Sunday, 01 September 2019 02:00

The Nefarious Three (Part 2)

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A Second Generation Whateley Universe Adventure

The Nefarious Three

By Bek D Corbin

 

Part 2

 

For the record, my first thought as my brain went back online was ‘It worked?’

My second thought was ‘something’s wrong’. And that was a purely visceral conviction. When it registered that I should look around to see what was wrong (gimme a break- I’d just been scrambled and unscrambled), I saw the Artful Dodger looking at me with a ‘wtf?’ gawp. And just past her, jumping around gleefully and, I kid you not, doing a jig was-

- the Artful Dodger.


“What’s THAT?” I asked, pointing at the second Dodger, “And where’s Doc?”

It only connected for me that I was speaking in a much higher register when I asked about Doc. And I noticed that the hand pointing at the second Dodger was smaller, more delicate- and wearing a leather climbing glove, like the Dodger was wearing.

Feeling like I’d been hit on the head with a sock full of rocks, I looked at my hands. I wasn’t wearing my Belphegor Services Goon uniform. I wasn’t wearing a mask. I was wearing a leather longcoat, and looking down…

oh crap.

It says something about the day I’ve been having, when my most cherished dream gets handed to me on a silver tray, and my reaction is ‘oh crap’.

I felt my face, and sure enough, my face was as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and I just passed a shaver over my face this morning. I looked at the minx doing handsprings, and said, “Doc?”

Okay, I’ve sort of scrimped on describing the Dodger. But since Doc looks exactly like her now, and I seriously suspect that I’m in the same boat, it might be called for. The Dodger rocks the ‘minx’ look, with a shot of the ‘Tomboy’ look, and maybe a jot of ‘Feline’. She was a little too curvy for the ‘girl gymnast’ kink, but was definitely built for agility and speed. She wasn’t working Dickens’ Artful Dodger’s look that hard. She had a draping overcoat, but that was about it. She’s swapped the trademark stovepipe hat for a flat leather driving cap, she wore a pair of mirrored ‘sunglasses’ up on her head that were probably crammed with sensors, her vest looked armored and utilitarian, and her trousers looked damn near painted on.

The Dodger’s face was your basic ‘cute minx’ with a delicate face, upturned nose, wide gray sloe eyes, dramatic cheekbones and a mouth that seemed born to smirk. She wore artistically applied smudges here and there that broke up the conformation of her face just enough to confuse quick ID systems. Not the look that I’d have picked for myself but- dammit, I have more important things to worry about right now!

“Slim!” Doc ran up to me and gave me a huge hug. “Isn’t it GREAT? MY FEET DON’T HURT! It’s been years since my feet weren’t giving me hell!”

The Dodger was giving us this ‘are you guys nuts?’ look. I explained to her, “He wasn’t always that large. Super-science was involved, and his feet and knees have been bugging the hell out of him for years.”

“And my back. And kidneys. And my heart. And my liver. And lungs. And-”

“And a whole mess of massive hurt that he got when that fucking Raven used him as a rock’em sock’em robot,” I wound up for him, er, her.

“You’re still taking this very well,” she pointed out.

“Hey, I’m not a quivering mass of DNA-flavored Jell-O,” I pointed out. Then the nebulous worry that was nagging me resolved into crystal clarity. “CRAP!” I rushed over to the control panel and checked it out. “CRAP!”

“You already said that.”

“The teleporter used your template to re-create us,” I explained. “Which is something that happens in badly written Star Trek fanfic, but in real life? Why do I think I’m me? Howcome I didn’t rez back into existence thinking that I’m the Artful Dodger? CRAP! It didn’t store our templates! I didn’t wipe the template, and the buffer didn’t acquire any new templates while yours was still in there!” That prompted a question: “You wiped the template?” I asked the Dodger.

“Yes!”

“Why?”

“It was fucking obvious! You’re supposed to be these big tech-heads, why didn’t YOU think of it without my telling you?”

“Because it follows simply that the buffer would automatically empty once there was a successful restoration,” I pointed out. “Even with Belphegor’s massive arrogance, that’s such a basic safety… oh… crap…” I quickly checked the panel. “CRAP!” I pulled myself up and looked at the very top of the console. There was a semi-covered cache at the top of the console. An EMPTY cache. “CRAP!”

“You keep saying that. What’s the matter?”

“Belphegor! Now it makes sense WHY he had such a dangerous thing as his link between his two bases! It’s a TRAP!”

“What are you talking about, Admiral Akbar?”

“That slot there! According to the control panel, that’s where the pattern stabilizer is supposed to be, the thing that makes sure that the restoration is complete and stable! Without it, we’re unstable!”

“er, ALL of us?” the Dodger asked. “I mean, I can see you guys being in trouble, y’know, the ‘Xerox Effect’, and being copies and maybe copies of a copy, but I’m the original!”

“Oh, we’re in more trouble than you are,” I assured her. “Doc more than me; hey, I displaced maybe 40 pounds into the never-never, but she lost over 200 pounds! But you ARE in trouble- think about it: you’re not stable at the molecular level. You may not be having any problems now, but in a few months? Maybe a few Years?”

The Dodger did a classic ‘I Love Lucyeeewww

“BUT, it’s not as bad as it might be,” I assured her. “First of all, Belphegor has a commendable commitment to safety- his own, if no one else’s. And he never passes on a chance to twist the screws. If we can get that missing stabilizer component, all we have to do is put it in there and run ourselves through again. The stabilizer should, well, stabilize us. Belphegor is simply too chickenshit to have something like this laying around, when he might conceivably get screwed over by it.”

The Dodger gave an amused snort and said, “Sounds on the money. You know Belpho pretty well.”

“We used to work for him. We came here to dip into his inventory, and… things got really involved.”

“Oh?” the Dodger perked up, the light of acquisitive greed in her eyes. “You know where Belpho keeps the good stuff?”

“Not the point,” I said sternly. “Look, Dodger, you seem like a reasonable sort. Tell you what: looking like this, no matter what happens, we’re gonna get mixed up in your mess and vice-versa, so why make things harder on each other? We know how this place is laid out, I know the Security, and we have a virtual friend who doesn’t mind shafting Belphegor. And you are a LOT more experienced with this body that we are. So, let’s keep it simple: First, we find the stabilizer and use it on ALL of us, no stupid backstab games. Then, we nab Ulrike, and what you do with her is your business. If we haven’t found Wheels- oh, that’s the blonde who took the zap gun away from Ulrike and went running off immediately afterwards- if we haven’t found Wheels by that time, we go find her. Then we all load up as much resalable goodies as we can carry, and we get the fuck OUT of here.”

The Dodger kicked back, folded her arms across her perky chest and visibly chewed it over for a moment. Then, proving that she had, as suspected, taken a level in wiseass, tweaked my cheek and smirked, “Now how can I say ‘No’ to a face like that? How DO Men say no to such a sweet, innocent angel-face?” Then she groped my ass, and said something about always thinking that she had a tight ass, but it was nice to have objective proof. Seeing that she was pushing her luck, she said, “Okay, fun’s fun, but how can we find that stabilizer? I mean, how do we even know who has it?”

Doc smiled confidently back at her, “NOT a worry. As she said, we have a friend on the inside, who should know exactly who took it and where they are. And where Ulrike and Wheels are, for that matter. So? We have a deal?”

“Deal.” She stuck out her hand and Doc pumped it, and we had a deal. Yeah, I know, it’s a little Playground Rules, but really, a sad amount of ‘Kidthink’ runs through the Criminal Mentality.

“Okay, let’s see if we can get CASPAR, or if MELCHIOR’s still playing games.” I reached into my pocket- -and it was the Dodger’s pocket, and there wasn’t anything in it. “CRAP!”

“You keep saying that.”

“My Phone! My Gun! The PFGs! The Grimoire! The Bottle! All my stuff, it’s GONE!”

“Sorry, Slim,” Doc commiserated. “Apparently, all that went off to wherever that handtruck- and all my extra pounds- went off to.”

“You’re more upset about losing your phone than your Johnson?” Artie asked me with a ‘what’s going on here?’ lilt to it.

“Hey, that Raven was bound into that phone!” I pointed out. “I have NO IDEA what happened to it or what that buzzard is up to! And I didn’t do a very good job of binding that thing! AND the book that I used to bind it is gone! There goes my profit margin for this entire cluster fuck!”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that…” Doc murmured. “Still, losing those… hah?” Doc was looking puzzled into her hand, where the three power gems were glowing. She quickly tucked that hand back into the pocket and pulled out her phone. And then her PFG. And her Agonizer. And her BFG. “HAH?” she honked in abject confusion.

The Dodger massaged the bridge of her nose. “Okay, normally, I don’t explain my powers very much- like, at ALL- I mean, that ‘Let me stop in the middle of a felony to explain my background, motivation and SOP’ bit? Who does that?”

“Sadly,” Doc and I said in perfect chorus, “guys we’ve worked for.”

Dodger shot us a weird look and sighed. “Okay, I’m a mutant. But beyond preterhuman levels of speed, savvy, cute, daring and raw COOL, my primary mutant trait is that I’m what’s called a ‘Warper’. I have the ability to bend the very fabric of space. Now, some Warpers do that and teleport, move immediately from one place to another. And some can warp things so that they’re in two places at the same time. That’s not my thing. I create a ‘shell’ that sort of… avoids contact… with everything else. My ‘Artful Dodger’ thing is that shell keeps people from hitting me while I beat the crap out of them. Believe me, those first few months where I was figuring that out were a nightmare! Besides the ‘no touchee’ thing, I can use the shell to sort of ‘skate’ along the ground, put some real bounce in my jumping and some real knockback in my punches. AND- here’s where you should give a shit- I can ‘pocket’ stuff, just stash it away that’s… somewhere else… ‘pocket space’ or whatever scientists call it.

“What I think happened is that all of your stuff that you had on you that wasn’t, y’know, part of your body and just kicked to the curb when I got overwritten onto your code, got sluffed off into pocketspace.”

keeewwwlll!” Doc breathed. “And you can just pull stuff out of pocketspace, any time you want?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Dodger said. “Just… don’t think about it very hard, don’t try to make it work right off, and figure it out as you go along. For now, just act like you don’t have any fancy powers and leave that to ME.”

“’Don’t think about it very hard’,” Doc snorted, looking at me. “She doesn’t know you very well, does she?”

’Don’t think about it very hard’. Easy for her to say! I lost my back urchin! And now I’m all aware of it, this big empty space on back and a sign saying ‘come, jump me from behind!’

As I was coming to grips with this, Doc had her phone out and was nattering away at CASPAR, trying to make sure that it was CASPAR. Then she seemed to get the answers she wanted, and she made a string of very detailed requests, which evolved into a very technical conversation. The Dodger gave me a curious look, which I answered sotto voce, “Doc is a Logistics and Supply Diva. And she does a damn good ‘Radar O’Reilly’ scrounger act too.”

The phone suddenly disappeared from her hand and she told us primly. “This way, ladies!”

She breezed us past a door that would have taken me a hour to get past. On the other side of that door was Belphegor’s real Special Projects warehouse. The glitter of greed back in her eye, Arty breathed, “The GOOD Stuff!”

“AND,” Doc smirked, holding up her smartphone, “I have a complete manifest, from a recent inventory.” The Dodger gave out a muted squee of Greed kept under control with the utmost of effort.

“DOC,” I objected, “I’d love a good ripping spree as much as you, but REMEMBER? We gotta find the Stabilizer, Wheels and Ulrike, in that order?”

“The Stabilizer is with Belphegor,” Doc shot right back at me. “His Hench-wenches took it after they used the transporter to get here, and took it straight to Mr. Bigger-than-his-britches. Wheels followed right after them, and attacked Belphegor; I’m not clear WHY. Right now, they’re getting her under control. They’re not using energy weapons, for some reason. Ulrike is also in this base; she was just after Wheels, probably because she figured that Wheels knew something she’d like to know.”

Okay, impressive. “AND?”

“AND, once they get her under wraps, they’ll take Wheels and chuck her-” Doc pointed at the reinforced vault doors of the Ultimate Security lockers; which Belphegor used as Holding Cells on occasion.

“Right,” I said. “Omnitools,” I held out a hand. Doc had an inventory control waldo drop a full set of Mini- (but not Micro- or Nano-) Precision Omnitools in my hand, and I went to work.

As I went to work on the cells, Doc explained to the Dodger, “Slim’s Spec is Security.”

“Oh, SHE’s the one I’ve been blowing past all these years,” Dodger sneered.

“Right now, she’s rigging the doors so that anyone who knows how can open them from the inside or outside. It’s not software, so MELCHIOR won’t be able to fox them, and online checks will give them a clean bill of health.”

“So, we just wait here, they’ll bring your friend Wheels here, and with any luck, Ulrike too. Once we have your friend, we can stealth past Belpho to snag the Stabilizer. When we’ve got that, we can stabilize ourselves, and Ulrike… if she’s a good girl…”

“Y’know, there’s no real reason to play Belphegor’s game,” Doc said. “I could just jury-rig a stabilizer, using-”

NO,” I cut her off with as much finality as I could, not taking my eyes off the panel. “This won’t take me that long, but they should be bringing Wheels down soon. Why don’t you girls spend the time doing some shopping?”

And I didn’t need this weird wrap-around vision to know that they went at it immediately.

It didn’t take me that long to double the vault controls; it was mostly a matter of opening Belphegor’s ‘get out of jail free card’ that he thinks nobody knows about, to anyone who knows that it’s there. The hardest part was making sure that the Bel-Goons securing the door couldn’t spot it.

When I was finished with the last one, Doc hurried up to me and said, “Slim, you would not believe the cool stuff that Belphegor’s got in here!”

“Doc, why are you wearing a set of ‘Dr. Octopus’ arms?”

“Because they’re Dr. Octopus arms! Come ON, haven’t you always wanted a set of these things?”

“T’be honest: No.”

“Check THIS out!” she held up her right hand, which had an overbuilt techno-crack gauntlet on it.

Okay, that had a certain ‘Jack Kirby’ zing. “What does it do?”

“Dunno! But there are like a dozen different buttons!”

“And what’s on your other hand?”

“Oh, it’s Belpho’s next season version of that Gizmatic rip-off tactical chem sprayer, like I grabbed before. I never got a chance to use it. And check out this!” She pulled out a gun that looked like someone had slapped a pistol-grip to the base of an old-fashioned blender. “It’s a VORTEX GUN!”

“A Vortex Gun? Didn’t we have enough problems with that Vortex Generator, back in the Flawed Projects warehouse?”

“Flawed Projects warehouse? What flawed projects warehouse?”

“And what’s that thing you’ve got strapped over your coat?”

“Oh, it is SO KEWL! Basically, it’s a PFG-”

“And what’s THAT?” I pointed at a very PFG-ish looking thing on her belt.

“Oh, that’s a deflector PFG, but this,” she said indicating the rig mentioned before (yes, I was having problems following her, too), “is like a coherent energy field version of Power Armor! Besides protecting you, it makes you stronger and buffs your punches and stuff!”

“Doc, whatever happened to ‘fight to get away, not to win’?”

“And check THIS out!” she whipped out your basic lightsaber and gave a coo of pure Sci-Fi geekette bliss.

“Doc, I happen to know that you know exactly squat about Fencing and Kendo and Kung Fu sword-crap! Put that away, you’re more of a danger to US with that thing than you are to Belpho!”

“And THIS?” she pointed at what looked like a tablet worn as a pendant. “Depending on the setting, it can make you invisible, move your image a couple of feet to one side, create decoys of you, or erupt in the coolest barrage of blinding light bursts!”

“DOC, you’re overloading yourself on options here!” I pointed out. “We’re in bodies we’re not used to, with innate powers we don’t know how to use! KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID!”

“Oh, I also picked up a full array of Omni-tools, and THIS,” she produced a very BIG BFG. “Even bigger boom for your buck.”

“Okay, you can’t go wrong with ‘big boom’,” I allowed. “But you’re still making the rookie mistake of loading yourself down with a ton of crap you’ll probably never have a chance to use.”

Doc just made a gesture, and everything, and I DO mean everything, just disappeared. “All stored away! I am gonna make a MINT the next time I go shopping! And check THIS out!” She stepped back, hands out, and suddenly there were two of her. They grinned at each other and high-fived themselves.

I looked at the Dodger, who was watching this with a worried expression. “I thought you couldn’t do teleportation or duplication.”

“Oh, I can do the duplication thing,” she said not lightening up with that worried expression. “I just don’t DO it.”

“Why not?”

“Cause it’s PAINFUL, that’s why! It feels like you’re being torn apart!” She leaned in close and asked me, “Is she always this hyper?”

“As a matter of fact, NO,” I said softly. “I’m starting to think that Doc took the whole ‘big’ thing a lot harder than he let on.”

Then Doc put her phone to her ear (how she got her phone back, I have no idea; I took it out of his pocket and was carrying it when I went through the transporter), and looked kind of confused. “Weird. CASPAR says that he spotted Wheels heading in this general direction with some goons in hot pursuit, but Belphegor and his core cadre are still mixing it up in his Ultimate Security Operations area.”

“Any sign of Ulrike?” the Dodger asked.

“CASPAR says that Belphegor’s rounded up her dogs, and she’s been raising alarms all over the place, but somehow she’s managed to avoid presenting a clear tracking pattern.”

“I kind of get the impression that Ulrike’s following Wheels for some reason,” I said. “She followed Wheels here, and probably figured out how to use the transporter by watching her. So we pry Wheels loose from the Bel-goons, and then send her out as bait for Ulrike. Then we chuck Ulrike into the cooler, and sneak the Stabilizer out from under Belpho’s nose.”

“Belpho?” Doc peeped.

“A nickname Belflabbo had, back in School,” the Dodger grinned.

“Belflabbo?” Doc echoed, the glimmer of mischief in her eyes. But then the glimmer was replaced by confusion. “Aaannnddd… why bother with Ulrike? Just let her run around, confusing Security, while we bag the Stabilizer?”

“Cause we cut a deal with the Dodger,” I jerked a thumb in her direction, “remember? She’s got a contract on Ulrike. And she’s holding up her end of the deal so far.” Dodger gave a pert nod.


“Oh. Right.” And that was it; being a wheeler-dealer, Doc has a gut-level appreciation of people keeping their ends of deals. “Okay, let’s get Wheels before it gets even MORE complicated, and then we put Ulrike in the pound.”

“Damn Skippy…” I rasped in my (still) awesome Clint Eastwood impression.

Unlike the Yonkers recycling center, the Brownsville dry cleaning plant was three separate buildings, a large 5-story building and two smaller 3-story buildings that formed a ‘U’, which served as a parking lot. To be honest, I’m not sure where the actual dry cleaning was done; possibly, the ‘dry cleaning on premises’ bit was a shuck, and they did the dry cleaning somewhere else.

I wasn’t as familiar with this site as I was with the Yonkers recycling center. But we had CASPAR giving us directions. IF that’s CASPAR. The way things were going, it could be MELCHIOR gaming us again. That is if it isn’t BALTHAZAR, who’s just been playing at being totally apathetic about the whole thing. And that’s as far as I’m going down that particular dark road.

