by William Levy
Villains try to trick a guy into a cosmic reboot to their advantage. It doesn't go well.
|NOTE: This story was written with the able assistance of a pair of percentage dice. Whenever you see a double parentheses, I rolled for a random against the magic list from the old DEEPSLEEP rpg. The listed result is for your benefit, and unheard by any of the characters.|
Somewhere extremely unpleasant.
“It simply can't be tolerated any longer!”
The voice boomed out over a dry, mottled plain. A dim, sickly red sun cast uncertain shadows where nothing lived to take shelter.
Or did it?
Some of the grayness shifted.
“Yeah, Tutti, we all despise those...”
“No! It's not enough to hate! You must understand the nature of the problem to triumph!” It was the first voice, but slightly changed.
“They are them, we are us. They are in our way, and must perish.” A reedy reply oozed. “It's simple enough.”
“That's the sort of blind thinking that's allowed them to triumph.” Back to the first intonation. “And they always will. No matter how clever we are, how many of the interfering scum we conquer, corrupt, or outright kill. Face it; the system itself is slanted against us. All of reality! Oh, don't think they're unaware of it!”
“If that's true, we're doomed.” A dry voice interrupted. “But I suspect you called us together for a better reason than inducing suicidal depression.”
“I've found the solution, in the very myths and legends that sustain their resilience.” Smugness flowed in the chill air like a foul breeze. “Once upon a time. Indeed! Less-than-gentle-beings, rightful rulers of all, forever, I ask you; Why not twice upon a time..?”
CHAPTER ONE- THE HOLE DEAL
The Twelfth Commandment: Thou Shall Not Touch That! And how many times would you have been better off if you obeyed that one?
So, once upon a time there was this human named Irv...
A little on the tall side, shaggy black hair, slender but still strong-shouldered, Irv looked like someone in the design department had taken the fit young man body template and stretched it vertically. The beginning of a soon-to-be-regretted sunburn accented a scatter of freckles. Worn jeans, an Anarchy Through Peace tee shirt and heavy black hi tops comfortably contrasted with the roaring cream and chrome hulk of classic convertible at whose wheel he relaxed.
Miles of perfectly smooth, flat, straight Iowa highway surrounded with a hypnosis-inducing landscape of uniformly bland agriculture flowed past without significant visual content. Any novelty had long worn off. It had been twenty minutes since the last turn off, almost as long since he'd seen another vehicle.
“Gnarl.” Playing idly with the archaic AM radio controls, he grumbled. “Heartland of America, my great aunt's ass. Didn’t anybody tell you the heart’s supposed to rock? Still, I suppose there's worse ways to earn extra college bucks than delivering this beauty to LA for a collector. Guess I'll hafta dig the player out of my bag just to keep awake.”
Pondering other ways in which he might indulge a bored intellect, Irv frowned at the setting late summer sun. It was hanging right at the sparse, distant tree level, and the glare was fierce. He set his Big Suck Bucket 'O' Fizz on the worn but still taut red Corinthian leather of the passenger seat, reached into a travel bag on the floor and pulled out a pair of truly ugly sunglasses. Next his fingers fumbled for his mp3 player and the plug-in radio interface gadget.
Momentarily distracted, he didn't see the Hole materialize.
So, somewhere else, there was another human named Calla.
A trifle short, her neatly bobbed red brown hair was adorned with a crafted splash of sparkles. She wore a silk and leather outfit combining the best features of loose and tight, subtly serving to enhance the abundant charms of her slightly rubenesque figure. Truthfully, it covered less of her silky, light caramel skin than a thoughtful woman might consider prudent in her current surroundings. But she continued with artfully uncertain steps through a less than savory part of the city known to locals as Nexus.
With a not-very-feigned moue of disgust she stepped daintily over a grime-encrusted pink tentacle splayed across what passed for a sidewalk. When the tip flicked tentatively in her direction, she pretended to stumble, accurately digging her pointed heel into a tender boneless joint.
“Ah! What?” She cried loudly, then hissed softly “Back off, creep!”
“Sorry, miss!” A high-pitched wet squeal sputtered from an apparent pile of trash. It shifted, retracting the offending extrusion. “Uh, spare change?”
Calla forced herself to unclench her fists. Not only didn't the street bum deserve her wrath, such behavior was out of character for her cover.
She fumbled, plucked a coin from a tiny silk purse and dropped it with play-acted nervousness near the pile. The tentacle re-emerged to snatch the shiny treasure on the first bounce.
“Yeah, right.” Irregardless of breaking her role or not, she couldn't keep the impatience out of her tone. This was taking too long. All morning, so far!
'What do I have to do? Put out a sign; Fresh Dork Meal, Act Now!' The curvy young woman thought angrily.
Pausing from pondering other possible problems, Calla glowered at the sky, currently a cloudless purple backdrop barely visible between crowded towers, improbable parapets, and garish signs. She saw no sign of her mentor and erstwhile back-up.
