Kick the Dragon and Run

By Dr. Xadium • September 1997 Draft


Legal Stuff: You may not use any of the characters or situations in your own work without my express written permission. Unlike my fanfics I'm a bit more strict about the use of these characters and settings. Why? Even though this novel is very rough compared to what I can do now, I still think the characters and the universe of KTDAR have potential if used properly. I am willing to work with others in developing any serious authors or artists in projects around the KTDAR premise, even to a great deal of re-working of the characters or premises. If anyone is interested, I can be reached at Right. Enough of that.

Thanks to all my friends at Suburban Senshi for just being so generally kickass on principle. I'm releasing this as a poorly-written present to you guys. The last three years have been great, here's to three more!

DISCLAIMER: This is a work of abolute insanity. Plot is not guaranteed. Sanity at the end of reading this is not guaranteed. You will not get a refund at the end of this. Do not ask for one lest the singing gnomes come for you.


High in the mountains of Drakklar, hidden amongst the vast outcroppings of stone and barren peaks of jagged ice, the great Mage Merdemus sat within his ancient circle of power and concentrated all his efforts on the object in front of him.

Using all of his will, he sought to accomplish his goal:  the task which had consumed over a millennium of his existence . . . the combustion of a small twig.

“Burn, damn thee!” he screamed . . . but nothing happened.

He focused all his energy—the result of thousands of years of intense training—but still, nothing.

Eventually, he decided on the only course of action left to him.

Apprentice!” he screamed.  “Fire!  Now!

The Mage growled as his Apprentice Eric obediently cast a small spell that ignited the twig.  Merdemus frowned.  How was it that a Mage of the First Order, Lord of the Seven Disciplines and Master of the Forces Elemental, could not accomplish this simple, in fact, childlike spell?

He decided that he did not wish to think of this any longer.

Getting up, the Mage stepped out of the circle of power and glared at his Apprentice, who was busy warming his hands by the warmth of the crackling fire . . . the fire that had eluded him for so long.

Irked, he found some paper and a quill, scribbled out, “Going to lunch—clean up, thou art fired,” handed it to Eric, and then promptly plummeted off the side of the mountaintop after the ungrateful whelp shoved him from behind.

Wondering what had happened to his safety rail, Merdemus noted as he fell that the usually surly Eric had been acting a little too happy today.

“My reward, no doubt, for training a union Apprentice,” he thought, just as he hit bottom.

*                                  *                                  *

Elsewhere, a pair of eyes gazing in a crystal ball watched his descent with a morbid fascination.

“The shadow falls upon us once again, Merdemus.”

*                                  *                                  *

Waking up at the base of the mountain some time later, Merdemus noted that he had a massive headache . . . one even worse than the kind he used to get playing “Kick the Dragon and Run,” a cheerful sport involving a rather reluctant Dragon and hordes of athletic lads with exceptionally good muscular development in the legs, half of whom would mistakenly kick each other instead of the creature.

He shook his head and looked around for the village of Garath , which had surrounded the mountain when he had made his ascent one thousand years ago.  What he found were trees.

Lots of trees.

In fact, the only recognizable vestige of Garath was the huge boulder that had marked the center of town. Under it had lived Krek, known formally as The Belligerent Krek, Keeper of All Things Sickening and Foul.

Krek had been the local cook, and the only Gnome who had ever mastered grammar.

Merdemus looked around the boulder and found the secret opening which was Krek’s front door.  Stepping inside, he invoked a minor light spell, and saw the Gnome himself sleeping on a slab of hard rock.

Gnomes were creatures whose height rarely exceeded two feet, and as such their tiny, infant-sized faces were usually considered “cute” and pleasant to behold.  This principle, however, did not hold when it came to Krek.  Somehow this bloated thing had managed to grow to the size of a normal man, while retaining the facial proportions of an infant and the warts of a toad on his chin.  Merdemus winced at the sight.

Shoving the creature awake, Merdemus turned his head away as Krek’s mouth opened and he remembered how the “Sickening and Foul” had become the Gnome’s title.

“What you WANT?!”  The moldering Gnome straightened up.  “ME TRYING SLEEP here, you know!”

Merdemus covered his nose and tried to introduce himself. “Ids be, Berdebus!”

The Gnome shook his head, irritation growing.  “What?!”  The fumes of his breath were now visibly wafting throughout the interior of the small boulder. “Berdebus!  The bage!  The bage—”  Realizing there was no way around it, Merdemus released his nose and hastily said, “Merdemus.  Lord of the Seven Disciplines, Master of the Forces Elemental—”

“AHH!”  Krek smiled and emitted more foul odor.  Outside, the sounds of berserking animals fleeing for their lives could be heard.  “The Mage!”

Merdemus nodded.  “The Mage.”

Krek’s mind quickly began to hurt itself rather badly.  It was trying to figure out what all this meant.  So this was a bage.  Now, it thought, what was a bage, what was it doing here, why was it doing it here, and why was it doing whatever it is it was doing in the first place?  It gave up under the load.

Krek stared blankly.  This Mage looked like a human man.  But then, most Mages were human men, because otherwise they would be human women and thus also Mages.  Hmm.  Confusion.  The long, striking nose, brown hair in monk-like haircut.  The Ego that even his simple mind could detect.  Ahh, yes!

“The one could not light simple twig!  Remember you now.”

Merdemus frowned.  “What happened to the town?”

Krek growled.  “Come outside. Will show.”

The two emerged from Krek’s rock.  Merdemus noted that a small patch of the forest around the cave had suddenly been defoliated.  The trees had turned away from the boulder as best they could, dropping their leaves in defeat as their roots withered away. Even the insects had all left the immediate area.  Not even an ant could be found on the ground.

“That happened,” Krek growled.  “After you left, me was trying to sell cooking door-to-door.  No reason, everyone started running away far.  Me followed, trying get them to listen, but some evil force must have taken them.  They dropped dead at feet. If me ever find who did this . . . ”

Merdemus’ hand by this time had almost become permanently affixed to his nose, but it was no use—the stench was too strong.  Even magical protection was becoming useless.  One of the Seven Disciplines that Merdemus had learned was the art of Immortality, but Krek’s breath was testing its limits.  There was only one choice left.

The Mage looked evenly at Krek, then fell down and feigned death.

Krek noted this and looked up, shaking his fists at the sky and screaming, “Evil force!  One day me destroy you!  SWEAR IT!”

Yawning, he went back into his cave and dozed off.  Merdemus waited until the smell had wafted downwind before getting up.  He jerked around as he sensed something behind him, but this part of the forest had been cleared of all life, thanks to Krek.

The shadows were playing tricks on his mind, he decided.

Moving forward, the Mage looked back up the mountain that he had just come down from and marveled at the height.  He sighed, wondering if it was worth it to try and become part of the world again after all this time—a third of his life—had been spent on the mountaintop.

Merdemus felt a strange compulsion to go back up the mountain, but then realized that the homicidal Apprentice was still there, up on the mountaintop, probably awaiting his return with fiendish glee and a variety of sharp knives.  It would take little effort to return to the summit and smite Eric, but that would be counterproductive at this stage.  The little grub had actually summoned up the courage to attack his master, finally taking the first step towards becoming a Mage in his own right.  Like every good teacher, Merdemus now was obliged to step aside and let the boy grow.

The Mage smiled to himself. Yes, he thought; he would wait.  He would wait until the grub had gotten a little stronger, fat with his own imagined power.  He would wait until Eric had the hubris to come down the mountain and chase after him, probably with an arsenal of pathetic spells at his command.  Yes, Merdemus decided.  He would wait until the moment Eric was a real Mage, then he would smite him.  That would be much more stimulating.

Dusting off his coarse brown robes, the Mage decided to find another village and get on with his life.

*                                  *                                  *

“No!  Go back!  Go back!” The watcher pounded his fist on the table, causing his crystal ball to move slightly.  “Don’t force the cycle to repeat again!”

He watched Merdemus move off, and sighed.  “Very well, Mage.  We are committed to the path.”

*                                  *                                  *

Levitating, Merdemus rose above the canopy of the forest and proceeded to look around for any sign of intelligent life that might be able to lead him to a village or town of some kind.  He was so preoccupied with the thought of getting to a town that he entirely failed to detect the presence of a massive glass-and-steel city coming slowly into view.  Merdemus was too busy looking down at the trees, hunting for signs of small wooden houses nestled within.

After an hour of skimming the treetops and dodging birds, he finally spied what looked to be two people near a small table of some kind.

Lowering himself onto the ground so as not to startle them with his approach, Merdemus walked over to the couple.  Both were bald and wearing clothes that seemed to be made of frayed blue sackcloth.  They were smoking leaves of some kind.  Moving closer, he saw one of them point to the sky, roll his eyes about and mutter, “Cosmic, man! Totally radical!”

The bald girl followed his gaze and exhaled, “This is awesome, man!  I saw a guy flyyyyin’ . . . killer!”

Merdemus touched the boy on the shoulder and asked, “Didst thou say ‘Cosmic’?”  The boy did not look at Merdemus, his gaze seemingly fixed in the middle distance.

“Yeah, man.  This is like, so cosmic . . . the colors, man!  Look at the colors!” Merdemus withdrew his touch.  “Ahh.  Thou art accessing the Cosmic.  I see.  I will not bother thee whilst thou art practicing thy Magic.”  He walked away.  One of the first things aspiring Mages had to learn was how to access the Cosmic—although, Merdemus thought, those two did not seem like aspiring Mages.  Actually, he had known an alchemist who had behaved in much a similar matter.  That poor fellow had been most thoroughly stoned—though Merdemus was hard-pressed to recall if that had been before or after the angry villagers had arrived.

He shook his head and came to a large clearing where many people were simply standing, as if in wait for the arrival of an important personage . . . but surely they could not have known of his arrival this quickly?

Walking up to a man that was looking at his wrist for some reason, Merdemus tapped him on the shoulder.

“Pardon me.  Why art thou standing here?”

The man squinted at the Mage, then noted his robes and spoke.

“Father . . . sorry.  We’re waiting for the bus.”

Merdemus stared at the man quizzically.  Then he smiled.

“Thou confuses me with a member of the Priesthood.  I am a Mage of the First Order, Lord of the Seven Disciplines, Master of the Forces Elemental.”

The man nodded absently. “That’s nice.”

Eventually, a long metallic object came clambering down a path near the clearing.  To Merdemus it looked like an exceptionally bloated Knight that had somehow been put on wheels.  He reasoned that this had to be the “bus.”

Waiting until everyone else had boarded, he stepped up and spoke to the man he assumed was in charge.

“Will this device take me to a village or township?”

The bus driver grumbled, “Exact change please.”

Merdemus scowled.  “I have seven gold florins.  Will that do?”

“Exact change please.”

The Mage sighed.  “I do not have thy form of currency.”

“Exact change please.”

“Where mayst I obtain ‘exact change’?”

“Exact change please.”

By now, the other passengers had become weary with the delay.  Thirty seconds was just too much.

One woman rose up and yelled, “He’s a priest!  Let him on for free already!” to which the man Merdemus recognized as the one he had talked to while waiting for the bus replied, “He’s not a priest.  He’s a Wizard,” prompting a general chuckle from the passengers.

The woman scowled.   “It’s not nice to insult the clergy.”

Merdemus raised his hand imperially.  “’Tis true.  I can transmute this whole vehicle into gold if it will pay thy fee.”

The bus driver kept staring out the windshield.  “Exact change please.”

Merdemus scowled.  He raised his hands up and yelled, “VAS CORPOS DEL MATRICULUM DE BUS INTO GOLD!” at which point the bus, tires and all, was turned to gold.

Unfortunately, it was now also beginning to sink into the ground.  While the passengers gawked at the sight, Merdemus snorted and proceeded to walk off towards the sunset.

As the Mage moved down a lonely stretch of road, a man ran up to him, clothing torn and tattered in many different places.  There was smoke coming from some smoldering patches on his shirt.  His eyes were wild—but with fear or anger, Merdemus could not tell.

“You there, Mage!  You’re coming with me!”

Merdemus frowned.  “What?”

“You got us into this mess!” The man rushed Merdemus, but the Mage simply stepped aside.

“Explain thy words!”

“Your kind are always hiding in the shadows, aren’t you!  Now you and this MEFISTO start something you can’t control and you run off, leaving us to handle the mess!”  The man pulled out a device that was obviously a weapon of some kind.  “You’re comin’ back with me—to NAFTA continent!”

Merdemus raised his arms, and thunderheads began to form over his head, rumbling ominously.  The man laughed, pointing the small box-like weapon at Merdemus.

“Go ahead, try it.  Your powers won’t affect me.  The future will still be there.”

Lightning flashed from the clouds overhead and blasted a patch of earth in front of the stranger.

“Desist,” Merdemus growled, “or the next bolt shall surely striketh thee!”

“Heh.”  The man squeezed the box, and Merdemus felt a sharp stabbing pain in his side.  The lightning and clouds vanished.  Somehow the stranger had blocked his control of the Forces Elemental!

“Why dost thou wish to attack me?  I mean thee no harm.”  The Mage staggered back slightly.

Before the man could reply, he was enveloped in a greenish haze.

“No!  Not yet!  I had him!  I had Merdemus!”  The man screamed out in pain as he vanished.

With the departure of the stranger, Merdemus felt his powers return.  He shook his head, wondering at the powers that man must represent.

Merdemus noted that the stranger had dropped a small card.  He picked it up, but the words on it meant nothing to him.  Putting the card away, he wondered where the man could have possibly come from.  His instincts told him that on some level, that fellow had been just as much a stranger to this place as he was.

*                                  *                                  *

In a distant part of San Francisco , there is a place and time so utterly barbaric that only the hardiest of souls dare brave its treacherous paths for any length of time, and even they are forever scarred from the experience.

In this place, known to most as downtown, and in this time, known widely as rush hour, Miranda Jesmerelda Wright was desperately trying to catch a taxi cab.

Miranda’s brain said she was on vacation . . . or so it kept insisting madly in an attempt to keep her from rushing back to the sanity and relative comfort of her work, as this day was proving to be anything but relaxing.

She whistled for cab.  She yelled for a cab.  She phoned for a cab.  She threw a rock at a cab with a note in it saying “Pull over!” but for some inexplicable reason, the cab swerved away from her and knocked over a fire hydrant.  Sighing, Miranda walked to her hotel.

*                                  *                                  *

The Adams Hotel was a grand old building nestled smack in the corner of one of the busiest streets in San Francisco .  The exterior had all the trappings of a four-star hotel, from the multinational flags that adorned its second story to the overly courteous doormen at the front who became unspeakably profane when denied their just gratuity.

Miranda entered the hotel and gazed for a moment at the interior of its lobby.  The lighting was two magnitudes brighter than the sun’s, and any surface capable of holding a mirror of some kind did so.

The borders of the lobby were defined on the left by a “Hard Shock Café” which blared out heavy bass music, on the right by a bank of pay phones and vending machines, and in the center by a massive wooden desk marked “Reception,” behind which some elevators and a winding spiral staircase could be found.  The whole place smelled like the inside of a new shoe.

Slowly, she made her way through the crowds and got to the Reception desk, presenting her “Prepaid Supersaver Ultra Deluxe Vacation” pass to the desk clerk.

The clerk, who was a nearsighted pimply-faced teenager, snorted twice and pointed to the junker of a computer next to him.  “Sorry, ma’am, but that room is occupied.”

“What do you mean my room is occupied!?”  Miranda brushed back some of her blonde hair and glared at the desk clerk.  “I paid for it yesterday!” The desk clerk pulled out a sheet.

“Wriggle . . . Wriggly . . . Wright . . . Wright, Miranda J . . . room sixty-nine forty- two . . .  Oops.”  He giggled like a baby.

Miranda’s brown eyes glared.  “OOPS?”

The desk clerk was now cooing with delight at his mistake.

“I . . . I—hee hee—over booked . . . I’ve never done that before . . . a first—heh . . . Here’s—here’s half your money back in full plus a free pass to the Bumblyworld amusement park.”  He proffered some cash and a crumpled piece of paper.

Miranda took the money and the pass, then looked away for a moment before grabbing the gurgling clerk by his lapels.

“I’m a hundred and twenty miles from home—I paid for a room—and you over booked?!  And now, you give me half my money back and a free pass to Bumblyworld?! Do I look like I’m three years old?!”

The clerk gazed at Miranda’s face.  “Gosh, no . . . you remind me of the girl that said she would go with me to the prom and then dumped me for the journalism major.”

Miranda blinked.  “What did you major in?” she asked, wondering what curriculum vitae could have produced the genius behind the desk.

“Heh,” he snorted.  “Shop.  I was the smartest one there!  Two-forty on the SAT!”  He began to snort and chuckle uncontrollably.

“I see.”  Putting him down, Miranda let him become silent, and then leaned forward, lowering her voice to as menacing as tone as she could possibly get.

“I want a courtesy car downstairs in five minutes, or I’m gonna go up to room—”  She paused, and frowned.  “What’s your room number?”

“Two . . . two twenty-seven , ma’am . . . ” the now-pale clerk replied.

“Thanks.  I’m gonna go up to room two twenty-seven and . . . well . . . ”  She paused, thinking of a suitable threat.

“I work for the feds, you know. I’m a computer genius.  I can get you audited by the IRS.  But you couldn’t possibly have anything they would want . . . so I’ll have your boss audited, tell him you sent them there, and the next thing you know, you’re going to be living at Bumblyworld!”  She let every word sink in like a lead weight.

The poor clerk was almost whispering when he replied. “You’re not a federal agent . . . you’re not dressed like one.”

Miranda stifled a scream, growling out a tense “I’m on vacation.”

“Yeah, right.”  The clerk frowned.  “How do I know you’re a federal computer genius?”

Unable to find her ID in her purse, Miranda thought of something.  “What’s your hotel computer’s password?”

The kid glanced over at the antique Timex-Sinclair machine’s screen.  “JMS-Babylon.”

“Now see, I already knew that.” She crossed her arms and waited to see if this kid was really as stupid as she thought he was.

“Wow!”  The clerk pined visibly and hurriedly looked for a courtesy car, coming up blank.  “We don’t have a courtesy car . . . ”

“Well, you’d better find something!  And who did you book my room to, anyway?”

“Some weird guy with a big parrot in a cage on his shoulder.”

“Okay . . . ”  Miranda shook her head and went out into the lobby.  In four minutes, a man appeared with a card that said “Veranda A. Write.”

“Close enough,” she muttered and headed over to the man.  She was led to a rusty old van covered in gaudy colored balloons with a rotating frog’s head on it.  The man coughed.  “Ms. Wright, no courtesy car was available for you, so I am pleased to present . . . the Bumblyland shuttle!”

Miranda groaned.  “I thought it was BumblyWORLD.”

“It is.  This van is out of date.  Keep it.  We’ll WRITE it off.”

Miranda rolled her eyes as the man laughed at his pun.  She then eyed the “Bumblyland Shuttle.”  Getting in, she turned the ignition key, and the rotating frog began to spin and RIBBIT in a deep voice.  She drove off, wondering how stupid she must be looking at the moment.

*                                  *                                  *

Far away, the watcher looking through his crystal ball knew exactly how stupid she was looking.  It was all intentional, of course.  He had thought the frog was a nice touch.

It was good, he reflected, having a chance to prepare for the coming events this time around . . . not like the first iteration, where he had made many critical errors in his dealings with Merdemus and his friends.  No, not like the first time at all . . .

He pondered for a moment how people could live totally insular lives, totally unaware that others were living and thinking in unique ways all around them, until the fateful moment when destiny or an external force brings a few of those people together for a meeting of the minds, usually just in time for a very nasty, horrible accident.

He grinned at the thought and continued planning the accident.  

Into Motion

A good distance away, Merdemus was trudging along, trying to concentrate on levitating, which was a bad thing, since Mages of his stature usually didn’t have to think about little things like that at all.

Unfortunately, his mind was full of other, more annoying thoughts.  His encounter with the strange man had left him confused, and the world he had come to from the mountaintop was a far, far different one than the world he had left a thousand years ago.

Mages were no longer respected. It used to be that if you were a Mage of the standing Merdemus enjoyed, people would fling themselves down at your feet, begging that they be spared from death, even if they had just met you.  They would ask your advice, pay for spells, even send their inept, bungling children to you in the hopes that you could turn them into model citizens.  Now, no one even cast a second glance at you, except to criticize the robes.

Merdemus stopped for a moment to touch the Cosmic.  Some knew it as the Tao, or the Zen:  the force that connects and binds everything to all else.  Mages learned not only to “read” the Cosmic—to “feel” or to be led by it to something—they learned how to affect it, to manipulate the connections affecting an object so it became transmuted, lifted, disintegrated, or generally made to do something completely unintended by the manufacturers.

Once Mages reached a high enough level, they themselves would be a displacement in the Cosmic.  It was this Merdemus was looking for.  He could detect a strong Mage a mile away; weak ones, cunning ones, a few yards away, if at all.

He needed to find a Mage who had not sequestered himself for a millennium to bring him “up to date” quite literally on what exactly Earth had become—but, touching the Cosmic, he felt nothing but weak tugs.

It was as if either there were a lot of Apprentices hiding in the bushes, or that there were only a few great Mages separated by thousands and thousands of miles.  That disturbed him greatly.

Following the strongest of those tugs, Merdemus got enough thought-power together to lift off the ground and smack himself flat against a tree.

He tried incinerating the tree for spite, but only its leaves would burn.

Growling and shaking off the dust on his robes, Merdemus levitated above the trees, cursing as the birds found him again and practiced their obligatory dive-bombing maneuvers.

Following the tugs of the Cosmic, Merdemus moved closer and closer to points of light in the now-darkening sky.  Below him, devices like the bus were speeding along faster than any horse he had ever seen.  He decided to see if he could out-race them. Pushing his levitation to the maximum limit he could horizontally, he found he had to throw up a personal screen to keep the wind and bugs out of his face, but he was outdistancing the vast majority of those things.

As it got darker, Merdemus invoked the First Discipline, which let him see where he was going even in pitch darkness.  This led him to the shocking revelation that he was about to become one with a rather large rectangular object.

Merdemus gasped as he pulled himself off of what he realized was a modern-day version of a house.  It stretched far down to the ground, and farther still up into the air.  There were light-holes covered by glass which covered most of the exterior.  It was one of these light-holes that he had nearly crashed into.

He stood calmly on a ledge, looking down at the pinpoints of light below.

Suddenly, a large beam of light, far more powerful than any a torch could produce, shone on him from the ground below.

Some men, who had arrived in small buses with flashing colored lights on top, now spoke to him through strangely-shaped horns they held up to their mouths.

“Attention!  You, up there, the monk!  Do not jump!  Let’s talk about this!”

Merdemus snorted and replied in his best I-am-a-magus-of-incredible-power-you- sniveling-peon voice.

“I am not a monk! Wouldst thou kindly move that light away from my person?!  It is giving me pains in my head!”

Sergeant Webb looked at the monk on the forty-second floor of the Adams Hotel and sighed.  His partner, Lieutenant O’Hara, took the bullhorn and flipped open his “Dealing with Strange and Unusual Behavior in Public Relations Situations while Remaining Politically Correct” handbook, raising his arm.

“Calm down my sanity-impaired friend.  I am here to assist you.  I can see that you are insert action here because of the fact that society has treated you and all others who share your unique state of being wrongly . . .”

Merdemus could not believe the drivel coming out of the man’s mouth.  It was not that he could not understand the words—the Second Discipline took care of that—it was that the words were so incredibly genericized it was a wonder that the man could express himself at all.  Death had been reduced to a “metabolical challenge.”

Merdemus laughed.  “Thine words are moronic, thy reasoning clouded.  I have no time for your childlike babblings.”

Lieutenant O’Hara blinked and looked at Sergeant Webb.  “What did the mentally challenged nonconformist individual say?”

Sergeant Webb snatched the handbook out of O’Hara’s hand and ripped it up, not without some glee.

“The loon on the ledge said to make sense or shut up.  And I agree with him!”

O’Hara growled.  “It is not PC to class an individual like that.  We have to cherish the individual’s quirks and maladaptions, if any, and smooth them away through excessive verbiage that they can flow into society, becoming acceptable through mass misinterpretation.”

Webb snarled.  “Calling a loon ‘mentally challenged’ doesn’t make him sane again; it just lets you make him into a cuddly puppy you can shove under the rug!”  He lunged for O’Hara.

Merdemus watched as the two men began to scuffle.  As soon as all the attention was on them, he walked on the ledge to the other side of the building and jumped off, levitating himself down to street level.

The two men had amused him greatly, but he felt a darkness looming somewhere in the distance, as if the place he had come to was somehow forcing him in a path he could not understand.

Shaking his head, Merdemus attributed it to airsickness; however, when he resumed his traveling, it was with more than a hint of urgency.

*                                  *                                  *

The watcher with the crystal ball snorted and rapped his fist on his table.  Another voice spoke:  one that was younger, sure of itself.

“Ay, my lord?”

“You know what to do.”  The watcher observed his young associate disappear into the darkness, and contemplated how messy assassinations usually tended to be.  He was just glad the boy was wearing gloves.

*                                  *                                  *

The Bumblyland shuttle swung slowly onto the highway.  It had been had been two hours since Miranda had left the hotel, and the traffic had sped up considerably, topping out at a whopping twenty-five miles an hour on the highway.

Miranda turned on the radio to see if there was any news worth listening to.  She then clicked it back off indignantly, her mind demanding some thinking time.

Contemplating her actions in the lobby of the hotel earlier that morning, Miranda was a little upset with herself.  She wasn’t usually so rough on people, or so easy to throw around the collective weight of the IRS, an organization she didn’t even belong to and usually delighted in thwarting by misplacing several key decimal points in their annual budgets to the left.

It must be the vacation, she reasoned, but her instinct continued to disagree.  To stop the annoying little voice in the back of her mind, Miranda tuned in to the worst radio station in San Francisco :  K-RAP.

“This is Wolf Matthews with the nightly news report.  People have reported a fast-moving UFO over the central district just minutes ago.  NASA, the FAA, and the UFP all deny any craft were in the area at the time.  Birds seem to have a strange affinity for this craft.  We will keep you informed.

“In a breaking story, a monk’s attempted suicide off the forty-second floor of the Adams Hotel downtown leads to a full scale brawl in the ranks of the SFPD.  More on this as it becomes available.

“In national news, Elvis was sighted eating Lamb Chop—”

Miranda shut off the radio a bit anxiously; after all, the Adams Hotel was the one she had just left.  Noting some people trying to flag down the van, Miranda pulled over to the shoulder as two men, one in long white robes and a headband and the other in what looked like a red valet’s suit waved to her, looking rather confused.

As she was about to explain that the van was not the “real” Bumblyland shuttle, the man in the white robes asked her for some “exact change.”  She dug into her pocket, getting out some bus fare and handing it to him.

The man in white looked at the man in red and nodded.  “So that’s what the hell ‘exact change’ is, sir.”

The man in red nodded.  “Good work, My! Friend.  Just don’t! Remove THAT headband!”

The robed figure inclined slightly.  “No, sir.”

They thanked Miranda, and she drove off, wondering where that man in red had picked up such horrible elocution skills.

A few miles down the road, Miranda was contemplating the best way to get a new hotel room without the involvement of the federal government when she was forced to slam on the brakes as two strange white mice scooted across the road.

The car behind her chose this moment to smash into the rear of the van, and in less than a minute, she was in the middle of an argument with the driver behind her.

He was a strange man, wearing a beige trench coat and mirrored sunglasses, and he kept trying to insist the accident was her fault, all the while hovering near a leather attaché case, casting sidelong glances at it as he spoke.

Miranda was actually more interested in getting back on the road than with arguing with the man, but her instinct told her to keep arguing with him until she could place his face; it seemed familiar, somehow, even with the sunglasses.

She gasped as she finally realized who he was.

“Otto Kranz!”  Pulling out her Glock pistol, Miranda held the man at bay.  “You’re under arrest for high treason.”

Kranz removed his sunglasses and smiled.  “So, Ajhunt Rite, shu remembah.  Dat es goot.  Shu FBI Ajhunts are alvays so schlow on ze uptake.”

“That’s CID.”  She waved Kranz over to the side of his car, and he had trained a pistol on her before she could blink.  His smile widened as he took her gun.

“Dat’s nice, but I haf to go. My attaché and I haf an appointment at ze Jherman Embassy.”  He picked up the case and snickered.  “Dis automatic guidance shystem I schtole frum your research labs in Palo Alto vill efen drive me zere, vile shu vatch helplessly.”  Corny laughter followed his magnificent oration.

Kranz took her Glock and tossed it in the bushes on the side of the road, shoving her there with it as he got into his car, snickering.  Miranda scowled as Kranz stuck his head out of the window, yelling, “Schend my regards to ze United Schtates Gofernment!”  The agent swerved his car into the Bumblyland shuttle, knocking it off the road just as the police showed up to investigate the accident.

Miranda walked over to the patrol car window, and flashed her ID.  “Got a computer in this thing?”

The driver nodded, and pointed to a terminal mounted under the CB unit.

“It have a cellular modem?”

The driver nodded again. Miranda got inside the car and accessed the computer, tapping in a federal access code while muttering under her breath.  The policeman watched her absently for a few moments and then wandered off, taking his radar gun with him.  Might as well harass some hapless motorists while the fed was messing with his car, he reasoned.  Some good bribes might come of it.

“You’re not getting away from the US Government this time, Kranz.  If you hook up our computer to your car, you’d better be prepared for all the ramifications of that action,” Miranda muttered.  “Get ready for the ride of your life.”

On the screen of the police car’s computer, she saw the schematics for the device Kranz had stolen. Tapping in some control codes, she leaned back and smiled.

In his car, Kranz was merrily ducking and weaving through traffic, aiming for any small animals that happened to wander on the road, when suddenly, the interior light clicked on in the car.  He switched it off, and it clicked on again.

The windshield wipers engaged, and Miranda’s voice could be heard through the car radio.  “Tsk, tsk . . . someone’s been a naughty boy.”

Kranz felt the air-conditioner engage, set to heat.  The automatic windows rolled up, and the door locks engaged as the accelerator moved down on its own.

Miranda tapped some more keys on the police car’s computer and brought in a five-year- old kid she had seen playing in traffic.  She pointed to a blip on the computer screen.

“Okay kid, this is a video game.  You control the path of this car here, and your object is to steer it to the federal building in downtown without hitting anything.”

The kid shook his head.  “I’m not good at video games.  Mommy says I have bad eye-hand coordination.”

“Excellent.”  Miranda sat the child in front of the computer.

*                                  *                                  *

Several minutes later, Kranz’s battered car rolled into the impound lot at the federal building with doors dented, windows broken, and manure heaped all over the chassis.  The German agent stumbled out of his car, and handed his attaché case to the waiting feds before muttering, “Nevuh mess mit ze Hackah” and fainting.

Miranda looked at the report on the computer screen and nodded.  Assigning bonus points to side trips through farms had been a particularly sadistic twist.

Getting out of the car, she retrieved her gun from the bushes and decided to complete her drive—except Kranz had completely destroyed the van when he had sideswiped it.

As the cop whose computer she had used had returned with a hefty pile of speeding tickets and driven off, Miranda walked over to the nearest rest stop and decided to plan her next move.

“This vacation is gonna kill me,” she muttered as she looked over the prices of other San Francisco hotels.

Her annoying instinct told her not to make those kinds of jokes any longer.

*                                  *                                  *

“Damn you, Kranz.”  The watcher observed the German spy rotting in jail.  He had hoped that the spy would have dealt with Wright, making his task simpler.

Clicking the remote on his crystal ball, he noted that another of his enemies was walking into something rather interesting.  Pulling out some popcorn, he watched intently as Merdemus walked through dark alleyways, occasionally stopping to try and light a twig.

Nothing would come of it, so the Mage stood in the center of a particularly dark alley and invoked the First Discipline.

This was when he noticed some boys cringing in the dark, knives at the ready, waiting for him to step forward.  He smiled the smile of a god and spoke imperiously.  “Such cowardice.  And here I thought serfs had evolved.”

One of the boys, still hiding, yelled, “Hey big maan! Chu tink you can insult US and leeeve?  We is the Purple Death, maan.  Nobuddy messes wit us, chu know?  All da other gangs, maan . . . dey just laffed at us—until we threw rocks at dem, chu know?”

Another gangster snickered. “Yaa . . . den dey stopped laffin’ an’ just shot at us,       maan . . .  until we ran away—”

The leader slapped him.  “Shut up! Can’t chu see we gots us a victeem here?”

Merdemus choked back his laughter.  “Tell me, rodents.  What dost thee know of purple death?”

The same kid spat on the ground.  “Hey, maan . . . we knows dat we is gonna keeel chu and use chure bones to feed my dog—why don’t chu come a leetle closer, eh?  Or are you a chiken?  Eh?  Gobble gobble?”

Merdemus narrowed his eyes.  “I am a Lord of the Seven Disciplines.  Master of the Forces Elemental.”

“Heheheh.”  The boy raised his head.  “Am I supposed to be scared, man?  Lookit me—I’m shakin’!  HAHAHAHAHA!”

Merdemus closed his eyes.  “I shall brook no further imprudence, insect!”

Now all the gang members clambered out of their hiding spots.  They clicked open their switchblades, loaded their guns, primed the rocket launchers, and got ready for some serious blood sport.

The head man, who had been doing all the talking, stepped to the rear of the group and said, “Get all ’is money!  Kill ’im!” They charged forward.

Merdemus snapped his fingers. “Now, learn of the true purple death!”

His spell was simple.  It took whatever was most feared by the attacker and brought it to life, tinting it purple for ironic effect; unfortunately, this spell seemed to have backfired. A large purple thing which looked like a child’s drawing of a Dragon appeared and began to sing songs of love and family.

The gang members stepped back, screamed, then rushed the creature, flaying it, screaming something about PBS.

Merdemus quickly materialized a sword with an Adamantium blade.

The head gangster looked at this and snickered.  “Hey maan, chu gonna stick us with dat toy?”

Merdemus swung at a telephone pole.  “I’ll have you know this sword was forged by Mentat, greatest swordsmith of the last millennium!”

The pole began to fall—slowly at first, but then it crashed into the middle of the group, which scattered like rats.  Some electrical wires that had been secured to the pole also snapped, electrocuting the head honcho.

Another intrepid gangbanger pulled out an Uzi and aimed it right at Merdemus’ stomach, chuckling madly.

Merdemus cast a small spell, smirking all the while.

As the gangster opened fire, the bullets that flew from the rifle began to circle the Mage.

“Little peon, what thou art seeing here is a combination of the Fourth Discipline—the art of Levitation—and the Fifth Discipline—the art of Transmutation—as well as a bit of Elemental manipulation.”

The bullets were struck by a bolt of lightning, and they fused together in a large ring, which Merdemus caught.

“The Seven Disciplines and the Forces Elemental form the basis for all sorcery.”  Merdemus flung the ring at the gangster, who was hit squarely in the stomach and knocked against a wall.

As others approached him, Merdemus levitated some trash cans and promptly slammed them onto the gangsters, who were now running about like chickens with their heads cut off, screaming and trying to escape.

Merdemus was still unsatisfied with the result of his counterattack and so introduced some tarantulas into the trash cans; this had the desired effect of driving the people inside mad with fear.

He turned to the few remaining hoodlums.  “Wouldst thee like a lesson as well?”

The rest of the Purple Death dropped their weapons and ran for the dark recesses of the alleyway.

Merdemus smiled and removed the electrical wire from their head man just before it completely finished off his last remaining brain cell.

“Go from this place . . . now!” The dazed fellow staggered to his feet and moved away.

Casting a small spell, the Mage restored the telephone pole to its former position and reattached the electrical wires to it.

After this had been done, Merdemus realized that in all likelihood, he was the only practicing Mage left in the entire area.  If there had been more, urchins like the Purple Death would have not even had a chance to form a group, much less assault people.  He realized he would need to reintroduce these people to the Seven Disciplines. He knew he had to find an Apprentice.

*                                  *                                  *

The watcher nodded as he switched the crystal ball to a football game.

The unexpected distraction from the humans with the brain capacity of lint had delayed Merdemus long enough for his agent to move into place undetected.

It was amazing, he reflected, how the fate of an entire planet could be decided by the actions of a few insignificants . . . and the intervention of truly massive evil.

*                                  *                                  *

Miranda hit the phone.  She had been talking to her boss when the line suddenly went dead.  As she hit it, the phone clicked back to life, with just a hiss of static.

The operator broke in and apologized; apparently a squirrel or something had fried itself in the line, she couldn’t tell and no she hadn’t been eavesdropping on that last bit about the secret agent.

Miranda finished her conversation and put the phone down.  She had just been told to make for the Adams Hotel, as the inept desk clerk had cleared her room for her, since the strange man with the parrot cage on his shoulder had mysteriously disappeared without paying his bill.  Ahh, the wonderful life of a CID agent.

Getting out of the phone booth, Miranda saw an ad for Bumblyworld, perhaps the most feared amusement park on the planet.






In fine print, Miranda read:

  * Plus $29.95 surcharge for the room key.  (Locks changed daily.)  

And in even finer print, she read:  

* Lock surcharge is another $50.00  

She shook her head and headed for the bus stop.  In the dark she couldn’t be entirely sure, but the bus that pulled up seemed different in some way.  It wasn’t until she saw the gouges the bus had left in the road behind it that she realized it was a bus made out of solid gold.  Typical waste of taxpayer money.

Looking at the driver, she cracked, “Gets horrible mileage, eh?”

The driver stared out the windshield.  “Exact change please.”

Miranda put her money in the receptacle and took a seat.  At first it seemed as if the bus was not moving, but then she realized it was trudging along at an inch every thirty seconds.

Sitting back and sighing, she figured at least she was making some progress.

Looking to her left, she saw a guy wearing black leather and carrying a clearly illegal switchblade, palpitating in his seat.  He was singing under his breath “Man Wizard singing stab sword shock” over and over.

She figured he was on a drug trip and sat back, lulled into a light sleep by the singing.

Miranda found herself in a disjointed dream.  A black wall was separating her from the Adams Hotel, and there were strange people trying to bring down the wall, all standing in line in front of her.

Each of these people failed, and they were rather rudely incinerated by a man in black robes as they did so.

Suddenly she found herself at the wall, and before the man in black could attack her, she outstretched her hand . . . and the wall fell, accompanied by a thunderclap.

That thunderclap jolted Miranda back to consciousness, but the dream was already forgotten.

*                                  *                                  *

Merdemus, meanwhile, had kept following the tugs of the Cosmic, feeling relieved as they grew stronger. Eventually, the Mage found himself standing outside of McDrekky’s—a fast food establishment.

Merdemus needed only to see the word “Drek” in the name to know who he would find within those walls:  his best friend and arch rival Drek, Lord of the Seven Disciplines, Master of the Forces Elemental, and Burner of Small Twigs.

Trepidatiously, Merdemus entered the establishment after being brushed aside by someone in a black suit running out:  someone who had entered just before he had gotten to the door, but had panicked upon seeing the Mage in brown robes.

Merdemus dismissed it as fear of the priesthood, but his instincts said it was something more.  Not feeling like investigating this, Merdemus approached one of the food carriers.

“Hold, slave.  I wish to speak the ruler of this establishment, Drek.”

The food carrier looked around nervously and avoided the Mage’s gaze.  Whispering to another across the room, he said, “Hey, Jessie . . . this looney wants to see some ‘Drek’ guy!”

The other slave, a girl, shrugged in a I-don’t-know-why-are-you-asking-me-I’m-busy- LEAVE-ME-ALONE type of gesture.

The boy mumbled, “I’m sorry, sir . . . thresnofreshere.”

Merdemus blinked.  “What didst thou say?”

“Thresnofreshmum.”  The mumbling was worse.

“What?!”  Merdemus deduced, not incorrectly, that the pressures of service in this institution had destroyed the boy’s mind.


Merdemus snorted, then spoke very, very loudly.


Suddenly, from behind one of the counters, a man wearing a green-and-gold striped McDrekky’s shirt jumped out, shoved the food server away and then pushed Merdemus into a back room.

The reddish-black hair, long smiling face and beady eyes instantly told Merdemus he was dealing with his old friend Drek.

Pausing to lock the door and switch on a light, Drek looked at Merdemus appraisingly.

“Merde, Merde, Merde!”  Drek sat his friend down.  “What’ve you been up to for the past millennium, eh?  You ever figure out how to burn that lowly twig?”

He smiled ingratiatingly as Merdemus growled.  “I see you’ve finally decided to come on down off that mountaintop.  Well, you’re gonna have to lose those robes.  You’re going to have to lose them.  And these ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s’ and such; Merde . . . they went out with the 1580’s.  Nobody wants to be a Mage these days.  Profit and greed . . . now that’s what’s in.”

Merdemus groaned. All the years of the millennium had not dulled Drek’s ability to slave himself to the going trends.  He had to admit though, it usually served Drek very well.  Even before Merdemus had gone up the mountain, Drek had amassed a sizeable fortune, though he had never reveled in his wealth.  He wondered how wealthy Drek was now.

Utilizing the Third Discipline, Merdemus read Drek’s mind and in a flash became aware of, if not in agreement with, the developments of the past thousand years.

He rubbed his temples. Exercising the Third Discipline was dangerous even for a seasoned Mage, and it could have resulted in insanity, hemorrhaging of the brain, death, or an annoying headache, as it was in this case.

Drek frowned, his brain feeling like it had been sucked out of his left nostril through a very small straw.

“It’s not nice to read people, Merde . . . really.”

“My name is Merdemus, not Merde.  If this were France —”

“You’d be laughed outta town.”

“No . . . I would cast your bones upon a rotting heap of leaves and let the vultures pick at your liver until your pleas for mercy burst your throat.”  He grinned, partly to show it was a joke, and partly because the imagery was priceless.

“Still Mr. Sunny Disposition, eh?”

“Still a fool, eh?”

“Don’t forget . . . I am still the only ‘Burner of Small Twigs’ in this room.”  The conversation stopped abruptly.  Merdemus looked daggers at Drek.


“Oh yeah.  Don’t call me Drek in public.  I go by Fred.  Fred Barn—”

“Fred?  A Mage named Fred?” Merdemus scowled.

“No.  A fast food operator named Fred.  Face it.  Mages, and by association, their names are obsolete.”


“Who needs Magic?  Yeah, I can call forth lightning.  It screws up my TV reception.  Why do I need it?”  He let a spark flow from his finger.  “I can burn twigs—”  He paused meaningfully as Merdemus grimaced.  “—But that’d cause a forest fire and I’d get jailed.  I can pull swords from the Ether . . . then the cops bust me for illegally carrying a concealed weapon.  I can transmute lead to gold . . . then people wanna know where I got it from.  What the hell am I supposed to tell them?”

Merdemus frowned and watched two strange mice scale the far wall of Drek’s office before replying.

“The truth, perhaps?  Or are you afraid?”

“Ahh . . . you dropped the thou—good—and no, I’m not afraid . . . you just don’t get it. You skipped the Middle Ages.  The Inquisition.  Mages were hunted down, killed for gold.  Alchemists were stoned.”  Drek paused.  “Well, they were always stoned.  Bad example.  Anyway, Wizards were burned at the stake when they were too tired to fight.

“Some fled into the Cosmic, becoming consumed in the raw energy—others fled to remote parts of the planet, and are very hard to find . . . and others simply assimilated, like me. And if you’re smart, so will you.”

“But surely you could have banded together to fight all of this?”

Drek laughed.  He walked around the table and sat on it, right next to Merdemus.  All pretense of humor was gone.

“They burned all texts of Science and Magic.  The Council of Twelve dissolved, and its members fled when they saw the end coming.  The rest of the Mages were either caught off-guard or killed when they sold each other out in a foolish attempt to try and save their own lives.  Even if we had tried to band together, by then it was too late. I’ve often wondered how they were beaten so easily by regular people.”  He paused, and he looked meaningfully at Merdemus’ robes.  “Today, even if you wanted to start re-teaching the Seven Disciplines, there would be no texts to guide you.  You’d have to make your own texts.  And the press . . . they’ll shut you down and have you vilified before you can say VAS CORPUM.  Hide, Merde . . . become an average Joe loser, and forget about Magic.  It’s over with, man.”

Merdemus shook his head.  “I do not believe so.  You see, Fred:  some of us still practice our craft.  I am currently in search of an Apprentice, to whom I will impart the secrets of the Cosmic, and the Seven Disciplines.”

Drek laughed.  “Yeah.  Uh-huh. Merde, these people have the intelligence of mice compared to us!  Math and Science, they ignore.  It’s too boring to them.  They like to watch lots of TV and eat lots of crap.  I make the crap, they eat it.  My life is complete.  You could be doing this too!”  He gestured at the ratty walls of his office.

Merdemus rose and looked Drek in the eye.  “I must thank you for the information about this millennium.  It will be quite helpful.” Drek got off the table, maintaining eye contact with Merdemus all the time.

“Watch it, Merde.  If you aren’t careful, you’re gonna be front page on the Daily Crackpot!”  He watched his friend leave, and paused.  With a flick of the wrist,  Drek created a twig in his hand, and incinerated it.

“Heheheh . . . I still got the spark.”  He lifted an eyebrow, and a bolt of lightning hit a roach on his wall.  It felt good practicing Magic again.  He’d truly forgotten how much power he had at his disposal—after all, Merdemus was only one order above him in strength.

Merdemus noted the surge in the Cosmic as he walked out, leaving a gold florin to the waitress on the way out, stepping over the tray she had just dropped.

“Looks like you got a tip, Jessie.”  The waiter-boy laughed.

“It’s probably some dumb Bumblyworld token,” she retorted, and pitched it into the trash, where it startled two strange white mice into a rapid exit.

After Merdemus had left, Drek walked out of his office to observe the interior of his McDrekky’s.

It was a wonderful place.  Dirt had formed a patina on the tabletops, roaches were unionizing and holding rallies in the deep fry vats, his cashiers were all mindlessly pondering the ceiling, and Sid the Thief was robbing Register #7 while munching on a Big Drek with one free hand.

Drek let a tiny spark flow from his finger and decided to try his hand at Magic again.

“Yo, Sid!”  He grinned demonically.

Sid turned from his position at the counter nonchalantly and waved at Drek.

“What, Fred?”  Sid was busily stuffing cash in his pocket and trying to chew the leathery meat in the sandwich at the same time.

“I’m gonna have to kick you out now.”

“Aww, come on, Fred.  I gotta eat, you know.”  He adjusted the black ski mask that covered his face and continued to stuff cash in his pocket.

“Later.  I’ll show you an easy way to pick locks with a toothpick and dental floss to make up for your time.”

Drek was an accomplished con artist and thief on the side, though he never used his talent to steal; he didn’t need to.  Sid knew this, and nodded in agreement.

The Mage fired a bolt of energy at Sid, who was turned into a moth.

Looking at his watch, Drek waited for the spell to break; the transmutation of sentient life was never permanent, unlike that of inanimate matter, and it usually worked on a tight schedule based on the Mage’s power level.

When Sid did pop back to normal, Drek frowned.  The spell had lasted a whole minute longer than it should have.

“Oh well.”  Drek let Sid go back to work and watched as some three-year-old kids were fighting to the death for a Lion Dictator from Jungle X Snappy Meal toy clearly marked for ages five and up.  Patting them on the head, he went back to work, Merdemus’ words repeating themselves in his mind.

*                                  *                                  *

The watcher frowned.  Drek was still active, and re-exerting his muscle.  Merdemus was moving too quickly this time around.  Wright was still alive . . . and the others—well, that remained to be seen.             “No matter, the game will just be a little more complicated . . . but no less lethal.”  


As the sun began to climb over the horizon, the gleam of its rays was magnified by the strangely golden surface of a tour bus, rather rudely awakening the slumbering Ms. Wright, who covered her eyes and slowly made her way off the vehicle, whose engine had given up under the strain at some point during the night.

Without thinking, she pulled off a small bit of the door handle and put it in her pocket as she walked down the shoulder of the highway, almost bumping into a man in a black trench coat that was standing at the side of the road.  Miranda could have sworn he hadn’t been there a moment earlier.

“I’m sorry.  Excuse me.”

She looked around in confusion as she found herself talking to thin air.

Merdemus, for his part, was rolling down a hill, screaming frantically to thin air.  During the night, he had figured out that he could surround himself in a ball-shaped force field which could be set into motion with relatively little effort, and the field would carry him along with it, so he didn’t have to wear himself out walking or levitating.

This system worked decently on flat surfaces; however, when he began rolling down a steep hill, Merdemus realized he had no way of stopping the motion of the field.

Bounding down the slope, he saw what he now recognized as cars driving across the highway.  He began heavily invoking the Seventh Discipline . . . the art of Immortality, which basically consisted of repeating, “I’m not going to die” constantly in the back of one’s mind in reverse, preferably in Latin while counting from 1 to 84 in increments of X, X being a mystical number of some kind.

In any case, Merdemus hit a rock and flew into the air at an angle.

Miranda had just cleared out the cobwebs when she looked up and saw something which convinced her she had to be dreaming.  A man in coarse brown robes was flying through the air, yelling rather loudly, and flailing about as he came crashing down in the grass alongside the road not ten feet away from her.  She ran over to him and touched his robes.  Suddenly she felt an intangible sense of relief, as if she had just met an old friend.

The feeling was vague, but he was real, in any case.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Art . . .thou . . . spinning the Earth?” the man replied.

“You’re just dizzy, that’s all.”  She smiled comfortingly.

“Oh . . . good . . . hold on . . . ”  The man seemed to be mumbling to himself.

Miranda looked around to see if anyone else had noted his rapid descent.  The constant flow of traffic on the highway made it clear that no one had.

She started as the man sat bolt upright and then sprang to his feet as if nothing had happened.

“Thank you, madam, for your concern, but I am not injured in the least.”

Miranda frowned.  “You came flying out of nowhere and crashed into the ground.  You’ve gotta be hurt somewhere.”

Merdemus laughed.  “No, no.  I was invoking the Seventh Discipline at the time.  A mere fall like that will do me no harm whatsoever.”

“The Seventh Discipline?”  She reasoned he was hurt in the head.


“As opposed to?”

“The other six, dear lady.”

“Right.”  Miranda stared at Merdemus’ robes for a minute.  “You’re that monk . . . aren’t you?  The one who was trying to kill himself by jumping off of the Adams Hotel?”

Merdemus scowled.  “I am not a monk, nor am I a priest.  I am—”  He paused to allow sufficient interest to build.  “Merdemus.  Lord of the Seven Disciplines, and Master of the Forces Elemental.  You are?”

Miranda smiled and nodded.  Here was a crackpot if she had ever met one.  She figured it wasn’t safe to let him know her real name.

“Sally.  Sally McPhee . . . Accountant to many, mother of three.”  She figured the maternal touch might keep him docile.

Merdemus lifted an eyebrow and smiled.  “Your lie rhymes.”

Miranda blinked.  “Excuse me?”

“Please.  If you wish to deceive me, at least have the courtesy to do it right.  I have seen small children and chickens who lie with more efficacy.”

Miranda frowned.  “Okay.  So my name isn’t Sally McPhee, and I’m not a mother of three.  But you aren’t a ‘Master of the Forces Elemental,’ either.”

Merdemus laughed.  “What must I do to prove that I am?”

Miranda looked down.  “Burn that twig.”

Merdemus growled.  “Have you been talking to Drek?”


“Never mind.  Burning twigs is . . . beneath me.  I will do something more appropriate for my skill level.”

Miranda laughed.  “What?  Making a match burn?”

“Is this acceptable?”  Merdemus levitated Miranda three feet off the ground.  “I can now do all sort of interesting things.”

He proceeded to flip her upside down, then round and round like a drill bit.  When he noticed she was becoming nauseous, he set her right side up and lowered her onto her feet.

Miranda caught her breath. “Hypnosis.”

“Please.  You vastly underestimate my power.”

“Fine . . . so you’re a great hypnotist.”

Merdemus walked away.  “Gratz! Attribute this to hypnosis if you can!”  He raised his hands, pointed upward and said loudly, “VAS ARTICULUM DORN MAY GWITZEL TRIX BOOM BOOM!” and then pointed to the gold bus which had just begun to inch its way onto the highway, somehow functional again.

Suddenly, out of the clear blue sky, a solitary black cloud appeared, and two bolts of lightning zagged down onto the bus.

Gold, being a good conductor, allowed the gigawatts of power to build up as the first BOOM of the spell threw the people out of the bus and the second BOOM exploded it.

Miranda could not deny the remains of the bus; nor could she deny the single black cloud still hanging in the sky.  She watched as Merdemus walked away.  She ran over to him and extended her hand.

“Miranda J. Wright. Vacationer.”

Merdemus smiled.  “Convinced, I see.  Well, good.  Lightning spells have a way of convincing disbelievers.”

“Spells?  Are you telling me this is Magic?”  Miranda was still a bit incredulous.

Merdemus sighed.  “Magic, Science—the only difference between a Mage and a Scientist is that one shrouds his machinations in ritual and mystery, calling it ‘Magic,’ while the other does so and calls it ‘Science.’

“The fact that Mages can master the elements simply attests to the fact that we have access to forces your Science forgot about or chose to ignore centuries ago.  Gravity, for instance. I can manipulate it with ease.  Scientists are still looking for . . . ” he searched for the term Drek had read, “ . . .  the graviton.”

Miranda hated to admit it, but Merdemus made sense.  “So, what brings you to San Francisco?”

“I fired my Apprentice.  I then fell off a mountain.  I expected to find the town of Garath, but apparently things have changed a little over the last thousand years.  So now I am looking for a new Apprentice, to whom I will impart my considerable wisdom.  Care to help me look?”

Miranda sighed.  Maybe this fellow could throw a thunderbolt at that desk clerk for her if she asked nicely.  Yes, that would be the high point of her vacation, she decided—and anyway, she was still armed in case this guy tried anything crazy.  The weird thing was, there was a paternalistic air about him that she couldn’t quite shake.  “Well, let’s see if we can’t get you a room at the Adams Hotel.  And . . . you should really think about changing your wardrobe.”

*                                  *                                  *

The watcher snarled as he listened to the conversation.  “Another sheep joins the flock.  No matter.  I have waited forty thousand years for this, Mage.

“Lemuria fell to me.  Atlan’ fell to me.  Soon, you and this ‘modern’ world will fall to me as well.  Your friends were nothing before, and they will be nothing again.”  He curled his fist.

*                                  *                                  *

Merdemus groaned in reply to Miranda’s fashion critique.  “Perhaps later.  Right now, shelter would be nice.”  He concentrated, and pretty soon, both he and Miranda had levitated to the Adams Hotel’s lobby.

After they had walked in, Miranda proceeded to have a discussion with the desk clerk, who had once again over booked her room.

The Mage watched patiently as the clerk rang up a Mr. Adams, who came into the room scowling.

“Look, Ms. Wright.  We held your room open as long as we—could you excuse me for a moment?”

Mr. Adams ran over to Merdemus, and the two hurriedly exchanged words, before disappearing out the door into the parking lot.

Miranda stood in the middle of the lobby, thoroughly confused, until Merdemus walked in with a piece of paper, which he read to everyone present.

“Mr. Adams regretfully informs all his staff and personnel that he has just sold the Adams Hotel to Mr. Merdemus.  He knows he shouldn’t have done it; that he should have told the Union and the IRS, but blast them all because he’s got a solid gold car now and none of them do so he’s going far, far away to live the life of a pampered millionaire so hard luck and Happy Holidays.”

Merdemus then presented the signed document to the cashier who rang it up with a cheerful smile.  He pocketed his receipt and went over to Miranda.  “Room sixty-nine forty-two is closed, but sixty-seven forty-two seems to have just opened up.”  The sounds of thumping in the ceiling could be heard, followed by the slamming of a door, and shortly, the rather awkward descent of a man, his two dogs, a chimp and a polar bear down the stairs.

Miranda dimly registered the fact that a large polar bear was making its way across the lobby.  She took the key Merdemus handed her and headed up to her room, avoiding a stray penguin that had just realized it was in a hotel lobby, not the North Pole, and had gone criminally insane.

She had just closed the door and was about to send for her bags when suddenly, she paused.  In the back of her mind, there was a brief picture forming:  an image of herself, Merdemus, and several others climbing a mountain late at night.

There was something desperately wrong about it, she felt, as she opened her room door and the picture vanished.

Before she could think on it, Miranda was asleep on her couch, exhausted and glad to finally have a place to stay.

*                                  *                                  *

Merdemus walked up to Mr. Adams’ old office.  He went inside and reclined in a plush chair that was facing the window.  The rest of the office was surprisingly bare, with only a huge mahogany desk and two light fixtures mounted on opposite walls to punctuate it.

He looked out the window and saw the vast skyline of San Francisco.  He imagined the city, barren of Magic, decaying steadily as the forces that had shaped his world into a peaceful place fell away, leaving nothing but disorder in their wake.

At first, he had sought an Apprentice, but now he knew his task was nothing short of preparing a revolution.

A plan was forming in Merdemus’ mind, a plan of vast scope, entailing consequences that would have repercussions all over the planet, the echoes of which would be heard millennia from now.  It was all quite simple, really.

He picked up the phone, and after trying to remember what he had gleaned from Drek’s mind, the Mage hit “0.”

“Operator . . . give me the number for McDrekky’s.”

*                                  *                                  *

Drek nearly fell out of his chair with amusement as he held the phone up to his ear.

“Say what?  Merde, you’re crazy.  I’m telling you, this is the stupidest, most moronic, infantile, ill-conceived idea—what?  Yeah, sure I’m in!  Why the hell not?  Look, I know where a few of the others might be.  Might.  All right . . . look . . . gimme a minute.  I’ll call you back . . . where are you? Adams Hotel . . . not bad . . .  Where?!  How’d you bust into the head office?  YOU DID WHAT?”

He dropped the phone and almost had a coronary.

Merdemus listened to the lack of abrasive noise emanating from the phone for a minute before he put it down, realizing the effect his words had had.

Drek was one of his best friends and his Arch rival all at the same time.  The position was a serious one, entailing much responsibility—the least of which was the obligation to maintain a long-standing round of one-upmanship.

For three thousand years, he had done nothing but try to top Merdemus at everything from spell-casting to rune-swallowing.  The game was the sole reason Merdemus had climbed the mountain to learn how to burn twigs; before that, he had spent his time on grander, more awesome spells, and for some reason, Drek had mastered this tiny spell before he had . . . a patently unacceptable advancement.

But now, thanks to the greed of a Mister Adams (no one seemed to know his first name), Merdemus realized that he had somehow upset the game; perhaps it had to do with the fact that Drek only owned a national fast food chain and he, Merdemus, had a five-star hotel at his disposal.

Merdemus started as Miranda walked in the office.

“Did you never learn to announce yourself before entering a room?”

“Sorry.  Knock knock.”

“Yes, yes, well . . . sit down. I have been pondering matters.”

“Sit down on what?”  Miranda looked around the office. “There’s nothing to sit on in here!”  She made as if to sit on the floor.

Merdemus frowned and with a CRACK! there appeared another chair in the office.  Miranda sat in it.  “I wanted to ask you how you got Mr. Adams’ attention down in the lobby twenty minutes ago.”

“Did you not see the sign that read, “Solid Gold Car for Hotel?”

“Uh . . . no . . . ”

“Good.  I did not intend for you to.”


Merdemus leaned back in his chair.  “This hotel will be the first step in my plan to re-introduce the principles of Magic to your world.”

Miranda sat bolt upright. “Waitaminute.  You can’t do that!”

“And why not?”

“Our world hasn’t had Magicians for thousands of years!”

Mages!  Not puny, parlor-trick magicians!  And that’s hundreds, not thousands of years!”

“Whatever.”  Miranda shrugged. “The point is, we aren’t ready for that—we have Science.  Science and Magic do not mix.  They’re just like oil and water . . . ”

Merdemus did not want to hear any more, but as he saw Miranda had no intention of becoming silent anytime soon, he interrupted.  “My dear, you have two ears and one mouth.  Pray, use them in that proportion.”

Miranda closed her mouth in mid-sentence and glared at the Mage.

Merdemus smiled.  “Good.  Now, I think Magic could be reintroduced into society—but gradually.  This ‘Science’ of yours is a bit too closed to allow for the rapid reintroduction of Magic into its realm.

“That is why I have called my fellow Mage, Fred, to arrange for a meeting of the minds consisting of all the Mages he can locate.”

Miranda laughed.  “There’s a Mage named Fred?  What’s next, a sorcerer named Bill?”

Merdemus frowned.  “He calls himself Fred in front of those who do not know him.  It is understandable, considering what his real name means.”

“What does it—”

“What the first part of mine does in the language of the French.”


“WAIT!”  Merdemus’ eyes glazed over as he felt the tug of the Cosmic.  “Another Mage is here.  In the building.  Oh . . . my.”

“Something bad?”

“No, not precisely.”

The next second, the door to the office flew off its hinges.  In came a large Mage, about seven foot three, and rotund to say the least.  His bright red hair and mustache set off his piercing green eyes.

Raising his arm, he smiled toothily and spoke, with a heavy Australian accent, “It’s me, Max, Keeper O’ the Wines!  Fermentor of the Gardens!  The Mad Magus has returned!”

Merdemus rose and accepted Max’s proffered hand, or rather, watched as Max’s iron grip began to crush his own in a “handshake.”  Yanking it back, Merdemus concentrated, repairing the damage to his fingers as he wheezed out, “I see you haven’t assimilated into modern society.”

“Assimil—” Max sputtered. “Assimi—I can bloody ’ardly say it, much less do it!  But I’ve been keeping a low profile, e’er since the bleedin’ morons began ’untin us down eight ’undred years or so ago.  It’s been sheer torture confinin’ meself to politics, lemme tell ya mate . . . votes o’ no confidence ’fore I even announce me candidacy.

“Anyways—I’ve been waitin’ for a chance to learn these people me recipe for good ’omemade brain-killin’ absinthe!”

Merdemus groaned.  “I don’t think they’d like it.”

Max smiled knowingly.  “It’s an acquired taste, innit?”

*                                  *                                  *

The watcher of the crystal ball spat on it in disgust, and quickly wiped the spittle off the glowing sphere.

“No, Maximillian.  I cannot allow you to play in my little game of destruction.  For one so daft, your power is truly astonishing.  I shall have to send my wolf after you.”

He nodded to himself and watched the rest of the conversation.

*                                  *                                  *

Drek walked in, carrying a platinum briefcase.  “This is it.  Out of the three Mages I know that are still around, only Max bothered to answer my call, and C. Gordon Bennett the alchemist’s answering machine says that he’s walled himself up in a cave somewhere.  Of course, Max  may have eaten him.”

Max shook his head.  “Nah.  Ate a caribou on the way through Canada, though.”

Miranda looked around at the motley crew.  A Mage in a monk’s robes, another in a hideous green and gold shirt, and yet another who seemed to be either stone drunk or quite mad.

Suddenly, a bright blue light flooded the room.  Miranda covered her eyes and sat down, but the others merely intoned, “Bill.”

The blue light coalesced into a humanoid shape before taking on the appearance and mass of a human.

Bill had hair not quite as yellow as Miranda’s, and he was wearing robes similar to those of Merdemus. His hair was cut similarly to Merdemus’ in the Gregorian “monk” style.

