to the center, please," Jol instructed Bellux.

The runner turned and headed that way, and Charlie could see that they were moving towards another structure that looked to occupy the exact center of the open interior of the tor. Perhaps fifty feet in height and many times that in area, his first impression was of the steep, four-sided stepped pyramids that had occupied cities of the ancient Mesoamerican cultures like the Maya. The top of this one was flat, and they were unable to see any features it might possess from the ground. The runner made good time while the pyramid grew in size, and soon they were stopping at the base of one side, at the bottom of a wide flight of steps.

"We can disembark," Jol said, smiling.

"What is this place?" Kippy asked. "It looks like a set from some historical movie."

Jol chuckled at that. "Whatever that might be." He turned to leave the bridge. "Come, and let me show you."

Their group emerged on deck, and Browbeat zipped up to Charlie again, looking excited. "I can do a recon of the top, if you'd like."

Charlie's eyes moved to Jol, who nodded. "Perfectly safe."

Charlie smiled at the flyer. "Okay. But don't get lost."

"Me? Never!" Browbeat turned, and shot over the rail, heading for the pyramid.

Kippy sighed. "I love his zest for life. Even if he is dead."

"Wait a minute," Adrian said, looking over the rail at the ground below. "Don't we need to go out through the underside stairs?"

"Oh, I can float all of us safely to the ground," Jol offered.

"You go," Kippy countered. "I'll bring the rest of us after you."

Jol smiled, and gave his head a small bow. "As you wish."

The Alsaran rose into the air, moved over the railing, and settled slowly towards the ground.

Kippy gave a little sigh. "Everybody ready? Come closer, you guys."

They drew together, and Kippy picked them up and moved them to the ground, where Jol was waiting, a smile on his face. He nodded at Kip. "You're strong. A good sign."

Kippy's eyebrows went up at that. "Whatever that means!"

Jol laughed. "If you plan to confront an antagah, every little bit helps."

Browbeat returned then, and hovered nearby, his wings a blur. "Nothing to report. It's clean!"

Jol smiled at that. "Shall we go up?"

Charlie turned and tilted his head, back, shading his eyes, and looked up the side of the pyramid. "That's a lot of steps!"

"I never use them, myself," the Alsaran said, a twinkle in his eyes. "I just float to the top."

"Are we going now?" Kippy asked.

"Yes. I'll start up, and you can follow."

The Alsaran turned, lifted from the ground, and started floating rapidly up the steps.

"What do you guys think?" Kippy asked the group.

"I don't get any danger signals from him, if that's what you mean," Adrian said.

"I don't, either," Kippy admitted. "I just have a weird feeling about Jol. I don't know what it means, though."

"I suspect that I do," Ragal said. "But for now, it is only a suspicion. I suggest that we follow him to the top."

Charlie nodded. "Let's go, Kip."

His boyfriend shrugged, and the group lifted from the ground and started up the side of the stepped pyramid. Charlie watched the steps pass below, making a vague attempt to count them, but just gave up and smiled after he had satisfied himself that there were hundreds of them, without getting any real idea of their true numbers.

Jol was waiting for them at the top of the pyramid. It was indeed flat, and featureless, the polished stone they landed upon showing not even so much as a crack. Kippy released them, and the group separated, looking around with interest. Jol watched them in silence, his expression unreadable.

"Well, we're here," Uncle Bob said, looking around. "What's next?"

Jol turned to Horace. "You can still sense the antagah?"

"Yes. It's still hanging around Engris."

The Alsaran considered that. "I don't know exactly what you want to do. If your plan is to learn exactly what motivates the antagah, your best bet is to confront it and ask it yourselves."

Ricky frowned at that. "The Madracorn seemed to think we could find out that information by asking around."

Jol smiled at that. "That's what they may have said, but I think they knew that wouldn't work. The odds are, that the number of inquiries you would have to make in order to learn what is going on with the antagah would be more than enough to bring it to you. I expect they figured you would determine this at some point, and go directly for the confrontation."

Casper raised a hand. "The Madracorn were being deceptive?"

Charlie spoke first. "I don't think so. I talked to Eseffa and Jorli before we left, and had an inkling of some of this. I think they wanted us to explore all the options before seeking a confrontation. I think they didn't want us saddled with any preconceived notions. They couldn't predict where we would go or who we would talk to, so they were careful with what they told us." He looked around the top of the pyramid. "As it turns out, I think we chanced on the perfect reality for a confrontation."

"You're right," Jol said, nodding. "Had you confronted the antagah outside of any particular reality, it would have been just you and them, and the rules that are natural to the layer. Confronting them inside a particular reality allows you to take advantage of the rules by which that reality operates. As it turns out, this reality is friendly to people like yourselves, while being less abiding of a group mentality like the antagah. You'll have an advantage here."

