Drum Major Pip was a woman of simple tastes. Chia pets, world conquest, a
freshly-pressed uniform, a legion of feet hitting the ground in unison with
the music, a fluffy plume atop an impeccably polished hat…
She turned to her second-in-command, French Horn One, and gestured grandly
with her baton. "Isn't it glorious?"
In his rolling Bavarian accent, he said, "Yes, it is, Mistress. But…."
Drum Major Pip frowned. "But?"
"Vhat about ze fact zat zere are fewer students marching here zan vere
signed up? Do you zink zat zey vere varned of us?"
The Drum Major waved one hand airily as she turned back to her practicing
stormtroo… er, marching band. "Details, details. The troops we
have are more than sufficient to accomplish our goals."
Olaf Beefcake (more commonly known as French Horn One) knew his duties as
an Evil Commander's lieutenant. One of those duties (the most onerous, as
he saw it) was feeding lines to the Evil Commander when the situation required
it. He sighed, faced up to his grim duty, and fed gamely.
"Vhat are our goals zis year, Drum Major?"
"AHEHEEheheheeHEEEHEhee!!" Drum Major Pip cackled. "The same
goal we have every year, French Horn One! To first conquer the campus, and
then… THE WORLD!!!"
An original story
by Aaron Bergman
© Copyright 2002-2005 by Aaron Berman.
Episode Five: Freshman Orientation
"Ah, this is your captain speaking." The speaker crackled once
as the captain paused. "We apologize for the delay caused by the
engine failure, and those who missed connections will be given data on
their new flights as soon as we land. We are now approaching Serenity
City, and I'm going to turn the main hull transparent. Those of you who
suffer from agoraphobia, please signal the flight attendant for medication."
Thirty seconds after the speaker gave one final crackle, the floor underneath
the passengers, the walls around them, even the seats under them wavered
as a wash of color rippled from the front of the cabin to the rear. The
first wave was quickly followed by a wave of pure black, then another
of pearl white; behind the white came a crystal clarity, as though the
solid steel had become glass.
Jedidiah Jones adjusted his sunglasses and turned his attention to the
city spread out underneath him, going over it with his archeologist's
eye and historian's prospective. This was his first visit to this city,
which seemed odd when he considered it for a moment, but perhaps it had
been fate not to see it until today.
Several seconds of wide-eyed gawking later, Jedidiah had to remind himself
sternly that, no matter what wondrous sights were spread before his adoring
eyes, forgetting to breathe was an unhealthy idea.
It was a paradox, a mishmash of disparate ethnic and historical styles
that managed to blend together into one harmonious weave. If the city
designers had had a motif in mind before first breaking ground, it was
to express the domiciles of mankind throughout the ages, to show where
man had been, and from there to show where he was rising to. The sheer
impossibility of their idea having worked so completely staggered even
his jaded sensibilities.
He watched in fascination as sprawling apartment complexes styled as
Arabic castles and towering skyscrapers in the currently popular "crystal
tower" motif slid underneath him as they flew over a borderline between
a residential and commercial area. Temporarily hypnotized by the light
glinting off a faceted tower, he wrenched his gaze away as the campus
where he'd be spending the next seven years of his life came into view.
The grounds were arranged in a set of six golden rings that Jed took
for footpaths. Along the two outside rings were the parking lots and buildings
that were, most probably, dorms. Around the two middle rings were the
lecture halls and laboratories. Perhaps two dozen paths, made out of the
same almost-golden material, pierced the outer rings, stopping at the
The center ring was a quad area or something similar, but arranged very
oddly. Inside the ring was a triangle made out of the path material, and
inside that was yet another triangle. Jed was nagged by something for
a few moments, then smiled as he realized what it was.
He reached inside the long, dark leather Trench Coat of Many Pockets
that he'd been given by an ancient enchanter for services rendered a long,
long time ago. After several seconds of rummaging for the right magical
pocket, Jedidiah pulled out his latest notebook and the short stub of
pencil tucked into the spine, jotting down: The entire campus resembles
a giant magic ritual pattern, scored into the earth. The only ritual circles
I've seen on this scale are those scored by Native Americans in ancient
He was about to replace his notebook inside his trench coat, then, after
looking mournfully at what little remained of his pencil, added a further
note. Have to get more pencils soon.
The hull shimmered again, turning it visible once more. The captain's
voice echoed once more over the intercom. "We'll be landing soon.
Please buckle your safety belts just in case." Jed, still lost in
consideration of what going to a school that was, more or less, a gigantic
magic amplifying circle, bucked the belt absently.
When a slight bump indicated the airship's return to earth, Jed unbuckled
and stood up, reaching into the overhead compartment for his one small
bag. He actually didn't need one, because his trench coat held everything
he could possibly need, but he knew from experience that airport security
looked at you funny if you didn't have at least one bag.
Jed joined the slow stream of people heading into the terminal, not stopping
until a smiling young woman said to him, "I see from this terminal
that you had—" She glanced away from him. "—three
weapons declared? May I please inspect them?"
He looked over his sunglasses at her and smiled wryly. "Of course."
He placed his old revolver down on the table, then unsheathed an even
older katana and put it next to the revolver, and last was….
The customs agent held up the last item, and her eyebrow quirked as the
leather creaked. "A whip, Mr. Jones?"
Jedidiah smiled. "Family tradition." He began rummaging through
his wallet. "Of course I have a permit for them all, Ms.—"
He looked at her nametag. "—Desidorata."
He handed her his ident key, and she ran it through the scanner, watching
the results carefully. Finally, she looked up, her eyes wide. "Yes,
everything seems to be in order here, Mr. Jones. And may I say, it's a
"What do you mean, I have to have a permit?!" The young woman's
voice that stridently cut through conversation throughout the terminal
contained equal amounts of anger and alarm, and Jed turned automatically
towards the sound of a maiden in distress.
In the sudden quiet, the inspector's response was clearly audible. "Yes,
ma'am. I'm afraid that a permit is required for any weapons that travel
Jed stepped up and saw the staff that had been set down on the table.
"Excuse me?" Both the woman and the customs agent looked at
him, and he gave the girl a quick once-over. She looked Japanese and was
dressed in remarkably loose, comfortable clothing. Her long black hair
was bound back into a simple ponytail, and her shockingly blue eyes pierced
her with the same honest appraisal that he was giving her. A slight smile
curved his lips. I like her.
"What's the problem here?"
"That's my own business!" She turned away from him, obviously
expecting him to go away, but a Jones never gives up that easily.
He picked up the bo staff. "Is this the item in contention?"
For a moment, Jed almost dropped it at the sheer feeling of power the
thing gave off, then he nodded. The Orb of K'Chiros? The Moon Scepter?
Yeah, that was the last time I felt something like this… Powerful
transformation magic indeed.
The customs agent smiled thinly. "Yes it is." Then he turned
to the young woman, and his smile disappeared. "Now, if you don't
have a permit, I'm afraid that I'll have to confiscate it."
Jed shook his head. "Oh no, I don't think she needs a permit."
"Oh, and why is that?" The customs agent had a very impressive
frown, Jed thought absently as the man turned its full effects on him.
Jed smiled back.
"Because this isn't just a weapon, Mr.—" Jed did the
nametag thing again. "—Harvey. It's a—" He winked
at the customs agent. "—henshin shtick… er, stick. Transformational
magic, that sort of thing. You know the laws regarding people who use
that kind of enchantment and so do I, even if it's this young woman's
first time out of her home country."
Jed handed the bo staff back to the girl. "See, no problems at all!"
He turned to the customs agent, who was opening and closing his mouth
in stupefaction. "Harvey, I suggest that you study up on the common
sense if you think that harassing someone that works for Her is a good
He didn't bother naming the Her, and the customs agent turned first gray,
then white, as the implication became clear.
The young woman's mouth gaped open as she thought it through too, then
closed with a snap. "But I don't—"
Jed interrupted the young woman quickly. "I'm Jedidiah Jones, but
you can call me Jed. Can I treat you to a quick meal?" He offered
The young woman ignored the arm, but smiled at Jed briefly. "My
name is Reiko, and no, you can't. I'm supposed to catch a ride with a
relative." She walked away quickly, and Jed stared after her. The
customs agent let out a short, braying laugh, his shock already dying
"Not used to having them ignore you, pretty boy?"
Jed turned to the agent and looked at the man over his glasses again,
this time frowning. "Of course I am." His frown disappeared.
"It's the ones who reject me that become… interesting."
Without another word, he strode out of the custom's inspection, stopping
only to retrieve his weapons from Ms. Desidorata's table.
After a short walk, the glass doors of the main entrance closed behind
him, shutting out the throngs of the airport. He smiled and stretched
as the cool California breeze ruffled his hair. I'm going to like
it here. It seems so peaceful and quiet.
Ashley Raine, martial artist extraordinaire, kicked a loose rock despondently.
The rock bounced and clattered down the rubble-strewn pathway, finally
coming to rest against a rusty girder that poked like a broken tooth from
The school had changed a lot in the last few days, since Lilah had disappeared.
Students had been moving into the dorms, professors who taught no summer
classes were striding the halls, and the once-deserted little skate park
that Ashley had taken to practicing in was becoming more and more crowded
with his brethren, the skaters of all types.
All of that activity should have cleared the gloom that hung over him
constantly, but… nothing doing. Despite the way that Ruben had assured
him Lilah’s disappearance wasn’t his fault, despite the way
that her boyfriend, the Gweep, didn’t seem to blame him, Ashley
still felt responsible.
The only silver lining to her disappearance, of course, is that she wouldn’t
be peeling off Ashley’s skin, inch by inch, for the damage to what
remained of her bike.
But even with that thought uppermost in his mind, Ashley had returned
to this park where she’d vanished a half-dozen times, searching
for some clue, any clue, about where Lilah might be now. The
more that everyone around him repeated that he shouldn’t feel guilty,
the guiltier it made him feel…
And that wasn't even the thing he felt the worst about. Ashley stared
down at his hands for a moment, then clenched them into fists. No, the
thing he felt the worst about was….
"You make me sick, you know that?"
Startled that he hadn't felt the presence of anyone nearby, Ashley looked
up and saw Ruben sitting on a girder fifteen feet almost directly above
him. Her hair had been pulled out of its customary ponytail and it danced
loosely in the fresh breeze, and her brow was furrowed in an unusual expression
of disgust as she looked down at him, tapping a long staff against the
Angrily, Ashley said, "I make you sick? I make you sick?
For the last few days, all you've been able to tell me is that 'Lilah'll
be all right, don't worry about her', and 'C'mon, it wasn't even your
fault, don't be so down about it!' You walk around as though nothing happened,
Ruben pushed herself off the girder suddenly, and Ashley took a step
back as she landed on the ground lightly, a rush of wind blowing the dust
away from her feet. She jabbed the end of the staff into the martial artist's
chest and spat, "What right do you have to feel bad about
Lilah? You barely knew her, you dreck-headed ignorant primitive!"
Some of the anger faded from her eyes as she withdrew the staff and planted
it into the ground, leaning against it with a weary sigh.
"I'm only going to say this once, Ashley. Your attitude is so selfish
that I can barely stand to look at you. You act as though this were all
your fault — we're all big boys and girls, and this heroing stuff
has consequences that we all know about, even if school is a vacation
from it sometimes. You act like Lilah possibly being dead is the worst
possible thing to happen — you don't even know what to
be really afraid of. You act like Lilah being gone is a terrible tragedy
for you — she was my best friend, she was the Gweep's lover,
and we're the ones consoling you?"
