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Friday, September 21, 2018

The Wounded World, a story of Mantra, Chapter 1

THE WOUNDED WORLD


By Aladdin 

Edited by Christopher Leeson




Originally written 2006
Revised and posted Sept. 21, 2018


A NOTE FROM CHRISTOPHER LEESON

I never enjoyed a comic-book series better than I did Malibu Comic's MANTRA, one of its Ultraverse titles. It ended in 1996 due to a series of bad business and creative decisions, first on the part of the management staff of Malibu Comics, and then by the leadership of Marvel Comics, which had only lately purchased it.


Mantra vanished along with the rest of the Ultraverse.  Out of all the darkness, there came a faint light five years later.  The stories of Aladdin started to appear, new tales of Mantra (published at Fictionmania.tv) which were professional in quality and presented a Mantra that run true to the original. But Mantra's revival in fan-fiction was to be sadly brief. 

In all, Aladdin completed five stories inspired by Mantra's adventures. The last of them was Part I of a two part adventure called “The Wounded World.” It was intended to be concluded with a follow up, “The Twilight of the Gods.” Unfortunately, the pesky business of making a living foiled Aladdin's intention to bring out the latter story, at least to date. The text of “Twilight of the Gods” does exist, fortunately, as something between a rough draft and a very detailed outline. 

As an admirer of Aladdin's work, I made contact with the author. I must have made a pest of myself, urging Aladdin to, somehow, find time enough to finish the uncompleted novel. I was told that work has been keeping him pinned down. Nonetheless, he held out a hope that he could eventually go back to fan writing after retirement. Finally, I couldn't wait no long and made the best of Ultraverse fan writers an offer. I would finish and revise “Twilight of the Gods” myself, if he pledged to give me as much editing and creative advice as he had time for. The last part was important; I wanted to turn out a finished product that held on to as much of Aladdin's original vision as possible. In exchange, we would be considered joint authors. It was an immense vote of confidence that Aladdin said "Yes." 

Consequently, I have started working on The Twilight of the Gods, based upon Aladdin's original work. It will be slow going, considering that I am currently working on the next "Eerie, AZ" novella, The Belle of Eerie, Arizona. The latter I hope to have ready for posting in about a year.

Okay, given that background, why, one might ask, am I offering what amounts to a third project, The Wounded World, starting today?

The reason is not so simple. Aladdin and I agree that readers would find Twilight of the Gods hard to understand if readers do not first get familiar with events of The Wounded World, which sets up the universe-shattering conflicts that Mantra struggles to resolve in The Twilight of the Gods. So, while I am putting most of my time into writing and editing the other two books, I'll also be doing some rather light editing on The Wounded World and posting it chapter by chapter into my personal TFTGS space. The effort will carry us well into the next near, but should leave me time enough to work on the other books also. Readers of TFTGS will be presented with a roughly 10-page chapter each month. My readers at TFTGS will already be familiar with this posting method.  Anyway, segmented adventures should be familiar enough to comic book fans.

As editor, I have made this pledge to Aladdin: That he will have approval rights over all modifications done to his original work. Incidentally, that is the best relationship that all authors and editors should seek to achieve. Too often, editorial ego gets in the way of smooth cooperation. Bad editing is more the rule than the exception. I will make it a priority to change that.

Now a word from Aladdin himself.


A NOTE FROM ALADDIN, Sept. 2018

I've just read the introduction that Christopher has prepared for his readers at The Full TG Show. I am as pleased as can be to work with such a skillful writer, who is, by the way, a great fan of Mantra. I think that his and my outlook on adventure fiction strongly coincides. What I was trying to do with Mantra, he has been doing for years with his many different characters in many different settings.

Most of my reading is non-fiction.  As a fiction reader, I am not easy to please. I can go through hundreds of story descriptions at a site without finding one that intrigues me enough to read. Especially in the tg category, I want action stories, not fetish stories. I'm looking for strong and logical plotlines and three-dimensional characters. Though few works of fiction out in the world meets my standards, I can honestly say that I have read every one of Christoper's posted stories, and have read them all more than once. Because of our long correspondence, I had the temerity to ask if I might read everything he has written, even his unposted stories, in rough drafts and even those that only exist in fragments. I only wish he had more to share with me.

