"Haley Gets Her Heart Broken"

"Haley Gets Her Heart Broken"

5/28-5/20/2013

I.

"Jasper left with his friends twenty minutes ago."

Sitting on the waist-high stone retaining wall in front of Coolidge High, Haley Lawson gave a start. "Gina! Hi. I wasn't waiting for Jasper. I'm just thinking."

Almost a year younger than her BFF, Gina Giacomo was a petite girl, Italian on both sides with long wavy black hair to prove it. She dumped her bookbag unceremoniously on the sidewalk and hopped up on the wall to sit with her legs tucked under her. "Who are you kidding? You're one step away from standing outside his house at night hoping he'll walk past a window."

"No way. Come on, Gina, I like the guy but I dunno, he looks right through me. My vanity is stung, that's all." Five feet eight, Haley Lawson was six inches taller than her pal, long-legged and rangy compared to Gina's curves. Her chestnut hair was pulled back in a ponytail that was getting too long to manage. Haley's best features were her large lime-green eyes and lately she had been trying to accent them with some liner. "You wouldn't know how it is. You're too hot for your own good. Every day, you have to shove the boys off so they don't bury you in a dogpile."

"Hah. So true. But Bentley and I have been serious for two years now. I wouldn't risk losing him for anything."

"Speaking of Bentley, where is he anyway?"

"Working at Price Chopper. Twenty hours a week now. Too bad he has to punch in right after school, but he gets off at seven and tonight we're going to watch a Slamface concert at my house."

Haley nodded gravely and fiddled with the knapsack next to her. "Less than a month until we graduate and we're outta here, Gina. I have mixed feelings. Everything's all set with the Kenneth Dred Foundation. On June 22nd, I take the Greyhound and move into headquarters on 38th Street."

Gina grinned so widely it seemed it must hurt. "And Windcatcher will save the world from all the monsters that come out in the middle of the night! Oh my God, you must be so excited."

"I guess. I mean, it seems a little unreal, ya know? I still can't understand why I'm not a world-famous celebrity. A girl who can literally fly and cause thunderstorms and tornados. But no one in Glenville seems impressed. As if it's no big deal. I don't get it."

"Me and Bentley were talking about it," Gina said. "We think it's kind of some side effect of your Air Gem. That thing is magic like nobody's business. We think maybe the stone dampens people's reaction to you. Otherwise, you'd be on the news alla time, giving interviews, being asked to the White House, getting called to help out with disasters."

"Beats me." Haley shifted her weight restlessly. She tugged at the calico-colored shirt which was clinging to her back. "Sure is hot today. How about I summon a tornado and we fly out to Lake Schoonmaker?"

"You figure Jasper will be there drinking beer and smoking weed with his friends, right?"

Haley tried to keep a straight face but couldn't repress a grin any longer. "Coullllld be. Anyway we can get some footlongs and soda at the stand there. What do you say?"

"You got it bad, girl." Gina bumped her shoulder up against her friend and Haley bumped her right back. "He's gonna be your second partner, right?"

"Ah, that thing with Beckert was mostly out of curiosity. I didn't like it all that much." Haley hopped to her feet and stretched, then started trying to shrug into her knapsack, Gina giving her a hand. "This thing weighs a TON," she complained. "All my textbooks and my Ipad and charger and my phone's charger and some Tylenol and my art supplies, not to mention my Windcatcher outfit. I'm folding up my cape to fit in there, it still takes up a lot of space."

"The hard life of Long Island's resident super-hero," Gina scoffed, making sure her own bookbag was strapped securely. "Do you have enough for curly fries? I'm busted."

"That's what all the boys say! You're busted, har har."

"Extremely hilarious, Hales. Okay. I'm all set."

Haley held out her arm and Gina took it, also wrapping a thin arm around her friend's waist. "This is not the gay, I just don't wanna get dropped on my head."

"That only happened ONCE and you were fine." Concentrating and visualizing, Haley sensed a full tornado out in Oklahoma. She drew some of those two hundred mile per hour winds through a gralic gate. With a rush and a roar, Windcatcher and Gina were flung upward and out of sight almost instantly.

Speech was impossible within the vortex of furiously whirling air. How the two of them were able to breathe at all during the flight was another mystery. It was sixteen miles from midtown Glenville to the shores of Lake Schoonmaker and Haley was not using her top speed to keep Gina from distress.

But within a few minutes, the winds lessened and they descended at a good clip. Both knew how to drop their legs and bend their knees before landing, but this time they touched down as lightly as if hopping down off a kitchen chair.

"You are getting much better at that," Gina said with relief. "When you first started, I saw you take some awful spills."

"Tell me about it. Practice all day every day, that's the trick." Windcatcher pointed at the crowd of twenty people who were lazing about the lake, including those who were gathered at the trailer which sold hot dogs and hamburgers, bottles of soda and bags of chips. "I mean, what the hell? We come sailing down out of the sky! It's astonishing! Only everyone looks up and then goes back to what they were doing."

"Wish I'd tied back my hair," was Gina's only response as she began working on the hopeless tangle of her hair with a brush. "Hmm. Smell them burgers on the grill."

"See, you're doing it too!"

"Let's wrap ourselves around some chow, Hales," Gina urged, tugging Windcatcher by one arm. The town had provided a few wooden picnic tables with benches and the two girls plopped down with paper plates laden by double cheeseburgers, large curly fries and one bag of spicy Doritos. Each had a can of soda, root beer for Haley and Diet Pepsi for Gina. They dug in with a complete lack of self-consciousness.

"Oh, that's better. I spent lunch period in the hall on my phone," Gina sighed. "I swear there was an echo in my stomach."

"Yeah, I didn't exactly mind this," agreed Haley. "That mac and cheese in the cafeteria is old enough to walk by itself."

Changing to a sing-song voice, Gina crooned, "Somebody is watching you, Haley Jean..."

Windcatcher swung her head so fast that her ponytail almost knocked over her soda can. "Oh. Is he coming over here? How do I look? Are my bangs straight?"

"Jeez, Hales, what do you think you could do if they weren't straight? Hi, Jasper. Howya doing?"

Sauntering up to them was the tallest senior in the school, gawky with the long torso and limbs of late adolescence. Jasper Brink was wearing his usual tight jeans, baggy green T-shirt and an open white button-front shirt over that with the tail hanging free. That haircut, shaved on the sides but teased on top, annoyed Gina as unbearably pretentious but one glance at her friend showed that Haley liked it fine.

For Windcatcher, the rest of the world faded into foggy irrelevance. All that mattered right then was being approached by this boy, with his cocky smile and complete confidence. "Hey there," she managed to say.

"Hi, girls. Haley, good thing you turned up here."

Unaware of the smitten expression on her face, she said, "It is?"

"Yeah. My squad found something weird in the woods. Nobody knows what to do, we figured you might want to take a look. Ever see a Bigfoot skeleton?"

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"THE NINE BEAST HELMETS II: Beasts of the East"

THE NINE BEAST HELMETS II - BEASTS OF THE EAST

1. Frost and Burning Blade vs. Dragon

The oak door which blocked them was massive and intimidating, its thick planks reinforced with iron bands. The hinges and locks were not complex or modern, merely daunting. Two reluctant allies broke their uneasy silence as their progress was halted.

Slightly above average height, slender in her tight black field suit, Jessica Frost was strikingly attractive in a way she completely disregarded. Since the traumatic curse which had changed her appearance and given her the cryogenic power, nearly all of her emotions had been lost as well. The sole remaining tinge of feeling she retained was deep loyalty to the man who had kept her alive during that hellish ordeal, Jeremy Bane. It was to repay him that she had joined the KDF and become a knight of Tel Shai. Nothing else mattered to her. All attempts by her teammates to draw her out and to loosen her up with humor had fallen flat.

With her helmet held in the crook of her arm, Frost was revealed to have long fine-textured hair more silver than platinum blonde. If not for her eyes being saphire blue instead of pink, her flat white skin might have marked her as albino. When she turned those disinterested eyes on Dorgo, the Danarmyl felt an unreasonable irritation. Human eyes should show SOMETHING, they should not be as remote and frigid as doll's eye.

His own helmet hung on its strap over his shoulder. Dorgo was in the full suit of plate armor, his own Burning Blade in its scabbard. The steel of that armor shimmered in the freezing December air, heated from within. For Dorgo was a Danarmyl, one of the rare and little-known Cousins of Men who had been sorcerously modified to thrive deep underground. Dorgo's body was meant for high pressure and intense heat. His thick rugose hide was bright red, coarse-textured and steaming visibly in the cold. His Race had neither hair nor external ears, the crimson-irised eyes were deepset and his mouth a wide toothy trap. It could not be seen when he was armored, but Dorgo had no fingernails and no separate toes.

This woman had done nothing overt to offend him, Dorgo admitted to himself. It was just her manner which infuriated him. He had wished to pair up with the Silver Skull, about whom he had heard many wild tales, but no such luck. With great effort, the Danarmyl focused on the challenge at hand and slid his sword from its sheath.

"In even normal hands, the Burning Blade can start fires and boil water," he rasped in a voice that sounded like rocks scraping together. "But in my grip, the sword can melt through steel walls. I will have this door down in a trice."

But Jessica Frost gave him a mere passing glance that stopped him short. She reached up, closed her hand on the lock and siphoned away every bit of heat in the metal. It cracked and fell into fragments without her even applying pressure. Frost swiped the broken apieces away and undid the hasp to open the door.

"Hear me!" he unexpectedly hissed. "I know your power has killed a Danarmyl like myself."

Frost turned her eyes toward him. "Hasak was a criminal mercenary working for Wu Lung. He had commited many murders."

"Even so. I understand you cracked him open with your gift as if pouring ice water on red hot iron. But do not think you could do the same to me. I am Dorgo of the Seven Swords. My core burns more intensely than that of my brethren. And I bear the ancient Burning Blade as well."

Jessica Frost lifted her helmet and brought it down over her shining head, fastening its lower rim to the high collar of her field suit. She had no reply to his comments.

"By Margoth, woman, you task my patience. Hagen has declared that the Nine Beast Helmets are an affront which must be destroyed. Shall such novices as you and your Dire Wolf, not even past a score and ten of years be taken more weightily?"

