Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

I Think This Place is Haunted, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 8

Never having encountered an antagah before, Charlie had no idea what to expect. Even so, what happened was...unexpected.

At some point he became aware of a rushing sensation, of something large, suddenly surging from rest into motion. It was like walking into a broad field of grass and disturbing a large flock of birds on the ground, which rose suddenly and uniformly into the air, one massive cloud, winging away into the sky. The sensation was one of many, and yet his senses told him they acted as one.

Around them, the towers circling the interior of the tor lit at their tops with a rose-colored glow, but no sounds came to break the silence of the desert. The eerie quiet without was a strange counterweight for the interior sense of motion, and approaching menace. And that's what Charlie felt: menace.

Kippy squeezed his hand on one side, and Horace on the other. That both were feeling the same interior turmoil seemed clear. The antaga was coming.

"Don't like the feel of this," Ricky mumbled, looking into the sunlit sky.

"I don't either." Adrian agreed, his expression pensive. "It feels big and powerful."

"Because it is," Chirka said calmly. "But don't allow it to intimidate you. And do not agree to join it in any way."

"Remember that last part, everyone," Charlie reinforced. "It can't take you unless you agree."

"It absorbed some that didn't agree," Kippy reminded.

"I'm not so sure of that now," Jol said. "Those opinions are from outside observers. We have no way of knowing what those absorbed may have agreed to. This thing has a very unusual feel to it. Beware of trickery."

The rushing feeling continued to draw nearer, and Charlie could feel its power growing. It seemed to be massing above their tor now, though not even a shadow eclipsed the late-afternoon sun. The feeling of something huge nearby, yet the absolute lack of any visible sign of it, was unsettling in the extreme.

And then, it simply ceased. Charlie drew a breath, shocked at the contrast to a moment before. Everything was still now, yet he could sense the presence of the antagah, as if it stood outside some invisible door, listening.

"It's here," Horace said, softly.

The air, until now calm, picked up as a light breeze blew across the top of the pyramid. A man appeared at the far side of the flat stage: a tall man, wearing a western-style hat like a Stetson, his body wrapped in a long gray duster which mostly covered a dark suit of some sort. He eyed them a moment, and his gaze moved among them, fixed briefly on Horace, and then moved on as he turned to look around the interior of the tor.

"What place is this?" His voice was deep, and sounded annoyed. "What right do you have to request my presence here?"

Charlie cleared his throat. "I'm Charlie. We simply wished to meet you."

The man's gaze moved to Charlie "Did you, now? I don't suppose it matters that I did not wish to meet you?" But then his eyes narrowed as he took them in, and he smiled a rather charming smile. "Although, this might prove to be interesting, after all."

Charlie nodded. "Who am I speaking with?"

The man laughed. It was not a friendly laugh, though the charming smile remained. He opened one side of his duster, displaying a gleaming badge pinned upon the breast of the suit coat beneath. "I'm Sheriff Lane Tallfield. You might say, I'm leader of this posse."

"Posse?" Charlie asked.

The man shrugged, and held up his gloved hands. "Surely you know what a posse is?"

Ricky gave a small grunt. "Hunting down the bad guys, are you?"

Tallfield looked amused. "You might say that." He looked around the interior of the tor again. "This place surely has the look of the devil's playground."

"It's a neutral place," Charlie explained, smiling. "For talking."

"Uh huh. So you brought me here to talk? I can't imagine what you and I might have to talk about."

"I think the direct approach is the way to deal with this one," Ragal suggested calmly.

Charlie nodded. "You're blocking access to Engris," he continued to the sheriff. "You have the Madracorn concerned."

The man before them looked interested now. The charming smile returned. "Ah. Things become more clear. You were sent by the gatekeepers, were you?"

Gatekeepers? "I'm not sure I understand the reference."

Tallfield looked unconvinced at that. "Oh, I think you do. These friends of yours, they control the only way out of here." The man leaned forward. "I don't know how I've come to be in this place, but I am not staying here. My senses tell me there's one way home, and I intend to get back there. And no demon - nor the pawns of demons - will keep me here."

Charlie squinted at the man. "Just where do you think you are?"

"Oh, come on." But when Charlie's serious expression showed no change, the man issued forth an exasperated sigh. "I know where I am, friend. Somewhere on the road to hell, just south of the fiery pit itself. I've seen it, and I want no part of it."