Ashley opened his mouth, ready to snap something defensive and hurt out
in response to Ruben's accusations — then, very slowly, he shut
it and examined his anger carefully. Why am I mad? Why should
I be mad? Is it because he's right? Ashley shook his head. No,
it's because he's close to being right, but in reality he's so far away….
The martial artist released his anger and spoke. "No, that isn't
what I'm miserable about, Ruben. It's really—"
Ruben's form shimmered for a moment, and not for the first time Ashley's
eyes and brain were forced to cope with the mutually exclusive but true
fact of his being both a short woman and a tall man at the same time,
his optical nerves twisting around the concept with great difficulty,
until the moment passed and Ruben stood there as a man.
Ashley met Ruben's weary glare and shook his head slowly. "You're
wrong, Ruben. My real problem is… I… I don't know what I did
that day. I went 'blank' or something while I was rushing to rescue Lilah
— and it wasn't the first time I've gone blank, either.
"Ever since I came here… I feel like I've been losing myself.
Losing my control." Unable to keep still any longer, Ashley paced
back and forth restlessly. "The first time I went blank was on that
island with the cult and stuff. When you told me that they cast some kinda
spell that bounced offa you and hit me, and that's what caused the…
blankness… I really didn't believe it." The wizard shifted
uneasily, but Ashley didn't notice.
"I can almost remember a wave of golden light, and—"
He kicked another rock so hard that it bounced in through what might have
once been a window in the ruined building, the ricochets it made inside
echoing through the quiet park. "That's it. Nothing else, until we
were on the boat. The same thing happened to me while I was going to the
park! I can't stand it! What's going on with me?"
"Ashley, I—" The wizard coughed. "I've been doing
a little research, and this is what I think happened." The martist
turned around, his attention fully on Ruben.
"When you were drawn through time by Devan's machine, I think that
you may have passed through the 'Vortex of Worlds', a place where all
dimensions and times are the same place, touching in an n-dimensional
tera-tesseract. It's a hideously dangerous thing to travel through the
'Vortex of Worlds', and the few that survive…."
Ruben looked up at the sky. "No one who touches the 'Vortex of Worlds'
is unchanged, and after a month of watching you, I'm almost certain that
this is what happened. Ashley — you're no longer human."
"What?" Ashley turned his full attention back to his roommate.
He wasn't sure where he'd been expecting Ruben to be going with this lecture,
but… No longer… human? He looked down at the back of his hand,
opening and closing it slowly, watching the tendons and muscles dance
under his skin. Humanity… what is it, anyway?
Ruben watched his roommate ponder, and a fleeting but powerful urge —
Should I have told him all of it? Everything that I know? —
came and then left just as quickly. No. First, I see how he reacts
to this. I remember, when I found out about… I could barely stand…
Ruben gritted his teeth at the memory of mingled sorrow and rage. Ashley,
I hope that I haven't destroyed you by telling you this.
"So, you're saying… that I'm not human? Like…"
Ashley's face twisted for a moment, and Ruben readied a dual spell; one
to restrain him, one to put him into a state of euphoria that might counteract
any self-destructive urges. "…this Vortex thing, to me, is
The first syllables of the spells leapt to Ruben's lips as he prepared
to save his friend from himself—
"Like my version of Spidey and the radioactive bite?"
Ruben fell to the ground suddenly, the disruption of his spells catapulting
him from his feet. Ashley went on. "Or like the Four and their cosmic
rays? Or, yeah! The Ninja Turtles and the ooze! This freakin' rules!"
Ruben climbed back up slowly, leaning on his staff for support. "So,
Ashley, I think I can train you in how to control this… power. Interested?"
"Heck yeah!" Ashley victory-posed, one arm flexing. "With
great power comes great responsibility and all that jazz!"
"Ow!" Ashley rubbed the back of his head where Ruben's staff
had impacted. "What did you do that for?"
"First lesson here. Great power comes with nothing but
power. The only difference between a fool and a wise man is whether you
use the power, or end up being used. Talking about responsibility, duty,
commitment, obligation… that's being owned by your power, not owning
it." Ruben looked at the devastation that surrounded them, all that
remained of the once-mighty Angel's metropolis. Forty million people…
"That kind of thinking… leads to places like this."
The martial artist frowned at that, nodding thoughtfully after a moment's
contemplation. "But… what's the difference between a hero and
a bad guy then? Wouldn't they both count as being used, by that standard?"
Ruben held up a finger. "That's somewhere around the Fifteenth or
Sixteenth Wizard's Rule, and I don't even think you're ready to learn
the first — yet." Ruben lowered the finger. "So, you ready
to get started?"
"What? Here? Now?"
"No. Nothing's free, buddy; there are some things we have to discuss.
First of all, my price." Ruben spat into his hand and then held it
out, palm facing outward. "I will call upon you for a favor in the
month of January, when the snows fall. Secondly, the moment your training
is complete, we will journey into Hell itself and rescue Lilah. Last of
all, my condition." He hesitated. "You will address me as 'Ruben-sensei'
or 'Great Teacher Stryfe' at all times until your training is complete."
Ashley grinned, spat in his own palm, high-fiving Ruben's outstretched
hand. "Haiiiiiiii, Ruben-sensei-dude-Great-Teacher-Stryfe-man!!"
They held the pose together for a moment as the dust whirled around them,
the magic of the oath binding them together, then… Ashley's lips
twitched, and he started laughing uncontrollably. At first, Ruben just
stared at him, then began laughing as well to release the sudden feeling
of tension that had overtaken both of them.
The martial artist was the first to recover, just as he'd been the first
to break. Jerking a thumb towards the path he'd taken into the park, he
said, "It's six miles back to the campus, I've got a full tank of
superpowers, half a pack of whoop-ass, and" he pulled out a dark
object from his pocket, placing it over his eyes carefully "I'm wearing
Ashley waited patiently, then in the face of Ruben's blank stare, he
added, exasperated, "This is the part where you say, 'Let's hit it.'
Oh, never mind." He whirled around, took one step… then stopped.
"What is it, Ashley?"
The wind whistled mournfully, and (not for the first time in this place)
Ruben felt as though all the empty windows from once-proud buildings were
eyes watching him, weeping rubble silently. Before Ruben could shove the
impression aside, Ashley spoke.
"Why is this place… this junk heap… called Price of
"Like I said a bit ago, this is the kind of thing that being owned
by your power leads to. Always." Ruben pondered on how best to begin
the story. "A long time ago… during the war… one side
decided to do anything it could to ensure victory. Even destroying everything
humanity had built in the process." Ruben started walking slowly,
moving past Ashley, who followed silently. "No one alive today will
admit which side it was that first escalated the conflict, but…
it doesn't matter.
"Both sides did things, used weapons that killed many, many innocents,
sweeping entire cities, entire nations, from the face of the Earth. This
city was built on the rubble of one such city. Forty million people alone
died when a circle of wizards unleashed their ritual… and of those
forty million, perhaps ten were their reason for destroying the
"Once the war was over and victory, such as it was, declared, this
city was one of the first that the survivors gathered at. When this city
was being reconstructed, the Goddess Herself came and decreed that one
area, this area, be left untouched as a reminder of what power
untempered by wisdom leads to."
Ruben knocked aside a bit of rubble before quoting from memory, "'War
is oiled with blood and fueled by death, which is something that we humans
forget all too easily. I want this place to stand as a monument for all
times, a reminder of what price war can have not only on the soldiers,
but on the luckless whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the
wrong time — and as long as my writ stands, I will not forget the
victims who died here so that I, and my followers, could win.' That's
what she said, and…"
They reached the park's boundary, and Ruben looked back at Ashley. "I
think she wanted to punish herself, more than remind anyone else. Once
a year, she comes here, and on that night… it's best to stay far,
far away from this place."
Ashley sighed, and with a mournful note in his voice, he said,
"I really hope that you were kidding about calling you Ruben-sensei,
*Whack!* "I wasn't."
Jedidiah Jones emerged from the harrowing ordeals of the hellish corridors
within the Administration Building of Serenity University with a half-smile
— it had reminded him of home. At first, he'd been disappointed
that the Croft-Jones College of Archaeology & Delving had refused
his application; what was the point of his family owning a diploma mill
if he couldn't attend?
But after a meeting with his uncle, any objections of Jedidiah's had
vanished. Not only were there important filial missions to account for
his attendance here, but highly personal reasons as well…
He turned a corner and slammed into someone coming the other way. Instinctively,
Jed seized the other person to keep both of them on their feet, and got
a nostrilful of a perfume that was subtle and distinctive as he inadvertently
pulled the other person a little closer than he'd meant to. His face was
buried in a mane-like mass of auburn hair, and—
Jedidiah pushed the other person away politely. "You," he said
after looking more closely, "are a beautiful woman."
"Ah, you can zee most clearly," the lush redhead whom he'd
almost knocked down said, an accent of Français overlaying her
words. "Where were you going in su' a rush?" Her hair was styled
oddly — half-obscuring her face — but what he could see of
her face was vixenishly attractive.
"To, hmm…" Jed looked down at the slip he'd been handed
upon paying for a dormitory room. "Bedlam dorm, Room One-Sixteen."
She looked delighted. "Such a coincidence! Zat is my dorm as well!"
She grabbed the hand that had Jed's dorm assignment in it. "Come,
come, I will show you ze dorm!"
The woman tugged him along, walking backwards without stumbling in any
way. "My name eez Kara, and yours?"
"Jones. Jedidiah Jones."
Her mouth spread in a wide grin, revealing cute upper-and-lower fangs.
"ZEE Jedidiah Jones?"
Choosing to ignore this sudden recognition, Jed looked around, interested
in the buildings. "So, how long have you been here?"
"Only a few dayz. It is certainement a great school! Ze buildings,
ze city around eet, ze pretty boyz…" she winked at him. "But
I am sure zat you do not wish to 'ear of ze boyz, eh?"
He said casually, "You're right — but of course I'm very interested
in the other half." He gestured with his free hand to indicate Kara,
"I 'ave been known to look zat way m'self… and I assure you,
zere are no complaints to be 'ad!" With that, she turned around,
keeping one hand firmly clasped around Jed's, and continued dragging him
A few minutes of detouring through alleys and between buildings later,
the pair reached Bedlam Dormitory.
It was a long, low building, with four floors, built in a simple rectangular
shape. Painted a rather plain brown, it stood on the far fringe of the
campus as though hiding. There were people moving around on the top of
the building, and several colorful umbrellas were visible, but from this
distance Jed couldn't tell what they were doing up there. Around the dormitory
were several different kinds of lawns; one stretch was pure Kentucky Bluegrass,
another was a rock garden which was being raked carefully by a young woman
wearing short-shorts and a tube-top, and yet another stretch that curved
around the edge of the building was (and Jedidiah blinked at this) what
looked like a robotic farm, complete with mechanical attendants?
The pathway to the main entrance led directly between the rock garden
and the bluegrass, and Jedidiah had little choice in traveling it, as
Kara was loath to let him go. She waved to the girl raking the garden,
who responded with a nod and opened the door.
The moment he passed the doorjamb, Jed was confronted with a sign that
shoved the message "Take Off Your Shoes! This Means You!" aggressively.
Jed noted with amusement that he was in a Japanese-style sunken entryway,
with a set of shoe lockers to his left, labeled "for guest usage."
