Twinkie Cowboys

The man was slowly brought, horseback, to the ominous dangling tree limb that was going to be his fate.  He had spent much of his adult life being a scallywag… a pain in the posterior of anyone he came in contact with, but he was, at heart, a good man.  He never thought that he would meet his maker at the end of a rope.

The posse led the horse into position, and looped the white rope around the sturdy branch.  The end was tightened around the trunk of the tree while the other, the noose, went around his thin neck.

“This is your last chance, Tomas James, to confess your sins before you face the final judgment.  What do you have to say for yourself, pardner?”

The words of the man were lost on Tomas.  What could he say? He was a troublemaker.  He was a rapscallion. But he just did not deserve to die like this.  This was reserved for the worst of the worst, and he just did not fit that bill.  So he stayed quiet.

“Very well,” said the leader of the posse, with a doff of his cowboy hat, “so be it.  May God have mercy on your soul.”

With a whack on the rear of the horse Tomas sat upon, the animal took off running.  Tomas closed his eyes. He did not know if he would suffocate or if his neck would break immediately when the slack left the rope, but neither result were what he hoped.  In his head, he said a silent goodbye to the world knowing that he would be joining his beloved sister in the afterlife. That was the one thing that he was thankful for. As he felt the horse leave beneath his body, he knew that gravity was about to take over and it would soon be over.

A shot rang out through the air and Tomas found himself hitting the ground.  The bullet had severed the hangman’s rope, and he landed hard in a puff of Western dust.  However, he was still very much alive.

As Tomas quickly tried to remove the noose, the rest of the posse turned to see what varmint had interrupted the cowboy justice.  There on the hill beyond the scene, with the slight morning sun shining over his shoulder, sat a stranger upon a white horse. The smoking gun was still in his right hand, but in his left, a golden tubular shaped cake.  He took a bite of the Twinkie as he slowly trotted the stallion over to the mob. Some of the creamy filling was left upon his chin, intermixing with his beard.

“There will be no hanging here today,” the stranger said, taking a second bite of the golden cake.  

“Mister, you just made a big mistake,” said the leader of the posse.  

“No… the big mistake has yet to be made,” he said, a smirk plastered on his face.  “Here is what is going to happen… you are going to dispatch your little mob, and return to your families, happy with the fact that you are able to do so under your own power.”

The leader looked to be ready to respond to the comment of the stranger, but before he could, the stranger continued.

“If you decide that you cannot live with that option,” he said, popping the final bite of Twinkie into his mouth, “then the real ‘big mistake’ is ready to happen.”

With that final bite swallowed, the stranger pulled out a second gun and proceeded to fire multiple shots through the air, piercing the belt buckles or suspenders of each of the men standing around Tomas.  The trousers of each man fell to the ground in unison, leaving them unharmed in all other way. The unbelievable display of marksmanship was really all the stranger needed to do. The mob froze in their spots, frightened at what this stranger could do.

“Now, this doesn’t have to be a bad moment for us all,” the stranger said, reaching into his backpack.  He tossed several packages at the feet of the men. “Here… Twinkies for everyone. See… it could have been much worse.”  Turning his attention to Tomas, the stranger said, “Get up.”

Tomas had watched this display with a confused terror.   “Do I know you?”

“You will,” said the stranger, extending a hand.  Tomas took the offered appendage and he found himself pulled up onto the horse behind the stranger.  The stranger looked to the intimidated mob and said, “Remember, even if the exterior is not what you want, there may be a sweet center.”

With those wise words, the stranger reared back on his horse, waving a Twinkie in his right hand.  The sound of the horse’s whinny cut through the Old West skyline. The sound faded as the horse galloped into the horizon.

“Who was that?” asked the leader of the mob.

“Doesn’t matter,” said one of the other men, who were down on his knees, scarfing down one of the cream-filled treasures.  “These things are good.”

The horse galloped at a remarkable speed, faster than Tomas had ever travelled in his life.  The wind smacked against his face and the smell of sugar across this stranger was strong. Tomas wrapped his arms around the man’s torso, wondering if he had exchanged one intolerable situation for another.  After what seemed like the longest ten minutes of his life, the horse slowed to a trot and the ride came to a halt. The stranger dropped Tomas to the ground, indelicately. For the second time in the last hour, Tomas landed hard on his own patootie.  Rubbing his backside as he stood to his feet, Tomas looked up at the stranger.

The stranger was decked out in a bright yellow shirt and white pants.  His white cowboy hat sat atop a long mane of blonde hair. His beard had been patiently manicured as each hair looked perfect, despite the touches of sugar that clumped throughout.   One would wonder why someone who was as meticulous with his beard as this stranger clearly was would allow sticky sugar to mar the appearance.  

“Um…thank you,” said Tomas, uncertain why this man had helped him.  “Who…are …you?”

“Who I am is not important,” he said, “Here…you must keep up your strength for the trip ahead of us.”  He tossed Tomas a Twinkie, the wrapper crinkled as the confused scallywag caught it.  

“No thanks,” said Tomas, “I have never liked these things.”

The stranger turned an eye to Tomas with such a scowl that Tomas was not sure if the stranger was going to let him live after that comment.  After a few tense seconds, the stranger smiled.

“You do not know what you are missing, my friend,” he said, with a hearty laugh.  Tomas tossed the packaged snack cake back to the stranger, who hungrily tore open the packaging with his teeth.  “God knew what he was doing on the day he created this tempting morsel.”

“Don’t you worry about the preservatives in that thing?” Tomas asked.

“Do I look worried?” he asked, opening his shirt and displaying his washboard abs.  “These are the secret to life.”

“If I could change the subject,” said Tomas, realizing that this was a topic that he simply wasn’t going to win, “why did you save me?”

“Hm?”

“I mean… don’t misunderstand me.  I appreciate the save. I really do.  But I do not know you from Adam. Why did you put yourself on the line for me?”

“I would hardly say that I ‘put myself on the line.’  That carnival of clowns was never a threat to me,” he said, making the ridiculously arrogant comment sound quite mild. 

“Okay, that may be true, but even still… you could be looked at as a criminal.  A rogue who is opposed to justice.”

“Did you deserve to be hanged?”

“No… but,”

“No buts about it, Tomas.  I know an injustice when I see it,” said the stranger.

“Wait… how did you know my name?” Tomas asked.  

“My appearance at your lynching was not an accident, Tomas James.  I was hired to find you and my investigation led me to your unfortunate circumstance.  It is very lucky that I found you when I did or else my employer would be very disappointed.”

“Your employer?  Who hired you?” Tomas asked, feeling that maybe he went from one fire to another.  Who wanted him badly enough to send this Twinkie warrior from out of the mysterious West to save him from frontier justice?  

“It was me, Tomas,” a feminine voice said, a voice that Tomas had known.  A voice that he had known all of his life. A voice that he did not believe he would ever hear again.  

It was his sister.

The sister that he believed was dead.

“Marjorie?” Tomas said.

There she stood.  His older sister, the one who practically raised him when their parents had been killed in a stagecoach wreck, Marjorie.  She had died when she was twenty-one years old, leaving poor sixteen year old Tomas to fend for himself. He was at her funeral.  How was this possible?

“It cannot be.  I was at your side when you died.  How is this possible? How are you not dead?”

The beautiful woman strode across the ground to stand in front of her brother, softly caressing his age worn face.  The gruffly whiskers were sharp to her touch. A tender tear rolled down her cheek. The touch told Tomas the real truth.

“I am dead,” she said.  

Before he knew it, Tomas was crying, embracing the phantom as tightly as he had ever embraced anyone.  He had never thought that he would see her again. Now she was here…and he didn’t know for how long.  

Marjorie pointed at the stranger.  “I contacted him for help when it was clear that your choices were going to lead to you ending your life early.  Your troublemaking…. It is leading you to an early grave. Believe me when I say that you do not want that.”

“What can I do?”

“Ride with him,” she said, still pointing at the stranger.  “Help him. Help others. Become more than what you are. Do not waste this opportunity.  The next time, you may not be so lucky.”

And with those words, she was gone.

Tomas fell to his knees, sobbing…his tears watering the dusty ground.   A packaged Twinkie landed at his knees. Tomas looked back to the stranger, still mounted on his white horse.

“If you’re going to ride with me, you’ll need to acquire a taste for these,” he said smiling.  

Tomas opened the package.

The Stranger and his Twinkies

 

By Kevin Fuss

 

The Epic Race on Mars

“Welcome everyone to the ‘Galaxy’s Most Famous Arena,’ Martian Square Gardens for the running of the 10th Annual Epic Race on Mars.  I am Nick Soapdish and welcome to the most exciting two minutes in the Universe.  As always, I am with the lovely and talented Becki Binary. Hello Becki.”

“Hi there, Nick.  It must be a pleasure for you to talk to me…*giggle*”

“As always, Becki.  This anniversary race will be one for the record books.”  

“For sure!”

“Do you know why, Becki?”

“I do.”

*Nick pauses to see if Becki would expound on her answer*

“So….?” said Nick.

“Huh?” Becki said.

“As everyone knows, “Nick said continuing on,  straightening his blue blazer jacket, “The Epic Race on Mars began after the Intergalactic Wars, as a symbol of peace and prosperity across the entire galaxy.  We have hosted the event since the President of the Galaxy, Rjimm J’Frthzi proclaimed it so. And the 10th annual event has something extra special.  It has an appearance by the one and only celebrity, Brock Brawn.”

*sigh* Becki began fanning herself with papers that had been sitting on the desk in front of them.  “Ah…I loooooooooooooooooooooooooove him!” Becki leans back in her chair, continuing to fan herself.

“Brock is here to be our official starter,” Nick said.

“He can get me started any time,” said Becki, wiping the beads of sweat from her forehead.  

“Remember Becki…we can’t have a repeat of the incident from three years ago.  Our censors’ heads nearly exploded that day.”

“Whatever,” she said, making a disappointed face.

“For more on the race itself, we will send it down to our race side reporter, Chadwick Bumblefield,” said Nick.  “Chad.”

“Thank you Nick,” said Chad, “and I am excited to be here today.  We have an exciting field of competitors today, Nick and Becki, but by far the favorite is the Wampa Lampa from the Xanxes System.  He is being ridden by the horse Solomon.”

“Chad,” interrupted Nick, “but, for our new viewers, can you explain why a horse is riding a Wampa Lampa?”

“Of course, Nick,” said Chadwick.  “For the history of the Epic Race on Mars, our jockeys on the individual creatures involved in the race have been Horses from the planet of Stallion, the home planet of President J’Frthzi.   As we all know, the horse people of Stallion are the greatest riders in the universe and President J’Frthzi wanted to display his planet mates. “

“If so, how did this event come to be held on Mars?” asked Nick.

“Union dues,” said Chadwick.

“Ah,” said Nick.

“Plus, the red tint of the planet made the horses’ manes stand out more…creating a pleasing visual image for the intergalactic television audience…and we know how important those ratings are.”

“No doubt,” replied Nick.

“Chadwick, this is Becki,” Becki said, pausing to brush her dangling red hair behind her left ear in her best Jennifer Aniston imitation.

Chadwick waited for a question from the redheaded beauty.  The camera zoomed in to Chadwick as he continued to wait.

“Um… Becki… do you have a question?” asked Chadwick.

“No,” she said.  “Why?”

Chadwick’s eyes bulged from his skull and he face palmed himself.  He expected it from her, but every time he finds himself frustratingly frustrated.  

“Thanks for that report, Chadwick,” said Nick, breaking back into the broadcast.  “Now, a word from our sponsor.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

William Shatner appeared on the screen.  He was dressed up in his Captain Kirk costume, though his ample frame has stretched the seams a bit.  Shatner smiles his best cheesy smile at the camera.

“I have voyaged to every corner of the Final Frontier, but never have I come across a drink better than this,” he said, holding up a green bottle.  “Supernova, the ale with a real Big Bang. Take it from me, I have been all over the galaxy…and I am a really big lush… so I have tried every drink imaginable.  I have downed a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster without blinking an eye. The Moloko Plus was like mother’s milk. And the Glingue, the favorite drink of the Shingouz, no matter how toxic, cannot match the Supernova.”

He takes a deep swig of the green bottle, staggers a little bit, his eyes crossing.

“Oh…that really hits the spot.  It is like an explosion in the old digestive system.  After a six pack of these, you are really seeing stars…or at least the remnants of them.”

Taking another deep swig, Shatner falls backwards.  After a few seconds, he stands back to his feet.

“But if you do not believe me, listen to my furry friend.”

Chewbacca walks over and stands beside Shatner.  

“Huwaa muaa mumwa?” asked Shatner in Shyriiwook, the language of the Wookies.  {TRANSLATED: CAN I BUY YOU A DRINK?}

Shatner hands him a second green bottle of Supernova.  Chewbacca pumps his arms up in the air. Chewbacca downs the entire bottle in one fell drink.

“Rhawk-Arrgh, rrrooaarrgghh!” exclaimed Chewbacca.  {TRANSLATED: MAY THE FORCES BE WITH YOU}

“Live long and prosper,” said Shatner.  Behind him, Leonard Nemoy appeared as if beamed in from the Transporter Room.

“You using my catch phrase is sell liquor is illogical, Captain,” he said, jumping right into the Mr. Spock character.

“Supernova!” said Shatner.  “A real BOOM!”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Welcome back to the 10th Annual Epic Race on Mars.  I’m Nick Soapdish. This broadcast is being beamed to all corners of the cosmos, with the expectation that this will be the most viewed race in the history of universal coverage, surpassing the classic Ultimate Quidditch Match of 2035.  I am here with Becki Binary.”

“’Sup,” Becki said, holding her fingers in a peace sign.

“Becki, what is your favorite part of the Epic Race on Mars?” asked Nick.

“Hm…. Probably the catering,” she said.  “I always eat until I am just bloated. Love those mini-corn dogs.”

“We are mere moments away from this year’s race.”

“Shouldn’t that be this light year’s race?” said Becki.

“Actually Becki,” said Nick, “a light year is a measurement of distance, not time.”

“Huh?  But the word year is in it.”

“That’s true, but in this case, it is referring to distance not time,” Nick repeated.

“Really?  That doesn’t sound right.  Should I look it up in my Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?” she asked.

“I don’t think that you’ll find it in there,” he said.  “Just trust me.”

AAAAAAAAAAAOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOGGGGGGGGGGGAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

“That’s the horn for the three minute warning.  Three minutes for all the riders to report to the starting line and prepare themselves for the longest two minutes in sports history,” said Nick.

“Is that hyperbole?” said Becki.

“Perhaps,” said Nick, pointing down to the track from his vantage point.  “There is Brock Brawn walking out to start the race.”

“Brock Brawn… baby… burly and buff… Brock’s bulging biceps belongs beside bathing beauties and berating bullies.  As the Backstreet Boys said, ‘Bye, Bye, Bye’!”

“Nice use of alliteration, Becki,” said Nick.

“Hey,” she said, glaring angrily at Nick, “my parents were married!”

Nick’s head drops, shaking back and forth.

“Words sometimes do not you justice, Becki,” said Nick.

“What do you mean…sometimes,” she said with a wag of her head.  

Turning back to the race, Nick continued, “Here comes the racers now.  There is Wampa Lampa with Solomon on its back. What a majestic looking horse he is.  His picturesque amber mane is flowing in the breeze as they trot to the starting gate.  Next up, there is Mr. Edward riding on the Creature from the Black de Moon. Mr. Edward is coming into the race hot, after winning the Saturn Ring 500 in under 13 parsecs.”

“Is parsec a measurement of time, too?” asked Becki.

“Well…..” said Nick, looking to change the subject.  “And there is the oldest Horse in our race. Secretary-Et has been in every Epic Races on Mars events, today riding a Tauntaun from the planet Hoth.”

“Little known fact, Nick, the Tauntaun runs better in the warm temperature than it does on the frozen planet of Hoth.”

“That is correct, Becki.  And there is B.B. B.B. is riding the original hound of hell, Cerberus,” said Nick.

“I have heard that they are considered quite the underdog,” said Becki.

“Ha Ha Ha…real cute, Becki,” said Nick.

“I know I am,’ she said as a big smile flashed across her face.

“All of the other participants are coming up to the starter’s line now as well and we are just mere moments away from the beginning of the race.  You can cut the tension in the air with a knife as the packed house of thousands of spectators and a galaxy full of onlookers wait with baited breath for the start of the Epic Race on Mars.  I think I have goose bumps,” Nick said, rubbing his arm. “There is Brock with the starter’s pistol.”

“Mmmmmmmmmm, Brock,” said Becki.

Brock raised the pistol and pulled the trigger.

“And they are off!” Nick shouted.  “Look at them go. It is a real dogfight here.  I mean…literally as Cerberus has attacked the Tauntaun. “

“Who saw that coming?” Becki said.

“Well, three-headed hell hounds are tough to handle,” said Nick.  

“Yeah,” said Becki.

“And now Cerberus seems to be consuming the Tauntaun.  I have never seen anything quite like this.”

“Oh the humanity!” yelled Becki.

   “And the race is continuing.”  Nick pauses, mouth agape at what he sees in front of him.  “OH MY GOODNESS!!!! That is the most incredible thing I have ever seen.  Quick get a shot of that before it is too late. Just loo-“

Technical Difficulties.

 

The Epic Race on Mars

By Kevin Fuss

The Secret of the Prince

Prince Title

The Hero Games Forum Superdraft

 

PART ONE            

At the beginning of time, a powerful deity, a member of the Pantheon, Brother Chaos was easily bored, requiring that he search for some form of entertainment.  The deity brought forth a civilization, a world wherein he could play. He brought forth a land, filled with disorder and strife; as he was want to do, because it was his nature.

He created a land of sin and greed, including a populace that thrived upon the baser instincts of the human condition as a bustling city-state known as Syn formed in his own image.  Gambling, fighting, struggle for gold… all taking place within the borders of the city state.

And as you knew would happen, the people of Syn looked to grab even more power, more control over their destinies than the ultimate manipulator, Brother Chaos, desired.  Conflict was inevitable and, in the end, devastating for Syn. The city was destroyed; lost forever by the whim of Brother Chaos. 

 Millenniums passed and the calmness, the order of the world sent the master of disorder into hiding, nay hibernation.  There was little for him to do, to care about. It was as if he ceased to exist. What is the purpose of a deity of chaos if there is no chaos to wreck?

 Without the hand of god, the land reformed, regrew, regained.  Nature took over and the land became rich with more than sin. The beauty of the land raised itself to the world.  Creatures lived once again, and the rebirth of humanity crossed the globe. Was this a God’s hand? No one was sure.

 A kingdom formed and grew successful throughout the years, the stories of Syn nothing more than a distant myth, a legend to tell the children, to warn of the dangers of selfishness and cruelty.  The kingdom of Galadral spanned to the distant horizon, but there was a secret, something that could threaten the peace that had been so hard won.

King Stanton strolled round the castle.  The decisions of a monarch always weighed heavily and Stanton took the job to heart.  Dressed in a flowing white robe, King Stanton’s pale complexion nearly shined out from beneath the hood.  It had been only a few months since the conflict inside the kingdom had ended and King Stanton was finally coming to grips with the results.  The betrayal had been painful, but the severing was necessary.

“Your majesty,” said the palace guard, approaching the monarch, “the Prince is out on the keep again.”

King Stanton knew what that meant.  The son, the heir to the throne of Galadral was putting it all on the line once again.

“Thank you, will you let Ariana know where I am,” said King Stanton.

 Ariana, the consort of the King, was a lovely woman, with flowing red hair and the kindest nature for which you could wish.  The guard knew the relationship between the king and the consort would strain the royal image, but he was completely loyal to his king. 

“Right away, your majesty,” he said. 

With a quick step, King Stanton motored toward the castle keep, worried that this time, the Prince would not be as lucky as he has been before.  The teen boy was walking the edge of the wall, hopping from one foot to another as the light air blowing his wavy, dark brown hair around his head. Hearing the approach of King Stanton, the boy dropped from the edge into the expanse of the air, plummeting down.

“Jessup!” screamed the king, rushing to the side, fear gripping at the king’s heart.  But before King Stanton could reach the side, the young prince sprung back over the king’s head, athletically spiraling into a perfect pose upon one knee.  Releasing the elastic rope that had been his lifeline for this stunt, Prince Jessup raised to his feet, the sparkle of the devil in his eye.

 “Your majesty,” he said, as if nothing had happened.

“Jessup, my dear child, one day your callous disregard for your personal safety will be the death of you…and then me.”

“Please do not worry, I know what I am doing,” the boy said, an arrogance washing across him.  It was true that Prince Jessup had been a daredevil since the day he could walk, fearless and brave.  It had frightened every caretaker who was assigned to the boy. They all loved him. He was as wonderful of a boy as could be imagined, but he was cursed with a destructive streak. 

“Luck runs out, my son,” said King Stanton.  “You cannot keep taking these risks.”

“This is who I am.  I am not willing to hide behind a façade,” he said, his tone turning darker.  “Life is too short to worry about such trivialities. Don’t you agree…. Mother?”  

King Stanton grimaced at the comment.  She knew that her masquerade as the male leader “King Stanton” had been difficult for her son to accept, but it was done for a reason, something that he could not know. 

“Please, Jessup, do not call me mother,” she said, knowing her words were a trigger, but not knowing what else to say. 

“Of course… your majesty,” he said, grabbing the elastic rope and flinging himself once more through the air, but this time, without the return flair.  King Stanton dropped her head, a tear rolling down her sculpted cheekbone.

“You could tell him.”

King Stanton was not surprised by the voice or the comment.  Ariana was one of the most honest people she had ever met and she knew that the secret was difficult for her to keep.  Yet she did it because she loved her. King Stanton thanked the stars every night that she had such a kind-hearted companion as Ariana.

 “He struggles enough with the lie of my gender, Ariana.  How would he react to this?”

“You should trust him to react as he would, Zara” said Ariana, using her true name.  It was not the first time they had engaged in this discussion, but it always ended the same.  King Stanton could not bring herself to reveal the truth to her beloved son. She could not risk it.

“I cannot lose him, my love,” King Stanton said.  “That would be unbearable.”

 Ariana embraced King Stanton in her loving grasp.   

PART TWO

Darkness surrounded the moment as the slight light from the dwindling fire illuminated a small section of the cavern.  Sebastian DeClerqc was anything but patient. The wizard paced around the dying embers fully engulfed in his flowing, blood red cloak.  Every few minutes, he would glance toward the cavern opening with the intensity of a burning sun, and yet no one was arriving.

The thin beard wrapped around his chin and he stroked it silently, fervently remembering the events of the recent past.  He served at the right hand of King Stanton and had for many years. Where did his loyalty get him? Absolutely nowhere so when an opportunity arose, he took it.  Some may define it as a betrayal, but it is one person’s POV. He was the ultimate opportunist and chances as this did not arrive often.

His actions resulted in his banishment from the kingdom, but he had gained an important piece of intel that he knew gave him the edge.  A second opportunity that he would not fumble this time. However, he could not make his next move on his own, hence the waiting.

The sudden appearance from out of nowhere of a sword pointed directly at his throat was not completely unexpected, but certainly disturbing to the wizard.

“Why should I not remove thy head from thy shoulders, traitor?”

The golden helmet was not as bright as the last time DeClercq had seen him, but it did not detract from his presence, nor did the finely trimmed white beard.  The locals called him The Elder. He had been the greatest warrior the kingdom of Galadral had ever seen. He had been retired from active duty for many years, but the deep seeded loyalty he had for King Stanton was legendary.  He had served King Stanton’s father for years prior as well.  

“Please,” said DeClercq, with the slyest of grins across his visage, “I mean you no harm and I only wish to speak. Ogden.”

Pushing the blade a hair closer to its desired target, The Elder said, “You do not have the right nor the respect to call me by my given name.  You call me Elder, understand?”

“Of course,” DeClercq said, spreading out the syllables in the words.  He slowly pushed the sword down away from his neck and moved a step into the darkness.  “You will want to hear what I have to say.”

“I cannot think of anything spewing forth from your lying tongue that would interest me, wizard.  I should be ridding the kingdom of your stench right now.”

“Ah, but you know that my life had been spared by your king… my life allowed to continue by royal decree,” said DeClercq.  “Though banished, I am meant to survive and you will not go against your king’s wishes.”

A knowing twinkle glimmered in the wizard’s eye and brought a pause to the anger of The Elder.  Sheathing his sword, the great warrior held out both hands.

“Fine, DeClercq, let’s hear what bile you intend to spread around your new, wonderful accommodations,” he said, glancing around the damp and foreboding cave.

The half smirk, eyes squinting at the heroic warrior told a dreadful story; what was coming would rock the warrior to his core.  DeClercq knew he had Ogden Wetherby aka The Elder right where he wanted him…right where he needed him.

“I know the truth, Ogden,” DeClercq said, deciding to push his advantage.  “I know what happened all those years ago. I know what you did.”

“What nonsensical blathering are you enouncing, wizard?”  The normal confidence was off kilter. It was as if The Elder had been caught off guard, not expecting what was being said.  Still, he played his role to the best of his ability.

“I always wondered why you retired, Ogden.  I mean, you are clearly still in fighting shape and your loyalty to the house of Stanton was never in doubt.  Was it just too difficult to maintain the lie?” The words slipped like oil from his lips. The Elder knew the reference, but he would not confirm the suspicions.

“You have now reached the end of the line, villain,” said The Elder, reaching again for his sword.

Seeing him reach for his weapon did not deter DeClercq from his words.  “Would that be the same sword that you used to murder the true King of Galadral?”

The shock of hearing this truth from the wizard’s mouth caused The Elder to pause his reach.  

“There is no need to deny the fact, Ogden.  You were never a very good actor and an even worse liar.  Men with such a deep moral compass as you have, are never skilled in the art of deception.  You leave such nastiness to men like me. But you never understood how the power of information was even more potent than your sword.”

Ogden Wetherby knew what DeClercq was saying to be true, but he felt the intense need to protect those he had sworn allegiance to and this detail would not stop that oath.

“You helped set the woman up in Stanton’s place.  You helped perpetuate a fraud upon the kingdom of Galadral, all the while promising to protect the land,” taunted DeClercq.  “Whose idea was it? Was it the woman or yours?”

Memories flooded back into the mind of the warrior of that tragic day.  He had served the Stanton family for decades, but it had been obvious that the king had been losing his senses for several months previous.  He was slipping into madness and there was nothing that could be done. The king did not confide in him any longer and the madness was a sickness consuming him.  When the king attempted to murder his own six month old son, Ogden had to act, an act of treason for sure, but he put his one-time friend down.  

He knew the enemies of King Stanton would seize this opportunity to topple the kingdom.  The baby could not rule as king so he planned a manipulation. The Queen would assume the mantle of leadership but as the king… only the strength of King Stanton, even one that would be only an illusion, could maintain the peace of the kingdom. The Queen, scared for the life of her only son, agreed to the charade and so became King Stanton.  

The two were the few who knew and they protected the secret for years.  Ogden did not think that the inclusion of Ariana into the secret was wise, but how could you fight the heart?  He had to step away from the kingdom when the pressure and the anguish of constantly lying had gotten too much even for his own broad shoulders.

“Did you ever know the reason that Stanton was going to kill the little brat?” DeClercq asked.  The question surprised Ogden. Where was he going with this, he thought.

“It was madness,” said Ogden, removing the sword from his sheath.  He knew what had to be done. He must protect the Stanton family under any threat.  

“Wrong,” said DeClercq.  “There was another reason.”

Letters appeared in the wizard’s hands.  Passing them to The Elder, he continued.

“If you believe I must be stopped, at least look at this before you stop me.  It may change your opinions,” the wizard said.

“Where did you get these?” the warrior asked, his eyes bulging from behind the golden helmet.  What he saw blew his mind and he immediately began questioning everything that he had done.

“It does not matter how I received these, but it is incontrovertible.  Because of an illness, King Stanton had been rendered sterile as a young boy and was unable to reproduce.  He knew he would be the final Stanton on the throne. Except…”

DeClercq paused to savor the exquisite irony here. 

“Little Prince Jessup is illegitimate.  He is not King Stanton’s son. He is a bastard and the Queen was having an affair behind his back.  He tried to ignore the insult for the good of the kingdom, but he could no longer stomach the lie. That was when you … prevented him from ending it.”

The letters dropped to the cave floor as The Elder stood, staring into the few remaining embers in the fire.  

“I assume you were unaware…” DeClercq said.

“Yes, I was,” The Elder said.  

“I am sorry she treated you as such a fool, Ogden,” said DeClercq.  “However, I know a way to right the wrong.”

It seemed like forever as The Elder stood there staring at the letters on the ground.  He was weighing options in his head. Finally, the decision was made.

“How?”

DeClercq smiled.

PART THREE

Word of mouth called her Wyldsyde.  The reputation was one of a handful, an animal, a force of nature.

Not everything you heard was true.  But not everything you heard was wrong either.

Appearances made this young girl with her coffee-colored skin and dark foreboding eyes out to be just a teenage girl out on a beautiful day.  Appearances did not tell the whole story.

Neika was her real name.  The name Wyldsyde was an image, one that she carefully constructed in order to survive.  The world may have seemed to be a safe one, a golden day of glory, but the dangers were real and it did not pay to be caught unexpected.

She needed the escape.  She needed the freedom.Her life was hard and this was a luxury.

Few people knew of this hidden area, where the soft sound of a waterfall filled the pond.  Surrounded by trees, the pond provided some of the best privacy in the land. Neika had spent many lazy days in this location and she wanted to spent a few fleeting moments alone, at least alone for the most part.  She knew how to navigate the creatures that shared this area. Fate would not agree today.

As the young girl made her way to the pond, she noticed a sword lying on the ground beside the pond along with what appeared to be clothes made of the finest cloth.  She recognized the fineness of the garment immediately.  

Her senses were on alert and she immediately spotted the boy.  At the top of the waterfall, with his back to the pond, stood the scantily clad boy, with wavy dark hair fluttering in the breeze.  He held his arms out and tilted his head back to the sky. Before she could utter a warning, the boy dove backwards into the air.

“No!” she screamed, knowing that, though the waterfall was not particularly high, the water beneath held unseen dangers.  As the boy fell through the sky, she spotted the crocodile sliding into the pond. She knew when and where to avoid these creatures, but this visitor clearly did not.  Without a second thought, Neika leaped gracefully into the pond. They hit the water at the same time and she desperately swam toward where the boy had gone under, Neika thought nothing of herself as she only hoped to prevent an unnecessary meal.  

The cry of the boy’s voice told her that he had realized his error.  The creature’s powerful jaws had clamped around the boy’s left shoulder as he struggled in opposition.  Reaching the croc, Neika threw herself on the monster’s back, wrapping her arms around the neck. Fearing that she had no other option, Neika grabbed her blade from its pouch and drove it into the mighty beast’s eye.  The crocodile opened its mouth and, as Neika released the creature, it rolled away in pain.  

Turning her attention to the teen boy whose blood was polluting the water around him, she wrapped her arm around his torso and swam toward the shore.  She dragged his body up onto the grass, laying him gently down. Glancing at his shoulder, the wound looked remarkably better than she had expected. Pushing down on the wound to apply pressure, the boy snatched her hand and flipped her over.  He was suddenly on top of her.

“Well, I do believe that…” he started, but was not allowed to finish as Neika drover her free arm into his throat.  The sudden blow surprised the boy and she used that moment to throw him over her prone body, springing up onto her feet.  She immediately struck an offensive pose.  

“Back off,” she warned.  

“You…*cough*… misunder…* cough*” he said, standing and moving back toward his savior.  She threw a punch and he blocked the blow. This was followed by a series of punches and kicks, each defended by the boy.  Finally, he stepped back, putting both hands into the air. “Please…. I do not want to fight.”

Neika remained posed to strike as the boy backed away, grabbing his clothes.  Quickly putting them on, he turned his attention back to the girl.

“Please,” he said, “I only wish to thank you.  You saved my life.”

“What are you doing here?” she asked, not dropping her guard.  

“I was out for a walk through the beautiful woods when I came across this peaceful pond.  I could not resist. I did not know of the animal life. I didn’t even know we had crocodiles in Galadral,” he said with a laugh. “I must apologize again, I am afraid.  I am so rude. My name is Alexander…”

“And you’re a liar,” she said.

“What?”

“Do you take me for a fool?  You think I don’t recognize Prince Jessup when I see him?”

Jessup paused a moment, looking at the intensity in this young girl’s lovely face.  