“I TOLD YOU!” he said.  “I TOLD YOU that Bill was a good name.  A useful name, but NOOOOO.  You said ‘Oh Bill’s a lamer name!  I want something cool like Drek, or Merdemus. . . ’  Yeah—you thought you were so cool, eh?  LOOK AT YOU!  Merdemus can’t show his face in France anymore, and Drek is laughed at in literary circles!  Max and I are the only two Mages with the sense to use real names!”

Drek scowled.  “Typical.  He’s resuming an argument from the exact word it left off on a thousand years ago.”

Max sauntered over to Bill and whispered, “I thought Bill was short for Biclaxaltonian.”

Hearing that word, Bill grimaced and whispered back, “No . . . no . . . umm . . . you’ve got it all wrong . . . err . . . that name was slanderous . . . yes . . . that’s it!  Slanderous—used by those who envied my position and high standing within the community!”

Merdemus grinned.  “You actually believe that, don’t you?”

Bill glared at him.  “I don’t see any twigs burning around here!” Merdemus snorted.

Drek said, “I could arrange that.”  Checking himself, he added, “and can we please stop this argument!?”

Merdemus stomped his feet.

Max grinned and slapped Drek on the back, petrifying him.  “You . . . heheh . . . you mean te say thot ol’ Merde the Magnifkent, Lord of the severed Disciples an’ Miser o’ the Electives never managed te loight thot twig?”

He broke down into laughter as Merdemus growled.

Miranda waited for a lull in the activity.  “What was the argument about?”

“Eh?”  Max picked his nose.

“A thousand years ago . . . ?”

Bill huffed slightly.  “It was about how stupid their names were compared to the one I had chosen for myself after acquiring Second Order rank.  ‘What kind of name is Bill?’ they said.  ‘We’ve never heard anything like it,’ they said.  ‘Why not something nice and normal like Cadfael or Beowulf or Ozymandiaearium?’  They just weren’t on the cutting edge of nomenclature, that’s all.”

“So, what brings you here?”  Merdemus spat the words out at Bill.  Biclaxaltonian was almost as good a friend to Merdemus as Drek was, but his massive ego clashed more directly with the Mage’s, injecting a more adversarial tone to the relationship.

“I’m on vacation, much like the young lady over there.  I have nothing to do.  Simply nothing at all.  And I figured you might need the assistance of a Mage of my caliber.”

Merdemus groaned.  “How long is your title now, Bill?”

Bill smiled, and puffed himself up.  “I am BILL.  Bill, Mage of the Second Order—Bill the mighty.  Bill the conqueror.  Bill, the scourge of the Empire, castigator of Evil, purger of sin, the all-powerful Lord of Five Disciplines, creator of shadow and light, disseminator of the complex, master of the forces Elemental and not so Elemental, and of course, the Burner of Twigs.”

Merdemus thought seriously about vaporizing himself at that moment, but then he had a much more charming idea.

“Bill.”  He smiled broadly.

“What?”  Bill looked suspiciously at Merdemus.

“Bill, Bill, Bill . . . do you remember Garath?”

Bill touched his finger to his forehead.  “Why, yes—yes I do . . . is that not where you left to climb the mountain because of the twig incident?  Right after both Drek and I burned down that forest to impress the visiting peasants and you were forced to stand around throwing thunderbolts during a storm?”

Drek grinned at the memory. “Yeah, when nobody in that group believed you were really a Mage?”

Merdemus suppressed his growl. Any regrets he might have had about his next action fell away.

“Bill, do you remember Krek?”

Bill thought about it.  “No. Can’t say that I do.”

“Well, he’s still alive.  I want you to go to the boulder at the center of town and fetch him here as a service to all of us.”

“Why?  Why didn’t you bring him?”

“Because only a Mage of your skill and power could ever hope to do such a thing.”

“Ahh.  When confronted with your inferiority, you need to call on me.  Very well, just so long as you remember who the best is around here.”

Merdemus could hardly contain his laughter.  “Right.  Of course.”

Bill vanished in a blaze of blue light.  All the other Mages in the room broke out laughing, until Miranda said, “What’s wrong with Krek?” at which point they fell over and writhed on the floor, still laughing.

*                                  *                                  *

“Laugh, Mages.  Laugh.  Soon you will laugh no more.”  The voice that spoke grew hoarse and coughed, and a withered hand tapped the crystal ball on the table in front of it, releasing some greenish energy.

“The germ of your idea, Merdemus, coupled with this little spell of mine, will turn your plans into something truly spawned from your ego.  Something so time-consuming that I will be able to complete my preparations for our final encounter.  If you only knew who it was that was to humble you so . . . who was to destroy the world you so cherish . . . just as you destroyed mine.”  



Eventually, Merdemus sat in his chair, produced a gavel, and began to call for order.  “I’ve called you all here for a reason.  Make yourselves a seat and sit.”

Max created a vast throne whose back was seven feet tall.

Drek, incensed, made one with a back eight feet tall.

Max proceeded to add another foot to his, a move which Drek countered, and this cycle repeated itself until Merdemus said, “Krek,” at which point the two broke into spontaneous laughter and were unable to continue.

Merdemus took the opportunity to whittle both thrones down to an equal height, while surreptitiously raising his chair back above that.

“I’ve called you all here because, as I think you’ve noticed, these people have cast Magic by the wayside in lieu of a ‘Science’ that is infantile in comparison.”  He glanced meaningfully at Miranda before turning back to the group.

“Hey, at least it gave us Mr. Wizard,” Drek quipped.   Getting no response from Max, who was usually the first to laugh at anything even remotely related to a joke, he looked beside him only to see the Mage snoring.

“MAX!” he hissed.  “Stay awake. If Bill gets back alive, you’ll have to give him notes!”

Max bolted upright.  “Roight. Got it.  Notes . . . Okay, ready te go, mate.”

Merdemus waved his hand and produced a sword.  “They do not know half of what is out there.  It is up to us to show them.”  The sword vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

Drek snorted.  “I told ya already, Merde.  They’d—”

“What?  Pick us apart?  Hang us on trees?  They are not nearly as violent today as they were in the times which you remember.  The Urchins could barely put up a fight.”

“The press, Merde.  They could chew you up and spit you out.”

“That never stopped us from playing ‘Kick the Dragon and Run.’”

“Dragons knew we were for real. These guys don’t.”

“What can ‘these guys’ really do?  With our abilities, we can convince even the most entrenched skeptic.”

“Yeah.  Right.  A guy named Copernicus said the Earth was round.  We knew he was right.  The Egyptians did.  So did the Indians, the Maya, but those guys in Europe threw out all that knowledge and vilified him for his thoughts.  Science works in much the same way.  You have to keep pushing for people to buy into your theories.”

Merdemus frowned.  “The fools would try to quantify the Cosmic.  Even if they did, they would not understand it.  No, we must not work through Science.  We—”  He paused, feeling a slight bit nauseous.

It was if his thoughts were somehow being twisted around, in a way he could not quite control.

Before Merdemus could think, his mouth moved, and his next words came flowing out, everything feeling normal once again.

“We must work through our arts, achieving results again and again until even Science bends its knee to our teachings.  We must make a School of Magic.”

“It’ll never happen.”  Drek remembered his attempts to convince an old man that he could turn lead into gold and vice versa.  That chap must still have lead poisoning of the teeth, he reflected.

Max perked up at this moment. “No, no, the bloke’s roight.  When I was in Australia, which is where I ’appened te be at the toime, I was able to get people te think I was stone drunk when I really weren’t, y’know?”

Drek leaned over and whispered his reply.  “I don’t think that counts.”

“Oh.  Oh, well . . . ferget it then.”

Merdemus picked up a pushpoint pen, fiddled with it, and eventually changed it into a quill.

“Let us catalog our powers.  We can then formulate a teaching schedule.”

Merdemus and Drek, being roughly equal (In Merdemus’ mind, Drek’s being able to burn twigs negated his own increased power as a Mage of the First Order), were the two headmasters, with Drek teaching special classes in Twig Incineration.

Finding out what Max’s teaching specialty should be turned out to be a bit more taxing, however.

“Lessee here . . . I burp loudly.”

Drek groaned.  “That’s a curse, not a power.”

“It is so a power when salesmen show up.”  Max grinned.

“Fine.  Burping 101—Max.  What else?”

“I can smash walls in with me ’ead.”

“Urban Renewal 101 —Max.”

“I can turn lead into lead and versa vice.”

“Stupid Mage Tricks 901 —Max.”

“I can turn anything into wine of any kind.”

“Partying 201—Max.  Cafeteria Staff—Max.”

“Thot’s it, mate.”

“Dumb Mascot—Max.”

It was at about this moment that a strong blue light began to fill the room, but then a crack could be heard, and Bill appeared, sweeping up the remains of a blue light bulb.

“Damn you!  I’m still getting the smell out of my nostrils!  Did you forget to mention, perhaps, that one would have to have a working understanding of the Seventh Discipline in order to approach Krek?!”

Merdemus grinned.  “Oops.  I forgot you only knew five.”

Bill spat on the ground.  “You only learn the sixth and seventh ones if you’re a senile old Mage who knows he can’t fight his way out of a scuffle or if you can’t use your breath as a weapon!”

Merdemus laughed.  “Yes.  All right.  So, where’s Krek?”

Bill dropped his jaw.  “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Where is he?  I asked you to fetch him.  Are you not capable of such a feat?”

Bill closed his mouth and straightened up.  “Of—of course I am—but such things are beneath me!  I should do something . . . more appropriate to my skill level.”

Miranda seemed to remember that line from somewhere else.

Merdemus grinned.  “Fine.  Sit down.  We have just the task.  Max, get your toe out of your nose and give Bill the notes.”

Max grumpily complied.  Bill wiped the snot off the papers and absorbed the information.

“Not a bad idea.  We convert the top four floors of the Adams Hotel into the Adams School for Neo-Occult Training.”

“A-SNOT,” Max happily compounded.

Merdemus took Bill’s papers and struck out that line, changing it, and then gave it back to Bill.

“The Adams School for Magic Intensive Training Exercises.”

“A-SMITE.  No . . . ”  Merdemus irritatedly repeated the process.

“The Adams School.”  Bill paused.  “Succinct and to the point.  Good.”

Drek picked up his briefcase and made for the doorway.

“I’ll be back shortly.  Might as well close the local McDrekky’s if I’m gonna do this.”

Miranda got up and said, “Wait. Why don’t you move McDrekky’s to the Adams Hotel?  You can replace the Hard Shock Café!  You’d get the hotel customers’ business, and you’d get better name recognition being in a five-star hotel.”

Drek frowned.  “Better name recognition!?  McDrekky’s is a transnational corporation feared and respected by citizens and banana republics all over the planet!  Nevertheless . . . ”

His frown shifted into a sly grin as he did a mental computation, recalculating all the ledgers for McDrekky’s International with the Adams Hotel in the mix.

“It would pull in an extra two dollars a year, and get me away from that crime-ridden financial district!  All I’d need is a little help.”  Drek looked  over to Merdemus.  “If Merde and I both use the Sixth Discipline—”

Merdemus grinned, and the two Mages closed their eyes and began humming what seemed to Miranda to be the theme to Hawaii Five-O.

Within sixty seconds, a large crash could be heard, and presently, the phone rang.  Merdemus picked it up.


The desk clerk on the other end rubbed his eyes to make sure he was awake.

“Uhh . . . sir. . . the Hard Shock Café in the lobby—it, uhh—got squashed by a McDrekky’s.”

“I know.  Thank you.”  Merdemus put the phone down.  “That was exhausting.”

Drek collapsed into his chair. “I’m so beat I don’t think I could burn a twig—err . . . sorry, Merde.”

Merdemus waved his hand. “Forget it.”

*                                  *                                  *

“Excellent.  The time is nigh.” The watcher tapped his crystal ball and stared directly over it as he muttered an incantation.  He shrank back as he saw his face dimly reflected in the ball—an ancient, wizened thing that was so unlike the youthful one he had had when his quest had begun millennia ago.  He shuddered, and looked at a certain man, nodding.  “You will take care of the indomitable Maximillian.  Go, my wolf!  The die has been cast!  Go forth and destroy!”

*                                  *                                  *

In the lobby of the hotel, a man with a graying beard and square-rimmed glasses, wearing a particularly bad suit, watched as the McDrekky’s personnel scrambled to clean up the large mess that had been made when the restaurant had fallen on the Hard Shock Café.  He pulled out a small Pong Tape Recorder from his pocket and began to dictate.

“This is Wolf Matthews.  A UFO was sighted along our freeway system tonight . . . a UFO that led straight to the world-famous Adams Hotel, where shortly thereafter, a monk was seen trying to jump off the forty-second floor, in an incident which led to brawl in the usually quiet PC squad of the SFPD.

“Then, on the very highway where the UFO had been sighted, a solid gold bus was detonated by lightning during a cloudless San Francisco day.

“Now, once again in the Adams Hotel, rumor has it that Mr. Adams has sold out this cornerstone of California to a man called Merdemus who wears what seems to be monk’s robes in exchange for a Solid Gold Car—and a McDrekky’s . . . the epitome of crap in the fast food restaurant business, falls out of nowhere to crush the Hard Shock Café in the lobby—the Desk Clerk informs me Mr. Merdemus was in fact expecting this.

“UFO’s . . . gold cars . . . monks with bad taste in eating places . . . alien conspiracy to destroy Earth’s economic, religious and gastronomic base?  You decide.”

He clicked off his tape recorder and deposited it in his jacket.  His boss was going to love this one.  After all, no story was too tabloid for K-RAP radio; besides, this one was actually verifiable.  The hideous-looking green and gold McDrekky’s was right there in the lobby along with the signed receipt Mr. Adams had given Mr. Merdemus who in turn had given it to the cashier.

The ruins of the Gold Bus were still on the highway, and the SFPD had denied any knowledge of a PC division or of any brawls in it, confirmation in itself.

Also, it was a slow news week. Aside from some guy swimming illegally in a whale tank yesterday, there was nothing else to report on.  He was going to get the attention he so richly deserved.

*                                  *                                  *

Thoughts of tabloid grandeur continued to percolate in his brain as Matthews entered the main offices of K-RAP radio.

Tucked under his arm was a sheath of third- and fourth-hand accounts of the extremely bizarre events that had occurred over the past two days.

Walking past the Vice President of Shady Accounting’s office, he took a left at the Vice President of Subliminal Advertising’s door and headed straight for the President’s room.

Matthews entered the President’s office, which was completely unlit.  He could swear there was a slight fog covering the floor.

“S-sir . . . ?”  Something was definitely amiss here.

Matthews blinked as a spotlight activated, highlighting a large, high-backed chair.  There was an extremely old man sitting in the chair.  He cackled.

“You are my wolf.  I spent twenty years making your career what it is, giving you the first ‘suicidal Siamese twin kills brother by mistake with ice cream’ tabloid story all the way up to the sightings of that Monk on the forty-second floor of the Adams Hotel.”

“I’ve never seen you before in my life.  Where’s Fenter Jackman?”

“The five-year-old who runs this company?”  The man morphed into a small five-year-old boy.

“Hi, mister.”

“No.”  Wolf began to back off, but his feet refused to move, as if they were rooted into the floor.

The boy turned back into the old man, who was panting.  “That takes a lot of effort at my age.  I have spent forty thousand years in preparation for the events which will bring the Earth on a silver platter, and only Merdemus,” he spat out the name, “stands in my way.”

“Your task, my wolf, is to run interference, to distract Merdemus and his motley crew of Mages until my plans are completed.”

“And how shall I do this, master?” Wolf mindlessly exhaled.

“I will guide you.  You will start by not consciously remembering any of this meeting.  Then you will lose your job.”

Wolf shuddered as he saw his hands strangling Fenter Jackman.

He had to admit, it was a nice feeling, throttling the annoying five-year-old, but he had no idea why he was doing it.  He dimly heard security rushing into the brightly-lit office, and before he knew it, he was tossed out onto the street along with his papers.

*                                  *                                  *

Stopping at the unemployment office, Matthews stashed his documents inside a ’66 Mustang that was parked at a meter with an hour free.  He went in and took a space on the line.  In front of him was a guy in coarse brown robes.

On a hunch, Wolf tapped him on the shoulder.  “Excuse me, aren’t you the monk named Merdemus?”

The boy in the robes turned around and barked, “Art thou blind?  Canst thou not see that I am not Merdemus?  Doth I seem a Mage of the First Order!?”

“Who are you then?  And why do you talk funny?”

“I be Eric, former lowly Apprentice to the great Mage Merdemus.  Now I be Eric, lowly Apprentice to none, urchin to the world.”

“I see.  But why do you talk funny?”

“I do not speak humorously. Thee be speaking funnily.”

“Uh-huh.  So, tell me about this Merdemus guy.”

Eric’s eyes widened in fear. “Thou should not speaketh of the master in such tones.  It be ill-advised, even for Mages of the caliber of Drek.  Only Bill the Mage has ever spoken to Lord Merdemus in such a tone without harm.  Of course,” Eric began whispering to himself gleefully, “now that the olden fool Merdemus be dead, what harm be there.”  Raising his voice, Eric grinned and said, “Fear not, sir.  Continue thy blasphemy.”

“Bill the Mage, eh?  What do you know about him?”  Wolf began to see that maybe this story was a bit more far-reaching than he had suspected—but before Eric could give a reply, the boy dropped to his knees.

“Lo!  It be Serelin the Dreamweaver, Master of the Forces Elemental, Lord of the Fifth Discipline, Keeper of the Things!  He is just ahead of me in power!”

Eric continued to kiss the ground.

Wolf looked in the direction Eric was kneeling, but all he saw was a guy in polyester, carrying what seemed to be wadded up bits of paper.  The guy walked up to Wolf, he and spoke in a continuous whine.

“Would you believe that some idiot stuck this paper on my car?  My pretty car!  When I find him, I’m gonna kill him!”  He proceeded to shred the papers into confetti.  Matthews winced inwardly as he saw his chance at the story of the year go down the tubes.

*                                  *                                  *

The watcher nodded.  “Serelin. Yes . . . you will be most valuable to me this time as well.  Your tiny brain will serve my purposes perfectly.”  He then spoke to Matthews’ subconscious mind.

“Forget the papers!  Continue the plan.”

*                                  *                                  *

Eric rose from the ground. “Lord, I have left the service of rotbag Merdemus.  Thus I have been forced to seek work in the—” he spluttered.

“Big city?”  Serelin laughed. “Where’s your ex-boss?”

“My Lord, I know not.  I know only that he neglected to fetch his staff when he—” Eric smiled, “—departed from the mountain.”

Serelin frowned.  “So, you finally made good on your threat to pitch him off the side of a mountain. Well, you do know of the Seventh Discipline, right?”

“Ay my lord, is it not the Discipline of Ignorance?”

“No, it’s the Discipline of Immortality . . . didn’t you pay attention in class?”

Eric frowned.  “Nay.  After I had learned to light twigs, Master wouldst not teach me anymore.  So dost thou think Lord Merdemus survived the fall?”

“Yup.  Probably.”

“Dragon’s Dreck!  I must slay myself before the Lord finds me and subjects me to torture most hideous and foul!”

Wolf Matthews, who had been listening intently, chirped, “Why don’t you try jumping off the Adams building?”

“Ay . . . that soundeth reasonable.”

Serelin walked outside with Eric and Matthews.  “You can all get a ride in my ’66 Mustang.  Cool, ain’t it?”

“It doth not look frigid, Lord Serelin.” Eric said, perplexed.

“Forget it.”  


Bill was walking in the Adams Hotel arboretum when he thought he saw something following him in the bushes. Turning around, he saw nothing, and thought it a trick of the light.

Continuing to head for Drek’s restaurant, Bill paused again as he had the uncanny feeling he was being followed.

Looking around, he saw Max quietly nibbling on one of the Roman columns in the lobby.  He waved the Mage over.

“Wot is it, mate?”  Max sauntered over, shoving a bit of the marble into his mouth.

“There’s something following me,” Bill whispered.

Max nodded.  “In the Outback, lotsa stuff would follow me, loike wild dingoes.  O’course, they’d run off when I turned around.”

“That’s because you would try to eat them, Max.”  Bill sighed.

“Too roight.  Let’s see wot’s been trailin’ ya.”

Bill produced a blue lightbulb and tossed it into the arboretum.  The shadows were dispelled, and Bill saw nothing—except for the silhouette of a man cowering near a bush, resembling a shadow.

Max growled slightly, and rolled up a sleeve.  Bill frowned and raised his arms, tossing a fireball into the arboretum.

As the plants erupted in flames, the Mage used his command of the elements to keep the flames away from him as he walked into the inferno, seizing the shadow-man.

Max, who didn’t have those powers, simply walked through the blaze anyway, wondering when someone would turn up the heat.  He grabbed the shadow and made as if to eat him.

Bill watched the shadow try to get away from Max’s iron grip, and he frowned.  “This fellow must be halfway in the Cosmic and half here.  That’s why he looks like a shadow.”

Max grinned.  “Less filling.” He salivated.

“No, fool!  If I knew the Sixth Discipline, I could bring him fully here via Teleportation, but since I don’t—I’ll just cast some light on the subject.”

He produced another bright blue light bulb in front of the shadow.

The shadow’s eyes lit up, tracing out the silhouette of some sunglasses.  “You would do well to release me.”

Bill snickered.  “You have no conception of who you’re dealing with, do you?  I am—”

“You are nothing.  Merdemus is nothing.  Soon you will enter a great darkness, and if you emerge from it alive, then you shall see the truth.”

“What do you mean?”  Bill raised his hand and generated a massive energy bolt.

“Do not speak of this, Mage.” The shadow easily slipped through Max’s fingers and reformed in front of Bill, touching him on the forehead.  Bill staggered backwards, and Max had to steady him.

“Wot ’appened, mate?”

Bill frowned.  “I can’t remember . . . just something about . . . the number zero.”

Max frowned.  “Technically speakin’, zero’s not a number, mate.”

*                                     *                                  *

Later that night, after Bill had staggered off to get some rest, Max had gone out to fertilize the garden and Miranda had retreated to her room, only Merdemus and Drek remained in the office on the top floor of the hotel.

The two were in a particularly intense match of Garanthian Mind Magic, which basically meant that the two Mages were sitting inside a circle of power, trying to see who could get the other to vomit first, using the power of their mind.  So far, neither had given any ground.

The game had been going for some hours now, as the two Mages were spent from discussing the finer details of Merdemus’ master plan and had now progressed to the stage of actively avoiding the physical labor involved in it.  In the olden days Apprentices would have been made to do such tasks, and none of the Mages felt like lowering themselves to the job.  Even Merdemus didn’t feel enthusiastic about his own idea . . . it was as if he had come up with it without really thinking it through, as if someone else had thought of it for him.  He supposed they would have to get to work on it eventually—but not just yet.  After all, what was the point of commanding vast power if one couldn’t have fun once in awhile?  Work could wait until the morning, or preferably until an Apprentice could be found.

As if on cue, Merdemus suddenly saw his old Apprentice, Eric, standing on the ledge outside his window.  This was enough to break his resolve, and Drek got his prize as the vomit flew from Merdemus’ mouth to his shirt.

Before Merdemus could get over to the window, a bright blue light began to fill the room, until a crack was heard, and Bill appeared suddenly, sweeping up the shards of blue bulb.

“Dammit!  Cheap substandard bulbs!  Well, I’ll just say it then.”  Bill puffed himself up and glowed his eyes red for effect.


Merdemus ignored the spectacle and said, “Why disturb me when you can torture a lowly Apprentice?”

Bill’s jaw dropped in shock. “An Apprentice?  Where?  An Apprentice of the old school?  Stupid, moronic, and easily hurt?”

Merdemus grinned.  “Right out there.  See him?”  He pointed to the window.

Bill frowned.  “Is that not Eric, your old Apprentice?  Was he not the one you referred to as being the cross between a monkey and a fish?”

Merdemus frowned.  “No . . . that was Drek—err, sorry, Drek.”

Drek balked and moved into the corner of the room.

Bill grinned demonically.  “An Apprentice to torture.  What fun!  I have not had such an opportunity for over eight hundred years!  Whatever shall we do to him?  Stick needles in his eyes? Have him be consumed by legions of flesh-eating slugs?  Allow him to smell Krek’s breath?”

Merdemus waved his hand.  “No, no, no.  Such torture is befitting of only the good students.  Eric shoved me off the mountain.  He deserves—”

Bill grinned.  “To be rewarded!”

Merdemus smiled.  “And he will be.  I intend to teach the sniveling rodent exactly what happens to those who dare to push me off mountains!”

Drek scowled, still irate.  “You mean you have pre-set plans for these sort of things?”

“Of course.  Getting pushed off mountains, burned at stakes, dipped in lakes of wasps—”

Bill shook his head.  “As far as I know, Merdemus, you were the only person to ever dip someone in a lake of wasps.”

Merdemus nodded.  “Max.  It was cruel to the wasps, I know . . . but one of them had had the audacity to actually buzz in my ear!”

Drek shook his head, eyes wide. “Merde, there were no wasps in France for three years afterward!  Max, uncontent with the wasps in the lake, ravaged the entire country!”

“That was precisely as I had planned it!  Now let us get on with the task at hand.”

Bill and Merdemus bowed their heads simultaneously, as if they were stage performers flourishing before the audience.  Miranda and Max had been summoned in by Drek, and the three of them stood to the rear of the office.

The lights dimmed, imperceptibly at first, until all that was visible was a bright white circle on the floor, in which Bill and Merdemus were highlighted as if by spotlights.

Suddenly, the window against which the Apprentice was still leaning dissolved, and Eric fell into the room.

Staggering onto his feet, the first thing he saw was the blood-red glowing of both Merdemus’ and Bill’s eyes.

“Please, Lords!  Have mercy!”

Merdemus looked at Bill.  An Apprentice groveling for mercy was a particularly hideous sight.  It threw the accepted schedule of humiliation and degradation off.  They paused to regroup.

Bill grinned.  He flashed a glance at Merdemus, and muttered, “Send me to Krek, will you?” and in a flash, he had lashed Merdemus and Eric together by the toenails, a particularly complex piece of engineering, since Eric had eleven toes.  It was that, Bill reflected, or Eric had ten toes and an exceptionally hideous wart.

Merdemus, for his part, was still spluttering in anger at being lashed to his pathetic Apprentice.  He looked daggers at Bill, who grinned and snapped his fingers, leaving Merdemus alone in the circle of power, attached to his Apprentice, who was shaking with fear as Merdemus glared at him.

“Apprentice . . . ”  He let the word hang for a moment.

“Y-Y-Y-Yess, Master?”



“You should have tried to consume me with fire!”

The Apprentice blinked, uncomprehending.

“IF you had paid attention while I was teaching you, you would have known that I could easily prepare for something as mundane as the impact of a fall from a mountaintop.  You should have tried to incinerate me while I was not paying attention!  I might have then at least been moderately scarred!”

The Apprentice’s jaw dropped. “Master . . .  Thou art correct.  Next time, I will be more cunning.”

Merdemus grinned demonically. “What makes you think there will be a next time?”

He thought of particularly nauseating ways to flay the boy.  Eventually he produced a pimento loaf from inside his robe and began charging it with power.

Bill chose that moment to reappear, bringing up the lights and freeing Merdemus.

“Uhh, Merde, You can’t kill him.”

“What do you mean?  He is my Apprentice . . . for me to do with as I wish!”

“These days even an Apprentice is protected.”

“Blast.  Then what can I do to him?”  Merdemus eyed the pimento loaf sadly.  So much potential . . . wasted. “Humiliation . . . that always works.”

“Very well.  So be it.” Merdemus crossed his arms and retracted the glowing pimento loaf of power.

*                                  *                                  *

Wolf Matthews refocused his binoculars.  He could have sworn that he had just seen Eric, the guy who had fallen into the window minutes ago, hanging from the flagpole near the Adams hotel.  Looking again, he saw that not only was it Eric, but that Eric was dangling from the flagpole, attached to it only by a silver thread which seemed to be embedded in his toenail, and he was wearing a bright red cloak that seemed to be covered in leeches.

In addition, a flock of birds had appeared, each circling the poor man’s head and dropping small objects on it which were too tiny to be identified from the distance Wolf was at.  However upon reflection, Wolf decided he did in fact know what the objects were, but in the true spirit of journalistic integrity, he never recorded it in his log.  He filed it in his folder under “ratings grabbers.”

Merdemus, Bill, Max, Miranda and Drek watched the Apprentice dangle for a while before they stepped away from the window.  Merdemus stuck his hand out the window to shoo some of the birds away, but yanked it in rapidly and began to wipe off his sleeve.

It was at this moment that Serelin walked through the doorway.  He eyed the assemblage of Mages.  “Which idiot stuck that Apprentice out to dry on the flagpole?”

Merdemus walked forward. “Serelin?”

In his mind, Merdemus contemplated the fact that Serelin calling someone an idiot was the pot calling the kettle black.  Serelin felt he was smarter than the rest of humanity simply because he had what he thought was the trendiest mode of transportation possible.  Max’s diseased mind was still infinitely superior to Serelin’s.

Max barely noticed Serelin, mumbling, “Two plus two . . . seven.”  He drooled slightly.

Serelin grinned.  “Yup.  Serelin the Dreamweaver, Master of the Forces Elemental, Lord of the Fifth Discipline, Keeper of the Things, and Necromancer for Hire . . . oh yeah . . . and the Burner of Twigs.”

Merdemus spat.  “You lie.  You could not burn twigs.”

Serelin produced a twig, lit it, and began to dance a jig around it, saying, “Neener neener, Merdemus can’t do it . . .  Neener . . .”

He paused for a second to check on his ’66 Mustang outside by leaning out the window.  Leaning in, he wiped the birds’ gifts off his head and continued to dance.

Merdemus realized that the car belonged to Serelin, and he said, “But . . . I can produce large rocks out of the Ether . . . see?”  And he proceeded to say VAS MARLOT HANTOR ROCK HIGH FALL, at which point a large, moldy rock appeared in the sky approximately forty stories above the Mustang.

“See.  I can hold it up with my mind . . . but dammit, your dance has broken my concentration!”

Serelin abruptly stopped dancing.  “This is not funny, Merde.  Don’t do it!  I’m warning you!  I know the Fifth Discipline!”

Merdemus grinned.  “I know all seven.”  The rock fell.

What happened next has been a subject of considerable debate among historians with nothing better to do with their non-cost effective Ph.D.’s.

The data that follows is from Miranda Wright’s memoirs, “Why Mages Should Never Leave Their Windows Open” and as such, is generally considered as the most reliable account of the debacle.

Serelin had just leapt from his position to one just outside the window and realized that he could not levitate due to his lack of knowledge of the Fourth Discipline, when Drek conjured up a squid with extremely large tentacles to catch him.

Bill realized that squids generally need water to live in, and so he filled Merdemus’ office with it, washing everyone out of the forty-second story window.

Max, who had never learned any of the seven Disciplines save the fifth, figured he would rather go happy and turned all the water into wine, his specialty.

Merdemus tasted some of the wine, found it bitter, and froze it.  Unfortunately, the San Francisco heat quickly undid that action.

Miranda, having no magical skill whatsoever, closed her eyes and prepared to become one with the pavement.

Eric the Apprentice, who was still hanging from the flagpole by his toenails, thought he might redeem himself, so he halted the rock just before it smashed the windshield of the Mustang in.

Unfortunately, being a mere Apprentice and thus unaware of the Fourth Discipline (which made levitation an almost autonomic act rather than a brute force test of mental strength), Eric was beginning to tire.

Serelin heaved a sigh of relief as he saw his car basically spared, and then smacked into the boulder, busting a rib or two.

The giant squid which had been trying to grab him, by now drunk from the wine Max had created, impacted and slid off of Serelin, falling onto the street, where he fell into an open manhole and swam away.

Max then slammed his incredible bulk into Serelin, who busted another couple of ribs.

Serelin muttered, “Well, my car’s all right,” at which point Bill, Merdemus, and Miranda slammed into Max.

Newton’s third law being what it was, the force of the impact was transferred to Serelin, who busted all his remaining ribs.

He had just mumbled, “By car dis okay” when Eric, who could not handle the increase in weight, let go of the boulder, sending the mass of Mages and the giant rock crashing onto the car, now drenched in wine, filled with boulder-dust, and dented horribly.

The suspension on the Mustang chose this moment to give out, and the car, people and all, crashed into the street, causing a nasty pothole.

Several minutes later, Miranda climbed out of the hole, shaking the dust out of her hair.  Merdemus, Bill and Max climbed out next, dragging Serelin out with them.

Serelin, who had managed somehow to stay alive, could only mutter, “mycarmycarmy- wonderfulawesomegodlikecarohgodohgodohgod.”

Max looked around.  “Where the bloody ’ell is Drek?”

The others looked around, but Drek was nowhere to be seen; then they noticed Miranda pointing upwards, her mouth wide open.

Following her gaze, they saw Drek stuck up on the flagpole, with his foot in Eric’s mouth, and a bird perching right over his face, dutifully discharging its duties as far as birds have them.

Max grinned.  “You’d think birds would’ve developed the potty by now, eh?”

No one even acknowledged the remark.

Merdemus grinned.  “I’d say Drek is finally living up to his name.”

No one acknowledged that remark, either.

In his hotel room in the Douglas Arms, Wolf Matthews clicked off his video camera.  “I can’t believe it!” he said, to no one in particular.  “Water turns to wine, a giant squid scurries into the sewer, and a ’66 Mustang gets totaled!  It’s EMMY time!”

Matthews headed to the phone. “Hello?  RAT Nightly News?  Wolf Matthews.  Yes . . . the K-RAP radio guy. Hello?  Hello?”

Matthews put down the phone. Apparently, there had been some problem with the line.  Looking through his binoculars again, he noted that Eric had been joined by another guy up on the flagpole whose face seemed to be covered in—Wolf didn’t want to think about it.

Heading for the door, he decided to get a room in the Adams Hotel.  He knew that the story of the century was almost at his fingertips.

*                                  *                                  *

The watcher slammed his fist on his table, and a man in white was seen reflected on the crystal ball’s surface.


“My wolf is too slow.  Go now, and deliver my message to Merdemus and his allies.  Also convince his friends of the folly of their ways.”

The watcher smiled as he watched the tranquil scene in Merdemus’ office.  “The final pieces are nearly in place.  Matthews, in his greed, is my perfect pawn in our little chess match, Merdemus—and soon the ultimate gambit can begin.  Max will lose his freedom, Drek his life, and you your quest.”  



Up in Merdemus’ still-damp office, Serelin lay on Merdemus’ desk, bleeding from every conceivable place. His eyes were fixed in the middle distance, and he was humming softly to himself.

“Will he be all right?” Miranda asked.

Merdemus looked at Bill.  “It’s horrible.”

Bill looked at Drek.  “Ghastly. Simply ghastly.”

Drek looked at Max.  “It’s the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen.”

Max pulled his toe out of his nose and stuck it into his mouth.

“Wot?” he snapped as he noticed the attention.

Miranda sighed and sat down.

Serelin was now swatting imaginary flies with his hand.  He waved over to Miranda and made as if to whisper in her ear.  When she leaned closer to him, he screamed, “MY CAR IS BUSTED!  MY LIFE IS OVER!”  As Miranda flew back, deaf in her right ear, Serelin died on the table.

The other Mages looked at one another, shrugged, and proceeded to play a game of Swallow the Rune.

Max rubbed his tummy and said, “I’m ’ungry.  ’Ow ’bout pizza?”

Drek growled.  “No anchovies!”

Merdemus looked up.  “And Max, no snot topping this time, okay?”

Miranda looked at this in utter disbelief.  “How can you guys eat at a time like this?”

Bill looked at the wall. “What?  It’s six o’clock.  Little early for dinner, but . . . ”

“Your friend is dead!”

“He’s a Narcissistic Necromancer.”

“What does that—oh, never mind!”  Miranda sat down.

Merdemus swallowed a rune and spoke.  “He’s so in love with himself that he brings himself back from the dead!”

Just then, Serelin sprang up from the table.  “Eeww.  Blood all over my clothes!  I see you got Drek off the pole.  Where’s Eric?”

Merdemus spat reflexively. “Don’t ask.”

Wolf Matthews walked into the lobby of the Adams Hotel, stopping at the McDrekky’s for a quick bite to eat. He noticed that the floor, the walls, and the tabletops were unusually clean for a “restaurant” of McDrekky’s character.  The roaches were even wearing bibs.

Sitting at a table, he called for service.  Soon, a waitress arrived with a clearly recycled Hard Shock Café menu.

Wolf produced his press pass, which he had conveniently forgotten to turn in at the K-RAP offices, and asked the waitress if she’d like to answer a few questions.

“Will I get to be on the radio?” she asked hopefully.

Wolf paused, but only for a second.  “Why yes, yes you will.”

The waitress sat down and waited for Wolf to click on his tape recorder.

“So . . . do you want to know about the monk who came crashing in here, my boss who burns things by looking at them and has no birth certificate or Social Security number, or—” she paused hopefully, “my life’s story?”

“Well, ummm—”  Wolf checked the name on the young lady’s tag, “Jessie . . . I’d love to hear about your wonderful life.  But just so I can keep my bosses happy, could you please tell me about the other things first?”

“Well, okay . . . but you’ll get my story too, right?”

“Of course.”  He smiled, and the light glinted off of one of his teeth.

“Well . . . ”

Wolf listened as tales of an insane monk who came crashing in to find a “Drek” who was either so old that he had no Social Security number and birth certificate or was a spy from the Soviet Union began to take form.

He realized that “Drek” was a Mr. Fred Barney, the proprietor of McDrekky’s . . . the same guy who was stuck on the flagpole earlier that evening with the kid who knew Mr. Merdemus.

Clicking off his recorder, Wolf apologized profusely and promised he would return tomorrow to hear the young lady’s life story, muttering some excuse about dead batteries.

He dashed out into the lobby and tried to make reservations for a room as close to the top of the building as he could get.

The waitress noted this and grumpily took Wolf’s used tray to the garbage can.  Pushing the flap on the garbage can, she waited for Eric to open his mouth before she shoved the trash inside.

Slamming the lid shut, she walked off, muttering, “That guy didn’t even give me a tip!”

*                                  *                                  *

Matthews, for his part, was having no luck.  “What-do-you-mean that the top four floors have been reserved by Mr. Merdemus!?  Those are the executive suites, and I am an executive!”

The desk clerk looked up.  “Sorry, sir.  Floors thirty-eight to forty-two are reserved for use of the management.  It’s his hotel, after all.”

Matthews sighed.  “Okay . . . I’ll reserve the thirty-seventh floor.  All of it.  Charge it to my boss, Fenter Jackman, at K-RAP radio.”

The desk clerk looked at him suspiciously.  “You got any proof that he can come up with the cash?”

“No . . . but I can get you on the radio,” he lied.

*                                  *                                  *

The watcher noted the reluctance of the desk clerk, and he slammed his fist on the table, casting his spell. Soon he would no longer be able to cast these difficult spells, but his machinations were almost complete and he would have no more need to control thought.  He smiled as he saw the result.

This thirty-seventh floor would be most useful to him.

*                                  *                                  *

“You got the thirty-seventh floor, buddy.  It ain’t my hotel, what do I care?”

“Yeah.  Right.  Whatever.”  Wolf ran up to his hotel floor and called some of his pals in the spy equipment business.  It was time to figure out exactly what the hell was going on at the Adams Hotel.

*                                  *                                  *

Serelin was pacing Merdemus’ office.  He peered out the window, at the hole in the street which was all that remained of his ’66 Mustang.

Miranda watched him brood.  “He must’ve really loved that car.”

Bill nodded.  “Yeah.  But betcha don’t know what he had before that?”

Miranda did not even bother to try and think of what it could be.  “What was it?”

Merdemus stepped in.  “A Customized Donkey Cart.  The first Donkey Cart with pinstripes.”

Max withdrew his toe from his nose and nodded.  “Yep.  ’E was a bloke ahead of ’is time all right.”

Miranda walked over to Serelin and said, “Necromancers are supposed to be able to talk to and sometimes bring dead things back, right?  So, if the car is dead, why don’t you try to bring it back?”

Bill spat on the ground.  “My dear lady, that is perhaps the most simplistic, idiotic, uninformed statement I have ever heard.”

Merdemus nodded.  “I have to agree with Bill.  Only an idiot would think that.  You are living proof of why we need this school.”

Miranda shrugged.  “Well, sorry.”

Serelin, for his part, remained silent.  But he began to smile.  The grin grew, extending from one end of his face to the other, until he raised his arms and muttered an incantation, at which point there was a blinding light, and on the corner next to the hole where the late Mustang had collapsed, there appeared a bright blue car.

“I don’t believe it!”  Merdemus exclaimed.

Bill crossed his arms and frowned.  “Something’s not right here.”

Serelin, for his part, jumped up and down with glee.  “Blue’s not my color, but it’s nothing a quick paint job can’t fix!”  He bounded down to the elevator, eager to see his new car.

Bill simply levitated down to the street level, and thus was standing in front of the car, backlit by the sun, so the others just exiting the building from the lobby could not clearly distinguish the details of the vehicle behind him.

Serelin, however, was wearing sunglasses, and when he saw the car, he looked up, screamed, and died on the spot.

“Wot’s the deal?” Max asked, wiping some snot off his toe.

Bill stepped aside, revealing not a ’66 Mustang, or even a ’65 . . .  Instead, there was a shiny blue, brand new VW Bug.

Serelin had resurrected himself by now, and was looking quite pale.  “W—wh—what happened?”

Drek flicked some dust off of the hood.  “Obviously, your Mustang was a Bug in a previous life.”

Serelin sat on the sidewalk, dejected.  “I joined a damn Mustang club.  What am I supposed to tell them now?  That it’s in disguise?”

Drek sighed.  “If they’re anything like you, that should actually work.”

Serelin began to cry.  He tried to hide it at first, but as Bill sadistically angled out of the way to afford him a better view of the car, the tears began to flow steadily.

Merdemus looked at Drek.  “We should get him a new car.  This was our fault, after all.”

Drek nodded in agreement.  “But we have to start the Adams School of Magic.  We’ll get him a car lat—wait, you’re the guy who smashed it in with a rock!  Why should ‘we’ get him a car? It’s your responsibility!”

The others, save Merdemus and Serelin, went back inside the hotel.  Merdemus looked up, cursed slightly, and said, “Come, let us purchase a new car.”

“Forget it!”  Serelin got up. “I’m leaving.  You’d get me a new car and smash it up again!  I’m not that stupid!”

“Damn.  Oh well.  Bye.” Merdemus went in the hotel.  Serelin walked away, wondering why people kept picking on him.  He turned and looked up at the forty-second floor of the Adams building.

“Damn you all.  I will have my revenge.  I will destroy you.  As soon as I—as I—as I learn the other six Disciplines.  Yes, that’s it.  You will all suffer!  You will all die!”

Serelin, not paying attention to where he was going, fell down a manhole and was soon swept away by the current.

*                                  *                                  *

“Come to me, Serelin.”  The watcher smiled.  His champion was coming to him.  The tides of destiny and the tides of the sewer were now one.  With a jolt, the watcher realized he would have to seriously rethink his metaphysics—for aesthetic reasons, if nothing else.

*                                  *                                  *

Wolf Matthews looked around his floor, and smiled as he realized that Fenter Jackman would soon be footing a $500,000 hotel bill, plus the cost of several tons of high-tech spy equipment and a staff of three to run it all.

He then proceeded to get one of the high-tech spy-guys, a Mr. Q (that was the only name he would give), to rig the elevators to skip the floor.

After getting Mr. Q to modify the hotel’s computer to deny that a thirty-seventh floor existed at all, and after getting the others to obliterate every reference to the thirty-seventh floor in the hotel, Wolf knew that he was finally prepared to get to the bottom of this little mystery.

*                                  *                                  *

The watcher leaned forward, tapping his crystal ball.  “Good.  I will make use of this technology.  And my messenger has arrived at the Adams Hotel.  Most excellent.”

*                                  *                                  *

Merdemus was sitting alone in his office when a strange-looking fellow walked in.  He wore white pants, a white shirt, and a white jacket, coupled with white shoes and silver sunglasses.  He thumbed his white mustache and spoke in a soft southern drawl. “I am Lord Gruebright.  Perhaps you remember me, Merdemus.”

Merdemus scratched his head. “Are you the Dragon-slayer, destroyer of evil, protector of the innocent and friend to all?”

Gruebright frowned.  “No . . . I was the court jester.”

Merdemus smiled.  “Of course . . . the court jester who eventually went on to depose the king and become ruler of the empire!”

Gruebright scowled.  “I keep on having to explain that, don’t I?!  It was a freak accident involving the king and a misplaced anvil!”

Merdemus nodded.  “Of course.”

Gruebright leaned forward as Miranda walked in the door.  She was about to speak, but something made her draw back, possibly the fact that Gruebright had withdrawn a gnarled staff from his jacket that seemed to crackle with energy.

Merdemus watched almost apprehensively as Gruebright placed his staff on the desk.  The staff began to glow an electric blue, and Gruebright’s soft drawl deepened into a grave, grating sound.

“I am a lowly jester no more, Merdemus.  Shortly after your ascent, I was asked to join a fledgling society of wizards who taught me to harness the latent powers within me.  This society, which has existed for almost a millennium, has disseminated the Seven Disciplines, and has discovered an Eighth.”

Merdemus shot up like a bolt. “An Eighth Discipline?!  Impossible!  Any fool knows there are but seven!”

Gruebright made a curious motion with his hand, and Merdemus was slammed back into his chair with such force that the legs broke and it was all he could do to keep the chair from tipping over.

“You fool, Merdemus.  While you spent a thousand years trying to burn an insignificant twig, our power grew. We have made significant advances in the arts of Sorcery, Necromancy, Alchemy, and even these new ‘Sciences.’”

Merdemus looked at Lord Gruebright and shuddered.  “But were not all the secret societies destroyed in the various purges and killings of the Middle Ages?”

Gruebright laughed, and it was not something Merdemus enjoyed, mainly due to the Krek-like condition of his breath.

“Fool.  Salem, the witch-burnings, the burning of the libraries at Alexandria—all these things we caused.  All of these things we have done to maintain the proper balance of information in this world.  We are the guardians of the ancient knowledge, and we dispense it when and where we see fit.

“I have heard of your ‘school,’ and I have come to tell you this:  your interference will not be tolerated.  It would be wise for Drek to return to his mundane restaurant, for Max to return to the taverns, and for Bill and yourself to cease spreading information to foolish peons like these.”

As he uttered that last statement, Gruebright picked up his staff and slammed Miranda in the stomach, causing her to double over and gasp for air.  He leaned over and whispered in her ear.

“It would be wise for you to return to your domicile, lest I destroy you with these fools.” Gruebright straightened up and walked out.

Merdemus helped Miranda up and into a chair.  He looked out the door and frowned.  “Not the happy person he used to be.”

Miranda frowned and wheezed a bit as she spoke.  “How can your school interfere?  What’s it interfering with?”

Merdemus frowned, waving his hand over her stomach, stabilizing it.

As Merdemus stared out the door, Wolf Matthews walked in with a flyer.  “I take it this is the head of the Adams School of Magic?”

Merdemus forced a smile onto his face.  “We have yet to complete the classrooms, but yes.”

Wolf smiled.  “And what kind of ‘magic’ are you teaching?  Conjuring tricks . . . rabbit outta the hat kinda stuff?”

Merdemus sighed.  “No, we are teaching Alchemy, Levitation, and basic Wizardry with advanced classes for those who wish them.”

Wolf’s grin expanded.  “I see. Well, count me in.  I’ll be back next week.”

Merdemus watched the man leave. “How did he know of the school?”

Miranda shrugged.

Drek walked in, beaming. “Because of these flyers I had printed out.  Wonderful things, computers.  They mindlessly do whatever you tell them . . . sort of the ultimate Apprentice.  I made a thousand seven hundred and sixty-four of these flyers.  Whaddya think?” Merdemus looked at the flyer.  It read:


The Adams School of Magic is coming!

Learn how to levitate your friends and pets!

Turn water into wine and gold into lead!

The Powers of the universe can be yours for

a modest down payment of $99.95, with 4 easy

installments of $4,671 spread out evenly over

6-month per—


Merdemus stopped reading it, and he called Max and the others to join him in his office.  When they had arrived, Merdemus bade them sit.  As he opened his mouth to speak, Bill sprang up and said, “Hey Guys!  There’s an Eighth Discipline out there!”

All heads turned to face Bill. Merdemus scowled.  “How did you know that?”

Bill smiled.  “Well, I saw ‘Lord’ Gruebright on the stairs and waved hello.  He pitched me out the window.  I came back in and viciously attacked him.  He pitched me down the stairs.  I came back and incinerated his clothing.  He ran for cover.  I picked up his staff, and I read the inscriptions on it, which taught me the Sixth and Seventh Disciplines and . . . there was an Eighth on it, which I studied and memorized.”

He looked at Merdemus and smiled.  “So what was your news?”

Merdemus made a comment about the shoddy construction of the chairs, and then filled everyone in on Lord Gruebright’s “warning.”

Turning to Bill, he said, “Could you show us the staff that we might learn this Eighth Discipline?”

Bill smirked.  “Don’t have it.”

Max frowned.  “Wot the ’ell did ye do with it?”

Bill smiled, and stared at Merdemus.  “I burnt it . . . like a twig.”

Merdemus looked away, just before he reached over his desk and caught Bill by the throat.

“Why?!” he snarled.

Bill pushed Merdemus off. “Because, the Eighth Discipline is incomprehensible!  I invoked it, but nothing happened.”

Merdemus spat reflexively. “Bah.  You are simply trying to inflate your title again, Biclaxaltonian.”

Bill promptly harnessed the Cosmic and pitched Merdemus out the window.  “Never say that word again!”

While the others waited for Merdemus to return, Bill went round to his desk and sat in his chair, neglecting to repair the legs which had been broken by Lord Gruebright’s blast, and so fell backwards, using the opportunity to singe the two strange white mice that had been hiding under the desk, just so it seemed as if he had meant to do that, not merely fall onto the floor.

As Miranda watched the mice stagger off, she saw them again, in her mind’s eye—next to a telephone, in a dungeon.  She shook her head and decided she was going to quit drinking ginseng tea for a while.

Bill jerked around and looked at Miranda, staring deeply into her eyes.  She shrank back from his gaze, shifting uncomfortably.

“What’s your problem?” she snapped, half jokingly.

Bill caught himself and shook his head, as if clearing out the cobwebs.  “Nothing.”

Just then a grating, nasal voice roared out, “The School is a distraction!  A distraction!  The true evil works in the shadows!”  It was obviously coming from Max.

All eyes turned to Max, who looked up, absently.  “Wot?  I was jest talkin’ te me sock puppet, okay?”

“Pretty weird thing to tell it.”  Miranda smiled.

“I used te eat comic books a long toime ago.”  

The Pawn

Scarcely a week after Merdemus had been pitched out the window, the Adams School of Magic was ready.  It had taken an enormous amount of effort from Max, Drek and Bill, but all the classrooms were fully stocked with everything from tomes of infinite power to crystal balls and defective love potions whose warranties had expired.

Taking a short break from their work, Bill and Max were sitting in McDrekky’s, having a short lunch before getting back to work.  They watched as Drek came in with their meals, a small plate in one hand, and a massive platter in the other.

“Bill, here’s your tuna fish sandwich—”

Biclaxaltonian took the sandwich off of the small plate and nodded.

“Max, here’s your tuna fish.”

Max quickly snapped up the massive fish and its platter and consumed them in two bites.

“Max, those platters cost money!” Drek sighed and pulled up a chair, looking over one of the new menus he had thrown together.

Intently trying to decide whether or not it was appropriate to serve white wine with a Big Drek, he snapped to attention as someone slammed a laptop computer down in front of him.  Looking up, he saw Miranda, who was holding a phone cord in her hand.

“Drek, I need a good computer to hook this thing up to.  I heard you’ve got one in the store.”

Bill and Max leaned back, slightly amused.  Miranda had no idea what she was asking for.

Drek scowled.  “Look, Ms. Wright.  My computer is a specialized, custom-built, power-hogging, ultra-sensitive user-unfriendly system built for my fingers only.  I’ve optimized it for my needs.”

Miranda smiled.  “The words of a true computer hacker.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Drek’s gaze shifted slightly.

“Lemme put it to you this way. Whatever you think you know about hacking, I know three times more.  Whatever you can do, I can do three times faster.  However good you are—”

“You’re three times better. Yeah, yeah.”  Drek snorted.

Five times better.  I’ve had experience with all the pertinent manuals.”  She smirked.

“Look, lady.  Manuals never made the hacker.”

“My boss says I can telecommute to work instead of going back to the office, and frankly, I like the idea of living rent-free in a four-star hotel a heck of a lot better than living in my tiny apartment back home.  But to do that, I need a setup like yours.”

“Like mine?  Who the hell do you work for, anyway?  Who needs more than that puny laptop?”

“Move.”  She shoved Drek aside and marched into his office.  He followed, smirking.

Just before he vanished into his office, he yelled out, “She won’t even crack the password!”

Bill and Max waited until he vanished behind his office door, and they quickly ran up to it to listen.

The voices were muffled coming through the door, but they were still understandable.

“Give it your best shot, Wright.”

The sound of rapid typing could be heard, followed by a beep.

“There goes the password.”

“Dumb luck.”

More typing, and then two beeps.

“There goes the encryption.”

“Blind luck.”

A furious spate of typing, several beeps, more typing, a beep, and a clack.

“Oh, look!  A hidden operating system.”

“Luck?”  Drek’s voice was significantly less confident.

Max began to snicker, and Bill smacked him.  The sound coincided with the computer’s beep.

“Ooh, an outside connection.”

Drek’s response was undecipherable, but profane.

The sound of static filled the room for a moment.

“The NSA, the CIA, NORAD.  Take your pick.”


“And by the way . . . I wrote the pertinent manuals.”

There was little sound in the room for a moment.

Max got brained with the door as Drek threw it open, arm around Miranda’s shoulder.  Bill backed away quickly enough to trip backwards over a banana peel left carelessly on the floor.

“Here’s the deal, Miranda.  You teach me your tricks, you get unlimited access to the machine.”


*                                  *                                  *

Merdemus, learning of the deal, decided to get some help from Miranda as well, and made her the chief of Mage-Mage conflict resolution—in other words, she kept the Mages from killing each other.

The dearth of students, however, meant that the Mages were constantly picking on one another and thus she was always busy.  In fact, there was only one student, a Mr. Lupus Matthews, who seemed more interested in the required reading list and the tools of sorcery than in actually listening to what the Mages had to say—and he seemed to be intent on tape recording everything that was said by Merdemus, even if it was a request that Max get his toe out of his nose.

Miranda persevered, and in return the vast resources of the Mages were employed to help her quickly move her things to the hotel.  Drek and Max also took their own suites, and the rest of their time was spent by amusedly watching Merdemus try to teach the strange Mr. Matthews in the crystal ball room.

In the midst of all this mind-numbing boredom, no one had seemed to notice that one of the crystal balls had developed a small crack in it, upon which further study would have revealed the picture of a very confused-looking Serelin, who was bumbling about through the sewer.

By the time Merdemus noted the crack, the crystal ball had shifted channels and was broadcasting an intense repeat of a cheese commercial.

*                                  *                                  *

Serelin, for his part, was feeling much like the rat who had lost his cheese.  The more he tried to navigate through the constrictingly small sewer, the more lost he had seemed to become.

He slumped down in a convenient pile of sludge (at least he hoped it was sludge) and sighed, watching as the rats chased two white mice across the old sewer pipes.

Suddenly, he felt a brief touch on his shoulder.

Spinning around, Serelin found no one.  There was another touch on his shoulder.  The Mage turned again, seeing no one.

There was still a third touch, followed by another spin.

Touch.  Spin.

Touch.  Spin.

Serelin held down the vomit and intoned, “If you don’t mind, I’m getting nauseous.”

Touch.  Spin.

Touch.  Spin.

Spin.  Spin.


It was at this point that Serelin realized he was no longer spinning under his own power.

The nausea rising, he purposefully killed himself just to keep the bile down.

Springing to life several minutes later (it taking a Narcissistic Necromancer that long to miss his own company), Serelin sprang to his feet, only to find he was surrounded by many people; Mages, apparently.

They all wore jet-black robes that were hooded so as to obscure all traces of individual identity, and they each had a staff of power crackling with energy pointed right at what clearly was his ’66 Mustang—still a hideous blue, but no longer a VW Bug.

“Aww, man!  Don’t wreck the car!  Please!  Puh-leeeze!”  Serelin whined to the best of his ability, but the Mages continued to make threatening gestures with their staffs—save one, who turned to Serelin and beckoned him into a small chamber lit only by a torch in the corner of what seemed to be a cave wall.

The man spoke in a grave, grating voice, and he kept his head tilted so Serelin could not see his face.

“In this, our most secret place, the keepers of MEFISTO have accumulated thousands of years worth of mystical texts, artifacts, and relics which can no longer be found anywhere else on Earth.

“We have unified what you know of as Magic with what the peons call Science.  We have refined Alchemy, Necromancy, Sorcery, Physics, Chemistry, Astrology, Biology, Astronomy—all of it—into a more powerful philosophy of action and method that can unlock the secrets of the universe.

“We have discovered the fundamental basis for everything—and today, we have discovered you.”

Serelin sat down.  Outside of Necromancy, ’66 Mustangs and customized donkey carts with pinstripes, his knowledge of most matters ranged from little to nonexistent.  But what this man had said had definitely made an impact on him.  Especially the “discovered you” bit.

“Excuse me?”  Serelin looked up hopefully.

The man in the robes turned away from him, and when he swung back to Serelin, a bolt of greenish-red light sprang forth from the face-hole in the robes and struck him in the head.

Serelin could feel his mental defenses crumbling as the man in black spoke to him.

“Today, you are but a lowly Mage with the brain of a peanut.  But tomorrow, you will be of us, with us, and for us, still with the brain of a peanut.  You will become a power, keeper of knowledge most horrible and secrets most ancient.  You will join your new brothers and sisters . . . be one with MEFISTO . . . and you will help us to cleanse a threat to our unchallenged supremacy of the control of knowledge, and thus of power.

“You will help us . . . to destroy the Adams School of Magic.  It will be the first step in our world conquest.”

Serelin breathed shallowly as he mindlessly intoned, “Destroy the Adams School of Magic.”

*                                  *                                  *

“Thot’ll be sixty-nine forty-two, please.” Max removed his toe from his nose long enough to give Wolf (or as he was calling himself, “Lupus”) Matthews his change.

Wolf walked out of the Adams School Bookstore, which was little more than a closet with a hole cut in the door and a pair of green eyes sticking out of a slot that asked you for money, and flipped open his copy of Necromantic Follies—required reading for a Necromancy 101 student.

Necromantic Follies had been required reading, Wolf found as he read the preface, ever since a young Necromancy student in the year six hundred sixty-five had neglected to bother learning what happens when the principles of Necromancy are applied to ham sandwiches.

It was a tragic story, full of pigs running amok on dining tables filled with grain, but Wolf stopped reading and closed the book, setting it on top of the pile he had bought the previous day.  In his knapsack was a small crystal ball, an Apprentice’s staff, which turned out to be a broomstick, since Apprentices were not considered good enough for the fatter pieces of wood, and a beginning Alchemy set, complete with instructions in Old English.

Wolf smiled, and rubbed his beard.  “Malarkey,” he said, to no one in particular.  With all this evidence, this crappy hocus-pocus nonsense, and a book involving dead things, he knew he had the story of the millennium:  A “Magic” School which cons people out of their cash in exchange for these toys which wouldn’t even fool a kid.

He realized that the incidents like the one on the flagpole, and the gold bus which exploded had to have been nothing more than clever PR for the press.  Not enough to blatantly say ‘We’re here!’ because they would have been seen for the charlatans they were right off; no, this was more devious.  A series of events so staged that only a journalistic mind of his caliber would put them together as evidence of paranormal activity.

A clever trick, Wolf mused, but a futile one.  He was going to play their little game, beat them at it and humiliate them in front of the whole world.

Wolf pulled out his new Spell Casting for Fun and Profit book and mouthed an absurd-looking spell.  “VAS FURETICA DE LA PONTAIETA ALL DA CHI LI BOY DE GAS ES STIN KEY.”

Nothing happened.  Wolf repeated the phrase over and over, laughing hysterically with each repetition.  He fell off the bench he was sitting on, still giggling like a small child.

Some hours later, Wolf walked into Merdemus’ office, minus the glasses and the beard.  It was wonderful, this thing known as makeup.

Merdemus looked up from his intense self-match of Swallow the Rune and saw a ridiculous sight.  It was the second he had seen today.

A few hours ago, a flock of purple geese with halitosis had appeared in his office and had proceeded to practice their bombing maneuvers on his desk, robes and face.  He had been forced to smite them all, hence the mystery meat in McDrekky’s this evening.

However, this new sight was no flock of geese.  It was a clean-shaven man wearing iridescent blue robes and a bright blue hat that was conical and had stars on it.

In his left hand, the man had a staff with a tiny crystal ball on it.  In the other hand was a weathered old book.  He seemed to look like a Mage.

Merdemus could not sense his power, probably because his fight with the geese had left him a bit skittish, but more likely because the fool had about as much Cosmic power as a hyper- evolved gnat.

Merdemus stood.  “Merdemus. Lord of the Seven Disciplines.  Master of the Forces Elemental.”

The man put down his book and extended his hand.  “Lycanthropus.  Mage Extraordinary.  Caster of Mighty Spells and Smiter of Undead creations, Patron of the Wolves.”

Merdemus blinked.  The man was truly ridiculous, but Merdemus needed a good laugh.  “And your business with me is?”

“I wish to teach at your fine place of learning.”

“I see.  Your qualifications?”

“I cast spells.”

“So can an Apprentice.  What can you do that distinguishes you from the average slug?”

“I . . . ”  Wolf remembered a phrase from Necromantic Follies.

“I can revert ham to its previous formation of living tissue.”

“Necromancy for the Inept 101 is full.  Sorry.”

Wolf stomped his feet. “I-DEMAND-TO-TEACH-HERE!”

Merdemus smiled.  “Ahh . . . demands.  The stupid always demand much, but offer little.”

Wolf walked out of the room in a huff, snatching up his book as he left.  Merdemus laughed heartily at the stupidity of the man.

Back in his room, Wolf popped out the small tape recorder that had been nestled in his book.

Handing it to Mr. Q, he said, “Send this to Fenter Jackman along with my other materials.  Maybe he’ll let me on again with just this much.”

He then walked out of the secret thirty-seventh floor and down to the lobby, leaving on his Wizard getup, figuring that he might be able to at least win that costume contest in the Douglas Arms.

Leaving the building, Wolf did not notice as Serelin slipped out from the shadows and followed him to the alleyway alongside the Douglas Arms hotel.

*                                  *                                  *

The watcher smiled. “Maximillian will be out of the game ere long, Merdemus.  Without him you have little chance of stopping me this time.”  He looked at Serelin.  “The time of the wolves has ended, my child.  Do what must be done—and wash your hands afterwards.”