Kippy squeezed Charlie's hand. "He needs to know, Charlie. Just tell him. Do it now."

Charlie took a deep breath, let it sigh out slowly. "You can't go back," he said bluntly. "You're dead." He waved a hand around at their surroundings. "This is it, or some other reality like it."

Tallfield's eyes narrowed. "You think I believe that?" He patted his chest with one gloved hand. "I'm still here. I can still see, and hear, and feel." He waved a hand at Charlie, and then at the glowing towers all around them. "This's all part of the devil's game, trying to make me surrender my soul. Trying to take me over." He leaned forward then, a fury coming to his features. "I'm not having it, you understand me? I'll fight!"

Horace cleared his throat. "The members of your...posse? They feel as you do?"

Tallfield's expression magically relaxed, and a look of humor took the place of the fury. Once more with the charming smile, which Charlie was coming to hate. "'Of course they do. One mind, we are. One goal, we have."

Horace turned to Charlie. "He's controlling them somehow. They didn't join the antagah on their own."

Charlie blinked at that. "None of them?"

"No." Horace shook his head, staring at Tallfield. "He's able to tap into their power. But they aren't giving it willingly. He's some sort of power user, Charlie."

Tallfield smiled thinly at Horace. "You're the one that called me here. I owe you for that. And I never forget."

Chirka shook her head. "You're preying on those you have taken in with your lies."

The sheriff looked surprised by that. "My posse? Oh, no. Lost souls they are, just like me. Lost and alone, and wanting to go home. They came to me willingly. They trust me to take them home."

Chirka turned to Charlie. "He conned them, somehow. I can sense their distress, but it's not at being lost." She turned back to glare at Tallfield. "It's at being kept prisoner by you."

"I agree," Ragal said. "He's using them to power his fight with the Madracorn. It's true, the antagah is composed of those who do not know they have died. But they approached this man in the hope of learning more. And for their trouble, they were made prisoners."

A look of cold fury flashed across Tallfield's face, but was gone so suddenly that Charlie almost doubted he had seen it.

"I will not be kept in hell," the sheriff said, sounding calm now. "Nor will my followers."

Charlie shook his head. "You can't overpower Engris. The Madracorn cannot be coerced." He leaned forward emphatically. "If you persist in blocking Engris, they will be forced to deal with you in a way I think you will find even more unpleasant than your situation now."

Tallfield laughed. "What can be more unpleasant than hell itself?"

"You're not in hell," Kippy returned. "You're where all living things go when they die. Here, you have the ability to make your own world. To live peacefully and happily. But you can never go back to where you were in life."

"A hall of mirrors, is what this place is," Tallfield countered. "I have seen its like at the great carnival in St Louis. What you see here is not a true reflection of the world. It's a deception, a lie."

"Mirrors are reflectors of us," Horace replied, looking angry now. "If you don't like what you see in them, the reason comes back to you."

Tallfield's arm shot forward, and something sliced through the air with a whine towards Horace. But at the last second before impact, Uncle Bob simply leaned closer to his friend and snatched the projectile out of the air with a speed that made Charlie blink.

"Naughty," Uncle Bob said, holding up the weapon. Charlie had a glimpse of something like an arrow, but with multiple barbed heads at the front of it, all looking wickedly sharp. Uncle Bob brought it closer to his face, blew on it, and it turned to dust and was taken away on the breeze, right before Charlie's eyes.

The sheriff roared in anger, and spread his hands wide. A thunderous sound reached their ears, and a wall of what looked like water, twenty feet high, cut off their view of Tallfield as it barreled towards them.

Again, Uncle Bob reacted with amazing speed, and threw up his own hands. The wall of water suddenly split in two just as it reached them, and flowed harmlessly around their group to either side. The flow maintained for a full ten seconds, and then just as suddenly, was gone. Charlie looked down at the polished stone around them - it wasn't even wet.

"These things aren't real," he said turning to Uncle Bob.

"They are, and they aren't," the older man returned softly. "They're magical things, Charlie."

"And here, magic has some teeth," Jol reminded. "You cannot be hurt or killed, but some things can be almost as unpleasant. The feeling of being washed away in a flood, or having your body pierced by darts, would be unpleasant, to say the least."