“I am sorry.  I should not lie to you after you saved my life from that reptilian beast.  It is just that, at times,” Jessup paused, taking a deep, cleansing breathe, “my name and title bring unfair preconceived notions about who or what I am.  I would think that, if anybody, you would understand… Wyldsyde.”

Jessup smiled kindly, his face looking more like a goofy little kid than a future king and Neika felt her anxiety easing back.  She did not trust him, but she felt as if she was not in danger.

“Of course I know who you are,” he said.  “My… King Stanton told me of a legendary thief and rapscallion named Wyldsyde.  The King told me that this Wyldsyde would be around my age, but I was told that I needed to be cautious.”

“King Stanton was right,” she said.

“Clearly your character has been misjudged.  You willingly threw yourself into danger to save the life of a stranger from a dangerous animal.  Thank you,” he said, dropping any pretense that he had shown up until this point. That look on Jessup’s face put Neika at ease.

“You’re welcome, Prince Jessup.”

“Please, just call me Jessup.”

PART FOUR

Jessup wanted to thank Neika for her bravery in his rescue and apologize for his lack of chivalry directly after, so he led her through the woods.  He had a specific place in mind, a place that he would visit with his mother. It was a place within the expanse of the kingdom where they could drop any pretenses and just be mother and son.  It was not something that they were able to do often and it had been years since they had returned. Matters of state always seemed to take precedent.  

“This is one of my favorite places,” said Jessup, holding back on the information about coming here with his mother.  The fiction of his youth was well known in the kingdom and, no matter how much he was annoyed by his mother pretending to be his father, Jessup would never betray her.

Leading Neika up a hill, they came to the edge of a cliff.  The view out across the expanse of the kingdom was breathtaking and Neika had never seen anything like it.

“I knew Galadral was beautiful, but this is beyond my imagination.” she said, staring out in amazement across the green and brown land.  “Why haven’t you come back here?”

“Oh, being a prince is not as easy as it sounds,” he joked, trying to change the subject.  “The sunsets here are magnificent.”

Though their initial interaction was awkward, Neika and Jessup had found plenty in common on the walk to this spot and the beauty before them made the moment even more special.  It was worth the fight with the crocodile and their own skirmish to end up here.

“I have lived here my whole life and I never knew that this was here,” she said.  “Thank you for sharing.”

The coziness of the situation was suddenly broken as Neika quickly turned from the cliff, struck her fighting pose and darted her eyes around the trees at their back. 

“Someone is there,” she said.

As Jessup turned to look, he heard a familiar voice.

“Prince Jessup, it is I.”

Jessup calmly placed his hand on Neika’s shoulder.  With a smile, he nodded softly.

“Elder?” Jessup said to the voice.  The Elder exited the trees, sword drawn.

“My Prince, this is the criminal known as Wyldsyde,” he said, slowly advancing to the pair.  “Be careful.”

“Stand down, Elder,” said Jessup.  “I know exactly whom this is. She saved my life earlier today from a crocodile attack.  She is my friend.”

The Elder glanced at Neika from head to toe a couple of times, taking mental notes on the young girl.  He had heard the reputation of Wyldsyde, but he knew that, no matter how competent, she would not be considered a threat to him.  

“Whatever you say, Prince Jessup,” said the Elder, putting both hands on the handle of the sword and holding it close to his chest, pointed end toward the ground.  It was a pose that Jesup had seen many times.

“Neika, this is my friend, The Elder,” said Jessup.  “He protected me for years. Please, be calm. I trust him completely.”

“Yes,” said Neika nervously.  “I have heard of The Elder.”

“What are you doing here?” asked Jessup.  “I thought you had retired. Is there something wrong?”

“No, Prince Jessup,” said The Elder.  “It was a coincidence. I like to come here to watch the sunsets like the old days.  It reminds me of good times. I saw you here with… this girl… and I did not… I may have jumped to the wrong conclusion.  My apologies, Miss Neika.”

“Of course,” she said.

“It is good to see you, my friend.  The castle has not been the same since you left,” said Jessup.

“I have missed the old days as well,” he said, a note of sadness in his tone.

“You could always return,” said Jessup.  “I’m sure the King would agree.”

“Perhaps,” he said, turning his attention to the horizon.  “The sun is beginning to descend.”

Jessup and Neika turned and looked to the sky.  The Elder put one hand in the center of Neika’s back and shoved her over the cliff.  Her screams cutting through the silence of the eve and echoing across the land.

“Naika!” screamed Jessup, but before he could spin to face his betrayer, The Elder drilled the boy in the chin with the butt of the sword.  The massive blow dropped the Prince to the ground, his face resting in the dirt.

Without a word or hesitation, The Elder sheathed his sword, reached down and picked up the boy, slinging him over his shoulder.  The great warrior pivoted away from the cliff edge and quickly departed the area with his prize.  

The pristine view was engulfed by the glorious reds and oranges as the kingdom slowly entered into the darkness of the evening. The most gifted artist could not do the image justice.  

Breaking the peacefulness of the painting, a hand reached from beyond the cliff, desperately grasping for anything to grab ahold of, to complete the improbable return from certain death.  

PART FIVE

It had been a long day for King Stanton and she had swept into her chambers, pouring herself a glass of wine.  The challenges she faced daily was unlike any that a monarch had to face and she had been looking forward to unwinding all day long.  She lowered her hood and slowly sipped her red wine. The soft, warm breeze fluttered the curtains from the balcony.  

Is that open?” King Stanton thought, sure that she had closed it.

“King Stanton, I need to speak to you.”

King Stanton turned to the voice, staring into Neika’s young and sweating face.  Her eyes bulged in shock when Neika realized that she was looking at another female and not the “King” that she expected.  The confusion was written across Neika’s face.  

“Uh… what is…”

Before Neika could fully process what she was witnessing, King Stanton had her pinned against the wall, her arm pressed against her throat.  

“How dare you taint the sanctity of my sanctuary?  Your impropriety will cost you your head, little girl.  I shall summon the executioner and you shall be gone from this world within the hour.”

Unable to speak, Neika was surprised at the physical power of this woman. Desperate, beads of sweat rolling down her face, Neika tried to communicate without being able to form the words.  Mouthing “Jessup” over and again, praying that this woman would understand what she was trying to say. Finally, Neika dropped to the floor and Stanton stared down at her.

“What?” King Stanton said.  

“Jessup… it’s Jessup,” she said, grasping her throat.

“Speak up girl,” Stanton said.  “Why is my son’s name on your lips?”

“He is in danger.”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Within the hour, King Stanton, once more in full King regalia, paced before the armies of Galadral.  Wyldsyde stood stoically beside her. The secret was safe. Neika had convinced her that she had no interest in revealing anything.  It was not an easy sell to convince her that The Elder had tried to kill her and kidnapped Jessup, but King Stanton could see the sincerity in Neika’s eyes.  

“My son’s life is the only thing that matters,” said King Stanton.  “This is a terribly dangerous situation. The Elder is the greatest warrior in Galadral and his traitorous actions have tarnished his reputation and spat upon our kingdom.” Turning to Neika, King Stanton continued.  “Wyldsyde brought me this news at great personal risk to herself. She was tossed from a cliff, survived, climbed up the castle wall, survived, all to provide us information on my son. She has my thanks and respect.”

Wyldsyde bowed.  “Thank you, your majesty.”

“Her unique skills will help us follow the trail and find Prince Jessup,” said the king, pulling her sword.  “For Galadral!”

Her army raised their fists into the air, supporting their King, preparing to launch their assault.  Little did they know what would be waiting.

PART SIX

The soft touch slid down across his cheek, slowly bringing back to an awareness of his surroundings, something that he hadn’t had since the blow of the sword handle had sent him quickly into the depths of darkness.  His brown eyes flickered open and he tried to reach for the pain in his jaw, realizing that he was unable to move.

“Welcome back, Prince Jessup.  I am so glad that you are still with us.”

Jessup could not believe who stood before him.  Sebastian DeClercq had been banished from Galadral for some time and the wizard’s crooked smirk sent chills down his spine.  Jessup realized that he was bound by his arms and legs and dangling from a makeshift trestle. He spied his sword, shirt and boots piled in the corner.

“What is happeni…” Jessup began, spotting his betrayer standing off to the side in the strange cavern that hid him.  “Ogden? What have you done?”

The Elder did not respond.

“Neika!” Jessup exclaimed,  memories flooding back as his confused state began to clear.  “You killed her, Odgen.”

“My,” said Declercq, “that is quite the feral reaction, boy.  Did the young lady mean something to you? How sad.”

Jessup struggled against his bonds, but they were too strong.  Snarling, Jessup puffed his bare chest out in an attempt to look less pathetic.  It only caused DeClercq to laugh.

“Let me go, wizard,” demanded the boy.

“Now where would the fun in that be, Jessup?” said DeClercq.  “No, you have a role to play here and, I have to say, we cannot do this without you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Aren’t you tired of the lies?  You’re but a boy… why do you need to keep the secrets of a kingdom?” taunted DeClercq.

“What are you talking about?”

“You know damn well what I am talking about, Prince Jessup.  The fact that the real King Stanton has been dead for years and that your wench of a mother has been imitating him ever since,” said the wizard.

Jessup glared in anger toward The Elder, the gaze burning like the fire of the sun.

“Oh, it was not Wetherby who told me this secret,” DeClercq said, noticing the deathly fire shooting from Jessup’s eye toward his former friend.  “I learned about that in my own special way. However, boy, the true secret is what compelled Wetherby to finally start thinking on his own.”

“What are you blathering about, DeClercq?”

“You know, Jessup, dear.  The fact that you are not the true heir to the throne of Galadral.  The fact that the man that your bitch of a mother has been pretending to be for so many years was sterile.  He was unable to have any children, so you could not have been his son. It was that truth that spurred him to take action against his bastard son and his faithless queen and which led to Ogden Wetherby, The Elder, taking his own violent action, mistaking the king’s rage for insanity and forcing his blade.  Ah, such a tragedy.”

Jessup’s face was a mask of horror.

“But…did you not know this truth?  Ah… it is almost too perfect,” said DeClercq.  

Jessup shook his head ever so slightly.  He did not want to believe the insanity that Sebastian DeCelrcq was spouting.  Jessup knew this man was crazed and evil, but he just could not shake the feeling that what he had said was true.  It made a sick sort of sense to the boy, filling in the gaps of what had been unknown.  

Another boy, who couldn’t have been more than a few years older than Jessup, cloaked in a purple cape, swept into the cavern.

“Master,” he said, bowing his head to deClercq.  “Please excuse this interruption.”

“Prince Jessup, may I introduce to you my apprentice, McKai.”

McKai looked at the tressed up prince and smiled, his long dark, wavy hair framed his face like a horrible portrait.  Jessup could see a darkness behind his eyes and an evil as he had never seen before. There were some cracks in this young man’s sanity.

“Pleasure,” he said, a sadistic glimmer brightening his face.  Turning back to DeClercq, he said, “Master, the forces of Galadral are on their way.”

“Excellent news, McKai.  Shall we take a look?”

DeClercq began spinning his right hand in a counter-clockwise circular pattern and an image formed in the air.  

“Ah, mommy to the rescue, Jessup,” he said, seeing King Stanton leading the troops.  Jessup looked at the magical imagery and he saw someone unexpected. DeClercq noticed it at the same time.  “Well, there is that little thief, Wyldsyde, side by side with Queen King. She’s doing quite well for a dead girl.”

DeClercq glared at The Elder.

“Too much to ask for you to finish the girl off, Ogden?” DeClercq said with sarcasm dripping from every word.  “How did she survive?”

“I do not know, DeClercq,” said The Elder.  “I threw her off a cliff. If she survived, good for her.”

“Yes, good for her,” he spit.  “She shall be just one more soul to witness the grand rebirth of this world, once more in the image of its creator.”

“What?” Jessup said, unsure he had heard the wizard correctly.

“Yes, punk.  I am here to return this world to what should have never been lost.  This world was once a world of chaos and that was lost for an eternity.  False utopias rose and fell over the centuries, all just a pale imitation of what came first.  Galadral the worst of all. First led by a king and then by his manipulating bitch using the name of the true god of this land… Stanton, Brother Chaos.”

“You’re insane,” said Jessup.

“Nay, child.  I am merely chaotic,” he said, removing from his cloak a dagger.  “This is the Dagger of Time. I have travelled far and wide to reclaim this artifact.  Every second was worth the trouble though because, with this dagger, I shall return the world to the way it was destined to be.”

Running his finger across the blade, DeClercq turned to his apprentice.

“McKai, prepare the welcoming party for our dear Queen.”

“Yes, Master.”

“Leave her alone, monster,” Jessup said, struggling once again to try and free himself.  The futility of the attempt thrilled DeClercq.

“Soon, with the use of this magical blade, the rebirth shall be complete and the land that is hidden beneath us inside this cavern shall once again take its place above ground.  Because, this locale is the land that was once known as the City of Syn. Syn shall return. Once Syn is back, then shall the God of Chaos walk this world again.”

“You won’t get way with this, DeClercq.  We’re going to stop you.”

“Ah, such bravado.  You truly are an impressive lad.  How sad,” DeClercq said.

In a quick motion, the wizard turned the blade and drove it deep into the chest of Jessup.

PART SEVEN

“WHAT DID YOU DO?” screamed The Elder, rushing over to the dangling body of Prince Jessup, the blood dripping from the wound.  The Dagger of Time remained plunged into the boy’s chest. The Elder looked at the pale face of the boy he spent years protecting as the boy’s breathing became rapid.  The Elder removed his golden helmet as Jessup’s tear-filled eyes connected with The Elder for one final time. One deep gasp of air was all that remained as the life drained from his eyes.

“You knew this is what…” started DeClercq, but he was interrupted by the powerful hand of The Elder clutching around his neck and lifting him off the ground.  The legendary warrior’s face watered with tears at the loss, his teeth clenched in hate. DeClercq slapped helplessly at the arm, afraid that he finally may have pushed this man too far.

A flash of bright light was sent directly into The Elder’s face from the wizard’s hand, temporarily blinding the warrior.  He dropped the wizard to the ground, grasping at his face.

“Don’t… pretend… that… you didn’t know… this …is what… had to …happen,” said DeClercq, holding his throat and trying to gasp for whatever air he could get into his lungs.  

Dropping to his knees, The Elder finally cleared his vision.  He looked back at DeClercq with a deep seeded hatred burning inside his soul.

“The boy was innocent.  He had nothing to do with any of this,” whispered The Elder.  

“Wrong.  The boy was everything.” DeClercq replied.  “Since our ‘queen’ decided to put him at the center of this fraud, this was always to be his fate, as tragic as it may be.  Now, get up. The Galadral forces will be here momentarily and you need to be ready.”

DeClercq callously strolled right beside the grieving warrior, walking straight to the hanging body.  With a snarky smirk, DeClercq removed the Dagger of Time from the chest of the boy. The remaining blood on the blade seemed to absorb into the metal like a sponge.  

As he departed, The Elder reached for his helmet.  Turning the helmet so he could look at the front of it, The Elder longed for a day when this golden piece of armor stood for something, inspired the denizens of Galadral.  Where had that man gone?

Reaching over to the pool of Jessup’s blood that had puddled up on the ground, The Elder swept his gauntlet through the liquid, smearing it across the golden helmet.  He repeated this motion over and over until the blood stains streaked across the helmet’s visage. Placing the soiled helmet back upon his head, The Elder raised to his feet.

“Now… The Elder is dead, too,” he said.

PART EIGHT

With the Dagger of Time in his possession, Sebastian DeClercq knew the plan was moving quickly.  He was one step closer to reclaiming the world in the name of chaos. The plan was working perfectly.  Yet, he also knew one important point.

It was not his plan.

“I am here,” DeClercq said, entering a hidden location beneath the landscape of Galadral.  In his banishment, the wizard had found his way to this hidden land beneath the surface, a land that was once a thriving world of chaos.

Syn was the city-state that arose from the corruption of the world.  It burned brightly and ended abruptly like a candle in a breeze, a breeze from the God of Chaos himself.  Brother Chaos brought Syn into being and crushed it beneath his heel just as easily. It was the chaotic decision to make.  Brother Chaos was never evil though some of his choices could be seen as such. No, Brother Chaos was random. He was tumultuous.  He was disorder. It was in his name.

It was also a chaotic choice to remove himself from the game.  He would allow the world to become whatever it was going to become because that was the most anarchic thing he could do.  

Brother Chaos was named Hugo Stanton and his total disregard for his followers and the religion, Stantonism, founded in his name showed some that he had no love, no empathy for the inhabitants of Syn.  This was true. Hugo Stanton only cared for tumult.

So when Sebastian DeClercq stumbled into this chamber in search of a place to rest, a place to feel safe and to make a decision about his life, the wizard was shocked at what he found.  Or more accurately, what found him.

That was many months ago. The planning had taken time and as he grasped the magical artifact that had been driven into the chest of Prince Jessup, he could feel everything was falling into place.

“My lord?” he said.

“Yes, Sebastian.  I am here.”

From the shadows stepped a human-like figure, dark hair and a beard.  He carried himself with a swagger that DeClercq had not seen. It was as powerful at this very moment as it was when he accidentally stumbled upon him.  DeClercq, the powerful wizard, knelt down, bowing his head to the arrival of the man.

Brother Chaos.

“Everything is going perfectly, my Lord.  The Prince is dead, his blood feeding the Dagger of Time.  The Galadral forces are nearly here. Once they have been devastated, we will return Syn to the world and you will be free to resume your presence in the lives of your followers.  We shall reinstate Stantonism to the country as soon as we cleanse the pretenders away… those pagans… the queen… whose name in used in falsehood.”

Brother Chaos held out his hand.  Declercq handed him the Dagger of Time.  

“Good.  My self-imposed exile has gone on long enough.  It is time for Chaos to return to my world and reign supreme.  Finish… King…. Stanton’s forces off and return to me.  Then we shall bring forth Syn.”

“Yes…” DeClercq said, standing and leaving the deity alone.

Brother Chaos smiled as he looked at the Dagger.

“Fool,” he said, laughing.

PART NINE

Wyldsyde had been tracking the path left by the Elder since they left the castle.  She had a heart-wrenching thought … “this had been too easy.”  She knew that she was following The Elder, one of the greatest heroes to ever live and, while he is clearly not at the same level he was at his peak, he had dispatched her and Jessup without a second thought.  She was on her guard. She had to be, because King Stanton was anything but focused. She was scared and that emotion was taking her out of her game. At she could not shake the idea that this was a trap.

That thought did not leave her when they found the entrance to the underground cavern.  

“My King,” Wyldsyde said.  “We must be careful. This all feels too mundane.”

“Anyone who comes to face us will not find us wanting.  They will only find death until I have my son back.”

“Yes, my King,” she said.  This all seemed to Wyldsyde like a tragedy waiting to happen.

She could not believe how right she was.

Once inside the cavern, the forces almost immediately discovered Jessup’s hanging body.  King Stanton cried out in anguish, rushing to her son’s frame and throwing her arms around him. 

“Cut him down,” said Wyldsyde to a nearby soldier.  She was choking back her own tears as the tormented howls of a parent echoed through the cavern.  

In the grief-stricken heartbreak, the disguise that had done such a good job of preventing detection for so many years, fell aside.  King Stanton did not care any longer. There was no reason to continue the facade. She was no longer King Stanton. She was Zara Stanton, now and forever.

The Army of Galadral could not believe what they were seeing.  The gasps were nearly as loud as the cries of pain coming from their monarch.  Grumbling quickly spread like a cancer through the men. Wyldsyde was having none of it.

“This is not the time for anger over a deception!” blurted out Wyldsyde.  “We have something more important… more pressing than that. This turn of events can wait until we bring that traitor to justice for this heinous crime.  Prince Jessup was kind and honest and deserved more than being murdered in a cave, hung up like a deer by someone he trusted.”

Zara clutched her son’s body, kneeling on the floor.  She was past any semblance of leadership. She could not find a reason to push on.  Wyldsyde could see the state she was in and she did what needed to be done to step up.

“Such noble words for one so young.  Truly an inspiration. It is sad that you will die here as well.”

Sebastian DeClercq stood in the room, The Elder on one side, McKai on the other.  

“Who are you?” Wyldsyde said.

“This will be the final time that someone does not know my name, child” DeClercq said.  “McKai.”

The young apprentice began a complicated procedure of hand gestures, opening what seemed to be a portal.

“This is the site of the City of Syn and the lost souls are plenty,” said DeClercq.  “This is where my apprentice excels. Summoning these souls… the army of Sluagh.”

Sluagh are the spirits of the restless dead, the spirits unable to gain access to any afterlife because of their sins.  Truly the City of Syn had plenty of such creatures. Spirit after spirit flew from the portal, flying into the clash. The Forces of Galadral began their battle, unsure of how to fight these spirits.

“I got the kid,” called out Wyldsyde as she began to make her way toward McKai.  The Sluagh swarmed around her, but she was quick enough to dodge their advances.

DeClercq levitated Jessup’s sword to him, moving across the floor to the grieving mother.  

“Lies have a way of coming back to haunt you, your majesty,” DeClercq said, grasping the sword with both hands.  “Oh, how I have been waiting for this moment.”

DeClercq raised both hands over his head.  Zara did not make a move. She would not move.  Her life was over now anyway. She had not even realized that her own sword was being drawn from her sheath.  

DeClercq brought the sword down toward the head of the queen only to feel it blocked.  Another sword had come up from beneath Zara.

“What?” DeClercq stammered, not sure what had happened.

Pulling free from Zara’s grasp, Jessup stood to his feet, holding the sword in opposition to the blow DeClercq had attempted to deliver.  The killing wound to Jessup’s chest was gone, no longer there, but he did not wonder about any of this. He was reacting.

“Leave my mother alone,” he said.  

“You’re dead,” said DeClercq.  “I killed you myself!”

“Clearly you are a failure, because I am not dead.  That will be something that you will not be able to say very soon,” said Jessup.  He moved forward with his mother’s sword. DeClercq, who still had Jessup’s own sword, swung it again, only to find it blocked without much effort.  Since DeClercq was never a swordsman, it only took two more moves to find the sword flying free from the wizard’s hands.

Meanwhile, the Galadral forces were not having much success with the wicked creatures from Syn.  They would thrust their swords at the monsters, discovering that the swords could only keep them at bay.  Other times, the Sluagh flew right through the soldiers, pulling their own souls from their bodies. The battlefield was beginning to be littered with the falling bodies.

Wyldsyde had made her way to face with McKai.  Realizing that the Sluagh were not able to stop her, McKai stopped the motions of his portal spell to turn his own attention to Wyldsyde.  As soon as he stopped, the portals disappeared and the continuing flow of Sluagh stopped coming. Those here were still here, but at least the constant swarming could be prevented.

“This did not need to be your fight.  In fact, Wyldsyde, there is a place for you in the new world Master DeClercq is creating.  You would fit right into the chaos we intend to bring,” McKai said.

“Thanks for the thought, junior, but  I have my own ideas for my future.”

Flames shot from McKai’s hands toward the teen girl.  She rolled out of the way. He sent a second fireball from out of nowhere toward the agile thief.  This one also missed. McKai was becoming frustrated with her quickness, but continued launching the flames in her direction.

What he did not realize was that, with each move, she intentionally got closer to the apprentice.  She lunged at his left leg, driving her foot into the side of McKai’s knee. It buckled sharply, a loud crack heard throughout the cavern.  McKai cried out in pain, dropping his hands to his knee. Wyldsyde spun from the ground and drove a spin kick to McKai’s chin, knocking him backwards into the cavern wall.  He struck his head on a protruding rock, knocking him out. McKai dropped to the ground, blood pouring from his head wound.

With the apprentice down and out and their anchor gone, the Sluagh disintegrated from this plane. The remaining soldiers tried to compose themselves after the devastating attack of the creatures.

DeClercq was unhappy.

“I knew that little brat would be trouble,” he said.  With a wave of his hand, a force knocked Jessup back off his feet and he moved like the snake he was to, once again, try to kill Zara.  

This time the Queen was ready.  She had found the will to live and she drove a blow into DeClercq ribs. The wizard was shocked by the force of the blow and he went to retaliate.  There was Jessup again, swinging his sword at him. DeClercq magically deflected the blow, and Zara delivered a second blow. Mother and son battled DeClercq for several moments, blow after blow, block after block.  

“My lord, Brother Chaos, hear my prayer,” said DeClercq just before he released a widespread force blast, sending both mother and son backwards.  The wizard huffed heavily as he tried to recapture his energy for one more blow. The last one was able to stun his foes, this time he would end it.  “This is now over!”

Abruptly, a sword blade sliced through DeClercq’s throat with little resistance, the neck bones holding nearly zero opposition to the powerhouse blow.  His head fell to the floor and rolled away as the body collapsed to the ground. The Elder stood behind the beheaded body, his sword dripping with the wizard’s blood.  The Elder’s golden helmet rested on the floor beside him. The greatest warrior in Galadral’s history let his sword clank to the rock surface at his feet.

“Yes, this is over.  I should have done that earlier,” said The Elder.  He made eye contact with Jessup. “I’m sorry.”

Jessup nodded in appreciation for everything that he had done for them for so many years.  One final heroic gesture for the warrior.

The cavern began to rumble, rocks falling from above. 

“It’s not over yet.”  A classy female voice rang through the cavern.  A monstrous creature flew up from a nearby pit.  

The City of Syn was also the home of a creature, a monster that would cause devastation and chaos.  The God of Chaos loved it. This was the monster known as Tiamet the Chromatic Dragon. A five headed dragon with heads like a rainbow: black, white, blue, red and green.  Massive wings spread across the cavern as it raised into the air.

“We are here, finally untethered by our chains,” Tiamet said.  The voice was opposite every expectation you would have formed.  Dropping from the back of the dragon, Brother Chaos glanced around at the carnage surrounding them.

“You may be spared if you drop to your knees right now and swear your loyalties to the return of the one and true… Brother Chaos… or you may die.  Choose quickly.”

PART TEN

“You’re a liar,” said Zara, standing strong with Jessup and the former Elder standing beside her. Wyldsyde rushed over to Jessup.  The few remaining soldiers filed in line behind their “king” ready to lay down their lives for Galadral.  

“I’m a liar?” said Chaos.  “That is ironic coming from you, King Stanton. Or should I say Queen Stanton?”

“Yes, I misled a lot of people.  I lied to their faces. It became second nature to me.  I saw a liar every time I saw my reflection and that is how I can recognize a liar when I see one.  You’re no God!” she exclaimed.

“Perhaps that is true,” he said.  “Perhaps I was instead a high priest of Stantonism and when I found Sebastian Declercq, I saw an opportunity.”

He spotted the decapitated head of DeClercq on the cavern floor and he shook his head.  

“Poor Sebastian.  He could have used some of your common sense, your majesty,” said Brother Chaos.  “However, the world knows nothing and, once we finish you off, there will be no one to question my authority.  Besides, what could keep me in the good graces of the God of Chaos more than causing chaos in the world? I am sure the real Hugo Stanton would appreciate the moxy.”

“You miscalculate your importance, Imposter,” said Ogden.  

“Is that so, Elder… or are you simply Ogden Wetherby now?” Brother Chaos said. “ It seems that you threw away your life’s work… your spotless reputation… over nothing.  You handed the boy over to his death… although I must wonder why the boy is not dead. Your blood did power my dagger, after all.”

As Tiamet the Chromatic Dragon continued to fly just above Chaos, he pulled out the Dagger of Time, spinning it around.

“With this magical artifact, I will return Syn to the surface, and reconfigure the world in my image, under my control.”

“How do you plan on using a magical dagger,” asked Wyldsyde, “since Declercq is dead and…” She looked over to where McKai had been knocked out, but he was gone.

“DeClercq and his child apprentice were always expendable.  I don’t need them,” he said, as the dagger began to glow. “Legend says that this dagger was used by the real Brother Chaos to wipe out Syn and now, I shall use it to return the city to prominence.  The Word of God shall come through me.”

The ground began to rumble, quivering as the dagger glowed brighter, like a miniature sun in the hand of Chaos.

“Tiamet, kill them all,” said Brother Chaos.

The massive five-headed dragon flew toward the heroes of Galadral, releasing her brutal flames from her red dragon head.  The remaining soldiers scattered, trying to avoid the fire spurts. Zara grabbed Jessup and Wyldsyde and pulled them aside.

“Jessup, you must get that dagger and stop this quake,” she said.

“How can I stop the quake?  I don’t know any magic,” he replied.

“But it is in your nature.  My son… all of the other lies I have told was to protect you from the one big one.  The King was not your father…”

“I know, Mother.  DeClercq taunted me with that.  That is a matter for another time.”

“You do not understand.  King Stanton always believed that I betrayed him with another, because he was unable to procreate, but that was untrue.  Your conception came to me in a dream… or I should say… your true father came to me in my dream… “

“What are you saying, Mother?”

“You were an immaculate conception, placed within me inside my dream by Brother Chaos,” she said.

Jessup stared disbelieving at his mother.  What had she said to him?

“I’m sorry, but we do not have time to waste, my son,” she said, turning to Wyldsyde.  “Help him.”

“Yes, my queen,” Wyldsyde said, grabbing Jessup by his arm and pulling him toward the imposter Brother Chaos.  Suddenly, the teen girl shouted. “Look out!”

Tiamet lunged at the queen, the mouth of the white head of the dragon open wide and preparing to devour the royal lady.

“Mother!” shouted Jessup, trying to pull away from Wyldsyde, but knowing he would never reach her in time.  

At the last instant, before the jaws of the blue head clamped down around Zara, Ogden appeared from out of nowhere, knocking the queen away.  The powerful jaws of the beast snapped shut across Ogden’s torso, her viciously sharp teeth impaling into his chest and legs. He did not scream.  He would not allow it as the dragon flew back into the air. The pain was unlike anything the greatest warrior of Galadral had ever felt before and he was afraid he was going to be torn in half from the power of the bite.

Ogden cleared his mind from the pain, struggling to control his appendages.  I have to do this, he thought.  Battling the anguish, Odgen positioned his sword just beneath the dragon’s blue head, thrusting with all his remaining strength so the blade drove into the soft flesh beneath the dragon’s blue head.  The head reared up, dropping Ogden from her mouth. The sword remained jammed into the long snake-like neck of the beast.  

The warrior crashed to the ground with a mighty thud and Zara was at his side immediately.  With whatever strength she could muster, she dragged the fatally wounded hero to the side of the cavern.  She spoke softly to him as the battle raged around them.

The blue head of Tiamet hung impotently, the blood draining from the wound.  The other heads were raging in anger over the loss of one of them. Wyldsyde recognized what had to be done.

“Jessup, with the Elder down and the rest of the forces so wasted, I’m going to the dragon.  You have to get that dagger.”

Before he could argue with her, Wyldsyde ricocheted off the cavern wall, flipping herself through the air.  She grabbed ahold of the dragon’s tail and began pulling herself up the monster.

“She is marvelous, isn’t she?” said Chaos, admiring the efforts of the girl.  “It is a shame that it is all for naught. There is no way a young girl like that can take down a dragon as old as Tiamet.  She just committed to her own doom.”

“Don’t underestimate her, Imposter,” said Jessup.  “She can handle herself.”

The ground was shaking worse now than before, as the quake continued to sign the return of Syn.

“You can’t stop this now, boy.  Your time has passed.”

Jessup leaped at Chaos,grabbing his right arm.  Chaos grabbed Jessup’s opposite arm and the two struggled for control.  Meanwhile, Tiamet was trying to knock Wyldsyde from her perch on the dragon’s back.  

“You have no weapon, girl,” said Tiamet, “and it is just a matter of time before you fall from my back.  You will never puncture my back with your human’s sword. There is too much armor there. Ha. I cannot wait to taste your charred flesh, child.”

“Do you hear that, Jessup Stanton?” asked Chaos.  “The girl is dead… she just does not know it yet.”

“You talk too much,” Jessup said.  He had maneuvered him toward the cavern wall so he could roll backward to his back.  As this happened, Jessup placed a foot into the chest of the imitator, flipping him over top and slamming him upside down into the wall. The Dagger of Time clanked to the stone ground. 

Jessup pounced on the Dagger of Time, but he did not attack Brother Chaos.  Instead, he turned to the flying dragon.

“Neika!” he shouted, throwing the dagger through the air.

The toss was perfect, the dagger spinning like an arrow on line for a bullseye.  Wyldsyde reached to the projectile, snatching the dagger from the air. Positioning it quickly, she plunged the magical dagger into the heavily armored back of Tiamet.  The blade sunk into the back of the creature and she reared back, an inhuman screech coming from the remaining four heads. Wyldsyde pulled the dagger out and repeated the blow for a second time.  Again and again. Each thrust resulting in an anguished cry from the monster.  