Without seeming to have heard him, Frost oved through the open door into the gloom beyond as if she were entirely alone. Dorgo shivered with repressed rage. So be it then. He had not lowered his own helmet down over his head, feeling it would stifle him. While he could with effort lower his skin temperature enough to contact Humans without harm, at the moment he had lost all control of that. His armor would have burned any bare skin touching it.

Following through the doorway, he saw the Tel Shai knight striding past a pair of narrow alcoves, not looking back to see if he was following. Dorgo fumed, physically and mentally. When this night's work was done, he meant to demand a reckoning. So worked up was he nursing his grievances that the thundering blow from that darkened alcove caught him completely unaware. A tight fist crashed against the side of his head and sent him reeling drunkenly. In an instant, he had regained his balance and the Burning Blade was ready in his grip. The Danarmyl rushed through the doorway and was ignominously thrown to the stone floor by a spinning kick that thumped violently across his back.

If Dorgo had been in a foul temper before, now he was on the edge of running amok. Agile despite his armor, he sprang back up onto his feet and whirled his two-handled sword in a glittering circle that would have gutted anyone in its path. But the Dragon Helmet stood well out of reach.

He sensed Jessica Frost coming in close behind him, but at this point he hated her as much as he did the Nine Beast Helmets. Dorgo twirled the sword and assumed an on guard stance with its pointed half extended. He found himself facing an stout man whose coarse tunic was stretched uncomfortably over a round belly.

The man's helmet was crafted to resemble a Hurimi beast, one of the more familiar Breeds in the Midnight War. The horselike head showed a higher brow than such an equine must display. Two twisted horns stretched back from the brow, and a pair of short barbels hung from the chin. From within the eyeholes, nothing showed. Those openings were as black as if the helmet were unoccupied.

"Lay down your weapon, fool!" shouted the cultist. "There is still a bare hope that you and the colorless woman might live to see the dawn in your surrender."

"Empty words! It is know that NO other sect in the Midnight War has been humbled so often and so throughly as the Nine Beast Helmets." Dorgo extended his sword in front of him with a two-handed grip. "You have been beaten into laughingstocks."

"No! Wrong! We are a new sect, not the weak old witchmen who wore these helms. Atrumo has gathered the greatest warriors and assassins in the adjacent realms, now we are masters."

Dorgo laughed out loud, twirled his sword and lunged forward with the point extended. His attack was halted in mid-step by a roaring stream of white-hot force which shot from the Beast Helmet's open muzzle. That dragonflame rushed out fast and hard. The Danarmyl was flipped over backwards and slid ten feet across the stone floor.

"Do you sing different words to your little song now?" asked the Beast Helmet man.

Dazed and gasping, Dorgo rolled over and got up onto his knees. His armor shimmered in the cold night air and his sword glowed like a coal. In truth, he was pleasantly surprised to find himself alive. Any true Human would have been incinerated at once by that blast but he was only battered and singed. Being a Danarmyl was the main reason but he also realized that the heat-channeling properties on his ensorcelled blade had helped him survive.

Still, he realized as he struggled to rise, a second such blast would finish him. He used his sword as a lever to push himself up onto his feet.

"My name is Chimu, I was the undefeated wrestler of all Perjena. Even without this helmet, I could slay a Subterran such as you." The metal face swivelled to regard the other enemy in that room. "Ah, but it is you who are the real threat, aren't you? We have been warned of the new Tel Shai knights. You are Frost, the heartless ice maiden who causes rivers to freeze!"

"Accurate enough," Jessica Frost admitted. She did not need to gesture to use her power. Her mind drew on the transendental gralic force to siphon heat out of the area around her enemy. The path of this transference showed as a swirling column of ice crystals rushing toward the Beast Helmet man. Another fierce gush of superheated force exploded from the metal muzzle and both fundamental forces stalled in a gout of steam and spray.

For a full five seconds, bitter cold and intolerable crashed against each other in mid-air. Then both fighters let their attacks fade. Chimu stepped back, breathing heavily, gathering his will power for another burst.

Frost turned to Dorgo, sweeping in her hand in a forward motion. "He can't hurt you! Kill him."

The Danarmyl had been on the verge of rushing the enemy anyway. Prudence and patience were not his strongest attributes. At Frost's admonition, he closed in quick as a fencer, with the Burning Blade drawn back at head level in both hands. A sputter of hot air flurried in front of the Dragon Helm but faded out instantly, then the ancient sword wheeled around in a horizontal arc and lopped the cultist's head off with a geyser of blood from the base of the neck. Helmeted head and robed body fell in different directions, one hitting with a clang and the other a damp thud.

The Danarmyl braced himself with feet wide apart, needing a second to let his victory sink in. He saw the blood sizzle and burn off his blade, leaving it clean. "Tel Shai, you blocked his attack with your freezing power?"

"Yes."

Swinging around to stare at that pale emotionless face, Dorgo felt weary. He sheathed his sword and fell to his knees on the floor, beginning the unsavory task of removing a helmet from a severed head. "I must admit, that was quick thinking."

"I judged he could have overcome my ability with repeated attacks," Frost said grudgingly, as if explaining anything was an imposition. "You would have been killed as well. By shielding you, I enabled you to kill him. It seemed the best strategy."

Holding the cursed iron helmet in both hands, Dorgo glared down at it, strongly desiring to cast it into the river Evanyl outside or to hammer it flat on an anvil. "It was only chance that we ended up as the right team for this helmet, if chance it was."

"Our partners are even now fighting," Jessica Frost said, going to leave the chamber. "We must help. You may carry the Helmet."

"It has been a pleasure to work with you, too," muttered Dorgo, but not too loud.
2. Silver Skull and Shining Blade vs Mantis

Taper felt comfortable with Perendir as soon as they had introduced themselves. He had met many Eldarin during his career and did not understand why so many Humans felt uneasy around the golden folk.

They walked briskly along gloomy corridors that turned and twisted so frequently that running would have meant slamming into the stone walls often. Taper's Silver Skull uniform had appeared upon him when he had first entered the realm of Evaho, a sign that imminent danger was near. The black leather tunic, pants and high boots were offset by the round silver shield strapped to his left forearm and a straight sword three feet long in a scabbard at his left hip. Fastened on his head was a helmet of silver also, crafted to resemble a grim unsmiling skull.

For more than a decade, he had fought the Midnight War in this guise as had uncounter knights before him. The Silver Skull was a tradition that reached back thirty thousand years into the Darthan Age.

Of all the Seven Swords, only Perendir had elected not to wear the plate armor tonight. She was clad in a dark green tunic with a hood, black leggings and soft slippers. The Shining Sword was slung across her back diagonally with its hilt up by her left shoulder for easy drawing. Under five feet tall, weighing ninety pounds at best, she glided forward with effortless silence. There was a definite androgynous beauty to the Eldarin. Small-boned, delicate, the males had narrow shoulders and the females barely perceptible breasts and hips. Few ever reached more than five feet four in height.

The face which turned back toward Taper as they spoke was a haunting oval with a pointed chin, snub nose and enormous amber-tinted eyes. The shining gold hair had been tied back to reveal pointed ears. It was difficult not to stare at an Eldar, but those who dealt with Humans grew used to it. "So empty this stronghold," she whispered. "I expected many guards."

"I acknowledge some consternation, as well," Taper said. Up close, it was unsettling that his eyes could not be seen through the openings in his helmet, only black emptiness as if no one was inside. "Maybe the Nine Beast Helmets are miniscule in numbers, rather than the world-girdling nefarious conspiracy of our conjectures. Servitors, valets, chefs and other plebians are conspicuous by their absence."

At the end of the corridor before them, a door creaked open but no one could be seen. "Enter! I do not lower myself to ambush," called a strident voice. "Come freely to your deaths."

Taper and Perendir exchanged bemused glances, then boldly marched through the opening. Both drew their weapons before they entered. Chalcemar, the sword of the Silver Skull, was of steel inlaid with numerous flecks of ensalir. That was silver ensorcelled by the Eldarin themselves, granting the blade its unique qualities.

Perendir smiled wryly. She could sense the nearness of the metal her Race had devised ages ago. The shield and helmet which Taper bore also were heavily infused with bits of ensalir. Its presence pleased her.

The new colleagues found themselves in a high-ceilinged chamber well lit by dozens of candles on high standing poles along the walls. Open racks displayed an internationally derived assortment of weapons, from a three-section staff to claymores to nunchakus to tomahawks. Seated on an ornate wicker bench was a lean figure in the coarse robes of the Beast Helmet sect, with iron braces running on each arm from wrist to elbow. His helmet was crafted in the grotesque large-eyed semblance of a Preying Mantis.

"Not the Tel Shai clowns I was hoping for," the Mantis scoffed. "My dream was to clash with Jeremy Bane himself. That fool is so overrated! But I suppose slaying the latest Silver Skull will be satisfying enough."

Despite her small size and thin arms, Perendir twirled the Shining Blade deftly and drew it back to a ready stance with one hand. "I take no joy in striking you down, it is for the greater good."

"Hah! So you claim. You are notorious in your own way, little Elf. How rare it is to find an Eldar who bear to fight hand to hand at all. Your Race is well known for its weakness, but you.. you are different, are you not?"

"I have not lived these thousands of years to banter with the likes of you," replied Perendir. She stalked forward and took her place in the open arena, facing the Beast Helmet wearer.

Rising smoothly, the Mantis stretched and twisted his head from side to side. "You have lived so long only to die for little reason. I was the martial arts instructor for the Western Europe branch of the White Web, darling. Even without this helmet, I was the deadliest man alive. Now I am unbeatable."

A faint mocking smile touched those delicate lips. She extended her free hand palm up and flexed the fingers in a 'come on' gesture.

But even as the Mantis took two careful steps forward, the Silver Skull also moved toward the center of the room. His voice made hollow by his helmet, Taper said, "As sublime as a duel between you two might prove, the entertainment value alone cannot justify jeopardizing the outcome of our crusade. With heartfelt reluctance, I must forgo the hallowed traditions of heroism and, well, dogpile on the rabbit."

"And I thought I spoke English...!" muttered the Beast Helmet man. He sprang forward directly in between the two intruders. The next minute would have been impossible for an untrained observer to follow. Two swords slashed and rebounded off the metal cuffs on the Mantis' arms; in return, lightning-swift spinning kicks rang against the Skull helmet and thudded to the chest of the Eldar woman. They were fighting at a level of skill where their movements seemed to been have meticulously rehearsed to perfection.

