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This is a Tomorrowlands universe story; they are listed at


(c) Tad "Baxil" Ramspott, 1997 Pre-C.

Somewhere in a parallel universe ...

Chapter 1

  They call me Ash. Nobody but me knows why for sure, but there are two strong competing theories. If I have to explain either, you don't know me as well as you thought you did. If I have to explain both, chances are you've never heard of me. Since I'm pretty notorious these days, I'll just mention one of the two by way of introduction: I'm a fire mage (and a dragon to boot).
  The human sitting across from me at the Italian restaurant's table knew both of the theories, and a lot of other stuff besides. He knew I was forty feet long from tip to tail and had green scales. Hell, so did everyone within sight. He knew I wasn't full-blooded dragon. Any intelligent person would have been able to guess that from my general appearance. And, most importantly, he knew what Lockjaw stood for.
  That's what had caught my attention. Everyone had heard of us: Lockjaw! (The crack vigilante squad of mages who ran around the world fighting Nerds and crusading for Truth, Justice, and Tolerance!) But only a select few in high places knew the story behind the name. Even we had to look it up in our records sometimes to refresh our memories.
  The human, who had lapsed into silence in order to twirl spaghetti onto his fork with blinding speed, finished chewing and resumed speaking in his soft, Italian voice. "I have told you a lot about you. Now I will tell you about me. My name," he said impressively, "is Guido. Guido Laraglione."
  "The Secretary of Defense?" I remarked impassively. He nodded. I raised an eyeridge. It was no secret that Lockjaw had disliked the American government ever since Clinton's military coup on that fateful day in '99.
  "I am not here on, as you say it, 'goblinment' business," he reassured me, pointing his fork at my chest. "I am here on ..." he lowered his voice "... Mafia business."
  I nodded neutrally. Ever since the Mob had realized the government was seizing a monopoly on crime, they had rallied for Truth, Justice, and Tolerance behind the scenes, and had succeeded in calling in a few political favors. It was mostly their influence which kept the government in line. We owed 'em a few favors ourselves. And even though they generally kept their political ties secret, Guido's claim of Mafioso involvement had an unmistakable ring of truth to it. I should know. I'm a mage.
  "That business being...?" I allowed myself to ask. It didn't pay to sound too interested this early in a business deal.
  "You have of course heard about the hostage situation at the University?" he asked. I nodded. It had erupted an hour ago and I'd called a Lockjaw meeting at the Lost Weyr to discuss it. The mysterious Italian had caught up to me on my way out of town, though, and offered me lunch. How could I refuse? (I wasn't even half an hour late -- nobody would be at the Weyr yet.)
  "They took fifty lawyers hostage," I said dubiously. "You don't mean to tell me you were going to get involved?"
  He explained the situation.

  A sudden hush fell over the war room.
  "You don't mean to tell me you got *us* involved?" Claude hissed in the silence. The floodgates burst and all of a sudden everyone was demanding just what the fnord I meant. At some point Bob thwapped me with a pillow.
  Even June's eyes seemed suddenly penetrating and cold. "We're going to save LAWYERS?!" she snapped incredulously over the din. I looked around helplessly, somewhat stunned from the thwap, at my fellow Lockjawians. "Hold on!" I protested. "Let me explain!"
  Arthur, sensing an impending spell of rationality, quieted everyone down.
  I explained the situation.

  The situation was ... but first, I really should clear up an earlier point. About us being Nerd-fighters.
  Those of you less in touch with the intricacies of modern reality may still think that "nerd" refers to those whose brains are sufficiently large to earn the derision of average men. That was true, until the Changes. When the Changes hit, evil anti-life beings swarmed the earth -- the Nerds. You all know the story. They're ... things of ultimate evil. Nobody is really certain that they even have brains, just hatred centers.
  Young men with thick glasses and pocket protectors, in defiant protest, officially requested they be called "putzes" instead of "nerds". Overnight, a law was passed changing the slang. So when I speak vehemently about Nerds, don't be offended. I'm a mathematician myself by education, and I wear the "putz" badge with pride.