But lets look back at the beginning. How did I discover Mantra?  I saw a Marvel comic ad in 1995 presenting one of the last Mantra magazines to be published.  I'd never heard of the character, but she sounded super-great. In a flurry of collector-comic buying, I soon had every story that Mantra had appeared in. (Imagine to my horror that this wonderful character was to be retired only two months later!) 

After reading those approximately 30 stories, I was dejected that there might never be any more. I was slow at getting interested in the internet, and looking at the professional and amateur story market, the hope that any fan-fiction I created would see publication seemed dim.  But after getting hooked up with the internet, I observed that the many works of fiction were posted there, and comic book fan fiction was one of the most common types.  I consequently started writing and posting original fan fiction about Mantra. 

Pretty soon, I made contact with Mike Barr, Mantra's creator, and did a series of interviews with him. I asked Mike every conceivable question that I could think of and he graciously answered to the best of his knowledge. What I sought from the comic pro was everything he knew about the life, personality, and background of Mantra, and also about her friends, enemies, and associates. The material I got was great, and much of it suggested plot elements for stories that Mike never got the chance to write. 

Incidentally, in interviewing Mr. Barr, I learned that certain ideas that have long been held up as fact in the fan community are actually quite mistaken. For instance, it is commonly said that Mantra's powers were, during the ghastly event called "Black September," transferred to her young friend Lauren Sherwood, who became “the new Mantra.” This never happened. What I drew from Mike was that Lauren had her own potential for gaining Mantra-like power. This potential was established in Mantra #20, when the demonic Wiley Wolf used his sorcery upon Lauren to remake her into a cats-paw super villain whom he could use to attack Mantra. When the influence of Wiley Wolf was removed, Lauren's awakened powers went dormant. They reappeared at the time of Black September, apparently due to the forces released by the Infinity Gems. 

And why did Mantra's story line call for a loss of power? One has to understand the crisis existing in the comic market at the time.  After a short boom market, a disastrous contraction was harming many companies. What was happening was not well understood and some company managers, including Malibu's, rushed in a great many false fixes in a state of panic.  What would have been better was for these endangered companies to have scaled back on the number of comics published and hunkered down with skeleton crews until better times. If Malibu had done this, they would have gained some precious months and Hollywood would have come to their rescue.  Shortly after the ill-considered sale to Marvel, Inc., movie makers came to the then-copyright holders of Malibu's Men in Black magazine, eventually making a series of four different movies, flooding Marvel with millions in cash.  This money would have saved Malibu and its Ultraverse.

But instead they went for a quick cash- out, accepting, along with the money, the empty promise that Marvel would preserve Malibu as a semi-independent line, with its executives continuing (while no such guarantee was extended to its exceptional crew of writers). But Marvel was on their backs to make more money. To stimulate sales, the hold-over "suits" at Malibu (blame them, not Marvel) concocted the idea for a mega-event called "Black September," which would rewrite the history of the Ultraverse.  It was amazing that grownups who had built a multi-million dollar publishing company could have come up with such misguided ideas, but their worst notion told them that Mantra, as a tg character, was too controversial for their market. This was illogical, since MANTRA was always one of the top sellers at the company. Mr. Barr was ordered to replace Eden Blake with a 100% woman as the lead. 

So Mike developed a plan to let Eden lose her mystic powers while the powers of a teenage girl were awakened.  As much as fans loathed the changes to the other Malibu comics, they especially loathed changes in Mantra. Rather than draw in more readers, the unwanted changes made the most stubborn fans give up and fade away.  With Marvel itself facing bankruptcy in those tough times, Malibu very soon became a victim of cost-cutting, the last Malibu issue coming out in January, 1997.