Quite a few were locked, but most still had the little keys in the keyholes.
Kara released his hand and whirled around playfully. "If you do
not have ze slippairs, zen you can—" she cut herself off as
Jedidiah reached into his coat and pulled out his go-visiting Japanese
slippers. "Nevair mind!" She pointed down the hallway to the
left. "Ze managair iz alwayz down zere in ze game room; you cannot
She turned around and dashed up the stairs, parting ways with, "I
'ave to greet my new colocataire!" Jed didn't bother to dredge his
dusty French for what the word meant; from the context he assumed it meant
something close to 'roommate'. Instead, he replaced his shoes with the
slippers and headed off in the direction that Kara had indicated.
This direction seemed to be the recreational and community area of the
dorm. Just past the entryway the hallway spread out into a large room
with a viewscreen and several couches; as he continued it turned into
a kitchen, then the Manager's Room ("Dude, I'm out mashing a challenger!"
declared a sign dangling from the manager's door). The next door past
that was standing slightly open. Jedidiah stepped in, and stood there,
gaping in amazement.
He was the youngest scion of a family that had, for the span of four
centuries, dedicated themselves to seeking out the treasures of the past.
Some of his ancestors had done it for money, some had done it for the
science, and others had done it simply for the thrill; but regardless
of how they had honed them, the finely-tuned senses of a treasure-hunter
had been passed down through a dozen generations to him. Jedidiah Smythe
Croft-Jones could walk into a vault or museum or dragon's treasury and
within moments guess the value, age, and rarity of each item to the nearest
dram, recall any probable historical facts about more famed items, and
evaluate the safest and quickest ways to remove everything down to the
bare rock — after all, the Croft-Jones College had one of the largest
and most valuable collections available to the world for a reason.
But what he saw in that room, in those few seconds, appeared priceless,
both in terms of money and history.
Scattered about, hooked to varied video projection systems that were
themselves a goldmine of archeological value, lay over seventy video game
systems, ranging from last year's latest Simulsense Visors to what looked
like a truly marvelously ancient Ping (Pung? Peng? Jedidiah couldn't remember
exactly) machine. To judge from the plethora of wires running from all
of them to the TVs, VR sets, and tri-dees, all of them were in working
condition. This judgment was further reinforced (but not entirely confirmed)
by the two beings that were playing a game against each other on one of
the oldest-fashioned flatscreens. Two-dimensional digital characters leapt
and clawed at each other, moving across the screen in jumps and rushes.
One of the people seated in front of the screen was a fairly typical
example of a middle-aged beach-bum, complete with aloha shirt, tacky shorts,
and long, scruffy hair that fell into his eyes. The other, though…
One of the characters on the screen died, and the beach bum threw down
his controller. "Non-triumphant… I woulda thought that a velociraptor
sapiens would play the raptor, not the iceman, Curly!"
The velociraptor sapiens, which Jedidiah admitted honestly to himself
that he hadn't been expecting to see a representative of here, spread
its clawed hands. "Why should I? I knew that's what you'd expect,
so I decided to move around that expectation."
"No need to be wiseass about yer tactical philosophies, dude."
The beach bum looked back over his shoulder and noticed Jed watching them
with a slight smile on his face. The scruffy man stood up and offered
his hand, his face splitting into a huge grin. "Hey, dude! You must
be one of the new freshmen that they just sent here! I'm the manager.
What's your room number?"
Jed glanced once more at the sheet with his room assignment, now crumpled
heavily. "Room One-Sixteen."
The manager shook his head. "Sorry to hear that, dude. You're roomin'
with Devan Wiley, and he's one weird mamma-jamma. 'Course," he added
as he led Jed out of the room, "ya don't tend to see much other than
weird mamma-jammas in Bedlam Hall."
They wended their way through the communal rooms and past the entrance
and stairwell, to a corridor that more closely resembled the dormitory
norm. The manager stopped at a door, opened it and shouted cheerily inside,
"Hey, Devan! They just got yer new roommate in, dude!" He didn't
get any response. The manager just shrugged, addressed Jed with, "Dude,
it's yer problem now," and left.
Jed walked in, and was for the third or fourth time that day was left
speechless. Every flat surface in the room was covered in almost every
conceivable type of gadget, device, or tool. The few areas that weren't
had stacks of some magazine called Mecha four feet high. The walls were
bare of posters, oddly enough, though there was one cutaway hologram of
a robot labeled "M-66" stapled to the wall above the left-hand
bed. Jed moved his head back and forth for a moment, fascinated with the
way that the holo would show the outside for a moment, then the musculature,
then the internal wiring.
The treasure hunter stood there for several minutes, while his roommate
sat on his bed, ignoring Jed in favor of something in his lap. Finally,
losing some of his patience, Jed spoke up. "Hey. I'm Jedidiah Jones.
But you can call me Jed." Getting no response from his future roommate,
he tried again. "You must be Devan, then. I've heard some interesting
stuff about you." He was ignored again. Taking it all in stride,
Jed reached for some of the stuff that was cluttering up his bed with
the intention of removing it, perhaps even dumping it on the floor to
finally get some response from his roommate.
Devan Wiley (mad scientist, tinkerer, and future doctor of mechaology)
looked up from where he sat cross-legged on his bed, wielding a soldering
iron, and saw what the freshman was about to do. Screaming "NODONTTOUCHTHAT!!"
he lunged off the bed towards the imminent disaster.
The project he was working on, revealed to be a small speaker, fell out
of his lap and slammed against the floor. It started saying, over and
over, "thedoorisajarthedoorisajarthedoorisajar…" Wiley,
barely paying attention, brought one heel hard down on it.
Jed halted his hand three inches away from the (seemingly) meaningless
tangle of wire that had a little bead strung inside it, and slowly moved
it away. "No problem. Would you move the stuff off my bed then? I'd
like to get unpacked and settled in."
Wiley began whisking items off the bed (including the aforementioned
tangle of wire, a small gem with a sticky label reading "Guyver,"
one of those little toy monkeys that clap the cymbals, and a picture with
Wiley, an old man with frizzed white hair, and a little girl with spiky
red hair, all of them wearing lab coats) and placing them on his own over-crowded
After he was done, he turned back to the treasure-hunter-turned-college-freshman.
"Your name was Jedidiah Jones, right?" Jed nodded.
"Er, is Jedidiah Jones…"
A handgun appeared in Wiley's hand. To Jed, the barrel was the size of
a train tunnel, and there was an ominous green light playing at the end
of it. "If you ever come within five inches of disturbing one of
my experiments again, I'll make certain all that people can use with your
name is the past tense. Am I making myself perfectly clear?" To emphasize
his point, he made a short jab with the barrel toward Jed's belly.
Jed frowned. Is this supposed to be intimidating? After a moment, he
shrugged and smiled agreeably. "Like I said, no problem."
"Good." As Wiley pocketed his Wave Motion Pistol, he wondered
who had assigned him such a dope as a roommate. Then, he realized only
Dean Salouse could have done such a thing (which was slightly
paranoid of him, but what can one do about that kind of world-view?) His
fists clenched as he tried to think of a suitable revenge upon the Dean
for this indignity. No doubt it would be slow, terrible, and sweet.
Being a mad scientist, after all, obligates one to a certain pattern
The freshman examined the crumpled presentation in his hand, frowning
slightly. Irritably, Devan thought, If he got rid of those stupid dark
glasses, I'd bet he'd be able to read it more easily — or maybe
the fool has trouble comprehending anything more complex than 'the quick
brown dog jumped over the lazy fox'…
With a furrowed brow, Jedidiah asked, "So, where's Takai's Theatre?
This paper says that the Freshman Orientation speech'll be in there, but
it doesn't say where it is. It's being given by a dean named… Salouse?"
Wiley continued to glare irritably at the intrusive newcomer, then the
words sunk in and the ever-hyperactive gerbil in his head began turning
its wheel along very evil lines. A slow grin spread across Wiley's face
as opened his phone and began dialing. "He-he-he. A perfect plan!"
The phone was picked up almost immediately. "This is the EMH. Please
state the nature of your magical emergency."
"Ruben, old friend, this is Devan. It's time to strike back at Salouse
for what he did at the end of last year. You in?"
Reiko Tereshkova yawned, stretched, and flopped onto the bed. It had
been a long flight from Japan, a flight that had been lengthened to nearly
emergency proportions by the antigrav on the airship nearly collapsing.
It had forced the pilot to move at one-quarter of the usual cruising speed,
which had almost made her late for the term to start instead of having
a comfortable settling-in time.
Then, the trouble at customs… that had been neatly averted by that
cute guy. She squelched that thought quickly. He was cute, sure, but I
don't like those guys who think girls will fall all over them just because
they're pretty, wear sunglasses and trench coats, look vaguely goth, and
have a really great knowledge of magical weaponry…
Not to mention her roommate.
This was one thing that had honestly slipped Reiko's mind when she'd
first decided to come to this school; that the dormitories would be shared-living.
Reiko looked over at her new roommate through slitted eyelids. The disgustingly
attractive redhead was humming a catchy tune as she lifted neatly folded
clothes from a box that had arrived just bare moments after the woman
had dashed into the door. Her long hair fell untidily over one shoulder
and dangled into the suitcase, but the girl apparently didn't care. Reiko
thought grimly to herself, Hmm, I can whiff the magic all over her.
She must be some sort of magician… Well, might as well get the confrontation
over with. No doubt she's heard my family name, will wonder what I'm doing
here, I'll have to tell her, and… she shuddered at the thought.
Admitting her flaws to herself, that was one thing; but blabbing them
to a perfect stranger?
The young woman moved to a cross-legged position and eased her hand over
to her enchanted staff (currently travel-sized for her convenience.) The
moment her fingers touched its surface, it sent telepathically, Canst
thou scent that magic? As usual, its mind-to-mind voice reminded
her of Sean Connery. That is, if Connery had ever spoken Japanese with
an unbelievably archaic accent…
"So, 'ow 'eavily enshanted iz zat stick of yourz?" The redhead
neatly folded the first box up and placed it under her bed, cracking open
the second box carefully. There was a subtle octarine flash as she undid
the massive seal decorating the top.
"N-nani…" Reiko was so thrown off balance by the girl's
opening comment that she forgot her English for just a second. She was
so busy kicking herself that she almost missed the redhead's response.
"You are Japaneze? Wonderful! I alwayz dezired such a colaca—
er, roommate!" She grabbed a small book bound in grayish-black fur
from her suitcase and opened it. The eldritch chanting coming from inside
the pages was, apparently, normal because she made a pleased noise as
she snapped it shut. "I am Japaneze m'self, but my mothair left Japan
before I was born. M' name is Kara Nitaline. What iz yours?" She
placed the book in her bookshelf, next to a frog plushie.
"You… are?" Reiko looked the buxom, redheaded, and tall
woman across the room from her as she continued unpacking. Rather taken
aback by her familiar manner, Reiko took a few moments to respond. "Uh…
I'm Reiko Tereshkova. Where are you from, anyway?" Her tone was suspicious,
flavored with a touch of aggrieved.