Brother Chaos stood up, shaking his head.  The anger flashed across his face.

“I’m going to kill you, boy!”

“I am the future king of Galadral.”

Jessup began raining blows, punches and kicks, upon the frame of the imposter, moving quicker than he had ever moved before.  Each blow precise and with purpose to incapacitate his enemy. He had been training in fighting, but he was now at a new level and it scared Jessup a bit.  But that did not stop him. As the dragon crashed into the wall, slumping to floor, Jessup delivered a spin kick to the face of Chaos, sending the man into unconsciousness.  

The quake was getting worse with each passing second and stone columns were beginning to smash up through the floor.  Time was against them.

“Mother!  Neika” cried Jessup.  “Get the survivors and the wounded out of here.  I’m putting an end to this once and for all.”

Wyldsyde tossed the Dagger of Time back to Jessup, who moved himself into position.  He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but it just seemed as if he were going by instincts.  As the rest of the troop departed, he held the dagger above his head, driving it down into the floor.  

“No!” screamed Chaos, who head regained his consciousness and leaped on Jessup’s back.  “This is my destiny. You cannot take it from me.”

The roof of the cavern began to collapse, a chunk of the rock landing on Chaos.  He cried out in pain and the area continued to crash down around them.

Zara, Wyldsyde and the remaining soldiers had gotten everyone out of the cave, including Ogden, who held on to his final breath desperately.  As they finally escaped back into the nighttime sky, the ground collapsed, sinking in on itself, completely burying the entrance to the underground passageway.  

PART ELEVEN

As the ground fell into the abyss, Zara’s eyes displayed the utter fear and shock that was ripping through her heart.  Shaking, she was too consumed with terror to even say a word.

“Mom.”

The single word broke the silence, sending a wave of relief washing across her as Jessup worked his way from the dirt.  She rushed to him, throwing her arms around Jessup and pulling him close.

“Praise be,” she said, finally able to catch her breath.  She kissed him on his forehead and then on the cheek.  

“Good job, kid,” said Wyldsyde.  

“What happened to Chaos?” asked Zara.

“He got buried by the falling rocks.  So did the dragon. I do not know what his fate was, but, if he returns, we’ll deal with him.”

A deep gasp drew their attention to the wounded Ogden Wetherby leaning back against a tree.  Jessup hurried over to the warrior. It was obvious to the boy that he did not have much longer.  

“I… am so … happy …you survived, my Prince,” said Ogden, struggling for each word.

“Take it easy,” said Jessup, kneeling down beside him.  

“I have… to say this…to you,” he said, tears scattered across his cheeks.  “I was… foolish. Lost…myself. I’m *cough* sorry for …*cough* my …betrayal.”

Jessup placed his hand on Ogden’s chest.  

“When push came to shove, you did what was right.  You sacrificed yourself for my mother. You are forgiven… Elder.”

Ogden weakly smiled.  His eyes closed and, with one final breath, Ogden Wetherby died as the Elder. Jessup patted his chest.  

“Your majesty,” said one of the soldiers, “What do we do now?”

“This has been a terribly tragic day for Galadral,” said Zara, “and the truth behind my rule will need to be revealed to everyone.  It is now time though. For me to abdicate the throne because Galadral has a king. His name is King Jessup Stanton.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Next day.

Jessup knelt beside the sinkhole where the city of Syn nearly devastated the world.  The boy was lost in his thoughts of what had happened and what could have been. His life was forever changed from the events of the conspiracy.

“What are ye doin’ boyo?”  The bald-headed old man, hunched over, limped his way over to Jessup. The old man’s body rounded, his neck tilting to the side like a turtle.   “Oy, what happened here?”

“An underground cavern collapsed, sir,” said Jessup.

“Ah… no.  Anyone hurt?”

“Sadly we lost a lot of good men,” said Jessup.  

“That’s such a tragedy,” he said.  

“Yes, sir, it was,” said Jessup.

“You seem familiar to me, boyo,” he said.  “Do I know you?”

“I am Prince Jessup of Galadral… soon to be the King,” Jessup said.  He had no desire to hide the fact. Lies were over.

“Soon to be king?  Inconceivable,” he said. 

Jessup snapped his head to look at the old man.  His words strange, but somewhat familiar too. The old man twitched his head back and forth and he had a smirk on his face.

“It may be inconceivable, sir, but it is true,” said Jessup, turning back to the sinkhole.  “Is there anything I can do to help you?”

“No…no… I am fine,” he said, smiling.  “King? Your father must be very proud of you.”

Jessup looked back at the old man who was standing straight, with a presence that had changed dramatically.  The glimmer in the old man’s eyes showed an unspoken secret.

“I never met my father,” said Jessup, slowly and cautiously.

“Oh my… I would not be surprised to know that he is watching you, Prince Jessup, soon to be king.” the old man said.  

Jessup stared closely at the old man.  Inside his heart, he knew who this was.

“I don’t know about that, sir.  That seems to be inconceivable.”

The old man laughed.  “Good luck, son. Remember, the world is a chaotic place…and that is a good thing.”

Jessup turned back, but the old man was gone.  He glanced around knowing that he would not find him.  Those few words were enough.  

“I’ll remember.”

END

cast

 

The Secret of the Prince

The Secret of the Prince

The Secret of the Prince

 

Coming Soon to EYG Fan Fiction… the latest NGD Superdraft

Over at Hero Games NGD Forum, we have a semi-regular Superdraft.  This month, we are doing something different.  We are creating our own Medieval Fantasy story and casting it by picking our characters with actors.  This inspired me and I am writing up the story, something that I have not done for quite a few Superdrafts.

So far, I have drafted the following list of actors and the roles that they will be playing...

Kyleigh Curran as Neika aka Wyldsyde

Noah Jupe as Prince Jessup Stanton

Tilda Swinton as King Stanton

Scarlett Johansson as Ariana, royal consort

Alan Rickman as Sebastian DeClercq, evil wizard

On Sunday, I will cast the role of the Greatest Warrior of the Land, Ogden Wetherby, The Elder.

 

 

Days of Future Schmoedown, Part 5

Part 5:  The Sword of Crushing

Boy, this has been one rotten day.

When we reformed the Four Horsemen of the Schmoedown and headed over with our Horsemen army to demand that Finstock release the grip on the Movie Trivia Schmoedown, I had no idea that I would wind up as, perhaps, the sole survivor of our group and taken away by the poltergeist version of mark Reilly to a strange, possibly magical white cave.

It was a confusing time in my life.  This was way worse than the first time I joined the Horsemen.

“Hell-oooo,” I said, as the echo cascaded through the cavernous landscape.  “Anyone here?  Growl, growl?”

Growl, growl, the echo restated.

“Huh, now what?”

As if on cue, the Mark Reilly ghost reappeared in the cave, floating about the ground.

“Ah good,” I said, “I was hoping you would come back.  Question.  Are you a Force ghost Reilly or a Casper the Friendly Ghost Reilly?”

“Beast, you must be prepared for what is next,” groaned the spirit.

“Prepared?  Yes, that would have been a good idea.  Say… how long has Ken Napzok been able to use the dark side of the Force like the Emperor and how long has Donica been able to use slices from the wheel like ninja stars?”

“Are either of those important?  Do we need to waste time on revealing unimportant back stories?”

“I’m just sayin’, someone will be complaining about plot holes,” I said.  “You know what the Internet is like.”

“You are here, William Bibbiani, to be the Beast once more.  Only you can put what is wrong, right again.”

“How am I supposed to do that?” I asked as Reilly caught my interest.

“Everything went wrong in the past… and that is where the fix needs to go.”

“Time travel?  That never works right,” I said.

“And yet, it is the only hope.  The Schmoedown will never survive the slaughter that Finstock committed.  He over-estimated his ability to get away with his evil plans.  When he had android Reilly kill your partner, Seibold…”

“Wait…Whitney’s dead?”

“Yes, do you think he just deserted you?  Once, at the time, Tom Dagnino got away with that, the power went to his head.  However, the slaughter at Collider could not be covered and would result in his jailing.”

“Yay!” I said.

“For the murder of most of your group of Horsemen,” Reilly continued.

“Oh… yeah…not yay.”

“The scandal would forever taint the brand of the Schmoedown, ending it once and for all.”

“Dark,” I said.  “So what do I do?”

“I have brought you to the Cave of Light so you can stand before the judgment.  She will determine if you truly are the one to save the Schmoedown,” said Reilly.

“Her?  Her who?”

“It is I, William Bibbiani,” said the female voice.  The cave filled with an illumination unlike anything I have ever seen.  The brightness forced me to turn my remaining eye away in hopes of preventing any further damage.  I knew immediately whose voice was speaking.

“Rachel Cushing?”

“Yes, Beast, it is I.  I have watched with great sadness as the Schmoedown collapsed around Tom Dagnino, and how the heroes tried to stage a return.  I grieve for my fellow Fyffe Club members.”

“What can I do?” I asked.

Rachel held out her hand, and slammed her second hand into it, rubbing them together.  She was still “The Crusher.”

“That really is your gimmick,” I said.

But she was not finished.  Pulling her hands apart, a silver bladed sword formed between her hands.

“This is the Sword of Crushing,” she said, “and if you are the one to help try to save the Schmoedown, you will be able to wield this weapon.  If not, it will disintegrate in your hands.”

“Ah, no pressure.”

I reached out to take the sword from the hands of the glowing beacon of goodness that was Rachel Cushing and I had only one thought… growl, growl.

The sword was in my hand!

“Excellent!” she said.  “Now, you must prepare yourself for the training.”

“Training?”

Three Years Later

“You are ready, Beast, to head to the past and save the Schmoedown,” said Rachel.

“I should hope so.  Been here a long time.  Look at the grey in my hair.  I look like Reed Richards,” I said.

“Time does not matter here.  A minute is like a year.”

“Yeah, I got it,” I said.

“Sadly, there is only limited amount of power from the Sword of Crushing in the real world.  Once it is done, you will be pulled back here.”

“I understand.”

“Do you remember the plan?”

“Yes, Crusher, I do,” I said, yelling out for ghost Reilly.  Once he appeared before me, I held out the sword and his essence was sucked into the blade.

“Good luck, Beast.  My time be with you.”

I plunged the sword into the ground at my feet and the white smoke billowed around me.  Suddenly, I arrived at the Collider studios with a whoosh.  This was my first stop.

In the back room, the dead body of Mark Reilly had been covered.  When I burst from his chest, they waited until after taping was done to call anyone.  I know… kind of dark for these guys.  But it gave me a chance. Removing the cover, I plunged the Sword of Crushing into the wound in Mark Reilly’s chest.  The essence from the sword came from the blade, back into the corpse of the former Movie Trivia Champion.

“***Cough…cough***”

Reilly sat up quickly, gasping for air and coughing up junk from his lungs (probably remnants of my alien form).  Before he realized that I had a sword in his chest, I pulled it free and hid behind the couch.

“Ugh… that’s the last time I eat across the street,” said Reilly.

One down.  One to go.  I plunge the Sword of Crushing into the ground again and I am tossed through time and space in a puff of smoke, landing directly within an interview segment of the Lion’s Den with Jenn Sterger.

“Aaahhh,” I yelled, landing in their segment.

“Oh, no, this blowhard,” said Dagnino.

“Oh God, oh God,” I said.  “Wait…what day is it…Jeff…Jeff…have you had your contender’s match?

“That’s sharp,” said Jenn, as I was waving about the Sword of Cushing.

“No…no.. we have…I haven’t played yet,” said Sneider.  I was doing my best not to picture the man who had been so corrupted that he ditched his long time partner and allowed Dagnino to turn him into an evil puppet.

“Then it’s not too late,” I said, trying to gather my breath.  The time travel had taken a toll on my body.  “I have come from the future to save the Schmoedown.  If I don’t use my contenders spot to take you on, everyone in the Schmoedown is going to die!”

“So it’s up to…ha…me to save everybody?” giggled Sneider.

“Well, it’s up to US, man.  It’s up to you… and an earlier version of me… before the gray hair, before the Horsemen reassembled, before everyone else died, before I got…”

“Bibbs”

“the Sword of Crushing.”

“Bibbs!” Sneider interrupted.  “Beast, say no more, I’m in.  I want you.  That desk, right there.”  Sneider pointed to the Schmoedown set.

“Then the future is saved!  The future is saved!” I said, feeling the Sword of Cushing pulling me back, it’s energy level nearly depleted.  “Oh, one last thing…don’t let Dagnino get that j………………..aaaaaaaaahhhhhhh”

“Uh, well, we do accept the match,” said Dagnino, “but what we don’t accept is the drugs he’s on.”

The Lion’s Den departed.

I found myself back to the Cave of Light.  Rachel was there to greet me.

“You’ve done it, Beast.  The future has been saved.”

“What happens to me now?” I asked.

“Your timeline is gone, so now you must remain here in the Land of Light.  There was always going to be a sacrifice.”

“I guess…growl, growl.”

I looked around at my new home and a thought came me.

“Say, do I beat Sneider in that number one contender’s match?”

“My dear Beast… that would be a SPOILER.”

THE END

Growl, growl

jenn

 

 

 

Days of Future Schmoedown, Part 4

Part 4: A Dark Turn

A Dark Turn.png

“Where am I?  Growl, growl?”  The shiny white cavern seemed almost too bright for my one good eye.  I picked myself up off the ground, brushed the dust and rubbed the blood from my new Horsemen shirt, and wondered exactly how things went so wrong.

What a day.  As of right now, I have no idea where I am, but that mystery pales in comparison to what happened earlier today.

After we reformed the Four Horsemen with Team Top 10, JTE and myself, we started planning our return to the Collider studios.  We knew there would be a taping later that day and so we thought a show of strength would announce our return and hopefully bring about order to the chaos that had consumed the Schmoedown.

Rocha was on the phone for even more backup.  He contacted Kristian for his help.  Despite the force that the Horsemen was, we knew we needed a person in power, someone the Internet community knew and respected to put this back on track.

Before we knew it, we had a crew of all-star faces to help storm Collider.  Samm Levine, Drew McWeeny, Clarke Wolfe, The Wildberries, Mike Kalinowski, Jason Inman, Marc Andreyko, Emma Fyffe, and even…”Dangerous” Dan Murrell, ou of Schmoedown retirement, over from Screen Junkies.

“Where’s Ellis?” Rocha asked, turning to Kristian.

“He’s currently on a flight on his way to Des Moines,” the former Commissioner said.

“What about Rachel?” asked Andreyko.

“I couldn’t get in touch with her,” said Emma, Rachel’s manager in the Fyffe Club.  “I hope she will get my message and meet us there.”

“Now,” said Rocha, stepping above the crowd.  He is in his element here.  “We have some of the best players in Schmoedown history here, and with our combined might, even Finstock will not be able to ignore us.”

“I’ve known Tom.. or Bob… or whatever he is calling himself now… for a long time,” said Kristian, “and he may be a moron, but he knows a good thing when he sees it.  I think we can absolutely work this out.”

“What if we can’t?” I asked, tipping the black cowboy hat.

“Then, we make it work,” said Rocha.

Our Horsemen army made their way over to Collider and we regrouped in the parking lot.  We could see the Kingsmen standing guard outside the studio doors.

“New guys,” I said, with a snicker.

“Out of my way,” said Macuga, pulling out a beer bong and a Coors Light, “this is why I am here.  Wildberries!”

Macuga and Elliot Dewberry proceeded to move toward the door and in short order, the Kingsmen had succumb to the barrage of alcohol that the Wildberries seem to thrive upon.

“Good job, Macuga,” said Kristian.  “Let’s go.”

With our confidence sky high, we were sure that when confronted by all of us, Tom Dagnino and his crew would understand reason.

Boy, were we wrong.

They were in the middle of a championship match between Sneider and Andrew Ghai when we came through the curtains.

“What are you doing here?” exclaimed Ghai.  When he spotted Rocha, he said, “Dad?”

“We need to speak to Finstock,” said Kristian, but as he was saying it, Finstock had sneaked from the shadows and grabbed Sneider, immediately taking him to the control room.  “Tom, this is over.  Your little power play needs to come to an end.  We need to save the Schmoedown.”

“Growl, growl,” I said.

The sparse audience had scattered leaving Ben Bateman alone in the crowd.  Though we seemed to have the advantage in numbers, there was a bad feeling in my stomach.  This was not going to go as we had envisioned.

“Dad?” Ghai said, rushing toward Rocha once again.  The famous tackle had shaken Rocha once, and it looked like he was about to get caught again.  However, Dan Murrell was suddenly there.

“Look out, John,” Dan said, heroically stepping in front of the rampaging Ghai.  The spear drilled into Dan’s chest, knocking him backwards and striking his baseball cap adorned head into one of the cameras.  Dan slumped to the floor in a lump.  Ghai got up with a sick smile on his face.

“Look, I killed Murrell,” he said, almost with a lilt in his voice.

“What are you doing?” Rocha exclaimed, rushing to the side of the fallen Screen Junkie.  The rest of us were shocked at the immediate violent response from the handsome, but unbalanced member of Team Action.

“Listen, Old Man Rocha, your days are over.  This is a new breed in the Schmoedown,” said Bateman.  “We are the ones running the show now.”

“The Boss is right,” said Finstock, booming his voice over the speaker system from the safety of the control room.  “You made a big mistake coming here.  Ken. Yodi.  Mark. Show them.”

From the shadows of the studio stepped Ken Napzok, dressed in full brown Jedi robe, his hood hiding his visage, the Star Wars Championship belt around his waist.

“When did you get that back?” asked Kristian.

“Took it off of Witwer’s dead body.  It is so great to fully embrace the Dark Side,” Ken said.

“I think someone has had too many trips to 7-11,” I said.

Ken reached back and beams of dark energy flew from his hands, striking Kristian, driving him back into the set.  The group started to scatter, but that was when we saw Mark Reilly come through the curtain.  The same Mark Reilly who I unintentionally killed by bursting out of his chest.

Mark Reilly, heroic champion of the Schmoedown, levitated off the ground.  Before we knew it, Mark Reilly revealed himself as an android.  Weapons sprang from his shoulders and arms sending an assault of bullets towards us.  The red glow in Reilly’s eyes brought to mind the Terminator.

As if this was not enough, Mark Donica arrived, grasping the Wheel in his hand.  Spinning it rapidly, Movie slices started flying from the wheel like knives in a circus act.  I knew how dangerous these pieces could be, and I ducked behind the desk, in search of whatever shelter I could find.

What at once seemed like an army of faces were being mowed down easily by this trio of evil.  As I was trying to think of what to do, I saw Rocha stumble over beside me, dropping to the ground.

“Rocha, what are we going to do?” I asked.  It was then that I saw a Wheel slice, JANE FONDA MOVIES, protruding from his back.  John’s breathing was slowing and his eyes fluttered.  I supported his head as blood trickled from his lip.

“It’s….. up…to… you… Beast,” Rocha said, as if each word was being ripped from his throat.  He held up the four fingers for a mere moment, before his arm dropped to his side, motionless.  He was gone.

I slowly lay the Outlaw’s head back down on the ground, taking off the black hat that I had been wearing since he had given it to me as a peace offering.  I placed it atop of his face.

I did not have time to mourn any of the fallen friends and colleagues around me, because I needed to find a way out of here.  I felt the need to scream and yell and do something crazy, but I held that in.  That would not be successful.

“Beast…”

The soft whisper felt like a scream, but I was not sure where it had come from.  The studio was a war zone with wounded and dying all around me.

“Beast…”

Who could that be.  It was as if the voice was inside my head, which shouldn’t have been surprising considering all of the weirdness that had gone on today.

“Beast…”

“What?” I said, finally, frustrated with the situation.

“This way.”

I don’t know how I knew, but I followed the voice from my hiding place behind the desk through the curtains.  I am not sure how I got through without one of the crazy Lion’s Den killers seeing me, but I did. Suddenly, I found myself in the darkness of a nearby closet.

“Okay, I’m here, strange disembodied voice.  What do you want.”

That was when the voice manifested in front of me into a spectral spirit, floating in the air before my eyes, a glow cutting through the darkness of the closet.  There he was.  The ghost of Mark Reilly.

“Oh,” I said.  “Hey.  Sorry about killing you.  Did you know that you’re a vicious killing android now?”

“Only you, Beast, can save the Schmoedown.  In order to do that, you have to start your journey in a very special place.”

“Where?”

The ghost of Mark Reilly lurched at me, covering my body in his ectoplasmic residue.  My scream rivaled that of Peter Venkman from the Ghostbusters film.  Believe me.

And then I disappeared.

To Be Concluded.

Part Five: The Sword of Crushing

Days of Future Schmoedown, Part 3

Part Three:  The Rise of the Horsemen

Horsemen

We need 2 meet.  My place. Outlaw

The text message was unexpected.  The acrimony between “The Outlaw” John Rocha and myself has been well documented.  The betrayal was one of the big moments of the past, but I was definitely curious.

I had been avoiding the Collider studios basically since the accident with the wheel (CURSE YOU, FESTIVAL DARLINGS!!!).  I heard that the place has descended into chaos since the re-arrival of Finstock.  The good guys of the Schmoedown were trying to keep their heads down while the group of villains, the Lion’s Den, Team Action, The Kingsmen, dominated the scene, by any means necessary.  Seeing the once proud program turning into the $64,000 Question was sad to think about…so, I tried not too.

But, heck, I was curious to hear what Rocha had to say… growl, growl… I decided to meet with him.

I arrived at Rocha’s place early and saw that I was not alone.  Matt Knost, Rocha’s comrade in Team Top 10 was there as well.

“Bibs,” said Rocha, his typical black cowboy hat placed upon his head in Outlaw style.  “Good to see you.”

Rocha extended his hand as if he wanted to shake it.

“Growl, growl,” I said, still not trusting him.  Our relationship was cantankerous to say the least.  I was never a fan of the way he treated me when I was a member of the 4 Horsemen and he did not appreciate my betraying him.

“I get it.  I get it.  We have had our troubles,” Rocha said.  “But you know that I always came at you face to face.  Straight shooter!  Like a man.  Not like what has happened to the Schmoedown since that idiot Finstock has taken over.”

“We thought before was a problem, but it isn’t even real now.  It is full WWE mode now,” said Knost.

“You lost an eye.  I work there every day… you don’t know what it is like.  He makes us all wear those stupid beard masks on every video we make,” said Rocha.  “Kristian is gone.  Ellis is performing at a comedy club in Pomona.  The Fyffe Club hasn’t been booked for weeks.  I haven’t seen Rachel in weeks.  Someone has to save the Schmoedown.”

“What exactly are you saying?”

Rocha stuck up four fingers.  Knost followed suit.

“It’s time to save the Schmoedown.  It’s time for the Horsemen to ride again.  We need you Beast.  Join us and together we can put things right again.”

Rocha was always a good talker, so full of passion.

“I don’t know Rocha,” I said.  “How am I supposed to believe that this time will be any different than the last time?”

Rocha nodded.  He seemed to understand what I was asking.  He had made the face turn, but I never really believed it.  Not until he made the ultimate offer.

“Here,” The Outlaw said, removing his black hat and handing it to me.

My jaw dropped.  I couldn’t believe what was happening.  I had wanted that hat.  It represented the character of the Outlaw and here was John Rocha willingly giving it up to me.  I took it from him with an unapologetic quivering hand and placed the hat on my head.  Oh, it felt so good.

“Growl, growl?” Rocha said.

“You said it!” I replied.  “But there is still only three of us.  Will there be a fourth Horseman?”

“Of course,” said another voice from the other room.  JTE walked in, four fingers extended on his right hand.

I had hope for the first time in quite a while.

Unfortunately, it was short lived.

To Be Continued

Part 4:  A Dark Turn

 

Days of Future Schmoedown, Part 2

insneider.png

Part Two:  Things Get Worse

The Schmoedown degenerated quickly, but we were all too close to see it happening. That is, until it was too late.  Kristian came to see me after the removal of JTE from the Patriots.

“Bibs,” said Harloff, “I need to talk to you.”

“Growl, growl,” I said, never out of character.

“Listen, I’m worried about this Dagnino thing.  I’m nervous about exactly what he may be planning.”

Looking back, I wish I would have taken Kristian more seriously because he was the only one who was truly on track.

“I want you to face Sneider in his number one contender match.  I think you are the one to save the Schmoedown.”

“Save the Schmoedown,” I joked.  “That would make a great hashtag.”

Taking a deep, calming breath, Kristian continued, “Nonetheless, Dagnino and the Lion’s Den are a serious threat to the Schmoedown.  Once he gets a taste of power…”

“Too late, Harloff.”

Tom Dagnino slithered into the room with Team Action, Ben Bateman and Andrew Ghai, following behind him closely.

“Your days of making decisions are thru,” said Dagnino.

“You’re an idiot,” said Harloff.

“Sorry, Beast, but I’ve already scheduled you for a match.  Critically Acclaimed will be going against Team Action…so you are unavailable for a number one contenders match.”

Again, with hindsight, I shouldn’t have been so quick to accept this match.  It would change my life forever.

“Growl, growl,” I said, looking at the smarmy Team Action.  They were uncharacteristically quiet.  It became clear immediately that Team Action knew there were bombshells left to detonate.

“I have scheduled you and your little buddy Ellis for your one-on-one match,” Dagnino boasted.

“We agreed to have a match if we reached 2500 patrons.  We just reached 2100 yesterday,” said Kristian.  “What’re trying to pull?”

“We’re at 2500,” said Dagnino.  “You can check with Brianne if you don’t believe me.”

“That’s not possible,” said Kristian.

“I know some people down in San Diego… I reached out to them.  And then I called Frank.  Stallone.  He owed me a favor.”

Kristian glared at Dagnino with a nervousness.  He could feel there was more to this.

“And…since I am Commissioner during this match…I’m setting a stipulation to that match.  Loser of that match will have to leave the Schmoedown for a year.”

“You can’t do that,” Kristian said.

“I believe I can.  I remember it happening before,” said Dagnino

Dagnino’s bright used car salesman smile defined his position.  He was in control and he knew it.

“OH, and Sneider will face Josh Macuga in that number one contender match and when Sneider wins, not only will he be number one contender, but I will be made the permanent commissioner.”

My blood ran cold.

Image result for jeff sneiderEverything went downhill from there.  Josh Macuga did his best, but someone had plied him with liquor, which only made him yell “Wildberries” more.  Sneider won.  Macuga sold some t-shirts.  Dagnino became the official commissioner.  Thadd Williams joined up with Dagnino as his personal lackey.

The Harloff-Ellis matchup did not take place.  Both of the Schmoes refused to participate in the match and Dagnino suspended them both.

With Dagnino and Ken Napzok at the desk, Jeff Sneider became the new Schmoedown Movie Trivia Champion by defeating Samm Levine in a match that set the YouTube comment boards on fire.  Cries of “fixed” were all over social media as the contest was anything but fair.

Dagnino did not care.

In my own match with Team Action, my partner Whitney Seibold no showed.  I have not seen him since.  I was forced into a handicap match.  It had happened once before with Rachel Cushing and I felt for her then.

Unfortunately, I did not get to finish mine.

As I spun the wheel in round two, one of the slices from the wheel, Festival Darlings ironically, flew from the wheel and was embedded in my left eye (though I do look like a cool pirate with my new eye patch, growl, growl).

But worst of all, Dagnino started showing up less and less, and he was being replaced by….

Image result for finstock schmoedown

 

To be continued:

Part Three:  Rise of the Horsemen

Days of Future Schmoedowns, Part 1

schmoedown Future

Never in my wildest imagination did I believe that my life and the lives of all of us in the Collider orbit would be so drastically and tragically affected by five simple words.

Let’s get ready to Schmoedown!”

Okay. Maybe ‘Schmoedown’ is not a simple word, but if you would have told me that it would lead to me, online critic William Bibbiani, traveling through time in an attempt to put right what had gone wrong, then I would have said you were crazy.  At least, somewhat off-balanced.

As “The Beast,” I am familiar with the term.  Schmoedown was a movie trivia competition that was all the rage on YouTube and at Collider Video and I was a proud competitor.  Everything seemed to be moving in a successful direction for all…until… everything came off the rails.

And it was my fault.

Growl, growl.

Everything started on the night I battled “The Godfather” Drew McWeeny.  He’s kind of scary…have you ever seen that guy?  So I decided that my typical grand entrances would not be sufficient.  I needed to pop out there.  Long story short… I exploded through the chest of former champion Mark Reilly, who was at the desk, accidentally killing him.  It didn’t help either since I lost to McWeeny anyway.  A few weeks later, Reilly was back, nary a scratch.  He made a reference to his Superman coat, saying that heroes always come back.

I did not know that the answer was more sinister than that.

Growl, growl.

Let me fast forward through this vital, yet impractical exposition to the night where everything turned.  It was a title fight for the team championships between the Patriots, Jeff “The Insneider” Sneider and “Little Evil” JTE and Above the Line, the aforementioned “Godfather” Drew McWeeny and the Movie Trivia Schmoedown Champion of the Wooooooooooooooooooorld, “The Inglorious One” Samm Levine.

This is the kind of match that I loved watching from the crowd and the entire studio was buzzing with anticipation.  The previous classic match-up between the teams found the Patriots pulling off a one point victory.  The rematch was intense.

Right up to the 5-point question in round five, the outcome was fully in doubt.  Kristian Harloff and Mark Ellis, collectively known as the Schmoes, the creators of this game, were at the announce desk and had built the tension through their unique brand of one liners and comedy.

“So here is the situation,” said Harloff, the former commissioner, whose power and authority had been usurped  by Thadd Williams.  “The score is tied.  The Patriots have their five point question.  If they get this right, they have once again defended their team titles and remain undefeated.  If they miss, we go into sudden death.”

Nervous whispers filled the crowd.  I have been jotting down notes in my handy notebook.  You never know when something might come in handy.  Growl, growl.

“You chose question number 13… and that is,”Harloff paused for dramatic effect, “Sly & Arnie.”

A groan crossed the crowd.  John Rocha yelled out an obscenity.  The Patriots’ cohorts in the Lion’s Den, Ken Napzok and Mark Danica, high-fived each other.  They all knew this was a strength of the Patriots, especially JTE, who was practically beaming brighter than the stage lights.

“In what film does Stallone say the quote, ‘I am the law?’”

Rocha nearly flipped his chair over.  “You call that a five point question?” he exclaimed, ready to burst.  And then it happened.

“That’s easy.  It is Demolition Man,” said JTE, without a second thought.

“No, wait…” screamed Sneider, stumbling over his words.

“That is incorrect,” said Ellis.  “The answer we were looking for was Judge Dredd.”

“And with that…we have sudden death!”

JTE had both hands plastered on his baseball cap, expressing the shock and shame over the quick answer.  He couldn’t believe what he had done.  Sneider bit through his remaining toothpick.  The crowd was shell-shocked, but not nearly as much as JTE was.  He has been an arrogant jerk ever since winning that team title, but even I felt a twinge of sorrow for him.  He had blown it.

Sudden death rules were explained.  Ellis detailed how this round would be much like the first round and each individual would write down the answer on their dry erase board and they would continue asking questions until one team had more points than the other.

“If everyone is ready, here we go with sudden death!” said Harloff.  I looked over to JTE.  He was gone.  The look on his face was one of total failure.  The thought in my head was the same thought that we all were thinking.  This is it.  After a year and a half title reign, the Patriots are finally going to be defeated.

“The category is…New Releases,” said Harloff. “In 2018’s Tully, who played Charlize Theron’s brother, Craig?”

Silence.  You could cut the tension with a chainsaw.  Samm Levine’s face is crumpled.  He clearly had not seen it yet.  Who had?

“5…4…3…2…1,” said Harloff.  “Sneider?”

“Mark Duplass,” he replied.

“JTE?” said Harloff, not revealing whether or not anyone was correct.  Damn that Harloff, trying to keep us all so tense.

“I don’t know,” JTE said showing his blank dry erase board.  Oooooohs filled the studio.

“Samm?”

“I didn’t see this either,” dropping the board down on the table.

“Drew?” asked Harloff.

“Ron Livingston?” he said, uncertain.

“AND YOUR WINNERS….” Screamed the golden throat of Kristian Harloff, “AND… STILL… MOVIE TRIVIA  TEAM CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD!!! THE PATRIOTS!!!!”