Another secret that Mike Barr confided to me concerned the origin of Mantra's friend Pinnacle. I liked what I was hearing and so worked Mike's idea into “The Wounded World,” as a major motivator for Pinnacle's actions during that story.

Why this current partnership with Christopher Leeson?  Why haven't I revised THE WOUNDED WORLD on my own? Basically, I had had time to work on Mantra about a dozen years ago, and then my work situation changed and I just couldn't afford to divide my energies. Even though I've wanted to go back and re-polish all my Mantra work, I haven't been able to get around to it. I'm therefore delighted that Christopher has offered to do a new edit of THE WOUNDED WORLD as an introduction to the never-before-seen THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS. The finished parts of the editing have been impressive. He has made the story read even better. And how can I find fault with a situation that takes so much work off my own shoulders? I'm very eager to see how he eventually cleans up and polishes THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS.

In regards to that story, many things that may seem mysterious in THE WOUNDED WORLD will be clarified in TWILIGHT. I can't believe that twelve years have passed since I suspended work on my Mantra series. Many people said good things about it back then, and I greatly hope that all who enjoyed Mantra's new adventures in the past will come back and enjoy equally the future posting of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS. Also, we hope that we can introduce many more new readers to the world of Mantra. The original series ended almost 23 years ago. There's a whole new generation of coming readers that has grown up in the meantime.

By the way, I have also enjoyed Christopher's recent novella, "The Falling Star." It is set in the Ultraverse, and makes some references to characters in the Malibu pantheon.  He has lately brought up an idea in which his character, Jezebel Watcher, a fallen angel on a mission, meets Mantra. I can't wait for that one, and I've already offered him as much help as he might be willing to accept.

For now, grab your popcorn and enjoy “The Wounded World.”









CHAPTER ONE
THE LITTLE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE,



When God commanded this hand to write
In the studious hours of deep midnight,
He told me that all I wrote should prove
The bane of all that on Earth I love.
--William Blake


As I begin this account, I suddenly doubt that I've really managed to make sense of everything that's happened to me.

So state the situation briefly, I have come back from an expected journey. I have walked a strange and terrible road, as, I think, these unfolding pages shall make clear. What I have undergone has changed me, I think, for better or for worse. Unexpected change is a frightening thing, and I am left wondering whether the changes have run their course, or have they have only just begun? I am not a praying man -- woman -- whatever, but I am tempted to pray now. As a youth, I held to the pagan gods of my ancient people. Later, I foolishly elevated a powerful but flawed man to the status of a personal god, if only in my own mind. Pagan gods and a human gods have all proved false. I have been left unsure regarding the reality behind reality. I wonder if I can ever again trust the inadequate tools that we have so far used to understand the world, the universe.  Tools like sight and sound, taste and touch.

My adventure cannot be said to be over, but I fear that what has befallen me, the experience that has overwhelmed me, might fade my my memory. For that reason I feel the need to write it down as rapidly as I can. 

But how shall I begin?  The first question I have to ask myself is when did this strange interlude come to be, and what were the forces that initiated it? Did an evil, impersonal force bore its way into our universe? Is a mad god to blame? And was all of it inevitable, or did it happen because not very long ago I was faced with the hardest battle of my lifetime and lost the challenge -- the challenge that I most needed to win?

I  do not know how much time I have left, so I must cease my musing and apply myself to telling the tale I need to tell. I have always believed that the best place to start is at the beginning, but where the beginning of this begins is unclear. Beginnings, middles, and endings are not so sharp-edged as I once confidently assumed they were.


#

Armageddon began, for me, when I took my family to The Mall, the largest shopping center in the L.A. suburb of Canoga Park. School had started for my kids, Evie and Gus, and most of what they needed for their classes we'd already picked before the end of August. On the evening of September the fourteenth we were out looking for certain odd and ends that the kids had just been told that they would need.

