Ashley looked at Ruben, who was sitting in the front of the boat.
"Well," he said.
Ruben looked past Ashley at the island that was sinking into the
ocean behind them. "Well," she said.
Ashley started rummaging through the equipment box, pulling out
a small saltwater purifier and a packet labeled RATIONS. "I
hope we have enough food to make it back to the mainland."
Ruben shrugged. "Don't worry about it. I can get fish to practically
jump into the boat." She looked down at her torn clothes mournfully.
"Dammit. The amount of magic I used to avoid being the shrieky
feminine sacrifice back there probably means I'm stuck like this
for a good, long time."
A sudden explosion from the island echoed out over the water, making
both of the people in the boat wince. Ashley looked Ruben in the
eyes, and they both said, in chorus, "We will never
tell anyone about this weekend."
An original story
by Aaron Bergman
© Copyright 2002-2005 by Aaron Berman.
Episode Three: One Man's Home is Another's Dungeon-Crawl
Three Days Before:
Ashley was peaceably enjoying a cold drink of juice, watching the
relatively crowded lunchtime cafeteria as he kicked back and relaxed.
Not being in classes yet had given him time to explore the campus
and the surrounding city, and he had used that time to the fullest.
It suddenly hit him how little he'd thought about his parents,
Rachel, his entire life before coming here. Ashley still wanted
to go home, but he liked it here. A lot. It was nice, it was clean,
and it was new.
C'mon, Ashley my main man, it's time to think hard about this.
What would be the point in—?
Ashley's train of thought was derailed sharply by the sound of
his roommate's hands hitting the table, hard. The boom echoed
through the cafeteria, making some people look over in interest
(and waking up one young man in the distance, which saved his life;
the grue had been eyeing him with a hungry glint in its bloodshot
Ruben's voice was low. Ruben's voice was level. Ruben's voice contained
enough bottled rage to fuel a dozen ninja in parent-avenging killing
Ruben's voice was
Not only that, she was wearing a shirt with a wide collar that
might have fit properly if she was currently of man-proportions.
And when the shirt was considered in conjunction with how far she
was leaning towards Ashley—
"Geh?" Ashley couldn't help but stare, powerless as a
deer in headlights. In a manner of speaking.
Ruben straightened up and leveled one finger at Ashley. "My
Mughi plushie! What did you do with it?"
Ashley shook his head fast, trying to dislodge the word perky
that was stuck fast in his head and comprehend Ruben's cryptic question.
It wasn't an easy task, but after a few moments the fog over his
mind cleared sufficiently to ask a question of his own. "Mughi?
What the heck is a Mughi?"
Ruben stopped pointing and looked down at her fingers as she pressed
them together, blushing profusely. "That's what I, um, named
the cute plush kitty Amber gave me."
"You named a stuffed animal?" Ashley raised his
eyebrows, surprised, and Ruben's blush grew brighter, creeping down
Ruben mumbled, "I wouldn't so much say named as
gave an identifying word symbol to distinguish it from all the other
stuffed cute red soft kitty plushies
"That's what a name is."
Ruben glared and her flush grew to a feverish shade as rage tightened
her features. "And so? You wanna make somethin' of it?"
Black crackling lightning flickered around her hands as she raised
them threateningly, and Ashley's eyes moved quickly as he searched
for an escape.
"Ruben! What's up, my friend?"
The black lightning faded away as Ruben's features assumed an expression
of total shock at the voice that came from behind her. Her mouth
worked soundlessly for several moments and her eyes stared blankly
at Ashley's face, who managed to restrain an urge to wave a hand
in front of those suddenly wide orbs.
Finally, Ruben said in a low whisper, "No
Slowly, oh so slowly, she turned around and to see the man standing
behind her. "How did you survi— Er, it's great to see
Ashley sensed more than saw the way that her ponytail wanted to
stand on end as if Ruben had stuck her finger into an electrical
outlet, and so he craned his head around to look at the man that
had her so thrown off, smiling slightly.
He ain't much to look at. He was short, thin, and his appearance
was disreputable at best. His hair was in that halfway state between
long and short and was drawn back in a thin, greasy ponytail; his
shirt and jeans were ragged and torn, as if they'd been through
some very harsh living while under his ownership. At first glance,
Ashley took him for being about 18 or 19, at the age when it becomes
fashionable to dress uniquely just like everyone else, but something
about the way he stood which made the martial artist think he was
much, much older than that. Despite the look of youth and travel-weariness,
he carried himself in a way that broadcast the unique aura of professorhood
which all professional teachers picked up after a few decades of
standing at the front of a classroom.
It was probably the food-stained tie that dangled limply down the
front of his shirt. No other profession would dare to wear a tie
with a short-sleeve button up shirt and yet show such disdain for
the symbol of upper-class status.
Ashley narrowed his eyes as he noticed the thing concealing the
lower half of the man's right arm. What the heck is that? A black
gauntlet, or would it be a glove? Ashley wavered for a moment,
not sure which category to place it in, and then decided on gauntlet.
It'd just be fruity for a guy to wear only one glove, and besides,
that thing is too sturdy to be anything but a gauntlet.
Whatever it was, it surrounded the man's right hand and much of
his forearm. The gauntlet had a red jewel shaped like a curved teardrop
set into the back of the hand and was covered in golden lines that
traced circuit designs all over the lacquered black material. One
knuckle away from each fingertip, the gauntlet ended in golden rings
which had red jewels that were the same type as their larger cousin
in the back of the hand.
The man waved to him casually with his unencumbered hand, his right
remaining at his side. "Yo, I'm Tyler of the Firehand. 'Sa
pleasure to meetcha."
The old woman poured in silence broken only by the knock of a deer-scare
against a rock, and the young woman accepted in a similar silence.
"Well, I think—"
"Dear, you really should—"
They both stopped and stared at each other for a moment, and then
the younger woman motioned politely, a hint of impatience in her
expression. "You first, Grandmother."
"Shining Magical Knight of Justice—"
"Grandmother, for the last time, DON'T CALL ME THAT!
When you do, the spirits in my soul cry out for justice," The
Shining Knight stood up and posed involuntarily, her arms moving
in jerky, stilted motions, "and I feel the urge to wreak the
havoc of the Heavens upon all—"
She froze suddenly, her enchanted school uniform rippling in an
unseen breeze, and a grimace of disgust distorted her features.
"Arrrgh." She slowly moved her arms to her side, controlling
each motion carefully.
"You know my real name, and I'd appreciate it if you used
it." She reached up and adjusted her hairpiece, which had slipped
down almost to her eyebrows when she'd jumped to her feet. "Damn
"All right, Reiko." The old woman closed her eyes and
took a deep breath. "What are you thinking?!"
She rose in a graceful movement that belied the age she had seemed
to be since Reiko's earliest memories and pointed one finger at
her errant granddaughter sternly. "After all we've done for
you, you're going to desert your loving family and go away to school
Reiko glared defiantly back and pointed a finger of her own, this
time at the peaceful garden out of the door. "And since when
have I been a part of this family, Grandmother? I don't have the
natural psychic ability to spill a saltshaker, much less hunt down
demons. I'm a joke. I thought getting this," she picked up
the staff she'd found years ago and shook it violently, "might
change that. But—"
The staff interrupted with a quick telepathic communication. Do
NOT project thine own problems unto me!
"What brought this on so suddenly, anyway?" Having seen
that anger wouldn't cut anything with her granddaughter, the old
woman tried curiosity.
Reiko smiled wistfully and shook her head. "This wasn't a
sudden thing, Grandmother. Two years ago, I had an adventure, an
adventure in a place where I didn't have to live up to anyone's
idea of how I should be, and I
I liked it. I liked
it a lot." Her smile disappeared. "If leaving everything
that I know behind and starting a new life somewhere else is what
it takes to feel that way again, then I'll do it."
"Right, fine, okay, roger that, sure thing." The old
woman waved the pamphlet that Reiko had put in front of her last
night, a curious mixture of anger and anxiety writ on her face.
"But why this school? Don't you know anything about
this school? Its history? The faculty?"
Reiko shrugged and tapped her stick on the table, ignoring the
telepathic Ouch-ouch-ouch that it sent to her at each impact.
"Well, because it sounds so peaceful. I mean, why else would
they have named it Serenity University?"
Explosions from the Mad's Lab echoed in the background as Ruben
stormed back to the dorm, Tyler following her closely despite her
clear and obvious resolution to ignore him no matter what devious
new ploys he had devised since the last time they'd met. He was
cunning, Ruben knew, and if he said ten words, she was well aware
that she would want to listen to a hundred words, and those hundred
words would intrigue her enough to grant time enough for a thousand,
and a thousand words would
Well, Ruben wanted no part in that. Thus, despite the limited time
and sudden shock of all this, she had managed to think of a clever
and mature way to avoid the whole mess.
"Aw, c'mon, you ain't even heard me out yet!"
"I can't hear you, na-na-na-na-na-naa-nah!!"