Despite the two against one odds, despite the added weaponry and shield that Taper and Perendir enjoyed, they could not do any lasting damage to their enemy. The Mantis was a decisive fraction faster than his opponents. His enhanced perception guided him to strike at the best opening, to swerve and crouch beneath the edges of the swords, to dance in and out without being scratched. Each fleeting concussion where he made contact drove Taper and Perendir back a step to recover.

Perendir was not as strong as even a Human woman her size and build, the Eldarin were not brawny by nature. But she was light on her feet, nimble and quick-thinking. Against nearly any opponent, she had proven capable to striking before any defense could stop her. Her skills were not availing her now.

Another minute hurtled by at a frantic pace that would have killed any normal athlete from exhaustion. Taper scored one side kick to the stomach that doubled the Mantis up, but his advantage didn't last more than an instant. Lunging in when Perendir raised her sword, the Mantis stabbed three stiffened fingers up into her armpit, sinking their ends deep into a nerve plexus. The Shining Blade dropped from limp fingers to clatter on the floor.

If they had been alone, the Beast Helmet bearer would have been able to finish off the Eldar there and then. But he did not have the necessary instant for that. Larry Taper bodyslammed him from the side, using his shield as a battering ram and sending the Mantis tumbling off his feet. The Silver Skull stomped down to the man's chest, intending to drive the breath from his opponent but Mantis seized that foot and twisted, throwing Taper off. Both men rolled over and vaulted back up again.

The two opponents reset their stances ten feet apart. For a moment, they made no move. They were replaying in their minds the furious action of that past minute, considering what opportunities they had not taken advantage of, looking for patterns in their enemy's attacks.

Perendir had stubbornly risen, right arm hanging uselessly at her side. In her left hand, she hefted her sword and lifted it point upwards in front of her. "Here is a sight well worth seeing," she suggested.

Both Taper and the Mantis could not resist glancing over. The entire chamber turned the most intense white imaginable, leaving no room for shadows. Every Eldar was capable of making their bodies blaze up to blind their enemies, in fact they were channeling the healing radiance which bathed their island of Elvedal. Perendir drew this gift through the Shining Blade with overwhelming results. Many times since joining the Seven Swords, they had paralyzed armies into helplesness by depriving them of any sight.

But there was a whack and a thud, and the unbearable radiance faded. Taper's eyes cleared more quickly than they would have if the light had been natural. He saw his teammate lying stretched out on her stomach, one elbow drawn up. She was not dead nor even completely unconscious as a feeble attempt to turn over indicated, but the Eldar was definitely out of the fight for the moment.

The Mantis scornfully kicked the Shining Blade to the farther end of the arena. "Hah! Poor golden one. The brightest light or the deepest blackness, they matter nothing to me. My Mantis helmet increases my perception beyond the need for sight." He held up both arms with the forearms raised and hands hanging so that he further resembled the insect for which his Helmet had been styled.

Facing him, blinking away tears as his vision fully returned, Larry Taper had decided on his best gambit against this enemy. He tossed the sword Chalcemar to one side and then slid the round shield from his left arm and sent it skittering away as well. Unarmed, he lowered into a deep forward leaning stance with most of his weight on his foreward leg and his open right hand stretched forward.

Mantis knew nothing of the Silver Skull's ensorcellments. He took this action as a form of surrender. With a gleeful snort, he sprinted toward his opponent, leaping up to pounce... and ran headlong into the razored point of Taper's sword. The Silver Skull had summoned it, and Chalcemar had appeared in his grasp from across the room. So neatly did it pierce the man's torso that the sword's point emerged up under his shoulder blades for more than a foot.

"Ugh! What?" was all the Mantis managed to say before life left him. Taper kept his grip and slowed the body's fall to the floor, then planted a foot on the dead chest and tugged his weapon free. "That ruse has spared me much tedious sparring," he announced to the unhearing Mantis.

He hurried over to kneel before Perendir. The Eldar woman moaned and placed her palms flat on the floor, trying without much success to brace herself preparatory to rising. A noticeable lump already showed on the back of her head. Taper placed one gentle hand beneath that head and the other high up on her back for support. "Steady on there, compatriot," he advised. "Energetic activity is counterindicated at this point."

"The Mantis! Where is he?"

"Departed to confess his shortcomings to his ancestors," the Silver Skull told her. "Don't fret over him now. Your cranial condition must supersede all other considerations."

Those slightly oblique eyes opened to reveal the amber irises. "You slew him? Very well. My light failed for the first time. Here, help me up if you will. There is no time to rest. Our friends are fighting their own desperate duels while we sit here."

As the Eldar got to her feet, bracing herself and growing steadier with each second, Taper fetched her Shining Blade and handed it over. Perendir slid it back into her scabbard and sighed. "That Mantis Helmet gave greater powers than I would have thought, Lawrence. I only hope that our teammates are doing well."

The Silver Skull took some folded pieces of paper from within his belt and thoughtfully wiped his blade clean before sheathing it. "If it offers comfort, Perendir, they undoubtedly are worrying the same about us."


III.

Cat's-Claw and Hissing Blade vs Tiger

Two deadly fighters stalked down the long empty corridors of the abandoned Melgar fortress. Kwali was nearly invisible in the gloom except when he passed near one of the sparsely placed wall torches. The huge Danarakan warrior wore the traditional tight cotton suit which left his forearms and shins bare, and only soft moccasins which made no sound. The grim expression on his dark heavy-featured face was normal for him. His wiry hair was close-cropped, and his eyes were an unpredictable bright green... cat's eyes.

Slightly behind the Tel Shai knight, Cheram felt increasingly clumsy and awkward in comparison. The full suit of armor did not help, although it was so well designed and laced together that the plates make no grinding noises. In his right hand, Cheram brandished the Hissing Sword. When he in turn passed near a torch, a bizarre non-Human face was revealed.

For Cheram Murakami was from Chyl. His tawny-skinned head was completely hairless, his deepset eyes were shadowed under protruding brow ledges and most alarmingly, he had no nose at all. Only a slight ridge swelled between nose and mouth. The Chylans breathed in through their mouths and out through gill slits on either side of their necks. Why the Darthim had so long ago modified Chylans from Human ancestors, no one knew. The most accepted theory was that they had been intended to water-breathers but had been supplanted by the Gelydrim of Ulgor.

One of the Zoku-ya class, raised from childhood to be master swordsmen, Cheram had ranked near the top of his trade before leaving Chyl ten years earlier. He was cousin to the notorious Zemu Watura, the Stray Dog, and the two had managed to avoid a showdown that would only end with one or both of them dead.

Slowing to a halt, Kwali pressed his fingertips to where the talisman Cat's-Claw hung on a chain under his tunic. The incredibly ancient talon was growing warmer with each step. "Danger is near," he warned, his Danarakan accent almost lost after many years of travel. "Gralic force. Something potent and hateful."

"I am ready," said Cheram. "Nay, even eager. Let us do what we came here to do."

The African warrior glanced back and nodded. "Odd that our paths have never crossed before. We fight the same fight, Cheram."

"Yes. Well, the Seven Swords seldom enter the real world. We patrol the adjacent realms to strike down and bandits and tyrants."

"I have heard of nothing but deeds brave and righteous about your fellowship."

A sharp barking laugh escaped the Chylan. "I would say the same about your Tel Shai knights." Before he could speak further, lurid scarlet light flooded in through the window slits along the walls. Outside, a gralic firebolt had risen high into the freezing sky and detonated with a thump of thunder too close for safety. The alarm had been given.

"They know we are here," Cheram said. "Now it's kill or be killed."

Without further comment, Kwali took off at an easy loping pace that the Chylan was hard pressed to match. Bent far forward, long legs pumping and arms tucked in close to the massive chest, Kwali seemed more catlike than ever. The armored Seven Swords fighter ran close behind, sword ready.

Ahead, the corridor branched left and right. Accelerating into a full sprint, Kwali leaped into that opening but far to his right, and a dark figure slashed the air where he would have been if he had not swerved. The Danarakan swung a knotted fist that would have broken any jaw it struck, but he too made contact with only empty air. Then gouges raked across his chest, deep into the pectoral muscles and Kwali backpaced out of reach.

Swerving in through the doorway, the Beast Helmet cultist flashed straight at Cheram. The Hissing Sword moved so quickly that its passage made the sinister sound which had given it its name. Somehow, the dark robed man stopped that slash with his palm, forcing the sword down and bodyslamming Cheram off his feet entirely. Agle as an acrobat, the Beast Helmet man hopped over the fallen Chylan and landed in the hallway behind them. He had wounded Kwali and placed one of his opponents between himself and the other in less than a second.

Revealed in the torchlight near him, the cultist was shown as a tall, thin man wrapped in coarse robes sashed tightly. His iron helmet was crafted in the likeness of a snarling tiger with its jaws open to show the fangs. He raised his open hands in a swirling motion, revealing the shukos he wore... bands which held four vicious hooks across his palms. Those hooks reached out three inches. It had been these which had wounded Kwali.

"Who dies first?" he asked.

Jumping back onto his feet, Cheram drew his sword back. That impact had taken him off-balance but done no harm. "What unworthy weapons you bear," he spat. "Only a Brumal without honor would sink so low."

"Stop it," the Tiger laughed, "Do you want to hurt my feelings?"

The former Zoku-Ya stamped his metal-shod foot twice and lunged forward, the Hissing Blade sweeping in a diagonal arc that would have bisected any man it struck. But, faster and fiercer than Human muscles should be able to move, the Tiger rushed in close under the swing and smashed his elbow in through the open visor with stunning force. Cheram did not fall. He recovered instantly, bringing the great two-handed sword around but the Tiger was swifter. Planting one foot by Cheram's ankle, seizing the Chylan's sword arm, the Beast Helmet fighter flung Cheram over his hip to crash full length on the stone floor.

Even as he fell, though, the Zoku-Ya lashed out again with a backhand stroke that the Tiger was forced to leap up over to avoid having his legs amputated at the knee. The Seven Swords fighter was on his feet in a blink, whipping his sword from side to side and driving the Tiger back.

"Let me slay him," rumbled the deep baritone of Bakwanga Kwali.

"No! I have him! He will be lying quartered in a second," Cheram protested. But despite his best efforts, his strokes could not touch the elusive Tiger. Skilled warriors in their own right, the new fighters of the Nine Beast Helmets had their abilities magnified many times by their talismans.

