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Ashley looked at Ruben, who was sitting in the front of the boat. "Well," he said.

Ruben looked past Ashley at the island that was sinking into the ocean behind them. "Well," she said.

Ashley started rummaging through the equipment box, pulling out a small saltwater purifier and a packet labeled RATIONS. "I hope we have enough food to make it back to the mainland."

Ruben shrugged. "Don't worry about it. I can get fish to practically jump into the boat." She looked down at her torn clothes mournfully. "Dammit. The amount of magic I used to avoid being the shrieky feminine sacrifice back there probably means I'm stuck like this for a good, long time."

A sudden explosion from the island echoed out over the water, making both of the people in the boat wince. Ashley looked Ruben in the eyes, and they both said, in chorus, "We will never tell anyone about this weekend."

Kyouki no Kyanpasu
(Crazy Campus)

An original story
by Aaron Bergman

© Copyright 2002-2005 by Aaron Berman.

Episode Three: One Man's Home is Another's Dungeon-Crawl

Three Days Before:

Ashley was peaceably enjoying a cold drink of juice, watching the relatively crowded lunchtime cafeteria as he kicked back and relaxed. Not being in classes yet had given him time to explore the campus and the surrounding city, and he had used that time to the fullest.

It suddenly hit him how little he'd thought about his parents, Rachel, his entire life before coming here. Ashley still wanted to go home, but he liked it here. A lot. It was nice, it was clean, and it was new.

C'mon, Ashley my main man, it's time to think hard about this. What would be the point in—?

Ashley's train of thought was derailed sharply by the sound of his roommate's hands hitting the table, hard. The boom echoed through the cafeteria, making some people look over in interest (and waking up one young man in the distance, which saved his life; the grue had been eyeing him with a hungry glint in its bloodshot orbs.)

"What… did… you… do… with it?" Ruben's voice was low. Ruben's voice was level. Ruben's voice contained enough bottled rage to fuel a dozen ninja in parent-avenging killing sprees.

Ruben's voice was… female.

Not only that, she was wearing a shirt with a wide collar that might have fit properly if she was currently of man-proportions. And when the shirt was considered in conjunction with how far she was leaning towards Ashley—

"Geh?" Ashley couldn't help but stare, powerless as a deer in headlights. In a manner of speaking.

Ruben straightened up and leveled one finger at Ashley. "My Mughi plushie! What did you do with it?"

Ashley shook his head fast, trying to dislodge the word perky that was stuck fast in his head and comprehend Ruben's cryptic question. It wasn't an easy task, but after a few moments the fog over his mind cleared sufficiently to ask a question of his own. "Mughi? What the heck is a Mughi?"

Ruben stopped pointing and looked down at her fingers as she pressed them together, blushing profusely. "That's what I, um, named the cute plush kitty Amber gave me."

"You named a stuffed animal?" Ashley raised his eyebrows, surprised, and Ruben's blush grew brighter, creeping down her neck.

Ruben mumbled, "I wouldn't so much say named as… gave an identifying word symbol to distinguish it from all the other stuffed cute red soft kitty plushies…"

"That's what a name is."

Ruben glared and her flush grew to a feverish shade as rage tightened her features. "And so? You wanna make somethin' of it?" Black crackling lightning flickered around her hands as she raised them threateningly, and Ashley's eyes moved quickly as he searched for an escape.

"Ruben! What's up, my friend?"

The black lightning faded away as Ruben's features assumed an expression of total shock at the voice that came from behind her. Her mouth worked soundlessly for several moments and her eyes stared blankly at Ashley's face, who managed to restrain an urge to wave a hand in front of those suddenly wide orbs.

Finally, Ruben said in a low whisper, "No… He didn't…" Slowly, oh so slowly, she turned around and to see the man standing behind her. "How did you survi— Er, it's great to see you!!"

Ashley sensed more than saw the way that her ponytail wanted to stand on end as if Ruben had stuck her finger into an electrical outlet, and so he craned his head around to look at the man that had her so thrown off, smiling slightly.

He ain't much to look at. He was short, thin, and his appearance was disreputable at best. His hair was in that halfway state between long and short and was drawn back in a thin, greasy ponytail; his shirt and jeans were ragged and torn, as if they'd been through some very harsh living while under his ownership. At first glance, Ashley took him for being about 18 or 19, at the age when it becomes fashionable to dress uniquely just like everyone else, but something about the way he stood which made the martial artist think he was much, much older than that. Despite the look of youth and travel-weariness, he carried himself in a way that broadcast the unique aura of professorhood which all professional teachers picked up after a few decades of standing at the front of a classroom.

It was probably the food-stained tie that dangled limply down the front of his shirt. No other profession would dare to wear a tie with a short-sleeve button up shirt and yet show such disdain for the symbol of upper-class status.

Ashley narrowed his eyes as he noticed the thing concealing the lower half of the man's right arm. What the heck is that? A black gauntlet, or would it be a glove? Ashley wavered for a moment, not sure which category to place it in, and then decided on gauntlet. It'd just be fruity for a guy to wear only one glove, and besides, that thing is too sturdy to be anything but a gauntlet.

Whatever it was, it surrounded the man's right hand and much of his forearm. The gauntlet had a red jewel shaped like a curved teardrop set into the back of the hand and was covered in golden lines that traced circuit designs all over the lacquered black material. One knuckle away from each fingertip, the gauntlet ended in golden rings which had red jewels that were the same type as their larger cousin in the back of the hand.

The man waved to him casually with his unencumbered hand, his right remaining at his side. "Yo, I'm Tyler of the Firehand. 'Sa pleasure to meetcha."

"More tea?"

"Please, Grandmother."

The old woman poured in silence broken only by the knock of a deer-scare against a rock, and the young woman accepted in a similar silence.

"Well, I think—"

"Dear, you really should—"

They both stopped and stared at each other for a moment, and then the younger woman motioned politely, a hint of impatience in her expression. "You first, Grandmother."

"Shining Magical Knight of Justice—"

"Grandmother, for the last time, DON'T CALL ME THAT! When you do, the spirits in my soul cry out for justice," The Shining Knight stood up and posed involuntarily, her arms moving in jerky, stilted motions, "and I feel the urge to wreak the havoc of the Heavens upon all—"

She froze suddenly, her enchanted school uniform rippling in an unseen breeze, and a grimace of disgust distorted her features. "Arrrgh." She slowly moved her arms to her side, controlling each motion carefully.

"You know my real name, and I'd appreciate it if you used it." She reached up and adjusted her hairpiece, which had slipped down almost to her eyebrows when she'd jumped to her feet. "Damn tiara."

"All right, Reiko." The old woman closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "What are you thinking?!" She rose in a graceful movement that belied the age she had seemed to be since Reiko's earliest memories and pointed one finger at her errant granddaughter sternly. "After all we've done for you, you're going to desert your loving family and go away to school in America?!"

Reiko glared defiantly back and pointed a finger of her own, this time at the peaceful garden out of the door. "And since when have I been a part of this family, Grandmother? I don't have the natural psychic ability to spill a saltshaker, much less hunt down demons. I'm a joke. I thought getting this," she picked up the staff she'd found years ago and shook it violently, "might change that. But—"

The staff interrupted with a quick telepathic communication. Do NOT project thine own problems unto me!

"What brought this on so suddenly, anyway?" Having seen that anger wouldn't cut anything with her granddaughter, the old woman tried curiosity.

Reiko smiled wistfully and shook her head. "This wasn't a sudden thing, Grandmother. Two years ago, I had an adventure, an adventure in a place where I didn't have to live up to anyone's idea of how I should be, and I… I liked it. I liked it a lot." Her smile disappeared. "If leaving everything that I know behind and starting a new life somewhere else is what it takes to feel that way again, then I'll do it."

"Right, fine, okay, roger that, sure thing." The old woman waved the pamphlet that Reiko had put in front of her last night, a curious mixture of anger and anxiety writ on her face. "But why this school? Don't you know anything about this school? Its history? The faculty?"

Reiko shrugged and tapped her stick on the table, ignoring the telepathic Ouch-ouch-ouch that it sent to her at each impact. "Well, because it sounds so peaceful. I mean, why else would they have named it Serenity University?"

Explosions from the Mad's Lab echoed in the background as Ruben stormed back to the dorm, Tyler following her closely despite her clear and obvious resolution to ignore him no matter what devious new ploys he had devised since the last time they'd met. He was cunning, Ruben knew, and if he said ten words, she was well aware that she would want to listen to a hundred words, and those hundred words would intrigue her enough to grant time enough for a thousand, and a thousand words would…

Well, Ruben wanted no part in that. Thus, despite the limited time and sudden shock of all this, she had managed to think of a clever and mature way to avoid the whole mess.

"Aw, c'mon, you ain't even heard me out yet!"

"I can't hear you, na-na-na-na-na-naa-nah!!"