Tyler caught one of her wrists in his right hand, and Ruben felt
the heat and the power restrained in his gauntlet. For just a moment,
she wavered between fear and rage at the implied threat of using
his Firehand to stop her, then she shook his hand away and whirled
around, pointing a finger at Tyler's nose. "The last time I
listened to you, Tyler, I spent three weeks fighting my way out
of an Asian jungle with angry natives hunting my every step. I left
you for dead in there for a reason."
After a moment, she added, the finger vibrating almost slightly
with the effort of personal restraint, "What made it even worse
is that you were carrying all the money for 'safekeeping'.
I had to work for two months as a lord's personal wizard and party
clown to save the money for an airship ride home!"
Tyler stared cross-eyed at the finger before taking a step backwards.
He spread his hands placatingly. "Look, I know the last adventure
I hired you to help me on wasn't the best of experiences—"
At those words, Ruben's self-control (which was tenuous at best
this morning) and resolve to not get drawn into an argument with
Tyler were crushed utterly in the face of the anger that suffused
her. The hot flush that had plagued her earlier rose again in her
cheeks, mirroring the blazing rage that burned in her eyes. "Wasn't
the best of
WASN'T THE BEST OF EXPERIENCES?!"
Nearby trees, having lived so long on the campus that they'd become
very sensitive to high levels of magic, started leaning away from
the pathway and the enraged wizardess on it.
Ashley looked around Tyler's shoulder. "Uh, Ruben, destroying
the campus probably won't solve this problem. What say you to just
sitting down and talking with him about this?"
Before Tyler could say anything, Ruben spat, "Because this
man has a silver tongue with a fork at the end. He'll tell you just
what you want to hear, and it'll sound good, and it'll convince
you to do what he wants you to do, but whatever rumor he drags you
off to explore always turns out to be nothing but a deathtrap. Sure,
he pays good, but the coin he pays is never what you think! It's
never worth it."
At the sudden storm of disappointing memories and shattered hopes,
Ruben closed her eyes and fought down the choking feeling in her
throat, her anger suddenly washed away. "It's never
worth it." She wiped at her eyes. "Damn feminine hormones
Tyler put his left hand on her shoulder and said comfortingly,
"My offer still stands, once I find the other gauntlet. I'll
be able to do it, y'know that."
Ashley asked, confusion in his voice, "Why do I get the feeling
that I'm missing something? Again?"
Ruben felt the change back sweep through him, the curse that wrought
his form into that of a woman's dissipating as quickly as it had
come over him, and the sorcerer slowly stepped away from Tyler.
"Look, Tyler, I've just decided to accept it. I can't bring
the past back, no matter how much I'd like to."
Tyler shrugged. "Well, if that's the way you feel, I can't
change your mind." He turned around. "So, feel like making
a lot of money on a sure thing, Ashley?"
Ashley grinned. "Hey, sounds like fun!" Then, his grin
was swallowed by a slight frown. "At least, sounds like fun
compared to the prospect of finding a part-time job. How much money
we talkin' about here?"
Ruben stared blankly. No way. After everything I said, he wouldn't
be stupid enough to
There were few things that Devan Wiley feared in this life or the
next. "Only a few things are worth being afraid of,"
like my father used to say. That was before he was torn apart by
an irate experimental subject who wanted a refund. Give a being
four extra arms when it went in for a toothache and it does tend
to be a little upset, though I can't understand why—
"I think he went this way, girls!"
To Devan, scientist groupies were one of those things to fear.
Especially the horde of them that had fixated upon him
for some reason that eluded even his finely-honed mind. The summer
break had been extraordinarily peaceful without them around, which
is why he'd let his guard down and relaxed for the few weeks until
the next semester started.
This was, of course, a mistake that he might not live to make twice.
"Aaah!" Devan looked around frantically for some method
of escape, trying to silence his gasping breaths. I'm not used
to running so much
trust me to leave behind most of my helpful
gadgets in my room on the day that the groupies come back
"Come vith me if you vant to live."
Devan turned to see a towering man in the marching band uniform
standing there, his hand held out. The half-cape rippled in the
wind, and his helmet was tipped forward far enough to hide his expression
in the shadows.
"What do you want, French Hor— Olaf?"
The scientist could feel Olaf regarding him impassively from underneath
his concealing visor. "Ve need your help."
"I heard him, girls!"
Devan looked down at the outstretched hand, looked over his shoulder
at the corner from which the pounding of many female feet ominously
sounded from, looked down at the outstretched hand again, then sighed.
Do I have a choice?
He nodded slowly, and Olaf pressed one of the nearby wall's bricks
in. A secret door that gaped like a toothless maw appeared, a portion
of the wall sliding aside silently, and Olaf pushed Devan into it
and followed him. Just as the secret door slid shut again
"Aw, darn! He got away again!"
Despite not knowing where he was being ushered to, despite being
unsure of whether or not he'd made the right decision, Devan sighed
in relief. The groupies have been evaded once again
"More tea, sir?"
"No thank you." Ruben crossed his arms over his chest
and stared out the window (Or would it be a porthole? Ashley
wondered absently) of the airship, watching the crew outside cast
off mooring lines and pack the last few bags into the hold. The
magician muttered something that sounded poisonous under his breath.
"What's that, Ruben?" Ashley asked politely. He's
been sulking ever since we left the campus. It's
his thought out loud. "It's not like you had to come,
"Oh, I didn't, did I?" Resignation deep enough to drown
a giant was in Ruben's voice as he spoke slowly, uncrossing his
arms and rubbing at his face with one hand. "You just don't
know what it's like out there. I have to feel responsible for you
until you learn enough to take care of yourself, Ashley."
The martial artist waved around to indicate the rather spacious
passenger cabin that was half-filled with other passengers already.
The seats were arranged in a strange style that reminded Ashley
of restaurant booths or trains he'd seen in old westerns, with a
cushioned bench facing another bench across a table. Currently,
the seat across from Ashley was empty aside from a small bag that
Tyler had tossed there casually before disappearing into the back
of the cabin. "Aside from the airship style instead of the
planes that I'm used to, I don't see much difference so far."
Ruben lifted one eyebrow. "Airplanes?" Then he laughed.
"Oh yeah, some of the older-fashioned mecha still look that
way. Efficient but primitive
Ashley braced himself for another boring lecture (of which he'd
endured more than his fair share, even taking into account the fact
that there were so many new strange things that Ruben felt
necessary to warn him of), and then—
"Are you boring him with another of your tedious monologues?"
Ruben glared up at Tyler, who was cradling a small bucket of popcorn
in his left hand and clutching a bottled drink in his right. "Are
you trying to pick a fight with me?" he asked.
"Ayup! If I kin never find the other Gauntlet, I think y'all
might be just powerful enough to crush my essence if I make you
angry. I hope I never have to get that desperate, but
Tyler paused as he sat down, moving his bag aside to make more room
for him. "Were you tellin' him about the airship?"
A tone sounded in the cabin and Tyler stopped talking as a speaker
came to life. "This is the captain speaking. We'll be arriving
in Tenochtitlan at seven and the Yucatan at about eight or nine,
weather and pirates permitting, and will then continue on to the
Haitian Confederation through the night. Please enjoy your trip
on Cid Airlines."
Through the porthole (Or would it be a window? Ashley thought),
the ground was receding rapidly, moving at a speed that he found
difficult to believe when remembering his first view of the clunky
thing he was riding in.
Ruben leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. "Where
are we going to, anyway? The Yucatan again?" He shuddered involuntarily.
Tyler shook his head. "Naw. It's a little island out in the
Confederation, supposedly home to a horde of ancient artifacts since,
oh, about eighty years ago." He took a great handful of popcorn
and scarfed it down as Ruben leaned backwards again.
The martial artist shook his head and frowned. This future is
WAY strange. One second, it's like I'm in some kind of Star Trek-inspired
utopia, the next—
Suddenly, the sound of distant explosions rang through the room,
and Ashley jerked his head just in time to see a camera in the front
of the room shatter in a cloud of sparks. The airship gave a lurch,
and Ashley saw from the corner of his eye another, much smaller
ship suddenly shimmer into view. The eerie feeling of deja vu made
his hackles rise. I was just thinking about Star Trek, and now
I see a cloaking device thingy? This is some severe Twilight Zone
The martial artist winced. Er, if current trends continue, thinking
about Twilight Zone stuff might be a BAD thing. Think about hot
bunny girls, think about hot bunny girls—
Ashley was distracted from his circular (if very pleasant) train
of thought as a man seated at the front of the compartment stood
up, holding a compact, wicked-looking pistol in one hand. He waved
it at the people in the seats and said calmly and clearly, "This
is a raid! If no one does anything stupid, we won't have to murder
the lot of you."
Ashley heard the door at the back of the room slam open. "Boss,
we've secured the transmit room! The crew is still fighting with
their backs to the bridge, but no problems there."
The pirate boss grinned. "Good, good. Resistance is useless,
you slugs. Line up and
While the man was speaking, Ruben leaned towards Tyler. "Should
we, er..?" he motioned with his head towards the pirate boss.