"He has drawn blood from me. I will have his!" insisted the huge Danarakan. He shouldered past the Seven Swords fighter, stalking more catlike than ever.

"Har, let him try. After I kill him, you and I will dance around a little more."

Cheram Murakami moved back two steps toward the doorway, lowering his sword. His grosteque face was unreadable but his voice gave away his anger. "Oh very well. Have your way with him."`

The Tiger dropped into a crouch so low his torso was parallel to the floor. On his outstretched hands, the savage shuko devices glinted in the torchlight. "Cat's-Claw! Heir to Wakime. The lying tales say you can turn into a gigantic Black Lion, but I never believed them."

"Against you," Kwali retorted, "I will not need the full attribute of our sacred Black Lion." Even the Tiger Helmet man was taken unaware by how terrifyingly fast Kwali plunged across the intervening space and continued past him to whirl back around.

"Huh? I didn't even... see you move..." The cultist groaned in fatalistic awareness he had only seconds to live. Onto the spill of his own intestines, the gutted man fell face down and his final breath rattled in his throat.

Stupefied by what he had seen, Cheram slowly slid his sword back into his scabbard. He tried to speak but made only a vague croaking noise.

Turning toward his new colleague, the Danarakan made no comment. He raised his arms and let Cheram get a good look. Where his hands had been a moment before, his wrists swelled and thickened into two massive black-hided lion's paws.

10/14/2021

"THE NINE BEAST HELMETS I: Beasts of the South"

NINE BEAST HELMETS I - BEASTS OF THE SOUTH

12/21/1988-12/24/1988

I.

Deep in the forest of Evaho, they found the old man lying in the dust. Blood was slowing to a trickle from the deep slash across his back. His clothing was simple homespun, coarse and undyed. Close to where he had fallen was a crude crutch made from the limb of an oak; his left leg ended above the knee.

Hagen signalled his league to halt their steeds, himself dismounting nimbly enough to crouch over the dying man. The leader of the Seven Swords was of average height, but wide-shouldered and narrow-waisted. He had dark brown hair cropped over a clean-shaven face, and his stern expression showed the force of will that made him leader of the Seven Swords. As a Melgar, even one in exile, he had both strength and resistance to harm greater to that enjoyed by Humans.

Riding through the this realm, the Seven Swords had left their plate armor at camp to be guarded by their squires. Hagen had on high boots, tight breeches and a white linen shirt covered by a vest of stiff brown leather. Of course, a baldric passing over his left shoulder supported the scabbard which held his Seeking Sword. None of his fellowship went anywhere without their specific ensorcelled sword.

Decades of questing had given the son of Ewan much knowledge of wounds. Nothing could be done for this poor soul. He dropped to one knee and gently laid a hand on that bony shoulder.

The old man's eyes darted about and widened. "Hagen? Is it you?"

"It is. Tell me who burned the village and mistreated such a greybeard as yourself."

"Nine men in black. They wore... helmets shaped like the heads of animals."

"Rest you well. Your village will be avenged," the Melgar said quietly. "By the White Horse, I swear it."

"Thank y.."

"Speed your soul to its source, grandfather," said Hagen even as he saw the light fade out in the old man's eyes. The Melgar rose smoothly to his feet and turned to face his comrades. "Barzun, you are our strongest. Dig this venerable one a grave and cover it well. I want no jackals to disturb his bones."

"It is a deed well worth doing," rumbled the Troll. He got down off the mighty plow horse which could bear his weight as lesser steeds could not. Barzun topped seven feet in height, massive and thick-limbed beyond proportions any Human could reach. He wore on a long tunic of heavy linen which reached to his knees, as well as his own Bludgeoning Blade. The tawny leathery skin marked his tunnel-dwelling Race, as did the conical skull and brow ledge which gave his features a misleadingly brutal cast.

Untying a spade from their pack horse, the Troll stepped over behind an ancient oak and commenced to digging, throwing huge amounts of earth behind him with ease. The others knew to simply stay out of his way when he tackled such tasks.

Remaining in their saddles, the other Seven Swords regarded their leader with expectation. It was Perendir the Eldar who broke the silence, "The Nine Beast Helmets have indeed surfaced after all these years, Hagen. Many hoped they had been lost and would never be seen again."

"Such good fortune is not given to us," Hagen replied. He stood with hand on hilt, gazing up at his teammates. "The rumors and whispers which led us here to Evaho were well-founded."

Astride his chestnut mount, Dorgo the red-skinned Danarmyl rasped, "Where you lead, we will follow, son of Ewan. Seven swords, nine helmets. Shall we not ride after these villains?"

"We will. The Nine Beast Helmets are not foes to be taken lightly, but then neither are we."

"When your people conquered this realm, they established fortresses at key points," Perendir continued. "Once their rule had been firmly established, the Melgarin stayed as farmers and miners but their strongholds were in time abandoned."

"All this is true," their leader replied. He saw that Barzon had already placed the pitiful corpse into the newly-dug grave and was filling it back. Hagen seized his saddlehorn and swung back up.

"I believe the nearest such castle is four days march from here," added Perendir. The tiny Eldar swept back her gleaming hair to reveal the pointed ears which marked her. "It will be harder to strike them down once they are behind stone walls."

"Much can happen in four days," growled Hagen.


II.

Standing at the head of the long oak table, Jeremy Bane gazed out over his friends and partners. Three generations of Tel Shai knights had assembled at that table, and he was proud he had been able to assemble so many worthy new knights. The seven who sat there offered a useful assortment of strengths and skills. The Dire Wolf felt confident about this mission.

"This council is open," he said, pulling back his chair to sit down. "He can't be here today, but Garrison Nebel informs me that he senses the presence of the Nine Beast Helmets active in the realm of Evaho. We've learned to trust his perception. For those who aren't familiar with them, these are a set of talismans from the Darthan Age that give gralic enhancements to anyone wearing them. When an person puts on one of the helmets, they're given extra strength and resistance to injury, but when a mystic wears one, the helmets endows them with special gralic abilities. The Eagle helmet gives flight, the Dragon helmet gives flame breath, or so the lore tell us. Our mission is to claim these helmets and turn them to our own purposes."

"Whoa, captain," interrupted Stephen Weaver, a tall lanky American black man. "I'm not the greatest expert on how these things work, but if they're Darthan, aren't they inherently destructive? Clear that up for me."

"I think they can be cleansed and repurposed," Bane said. "They were made by Humans, not by the Darthim, and they're made of iron instead of Gremthom. So, even if they use gralic magick from Darthan sources, I hope they can be salvaged."

"If you say so," Weaver responded with clear reservations. "I dunno. My instincts are that this could go awful wrong awful fast."

Sitting opposite the Black Angel, Kwali spoke up in his resonant baritone. "Perhaps not, Stephen. I myself wear the Cat's Claw of the great Wakimbe. Although its influence can draw one to sudden rages and rash actions, I have been able to bear it well through discipline. If we can channel the Nine Beast Helmets to a more noble use, I feel it is worth the attempt."

Bane nodded. "My hope is that we can find nine people we can trust to wear the Beast Helmets as a new team. I was thinking of some of our associate and reserve members stepping up. If not, in the Vault the helmets go. There at least they won't do any more harm."

Further down the table, the Melgar champion Sulak spoke up, "I say it is worth the try. If nothing else, we will at least be ridding the adjacent realms of a menace that has caused so much death and misery."

"A vote, then?" asked Tang Ming.

A simple show of hands decided the matter in favor. The negative votes were from Weaver and Jessica Frost, but both agreed they would go along with the majority decision.

As Bane rose again to end the meeting, he said, "Luckily, modern technology works well enough in Evaho. We found that out with the Ship of Skulls last year. Steve, help me do a rundown on the CORBY. Shiro, I'm afraid you get stuck here on standby duty this time. We need someone on base in case some of us come back wounded or if we need back-up and we all take our turn. Everyone else, you have forty-five minutes to get ready before we leave."

III.

By the steep banks of the River Elavyl, fourteen warriors faced each other in opposing line-ups. Overhead, a full moon in a cloudless star-blazing sky gave ample light. One hundred yards away, the black stealthcopter CORBY was tethered down beneath a camouflage tarp. Behind the Seven Swords were their horses, tied to a single line which ran to a tree overhanging the water.

Hagen's team were in their full suits of plate armor, burnished and spotless from greaves to gauntlets to helmets with the grilled visors raised. Each bore their individual swords sheathed at their sides, and each had a symbol painted on the breastplate.. numbers ranging from one to seven.

The leaders of each team stepped forward to stand within arm's reach of each other. Jeremy Bane in his black field suit, Hagen in his resplendent armor.

"It's been a while," the Dire Wolf spoke first. "We haven't met since the Siege of Androval."

"...When you Tel Shai knights fought alongside we Melgarin against the hordes of Ulgor," Hagen responded. "Your knights' courage and sacrifice have not been forgotten, Dire Wolf. I take it your fellowship and mine are on the same quest tonight?"

"Yeah, we're not here at the same time by chance. That would be stretching coincidence way too thin. It's the Nine Beast Helmets. My source indicates that the cult is using that abandoned castle downriver for the headquarters."

"There are other causes for you to embrace, Bane," Hagen said. "The Beast Helmets have been slaughtering and enslaving Melgarin. I take that personally. It shall be the Seven Swords who strike them down!"

Behind him, Bane sensed his team bristle. "We haven't come to this realm to leave without accomplishing our mission, Hagen. I want those helmets. They are a possible resource too valuable to pass up. I intend to have them cleansed and put to good use."

"Never shall that come to pass. Not that I doubt the strength and courage of your knights. That is mighty Sulak I see standing with you, and Kwali the Cat's-Claw and the Silver Skull. But the Nine Beast Helmets are powered by vile Darthan magick. They would corrupt the purest heart. No living being is noble enough to wear one and stay true."

"Only one way to find out. We're going after them," Bane announced, "Whether you get in the way or not."

The leader of the Seven Swords raised a gauntleted hand in conciliation. "Let no hasty words trap us into positions we will regret. Sulak! You are a loyal son of Androval, even as I. What say you?"

"Hagen, I have a thought," the Champion said. "We are both seven warriors. Why contend against each other when we share a common enemy? To quarrel is to do our cause an injustice. I say, let us pair up. One Tel Shai knight with one of the Seven Swords, invading that castle by twos. Let us work together for the greater good."