We tracked Wheels down, or at least we tracked down CASPAR’s last sighting of Wheels, to a little-used niche on the third floor. The main (read: only) item of interest was a line of cages with wolves in them. They barked at us furiously at first sight, but grew confused by the three of us. Peering at them, I asked, “Dodger, are these Ulrike’s wolves?”

“Dunno. One mangy mutt with a bad attitude looks the same as all the others to me,” Dodger sneered at the wolf that was raising a lip and snarling at us all. Doc just gave a terrified whimper, hid behind me and gave the wolf a look of icy terror. Everything else about the time when the Raven was riding her might be fuzzy, but THAT she remembers with perfect clarity.

“Okay, PETA will be all in an uproar,” the Dodger added, pulling a BFG out of ‘pocketspace’, “but I’m not getting a dime for any of these, and the fewer there are of them-”

Then there was a snarl and a black-and-blonde blur, and the Dodger got blindsided by-

-“WHEELS?”

It was Wheels, and she was pissed, but it was seriously weird. She was all snarling and tearing at us with her arms. Which is SO not Wheels’ style. Even allowing for her new physique, Wheels is not a cat-fighter, she’s a slugger. Yeah, he usually got the crap beaten out of him in fights, but Wheels was a very direct, very up-in-your-face kind of brawler. This? This was trying to scare us into something. Wheels doesn’t do that. Hey, she spent her male life as a 5’ 2” runt; runts learn fast that trying to bluff and buffalo people just doesn’t work for them.

Then Wheels- or whoever- laid one on my shoulder and tore three long gashes in my jacket. Which, luckily, was very well armored, otherwise my new name would be ‘Lefty’. She snarled at me, and I swear to God, her eyes glowed. Something very weird is going on here…

She did something with her fingers and her eyes and thrust a hand at me, and I split.

NO, I didn’t run away. I split. Like in TWO. It’s hard to describe, but suddenly I was in two places at once. And it was like tearing a muscle, only over every part of my body. That sense of being just plain wrong jumped up a quantum shift. I was intact and aware and in control over both bodies, but the whole idea of being in two places at once was kinda boggling me.

And that’s my only excuse. Suddenly my two bodies fell together again, and from that point on, it was like I was trapped in a soap-bubble of perfect slipperiness. I was falling all over the place, over-reacting with more strength than I’m used to, with reflexes that are a lot faster than I’m used to, and I just klutzed the place up to flinders. When I finally got my personal space back under my control, the place was a mess, one of the ‘Dodger’s was sprawled on the floor, and the other was just standing there, muttering, “Déjà vu all over again…

“Wha’ happened?” I asked as I very carefully got to my feet.

“Oh, you just performed a near-perfect reenactment of my first manifestation of my Warping trait,” Dodger said as she helped Doc to her feet. “You did a little better than I did, as you had the advantage of not being 14 years old, and you probably have had a lot more exposure to weirdness than I did back then.”

“What happened to Wheels?” Doc asked, pulling herself together (not literally).

“That wasn’t your friend ‘Wheels’,” Dodger said. “What I think happened is that for some reason your buddy went through the transporter. Then Ulrike followed her and didn’t think to clear the buffer, either. Though she’s got a better excuse.”

“So… Ulrike looks like Wheels now?” Doc asked. “Then how are you sure that it was Ulrike?”

“While that one was being a One-Girl Three Stooges act, Ulrike shifted back to her usual form- and clothing- and lit out.”

“What about the wolves?” Doc looked around fretfully.

The Dodger just pointed with a smirk. The cages were tossed around, and the dog-wolf-what-evers were knocked out cold. Which was a good look for them.

I started to fish around in my pockets (or at least my version of the Dodger’s pockets) when I suddenly split in two again. This time I managed to not klutz out again, but being ripped in two was just as much fun the second time as it was the first. MAN, I hate that! And that visceral sense of being just plain WRONG was back, if not worse. I shook my head clear, and suddenly I was aware that I had something in my hand. It took me a moment to realize what it was: it was the silver cylinder case that I’d found the power gems in. Turning the case in my hand, I noticed the marks worked into the silver along the edges of both ends. Then it finally clicked into my head what they were. “Hey Doc,” I handed her the case. “You might wanna put those stones in this. I think that it’s warded, so magicians can’t find them.”

“Stones?” Dodger asked curiously. “You have power gems?”

“Oh, nothing major,” Doc covered herself lamely, shooting me icy daggers with her eyes. “They’re really subtle stones; we’re not even sure what they DO yet, but Ulrike’s just the greedy kind who’d-” Doc stopped cold and grabbed the case. “CHRIST! These are how she found us!”

Doc’s point immediately clicked. We hadn’t taken any real precautions against Ulrike, because we thought that there wasn’t any way for her to follow us. But she could have followed the magical trail of the gems. “Good idea, Doc,” I said. “But there’s one problem with it: she didn’t know about the gems until you- or at least the Raven- asked Wheels about them, not an hour ago.”

“Just because she didn’t know that it was power gems doesn’t mean that she wasn’t following them,” Doc argued as she fit the pale green gem in the case. “But it finally does give us one advantage. Once these things are shielded again-”

The Dodger pointedly reached over and snapped the case shut. “Then again, if we know that she’s following us, that gives us the advantage, No?”

I held out a hand and snapped my fingers. “Hand over one of the gems.”

“WHY?” Doc whined.

“Ulrike’s following the gems’ magical signature, right? If we’re traveling together, she’ll interpret it as one of us has the gems; when she tries to jump us, we split up, and she’ll be more confused than a Humanity Firster at a Comics Con as to what’s going on.”

“You DO have a feel for this sort of thing,” the Dodger smirked at me. Doc scrunched up her face and gave an unsure whine. The Dodger pulled me up against her and grinned at Doc. “Come ON! Is this not a face you TRUST?” She squeezed my face with one hand.

Doc visibly thought it over with an understandable lack of enthusiasm. Then, with an ‘I don’t wanna DO this’ pout, she handed me the clear blue gem, and keeping the milky green gem for herself. But she held on tight to the translucent red gem as the Dodger tried to take that from her hand. “I get this BACK,” she said looking into the Dodger’s eyes with a steely gaze.

“Of course!” the Dodger breezed. “What does it do?”

“We’re not sure,” Doc said with a steely grin. “I haven’t had a chance to run any tests on it, but from what I’ve noticed, yours most likely needs the other two to be used safely.” The Dodger took the gem with a look on her face like she knew that some of what Doc had said was a woof; she just wasn’t sure how much and what of it was woof.

That awkwardness was broken when CASPAR called and let us know that Belphegor’s security people had Wheels under wraps and were carrying her to the Cooler. We beat them to the Special Projects warehouse and hid ourselves among the crates. The odds were that we’d just wait for them to leave and let Wheels out, but the way things were going, we agreed that it would be best to make allowance for cows falling out of the sky.

They wheeled Wheels in on a handtruck-turned-gurney. I guess that my move with Doc was pretty dang obvious. They had her strapped to the hand-truck with two octobots, and from the looks of the 5-man security team and the Amazon golden-girl, they’d had their hands full getting that much. The Bel-babe limped over to the holding cell and opened it up. And then-

-and then, something hit me from behind, knocking me off the stack of crates I was perched on. I took a header and then… it was ‘OMG, I have no idea how to use these stupid mutant powers!’ part 2. I was inside that stupid soap-bubble, and I had my hands full just trying to figure out how to stop slipping all over the place. This was made worse when I duplicated again and rebounded off myself. You think that’s weird to read? Try living it.

I managed to pull myself back together, but when I got my head back in order, Doc and the Dodger were just standing there, giving me ‘what did you DO?’ looks. “Why did you do that?” Dodger (I think) asked. “We could have just taken her out after they left?” Looking around, I saw that the Bel-Squad was pretty squarely trashed.

“I didn’t!” I insisted. “Something pushed me, and everything went blooey!”

“MELCHIOR,” Doc (I’m certain) grumbled, looking around.

“Are you okay?” Dodger asked. “You duped again, on top of everything.”

Wellll… now that you ask,” I said as I patted myself down, “I feel… better! Not all right, that weird ‘this is wrong’ sense is still there… But I feel like I did before I duped!”

“’This is wrong’?” Doc echoed, suddenly standing looking very insecure, like something had suddenly come together for her. “Like… something about your body is… off? Not right? Like you tore a muscle, but it’s, like, everywhere?

“Ah… yeah.” I shot Doc the ‘you feel it too?’ look. Doc just nodded in a very worried way. “Just don’t duplicate, like you were before,” I told her.

“LATER,” the Dodger said with a 3rd Grade Phys Ed teacher voice. “NOW, we get these assholes stashed away and get ON with the job at hand!” As she did this, she was going through the Bel-Squad’s clothing for keys (and money) phones (and wallets) and holdouts (and money clips). As Doc and the Dodger dragged the Bel-Squad into the holding cells, I reset the ‘escape’ feature so that it would work for me, and no one else.

“Okay,” the Dodger said once we were done, “and what about HER?” She looked down at Wheels, who was still furiously trying to escape from the octobots.

“When did this happen?” Doc asked.

“Right after Belfo’s Angels ran out of the flawed projects warehouse.”

“Well, I can check that ‘emotional response induction function’ that Belphegor built into their reflex upgrade,” Doc said, pulling out her phone. Doc swatted around a couple of files, and had a ‘Whoa!’ reaction to something. She keyed in a few sequences and Wheels suddenly stopped raging. Instead, she just sort of sunk in on herself and started crying. Doc produced an omni-tool from nowhere and explained about Wheels’ current physique and Belphegor’s ‘loyalty reinforcement’ gimmick as she disassembled the octobots. “Somehow, that ‘loyalty enforcer’ got stuck on run amuck lust, directed at Belphegor. HOW it got stuck that way, I have no idea. I just unjammed the suggestion gizmo.”

“Ulrike was blasting everything that moved with some kind of energy weapon,” I remembered. “But it wasn’t doing anything, until Wheels tried to take it away from her.”

“Oh, it was doing something,” the Dodger sighed. “It looks like Belpho’s still working on his horniness ray.”

“Horniness Ray?” Doc and I chorused.

“Yeah, it was something he was working on, back in high school. Hey, he was a flabby, morbidly obese 16-year-old tech geek, who was tied with Jobe Wilkins- before she was a ‘princess’- for ‘Worst Social Skills’ in the yearbook. The only thing that’s surprising is that he’s still got the thing lying around.”

“I… I was gonna give it up… to Belphegor!” *wwaaaahhh!!* Wheels wailed, overwhelmed by a potent blend of frustrated lust, rage, unfamiliar hormones and crushing humiliation.

Doc finished untangling the octobots, and we gave Wheels a big supportive group hug. That seemed to help. Wheels cried herself out and calmed down. Then she looked around and asked, “Hey- who ARE you guys?”

We gave her the quick recap. I had to remind her of the way that he’d gotten away from Junkyard, when she/it had tried to assimilate the truck that Wheels had been driving- while Wheels had been driving it- for her to believe that the Dodger wasn’t pulling a very slick bit of mindfuck.

Quickly relocating from the Special Projects warehouse to the Rolling Stock garage, I explained to Wheels, “We gotta get the Stabilizer from Belphegor, but first we gotta remove Ulrike from the equation. Things are strange as it is; we don’t need for her popping out of left field with something that she picked up, and screwing whatever we’re doing at the moment all to hell.”

“So?” Wheels hooted, “Why not just find one of Ulrike’s mutts, kick the crap out of him, and follow him when he goes crying to his mommy?”

Dodger, Doc and I all gave each other ‘why didn’t you think of that?’ glares.

So, let’s take that as read, shall we?

Ulrike was trying to play it cagy by wafting around the General Supplies warehouse wearing the raggedy ‘Spook’ cloak from one of the ‘Scooby-Doo’ patrol drones. MELCHIOR must still be covering for her; dressing up like a minion is, like, Daring-do 050, so it follows that Belphegor would have those cloaks booby-trapped, most likely with a thermal sensor. Anything approaching 98o Fahrenheit would be immediately send out a ‘come jump this wiseass’ signal. I wondered what she was looking for; she’d left her mutts behind. She must have figured out that the dogs were setting off alarms, so she was more interested in finding something than being covered if she got jumped. Which was another point for her having (or at least thinking she has) MELCHIOR in her corner. Which prompts the question: what’s she looking for? Given his MO, I’d say that MELCHIOR is squeezing her for whatever his project is. She’s not tech-savvy enough to finish his escape-cart, so he’s probably having her gather up components for whatever else he’s cooking up. Reason #15 I don’t trust AIs: they regard ‘Complicated’ as good planning, and try to run multiple simultaneous plans without allowing for the possibility that the plans might trip each other up. Then again, I’ve heard that’s how the programmers who hack out their code work, so it’s kind of hard to blame them.

We let the Dodger take the lead. Hey, it was her op in the first place, and she’s good enough at this sort of thing that she got a contract out on Ulrike in the first place. Doc, Wheels and I were always more in the Service areas of our organizations. The Dodger mimed out her plan: basically, it was a version of the old ‘Tortoise beats Hare’ game, where the lookalikes confoozle their bunny into thinking that the shrewd shellbacks are a single, very fast turtle. I’d lead off and herd Ulrike into Doc and the Dodger, and they’d herd her into Wheels, who’d be waiting with a very sturdy set of power shackles. Given my ‘oops’ factor with these stupid mutant powers, I was to startle her and set her off in their direction and then hang back and let the girls who knew what they were doing handle it. <humph!>

Personally, I thought it was a little involved and relied on Ulrike doing just what we wanted her to. But given my track record with nice, neat, simple plans, who was I to cast asparagus?

I waited for Doc, the Dodger and Wheels to get into position. When I got the signal from Doc, I stepped around the corner of one of the crates tapping a singlestick in my off hand and saying in my best bad ‘American trying to sound Cockney’ voice, “’Allo, ‘Allo, ‘Allo! Wot’s all this then? D’yew ‘appen to ‘ave your ‘Auntin’ License on yew? We can’t ‘ave people waftin’ abaht, ‘auntin’ places wif-out a license, now can we?”

Now, according to plan, this is where Ulrike turns and runs, and Doc and the Dodger bounce her off each other for a bit, get her good and rattled, and then Wheels drops the hammer. But instead of turning and running, she pounces on me. While I’m going ‘wtf?’, she wraps me up with that spook shroud. Which would be bad enough, but then she does some weird hand gesture and slams me in the stomach. And it’s split-time again. Which was not as nasty this time (thank you, God!) but still damn disorienting. Then she pegs one of me on the jaw, sending me back together. Then she rummaged around inside the shroud and pulls out the Grimoire. She looked at it with pleased surprise and gave me a poke in the middle that split me again. As I was coping with that (again), she tucked the Grimoire into her shroud somehow. Then she grabbed me by the shroud and cocked her hand back to peg me again.

Y’know, this would be a damn good time for those stupid ‘Artful Dodger’ powers to kick in again. This bitch is having way too good a time cleaning my clock. I mean, as I’ve said, close fighting is NOT my gig.

Then Doc, God bless her heart, jumped out, paused, visibly stopped and thought about what she was gonna do, and pointed her left hand at Ulrike. *thwip!* She shot a spray of adhesive goop at Ulrike. Ulrike, who already had a grip on the shroud that she had me wrapped in, just used one of me to block that. By the way, Stan Lee, spraying someone with glue doesn’t form bonds that tie them up; it just makes them sticky. So now I was in two places, I couldn’t move, and one of me was sticky.

Not even bothering to pay the other of me any attention (how rude!), Ulrike threw a gesture at Doc with the arm that wasn’t holding sticky me. And that stupid Wraith-wolf came screaming out of nowhere, right at Doc. Who promptly flipped out.

I think that Doc’s gonna have problems with that for a while.

Doc split in two and one used that Dazzle tablet thing on the Wraith-wolf, which confused it almost as much at the splitting in two bit. The other one of her pulled out that stupid vortex gun and used it on the spook-wolf. Okay, okay, it DID blow the wolf away from both of her, but still it’s a small tornado inside of a General Stores warehouse. Let’s just put it down to Doc being well and truly freaked out.

And, give Doc her due, it did give the Dodger her opening to body-block Ulrike and scream for Wheels. It wasn’t going down like her plan, but she was ready to cowboy down to lasso her doggie. Wheels finally showed up with those shackles. This would have been a good thing, if she hadn’t shown up with an entire platoon of patrol-spooks and trikes in hot pursuit.

Doc pulled herself together and turned on that ‘force field power armor’ thing, and started kicking some major ass with those Doc Ock arms. Unfortunately, she while she was kicking Scooby-doo spook and trike ass, Ulrike was kicking MY ass, tearing me apart, letting me pull back together again, and pulling out the Witch-Hunter’s stash out of me, one piece at a time. Which, besides being galling as all hell, was like being torn apart like newspaper. And not even the New York Times, but some cheap suburban advertiser.

I was sort of going ‘nnnrrrggghhh’ by the time that Ulrike was satisfied, held the clear blue power gem, and yelled, “Enough! Give me the other gems, and I’ll just hand you over to the computer. Deny me, and-”

“An’ you’ll dew WOT?” the Dodger sneered, holding up a glowing purple gem.

Ulrike screamed at her and let me drop to go ‘nnnrrrggghhh’ on the floor. From that vantage point, all that I can say is that there was much ass-kicking going on, and the sole straight thought going through my head was ‘Thank God I’m not mixed up in that’.

Finally, Ulrike drove the Dodger off and held up the purple gem in triumph. She held her face close to it to bask in her victory and-

Wait a minute… we didn’t have a purple power gem…

BOOM!

The bogus power gem the Dodger foisted off on Ulrike went off with the force of at least a stick of TNT.

I launched myself at Ulrike, more on pure cussedness than any real bravery. I assume that the same was for Doc, but I’ll give Wheels and the Dodger props for actual guts. Doc had Ulrike wrapped up in those arms-

-which suddenly drooped. She pulled out the BFG-

-which did absolutely bupkiss. She shoved the dazzle-tablet in Ulrike’s face- - and it was blank. She jabbed furiously at that gauntlet-

-which did nothing. She was having so much fun finding cool new toys that she patched them all into a single battery, which just died.

And then the trikes opened fire on us. ALL of us.

And then there was more tussling, and shouting and accusing voices, and I pretty sure that I heard Ulrike calling MELCHIOR something that’s probably insulting as hell in Swedish. I felt myself being pulled up off the floor and my hands being bound behind my back. As I managed to get my head back in working order, I picked out that I- and Doc and Wheels- and Ulrike- were being dragged off by Belphegor’s Security goons. The flesh-and-blood Security detail, not the automated robo-goons that CASPAR or MELCHIOR could fox somehow. As I recall Belpho’s SOP, he insisted on personally dealing with major disturbances. And given the amount of damage we’d done in the Yonkers base alone, he’d want to talk to us personally.