“As if I could spot a City Father under cover.” she muttered, angry at her own insecurity. Giving her hair a hasty flounce, she continued down the disreputable street. There were literally hundreds of Holes floating in the pale indigo sky over the city of Nexus. Why would she notice an extra one?
So delicately nearby yet in many ways absolutely somewhere else that it would take far too many boring esoteric terms to explain, there was yet another human named Timez.
Average in most respects, neatly clipped hair and beard with a trace of silver in the raven black, his pale form was clad neck to toe in form fitting black leathers that lent an ominous air of authority and power.
The latter was perhaps accentuated by his position; floating invisibly, unsupported, about three hundred meters over Nexus amid a dancing swarm of faintly glowing fist-sized orbs.
Okay, mostly human, if you want to get picky.
Considering the view, Timez pursed his lips, reached out and prodded one of the passing balls with a well-manicured fingertip. The orb rezzed then cleared to show his voluptuous student trying her best to look vulnerable. He scanned several others, checking her vicinity for slimy types who might be showing an unhealthy interest. A number of beings had inexplicably vanished in the last year or so, and the usually ultra-effective City Patrol hadn't been able to account for them. Or the missing hearts of the ones who had eventually turned up.
So the problem had gotten kicked upstairs. Pretty short staircase, all things considered.
Timez figured it wouldn't take more than a day or two to solve the case. And it'd be instructive to his apprentice.
A change of pace, at least. She was getting bored. He'd never really gotten the hang of the wHole teaching thing. In his experience, survival was the best teacher. Not the sort of thing you told powerful beings you owed a favor to, though.
It would be misleading to say he didn't notice the Hole opening a hundred meters or so behind him. You don't live a couple of dozen centuries without learning to notice everything. Timez just didn't perceive that sort of thing as a credible threat.
Irv didn't even have time to yell as most of the car passed into the inky two meter black circle that suddenly appeared in his path. Most, given the edge of the Hole effortlessly sliced a smooth arc down the passenger side, carving off a third of the car's mass. Amid explosions of tires, engine, and a ruptured Bucket 'O' Fizz, he fell into the circle of total darkness.
'Thank God I wasn't driving in England.' was his last semi-coherent thought.
Calla took a deep breath, straining the lace bodices already questionable hold on her ample chest, staring down an even less appetizing alley. For all of its disreputable appearance, she didn't get a peep of danger from it. Which was weird. An alley like that should at least radiate warnings based on the hostile lifeforms evolving from the lack of adequate sanitation.
'Thank the gods my boots are waterproof. If this doesn't work,' she thought, 'I quit!'
Timez mumbled to himself, a habit of far too many millennia to break. “What the hrull is that blank zone?” He reached out to give the offending globe a harder poke. It squealed in protest, bouncing against several others before settling down to continue displaying an obstinately gray field.
If ever a thug was born to brutality, the very essence of a cruel and casually violent goon who enjoyed his nasty work, it would be Zarthok the Merciless. His given name was Meng, but he’d changed it for professional reasons, not the least of which was the annoyance of constantly being confused with someone fictional.
By nobody's estimate a particularly large man, he nevertheless compacted sufficient cheerful sadism into his squat, thickly-muscled form to inspire nervous ticks in beings twice his size. He was at this point very happily employed.
From the caved-in rear doorway of a recently abandoned shop, Zarthok grinned as he saw the curvy Calla turn down the shadowed alley. “Well, here's a nice piece of luck.”
“You know how the Exalted Dark Quiet Ones, ssh be their not-names, feel about flippancy.” Most Perfect Eminent Barry puffed plump pink cheeks in frustration at his hireling's lack of piety. Obtaining a sacrifice was supposed to be a matter of drama, a little decent dark intrigue and plotting, not the sort of juvenile prank you sniggered over. “Especially puns. Maintain an air of dignity, please.” he said tightly.
“I dint mean nothin' disrespectful by it.” Zarthok placated, smothering his grin. “Just forgot yer ways, yer holiness.” 'And what an ass you can be.' he privately continued the dialog in snarky thought. 'Ah well, checks and balances. He signs the checks, we pretend he's balanced.'
With a final baleful glare, M.P.E. Barry gave up. “Just grab the sacrifice and let's get back to the temple,” he sighed.
“Awright, don't getcher robes inna bind, yer holiness. Jose', go left, Don Don, you sweep right, I'll make the grab.” Directing a mismatched pair of hulking troglodytes out of the store and down the alley, the master thug took a moment to analyze the possibilities of the situation. 'At least I can cop a good feel or two before we deliver her to the altar.' He concluded hungrily.
A simple being at however-small-heart, Zarthok did enjoy the occasional perks of his profession.
Fingering his sigil of office, the dreaded Three-headed Scorpion’s Bane Amulet, M.P.E. Barry grimaced with distaste. “If only the faithful had a little more gumption, or at least muscle.” he murmured sadly, watching the oversized thugs go to work.