Boos came from everywhere as Ken and Donica stormed the stage to congratulate the still champs.  Jay Washington turned to me and said, “Man, who’s ever gonna beat those two?”

The crowd was so hectic that we had not seen “Miss Movies” Brianne Chandler make her way out to the stage with a microphone in hand.  Something was up.  Calling for attention, Miss Movies quickly quieted the crowd.

“I have a special announcement to make.  The Patron has officially passed 2100 subscribers… and that means that we have a new Commissioner for a week… Tom Dagino!”

If you thought the boos were bad before, knowing that Tom Dagnino, the buffoon in charge of the Lion’s Den, was now going to get his dirty hands on the Schmoedown… well, I got that feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Little did I know how this would turn out.

Taking the microphone, Tom said, “Thank you.  Thank you.” Harloff was calling him an idiot, but nobody was ready for what he was going to do next.

“As my first official act as Commissioner, I am removing JTE from the Patriots.”

“What?” JTE exclaimed, still clutching to his team title.  Sneider snatched the belt greedily from his shoulder.

“You nearly cost us this title!” Sneider yelled, pointing his finger directly at JTE.  “How many times do I have to cover for you?  You can’t pronounce anything.  You drop words.  You can’t spell! Japeto?   We have been champions this long, despite you.  I’m tired of carrying you.  You’re out of here.”

“You can’t do this,” JTE said, lacking the normal bravado of “Little Evil.”

“Oh, we can,” said Dagnino.  “And we did.  And I have your replacement in the NEW Patriots.  Ladies and gentlemen… Mark Reilly.”

“No!” cried out Harloff, standing to his feet.  Mark Reilly walked out from behind the curtain with his normal Superman black leather jacket.  He slowly unzipped the coat and threw it to the ground revealing his Lion’s Den shirt.  The Lion’s Den members started to laugh as JTE slouched back in his chair.  Sneider handed the team title to Reilly.

I have never seen the Schmoedown descend into chaos quicker than that moment.  Harloff was screaming in Reilly’s face about betrayal and he demanded an explanation, but Reilly had nothing to say, completely ignoring him.

“Why, Reilly, Why?” a lone voice called out through the echoing chorus of boos from the back stage area and the crowd.  Sadly, we would not get any answers on that night.

“And this is just the beginning!” Dagnino said ominously, laughing wickedly.  He wasn’t exaggerating.

To Be Continued

Growl, growl.

 

 

 

Little Foot the Bigfoot

Little Foot, the Bigfoot

 

By Kevin Fuss

 

The Pacific Northwest, a most wondrous land

With trees and with mountains, all nearby at hand.

In a county called Whatcom this story does place

With a creature of legend, an uncommon case.

The forests of Whatcom are home to a beast

Whose mythos is sung from the west to the east.

The Bigfoot, a Sasquatch, the hairy ape-man,

The beasties stay hidden like only they can.

So hidden, in fact, that the world as a whole

Believe Bigfoot a hoax, a rigamarole.

 

The uncommon case that’s revealed by this tale

Is strange when compared to an ox, lamb or snail.

A Bigfoot, a Sasquatch, a hairy ape-child

Whose size of his feet is to be quite reviled.

Little Foot, the Bigfoot was by what he was known.

His misshapen feet made him feel all alone.

More human than Sasquatch these bipedal paws

With whispers that claimed they were character flaws.

 

The young Little Foot had been constantly teased,

Berated and bullied, completely displeased.

Callous Bigfoot cubs rudely would point, laugh and stare

And call him man foot, gibbon, or baby bugbear.

As so, in pretense, that these words did not hurt,

He still felt so low, he felt low as the dirt.

And in his cave late in the night he would cry,

Why must my feet be small and freaky, oh why?”

And of his tormentors, the worst it would seem

Was Moloch the Sasquatch cause mean was his scheme.

His constant demands from the other young sprites

Were ruthless and brutal, a bully’s delights.

Yet all of the pack themselves would just savor

For Moloch the Sasquatch to grant them his favor.

To make matters worse, both his feet were so large,

He left little doubt about who was in charge.

Though status was never an issue for him,

With Moloch the Sasquatch, the bragging a whim.

 

So one day the braggart was weaving a yarn

A story displaying his guts, spunk and charm.

When throughout the green forest, who should approach?

Little Foot, the Bigfoot expecting reproach.

Look,” chortled the bully, enticing the crowd,

The Human Foot Bigfoot!”  His voice sang so loud.

The weirdest Bigfoot around without debate.

Feet smaller than any in Washington state!”

 

Little Foot, the Bigfoot ran off full of tears,

The insults stung worse when it came from his peers.

The sad, little creature, alone and afraid,

Behind a tree trunk, he escaped where he stayed.

Cruel laughter rang out through the forest of trees,

A daily occurrence, this scene would reprise.

Little Foot, the Bigfoot went home to his cave.

He wished to be happy, beloved and brave.

Little Foot, the Bigfoot knew where he could go

A place cold and icy and covered with snow.

Atop of Mount Baker the Sasquatch would thrive,

The mountain would help Little Foot feel alive.

But Mount Baker was not a place to embrace.

A stratovolcano, a dangerous space.

Little Foot, the Bigfoot could see lava flow

And glance at the forest found way down below.

He’d come to Mount Baker when he felt most sad,

While Nature’s power displays worldly earth clad.

 

His secret retreat gave a chance to reflect

On ways that his destiny could course correct.

Oh, what can I do to make my life better?”

As crystals of frost made his hair feel wetter.

The soft, salty tears, they would freeze to his face.

He hoped that bad memories he could erase.

A tabula rasa, the quest for the day,

Little Foot, the Bigfoot bad thoughts chased away.

 

As white snow matted in his brown fuzzy hair,

Little Foot, the Bigfoot jumped round with a flair.

He huffed and he puffed and his breath he could see,

The menacing niche was his safe jubilee.

 

So when he came home form Mount Baker that eve,

The terrible feelings had all taken leave.

Though Little Foot, the Bigfoot’s hope was renewed,

A relapse was something he couldn’t preclude.

Little Foot, the Bigfoot stared up at the stars,

The moon glowing brighter, much brighter than Mars.

A shooting star flashed cross the black nighttime sky,

A wish formed inside the Sasquatch’s mind’s eye.

He pictured a day when he’s not an outcast,

Accepted by all and no longer harassed.

Little Foot, the Bigfoot’s most desperate hope,

His wish to be granted; the world changing scope.

The nocturnal beast said a short, silent prayer

Yon shooting star’s moxie would smooth his despair.

 

The night turned to day and the day to the noon,

His secret dream he hoped no one would impugn.

Little Foot, the Bigfoot avoided the horde

Of Moloch the Sasquatch’s mindless accord.

The day was so lovely, the birds sang a tune,

He softly joined in with a growl and a croon.

Life could be good.  It could also be happy.

The flowery day made him act so sappy.

 

Unfortunate Little Foot, he could not hide

From the other Bigfoots though he tried and he tried.

Despite his best effort, despite his chagrin,

The voices would cry out and make crawl his skin.

With Moloch the Sasquatch nowhere to be seen,

The remaining rivals seemed really serene.

Why couldn’t he pick me to go with him too?”

Asked Hugo the Bigfoot, a whine all thru.

Yes, what I would give to be there with our friends,”

Said Benjamin Bigfoot, who lies ‘til the end.

Oh, Moloch is famed, he’s such a great hero,”

Said Tom the Sasquatch, an absolute zero.

The hangers-on wished they were able to go

With Moloch the Sasquatch, where he didn’t know.

 

But then the uncertainty cleared from his mind.

By facts undisputed the truth they did find.

That Moloch the Sasquatch had taken a group

Up Mount Baker’s slope to a point on the stoop.

The dangers they risked as they took this long route,

Little Foot, the Bigfoot knew well without doubt.

But things were about to become so much worse

Another young Bigfoot ran up a averse.

His name was Zu Kwan Jin, his fur very light.

He looked like a yeti, though not quite that white.

Hey Moloch’s in trouble and so are the rest,”

He said as he gasped for more air in his chest.

I tried to catch up to the group on their way,

But I ducked out of sight before things went astray.

Two humans I saw on the way to my meet.

How strange that they look with their odd little feet.”

 

Two humans are no match for Moloch the Great!”

Said Tom the Sasquatch with his loyalty trait.

But that’s not the worst part, the worst that I heard,”

A shiver of fear shook before the next word.

Overhearing this news scared me deeply,” he cried.

The mountain is going to erupt from inside.”

 

The assembled Bigfoots knew just what that mean.

The molten rock flowing, its normal routine.

And Moloch the Sasquatch and his sycophants,

Engulfed by hot lava like trees, shrubs and plants.

And they would be doomed, they would all pass away.

Their emotions showing and placed on display.

 

Little Foot, the Bigfoot knew there was a chance

Of saving them all though ‘twas hard at first glance.

I know the mountain like the back of my hand.

The nature is deadly, the mountain is grand.”

Little Foot, the Bigfoot describing his plans

Avoiding the lava and the two humans.

If there be two humans, then more are a knack,

By knowing that humans travel in a pack.

 

So Little Foot, the Bigfoot departed to go

A place cold and icy and covered with snow.

The other Bigfoots followed right behind him

Though snow was the last thing that made them feel grim.

They trekked out the forest and up on the hill.

The snow and the ice gave them all a deep chill.

The earth’s rumble rattled, the ground it did shake,

Foretelling the future of lava and quake.

 

The first shake sent Benjamin Bigfoot away,

His cowardice making him not want to stay.

And Zu Kwan Jin was the next Bigfoot to ditch

His self-preservation a huge, major glitch.

The Tom the Sasquatch and Hugo the Bigfoot,

Hightailed it away from the flame and the soot.

Little Foot, the Bigfoot alone he became

Since none of the other’s courage was the same.

And so up Mount Baker Little Foot did run

To save the bullies in the bright summer sun.

 

The ground shook again with a violent outburst.

This moment right now it was clearly the worst.

Little Foot, the Bigfoot continued his quest,

His heart pounding quickly inside of his chest.

He weaved through the ice and the snow in a heap,

But progress had slowed for him down to a creep.

Little Foot, the Bigfoot saw trouble up there.

These pesky humans were setting up their lair.

The human pack had Mount Baker’s pathway blocked

With machines and equipment, they’re ready and stocked.

 

So what could he do to avoid the blockade?

His skin all a quiver as he felt afraid.

A promising scheme popped right into his brain.

The feasible fortune he could ascertain.

 

 

 

From the Ashes (to Ashes)

The two young men walked out from the shadows.  They were dressed in long, rich robes, each with a hood covering their faces.  Turning ahead, the two dropped back the hoods revealing the two identical faces, the shaggy blonde hair looking as if they both desperately needing a haircut.

“Good evening, my name is Westley Grimm,” he said, doing his very best Alfred Hitchcock voice.  “And this is my brother, Nigel.”

“Hey,” Nigel said, saluting to the camera.

“Welcome to the first ever Brothers Geek Stories of the Myth,” Westley said.

“Today’s myth takes us to the British isles, to the golden city… Camelot.  And our title is…

From the Ashes (to Ashes)”

 

Westley stepped in front of his brother and said, “Camelot, five years prior, was spanning across the land of Britain under the rule of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  Prosperity covered the land.  People were happy.  Arthur was beloved and his friendship with his magical father figure, Merlin, was strengthening.  Everything was going perfectly well.”

“Dude… lots of exposition goin’ on here, bro.  Let’s get moving,” said Nigel.

“Exposition is an important part of the plot, Nigel,” said Westley.  “Leave me alone.”

“Whatever,” snidely snapped Nigel.

“As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted,” Westley said, glaring toward Nigel who shrugged, “The country of England was in a golden age… but that would not last.”

“Oh…” said Nigel, sarcastically, “What happened next.”

Westley snarled toward Nigel, but the smart-aleck comments were not going to prevent the young geek from continuing to weave his tale.

“I’m glad you asked, bro.  Merlin was becoming too arrogant, too cocky.  He was taking risks with the world of magic that were not worth the dangers.”

“He certainly was no Dr. Strange,” said Nigel.

“Or Dr. Fate either,” continued Westley.  “Merlin opened a portal… a portal to the Underworld and the Roman God of the Underworld, Pluto stepped through.”
“Not Hades?” asked Nigel.

“Nope.  Pluto,” said Westley.

“Why?”

“It’s just Pluto…ok?  Geez, Nigel.  You’re not helping here.”

“Sorry,” Nigel said, but it was clear that he was having a good time twisting the figurative knife in his brother.  “Go on.”

“Pluto brought the power of the Underworld into the Golden City, but the knights and King Arthur held him off.  However, Pluto had more up his sleeve.”

“Pluto had long sleeves?” Nigel asked, stifling a snicker..

“It’s a figure of speech, jerk.”

“I think the name calling is unnecessary,” Nigel snipped.

“Pluto had some help.  He knew that a Pantheon of Death gods would be unstoppable and he had just the crew in mind.  He bopped around the world…”

“Bopped?” interrupted Nigel.  “Pluto bopped?”

“Pluto bopped around the world,” continued Westley, ignoring the latest snarky remark, “heading first to Egypt where he brought Osiris into the mix.  He found himself in Scandinavia at the gates of the afterlife to see the female death goddess, Hel.”

“Don’t you mean Hela?” asked Nigel.

“This is not the Marvel Comics version from the Thor comics.  This is the real version of the myth.”

“ ‘Real’ version,” laughed Nigel.

“Then, after Hel,” Westley said, emphasizing the name, “Pluto traveled to Central America where he brought in the Aztec god of lightning and death, Xolotl.”

“Did you pronounce that correctly, bro?”

“Yes, I did,” said Westley confidently.  “You pronounce it ‘sho lo till’… read a book once, Nigel.  Following Xolotl, Pluto snagged the voodoo dark god Baron La Croix and finally, the fallen angel, Lucifer.”

“Lucifer?  You mean…”

“Yup.  That Lucifer.”

“Oooooh, that is quite the lineup,” said Nigel.

“The Death Gods came down on Camelot like a hammer, a blitzkrieg of evil that collapsed the golden city, crushing the noble Knights of the Round Table beneath its massive might of muscle.”

“Alliteration,” said Nigel.  “Nice.”

“King Arthur was driven from the land and Merlin was sent spiraling into the depth of the void.  Once the opposition was gone, the Death God Pantheon forced the Britons to kneel before them.  The Golden City was clearly tainted with the darkness of their evil.”

“Gold. No. More,” said Nigel.

“This is where our story begins,” said Westley.

“It’s just starting now?”

“Yes, just now….”

“Are we going away now?” asked Nigel.

“We’ll be around,” Westley said, smiling the smile of an unreliable narrator.  “They call us the chorus.”
“I ain’t singing, bro,” said Nigel.

“And we are all very grateful for that,” Westley quipped.

“Burned!”

“The chorus means we are like the narrators of the story,” Westley retorted.
“Our story moves to Norway where our heroic but deposed king is in search of an ally.”

“Who?” asked Nigel.

“You’ll see,” Westley said., turning away with a hand wave gesture.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

Arthur battled through the elements, wind and snow berating the true king of England as he struggled with each step.  The snow madding within the blonde beard of Arthur.  He had not shaved since the fall of Camelot and the beard was dangling halfway down his torso.  The sweat froze to his forehead and he desperately hoped that this was the correct place.  He had been searching for someone…anyone to help him return to reclaim his throne.  It was not just about the throne though.  Arthur had night terrors thinking about the pain and the suffering his loyal subjects were currently surviving.  The typical night for the once and future king did not involve many hours of sleep.

Seeing the cave through the snow ahead of him, King Arthur pushed himself through the exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm him.  This current quest was nearing its end.  Arthur prayed to his lord that this trek would end with a success, unlike most of the last five years.

Staggering through the cave entrance, Arthur’s body gave way, collapsing to the cold ground.  The slow breathing of Arthur signified that he had reached the end of his journey.  A moment of failure flashed across his mind’s eye when he realized that a shadowy figure stood, towering over his fallen frame.

“Aye, who doth cross the barrier of mine secluded home?” the man said, reaching down and easily snatching Arthur up onto his fur-covered shoulder.

 

Westley and Nigel stepped from the shadows as the mighty figure carried Arthur like a sack of potatoes over his brawny shoulder..

“Who was that?” asked Nigel.

“You haven’t guessed, my dear brother?”

“Would I ask you if I had?” Nigel barked.

“We are in the home of the epic Scandinavian hero known as Beowulf.”

“Cool!” said Nigel, following the massive man hauling the fallen king deeper into the darkness of the cavern.

 

A few hours later, Arthur started to slowly stir, the feeling of warmth a surprising sensation.  Sitting up suddenly, Arthur realized that the fire that warmed the cave and dried his frozen face had been carefully built before him.  The glow from the campfire felt wonderful upon his chilled body and he almost found himself lost in the fantasy of the warm glow.

“Why are you here, stranger?”

Arthur sprung to his feet, reaching for his sword Excalibur, only to realize that it did not reside in his scabbard.

“Ye be looking for this?” Beowulf said, holding the iconic blade before him.  Arthur tentatively stared at the sword, calculating how he could retrieve the blade without engaging this titanic hero.  Beowulf did not wait for Arthur to do anything as he flipped the sword down toward the ground at Arthur’s feet.  The blade’s tip buried itself into the ground, the handle pointed at its owner.  Had the moment not been such an uncertain one, Arthur would have laughed.  The first time Arthur saw Excalibur, it was buried in a stone and only he could pull it free.  That signified that he was the future king of England.

Arthur did not pull it out of the cavern’s floor yet.  He did not want to appear as a threat to this dominant Scandanavian that waited for him to grab the sword.

“I am here to ask for your aid, sir,” said Arthur, holding both hands in the air.  “I am not here for a fight.”

“And whom do you think you are, little man?” Beowulf laughed.

“I am Arthur Pendragon, the once and future king of England,” said Arthur.  The words clearly had an effect on the heroic Beowulf, the unexpected news of this stranger’s identity froze the hero.

“Pendragon?  You are Arthur Pendragon?” stuttered Beowulf.  “And what exactly are you doing standing before me, Arthur Pendragon?”

“I am looking for a hero.  Someone who will help me reclaim the throne of England and bring this Pantheon of Doom to its knees.  I have been looking for you for years.  I knew that only you, the mighty Beowulf, could help me save my people.”

“You have wasted your time then, Arthur Pendragon.  I have no reason to aid you in tilting at this windmill.  The death gods of Camelot is not a battle that can be won,” he said.  “I am not a fool.”

Arthur had been preparing for this moment for several years.  As he was searching for Beowulf, Arthur was preparing for how to handle a rejection from this arrogant man.

“I thought you were the hero who showed no fear of the demonic Grendal, a monstrous creature that was feared by all, and the creature’s vicious mother.  In a situation that should have been a no-win situation, you fought to the end and slayed each of those monsters.  Little did I know that this was nothing more than a tall tale… a myth.”

“What?” Beowulf began shaking with anger.  “You dare to doubt my sincerity?  You question the epicness of my battle?”

“With the evidence presented me, what else am I do?  The man who I thought was a warrior of the most legendary stature is afraid to challenge the Pantheon of Doom.  I apologize for wasting your time, but you must excuse me because I must find someone real to help me with my challenge.  I need a legitimate warrior.”

With a reddened face, Beowulf ripped Excalibur from the ground and thrust it at Arthur.

“Here, take your blade, your majesty.  You have found your warrior!  Let us return to the land of your birth and I will show you that the hype is not misleading.”

Arthur smiled.  His manipulation had worked.  He had his ally.  But the nagging concern still grew inside his head… was this enough?

 

As the new alliance departed from the cave, the Grimm boys reappeared from the shadows.

“You know what Westley,” said Nigel, “I just don’t think that King Arthur and Beowulf, no matter how awesome that team-up would be, have enough power to take on six death gods.  I mean… it never works in God of War.”

“You’re terrible at that game,” said Westley.

“Come on!”

“You are not wrong though, Nigel.  Beowulf and Arthur are certainly facing what seems to be a suicide mission by themselves.  The thing is….they will not be on their own.”

“Ooooh, cool segue,” said Nigel.

 

Camelot.  It seemed as if the sun never shone on the once and former Golden City. The shine was officially off the rose.  The men and women of Camelot trudged through their days in a haze of suffering and depression.  They all feared to think for even a moment of the dawning a new day in Camelot, worrying that a stray prayer might find the ear of the wrong god.  Life in Camelot was not the same and the fears of the populace was that it never would be again.

The architect of this angst, Pluto, found himself bored.  He spent every day in deep reflection over his choices.  He was always isolated as the ruler of the Underworld.  Even the lovely Persephone’s presence was hardly a counter-balance to his despair.  He knew she only married him because he gave her no choice.  And the six months when she returned to the earth was as painful a time as the god could imagine.  He had hoped replacing the Underworld with somewhere on the earth’s surface would do wonders for his countenance. He realized the folly of his enterprise.  Now, five years later he felt as alone as ever.

Pluto would find his way to the location of his greatest victory every day.  The chamber of Merlin.  Five years prior, Pluto, along with the Pantheon he had constructed vanquished the wizard into the depth of the void, essentially killing the magic user.

“Ah Merlin,” monologued Pluto, “if I had this to do again, I would keep you around.  Surely you would have realized the error of your resistance and taken up your rightful place at my hand.  Together, no one would ever challenge my power.”

Though there were no current challenges to the Pantheon, combining six death gods did not make for the most trustworthy of alliances.  Pluto had to keep a close eye on his allies because you never knew when one of the death gods might desire more than what they had already gained.  Baron La Croix was a known trickster and the story of Lucifer’s fall was based around his desire to rule Heaven.  Would being one of six be enough for these gods?  So far there had not been an issue, but Pluto could almost guarantee that the status quo would not last forever.  Sooner or later he would have to deal with an uprising among the Pantheon.  When that happened, a wizard with the power of Merlin, subservient and loyal, would have been extremely welcome.

“Ah, why do I lament what has gone before?” asked Hades.  “There will never be a return from the darkness for you, Merlin.  I must look forward instead of constantly looking back.  I will prove my worth to my brother, once and for all.”

Pluto’s brother, Jupiter (aka Zeus) ruled the Olympians from atop Mount Olympus and had always looked to Pluto with scorn.  Even with the fall of Camelot, Jupiter was unimpressed.  At some point, in Pluto’s perfect world, he would see his brother cowering at his feet in defeat.  Planning was underway.

Pluto turned away, looking once more back at the chamber of Merlin.

“Ah, what could have been,” he lamented once again.

As the death god departed, the darkness filled the room.  A few moments after the tyrant left the room, the darkness was broken with the glimmer of a golden glow, spreading in the center of the room.  As soon as it started, the fiery glow was gone.

 

“What was that?” asked Nigel.

“That is our deus ex machina for the story,” replied Westley.

“That’s just lazy writing,” said Nigel.

“You know, I can relate to Pluto.  He is just a lonely man with a pain in the butt brother.  I know how he feels.”

“Ha ha ha.  Now you’re a comedian,” snipped Nigel.

 

Outside the walls of Camelot, Arthur and Beowulf approached cautiously.  Even with the bravado of Beowulf and the power of Excalibur, the pair knew the odds of what they were preparing to attempt.  A full frontal assault on Camelot, the home of six death gods was not a plan that encouraged a long life.  Still, Arthur knew they had no other option.  The time was ripe.

“Warriors, if I may make a suggestion,” the voice said coming from behind the two comrades, startling them.  They both drew their swords and turned to face the visage of the person who had managed to sneak up on them.

It was Hel, Norse goddess of the Underworld.

Beowulf’s face revealed his conflict.  He knew Hel had been involved in the Pantheon of Doom, but he had not hoped to come face to face with her so soon.  He lowered his sword and bowed to her.

“Get up, Beowulf,” said Arthur nervously.  He envisioned the loss of his only ally and a quick defeat.

“Rise, noble warrior,” said Hel.  “You need not bow to me, though I do appreciate the respect.  Lower your weapon Arthur of Pendragon.  I am not a threat to you.”

“Why are you here?” asked Arthur, keeping Excalibur at the ready.

“I have determined that Pluto’s days are numbered.  He plans on mounting an assault on Olympus and his brother Jupiter.  This is not something that I signed up for.  Expanding to Camelot was one thing, but all out war with other gods was not what I wanted.  My duty is to see that the warriors have their proper afterlife, whether it be in Valhalla or within my own realm.  I do not desire the power Pluto does.”

“What does this mean?” asked Arthur.

“I am here to help,” she said, the sly smile sent a chill down the spine of both heroes.

 

With one of the death gods at their back, Arthur and Beowulf told themselves, in stark contrast to the goosebumps that were rising on their skin, that they had swung the pendulum of fate back to their side.  Could Hel sway other members of the Pantheon of Doom to their behalf?  Were there others who could turn from Pluto and aid Arthur in saving Camelot from the grip of evil?  What cost would have to be paid?

Hel lead the two heroes through a recently built, hidden tunnel that lead into the heart of the city.  Hel said that this tunnel was built in secret to prepare for the eventuality of having to bring Pluto down.

Still unconvinced, Arthur whispered to Beowulf,”Can we trust her?”

Before the heroic Beowulf could respond, the three of them stepped from the tunnel to see the other five death gods encircling them.  A trap.

“That’s a no, I guess,” said Arthur.

Beowulf spun around to look at the Norse Death Goddess.  Hel stood behind them with a Cheshire cat grin on her frightening face, the betrayal obvious to all.

“My apologies, boys, but you cannot be allowed to wreck our new home.  A war with the gods will bring epic tales of warriors and heroes fallen, and nothing makes me more excited than a good story,” Hel said, barely excusing her traitorous turn.  She did not care what they thought.  She only cared for what was best for her.  Arthur cursed himself silently for trusting this woman.  Beowulf looked as if the dagger had been driven through his chest.

“So,” said Pluto, “the little bird has returned to the nest.  It is a shame that you need to be snuffed out.”

“How did you know?” asked Beowulf.

“Fool.  We are gods.  We are omnipotent.  We know the thoughts and desires of the weak humans,” said Pluto.

“Hel did nothing but bring us face to face with those we must defeat, so I thank you.  You have facilitated the battle that was predestined,” Arthur said.

“Have at thee!” exclaimed Beowulf, prepared to go down fighting in an epic encounter to be spoken by children and storytellers for ages.

 

Behind them in the tunnel, the Brothers Geek stood, Nigel with his mouth a gape.

“How are they going to get out of this?” Nigel asked, completely enthralled by the events unfolding before him.

“Do you remember that deus ex machina I mentioned earlier?” said Westley, ominously.

 

In the distance, the glow from the chamber of Merlin increased, blazing like a sun rising from the morning horizon. The light was so bright that the assembled death gods had to cover their eyes.  Strangely, Arthur had no trouble staring at the fireball.  The fireball shot into the air, crashing through the confines of Merlin’s home and into the air over the sky of Camelot.

“By Odin’s Beard!” exclaimed Beowulf, unable to understand the fireworks that were showing in front of his eyes.

The fireball arrived overhead of the confrontation and seemed to veer directly south, picking up velocity as it plummeted toward the ground.  The death gods scattered from the incoming projectile, but Arthur stood confidentially, and did not give ground.  Despite not being possible, it was as if he knew what was about to happen.

The fireball crashed into the ground, scattering the flames in an explosion of energy and light.  Standing in the site of the crash was a lone figure, draped in a dark blue cloak and a pointed hat covering his long white hair.

“Merlin!” Arthur said, overjoyed at the resurrection of his friend and mentor.

The flames encircled Merlin at his feet, and the fires began to rise from the ground.  The flames began to take shape into a corporal form, a form of a bird.

“By Odin’s beard,” a dumbfounded Beowulf uttered again, “a phoenix!”

The bird of life, the bird that rises from the ashes of death, a phoenix was here, and it flew around Merlin as they, magician and the bird, were one.

“Attack!” screamed Arthur as he and Beowulf launched themselves into the battle, a renewed vigor in their hearts.  Suddenly the suicide mission did not seem so impossible.  As Beowulf engaged the battle with Osiris, the flames exploding from the beak of the phoenix, and the magic bolts from the wizard, Arthur approached Pluto with Excalibur drawn and at the ready.

“You should wait for your more powerful allies, little man,” said Pluto, still taunting Arthur, “because you are still just human and I am a God!”

“You’re not my God, Pluto!” Arthur exclaimed, clashing the blade of Excalibur across the hide of the God of the Underworld.  Arthur surprised himself with how brutal, how bloodthirsty he felt.  Pluto had usurped the throne of Camelot and brought the city of gold to the brink of ruin.  The rage swelled within his breast and he pounded away at Pluto with a might unseen by human history.  Pluto’s allies were being driven back by the bravery of Beowulf and the unexpected amalgam of Merlin and phoenix.  The Pantheon had begun to retreat.  Baron LaCroix was the first to depart, not being known for his courage.  Xotlol found his lightning to be no match for the reborn flames of the phoenix and he quickly opened a portal to escape back to his Aztec world.  Lucifer, as well, was more of a manipulator than a fighter and he realized quickly that the tides had turned.

“I will always have my place in the hearts of man,” Lucifer thought to himself as he slipped away.

Hel was already gone.  She deserted the sinking ship just after LaCroix had.  She knew when it was worth a fight and when a losing battle was due.

Osiris had succumb to the blows of Beowulf and used his last bit of energy to escape the dimension.

Leaving only Pluto.

King Arthur pounded away on the god with his fabled sword, blow after blow taking its toll.  Pluto was down on the ground, cowering beneath the onslaught of the once and future king of England.  Arthur continued to pummel the god.  Beowulf placed his hand upon the shoulder of his comrade.

“It is over, friend Pendragon.”

Arthur placed the tip of Excalibur at the throat of Pluto.  The intensity in the eyes of Arthur told everyone that he was ready to pass judgement on the tyrant.  Pluto glared at Arthur in defiance.  King Arthur eased back on the sword, stepping back to take a moment.

“I will not kill you,” said Arthur, “despite you fully deserving it.  This is done.  Your coup is finally over.”

A bright flash blazed beside Arthur and a dominating and positively regal presence appeared before him.

“Jupiter,” mumbled Pluto, the venom in the word obvious to everyone.

“Arthur Pendragon,” said Jupiter, “Thank you for sparing the life of my wayward brother.  I know it is not easy considering how much trouble he has caused for you and your kingdom.  I have come to ask you to release him into my custody.  I promise that he shall never bother you again.”

“Thank you, your majesty.  I would appreciate that.”

“Come brother,” said Jupiter, “We shall have words.”

Jupiter and Pluto disappeared into nothingness.

Arthur looked around at the end of the battle and he took a deep breath.  It was finally over.  Now came the hard part of bringing Camelot back to its heyday.

 

“I have to give it to you bro,” said Nigel.  “That was pretty cool.”

“Thanks,” Westley said surprised.

“I sure didn’t expect it,” Nigel laughed.

“Jerk.”

“What happened next?”

“King Arthur reclaimed the throne of England and the people began to live their lives once again.  It took time, but Camelot would thrive once again.  And Jupiter was good to his word and Pluto was never seen on earth again.”

“Awesometacular,” said Nigel.

“Thank you for the premiere edition of The Brothers Geek Stories of the Myths.  For Nigel, I am Westley Grimm…good night.”

The Treasure and the Bounty

The Treasure and the Bounty

 

It had been a long time since these tired eyes had focused upon the city of Virginia City, Nevada, and yet, here I was. Despite being more recognized and associated with Hannibal, MO and the Mississippi River as well as the fact of being actually physically born in Florida, Missouri, many claim the city of Virginia City to be my birthplace. And in a sense, it is. You see, this town, where I hold so many fond memories of a misspent youth, was where I came into existence.

It was the birthplace of Mark Twain.

It was during my time here as one of the hard-working and under-appreciated silver miners, putting forth a challenging and honest effort, unlike the rapscallions of the US Congress who are not challenged nor honest, that the inspiration for my alter ego developed. It was my failure at the mining process that led to my employment at the Territorial Enterprise, one of the West’s least finest publications. And it was here where my better known pseudonym took root. Samuel Clemens was now just a footnote in the history of the universe. From this point forward, my nom de plume became my identity.

Yet, I digress. This story is not about me. I have not returned from the Midwest to Virginia City for personal glory or a pat on the back. Far from it. Inspiration has once again struck this self-professed wanderer to express the vernacular of a time and the compelling characters found within. It is for this reason that I have returned to the place of my “birth.”