Oh well, it could be worse: Jack Rabbit or the Crimson Kid, or some other kill-happy so-called ‘Hero’ could be mixed up in this.

linebreak shadow

After a period of muzziness, I finally snapped back to full awareness. Looking around, I figured that we were in one of Belphegor’s Ultimate-Security High-Risk Project chambers. It was classic Belphegor: vaulting chamber with scads of overhead lights and track mounted weaponry, sections divided by moving walls, stuff on dramatic daises, and his sigil everywhere but the toilet paper. He must be doing something big- oh, right, we already knew that- but the place was in situational darkness, with strategic spotlights accenting various objects. One of the things so accented was a row of clear glassine tubes, with Doc, Wheels, Ulrike and myself in them. I’m guessing that the first was Doc, not the Dodger, because of the two, my money was on the Dodger to get away while Doc got nabbed. We were all floating about a foot off the floors of the tubes, lifted by a capture field. Not that I was complaining (much); something about the capture field was dampening the ‘frayed’ feeling that I gotten when Ulrike had been ripping me apart for fun and profit. Yeah, it was still there, but I didn’t have that ‘coming unraveled’ feeling. Which reminded me- where’s that stabilizer? From the size and shape of the niche on top of the transporter, I’d say that the stabilizer would be a maybe 3” thick, 26” diameter disk or octagon, that would weigh somewhere between 15 and 20 pounds. The actual circuitry would weigh less than 10 ounces, if that; the size and the heft would be just so that people wouldn’t just accidentally walk off with it. Most of that weight would be armor; as I’ve said before, Belphegor has a deep personal commitment to his own safety.

Then I spotted it; on a table that was made obvious by a spotlight. Next to all my dinguses from the Witch Hunter’s stash, and the two power gems. Oh, our copies of the Dodger’s bandoliers and a bunch of Bel-junk that they’d probably taken off us. Belphegor himself was waving a sensor wand over the blue power gem, and scowling at the reading he was getting on his phone. And yes, Belphegor can scowl, even through that stupid gold ‘bearded king’ mask of his. He said something to the man in the long black leather overcoat with the stylized hatchet-faced gold mask- hey! It’s Rădescu! I knew him as one of Belphegor’s more aggressive Security types, back when I was wearing those colors. It looks like Rădescu got his own personalized face-mask, one of the ways that Belpho shows favor. I’m guessing that Hatchet-face is the Security Honcho who was breathing down the necks of the Yonkers crew. Yeah, that sounds just like him; Rădescu is Romanian, and they have a rep for a paranoia that’s not quite an obsession, but somewhere between a passion and a religion.

Anyway, Rădescu and Belphegor had a quiet but very tense conversation, which was punctuated by repeated glances at Belphegor’s phone. After a bit of that, they walked over to the four capture tubes and looked up at us. “So, which of you two is the Artful Dodger?” Okay, that means that the Dodger is still out there, for whatever that’s worth.

“What IS this, Belpho?” Doc asked with an annoyed snap. Okay, good, Doc’s back on her game. She’s a lot better at negotiating and verbal fencing than I am. Let’s see what game she’s playing, and hope that at some point it ends up with us getting out of these tubes and then our hands on that stabilizer.

“Why did you bring these things into my base, and why did you do it NOW?” he snapped back.

“I didn’t,” Doc said. “She brought them in,” she jerked her neck at Ulrike, who started to object, but Belphegor squelched her by tightening the capture field.

“WHY would she bring several potent enchanted items and a pair of power gems into my lair in secret?”

“Belpho, are you under the impression that Miss Leather Sweden over there and I sat down and had a nice little tête-à-tête over tea and crumpets before she tried to kill me?”

“WHY did you break into my lair?” Belphegor thundered.

“We DIDN’T!” Doc shouted back. “When we found out that Wolf-bitch over there was targeting your place, I contacted you through the Whateley Alumni website.”

“No, you didn’t!” Belphegor barked at her.

“I didn’t get you directly, of course,” Doc said with a ‘well, duh!’ “I got some guy named ‘Casper’ who said that he was in charge of Security. He said that you had your hands full, so he gave a provisional okay, as long as we didn’t make too much noise about it.”

“CASPAR!” Belphegor yelled, “What do you have to say about this?”

[There hasn’t been a phone call or internet chat or anything, since you instituted Complete Communications Shutdown,] CASPAR said, the lying sack of algorithmic shit. Then he completely redeemed himself. [Neither has BALTHASAR. But MELCHIOR has managed to get around that somehow]

“MELCHIOR? What do you have to say about that?” Belphegor prodded. “MELCHIOR? MELCHIOR?” When he didn’t get any answer, Belphegor got on the phone to his computer officer, who said that MELCHIOR was ‘non-responsive’. Through sheer body language, you could see Belpho’s blood pressure rise.

[Boss, MELCHIOR didn’t wipe the memory clean of his communications for the period in question,] CASPAR said. [I’m seeing a string of communiqués for that one’s phone starting in the general time in question, and a much longer string of communications for the phone for the pet lover. Also, that string of communications goes WAY back, a couple of months. I’m seeing a lot of erased communiqué tiles for that phone number.]

Looking at Doc, Belphegor asked, “Why were you following her?”

“I have a bounty for her,” Doc said. “She’s been a very bad girl, and there are people who want to have a nice long talk with her. We’ve been following her for weeks. Anyway, like I said, when she broke into your Yonkers base, I tried to contact you, got that CASPAR guy- or someone- and they gave me the okay, and even opened the doors for us.”

[Boss, records for the Yonkers base show authorized but unaccounted for entrances for the time suggested, and multiple prolonged suppressions of alarms and active countermeasures.] Well, give him his due, CASPAR is a champ at covering his own ass. Though MELCHIOR not being on hand to put his own spin on things helps.

Rădescu glowered at Ulrike and asked, “Why did you bring these things into the Yonkers base?”

“I didn’t!” Ulrike snarled. “I came in here tracking two clowns who stole them from ME. They broke in here to fetch HER,” she jerked her head at Wheels. “How those bitches got their hands on them, I don’t know. But those tools are MINE!”

“BULL!” I snapped. “They’re MINE! Okay, maybe not the power gems- those are the Dodger’s- but the rest of them are MY tools! That’s my grimoire and mask and dagger!”

“And WHY did you bring these things into my base?” Belphegor asked cautiously.

“Look, I was subcontracted out by the Dodger,” I nodded my head in Doc’s direction. “Ulrike- that’s the Swedish bitch with the leather fetish- is a low-grade mystic with some serious lycanthropic action going down. Besides her wolves, she has at least two very nasty spirits at her beck and call. One’s what they’re calling a garou these days, a particularly vicious wolf-spirit. But the other one’s even nastier; it’s a very old, very potent and downright sadistic Raven Witch that should have been burned at the stake centuries ago! Ulrike can barely contain it, let alone use it, but she still sicced it on the Dodger. So she- the Dodger- hired me to deal with it. All that is my gear, which I brought along to bind the Raven Spirit.”

“And… exactly where is this alleged ‘Raven Witch’ at the moment?” Rădescu asked with terse suspicion.

I let out a melodramatic breath. “Bear with me…” I said with a gush. “I brought along that brass bottle over there. It’s what we in the Craft call a ‘Vessel’. Think Aladdin’s Lamp, only without the Disney soundtrack. I brought that along for the specific purpose of binding the Raven into it. BUT, thanks to the Fang-banger over there, when I finally did manage to get it out of that big guy it was riding like a warhorse-”

“Which time?” the Bombshell Belphette asked.

“Who KNOWS?” I shot back. “There was more running around and tripping over each other than a French bedroom FARCE! I don’t even know everything that happened when I was there! What else happened? Who knows?” I tried to wave that aside, but the capture field kept me from it. “Anyways! When I finally used the salt tablet to force the Raven out of that guy, I didn’t have the fucking bottle that I brought for just that purpose, so I had to bind it into a fucking cell phone!”

 

“A cell phone?” Belphegor asked incredulously. “You can DO that?”

“If you absolutely have to, you can bind a spirit into damn near anything,” I said.

“Which cell phone?”

“That one over there. No, not the Samsung, the Nokia, next to the mirror/ astrolabe thing.”

“You don’t know what it is?”

“Not mine,” I lied, even as a wail of grief rose silently in my breast, giving up what’s probably a priceless treasure. “I didn’t bring that thing, or that weird brass telescope thing. She must’a brought them for some reason.”

Ulrike, of course, denied it all, which suited me right to the ground, since she’d just said that it was all her stuff. We screamed at each other for a few minutes, and you will have to forgive me if I’m ridiculously proud that I argued like a girl; viciously, with a complete disregard for facts, sequence, proportion or logic. As we bitched at each other, Belphegor waved a sensor wand over the Nokia. Looking curiously at the readout, he reached a hand out for the phone. “Don’t Touch It!” I yelled.

“Why?”

“The Raven’s bound, but it was a real rush job, so the binding isn’t that secure.”

“You’re afraid that it might get out?”

“YES! Hey, I’m not proud of it, but like I said, rush job, no tools, no book- I’m amazed that it’s held this long.”

“And what would you suggest?” Rădescu asked cagily.

“Cast it in a block of cement, take the block out past the Continental Shelf, and throw it into the Atlantic,” I offered. “And I’d have a priest bless the block before you chuck it over the side.”

Ulrike jumped in on that one too, and we had another rousing bitch-fest. Belphegor shouted us both down. Then he glared at Wheels, and asked, “And exactly how do YOU fit into all of this?”

“Well, I’m working for the Dodger too,” Wheels said. This could be bad- Wheels can pitch a sale pretty good, but actually LYING under pressure isn’t her strong suit. She’s not that good with finicky little details that can trip you up. “And as for what I’m doing HERE, I have no idea. Last thing I remember, I was waiting in the van for those two. I had the shackles and straightjacket and mage hood ready for the Swedish chick, and the cages for the dogs. And then, just when I’m getting into the Sudoku- BAM! The next thing I know, I’m being peeled off of you, and I’m very upset for some reason. WHY? I’d like to know as much as you. And I’d really like to know why I look like this!”

“CASPAR?” Belphegor asked into thin air.

[Hard to say, Boss,] CASPAR reported. [I have no baseline to compare against for conventional stress tests. They’re all very upset, but then it would be weird if they weren’t. And their molecular instability puts an uncertainty factor for most of your other interrogation scans that kicks any level of accuracy out the window] Thank you, CASPAR; I take back most of the nasty things I thought about you.

But you could see Belphegor smirk through that stupid mask. “Yeeesss…” he smugged, “But then, that IS the only thing we need be certain of at this point, isn’t it? That all four of you went through my Transporter Trap. Now, you are unstable, as planned. Your instability will increase. Indeed,” he gave me a superior look, as I was already starting to get a little fuzzy at the edges, “SOME of you don’t have that much time. Eventually, one of you will break and confess to everything.”

“Yeah, whatever,” I said with stoic annoyance. “Just keep me in this booth, okay? It ain’t nothing like comfortable, but at least this field is keeping the frizzing down.” And to be honest, it was. But then, I didn’t expect Belphegor to just let us go, no matter what. I was hoping to psychological-judo him into shoving us into the holding cells, which both Doc and I could get out of without any trouble.

“So glad to hear it,” Belphegor grumbled. Then, completely forgetting us, he turned to Rădescu. “The timing of this bothers me. First the Pharaoh’s insistence of this exact time. Then MELCHIOR slacking off. Now, THIS. And now we can’t even contact MELCHIOR. Send some men to check MELCHIOR’s core processor. If it’s been moved, find it. When you do, initiate the McMurphy Solution. As for these,” he jerked a thumb at us in the tubes, “leave them just where they are.” I guess they don’t teach kids about the Briar Patch in England. “Keep an eye on them as I negotiate with the Pharaoh. And keep a gun emplacement trained on that table with all the gewgaws on it. If any of the Pharaoh’s men go for anything on it- go Full Red.”

Rădescu nodded with what I interpreted as approval. But then Rădescu would think that training a machine gun on a negotiation was a good idea. Belphegor told him to increase ‘counter-ambush’ measures by two levels. Rădescu was digging on it.  

Rădescu got on his phone and had a right jolly old time juggling things so they’d have as many Security Teams on hand but out of sight as they could without drawing men away from potential forced entry sites. Oh, if you haven’t picked up on it, Rădescu isn’t just a paranoid, he’s a perfectionist and he’s the kind of noodge that lives to breathe down people’s necks when they work. But I noticed an absence of shuffling automated security units around. Which means that the Dodger will have that much more room to…

…whatever she’s got up her sleeve. Here’s hoping that whatever it is includes getting Doc, Wheels and me out of these tubes along with Ulrike.

Belphegor had three large objects that looked like steam cabinets designed by HR Geiger wheeled in and arranged. He had a carefully selected number of Security Squads brought in and arranged for optimum impressiveness. The Belphettes came back in wearing what I think are their ‘diplomatic meeting’ uniforms. Everything was arranged as to face a large, high-wattage device with what looked like an oversized silver wishbone sticking out front.

One of the Belphettes, the Gamine with the French accent, was talking with someone on a cell phone in one of those one-sided conversations that make just enough sense to really annoy you. She was either arranging something or negotiating something, it was hard to tell. Then, finally, it all seemed to click together. Suddenly everyone was at parade stance, the lighting dimmed and that wishbone thing kicked into full operation. A pale blue misty ring formed around the ‘wishbone’, which grew into a wide hole in the air.

Oh crap, it’s a Boom Tube. Belphegor’s having visitors he’s not comfortable letting them know where his lair is. No wonder Belphegor and Rădescu and practically everyone else with a gold face are so tense; meetings like this are High Risk and Low Trust. Which puts MELCHIOR’s merry antics in a whole new, very nasty light.

Then a figure appeared in the circle in the air, and I had an unfortunate ‘Star Wars’ moment. A tall thin figure in black appeared with a gleaming instrument in his hand. Then the ‘Darth Vader’ impression faded. The black robes were trimmed with gold, he had a Pharaonic crown built into a mask ala Tutankhamen with lapis lazuli ‘Thoth’s Eyes’ around the eyeholes , he had a large blue crystal scarab chased with silver on his chest, there was a golden flail in a holster at his hip, the gleaming instrument in his hand was a large crystalline ankh, he had a ton of gold bling everywhere, and in his off hand he held a tall black staff with a golden head-of-Horus-with-sun-disk-backing as the tip.

The figure stood there alone for a moment, making that all-important ‘I Fear No One’ message that supervillains are so big on. Then the inevitable entourage, for the ‘I’m Important; I have people’ message. The first guy was the unavoidable ‘Big Guy’, swarthy, possibly Mediterranean, shaven bald, wearing black leather pants, boots and cross-belts across his naked chest. He had dull gold metal bracers and gewgaws, and he carried a large golden khopesh (khopesh being those weird-ass not-quite-swords that they were lugging around in those Mummy movies with Brendan Frasier). The next guy mixed the Ancient Egypt look with very modern body armor and weaponry. He wore black composite body armor with a serene golden mask over his face, with a pair of assault pistols holstered on a utility belt, and a harness with all the nasty toys, including another khopesh strapped to his back. The third guy was wearing more flowing black robes with gold trim and mask, but he wasn’t carrying anything. He had his hands full handling a hand truck that had a King Tut rip-off coffin case. The coffin case was yet more black-with-gold-trim, with a golden mask of a woman of incredible beauty facing it. Then there were five guys in less kickass version of the Armsman’s body armor, with emblems on the chest that I take are this ‘Pharaoh’s’ personal emblem, plus golden scorpion logos. They each carried a single assault pistol, a less crowded utility harness, and a combat knife instead of a khopesh. And bringing up the rear were five large animated black stone statues of warriors with golden loincloths (or whatever), helmets and BIG khopeshes. Not enough for an assault force, but enough to make Belpho regret an ambush. Belphegor, all-too aware of the ‘never show fear’ dynamic, stepped forward and assumed a pose with his hands resting on his own gold-headed cane. “Before we begin,” he started in his best frustrated Shakespearean actor voice, “let me congratulate you on your impeccable taste and refined fashion sense.”

The Pharaoh glowered at Belpho through his impassive gold mask. “Are the agreements still in place?”

“Almost,” Belpho hedged. “I am more than willing to proceed under the terms agreed on, if you are. However…” on some cue, the lights on our four tubes rose, spotlighting us, “earlier today, these four broke into one of my distant bases, and then managed to breach this citadel. They were… inconvenient…” Oh, going for the ‘British Understatement’ gag. “Their exact intentions are murky at the moment, but that mist should disperse with Time’s cruel passage. More cruelly for some.” I felt a twinge that might have been me losing a smidge more bodily integrity, or might just have been the strain of resisting the urge to kick him.

“For some reason, one of them- which being unclear at the moment, as is the motive- brought these into my bases.” He had the table with the magic items and power gems spot-lit.

The Pharaoh gazed over the table, but other than the slightest hesitation over the power gems, he was unimpressed. “Reasonable tools for a minor mystic,” he sneered. “Decent workmanship, but nothing to pique my interest. I might negotiate for the tome, but that’s a subject for later. Now, I ask you again: Are the agreements still in place?”

Belphegor confabbed with Rădescu with all the blasé disinterest of a man who wants to find out whether that mushroom he just ate was poisonous or not. Rădescu, who had been studying our reactions closely- and give the pest his due, he was very good at that kind of thing- gave his boss a ‘hellifiknow’ that showed well through that mask.

Belphegor tried to put the best face on it. But then, that was sort of the hot, happening thing, right then and there. “Very well! Indeed they are! This triviality merely had to be addressed, as to be dismissed.” And he was probably very glad of that gold mask, which hid the shit-eating grin that he was no doubt flashing. “So! To business! I have, as stated, fulfilled my end of the bargain.” He gestured and the three ‘steam cabinets’ opened up. There were three figures all sort of hunched up in them. They slowly, gracefully uncurled out of fetal positions, shedding catheters, tubes, breathers and other medical maintenance gear, while having elegant gauzy gowns draped over them as they stood. Sheaths were pulled off in the process, revealing long silky hair that fell to the smalls of each of their backs. One was a classic Mediterranean beauty with sleek features that compared well with the bust of Nefertiti, and the body of a dancer. The next was an ethereally gorgeous blonde with an apple-shaped face and a turned up nose and a lingerie model figure. The last was a buxom redhead with the features of an Irish heartbreaker and the physique of a fitness model.

In other words, it was a variation on his usual three female types. And he wonders why people keep outthinking him.

“Besides the form derived from the DNA sample and body scans you provided,” Belpho waved at the Mediterranean body, “I offer you your choice of these two other visions of loveliness.” Wonderful. Belpho’s getting on the ‘I’m a Mack Daddy Pimp’ bandwagon- years after everyone with a clue jumped off. “Each body is perfectly healthy, in the absolute apex of conditioning, and will continue to be so with only the average maintenance. There are NO flaws or malformations anywhere on any of them. On top of that, their bone structures, ligaments and teeth have been reinforced, a secondary set of kidneys has been added, I’ve introduced a complex of an advanced set of digestive and prophylactic symbiots to their digestive tracts, and installed particularly aggressive leukocyte-generating marrow to their bones. I’ve done everything I can to make these bodies as far beyond the baseline- without tinkering with their DNA,” he added hastily. ‘Traditional’ guys like the Pharaoh get all bent out of shape if they think the mother of their children is some sort of mutant.

The Pharaoh stepped forward and closely examined the Mediterranean chick. He turned her head this way and that, with what I took as a loving hand. “And that am I supposed to do with the other two?” He asked Belphegor with cold suspicion.

“Whatever you want!” Belpho assured him. “Make them a part of a harem, give them to followers, trade them to a third party for something else, sell them on the open market, or leave them here if you want! I was merely offering you an option, providing value for your valuable services.”

