22 - Sibling Rivalry

Cataclysm knew where the doctor's office was so she headed in that direction first. The pall of dread that hung over Burnside continued to haunt her. She tried to reassure herself that the ghosts she'd met so far weren't a danger but the insidious fear undermined her attempts to bolster her spirits. She crept through the night jumping at shadows and sounds but met no more phantoms. She reminded herself dryly that she'd mocked many a horror movie that had the characters foolishly exploring haunted areas by night rather than daylight.

She found the totem easily enough. It was basically a skull on a pole stuck into the ground just as Reno described, though it was a cow skull rather than the human one she was expecting. She studied the symbols etched into the stick and recognized them as necromantic magic but that was about it. Cataclysm hadn't listened very carefully when Witchcraft had talked about spells that raised the dead, reasoning she wasn't ever likely to need an undead army. Now she wished she'd paid more attention.

Cataclysm knew she should really look at all the totems to get a feel for the shape of the spell, but she was impatient to get out of this ghost town as quickly as possible. She could unbind the spell like she had Hi Pan's portal anchors but that wouldn't be necessary. Wood, even enchanted wood, burns quite nicely when exposed to a hot enough flame, as she now proved.

The burning totem split open with a satisfying crack but Cataclysm immediately realized something was wrong. Dark red smoke billowed out of the splits in the wood and took a humanoid shape. For a moment Cataclysm was afraid Hanging Judge Hensley was back to condemn her to hang for arson, but the aura of malevolence emanating from this spirit wasn't quite as strong as the judge's. In a chilling voice the spirit said, "You must pay a blood sacrifice for your desecration."

The spirit didn't draw a ghostly gun but instead drew on dark magic. Cataclysm wanted to start her own spell but her voice caught in her throat as the terror rose within her. Ropes of blackness snaked out and wrapped around her in frigid loops. The darkness sucked out her energy and her flames died, plunging her into pitch blackness. Her terror increased as the light faded and she grew angry with how easily this phantom was manipulating her emotions. She latched onto that anger and breathed onto the spark of it. Without even needing to recite a spell, her entire body burst into flame and seared away the necromantic bonds around her.

Pouring her fury into the flame she wrapped the specter in her own bonds, those of searing heat. It moaned and the sound chilled her to the bone but she maintained the magic. She felt it reach out towards her again with its dark magic, much stronger than what she had faced when she fought Poe, and she didn't even try to defend. Instead she intensified the flame to furnace heat, cutting through the darkness that surrounded the ghost. With a roar the guardian spirit broke apart like a cloud in a heavy wind.

Cataclysm's heart was pounding both from fear and from exhilaration. She looked around but the battle had drawn no other ghosts. She examined the totem and it was completely shattered. No magic emanated off it at all. Satisfied she headed off to the next one.

She didn't know if it was the destruction of the totem or her victory over the powerful specter, but she was less afraid than before. The fear still crawled up and down her spine but she felt less helpless under its burden. She encountered a few more ghosts but they were the weaker ones she could easily defeat. She preferred the fighting over sneaking around in the dark anyhow.

She found the second totem and this time prepared herself for the attack. In hindsight she realized she should have expected it from the beginning. The dark lady had bound powerful evil souls into each totem, a common practice in necromantic magic. Even other types of spells used it; Hi Pan had done something similar when he raised the Death Dragon, though he hadn't consumed the souls used.

The battle for the second totem wasn't as difficult as the first, though a few cowboy ghosts joined the fight when they heard the noise. She sent them all back to their graves. Again Cataclysm felt like the dread hanging over the town lightened a bit after the totem was destroyed. In this manner she continued to the third and fourth.

She paused at the final totem. She was confident this would break the spell over the town but that might also alert the dark lady. Whoever had done this was clearly a powerful spellcaster and Cataclysm was drained. She had no physical injuries but the attacks of the spirits, both spells and spectral bullets, had sapped her life force. She was as exhausted as she had been after fighting Hi Pan and this next battle might be even more difficult.

Cataclysm had saved the totem by the creek as the last, since it was the closest to the mines. However it was also closest to the cemetery and to her dismay she realized she could see dozens of ghosts coming out of that area. She guessed these were the spirits she had already fought, now restored to their form and intent on revenge. The crowd was making a beeline for her so she knew she couldn't delay.