  But, anyhow, the situation with the lawyers was ... and I just realized you're probably wondering how I got to the War Room after Guido's explanation.
  I was referring, of course, to Lockjaw's infamous War Room inside the Lost Weyr. It was a simple matter, of course; I just teleported to the Weyr. Of course, nobody can teleport inside the Weyr due to its enormous security measures. I mean, unbreakable security. It's an impregnable fortress. So I had to teleport outside. I pulled the front-door remote clicker from my Ashpack and walked in. (I keep telling Art to put those things on key rings; we've lost two already.)

  Anyway. The situation ... oh, which reminds me of a really funny story about one of the meets we had pre-Changes ... okay, okay, you can put the knife down. I'll stick to the story.

  "Yes, we're dealing with a hostage situation here. We've been asked to make sure the hostages go free as soon as possible. Lawyers are indeed the hostages." I took a deep breath and delivered the punchline. "All but one of them."
  "All but one?" Arthur queried through the shocked silence.
  "Wait a second!" Claude interrupted. "They announced on the news that the terrorists want $50 million to kill all the lawyers -- otherwise they'll let one go free for every million bucks they don't get. Why not just wait the 24 hours until they're set free anyway, then separate out the non-lawyer?"
  A deep voice boomed across the room. "The last hostage is an engineer, though," Gandalf proclaimed. "Why is he worth saving?"
  "How did you know that?" I exclaimed, astonished.
  Gandalf blinked a few times and looked around, equally surprised. "I ... I don't know. It just came to me."
  "Well, it's true he's an engineer; Guido said so," I admitted. Gandalf nodded and vanished back into the shadows in which he typically sat. "But ..." I started, then realized that as a mathematician, I was morally obligated to agree with him about the worthlessness of engineers.
  Phillippe spoke up. "Fate says he has to survive," he proclaimed. That settled it, at least until Phillippe crossly asked Fate back, "By the gods, *why*?"
  Claude slammed his hand on the table in sudden inspiration. It wasn't terribly impressive, being a windigo-sized hand surrounded by dragons, but it caught our attention. "Lawyers are Nerds," he explained, "but engineers, worthless as they are, are Choking, living things. All Choking has value." Everyone nodded. Just as Nerds are unlife, Choking is life. All life is Choking. Choking is good.
  "But is it really worth it to unleash 49 lawyers on the world just to save one engineer?" Kenneth asked dubiously. His feline tail twitched as he realized nobody had listened. He repeated the question. The conversation continued buzzing around him. Kenneth stood up. There was a sudden commotion, and within half a second everyone else had ducked under the enormous central table.
  He cleared his throat. "Do we really want to release 49 lawyers just to save an engineer?" he growled, then sat back down. Four dragons, a draconid, a windigo, and a human gradually resumed their chairs.
  "What about getting B-52's groupies to watch the released lawyers?" Bob suggested. The B-52's were a unicorn/dragon/treant Nerd-fighting organization fronting as a rock band and their thousands of devoted listeners. Most people agreed their music stank. I liked it.
  "We could," I agreed, "but Guido told me the Mob would take care of the released lawyers as soon as possible."
  June spoke up in her soft motherly voice. "Now, boys, Claude raised up a good point earlier. Why do anything at all if they're going to release the hostages in 24 hours?"
  "Because," I explained, "do you really think anyone could survive a full day with no company but 49 lawyers?"
  "Ewww," Phillippe winced. "Not even Chaos."
  Chaos nodded.