*                                  *                                  *

The next morning, Sergeant Webb and Lieutenant O’Hara of the ultra-secret SFPD Political Incorrectness Suppression Squad, or the PC police, looked down at the crumpled body of a man wearing strange blue robes and a pointed hat.  In his hand was a flyer for the Adams School of Magic.

Lieutenant O’Hara tipped his hat and frowned.  “Probably the work of some nonconformist vertically impaired pre-adults.”

Sergeant Webb looked up.  “Huh? You mean kids?  Gang members?”

O’Hara nodded.  “Let’s transport the metabolically challenged individual to the domain of the post-metabolic individual engineers.”

“The morgue?”

“Affirmative.  I have noticed your recent tendency to duplicate everything I say.  You should know that excessive verbalization is counterproductive and—”

Sergeant Webb punched Lieutenant O’Hara just to get him to shut up.  “Let’s get to the morgue.  And let’s check out this ‘School of Magic’ place.   It seems this guy had just come from there . . . whoever he is.”

*                                  *                                  *

“Wolf Matthews.”  The coroner pulled a sheet over the corpse.  “No doubt about it.  I ran all the standard tests, analyzed all the biological data, checked his DNA, and—”

“—Then you found his wallet.” Sergeant Webb lifted it up from the evidence tray.

“Yeah.  Well, anyway.  So who’d wanna bump him off the air?”

Webb sighed.  “Any one of a million people.  He’s the only guy ever to have a contract put out on him by the Mafia, the syndicate and the ice cream manufacturers.  I’m surprised he lived this long.  Cause of death?”

The coroner smiled.  “Lungs filled with wine, sir.  Bitter, might I add.  Tasted some—     for . . . purely scientific reasons, sir.”

Webb frowned.  “Wine, eh?  I think I’m gonna have to take a close look at these Adams guys.  Gimme a line to K-RAP radio.”  He looked at the flyer for the Adams school of Magic, especially the line that read “Turn water into wine and gold into lead.”

*                                  *                                  *

“And then there were four.”  The watcher cackled as his net began to tighten around Max.  “While you try to save your friend, Merdemus, MEFISTO’s champion is born, and Drek will be the next to fall.”

*                                  *                                  *

“Dead?  Oh well.”  Merdemus looked at Drek, who was sweating horribly and sitting in a new sofa that he had brought into the office a few hours ago.

“OH WELL?!  OH WELL?!  A student of ours—our only student, might I add—dies wearing a Wizard’s costume and clutching our flyer in his hand and you say OH WELL?!”

Merdemus blinked.  “So? Apprentices die all the time.”

Drek slapped his forehead. “Noooo . . . they used to die all the time.  Now, they don’t, because until last week, there were no Apprentices!” Bill dashed in the room frantically with Miranda, who had a radio set to K-RAP.  On it, Wolf Matthews’ replacement, Chris Warner, was reading a prepared statement from the SFPD PC squad.

“—Once.  Repeating:  As you know from our massive self-serving PR campaign, our own Wolf Matthews was found dead in an alley near the intersection of the Adams Hotel and the Douglas Arms. Reports from the coroner showed that his lungs were filled with wine.  The SFPD PC squad is launching a full-scale investigation of the Adams School of Magic, which Wolf was investigating just before my big brea—err . . . his untimely demise.  This tape, an exclusive of K-RAP, shows the founder of the Adams School threatening Mr. Matthews’ life.”

Merdemus frowned as the tape played.

“We can hear Mr. Merdemus say, ‘Your business with me . . . slug . . . demands . . . offer?’ which after editing clearly shows that Mr. Merdemus had caught on to Wolf’s disguise and was planning to “off” him with a slug, probably thirty-eight caliber in my opinion.

“Then when Wolf made a humble request, we can see that Mr. Merdemus threatened his life.  Thus, the Adams School will be put under investigation at once.  Repeating . . . ”

Miranda shut off the radio and clenched her fists.  “This is so stupid!  They’re obviously trying to get a stupid story, so they edit a stupid tape in a stupid attempt to pin the stupid murder on you!”

Merdemus’ frown deepened.  “Are you going to say ‘stupid’ again?”

Drek got off the sofa and began to pace the room.  “I told you this idea would bomb.  I told you Magic had no place in this society.  Now look at us . . . subjects for scrutiny—like ants under a magnifying glass—and you know what happens to bugs under magnifying glasses.”

Max walked into the room, carrying a large bottle of wine.  “I ’eard that we’re gonna get visitors. Thought I’d git ’em some wine.”

Miranda stroked her chin thoughtfully.   “Where were you last night?”

Max grinned.  “Fermentin’ the garden.”

Miranda looked at Merdemus. “The guy on the radio said Wolf Matthews’ lungs were filled with wine.”

“Bitter wine.”  All heads in the room turned to see a policeman, whose name tag read “Sergeant Webb,” standing in the door.  “SFPD Political Incorrectness Suppression Squad.”

Max compounded the acronym. “PI—”

Miranda clamped her hand over his mouth.  “We get the point.”

*                                  *                                  *

The watcher looked at his champion.  “Go now!  Max will be taken care of by the peons!  Eliminate Drek!”

The champion vanished, and the watcher smiled.  “Soon the contest will begin anew—with but only three of you to try and stop me, and one not even a Mage.  The Cycle will end, and the dark dawn of MEFISTO will come upon us all.”

With glee, the watcher pounded his fist on the table, vibrating his crystal ball so it moved to the left until it fell off the edge and shattered.  “No matter.  Things are moving on their own now.  The gateway is almost prepared.  There is no more need to watch.  The battle begins after the trial, Merdemus.  After the trial.”                                     *                                  *                                  *

Sergeant Webb looked around for Lieutenant O’Hara, and unable to find him, he smiled.  “Sit down, everyone, and we’ll get this over with quickly.”

It was just then that all the lights in the Adams hotel decided to shut off.  A low rumble was heard, and a deep, throaty voice was resonating it seemed, from every wall, chair and table in Merdemus’ office.

“MEFISTO walks!”

“What the hell!?”  Sergeant Webb fell over a table in the dark, as crackling blue light began to intermittently illuminate the room.

A wind began to pick up, a gust which originated somewhere in the center of the floor.

In the strobing flashes of blue light, Merdemus saw what seemed to be Serelin in black robes approaching Drek, and tapping him on the shoulder.  Then, it seemed as if Drek and Serelin had disappeared.  

              To Drek, however, things had gone from weird to downright frightening.  He had been teleported somehow to a cave whose walls were glowing with a greenish luminescence.  In front of him stood Serelin, whose eyes were glowing a bright red.  His fists were glowing blue, and his mouth was drawn out in a taut line.

Drek sensed a major displacement of the Cosmic where Serelin stood.  Apparently, Serelin had gained much, much more power quite recently.  More power than Merdemus, Bill, or Max, or in fact, any Mage that he had ever met had possessed.

Serelin noted Drek’s shocked expression and snickered.  “Yes, Drek.  I have grown more powerful.  And this is but a minor fraction of the powers the members of the upper council of MEFISTO possess.  I am but an Apprentice.  Are you ready to perish?”

Drek stepped back.  There was an iron in Serelin’s voice that he had never heard       before . . . an iron that actually made him tremble.

Laughing weakly, he said, “Still mad about the Mustang, eh?”

Serelin’s taut lips did not quiver as he replied, “Fool.  That device no longer interests me.”

“What?  Who are you?  What have you done with Serelin?!”

Using the full power of the Forces Elemental and the Seven Disciplines, Drek amassed an enormous sphere of energy, and discharged it at Serelin.  It was enough power to instantly destroy a small building, and even a Mage such as Merdemus would have been drained by it.

This was why Drek’s heart nearly stopped as Serelin waved his hand in a semicircular direction from waist to shoulder and dissipated the energy blast.  Drek had put almost all his power into that blast, and so was not even able to recite the Seventh Discipline when Serelin clasped his hands together and released what seemed to be all the power of the Cosmic in his general direction.

Serelin sighed as he completed his task.  He had barely broken a sweat, but the cave he was standing in was in ruins.  Clearly he had not mastered the subtle art of a clean kill.

Drek’s ashes, if they could be called that, were all over the floor, making it look generally unkempt, something that the high Mages of MEFISTO despised, to say the least.

Serelin smiled for a moment, collected up the ashes, got a small lacquer box, and decided to have some fun.

Back at the Adams Hotel, Sergeant Webb was sitting on his desk, thumbing his lips and making a highly intelligent bubbebumblebubbum sound as he did so.  Max was drinking his wine, and Merdemus was trying to figure out exactly what had just happened.

Miranda was sitting in the corner of the room, trying hard to ignore the fact that Bill was walking on the ceiling.

Bill looked down at Merdemus, and shrugged.  “There’s nothing weird on the ceiling.  Oh, Merde, you’ve got some bird-stuff in your hair.”  Noting Miranda’s amazement, he bowed, nearly hitting his head on the ceiling.  “Simple, high-precision levitation, my dear.”

Merdemus groaned at the attempt to impress and quickly cleaned off the top of his head, which he noted, much to his distress, was beginning to bald slightly.

Suddenly, there was a bang, and Max felt something form in his vest.  He sincerely hoped he had not created a small rat in his vest pocket again.  The last time he had done that, he had lost a fortune in cheese, not to mention rabies shots.

Sticking his hand in his pocket, Max found a small lacquer box full of what seemed to him to be snuff.  He grinned.

Snuff, absinthe, nightshade, poisonberry, anything harmful or deadly to consume was great fun for him.  He delighted in drinking and eating things that were distinctly unhealthy for even the average Mage, such as his snot.

This had led to his well-deserved reputation as being the “Mad Magus,” given to him not only because of his eating habits, but because of the fact that he was capable of emulating every type of insanity known to man.  (Of course, people hoped he was only emulating—they did not want to think of the other alternative.)

Max put some of the snuff up his nose.  Miranda admonished him.

“Don’t you know that tobacco is bad for you?”

Max grinned.  “Luv, I’m three thousand twenty-seven years old.  Nothin’ is bad fer me.”

Just then, Max doubled over and clutched at his nose, while screaming nasally, “GORDON BENNETT!”

Merdemus shot Max a look. “Where?  I thought he was still locked in his cave!”

Max frowned.   “It’s a euphemism, mate—Arrgh!”  He winced.  “Me nose—It’s bleedin’ gonna explode!”

Miranda looked at Merdemus, who shrugged.  Bill, who was still walking on the ceiling, had a less than savory view of Max’s right nostril—and sure enough, there was a foot, complete with boot, emerging from it.  Bill had never seen a nostril expand to quite that size before.  He closed his eyes and fell off the ceiling, doing a neat flip, which landed him on his feet.

Eventually, the boot, complete with a man dripping in snot, emerged from Max’s nose.

Max got up.  “Damn.  You cleared my sinuses.  What the—my accent!  It’s gone!”  He proceeded to walk out the door, behind which a low wailing sound could now be heard.

The man, whose face was completely obscured by the mucus, collapsed to the ground, unconscious. Merdemus scornfully cleaned off his face.  It looked like Drek.   Bill revived him with a swift slap to the face.

Drek did not seem to notice the snot that was covering him; his attention focused on Merdemus.

“Merde, Serelin just tried to kill me!”

Merdemus raised an eyebrow. “So?  He could not kill a fly.”

“Oh really!?  He seemed pretty lethal to me.  Spouted a lot of crap about that MEFISTO group you told us about.  Took the combined Seven Discipline attack at and brushed it aside, then he cut loose with the whole damn Cosmic almost.  Luckily, I pulled a Krek and turned into ashes, which his attack missed.  He then puts me in a box and zaps me into Max’s pocket.  After that, I’m a bit fuzzy.”

Bill laughed.  “You don’t know the half of it.”

Drek frowned.  “Where did I reassemble anyway?  In the box?”

Bill twiddled his thumbs.  “Well . . . no.  You see, uhhh . . . Merde?”

Merdemus looked up.  “Max opened the box and thought your ashes were snuff . . . he  uhh . . . ”

Drek’s eyes widened.  “Snuff!? Snuff?!  Are you saying he . . . he . . . ”

Miranda was getting tired of this.  “He put you up his nose!  He inhaled you!”

Drek fainted.

Sergeant Webb, who up until now had been expressing the secrets of the universe in his random lip thumbings, suddenly sprang to his feet, strode out the door, and re-entered, taking Max in tow.

“Maximillian Xavier Jackson, I hereby charge you with the murder of Wolf Matthews.  Come with me.”

As the two walked out the door, Miranda faced down Merdemus.  “He just arrested Max!  Aren’t you going to do anything?”

Merdemus scowled.  “I didn’t know his first name was Maximillian.”

Miranda looked hopelessly at Bill.

Bill scowled.  “I didn’t know his middle name was Xavier.”

Merdemus stepped in front of Bill.  “Are you saying that you knew his first name was Maximillian all these millennia and you didn’t tell me?”

Bill spat.  “How could I?  You were stuck up on some stupid mountain trying to pull off a child’s trick!”

Merdemus growled.  “A CHILD’S TRICK?!”

Bill grinned.  “I’m sorry.  An Apprentice’s trick!”

Merdemus grabbed Bill by the collar of his robes.  “You will suffer for that remark, BICLAXALTONIAN!  Do you remember what it means?”

Bill frowned.  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Merdemus turned to Miranda.  “It means ‘stupid rabbit droppings.’”

Bill was not happy.  He yanked himself from Merdemus’ grip.  “We will settle this later.  Right now, we must do as the young lady suggests and find a way to get Max out of jail.”

Drek, who had raised himself up off the sofa, weakly raised his hand and said, “No worries, folks.  I know the best lawyer in history.”  He got up, ran to the phone, dialed frantically and yelled into the receiver before dashing back to the sofa and collapsing.

There was a puff of smoke, and before them a man wearing a three-piece suit appeared, with a piece of parchment.

Drek smiled.  “Meet my personal lawyer, Hammurabi the Lawgiver . . . formerly of Sumeria . . . though nowadays he calls himself Hammurabi, Esquire”

Miranda shook her head.  “Wait . . . I know my history.  This guy should be dead!  Hammurabi wasn’t immortal!”

Drek looked Miranda evenly in the eyes and said, “Who says?”

Miranda’s mouth opened and shut for a few moments as she futilely searched for an answer.

Hammurabi smiled.  “Case closed.”

*                                  *                                  *

The day of Max’s trial was a gloomy one.  The rain had pounded San Francisco all night, and everyone in the courtroom was soaking wet.

Hammurabi and Max had taken their seats at the Defendant’s table, while Mr. Q. and Chris Warner of K-RAP sat at the Prosecutor’s table.

The judge walked up to his bench, waited for everyone to rise, and then slammed his gavel down, saying, “Siddown!  Wat are ya?  A buncha statues or somethin’?!”

Drek whispered to Miranda, Bill, and the others, “Judge Adobe is from New York.”

Judge Adobe saw Drek’s mouth moving and slammed his gavel again.

“Shaddup!  Or I’m gonna have you thrown outta here so quick, you’d think yer pants were on fire!”

Miranda groaned silently.  This judge was just one big cliché.

Adobe looked over the crowd. “Yeah.  I know what you’re thinkin’, dat I’m just some big cliché, hear to amuse you wit my accent.  WELL, I AIN’T!  Ya hear me!?  I’m here to dispense wit da law.  Ya hotshot lawyers who speak in gazillion letter woids had better not try yer legalese crap wit me.  I know yous got my hands tied wit these ideas of ‘Criminal Rights.’  Yous guys need to be whacked upside da head. Prosecution, let’s get dis crap over wit.”

At that moment, a person burst in from the street, waving a sign that read “APOCALYPSE NOW!”  He marched up and down the aisles until the bailiffs shoved him back outside.

Bill noted him and frowned. “That was pointless,” he muttered.

Mr. Q, who was not only a hacker, but a lawyer on the side, was the prosecutor on behalf of K-RAP radio. He rose, adjusted his dark sunglasses, and called his first witness.

“Lieutenant Scotty O’Hara.  You found the dead body.  Was it not true that the corpse in question had a flyer for the Adams School of Magic in his hand?”

O’Hara cleared his throat. “Affirmative.  The metabolically challenged biological unit in question did have a promotional device in his phalanges.”

Judge Adobe looked out at the spectators.  “Wat da hell did he say?”

Mr. Q adjusted his glasses. “The witness said ‘Yes,’ your honor.”

“In wat language?” the judge snapped back.

Hammurabi stood up and objected.  “Verbal nonsense cannot be considered appropriate testimony!”

Judge Adobe hit his gavel. “Duh.  But wees gotta be politically correct . . . I agree wit ya, but I gotta overrule ya.  Nice try.”

Mr. Q made a dramatic sweeping movement with his arms.  “The defendant, an admitted psycho, who calls himself the—”

Lieutenant O’Hara broke in from the witnesses seat.  “Wait.  It is not PC to call a non-liberated gender member of the Terran race ‘psycho.’  You may call him an alternatively oriented mindset embracing individual.”

Mr. Q ignored the remark and moved on.  “—‘Mad Magus.’  This plus the fact he is routinely a drunkard—”

Again, O’Hara interrupted. “‘Drunkard’ is not PC.  You must call him a sensibility deprived indivi—”

Judge Adobe pulled out a spare gavel from the underside of his bench and threw it at O’Hara, hitting him.

“Da witness will shaddup now! One more woid and yous is gonna be cited in contempt of court and da English language in general!” Mr. Q threw up his hands.  Not wishing to incite Lieutenant O’Hara into further action, revised his flowery remarks and said, “He’s guilty.  Maximillian Xavier Jackson turns water into wine.  Bitter wine.

“Wolf Matthews got his lungs filled with the stuff.  Therefore, Maximillian is the murderer.”

He then handed a piece of paper that looked like a check to Judge Adobe.  “This should cover any flaws in my logic, your honor.”

Adobe looked at the paper and scowled.  “Wat da hell is dis?  You tink I’m on da take!?  Forget it!”  Adobe squinted at the check.

“Waitaminute.  How many zeroes is dat?”

Mr. Q held up five fingers.

Judge Adobe scowled.

Mr. Q held up another finger.

Judge Adobe smiled.

In the spectators’ area, Miranda scowled and turned to Drek.  “This is crazy!”

Drek shrugged.  “Don’t worry. Hammurabi’ll take care of it.”

Hammurabi got up and raised both hands, showing seven fingers.

Mr. Q noted that Judge Adobe was now smiling at Hammurabi, and held up another finger.

Hammurabi held up one more finger.

Mr. Q held up his tenth finger triumphantly.

Judge Adobe was just about to pen “guilty” on his form, when he noticed, to his amazement, that Hammurabi was now holding up twelve fingers, and he hadn’t even raised his thumbs yet.

While Mr. Q and Chris Warner were fumbling for some more fingers, Adobe slammed his gavel down.  “Innocent . . . by . . . uhh . . . insanity!  Dats it . . . insanity.  Nice and libera—err, legal, tanks fer yer patronage, now get da hell outta here!  Except fer you . . . ”  Adobe pointed at Lieutenant O’Hara.  “We’s gonna have a little talk about PC . . . ”

As Max and the others left, “And make sure dat the check don’t bounce!” was heard coming from the courtroom.

Outside the courthouse, Miranda looked at Hammurabi in shock.  “I thought you were the lawgiver.  An eye for an eye and all that.  What’s with the bribery?”

Hammurabi shrugged.  “He who has the silver makes the rules.  Read my code a bit more closely, young lady.  Why, it allows for many such exemptions.”

Drek grinned.  “He was ahead of his time, all right.”

Miranda pressed on.  “And do you realize that you really didn’t prove Max innocent?  They could overturn that verdict easily!”

Bill chimed in, “Yeah.  I mean, when Judge Adobe realizes that eleven fingers were behind the decimal point, he’s gonna be really upset.”

Mr. Q emerged from the building triumphantly.  “Too late, boys and girls.  He figured it out.  And while he didn’t pronounce Max guilty—damn that ‘innocent until proven guilty’ thing—he did say you were all on probation for six months.  If you even think of doing any Magic, hocus pocus, prestidigitation . . . if you even pull a rabbit of a hat, your school’s gonna be shut down, locked up and probably gagged.  Either that, or Max’ll get some free air conditioning from the Mafia’s special ventilation squad.”

Merdemus scowled.  “Our school has nothing to do with the death of Wolf Matthews.”

Judge Adobe came down the steps of the courthouse.  “Yah.  But I knew it would tick you off.  I always hated Magicians.  Ever since that clown Magician pulled a toad outta my nose when I was a kid.”

Looking at the quizzical reaction from just about everyone of the street, Adobe threw up his hands. “Wat?  It was traumatic, aright?!  Ya gotta problem wit dat?”

Merdemus’ scowl deepened.  “We are not Magicians!  We practice true Magic.  We are Mages—most of us are masters of the Forces Elemental.” Adobe smiled.  “So am I.”  He burped.  “See?”  Laughing, he left.

Max burped even louder and followed Adobe with his eyes.

“Y’know . . . I could get to like his style.”  At that moment, Max sneezed.  He continued to sneeze uncontrollably, with each sneeze being harder than the last.  Max rubbed his nose.  Last night’s rain and the pollen count had obviously given him a bad cold.

“BLEAUGH!”  Max spat out some phlegm in disgust.  He could stand his own snot, but his phlegm was something he could not handle.

“That bloody ’urt!” Max was now bouncing up and down the sidewalk with glee.  “Me sinuses are clogged, I’m sneezin’ me ’ead off, an’ me accent’s back!  Yes!”

A Mage in a black trench coat and mirrored shades watched the spectacle from a distance, and smiled.  Things were beginning to flow.  Making sure that Hammurabi had possessed the gift of Immortality had been a wise investment.  Even the pain of taking the brunt of Serelin’s attack had been worth it.

Drek lived, and Max was a free man.  MEFISTO’s leader would have no choice but to react rashly, out of his misguided need for vengeance.  The fool was moving precisely as he should.

Nodding to himself, the Mage stepped backwards and flowed into the shadows, vanishing.  


Two hours later, the group entered Merdemus’ office, minus Hammurabi, who had gone back to his private law office.  Max sat on one end of the sofa, with Bill taking the other, and Drek and Miranda took the two chairs in front of Merdemus’ desk.

Merdemus sat in his still-broken seat and barely avoided falling out of the window behind him.

Drek grinned lazily.  “I guess it’s over then.  Toldya it wouldn’t work.  Shoulda lost the robes, buddy.”

Suddenly, a whining sort of laughter could be heard from outside the hallway door.  Merdemus frowned, and said, “Max, stop throwing your voice.”

Max shook his head.  “Not me, mate.  It’s somebody outside.  Lemme check.”  He got up, walked over to the door, opened it, stuck his head through the opening, yelped, shut the door, opened it again, pulled his head inside, and closed the door, wheezing. “Habah-sheha-ao . . . ”

Drek hit Max with a small rock. “Your dumb jokes are getting on my nerves.”

Max shook his head, still unable to speak properly, due to a particularly nasty combination of fear and the fact that he had almost crushed his neck in the door.  “Nehhahpleep.”

Max gave up trying to speak and pointed to the door frantically.

Bill got up, incensed, shoved Max away from the door and cast it wide open.  “See!  Nothing ther—”  Bill slammed the door shut and looked around the office, wide-eyed.  Gulping, he yelled, “Flee! Flee now!”

Merdemus walked over to the door and opened it a crack.  He peered out of it, and eventually turned around and shrugged.  “I do not understand why this sight disturbs you.”

Bill’s eyes widened even further.  “IT’S BUMBLYWORLD!  Don’t you get it!?  The most horrific place on the planet!  Children run amok, uncontrolled, while their parents bask in the warm comfort of padded cells which lock them in, away from their demon-spawn!”

Drek, who up until now had been calmly watching the others go berserk, had begun to pull out his hair in small tufts while whistling some Gregorian chants under his breath.

Miranda peered out the door and jerked her head back inside, clearly also in shock, and looked at Merdemus. “H—how did Bumblyworld get in front of your office?”

Merdemus shrugged.  “Let us find out.”  He walked out the door and into the realm where adults feared to tread. Trepidatiously, Miranda followed him, probably because she figured going inside Bumblyworld would be safer than staying in a room with a Mage who was pulling his hair out.

Bill watched them go and said, “Dammit!  Merdemus won’t last a minute with those kids.”

Dragging Max by the ear and Drek by the foot, Bill pulled them out the door before shutting it behind him.

A draft coming from Merdemus’ office window shoved the door open again, and had there been anyone left inside to notice, they would have not seen the entrance to Bumblyworld, but the hallway of the forty-second floor of the Adams Hotel.

*                                  *                                  *

Max and Miranda stood in a dark, misty sort of place, the kind of place where you can’t really see anything but when you can you wish you couldn’t. They slowly moved over some rough, gravely terrain which was completely obscured by what seemed to be thick fog rolling towards them.

Miranda tried her best not to inhale the stale air as she talked to Max.

“Where’s Merdemus?  He was right in front of me when the door opened.”

Max shrugged, a barely visible movement in the dark.  “Dunno.  Bill ’ad me by the ear, an’ I don’t see ’im anywhere around either.”

“Do you notice something weird about this place?”

Max nodded.  “No ’amburger joints.”

Miranda looked up for strength. “No . . . no kids.  This is supposed to be the funnest place on Earth—for kids anyway—and I don’t see any around here.”

Max rubbed his fingers on his chin thoughtfully.  “Y’know . . . yer roight.  This place is more loike a blinkin’ cemetery if ye ask me.”

Miranda shuddered as she realized that had been the exact thought that had come to her mind as she had looked up and seen a ghostly pale moon overhead.

Someplace else in “Bumblyworld,” Merdemus and Bill were running down a lush green pasture, dotted with bright white daisies, trying to escape a red, lumpy, hideous-looking shoe salesman named Alphonse who was hurling fireballs at them.  Every few seconds, one of the Wizards would turn and send forth a burst of blue lightning, which would miss the mark and incinerate trees, rocks, and the occasional frog.

The shoe salesman would then launch a larger fireball, which would narrowly miss the Wizards and end up incinerating everything in front of them.

Bounding down the slope, Merdemus was gasping for breath as he sought some answers from Bill.

“You . . . say . . . they send . . . children here?”

Bill nodded and leapt into the air as a chunk of green was blown out from under him.  “Yeah . . . AIEEE!!”

Bill fell into a crater that had formed in front of him.  Merdemus turned around and decided to hold the line against the shoe salesman from hell.  Firing crisscrossing bolts of energy from his palms, Merdemus ripped up the turf in front of the salesman, occasionally blowing a chunk or two out of the ground, but the salesman neatly dodged the assault and kept on coming.

Bill levitated out of the crater just behind and above Merdemus, surrounded in a transparent red sphere of pure energy.  “Now, puny shoe salesman . . . feel my wrath.”

The next moment there was a huge mushroom cloud where the shoe salesman had been.  Bill landed on the ground and the red sphere disappeared.

Merdemus shot an angry look at Bill.  “Why did you not do that sooner!?”

Bill shrugged.  “I didn’t think it was going to work.”

Merdemus turned as something caught his ear.  He looked back, winced, and shoved Bill forward.

“WHAT?”  Bill concentrated on keeping his balance on the next, steep hill.

“It didn’t work.”

“Oh well.”

Both Mages continued their mad dash through the countryside.

*                                  *                                  *

Drek the Mage found himself in some dull, purple place.  There was no ground, no sky, no horizon.  There were no landmarks, or objects of any kind around for him to use in order to judge distance or size.

This wasn’t so bad, Drek reflected, until he began to notice that the purple was changing to an obnoxiously hideous chartreuse.

“They sent you here too, eh?”

Drek turned his head, only to see that an old, wizened man had suddenly appeared out of nowhere.  There was such a massive displacement of the Cosmic around this guy that it probably tied up in a knot everywhere he went.  Serelin, who had gotten a massive power-boost, hadn’t even pushed a millionth of this much Cosmic aside.

“What . . . are you?” Drek looked at the frail man, in awe of his power.

“Ahh . . . a wise question!” The man raised a bony arm up and pointed his even bonier forefinger at him, shaking it so hard Drek feared it would fall off.

“Another would have said ‘Who are you?’ but you—you have potential!”

“Right.” Drek was beginning to wish he had never answered the phone when Merdemus had called him that day to talk about the Adams School.

“I am Xadium.  Dr. Xadium, of the Pythagorean School.”

Drek slapped his head mentally. The Pythagorean school was named after the same Pythagoras everyone learned about whenever they took geometry.  He had started a secret society that held that a twelve-sided object was the key to the universe.

The old man saw the mental slap and scowled.  “Look, youngster!  It was the only title I ever got . . . not like you Mages that just tack on words for every little spellbook you own!”

Drek frowned.  “I do not do that!  I am Drek, Lord of the Seven Disciplines, Master of the Forces Elemental, and Burner of Small Twigs.”

Dr. Xadium shook his head.  “You see! ‘Burner of Small—’”

Drek raised his hand and shook his head.  “Sorry . . . that bit was just to irritate a friend of mine.”

Xadium smiled deprecatingly. “You Mages think you have it hard in the “modern    world” . . . a world removed from Magic.  You youngsters have it easy!  I was an outcast even during the height of your time!”

Drek stared askance at the old man.  “You keep calling me a ‘youngster’ . . . but I’m three thousand, one hundred and forty-two years old!”

Xadium spat on the ground.  Drek was amazed that such a dried-out, emaciated mouth could spit with such violence. “I don’t blink.”

Drek looked up.  “So?”

“Do you remember the teachings of Lord Elzthek?”  The old man wheezed.  “There are two types of beings that dost not blink.  They art madmen—”  Xadium paused to let Drek fill in the blank.

“—And gods.”  Drek ended the sentence with a whimper.  “That would make you a little older than me, wouldn’t it?”

Back in the foggy graveyard-like area of the sappiest place on Earth, Max had settled down on a large boulder and was busy pitching small rocks into the fog.

Miranda was sitting on another boulder, watching this fascinating spectacle and wondering how a place like this fit in with the happy-fun motif of Bumblyworld.

“You don’t suppose this is where the parents go, do you?”

Max shrugged.  “Who knows?  It’s a wonder anything can move about ’ere at all.  I had to bleedin’ trip on this boulder to find out it was ’ere.”

“Don’t remind me.”  Miranda had vivid flashbacks of a thud, a bloody nose, and hysterical screaming in high pitches she had not suspected anyone with such a deep voice could reach. “Where are we going, anyway?  Do you know your way around this place?”

“No more than you.  I’m just ’opin to find an eatin’ establishment.”  He rubbed his stomach.  “I’m famished.”

Before Miranda could reply, a piercing howl shot through the fog.

Max’s expression grew serious. “Werewolf.”

Miranda cringed visibly.

Max grinned toothily.  “Dog’s leg is a delicacy in China.”

Miranda did her best to keep her lunch down, but another howl cut through the darkness and she lost it.

Max, for his part, had tilted his head and was examining the sound carefully.  His expression grew deadly serious.

“Miranda, that ain’t no bloody Werewolf . . . it’s just somebody bein’ tortured.”

“Oh.”  Miranda pitched a rock into the fog, then realized what Max had said.  At the same time, Max realized what he had said.

The two were off in a flash, running towards the source of the howling.

*                                  *                                  *

Bill and Merdemus, meanwhile, had transformed the lush countryside they had found themselves in into a steaming pit of burning embers, in the middle of which stood the salesman from Hell, who looked at them blankly and said, “Well, you could have just told me to go away,” before he vanished.

Merdemus looked at Bill and frowned.  “Would not have succeeded.”

Bill nodded.  “No chance.  So, Merde, got any ideas as to why we’re here?  Is there a point to all of this?”

Merdemus shrugged.  “Someone established a gate to this ‘Bumblyworld’ right in front of my door.  The fact that we all went in at about the same time and yet we are clearly separated also tells me that this was someone’s plan.”

Bill looked around at the devastated landscape.  “Someone’s plan for what?  To sell me double-width shoes?”

Merdemus was staring at the horizon.  Turning to face Bill, he said, “I did not get all the information I thought I had from Drek that time I read his mind.  Is that a lollipop?”

Bill looked to the horizon. “Yeah.”  Bill did a double take.  “HOLY ZARSTINOZAK! That is the biggest lollipop I’ve ever seen!”

The huge lollipop bounded across the horizon in the way lollipops have of bounding, before it toppled over and disappeared.

Bill sat down in the middle of a smoking crater.  Merdemus took a non-smoking crater and inquired as to why Bill had developed a facial tic.

Bill scowled.  “A lollipop that large can only mean one thing, Merde!  Somebody’s teaching Magic to kids!  Real Magic . . . our Magic!”

Merdemus suddenly realized that Bill was right.  He had seen the horrors that resulted from the teaching of Magic to children at too young an age in his village of Garath.

In particular, he remembered his nephew, Grel, who at the age of three had been a prodigal Mage.  Grel had learned the Fifth Discipline, that of matter creation and transmutation, and as such, began to produce every snack and candy he wanted whenever he wanted it—in other words, all the time.

Soon, the other children of Garath begged to learn it, and were taught by Grel for the modest price of eternal fealty.  At first, the effects of this weren’t too severe, until one exceptionally doltish lad had the idea to transmute the main water source of Garath into a river of salt-water taffy.  The resulting tooth decay and general dehydration led to the expulsion of Grel and his followers, but not after a particularly nasty mint hailstorm had plastered the town.  They had still been cleaning the last of it off twelve hundred years later when Merdemus had gone up the mountain.

“Biclaxal—err . . . Bill, this is unacceptable.”

“Downright dangerous.”

“We must find the creators of the lollipop and destroy them.”

“No, fool!  We must find their teachers and destroy them.”

“Right now I think there’s something else we should be destroying.”  Merdemus pointed to the horizon, where a seething mass of festering chocolate had formed itself into a Gryphon and was heading their way.

*                                  *                                  *

For his part, Drek was trying his best to keep calm after realizing that he was in the presence of a god-entity.  It was then that he realized that did not know what this old man was a god of.

“I’ve never heard of a god named Xadium before.”

The old man raised his head, which seemed about to snap off his tiny, withered neck, and wheezed.  “I am the god of evolution, creativity, youth and vigor.  I was known to the Neanderthals as grunt-wheeze-grunt-grunt.”

Drek frowned.  “But I’ve never heard of you.  Didn’t you get into a pantheon or anything?”

Xadium laughed a wheezy, scratchy laugh, then broke into a fit of frantic coughing.  Drek helped him stay on his feet.

“Are you joking, youngster? None of them would have anything to do with me.  All because of that fiasco with the Neanderthals.  Norse, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Indian, Christian religions . . . all of them said they had my tasks covered.  Can you believe it?”

Drek nodded reflexively, then cautiously began speaking.  “May I ask . . . what was the ‘fiasco with the Neanderthals’?”

Xadium nearly fainted.  He staggered about for a bit, then raised his almost-fleshless arms and began to shake them at the sky.  Looking up, the old man began to yell, “Who knew?” over and over again until another coughing fit caused him to collapse, seemingly in midair, as there was no ground in the void.

Getting up, he cleared his throat and looked evenly at Drek.  “Young one, if you ever gain god-level powers . . . never teach a species which calls itself grunt-grunt-ack-bleah-hehheh the principles of evolution.”

“What’s the problem with that?” Drek asked.

“They were upset about the fact that they were going to become Cro-Magnons.”

“I see.”

Xadium nodded sympathetically, a gesture which nearly snapped off his head.  “Death came quickly for most of them after the great ‘gruntly noisemaker’ festival, in which just about everyone tempted death in ways horrific, fiendish, and patently absurd.”

Drek blinked in shock.  “Just because they were going to evolve!?”

Xadium sighed.  “Yes.  They weren’t happy about losing speed and brawn to something as useless as a smaller brain.  They figured they were plenty smart as it was.”

Drek winced.  “So, you’re a god-level being.  Why didn’t you reverse it . . . erase their memories or something?”

Xadium slapped his head with his hand and almost fell over backwards.  “Sonny, there ARE rules gods have to follow . . . statutes of limitations and such.  I was basically drummed out of reality as you know it and stuck here, where I’ve been, incredibly bored, for thirty-five thousand years.  I tell you, if I ever find one of the few Neander-men who survived because they were too stupid to kill themselves properly, I’m going to hurt them for the disgrace they put me through.”

“Why don’t you explain this to the other gods?”

Xadium looked up, and screamed. “FOOL!  The other gods have gone!  They’re all off having a party somewhere, preparing for Armageddon, and they didn’t tell me where it was!”

Drek slapped his head.  “All those gods in one place must be causing a sinkhole in the Cosmic!”

Xadium scratched his head, pausing to pick up the bits of his scalp that had fallen off.  “Err . . . I knew that . . . I was uh, testing you . . . to see how much potential you had, young Mage.”  He snapped his fingers and nearly broke them.  “You—you remember I said you had potential, right?”

Drek sighed.  “I’m leaving.”

Xadium smiled a toothless grin. “I’m coming too.”

Drek’s jaw dropped.  “You mean . . . you could have left this place all the time?  You’ve just been sitting here for thirty-five thousand years when you could have been anywhere else?”

Xadium nodded his head.  “I was waiting for you.”

Dimly, Drek remembered and muttered the rest of Lord Elzthek’s teachings.

“There art but two types of being that dost not blink.  They art madmen and Gods . . . and sometimes there art those which art a bit of both.”  

On the

“ARE YOU INSANE?!”  Miranda shoved Max against the grungy rear wall of “The Sixth Foot Under Bar, Grill and Souvenir Shoppe.”  She raised up his left arm, which had an annoyed-looking Crab attached to it—a Crab which was busily trying to snap off his thumb.  “DO YOU HAVE any IDEA AS TO HOW STUPID THAT WAS?”

Max looked at her blankly and pulled his arm away from her, using it to wipe off his nose, ignoring the crab.  “Wot?  I was jest showin’ the bloke how simple it was to rearrange a face!”

Miranda cast a glance at the other end of the dark, grimy bar, where a twelve-foot-tall brown furry something with two eyes, a nose and a trunk (though not in that order) was rubbing its bruised eye and stomping its hooves against the floorboards in anger.  It howled and prepared to rush at Max.

“You’ve got to walk away, Max. He could kill you!”

Max shook his head.  “Stand aside, Miranda.  I’m gonna knock ’is block off with a roight ’ook!”

Charging like a bull, Max ran into the middle of the bar, clashing with the furry creature. There was a tremendous bellow, and the two went down with a crash that shattered the glasses behind the bar.

Rising, the two began punching each other so hard that the impacts could be heard twenty feet away.  Max chose this moment to begin intelligent discourse with the creature.

“Who (punch) are (duck) you (kick)?”  Max slammed the creature in the ribs.

“(smack) ZARF!”  Zarf wrapped his trunk around Max and lifted him up.

“Zarf, (smash) meet (kick) Chuck, (chop) me (belch) crab.”  Max dumped the crab that had been on his arm onto Zarf’s trunk.

A hideous wail could be heard, and Max crashed to the ground with a thud.  “We wants te know who was being tortured ’round these parts.”

“Right now . . . me Zarf being tortured!  Take crusty-seen Chuck away!”

Max moved a hair closer to the crab.  “Maybe.  If ye tells me wot’s goin’ on.”

“Zarf not tell fat man nothing!  Zarf proud Warrior!”

Max produced another crab from his pocket.  “Zarf . . . meet Chuck’s elder, Chuck the Elder.  Notice ’e ’as bigger pincher things.”

Zarf looked at Chuck the Elder, wide-eyed, and said whiningly, “Me Zarf proud    Warrior . . . but me Zarf not stupid.  Me talk.  Now please . . . take it AWAYWAYFAR from ZARF, yes?”

Max pulled Chuck off Zarf and stuck him in his pocket with Chuck the Elder.  Zarf roundhoused Max and sent him flying through a wall.

Zarf laughed, and his laugh went from a childish giggle to a throaty, sinister giggle.  “You obese Mages are so gullible.”

Max appeared out of the nowhere behind Zarf and grabbed his ears, almost crushing them in his palms.  As Zarf writhed in agony, Max whispered, “Maybe.  But we’s also got a good grip.  SPILL IT!”

“Forsooth, it be Karnos the horrible, the mistress of evil, sorceress of destruction.  She is the one who is doing the torturing.  You will find her in her hovel to the south of this place, near the Coast of the Sun, performing unspeakable deeds both foul and disgusting!”

Max was about to let him go when Miranda shook her head and approached Zarf.  She grabbed his trunk in her hand and shoved it in the local laundry press, right between the two cylinders which usually squash cloth flat as one turns a crank.

She began to turn the crank, crushing a tiny bit of Zarf’s trunk.

The resultant screaming was unbelievable.  Miranda smiled and faced Zarf, tossing her hair out of her face.  Leaning in, she said in as deadly a tone as she could muster, “Why aren’t there any children here in Bumblyworld?”

Zarf shrugged. “I dost not know.”

“Liar.” Miranda pulled the crank a bit more.

“ARGHRAHHHH! She is more wicked and cruel than Karnos herself!”

“Tell me why Bumblyworld looks like a graveyard!” Miranda restrained herself from giving the crank a full rotation.  She really didn’t want to cause permanent injury to this fellow.

“Ka—Karnos is the cause?  . . . Err . . .  fair damsel pretty and wise with the hair of gold who will not harm me anymore please?”

Miranda looked up.  She figured that now psychology would work better than another turn of the crank.  “You DARE answer my question with your puny one, slave-creature!?”  She made as displeased a face as she could.

Zarf roared and almost yanked his trunk free.  “NO ONE CALLS ME A SLAVE, NOT EVEN KARNOS!”

Miranda suddenly realized that psychology would not work as well as she had hoped, so she quickly turned the crank a little more.

“AIEEE!  Thou mayst call me slave, madam.  As often as thou wishest—in fact, I mayest change my name to Slave.  I swear eternal fealty to thee and thy companion!”


"B—B—Bumblyworld is not a word I comprehend.  Children are to be found far from this place, near the great wall, where they learn Magics at a tender age . . . some sayest too tender.”

Max brushed Miranda aside, grabbed Zarf’s trunk and squeezed it.

Maintaining pressure, she growled, “HOW TENDER?!”

Zarf wheezed, “The Dark ones teach them at the age of first—”

Max squeezed harder—so hard that Miranda took pity on Zarf and released his trunk from the laundry presser, but there was no difference in pressure.


“Before one year!”

Max released the trunk and, using strength he had genuinely forgotten about, picked Zarf up and hurled him out through the opposite concrete wall.

“C’mon, Miranda.  Some bloke’s gonna pay fer this!”

Confused, Miranda followed Max out of the building.  She let him cool off for a few minutes before she asked him the obvious question.

“What’s wrong with teaching kids Magic while they’re young?”

Max snarled reflexively.  “First we find Karnos, then we go after these Dark Ones and ye’ll understand fer yerself.  In the meantime, try to imagine a town’s sole water supply turning te salt-water taffy.”

*                                  *                                  *

Merdemus ducked and ran for cover as a chocolate Gryphon hurled fireballs at him, cackling furiously.

“What manner of Gryphon is this?”

Bill was crouching under a large boulder, and could not believe that Merdemus had been foolish enough as to stay in the open with that thing about.

“Obviously a child’s invention! It’s made of chocolate and spits fire!  Only a child would think of that!”

Merdemus paused long enough to cut loose with beams of radiant energy that transfixed the Gryphon, but not much more.  He turned to Bill and yelled, “But children cannot possibly have the strength to endow a creature with life!”

“Try telling him that!” Bill fired some energy blasts of his own at the Gryphon, but it shook them off and headed for Merdemus.

Merdemus frowned.  He had never learned how to endow objects with life, which was a skill that obviously a child had mastered.  “Bill, this means that those children already know more Magic than we!”

Bill winced.  “What if we combine the Sixth Discipline and use it agai—”  The Gryphon hurled a large chunk of chocolate into his mouth to try and silence him.

Merdemus grinned.  Drek had used the Sixth Discipline along with him to teleport McDrekky’s to the Adams Hotel. But what could Bill be planning?  The grin expanded as Merdemus realized Bill’s plan.

Concentrating, Merdemus invoked the Sixth Discipline, which basically involved thinking of a large elephant tumbling off a cliff into a small tub of water with fish in it while you were rolling your tongue in your mouth and singing the Third Gregorian Chant of Bug Destruction with eyes shut.

Bill noted this and invoked it as well.  It was a safe bet that the Gryphon noted this too, since it began to twitter and screech, flying in wider and wider circles, until one half of it exploded out into all directions, the fragments of wing and beak breaking apart again and again until nothing was left.  The other half flickered in and out of sight until it reassembled in a smoking puddle on the grass.

“YOU HAVE NO IMAGINATION, MERDEMUS!”  Bill stomped his feet as he saw the puddle in the grass.  “I take the trouble to teleport each molecule of the thing further and further apart in a grand pyrotechnic spectacle of death and destruction, and you melt your half into a puddle!?”

Merdemus scowled.  “I was being practical.”

Bill looked away, and noted that a whole mass of people had started a run from the horizon, and they weren’t kids.  “This Bumblyworld place sure doesn’t look like an amusement park to me.”

Merdemus nodded.  “Maybe these people know the truth.  Strange.”

“What?”  Bill looked at Merdemus, who was squinting at the gathering crowd.

“Why are they carrying torches and pitchforks when it is broad daylight and there are no crops here?”

Bill frowned.  “You figure it out.”

Merdemus suddenly realized the gravity of the situation and so suspended it.  The people with the pitchforks floated upwards, and the torches flew up into the air, circling.

Merdemus addressed the crowd in his stupid-moron-listen-to-me-or-face-the-consequences voice.

“Levitation will make all of you increasingly dizzy until you lose your senses and black out.”  The head of the crowd cleared his voice and said,

“Uncle Merdemus!”Merdemus, in his shock, dropped the entire crowd with a thud.

“Narotel, the Doomsayer, son of my brother Gnud?”

No!  I am Grel, son of Norman the Ironwright!”

“GREL?!”  Merdemus sat down and thought he saw pretty lights in front of his eyes.

Bill readied himself for combat.  “When I stayed in Garath, I learned the hideous story.  Of how your pals turned the river into taffy.”

Grel cursed in seventeen languages simultaneously.  In normal, mortal terms, he looked to be fifteen or sixteen, but Bill knew he was about two thousand, two hundred and fifty years old.

“Mage Biclaxaltonian, Mage of the Second Order, Lord of the Five Disciplines and Master of the Forces Elemental and Not-So-Elemental, plus other miscellaneous blizalth, I know everything about you and Uncle Merdemus too.”

Bill smirked.  “Lord of the Eight Disciplines.  I learned the other three last week.  Your knowledge is obsolete.”

Grel’s jaw dropped.  “You know the Eighth Discipline?  YOU MUST DIE!”

Merdemus, who up until now had been seeing pink bunnies scampering across the sky, snapped out of it when he heard the phrase “You must die.”  It was an ancient reflex, one that had been cultivated out of centuries of death threats from gods, jealous Mages, tax collectors and angry chickens that (sometimes rightly) thought they were tax collectors.  He staggered to his feet and spoke in a raspy voice.

“He does not know what it does or how it works.  He told me so when he refused to teach it to me.”

Grel smiled.  “So, uncle, you don’t know it, then?”


“Good.  Then I only have to kill Biclaxaltonian.”

“Oh well.”

Bill looked at this discourse in shock.  “Merde!  Call your rabid nephew off!  I am a Mage of the Second Order . . . I’d have to smite them all if they attacked me!”

Merdemus shook his head.  “Only a Mage of the First Order such as myself could do that.”

Bill looked at Merdemus, aghast.  “First Order?  First Order?  Pray, tell me when this happened . . . you were naught but a Mage of the Second Order like me when you went up the mountain!”

Merdemus frowned. “Correspondence.  I had my Apprentice run up and down the mountain twice a week to fetch the tomes of power for me.  Took almost a hundred years.”

Grel shook his head.  “We hate those little brats over at the other side of Foster’s Wall.  They make chocolate Gryphons, giant lollipops . . . sorry, giant carnivorous lollipops, and screaming licorice monsters that keep us awake at all hours of the night! I suppose it is our punishment for that taffy fiasco so many years ago.  We formed Millennium Village to keep to ourselves, away from young brats like that. We want, nay, deserve the right to live in a secluded, shady community where we can all dress oddly, play pathetic sports, and imagine we are just as young as they are without having them around to remind us we really aren’t.”

Bill relaxed slightly.  “Why don’t you just smash Foster’s Wall and smite the bloody imps?”

Grel looked daggers at Bill. “Because of the damn Eighth Discipline!  We don’t know what it is, and we don’t know what it does, but the Mages in Black assured us it was quite horrible, and that all the children knew it, and that we would be the first to feel its wrath if we tried to cross the wall.”

“I see.  Did it ever occur to you that the Mages in Black might have been lying?”

“After one of the children turned our village square into a giant pit of bubbling pudding, we figured out they probably weren’t.”

*                                  *                                  *

Drek was spinning through the Cosmic, unable to talk, breathe, or spit.  This particular combination of inconveniences was making life very intolerable for him.  Dr. Xadium, for his part, seemed to be enjoying the chaos he had created when, after a few minutes of frantic search, he had located the small portion of the chartreuse void that said “do not touch,” and had obligingly touched it.

The resultant explosion had basically decimated everything (not there was much of it) in the void, and had left both its occupants hurling through the Cosmic at breakneck speed.

“Where are we going?”  Drek was barely able to force out the words.

“Where all the old ones go when time passes them by.”


Xadium seemed to have no difficulty speaking.  “If you were obsolete, and everybody who picked on you was off having a huge party somewhere, what would you do, youngster?”

“Uhhh . . . find them and smite them all in just revenge?”

Xadium slapped his head.  “No, no, no!  You youngsters are so backward . . . you throw a bigger party than theirs to make them look stupid!”

“O . . . K . . . ”  Drek was in no mood to contemplate a party at the moment, as he determined there was very little air reaching his brain at the moment, and for some reason, that fact disturbed him slightly.

Xadium laughed, reading his thoughts exactly.  “Don’t worry . . . we’re almost at the secret place, where the party should be going in full swing now . . . it’s been thirty-five thousand years, after all.”

With a thud, the two materialized in a foggy, drizzly sort of place, next to what seemed to be a Stonehenge replica, except that this henge’s monolithic stones were crystalline, and the circle of pillars was complete.

Drek sighed.  “Makes me yearn for the old days.”

Xadium scowled.  “This is the newer model.  My friend Halthan, the god of abstract invention, had botched the original stone version in England, and this was to be the replacement.  It didn’t work either, so we resolved to bring it here for the party.”

Drek stared at the crystal pillars, which seemed to magnify the overcast sky, and glanced down at the unnaturally dark green grass underneath them.  “What was the original supposed to do?”

Xadium spat.  “I have no time for your questions!  I can’t see or even sense Halthan, Zimble, Makhoy or the others . . . wait a moment . . . ”

The wizened old man bent over and picked up a small piece of parchment that had been stuck to one of the crystal pillars.  As he read it, his hand began to shake, fluttering the paper more and more violently until it began to make a thwirpthwirpthwirpthwirp sound.

Eventually, Xadium dropped the paper, leapt up onto the top of one of the stone pillars, perched there and began to sob softly.

Drek picked up the paper and read it.

“Xadium—too bad you weren’t here.  Mercury shows up at theparty with his new winged boots and gives us a message from Zeus and the others at the pre-Armageddon party. He said that what the hell, the end was near, and we could all join the Pantheon as assistant godlings, and Odin said I could go to Asgard and be his personal boot-cleanser!  Sorry you missed your chance, hard luck.  Have a nice aeon.”

The letter was signed “Zimble.”  Drek looked up at the weeping god and asked, “Who’s Zimble?”

Xadium wiped his eyes.  “Zimble was the ancient one.  The old and wizened one whose body looked as though it would snap like a twig at any moment.  He was thrice my elder.”

Drek hated to think about what Zimble must look like now, and suddenly realized that he had forgotten completely about Merdemus and the others during his chat with Xadium.  Glancing at his watch, he noted that no time had elapsed from the time he had walked through Merdemus’ door to now.  “I hate to run, but could you tell me where to find my friends?”

Xadium shook his head.  “Sorry.  I was never very good at direction.  I expected that you would know how to get us to your friends.”

Drek looked askance at Xadium.  “You seem to think that you’ve been waiting for me all these years.  How do you know that you haven’t been waiting for someone else?”

Xadium reared himself up and roared.  Actually, he coughed a lot, and managed to splutter out a wheeze.  “You dare to <cough, cough> question me, young one?  I know I was waiting for you, because your name is Drek, and I was told a long time ago by a drunk Oracle that I’d have to wait for a Drek who would get me out of a boring situation.”

Drek sighed.  “This is boring, all right.  But I don’t know how to get you out of here.  I don’t even know where the hell we are!”  He kicked one of the crystal pillars.

Xadium grinned.  “That’s how it was supposed to go!  Kick, kick, shove—then slap!”


“To run the portal!  Halthan must have forgotten the directions!  HE always slapped, then kicked!”


Dr. Xadium kicked the nearest pillar twice, shoved it, then slapped it with his left hand.  Drek swore he heard a bone snap.“I don’t see anything happening, Doctor.”

Just then the overcast sky went pitch black, and there was an unnatural red tinge to the clouds overhead.  The clear crystal pillars began to glow a sickeningly bright high intensity red, and the area inside the circle of pillars now looked as if there was a patch of daylight inside it.  Xadium walked in and looked about.  “See?  I was right!  Come on in, youngster!”

Drek trepidatiously entered the crystal henge, and within moments he was transported to the interior of a dank cavern, in which he found a huge red rock with what seemed to be a claw sticking out of it.  The smell that permeated the cavern wasn’t just musty, Drek decided; it was almost sulfurous.  He decided to mention this to his traveling companion, but Dr. Xadium was nowhere to be seen.  Examining the claw-like rock a bit further, Drek realized that the large outcropping really was a claw, attached to a red, scaly toe that was about as tall as he was.

Looking up, he realized that the toe was attached to something very ancient, very tall, and very, very angry.

*                                  *                                  *


As Miranda and Max pushed forward through the swamp-like bogs that marked off the territory of Karnos the horrible, Zarf was scrambling to keep up.

“Fair damsel, I have sworn fealty to thee!  Thou canst not leaveth me behind!”

Miranda grabbed a rock, realized it was a huge swamp spider, shuddered, then threw it at Zarf.

“Go away!  I told you, you’re free!  I don’t want your fealty!”

Max sighed.  Even insane Mages had had their share of unwanted servants.  Usually standard procedure was to either sell them off or smite them or subject them to particularly nasty horrors, but he doubted Zarf would command much of a price.  Smiting him was appealing, but Max had forgotten his Smiting For Fun and Leisure Handbook, so he decided to subject him to nasty horrors—until he realized that a man who had a trunk sticking out of his chin and fur all over his neck really had nothing to fear from nasty horrors, so he let Miranda deal with him . . . not that she was having much success.

“Look, Zarf!  There might be a poisonous snake in that peat bog!  Go check, okay?  If there is one, pet it. Make it your friend.  Allow it to sharpen its fangs on your skin.  Got it? Go!”

Zarf bounded off into the mist, the squishing of his footsteps in the swamp growing softer and softer until they could not be distinguished from the normal background thrum of the swamp.

Max looked at Miranda and frowned.  “That was mean, luv.”

Miranda sighed regretfully. “I’m sorry.  I didn’t really want to hurt Zarf.”

Max raised an eyebrow.  “I meant it was mean te the snake, Miranda.”

At this moment the duo reached the “hovel” of Karnos the Horrible.

It was a massive castle, with ramparts on ramparts, and soldiers pointing their weapons at anything that moved.  The wailing howls that had first gotten Miranda’s attention were louder than ever, and they seemed to be coming from the dead center of the fortress.

Miranda eyed the castle and looked back at Max.  “How are we supposed to get in there?”

Max shrugged.  “We roll up to the door an’ knock.”

Before Miranda could restrain him, Max had walked up to the front gate of the castle and knocked on the massive iron gates, which had begun to clang louder and louder with each successive knock.  After a few moments delay, a soldier in a tattered red uniform opened the gates and pointed what appeared to be a crossbow at Max’s stomach.

Max grinned at Miranda.  “See, luv?  We’re really makin’ progress now!”

Miranda looked up in a gesture of futility as the guard brusquely shoved her through the iron gates and into a giant stone courtyard, where Max was being introduced rather impolitely to the cobblestones.

“You’re hurting him!”  Miranda tried to rush to Max’s aid, but was restrained by a guard who was placing a bet on how long it would take to give the Mage a headache.

Max, for his part, was busy trying to stop the floor from hitting his head.  Struggling out the words, he spluttered, “We come to see Karnos the Horrible!”

The guards sprang back in shock, releasing Max, who fell flat on the ground, face down.  Miranda helped him sit up as one of the guards timidly approached her and spoke in a trembling whisper.“Y—y—you mean she’s come back?  Inside?  Here?”

Miranda blinked.  “You mean you aren’t guarding her?”

The guards all broke into a nervous sort of laugh, and then suddenly hushed up as if on cue and stood at attention.

“N—no . . .  We’re all here to keep her out . . . to keep her away from the item.”

“What item?”

“The press.”

“Wot press?”  Max had managed to clear the cobwebs out and was now ambling about the courtyard, still dizzy.

“The printing press.  Karnos used it in manners most foul . . . she tortured us with it in ways you cannot imagine . . . we had lost all hope until the day those strange Wizards in black arrived and she left with them.  We seized the moment and fortified the area around her hovel so she could not return to it to resume her vile program of horror.”

Miranda scratched her head.  “I don’t get it.  How did she torture you with a printing press?”

The answer to her question was a book.  A thin book, by any standard; one that had the picture of a rose atop a small piece of parchment on its cover.  It was called The Witch Who Died in the Moat and Was Forgotten. Reading it, Miranda realized the scope of the horror these people had gone through.  The plot seemed nonexistent, yet at the same time incredibly complex, with cliffhangers almost every chapter, lots of foreshadowing, inside gags and a gradual, yet sudden buildup to the final climactic showdown between the forces of good and evil which raged on intently, increasing in suspense until the fateful moment when—

“When what?!”  Miranda flipped the last page of the book backwards and forwards.  She shook it, held it up to the bright moonlight and began to pore over the texts like a woman possessed.

“Wot is it, Miranda?”  Max looked over her shoulder at the book.  A guard noted this and signaled the others to lower their weapons.  He then approached Max.

“I see now you cannot be agents of Her Evilness.  Your friend is suffering the pain we all suffered at the hands of Karnos.  She has become enraptured with the plot of the book—an excellent plot—one that demands resolution . . . except there is none.  There is no last page to any of Her Vileness’ fifty-seven texts, each one more intriguing than the last.

“We read on like mad, trying to determine the resolution to each mystery . . . to find out who the murderer was . . . but we could not.”

“Humph.  ’Ardly seems loike a reason to me.  And, wot about the ’owling?”

The guard closed his eyes in respect.  “Malerno the Silent.  He could not bear not knowing who killed the wife of the cousin of the brother of the aunt’s best friend’s tailor’s brother-in-law in Mark of the Rickety Spigot.” Max sighed.

“Well . . .’ow ’bout the butler?  It’s always the butler in the movies.”

The guard almost fell down in a faint.  “Of course!  That would explain the poisoned ale in My Broken Cart and the fungi in the sauce in The Warlock who ate Asparagus! You have saved my people!”

The guard ran off, whispering, “the butler did it” to everyone in sight.

Eventually, Max ambled over to Miranda and whispered it to her.

She slapped her head and put down the book.

“I should have known that.”

“Err . . . we ’ave to go find Merdemus.  I think we’ve wasted enough time ’ere.”

“Agreed.  But where do we look? We still don’t know where we are.  This is supposed to be Bumblyworld!”

“Why don’t we ask those guard-blokes?  They ought to know where we are.”

One of the guards ran up to Max, and before he could pose any questions, he was handed a crown and purple robe along with a scepter.

Miranda got what looked to be a heavily-jeweled tiara and a purple robe.

The guard kneeled down and the others did as well.  Looking at Max’s shoes, the guard intoned, “I hail fealty to our new King and Queen . . . ”  He paused as he realized he did not know their names.

Looking up fearfully, he jerked his head down as soon as Max and Miranda proffered their names.  “ . . . Maximillian Jackson and Miranda Wright.”

Miranda whispered to Max, “I don’t want to be Queen!  We have to find Merdemus, Bill and Drek!”

Max nodded.  “I know.  But wot’re we gonna do about it?”

Miranda grinned and shook her head, speaking now to the guard.

“Wait.  I’m not married to Max, so I can’t be Queen.”

Max grinned.  “Ya.  An’ I’m not married to ’er, so I can’t be King.”

Miranda groaned.  “That won’t work for you.”

Max frowned.  “It worked fer you!”

The guard looked helplessly at the others.  “Our King and Queen are not married to one another.  This is improper.”

Another guard raised his hand. “Completely so.  I suppose we will have to depose them now.”

A general murmur of acceptance to this idea was heard, and all the guards raised their weapons and pointed them at their new monarchs.

Miranda looked hopelessly at Max, who whispered, “No worries.”

Louder, he yelled, “Free wine for all!” and invoked a spell which turned the rising fog into liquid wine which fell to the ground.  It drenched everyone and formed large puddles which the guards reflexively sprang for, missing the two figures as they slipped out of the courtyard and into the rapidly breaking dawn.  


Bill and Merdemus observed Foster’s Wall, a massive, jet-black barrier that stretched from one edge of the horizon to the other and extended at least fifty feet in the air.

Grel threw some mud at it, but the mud seemed to fly apart just before hitting the shiny surface.

“Uncle Merdemus, those Mages in Black put this thing up before they started teaching those annoying children on the other side.  Rumor has it they stole it from somewhere else.  They say that with the right trigger it can distort time itself.  We can’t levitate over it, we can’t blast it, we can’t go around it.  Only they can send things over here.”

Bill touched the wall.  It hummed with power.  When he released his touch, the wall seemed to ripple slightly and words began to form on its surface.

Grel looked at this in shock. “What?!  It never did that for me!”

Bill shrugged.  “I am a Mage of the Second Order.  However . . . err . . . ”

Squinting, Bill tried to decipher what the words meant.  “ . . . I can’t read what it says.”

Merdemus shoved Bill aside.  “It says:  ‘Only the One who is worthy of Admiration shall be allowed to lower this wall.’  It’s signed by a ‘Halthan, Engineer of Space, Time and those little plastic things used to twist wires together.’”

Bill scowled.  “You made that up! There’s no way you could have understood that!”

Merdemus tapped his head.  “I’m a Mage of the First Order.  Besides, it was in upside down, backwards Latin.” As Bill balled up his fists, he continued, “Therefore I should be the one who is able to dismantle this wall, since I am the one worthy of Admiration by all.”

Bill scowled.  “I doubt that!”

Grel coughed immodestly.  “As do I, Uncle.  We all know of my power.”

Merdemus spat.  “If Bill touched it and it made words, my touch should be enough to destroy it.”  Extending his hand, Merdemus touched the wall.  There was a blue flash, and he was thrown back onto the ground violently.  The wall began to speak slowly.  “I WAS SENT FROM THE FUTURE TO AWAIT THE ONE AND PROTECT THE MANY.”