Tyler caught one of her wrists in his right hand, and Ruben felt the heat and the power restrained in his gauntlet. For just a moment, she wavered between fear and rage at the implied threat of using his Firehand to stop her, then she shook his hand away and whirled around, pointing a finger at Tyler's nose. "The last time I listened to you, Tyler, I spent three weeks fighting my way out of an Asian jungle with angry natives hunting my every step. I left you for dead in there for a reason."

After a moment, she added, the finger vibrating almost slightly with the effort of personal restraint, "What made it even worse is that you were carrying all the money for 'safekeeping'. I had to work for two months as a lord's personal wizard and party clown to save the money for an airship ride home!"

Tyler stared cross-eyed at the finger before taking a step backwards. He spread his hands placatingly. "Look, I know the last adventure I hired you to help me on wasn't the best of experiences—"

At those words, Ruben's self-control (which was tenuous at best this morning) and resolve to not get drawn into an argument with Tyler were crushed utterly in the face of the anger that suffused her. The hot flush that had plagued her earlier rose again in her cheeks, mirroring the blazing rage that burned in her eyes. "Wasn't the best of… WASN'T THE BEST OF EXPERIENCES?!" Nearby trees, having lived so long on the campus that they'd become very sensitive to high levels of magic, started leaning away from the pathway and the enraged wizardess on it.

Ashley looked around Tyler's shoulder. "Uh, Ruben, destroying the campus probably won't solve this problem. What say you to just sitting down and talking with him about this?"

Before Tyler could say anything, Ruben spat, "Because this man has a silver tongue with a fork at the end. He'll tell you just what you want to hear, and it'll sound good, and it'll convince you to do what he wants you to do, but whatever rumor he drags you off to explore always turns out to be nothing but a deathtrap. Sure, he pays good, but the coin he pays is never what you think! It's never worth it."

At the sudden storm of disappointing memories and shattered hopes, Ruben closed her eyes and fought down the choking feeling in her throat, her anger suddenly washed away. "It's never worth it." She wiped at her eyes. "Damn feminine hormones…"

Tyler put his left hand on her shoulder and said comfortingly, "My offer still stands, once I find the other gauntlet. I'll be able to do it, y'know that."

Ashley asked, confusion in his voice, "Why do I get the feeling that I'm missing something? Again?"

Ruben felt the change back sweep through him, the curse that wrought his form into that of a woman's dissipating as quickly as it had come over him, and the sorcerer slowly stepped away from Tyler. "Look, Tyler, I've just decided to accept it. I can't bring the past back, no matter how much I'd like to."

Tyler shrugged. "Well, if that's the way you feel, I can't change your mind." He turned around. "So, feel like making a lot of money on a sure thing, Ashley?"

Ashley grinned. "Hey, sounds like fun!" Then, his grin was swallowed by a slight frown. "At least, sounds like fun compared to the prospect of finding a part-time job. How much money we talkin' about here?"

Ruben stared blankly. No way. After everything I said, he wouldn't be stupid enough to…

There were few things that Devan Wiley feared in this life or the next. "Only a few things are worth being afraid of," like my father used to say. That was before he was torn apart by an irate experimental subject who wanted a refund. Give a being four extra arms when it went in for a toothache and it does tend to be a little upset, though I can't understand why—

"I think he went this way, girls!"

To Devan, scientist groupies were one of those things to fear.

Especially the horde of them that had fixated upon him for some reason that eluded even his finely-honed mind. The summer break had been extraordinarily peaceful without them around, which is why he'd let his guard down and relaxed for the few weeks until the next semester started.

This was, of course, a mistake that he might not live to make twice.

"Aaah!" Devan looked around frantically for some method of escape, trying to silence his gasping breaths. I'm not used… to running so much… trust me to leave behind most of my helpful gadgets in my room on the day that the groupies come back…

"Come vith me if you vant to live."

Devan turned to see a towering man in the marching band uniform standing there, his hand held out. The half-cape rippled in the wind, and his helmet was tipped forward far enough to hide his expression in the shadows.

"What do you want, French Hor— Olaf?"

The scientist could feel Olaf regarding him impassively from underneath his concealing visor. "Ve need your help."

"I heard him, girls!"


Devan looked down at the outstretched hand, looked over his shoulder at the corner from which the pounding of many female feet ominously sounded from, looked down at the outstretched hand again, then sighed. Do I have a choice?

He nodded slowly, and Olaf pressed one of the nearby wall's bricks in. A secret door that gaped like a toothless maw appeared, a portion of the wall sliding aside silently, and Olaf pushed Devan into it and followed him. Just as the secret door slid shut again…

"Aw, darn! He got away again!"

Despite not knowing where he was being ushered to, despite being unsure of whether or not he'd made the right decision, Devan sighed in relief. The groupies have been evaded once again…

"More tea, sir?"

"No thank you." Ruben crossed his arms over his chest and stared out the window (Or would it be a porthole? Ashley wondered absently) of the airship, watching the crew outside cast off mooring lines and pack the last few bags into the hold. The magician muttered something that sounded poisonous under his breath.

"What's that, Ruben?" Ashley asked politely. He's been sulking ever since we left the campus. It's… He finished his thought out loud. "It's not like you had to come, Ruben."

"Oh, I didn't, did I?" Resignation deep enough to drown a giant was in Ruben's voice as he spoke slowly, uncrossing his arms and rubbing at his face with one hand. "You just don't know what it's like out there. I have to feel responsible for you until you learn enough to take care of yourself, Ashley."

The martial artist waved around to indicate the rather spacious passenger cabin that was half-filled with other passengers already. The seats were arranged in a strange style that reminded Ashley of restaurant booths or trains he'd seen in old westerns, with a cushioned bench facing another bench across a table. Currently, the seat across from Ashley was empty aside from a small bag that Tyler had tossed there casually before disappearing into the back of the cabin. "Aside from the airship style instead of the planes that I'm used to, I don't see much difference so far."

Ruben lifted one eyebrow. "Airplanes?" Then he laughed. "Oh yeah, some of the older-fashioned mecha still look that way. Efficient but primitive…"

Ashley braced himself for another boring lecture (of which he'd endured more than his fair share, even taking into account the fact that there were so many new strange things that Ruben felt necessary to warn him of), and then—

"Are you boring him with another of your tedious monologues?"

Ruben glared up at Tyler, who was cradling a small bucket of popcorn in his left hand and clutching a bottled drink in his right. "Are you trying to pick a fight with me?" he asked.

"Ayup! If I kin never find the other Gauntlet, I think y'all might be just powerful enough to crush my essence if I make you angry. I hope I never have to get that desperate, but…" Tyler paused as he sat down, moving his bag aside to make more room for him. "Were you tellin' him about the airship?"

A tone sounded in the cabin and Tyler stopped talking as a speaker came to life. "This is the captain speaking. We'll be arriving in Tenochtitlan at seven and the Yucatan at about eight or nine, weather and pirates permitting, and will then continue on to the Haitian Confederation through the night. Please enjoy your trip on Cid Airlines."

Through the porthole (Or would it be a window? Ashley thought), the ground was receding rapidly, moving at a speed that he found difficult to believe when remembering his first view of the clunky thing he was riding in.

Ruben leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. "Where are we going to, anyway? The Yucatan again?" He shuddered involuntarily. "Not there…"

Tyler shook his head. "Naw. It's a little island out in the Confederation, supposedly home to a horde of ancient artifacts since, oh, about eighty years ago." He took a great handful of popcorn and scarfed it down as Ruben leaned backwards again.

The martial artist shook his head and frowned. This future is WAY strange. One second, it's like I'm in some kind of Star Trek-inspired utopia, the next—

Suddenly, the sound of distant explosions rang through the room, and Ashley jerked his head just in time to see a camera in the front of the room shatter in a cloud of sparks. The airship gave a lurch, and Ashley saw from the corner of his eye another, much smaller ship suddenly shimmer into view. The eerie feeling of deja vu made his hackles rise. I was just thinking about Star Trek, and now I see a cloaking device thingy? This is some severe Twilight Zone stuff…

The martial artist winced. Er, if current trends continue, thinking about Twilight Zone stuff might be a BAD thing. Think about hot bunny girls, think about hot bunny girls—

Ashley was distracted from his circular (if very pleasant) train of thought as a man seated at the front of the compartment stood up, holding a compact, wicked-looking pistol in one hand. He waved it at the people in the seats and said calmly and clearly, "This is a raid! If no one does anything stupid, we won't have to murder the lot of you."

Ashley heard the door at the back of the room slam open. "Boss, we've secured the transmit room! The crew is still fighting with their backs to the bridge, but no problems there."

The pirate boss grinned. "Good, good. Resistance is useless, you slugs. Line up and…"

While the man was speaking, Ruben leaned towards Tyler. "Should we, er..?" he motioned with his head towards the pirate boss. Tyler rolled his eyes.

"Yeah, I guess. Every second we listen to him rant is another second we can't be looting treasure."