She sent a searing stream of fire that quickly enveloped the totem, destroying it and releasing the spirit within. Cataclysm immediately redirected her attacks to the dark phantom, pounding it with bolts of flame even before it was fully formed. She heard gunshots and realized the approaching crowd was firing at her, though they were still quite far off. Those pistols wouldn't be accurate at this range, but they still might get lucky. Or ghost guns might follow different rules. Cataclysm redoubled her efforts to cook the cloud of ectoplasm before her.

Then just like that it was over. It was like the entire world let out a long sigh, a dying breath. All the dark magic faded away and the ghosts went along with it. A great weight was removed from the land. The fear that had gripped her faded and her confidence returned. Cataclysm's shoulders fell as she let the magic drop and let out a long breath of her own.

She turned to start the trek to the mine and then stopped, crying out at the spirit that manifested before her. She brought up her hands to strike and then lowered them again. "Jesus, you scared the fuck out of me!"

"Sorry," said Witchcraft. "I wasn't sure who was out here. I am pleased to see you, Cataclysm."

Cataclysm peered at her. "That's an astral form, right? Because I'm going to be pissed if I'm too late and you're a ghost."

"Yes, it's my astral form. I have been trying to contact people for weeks now but have been blocked by the spell that was placed over Burnside as well as the curses I am laboring under. I felt the barrier weaken and was able to break through to contact you." Witchcraft's ghostly brow furrowed. "She doesn't seem to have detected this yet. She is too busy tormenting me. We must move quickly."

"Talisman?" Cataclysm guessed.

"Why yes. How did you know?"

Cataclysm shrugged. "All the pieces fit. You're in the mine?"

"Yes. She has me under several curses including Mystical Concealment and Frigid Despair. I have been fighting her for so long and my resolve is fading. The curses seem to have been weakened, which is why I can finally speak to you. This is the first time I've been able to reach anyone."

"Actually you reached me last night. Just the word 'Burnside' but it was enough."

Witchcraft looked surprised. "Perhaps our connection has grown more powerful than I had thought. I am pleased. You are not the person I expected to find, but I am happy that you are here."

Cataclysm started walking towards the mine and Witchcraft floated alongside. "Who else is with you?" Witchcraft asked. "Any of the Champions?"

"No. Just me."

"What? Not even soldiers from Project Greenskin?" Cataclysm shook her head and Witchcraft said, "Wait, maybe you shouldn't go charging in to help me. Talisman is very powerful. Even I couldn't beat her. You have come very far in the short time I have been teaching you but you are not skilled enough to defeat her."

"Actually, I have an idea about that," Cataclysm began.

"Submit, sister," Talisman taunted. "Your allies have abandoned you!"

"I will never submit to the Circle of the Scarlet Moon," said Witchcraft feebly. She hung in chains of dark energy, her face drawn and haggard. "Please, sister, stop this! It's not too late to save your soul from demonic hellfire."

"Let me see you beg, sister," Talisman sneered. "Perhaps I will show you mercy, though it is unlikely."

Witchcraft gave her a weak look of triumph. "Gloat while you can, Talisman. Help is on the way."

Talisman snorted. "On the way? Nobody could have..." She broke off as she realized something had changed. The magic forces had shifted. She turned as she heard footsteps in the tunnel. She took a ready stance as a figure entered the mine chamber, and then she relaxed as she recognized the figure.

"You?" she laughed. "Oh, sister, I'll admit I was a little worried one of your friends would come by. Defender or Ironclad, someone more of a threat than this," she curled her lip, "shabbily-dressed street urchin."

"You are hardly one to be giving out fashion criticism," Cataclysm snorted. "I've seen Westside crack whores who dress classier than you. I mean seriously, I know you were in a hurry to get out of the house and do evil this morning but," she dropped to a stage whisper, "you forgot to put on your pants."

"Tiresome," Talisman said dismissively. "You aren't even worth keeping alive to torment." She grinned evilly. "My hellfire power is growing strong within me. I'm eager to spill blood."

"I'll be happy to spill as much of yours as you like," Cataclysm said and launched her first attack. Talisman didn't even bother defending, instead sending out her own stream of dark flame. When Cataclysm saw the fire she despaired this would be another fire-on-fire stalemate, but when the fire hit it was cold and dark and pulled at her soul.