Tyler rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, I guess. Every second we listen to him rant is another
second we can't be looting treasure."
"Hey, you over there! Are you listening to me?!"
Tyler stood up and stepped out of the booth, turning to face the
pirate boss, who was wearing a rather upset look. Tyler spread his
hands and said in a placating way, "Look, buddy, if you just
sit back down and—"
A zigzag of ochre lightning connected the pirate boss's gun and
Tyler's chest for just a fraction of a second, and Ashley realized
to his horror that there was a fist-sized hole in the man's chest.
Tyler looked down at himself and said incredulously, "That
Slowly, he fell forward, going to his knees, catching himself on
his hands at just the last moment
And then stood back up, the only sign that he'd ever been injured
the massive hole that had been burned in the back of his shirt.
Tyler planted his feet and held up his gauntleted hand, the back
of his fist to the pirate. A reddish aura began building around
it, flickering fitfully. "Now that's it. I was all
ready t'be nice, but ya just made it personal."
A voice from behind Ashley's seat exclaimed, "Oh, shit! Boss,
that's a Hero!" Something about the way the unseen speaker
pronounced that word made the capitol in front unmistakable, as
if the word Hero was an official title granted only to a few. At
the phrase, Tyler bowed slightly forward and made as if to tip an
invisible fedora at the pirate boss.
The chief grimaced. "Oh, great, this is all I need. A Hero
who has some sort of invincibility shtick."
Tyler nodded. "Yep, in fact—" In mid-sentence, Tyler
stopped speaking and flung his hand outward. The red aura came to
life as a roaring flame, the brilliance of it forcing Ashley to
squint his eyes, and blasted down the compartment, washing away
the image of the pirate chief in a fiery blaze.
Ashley was very surprised when the fire flickered away to
reveal the chief still standing there, the pistol he'd held replaced
by a sword that was surrounded by a dancing aura of icy cerulean.
The chief lowered it slowly, a contrail of frost tracing its path,
and leveled the point at Tyler as he said, "Well, I'm pretty
damn glad I decided to pack Frost Tooth with me today. Now, are
you ready to—?"
A hail of gunfire came down the corridor aimed at Tyler's back,
but each shot splattered from an invisible field. Ruben's image
faded into view just beyond the point where the slugs and blasts
and bolts were ending their brief lives, his hand held forth as
if to stave off the barrage.
At that moment, Tyler leapt for the chief with a backhanded strike,
and the gauntlet collided with the sword's blade, making a sound
that hissed like a bucket dumped into an open flame, like a kettle
of water boiling over. Ashley only noticed it peripherally. The
martial artist looked between the standing Ruben (who was grinning
at him), to the Ruben sitting beside him (also grinning at him).
"No, wait, let me guess," he said sourly. "'There's
more to this than the eye can see.'"
The sitting sorcerer disappeared, and the standing one laughed
out loud, the gunfire dying down as the henchmen slowly realized
that Ruben was very willing to stand there all day with his shield.
"You planning to sit on your butt all afternoon and let us
do the work, Ashley?"
Ashley bounced to his feet and cracked his knuckles audibly. "I
thought you'd never ask!" Here I was, thinking that I wouldn't
get to do a damn thing this whole hijacking
A tearing sound filled the room, and Ruben leapt at Ashley, knocking
him out of the way as a swirling darkness appeared in the area where
they'd just been standing. It took on the definite look of a vortex,
sucking itself inward, and then the darkness imploded with a deafening
burst. The wizard flung something towards the pirates at the end
of the room which tossed them backwards just as they were rushing
towards the two, and he grimaced.
"The pirates have a magician! Can you handle them?" He
jerked his head towards the sprawled gang of tangled limbs which
had fetched up against the far wall, and Ashley gave him a disgruntled
"Why, do you think I would even have a problem with those
"Good!" The magician shimmered and vanished. Ashley rolled
up to his feet and started for the pile of brigands that were untangling
themselves from each other quickly. At first, he ran down the aisle,
but when two of the recovered pirates noticed him and leveled firearms
at him, he leapt sideways for the top of the seats, bounding over
his (sensibly) cowering fellow passengers and tables. He never stayed
in one direction and place too long, knowing that the most helpful
rule when rushing a man with a gun (other than don't do it at all)
was to keep moving.
It was at moments like this that he felt most alive.
Seconds later, the martial artist was among the hapless pirates,
smashing them about like rag dolls. Several of them had managed
to drop or holster their pistols in exchange for cutlasses, but
in the tight confines of the aisle they were far more likely to
hit one of their fellows. After Ashley took one of the cutlasses
from a man's hand and snapped the blade in two, the pirates nearer
the door started fighting each other to get away from this blonde
madman who was outnumbered twelve to one and still kicking their
There were seven pirates on the floor just as Ashley reached the
door, which was promptly slammed in his face. "No way!"
he said in disbelief, and then tried the knob on the door. "They
locked the door? Well," the martial artist said, grinning as
he set himself into a stance, "those chickens'll learn that
a locked door doesn't stop a martial—"
The door burst off its hinges and flew towards Ashley, knocking
him off his feet. He rolled with it as best he could, but his arm
hit something in the pile of pirates and went painfully numb. Once
the martial artist got to his feet again, he jumped away from the
doorway to give himself a bit of breathing room and got his first
glimpse of the man who'd knocked down the door and was even now
stepping through its shattered remains, stooping low so he didn't
hit his head on the doorjamb.
To call him big would be an understatement. Muscles knotted over
muscles, and mighty thews flexed visibly under his disturbingly
tight clothes, though Ashley had to admit to himself that finding
clothes which fit properly would be a hard thing to do with that
kind of build. The muscle-man brushed a hank of black hair from
his eyes and grinned at the slender martial artist.
"Yo, little man, you ready to party?"
Feeling was starting to creep back into Ashley's arm, but mostly
those feelings were of pain, so he ignored it as best he could.
Jumping up to another seat-top, he started for the muscled giant,
moving quickly, suddenly changing direction and landing on the aisle,
jumping almost level to the ground to try and take out the man's
And barely avoided becoming a soccer ball as the man's foot whipped
out in a kick. Ashley twisted to the side and planted his hands,
flinging himself backwards in a handspring that sent him twenty
feet down the aisle. The martial artist winced at the protests his
arm sent up to him as he thought, Damn! That guy moves FAST!
Ashley had fought against big men that moved faster than one would
expect to see. Anyone who got to his level of skill with fighting
would never just be big; slowness would only leave you
a beaten, bloody pulp. But never had he fought a big man who moved
that fast, his attacks like a greased viper's. The man
was striding towards him now, carefully stepping over the fallen
bodies of his fellow pirates, and Ashley backed away for a bit of
breathing room while he considered his options. He's as fast
as me, maybe a bit faster, and a LOT stronger
what can I do?
Those options slimmed down quite a bit when his back hit someone
else's. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed that Tyler was
there, his eyes on the pirate chief. Tyler asked quietly, "How
"Not so good. You?"
"Cain't touch the barstard. I'm not fast enough to get past
his guard." Tyler paused as he raised his gauntlet. "Bet
you can take 'im, though. Wanna trade?"
Ashley flicked another look at the huge man that was grinning at
him and made a snap decision. "Yeah." If we swap out,
it MIGHT confuse 'em enough to let us get some hits in
"Don't get touched by 'is sword. NOW!"
The martial artist leapt up to the ceiling and put one hand against
it to push with all his strength, transferring his momentum into
a jumping kick downwards at the bandit chief. Peripherally, he saw
Tyler dashing towards the muscled man, the flame around his hand
blazing, but almost all of Ashley's attention was focused on the
chief, who'd overcome that split second of surprise and was even
now raising his sword to spit the descending warrior.
Ashley tried to will himself to move faster, not sure if he'd win
the race to strike first, twisting slightly to possibly avoid the
frost-coated blade, his vision narrowing and time seeming to slow
down as the point slowly rose, a contrail following it upwards—
The martial artist felt the outside of his leg go numb as it scraped
along the flat of the icy sword and he had a moment to wonder at
the fact that the blade didn't have an edge, but that didn't stop
his foot from hitting the pirate's face with a force that sent them
flying away from each other. Ashley flipped in midair to land on
his feet, ready to attack again, but the pirate had crumpled up
against the far wall and wasn't likely to move again for a long,
Ashley tried to turn around and give a helping hand to Tyler, but
the numbness in his leg had seeped in so far that it gave way under
his weight. He hit the ground heavily and lay there for a moment,
the adrenaline seeping from his body and a dozen small wounds clamoring
for attention. Slowly, he pushed himself upwards, turning over to
look over at his leg.
He gasped in shock. Half of it had turned a dead, pale white, fringed
by a burning red, and it was spreading. What the— Now
that he looked at it, it started to burn with a blazing agony that
threatened to fracture his control. Ashley clenched his teeth and
tried not to scream.
A shadow fell over him, and Ashley looked up just in time to watch
Tyler kneel down beside him. "Dammit! Where's Ruben when you
"He said," Ashley gritted out from between his teeth,
"that the pirates had a wizard or something."