"You always bring good counsel," replied Hagen. "Dire Wolf, that would be an arrangement we both could honor, yes?"

For one long, unbearably tense moment Bane did not reply. "All right," he agreed at last. "It makes sense. We can figure out how to handle the helmets after we claim them."

"Both our Races share a wise saying," said Hagen. 'Before you begin to cook rabbit stew..'"

"'First catch the rabbit!'" finished the Dire Wolf with relief in his voice. "Let's do it. I guess random teams are as good an arrangement as any. Everyone, introduce yourselves to your opposite standing across of you right now. Our mystic Tang Ming here will perceive the best routes to sneak into the castle without being detected."

Hagen grunted in agreement. "As will my own Seeking Blade. It leads me to whatever I search for. Very well, Dire Wolf. Let justice be served."

In the moonlight, a thin wry smile could be glimpsed on Bane's face. "The Nine Beast Helmets will be sorry that our two teams met!"


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"Hellbound Heroes"

"Hellbound Heroes"

4/5-4/6/1945

I.


"Don't shoot! Don't shoot! I'm an American!" yelled a terrified voice from within a cluster of trees.

On the dusty road, five men in worn-out civilian clothes whirled about without hesitation. Two Thompson Submachine Guns and a M 1918 Browning Automatic Rifle swung up to cover the spot where the voice had originated. The obvious leader, laden with gear strapped all around him and with a wool knit cap pulled down past his hairline, dropped his right hand to the .45 holstered on his belt but didn't draw. "Stay on your toes, men," he muttered. In a louder voice, he called, "Show yourself, buddy. Hands as high as you can reach."

Stepping out from the woods and moving toward the road came a tall man in a tattered, stained US Army uniform. He had his knapsack on his back, complete with sleeping bag tied around the top, but his empty hands weren't carrying any weapons.

"PFC Will Middaugh, First Attack Squad, Baker Company. We're based in Dover.. we WERE based in Dover. My whole Ranger squad was wiped out two days ago."

The leader of the men on the road scrutinized this stranger. "I know that base. Getting ready for big action. Baker Company, huh? Is Winslow Marsten still running things with a heavy hand, the old martinet?"

"Marsten?" came the reply. "We answer to Colonel Saul Dawling. I haven't heard of any Marsten."

"Come a little closer. That was a trick question. I know there's no Colonel Marston there. I was stationed at the Dover staging area a month ago." The man was frowning, studying the newcomer with cold appraisal. "I'm Major Benton Reid, OSS. These are my men, the Hellbound Heroes, all hardened resistance fighters who have lost everything."

"Except the need to kill Germans," said one of the squad.

"Stand down, Marcel. What happened to your Rangers, son?"

Middaugh finally lowered his hands and visibly untensed. He was a remarkably good-looking young man in his late twenties, with a full head of thick black and a movie-star profile. When he talked, perfect white teeth flashed through a week's growth of beard. "We walked right into a dozen Germans. Went around a bend of the road and there they were, so close you could touch them. Everybody jumped in any direction they could and started shooting as fast as we could."

"You seem unscratched," Reid observed.

"I slipped and fell into a ravine," Middaugh explained. "Hit my head, got knocked bad enough to be confused. I got up as soon as I could and climbed up the hill, but the surviving Germans were gone. They had looted everything they wanted from my boys, then laid their own dead out in neat rows. I guess some of their gravedigger details would be along to clean things up, so I started heading in this direction."

"Sounds to me like maybe somebody chickened out and ran for their lives, then came back once it was all clear," said Marcel.

"Are you calling me a coward?! You don't know what you're talking about! Put down that Tommygun and I'll bust your nose for you."

"Goddam prettyboy, you couldn't put a dent in a stick of butter!" Marcel yelled right back.

"Ease up, both of you," Reid ordered with understated authority that was obeyed. "For the moment, we'll give Middaugh the benefit of the doubt. Where are you from, son?"

"Colvert, West Virginia. About fifty miles from Wheeling, way out in the sticks. Sir," he added.


"Where's your weapon?"

"I left it down there. I was afraid you joes might take a shot at me before I could introduce myself.

"Go get it." Still watching the newcomer warily, Major Reid raised his left hand and made a rotary motion. "Head out. We need to put some distance behind us before nightfall. Middaugh, keep up. We eat at dusk."

All six men took off at a steady pace that ate up miles without wearing them down more than necessary. Once, they passed a farmhouse and barn that were little more than rubble.

"Nearest town is Brevalle, according to my maps," Reid told the new man. "Another two hours at this rate. Listen up, Middaugh. The big guy with the yellow sweater is called Black Bear because of his hairy chest. Without his shirt, he looks like a fur coat walking around. The codger with the white handlebar is tagged Walrus. You already locked horns with shorty Marcel, he was a schoolteacher before the Krauts rolled right over his city. Those three are French. Then there's the other American in this posse, my aide Corporal Normal Paley. Guy with blond hair. He got that white scar down his cheek from a ricochet, missed his eye by a tenth of an inch. His friends call him Scarface but you better wait until you get to know him better."

"I never got a nickname," Middaugh said. "Our sergeant sure called us a lot of other names, though. I learned more cussing from him than I thought existed."

As they marched on, weary silence descended on the so-called Hellbound Heroes. Finally, Marcel said, "I spoke out of line back there, Middaugh."

"That's all right," the new man replied. "You got good cause to be suspicious of people. I heard of Germans putting on uniforms taken from dead Americans and leading our boys into ambush."

"Hold up," Marcel said. "Something's moving over. Wait. Goddam, it's a pig, big and fat as you could wish for. And he's eating apples!"

Major Reid turned his head toward the oldest man in the squad. "Walrus, you're our best shot. Don't blow it."

The man with the white mustache unslung his BAR, took his time aiming and squeezed off two careful shots. The thud of that heavy body hitting the ground was lost in the echoes of the gunfire.

"Looks like we're going to be busy the rest of the afternoon," Reid observed. "Marcel, Scarface, carry that carcass deep in the woods. Way out of sight. Here's where growing up on a farm makes you useful, Black Bear. I want that shoat skinned and cleaned and cut up, I want everyone to eat their fill and then we'll char the rest to carry with us. We're set for grub for days now. Might as well load your pockets with apples while you can, as well."

With a pleased chuckle, Black Bear rubbed his broad hands together. "I can use every part of the little beast except the squeal."

Helping out as the team found a secluded clearing, Middaugh gathered wood and kindling. He wasn't excited about getting gorged on fresh ham as the others were. All he could think about was how soon he could sneak out that night and find a way to murder a few villagers.

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"Strangled By a Puppet's Strings"

"Strangled By a Puppet's Strings"

3/22/1945

I.

In a guest room of Drum's house on Bleecker Street, Chen Lee-Sun stretched out on the bed, took deep slow breaths and was fast asleep at once. Leaving the door open a crack, Mark Drum smiled at his young guest and went down the long hallway to his den. Here, still in an overstuffed easy chair, sat the Sting.

"That's a neat trick your partner picked up," Drum said as he crossed over to sit down facing the masked man. "No matter what the situation, he can drop off to dreamland in a few seconds."

The Sting grunted. "Yes. I've often envied him that. Chen has mostly studied his peoples' fighting styles, what he calls 'gung fu,' but he's also dabbled in some yoga and Tai Chi. We often go for days without sleeping, so he grabs a nap whenever he can."

Loosening his tie and unfastening the top button of his light blue dress shirt, Drum sighed wearily and closed his eyes. "It still bothers me to see you like this, Robert. I've tried all my Blue Guide techniques but nothing heals your legs. There's not even any physical damage I can find."

"Don't take it too hard," said the Sting. "I've been to dozens of doctors. Also to some old white-bearded sifus that Chen knows. It's Dim Mak, the Death Touch. No one has a way to restore use of my legs. Of course I'm not happy about it but at least it doesn't hurt."

Drum was a tall, sturdily built man in his thirties. Unruly black hair contrasted with deep pale grey eyes in a craggy face that was more stern than goodlooking. Faint echoes of his childhood in the Highlands had never left his voice entirely. "Even so, you've continued your work. You have quite a record cleaning up this town, Robert. Racketeers, black marketers, Axis spies, Fifth Columnists... you've been busy."

Lifting his head, the Sting revealed a full-face black cotton mask with only eyeholes showing any expression. Even here with one of the few men who knew his secret, Robert Hawk concealed his face. He was starting to feel as if the mask WAS his face. He certainly found he could think more quickly and decisively when masked, for whatever reason. "I like to think I've made a difference. It's certainly been nerve-wracking!"

"Posing as a free-lance criminal yourself so you can infiltrate mobs and turn them against each other. Damn. How do you keep all the double-crosses and lies and turnarounds straight?"

"Oh, I've screwed up a few times, believe me. It's like dancing on quicksand. Mark, we've been sitting here for what feels like forever. How much longer do we have to wait before we head out?"

"The third member of our team should come roaring in any minute now," the Blue Guide responded. "We'll need his good right arm. Up against the spymaster Puppeteer! What a devil that man is. Manhattan tonight is crowded with G-Men and men from Army Intelligence and every New York cop that could be called in. And none of them are making any more progress than we are, sad to say."

On a cabinet top near at hand sat two identical telephones. Concealed until needed, a powerful shortwave receiver could be slid out from within the cabinet to receive orders from the War Department. One of the phones rang shrill and Drum stretched out an arm to snatch up the instrument. He listened briefly, then spoke only "I understand, sir."

The Sting did not have to prompt his colleague for explanation. Drum hung up the phone, frowning with his eyebrows lowered. "That was Lieutenant-Colonel Collins of the OSS again. Overseas, he's been working under the alias 'Colonel Savage,' which I find a bit too melodramatic. He had no new information, he only wants to nag us to catch the Puppeteer for him so he can run back to occupied territory."

"Lucky him. Maybe he'll be in Berlin when our boys come marching in."

"Nothing would make him happier..." Drum broke off, swinging around in his chair. "That lifeforce at the door. It's like a bonfire. Sulak is here at last."

As he finished the last word, a massive form loomed up in the doorway. "I let myself in, Mark. Thanks for the key. Tonight's the night!"