"There are things that can be done to your mind that hurt as much as if they're done to your body," Casper said solemnly. "I know."

The memory of what Casper had endured at the hands of fanatics of his own kind pained Charlie, and he winced at the memory. "He seems not to care if he inflicts pain on someone," he agreed.

"He said he would get Horace," Casper whispered. "And he tried."

"He was also trying to distract us for some reason," Bob said. "He's up to something."

Tallfield was watching them closely now, a smile on his face. "Talk about looks being deceiving. You people are much more than a first glance would suggest."

"I don't like this guy at all," Kippy stated then, loudly enough for Tallfield to hear him. "Nothing but bad feelings coming from him."

"He's a user," Adrian agreed. "Watch out for him, Charlie. He'd lie to his own mother if it serves his purposes."

The look of fury flashed across the sheriff's face once again, there and gone in a second. But Charlie was certain he saw it this time.

Tallfield smiled his charming smile again, and held his hands out in a placating gesture. "Now, wait a moment, friends. I think we started off badly. I think we've gotten a totally erroneous opinion of each other here."

"So you're really a sweetheart, huh?" Kippy asked, acid dripping from is voice.

"I am, actually," the other man agreed. "Here I am, shepherding a flock of the lost across the borders of hell, itself, just looking for a way to go home. It's easy for tempers to flare in a situation like that."

Charlie considered that, and had to nod. If someone actually believed such a thing, it could lead to misunderstandings. A wave of sympathy washed over him then. "Understandable," he said, though he wasn't sure why it sounded wrong to say so.

"What?" Kippy frowned, but nodded. "Maybe."

"Charlie --" Ragal began, but then stopped, as Charlie felt a new wave of sympathy for Tallfield and the plight of his people wash over him then. These were humans, just like himself, stranded in a distant place, strangers in a strange land, wanting nothing more than to find peace. Wanting nothing more than to go home.

What was wrong with that?


Charlie pulled his eyes away from the lawman, and looked at his friends. They were all staring ahead, as if listening to something far away. Charlie heard the hum of wings then, felt a weight settle onto his shoulder.

"Charlie!" came Browbeat's whisper. "This one's a hypnotic! He's taking you over!"

"Just to go home," came Tallfield's voice again, soft now. Caressing. "We all want to go home, don't we? Wouldn't you like to go home, too? Join us, and come along."

Panic reared itself in the back of Charlie's mind then. The swiftness and sureness of what Tallfield was doing spoke of long experience at influencing people. The man was a power user, and his power - or one of them - was that of a Mesmer, a hypnotist!

Charlie blinked, looked away from the man, the effort to do so forcing a groan from his lips.

"No, Charlie," Tallfield said then, his voice a purr. "You will not look away."

With a feeling of pure terror, Charlie realized what was happening. Tallfield was taking control of him! Taking away his right to be himself! Taking away his freedom! And not just him, but his friends, too!

The realization was shocking and horrifying, and Charlie turned within the tiny prison of his mind now, looking for a way out.

"You belong to me now," Tallfield whispered. "Say yes, Charlie. Join me!"

Charlie closed his eyes, tried to clear his head. He spun wildly once more within the slowly shrinking prison of his mind, and collided with something then; something that reached out to him and offered a warm embrace. Charlie was shocked at the touch, and stopped squirming long enough to look. And then he gasped as his second presence roared past him and surged forth into freedom. He opened his eyes, looked back at Tallfield, just as his second self materialized behind the man. The other Charlie quickly spread his arms, moved closer to Tallfield's back, and then swung his hands together with tremendous force, slamming his palms against the lawman's ears!

Tallfield yelped and threw his head forward in surprise, and Charlie gasped as he was suddenly released from the powerful grip of the other man's will. Browbeat took to the air and circled warily, for the first time looking anything but happy.

Ragal and Adrian both leaned forward then. Adrian's hand came up, and a lightning bolt as thick as his arm flashed out and caught the rogue lawman dead center. He was lifted into the air and thrown backwards, even as something dark and alive surged away from Ragal and pounced upon Tallfield, wrapping him in a black cocoon of arms even as he crashed back to the ground.