"France, of course!" Kara replied airily. She pulled a dress
from the box and shook it open. "Uf da! I told granmama zat I am
too big for zis dress!" She looked back, her visible eye examining
Reiko. "Zis would be ze right size for one such as you; would you
Reiko eyed the caftan dubiously. The colors shifted opalescently as sunlight
ran across the fabric. "I don't know…"
Kara balled it up and tossed it at Reiko. "Do not worry, I 'ave
many more like eet!" She threw a wink. "Jus' be sure to wear
somet'ing undair ze dress, you know?" She pulled a ceramic jar from
her suitcase and opened it up to sniff the contents. Finding all was well,
she closed it up and placed it on top of her bookcase. "You nevair
did ansair my question."
Reiko rewound the conversation in her mind, and didn't discover an unanswered
question until the beginning. "Oh! About ze— er, the staff?"
Urk! My English is better than hers — I can't let her way of
speaking corrupt mine!
"Yes." Kara folded up the now-empty box and placed it under
her bed with the other, grabbing the last, smallest box. Upon opening
it, she began unloading paperback books onto the shelves, along with a
number of comic books. Reiko took a close look at some of the cover pages
and titles. Forbidden Love, Sunset of the Heart, Desert Blossom, Queen
of the Damned…. She reads romance novels. I room with a person
who reads romance novels.
Reiko realized that Kara had stopped placing books in her bookshelf and
was staring at her intently. Shaking her head, she set herself to answering
the question. "Well, it doesn't know how old it is, or who made it,
or anything like that. It's pretty ignorant in some ways." Hey!
the staff sent indignantly, but Reiko ignored it. "It was the haft
of a spear. The spear was created to destroy demons and monsters, and
worked quite well until a powerful sorcerer cursed and removed the spearhead,
leaving only this." She held up the stick.
Kara flopped down onto her bed. "How fun! Any planz to find ze spearhead?"
"Well, that's what it would like, but…"
An ominous crash of thunder made Kara and Reiko both glance out the window,
but the skies were clear. Out of curiosity, Reiko stood up to look more
closely, and the only thing she saw below on the ground was two young
men, one with long hair and one with short. The longer-haired fellow appeared
to be ranting at his companion angrily, but for what reason she couldn't
Ashley strolled back to his dorm room after his post-early-afternoon-session-shower,
chuckling a bit at Ruben's foolishness of yesterday. Imagine, overreacting
On the trip back to the dorm from Victory Park, they'd been discussing
when the training might begin. Ruben had mentioned this weekend as a starting
point, suggested that they go out into the nearby small mountain range
and find the seaside cliffs to train upon, Ashley had replied that the
weather looked to be very nice indeed for a mountain training session
and that nothing could possibly go wrong on such a beautiful weekend,
Ominous thunder out of a clear blue sky.
Ever since then, Ruben had been snappish and on-edge; all during the
afternoon he'd jumped at the slightest noise. He'd spent an hour last
night chanting weirdly and daubing chicken blood on the window and door
of their room, and Ashley had awoken this morning to the strange sight
of Ruben, eyes bruised from lack of sleep, poring closely over what looked
like a… girly comic book?
The magician had been out cold by the time Ashley returned from his early
morning practice, still sitting on the floor, a girl's comic sheltering
his eyes from the sunlight. Midmorning training had been the same, and
now that he was back from the first afternoon session he was fully expecting
the poor dude to be still comatose. Maybe I'll go back downstairs
and pester the manager to play me at that fighting game… I'll unlock
the mysteries of the Hadouken someday!
His dreams of videogame mastery were shattered the moment he saw the
small object pinned to the message board on his room's door, though Ashley
did not know it yet.
The miniature angel sitting on the pin looked up as Ashley approached,
standing up and doing a lewd little bump-and-grind, finally vanishing
with a wink after turning into a tiny demon. The martial artist blinked.
"O-kayyy." He reached out and plucked the note from the pin.
To Ashley Raine & the constant thorn in
Greetings and Salutations!
I have decided to enact a new policy. I would
like senior students to guide a freshman around for the first few
weeks. Because only volunteers can perform this service, all upperclassmen
in this room are volunteered. Remember to be in Takai's Theatre
at one p.m.
Have a Nice Day!
P.S. This does mean you, Ashley.
After reading it carefully, he threw open the door to the room, heedless
of whether or not Ruben was awake. What the— I'm not an upperclassman!
Ruben, who was in fact awake by now, looked up from a dog-eared copy
of Cooking for the Magi: Using Sorcery to Spice Your Meals! "Hey,
sorry about yesterday. I guess I was kind of… over… reacting?"
He trailed off as he saw Ashley's expression, who held the note towards
Ruben. The wizard conjured it from Ashley's hand and read it, his face
growing whiter and whiter with each word that he read.
Ashley poked the pale wizard. "Um, what's going on?"
"How could he… have known?" Ruben looked over at the
clock. "It's ten to one! By Merlin's, Dumbledore's, and
Gandalf's collective beards, I have to warn Devan!" With no further
words than that, he leapt out of the window.
Ashley shouted out, "Hey, wait for me!" He followed, noting
that Ruben was already a hundred yards away from the building. Argh!
That's so not cool of him! He hit the ground running, barely managing
to keep the fleet magician in sight.
The martial artist caught up to Ruben just as he reached the Takai theater.
"Sheesh," Ashley said, feeling a bit winded. "It's not
fair that magic lets you run faster—"
"No time!" Ruben interrupted, glanced around hurriedly. "Argh,
it's still three minutes to one! He wouldn't have gone in yet! The timing
"RUBEN!" came the shout from inside the building. "Hey,
man, it is you! Long time no see!"
Ashley had believed that Ruben had turned pale as a human could be and
still have blood flowing through his veins back in the room, after reading
the Dean's note. He was proven wrong as a familiar-looking trench coat-clad
figure stepped out of the theater's door. He was wearing dark sunglasses
to ward off the bright afternoon sun, and was—
"Jedidiah Jones," Ruben whispered. "He found me…"
Ashley had trouble placing why this Jedidiah seemed so familiar, then
he remembered disembarking from an airship onto a tropical island…
"Dude!" he said, grinning widely and walking towards Jed. "Nice
to see you again!"
Jed looked taken aback for a moment, then smiled himself. "Hey,
you! From that island, right, with that punk treasure thief Tyler!"
"Ugh, don't remind me. He almost got me killed, ya know?" Ashley
held out his hand and Jed took it, giving it a firm shake. "So, whatcha
"Waiting for Ruben, here." He nodded towards the still-frozen
magician. "Devan's my roommate, see, and he asked me to tell Ruben
that the show may start a little early…"
With those words, Ruben took off again, the doors of Takai's Theater
sliding out of his way as he charged heedlessly forward. Jedidiah turned
to watch him. "What's that about?"
"He said that he had to warn Wiley about something. Dunno what,
Ruben looked over the crowded seats of the small theater, cursing under
his breath as each second brought the Dean closer to appearing on stage.
When Devan had proposed his plan yesterday afternoon over the mobile
phone, it had seemed ideal for revenge against Dean Salouse. Humiliating
him on-stage during the first moments that the incoming class of freshman
would meet the bastard? A perfect strike back for what he had done at
the end of last year. Ruben had been more than glad to help, giving Devan
a preconstructed illusion spell that he'd had kicking around for ages.
It had helped distract him somewhat from the worrisome omen of yesterday
afternoon. Thunder out of a clear blue sky? That he hadn't summoned himself
to make a particularly dramatic statement?
Ruben's hand tightened around the slip of paper that Ashley had found
on their door. And now, this… how did he know? Why did he invite
me here, unless he suspects Devan and I at the same time? He
didn't dare use magic to witch for Devan, either; with the Dean so close
he was sure to detect anything so widespread. So, with little hope, he
kept looking for Devan.
"Oi! What are you doing here!"
The magician whirled around at the sound of Devan's voice and said, "I
have to warn you that—"
"Shh!" Devan Wiley put one finger to his lips as the house
lights went out. "The show is about to start!"
"Less talk, more watch!" A broad grin spread across Devan's
face, giving it with a devilish light. "He's coming on, the poor
And, indeed, to a slowly rising wave of laughter that swept out of the
assembled newcomers to the school, Dean Salouse was emerging from stage
Or rather, being kicked out on stage, herded by a giant floating boot,
one of Devan's mechanical contraptions designed to guard his lair. Each
time the boot connected with the well-dressed man's rear end, he would
be lifted nearly a foot into the air and five feet forward — and
that wasn't the worst (or best) of it, depending on your point of view.
Because the PuckPrancks™ constructed illusion that Ruben had passed
onto Devan involved giving the poor, hapless victim the head of a donkey,
complete with realistic braying replacing every word that the inflictee
Smiling in relief, Ruben leaned forward in anticipation. I guess
I was worried for nothing — as usual. He fell for it, he fell for
it! The PuckPrancks™ disguised themselves as a common object
the person used everyday, and even practiced wizards (such as the Dean)
had extreme difficulty in recognizing them — perfect for the trickster
who needed to embarrass a magically-inclined person.
Ruben didn't know a thing about the boot, but he did know the spell quite
well. As an added humiliation to the victim, every fifteen seconds the
illusion vanished temporarily to give anyone nearby a clear view of the
But when the victim's head appeared, Ruben recoiled backwards, for concealed
beneath the donkey's head was Devan Wiley!
Slowly, oh so slowly, Ruben's head swiveled to the Devan Wiley standing
next to him, who had turned that devilish grin on the magician…
and that grin was the only thing that remained firm as the rest of his
body wavered and reformed into the dark suit-clad figure of the Head Dean,
Regional High Mugwump Extraordinaire, and Ruler Unchallenged of Serenity
University, Felix Salouse.
"Miss me?" he asked softly, then with a cloud of sulphurous
smoke he vanished and reappeared on the stage, next to where Devan was
currently being booted in his fundament. With an idle wave of his hand,
the Dean dismissed the floating boot; with another he dispelled the illusion.
Devan stood there for a moment, glaring at the man who had (somehow) managed
to best him, but trying to keep up a menacing glare while rubbing your
battered rear end soothingly doesn't combine very well.
The Dean's hands moved through an intricate flourish and he produced
an amplifier. "Greetings, students, and welcome to Serenity University!
I am the Head Dean, Felix Salouse! I rule this campus with an iron fist!"
He pointed at Devan. "Some of you are no doubt wondering who this
jackass is! Well, there are those who disagree with my despotic management
techniques, but I assure you that I have a… unique… open-door
policy that any of you are free to take advantage of!
"To wit, if you feel that my tyrannical policies are too much to
be borne any further, you can rebel in any way that doesn't involve breaking
the local laws! There's no killing the professors — but you're free
to challenge them to duels, humiliate them publicly, or replace them with
a robotic clone that automatically gives out good grades!
"But be careful, or you'll end up like this jackass,"
The mechanical boot activated again, giving Devan another kick, and the
illusion reappeared briefly, turning his shout into a braying wail, "hoist
upon his own petard. And, ya know, you wouldn't wanna look this
petarded in front of your classmates, would you?
"Fortunately, you don't have to disagree with me at all. Just keep
your head down, attend the top university associated with this planet,
graduate with honors, and you need never worry about me during it."
The Dean grinned again. "Now, onto the fun stuff."
He gestured broadly and sheets of paper came fluttering out to each member
of the audience. Mechanically, Ruben reached out and caught one, letting
the crumpled note from the Dean, the note that had brought him here, fall
to the floor. "To better acquaint you with the campus and the surrounding
area, I'm sending you all out on a scavenger hunt."
Disinterestedly, Ruben glanced at the list in his own hand.
