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Drum Major Pip was a woman of simple tastes. Chia pets, world conquest, a freshly-pressed uniform, a legion of feet hitting the ground in unison with the music, a fluffy plume atop an impeccably polished hat…

She turned to her second-in-command, French Horn One, and gestured grandly with her baton. "Isn't it glorious?"

In his rolling Bavarian accent, he said, "Yes, it is, Mistress. But…."

Drum Major Pip frowned. "But?"

"Vhat about ze fact zat zere are fewer students marching here zan vere signed up? Do you zink zat zey vere varned of us?"

The Drum Major waved one hand airily as she turned back to her practicing stormtroo… er, marching band. "Details, details. The troops we have are more than sufficient to accomplish our goals."

Olaf Beefcake (more commonly known as French Horn One) knew his duties as an Evil Commander's lieutenant. One of those duties (the most onerous, as he saw it) was feeding lines to the Evil Commander when the situation required it. He sighed, faced up to his grim duty, and fed gamely.

"Vhat are our goals zis year, Drum Major?"

"AHEHEEheheheeHEEEHEhee!!" Drum Major Pip cackled. "The same goal we have every year, French Horn One! To first conquer the campus, and then… THE WORLD!!!"

Kyouki no Kyanpasu
(Crazy Campus)

An original story
by Aaron Bergman

© Copyright 2002-2005 by Aaron Berman.

Episode Five: Freshman Orientation

"Ah, this is your captain speaking." The speaker crackled once as the captain paused. "We apologize for the delay caused by the engine failure, and those who missed connections will be given data on their new flights as soon as we land. We are now approaching Serenity City, and I'm going to turn the main hull transparent. Those of you who suffer from agoraphobia, please signal the flight attendant for medication."

Thirty seconds after the speaker gave one final crackle, the floor underneath the passengers, the walls around them, even the seats under them wavered as a wash of color rippled from the front of the cabin to the rear. The first wave was quickly followed by a wave of pure black, then another of pearl white; behind the white came a crystal clarity, as though the solid steel had become glass.

Jedidiah Jones adjusted his sunglasses and turned his attention to the city spread out underneath him, going over it with his archeologist's eye and historian's prospective. This was his first visit to this city, which seemed odd when he considered it for a moment, but perhaps it had been fate not to see it until today.

Several seconds of wide-eyed gawking later, Jedidiah had to remind himself sternly that, no matter what wondrous sights were spread before his adoring eyes, forgetting to breathe was an unhealthy idea.

It was a paradox, a mishmash of disparate ethnic and historical styles that managed to blend together into one harmonious weave. If the city designers had had a motif in mind before first breaking ground, it was to express the domiciles of mankind throughout the ages, to show where man had been, and from there to show where he was rising to. The sheer impossibility of their idea having worked so completely staggered even his jaded sensibilities.

He watched in fascination as sprawling apartment complexes styled as Arabic castles and towering skyscrapers in the currently popular "crystal tower" motif slid underneath him as they flew over a borderline between a residential and commercial area. Temporarily hypnotized by the light glinting off a faceted tower, he wrenched his gaze away as the campus where he'd be spending the next seven years of his life came into view.

The grounds were arranged in a set of six golden rings that Jed took for footpaths. Along the two outside rings were the parking lots and buildings that were, most probably, dorms. Around the two middle rings were the lecture halls and laboratories. Perhaps two dozen paths, made out of the same almost-golden material, pierced the outer rings, stopping at the center ring.

The center ring was a quad area or something similar, but arranged very oddly. Inside the ring was a triangle made out of the path material, and inside that was yet another triangle. Jed was nagged by something for a few moments, then smiled as he realized what it was.

He reached inside the long, dark leather Trench Coat of Many Pockets that he'd been given by an ancient enchanter for services rendered a long, long time ago. After several seconds of rummaging for the right magical pocket, Jedidiah pulled out his latest notebook and the short stub of pencil tucked into the spine, jotting down: The entire campus resembles a giant magic ritual pattern, scored into the earth. The only ritual circles I've seen on this scale are those scored by Native Americans in ancient times.

He was about to replace his notebook inside his trench coat, then, after looking mournfully at what little remained of his pencil, added a further note. Have to get more pencils soon.

The hull shimmered again, turning it visible once more. The captain's voice echoed once more over the intercom. "We'll be landing soon. Please buckle your safety belts just in case." Jed, still lost in consideration of what going to a school that was, more or less, a gigantic magic amplifying circle, bucked the belt absently.

When a slight bump indicated the airship's return to earth, Jed unbuckled and stood up, reaching into the overhead compartment for his one small bag. He actually didn't need one, because his trench coat held everything he could possibly need, but he knew from experience that airport security looked at you funny if you didn't have at least one bag.

Jed joined the slow stream of people heading into the terminal, not stopping until a smiling young woman said to him, "I see from this terminal that you had—" She glanced away from him. "—three weapons declared? May I please inspect them?"

He looked over his sunglasses at her and smiled wryly. "Of course." He placed his old revolver down on the table, then unsheathed an even older katana and put it next to the revolver, and last was….

The customs agent held up the last item, and her eyebrow quirked as the leather creaked. "A whip, Mr. Jones?"

Jedidiah smiled. "Family tradition." He began rummaging through his wallet. "Of course I have a permit for them all, Ms.—" He looked at her nametag. "—Desidorata."

He handed her his ident key, and she ran it through the scanner, watching the results carefully. Finally, she looked up, her eyes wide. "Yes, everything seems to be in order here, Mr. Jones. And may I say, it's a very impress—"

"What do you mean, I have to have a permit?!" The young woman's voice that stridently cut through conversation throughout the terminal contained equal amounts of anger and alarm, and Jed turned automatically towards the sound of a maiden in distress.

In the sudden quiet, the inspector's response was clearly audible. "Yes, ma'am. I'm afraid that a permit is required for any weapons that travel overseas."

Jed stepped up and saw the staff that had been set down on the table. "Excuse me?" Both the woman and the customs agent looked at him, and he gave the girl a quick once-over. She looked Japanese and was dressed in remarkably loose, comfortable clothing. Her long black hair was bound back into a simple ponytail, and her shockingly blue eyes pierced her with the same honest appraisal that he was giving her. A slight smile curved his lips. I like her.

"What's the problem here?"

"That's my own business!" She turned away from him, obviously expecting him to go away, but a Jones never gives up that easily.

He picked up the bo staff. "Is this the item in contention?" For a moment, Jed almost dropped it at the sheer feeling of power the thing gave off, then he nodded. The Orb of K'Chiros? The Moon Scepter? Yeah, that was the last time I felt something like this… Powerful transformation magic indeed.

The customs agent smiled thinly. "Yes it is." Then he turned to the young woman, and his smile disappeared. "Now, if you don't have a permit, I'm afraid that I'll have to confiscate it."

Jed shook his head. "Oh no, I don't think she needs a permit."

"Oh, and why is that?" The customs agent had a very impressive frown, Jed thought absently as the man turned its full effects on him. Jed smiled back.

"Because this isn't just a weapon, Mr.—" Jed did the nametag thing again. "—Harvey. It's a—" He winked at the customs agent. "—henshin shtick… er, stick. Transformational magic, that sort of thing. You know the laws regarding people who use that kind of enchantment and so do I, even if it's this young woman's first time out of her home country."

Jed handed the bo staff back to the girl. "See, no problems at all!" He turned to the customs agent, who was opening and closing his mouth in stupefaction. "Harvey, I suggest that you study up on the common sense if you think that harassing someone that works for Her is a good idea."

He didn't bother naming the Her, and the customs agent turned first gray, then white, as the implication became clear.

The young woman's mouth gaped open as she thought it through too, then closed with a snap. "But I don't—"

Jed interrupted the young woman quickly. "I'm Jedidiah Jones, but you can call me Jed. Can I treat you to a quick meal?" He offered his arm.

The young woman ignored the arm, but smiled at Jed briefly. "My name is Reiko, and no, you can't. I'm supposed to catch a ride with a relative." She walked away quickly, and Jed stared after her. The customs agent let out a short, braying laugh, his shock already dying away.

"Not used to having them ignore you, pretty boy?"

Jed turned to the agent and looked at the man over his glasses again, this time frowning. "Of course I am." His frown disappeared. "It's the ones who reject me that become… interesting." Without another word, he strode out of the custom's inspection, stopping only to retrieve his weapons from Ms. Desidorata's table.

After a short walk, the glass doors of the main entrance closed behind him, shutting out the throngs of the airport. He smiled and stretched as the cool California breeze ruffled his hair. I'm going to like it here. It seems so peaceful and quiet.

Ashley Raine, martial artist extraordinaire, kicked a loose rock despondently. The rock bounced and clattered down the rubble-strewn pathway, finally coming to rest against a rusty girder that poked like a broken tooth from the earth.

The school had changed a lot in the last few days, since Lilah had disappeared. Students had been moving into the dorms, professors who taught no summer classes were striding the halls, and the once-deserted little skate park that Ashley had taken to practicing in was becoming more and more crowded with his brethren, the skaters of all types.

All of that activity should have cleared the gloom that hung over him constantly, but… nothing doing. Despite the way that Ruben had assured him Lilah’s disappearance wasn’t his fault, despite the way that her boyfriend, the Gweep, didn’t seem to blame him, Ashley still felt responsible.

The only silver lining to her disappearance, of course, is that she wouldn’t be peeling off Ashley’s skin, inch by inch, for the damage to what remained of her bike.

But even with that thought uppermost in his mind, Ashley had returned to this park where she’d vanished a half-dozen times, searching for some clue, any clue, about where Lilah might be now. The more that everyone around him repeated that he shouldn’t feel guilty, the guiltier it made him feel…

And that wasn't even the thing he felt the worst about. Ashley stared down at his hands for a moment, then clenched them into fists. No, the thing he felt the worst about was….

"You make me sick, you know that?"

Startled that he hadn't felt the presence of anyone nearby, Ashley looked up and saw Ruben sitting on a girder fifteen feet almost directly above him. Her hair had been pulled out of its customary ponytail and it danced loosely in the fresh breeze, and her brow was furrowed in an unusual expression of disgust as she looked down at him, tapping a long staff against the girder.

Angrily, Ashley said, "I make you sick? I make you sick? For the last few days, all you've been able to tell me is that 'Lilah'll be all right, don't worry about her', and 'C'mon, it wasn't even your fault, don't be so down about it!' You walk around as though nothing happened, and meantime—"

Ruben pushed herself off the girder suddenly, and Ashley took a step back as she landed on the ground lightly, a rush of wind blowing the dust away from her feet. She jabbed the end of the staff into the martial artist's chest and spat, "What right do you have to feel bad about Lilah? You barely knew her, you dreck-headed ignorant primitive!" Some of the anger faded from her eyes as she withdrew the staff and planted it into the ground, leaning against it with a weary sigh.

"I'm only going to say this once, Ashley. Your attitude is so selfish that I can barely stand to look at you. You act as though this were all your fault — we're all big boys and girls, and this heroing stuff has consequences that we all know about, even if school is a vacation from it sometimes. You act like Lilah possibly being dead is the worst possible thing to happen — you don't even know what to be really afraid of. You act like Lilah being gone is a terrible tragedy for you — she was my best friend, she was the Gweep's lover, and we're the ones consoling you?"