I was new to school shopping, just as I was still new to parenthood. A year before, I lived in a fog of rebellion against the whole idea of having a new sex, a new life, and a new family. I tried to stay away from “home” as much as possible; I tried to deny that my new life was really mine. The kids' grandmother, Barbara Freeman, filled in for their absentee mother. It looked to her that I was suffering from a sudden onset of severe emotional problems. It had fallen on her to get the kids ready for school last September. Barbara loved her grand-kids, but for the last several years had been living a life of her own. She didn't want to be trapped into covering for (what she assumed was) a daughter who had plunged into some sort of personal crisis.

Her assumptions were reasonable enough, but all were off the mark. Mrs. Freeman still didn't know that Eden Blake had died two years ago and that the man that Eden loved had mystically taken possession her body. (I have previously written about why this was necessary). Barbara had never heard the name Lukasz Theodoricson, but that, in fact, is who I am. I'd transferred into the life of Eden Blake, a divorced mother of two, and had found that the path of least resistance was to start living that life as best I could. Two years ago I was in rebellion against being tied down and responsible for the care of two little strangers. The loss of freedom was the most terrible fate I could imagine. But every mountain top has a different view, and each view is majestic in its own way; those days turned into a learning process. Little by little, the clouds passed away from the sun and I realized that family life was an enriching thing. After a rough start, the child-care routine started to go more smoothly. I was enjoying this current outing especially, getting a kick out of the kids' changing expressions as they beheld the flashy merchandise. Seeing the wonder in their eyes, I thought it might be even more fun to take them along to buy Christmas presents later in the year.

That would be December. How audacious now seems to be thinking ahead as much as three months. I've learned that I should instead be looking over my shoulder, watching for what might next come upon me, not in three months but perhaps in the span of three minutes. I was suspecting no danger that evening, just as the Indonesian islanders had suspected nothing as they went about their business under the deep shadow of Krakatoa in 1883.

While passing by the writing supplies in the back-to-school section of Target, Evie said to me, "Mommy, can I get some eraser tops? I chewed the rubber off my pencil."

I frowned down at my dark-haired little girl. "Evie! How can you do anything so silly? It's not healthy to chew on some dirty old pencil eraser. Do you want to get sick?"

"It wasn't my fault!" she averred. "The eraser kept getting into my mouth and I chewed it without knowing."

"Pencils can't climb into people's mouths. People have to put them there. You're too big a girl to be chewing on objects that aren't good for you."

"I know, Mommy," she sighed glumly.

"Knowing is okay," I told her, "but what good is knowing if you don't do the right thing once you know."

"Do you always do the right thing, Mommy?"

She had me there! I've pulled thousands of dirty tricks that I'm sorry for. The trouble with life, or so I naively supposed at the moment, is that one can't change the past.

"Nobody can be right all the time," I finally said. "But everybody has to try to do the best he can. Think about it. People do so many foolish acts even when they're working hard at being good. The world would be in a terrible mess if most people weren't at least trying to do the best they can."

While the youngster seemed to consider this bit of wisdom, I scanned the pen and pencil display and espied a packet containing a dozen eraser heads. Simple division told me that they averaged less than a dime apiece. That was within the family budget, so I took a pack and handed it to Evie. "Will this do?"

"Oh, yeah!" she chirped. Then her attention strayed for the umpteenth time. "Look at the ultra tablets! They didn't have them in the other story we were at."

I glanced down and saw several neat stacks of writing tablets with photographs of well-known ultra heroes on their covers. They represented the crème de la crème of popular vigilantes. Prime's stack had only a couple left, but Warstrike's didn't seem to be moving at all well. I noted a Mantra cover, too, and scowled. It had a picture on it that I'd never posed for. A model was wearing cheap facsimile armor and she was sort of skinny. Who ever hired her didn't do justice to the beauty of Eden Blake. Another thing that I noted was that Mantra's stack was higher than Prime's. Well, maybe that meant that there had been a rush on Mantra tablets at the outset and the shelf had already been restocked. Or maybe not. Using a model that didn't fit the bill for Mantra could certainly have hurt sales.