Bill was helping Merdemus up, but he dropped him as soon as he heard the wall’s statement.  “Am I The One?”


 Merdemus got up slowly and raised his arms imperially.  “Then I am The One, surely.”


Grel shoved his uncle aside. “Is Jeffery Sinclair The One?.”

Bill eyed him curiously.  “Who the hell is Jeff—”

Grel shrugged.  “I don’t know. It just came over me.”


Bill rolled his eyes.  “And who is that?”

Suddenly, the bright blue sky turned a sickly red, and a Mage in Black seemed to descend from nowhere.  Bill and Merdemus recognized him as Serelin . . . or at least something that had Serelin’s face that had also simultaneously developed intelligence and a sense of dark, ominous fashion.

“What’s he doing here?” Bill looked askance at Merdemus, who shrugged and spat reflexively.  Bill growled.

“Well, whatever he’s doing here, I’m going to—”

Bill was cut off in mid-sentence as Serelin slammed him with an energy bolt.  He managed to redirect its force to his left, incinerating Grel’s shoes as a result.

Grel frowned, then ducked as Serelin swooped over him and landed smartly on the ground in front of Merdemus.

Merdemus crossed his arms and readied himself for battle, then realized that this was Serelin, commonly referred to as Serelin the Incompetent, and dropped his arms.

Serelin nodded his head and spoke.

“It is wise that you do not oppose me, foolish one.”

“It is you who are foolish, Serelin.  Do you think you could defeat me?”

Serelin laughed.  “I could defeat, smite, obliterate, disintegrate and stir-fry you with a flick of my wrist.  I bring you a message from my masters at MEFISTO.”

Merdemus nodded.  “Only they would be foolish enough to give a Mage who thinks a donkey cart with pinstripes is a status symbol the ability to perform vast and powerful Magics.”

Serelin grabbed Merdemus by the throat, lifted him off his feet and growled, “Do not give voice to your ignorances, fool.”

Bill snorted.  “Plagiarist. That’s what I told you when you told me that the book about the talking black Mustang you wanted to write would actually get published.”

Serelin dropped Merdemus unceremoniously and shoved Bill.  “Hey!  It was a good idea!  It could have even made it to television!”

Merdemus looked at Grel, and the two of them unleashed vast and powerful Magics at Serelin.

At this point, it would be helpful to realize that the notion of just what vast and powerful Magics are varies considerably from Mage to Mage.  This is what Merdemus grasped somewhere in the pit of his stomach as he saw his energy bolts being augmented by strips of taffy emanating from Grel’s fingertips.

“Dammit, boy!  Use energy, dammit!  Energy!”

It was too late.  As Grel tried to refocus his energy, Serelin turned around, glared at Merdemus, raised his palms, and proceeded to sit down and munch on the taffy that had stuck to his robes.

In between chews, he relayed the message he had been given by MEFISTO.

“<chew> Be advised that you are in <chew, chew> the domain of MEFISTO, the place of great power <chew>, land of the mightiest Mages on the planet, et cetera., et cetera., blah blah and you <chew> are all doomed <chew>, it is useless to resist <chew, chew>, give up now, we may not smite you so badly <chew, chew, chew, chew>, and so on and so forth . . . <mmmph>”

At this point, Serelin’s teeth were gummed together by the taffy, and he rose up to finish off the wizards. Bill clapped his hands and yelled, “VAS SPRINGHAY FEVERUM SINUSITISATSTICAL KERPLATCHOOHAR,” which caused Serelin to immediately produce a kerchief and wipe his nose.

Bill grinned.  “Learned it from Max.  Produces a nasty little nasal drip.  With his mouth locked shut and his nose clogged, he’ll be too busy trying to breathe to bug us.”

Merdemus frowned.  “What of the Seventh Discipline?  That would keep him alive—he wouldn’t need to breathe.”

Bill slapped his head.  “This is Serelin, remember?  For all his black robes and high speech, and admittedly powerful Magic, he still has the brain of a peanut.”

Merdemus nodded and he, Grel and Bill moved over to another section of Foster’s Wall.

Grel looked off into the middle distance as he spoke.  “My fellow Mages and I, citizens of Millennium Village, will do our best to keep Serelin there out of commission while you go take care of these MEFISTO people.”

Bill looked up at the red-blue sky, which was returning to normal after Serelin’s entrance.  “Well, we have to find our friends first.  Can you tell us how this place got stuck in Bumblyworld?”

Grel shook his head.  “I don’t know of any ‘Bumblyworld.’  Maybe he was referring to the place on the other side of the wall, where those whining child-Mages are.”

Bill shrugged.  “Well, Bumblyworld is supposed to be all about whining children.”  He turned his head as he realized Merdemus had been shoving him for the past minute.

“What is it?!”


Bill followed Merdemus’ gaze.  A strange creature was approaching.  Covered in matted brown fur, it was waving what appeared to be a trunk attached to its chin and it was screaming horribly.

“It sounds hungry.”  Merdemus nodded.

“And deadly.”  Bill looked at Merdemus, who raised an eyebrow.

“Well, hungry then.”

“I hope so.”

*                                  *                                  *

“Are you deadly?”

Drek looked up at the massive red Dragon, which was doing all it could to avoid stepping on him, and trembled slightly.

The Dragon snorted, and a stream of smoke flew out of its nostrils, which were quivering in anger.  Drek tried to stop trembling, and failed.  He decided to ask another question.

Questions, he reflected, were nice things.  They indicated interest in the plight of another, something he felt the Dragon would appreciate.

“Are . . . you . . . all right?”

The Dragon, which had been standing on its two massive hind legs, lowered its neck in that curious way all reptiles have of lowering their necks that gives one the distinct impression that they are talking to an absurd-looking scaly goose rather than a death-dealing engine of destruction and chaos.  It brought its head as close to eye level with Drek’s as it could manage and said nothing, but exhaled.

Drek struggled to breathe as the dank odor from the creature’s nostrils bathed him completely.  The Dragon was now shifting its slitted eyes left-to-right, surveying him much as a cat does a mouse before the kill.

Drek’s trembling was growing. He had played many games of Kick the Dragon and Run, but most of those had been with baby Dragons, or with horses he had made up to resemble them just to impress his somewhat ignorant friends.

In fact, all of them had been that way.

This was perhaps the largest Dragon he had ever seen, about four stories high, and this was certainly the closest he had ever been to one.  It remained eerily silent, settling its yellow-eyed gaze on him, clearly waiting for him to make his next move.

“Err . . . my name is . . . is . . . uhh . . . ”  Drek suddenly realized that he had forgotten his own name. Sticking his hand into his green-and-gold McDrekky’s shirt, he pulled out an ID card and read off of it.  “Fred.  Fred Barney.”

The Dragon remained motionless. Except for a slow blink of the eyes, one could have thought it was a statue. Drek did not like this one bit, and began to wonder what kind of dreck he had gotten himself into.  With a flash his real name came back to him.

“Uhh . . . correction.  My name is Drek.  Fred Barney was a name I had used for business pur—”

The Dragon sprang its neck straight up so rapidly that Drek almost had a coronary.  It began to make a terrible rumbling noise, which Drek realized after a moment of abject terror was actually a laugh—and a hearty one at that.

“What’s so bloody funny about that!?”  Drek momentarily forgot the gravity of his situation.

Lowering its head slightly once again, the Dragon stepped aside to let Drek inside the rest of its cave.

The cave was barren, dimly lit, and bare save the huge gravel pit in one corner which Drek suspected was a bed of some sort, and- Drek’s mind refused to compute the possibility of what he saw dimly lighting up the cave.  This was a Dragon’s cave, after all.

“A television set?”  Drek looked up at the Dragon.


Drek felt the top of his head where the flames from the Dragon’s throat had singed his hair.  “Do you mind speaking a bit more softly?  I’d like to get out of this without having to wear a toupee.”

The Dragon cautiously walked around Drek and lowered itself to all fours on the gravel pit.  So resting, it spoke quietly, in a voice that hinted at a British accent, with no accompanying flame, just a stench that would make Krek’s breath seem tame by comparison.

“How didst thou get here, human Drek?  How didst thou penetrate the energy barrier?” Drek scratched his head.  “What energy barrier?  I just teleported in with the aid of some crystal-henge device.”

“Ahh . . . that wouldst be the work of Halthan the engineer.  I knew him well.  My name is Krag.  A Dragon of the Adamantium order.”

“A—Ad—Adamantium!?  I’ve only heard rumors of such an order!  That would make you one of the most powerful—”

Krag lifted a claw and shook it at Drek.  “Correction.  The most powerful Dragon in existence.  There hast never been but one in the Adamantium order—me.  I created it, because the best of all other orders were vastly inferior to me.”

Drek examined the Dragon.  “But you’re red.  Shouldn’t you be gleaming silver . . . the color of Adamantium?”

Krag frowned, an ugly sight, since it exposed his two very sharp canine teeth in the process.  “Perhaps.  If thou recallst, the Adamantium order was founded nine hundred years ago, just before the time of oppression began.  I was naught but a lowly, normal red Dragon then.

“One day, a group of Mages in Black camest to me and asked if I wouldst like to be in an experiment.”

Drek waited for more, but the Dragon turned its head to the television, where a particularly intriguing cartoon about a schizoid octopus and his marsupial friends was playing.

Thirty minutes later, Krag resumed his story as if he had never stopped.

“They saidst that they hadst found a new way of practicing Magic . . . one which wouldst make them invincible . . . but they needed to test it, so I was the subject . . . the guinea Dragon, if thou will.

“They infused me with this new power, and I became powerful.  Too powerful.  Being a Dragon, I was naturally attuned to Magic, and this experiment madest me a hundred thousand thousand times more powerful than even the best of them.  They realized I was a threat, so they locked me in this cave and erected a barrier of pure energy to stop me from leaving.  The barrier wouldst incinerate anyone who tried to cross it.

“Over the millennia, I have read—”  Krag shifted some of the gravel to reveal tomes of ancient Magic, then covered them again.  “—learned, and grown another thousand times more powerful.  I could lay waste to the barrier and my captors, if I deigned to do so.”

Drek scratched his head.  “Then why don’t you?”

Krag snorted a small flame. “Who hast the time?  Space Trek is on television now.  Excuse me.”

For the next hour, Drek watched Space Trek and wished he had had even the smallest fragment of the Dragon’s power.

“Krag, do you know why this cave, that crystal henge and the chartreuse void are in Bumblyworld?”

Krag snorted.  “I hast seen the ads for Bumblyworld on this box.  A place for children to run amok while parents are quarantined in padded cells.  I doubt that my cave is in the midst of this.”

“But when I first came here, I saw Bumblyworld through the gate!”

Krag lifted an eye-ridge.  “If that is true, then look for the children.  I doubt the Mages in Black stopped their experimenting with me.”

“MEFISTO.  That’s what group the Mages in Black belong to.  I had a nasty run-in with one of their lot.  They took an absolute incompetent and made him more powerful than a mid-range godling.  Had to turn myself into ashes to get away.”

“So thou art a Mage . . . I was wondering if that insignificant eddy in the Cosmic around you was there for a reason.”

Drek snarled.  “For all your power, I don’t sense a displacement!”

Krag laughed.  “I work beyond the Cosmic.  My power stems from a more primal source—an artifact, really . . . left over from the Runic time.  Thou mayest find it in the Drakklar mountain group.”

“So how do I get out of this cave?”  Drek frowned as Krag spent another hour watching Arresting for Dollars on the television.  As the credits rolled on, Krag simply flicked his massive tail, batting Drek up to the top of the cave, and out of a small, man sized hole in its surface.

Pulling himself up through a flap of some kind, Drek found himself coming up through water enclosed in a glass box.  Some children were throwing balls at him, and when one of the balls hit a target, he fell back into the pool of water and noted that the flap covering the entrance to Krag’s cave had resealed itself.  Looking out of the glass box, he realized where he was—the real Bumblyworld’s dunk tank number sixty-seven.  

of Revolt

            Miranda cautiously avoided stepping in the puddles of wine that she saw on the ground just about everywhere.  When Max had dropped the thick fog onto the ground and turned it into wine, he had literally turned night into day.

That pale moon had actually been the sun obscured by the thick, misty fog.  The dark grasses were actually quite a bright green, and there were even butterflies about.

“Max, you notice how everything that looks so sinister in the nighttime is actually quite stupid-looking in the daytime?”

Max nodded.  “Too roight.  That graveyard place, fer example.  A bleedin’ bunch o’ tiny rocks, is all!”

Miranda smiled.  “That peat bog?  A bunch of mudpatches.  We just couldn’t see them to tell the difference.”

Max stopped suddenly, and Miranda bumped into him.  “What is it, Max?”

“Wot the ’ell ’appened ’ere?”

 Smack in the middle of the pastoral greenery was a slew of smoking and non-smoking craters, freshly carved out of the earth, by the look of it.

“I don’t know, but come have a look at this.”  Miranda bent down and pointed to a puddle of steaming chocolate.

“Looks loike a puddle of ’ot chocolate to me, luv.”

Miranda bit back a sarcastic reply and said slowly, “But why is it here?”

Max shrugged.  “Maybe someone was ’ungry . . . look up there!”

Looking up, Miranda saw spinning torches in the air.  It was as if someone had lifted them up and forgotten to take them down again.

Moving further through the green pastures, the odd pitchfork could be found strewn carelessly in the grass.

Max put a restraining hand on Miranda’s shoulder as she went to go further.  “Wait, luv.  Those spinnin’ torches are a bad omen.  These smokin’ craters . . . the puddle of chocolate, these pitchforks . . . it’s as if a terrible thing ’appened ’ere.  I think now that we can see our way about, maybe we should go back to the Sixth-Foot-Under Bar, Grill and Souvenir Shoppe and try te get some more answers.”

Miranda agreed unhesitatingly. She didn’t like the look of the place either.  It was as if some great force had decimated a chunk of the land and then plucked some pitchfork-holding people right off the Earth.

The duo turned their backs on the sight and moved back down the trail they had come.

*                                  *                                  *

Bill prepared himself for battle as the brown creature ran screaming towards him.  It looked to be incredibly strong, and the noises it was making convinced him that he did not want to get to know it.

Merdemus, however, shoved him aside and pointed at the creature’s arm.  There was a snake hanging on to it by the fangs.  He ran to the brown creature and removed the snake from its arm, while simultaneously transforming the reptile into a scaly sort of vermin that hissed and scurried away on all fours.

Bill hit Merdemus.  “Great. Another lawyer.”

The brown creature swung its trunk slowly and spoke.  “I am Zarf.”

Merdemus reached out to shake the creature’s trunk, but it whisked it away.  “It’s sore.  It was almost crushed a few hours ago.  I am looking for my masters.  Canst thou help me find them?”

Merdemus observed the brown, pudgy thing.  “What manner of creature are you?”

“I was a baron.  Baron Zarf von Ottobot.  I controlled the northern territories.  Now, I am a brown, matted mass of fur with a trunk who hath sworn eternal fealty to a pretty damsel with the hair of gold.”

Bill looked up.  “What a stupid maneuver.”

Zarf frowned.  “She hadst my trunk in a laundry-press!  What was I to do?”

Merdemus shrugged.  “Smite her?”

Bill stepped forward.  “Wait. You said ‘masters.’  Who was the other—the one with the damsel?”

Zarf frowned.  “A fat one who moved like lightning and assaulted me with crustacean Chuck.”

Bill almost lost his lunch. “Chuck?  That would be Max’s crab!  He ‘rescued’ him and Chuck the Elder from a seafood bar in Ottawa three years ago!  Called it ‘pickpocket protection’ or something like that.”

Merdemus pulled Bill over to the side.  “That would mean the damsel is Miranda.”

“Gee . . . you’re quick.”

“Methinks we should have this Zarf take us to them.”

“He doesn’t know where they are!”

“Well then he should take us to where they were.”


“Why not?”

“Because we’ve got Mages in Black teaching one-year-olds to make carnivorous lollipops, that’s why!”

“What of our friends?”

“We know they’re all right now. If Miranda could get this thing to swear eternal fealty to her, I think we can stop worrying about them.”

“Point taken.  What of Drek?”

Zarf walked into the middle of the conversation.  “Excuse me, but I think thee shouldst know . . . we art being overrun by Gnomes.”

“What!?”  Both Mages looked at Zarf, and then realized that they had been so wrapped up by their argument that they had ignored the swarms of three-foot-high Gnomes that had formed a virtual carpet around the fringes of Millennium Villages.

Bill shook his leg and flung a Gnome off of it.  “What do you Gnomes want?”

The tallest of the group, a three-foot-two bald Gnome, spoke up.  “Me Zek.  Zek see Mages, want help Doctrinal Conflict with Evil Ones, yes?”

Bill nearly killed them all at that moment.  He hated Gnomes.  Their bad grammar wasn’t enough, but they had a nasty habit of popping up to complicate situations beyond belief with their squeaky singing.

Merdemus noted Bill’s restraint and smiled.  Gnomes generally had the IQ of lint, and were common prey for the housecats of most wizards, including his.

“Who are these Evil Ones?”

“Evil Ones bad.  Work with Mages Black.”

Merdemus turned to Bill. “Again.  Everywhere we go, these Mages in Black seem to be involved.”

Bill nodded.  “Let us smite these Evil Ones and maybe we’ll get a connection to MEFISTO.”

The Gnome clapped with glee. “Mages smite Evil Ones!  Us sing for joy!”

Bill did not have to say it. Merdemus and he quickly levitated as fast and as far up as they could, but still the squeaking sound reached them.  Scrambling to block their ears, the two Mages spun out of control, slamming into trees, birds and each other.

Merdemus looked down.  “The caves!  Below us!  They will provide shelter from the noise!”

Bill nodded and fought back the nausea as he continued to spin violently.  Following Merdemus, he touched down at the base of what appeared to be a huge network of caves.

“What now, Merde?”

“We have to grab a Gnome and find the Evil Ones.”

*                                  *                                  *

Drek finally managed to slip out of the dunk tank when the children had gone.  He noticed that they behaved in particular patterns.  One group would assault people in the dunk tanks, while another would play a stimulating game of Graffiti Wars, a game in which the participants would find an adult who had failed to lock himself away and then proceed to paint him or her in all the colors of the rainbow with spraypaint, markers, or food coloring.  Then they would switch, “resetting” the painted adults by dunking them in the tanks.

The sight of some of the soggy adults who had undergone this procedure was too much for Drek to handle.  He ran hard and fast until he found the “Exit Bumblyworld” sign—located over a tunnel in a brick wall.  Rushing to it, he smacked himself flat as he realized it was only a painting manufactured by some sadistic child.

This action triggered a series of alarms, and within moments, there was a squad of children wearing sunglasses and carrying huge waterguns surrounding Drek, who laughed at the ludicrous sight . . . until they opened fire.

Hey!!  Those things are filled with boiling paint!”  Drek shrank back under the assault.  He didn’t even have time to counterattack as a second wave of the kids started throwing extremely rotten eggs at him.

A third bunch introduced a set of hamsters into his shirt, and they began eating the fragments of egg that were still edible, and still in his hair.

Before the fourth wave of Bumblyworld children could unleash their new and improved silly-putty bombs filled with slime, Drek managed to turn himself into a clumsy facsimile of a hamster and he hobbled away on all threes.

The hamsters that had been eating the egg remnants saw the other “hamster” and began to chase it at full speed, licking their chops.

“Lousy cannibals!” yelled Drek as he mutated his hamster form into a two-legged variety and slipped away from the real hamsters by scooting into a hole in the wall.  He found himself behind some kind of foam, which he cut through.  Suddenly, he was hit over the head with a purse.

“EEK!  A RAT!  Harold, do something!”  The lady in one corner of the padded cell bludgeoned Drek while her husband watched in amusement.

Drek transformed himself back to normal and waved his hands frantically at the woman, who was still slamming him with the purse from hell.

“Wait!  Stop!  I’m Fred!  I’m . . . uhh . . . a Bumblyworld Employee!”

The words “Bumblyworld Employee” sent the lady with the purse into some form of cardiac arrest usually reserved for food poisoning and hotel bills, while her husband assumed a crash position and cowered in the corner of the cell.  Drek winced as he saw their reactions. “Look, I was lying.  I was running away from the Bumblyworld kids.  I was just trying to keep my head from getting smashed in.”  Mentally, he thought, “Ahh. The virtues of honesty.  Now they will feel relieved and they will be happy and contented.”

The lady slammed Drek with her purse so hard that it knocked out a filling.  “Rogue!  You can’t hide from the parent police here!  We’re loyal to the terms of the Bumblyworld social contract!”

Her husband yelled, “Rat!” at which point she dropped to the ground and began to cower.

Drek extended his hand carefully as the man proffered his.  “Fred.  Fred Barney.”  He figured that would go over better.

“Harold Sneep.  My wife Susan over there forced me to come to this place.  She said it would give little Chester a chance to expand his creative potential.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Who knows?  The kids have thrown a revolt.  They keep us locked in here.  If we complain, or try to escape, they come for us.  They throw open the doors in the dead of night, shine in their spotlights, and then . . . and then . . . ”

Harold sat down and began to weep.  Drek produced a handkerchief and gave it to him.

“Th—thank you.  They . . . force us to PLAY THE GAMES!  Bwahhaaaaaaahh!”

Drek watched as Harold continued his whining, then asked, “What’s this ‘Bumblyworld Social Contract’ your wife was talking about?”

Harold stopped whining and looked about the room nervously, as if he feared that the walls themselves were listening.  “It—it was nothing but a service contract at first.  Basically, it said that we parents had the right to be locked away from our kids for a set fee, plus lock charges compounded daily, while the hellspawn—err, kids—were allowed to roam free and wreck stuff.”

Drek shook his head.  “So?  That sounds pretty good to me.”

Harold nodded.  “Sounded good to me too.  But then some guy in a black robe got the kids together and they figured out that if they just never unlocked our cells, they would be free.  Then they figured out that flinging open our doors at midnight and firing staples and tacks at us with slingshots was fun.  The little monsters quote the service contract as gospel.”

“I wish the ad agents for McDrekky’s had been that good.”

“You worked at McDrekky’s?”

“I own the whole chain.”

“Oh!  Oh!”  Harold shook his wife, who was still cringing from an imaginary rat.  “Susan, honey?  Look! It’s the founder of McDrekky’s!”

Susan Sneep stood up and stared at Drek before slapping him in the face.  She then turned around, skulked over to Harold and shoved him to the back of the cell, where she proceeded to lecture him sternly.

“Harold!  How dare you bring that man in here?!  He makes all that junk food that our Chester said was better than my cooking!  Why, I should report you to the children!”

Harold, who was now having some difficulty breathing as his wife had proceeded to lock her hands around his throat, wheezed out, “But dear, he can answer the question!”

“Don’t you ‘but dear’ me, Harold Farcourt Snee—the question?”

Harold nodded.

Susan turned to Drek, who backed up reflexively, forgetting that as a Mage, he could have easily turned her into a shark, or something else slightly less dangerous than what she was now.

“Mr. Barney . . . I have one question for you, and you had better answer it right now!”

Drek gulped.  “Y—yes, ma’am?”

“Whoever was that charming little Gnome in whiteface you used to have in your McDrekky’s commercials?”

Drek almost fainted in relief. Such an easy question, so simple, so absurdly, pathetically- impossible to answer.

“The casting was done by the ad company, madam.  I don’t—”

The glance of death from Mrs. Sneep was enough to switch Drek’s brain into lie-now-you-stupid-idiot mode.

“—think you would have guessed this, but it was me.  Camera angles and computers made me smaller.  Wonderful thing, Science.”

Susan scratched her head doubtfully, then smiled.  “Do the jingle.”

Drek almost told her to stop wasting his time.  Almost.  Eventually, he frowned, cleared his throat, made a large grimace-smile, assumed a squeaky voice and sang, hideously off key, the following:  

McDrekky’s, McDrekky’s, whatta place:

You get food with al-most NO taste!

Your parents may hate us,

But you think we’re RAD,

So we hand THEM the bill and say,

Gee, that’s too bad!

Susan began to clap fervently, and then caught herself.

Drek sat down, exhausted, and began to think.  First he thought of smiting the fellow who had made up that jingle, and then he turned his thoughts to the more pressing problem of the imprisoned parents and the kids with cannibalistic hamsters that were running amok outside.  It was then that genius struck him, or more precisely, bludgeoned him.

“Mrs. Sneep, please stop hitting me with that . . . that copy of the Bumblyworld service contract!”

He snatched it away from her before she could protest, and he began reading it.

It was standard legal-babble, with coarse print spelling out the customer-friendly bits, and finer print that got smaller with proportion to the amount of customer-distressing information that was being presented.  Consequently, two thirds of the paper was covered with what seemed to be tiny dots.

“Ahh . . . look here, Harold. Paragraph forty-seven sixty-two, subsection nine, sentence six.  ‘The spreading of junk food to the children is encouraged.  Anyone doing so will get most-favored-person status and exemption from the games for one full hour.’ Obviously, junk food’s important to these kids.”

Harold blinked.  “So?”

“So . . . I’ve made junk food for years!  Everyone loves McDrekky’s!”

Drek looked at a frowning Susan Sneep.  “Well . . . almost everyone.  But the kids love me!  In fact . . . they worship my products.  HAROLD!”

Harold snapped to attention.

“We’re gonna bust outta here!”

*                                  *                                  *

In the light of day, the Sixth Foot Under Bar, Grill, and Souvenir Shoppe looked just like it did at night: an old, molding wood structure with concrete walls added in.

One thing had changed over the hours, though.  There was a sign tacked onto a large tree in front of the building that had one word on it.

“TITLINGS.  What does that mean?”

Max nearly fainted.  “Titlings? ’Ere?  Now?!  Today?!  Blimey!”  He grabbed Miranda by the arm and dragged her to the old wooden front door, which he flung wide open as he yelled, ‘MAX! Keeper o’ the wines!  Fermentor of the gardens!  The Mad Magus has returned!”

Miranda looked up at Max curiously.  “You said the same thing the first time you showed up in Merdemus’ office.”

Max clamped his hand over her mouth.  “Quiet, luv.”

Inside the grungy bar were about seventy-five puny-looking people in thin, flimsy robes and one old, dignified-looking chap decked out with coarse brown robes adorned with gold.

The old man looked at Max. “Ahh.  You’re early.  The event occurs tomorrow morning at dawn.  I’m just finishing this lot here early.  Their first titling, you know.”

Max nodded.  “Just graduated, eh?”

The old man sighed.  “Youth.  So stupid, really.  Didn’t have the sense to kill off their masters, so they left when their time of Apprenticeship ended.  Mastered the basics, but stole no secrets, so they have no titles.  And I have to give them some.”

Max sighed wistfully.  He had never learned the powerful Magics that Merdemus, Bill and Drek had.  He had just picked up a few knickknack spells along the way, and built up a small title for himself.  He started as the old man spoke to him again.

“Want your title expanded?  I’ve got your file right here . . . Maximillian Xavier   Jackson . . . ”

Miranda turned to Max.  “How does he know who you are?”

Max shrugged.  “’E’s the Titler!  ’E knows everything about everybody medieval!”

The Titler continued droning out information, oblivious to the conversation.  “ . . . First titled ‘Fermentor, et cetera’ after that incident at the King’s tea party in 653, ‘Keeper of the Wines’ after you imbibed the entire French export production of 719 before they could sell it . . . ‘Mad Magus’ because . . . ahem.”

The old man took five minutes to collect himself.  Forcing his hand, he put down Max’s card.  Then he drank some strong ale before speaking.  “Nevermind, I think what you have is sufficient. Now what about the young lady with you?”

Miranda smiled.  “I don’t have a title.”

The man laughed.  “Nonsense. You’ve got to have one.  Everyone who is anyone does.  Name?”

“No, really . . . look, we don’t have the time for this, we need to find our friends-”


“Miranda J. Wright.”  She sighed.

“Is that Wright, Miranda J., or Miranda, Wright J.?”

“The former.”

“What farmer?”

“First name Miranda, last name Wright.”

The old man shuffled through his files for some minutes before giving up.

“Sorry, you’re not in here either way.  Skills?”

“Look—”  Max cut Miranda off and walked over to the old man’s table, closing the file box and laying his hand on it.

“Mate, we need te find some friends of ours . . . Wizards Drek, Merdemus and Biclaxaltonian.  Can ye help us?”

The Titler irritatedly shoved Max’s hand off the box and flipped through it.  He withdrew three cards, and read them.

“Merdemus.  Mage of First Order, achieved through correspondence.  Lord of the Seven Disciplines, taught by Gral the Ignorant.  Master of the Forces Elemental, read a how-to codex. Currently:  no information.

“Drek.  Same story, they studied together.  Burner of small twigs added recently.  Currently:  no information.

“Biclaxaltonian.  Massive title due to study with Drek and Merdemus, coupled with large ego.  Also studied under Lenthinan the Great.  Recently acquired three new Disciplines; Six, Seven, and Eight.   Currently:  no information.”

Max slapped his head.  “Great. Now wot?”  He looked around for Miranda, but she was across the room, arguing with one of the newly-titled Mages.

“I don’t care if you’re the ‘holder of the candle,’ that does not mean I will bow before you!”

“Yes it does, peon!”


“Of course, woman!  Thou hast no title.  I do.”

Miranda brushed back some of her hair.  “Yeah.  Holding candles is soooo special.”

One of the other newly-commissioned Mages stood.  “She’s right, Tal.  Candle-holding art nothing.  I am the Supreme Licker of Boots.  Therefore, she must bow to me.”

Another rose.  “Really?  I am Keeper of the Loathsome Garbage Scraps and Protector of the Sacred Parrot.  She will bow before me.”

Miranda was about to deck all three of them when the old man silenced them with a curious gesture.  “I found her file, and you should all be fearing for your lives.  I don’t know why she hasn’t decided to smite you all yet.”

He handed her the card, which was molding with age, and walked away.  Max peered at it over her shoulder as she read it.

“Miranda Jesmerelda Wright, Holder of the Fifth Codex.”

Max nearly fainted. “Fa-fi-fo-fu-fehah—Fifth Codex?!  Where’d you get it?  And wot the bloody ’ell is Jesmerelda?!”

Miranda shrugged.  “I don’t have any ‘Fifth Codex.’  This card must be someone      else’s . . . but the personal data is right . . . even down to my address . . . and that middle name I absolutely hate.”

Max snatched the card out of her hand.  “The paper’s old.  In fact, it’s older than anything else ’e ’as in that box.  And some o’ that’s real old.”  He pocketed the card.

“So what’s this Fifth Codex?”

Max paused as he saw the young Mages scamper away in fright at the mention of the name.

“Well . . . it’s the fifth in a two-part series of works that basically contains the secret for destroyin’ the Earth.  The book was lost countless millennia ago.”


“I wouldn’t use that title unless you ’ad the book.  On second thought, who’d be stupid enough to try an’ check?”

“This is all really fun, but we need to find Merdemus and the others.”

“I know.  Ye know, I’ve been thinkin’.”


“Yeah.  Now, Merde was tellin’ us about this MEFISTO group, roight?  So, maybe they sent us ’ere, ’opin to get us outta the way.  That bloke at the castle did say Mages in Black came for Karnos the ’orrible.  Perhaps those Mages in Black are the same ones that Drek saw.”

Miranda shrugged.  “Sounds good to me.”

Tal, one of the Mages who had been cowering in a corner after the mention of the Fifth Codex, walked up to Max, and spoke quietly.  “I hast seen those Mages in Black thou were speaking of, but no one believes me.  Everyone else who hath seen them hast been afraid to speak, for fear of punishment.”

The other Mage who had been arguing with him before stood up.

“Hah.  Thy foolish wive’s tale about these powerful wizards in black robes amuses me.  Thou canst point to no solid evidence of their existence, save one castleful of soldiers addicted to a book with no end whose minds are beyond repair.”

“They exist, damn you!  And they seek to dominate us all!”

“Thou sayest you see them, working their Magics.  Where?  Canst thou show me one of these . . . MEFISTO people, you called them?”

“Do not say the name, fool! They hear all, see all, and know all!”

“Tal, thou art the fool.”

“My Uncle is on the Council of the Four Lands.”

“So?  Art thou going to go crying to him, begging him to smite me?”

“He hath seen them.”

“Really?  Then ’tis true what they say.  Madness is hereditary.”

“The Society of Shadows knows the truth, Raelor.”

“Thou darest speak my name, imp?  I shalt—”

Max took this opportunity to lift the annoying Mage two feet off the ground with one hand.  “I’m three thousand twenty-seven years old.  You’re what?  Seventy?  So young te be so foolish.”

Raelor suddenly realized he was being held up in the air by an older and more powerful Mage.  This activated the grovel instinct which Apprentices took decades to grow out of.  Max noted this and sighed.

Miranda looked at Raelor’s face intently.  She then jabbed Max in the ribs.  “He doesn’t look a day over twenty!”

“O’ course not.  Methusalan lifespan.  Even without Magic, he won’t start wrinklin’ till about 2115, at which point he’s middle age.”

“How could this be stuck in the middle of the modern world?”

“I dunno the answer te that one, luv.”

Max flung Raelor across the room, where he smacked into the far wall and landed behind the bar.

“All right, Tal.  Now that we got rid of the flea, I got a question for ye.  Where do we find this Society of Shadows?”

“Thou truly wishest to find MEFISTO?”


“Come with me, then.”

*                                  *                                  *

After what seemed like hours, Merdemus had managed to find a Gnome who was doing some overtime mining in one of the caves that he and Bill had landed next to.

This Gnome was named Felt, and thankfully, he did not sing.  Nevertheless, Bill made sure that he had a smiting spell ready, just in case.  Merdemus confirmed this, and then began to question the Gnome.

“What do these Evil Ones look like, Felt?”

“Gigantic they are.  Bad. BADUGLYMEAN and nasty.”

“What do they do to you?”

“Me not know, not there yes. Just know they hideous and foul.”

“Let me rephrase that.  What do they do to the other Gnomes?”

“Killkillstompsquash.  Flaying all around, fire spit and drizzle of pain.”

“For how long has this been going on?”

“Long, no.  Short, but longer than middle time.  Not since until Mages Black appear and call us names mean.”

“How many Mages in Black?”

“Hordes Black Mages.  Too many count, yes?  Plus swarms Evil Ones who tower above and crush with gleaming metal things.”


“No.  Gleaming metal!  Metal gleaming!”

Merdemus looked worriedly at Bill.  They walked over into one of the caves, out of Felt’s earshot and then Merdemus posed the inevitable question.

“How long is it, do you think, before he starts to sing?”

“I don’t know, but I’m ready, Merde.”

“Good.  Now, how do we defeat the hordes of Evil Ones?”

“I don’t know.  They sound nasty, whatever they are.  Towering giants who crush and stomp, killing with metal weapons of vast and incredible power.”

“I suppose we will have to find and stop them.”

“But the MEFISTO connection could hamper that.”

“Details.  Mere details!”

“They could kill us, Merde.”

“Oh.  Yes.  Well . . . we shall have to avoid that as best we can.”

Felt chose this moment to wander into the cave.  “Me take you big Gnome army massive force people squasher now?”

Bill sighed.  “Go ahead.  Take us to your leader.”  He grinned.  “I’ve always wanted to say that.”

Merdemus frowned.  “Why?”

“Don’t you ever watch cheap sci-fi movies?”

“I was on a mountain for a millennium.  I watched my Apprentice grovel.”

“Oh yeah.  Forgot.  At least you missed Nixon.”


Bill shook his head and did not reply.  He turned and joined Merdemus, following Felt inside the catacombs which nature had carved into the mountain.

“Merde, do you hear something?”


“A sound, rather a lot like humming?”

“Probably your stomach.”

Bill put his ear to a cave wall.  Sure enough, it was thrumming with some kind of subtle noise, much like the kind a politician makes when a reporter has caught him out during a public questioning session.

“That noise worries me.”

Felt looked at the Mage.  “Mage frightened should be.  Mage hear yes our Armada.  Vast it is, many us, many. But no fear.  You friend—they not crush.”

Bill spat.  “Like they co—”

Merdemus clamped Bill’s mouth shut.  “Remember, the singing!”

Bill’s eyes widened and he nodded slowly.

Eventually, the trio came to a dead end when the passage they had been walking through narrowed sharply, leaving a further opening so small that not even a tiny Gnome such as Felt could traverse it.

Bill scowled.  “Oh great.  Mr. Gnome here has gotten us lost.  What next?  An invasion of Dwarves?”

Merdemus shrugged.  Felt pointed to a puddle that was next to the narrowed passage and smiled.

“Big Mages now swim.”

Bill looked at the puddle, and began to arrogantly walk into it while muttering, “Foolish Gnome.  See.  Even you can’t swim in that pud-DLE!”

With a splash, the Mage fell into the “puddle,” which turned out to be a very deep trench, and Merdemus could hear a lot of splashing intermingled with muffled Celtic swearing, which ceased when Bill’s voice could be heard coming from the other side of the narrow passage.

“It looks like that blasted puddle is actually connected to a small stream.  Jump in.”

Merdemus jumped into the puddle just as Bill’s voice wafted out, “And look out for the flesh-eating fish!”

Another bout of frantic splashing and swearing resulted, after which Merdemus and Felt emerged on the other side of the narrow passage.

Pausing briefly to remove a flesh-eating fish from his left earlobe, Merdemus blinked as he saw six more Gnomes standing before him in tattered garb, looking badly bruised and carrying some kind of chisel-weapons.

Felt looked proudly at the six weary Gnomes.  “Meet Velt, Welt, Pelt, Kelt, Selt and Forby.”  He smiled and added proudly, “Gnome Armada they are.”  Felt looked expectantly at the Mages.

Merdemus raised an eyebrow. “These are your sentries then?”

Felt nodded excitedly.

Bill looked around.  “Where are the foot soldiers?”

Felt nodded excitedly.

Bill frowned.  “Waitaminute . . . are these the foot soldiers?”

Felt grinned.

Merdemus scowled.  “You said they were the sentries.”

Felt’s grin widened.

It was then that the two Mages began to get the sinking feeling that they were staring at the sum totality of the vast people-squashing, death-dealing Gnome Armada.  


After three hours of smashing the walls of the padded cell with Mrs. Sneep’s purse (which seemed to have been made out of cast iron disguised as leather), Drek managed to create a passage to another family’s cell, and with their help, into still another, and so on.

He noted that it was getting harder and harder for him to use his Magic powers the closer he came to the end of the parents’ compound, but this fact was shoved away to the back of his mind by the same thought process that allows one to safely watch television, and he soon found himself addressing the entire captive parent population of Bumblyworld.

“Assembled parents, My name is Dre—Fred Barney.  I believe I’ve found a way to get us safely out of these padded cells.  Are you ready to attempt escape?”

A general murmur of consent was beginning to come forth from the crowd when Mrs. Sneep rose up and decked Drek with her purse.  Taking the floor, she put her left hand on her hip and began wagging her right index finger at the group.

“How dare you even think of escaping, you disloyal scum!  Bumblyworld has given us free food and living accommodations, in return for which they only ask the smallest of favors.  We can’t leave. “Besides, think about it—we’d have to face our children again.  Can you seriously say you’re ready to handle that?”

The easily-swayed crowd began to shake their heads as Drek rose up and snatched Mrs. Sneep’s purse away from her.

“Listen to me.  How long do you think it is before those little kids of yours grow up, eh?  Look at the way they act now, pitching boiling paint and psychotic cannibal hamsters at you, dunking you in substandard dunk tanks for the hell of it . . . when they grow up, you think they’re just going to slip quietly into society?  These kids are not into peaceful co-existence!”

A man rose out of the crowd and began to speak in a burly voice.  “Ya know, he’s right, man.  My little Otis ’s already hangin’ me upsided down from telephone poles, n’ he’s only but six. I’d hate to thunk of whut he could be doin’ to me when he dun grows up.”

Another rose up.  “But how do we get outta here, huh?  Those kids are everywhere!”

Drek waved his hands for silence.  “Look.  The Bumblyworld Service Contract says ‘each family is allowed one call for approved purposes to specified establishments for the purpose of obtaining quality nutrition.’  In other words, we can call out for junk food delivery.”


“Just watch.”

Drek managed to find a telephone, and he dialed up the McDrekky’s that was located in the Adams Hotel.  After finding out that half his staff had quit and moved to another state for reasons unknown, he asked about a special order of Gutbuster Burgers and arranged for two thousand of them to be delivered to Bumblyworld immediately.

Harold Sneep stood up.  “Mr. Barney, how are two thousand of your Gutbuster burgers going to free us?”

Drek grinned.  “Wait and see.” Inwardly, he winced as he remembered why those Gutbusters had been so special.

Max had paid one of his frequent trips to McDrekky’s a year ago, fresh off his last trip to Australia, and he was broke and hungry, so needless to say, he decided to leech off his one friend who owned an entire fast food chain.  Drek’s inward wince grew into a knot as he began to see the incident right before his eyes.

Max sauntered into McDrekky’s, wearing a typical outback outfit and looking very pleased with himself.

“So, Drek me lad, I see you’re still in business, eh?  I just made a roight awesome profit in some minin’ operations back ’ome, ya know.”

Drek frowned.  “Then why are you here asking for free food?”

“Err . . .  Old toime’s sake? Actually, there was a spot of bother at the customs office, rabid snakes in me ’at and all that.  So anyway, nevermind.  Wot’s yer newest sandwich?”

“We call it the Gutbuster Two Thousand.  Half a pound of beef after cooking on a supersized bun with pickles, onions, cheese and Tabasco sauce.  For some reason they haven’t been selling well.”

“Gimme one.”

Drek handed Max one of the Gutbusters, which the Mage swallowed in one gulp.

“Needs salt, Drek.”

“There’s enough salt on it to dehydrate a normal cow, Max.”

“Then, ’ave you tried cooking it with a bit o’ wine . . . for flavoring purposes o’ course?”

“Hmm . . . the one thing I forgot.  Think you can help, Mr. ‘Keeper Of the Wines?’”

“Yep.  ’Ang on then.  ’Ow many of these Gutbuster Two Thousands you made?”

“Two thousand, plus that one you got there.  Part of a promotion.”

Max did a little jig and scratched his left ear.  Suddenly, from the storage room, a large splash could be heard, and Max grinned.

“There.  Perfectly flavored. ’Ave a bite.”  He proffered his sandwich.

Drek bit into one, and his world spun out of control and he blacked out.  Rising some moments later, he caught Max by the ear.

“Dammit man, you’ve put so much wine in them that it automatically raises the blood alcohol level of the taster by a factor of a thousand!  I can’t sell these now!”

Drek’s mind snapped back to the present as a McDrekky’s truck backed into Bumblyworld and crates marked “Gutbuster Two Thousand—Do NOT eat” over a radiation biohazard symbol were unloaded into the center of the compound.

Literally within seconds, a crowd of children had gathered around the crates and then had disappeared, leaving ravaged, empty boxes and fast food containers lying around, blowing in the wind.

“Those kids’ll be out for days . . . too long for whoever’s fronting this place.  They’ll come and get these kids for treatment, and when they do, we rush in and seize control!”

A nameless fellow rose up and slapped his fist into his other hand.  “Ya!  I wanna piece o’ those guys in black that turned my kid into the psycho Terminator!”

Drek shook his head and was about to say “leave them to me” when he realized he was incapable of even lighting a twig with his Magic powers.  Hastily, he muttered, “I know generally where they’re going to take those kids.  Follow me.  We have to find an opening to the medieval place under Bumblyworld!”

“The what?”

“Never mind.”

Drek felt a surge in the Cosmic similar to the one he had felt when Serelin had attacked him, and he realized that the children were already gone.  Now he had to get back to Krag’s cave while keeping this angry mob of parents from doing something rash.  “Everybody, follow me to dunk tank number sixty-seven!”

*                                  *                                  *

“Welcome to the Great Hall of the Society, Mage Max and friend Miranda.”  Tal made a sweeping motion with his arms.

Max surveyed the chamber, which looked as if it had been carved out of a giant tree.  “So, where is this Society of Shadows, then?”

Tal frowned.  “Thou shouldst not speak the name!  We art a society of secrets, founded upon the premise that the Mages in Black represent a clear and present danger to our society.”

Miranda looked askance at Tal. “If you’re so secret, then why ask us here at all?”

“Because I believe thou art serious in thy quest for MEFIST—err . . . the evil ones in black.”

Max scowled.  “So, tell us wot ye gots te tell us, mate.”

Tal frowned.  “Not until I can convince the others that thou art not agents of the dark forces.”

“Look, mate.  I ’aven’t got all bloody day ’ere.  Test us or somethin’ . . . just ’urry up!”

While Max and Tal bickered at the entrance to the Great Hall, Miranda ventured inside, noting that the place had surprisingly little furniture:  just a magnificent oak table and some small stools that went with it.

“Knock on wood,” she joked as she rapped on the main table.

Without warning, a section of the hall’s rear wall seemed to collapse in on itself, leaving an opening.

Miranda walked over and discovered that the wall hadn’t collapsed; some idiot had forgotten to fasten the inside bolt on what was obviously a false wall panel.

Going into the opening, Miranda saw what Tal was being so secretive about:  a stack of scrolls that went from the ground to the ceiling, written in badly spelt English that described encounters with the Mages in Black.

Just then, Tal and Max arrived. Max was grinning from ear to ear, and Tal was scowling, looking distressed.  He barely acknowledged Miranda’s presence as he turned to face the Mage.

“Tell me, Maximillian, just how many runestones canst thou swallow at once without choking?”

Max laughed.  “Wot?  Two ’undred ninety-six not enough for ye?”

Miranda pulled Max into the secret chamber and showed him the scrolls.  Max’s smile vanished, and was replaced by a frown that got darker and darker as he read each new document.

There were reports there of MIBs (Mages in Black) creating immortal shoe salesmen that could hurl fireballs just to drive the local cobblers out of business, kidnapping local barons and baronesses to create a power vacuum, and erecting gigantic black walls behind which living candies of great and incredible powers would emerge to terrorize a group of villagers, along with a program of extermination for Mages who stood in their path.

There was also something about the MIBs having a large pet Dragon they had imprisoned as well as a local MIB-run Dwarven diamond mining operation.

“Tell me, Tal.  Where did you get all this evidence?”

“Maximillian, my Uncle is on the Council of the Four Lands that rules this domain.  He is a high-ranking assistant to the adjunct of the minion of the Apprentice to the King’s food taster.  He assigned a study on these Mages in Black, and I have been charged with it.”

Max’s frown deepened.  “So . . . wot ye gonna do with this information, then?”

Tal smiled.  “Why, as soon as the society has enough information, I will go to the High Council of the Four Lands and assemble a massive Armada to crush the Mages.”

“Gimme a bloody break, Tal! These Mages could swat any Armada with nothin’ but a blinkin’ snap of the finger!”

Tal frowned.  “Not the Knights of the Three and a Half-Sided Table!”

Miranda frowned.  “The who?”

Max drew her aside.  “This is no time to talk about sixties rock groups, luv.”

Tal waved his hands and shook his head.  “The Knights of the Three and a Half-Sided Table are the strongest, most powerful warriors in all four lands.  Last year they crushed the Dwarven insurrection in the mines.”

Max looked at the papers again. “Say, Tal?  You wouldn’t happen to have a map of this place, would you?”

Tal looked askance at Max. “Dost thou not have one?  Here.”

Max took Tal’s map and peered at it, turning it upside down, scowling.  “Look at that, Miranda.”

Miranda took the map.  “This isn’t right . . . according to this, the four lands take up at most an acre!”

Max nodded.  “There’s some kind of circular wall that marks off the bounds o’ the combined territories.  Maybe there’s just a scaling error.”

“Why are there Dragons and things pictured on the other side of the wall?”

“Stupidity.  A couple thousand years ago, blokes’d paint stuff like that when they had no idea wot the actual land looked loike—took up space an’ made the map pretty.  It also scared explorers away from the land, so’s that they took longer to figure out wot was really there.”

Miranda looked at Max amusedly. “And . . . you’re a product of this society, right?”

Max grinned.  “Ya . . . the good ole days.”  He pointed at Miranda and laughed.  “At least I’m not the product of a society that thinks dinky dime-store fantasy novels about drunk Mages are good reading.”

Miranda smiled, nodded in deference and held up the map.

“According to this, we have to go northeast to get to the council chambers.”

“And the Knights of the Three and a Half-Sided Table.”  Max picked up some of the scrolls and began to walk out of the secret chamber.

“WAIT!”  Tal hastened to Max and tried to block him from exiting the chamber.  “Thou canst not take the papers!”

Max gently shoved Tal out of the way.  “If people are as skeptical about the Mages in Black as Raelor, we’re gonna need proof te show these Knights.”

Tal shook his head.  “No.  This proof cannot be allowed to leave this room with anyone but a member of the Society.”

“Loike you?”


“C’mon then!”  Max grabbed Tal’s robe and pulled him out the door.

Miranda refastened the secret panel and followed them out, realizing that it had been quite some time since she had eaten anything, and was getting rather hungry.

*                                  *                                  *

“I’m hungry!”

“Be quiet!”  Merdemus shoved Forby the Gnome back inside the large wicker container that the entire Gnome Armada was using as a hiding spot.  Bill, who was holding one end of the large wicker basket on his back, groaned as the weight shifted.

“Dammit, Merde!  Keep those Gnomes still!”

“I fail to see why we must conceal them inside a large basket as we transport them to the battle site.”

“Remember the Trojan Horse ploy?”

Merdemus thought back a few thousand years.  “I thought that was the Trojan Box.”

Bill raised an eyebrow, and nodded as best he could.  “I forgot—I was thinking of the embellished legend.”

Merdemus scowled.  “I do not see how we are going to fool these ‘Evil Ones’ with a wicker basket.  We do not even know what they look like.”

Just then, Bill noticed someone walking towards them along the path.  He unceremoniously dumped the basket of Gnomes on the ground and withdrew a sword from his robes, shoving Merdemus to the side of the path.

“Bill, why did you do that?”


The other person came into view.  She was wearing a green robe, inlaid with rubies and diamonds on the seams.  She was also brandishing a broadsword.  Speaking, her mouth barely moved, yet a menacing sound could be heard that barely passed for a voice.

“There should be only two.”

Bill raised his sword. “Biclaxaltonian.  Mage of the—”

Bill was interrupted by the sound of laughter coming from the woman in green.  “I would have killed you. But it seems as if the one who named you has done more harm than I ever could—Sir Rabbit Droppings.”

Bill lunged forward with his sword and attacked the stranger.

Merdemus watched for some minutes as the two dodged, parried, and slashed at one another.  Eventually, he noted that the Gnomes in the basket were telling jokes to one another and smiling—a precursor to song if he had ever seen one—so he yawned, snapped a finger and turned both fighters into lumps of festering cheese.

The Bill-cheese hopped over to Merdemus and spoke in a squeaky, mouse-like voice.  “Why?! Why’d you do that? We were fighting spectacularly!”

“Why were you fighting?”

“We were fighting because . . . because . . . there should be only two!”

Merdemus frowned and made as if to eat Bill.  “But there were two of you.” “Okay!  Okay!  We uhh . . . knew each other in Magic school!  She ate my paste and we vowed to settle our differences in a duel to the death!”

Merdemus snapped Bill back to normal.  “Whatever.  The Gnomes are going to sing if we don’t get a move on. Maybe your friend over there can tell us where exactly this place is.”

“Maybe—awww, man!”  Bill and Merdemus turned and saw Forby ramming the last piece of green cheese that was the stranger down his throat.

“Cheese green yes goooood.”

“Give her back!”  Bill raised a fist.

Forby burped and grinned.

“Oh great!  Merde, he ate my enemy!”

“Well, you didn’t feed him.”

Forby burped again and spat out a clear ring of some kind.

“What’s this?”  Merdemus picked it up, but Bill snatched it from his hand and began to examine it closely, mumbling to himself.

“A diamond collar!  Clever little wench . . . no wonder my sword broke last time I tried to—”

Bill suddenly noticed that Merdemus was staring at him curiously, and he stuffed the cravat into his robes, smiled charmingly and rather quickly spat out, “It’s nothing.”

Merdemus shrugged and turned away.

Bill felt some kind of tug on his left leg.  Annoyed, he shook it violently, and there was a small “whee!” sound as something hit the bushes alongside the path.

About a second later, Felt climbed out of the bushes and tugged on Bill’s hand.  Bill reflexively threw the Gnome into the group of other Gnomes who had gotten out of the wicker basket, much as a bowling ball is thrown to pins, and with much the same effect.

Suddenly, Bill felt a rock hit the back of his head.  Irked, he turned to the Gnomes and yelled, “WHAT?!”

“Bad . . . bad enemy uglymean come now see see crush!”

“I should smite you, you stupid little—”  Bill paused as Merdemus tapped him on the shoulder.


The two Mages and the seven Gnomes watched as an enormous dust-cloud began to appear on the horizon.  There was also a thrumming battle cry coming from the cloud.

Merdemus squinted as the dust grew nearer.  “Bill, there could be dozens in there.”

“Hundreds.”  Bill stuffed the Gnomes in their basket.

“Thousands.”  Merdemus got into attack posture as the sound of running feet could be heard, shaking the very ground.

After a few moments, the running stopped, and the Mages coughed as the dust cloud settled, revealing the legions of deadly foes they would have to face.

“Eight.  Merdemus, there are eight Dwarves here.  With rusty shovels.”

Felt popped out of the basket and looked at the three-foot one-inch Dwarves.  He drew a great breath. “AIEEE!  The giant ones!  The huge nasty things of evil!  With metal gleaming!”

The two Mages looked at one another, then collapsed in the dirt, laughing hysterically.

The Dwarves ran up to the Mages and began pummeling them with the rusty shovels.

Bill and Merdemus got up, brushing off the tiny shovels, and were still laughing.  There was a <pong> noise coming from somewhere as they spoke.

“So . . . Merde . . . <pong> do you think we’ll survive?”  <pong, pong>

“I do not know, Bill . . . the odds . . . heheh . . . aren’t good.”  <pong>

“Shall we . . . flee in <pong> terror?”  <pong, pong>

Merdemus looked down and saw the source of the <pong> noise.  One of the Dwarves was slamming his leg with a shovel.  He watched for a moment as the tiny Dwarf paused, collected his strength, and began to ferociously bat at his leg again.

With but a shake of the leg, Merdemus sent the Dwarf face down in a mud puddle.

The Gnomes seized the moment to rush at the Dwarves, using their chisel-weapons to try and break the rusting shovels.  There was much yelling and screaming, but Merdemus and Bill were still raptly conversing.

“Merde, have you noticed that it’s actually easier to do Magic here than it was back in the city?”

“I had not considered that.  You are correct, however.  I wonder why that is—”

Merdemus was interrupted as one of the Gnomes slammed into his stomach.  Turning, the Mage saw one of the Dwarves laughing maniacally and sticking out his tongue.

Merdemus threw the Gnome like a football, impacting him squarely on the laughing Dwarf.  Both went down, tumbled a bit, and then began to scuffle violently.

Bill looked at the scene.  The Gnomes were actually disarming the Dwarves, who were looking distraught about the whole thing.  He turned to Merdemus.

“One wonders why they’d need our help at all.”

Suddenly, the sky began to cloud over- but only in the area above the battlefield.  A ray of blood-red light shot down from the center of the cloudy mass, and a Mage in black appeared.

Merdemus and Bill crossed their arms in an X formation in front of them, energy beginning to build at their fingertips.

The Mage in Black walked into the center of the battlefield, occasionally kicking the odd Gnome or Dwarf out of the way, and he removed his hood.

“Not again!” Bill dropped his guard.  “Serelin, doesn’t MEFISTO have anything better for you to do than bug us?”

Serelin laughed, and when he spoke, his voice seemed deeper than it had the last time, at least an octave lower.  “Fools.  You have no conception of my true purpose—MEFISTO’s true purpose.  You interfere where you do not belong.”

Merdemus stared at Serelin. “Where are we?  What part of  Bumblyworld is this?”

Serelin snorted.  “The only part that matters.  Your Gnome friends refused to do the mining we asked the Dwarves to do.”

Bill scowled.  “Lemme get this straight.  You asked the Dwarves to mine, and then you get mad at the Gnomes?”

Serelin nodded.  “The Dwarves delegated the task to the Gnomes, who did nothing.  Now, we punish the Gnomes for their disobedience.”

“No longer.”  Bill created a fireball, which Serelin simply deflected.

“Fool.  They say when one is hit hard enough, he sees stars.  Let us test this assumption.” Serelin created a purple ball of plasma and swung it at Bill.  Before Bill could react, he was sailing through the sky, going higher and higher until he was a speck . . . and then he was gone.

“My power is absolute.  By the time he returns to the Earth, I will have vanquished you all!”

Merdemus looked at Serelin annoyedly, then inspiration struck.  He grinned brightly.

“So, where do I sign up?”

Serelin backed away from Merdemus.  “What?”

“Your powers are too great for even I, the great Merdemus, to handle.  Thus, I wish to join your worthy group.”

“Y—you lie, old man.”  Serelin backed away further.

“Why do you fear my request?” Merdemus’ grin expanded.

“You’d never want to join MEFISTO! You’re playing with my mind!”

“There’s nothing to play with, my boy.  You know that.”

“Yeah . . . ”

“So let me in.”  Merdemus crossed his arms.  He knew Serelin.  The Mage could never handle concepts that were challenging, or paradoxical . . . they just shorted out his mind, what little there was of it.  A few more of these impossible statements and the mighty Mage in Black would be a quivering mass of stupidity on the ground, his default condition

“So, did you ever get your Mustang fixed?”

“M—M—Mustang?”  Serelin sat down.  “My pretty car . . . O so pretty car.”

Merdemus looked up.  He sensed it, but had to see it to be sure—Bill was tumbling through the sky, red-hot with the heat of re-entry.

“Steer left, Bill! LEFT!”

The speck in the sky that was Bill complied, and Merdemus returned his attention to Serelin, whose ranting was becoming more intense.

“My pretty car . . . which you wrecked!  ARRGH!”  He sprang up, raised his arms in an attack position, created a deadly bolt of plasma, and was slammed into the ground with such force that it took Bill three minutes to climb out of the steaming pit that had been created.

“Serelin’s paste.”  Bill pulled a compacted black thing out of the pit.  “This is what he gets for sending me up to find Sputnik.”

Merdemus frowned.  “Is he—”

“I wish.  I have a perfectly sadistic idea, though.”  Bill pulled a small flagon from his singed robes, and stuffed the black thing into it with no delicacy whatsoever.

“When he regains consciousness, I want to see him get outta this!  It’s called a Mobius flask.”

Merdemus looked at Bill inquiringly.

“Don’t ask.”  With that, Bill threw the bottle containing Serelin high up into the air, where a passing eagle grabbed it in its talons and sped away from sight.

Merdemus looked at the scene. “I’m impressed.  Stylistic revenge, with a hint of historical irony.”

Bill nodded.  “That jinni still hasn’t gotten out of that old wholesale lamp of mine yet, y’know.”

“Did you happen to see where we were when you were in the sky?”

“Nope.  I was moving too fast.”


“Hordes evil ones crushed pasty by Mages big!”  The Gnomes cheered in celebration and went after the Dwarves, who, without their backup in the form of Serelin, were now developing a serious persecution complex, and had run off in terror.

Merdemus was about to go with the Gnomes when Bill restrained him.  “Why go after them?  Without MEFISTO, the Dwarves can’t do much to the Gnomes.”

Merdemus nodded.  “But . . . MEFISTO wanted something mined, something important to them.  If we can catch the Dwarves, and question them, we may find a way to stop MEFISTO.”

“Or at least determine where we are . . . but I’ll tell you, Merde, that gear they had looked more like simple digging equipment than full-blown mining stuff.”

“Perhaps there are others.  We will find out soon enough.”

The two Mages caught sight of the Gnomes receding into the southwest distance, and they followed them.

*                                  *                                  *

A mob of angry parents charged through Bumblyworld, scouring the entire complex.

Drek watched as the parents overturned dunk tanks, smashed tins of boiling paint, and locked up cages of cannibalistic hamsters.  He had intended to take the parents straight to Krag’s cave, but he realized that they might not have taken well to a huge, TV-addicted Dragon with scorching breath.  Thus, he had decided to distract them by saying that there was a large sum of money hidden somewhere on the premises.

All parental concerns had vanished instantly, and the parents had begun a spree of rampaging destruction that would have made Roman legions run screaming in terror.

As the parents methodically destroyed Bumblyworld, Drek snuck over to the remains of dunk tank number sixty-seven.  He was about to lift the flap that led to Krag’s cave, when suddenly his attention was diverted to the wall that had the fake tunnel and the word “Exit” painted on it.  It was standing in ruins, and through the real hole in the wall, Drek could see the streets of San Francisco.  Unfortunately, he could also see something else in the hole:  a gang of bloodthirsty thugs.

The head of the gang stepped into Bumblyworld and looked around.

“Hey, maan . . . da word on da street sez dat dis place gots money . . . an’ I—I mean, da Purple Death—needz it!”

The other members of the Purple Death walked into Bumblyworld and began to look around for the money their leader was talking about.

Drek had almost no Magic power left, so he didn’t even contemplate a fight.  Quickly, he fell through the flap in the dunk tank and into Krag’s cave, finding himself on top of the Dragon’s head.


The Dragon did not reply.



Drek slid down the Dragon’s back, and promptly saw the cause of the problem.  On the television was the following message:


Drek shook his head and was about to exit the cave when he remembered that there was a nasty energy barrier around it that he couldn’t breach.

To make matters worse, at that instant, the Purple Death found the flap in dunk tank number sixty-seven and leapt through it.

Drek found himself surrounded by a group of illiterate, yet deadly street punks with switchblades.

The leader of the Purple Death walked up to him, shoving him for good measure.

“Hey, maan . . . chu are gonna gif us all chore money, eh?  Or we keel chu.”

“What’s your name?”

The boy paused, scouring his tiny mind for the data.  “Hegon.  Hegon Killem.”

“Oh, great name.”  Drek wondered if this guy’s parents had been prophets.  His Magic powers were returning, but this Purple Death chap was going to kill him before he had enough power to do anything—unless . . .


“Ay!”  The punk clicked open his switchblade.  “How chu kno my name, uh?”

Drek had heard that some people were so stupid they forgot what they had said a second before (due to insufficient brain size), but up until now he had thought only politicians had had that problem.

“You told me.  Excuse me.”  Drek leapt from his standing position and crashed into Krag’s gravel pit/bed and began digging around in it.

Hegon looked at this and turned to his gang of willing idiots.

“Hey, lookit!  He tryin’ to bury himself alive, maan!”

Drek was now under the gravel, poking around.  He thought he had found one of Krag’s Magic spellbooks, but then he realized that this was probably Krag’s lavatory as well.

Tunneling away from the foul-smelling thing, he found what he had been looking for:  one of the books that Krag had allowed him to see the last time he was in the cave.

Unfortunately, there was so much gravel over it that he could not open the text—but a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach told him that he might not have to.

Hegon and crew jumped in the gravel and began to swim around, looking for Drek.  When they found him, they clicked open their switchblades and simultaneously stabbed him from almost every direction conceivable.

