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Ruben Stryfe, like many people, had the habit of waking up in long bleary stages.

The first stage (one which anybody would be versed in) was struggling against the urge to just roll over and go back to sleep.

If he did decide to wake up, the next stage (that only an organizational freak would be acquainted with) would be to look up at the ceiling and run over any plans he had for the day.

And the last stage (that almost no one would be even remotely worried about in even the slightest fashion) was checking whether or not he was a man or a woman this morning. There had been a carefree time in Ruben's life where he hadn't worried about this final stage either, but due to an incident in high school involving curses, alcohol, and his own stupidity, he'd been stuck with this stage for so long that he was starting to forget how it felt to just roll out of bed without worrying the possibility of twelve extra pounds hanging from his chest.

Having decided to get up, and finding that the only thing he had planned today was introducing his new roommate to some of the people in the dorm, he tentatively reached up to his chest and touched lightly.

The flatness that met his fingers was most welcome, and he grinned as he swung out of his bunk, jumping down and landing lightly. "Well, this day is looking up already! The spell wore off, and I don't have to spend today as a woman!" He stretched and said, "Yep, yep, yep, nothin' could make this day bad."

That's when the knock sounded on the door…

For a moment, the wizard seriously considered diving under his bunk and hiding from whatever was on the other side of that door. He knew that Fate waited like a spider for such carelessly uttered words, and Ruben wanted no part in whatever Fate had decided to punish his temerity with.

But Ruben decided to do the foolish thing and stand up to Fate's cruel taunting. How bad could it be?

He strode over and swung the door open.

"Hello! We're members of the Reorganized End of the World Cult of the Reincarnation of the Destroyer. Can I interest you in some pamphlets?"

"No thanks, I gave at the office."

"How about donating your soul to the Great Cthulhu Has Risen From The Ocean, Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Ia! Fund?"

`"Hmm. No, I can't, I'm afraid I already sold it for the power to bend the cosmos around my littlest finger."

"Then how about a year's subscription to Blow Up The Earth Today magazine?"

"Maybe tomorrow. Thanks for your time." Ruben swung the door shut and breathed a sigh of relief. Well, THAT wasn't so bad. Stupid Dean, making it a campus-wide policy that solicitors CAN go into the dorms… could he POSSIBLY do anything more evil?

Then, another knock sounded on the door….


Kyouki no Kyanpasu
(Crazy Campus)

An original story
by Aaron Bergman

© Copyright 2002-2005 by Aaron Berman.


Episode 2: Plushie Perils


Ashley wakened to one of the most terrifying sounds in the world: A wizard screaming in rage.

"I'm thrown out of my room for HOW LONG?!?!"

The martial artist sat up in his bed, noting that Ruben had changed back into a man overnight. The person he was talking to looked as if he should be lounging on a beach somewhere with a cold beer in one hand and a cigarette of unusual design in the other. His blue Hawaiian shirt clashed terribly with his bright yellow shorts, and his flip-flops looked on the edge of complete dissolution.

The stranger held up both hands. "Look, dude, I can totally dig why you don't like being moved temporarily out of your room with no notice. It's completely unrighteous of us admin types."

Ruben raised his hands high, a red and black glow emanating from his body as the smell of brimstone filled the air. "'Unrighteous?' UNRIGHTEOUS?! I'll show you UNRIGHTEOUS FROM A FIRST-HAND PROSPECTIVE!!"

Ashley wasn't sure what Ruben meant by THAT, but he didn't really want to let this poor guy find out. He hopped out of bed and jumped between Ruben and the stranger, interrupting with a joking, "You want I should break his legs for him, Boss?" He used his thickest Mafiosi torpedo accent as he spoke, and cracked his knuckles as punctuation.

Ruben seemed to seriously consider it for a moment, then he threw back his head and laughed as the smell of brimstone faded gently away. "No, no need. He's just the messenger, a pawn in some demented game of the Dean's." He motioned to the man behind Ashley, who had stood there calmly the whole time, unruffled by the wizard's threats. "This is the dorm manager, Ashley. Manager, this is my new roommate. I was gonna bring you down to meet him, but…"

The manager shrugged. "I can totally understand, m'man. The circumstances are a little jacked up, and it's cool by me if he stays here as long as he pays the bills. But, dude…" He trailed off.

"Yeah?"

"PAWNS SUCK, SO DON'T CALL ME ONE!!!" Ruben recoiled backwards from the force of the manager's shout, holding a hand up to protect himself from the blazing glare of the enraged man.

Then, the manager held up one finger and grinned. "The gnarly horsy-shaped ones rule."

Ruben sighed deeply and rolled his eyes.

The manager looked at Ashley and waved. "Yo, dude! You look like one of my kind, dude. D'you know the local surf spots?"

Ashley grinned, and the next words from his mouth flowed smooth as surfer-boy butter. "No I don't, dude! But it would be totally great if you could, like, show me, dude!"

Ruben looked back and forth, forth and back, back and forth, then groaned aloud as he put his face into both hands. "How do I MEET these people?"


The mysterious shadow watched…

The mysterious shadow waited…

The mysterious shadow…

Sneezed, tripped over a small chimney, and nearly fell off the roof before grabbing a single finger-hold on a loose shingle. For a moment, as the shingle slid downward, he hung suspended in midair. Then, the shadow's reflexes took over and he kicked off the wall, flipping back up onto the roof as the shingle fell free and dropped into a dumpster filled with cafeteria food that moved and shifted of its own willpower. A low growl sounded as the shingle hit, and the shadow looked back and saw the shingle disappear with a blurp into the mutant mass of food.

"Stupid summer colds," he grumbled. "I just haaad to stay out all night on a stakeout of the One's window, watching and waiting." He smacked his forehead. "I am such a jackass."

He looked down at the scroll that he held, reading the words of prophecy once more, then glanced up at the door to the dormitory that Ashley was sheltered in just in time to see him leave, with a long-haired man leading the way towards the cafeteria.

"Your strength is restored, Ashley, and later today I shall come for you—" He sneezed again and rubbed his nose. "After I obtain some cold and flu medicine, of course."


The dire hints that Ruben dropped during the walk to the cafeteria were starting to seriously creep Ashley out.

"Make sure you get an extra cup, and strain your orange juice through a napkin, just in case something's in the bottom, waiting to attack your nose."

"Don't forget that to pick up a fork at the start of the line would probably mean your doom; get one at the end, or hope to the spirits that someone left one on the table for the next person."

"Blah-blah-blah, blah-blah… why are you looking at me like that, Ashley? Pay attention!"

"If there's only French toast left, you CAN eat it safely, but the only way to do it is to use peanut butter on it. No maple syrup, no shalrien tincture, nothing tasty. The French toast here only likes peanut butter. Why? Doesn't matter why. Do you want to come back to the dorm after breakfast, or do you want to leave your bones strewn on the floor?"

"Beware of the Grue. Don't sit in the shaded part of the room, and don't use the lavatory."

The cafeteria wasn't that crowded, and its echoing expanse made it seem even less so. The occasional student was usually seated by themselves or in small groups, some downing cup after cup of coffee in a desperate attempt to cope with summer classes that were all too early, others frantically studying books for much the same reason, and a third, much smaller group ate peacefully, free of the scholastic responsibilities that so tormented their fellow cafeteria-goers.

Ruben steered himself towards one member of this last group, a blonde, tanned girl with her hair drawn up in a ponytail on one side of her head that drooped down over her right ear. Ashley looked at the serving line, sighed hungrily, and reluctantly followed Ruben. The blonde looked up as they approached, and her face broke out into a smile that scrunched her slanted eyes almost shut. "Like, hello Ruben! Who's your uber mega-hunk friend?"

"This is Ashley. He's my new roommate. Ashley, this is Amberite Starshine Aiko Red Eagle."

"Hiii!"

Ashley blinked. Twice. Then he said, "Umm, that's quite a name."

She tilted her head to the side and, if anything, her smile grew even broader. "Oh, it's because I'm quarter Native American, quarter Japanese, and half crystal-waving Californian white-trash wannabe! My parents wanted to totally get all my heritage into my name." She nodded after a moment. "It's totally righteous by me if you want to call me Amber!"