Ashley opened his mouth, ready to snap something defensive and hurt out in response to Ruben's accusations — then, very slowly, he shut it and examined his anger carefully. Why am I mad? Why should I be mad? Is it because he's right? Ashley shook his head. No, it's because he's close to being right, but in reality he's so far away…. The martial artist released his anger and spoke. "No, that isn't what I'm miserable about, Ruben. It's really—"

Ruben's form shimmered for a moment, and not for the first time Ashley's eyes and brain were forced to cope with the mutually exclusive but true fact of his being both a short woman and a tall man at the same time, his optical nerves twisting around the concept with great difficulty, until the moment passed and Ruben stood there as a man.

Ashley met Ruben's weary glare and shook his head slowly. "You're wrong, Ruben. My real problem is… I… I don't know what I did that day. I went 'blank' or something while I was rushing to rescue Lilah — and it wasn't the first time I've gone blank, either.

"Ever since I came here… I feel like I've been losing myself. Losing my control." Unable to keep still any longer, Ashley paced back and forth restlessly. "The first time I went blank was on that island with the cult and stuff. When you told me that they cast some kinda spell that bounced offa you and hit me, and that's what caused the… blankness… I really didn't believe it." The wizard shifted uneasily, but Ashley didn't notice.

"I can almost remember a wave of golden light, and—" He kicked another rock so hard that it bounced in through what might have once been a window in the ruined building, the ricochets it made inside echoing through the quiet park. "That's it. Nothing else, until we were on the boat. The same thing happened to me while I was going to the park! I can't stand it! What's going on with me?"

"Ashley, I—" The wizard coughed. "I've been doing a little research, and this is what I think happened." The martist turned around, his attention fully on Ruben.

"When you were drawn through time by Devan's machine, I think that you may have passed through the 'Vortex of Worlds', a place where all dimensions and times are the same place, touching in an n-dimensional tera-tesseract. It's a hideously dangerous thing to travel through the 'Vortex of Worlds', and the few that survive…."

Ruben looked up at the sky. "No one who touches the 'Vortex of Worlds' is unchanged, and after a month of watching you, I'm almost certain that this is what happened. Ashley — you're no longer human."

"What?" Ashley turned his full attention back to his roommate. He wasn't sure where he'd been expecting Ruben to be going with this lecture, but… No longer… human? He looked down at the back of his hand, opening and closing it slowly, watching the tendons and muscles dance under his skin. Humanity… what is it, anyway?

Ruben watched his roommate ponder, and a fleeting but powerful urge — Should I have told him all of it? Everything that I know? — came and then left just as quickly. No. First, I see how he reacts to this. I remember, when I found out about… I could barely stand… Ruben gritted his teeth at the memory of mingled sorrow and rage. Ashley, I hope that I haven't destroyed you by telling you this.

"So, you're saying… that I'm not human? Like…" Ashley's face twisted for a moment, and Ruben readied a dual spell; one to restrain him, one to put him into a state of euphoria that might counteract any self-destructive urges. "…this Vortex thing, to me, is like… like…"

The first syllables of the spells leapt to Ruben's lips as he prepared to save his friend from himself—

"Like my version of Spidey and the radioactive bite?"

Ruben fell to the ground suddenly, the disruption of his spells catapulting him from his feet. Ashley went on. "Or like the Four and their cosmic rays? Or, yeah! The Ninja Turtles and the ooze! This freakin' rules!"

Ruben climbed back up slowly, leaning on his staff for support. "So, Ashley, I think I can train you in how to control this… power. Interested?"

"Heck yeah!" Ashley victory-posed, one arm flexing. "With great power comes great responsibility and all that jazz!"


"Ow!" Ashley rubbed the back of his head where Ruben's staff had impacted. "What did you do that for?"

"First lesson here. Great power comes with nothing but power. The only difference between a fool and a wise man is whether you use the power, or end up being used. Talking about responsibility, duty, commitment, obligation… that's being owned by your power, not owning it." Ruben looked at the devastation that surrounded them, all that remained of the once-mighty Angel's metropolis. Forty million people… "That kind of thinking… leads to places like this."

The martial artist frowned at that, nodding thoughtfully after a moment's contemplation. "But… what's the difference between a hero and a bad guy then? Wouldn't they both count as being used, by that standard?"

Ruben held up a finger. "That's somewhere around the Fifteenth or Sixteenth Wizard's Rule, and I don't even think you're ready to learn the first — yet." Ruben lowered the finger. "So, you ready to get started?"

"What? Here? Now?"

"No. Nothing's free, buddy; there are some things we have to discuss. First of all, my price." Ruben spat into his hand and then held it out, palm facing outward. "I will call upon you for a favor in the month of January, when the snows fall. Secondly, the moment your training is complete, we will journey into Hell itself and rescue Lilah. Last of all, my condition." He hesitated. "You will address me as 'Ruben-sensei' or 'Great Teacher Stryfe' at all times until your training is complete."

Ashley grinned, spat in his own palm, high-fiving Ruben's outstretched hand. "Haiiiiiiii, Ruben-sensei-dude-Great-Teacher-Stryfe-man!!"

They held the pose together for a moment as the dust whirled around them, the magic of the oath binding them together, then… Ashley's lips twitched, and he started laughing uncontrollably. At first, Ruben just stared at him, then began laughing as well to release the sudden feeling of tension that had overtaken both of them.

The martial artist was the first to recover, just as he'd been the first to break. Jerking a thumb towards the path he'd taken into the park, he said, "It's six miles back to the campus, I've got a full tank of superpowers, half a pack of whoop-ass, and" he pulled out a dark object from his pocket, placing it over his eyes carefully "I'm wearing sunglasses."

Ashley waited patiently, then in the face of Ruben's blank stare, he added, exasperated, "This is the part where you say, 'Let's hit it.' Oh, never mind." He whirled around, took one step… then stopped.

"What is it, Ashley?"

The wind whistled mournfully, and (not for the first time in this place) Ruben felt as though all the empty windows from once-proud buildings were eyes watching him, weeping rubble silently. Before Ruben could shove the impression aside, Ashley spoke.

"Why is this place… this junk heap… called Price of Victory Park?"

"Like I said a bit ago, this is the kind of thing that being owned by your power leads to. Always." Ruben pondered on how best to begin the story. "A long time ago… during the war… one side decided to do anything it could to ensure victory. Even destroying everything humanity had built in the process." Ruben started walking slowly, moving past Ashley, who followed silently. "No one alive today will admit which side it was that first escalated the conflict, but… it doesn't matter.

"Both sides did things, used weapons that killed many, many innocents, sweeping entire cities, entire nations, from the face of the Earth. This city was built on the rubble of one such city. Forty million people alone died when a circle of wizards unleashed their ritual… and of those forty million, perhaps ten were their reason for destroying the thriving metropolis.

"Once the war was over and victory, such as it was, declared, this city was one of the first that the survivors gathered at. When this city was being reconstructed, the Goddess Herself came and decreed that one area, this area, be left untouched as a reminder of what power untempered by wisdom leads to."

Ruben knocked aside a bit of rubble before quoting from memory, "'War is oiled with blood and fueled by death, which is something that we humans forget all too easily. I want this place to stand as a monument for all times, a reminder of what price war can have not only on the soldiers, but on the luckless whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — and as long as my writ stands, I will not forget the victims who died here so that I, and my followers, could win.' That's what she said, and…"

They reached the park's boundary, and Ruben looked back at Ashley. "I think she wanted to punish herself, more than remind anyone else. Once a year, she comes here, and on that night… it's best to stay far, far away from this place."

Ashley sighed, and with a mournful note in his voice, he said,

"I really hope that you were kidding about calling you Ruben-sensei, Ruben-sensei."

*Whack!* "I wasn't."


Jedidiah Jones emerged from the harrowing ordeals of the hellish corridors within the Administration Building of Serenity University with a half-smile — it had reminded him of home. At first, he'd been disappointed that the Croft-Jones College of Archaeology & Delving had refused his application; what was the point of his family owning a diploma mill if he couldn't attend?

But after a meeting with his uncle, any objections of Jedidiah's had vanished. Not only were there important filial missions to account for his attendance here, but highly personal reasons as well…

He turned a corner and slammed into someone coming the other way. Instinctively, Jed seized the other person to keep both of them on their feet, and got a nostrilful of a perfume that was subtle and distinctive as he inadvertently pulled the other person a little closer than he'd meant to. His face was buried in a mane-like mass of auburn hair, and—

Jedidiah pushed the other person away politely. "You," he said after looking more closely, "are a beautiful woman."

"Ah, you can zee most clearly," the lush redhead whom he'd almost knocked down said, an accent of Français overlaying her words. "Where were you going in su' a rush?" Her hair was styled oddly — half-obscuring her face — but what he could see of her face was vixenishly attractive.

"To, hmm…" Jed looked down at the slip he'd been handed upon paying for a dormitory room. "Bedlam dorm, Room One-Sixteen."

She looked delighted. "Such a coincidence! Zat is my dorm as well!" She grabbed the hand that had Jed's dorm assignment in it. "Come, come, I will show you ze dorm!"

The woman tugged him along, walking backwards without stumbling in any way. "My name eez Kara, and yours?"

"Jones. Jedidiah Jones."

Her mouth spread in a wide grin, revealing cute upper-and-lower fangs. "ZEE Jedidiah Jones?"

Choosing to ignore this sudden recognition, Jed looked around, interested in the buildings. "So, how long have you been here?"

"Only a few dayz. It is certainement a great school! Ze buildings, ze city around eet, ze pretty boyz…" she winked at him. "But I am sure zat you do not wish to 'ear of ze boyz, eh?"

He said casually, "You're right — but of course I'm very interested in the other half." He gestured with his free hand to indicate Kara, who laughed.

"I 'ave been known to look zat way m'self… and I assure you, zere are no complaints to be 'ad!" With that, she turned around, keeping one hand firmly clasped around Jed's, and continued dragging him onwards.

A few minutes of detouring through alleys and between buildings later, the pair reached Bedlam Dormitory.

It was a long, low building, with four floors, built in a simple rectangular shape. Painted a rather plain brown, it stood on the far fringe of the campus as though hiding. There were people moving around on the top of the building, and several colorful umbrellas were visible, but from this distance Jed couldn't tell what they were doing up there. Around the dormitory were several different kinds of lawns; one stretch was pure Kentucky Bluegrass, another was a rock garden which was being raked carefully by a young woman wearing short-shorts and a tube-top, and yet another stretch that curved around the edge of the building was (and Jedidiah blinked at this) what looked like a robotic farm, complete with mechanical attendants?

The pathway to the main entrance led directly between the rock garden and the bluegrass, and Jedidiah had little choice in traveling it, as Kara was loath to let him go. She waved to the girl raking the garden, who responded with a nod and opened the door.

The moment he passed the doorjamb, Jed was confronted with a sign that shoved the message "Take Off Your Shoes! This Means You!" aggressively. Jed noted with amusement that he was in a Japanese-style sunken entryway, with a set of shoe lockers to his left, labeled "for guest usage." Quite a few were locked, but most still had the little keys in the keyholes.

