Ramailo was already there waiting for us. He had a barrier up around himself to prevent the Shadows from eating him. We tethered him to us (he raised an eyebrow but said nothing about our odd choice) and then split up to search for the leaks. I was better prepared this time around, determined not to let fear or anguish get to me. I made my way carefully through the screaming, wailing Shadows. This place seemed endless. There had to be a better way to move through it. I sent out a mental tug along our shared tether. One by one, the boys showed up nearby. “Has anyone found anything yet?” I questioned.
They all shook their heads no. “I have an idea. It’s kind of like searching for a call sign. Aniella, if I give you the energy signature for the Shadows, can you overlay another realm like you did at our tennis game? The Shadows can be the ground. That way the edges of this realm will be made apparent,” Mark suggested.
“Feed it to me. Davis, Ramailo, help delineate the energy signatures of everything else,” I ordered. I focused on Mark, who opened his mind to me. I felt the shape of the signature he sent to me and refolded the realm to set the Shadows as the ground. Davis and Ram focused on shaping any other energy. When it was done we opened our eyes. The Shadows were all flattened beneath our feet, stretching off into infinity. Up above was nothing but a grey expanse with wounded-looking red spots puncturing it. Every now and then a Shadow would get sucked through one of the red punctures, rounding out into clouds as they did so. “Guess we found the holes,” I remarked.
“Now for the fun part. We have to seal them all but not before finding out where they all go,” Mark summed it up.
“How do you propose we do that?” Davis inquired.
“You and I will stay together. That’s so I can safely get through realms and so you can build a more complete ledger. Keep track of as many realms as you can. I’m very fast but I’ll remember as much as I can so you have a more accurate picture. But my main focus is going to be getting the Shadows back here. Once we arrive back, Ani and Ram will seal the holes. This is going to go very, very quick so keep your eyes open. Do all of you know how to seal a realm?” Mark took control.
“I can teach Ani and Davis real quick. Can you take a count of all the holes so we know what we’re dealing with?” Ram wondered.
Mark nodded and thought himself to and fro, nearly as fast as he was in real life. Ram turned to Davis and me and taught us an ancient spell. He explained that a certain combination of gestures could serve in place of the spell. He showed them to us, all save the last gesture, which he’d show us after Mark and Davis returned from the first hole. Mark flew back to us and sighed. “This is going to take a while, even with my speed. Let me know when you all need a break. Just flag me down. Signal me with the thought of a diamond tree. There are tens of thousands of these things. If I can complete ten a minute how much time does that translate to back home? I know time here’s a bit warped,” he plotted.
“Any way you cut it we’ll be gone for months,” Ram realized.
“Get to it, then,” I commanded.
“Wish I could duplicate myself,” Mark mumbled. “Let’s hunt,” he said in a louder tone. Davis wrapped his arms around Mark as if hugging him. When he moved back, they had a physical tether between them. An emergency tether in case they had to move apart. He and Mark held hands and went into the first hole. We worked methodically: Mark hunted the Shadows and rounded them up, he and Davis sent them back to this realm, once they reappeared Ram or I sealed the hole so it couldn’t be used again. Over and over, several times a minute. I don’t know how much time passed; time always moved differently in the realms, anyway. Scores of Shadows were brought back, adding to the endless black sea beneath us. After a while I noticed that the floor of Shadows was gradually approaching the grey ceiling. It wasn’t anything to worry about yet but I kept an eye on it. Mark dove in and out of the punctures smooth as a dolphin, with Davis trailing him and opening the realms for him. The longer he went the more he began to glow. His aura was pushing through as the energy he used to keep it hidden waned. The Shadows began to take notice.
“Oi, heads up! We’re blocking,” I shouted to Ram.