"Hey, you over there! Are you listening to me?!"

Tyler stood up and stepped out of the booth, turning to face the pirate boss, who was wearing a rather upset look. Tyler spread his hands and said in a placating way, "Look, buddy, if you just sit back down and—"


A zigzag of ochre lightning connected the pirate boss's gun and Tyler's chest for just a fraction of a second, and Ashley realized to his horror that there was a fist-sized hole in the man's chest. Tyler looked down at himself and said incredulously, "That hurt!"

Slowly, he fell forward, going to his knees, catching himself on his hands at just the last moment…

And then stood back up, the only sign that he'd ever been injured the massive hole that had been burned in the back of his shirt. Tyler planted his feet and held up his gauntleted hand, the back of his fist to the pirate. A reddish aura began building around it, flickering fitfully. "Now that's it. I was all ready t'be nice, but ya just made it personal."

A voice from behind Ashley's seat exclaimed, "Oh, shit! Boss, that's a Hero!" Something about the way the unseen speaker pronounced that word made the capitol in front unmistakable, as if the word Hero was an official title granted only to a few. At the phrase, Tyler bowed slightly forward and made as if to tip an invisible fedora at the pirate boss.

The chief grimaced. "Oh, great, this is all I need. A Hero who has some sort of invincibility shtick."

Tyler nodded. "Yep, in fact—" In mid-sentence, Tyler stopped speaking and flung his hand outward. The red aura came to life as a roaring flame, the brilliance of it forcing Ashley to squint his eyes, and blasted down the compartment, washing away the image of the pirate chief in a fiery blaze.

…Ashley was very surprised when the fire flickered away to reveal the chief still standing there, the pistol he'd held replaced by a sword that was surrounded by a dancing aura of icy cerulean. The chief lowered it slowly, a contrail of frost tracing its path, and leveled the point at Tyler as he said, "Well, I'm pretty damn glad I decided to pack Frost Tooth with me today. Now, are you ready to—?"

A hail of gunfire came down the corridor aimed at Tyler's back, but each shot splattered from an invisible field. Ruben's image faded into view just beyond the point where the slugs and blasts and bolts were ending their brief lives, his hand held forth as if to stave off the barrage.

At that moment, Tyler leapt for the chief with a backhanded strike, and the gauntlet collided with the sword's blade, making a sound that hissed like a bucket dumped into an open flame, like a kettle of water boiling over. Ashley only noticed it peripherally. The martial artist looked between the standing Ruben (who was grinning at him), to the Ruben sitting beside him (also grinning at him). "No, wait, let me guess," he said sourly. "'There's more to this than the eye can see.'"

The sitting sorcerer disappeared, and the standing one laughed out loud, the gunfire dying down as the henchmen slowly realized that Ruben was very willing to stand there all day with his shield. "You planning to sit on your butt all afternoon and let us do the work, Ashley?"

Ashley bounced to his feet and cracked his knuckles audibly. "I thought you'd never ask!" Here I was, thinking that I wouldn't get to do a damn thing this whole hijacking…

A tearing sound filled the room, and Ruben leapt at Ashley, knocking him out of the way as a swirling darkness appeared in the area where they'd just been standing. It took on the definite look of a vortex, sucking itself inward, and then the darkness imploded with a deafening burst. The wizard flung something towards the pirates at the end of the room which tossed them backwards just as they were rushing towards the two, and he grimaced.

"The pirates have a magician! Can you handle them?" He jerked his head towards the sprawled gang of tangled limbs which had fetched up against the far wall, and Ashley gave him a disgruntled look.

"Why, do you think I would even have a problem with those guys?"

"Good!" The magician shimmered and vanished. Ashley rolled up to his feet and started for the pile of brigands that were untangling themselves from each other quickly. At first, he ran down the aisle, but when two of the recovered pirates noticed him and leveled firearms at him, he leapt sideways for the top of the seats, bounding over his (sensibly) cowering fellow passengers and tables. He never stayed in one direction and place too long, knowing that the most helpful rule when rushing a man with a gun (other than don't do it at all) was to keep moving.

It was at moments like this that he felt most alive.

Seconds later, the martial artist was among the hapless pirates, smashing them about like rag dolls. Several of them had managed to drop or holster their pistols in exchange for cutlasses, but in the tight confines of the aisle they were far more likely to hit one of their fellows. After Ashley took one of the cutlasses from a man's hand and snapped the blade in two, the pirates nearer the door started fighting each other to get away from this blonde madman who was outnumbered twelve to one and still kicking their asses.

There were seven pirates on the floor just as Ashley reached the door, which was promptly slammed in his face. "No way!" he said in disbelief, and then tried the knob on the door. "They locked the door? Well," the martial artist said, grinning as he set himself into a stance, "those chickens'll learn that a locked door doesn't stop a martial—"

The door burst off its hinges and flew towards Ashley, knocking him off his feet. He rolled with it as best he could, but his arm hit something in the pile of pirates and went painfully numb. Once the martial artist got to his feet again, he jumped away from the doorway to give himself a bit of breathing room and got his first glimpse of the man who'd knocked down the door and was even now stepping through its shattered remains, stooping low so he didn't hit his head on the doorjamb.

To call him big would be an understatement. Muscles knotted over muscles, and mighty thews flexed visibly under his disturbingly tight clothes, though Ashley had to admit to himself that finding clothes which fit properly would be a hard thing to do with that kind of build. The muscle-man brushed a hank of black hair from his eyes and grinned at the slender martial artist.

"Yo, little man, you ready to party?"

Feeling was starting to creep back into Ashley's arm, but mostly those feelings were of pain, so he ignored it as best he could. Jumping up to another seat-top, he started for the muscled giant, moving quickly, suddenly changing direction and landing on the aisle, jumping almost level to the ground to try and take out the man's legs—

And barely avoided becoming a soccer ball as the man's foot whipped out in a kick. Ashley twisted to the side and planted his hands, flinging himself backwards in a handspring that sent him twenty feet down the aisle. The martial artist winced at the protests his arm sent up to him as he thought, Damn! That guy moves FAST!

Ashley had fought against big men that moved faster than one would expect to see. Anyone who got to his level of skill with fighting would never just be big; slowness would only leave you a beaten, bloody pulp. But never had he fought a big man who moved that fast, his attacks like a greased viper's. The man was striding towards him now, carefully stepping over the fallen bodies of his fellow pirates, and Ashley backed away for a bit of breathing room while he considered his options. He's as fast as me, maybe a bit faster, and a LOT stronger… what can I do?

Those options slimmed down quite a bit when his back hit someone else's. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed that Tyler was there, his eyes on the pirate chief. Tyler asked quietly, "How ya doin'?

"Not so good. You?"

"Cain't touch the barstard. I'm not fast enough to get past his guard." Tyler paused as he raised his gauntlet. "Bet you can take 'im, though. Wanna trade?"

Ashley flicked another look at the huge man that was grinning at him and made a snap decision. "Yeah." If we swap out, it MIGHT confuse 'em enough to let us get some hits in…

"Don't get touched by 'is sword. NOW!"

The martial artist leapt up to the ceiling and put one hand against it to push with all his strength, transferring his momentum into a jumping kick downwards at the bandit chief. Peripherally, he saw Tyler dashing towards the muscled man, the flame around his hand blazing, but almost all of Ashley's attention was focused on the chief, who'd overcome that split second of surprise and was even now raising his sword to spit the descending warrior.

Ashley tried to will himself to move faster, not sure if he'd win the race to strike first, twisting slightly to possibly avoid the frost-coated blade, his vision narrowing and time seeming to slow down as the point slowly rose, a contrail following it upwards—

The martial artist felt the outside of his leg go numb as it scraped along the flat of the icy sword and he had a moment to wonder at the fact that the blade didn't have an edge, but that didn't stop his foot from hitting the pirate's face with a force that sent them flying away from each other. Ashley flipped in midair to land on his feet, ready to attack again, but the pirate had crumpled up against the far wall and wasn't likely to move again for a long, long time.

Ashley tried to turn around and give a helping hand to Tyler, but the numbness in his leg had seeped in so far that it gave way under his weight. He hit the ground heavily and lay there for a moment, the adrenaline seeping from his body and a dozen small wounds clamoring for attention. Slowly, he pushed himself upwards, turning over to look over at his leg.

He gasped in shock. Half of it had turned a dead, pale white, fringed by a burning red, and it was spreading. What the— Now that he looked at it, it started to burn with a blazing agony that threatened to fracture his control. Ashley clenched his teeth and tried not to scream.

A shadow fell over him, and Ashley looked up just in time to watch Tyler kneel down beside him. "Dammit! Where's Ruben when you need him!"

"He said," Ashley gritted out from between his teeth, "that the pirates had a wizard or something."