Charlie winced as a flurry of motion exploded seemingly over his head, the mass movement he had felt earlier returning, though there was nothing to be seen in the sky. But this time, instead of a feeling of coming nearer, it was a sense of dispersion, as thousands of parts of what had been a whole were suddenly freed, and fled in every direction.

"No!" Tallfield was, incredibly, on his feet again, fighting against the black bonds that held him. "My posse!"

Uncle Bob and Horace, both, raised their hands. A second wave of darkness sprang forth from Bob's fingertips, a copy of what Ragal had just sent forth, and the inky black tentacles shot forward to wrap themselves around Tallfield, adding their strength to Ragal's phantom bonds. Horace's finger described a square, and a hole suddenly appeared in the polished stone beneath Tallfield's feet. The man plunged downward into the abyss, and Horace's fingers immediately retraced the same path, forming polished stone once again, and entombing the man beneath.

The entire pyramid rumbled beneath their feet. Jol moved closer to Charlie now, his eyes wide. "I'm trying to expel him from this reality, Charlie! I can't!"

The pyramid rumbled again, and one side blew outward, raining chunks of stone onto the desert floor below. Something dark shot out then, and sailed away, climbing as it did so, until it disappeared over the rim of the mountain and was gone.

Immediately, peace descended upon the tor once again.The feeling of oppression Charlie had felt lurking about his head vanished.

Charlie turned to Jol, but stopped himself from saying anything as he saw the look of concentration on the man's face. The Alsaran had his eyes closed, and by the look of him, was intent on something important.

Kippy moved closer to Charlie and put an arm around him, and leaned his head on Charlie's shoulder. "That bastard almost had us."

"We didn't know," Adrian said, he and Rick joining them.

"How could we?" Rick added. "The guy's a mind controller, or something."

Browbeat dropped down to hover beside Charlie. "He's a hypnotic. I've encountered them before."

"I haven't," Charlie said, turning to the little flyer. "Thanks. You saved us, I think."

Browbeat's good cheer returned. "He wasn't fun. But you guys are. I couldn't let him take you away from here." The trace of a pout appeared on the flyer's face. "You guys are my friends!"

Kippy sighed, and turned his head to smile at Charlie. "I love this guy."

The rest of the group, save for Jol, joined them.

Charlie turned to Ragal, and managed to smile. "Well, there goes my cherished belief that you're omnipotent."

The tall alien shook his head. "He was fast and very subtle, Charlie. I was just realizing what he was doing when he put me under. I was too busy fighting for control then to warn you."

"I had no idea what was happening," Uncle Bob said. "One minute I was mad at the guy, the next I wanted to be his buddy."

Horace shivered at the thought. "That was the most frightening thing to happen to me since I became a member of this group."

Ragal reached out and dropped a hand on Horace's shoulder. "The good news is that it cannot happen so easily again. Forewarned is forearmed, in this case. A power user like this Tallfield works by stealth. But once you know what he's capable of, your mind will erect natural barriers to having it happen again."

Kippy frowned at that. "He can't do it again?"

Ragal grinned. "No, he can. But if he does, you'll be aware of it immediately. The ability to fight back is crucial here."

Horace shook his head. "He was strong. I couldn't look away."

"It was the speed and unexpectedness of the attack that made it so successful," Ragal explained. "He would have trouble taking us all on again."

"Is he gone?" Horace asked. "Did Tallfield get away?"

"I don't think he's gone, no," Ragal said. He looked around the interior of the mountain, and nodded. "But he is no longer close by."

Charlie glanced at Jol, who was still concentrating, and then turned to Ragal again. "Am I right that the antagah dissolved?"

"Yes. When we broke Tallfield's concentration, his control lapsed, and they were able to escape him. A wonderful job you did with your second presence, Charlie."

Charlie shrugged in amazement. "I have to say that it seemed to me to act on its own. I was desperately trying to fight Tallfield's power, and my second self just went on the attack on his own."

Uncle Bob laughed. "I don't know what that black octopus thing is you used, Ragal, but I instantly knew how to do it the moment I saw you use it."

The tall alien's eyes twinkled. "I have never had that ability before now, myself. This place brings some amazing powers to the surface."

"I find this whole experience to be amazing," Chirka said, smiling. "Despite the obvious dangers. I should have thought to bring others with me here before now."