Kara released his hand and whirled around playfully. "If you do not have ze slippairs, zen you can—" she cut herself off as Jedidiah reached into his coat and pulled out his go-visiting Japanese slippers. "Nevair mind!" She pointed down the hallway to the left. "Ze managair iz alwayz down zere in ze game room; you cannot miss it!"

She turned around and dashed up the stairs, parting ways with, "I 'ave to greet my new colocataire!" Jed didn't bother to dredge his dusty French for what the word meant; from the context he assumed it meant something close to 'roommate'. Instead, he replaced his shoes with the slippers and headed off in the direction that Kara had indicated.

This direction seemed to be the recreational and community area of the dorm. Just past the entryway the hallway spread out into a large room with a viewscreen and several couches; as he continued it turned into a kitchen, then the Manager's Room ("Dude, I'm out mashing a challenger!" declared a sign dangling from the manager's door). The next door past that was standing slightly open. Jedidiah stepped in, and stood there, gaping in amazement.

He was the youngest scion of a family that had, for the span of four centuries, dedicated themselves to seeking out the treasures of the past. Some of his ancestors had done it for money, some had done it for the science, and others had done it simply for the thrill; but regardless of how they had honed them, the finely-tuned senses of a treasure-hunter had been passed down through a dozen generations to him. Jedidiah Smythe Croft-Jones could walk into a vault or museum or dragon's treasury and within moments guess the value, age, and rarity of each item to the nearest dram, recall any probable historical facts about more famed items, and evaluate the safest and quickest ways to remove everything down to the bare rock — after all, the Croft-Jones College had one of the largest and most valuable collections available to the world for a reason.

But what he saw in that room, in those few seconds, appeared priceless, both in terms of money and history.

Scattered about, hooked to varied video projection systems that were themselves a goldmine of archeological value, lay over seventy video game systems, ranging from last year's latest Simulsense Visors to what looked like a truly marvelously ancient Ping (Pung? Peng? Jedidiah couldn't remember exactly) machine. To judge from the plethora of wires running from all of them to the TVs, VR sets, and tri-dees, all of them were in working condition. This judgment was further reinforced (but not entirely confirmed) by the two beings that were playing a game against each other on one of the oldest-fashioned flatscreens. Two-dimensional digital characters leapt and clawed at each other, moving across the screen in jumps and rushes.

One of the people seated in front of the screen was a fairly typical example of a middle-aged beach-bum, complete with aloha shirt, tacky shorts, and long, scruffy hair that fell into his eyes. The other, though…

One of the characters on the screen died, and the beach bum threw down his controller. "Non-triumphant… I woulda thought that a velociraptor sapiens would play the raptor, not the iceman, Curly!"

The velociraptor sapiens, which Jedidiah admitted honestly to himself that he hadn't been expecting to see a representative of here, spread its clawed hands. "Why should I? I knew that's what you'd expect, so I decided to move around that expectation."

"No need to be wiseass about yer tactical philosophies, dude." The beach bum looked back over his shoulder and noticed Jed watching them with a slight smile on his face. The scruffy man stood up and offered his hand, his face splitting into a huge grin. "Hey, dude! You must be one of the new freshmen that they just sent here! I'm the manager. What's your room number?"

Jed glanced once more at the sheet with his room assignment, now crumpled heavily. "Room One-Sixteen."

The manager shook his head. "Sorry to hear that, dude. You're roomin' with Devan Wiley, and he's one weird mamma-jamma. 'Course," he added as he led Jed out of the room, "ya don't tend to see much other than weird mamma-jammas in Bedlam Hall."

They wended their way through the communal rooms and past the entrance and stairwell, to a corridor that more closely resembled the dormitory norm. The manager stopped at a door, opened it and shouted cheerily inside, "Hey, Devan! They just got yer new roommate in, dude!" He didn't get any response. The manager just shrugged, addressed Jed with, "Dude, it's yer problem now," and left.

Jed walked in, and was for the third or fourth time that day was left speechless. Every flat surface in the room was covered in almost every conceivable type of gadget, device, or tool. The few areas that weren't had stacks of some magazine called Mecha four feet high. The walls were bare of posters, oddly enough, though there was one cutaway hologram of a robot labeled "M-66" stapled to the wall above the left-hand bed. Jed moved his head back and forth for a moment, fascinated with the way that the holo would show the outside for a moment, then the musculature, then the internal wiring.

The treasure hunter stood there for several minutes, while his roommate sat on his bed, ignoring Jed in favor of something in his lap. Finally, losing some of his patience, Jed spoke up. "Hey. I'm Jedidiah Jones. But you can call me Jed." Getting no response from his future roommate, he tried again. "You must be Devan, then. I've heard some interesting stuff about you." He was ignored again. Taking it all in stride, Jed reached for some of the stuff that was cluttering up his bed with the intention of removing it, perhaps even dumping it on the floor to finally get some response from his roommate.

Devan Wiley (mad scientist, tinkerer, and future doctor of mechaology) looked up from where he sat cross-legged on his bed, wielding a soldering iron, and saw what the freshman was about to do. Screaming "NODONTTOUCHTHAT!!" he lunged off the bed towards the imminent disaster.

The project he was working on, revealed to be a small speaker, fell out of his lap and slammed against the floor. It started saying, over and over, "thedoorisajarthedoorisajarthedoorisajar…" Wiley, barely paying attention, brought one heel hard down on it.

Jed halted his hand three inches away from the (seemingly) meaningless tangle of wire that had a little bead strung inside it, and slowly moved it away. "No problem. Would you move the stuff off my bed then? I'd like to get unpacked and settled in."

Wiley began whisking items off the bed (including the aforementioned tangle of wire, a small gem with a sticky label reading "Guyver," one of those little toy monkeys that clap the cymbals, and a picture with Wiley, an old man with frizzed white hair, and a little girl with spiky red hair, all of them wearing lab coats) and placing them on his own over-crowded desk.

After he was done, he turned back to the treasure-hunter-turned-college-freshman. "Your name was Jedidiah Jones, right?" Jed nodded.

"Er, is Jedidiah Jones…"

A handgun appeared in Wiley's hand. To Jed, the barrel was the size of a train tunnel, and there was an ominous green light playing at the end of it. "If you ever come within five inches of disturbing one of my experiments again, I'll make certain all that people can use with your name is the past tense. Am I making myself perfectly clear?" To emphasize his point, he made a short jab with the barrel toward Jed's belly.

Jed frowned. Is this supposed to be intimidating? After a moment, he shrugged and smiled agreeably. "Like I said, no problem."

"Good." As Wiley pocketed his Wave Motion Pistol, he wondered who had assigned him such a dope as a roommate. Then, he realized only Dean Salouse could have done such a thing (which was slightly paranoid of him, but what can one do about that kind of world-view?) His fists clenched as he tried to think of a suitable revenge upon the Dean for this indignity. No doubt it would be slow, terrible, and sweet.

Being a mad scientist, after all, obligates one to a certain pattern of behavior…

The freshman examined the crumpled presentation in his hand, frowning slightly. Irritably, Devan thought, If he got rid of those stupid dark glasses, I'd bet he'd be able to read it more easily — or maybe the fool has trouble comprehending anything more complex than 'the quick brown dog jumped over the lazy fox'…

With a furrowed brow, Jedidiah asked, "So, where's Takai's Theatre? This paper says that the Freshman Orientation speech'll be in there, but it doesn't say where it is. It's being given by a dean named… Salouse?"

Wiley continued to glare irritably at the intrusive newcomer, then the words sunk in and the ever-hyperactive gerbil in his head began turning its wheel along very evil lines. A slow grin spread across Wiley's face as opened his phone and began dialing. "He-he-he. A perfect plan!"

The phone was picked up almost immediately. "This is the EMH. Please state the nature of your magical emergency."

"Ruben, old friend, this is Devan. It's time to strike back at Salouse for what he did at the end of last year. You in?"

Reiko Tereshkova yawned, stretched, and flopped onto the bed. It had been a long flight from Japan, a flight that had been lengthened to nearly emergency proportions by the antigrav on the airship nearly collapsing. It had forced the pilot to move at one-quarter of the usual cruising speed, which had almost made her late for the term to start instead of having a comfortable settling-in time.

Then, the trouble at customs… that had been neatly averted by that cute guy. She squelched that thought quickly. He was cute, sure, but I don't like those guys who think girls will fall all over them just because they're pretty, wear sunglasses and trench coats, look vaguely goth, and have a really great knowledge of magical weaponry…

Not to mention her roommate.

This was one thing that had honestly slipped Reiko's mind when she'd first decided to come to this school; that the dormitories would be shared-living. Reiko looked over at her new roommate through slitted eyelids. The disgustingly attractive redhead was humming a catchy tune as she lifted neatly folded clothes from a box that had arrived just bare moments after the woman had dashed into the door. Her long hair fell untidily over one shoulder and dangled into the suitcase, but the girl apparently didn't care. Reiko thought grimly to herself, Hmm, I can whiff the magic all over her. She must be some sort of magician… Well, might as well get the confrontation over with. No doubt she's heard my family name, will wonder what I'm doing here, I'll have to tell her, and… she shuddered at the thought. Admitting her flaws to herself, that was one thing; but blabbing them to a perfect stranger?

The young woman moved to a cross-legged position and eased her hand over to her enchanted staff (currently travel-sized for her convenience.) The moment her fingers touched its surface, it sent telepathically, Canst thou scent that magic? As usual, its mind-to-mind voice reminded her of Sean Connery. That is, if Connery had ever spoken Japanese with an unbelievably archaic accent…

"So, 'ow 'eavily enshanted iz zat stick of yourz?" The redhead neatly folded the first box up and placed it under her bed, cracking open the second box carefully. There was a subtle octarine flash as she undid the massive seal decorating the top.

"N-nani…" Reiko was so thrown off balance by the girl's opening comment that she forgot her English for just a second. She was so busy kicking herself that she almost missed the redhead's response.

"You are Japaneze? Wonderful! I alwayz dezired such a colaca— er, roommate!" She grabbed a small book bound in grayish-black fur from her suitcase and opened it. The eldritch chanting coming from inside the pages was, apparently, normal because she made a pleased noise as she snapped it shut. "I am Japaneze m'self, but my mothair left Japan before I was born. M' name is Kara Nitaline. What iz yours?" She placed the book in her bookshelf, next to a frog plushie.

"You… are?" Reiko looked the buxom, redheaded, and tall woman across the room from her as she continued unpacking. Rather taken aback by her familiar manner, Reiko took a few moments to respond. "Uh… I'm Reiko Tereshkova. Where are you from, anyway?" Her tone was suspicious, flavored with a touch of aggrieved.

"France, of course!" Kara replied airily. She pulled a dress from the box and shook it open. "Uf da! I told granmama zat I am too big for zis dress!" She looked back, her visible eye examining Reiko. "Zis would be ze right size for one such as you; would you like it?"