"Evie, do you really need another tablet?"

"I like the pictures. Can I have a Contrary?"

I looked askance.

"She's pretty," Evie explained.

"Isn't Mantra pretty, too?"

The Evie grimaced uncomfortably. "Oh, sure. But Mantra is pretty like a mommy. She's not hot like Contrary!"

I was amazed. "Evie Blake, how do you know what's hot and what's not at your age?"

"The big guys said she was hot."

"What big guys?"

"The fourth graders!"

I crossed my arms. "Well, that wolf-pack would certainly know what they're talking about, I suppose. Doesn't anyone at school think that Mantra is hot?"

"I do!" put in Gus, now coming into our aisle. "Mantra's hotter than Contrary. And she sure doesn't look like anybody's mom!"

She looks like your mom, Junior, I thought. I wondered why I didn't care for my daughter comparing me unfavorably to Contrary, while at the same time feeling irked that my son thought Mantra was even hotter.

"She does so look like a mommy!" declared Evie.

"Ultra ladies are never moms! I know because I read the comics."

"They could if they wanted to!" the little girl insisted. "Movie stars have babies!"

"Nobody should have kids. Kids are for dorks," Gus pontificated.

I picked up a Contrary tablet and handed it to Evie. I also took one of Mantra's. I'm a sucker for buying Mantra collectibles. Maybe that's because as a knight of Archimage we never got any personal notoriety; we constantly lived in the shadows, changing our faces with every new body we possessed. By now, Mantra has been a celebrity for two years and has been quickly taken to heart as a role model by millions of schoolgirls. What would they think if they knew my real history?

"By your rules I'm a dork, too," I told Gus. "Thanks for setting me straight." I looked about. "You kids are getting loud; people are frowning at us."

"Just ignore them!" declared Gus. "Why do we always have to care about what other people think?"

I sighed. Junior was well on his way to becoming a grumpy teenager.

"You should care about annoying and insulting people when you don't have to," I explained, "so you can win friends and influence people -- instead of getting yourself into a lot of fights. If you wind up with a bad reputation, you'll have a hard life." He shook his head, pugnaciously unconvinced.

"Come on. We'll pay for this stuff and get something to eat at The Kids' Club before we go home."

I thought the youngsters would go for having supper at the Mall's child-themed restaurant, my cooking being what it is. I'm trying to bone up on the culinary arts, but I'm still better at breaking and reassembling a MP5A3 than creating a casserole.

The serving line was a long one and Evie and Gus, perpetual motion machines worthy of scientific study, hurried to get in queue in front of me. Standing there behind them, straining to see the menu, I suddenly registered a funny feeling. That put me on guard, having been blindsided too many times over the years by surprise attacks. I peered left and right, trying to spot what was out of place, and noticed a short, stout man with a round face and red hair. He was staring at me.

This in itself wasn't too unusual; Eden Blake was something special. She could have made it as a supermodel, if she hadn't opted for the riches and glamor of marriage, family, divorce, and a data analyst's career. But there was something about the little man set him apart from ordinary creeps. Was it merely the fact that he was showing me attention that I didn't want? I'm usually not so thin-skinned. If I rebuked every passive-aggressive ginzo that ogled this body, my voice would have been as broken as Pete Seeger's. I was thinking that if this guy had the sense to keep his distance, his bad manners would do neither of us any harm. Just then I noticed that he was slinking into line right behind me.

I stood there watching him out of the corner of my eye, just in case he tried anything.

Ouch!

I hadn't expected him to act so quickly. The creep had stuck me with something! I swung about, ready to try out some Aladdin fighting techniques on his face, but ---

But he wasn't there.

I glanced left and right. How could a man of flesh and bone have disappeared so quickly? Something was not right.

Just then a strange feeling came over me.

Damn the luck! Had he injected me with some sort of drug? Poison, even?