"Ah, fer cryin' out
" Tyler closed his eyes and
held his gauntleted hand several inches over the leg, palm open
and facing downwards. "If I just had the other damn gauntlet
he muttered as a slight flame flickered to life around it.
Slowly, he moved his hand downwards over the leg, and Ashley asked,
"What're you talking about?"
His focus on whatever he was doing to Ashley's leg, Tyler answered
absently, "It's what we're lookin' for. Gauntlets always come
in a pair, ya see, even enchanted ones. This one gives death in
others, and the other one gives life. It's some kinda damn joke
that—" he cut himself off abruptly and added sourly, "I
could heal anythin', any problem, even death, if I had the other
damn gauntlet. Right now, the best I can hope for is that the element
of flame will fight back the ice until Ruben shows—"
"Someone call my name?" Ashley looked up at Ruben, who
appeared as suddenly as he'd disappeared. One side of his face was
covered in soot and there was a scar along his right arm that had
already healed enough to turn pink, but other than that the magician
seemed to be healthy.
Tyler snarled, "What took ya so damn long?!"
Ruben grimaced. "I was using the light stuff so I wouldn't
have to travel as a woman, okay? Spirits above, you don't realize
how annoying it is to
" He trailed off and his
eyes widened as he saw Ashley's leg. "Damnation." Kneeling
down, he touched the white flesh with one hand and with the other
reached into his pocket, pulling out a pouch. After taking a pinch
of something out of the pouch, Ruben held that hand out to Ashley.
"Here, swallow this."
It was bitter and tasted like medicine, but he swallowed it anyway,
and the pain started to fade, his attention drifting just a little
away from his body. Ruben sighed. "Damn ice enchantments. How
could you have been so careless to let him get touched by it? You
should've known he doesn't have any defenses against that
kind of thing." The magician started waving his hands in slow
passes over the leg, his fingers dancing through some intricate
"Hey, I warned him!" Tyler stood up and moved
a step away from the other two, and for the first time Ashley's
attention went farther than his own leg.
The passengers who'd sensibly cowered were now sitting up, four
of them holding pistols on the disarmed pirates heaped together
in the middle of the aisle. The huge man that had nearly clubbed
Ashley had both of his hands on his head and was looking quite calm
for someone who had several large burn marks swathing his body and
Ashley watched a dignified-looking older gentleman step though
the shattered doorway at the far end of the room. He was wearing
an ornate uniform that had both a short sword and an empty holster
hanging from the belt, his pistol still in his hand, and the only
thing that could have wrecked his immaculate image was the blood
splattered across his crisp uniform sleeve and his face. The blood
was probably someone else's, to judge by the way he moved, and he
strode past the captive pirates, stopping when he reached Tyler.
"Are you three the people who stopped the pirates?"
Tyler nodded respectfully. "Yes, Captain, we are." His
tone was noticeably more polite and formal all of a sudden, Ashley
The captain looked over the captive pirates again, and smiled slightly.
"Good work, my friends. Thank you for your efforts on behalf
of our ship, and of course, we'll give you the standard reward once
we reach the next port." He paused. "Where are you and
your companions traveling to?"
"The Caribbean Confederation, sir." After hearing this,
the captain nodded.
"Very well, then, I'll also be pleased to serve you dinner
in the captain's mess. See you at seventeen-thirty promptly."
He bowed. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to see if there's
room in the brig for these bastards." The captain turned on
one heel and left.
"There you go, Ashley. Try standing up on it."
Ashley's attention turned back to Ruben, who was grinning at him,
and Tyler moved to offer a helping hand up. As he stood up, the
martial artist asked, "So, what's this reward we get? Jewels?
Tyler shook his head. "A complete refund of our ticket prices
an' a request that we fly Cid Airlines again."
Somehow, the sheer
ordinariness of that got to
Ashley, and he started laughing shakily.
The tunnel rustled and echoed in the darkness away from Olaf's
feeble flashlight beam as the massive marching band member guided
Devan to their mutual mysterious destination, muffled growls and
hisses giving rise to the belief that not all life down here took
the intrusion into their demesnes lightly. Occasionally, the light
would catch some foul, misshapen creature in its beam for just a
moment, and then the beast would vanish back into the sheltering
darkness once more.
For his part, Devan was enjoying this trip so far. I had no
idea there was a network of secret tunnels on the campus! I may
have to tap into this for my 'escape' mechanism
Suddenly, Olaf halted, and Devan didn't notice in time to stop,
staggering backwards after hitting his broad back. A rectangle in
the wall slid aside, and the mad scientist blinked once to adapt
his eyes to the sudden intrusion of bright light into the black
"Ve have arrived."
"Are you here, French Horn One? Have you brought
The tall man ducked his head low to avoid knocking off his helmet
as he stepped through the new door, but Devan hesitated at the sound
of Drum Major Pip's voice.
"What have I gotten myself into?"
Facing no other choice but to grope his way back through the darkness,
Devan shrugged and followed the right hand man of a madwoman into
a room of utter mystery.
It was late, late at night when Ashley followed his two companions
off the airship, the warm tropical breeze caressing his face gently.
He stretched and inhaled the fragrance as deep as he could, filling
his lungs to the very brim with fresh island air.
He released the breath slowly, looking around at his surroundings
with that mix of exhilaration and exhaustion that traveling lends
so readily. The pad where the airship had anchored was a bare square
of concrete, broken only by the beach on one side and the terminal
building on the other. The gentle sound of the water on the beach
was a pleasant background to the sounds of people disembarking from
the airship and collecting their luggage.
The martial artist scanned the tourists and vacationers, looking
for his companions amidst the crowd. Spotting Ruben near the terminal,
Ashley started for him, and then a man walked right into him, knocking
both of them backwards.
"Hey, sorry about that, man." The stranger smiled genially
enough, but Ashley lifted one eyebrow skeptically as he looked the
man up and down.
A trench coat? Here? On a freakin' tropical island? And sunglasses
at night? Who is he trying to kid? His eyes narrowed. Wait
a second. This guy has some skills in martial arts, I can feel it
He's no poser, whoever he is.
Ashley shook his head. Eh, whatever. I suppose it doesn't matter
that much. He offered his hand. "No prob, dude. I'm Ashley."
The man took Ashley's hand in a firm shake. "I'm Jedidiah
Jones, but you can call me Jed."
Tyler walked up behind Jedidiah, one hand encumbered by a modest-sized
suitcase. "Hey, Ashley, who's yer
" As Jedidiah turned
to face him, Tyler set the case down, his face freezing into a formal
mask. "Herr Jones, how
unpleasant to meet a member a'yer
Jedidiah released Ashley's hand and stepped backwards, his coat
flaring dramatically. "I asked you not to call me that, Firehand.
I know that we have a bit of a feud going, but that's no reason
to be deliberately insulting."
Flame crackled to life around Tyler's gauntlet. "A 'bit' of
a feud? Yer great-grandmother cost me my life, Herr Jones,
and as long as Croft blood still flows in a human's veins, my hatred
Jed lifted one finger, the black surfaces of his glasses reflecting
the light of Tyler's fire. "Or until you find the other Gauntlet,
which is what I presume you're here to track down." Jed shook
his head. "Sorry to disappoint you, m'man, but the rumors of
a mysterious temple are entirely false. I've spent the last week
here, and there's not a thing."
The fire flickered out around Tyler's hand. "Really?"
The trench-coated man nodded once and looked at the gauntleted
man from over his sunglasses. "Yeah. In fact, this is my flight
out, and I don't have time to kill you yet again. See ya!"
With that, Jedidiah turned his back to both of them and walked up
the passenger ramp.
As soon as the trench-coated man disappeared into the ship, Tyler
turned to the side and grabbed at midair, his hand closing around
an invisible cylinder. "How dare y'ditch me like that!"
"Ouch!" Ruben's arm slowly appeared in Tyler's grip,
followed by the rest of the magician. "Hey, leggo my arm!"
Tyler didn't. "I'm a little ticked that ya didn't back me
up. What reason d'ya got ta be afraid of that damn Jones?"
Ruben muttered something as he turned his head away, and Ashley
moved closer. "Hey, now you've got me curious!"
I don't think that Jed guy was so bad
he seemed to be my
kinda people. But it seems that both of my traveling companions
had problems with him
After releasing Ruben's arm, Tyler took a step backwards. "C'mon,
Ruben, we're buddies. You know why I don't like that bastard
and all his kin; why can't ya tell me?"
The wizard sighed in exasperation and threw his hands into the
air. "Fine, you want to know? I'll tell you. He spent three
months chasing after me and my wife while we were adventuring in
China, okay? He had the hots for her and for my female
form, and if it's all right with you, I'd prefer to avoid
any questions he might ask about
her." He looked away
When Tyler spoke again, his tone was much softer, almost apologetic.
"I'm sorry, Ruben, I didn't know."
Ruben put his hand on Tyler's shoulder. "Why would you know
about it? Now, let's get some rooms and figure out where this damn
temple is. The sooner we get out of here, the happier I'll be."