But these days, his hereditary position as head of the Sacred Temple of Profane Murmurs gained him only the loyalty of an aging group of parishioners and a few hyper-conservative businessmen, all of whom dreamed of the Good Old Days when the blood ceremonies involved major sacrifices weekly, not just monthly or on special holidays. 'Damn!' He thought savagely, 'Even gathering a single victim each month is a drain on my nerves and the budget!'
M.P.E. Barry sat on the least nasty of the creaking wooden garbage bins next to the door, bemoaning church politics and social realities. Thoughts of theocratic accountancy recalled testy confrontations with the current temple treasurer, that tightfisted skinny wimp Deacon Smythe. Barry's only comfort was an amusing overlaid vision of the fastidious deacon trying to handle these brutish mercenaries.
Oblivious to his angst, the rented thugs moved forward smoothly.
“Hah! Gotcha!” Timez smiled, finally managing to focus an orb on M.P.E. Barry. “That's why we couldn't track you bastards!” He zeroed in on Barry's amulet. “Yow! Where'd he dig that thing up? I haven't seen on of those Thulian talismans in centuries.” Timez shook his head. “Bet he doesn't even know how it works.” The City Father grinned wider. “Now what can I do to make your life miserab… Ratbags!”
All hell broke loose as Irv, encased in a chunk of flaming debris, emerged from the Hole, smacking into Timez from behind at very nearly the local speed of sound.
Zarthok and Calla jerked their heads skyward as a fireball blossomed directly over the alley with an echoing boom.
M.P.E. Barry jumped to his feet, squeaked “City Father!” and vanished through the door a full second before a hail of flame demolished the mouth of the alleyway.
As a wave of heat poured down the passage, it occurred to Zarthok that the hands with which he’d reflexively clutched the target bimbo were surprisingly cold; very, very cold. He looked down. And choked.
They were also very gone. Not far; the the dismembered bits of his fingers still spasmed like stubby dark red worms scattered on the ground.
Worst of all the bink was just standing there, all pouty. Somehow large razors on brass knuckles had appeared from nowhere on the back of her hands. Big, shiny blades, except where they were dripping with blood. His blood.
Calla caught his eye. She grinned, blew him a kiss, and winked.
CHAPTER TWO- MAKING NEW FIENDS
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, MAYBE YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND THE PROBLEM!
Irv emerged from the wreckage, amazingly unscathed, with a jumble of images arguing persuasively for dominance in his fore-brain.
A slimy squishy spaghetti thing in a really loud sport jacket with far too many or few of everything in all the wrong places.
Messy explosive death, mixed with extreme pain and yelling. A lot of the latter his.
Darkness, complete and total lack of any sensation. Something of a relief, truth be told.
A burst of bright light, mixed with explosions, flames, and a panoramic urban visual travelogue, low party-colored buildings crowded randomly with sky high towers, seen approaching extremely rapidly from far too damn high an angle.
A cartoon villain shouting “Ratbags!”
Further explosions, assorted, violent, colorful.
A screaming fall to pavement.
But no impact?
His beleaguered brain sorted through subtle temporal clues, arriving at what seemed to be the most current vision; a plush, hot golden-skinned harem girl hacking away at two huge assailants, with a third smaller figure at her feet, in an alley filled with burning garbage.
Disentangling himself from the smoking, blackened, still-flaming-in-bits twisted remains of the formerly highly chromed car, Irv managed to stumble to his feet as the sexy little amazon finished off her opponents using a complex leaping foot and elbows move that would do Jackie Chan proud.
Dripping blood and sweat, hair tangled and burned, Calla suddenly looked ominously feral stalking toward Irv, who took an instinctive step back towards the seemingly safer crumpled burning wreckage he’d just escaped.
“Where’s Timez?” Calla growled.
“Uh, who?” Mightily confused, Irv wasn't helped by this line of questioning in the least.
“Wrong answer, murderer!” Calla leapt suddenly, gleaming razors at the fore.
Irv panicked, raised his hands defensively. “No!”
A wave of heat passed over his body.
((LIGHTNING BOLT NINETEENTH LEVEL))
Great blue-tinged bolts of electricity streamed out of his upswept arms, pinning Calla like a butterfly on jagged spikes. Writhing in pain, Calla gasped in frustration as her razors shattered and the rest of her tattered clothing burned away.
Feeling curiously light-headed, Irv dropped to his knees as the lightning faded.
Released, Calla curled into a soot-stained ball. White light played over her tense form, then she uncurled like a burnt steel spring. Apparently completely recovered from the effects of the electrical assault, she tossed the remains of the brass knuckles away, cupped her hands, then opened them, revealing a tiny glowing orange sphere.
“Okay, tough guy, hardball it is!” Calla snarled, pointing her fingertips at Irv. A shard of light darted from the ball, but sputtered and died halfway.
Irv flinched then gaped in amazement as the flames in the alley winked out one by one, and the acrid smell of burning trash was replaced by a gentle mixture of spiced florals.
Calla lowered her arms and smirked at a point over his head.
With a sinking sensation in his stomach, Irv fell back onto his ass, and looked up.
Continued in the novel, available from Blackwyrm Publishing, online and through all the best bookstores, in July 2012!