Jessie found entering the Impossible Room a second time to be an unpleasant experience. Her heart-rate jumped as soon as she saw the inside of the cave, and everything in it reminded her of the desperate fight that they’d gone through just a day ago. The sensation wasn’t bad enough to make her turn around, it probably wasn’t even bad enough to make her fight less effectively, but she had to stop just inside the door and take a few deep breaths to calm herself down so her combat magic didn’t trigger.
Amadeus and Richard stepped through after her. They were moving cautiously, and looking around with interest, but they weren’t showing any real fear.
“Well, it wasn’t so bad getting in,” Richard said once he’d taken in the cave-like space
Kyle had insisted on going in to the room first. As such, he was the furthest down the tunnel. He’d been looking ahead, his body tense and poised to react to any threat. His right hand was open and a black sphere hovered above it, he held one of the Children’s big batteries in his other hand. Merv rode on his shoulder. Kyle had explained the cat would help him block other people’s magic, but he hadn’t explained how or why that was true. “Yeah, this time. Last time Jessie said it took several days to power up the Room’s spell.”
Jessie nodded, though the movement probably wasn’t obvious in the light from their phones. “This big gray sphere formed around you guys. You were in there for days.”
“I think that was part of the spell. The time distortion allowed us to channel more magic into the spell. I’m not sure we would have survived otherwise.”
Richard sort of nodded and made a noncommittal grunt, but didn’t say anything else to that. The group stood in silence for a moment, and Jessie listened carefully for any sound of movement. There wasn’t any. Jessie scanned the tunnel ahead for the red tinted light of the salamander’s flames. She didn’t see anything like that, the light playing on the tunnel was all the blue-white of LEDs. She did notice that the stalactite she’d broken off earlier was still broken. That suggested the room itself had persisted beyond their presence in it. Jessie hoped that was a good sign.
By unspoken agreement, the group moved down the corridor. Their footsteps echoed loudly even though everyone seemed to be trying to move softly. The air was thick with moisture and the scent of stone. There were hints of some hotter smell as well, but they were old and faint. The cave was cool, cooler than it had been the last time Jessie was in it. That also seemed like a good sign.
They passed where the salamander had blocked off their progress last time. Jessie saw the discarded stalactite fragment laying on the floor. She nudged it with her foot, but it refused to roll from where it was laying. Had the heat been enough to fuse it to the floor? That didn’t seem likely, the walls of the cave hadn’t grown liquid. Perhaps it was some other effect particular to the Room.
They rounded the second bend in the tunnel and it began to widen and grow lighter as they approached the map room. Kyle’s back was stiff, and he was so tense his movement looked slightly jerky. In contrast, Merv seemed oddly relaxed. Jessie wondered if Kyle had taught the cat to ride up there, or if it was magic, or if it was just a quirk of that animal.
They entered the map room. Kyle stopped just inside the cavern peering careful back and forth. “If it’s anywhere, it’ll be here,” he said.
He seemed inclined to wait, but Jessie couldn’t take the suspense. The adrenaline in her blood was only inches from triggering her combat magic, and it wasn’t like they could turn back even if the guardian was in the cave. As such, she slipped past Kyle entering the map cave proper. As she did that, he lifted a hand like he intended to restrain her, but then he let it drop perhaps realizing, as she had, that there was no getting around the risk. Instead he raised the hand that held the black knot of magic up a little higher. It moved and pulsed a bit. The bounty hunters followed followed Jessie into the room, their movements were smooth and coordinated flowing like water.
The little crew made their way around the perimeter of the cave until they could see the salamander, and then everyone relaxed. It was still in its alcove, and it was still stone. Jessie crossed to the creature and looked at it a little more closely than she’d had the time to last time.
She would have been inclined to say it looked like a statue. However, that was only because it was a stone animal. No real statue had ever been so detailed. The salamander had been caught in a pose of pain and anger. It’s back was twisted from how it had attempted writhe away from Kyle. Its tail had frozen just as it lashed the cave wall. It’s head was thrown back and its mouth was open displaying its jagged fish like teeth. Looking closely, Jessie could see some texture to the surface of the teeth; they were clearly organic, not carved.
“How do I work this,” Kyle asked from the center of the cave. His voice probably wasn’t loud, but it was enough to startle Jessie slightly as it echoed in the enclosed space after so much silence. He’d set down the battery so he had one hand free to work the map, but the darkness spell still hovered above the other.