The Bucket of Blood is not a literal phrase, but I could not have conceived of any more apropos moniker for a local saloon than that. The orneriest, bordering upon lunacy, scalleywags were regulars in this saloon, bringing a new definition to the word “colorful”. The attraction of the Bucket of Blood was unmistakable and unavoidable. It was where all patrons of the establishment, no matter how ugly… how vile… could come for refreshments of the potent variety. I have it on good authority that even the world’s most horrendous, Congressmen, would be allowed to drink, though one would wonder how long they would actually last with the dregs before either offending them or blending in.

The swing of the door opened easily and, immediately, the reputation of the Bucket of Blood was confirmed by my own eyes. How could this collection of reprobates be allowed to co-mingle outside of a secure location with armed men guarding the exterior? Putting those thoughts out of my head, the one individual whom I had traveled to find was in this room, and he stood out like a beacon on a foggy night, though I expect that was the last thing he had intended.

In the dark corner the man sat, a half-full (or should that be half-empty?) bottle of McCutcheon’s whiskey rested upon the table top in front of him. The shadows of the saloon cast across him, only serving to make him stick out even more. This was no ordinary varmint. Another shot of whiskey passed his lips as he scanned the area for any trouble, because he knew that trouble always found him. He was surprised the respite had lasted this long.

His reputation proceeded him wherever he had traveled. The tales of a ruthless killer and a bloodthirsty bounty hunter frightened some, but made for a challenge to others. The world of the outlaw was a rough one and any advantage that could be parlayed into further success had to be exploited. If a man could claim that he was the person to finally put him into the ground, well, his reputation would be rock solid. Because of that, even at his most intoxicated, Jonah Hex was on edge.

The scars on his face were truly hard to view. The punishment from an Apache tribe for the breaking of one of their sacred rules, the murder of an Apache, was a reminder forever of Jonah Hex’s lot in life. The confederate soldier uniform that he still wore, despite his departure from the Confederacy and his betrayal of the tenants of the South, had been stained with blood and dirtied from years of questionable behavior. Why Hex continued to wear the uniform was as much of an enigma as the man himself.

And this mystery was the real reason for my return trip to Virginia City. The tale of Jonah Hex and what would happen in this place brought me back from my own safety net, my security, to chronicle the events as they occur. This story was not about Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. It was about what happened in Virginia City, Nevada, and how it affected Jonah Hex and those around him.

 

The bounty hunter sat at the shadowy table, hoping for the briefest respite from the chaos of his life, but knowing too well that hope was a fleeting emotion and not something that he was able to count as an ally. As Jonah Hex slammed back yet another shot of the expensive whiskey, he had no idea the ironic joke fate prepared to spring upon him.

Imbecile is a powerful word with many negative connotations, but, in this case, it would not be too strong a term. The dictionary definition of the word came unwittingly through the saloon entrance. The unmistakable stains and grub from a hard day in the mines colored their faces and clothes, but they were oblivious to, not only their appearance, but much more than that.

“Tell me, Theodore,” the round faced man said to his spindly associate, “why do we have to work in those mines? That’s hard work.”

“Now, Amos…” the bug-eyed man named Theodore said. “I told you once… the mine is just a necessary evil… this is where we STRIKE IT RICH!”

The excitement had overtaken Theodore and he had blurted that line out louder than he had intended. He immediately shushed Amos, twitching nervously around the saloon, bumping into yours truly. The air was suddenly filled with a dirt cloud from the clothing upon Theodore, engulfing me.

“Pardon me,” he said, straightening up. “Nice suit.”

“It was,” I said, brushing the new dirt off my white suit.

However, Theodore had lost interest in my plight as he spotted Hex drinking alone in the corner. His eyes bulged out even more, if that was possible, and his cheeks flopped in horror. Spinning around as quickly as he could, Theodore excused himself from me and scattered back to Amos.

Amos… Jonah Hex…” Theodore’s teeth were tightly clenched and his attempts to be nonchalant only made him even twitchier… and incomprehensible.

“Flow spa specks?” Amos repeated, confused.

Theodore’s face scrunched in frustration, and he slightly tilted his head toward the corner table.

Jonah Hex,” he said again through his clenched jaw.

“No naw sex?” Amos said, still confused.

Theodore closed his eyes and took a deep, nasally sniff. This was a scene that he was, unfortunately, not unfamiliar with, and he was no stranger to the frustration that came with being Amos’s friend. Just then, Amos saw the bounty hunter at the table. He turned his back to Hex and made eye contact with Theodore.

“Don’t look now, Theodore, but Jonah Hex is here,” Amos said, upon which he received a slap to the head by his colleague. “Hey, what was that for?”

“Why is Jonah Hex here?” a suspicious Theodore asked.

“He can’t be after us for Carson City?” Amos said, phrasing it as a question, but meaning it as a deep set hope. “Can he?”

“He’s a bounty hunter,” said Theodore, who followed that factual statement with one of the most ridiculous comments these old ears had ever processed, “and we’re desperate, dangerous outlaws.”

“What’ll we do?” Amos said.

“Let’s get outta here,” said Theodore.

Shoulder to shoulder, Theodore and Amos shuffled their feet slowly toward the exit, keeping their eyes fixed behind them on Hex. They looked for any sign from Jonah Hex that might require a faster pace from them. Unfortunately for the duo, the constant attention paid to Hex limited their perception across the saloon floor and they ran right into another patron.

“Watch what yer doin’!” exclaimed the tree of a man that Theodore and Amos had bumped into, and despite the fact that the bump was hardly noticeable, the man reacted physically. He swung at Theodore, who ducked. The blow struck Amos, sending him hurtling across the saloon. Amos ricocheted into another customer, who shoved Amos back as well, projecting Amos into a different direction like a bullet deflecting off the wall.

It would have been pathetic if it had not been so humorous.

Amos’s journey came to a halt when he smashed into the table, the bottle of whiskey crashing to the floor. The remaining alcohol poured free from the container, lost forever among the dirt and grime of the floor of the Bucket of Blood. Amos watched the whiskey disappear, drop by drop, as if he were frozen in time. He silently hoped that he hadn’t ended his voyage where he thought he had.

The sound of the gun being cocked removed that hope.

“You done made a bad mistake, Mister,” Hex said, extending the firearm at the back of the man who had knocked over his table.
Amos turned slowly around to face the bounty hunter, his eyes crossed as the cold iron poked just below his nose.

“Howdy, Jonah,” Amos said, hands in the air.

Hex’s face dropped as the wave of recognition washed over him.

“Aw, Hell,” Hex said.

Top of Form

Bottom of Form

Hex hesitated before lowering his gun. One could only imagine what thoughts were running through Hex’s head, the possibilities of freedom from the incessant idiot standing cross-eyed before him. Theodore moved over beside Amos, with his hands raised as well.

“Both of ya? Course…” Hex grumbled, placing his gun back into its place.

“Howdy, Jonah,” said Theodore, echoing what his partner had said just a few seconds before.

“What are you two idiots doing here?” Hex said. “And how much will it cost to get you the hell out of here?”

“Aren’t you after us?” Amos said.

“Amos!” Theodore said, flashing him an angry face. “Inxay on the bountyay”

“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” Hex said, with disbelief etched all over his face. Hex looked down to the spilled whiskey knowing there was not enough to rescue that could help him forget this. “Hightail it outta here.”

But before the infamous Apple Dumpling Gang could follow those instructions, another man strode confidently into the Bucket of Blood and a hush came across the saloon. It was rare when the sheriff of Virginia City set foot in this establishment, but when he did, the assembled patrons knew that there would be no good come of it. Theodore and Amos stood still as Little Bill Daggett moved toward Hex. Each man he passed, dropped their head and quietly whispered “Little Bill” or “Sheriff”. The saloon had ground to a halt.

“Well now,” Little Bill said, “what do we have here? Would this be the one and only Jonah Hex is my town? What business do you have here, Hex?”

Jonah continued looking at the whiskey bottle on the floor, trying to determine how things got so complicated so quickly. The image of Amos kept flashing cross his mind. Shoulda shot him when I had the chance, Hex thought.

“Cat got yer tongue, Hex?” Little Bill continued. “That surely ain’t right. When a man speaks to you, especially a man of the law, the only right thing is to be respondin’, What business bring you to Virginia City, Hex?”

“No business…” Hex said. “Just havin’ a drink.”

Little Bill laughed a deep belly laugh.

“I never knew you was funny, Hex. Jonah hex… bounty hunter… court jester,” Little Bill said. Hex was emotionless as the tension int he bar escalated. Even I found myself cover for I knew the dangers of ricocheting lead for innocent bystanders and I figured that my odds of survival only increased by placing myself behind the player piano.

Theodore and Amos were not as wise, as the pair stood still… motionless… their eyes fixed upon the confrontation playing itself out in the saloon. The rest of the patrons and the barkeep scattered to the four winds. The Apple Dumpling Gang remained stationary… targets.

“I shall repeat myself, Hex… what brings you to my city?” Little Bill said. “I will not repeat myself again.”

“Howdy,” Theodore said, interjecting himself into the conversation. “Let’s not get too jumpy. Jonah is here after us.”

“No I’m not,” Hex said.

“Sure , he is… and we’re ready to go now, ain’t we Amos?” Theodore said.

“Huh?” Amos responded.

“Come on, Jonah, take us back to claim the bounty,” Theodore said, stretching each syllable out to make it obvious to all that he was trying to get his point across to Hex. Hex just shook his head.

“So if you are wanted men,” Little Bill said, “then I should take you in myself.”

Theodore’s eyes bulged again. He hadn’t considered that. And Theodore was the brains of the outfit. Little Bill grabbed Theodore by the arm with a force, buckling his knees. He then grabbed Amos as well.

“Hold on there,” Hex said, taking a step forward, reaching for his gun, but before anything else could happen, Little Bill shoved Theodore into Hex, followed by Amos. Hex’s gun was knocked from his hand and the bounty hunter dropped in a pile beneath the pair. “Get off’n me!”

But as soon as Theodore and Amos rolled from atop Hex, Little John had his own gun drawn and aimed directly at Hex.

“Jonah Hex… you and your little gang are under arrest.”

 

The cold steel bars of the jail cell told its frustrating tune as Jonah Hex stared off into space. Sitting on the jail cell floor on either side of him was Amos and Theodore, and Hex was doing everything he could to keep from strangling them. As Hex debated silently inside his head about the benefits of choking the pair out, Theodore started talking.

“Listen Jonah, Amos and me were here to strike it rich. Iff’n you want, we could cut you in on the claim.”

Hex shook his head. They never shut up, he thought

“You see, there is a treasure in them there hills…” Theodore said, with a laugh and a sniff. Amos started laughing too. They both stopped laughing when they realized that Hex was not laughing. Clearing his throat, Theodore continued. “See… there has been a story for years about a hidden treasure outside of Virginia City, and Amos and me are fixin’ to find it.”

“Yes sir…” Amos said, nodding in full agreement.

“And we could cut you in iff’n you want… once we’re outta here… we could work together to…”

“I know about the treasure,” Hex said, an icy chill on each word.

“You do?” Amos said, surprised.

“Yep,” Hex said.

“Oh…” Theodore said, “so you came here to go after it too?’

“No,” Hex said. “That’s not why I am here.”

As this conversation was happening in the jail cell, across town at the hotel Little Bill knocked on the door. Looking over his shoulder, he entered the room. A black haired man with a long mustache waited ominously.

“Is it true? Is it Jonah Hex?” the man said.

“Yes, but I have him and these two squirrelly accomplices of his in my jail right now. I don’t think there a gonna be a problem.”

“Don’t underestimate Hex,” he replied. “If he’s breathin’, he’s dangerous.”

“Well, Mr. Cavendish…” said Little Bill, “I guess we’ll have to go a fixin’ that.”

Butch Cavendish sat down in the chair, lit up of cigar and smiled.

An hour later, Little Bill walked into the jail, and he leaned up against the bars.

“So, Mr. Hex… it looks like we’ll be havin’ ourselves a hangin'”
The rope draped across his neck, brushing against the whiskers from a day’s worth of not shaving. The assembled crowd had shown up expectin’ fireworks, but so far they had been right disappointed. Jonah Hex, the infamous bounty hunter, stood upon the platform preparing for the end.

The two on either side of him did not look like they belo9nged with the bounty hunter, but the town sheriff, Little Bill, had said they were in cahoots and the crowd either didn’t care or was too afraid to question him. That was not an uncommon situation.

Little Bill stood before Hex and shook his head.

“Do you have anything to say to the crowd… words to appease your tortured soul or to pay respects to those poor innocents that you sent to the great beyond prior to their time?” Little Bill spoke in poetry, but he knew his motives were not clear. Yet, he would not allow that to prevent him from doing what he had to do.

“Yeah… I’d like to say somethin’,” said Amos, but a flash from the cold stare of Little Bill stopped him still. Amos understood that the offer was only extended to Hex.

Jonah Hex stared at Little Bill, a grim visage reflecting the nerves of steel. In the distance, a sound of a hee hawing burro cut through the tension. Hex cracked the slightest smile.

“Maybe you would want to hold off,” Hex said, nodding toward the distance.

An old man slowly walked, pulling at the bridal of a burro, who did not seem to be too interested in moving as quickly as the situation demanded. The man was not being too kindly toward the animal.

“Now Number Seven, you flea-bitten varmint. I have never in my life ever come across a critter as ornery or stubborn as you were… you, pardon the expression, mule-headed beast. I swear, maybe it is time we be lookin’ fer a Number Eight.”

Little Bill stared at the old man as he dragged the burro toward the gathering.

“Now hold on a minute… I’s got somethin’ to say,” he said, wrapping the bridal of Number Seven

“We do not have time for these games, old man,” Little Bill said.

“Ah…. well, there is the problem… because I think you’d be wantin’ to make time for me,” he said. “My name’s Mad Jack, and I’ve been traipsing these hills and lands for… well, for a might. And I do believe, Sheriff, that you need to hear what I got ta say.”

Mad Jack tossed something up to the platform. The golden circle landed at Little Bill’s feet. The form of a golden dubloon clanked on the wood platform. Little Bill stared in disbelief at the treasure before him. The crowd gasped when they realized that the old fool had found the treasure… the treasure that they all believed was nothing more than a myth.

“Now, you’ll be lettin’ my friend Jonah Hex and the two little fellas with him go, or you will never know where that came from,” Jack said.

Hex added, “and we know that the real power around here wouldn’t like that… now would he?”

“So you’re a thief, Mr. Jack?” said Little Bill.

“What in tarnation are you talkin’ `bout, Sheriff. Why I ain’t never heard such hogwash in all my years of travel. I have a legally obtained deed fer the land and the claim… well… it is signed by you, Sheriff. Everything here is completely legal.”

Little Bill’s face curled in anger. He knew he was stuck. He could not risk the fact that this old man was telling the truth. That treasure was the reason behind it all.

“So…” Hex said, his hands still tied behind his back. “What are you going to do, Little Bill?”

Little Bill held the level in his hand, caressing it. One tug of the lever and the floor beneath the platform would give out and the three troublemakers would be gone. He could pull the lever and still take out the old man, but the lawlessness of the entire situation would not appear right. He had a reputation to uphold. But the conflict was digging deep in his evil soul. He knew Cavendish would not be happy. This was a lose-lose…

So he pulled the lever…..


The tension left the rope as the stage beneath the bounty hunter and his twitchy colleagues dropped away. The three of them dropped toward the ground, preparing for the ropes draped around their necks to end their fall.

A shot rang out… and another… and another.

The rapid fire shots punctured each rope, before it could tighten around the necks of Hex and the Apple Dumpling Gang. It sent Little Bill diving for cover, gun in hand, scanning the area for where the shots came from. The assembled crowd scattered, screaming.

I was standing near the recent arrival, the man they call Mad Jack. Mad Jack was shocked when Little Bill had pulled the lever, sending Hex to his believed death, and he was just as shocked when the trick shots severed the hangman’s rope.

“Come on, Number Seven…” Jack said, pulling at his loyal friend’s bridle, “we done need to get to cover.”

The beys of the animal was lost among the chaos in the streets. Another shot bounced from the stage. This shot was an obvious cover shot…a warning. I mean, we just seen this gunman take three bullets through the hangman’s rope sparing the lives of the doomed trio. He wasn’t going to fire such a wild shot now.

Beneath the stage, Hex wriggled his hands from behind him and worked on his binds. He knew he did not have the time to waste, but he could not help himself. He untied Theodore and Amos.

“Stay outta the way,” he warned, hoping to find himself a weapon.

I decided that I needed to find myself some cover as well, so I followed Mad Jack. He had moved his burro to an alleyway, and had braced himself behind a fence post. Bracing myself beside him, I pictured the easy days traveling down the Mississippi on a steamboat, the sun setting upon the West, and a tasty drink in hand. How did I wind up here?

“This ain’t no place for a city slicker,” Mad Jack said, seeing the dust cover my white suit.

“Of that, I cannot argue,” I said. The sight of the man leaping from above Mad Jack caused me to yell out at the old mountain man. “Look out!”

Before my words could warn Jack, the man was standing behind him, shoving his six shooter in the old man’s face.

“Easy does it, old man,” he said, the gun resting on Jack’s chest. The man looked to me. “Stand up and move into the alleyway.”

“Who are you?” I said, as I followed his instructions. “What do you want?”

“My name is Jack Wilson… and I think this old fool knows what I want.”

Bottom of Form

“You’ll be wantin’ to be lettin’ Mad Jack go,” said Hex, gun in hand, as he entered the alleyway. I wouldn’t mind telling you that I was becoming a might uncomfortable in this situation. I had not planned on being in the middle of any kind of shootout, but it certainly appeared that that plan had gone the way of the dodo.

As Jack Wilson held his iron on Mad Jack, Hex moved strategically into the alley. I could see Theodore and Amos in the distance, wisely keeping it. I wondered how long that good sense would continue.

“Now Now, Jonah Hex,” said Wilson, “where be yer gratitude. If’n not fer me, you’d be swinging from that contraption still. I do believe that you owe me yer life… what there will be of it.”

“I appreciate the help, but that don’t mean you can put a gun to my friend’s chest,’ Hex said. “Leave Jack alone, take yer leave, and there will be no trouble between us. I am not here fer you.”

“And I am not here your you, Hex. I am here for what yer old friend here was throwing around. The treasure of these here parts. I’m here for the Lost Dutchman.”

“You are dang blamed nuts. The Dutchmen isn’t around these parts. It’s in the Arizona area,” said Mad Jack, adding, “Dang fool.”

“You know that is not truthful, coot,” said Jack Wilson. “In fact, I do believe you know it first hand. That deed you have in yer possession gives you the rights to the Dutchman itself. Am I not correct?”

“If you want the deed,” Hex said, “let Jack go, and it i all yours… no questions asked.”

Wilson paused at the unexpected words spoken from Jonah Hex. It caught me off guard as well. There had been speculation over the years about a hidden treasure in this area, but it was widely regarded as a hoax… or a myth… to drum up tourism… to attract folks to the city. I had never considered the possibility that it was the truth… let alone it being the legendary Lost Dutchman mine.

“I let the old fool go, and he gives me the deed outright, and we part friends?” said Wilson.

“Yep,” replied Hex.

“What kind of fool do you take me fer?” Wilson said.

“I ain’t here for the Dutchman,” said Hex. Wilson had a doubtful expression on his face until Hex said four specific words. “You have my word.”

“I am afraid, I cannot allow that,” said Little Bill, who walked into the alleyway, joining the growing tension. Bill had Theodore and Amos tied together and had a gun against Amos’s head. I curse myself for losing my view of the Apple Dumpling Gang, though I should be excused for not wanting to take my eyes from the standoff going on around me.

“I wondered how long it would take you to get here, Little Bill,” Hex said.

“It looks like we are all here,” said Little Bill.

Jonah looked around and said, “Not yet.”

To Be Concluded

Option Pick: The Lost Dutchman Gold Mine

Top of Form

There had been many times in my life where I had wished that I had taken a different path… a different choice…

This was one of those times.

I had certainly not intended to find myself on the business end of a gun, let alone several of them. Yet my trip to the birthplace of my moniker, the mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, had not been the pleasurable trip I had hoped. But interesting… that it were.

Jonah Hex, bounty hunter extraordinaire, stood in the alleyway beside me while the dangerous gunman Jack Wilson held his gun upon the old mountain man Mad Jack. Mad Jack had a claim to a parcel of land that he claimed held the location of the mysterious Lost Dutchman Mine. It was believed that the mine was in Arizona, but Mad Jack had used this piece of information to waylay a hangin’… if only fer a moment.

Sheriff Little Bill Daggett was in the alleyway as well, and he had his own hostages. Theodore and Amos, dubbed the Apple Dumpling Gang, the last pair that you would expect to be at the side of a cold hearted bounty hunter like Hex. But at his side they were.

But Hex was waiting for one more guest. The one he was really after. Treasure held little appeal for Jonah Hex. He was after something else. He was after what he was always after… the bounty.

And so, through coincidence and bad luck, we all wound up together in a standoff of all standoffs… a standoff where I knew… we all did… that we all would not survive.

“Where’s yer boss, Daggett?” Hex said.

“No man’s my boss, bounty hunter,” replied Little Bill, the venom spewing from his lips.

“Fine,” Hex said, “Where’s Cavendish?”

Butch Cavendish was an escaped felon… a criminal of the worst kind. This was the first time that Hex had mentioned his name, but everyone knew that Cavendish was the real reason Hex was in Virginia City. There was a huge bounty on Cavendish’s head… dead or alive. Just the challenge Hex loved to undertake.

“Cavendish is here?” asked Wilson, turning green.

“Bring him here,” Hex said to Little Bill.

“It would appear that you are lacking some leverage, Hex. Mr. Wilson has your old friend and I have your idiot friends. Why should I worry about what you want?” Little Bill said.

“Because I’m the only one who knows the location of the mine. Mad Jack’s deed is a fake. He don’t know nothin’ about the location of the Dutchman.”

Mad Jack laughs.

Little Bill looked at the mangled face of the bounty hunter and he knew…. Hex was telling him the truth. He turned to me.

“Mr. Twain,” Little Bill said. Funny, I was unaware that anyone here knew who I was. The power of anonymity had been overwhelming, but I realized at this moment, it had been a smoke screen. “I would like you to go fetch my associate.” With that, Little Bill whispered a place in my ear and beckoned me to go. My heart raced as I rushed across the town with only my imagination to fill the gaps of what was occurring in the alleyway. I am sure whatever my pen could write, it would not match the tension of the truth.

It did not take much convincin’ to bring Cavendish to the alleyway.

The hail of fire in the alley filled the morning sky, a sound of gunfire scatterin’ the people. Their skills were like surgeons. Hex offered Wilson the mine for his loyalty. Hex did not want the Dutchman. He wanted Cavendish. In the end, Little Bill and Cavendish were overwhelmed by the bounty hunter and the trickshooter. Even the mountain man fired off his rifle. The body of Cavendish ended strapped to the back of Hex’s horse.

At least… that is what I wrote. I admit, I never returned to the alley. Self preservation took over. I try not to think of myself as a coward… just a realist. And a smart man. I haven’t lived as long as I have by being foolish.

Hannibal, MO never felt so good.

 

The Ballad of Groo in Oz

 

Groosofftoseethewizard

 

Part I

 

The magic kingdom known as Oz had never thought they’d see,

Worse trouble than a wicked witch and her flying monkey.

The little girl from Kansas, her dog inside the basket,

With her house she killed a witch, the Munchkins popped a gasket.

And ruby slippers on her feet, she carried quite the load,

Singing toward the city of green, down the yellow brick road.

Where she would throw some water on an unsuspecting witch,

And the witch cried out that Dorothy was a meddlesome… MELTING, I’M MELTING

 

But once the girl had left the land, back over the rainbow,

A warrior so mighty but with less brains than Scarecrow,

Arrived in Oz with swords ablaze one fine and handsome day,

Any semblance of sanity was thusly chased away.

Don’t ever call him “MENDICANT,” don’t let it slip your lip,

And if you do, prepare to offer him all your cheese dip.

`Cuz although he knows not what the word “mendicant” does mean,

His violence will be triggered more than you have ever seen.

 

A master swordsman he may be, though he is quite the tool,

And luck be not your lady as you’ll feel just like a fool.

With him it’s just as likely that a victim you will be,

And you will have to watch him destroy all your property.

The Wanderer may not intend such chaos to dispense,

But plans and thoughts don’t cross his head because he’s rather dense.

The Winkies, Witches, Lions, Munchkins; they all have no clue,

The Land of Oz has never seen a specimen like Groo.

 

Moral:  Not all dreams come true… some nightmares do too”

Groo II

The Ballad of Groo in Oz Part II

Oz is a magical land

Over the Rainbow it’s found

A good chance exists Groo’s band

Will tear down Oz to the ground

 

The first of the team Groo met.

Had white whiskers and blue skin.

Bad luck he hoped to offset

Despite his feeling chagrin.

 

Papa Smurf was a wizard

And a wise village leader.

He made potions with lizard

In his tree house of cedar

 

The Smurf patriarch was he

Knowledgeable, gentle, wise.

His hobby was alchemy

Elixirs he would devise.

 

Energetic for his age

At five hundred forty two

It feels worse for the blue mage

When he spends his time with Groo.

 

Into the house Groo entered,

The thought not ever crossing,

How terrible would be centered

Over which Groo was glossing.

 

“Good to see you, my friend, Groo,

Please enter my tree house.”

Papa Smurf’s hopes will construe

Those famous last words espouse.

 

Papa Smurf was diligent,

Working on his next potion.

A special brewed supplement

Of which he had a notion.

 

“Careful, Groo, it’s delicate

And it’s likely flammable.”

His statement was definite

If not, it was laughable.

 

Ox-like, Groo said, “Let me see!”

And stomped toward the concoction.

Groo’s mass sent the mixture free

Like cattle herd at auction.

 

The plume of smoke pillared out.

Flames ignited through the air.

Groo looked at the charbroiled sprout

And he asked him, “Did I err?”

 

Moral:  “Some things are better done alone.”

 

 

 

For the Ballad of Groo in Oz Part III
The tale of a very special kitty
Known as a hero to the great unwashed hordes.
Puss in Boots is the small orange cat’s name,
Heroic action’s this cat’s claim to fame.
Wearing black boots, a hat, and crossing his swords.
When his path passed with Groo one sunny day,
He challenged Groo with a hearty ole’
With a slash of his sword, Puss pushed on ahead.
Though Groo does not have much in way of brains,
Swordplay is a skill Groo always maintains.
A challenge to Groo’s like a bull seeing red.
Puss moved on Groo with a parry and thrust,
But the savage response left Puss nonplussed.
Puss realized that he had made a mistake.
Puss bowed and removed his Cavalier hat,
“You’re a true hero,” said the tabby cat.

“Together, villains shall tremble in our wake!”
Groo said, “Bah,” and started to walk away.
“Hold up senor,” Puss said, “Please if I may.
I will convince you!” Puss held out his small paw.
So Groo looked back at the wide, blue-eyed stare.
The cat’s hat held in his paws with a flair.
The Wanderer’s melted with just one word: “Awwwww”

Moral: If you can’t beat them, suck up.

 

Groo 4

 

Groo in Oz Part IV
Rhyming with Groo

As Groo walked through the Land of Oz one bright and shiny day,
He came across a giant on a bridge blocking his way.
The giant held a rock in his formidable hand,
His friendly smile seemed out of place like it was no man’s land.
Groo walked up to the giant looking him square in the waist.
“I wish to pass by on this bridge, so move without much haste.”
The giant said, “Anchovy paste,” rhyming with Groo’s last phrase.
Then Groo asked him, “What was that?” vexed within a state of haze.
“Alley Cat,” the giant said, spotting Puss with a gesture.
Groo yelled, “Stop it right now!” as the rhymes began to fester.
“Beschäftigt hausfrauhe,“ he did say, rhyming now in German.
Groo unsheathed both of his swords to give a giant sermon.
“Calm down, Groo,“ said Papa Smurf not wishing a violent scene.
“Yabbadabbadoo,“ the mammoth man sang in his routine.
“Now that did it,“ Groo exclaimed,“ prepare yourself for battle.“
The giant grasped his rock tightly, “That’s just foolish prattle.“
Before Groo could explode, Puss in Boots stepped in the middle.
Puss said, “Sir, if you’d be kind to help me with a riddle.
Why do you insist to rhyme every word that we do say?“
The giant paused a moment and then said, “I like to play.“
“I mean you no harm,“ he did say, putting down his boulder.
“I like you, little friend,“ patting Groo upon his shoulder.
Groo put away his swords, knowing there’d be no fight today,
And the giant stepped aside avoiding the painful fray.
“But I am lonely all the time,“ the giant sadly said.
“Could I join your band of cohorts,“ the giant all but pled.
“OK,“ Groo said,“ but keep the rhymes to a bare minimum.“
“Yes, I promise,“ he did say, adding, “Ceylon cinnamon“
Groo slapped his head at the last rhyme and moved on cross the bridge.
The giant snatched up Puss and Papa, placing them on his back.
“My name is Fezzik,“ said the giant, his head in the skies.
“Devil’s walking stick,“ the cat rhymed, making Groo roll his eyes.

Groo V

The Ballad of Groo in Oz Part V

Fezzik looked at his new mate
This he thought was really great.
Papa Smurf and Puss in Boots
Gave the giant two salutes.
Fezzik turned and said to Groo
“I know what we have to do.
In the town there is a man,
Who will fit in with this clan.
He’s my friend; to him we go.
You may call him Inigo.”
With those words Fezzik lumbered
Excitement unencumbered.
Unlikely this committee
Approached Emerald City
And inside the walls of green
Two old friends would reconvene.
Inigo and Fezzik hug
Puss and Groo exchanged a shrug.
“Welcome, after your long trip,
Can I offer you cheese dip?”
Sparkles in the eyes of Groo
As he lunged for the fondue.
Inigo had never seen
A cheese dip eating machine
Papa Smurf’s fingers did drum
“I’m not sure we should have come.
Bringing Groo to this green place,
Will we cause it to debase?”
“You worry too much,” Puss said,
“It’s not like we’ll end up dead.”
“About us, I do not fear,”
Papa Smurf said with a sneer,
“But first hand I did witness,
The dangers of Groo’s fitness,
And citizens of this town,
Could behold it tumble down.”
At the Smurf Inigo laughed
Saying, “Sir you are quite daft.
Look at that chap eating there,
He’s no danger, this I swear.
Witches, beasties, all the sort,
Come to Oz where they cavort.
What exactly do you think?
That this guy’s the missing link?”
Papa Smurf jumped on a trunk.
“Did you know Atlantis sunk?
Across the land the plague smeared,
And the Incas disappeared.
The taste treat called Soylent Green,
And the life of Charlie Sheen.
Camelot was brought to shame.
Do you know who was to blame?”
With the news Inigo heard
Fears inside him were now spurred.
Measured on a massive scale,
Groo in Oz an epic fail.

Moral: Groo is not always what he seems

 

Groo VI

The Ballad of Groo in Oz Part VI

As the Wanderers departed from Inigo’s jade house
The streets of Emerald City were quiet as a mouse.
The eerie silence scared them all and cause them to quiver.
Except, of course, for Groo who was thinking with his liver.

The sparkle from the green buildings as the sun slowly set,
Shone brightly as they saw a Munchkin attempting to jet.
Fezzik reached his hand and grabbed the Munchkin by the collar.
The little fellow was scared, he couldn’t even holler.

“I mean you no harm. Please don’t hurt me,” cried the little man.
“If you free me I will give you everything that I can.”
They watched him as the little man kicked his feet in the air.
But Fezzik’s grip was strong, he wasn’t going anywhere.

“Pardon me senor, what has gotten you in such trouble?”
With a smile asked Inigo, invading the man’s bubble.
“Such horrors,” said the Munchkin, “Life in Oz is rather grim.”
At Groo Papa Smurf pointed, “It cannot be worse than him.”

“It is, O short one,” said the Munchkin to the little Smurf.
“I fear that nothing can be done to protect Oz’s turf.”
The quaking in his voice ensconsed the group at high alert,
Except, of course, for Groo, whose will was about to assert.

“Speak, little man!” screamed Groo. “Speak your mind, do not hold your tongue.
Your luck has changed as Groo is here, these terrors will be stung.”
A shiver crossed the Munchkins spine, ironic to the max.
Could Oz be saved by Groo from the dangers of the Sleestaks?