Ricky leaned closer to Charlie. "What's with Jol?"

Charlie glanced at the Alsaran again, and frowned. "Damage control of some kind, I expect. He told me he tried to expel Tallfield from this reality, and couldn't. I don't want to bother him while he's working."

"Tallfield has some unique abilities," Ragal said slowly. "They seem better suited to the lower layer, somehow, than to the real world. His powers may even extend to manipulating realities here in the lower layer."

"Other people's realities, you mean?"

"As evidenced by the problems Jol seems to be having with him, yes. He's probably learning as he goes."

"I got the impression the man doesn't really know what he's capable of yet," Adrian suggested.

Ricky sighed. "So, what do you think? Did we win this round?"

Charlie considered that, and shrugged. "The antagah is dissolved, which I guess limits the danger to Engris. But I think I'd call it a draw, otherwise."

"We're not done with Tallfield yet," Kippy said. "I have a feeling."

"Me, too," Charlie agreed. "But we'll call it a draw, for now."

Jol opened his eyes than, and shook himself. "That was not fun."

"What happened?" Kippy asked, before anyone else could.

The Alsaran turned to look at them. "Our friend is still here. I have managed to rewrite some of the base protocols to control the damage he is capable of, but there seems to be no just throwing him out. He has some sort of ability to embed himself here that I've never seen before."

"Big surprise," Adrian said, grimacing.

Uncle Bob shook his head. "Well, then, we're not done here, are we? I realize the danger to Engris is past...I think...but we can't just go off and leave Jol stuck with our new friend."

"I agree," Charlie said.

"I got the impression he was going to try to rebuild the antagah," Jol said. "I've put out a warning to everyone here about him. I don't think he'll have it as easy the second time."

"I don't know why he doesn't just leave," Rick said, frowning. "He can go back out into the layer and try to recruit people that don't know about him. But here, he's a marked man."

The Alsaran sighed. "I think he wants his revenge on us for disrupting his plans."

Browbeat tittered nervously. "Here it comes!"

"What kind of revenge?" Casper asked, a hint of dread in his voice.

"The kind we won't like," Jol said, with certainty. "He resonates like a man filled with an intense hatred of something. People like that tend to easily transfer their wrath to others, and other causes."

"What will we do?" Adrain asked. "Go after him?"

"Not right now, anyway." Jol closed his eyes and frowned. "I can't exactly find him at the moment."

"Then he probably did leave," Uncle Bob ventured.

The Alsaran shook his head. "No, he's still here. I followed him when he left this place, but I was too busy trying to head him off trying to take control of some functions of my reality to really pay close attention to where he went."

Horace gaped at that. "Take control off your reality! Can he do that?"

Jol smiled. "Excuse me? You seem to have some of this ability, yourself."

Horace looked taken aback. "But I would never use it to harm what you're built here! This is your reality."

"Well, the difference is in your set of values, and the ones that this Tallfield goes by. Which seem to be a little short on respect for others or their property."

Charlie held up his hands. "This guy is different than any power user we've ever encountered. We may need some help with this."

Ragal scratched his chin in thought. "What have you got in mind?"

Kippy smiled. "Max. Or maybe Keerby?"

Chirka emitted a tiny sigh of wonder. "There are more of your group?"

Kippy laughed. "A lot more!"

Charlie smiled at her. "Does that bother you?"

"No. It's's hard to conceive of you being more able than you are now."

Ricky snorted at that. "Able? We nearly became part of the antagah!"

"But you didn't," the Kift pointed out. "You prevailed. I know I would not have done so on my own."

"Don't sell yourself short," Charlie advised, smiling.

"I'm not. But I'm a scientist, not a warrior." She sighed "And not a male. Those of my kind that occasionally enjoy a good fight are of the other gender than my own."

"Ow!" Kippy laughed at that. "Well, we're all male."

Tchk-tchk-tchk. "But you wear it rather well."

That brought a round of smiles, and Charlie could see the tension ebbing out of them. They had nearly lost the battle, but for the moment, the war was a draw.

"If he's still here, will you eventually find him?" Charlie asked Jol.

"Yes. I have a good idea of the direction he's gone already, and so can even speculate on where he has wound up. I think he's gone to Atackit tor."