Reiko eyed the caftan dubiously. The colors shifted opalescently as sunlight ran across the fabric. "I don't know…"

Kara balled it up and tossed it at Reiko. "Do not worry, I 'ave many more like eet!" She threw a wink. "Jus' be sure to wear somet'ing undair ze dress, you know?" She pulled a ceramic jar from her suitcase and opened it up to sniff the contents. Finding all was well, she closed it up and placed it on top of her bookcase. "You nevair did ansair my question."

Reiko rewound the conversation in her mind, and didn't discover an unanswered question until the beginning. "Oh! About ze— er, the staff?" Urk! My English is better than hers — I can't let her way of speaking corrupt mine!

"Yes." Kara folded up the now-empty box and placed it under her bed with the other, grabbing the last, smallest box. Upon opening it, she began unloading paperback books onto the shelves, along with a number of comic books. Reiko took a close look at some of the cover pages and titles. Forbidden Love, Sunset of the Heart, Desert Blossom, Queen of the Damned…. She reads romance novels. I room with a person who reads romance novels.

Reiko realized that Kara had stopped placing books in her bookshelf and was staring at her intently. Shaking her head, she set herself to answering the question. "Well, it doesn't know how old it is, or who made it, or anything like that. It's pretty ignorant in some ways." Hey! the staff sent indignantly, but Reiko ignored it. "It was the haft of a spear. The spear was created to destroy demons and monsters, and worked quite well until a powerful sorcerer cursed and removed the spearhead, leaving only this." She held up the stick.

Kara flopped down onto her bed. "How fun! Any planz to find ze spearhead?"

"Well, that's what it would like, but…"

An ominous crash of thunder made Kara and Reiko both glance out the window, but the skies were clear. Out of curiosity, Reiko stood up to look more closely, and the only thing she saw below on the ground was two young men, one with long hair and one with short. The longer-haired fellow appeared to be ranting at his companion angrily, but for what reason she couldn't hear…

Ashley strolled back to his dorm room after his post-early-afternoon-session-shower, chuckling a bit at Ruben's foolishness of yesterday. Imagine, overreacting like that!

On the trip back to the dorm from Victory Park, they'd been discussing when the training might begin. Ruben had mentioned this weekend as a starting point, suggested that they go out into the nearby small mountain range and find the seaside cliffs to train upon, Ashley had replied that the weather looked to be very nice indeed for a mountain training session and that nothing could possibly go wrong on such a beautiful weekend, and then—

Ominous thunder out of a clear blue sky.

Ever since then, Ruben had been snappish and on-edge; all during the afternoon he'd jumped at the slightest noise. He'd spent an hour last night chanting weirdly and daubing chicken blood on the window and door of their room, and Ashley had awoken this morning to the strange sight of Ruben, eyes bruised from lack of sleep, poring closely over what looked like a… girly comic book?

The magician had been out cold by the time Ashley returned from his early morning practice, still sitting on the floor, a girl's comic sheltering his eyes from the sunlight. Midmorning training had been the same, and now that he was back from the first afternoon session he was fully expecting the poor dude to be still comatose. Maybe I'll go back downstairs and pester the manager to play me at that fighting game… I'll unlock the mysteries of the Hadouken someday!

His dreams of videogame mastery were shattered the moment he saw the small object pinned to the message board on his room's door, though Ashley did not know it yet.

The miniature angel sitting on the pin looked up as Ashley approached, standing up and doing a lewd little bump-and-grind, finally vanishing with a wink after turning into a tiny demon. The martial artist blinked. "O-kayyy." He reached out and plucked the note from the pin.

To Ashley Raine & the constant thorn in my side,
Greetings and Salutations!
I have decided to enact a new policy. I would like senior students to guide a freshman around for the first few weeks. Because only volunteers can perform this service, all upperclassmen in this room are volunteered. Remember to be in Takai's Theatre at one p.m.
Have a Nice Day!
Dean Salouse
P.S. This does mean you, Ashley.

After reading it carefully, he threw open the door to the room, heedless of whether or not Ruben was awake. What the— I'm not an upperclassman!

Ruben, who was in fact awake by now, looked up from a dog-eared copy of Cooking for the Magi: Using Sorcery to Spice Your Meals! "Hey, sorry about yesterday. I guess I was kind of… over… reacting?"

He trailed off as he saw Ashley's expression, who held the note towards Ruben. The wizard conjured it from Ashley's hand and read it, his face growing whiter and whiter with each word that he read.

Ashley poked the pale wizard. "Um, what's going on?"

"How could he… have known?" Ruben looked over at the clock. "It's ten to one! By Merlin's, Dumbledore's, and Gandalf's collective beards, I have to warn Devan!" With no further words than that, he leapt out of the window.

Ashley shouted out, "Hey, wait for me!" He followed, noting that Ruben was already a hundred yards away from the building. Argh! That's so not cool of him! He hit the ground running, barely managing to keep the fleet magician in sight.

The martial artist caught up to Ruben just as he reached the Takai theater. "Sheesh," Ashley said, feeling a bit winded. "It's not fair that magic lets you run faster—"

"No time!" Ruben interrupted, glanced around hurriedly. "Argh, it's still three minutes to one! He wouldn't have gone in yet! The timing was—"

"RUBEN!" came the shout from inside the building. "Hey, man, it is you! Long time no see!"

Ashley had believed that Ruben had turned pale as a human could be and still have blood flowing through his veins back in the room, after reading the Dean's note. He was proven wrong as a familiar-looking trench coat-clad figure stepped out of the theater's door. He was wearing dark sunglasses to ward off the bright afternoon sun, and was—

"Jedidiah Jones," Ruben whispered. "He found me…"

Ashley had trouble placing why this Jedidiah seemed so familiar, then he remembered disembarking from an airship onto a tropical island… "Dude!" he said, grinning widely and walking towards Jed. "Nice to see you again!"

Jed looked taken aback for a moment, then smiled himself. "Hey, you! From that island, right, with that punk treasure thief Tyler!"

"Ugh, don't remind me. He almost got me killed, ya know?" Ashley held out his hand and Jed took it, giving it a firm shake. "So, whatcha doing here?"

"Waiting for Ruben, here." He nodded towards the still-frozen magician. "Devan's my roommate, see, and he asked me to tell Ruben that the show may start a little early…"

With those words, Ruben took off again, the doors of Takai's Theater sliding out of his way as he charged heedlessly forward. Jedidiah turned to watch him. "What's that about?"

"He said that he had to warn Wiley about something. Dunno what, though."

Ruben looked over the crowded seats of the small theater, cursing under his breath as each second brought the Dean closer to appearing on stage.

When Devan had proposed his plan yesterday afternoon over the mobile phone, it had seemed ideal for revenge against Dean Salouse. Humiliating him on-stage during the first moments that the incoming class of freshman would meet the bastard? A perfect strike back for what he had done at the end of last year. Ruben had been more than glad to help, giving Devan a preconstructed illusion spell that he'd had kicking around for ages. It had helped distract him somewhat from the worrisome omen of yesterday afternoon. Thunder out of a clear blue sky? That he hadn't summoned himself to make a particularly dramatic statement?

Ruben's hand tightened around the slip of paper that Ashley had found on their door. And now, this… how did he know? Why did he invite me here, unless he suspects Devan and I at the same time? He didn't dare use magic to witch for Devan, either; with the Dean so close he was sure to detect anything so widespread. So, with little hope, he kept looking for Devan.

"Oi! What are you doing here!"

The magician whirled around at the sound of Devan's voice and said, "I have to warn you that—"

"Shh!" Devan Wiley put one finger to his lips as the house lights went out. "The show is about to start!"


"Less talk, more watch!" A broad grin spread across Devan's face, giving it with a devilish light. "He's coming on, the poor fool!"

And, indeed, to a slowly rising wave of laughter that swept out of the assembled newcomers to the school, Dean Salouse was emerging from stage right.

Or rather, being kicked out on stage, herded by a giant floating boot, one of Devan's mechanical contraptions designed to guard his lair. Each time the boot connected with the well-dressed man's rear end, he would be lifted nearly a foot into the air and five feet forward — and that wasn't the worst (or best) of it, depending on your point of view.

Because the PuckPrancks™ constructed illusion that Ruben had passed onto Devan involved giving the poor, hapless victim the head of a donkey, complete with realistic braying replacing every word that the inflictee spoke.

Smiling in relief, Ruben leaned forward in anticipation. I guess I was worried for nothing — as usual. He fell for it, he fell for it! The PuckPrancks™ disguised themselves as a common object the person used everyday, and even practiced wizards (such as the Dean) had extreme difficulty in recognizing them — perfect for the trickster who needed to embarrass a magically-inclined person.

Ruben didn't know a thing about the boot, but he did know the spell quite well. As an added humiliation to the victim, every fifteen seconds the illusion vanished temporarily to give anyone nearby a clear view of the fool.

But when the victim's head appeared, Ruben recoiled backwards, for concealed beneath the donkey's head was Devan Wiley!

Slowly, oh so slowly, Ruben's head swiveled to the Devan Wiley standing next to him, who had turned that devilish grin on the magician… and that grin was the only thing that remained firm as the rest of his body wavered and reformed into the dark suit-clad figure of the Head Dean, Regional High Mugwump Extraordinaire, and Ruler Unchallenged of Serenity University, Felix Salouse.

"Miss me?" he asked softly, then with a cloud of sulphurous smoke he vanished and reappeared on the stage, next to where Devan was currently being booted in his fundament. With an idle wave of his hand, the Dean dismissed the floating boot; with another he dispelled the illusion. Devan stood there for a moment, glaring at the man who had (somehow) managed to best him, but trying to keep up a menacing glare while rubbing your battered rear end soothingly doesn't combine very well.

The Dean's hands moved through an intricate flourish and he produced an amplifier. "Greetings, students, and welcome to Serenity University! I am the Head Dean, Felix Salouse! I rule this campus with an iron fist!"

He pointed at Devan. "Some of you are no doubt wondering who this jackass is! Well, there are those who disagree with my despotic management techniques, but I assure you that I have a… unique… open-door policy that any of you are free to take advantage of!

"To wit, if you feel that my tyrannical policies are too much to be borne any further, you can rebel in any way that doesn't involve breaking the local laws! There's no killing the professors — but you're free to challenge them to duels, humiliate them publicly, or replace them with a robotic clone that automatically gives out good grades!

"But be careful, or you'll end up like this jackass," The mechanical boot activated again, giving Devan another kick, and the illusion reappeared briefly, turning his shout into a braying wail, "hoist upon his own petard. And, ya know, you wouldn't wanna look this petarded in front of your classmates, would you?

"Fortunately, you don't have to disagree with me at all. Just keep your head down, attend the top university associated with this planet, graduate with honors, and you need never worry about me during it." The Dean grinned again. "Now, onto the fun stuff."

He gestured broadly and sheets of paper came fluttering out to each member of the audience. Mechanically, Ruben reached out and caught one, letting the crumpled note from the Dean, the note that had brought him here, fall to the floor. "To better acquaint you with the campus and the surrounding area, I'm sending you all out on a scavenger hunt."

Disinterestedly, Ruben glanced at the list in his own hand.