Ashley nodded with a broad grin, happy to find another kindred soul so soon after meeting the manager. Wow, the people around here are my kinda folks! "Okay."

Amber started making shooing motions, urging them towards the very short line. "Go! Go! For sure, the okonomiyaki is totally awesome this morning." Then she waggled a finger. "But I have to tell you something, Ruben, so make sure you come back here, for sure."

Ruben saluted in a rather odd fashion, fist to heart then touching his forehead in a quick motion. "As you command!" Then he jumped in the air. "Aaaggh!!" After the wizard landed, he directed a glare at Amber which radiated a molten-rock heat that Ashley could feel beating against his skin from several feet away. "That FRIGGIN' HURT!!!"

Amber continued waggling her finger, her smile vanishing and her eyes opening slightly in a menacing way. "Don't be a whiner, Ruben. That's what you get for being such a total smartass!"

For a moment, as lighting crackled back and forth between the two, Ashley was dead certain that a fight was going to break out between them.

Ruben made his move first… as the angry mask on his face cracked then fell to the floor, a hint of a smile replacing it. "This is neither the time or the place; I can feel the Grue eyeing us. Shall we continue this another time?"

"I am SO there."

Ashley scratched his head. Did I miss some inside joke? He chuckled as he followed Ruben to the breakfast line. It ain't the first time I've had that feeling since I got here, and I'll wager it won't be the last.

Despite all of Ruben's dire warnings, the line didn't seem very dangerous at all to Ashley, and he got a pork okonomiyaki and an orange that looked completely normal in all ways. As he sat down across from Ashley and Ruben (who was savagely beating his french toast with a spoon), he grinned. "I've never had this before! I wonder how it tastes."

Ruben laughed. "As a beautiful young woman told me once, 'the real secret to okonomiyaki is in the sauce.'"

Ashley rolled his eyes and muttered, "There's that feeling of missing some joke again…"

Amber snapped her fingers. "Oh yeah, that totally reminds me." She reached to her side and started digging in a satchel as she continued speaking. "I was performing a ritual purification of a site yesterday when suddenly this thing, like, appeared out of thin air!"

She set a small stuffed red cat on the table, its bushy tail and black nose almost touching as it lay in a state of absolutely adorable repose. The black buttons it had for eyes had just a hint of purple in them, and the way they were shaped somehow suggested a feline's good-natured acceptance of the homage it was due from adoring human servants.

"I took it home with me because it was sooooooo awesomely cute! Last night, while I was snuggling it, I had one of those dreams when I can totally see the future, and I, like, saw you with the doll so," she put it on Ruben's head, "here ya go!"

"Hey, hey, hey, I do not hold with stuffed animals!" He didn't reach up to take it off his head, though. "What did you see happening if I didn't take it? Did you see that?"

Amber lost her smile and opened her eyes fully. "Something really bad."

"What, would Kaminokawaii inflict Her dread punishment upon me?" That thought seemed to make Ruben think. "Spirits, that's all I'd need. A cute case of See-Kosis." He scowled.

Ashley watched the plushie lift its head and look him right in the eyes, a baleful purple flame burning in its glassy orbs. For a moment, Ashley wondered who was screaming like a little girl, filling the echoing cafeteria with high-pitched sounds of utter dread, then he realized that it was his own lungs producing such cowardly noises. He forced his jaw closed against the frightened yelps that built up in his throat and beat against his teeth, trying their best to escape his otherwise paralyzed body.

Both of the people across the table from him leaned forward, surprise mingled with concern on their faces. Ruben was the first to speak. "What's wrong, Ashley?"

Ashley took another look at the doll, which was still curled up peacefully atop Ruben's head, its reposeful posture completely unchanged. "N-n-n-n-n-no-nothing," he stuttered unconvincingly, fear sweat beading on his skin. I, oh DAMN! Cats are so scary…

A ringing beep went off that made Ashley jump backwards in his seat, banging his head into a plastic potted plant that had been placed there by some sadistic planner of cafeterias. Amber reached into her bag and pulled out a small iridescent seashell, putting it to her cheek and speaking. "Indian Burial Grounds Real Estate, this is psychic consultant Amberite speaking, how can I, like, help you?"

"Is that weird thing a phone?" Ashley whispered to Ruben, who nodded absently as he dealt a deathblow to his French toast. It keened in agony for a moment, writhing from the mortal wound, then fell back to the plate. The wizard lifted his fork and licked the toast's life juices from the murder weapon, smacking his lips at the taste of delicious syrup.

Amber nodded. "Uh-huh." She fiddled with her purse for a bit. "Yeah." A notebook leapt out and floated in front of her, "Ew, how majorly heinous!" The notebook's pages flipped on their own as she glanced at them carefully, nodding absently to the person on the other end of the line. She lifted her spare hand as the pages stopped and ran a finger down the lines. "Uh-huh… now, what you need to do is get yourself a knife, cut your arm, catch some of your blood in a bowl, set it out, and then hide under your bed until I, like, get there!"

She listened a bit more, a slight frown creeping onto her face. "Well, duh! Of course it'll hurt! But do you want the thing to totally rip out your entrails and, like, get the blood it wants from you that way?"

Ashley ran what she'd said through his mind and came against one word that made entirely too much sense. He leaned over to Ruben and asked, not wanting to sound like a complete idiot in case he was wrong, "She's a psychic?"

"Yeah."

"And you're a wizard?"

"Golly gee, what was your first clue?"

"So, what's the difference?"

Ashley wasn't sure what he'd been expecting Ruben to say, but he certainly hadn't been expecting the wizard to shrug indifferently, gesturing vaguely with one hand. "Not much of one, t'be honest. Depends on who you ask. It's more a matter of style than anything else."

The notebook in front of Amber snapped shut and flew back into her bag. "I should, like, be there in forty minutes, or your exorcism's completely free!" She popped the phone back into her pocket and stood up. "Well, I gotta jet. C ya!"

After picking up her tray, she walked off towards the exit. Ashley waited until she was some distance away before asking, "So, what is the difference?"

Ruben stood up and held up one finger, taking a deep breath as he assumed a pompous lecturing posture. He opened his mouth wide and….

"Nooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!" the Gweep screamed as he dashed up and slid between Ashley and Ruben, skidding to a halt gasping for breath. "Ashley, you fool! Don't give Ruben a chance to give his boring expository rambling lectures!!"

"What's wrong with my boring expository rambling lectures?" Ruben seemed honestly curious as he asked this question, his finger still raised in the air. The Gweep rolled his eyes.

"The fact that you even need to ASK that question is a very strong indication of what's wrong with—"

Ashley scowled. If I have to hear the phrase 'boring expository rambling lecture' one more time, I'm gonna go insane and tear this place apart!! Wait a second, I just thought the phrase 'boring expository rambling lecture' myself, does that mean I'm obligated to go insa— aw, forget it. He derailed his circular train of thought with a vicious shake of his head, sending burning fragments of memory and consciousness all over his mind.

"Yo, Ashley…"

The martial artist looked up at Ruben, who had backed away several steps from the table and was staring at Ashley with surprise and disbelief on his face.

"Yeah, what is it?"

The wizard looked away and reached up to touch the plush cat on his head. "Never mind. I've gotta go take care of some stuff, Ashley; d'you think you can find your way back to the dorm by yourself?"

Ashley grinned and stretched his arms up, putting his hands behind his head in a casual pose. "Hey, no problem! I mean, how hard could it possibly be to find my way around the campus?

"That depends on your sense of direction." The wizard reached up and plucked the plushie from atop his head and pocketed it. "Well, if you get lost, just ask for directions. See ya!" He turned his back and walked away, waving casually over one shoulder.

The Gweep slid into the seat across from Ashley and leaned back, sipping from a coffee cup. "There was something I was supposed to do for you. With you? No, for you." He nodded his head, pulling on one ear absently. "Hey, Ashley, talk to me."

Ashley blinked. "About what?"

"Whatever. I need mindless chatter while I try to remember whatever I'm supposed to remember."