"Ah, fer cryin' out…" Tyler closed his eyes and held his gauntleted hand several inches over the leg, palm open and facing downwards. "If I just had the other damn gauntlet…" he muttered as a slight flame flickered to life around it.

Slowly, he moved his hand downwards over the leg, and Ashley asked, "What're you talking about?"

His focus on whatever he was doing to Ashley's leg, Tyler answered absently, "It's what we're lookin' for. Gauntlets always come in a pair, ya see, even enchanted ones. This one gives death in others, and the other one gives life. It's some kinda damn joke that—" he cut himself off abruptly and added sourly, "I could heal anythin', any problem, even death, if I had the other damn gauntlet. Right now, the best I can hope for is that the element of flame will fight back the ice until Ruben shows—"

"Someone call my name?" Ashley looked up at Ruben, who appeared as suddenly as he'd disappeared. One side of his face was covered in soot and there was a scar along his right arm that had already healed enough to turn pink, but other than that the magician seemed to be healthy.

Tyler snarled, "What took ya so damn long?!"

Ruben grimaced. "I was using the light stuff so I wouldn't have to travel as a woman, okay? Spirits above, you don't realize how annoying it is to…" He trailed off and his eyes widened as he saw Ashley's leg. "Damnation." Kneeling down, he touched the white flesh with one hand and with the other reached into his pocket, pulling out a pouch. After taking a pinch of something out of the pouch, Ruben held that hand out to Ashley. "Here, swallow this."

It was bitter and tasted like medicine, but he swallowed it anyway, and the pain started to fade, his attention drifting just a little away from his body. Ruben sighed. "Damn ice enchantments. How could you have been so careless to let him get touched by it? You should've known he doesn't have any defenses against that kind of thing." The magician started waving his hands in slow passes over the leg, his fingers dancing through some intricate motions.

"Hey, I warned him!" Tyler stood up and moved a step away from the other two, and for the first time Ashley's attention went farther than his own leg.

The passengers who'd sensibly cowered were now sitting up, four of them holding pistols on the disarmed pirates heaped together in the middle of the aisle. The huge man that had nearly clubbed Ashley had both of his hands on his head and was looking quite calm for someone who had several large burn marks swathing his body and clothes.

Ashley watched a dignified-looking older gentleman step though the shattered doorway at the far end of the room. He was wearing an ornate uniform that had both a short sword and an empty holster hanging from the belt, his pistol still in his hand, and the only thing that could have wrecked his immaculate image was the blood splattered across his crisp uniform sleeve and his face. The blood was probably someone else's, to judge by the way he moved, and he strode past the captive pirates, stopping when he reached Tyler.

"Are you three the people who stopped the pirates?"

Tyler nodded respectfully. "Yes, Captain, we are." His tone was noticeably more polite and formal all of a sudden, Ashley noted.

The captain looked over the captive pirates again, and smiled slightly. "Good work, my friends. Thank you for your efforts on behalf of our ship, and of course, we'll give you the standard reward once we reach the next port." He paused. "Where are you and your companions traveling to?"

"The Caribbean Confederation, sir." After hearing this, the captain nodded.

"Very well, then, I'll also be pleased to serve you dinner in the captain's mess. See you at seventeen-thirty promptly." He bowed. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to see if there's room in the brig for these bastards." The captain turned on one heel and left.

"There you go, Ashley. Try standing up on it."

Ashley's attention turned back to Ruben, who was grinning at him, and Tyler moved to offer a helping hand up. As he stood up, the martial artist asked, "So, what's this reward we get? Jewels? Money?"

Tyler shook his head. "A complete refund of our ticket prices an' a request that we fly Cid Airlines again."

Somehow, the sheer… sheer… ordinariness of that got to Ashley, and he started laughing shakily.

The tunnel rustled and echoed in the darkness away from Olaf's feeble flashlight beam as the massive marching band member guided Devan to their mutual mysterious destination, muffled growls and hisses giving rise to the belief that not all life down here took the intrusion into their demesnes lightly. Occasionally, the light would catch some foul, misshapen creature in its beam for just a moment, and then the beast would vanish back into the sheltering darkness once more.

For his part, Devan was enjoying this trip so far. I had no idea there was a network of secret tunnels on the campus! I may have to tap into this for my 'escape' mechanism…

Suddenly, Olaf halted, and Devan didn't notice in time to stop, staggering backwards after hitting his broad back. A rectangle in the wall slid aside, and the mad scientist blinked once to adapt his eyes to the sudden intrusion of bright light into the black corridor.

"Ve have arrived."

"Are you here, French Horn One? Have you brought… him?"

The tall man ducked his head low to avoid knocking off his helmet as he stepped through the new door, but Devan hesitated at the sound of Drum Major Pip's voice.

"What have I gotten myself into?"

Facing no other choice but to grope his way back through the darkness, Devan shrugged and followed the right hand man of a madwoman into a room of utter mystery.

It was late, late at night when Ashley followed his two companions off the airship, the warm tropical breeze caressing his face gently. He stretched and inhaled the fragrance as deep as he could, filling his lungs to the very brim with fresh island air.

He released the breath slowly, looking around at his surroundings with that mix of exhilaration and exhaustion that traveling lends so readily. The pad where the airship had anchored was a bare square of concrete, broken only by the beach on one side and the terminal building on the other. The gentle sound of the water on the beach was a pleasant background to the sounds of people disembarking from the airship and collecting their luggage.

The martial artist scanned the tourists and vacationers, looking for his companions amidst the crowd. Spotting Ruben near the terminal, Ashley started for him, and then a man walked right into him, knocking both of them backwards.

"Hey, sorry about that, man." The stranger smiled genially enough, but Ashley lifted one eyebrow skeptically as he looked the man up and down.

A trench coat? Here? On a freakin' tropical island? And sunglasses at night? Who is he trying to kid? His eyes narrowed. Wait a second. This guy has some skills in martial arts, I can feel it… He's no poser, whoever he is.

Ashley shook his head. Eh, whatever. I suppose it doesn't matter that much. He offered his hand. "No prob, dude. I'm Ashley."

The man took Ashley's hand in a firm shake. "I'm Jedidiah Jones, but you can call me Jed."

Tyler walked up behind Jedidiah, one hand encumbered by a modest-sized suitcase. "Hey, Ashley, who's yer…" As Jedidiah turned to face him, Tyler set the case down, his face freezing into a formal mask. "Herr Jones, how… unpleasant to meet a member a'yer family again."

Jedidiah released Ashley's hand and stepped backwards, his coat flaring dramatically. "I asked you not to call me that, Firehand. I know that we have a bit of a feud going, but that's no reason to be deliberately insulting."

Flame crackled to life around Tyler's gauntlet. "A 'bit' of a feud? Yer great-grandmother cost me my life, Herr Jones, and as long as Croft blood still flows in a human's veins, my hatred will burn."

Jed lifted one finger, the black surfaces of his glasses reflecting the light of Tyler's fire. "Or until you find the other Gauntlet, which is what I presume you're here to track down." Jed shook his head. "Sorry to disappoint you, m'man, but the rumors of a mysterious temple are entirely false. I've spent the last week here, and there's not a thing."

The fire flickered out around Tyler's hand. "Really?"

The trench-coated man nodded once and looked at the gauntleted man from over his sunglasses. "Yeah. In fact, this is my flight out, and I don't have time to kill you yet again. See ya!" With that, Jedidiah turned his back to both of them and walked up the passenger ramp.

As soon as the trench-coated man disappeared into the ship, Tyler turned to the side and grabbed at midair, his hand closing around an invisible cylinder. "How dare y'ditch me like that!"

"Ouch!" Ruben's arm slowly appeared in Tyler's grip, followed by the rest of the magician. "Hey, leggo my arm!"

Tyler didn't. "I'm a little ticked that ya didn't back me up. What reason d'ya got ta be afraid of that damn Jones?"

Ruben muttered something as he turned his head away, and Ashley moved closer. "Hey, now you've got me curious!" I don't think that Jed guy was so bad… he seemed to be my kinda people. But it seems that both of my traveling companions had problems with him…

After releasing Ruben's arm, Tyler took a step backwards. "C'mon, Ruben, we're buddies. You know why I don't like that bastard and all his kin; why can't ya tell me?"

The wizard sighed in exasperation and threw his hands into the air. "Fine, you want to know? I'll tell you. He spent three months chasing after me and my wife while we were adventuring in China, okay? He had the hots for her and for my female form, and if it's all right with you, I'd prefer to avoid any questions he might ask about… her." He looked away again.

When Tyler spoke again, his tone was much softer, almost apologetic. "I'm sorry, Ruben, I didn't know."

Ruben put his hand on Tyler's shoulder. "Why would you know about it? Now, let's get some rooms and figure out where this damn temple is. The sooner we get out of here, the happier I'll be."

Ruben turned and walked for the small terminal with Tyler close behind, but Ashley stood there a moment, his brow furrowing as he added this new data to the little he knew about his roommate. Ruben was married once? What happened to her?