  1. Dragon's whisker
  2. Mermaid's flesh (preferred frozen)
  3. 3. "Priss and the Replicants" tour poster
  4. Dragonball w/ three stars (not one, not four, not two unless immediately proceeding to three, only THREE)
  5. The One Ring to Rule them All
  6. Electronic book with the words "DON'T PANIC" printed in large friendly letters on the front cover
  7. Dagon Press limited second edition copy of Necronomicon
  8. Latest Jusenkyou "Update Catalog of Cursed Springs Summer/Fall"
  9. Compleat Eibon's Anthology
  10. Mughi plush toy

Ruben frowned at the last item. Why does the Dean want that plush toy Amberite gave me?

The Dean continued with, "Because no scavenger hunt would be complete without a few prizes, I've decided to reward anyone who finds an item on that list with ten credits-hours worth of classes absolutely free. No strings attached. Really. Would I lie to you?"

Without changing his kindly expression or friendly tone in the slightest, the Dean added, "First string attached: each of the freshmen is to pair up with an upperclassman in looking for the items, or else no prize. You can form a team of any size, as long as all of you present the item together, and as long as there is one freshman for every upperclassman. Got it? Good."

With his speech concluded, the Dean turned the cursed illusion back onto Devan and watched, laughing maniacally, as the boot continued its work, propelling him around the stage. Ruben gritted his teeth as he realized that the Dean was waiting for him to rescue Devan.

Well, hell with it. If I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do it right. Might as well show that they don't have to knuckle down to the Dean… With a brilliantly green flash at both ends of the trip, Ruben teleported himself to the stage — and was unsurprised to find that he arrived there as a she.

In for a dram, in for a kilogram. With a quick, slashing blade of air, Ruben cut the boot in half, dispelling the illusion with an angry wave and an overkill amount of power.

"So, Ruben. My favorite local magitranssexual." The Dean crossed his arms over his chest. "You dare to defy me again?"

Casually, Ruben said, "Yeah, I reckon so."

The Dean winked slyly with the eye facing away from the audience of gaping freshman! "Well, then—"

Without any further warning, a dozen tendrils of magical energy sprang out from around the Dean, arrowing towards Ruben with the clear intention of wrapping around her. Respecting the Dean's non-lethal intentions, Ruben slashed the threads he used to create the spell while conjuring a highly, highly localized area of high gravity below the Dean. Let's see how well you sling mojo when you weigh half a ton…

The Dean vanished in another puff of foul-smelling smoke, and Ruben dodged to one side as a bucket of rancid milk came out of the empty air above her, splashing the stage with its foulness. "BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" came the amplified voice of the dean from every wall, and the audience clutched their ears at the horrible assault, trying to shield their sensitive eardrums. "I CHOOSE NOT TO FACE YOU TODAY, RUBEN STRYFE, BUT KNOW THIS: I ALWAYS LAUGH LAST!!" In normal tones, the Dean's voice added, "See?" Then, thunderously, the Dean's laughter returned at an ear-shattering volume.

The scattered thuds of stunned bats falling from the theater's rafters filled the silence after the Dean's laughter stopped. Ruben stood up, moving over to where Devan was laying face-down on the ground. "Hey, you okay?"

Without stirring, Devan replied, "I've spent the last half-hour being kicked in the arse by a robotic flying boot of my own invention while being cursed with the illusion of a donkey's head given to me by an idiotic magician of our mutual acquaintance. How would you feel?"

"Like an ass at both ends." Ruben stepped away from Devan's kick, chuckling at the muffled painful grunt the poor guy gave. "Hey, can you stand up? We're getting out of here."

"Do I have to?"

"If you want to beat the Dean at his own game, yes."

Those words were enough to make Devan spring to his feet, grinning. "Well, then, let's get started!"

Ruben and Devan were almost the last ones out of the doors, but the moment they stepped outside, they were confronted with an odd, almost unbelievable sight: their respective roommates chatting with a pair of attractive young women.

Or rather, talking to one of them while the second girl maintained a standoffish air. Jedidiah was the first to notice the pair stepping out of the door, and he waved. "Yo, Ruben! Devan! Get over here!"

Devan murmured to Ruben, "Er, how does he know about your curse? He only got here yesterday."

Ruben muttered back, "I'd rather not talk about it," as they moved closer to where the other four were standing.

Ashley gestured broadly. "This is Ruben Stryfe, my roommate, and Devan Wiley, Jed's roommate. Guys, these two are Kara Nitaline," he indicated the redhead, "and Reiko Tereshkova," and at this, the standoffish girl (whose features had an Oriental cast to them, Ruben noted) frowned as though hearing her name pained her somewhat.

Ruben, seeing that the two other women were appraising her, returned their looks frankly. The taller, redheaded woman was busty (though not, Ruben noted dispassionately, as busty as she in female form), wearing tall fashionable leather boots, a reasonably modest dress made from what looked like black corduroy, and a matching coat in a slightly lighter color. The Japanese girl with the Russian last name (who was shorter than the redhead but, Ruben noted with dissatisfaction, was still taller than she in female form) had her plain black hair cut short in a shaggy hairdo, with a shirt that left her midriff bare and long shorts that ended just above her knee, exposing the figure of a dedicated martial artist. She was idly twirling a stick in her left hand that gave off an aura of transformational magic.

Great. So much for my plan… Just when Ruben had been about to abandon her idea to steal something back from the Dean, Ashley added, "They're both freshman." Perfect. She had just opened her mouth to speak when Devan asked, "So, Ruben, what is this plan of yours?"

"Will anyone give me a second here?!" The irate sometime wizardess glared around indiscriminately, then cleared her throat.

Ruben held up the sheet of paper with the scavenger hunt items. "Allow me to read these to you and my plan will no doubt be clear. Recall, too, that the Dean stated that groups can be larger than just two — and note that we are now 3 sets of pairs: Three freshmen," she nodded to Jed, Kara, and Reiko, "and three upperclassmen."

Kara pounced on Ashley, hugging his arm to her chest. "I call zis one!"


Urk. Spotting the way the winds were blowing, and not wanting to be stuck in a pair with Jedidiah Jones at all, Ruben leapt at the only other freshman available. She glomped the surprised Japanese girl with some force, knocking Reiko back a step. "I call this one!"

"Huh? Wait just a—" Reiko and Devan said simultaneously.

"Well, then, guess it's decided!" Jed stepped forward and slapped Devan on the back. "So, what are we looking for?"

Ruben felt a look of embarrassment creep over her face. "Er… I haven't decided yet." Ignoring the round of groans, she continued with, "but I can decide real quick here by just going over the list." She unfolded it and looked it over.

"The dragon's whisker and dragon's ball are right out, the dragon would get mad if we tried to take either, especially the ball." Ruben winced. "Poor thing… A Replicants 2035 tour poster isn't an option either, who'd give one up? Mermaid's flesh is just inhumane and nasty-tasting to boot. Liver, on the other hand, num-num. The One Ring To Rule Them All… no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-NO…. That leaves us a book with 'Don't Panic' on it, Jusenkyou—" Ruben winced again, this time at painful memories, "—catalog of springs, Dagon Press Necronomicon 2nd Edition, and the Compleat Eibon's Anthology."

Ashley, who had been looking over Ruben's shoulder, added hopefully, "Oh, and your plush toy. Your demonically possessed plush toy."

She glared icily back at him. "Two things. It isn't my plush toy; I'm just holding onto the thing for Amber. Also, it isn't demonically possessed, I'd be able to tell that much. It's just a cute li'l thing!"

Devan said doubtfully, "Hey, are you stupid or something? Why should we give the Dean something, anything, he wants, no matter how innocent it seems?"

"Ah, Devan, Devan, Devan. How little you know about magic. Let me do a quick trick for you." Ruben reached into her sleeve and plucked out two books that she liked to think of as emergency prophecy (but to all others, it must be admitted, their covers bore a distinct resemblance to graphic novels of a female-gender oriented publication, entitled Mustard Girl). "Do these books look alike to you? Any of you? Here!" She handed one to Kara and one to Jed. "Flip through them, see that they are in no wise alike, and then hand them back to me!"

A few seconds later, Ruben accepted both comics back. "Now you see them, now you… only see one!" She waved one book in front of the other, exercised a quick spell invoking the laws of similarity and contagion, and viola! There were two identical comics resting in her hand!

"And a similar trick will put the Dean in his place, however temporarily! Sadly," Ruben finished, "I need an actual copy of the book to be copied before I can do this, so we have to find one of 'em."

Reiko muttered to Kara, "Seems like a pretty thin pretext for the rest of the epi—"

"Ah-ha!" Devan smacked his left fist into his right palm. "I know where you're intending to go! What's In Here!"

The three freshman (and Ashley) looked over at Devan, chorusing back in a confused chord, "What's in here?!"

Ruben said, beaming, "Exactly!" She looked over at Devan. "Are you driving, or should I?"

Devan shuddered and started walking for the parking lot, Ruben following after a moment. "I am. You know that the wool in that magic carpet of yours makes me all itchy." He called out over his shoulder, "Follow me, guys!"

The other four followed after exchanging seven rather bemused looks.

Tyler of the Firehand, adventurer extraordinaire, sometime treasure-hunter, and reluctant (at best) hero, cast a sidelong glance at the woman whom he shared the car with, thankful that the ride over had been uneventful. At least we're almost there, he thought, and sighed in relief. The woman sent a resentful glance at Tyler, as though he'd sighed simply to annoy her! She started mumbling something through the greasy rag that filled her mouth, but apparently thought better of it a moment later.

From what little Tyler had seen of her, he couldn't care less what insipid things she had to say. His first sight of her had been at the airport, when she'd been complaining very loudly about the absence of a chauffeured vehicle waiting to whisk her off to the University! Tyler had wised her up fast, however, and had offered to split the cost of a cab with her. She'd looked at him as though the offer appealed as much as worm stew, but she'd accepted.

An acceptance he'd learned to regret. Of the three cabbies who'd been willing to take them to the campus (a venture he was willing to admit was hazardous even to bystanders), she'd managed to push two over the edge and get the both of them dumped on the curb by way of her o'erweening bitchiness. The only reason that she hadn't done the same to the third was because he'd bound and gagged her before she got the chance!

Flame flickered around the gauntlet on his left hand, always responsive to his moods. With barely a conscious thought, Tyler suppressed his anger, lest a flameburst incinerate the car and add further to his expenses for this trip. Urgh. Bad enough that I die again. But swimming all the way back to the nearest island… now that was a pisser.

"We're here, Mac. And there's somebody waiting for you, too." Tyler looked out the window, and wasn't sure whether to grin or groan when he saw who was standing there. As soon as the cab stopped, Tyler hopped out. He and the man waiting for him headed for each other, but stopped short with a few feet between them.

Tyler was grinning. "Long time no see, Felix."

Felix was not. "Not since the last time you skipped out, Tyler."

Tyler affected innocence. "Hey, ya know th't I intend ta serve m'five years eventually, but every time—"

Felix nodded. "—You hear a rumor about the other Gauntlet, and go rushing off like some damned fool. At least this time both of the students you dragged off came back in one piece, not like that time you went to the Yucatan."

Tyler shuddered and drew into himself just the slightest bit. "I'll thank ya not ta remind me of the Yucatan incident. It ain't ev'ry summer that a guy almost gets sacrificed ta Yog-Shothoth, and I'd prefer ta pretend it didn't even happen once."