"Mindless chatter is my middle name! Actually, it's Benjamin, but mindless chatter might as well be my middle name." Ashley grinned, then his face went as blank as his mind while he tried to match his boast of creating empty-headed babble. "Hey, my old roommate and his friends were all computer geeks. You're the first of his kind that I've ever seen awake this early in the morning."

The Gweep blinked. "Morning already?"

"…Never mind."

The Gweep snapped his fingers. "That was it!" The Gweep dug into his pocket and slapped the plastic rectangle he extracted on the table, sliding it towards Ashley. "This is your credit card. Don't overuse your funds."

Ashley picked it up reluctantly and looked it over. It had a picture of him grinning broadly on one side and the name of a bank he didn't recognize under his photo. "You're just giving me some money?" I hate charity, but do I have a choice?

"Strange thing about that. Did a search on your name, found an account of yours that has, apparently, been accumulating interest for the past hundred and sixty years."

Ashley blinked. Twice. "What?"

"Well, it seems that your bank got snapped up by another bank and that one got eaten by a bigger bank that was just barely large enough to survive the—" The Gweep noticed Ashley's eyes glazing over and cut his explanation short. "You've got a starting stake; enough to buy some books and pay for a few month's rent."

Ashley shook off his temporary boredom-hypnosis and asked, "What happens when that runs out?"

"What do you think? You're gonna have to find a job." The Gweep finished off his cup of coffee and stood up. "If you need a recommendation, I'm friends with the guy who owns the local Mecha Mike's Pizza."

"But what about tuition?"

The Gweep grinned widely. "Ruben has arranged to blackma— er, arranged for a friend of his to cover your tuition out of the kindness of his heart."


Ruben wove the spells of illusion and obfuscation which would let him walk freely through the halls of the Extreme Science building, not wanting to get stopped by some of the crazed maniacal students obsessed enough to stick around for the summer classes just to perform their insane experiments without having to share the facilities with less dedicated attendees.

Just as he was about to walk through the doors reinforced with double-layer adamantite (a safety measure the campus had paid out for after the third experiment in a month rampaged out of control), Ruben stopped for a second and laughed. "I can't believe I'm actually here to see one of those crazed maniacal students. Being friends with a scientist; what was I thinking?"

He didn't have anything against science, per se. Science was all right, in its place. But there was something about the people that frequented the Extreme Science halls…

He bumped one student just walking out of a classroom door that was lit by a strobing blue and black light which washed out over the hallway and made Ruben's hair stand on end as if static electricity were stroking phantom fingers across his head.

The student murmured meekly, "So sorry," then started muttering to herself as she walked away, jotting notes in a huge dog-eared notebook. "The optimum payload for the destruction of the planet would be around 3x10 to the third power, I suppose, but it's always best to leave some margin of error, in case of a protective force field or unknown entity, so perhaps…"

Ruben watched her walk away and shook his head in disbelief. It was always that way with scientists. One moment, "We're calculating the viscosity of ketchup, it's very important to the future of science," the next, "Oh, by the way, if you slam two atoms together at speeds of…"

How could they be so naive?

He stopped in front of the door marked "Wiley's Lab" and knocked twice on the decorative mecha-skull adorning it. The door swooshed open and he stepped in, leaping to the safe tiles that were scattered down the corridor, deftly avoiding the traps that Wiley had defending his—

BWWUUP!! BWWUUP!!

Many security devices rely upon the human instinct to freeze for just a second when a loud, startling alarm suddenly goes off. This holdover from cavemen days is often planned for by the smarter creators of alarm systems and 90% of fatalities are inflicted in that first split second of animal fear.

A hail of plasma pellets rained down on the spot where Ruben had been standing as he jumped into the air. Pfft. What kind of a sucker does he think I am?

As he spotted his foe, the being defending Wiley's lab to the death from all intruders, the wizard cursed vigorously, preparing himself for mortal combat.

"Not another one of those DAMN LITTLE HARD HATS!!" Ruben slung a barrage of magic missiles at the little robot, but they all bounced harmlessly from the Hard Hat's carapace as it ducked under its protective shield.

"GRRRR…."

Hours of remembered frustration rose to the fore as Ruben struggled with the urge to destroy half of the building to see if the little Hard Hat turd could survive THAT.

Must… not… do it… can't afford… repairs…

Another barrage of plasma pellets threatened to down Ruben from where he hovered, and the wizard dodged to the side, then darted over the little helmet, dropping a timed mini-fireball in front of the damn thing with the faint hope that the Hard Hat would peek up just in time to catch it in the face.

As Ruben was about to slam the door open and yell at Wiley for changing his damn traps AGAIN, he stopped, floating in midair, and smacked himself in the forehead. "Why the HELL didn't I just fly in the first place?!"

He landed and swung the door open with a dejected air, and Wiley looked up from the Ninja-Bot he was working on and waved a part that had a small cloud of stray wires sprouting from it in the sorcerer's direction. "Ah, Ruben. What are you here for?" He tossed the part over his shoulder and didn't seem to notice where it landed with a clatter.

"I came to see you about the time machine, Devan."

"Time machine… time machine…" Wiley scratched his chin with a hydrospanner. "Oh! The masterpiece of technological marvel I finally finished and used for the first (and last) time yesterday, proving that time travel IS possible after all? THAT time machine?"

Ruben nodded once. "Yes, that time machine."

"Well, as it turns out, I will never be able to make another one. Them's the breaks!" He turned away from Ruben and started adjusting the machine again.

The wizard blinked. "…What?"

Wiley waved the hydrospanner dramatically as he turned back to Ruben, accidentally smacking a small blue mecha-bird out of the air. "As it turns out, the manufacturer of a rather small but necessary component shut down for a permanent vacation, according to their new jingle, and no one else can make that part. I'm rather reluctant to kluge something together, because I'm far more likely to end up melting the vict— er, experiment's mind than transport him anywhere."

"A part? One little part? What the heck could be so important? What kind of a mad scientist are you to not WANT to kludge something together?!"

Wiley shrugged. "Doc Brown's Mad Mad Emporium actually had some pretty revolutionary stuff, and without that one part, all that I had was a collection of resistors and capacitors." He glanced shiftily around. "Erm, to be honest, I TRIED to make one late last night, but a silver flying car appeared in the middle of my lab and enforced some 'copyright infringement' laws…"

Ruben lifted one eyebrow. "Copyright infringement? I thought that the Mads didn't care about that kind of crap."

The mad scientist shuddered. "Some of us do, and the ones that care about copyrights tend to get aggressively defensive about them. Let's just say that I was impressed by Brown's display of power." He waved the spanner again, this time in a whacking motion. "I'm never gonna make another time machine again."

Ruben turned away before Wiley could see the expression of relief that spread across his face. Good, the last thing I need is the Guardians to take notice of this little campus for someone else's offense and then spotting ME. In an offhandedly casual voice, the sorcerer said, "Well, I guess that I'll head out and break the bad news to my roommate. You wanna get some beers so we can welcome Ashley officially into the dorm?"

"Is it my turn to do that already?" Ruben could hear Wiley counting on his fingers under his breath, then curse softly. "Fine, I'll quit the lab early and head on out to the store."

The sorcerer looked over his shoulder and nodded. "I ain't letting you slide out of it THIS time. We have our duties in the Traditions of Bedlam Hall, and the fact that you let yourself forget to buy beer once should shame you to the deepest depths of your soul." He clucked his tongue sadly.

"Look, I keep telling you, I bought the beers, but I got sucked into an alternate dimension on the way back and the beings there demanded my beer as a sacrifice to send me—" Wiley cut himself short.

"You're never going to forget that, are you?"

Ruben asked, an innocent look on his face, "Forget what?" After a moment, he added, "Oh, that. Well, I had let it slip my mind, but now that you mention it I—"

"Just shut up!" Wiley put both of his hands over his face and groaned, so Ruben took that as his cue to depart gracefully. As the door swung shut behind the wizard, Wiley looked up from his hands. "The people of this planet have the strangest sense of humor; how did I ever become friends with ANY of them?"

Wiley went back to the robot for a brief moment, then looked up again, his eyes widening.

"And did he have that stuffed kitten on his head when he walked in through the door?"


