By the time T.J. Dalton and Kelli Lockhart returned to Professor Van Ish’s mirror room, Doctor Occult and the professor were finalizing the plans for the young man’s trip. Richard Occult looked up as they entered.
“Have you seen any signs of life?” T.J. asked as he approached the two men.
“Still nothing,” Richard answered, “but we did make an interesting discovery.”
“What is it?” Kelli asked.
“In the time it took the two of you to go to the kitchen, gather the food, and return, two days have passed on our possible world,” Richard said.
Kelli couldn’t believe her ears. “But we’ve only been gone for an hour.”
Van Ish shrugged. “The passage of time sometimes varies from dimension to dimension.”
T.J. looked at the basket of food. “If time is that much faster there, is this going to be enough for me and the dog?”
“For your information,” Robbie the Robotdog spoke up, “the ‘dog’ has a name. And besides that, I don’t need to eat, anyway.”
“Sorry, Robbie,” T.J. apologized. “With everything going on around here, you seem to be fairly normal. I’ll try not to let it happen again.”
“Good enough,” the robot dog replied.
At that moment, a king of spades came marching through the door. “I say,” it remarked in an absurdly thick British accent. “That gunslinger chap is requesting some assistance. It appears that that Morgauth cretin is advancing again.”
Everyone turned and started toward the door.
“Not you,” Richard said, putting a hand on T.J.’s shoulder. “You and Robbie should get going. If you see any signs of life, hurry back here, and we’ll see if we can find somewhere else.”
“Exactly how will we get back here?” Robbie asked.
The professor slapped his forehead lightly, then turned to face his former captive. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a small mirror. He handed it to T.J.
“Surely you don’t expect us to pass through a mirror this small,” the young man said.
“Why not?” Van Ish asked, then grinned. “Actually, think of this as more of a radio. When you are ready to return, look into the mirror and call my name.”
Richard saw relief in his friend’s face.
“Well, Robbie,” T.J. said, “are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Whenever you are ready,” the professor said, “all you have to do is step through.”
The two explorers approached the full-length mirror. T.J. took a deep breath, then took a step. In an instant, he and Robbie were somewhere else.
It wasn’t until they were well away from the village and positive there was no pursuit that Brian Walker and Doctor Fate stopped to examine the detective’s wounds. His cheek had already quit bleeding, but his arm had not.
“Before we bind your wounds,” Fate said, “I want to make certain that they have not been infected by something other than what you would expect from a normal dog bite.”
“That’s fine,” Brian replied. “I’ve had shots before, but I doubt they would protect me from something like this.”
A soft echo from beneath Fate’s helmet let the detective know that his friend had begun speaking an incantation. As soon as the words were spoken, Brian felt a tingling in his arm and a burning in his cheek. He grunted and raised his hand up to the laceration.
“Your arm is clean, so I have jumpstarted the healing process,” Doctor Fate said.
Brian looked down and saw that, other than the blood soaked into his ragged sleeve, there was no indication that anything had happened. “What about my cheek?” Brian asked.
“It has quit bleeding, but it resists my attempts to close the wound.”
The detective gingerly touched the flesh around the wound and winced. “As long as it isn’t bleeding, and since you are prevented from doing anything else to heal it, we might as well keep moving. Give me a moment to see if I can pick up the trail again.”
It wasn’t long before the two men were on their way again. As they walked, the older hero made several inquiries about the younger man’s cheek. That in itself got Brian wondering if there was something more his companion wasn’t telling him.
After walking for what seemed like forever, Brian stopped and motioned for Doctor Fate to do the same. “I sense another build-up of negative energy,” he said. “It’s not too far ahead.”
Fate took a step when Brian touched his arm. “Wait a second,” the detective said. “I just got a flash of positive energy not too far beyond the negative.”
“Then perhaps we are closer to finding this Repentant One than we hoped to be,” Fate said.
Remembering their last encounter, the two men proceeded with caution toward the gathering of negative energy. They didn’t have far to go.
As they rounded a bend in the road, they discovered that it came to a stop at the edge of a deep precipice. Stretching across the precipice was a single rope, and guarding it was a group of armored demons similar to the first ones they had encountered. They watched and listened for a moment as a wandering spirit approached the demons.
“What do you seek here?” the largest and most cruel-looking demon asked with a growl.
“A way across the chasm,” the spirit replied softly.
A look from the speaker was all it took for the others to step back so the spirit could see the rope. Their grins were wicked, and their eyes twinkled with malicious delight.
The spirit stepped toward the rope, then turned toward the demon. “How is it possible to cross such an expanse with a single rope?”
“If you are righteous, then you should have no problems,” the demon growled.
Knowing it would get no better answer, the spirit placed its foot on the rope. “It is bigger than it first appeared,” the spirit said to itself, somewhat relieved.
Before the spirit had a chance to take a second step, one of the demons placed a clawed hand against the spirit’s back and gave a rough shove.
The spirit stumbled several paces out on the rope, but managed to keep its balance. It breathed a sigh of relief over that small accomplishment — then it looked down. The rope was suddenly a lot thinner than it had been. Feeling itself start to fall, the spirit let itself drop and wrapped its arms and legs around the shrinking rope.
Roars of laughter erupted from the lips of the demons as they knelt and began to shake the rope.
Brian and Doctor Fate watched as the spirit teetered, shifted to the left slightly, then found itself hanging beneath the rope. Keeping its ankles locked, it began to pull itself along the rope, despite the fact that the demons had redoubled their efforts to shake it off.