Charlie's eyebrows jumped upwards. "That's the place of"

"Tursin," Jol supplied, smiling. "Yes."

"Why the heck would he go there?" KIppy asked.

The Alsaran turned to him. "This reality is a game for me, as much as a pleasant place to be. I have set things up to allow for some, shall we say, competition. This was supposed to make things more interesting. What's life, without a little turmoil now and then?"

Kippy smiled. "But this is death!"

Jol laughed. "You know exactly what I mean, young fella. This place is designed to mimick life in many respects. And life needs spice. It needs variety. If it always goes one way, your way - if it's always pleasant, it becomes dull! The competition between Ulexium tor and Atackit tor is part of the fun. The full-time residents here enjoy it!"

Adrian looked amazed. "Having your cargo ships attacked by Tursin's privateers is fun?"

"Of course it is. Every move by either side is a move in the game. Tursin knows he cannot take this reality from me. But his joy is in trying."

Charlie exchanged looks with Kip, and for the first time Charlie really understood why the Baron Ulren had allowed the fast-draw game Ricky had won with Murgess to take hold in his reality. It was another nod to chance, another dance with the unknown. Jol was a man who would wither in a world where everything was stable.

"You're enjoying this thing with Tallfield," he said then. "You're having fun!"

"I know I am!" Browbeat called, tittering gleefully.

Jol smiled at Charlie. "An eternity is a long time, even if there's no time to count passing. It's why there are billions of realities here. It's why some people move from one to the next endlessly, never staying anywhere for long. To experience variety, Charlie. To feel excitement again!"

Kippy gaped at that. "Is everybody here an excitement junkie?"

Jol looked surprised. "I don't know the term."

Kippy looked contrite then. "I didn't mean it the way it sounded."

Ricky laughed. "He was asking if everybody here was addicted to excitement."

Jol smiled then. "No. Some are interested in the thrill of exploration. Others in the joy of learning new things. Some simply want a quiet existence in a reality that they find familiar and comfortable. Each of us has a different take on happiness. Me? I want a world I find familiar and comfortable, but I also want it to be exciting!"

"What will Tallfield do in Atackit tor?" Horace asked.

Jol smiled. "If I were him, I'd ally myself with Lord Tursin, and use the position to lure us to confront him again. Only this time he will have things set up in his favor. Or, so he thinks."

"Can he do that?" Charlie asked.

"To a point. There is only so much that he can do to me. This is my reality, these are my rules. Tallfield has shown an ability to amend some of the place rules - meaning he can alter the physical environment to some extent - but he can't touch the overall rules of construction, because they simply are not accessible to anyone but myself. So he can't change the way the world works, except minutely."

"I can't believe he's chosen to remain here," Charlie said.

"He wants to have at you pretty badly, I would imagine," Ragal said. "You have no idea how some people value their egos, Charlie. You have wounded his. He will be unable to do much of anything else until he feels it has been made whole again."

"That's sick," Uncle Bob said.

"Nevertheless," the tall alien returned. "I feel that is now his mission. To make us go to him, and then to re-stage the battle he lost here today, in such a way that he prevails next time."

"Creepy," Ricky said, shaking his head. "The guy's short a couple of cans in his six-pack."

"I wouldn't write him off as simply insane," Ragal objected. "He is of a type you may just have not encountered before. For Tallfield, having his way is everything."

Charlie nodded, and turned to Jol. "Would it be safe for us to leave for a while, and then come back?"

The man smiled. "You mean go to visit another reality?'

It occurred to Charlie then that Jol had no way of knowing that they weren't really dead. That they were not a permanent part of this lower layer.

"Something like that," Charlie agreed.

The other man shook his head. "It won't matter at all. While subjective reality moves along here, time has no meaning. You can leave and simply come back to the same moment when you left. Or even a subjective day later, as that will give me some time to make some plans."

Charlie turned to Chirka. "Can we do that?"

"Oh, surely. I can set the...I can bring us back here to the moment we left, or even shortly thereafter."

Charlie nodded. "Then that's what we'll do. We need to go look up some help, and to make some plans."

Jol nodded. "Then while you're gone, I'll get some things done that I need to do. I will know the moment you're back. Simply drop in at Ulexium when you return, and we'll go from there."