Cataclysm gasped for breath. It was like jumping into a cold pool of water. She dropped her attack and quickly put up a defensive spell, splitting the stream of dark fire so it passed around her. Cataclysm moved to the side to take cover behind a supporting beam and took a moment to reorient herself. She came out on the attack, trying to drown Talisman in a sea of flame. To Cataclysm's satisfaction, the evil witch dropped her own attack to defend.

They sparred for several long minutes. Cataclysm tried to use position and cover to her advantage while Talisman was content to simply stand and trust her own magic to defend her. Cataclysm's tactical moves helped her but it was obvious the battle was not going well. She had landed a few lucky blasts on Talisman but her energy was rapidly fading. The dark magic attacks were taking their toll and Cataclysm struggled to stay in the fight.

Talisman slammed Cataclysm with a powerful attack that knocked her off her feet. "Are you even trying?" the evil witch said in disgust. "I thought a student of my sister's would present at least some challenge, but you don't seem to have any idea what you are doing. Shall I stop toying with you and simply kill you?"

Cataclysm had stood while Talisman mocked her. "You think you're winning," the Maniac said smugly, "but that's because you think this fight is about magic. It's not. It's about magic." Cataclysm emphasized the last word with jazz hands.

"What the devil are you rambling about?" Talisman asked in annoyance.

"I mean it's not about spells and rituals, not that magic. It's about cheesy Vegas stage magic. Sleight of hand. Misdirection. You see I picked up a neat little trick a while back. I use flashy fire spells to distract people from what I'm really doing." She gave the other woman a grin. "Unbinding spells."

Talisman's eyes widened and she whirled to face the figure she felt coming up behind her.

"Hello, sister," said Witchcraft.

Witchcraft and Cataclysm both blasted her at the same time. Talisman threw up her hands as she shouted words of power and a shimmering bubble of force appeared around her. Their attacks spattered harmlessly against it but Cataclysm could see the shield was using up a lot of power. She wouldn't be able to keep it up for long.

"Spirits of Burnside," Talisman called out. "Rise up and defend your dark mistress!"

"I destroyed your necromancy totems," Cataclysm called out.

"Doesn't matter," said Witchcraft, pouring arcane energy in an effort to overwhelm the shield. "This is a different type of raising. She is summoning them through pure force of will."

Cataclysm could feel something stirring in the mine, something dark and dead. And whatever it was, it was getting closer. "You concentrate on her," she called out to Witchcraft. "I'll deal with the trash."

Witchcraft didn't bother to nod since all her attention was focused on bringing an array of spells against her sister. Cataclysm pulled her attack back and, keeping one eye on Talisman, surveyed the mine. There were three tunnels leading into the chamber and she could feel dark forces stirring in all of them. She watched the openings knowing it was going to be hard to cover all of them.

The first spirits weren't the cowboys she'd seen above ground. These were miners. They rushed at her screaming, waving their picks and shovels in the air. Cataclysm brought up a cone of fire but they charged into the holocaust as though it wasn't there. She ducked the point of a pick but felt something pass into her ribs. It wasn't exactly an impact but it still knocked the breath out of her. The fire finally dispersed the spirits and Cataclysm rubbed the ache in her side as she turned to face the next group.

More miners poured out of another tunnel and she turned to face them. She was so intent on them she didn't hear the crowd coming from the tunnel behind her. The pack of ghost dogs fell on her, tearing at her legs and arms and pulling her to the ground. She couldn't even tell where they all were and simply started blasting every time she felt a spectral bite. Cataclysm cleared the dogs and regained her feet, but more ghosts were entering. These were cowboys and she put up a quick defensive spell against the hail of bullets they fired.

How big was this town? she wondered to herself as wave after wave of ghosts came against her. Men, women, children, and animals all came through those tunnels. Every living thing that had died in the confines of Burnside seemed to have risen to crowd into the mine that night. Cataclysm had no cover other than a couple of support posts, and the tunnels were spread out enough that one of them was always behind her.

Finally the rush of ghosts stopped. Cataclysm watched the tunnels for a few seconds waiting for ambush, but she knew she had to help Witchcraft. She turned to see the two women had fought to a stalemate, locked in a tangle of spells and energies like nothing Cataclysm had ever seen. Cataclysm called up all her anger, all her loathing towards this woman who had hurt Witchcraft, and sent a roaring inferno towards Talisman.