SCAVENGER HUNT LIST
- Dragon's whisker
- Mermaid's flesh (preferred frozen)
- 3. "Priss and the Replicants" tour poster
- Dragonball w/ three stars (not one, not four, not two unless
immediately proceeding to three, only THREE)
- The One Ring to Rule them All
- Electronic book with the words "DON'T PANIC" printed
in large friendly letters on the front cover
- Dagon Press limited second edition copy of Necronomicon
- Latest Jusenkyou "Update Catalog of Cursed Springs Summer/Fall"
- Compleat Eibon's Anthology
- Mughi plush toy
Ruben frowned at the last item. Why does the Dean want that plush toy
Amberite gave me?
The Dean continued with, "Because no scavenger hunt would be complete
without a few prizes, I've decided to reward anyone who finds an item
on that list with ten credits-hours worth of classes absolutely free.
No strings attached. Really. Would I lie to you?"
Without changing his kindly expression or friendly tone in the slightest,
the Dean added, "First string attached: each of the freshmen is to
pair up with an upperclassman in looking for the items, or else no prize.
You can form a team of any size, as long as all of you present the item
together, and as long as there is one freshman for every upperclassman.
Got it? Good."
With his speech concluded, the Dean turned the cursed illusion back onto
Devan and watched, laughing maniacally, as the boot continued its work,
propelling him around the stage. Ruben gritted his teeth as he realized
that the Dean was waiting for him to rescue Devan.
Well, hell with it. If I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do it right.
Might as well show that they don't have to knuckle down to the Dean…
With a brilliantly green flash at both ends of the trip, Ruben teleported
himself to the stage — and was unsurprised to find that he arrived
there as a she.
In for a dram, in for a kilogram. With a quick, slashing blade of air,
Ruben cut the boot in half, dispelling the illusion with an angry wave
and an overkill amount of power.
"So, Ruben. My favorite local magitranssexual." The Dean crossed
his arms over his chest. "You dare to defy me again?"
Casually, Ruben said, "Yeah, I reckon so."
The Dean winked slyly with the eye facing away from the audience of gaping
freshman! "Well, then—"
Without any further warning, a dozen tendrils of magical energy sprang
out from around the Dean, arrowing towards Ruben with the clear intention
of wrapping around her. Respecting the Dean's non-lethal intentions, Ruben
slashed the threads he used to create the spell while conjuring a highly,
highly localized area of high gravity below the Dean. Let's
see how well you sling mojo when you weigh half a ton…
The Dean vanished in another puff of foul-smelling smoke, and Ruben dodged
to one side as a bucket of rancid milk came out of the empty air above
her, splashing the stage with its foulness. "BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"
came the amplified voice of the dean from every wall, and the audience
clutched their ears at the horrible assault, trying to shield their sensitive
eardrums. "I CHOOSE NOT TO FACE YOU TODAY, RUBEN STRYFE, BUT KNOW
THIS: I ALWAYS LAUGH LAST!!" In normal tones, the Dean's voice added,
"See?" Then, thunderously, the Dean's laughter returned at an
The scattered thuds of stunned bats falling from the theater's rafters
filled the silence after the Dean's laughter stopped. Ruben stood up,
moving over to where Devan was laying face-down on the ground. "Hey,
Without stirring, Devan replied, "I've spent the last half-hour
being kicked in the arse by a robotic flying boot of my own invention
while being cursed with the illusion of a donkey's head given to me by
an idiotic magician of our mutual acquaintance. How would you
"Like an ass at both ends." Ruben stepped away from Devan's
kick, chuckling at the muffled painful grunt the poor guy gave. "Hey,
can you stand up? We're getting out of here."
"Do I have to?"
"If you want to beat the Dean at his own game, yes."
Those words were enough to make Devan spring to his feet, grinning. "Well,
then, let's get started!"
Ruben and Devan were almost the last ones out of the doors, but the moment
they stepped outside, they were confronted with an odd, almost unbelievable
sight: their respective roommates chatting with a pair of attractive young
Or rather, talking to one of them while the second girl maintained a
standoffish air. Jedidiah was the first to notice the pair stepping out
of the door, and he waved. "Yo, Ruben! Devan! Get over here!"
Devan murmured to Ruben, "Er, how does he know about your curse?
He only got here yesterday."
Ruben muttered back, "I'd rather not talk about it," as they
moved closer to where the other four were standing.
Ashley gestured broadly. "This is Ruben Stryfe, my roommate, and
Devan Wiley, Jed's roommate. Guys, these two are Kara Nitaline,"
he indicated the redhead, "and Reiko Tereshkova," and at this,
the standoffish girl (whose features had an Oriental cast to them, Ruben
noted) frowned as though hearing her name pained her somewhat.
Ruben, seeing that the two other women were appraising her, returned
their looks frankly. The taller, redheaded woman was busty (though not,
Ruben noted dispassionately, as busty as she in female form), wearing
tall fashionable leather boots, a reasonably modest dress made from what
looked like black corduroy, and a matching coat in a slightly lighter
color. The Japanese girl with the Russian last name (who was shorter than
the redhead but, Ruben noted with dissatisfaction, was still taller than
she in female form) had her plain black hair cut short in a shaggy hairdo,
with a shirt that left her midriff bare and long shorts that ended just
above her knee, exposing the figure of a dedicated martial artist. She
was idly twirling a stick in her left hand that gave off an aura of transformational
Great. So much for my plan… Just when Ruben had been about
to abandon her idea to steal something back from the Dean, Ashley added,
"They're both freshman." Perfect. She had just opened her mouth
to speak when Devan asked, "So, Ruben, what is this plan
"Will anyone give me a second here?!" The irate sometime
wizardess glared around indiscriminately, then cleared her throat.
Ruben held up the sheet of paper with the scavenger hunt items. "Allow
me to read these to you and my plan will no doubt be clear. Recall, too,
that the Dean stated that groups can be larger than just two — and
note that we are now 3 sets of pairs: Three freshmen," she nodded
to Jed, Kara, and Reiko, "and three upperclassmen."
Kara pounced on Ashley, hugging his arm to her chest. "I call zis
Urk. Spotting the way the winds were blowing, and not wanting to be stuck
in a pair with Jedidiah Jones at all, Ruben leapt at the only
other freshman available. She glomped the surprised Japanese girl with
some force, knocking Reiko back a step. "I call this one!"
"Huh? Wait just a—" Reiko and Devan said simultaneously.
"Well, then, guess it's decided!" Jed stepped forward and slapped
Devan on the back. "So, what are we looking for?"
Ruben felt a look of embarrassment creep over her face. "Er…
I haven't decided yet." Ignoring the round of groans, she continued
with, "but I can decide real quick here by just going over
the list." She unfolded it and looked it over.
"The dragon's whisker and dragon's ball are right out, the dragon
would get mad if we tried to take either, especially the ball."
Ruben winced. "Poor thing… A Replicants 2035 tour poster isn't
an option either, who'd give one up? Mermaid's flesh is just inhumane
and nasty-tasting to boot. Liver, on the other hand, num-num. The One
Ring To Rule Them All… no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-NO….
That leaves us a book with 'Don't Panic' on it, Jusenkyou—"
Ruben winced again, this time at painful memories, "—catalog
of springs, Dagon Press Necronomicon 2nd Edition, and the Compleat Eibon's
Ashley, who had been looking over Ruben's shoulder, added hopefully,
"Oh, and your plush toy. Your demonically possessed plush
She glared icily back at him. "Two things. It isn't my
plush toy; I'm just holding onto the thing for Amber. Also, it isn't demonically
possessed, I'd be able to tell that much. It's just a cute li'l
Devan said doubtfully, "Hey, are you stupid or something? Why should
we give the Dean something, anything, he wants, no matter how
innocent it seems?"
"Ah, Devan, Devan, Devan. How little you know about magic. Let me
do a quick trick for you." Ruben reached into her sleeve and plucked
out two books that she liked to think of as emergency prophecy (but to
all others, it must be admitted, their covers bore a distinct resemblance
to graphic novels of a female-gender oriented publication, entitled Mustard
Girl). "Do these books look alike to you? Any of you? Here!"
She handed one to Kara and one to Jed. "Flip through them, see that
they are in no wise alike, and then hand them back to me!"
A few seconds later, Ruben accepted both comics back. "Now you see
them, now you… only see one!" She waved one book in
front of the other, exercised a quick spell invoking the laws of similarity
and contagion, and viola! There were two identical comics resting in her
"And a similar trick will put the Dean in his place, however temporarily!
Sadly," Ruben finished, "I need an actual copy of the book to
be copied before I can do this, so we have to find one of 'em."
Reiko muttered to Kara, "Seems like a pretty thin pretext for the
rest of the epi—"
"Ah-ha!" Devan smacked his left fist into his right
palm. "I know where you're intending to go! What's In Here!"
The three freshman (and Ashley) looked over at Devan, chorusing back
in a confused chord, "What's in here?!"
Ruben said, beaming, "Exactly!" She looked over at Devan. "Are
you driving, or should I?"
Devan shuddered and started walking for the parking lot, Ruben following
after a moment. "I am. You know that the wool in that magic carpet
of yours makes me all itchy." He called out over his shoulder, "Follow
The other four followed after exchanging seven rather bemused looks.
Tyler of the Firehand, adventurer extraordinaire, sometime treasure-hunter,
and reluctant (at best) hero, cast a sidelong glance at the woman whom
he shared the car with, thankful that the ride over had been uneventful.
At least we're almost there, he thought, and sighed in relief.
The woman sent a resentful glance at Tyler, as though he'd sighed simply
to annoy her! She started mumbling something through the greasy rag that
filled her mouth, but apparently thought better of it a moment later.
From what little Tyler had seen of her, he couldn't care less what insipid
things she had to say. His first sight of her had been at the airport,
when she'd been complaining very loudly about the absence of a chauffeured
vehicle waiting to whisk her off to the University! Tyler had wised her
up fast, however, and had offered to split the cost of a cab with her.
She'd looked at him as though the offer appealed as much as worm stew,
but she'd accepted.
An acceptance he'd learned to regret. Of the three cabbies who'd been
willing to take them to the campus (a venture he was willing to admit
was hazardous even to bystanders), she'd managed to push two over the
edge and get the both of them dumped on the curb by way of her o'erweening
bitchiness. The only reason that she hadn't done the same to the third
was because he'd bound and gagged her before she got the chance!
Flame flickered around the gauntlet on his left hand, always responsive
to his moods. With barely a conscious thought, Tyler suppressed his anger,
lest a flameburst incinerate the car and add further to his expenses for
this trip. Urgh. Bad enough that I die again. But swimming all
the way back to the nearest island… now that was a pisser.
"We're here, Mac. And there's somebody waiting for you, too."
Tyler looked out the window, and wasn't sure whether to grin or groan
when he saw who was standing there. As soon as the cab stopped, Tyler
hopped out. He and the man waiting for him headed for each other, but
stopped short with a few feet between them.
Tyler was grinning. "Long time no see, Felix."
Felix was not. "Not since the last time you skipped out, Tyler."
Tyler affected innocence. "Hey, ya know th't I intend ta serve m'five
years eventually, but every time—"
Felix nodded. "—You hear a rumor about the other Gauntlet,
and go rushing off like some damned fool. At least this time both of the
students you dragged off came back in one piece, not like that time you
went to the Yucatan."
Tyler shuddered and drew into himself just the slightest bit. "I'll
thank ya not ta remind me of the Yucatan incident. It ain't ev'ry summer
that a guy almost gets sacrificed ta Yog-Shothoth, and I'd prefer ta pretend
it didn't even happen once."