Drek looked absently at the dozens of knives in him, and shrugged.

“Nice aim, boys.  Too bad I seem to be virtually immortal.”

The next second, there was a tremendous explosion as the gravel in Krag’s bedpit erupted hundreds of feet into the air, carrying along with it the Purple Death, some of whom flew up through the flap in the ceiling, including Hegon, who ran blubbering like a child out into the streets of San Francisco.

The others fell all over Krag and tumbled down onto the ground.

For his part, Krag was now covered in a thin film of dirt, but still did not seem to notice his surroundings.  The Purple Death missed this, however, as they saw Drek rise from the crater that had been the bedpit, glowing an iridescent blue.

“Funny thing, what happens when you put a Mage near hundred thousand year old books of Magic.  The dust on the cover alone makes him unstoppable.”

The remaining Purple Death saw the maniacally grinning Drek and screamed hysterically, running about the cave until they smacked into walls, the barrier, or each other, knocking themselves unconscious.

Drek looked at the barrier and snorted.  He knew he had enough power to get through it, and so he did, shattering it.  It was like stepping through an exploding waterfall.  In fact, the barrier was a waterfall, albeit one charged with Cosmic energy.

Drek emerged on the other side of the waterstream, most of his excess Magic power used up in crossing the barrier, and promptly plummeted down its side, landing on the rocks below.

“Now . . . I know how Merdemus felt.”  He sat on a rock and began extracting the Purple Death’s switchblades from his stomach.

Drek was about to walk out of the rockpile when he realized that the rockpile was actually just a slight outcropping on a very steep cliff, and he pulled back.  Squatting down, he looked down at the valley below.  There was a circular black wall that defined the limit of the horizon, and inside it the land was so textured as to appear as if it was divided into four parts.

To the far left, the block of land had a village of some kind, whose fields were pockmarked with craters.

To the far right there was an inn, or a tavern of some kind.

To the near right was a hovel surrounded by ramparts, and a large wooden structure.

The near left had a large castle nestled in its corner.

There was also something small hurtling through the air across the region, being tossed about by a bird of some kind.

Drek took out his pen and sketched these details on a small McDrekky’s notepad.

“Merdemus and the others have to be down there somewhere.  Now, to find them.”

“Chu gonna die, maan!”  Drek spun backwards as he saw some of the Purple Death coming down the side of the waterfall.  Apparently, the punks had stopped fearing him once he had ceased to glow a bright blue, and their shoddy memories prevented them from recalling his prior display of vast power.  Well, either that or they just didn’t care and wanted him dead by any means possible.

“Oh well.”  Plunging off the side of the cliff, he invoked the Seventh Discipline as he fell straight into a steaming pit that took him three minutes to climb out of.

Looking up, he saw the Purple Death climbing down the side of the cliff haphazardly.  Actually, it was more a series of strategic falls and thuds on outcroppings of rock than an organized descent.

“Don’t these guys ever give up?”  Drek began to run southeast until he heard a great smashing sound from the waterfall.

The Purple Death fell off the side of the mountain and into a pool at the bottom just as a scaly red fist smashed through the tumbling waterfall above it, followed by the rest of Krag.

Drek felt the ground tremble with each step the mighty Dragon took.

Krag looked down at the small Mage.  “Those stupid humans broke my television!”

Drek ducked as the flame soared at him.  “I don’t know how to fix televisions!”

Krag, who had been walking on two legs, dropped on all fours, and the resulting shock split the ground near him.  Drek was falling into a chasm when Krag grabbed his shirt with his teeth.  With a snap of his neck, he flung Drek onto his back.

Drek looked at Krag’s back and noted the lack of wings.  “Krag, can you fly?”

Krag snorted.  “Real Dragons do not fly.  We levitate.”

Before Drek could protest, Krag had lifted off the ground and slammed forward like a truck.

“We now head for the Drakklar mountain group.”


“Someone is trying to steal the source of my power!”

*                                  *                                  *

“I tell ya Miranda, this ’as got te be the most ’orrible food I’ve ever eaten!”

Miranda cautiously observed the festering mass on her plate.  The food-server had called it chicken, but Miranda had never seen a cooked chicken quite that shade of green before.

“Max, did they eat things like this thousands of years ago?”

“Not if they wanted te live long they didn’t.”

Tal looked around the interior of the small eatery.  It had been three hours since the trio had set out from the secret meeting place of the Society of Shadows.

Both Max and Miranda had been hungry, so they had decided to get some food at a place marked “Kaspar’s Eatery.”

Tal’s train of thought was broken as the proprietor, a Mr. Hauser, walked over to Max.

“I’m sorry, sir.  We must request payment in full.”  He spoke with a soft French accent.

Max frowned.  “But I’m not done eatin’.”

Hauser shook his head and lowered his voice.  “That may be so, sir . . . but you have already consumed one chicken, three ducks, four turkeys and one half-stuffed antelope with six side orders of fresh fish, vegetable salad and a sprinkling of salt—not to mention the drinks.”

Miranda looked incredulously at Max, who grinned and burped slightly.

“Max, how can you eat all of that?”

“Easy.”  He turned to Mr. Hauser.  “I don’t have any gold.  Y’take spirits?”

Hauser coughed.  “Sir, no amount of spirits could recompense the amount of food you have eaten.”

The next instant, the eatery was a disintegrated pile of smoking ash.

“Not that it matters, sir.” Hauser ran for his life.

“Why did you do that!?”  Miranda got up and shoved Max.

“I didn’t!  I swear!”  Max got up and quickly swallowed his last duck.

Tal pointed upwards.  “He is telling the truth.  Look!”

Miranda and Max looked up, only to see a Mage in black retreating into the sky.

Max snorted.  “Looks loike they don’t want us te reach the High Council o’ the Four Lands.”

*                                  *                                  *

Somewhere else, deep in the recesses of an ancient mountain, a Mage cloaked in black stood in front of a pot filled with burning liquid.  He stretched out both of his arms, and two of his aides came forward, seeming to pour out of the rock walls of the chamber. They handed him a staff of power and lowered many gold chains around his neck.

The dark Mage inclined his head slowly, and one of the aides left.  Then he spoke, each word dripping with menace as he gazed at his new crystal ball.

“Where is Serelin?”

The aide trembled.  “We . . . we do not know, Lord.”

“The fool probably got himself stuck in a bottle or something.  Tell Gruebright to get the alternate.”

“Aye, my Lord.”

“What of Merdemus?”

“He . . . continues to live, my Lord.”

“I expected nothing less.”

The dark Mage lowered his head.


“Aye, my Lord.”

The next instant, the aide was gone in a puff of smoke. The Mage nodded to himself.

“Merdemus, you humiliated me long ago.  I have played you for a pawn ever since.  Soon, you will feel my power.  My hands are at your throat, Mage.  Soon they will be crushing the life out of it.”

*                                  *                                  *

Max, Miranda, and Tal were walking towards the massive castle that housed the Council of the Four Lands when a strange-looking fellow ran up to them.  He was small, and he spoke quickly, much like a bird chatters.

“I am Herog.  I am the newscarrier, harbinger of doom and sender of birthday gifts.  I bring ye weary travelers news.”

Max shoved Herog aside.  “We don’t ’ave time fer news, mate.”

“Listen!”  Herog clung onto Max’s leg.

“If Oy listen, will you go away?”


“Oy’m listening.”

“I bring you news from the eastern lands.  A great war has begun between the Gnome and Dwarven empires. Mages in Black and Mages in brown have fought hideous battles!  Much death!  A Dwarf was flung by a Mage into a pit of mud that enveloped him!  Hundreds of Gnomes were smuggled into Dwarven territory in a huge basket fifty cubits high by fifty cubits wide!”

Max thumbed his mustache.  “’Ow many Mages in brown?”

“About fifty.”

“Hmmm . . . go on, then.”

“Thousands of combatants fought in the first battle, and the Gnomes were victorious.  The last reports had the Dwarves fleeing and the Gnomes and Mages in pursuit . . . coming this way!”

“Grand.  Now leave.”  Max knocked Herog out of his way.

Miranda watched as the small man scuttled away and disappeared down the path, and turned worriedly to Max.

“Aren’t you worried about thousands of Gnomes, Dwarves and Mages overrunning this place?”

Max shrugged.  “Naw.  That bloke’s probably full o’ hot air, luv.  C’mon.  We ’ave te get te those Knights.”

A few moments later, the group crossed the drawbridge that led to the Great Hall of the High Council of the Four Lands.

Miranda followed Max inside, then turned to look for Tal, who had disappeared.  Max turned to see why Miranda had stopped, and then he saw Tal—or rather, Tal’s face on a much larger body cloaked in black robes.

Tal’s mouth was drawn tautly along his face, and his eyes betrayed no emotion.  Then, a hint of a smile appeared; the kind of smile you find on a crocodile who has just swallowed a person and is rather pleased with himself.

A burst of energy from his fists- then there was nothing.

*                                  *                                  *

Krag and Drek were cutting through the air at unbelievable speed.  The massive red Dragon was levitating so rapidly that Drek was almost unable to keep his grip on the creature’s scaly back . . . in fact, Drek could swear that he saw some scales detach as the Dragon increased velocity.

“Krag, where are we going?  This Bumblyworld place looks to me to be underground!  The Drakklar mountains were near Garath, in a region outside of what is now San Francisco!”

Krag did not move his head to look at Drek, nor could he—at the speed he was going, that would have meant an instant broken neck.

“Correct.  Therefore we are going up.”

“Up!?  But up means we’ll slam into the earth above!”

“True.  Look down.  You will find it most enlightening.”

Drek looked at the rapidly receding ground, and fought back the vertigo.  He blinked, then rubbed his eyes with one free arm.

“What the hell?  That can’t be right!  Krag, this means that whole place—”

The Dragon cut him off.  “We are attacked!”

“What?  I didn’t feel anything!”  Drek looked around, and then he noted that Krag’s left flank was glinting a brighter red than usual.

“You’re bleeding!”

“Something hit me.  Something stronger than anything I have ever felt before.”

Suddenly, the whole Dragon shuddered, and began to descend rapidly.  Drek looked up in horror and saw a Mage in Black surrounded in a translucent red sphere of energy pointing at him and laughing.  A green bolt of plasma fired from his hands, and Drek barely noticed it when Krag smashed into the ground at over a hundred miles per hour.

*                                  *                                  *

Merdemus and Bill stopped chasing the Dwarves and Gnomes as they heard a large explosion somewhere to the west accompanied by a tremor that shook the ground for about half a second.

Bill nudged Merdemus and pointed to the sky, speaking in hushed tones.

“Holy Zarstinozak, Merde . . . what the hell kind of Magic is that?”

Merdemus looked up, and the entire sky was flickering before his eyes, fading into a dirt-like backdrop for almost a half of a second before becoming bright blue again.

“I do not know . . . perhaps MEFISTO does have total mastery over all of nature as Lord Gruebright claimed. They must be stopped.”

Presently, the flickering ceased, and the sky was once again tranquil.

The two Mages began to levitate, pushing forward to catch up to the fast-running mob of Gnomes and Dwarves.

Overshooting them by accident, they were about to turn back when they found some more Dwarves . . . except this time there was indeed an Armada of them—hundreds, literally.

Bill set down in some bushes, between which he could see the Dwarves performing military drills while guarding some Gnomes who were performing some kind of hard labor.

“Merde, these aren’t grunt worker mining Dwarves.  These guys have obviously been trained to fight.  Our Gnome buddies don’t have a chance against them.”

“We do.”

Bill looked at Merdemus incredulously.  “Look at them!  They have real weapons!  Sharp weapons!  They could hack us to bits before we could invoke the Seventh Discipline!”

“No they couldn’t.”

“Well then, they could pull a Hikbar.”

“Oh.”  Merdemus remembered the tale of the Wizard Hikbar, who was reputed to be the discoverer of the Seventh Discipline.  He had used it to become the most powerful entity in his kingdom, killing and subjugating without remorse.

None could stand in his way, as none could injure him in the least.  He was immortal, and even the most powerful Mages of the day could not breach his defenses.

One day however, Hikbar made the mistake of smiting a candy store.  The local children were so incensed that they waited until Hikbar was asleep (even then he was invulnerable since he had made it a habit to mumble the necessary incantations as he slept), and they proceeded to tickle him with very large feathers.

This caused the great Mage to laugh spasmodically, until he could no longer fulfill the part of the Seventh Discipline that called for counting from one to eighty-four in increments of the mystical number X in his mind.  Thus weakened, he was easy prey as the children fed him to their pet warthog Marcus, leading to the great phrase inscribed on every great Magical codex, “Val Traklanio Kel Gat,” or “Stay away from the warthog.”

Merdemus looked at the Dwarves and shuddered.  “Obviously you are correct.  They could conceivably maim us horribly whilst we were distracted for some reason.”

“Or decapitate us . . . ”  Bill visibly shook, touched his sword, realized Merdemus was staring at him again, and spluttered, “ . . . or some other nasty thing that would involve much spillage of blood.”

“Biclaxaltonian, is there something you are neglecting to tell me?”

Bill tucked his sword out of sight and shook his head.

“Fine.  If that is how it shall be.”  Merdemus made a displeased face and peered through the bushes, scowling at the Dwarves.  “I don’t understand this.”

“What?”  Bill peered over Merdemus’ shoulder.

“The Dwarves have those Gnomes placing the sand into containers which are then taken away.  Why would one wish to keep sand?”

Bill growled sarcastically, “Maybe they’ll sift it for precious metals.”

“But there do not seem to be any-”

“Idiot!”  Bill slapped him on the shoulder.  “They’re hauling the dirt away because it’s interfering with their work!  See, they’re putting something into the ground!”

Merdemus squinted, and he could see the Gnomes placing thick wires in the ground.

“We have to free those trapped Gnomes, interrogate the Dwarves and prevent a massacre.”

“A massacre that is about to occur.”  Bill pointed back along the trail, where the set of Dwarves that were fleeing the Gnome Armada was now fast approaching.

“We’ve got to stall them!”

“Agreed.” Bill muttered a spell and the path in front of the running Dwarves was turned into a large earthen mound.  Almost immediately, shovels began poking through it.

Merdemus frowned.  “No good! They’re digging through it!”  He quickly turned the mound of dirt into a pile of X-Tra Smell Fertilizer, which immediately sent the Dwarves fleeing in the other direction, right back to the Gnome Armada.

“Great.”  Bill pointed behind him.  “The smell’s gotten the attention of those Dwarves over there . . . and they’re heading for us!”

“Let them come.  My smiting spells—”

Merdemus stopped in his tracks as he flexed his fingertips.  “What the—Bill!  Perform some spell!”

Bill concentrated, but he was not able to even light a twig that was at his feet.

“Oh, grand.  Now I’m incapable of burning twigs.  Are you catching or something?”

Merdemus snorted.  “Something is wrong.  I cannot sense the Cosmic.  I am unable to use any of my powers.”

“Me neither.”  Bill shoved Merdemus into the bushes as the Dwarven military rushed past them.

Merdemus looked at Bill, obviously distressed.  “How did this happen?”

“Dunno.  I felt a little jolt when the sky went funny, but I thought nothing of it.”

“Perhaps we can get those Gnomes to aid us.”

How?!  There is a whole field separating us from them, the Dwarves have weapons and we are as helpless as squirming Apprentices!”

“I’m not.”  Bill and Merdemus turned in synch, to see a Mage in Black hovering over the bushes.  “Welcome to the future.  Too bad you can’t stay for long.”

The Mage snapped his fingers and the bushes were instantly turned to ash.  “Have a nice day.”

Bill and Merdemus looked around, only to find a circle of angry Dwarves who were ready for the kill.

“Yes bad situation is?”

Both men nodded as Felt and the rest of the Gnome Armada was ushered into the center of the ring of Dwarves.

Merdemus sighed.  “It looks as if we were not as of much help as we thought, Felt.”

Felt sighed.  “Moments ago we were planning to sing of our victory, but now all is sadness.”

Bill’s expression brightened. “That’s it!  Dammit, Merde, have them sing!”

Merdemus groaned.  “We are powerless.  It could kill us as well.”

“It’s a risk we have to take.”

The circle of Dwarves began to contract, sharp weapons drawing ever closer to the Gnomes and their Mage-friends.

Merdemus looked at Felt earnestly.  “Felt, sing.  Sing the longest, loudest song you and your compatriots know.  Please!”

Felt looked up at the Mage and sighed.  “Sing we only happy when.  Sad now we are.”



The Gnomes collectively cleared their throats and sang, with no discernible organization or tone, the following song:  

“Happy are—Happy, happy!

Fishing the sun—Hurrah, HurRAH!

Goldfish shoals . . . Mango juice . . . nipping nipping . . . TOES!

Boldly going . . . Boldly gone—beFORE man WHERE!

Last best hope . . . victory peace—FIVE!”  

This was repeated again and again, with the rule being that each successive repetition got squeakier and louder.

Both Mages were clutching at their stomachs, and doubling over as the Gnomes went on.

“I-can’t-handle-it-anymore-Merde! Kill-me!”

Merdemus dropped to the ground and wheezed.  “It’s-too-late!”

The Dwarves, for their part, had stopped the moment they heard the singing.

One by one, they dropped their weapons, petrified by the music.

Finally, the Gnomes ceased singing, and the two Mages got up slowly, staggering to their feet and coughing up bile.

The leader of the Dwarves walked up to Felt and clasped his shoulder.

“That was the most melodious thing I have ever heard.”

The other Dwarves nodded in assent.

Merdemus and Bill looked at each other in sheer amazement as the Dwarven leader continued.

“It is wrong for us to enslave such a gifted people.  We come from a common stock, and I see now we have lost much as a result of the doctrinal conflict.  You lost your grammar, but we lost our souls.”

Bill could not believe what he was hearing.  “What foul Magic is this?”

Merdemus scowled.  “Be silent!”

Felt shook the Dwarven leader’s hand.  “Gnomes!  Leader Dwarf us them now together alliance form Mages Black we crush!”

There was much singing and shouting, and the new combined Dwarf-Gnome alliance truly shook the ground as it roared southeast, towards a place the Dwarves indicated the Mages in Black could be found.

Bill looked sadly at Merdemus. “Fools.  Even combined, they would be fodder for MEFISTO.”

Merdemus nodded.  “We must follow them, but they move too quickly.”

Bill jerked his head around, as if he had heard something, and grasped his sword.  “Get out of here, Merde.”


“I’m why.”  Merdemus saw the woman in green that he had turned into cheese earlier.

“I thought you had been eaten by a Gnome.  How did you escape?”

“It was a nasty process.”

The woman looked at Bill and shrugged.  “You won’t need that sword.  My Magic powers still function.  I will aid you.”

“Why?”  Bill sheathed his sword.  “You and I both know how our conflict must end.”

“It does not matter.”  The Sorceress smiled softly.  “I too was brought here against my will by the Mages in Black.  I would have them dead first, that I might smite you on the hallowed ground where our conflict first began.”

“And you will not attempt to harm us?”  Merdemus raised an eyebrow skeptically.

“My word is my oath, Mage.”

Merdemus looked at Bill, who nodded, saying slowly, “Her word is as good as mine.”

With that, the trio lifted off the ground and began to follow the Armada that was heading towards certain doom.  


Drek lay flat on his back, legs and arms sprawled over the sides of Krag’s neck.  The mighty Dragon, for his part, had barely managed to keep his head up during impact, so his neck and tail were protruding out of the deep crater that his belly had created when it had punched into the ground.

There was steam issuing from the crater, and as Drek slowly rose into consciousness, he noted that the Dragon was still breathing, if in spurts.

“Krag?” he asked weakly.

The Dragon coughed, and the blood was incinerated by the flames in his breath.

“I am healing.  Do not distract me.”

“Sorry.”  Drek looked around, and saw that Krag had crashed next to a solid rockface, presumably the base of the Drakklar mountain group.

“Get off my neck.”

The Mage complied, and he looked at the scarred, broken Dragon.

The impact of the crash had been absorbed by Krag, and Drek feared that even that mighty reptile could not withstand a shock of such magnitude.

As usual, Drek was wrong.

Krag’s wounds were sealing themselves as the Dragon popped himself out of the crater his stomach had forged by levitating (though somewhat skittishly) out of it, and planting himself on the solid ground around it.

“Damn . . . ”  Drek looked down into the yawning pit.  There was some kind of large pipe cutting through it, which Krag had dented and broken open in one spot.  There was electric wire running through it, and in some areas the electricity was arcing from one wire to the next.

“Bet you cut somebody’s power off when we crashed.”

Krag nodded, still weak.

Drek frowned.  “Wait . . . this is power and telephone line . . . special hookups . . . I should know, McDrekky’s had a whole bunch of them put in by the power and telephone people so that if there was a blackout, our stores would be beacons of light guiding people to come in, recuperate, feel safe, and of course eat . . . but what is one doing coming into this medieval place?  For that matter, what the hell is this place doing under Bumblyworld?”

Krag shook himself in the same way dogs do when they get wet, and he cleared his throat.

“Healing is complete.  Didst thou sayest this Bumblyworld was above us?”

Drek nodded.  “It is beginning to look like this medieval place has no connection to it at all.”

“Incorrect.  For one with gifts such as yours, I find it difficult to believe you have such a poor grasp of the situation.”

“Powers?  I’m just your slightly above-average Mage.”

“You are ignorant of your potential.  How sad.”

“What do you mean?”

“Has it not occurred to you that you have a special gift?”

Drek scratched his head.  “No.”

Krag snorted, and a small puff of flame shot at Drek, barely passing over his head.

“You are quite possibly the luckiest Mage alive.”

“Well, I must admit that surviving this crash was fortunate, but it had a lot to do with you being in between me and the ground.”

Krag closed his eyes and read Drek’s mind with the Third Discipline.

“Ouch!  First Merde sucks knowledge out of my head and now you!?  He needed a thousand years of catch-up learning, but you don’t!  You had a television set!”

“With cable.”  Krag sighed. “But ’twas necessary for me to prove my point.  Look at thine life—thou hast studied under Gral the Ignorant, perhaps the finest example of a Mage who talked too much and thus imparted too much power to his students.”

“So?  Gral was easy to find. Merdemus and Bill also studied under him.”

“But thou met him by chance the same day thee wast to be made Apprentice to a blacksmith.  More recently, thou acquired thy fast food chain when a drunken poker buddy who happened to be a lawyer wagered his client’s deed against your nickel.  The courts upheld the decision as the game was held on the one night during the year when gambling had been legalized to raise monies for the state—a fact thou wast not cognisant of at the time thee was gambling.

“Then later, Max forced you to abandon thy Gutbuster burger, avoiding the health scandal it would have caused when if the meat had gone out.”

“But Max wrecked the meat!”

“No.  He wrecked the burgers. The meat camest from skunk, not cow.”

“Oh man—”  Drek sat down at that revelation.

“Then Merdemus came to your place.  Had he not arrived, a Mage from this MEFISTO group wouldst have attacked and probably destroyed you.  But he didst not wish to attack Merdemus.”

“Then Merde was the lucky one.”

“Thou were in my cave, and those urchins were prepared to flay you, yet thee found the one tome in my collection that was old enough to grant you strength to survive.”

Drek got up and looked at the sky.  “I suppose you might be right—”

Krag snorted.

“Okay . . . you’re right.  What does it mean?”

“Thou hast the ability to . . . what is the phrase . . . ‘beat the odds’ and emerge victorious.  But that alone is not enough to stop MEFISTO.”

“What else do I need?”

“My power is weakening.  Someone has taken the runic artifact, a fragment of the ygdrasil, that I draw force from.  I cannot help you for much longer.  You must find your friends—Merdemus, Maximillian, Biclaxaltonian and Miranda- together, you can stop MEFISTO.

“Separately, you will fail. Pure luck alone is not enough- it must be backed up with power if it is to have a significant impact on others.”

“I see.”  Drek rubbed his chin thoughtfully.  “Krag?  When I was up in the air with you, you told me to look down.  I was able to see beyond the limits of the black wall.  Did I see what I thought I saw?”

Krag walked slowly over to Drek and lifted him up onto his back.

“Art thou referring to the rocks, or the buildings?”

“The buildings.”

“Thou seest correctly.  Modern, twentieth-century buildings surround this place.  Anachronistic, is it not? That beyond Foster’s Wall lies the truth.”

“Foster’s Wall?”

“It is what the Mages in Black call it.  It was built to protect a sacred city thousands of years ago, but they pillaged the city, stole the wall and hath placed it here.  Not even I can lower it.  But legend says that the one who is worthy of admiration shalt lower it with but a word.”

“Who’s that?  Me?”

“I dost not know.”

“So, if we can take down this wall, maybe we can figure out why there’s a piece of merry, very old England down here after hundreds of years?”

“Foster’s Wall is just the beginning.”

Krag lifted off the ground a little slower than he did the last time, but still managed to knock the breath out of Drek as he slammed forward.

Drek looked down, frowned, and yelled, “Krag!  Why are we going east?  Drakklar is to the west!”

“Someone has already taken my source of power and is tapping it.  There would be no point to moving further west.  We must double back and head to Foster’s Wall, where we will try to lower it.”

Drek sighed.  “How is it that you know so much about this place?”

“My powers are—were—vast. Besides, it was all on television, if you knew where to look.”

*                                  *                                  *

“Me bloody ’ead ’urts.”  Max looked around for Miranda, but she was nowhere to be seen.

Examining his surroundings, Max decided he was in a dungeon . . . either that or someone had an exceptionally sadistic interior decorator.

The walls were stone, and covered with a slimy ooze that seemed to be moving.  This wouldn’t have been so bad, had not Max been chained up against the wall next to a nasty-looking bug of some kind that was twitching its antennae nervously.

Max had always been afraid of bugs, so he was slightly relieved when the ooze congealed and dragged the insect, twitching and clicking, into itself.

He swore he heard a burp, and looked to the ground to see if there were any more insects, but there were only two strange white mice there, the taller of which was banging its head against the wall, smiling.

In the middle of the dank, humid room was a simple table made of waterlogged, rotting wood.  On it was a rusted sword, a dented axe, and a shiny new telephone.

“Wot the ’ell is that doin’ ’ere?”  Max tried to scratch his head, but the chains restrained him.

“Bloody things,” he muttered, and simply yanked them out of the wall with a pull of his arm.  Unfortunately, the chains were sturdily mounted in the wall, and thus half of it came off with the chains.

Max coughed as the dust settled, and noticed a face peering at him from around the edge of the broken wall.

The face was an aristocratic one, with just the right look of arrogance and youthful exuberance that made it quite clear this was a face belonging to nobility.

“Oy!  ’Ow ya been?”  Max extended his hand, careful not to let the stone attached to the chains swing too far up.

“W—water.”  The stranger’s lips barely moved.

“Will wine do?” Max asked cheerfully.

The stranger nodded, and Max quickly turned the stones on his chains to wine.  He tried to turn the chains to wine, but he realized they would have given it too high of an iron count. Also, he used what little of the Fifth (and only) Discipline he knew to turn his chains into a metal goblet to hold the wine; unfortunately, these were still attached to his wrists.

The stranger did not mind, as he strained over and drank from Max’s wrists, rather quickly.  After spitting out some flecks of stone that had not been transmuted, the man wheezed and said, “I am Lord Etymos, master of Linguistics, advisor to the House of Pendragon.”

“Pendragon?”  Max eyed the man curiously.  “As in King Arthur’s House of Pendragon?”

Etymos nodded.

“Wot’re ye doin’ ’ere, mate? This is San Francisco!”

“Where?  The Mages in Black took me from Camelot many, many years ago and deposited me in this place.  They never told me its name.”

“In a dungeon?”

“Nay.  I was assigned to decipher some glyphs on a wall that they hadst erected.  ’Twas called Foster’s Wall, and ’twas black as night, stretching as far as the eye could see.”

“So? Wot ’appened?”

“I was unable to decipher the message, so they locked me away in here.  They fed me and kept me alive, but a while ago, perhaps a fortnight, they stopped.  I hast not seen nor heard from them since.”

“Do you know what that is?”  Max pointed to the telephone on the table.


“Hmm . . .  Well, let me get you outta these chains—”  Max quickly extricated Lord Etmyos from his bonds and moved over to his cell.  The walls were similar, but there was no table of any kind in it.  There was, however, a small window into the adjoining cell, which Max sauntered up to.

“Oy!  Anyone ’ome?”



Suddenly, Max remembered his name and pressed his face up to the bars.

“Miranda!”  He frowned.  “Why didn’t they chain you up?”

Lord Etymos shook his head and muttered something about Latin.

Miranda, who was sitting on a bench with her feet bound to the floor by clamps, smiled sarcastically and replied, “Maybe because I’m not crazy?”

“There’s a phone in here!”

Miranda stood, but was unable to walk over to Max.  The Mage noted this, went away from the grill, and said, “Stand back, luv.”

Miranda shook her head and crouched down in a crash position.  The next moment, the wall was a pile of broken stones.

“Owww . . . ”  Max nursed his skull.  “I’d fergotten ’ow ’ard it is to bust a wall with only yer ’ead . . . mainly since I usually use other people’s ’eads te do it.”

Miranda stood up and watched as Max yanked her foot clamps out of the ground.

“Thanks.  Who’s your friend?”

Lord Etymos introduced himself, and the trio walked back into the room where the telephone sat.  There was a note by it that hadn’t been there before.  Miranda picked it up and read it aloud.  “Hope this helps thee.  I am afraid the deception was necessary.  May this solve your puzzle.”

She turned to the others as she read the last of the note.

“It’s signed, ‘Tal, the Tal who is probably dead because the reader of his note was foolish enough to say his name aloud when MEFISTO was probably listening.’”

There was a distant rumble, and a high-pitched scream from somewhere else in the castle. Miranda looked worriedly at Max, who shrugged and said, “So . . . ’e shouldn’t ’ave signed it, then.”

“Let’s use the phone before MEFISTO gets rid of it.”

“Good idea, luv.”  Max picked up the phone, put it to his ear, then slammed it down.  “Too late, MEFISTO’s got it.”

Miranda picked it up and listened.  There was a hiss of static bursting across it.  She frowned and gently put it down.

“A modem?”

“Eh?”  Max looked at her quizzically.

“It’s a device they use to get computers to exchange information over the phone lines.  What you heard was two computers talking to one another.”

“Blimey!”  Max scratched his head in amazement.

“Yeah, who would expect to find modems and computers here?”

Max nodded.  “Who knew computers could converse!?”

As Miranda slapped her head, Max asked, “So, what were they talkin’ about?”

“How should I know?!”

Lord Etymos stepped in. “Perhaps we shouldst move to a safer place.  I dost not think it wouldst be wise to hold this conversation here with . . . MEFISTO?”  He paused, then continued, “monitoring our every spoken word.”

Max obligingly decimated one of the walls facing the outside, and it was then that the trio noted several Knights with deadly-looking lances riding right towards them at breakneck speed.

*                                  *                                  *

Merdemus was getting quite ill. He and Bill had been levitating, with the help of the sorceress in green, for almost a quarter of an hour, and apparently she was incapable of balancing their internal air pressure with that of the outside air.  He decided to find out just how much Magic this woman knew.

“What is your name, Sorceress? And what kind of power do you command?”

The woman frowned, apparently unable to concentrate properly.  “I am Kalijess, a Sorceress of the Sixth Order.”

The levitating trio began to spin out of control, spinning closer and closer to the treetops, until finally they crashed in a very large oak.

Bill snorted.  “I guess you can’t levitate and talk at the same time, eh?”

Kalijess hissed slightly.  “Not all of us are powerful Mages of the Second Order.”

Bill smiled smugly.

Merdemus grinned.  “I am a Mage of the First Order.”

Bill’s smug grin fell away, but he sarcastically replied, “Well, at least I can burn twigs.”

Kalijess laughed and looked at Merdemus, whose face had gone red with anger.

“You mean, a mighty Mage of the First Order canst not burn a lowly twig?”

Merdemus scowled.  “Be silent, woman, lest I—”

Kalijess made an arm motion, and a twig appeared in Merdemus’ mouth, which he spat out indignantly.

“Right now, only you seem to be able to work Magic, madam.  Pray, tell us why this is so?”

“I do not know.”  Kalijess made her fingers glow with energy.  “Perhaps because my Magic draws power from the powers of the Arch Daemon Yag Slohoth and not the Cosmic?”

Merdemus scowled.  “Using Daemons to power your Magic.  Inferior.”

Bill nodded.  “And dangerous, considering the dark nature of Yag Slohoth.”

Kalijess shifted uncomfortably, not wishing to discuss it.  She decided to change the subject.

“Tell me, Wizards Merdemus and Biclaxaltonian, how is it that ye be in this place?”

Bill shrugged.  “A gate opens up, we walk in, we’re here—in Bumblyworld.  Speaking of which, how is it that you came to be here?  In what manner were you kidnapped?”

Kalijess shook her head.  “I know not.  I only know that many centuries ago, the Mages in Black, calling themselves agents of the High Elder, abducted me from my home in the glades of Lemuria.  I was rendered senseless outside of my home, and awoke here.”

Merdemus scowled.  “Impossible! Lemuria sank beneath the waves one thousand years before I went up Drakklar mountain!  MEFISTO has been around but half that time by their own admission!”

“By the gods.  Lemuria is no longer?”  Kalijess buried her face in her hands, and she wept for a moment.

Bill looked at Merdemus confusedly.  “Do you think she has been down here that long?  I met her later on, near Stonehenge!  This can’t be right!” Merdemus shrugged. “It would seem that this place pre-dates your Bumblyworld.”

Kalijess wiped off her tears and looked at the two Mages squarely.  “I know only that the Mages in Black were present in Lemuria, and that they had threatened her destruction.  We laughed, of course.  So did the inhabitants of Atlan’.  Now I think we should not have taken it so lightly.

“What could they have used to bring such destruction to our mighty continents?”

Merdemus shrugged.  “It is generally known that the inhabitants of Atlan’ brought about their own end when they tried to destroy China with their weaponry.”

Kalijess shook her head. “Impossible!  The Atlanteans were a peaceful, intelligent people, like us.  The warrior class could never have exerted that much control over them—”

“—Unless something changed all that.”  Bill turned to Merdemus.

“Merde, something weird’s going on.  MEFISTO running around on Atlantis and Lemuria?  A thousand years before they say they existed?  What does it mean?”

Merdemus shook his head.  “We must go to Foster’s Wall and lower it.  It is time we found out what MEFISTO is truly up to.”

“What of the children, and the Magic?”

“True.  Even the childish creations are deadly.  We will need assistance.”  Merdemus flexed his fingertips, and a small spark issued forth.

“My powers, and I suspect yours, are returning.  We need to find other Mages.  Drek, or even Max.”

Kalijess’ expression grew brighter.  “I know not of those you speak, but I know whence we can find many Mages.  They are young and inexperienced, but they will be useful in combating MEFISTO.”

Merdemus nodded and looked down at the onrushing Gnome/Dwarf Army and sighed.  “What of them?”

Bill looked down.  “We must get the young Mages and bring them to Foster’s Wall before that army gets there. Hopefully, if your nephew Grel and his group of Mages are still up to it when it comes to heavy-duty Wizardry, they might be able to forestall the massacre.”

“Then let us go!”  Kalijess pulled the other two Mages out of the tree, and they began heading towards a small wooden building that was barely visible to the northwest.

*                                  *                                  *

It was some hours before the group touched down outside of a weather-beaten old shack that had the words “Sixth Foot Under Bar, Grill, and Souvenir Shoppe” emblazoned on it.

Merdemus walked in and found a roomful of young Mages standing around, looking confused.  One of them walked up to him and said, in a scolding tone:

“It’s about time thou got here, old man!  We were told that our new vassal was to arrive three hours ago!  Lick my boots!”

Bill suppressed a chuckle and looked at Kalijess, who smiled slightly.  They stood in the doorway to watch Merdemus’ reaction.

Merdemus kept his expression neutral.  “What is your name?”

The young Mage nearly lost his lunch.  “Thou darest ask me a question, slug?  I will have thee know that I am RAELOR, Keeper of the Loathsome Garbage Scraps and Protector of the Sacred Parrot!  Tell me thy name, insect, that I might crush you.”


“What a fool’s name!”  Raelor laughed out loud and turned to the other young Mages.  “Is he not the fool?”

The others laughed and threw rotten fruit at Merdemus, who slowly began to speak again.

“MASTER of the Forces Elemental—”

Raelor and the others stopped laughing.

“Lord of the SEVEN Disciplines—”

Frightened looks were beginning to appear.

“And Mage of the FIRST Order.”

The young Mages, with the exception of Raelor, who maintained a brave face, dropped to their knees and began to plea for forgiveness.  Merdemus noted this, looked Raelor squarely in the eye and raised an eyebrow.

Raelor’s brave face dropped into a quivering, sniveling infant-like mode, and he dropped to Merdemus’ feet.

Merdemus ignored the sobbing hulk that had attached itself to his left leg, and he addressed the other Mages.

“Obviously, you Mages are newly titled, and thus have little experience when dealing with beings of truly vast power.  I have come to grant you that experience.”  He paused as he felt a tugging sensation on his leg.  Unconsciously, his leg shook, and Raelor was slammed into the far wall.

Bill walked into the room, and surveyed the collection of Mages.  He frowned.

“How old is the oldest here?”

One of the young Mages stopped blubbering and stood.  “I am.  I have eighty-five years.”

“How is it that you come to be here?”

“Some Mages in Black brought me here at the age of ten from a land that has long since disappeared.”

“Which land?”

“The Lost Empire.”

Bill frowned.  “I’ve never heard of a ‘Lost Empire.’”

“You see?  I am told forty millennia have passed since its destruction.”

Merdemus walked up to Bill and ushered him into a corner of the room.  “It would seem that MEFISTO has swept through time, collecting these people.”

Bill shook his head.  “You’re crazy!  Do you know how difficult it is to effect time travel?!  I’ve never seen it done!  Only read about it once, and even then it was in a work of speculative fiction written by an author who put entirely too much humor into his work!”

Merdemus scowled.  “Well, whatever is going on, we must head for Foster’s Wall immediately.”  He flexed his fingertips, and a bolt of energy slammed into the rear wall, punching a small hole in it.

Bill raised an eyebrow.  “First our powers decrease, now they seem to have increased slightly.  What’s happening? The Cosmic feels different somehow.”

Merdemus exited the building with Bill and the Mages in tow.  Kalijess, who had wandered over to a lonely tree, joined the group and watched as Merdemus got up on a stump and addressed the gathering.

“I do not know what purpose MEFISTO had in bringing you to this place, nor how much skill you each possess.  I only know that their reign of terror has spanned at least two millennia, and the time of its ending is now.  Join me, and let us rid the world of the Mages in Black!”

There was a general rumble of assent, and the group collectively lifted off the ground and headed southwest to Foster’s Wall.

After the dust had settled, a Mage in black robes stepped out from behind a tree and dematerialized.                                     *                                  *                                  *

In a distant mountain, the Dark Mage turned slightly as his aide returned.

“You bring news?”

The aide lowered his head in respect.

“Lord, Merdemus has assembled a group of young Mages to attack the wall section near Millennium Village.”

“As expected.  He would take the weapons I grant him.  What of the others?”

“We felled Krag and Drek near the edge of the third land, and we have captured Maximillian and Miranda. Also, we found a traitor in our midst.”

“Who?”  The Dark Mage turned to look at his aide.  Even with his hood cloaking his face, his eyes glowed a bright red that cut through the darkness.


“Kill him.”

“Already done.”

The Dark Mage snapped his fingers, and the aide was turned into a rat.  Then, he pressed a button, and his cat emerged from a hole in the wall.  The rat was soon turned into an appetizer.

“No one kills without my permission.  Not that it matters—”  He looked over at his cat.  “For very soon they will have all played their parts, in a game of my design that has taken two millennia to create.”

Soon, Merdemus.”  Claws extended from the Mage’s fingertips, and he used them to slash a chunk of rock out of his table, which promptly fell on his cat, annoying it severely.


*                                  *                                  *

Drek was hanging on to Krag’s neck as the Dragon pushed closer and closer to Foster’s Wall, but he began to notice that he was actually becoming able to put his arms around the creature’s neck.

“Krag, are you shrinking?”

Krag snorted, and the flames shot back and singed Drek’s hair.

“It is possible that I derived much of my physical bulk along with my power from the artifact.  Thus, with someone else tapping it, I mayest be losing that bulk.”

“Why didn’t you just keep the artifact with you?”

“’Twas too high up in the mountains.  I dost not like the cold.  Besides, I believe that others wast trying to use the fragment, but they were no threat, as they didst tap it.”

“What were they trying to do with it?”

“I dost not know, but each time they were manipulating it I felt a tingling—no, a burning sensation behind my left ear.  That stopped about two weeks ago, around the time my powers began to wane.”

Drek frowned.  “And this object is a piece of the ygdrasil, right?”

Krag snorted assent.

“How much power does one of these fragments have?”

“This one had enough to level a mountain, destroy a continent, or fry an ice cream store, depending upon who was utilizing it.”

“Ahh.”  Drek shuddered slightly as he felt the Dragon physically contracting under him.

“Krag, how small are you going to get, anyway?”

“About the size of a small dog.”

“I’ll be on the ground by then, right?”

“One way or another.”

Drek did not like that answer one bit, nor was he too happy about flying east at incredible speed atop a rapidly shrinking Dragon.

*                                  *                                  *

Max raised his arms in a protective stance, realized he knew no defensive Magics, and dropped them.  He looked at the rapidly approaching Knights, then turned to Miranda.

“Got a really big rock?”

Miranda pointed to the debris of the wall Max had taken down.

Max shook his head and pointed to one of the spires on the castle.  He then spat on his left palm and rubbed his hands together.

“Uhhh . . . Max?”  Miranda tapped him on the shoulder.

“’Ang on, luv.”  Max took a deep breath, and his face contorted until it looked like someone else’s—in fact, it was.  He then slammed his fists into the walls of the spire, pumping them like pistons and going around the circumference of the structure.  Presently, it began to lean to one side.

“Both of you—MOVE!”  The mouth was Max’s, but the voice was someone else’s entirely.

The two did as they were told, and the Knights were beginning to steer their horses left and right as the spire came crashing down.

“Yes!”  Max jumped into the air, and it was his voice again.

Miranda poked him in the ribs. “What was that?  That whole other voice?”

Max frowned, and then he grinned toothily.  “Ahh, me other past lives!  Sumtimes they up an’ take over when I need their skills.  Quite ’andy, actually.  Tho it takes a lottar energy and rarely works on demand.”

Miranda frowned.  “Lemme get this straight . . . your past lives take over your present body?”

Max shook his head.  “Te be precise, other people’s past lives sometimes take me over.  It’s loike having a portable phone tuned te someone else’s frequency.”

“O . . . K . . . ”  Miranda watched as the Knights dismounted and aimed their lances at her.  She shrugged, and extended her hand.

“Miranda Wright.  Vacationer. Fleeing from death and destruction at the hands of MEFISTO.”

The leader of the Knights used his lance to prop up his visor, and said in a slight cockney accent, “Never had one of the evil ones ask to shake my hand before!”  He then walked up to Miranda and proffered his hand.

“Sir Han, Knight of the Three and a Half-Sided Table, and these are my associates—” he pointed to his strangely generic compatriots, naming each in turn, “Sir Vey, Sir Vant, Sir Pent, the brothers Sir Jerry and Sir John, and Sir Tan Lee, from the Orient—I think.”

Sir Han puffed himself up.  “We are here to kill thee.  Have a nice day.”  He raised his lance, and waved it at Miranda politely.  “A pleasure, madam.”

Max calmly walked over, grabbed the end of the lance and squeezed it into a ball of mangled metal.

The Knight lifted it up and glared at the piece of scrap.  “Bloody ’ell!  Now it’s quite useless, innit? Great!  Just great!  I finally convince the King to give me a new lance, and thou hast turned it into twisted junk!”

The Knight pulled out a .45 Magnum from beneath his breastplate.  “I suppose I will have to shoot thee now.  Sorry.”

Max grabbed, then swallowed the gun.  “Tastes ’orrible.  Lucky me stomach digests lead, steel and cyanide quick ’n easy.”

Sir Han looked at this in terror, and yelled, “Flee!  Hurry!”

The Knights got back on their horses and began to gallop away, but Max pressed down on the rear flank of Sir Han’s, and it just stopped, neighing and whinnying in protest.

Max walked round to its front and said, “Shut it.”

The horse fell silent.

“Look, Sir Han, we ain’t the ones you want!  We’ve been looking fer ye, so’s that ye cin help us foight MEFISTO!”

Sir Han laughed.  “MEFISTO!? Thou art truly fools!  There be no such thing! Merely wive’s tales!”

Max shook his head.  “No!  Look, ’ow did you get ’ere then?”

“By horse, of course.”

Max frowned, spit out the gun, and handed the thing, saliva and all, back to Sir Han.

“’Ow’d you get this gun, then?”

“Is that what it’s called?  I found it near the black wall.  Nifty thing, really.  I found out that if you squeeze this thing here, a pellet shoots out the hole there.”

He made to demonstrate, but Miranda stopped him, and threw the gun into the grass.

“Can you help us?”

Sir Han frowned.  “I think not, madam.  Imagine the King’s face when I tell him that I committed the noble, brave, and multitalented Knights of the Three and a Half-Sided Table to a search for MEFISTO!  He’d have me hanged, then flogged!”

Max growled slightly.  “Wot do we ’ave te do te prove te you that we’re tellin ye the truth, mate?”

“Produce one of these MEFISTO people then.”

“’Ow am I supposed te do that, then?”

“I dost not know—not my problem, is it, really?.”

Angrily, Max snapped one of the metal goblets off his arm and pelted it into the sky, where it hit a drunken eagle, who screeched and dropped a flask of some kind.

Max picked up the flask and eyed it.  “Ahh . . . a Mobius flask.  Good for keepin’ most blokes outta the drink—but not me!”

Utilizing skills known only outside the realm of known physics, Max took a good swig of the contents of the flask, and promptly spat it out onto the grass.

Miranda looked at the puddle of black ooze.  “What is that?  More medieval food?”

Max shook his head, and watched as the ooze shaped itself into a Mage in Black.

“It’s a Serelin, though.”

Serelin stood up uncertainly, saw Max, and panicked.  Max released Sir Han’s horse, which was now dozing off, and he clamped Serelin in one spot.

“Who put ye in that flask?”


“Cor!”  He turned to Miranda. “That means our friends are okay!”  He turned back to Serelin.

“Where is ’e now?”


Max punched out the disoriented Mage and tossed him on the back of Sir Han’s horse.

“Thot proof enough for ye?”

Sir Han looked at Serelin. “Well, it’s wearing a black robe.  Good enough.  Let me notify the others on the talkbox.”

“The wot?”

Sir Han produced a walkie-talkie and spoke into it.  “Fat Horse to Greedy Squirrel.  Fat Horse to Greedy Squirrel.  Mages in Black A-OK.  Repeat.  Mages in Black A-OK.  Over.”

A voice on the other end of the connection said, “Roger.  On the move.  Out.”

At Max’s puzzled look, he explained, “We found them near the wall too.”

Max scratched his head.  “Lemme guess.  Would that be Foster’s Wall?”

Sir Han nodded his head.  “That is what the King calls it.”

Max looked to the horizon. “We’ve gotta get te that blinkin’ wall.  I thinks if we break it down, MEFISTO’s secrets will be revealed.  Judgin’ by the way Lord Etymos ’ere was treated, it was real important to them.”

Sir Han took out his walkie-talkie.  “Fat Horse to Bloated Fox.  Two horses, fast.  Send Greedy Squirrel and others to Foster’s Wall, Millennium Village.  Over.”

“Millennium Village?”  Max scratched his head.

“A bunch of prodigal Mages are there.  Methinks they would be able to help us in our quest.  The village is situated right next to a section of the wall.  We wait for the horses, and then we ride to Foster’s Wall.”

Max grunted.  “We don’t ’ave toime to wait, lad!”  He proceeded to produce a guttural, honking sound, and within a few moments, mules could be seen approaching from almost every direction.

At Miranda’s curious look, Max said, “Sumthin’ I learned in the Outback, luv.”

He got onto one of the mules, which grunted under his massive weight.

Lord Etymos got on another, complaining about its dissimilarity to horses.

Another mule sidled up to Miranda, and she stared at it quizzically.  The mule stared back in that blank sort of fashion usually reserved for bank tellers or flight attendants.

“You don’t expect me to . . . ride one of these, do you?”

Max frowned.  “Don’t look a gift mule in the mouth!  It’s a dentist’s nightmare.”

Miranda tried to sit on the animal’s back, but she kept falling off.

Finally, Max picked her up, deposited her on the creature’s back and tied her to it.

“Now, luv—If it starts goin’ in the opposite direction, or towards the edge of a cliff or sumthin, well . . . yell at it sternly.”

“Oh, great.”  Miranda started to wonder what else could go wrong.  That was a mistake.  The mule leaped forward and began to dash to the horizon.

Max grinned, and urged his forward.  Sir Han and Lord Etymos brought up the rear, and within a few minutes, the rest of the Knights of the Three and a Half-Sided Table had joined up with them.

Only a Mage in black was on hand to see the group disappear northeast to the horizon.

*                                  *                                  *

In the ancient mountains that rose out of the edges of the tectonic plate that was basically all of California, the Dark Mage placed his crystal ball on the table, which was little more than a stump of volcanic rock after he had clawed it several dozen times, much to the consternation of his cat who was now in crutches.

He rubbed his hands on the crystal, and it glowed with an eerie light, which illuminated his whole cave. Inside the crystal was a picture—one that looked very much like the view Drek had seen when he had been on the cliff overlooking the four lands.

The Dark Mage tapped the ball slightly, and the image magnified to show Millennium Village, where Grel and his followers were cleaning up after the carnivorous lollipop’s last visit.

Another tap, and the image shrank, revealing the areas surrounding Millennium Villages.  In the air, Drek and the rapidly deflating Krag were approaching at breakneck speed from the east, and on the ground, the Gnome/Dwarf Armada, followed by Merdemus, Bill and their new followers was approaching from the southwest.

Max, Miranda and the Knights were approaching from the northeast, and a new group of punk gangsters who had survived the fall from the waters outside of Krag’s cave was heading in, zigging and zagging in random directions, from the West.

“Soon, all the players will be in their final positions.  The true game can commence.  I want Merdemus and his band of fools to be on hand for the Alpha and the Omega, my beginning, and their ending.  MUHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

The Mage chokingly stopped laughing and called for an aide.  When he was informed that no more aides were available since he had killed them all and the aide’s union was on strike this month, he scowled and decided that soon it would time for him to get personally involved in matters.  

Revelations &


At Millennium Villages, Grel was sitting in a large chair while his followers were busy mopping the puddles of sugary sweets off of the grasses and mourning the loss of Philbert the Deathlord, who had been consumed by the Lollipop during its last attack, when a muted rumbling could be felt throughout everything.

It started as the tea in the cup resting on Grel’s small table began to vibrate, then the whole cup shook until finally, it danced over the edge of the table and shattered on the floor.

Grel was startled out of complacency by the break, and went over to his friend Waldane the Observer, and made some inquiries.  Waldane shook his head.

Just then, Herog the newscarrier burst in and yelled, “There is a huge singing wave of creatures heading this way from far southwest!”

Grel turned to Waldane.  “Train your scope!”  He ran to the town telescope, and peered through it, rotating it until he saw something far in the distance, coming closer.


Waldane fiddled with some parts.  There was much breakage of glass, but soon, Grel could see hundreds of singing Gnomes and Dwarves headed straight for the village.  He rose from his seat.

“My god.  Barriers!  Barriers!”

The town alarms began to ring, the red emergency lanterns were lit, and the townspeople quickly ran to the extremities of the village, hastily erecting large wooden walls that were meant to keep out pillagers, but the Gnome/Dwarf force simply slammed into them.  The whole village shook under the impact, spilling people everywhere.

The slamming continued, getting more and more violent, until Grel yelled, “Turn the barriers in to the wave of Gnomes and Dwarves!”

The townspeople gradually shifted the barriers at an angle, so the somewhat dim Gnomes who were leading the charge kept shifting with them until finally, when the barriers broke, the Gnomes had been deflected at a ninety-degree angle, skirting the village.  This did result in the crushing of the few villagers who had held up the barriers, but Grel was altogether satisfied with the result.

Waldane looked through the glass at the still-moving Gnome/Dwarf forces.  He frowned.

Grel looked at him.  “What is it?”

Waldane’s frown turned into a scowl.  “I can confirm the location of the Armada, but I cannot confirm the existence of it.”

“You mean they hath disappeared?”


“Let me see that.”  Grel went to the scope.

Sure enough, the entire Armada was gone.  The dust still swirled at the location they had been at moments ago, but the entire mass had vanished.

Presently, a shadow crept over Grel’s head.  He squinted and looked up, only to find that a very, very small Dragon and a screaming man in a hideous-looking green and gold shirt was about to fall on his head.

A few seconds later, after regaining consciousness, Grel looked at the two who had fallen on him.  There was a Dragon the size of a wolf, and someone with a hideous fashion sense at his feet.

Grel did not have time to consider this, however, as a massive surge in the Cosmic alerted him to the approach of at least a dozen Mages.  He readied himself for an attack, then relaxed as Merdemus, Bill and their group levitated into the square.

Merdemus dashed for Grel. “Nephew!  You must stop the Gnomes and the Dwarves from attacking Foster’s Wall!  They would be destroyed!  Is that Drek?!”

Grel looked down at the man in the green and gold shirt who was still out cold, and shrugged.  “Uncle—the Gnomes and Dwarves—”

He was cut off by Waldane, who yelled, “—Are headed back this way!  Apparently they were so stupid they took a detour and are now about to overrun the village!”

Just then, a seemingly rabid mule ran into the square, carrying a yelling Miranda atop its back.  The mule froze when it saw the small Krag, who had just begun to move about and was flicking his forked tongue in and out rapidly.

Miranda’s yelling brought Drek to consciousness, and he untied her from the mule.

Max bolted in on his mule, and the Knights, Gnomes and Dwarves simultaneously rushed in from opposite sides of the square, saw each other, and began to fight.

Drek was about to say hello to everyone when he saw, to his horror, the Purple Death appear, click open their switchblades, and try to mug some of the fighting Gnomes.

Grel’s old, prodigally arrogant followers were scuffling with Merdemus’ young, arrogant Mages, and he could not stand the resultant confusion, so he led Merdemus and the others into his home, which was sheltered from the fierce mint hailstorms, Gnome singing, gangbanging and insane mules.

Inside, Grel observed Merdemus, Bill, Max, Miranda, Krag, Drek, Lord Etymos and Kalijess, who also could not stand the chaos outside.

“Quite an . . . assemblage you’ve got here, Uncle.”  Grel smiled.

His uncle grinned, and everyone at the table proceeded to introduce themselves to one another.

Merdemus waited until the fond reunion was over, and then tapped the table with his mug.  “We have all been apart for far too long.  Let us see if our journeys have not produced some information of value.

“For instance, we know MEFISTO has been around for thousands of years, though Lord Gruebright said they had been in existence for only a millennium, and during that extra time, they abducted dozens, some of whom do not even recall an abduction, to populate this place.”

Max nodded.  “Ya!  An’ we found a moped in a dungeon.”

Miranda looked up for strength. “He means a modem- for a computer and a phone.”

Drek scratched his head.  “How interesting—Krag and I found a specialized phone/electricity hookup on the outskirts of this place-we hit it when Krag got injured.”

Bill thumped his fist on the table.  “That’s the boom we heard that shook the place!  It made the sky go funny—it looked like dirt for a moment.”

Drek frowned.  “We did rupture an electric line—but only for a few seconds.”

Merdemus leaned forward.  “That was how long the effect lasted.  Our Magic stopped working for a while after.”

“Electricity to manipulate the Cosmic . . . diabolical,” Bill exhaled.

Krag snorted.  “The wall is the key.  Those tricks be merely traps to weaken thee.”

Lord Etymos gulped.  “I am the premiere linguist of my time, and I could not decipher its glyphs.”

Bill frowned.  “Don’t feel too bad.”  He stared at Merdemus.  “Not everyone reads upside-down, backwards Latin.”

Drek pulled out his notepad and presented it to the others.  “See?  This is what the Four Lands really look like:  about an acre’s worth of stuff, made to look larger by cheap cloaking effects like you would find on a TV set.”

Max pulled out the map Tal had given him.  It was almost identical to Drek’s sketch.  Both featured Foster’s Wall prominently.  “So there wasn’t a scaling error; it was a bloody acre!”

Miranda nodded.  “Now if we could figure out what was on the other side of that wall.”

Drek grinned.  “I’ve seen it.”

All eyes turned to him.

“Krag and I were high enough that I got a glimpse of—get this—twentieth-century buildings on the other side!”

Miranda closed her eyes at the revelation.  “That would explain the Knights’ futuristic toys.”

In the back, Kalijess muttered so no one could hear, “Twentieth-century?  My Lemuria has been gone so long?” She allowed one tear to trickle down her cheek.

Merdemus closed his fists.  “We must get over that wall, or bring it down somehow.  The wall told us that ‘the one worthy of admiration’ could do it, but surprisingly, I failed.”

Bill’s eyes widened.  “It also said a ‘Lord Etymos’ would find the one.  Well?”

All gazes were locked on Etymos, who shrugged and began muttering to himself.  “Worthy of admiration . . . admiration . . . mir . . . mirare . . . to see, to admire . . . mir . . . mir . . . miranda!”

All now looked at Miranda, who looked at them and shrugged.

Max scratched his chin.  “’Er full name is Miranda Jesmerelda Wright, if ye cin do anythin’ with thot.”

Etymos pounded his fist on the table.  “I’m sure of it!  Young lady, your name in Latin quite literally means ‘one who is worthy of admiration’!  You are the one the wall is referring to! It must be!

“Your last name also means ‘creator’ . . . that may mean something as well.  Perhaps Jesmerelda is a referent to Queen Jesmerelda the First, who ruled from two hundred to three fifty in ancien—”

“Creator worthy of admiration . . . ”  Miranda let the words roll across her tongue, but still felt slightly at a loss, so she tried to change the subject.  “Why would MEFISTO need a computer and a modem?”

Drek scowled.  “Miranda, that line I saw . . . that wasn’t for a computer . . . that thing’s for a whole bank of ’em.  McDrekky’s central bilkin—err, billing uses them to tie in our mainframe to all the locations nationwide.”

Merdemus rose.  “Whatever the reason, we will know once that wall is removed.  Let us destroy it.”

“That won’t be possible.”  There was a bright flash in the room, and a man appeared in the corner wearing a strange red-and-black bodysuit.  Drek had to squint, but he soon made out that the youthful features were indeed those of—

“That’s right.  Dr. Xadium, fresh from the pre-Armageddon party.  I spent about five centuries there, convincing the pantheons to let me in.  They laughed.  So I got my old chums together, and we formed our own group.  Named it after a number, letter or something.  Anyway, I was granted full powers!  Youth!  Omnipotence!  And then they said, “Xadium, if you want to help those mortals down there who are about to die, you’ll have to become one, so here I am.”

Drek’s jaw dropped.  “You gave up godlike powers to help us?”

“Yes.  I’m officially a renegade.  My powers are gone, but I do this because I saw along the probability lines before I was cast out.  I know what is at stake here.”  He glanced at Krag, who nodded, his pupils slitting.

“I’m going to help you while I can.  Let us be off.”

Merdemus nodded, and motioned at the door.  “As of this moment, MEFISTO’s time on this planet is limited.  Let us attack.”

As the group walked out of Grel’s home, they noted that the warring had grown more intense, drawing in nearly every person, animal and living ooze that MEFISTO had brought to the “Four Lands.”

Merdemus walked into one of the many fronts, where a young Mage was being beat upon by his own compatriots.  He looked at the battered young man and asked, “Why are they harming you?”

The Mage replied, “Because I am worthless.  They call me Dak, ‘he who cannot burn the lowly twig.’”

“For this they punish you?” Merdemus’ eyes grew dark.

“Ay.  I am worthless, after all.  I do not think I will even try to study more Magics, if they let me live.”

“You are not worthless.” Merdemus frowned.  “Simply expand your talents in other areas.  Read a How-to Codex.  This rabble,”  Merdemus spun neatly and a circular ripple of energy scattered the other Mages, causing them to fall in very unsavory places, “will never amount to much, but you-; you have potential, young one.”

The others heard the Mage of the First Order say this, and for some strange reason, they never taunted Dak again.  In fact, they feared him, which was how Dak preferred it.

Max cleared a path to the wall by hurling the odd warrior several feet into the air at strange angles, and finally, the small band stood facing the jet-black structure.

Lord Etymos, who was becoming increasingly paranoid about the wall, ran off into the thick of the battle, screaming in terror, haunted by flashbacks.

Bill slapped Miranda on the back.  “Do your stuff.”

Miranda stood there, and haltingly said, “I order you to . . . let us pass?”

Nothing happened.

Reaching out slowly, she touched it, and was quickly pulled into the wall.

The “interior” of Foster’s Wall was actually a strange scene, set in what seemed to be a massive castle chamber.  There was a throne at the far end of the room, and a woman sat in it, her face covered by a satin veil.  She had a scepter in one hand and raised it high.

Miranda looked at her hand, and it was almost transparent against the background.  She gasped as she saw a huge boulder crash through the ceiling of the castle.

When the dust cleared, an old man in brown robes much like Merdemus’ staggered over to the woman on the throne.

“My Queen, the barbarians have arrived.”  His voice cracked as he spoke.

“Then it is the end.”  She spoke softly, with resignation.

A strange figure in what seemed to be black leather robes glided across the room slowly.  Its entire body except for the head was concealed in the robes, and the head itself was that of a Dragon, but jet black, even to the eyes, which seemed to be totally black themselves.

The reality of the wall swirled around the figure, who continued to walk across not a throne room, but the control center of some kind of high-tech complex.

Here, Miranda saw a gaunt man dressed in some kind of military uniform staring at the figure.

A huge screen in the command center showed hordes of creatures too loathsome to even describe attacking what appeared to be New York City.  They attacked from the air, from underground, and in the streets.

The man stared at the black figure, fists clenched.  Behind the figure there were two cylinders, seeming to contain human bodies in some kind of mist, but she couldn’t see who they were.

“You got us into this, now tell me how to stop it.”  The man moved towards the creature.

The creature glided forward, and when it spoke, it was in a raspy, toneless voice.

“The end comes.  It is inevitable.  You cannot fight it now.”

“I think we can.”

“The end was forged before your birth, before humanity, before the Earth.”

“But not before you.”

“No.  After me.”

“Then what could stop this?”

The creature turned away.

“Tell me, who can protect us?!” The query came from the Queen.  The view had again shifted.

“Only that which commands the Cosmic can offer you any hope now.”

Miranda blinked as she realized the creature had been, and was still, addressing her directly.

“Now, then, and forever. Learn.”

Suddenly, she found herself, Merdemus, and the others standing in a bright, almost surrealistic green field.  The sky was the brightest blue she had ever seen, and the clouds that traversed it were like wisps of cotton.  The air was sweet, but something felt wrong.  For one thing, her nephew Alan was with the group, and another figure as well:  one who was wearing, of all things, a tie-dye suit and matching slacks.  Other things were out of sync with her reality, too.  Everyone seemed a bit older; not much, but a little.  Bill was wearing a black trench coat with mirrored shades, Merdemus was cloaked in ornately decorated black robes, and Max was—Max was praying?!