“I will decide about those two… later,” the Pharaoh said sternly. “But, as you said, you have provided value. The ‘bells and whistles’, as you English say, are unasked for, but in no way detract from the value. I regard you as having kept your word. So, I am bound to return value with value.”

“Excellent,” Belphegor purred, happy that this deal was back on the tracks. He pointed his phone at one curving wall, which revolved to unveil a rather stock piece of uber-tech. “Unlike most Scientists,” he said grandly, like he was warming up a ‘Now is the Winter of our Discontent’ riff, “who harbor a truly un-scientific Flat-Earth Atheism regarding the Mystic Arts, _I_ not only accept the obvious fact of Magic, but respect and admire the practitioners of the Great Arts.”

Even through that mask, I could see the Pharaoh giving Belphegor the ‘why are you telling me this?’ glare.

“But even though I lack that basic talent, that divine spark of the Gift,” Belpho warmed up into something a little more ‘Henry V’, “I yearn to understand that world that you Mages master. So, among my other projects, I have extended my queries to the subject of PROTOSPIRITS!”

“Why is he saying all this?” Ulrike grumbled in English. “Why didn’t he spell all that out for that fake pharaoh while they were negotiating all of this?”

“He DID,” Doc, Wheel and I muttered in near-perfect unison. “He just loves hearing himself talk,” Doc added.

As the Pharaoh slumped with an ‘I know, I know, can we get ON with this, it’s not like there’s an invisible audience that needs to be filled in on the back story!’ posture, Belpho went on. “And, after more failure and suffering than mere words can convey, I have made a breakthrough! My Magnum Opus! My Meta-Fusion Reactor!”

“Meta?” “Fusion?” “Reactor?” Wheels, Ulrike and I all looked at Doc for clarification.

“I think he just makes it up as he goes along,” Doc growled.

“HOWEVER!” Belpho shouted, whether to punctuate his point or silence the groundlings (that would be us) unclear, “To actualize the Metafusion Reactor’s potential, we must synchronize multiple viable protospirits to the core. But my Science knows no way of achieving that, but your Craft knows ways that Dame Science is still ignorant of.”

“Ah?” Wheels almost said ‘Slim’ but she knew we were already in the vice, there was no reason to tell Bel-Fragger who we were (he’s just the sort to both remember and hold a grudge) “’Synchronize multiple viable protospirits’? What would that DO?”

“I… dunno,” I admitted. “From what little I’ve heard about protospirits, they’re to Spirits what Velveeta™ is to real cheese; a ‘homogenized processed spirit product’. They were discovered- or invented- or whatever- by guys trying to create one of those freaky ‘Forces’. What blending a bunch of different protospirits, with different properties, would do? I have NO idea, and it’s not like we can ask her,” I sneered in Ulrike’s direction.

“SO!” Belpho shouted again (clearly shutting up the groundlings this time) “I turn to you, in deference to your uncanny prowess with such matters, to apply your sublime skill to the task.” The Pharaoh nodded, with an ‘okay, can we get ON with it?’ air. “Of course, to assist in this, I provide these,” he keyed his phone again, and eight bulges in the bay wall spun open, revealing seven canisters that looked like overbuilt fire extinguishers- and one of them revealed a guy in a shades-of-blue superhero suit, complete with cape and utility belt, clamped down to a semi-reclining detention rack. The guy growled at Belphegor and struggled in his chains, you know, the uze.

“And THAT is?” the Pharaoh gazed incuriously (I’m guessing) at the guy in the superhero suit.

“THAT is the ‘Blue Comet’, a would-be masked vigilante, who is empowered by one just such protospirit,” Belphegor explained. “He had the questionable judgment to interfere with my Trenton operations. And once I had him in the bag, it struck me that the rest of my protospirits are in Geisten canisters; would that make it more difficult for you? So I decided to keep that specimen in situ, in case you needed a ‘primer’ as it were.”

“No, not necessary,” the Pharaoh said. “But still, it is a worthy consideration,” he gave Belpho what credit as he’s due. “But first, I must complete my own working.”

“What?” Belphegor bleated with an all-too due confusion. “You’re going to resurrect your wife’s spirit? Here? Now? I thought that you’d do it… at some sacred location, on some auspicious date, after… certain sacrifices…”

“I do not need to resurrect her,” the Pharaoh said smugly. “Her spirit has not entered Duat, the realm of the Dead. She never died.” He gave his followers a gesture of command, and the Acolyte in robes started taking gear that was slung under the gurney and doing things with them. “Rather, for the past 12 years, she has been struggling furiously with a Spirit of Torment. I cannot undo the past 12 years, but I can turn the spirit’s nature against it, take those 12 years, and cause it to metamorphose into a Spirit of Pathesis, the wisdom that comes only from prolonged suffering. This will free Luxara’s mind and spirit to leave her spent, pain-wracked body, as to be placed in the new, vibrant receptacle you have provided, Belphegor.”

That had Belphegor stopped. And I don’t blame him. “And… what of this Spirit of Torment?”

“It will be, as I said, transformed into a Spirit of Wisdom. Which will be bound into the body of her birth, until such time as I can contrive a more suitable vessel.”

“But still…”

“All the preliminary work has been done, Belphegor,” the Pharaoh cut him off. “All that was necessary was a healthy, living body that was a suitable vehicle for my wife’s soul. Which you have provided. Believe me, Belphegor, if your ‘bells and whistles’ had compromised that body’s suitability by so much as an atom, my fury would have destroyed this base by now. But no, as you said, this body is… perfect healthy, at the very apex of conditioning.

“And, on the other end of the scale, the working you need is very demanding. I will need to exploit the Rule of Balance, of ‘Value for Value’. But my wife’s restoration is still only imminent, but not yet actual. When her restoration has been realized, a concrete fact rather than an abstract possibility, then the Rule of Balance will empower my binding the protospirits for you, an actuality for an actuality.”

Okay, that makes sense… but why am I getting such a whiff of snake oil?

The henchmen unfolded a pair of tables that were engraved with Egyptian motifs to a fare-thee-well. The Brute carefully laid out the Egyptian Perfect Girlfriend Body on one of them as the Acolyte carefully arranged shallow golden dishes on her body, and placed a piece of paper with writing on it over her mouth. The Pharaoh opened the coffin case, showing off something that was one part Mummy movie, one part cyberpunk, and more than its fair share of Bride of Frankenstein.

-Lithe yet anonymous female body? Check!

-Mummification Bandages? Check!

-Weird gold and lapis lazuli talismans all over her body? Check!

-Canopic Jars? Check!

-Big Gladstone-type traveling bag full of weird tools? Check!

-Intensive Care IV drips and catheters? Check!

-Tubes to various containers of who knows what? Check!

-Status monitoring sensors? Check!

-150 Terabyte External drive connected to decent sized computer? Check!

-Total immersion VR headset? Check!

-Headphones? Check!  

All we need is a hunchback and an over-the-hill Hungarian ham actor in a cape, and we have an old school Universal Studios monster movie!

The Pharaoh lifted her limp body out of the coffin as the Armsman carefully disconnected all the leads and tubes. He gingerly laid her on the second table, head to head with the Egyptian Perfect Girlfriend Body. The Acolyte set more golden dishes over her body. They lit incense, and the Acolyte started playing a set of panpipes, and the animated statues did the ‘arches of steel’ bit. He set a canopic jar (I use the term loosely), the one with the head of a snarling dog as the cap, on the dish on her stomach. He began a litany in something that didn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard, and something started to crawl out of her body. It looked like a big whacking red scorpion, only scorpions don’t have nasty mandibles- or that many pincers- or that many tails- and the tails don’t have hooks on their tips.

The Pharaoh fought the scorpion with his staff, and then with that ankh and flail, and pinned it. He let go of the staff, but it kept the scorpion pinned. Then he used the ankh and the flail- especially the flail- to force it into the canopic jar. Then the Acolyte handed him a series of phials, which he emptied into the mouth of the ‘dog’. When he was finished, he touched the jar with the tip of his staff, and there was a blinding flash of light. When the light faded, the head on the jar was now a bird, which my superficial reading of Egyptian mysticism suggests might be an Ibis. The Pharaoh waved the ankh again, and a milky white crane (or Ibis)- like figure of mist wafted out of the canopic jar. The Pharaoh touched the crane with his staff and forced it back into the canopic jar.

That done, the Pharaoh took the other canopic jars and set them on five of the dishes on the woman’s body, and set small figurines on the rest. Then the Brute picked up a box the size of a shoebox. The Pharaoh held that staff of his over the two women’s bodies, said something that was not Latin or anything descended from it, and the staff stayed in midair. He took the ankh and the flail, and waved them over the two bodies, yammering away in what I’m pretty sure isn’t Arabic. When he reached the point where he was screaming, the Brute pushed the ends of that box in like an accordion, crushing it. There was a juicy squishing sound. The Brute opened a spout in the box and poured something out of it into one of the Canopic jars (Yeah, I know what it was and you know what it was; just don’t make me say it).

The Pharaoh began waving the ankh and flail across the bodies again, but this time he leaned over and murmured whatever it was he said. Somehow he coaxed first a wispy human-headed serpent, then a bird with a woman’s head, then a spectacularly nasty looking black baboon, then a glorious shining gold disk with wings, and finally a cartouche. One at a time they rose out of the she-mummy’s body and he wrangled them into one of the canopic jars, sometimes coaxing, sometimes caressing, sometimes ordering, sometimes shoving, and with the baboon, literally smacking it around with the flail. When the cartouche was securely in the canopic jar with the ibis head, he removed the jars and the dishes. Then he tied up the body with ropes that had pieces of paper tied onto them.

Yeah, I know I’m going into a lot of detail here, but what are the chances of me ever seeing something like this again?

Then, carefully, the Pharaoh took the canopic jars from the she-mummy and placed them on the corresponding dish for the Egyptian Perfect Girlfriend Body. Beginning with the human-headed serpent and finishing with the cartouche, he forced each bit into the body, and finished the whole thing with a howling recitation. He climaxed it all by charging himself with a golden energy, leaning over, tearing that slip of paper from the PGB’s mouth and clamping his mouth over hers.

The Egyptian PGB’s eyes snapped open, and she sat bolt up, breathing frantically, trying to get as much breath as she could into her lungs. Then, just barely kept from knocking herself out hyperventilating. Then she started touching her body, not erotically, but… curiously. Then it hit me: she wasn’t in pain anymore. She’d been in agony for 12 years; so long that not being in pain was this weird head-trip.

Then she registered that the Pharaoh was there, and they had a brief, very intense, very emotional conversation that I couldn’t follow, not speaking Arabic (I’m guessing). Then the Pharaoh tore himself away from his renewed wife, and turned to Belphegor. “NOW, the value is real. Now, I owe you my wife’s life. Now, I will repay this sacred debt.”

Belphegor gave a ‘well!’ and gestured to the area with the ‘Meta-Fusion Reactor’ (gimme a break!). The Pharaoh handed off (what was her name again? Oh, right) Luxara to one of the golden scorpion guys, and went to work. He did more… stuff… to the guy on the detention rack. It looked uncomfortable for both of them, and it didn’t work. Then the Pharaoh walked over to the table with our stuff on it, picked up the salt tablet and the mirror /astrolabe, and took them to where the guy (what was his name? Oh, right- ‘Blue Comet’) was. He set the salt tablet on the Blue Comet’s forehead and the mirror/astrolabe thing on his chest. Then he checked on something using a monocle, and decided that it would be best to let that simmer for a while.

Then the Acolyte, on a cue from the Pharaoh, dug that Gladstone bag out from the coffin case, and they went to work on the protospirits in the ‘Geisten canisters’ (whatever the hell a ‘Geisten canister’ is). And I’m sorry if I get vague here after all that detail, but to be honest, it was the Pharaoh and the Acolyte doing… stuff… with… gear… And from the looks of that gear, the Pharaoh’s diss about the tools from Belladonna’s stash being ‘reasonable tools for a minor mystic; decent workmanship, but nothing to pique his interest’ wasn’t just a woof. I could tell that his tools were first-rate workmanship, and he used them with the casual certainty that you see in real pros. I felt like an EMT watching a world-class surgeon crack a chest.

Then as the Pharaoh started to work on the ‘Blue Comet’ again, laser dots and analytic bands washed over both of them. “Belphegor,” the Pharaoh growled, stopping just as he had both hands full of pale blue… something… “what do you think you’re doing?”

“It’s not me,” Belpho said as he worked with his phone, “CASPAR, what are you up to?”

“Who is this ‘Caspar’?” The Pharaoh demanded.

“One of my oversight Virtual Intelligences,” Belpho said, looking up with annoyance in his posture, if not mask. “One that I thought was more reliable than the other two.”

“Do you honestly expect me to believe-” The Pharaoh was cut off when the sound of machinegun fire broke out from one of the 5-man squads. Everyone jumped like they’d been burned, but nobody did anything. At least not until the tear gas grenade dropped in the middle of the Pharaoh’s forces.

The Pharaoh dropped the blue whatever it was, pulled Luxara to him and covered her face with his sleeve. Looking around furiously, he yelled something in Arabic, and the guys on his side reacted like he’d just called a play at football. The Pharaoh gestured at his Acolyte, who gained a golden sheen. Then he broke from his position at the Pharaoh’s side and sprinted towards the Boom Tube control booth. One of the big statues positioned itself so it was shielding him as he ran. Once he got there, it helped him yank the technician out of the booth, and stood guard as he worked. The Pharaoh shielded Luxara as he moved her to a position of safety, while two of the statues covered them. The Armsman and the Brute lunged in Belphegor’s direction.

Belphegor gaped at all this, aghast for a moment, but the second they Pharaoh’s men started in his direction, he snapped into immediate action. “WHISKY MARCH GAMMA!” he screamed as he pelted for a bulge on the wall. “WHISKY MARCH GAMMA!” When he got to that ‘column’ on the wall, it swung around, revealing what I took to be his latest iteration of those idiotic ‘egg’ chairs of his. No, what a minute, the only reason that Belpho would be going for one of those chairs was that it was heavily armored, with the best force field generators he could contrive. That means that he’s expecting heavy firepower to be hitting the air soon.

Rădescu stepped up, looking like he was about to take command of the situation. That was probably why he got pegged by a freeze grenade before he could communicate anything. The Belphettes formed a supporting power with the Gamine firing a BFG, the Bombshell snagging one of the scorpion minions with the net of her retarius and gutting him with the energy blade, and the Amazon keeping other scorpions off them with her battle-staff. Five-man squads moved into position- well, at least the squads that weren’t slipping on something, or getting wrapped up in tape snares.

I was frantically trying to keep track of all this, if only to spot something that vaguely resembled an opening to escape (somehow, anyhow) when the tubes were shattered by a line of blaster fire, which also took out the capture field generators. Not having a firm grasp on the tactical factors (a situation I despise), but not trusting anyone with firepower to not take a shot at us on general principles, I scrambled out of the tube and to the closest cover I could find. Doc, Wheels and Ulrike all had the same basic common sense idea.

I looked around, trying to get an idea of what the hell was going on. Both Belphegor and the Pharaoh’s forces were jerking around, trying to pull off the complex maneuvers they’d been trained to do, which was kind of like having two close-order drill teams on the same field, trying to pull off two very different patterns. They didn’t so much clash, as stagger into each other. That pale blue whatsit was flittering around, being scanned and mapped to a fare-thee-well by CASPAR (I’m assuming). The whatsit didn’t seem to like being mapped, and I got the impression of a little kid trying to catch a cat that didn’t want to get caught. The Pharaoh was furiously juggling trying to capture the whatsit, keeping control of the mystic macramé mesh of magic that he’d woven and was getting very tangled, shielding himself and his wife with a disk of magical force, and guiding his troops out of the mess their reflexes were getting themselves into. From personal (and occasionally painful) experience, I got the distinct impression of an impending Megalomaniac Meltdown.

Then Ulrike sprinted for the table, probably looking for a quick grab-and-run. But in the middle of her sprint, she did a fuzz-and-shift, turning into a doppelganger of Wheels. And between the change in her shoes, going from pants to a skirt and suddenly wearing one of those masks, she biffed it badly. She tripped and tumbled into the table, tipping it over and spilling everything on it. She tried to get her footing back, and stepped on my Nokia phone-

-breaking the binding and releasing the Raven Witch.

“Oh, CRAP,” Doc, Wheels and I groaned in perfect chorus, “not AGAIN!”

The Raven Witch rose up, spotted Ulrike desperately trying to get her footing back, and reared to strike- only to get tangled up in the web of Protospirit wrangling that the Pharaoh was trying to set to rights. The Pharaoh screamed something that I didn’t understand, but didn’t need to know the language to know that he cussing up a blue hell. I saw a perfect opportunity, so I made my own dash for the table. Wheels probably had the same thought, cause she was right by my side. I was there and then-

-I biffed it.

BIG TIME.

I was bouncing all over the place, crashing into everything and everyone, I tore a big hole in the Pharaoh’s web, I tangled up the whatsit and the Raven all to hell, I duped at least twice. I totally trashed the place. And that was just me. I was barely aware of Wheels being a vital part of the whole thing, overreacting with that strength that she still hasn’t quite gotten a hang of, and crashing into me, both of us making each other’s foul-ups that much worse.

Hey, whaddya want? Our Klutz-fu is good, but we need discipline.

Not quite at ‘nnnrrggg’, but definitely groggy, I finally came to a stop when I crashed into something soft-ish. I scrambled around, trying to get steady on my feet, I latched onto a bunch of latches and bolts and like that, and through some weird fluke of Security Guy reflexes, I wound up completely undoing something. Seriously, after the first uncoupling, I was trying to put it all back together! And then the ‘soft’ thing that I was draped across got very hard and lifted me up.

Okay, now bear with me, I was still hella woozy from getting torn apart by strange meta-human powers I can’t control. I was vaguely aware of being hurried away, a significant change of venue, and then something was shoved into my hand. That last bit struck me as very important for some reason, and I focused on what whatever it was, and sure enough, my mind got more stable. And, thank God, so did my body.

When I snapped out of it, I was looking at a clear blue gem in the palm of my left hand. One of Doc’s power gems. Then looking around, Wheels and Doc- and Doc- and a superhero were all looking at me worried. It registered with me that two Docs meant that either she was stuck in two forms or that the Dodger had joined us. Hell, she’d probably just saved our asses.

Then I looked at the superhero, and what mental clarity as I had just went out the window. He was dressed in a pretty vanilla super-suit, a dark leotard with a hood, and light blue cape, gloves and a ‘comet’ symbol on his chest. Doc, Wheels, the Dodger and the superhero were talking about something, but it was going totally over my head. No, I was fixated on how… big… and strong… and MALE he was. How wonderful he was, how that hood really set off that manly chin, how those trunks…

Help! Hormones!

Yes, I know that I was molecularly unstable, and that instability was getting worse with time and fraying. But being molecularly instable could only reduce me to a quivering mass of pork-flavored jelly, or maybe render me a salty mist that would disperse with the first breeze. But Hormones? Ask any teenage girl; hormones can REALLY screw you over!