“Alison just gestured at. The blue mark is where we came from, the green one is where we’re going. Whichever mark was touched last will flicker and that’s where the door will open.” Jessie crossed back to the crystal pillar. It was as it had been last time, a wavering Earth rotated under the mostly clear stone. It was facing Asia when she got to it, but it turned pretty quickly and in less than a minute North America was toward them. Only the natural features of the world were depicted. There were no marks for borders nations, but coastlines had the proportions Jessie recognized from globes and satellite images. She wondered if that meant eighteen hundreds maps had been that good or if the image been taken using magic.
Jessie leaned out and rested her hand flat against the stone and the globe stopped rotating. There was a blue flame burning over a patch of land that looked about right for Kentucky, and a green one high up the west coast and a bit inland. Jessie guessed it could be Spokane, but she wasn’t certain.
“How’d they get it as precise as a building,” one of the bounty hunters asked. Jessie didn’t catch who.
She shrugged. “Maybe it zooms in. I guess the children figured it out. The green has moved. All we did last time was this.” She reached out and tapped the stone above the green flame. It began to flicker as though someone was blowing softly on it. “After that we heard shouts from the back because the door had opened. It should be open now as well.”
“Sounds good,” Kyle said then he turned and walked away from the pillar.
It was odd. The journey back through the cave seemed to take almost no time at all. Of course it had never been large. The entire distance from the map pillar to the door was probably less than fifty meters. They could walk it in under a minute, but for obvious reasons, every other time it had felt longer. At the end of the tunnel the door was standing slightly ajar. The bounty hunters stepped out first, and Jessie followed.
Once she was back in the real world, Jessie honestly wondered if they might somehow have come out onto a spaceship. They were in a very very white room of some sort. There was a white linoleum floor, white walls paneled in shiny white plastic. The ceiling was done in white tiles which looked like they might have been Styrofoam, and it had an exposed framework of metal rafters. The main thing that argued against “space ship” was that the room was fairly large and very open. She wasn’t positive, but a regulation sized football field probably could have been dropped in its center without interfering with much of anything. There was a regular grid of pillars through-out it which seemed to exist to service outlets and something else that might have been a liquid or gas pipes based on the cap at their ends. There was a big yellow crane built into the ceiling, some shiny chrome equipment along the far wall, and a windowed room looking out over the floor.
“Geez, it’s a clean room. Actually a whole clean manufacturing floor.” Jessie hadn’t realized Kyle had exited behind her until he spoke.
Amadeus glanced back, “If you’re going to use this much white you pretty much have to keep the room clean.”
“No I mean…”
“I know what you mean. Just trying to lighten the mood.”
Jessie started to say, “Which way do you think…” When a flash of light caught her eye from the direction of the nearest pillar. Jessie didn’t have any her combat magic up, she was mostly a normal human, and she would have been hit by whatever it was had Richard not jumped forward and tackled her. They both went down and something bright went over their heads.
Richard grabbed Jessie by the fabric of her shirt and pulled her across the floor to behind one of the pillars. Fortunately, the shiny white floor was pretty slick so that little trick didn’t rip her shirt or choke her. Still, it was a less than pleasant experience. He let her go once they were under cover.
Kyle and Amadeus had run for the same pillar. They had to huddle close together to stay under cover but at least they could talk.
“What was that,” Jessie said, talking to anyone who was interested in answering.
Richard answered. “Something bright, fast-moving, and obviously magical. Usually that means deadly in this line of work. I didn’t wait to do a full taxonomy.”
That was logical. Jessie peaked around the base of the pillar. There was a middle-aged man with a bit of a gut and a receding hairline there. For some reason he looked really familiar. The man took a deep breath, and fire rolled and boiled around him. It clicked for Jessie. “That’s leader dude,” she whispered to the others.
They gave her a collective funny look which made sense given they hadn’t been living in her head when she fought the sorcerers in Pando. She explained, “That guy was the leader of a group I fought while they were trying to steal sap from the Pando generation station. We always knew they were connected to the Children of Atlantis, I guess Sandborn has called all the troops in for this job.”
“We don’t know it’s Sandborn,” Kyle objected.