Ruben turned and walked for the small terminal with Tyler close
behind, but Ashley stood there a moment, his brow furrowing as he
added this new data to the little he knew about his roommate. Ruben
was married once? What happened to her?
He nodded as a memory of Ruben's desk and a pair of plain golden
rings attached to a silver chain that hung from a nail on the upper
shelf. Well, I guess those could be wedding rings
Fortunately, it wasn't really his problem right now. In fact, his
problem seemed to be—
Ashley held one hand up in the air as he rushed to the building
his comrades had just disappeared into. "Hey, wait for me!"
"You want me to do what?!" Devan was not in
a smiling, confident mood any more as he looked down at the table.
"Dammit, Drum Major, I'm a mad scientist, not a—"
Drum Major Pip sniffled audibly, the pathetic sound echoing from
under her visor. "But
you're the only one that
I know who can help my poor darlings!"
French Horn One stepped next to Devan. His voice was grim and threatening.
"I should remind you, Devan, zat you vill not find your vay
out of zis place until you help us. Also, remember zat I could have
left you to ze uncertain mercy of—"
Devan shuddered in distaste. "Fangirls. Ugh." He scowled
for a moment, and then nodded, his face firming into a mask of determination.
"Okay, I accept your charge. I'll perform the duty you've requested
of me to the best of my ability."
Drum Major Pip turned her face to him, her voice shining with hope.
Devan nodded once, then held up a finger. "I'll need some
materials, though." He pointed the finger at a random marching
band member in the background. "You! Get me ten thousand grams
of grade-A fertilizer, stat! You! Get me a proper sunlamp, not this
lousy piece of trash! You! Get me a watering can, and all of you,
put a rush on it." He stroked one of his newly acquired patients.
"All of their lives depend upon your speed."
As the chosen members rushed from the room, Devan examined the
discolored surfaces of his charges grimly while the Drum Major put
her head on the operating table and wept in desperate fear mingled
with newfound faint hope.
"Please don't die on me, Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia
"—A tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic
"Are you sure that this is the right way?" Ruben
held grimly to his focus on the wind spell that filled their tiny
boat's sail and propelled them onward, despite the constant minor
distractions: The wild rocking of the deck underneath his feet,
the rushing sound of the wind past his ears, the almost intoxicatingly
fresh scent in his nostrils, the—
"—Aboard this tiny ship. The mate was a mighty sailin'
The gratingly off-key way that Ashley was singing as he held the
till in the direction Tyler had told them to go
"—The skipper, brave and sure—"
Tyler looked up from his 'map', the material of which, Ruben would
swear, looked suspiciously like a dinner napkin someone had scrawled
innumerable squiggly lines on while waiting for a meal. "Of
course I'm sure. Why?"
"—One passenger set sail that day—"
Ruben said dryly, "Several things about this ocean voyage
fail to fill me with confidence."
"—On a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour."
Ruben turned to look at Ashley. "Will you please
"Sure thing. All you had to do is ask." Ashley cleared
his throat. "Speaking of asking, I've got a question, Tyler.
That guy at the airport," Ashley paused for a moment, and Ruben
could hear him scratching his head, "Jed, seemed pretty sure
that there was nothin' out here."
Tyler interrupted with a scornful snort. "Jedidiah. A Jones
couldn't treasure-hunt 'is way outta wet paper bag, as much as he'd
Ruben said, "I see what he's asking, and I'm curious too.
Just what kind of information are we relying on here?"
"Deathbed confession of a dying cultist who didn't want the
secret of the temple to be lost with him."
The wizard nodded. "Oh, fairly normal then."
Ashley blinked. "
Tyler traced one finger along a squiggly line on his map and glanced
at the fiery gem set into the back of his gauntlet. "Y'kin
relax that wind spell, Ruben; we're in a current now." The
adventurer leaned back in his small seat, carefully folding his
map and putting it away.
Ruben lowered his hands and sat down himself, barely keeping his
balance as the ship rocked underneath him. "What I don't get
is why didn't you hire a friendly native guide while we were in
town? You know how handy it is to have someone that knows the area."
Tyler smiled ruefully. "Y'know, actually
Guides, Inc. refuses to have anything t'do with me since the 'incident'
with the armoire."
Ruben frowned for a moment, and then his expression cleared. "Ah,
I remember hearing about that when I was a kid. But—"
The adventurer waved him silent, and then stood up, placing one
foot on the prow of their small vessel. With one imperious gesture,
he swung his arm out and pointed forward, shouting, "THAT IS
OUR DESTINATION: THE TOWER OF THE PYTHON!!!!"
Ruben and Ashley took one look at the island that the current was
speeding them towards and the
odd tower that rose, ridiculously
majestic, from its highlands, and light blazed from the suspiciously
grail-shaped beacon that had been placed on the very top of the
tower. Tyler motioned for Ashley to steer them onto the beach, and
the two roommates exchanged a glance which left unspoken the words,
This is going to get very, very, VERY weird
Improvisation in the worst of circumstances was a family trait
that Devan Wiley had inherited to the fullest and used all of his
life. Whether constructing a warbot from empty beer cans and vacuum
cleaner parts or slapping together a time-dilating device in order
to write a forty-page paper on the nature of fifth-dimensional beings
ten minutes before it was due, Devan had stretched his inborn talent
to the fullest.
Today, he was beginning to fear, he had stretched that talent too
The mad scientist ran his fingers over the withering surface of
a Chia frog and sighed inwardly. Where is that idiot with the
Chiapetology (as Devan had mentally named his new discipline) was
a body of knowledge he could have done better without trying to
learn. Circumstances, however, had forced him into this hole, and
"Vhat are you doing?"
He was wondering if he had a shovel big enough to dig himself out.
Though a shovel, or any other blunt object, would come in handy
should worst come to worst and he have to do something very un-metaphorical
to get out of this trap.
After a moment, Devan realized that Olaf had asked him a question,
and he hastened to answer. "I'm seeking out a method of introducing
the fertilizer into the organisms living in the surface of this
piece of clay."
Drum Major Pip shrieked shrilly, "Do not refer to my precious
Chia pets in such a fashion!!"
Devan muttered something vile under his breath that in his homeworld's
language could be loosely translated as, Shut up and let me do
One of his greatest annoyances with the tongue humans used most
often is that it failed to have any truly vile curses; the words
they used only involved simple natural processes of excretion and
coupling. How was anyone supposed to express real anger at the state
of the universe in general with lousy material like that?
The door banged open behind Devan, and he turned around to see
the minion he'd sent for fertilizer. He set his face into grim lines.
"Good, now all the tools are here. I only hope that it isn't
too late to save them."
For the seventh time in as many minutes, Ruben said, "I can't
believe I was stupid enough to actually follow you here." This
time, he sounded almost
admiring. So far, he'd run the gamut
from enraged to sorrowful to disbelieving, and Ashley was starting
to place mental bets on when the sorcerer would finally run out
of emotions to use with his annoyingly repetitive statement.
Tyler turned away from his work on the massive door that dwarfed
all of them, its thirty-foot height driven deep into the cliff face
below the tower that clawed at the clear tropical sky like a finger
of black bone. "Look, Ruben, I'm tryin' ta disarm the physical
traps on this door so y'can put paid t'the magical ones, 'kay? It's
hard enough on my nerves without listenin' t'you whine
about it, so if you don't mind I'd enjoy a bit of quiet."
Rather than listen to the two of them argue, Ashley pointedly
ignored them and looked the door over once more. He'd already examined
it to the point of being bored with the eerie, eldritch, psychotic
inlays of baroque gold that adorned every inch of its silvery surface.
He'd inspected it to the point of annoyance at the gargoyles of
hideous aspect which guarded it from stations on pedestals and the
wall — both around the door and above it. He'd rubbernecked
at it to the point of nausea every time his eyes passed over one
of the strangely familiar bas-relief carvings around which the inlays
circled. Since the only alternative to staring at the door was going
back to the boat and being bored there, Ashley continued
to look at it anyway.
It wouldn't be so bad, he thought to himself uneasily, if
only I didn't get the feeling that the door's staring back at ME
All of a sudden, Ashley decided that listening to those two argue
again was a lot better than staring at the door.
It wasn't the first time he'd made that decision this afternoon
and, if things continued on this way, it wouldn't be the last.
"—every right to be angry! Spirits, Tyler, I don't want
to mess with the Python's Children again. Ever. They're crazy!"
Tyler shook his head. "Rube, Rube, Rube; they ain't been here
for fifty years. How in the 'eck d'ya think that idiot Jones didn't
find a clue? The Python's Children ditched this place fer good after
th'end of the last World War."
"How do you know that?" Ruben glared argumentatively
at the adventurer, who shrugged.
"Stands t'reason. Y'don't build an ancient citadel in a far
corner of the world, put your mysteriously enchanted treasure in
it, staff it with hideous monsters and devious traps, then say,
'What a great neighborhood! Close to the primary school so little
Jimmy doesn't have to take the bus, and the store is just a block
away! Where's the nearest U-Haul so we can drop off our hovertruck?'"