I willed myself to clench the power gem and get my mind out of his- er, MY groin. Whew! The things you never realize on the other side of the fence! I made myself listen to what they were saying. Doc was filling the Dodger in on her ‘licensed bounty hunter’ (hey, she could be; you never know) bit by selling it to the really cute… er, the superhero. Right, right, the Blue Comet. What a lame superhero name. Just focus on how lame that name and that outfit are. “And exactly where IS this ‘Ulrike?” the Blue Comet asked.

“Normally, we’d ask our inside man,” Doc said, “but right at the moment, CASPAR is geeking out, taking all sort of notes about what the Black Pharaoh is doing to the protospirit, and ooh-ing and aah-ing over the Raven Spirit.”

Reasons #6 and #10 why I don’t trust VIs: They act like little kids around new things, ideas, and phenomena, and they get all wrung out of shape when they have to deal with the Supernatural.

That managed to get my synapses firing on all cylinders. “Okay, did anyone grab my smartphone?” I asked. “If CASPAR isn’t being helpful, I think I can still weasel around Belphegor’s database well enough to find our lost little puppy from hell.”

“Ulrike stepped on it, remember?” Doc handed me her Samsung.

“Hey, so I’m a little fuzzy,” I grumbled. “I’m getting better.” Then that registered: I WAS getting better. On pure reflex, I looked at the power gem in my hand.

“Yeah, we figure that that gem has something to do with stabilizing forms or something,” the Dodger said. “So keep a firm grip on it.”

“JUST keep in mind that it’s MINE,” Doc said firmly giving me the ‘MINE!’ look.

Okay, anything to get my mind off that tingling in my- hey, what kind of underwear does the Dodger wear?- anyway, I got past MELCHIOR (actually, it was like he wasn’t even there) and into the Security database. The Computer Officer was up to his ass in alligators, so he wasn’t a problem. “Interesting,” I said. “There’s a note that ‘Whiskey March Gamma’ was Belpho’s ambush plan for this meeting. In case that ‘armed force was necessary’, the plan was:

A. Lock ALL obvious means of exit.

B. down the visible light illumination and flood the chamber with UV

C. Shut down the Boom Tube

D. Open up with AI controlled machine guns and plasma blasters

E. Belphegor escapes in his chickenshit egg

F. Initiate a sonic screamer barrage

G. Everyone else bugs out through hidden escape hatches

H. The chamber is flooded with Fluorine gas.

“Okay, Belpho bugged out, and I’ll assume that the rest of the Goldface Gang had the sense to get while the getting was good, but what about everything else?”

“The AIs,” Doc sighed. “BALTHAZAR is tied up watching the Rangers game, CASPAR is going ‘ooohhh…’ checking out what the Black Pharaoh is doing, and MELCHIOR?” she paused. “What the hell IS that back-stabbing little prick doing?”

The Dodger waved that aside, taking charge. Well, our story IS that she’s the boss, and her immediate goals do match ours… “NOT the point. Slim, where are the Stabilizer and Ulrike, in that order?”

I patched into the Security cameras and started with the Ultra-Secure… place we just got the hell out of. It was the last seen place, after all. “Eeewww… the Pharaoh and the Raven do NOT like each other. That dirty bird is making a mess of his nice, neat-”

“’The Pharaoh and the Raven’,” Wheels mused. “Sounds like a trashy paperback romance novel with a strapping bare-chested, well oiled-”

“Can we stay on track?” the Dodger snapped. “The Stabilizer? Is it there?”

“Yep! There it is! Half-hidden under some rubble. All we have to do is get past two nasties who’d kill us all on general principles.”

“LATER, Slim,” the Dodger said with a tone like she was seriously thinking about docking my pay. “And Ulrike?”

“Huh. Dig it- she’s in the middle of enemy territory, her dogs are either in the pound or dead, and anyone sane would be looking for the exit. But she’s managed to snag a bandolier of nasty gimmicks and a BFG. And she’s heading for… Ground Zero. Either she knows about the stabilizer or-”

“Or she’s going to try to take out the Pharaoh and snag all the magical goodies she can carry around,” the Dodger finished. “Well, she definitely is of the ‘Fortune Favors the Bold’ school.”

“So, we gotta go back into that, right after we got out?” Doc whined.

“Hey, at least it’s the last thing that they’d expect,” Wheels pointed out. “And if Ulrike can keep the Pharaoh busy, we can nab the Stabilizer and let the Pharaoh smack the bitch down. Then we just peel her out of whatever he shoves her into later.”

“AND if this Raven is giving the Pharaoh such a hard time, I might be able to re-tame my Comet Essence,” the Blue Comet said sternly.

Oh right, he was there. Down, hormones, down!

“Okay, having a superhero on tap couldn’t hurt,” the Dodger said. “BUT for the time being… Slim, is that manifest that Doc found still on that?”

“You’re going to go shopping again?”

“Just find to some PFGs for you four. I won’t need one, but if you all are going into the line of fire, you’ll need protection. And the only good thing about this mess is the abundance of technical assistance.” Y’know, the Dodger may just be a decent boss to work for, after all?

While Doc and Wheels tracked down those PFGs, I used the Security outlay to figure out where the Project Bay we’d escaped from was, where the escape hatches were, and where Ulrike was. And since all that took me a grand total of 45 seconds, I had time for something else. “uhm, Blue Comet?”

“Yes?” he said, not getting where I was coming from (thank GOD!).

“I found this and thought it might be helpful.” I opened the case with one of Belphegor’s pre-customization generic power harnesses for blasters inside. “You’re an energy blaster right? Or are you a flying brick?”

“Well, I’m stronger than most normal men my size, and I do have an energy blast,” he said, clearly a little uncomfortable. Was it because of me? Well, I can only hope. Or was he uncomfortable because I looked exactly like Doc and the Dodger? Or were my chances better? Was he the kind of guy who enjoyed the thought of doing it with identical triplets? And why does my body think that’s such a great idea? “But my big thing was speed.”

His big thing is speed. What a disappointing revelation.

“I could fly REALLY fast!”

Okay, a little better. “Yeah, but this is an energy focus. It has a flight booster, a force field buffer, bracers that refine energy blasts, and a targeting visor, with visual aids and anti-dazzle filters.”

“That’s nice… but I don’t have any powers at the moment.”

“So? This way, you’re prepared when you get them back!” I finished with a big hopeful smile.

“Look, ah…”

“Slim. Call me Slim.”

“Slim. Even when I get my powers back, I can’t take it. It would be stealing!”

And what’s wrong with stealing? That was the most moronic, clot-headed, simpleminded thing I’d ever heard. Why was it so adorable? “How is it stealing? All of this is contraband. It’s going to be confiscated when the authorities seize this warehouse anyway, so why not take advantage of this equipment being here, to make that possible?”

He looked at me uncertainly, but with a shrug, he started taking the pieces out of the box. There were some moments of intense closeness as I helped him into the harness and got the bracers adjusted and the visor on just right. As he checked it out, he said, “While I doubt that I could fly or let off a blast, I think that I have enough power left that I can take a punch better with this.”

I tested that with a playful punch. Whoa! Six-pack abs!

The Dodger gave me an off look, and then gestured at Blue Comet. They jumped up to a catwalk, and from there gestured at us to continue in the direction of the Project bay. As we moved towards our goal, Doc and Wheels were giving me weird looks. “What?”

“‘Blue Comet’? Isn’t that name already taken?”

“Dunno. I think I’ve heard of it, but it sounds so frickin’ generic that that name’s probably general use by now. He’s probably new, and with any luck, he’ll come up with a better name before he gets well known.” Don’t ask me why I felt compelled to defend him.

“Slim, he’s a superhero! We’re supposed to heckle him with the fact that he picked such a lame name!”

“Yeah… but he’s cute!” I was not blushing, I was NOT blushing!

Wheels pixied up her face, let out a squee and picked me up in a crushing hug. “Oh, our little girl is going through pooberty!

Would someone please remind me why I hang out with these two?

We did not get to the Bay without incident, but the incidents were firefights between Belphegor’s men and the Pharaoh’s. Which says some very good things about the Pharaoh’s guys, ‘cause they were on hostile ground and massively outnumbered. Well, unless one of the AIs was backing them up. The way this night is going, BALTHAZAR could be backing the Pharaoh, just for a few points in whatever game he’s got going with CASPAR.

Even so, after the first firefight, I made a point of picking up a camo-cape, a sprayer gauntlet, a pair of Vari-pistols, a backup PFG and a utility belt. Then I linked the vari-pistols to the Dodger-glasses. Yeah, I know, I had all that stuff in ‘pocket space’. Like that’s gonna do me any good if I die before I figure out how to get at any of it.

We got to the Bay just as Ulrike went in. We decided to let Ulrike go into and take whatever the Pharaoh was cooking in the face, so we could see what we were dealing with. The Dodger pulled a double-handful of matchbox-sized drones out of ‘pocketspace’ and sent them right after Ulrike. I turned out that I could tap into their feed with my Dodger-glasses. What I saw was:

The Raven Witch was caged in what looked like a black metallic circlet of thorns. Oh, and there were dots and lines going back and forth, which says to me that CASPAR is still trying to figure it out, like an obsessive compulsive with a Rubik’s Cube. Like anyone remembers Rubik’s Cubes.

Hovering over the center point of the ‘Meta-Fusion Reactor’ (gimme a serious break) was a pearly white ‘egg’ the size of a medicine ball. That wispy crane/ibis was acting more like a snake than a bird: while its wings were wrapped around the head, the lower half was coiled around the egg like a snake, and it was trying to shove the entire egg down its beak. Okay, this was a video link, but still there was a disturbing sense of merging going on. Oh, and CASPAR was scanning the hell out of that, too.

It seemed that even after a 12-year separation, the honeymoon was already over. Luxara was MASSIVELY pissed for some reason, and wasn’t afraid to let her husband know it. The Pharaoh was giving her ‘gimme a break, I’m trying to READ here’ ‘tood as he was flipping back and forth among the pages of my Grimoire.

The Acolyte was still in the Boom Tube control booth, but he had that ‘Mom and Dad are fighting’ look, like he didn’t want to watch, but couldn’t quite help it. The seven Scorpion goons who’d stayed with them also looked hella uncomfortable. Whoa, wait a minute- where’d they come from? Only FIVE Scorpion goons came across with the Pharaoh! Where’d these guys come from? I thought that BALTHAZAR was supposed to shut the Boom Tube down! Meh. I guess BALTHAZAR is still watching the Rangers game. Or, given that there’s only seven of them and not a small army, as anyone with an ounce of tactical sense would bring in, maybe the Acolyte can only bring them across one or two at a time.

As the Pharaoh and Luxara squabbled, Ulrike snuck in, and made like a hunting cat, prowling in and focusing on the Raven Witch.

“CRAP!” Doc, the Dodger and I all said in perfect unison. Getting that the others had seen and got what we’d seen and realized, we all charged through the ‘secret hatch’, with the understanding that Wheels and the Blue Comet would get the hint and follow. But by the time we got through that hatch, she had her wolf-head staff set (don’t ask me how she managed to keep a hold of that thing through all this), and jumped at the cage. She forced the staff through the thorns of the cage. But Doc, the Dodger and I all fired blasters at the cage. I don’t know which setting did it, but the ironthorn cage broke open, and the Raven Witch fluttered away from the snapping head of the wolf-staff.

Which was NOT what we were trying to accomplish.

Ulrike landed with a really nasty sounding curse in Swedish (I’m guessing), and immediately struck a defensive posture with her staff. The Scorpion guys reacted to this by drawing weapons (they were packing assault rifles and combat loads) and taking cover. Doc blasted at the Raven Witch in a near-panic, but the Witch didn’t go for her. Or Wheels or Ulrike.

Rather, it dove into the Blonde Bombshell Perfect Girlfriend Body. The Blonde snapped open sapphire blue doe eyes, shuddered, and then clawed off the breather and junk (someone had replaced them after that model was passed over; don’t ask me who or why). Then she took deep gasping breaths and finally let out a blood-curdling shriek. She manifested a pair of ethereal bird-wings and crouched to pounce. But she didn’t jump at Ulrike. No, she took advantage of the Pharaoh being caught flat-footed, sprang and tackled him. She yanked that crystal ankh out of his hands, put some distance between them, and reached out with a bright light from the ankh. The beam of light hit the ibis/snake/egg, which did strange things with the ‘Meta-Fusion Reactor’ (whatever the hell THAT is). The Pharaoh broke off his squabble with his wife, grabbed his Horus-head staff and lashed out with a shaft of ruby-red light, snagging the pearly egg. There was some kind of tug-o’-war between them, which did some seriously strange things to the Meta-Fusion Reactor.

Doc did not like the idea of the Raven Witch taking control of that egg. I didn’t blame him much, as I assumed it was the blended sum total of all those proto-spirits. She let off a barrage of plasma bursts at the Raven Witch, which confused the hell out of the Scorpion troopers. But the Pharaoh took advantage of the Raven Witch’s reaction to Doc’s shots, and started to pull the egg from her grasp.

Luxara, a look of simmering rage on her face, had been toying with a dagger while her husband ignored her. When she saw the egg was almost in his control, Luxara gave in to the temptation, one I’m sure that many wives have had through the years. She let him have it right below the floating ribs. Which would have been only a topic for heated debate later on, if it had simply glanced off the very potent magical protections he no doubt had. But that dagger was the Demonslayer dagger from the Witch Hunter’s stash. It went right in, and you could see the shocked expression on the Pharaoh’s face, even through that mask. And then she gave him another one. And then, when she had a feel for the layout of his gizzard, she gave him a third shot and really dug around with the dagger until she found his heart.

Well, the Black Pharaoh was hardly the first man whose wife cut his heart out. But it was the first time I’d ever seen it done so literally.

Do not ask me why, there were too many variables, known and unknown, at work, but when the Pharaoh died, there was some kind of sympathetic reaction inside the Egg.

While the Dodger had the rock-bottom common sense to dive for cover (as did a few of the Scorpions), the rest of us: Doc, Wheels, the Blue Comet, Ulrike, the Raven Witch, Luxara, the Acolyte, the Brute, the Armsman, three of the Scorpions and I all stood there, totally slack-jawed as the Egg exploded in our faces.

When my brain went back online, the first thing that I heard was Belphegor’s road company Shakespearean voice asking, “By the beard of Paracelsus… what in the name of sad, besieged SANITY is going ON in this miraculous madhouse?”

And for once, the over-dramatic dolt had a point: There were ten ‘Dodgers’ crowding the room, and I was only one of them. Eight of them looked at each other and chorused in perfect unison: “THIS! IS! SO! KEWL!” Wheels was gawping at her battlestaff, which was glowing with red power. The Blue Comet was glowing blue again, and checking out his power harness with an intense focus that made me a little jealous. Ulrike’s staff was also glowing with power, as was the amulet around her neck but she was busier checking herself out. Her hands were curved into long deadly claws, and her face had a decided lupine cast to it. Not a subtle ‘Lon Chaney’ wolf-face either, but with a long full wolfen snout. She no longer looked human, but she was letting out a triumphant laugh. The Raven Witch had wings of energy formed behind her PGF body’s back, and she was throwing around glowing energy with verve. Luxara was also glowing with golden power, and she was tossing around lambent vortices of power like she had tana leaves to burn. The big bruiser was glowing with red energy, and his armsman buddy was glowing dark blue. The Acolyte had energy burning in his eyes and his mouth, as he screamed at the Scorpions to KILL the wretched bitch who had murdered their Pharaoh! The Scorpions, who’d doubtless get right on that, were sort of busy, checking out three of their own, who were also glowing with red, green and blue energy.

Exactly what form those three Scorpions’ powers would take, neither they nor anyone else will ever know. The Raven Witch swooped down on the red Scorpion and somehow tore the energy out of his chest, taking it in her hand like a huge live coal. Knowing a good idea (well, maybe not a ‘Good’ idea, but at least a tactically and strategically effective one), Ulrike did the same with the green Scorpion; only she literally tore his heart out and ate it. The Raven Witch gestured and drew the last empowered Scorpion to her, grabbed him by the throat and dragged his blue energy out of his mouth.

But that, as nasty as it was, wasn’t the thing that really grabbed my attention. Heck, the major reason the Raven managed to pull off that second mugging was that all our attentions were riveted on the spot where the ‘Egg’ had been only a moment before. It was a vision of the Seraphim, the ones described in the Book of Enoch, a glorious golden serpent with six feathery wings and for a head, a ‘Star of David’ with a fiery eye in each triangle. This impossibility hovered there for a moment, and then dived into the Redhead Perfect Girlfriend Body.

Okay, this has just exceeded my personal quota of weirdness by a factor of 10. It would be higher, but I am a professional supervillain minion; my standards for weird are much higher than civilians’. It’s time to get, while there’s time to go.

Then Luxara dived for the Pharaoh’s Horus-headed staff, which was also blazing with energy. The Acolyte screamed something in a language that was very good for cussing in, that needed no real translation. It was some variant on ‘GET that Bitch! KILL her!’ And he let off a bolt of pure eldritch power, which set off one of those ‘Mexican Cantina’ things where everybody starts shooting at anyone who’s shooting, and it just turns into a total mess.

On pure ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ reflex, I stretched forth one hand and just sort of ‘grabbed’ at the junk gathered on the table, including the stabilizer. And Son of a Bitch, if it didn’t grab! Sparkles shot out of my hand, wrapped around the stuff, and levitated it off the table.

Yes! Yes! So MUCH Yes!

There was too much going on, but on a pure survival instinct, I created a wall of force that stopped a barrage of gunfire from Belphegor’s goons. Oh, there are no words to convey how cool that is! The Blue Comet responded to that by letting fly with a blast of energy, and you’ll forgive me if I gloat a little, and mention that those gauntlets I gave him did seem to be perking up his firepower a mite. I hauled the dingbobs from the table over to us.

Doc pulled herself together, separated into 8 again, and each of her grabbed something from my haul. But I held onto the real prize: the Stabilizer. “GOT IT! Let’s GET!”

But the world doesn’t love me enough for that. Just as I was figuring out how we’d get past the clot of Bel-Goons blocking the exit, something hit me from behind and grabbed the stabilizer out of my hand. I got a quick impression of that Wraith-Wolf with the stabilizer in its mouth. Doc had an opening to nail it, but she freaked and split into eight copies again, each of which were having fits. Wheels, the Dodger and the Blue Comet might have been able to catch it, but the freaked-out Docs got in their way.

The Bel-Goons reacted to that with a ‘WTFIT?’ and parted for the wraith-wolf (which on second thought looked a lot bigger and nastier than the one we’d seen before). Ulrike, who seems to have a nose for opportunity, grabbed something from the Pharaoh’s traveling bag, pointed it at the Composite Proto-Spirit in the Irish PGB, assumed a combative stance and started yammering something in something very harsh and consonant-heavy.

The Composite Creature (I will come up with a better term than that; what a mouthful!) just sneered, gestured, and jerked Ulrike’s wolf-staff out of her hand. She turned it on Ulrike, who went flying into the mass of Bel-Goons. Well, while Wheels has her problems and shortcomings, just like everyone else, one flaw she doesn’t have isn’t knowing an opening when she sees one. Grabbing one freaked-out Doc and tucking her under one arm, Wheels executed a classic football charge down the line, strong-arming off-balance Bel-Goons out of her way. I lifted off and flew after Wheels.