The cabbie interrupted. "Mac, where's my fare?"
"Ah. Thanks fer reminding me." Tyler dug into a pocket, then
made a face. Turned up a bit short…
Felix, recognizing that face, snorted in amusement. "As usual, my
old friend is just a bit short. No doubt his next words are," his
voice rose into a mocking impersonation of Tyler, "'Felix, are ya
good fer a touch right now? Just 'til I sell this artifact I've got in
m'pocket ta the nearest museum, mind ya.' And I, always being the good
friend, say in response, 'This makes one hundred and ninety-seven times
you've bummed cab fare from me, you cheap bastard! Not to mention that
bloody pizza at the last reunion, and the karaoke room we rented together
but you ended up stiffing me with the bill!'"
While he was pontificating, Felix was also counting off an appropriate
amount of bills to pay the fare. He handed them to the cabbie, who gestured
towards the backseat of his car. "What d'you want me to do with the
Tyler slapped his forehead. "Almost fergot about her!" He reached
into the back, focusing just a bit of heat around his left hand. After
just a touch from his fingers, the ropes burned through, freeing her hands
and feet. The young woman reached up and pulled the gag off. As Tyler
had expected, her first words made a hearty effort to burn his ears as
efficiently as his flame had the ropes.
Rather than bother listening to her insults, though, Tyler simply tuned
her out as he went to the trunk and pulled out his single suitcase. He
pulled hers out too, and tossed them at her feet for good measure. Never
let it be said that I don't do nothing for free.
Felix waited until she took a deep breath, then spoke mildly in the sudden
silence. "And who are you, young lady, to have such a filthy mouth
towards my friend?"
She turned to Felix while taking a deep breath, perhaps planning to rain
more abuse down on him, but deflated when she saw the expression on his
face. "I'm… uh… Jennifer Jukuren, Sports Heroine. Who
"I'm the Dean hereabouts. Name's Felix Salouse."
"Then I have a complaint to make!" The young woman turned from
irate bitch to professional negotiator as she reached into her suitcase
and pulled forth a thick tome labeled "Contract With Serenity University."
She flipped the pages until she reached the one she was looking for, then
pointed at a paragraph. "It states here that you will provide a chauffeur
whenever I need a ride, does it not?"
The Dean read it, then pointed at another paragraph somewhat lower on
the page. "Subclause three reads that the only days I need to provide
such service is on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and
Sunday. Today being Friday… well, you should learn to schedule your
Jennifer read it, then nodded reluctantly. "You're right."
Then she looked around. "So, are you going to escort me to my rooms?"
The Dean shook his head. "Nope. One of your roommates should be
by shortly, to help you with your bags and such."
Jennifer's face swelled dangerously. She leaned in close to the Dean,
eyebrow twitching, then said in tight, controlled tones, "What do
you mean, 'roommates?' My contract clearly states—"
The Dean cut in. "That you'd have no human roommates. I think that
you will find your roommates to be anything but human."
The shriek that she let up indicated that she'd spotted one of those
roommates. Tyler, however, was far more casual. "Hey Larry, long
time no see." Tyler waved to the velociraptor sapiens that was gliding
down the sidewalk towards them.
"My name," Lawrence said significantly, "is Lawrence."
He tried to puff on a cigar. If he'd possessed lips, his attempt would
have been more successful, but he didn't seem to mind. Lawrence went on,
"I didn't study for three years at an exchange school in Oxford to
have some grubby, would-be archaeologist insult me with his familiarity."
Tyler cast a glance at Jennifer. She'd shifted from terror to amusement,
and was barely able to hide her giggles at the too-well cultivated upper-crust
Brit accent emerging from the raptor's fanged mouth.
Lawrence shifted his gaze from Tyler to Jennifer. His mouth hung open
for a moment of sheer shocked surprise. "When you informed me that
my new roommate would be a woman named Jennifer Jukuren, never did I think
you meant the Jennifer Jukuren!"
Lawrence rushed forward with the birdlike quickness of his species. He
seized one of Jennifer's hands in both of his clawed ones and shook it
vigorously. "I'm one of your biggest fans, Miss Jukuren! I've been
following your career for years! That bit where you did a quadruple axel
in that figure skating competition three years ago — magnificent!"
Jennifer's face brightened gradually as Lawrence rained more fulsome
praise upon her. Turning to the Dean, she said, "Maybe having roommates
won't be so bad after all." Then she grinned at Lawrence. "This
is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Devan's ornithopter landed smoothly, and the four passengers that had
never been to this store looked incredulously at their destination.
It was an ancient, rambling, three-story brownstone apartment building
that must have survived all of the natural disasters which had plagued
southern California for the last three centuries, and looked it. It was
battered, beaten, falling apart—
But was decorated cheerily, surrounded by a horde of little open-air
tents with people hawking wares beneath their brightly colored canvas,
a happy clamor echoing from the small crowd browsing through them. A massive
banner hung from the top of the central brownstone that screamed to the
world, "WHAT'S IN HERE?!"
"Who runs this place?" Jedidiah asked curiously.
"Not quite," Ruben and Devan said together, laughing. "What
is the name of the person who runs this place," Ruben added, not
unkindly. "He's part of a family, consortium, small army —
something like that — and they run a lot of businesses in this area."
Reiko leaped from the ornithopter's back. "So, are we here for a
"Well," Devan said, clambering down himself, "If there's
any place in the city where we can find any of the items on that list—"
"—it's here," Ruben finished, jumping down. "Okay,
split up into your teams, don't forget what we're looking for, and remember
— you could find anything here, and I mean anything, but
that doesn't mean all of the serial numbers were filed off before it got
here, so be careful, right?" She looked around. "Reiko and I'll
check out the building, it's where they keep most of the secondhand books."
She grabbed the taller girl's arm and tugged her off.
Kara asked Devan, an amused lilt in her voice, "Can you truly find
"Yeah. Three weeks ago I found a case of protoculture here, and
the stuff's not even supposed to exist in this dimension."
Devan grumbled as Kara walked away, arm-in-arm with Ashley, leaving him
stuck with Jedidiah. "Well, let's get on with it."
Kara let Ashley go the moment the others were out of sight. He looked
at her with surprise. "Huh?"
"Did you think I was interested in you? Silly boy!" She patted
Ashley's cheek. "Ze one I want is Ruben, and you are going to help
me remembair why… aftair we are done 'ere, of course!"
It's a hard life, being a multi-tentacled demonic evil wicked beast from
a place that men should not wot of, women should be afraid of, and wasn't
very pleasant even if you came from there.
That's one reason why Typherios was always more than happy to leave his
home plane of existence for sunnier, less brimstone-smelling shores, no
matter how slim the excuse or how high the certainty of being reduced
to his component atoms by whatever hero types might wander by (magical
girls, wizards, mecha-clad pizza boys, what have you.) It wasn't as though
he could die from it.
So, when an old (well, not quite friend, but certainly a being far too
powerful to risk becoming enemies with) summoned Typherios and asked him
to stand guard over an object, he had raised no objections. In point of
fact, it had enabled him to escape a rather difficult situation…
"Defeat any that come your way," the person had instructed
him. "Don't kill them, however. Knock them out, teleport them to
Constantinople, cast charms on them to make them do your evil bidding,
but don't kill them — unless they're really stubborn.
There's only one exception to this…"
Typherios was disturbed from his recollection of the oddest instructions
he had received by the sound of the secondhand magical books stirring
uneasily in their shelves. He stalked to the source of the disturbance,
realizing moments later that it had moved — in the direction of
the artifact he had been set to guard.
Well. he kept stalking, moving through the bookshelves, idly using his
tentacles to push into order any that had tried escaping since the last
time he'd stalked through here, until he arrived at the small table whereupon
lay the Prize.
Oddly enough, however, there was something else lying on top of the Prize.
Something round, and a deep burgundy red, and furry… it was, in
fact, a stuffed toy.
And it stirred slightly, turning one button eye upon Typherios…
Something screamed inhumanly from the floor above where Ruben and Reiko
had chosen to look, rather unsuccessfully, for an item from the list.
Reiko was the first to speak after it ceased. "What do you suppose
Ruben frowned as she scratched the back of her neck. "I don't know.
But I sense a presence, a presence I have not felt since—"
she cut herself off. "I think we should go and see."
An inhuman scream came from the open windows of the brownstone building,
temporarily slicing though the crowded chatter of the bazaar. Jedidiah
pushed one of the more persistent salesbeings aside as he moved nearer
to Devan and asked, "Now, what do you suppose that was?"
"I dunno. But heck, I'm curious, and it sounds more interesting
than anything out here." The salesbeing that Jed had displaced shoved
its wares back into Devan's face, and the mad scientist yelled, "NO!
I don't care how many forms of communications that it's fluent
in, I DON'T NEED NO STINKIN' PROTOCOL UNIT!"
Kara's ears perked up as she heard the intimately familiar sound of an
inhuman scream. She grabbed at Ashley, who'd spent the last few minutes
perusing a number of Disk Libraries that consisted of nothing but old
movies. "Come on, you, we 'ave to rescue Ruben!"
"Huh? Why? He… er, she is perfectly suited to taking
care of herself… himself…" Ashley trailed off, having
managed to completely confuse himself.
"Because," Kara said lightly, "I want ze chance to say,
'My name iz Kara Nitaline and I am here to rescue you!' And then he will
say, 'but are you not too short to be a stor—'"
Ruben stopped reaching for the top story's door handle, cocking her head
to one side. "Did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Rieko looked at him oddly.
"It sounded like a billion critics groaning in anguish, then just
as suddenly being silenced…" Ruben waved her hand irritably.
"Never mind, let's just keep going." She rattled the doorknob
irritably. Locked. Stupid thing… She cast a spell to unlock it.
As she stepped into the room, she heard the comfortable sounds of pages
ruffling in alarm and leather covers shifting across ancient wood and
Magical books aren't alive, contrary to what some popular novelists seek
to convince you of. They are, however, aware, in ways that ordinary books
aren't. Wizards fear using computers not because the technology is strange,
but because they know all too well what it means to give something inanimate
the ability, the spirit, to think for itself, no matter how limited that
ability might be.
When ink had first met paper in ancient times to aid a wizard in passing
on precious lore to his students, he'd never suspected what would happen.
The written word has power all its own, and when he combined that with
the power of sorcery… it gave grimoires the ability to think, to
learn, to evolve on their own.
Nowhere was this self-evolution more apparent than in used magical bookstores,
the equivalent of a feral jungle for the abandoned tomes. Already granted
the power inside their pages, already imprinted with the will of a previous
owner, now the books were forced to compete with each other. The books
that wanted to attract a new owner sprouted shiny, eye-catching logos
and forced their way to the front of the shelves; the books that wanted
to hide from new owners shed their covers and made threatening movements
to any that came near, the books that wanted to destroy new owners out
of revenge created a variety of traps to crush the minds of the unwary—
And that wasn't even including the really dangerous ones.
Ruben whirled around suddenly. "Don't pick up any books, don't look
at any books, and by the good spirits don't dare to read so much
as a scrap of paper that's lying on the floor."
Reiko stared back. "I assure you, I've been in magical libraries
before. I'm not afraid."
Ruben said in a gravelly voice, "You will be. You will be…"
She coughed. "Sorry about that, had some dust in my throat. Well,
let's get on with it. I'm sure the scream came from in here."