Ashley legitimately enjoyed being lost. The feeling of discovering the unknown, turning corners and seeing something he'd never noticed before, finding quiet new places and meeting nice new people, was a feeling that he never tired of. In a way, he loved it more than skateboarding and martial arts put together.

That being said, on any other day he would have greeted the opportunity to wander around his new campus aimlessly with a wide grin. But today, Ashley had money burning in his pocket and a desire to spend it, so after waving goodbye to the Gweep he'd toddled off in search of the campus mall Ruben had taken him to yesterday.

Unfortunately the martial artist had underestimated the sheer size of the campus, and now he was totally turned around. I don't even know which way the dorm is, much less that mall! Hey, now, wait a second, what's this?

Ashley stopped dead on top of a ramp that sloped gently down into a broad concrete lot and looked around it, a broad grin spreading across his face. Wow, I can't believe I found a place like this around here!

The martial artist jumped up on a curb that warded a section of grass from the cement slope and slid down it agilely, noting the scraped paint all along its surface that bespoke many hours of loving skateboard grinds. When he reached the bottom he jumped off, landing on the balls of his feet lightly. Ashley stared at the ramps, the boards, the rails, the dips, the broken pieces of board, and the glorious cement fixtures surrounding him on all sides and shouted out to the heavens,

"HELL YEAH!"

A short victory dance later, he stopped and laughed out loud, his hands clenched into fists. "A university with its own skate park? And here I was, half-afraid that I'd have to give up one-third of my life! This ROCKS!"

The victory dance resumed for a brief moment, then Ashley's resolve to find the mall firmed around a firm commitment. "I MUST find a board. Even if the little mall doesn't have any boards, someone in there will know the way to a skateshop in town." He picked a direction and started walking, thoughts focused on the money in his pocket and how much of it would buy the board he would desire.

Soon after Ashley's training had begun, his master realized that, despite the lad's potential, his new student was an airhead in the finest California tradition, easily distracted by any bright shiny object; and he hadn't been shy about informing his new student of this, usually accompanying such a lecture with severe thwacks to the head.

Such training had proven to be less than effective, however. Thus, his master had sought to train Ashley's body in such a way that it would react instantly in any situation no matter what martial-arts irrelevant garbage he was pondering. The success of that training had been proven time and again, because Ashley's attention always wandered far away from his body.

Now, do I want one with a picture on it or not? I think that — whoops, duck the jumping kick from behind — pictures are such a shame to ruin, especially the beautiful ones that I always wanna blow cash on, but then again, when those pictures are — hmm, better sidestep that clothesline rush or else I might get hurt — all scratched up, it DOES show how dedicated you are to ska—

But when his attention finally did catch up…

Ashley stopped and slapped his forehead, turning around to get a better look at the man who'd just come out of NOWHERE and attacked him. "Aw, man. Not this AGAIN?!" If there was just one thing, one tiny, infinitesimal wish of mine that Whoever or Whatever is above us all could have granted, it would have been to NOT have any lame-ass challengers attacking me while I'm here. Oh, but noooo, of course not! What the heck is wrong with people?

The man who'd attacked Ashley spoke in a deep voice redolent with sorrow, his back still turned away from the dumbfounded martial artist. "I desire this conflict as little as you do, truly. But this fight between us is fated to be."

Ashley blinked. "Fated… whafu…" Who is this guy, what is he babbling about, and why is he speaking with a bad James Earl Jones impersonation?

"Yes. Truly it is a tragedy for two mighty martial artists such as ourselves to never have a chance to be friends under the same master," the man jumped into the air and flipped over Ashley's head, landing on a metal rail with astonishing agility, "watch as our master is brutally slain, quest together for the honor of our dojo, take revenge, then end up bitter rivals for the master's ultimate technique, but such," the man shrugged, "are the vagaries of life."

Suddenly the man sprang towards Ashley, aiming a flying knee for Ashley's stomach. When Ashley dodged to the side, the man managed to stop his forward momentum and used it to swing a side kick that snapped through the air audibly. Ashley blocked quickly, wincing at the sting of the man's heel against his forearms, then moved in with a quick three-jab combo at the man's face that his opponent deflected with lighting quick arm motions.

The man leapt backwards onto another rail and assumed a ready stance. "My name is Fushigichara Ryuunosuke, and I will defeat you in the name of the fate destined for one of us!"

For the first time, Ashley got a good look at his assailant. He had dark, reddish-brown skin, with long black hair wound into a queue that he'd wrapped around his throat. He was wearing a worn, stained dogi over a white t-shirt, and had pants that were so baggy and hid his feet perfectly. Though he was slender, he seemed to broadcast a feeling of solidness; a sense of immovability. Despite the way that Ryuu held himself ready to spring back at Ashley, his eyes were pools of sadness and regret.

Ashley slid into a ready stance of his own, but he protested, "Just what the heck makes you think that we're fated to fight each other? I don't even know who you are!"

Ryuu smiled. "Ah, but this has all the information that we need." He reached into his dogi and pulled out a small scroll. As the other martial artist unrolled it, Ashley could see from where he stood that the scroll was worn and tattered around the edges, as if centuries old. The martial artist cleared his throat and began to read.

"Onne thee Morn'ng of June Thee Fifteenthe, Inne thee Yeare 2147, Ryuunosuke Fushigichara Will Attacke Ashley Raine Outside thee Cafeteria. Whomsoe'er Is thee Victore Will Gainne… Will Gainne…" Ryuunosuke peered at the scroll, and a small bead of sweat rolled down his cheek. "Damn, I spilled cough syrup on that part…"

He raised his fist to the heavens and shouted, "WHY DID I PICK THE PURPLE KIND TODAY??? TELL ME, GODS, WHY?!?!"

Ashley fell to the ground in shock, twitching.


And very far away, a being lifted its head and listened to someone cry out in mortal anguish. It grinned sadistically and said softly,

"Some might think such minor pranks are beneath me, but I prefer to think of it as… just keeping in practice."


Ashley stood up slowly, rubbing his head where the edge of a ramp had clonked him. "But haven't you read this scroll before? I mean, it DOES have to do with your future, right? This IS really important, right?" Damn! Now he's got me interested! Prophecy? About ME? What could I do that's so important?

"Err…" Ryuunosuke looked down at the ground. "I… never read past that part."

Ashley fell to the ground in shock again, twitching.

Ryuu leapt down and knelt next to Ashley. "Are you all right, my worthy adversary?"

Ashley struggled to his feet, wiping away a trickle of blood that leaked from his forehead. "Weren't you in the least BIT curious?!"

"Well, no, not really. Why, should I have been?" Ryuu reassumed his ready stance. "Are you ready?"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a second!" Ashley waved his hands frantically. "If you don't know why we're fighting, and I don't know why we're fighting, and the FRICKIN' prophecy or prediction or whatever this is about is now so much dirty paper, then why are we even bothering to fight?"

Ryuu posed, one fist raised in the air, stars in his eyes! "Because it is our fate! Our destiny! Our karma!" He lowered the fist slowly and looked Ashley in the eyes. "Can you imagine anything more glorious?"

Without another word, Ryuunosuke lunged forward in a sweeping kick.

Ashley blocked and dodged automatically, trying to figure out this guy's style. He wasn't surprised to find that the specifics of it were unfamiliar to him; it seemed to combine some Thai kickboxing with some of the more aggressive styles of 'kung fu' and a dose of some Japanese karate style for good measure.

In other words, a very hard, very fast style; well suited for taking the offensive. But not so hot against a person oriented on the defense…

Sooner than it took his slow meat brain to figure it out, his body was already using a very soft style against Ryuunosuke, letting the other martial artist wear himself out against thin air, dodging and shifting to avoid each and every blow. Then…

Ryuunosuke left a kick extended just a half-second too long. Against most people, it wouldn't have mattered; but Ashley took the blow on his forearm, then shifted his arm downward, gripped the leg, and tossed Ryuunosuke into the ground. He recovered and stepped away from his opponent, breathing somewhat heavily. Man, this guy IS pretty good! Been a while since I've had a fight like this!