Yes! Flying! No matter what other PITAs I have or will run into, this is now the BEST night of my LIFE!

As I checked to see that the Dodger, the Blue Comet and the rest of Doc was following (he was, but there was nothing Dodger-ish behind us), I saw that Luxara, the Composite Creature and the Acolyte were fighting over the Pharaoh’s traveling bag. Considering that was in that bag before and what those things could do know that they’d had a mass of blended protospirit dumped into them, being around when one of them got control of it could be very nasty.

Of course, I have no intention of sticking around here any longer than I absolutely have to! As far as I’m concerned: Mission Complete; Successful Beyond All Expectations- let’s get the hell out of here!

When we caught up with them, Wheels was talking Doc down from a panic attack. “Doc! Are you all there?” I asked.

Doc nodded, doing some serious deep breathing to get control of herself back. “Yah!” she finished with a sharp centering breath.

“You’re sure? You don’t have any parts of you wandering around?” Doc gave me a dirty look. “Are you holding together? I mean, you were splitting off EIGHT, and doing only two damn near ripped me apart!”

“No, I’m okay,” she said. “And that ‘going frizzy’ thing was more your… prob… lem…” she shook her hand and looked at it weird. “Oh Crud…”

“You just noticed the getting frizzy thing?” Doc nodded with a worried look on her face. “CRAP! We gotta find that stupid wolf-wraith and get that stabilizer back!” Doc let out another terrified whimper. “Chill, sweetie, chill!” I told her with a big comforting hug. “Look, it won’t be so bad. Just stay in one piece and don’t go duplicating yourself like that!”

“But… it’s just so cool!

“Excuse me?” the Blue Comet horned in on our female bonding session (typical male!) “But what are we going to do about HER?” He pointed at… Luxara? What was she doing here?

She was crying. She was on her knees, sobbing like her dog just died.

“I mean…” Blue Comet said, trying to justify it to us- and himself, “She just killed that man! Okay, he was a supervillain and a dark mage… but she just stabbed him!”

“Honey?” Wheels asked, leaning over her, “What’s the matter? I mean, okay, he was being kind of a dick, and almost every wife I’ve ever heard of has wanted to take an iron to their old man at least once-”

“I DIDN’T KILL HIM!” Luxara broke through her sobbing. “Yes, I was upset with him; yes, I was arguing with him… but he was my husband, and I loved him! I was about to slap him, but instead, my hand flew for that dagger! I tried to fight it, but I couldn’t control my own hand!”

We looked at each other skeptically for a moment, but then I said, “Doc, call CASPAR, if he’s answering, or BALTHAZAR if you can tear him away from the Rangers; ask whichever one that answers whether MELCHIOR was trying anything with the Perfect Girlfriend Bodies before Belphegor sold them to the Pharaoh.”

Doc did that, and after weaseling around CASPAR’s most recent obsession, she answered, “He says that MELCHIOR was doing… something with them, for a couple of hours.”

“Any chance that Mel was trying a ‘Demon Seed’ gambit, hoping to get out from under Belpho’s thumb inside a living body?” Wheels asked.

“Nah,” Doc shook her head. “No matter what you see in cheap Sci-Fi, computer logic and neurological thought processes are fundamentally incompatible. Mind you, if he tried to implant some remote control cues in implanted chips, for a surprise puppet, it would probably look just like that.”

Luxara looked at Doc with horror. “You mean… some computer could make me do almost anything, just by ordering me to?”

“It’s not that bad,” Doc assured her. “Bad, but not THAT bad. Most likely, it’s just a menu of simple reflex commands. They’ll fade after a while, and now that you know about them, you can fight off the reflex with a little willpower.”

Raising herself up with immense dignity, Luxara said, “I fought a Demon of Pain for 12 years. Now that I know what they are, these computer tricks will not trick me again.”

“That’s nice,” Wheels said, “but there’s the nasty problem as to what the HELL are we gonna do? I mean the Dodger’s pulled another vanishing act, and while I don’t need it as much as these two do, we DO still need that Stabilizer thing, and we have both Belphegor and the Pharaoh’s people are gunning for us. If they weren’t gunning for each other, we’d be nose-deep in the doo-doo.”

“I’m willing to make a deal with you,” Luxara said, gazing at us intently. “I will assist you in obtaining this Stabilizer that you need so much. IF. If the Hero agrees to assist me in obtaining the Staff of Horus from Al-Mutamaliq.”

“Al-muta-WHAT?”

“My husband’s Vizier, the one who was operating the Transit Device that brought so many of the Black Scorpions into this place.”

“I think she’s talking about the Acolyte- er, the guy who was the Pharaoh’s flunky,” I said. “Remember? He was the one screaming at the top of his lungs, probably to have them lop off her head or something.”

“Substantially correct,” she nodded. “He has the Staff of Horus, which gives him both power and authority. He also has the… whatever these energies are called, which gives him real power. And, most importantly, he can claim that I murdered my husband, which gives him the initiative. He knows as my husband’s widow, I can claim the leadership of the Sect. If he can arrange for the faithful to kill me, then he steps into the position of the head of the Sect, and may even style himself the new Black Pharaoh. But if I can reclaim the Staff of Horus, I may be able to assert my claim to the leadership. Al-Mutamaliq knows this. It is He or Me, and everyone knows it.”

“ah, Okay…” I said, trying to work out what her angle was, “But how will that staff give you leadership of your cult?”

“Possession of the Staff of Horus is needed for an investiture ceremony, which bestows the powers and rights of the Pharonate upon the celebrant. And in the short term, it also gives control of the Ushabti, the animated stone statues as well.”

“Yeah, having a squad of super-strong, nigh-indestructible goons at your back does give you a real edge,” Wheels allowed.

“And WHY should I help one supervillain take over a cult from another supervillain?” Blue Comet asked.

“Because, if you do, I will simply take my followers and LEAVE,” Luxara said. “Al-Mutamaliq is greedy enough that he will want those two spirits under his control and all of your powers as well. And the most efficient way of taking those is to kill you.”

“Bee-Cee,” Doc said warily, “I think that just getting out of here in one piece is the best deal any of us is gonna get right now. Right now the Scorpions are keeping Belphegor’s troops busy, but eventually Belpho’s gonna retreat, and the Scorpions will come for US.”

“Hey, Fortune favors the bold, and all that,” Wheels said. “So, we go and blindside them while they’re fighting Belpho’s Bozos. Belfo will be so surprised that he won’t know what hit him.”

“First things first,” I cut in, seeing that this was going off on a tangent when we couldn’t spare the time, “the Stabilizer. You help us get that first, and not only will we help you get your staff, but we’ll be in a condition to help get your staff. As it is, we’re getting… kind of wispy…”

Blue Comet took a look at Doc and me and said to Luxara, “She’s got a point- from your point of view, what good is it to you to have an ally who’s liable to just… dissolve… in the middle of a fight?”

Luxara thought it over, nodded, and she and Bee-Cee shook hands.

“Okay, now that that’s settled,” Doc said, poking at her Smartphone, “how do we FIND Ulrike? I mean, her wolf-freak-thing,” fear seemed to be resolving into anger, always a good sign, “would have taken it to her. But CASPAR’s not responding, and BALTHAZAR is still watching hockey from what I can tell.”

“Hockey?” Blue Comet asked.

“It says something about Belphegor’s leadership, that even his AIs are just phoning it in.”

“Hold it,” I said. “Ulrike’s been running around Belphegor’s base setting off alarms like crazy, but not getting caught. That means she knows something about Security. But she’s magical-”

“HOW magical?” Luxara asked, getting my point.

“Well, before she summoned a wimpier version of that Wolf-Wraith and sicced it on us,” I said. “And, she was able to mix it up with that Raven Witch pretty good. And she gives off a very werewolfy vibe in general. I’d say she’s not a genuine mage, but more of a really pushy acolyte.”

At BC’s blank expression, Wheels prodded, “You think you can find her with magic?”

“I would need a few limiting factors,” Luxara said opening her husband’s ‘doctor bag’, “And at least 3 unique factors.”

“Okay, she’s a magic user, that should up her profile,” I said. “She’s got whatever these things giving us powers are, that should be another boost. She’s molecularly unstable, like us, that should narrow things down a little. And as for unique factors, she’s a Swede –I think, she could be Danish or Norwegian- she’s wearing leather, she has that Were factor, and she has a connection with her wolves, both the flesh-and-blood ones and whatever that freaky wraith thing is.”

Luxara gave me a look of surprised respect and nodded. She reached for her husband’s bag of magical tools and started to open it.

Then, suddenly Ulrike, still with the wolf-face, drops down on our 40 and- I shit you not- huffs and puffs and blows us all off our feet. Blue Comet and I recovered by lifting off, but the others had to get to their feet. Which would have been a lot faster and easier if Wheels wasn’t having another fit of klutz-fu, because now instead of being able to lift 600 pounds, she was pressing TONS of force, and she was surprised and reacting reflexively. And those reflexes were trashing everything she touched.

While BC and I were keeping Doc and Luxara from being crushed by falling crates, Ulrike grabbed the Pharaoh’s ‘doctor bag’ and literally called forth a couple of her Wolf-Wraiths out of thin air. As the fleabag twins growled at us, Ulrike ran off a lot faster than she had before.

And then…. aaahhh…. screw it. Insert Five minutes of ‘Scooby Doo’ running around here. It’s not like I was there for each and every development, and a bunch of crap just came out of left field at us. Ulrika was chasing the Raven Witch. The Raven Witch was chasing that ‘Meta spirit’ in the Redheaded Perfect Girlfriend Body. The Meta Redhead was chasing after the Black Scorpions. The Black Scorpions were chasing after us. And we were chasing after the Belphettes with the Stabilizer in that manhole cover. And the Belphettes were… to be honest, I don’t have the slightest idea what they were up to. I assume that Belphegor was steering them in some sort of obscure evade-and-capture maneuver. More of Ulrike’s Wolf-Wraith things showed up from… somewhere… And there was a fair amount of switching targets for more promising immediate opportunities. You think it’s confusing to read? I hadda wade through that mess!

One of the footballs being passed around was that ‘meta-fusion reactor’ (gimme a break), which the Belphettes- and therefore Belpho himself- wanted big time. We managed to get that reactor away from them and get a little breathing room. As we were breathing (very heavily) Doc reached into the thing and pulled out a glassine cylinder about the size and dimensions of a can of soup. Doc tucked it away ‘elsewhere’, replaced it with another glassine dowel (no idea where she got it) and said we could give the rest back to the Goldface Gang. “What?” Blue Comet objected, “You’re going to give that back to him? God alone knows what he could do with that!”

“Doesn’t matter,” Doc said with a smirk. “The rest is all control mechanism. The thing I pulled from the center is where all the important stuff is. Belpho will go mental trying to figure out what went wrong.”

That clicked something in my head, but before I could narrow it down and name it, Wheels said, “Eyes on the Prize people! The Stabilizer? We NEED the Stabilizer?” And this is why we keep Wheels around: she has a firm and sometimes necessary grasp of the obvious.

“My husband’s ‘doctor’s bag’,” Luxara insisted. “With that, I should be able to use Ulrike’s own power to immobilize her, and you can obtain the Stabilizer from her. Also, once I get that, we’ll be in a better position to deal with both Ulrike and Al-Mutamaliq.”

Which made a ton of sense, but I still had that nagging feeling that we were haring off on yet another tangent and not dealing with the important thing. Fortunately, this time, Luxara didn’t need a lot of gear or connections to find the bag; between her familiarity with her late husband’s workings and the massive influx of raw power, she could have followed that bag through Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

With BC carrying Wheels to keep her super-klutz to a minimum, we made our way following Luxara. I was not jealous; but that smirk on Wheels’ face needed to be removed with a ball-peen hammer. When we got there, it was like a Surrealist artist was picking up money on the side doing Fetish illustrations: the Meta-Spirit in the Redheaded Perfect Girlfriend Body was floating maybe three feet off the ground, wrapped up in a cocoon of chains of glowing purple energy that were anchored at eight points in the air radiating out from her body. There were dozens of bits of… junk… floating in the air, all radiating that purple energy. The book- MY grimoire- was also floating in the air open to a page and a tongue of purple flame burned over the part in the pages. Inside the tongue of purple flame were Doc’s three power gems. The Raven Witch, possessing the Blonde Perfect Girlfriend Body, was fighting savagely with Ulrike. Ulrike had her wolf-staff, which was glowing with red energy. The Raven Witch was dripping with jewelry from somewhere, which was also glowing with black energy, over a gauzy gown of some sort- do not ask me where any of it came from.

Waving our group (‘team’ didn’t really fit here), back behind cover, I said sotto voce, “My reading is that Ulrike interrupted the Raven Witch, who bagged the Meta-Spirit (or whatever the hell we’re gonna call that), and was using it to whip up a nasty little arsenal of goodies. Normally, my money would be on the Raven Witch to skin Ulrike alive, but she’s juggling too many balls at once. How’s that line of reasoning, Luxara?”

Looking over the scenario clinically, Luxara said, “I find no real flaws in your analysis.”

“So, we wait for Ulrike to slap down the Raven, and on a cue, one-two-three ZAP, we all blast Ulrike while she’s figuring out what to do next. We grab the Stabilizer, and hold onto Ulrike until our boss, the Dodger shows up. From there, you three can cut a deal.”

Luxara grinned. “A sound enough scheme. But I have a better wrinkle.” She sketched something in the air in golden energy that looked like hieratic script (they stuff Egyptians used when they weren’t doing Hieroglyphs).

“What was that” Blue Comet asked with a worry that I could only agree with.

With a lopsided smirk, Luxara said wryly. “Oh, I just made a ‘mistake’, which Al-Mutamaliq will be only too glad to exploit. Find a place to hide; in a minute or two, this place is going to be very, very busy.”

Damn nice of her to check with us before she lured her treacherous vizier into a trap. It was pretty much understood that Al-Malamute (or whatever) would come charging in looking for Luxara and interrupt Ulrike and the Raven Witch, and promptly get chewed up. Or they’d be sneakier, pull something that would nail both Luxara and the Raven, and then, when al-Mukluk was gloating (and you know he’d gloat; I’ve worked for several gloaters, and he has gloater written all over him), we’d blitz him.

We got to our positions without either Ulrike or the Raven Witch spotting us. Not that that was some great feat of stealth; both of them were taking their fight WAY too personally. Ulrike had a small pack of not-small wolf-wraiths backing her up, but the Raven Witch knew more of the nastier secrets of dark-shrouded lore and raw power. Only the fact that RW was maintaining the binding on the Meta-Spirit kept her from ripping Ulrike a new one. Strangely, the Meta-Spirit didn’t seem that peeved. If anything, she was following the whole thing with the blithe curiosity of a 3-year-old.

The Raven Witch twiddled her hands around in a pattern that I could barely follow (and believe me, that just purely bugged the hell out of me), and wove a sphere of glowing lines of force. She shoved the sphere at one of the attacking wolf-wraiths. The sphere trapped the wolf-wraith inside it, and the entire tenor of the combat changed. And not because the Raven Witch suddenly had the upper hand.

No, the Meta-Spirit, who’d been watching all of this like an eager student, casually ripped herself out of those chains of magic, and snagged the sphere. She studied it like it was a game store puzzle. Then she… folded it… like origami, turned it inside out, turned it around, made origami out of the wolf, and… it screamed. I got the distinct impression that the wolf-thing hadn’t enjoyed a second of it. And I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the feelings of wolf-spirits.

The Meta-Spirit then gestured, drawing a floating ‘flying eye’ patrol camera into her hand and crammed the wolf-sphere into it. It turned the wolf-sphere into, well, basically a floating eye. Then it grabbed one of Belphegor’s octo-bots and one of the Raven Witch’s projects and mashed them together, forming a set of ‘Dr. Octopus’ arm and harness. Well, it was formed from a Spirit of Wisdom, but Wisdom doesn’t always mean creativity or originality. And I’d love to see Marvel™ take that Meta-Spirit to court. As long as I can see it from WAY away…

Ulrike and the Raven Witch stopped their fussing and fighting and looked at each other, trying to figure out whether they could trust each other in putting that thing back under wraps. They were silently working out their truce/alliance of desperation, and were just about to do something, when Luxara’s gambit paid off, and Al-Mutamaggot and some of his scorpions came busting in like gangbusters- whatever a gangbuster is.

Okay, where are the Armsman, the Brute and the animated statues?

Al-Mutineer waved his hands around like he’d been watching the Black Pharaoh, and had been dreaming about doing this for years (I can relate). He cast a snare around the Raven Witch, and sent his scorpions to take out Luxara, while he figured out what to do with the Meta-Spirit.

At least, that seemed to be his plan. It didn’t look like it came off like he planned. Again, I can relate. And the Meta-Spirit was losing what cool as she/it had. Mind you, it was still improvising new dinguses with what it had on hand, and some of that stuff looked Mega-Cool. But I think that Scorpion was still using that hand…

And then, wouldn’t you know it? Belphegor and the Gold-face Gang chose that moment to bust in with the heavy weaponry. Heavy weaponry and robots and advanced tech that the Meta-Spirit glommed onto, fused with proto-spirit energy (or whatever, we have had a chance to do an analysis on it), mashed it together with some of the things that the Raven Witch had made and formed it into… stuff. And Belphegor was throwing stuff at the Meta-Spirit, trying to get it to form cooler stuff. What with the Meta-Spirit, the Raven Witch, Ulrike, her wolf-wraiths, Al-Mutable and the Scorpions, and Belphegor and his minions, all of them trying to impose some level of control over the situation, or just grab stuff from each other… the best you could say about it was that WE weren’t in the middle of it for a change.

Belphegor spent in a wave of octo-bots, but they were just cannon fodder as a rank of large anthropomorphic ‘brute’ robots were brought up from… somewhere, I got the impression that Belpho was starting to run low on resources. The Brute-bots did a good job of imposing some order into the proceedings, but then the Armsman and the Brute finally showed themselves- or more accurately they sicced the animated ‘Ushabti’ robots. The Ushabti were phenomenally tough, but the Bel-bots were faster and better coordinated. Short form: they tore each other apart and quickly turned to formidable forces into one heap of rubble and scrap.

Then the Meta-Spirit did something really weird that cost al-Muthafuq one of his eyes, that somehow merged my Grimoire with that mirror/astrolabe thing, the canopic jar the Pharaoh had stashed the Spirit of Wisdom in, a couple of the Raven Witch’s projects, and…. the three power gems into a single kickass book. I could hear Doc’s snarl of outrage from where I was.

Consulting the book, the Meta-Spirit threw Luxara and the Raven Witch aside with a wave of her hand, and started spelling big time. If it wasn’t for the icy feeling of dread down my spine, it would have been cool as all hell. She finished fiddling around, and seven glowing wraithlike figures flew from her hand. Two of them launched themselves at Al-Muggle. One tore the staff that Luxara was in such a tizzy to get her hands on from his hands, and the other one grabbed the crystal ankh and the Black Pharaoh’s golden mask. Oh, Al-Mediocrity had taken the Black Pharaoh’s mask and was wearing it. That really cheezed Luxara off. The two wraiths brought the staff, ankh and mask to the Meta-Spirit who used the Mega-Book to fuse the staff, ankh, mask and wraiths into a really kickass staff of power.