"Especially with the Baron Ulren, himself, to assist us," Ragal said then, smiling.

Jol gave out a startled laugh, but it was not without humor. "Oh, my! I am unmasked!"

"The Baron!" Kippy repeated, staring at Jol. "You're the guy that created this reality?" He smiled then. "I knew I had a feeling about you!"

"At your service." Jol bowed. "I hope you won't hold it against me!"

Ricky grinned. "That's pretty cool, actually. I really like this place."

"You're an artist," Adrian said, but a little dryly, looking like he had reservations. "Except for the thing with the quick draw guns."

Jol smiled at that. "A harmless game, really. I actually got that idea from the suggestion box."

"You have a suggestion box?" Ricky asked, sounding like he didn't believe it.

"Certainly. At every visitor center where newcomers get their credit discs. You didn't see it?"

"I musta missed it," Ricky said, smiling. "There was too much new stuff going on!"

"I've always felt it worthwhile to allow people visiting and living here to make suggestions. The quick draw game only affects those who willingly participate, though I now know it seems to make everyone a little nervous. Losers can wind up anywhere within the reality, but they usually just adapt and keep playing wherever they land. The game is addictive for most of its small following."

"This place is so much fun!" Browbeat said, zipping closer to the man and giving him an admiring look. "You're a wiz at this!"

Jols' eyes widened. "Um...thank you...I think." He smiled then. "Look, all that is unimportant. What matters here is that I very much respect the Madracorn and what they mean to the layer, and I wish to help end the threat this antagah poses to the workings of Engris." He waved a hand around at the interior of the tor. "This place is my laboratory. It was designed to allow me to study and better understand the way that power users adapt and change to the layer after death.It provides some safeguards against the use of excessive force here within my reality."

"You're a power user, yourself," Rick said. "You've obviously had a lot of experience. What have you learned about the way that power users change here?"

"Not nearly enough," Jol replied. "Because some power users are off the spectrum I know and understand, and others have simply never come to my world. And I cannot use the tools I have created to study such things outside of this reality."

"I suspect we have some knowledge in common," Chirka said. "And some of the same interests."

The Alsaran nodded. "I think we can all help each other. But first we must deal with this antagah, and get Engris running again."

"You think we can?" Casper asked.

Jol opened his mouth to answer, and then closed it again, and smiled. "I actually don't know. But we will never know unless we try."

Chirka grunted. "It will come down to whether or not there are power users within the antagah, and what kind they are."

"Agreed." Jol looked happier now. "One thing in our favor, is that the Madracorn had no trouble expelling the antagah from Engris. That suggests to me that the antagah is not endowed with powers we are unfamiliar with. Or, that they are at least not unfamiliar powers of a highly destructive sort. They were unable to counter the technology of the Madracorn and thwart being expelled from their dark world."

"The Madracorn are sort of at the top of their game," Charlie said. "They could have booted this antagah into a lower layer, but they didn't. They wanted to give them a chance."

"Compassion," Chirka said, with some small feeling. "Let us hope it was not wasted."

Kippy gave a little sigh. "These are humans. I feel we can talk to them."

Ricky made a small sound of disagreement. "Humans come in all flavors, Kip. Some are just plain nasty, if you ask me!"

Uncle Bob let out a low whistle. "Tanna Terail said she thought these folks didn't know they were dead. What would you think if you suddenly woke up in a place like this, without knowing you had died?"

"That it was a dream, maybe?" Kippy suggested.

"Dreams end," Charlie argued. "People wake up. There'd be no waking up from this."

"It's not so bad here," Horace said. "But I guess it would come down to what you were used to before you died. We've been around a little. We've seen a lot of places. Someone from small town Earth might be affected completely differently."

"We don't know enough," Casper offered. "We can't know enough, until we talk to them."

"I think this one has a point," Chirka said, smiling and patting Casper on the shoulder. "We're walking in the dark here. We will need to talk to these people in order to assist them."

"They seem a little unfriendly," Rick reminded. "Threatening the Madracorn, and all."

"Maybe they're just scared," Adrian offered. "Scared people do dumb things."

Kippy placed a hand on Charlie's arm. "We need to at least try to help them."

"I know. I'm for that. But we have to start somewhere." Charlie turned to Horace. "You can see where they are now, right?"


Charlie nodded. "Can you see where they've been?"

Horace looked startled by the idea. "You mean where they came from before they arrived at Engris?"

"Uh huh."

The older man looked thoughtful. "I don't know."

Ragal touched Charlie's arm. "Something you should know. Despite the fact that these people only recently showed up at Engris, it does not mean that they died recently. They could have come from literally any era, or every era, of your planet's history, Charlie. Time here has no function. There is no correlation between the now we experience when we are here and the now back on your own world. Every second of your planet's history has equal access to the layer at all points."