I was trying to think when the lunch line started moving like a speeded-up film. My heart must have skipped a beat when I saw myself step right out of my body and move on ahead, like everyone else was doing, as if I were a ghost and no longer part of the scene at all. Worse still, other people, coming up from behind, were passing right through me! It was like I had no substance; I felt them less than I would have felt a light breeze. The queue accelerated to the speed of a freight train, until the crowd's rapid movements faded into a blur.

I clenched my fists. The pervert must have shot me up with some sort of hallucinogen, or else I was experiencing the first symptoms of an unknown toxin. I reeled, my perceptions all askew. The twilight glowing through the windrows was fading and full night fell in mere seconds. I realized that the crowded room had become empty and the night-lights were on overhead. When I tried to move, my feet couldn't get any traction from the floor; it was like I had no weight at all. I shut my eyes, staggering --

And opened them to a sunlit view of --

A parking lot.


#

Dazed, I leaned against a green sedan that was parked behind me. It took seconds to realize that I was solid again. While I collected my thoughts, I noted a motel sign to one side. What was I doing here -- wherever here was? What could have swept me away from a shopping mall and out to some cheap motel?

And something else was wrong.

I had glanced at my watch. It was seven after ten -- in the morning, obviously. What had happened to the missing hours? Where were the kids? A crazy thought came to mind. Was I still myself?

This is a question that wouldn't have occurred to most people, but I've been spontaneously switching into different bodies since long before Mohamed met the angel. Likewise, I'm used to being thrown into strange locations and situations all unprepared. The last time this had happened to me, I'd become a suburban mother of two.

It didn't take more than a downward glance to confirm that I was still a woman, but was I still Eden Blake?

I turned and squinted at my reflection in the car window. With relief, I saw Eden's face.

Slightly calmed, I took stock. I wasn't wearing the jeans and pullover that I'd had on at the mall. Instead I was dressed in a blue-skirted suit with a silk ascot. In my hand was my familiar purse. Though I recognized the outfit from my closet, I couldn't remember changing into it. Was it possible that someone was controlling me, making me do things that I couldn't remember afterwards? Or was I sleepwalking?

Had this strange thing happened because that red-headed man had put some sort of crap into my veins?

I didn't feel sleepy or drugged, just confused -- and who wouldn't have, losing so much time and finding himself in a strange place?

Don't fly off the handle, Lukasz. Don't attract attention.

Okay, I was still Eden Blake. I felt fit and my face looked fine. As far as I could tell, nothing nefarious had been done to me physically. Some fifteen hours had passed, however, and the time would have to be accounted for. I was in front of a motel, an Econo Lodge. This was a well-known franchise catering to less-affluent travelers and tourists. Well, that fit, considering that my family was living from hand to mouth on child support and my government job.

First things first. I needed to get the address as a reference point, so I straightened and walked toward the motel office. Under the shade of the canopy, I noticed a mailbox and checked the address stamped on it.

San Francisco.

What? How had I ended up in San Francisco?

Why would I ever want to go to Crazy Town?

Perplexedly, I entered the tiny lobby to look around, hoping that something I'd see would bring back a memory of arriving there. The clerk, a Latino lady, glanced up at me brightly. "Meesees Blake, isn't it? How are you thees morning?"

She knew me. Motel clerks didn't know out-of-towners, not unless they're current guests. On impulse, I checked my purse and found a motel key. The Econo Lodge logos and a room number were embossed on the violet plastic key holder. I then glanced up at the clerk, who was waiting for me to reply. "Oh, I'm fine," I said. "I just thought for a minute that I'd lost my key, but here it is under the tissues."

The clerk smiled blandly and nodded. I turned and went back outside. There was no obvious menace in sight, so I reasoned that the next logical step would be to check out the room that I, apparently, had rented.

In front of my unit was parked our family car. I had completely overlooked that little detail beforehand. I shook myself. I needed to be sharper. Chances were that some sort of game was afoot, and the games that I usually get involved in have mostly turned out to be painful and bloody.

I put the key into the lock, turned it. At the last instant, I decided to summon up my magical shield. An ultra never knows when he is walking into a hail of machine-gun slugs, or something worse.