Long silence followed his pronouncement.
You've got a good point there."
Tyler nodded enthusiastically. "Ya see?" He turned back
to the door and gave it one final tweak with an unseen tool. "There
ya go, Ruben, do yer stuff."
The wizard glared at the door, and
It swung open slowly.
Tyler made a grandiose gesture. "After you, gentlemen."
Ruben rattled her chains with a disgruntled expression, seeking
any weakness, any slight hole, in the wards that shielded them from
her magic. "Of course the tower will be abandoned. Stands to
reason, doesn't it?" she asked Tyler sarcastically.
Finding no weaknesses in the enchantment didn't help Ruben's mood
a bit. She shook her head and wondered for a moment how things had
come to this desperate pass.
At first, things had been quite easy and, in fact, fairly standard.
The miniature tanks and other robots on the first basement were
an odd twist to the usual monsters, but one that didn't make too
much of a practical difference. The traps on the second floor had
but amusing nonetheless, with their
It was on the third floor, with the tests of strength, intelligence,
and skill, that it had all gone, in scientific terms, south.
Tears of frustration and rage leaked down her cheeks as she pulled
at her chains again, this time trying to break them with strength.
After only a few moments, she relaxed, this time nearly spitting
out a curse that would have surely set fire to the stone and made
their situation even worse, if that was even possible.
Well, if that lunkhead Ashley couldn't do it, I suppose that
these weak little girly arms can't either.
It was with no small amount of scorn that her thoughts went to
the martial artist chained beside her, and no small amount of truth
that she placed the blame for their current straights upon his broad
She shook her head. We were doing so WELL, too
Ashley attracted Ruben's attention with a rattle of his chains.
"Ruben, just what kind of spell were you trying to
Ruben looked away for a moment and mumbled incoherently for a moment.
I tried to teleport us all outta there." She
glared at both Ashley and Tyler, sure that they were subtly accusing
her of something. "How was I supposed to know that
they had a diversion trap set to catch anyone that tried to teleport
The silence that followed spoke volumes, and Ruben sighed. I
guess, in the end, we're all at fault. Now, if that ain't the story
of my life—
The only door to the room opened with a scream of ancient iron
scraping across stone, shattering Ruben's thoughts. She winced and
reached for her ears, but her chains clanked just a few inches short.
Oh, the pain, the pain, the AWFUL pain of that
kind of demented torment is this?
The screech didn't die down at once when the door stopped swinging,
but slowly doppled away, occasionally rising back up to a sudden
gut-wrenching squeal that had Ruben wincing in agony seconds after
it ground to a halt, revealing the hunched figure who had initiated
its slow movement inwards.
The figure limped forward, and Ruben noted, with some interest,
that it had lightened a very dark natural complexion with some sort
of powder, and had affixed several false warts, and had
Put together a not-particularly skilled costume in order to convey
the feeling of a terribly deformed jail guard.
In fact, the hump on his back was just a bunch of cloth stuffed
under his shirt! You could see it through the holes!
The hunchback opened his mouth, exposing teeth blackened with an
inexpert application of soot, and said, "Good afternoon, guests.
Is there anything I could do to make your admittedly short stay
with us more comfortable, is there anything that you would desire
for a last meal, and is just after tea-time a terribly inconvenient
time to sacrifice you to our Dark Gods?"
He sounded honestly deferential and polite, so much so that after
a moment of disbelieving silence, Ruben asked, "And if we say
it's an inconvenient time?"
"Then we apologize for the inconvenience."
This time, there was nothing deferential or polite about his statement.
It was flatly menacing, carrying something that was less a threat
and more a promise that, no matter how the three chained companions
protested or fought, there was nothing they could do to resist their
Feeling weak and small, as much chained by her form as her inability
to touch her magic, Ruben couldn't think of any way to argue with
Devan pulled the surgical gloves from his hands and dropped them
into the disposal, finally free to scratch the itch on his neck.
He did so, looking down at his patients, and thought to himself,
Was it a good thing or an evil thing that I did this? It IS helping
the Drum Major, a sworn enemy, but
As if thinking of her had attracted her attention, Drum Major Pip
grabbed one of his hands and brought it to her lips, kissing it
profusely. "Oh, thank you, thank you! However can we repay
you for the service you have done us on this day?"
The mad scientist waved one hand idly. "Well, how about this:
The next time you want to conquer the campus, give me adequate warning
to prepare my defenses against you?"
For a moment, the Drum Major considered that, her helmet tilting
to one side, and then she nodded sharply, the plume almost flying
into Devan's eyes. "Very well, I accept your proposal."
Olaf Beefcake raised one hand. "Vait, Mistress. He iz ze one
She silenced him with a sharp gesture. "It is nothing more
than a trifle, French Horn One! We can give him such a minor thing;
it will make no difference in the end. Now," she motioned to
another of her minions, who rushed forward, "Piccolo Three
will escort you from this place."
"Yes, Drum Major! Oh, thank you, Drum Major!"
"Silence!" she snapped.
Devan stepped forward. "Sounds great. You realize, of course,
that the next time we meet, we'll be enemies and all that dramatic
Even though he couldn't see into the recessed shadows of her face,
concealed by the visor on her helmet, he was certain that she smiled
predatorily. "I wouldn't have it any other way. Ahee-HEE-hee-he-HE!!!!"
Devan took one last look over his shoulder at the operating table
and thought to himself again, Whether or not doing this was an
aid to good or evil, all that matters is that I did it WELL. That's
the Mad Scientist credo; whether saving a man's life or sewing together
a new man out of discarded parts, the only thing that matters is
that you don't do a slip-shod job about it.
As soon as the door swung shut, French Horn One spoke. "I
cannot believe zat you gave him such a boon, Mistress."
Drum Major Pip shook her head slowly. "That's why I'm the
evil mastermind and you're the right-hand man, French Horn One:
I know how to twist my words just enough to convey the impression
that I've kept my promises.
"I gave my word that I would give him adequate warning the
next time I attack, to be sure." Her smile grew broader. "I'm
sure that the battering rams on his door will be more than
"Couldn't we find another way to make up for our crime?"
Ruben asked desperately, looking up at the person who was busily
affixing her chains to a fairly standard bloodstained sacrificial
altar placed at the base of a statue dedicated to their terrible,
The fact that the statue was of a middle-aged gentleman wearing
a threadbare bathrobe added to the surreality of the whole place.
Of course, his face was a masterpiece of menace, sneering down
at the world cruelly as if everything in it weren't worthy to kiss
his flip-flop clad feet.
The robed man standing beside her looked shocked, or at least as
shocked as a sinister face half-masked by the shadows of his hood
can. "'Some other way?!' I've spent twelve years behind the
knife, boy and cultist, and you want me to resolve it some other
way?" He huffed. "What kind of bloody halfwit do you take
Ruben glared up at him and said with a bitter note in her voice,
"All right, fine, I guess this means we won't be friends. But
"Nonsense! Just because I'm about to kill you in cold blood
as a part of a ritual sacrifice is no reason we can't be civil to
each other. Why, just the other day, I was having this chat with
one young lady who was a botanist. Afterwards, she hardly screamed
when the knife went in. Charming lady, really." After a moment's
thought, he added, "But what?"
"WHY DO I HAVE TO WEAR THIS?!?!" She rattled her chains
again and added firmly, "It's very cold in here, you know."
The hooded man looked even more shocked. "But the silks and
jewels and bangles are traditional! You don't sacrifice a
beautiful young woman clad in a practical pair of trousers and a
long-sleeved shirt with years of wear left in it. Stands to reason."
He busied himself with the chains on her left side, gradually tightening
Ruben muttered, "I've been hearing that phrase too often lately
And then she felt something stir in her mind. Rather than
try to pin it down and capture it, only to watch it fly away, she
distracted herself by continuing her conversation, as pointless
as it seemed.
"What about them?" She nodded towards where her companions
were still chained to the ceremonial slabs they'd been wheeled in
on. "They don't have to wear
silk and metal bits."
She moved what little of her body she could, and jangling ornaments
bobbled and rang against each other.
There it was again, like a thread at the edge of a shirt. Ruben
picked at it, trying to draw out more
The hood shook back and forth. "Well, they wouldn't look very
good in silk and metal bits, would they?"
"A good point," Ruben conceded absently, "but one
that could be argued if I felt like it."
"That chanting is starting to get on my freakin'
nerves, Mr. Robe."
The robe's shoulder's moved up and down as the man inside shrugged.
"Can't be helped. You know congregations; always have to be
And she shuddered in a mixture of relief and anticipation. There
it was, a trace of power, a wisp of magic, dancing in her fingers.
For a moment, the wizard thought about using the power to burst
the shackles like fireworks, sending white-hot shards of metal scything
through the room, but sadly what she had wasn't enough to do that
In fact, it wasn't enough for any flashy magic that she could easily
call to mind.
So, she used a different mind.
It's a commonly unknown fact about sorcery that magic lies in how
you think about it.