The pair moved through the bookshelves cautiously, the mid-afternoon
sunlight from the tall windows drifting lazily through the dust-filled
air. The room was almost noiseless aside from the books rustling amongst
each other in the shelves; even the clamor from the bazaar seemed muted
in the room's stifling warmth. Ruben watched Reiko looking around nervously
from the corner of her eyes, and was only slightly surprised when the
other woman whispered something to her little stick and it transformed
into a six-foot long stave carved with runes over most of its exposed
As they wended deeper into the room, another sound — almost a whimpering?
became audible. Using that as a reference, Ruben led the way closer, until
it became so loud that Ruben halted, gesturing to indicate that it was
just around the corner. She readied a tanglefoot curse in case the whole
thing was a trap, stepped around the corner, and…
Was confronted with one of the oddest sights that she'd ever seen in
A monstrous, demonic half-man, half beast with clawed hands, tentacles
that sprouted from its shoulders, and various other unwholesome bits that
don't warrant description was hunched over on its hands and knees, weeping
acid, apparently overpowered by the presence of—
"Mughi!" Ruben dropped the prepared tanglefoot and instead
snatched up the small plush animal, huggling it. "Where have you
been, you silly thing?!" She laughed — no, it wasn't a giggle,
of course it wasn't, it was a chuckle, a chortle, a merry little guffaw
— but definitely not a giggle!
"Ah-ha!" came Ashley's voice from a nearby open window
as he swung himself up to perch on the windowsill. "I knew
that you liked that plushie!"
Ruben's face turned the same shade and brilliance of a ripened apple,
then somehow managed to grow even more red as Ashley gave a hand up to
Kara… then, Devan and Jedidiah burst in through a side-door, sliding
to a halt at the scene before them…
All I would need, Ruben reflected sourly, is for the Dean of
the university to be taking pictures. Instead of saying that aloud, Ruben
snapped, "Why all the fuss about me, when, er, uh… there's
this demon right here?!?"
All five of the others looked down at the demon beast, who was starting
to show signs of recovery, then looked back at Ruben. Devan was the first
to speak. "Yeah, Ruben, but demons come and go. Seeing you get embarrassed
— that's something really unusual."
"Oh, just…" words failed her, and Ruben was left glaring
impotently. "Just… forget it." She booted the demon beast
in the side. "Hey, you! What's your name, and what the hell are you
doing out of your home dimension?"
"No pun intended?" the demon beast asked, not quite under his
breath, and she kicked him again. The monster looked at Ruben irritably.
"My name is Typherios, and hey, shouldn't you be scared?"
"Of the likes of you?" Ruben asked scornfully. "Not hardly.
The only reason I haven't banished you back is because I have a vague
curiosity about what you're doing up here."
Ashley leaned over to Devan. "Should we be helping Ruben out?"
Surprisingly, it was Jedidiah who answered. "Naw. He knows his stuff,
and he's got this guy well in hand…"
With a wave of his hands, Typherios produced a book from, well, somewhere
about his person. "Recognize this?"
"The Necronomicon, Dagon Press Second Edition!" Ruben pointed
a finger angrily and sputtered, "How did you— Why do you—
Where did you—"
"I've been set here to guard it from all comers! And I won't give
it up to you unless…"
Ruben leaned forward. "Unless?"
"Unless…" The demon beast leapt for Ruben, arms and tentacles
outspread. "YOU DATE WITH ME!!!"
Ruben, who'd been expecting something like this sooner or later, casually
took a step back and sketched a ward in the air. Typherios collided with
it, and after several seconds of magical lightning dancing between them,
the beast was thrown backwards into a bookshelf, knocking it over. Several
enterprising books took the opportunity to nibble on the thing's extremities,
hoping to absorb some of its magic.
"Now," the magician said, moving to loom (as best she could
from her limited height) over the demon. "Tell me why I don't destroy
you right now and take what I want from your rapidly decomposing corpse?"
Ruben leaned forward. "Because?"
" If you strike me down," Typherios predicted, "I will
become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."
"I dunno," Ruben replied, a dubious note in her voice, "I
can imagine quite a bit…"
"Then imagine that I destroy the book with my last breath. You can't
take that away from me, after all. Where does that leave you?"
"Looking for something else," Ruben said dismissively.
"Ha-ha, you fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders!"
The demon gloated. "He Who Should Not Be Named If You Know What's
Good For You set this whole thing up to humiliate you! There are
no other objects that you can find in time, and he knows it!"
"He Who Should Not— you mean the Dean?"
"Yes." Typherios paused for a moment to let that sink in, then
added, "It's a good thing for you that I don't like the guy and am
prepared to go against his order, if, well… all I want is the chance
to show you that I'm not just about the multiple-orifice tentacle-molestation.
I know how to treat a girl right, just like any other guy."
Ruben's face processed from confusion, to comprehension, to terror, then
ended at pure disgust. "No. Absolutely not. There
is not a chance in your own hell that I will—"
From above, as has been mentioned before in this chapter of the epic,
Serenity City truly looks incredible. From the closest examinations to
even pictures taken from orbit, visitors to Earth, no matter what they
might call home, exclaim at how wondrous it looks. Even its occasional
scars are mere beauty marks, accentuating rather than detracting. Though
its designers may not have had the first clue about space-war tactics,
they sure knew how to make somethin' look purdy.
Cheesy cracks from alien invaders aside, it was really a nice thing to
contemplate once in a while, which is what the demoness-beast was doing,
perched on a cloud far above the city.
Not because she actually had to sit on anything, mind you; it was just
for dramatic effect. She felt that if one paid attention to the small
things, even when no one was watching, then the large things took care
"So this is the town that my ingrate Darling has gone off to on
his latest quest, eh? Well, he'll get what's coming to him!" The
demoness vanished in a puff of tiger-striped smoke.
Ruben swung her feet back and forth irritably, one hand on her plush
kitty. This seat's too high. Way too high. Dammit. I really
hate being five feet nothing when I'm a girl. Urgh, and dresses are just
so uncomfortable… why can't I have my robes back?!
She looked around the corner booth that they had co-opted upon entering
this restaurant as she sipped her soda. Typherios was seated on the far
outside of the ring, on her right, and he had shed his demonic form for
a more ordinary one, though his blue-tinged skin and massively pointed
ears still gave away that not quite all was normal.
Jedidiah and Ashley were on his left, going farther into the horseshoe-shaped
seating ring. Ruben was next, seated squarely in the middle, which was
another grate upon her nerves. I feel squished sitting here.
Reiko and Kara rounded the group off by sitting opposite the men, and
the Necronomicon that had started this was resting in the very center
of the table. Ruben sighed sadly. The things I do to crush my enemies,
drive them before me, and hear the lamentations of their women…
How did I get into this mess?
The question was purely rhetorical. She knew exactly whose fault it was,
and it was Devan's. Her teeth ground against each other as she contemplated
revenge, sweet revenge, for blackmailing her into this. Oh, Typherios
was somewhat to blame — he had been the one to insist on a date
as fair payment for the book — but it had been Devan who had…
Damn Devan for threatening me with that. He knows that the
worst thing which could happen to me is to get even more people
interested in my girlish self. And then he vanishes after forcing me into
this? I'm going to hurt him very badly the next time I see him.
Typherios responded to a question from Jedidiah with, "Yeah, um,
we really don't get that many souls down there. It's not one of the punishment
hells that I live in, you know. It's no garden spot, but…"
Kara cleared her throat. "Well, I 'ave to go freshen up before ze
food arrivez." She stood up. "Coming, girlz?" Reiko slid
out and took a step for the restaurant's bathroom, but Kara caught her
arm. "All ze girlz 'ave to go at once, you know!"
"Huh?" Reiko and Ruben shared a perfectly similar look of dumbfoundment
between each other for a moment, then Kara dragged Ruben out bodily, reaching
around the table to haul her along the seats. The trio headed for the
Ashley shook his head and took a big gulp of soda. "I wonder what
goes on in those little 'bathroom breaks', you know?"
Tyfer glanced at Jed. "Yeah, too bad you can't dress a guy up as
a girl and sneak him in there to find out, right?"
Proving the value of a well-timed joke, Ashley and Jedidiah both very
nearly snarfed soda out their noses.
Ruben threw Kara's arm off as soon as they stepped into the bathroom.
It was, oddly enough, empty but for the three who'd just stepped in.
"What's the idea of draggin' me along, anyway?" Ruben glared
argumentively at Kara.
"Well, az it would not do to lie to ze boys, I will 'ave to freshen
up while I get to the real point of zis." Kara looked into the mirror.
"I need to ask you a question or two, eh?"
Ruben leaned against the wall and folded her arms across her chest. Her
breasts prevented her from doing it the way that she was used to, however,
so she was forced to adjust her posture. "Ask away." Her voice
was flat and uninterested.
"Someone might think that you weren' having fun."
Ruben gave up on looking tough and masculine (which is tough
when you're five feet tall and look cute enough, even when sulking, to
melt steel) and stood in a more natural stance. "Someone might suppose
Reiko, who had been looking at both of them as though they had gone insane
from the moment Kara had started dragging Ruben with them, chuckled. "No
way. Really? I mean, I was suspicious of the demon myself, usually I just
banish them right away, but he is pretty funny…"
Ruben said sarcastically, "Horribly over-tentacled monsters are
just people too, right?"
Kara stopped pretending to look in the mirror and turned to face Ruben.
"But that iz not your problem? You could just walk away, no? After
all, the only thing that iz holding you 'ere iz…"
"Devan's pictures. Of me acting cute. In that store." Ruben
replied, each word holding a new weight of anger as it left her mouth.
"You have no idea what those mean, do you? I spent my entire freshman
year dealing with idiots that thought I really was a girl." She shuddered.
"I'd rather deal with the demon for a day than spend the next semester
fighting off idiots who can't see farther than the tits."
Reiko cut into the conversation with, "There are plenty of women
out there who would be grateful to have breasts like that! I'll admit,
there are times when I wouldn't've minded having a little more, myself…"
"You two just don't get it." Ruben stomped her foot. "I
am not a woman. I hate every second that I have to spend as one.
It's not just the tits, even if they do throw me off balance. The worst
of it is that I…" She looked away. "When I'm in this shape…
I feel… used to being a woman. It's changing me. I've always acted
a bit different when I'm stuck like this, that's part of the magic, but
lately…" Ruben shuddered again. "I don't want
it to be comfortable. I don't want to accept it."
"Why not?" Kara asked innocently. "Aftair all, it iz not
as if you are forever stuck as a woman! As you said, it iz not just ze,
ah, teats. You 'ave the perfect chance to see 'ow ze othair half lives,
wi' none of ze disadvantages! Ah, what bliss," Kara sighed, turning
her eyes towards the ceiling, "To even think about nevair
suffering through anothair, ah, les ragnes, when
you collect ze monthly witching blood, wishing you could hang upside down
from a tree, how do you say in English?"
Reiko considered that for a moment, scratching her cheek, than said,
"Ah! Period." Reiko affixed Ruben with a glare. "Yeah.
You're the one who has no idea what you're complaining about,
'being a woman', do you? Huh? Do you?"
Ruben looked away. "Well, er, there was this one time, when I was,
uh, stuck as a woman for an entire month, and, well…" she shuddered.