Taller than even Drum and much brawnier, Sulak was intimidating merely filling the doorway. The huge Melgar was wrapped in a white trenchcoat which could not conceal how broad his shoulders were. Setting down a valise, he took off a fedora which badly needed blocking. A shaggy head of jet-black hair left long by contemporary standard framed a face marked with bright blue eyes and a lantern jaw. "Try to tell me you two have not been impatiently waiting for me."

"Like you would believe that," Drum responded as he rose. "I take it our informant came through? What's in that briefcase?"

"Hopefully what we need, and hopefully it's worth the cost!" Sulak said. "That little weasel won't have to get a job for a year with what he was paid."

"It's the War Department money, not ours. Our tax dollars at work!" scoffed Drm.

Still seated, leaning back, the Sting did not try to match their positive attitude. "Against this Puppeteer... I don't know. I'd be happier if we had more definite information. Reconnaisance. A "B" plan if things go south."

Sulak waved a dismissing hand. "Look at the four of us, Robert. Great strength, fighting skill, Tel Shai magic and shrewd craftiness. When we bring all these together, how can anything survive our attack?"

"Let's have a look at the papers before we hurt our arms patting ourselves on the back," grumbled the masked man.

Bringing the valise over to the cabinet between their chairs, the Melgar champion tapped the keyhole in its lid. "Locked," he smiled as he ripped the tough leather side of the case apart without any seeming effort. They had seen him peel apart steel plate as easily.

"If I ever need a jar of pickles opened, I know who to call..." Mark Drum scoffed.
Inside was a single thick manila envelope, its flap sealed with red wax. The Blue Guide lifted it appraisingly, then handed it over to the Sting. "Robert, this is definitely your area of expertise."

"Oh, yes, codes and cryptology are my meat," said the masked man. With gloved hands, he opened the envelope and slid out a sheaf of stiff yellow-tinged paper. "German manufacture, see the watermark? Up in the right hand corner, 'Page One of Fourteen Pages, initialed by two different people. Definitely classified, I might even say High Command material."

"My German is not what it should been even after four years of this war," admitted Sulak. "Read it to me."

"Ah, it's in code of course. This might take a while, old fellow. We're not supposed to have access to the Enigma findings but, you know, generals tend to give us some privileges." The Sting riffled through the parchment-like pages. "Mark, we will need some pencils and lots of paper. Black coffee wouldn't hurt either."

Peering over the Sting's shoulder, Sulak grumbled, "I don't suppose I can be of any use?"

"Afraid not," said the masked man. "This is where Mark and I have put in years of hard study. When it's time to shrug off bullets on your chest or bend machine gun barrels into pretzels, that's when you will be more valuable than a squad of Marines. Look here, Mark, I think this word in bigger numbers stands for 'Berlin,' it appears five times on the first page. Now, if that gives us the number 12 for the letter E, we can start to make some progress."

"Maybe. See, there's a few examples of two 12s next to each other, very likely a vowel in any case if not E. Could be O. We're starting with the premise that this is a basic transposition of course..."

After a few minutes of Drum and the Sting ignoring him while they scribbled and mumbled, Sulak turned away. The giant warrior swung on one heel and strode sullenly out of the den. Drum's modernistic kitchen was down the hall, all Art Deco chromium and aluminum tubing. Even the four-burner gas stove was sleek and streamlined. Drum had already taken the coffee pot with a few mugs on a tray back to the den.

Drum had long ago given the three members of their informal team full use of the icebox. Sulak began hauling out a stack of sliced roast beef, Swiss cheese, mustard, some lettuce. A fresh loaf of pumpernickel bread sat on a sideboard with a knife alongside. Fine. He might as well enjoy himself while he waited. The superhuman Melgar constructed a pair of bulging sandwiches that would put most people into a gorged stupor after eating, popped open three bottles of beer and sat down at the round table in the corner. His time to shine would come, he reassured himself. While he ate, just down the hall two of the sharpest minds in the Midnight War tackled a code that was constructed to not be broken.

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"Discount Miracles From Wickett and Thicke"

"Discount Miracles From Wickett and Thicke"

3/20/2019

I.

Bane's coffee table was strewn with disordered newspapers. One of his peculiar traits was that he never listened to music or watched movies, but he had a passion for local newspapers. Every few days, he stopped at a store in Times Square and picked up an armful of local papers. Sometimes he concentrated on newspapers from New York State, but as often he bought a dozen papers from around the world, as long as they were in English.

Today, he was growing more restless and annoyed with every page that he pored over and tossed aside. Many of his most dangerous cases had begun with a brief suggestive item in an obscure paper from some backwoods, but at the moment there seemed to be nothing anywhere indicating Midnight War activity that might need his attention.

In his early sixties, the Dire Wolf remained lean and active. The black turtleneck showed no thickening around the middle, the short black hair was only speckled with grey strands. But the infamous pale eyes were getting angry as he neared the end of the stack. Maybe reporting wasn't what it once had been. He found fewer and fewer reports of bizarre creatures being spotted or bursts of unexplained disappearances. Bane slammed the last paper down and leaned back on his couch as his Link buzzed.

The screen showed a number he didn't recognize. More and more, he regretted closing his office and putting the Dire Wolf Agency on an appointments only basis. He wasn't ready for retirement. A lifetime of Midnight War had left him with a permanent appetite for stress and action and now he realized how eagerly he was hoping this might be a case. "Yeah, hello?"

"Mr Bane?" squeaked an elderly man's voice. "Jeremy Bane?"

"That's right. Who are you?"

"Oh thank God, I had the damndest time getting a number I could reach you at. This is Jacob Shultis. You may have heard of me, I own some real estate."

That's an understatement, Bane thought. Shultis was famous for his luxury spas across the Tri-State area. "Sure. What is it you want with me?"

"Something terrible has happened. It's fantastic, I don't know if anyone would believe me if they didn't see for themselves. Can we meet?"

"Okay," Bane said, visibly perking up at the words 'terrible' and 'fantastic.' "I would rather not do business at my home. Do you have an office?"

"Yes. Right now, I'm opposite Rockefeller Center. You can see that stupid statue from my window. Can you please come right away, I am more distressed than any of my divorces made me."

"I'm in Queens," Bane told him. "I can leave immediately. Give me the address. Okay. I'm on my way." The Dire Wolf jumped to his feet, almost hopping up and down at the prospect of some excitement. This is ridiculous, he thought, I'm giddy at the idea of risking my life when I don't have to.

Even retired, he wore the silk-thin Trom armor under his clothes every day, just as he always had the matched silver daggers strapped under his sleeves. It only took a second to tug on the black sport jacket. Heading for the door, he unlocked the reinforced cabinet and took out his long-barreled Smith & Wesson .38 in its holster which he fastened to his belt behind the left hip. When he stepped outside, he heard the reassuring buzzes and clicks of the security alarms arming themselves.

The dark green Mustang was parked in the short gravel driveway next to his house. Bane never left it without a full tank and checking the tires and oil. He lived like a fighter pilot or firefighter always ready for the call. In a few seconds, he was pulling out into the side street and heading for Manhattan.

The Shultis Health Spa occupied the bottom half of a gleaming chrome spike of a building that rose forty stories high. Bane was admitted down a ramp into an underground parking garage where a trim young man in a stylish business suit met him.

"Mr Bane? Hello, my name is Stimmel. I'll be bringing you directly to Mr Shultis."

"Fine." Chirping his car doors locked with his key fob, Bane went with the man past a double pair of doors to a private elevator set in a concrete pillar. The door hissed open as they approached and the cage rose without Stimmel touching any buttons.

"There are a few things you might need to know," the aide said in the brief ride. "Mr Shultis does not care for physical contact, so please do not offer to shake hands. You might find the suite warmer than usual, but that's his preference. Of course, I will be present along with his attendant."

"Any idea what he wants with me?" Bane asked. They reached the fortieth floor as the door opened with a chime.

"Here we are," said Stimmel. He led the Dire Wolf into a high-ceilinged chamber forty feet to each side, with windows taking up an entire wall overlooking Park Avenue far below. The decor was old-fashioned elegance, real wooden walls and solid mahogany furniture. A golden carpet inches thick. Bookcases filled with matching reference works were broken up by statuary and an original Vasquez oil of a rearing stallion. Immediately to their right as they entered was a desk from behind which a gorgeous redhead in a tight yellow dress rose to flash an expensive smile at them.

But all of Bane's attention was focused on the figure in the motorized wheelchair. Bundled in a heavy wool robe with a blanket over his legs, at least in his early eighties and badly preserved at that, the man seemed to be a frail bundle of skin covering bones. The prominent nose nearly met a pointed chin. Not much hair remained on the round cranium.

"I'm so glad you came!" crackled the dry voice. "Please, please, have a seat on the couch there. If anyone can help me, I know you can."

Remembering not to approach closely, Bane remained beyond arm's length. He was puzzled enough not to sit down as suggested. "Jacob Shultis...?"

"Yes. Unhappily enough. You are no doubt remembering pictures of me in the papers. No wonder you seem confused. Mr Bane, I am fifty-seven years old."

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"The Land That Knows No Leaving"

"The Land That Knows No Leaving"

4/22/2021

He had found the old Lutheran church outside Endicott, Massachusets without any trouble. Jeremy Bane pulled up the narrow road that circled the cemetery and parked his car. From what he could see, the stones at the front near the church were the oldest and most elaborate, their edges worn down and the inscriptions eroded. The further back on the property, the newer the stones looked. He got out and walked slowly across the lush grass. It had been a warm wet Spring. Everything was growing, flowers and trees and bushes, even in a graveyard.

He was wearing all black because he always wore all black. It was appropriate now, he thought. There, in the back row close to where the property ended, stood a plain granite cross eight inches high. KATHERINE ANNE WHEATLEY 1959-2021. The Dire Wolf gazed down at it, waiting for some emotional reaction but feeling nothing except a vague sense of disbelief. Maybe there was something wrong with him, he sometimes wondered, his feelings were always so muted.

But considering his desperate childhood as an orphan of the streets, that would be no wonder. A lifetime fighting the secret Midnight War wouldn't have made him tender and sentimental either. Bane glanced up as a gleaming red Datsun drove up with its engine hardly audible. Instantly, all his instincts kicked into high gear, his left hand slipping behind him to grip the butt of his revolver holstered at his hip and his body ready to dive behind the elm tree he had automatically positioned himself near.