He nodded as a memory of Ruben's desk and a pair of plain golden rings attached to a silver chain that hung from a nail on the upper shelf. Well, I guess those could be wedding rings….

Fortunately, it wasn't really his problem right now. In fact, his problem seemed to be—

Ashley held one hand up in the air as he rushed to the building his comrades had just disappeared into. "Hey, wait for me!"

"You want me to do what?!" Devan was not in a smiling, confident mood any more as he looked down at the table. "Dammit, Drum Major, I'm a mad scientist, not a—"

Drum Major Pip sniffled audibly, the pathetic sound echoing from under her visor. "But… but… you're the only one that I know who can help my poor darlings!"

French Horn One stepped next to Devan. His voice was grim and threatening. "I should remind you, Devan, zat you vill not find your vay out of zis place until you help us. Also, remember zat I could have left you to ze uncertain mercy of—"

Devan shuddered in distaste. "Fangirls. Ugh." He scowled for a moment, and then nodded, his face firming into a mask of determination. "Okay, I accept your charge. I'll perform the duty you've requested of me to the best of my ability."

Drum Major Pip turned her face to him, her voice shining with hope. "Really??"

Devan nodded once, then held up a finger. "I'll need some materials, though." He pointed the finger at a random marching band member in the background. "You! Get me ten thousand grams of grade-A fertilizer, stat! You! Get me a proper sunlamp, not this lousy piece of trash! You! Get me a watering can, and all of you, put a rush on it." He stroked one of his newly acquired patients. "All of their lives depend upon your speed."

As the chosen members rushed from the room, Devan examined the discolored surfaces of his charges grimly while the Drum Major put her head on the operating table and wept in desperate fear mingled with newfound faint hope.

"Please don't die on me, Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia…"

"—A tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port—"

"Are you sure that this is the right way?" Ruben held grimly to his focus on the wind spell that filled their tiny boat's sail and propelled them onward, despite the constant minor distractions: The wild rocking of the deck underneath his feet, the rushing sound of the wind past his ears, the almost intoxicatingly fresh scent in his nostrils, the—

"—Aboard this tiny ship. The mate was a mighty sailin' man—"

The gratingly off-key way that Ashley was singing as he held the till in the direction Tyler had told them to go…

"—The skipper, brave and sure—"

Tyler looked up from his 'map', the material of which, Ruben would swear, looked suspiciously like a dinner napkin someone had scrawled innumerable squiggly lines on while waiting for a meal. "Of course I'm sure. Why?"

"—One passenger set sail that day—"

Ruben said dryly, "Several things about this ocean voyage fail to fill me with confidence."

"—On a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour."

Ruben turned to look at Ashley. "Will you please stop singing?"

"Sure thing. All you had to do is ask." Ashley cleared his throat. "Speaking of asking, I've got a question, Tyler. That guy at the airport," Ashley paused for a moment, and Ruben could hear him scratching his head, "Jed, seemed pretty sure that there was nothin' out here."

Tyler interrupted with a scornful snort. "Jedidiah. A Jones couldn't treasure-hunt 'is way outta wet paper bag, as much as he'd wish otherwise."

Ruben said, "I see what he's asking, and I'm curious too. Just what kind of information are we relying on here?"

"Deathbed confession of a dying cultist who didn't want the secret of the temple to be lost with him."

The wizard nodded. "Oh, fairly normal then."

Ashley blinked. "…What?"

Tyler traced one finger along a squiggly line on his map and glanced at the fiery gem set into the back of his gauntlet. "Y'kin relax that wind spell, Ruben; we're in a current now." The adventurer leaned back in his small seat, carefully folding his map and putting it away.

Ruben lowered his hands and sat down himself, barely keeping his balance as the ship rocked underneath him. "What I don't get is why didn't you hire a friendly native guide while we were in town? You know how handy it is to have someone that knows the area."

Tyler smiled ruefully. "Y'know, actually… Friendly Native Guides, Inc. refuses to have anything t'do with me since the 'incident' with the armoire."

Ruben frowned for a moment, and then his expression cleared. "Ah, I remember hearing about that when I was a kid. But—"

The adventurer waved him silent, and then stood up, placing one foot on the prow of their small vessel. With one imperious gesture, he swung his arm out and pointed forward, shouting, "THAT IS OUR DESTINATION: THE TOWER OF THE PYTHON!!!!"

Ruben and Ashley took one look at the island that the current was speeding them towards and the… odd tower that rose, ridiculously majestic, from its highlands, and light blazed from the suspiciously grail-shaped beacon that had been placed on the very top of the tower. Tyler motioned for Ashley to steer them onto the beach, and the two roommates exchanged a glance which left unspoken the words,

This is going to get very, very, VERY weird…

Improvisation in the worst of circumstances was a family trait that Devan Wiley had inherited to the fullest and used all of his life. Whether constructing a warbot from empty beer cans and vacuum cleaner parts or slapping together a time-dilating device in order to write a forty-page paper on the nature of fifth-dimensional beings ten minutes before it was due, Devan had stretched his inborn talent to the fullest.

Today, he was beginning to fear, he had stretched that talent too far.

The mad scientist ran his fingers over the withering surface of a Chia frog and sighed inwardly. Where is that idiot with the fertilizer?

Chiapetology (as Devan had mentally named his new discipline) was a body of knowledge he could have done better without trying to learn. Circumstances, however, had forced him into this hole, and now…

"Vhat are you doing?"

He was wondering if he had a shovel big enough to dig himself out.

Metaphorically speaking.

Though a shovel, or any other blunt object, would come in handy should worst come to worst and he have to do something very un-metaphorical to get out of this trap.

After a moment, Devan realized that Olaf had asked him a question, and he hastened to answer. "I'm seeking out a method of introducing the fertilizer into the organisms living in the surface of this piece of clay."

Drum Major Pip shrieked shrilly, "Do not refer to my precious Chia pets in such a fashion!!"

Devan muttered something vile under his breath that in his homeworld's language could be loosely translated as, Shut up and let me do my job.

Very loosely.

One of his greatest annoyances with the tongue humans used most often is that it failed to have any truly vile curses; the words they used only involved simple natural processes of excretion and coupling. How was anyone supposed to express real anger at the state of the universe in general with lousy material like that?

The door banged open behind Devan, and he turned around to see the minion he'd sent for fertilizer. He set his face into grim lines. "Good, now all the tools are here. I only hope that it isn't too late to save them."

For the seventh time in as many minutes, Ruben said, "I can't believe I was stupid enough to actually follow you here." This time, he sounded almost… admiring. So far, he'd run the gamut from enraged to sorrowful to disbelieving, and Ashley was starting to place mental bets on when the sorcerer would finally run out of emotions to use with his annoyingly repetitive statement.

Tyler turned away from his work on the massive door that dwarfed all of them, its thirty-foot height driven deep into the cliff face below the tower that clawed at the clear tropical sky like a finger of black bone. "Look, Ruben, I'm tryin' ta disarm the physical traps on this door so y'can put paid t'the magical ones, 'kay? It's hard enough on my nerves without listenin' t'you whine about it, so if you don't mind I'd enjoy a bit of quiet."

 Rather than listen to the two of them argue, Ashley pointedly ignored them and looked the door over once more. He'd already examined it to the point of being bored with the eerie, eldritch, psychotic inlays of baroque gold that adorned every inch of its silvery surface.  He'd inspected it to the point of annoyance at the gargoyles of hideous aspect which guarded it from stations on pedestals and the wall — both around the door and above it. He'd rubbernecked at it to the point of nausea every time his eyes passed over one of the strangely familiar bas-relief carvings around which the inlays circled. Since the only alternative to staring at the door was going back to the boat and being bored there, Ashley continued to look at it anyway.

It wouldn't be so bad, he thought to himself uneasily, if only I didn't get the feeling that the door's staring back at ME…

All of a sudden, Ashley decided that listening to those two argue again was a lot better than staring at the door.

It wasn't the first time he'd made that decision this afternoon and, if things continued on this way, it wouldn't be the last.

"—every right to be angry! Spirits, Tyler, I don't want to mess with the Python's Children again. Ever. They're crazy!"

Tyler shook his head. "Rube, Rube, Rube; they ain't been here for fifty years. How in the 'eck d'ya think that idiot Jones didn't find a clue? The Python's Children ditched this place fer good after th'end of the last World War."

"How do you know that?" Ruben glared argumentatively at the adventurer, who shrugged.

"Stands t'reason. Y'don't build an ancient citadel in a far corner of the world, put your mysteriously enchanted treasure in it, staff it with hideous monsters and devious traps, then say, 'What a great neighborhood! Close to the primary school so little Jimmy doesn't have to take the bus, and the store is just a block away! Where's the nearest U-Haul so we can drop off our hovertruck?'"

Long silence followed his pronouncement.

"…You've got a good point there."        