"I thought I was dying, that someone had slipped a curse past my
"Just ze same curse we all 'ave!" Kara patted Ruben on the
cheek. "Now, Ruben, when we go back there… 'ave some fun, will
Ruben's face turned rebellious. "No."
"Ruben, dear, you are ze only one taking ze date seriously. Even
ze demon knowz this is just a strange, unbelievable, unrealistic
farce contrived for someone's sadistic amusement! Jus' do not worry about
it, relax a little, and 'ave fun!" Kara tapped her lips with her
forefinger, thinking. "I want you to giggle."
"Tee. Hee. Hee." Ruben said flatly. "Good enough?"
"It will do." Kara giggled herself. "Let's go, ze guys
will think that we dropped off ze earth."
"Sheesh!" Ashley grumped. "Do you think that they dropped
off the earth while they were in there?"
Jed replied, "Nope, doesn't look like they did." Kara had her
hand on Ruben's arm as the trio returned to the table, and as they slid
back into their seats, the waitress bearing their food arrived.
Typherios smiled, exposing a set of small fangs. "Perfect timing!"
"Let's see, two Hungryman-sized Martial Master Meals," the
waitress slid the gigantic plates to Ashley and Reiko, "two Sorceress
Specials," those miniature cauldrons went to Ruben and Kara, "and
two Wanderer's Waybread Baskets," and the last small baskets were
given to Jedidiah and Typherios. "Oh, and are you sure that this
is all on one check?"
Ruben said firmly, looking at Typherios, "Yes. And no payments in
faerie gold or anything else that'll disappear after midnight." The
demon looked quite glum at the prospect of obeying that command. Meanwhile,
Reiko and Ashley began scarfing down their meals with the speed that only
one who's been on a three-day training trip in the mountains with no food
can perfect. Kara spooned up a bit of her soup, blowing to cool it while
murmuring, "Eye of newt and toe of frog… num…"
There are many laws which transcend space, time, and nature itself. Wizardry
comes (in part) from knowing and applying these laws, which means that
Ruben should have been paying closer attention and realized that the date
was calm only because it was rapidly approaching the event horizon of
And, with a bang, amid the dust and rubble of an imploding wall, it passed
Three suits of powered armor emblazoned with the insignia for the campus's
mecha frat, the Atomic Starlight Knights. The monstrous machines leveled
weapon arms that seemed to be mostly gun barrels, particle projection
rods, phaser emitters, and Nerf brick launchers, at the table containing
the five students and one demon. From the speaker grille of the lead mech
came, "Ruben Stryfe! We have tracked you, and the prize, to this
location! Give it up!"
Ruben groaned, clutching her head. "Oh, not these jokers…"
With another bang, the doors of the small restaurant fell to the ground.
"Darrrrrrrling, I know you're in here! It's no good trying to hide!!!!"
A green-skinned woman wearing a tiger-striped one-piece bathing suit floated
in through the now-open doorway, a half-dozen gray-skinned minion-types
clustering in behind her.
Tyfer hunched down, trying to hide his face behind a stray menu. "I
can't believe Regalis followed me…"
Ruben tapped her fingers irritably. Dammit, looks like it's gonna
get ugly… I didn't bring any heavy-duty offensive spells with me
either. Defensive stuff, that's what I'll have to use… "You
guys are gonna have to do the fighting, I'm not packing anything serious."
Jedidiah reached casually into his coat. "Well, well, well…
time to party, eh?" He made eye contact with Ashley, then Ruben,
and gestured with his head towards the power armor. The sorcerer-turned-sorceress
nodded slowly, remembering the skills he'd displayed when they were both
traveling in China. He can take them down easily, if I protect him
Ashley slid underneath the table and almost bumped heads with Reiko.
Both of them grinned, then looked towards the small horde of minions that
were advancing on their table now. Reiko spoke softly. "I've been
itching for a good fight all afternoon. You with me?"
Kara sat, sipping her soup, training a steady gaze upon the green-skinned
woman floating in midair that Tyfer had named as Regalis. A sudden feeling
of tension filled the air as the demoness turned her attention to the
Which shattered when Ashley and Reiko burst from underneath the table,
rolling and bouncing to their feet. Reiko twirled her stick, and in a
blur of motion, it grew from just a few inches long to over six feet long.
She stopped the spin and assumed a ready stance, staff held under one
arm and angled up across her back, then danced in, blocking the blows
of one minion while jabbing another in the face and throat.
Jed dove over the top of the table with a one-handed handspring, his
other hand still in his coat. Ruben deftly wove a shield around the trench
coated fighter, and her efforts were rewarded by the sudden sensation
of phaser beams, Nerf bricks, and rail gun shots against that shield,
threatening her grip on its existence. Ruben gritted her teeth as she
stood up on the booth's seat. I'll have to keep him in my line of
sight, if that stupid hunk of metal puts out that kind of firepower…
Ashley leaped to the attack with the technique that he had mastered over
a dozen burning campfires, perfecting amid the smell of his own scorched
flesh and the stench of burning air-puffed marshmallows. "Roasting
The demon he was attacking gaped at this. "Huh? Fisty hit like marshmallow?"
It chuckled for about four seconds, that being the amount of time it took
Ashley to hit him some four hundred times, then fell over and dissipated
in a puff of foul-smelling smoke.
The green woman floated over the battle that was being waged between
her minions and the two martial artists and to the table where Kara sat,
watching her steadily. For long moments, the two just stared at each other,
then the demoness said, a bit unsteadily, "I know you."
Kara sounded startled as she replied, "You do, eh?"
"Yes, I know you…" In a cloud of brimstone-scented smoke,
the demoness transformed into her apocalyptic form, tentacles, horns,
and worse sprouting from every available inch, and she finished with a
guttural "…and I won't hesitate to destroy you."
"Bah," Kara bah'ed, waving one hand dismissively, still keeping
her eyes locked with the demoness-beast. "I will bet zat you cannot
Devan Wiley, who'd been sitting overwatch at a nearby table, sighed and
fingered his wave motion pistol. Well, isn't this just peachy…
if things get out of hand, I'll pitch in, but…
The waiters and waitresses of the UHOP, being used to this sort of thing
due to their proximity to the school, continued service amidst the sudden
chaos around them. Spectators placed side-bets on which side would win,
and Devan sidled up to one such group. "Bet you seventy nuyen that
the kids sitting at the table will come out on top…"
A portly man held out his hand. "You're on!"
Jed rushed the power armor, one hand on the hilt of his sword and the
other holding the sheath steady. Ruben smiled slightly. His quickdraw
technique was quite good, the last time I saw him…
The powered armored warriors, seeing that guns were useless against the
shield flickering around Jedidiah, let the gun barrels retract into their
arms with a chorus of clicks. The suit's hand grasped a hilt and drew
from its sheath a golden plasma blade that wavered with the heat of a
Jed sidestepped the first slash of the lead suit and said, "Shiny
sword ya got." Suddenly, wind whipped through the room, throwing
everyone off-balance for a moment. Then Jed, who was now standing behind
the three power suits, sheathed his blade. "But without technique,
even the shiniest swords are meaningless."
As the katana clicked home into its saya, the lead suit fell into a half-dozen
pieces, exposing the rather embarrassed occupant… and apparently,
it was one of the kinds that needed full-skin contact to operate properly.
The man covered his shame frantically and shouted, "Retreat! Retreat!"
"Noooooo!!!!" Ruben stared down at himself, sundress sticky
with the soup that an off-balance waitress had spilled on him, and almost
shrieked. Why did I have to turn back while I was wearing something
embarrassing like THIS?!?!
Frantically, he dove under a nearby table, whose occupants were watching
the minions trying to hold off the combined might of Ashley and Reiko.
Gotta… cast… something quick… but what?
Frantically, he searched his mind for a powerful enough spell to sling
that wouldn't end up disastrously.
His head bonked into someone's, and he looked up to see that Typherios
had hidden himself under the same table. "Yo, whassup, Ruben?"
Devan snuck close to the table, trying to not get between the
woman and demoness-beast staring each other down. That looks like
it could be very, very dangerous. He snitched a few fries from an
abandoned Hungryman-sized Martial Master Meal, washed it down with a few
gulps of Fizzygoo, then snatched the book still lying on the table.
Suddenly, Devan heard a slight "Mrrow?" from next to his left
foot. Slowly, unwillingly, his head swiveled downward to look at that
foot, and he saw the Red Plushie From Earth's Hell (as he'd personally
christened it.) Oh, CRAP. The kitty's button eyes met his…
Without moving its legs, it leapt onto the table, turning around to look
at the floating woman. She blinked as her attention was distracted from
Kara. "Oh, how cute— ARGHGETITOFFGETITOFF!!!!!"
Typherios slid out from underneath the table. "Don't worry, my love,
I'll save— ARGHGETITOFFGETITOFF!!"
Ruben walked up next to Devan, looking up at the two hapless victims
of his plush toy. "You know, the next time you cross me, I'm going
to send him after you. Understand?"
"So, sir, was your plan a success?" Iosef asked, watching his
boss juggle the book from hand to hand absently.
Felix Salouse grinned and with a simple spell, set the fake book on fire,
dropping it to the ground before the Campus Mandala. "Oh, yes…
now I'm fairly sure who the new vortexes belong to… now to move
to the next stage of testing Ruben." He snapped his fingers, and
a robed figure appeared from the darkness in the back of the room.
"I know someone who has… an overdue."
"Ahhh, five credits free and clear!" Ruben sank onto his bed
and stretched. "Feels good to finally put one over on that damn Dean."
Ashley looked up from his textbooks and added, "It was sure nice
of those two demons to disappear without giving us trouble…. So…
what, exactly, went on in that little bathroom break? C'mon, you can tell
"Nothing important, or even noteworthy. No way that I'm telling
you." No way was that a normal encounter anyway. Ruben swiveled his
chair to face his roommate, and…
…Ashley leapt from the bed with a guttural growl and began strangling
Ruben. He felt Ashley's claw-like fingernails dig into his skin as he
fell backward, his chair moving under him. He hit his head and…
…he felt Ashley's hands on his shoulders, shaking him gently. "What
happened, Ruben? You just screamed and fell over!" Both of them perked
up as a ghostly voice crossed their ears. Now we know where you are,
Ruben. We're coming for you… We're coming for you…
Ruben swore softly, then picked himself up. "I guess we're going
on that mountain training trip this weekend, Ashley."
"Huh?" Ashley watched as Ruben cast a spell, waving his hands
through the air in mystic passes that left shimmering lights waving in
their aftermath, then gaped as Ruben transformed into a woman once more.
"What the heck is—"
Ruben gently pushed Ashley out the door. "We'll be learning how
to exercise your newfound abilities while we're up there. Could you please
go and get Reiko real quick? I have some business to discuss with her
while I'm packing." She closed the door behind Ashley, then slumped
Great. Just great. I didn't know that they'd find me so soon.
She turned around and slid to the floor. Now Ashley will find out
that I could've sent him back the whole time. I wonder how he'll take
To be continued.
Author's notes: I have lost count of how many times I have revised this
Its first inception was in 1998, the transcript of an adventure I (tried
to) run in Big Eyes, Small Mouths. However, it bears but slight
resemblance to what happened that day, after five major revisions.
Gods, spirits, totems (and editors) willing, I will never have to do another
The next chapter I'll write will describe what's after Ruben, and will
detail quite a bit of his past. It'll blend a bit into Ranma ½
fan fiction, so bear with me, okay?
"The only difference between genius and stupidity is that genius