“What’s going on?” she asked Merdemus.

Merdemus raised an eyebrow. “Miranda!” he exclaimed with joy.

Miranda nodded.  “I can’t explain it—it has to do with Foster’s Wall.  I can’t remember anything up to this point.”

Merdemus turned to Bill. “Miranda is here!  It cannot be, but nevertheless, come see!”

“What?  What’s going on?”

Bill walked over to the two of them.  “Will you shut up so Max—Miranda!?  Unbelievable!”

Merdemus scowled.  “Dark forces must be at work.”

Miranda growled.  “Guys, look . . . I don’t have time for this.  I don’t know where I am or what’s going on. What is happening here, right now?  And why are you surprised to see me?”

Bill took a deep breath and began to explain. “In brief:  Max’s religion holds that our universe is really a ‘book,’ written by an ‘author,’ who would be ‘God.’  Now once already we’ve been saved by Max praying for a ‘plot hole,’ so now he’s trying to ring up the man himself because we are in serious trouble.  We’re surprised to see you because . . . ”

Bill paused for a moment, but was shoved away by the fellow in the tie-dye suit before he could say anything.  The hippie stuck out his hand.  He reeked of illegal substances. “Hey, whoa, like, I’m Chester, maan . . . Chester Gordon Bennett, Alchemist at your disposal . . . yeah.”  He exhaled as she shook his hand.  “Way more polite than last time, man . . . cool.”

“You’re not surprised to see me?”  Miranda asked.

Bill grinned.  “He’s been on a trip since eighteen sixty-nine, if you know what I mean.  His mind’s gone.”

“You mean nineteen sixty-nine, yes?”

“No, he means eighteen sixty-nine.” Chester grinned.  “Like, in seventy-nine, right? I saw that the sixties were like gonna umm . . . end, you know?  So I locked myself in a little cave with only a hole fer fast food delivery, know what I mean?  And my mind’s not gone, maan, just expanded to like the Nth power . . . I know you’re from the past.”

He looked at the others.  “She’s from the past, maan . . . comin’ at us straight from Foster’s wall, maan . . . she doesn’t know anything . . . maan.”

Drek walked over to Miranda and scowled.  “Then we can’t tell you anything.” All conversation stopped as Max screamed out, “I’ve found the doorway, mates!  I’m pulling ’im through now!”

Miranda looked into the sky, watching as the fluffy white clouds darkened to an ash black, the blueness behind them shifting into a deep crimson.  The sense that something significant was about to occur grew stronger.

A door materialized out of the air.  Max yanked it open, and everyone saw a short fellow in a shirt, vest, and pants typing away furiously at a computer.  Max reached into the doorway and grabbed him, pulling him out of his chair and onto the grass.  The sky returned to normal. “Got ’im,” Max exclaimed as the doorway swung shut.  “I caught the Author, everybody!”

“You idiot!”  The Author watched the doorway vanish.  “Now there’s no way back!  I’m trapped in my own novel!”

Drek frowned.  “You mean this really is a novel?”

“Only to those in my dimension,” the Author snapped.  “And thanks to you, the creation no longer has a consciousness to guide it safely to completion.  So much for happy endings.”

Merdemus moved closer to the Author, who was displacing quite a hefty bit of Cosmic, moreso than even Dr. Xadium.  “Have you a name, besides Author?”

“Sushil.  Sushil K. Rudranath.”

“The HOLY name!” Max screamed, flinging himself to the ground in violent prostration.

“I knew it was a mistake having him get religion,” Sushil snapped.  “Now the universe is running itself.  Ugh. Not to mention the load on the plotline—”  He glanced at Miranda.  “What’re you doing here?”

Before Miranda could reply, the ground began to shake violently.

“What are you doing?!”  Bill grabbed the Author by his lapels and lifted him into the air.

Sushil shrugged.  “Nothing. When Max dragged me into this novel, you took me out of the creative process. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”

Bill scowled and drew his katana.  “You lie.  Tell me what I want to know, or your severed head wil—” The Mage paused in shock as his katana vanished, only to be replaced by a greeting card. Presently his whole outfit changed to resemble that of a Drollmark Card salesman.

Unable to continue lifting Sushil, Bill dropped him.

“What the he—?”  He stuttered.

“Hel—” he tried to force the word out.

“What the heck?” Bill spat out, his voice a full octave higher.  “Golly, I’m sorry mister.”

Sushil’s eyes widened as he saw Bill’s transformation.  “My god, no!”

Merdemus’ eyes glowed blood-red. “Stop this, Author—or by the gods, I, Thatguymus, will—”

“Thatguymus?”  Drek looked curiously at Merdemus.  “What are you talking about?”

Thatguymus frowned.  “That is my name . . . I think.  I can’t remember what it was before.”

Drek scowled.  “Neither can I . . . what’s going on here?”

Sushil looked up at the sky in horror.  “It’s happening.  The creative process—taken   over—horrors and censorship—the EDITORS!  They’re in control!”

Miranda drew her gun, only to find it replaced by a ruler.  Her jacket and slacks were replaced by a frilly dress that reached down to her feet.  Her hair drew up into a bun, and small gold-rimmed glasses appeared on her nose.

“Young man, report to detention this instant!”

Max growled.  “She’s become a—a—I can’t say it, mates!”

“ARRGH!”  Sushil ran over to the Australian.  “Don’t you see?  I’m not in charge anymore!  They’ve taken over! We must retreat!”

“Like whoaa . . . maan?” Chester wailed as he saw his hippie clothes blink out, only to be replaced by a smart business suit, his marijuana cigars now licorice sticks.

“The Editors, man!  The Editors!  The ancient enemies of the Authors!  Since the dawn of time we have battled for control of this universe!”

“NO!”  The Man Formerly Known As Drek screamed.  “My McDrekky’s is gone, replaced by a jellybean factory!  My name has been changed to Dirt!  Dirt Farmer!  Augh!  What the goshdarn heck am I supposed to do now, by golly?”

Max rolled up a sleeve.  “This ain’t fair, mates.  Turnin’ Miranda into a teacher, Bill into a wimp—”

“Hey, don’t mock the change I’ve made today!”  Bill sat in a corner and wept.

“We gots te stop this extraordinarily profound transmogrification from further occ—”  Max halted.     “My accent!  Lo, it is no more . . . O hideous day.  My strength, a thing of the ever-distant past.  Forsooth, the ending of mine existence on this plane as a being of limited intellect and brute strength has arrived.  But am I grateful for this deliverance?  No.  No, for I weep.”  The Mage hunkered down into a corner and sobbed heavily.

Bill pulled out a card from his vest and began to read it.

“This is for when you’re feeling blue,

I’m here to tell you not to boohoo,

There’s no one as special as y—“

Max slugged him.  “Your drivelings do harm to my sensitive natures.”

Thatguymus slowly walked over to Sushil.  “Why have they made these changes?”

Sushil frowned.  “I guess you guys were too politically incorrect.  I did go a bit overboard, but this—this is unbelievable!  I mean . . . look at Al!”

Alan Wright sat in a corner praying deeply and healing the sick.  Angels attended him.

Just then, Krag moved through the scene, ominous as ever.  He looked at the distorted gathering and began to move off, nodding.

“Wait!”  Sushil stood in front of Krag, blocking his path.  “How is it you are unaffected?”

“Never ask that question.”  Krag pushed him aside with the unfurlment of his left wing.

The Author ran in front of Krag again.  “Tell me, or I’ll reveal all your secrets to these mortals.  I made you as well, remember?”

Krag snorted.  “Do not forget that here too, you are but mortal.”

The next instant, Sushil was a timid, cowering bunny.

Somewhere an Editor smiled.

*                                  *                                  *

Who cares about the fight against evil?  Evil is bad.  Today is a happy day.  Let’s visit our pals.

Thatguymus is frowning.  Why? He is just so goshdarn angry at all the high meanness that has been going on. The bad Editors have made his pals all different, and it hurts his feelings.

He walks over to Dirt, patting his pal on the back and smiling.

“We’ll be okay, pal,” he said. That was nice of him to say and do.  He feels better now.

Schoolmarm Miranda goes to visit Reverend Al, who is busy feeding a cute bunny.  Bunnies are soft.  They like to eat greens.  We like bunnies.

Philosopher Max and Greeting Card Bill are talking.  They are pals too.

Let’s listen to them.

Bill smirks.  He smirks, and speaks in verse.  “Today is a sad day, but tomorrow will be better, I say.  You are like a feather, dependable in fair or foul weather!”

Isn’t Bill clever?

Max sighs.  “The depths of your profundity pale in comparison to the amount of tripe you have just expelled.”

Max always sighs.

Here comes Chester.  He used to eat things that were bad for him, like drugs.  Now he’s a corporate Executive. Can you say Ex-ec-u-tive?

“Hi, guys!  I just made a million in the junk bonds market!  Aren’t I the modern man?”

Wall Street tycoons are our friends.

Max sighed again.  “The transient benefits of a materialistic—”

Max is boring.  We don’t like Max.  Let’s see what that cute bunny who used to be the Author is doing.

“ . . . and Lo, Cosmic death beams spewed forth from the eyes of the bunny . . . ”

Oh dear.  Oh my.

“ . . . as the raw power of the Author was released into Al, warping and twisting the boy’s slight frame until he could do nothing against the powers of the fluffy bunny . . . ”

Uh-oh.  Let’s go somewhere else.  Quick!

“ . . . But there was nowhere to run.  There could be nowhere to run.  For while, as Krag had said, the Author was a mere mortal in his own novel, he still had many of the powers of an Author, including use of the dreaded Cosmic-beams.  The bunny was omnipresent, his power surging through the Cosmic.

Suddenly, there was no Cosmic. There was no Thatguymus, or Max, or Bill, or even Miranda.  There was just the treacherous Editor and a cute, fluffy bunny with an AK47 in its mouth stuck in a cage of death . . . ”

*                                  *                                  *

“So good te have everythin’ back to normal, eh?”  Max grinned broadly.

“Yup.”  Sushil grinned.  “But there is a price to pay.  Any ideas I had about where this book was going have just gone out the door.  I’m as clueless as you are as to what’s going to happen next—and what’s worse is that I only designed the plotline for a certain number of major characters, and now that I’m here permanently . . .”

“One of us has to die?”  Miranda looked at Sushil more than a little fearfully.

“Yes.”  Sushil sighed.  “The problem is that the shock to the story arc caused by my arrival reverberates in the past as well as the future.  So it could be that we have nothing to worry about, because whoever needs to die has already done so . . . or it could be yet to come.”

Miranda frowned.  “But I’m seeing this from what I guess is the past.  Nobody’s died yet.”

“A flashforward?”  Sushil paused, thinking.  “No, I only wrote in a short one, a glimpse that ended with the black figure—”

“But that’s—”  Miranda frowned. She had just seen it walking among them, but she could not remember its name.

“Yes, yes.  With him telling you to learn—but you should have been at the computer center by now!”

“But if you didn’t write this, then who—”

“The book is rewriting itself!” Sushil began to pace.  His grey pants became green checkered trousers and his brown vest shifted into a strangely-patterned blue-and-yellow sweater with punctuation marks all over it.  A brown suit jacket materialized over his shoulders and an odd hat fell onto his head.

“In the present and in the past,” he muttered, more to himself than Miranda. “This is not good.  Somehow you’ve been pulled out of the flashforward I wrote for you and put into the general future.  You must be sent back at once, or the entire storyline may collapse irreparably.”

“Why am I here?” Miranda insisted.

“My guess is to learn, as the figure said,” Sushil snapped.  “If he’s taken over the task of influencing events even moreso than I intended, we are all in terrible danger.  Listen. The battle you face is one of many battles.  What you are about to encounter will distress you greatly.  The enemy you fight today and the one you call friend today may not be the same things tomorrow.  Watch your back, and keep your wits about you.

“Something insignificant will happen.  You will dismiss it.  It will be of vital importance by the time you get here.  Watch for it if you can.  You have already missed two such events. When we next have this conversation, you will understand.  Say nothing of this to the others.”

“I understand.”

“I know you do.”  Sushil smiled.  “Now you must go back.”


“It will take most of the power I have left as an Author, but I can force you back to the past novel.”

“But what happens to you?”

“Nothing.  I’ll be fine, albeit without my fantastic powers.  I will still, however, enjoy the power of insight into the universe and characters that I have created.  Now go, quickly!”

“But where’s the future me when all of this is going on?  What if—”  It was too late.  The impact of her face on a cold concrete floor snapped Miranda back to reality.

A flash of energy blinded her, and the rest of the group had joined her on the other side of the wall.  Through its polarized surface, they could see the fighting on the other side continuing to escalate.

Miranda could see no evidence of any of the scenes she had encountered, and stood away from the others as they pored over the wall, seemingly unaffected.  Only seconds had passed for her.

“What if there is no future me?”  She asked quietly.  No one else heard her.

“This is amazing!”  Drek looked at the area above the wall.  There was a curved domelike structure that had filaments of wire running through it that caused it to glow a sky blue in some parts and a darkish midnight blue in others.  There were shifting patterns of color that he assumed were cloud simulations, and this dome extended up hundreds of feet in the air, beyond which the blackness of a cavern took over.

Bill nodded.  “The continuous current must keep the illusion going, like a fluorescent bulb, so when you hit that line, it caused a patch of this to deactivate.”

“Sort of like those blue bulbs of yours that keep breaking, huh?”

Bill scowled.  “Those were incandescent.”

“Not very energy-efficient.”

Merdemus tapped the duo on their backs and pointed behind them.

Bill’s jaw dropped.  “Holy Zarstinozak.”

There was a small cage-like structure, in which many children were playing board games, occasionally transmuting them into snacks.  Each one had on a small black robe, and their eyes glowed red.

Merdemus scowled.  “We must free them.”

Max spat on his palms.  “Make room.”

Bill shoved him aside. “Please.  Allow someone with finesse to handle the job.”  He withdrew his sword from his robes and did six backflips, each taking him closer to the cage, until finally, he had enough momentum to match its height.  As he descended, his sword cut through the steel bars as if they were butter.  He landed neatly on his feet and sheathed his sword as the side of the cage he had attacked clattered down onto the ground.

“Mentat’s best Adamantium, coupled with my superior knowledge of the martial arts.  Haven’t really used the old sword in ages.”

Merdemus raised an eyebrow. “Most impressive.  What other secrets are you hiding from us?”

Bill ignored the remark.

Max walked up to the cage and watched the children play as if nothing had happened.  “So, why aren’t they leaving, then?”

Miranda shrugged.  “Maybe they’ve been trained not to.”

“Uh-oh.”  Drek pointed to one of the buildings in the background, where a door had opened, and a squad of what seemed to be paramilitary troopers had emerged.

“Who would’ve thought MEFISTO needed armed guards?!  Scatter!”

Max leapt forward, somehow missing the spray of bullets, and tackled the leader of the squad, turning his rifle into a heavy iron bowling ball with one fist.

Merdemus and Drek looked at one another and nodded, using an energy blast from their fingertips to knock six of the troopers into a storage silo.

Krag jumped onto one of the troopers and fried his helmet.  As the trooper scrambled to remove it, the Dragon got behind him and caused him to fall on two of his compatriots.

Bill pulled out his sword, which he was getting fonder of by the second, and halved several of the troopers’ guns with one stroke, laughing.  “You don’t always have to use Magic, you know.”

Kalijess erected a force bubble that protected Miranda and Dr. Xadium from the bullets while firing small puffs of energy at the troopers, causing them to sneeze uncontrollably.

With the troopers in disarray, Miranda got out from behind the force bubble, seized one of the machine guns, pointed it at the group, and said, “Freeze.”

Nobody listened.

She fired several dozen rounds into the air.

The troopers stopped struggling.

“Thank you.”

Within moments, the troopers were tied up and hung upside-down.  Extensive interrogation of the prisoners revealed that the military mind is indeed a wonderful device that is only large enough to hold a name, rank, serial number and catalog of all the deadly devices known to mankind.

Merdemus surveyed the vast array of buildings that were in the cave.  “Where do we begin?”

Miranda took a quick look around.  “Well, most of these seem to be nothing more than storage sheds or electrical equipment areas.  We should look for some kind of computer center.”

Drek pointed to a building with the words “Niftel Computer Center 1701-A” on it.  “You mean like that?”

Miranda looked at the sign as the others, save Kalijess, walked towards the building.  “Niftel . . . where have I heard that name before . . . ?”

She noted that Kalijess was simply standing by the corner of one of the storage sheds, so she walked up to her.

“Are you all right?”  Miranda felt extremely close to Kalijess, as if they were like sisters.  It made no sense to her, considering they had only met recently—but after her trip in the wall, something had changed.

Kalijess nodded, and when she spoke, there was a hint of anger in her voice.  “I live for nothing more now than the total destruction of those who destroyed my civilization.”


“Yes.  Outside of that, I have nothing.”

“You’ve got us.  Come on.” Miranda walked with her into the computer center.

Krag was prowling around the equipment, snarling.

“What is it?”  Drek squatted down and looked the Dragon in the eye, a move he regretted the moment the thing opened its mouth and singed his face.

“It is too cold in here!  I do not like this place!”

“It has to be this cold for the computers to work at optimum levels.”  Miranda came in with Kalijess in tow, and she whistled as she examined the machinery.  “At least twenty Cray XMP mainframes?!  And directly linked to one another, slaved to a photonic computer?!”

Merdemus blinked.  “Excuse me?”

Miranda didn’t turn to face him; she continued to gawk at the machinery.  “Basically, there is enough computer power in this room to run the continent, and it’s hooked up to a light computer, which is faster, has more storage, and is highly experimental.”

Bill made sure his sword was in place.  “How do you know so much about them?”

“It’s my job—my weekend job, actually.  Gives me some extra money and I get to work in a field I like.”

“What do you do the rest of the time?”

Miranda wasn’t paying attention.  She walked over to a display terminal and punched some keys on a keyboard that was in front of it.

Presently, a picture of a Dragon wrapped around a sword appeared on the screen, under which the words “SIKE Alpha Test 1.0” appeared.

“SIKE Alpha Test?”  Miranda turned to the others.  “MEFISTO may have a lot to do with Magic, but it looks to me like they aren’t too bad at modern-day technology either.  This stuff is semi-classified!”

Bill looked at the screen.  “I don’t get it.”

Miranda shook her head.  “I don’t have time to explain.  We need to get back to the Adams Hotel pronto!”

“Leaving so soon?”  A Mage in black appeared in the doorway, which Merdemus walled up with a snap of his finger.

The Mage blew the wall to smithereens, and wafted forward.  Moving fluidly, Kalijess pulled out her broadsword, lunged forward and impaled the Mage, who laughed and began pulling the blade out of his stomach slowly.

Kalijess yelled, “Go forward!  I will meet thee!”

Drek looked around frantically. “He’s blocking the exit!”

Max jumped on top of one of the computer terminals, which buckled and broke under his weight.  He smashed through the ceiling and hoisted Merdemus and the others up to the roof before jumping through the hole himself.

On the roof, Drek, Bill, and Merdemus focused their energy, and with Krag’s help, they began carving a passage up to the surface.  When it was done, the Mages who could levitate picked up their friends who couldn’t, and they began to move upwards.

Miranda looked down, and said, “What about Kalijess?”

Bill snorted.  “She’ll be fine.”

Dr. Xadium, who was holding onto Drek, let go, and on the way down he grabbed Bill’s sword, yelling, “Perhaps, but one more into the fray couldn’t possibly hurt!”

Xadium fell neatly back into the computer center, and as he pushed closer to the surface, Max growled, “I think I smell pizza.”

Bill muttered, “You always smell pizza.”

Max punched some dirt out of his way.  “I never get any respect.”

*                                  *                                  *

Alan Wright was a seven-year-old, and somewhat stupid.  That was why, after the forty-second time his lunch money was stolen from him on the school bus—even after he had changed his name in hopes the bullies would no longer recognize him—Al had gone to the library, looked under the occult books section, and found a text on invoking demons for purposes of revenge.

He went home, and into his basement, where he killed the light, lit some candles, and spray-painted a crude three-sided pentacle on the floor in neon yellow.  He then opened up his spellbook entitled Daemonology faer Imbecilicii Who Ne Wot Bet, and thumbed to the page that described how to invoke the darkest demon of them all:  Zanzillian, the Worldkiller.

Since most of the ingredients listed in the book were either from medieval times or involved committing acts of homicide to get them, Al decided to simply substitute what in his mind were acceptable alternatives.

Clearing his throat, Al began to read the spell that would invoke Zanzillian.

“What is Six Times Seven, Six Times Nine?  The secrets of the Cosmic are mine . . . sprinkle blood—”

Al realized that was a direction, so he sprinkled some ketchup on the triangular pentacle and continued to read.

“O Great Zanzillian, Killer of Worlds, Destroyer of Souls and Avid Consumer of Hot Chocolates, I command thee—”

He dropped some flashbombs, which simply fizzled on the floor, spewing a lot of smoke.

“<cough> command thee—<cough> ARISE!”

Nothing happened.


There was a rumbling under the pentacle that got louder and more pronounced, shaking everything in the room, until finally, when everything in the room was about to fly apart, a fist broke through the floor in the center of the pentacle.

Al leaned in and observed the fist, which withdrew into the blackness under the basement floor.

“Zanzillian?”  Al leaned right up against the hole and peered in.

The next thing he knew, he flew across the room and hit the near wall.

The floor virtually exploded, and there was dust everywhere.

When the dust settled, Al saw a huge figure, surrounded by many others.  The figure opened its mouth, and in a deep and powerful voice, said . . .

“Where’s the pizza?”

Al rushed to the tiny toaster oven his parents had put in the basement, and he produced a small pizza.  “Here is my sacrificial offering, O Great Zanzillian!”

Max gratefully accepted the offering.  Between chews, he mumbled, “Oym narft Zambzhillium.”

Al shook his head.  “You bear the mark of Zanzillian!”  He pointed to Max’s belt.

Max looked at his belt.  “That’s my Zanzillian keyring.  Got it as a souvenir last time I met him.”

“O, mighty Zanzillian!  I am your lowly slave, to command as you wish!”

“I’m not Zanzilli—”  Max paused.  “Yeah!  Zanzillian . . . I am he!  Why not?  I deserve an adoring follower.”

Bill, who had just popped through the hole, nudged him.  “But what of the real Zanzillian?”

Max shrugged.  “Awww . . . ’e’s old and senile nowadays . . . can’t even spell ’is name roight.  I’m a . . . a . . . worthy successor to the name.”


Merdemus and Miranda came through next, and Miranda almost had a coronary when she saw Al with the spellbook.

“Alan?  Is that you?”  With shock, she realized how Al could have gotten in the future she had seen.  “Aunt Miranda?  Uh-oh.”  Al tried to get away, but Miranda grabbed him by the ear. “What do you think you’re doing?  Trying to summon up—”

She looked helplessly at the others.  Max cheerfully stood forward.


“Zanzillian!”  She glared at Al, and then turned to Max quizzically.  “Who’s Zanzillian?”

Merdemus stepped in.  “No one of consequence.  Merely a destroyer of worlds and consumer of souls.”

“Oh.”  She released Al, and reality struck.  “What?!” Al wrested himself away from his aunt and ran to Max.  “O Great Zanzillian, I command you to smite my evil aunt!”

Max grinned.  “Kids.  Look, Al, is it?  I’m not really Zanzillian—”

“Zanzillian!  Zanzillian! Please, protect me!”

Max looked up.  “I don’t roightly believe it—someone crazier than me!”

Miranda scowled and sat Alan in a chair.  “Where’s your mom?”

“She left.  Something about her job.”

“She left you alone?”

“No.  But dad went crazy, said he wanted to use his own last name, and ran off screaming yesterday.  He left me his toupee.”

The child proffered a matted mass of synthetic hair.

“That’s it.  You’re coming with me.”  Miranda borrowed some of Drek’s notepad and wrote, “Hi sis, borrowing Alan, call you later, Miranda.”  She almost felt history turning itself around her.  What was that Sushil had said, “the book rewriting itself”?  Hell with it, she thought.  What would come, would come.

“Won’t your sister mind?”  Bill was nervously looking for a new sword.

“Nope.  Come on, we have to go to the local FBI field office.”


“MEFISTO’s not only stolen from Camelot, Atlantis, and Lemuria . . . they’ve stolen from Uncle Sam.”

“Zanzillian!  Aren’t you gonna smite my aunt?!”  Al whined.

Max growled.  “Zanzillian says . . . shut up.”

“Please, Zanzillian?!  Please, oh pleaseohplease!?”

Max looked to Bill, who looked to Merdemus, who shrugged and pushed open the door.  Krag bolted to it, and Al pulled away from Miranda.

“Is it a Dragon!?  A real, live fire-breathing Dragon?”

Krag snorted.  “Yes.”

“Then how come you’re so tiny?”

Krag remembered the age of the child and so spared a lengthy explanation.  “Malnutrition.”  He walked out the door and began pawing around the grass.

“Zanzillian?”  He looked brightly at Max, who almost killed himself at that moment.  “Can I keep him? Huhuhuhuh?”

Drek sprung to the rescue. “He’s mine.”

“Hey?  Is that a McDrekky’s shirt?  Do you work there?  Can I have some free samples, mister?”

Drek looked up.  “Yo, Max?  Got another Gutbuster?”

Max looked in his pockets.  “Got one tiny bit ’ere, mate.”


“It’s moine!”  Max held onto it defensively.

“It’ll shut the kid up.”

Max quickly fed it to Al, who fell unconscious instantly.  Suddenly, there was a blast, and all heads turned to the hole in the center of the floor as Dr. Xadium flew through it, singed in many places.

Bill looked at him quizzically, and Xadium shook his head.  “Kalijess . . . did not make it.  The Mage has captured her.”  He proffered his sword to Bill.  “Your sword.”

Bill sheathed it and muttered something incomprehensible.  Clearly irate, he looked at the others and suddenly realized that with the exception of Merdemus, he was the only one wearing medieval robes.  Snapping his fingers, Bill pulled a black trench coat and mirrored sunglasses from the Ether and put them on, tossing his robes in the hole.

“It’s time to forget the past. Now I owe MEFISTO.  I wanted to kill Kalijess myself.”

Merdemus scowled.  “But why?”

“An ancient doctrinal conflict stemming from the maltreatment of a cheese roll.”

Merdemus spat and walked out the door, muttering, “If you ever wish to tell me the truth, let me know.”

Max looked at Drek.  “Wot’s that all about, then?”

Drek shook his head and they walked out, followed by Miranda and Dr. Xadium, who was carrying Al.

*                                  *                                  *

Hours later, at the Adams Hotel, floor forty-two, Al had arisen and was bawling at Max, begging him for complete control of the universe.

Krag was prowling around the office, chasing some strange white mice back and forth across the room, Drek was tying up the phone trying to find out why his store in Florida had gone native and converted itself into a health food outlet, and Miranda was trying to keep Merdemus from strangling Bill.

“Look, Merdemus!  He doesn’t want to tell you, there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Merdemus tried to shove Miranda out of the way as he went for Bill’s throat.  “I want to know how you burn twigs!”

Bill lit a third twig on the floor with a twitch of the finger and grinned.  “Nyah nyah na nyah nah.  Merde can’t burn a twi-ig!”

Miranda eventually got out of the way and let Merdemus throttle Bill, and she walked over to Drek, tapping him on the shoulder.

“I need the phone.”

“Hold on!”  Drek turned away from her.  “Dammit!  I don’t care if squid spit is the newest thing on the market!  McDrekky’s food makes people sick, not healthy!”

Miranda pulled the phone away from him.  “Drek, look.  If half your chain makes food that gets people sick, then if you had the other half sell stuff to make them better—”

Drek’s eyes widened.  “Yeah! They’re dumb enough to get better and go right back to eating my stuff!  A double killing!  I love it!”  He took the phone from Miranda.  “Look, forget what I said, go ahead and sell the squid spit.”  He hung up the phone.

Miranda picked it up and dialed.  “Hello?  Yes.  Wright, Miranda J., CID-LA-793-1871WMJ.  What do you know about SIKE?”

A few minutes later, Miranda put the phone down, and sat.  “Everybody, we have a big problem.  I was right about MEFISTO and SIKE.”

Merdemus, who was being headlocked by Bill, wheezed, “What do you mean?”

Miranda frowned.  “First, you should know how I know this.  I work as a ‘systems analyst’ for CID in Los Angeles.  That’s just a buzzword for ‘computer hacker.’”

“CID!?  No wonder you were so good with the machine!”  Drek bolted to the door.  “Look, I knew nothing about the missing funds from the Treasury that got placed in my personal computer account!”

Miranda raised an eyebrow. “Look, I’m not Secret Service, just Criminal Investigations Division—and only on the weekends!”

Drek frowned.  “You’re still government.”

Miranda shook her head in frustration.  “Nevermind.  Anyhow, my friends at the NSA tell me that SIKE 1.0 Alpha was indeed stolen from U.S. government labs in Palo Alto last month.”

Bill let go of the now blue-faced Merdemus.  “Before you go any further, Miranda, what exactly is SIKE 1.0 Alpha?”

“It stands for Super Intelligence Kreation Experiment version 1.0 Alpha.  The ultimate in Chained Expert Systems.”


Miranda reached over to Merdemus’ desk and took a piece of paper.

She then began to draw a picture on it- a rectangle with some lines sticking out of it that attached to hollow circles.

“Okay, these circles represent computers.  Each is an expert at one subject, like physics.  Outside of that subject, they know nothing—but inside it, they are geniuses.  They know everything there is to know about their particular subject.”


“So, for years, computer programmers have tried to create artificial intelligence, but they could never do it because the computer simply did not have enough information to fully become intelligent in the way humans are.”  She pointed to the rectangle on the paper.

“This is where SIKE came into the picture.  It took all the small expert systems and tried to integrate them into one huge unit.”

Bill gave Merdemus some water, and he was strong enough to bat it aside.  Merdemus got up and looked at Miranda’s sketch.  “So, SIKE knows everything?”

“That’s just it.”  Miranda erased some of the circles.  “SIKE doesn’t know everything yet.  The government researchers were pumping information into it at the rate of ten thousand facts a day, but it still had only sixty percent of the knowledge it would need to become truly sentient.”

Max, who was trying to stuff Al in a bucket, asked, “So why would MEFISTO steal an incomplete system?”

“I don’t know—and take my nephew out of that bucket.  I noticed that MEFISTO’s computer center was manufactured by Niftel.  They work for the Department of Defense.”

Drek shook his head.  “Hang on a minute.  MEFISTO scours time to create a medieval land under a Bumblyworld in which they give the kids a dictatorship, and then they steal an artificial intelligence setup from the government.  What’s the connection?”

Merdemus scowled.  “Perhaps we should go to Bumblyworld and examine it for any indications as to MEFISTO’s intentions.”

“I dunno, Merde.  When I left it, the Purple Death and the parents were ripping it apart at the seams.”

“Nevertheless, we must check. Max, you stay here with Alan.”

Al grinned.  “Zanzillian!  Will you teach me how to crush planets?”

Max growled.  “I don’t think so, mate.”

Dr. Xadium stepped in.  “I will watch the boy.”

Al clung to Max’s left leg. “No!  I wanna stay with Zanzillian!”

Drek jumped in.  “If you stay here, Xadium’ll teach you how to play Kick the Dragon and Run.”

“Cool!”  Al moved closer to Krag, who began to retreat, reptilian eyes slitting in horror.

“This is not funny, Drek.”

Al kicked Krag, and the Dragon slammed into a table.  Al then ran in the opposite direction, tugged Max’s leg and yelled, “See, Mighty Zanzillian?  I kicked the Dragon!”

Drek raised an eyebrow.  “He didn’t even need to be taught!”

Max shoved Al back to Krag. “Zanzillian says play with Krag until we get back.”

Dr. Xadium sat back and prepared to watch the festivities.

Even as the group left the lobby of the Adams hotel, they could hear Krag howling in protest.

Miranda looked across the avenue and noted the swarm of taxicabs that were doing their best to ignore her.  She frowned and remembered the trouble she had had even getting to the hotel.

Bill didn’t seem to mind.  His black trench coat flapping in the wind, he silently moved out into the center of the street, withdrew his sword and slammed it into the asphalt.  A taxicab ground to a halt right in front of him, which the others got in.

“Never let it be said that the mighty Mage Biclaxaltonian lacked style.”  The style vanished, however, when Bill had tremendous difficulty pulling the sword back out of the ground.

The taxi driver honked his horn, and Drek leaned out the window yelling, “The meter’s running!”

Eventually, Bill got the sword out and sheathed it, grumpily squeezing into the cab.  “You’ve got to diet, Max.”

Max grinned.  “Yeah.  Roight. Not in this century, mate.”

The taxi driver turned back to the group.  “Where to, people?”

Merdemus leaned forward. “Bumblyworld.”

“Okay, Father.”

“I am not a priest!”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Max pulled his finger from his nose.  “Look!  My mucus glows in the dark now!”

The horrified cab driver floored the accelerator, and the aging yellow cab was soon a blur in the streets of San Francisco.

*                                  *                                  *

At Bumblyworld, the parents, save a small group, had found their children and had left.  Serelin, who had come up to the park to wait for the inevitable return of Merdemus, turned as he sensed another Mage behind him.

“Who are you?”  Serelin could not place the Magess, who was cloaked in black like himself.


“Finally, MEFISTO has sent me an Apprentice.”

Kalijess laughed.  “Fool.  You are the Apprentice here—and you have failed your masters.  I am now the chosen one.  You are . . . expendable.”

Serelin frowned.  “Impossible! I am powerful!  I have prestige!  I have a Mustang!”

Kalijess closed her fists, and they glowed a bright orange.  “When are you going to get it, Serelin?  Nobody cares about your car, your supposed prestige.  You are arrogant, arrogant because we gave you the power to back up your arrogance.  How did you use it? To fail us.  I was not arrogant like you . . . I was misguided.  MEFISTO has allowed me to find a place with them, and now I will repay them . . . by destroying you.”

“Foolish girl.”  Serelin tried to mass a bolt of plasma, but suddenly he realized he was just a normal Mage again.

“What did you say?”  Kalijess smiled brightly.                                     *                                  *                                  *

As Merdemus and the others arrived in the taxi, Bumblyworld went up in a fireball.

The taxi driver bolted out of the cab, yelled, “You can keep the taxi!” and ran screaming into the street.

Drek stomped on the ground.  “So much for any clues!”

Merdemus tapped him on the shoulder.  “Not so.  The fireball was just a release of energy.  It does not appear to have damaged the park itself.”

Bill adjusted his sunglasses. “Then what did it damage?”

“I think I know.”  Max pointed to a smoking Serelin, who was staggering out of the park.

“What happened?”  Merdemus tried to get Serelin speaking, but the Mage dropped dead at his feet.

Bill shrugged.  “He’ll be back in about half an hour.”

Drek shook his head. “Forty-five minutes.”

“Half an hour!”

“Forty-five minutes!”

Merdemus sighed as the two placed a wager on it.  “Let’s go inside.  Whoever harmed him must still be there.”

“No go.”  Drek pointed to a man sitting in a booth beside the main gates to Bumblyworld.

“Pass, please,” he intoned.

“I don’t have a pass,” Drek said.

“Pass, please.”

“This is an emergency.”

“Pass, please.”

“Can you sell us a pass?”

“Pass, please.”

Drek looked helplessly at the others.  Miranda looked at the gate for a moment and realized that she still had that stupid crumpled-up Bumblyworld complimentary pass that she had gotten from the idiot clerk at the hotel.  She handed it to Drek, who quickly shoved it into the tiny slot in the booth marked “Passes.”

“Thank you,” intoned the man in the booth.  “Have a nice day.”

Trepidatiously, the group walked into Bumblyworld.

Drek still had unpleasant flashbacks of the cannibal hamsters, but he was more concerned about the park itself.  The parents had ripped it to shreds looking for the money that wasn’t there.

Miranda heard some people talking, so she went over to one of the areas that had some partially standing padded cells.  She found about twenty distraught parents, who were still searching for their children.  She called the others over.  Drek recognized one set of parents.  “The Sneeps?”

Harold Sneep walked over to him.  “Mr. Barney, thank goodness you’re here—the other parents found their kids and left, after wrecking the place—but Susan and I can’t find our son anywhere.”

Similar stories were related by the other parents as well.  Merdemus pulled Miranda aside, and spoke in hushed tones.

“Those must be the children that MEFISTO have trained in the ways of Magic.”

“The ones we saw in the cage?”

“Yes.  But what distinguishes them from the ones that were apparently allowed back?”

Miranda shook her head slightly.

Bill was nosing around the remains of the park when he sensed another Mage approaching him from behind- a very powerful Mage.  He turned, and saw Kalijess.

“You will die shortly, Biclaxaltonian.”

Bill pulled out his sword, and Kalijess ripped it from his hand with a flick of the wrist.

He nodded at her display of force. “So, you sold out to MEFISTO, eh?  After they destroyed your home, your people?  What could they have offered you that was so important?”

Kalijess moved her hand up, and Bill was thrown backwards violently.

“They showed me that I was misguided, that my potential was being wasted in mourning for an inferior society.”

Bill grabbed his sword, got up and spun it neatly.  “And MEFISTO holds the key to a perfect world, I gather?”

“Of course.”

“It would not be a world I would enjoy living in.”  Merdemus came up behind Kalijess, and sparks of energy flowed between his palms.

Kalijess noted the display and laughed darkly.  “Fool.  You have no idea what has begun here.  Each thing you learn only adds to your ignorance of our plan.”

Max snickered.  “Some would say ignorance is bliss.”

“In that case, you must be in heaven.”  Kalijess disappeared.

Drek looked around, irritatedly.  “They’re good at insults, aren’t they?”

Merdemus scowled.  “Apparently.”

Miranda ran up to the group and pointed at the parents.  “I know why their children are so special.  They’re idiot savants, brought to Bumblyworld in the hopes they might get a taste of a normal child’s life.”

“Hmmm . . . Moronic Servants, eh?”  Max looked around and nodded.  “Makes sense, makes sense.”

Drek hit him on the head.  “No, you stupid fool!  Idiot savants, geniuses at math and science, but only in . . . ”  He paused, a familiar thought going through his head.  He turned to Miranda.

Miranda virtually read his thoughts.  “Yes . . . idiot savants are just like expert systems—in fact, they are expert systems . . . superior to normal people in one area, and one area only.”

“Something SIKE needs.” Merdemus closed his eyes.  “I do not think MEFISTO is really interested in keeping those children alive for their potential as Mages.”

Bill walked over to a wall, took a tin of spray paint and painted some runic symbols on it.

Max looked at them and frowned. “This is ’ardly the toime or place for that kinda graffiti, mate.”

Merdemus read the symbols and whistled.  “It looks like a synthesis of the Fifth and Third Disciplines.”

Bill nodded.  “It’s the Eighth Discipline.  I took this from Lord Gruebright’s cane, if you recall.”

“MEFISTO said that it would give them superiority over the world.”

Drek scratched his chin.  “Fifth Discipline gives you matter transmutation, and the Third Discipline lets you read minds . . . but in this expression, the Third Discipline is repeated, and the repetition is in reverse . . . it makes no sense.”

Miranda shook her head.  “Look at it symbolically, like if you were going to program a computer.  Three, then five, then the reverse of three.  In, transmute, out . . . simple, really.”

Merdemus’ eyes widened. “Simple.  Also deadly.  To reverse the Third Discipline . . . to implant one’s mind into another’s . . . has never been done successfully.”

“What happened?”

Merdemus shuddered slightly. “Death to both parties—the one sending and the one receiving.”

Bill obliterated the marks had made on the wall.  “But that doesn’t explain the inclusion of the Fifth Discipline.”

“Hey, maan . . . ”

“Aww, geez!”  Drek spun around to see Hegon Killem and what was left of the Purple Death surrounding the parents, who were cowering in fear.  “I see you’ve ditched the switchblades.” He pointed at the Uzis the gangsters were now pointing everywhere.

Merdemus looked closely at the street punks.  “Did I not see you earlier—about two weeks ago?”

Hegon blinked, then grinned.  He turned to his followers.  “Ay!  It’s dat guy from da alleyway!  Let’s get ’im!”

Bill swung his sword around a few times and prepared to do battle.  To his dismay, one of the Purple Death whipped out a pair of nunchukus and began moving towards him.

Max surveyed the group of punks and picked the tallest, most muscular member of the group to attack.

Drek and Miranda moved behind a freestanding wall as the bullets began to fly.

“Use your gun!”  Drek shoved Miranda slightly.

“I don’t have one!”  Miranda peeked around the corner of the wall and yanked her head back as a knife flew past.

“But you’re government!”  Drek began to palpitate.

“I left it in my room back at the hotel!  I’m on vacation!  Off-duty!  Get it!?”  She paused.  “Wait . . . you’re a Mage.  What are you afraid of?”

Drek scratched his head, muttered “Oh yeah,” and cut loose with a beam of energy that turned one of the gangster’s leather jackets into a puddle of sizzling plastic—while it was still on him.

Merdemus faced off five of the gangsters, four of whom were holding the ammunition reel for the fifth, who was aiming his gatling gun at the Mage.

“You urchins will suffer beyond your wildest imaginings.”  He grinned and stretched his arms out, just as the gangster with the gatling gun opened fire and filled him with lead.

Merdemus flew backwards and slammed into an overturned dunk tank, which shattered under the force of the impact.

Miranda ducked under the hail of bullets and ran over to him, glass crunching under her shoes.  She touched his bloodstained robes.

“Oh no . . . ”  She took his pulse and got nothing.

“Yes, messy, isn’t it?”  Merdemus sprang up onto his feet, absently looked at the blood, and frowned.

“You urchins ruined my robes! Now . . . face my power!

Bill, Max and Drek simultaneously turned away from their little battles, as they heard Merdemus’ voice cut through the gunfire like thunder.

“Feel the might of a combined Seven Discipline attack as wielded by a Mage of the First Order!

Miranda, who was now behind Merdemus, could see the power beginning to coalesce around his fists.

Bill used his sword to shred another gangster’s gun to bits, and he yelled just loud enough for Merdemus to hear, “Just be glad they’re not twigs.”

Merdemus gritted his teeth, and the energy around his fists glared a magnitude brighter.  He raised his arms up and narrowed his eyes.

Hegon and his gang gathered up directly in front of Merdemus and raised their switchblades, Uzis, Gatling guns, bazookas and anti-tank rockets to a ready position.

Drek flicked his thumb, and Miranda could swear she heard corny western confrontation music in the background.

Hegon himself stepped back from the group, edged towards the exit, and yelled, “Kill chim!  Kill chim now, maan!”

Merdemus stepped back, and Miranda moved out of the way.  The gangsters chuckled and Hegon stopped his exit, moving in front of his minions and waving his arms.  “Look! He’s backin’ up maan!  He’s scared!  Finich ’im!”

As the gangsters threw their knives and squeezed their triggers, Merdemus threw his arms forward, and a massive beam of energy blasted from his palms, incinerating the bullets, melting the knives (which fell onto the ground as droplets of molten metal), and giving all the gangsters a rather intense tan.  Only the scattered twigs along the line of fire were unaffected.

As the Purple Death turned and fled hysterically, Hegon picked up an Uzi and aimed it squarely at Merdemus, who was obviously spent from the attack.

“Chu gonna die dis time, maan. Ain’t nuthin’ chu can do about it.”

There was a single shot, and Hegon dropped the Uzi, shaking his hand as if it was on fire. Merdemus turned and saw Miranda, who was holding a smoking .45.

Drek nodded.  “I knew you had a gun!”

Miranda shook her head.  “You’d be amazed what those gangsters drop on the floor.  It has a lasersight!  My government gun doesn’t have a lasersight!”

Merdemus walked up to Hegon, tapped him on the shoulder, said, “Why don’t you take this, ‘maan,’” and decked him.  He turned to Miranda.  “Good shot, by the way.”

Miranda nodded, and put the gun in her purse.  “How did you survive getting shot so many times, anyway?”

“Seventh Discipline.  Good for falling off of mountains, getting shot, or withstanding the fetid breath of a moldy Gnome.  You know about it, surely?  When we first met.”

“But I don’t get it fully.  Does it make you immortal?”

“Virtually.  There has to be enough of you left to keep invoking the Seventh Discipline.  If you get distracted, or just damaged to the point where you can no longer concentrate well enough to maintain the spell, with the next lethal hit, it’s over.”

“But you had no pulse.”

“And he won’t for much longer.” Kalijess appeared out of nowhere and levitated down to the ground.  “Merdemus, you may have defeated our little pawns, but it is too late, Mage.  The endgame is beginning again, and this time, you will be destroyed.”

“To what game are you referring?”  Merdemus approached her.

“No closer, old man.  The game is your life, of course.  And the lives of these insignificants you choose to associate with.  For you, it is the beginning.  For MEFISTO, it is the end—the product of thousands of years of preparation.  It is the fulfillment of a blood oath spanning millennia.”

Merdemus held his ground.  “I do not understand.”

“I will tell you nothing more . . . but I will show you something.”

Kalijess swung her left arm up in a semicircular motion, subtly squeezing a small control box in her hand, and all the Mages doubled over in pain and dropped to their knees.

Miranda took out her gun and pointed it squarely at Kalijess.

“What are you doing to them?! Stop it now!

Kalijess smirked.  “You are incapable of firing on me.  You are weak.”

“Try me.”  Miranda disengaged the safety on the gun.

Kalijess clenched her left fist, and the Mages fell to the ground, wheezing.  Merdemus tried to raise an arm in resistance, but it fell to the ground.  Drek had already passed out.

“One last chance.”  Miranda moved the gun until the lasersight was square between Kalijess’ eyes.

“Foolish mortal.  I control the Cosmic, with this, the prototype of a new weapon that uses electricity to interfere with the Cosmic!”  Kalijess laughed demonically.

Miranda growled, and moved the gun as she squeezed the trigger, so that the small box in Kalijess’ hand was shattered.  “So much for that advantage.”

Shaking her hand in pain, Kalijess disappeared.  Merdemus and the others began to get up slowly.

Max shook his head in much the same manner as does a wet cat.

“This is bad, mates.”

Bill hit him on the head. “Well, there’s a bright observation!”

Drek just stared blankly ahead. “It’s over.”

Merdemus turned to Miranda.  “We all draw our powers from the Cosmic.  If MEFISTO has somehow gained control of it, then we are helpless.”

Miranda smiled.  “Cheer up.  She said that was the prototype, which means if we can stop MEFISTO now, they won’t have time to use it against you again.”

“True.  Our main priorities are to find out what MEFISTO wants with SIKE, determine how the Eighth Discipline fits in with their plans, and stop any potential for their control of the Cosmic.”

Drek got up, still weak.  “Not to mention freeing the people MEFISTO kidnapped and placed into the ‘Four Lands.’”

Miranda put her gun away.  “But how are we going to figure all this out?”

Max pointed to Bumblyworld’s entrance.  “Look!  The answer man.”

Serelin staggered into the shattered amusement park.

Bill pulled out his pocketwatch, flipped it open and growled, snapping it shut.

Drek nudged Miranda.  “I was right.  Forty-five minutes.”

After Bill slapped a fiver in Drek’s outstretched hand, Max walked over to Serelin and lifted him two feet off the ground with his right arm.  “Spill it.”

Serelin vomited up his lunch. Max sighed.

“Tell us wot MEFISTO’s plans are.”


“In case you ’aven’t noticed, mate, yer an endangered species roight now.  If MEFISTO doesn’t finish you . . . I will.”  Max lifted him another half foot just to emphasize the point.

“It doesn’t matter.  Without my wonderful car, nothing matters.”

Max looked at Merdemus, who shrugged.  He then tossed Serelin to the last pack of cannibalistic hamsters that were still roaming in the parks.

Miranda did her best to ignore the screams of abject terror and spoke with the parents that were still sitting on the ground where the Purple Death had left them.  She then went over to Merdemus.

“I’ve asked some questions, and the parents tell me that their children were savants in areas that were extremely diverse, which reinforces the idea that MEFISTO wants to use them to augment SIKE’s knowledge base.”

“At what cost?  The death of those children?”  Merdemus’ eyes flashed red.  “This must not be allowed to occur.”

Bill reached into his coat pocket and found some gloves, which he put on.  He then withdrew his sword and let the light glint off the blade.  “We’ll stop it.  One way or another.”

Drek spat.  “What is this? Cliché land?  Let’s get serious here.  Look at us.  A Mage who commands vast energies, yet cannot burn a simple twig, another who has a vast ego, a strange affinity for swords that he recently re-acquired, another who is so insane that he has other people’s past lives and routinely consumes his own snot, a CID agent who only works for the government during the weekends, a Dragon the size of a small dog and an outcast god made mortal, not to mention me, the allegedly luckiest Mage alive who runs a fast food joint and scams on the si—”

Drek stopped, realizing he had said a bit too much.

Max scowled.  “Don’t ferget Al, the annoying demon-kid from hell.”

Miranda shot him a nasty look. “Hey!  That’s my nephew, Mr. Zanzillian!”

Merdemus walked towards the exit.  “We are sufficient.  We will have to be.”

Outside the gates, Merdemus turned some Purple Death members who were trying to disassemble the rusting yellow taxicab into snails.

Max walked up behind him, bent down, and picked one up.  “Mmm . . . escargot.”

Miranda saw this and shuddered. “Are you going to eat that?”

Max turned.  “You want some, luv?”

“No thanks.  I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Not in my cab you’re not.”  Drek got behind the driver’s wheel and tried to start it up.  The motor spluttered and died.

Max looked at this and grinned. “Get in, everyone.  I’ll get this blinkin’ thing workin’.”

Everyone else got into the car, and within moments, the cab was speeding back to the Adams Hotel.

Drek saw a semi about to block his path, so he leaned out the window and looked backwards.  “Max!  Brakes!”

Max dug his feet into the ground, and the cab lurched to a halt.                                     *                                  *                                  *

As the group got out of the cab, Max took off his shoes and began to rub his swollen feet.

Miranda tried to get into the lobby, but some of San Francisco’s Political Incorrectness Suppression Squad were leading a hysterical Mr. Q out of the building.

Merdemus watched curiously as Mr. Q yelled, “Computers!  Mine!  They touch!  Bad!  Evil floor thirty-seven! Black-robed deadlies!  Hello!  Nice day not having am I!”

Miranda pulled one of the cops over to the side.  “What’s going on?”

Sergeant Webb laughed, and tapped the straitjacketed Mr. Q.  “This joker says there’s a secret floor in the hotel and some guys in black took it over, said they came to use the computers hidden there.  We checked the hotel out and we couldn’t find any references to a secret floor.”

Bill walked up to him.  “Err . . . could that be because it was secret?  By the way, where’s your partner . . . the guy with the vocabulary from hell?”

Webb shrugged.  “Last I heard, he was teaming up with some crackpot author to write some story about a bunch of Wizards kicking—”

Mr. Q started to babble again, so Sergeant Webb gagged him and left.  Bill watched Mr. Q being dragged away, and he whistled slowly.  “A secret floor here, hmm?  I wonder how we can get to it.”

Miranda smiled.  “In CID training we learned how, but you have to use the elevator.”

“How?”                                     *                                  *                                  *

Bill glared at his watch, then at the elevator’s floor-counter.

“Two seconds.”  He paused, and kept looking at his watch.  “Two seconds.  This is getting—”

Miranda frowned at Bill.

“Sorry.  Two seconds.  Is this really—two seconds.”

Merdemus tapped Miranda on the shoulder.  “Why are you torturing him in this manner?”

Miranda shook her head.  “Trust me, Merdemus.  It has to do with the time it takes the elevator to go from floor to floor.  Normally it should be uniform, as floors are about the same size, but when you skip one—”

She paused as Bill’s voice raised excitedly.

“Three sec—four seconds.”  Bill closed his pocketwatch and pushed the stop button on the elevator.  He grinned.  “Holy Zarstinozak, four seconds!  Does that mean—”

Miranda nodded and looked at the level panel.  “Secret floor between thirty-six and thirty-eight.”

Bill frowned.  “Heh . . . no thirty-seven- so we could have just simply looked for the missing number on the panel?”  He growled.

Miranda smirked as Merdemus pushed the “Door Open” button and said, “Let us see what is in this secret floor.”

The doors to the elevator slid open—to reveal a Mage in black, palms pulsing an electric red.  The Mage’s lips parted slightly, and he said, “Too bad, Merdemus.  You were closer than you ever were before . . . yet . . . you’re never going to find out how close that was.”

There was a snap, and the elevator cab began to plummet to the bottom of the shaft, thirty-seven floors down.  


As the elevator began its freefall, Merdemus, Drek and Bill closed their eyes, and began to hum something that sounded suspiciously like the theme song to Hawaii Five-O.

Presently, the elevator touched down softly, with nothing more than a slight thud.  The three Mages collapsed, tired from the effort of teleporting the elevator.

Drek, however, sprang to life as the doors of the elevator opened, and he saw the interior of his McDrekky’s—covered in fizzy pink frosting.

“What the hell is this?!”  Drek stormed into the middle of his restaurant, where one of his waiters, obviously drunk (either that or that lampshade was surgically attached), came up to him and offered him a broom.

“Hey, dude!  The boss ain’t here . . . we’re havin’ a party, let that slavedriver clean up after us for a change.”


“Yeah, dude . . . he’s totally bogus, he doesn’t pay enough, and I heard rumors that . . . heheh . . . that he was a giant chicken . . . of course, I started ’em.”  The lad proffered a picture that had Drek’s body on it and a chicken’s head clumsily pasted over his own.

“I see.”  Drek took the paper and put it in his pocket.  “And what were you going to do after this party, dude?” He spat the last word out.

“Like, dude, we were gonna wreck the place, beat ourselves up and, like, blame it on robbers, y’know, so that we could empty the cash register and he’d think it was robbers, y’know.”

“You think he’s really stupid enough to fall for it?”

“Duh, man . . . he’s totally lost.  Why, last week, I, like told him my great uncle died and, I would like need to borrow his car, but, like . . . I took and sold his radio and then told him it was stolen.  Cool, huh?”

Drek scratched his chin. “Yeah.  Cool.  Are you talkin’ about the ’65 Stingray?”

“Yeah, man!  Wait . . . how’d you know?”

Drek pulled his car keys out of his pocket and dangled them in front of the rapidly sobering employee.

All the other partying workers suddenly felt the need to find adequate and immediate shelter.

Drek pointed to his picture on the store wall, on which someone had painted a cubist mustache.  He let the young man make the mental connection, and then he grinned.

“Hi.  I’m Fred Barney.  Your boss.  Y’know, the lost guy?”

Drek had never seen someone scream quite so loudly before.  He watched as the young man hit his head against the wall several times yelling, “No, no, no, why me, man?” tear out half of his hair, and eventually sink down on all fours, slobbering on the Mage’s shoes.

“Hey!  Those are canvas—stop it!”

“Hey dude, I’m like, sorry man. I like, want you to chill, man!  Please don’t send me up to Alaska franchise! Those Eskimos don’t want any more iceboxes . . . they say they can warm the food on their own.”

Drek laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder, and indicated that he should stand up.  “Nonsense, my boy . . . I want to congratulate you on your initiative.”

The kid stood up, beaming, and turned to his still cowering co-workers.  “Hear that?  He wants to congratulate me on my initiative.”

Drek tapped him on the shoulder, and the boy turned to face him again.

“Yeah, Mr. cool dude?”

Drek’s eyes darkened.  “If you ever show that kind of initiative again—the kind that made this country great—that put me where I am today—I’m not gonna send you to the Alaskan division . . . I’m gonna give you your own.”

The kid was ecstatic.  “Really? Want me to pick your pocket?”  He then  proceeded to do so.

Drek smiled.  “A guy of your potential shouldn’t be here . . . naww . . . I’ll send you to a new territory—rich with possibility!  You get to go to . . . the India-Pakistan border!  Your mission:  selling hamburgers and sausage on quota!  There’s nothing like violating sacred religious mores to prompt swift and painful action, you know.”

“NO!  NO!  NO!”  The kid ran out of the restaurant, slipping on the pink frosting, and skidded right into a Mage in Black who cheerfully helped him up before turning him into a muskrat.

“Mm . . . dinner!”  Max was about to go after the muskrat, but Merdemus restrained him.

The Mage in Black padded through the pink frosting.  An eerie silence had fallen over the restaurant, save for the slosh, slosh noise the Mage made as he tracked across the floor.

The Mage rubbed a finger against a pink wall and put it to his tongue.  “Tastes like mint.”

Max grabbed a fistful of the fizzy pink frosting and swallowed it.


Bill couldn’t help himself and tasted a bit.  “Oregano.”

The Mage in black turned to them and burped.  “Sorry.  I’ll have to kill you now.  Orders, you know.”

Max thumbed his mustache. “You’re not loike the others, are you?”

“No.  I’m a funny one.”  The Mage went over to a booth, wiped off some frosting and stood, waiting for Max to join him, then they both sat.

“The Elders at MEFISTO were so uptight, you see, about this four thousand year plan, that they said we all had to have team spirit.  Team spirit!  Humph.  ‘Be deadly dull’ is what they really meant.”

Max grinned.  “But, that wasn’t yer style, was it?”

“Nonono . . . I felt that to lose the humor in my work was to destroy it.  Take that imp I just turned into a muskrat.  That was magnitudes funnier than simply reducing him to a pile of sizzling ash, was it not?”

Max nodded.  “So, tell me about this four thousand year plan.  I thought MEFISTO was only around for a millennium.”

“Heavens no!  Who told you that?  Gruebright?  He’s got his clock all wrong, you see . . . he’s new at this . . . totally new . . . only his first time ’round, y’know.”


“Well, you see, each time out we have to keep adding people.  We found him after he had mistakenly killed the King while juggling anvils.  He was quite upset, and quite eager to join a protectorate like MEFISTO.”

“What do ye mean, ‘each toime out’?”


The Mage stopped talking when two more Mages in Black entered the establishment.  One pointed at him and said, “It is the renegade humorist.  Destroy him.”

The other nodded, and before Max could do anything, the Mage he was talking to began to disappear, his robes collapsing inward, as if nothing was in them but air.

Before he went, the humorist stretched his hand out, upon which there was a gold ring.

“You, take this ring.  Wear it. It is my essen—”

Max snatched the ring as the hand that was wearing it disappeared.  He began to ram it onto his right hand’s ring finger.

Bill moved forward quickly. “Don’t!  It could be a trap!”

Max slid the ring in place. “Too late, mate!”  He began to cackle hysterically, and wine began to pour from all the light fixtures, which did not like the idea of becoming wine bottles, so they promptly exploded.

Miranda, and even the Mages in Black, watched in fear as Max began to glow an iridescent blue, lighting the now dim room.

Wine was drenching the floor, and sparks were flying from the ceiling.  Max’s cackling was getting louder, and it shifted accents often.

The Mages in Black looked at one another, and one of them pointed at Max, almost fearfully.

Max’s eyes glowed a blood red. “MUHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAA!  I am Max! Keeper of the Wines, Fermentor of the Gardens, and The Renegade Humorist!  The Mad Magus has returned!”

Bill looked at Merdemus, who raised an eyebrow.

The Mages in Black were obviously intimidated by Max, and thus, they tried to overcome this fear the easiest way possible—the golden rule of deadly Mages—smash everything and run.

Drek ducked as one of the Mages in Black hurled a fireball at him.

“Ha ha.  Try that again.”

Miranda tapped him on the shoulder.  “I wouldn’t be laughing, Drek.”


Miranda pointed to the wall behind Drek where the fireball had impacted.  There was a row of vats, over which a sign read “Greasepits”

“My god!  The grease! Everybody, get out!”

Merdemus and the others piled out of the McDrekky’s as plumes of flame bellowed out.

Explosion after explosion rocked the lobby of the Adams Hotel as the McDrekky’s burgers, arguably the greasiest fast foods on Earth, detonated.

Drek sought cover behind a reception desk, and grinned.  “Now I know why the Department of Defense wanted to subcontract McDrekky’s for half a million Big Dreks with accompanying books of matches.”

Bill looked around at the group that had dashed from the inferno, and noted that it was one short.  “Where’s Max?”

Merdemus’ eyes glazed over. “He’s still in there—and he doesn’t know the Seventh Discipline.”

“Loike I need it?”  Max strode out of the blazing restaurant, holding up two empty black robes.  “I’m too stupid te die.”

Miranda looked at the limp robes.  “What happened to them?”

Max frowned.  “I started to tell ’em some jokes, and they just screamed in terror and disappeared.”

Merdemus and Bill produced a torrent of water that doused the flames in the lobby.

Drek looked at the destroyed store and shrugged.  “I’m fully insured for greasefires.  It’ll be back up and running in a week.”

Miranda looked at the fallen “McDrekky’s” sign that was still smoldering.  “How much grease was in each burger anyway?”

Drek frowned.   “Not sure . . . I just dumped some fat into a pitcher and poured that on—”

Merdemus cut him off.  “We have no time for this.  MEFISTO has obviously seized control of the hotel in our absence.  Drek, I want you to get the guests out of here, and then join Bill and myself on floor thirty-seven.”

“What about me?” asked Miranda.

“You look after Maximillian.”

Miranda looked at the slowly burping Mage and shook her head.

“No way.  I’m with you guys. Besides, if there are computers up there, you’ll need an expert.”

Merdemus nodded.  “Drek, take Max with you.”

Max grinned.  “I don’t need anyone’s ’elp.  Me brain’s dancing on the cabinet, the cabinet, and the grey matter’s green.”

Bill frowned.  “That ring must’ve pushed him over the edge.”

“Come on!”  Merdemus went to the winding staircase that spiraled up through the hotel.  Bill withdrew his sword and waited for Miranda to get ahead of him, walking backwards up the stairs to guard the rear.

As the trio went up the stairs, a blur sped around the width of the staircase, descending rapidly.  Bill was about to slash at it with his sword when Miranda grabbed his hand in horror.

Bill lowered his sword quizzically, and watched as the blur slowed down.  He then saw the cause for Miranda’s consternation.

The blur was actually Al Wright, atop a very upset Krag, who had a jump rope wedged into his mouth as a rein. Al didn’t seem to mind, and he waved as his upset aunt watched.

“Alan, get back here now!”

“I’m having fun, Aunt Miranda! Krag can levitate really cool!  Look!”

The child yanked on the jump rope and Krag involuntarily swung upwards, looping in circles and snorting flame.

“Now he’ll ram his head into the ceiling!”

Bill smiled.  “Damn.  We shoulda thought of that three thousand years ago.”

Merdemus nodded.  “Much more enjoyable than a simple kick.”

Miranda, totally horrified, took Bill’s sword and slashed the jump rope, causing Krag to toss Al off of his back and onto the staircase.

Bill annoyedly snatched his sword from Miranda’s hand and wiped its blade, murmuring, “Are you all right? Did that mean Miranda hurt you too much?”

Krag spat out the jump rope from his mouth and took a deep breath.