He gave me a thumbs up to let me know he’d heard. He dropped down between me and the Shadows and formed a soul sword. It was an enormous thing made of crackling red energy. I could see Ram’s chakras change as energy was diverted to power up the weapon. If any of the Shadows came too close, Ram sliced them up or batted them away. I sealed punctures as fast as I could but I was falling slightly behind. Mark was a beast; he didn’t seem to be tiring at all. And with the Shadows now aware of him (and by extension, the rest of us) there was no way we could stop. We all had to push on. Mark bobbed along ahead of me, sending Shadows back as fast as he could while Davis catalogued and jumped. Ram whacked away at the Shadows, hacking them to bits. But the Shadows couldn’t be destroyed; not permanently. They reformed and regrouped. They kept coming and would continue to do so.
I had to find motivation. I had to move faster. What lit my soul? What sparked my fire? What gave me energy? I thought of the things that brought me joy. I thought of my family. My friends. My comics. My boyfriends. My poster of Mark. Beautiful visions. Ah, there we had it. The most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Aeryn and Riel making love in the moonlight, under the stars like god intended. With renewed energy I sealed up punctures, moving fast enough to only be two holes behind instead of ten. Mark slowed down the slightest bit to touch my shoulder before darting through the next puncture. Ram served as a buffer between us and the Shadows, shooting out bolts of energy from one hand while slicing the ones within reach with the sword in his other. But they were all getting closer. We’d have to find another solution.
We all pushed on. Some of the Shadows instinctively moved to block the openings. I did my best to clear them but it meant leaving more of the holes unsealed. Mentally, I asked Ram how to make a soul sword and created a green one to fend off the Shadows. It wasn’t enough; more and more of them were swarming towards us. Mark saw our predicament and he moved closer to me. “We need to do something big to seal the rest of these. There are several thousand left to go,” he said.
“Any ideas?” I asked them.
“We can combine energy to enlarge our protective sphere. That will at least keep us safe,” Ram suggested.
“How do we stop the Shadows? They’re reacting,” Davis piped up.
“I can…make myself vulnerable. My energy is different to yours. Use me as a conduit for your powers. Davis, you focus my energy on baiting the Shadows still in other realms. Follow that energy. I’ll log what I can to complete the map so you don’t get overloaded. Ram, you extend our protective layer to this entire realm. Block any of them from escaping. Ani, baby,” Mark stroked my face, “you check Davis’ progress at each puncture. Temporarily block them. I’ll give you my speed and when the last Shadow is through you seal all of the holes at once. You slam Ram’s protective barrier up and make it stick. Then you take us somewhere safe, closing up the exit behind us. I want to be completely cut off from this realm.”
“You want me to cut our home tether?” My eyes widened. Ram held his hands up, keeping the barrier around us intact but it was shrinking rapidly.
“Yes. And our tethers to one another. But will all of us, separately, into the new realm. Create a path for each of us. We’ll find each other.”
My brain was racing, calculating. “We’ll have to take the long way back. Mark, are you sure you can handle this? That’s going to require a massive amount of energy,” I pointed out.
“You wanted to see me broken, lass. I’m asking you to do it. It’s the only way. I’ll survive,” he assured me.
“We have to do it now, Ani. They’re closing in,” Davis announced.
I took Mark’s hands in mine. I took Ramailo’s in my other. Mark and Davis linked hands and Davis and Ramailo held hands. Ramailo tapped into our energy and began to meld it together, chanting a spell. My consciousness seemed to split, as if I was moving in waves. I was blinking in and out of existence, fuller and emptier than I’d ever been. A shell of our energy spread out across the realm, covering the Shadows. I felt Davis race out into the other realms through Mark. My vision was split into four experiences of 360° line of sight. By some miracle it did not make me nauseous, although I felt a dizziness that was blissful rather than disorienting. I could feel Davis drawing the Shadows back to their realm by using Mark’s aura like a lure. None could resist. They crowded around the edges of our shell, chewing away at Mark’s energy. Glutinous fiends devoid of any sort of vitality. They served no real purpose; they simply slowed everything down to a halt. They froze it into nothingness. I took Ram’s protective barrier and turned it into a net. I captured those blank bastards and forced them together.