"You're leaving?" Browbeat asked, sounding disappointed. "But the fun is just starting!"

Charlie patted his shoulder. "Land here a moment, will you?"

The flyer zipped over, hovered a moment above Charlie's shoulder, and then settled to a landing. Charlie turned his head and smiled into Browbeat's golden eyes. "We'll be back, you hear? We're going to go see about getting someone who knows a little more about people like Tallfield than we do. We want an advantage, see?"

"Sure. I'd do the same, if I could." The flyer sniffed. "I'll just hang out while you're gone, I guess."

Jol smiled at Browbeat. "You're free to come with me for the interim. That way, when they return, you'll be right there and ready to go."

Browbeat shot into the air, and zipped excitedly in a small circle. "That'll be fun!"

Kippy turned a smile on Charlie, and the affection in his eyes was clear.

Charlie nodded. "Jol, you're sure everything will be okay while we're gone?"

The man squinted at them. "You're very new to this, aren't you?"

Charlie grinned. "Somewhat."

"Well, just elect to return one day later than you left, and we'll pick up from there." He turned to Browbeat then. "If you're coming with me, please land on my shoulder."

"We're not taking the runner back to Ulexium?" the flyer asked.

"No. That will be too slow. I'll instruct the runner to return to the rental site. You and I will do a direct transfer back to Ulexium.

Browbeat flipped about in a loop, raced to Jol, and settled onto his shoulder. "I'm ready! See you soon, new friends!"

Jol cast a last smile at Charlie, and then let it travel around the circle of faces. "New fiends, indeed. Until we meet again."

And then he and the flyer simply vanished.

Kippy sighed, and pulled himself closer to Charlie. "I'll miss that little Browbeat. And Jol."

Charlie nodded. "It's just for a short time." He cast a last look around the upper stage of the pyramid, and then turned to Chirka. "Whenever you're ready."

He caught a last glimpse of the blood red sun, now settling towards the horizon; and then the stage wavered, and was gone.

A wonderful recounting!" Eseffa said, after they had finished their story. "Jorli and I were able to observe most of what you accomplished."

Kippy's jaw dropped, and he looked indignant. "And you just sat there, while this thug Tallfield assaulted our brains?"

Jorli held up a hand quickly. "He did not take you in. By then, the correct factors were in place to allow you to prevail."

Charlie frowned at that. "You mean Browbeat?"

"He was just one factor," Eseffa agreed. "There were others."

Kippy huffed. "After all that talk of the resources of Engris being behind us! We had to fight off that cocksure cowboy on our own!"

Charlie and the others laughed.

"Come on, Kip!" Ricky said. "It wasn't that bad!"

"We actually did help there," Jorli assured them. "When I said that Engris would assist you, I didn't mean that we would roll in with the troops and start shooting."

"Well, a little of that wouldn't have hurt!" Kippy retorted.

Eseffa smiled. "It was us that prompted Browbeat to look you over in your library. We felt his natural curiosity would prompt him to join you after that. He was of great assistance in the confrontation with Lane Tallfield."

"He was," Charlie admitted. "And we've become very fond of him."

"There will be no need to sever your relationship with him after this affair is over. He can always visit you in a spirit dome whenever you're here."

Kippy pouted at that. "It won't be the same."

Jorli turned to look at his companion. "There may be something we can do."

Eseffa looked alarmed. "Oh, my, don't get their hopes up!"

"What?" Kippy demanded, looking from one Madracorn to another.

"Jorli spoke out of turn." Eseffa said, casting a pained look at his friend. "We'll discuss this later."

"I want to know!"

Charlie dropped a hand on his boyfriend's arm, and squeezed it. "Let it go, Kip. They won't tell until they're ready."

Kippy huffed again, and crossed his arms defiantly. "Darn aliens and their secrets!"

Ricky and Adrian grinned, and Charlie sighed. "You want to get home for Halloween, don't you?"

Kip grumbled something unintelligible, but then nodded. "I guess."

Charlie turned back to Eseffa. "The spirit domes are up again?"

"Yes. We knew the moment the antagah had been dissolved. And those members that escaped have been made aware of their situation now."

Horace gasped. "You told them they were dead?"