Tyler nodded enthusiastically. "Ya see?" He turned back to the door and gave it one final tweak with an unseen tool. "There ya go, Ruben, do yer stuff."

The wizard glared at the door, and…

It swung open slowly.

Tyler made a grandiose gesture. "After you, gentlemen."

Ruben rattled her chains with a disgruntled expression, seeking any weakness, any slight hole, in the wards that shielded them from her magic. "Of course the tower will be abandoned. Stands to reason, doesn't it?" she asked Tyler sarcastically.

"…Shut up."

Finding no weaknesses in the enchantment didn't help Ruben's mood a bit. She shook her head and wondered for a moment how things had come to this desperate pass.

At first, things had been quite easy and, in fact, fairly standard. The miniature tanks and other robots on the first basement were an odd twist to the usual monsters, but one that didn't make too much of a practical difference. The traps on the second floor had been very… odd… but amusing nonetheless, with their…

It was on the third floor, with the tests of strength, intelligence, and skill, that it had all gone, in scientific terms, south.

Tears of frustration and rage leaked down her cheeks as she pulled at her chains again, this time trying to break them with strength. After only a few moments, she relaxed, this time nearly spitting out a curse that would have surely set fire to the stone and made their situation even worse, if that was even possible. Well, if that lunkhead Ashley couldn't do it, I suppose that these weak little girly arms can't either.

It was with no small amount of scorn that her thoughts went to the martial artist chained beside her, and no small amount of truth that she placed the blame for their current straights upon his broad shoulders.

She shook her head. We were doing so WELL, too…

Ashley attracted Ruben's attention with a rattle of his chains. "Ruben, just what kind of spell were you trying to cast anyway?"

Ruben looked away for a moment and mumbled incoherently for a moment. "I… I tried to teleport us all outta there." She glared at both Ashley and Tyler, sure that they were subtly accusing her of something. "How was I supposed to know that they had a diversion trap set to catch anyone that tried to teleport out?"

The silence that followed spoke volumes, and Ruben sighed. I guess, in the end, we're all at fault. Now, if that ain't the story of my life—

The only door to the room opened with a scream of ancient iron scraping across stone, shattering Ruben's thoughts. She winced and reached for her ears, but her chains clanked just a few inches short. Oh, the pain, the pain, the AWFUL pain of that… noise! What kind of demented torment is this?

The screech didn't die down at once when the door stopped swinging, but slowly doppled away, occasionally rising back up to a sudden gut-wrenching squeal that had Ruben wincing in agony seconds after it ground to a halt, revealing the hunched figure who had initiated its slow movement inwards.

The figure limped forward, and Ruben noted, with some interest, that it had lightened a very dark natural complexion with some sort of powder, and had affixed several false warts, and had… well…

Put together a not-particularly skilled costume in order to convey the feeling of a terribly deformed jail guard.

In fact, the hump on his back was just a bunch of cloth stuffed under his shirt! You could see it through the holes!

The hunchback opened his mouth, exposing teeth blackened with an inexpert application of soot, and said, "Good afternoon, guests. Is there anything I could do to make your admittedly short stay with us more comfortable, is there anything that you would desire for a last meal, and is just after tea-time a terribly inconvenient time to sacrifice you to our Dark Gods?"

He sounded honestly deferential and polite, so much so that after a moment of disbelieving silence, Ruben asked, "And if we say it's an inconvenient time?"

"Then we apologize for the inconvenience."

This time, there was nothing deferential or polite about his statement. It was flatly menacing, carrying something that was less a threat and more a promise that, no matter how the three chained companions protested or fought, there was nothing they could do to resist their fate.

Feeling weak and small, as much chained by her form as her inability to touch her magic, Ruben couldn't think of any way to argue with that.

Devan pulled the surgical gloves from his hands and dropped them into the disposal, finally free to scratch the itch on his neck. He did so, looking down at his patients, and thought to himself, Was it a good thing or an evil thing that I did this? It IS helping the Drum Major, a sworn enemy, but…

As if thinking of her had attracted her attention, Drum Major Pip grabbed one of his hands and brought it to her lips, kissing it profusely. "Oh, thank you, thank you! However can we repay you for the service you have done us on this day?"

The mad scientist waved one hand idly. "Well, how about this: The next time you want to conquer the campus, give me adequate warning to prepare my defenses against you?"

For a moment, the Drum Major considered that, her helmet tilting to one side, and then she nodded sharply, the plume almost flying into Devan's eyes. "Very well, I accept your proposal."

Olaf Beefcake raised one hand. "Vait, Mistress. He iz ze one vho can…"

She silenced him with a sharp gesture. "It is nothing more than a trifle, French Horn One! We can give him such a minor thing; it will make no difference in the end. Now," she motioned to another of her minions, who rushed forward, "Piccolo Three will escort you from this place."

"Yes, Drum Major! Oh, thank you, Drum Major!"

"Silence!" she snapped.

Devan stepped forward. "Sounds great. You realize, of course, that the next time we meet, we'll be enemies and all that dramatic garbage, right?"

Even though he couldn't see into the recessed shadows of her face, concealed by the visor on her helmet, he was certain that she smiled predatorily. "I wouldn't have it any other way. Ahee-HEE-hee-he-HE!!!!"

Devan took one last look over his shoulder at the operating table and thought to himself again, Whether or not doing this was an aid to good or evil, all that matters is that I did it WELL. That's the Mad Scientist credo; whether saving a man's life or sewing together a new man out of discarded parts, the only thing that matters is that you don't do a slip-shod job about it.

As soon as the door swung shut, French Horn One spoke. "I cannot believe zat you gave him such a boon, Mistress."

Drum Major Pip shook her head slowly. "That's why I'm the evil mastermind and you're the right-hand man, French Horn One: I know how to twist my words just enough to convey the impression that I've kept my promises.

"I gave my word that I would give him adequate warning the next time I attack, to be sure." Her smile grew broader. "I'm sure that the battering rams on his door will be more than enough warning…"

"Couldn't we find another way to make up for our crime?" Ruben asked desperately, looking up at the person who was busily affixing her chains to a fairly standard bloodstained sacrificial altar placed at the base of a statue dedicated to their terrible, dark god.

The fact that the statue was of a middle-aged gentleman wearing a threadbare bathrobe added to the surreality of the whole place.


Of course, his face was a masterpiece of menace, sneering down at the world cruelly as if everything in it weren't worthy to kiss his flip-flop clad feet.

The robed man standing beside her looked shocked, or at least as shocked as a sinister face half-masked by the shadows of his hood can. "'Some other way?!' I've spent twelve years behind the knife, boy and cultist, and you want me to resolve it some other way?" He huffed. "What kind of bloody halfwit do you take me for?"

Ruben glared up at him and said with a bitter note in her voice, "All right, fine, I guess this means we won't be friends. But…"

"Nonsense! Just because I'm about to kill you in cold blood as a part of a ritual sacrifice is no reason we can't be civil to each other. Why, just the other day, I was having this chat with one young lady who was a botanist. Afterwards, she hardly screamed when the knife went in.  Charming lady, really." After a moment's thought, he added, "But what?"

"WHY DO I HAVE TO WEAR THIS?!?!" She rattled her chains again and added firmly, "It's very cold in here, you know."


The hooded man looked even more shocked. "But the silks and jewels and bangles are traditional! You don't sacrifice a beautiful young woman clad in a practical pair of trousers and a long-sleeved shirt with years of wear left in it. Stands to reason." He busied himself with the chains on her left side, gradually tightening them.

Ruben muttered, "I've been hearing that phrase too often lately…"

And then she felt something stir in her mind. Rather than try to pin it down and capture it, only to watch it fly away, she distracted herself by continuing her conversation, as pointless as it seemed.


"What about them?" She nodded towards where her companions were still chained to the ceremonial slabs they'd been wheeled in on. "They don't have to wear… silk and metal bits." She moved what little of her body she could, and jangling ornaments bobbled and rang against each other.

There it was again, like a thread at the edge of a shirt. Ruben picked at it, trying to draw out more…

The hood shook back and forth. "Well, they wouldn't look very good in silk and metal bits, would they?"

"A good point," Ruben conceded absently, "but one that could be argued if I felt like it."


"That chanting is starting to get on my freakin' nerves, Mr. Robe."

The robe's shoulder's moved up and down as the man inside shrugged. "Can't be helped. You know congregations; always have to be chanting something…"

And she shuddered in a mixture of relief and anticipation. There it was, a trace of power, a wisp of magic, dancing in her fingers.

For a moment, the wizard thought about using the power to burst the shackles like fireworks, sending white-hot shards of metal scything through the room, but sadly what she had wasn't enough to do that job.

In fact, it wasn't enough for any flashy magic that she could easily call to mind.

So, she used a different mind.

It's a commonly unknown fact about sorcery that magic lies in how you think about it.