Chapter 2

  In half an hour, we'd prepared and assembled outside the Weyr. I'd simply put on some heroic-looking Spandex and a cape -- I felt like being photogenic. As I strode outside, I nearly ran snout-first into an enormous ... Device that towered far over our base. "Jyhanhen's toenail!" I growled, and leapt into a combat stance.
  "Ash!" Bob playfully growled, conjuring up a Nerf bat for long enough to hit me upside the snoot. "It's my new construct. So ... uhm ... like it?"
  I shook my head to escape the haze from the thwacking, and inspected it. "Uhm ..." I said expectantly. "What does it *do*?"
  Bob looked insulted. "It's a toaster," he replied.
  "What, it's got quad-mounted napalm-guns? Flamethrower batteries?"
  "It makes toast," he said, looking at me curiously.
  I chanced a look around. Kenneth was in a simple T-shirt and jeans. He didn't need anything else, and probably not even that; his fur would have been enough to keep him warm, and he inspired terror no matter what he wore. Bob had on his tool-belt and a bandoleer filled with remote controls and small devices; his gold scales shone brightly behind them. I couldn't see Gandalf, but knew the dragon was around somewhere by the aura of ubiquity surrounding the area.
  Claude was holstering an enormous-looking gun; there was a bookbag on the ground next to him. A small dust devil had formed behind his shoulder. Claude, being a windigo, wore no clothes; everything indecent was covered by fur, and they preferred cold temperatures anyway.
  "What a wonderful day for a picnic!" June exclaimed, looking up at the clouds. Although human, her voice carried with the surety of any of ours on the cool afternoon air. "And at the University, yet!" She was wearing a fetching cobalt-blue dress and forest-green sweater, and carrying a picnic basket. She smelled faintly of bath beads, as always. "You boys make sure to eat enough before you run off attacking terrorists, you hear?"
  I nodded and continued looking around. Phillippe was walking out of the Weyr, muttering to the sky, "Look, how many times do I have to tell you? Six of a kind beats triple-straights on Tuesdays!" He had changed from dragon into draconid form, and put on a snazzy jumpsuit.
  Art came clomping out behind him, in full battle gear, indescribably complex-looking weapons mounted all over his powered armor. Normally the dragons of the group towered over the human-sized draconids, but the armor was pretty massive.
  "What held you up?" Bob asked Art as Claude suddenly muttered mild curses and tried to wrestle the bookbag back from the whirlwind. Papers flew everywhere.
  "PCS," Art muttered. "A really bad bout. I even looked human for a few minutes." He pushed the button on the clicker to close the front door.
  Bob nodded in sympathy as Claude ran about reclaiming loose pages. (I'd told him to put them in a binder months ago.) "It's been getting better, lately, I hope?"
  "I haven't had a serious bout for a week now," Art agreed. That was good; Post-Change Syndrome struck us all occasionally, and it was no laughing matter. "Uhm ... you're not bringing that thing along, are you?" Art asked, as he put a Club (tm) across the door's huge handles.
  "What, this?" Bob asked, indicating the huge device behind him. Claude repacked the bookbag and holstered it, having distracted the whirlwind by asking it to destroy, yet again, Pottstown, Penn.
  "Yeah, the toaster," Art affirmed. "Gods, we're not trying to cause damage here. We're trying to fake an attack in an attempt to make them release the hostages early."
  "Oh," Bob said, disappointed. "Well, I guess I can rely on my older machines, then." He clapped his hands and the toaster was yanked sidewise into a pocket dimension. Bob unholstered a remote control, pressed a button, and a fleet of F-16's popped into existence in the sky above us.
  "That's better," Art said with a smile.
  There was suddenly a loud chuckle from the nearby underbrush, a loud chuckle we recognized, one that sent chills through all of our spines. Evan the Were-elf stepped into the clearing.
  "Preparing arms, eh? I'd have thought the law needed but one," he remarked in his usual cryptic style. "All is proceeding as it should, though."
  "Go away, Evan," I said quietly.
  "The clans have united, though, and Malarkey walks in fear."
  "Don't say that Name, Evan," Claude hissed.
  "Even now the Nerds regather. Out of discord the walking evil draws a new harmony."
  "We're sick of riddles, Evan," Bob muttered.
  "Look, you must take this sacred banana, it is the only way," he intoned in a sudden mood of seriousness.
  "We don't want it, Evan," Kenneth snarled. His fur bristled.
  "Only the Sacred Banana is capable of locating those who are truly behind the hostage crisis," Evan said, eyes narrowed. "Knights may take pawns yet the Queen remain safe."
  "This is no time for profundities, Evan," I muttered.
  "The Banana is attuned to them as it is to me!" he cried out.
  "You know, I'm getting a bad feeling about that banana," June murmured.
  "Take the banana! Attack those whom you must defeat!" he said imperatively.
  There was a sound of pondering behind me. "You know, I haven't had my RDA of potassium yet today," Gandalf mused.
  "Gandalf!" Art snapped, incredulously.
  "Oh, sorry," Gandalf said, chagrined, and disappeared again.
  "The banana slices through lawyers like hot butter through knives," Evan said, in one last attempt to persuade us.
  "Evan, you already know what you can do with your banana," Bob said scornfully. Memories of old innuendo in my head, I stifled a chuckle -- barely.
  Evan shrugged. "Take the banana, or don't take the banana. It will turn out the same in the end. The banana will end up where it is meant to go." This time, I couldn't keep from giggling.
  "We will leave the banana behind," Phillippe said firmly. I had to turn my head away.
  "If the banana fills no hole in your lines, so be it," Evan declared. I broke out into helpless laughter. Bob, finally noticing my hysterics, conjured up a foam-covered quarterstaff and thwacked me on the back of the head hard enough to knock me over, muttering something about minds in the gutter.
  When I'd recovered my senses, Evan had left, apparently taking the banana with him. "Thanks," I muttered to Bob. "I think I needed that."
  "Banana innuendo?" Art pondered aloud, casting a glance at June. She merely smiled inscrutably, giving me and Bob a private wink.
  "Sacred bananas," Kenneth muttered. "What a bunch of malarkey."
  "I TOLD you, don't SAY that name!" Claude snarled.
  "Oh, right, sorry."
  Phillippe glanced around him, rolled his eyes, and said to nobody in particular, "Why me?"
  "Because," Fate echoed.