Tilting its head back so it could see the other side, the spirit began to wail. No matter how far it moved along the rope, the chasm seemed to grow wider with each second. Squeezing its eyes shut, the spirit continued inching its way forward.
Without warning, the rope began to swing violently. The spirit quit moving and clung on for its existence. Horror and hopelessness began to overwhelm the poor soul as the rope began to ooze, and become covered by, a thin layer of slime. The spirit tried to dig its fingernails into the rope to keep its hands from slipping off, but to no avail. It soon found itself hanging upside down over the chasm, supported only by its crossed ankles.
Hundreds of feet below, the brackish water began to roil and froth as dozens of monstrous serpents fought for position beneath the struggling spirit. Their black and gray mottled bodies coiled over and around each other, in anticipation of a meal.
At the edge of the precipice, the demons began to inhale, and then blow at the struggling spirit. A violent wind arose and began to surround the rope. Rain that was more grease than water began to fall on the spirit as a powerful downdraft seemed to grip the spirit and tug.
The spirit screamed as its ankles finally surrendered to the punishment, and it plunged into the chasm. The scream seemed to go on forever, only to be cut abruptly short when two serpents erupted from the water, each latching onto an end of the spirit. Their mouths were barely inches apart, giving the appearance of lovers embraced in a passionate kiss, as they each fought to claim the broken spirit for themselves. As the body was ripped asunder, the two serpents, along with the dozens of other, slid back beneath the water, which became immediately still.
The two travelers looked at each other. Based on the way Doctor Fate’s shoulders slumped, Brian knew that the man’s hidden face showed the same doubt that now decorated his own.
“We should have helped that spirit,” Brian whispered as the two men backed around the curve and just out of sight of the demons.
“You don’t know how badly I longed to,” Doctor Fate replied, “but to do so would have disrupted the order of things here. Since we are still living, breathing beings, we have the right to defend ourselves to stay that way, even though we don’t truly belong here.”
“And since this is part of that spirit’s journey to pass on,” Brain said, nodding in realization, “this is part of what it had to endure.”
“Exactly,” Fate said. “It irks me to stand by and do nothing, but to have acted in this situation could have caused us some serious repercussions.”
Before either man had a chance to speak further, the sound of the demon’s laughter reached their ears. Moving back to where they could see, the two men were amazed to see the “doomed” spirit reappearing on the other side of the chasm, apparently none the worse for wear.
The demons’ laughter came to an abrupt end when the sounds of an expertly played lute reached their ears, and a two-wheeled wagon appeared on the road near the spirit. They seemed unconcerned with the fact that no animal was harnessed to the wagon; it was the driver of the wagon that seemed to annoy them.
“Begone, blind man,” one of the demons called out. “You have no business here.”
The spirit looked up at the man, hoping that the demons were wrong and that the man was indeed here for him. The spirit looked crestfallen when the man’s milky-white eyes looked into its own, and he shook his head.
“Your path lies back the way I came,” the man spoke. “May your steps be encouraged, however, for your destination is but a short journey from here.”
The spirit bowed to the man. “Thank you, Master Kao.” As it started off, the spirit paused just long enough to give the demons a rude gesture as a sign of its contempt for their torments of it.
The demons laughed.
Their laughter, however, was short lived, and the demons quickly turned their attention back to the blind man. “We told you to begone,” one of the demons said. “There are no other spirits here for you to aid.”
Although the man’s reply was spoken barely above a whisper, Brian and Doctor Fate were able to hear what he said as though he were standing right beside them.
“I am here for two who still reside among the living.” With that announcement, the man began to play upon his lute again as his wagon began to roll toward the chasm.
The moment the wheels touched the edge of the precipice, a bridge appeared across the chasm. Wide enough for two wagons twice the size of the one that was now crossing it, the gold and jade bridge gleamed even in the paleness of this hell.
Unsure of what was going to happen next, the two heroes remained out of sight. The demons began to back away as the wagon drew closer to their side of the chasm. When the wagon cleared the bridge, it faded from view, as though it had never been.
Turning his head toward the road, the man pointed to the hiding place of Brian and Doctor Fate and motioned for them to approach. When the demons noticed the two men, they began to howl.
“You cannot interfere!” one screamed. “They must cross the thread to prove their righteousness.”
The blind man looked hard at the demon. “You well know that my appearance here to meet them attests to their righteousness. Trouble them not, lest Mrs. Meng hear of your transgressions.”
The two men weren’t sure who this Mrs. Meng was, but at the mention of her name, the demons were cowed enough that they felt safe enough to approach the wagon. Although the demons snarled at them, they made no move to attack.
By the time they had reached the wagon, the man had turned it around. They boarded it without incident, and were soon crossing the bridge.
It wasn’t until they were safely on the other side that the blind man spoke. “I am Kao Chien-Li.”
“Thank you for your assistance,” Doctor Fate said. “I am…”
Kao Chien-Li spoke up. “The man called Fate. Yes, I know. Just as I know that your companion is called Brian.”
“You seemed to be expecting us,” Brian said.
“I was.” In anticipation of their next question, he went on to explain how. “My descendant, Lao Jen, contacted me and told me of your mission.”
“I couldn’t help but notice,” Brian said, “that the demons seemed terrified of this Mrs. Meng you mentioned. Why is that?”
“Because Mrs. Meng is a very fearsome person,” Kao replied.
“Then I’m glad we met you on our journey and not her,” Brian said.
Kao Chien-Li chuckled. “Foolish child. Where do you think I’m taking you?”