Slowly, Ashley realized that Ryuunosuke was chuckling softly. "Indeed, you are just as skilled as the scroll stated… I shall have to use the technique that has been kept, unused, for untold generations of our family."

Ashley thought to himself with a grin, Wow, secret techniques yet! This IS a fun fight! He braced himself, sliding his feet farther apart and moving his forearms to protect his face.

"Now, prepare yourself… FOR THE USAGIKEN!!!"

As per Article 34, Paragraph 4 of the Martial Artist's Code, Ashley waited patiently as Ryuunosuke assume the ready stance required by his secret mystical technique.

First, he put his fists beside his head and pointed the fingers up, as if simulating long ears attached to his head. Next, he crouched down, sitting on his haunches. He started brushing his hands against his face.

It was the nose-twitch that was the final straw, however.

Ashley fell to the ground again. For just a moment, the urge, no, the NEED to laugh was so strong that all he could do was writhe helplessly in its grip, gasping in agony. After a moment, though, the spell broke, and the laughter burst forth, first as a set of almost girlish giggles, then merging gradually into great bursts of hilarity which wrung themselves from his abused lungs as tears leaked down his face.

Then, just as he was about to recover…

Boing. Boing. Boing. Ryuunosuke hopped over to where Ashley was struggling to stand. "What are you fftt fftt laughing at, doc?" A carrot slid out of his sleeve and he nibbled at it.

It was too much for even Ashley's honed reflexes to stand against. Though they fought to put him on his feet quickly and beat the hell out of the rabbit-man, his sensei's training failed for the first time ever.

Not even the mightiest warrior can fight when he's so wracked with laughter he can barely breathe. Ashley managed to squeeze out between fresh chuckles, "Y'look ridi-ridi-ridiculous!"

Ryuunosuke frowned, a strange expression indeed on a rabbit-face. "I'll teach you to fftt fftt laugh at me, doc!"

Ashley, despite the pain straining his lungs, managed to stand, and assumed a ready stance. However…

Boing. Boing. Ryuunosuke hopped away, and a half-second later, Ashley felt the sudden impact of a foot against his chest. He staggered backwards from the force of the blow, wincing in pain. I didn't even see his foot move! What a technique! He put one hand on his ribs and lost all urge to laugh as his breath hissed out. Damn, it might be broken.

Ryuunosuke turned around and twitched his nose. "How d'you like fftt fft THAT one, doc?"

Ashley suddenly started laughing again, despite the pain in his ribcage… and he realized what the deadly secret of the Usagiken was.

He keeps you too blinded with laughter to fight back!! This technique of his is brilliant! Damn, he's boinging my way again… Squinting through the tears that were leaking from his eyes, Ashley tried to dodge as his opponent boinged-boinged towards him, but Ryuunosuke's punch landed squarely on his jaw.

"What's up NOW, doc? Still wanna fftt fftt laugh?"

Damn! Ashley reeled backwards again, almost tripping over a low rail. How can I possibly defeat him if I can't see him without laughing?

Suddenly, the answer was clear to him, and Ashley grinned broadly. Well, if it's looking at him that's making me laugh…

Ashley closed his eyes.

Blindfighting is a rarely-used aspect of most martial arts; the fact that Ashley had practiced using it even a little was a tribute to both his master and himself. It's difficult to describe what blindfighting entails without making it sound like a guessing game, a gamble that your fist would meet his face at precisely the right moment, a bet against you humiliating yourself by tripping over some rock in the path and falling over your face, because that's exactly what blindfighting is.

Boing. Boing. Boing.

Ashley ducked under the fist that he knew was coming and lashed out with his own secret technique; a technique that had taken away any joy he might have once had in an innocent campfire and burning sweets on a stick; a technique that he had forced himself to master through many painful nights of summer camp…

"ROASTING MARSHMALLOWS IN THE FIRE FIST!!!"

Ashley's fists flickered out faster than a human eye could follow, hitting a thousand times for every visible punch, slamming into his foe's face, chest, and lower legs. After about four seconds of this, he stopped and opened his eyes.

Ryuunosuke lay on the ground, unconscious.

Ashley, blood pounding in his ears as he panted from exertion and adrenaline withdrawal, gradually became aware of a clapping and murmurs from around him.

"Wow, that's the best fight on the campus since Ruben took on the Dean…"

"Nah, doesn't hold a candle to that one. Now, Tyler against the M-66, on the other hand…"

"Oh my God they're both SOOOO…"

"Will you shut up about that, idiot? You're a married woman now!"

"I give it a 3.1 on the Campus Mayhem scale…"

"Glad I had my cam handy…"

"Ah, the summer months are usually so boring without the Dean here. Something FINALLY happened!"

Ruben shouldered his way past the crowds and waved his hand to Ashley. "Well, it seems that you've gotten introduced to the local hobby of fight-watching. Don't worry; once the oddsmakers figure out where your abilities stand, they'll lay off for a while." Suddenly, his eyes narrowed as he looked over Ashley's shoulder. "Speaking of which…"

Ashley turned around just in time to have a small recorder shoved into his face by a man with brown hair tied back in a tail. "This is Tendo Tatsuya, speaking for Serenity's Voice, the school newspaper. Tell me, what's your name?"

"Ashley Raine, but—"

"How long have you been attending this college?"

"About a day or so, and—"

"Really?" Tatsuya assumed a sudden expression of disbelief. "And already you've been challenged?"

"Well, I wasn't expecting—"

The recorder bobbed up and down as the reporter grinned. "Ah, yes, the unexpected often happens at this campus. So, for the adoring ladies that will soon no doubt be circling around you like flocks of vultures, waiting to spring upon you, will you finally reveal for us," He leaned closer, "if you're a briefs man, or do you prefer boxers?"

"Well, I like — Hey, wait a minute!"

Ruben scowled impatiently and pointed one finger at Tatsuya. "Back off, Tendo, before I put a curse of boils upon you." A sickly greenish light began to glow around his finger.

Tatsuya raised one eyebrow. "And have you forgotten already what I can do to you?"

Ruben glared. "Just this once, I think it would be worth it to see your pretty face break out and start oozing. Do you feel lucky, or… do you suddenly start to feel the urge to dig your fingernails into your face, scratching away the top layer of flesh, painfully…"

Tatsuya twitched, one hand inching away from his side and towards his face. "You wouldn't dare."

The sorcerer didn't say anything, but broke into a grin that was so horrifying, so terrible, and radiated such pure and bitter menace that Ashley had to look away from it quickly lest his mind be destroyed. The martial artist shuddered involuntarily. I hope he never throws a grin like that MY direction.

Tatsuya backed away quickly. "That's all for now, Mr. Raine. But I shall interview you further at a later date..?" As he talked, he kept moving away faster and faster, and the last two words were shouted out from almost across the open field.

"I so rarely get the chance to smile like that." Ruben sighed wistfully and traced one of his hair strands with a hand. "The joy of grinning like that is almost enough to make me give up the side of Good; how often does a white magician get to smile that way?"

Ashley flicked his hand through his short hair, throwing the sweat out of it. "Hey, Ruben, do you know where I could get a good skateboard around here?"

"Wha..? How do you have money?"

Ashley rolled his eyes. "I think the explanation sounded kind of contrived, but who am I to argue with fortune?" He chuckled. "I mean, it's not like it's part of some person's master plan that I have money in my pocket…" He looked around nervously, suddenly struck by the feeling that someone was watching.

"…Right?"


"Sometimes, I just don't understand you, Felix."

"What's to understand? I'm Playful Evil, not Stupid Evil." Felix tapped a white pawn against the table. "…Does this strike you as sadly stereotypical, Motoko?"

"What do you mean?"

"Two immortal beings of immense power, playing chess against each other, discussing the fate of the world as if nations were the chessboard and heroes our pieces?"

Motoko arched an eyebrow. "We've earned the right to discuss the fate of the world as if nations were etcetera ad nauseum. It's not like either of us really thought we'd be here a hundred years ago."

Felix grinned. "Speak for yourself. I had big plans for myself then, and I've got even bigger plans now." His grin broadened. "But, y'know, while we're on the subject of chessboards and pieces—"

"Yeah?"

The man waved the pawn towards Motoko. "Are you ever gonna make your move?"