Waving the staff and consulting the Mega-Book, the Meta-Spirit commanded the five remaining wraiths into the heap of ushabti and robot wreckage. A glow formed around the wrack, which congealed into five glowing purple ‘eggs’ about the size of a Volkswagen bug each. They began to glow, and then the ‘eggs’ hatched. Out of them marched five figures that were primarily the black stone of the Ushabti, but had a lot of cyberware trim, including a ‘Cylon’ style visor. They still carried kopeshes, but those now had crystalline edges that glowed with power. With that, the Mech-Ushabtis lay into all three sides with a will. The Meta-Spirit watched calmly, like they were doing a test run. Which, for all we knew, they were.

Wheels caught my eye, and she waved me over to where Doc was. We needed a strategy rethink. I flew over there as inconspicuously as I could, as did BD and Luxara; well, as inconspicuously as you can when you’re surrounded by golden vortices of power. Looking down at the battle scene from the top of the stack of crates that Doc had perched on, Luxara said, “This has gotten completely out of hand. With all due consideration for your conditions, we need to focus on getting the staff back.”

“As one of the persons with the ‘condition’, I hate to agree with you, but I do,” I said, looking down at the madhouse that was going on. “But there’s something that spoils that simple plan. Everyone down there is focused on either grabbing or keeping your husb-er, your staff. If we go down there and try to snag it, we’ll just be another team on the field, and we’ll probably get trashed. BUT, the real point right now is control of the Mecha-Ushabti.”

“And your point IS?” Luxara arched an exquisite imperious brow at me.

“The Book. The book the Meta-Spirit is hugging to her like a teddy bear,” I said. “Before, it was more than just a written mass of esoteric texts. It… spoke to me… it taught me.”

“An Agrippa,” Luxara said in understanding. Yeah, that’s one meaning of the term; I just hope that in this case it means that it’s a bound demon.

“Right. And now it’s been upgraded by that astrolabe thing, and a Spirit of Wisdom, and maybe some computer circuitry, and God alone knows what else.” Luxara’s eyes sparkled with what I recognized as Mage greed. “MINE,” I said warningly. “The thing is, the Meta-Spirit used that Mega-Book to fuse your staff into what’s down there now, and to fuse the wreckage of the Ushabti and Belpho’s bots into the Mecha-Ushabti. The Staff may control the Mecha-Ushabti, but the book created both of them. If we ask it, it may know of some way of overriding the Staff and directly taking control of the Mecha-Ushabti.”

“And since the Mecha-Ushabti appear to be the key to taking control of the situation,” Blue Comet said, all ‘big strong man taking charge’ (down, hormones, down!), “Steal- err, obtaining control of the Mecha-Ushabti while the other players are competing viciously for the staff could be just what we to shut this insanity down.”

[There’s another factor] came CASPAR’s voice from Doc’s phone. [I’ve been monitoring the ‘Meta-Spirit’ as you’re calling her] ooohhh…. Shocker… [And while I don’t understand her basic nature, her secondary and tertiary energy readings are becoming increasingly erratic]

“Which MEANS…” Wheels asked with a leading tone.

Luxara and I shared a silent agreement. “It means that the Meta-Spirit is becoming more and more unstable,” I said. “The Black Pharaoh was in the middle of integrating it into the Meta-Fusion Reactor-” I still can’t believe I said that with a straight face “- when he was…. err…. Interrupted…” Having your heart cut out of your body by your wife counts as ‘interrupted’, right? “So, whatever he was really trying to do with it wasn’t finished, and its core is beginning to unravel, and it’s becoming more and more erratic…. And from the way those Mecha-Ushabti are acting, more dangerous…”

“Right!” Doc said, and suddenly there were eight of her, and they were all furiously working on something electronic.

“Ah, Doc?” I cut in, “You know that’s not good for you? And what are you doing?”

“I’m arranging six PFGs into an array and altering their cohesion array from an external to internal resolution.” One of her caught the blank looks on BC and Luxara’s faces. “They’re protective force field devices. I’m changing them so that instead of protecting what’s inside from what’s outside, to containing what’s inside and protecting what’s outside. Instead of a fortress, it’s a jail.”

“Short form: she gets that thing around the Meta-Spirit, and for all practical purposes, it’s in a bottle,” I explained. Doc gave me eight nods.

“Can you be sure about that?” BC asked.

“It’s a rush patch job,” Doc said. “You get what you pay for. But it’s not like we have a lot of options right now.”

The truth of that circulated around the very cramped space we were using. “Very well!” BC said, still wearing his big hero white cowboy hat, “Then Doc’s going in and getting that around the Meta-Spirit is all-important. So, Wheels and I will go in and clear a working space for her. Wheels, you go in first, as you’re wearing Belphegor’s colors, and that should buy us a few seconds of confusion. Slim, you and Luxara cover us with… whatever you’ve got… from above. Once the operating space is clear, Doc, you go in and get the belt around the Meta-Spirit. When the belt is up and running, you remove the Mega-Book. Then you get it out of there ASAP. Once Doc is clear, Wheels and I will withdraw under cover of fire from Luxara and Slim.” I think BD played football in high school, and always wanted to be the quarterback.

“You want me to do WHAT?” Doc bleated, her eyes- all 16 of them- wide with terror.

“Doc? Sweetie?” Wheels said comfortingly, a hand on her shoulder, “Maybe Captain Underpants here is cutting some pretty big orders on his own authority… but the sad fact of the matter is that you’re the only one who can do it. There’s no way that containment belt of yours is plug-and-play. Slim is the only one here with any tech-savvy, but… there’s no way she could ride herd on a rig like this.”

“Damn Skippy…” I snarled through my teeth in my (always) awesome Clint Eastwood impression.

There’s also the fact that I’m a devout coward.

“Okay, Doc? Let me put it to you this way,” Wheels said, looking straight into her eyes. “You’re finally a cute girl. But if we don’t get that book, the odds are that you’ll be a puddle of GOO before you ever have sex.”

That did it for Doc. She went at the array while we finalized our battle plans. Which I made sure meant that I stayed out of harm’s way for as long as possible. “And remember,” I told them, “NO fucking around, grabbing the first cool dingbob that catches your eye. There is too much going on; we have to get in, get the book and get out. Anything else is-… is that a Power Ring?”

Many hands make for fast work, and Doc weaved together the PFGs into a containment belt. Apparently she is very good at multitasking. With a nod of ‘let’s get this over’, Luxara and I shifted to other vantage points and prepared our first attacks.

It says something about the situation below that we were able to do all that without being noticed.

Wheels dove down among the Goldface Gang and started mixing it up with the Mecha-Ushabtis, confusing the hell out of all sides. But then, Wheels is very good at that, confusing people. Blue Comet was right behind her, and started mixing it up with Ulrike and her wolf-wraiths. It looked painful. They managed to create that ‘operating space’ that BC had been talking about. With a muted whimper Doc dropped to the floor and dashed in with the containment belt tucked under her coat. She left one of her duplicates behind. At least, I think it was a duplicate.

Heck, I’m not sure whether ‘duplicate’ is a valid term for that.

Now, I wasn’t 100% certain how my lifting power would translate into direct striking power- when you work around supervillains, you learn that things like that are an issue. So I produced the athame, which was one of the few things from Wheel’s side of the bargain that I actually managed to keep a hold on, and improvised a ‘dart’ that I filled with protospirit power.

When Doc got to the Meta-Spirit, she split again into seven parts and slapped the bits of the array around her, connecting them all. The force fields flared into existence, merged and formed a bubble around the Meta-Spirit, who touched the wall experimentally.

There was a break in the brawl as the various sides wrapped their various heads around this. Then Luxara sent her wolves at Al-Mugwump and jumped the guy himself, wrestling him for the Staff. That was very stingy of her, seeing as how she had one of her own, and from the looks of it, the Meta-Spirit had given it an upgrade while we were powwowing. Belphegor was nowhere to be seen, but Rădescu was overseeing a withdrawal of wounded troops, and was bringing in more mechanized units. Well, when the Blue Comet would let him. Luxara was keeping the Raven Witch busy with a swarm of glowing golden birds, so I decided to make things as hard as possible for Ulrike. My first magical attack landed squarely on Ulrike’s furry snout, so I went for another blast-

-which did not come off very well. Something went wrong. Very wrong. I felt way more energy go into the effect than I’d intended, and when my bolt hit, this time it congealed into a swarm of glowing purple… bees? Which buzzed around Luxara and Al-Muffin-man stinging them and were very annoying but not much else. “ooops!

I shifted over to my vari-pistols for the rest of the firefight, but didn’t actually HIT anything. Hey, there’s a reason I’m not rated for combat.

Then the Meta-Spirit decided that it didn’t like being in a bubble and started to blast at its confinement. Doc applied herself vigorously to keeping the belt working, but it was an uphill battle, and worse, she couldn’t spare a hand to getting the Mega-Book, which the Meta-Spirit had kindly settled to float in midair while she blasted. “SLIM!” Doc screamed, “I need HELP here!”

Help? Down there? This is SO not my kind of gig.

But… I couldn’t help remembering how I’d released the Raven Witch, and how she’d used Doc as a warhorse… and how badly he’d gotten mauled… I owed Doc… aaawww….. CRAP!

“Crap, crap, crappity-CRAP!” I chanted as I levitated myself down from my perch to the floor, firing my vari-pistols randomly for effect as I wafted down. I think I hit Blue Comet once; not that he noticed. While Ulrike’s not-wolf dogs were nowhere to be seen (if they had an ounce of sense, they were hiding in a corner somewhere; I wish I was), the wolf-wraiths were very much part of the scene, and two of them were giving the Docs a hard time. They were encouraged by Doc’s near-phobic reactions. I levitated one of them, throwing them into a far wall- HARD- and shooting the other one with a photon-burst, which seems to be my go-to setting.

I suddenly remembered that ‘Protection from Malign Spirits’ of the Witch Queen’s that I’d been reviewing a few days ago- that seems so long ago now- and it struck me as the perfect measure to keep Ulrike’s wolf-wraiths off Doc’s (and MY) ass. I went through the charm, using the athame to focus my new magical energies and-

- I biffed it. Again. Whether it was me, the Witch Queen’s spell, or that that buddy had screwed me with a bogus spell book, I’ll never know.

I felt too much energy flow from me again, and a bevy of neon-bright multi-colored squirrels formed around us, and they promptly zipped off in all different directions. On the upside, the wolf-wraiths chased after then, canines being canines, and they ran in among the warring factions, confusing them all to hell.

Putting on my best ‘I meant to do that’ face, I asked, “So, what do you need, Doc?”

Doc’s two hyperventilating ‘clones’ (or whatever) waved hands at one of the more calm, composed versions working on the containment. I repeated my question to her, and she said, not looking up from the component she was frantically working on. “I’ve got my hands full keeping the containment up. I can’t spare any hands to snag the book, as per plan. You’ll have to reach in and get it. Hey, it’s your book, anyway.”

Well, I couldn’t fault her logic there. I could HATE it, but I couldn’t fault it.

Doc informed me that she’d managed to arrange a reversal of the dynamic that allowed a PFG wearer to fire out of the force field without lowering the field; in other words, I would be able to reach in, while the Meta-Spirit couldn’t reach out. But there was the problem that the interior of that field was jumping with proto-spirit energy that may burn my hand right off.

But if Cowardice is good for anything, it’s finding new ways around problems- without burning your hand off. I placed my left hand within the field just to the point where I could feel the burn without getting burned, and used my nifty new super power to levitate the Mega-Book out of the grasp of whatever the Meta-Spirit was using to hold it. It flew into my hand like a dog running to its master. “Mission Accomplished!” I gushed, holding the book to my chest. “Let’s get the fuck OUT of here!”

The Docs- all of her- stepped away from the containment with relief.

Well, what’s the point of having a nifty book of spells if you can’t pull off an uber-kewl exit with it. I asked the book for a nice ‘get me out of here’ teleportation spell, recited it, waving my athame around-

-and I biffed it. Again.

Again, I felt too much energy drain from me. A sadly Lovecraftian swarm of iridescent bubbles that shone with an inherent malign- ah, fuckit, I’m not even gonna TRY copying HP’s style- it was just WRONG somehow, formed and slid around with a truly disturbing motion. On pure panic, I used my PK (or whatever it is) to cram it into the containment with the Meta-Spirit.

Worse, something about that botched spell set off the Meta-Spirit; she and the bubbles didn’t seem to like each other at ALL, and she started going in to total meltdown. “Guys, seriously, it is time to get OUT of here!”

Unfortunately, Al-Mediocre had his own agenda. He wanted the Pharaoh’s staff, and by whatever gods that cult prayed to, he was gonna GET it! He jumped at the Meta-Spirit with an oddly familiar knife poised to strike- oh CRAP, he’s got the Demonslayer dagger! Only… it’s… different somehow… Ignoring the bubble bath, he jabbed at the Meta-Spirit, driving the blade into her chest-

-and she fucking exploded.

The containment belt did its job and kept the explosion inside its small enclosure, but that resulted in an implosion that completely destroyed the Redhead Perfect Girlfriend Body- but not the staff- and resulted in a secondary, even more powerful explosion that went off in all our faces- again.

I reflexively held the Mega-Book in front of me to shield me, but for some reason, it acted like a lens focusing the energy right into me. I felt the energy flow right into me, and if anything I felt even MORE powerful!

Unfortunately, Al-Mudpuppy had the same experience. He was boiling with energy coming out of his eyes and mouth as he rattled off something in Arabic (?). There were, like TWENTY versions of Doc standing around, saying “This! Is! So! KEWL!” The Blue Comet and Wheels were also wreathed in energy.

But Ulrike? She was like this silhouette of a wolf-woman with eyes and teeth that glowed with power. Her amulet had merged with this sheath of energy to form a kind of mask, and her gauntlets (don’t ask me where she got the damn things) flowed into the long claws at the ends of her fingers, and her wolf-headed staff had gotten a similar upgrade, with a golden head and glowing red eyes. Gathered around her were yet more, bigger, nastier wolf-wraiths.

From somewhere, I heard Belphegor’s voice mutter, “Wonderful. Just what the world needs: another She-Beast.”

Al-Miserable fished the unscathed Pharaoh-staff out of the wreckage of the Perfect Girlfriend Body, and held it aloft in triumph. Which was a dumb idea, as that gave Ulrike her perfect opening. Sending her wolf-wraiths at the Mecha-Ushabtis, who were pretty glowy in their own rights, Ulrike jumped at Al- Muttonhead and wrestled him for the staff. Al was posed to strike with the Demon-plus Killer dagger, when the Raven Witch magicked it out of his hand into hers. She stood there, resplendent in the support bodystocking draped with various talismans and amulets that she’d cobbled together, wreathed in her own flames of power, gave a nasty grin and beckoned Ulrike with a crooked finger.

But the Pharaoh’s Brute, who apparently had gotten a big power-up himself, jumped on her, and it got very ‘War of the Kaiju’ there for a moment. I gave the others a pointed ‘It’s time to GO!’ hssst and jerk of my head. And even the Blue Comet saw the good sense in that. Sadly, as Doc pulled herself together, we found ourselves pretty squarely surrounded by Mecha-Ushabti, Wolf-Wraiths, Scorpions, and some very pissed off Goldfaces.

But then, someone or something deployed Belphegor’s ‘Disco Ball of Doom’. Everyone else was dazed and confused by the light show, but Doc, Wheels and I have seen that show. Doc split into twenty again, grabbed a bunch of stuff from… wherever… and disappeared. Wheels grabbed BC and flew off with him. Yeah, flew. I took advantage of the opportunity to nab that Power Ring- and a really nifty looking ‘utility belt’- and a crystalline tablet- and an ‘Aladdin’s Lamp’- and something with a definite ‘Holy Grail’ vibe- all of which had protospirit energy roiling all over them. Clutching them to myself, I flew after Wheels and the Blue Comet.

When I caught up with Wheels and Comet-boy, Luxara had gotten to them first. I noted that her suspension suit was dripping with amulets and talismans it hadn’t had before, including a spear with a head that even Jack Kirby would have thought was excessive, and a lantern. Which wasn’t green, thank God. I was about to ask where Doc was, when she came skipping in on yet another set of Dr. Octopus arms. “ANOTHER set of Dr. Octopus waldoes?” I demanded.

“WHAT?” Doc shot back. “These are WAY better than the ones I had before?”

“Oh, did you hook them up to the same battery as all the other junk you grabbed?” I riposted.

“Aw, come ON! You saw what the Meta-Spirit was up to! These are protospirit powered- like that Power Ring, you said you weren’t gonna nab!”

“Hey, it’s all good!” Wheels breezed. “We all got something kickass! Check this out!” she waved a lightsaber at us. “It’s an energy sword! It’s an energy whip! It’s an energy lariat! It’s an energy net! And check out this absolutely BADASS energy shield! And check out Comet!” She waved a hand at the Blue Comet, whose harness had gained some serious hardware upgrades- which were glowing blue.

“What happened to your Harness?” I asked.

BC looked sheepish and said, “Well, before Doc got her isolated, I was trying to block the Meta-Spirit and instead of hurting me, she just grabbed some stuff, and then something happened to my suit… and then it was like THIS! If it wasn’t so cool, I’d be really creeped out.”

Doc said, “Wow, I wonder if…”

Wheels, Luxara and I all said at the same time, “NO.”

“This is all very interesting,” Luxara said sharply. “But what we need to know is what was that… thing that almost blinded me?”

“Oh, that was just Belpho’s ‘disco ball of doom’,” Wheels sneered. “It’s a piece of lameness that he built in high school, and he’s been trying to get it to work ever since.”

“But… who set it off?”

That stopped us. At least until Doc got a phone call. “It’s CASPAR,” she said. “He says that he deployed the Disco Ball of Doom. He also says that MELCHIOR used all that noise to jump Belphegor and put him in the bag. And right now, Mel has Bellyboy strapped to a table and is prepping to do something to him.”

“Oh Crap, we gotta go save the big doofus,” I said through clenched teeth.

“WHY?” Wheels asked with perfect candor and callousness. “I mean, it’s Belphegor.”

“Because he’s another Human Being!” Bee-Cee said with noble honor. How he’s survived in Trenton, I have no idea.

“AND, there are two GOOD reasons to save him,” I added. “First, it’s MELCHIOR. I have no idea what he’s going to do to Belpho, but given his track record, it can’t be any good for us. Second, we’ve lost the manhole cover stabilizer, and we have no idea where it is. Belpho knows how to stabilize us and given the way our luck is running, odds are he’s the only one who knows how to do it. We may have break an arm or two to get him to do it, but we can’t do that if MELCHIOR scrambles his brains or something!”

Feeling like a mother giving over her only child to a Family Services officer, I handed the Mega-Book over to Luxara. “Here, while we go handle this, you study the book. Find out how to hijack the Mecha-Ushabtis. If you can’t find that out, try and see if it knows the True Name of the Raven Witch. With that-”

“We can bind her, turning her to our service,” Luxara cut me off with a ‘go teach your grandmother to suck eggs’ lilt to it. “Turning one powerful enemy into an equally powerful asset. And I should be able to divine the nature and protocols of these other items. Though I know what those are,” she pointed at the ‘Aladdin’s Lamp’ and ‘chalice’ I was holding. “The lamp is, of course, a vessel for containing spirits, controlling them, and tapping into their essence for use by others.” Oh, so that’s what happened to the Witch’s bottle; I wondered if her True Name was still written on it. “And the goblet is a Grail of Vitality, which has the virtue of charging liquids with raw life force. It won’t turn water into an elixir vitae, but it would be a huge assistance in brewing such an elixir.