Chapter 3

  The teleportation to the University went smoothly. Which is about the same as saying that a bar on the moon has got great atmosphere.
  In fact, within minutes all heck had broken loose, there were Nerds all over the place, we were up to our knees in bodies and up to our eyeballs in combat, and all because of one minor little miscalculation.

  That miscalculation was -- but before I go on, I'm a bit miffed that nobody got the pun I opened the chapter with. You know, atmosphere? Moon? Sheesh, peopl... ... err, okay, put the rifle down. I'll stick to the story.

  We'd meant to teleport inside the library and sneak toward the law building from there. Well, technically, we did teleport into the library. It's just that our miscalculation ... say, the library thing reminds me, have you read Steppenwolf? It's a really incredible book. It's about this guy named Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf, which I figure must be a thin disguise for the author Hermann Hesse, who obviously identifies with his title character through the initials and ... err .... okay, okay, drop the rocket launcher, I'm getting on with the story.

  The miscalculation was slight. We teleported to the library.
  The *law* library.
  No sooner had we oriented ourselves enough to blink than the foul death-energy of the place pressed in on our souls like an airbag on a baby seat.
  "Aaaaaah!" we all screamed. "Shields up!" I snapped, frantically trying to raise my own.
  There was a general commotion during which most of the bookshelves on our floor got knocked over. One or two were left standing near the far walls. I made a mental note to come back later and push them down.
  June retreated quietly outside, complaining of a headache, and the rest of us sat down to catch our breath. It was then that we heard the persistent clomp-clomp-clomp of approaching Nerd footsteps.
  "Aaaaaah!" we all screamed. "Weapons out!" I snapped. It's hell giving orders, really, but I've learned to cope.
  "No, wait, I'll take care of this one," Claude said, reaching inside his bookbag. The footsteps drew nearer. We all turned to him. "I've found a way to turn their own vile death-energy against them!"
  The door began to squeak open. "Take cover," he cautioned, "and plug your ears!"
  I didn't see much of what happened next, but as the Nerds started swarming through the door, Claude whipped a piece of sheet music from his bag. The hordes drew closer, and Claude drew in a deep breath, suddenly bursting out into song:
  "I love you, you lov--"
  "Aaaaaah!" we all screamed. I covered my ears pretty damn fast.