Motoko gave a sudden start. "I'm sorry, Felix, I was just thinking about the past, and how strange it all turned out."

Felix nodded, a bit sadly. "Yes, there is quite a bit of past between us, isn't there?" Then he grinned. "And even my orchestrated and elaborate schemes have changed a bit since I first conceived them! I mean, ME, a teacher?" He added after a moment, "Well, senior faculty administrator, to be perfectly accurate."

"With the streak of sado-masochism that you have? It was either professional teacher or Court Torturer." Motoko reached out and shifted her rook. "Check."

"Dammit, suckered again."

Now it was Felix's turn to study the board. After a moment, he grimaced and took the rook with a pawn, which lead to a sudden bloodbath in the middle of the board. Pieces valiantly slew other pieces and were slain in their own turn, removed from the grim battlefield one by one to greet their comrades in the afterlife of the chessboard's side.

When the last combatants had fallen, Felix was left with only a king and a knight that had wandered far afield from his lord, staring altogether too many pieces in the face. After tipping his king over with one finger, he smiled up at Motoko.

"Again?"

"Please."

Felix set up all the pieces again, this time switching the colors, stealing one of her rooks, putting his queen right next to her king, covering his queen's position with a bishop…

After all, he reasoned, if she's busy looking out of that window with a distant, half-sad expression in her eyes, she can't be much wanting to play chess, now can she?

When Motoko turned her attention back to the board and found a fool's mate awaiting her, she grimaced. "Dammit, suckered again. Can't believe I looked away from the chessboard long enough to let you get away with that."

Felix grinned. "That puts me up, what, 347 to 343?"

Motoko shook her head and frowned. "You're forgetting that night eighty years ago when you got me drunk, thinking it would make me play worse, and you lost twelve games in a row!"

He frowned. "No, 'forgetting' wouldn't be the word. Though the phrase 'brutally excised all memory of that night from my mind to cover the trauma' might begin to cover what I had to do to remove the shame." He bowed his head and pretended to sob.

"The Goddess thinks that things may start to move soon."

Felix, rather than pretending to be confused by this change of subject, simply looked up, his crocodile tears drying on his cheeks. "Already?"

"Yes."

The man rubbed his chin as he studied the black queen. Crafted from a dark stone that glistened almost transparently in the sunlight, it was carved to resemble an old woman clutching a small computer in one withered claw and letting a stream of gold coins fall from the other. "And to think, a hundred years ago we thought we had troubles…"

"Yes, and now we leave this next fight to our children, and their children. I still think that this makes us cowards."

"And I still know that they would be prepared for such as you, or I, or the Jacobin, or even the Goddess Herself, but there is no way they can prepare themselves against every single possible Hero I can train."

Motoko shrugged. "C'mon, even if you WEREN'T training up Heroes at that school of yours, you know the Goddess as well as I do. She'd just lean back in her chair, waggle one finger, and say, 'Silly girl, it'll all work out for the best.'"

Felix threw his head back and laughed heartily. "Yes, She would say that. I still remember when Stryfe and I tried to figure out what She was a Goddess OF. After three weeks of what we thought were experiments carefully hidden from our subject, She just flicked me in the forehead and told me the truth."

"…Truth?"

He set the black queen down and stood up. "Yeah, she's the Goddess of—" he cut himself off. "Well, I can't tell you that, I'm afraid." After sitting back down, Felix rested his chin on steepled fingers. "But at least she isn't totally blowing off my Hero project. Let's face it, we're just too old for the Hero schtick."

Motoko sighed again. "I know that you're right, of course, but… still, it bothers me that I can't do anything other than watch the approaching shadow and hope that you find someone capable of throwing it back."

"I will, don't fear." He rearranged his features into a suitably evil grin. "After all, I am the Great and Terrible Dean, Felix Salouse! My students battle against me every day… what better way to train the heroes among them?"

His phone rang, and in a smooth motion Felix opened it up and answered. "It is I." He nodded. "Mm-hmm, hmm… yeah, thanks." He snapped the phone shut. "Knight forks bishop and queen, and the queen scurries away. Check in three moves." His grin this time was suitably diabolic, and Motoko shivered.

"I don't know what the hell that was about, and I don't WANT to know. Do you realize how incredibly cheesy it is to refer to evil plots like chess games..?"


Drum Major Pip looked up from the baton she was polishing and frowned. "I get the feeling… that no one was paying attention to me today. That makes me feel sad."

She tossed the baton to the side and stood up, stretching the kinks out. "I know what would cheer me up!" She reached one hand out and caressed her one true love, the only ray of sunshine in her craptank of a life.

"Oh, Chia pet, you're the only one that understands me…"


"Here's to our new dorm-mate!"

Ashley and Ruben had spent six hours searching the city for a skateshop, traveling everywhere. Finally, they found one not a mile away from the campus, but Ruben had forced him to buy something after only two hours of oo'ing and ahh'ing over everything there. After walking back, Ashley had found a small party being thrown in his honor.

Ashley grinned as he stood up. "Hey, I don't know how long I'm gonna be here, but I'm sure gonna have fun while I'm here!" He held up his can of beer in salute, and the ten people in the dorm's common room held up their cans too.

The manager poked his head into the doorway and scowled at the sight of beer. "Dudes! How TOTALLY weak, lame, and unrighteous of you to throw a party in MY dorm. There are rules, y'know?!?!" After a moment, he winked at Ashley. "Rule one: I want in on any drinkin'. I'm mortally offended that you would even THINK about throwing a party without me!"

He disappeared and then reappeared almost instantly, a six-pack dangling from his fingers. "I come bearing the bringers of blindness!"

Wiley slapped Ashley on the back and winced as his fingers stung from the hardness of the martial artist. "Ow! I mean, well, maybe you'll get to like it here enough that you won't want to go back. Aheh, heh, hehh…" The scientist chuckled nervously.

Lilah leaned forward. "Where is he from, anyway?"

The martial artist looked around. "Uh—"

Ruben interrupted. "Eh, no need to worry about that." He waved a beer around. "Let's just relax and greet our new compadre!"

Ashley eyed the beer in Ruben's hand and lifted one eyebrow. "Hey, didn't Lilah say something about that girl thing being related to alcohol? I'm… I'm pretty curious about you. I want to hear this story about your curse."

The Gweep chuckled. "Yeah, it's a good one."

Wiley grinned maniacally. "Yeah, I've heard it five times, and it just keeps getting funnier… every time I hear it…" He started laughing uncontrollably, resting his head on the table.

Someone unfamiliar to Ashley appeared in the doorway. "Yes, indeed, to hear again the tale of the mighty Ruben's fall would edify and amuse anyone within earshot. It is a monument to sheer stupidity, a delight of mental defectiveness, and a goddamn funny story." The tall man shouted out, "HEY EVERYBODY, RUBEN'S GONNA TELL—"

"YOU'RE A DEAD MAN, BEN!!" Ruben rose into the air and shot towards the man in the doorway, fire in his eyes and in his hands.

"Nyah-nyah, you can't hit me!" The man named Ben dodged to the side, and Ruben followed him out of sight down the hall.

Wiley turned to Ashley and, ignoring the sounds of battle from the hallway, said conversationally, "He's a little sensitive about the situation around his curse. I honestly don't think he cares that much about WHAT he's cursed with, but—"

Amber nodded, ponytail on top of her head bouncing, her smile growing just a bit. "Yeah, he, like, totally hates it if you, like, mock him about it. But it's just soooooo cute when he gets mad!" She giggled for just a moment, then pulled out a Magic 8-Ball.

"Oooooh spirits of the, like, 8-Ball, please totally tell me if Ruben is going to tell the story tonight…" She squinted at the glass for a moment, then looked a bit sheepish. "'Please deposit twenty-five cents.' I can't believe I forgot!"

"Well, that should shut him up for a while," Ruben said as she came back into the room, her loose button-up shirt torn fairly badly. She held up one corner, looking at a long rip in the side, and grimaced. "Great, just great. Now I'm gonna have to fix this damn thing."

The Gweep frowned. "You didn't hurt him too badly, did you? He owes me forty bucks for fixing his grade last semester."