Jessie rolled her eyes at him, and Amadeus shrugged. “Doesn’t matter much. He’s coming this way. Let me and Rich handle him, OK.”
“I bet I can block those flames with this,” Kyle held up a hand. A small, marble like, patch of darkness floated over it. “I read a little about Pando after Jessie got back. The fire spell in the tree is pretty efficient but I doubt it’s as good at this and I can manage a pretty solid charge of magic.”
Richard darted a look around the pillar. “He’s starting to circle around. I’d say we’ve got about thirty seconds until he has an angle on us.” Richard and Amadeus had both been wearing light jackets since they’d first walked into the Children’s house. That was reasonable given the cool weather. Richard now stripped his loose and exposed a low profile shoulder holster. Out of it he drew an autocaster.
“If you think you can get past him, then just go. It’ll be a useful distraction and you need to get that fuzzball to wherever the party is going down asap. We don’t know how much time we have.” He gestured at the crook of Kyle’s other arm where Merv now rested, apparently comfortable and ignorant of human concerns. As he was speaking, Amadeus also pulled off his jacket and produced an autocaster.
Kyle opened his mouth, probably to argue, but they were out of time. Leader Dude appeared around the edge of the pillar about 20 feet away and sent a wash of fire at their position. Richard was ready, he raised his autocaster and triggered something on it. A distortion, like a big sheet of frosted glass appeared between them and the flames about 10 feet away. What happened on the other side wasn’t that clear, but the back side of the spell washed bright orange and a bit of the shiny white floor that was visible under its bottom edge blackened.
Jessie pushed Kyle on the shoulder, “Go! I took this chump down all by myself last time.”
Kyle looked a bit pained, but he listened. He raised his hand and the spell rolled up and off it curving around to shield him from sight and, presumably, fire. Then the black pillar moved off at a pretty good clip.
Jessie reached into her pocket and pulled out the small container she normally used to burn up her extra magic. She reached into it, which was weird because it looked like her hand shrank down or got really far away right as it passed the edge of the opening, and pulled out the supplies she’d been keeping in there for some time: several sets of plastic handcuffs, her acupuncture needles, and a container of pepper mace.
That finished Jessie looked over at the bounty hunters expecting Leader Dude to be down already. Only he wasn’t. Instead of laying face-down on the floor with his hands cuffed behind him Dude was facing down Richard and Amadeus. In one hand he held a great big tower shield of pure light, in the other a whip of flame. It seemed, he had been practicing with the sap.
From her own experience Jessie Knew the fire would block almost any projectile. Still, it shouldn’t have done anything to spells. However, he had a strategy for that. When Jessie turned to look at the battle Amadeus had been hiding behind a shield Richard was controlling with his autocaster. As she watched, he dodged out from behind it for just an instant to fire off a spell. However, as soon as he wasn’t protected, Leader Dude’s whip snapped around and nearly caught him. It was enough to spoil the shot and drive Amadeus back to cover.
Then Jessie got lucky.
That was how she would remember it later. One of those times when things could have worked out very differently had something small just broken in the other direction. What happened was she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. It didn’t worry her or anything, but she turned to look in that direction because she didn’t have any idea what might be moving. It was the turn that saved her. A ball of yellow red light shot past her and only missed because she had stepped slightly to the side as she moved to look in a new direction.
She felt a sharp pulse of fear and it triggered the combat magic. She dropped to the floor, then army crawled to the back of the pillar she’d been standing next to so that she was once again hiding behind it. Once she was out of sight she tucked the supplies she’d taken out of her cube of twisted space a moment before and tucked them into her pockets. Or at least she sort of tucked them into her pockets. Her pockets were the tiny things sewn into a female cut garment, and the only thing that felt was securely stowed was the set of needles. The stun gun might stay in place. The zip tie cuffs probably wouldn’t.
Meh, she thought, I’ll just crack anyone’s head if they won’t hold still.
That done she jumped straight up, and caught the sides of the pillar about 15 feet above the ground. Unlike the walls, the pillar was mostly metal, and it wasn’t easy to hold on to. She caught both sides of it with her open palms with a bit of a bang, slide a couple of feet back down it, then managed to hold on tightly enough to arrest her fall. The precarious nature of her perch should have worried her, but normal common sense had already faded just a bit.