  I staggered finally to my feet, looking around. Nerds lay slain around the room. Most of Lockjaw seemed unharmed. Claude was very obviously shaken.
  "Ewww," Bob said, tongue hanging out, golden face shaded green. "I thought this place was bad before, but now, NOW, I just need to vomit."
  My naturally-green visage paled a bit in agreement. The overbearing saccharine was worse than the earlier dreary oppressiveness. "Outside, guys," I ordered weakly, and staggered toward the door.
  As I moved, though, something shifted in the corner of my eye. My head whirled around ... Inconceivable! The Nerds were ... *moving!*
  "Ash!" Art cautioned. "The Nerds are moving!"
  I growled under my breath. Stating the obvious was MY shtick. "I know, I know," I muttered. "What happened?"
  Gandalf's voice boomed steadily through the contaminated air. "They're slightly out of phase. It is as Evan said -- their harmonics have changed."
  "Evan said that?" Phillippe asked, puzzled.
  "At some point, probably," I muttered, backing up to rejoin the group. "Who can tell?"
  "Gandalf is right, you know," Kenneth murmured, deep in concentration. He was our resident harmonics expert.
  "I know, and I'm not even going to bother to ask how," I replied, flexing my claws.
  "Hey," Gandalf protested, "would you rather I not tell you these things? Information is power, ya know."
  "Keep on being right, and I won't complain," I muttered. "But we need to get a lock on these Nerds so that we can target them effectively. What's their frequency, Kenneth?"
  I suddenly felt seven pairs of eyes on the back of my neck.
  "Unnnh," Gandalf groaned softly.
  Bob thwapped me with something. All I know is it was fluffy, and larger than me.
  "What'd I say? What'd I say?!" I asked dazedly from the ground. Bob thwapped me again.
  By the time the stars cleared, the battle was deeply in progress. June was kneeling over my head, waving bath beads under my nose, and the other six were in a circle around me, destroying Nerds at a prodigal pace. Generally, Nerds weren't very impressive enemies; any two of us could have handled the current crowd, and under the suppressive fire of six talented mages, they melted like a knife under hot butter. (Not just liquid butter, mind you; we're talking plasma butter here. I haven't seen a knife yet that can withstand or even slow down the stuff known only as "hot butter".)
  I got to my feet and looked around. The situation was admirably under control. "Gee, thanks, I feel needed," I muttered under my breath. June looked at me sympathetically. "You'll have plenty to do for the rest of the mission," she said consolingly. "Have a tuna-salad sandwich."
  I accepted it and downed it in a bite; the thing was human-sized, but very tasty. "How goes it, guys?" I asked in my best official voice. A chorus of "Fine"s and "OK"s floated back. I made myself look busy inspecting my foreclaws. The battle was dying down when suddenly the side door was blasted open.
  "Uh-oh," Phillippe said, glancing into empty air.
  Death didn't answer; he had made the mistake of dropping his scythe into hot butter, and was shopping for a replacement.