She flapped one hand idly. "Don't worry about it, he should recover in a few days." Ruben grinned evilly. "Let's see him laugh about curses next week." The sorcerer turned sorceress slapped her hands together, miming the wiping of dust from them. "Mweh-heh-heh."

Ashley frowned. "So, are you telling the story or not?"

Ruben shrugged. "It'd be much easier to show you."

She walked over to the little coffee table that rested in the middle of the dorm lounge and held one hand two feet or so above the top, breathing deeply. She closed her eyes and started murmuring, waving her hand around and around in circles that grew larger as a shimmering, wavering outline of a scene formed itself under her hand. Ashley watched in fascination as Ruben swirled her hand faster and faster, and the picture responded by filling out in color and suddenly, it solidified into a near-perfect three-dimensional image.

Ruben took her hand away, and the martial artist examined the scene closely, bending towards the table. The image was of a typical living room in a well-to-do house that didn't look all that different from his mother's own setup at home, with a couch facing a television over a low-set table and two loveseats flanked the couch at acute angles. Seated on one of the loveseats was a couple entangled in each other, and on the couch were two guys with another girl seated between them.

One of the men was instantly recognizable as Ruben, albeit slightly younger and quite visibly drunk, with a red flush across his face and sprawled out over half of the couch with a small glass of… something in his fingers, frozen in a toast towards the television screen. Scattered across the table was an impressive collection of multicolored bottles and several dozen cups of varied sizes, shapes, and materials.

Ruben cleared her throat. "On that fateful night, I was sixteen. I'd been invited to a party, a real party, my first one. The main themes of the party were alcohol and some crazy old cartoons…"

Amber frowned, and one of her eyes opened slightly. "It's, like, called anime! Don't make me get totally vengeful otaku on your ass!"

Ruben waved one hand dismissively. "Whatever." She waved her hand one final time over the scene, and it started moving. Sound began blaring from the tiny television set, and ice tinkled in a glass that someone was swirling idly. Ashley watched the story unfold, fascinated.


Becky sighed, bored out of her gourd. Usually, she managed to cruise through life with a sense of amused detachment, finding almost anything and everything interesting or funny or cool in some fashion, but tonight… Stupid lame parties. When did alcohol start losing appeal for me? Maybe because Ruben's hogging all the Scotch and there isn't a drop of tequila in the place. And it doesn't help that the only thing to do here other than drink is watch these lame old cartoons. If only Ami was here, we could make out like pretty-boy over there with his new tart, but…

Nathan's paramour let out a small, whimpering moan, and Becky stood up to throw a pillow at both of them. "Shut up shut up shut up! Get a freakin' room!" Gawd, she's cute. Too bad she doesn't have a drop of taste…

Nathan moved his gaze away from the girl long enough to look Becky up and down languorously. She felt his Glamour touch off a spark deep within her, and she shuddered. Stupid magic elven crap. I should tear his spleen out for doing that. "Come on over here then. I can handle two at once."

Becky shuddered again, theatrically this time, as she gave Nathan a long cold stare. "The girl I wouldn't mind, but you would just be an unnecessary nuisance, an appendage that would wither all too quickly."

The pretty boy grinned as he caressed the girl's cheek. "Sure you don't want to put that to the test?"

Ruben shouted out, all too loudly, "Hey, b'quiet! I'm watchin' thish!"

Becky harrumphed in disgust as she glanced down at Ruben, who was slumping backwards even further under the influence of alcohol. What a lightweight. Spirits, it's his first time drinking, you'd think he'd take it kind of easy, but nooooo…

Ruben muttered something that Becky barely caught. "I dunno what that guy's stressin' about. I shink it'ud be coooool to turn inta a guirl sometimes."

Suddenly sensing the potential for something a lot more interesting than anything she'd seen all night, Becky leapt onto that comment with all the speed and agility she possessed. "It's a lot harder being a girl than you might think, Ruben."

Ruben waved the shotglass in his hand around, slopping quite a bit of it over himself. "Yeah ri'. How hard could it be?"

"You think so, eh?" Becky allowed herself a slight smile. He was good and hooked now. If there was one thing about Ruben that she knew quite well, it was the fact that he never, ever backed down from a challenge. "I bet you fifty bucks wouldn't last one day as a girl, Ruben."

Ruben sobered up a bit at this. "An' how do you prepose— sugget— recennend— say I become a girl?"

Becky barely held back her laughter. Maybe I should give him a bit of line to play with… If there was another thing about Ruben that she knew quite well, it was the fact that he never, ever backed down from a challenge to his magical abilities. "I thought you were the best magician in school, Ruben. Are you saying you aren't good enough to cook up a sex-change spell?"

By now, despite the bink's attempts to drag Nathan's attention back to her, the pretty boy was watching Ruben very closely. Link, the man who'd brought them all together in the first place, had pressed pause on the ancient VCR's remote control and turned his attention to Ruben as well. Under such close scrutiny by his peers (especially Link, who was almost his equal in spellcasting), Ruben flushed. "Of course I could. But it would be incridid… real dangerous to make a new spell jus' fer a bet."

And now to reel him in… "I guess I can understand if you're not able to do it." That did it. Ruben stood up in a sudden fit of alcohol-inspired anger and dashed his shotglass against the table.

"I'll do it ri' now!" Ruben turned to Link. "Got any skesh— drawin' paper and pencils around? I'm gonna sketsh up a ritual real quick."

Link stuttered for a moment. "B-but that's crazy! At least wait until tomorrow, when you've sobered up a little!"

Ruben directed the full force of his glare at Link. "I get it. Ya don' shink I can handle it either! Well, I'll sheew yew. Now, GET THE PAPER." Too surprised by the sudden Command to counter the spell, Link got up and got what Ruben had demanded, moving mechanically.

While he was waiting, Ruben downed several more shots, and Becky… started feeling a little guilty. Even though she didn't know that much about straight-up magic (her family's brand of magic was a bit on the esoteric side), she could figure out that it probably wasn't a good idea to cast spells while under the influence, much less make them up on the spot. "Uh, Ruben, I'll understand if you want to wait until tomorrow…"

Ruben waved one hand dismissively. "No, no, no! I kin do it tonight. I got an," he belched loudly, "angle, y'see."

He walked unsteadily to the kitchen table after Link handed him the paper and pencils, and as the spell cleared away from Link's eyes, the worry set in. "This can't be good, but…"

"But?"

Link sat down heavily. "Even drunk, he's stronger than I."

The people in the living room listened and waited as Ruben spent the next hour drawing madly, muttering and screaming at himself by turns, and occasionally staggering back into the living room for a liquid 'bracer.' To distract herself, Becky actually tried to pay attention to the cartoon on the screen, but in vain. What kind of a hack wrote this? Did he actually THINK that scene where the guy's friend broke the fourth wall was FUNNY? Some people should be shot before they get published

Soon after the credits on the third episode rolled by, Ruben tried to walk into the living room. 'Tried' being the main word. His stagger meandered back and forth across the carpet as he blinked owlishly, trying to focus his eyes. "I'm don'! Link, d'you have a piece a' chalk an' some floor space I could use?"

Link and Becky exchanged a glance that left unspoken the words, "This is rapidly going from bad to worse."

Link said cautiously, "Of course, Ruben. I use my basement for rituals."

Ruben turned for the door leading down to the basement, but before he'd taken one step Becky threw herself at him. "Please, please wait until morning!"

Ruben shrugged her off. "NO! I'm jus' as good as I always am!" He stormed angrily to the basement door, slammed it open, and disappeared down the stairs. Becky turned to Link.

"Couldn't you put him to sleep or something? He's so drunk already…"

Link shook his head slowly. "No. Even as drunk as he is, he'd still be able to counter anything I cast."

Nathan's bink had left an hour ago in disgust at the lack of attention that he'd been paying her, but for reasons known only to himself, Nathan was still sticking around. He started for the basement, flashing a casual grin over his shoulder at them. "Well, it would be a waste not to watch a real master at work, wouldn't you agree Link?"