But decades of Kumundu training and bitter experience told him to ease up. The man getting out from behind the wheel was no threat. Early sixties, seriously overweight, left knee giving trouble.. Bane took it all in with a flash. No weapons under the sedate brown business suit. As the man neared, his greying black hair and blue eyes marked the family resemblance.

"Did you know Katherine?" was the first thing the man said, politely enough.

"A long time ago," Bane replied. "It seems like a different world now. You're John, right? She told me she had an older brother and showed me a few photos but none of us look the way we did back then."

John Wheatley held out his right hand for a shake. "Of course. When she was staying in Manhattan with that expert, Kenneth Dred. Give me a second. Bane. Jeremy Bane, of course. Katherine never said much about you but I could tell you left quite an
impression."

"I'm sorry now I didn't try to keep in touch. I could have. But she wanted to move on with life and forget... the things she saw."

"That's alright," Wheatley said, moving around to stand alongside Bane facing the stone. "I know all about it. Hard to believe, impossible to believe really unless you were used to having a sister who was a telepath."

Bane was at a loss what to say. "Remembering how modest she was, I don't know if she ever told you some of the work we did that year. Katherine helped a lot of people in a short amount of time. She was good at healing trauma and counselling, even if she was only eighteen."

"You couldn't have been much older."

"No. But I was... I had led a hard life. I was distant from everyone. Even those people who were trying to help me." Bane let out an uncharacteristic sigh. "But the past can't be undone. We can't go back and change things."

"No. It's just as well. Jeremy, you know she died of pancreatic cancer?"

"No, I didn't. Someone we both knew told me only that she had passed away. He saw the service notice in the local paper. Pancreatic cancer? That seems so unfair. She didn't deserve it."

"That's exactly what I was thinking," Wheatley said. "If you're a heavy drinker or smoker all your life, you can't complain if you get cirrhosis or lung cancer. But she did nothing to earn that disease. It just happens to people."

"I guess. We're not punished or rewarded by karma or anything." The Dire Wolf straightened up and stepped a bit closer to the stone. "Sometimes I wish I believed in something that would make sense of out of life, why we're here and why we go."

John Wheatley unexpectedly placed a hand on Bane's shoulder and surprisingly the Dire Wolf did not move away. "That's where a little faith helps us. The loss still hurts, of course, but I believe that I will be seeing her again someday. Everything will be explained."

"Huh. We'll have to go where she is, then," Bane said. "She can't come to see us."

"No. The land that knows no leaving is how our minister described it. I would give everything I own to talk to her for a few minutes, but that's not something that's given to us. Thank you for coming to pay your respects, Jeremy."

Bane looked up and met Wheatley's calm gaze with relief. "We have to do the best we can with what we know. We're dealt our cards and we play the game until it's time to fold. That's how I figure it."

"Listen, I am out here every Sunday. But you drove a long way to say goodbye. I'll leave you to your thoughts. Take care." Turning away, Wheatley limped back to his car and drove off toward the main road.

Left alone, Jeremy Bane sank down to sit facing the stone. He was remembering when Kenneth Dred had taken him in and given him purpose. He remembered meeting Katherine, keeping her at a distance despite how warmly she had treated him. How she had left and never come back. Suddenly it hurt.

10/6/2021

"The Best Memories Money Can Buy"

"The Best Memories Money Can Buy"

11/2-11/3/2009

I.

Because of his enhanced metabolism, Jeremy Bane was always ravenous. The same Variance that gave him his lightning reflexes and peak motion also meant he burned up calories at a ferocious pace. At six feet even and one hundred and seventy pounds, the Dire Wolf ate enough for three bigger men.

Walking back down Third Avenue toward his office after a fruitless afternoon seeking leads on an extortion case, he decided not to wait for a late lunch. He swung into Mosher's Deli at the corner of 50th Street and immediately stepped to one side after entering. This was automatic procedure with him. A lifetime spent fighting the Midnight War had taught him to always be sure of exits, to determine if any people in the area were as possible threat, to watch for possible ambushes. He was barely aware of doing this, but it was a major factor in his still being alive.

Nothing significant had changed since he had last been in here two weeks ago. There was a middle-aged couple at the table toward the rear, a teenage boy standing by the counter eating a hot dog with everything, a stout woman balefully inspecting the luncheon meat assortment. Judging by their body language, the way their clothing fit, even the tightness in facial muscles, he decided none of them were armed. There was no threat in sight. Even Bane relaxed slightly.

Then he saw Dandelion at the cash register.

Long experience in the desperate game kept him from visibly reacting. The petite woman with a dramatic shock of platinum blonde hair was wearing a slightly stained apron over a regular blue polo shirt. She glanced up at him when he entered but showed no signs of recognition. This was more than unexpected. What was she up to? Bane waited while she took the teenage boy's money, gave him his change and told him to have a nice day with the lack of sincerity usual from service people

What was the most dangerous assassin of her generation doing working in a deli? Was she laying a trap for some target? Was she watching the routines of someone she had been hired to kill?

Well, he wouldn't give her away just yet. For all he knew, she was being watched by agents of the Mandate or STIGMA. Dandelion lived a life on the razor's edge even more than he did. Bane stepped up, gave her a slight nod in greeting. "Hi. I'd like a twelve inch sub. Ham and Swiss Cheese, pickle chips. Toasted, please."

"Anything to drink, sir?" she asked with complete diffidence. She gave him a second look. Bane knew he was a vivid figure in his all-black outfit of slacks, turtleneck and sport jacket, with those pale grey eyes beneath heavy black brows. It was an image he deliberately chose. He was used to people reacting exactly the way she was.

"Yeah, a big bottle of seltzer. Thank you."

"It'll be right up," she said, turning away and going back to the slicer where she was working on a big roll of bologna. Bane watched her slipping a piece of wax paper between each slice with practiced dexterity. Over by the grill, a remarkably unattractive man was working on the sub.

Bane had seen Martin Mosher here many times. The son of the original owner, Mosher was in his mid-forties. Short, round about the middle, cursed with frizzy dark red hair and a large bald spot, he had not been gifted with good looks in any way. The big nose looked like a yam, and the mustache did nothing to camouflage that. Bane wondered if Mosher knew exactly who he had hired. Was he himself connected with the underworld or one of the dozen intelligence agencies that Dandy dealt with? The man seemed oblivious to everything except getting that sub assembled and toasted.

Dandelion folded the stack of bologna slices into cling film, placed it in the cooled display case and started taking the slicer apart. There was no doubt it was her, of course. Bane had known her for ten years, since they had been Tel Shai students and she had been expelled by the Teachers for reasons they never explained. Her special ability was incredible ambidextrous accuracy with any firearm. That marksmanship was literally supernatural. Bane himself would be at serious risk going up against her in a quick-draw confrontation.

What seemed ironic to him was that Dandelion did not look at all like a mercenary who killed for huge fees. With her delicate features and slight build, she seemed harmless but her career had proven otherwise. Mosher brought the sub over and Dandy peeled her disposable gloves to take his money. As she handed over his change, their eyes met. For a second. Bane was alarmed at the complete lack of recognition in her gaze. Even for Dandelion, that was good acting.

"Thanks," he said in a casual tone as he could muster.

"Have a nice day," she replied the same way she spoke to every customer, going back to her disassembly of the slicer.

Intensely curious about the whole situation, Bane stepped back out in the unseasonably warm November afternoon and stood in front of the deli while he began working on the sub. Appropriately enough considering his trade name, he wolfed down half of it immediately and washed it down with a big gulp of the seltzer. As he began walking toward his office again, the Dire Wolf finished the sub and crumpled up the wrapper.

What should he do about her? He did not want Dandelion carrying out commissions on his territory. He really would have been happier if she had stayed out of New York City altogether but she never listened to anyone, least of all him. Bane decided he would walk past Mosher's Deli on the opposite side of the street a few times each day for a while to keep an eye on Dandy. He didn't think he should start eating there more often, he was too well known in the dark circles they both inhabited.
Getting close to 44th Street, the Dire Wolf felt he was still hungry. He should have stopped at Mosher's a minute ago...

Wait a minute. He was still holding the crumpled paper and the nearly empty bottle. He HAD been at the deli. There's where he had seen someone he knew. Bane stopped dead in his tracks and swung around to scowl in the direction of Mosher's. Dandelion! She had been working there. And she had shown no sign of knowing him.

This was strange. He never let his concentration wander like that. Why had he experienced that odd lapse? Bane's eyes were normally wary and even cold, but now they almost glittered with intensity. All his warning alarms were going off.

Nearing the four story yellow brick building at 44th, Bane broke into a near sprint through the double glass doors which hissed open automatically. He went past the EMERGENCY ONE CLINIC and down the short dead-end hallway by the staircase. A few seconds later, he dropped down behind his desk and yanked out a notebook from its wide top drawer. Writing as quickly as he could, the Dire Wolf put down what had just happened and then added the date and time.

That might help. He got up, used the tiny bathroom and washed his hands and then went back to his desk. Too bad he wasn't making any progress on that extortion case. His usual sources had been no help. The whole day had been a waste. He was reaching for the office phone when he noticed the notebook. Bane read the entry in his own handwriting, realized he had forgotten all about the Dandelion situation and felt frightened for the first time in many years.

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"Robot and Costello"

"Robot and Costello"

11/19/2015

Gabby Marchetti packed her Ipad into the canvas bookbag, made sure her water bottle was tightly capped and got up from her seat. Down at the front of the lecture hall, Professor Millet was reminding everyone he would be in his office until four-thirty if anyone had further questions or wanted some help. Even an introductory course in marine biology was heavy going for most people. Gabby waited until the other students had mostly exited before heading for the door herself.

On this brisk November day, she was wearing a heavy wool skirt and a button-down red sweater over her white blouse. Only five feet two and slightly built, she looked younger than nineteen and the oversize round-framed glasses added to that impression. She was used to it. The curly brown hair was pulled tightly back with a barrette and she wasn't wearing even her minimal amount of make-up that morning.

Out in the hall, she saw no one near the door to the ladies' room and she ducked in quickly. Standing back in the corner was another Gabrielle Elizabeth Marchetti, wearing identical clothing. The two of them resembled each other down to the last freckle and each even had a small white scar on the right index finger from a bicycle accident.

The Gabby who had entered handed over her bookbag to the one who had been waiting. "Time to work four hours at the coffee shop," she said. "You sure you don't mind?"