"Don't you think it only fair?" Jorli asked. "Of the billions of new spirits that arrive in the lower layer each subjective day, there are always some small few who have no idea where they are or how they got there. Of that percentage, there are some few who, because of their natures, never seek out the explanations they need. The timid and the meek often live sheltered lives, and have little idea of the greater world around them."

"We help them to adapt," Eseffa said. "And to reconnect with those they left behind, if possible. It makes for a much happier crowd in the layer."

"I can see that it would." Charlie sighed, feeling tired. "I'm ready to go home."

"Thank you, Charlie We'll be here when you return."

Chirka dropped them off at the port. "No matter how long you're gone, it will not matter," she assured them. "When you return, we can go back to The Tors at any moment after we left, and resume."

"What will you do while we're gone?" Kippy asked.

The Kift laughed. "Seriously? I have a very full library of information to explore. We have attracted some very interesting patrons. And remember, for me, you will be back in subjective time, but without pause to the world here." She looked up at Charlie then. "You seem distant, young man. Are you troubled?"

Charlie shrugged. "Just thoughtful. I've been imagining what it might be like to wake up and have no idea where I was, or what had happened to me."

"You think this guy Tallfield really doesn't know he's dead?" Ricky asked.

"I think he is at least in denial," Chirka offered. "He has managed to convince himself he is in some infernal place of his own imagining."

"There may be more going on than that, even," Ragal added. "Whatever his frame of mind may be, it is only going to cause trouble for Jol in his reality. We will have to do something about that."

"I have a question," Uncle Bob said. "Do you think that Tallfield knows that we've left?"

"I don't think so," Casper spoke up. "He may realize it at some point, but only after we return. We have to return a day after we left in order for him to experience the interval that we were gone."

Ricky laughed. "Time, no time, crazy time! It's enough to make you batty!"

Chirka patted Charlie's hand. "And now, a hug, please? From each of you?"

Charlie was touched. He dropped to one knee, and embraced the little Kift. They each took a turn exchanging hugs with her, and then she left them.

They walked back to the villa, and finally collapsed on the comfortable seating in the main room.

"I hate this feeling of incompleteness," Ricky said. "It's going to drive me nuts until we get back there."

Uncle Bob leaned forward in his seat. "Are we all going back?"

Charlie had to smile at that. "Do you want to go back?"

Bob looked surprised, and then turned to Horace. "You want to go back, don't you?"

Horace nodded immediately. "Of course! We must finish what we have started."

Uncle Bob grinned. "Then we're going back."

Charlie turned to Ragal and Casper. "Need I even ask the two of you?"

"No!" Casper said immediately. "Just try to keep us from going!"

"I would like to be included, yes," Ragal added.

Kippy snorted. "We're all going. Now we just need to figure out who to ask to go with us. Max, or Keerby."

"Christmas will be coming up," Rick reminded. "Max will already be busy."

"And Keerby is cuter," Adrian pointed out. "Though only a little."

"We have two jobs coming up back at the office, too," Charlie considered out loud.

"We can come back here and do what we need to do, and still get them done," Ricky argued. "No time, remember?"

Charlie nodded. "Yeah. But...I want some time to mull a few things over. I'm thinking we'll come back the week before Christmas."

Ricky frowned at that, but nodded. "You're the boss."

"We'll work it out," Charlie assured him. He turned to Kip then. "Are you ready to go home and terrorize some rugrats for Halloween?"

Kippy winced. "Actually, after today, I kind of don't want to terrorize anyone. Maybe we can just sit on your front porch and hand out candy, without the terrorizing part?"

Charlie sighed, and scooted closer to his boyfriend. "Whatever you want, love."

Kippy finally smiled. "That's my sweet Charlie."

Charlie sighed, for the moment feeling himself again. But he knew now that he would never forget the shock and horror he had felt when he had realized that Tallfield was taking control of him. The he was losing himself to the other man. That must not be allowed to happen again.

Among all the people they knew - the very talented people - there had to be a way to deal with this hypnotic power. He would have to ask around, among the elves, maybe even here on Engris. He could call Pacha'ka, or even ask Murcha. Someone had to know something. There had to be a way to counter such mental tampering.

Because they would be going back to The Tors. They could not leave Jol to face Tallfield alone. They had to end what they had started.

But the next time they met the smiling man in the cowboy hat, they would be ready.

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