 

Groo VII

The Ballad of Groo in Oz Part VII
Dogs and Cats

With the Sleestaks in Oz, bad trouble was near
And Groo’s on the case, so there’s plenty to fear.
The only thing left that was not a pity.
To chase them Groo had left Emerald City.
Then Groo and his friends walked the Yellow Brick Road
The Sleestak riddle they had hoped to decode.
When look who they found on their way down the lane.
Groo’s dog Rufferto reunited again.
When spotting his master, his tail he did wave,
Rufferto loved Groo, his attention did crave.
But Puss in Boots could not believe what he saw…
He arched his back, hissed and unsheathed his cat claws.
Yet Groo’s dog Rufferto, he gave Puss no heed.
To be with his master was all he would need.
Though Rufferto had gotten lost in the land,
Groo had not yet noticed his dog was offhand.
Unnerved by the canine, Puss in Boots said, “Groo
I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too.”
Groo was bewildered and to Puss he said, “What?”
The cat answered, “What do we need with this mutt?”
Groo said, “The same reason I keep you around,
A fresh fricassee when no food can be found.”
Puss burst in laughter despite the sudden glitch,
That Groo really saw him as a cat sandwich.

Groo VIII

The Ballad of Groo in Oz Part VIII

As Groo and his companions
Moved thru the forest that day
They came across a canyan
And a Knight blocking the way.
With this bloke was something strange
Unlike even the worst dregs,
About him this was a change
This knight had no arms or legs.
“None shall pass,” the torso said.
“I move for no man or batch.”
Groo looked shocked, “How aren’t you dead?”
He said, “This? `Tis but a scratch.”
Puss said, “It looks worse than that.”
And then Papa Smurf agreed.
On his head, Fezzik did pat,
While Inigo said, “Indeed.”
“Come,” Groo said, “We must depart.
This Black Knight’s fate has been sealed.”
“The blood still pumps through my heart,
Never shall my duty yield!”
“Are you nuts? What can you do?
Even Puss would win,” Groo coughed.
“When faced with the swords of Groo,”
He said, “I’ll bite your legs off.
I’m invincible,” said he,
“The honorable Black Knight.
You yellow bastards should flee
So you will not lose this fight.”
Groo smiled at the bravado
The Black Knight’s torso did show.
He’s one tough desperado.
Their meting was apropos.
Groo said, “Fezzik, grab the Knight,
Let’s carry him on our quest.”
Who would guess that he just might
Become much more than a pest?

Groo Part IX

The Ballad of Groo in Oz Part IX

And so we have come to the end of this tale
A story about the one true alpha male
The big battle between Groo and the Sleestak
Would ravage the land with each vicious attack.
Though the confrontation brought them both much fame
The Land of Oz will never be quite the same.
The exploits in this ballad which I do sing,
Do not do justice to the actual thing.
The horrors and terrors you just can’t believe,
Some natives were shocked at what they did achieve.
Course everyone should have known what to expect
Wherever Groo goes things do tend to get wrecked.

Knowhere To Run

His eyes opened.

 

What happened?  Where am I?

 

This was not the first time that Vance Astro had thought these thoughts.

 

When am I?

 

That one either.

 

Looking around the expansive room, Vance Astro did not know where he was.  Little did he know that he was literally Knowhere.

 

Knowhere, the decapitated head of a Celestial, floating near the end of the universe, created quite the paradox.  It had always been a desirable location, but the dregs of the universe found their way here as well.  There had been plenty of battles between men, women and other things …all hoping to control the riches and resources contained inside Knowhere.  Yet no one wanted to know how this became.  What in this universe could have decapitated a Celestial?  This was a question that only the bravest of all would even ponder.  And they would not ponder it for long.

 

Vance Astro did not know where he was and he did not know when he was.  It was part of his life.

 

Standing up, he reached down, pleased to feel the shield in his possession.  He had become attached to the shield that had, at one time, been carried by Steve Rogers.  It was part of him.

 

The area was eerily deserted.  Every way Vance looked, there was no sign of any living being.  Where did I wind up?  The last thing he remembered was being in the 31st century with the other Guardians, dealing with a threat.  What was it?  The memory of the events seemed distant, and continually slipping into the void.  What had happened was not that important and Vance Astro was not going to worry about the disappearance of his memory.  He had more pressing concerns.

 

The light was dim in Knowhere, and Vance Astro had a feeling of dread creeping down his spine.  Being alone in this mysterious place put him in a distinct feel of uneasiness, a tickling deep in his gut.  Something bad is going to happen.

 

That was when he realized that he could hear something.  It was soft, but definitely out there.  Clenching his shield to his chest, Vance moved cautiously through the empty cavernous place he found himself in.  Is that music?  In his previous trips to past worlds, he had always enjoyed his brief encounters with music of the time.  Music brought a feel of life.  However, this song seemed to fill the emptiness of his soul.  The closer he came to the source of the haunting ballad, Vance Astro became even more apprehensive.  He could feel the hairs beneath his suit bristling.

 

As he carefully entered the room, he could see the phonograph record playing, the tones of Johnny Mathias drifting from the speaker.  The record player was very old, perhaps antique, and the record was on vinyl. It was something that Vance Astro had not seen in years.  How could this be playing hereWho played it?

 

Vance could see no one nowhere.  There was no sign of anyone within his sight.  As he was looking around the room, the song came to an end, only to have the phonograph lift the needle from the record and place it at the beginning once again.  Some times we walk, hand in hand, by the sea…

 

How long has this been playing?

 

Vance shut the player off and turned to leave the room.  As he was about to leave, suddenly he heard:

 

Some times we walk, hand in hand, by the sea…

 

Peeking back over his shoulder, Vance could not believe this.

 

and we breathe in the cold salty air.  You turn to me, with a kiss in your eyes and my heart feels a thrill beyond compare…

 

“Where am I?”

Knowhere to Run Part Two

As the sound of Johnny Mathias disappeared in the background, Vance Astro continued his trek through Knowhere.  Without a single heartbeat found anywhere, Vance began imagining exactly what had happened here.

 

It was not as if he had not been present at scenes of terrible loss over the years.  Loss seemed to follow the lives of heroes.  And every time Vance began to think about the past losses, he could only focus on one person.

 

Angelica.

 

She was the love of his early life.  His time with her in the New Warriors and the Avengers were the best times of his life, and when they ended, he never truly got over her.  Despite the lack of memory of the near past, Vance Astro never had troubles remembering his Angel.

 

 

When she had gone to be with the X-Men, he was worried.  The X-Men existed in a special place in the world.  One of true danger.  And when he responded to the call for help… he knew, deep in his gut… that he would arrive too late.  That the days of possible reunions were over.  And despite the fact that most X-Men rarely remain dead, Vance could not bare to hope.  The pain of that loss stuck with him to this very day.

 

In all his attempts at time travel, Vance could not see his Angel again.  How could he go through that loss again?

 

And was fate taking the choice out of his hand?

Knowhere to Run (continued)

 

Confused and struck by the memories of a past love long lost, Vance Astro continued his voyage through the seemingly barren and deserted land that he found himself in.

 

I wish I could remember …anything.

 

The lack of his recent memories was as disturbing to Vance as his current predicament and the hopes of finding something…anything besides the nothing that he was finding.

 

And then there it was.  Something he recognized.  A museum… that Vance Astro had seen many times over the years, though never in a location such as this.  The containers, the creatures, … the collection.  Yes, it was the collection of Taneleer Tivan, The Collector.  However, there was something wrong.

 

Nothing was here.

 

The cages and containers were shattered.  There were no specimens around.  And there was no sign of the Collector himself.

 

 

What could have done this?  Vance knew Tivan.  He had met him in the future, at the time when he reclaimed the shield from him.  Yet this was different.    Tivan was an Elder of the Universe.  The thought of what could cause this kind of chaos within the collection of Tivan ripped through Vance’s head.  What force could have decimated the collection of the Collector?  His most prized possessions were gone, scattered to the wind, not a sign of anything remaining.

 

Vance Astro was even more on edge since this discovery than he had been since his awakening.  He knew what it took for him to get the shield away from Tivan.  He could not imagine what this could have been.

 

Where his memory and understanding lacked, Astro’s instincts took over.  He began examining the scene, searching for even the slightest clue that could tell him anything…the slightest sliver of an answer would ease his mind.  Astro knew that many of the Collector’s prizes were living specimens from across the universe.  Final members of doomed civilizations.  Could the Collector finally have tried to procure someone or… something that he shouldn’t have?

 

Astro found his way to a specific container.  All of the other containers had been shattered from the outside, Vance could tell from the manner in which the, for lack of a better term, glass had broken.  However, this one cage… the remnants of this cage… seemed to have exploded outward.  As if the blast centered at the heart of the container.

 

“This is ground zero,” said Vance, unafraid that anyone would hear him.  No one had heard him so far during his exploration of Knowhere.  “Whatever caused this destruction had spent time inside this container.  Looks like old Taneleer finally paid for his obsession.”

 

Vance Astro’s curiosity was piqued.  And since there appeared to be little else for him to do in this “ghost town,” solving a mystery appealed to him.

 

What happened to the Collector?

Vance Astro fought against the devastating internal struggle gnawing at his gut.  The fear was palpable and the hero struggled to keep it in check.  He had not had any success finding any further clues inside the Collector’s destroyed showroom, and the mystery of what exactly happened here started to feel like a mystery that would never have an answer.  The unbelievable situation burned at Vance’s self esteem like the core of the sun.

 

The pangs of hunger struck his stomach, and the continuous dry mouth that demanded satisfaction only added to the hopelessness of the moment.  Even someone as brave and as heroic as Vance Astro could be brought down from doubts from within.  Astro knew that something soon had to change or else there would be one less person living on Knowhere.  Without any other option, Vance continued his trek across the massive head of a slain Celestial.

 

But something did change.

 

Vance Astro was not actually alone.

 

There he was.  Sitting on the ground, back against the wall, a vacant stare gazing into space, an unlit cigar dangling upon his lip and an empty bottle of McCutcheon’s whiskey grasped tightly in his right hand.  Vance Astro had to do a double take, unsure if he could believe his senses.  Were they playing a trick on him because of the lack of sustenance?  Could it really be…

 

Pip the Troll?

 

Vance rushed to the side of the unresponsive troll, hesitating for just a moment.  If he had found another person only to find a lifeless husk…. Vance was not sure that he could handle that.  However, Pip was alive.  He was just staring ahead without any sign of understanding.  Even though it wouldn’t have been the first time, Pip was not drunk.  This was something else.

 

“Pip!” Vance said, grabbing the troll by his shoulders and shaking him, sending the cigar tumbling to the ground.  “Wake up, what is happening here?  Pip…talk to me!”

 

Pip did not respond immediately, and Vance was just about to stop when Pip’s eyes fluttered.  Was it a blink or was it just Vance seeing what he wanted?  No!  the eyes moved again.  Pip was coming back.  The bottle of whiskey was brought up to Pip’s lips and he desperately tried to find even a single remaining drop.  His eyes still stared blankly ahead as the bottle was unsuccessful drained.  Throwing the bottle to the side, Pip rolled his neck.

 

“Damn,” he swore.  “Where is my cigar?”

 

“Pip, are you all right?”

 

“Astro?  What the hell are you doing here?” Pip asked.  Finding his cigar on the ground, Pip snatched it up and placed it in his mouth.  “Got a light, kid?”

 

“What is going on here. Pip?”

 

Pip looked around the room, a quizzical expression on his face.  Vance was scared that Pip himself would not know anything of the fate of Knowhere and its inhabitants…to the Collector and his collection.  Vance was worried that the discovery of a second would not help solve the enigma that his life had suddenly become.

 

Pip’s expression changed again… this time it was one of realization…a flicker of a memory, and a memory of horror.  Pip’s face became a masque of fright… something Vance Astro had never seen before.  He opened his mouth but no words came out, as the troll continued to stare past Vance.  Pip barely breathed,  And then Vance understood what was going on.  Pip wasn’t staring off into space.  He was looking at something specific.

 

Vance turned quickly, bringing the shield up in front of him and his slightly inebriated friend.  And Vance saw what Pip was looking at.

 

They were surrounded.

Vance Astro cursed himself as he looked around at the suddenly, decisively non-alone status that he found himself.  The creatures that surrounded him and Pip were some of the foulest creatures in the galaxy.

 

Dire Wraiths

 

 

These shape shifters were scourges of the cosmos, being banished from many different worlds.  In an ancient battle with the Galadorians, the Wraiths went as far as the planet earth to avoid the banishment to Limbo.  In the future time that Vance Astro came from, most of these foul beast were gone.  Only a rare few still existed.

 

He had never seen as many as were here now.

 

“Damn,” cursed Pip.  “This ain’t good.”

 

The blob like monsters slowly moved toward Vance and Pip, their long snake-like tongue extending from their mouths with the drill that found its way into their victims cranium.

 

“No wonder I haven’t found any bodies,” said Vance.  He knew that when the Dire Wraith’s drilled their tongues into their victim’s head, the victim was reduced to a fluid.  If Knowhere was infested with as many Wraiths as he currently saw, it would not have taken long before everyone fell.

 

“Been nice knowing ya, Astro,” said Pip.

 

“Can’t you teleport us out of here?” asked Vance.  He knew that Pip had some potent teleportation abilities.

 

“Do you think I would still be here if I could?  Sure, why not just hang around Knowhere with a bunch of parasitic, mutated skrulls hanging around.  As if the Skrulls weren’t bad enough.  These things make my skin crawl,” Pip said.

 

The Dire Wraiths had some magical abilities, practically sorcery.  Perhaps they had done some hoodoo voodoo on Knowhere limiting the abilities of those within.  Kind of a dampening spell, but that was some serious power.  COnsiderably more than Vance thought they could manage.  A lot of this still did not make sense.  Even with the magical ability and the shape shifting skills, how did they take down an Elder of the Universe?

 

“How did these things kill the Collector?” asked Vance.

 

“Are you nuts?”  said Pip.  “These beasties didn’t kill the Collector.  That was…”

 

Before Pip could continue with his exposition, the nearest Dire Wraith leaped toward them.  Vance Astro deflected the tongue with the shield, kicking the Wraith away.  The other Wraiths began to close in even tighter.  Pip and Astro backed against the wall that Pip had been leaning against.

 

“I didn’t want to go out like this.  There was just not enough whiskey to knock me out.  I could have gone quietly into death with a snoot full,” said Pip.

 

Vance glanced around the room, seeing what he had hoped to see.

 

“We’re not out of this yet, Pip,” said Vance, striking the wall behind them with the shield.  The weight bearing wall was struck a second time and gave way, bringing parts of the roof down and opening a path behind them.  “Let’s go.”  Vance grabbed Pip by the scruff of the neck and took off down the path.  He did not know where he was heading, but he knew that there was nothing behind them but death.  He knew there were answers here somewhere.

 

And he was determined to find them.

 

Vance Astro moved quickly down the pathway, stopping regularly to wait for Pip to catch up to him.  The pudgy little troll had not been used to running much.  He would stop and hack, swearing with each hack that he was done smoking those “damned cigars.”.  Each time he would say that, Vance would roll his eyes. He knew that Pip wasn’t changing his habits.

 

Vance was not sure if they had gotten away from the Dire Wraiths, but they had not seen sign of them since the ceiling came down.  It was a move ripe with desperation, and he was not ashamed to admit it.  He knew that had that army of Dire Wraiths been given a few moments more, there would be nothing remaining of the two of them.  A strategic retreat was necessary.

 

However, Vance was curious as well.  Something that Pip had said earlier.  He claimed that the Dire Wraiths were not the cause of the destruction of the Collector’s museum, and Vance could not wait a second more.  Snatching the troll, he pulled him into an side pathway.

 

“Hey, whatcha doing, Astro?  We got to keep going,” Pip said.

 

“Not until you start talking, Pip,” said Vance.  “What happened here?  If the Dire Wraiths did not destroy this place, then who did?  And what happened to the Collector?”

 

“The Dire Wraiths did destroy this place.  This place is Knowhere.  And the Collector had a couple of Dire Wraiths in his prison. Old fool. They were released when it happened and they were able to use some of the technology that survived to release a bunch of the other monsters from Limbo.  They were like cockroaches…every where around Knowhere,” Pip rambled.

 

“Wait… when what happened?” asked Vance.  “You said they were released when “it” happened.  What the hell is “it”?”

 

“Oh… that was when it escaped,” said Pip.  “Tivan had just collected something new and he placed it in the center of the collection.  He was so proud of it.  I could tell it was a mistake, but who could ever talk to that obsessive pack rat?”

 

“What was it?”

 

“More like a who,” said Pip.  “It is called Atomsk.  Some people called it the Pirate King.”

 

“I couldn’t believe that Tivan had the Pirate King in his collection.  Not only did I think it was unbelievable…I couldn’t believe his audacity.  The arrogance of that man,” Pip said, getting on a soap box.  “He really deserved what he got.”

 

“About that,” said Vance.  “The Collector was an Elder of the Universe.  I thought they were immortal.  They couldn’t die, right?”

 

“That’s what we all thought too.  I guess they were wrong,” said Pip, nearly gloatingly.  “Cause once Atomsk was out of that container, that kid really took it to Tivan.  It was a sight to see.  And hear…kid can really jam on that guitar.”

 

“None of this makes any sense,” said Vance, still trying to sort through.  He could tell that there was an important piece to this puzzle missing.  “So what happened?”

 

“Every blast from Atomsk seemed to take a chunk from the Collector.  Honestly, it was a massacre,” said Pip.  “Who knew that this little kid would be the downfall of this Elder.”

 

“So how did the Collector collect this Pirate King in the first place?” asked Vance.  Pip looked quizzically at the future Guardian and one time Avenger.

 

“Damn fine question.  I never thought about it.  Tivan had a way of acquiring specimens that he wanted.  I never gave it a second thought.”

 

“How long after the Pirate King arrived did this one-sided slugfest go down?” asked Vance.

 

“Almost immediately.  Tivan barely had the chance to gloat about his latest acquisition,” said Pip.  With each question posed to the troll, Pip took a few seconds to think about it, considering the situation as if for the first time.  “What are you thinking, Astro?”

 

“I think someone set the Collector up,” Vance said.  “I think someone wanted the Collector dead, and sent the perfect person to get the job done.  Someone who this person knew would bring the Collector down.”

 

“Who could possibly know what could bring the Collector down?” asked Pip.  “I mean… Death herself had made the pact to keep the Elders immortal.  It would have to be someone who has an in with…”

 

Pip stopped.  The thought occurred to him at the exact time that it occurred to Vance Astro.  Pip slapped himself across the forehead.

 

“Damn,” said Pip.

 

“Yes,” said Vance.  “Thanos.”

 

Villain:  Thanos

 

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Knowhere to Run (continued)

 

“So… Thanos wanted the Collector dead?” asked Pip.  “Why?”

 

“I don’t know.  Was there something in the collection that Thanos wanted?”
“Who knows what that psychopath wants?” said Pip.  “But, if it was that…how come we haven’t seen Thanos?  He hasn’t come along to pick anything up.  Plus, he wouldn’t have had to kill Tivan to take something out of the collection.  If Thanos wants something, Thanos usually gets something.”

 

“That means that Thanos really wanted the Collector dead.  Why?” asked Astro.

 

Before that question could be effectively pondered, one of the walls of the section Vance Astro and Pip the Troll were hiding in started to crumble.  The pair scattered from their hiding space, into an open area.  They once again found themselves surrounded by the shape shifting Dire Wraiths.

 

“I can tell you the answer,” said one of the Dire Wraiths, who seemed to be the leader.  “Death always resented the pact to give the Elders their immortality, it angered her.  Death hated Taneleer Tivan more than any of the other Elders.  Thanos has been the lap dog of Death for eons now, trying to win her favor through needless gifts.  You know he once even gained control of the Infinity Gauntlet all for her.  He realized that Death wanted Tivan dead, and so it became his goal.  I knew Atomsk was a trap.  How couldn’t I?”

 

“What are you gabbing about, Wraith?  You were inside one of Tivan’s tunes.  Why do you think you know any of this?” Pip said.

 

“You haven’t guessed yet?  Of course a buffoon as you, Troll, would not understand, but Astrovik disappoints me.  Have you not figured it out yet?” the Wraith asked.

 

“Yeah, I got it, Tivan.” said Astro.  The Wraith leader started to laugh, causing his outer shape to shift.  But he did not turn into any old form.  Seconds later, the Collector stood before them.

 

“What the hell?” Pip said.

 

“Don’t you get it, Pip?” asked Vance.  “Taneleer Tivan, aka the Collector, heard that Thanos was plotting a trap, planning his demise.  And with the knowledge Death would have given him, Thanos knew what the fine print of the deal was.”

 

“There is always a hook.  Immortality from Death herself?  There was bound to be a catch,” said Tivan.  “I was just resourceful enough to find out what it was.  And I was prepared.  Thanos was very sloppy.  He barely hid the fact that he was behind this.  Even a rank amateur would have sussed this out.  I prepared for his deception and made my own plans.  Yes it cost me many good men here at Knowhere, but the Dire Wraiths required sacrifices.  I needed them as an army.  They agreed to be my backup if I freed them from Limbo.  I prepared the magic curse around Knowhere, to prevent Thanos from arriving.  Of course, it also kept the little mouthy troll here as well.  Once Atomsk was inside Knowhere, I knew my plan was foolproof.”

 

“There is nothing foolproof when I’m around,” said Pip, causing the Collector to laugh.

 

“You have no arguments from me, troll.” said Tivan.  “I am just not sure how you arrived here Vance Astro.  Especially a Vance Astro not of this time period.  So how did you breach my defenses?  How did you come to arrive on Knowhere?”

 

“Your guess is as good as mine Collector, but I have no issues with you.  Let us leave and you can have this entire rock for yourself,” said Astro.

 

“Sadly, I cannot risk you giving away my deception just yet.  I am in the process of acquiring the proper weaponry to launch my retaliation against the Mad Titan.  I cannot afford the chance that you might reveal something that tips Thanos off.  I am truly sorry, but this is the end of the line for you.”

 

Tivan signaled to the Dire Wraiths, who had been surrounding Astro and Pip the entire time the three of them were talking.  It was obvious that they were primed and ready for an attack.  Astro gripped the shield tightly, bracing himself to go down fighting.  These monsters were not going to take him without him taking some of them down as well.  But the fight did not start.  The flash of light forced the shape shifter to back off and the appearance brought fear to the heart of even the Dire Wraiths.  Standing in the room was the Mad Titan himself, Thanos.

 

“Taneleer Tivon.  You are truly a fool to believe that your pitiful magics could keep me out.  I am Thanos, I am the Overlord.  And your time, Elder, has come.”

 

Energy glistened from Thanos’s hands, as he prepared to end the Collector, once and for all.  Tivon struck an aggressive stance, preparing to defend himself.  The Dire Wraiths around the room had the Collectors back.

 

And in the middle of the entire thing…Vance Astro and Pip the Troll knew they had nowhere to run.

 

“Vance, did our situation just get better…or worse?” Pip asked.

 

To be continued.

It has been a long time since I was happy.

 

As I mentioned, I find myself drawn to the bizarre, the paranormal, the supernatural.  Usually it is not a minor infraction either.  I have been in worlds breathing their last breaths,  Worlds consumed by the planet eater himself…seeing the despair and pain on the faces of the locals.  They never understand the emotionless, businesslike manner that Galactus goes about his meals.  It is frightening to see.

 

But seeing is what I do.  Ever since the “White Event” on my home earth, seeing is all I do.

 

I am Nelson Kohler.  I am the Witness.

 

I am always moderately confused when I materialize somewhere.  It is not like I have an unending knowledge like the Watchers.  No, I do not have unending cosmic power that I choose not to use.  In fact, I have very little power.  I am truly like a ghost.  I am just there.

 

Not that anyone knows that I am there.  My presence has only been sensed by a few.  Otherwise, it really is like I am not there.  This time was no different, except that I knew something terrible was about to go down.  The reason…I saw him.

 

Thanos.

 

This was not the first time that I had observed the Mad Titan and any time that I have, it did not turn out well.  Death.  Destruction.  Pain.  These were character traits for anyone who was unfortunately in the path of the villain.  But it did not take me long to realize what was happening.

 

Thanos was going to try to kill an Elder of the Universe.

 

The Collector to be precise.  The Collector had surrounded himself with reddish beasts with long, drill-like tongues.  I did not know them.  This was the first time that I had come across those things, and, by the looks of them, I wish it had stayed that way.  These creatures seemed to be an army supporting the Collector.  I didn’t know the Collector had any army, certainly not filled with nightmare inducing monsters.  Perhaps he had known that Thanos was on his way, and the Collector had taken steps to protect himself.

 

That was when I saw them.  Two others.  One of the men was dressed in a blue and white suit and held Captain America’s shield.  The second man was shorter, looking more like a troll or a hobbit than a man.  He chomped away on a cigar.

 

I did not envy their position.  They were at ground zero of an explosion that would certainly result in their deaths and the destruction of much of this place.  And it appeared as if these two men had nowhere to run.  My heart filled with pity for them.  My heart always filled with pity for the victims despite the fact that it never did any good.  They always ended up just as dead.  I wonder if they go and witness events when they die, or is that just something reserved for me?  Could this be all the after life is?

 

I can see the man with the shield.  He has assumed a fighting stance.  It is obvious that he is planning on fighting for as long as he can whereas the Troll does not appear to be interested in engaging the monsters.  It doesn’t look like he is going to have much of a choice.

 

Fate had brought me here to witness whatever it had in store for these beings.

 

Bottom of Form

The battle began.  The Dire Wraiths had launched their all out assault on the heroic Vance Astro and his foul-mouthed sidekick Pip the Troll.  The Wraiths had one main goal… destroy Vance Astro.  They were serving at the hand of the Collector, who, up until just a few moments ago, had been hiding in the form of a Dire Wraith.  The thought was that he could continue to fake his own death, something that the Mad Titan Thanos had been desiring.  Thanos was trying to please Death herself by fixing the gift of immortality that had been granted them.  In particular, Taneleer Tivan, the Collector was obnoxious.  His arrogance had drawn Thanos and his ire.

 

Vance Astro was caught in the middle of a war of survival that he seemingly had no stake in.  He did not know why he was here.  He did not know how he arrived here.  Everything before his arrival on Knowhere was foggy.  But his wits were sharp right now.  He used the former shield of Captain America to defect and deliver punishment to the shape shifters, though it appeared that it was at best maintaining the status quo.  Meanwhile, massive power was being exchanged between the Collector and Thanos with little regard for the others in the room.

 

“Pip,” said Vance, a thought occurring to him.  “What happened to Atomsk?  If he was someone who could hurt the Collector, and there was a magical spell around this place keeping those who arrive here, here… then where is he?”

 

Atomsk, known as the Pirate King, had been sent ahead as a Trojan Horse.  He found himself into the collection of Tivan, only to be used as a weapon.  It had appeared that Atomsk had destroyed the Elder, but instead Tivan had escaped into the form of a Dire Wraith.

 

“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Pip.  “Haven’t seen sparky since the collection went kablooie.  But if Thanos had sent him, maybe this spell that is affecting my teleportation does not affect him like it didn’t affect Thanos.”

 

I suppose… though Vance Astro.  However, it did not feel right.  He found it difficult to believe that Thanos would have taken a chance to lose an advantage in this war.  And since Atomsk could injure Tivan, he was an extremely valuable advantage.

 

Little did he know how close he was.  This entire exercise was just an experiment… a ruse… a game.  A game to see who would survive.  Tivan or Thanos.  Both had been manipulated by this pair.  And the had also brought Vance Astro from the future as a wild card.  A wild card that was meant to keep the challenge in balance.

 

The Grandmaster and The Champion of the Universe.

The Champion and the Grandmaster watched the events unfold from the safety of the Grandmaster’s ship, hidden just on the outskirts of Knowhere.  Atomsk was contained inside a energy container, existing in a state of control.  The two Elders commented calmly about the war that was

 

“Bringing Astrovik into this was a stroke a genius, En Dwi,” said the Champion.  “He brings someone into the mix with a real rooting factor.  The troll was not going to suffice.”

 

“Thank you, Tryco,” said Grandmaster, a sly smile crossed his face.  “I take that compliment to heart.  I am very happy that you were able to capture Atomsk before he did any lasting damage to our Elder brother, Tivan.  Despite how he is, I would not want him to truly die.”

 

“You have gone out of your way on more than one occasion to make sure that Tivan does not die,” said the Champion.

 

“Yes, he absolutely is a challenge.  If he wasn’t such an obsessive creature, he would be much more likeable,” said Grandmaster.

 

“I am very tempted to join in the fray.  I have always wanted to test myself against Thanos,” said the Champion.

 

“That would be a fascinating struggle, but this is not our game.  The game that we have set up is for Vance Astro.  He is the one who needs to win or lose.  Everyone else is nothing more than guest players.”

 

“Unfortunately, I am not sure that he will be surviving this,” said the Champion.  “There are only so many odds that one man can overcome.”

 

“Perhaps he requires further inspiration,” said the Grandmaster, smiling.

 

To be concluded.

The battle raged, Vance Astro not making much headway, but sufficiently keeping the vermin Dire Wraiths at bay.  Pip the Troll did what he could, but he tried to stick as close to Astro as he could.  This was out of Pip’s element.  Give him a drinking contest any day.  Physical fisticuffs… not quite his style.  Yet, he knew that the Dire Wraiths weren’t about to break out some whiskey and challenge him to drink them under the table.  So Pip pushed on.

 

Thanos and the Collector seemed unaware that a different war had been raging inside the compartment of Knowhere.  They were focused upon each other.  Locked hand in hand, Thanos and Taneleer Tivan, the Collector, fought for supremacy, and it was clear that one of them was winning.  Thanos forced the Collector down toward the ground as Tivan desperately struggled to maintain whatever he could.  The Collector realized his futile effort. Thanos slammed Tivan against the wall and, in a burst of energy, blasted the Elder.  Tivan understood that this was not a battle he was going to win.  He had one more ace.

 

“To me, my Wraiths!” the Collector cried and most of the shape shifters immediately left Astro and Pip and turned their attention to Thanos.

 

Nelson Kohler, the Witness, an invisible viewer of the day’s events, glanced at the moment of respite afforded Vance Astro.  The hero gathered his friend and it looked as if they were preparing to retreat from this war.  It did not have anything to do with them anyway.  Koholer dropped his head, knowing that fate had a different idea.

 

With a wave of his hand, Thanos opened a portal in the time-space, a portal the Wraiths knew only too well.  The sorcery ability of Thanos sent the Dire Wraiths back to Limbo, their screams lost in the void between the worlds.  The few who had not responded to Tivan’s call scurried away in fear.  The Dire Wraiths knew that they must live to kill another day when less power was on display.

 

The Collector’s head dropped as Thanos easily dispatched the army that Tivan had formed.  The realization had come to the Elder of the Universe, battered and bloody, and collapsed on the floor.  This was where he would die.

 

“This is for Lady Death,” Thanos said, as he stood above the fallen Elder.  Thanos raised his hand, preparing to deliver the coup de gras.  The bolt of flame came from nowhere, striking the Mad Titan unexpectedly.  Thanos took a step back, uncertain where this came from.  Vance Astro was just as surprised when he looked into the air above Thanos.

 

“Angel?” Vance said, his voice crackling slightly.  There she was.  Firestar, in all of her beautiful glory.  What is she doing here?  But before anything else could happen, a responding bolt of pure cosmic energy struck the lovely redhead.  Her scream cut deeply into Vance Astro’s chest.  The flaming mutant fell to the ground.  Thanos, as if swatting an annoying mosquito, turned himself back to the Collector, without a second look at the momentary distraction.

 

Vance Astro’s tortured cry echoed through Knowhere as he rushed to the side of his fallen love.  This woman had meant everything to Vance Astro.  In his darkest days, the memory of her bright, passionate flame kept him going.  He held her limp body as tears escaped through the suit.  Telekinetic energy bursting from his brain.  Please…Angelica…please.

 

Oblivious to the drama developing behind him, Thanos smiled his evil grin, standing above his immortal foe.  The energy projectile exploded from Thanos, directly at the semi-conscious frame of Taneleer Tivan.  This one would send the Collector back into the awaiting embrace of Death, from where he never should have been removed.  This bolt would correct the imbalance created by the immortality of Tivan, and would bring Thanos closer to the heart of Lady Death, or so he had hoped.