"It's my job," the second Gabby replied in a voice that could not be told apart from the other's tone. "I expect good tips today, two regulars have a crush on me. One is smitten."

"Aiden Costello, still! I hope he doesn't expect a hot date or anything."

"I am polite to him but slightly distant." Without another word, the second Gabby left the bathroom. Alone, the remaining Gabby went into a stall, then took her time washing her hands and face. The Infiltrator had only been in the ladies' room for three minutes before the Marine Biology class was scheduled to end. Making sure they were never seen together took some precise timing but it was essential.

Feeling she had waited long enough, Gabby stepped out into the hall and trotted briskly toward the main entrance. She liked Stonypoint University very much so far. This first semester was crowded with prerequisite classes she had to get out of the way before really getting started on her major but, as she smirked to herself, she had help other students couldn't match.

Outside, the usual milling about was going on. Couples and small groups stood chatting at random spacing, cars were starting up and backing carefully to avoid hitting distracted teenagers. And there was that bright red Jeep Wrangler she knew would be parked by the entrance. Leaning back against the driver's door, a woman about her size and build waited with folded arms.

Megan Salenger had a thick shock of untidy black hair over an inquisitive face with a pointed nose and large watchful dark eyes. She was wearing a white topcoat which mostly concealed what seemed to be leather commando suit with many pockets and pouches. "Hello, Gabby," she said.

"Hi! Time for the afternoon report?"

"Yes. Get in, please." Megan opened her own door and got behind the wheel. After Gabby was strapped in place in the passenger seat, the Trom Girl started the engine and headed for the lot exit. By then, most of the activity had settled down.

Gabby got a kick out of the way Megan Salenger drove. Very alert, constantly checking all mirrors, watching other vehicles. She acted like a fighter pilot, and Gabby found it fascinating. "Not much to report. My pal is at the Java Joint by now, putting on her apron and taking orders. I was going to get my assignment started, I have to do a paper on cephalopod evolution with LOTS of references."

"So far, this experiment has gone smoothly enough that I am satisfied with allowing it to continue," Megan replied. "You have not made any significant missteps."

"Well, I'll take that as a compliment. It's still kinda weird, to be honest. As far as I can tell, my friend actually thinks she's me. But at the same time, she follows my suggestions as if they're orders. I never know what's really going on inside her head."

Pulling out onto Route 211, the Trom Girl frowned. She normally had a serious expression but at the moment she seemed more thoughtful than usual. "Gabby, I allowed you to have custody of the Infiltrator unit despite reservations. You know it killed the three people who were trying to have it assassinate my team, of course."

"Sure. But you reprogrammed her, didn't you? You've got her set up so she can't use violence even in self-defense."

Megan hit her turn signal and pulled into a bistro, chosen because it was miles away from the coffee shop where the Infiltrator was working. "Yes. To the best of my knowledge, any attempt by that unit would freeze its motors and cause a processing breakdown. To an observer, the Infiltrator was appear to simply fall down dead."

"I don't want that to happen! I'm getting used to have an identical pal to help me get through life." As she unbuckled her seatbelt, Gabby continued, "I wouldn't turn down a double bacon cheeseburger. Are you buying?"

For the first time, Megan's face brightened. Her smile was slight but genuine. "I will use my KDF expense account."

"Oh, in that case, I think onion rings and a large Pepsi is called for. I skipped breakfast."

They entered and sat themselves in a corner booth. Gabby ordered what she had mentioned, and Megan asked for only ice water and a grilled cheese sandwich for herself. While they were waiting, the Trom Girl said, "I have to remind you that this experiment will not go on indefinitely. Soon I will want to begin partial disassembly of the Infiltrator. It is of Human construction but it uses stolen Trom technology. My superiors will want full details."

As their food arrived, they both paused the conversation for a minute. Gabby insisted there were far too many onion rings and forced Megan to eat some.

"You know, I was wondering something about my identical pal," she began but hesitated. "You might think it's gross."

"I've been fighting the Midnight War most of my life," Megan replied, twirling an onion ring idly. "Not much shocks me, I'm afraid."

"Okay. Okay. Now, not a word of this to Timothy, you promise?"

"Yes."

"Suppose I started dating that Aiden Costello boy. He IS cute and he goes to concerts with bands I like. And, further suppose, that sometimes if I'm cranky or don't feel well, I send my friend to substitute for me. Sometimes twins do that, you know?"

"Where exactly are you going with this, Gabby?"

Unexpectedly, her cheeks flushed. She took a long sip of her soda before continuing. "Do you think my pal could have sex?"

"Yes. My examination showed the unit is functionally correct in every external detail. It has a realistic vagina."

Gabby toyed with the last onion ring. "That's... what I thought. I mean, she's what you say is an Infiltrator. She was designed to pass as a real flesh and blood person. She can eat small amounts of food, she imitates breathing, she reacts to the weather the same as I do. So, you think the boy wouldn't notice anything odd?"

"I have not given this any thought, Gabby. Give me a second. If a condom was used, I don't think a sexual partner would notice any difference between the Infiltrator and a Human woman. But it's not a topic I would want to test."

Gabby Marchetti sighed. "See, here's a problem. I'm considering going out with Aiden. Why not? If you don't date your first year in college, when will you? But Megan... what if he likes my pal better?!"

10/2/2021

"Initiation of Furious Buddha"

"Initiation of Furious Buddha"

I.

The second hour at the feast was about all that Sheng could handle. He was growing increasingly uncomfortable. His problem was that he looked Chinese, probably hailing from the North considering his cheekbones and eagle-beaked nose. He spoke barely passable Cantonese and he was here with his Uncle Pao, who was so thoroughly Chinese that he couldn't be taken for anything else. So everyone spoke to him with puns and references that he had no clue about.

But in fact, Sheng Mo-Yuan had come from the adjacent realm of Chujir. Tel Shai lore claimed that Chujirans were the distant ancestors of what had become the Han people, though this had no evidence to support it. When they had met by chance, the old man Pao had immediately claimed Sheng as his nephew, partly because of the coincidence of their family names but mostly because both were lonely men with no true family, and both of them had accepted this.

Seated at the huge round table, Sheng found himself shoveling down great quantities of food as everyone reached past him or handed him samples to try. This won his hosts over. The saying was that Chujirans would eat anything they could pin down and he was a typical Chujiran in that regard. Even though he had told everyone he had unfortunately been brought up in the very white wilderness of Nebraska, his gusto at eating everything from chicken feet to clotted duck blood soup brought him credit. He would have eaten dog if it had been offered; back in Chujir, he had done so a few times.

Nearly all of the people at that table were Chinese men middle-aged or older. The one exception to his left was a young woman with amazing glossy black hair hanging straight past her shoulder blades. Not only was she asking Sheng about his career as a private detective, she sat attentively listening to his responses. This was an endearing trait and he was becoming fond of her.

The final scraps were being scraped together. The excited and rather loud conversations slowed as digestion began to bog everyone down. It seemed clear that the gathering was drawing to a close. One by one and then in pairs, the men thanked their host and left the house.

In a cluster at the other side of the table were four octogenarians including Uncle Pao. They wiped their mouths with linen napkins and rose together, perhaps a bit stiffly. The master of the house, Yen Li, was a stout old man with both black hair and beard streaked with white strands. He was impeccably dressed in a lightweight tropical suit and tie. "Young Sheng, will you join your Uncle to the hospitality of my den?"

Standing up himself, seeing the nod of approval from Uncle Pao, Sheng replied, "It would be my honor." To be honest, he would rather have spent some time with that friendly girl. His romances had been spaced way too far apart to suit him. But all his instincts told him something big was underfoot, maybe a major case for his Fist For Hire Agency.

The four old men led Sheng and Pao to a room at the rear of the mansion. High-ceilinged, wood-paneled, its walls were filled with bookshelves broken by a few traditional scrolls or small bronze figurines. Comfortable overstuffed leather armchairs were arranged in a circle around a table holding a humidor, bottles of wine and gleamingly clean glasses.

As the elders settled gratefully into the comfort of those chairs, Yen Li gestured for Sheng to join them. Two of the old men selected cigars and puffed away for a few seconds before settling down. Yen Li unbuttoned his brocade vest with relief before speaking.

"I have known Sheng Pao-Wang only a few years," Yen began. "Yet I have learned he is a man of honor who harms no one and who is always ready to help those in need. A better friend can hardly be found."

"Stop, stop, I blush," Uncle Pao laughed.

"And he had told me many colorful tales of you, Sheng Mo-Yuan. Sometimes known to the whites as Argent. You are said to be a knight of Tel Shai, that ancient order whose origins are lost in time. Not only are you a Master of Kumundu, you are said to have the remarkable ability to make your body hard as rock, to increase your speed and strength beyond limits of what even Chi can enhance. But you can only enact one of these properties at a time. Have I been misled?"

Sitting upright at the edge of the plush chair, Sheng shrugged. "No, sir. All that is true. I have been given a gift for which I am most grateful."

"That is good to hear, since you may walk on a perilous road soon. My other friends here tonight have enjoyed long lives and survived hard times. We do not choose to go to the police with our problems. It is better to handle our troubles ourselves and let the outsiders remain unaware."

A few murmurs of agreement sounded from the three old men in the circle. The eldest there, with long silver hair and sunken cheeks spoke, "We represent the Chinese-American Benevolent Society of Lower Manhattan, young man. To be blunt, we are a Tong much like those founded nearly two hundred years ago in this country. Where the authorities will not help us, we help each other."

Sheng kept his face grave and hoped he would not say the wrong thing now.

Yen Li continued, "I must speak names better left unmentioned, names stained with many crimes and much wickedness. Wu Lung. The Manchurian. The Spinner of Webs. They have been quiet in recent years, perhaps occupied elsewhere or perhaps finally gone from this life. A new would-be threat has surfaced. We would wish to keep him from putting down roots in our community."

Uncle Pao spoke up for the first time. "My nephew is discreet. He will not volunteer information to the authorities. Secrets remain behind his teeth."

"So we had hoped," Yen Li admitted. "Young Sheng, you are said to be familiar with the many schools of assassins who trouble this unhappy world. One of the worst of these has been reported here, in our Chinatown. Have you ever heard," and even behind the closed door of his own den, he lowered his voice and leaned forward, "... have you ever heard of the Furious Buddha?"

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