The attack took the woman by surprise and her concentration slipped. That was enough to change the balance and Witchcraft started to gain the upper hand. Talisman suddenly turned on Cataclysm, possibly sensing the weak link, and sent a wave of dark energy at her. Cataclysm reacted instinctively. She had seen the spell Talisman had cast and the words suddenly appeared clearly in her mind. She spoke the words and threw her hands out as the other woman had. Fire spewed from Cataclysm's fingers and surrounded her in a shimmering globe. This shield was a bright orange rather than the dark purple Talisman's had been but it served the same purpose. The dark witch's attack spattered against it harmlessly. As Cataclysm looked at the shield she could see how to cast through it and sent a sheet of flame towards Talisman.

Talisman couldn't win this and she knew. "You have defeated me this time," she snarled, "but I will be seeing you again very...very...soon." To Cataclysm's surprise, that comment had been directed at her and not Witchcraft. Talisman cast a transport spell and was swallowed in a cloud of shadow. The darkness cleared, leaving Cataclysm and Witchcraft alone in the mine.

A silence hung over them for a moment. Cataclysm listened and looked for other enemies but could sense nobody. She and Witchcraft turned and grinned at each other. "Good to see you," Witchcraft said.

"Same here," Cataclysm said in relief.

Witchcraft suddenly stepped over and gave Cataclysm a tight hug. "Thank you," she whispered. "I'm not sure how much longer I could have held out."

Cataclysm was taken by surprise by the gesture and clumsily returned it. Witchcraft pulled away after a few seconds but left an arm around Cataclysm's shoulders. "I'm still a bit weak so I might need to lean on you as we walk out of here."

Cataclysm smiled. "I think it's going to be more a matter of each of us holding the other up. You're a lot of trouble, woman."

"From time to time," Witchcraft said. "I see you've been busy in my absence."

"What do you mean?" Cataclysm asked as they started walking towards one of the tunnels.

"That shield spell at the end. I didn't teach you that."

"That? I saw Talisman do it. I just imitated her. Was afraid it would blow up in my face."

"Really. Impressive. Your execution was a bit imprecise, but quite good considering you simply picked it up. You might not need my teaching much longer."

Cataclysm was surprised and disappointed by that remark. She enjoyed her lessons with Witchcraft and had never considered that the sessions would end some day. She mulled that over as they walked towards the mine entrance.

Witchcraft broke the silence, saying dryly, "Westside crack whores?"

Cataclysm laughed self-consciously and said, "Too much?"

"Oh, no. Even as a child I was embarrassed by the way she dressed."

Cataclysm shook her head. "What is it about superpowers that motivates so many women to dress like something from a fourteen-year-old boy's wet dream?"

"I'm afraid that is a mystery even the Librarian's Scroll cannot shed light on."

With the pall of fear gone from the town, they felt safe settling in one of the buildings for a few hours of sleep. Witchcraft was noticeably better in the morning. Most of her weakness, she said, had been a result of Talisman's spell and now that she was free of them her strength was returning quickly.

They returned to Project Greenskin the next day, arriving late in the evening. During the rest breaks on the trip, Cataclysm filled Witchcraft in on recent events including the attack on the PRIMUS base and Cataclysm's efforts to find her. Witchcraft seemed quite touched by how much effort she had put into the search.

They would have to spend couple of days at the base until they could arrange transport back to Millenium City. Witchcraft stopped by Cataclysm's room the first night they were back. They talked about nothing for a bit until Witchcraft came to the point.

"I think we've become a bit more than teacher-student in our time together," she said. "I'd like to think we've become friends."

Cataclysm squirmed uncomfortably but said, "Yeah, I guess we have."

"Well it seems only fair that friends know each others' names. My real name is Bethany Duquesne. My friends call me Beth."

Cataclysm was stunned. She knew the drill--heroes hid their identities to protect their loved ones. To reveal that secret was a great gesture of trust. Cataclysm was disappointed she didn't have anything equivalent to give back. "Thank you, uh, Beth," she said.

"It's the least I can do after you saved my life, Lori."

Cataclysm frowned. "Don't call me that," she said. "It's not a name I associate with a happy period in my life. And don't shorten my name to 'Cat'. I hate that. Cataclysm is what my friends call me and what my enemies call me. It's the only name I got."

Witchcraft smirked. "You are a tough nut to crack."

Cataclysm smiled back. "Better believe it. And the nut inside this shell is hard, bitter and will probably give you food poisoning."