 

The red, white and blue shield appearing between Tivan and the blast was unexpected and effective, dispelling the powerful energy blast.  The shield flew back unnaturally, propelled not by strength and strategy, but by telekinesis.  The shield found its way back to the hand of Vance Astro and for the first time, Thanos turned away from the Collector and faced his new opponent.  Vance Astro stood defiant.  As Pip tended to the injured Angelica Jones, Vance felt the fuel of anger and grief ripping through his body.  The telekinetic energy had tattered the suit that he wore, and the glow from the hero filled the dimly lit Knowhere like a miniature sun.

 

The Witness turned to see.

 

“Boy, this does not concern you.  It would be wise if you …” Thanos began, but he was unable to finish his threat and the shield once again was telepathically hurled at him, drilling him directly in the over-exaggerated maw.  As it returned once again to the hands of Vance Astro, the one time Guardian and Avenger screamed a guttural howl, and he rushed the Titan.  Never before had Vance Astro felt the power coursing through his mind as he did now, and he would have given anything if this had remained inside.  But it was out now.  Astro pounded against Thanos with blow after blow, one moment from the shield, another from a tk blast, and then even with his bare fists.  The berserker rage consumed him, repeatedly pounding Thanos with an intensity level that few had ever seen.  Even Nelson Kohler’s eyes opened wide in amazement.  He had never seen anything like this before.

 

Thanos backed away from the onslaught, but Vance Astro was undeterred, raining blow after blow upon the body of Thanos.  The Mad Titan slouched back to the ground, confused and perplexed.  With both hands, Vance Astro raised the shield above his head, an image of sending the edge of the shield into Thanos crossed his mind.  In that slight moment, Vance Astro knew he could not…would not kill Thanos.  It wasn’t who he was.

 

However, that second of hesitation was all Thanos required.  Beams of energy came from his eyes, striking Vance Astro square in the chest, propelling him backwards into the cavern wall.  With a grunt, Vance landed hard on the ground.  The grief fueled power had burned itself out like a star that illuminated itself too fast.  Vance Astro was spent.  The battle was done.

 

But he would not surrender.

 

Despite the pain throughout his entire body, Vance jammed the shield into the ground, using it as an aide like a handicapped patient may use a walker, vehemently trying to raise himself from the prone position he found himself in.  But before he could regain his standing, Thanos towered over top of him.  Slipping back down, Vance Astro gripped at the shield like a life preserver.

 

Thanos looked down at the defeated hero and he knew.  He looked for Tivan, who had taken the distraction provided to him by Vance Astro as an opportunity to flee from Thanos’s wrath.  The Collector was nowhere to be found.  Thanos, stern and cold, looked back down at the exhausted Guardian.  A second sideways glance brought into view for Thanos the scene of Pip holding the injured and possibly dying Firestar.  When he refocused his gaze upon Vance Astro, the hero continued his struggle against his body to stand in opposition once again.  Something flared inside the heart of the Mad Titan, a feeling he had not experienced for decades.

 

Thanos turned away from Vance Astro and levitated into the air.  Without a word, Thanos departed the scene of this war.  Vance Astro watched as the villainous psychopath left without delivering the death blow Astro had expected.  It was a sign from Thanos.  A sign of respect.

 

A smile crossed the Witness’s face.  He did not remember the last time he smiled.  He would remember this encounter forever, and now, each time that he faced some horrendous, gruesome tragedy, he had a little piece of happiness to draw upon.

 

The Witness faded away to the scene of the next location of importance.

 

Vance struggled to his feet, his battle suit barely recognizable, but his face full of emotion.  He limped back toward Firestar, dropping to his knees at her side.  Pip picked up the cigar that he had dropped earlier and placed it in his mouth.

 

“If only…” Pip said, but his thought was interrupted by the slight blaze that lit the cigar.  He looked down to see the eyes of Firestar open, and her face smiling.  “Thanks, doll,” he said as he took some deep drags from the cigar, sending the puffs of smoke billowing into the air.

 

“Vance?” Firestar said, as he held her in his arms.  Tears filled his eyes as he held her tight.

 

“Yes, Angel, it’s me,” he said.

 

“Hi.”

THE END

Knowhere to Run

Epilogue

 

“Who knew Vance Astro had that in him?” asked the Champion of the Universe.

 

“He certainly called on some latent ability, what is the earth phrase… ‘dug deep for something extra?'” said the Grandmaster.  “I think he might have been able to kill Thanos.”

 

The pair were discussing the conclusion of the game set up by the Grandmaster.  They watched outside of the floating disembodied head of a long lost Celestial that has come to be known as Knowhere.

 

“Imagine, the universe could have been free of that psychotic if only Vance Astro had enough fortitude to do what needed to be done,” said Champion.  “He was extremely fortunate that Thanos took pity on him.”

 

“Pity?  I believed that Thanos actually enjoyed what he received.  That shows you how sick he is,” said Grandmaster.

 

“I will admit, En Dwi, that bringing the earth female into the fray was a stroke of genius.  Her near death brought the animal out from inside Astrovik,” said the Champion.

 

“Thank you for the kind words, Tryco,” said Grandmaster.  “I have been playing these games for eons now.”

 

“You are a master,” said the Champion.  “What happened to Tivan?”

 

“Our Elder brethren was able to make it to the ship we had provided.  He has countless collections stashed across the universe.  Who knows which one he will retreat to?  With any luck, Taneleer will have learned some modesty from this event.  A humble Collector would be much better than the brash fool that we have been suffering,” Grandmaster said.

 

“What is remaining?” said Champion.

 

“Only one thing.”  The voice that responded to the Champion of the Universe’s question did not come from the Grandmaster.  It came from behind them.  The pair of Elders turned and there stood Thanos.  Extending his arms, bolts of power cosmic exploded from the Mad Titan, crackling into the ship’s power.  “You two are immortal…you should be fine…” as Thanos disappeared.

 

The ship exploded.

 

The East End Irregulars

EEI

 

Victorian England… specifically London 1888

 

Night fell. These days in London were not good ones.

Fumes from the gas filled the streets, the greenish fog, or “Pea Soupers” as the locals called it, threatened to bring the East End to its knees again. It was a commonplace for the population these days. The conditions of this city continued to deteriorate consistently every day. Sewage ran uncontrolled through the streets that were gorged with humanity’s mass. Life was hard.

Jane Sommersby knew this too well. As she strode into the nearest pub with the few coins in her pocket from the previous night’s work, Jane found her way to the bar. She made her way here every night. Such was the life of an alcoholic whore in London.

Her life was not always this way. She had been engaged to a proper gentleman who promised to remove Jane from this horrid city. The life that he promised was filled with love and family and happiness. His untimely death in the stagecoach accident rocked her world, leaving her alone and penniless and striving for survival among the wretched parasites of the city.

“Back again, are ya, dearie?” ‘Polly’ said, moving over to Jane. “Move over, Luv, I’m `ere t’join ya.” The fellow whore bellied up to the bar, dropping more coin on the counter. “My treat, girl.”

Jane’s slight smile was a welcome sight, a sanctuary from the horrors surrounding them. Those smiles were few and far between. The devastating circle of life just continued to roll without any concern with whom it rolled upon. Jane Sommersby knew that, and she appreciated the moment of kindness from her friend. Everyone called Mary Anne Nichols by the nickname ‘Polly,’ though Jane was not sure why. It was just a fact of life.

“Are ye `eadin’ out again tonight?” ‘Polly’ asked.

“Yes,” Jane said softly, drinking the rum that had been placed before her.

“Then you should ‘ave another,” Polly said, signaling to the barkeep. “Lord knows we be needin’ t’brace.”

Polly was a known alcoholic and probably not the best person for Jane to be hanging around with, but Jane was in no position to judge. The Bible … Luke 6:37 said: Judgenot,and ye shallnot be judged : condemnnot,and ye shallnot be condemned : forgive , and ye shall be forgiven. Jane wondered what God’s plan was for her, and would her sins of survival be held against her. She hoped God would understand.

Jane realized that ‘Polly’ was arguing with a man she recognized as Polly’s lodging house keeper. The man was not happy with ‘Polly’ seeking to buy rounds of drinks when her rent was due. Polly dismissed the man as only he could.

“I’ll soon get my doss money. See what a jolly bonnet I ‘ave,” she said, as the man stomped away. Polly’s laughs were the soundtrack to his departure. “One more, Luv, and then out into the night.”

Jane admired Polly’s spunk and her seemingly joy of life, no matter how awful it may have been. Polly’s story of tragedy rivaled that of Jane’s, but she did not let it get her down. She was a good friend. She was a good person.

Polly left the pub into the dark, London night for the final time… Jane would never see her again.

The scuttlebutt had reached the ears of Jane late that very night, as she was finishing with her evening’s assignment. The words chilled her to the bone: Someone has murdered a whore. The chill was not because of any fear Jane had for her own safety. Something told her. She knew.

Jane found her way to the Essex Wharf and the Brown and Eagle Wool Warehouse and Schneider’s Cap Factory, where the body was found. Police shooed her several times away from the scene, but she had hoped to catch one glimpse of the victim… just to relieve the terrible premonition she had brewing within her breast.

Unfortunately, her fears were not relieved. They were confirmed. It was Polly.
Jane could contain herself no longer, and she could not handle the sight of the blood upon the ground. Jane staggered away from the scene, salty emissions watering the path, her matted brown hair flying behind her.

What kind of villain would do something like that to Polly? thought the distraught woman. She had no enemies in the world. Everyone loved her.

Jane rushed to her home, and she threw herself on the broken down mattress, the springs barely bouncing back. Her sobs were lost in the morning’s rising sun.
Reaching into her bed table drawer, Jane pulled out the slightly yellowed envelop. Removing the contents, Jane carefully unfolded the letter.

My dearest Jane,

She re-read the words once more. She had read them hundreds of times since he died. They never made her feel better, but that did not stop her. Those words of love and loyalty did not help now either. But she read them anyway.

A little over a week later, a second victim was found. It was another prostitute. Anne Chapman. Jane had not met her, but she had seen her around a couple of times. Chapman had been butchered. Two separate cuts across her throat. Her intestines had been removed from her abdomen and laid across her shoulder… among other hate-filled atrocities.

The rumors had been flying. Blame was being tossed to the Jews, to the insane, to Americans, to doctors, to demons themselves. Jane was not interested in the rumors. She was only concerned with living. Her priority was surviving in a London world infested by a predator weaving his way through the labyrinthine alleys and paths of the East End. A predator with a newly minted name …

Jack the Ripper.

Slouching into the chair, James Maybrick shuddered; the mild shakes had become common for the Liverpool-born cotton merchant, his hands trembling as they reached into his coat pocket for his red tin box. The medication he found within had long since stopped being effective, but that did not prevent him from swallowing them down with a gulp. Even the not-so subtle signs of arsenic poisoning that he had been exhibiting did not sway Maybrick. He was hooked.

Pulling his cloak and his top hat from his weakened body, an eerie calm had been overtaking him since he had dispatched the last whore. Her blood splattered the outfit he had been wearing, and necessitated his changing at his flat in Whitechapel. He could not be seen with the blood of a dirty whore staining his body. Not when the whore mother was nearby. That adulterous b%@#% would take the knowledge and destroy him, for sure. And that would not be acceptable until his crusade had been completed.

Removing the journal from its hiding place, Maybrick opened to the next page. In his arsenic-induced madness, he felt no concern over placing his thoughts and deeds into an incriminating document here in his own home at Battlecrease House. The cursed witch would never be as brazen as to step foot inside his study. He imagined asserting his will over the woman and her whore master. This was all her fault. The reign of terror that was Jack the Ripper was not necessary. It was Florence’s fault

Beginning to scribble in the old scrapbook he was masquerading as a journal, Maybrick’s hand shook. He hoped that the medicine would take effect soon. He was almost out. He must find more. He could not carry out his mission without them. Maybrick took another couple of his arsenic pills. These must start to work soon.

“Sir Jim,” a voice from the dark of the study rang through Maybrick. The name… Sir Jim… that he sometimes referred himself by felt foreign when spoken by another, but Maybrick did not turn to acknowledge the visitor. He knew who it was. He expected him.

After several minutes, “Go away,” Maybrick finally sputtered, the words barely escaping his lips.

“No, it is not time for me to leave yet, Sir Jim. Or shall I call you Sir Jack? I have to say, I have truly enjoyed the over-the-top coverage from the papers of your escapades. They have turned you into more than just a killer. They surely will make you infamous. I can hardly wait to read the next installment. And those letters to the police… genius! Pure genius!”

“I didn’t write most of them,” Maybrick said.

“Irrelevant. As far as the public knows, you wrote them all!”

Maybrick continued to write in the scrapbook. The memories of the Anne Chapman slaying were still fresh in his head. The warmth of the blood spurting from her throat as the cold steel of his knife sliced through the flesh. The look of fear in her eyes as she realized the days of her torturous existence would soon be ending. Oh, how he wished he had the strength to end the existence of the real villain of this piece. How easy it would be to move down the hallway to her room and put an end to the Ripper’s reign of terror once at for all. Without her, there would be no motive. There would be no need. Jack the Ripper could fade into the night like a creature from a childhood nightmare. But what then would he say to Bobo? Or to his sweet Gladys Evelyn? Surely these children needed their mother. Could he deprive them?

“You are still so lost in thought, James,” the mystery man said. “I truly did choose the proper man for this. We will change London forever. Jack the Ripper will be remembered… long after the names of the whores disappear from the world’s consciousness. Who would miss these dirty creatures?”

The hatred spewed from the man in the darkness as Maybrick slowed his hand. His own anger was subsiding, the arsenic finally making its presence in his body known.

“I see your pills are becoming in short supply,” he said. “I can help with that.”

A white hand reached out, coldly placing another tin filled with arsenic on the desk before Maybrick. The serial killer’s grateful glance toward his accomplice was all the payment he would make. Maybrick had money. He had stature. He had business associates. But none of them understood like this man did. He was as much of a soul mate as any friend could be.

“Remember, Sir Jim,” he said once again, “before you slip off into the escape of dreams, your next target has been chosen for you. It is time. The first two victims were in preparation for the true target. Next time that Jack the Ripper makes an appearance on the streets of Whitechapel, your victim will not be one of convenience. She has a name. You remember… don’t you?”

“Yes,” Maybrick said, his eyes drooping, his head slowly sagging. “Jane Sommersby.”

As Jack the Ripper softly slouched in his chair, the day’s events consumed by his unconscious, the man moved from the darkness, scooped the makeshift journal from the desk into his white hands, and returned it to its hiding place. Someone finding this confession would not do. Not for now.

With his green hair hidden beneath his hat, he did his best to contain the laughter that fought desperately to get out as he stared at the single playing card he grasped in his hand… the Joker. His grin spread, the yellowish tinted teeth invading his pale façade.

“Nighty-night, Sir Jim,” the Joker said.

 

Fear projected the boy from the underground, feet pounding against the ground with a frenzied beat. He could not believe what he had seen, and he had to spread the word.

That, though, could be a problem for Nigel. The ten-year old street waif was renowned throughout London’s East End for his wild imagination and his tendency to stretch the truth, if not outright rip it to shreds. But Nigel knew that he had to make them believe him this time…

Flying onto the street, Nigel saw a group of men working and a constable patrolling the street. He rushed to them.

“Demon!” he exclaimed, breathlessly panting from his sprint. The group looked at the boy.

“Nigel… stop yer bleedin’ wankin’, boy,” said one of the men, used to the boy’s over-exaggerated tales. The hyperbole that the boy was known for was a waste of time.

“No… I mean it this time, guvernor I saw a demon,” Nigel screamed. The fear was real and added to the weight of his words. And then, Nigel said the right words. “It was the Ripper!”

Those five words brought the men to a standstill. This could not be dismissed as one of Nigel’s stories. They could not take the chance. Within seconds, the mob followed the boy, grabbing whatever they could for weaponry as they descended into the cold ground. The assembled both hoped that this was just another story from the boy, and wished that it was not.

The darkness was broken by the slight beams of light from above, but it was still difficult to see. The mob trailed behind Nigel, until the boy came to a sudden stop, thrusting his hand… pointing toward a corner of the tunnel.

“There it is,” Nigel said.

The yellow eyes glowed, standing out in the darkness. The blue elf-like face blended into the blackness as the man crouched with the wall at his back. The assembled mob could not breathe…they could not even gasp. They did have enough air. The creature before them was the stuff of their nightmares.

“My… god… Nigel’s right. It is a demon,” the constable said.

“Bitte…please… I mean no harm,” the demon said, his blue tail flicked like a flag in the wind. The sadness in his eyes revealed misery from a lifetime of tragedy and sorrow. None of the mob could see the pain in the eyes of this being. They weren’t looking for the humanity inside the beast.

Kurt Wagner was not English. He was German. He was not a demon. He was a God-fearing Christian. He was shy and soft-spoken. That did not prevent the short sighted Germans of his home in the village of Hamburg from chasing him with torches and clubs and a blood thirst unrivaled. Kurt escaped with luck. He met a group of gypsies… who took him in… took control of him. Dominated him.

They were not just gypsies… it was a traveling freak show. And they now had their main attraction. He was billed as the demon elf… the Nightcrawler. They toured across the continent of Europe, the Nightcrawler the major draw. Kurt was hidden in a dank, small cage, with people paying their coins for a brief glimpse. It was a disrespectful life. A life that was worse than he expected. It almost made him long for the crowd with their torches. A quick demise was preferable to the day long quietus.

Kurt spent evenings praying to God, praying that He would show a way out of this Hell, out of this new prison that his life had become. If he could be like the others… look like the other… if only he was not a creature… a freak… then he could be free.

His chance came in London. The freak show had been invaded by a religious sect, looking to deliver the country from the freak show’s evil. It was just a matter of time before this invasion turned ugly… and violent, as these men always seemed to do. Kurt found himself freed, and he disappeared into the London fog.

Things had not improved drastically. Hungry, lonely, scared… Kurt retreated into the underground of the East End. The isolation was needed… not wanted. Stealing a Bible from a nearby priest, Kurt read passages as the days passed, searching for a purpose… a reason.

That reason was not found in the angry eyes of the London crowd glaring at the cornered “demon.”

“Please,” Kurt said again to the angry Londoners, “I just vant to be left alone.”

The darkness masked the brick that had been propelled from the crowd. The strike to the temple staggered the Nightcrawler. Blood ran from his forehead, down his face as a second blow, a rock this time, struck him in the head again. His vision blurred, his head spun, his stomach turned as Kurt desperately tried to gain his bearings. Vhy do they always respond to my peaceful requests… my begs for clemency… vith violence? he thought. There was no answer to the questions plaguing him.

“Demon, you shall not kill another woman,” one of the men yelled. Kurt was confused. Had he understood that correctly? Do they believe that he had killed someone?

The mob moved forward, with anything but cooperation on their mind.

Bamf

The cloud of smoke and the odor of brimstone replaced the elf. Kurt Wagner was gone. The crowd gasped in shock. The demon was no longer in their sights.

 

 

He moved through the light in darkness. He was used to that sensation. He had done it his entire life. He found himself now practicing his craft in London having arrived after the death of his father back in the states. This was a new start.

“Well, ‘ello there, barrister,” said the butcher, outside his shop. “ An’ `ow be ye today?”

“I’m good, sir,” he said. “Just heading to the office.”

“Do you need ‘elp, sir?”

“No, of course not,” the barrister said. “I know right where I’m heading.”

The look of admiration on the butcher’s face was obvious to everyone…everyone that is except the barrister. He moved on toward his office like it was second nature. And anyone seeing him would never know that he was blind.

Matt Murdock turned the corner toward his office, reaching the door. Reaching into his pocket for his keys, Murdock heard something. His attention was drawn to the sound. He had really good ears. Moving into the alleyway beside the office, Murdock realized that there was someone on the ground. The man was injured, a slight moan filling the air… almost too slight to be heard. But it was not too slight for Matt Murdock.

It was about a half hour later when the injured man awoke, a bandage placed across his scarred head blotting the blood. The yellow eyes searched the unfamiliar surroundings, trying to understand what had happened.

“What? What happened?”

“Ah, you are awake. Good. There is some tea on the table in front of you,” said Murdock, moving into view. “Be calm, you are safe.”

“Who are you?” the man asked.

“My name is Matt Murdock. I found you outside on the ground. You had been hurt, so I brought you inside,” Murdock said.

“Danke, Herr Murdock,” he said. “My name is Kurt Wagner. Your kindness is much appreciated.”

“Just relax, you are safe here, Kurt,” Murdock said. “What do you remember?”

Kurt’s recollection was fuzzy. He did remember something about a brick and a rock, but he had no idea how he arrived in the alley outside of Murdock’s law office. The memories of the confrontation with the mob creeped back into his head… a memory that he was not ready to shade with this stranger, no matter how kind he had been.

“I’m afraid, mein freund, that I don’t remember much,” he said. “I do not know what happened.”

“There are many superstitious people here in London. I assume someone believed that you were a demon and decided to do something about it,” said Murdock.

“Was?” Kurt said, shocked. Upon awakening, he had realized that Matt Murdock could not see, so Kurt Wagner thought that he could avoid the preconceived notions. For once in his life, Kurt Wagner had felt like he would not be judged. That illusion was shattered.

“I’m blind, Kurt… I’m not stupid. I had to carry you inside. You’ve got a tail. You have three fingers. I may be blind, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t see,” Matt said.

Kurt dropped his head, shame covered him. He had not considered any of that. His head ached from the blows that he had taken, and now his conscience bothered him as well. He hoped that he had not insulted the handicapped man who had helped him.

“I apologize, Herr Murdock,” Kurt said. “I meant no offense.”

“None taken, but please… call me Matt,” said Murdock.

“You are not afraid of me?” Kurt said.

“Should I be?” Murdock said.

“How do you know that I am not… how you put it… a demon?”

“Are you?”

“Nein.”

“I found you clutching your Bible. I didn’t know too many demons that read the scriptures. And I try not to make judgments on people by their appearances, because they are almost always inaccurate. I make judgments on their actions.”
Murdock moved toward the bookcase.

“I mean, if someone looked at me, they would see a blind man… someone helpless. I’ve dealt with people for my entire life that, no matter how good of intentions that they may have had, treated me as if I was helpless because of my blindness. And these people had no idea that I was more capable than they could ever dream of being.”

Murdock executes a perfect backflip, spiraling in the air, and landing, crouched, atop the bookcase.

“See?”

The streets at night were dangerous… downright deadly lately, but Jane Sommersby could not stay inside. She needed to keep working. She needed the money for liquor and food and rent. She knew the order of that was muddled, but the addiction held her tight.

So, despite what had happened to her friend Polly and to Anne Chapman, Jane found herself out on the street making a living. It had been several weeks since the Anne Chapman murder, making the street a little less tense. Jane did not jump every time someone approached her.

What were the odds that she would be the next victim? He was like the boogeyman… just a warning.

The man in the top hat and the long black cloak moved toward her. She could tell by a glance that this man was of good stock. He was not the Jew butcher or the demon that the papers speculated was the Ripper, and Jane needed the work. She smiled at the Dandy Dan as he moved toward her.

It did not take many words for Jane to accompany him. She knew this man was too high brow to be a slasher. This was just business now. Jane was unprepared when he grabbed her by the arm, in the alleyway just off Dutfield’s Yard past Berner Street.

“Jane Sommersby, we need not go any farther,” he said, a cold, murderous stare highlighting his face.

How did you know my name?” she said in a whisper. It was a preferred tactic to use a fake name in her line of business. Whores couldn’t be too careful.

The shining blade of the knife flashed before her face, slashing a slice across her pallid shoulder. Pain flooded her mind. She grasped at the cut, trying to keep the blood from spurting out. A blow from the brunt of the knife sent the whore back into the sewage in the street. Blackness was all she knew. Her last thought was that she would finally be reunited with her love.

Jack the Ripper towered over the fallen whore, knife held tightly in his grasp, his pulse racing and adrenaline exploding in his chest. In his warped mind, he pictured the whore whose fault it was for the Ripper’s reign of terror. Florence Maybrick… every time he dispatched one of these dirty creatures, he saw her face. And his anger was released. He moved toward Jane’s unconscious body for the tête-à-tête… to take out his frustrations.

The flash of smoke and fire above the woman’s body surprised the killer. The blue demon with the long tail stood over the fallen whore, a quick backhand knocking the Ripper away. With the surprise assault, Kurt Wagner held the injured woman in his arms, and they both disappeared.

The Ripper regained his footing, refusing to brush the dirt from his clothes, his eyes darting around the alley. There was no sign of the whore or her rescuer. The anger swelled within him, unable to release his pent up chagrin because of the hindrance of the hero. His wail broke the silence of the night.

“Are you alright, sir?” said Elizabeth Stride, an unfortunate lady of the night entering the alley. The single slice across her neck sent her crumbling to the ground. Wrong place, wrong time. But the timing was wrong for him. He could not finish the rest of his… needs…without being caught. But… he would not be done. Not tonight.

Kurt tenderly laid the woman down on the bed in the room above Murdock’s law firm. Matt had given Kurt this room to stay and hide out from the crowd until he decided what to do. Kurt did not have much. He had the Bible and a few items that were in the room already. His recent discovery of his strange ability… this ability to disappear and reappear in a different place… was disconcerting. Out in the night, Kurt Wagner was seeing the limits of this ability.

Seeing the attack, Kurt decided that he could not stand by and watch the woman be slaughtered. The Nightcrawler intervened.

Jane’s eyes slowly opened, her last memory was an expectation of not opening them again. The blue face was the last thing she expected.

“Am I in Hell?” she asked, calm, as if it was what she expected.

“Nein, fraulein, you are alive and well,” Kurt said.

The fear began to well up inside Jane, now not sure where she was or what had happened. She found herself too scared to scream. This night had gone from strange to surreal.

“Where am I?” she asked.

“You are safe, at the office of mein freund,” Kurt said. “My name is Kurt Wagner. You were in some distress, I am afraid. I was able to get you away from the fiend. I returned to the scene, but unfortunately, it appeared that I was not able to prevent another tragedy,” he said.

“Someone else? He killed someone else?”

“Ja, I am afraid that is so,” Kurt said. “It is a dangerous time.”

“He knew my name,” said Jane. “My real name…”

“You are safe here…” Kurt pauses. He realized that he did not know her name.

“Jane,” she said.

“You are safe here, Jane. I will not let anyone harm you. Lay your head back… close your eyes… secure in the knowledge that no one will threaten you tonight,” said Kurt.

Jane placed her head back on the pillow. Something in his voice made her believe that she truly was safe. His kind, smiling face a stark opposite to the evil she had seen earlier. Yet, this Kurt Wagner looked like a monster and the other man looked like a gentleman. The irony was not lost on Jane as she faded into the arms of the sandman knowing that the demon would protect her.

 

 

As the night transformed into day, James Maybrick returned to his home, a fateful night of ripping across Whitechapel dissolving into his memory. Two victims for the first time since this mission had begun. However, neither of the whores were the intended target. She had escaped. And she had seen him.

The white-faced clown waited for him to return. He had anticipated the news all night, until he had heard the police report: Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes… neither name the one he had wanted.

The Joker waited, prepared to confront Maybrick on his failure as soon as he returned. Seeing Maybrick back at his writing desk, Joker moved into position.

“So…eventful night?” he said, a twinge of anger upon the words. “Two in one night. Quite the record.”

“Yes,” Maybrick said. There was no pride. There was so remorse. It was just a dead shell before him. A shell that was beginning to waste its usefulness.

“You were supposed to have taken care of Jane Sommersby,” Joker said.

“I tried,” he said. “I even sliced her with the knife. But she was saved.”

“Saved? What do you mean?”

“A blue demon appeared from nowhere, just as I prepared to put the finishing touches on her. Then they were both gone… in a flash. You need not worry about her anymore because the devil himself claimed her soul.”

Joker looked at his puppet. The man believed that… or was it the arsenic speaking? Either way, Jane Sommersby still lived and something had to be done.

“She saw you,” Joker started, “so you will not be able to approach her again without her revealing you. And we now have some white knight out there who believes it is his job to save the whores of London. A white knight who looks like a demon,” Joker said. “This is a definite problem.”

Maybrick continued to be focused on his writing. He was no longer listening to the Joker’s speak.

“So I guess I need to move on to Plan B. Something a little more wide spread. I shall catch both Jane Sommersby and her blue demon in my web. Ha Ha Ha ha Ha.”

************************************************** **********
Jane’s eyes gently opened as the light from the window found its way to the bed where she lay. She had slept soundly for the first time in… well, as long as she could remember… certainly since she started this life. A pot of tea, a croissant and a rose sat on a tray beside the bed, awaiting her. She hungrily started on the pastry, trying to remain ladylike, but her hunger was all-consuming. It had been a while since she had eaten. She had gotten used to not eating much.

“Good morning,” the stranger said, startling her.

“Who are you?”

“Be calm. I am Matt Murdock. My friend Kurt brought you here last night. I hear you had a deadly confrontation with the Ripper,” Murdock said.

“Are you blind?” she asked, noticing the manner in which Matt moved around.

“Yes, ma’am, I am. But don’t think that holds me back. In fact, don’t even think about it. I rarely do,” Matt said.

“Where is Kurt?”

“I sent him to get some sleep. He had spent all night standing guard over you and he was ready to collapse when I arrived this morning. He finally agreed when I said that I would wait with you. He got you some breakfast, and he finally dozed off downstairs in the office.”

Jane felt a warm feeling of thankfulness. It had been a long time since someone had worried about her safety. Kurt Wagner was a kind soul. But she could not spend all day here. She had business to attend to. She started to stand up. The new dress laid upon the bottom of the bed. She just noticed it.

“He brought that for you as well. It is a might sight better than the one you are wearing,” said Matt. Jane did not wonder how the blind man could tell about her dress because she was engulfed with the beauty of the fashion before her.

“I cannot accept,” she said, sadly.

“Why not? There are no strings attached, unlike your usual manner of work,” Matt said, drawing her attention. “I know your profession… the Ripper only attacks prostitutes… and I do not believe that he made an error this time.”

Jane turned away from Murdock.

“I should be going,” she said.

“I’m afraid that cannot happen,” Murdock said.

“What?”

“You saw Jack the Ripper. You know what this elusive predator’s face looks like. You are too valuable to return to the streets and make yourself a target. You need to stay here.”

“I cannot stay here… I have a job to do. It may be repugnant to you, but I have to be able to eat… to live. I cannot do that hiding here.”

“I was thinking about that, Ms. Sommersby. I have need of a legal secretary… the paperwork, the filing… none of that are strengths of mine, for obvious reasons. My partner Foggy stayed in the States, and I am afraid that I am lost amongst the piles without him. If I offer you a job and a place to stay, would you take me up on it? Then you could accept the dress as a part of the job… and you could earn it. What do you say?”

“You would hire me?” she said. “I’m just a whore.”

“Kurt seems to think that you are more than just a whore. And I tend to agree. What do you say?”

What could she say? She was being offered a chance to escape the streets, the dangers, the degrading lifestyle. She could not turn it down. And with the Ripper out there knowing that she was a loose end… she would also be safe. At least, as safe as one could be in the East End of London.

“Thank you, Mr. Murdock,” she said. “I accept.”

“Wonderful, but call me Matt, please.”

 

 

Days moved along, with Jane working an honest living at The Nelson-Murdock law firm, protected by Murdock and Kurt. She struggled with the call of the bottle, but she had decided that, as long as she was holding down the legitimate job, she would not heed the temptation of the liquor. She was proud of herself and her decisions, despite being one of the more difficult thing she tried to do.

Kurt was there at every step. He was so sweet to her, and he helped her through the cravings and the demons within her.

Murdock had started heading out at night on the streets of the East End, hunting for the hunter. He had received the description of the Ripper from Jane, specifically those things that others might not think to ask. Smells… feelings… anything that she could remember. Physical description did not help Matt Murdock much.

But Matt found a freedom in the East End. He started on the streets, but he decided that he could cover more ground… be more effective… above it. So the blind man traveled rooftop to rooftop, a bandana wrapped around the upper part of his face to hide his identity.

Kurt had seen Murdock preparing to leave one night. The German elf shook his head at his friend’s seemingly reckless behavior.

“You’re quite the daredevil, aren’t you?” Kurt said.

The name fit. Matt Murdock began referring to himself as the Daredevil when he was out patrolling the night skies. He saved several people from muggings, prevented robberies, and stopped a rape, but he had not come across the Ripper.

Word of the Daredevil began sweeping across the East End. A reputation he had earned as the defender of the downtrodden, protector of the East End continued to spread. Cartoons were drawn in the local papers of a red devil swooping from the sky upon unsuspecting criminals. All the while, Matt Murdock found the publicity funny.