If, as a random example, a young magician was raised and trained to believe that every single spell he were to cast required a wand cut from a willow tree of no more than ten summers with dust from a phoenix's nest and three hairs from a goat with a patch of black fur shaped like a torch, then that's what he would need.

Take that wand away from him, and he's nothing more than a schoolboy with bad eyesight and an odd scar on his forehead.

On the other hand, when you only have to point the wand at someone to make them burst into flames, you generally have an edge over that same someone who has to chant for five seconds for a similar effect.

The summary of this is that, to bend the universe, you have to think a certain way, or else that fraction of doubt starts to creep in…

Are you really able to make all of his particles combust into flames at the same time?

Can you really fly so high that migrating ducks consider you a hazard?

Is that summoning circle holding the multi-tentacled monster really drawn well enough to keep it in?

Of course, that means what Ruben had decided to do was clearly impossible, but thankfully she'd been raised to believe otherwise.

Ruben probed her chains with a mental finger, not certain what she could do but determined to keep an open mind to the possibilities.

Unfortunately, even with her fresh mindset, her chains proved to be very sturdy constructions, impervious to her every thought.


The altar gave a tortured grate of stone on stone as it slowly turned to face the statue. "Read the sacred words of our Dark God, the Mighty Cleese," intoned the robed figure, who was unsheathing a knife with ritual slowness even as he spoke, "and despair!"

Her eyes traveled downwards to read the words etched into the statue's base even as she directed her attention to the chains that bound her companions.

Tyler's chains were as strong as hers, if not stronger; she could feel his power like a blaze being held back by a gossamer-thin scarf. Her mental fingers leapt backwards as if burnt and she cursed mentally. If the Firehand were free, he could burn this lot to the ground and not break a sweat.


Slowly, the words inscribed made its way through her eyes and to her mind. They caught at her sanity, tugging it downward, away from her magic and into the real world once more.

"SPAM!! SPAM!!! SPAM!!!! SPAM!!!!!"

Indeed they were terrible words, and Ruben had to read them aloud to get the fullest sense of them.

"'Get off my lawn, you filthy buggers'?"

The cultist looked embarrassed, or at least as embarrassed as a shadowed cowl towering above a helpless maiden sacrifice can. "Yes, well, even though they are not his more… quotable lines or from any of the established Holy Scenes, they are the Mighty Cleese's sacred words which he spoke to us more than once. You shall despair upon reading them!!"

"…They're not very good sacred words."

"Well, they're the only ones he's ever said to us, aside from the occasional 'Piss off!" The cultist gestured with his unsheathed knife, and something about its shape nagged at Ruben's attention. "We traveled back through a thousand years of time to worship at our Dark God's feet, and while it was a bit of a downer to hear 'Piss off, the lot of you!' from him, we'll never forsake our belief!"

He raised the dagger up high, and started preaching to the crowd of robed people watching. Ruben, not sure how much longer the man would keep that suspiciously avian-shaped dagger out of her flesh, traced her attention over to Ashley's chains.

And there it was.

The cultists had been less attentive to his chains, noting that the martial artist had no magical abilities and deciding that their newer, fancier chains, with the wards carved into the very cold iron itself and a hundred prayers said while forging them with a hammer of silver, would be wasted on him. Instead, they'd used older chains, still plenty of wear in them; no way he could break them…


Ruben encouraged that sense of age in them, making the chains older by leaps and bounds, forcing them beyond the time when they would have long since crumbled to dust, only a faint memory of the metal remaining—

And with a soft sound, the manacles binding Ashley fell away.

It was another credit to the martial artist's training that he didn't hesitate a split second to take stock of his new freedom. Instead, he leapt for the altar and kicked the knife out of the robed man's hand even as it dived for Ruben's (relatively) unclothed chest.

The whisper of power was fainter now, almost gone entirely, but Ruben gathered what was left carefully, because she had the feeling she'd need it in a second.

Ashley leapt over her altar again, giving her a quick grin, and dived for the general pile of cultists that were rushing up the broad steps. Ruben leaned back her head and closed her eyes to focus better, dancing her attention between the cultists and Ashley.

What she sensed didn't bode well. If the vaguest impressions of the near future were true, then it was quite likely to be very short for them all. Ashley, while strong, couldn't outfight a hundred-odd cultists without getting tired first, and once he got tired, he got knocked out, and once he got knocked out…

Well, that was back to Altar One, and since Ruben didn't want to spend the last moments of her life staring cross-eyed at an oddly-shaped knife, she had to figure out some way to alter the odds.

Fortunately she had the tools right at hand, so to speak.

Quickly, she ran back over her memories of the first day she'd met Ashley, recalling how he had beaten his way through a dozen of the finest hand-to-hand robots that Wiley had ever constructed. Rapidly, she considered all the events of that day, and the conclusion that she came to was swift and sure.

Ashley was the only thing standing in the way of Ashley. He was very, very strong, stronger than he'd like to admit, and Ruben knew how to bring out the warrior in him. Her attention went to Ashley's mind, which was a sharply focused arrow. Her work was even easier than she'd anticipated at this point, and carefully (lest she do damage to her friend), she inserted a layer of numbness between this part here and that part there….

The martial artist went down under a pile of bodies, the cultists using their massed weight to hold him down, and Ruben heard Tyler shout, "NOOO!"

Then, the cultists started flying away from him as if someone had placed dynamite beneath them, soaring into the air gracelessly. One of them hit the base of Ruben's swiveling altar, and it fell backwards under the bone-crunching impact, presenting Ruben with a perfect (albeit upside down) view of where Ashley was floating in midair above a pile of cultists.

A visible aura was blazing around him, covering his body with golden fire. His hair was on end, as if electricity was dancing through his body, and had turned a shade of blonde even more brilliant than its usual color. He slowly raised his hands to his eye level and clenched them into fists. He turned slowly, his feet four feet above the ground, and said one word:


Tyler gasped. "He's gone Super-Sanji-dude! I ain't seen such a battle aura since the Ultimate Martial Surfing Championships of aught six, dagnabit!"

Ruben shook her head and thought to herself, Maybe I overdid it a bit…

Then, the walls started to vibrate, and a high-pitched sound, somewhere between a scream and a whistle, echoed through the chamber. Ruben listened carefully to the scream, trying to find words, and when she heard them her blood ran cold.

Spammity-spam-spam! Spammity-spam-spam!

Slowly, she turned her head to look at the still-chained Tyler, and they exchanged a single terror-filled look before he mouthed to her a word that she wouldn't have heard over the scream even if he shouted it. Ruben knew the word he'd uttered, though, and having someone confirm her fears only increased them tenfold.

Shivering, she wrenched at her chains, not wanting to be found helpless by the apparition that she could even now feel approaching, like a clammy mist of evil oozing across her exposed skin, but the fall she'd taken hadn't loosened her chains an iota. Once again, she wished in vain that they'd at least given her MORE clothes; maybe the mist would have felt less intrusive if it weren't flowing across her damn—

Ashley landed on the ground, the flagstones crackling under his feet, and he shouted, "THE DUDE MAKIN' THAT UNRIGHTEOUSLY UPSETTIN' NOISE BETTER SLIDE OUT HERE BEFORE I HIT FIVE!" He held out one hand with all his fingers extended, then slowly curled in one.

"ONE!" Several of the smaller statues lining the room began to crack and fall to pieces as the entire building seemed to vibrate even more urgently in response to his demands. Another finger curled into the forming fist.

"TWO!" Ruben watched, her mouth suddenly dry, as a black fog started seeping out of the ceiling. She tried to shout a warning to Ashley, but her throat refused to work as a sense of helplessness crept over her. She knew, knew that it was only an illusion, but when you're chained to a rock and watching your own doom approach, illusion can become reality. A third finger curled in.


The shoggoth struck Ashley before he finished the syllable, sending him flying into a wall with a sound that echoed in the sudden silence. He cratered the wall, then slowly slid down it, his golden glow buried in a pile of rubble and broken statues.

With a sudden calmness that told her she'd gone beyond terror and into something much, much worse, Ruben studied the shoggoth carefully. She knew of them, to be certain, and knew certain ways to defeat them, but since the most certain way to defeat one was to be on a different continent and hope someone else dealt with it, her basic knowledge didn't help much. She mumbled to herself a rote lesson on the dread creature as it floated in midair, slowly turning this way and that as if not accustomed to the real world.

"A newborn shoggoth is shapeless, its creator gifting it with forms dredged from his deepest fears. As it ages in malevolence, it chooses forms that satisfy it and will gradually harden into those shapes; from this comes many of our most monstrous legends. You can tell how old a shoggoth is simply by watching it…"

And so, she watched as it flickered in form, first becoming a terrible beast, more tooth-filled slavering maw than body, then becoming a cat raised up on two legs, its eyes filled with hate for all that lived, then becoming (for some unknowable reason) a giant, disembodied foot that stomped its way towards the rubble that buried Ashley. It's not very old, she thought to herself, and if I wasn't chained, I could probably destroy it, and I know for sure that TYLER could destroy it, but… The big toe kicked aside an outlying block of stone, and Ruben gave herself up totally to despair. I'm doomed.