The cabbie interrupted. "Mac, where's my fare?"

"Ah. Thanks fer reminding me." Tyler dug into a pocket, then made a face. Turned up a bit short…

Felix, recognizing that face, snorted in amusement. "As usual, my old friend is just a bit short. No doubt his next words are," his voice rose into a mocking impersonation of Tyler, "'Felix, are ya good fer a touch right now? Just 'til I sell this artifact I've got in m'pocket ta the nearest museum, mind ya.' And I, always being the good friend, say in response, 'This makes one hundred and ninety-seven times you've bummed cab fare from me, you cheap bastard! Not to mention that bloody pizza at the last reunion, and the karaoke room we rented together but you ended up stiffing me with the bill!'"

While he was pontificating, Felix was also counting off an appropriate amount of bills to pay the fare. He handed them to the cabbie, who gestured towards the backseat of his car. "What d'you want me to do with the broad, Mac?"

Tyler slapped his forehead. "Almost fergot about her!" He reached into the back, focusing just a bit of heat around his left hand. After just a touch from his fingers, the ropes burned through, freeing her hands and feet. The young woman reached up and pulled the gag off. As Tyler had expected, her first words made a hearty effort to burn his ears as efficiently as his flame had the ropes.

Rather than bother listening to her insults, though, Tyler simply tuned her out as he went to the trunk and pulled out his single suitcase. He pulled hers out too, and tossed them at her feet for good measure. Never let it be said that I don't do nothing for free.

Felix waited until she took a deep breath, then spoke mildly in the sudden silence. "And who are you, young lady, to have such a filthy mouth towards my friend?"

She turned to Felix while taking a deep breath, perhaps planning to rain more abuse down on him, but deflated when she saw the expression on his face. "I'm… uh… Jennifer Jukuren, Sports Heroine. Who are you?"

"I'm the Dean hereabouts. Name's Felix Salouse."

"Then I have a complaint to make!" The young woman turned from irate bitch to professional negotiator as she reached into her suitcase and pulled forth a thick tome labeled "Contract With Serenity University." She flipped the pages until she reached the one she was looking for, then pointed at a paragraph. "It states here that you will provide a chauffeur whenever I need a ride, does it not?"

The Dean read it, then pointed at another paragraph somewhat lower on the page. "Subclause three reads that the only days I need to provide such service is on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Today being Friday… well, you should learn to schedule your needs better."

Jennifer read it, then nodded reluctantly. "You're right." Then she looked around. "So, are you going to escort me to my rooms?"

The Dean shook his head. "Nope. One of your roommates should be by shortly, to help you with your bags and such."

Jennifer's face swelled dangerously. She leaned in close to the Dean, eyebrow twitching, then said in tight, controlled tones, "What do you mean, 'roommates?' My contract clearly states—"

The Dean cut in. "That you'd have no human roommates. I think that you will find your roommates to be anything but human."

The shriek that she let up indicated that she'd spotted one of those roommates. Tyler, however, was far more casual. "Hey Larry, long time no see." Tyler waved to the velociraptor sapiens that was gliding down the sidewalk towards them.

"My name," Lawrence said significantly, "is Lawrence." He tried to puff on a cigar. If he'd possessed lips, his attempt would have been more successful, but he didn't seem to mind. Lawrence went on, "I didn't study for three years at an exchange school in Oxford to have some grubby, would-be archaeologist insult me with his familiarity." Tyler cast a glance at Jennifer. She'd shifted from terror to amusement, and was barely able to hide her giggles at the too-well cultivated upper-crust Brit accent emerging from the raptor's fanged mouth.

Lawrence shifted his gaze from Tyler to Jennifer. His mouth hung open for a moment of sheer shocked surprise. "When you informed me that my new roommate would be a woman named Jennifer Jukuren, never did I think you meant the Jennifer Jukuren!"

Lawrence rushed forward with the birdlike quickness of his species. He seized one of Jennifer's hands in both of his clawed ones and shook it vigorously. "I'm one of your biggest fans, Miss Jukuren! I've been following your career for years! That bit where you did a quadruple axel in that figure skating competition three years ago — magnificent!"

Jennifer's face brightened gradually as Lawrence rained more fulsome praise upon her. Turning to the Dean, she said, "Maybe having roommates won't be so bad after all." Then she grinned at Lawrence. "This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Devan's ornithopter landed smoothly, and the four passengers that had never been to this store looked incredulously at their destination.

It was an ancient, rambling, three-story brownstone apartment building that must have survived all of the natural disasters which had plagued southern California for the last three centuries, and looked it. It was battered, beaten, falling apart—

But was decorated cheerily, surrounded by a horde of little open-air tents with people hawking wares beneath their brightly colored canvas, a happy clamor echoing from the small crowd browsing through them. A massive banner hung from the top of the central brownstone that screamed to the world, "WHAT'S IN HERE?!"

"Who runs this place?" Jedidiah asked curiously.

"Not quite," Ruben and Devan said together, laughing. "What is the name of the person who runs this place," Ruben added, not unkindly. "He's part of a family, consortium, small army — something like that — and they run a lot of businesses in this area."

Reiko leaped from the ornithopter's back. "So, are we here for a reason?"

"Well," Devan said, clambering down himself, "If there's any place in the city where we can find any of the items on that list—"

"—it's here," Ruben finished, jumping down. "Okay, split up into your teams, don't forget what we're looking for, and remember — you could find anything here, and I mean anything, but that doesn't mean all of the serial numbers were filed off before it got here, so be careful, right?" She looked around. "Reiko and I'll check out the building, it's where they keep most of the secondhand books." She grabbed the taller girl's arm and tugged her off.

Kara asked Devan, an amused lilt in her voice, "Can you truly find anything here?"

"Yeah. Three weeks ago I found a case of protoculture here, and the stuff's not even supposed to exist in this dimension." Devan grumbled as Kara walked away, arm-in-arm with Ashley, leaving him stuck with Jedidiah. "Well, let's get on with it."

Kara let Ashley go the moment the others were out of sight. He looked at her with surprise. "Huh?"

"Did you think I was interested in you? Silly boy!" She patted Ashley's cheek. "Ze one I want is Ruben, and you are going to help me remembair why… aftair we are done 'ere, of course!"

It's a hard life, being a multi-tentacled demonic evil wicked beast from a place that men should not wot of, women should be afraid of, and wasn't very pleasant even if you came from there.

That's one reason why Typherios was always more than happy to leave his home plane of existence for sunnier, less brimstone-smelling shores, no matter how slim the excuse or how high the certainty of being reduced to his component atoms by whatever hero types might wander by (magical girls, wizards, mecha-clad pizza boys, what have you.) It wasn't as though he could die from it.

So, when an old (well, not quite friend, but certainly a being far too powerful to risk becoming enemies with) summoned Typherios and asked him to stand guard over an object, he had raised no objections. In point of fact, it had enabled him to escape a rather difficult situation…

"Defeat any that come your way," the person had instructed him. "Don't kill them, however. Knock them out, teleport them to Constantinople, cast charms on them to make them do your evil bidding, but don't kill them — unless they're really stubborn. There's only one exception to this…"

Typherios was disturbed from his recollection of the oddest instructions he had received by the sound of the secondhand magical books stirring uneasily in their shelves. He stalked to the source of the disturbance, realizing moments later that it had moved — in the direction of the artifact he had been set to guard.

Well. he kept stalking, moving through the bookshelves, idly using his tentacles to push into order any that had tried escaping since the last time he'd stalked through here, until he arrived at the small table whereupon lay the Prize.

Oddly enough, however, there was something else lying on top of the Prize.

Something round, and a deep burgundy red, and furry… it was, in fact, a stuffed toy.

And it stirred slightly, turning one button eye upon Typherios…

Something screamed inhumanly from the floor above where Ruben and Reiko had chosen to look, rather unsuccessfully, for an item from the list. Reiko was the first to speak after it ceased. "What do you suppose that was?"

Ruben frowned as she scratched the back of her neck. "I don't know. But I sense a presence, a presence I have not felt since—" she cut herself off. "I think we should go and see."

An inhuman scream came from the open windows of the brownstone building, temporarily slicing though the crowded chatter of the bazaar. Jedidiah pushed one of the more persistent salesbeings aside as he moved nearer to Devan and asked, "Now, what do you suppose that was?"

"I dunno. But heck, I'm curious, and it sounds more interesting than anything out here." The salesbeing that Jed had displaced shoved its wares back into Devan's face, and the mad scientist yelled, "NO! I don't care how many forms of communications that it's fluent in, I DON'T NEED NO STINKIN' PROTOCOL UNIT!"

Kara's ears perked up as she heard the intimately familiar sound of an inhuman scream. She grabbed at Ashley, who'd spent the last few minutes perusing a number of Disk Libraries that consisted of nothing but old movies. "Come on, you, we 'ave to rescue Ruben!"

"Huh? Why? He… er, she is perfectly suited to taking care of herself… himself…" Ashley trailed off, having managed to completely confuse himself.

"Because," Kara said lightly, "I want ze chance to say, 'My name iz Kara Nitaline and I am here to rescue you!' And then he will say, 'but are you not too short to be a stor—'"

Ruben stopped reaching for the top story's door handle, cocking her head to one side. "Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Rieko looked at him oddly.

"It sounded like a billion critics groaning in anguish, then just as suddenly being silenced…" Ruben waved her hand irritably. "Never mind, let's just keep going." She rattled the doorknob irritably. Locked. Stupid thing… She cast a spell to unlock it. As she stepped into the room, she heard the comfortable sounds of pages ruffling in alarm and leather covers shifting across ancient wood and smiled.

Magical books aren't alive, contrary to what some popular novelists seek to convince you of. They are, however, aware, in ways that ordinary books aren't. Wizards fear using computers not because the technology is strange, but because they know all too well what it means to give something inanimate the ability, the spirit, to think for itself, no matter how limited that ability might be.

When ink had first met paper in ancient times to aid a wizard in passing on precious lore to his students, he'd never suspected what would happen. The written word has power all its own, and when he combined that with the power of sorcery… it gave grimoires the ability to think, to learn, to evolve on their own.

Nowhere was this self-evolution more apparent than in used magical bookstores, the equivalent of a feral jungle for the abandoned tomes. Already granted the power inside their pages, already imprinted with the will of a previous owner, now the books were forced to compete with each other. The books that wanted to attract a new owner sprouted shiny, eye-catching logos and forced their way to the front of the shelves; the books that wanted to hide from new owners shed their covers and made threatening movements to any that came near, the books that wanted to destroy new owners out of revenge created a variety of traps to crush the minds of the unwary—

And that wasn't even including the really dangerous ones.

Ruben whirled around suddenly. "Don't pick up any books, don't look at any books, and by the good spirits don't dare to read so much as a scrap of paper that's lying on the floor."

Reiko stared back. "I assure you, I've been in magical libraries before. I'm not afraid."

Ruben said in a gravelly voice, "You will be. You will be…" She coughed. "Sorry about that, had some dust in my throat. Well, let's get on with it. I'm sure the scream came from in here."