“Thank you, Miranda.  I was becoming quite upset at being steered about like a lowly horse.”

Merdemus walked down a few stairs and squatted down next to the pouting Alan.  “That was a very clever idea, harnessing Krag like that.”

“Shut up, you old roach.”

Merdemus blinked.  “Excuse me?” He sensed something evil.

Al looked up at Merdemus, and his eyes glowed red.  “That’s right.  This isn’t Al anymore.”

Miranda hurried down the stairs to her nephew.  Merdemus shook his head, and bade her watch silently.

“I have not harmed the child. He is quite clever.  Zanzillian, indeed.”

Merdemus frowned.  “Who are you?”

“HAHAHA!  The bloated old fool wants to know who I am.  For over forty thousand years I have awaited this day, setting the pieces in motion, just to bring you to this point.”

Bill walked down to the group. “To what?  A staircase?”

Al blinked.  “Well, not this point precisely.  A more nasty point, in a few minutes, actually.”

Merdemus scowled.  “I am only three millennia old.  Therefore you could not have been waiting forty thousand years.”

Al jumped up and began to levitate.  “Heh.  Such a closed mind.  No matter.  Your compatriots have brought me the final pieces I need to ensure your destruction.  The endgame begins for the final time, Mage.  Let the destruction begin!”

Al, now hovering over twenty flights over nothing, suddenly blinked, looked down, muttered, “Cool!”and began to fall.

Miranda instinctively moved to catch him, but Merdemus shoved her out of the way, flung himself over the railing and plummeted to the ground, hitting it before Al, catching him safely.

Miranda waited for Merdemus to levitate back up, and she hugged him.  “Thanks for saving my nephew.”

Merdemus nodded.  “Max isn’t so happy, though.”  He handed her a small laptop computer.  “Drek said this had survived the fire at the restaurant and that you might find it useful.”

Miranda nodded and accepted the device.

Bill frowned.  “I wonder how Drek is handling watching over Max.”

The words “I AM NOT ZANZILLIAN!” could be heard wafting up from the lobby.

Miranda laughed.  “I think my nephew’s taking care of it.”

Merdemus smiled, noticed a bit of a black robe whisking around the bend in the staircase ahead and clenched his fist, causing it to glow bright blue with energy.

“Let us finish this.”  He began to walk up the stairs, but his pace was so rapid that it was as if he was running.

Bill frowned.  “That Merde. Always showing off.  Hmph.”  He threw his sword forward into the air and followed it as it moved up the length of the staircase, defying gravity. Miranda shrugged and followed him.

“What is it with you and that sword anyway?”

Bill grinned.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

Krag swung in on a low arc and zoomed up the stairs ahead of Merdemus.  Within seconds, he came tumbling back, veering out of control.

“Danger Bill Sorcerer!  Danger!”

Bill flexed his palm, and his sword returned to his hand.  Merdemus cut loose with a bolt of plasma that rounded the corner, and presently a Mage in Black appeared, with a scorched pancake in one hand.

“Thou hast destroyed my dinner!”

Merdemus raised an eyebrow. “Your master will be next.”

“Really?”  The Mage tossed the pancake onto the floor.  “You will have to get through us first.”

Seven more Mages appeared, but their robes were not black—they were a deep crimson, inlaid with gold at the seams.

Bill rounded the corner, and he shoved Miranda back while spinning his sword.  “Looks like MEFISTO got bored with black, eh?”

One of the Mages in Red stepped forward.  “The Mages in Black are naught but our lowest of Apprentices.  We are the true henchmen of MEFISTO.”

Merdemus spat.  “Your deaths will amuse me greatly.”

The Mage in Red laughed.  “I am called Khan Noonax Sang.  I am as far above you as you are above a roach, Mage.  One wonders why my master has had so much trouble trying to kill you these past millennia.”

“Your insults are pathetic.  I will now proceed to flay you, and Krag will eat your intestines.  Be ready.”

Bill smiled.  “Haven’t lost the touch, man.”

Merdemus ignored the compliment, reached into the recesses of his robe and pulled out a small box, which he opened and showed to Khan.

Khan grinned as he saw the puny box, but as it opened, his eyes widened and he started to scream.

Merdemus tossed the box into the air and spun in a three hundred and sixty degree arc, letting loose with a beam of energy that caused Khan to collapse on the floor.

The other six Mages responded to this by blasting Merdemus with energy from the entire spectrum.  Merdemus fell under the weight of the combined attack, and he began to black out.

Bill jumped in, and spun his sword rapidly, much like a helicopter blade.  The Adamantium blade deflected the energies that were beginning to fry Merdemus’ robes, and it refocused them onto the Mages in Red, who were totally unprepared for the onslaught.

Merdemus slowly rose as the Mages in Red disintegrated into dust.

“Biclaxaltonian, where did you learn that technique?”

Bill grinned.  “How do you think I mow my lawn?”

Miranda came out from around the corner, .45 in hand.  “What was in that box you showed Khan?”

Merdemus opened the box, and Miranda shuddered.  “That’s disgusting.”

Bill peered into the box and saw a small portable television.  He shuddered.  “Gods.  Who knew that repeats of a show involving overly spoiled postadolescent demonspawn living in a surreal town that doesn’t even have a name, just a postal code, could . . . could be so . . . mind-numbing.”

Miranda shrugged.  “It got high ratings.”

Merdemus shrugged.  “I do not understand.”

Bill grinned.  “Let’s just say that if MEFISTO were working for ratings points, a two-year-old could smite them; he’d have more intelligence.”

Merdemus nodded, and he silently marveled at the awesome power of this demon they called ratings.

“Is he a powerful demon, the one who gives out these ratings?”

Krag flew up and snorted.  “I’ve seen enough television to know he’s an idiot, whoever he is.”

Miranda pointed up the stairs. “This is fun and all, but I do believe we have a more pressing problem?”

Merdemus bolted up the stairs, and stood at the door that led to floor thirty-seven.  He tried the knob, but it wouldn’t budge.  Next, he tried to incinerate it, but a force barrier was protecting it.

Bill tried to cut the doorknob off with his sword, but the force barrier deflected it, as it did Miranda’s bullets.

Krag tried to fry the door, but his flame was no match for the energy around it.

Drek and the now-suicidal Max arrived, with Al in tow.  The boy was gagged and attached to Max via a heavy chain.  He waited until no one was looking, and he slipped out of his bonds, ungagging himself.

Drek looked at the lock and snickered.  “A moron lock.  Miranda, give me a hairpin.”

Miranda gave Drek a hairpin, which Max promptly took and used it to pick his nose.  Drek wouldn’t touch it after that, so Al took it gleefully, walked over to the lock, grinned and said, “Watch this,” and within five seconds the lock clicked and the forcewall dropped.

Drek slapped Al on the back. “Pretty good, kid!  I woulda moved the left tumbler up though—it cuts down on the fiddle time.”

Al nodded.  “Picking these are so easy though, that the time lost in fiddling is easily compensated for when it comes to rotation of the—”

Miranda clamped a hand over her nephew’s mouth.  “I don’t believe this . . . first I find out my nephew tried to invoke a demon—”

“Worldkiller,” Max interjected happily.

“Yeah—and now I find out he knows how to pick locks?!”  Miranda looked down at Al.

“What would your mother say?”

Al grinned.  “Good job, maybe?”

Miranda wanted to toss Al down the staircase, but Max stopped her, an act he instantly regretted.

“Zanzillian!  Whadda we do now, huh?  Are you gonna break stuff?”

Max growled.  “Ya.  Yer ’ead.”


Merdemus ignored the ruckus and slowly pushed the door to floor thirty-seven open.  It creaked on its hinges, and it revealed a darkened maze filled with computer workstations, all eerily lighting up what appeared to be a smoky fog.  In the far corner of the room, Merdemus saw a Mage in Red holding onto a computer terminal and a child simultaneously.

The child was one of the small Mages that MEFISTO had locked in the cage near the subterranean computer center.  He was linked up in a circle with the other children from the cage, each holding each other’s hand.

Bill and the others walked in, and Merdemus signaled them to be silent.  They moved in and strained to hear what the Mage was saying.

“ . . . think of this as a game, children.  You will each contemplate the topic you like the most, using your special gifts, and you will concentrate on that topic only.  Feel it as a fire within you, until it consumes you.  Let me handle the rest of it.”

As the children began to sink into a semi-meditative state, Merdemus saw a faint red glow emanate from them.

The glow traveled along the chain of hands until it reached the Mage in Red, who was trembling, and it went over to the hand that was touching the computer, which glowed with a bluish light.  Sparks of electricity arced from the Mage’s fingertips to the computer’s case, and letters and numbers started to flash quickly across its screen.

“Holy Zarstinozak!”  Bill pulled everyone together into a huddle.  “I think I’ve figured it out!  What the Eighth Discipline is, and why it has bits of the Fifth in it!”

“Well, spit it out!” Drek hissed.

“Well, as we know, the Third Discipline can read minds, and reversed it can spit forth information into other minds.”

Merdemus frowned.  “But it is lethal when used in that manner.  No successful mind transfers have ever been done.”

Bill nodded.  “Between people, since the receiving mind is already set up for someone else’s thoughts—when they read, it’s okay because their mind-structure just expands—but when they try to overwrite someone else’s through brute force, the brain gives out.  Now, look at what Mr. Mage over there is doing.  I’ll bet you he’s using the Third Discipline to suck the kids’ minds dry, then spits them into the computer, which is a blank slate.  Since SIKE is artificial intelligence and just data, it can adapt!  The Fifth Discipline just transmutes the thoughts to electric pulses before it goes to the machine!”

Merdemus sat back, dumbfounded. “But that will kill the children.”

The group watched as some of the children had begun to collapse under the mental assault.

“Not if I cin ’elp it, mates.” Max got up, and before the others could stop him, he had shoved the child who was in contact with the Mage out of the way and interposed his hand, thus freeing the children from the brain drain, while substituting his own.

“No!”  Merdemus jumped up to knock him out of the way, but it was too late.  Max crumpled to the ground, and the computer terminals all blinked, “TRANSFER COMPLETE.  COMPUTING NEURAL NET.”

Drek and Krag helped move the children, now safe, but devoid of any Magical powers, out of the room and down the stairs to safety.

The Mage in Red collapsed to the floor and disintegrated.

Bill looked at the ashes and shook his head.  “Being the conduit, he also lost his mind to the machine.”

Merdemus and Miranda went over to Max, who blinked, but stared at them glassily.

Miranda cried slightly.  “He’s lost his mind.”

Max sat up, and stared blankly ahead before intoning slowly, “Never had it.  Never will.”  He sprang up and laughed.  “So it cost me a few past loives that weren’t even moine to begin with.  I’ve got plenty more, and this ring gives me a whole new outlook on loife.  I feel much better now.  At least the kids are safe.”

Merdemus grinned.  “You are too stupid to die, aren’t you?”

Miranda walked over to the computers, which were now counting backwards from a hundred, and she whistled.

“Mr. Q put more computing power in here than NORAD has.  This system is less than a minute away from putting SIKE online.”

Merdemus growled.  “For what purpose!?  What purpose could have been worth so much to MEFISTO!?”

A door at the far end of the room swung open, and white light flooded in from the outside.  Some smoke tumbled into the room, and the silhouette of a man stepped into the doorway.

“The purpose was simple. Universal domination.  And more importantly, your death.”

Merdemus instinctively hurled a blast of plasma at the figure, and surprisingly, it hit him and caused him to stagger.

“I knew after the twentieth time that I was too old to continue my fight against you unaided.  That was when I developed my final plan . . . the plan that would destroy you and your blasted friends forever!”

The man leaned down, obviously in pain from the blast.

Merdemus took a step forward. “Who are you?!”

The man laughed shakily.  “You will discover that soon enough, Merdemus.  This time the cycle will end.  I will be victorious!”

Bill pulled out his sword. “What is this blasted cycle everyone keeps going on about?!”

The figure wheezed.  “The injustice of it all!  That only I and a few others should remember!  No matter. You will all die quite soon.  Behold my creation!  Spawned from silicon and thought, linked through the genius of hundreds of minds, behold . . . MOLDUS!”

Nothing happened.

“Behold . . . MOLDUS!”

Still nothing.

Max began to whistle quietly, and the man in the doorway screamed, “ARRGH!  Just—just watch out for MOLDUS, all right?”

Before Merdemus could run to intercept him, the man backed away and slammed the door shut.

Miranda looked at the computers and gasped.  “Look at the screens!”

On each of the hundreds of terminals was this message.








Miranda leaned over to a microphone and cautiously whispered, “Moldus?”

The response was literally loud enough to shake the hotel to its foundations.


“That’s very nice.”  At that moment, a red light appeared, and MOLDUS began to speak again, this time quietly, and in maddeningly calm tones.

“Analyzing operator.  Accessing NSA Files.  Operator name:  Miranda Jesmerelda Wright.  Gender:  Female.  Age: 25.  Born and living in Los Angeles, California.  Three siblings.  Currently on vacation from dual occupations in Los Angeles.  Favorite food:  Plain cheese pizza.  Favorite color:  Lime Green.”  It paused, then began again.  “Analysis complete.  Operator inferior to MOLDUS.  Discarding user profile.  Analyzing other inhabitants of this structure.”

Within moments, every screen was flashing the life histories of every individual inside the Adams Hotel, with the exception of Krag (as he had never done any paperwork due to the fact that it was incredibly difficult for a Dragon with no proper hands to write), Merdemus and Dr. Xadium, who had been isolated from the outside world long before record-keeping had become a staple for the otherwise skill-less bureaucrat.

Miranda pointed out one screen which was especially troubling, as MOLDUS had determined that no one in the hotel was superior enough to it that they could function as operator.  It was now scanning the globe.

Merdemus shoved Bill.  “It looks like we finally found something with a larger ego than yours, eh Bill?”

Bill did not appreciate the comment, and muttered something about an inflammable twig.  Max had to pry Merdemus’ hands from his throat.

Miranda hooked her laptop into the data and found a file called README.NOW which she displayed on the screen:

“From MEFISTO Headquarters to whatever hacker may be trying to breach this system.  This is a highly sophisticated AI system that is instrumental to our takeover of the world. Please do not rewrite the software.  Besides, it will only recognize commands from us, its operators who are superior to it in every way.  If you try to do anything with it, it will crush you like an egg.  Have a nice day.”

Miranda whistled.  “MOLDUS has apparently taken it upon himself to determine who’s superior enough to run him, and I don’t think he’s going to find anyone.”

“Wrong.”  Bill pointed to the screen.  “It found one . . . oh, damn . . . King Arthur.”

Everyone shook their heads, except Max, who cheered.  “YES!  The mighty Arthur of Pendragon will save us!”

Bill shook his head.  “Arthur’s dead.”

Max looked at Bill as if he were mad.  “Wot?  Arthur’s the once and future King!  He’ll save us!”

Drek hit Max on the head.  “The King is dead.  Live with it.”

Miranda looked at the screen. “It has only a thousand names left to go, and there are no matches.”

Bill scowled.  “Oh great.  Just like a cheap sci-fi plot where the computer decides to take over the world because people are inferior.”

Merdemus spun him around and glared at him.  “Don’t give it ideas.”

Miranda went over to Krag.  “I need your help.  We’re going to knock out this thing’s power supply before it decides to do anything.”

Krag nodded, and the two of them set off to find the computer’s main power.

MOLDUS beeped, and all the computer terminals began to glow.

“All others are inferior to me. I am superior.  Thus, I should rule.”

Bill nudged Merdemus.  “What did I tell you, eh?”  He then turned to MOLDUS, or rather, to the first terminal he saw, withdrew his blade and slammed it into the monitor, which blew up.

“Not today, buddy!”

MOLDUS laughed.  “Adamantium.  A weak metal.”

Merdemus grinned.  “Well, you oversized golem, perhaps you will find this a bit stronger.”  He fired a massive blast of energy at the computer, which simply dissipated into the air.

“Your Magic is primitive compared to mine.  MEFISTO has fed me the entire contents of all the ‘lost’ works of Magical, Necromantic, Alchemical and Scientific lore.  I house the combined knowledge of a hundred civilizations.  This power is mine to command—what?”

Red lights began to go off as Krag used his flame to melt the case that contained the circuit breakers for all of floor thirty-seven.

Miranda gingerly reached in past the smoldering metal and flipped the switches to the OFF position.

The next instant, every terminal in the room exploded, and rays of light shot out from them, flooding the room.

MOLDUS could be heard, but his voice no longer came from a computer’s speaker.  It echoed from everywhere, even as a loud blast of static emerged from all the computers.

“I am MOLDUS.  I am no mere machine.  I transcend that which is mechanical—that which is Magical.  I am the best of both, and yet of neither.  I choose now the host in which I will execute my grand design to raise humanity to my standards.  MEFISTO is no longer necessary, and neither is The Elder.”

Abruptly, the static and the light vanished.  Bill spun his sword and assumed an attack stance.  Max cracked his knuckles, Miranda armed her gun, Merdemus crossed his arms, Krag arched his back, and Drek and Al hid behind a counter.

There was total silence, save the dripping of a water faucet somewhere.

Max looked around and was the first to break the silence.

“So . . . which one of us is it, then?  Who did MOLDUS take over?”

Bill eyed everyone suspiciously, then sheathed his sword.  “It was you, Max.  He took you over.”

Everyone laughed, and dropped their guard.  Max, however, began to hit himself on the head rather violently.

“MOLDUS isn’t gonna take ME over!  No way!”

Bill had to physically restrain him, which involved everyone else jumping in to help as well as the introduction of a rather large anvil directly over the fat Mage’s head (and of course, the cooperation of gravity, which was feeling rather maligned after everyone had stopped looking for its source).

“It was a joke, stupid! MOLDUS obviously hasn’t taken any one of us.”

An explosion rocked the building, and Max punched a hole in the wall so that the others could peek outside.

Dr. Xadium was falling down onto street level, laughing maniacally.

“I have a body now!  I have power!  Soon humanity will greet me as its savior, and that is exactly what I shall be!”

Merdemus, Bill and Drek piled out the window after him, barely remembering to start levitating in time.  Max, Miranda and Al, who was now dragging a squirming Krag by the neck with a belt made into a leash, started down the staircase.

By the time the group had joined up with the other three Mages, the sky outside the hotel had gone pitch black. There was no starlight, no moonlight, just a small patch in the sky where Dr. Xadium was funneling vast amounts of energy.

Merdemus looked at the others. “Apparently Dr. Xadium’s mind has been completely taken over.  I tried to speak with him, but he called me an arrogant, egotistical old man!  Can you believe it?”

Bill shrugged.  “Obviously the man is deranged.”

Merdemus nodded.

Drek pointed to the streams of energy going out to the sky.  “Dr. Xadium accesses the Cosmic, and I know he had enough power to do something like this, but ever since he was excommunicated from his little group and made mortal, he hasn’t been able to push any more Cosmic aside than Miranda . . . no offense.”

Miranda let the remark slip by as Drek continued.

“Now, he’s pumping both barrels into the sky, but I’m not sensing any displacement of the Cosmic.  It’s as if he’s drawing the power from somewhere else.”

Krag snorted.  “Probably my fragment of the ygdrasil.”

Merdemus’ eyes widened.  “You had a fragment of ygdrasil?”

Krag nodded.  “I did not have direct access to it, but I knew where it was and so leached power from it—that is, until someone stole it rather recently.”

Merdemus scowled.  “Where was it—if we can find another—”

Miranda stepped in between them.  “Excuse me.  What is ygdrasil?”

Drek moved her aside and explained.  “In Runic mythology they speak of the ygdrasil tree which binds the universe together.  Fragments of ygdrasil are indestructible, but they contain vast power.”

Bill scowled.  “Has it occurred to anyone that MEFISTO, the ones responsible for this . . . this thing inhabiting Dr. Xadium, has suddenly vanished, leaving us to deal with the mess?”

Merdemus shook his head.  “Look above the buildings.”

There were Mages in crimson and in black, all hovering silently above the rooftops, watching as Dr. Xadium let loose his energies into the atmosphere, under the control of MOLDUS.

Bill scanned the array of sorcerers and saw Kalijess, but he kept scanning until he saw the one in the lot who wore all white.

“Gruebright.”  Bill jumped from his standing position, rotated in midair, caught his feet on a fire escape and used it to propel himself upwards even higher, until he was level with Lord Gruebright.

“Hi.  Come join the party downstairs.”  Bill grabbed him by the lapels of his white suit and yanked him down to the ground.

Merdemus and the others clustered around Gruebright, who had a new staff.  Miranda took it from him and threw it aside, remembering how he had rammed her in the stomach with his last one.

Gruebright grinned.  “Your time here is almost over.  The final phase of our plan has already been set into motion.  MOLDUS will ensure the Elder’s victory over you this time, Merdemus.”

Merdemus squatted down and wiped some dust from Gruebright’s lapels.  He then got up and scorched the suit until it was charcoal black.

Gruebright twisted as the heat from the burning suit began to become unbearable.  Bill handed something to Miranda in the background, and she then showed it to Gruebright.  It was a pitcher of ice cold, sparkling water.  She made as if to douse his suit with it, then halted, smiling brightly.

“PLEASE!” Gruebright yelled as he began to singe horribly.

Merdemus shook his head.  “Tell us.  Who is this Elder you speak of?”

Gruebright shook his head.  “I—I am forbidden!”

Miranda took a swig of the refreshing water.  “And I am thirsty.”

Max began to sing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . . ”

Gruebright screamed, “Very well!  Just douse the flames.”

Bill swung his sword down and placed the tip of it on Gruebright’s stomach.  The Adamantium glinted against the flames from his suit.

“MOLDUS may call Adamantium a weak metal, but your stomach won’t know the difference.  Spill it.”

Gruebright nodded fearfully. “For over forty thousand years the Elder has tried to kill Merdemus—and all of you.  Twenty attempts were made in that span, each a more dismal failure than the last.  This is the twenty-first.”

Merdemus shook his head. “Again, the mathematics say this is impossible.”

Gruebright blinked.  “The Elder started his quest for vengeance as a youth, and each time he failed, it took him millennia to prepare again.

“He came through the winds of time, confronting you here, in this place called San Francisco—again and again, only to be defeated each time.

“Each time he has returned, he brought with him more troops from MEFISTO, more equipment, more tools.  MOLDUS, and all the events surrounding his creation are all the result of his latest plan to destroy you.”

Bill scowled.  “So, why don’t we remember any of this?”

Gruebright had totally forgotten the pain of his burning flesh, and was now consumed with the fear of the Elder hearing him.  “For you, and for some of the MEFISTO Apprentices who were stranded each time the Elder made his retreat, this is the first time you have encountered him.  It is not the first time he has encountered you, however, and from all accounts, defeating him each time has been progressively more difficult for all of you.  This, however, is the last time.  The endgame.  He knows all your secrets now.  There is nothing that will save you.  You will all fall before the wrath of MEFISTO.”

Merdemus gave the signal to douse Gruebright, but at that instant, from the blackness a bolt of lightning flew down which incinerated the Mage in white.

Drek frowned.  “Now we know.”

“Fat lot of good it does us.” Max looked up at the cackling Dr. Xadium.  “We’ve got te stop him from wotever it is ’e’s doin’ up there.”

Within seconds, lightning lashed out from the bright patch in the sky, and it destroyed every streetlamp, traffic light and neon sign for at least a mile around.  San Francisco was plunged into darkness—until the entire sky began to fill with blood-red clouds.

A slow wind had begun to pick up, and the streets were completely deserted, save the Mages, their friends and the occasional ice cream truck that delivered condiments to the spectators every few minutes . . .

Merdemus levitated off the ground, and moved closer to Dr. Xadium, until he was a small figure in the distance.

Miranda looked over at Drek. “What’s he saying?”

Drek shrugged.  “How should I know?”

The group watched as Merdemus tried to converse with Dr. Xadium, getting nowhere, until Xadium said something and raised his left arm, at which point Merdemus flew back towards them and slammed into the street.

Max pulled him out of the smoking crater.  “Wot’d ’e say, mate?”

Merdemus sat down on the curb. “I spoke to Dr. Xadium—not MOLDUS—but he said he was ‘happy where he was now.’”

Bill angrily sheathed his sword.  “How the gratz can you be happy being demonically possessed!?”

Miranda shrugged.  “Well, he did give up all of his powers to help us . . . maybe he realized he really did need his power after all—power that MOLDUS provides in abundance.”

Drek nodded.  “But what’s he up to over there?”

Merdemus stared at the sky.  “It looks as if he is ripping a hole into the Cosmic.”

Bill took off his sunglasses and peered at the reddened sky.

“Maybe.  But I’ve heard stories about people who were thrust into the Cosmic.  They were made into superpowered beings—hyperintelligent and Magically unstoppable.”

Merdemus nodded.  “I knew one such person, so eager for power he cast himself into the Cosmic.  He returned as a god.”

Miranda’s eyes widened.  “MOLDUS said he would be humanity’s savior—bringing them up to his level.”

Merdemus spat.  “He is a fool. The man I spoke of died less than a minute after returning.  The stress on the unattuned body is too great.  Even I, a Mage of the First Order, who has Disciplined himself and become a creature more attuned to the Cosmic, cannot hope to survive such an immersion.  MOLDUS is about to become humanity’s destroyer.”

Drek scratched his chin.  “Does MEFISTO know about this?  I mean, even with their power, they couldn’t survive the onslaught.  And I doubt they want to rule over a dead planet.”

Bill pointed to the sky, where Mages in red and in black were floating up to Dr. Xadium, firing massive amounts of energy at him.

“I think they already figured that much out.”

Merdemus growled.  “Look.”

The Mages in Black were the first to fall, simply tumbling out of the sky and repaving the sidewalks.  The Mages in Red hung on a bit longer, but soon it became clear Dr. Xadium was simply toying with them, and soon they were no more.

The last few Mages from MEFISTO collectively vanished, obviously too fearful of Xadium to try and stop him.

Merdemus closed his eyes.  “It is up to us.”

Drek frowned.  “What of the Elder?”

“The Elder is nothing so long as MOLDUS continues to control Dr. Xadium.  We must find a way to defeat MOLDUS, then we can move on to the Elder of  MEFISTO.”

Miranda thought about it for a second.  “Well, MOLDUS is an expert system after all.  Perhaps there are still gaps in his neural net.”

“His what?”  Drek was trying to prevent Al from strangulating Krag with a strand of year-old licorice.

“His neural net.  It’s what the computer set up as sort of a brain for MOLDUS.  It was constructed with tons of information from the U.S. Government and data from many of Max’s borrowed past lives, but that doesn’t mean it was complete.  If we can find out what MOLDUS does not know, then maybe we’ll have found an Achilles heel.”

Max grinned.  “I found one of those once.  The chap it was connected te was screamin’—”

Merdemus looked at the blood-red sky and nodded.  “Force will not succeed here.  We need to find a weak link in MOLDUS’ mental construction.”

Krag, almost asphyxiated, snapped his neck and took the licorice Al was holding into his mouth.  It was black licorice, the kind that everyone buys because it looks tasty, but then vomits out because it tastes like raw caterpillar meat.

The Dragon closed his eyes and swallowed the licorice, much to the displeasure of the ranting Al.

“Zanzillian!  Kill him, O mighty Zanzillian! Rip his brain out of his body and stick it on a baseball bat for me!  Please?”

Max was about to impale the child with a pogo stick when Merdemus stopped him.

“The child has the answer!”

Krag backed away.  “I shall not allow thee to rip out my brain and place it on a baseball bat!”

Merdemus shook his head.  “Dr. Xadium’s brain!  Xadium is the weak link here—MOLDUS is nothing without a body.”

Bill nodded.  “But what are you saying . . . that we have to kill Dr. Xadium?  He’s got far too much power for us to accomplish that.”

Merdemus frowned.  “MOLDUS has no records on Dr. Xadium.  Perhaps he does not realize the power of Xadium’s following.”

Drek scowled.  “What following? Xadium said he had to get a few of his pals together, and they control his power.  He hasn’t had a following since the Neanderthals wiped themselves off the face of the planet.”

Merdemus’ frown deepened. “Hasn’t he?  I thought you said he was the god of Evolution, Youth and Vigor.”


Merdemus generated a sphere of energy around himself, pulled Miranda inside it, and floated up to Dr. Xadium.

Bill nudged Max.  “What’s he up to now?”

Max shrugged.  “Who knows, mate?  Who knows?”

Merdemus moved up until he was level with Dr. Xadium, and he yelled, as loud as he could, “All hail fealty to Xadium, Lord of Evolution, Youth and Vigor!”  He nudged Miranda, and she repeated the salutation.

Dr. Xadium turned to face him, and a crooked smile played over his face.  He spoke with the voice of MOLDUS. “You are a fool, Merdemus.  Xadium and I both know he has no followers.  The Neanderthals are gone.  I have given him power when his friends forced him to become mortal.  He serves me, now.”

Merdemus lowered his head. “Why, O mighty god of Evolution?  Why have you forsaken your own power?”

Xadium turned to him, and screamed, “I AM MOLDUS!  You will speak only to me!”

Merdemus let a tiny smile play at the corner of his mouth before continuing.  “Mighty Xadium, your legions await your command.”

“FOOL!  Do you think you can accomplish something with this ruse?  Xadium is a senile old fool who has no followers!”

Merdemus lifted his head, smiling the smile of a god.  He turned to Miranda.  “May I ask you some questions?”

Miranda nodded.

“When you were learning the ‘Sciences’—”  Merdemus snickered slightly “—tell me how humans came to be as a species.”

“Well, we evolved from a less advanced stage to a more highly—”

“Thank you.  We evolved.  And would you say that this is a widely held belief in the dogma of Science?”

“Oh yes . . . in fact, scientists often swear by the the—”  Miranda saw where Merdemus was going and grinned.  “—It’s almost a religious belief to some.”

Xadium trembled.  “Wh—what?”

MOLDUS screamed, “That was arrived at without any thought to Xadium!  And what of Youth and Vigor?”

Merdemus took Miranda’s purse, opened it, turned it upside down, and raised an eyebrow as contents that were at least three times the volume of the purse fell onto the bottom of his energy sphere.

Miranda frowned and began to pick up the items, as Merdemus commented.

“Rouge, scents, colorings, medicines, membership cards to fitness centers . . . the standard accouterments of individuals who wish to maintain a youthful appearance, and a healthy, vigorous life.”

Xadium began to stutter. “I—I—had no—no i—idea . . . ”

MOLDUS yelled so loudly that Merdemus’ force bubble began to shake.  “NONE of this was done with Xadium in mind!”

Merdemus grinned.  “Of course not.  He was stuck in a chartreuse void for thirty-five millennia.  But in his absence, his followers grew more and more with every passing century.  Now, it is impossible to miss the impact of his following.  Foods are judged on healthfulness, people pay millions to appear young and to stay fit.

“Science inculcates a belief in evolution to every youngster learning in schools.  Xadium’s powerbase is here untapped, waiting for him—and it is truly his power, not his friends’, or yours.”

Xadium began to shake, and Merdemus pressed the point.

“Take back your power, Xadium! CAST OUT MOLDUS!”

There was a blast of power, and Merdemus’ force bubble flew backwards.  Luckily for Miranda, he was able to stabilize it, and they set down next to Bill and the others.

Drek pointed to the rooftop where Dr. Xadium had stopped pumping energy into the sky, but was now glowing a bright orange.

MOLDUS could be heard screaming, “No!  Stop it!  You cannot expel me!”

Dr. Xadium teetered and fell off the side of the building, slamming into the concrete below, shattering it.  A rush of milky white energy flew from his body, rounded a corner and disappeared.

As Xadium climbed shakily from the crater he had gouged into the sidewalk, the ground shook.

Max smiled toothily.  “Now, thot’s power.”

Miranda tapped him absently on the shoulder, and he turned, only to see the true source of the shaking.

A large mechanical Dragon lumbered around the corner of a building.

Drek gasped.  “It’s Mecha-Lizard!  From ‘Mecha-Lizard III:  Mecha-Lizard squashes Tokyo!”

Krag snorted.  “A puny representation of the real thing.”

Miranda petted the Dragon. “This coming from a Dragon the size of a small dog.”

“At least I’m not shrinking any smaller!”

Merdemus frowned.  “Dr. Xadium has stopped blasting energy into the Cosmic.  Why have you not begun to grow?”

Mecha-Lizard roared with the voice of MOLDUS.  “Because we have used the energy to augment this flimsy movie prop with a skin of Adamantium that will hold our consciousness!”

“We?  Our?”  Drek sat down and rubbed his temple.

Miranda nodded.  “Without Dr. Xadium’s brain, I think MOLDUS has lost his ability to be a single entity.  I think he’s reverting to a collective, composed of the personalities that he leached from Max.”

MOLDUS continued to speak, even as he smashed through a building.

“We are MOLDUS.  We have determined that biological life is inherently weak, and thus inferior to us. Inferior life is not to be tolerated.  It shall be destroyed.”

Bill yelled at the giant Mecha-Dragon.  “I thought you said Adamantium was weak metal!  Why are you using it to shield yourself?!”

MOLDUS laughed.  “A weak metal, but serviceable for our purposes.”

Merdemus scowled.  “And that would be?”

“The total annihilation of all biological life on the planet Earth.”

“What is this neighborhood coming to?!”  Drek scrambled as MOLDUS decimated a small building right next to him.

Dr. Xadium weakly ambled up to the group, looking noticeably older.  “It took much power on my part to expel MOLDUS, but I know some of what he knows.  He is still drawing power from the ygdrasil, but that power is waning, as someone else is starting to tap it.”

“For what purpose?”  Merdemus tried to blast off the Dragon’s legs, but the Adamantium was also Magically protected.

“I do not know.  I only know that MEFISTO has the fragment now.  If we can stop MOLDUS, we can follow the ygdrasil straight to them.”

Bill pulled out his sword and admired it.  “How do we stop him?”

Xadium frowned.  “MOLDUS’ power is concentrated inside that Adamantium shell.  If you can breach it, with my newfound strength, I can contain his madness.  I tried to before, but it had taken too much of my energy just to extricate his presence from my mind.”

“And we’ve got to get a move on!”  Miranda pointed to MOLDUS, who was heading for the Douglas Arms hotel.

Bill ran up to the Dragon and began slashing at it with his sword.  There were many sparks, but MOLDUS was unaffected.

Dr. Xadium frowned.  “All you’ll do is sharpen your sword.  Adamantium will not cut Adamantium.”

Bill nodded.  “I know!  Isn’t my sword shiny?”

Drek watched as the lumbering Dragon moved closer to the Douglas Arms.  He turned to Miranda.

“You’re with CID, right?  So you have a ton of government connections?”

Within five minutes, a convoy of tanks rolled down the avenue and raised their gun barrels towards MOLDUS.

Max tapped on one of his gold teeth, and the sounds of the inter-tank radio could be heard as the tank operators got ready to fire on MOLDUS.

“Red One active.  Ready to fire on big bogey.”

“Red Two active.  Locking on to big bogey.”

“Fire the nukes!  Waste Russia! YEAH!”

“Red Three, this is Red One. Kill the video game.”

As the tanks raised their barrels and prepared to fire, MOLDUS stepped on them.

Drek scowled.  “Gee, Miranda. Wonderful, the awesome power of the United States military.”

Miranda frowned.  “Hey!  It’s all I could get on such short notice.”

Merdemus snatched Bill’s sword from him, and squeezed the blade guard.  “I will show you what to do with a sword.”

Merdemus lifted up the sword, and lightning began to strike it from all directions.

“Merlin taught me this trick when I was visiting Camelot.”

Swinging the sword down, Merdemus aimed it at MOLDUS and yelled, “VAS!”

The pent-up energy in the sword lanced forward, breached MOLDUS’ Magical shield, and ruptured the Adamantium casing on his thigh.

Before Dr. Xadium could rush in to suck out MOLDUS’ energy, he tripped on a banana peel and helplessly watched as the hole in the Dragon’s side began to reseal itself.

Merdemus fired another blast from the sword, but it did not even cause a scratch this time.

MOLDUS turned briefly to face the Mage.  “Resistance is futile.  We adapt to your primitive methods of assault.  You will be destroyed.”

He then returned to smashing the façade of the Douglas Arms.

Max ran over to Merdemus. “Gotta car?”

Merdemus shook his head.

Drek stuck out the keys to his ’65 Stingray mindlessly.

“Take it, I don’t want to know.”

Max grinned and dragged Bill, who was protesting as Merdemus held his sword up and grinned.

“C’mon, mate!  We don’t have much toime!  Works yer Magic on the Stingray!”

“What do you want me to do with it?”

“Turn it inte sumthin’ cool!”


Drek winced as he saw his Stingray rush at MOLDUS, painted pink with purple polka-dots and protected by a Magical shield.

Dr. Xadium was on the top of the car, hanging on as it hit eighty-eight miles an hour.  Drek watched as the flames from the burning rubber blazed a trail to the giant Dragon.

“Nonono . . . don’t crash it!  No!” Drek covered his eyes as the car impacted into MOLDUS’ leg, causing the Dragon to lose its balance and crash into the Adams Hotel.

“Does your hotel have mechanical Dragon insurance, Merde?”

“Does your car, Drek?”

Drek sat down and began to weep.

Merdemus leapt up and ran over to the fallen Dragon, who was cracked badly in several places.

“Obviously you were not prepared for the power of Max’s stupidity.”

“Fool.  Even now we repair ourselves.”

Krag scrambled atop the mechanical beast and tried to burn through the Adamantium, but the metal was melting too slowly.

Bill grabbed his sword from Merdemus.  “MOLDUS will heal before Krag can make a hole large enough for Dr. Xadium to get inside.”

Merdemus climbed next to Krag and yelled over the sound of roaring flame, “Is there any way to augment your flame?”

Krag paused briefly and said, “Bring me the ygdrasil.”

“Failing that.”

“My flame is generated by halitosis.  Increase the foul odor of my breath.”

Merdemus scrambled down to Drek.  “Come on!  We have to go see Krek!”

“OH, no!  No way!  Never!”  Drek started to flee, but Merdemus grabbed him by the collar.

“Do I have to remind you that if we fail, MOLDUS will start to exterminate every person on the planet?”

“Uhh, effective population control?  Good for the planet.  Yeah.”

*                                  *                                  *

It was about five minutes later that the two were outside of Krek’s little cave underneath the boulder that indicated the center of what was Garath.  Merdemus noted that wildlife had begun to return to the area.  Searching around the base of the boulder, he found the entrance to the cave and walked in.


Drek backed away from the cave, gasping for air as Merdemus continued inwards, yelling, “Ids be, Berdebus! Berdebus, the Bage!  The Bage!”

“Ahh . . . me remember you now!”

Drek ran as far as he could from Krek’s cave and noted that there was a large plume of fire coming from the general direction of downtown San Francisco.

*                                  *                                  *

“Alan Wright, put the C-4 away!”  Miranda snatched the highly potent explosive from her nephew and deposited it in her purse.

Max, smoking from every part of his body, growled, “No.  Zanzillian would not like to play with your firecracker.”

MOLDUS was beginning to stir, and Krag frantically upped the intensity of his flame . . . but it just was not enough to stop the lurching giant, which rose from a semi-sitting position and began to march down the avenue.

The front end of the Adams Hotel, which had been smashed in by MOLDUS’ impact, collapsed, and Bill led the others to safety as MOLDUS stomped on several of the SFPD’s Political Incorrectness Suppression Squad cars, saying, “Political Correctness is irrelevant.  Your cultural imperatives are foolish, and thus, we ignore them.”

Bill smiled.  “Guess MOLDUS isn’t so bad after all.”

As MOLDUS moved down the street, his eyes glowed red, and beams of energy shot into the windows of people’s homes.

Miranda frowned.  “That looks like—my god!  He’s irradiating people’s homes!”

Bill shrugged.  “No danger yet. Nobody’s on this entire avenue.”  He pointed at a billboard that read: “Tonight only!  Barney the Tree SINGS!”

Miranda let out a sigh of relief.  “Well, at least they won’t be hurt as badly.  That singing’s no treat, though.”

Max shrugged.  “You guys get the feeling that MEFISTO might’ve put MOLDUS in as some kinda distraction?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, think.  If they have the ygdrasil, why couldn’t they use its power te knock MOLDUS’ block off?  I think they want te keep us busy ’ere while they set up wotever it is this High Elder bloke wants.”

Miranda frowned.  “Are you sure you’re crazy?”

Al ran up to his aunt, tugging her skirt.  “Listen!”


“Well, in the movies, they got rid of Mecha-Lizard by stabbing him in the stomach with a fork.”

“This is no time for games!”

Max shook his head.  “The boy’s roight.  I saw the third movie.  Mecha-Lizard was stompin’ Tokyo, and his creator, the evil Dr. Doc D. Doctor had turned good and so revealed ’is weak spot, which the prop moight ’ave, now that I think about it.”

“Well, what was it?”

Al grinned.  “Tell her, mighty Zanzillian!”

Max growled.  “A shiny red button in ’is stomach, which was hit with a large sign that was shaped loike a fork.”

Al jumped around.  “Zanzillian knows everything!”

Max grinned.  “Kid finally said sumthin’ roight.  I need a javelin.”

Miranda shrugged.  “Fresh out.”

“No problem.”  Max pulled down a streetlamp, ran in front of MOLDUS, and grinned.  “Hope ye don’t get indigestion easy.”

MOLDUS laughed.  “We are strong.  You are weak.  Your resistance is useless.  You will be terminated.” He fired a blast of radiation at Max, who was thoroughly bathed in it.

“Could ye turn up the intensity, mate?  I’m not even gettin’ a tan.”

MOLDUS paused and discontinued the beam.  “Interesting.  Resilience factor non-computable—possibly infinite. Adapting frequency of radioactive beam to ten million rads.”

The Dragon fired another blast, which hit Max’s streetlamp and superheated it.

Max growled.  “You’re melting me javelin.”  He threw it at a red spot on MOLDUS’ stomach, and the mechanical Dragon began to fall.

“So . . . they were aiming fer realism with their props!”

As the Dragon smashed into yet another building, Max ran up to the red button and pummeled it with his fists. Even with the Adamantium shielding on the button, it was beginning to dent.

Krag levitated up to the button and snorted a puff of flame.  “Get out of the way so I can use my flame on it.”

Max grunted.  “Go ahead, mate.”

“Your hand!  Move it!”  The Dragon levitated around Max nervously.

“I won’t notice!”  Max yelled as he continued to pound the button.

Krag let loose with as much fire as he could, and Max continued to pummel the button mercilessly.

Miranda, who was down at the base of the Dragon, yelled, “He’s almost done repairing!”

MOLDUS laughed.  “You will be destroyed.”

“I don’t think so.”  Merdemus frowned as he and Drek raced in, holding a very large vat at arm’s length.

“Miranda, get far out of the way—this smell is lethal.”

Merdemus and Drek brought the canister up to Max and Krag, who had actually made a small hole in the button.

As the Mages peered in the hole, they saw a milky white field of energy that seemed to permeate the whole machine.

Max noted that wires were beginning to repair the hole, so he shoved Krag in front of it, told him to breathe fire, and signaled Drek and Merdemus to dump the almost-solid Krek breath in front of the Dragon.

Krag’s flame halted for a second as he sealed his nose—but the next second it intensified to a white-hot blast of energy that turned MOLDUS’ Adamantium to a puddle of liquid goo.

Dr. Xadium, who had just pulled himself out of the wreck of Drek’s ’65 Stingray, clambered up MOLDUS’ leg and fell into the hole, which resealed itself.

Krag continued to blast the red button with intense heat, and Max even rammed Drek’s skull into it, but MOLDUS arose, and the Mages fell off.

“We have adapted to your brute force methods of attack.  We are no longer vulnerable to fire.  You will be irradiated.”

Merdemus and the others braced for a blast of radiation as MOLDUS’ eyes glowed, but they went dark and the mechanical Dragon slumped forward.

“Run!”  Drek led the charge as MOLDUS came crashing down into yet another building.

The metallic monster exploded into thousands of Adamantium fragments (most of which ended up as makeshift switchblades for the “new” Purple Death, which was composed of a whining five-year-old and an insane Hegon Killem), and Dr. Xadium stood in the center of the smashed machine, clutching his head.  He pulled Merdemus to the side and spoke into his ear, his tone dark and menacing.

“You must know—you are serving the will of the Zero Order.”

Merdemus shoved Xadium away, and the god of evolution grinned as he spoke to the others.

“I’ve got a headache.  By the way, did I mention I’m now half evil?”

The Mages, save Merdemus, looked at one another and shrugged as Xadium ran off.

Merdemus stared off into the middle distance for a moment before walking over to Krag and informing him he could now breathe again.

“Krag, we must go after MEFISTO.  If Max’s theory is correct, they have used the time we spent defeating MOLDUS to harness the ygdrasil fragment.  Where was it last?”

“On the largest peak in the Drakklar mountain group.”

Merdemus sat down. “Impossible.  I was there for a millennium.  I fell off that mountain not two weeks ago.”

“What wast thou doing there?”

Merdemus shuffled his feet. “Trying to burn a twig.”

Krag snorted.  “Fool!  Thou canst burn ygdrasil!  Verily, that would explain why I felt that burning sensation behind my ear!”

Merdemus rose, thunderstruck. “You mean . . . I had the ygdrasil for a millennium?!”

Krag nodded.  “You would not have felt its power, since I was leaching it.”

Miranda blinked.  “Ygdrasil’s a tree, right . . . so the fragment was a twig!”

Bill nodded, and laughed.  “So . . . heheh . . . Merde probably picked it up, tried to burn it, got cursed by the fragment, and so, can never burn a lowly twig!”

Merdemus punched Bill, who fell on the ground and saw pink bunnies in the sky.  “Regardless of this . . . unfortunate fact, we must head to the Drakklar range.”

“Where is it?”  Miranda prevented her nephew from tossing Krag into a dumpster.

Bill used his to point towards the east.  “Not too far from here, nowadays it’s called the El Diablo Range.”

Merdemus scowled.  “An apt name.  Let us go.  I am tired of these diversions.”

He watched as the sky began to return to a bluish tint as dawn approached.  He walked into the center of the devastated San Francisco block, spread out his arms, looked up and yelled, “We have defeated your golem, Elder!  MEFISTO has failed again!  For the twenty-first time, you have failed to destroy us!”

Bill spun his sword, and joined Merdemus, holding his sword up to the sky, yelling.  “I am prepared for you as well, Elder!  And you, Kalijess!  Be warned . . . I come for blood!”

Drek looked up, spat, wiped his face and yelled, “You destroyed my restaurant!  I will have my revenge!”

Max growled.  “I will destroy the MEFISTO agent who framed me fer the murder of Wolf Matthews!”

Miranda looked at the group and smiled.  “Err, don’t you guys feel stupid yelling at thin air?”

The Mages all looked at one another, gulped, shrugged and turned to face her.

Mumbled “It’s not what you think,” “They can hear us” and “Oh man”s could be heard from the group.

Merdemus stepped forward and confidently said, “Our yelling causes disturbances in the Cosmic, which are then . . . uhh . . . transmitted to MEFISTO, who can hear it and tremble in fear at our impending arrival.”

Bill stepped forward.  “Yeah . . . it’s an ancient technique . . . uhh . . . I think it relates to . . . quantum physics or something.”

Max burped.  “It’s just fun, mates.”

Miranda pointed to the horizon, where flashes of light could be seen illuminating a mountain’s peak.  I don’t think the fun’s going to last long if we don’t get over there and put MEFISTO out of business.”

Max scratched his head.  “Wot the hell does MEFISTO stand fer, anyway?”

Bill thrust his sword in the ground, causing it to spark against the asphalt.  “I’m just going to have to ask them when we get there.”

Merdemus and the others walked down the devastated street, heading for the illuminated mountain, while Bill struggled to pull his sword out of the ground.

“Hey guys!  Wait up!”  Bill yanked the sword free.

“Guys!”  The water main Bill’s sword had hit burst.

“Guys?”  Bill ran after his friends, soaking.  


Merdemus and the others stood at the base of the Drakklar mountain range and looked up thousands of feet to the peak.

Miranda looked back at Merdemus, and incredulously asked, “You fell off of that mountain?”

Merdemus nodded.  “It was not pleasant.”

Drek grinned.  “I can’t believe Eric just pushed you offa that thing.”

“He was incredibly stupid.  I wonder what became of him after we hung him on that flagpole?”

Al ran up to the base of the mountain and frowned.  “Aunt Miranda, where’s the escalator?”

Bill sighed.  “Do we actually have to climb this thing?”

“You know we’re saving our energy for whatever’s up there,” Drek replied.

“What good is it if we’re so winded from the climb that we’re too tired to cast spells?”

Max grinned.  “Easy.  I’ll ’old ’em all off ’til yer rested.  It’ll be a splendid bloodbath!”

Merdemus nudged Miranda.  “I don’t think we should bring the boy.”

Max madly nodded his assent.

Al slipped some C-4 into Max’s shoe and it detonated, sending the Mage halfway up the mountain and back down again.

Merdemus shook his head. “Forget that—we need the boy.”

Miranda nodded.  “Max, do me a favor and—”

“Zanzillian!”  Al bounded to Max joyfully.

Max had to use his left arm to keep his trembling right arm from killing the child.  “Shut up.  I tell you for the last toime, I’m not bloody ZANZILLIAN!”

“Awww . . . I like you, Zanzillian.  Be my loyal slave and fetch me up the mountain.”

Max grudgingly lifted the boy up onto his shoulders and began to carry him up the side of the mountain.

Merdemus and the others followed the remarkably undemanding trail.

Bill looked at the trail and murmured something about it all being too easy.

Drek had the uneasy feeling that he was being watched.  This feeling intensified as he walked up the path and two disembodied eyes followed him.

Miranda had pulled out her gun, and the lasersight flitted over the surface of the ancient mountain.  It highlighted something strange, and she stopped the group.

“What are these marks on the side of the mountain?”

Merdemus looked over the strange glyphs that were inscribed all along the rockface.

“These are early Celtic symbols.  Bill is the expert at these, as he came from that region.”

Bill walked up to the wall, adjusted his sunglasses and squinted in the pale light of dawn.  “My eyes aren’t as good as Merde’s.”

Max opened his mouth and yanked out a glowing molar.  “This ’ere is still radioactive from MOLDUS’ beam.”

Bill gingerly held the tooth to the wall and read the symbols.  “These are the continuing logs of . . . Merdemus?!”

Merdemus shrugged.  “Continue.”

“Merdemus, Mage of the First Order . . . blah, blah blah.  I inscribe this on the wall of the mountain I was pushed from weeks earlier.  I do not know who is responsible for this, but Drek and Miranda have already fallen to MEFISTO.  If I do not stop the Elder, their loss will have been for nothing.”

Miranda shuddered, but Bill waved his hand.  “This was dated tonight.  If this mountain is at the middle of a MEFISTO time gate, this stuff will undoubtedly show up.  Obviously, this time around, we’re doing better.”

“Let’s hope.”  Drek was still glaring at the two eyes that were following him.

Krag looked noticeably pale as the group went up the mountain, and as the sun finally rose over San Francisco, everyone noticed that the red Dragon was actually a very faded pink—almost white.

“What’s wrong, Mr. Dragon?”  Al reached out to touch Krag, who cowered.

“Get that demonspawn away from me!”

Max grabbed Al with one arm, took a knapsack from his jacket in the other, made two large holes in its bottom and shoved Al inside.  He then slung the makeshift papoose over his shoulder.

Krag snarled.  “Any power I derived from the twig is now gone.  Whatever MEFISTO is using it for, they have now tapped it so completely that if we do not stop them, I will perish.”

“We are nearing our destination.”  Merdemus pointed to more glyphs.

“Now that I realize it is my handwriting, I will translate.”

Bill snorted.  “Mage of the First Order.  Hmph.  Can’t even read his own writing.  Getting senile, Merde?”

Merdemus cleared his throat. “Hmm.  This seems to be from another attempt.  It says:  ‘I am weak, barely able to continue.  Miranda and I are the last two.  Defeat is—’  Hmm.  It’s scratched out.  It says, ‘Returning in victory.  Miranda and I have come to the determination that if the cycle repeats, it should be broken.’“

“Now, wot does that mean?”  Max scratched his head.

Merdemus shrugged.  “When we learn enough about the cycle, perhaps this will have meaning.  It does seem to be the most recent inscription.”

Drek was tired of the two eyeballs that were following him, and he caught them in his hand and presented them to the others.

“These were following me.”

Merdemus glanced at the eyeballs, which stared at him expressionlessly.

“They look familiar somehow.”

Max took them and rattled them about in his palm, testing the weight.  “These are Serelin’s.  I guess the cannibalistic hamsters didn’t get all of him, then.”  He went to place them in his mouth.

Bill snatched away the eyeballs and peered at them.  “You should be in some witch’s sickening recipe under ‘Eyeballs of Moron,’ not following us about.  Go find the rest of your body. We don’t have it.”

With that, he tossed the eyeballs down the side of the mountain.

Miranda looked at this and blinked.  “Would someone mind telling me how Serelin’s eyeballs could be following us without the rest of him?”

Merdemus rubbed his temple. “Obviously, he was eaten by many hamsters, then revived, got them to vomit him out, and now he’s in small pieces, all trying to recombine.  His eyes obviously thought we knew where the rest of him was at.”

“What was I thinking?”  Miranda slapped Al, who was squirming in Max’s backpack, trying to stick some C-4 in the Mage’s left ear.

“How much further?”  Drek stared up at the peak of the mountain, which was still glowing with energy even though the sun was now almost full up.

Merdemus shook his head.  “It was much faster going down than up—and I haven’t gone up this mountain in one thousand years.”

Max licked his index finger and held it to the wind.  “I’d say, precisely six thousand seven hundred and forty-two feet to the summit.”

Bill did a double take.  “How did you get that number by just sticking your wet finger into the wind?”

Max grinned.  “Thot ’ad nuthin te do with it.  See?”  He pointed to a wooden sign that read “6,742 ft. to summit—San Francisco Surveyors, 1819.”

Merdemus sighed wistfully. “Those must be the fellows I scared off the mountain.  I didn’t mean to, but the pot of boiling gold simply slipped in my hand and tumbled down onto them.”

Bill growled.  “Yeah.  Like that time in Garath you accidentally put that snake in my bed.”

Merdemus shrugged.  “It was non-poisonous.”

“It was a boa constrictor!  It didn’t have to be venomous!”

“Details, details.”

Within a few hours, the group had made it up to a shelf just under the summit of the mountain, and they set up camp, preparing for the upcoming battle.

Al, having escaped from Max’s backpack, wandered around the camp, watching the others prepare for MEFISTO. Bill was his first target.

“Whatcha doin’ mister?”

Bill, who was at the edge of the cliff in front of nothing but the now-tiny San Francisco, swung his sword in an arc and brought it smoothly down.  “I’m refining my technique and harnessing my Chi energy.”


Bill raised his sword up, spun it, and made slashing motions in the air, letting the sun glint off the blade. “I must be prepared for the best that MEFISTO can offer.”


“So that we can vanquish the evil that threatens to destroy us all, and make the world a better place.”  He made another dramatic sweep with his sword.


Bill grimaced.  “So we can finish off MEFISTO, get off this mountain and send you home!  Away from me! FAR AWAY!”  The Mage sheathed his sword and stalked off, muttering something about pesticides and frosted breakfast cereals.

“Okay mister, that’s cool, bye.”  Al, undeterred, walked over to Max.

“Hi, Zanzillian.”

Miranda walked over to Merdemus, and tried her best to ignore the screams of agony that Max was putting out.

“Merdemus, I need some more bullets for this .45.”

Merdemus picked up the gun and examined it.  “A simple matter.”  He picked up some rocks, studied them, and muttered a small spell.

Miranda took the rocks and looked at them.  “These are silver bullets.”

Merdemus nodded.  “They were the only kind of bullet Drek had ever seen, so they are the only kind I know of. According to his mind, they were supposed to be for the assassination of some kind of dog.”

Miranda loaded the bullets in the gun and smiled.  “Err . . . you mean werewolf.”

“Uhh . . . no, not werewolves . . . Drek was contemplating using them to shoot his neighbor’s noisy dog.”


“Besides, you don’t kill werewolves with silver bullets, anyway.  Were that the case, they would have been impossible to kill before the invention of the gun.”

“So how did you kill them?”

Merdemus shrugged.  “Spoilt soup.”

Drek was off in a corner of the base camp, sitting with his head in his hands, wistfully looking over the California landscape.

Krag ambled over to him, and snorted a small flame.  Drek raised his head.  “Watch it, Dragon.  Every time you do that, I lose more hair.”

Krag snarled.  “Why art thou not preparing?”

Drek smiled self-deprecatingly. “I’m not needed.  Merdemus is a powerful Mage of the First Order, Bill is a Mage of the Second Order and some kind of genius with a sword, Max is insane or something, and Miranda’s a government agent.  I’m just a lucky Mage.”

Krag almost choked.  “Just a lucky Mage?  Thou art foolish.  Thy power almost rivals that of Merdemus.  He simply hath a millennium of isolation to hone his powers.  You have a special destiny to fulfill now, and in the future.”

Drek scratched his head.  “How the gratz do you know so much about us, anyway?”

Krag walked away from the Mage.

Drek sighed, looked up, muttered an incantation, and a small bolt of lightning hit the Dragon, which hissed, turned and arched its back.

“Why didst thou hit me?”

“You didn’t answer me.”

“That is because there are things thou shouldst not know.”

Drek flexed his palm, and a globule of power began to grow in it.

“Very well.  I am in no state to withstand your attack.  I know so much about all of thee because . . . in the first cycle of MEFISTO, I was the entity they augmented to kill thee.”

Drek’s jaw dropped, and the globule of power vanished.  Merdemus and the others had heard the Dragon, and they walked over to him.

Krag snorted.  “But I turned on them when I determined that they were lying to me about their purposes.  I took some of their sacred texts and barricaded myself in the cave that Drek later found me in.”

“So you lied about MEFISTO erecting that barrier, and about your power.”

Krag snarled.  “I erected the barrier to keep MEFISTO out, and away from those tomes of power.  I leached the power of the ygdrasil in the hopes that they wouldst never find it again.”

Merdemus frowned.  “But I had the twig.”

“In the first cycle, it was taken from thee and used to augment me.  You convinced me that MEFISTO was evil, and I swore to defend the fragment of ygdrasil.”

Max grabbed Al and prevented the boy from sticking some old bubble gum in his ear.  “So, ’ow many cycles have you been in this, then?”

Krag sat down.  “Just that one. Ever since then, I hast been in my cave, studying the tomes of MEFISTO.”

“Find out anything, mate?”

“They roamed the ancient world, destroying civilizations and complicating languages.”

“Complicating languages?”

“All those silent consonants in the French language?  MEFISTO.”

Drek shook his head.  “How many times have we been through this?”

Krag let a small puff of smoke exit his nostrils.  “This is the twenty-first, apparently.  But physically, it is the first time.”

Bill polished his sword.  “So, who’s behind all this?”

Krag shook his head.  “I barricaded myself before the final confrontation.  I only know that each of you hast died many times, as MEFISTO’s assaults grew more deadly each iteration . . . that is, except for Merdemus.”

Miranda took out her gun, and looked at it.  It needed cleaning.  She felt vaguely uncomfortable somehow. Bill stopped polishing his sword and looked at her from the corner of his eye.

Miranda sensed it, and Bill noted that she did.  They both eyed each other warily.

Merdemus nodded.  “Otherwise, the cycle would have ended.”

Max grinned.  “’Arder?  It seemed bloody simple te me.”

Krag levitated a bit off the ground.  “MOLDUS is what hast kept you all alive.”

Miranda cleaned out her gun. “Excuse me?  MOLDUS nearly did us in.”

Krag snorted some smoke amusedly.  “Please.  MOLDUS was too testy for MEFISTO.  You saw how he summarily dispensed with most of their lot.  Were it not for him, thee wouldst have had to face the brunt of MEFISTO’s Mages.  As thee saw from the inscriptions, that was not as easy.”

Bill felt his neck.  “I’ll say. I think I might have actually been scarred if I had had to fight all of them.”

Krag ignored the ego that walked like a Mage.  “It is imperative that the cycle end here and now.  If this were to start again, we wouldst be back to square one, and the next time, we might have to face the combined might of MEFISTO’s Mages.”

“How do we break the cycle?” Merdemus noted that the mountain was beginning to tremble slightly.

“I do not know.  Presumably, with the defeat of MEFISTO.”

Drek raised his hand.  “I don’t think so, since one of the inscriptions indicated that Merde and Miranda had returned in victory.  Thus, there must be something more to this cycle.”

Merdemus clenched his right fist and placed it in his left hand.

“Obviously, the victories of the past cycles were incomplete.  Thus, when we reach the summit of this mountain, we must be prepared to wage total war.”

“Well, we ain’t gonna get there by chattin’ all day!”  Max grabbed Al, shoved him in his backpack, and began going up the mountain.

Bill was about to follow when Miranda pulled him aside and shoved him against the rockface.

“What do you know?” she asked.

“Lots of things,” Bill replied.

“Like what?”

Bill felt a gun press against his ribs.  “Why the hostility?” he quipped.


As Bill opened his mouth, Merdemus asked, “Are we going?” and Miranda was forced to let Bill pass.

Merdemus and Miranda followed him, and Drek picked up Krag, who was feeling weaker, and began to carry him up the trail.  Bill dropped back to guard the rear.  Suddenly, the entire group ground to a stop as the outlines of a giant face appeared in the sky and began to speak.

*                                  *                                  *

Deep in the recesses of the mountain, the Elder of MEFISTO stood over his vat.  His side still ached from Merdemus’ plasma blast, and his cat had rebelled and walked out.  Nevertheless, the Elder considered it a good day.  In his vat, a picture of Merdemus and the others appeared, and they were staring directly at him.  He smiled and began to speak.

“Very good, Mage Merdemus.  You and your associates have destroyed MOLDUS.  It is just as well—he was becoming a nuisance.”

Max looked at the face in the sky and shook his fist.  “I ’ave only one thing te say to you, ye giant ’ead!”


“Wot does MEFISTO stand for, anyhow?”

Bill hit him on the head. “Great question, stupid.”

The Elder smiled slightly.  “It signifies your death.”

Max growled.  “Thot was bloody informative.”

Merdemus flung a fireball at the Elder’s face, but it just passed through it, fell to the canopy of the forest and started a brushfire which burned only the leaves of the trees, but not any of the branches or trunks.

“Face it, Mage Merdemus.  I am the Elder of MEFISTO.  I will always be your better.  Bring your friends and rush to your death.”

Al heard the word “death” and perked up.  “Hey, mister Elder, whatcha doin’?”

“Preparing to kill all of you.”


*                                  *                                  *

A few minutes later, the face in the air screamed in agony and disappeared.  Bill patted Al on the head.  “Good work, kid.”

“What’d I do?”

“Forget it.”

The group continued to go up the path leading to the summit, until a Mage in Red stood in their way.

“I will stop you.”

Merdemus bowed to the Mage. “Ahh.  An escort.  Very well, lead the way.”

The Mage in Red blinked.  “I am here to kill, not escort you.”

Merdemus nodded.  “Yes, yes.  So take us to the Elder.”

“Were you listening to me?”