“Really?” I bustled over to a soft drink vending machine in the corner of that warehouse and ripped it off for some cans of Coke™. I poured some of the Coke into the grail, and it did more than fizz. I slugged it down and let out a glad sigh.

“WELL?” Doc and Wheels asked as one.

“It’s the Real Thing,” I smirked. “I’m not stable, but at least I’m not feeling that ‘unraveling where I can least afford it’ sensation.” I poured the rest of the can into the grail and handed it over to Doc and Wheels, who drank it down with gusto. “Okay, now that we’re not one foot in the puddle, we gotta get going. Luxara, get cracking with that book. And while you’re at it, see if the book knows any magical ways of stabilizing the three of us.” Luxara gave me a ‘if I have the time’ look.

I kited Blue Comet a severe look. “Keep an eye on her. And remember, you saw her kill her husband. No matter what she says, she’s strictly an ally of convenience. Watch her like a HAWK.” He chewed that over silently for a moment and then nodded.

With that, Doc, Wheels and I trudged off to risk our lives rescuing someone that none of us could stand. That is IF this wasn’t just another of MELCHIOR’s twisted games.

As Doc got the location of the lab where MELCHIOR had taken Belphegor, I snuck that glass nautilus flask out from- wherever it had been all this time- and poured a jot of the liquid into some imbued Coca-cola. It wasn’t that I was holding out on Doc or Wheels; I just didn’t want to be responsible for what might happen to them if I was wrong about this. I slugged down the mix, and indeed, I felt better, firmer, wholer. And I didn’t turn into a giant spotted snorklewhacker. Still, I kept is quiet until I had a better idea of what was really going on.

As we snuck past the edges of the rampaging battle and the stream of electronic backups that BALTHAZAR (probably not CASPAR and definitely not MELCHIOR, so the Rangers game must be over) was sending, I made sure of my gear, and checked out my new goodies. And the weirdest thing happened: I knew what each of them was and how they worked. Was that what the potion in the nautilus flask really did? Well, anyway, I still felt better. The crystalline tablet was just that- a single enchanted, proto-spirit energy infused slab of mirrored beryl that was pretty much a magical tablet. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I was looking forward to experimenting with it. The utility belt was Batman’s utility belt combined with Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. Like the Dodger’s ‘pocketspace’, I could pack away God alone knows how much swag away in there. I quickly stashed as much of the Bel-junk as I was still carrying with me in there, and I felt a lot lighter. The power ring? Yeah, it was, thank you very much, a power ring, only without the bozo ‘no affecting yellow’ weakness. And its activating phrase was:

oh gimme a frickin’ break!

By this time, we’d gotten to where CASPAR said MELCHIOR had Belpho under wraps. Doc sent that flying eyeball- what’s one more electronic (kinda-sorta) sensor in the mess that MELCHIOR no doubt had set up? And sunuvabitch, but my tablet was able to tap into the Eye’s signal. The interior of that workshop was a techno-fetishist’s orgy room. Barely fitting into the hardware-packed space, Belphegor was stripped down to his BVDs and socks. He was strapped down to something that uncomfortably resembled a gynecologist’s examination couch. Belpho his own august self was struggling furiously against a hentai-like mass of tendrils and cables that were trying to penetrate places in his body not meant to be penetrated. And the really sad thing is that there’s probably a market for image like that.

I cleared my throat and said, “We’re going to have to hit MELCHIOR where he’s weakest: his inability to perceive or understand magic.” Wheels made a rude noise and rolled her eyes. Doc gave her a ‘be nice!’ nudge in the hip. “So, I’ll cast a concealment spell on us, using my table to access the Mega-Book.” I fiddled with the tablet using my athame and-

-biffed it, big time. There may be more to this Magick thing than I thought…

A huge brilliantly blue octopus whose body was the head of a roaring lion congealed into existence. As it roared, Wheels said “Aw Jeez, THIS again?” She grappled the surprised octo-lion as Doc opened the door to the chamber. Wheels threw the Octo-lion into the workshop, and MELCHIOR reacted to it the same way that CASPAR had the scene with the Pharaoh and the Meta-Fusion Reactor. As everything technological reacted to the hobgoblin, focusing entirely on it and trying to contain and examine it, Doc slipped in, and produced a BFG.

I posed my fist in the designated ‘Green Lantern’ posture and shouted, “I HAVE THE POWER!” As the ring kicked in, Doc and Wheels gave me dirty looks. “What? Don’t Judge Me!” Still, the ring let off a beam of energy with a lusty hiss that took out a threatening waldo packet.

Wheels and I hacked our way through the jungle of cables and waldoes, even as MELCHIOR and the Octo-lion tore each other apart. The Octo-lion had landed on top of a writhing Belphegor, who was doing his best to scream. Doc clambered through the wiring with her own octopus legs, and tore the mouthpiece from Belpho’s mouth. “Belphegor!” she snapped, “What’s the ‘McMurphy Solution’?”

“Main Server, D quadrant, Sector 14…” he managed to grate out.

Doc got Belpho’s meaning immediately. She located MELCHIOR’s main server, accessed D quadrant of his hardware, which Belphegor had somehow contrived to keep him from protecting, located Sector 14 of that quadrant, where there was a compact but powerful maser. The maser was pointed straight at MELCHIOR’S liquid crystal AI core, and it had a very simple pushbutton trigger.

Doc pushed the button, and nothing happened. “It looks like MELCHIOR found a way to isolate the maser from its power supply and drain the integral battery. Clever boy.” She put her finger on the maser casing. There was a hiss, the magic blue smoke came out from the core chamber, and an umber froth bubbled up from that chamber. “Not clever enough. I can energize electronics now.”

The writhing electronics went still, and it all started making the reboot noises, along with a lot of ‘what do YOU want to do, Marty’ messages. MELCHIOR was essentially dead.

Rot in Silicon Hell, fucker.

Though Belpho was panting with relieved terror, Wheels held him down as Doc unplugged him from the various weird bits of tech that were patched into his neural interfaces. Then she looked curiously at the ‘bonnet’ of technology that was poised over his head. A storm cloud passed over her features. She almost tore him out of the restraints as she pulled him up into her raging face. “You have a Skulljacker? MELCHIOR was going to download himself into your brain?”

“No!” Belpho blustered, “But I acquired a set of blueprints with interesting potentials, and… WHY AM I JUSTIFYING MYSELF TO YOU?”

“That doesn’t make any sense!” I objected. “Like you said, computer logic and neurological thought processes are fundamentally incompatible.”

“So?” Wheels cut in, “Who says that Mel was gonna try to hijack Braindead-fegor’s skull?”

“It’s like being back at school,” Belpho groused.

“Mel just had to weasel its way into Blobbo’s neural network and make him, say a radio-controlled puppet,” Wheels continued. “I mean, really, this level of tech is NOT my field of expertise, but with the kind of wiring the Master Thespian here has in his head, the possibilities just go wild.”

There may actually be something to Belphegor’s loud claims of genius. Don’t ask me how, but somehow the big side of ham, despite being bound and restrained and caught in a tangle of electronic cables and wiring, managed to not only get free, but got his hands on his overcoat, vest and walking stick, and got away from us.

Or maybe it wasn’t that mysterious. Doc held us back and said, “Okay, he fell for it.”

“Fell for what?”

“Fell for the booby-trapped egg-chair one of me set up where Golden Tonsils could spot it,” she said with a satisfied smirk. “I split off four of me, and they set up that and a couple of other traps for the Boob of Avon. Right now, he’s inside a chair that has no weaponry, no gear, and no exit. And its battery is very low. Ladies, what say we go pry him out of it- and pry a few other things, like where he has a spare stabilizer, out of him?”

We made our merry way to… Bay J? Where the ST:TOS teleporter rig was?

When we got there, Belpho was stuck in his chair, which was stuck in a capture field in the Staging Pad of the transporter. He was banging away at his own chair and cussing up a faux-Elizabethan storm.

“I didn’t set that,” Doc said.

“No, I did,” I said smugly. “I knew that eventually someone would try to run using this thing, so I took precautions.”

“Hey, LOOK!” Wheels said, pointing to something next to the control station. “It’s the stabilizer!”

“Okay, this is either very good, or very bad,” I said as I picked up the ‘manhole cover’ and found the chip cache. Which was empty. “FUCK,” I said. “Someone’s playing games.” I scowled at Belpho. “I wonder who.”

Wheels stalked up to the Staging Pad and pounded on the exterior of the chair. “Okay Fathead! Tell us where you hid the backup stabilizer!”

“WHY would I make a backup stabilizer? It would only undermine the effectiveness of the coercion value of the stabilizer,” Belpho shot back.

“Okay, now I know that he has a backup stabilizer,” Doc groused. “If he didn’t have one, he’d try to foist something off on us, as long as we let him out, and then laugh as we dissolved ourselves trying to stabilize. And come ON, who uses the Star Trek Disassemble/ Reassemble teleport scheme anymore? We’re lucky that we didn’t walk out with the heads of FLIES!”

“Well, I don’t USE it. As a matter of fact, I was just going to part it out when- NOT THE BLOODY POINT!”

I said, “We know you have a backup stabilizer, because you’re too chicken-shit to trust that your hench-wenches won’t run off with it if you need it!”

“Y’know, I could just kludge together a stabilizer and-” Doc started to say.

‘NO,” Wheels and I said in perfect unison and agreement.

“TELL us where it fucking IS, or we’ll beam you down 400 feed into the ground!” Wheels snapped. Negotiations are not her forte. “Even if that doesn’t kill you, by the time you sleaze your way to the surface, you’ll be a puddle of GOO!”

“And you’ll be in exactly the same predicament,” Belphegor smugged.

As Wheels and Belphegor snapped at each other, I strummed my fingers on the console. We did not have TIME that that! Okay, it’s time to think: who would bring the manhole cover here and leave it, but take the stabilizer chip? The only one particularly interested in the chip besides us was the Dodger. But the stabilizer chip isn’t in the console, and the Dodger just doesn’t strike me as that vicious; if anything she strikes me as the type who prides herself on keeping her agreements, and-

-and then I noticed my fingers strumming on the console. Y’know, there may just be something to the bit about our unconscious minds being smarter than our conscious ones? I cut off Wheels’ and Belpho’s yammering with,” Okay, if that’s the way you’re going to be, Bel-brainless, so be it! Enjoy the substrata!” And I pulled the slide down, teleporting Belpho and his ridiculous chair. I got to enjoy the stricken look of abject horror on Belphegor’s face as he sparkled away.

“SLIM!” Wheels gasped, “What did you DO?”

“CHILL,” I breezed. “I just beamed Goldfinker over to his Trenton base. And now I’m isolating this teleporter, so he can’t just beam back or rebound from Yonkers.”

“BUT HE-”

“He was gaming us,” I shot back. “I know where the chip is. But we gotta get back to Blue Comet and Luxara, before someone gets them in the bag.”

“Ah, Slim?” Wheels objected. “We been saying for hours that we’re gonna do the smart thing and just get OUT of here. Now that you know where the chip is… why not just LEAVE? Get while the getting’s good and like that?”

“Tempting,” Doc allowed, “very tempting, but not a good idea. We agreed to help the Dodger bag Ulrike. The Dodger strikes me as the sort who prides herself in keeping her word; it’s probably one of the ways that she justifies being such a wiseass. But at the same time, she also strikes me as someone who’d take getting stabbed in the back very personally. And on the flip side, I think that we all can agree that the sooner Ulrike is in Azkaban or whatever jail they use for magickers-”

“It doesn’t have a name,” I informed them. “That way, it’s a lot harder to use magic on. Lucky Luciano used the same bit for La Cosa Nostra.”

“Thrilling,” Doc said severely. “The point being that Ulrike is just the sort to come after us and twist us all for everything she can get and past that, just because she’s fucking evil. So we give her to the Dodger. And the Raven Witch is more of the same, only worse. We have got to take her down while she’s still comparatively weak, and we’ve got allies in Luxara and the Comet. He may not like it, but we put the bitch DOWN.

“And on the subject of Luxara, there’s the fact a hella nasty CULT with very Fu Manchu vibes is involved. Al-Whateverhisnameis isn’t gonna cut us any slack if we leave Luxara twisting in the wind; if he takes control of the Black Pharaoh Cult, he’ll make sure that we get very, very DEAD on general principles. If we leave Luxara hanging, but she manages to take control of the cult- yeah, slim chance, but longer odds have come in at the home stretch- then it’ll be more of the same, only personal. And we’ve seen that Luxara has a very nasty vindictive streak. If we back her up, all of that owes us a Solid. And, there’s the factor that we’re unknown properties in the supervillain circuit again; we can’t afford to earn reputations as backstab artists on our big debut. We keep our deal with Luxara, get her power staff to her, we deliver Ulrike to the Dodger, and then we get the fuck out.”

“Taking the Comet with us,” I insisted. Doc and Wheels gave me knowing smirks. “What? You never know what’s going to happen to you in the supervillain biz; it can’t hurt to have a superhero owing you a Solid!”

“Okay, okay,” Wheels groaned, “We go. What happened to you two being nice, sane cowards?”

“We are cowards,” I defended Doc and myself. “We’re weaseling out of getting burned worse down the line by running into the fire while it’s low.”

linebreak shadow

As Brownsville was Belphegor’s main office in the Greater New York area, we made a brief detour to the paymaster’s office, and picked up $125 grand each in small bills. It’s not like this place doesn’t have a visit from NYPD coming soon, so Belpho would be out the cash anyway. And no matter how this settles out, we’re gonna need a lot of walking around money.

linebreak shadow

The battle had moved on, but if there’s one good thing about a five-sided pitched battle, it’s that it’s not hard to find: just follow the sound of millions of dollars worth of high-tech equipment being shredded. Oh, and wounded Goldfaces getting carted to the MedBay.

The situation when we got to that warehouse was damn near trench warfare.

Luxara and Blue Comet had taken refuge behinds some crates that were turning into craters. The Raven Witch had captured the Power Staff and took control of the Mecha-Ushabtis. Luxara was trading blasts with her. Ulrike had taken cover, as had the Scorpions, and the Goldface Gang was waiting for the Raven Witch to take out Luxara or vice-versa.

“Okay, what we need is a Circle of Protection for our side,” I said, bringing out my crystal tablet. I called up the specs for just such a circle, used my athame and-

-biffed it. AGAIN. It can’t be the book, so it must be this athame. Stupid junk!

I felt way too much power flow into the working, and a swarm of… crickets? With heads and bodies and fur like giraffes? They sort of exploded in all different directions, and both the Raven Witch and Ulrike seemed to be creeped out by them for some reason.

Are these things reflections of things that exist in other dimensions? Or do I have to worry about my subconscious?

But that gave the Blue Comet the opening to get his Superman on. He did a vaulting leap over the Mecha-Ushabti and tackled the Raven Witch directly. As he and the Raven Witch wrestled in a way that made me very uncomfortable, Luxara shoved the Mega-Book into my arms, picked up the Salt Tablet and the Super-Lamp and gave me a silent instruction: when BD had the Raven Witch properly grappled, we’d go in. I’d read the formula for a binding ritual, and she’d use the tablet to force the Witch out of the Perfect Girlfriend Body, and then stash it in the lamp. We’d make our plans from there depending on how that nice, sound, simple plan worked out. <whimper!>

Surprisingly, Wheels and Doc not only followed our silent planning session, but they followed us through the ranks of confused Mecha-Ushabti. Doc wrapped her Doc Ock arms around RW’s arms as Wheels held her legs. Wheels told BD to cover our flank, and he erected a wall of blue force.

Could he do that before? Howcome everyone knows how to use their powers but ME?

Luxara set the salt tablet on RW’s chest and held the lamp at ready. I requested a quick and easy binding rite for a Raven Witch. The Book complies and I threw everything I had into it and-

-biffed it, yet again. What am I doing wrong?

Five of the oogliest mermaids you ever saw, with faces like piranhas, forelimbs that were sometimes arms, sometimes lobster claws, sometimes tentacles, and long oozing tails ‘swam’ into existence. We got rid of them easily, throwing them at the Goldface Gang and the Scorpions, but it cost us our grip on the Raven Witch.

RW gave me a nasty smile and sents a bolt of witchfire at me, which I parried with my power ring. I decided to give her a blast to give Wheels and Doc another chance to grapple her. But when I pointed my power ring at her it went *pfft!* Wyle E Coyote time. “_oh crap_”

Her smile turned into a classic bully’s smirk, and she pointed the Staff of Horus (upgraded) at me. Just before the bolt of whatever it was hit me, the last thing to go through my mind was ‘oh man, this is gonna hurt.’

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DOC

As the bolt of eldritch power hit Slim, the thought ‘oh man, that has gotta hurt’ passed through Doc’s mind for some reason. Then her mind went blank with terror as Slim split-again. But this time, instead of simply a fuzzy, unfocused version of Slim-as-Dodger, Slim split into two wispy TV ghost versions of Slim-as-Dodger. “Shit!” Doc thought to herself, “Slim’s the only one who knows where the Stabilizer is!” And then she was ashamed of herself for being so selfish.

And that turned to pure cold horror as the Raven Witch gestured with her hand at the Slim that didn’t have a Book of Really Kewl Awesomeness in her hands, and pulled that version, kicking and screaming towards her. The other Slim was frantically going through the Book of Overhyped Wisdom, and frantically waving that stupid magical knife again. “No, Slim!” Doc shouted, “You’ll only make it worse!”

Then the Raven Witch pursed her lips and sort of sucked Slim into her. She stood there for a long moment with a look like she was deciding whether or not she liked how Slim tasted. Then the Slim that was still… alive… sort of… finished up her spell-

-and she biffed it AGAIN! This time, she erupted in a shower of golden glowing circles that were wheels within wheels, rings within rings and stars with eyes in the corners and wings and unburning fire. The swarm of whatever those were shot out at the Raven Witch, and for a brief desperate moment, Doc thought that her friend had finally pulled one off. The rings bound the Raven Witch hand and foot, and whirled around her head in a halo, and raced around her body, lifting it up. But then the Raven Witch opened her eyes and smiled in triumph. She gestured at the last surviving scrap of Doc’s friend, partner in crime and good companion, and that ghostly wisp followed her sister into the Raven Witch’s mouth.

Somehow a bunch of Slim’s stuff resolved around the Raven Witch: the Dodger glasses, the chameleon cloak that never hid her, the long coat, the pants, that trick belt, the useless power ring, the bandolier, the sprayer that Slim never got to use, the vari-pistols that had been so useless, even that even more useless Overrated Book of Pointless Spells.

Doc couldn’t help it. She screamed, “You ATE Slim! You BITCH!”

 

To Be Continued
Read 3008 times Last modified on Saturday, 21 August 2021 01:35

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Original Timeline

Original Timeline stories published from 2004-2009

Original Timeline stories published from 2010 - 2015