The pair moved through the bookshelves cautiously, the mid-afternoon sunlight from the tall windows drifting lazily through the dust-filled air. The room was almost noiseless aside from the books rustling amongst each other in the shelves; even the clamor from the bazaar seemed muted in the room's stifling warmth. Ruben watched Reiko looking around nervously from the corner of her eyes, and was only slightly surprised when the other woman whispered something to her little stick and it transformed into a six-foot long stave carved with runes over most of its exposed surface.

As they wended deeper into the room, another sound — almost a whimpering? became audible. Using that as a reference, Ruben led the way closer, until it became so loud that Ruben halted, gesturing to indicate that it was just around the corner. She readied a tanglefoot curse in case the whole thing was a trap, stepped around the corner, and…

Was confronted with one of the oddest sights that she'd ever seen in her years.

A monstrous, demonic half-man, half beast with clawed hands, tentacles that sprouted from its shoulders, and various other unwholesome bits that don't warrant description was hunched over on its hands and knees, weeping acid, apparently overpowered by the presence of—

"Mughi!" Ruben dropped the prepared tanglefoot and instead snatched up the small plush animal, huggling it. "Where have you been, you silly thing?!" She laughed — no, it wasn't a giggle, of course it wasn't, it was a chuckle, a chortle, a merry little guffaw — but definitely not a giggle!

"Ah-ha!" came Ashley's voice from a nearby open window as he swung himself up to perch on the windowsill. "I knew that you liked that plushie!"

Ruben's face turned the same shade and brilliance of a ripened apple, then somehow managed to grow even more red as Ashley gave a hand up to Kara… then, Devan and Jedidiah burst in through a side-door, sliding to a halt at the scene before them…

All I would need, Ruben reflected sourly, is for the Dean of the university to be taking pictures. Instead of saying that aloud, Ruben snapped, "Why all the fuss about me, when, er, uh… there's this demon right here?!?"

All five of the others looked down at the demon beast, who was starting to show signs of recovery, then looked back at Ruben. Devan was the first to speak. "Yeah, Ruben, but demons come and go. Seeing you get embarrassed — that's something really unusual."

"Oh, just…" words failed her, and Ruben was left glaring impotently. "Just… forget it." She booted the demon beast in the side. "Hey, you! What's your name, and what the hell are you doing out of your home dimension?"

"No pun intended?" the demon beast asked, not quite under his breath, and she kicked him again. The monster looked at Ruben irritably. "My name is Typherios, and hey, shouldn't you be scared?"

"Of the likes of you?" Ruben asked scornfully. "Not hardly. The only reason I haven't banished you back is because I have a vague curiosity about what you're doing up here."

Ashley leaned over to Devan. "Should we be helping Ruben out?"

Surprisingly, it was Jedidiah who answered. "Naw. He knows his stuff, and he's got this guy well in hand…"

With a wave of his hands, Typherios produced a book from, well, somewhere about his person. "Recognize this?"

"The Necronomicon, Dagon Press Second Edition!" Ruben pointed a finger angrily and sputtered, "How did you— Why do you— Where did you—"

"I've been set here to guard it from all comers! And I won't give it up to you unless…"

Ruben leaned forward. "Unless?"

"Unless…" The demon beast leapt for Ruben, arms and tentacles outspread. "YOU DATE WITH ME!!!"

Ruben, who'd been expecting something like this sooner or later, casually took a step back and sketched a ward in the air. Typherios collided with it, and after several seconds of magical lightning dancing between them, the beast was thrown backwards into a bookshelf, knocking it over. Several enterprising books took the opportunity to nibble on the thing's extremities, hoping to absorb some of its magic.

"Now," the magician said, moving to loom (as best she could from her limited height) over the demon. "Tell me why I don't destroy you right now and take what I want from your rapidly decomposing corpse?"


Ruben leaned forward. "Because?"

" If you strike me down," Typherios predicted, "I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

"I dunno," Ruben replied, a dubious note in her voice, "I can imagine quite a bit…"

"Then imagine that I destroy the book with my last breath. You can't take that away from me, after all. Where does that leave you?"

"Looking for something else," Ruben said dismissively.

"Ha-ha, you fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders!" The demon gloated. "He Who Should Not Be Named If You Know What's Good For You set this whole thing up to humiliate you! There are no other objects that you can find in time, and he knows it!"

"He Who Should Not— you mean the Dean?"

"Yes." Typherios paused for a moment to let that sink in, then added, "It's a good thing for you that I don't like the guy and am prepared to go against his order, if, well… all I want is the chance to show you that I'm not just about the multiple-orifice tentacle-molestation. I know how to treat a girl right, just like any other guy."

Ruben's face processed from confusion, to comprehension, to terror, then ended at pure disgust. "No. Absolutely not. There is not a chance in your own hell that I will—"

From above, as has been mentioned before in this chapter of the epic, Serenity City truly looks incredible. From the closest examinations to even pictures taken from orbit, visitors to Earth, no matter what they might call home, exclaim at how wondrous it looks. Even its occasional scars are mere beauty marks, accentuating rather than detracting. Though its designers may not have had the first clue about space-war tactics, they sure knew how to make somethin' look purdy.

Cheesy cracks from alien invaders aside, it was really a nice thing to contemplate once in a while, which is what the demoness-beast was doing, perched on a cloud far above the city.

Not because she actually had to sit on anything, mind you; it was just for dramatic effect. She felt that if one paid attention to the small things, even when no one was watching, then the large things took care of themselves.

"So this is the town that my ingrate Darling has gone off to on his latest quest, eh? Well, he'll get what's coming to him!" The demoness vanished in a puff of tiger-striped smoke.

Ruben swung her feet back and forth irritably, one hand on her plush kitty. This seat's too high. Way too high. Dammit. I really hate being five feet nothing when I'm a girl. Urgh, and dresses are just so uncomfortable… why can't I have my robes back?!

She looked around the corner booth that they had co-opted upon entering this restaurant as she sipped her soda. Typherios was seated on the far outside of the ring, on her right, and he had shed his demonic form for a more ordinary one, though his blue-tinged skin and massively pointed ears still gave away that not quite all was normal.

Jedidiah and Ashley were on his left, going farther into the horseshoe-shaped seating ring. Ruben was next, seated squarely in the middle, which was another grate upon her nerves. I feel squished sitting here. Reiko and Kara rounded the group off by sitting opposite the men, and the Necronomicon that had started this was resting in the very center of the table. Ruben sighed sadly. The things I do to crush my enemies, drive them before me, and hear the lamentations of their women… How did I get into this mess?

The question was purely rhetorical. She knew exactly whose fault it was, and it was Devan's. Her teeth ground against each other as she contemplated revenge, sweet revenge, for blackmailing her into this. Oh, Typherios was somewhat to blame — he had been the one to insist on a date as fair payment for the book — but it had been Devan who had… Damn Devan for threatening me with that. He knows that the worst thing which could happen to me is to get even more people interested in my girlish self. And then he vanishes after forcing me into this? I'm going to hurt him very badly the next time I see him.

Typherios responded to a question from Jedidiah with, "Yeah, um, we really don't get that many souls down there. It's not one of the punishment hells that I live in, you know. It's no garden spot, but…"

Kara cleared her throat. "Well, I 'ave to go freshen up before ze food arrivez." She stood up. "Coming, girlz?" Reiko slid out and took a step for the restaurant's bathroom, but Kara caught her arm. "All ze girlz 'ave to go at once, you know!"

"Huh?" Reiko and Ruben shared a perfectly similar look of dumbfoundment between each other for a moment, then Kara dragged Ruben out bodily, reaching around the table to haul her along the seats. The trio headed for the ladies room.

Ashley shook his head and took a big gulp of soda. "I wonder what goes on in those little 'bathroom breaks', you know?"

Tyfer glanced at Jed. "Yeah, too bad you can't dress a guy up as a girl and sneak him in there to find out, right?"

Proving the value of a well-timed joke, Ashley and Jedidiah both very nearly snarfed soda out their noses.

Ruben threw Kara's arm off as soon as they stepped into the bathroom. It was, oddly enough, empty but for the three who'd just stepped in.

"What's the idea of draggin' me along, anyway?" Ruben glared argumentively at Kara.

"Well, az it would not do to lie to ze boys, I will 'ave to freshen up while I get to the real point of zis." Kara looked into the mirror. "I need to ask you a question or two, eh?"

Ruben leaned against the wall and folded her arms across her chest. Her breasts prevented her from doing it the way that she was used to, however, so she was forced to adjust her posture. "Ask away." Her voice was flat and uninterested.

"Someone might think that you weren' having fun."

Ruben gave up on looking tough and masculine (which is tough when you're five feet tall and look cute enough, even when sulking, to melt steel) and stood in a more natural stance. "Someone might suppose right."

Reiko, who had been looking at both of them as though they had gone insane from the moment Kara had started dragging Ruben with them, chuckled. "No way. Really? I mean, I was suspicious of the demon myself, usually I just banish them right away, but he is pretty funny…"

Ruben said sarcastically, "Horribly over-tentacled monsters are just people too, right?"

Kara stopped pretending to look in the mirror and turned to face Ruben. "But that iz not your problem? You could just walk away, no? After all, the only thing that iz holding you 'ere iz…"

"Devan's pictures. Of me acting cute. In that store." Ruben replied, each word holding a new weight of anger as it left her mouth. "You have no idea what those mean, do you? I spent my entire freshman year dealing with idiots that thought I really was a girl." She shuddered. "I'd rather deal with the demon for a day than spend the next semester fighting off idiots who can't see farther than the tits."

Reiko cut into the conversation with, "There are plenty of women out there who would be grateful to have breasts like that! I'll admit, there are times when I wouldn't've minded having a little more, myself…"

"You two just don't get it." Ruben stomped her foot. "I am not a woman. I hate every second that I have to spend as one. It's not just the tits, even if they do throw me off balance. The worst of it is that I…" She looked away. "When I'm in this shape… I feel… used to being a woman. It's changing me. I've always acted a bit different when I'm stuck like this, that's part of the magic, but lately…" Ruben shuddered again. "I don't want it to be comfortable. I don't want to accept it."

"Why not?" Kara asked innocently. "Aftair all, it iz not as if you are forever stuck as a woman! As you said, it iz not just ze, ah, teats. You 'ave the perfect chance to see 'ow ze othair half lives, wi' none of ze disadvantages! Ah, what bliss," Kara sighed, turning her eyes towards the ceiling, "To even think about nevair suffering through anothair, ah, les ragnes, when you collect ze monthly witching blood, wishing you could hang upside down from a tree, how do you say in English?"

Reiko considered that for a moment, scratching her cheek, than said, "Ah! Period." Reiko affixed Ruben with a glare. "Yeah. You're the one who has no idea what you're complaining about, 'being a woman', do you? Huh? Do you?"

Ruben looked away. "Well, er, there was this one time, when I was, uh, stuck as a woman for an entire month, and, well…" she shuddered. "I thought I was dying, that someone had slipped a curse past my guard."

"Just ze same curse we all 'ave!" Kara patted Ruben on the cheek. "Now, Ruben, when we go back there… 'ave some fun, will you?"

Ruben's face turned rebellious. "No."