If, as a random example, a young magician was raised and trained
to believe that every single spell he were to cast required a wand
cut from a willow tree of no more than ten summers with dust from
a phoenix's nest and three hairs from a goat with a patch of black
fur shaped like a torch, then that's what he would need.
Take that wand away from him, and he's nothing more than a schoolboy
with bad eyesight and an odd scar on his forehead.
On the other hand, when you only have to point the wand at someone
to make them burst into flames, you generally have an edge over
that same someone who has to chant for five seconds for a similar
The summary of this is that, to bend the universe, you have to
think a certain way, or else that fraction of doubt starts
to creep in
Are you really able to make all of his particles combust
into flames at the same time?
Can you really fly so high that migrating ducks consider
you a hazard?
Is that summoning circle holding the multi-tentacled monster really
drawn well enough to keep it in?
Of course, that means what Ruben had decided to do was clearly
impossible, but thankfully she'd been raised to believe otherwise.
Ruben probed her chains with a mental finger, not certain what
she could do but determined to keep an open mind to the possibilities.
Unfortunately, even with her fresh mindset, her chains proved to
be very sturdy constructions, impervious to her every thought.
The altar gave a tortured grate of stone on stone as it slowly
turned to face the statue. "Read the sacred words of our Dark
God, the Mighty Cleese," intoned the robed figure, who was
unsheathing a knife with ritual slowness even as he spoke, "and
Her eyes traveled downwards to read the words etched into the statue's
base even as she directed her attention to the chains that bound
Tyler's chains were as strong as hers, if not stronger; she could
feel his power like a blaze being held back by a gossamer-thin scarf.
Her mental fingers leapt backwards as if burnt and she cursed mentally.
If the Firehand were free, he could burn this lot to the ground
and not break a sweat.
Slowly, the words inscribed made its way through her eyes and to
her mind. They caught at her sanity, tugging it downward, away from
her magic and into the real world once more.
"SPAM!! SPAM!!! SPAM!!!! SPAM!!!!!"
Indeed they were terrible words, and Ruben had to read them aloud
to get the fullest sense of them.
"'Get off my lawn, you filthy buggers'?"
The cultist looked embarrassed, or at least as embarrassed as a
shadowed cowl towering above a helpless maiden sacrifice can. "Yes,
well, even though they are not his more
quotable lines or
from any of the established Holy Scenes, they are the Mighty Cleese's
sacred words which he spoke to us more than once. You shall despair
upon reading them!!"
They're not very good sacred words."
"Well, they're the only ones he's ever said to us, aside from
the occasional 'Piss off!" The cultist gestured with his unsheathed
knife, and something about its shape nagged at Ruben's attention.
"We traveled back through a thousand years of time to worship
at our Dark God's feet, and while it was a bit of a downer to hear
'Piss off, the lot of you!' from him, we'll never forsake our belief!"
He raised the dagger up high, and started preaching to the crowd
of robed people watching. Ruben, not sure how much longer the man
would keep that suspiciously avian-shaped dagger out of her flesh,
traced her attention over to Ashley's chains.
And there it was.
The cultists had been less attentive to his chains, noting that
the martial artist had no magical abilities and deciding that their
newer, fancier chains, with the wards carved into the very cold
iron itself and a hundred prayers said while forging them with a
hammer of silver, would be wasted on him. Instead, they'd used older
chains, still plenty of wear in them; no way he could break them
Ruben encouraged that sense of age in them, making the chains
older by leaps and bounds, forcing them beyond the time when they
would have long since crumbled to dust, only a faint memory of the
And with a soft sound, the manacles binding Ashley fell away.
It was another credit to the martial artist's training that he
didn't hesitate a split second to take stock of his new freedom.
Instead, he leapt for the altar and kicked the knife out of the
robed man's hand even as it dived for Ruben's (relatively) unclothed
The whisper of power was fainter now, almost gone entirely, but
Ruben gathered what was left carefully, because she had the feeling
she'd need it in a second.
Ashley leapt over her altar again, giving her a quick grin, and
dived for the general pile of cultists that were rushing up the
broad steps. Ruben leaned back her head and closed her eyes to focus
better, dancing her attention between the cultists and Ashley.
What she sensed didn't bode well. If the vaguest impressions of
the near future were true, then it was quite likely to be very short
for them all. Ashley, while strong, couldn't outfight a hundred-odd
cultists without getting tired first, and once he got tired, he
got knocked out, and once he got knocked out
Well, that was back to Altar One, and since Ruben didn't want to
spend the last moments of her life staring cross-eyed at an oddly-shaped
knife, she had to figure out some way to alter the odds.
Fortunately she had the tools right at hand, so to speak.
Quickly, she ran back over her memories of the first day she'd
met Ashley, recalling how he had beaten his way through a dozen
of the finest hand-to-hand robots that Wiley had ever constructed.
Rapidly, she considered all the events of that day, and the conclusion
that she came to was swift and sure.
Ashley was the only thing standing in the way of Ashley. He was
very, very strong, stronger than he'd like to admit, and Ruben knew
how to bring out the warrior in him. Her attention went to Ashley's
mind, which was a sharply focused arrow. Her work was even easier
than she'd anticipated at this point, and carefully (lest she do
damage to her friend), she inserted a layer of numbness between
this part here and that part there
The martial artist went down under a pile of bodies, the cultists
using their massed weight to hold him down, and Ruben heard Tyler
Then, the cultists started flying away from him as if someone had
placed dynamite beneath them, soaring into the air gracelessly.
One of them hit the base of Ruben's swiveling altar, and it fell
backwards under the bone-crunching impact, presenting Ruben with
a perfect (albeit upside down) view of where Ashley was floating
in midair above a pile of cultists.
A visible aura was blazing around him, covering his body with golden
fire. His hair was on end, as if electricity was dancing through
his body, and had turned a shade of blonde even more brilliant than
its usual color. He slowly raised his hands to his eye level and
clenched them into fists. He turned slowly, his feet four feet above
the ground, and said one word:
Tyler gasped. "He's gone Super-Sanji-dude! I ain't seen such
a battle aura since the Ultimate Martial Surfing Championships of
aught six, dagnabit!"
Ruben shook her head and thought to herself, Maybe I overdid
it a bit
Then, the walls started to vibrate, and a high-pitched sound, somewhere
between a scream and a whistle, echoed through the chamber. Ruben
listened carefully to the scream, trying to find words, and when
she heard them her blood ran cold.
Slowly, she turned her head to look at the still-chained Tyler,
and they exchanged a single terror-filled look before he mouthed
to her a word that she wouldn't have heard over the scream even
if he shouted it. Ruben knew the word he'd uttered, though, and
having someone confirm her fears only increased them tenfold.
Shivering, she wrenched at her chains, not wanting to be found
helpless by the apparition that she could even now feel approaching,
like a clammy mist of evil oozing across her exposed skin, but the
fall she'd taken hadn't loosened her chains an iota. Once again,
she wished in vain that they'd at least given her MORE clothes;
maybe the mist would have felt less intrusive if it weren't flowing
across her damn—
Ashley landed on the ground, the flagstones crackling under his
feet, and he shouted, "THE DUDE MAKIN' THAT UNRIGHTEOUSLY UPSETTIN'
NOISE BETTER SLIDE OUT HERE BEFORE I HIT FIVE!" He held out
one hand with all his fingers extended, then slowly curled in one.
"ONE!" Several of the smaller statues lining the room
began to crack and fall to pieces as the entire building seemed
to vibrate even more urgently in response to his demands. Another
finger curled into the forming fist.
"TWO!" Ruben watched, her mouth suddenly dry, as a black
fog started seeping out of the ceiling. She tried to shout a warning
to Ashley, but her throat refused to work as a sense of helplessness
crept over her. She knew, knew that it was only an illusion,
but when you're chained to a rock and watching your own doom approach,
illusion can become reality. A third finger curled in.
The shoggoth struck Ashley before he finished the syllable, sending
him flying into a wall with a sound that echoed in the sudden silence.
He cratered the wall, then slowly slid down it, his golden glow
buried in a pile of rubble and broken statues.
With a sudden calmness that told her she'd gone beyond terror and
into something much, much worse, Ruben studied the shoggoth carefully.
She knew of them, to be certain, and knew certain ways to defeat
them, but since the most certain way to defeat one was to be on
a different continent and hope someone else dealt with it, her basic
knowledge didn't help much. She mumbled to herself a rote lesson
on the dread creature as it floated in midair, slowly turning this
way and that as if not accustomed to the real world.
"A newborn shoggoth is shapeless, its creator gifting it with
forms dredged from his deepest fears. As it ages in malevolence,
it chooses forms that satisfy it and will gradually harden into
those shapes; from this comes many of our most monstrous legends.
You can tell how old a shoggoth is simply by watching it
And so, she watched as it flickered in form, first becoming a terrible
beast, more tooth-filled slavering maw than body, then becoming
a cat raised up on two legs, its eyes filled with hate for all that
lived, then becoming (for some unknowable reason) a giant, disembodied
foot that stomped its way towards the rubble that buried Ashley.