Link fumed silently at this latest insult to his own abilities, then stomped down the stairs right behind Nathan. Becky, left alone in the living room, pressed 'Stop' on the video player and went down into the basement herself. She wasn't about to miss out on the fun.


The scene stopped moving as soon as Becky left it, and Ashley breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Though he didn't know what magic had made him able to hear inside Becky's head, even a little, he hadn't been comfortable with the sensation at all.

Ruben swished her hand through the scene, dissolving it. He spoke softly, but with a tone that drew Ashley's eyes to him. "I quickly drew the ritual pattern on the floor, centered myself as best as I could while so wasted off my ass that I could barely stand up, then chanted the words that I'd clumsily scrawled on the side of the paper.

"Energy swirled around me, catching me up in a cyan and violet whirlwind, lifting me into the air, then… disappeared just as quickly as it had come, leaving me. Unchanged. I wasn't entirely clear-minded at that point, but I remember being so angry that I stormed out of the house, into the driving rain.

"As I was walking towards the door, I started feeling stranger and stranger, but I shrugged all that off as drunkenness… until I stepped outside and the change that I've become all too familiar with swept over me. The only thing I can remember thinking, as cold water dripped down my body, was, 'I have BREASTS.' Then, I fainted, and woke up in Becky's bed. The first thing she said to me was, 'I told you that you couldn't last one whole day as a girl.'"

She sat silently for a moment, than added, "As you might imagine, that wasn't the greatest way to start my first morning as a woman, and the hangover didn't exactly make it a pleasant day. It wasn't until three days later that I finally changed back, and I rejoiced, until… I cast a spell that was too powerful and found that this was no temporary curse."

To be honest, Ashley had tried to be polite. He'd held in his laughter, and despite the uncontrollable way his lips were twitching, he'd mastered even the urge to smile.

But the expression on Rubenís face as she remembered those moments was just too much.

As he put his head against the table and howled with laughter, Wiley leaned over to Amber. "Hearing that story always affects the first-timer that way…"

Amber nodded vigorously. "I know that I TOTALLY laughed my ass off!"

Ruben groaned as her head hit the table, but for an entirely different reason than her roommate's, beating her face into the surface over… and over… and over… "Will you PLEASE stop talking about it like I'm not here?"


"Oh man, I am BEAT." Ashley groaned as his head hit the pillow.

For some reason, soon after Ruben had told her story and the martial artist had finally wound down, he'd started feeling very tired. I've heard of jet-lag. Is this some kind of time-lag?

He rolled over and looked up at the top bunk, sighing. I wonder how long it'll be until I get back home, anyway? This place is nice and all, in a… strange way, but I don't really belong here!

His eyes closed slowly, the fog of sleep heavy on his mind, and he reached out one hand in an idle stretch, clenching his fist around a handful of soft fur.

"Mrrow? MRRORW!!!"

"ARRRGGHFFFMMPH!"


Ruben stopped in the middle of her beer, and her ears perked up. "Hey, did you guys hear that?"

Devan shrugged. "What, a scream that sounded like a lone child suddenly crying out in complete and total terror, than just as suddenly being silenced?"

"Yeah…" Ruben stood up suddenly. "I think it was Ashley! Dammit, I can't let my investm— friend suffer from something like that!"

She ran out of the room, sprinting at full speed, and Amber watched her go. "I wonder if Ruben, like, remembers how much she bounces as a girl?"


Slowly, oh so slowly, Ashley awoke from the darkness that oppressed him, swimming up through tides of unconsciousness that sucked voraciously at his mind, battling past the nightmares of red furred monsters tearing him limb from limb, and finally broke through—

Into a world of hurt.

"Ouch!!!" He flinched, and the raw surface of his skin rasped against the blanket that covered him.

"Are you all right? What happened to you?"

Ashley turned his head towards Ruben, and got… an eyeful. In fact, quite a bit more than an eyeful, as she was only wearing a loose tank-top and was leaning very far forward, concern in her eyes.

_P…pink?_ "Gahhh..?" His nose started to leak blood and his salivary glands went straight into overdrive. However, those same glands had forgotten that their owner was lying flat on his back, and the results were predictable.

Ashley sat up straight, coughing as he tried to expel drool from his lungs. Ruben reached over and pounded the martial artist on his back. "Don't die, fer the spirits' sake; it's only a bunch of scratches!"

Ashley sat back slightly, making sure to not look towards his roommate. "The last thing I remember is a red—" he shuddered. "..cat… I HATE cats… they're so scary…"

Ruben gasped. "As a child, were you subjected to some soul-destroying super-secret martial arts technique that involved throwing you into a pit of full of hungry felines and left you with a lifelong terror of cats?!?"

Ashley blinked. Twice. "N-no. I just don't like cats. What the hell would give you an idea like that, Ruben?"

Ruben looked innocently up at the ceiling and said, "No reason…"

"Yeah, the soul-destroying super-secret martial arts technique had absolutely nothing to do with it." Ashley shrugged. "The only side effect from THAT is the occasional urge to OD on catnip…

"But what the heck could have attacked me?"

Ruben looked puzzled. "I don't know. The only thing in the room was the plushie that Amber gave me. See?" She held it up.

Ashley looked towards it, and it LOOKED at him, a fire in its beady black bead eyes. He screamed again, and Ruben looked at him strangely. "What's wrong?"

"That THING is what attacked me!!"

Ruben lifted the plushie up and she examined it closely. "Not a chance. This doll doesn't have any aura at all; it's just a plushie. Besides…"

Ashley blinked. "Besides..?"

The sorcerer-turned-sorceress huggled the plushie. "It's SOOO CUTE!!!!!" she squealed. And then—

She giggled. The diabetic content of the room rose by three hundred percent, filling it with an almost-visible pink sugar smoke that seeped into every crack and cranny of the room, making it glow a sickly-sweet shade.

It was all too much for poor Ashley. "Geh…..?"


Ryuunosuke came to suddenly, springing to his feet in a single sinuous move. He touched the bruises on his face and chest disbelievingly. "He… defeated the Usagiken? This means that I shall have to unlock the ultimate forbidden technique."

He nodded decisively. "I shall return, Ashley, and when I do, I will defeat you." He looked at the scroll lying on the ground nearby, and sweated. "And hopefully, the Elders will have another copy of the scroll."


The cab that pulled up in front of the Administration building was a shabby, disreputable vehicle — well-suited to disgorge the person that stepped out onto the campus and looked up at the sky.

His visible clothes were a worn duster that was closed tight around his neck and torn pants; the right sleeve of the duster had either been torn or burned away. Around his right forearm was a strange, black gauntlet with filigree lines worked in gold that created the illusion of a circuit around his arm. Set into the gauntlet just above the back of the hand was a large, red gemstone that gleamed with fire in the moonlight.

The man stuck that hand into his pocket and removed a wad of bills. After handing the whole thing over to the driver, the cab peeled away, leaving the mysterious man standing in front of the Admin building.

He grinned. "Well, well, well. Looks like I'm finally back. Time to recruit some 'archeological assistants'. Mweh-heh-heh…"

 

To be continued.


Author's notes: Okay, questions, questions, questions.

Who is the Hero referred to in the conversation between Motoko and Felix? That… is a secret. ^__^

Is Motoko anyone that a long-term fan of certain anime should know? That is also a secret.

What does the author have against french toast? That… is not a secret. He likes it, but detests what cafeterias do to the stuff… >,<

For those not in the 'Japlish' know, Usagiken is a combination of Usagi (rabbit) and ken (technique, fist.) So it's the RABBIT FIST!!! Truly a deadly technique…

And the Roasting Marshmallow Fist is indeed a parody/copy/whatever of the infamous Kachuu Tenshin Amaguriken from Ranma ½.

Okay, and the characters from Ruben's flashback are from another story of mine. ^_^ No big deal, right?

Aaron Bergman
iamfanboy@uymail.com

 

"I must not listen to the Cuteness… Cuteness is the mind-killer… Cuteness is the adorable little death that brings total annihilation. I will face my Cuteness… It will pass over me and through me, and only *I* will remain."

—Atomic Starlight Knight,
"Nuke 'Em Till They Glow!!" by Benjamin Oliver.

Episode 3
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