"Ruben, dear, you are ze only one taking ze date seriously. Even ze demon knowz this is just a strange, unbelievable, unrealistic farce contrived for someone's sadistic amusement! Jus' do not worry about it, relax a little, and 'ave fun!" Kara tapped her lips with her forefinger, thinking. "I want you to giggle."

"Tee. Hee. Hee." Ruben said flatly. "Good enough?"

"It will do." Kara giggled herself. "Let's go, ze guys will think that we dropped off ze earth."

"Sheesh!" Ashley grumped. "Do you think that they dropped off the earth while they were in there?"

Jed replied, "Nope, doesn't look like they did." Kara had her hand on Ruben's arm as the trio returned to the table, and as they slid back into their seats, the waitress bearing their food arrived.

Typherios smiled, exposing a set of small fangs. "Perfect timing!"

"Let's see, two Hungryman-sized Martial Master Meals," the waitress slid the gigantic plates to Ashley and Reiko, "two Sorceress Specials," those miniature cauldrons went to Ruben and Kara, "and two Wanderer's Waybread Baskets," and the last small baskets were given to Jedidiah and Typherios. "Oh, and are you sure that this is all on one check?"

Ruben said firmly, looking at Typherios, "Yes. And no payments in faerie gold or anything else that'll disappear after midnight." The demon looked quite glum at the prospect of obeying that command. Meanwhile, Reiko and Ashley began scarfing down their meals with the speed that only one who's been on a three-day training trip in the mountains with no food can perfect. Kara spooned up a bit of her soup, blowing to cool it while murmuring, "Eye of newt and toe of frog… num…"

There are many laws which transcend space, time, and nature itself. Wizardry comes (in part) from knowing and applying these laws, which means that Ruben should have been paying closer attention and realized that the date was calm only because it was rapidly approaching the event horizon of disaster.

And, with a bang, amid the dust and rubble of an imploding wall, it passed that horizon.

Three suits of powered armor emblazoned with the insignia for the campus's mecha frat, the Atomic Starlight Knights. The monstrous machines leveled weapon arms that seemed to be mostly gun barrels, particle projection rods, phaser emitters, and Nerf brick launchers, at the table containing the five students and one demon. From the speaker grille of the lead mech came, "Ruben Stryfe! We have tracked you, and the prize, to this location! Give it up!"

Ruben groaned, clutching her head. "Oh, not these jokers…"

With another bang, the doors of the small restaurant fell to the ground. "Darrrrrrrling, I know you're in here! It's no good trying to hide!!!!" A green-skinned woman wearing a tiger-striped one-piece bathing suit floated in through the now-open doorway, a half-dozen gray-skinned minion-types clustering in behind her.

Tyfer hunched down, trying to hide his face behind a stray menu. "I can't believe Regalis followed me…"

Ruben tapped her fingers irritably. Dammit, looks like it's gonna get ugly… I didn't bring any heavy-duty offensive spells with me either. Defensive stuff, that's what I'll have to use… "You guys are gonna have to do the fighting, I'm not packing anything serious."

Jedidiah reached casually into his coat. "Well, well, well… time to party, eh?" He made eye contact with Ashley, then Ruben, and gestured with his head towards the power armor. The sorcerer-turned-sorceress nodded slowly, remembering the skills he'd displayed when they were both traveling in China. He can take them down easily, if I protect him long enough…

Ashley slid underneath the table and almost bumped heads with Reiko. Both of them grinned, then looked towards the small horde of minions that were advancing on their table now. Reiko spoke softly. "I've been itching for a good fight all afternoon. You with me?"

Ashley nodded.

Kara sat, sipping her soup, training a steady gaze upon the green-skinned woman floating in midair that Tyfer had named as Regalis. A sudden feeling of tension filled the air as the demoness turned her attention to the red-haired woman…

Which shattered when Ashley and Reiko burst from underneath the table, rolling and bouncing to their feet. Reiko twirled her stick, and in a blur of motion, it grew from just a few inches long to over six feet long. She stopped the spin and assumed a ready stance, staff held under one arm and angled up across her back, then danced in, blocking the blows of one minion while jabbing another in the face and throat.

Jed dove over the top of the table with a one-handed handspring, his other hand still in his coat. Ruben deftly wove a shield around the trench coated fighter, and her efforts were rewarded by the sudden sensation of phaser beams, Nerf bricks, and rail gun shots against that shield, threatening her grip on its existence. Ruben gritted her teeth as she stood up on the booth's seat. I'll have to keep him in my line of sight, if that stupid hunk of metal puts out that kind of firepower…

Ashley leaped to the attack with the technique that he had mastered over a dozen burning campfires, perfecting amid the smell of his own scorched flesh and the stench of burning air-puffed marshmallows. "Roasting Marshmallow Fist!!"

The demon he was attacking gaped at this. "Huh? Fisty hit like marshmallow?" It chuckled for about four seconds, that being the amount of time it took Ashley to hit him some four hundred times, then fell over and dissipated in a puff of foul-smelling smoke.

The green woman floated over the battle that was being waged between her minions and the two martial artists and to the table where Kara sat, watching her steadily. For long moments, the two just stared at each other, then the demoness said, a bit unsteadily, "I know you."

Kara sounded startled as she replied, "You do, eh?"

"Yes, I know you…" In a cloud of brimstone-scented smoke, the demoness transformed into her apocalyptic form, tentacles, horns, and worse sprouting from every available inch, and she finished with a guttural "…and I won't hesitate to destroy you."

"Bah," Kara bah'ed, waving one hand dismissively, still keeping her eyes locked with the demoness-beast. "I will bet zat you cannot even move!"

Devan Wiley, who'd been sitting overwatch at a nearby table, sighed and fingered his wave motion pistol. Well, isn't this just peachy… if things get out of hand, I'll pitch in, but…

The waiters and waitresses of the UHOP, being used to this sort of thing due to their proximity to the school, continued service amidst the sudden chaos around them. Spectators placed side-bets on which side would win, and Devan sidled up to one such group. "Bet you seventy nuyen that the kids sitting at the table will come out on top…"

A portly man held out his hand. "You're on!"

Jed rushed the power armor, one hand on the hilt of his sword and the other holding the sheath steady. Ruben smiled slightly. His quickdraw technique was quite good, the last time I saw him…

The powered armored warriors, seeing that guns were useless against the shield flickering around Jedidiah, let the gun barrels retract into their arms with a chorus of clicks. The suit's hand grasped a hilt and drew from its sheath a golden plasma blade that wavered with the heat of a captive sun.

Jed sidestepped the first slash of the lead suit and said, "Shiny sword ya got." Suddenly, wind whipped through the room, throwing everyone off-balance for a moment. Then Jed, who was now standing behind the three power suits, sheathed his blade. "But without technique, even the shiniest swords are meaningless."

As the katana clicked home into its saya, the lead suit fell into a half-dozen pieces, exposing the rather embarrassed occupant… and apparently, it was one of the kinds that needed full-skin contact to operate properly. The man covered his shame frantically and shouted, "Retreat! Retreat!"

"Noooooo!!!!" Ruben stared down at himself, sundress sticky with the soup that an off-balance waitress had spilled on him, and almost shrieked. Why did I have to turn back while I was wearing something embarrassing like THIS?!?!

Frantically, he dove under a nearby table, whose occupants were watching the minions trying to hold off the combined might of Ashley and Reiko. Gotta… cast… something quick… but what? Frantically, he searched his mind for a powerful enough spell to sling that wouldn't end up disastrously.

His head bonked into someone's, and he looked up to see that Typherios had hidden himself under the same table. "Yo, whassup, Ruben?"

Devan snuck close to the table, trying to not get between the woman and demoness-beast staring each other down. That looks like it could be very, very dangerous. He snitched a few fries from an abandoned Hungryman-sized Martial Master Meal, washed it down with a few gulps of Fizzygoo, then snatched the book still lying on the table.

Suddenly, Devan heard a slight "Mrrow?" from next to his left foot. Slowly, unwillingly, his head swiveled downward to look at that foot, and he saw the Red Plushie From Earth's Hell (as he'd personally christened it.) Oh, CRAP. The kitty's button eyes met his…

Without moving its legs, it leapt onto the table, turning around to look at the floating woman. She blinked as her attention was distracted from Kara. "Oh, how cute— ARGHGETITOFFGETITOFF!!!!!"

Typherios slid out from underneath the table. "Don't worry, my love, I'll save— ARGHGETITOFFGETITOFF!!"

Ruben walked up next to Devan, looking up at the two hapless victims of his plush toy. "You know, the next time you cross me, I'm going to send him after you. Understand?"

"…Shut up."

"So, sir, was your plan a success?" Iosef asked, watching his boss juggle the book from hand to hand absently.

Felix Salouse grinned and with a simple spell, set the fake book on fire, dropping it to the ground before the Campus Mandala. "Oh, yes… now I'm fairly sure who the new vortexes belong to… now to move to the next stage of testing Ruben." He snapped his fingers, and a robed figure appeared from the darkness in the back of the room.

"Yes, Salouse?"

"I know someone who has… an overdue."

"Ahhh, five credits free and clear!" Ruben sank onto his bed and stretched. "Feels good to finally put one over on that damn Dean."

Ashley looked up from his textbooks and added, "It was sure nice of those two demons to disappear without giving us trouble…. So… what, exactly, went on in that little bathroom break? C'mon, you can tell me."

"Nothing important, or even noteworthy. No way that I'm telling you." No way was that a normal encounter anyway. Ruben swiveled his chair to face his roommate, and…

…Ashley leapt from the bed with a guttural growl and began strangling Ruben. He felt Ashley's claw-like fingernails dig into his skin as he fell backward, his chair moving under him. He hit his head and…

…he felt Ashley's hands on his shoulders, shaking him gently. "What happened, Ruben? You just screamed and fell over!" Both of them perked up as a ghostly voice crossed their ears. Now we know where you are, Ruben. We're coming for you… We're coming for you…

Ruben swore softly, then picked himself up. "I guess we're going on that mountain training trip this weekend, Ashley."

"Huh?" Ashley watched as Ruben cast a spell, waving his hands through the air in mystic passes that left shimmering lights waving in their aftermath, then gaped as Ruben transformed into a woman once more. "What the heck is—"

Ruben gently pushed Ashley out the door. "We'll be learning how to exercise your newfound abilities while we're up there. Could you please go and get Reiko real quick? I have some business to discuss with her while I'm packing." She closed the door behind Ashley, then slumped against it.

Great. Just great. I didn't know that they'd find me so soon. She turned around and slid to the floor. Now Ashley will find out that I could've sent him back the whole time. I wonder how he'll take it?


To be continued.

Author's notes: I have lost count of how many times I have revised this particular chapter.

Its first inception was in 1998, the transcript of an adventure I (tried to) run in Big Eyes, Small Mouths. However, it bears but slight resemblance to what happened that day, after five major revisions. Gods, spirits, totems (and editors) willing, I will never have to do another one.

The next chapter I'll write will describe what's after Ruben, and will detail quite a bit of his past. It'll blend a bit into Ranma ½ fan fiction, so bear with me, okay?

Aaron Bergman

"The only difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has limits."
—Albert Einstein

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