That is, I tried to call up my shield, but nothing happened. To my dismay, I felt as inert as a stick of firewood. The magic just wasn't coming. Concentrating harder failed to light the spark. I didn't like this one little bit! What was wrong with me?

As I tottered there on high heels, dismayed, someone inside must have heard me or seen me through the window and now opened the door. The knob, as it swung away, slipped from my fumbling grasp and I found myself looking into a face that I knew well.

Very, very well.


#

I stood gazing down at my daughter, Evie. She looked nonplussed, as if surprised to see me. Glancing over her head, I saw that she was alone; also, the room seemed to be crammed with our personal belongings. Whatever was going on, it had the look of a serious relocation.

"You just left, Mommy. Did you forget something?"

Oh, brother, had I!

I stepped past the little girl, trying to make sense of it all. The queen-sized bed, newly made, was the only furnishing not loaded with boxes and cartons. What had happened? Just fourteen hours earlier, we had had no plans to go out of town, and yet here we were -- in San Francisco, no less -- with enough luggage to fill a pickup. Was I on the run? Had someone discovered my Mantra identity and forced me to go to ground? I sat down on the bed, bemused. Evie then stepped up, her brow arched uncertainly.

"Wasn't the Jack-in-the-Box open?" she asked.

The Jack-in-the-Box was a fast food franchise, I knew. "Oh, you want breakfast?"

"Yeah."

"Sorry. I didn't get over there yet. I wanted to...to look in on you. Is everything all right?"

I saw some slight hesitation in her wide blue eyes. "I guess so. Did you see something else bad outside, Mommy? Is that why you came right back?"

Something else bad? The way she'd phrased that question made me wary. "How are Grandma and Gus?" I asked, as nonchalantly as possible.

Evie took in a sharp breath. "Grandma was okay last night. Don't you remember we talked to her? And Gus, he's still in jail, isn't he?"

"Jail?"

If I was trying to sound natural, I wasn't having much luck. I decided to drop the subtlety. "Evie, these questions of mine sound funny, don't they?"

She nodded.

"Something just happened."

"Something bad?" Her little hands tightened into fists.

The tyke needed reassurance, so I enveloped her softly into my arms. "Evie, I sort of need your help."

She looked up into my face. "Are you okay? You don't feel sick, do you?"

I rested my chin on her shampoo-scented head. "Shhh, it's not like that. It's just that I -- I suddenly seem to have...forgotten a few things. Did I seem all right when I was with you before...before I went out to the Jack-in-the-Box?"

"You seemed okay, 'cept that you still weren't Mantra."

Still weren't Mantra? Oh, brother, this was bad! My powers hadn't just glitched out momentarily. They'd been missing long enough for Evie to know about it.

"Evie, I don't know why it is, but the last thing I remember was us being in The Mall last night, standing in line to buy dinner at the Kids' Club."

She gave a jump. "No, Mommy! That was last Thursday!"

She'd said Thursday like it was a hundred years ago. "What day is it now?" I asked.

"It's Wednesday."

"Wednesday the twentieth?"

"Yeah!"

This was getting scarier and scarier.

"Darling, did something...bad...happen since Thursday? I can't remember anything about the last six days."

I felt her tremble. "You can't have forgot, Mommy!"

"Please, sweetie, tell me what I've forgotten."

"It happened right after you got home Friday. We were all so afraid!"

Whatever "it" was, she was still afraid. Evie had always been amazingly brave. What in Creation could have put her into such a state? Did it have anything to do with my sudden loss of magic?

Gently, I ventured to ask, "Evie, is there some grownup who knows about the bad thing that happened? I'd like to talk to that person, so you won't have to remember and be scared."

She shook her head. "There's just Lauren. Gus tried to kill her, too."

"G-Gus? Gus tried to kill his babysitter – and somebody else?"

She nodded.

Oh, brother!  What kind of mad world had I awakened in? 


TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 2....



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