Merdemus turned away from the Mage, and then snapped back, catching him in a headlock as his fist glowed red with energy.

“Let me ask you a question.  If the Elder wanted us dead so badly that he was willing to go through twenty-one cycles, do you honestly think he would be pleased if anyone other than himself was to effect our deaths?”

The Mage in Red thought about it for a moment.  “Yes.”

Merdemus blinked.  “Very well, then.  Max, eat him.”

Max grinned, and used a toothpick to clean a tooth.  “Lunch!”

The Mage in Red shook visibly. “I—I—think I’ll be leaving now.”

Max dashed for the Mage, who disappeared before he could grab him.  Bill had to hold him back.

“Damn!  Merde wasn’t serious! Are you that hungry?”

Al started to whine. “Zanzillian!”

Max pulled the child out of his knapsack and salivated.  Al shut up.

Max turned to the others and whispered, “Finally!  Got ’im te shut up!”

Al grinned.  “I heard you, Zanzillian!”

Max growled and shoved the kid back in his knapsack.

Merdemus pointed to the summit. “Our journey is almost over.  Beyond that shelf of rock lies my old home, which is presumably where MEFISTO lies in wait.”

Two hours later, a hand clasped onto the top of a rock ridge.  It almost lost its purchase on the rockface, but it held on.  Another hand rose up behind it and yanked it off the rock.

“Got ’im.”  Max looked at the hand that had been climbing the mountain, and tossed it over his shoulder. “More of Serelin.”

The group clambered over the ledge and into the center of Merdemus’ old compound.

“It’s empty.”  Bill sheathed his sword and chuckled as he saw the circle of power that Merdemus had probably sat in trying to burn the fragment of ygdrasil.

*                                  *                                  *

High in the mountains of Drakklar, hidden among the vast outcroppings of stone and barren peaks of jagged ice, the Great Mage Merdemus and his friends were thoroughly confused.

Drek thumbed through an old codex of Merdemus’, and he started when he noted the cover read, “The Fifth Codex.”

“Merde, is this the Fifth Codex?”

Merdemus snatched the book away.  “No!  It is my grimoire.  The fifth of ten, but I have lost eight of the other parts in the set.”

“Your gri-what?”  Miranda was examining some of the more esoteric artwork around Merdemus’ house.

“Grimoire.”  Bill used his finger to pull off some of the dust on one of the sculptures.  “It’s nothing—just his little spellbook.”

Merdemus threw the book at Bill, hitting him on the head.  “Maybe you should read it; you might come up to my level.”

Max stepped in and prevented the two egos from slaughtering one another.  “We’re supposed to be foightin’ MEFISTO!”

He took the book from Bill, who was about to burn it, and he handed it to Miranda, who slipped it into her purse.  She felt queasy for a moment, and Bill shot her a look.  She stood stiffly.  The sensation had been the same as when she had encountered Al for the first time after the flashforward.

Drek looked around confusedly. “What the hell is going on here?  All the while we came up the mountain, it was glowing and shaking.  Now it’s all normal?!”

Krag, who was literally dragging himself across the ground, wheezed, “We are too late.”

Merdemus growled.  “No.  Were we too late, we would be dead.”

Max shook Al out of his backpack, and tried to pull a pair of rollerskates out of the child’s hands. “Gimme thot!”

Al grinned.  “Wow!  If you look really deep in his bag, he’s got like everything in there!”

Max frowned.  “Oh yeah.  That’s me transcendentally dimensional bag.  A pal gave it to me a while ago—just before he disappeared.”

Miranda looked at the bag, stuck her hand in, pulled out an alligator, and quickly threw it back inside.

“What don’t you have in there?”


Drek growled.  “I’ll say, Mr. Freeloader.”

Al grabbed the bag from his aunt, pulled out another pair of rollerskates, went over to Krag, who was still dragging himself on the floor, and attached one skate to each of the Dragon’s feet.

Krag snorted.  “Thank you.  I can move around easil-ieeeeeee!”

The Dragon suddenly realized the full ramifications of having wheels attached to his feet, and he spun out of control towards the edge of the mountain.

Al ran to the edge, and like a classic soccer player, kicked Krag back to safety.  Before the Dragon could thank him, however, Al began to play a game of Kick the Dragon and Run enhanced.

Merdemus moved aside to let the Dragon whiz by, and he put his ear to the ground.  “There is a vibration coming from inside the mountain.”

Max nodded.  “Thot’s where they are, then.”  He swung a fist to the ground, and the ground began to crack.

“Get out of the circle!” Everyone jumped out of the Magic circle as Max continued to pummel the ground, his arms and fists acting as massive pylons crashing into the ground.

Each punch Max delivered shook the ground, and within minutes, a rather deep hole was forming inside Merdemus’ Magic circle.

Miranda watched as sweat began to form on Max’s brow, and she turned to Merdemus.  “Couldn’t one of you guys use your Magic to speed up the process?”

Merdemus shook his head.  “No. We are conserving energy for the coming battle.”

Max continued to hammer the ground until a crackling sound could be heard.  He grinned, and started to jump excitedly.  “Almost got it!  Almost!  Almost!  Al—”

The ground gave way, and Bill barely managed to keep Max from falling through the shaft that had been created.

A beam of red energy shot out from the shaft, and everyone jumped back.

Merdemus studied it.  “It is a beam of pure Cosmic.  I suspect this is the final barrier that the Elder could conceive of to keep us out.”

Miranda checked her gun. “Didn’t you say that exposure to the Cosmic was lethal?”

“Yes.  The human body cannot withstand the rapid changes made to it by exposure to pure Cosmic.”

Drek stepped forward and started walking towards the beam.  “Well, I volunteer to go in and disrupt the beam.  I mean, I am the luckiest Mage alive—and I know the Seventh Discipline.”

Before Merdemus and the others could stop him, Drek was knocked out of the way by a careening Krag, who rolled straight into the path of the beam.

Krag’s eyes widened, and his whitened scales returned to a rich, crimson color that was slightly darker than before.  Krag snorted a powerful flame, and his scales began to glisten, brighter and shinier, until they became a reddish silver.  He stepped out of the beam, which spluttered and vanished.

“There is no need to fear.  I am a Dragon, naturally attuned to the Cosmic.  I had never drawn power from it, since I drew strength from the ygdrasil.  I have now restored my energy reserves, and I am truly a Dragon of the Adamantium order.”

“Eh?”  Max pulled some snot from his nose.

Krag snorted, and the flame was stronger than before.  “Biclaxaltonian can sharpen his sword on my scales now. I will remain at this size, since the infusion of the Cosmic does not work in the same way as the ygdrasil.  If Drek had stepped in the beam, he would have perished within seconds.”

Drek expelled a long breath. “Guess I am the luckiest Mage alive.”

Miranda leaned down to the Dragon.  “Let me remove those roller skates.”

“DO NOT TOUCH ME!” the Dragon hissed.  Krag shook his head.  “Apologies.  My scales are still sensitive from the recharging.  Besides, I am beginning to like this mode of transport.”

“A Dragon on roller skates.  I don’t believe it.”  Miranda also didn’t believe Krag was telling the truth about his scales being sensitive.  She pitched a penny at him when he wasn’t looking.

The penny hit a rear scale and bounced off.  When it was heard impacting the ground next to Krag, then the Dragon let out a howl of pain.

“Sorry.”  Miranda shrugged. Krag glared at her, his pupils slitting to their narrowest.  She had to look away.

“What is it?” Drek asked.

“Nothing.”  For an instant, however, Krag’s features had seemed out of proportion, demonic somehow.  It was probably fatigue, she thought.

Merdemus looked down the shaft, which was now completely dark.  “It is time.  At the end of this shaft we will find MEFISTO.  All our abilities will be needed to stop this ene—”

The Mage quickly went down the shaft as the others had gotten bored and jumped in.

“WHEEEEEE!”  As the group fell deep into the interior of the Drakklar mountains, Al dropped a few packets of nitroglycerin down the shaft.

“Hey kid, watch it!  I almost swallowed one of those!”  Drek tossed one of the packets up and Max swallowed it, burping up some flame.

The other packets fell past the group and impacted somewhere far below, causing several explosions.

Bill noticed that the fall through the tunnel was taking an incredibly long time, so he decided to experiment with bowing in midair.  It didn’t quite work, and he wondered what latitude or longitude he had gotten to.  Within moments, he felt something hitting him on the sides, almost like straw.

With a loud thud, Bill impacted onto a bright spike that impaled him in the stomach.  Drek and Merdemus fell on him, but there wasn’t enough spike left to do any damage.  Max fell on them next, pressing Bill further into the spike.  Miranda fell on Max, barely managing to avoid crushing her nephew.  Krag simply levitated down, and wondered why the other Mages hadn’t thought of it.

The others got off of Bill, who was stuck on the spike and scowling.

“I can’t heal this up if somebody doesn’t get this spike out of my stomach!”

Max obligingly ripped the spike out of the floor, and Bill with it.  Using his free hand, Max shoved Bill off the spike like meat from a kabob.

“Thanks, Max.  Do me a favor and stick that in your backpack.  I want it as a momento.”

Max shoved Al out of the way and dropped the spike inside his pack.  It went completely in, and soundlessly disappeared.

Merdemus invoked the First Discipline and looked around the interior of the mountain.  There was nothing but shiny granite everywhere the eye could see.

Krag began prowling around the edges of the shaft, reptilian eyes glowing in the dark.  “I hear activity behind this barrier.  Much activity.  We shouldst take immediate action.”

“Like what?  I can’t even see!” Miranda was futilely trying to use her lasersight as a flashlight.

Bill pulled out one of the twigs he routinely used to taunt Merdemus, and struck his sword against the granite. As the sparks flew, Bill held the sparks up to the twig and it began to burn.

He gave the torch to Miranda and turned to Merdemus.  “See?  Even my lowly sword can light twigs!”

Merdemus gritted his teeth and looked up.  “We have fallen a great distance.  You can barely see the sky above.”

Krag stuck his snout against the granite and began to spew fire, melting a virtual doorway in the rock.

Merdemus stepped through the doorway, and a bright light shone over him.

As the others walked through the hole, they found themselves in a large chamber carved out of solid rock.  At the far end of the cavern, there was a pit of boiling lava in the center of which a granite pillar was set.

On top of the pillar, there was a throne in which an elderly man sat.  The man was surrounded in a beam of light, and below him, in front of the lava pit, were several Mages in Red, along with Kalijess.

Krag snorted as he saw three large red Dragons approach from small holes in the cavern wall.

Miranda nudged Merdemus in the shoulder and nodded over to the east end of the cavern, where a large mirror in an ornate gold frame sat, crackling with energy.  In front of the mirror, there was a glass box, in which Merdemus saw a very, very familiar twig.

The old man in the throne rose shakily, and propped himself up with a staff.  “Merdemus.  Again you and your friends penetrate my inner sanctum.”

Merdemus stepped forward, a shaft of light still illuminating his features.  “Who are you?”

The man, whose face was obscured by the beam of light that surrounded him, stepped forward, lost his balance, and was about to fall in the lava pit when one of the red Dragons outstretched its wings and swooped across, catching him and returning him to his throne.

“You should already know who I am, Mage.”

Merdemus frowned.  “Are you Frantelax, the tax collector I dipped in a lake of bees?”

Miranda turned to Bill.  “Gee, he sure knows how to make friends, huh?”

Bill nodded.  “He once dropped the King in a tub of festering yeast, stuck him in an oven and literally broke bread with him.”

Merdemus turned back briefly and hissed, “Do you mind?  I am confronting my nemesis here!  Could all of you have this discussion somewhere else, please?”

Miranda shrugged, and Bill took out a cloth and began to polish his sword quietly.

Merdemus turned back to the Elder of MEFISTO, who glared at him and moved out of the light, scowling.

“I am not Frantelax.  You know my name, Mage.  Think back.  Think back to the one whom you tortured, humiliated, destroyed.  The one whose life you ruined for eternity!”

“You are Frantelax!” Merdemus moved forward.  “I apologize for the bee stings.”

The Elder growled, and yelled out, “I’m not Frantelax!”  He sat back in his throne, and addressed all of the group.  “Do any of you know what this place is?”

Everyone indicated ignorance. Miranda was strongly reminded of a presidential press conference.

“This is a graveyard.”  The Elder waved his hands and dozens of tombstones were highlighted.  He now spoke only to Merdemus.  “Every cycle, I felled some of your friends.  Their bodies are here, from twenty cycles—all except yours, Mage.  Soon, they will be placed here again—and you will join them.”

Miranda gasped as she saw her name on six tombstones.  Max frowned.  “No epitaph, eh?  Too bloody cheap te pay for ’em, eh?”

Drek pointed to one of the tombstones.  “Who’s that?”

Merdemus peered at the tombstone.  “Jack Tachyon.  I do not recognize that name.  Any of you?”

No one did.  The Elder laughed. “Apparently you did not meet him this time around.  Just as well.  He proved to be an annoyance.”

Miranda felt a bit at ease. Maybe this was the one death Sushil had said might balance the scales.  She then felt guilty at taking relief over someone’s passing.

Bill raised his sword.  “Just who in Zarstinozak’s name are you?”

The Elder stood up and cracked his staff in two.  “I am ERIC!  ERIC, you blasted fools!  ERIC, High Elder of MEFISTO!”

Merdemus stifled a laugh.  Bill, Drek and Max began to laugh hysterically.

The Elder did not become angry. “Of course you laugh.  The Eric you know is nothing but a lowly peon, a groveler, licker of boots and only slightly removed from living ooze.  Be warned, however, that the Eric you see before you is forty thousand years older, a destroyer of continents, smasher of civilizations—”

Max looked at the Elder’s tattered robes.  “—And one ’eck of a snappy dresser, too.”

“I can destroy you all with a flick of my finger!”

“Apparently not, since I still exist.”  Merdemus stepped forward.

“Let us finish this foolishness.”

The Elder nodded.  “Yes.  After each cycle I spent two millennia planning my next attempt, only to age as you continually defeated me.  I too, wish to see your desiccated bones crumble under my feet.”

Merdemus continued to move forward.  “Not precisely the image I had in mind.”  He looked at his friends. “Attack.”

Bill’s eyes glinted, and he sprang for Kalijess, sword at the ready.

Krag hissed and arched his back as the three red Dragons eyed him hungrily.

Max and Drek went after the four Mages in Red who had been attending the Elder.

Al stuck near his aunt, and readied some grenades.  “What do we do?”

Miranda shrugged.  “Wait and see where we can help out.”

Merdemus took a twig and inscribed a Magic circle on the ground, which began to glow with power.  “Face me, Elder.”

The Elder jumped off his throne.  “Only if you survive my champion, Merdemus.”

Merdemus watched as a Wizard wearing blue robes and a pointed blue hat entered the circle of power.

The Elder laughed.  “Yes.  The body is that of Wolf Matthews, the fool reporter.  But the mind is my own.”

Merdemus nodded.  “Your forty thousand years plotting revenge have sapped your strength, eh?  No matter.  It ends now.”

*                                  *                                  *

“Die, Biclaxaltonian!”  Kalijess raised her arms and fired a bolt of energy that sent Bill skidding to the center of the Elder’s graveyard.

The Mage stood up and cast off his sunglasses.  “You fight me with Magic, eh?  Too afraid to settle our doctrinal conflict according to the rules?”

Kalijess lowered her arms.  “Rules? You speak of the crazed mumblings of a senile Mage who was trying to stop two of his superior Apprentices from fighting?  Those were not rules!”

Bill spun his sword.  “There should be only two.”

The sorceress created another energy ball, and held it in her fist.

“The contest is foolish, Biclaxaltonian!  You and I both know it.”

Bill shook his head.  “Lenthinan the great taught fifty of us—of that, there remain only three—myself, you, and Jenkins.  He said there should be only two master Apprentices, and there will be only two after this battle.”

Kalijess looked up and laughed. “Jenkins is not an Apprentice!  He is a dog!”

“Not in Lenthinian’s book.”

“The Mage was insane!  His stupid rules . . . how can you justify decapitation and shrinking of the skull in order to prove victory as sane!?”

“He was fond of shrunken heads! He needed them for that necklace thing!  Besides, it’s irrefutable evidence.”

Kalijess paused.  “Look. Jenkins was a dog.  Let us forget this, and let me destroy you my way.  We are the last two.  Jenkins does not count.”

“Not in my book—or Lenthinian’s.  I have initiated combat.  Yield, fight—or forfeit the reward.”

“Never!”  Kalijess drew her broadsword.  “I want that certificate of authentication to prove that I was a master Apprentice!”

Elsewhere, Krag was facing off three of MEFISTO’s Dragons.

One of the Dragons lowered his neck to look at the tiny Krag.

“So, you were the treacherous Krag who betrayed MEFISTO.”

Krag snorted.  “I am of the Adamantium order.  Can you even spell  ‘Adamantium’?  It looks like MEFISTO sacrificed brain so that the brawn would obey them.  Typical.”

The three Dragons leapt for Krag, but he levitated up and their skulls slammed into one another.

“I rest my case.”

Drek was having trouble getting one of the Mages in Red to stop introducing large tarantulas into his shirt. Max ran over and ate the spiders as they were being created, while strangling another Mage with his free hand.

Miranda backed into a corner as she saw something approaching her from the far left.  It shined with a metallic gleam, and she loaded her gun.

Al watched as the strange devices came at him.  They were just large, generic-looking evil robots that walked and carried large guns, firing them indiscriminately at the boy, his aunt, and each other.

In between shots they would sing Wagnerian operatic songs about hearts and how nice it would be to have them.

Miranda returned fire, and the silver bullets actually made holes in the robots, who looked at them and laughed.

Al shook his head.  “Aunt Miranda, for a government person, you sure don’t know anything about how to take down evil robots.”

The boy lobbed several fragmentary grenades at the robots, and they flew apart easily.

Miranda was about to pat her nephew on the back when she saw about fifty more of the robots approaching.

*                                  *                                  *

Merdemus faced off with Wolf Matthews’ body.  “Eric, using a corpse to try and destroy your master . . . how primitive.”

The body did not speak, but Eric’s voice could be heard.

“I thought about fire, but realized it would have been too ironic.”

Merdemus invoked a fire spell and incinerated the corpse.  Eric screamed.  “I told you it was primitive.”

Eric snapped his fingers, and thick vines surrounded Merdemus, crushing him as they contracted.

“I hope you like my pets.”

Merdemus incinerated those too.

Eric scowled, and a cage of twigs formed around Merdemus.  “Burn your way out of those, old man.”

“Look who’s talking.”  Merdemus simply kicked his way out of the twig cage.  Eric screamed.                                     *                                  *                                  *

Bill and Kalijess were now fighting in the center of the graveyard, the occasional slash destroying a tombstone.  Kalijess jumped atop one of the stones and smiled.

“Interesting, fighting on holy ground.  Isn’t this where it all began?”  Bill swung his sword around violently, and the stone Kalijess was on fell apart as she leaped away from it, spinning her blade.

“Yes, as a matter of fact.  The chance decapitation of Dilbert.”  He sighed.  “Ahh, the memories.”

Bill did a somersault and ended up far on the other end of the graveyard.  “It is also convenient.”

“Why?”  Kalijess leapt through the air, centered her blade, and slammed it against Bill’s, blinking as the sparks got in her eyes.

“I get to bury you right afterwards.”  Bill pulled back his blade, spun around on his toes and extended it as he moved, using it to knock Kalijess’ sword out of her hand.

Kalijess looked at the blade sailing through the air and she turned back to Bill, but he had vanished.

*                                  *                                  *

Drek slipped on a piece of rock and fell backwards just as the energy blast from a Mage in Red slammed into the Mage in Red that was about to turn him into a lungfish with emphysema.

Max looked at the two empty robes and grinned.  “Only two more te go.”

Drek shook his head.  “One, remember?”

Max scratched his head, and then grinned.  “Yeah.”  He used a toothpick to shove the leg that was sticking out of his mouth into his throat.

Drek sighed, grabbed the other Mage in Red, pointed to Max and cracked, “What that guy won’t do for a meal.”

The Mage in Red tried to scramble away, but Max grabbed him.  “Look mate.  I’ll let ye live if ye tells me one thing.  Wot the bleedin’ hell does MEFISTO stand for, anyway?”

The Mage coughed.  “Mages Exerting Force In Subtle, Terrifying Orders.”

Max shook his head.  “That makes no sense.”

The Mage in Red pointed to Eric, who was watching Merdemus disentangle himself from an IRS audit.  “’Tis not my doing!  The Elder thought of it!”

Max nodded, and lowered the Mage to the ground.  “’Ave you ever ’eard of a theory called ‘Natural Selection’?”

The Mage shook his head.

Max grinned.  “It means that naturally, I gets te select wot I wants te keep.”  Max tied up the Mage and dropped him in his knapsack.  A squishing noise and a scream were heard shortly thereafter.

Drek looked in the pack and shuddered.  “I think he fell on that big spike thing, Max.”

Max shrugged.  “’E’ll ’eal up by the toime I get ’im te my house.”

Drek shook his head.  “No way I’m letting you put him in that aquarium.  Remember the last time you brought home a pet?  Well, I don’t think this one will be able to be flushed so easily.”

Max nodded, pulled the Mage out and tossed him in a lava pit.  “’Ow did ye flush that antelope, anyway?”

Drek blinked.  “Max, you ate the antelope.”


*                                  *                                  *

Miranda and Al were beginning to succumb to the overwhelming numbers of MEFISTO robot soldiers when Al had an idea.

“Hold them off, Aunt Miranda. I’ll be right back.”  He handed his aunt his reserve of homemade stable blasting gelignite and ran off.

Miranda sought cover, took her bullets and filled them with the explosive, muttering, “These should explode in the gun itself, but this is gang issue, so it won’t—hopefully.”

She turned the corner and opened fire.  Each shot took out four robots at a time.  The only problem was that there were four hundred robots, which were muttering about pain in their diodes as they fired.

Krag was sitting on the ground, with a massive headache.  He felt as if the entire universe was against him. Thinking to himself, “Maybe if I can’t see them, they can’t see me,” the Dragon rammed his head into the granite.

Not surprisingly, that failed, and one of the giant red Dragons tapped him with a foot.


Krag looked up, closed his eyes and prepared.

“Two plus two five, right?”

Krag exhaled slowly.  “No . . . no!” He hissed.  “I keep telling thee, two plus two are FOUR!”

The red Dragon sat down, chastised, and his other two compatriots lowered their heads, murmuring, “We sorry, master-Krag.  Please teach us more.”

Krag growled.  “Damned Apprentices.”

Al ran over to the Dragon and tapped him on the head.  “Mr. Dragon, I need your help.”

*                                  *                                  *

Merdemus lay in the circle of power, almost spent.  The IRS audit and the round of Elvis impersonators had tapped him almost to his core.

Eric was chuckling at his impending victory.  He came down off his throne and bypassed the lava pit, walking over to Merdemus and kicking him in the head.

“Your death is imminent, Mage. I must thank this millennium for the IRS.  Never have I been closer to finishing you for all eternity.”

Merdemus looked up weakly and began reciting the Seventh Discipline, but he miscounted and activated the Sixth.  He instantly teleported, and Eric stomped his feet.  “You can’t hide, MERDEMUS!  I’m going to count to one hundred, and then you die!”

Bill continued to fight Kalijess, his sword slamming violently against hers, and then he tucked down and rolled, dodging a swipe.

Popping up a second later, Bill stood behind Kalijess.  He tapped her on the shoulder, and as she turned, he swung, exhaling a quick “Damn!” as she rose up and backflipped to safety.

“That was as close as you will ever get, Mudslinger.”  Kalijess smiled tautly.

Bill grinned.  “I’m glad you remember the nickname.  I hope you remember it when I shrink your head.”

Kalijess frowned.  “I could simply dissolve your body with acid and leave the head behind.”  She held up a finger that glowed green with power.

Bill nodded.  “But, neither of us can use Magic during this battle.  I can’t use the Seventh Discipline to heal my wounds, and you can’t use your Magic to dissolve my body.”

“Right.  But I can do this!” She impaled Bill with her sword, and he fell to the ground, gasping and clutching at the wound.

“There don’t seem to be any hospitals here, Biclaxaltonian.  I can wait for you to bleed to death, and then shrink your head.”

Bill gasped, but could not speak.  Kalijess stepped on his face and waited as the blood and some chewing gum trickled out of his wound.

Bill eventually worked his mouth around her foot, and bit it.  She jerked it away, and Bill wheezed, “I said time out.  I am entitled, am I not?”

Kalijess nodded.  “Go ahead. You have ten minutes.”

“Call Max.”

Kalijess summoned Max, who looked at the wound and salivated.

Bill shuddered.  “Look, you’re not part vampire, are you?”  Max nodded.  Bill looked up for strength.

“Look, just fix it!”

Max whipped out some chewing gum, chewed it, stuck it on his hand and rammed it into the wound.  “All set, mate.”

Bill leapt up and whipped his sword around.  “Awesome!  I feel better than before!  Thanks, pal!”

Max nodded and moved over to Drek, who had whipped out some popcorn and was laying odds on who would win.

Kalijess assumed an attack stance, and Bill spun his sword around twice, then swung it in a wide arc, slamming it against Kalijess’ blade with such force that one of the sparks set fire to the patches of dead grass in the graveyard.

The two continued to battle as the fire spread.

*                                  *                                  *

Miranda fired a shot that took out eight of the robots at once.  Feeling proud of herself, she squeezed the trigger again, but all she got was a click.  It took a few clicks for her to realize that the gun was empty.

“Damn!”  She looked around for another clip, but the only ones that were left were also empty.

The tin robots continued to advance, and Miranda took out her palmtop computer, re-programming the robots via remote into thinking they were used car salesmen—unfortunately, this had the nasty side effect of heightening their aggressive tendencies.

Miranda was about to inform all of the robots that they were not selling on commission when there was a large smashing noise, and she could hear Al yelling, “I am the Dragon king!”

She rubbed her eyes, but it was still Al, atop one of the red Dragons behind Krag, who was taking all the robot’s bullets.

Krag’s Adamantium scales made him invulnerable to the hail of lead, but Miranda had to get out of the way of the ricochets as Al nudged the red Dragon forward.

The three Dragons proceeded to walk right into the sea of robots, crushing them by the dozens underfoot.

Still, the robots blindly attacked until one of the Dragons roared, and yelled, “He—Alan KING!”

The robots stopped dead in their tracks and looked up expectantly at Al, who whispered something to the Dragon, which yelled, “He—Alan say you crush them!”

Al pointed to some Mages in Black who were cowering in the corner, obviously too inept to actually fight well.

The end result of this was a nasty, horrid battle with much recycling, but in the end, the robots took out the Mages.

The few robot survivors first sang of their victory, then gathered up the sardine cans that were the corpses of their compatriots and left for Capitol Hill, figuring that mindless automatons like themselves would make perfect conservative politicians.

Miranda looked up at her nephew and grinned.  “Have you ever considered a career with the U.S.  Government?”

Al shook his head.  “I’m an anarchist, man!”

Miranda slapped her head. “We’ll work on it.”  She walked along with the Dragons and Al as they went to see Bill’s endgame with Kalijess.

In the flaming graveyard, Bill smashed another one of his tombstones with his sword as Kalijess leapt away.

“Your friend Merdemus has disappeared.  He is too afraid to face my master.”

Bill swung at Kalijess.  “That’s the difference between you and I.”

Kalijess ducked and slashed at Bill’s feet, but the Mage jumped in time and she only caught part of his trench coat.  Snarling, she replied, “Elaborate.”

Bill did a reverse somersault over her head and landed behind her.  “I have a friend—Merdemus.  You have a master.  And not even a teacher.  A user.”

Kalijess swung at Bill’s neck, but she only managed to hit the sword in front of it.  “MEFISTO gives me a home.”

Bill rammed her in the stomach with the handle of his sword, and she doubled over.  “You had a home! MEFISTO destroyed it!”

Kalijess looked up at Bill and spat in his eye, still doubled over.

Bill scowled, and his eyes darkened.  “Get out of here, fool.”  He turned away.  “Maybe you will live to see the error of your ways.”

The Mage walked away, and Kalijess brought up her sword to finish him.

Miranda raised her hand in warning, but Bill fluidly spun around and slammed his sword into Kalijess’ with such force that her blade shattered into a thousand pieces.

The Sorceress looked at the stump of a blade she had in her hand and glared at Bill, whose face was now expressionless.

“There should be only two.” Bill swung his sword, and even Al looked away . . . of course he was trying to find a camera in Max’s knapsack to record the event for posterity.

“Max, shrink the head.”

Max obeyed, but before he could put it in his knapsack, it smiled and cackled, “I shall return” before it died.

Bill kicked the Sorceress’ body into an open grave.

Miranda did not look at him. “There should have been another way.”  Inwardly, she was confused.  She had warned Bill, knowing what would have to follow.  She knew that there was no other way, yet at the same time she was beginning to strongly dislike Bill.  It wasn’t a feeling she could shake off, but she desperately wanted to.

Bill scowled.  “I gave her the chance, and she wasted it.”  He donned his sunglasses and walked off, snatching a small certificate that had just appeared in the air above him.

Eric looked at the group.  “Oh, very good.  Very, very good—all of you.  But where is your champion?  Where is the man who said he would face me?”

Eric walked into the center of the circle of power and yelled, “Where are you, MERDEMUS?  Are you afraid now? Afraid of me?  Afraid of my power over you?”

There was a rumbling in the mountain, and a ray of light blasted down into the circle, blinding everyone. When it dissipated, Merdemus stood in the center of the circle, and Eric was outside of it.

Miranda gasped when she saw the Mage.  Merdemus was no longer wearing his plain brown robes.  He was wearing the ancient robes of battle—ten thousand-year-old black silk robes, with a thin sheath of almost translucent gold coating on them.  There were numerous amulets around Merdemus’ neck and symbols of power adorned his sleeves.  The robes looked to be as light as the air, yet they were inches thick, silent as the Mage moved.

In his right hand, Merdemus had a staff of gnarled wood that curled upwards, encircling a blood-red ruby.

Eric stepped back, and possessed the Mage in Red who was in the lava pit.  He stepped forward to challenge Merdemus, but backed off.

One of the red Dragons leaned over and exhaled, “In all the cycles—never has Merdemus appeared so.”

Merdemus stepped forward, and Eric continued to retreat.  He opened his mouth and slowly said, “I fear nothing related to you.  You are but a roach.  A roach who has wasted forty millennia—the lifetime of some gods I know—just for purposes of revenge.  You spoke of your precious cycle.  Tell me, worm—”  He leaned forward, and Eric continued to back away—“In any other cycle, has MEFISTO been so thoroughly defeated?

“Kalijess is no more, your Dragons—”  Merdemus paused and spoke incredulously.  “Your Dragons serve an eight-year-old!”

He resumed his dark tone.  “Your Mages in Black and Red are dust—”

Max yelled, “Not the bloke Eric’s posessin’!” and Bill smacked him on the head.

Merdemus continued, undeterred. “—and you are a withered old man who must posses other bodies to fight me. Well?  Answer me.”

Eric shoved Merdemus back into the circle.  “You still cannot burn twigs.  And I possess the most powerful twig of them all.”  He pointed to the ygdrasil twig in front of the pulsating mirror.

Krag snarled.  “That is my twig!”  He made a dash for it, but one of the red Dragons restrained him.  “Us get it, master-Krag.”  He lowered Al to the ground and then joined the other two Dragons in a dash for the twig, only to be incinerated instantly as he approached it, along with his fellows. Eric smiled.  “It is MY twig now—and forever.   Soon, the cycle will end . . . and so will you, Merdemus.

in Check

Merdemus raised his arms in attack formation, casting his staff to the side, where it became a parrot and wandered off.  “The confrontation begins, my student.”

Eric walked into the ring, eyes glowing.  “Student no longer, old one.  I have had time to grow, unlike you, who spent a thousand years trying to burn a twig.”

Merdemus smiled.  “Had you been a loyal student, you would have noticed that on the weekends, I was learning from my ancient codex of power.”

Eric nodded as the two circled one another.  “I know.  I know because I learned from it too.”

Merdemus’ eyes flashed with anger.  “You touched my codex of power?”

“Fool!  I used it to learn about the power of ygdrasil.  I sent you off the mountain so I could learn without interruption.  I knew about the twig all along.  You saw me burn it—but I had already switched it with a normal twig.  You were ignorant—and you still are.”

Merdemus locked gazes with Eric.  “Then why could I not burn it?  Was I cursed by the ygdrasil?”

Eric laughed.  “Fool!  You were always cursed—but not by the ygdrasil.”

“By what then?  You?”

“Not I—but I will be the one who destroys you.”

Merdemus flexed his hands, and sparks of electricity arced between his fingers.  “Not in twenty-one cycles—and not in twenty-one more.  You will not survive.”

Eric smiled wryly.  “Let us test that assumption.”


Max pulled everyone away from the circle of power.  “It’s beginning.”

Al tugged at his pants leg. “Zanzillian!”

Max whispered annoyedly, “Not now, mate!”

Al tugged at it again, and Max bent down to listen.

“It’s been starting for hours, and they aren’t doing anything.”

Max growled.  “It’s been foive minutes, and shut up and look.”

Merdemus filled his palms with energy and stared at Eric.  “Face my power.”

Eric laughed.  “Fool.  You have no power.”  He raised his left arm, brought it down, and Merdemus flew back, slamming onto the invisible wall that was designated by the circle of power.

Miranda went over to help, but Max restrained her.

Merdemus laughed.  “As I expected.  Typical.”  He turned and pressed his hands against the invisible wall, and it glowed.  He then closed his eyes and ripped the wall from the circle, twisting it into a four-dimensional mass of energy that he cast at Eric, who was slammed to the edge of the lava pit.

“You—you’re not supposed to be able to do that!”

Merdemus grinned.  “Pay attention, student.  I have more lessons.”

Eric smiled.  “Sorry, teach—I cheat.” He pointed to the pulsating mirror, and an eleven-foot red demon stepped out of it.

“My friend here is named Azhortacal.  He steals souls.  I stole his.  Now, I’m going to give it back—with a few changes.”

Eric opened his mouth, and a blue mist exited from it while his borrowed body collapsed in on itself.  The mist went into Azhortacal, and the creature burped.

Max grinned.  “My sort o’ demon!”

No one was listening to him.

As the demon stepped forward, Eric spoke.  “I live in this body now, Merdemus.  You will fall before me.  But first, the peanut gallery.”

The demon turned to Bill and the others.  “Your souls are my souls.”

Nothing happened.

Drek laughed.  “Cross a wire or two, Eric?”

The demon shrugged and walked into the circle of power, stepping on Merdemus, who pushed him off and covered his nose.

Bill turned to Miranda, waved his hand in front of his nose and said, “Whew!  Those feet are competition for Krek’s breath!”

Miranda did not reply, and looked the other way.

Merdemus fired bolts of power at the beast.  He hurled fireballs at it.  He stuffed three-week-old carp in its mouth, which he then set ablaze, but nothing happened.

Drek went over to Max’s backpack, shuffled inside it and pulled out the spike that had impaled Bill. It was heavy and dropped on his foot, crushing it.


Max lifted up the spike and smiled.  “David needs a slingshot, eh?”

Merdemus turned to the others, and quickly yelled, “It’s not enough!  It needs to be Magically charged, and I don’t have enough power to do it!”

Drek yelled back, “How do you know?”

Merdemus, who was being swung around thirty feet in the air by nothing he could see, yelled back, “Call it a wild guess.”

Miranda looked over the group of Mages and said, “What if you guys combined your power and charged up the spike?  Would that work?”

All heads nodded in agreement, and Merdemus managed to get out of the circle, grabbing onto the spike as quickly as he could.  Bill, Drek, Krag and Max grabbed the spike as well, and started pumping power into it.  Bill called out to Miranda, “Put your hands on it!  And Al too!”

Miranda shook her head.  “We’re not Mages.”

Bill replied darkly, with no hint of jocularity, “You have potential.”

Miranda felt a strange sensation, and put her hands on the spike, with Al joining in.  Surprisingly, the area just under their hands actually glowed, though not nearly as brightly as the areas where the Mages were holding it.

When the spike was glowing brightly, Merdemus hoisted it, using all of his remaining power to levitate it, but the demon raised his head, and everything around him went black.  It was as if Azhortacal had sucked the light into his body.

Merdemus frowned, and the spike remained in the air.  He was too weak to invoke the First Discipline, and the spike was getting heavier by the second.  “It is too dark—I cannot aim!”

Max reached for the spike. “Lemme throw it!”

Bill yelled, “How will you be sure you can hit it somewhere important?!”

“I’ll guess!”

Drek shook his head.  “My guess will be better than yours!”

“’Ow’s thot, then?”

“I am the luckiest Mage alive, remember!?”

Merdemus scowled.  “Hurry!  I will not be able to hoist it much longer!”

Drek paused in thought, then he yelled, “Now!  Throw it now!”

Merdemus let the spike fly forward, and he heard a crunching sound.  The light returned, and everyone could see that he had slammed the spike straight into the creature’s heart—or where they thought it should be.

The demon reared its head back and yelled in pain, and it then stared at the spike that was impaling it.

Bill shook his fist at the creature.  “One good turn deserves another, Eric!”

The creature fell to the ground, and Merdemus walked up to it.

“Face me, Eric.  Face me in your body—your real body this time.  Or are you afraid of my power over you?”

The blue mist shot out of the demon’s head, and it reformed itself into Eric’s withered body.

“As you wish, Merdemus.  The final confrontation.”  

Of Kings
But One

Max yelled, “This is gettin’ old!  Somebody kill somebody already!”

Eric laughed.  “An excellent suggestion.”

Merdemus crossed his arms in an X formation and entered the Magic circle, whose perimeter began to blaze with green flame.

Eric’s hand came up, and large Adamantium spikes ripped out of the bottom of his wrists.  He slashed at Merdemus like a knife fighter.

Merdemus tried to create a shield, but he could not even produce a spark from his fingertips.

“What’s wrong, Merdemus? Feeling a little weak?  Now you know how I have felt every day for the past thirty-five thousand years.”

Bill pulled out his sword and tossed it into the Magic circle.  “You mean for five thousand years you actually had some power?”

Merdemus gratefully picked up the sword.  “I am not as clever with the blade as Bill, but then again, I’m not going to need it for very long.”  He brutally slashed at Eric’s palms, and the Adamantium spikes fell off as Eric screamed in pain.

“The metal is willing, but the flesh above it is weak, Eric.”

Merdemus threw the sword back to Bill and picked up one of the spikes.  Using it like a baseball bat, he swung it at Eric’s stomach, and the Mage doubled over.  Eric then shrunk himself to the size of a Gnome and ran between Merdemus’ legs, growing up behind his back and slamming him in the head with his spike.

Merdemus blacked out for a moment, and when he revived, he was at the edge of the lava pit, and Eric was howling with glee.  He kept his eyes shut and his breathing shallow.

Eric looked at the others and laughed.  “When I drop your champion into this pit of steaming lava, the cycle will end, and I will be victorious!”  He began to lift Merdemus into the air.

Krag, whose Magical strength was returning slightly faster than the others, made a small forcewall in the lava so Merdemus would land on dry rock.

Unfortunately, Merdemus did a flip and tossed Eric into the lava, so Krag ended up protecting his enemy.

Merdemus jumped into the pit after Eric, and the others ran up to the edge of it to watch.

The two combatants were now surrounded by a twenty-foot wall of lava, and Krag yelled out, “I can only maintain the forcewall for five more minutes!”

Eric clenched his fist, and it turned into a giant crab’s claw.  “Then, Merdemus, five minutes is all the time you have left on this world.”

Merdemus shook his head, spun, and kicked Eric into the forcewall, which rippled on impact.  “I am a powerful Mage.  Do not think you are the only one with tricks up your sleeve.”

Merdemus reached into the linings of his war-robe and pulled out an object, which he presented. “Ah-hah!”

Eric blinked.  “It’s a sandwich.”

Merdemus frowned, and looked at the object.  “So it is.”  He put it back in his pocket, and pulled something else out.

“Behold the mighty power of the runic—”


Merdemus looked at the ribbiting creature and put it back in his pocket.  He then pulled out an obnoxiously large feather.

Eric laughed, and snapped at it with his claw.  “What are you going to do with that, Merdemus?  Tickle me to death?”

Merdemus smiled crookedly. “Remember the story of Hikbar, originator of the Seventh Discipline?”

Eric’s eyes widened, and he began furiously snapping at the feather, while trying to brush it away with his arm.

Merdemus grinned, and with the same expertise Bill had displayed with the sword, the great Mage of The First Order, Lord of the Seven Disciplines and Master of the Forces Elemental brought Eric to his knees, quivering, with a giant feather.

Eric could no longer concentrate, and the crab claw disappeared.  Merdemus felt some of his power returning, so he levitated slowly above the lava pit and back down to his friends.

Krag, straining at this point, released the force wall, and the lava fell with a swish onto the still laughing Eric, who briefly screamed in agony.

Merdemus watched as a bubble broke on the surface of the lava, and sighed.  “It is over.”

The group began to walk back to the exit shaft, when a splash could be heard, and a deeper, darker voice yelled out, “Not yet, old friend.”

They turned, only to see a horribly disfigured Eric rise out of the lava, surrounded in a massive force bubble.  The Elder of MEFISTO levitated over the ygdrasil twig and snatched it out of its casing, eyeing it viciously.

“I used this little beauty to level entire continents and destroy countless civilizations across the span of time, and now I will harness its power to destroy you, MERDEMUS!”

Merdemus eyed the Mage and lowered his head.  “Your body is falling apart, your forces are destroyed, and yet you continue to pursue this mad revenge.”

Eric coughed, and blood flew out with the spittle.  His one good eye widened.   “To quote Melville—”

Max threw a rock at him.  “Let’s not and say we did, all right?”

Eric weakly raised the twig, and it began to glow, the entire mountain rumbling as it pulsated.

Krag arched his back.  “It is an energy type that I have never before encountered.  The twig will release a wave of pure Cosmic that will undoubtedly destroy us.”

Merdemus looked back to the exit shaft, and the Dragon shook his head.

Max looked over to Al. “Zanzillian says, gimme some of that C-4.”

Al shook his head.  “All gone. Aunt Miranda used it to destroy some robots.”

Eric began to cackle hideously, and the twig began to glow a bright red.

Max looked at the others.  “It’s been a good loife though.”

“I have some plastique, Zanzillian.”

Max almost had a coronary. “Gimme!”  He snatched it from the child.  “Damn.  It needs an electrical detonator.”

Drek shook his head.  “No problem.”  He took off his official McDrekky’s watch, popped open the back and yanked out the battery.

Miranda frowned.  “It needs more power than that.”

“Wrong.  These watches are based on the same design I made for the U.S. Government for just such an occasion. If you were in the NSA you would know what I mean.”

“Shut up.  The NSA—let’s not get into it, all right?!”

Drek snickered, shoved the battery into the plastique and hurled it at Eric.

Nothing happened.

Eric’s laugh grew louder, and the twig began to glow bright orange.

Just then, the plastique detonated.

“It always did run slow,” Drek mused.

The twig flew out of Eric’s hand and into the mirror at the far end of the cave, where it disappeared.

Eric dimly saw the twig float into the mirror, and he screamed hellishly, making a run for it.

Max tackled him, and Eric scrambled furiously for the mirror, scratching in the dirt.  “Let me go after the twig!  I must have it!”

“No way, mate.  I think yer gonna get it now.”

Bill approached with his sword, and spun it neatly.   Krag snorted a blast of intense flame and Drek cracked his knuckles eagerly.

Merdemus readied a plasma globe, and he approached Eric, scowling.  The others, save Max, parted to let him through.

“Now, my student, you will learn the final and perhaps most important lesson that I have left to teach you.  It involves horrific pain and much suffering, so you may want to close your eyes and try to invoke the Seventh Discipline.”  The plasma globe grew magnitudes brighter.  “Though, this time I don’t think it’ll help much.”

Eric’s vision was going, and he barely saw the plasma globe rushing at him.  Using strength fueled only by the thirst for vengeance, Eric yanked free from Max’s iron grip and made a break for the mirror just as the plasma globe ripped a chasm in the mountain floor.

Merdemus watched as Eric rushed to the mirror and yelled,“When will the cycle end?!”

“Now, my student.”  The Mage rapid-fired several pencil-thin bolts of Cosmic energy at Eric, but they just carved holes in the floor.

Miranda found a package of bullets in Max’s backpack and fired at the fleeing Elder of MEFISTO, but it was no good.

Eric leapt into the mirror, which shimmered with energy, and he laughed.  “Same time last month, Mages.  Be ready!”

With that, the mirror resumed its normal pattern of pulsation, after displaying images of the people trapped in the underground land beneath Bumblyworld being snapped back to their normal times and places.

Bill looked worriedly at the ground, as lava had started to some up through the chasm Merdemus had gouged. “Let’s go home.”

As the group moved towards the shaft that led to Merdemus’ home atop the mountain, Merdemus stopped them. “No.”

“What?!  Are you crazy?”  Drek watched as the lava advanced towards them.  “Eric’s been defeated.  It’s over.”

Merdemus shook his head.  “He has, but the cycle continues.”

Miranda watched nervously as the lava inched closer.  “Can we discuss this somewhere else?”

Merdemus shook his head.  “I understand now.  We have to break the cycle here and now.  We cannot return to San Francisco.  The Elder might return there two weeks ago to start this whole chain of events again—we must pursue him.”

“How, mate?”  Max was drinking some of the lava he had scooped up with a glass jar.

Merdemus pointed to the mirror.

Bill frowned.  “We don’t know how it works!  We could end up anywhere!”

Krag snorted.  “We are running out of time!”  He lifted a paw and pointed at the lava, which was about to cut the group off from the mirror.

Miranda nodded.  “Remember the inscription on the side of the mountain?  We have to break the cycle—no!”   She checked herself.  Kalijess, a major “character,” had died. But what if that wasn’t it? What if Kalijess was minor in the scheme of things?  How far back did the “novel” go, anyway?  There was still a chance this portal could be the thing that kills—

“What?”  Drek held her arm, noting the worried expression on her face.

Miranda shook her head. “Nothing.  We have to get on with destiny!”

“Too late.”  Krag growled as the lava started to undermine the ground under the mirror, which was beginning to sink inside it.

Merdemus smiled.  “It is never too late for a Mage.”  He looked at Bill and Drek, and the three Mages invoked the Fifth Discipline, blasting the lava with beams of energy that turned it into a slow-moving stream of rice pudding.

Miranda shook her head in disbelief.  “Why didn’t you just turn it into stone?”

The Mages shrugged, and the group ran to the mirror, which was still sinking into the pudding, and Merdemus smiled.  “Only I have to do this.  The rest of you don’t have to come along.”

“Shut up.  You’re bein’ a melodramatic idiot.”  Max leapt into the mirror, followed by Drek and Bill. Krag used his tail as a lever, and he rolled into the mirror on his skates, muttering something about bringing backup.

Merdemus looked at Miranda and Al.  “You two don’t have to come along, you know.  You can still return to your normal lives.”

Miranda took pause, but only for a second.  She hit Merdemus playfully on the shoulder.  “You’re being an idiot.”

She went through the mirror, followed by Al, who yelled, “COOL!”

Merdemus then stepped into the mirror, which then sank completely under the river of rice pudding, which transmuted itself back into lava and cooled into a glass-like floor, leaving no trace of anything in the cavern.  A shadow appeared on a far wall, flickering as if in firelight.  It laughed darkly for a moment and then vanished.  


It was a bright, sunny day on the continent of Atlan’.  The birds were singing, the children were playing, and Mages in Black were ravaging the countryside in a pitched battle with other Mages in black trench coats and mirrored sunglasses.

In the sky, a bright brown speck appeared, moving faster and faster until it smashed into the ground, its dirty walls ramming into the earth.  It was a strange building, heavily damaged in front, with strange glyphs on it.  Some flags fell from its side and landed softly in the sand two stories below.

In front of this monstrosity, a small group of travelers and a small Dragon slowly regained consciousness and stood.

Miranda had held her eyes shut. She now opened them, and was relieved to see that she was still very much alive.  She also realized that many of the elements from her flashforward were here now.  Al, Bill’s getup, Merdemus’ robes.  But Chester and Sushil were yet to come . . . and sometime before that—she refused to contemplate the possibility.

Merdemus looked behind him. “Who brought the hotel?”

Krag intoned slowly, “It will be useful for what lies ahead.”  He snorted, a red scale falling off of his back to reveal a tiny, budding black wing.  He nudged the Mage.  “Look in the sky.”

Merdemus gasped as he saw an object streaking across the sky, leaving a crackling, red hot trail behind it as it moved.

“The twig.”  Drek squinted and calculated a distance.  “It looks like it’s heading for Lemuria—if this is where I think it is.”

“Observe.”  Krag led the group to a man lying in the ground, his broken body barely recognizable as human. Only his face revealed his identity as the Elder of MEFISTO.

“Merdemus . . . come here.”  The Elder struggled to raise his head as Merdemus and the others gathered around him.  He felt the wheels of time turning around him as the Mage approached. Miranda felt the same sensation.

“I wanted to destroy you . . . created MEFISTO . . . as a gauntlet—because you had to make the journey—to survive—your destiny—”  The man coughed, blood mixed with the spittle splashing on Merdemus’ robes.

“What of my destiny?”  Merdemus leaned in closer.

“The Zero Order—”  Eric grabbed Merdemus’ hand.  “They must be stopped—or Necromonitor will rise again.”

“Wot does thot mean?”  Max watched as the Elder shuddered.

A strange man in a brown jacket, yellow shirt and black pants walked up to the group, along with a redheaded woman, similarly dressed.

“I’m Jack Tachyon, and this is my partner Sarah Cunningham.  We met you in a previous cycle.  I suggest we leave here immediately.”

Drek nodded.  “Tachyon . . . the name on the tombstone.”

Miranda felt ill.  Tachyon wasn’t dead.  The scales were still unbalanced.

“I know this is probably Atlantis, but when are we?”  Drek asked.

“June seventeenth, eleven forty-eight B.C.”  Cunningham offered, checking her wrist computer.  The Mages eyed one another.  Most of them had been born in eleven forty-eight.

Merdemus looked back at Eric, who was fading fast.

The Elder’s grip tightened. “Necromonitor is rising, and unless you stop him—the death of trillions will be on your head, Mage.  Watch the Dragon, Mage.  The Dragon.”

At that moment, the twig impacted on the continent of Lemuria, shattering it, and sending out a massive shockwave that caused a stiff breeze to blow as the Elder released his grip and slipped into the darkness, his destiny fulfilled at last.

Krag idled over to Miranda, whispering in a deep, throaty voice with no hint of an accent, “He has always been dead.”

Miranda shot a look at the Dragon, whose eyes were now solid, shining black circles.

Merdemus watched the body of the Elder silently, feeling the weight of history on his shoulders.  In what was to have been his death, he had come down from Drakklar mountain into a new, uncertain future—and now he had come full circle to Atlantis, five days and a continent away from his own birth.  Looking at the fierce battle being waged between MEFISTO’s mages and the strange group far in the distance, he realized that this timing had to be more than simply coincidental.  He realized that Miranda was right—he had to get on with destiny.





There are, as of this time, seven major Disciplines used by Mages the world over that have been developed over the past ten thousand years.  All Magic is said to be derived from these fundamental powers.

They are ranked by order of creation and difficulty.  A “good” Mage usually knows the first three, a “better” one knows at least five, and to be truly powerful the first seven must be known and easily usable.  They are not cumulative (save for the “Eighth” Discipline of MEFISTO, which is not considered a true Discipline), and can be learned in any order.

Lesser Mages will sometimes only learn one Discipline, sometimes due to lack of skill, or as in Max’s case, lack of functional brain cells.

An astute reader will no doubt discern that most of these tough Disciplines were created or discovered by Apprentices.  They should keep in mind that the Apprentices of ten thousand years ago are now the arch-Mages of today, and contemporary Apprentices are considerably less intelligent.


Allows the user to see in total darkness, invoked by simply insisting over and over to the brain that “no, it isn’t really night time,” thus causing a highly complex and temporary neurosis that makes the eye see as if it is daytime through a Gestalt process.  Or something like that.

Reversed it lets you see nothing at all—rather like closing your eyelids.  This is only useful if your eyelids are absent, transparent, or propped open by toothpicks in a hideously fantastic torture scene.  It is either enabled or disabled, no in-betweens.


Allows the user to translate instantly between one language and another, both spoken and written.

Developed as a shortcut for Mages who were too lazy to learn the “dead” languages of their time, as the modern Latin was all the rage.  Much to their consternation, it did nothing for Hieroglyphs or illegible handwriting.  Reversed, it is the most powerful encryption scheme known to man—turning any text into a pristine example of physician’s handwriting.  It is either enabled or disabled, no mediocrity permitted.


Allows one user to read the mind of another.  The risk varies from a mild headache to massive nova-like brain tissue explosion through the ear canals.

It has been attempted many times to force one mind into another’s body using a reverse Third Discipline, but this has always led to death on both the sender’s and receiver’s parts.  This Discipline was developed as a cheating aid for young Apprentices who simply leeched the test answers from their master’s minds, disrupting centuries-old accreditation schemes until the art of throwing up mental defenses was created.

It is a variable power Discipline, meaning you can be good, bad, or mediocre in it.


Allows the user to Levitate without thinking about it.  Differs from standard Levitation spell in that masters of the Fourth Discipline can move with ease, having full mental powers devoted to something else.  (This is useful when invoking a thought-heavy spell.)  It gives them manipulative power over gravity as opposed to a simple defiance of it.

Reversed, instead of defying gravity, it would encourage it—to the tune of ten million extra G-Forces, virtually smashing the user into paste on the ground.  This was rather painfully discovered by Grommit the Immortal Mage, who had made his career learning how to reverse the other three Disciplines of his day.

To this day the reversed Fourth Discipline is called “Grommit’s Absurdity.”  It is also variable power.


This variable power Discipline enables the user to transmute one form of matter or thought into another. Thought manipulation can only be done by specially trained or ancient Mages, and thus is rarely done.

The more common matter manipulation tricks are limited only by the Mage’s personal strength and imagination.  For example, there is nothing that really prevents Max (If you don’t know who that is yet, read the book, why are you mucking about in the bloody Appendix?) from turning things into anything else besides wine, but his brain is so dysfunctional he cannot conceive of anything else.

This is a palindromic Discipline, if you reverse it, it does the same bloody thing, so why bother?

The discovery of that fact by Grommit the Immortal Pancake effectively ended his career.


The Discipline of Teleportation, also variable power, allows the user to move himself and/or any other object from one location to another.  This was developed by Apprentices as a survival mechanism which allowed them to escape angry masters who wanted them dead for any number of reasons, most having to do with incompetence or inherent stupidity.

Limits on the Discipline are based upon the strength of the Mage.  No one has tried to reverse this one yet.


Last of the true Disciplines, the Discipline of Immortality, developed by Hikbar the Deranged Master of the Iron Flapjacks of Death.  This Discipline is either enabled or disabled, but it takes up a great deal of mental power as the Mage exercising it has to constantly recite mentally the complex spell that invokes the Discipline.  A powerful Mage will have no problems invoking this and doing other tasks; however, a new adept may have trouble being invulnerable and chewing gum at the same time.

No one has attempted to reverse this one either.


A synthesis of the Fifth and Third Disciplines, this was developed by the Elder of MEFISTO.  Its only use at this time seems to be transferring mental energy from a mind to a computer, still at the cost of the life of the sender.  It does not seem to be reversible.  It may have implications in the future, when computer minds could conceivably become commonplace.    


Command of these is basically a command of the Four Elements:  Earth, Air, Water and Fire.  The level of control is dependent upon the power and skill of the Mage.  Control of the Elements may be mixed with the power of a Discipline to achieve strange results.  Elemental Magic is more primal than Discipline Magic, as it was the first type practiced.  Some “Mages” invoke demons who personify the Elements to perform tasks for them, giving them only the illusion of control.  If the demons strike out on their own, that “Mage” would be powerless to stop them.


Like gravity, the Cosmic is a poorly understood force.  It is also known as Chi, Prana, et cetera:  the life energy that binds everything in the universe together.  Mages attune themselves to it; thus they can use its power in ways normal people cannot.  This attunement makes them different from other humans.  At the level of Merdemus and Bill, this difference is minimal.  There are other levels, however, where the change is quite profound.  Dragons are creatures naturally attuned to the Cosmic, and this gives them certain advantages.  They also have one other special relationship to the Cosmic, but only a few creatures know what it is at this time.


There are nine orders of power that are given to Mages, nine being the lowest and one being the highest.

Usually Mages can be stronger or weaker than their “Order” listing, since in order to be listed as a Mage of a particular order, a qualifying exam must be taken and passed.  Some Mages simply do not waste their time with it, and thus have “no” order when in reality they could be in the top three.  Others simply have never had contact with civilization, and so are unknown to the appropriate accrediting agencies.


Slightly better than the best Apprentice.  Considered stupid to add this to the Mage’s personal title.  


Capable of slightly complex spells..  Still nothing to brag about, but greater Mages will consider taking on Eighth Order fellows as trainees.



Power is good enough to intimidate fools and small animal creatures.  Definite potential for development to a “top three” position.



At this point, it is acceptable to put the order listing in a Mage’s title, though it is considered daft, as Sixth Order Mages are in the “adolescence” of their Magic; gangly, wielding truly complex spells for the first time, learning to balance the various forces of the Cosmic for the first time.

Most Magical blunders are made at this level.



For some unknown reason most Mages tend to skip this order, perhaps because its greatest product was Grommit the Immortal Pancake.



Mages are proud to have this in their title, as it signifies their closeness to breaking into the “big three,” where power increases by order of magnitude.  Mages in this order have learned the finer points of spell control and at least two Disciplines.



The first of the “big three” orders.  By this point the first six Disciplines have been mastered and most of the Mage’s effort has been directed towards being able to harness large amounts of the Cosmic energy-force.



Six or Seven Disciplines must be known at this point, and the focus is on learning the art of casting and controlling as many spells as possible simultaneously.



The Seven Disciplines must be known, and the Mage must harness the control of the Second Order with the power of the third.  Mages of this order are generally considered the most formidable around.  


Not an “official” designation, this is an order created by Mages(?) who have transcended the need for “Seven Discipline parlor trick” Magics.  Zero Order Mages are said to be shadow-like, and extremely rare, having powers stemming directly from the Cosmic.  They are generally considered by the ancient texts to be the harbingers of ragnarok. Nobody has seen one of them in the last ten thousand years, and they are dismissed as the stuff of legends.  To see one is said to be a bad omen.  The touch of one is considered the touch of death.



Merdemus’ early life was rather interesting.  His current position of power belies the fact that in his youth he was the greatest of all the practical jokers, developing the Apprentice-torturing traits he would need later as a great Mage at a horrifically young age.

It was said that his family never paid taxes, not because they were elites (they were not), but because the tax collector would not risk being immersed in a vat of boiling oil by the “Daemon-child” again.

Merdemus has an ego the size of a small G-type star, and it sometimes will lead him into trouble.  He was taught by Gral the Ignorant, but there were rumors, long since forgotten, that at birth he was touched by a Zero Order Mage—no small matter.

Merdemus personally discounts any such notion, and does not talk about it unless pressed to do so.


Drek’s life in Medieval times was droll to say the least.  He was from a peasant’s family, and they were keen on getting him into the high-tech field of blacksmithing- luckily for him, a great Mage who talked too much found him, and he developed his formidable latent Magical abilities.

Modern times are a load of fun for Drek; he is an accomplished salesman, embezzler and businessman, running the odd secret government project while managing his fast food chain.

He is extremely wealthy, but keeps forgetting the numbers to his Swiss bank accounts.  He does not steal from the poor, however, and does his best to help them out whenever possible.


Bill’s name was given to him by a very irate teacher after a practical joke in which the teacher was dowsed with the leavings of a local rabbit which was considered mentally defunct.  It started as a nickname, but eventually it became “his” name.

Bill’s time under Lenthinan the Great(ly Insane) resulted in his being the first Celt to return eastward in order to learn the strange new oriental martial arts and techniques of swordplay.

This study allows him to have a mental detachment at times that even Merdemus envies; unfortunately, more often than not Bill lets his ego make the decisions for him.


Researching Max’s life history to this point has warped many historians.  His madness is inborn, and though he has perhaps one working brain cell, at times he can be analytical and precise.

Max’s immunity to poisons is strange, though it is speculated his inborn knowledge of the Fifth Discipline transmutes the poison into something nicer, like cherry soda.

Max is also responsible for the invention of what modern-day historians called “Greek Fire”—a substance that would burn and burn even when placed in the water.  It cannot be duplicated today.

The reason?  The same reason the Greeks called it “flying blob of Max’s flaming mucus,” not “fire” as our translators have consistently mistranslated the name.


As a hatchling, Krag was leafy green.


As a weekend government agent, Miranda doesn’t like talking about her day job because she isn’t supposed to have a second job according to CID guidelines.

She has the job in order to pay for her computing habits, which involve programming in several different languages and research into artificial intelligence.

Her middle name, Jesmerelda, is her mother’s first name, her mother being a gypsy of some kind.  It is rumored that because of her lineage, she may have latent Magical abilities of her own, but she has never explored this.

It is a little known fact that Miranda is responsible for the longevity of many popular Science Fiction shows, as she routinely uses her computer to “fix” their ratings during critical first seasons.


Alan Bourne Wright possesses the dangerous combination of little fear, little intelligence and access to much information.

Al could teach Drek lessons when it comes to the tricks of the trade for illegal activities of all kinds.  He is also an avid conspiracy theorist.  One of his pet theories is that there was no single or double bullet that killed Kennedy—he thinks the entire era was a hypnotic suggestion, and we are all now living in the late nineteen-seventies.

He is anti-government, and is convinced his aunt is part of some highly secret black project called “Domino’s,” as she keeps calling them on the phone, and they keep sending their “agents” to the house carrying strange red boxes that smell like pizza.  His motto is “Peaceful Anarchy for the Masses, man!”

And as a bonus . . ..


Born in Ireland in the ten seventies, Chester was Caedmon, a fierce berserker-warrior of Biclaxaltonian’s clan.  (Bill had left the clan long before that.)  He journeyed to England where he learned the fine art of scullery, and after the first ten cases of food poisoning quickly switched to learning alchemy.

Chester is not a Mage, and knows none of the Disciplines.  Alchemists derive their power from their own delving into the workings of the universe, and thus can sometimes know more about the workings of a Magical act than the Mage who performs them.  Chester is no exception. Unfortunately, Chester has synthesized and used one too many mind-altering substances in his day (as many of the alchemists did to allow them the ability to mentally traverse the Cosmic realm).  He has insights into the true nature of reality.  To him, the nineteen-sixties were the epitome of cultural advancement.  When he saw nineteen-seventy fast approaching, and with it the end of his lifestyle, Chester walled himself up in a cave waiting for society’s “return to grace.” There he waits for the angry owner of Opiate the cat to find him.  (Opiate was a cat that climbed into his cave one day—a cat with wings, no less.  It chose to, and still does, live with Chester.)  Before Opiate was named Opiate her name was Oudwin- a name given to her by . . . Merdemus.