Meanwhile, Kurt and Jane continued to spend time together. Kurt refused to leave her alone, for the fear that as soon as he did, Jack the Ripper would find her and finish what he started. Kurt suspected that his rescue of her had triggered the “double event” as the papers called the dual slayings of 30 September.

Jane, though basically a prisoner, felt more free than she had in many years. Kurt made sure that she never wanted for anything. She had food, conversation, security.

One night, Kurt appeared before Jane, his face a mask of deep thought.

“What is it, Kurt?” she asked, almost afraid to ask.

“May I ask you a question?” he asked, continuing the serious tone. She was worried.

“Of course,” she said. “You can ask me anything.”

“How did you become a…”

He did not want to finish the question, but it was an inquiry that she had expected to come sooner or later. She completed the line.

“A whore?” she said.

“No, I mean…”

“It’s alright, Kurt. That is what I am… I was,” she said, thinking back upon the terrible circumstances that led her to the lifestyle. “A few years back, I was engaged to a wonderful man. Joseph Kuhr was a true gentleman who treated me with such class and dignity. I was always a poor girl, my family struggling, so I did not have much to offer. But all Joseph asked for was my heart. And I gave it to him gladly.”

“What happened?” Kurt said.

“My family died… Mum and Dad… leaving me nothing. I became completely dependent on Joseph. And then he… died,” she said, stumbling through the words. She had loved this man so deeply. Kurt could tell that she did not want to go into further detail. “After that, I had no family, no means to support myself… it was a matter of survival. I did not want to become a whore, but I did not have many options. People do what they have to do to survive. So did I.”

Kurt dropped from his perch, sitting on the bed beside her. He placed his arm around her fair shoulders. She rested her head against his chest. It fit perfectly as if it was there always. The tears she shed were for the loss of the man, and for finally having someone that she could share those feelings of loss with. Someone who would understand and not judge her. She found it hard to believe, but Jack the Ripper’s near murder of her had turned her life around. She was almost grateful to him.

 

With the open files scattered across his desk at Scotland Yard, James Montgomery Falsworth searched desperately for some clue hidden in the details. Something the local law enforcement agencies had missed; something that would allow him to finally bring the ruthless regime of terror to an end. He wanted to end the days of Jack the Ripper.

Scotland Yard had hamstrung Falsworth more than he had hoped when he joined the organization. Their rules and their boundaries kept him from being a successful law enforcement agent. The rules had been so challenging that Falsworth had started doing things his own way. He had begun taking the law into his hands.

He had become Union Jack.

A true patriot to the British monarchy, Falsworth wrapped himself in the British flag, literally. And thus, Union Jack was born. Anything that James Montgomery Falsworth could not handle… or was not allowed to handle, Union Jack could. It was a perfect scenario.

But Jack the Ripper had arrived, and Union Jack was as lost as Falsworth was. So he studied the files, the letters, the handwriting, the crime scene evidence as closely as he could. There had to be something that was missed.

Abberline had been the lead investigator on this case, and he had explored most of the typical areas of investigation. Frederick was an acquaintance, but not a friend. And he didn’t want to work with him either. He certainly couldn’t be trusted with the secret of Union Jack.

But Falsworth was sure that he needed help from somewhere. The reports of the blue demon in Whitechapel that some people were claiming was responsible for the Jack the Ripper murders were unsettling as were the reports of the “Daredevil,” an avenging angel…a vigilante… treating the East End of London as his own personal game of “cops and robbers.” Falsworth worried about what this might mean to a location that England had, apparently, turned its back on. Would this Daredevil be a light amongst the darkness or one more disappointment?

Wishing an answer would jump out at him, Falsworth glanced toward the newspaper on his desk. The story on the page brightened his day. An idea formed in his mind. That could be the answer he was searching for all along. Tucking everything about the Ripper case into the file and grabbing the newspaper, Falsworth bolted from the office. He had a stop to make.

Bottom of Form

 

The evening was quiet. Matt was out, and Kurt was downstairs in the office. Jane appreciated the moment of silence for the rare occasion. She had been very busy working in the law offices, and she was proud at earning the honest wage. Lighting a candle, Jane leaned back on the bed.

Reaching on the table, she found herself holding Kurt’s Bible. Thumbing through it, she found a note tucked inside. It read:

To my lovely little elf, always believe that God has a plan for you. Nina.

“That is from a friend,” Kurt said, surprising Jane. She placed the note back into the Bible and set it down.

“I’m sorry, Kurt. I did not mean to intrude,” she said. “I was just feeling blessed and I was looking to read some of the scriptures. I did not know your note was there.”

“Nina… she was a wonderful woman. She secretly took care of me for a year when I was six,” Kurt said, thinking back. “I have never met a more loving woman. She treated me like few others did… like I wasn’t some monster… but a young child.”
Jane smiled.

“I kept that note with me wherever I would go,” he said. “If things got too bad, I would read it and know that someone had believed in me. If I had a Bible, I made sure it was tucked inside. “Nina taught me how to read the scriptures… she helped me learn English… she showed me that the world had decent people in it as well.”

“I wondered about your ability to read scripture,” Jane said. “You seem to know them so well… better even than I do. Obviously, Nina taught you well.”

“I try to live my life in the word of God, and I try to be as good of a person as Nina was,” Kurt said. “I am afraid that I fall short more than not.”

“What happened to her?” Jane asked.

“The village found out about me… and that she had been teaching me Christianity… and…”

Kurt stopped. The memory was too painful. He did not want to continue. Jane had seen the darkness of society… the wickedness that humans could show… especially when they were afraid or did not understand something. She did not need Kurt to continue. She placed her hand softly on his shoulder.

“Thank you,” she said in a whisper. She was grateful that he felt safe in sharing this with her. They had a bond, and it was growing every day.

 

James Montgomery Falsworth stood outside the door of the room where he had been led by the building’s landlady, Mrs. Hudson. His quest would end inside this room as his request for help would be made. It would not be easy, though. This man was stubborn.

When the door creaked open, Falsworth walked in tentatively, the smell of incense wafting freely. Falsworth noticed the leather case on the table containing a syringe… a special syringe used for injecting the seven percent solution. It had been used recently. It was used when his mind needed to be active because cases were failing to challenge him. That was happening more lately. The room was a scattered mess with newspapers, inventions, experiments and documents everywhere. How could a man who was so brilliant be such a slob?

“Holmes?” Falsworth said, seeing the lump in the corner, a slight wisp of smoke rising from beneath the blanket that completely covered him.

This was the life of Sherlock Holmes. Always an eccentric, Holmes had been even more so since his longtime friend and confidant, Dr. John Watson had married and moved from their apartment on Baker Street. Falsworth had expected to find Holmes like this, but the actual site was still shocking.

“Falsworth!” Holmes exclaimed, shoving the blanket aside and standing up. “Good to see you, sir. It has been quite the while.”

Holmes had replaced the broken and lonely man with another one with energy and vigor in a manner of seconds. Falsworth wondered which of these Holmeses the true face was. Sherlock Holmes was renowned for his disguises. Which one was the disguise?

“Ah, yes it has, Holmes,” said Falsworth, “since that murder over on the St. Katharine Docks.”

“Yes, yes, tricky case, that one,” he said. “It wasn’t long after that case, I suppose, that you took on the identity of Union Jack.”

Falsworth’s mouth dropped open. He shouldn’t have been surprised that the greatest detective alive had sussed out his secret. With Holmes’s incredible powers of deduction, he should have expected it, but he hadn’t. He thought he had done a better job of concealing it.

“Holmes, how on earth did you bloody well know?” Falsworth said, a denial was nothing more than a waste of time and breath.

“The conclusion is elementary, dear sir,” said Holmes, “as clear as a bell. Upon your chin, there is a slight bruise, a bruise that is near healed. A bruise like that comes from a solid blow, as the indication of a fist could be seen. Add to this, the limp that you are attempting to conceal with your left leg. The last published reports of the conflict involving Union Jack reported these very injuries.”

Falsworth had thought he had hidden the limp better than that. No one else had noticed it in the week since the last Union Jack appearance. Of course, this wasn’t just anyone. This was Sherlock Holmes.

“And as well as that, your hair is more depressed along the sides as I have ever seen before. Certainly, this comes from the wearing of a full face mask to hide your identity,” said Holmes. “Of course, I knew the minute that I had heard about this Union Jack that it was you. Why does someone adopt a persona to battle crime? It would only be because they wished to keep their true face hidden while still making a difference in the world…someone who has a reason to wish his identity a secret. Our last conversation ended with your complaints about the Yard and its rules. You fit the exact profile of this vigilante,” Holmes said.

“I see,” Falsworth said, never failing to be impressed with Sherlock Holmes’s amazing deductive prowess.

“And there are only so many possible people with the skill set in London to be Union Jack, really. It is a wonder that everyone hasn’t figured it out yet.”

“I get it, Holmes. I get it,” said Falsworth. “But that is not why I am here. I am in need of your assistance.”

“I am not accepting cases at this time,” he said, turning away from Falsworth.

“I saw the jewel heist that you thwarted in the paper,” Falsworth said, placing the Times article on the table before him. It was the same article that gave Falsworth the idea to seek out Holmes in the first place.

“That was nothing. I never left this room,” he said.

“But Holmes,” Falsworth said, waving the Scotland Yard file before him, “this is the Ripper.”

“Jack the Ripper?” perked up Holmes.

“Yes, the case that has been baffling the police for weeks now,” Falsworth said.

“Of course it has. The London police are incompetent, especially those in the East End,” Holmes said.

“They aren’t near the detective that you are, Holmes,” said Falsworth, stroking his ego. He knew that Holmes responded to flattery, even more so than a fawning high society lady. “And there is more…”

“Yes?” Holmes said, clearly becoming more interested by each word.

“The people of the East End… there have been rumors… witnesses… claiming that there is a blue skinned demon, and they are guessing this demon is the culprit of the Ripper murders.”

“Hogwash,” said Holmes.

“It’s true, they believe it. In fact, there are even statements made by a local constable. It is not just the dregs and the whores,” he said. “And there are reports of this… Daredevil surfacing as well.”

“Why are you wasting our time, Falsworth? We must be off to the East End. This case will not wait for us. Surely, the game is afoot!” Holmes said, grabbing his needed materials and heading for the apartment door. Falsworth smiled. He had his help.

Matt Murdock, in his recent guise as Daredevil, streaked across the rooftops of the East End of London. His search for the elusive Jack the Ripper was underway, but he was not completely focused on the murderer. The Daredevil was looking to protect all of the overcrowded, poor and despised populace of the London area. If no one else would protect them, Daredevil would.

The laughter stopped Daredevil in his tracks. He had not heard such an insanely crazed laugh before, let alone on the rooftops of London. Something unexpected was about to occur.

“You must be the Daredevil,” the laughing voice said, as a half-naked man, with yellow skin and green hair stood before the Daredevil. The large red mane of fur draping from his shoulders blew in the wind of the night. “I was hoping to run into you.”

Beneath the mask of the Daredevil, Matt Murdock’s enhanced senses were always working. And they were telling him that this was someone that he knew.

Jack Ryder was a newspaper man that Murdock knew back in the States. Ryder was outspoken and loved to cause trouble with his stories…so much so that he had been “reassigned” by several newspapers. Murdock did not know that Ryder was in London. Matt wondered if she had come with him.

“I am the Creeper,” he said, brazenly, boldly, “and I have arrived in London to help the down trodden and the weak. The madness of this city… I am familiar with it. And only one as mad as I can approach it, deal with it, and solve it.”

Standing as if he were ready to pounce, the Creeper laughed again, terrible sounds rarely heard outside the walls of the sanitariums. Matt knew immediately that this man was not the same man he once knew. Something had happened to Jack Ryder.
“How long have you been here?” asked Daredevil.

“Time is irrelevant. I am here now. That is all that matters. And the tragic story of this town will change. Good day,” he said, springing from the rooftop and disappearing into the maze of the city. Daredevil listened to the departing fiend, wondering what this bizarre newcomer had in mind. Daredevil followed the path taken by the Creeper, in search for an answer to that question.

With Daredevil’s departure, Sherlock Holmes and Falsworth came from their hiding places.

“You see, Falsworth, I told you that staking out the rooftops was the way to begin.

This … Creeper is not the blue demon you spoke of?” Holmes said, phrasing it in the form of a question, though Falsworth knew he wasn’t asking.

“There seems to be some bloody odd characters finding their way to the East End,” said Falsworth.

“Did you notice the way the Daredevil looked at the yellow beast?” questioned Holmes. “That should give us a clue to his identity, as unbelievable as it is.”

“The Creeper said he wanted to help people. His words were that of a hero,” said Falsworth.

“Did you believe him?” Holmes asked.

“No, there was something he was not saying,” he said. “He definitely had an ulterior motive.”

“Good show, Falsworth,” said Holmes. Falsworth started to feel that he had suddenly been cast as a replacement for Dr. Watson in this story. He was not a sidekick. He was the Union Jack. “Undoubtedly, Daredevil heard the same tone in the voice, which would account for his following the Creeper.”

“Do you believe that the Creeper has dastardly plans?” said Falsworth, preparing to change into his Union Jack outfit.

“No, not dastardly, but definitely self-serving. And he did not sound particularly sane. That could be part of his performance, though,” said Holmes, “part of the package the Creeper is selling.”

“What now?” asked Falsworth.

“I believe I know where we should go next,” said Holmes, lighting his pipe.

 

The morning was busy at the London division of the Nelson-Murdock’s East End law firm.

It was going to get busier.

Jane updated the most recent case Matt Murdock had accepted. He didn’t like to refuse anyone in need, and most everyone in the East End of London was in need. Matt was always trying to help. She knew that first hand. He and Kurt had transformed her life from that of an alcoholic whore destined to be murdered by Jack the Ripper into that of a respectable legal secretary. She owed them more than she could ever repay.

Not that the days were easy. She was still, basically, hiding out in the law firm, afraid head out on her own, the specter of Jack the Ripper looming mightily over her life. She was one of the few surviving women to have seen the true face of the killer, and thus, she was in danger. Yet, with Kurt with her, she did not feel in danger. In fact, she had not been this happy… well, for a long time.

When the flowing, silvery white haired beauty strolled through the office doors, placing her long, luscious legs step by step on the wooden floor, even Jane stopped to take notice. Matt Murdock could not see the vision entering his offices, but he knew exactly who it was.

“Felicia,” he said with a smile.

“Matthew, you are as amazing as ever,” she said. “Come here, lover.”

Felicia Hardy kissed Murdock on the cheek, tenderly bringing back the memories of days past. Days when the feel of this curvaceous creature would be the final thing Matt Murdock felt in the night and the first thing in the morning.

That was until he came along.

“Surprised to see me, Matthew?” she asked.

“Of course,” he said.

He lied. He wasn’t. He had thought the possibility existed since he came across the Creeper last night while on his Daredevil patrol of the East End. Any surprise was ended by that chance encounter.

“Felicia,” said Jack Ryder, following behind her. “Well, Matt Murdock… how have you been?”

Ryder thrust his hand out, forgetting that Murdock could not see the offering.

Embarrassed, Ryder nearly redrew the hand, but he was more surprised than anyone in the office when Murdock firmly grasped his hand in return.

“I am well, Jack,” said Matt, “I hope you are treating Felicia well.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Felicia said, with a near purr.

Jane could sense the tension in the air coming from Matt. It was the tension that only came from a former lover… someone who still had unresolved feelings.

“What brings you to London?” Matt asked.

“Jack has been working in England for several weeks now. His paper sent him here to find details on the Ripper case,” said Felicia.

“And this area has suddenly exploded in strange characters…rumors of a blue demon, someone calling himself Daredevil, and now another bizarre being named the Creeper,” said Ryder. “The East End is where everything is happening. These are exciting times indeed.”

Matt wondered if that was the reason Ryder was here. A story… one that he could milk for months. The exploits of this Creeper would be easy to chronicle since, as Matt Murdock had discovered, Jack Ryder was the Creeper.

“What are the nights like around here?” asked Felicia.

“Dangerous,” Matt said.

“Just how I like it,” said Felicia.

The office door swung open and two men confidently strolled in. Murdock turned to the sound. He could hear the gasp from Felicia. In his years with Felicia Hardy, Matt could never remember her being taken aback.

“Good morning,” one of the men said.

“You… you’re Sherlock Holmes,” Felicia stammered.

“Yes, I am,” Holmes said.

 

“It is an honor to meet you, Mr. Holmes,” said Ryder, pushing his way past Matt Murdock, and extending his hand toward the detective.  “I would love to do an interview with you some time for my paper.”

Holmes nodded at Ryder, and moved on into the office.  Falsworth followed closely behind.

“Is this Dr. Watson, I presume?” Ryder said.

“No,” Falsworth said.  “I am not Dr. Watson.”

“This is Investigator James Montgomery Falsworth of Scotland Yard,” Holmes said, quickly introducing him, “but we do not have a lot of time to waste.  I believe there are some people that we need to talk to in this office.”

Holmes moved over toward Jane.

“Hello, ma’am,” Holmes said.  “I believe you have some information for us.”

“What?” Jane said.

“You were attacked by Jack the Ripper on Sunday 30th of September 1888, correct?” he said.

“Uh,” Jane said.

“What’s going on here?” Murdock said.

“And then you were rescued by a blue demon,” Holmes said.

“Jane, you do not have to say anything,” said Murdock.

“Why do you not want Ms. Sommersby to help us, Mr. Murdock?” asked Holmes.  “Is there something you want to hide?”

“No,” Murdock said.  “What would we have to hide?”

“Perhaps we should take this questioning to the Yard instead,” Holmes said.

The burst of smoke and the smell of brimstone filled the room, as Kurt appeared between Holmes and Jane.

“She will not be going anywhere,” Kurt said.

Holmes slyly smiled.  He knew he would draw out the demon by targeting the woman.  He had deduced it.

“Let’s stay calm now,” said Falsworth.

“We are calm, James.  I just wanted all of the players to be here,” Holmes said.  “And…”  Holmes looked at Kurt with uncertainty.  “You are?”

“My name is Kurt Wagner.”

“And Mr. Wagner is part of this case.  I saw him watching the doorway of the office when we entered, and I don’t want there to be any secrets among us.  Isn’t that right, Union Jack?”

Falsworth looked at Holmes with an indignant expression.  With a shake of his head, he removed his coat, revealing his Union Jack costume.

“And we also have the Daredevil,” said Holmes, pointing to Murdock, and then turning back to Ryder, “and the Creeper.”

“The Creeper?” Ryder said, legitimately appearing confused.  “The Creeper is not here.  Matt is Daredevil?”

“So the games are over,” said Felicia, taking an activator from her purse.  “Let’s put the cards on the table.”

“Who are you, Miss?” Falsworth asked.

“I am the Black Cat,” she said, with a seductive smile on her face.

“Interesting,” said Holmes.

Felicia pressed the activator, and Ryder began convulsing.  In a flash, the newsman was gone, and in his place was the yellow skinned Creeper.  Seeing Felicia, the Creeper skirted over to her.

“Well… hell-o there beautiful.  Where have you been all my life,” he said, giggling insanely.

“He doesn’t realize that he is the Creeper,” said Felicia.  “It’s a complicate story, but Jack Ryder…”

“Jack Ryder… what a feeble minded freak.  I can’t stand that guy,” Creeper said.

“There you go,” she said.

“So with everyone here now,” said Holmes, “we can decide what we need to do to capture Jack the Ripper once and for all.”

 

 

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She stood in the doorway of the law firm… the door having just flung open. The Japanese-born woman stared past the assembled heroes as if there was nothing behind her eyes. Her tattooed face was unresponsive, but there was an air of knowledge shown by the mysterious woman.

“Hello?” asked Matt Murdock, though blind, he knew the arrival of another person. And he could sense the shift in the tides.

Sherlock Homes and the man Holmes revealed as Union Jack had just made a grand entrance, outing the secrets of those in attendance: Matt Murdock was Daredevil, Jack Ryder was Creeper, Felicia Hardy was Black Cat, and Kurt Wagner had hidden here…reveal after reveal.

And then she showed up… without herald… without proclamation… she was just here. She did not answer Murdock’s greeting. However, there was one in attendance who recognized the enigmatic woman.

“Izanami?” Jane said.

The woman turned to Jane Sommersby, and she moved to her friend.

“Izanami, what happened to you? What is that on your face?” Jane asked.

“It is the Nightmask,” she said, finally speaking. “I have news of the utmost importance to tell you.”

Izanami Randall was one of the few whores in London’s East End that Jane considered more than an acquaintance. She was kind and sweet and really out of place in the lifestyle. But this was a different Izanami. She was colder. She was withdrawn. She was now special.

“I awoke from a dream this morning as you see me now. From where the Nightmask came or how it came to me is a mystery …not for now. What I saw is a much more pressing problem.”

The words came forth from Izanami, casting dread to all within earshot.

“A man beneath a hat and a cloak, leading Mary Jane Kelly inside a room… a brutal… sickening butchering … as savage a slaughter as has ever been seen…”

“The Ripper has struck again?” Holmes said, placing more stock in what the foreteller was saying than the others expected. His interest brought a new level of creditably to what the woman was professing.

“Yet, this was not the most disturbing section of the dream… the images of the slaughter was… interspersed with another… place. One that was connected…A white faced man… clown-like, preparing something far worse,” Izanami said.

“What could be worse than the Ripper?” asked Kurt.

“Something more… widespread… than the murder of an individual woman,”

“Excuse me,” said Falsworth, “but are you insinuating that this clown and the Ripper are working together?”

“That’s elementary,” said Holmes, “what better way to distract the police than with another Ripper murder?”

“And that distraction will be used for the main plot. The clown wants the East End… the entire population of the East End… to die,” she said.

“How is that even possible?” asked Felicia.

“He has a gas… a gas that fells all those in its path… and he is preparing to unleash this gas upon the East End,” she said.

“Where is he? Where is this clown?” asked Murdock.

“The Tower.”

They did not need anything else. A group that had tentatively formed to confront the impending danger of Jack the Ripper had found a threat more deadly…more insane … than any of them could have imagined.

“Could you stay here with Jane?” Kurt asked, turning to Izanami. A silent nod of her head confirmed that she would.

“Be careful Kurt,” Jane said, placing a hand on his chest.

“Ja, I will,” he said.

The group departed the law firm, securing masks into place as this combined crew moved into the world for the first time as a unit. The lives of thousands rested in their hands from this mysterious clown. Reasons were not discussed. Motives were not important. That was for the post crime. This was a preventative attempt to keep the crime from happening. A proactive approach. Jane watched from the window as the group departed. The woman now known as Nightmask placed her outstretched arm on Jane’s shoulder.

“This is not where you need to be, Jane Sommersby. Destiny does not want you held up, hidden away,” said Izanami. “This entire situation has been about you from the beginning, and you must be there at the end. Come with me.”

Approaching the Tower just off the Thames, the group of heroes could see what the “clown,” as Nightmask had put it, was planning on doing. The massive balloon could be seen for miles across the East End, slowly expanding into the mid-morning air. The group pushed themselves toward the Tower. Questions about how this could have happened would be saved for later… because, assuming Nightmask was correct, this “clown” had evil intentions, and time was their enemy.

Moving through the Tower, the stench of death surrounded them as the bodies were littered from wall to wall. The warped smiles that stretched across the victims’ faces chilled them all. What kind of monster were they dealing with? This massacre made the Ripper case that initially brought this crew together look like a day at the park. Innocents scattered everywhere… their only crime… being in the way.

Arriving at the Tower, the group came busting through the entrance. Daredevil, Nightcrawler, Black Cat, Creeper, Union Jack and Sherlock Holmes moved into position.

The white faced, green haired man stood just outside of the balloon’s basket, as several henchmen scurried about the roof. The Joker noticed the arrival of the heroes.

“Well, well, welcome to the freak show,” he said, a cold laugh following. “It certainly appears that the freaks are well represented.”

“This is the end of the line, clown,” said Daredevil.

“Please… call me Joker,” he said, “and that statement is truer than you know. This disgusting berg will soon be no more… the end of the festering boil on the ass of London.”

“You can’t do that,” said Union Jack, positioning himself for a rush. “Why would you cause such unneeded suffering?”

“Suffering? Don’t be a fool, Union Jack. London won’t even mourn. The East End has become an embarrassment to the Empire with its dregs and whores… a place about where parents warn their children. These people were pushed here by the respectable people because this is where they belong… and now they will get what they deserve,” Joker said.

“There appears to be something more to this than you are saying,” Holmes said. “You are hiding pain… more of a personal scar…what did the East End do to you?”

“Save your parlor tricks for those who may be impressed by them, Holmes,” Joker said. “I am only speeding up what is destined to happen anyway. These people are slowly dying in their filth and their decay. Their amoral lives are lived without any concern for anyone else… their lives consumed by decadence and perversion. I am truly doing them a favor ending their misery. Men, take care of them.”

The henchmen rushed at the heroes, engaging them with fists and kicks. Joker turned back to see how much longer he had to delay until the balloon was ready for flight. The canisters of poison awaited the trip already loaded inside the basket.

“My…God.” Jane’s voice cut through the air, drawing the attention of the Joker. Nightmask stayed back out of the way of what she felt had to happen. It was fate.

“Joseph?” she said, not believing what she saw before her. Her love… her fiancé… the man whose death sent her spiraling into the void of the East End and a life of
whoring and alcoholism… Joseph Kuhr stood before her, alive… if not well.

“Ah… Jane… how are you, my dear?” Joker said.

“You…you’re alive… but what… what has happened to you?” Jane stuttered. The man she remembered did not look like the abomination before her.

“I was just reborn. I was made better,” he said.

“How?”

“It doesn’t matter how. All that matters is that I fought to stay alive… despite the way I looked… Each day I fought the desire to end the suffering inside my heart. I struggled… and battled to find my way back to you. And what did I find when I returned? A whore… turning tricks in the gutter,” Joker said, moving closer to the shocked woman. “I endured pain… became a freak…a monster… only to return to your arms… and you were in the arms of… countless men!”

The anger in his voice continued to amplify as he pulled a dagger from his coat.

“This has all been about you, Jane. You couldn’t have the decency to die when the Ripper came for you… no… you had to be rescued… just to continue to taunt me with your adulterous existence. So now this will all be on your head…all of these deaths will be because you are nothing more than a faithless b**ch!”

Joker raised the dagger and plunged it downward at Jane. But his blow did not find its mark in her chest. The sound made was “BAMF” and the blue demon appeared between Joker and Jane. The blade dug deep into the upper chest of Nightcrawler.

“Kurt… no!” Jane screamed, seeing Nightcrawler taking the assault intended for her.

Kurt slumped on the roof, as she cradled him in her arms. The Joker noticed the expression on her face and he knew.

“You’re in love… with this creature?” he said, almost hurt. Joker pulled two bottles of gas from his pocket. “Let’s get this underway… shall we?”

With that, he tossed each bottle in opposite direction off the Tower. The heroes knew the crowd had assembled below watching what was happening; those bottles were targeted for those innocents.

Union Jack, latching his grappling hook in place, threw himself off the tower, diving for one of the bottles, and The Creeper, sans hook, followed suit on the other side. Joker smiled at the heroism of them.

“Two down, I guess,” he said, running over to the balloon. In a moment, the balloon began floating into the sky.

“Matt!” exclaimed the Black Cat, kicking the henchman away from Daredevil, freeing him up for the final chance to stop the lunatic. Daredevil sprinted full speed, launching himself into the air, catching one hand on the basket. Dangling from the balloon as it rapidly ascended into the East End sky, Daredevil struggled to maintain his grip. Black Cat and Sherlock Holmes had finished the henchmen just in time to watch the balloon float away out of their range.

“Good luck, Matt,” Black Cat whispered, rushing over to see what fate had befallen her love. Holmes attempted to see what aid he could provide for the wounded Kurt.
The Creeper had gone into a dive and caught the falling bottle, spun himself around, and pushed off the side of the Tower. This athletic maneuver sent him over the Thames. Cradling the bottle to his chest, Creeper crashed into the water awkwardly as the resulting water splash was propelled into the air. Black Cat watched the surface of the Thames desperately searching for any sign that the Creeper had survived. The gulp of air filled his lungs as he reached the surface of the water, allowing Cat to release the air she had kept inside. He had made it… as Creeper held the undamaged bottle in the air.

Union Jack had had an easier time. Hooking his grappling hook to the top of the Tower as he had gone over had allowed him to catch the bottle and brace for the tautness of the line. He was climbing up the side of the Tower as the balloon floated away. He could see Daredevil struggling to stay in contact.

Joker looked over the side at the dangling hero. His laugh echoed across the East End.

“You are truly a fool,” he said. “Why would you risk your life for these cretins?”
“Because no one else will,” he said.

“Then you shall die with them,” Joker said, reaching down trying to knock Daredevil from the basket. Daredevil swayed away from the Joker’s punches, switching hands as he avoided the blows. The clown reached back into his bag of tricks, pulling out a Billy club. He swung the club at Daredevil. “Ha ha ha ha ha!”

“What a good idea,” Daredevil said, reaching up with his free hand and grabbing the Billy club in mid-swing. The grab threw Joker off balance, and the clown tumbled from the basket. Joker held tight to the Billy club, hanging from it as Daredevil, who hung from the basket with one hand, held the club with the other. The force on Daredevil’s shoulder was a terrible strain… a tearing sound was plain. Daredevil screamed in pain as the Joker was suspended below him. “Hold on!” Daredevil yelled. Joker laughed again as the Billy club slipped through the clown’s fingers.

The Joker plunged from the skies… laughing all the way. He crashed through the wooden docks below and into the water, scattering the witnesses who had been watching the mid-air struggle. The laughter had stopped.

Daredevil pulled himself into the balloon, looking down over the city he had sworn to protect whether it appreciated it or not. This was now his home.

Outside 221B Baker Street, the group of heroes had assembled after they incinerated the dangerous toxin the Joker had planned on using to murder the entire population of the East End. The Joker’s body was not recovered, but police believed that he had washed away into the Thames and did not expect to ever find it.

Kurt had a knife wound, and Daredevil had had his shoulder torn from its socket, but both men survived with the knowledge that they had done something important. That they had brought down a dangerous megalomaniac and saved thousands.

Homes had looked into the past of “Joseph Kuhr” finding that he was not the gentleman that Jane had believed him to be. There was no record of a “Joseph Kuhr” showing that it was nothing more than an alias. However with his death, what he had planned prior to his disappearance… or what exactly caused his transformation… would remain forever an unsolved mystery. And as for unsolved mysteries….

The fifth murder of Jack the Ripper was the most horrific anyone had seen, just as Nightmask had said. The murder was committed with such ferocity that the police were unsure what to do. Holmes, however, believed that we had seen the last of the Ripper. He had speculated that such a release of rage could very well exorcise the demons within the man. There was certainly no way to escalate any further. And with his partner in crime feeding the fishes in the Thames, Jack the Ripper would fade into the collective memories of Londoners.

“However, if the Ripper ever brandishes his blade again,” said Holmes, “the East End Irregulars will be there to put an end to his madness.”

SIX MONTHS LATER

The doctor exited the room approaching Florence Maybrick. His somber face told the woman what she needed to know. What she already knew. She was about to become a widow.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Maybrick,” the doctor said. “If you have anything left to say to him, you may want to do that soon.”

Holding the brown covered scrapbook, Florence said, “We have already said everything that we needed to say to each other.”

The confession was complete, and Florence Maybrick would protect that secret for the rest of her life. She would not allow her children to know that their beloved father was an infamous monster. Nothing would ever cause that secret to cross her lips.

James Maybrick lay in his bed, dying of arsenic poisoning, his conscience plagued by the evil deeds he committed. The insanity that caused the birth of the Ripper was quelled by the anger released during the murder of Mary Jane Kelly. The removal of her heart was the final horrendous act. Plus, his co-conspirator was gone… or was he?

The white faced man moved close to the bed, his marionette reclined with the strings removed. Kindly placing the pale hand on the dying man’s shoulder, the Joker smiled, admiring his final handiwork. It was not easy for someone to be poisoned by arsenic after having used it for as many years as Maybrick had. It took a lot of the substance to finally get the job done.

“Fear not, Sir Jack… my friend… your death, however tragic, will serve a noble end. I have already set the wheels in motion. She will be blamed for your death… so from beyond the grave, you shall have the final vengeance against your own personal whore. Indeed, you shall have the last laugh. Good bye, Jack the Ripper. Godspeed.”

The Joker’s laugh faded into the darkness of the room as James Maybrick took his final breath.

End

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