It's not very old, she thought to herself, and if I wasn't
chained, I could probably destroy it, and I know for sure that TYLER
could destroy it, but
The big toe kicked aside an outlying
block of stone, and Ruben gave herself up totally to despair. I'm
The pile of rubble exploded outward just like the pile of cultists
had earlier, and the shoggoth reeled backwards as a brilliant flare
smashed into it, sending shards of black matter flying all over
the cavernous room. A block of stone crashed into the stone bare
inches from Ruben's arm, spraying her with bits of rock and iron
that cut into her.
She raised her left hand up to wipe at the blood on her face, and
stared incredulously at it for a moment before joy, and magic, suffused
her. I'm free!
Her powers were still dampened by the other three cuffs, but a
fourth was plenty enough to lend a hand to Ashley—
A shape shimmered out of the thin air next to the altar, and another
robed man, this one with a long staff raised above his head. He
had a slim goatee and was looking down at her with a supercilious
"Nae, yung garlie, ye die, and yer bluid will gie power to
our Dark God."
Ruben sneered. "You'd think that your Dark God could've at
least given you a better writer, because that line was even sadder
than 'Get off my lawn, you filthy buggers'. And what kind of accent
was that supposed to be? Cockney? Welsh? Because it sure as hell
The magus paused for a moment and looked stricken, speaking in
a completely normal tone of voice. "Oh dear, you're right!
That line was lame! And my accent is terrible!
However shall I live it down?" A smirk twisted his mouth. "Oh
wait, I know how; I'll just butcher you and tell them I said something
much cooler than that, and that you were stupid enough to think
my accent was real." He waved his staff and started the magical
Ruben was upside down. She was very cold and bleeding from painful
nicks all up and down her left side. She could only use a fourth
of her true power, and the man standing over her was surrounded
by the glow of magical artifacts that were probably raising his
power to near demigod levels.
Ruben grinned. It was nice to have an even fight for a change.
The hanging sorceress deflected his first attack away from her
with a casual wave, the bolt of ochre energy blasting an oblong
crater in the stone floor. She conjured forth a blast of her own,
sending a cone of smaller crimson bolts forth from her hand. He
swung his staff in a wide circle, absorbing them with ease, and
then pointed it at her, a visible corona of darkness building around
This time, Ruben didn't play around with her attack, striking swiftly
and surely. She reached out with fingers of pure magical energy
Tugged at the man's leg, pulling it out from underneath him.
He fell to the ground heavily, his half-finished spell flying upwards
to strike the ceiling. White-hot shards of rock rained down from
the hole it blasted, and Ruben considered her next strategy carefully
as the man struggled back to his feet. He's a little too strongly
defended for a conventional spell, but he obviously isn't prepared
against unconventional attacks
A glint of metal just out of her hand's reach attracted her attention.
This time, as he looked down at Ruben, the man was wearing an absolutely
furious expression. He waved one hand through a rapid pass,
chanting like a man possessed, a blinding aura of green forming
around his body—
The magus reeled backwards, his spell flickering out and fading
as the staff dropped from his suddenly limp fingers, both his hands
moving to the hilt of the dagger that was protruding from under
his jaw. Slowly, it slid out, and the bloodstained sacrificial blade
clattered to the floor only moments before the magus fell himself.
Ruben clucked to herself as she set to freeing herself. A magician
should never forget that no matter how powerful or mighty you are,
a dagger will seriously cramp your style. She smiled wryly as
the cuff around her right hand dissolved. Just my good luck that
it happened to be close enough to me to levitate it to my hand.
Both of the chains around her feet shattered simultaneously, and
just before she slid unceremoniously down the
slab's face and landed in a heap on the very hard ground. Finally
free to fully exercise her frustration, she spat a curse that shattered
the altar into dust.
"That feels better."
Ruben looked up at Tyler, who was stretching both his arms above
his head to the sound of vertebrae cracking. She pointed one finger.
"How the heck did you get out?!"
He stopped stretching and shrugged. "The shoggoth's presence
weakened the binding magic in m'manacles, and I broke free. Ya musta
come ta the same conclusion, am I right?"
Ruben almost, almost glanced guiltily at the rock that had
shattered the chain on her left arm, but her pride was far too strong
to admit to any weakness in her spirit, no matter how temporary.
"Of course I did!" she said indignantly. "Now, let's
get to helping Ash—"
Tyler interrupted. "He's fine on his own, Rube."
For the first time in nearly a minute, Ruben looked over at the
martial artist, and her eyes opened wide in shock.
The shoggoth was barely a fourth of its initial size, and was shrinking
rapidly under the assault that Ashley was forcing upon it, its shape
formless, unable to keep itself solid. The evil thing was struggling
to strike back at the martial artist, but its movements were sluggish
and slow, the pseudopods it had sprouted as a final measure of defense
missing the martial artist more wildly with every swing.
Ruben heard Tyler say, "Well, I'm off ta look fer the treasure
room; I'm sure you kids can handle this, see ya at th'boat!"
"Hey, wait—" she started to say as she turned to
face the adventurer again, but he was already gone. Disgruntled,
she finished, "—just a damn minute
The shoggoth made a noise that sounded as if it were trying to
cry out again to freeze their blood in terror, but now it sounded
reedy, wavering, and almost terrified. Ruben watched as the creature
made one final lunge at the golden man, who laughed and stood there,
letting it destroy itself upon his aura, burning its corporeal form
away with a frying, crackling noise.
Ruben smiled, and anyone looking at her would have sworn that it
was a maternal smile. "I do good work
Finally, it was just Ashley standing there, his hair still golden,
the aura fading away very slowly, one fist in the air. "BOO-YAKA!
I totally fustigated that lusing tard!"
A frown slowly overtook the smile on Ruben's face. "Maybe
I do too good of work
The martial artist almost seemed to flicker; one moment,
he was standing in the middle of the room, the next he was beside
Ruben, almost bouncing up and down with the power that was visibly
leaking from him. "Rube-dude, the absolute awesomeness of this
radical energy that is totally flowing through every inch of my
bod is not to be underestimated, dude! Dude? DUDE!!!"
Ruben blinked. He just said 'dude' three times in a row? That
doesn't bode well for his sanity
I don't know if I can fix
what I've done. She scowled. I suppose that I HAVE to try,
though. I can't spend half of my time filtering out his overuse
of annoying, slang-based adjectives.
The martial artist started shadowboxing, as though remaining still
for even a few moments were an incredible effort. "Yo, Ruben,
She muttered, "That I have to distract you somehow, lest your
incredible reflexes strike me down before you can restrain them
The magician pointed. "Look over there!"
"Huh?" Ashley looked
And Ruben struck.
Ruben noticed that, however tough and strong his physical form
had been made by her magic, his mind had been made even stronger.
It was like trying to capture fog in bare hands; she knew it was
there, but it slipped between her mental fingers like so much mist.
It wasn't an impossible job, it was just annoying, surprising,
and very, very tasking, especially with how distracting the sand
was that kept on dropping into her hair
As she untangled her consciousness from Ashley's, her work complete,
Ruben brushed the sand from her hair and looked at her fingers for
a moment, realizing what it meant. Slowly, she looked up at the
ceiling, and when she saw it sagging down, she grabbed Ashley's
hand and screamed, "RUN!!!"
Ruben started rummaging in the backpack she'd left in the boat,
looking for a change of clothes. "Man, these things are cold.
How can maiden sacrifices stand to wear these things?"
The island was almost gone now, the only part showing above the
water a tower that was listing to one side. Ashley stared back at
it. "I can't believe Tyler never showed up. How could you have
Ruben paused in her search for something warmer and looked at the
martial artist. "He's the sort of person who stays past
the last minute to loot the treasure. So far, counting this one,
I've been in three close escapes with him, and he's never
made it out in time." She shrugged. "Don't worry about
it; he's naturally suited to die in the entire collapse of a sacred
temple once the sacrilegious looters have removed the holiest artifacts."
Suited to die?!"
"Yeah, he's cursed with immortality." The magician stood
up and motioned. "Turn around, please." Ashley did so,
keeping his mind firmly off the subject of silk and spangly bits,
and Ruben kept speaking over the rustle of cloth. "He spends
his life looking for the matching gauntlet so he can finally die.
That's as much as I know about him, really." A splash sounded,
and Ruben added, "You can turn around now."
The martial artist didn't. "So you're saying that he'll be
"Like a bad penny."
.Okay." Ashley bent down and picked up an object
he vaguely remembered Ruben tossing into the boat as she'd pushed
it off the beach. He turned it over and over as he swiveled on the
seat to face Ruben again. "This is one of those knives that
they were gonna use to sacrifice you, right?"
Ruben nodded and held out one hand, so Ashley handed it over. "Yeah,
it is. I picked it up as a
souvenir, I guess you could say."
She held it up into the air, sunlight glinting from its acid-etched
surface, and Ashley asked the question that had been preying on
his mind from the first moment he'd seen the cultist holding it
"Why in the hell would a cult called the Children of the Python
shape their daggers like a dead parrot?"
To be continued.