The pile of rubble exploded outward just like the pile of cultists had earlier, and the shoggoth reeled backwards as a brilliant flare smashed into it, sending shards of black matter flying all over the cavernous room. A block of stone crashed into the stone bare inches from Ruben's arm, spraying her with bits of rock and iron that cut into her.

She raised her left hand up to wipe at the blood on her face, and stared incredulously at it for a moment before joy, and magic, suffused her. I'm free!

Her powers were still dampened by the other three cuffs, but a fourth was plenty enough to lend a hand to Ashley—

A shape shimmered out of the thin air next to the altar, and another robed man, this one with a long staff raised above his head. He had a slim goatee and was looking down at her with a supercilious expression.

"Nae, yung garlie, ye die, and yer bluid will gie power to our Dark God."

Ruben sneered. "You'd think that your Dark God could've at least given you a better writer, because that line was even sadder than 'Get off my lawn, you filthy buggers'. And what kind of accent was that supposed to be? Cockney? Welsh? Because it sure as hell wasn't Scottish."

The magus paused for a moment and looked stricken, speaking in a completely normal tone of voice. "Oh dear, you're right! That line was lame! And my accent is terrible! However shall I live it down?" A smirk twisted his mouth. "Oh wait, I know how; I'll just butcher you and tell them I said something much cooler than that, and that you were stupid enough to think my accent was real." He waved his staff and started the magical combat.

Ruben was upside down. She was very cold and bleeding from painful nicks all up and down her left side. She could only use a fourth of her true power, and the man standing over her was surrounded by the glow of magical artifacts that were probably raising his power to near demigod levels.

Ruben grinned. It was nice to have an even fight for a change.

The hanging sorceress deflected his first attack away from her with a casual wave, the bolt of ochre energy blasting an oblong crater in the stone floor. She conjured forth a blast of her own, sending a cone of smaller crimson bolts forth from her hand. He swung his staff in a wide circle, absorbing them with ease, and then pointed it at her, a visible corona of darkness building around the end.

This time, Ruben didn't play around with her attack, striking swiftly and surely. She reached out with fingers of pure magical energy and…

Tugged at the man's leg, pulling it out from underneath him.

He fell to the ground heavily, his half-finished spell flying upwards to strike the ceiling. White-hot shards of rock rained down from the hole it blasted, and Ruben considered her next strategy carefully as the man struggled back to his feet. He's a little too strongly defended for a conventional spell, but he obviously isn't prepared against unconventional attacks…

A glint of metal just out of her hand's reach attracted her attention.

This time, as he looked down at Ruben, the man was wearing an absolutely furious expression. He waved one hand through a rapid pass, chanting like a man possessed, a blinding aura of green forming around his body—

The magus reeled backwards, his spell flickering out and fading as the staff dropped from his suddenly limp fingers, both his hands moving to the hilt of the dagger that was protruding from under his jaw. Slowly, it slid out, and the bloodstained sacrificial blade clattered to the floor only moments before the magus fell himself.

Ruben clucked to herself as she set to freeing herself. A magician should never forget that no matter how powerful or mighty you are, a dagger will seriously cramp your style. She smiled wryly as the cuff around her right hand dissolved. Just my good luck that it happened to be close enough to me to levitate it to my hand.

Both of the chains around her feet shattered simultaneously, and Ruben grinned… just before she slid unceremoniously down the slab's face and landed in a heap on the very hard ground. Finally free to fully exercise her frustration, she spat a curse that shattered the altar into dust.

"That feels better."

Ruben looked up at Tyler, who was stretching both his arms above his head to the sound of vertebrae cracking. She pointed one finger. "How the heck did you get out?!"

He stopped stretching and shrugged. "The shoggoth's presence weakened the binding magic in m'manacles, and I broke free. Ya musta come ta the same conclusion, am I right?"

Ruben almost, almost glanced guiltily at the rock that had shattered the chain on her left arm, but her pride was far too strong to admit to any weakness in her spirit, no matter how temporary. "Of course I did!" she said indignantly. "Now, let's get to helping Ash—"

Tyler interrupted. "He's fine on his own, Rube."

For the first time in nearly a minute, Ruben looked over at the martial artist, and her eyes opened wide in shock.

The shoggoth was barely a fourth of its initial size, and was shrinking rapidly under the assault that Ashley was forcing upon it, its shape formless, unable to keep itself solid. The evil thing was struggling to strike back at the martial artist, but its movements were sluggish and slow, the pseudopods it had sprouted as a final measure of defense missing the martial artist more wildly with every swing.

Ruben heard Tyler say, "Well, I'm off ta look fer the treasure room; I'm sure you kids can handle this, see ya at th'boat!"

"Hey, wait—" she started to say as she turned to face the adventurer again, but he was already gone. Disgruntled, she finished, "—just a damn minute…"

 The shoggoth made a noise that sounded as if it were trying to cry out again to freeze their blood in terror, but now it sounded reedy, wavering, and almost terrified. Ruben watched as the creature made one final lunge at the golden man, who laughed and stood there, letting it destroy itself upon his aura, burning its corporeal form away with a frying, crackling noise.

Ruben smiled, and anyone looking at her would have sworn that it was a maternal smile. "I do good work…"

Finally, it was just Ashley standing there, his hair still golden, the aura fading away very slowly, one fist in the air. "BOO-YAKA! I totally fustigated that lusing tard!"

A frown slowly overtook the smile on Ruben's face. "Maybe I do too good of work…"

The martial artist almost seemed to flicker; one moment, he was standing in the middle of the room, the next he was beside Ruben, almost bouncing up and down with the power that was visibly leaking from him. "Rube-dude, the absolute awesomeness of this radical energy that is totally flowing through every inch of my bod is not to be underestimated, dude! Dude? DUDE!!!"

Ruben blinked. He just said 'dude' three times in a row? That doesn't bode well for his sanity… I don't know if I can fix what I've done. She scowled. I suppose that I HAVE to try, though. I can't spend half of my time filtering out his overuse of annoying, slang-based adjectives.

The martial artist started shadowboxing, as though remaining still for even a few moments were an incredible effort. "Yo, Ruben, whatcha thinkin'?"

She muttered, "That I have to distract you somehow, lest your incredible reflexes strike me down before you can restrain them…"


The magician pointed. "Look over there!"

"Huh?" Ashley looked…

And Ruben struck.

Ruben noticed that, however tough and strong his physical form had been made by her magic, his mind had been made even stronger. It was like trying to capture fog in bare hands; she knew it was there, but it slipped between her mental fingers like so much mist.

It wasn't an impossible job, it was just annoying, surprising, and very, very tasking, especially with how distracting the sand was that kept on dropping into her hair…

As she untangled her consciousness from Ashley's, her work complete, Ruben brushed the sand from her hair and looked at her fingers for a moment, realizing what it meant. Slowly, she looked up at the ceiling, and when she saw it sagging down, she grabbed Ashley's hand and screamed, "RUN!!!"

Ruben started rummaging in the backpack she'd left in the boat, looking for a change of clothes. "Man, these things are cold. How can maiden sacrifices stand to wear these things?"

The island was almost gone now, the only part showing above the water a tower that was listing to one side. Ashley stared back at it. "I can't believe Tyler never showed up. How could you have abandoned him?"

Ruben paused in her search for something warmer and looked at the martial artist. "He's the sort of person who stays past the last minute to loot the treasure. So far, counting this one, I've been in three close escapes with him, and he's never made it out in time." She shrugged. "Don't worry about it; he's naturally suited to die in the entire collapse of a sacred temple once the sacrilegious looters have removed the holiest artifacts."

"…Suited to die?!"

"Yeah, he's cursed with immortality." The magician stood up and motioned. "Turn around, please." Ashley did so, keeping his mind firmly off the subject of silk and spangly bits, and Ruben kept speaking over the rustle of cloth. "He spends his life looking for the matching gauntlet so he can finally die. That's as much as I know about him, really." A splash sounded, and Ruben added, "You can turn around now."

The martial artist didn't. "So you're saying that he'll be back?"

"Like a bad penny."

"….Okay." Ashley bent down and picked up an object he vaguely remembered Ruben tossing into the boat as she'd pushed it off the beach. He turned it over and over as he swiveled on the seat to face Ruben again. "This is one of those knives that they were gonna use to sacrifice you, right?"

Ruben nodded and held out one hand, so Ashley handed it over. "Yeah, it is. I picked it up as a… souvenir, I guess you could say." She held it up into the air, sunlight glinting from its acid-etched surface, and Ashley asked the question that had been preying on his mind from the first moment he'd seen the cultist holding it over her.

"Why in the hell would a cult called the Children of the Python shape their daggers like a dead parrot?"


To be continued.

Episode 4
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