Instead of contemplating the fall to the ground she poked her head around the edge of the pillar to take a good look at who had shot at her. It was Jen. She was holding a modern autocaster trained forward and approaching the pillar at a slow careful walk.
Jessie pulled her head back behind the pillar and then shouted more or less directly into it so as to make her voice echo oddly, and hopefully obfuscate her location, “What the hell Jen?”
“You know, I’d say it’s not personal, but I gotta be honest. It’s kind of personal. I don’t think I ever told you why I got into a history major. I started out magic. ME even, just like your boyfriend, but I didn’t have the ability to focus it that well. My grades were fine, but I couldn’t kick out the current.” Jen’s voice sounded like it was coming from about the same place she’d been when Jessie had last looked at her.
Jessie bit her lip and considered. She wasn’t in a very good position. If Jen walked right under her, Jessie could drop down on her. However, if Jen had the sense to circle wide she’d have the advantage given the extra range of her weapon. Jessie could drop to the floor and try to run, but there was no cover. She’d probably get shot in the back.
Alternately, Jessie could climb. If she pushed off with both hands at once it would be enough to throw her a few feet up, but she’d have to catch herself with both hands again and that would be noisy, “That doesn’t sound like a very good reason for all of this. Especially since you’re one of the ones holding a gun right now. I think maybe you know a bit more about what’s going on then, say, Lynn ever did.”
“That hippy? He just wants to smoke weed all day and try to become immortal. I’m not even sure he knew the group’s name for the first year he was in it. But you’re right, I’m a bit more tapped in than most. It’s going to take some force to accomplish our ends.” Her voice had drifted to the left. She was circling. At least she’d have to cover a bit more ground, and since she was moving slow that gave Jessie some time.
“Your ends?” Jessie said, then she waited just a second and jumped hoping Jen’s answer would cover the noise as she caught herself.
Jessie wasn’t certain that had happened, but Jen did answer. “Equality. Ending the haves and have-nots. I was never going to go far in ME, there’s work if you don’t have very powerful magic, but it’s not as good. Not as fun. And what about the people way at the top of the ladder. The Archmagi? They have everything and it’s all genetic lottery!”
Jessie had managed to jump three times during that little speech. She didn’t know if Jen hadn’t heard the bangs or if she had just assumed they were sounds from distant equipment. Either way, her voice hadn’t changed much, so Jessie thought she was still moving in slowly. Without being able to use her legs the jumps were short, but she was now a good 30 feet off the ground. Unfortunately, the manufacturing floor had a very high ceiling. She had another 20 feet to go. “So, people get lucky. Can’t do much about that.”
“They could be made to work for the common good.”
15 feet to go. “Geez, forced labor?”
“It doesn’t have to be… What the hell little froggy! How’d you get up there?”
Shit, Jessie thought. “Don’t let me distract you from didactic regarding the struggles of the magical proletariat.” It was a darn good quip, but Jessie’s voice wasn’t steady as she delivered it. She wasn’t talking for the pure joy of battle banter. Anything that distracted Jen from taking her shot was good. That was also why she jumped again half way through the comment.
A bolt of magic hit the pillar where she had been a moment before. No conversation followed. Jessie looked back and found Jen carefully sighting in on her. Jessie faked a jump telegraphing the movement broadly. Jen automatically tracked her up, fired and missed badly her shot going wide of the whole column.
It was all strangely silent. With a gun there would have been lots of noise, but the autocaster didn’t make any sound at all. Likewise Jen didn’t swear or complain, she just started to resight. It didn’t matter what the spell was, this high off the ground if it disabled Jessie it would likely also kill her. Yet Jen was totally cold. That spoke of a hell of a lot of anger.
Jessie jumped twice back to back while she knew Jen was pointed at the wrong place. Another quite flash of death went by during the second jump but it was wide, and then Jessie was at the rafters.
She caught one, did a pull-up, threw her leg over a beam, and managed to get on top of it just as another bolt hit. This time the spell was well-aimed; Jen was standing right under the beam pointing straight up. The unknown spell, faintly luminescent with the prettiest collection of reds and oranges swirling in its heart, seemed to drift toward Jessie as her combat spell slowed her perception of time.