Once they were contained I raced along the edges of the realms sewing up the holes. How exhilarating to be moving as fast as Mark. I could nearly see space bending around me as I moved, bowing out of my way. I filled each and every hole and then slammed the barrier over every corner of this realm, cutting off my home tether and our group tether. The telltale tug disappeared. A tickling sensation bubbled up instead but it didn’t make me laugh. I opened four doors to the Soft Zone and jumped through one of them, bringing every drop of energy through with me. I landed on my back and my vision and energy returned to normal. I was laying on the softest material to ever exist. It reminded me a bit of Riel’s beds. The sky overhead was a light blue and purple that gently undulated back and forth. I stared up at it for the longest time. Eventually, the tinkling of what sounded like wind chimes lulled me to sleep.
I don’t know how long I slept but when I woke up I knew I had to find the others. We had a long way to go if we wanted to get home. And we still had to find the realm the Djinn now resided in. I folded my arms and trudged around on the ultra-soft surface of this planet. The sky never changed to any other color; it was always blue and purple. There was no sun. There were no stars. Just this planet that felt like a comfy bed. Just a cream-colored surface as far as the eye could see. I wandered around for a while, reaching out mentally for Davis and Ram, searching for any echo of Mark’s thoughts. I picked up something and turned in that direction.
After a while I spotted Ramailo and ran towards him. “You made it!” I yelled gleefully. I ran up to him and floored him, kissing his face.
His low laugh rumbled out of him. “I’m alive. I’m fine. Now knock it off before Davis catches wind of this,” he joked.
“I’m glad you made it safely.” I nibbled on his arm, ignoring his false warning.
He laughed harder and tossed me to the side. “I know it’s been months since we ate but I swear I’m not edible!”
“Darn!” I pretended to pout.
“Maybe later I’ll give you a bite,” he promised. “Let’s try to find Mark and Davis.”
“Hang on. Tether to me first. We can split up and cover more ground.”
“Can we use a color this time around?” he asked.
“Sure. Which one?”
“Green. The shade of Mark’s eyes. My favorite color,” he supplied.
“Mine, too,” I muttered. We set our tether then set off in search of our friends, going opposite directions. I thought I heard singing and followed the sound. Davis was sitting cross-legged by Mark, who lay sprawled on the ground. I yanked on my tether to Ram and he appeared quickly over the curve of the planet to join us. I rushed forward and hugged Davis tightly. “Is he okay?” I nodded down at the redhead, whose eyes were open but glazed over.
“He spent a lot of energy. He can barely move. He needs blood,” Davis explained.
“What kind?" Ram inquired.
“AB- or O+,” Davis answered.
“How do you know?” I wondered.
“My friend, the vampire, taught me about which blood types different kinds of vamps need or prefer. It can change sometimes depending on age, necessity, and ability. For a scaroth of Mark’s skill and age, AB- is our best bet but O+ will do in a pinch,” Davis elaborated.
“Cool. Well, I’m O+,” I shared.
“I’m AB-. Let him drink from me,” Ram offered.
“Do you have a knife?” Davis wanted to know.
“I thought we couldn’t bring physical objects besides our clothes?” I was confused.
“You can if you’re talented,” Ram pointed out, pulling a small knife out of his pocket. “It takes a lot of concentration. I’m actually surprised it made it with me all the way here. That’s quite impressive, Brewster, that you got us here fully intact.” He slit his wrist and held it over Mark’s mouth. Mark’s lips began to move as he tasted blood. Slowly, he grew more animated. Some minutes later he sat up and grabbed Ram’s arm. When he’d had enough he licked his lips and kissed Ram’s wrist. The cut healed.
“Thank you, Ram,” Mark said.
“Thank Brewster. She brought us through safely,” Ram dismissed it.
“I think we all did a hell of a job. But we’re not done yet,” I reminded them.
“Were you able to fill in your ledger?” Mark asked Davis. “Any hints of the Djinn?”
“A few, yeah. I also found a safe alternate route home,” Davis mentioned.
“Show us the way,” Ram invited.