Charlie frowned at that. "How is it that when we return to the real universe and go home, it's always to about the same moment in time that we left?"

Ragal shook his head. "The real universe exists within its normal dimension of time, Charlie. It's flow if you will. You exit that dimension of time when you come to the Cooee, or to here. When you go back, you reenter the same point in the flow from which you left, because that's where the real universe happens to be in its course through time. It is not the same for those that die in the real universe. They lose their bodies, which are their anchors within the flow of time. They come here, but because there is no time here, their arrival here cannot be measured in days, months, or years."

Charlie mulled that over, and was still not sure he understood it. "So, the short version is, they could be from any era in human history. And not even the same era?"

"Yes. Their bond is not one of time or culture or memory. They are bound together by one single desire. "

"To go home," Kippy said sadly. "Which they can never do again."


Adrian squeezed his eyes shut, and sighed. "This whole thing seems so sad."

Jol shook his head. "But it shouldn't be. These people are missing a great opportunity here. No matter what they had back in their world, they can have the same thing here. All they have to do is create it."

"You'd think they would know that," Casper reasoned. "Doesn't everyone here know this?"

Jol turned to Chirka. "If they did not understand where they were, or that they had died, what would their existence be like?"

The Kift's eyes widened. "You're asking me?" But she tapped her fingertips together, thinking. "I simply can't imagine anyone arriving here and not absorbing knowledge of this place."

Jol nodded. "It is hard to imagine." He turned to Charlie. "Something else is going on here."

Charlie shrugged at that. "Tanna Terail was very clear. She said they didn't know they were dead."

"Still. There is some other factor here we don't understand."

Kippy sighed, "Then we have to talk to them."

Charlie nodded. "Horace? You could get them to come here?"

"Oh, I think so. I can't command them to come. Summoning is not a demand. It's more like a request, with emphasis."

"Uh huh. Somehow, I think if you let this antagah know we'd like to see it, it will come. At this point, it's surely looking for options. I would think we'd be tempting on a number of fronts."

"Yeah," Rick said, rolling his eyes. "As targets, you mean."

Jol shook his head. "They will be limited in action here within this tor."

"So long as they have no special talents we are unaware of," Chirka added, pointedly.

"Well...yes." Jol nodded. "All we can do is wait to see."

Horace nodded. "So should I call them?"

Charlie shook his head. "Wait a second. Can you try to follow them back and see where they came from?"

"Oh. Wait a moment." Horace closed his eyes. "Um...I can see them. Let me see if I can roll this backwards...okay. Yes. Here they are inside Engris, and now here they are arriving. at" He opened his eyes. "Go back a ways, and they just fade away. I can't see where they came from before that."

"I didn't think you'd be able to," Jol said. "I think you only were able to follow them back that far because you were present on Engris when they first arrived. That is your common factor with them. Following them back before that would require a time element, And, as we all know, there is none here."

Ricky looked around the vast hollow of the tor, and then gave a little shiver. "What do we do? Do we need to prepare anything?"

Jol shook his head. "I am in command here. These devices respond to me, and will at a moment's notice. I will do nothing to curtail the antagah's arrival, because if they detect any sort of restrictions, they may simply choose not to visit. But once they are here, I have quite a number of tools at my command."

Charlie did a slow turn, examining the interior of the tor. It did look like a place where humans might have once challenged the gods. "I guess we just go ahead and do it."

Horace nodded. "Say the word, and I'll summon them."

Charlie reached out and touched Kippy's hand. "Stay close to me, okay?"

His boyfriend laughed. "You don't have to ask me to do that!"

"It may be a good idea to form a circle in the center of the stage," Jol said. "Link hands, so that we can share some of our talents, if needed."

"What about me?" Browbeat asked. "I don't have hands."

Ragal waved at him. "Here. Can you land on my shoulder.?"

The flyer tittered. "Bony thing like that? What will I hold onto?"

Ragal laughed. "You'll manage. Come."

Browbeat circled, and carefully lowered himself onto Ragal's shoulder. the perch was evidently larger than he had supposed, and he found a comfortable spot and sighed. "You're okay, fella," the little flyer said, following it up with a pleased titter of delight. "Oh, wow! Front row seat!"

Ragal cast a happy look Charlie's way, and Charlie grinned. "Found a friend, have you?"

"I always have room for one more," Ragal returned.

They formed a circle, facing inwards, and everyone joined hands. Charlie looked around the group of his friends, smiled at each one, and then nodded at Horace. "Okay. Do it."

The older man nodded, and closed his eyes. He grimaced, gave his head a little shake, and then opened his eyes again. "It's done. They're on their way."

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