She jumped. Even with her enhanced reflexes it was a clumsy move. Her foot skidded almost out from under her and she was slow and sloppy getting off the rafter. The spell hit. It washed up, through and into the beam, spreading out along its length and passing through it into her feet. Only the fact that she was almost in the air when it first touched her saved her. The bottom of her feet went numb instantly and the spell tried to climb her legs stretching like bubble gum as she got further and further away from the beam. Then it sort of broke and most of the energy snapped back to the beam.
A tingle passed through her body, but she didn’t lose any more sensation. That was good; she still had a landing to stick. The rafter she’d aimed at rushed toward her. She was too high. She was going to miss it.
She kicked, flipping herself upside down, stretched her arms out, and just barely caught the rafter with the tips of her fingers. That nearly dislocated her them, but it was also enough to slow her motion. Her fingers bent backwards then her hands, and she fell a bit bringing her whole palm into contact with the top of the beam. That slowed her yet more and she was finally able to get a good grip.
Of course, then she slowed abruptly and ended up banging her wrists into it, but she was willing to grade her results on a curve where anything above getting shot and falling to the floor counted as a passing grade. She swung the remainder of the way around it, popped off with her feet pointed into the air, flew up for a bit killing her momentum, and then flipped again and landed neatly on the beam.
She wished she had a video of that.
Unfortunately, Jen hadn’t lost her. In fact, Jen was hurrying toward the rafter she now occupied trying to line up another shot. Jessie took a few precious seconds to assess what was going on. The bounty hunters were still on the floor and still fighting with Leader Dude about one set of rafters over. His fire had dimmed considerably. He was sweating. His moves were slower. Richard and Amadeus still looked fresh. The fight wasn’t over yet, but Jessie thought they were winning.
That was good, because Jessie didn’t have any weapons and Jen was getting close. Maybe she could just dodge a couple more times and let one of them shoot Jen for her. Jessie jumped along the rafter a few feet to the right. She couldn’t go very far, but it was enough to make Jen fire early andmiss again. Not by much though, Jessie had almost jumped into the magic. Had Jen deliberately led her, or was that just bad luck?
Would it mater when her luck ran out?
Jessie glanced over at the next rafter. She could jump to it and buy just a bit more time, but not much and the room was only so wide. Then she saw the crane again. Yes! If she could lower it she might be able to jump on the chain and swing it at Jen. Better yet, the fight had taken Richard and Amadeus back by its controls!
She yelled, “Richard, the crane!”
Somewhat miraculously, Richard understood that and swatted something on the control panel that caused the hook to start descending… at the speed of a sedate walk. Jessie jerked her attention back to Jen in time to see her fire off another shot. This time she didn’t even have time to jump, she just dropped flat to the rafter. The first shot missed, but Jen fired a second almost instantly and Jessie only dodged it by rolling off the rafter and hanging below it.
She didn’t give Jen a time to fire a third time. As soon as the second shot missed, she kicked, flipped herself to the top of the rafter, and jumped through the air and landed on the next rafter over with no more plan than she’d had 30 seconds prior when she’d discarded that as a bad way to escape.
At least she managed to annoy Jen with all of that. “What the hell is wrong with you,” the other woman yelled. “Just hold still!” Then she got her temper under control a little and tried to sound reasonable, “You aren’t going to get away up there. Climb down, I’ll stun you on the floor. It’ll be a hell of a lot safer.”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” Jessie called back, “I totally trust your boss with my unconscious body. I mean, he’s like a surgeon or something right?”
Jen’s response was an inarticulate growl and a couple of long range shots that didn’t even come near hitting Jessie. Then she took off running towards the rafter Jessie now stood on. Which, Jessie realized, was great because the crane’s hook had finally made it to the ground level, and Jen was going to pass right by it.
Jessie couldn’t jump on the bottom of the hook and ride it like Tarzan into Jen. It was way to low for that, and she had the wrong angle on it anyway as she would have been jumping mostly down. However, as Jen ran toward her, she was able to jump into the middle of the chain and hit it hard enough that the hook swung further out with Jessie acting as a fulcrum point. The hook hit Jen, but it didn’t knock her over or anything she just staggered to the side.
She was knocked over when Jessie dropped the rest of the way to the floor and punched her in the kidneys. Even then she was conscious as Jessie zip-tied her hands together. All of which finished just in time for Jessie to watch as Leader Dude’s magic failed and he got tagged with a sleepy time spell.
“We’d better go help Kyle,” Jessie said to the bounty hunters.