Chapter 4

  The dust settled near the now-open door. I noted with relief that when the door had slammed into the wall it had knocked down the last standing bookshelf. If nothing else, we'd totaled a law library, and that had made our visit worthwhile.
  A number of unassuming-looking men in collared shirts, wearing shockingly tasteless plaid ties, were standing in the doorway, and the outlines of many other men behind them surged back and forth outside. Their silhouettes lined the windows.
  One of them, in the doorway, threw his head back and laughed. "You poor, pitiful beasts!" he laughed. "Thinking you could break in and eliminate the lawyers yourselves!" I coughed to hide the grin on my face. Any minute now he'd let the lawyers go to spite us and our mission would be complete. "All you've earned yourselves is a chance to enjoy their company while we await the ransom payments," he said smugly. I blinked once or twice. Whoops.
  "What now, oh furless leader?" Kenneth whispered at me, irritated.
  "Uhm, we change plans," I whispered back, trying to be loud enough so Lockjaw could hear me, but not the distant newcomers.
  I gently pushed my way to the front of our group. "You seem pretty self-assured for a man who's just had his army destroyed," I intoned confidently. There's something about dragon voices that makes a confident statement rumble mercilessly through people's souls. I'd intimidated people with my voice before, and it was worth a shot now.
  He merely chuckled. "The Nerds? They are as nothing compared to the force of the wrath of God we have at hand," he replied. My heart sank -- please, please, please, let them not be fundies.
  "Last time I talked to God," Phillippe spoke up with a note of impatience in his voice, "He said we were doing just fine."
  The man in the doorway narrowed his eyes. "I, sir," he said with mock politeness, "am a priest of the 'Church of Christ, Lord And Most Elite And Supreme Sovereign.' And you, sir, are full of moo-poo."
  I blinked. Fundies. Damn, damn, damn. I puzzled out the unprintables mentally and decided their initials described 'em pretty well.
  "I told the truth, Lord ..." Phillippe muttered. "How can I -- oof!" Bob elbowed him in the ribs before he could finish his sentence.
  I would have responded to the priest's barb, but Kenneth shoved past me, nostrils flaring. The other seven of us took one look at him, glanced at each other, and with not a few muttered "Oh, shee-yit"s, dove nearly as a single being underneath the scattered books.
  Kenneth, you must understand, is a chaos mage.
  He raised his forepaws and spoke a few muttered words.
  The room flared white.

  What happened next was very reminiscent of that morning four of us were standing outside the gates of a nuclear power plant. (It hadn't been in operation for years, not since the Energy Act of 2001 outlawed coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, and methane power. Incidentally, outlawing methane power closed down over two hundred werecow energy communes nationwide, prompting a firestorm that soon made the Chicago Fire look like an unlit candle and "Cud" O'Leary a mere matchbook. Once the human world recovered, further legislation was passed as a compromise to werecow special interest groups, ... okay! okay! Put the thermonuclear device down! I'm getting back to the story, already.)

  Truth be told, the nuclear power plant story wasn't all that relevant, and not very interesting besides. (I told you, put the bomb down.) But Kenneth's spell ... well, chaos magic is always interesting. That's about all you can count on it for.
  The room, as I've said, flared white.
  When I opened my eyes I thought the room was still flaring. All I could see was white.
  Then I realized that the white tickled my snout horribly. I sneezed. The bunnies hopped from in front of my eyes.
  Astounded, I looked around. Every book in that accursed library had been changed into a small white rabbit. Kenneth was still standing there, arms in the air, no doubt blinking his eyes off.
  "The spell," Gandalf rumbled from behind me in that deep, impressive dragon voice of his, "was corrupted by the saccharine background energy." I turned to look and finally caught a glimpse of the form behind his voice. He was dressed in a mysterious, dark robe, covering all but his paws, his tail and a small fraction of his snout. A bunny squirmed out of the robe's arm. He grabbed it and there was a sudden smell of ozone. Charred fur drifted to the ground.
  "It's stopped, right? He's done, right?" Art whispered from somewhere to my left.
  "I think so," Bob said with a nod. Gradually three dragons, two draconids (one in heavy powered armor), a windigo, and a human got to their feet.
  "Cute," the priest said with a slight smile on his face at his own joke. Bob, I'm sure, had to restrain the urge to hit him with something. "But you cannot stop us."
  "Hah!" I laughed. "Sure we can."
  "Malarkey," he stated.
  Phillippe opened his mouth to speak, but the Universe interrupted him.
  "Oh," it said, "crap."

Chapter 5

  I raised an eyeridge and composed a witty response to the priest. It died in my throat when I realized he hadn't been disputing my assertion, but saying a name.
  There was the mad sound of scrambling from the doorway, and people Got Out of the Way. Of what? Of the giant foot which came smashing down behind the priest.
  The foot itself took up most of the double doorway. The claws on the toes were about the size of microwave ovens. The whole foot was a glistening polluted oily-black. The faint smell of disease wafted through the opening.
  The roof began to shake, and my intuition told me Malarkey was lifting the roof off the building. "Good intuition," I told it, "have a cookie."
  There were a number of indescribable mechanical noises beside me: guns cocking, laser turrets aiming, missiles arming, toasters toasting. Art clomped forward a few steps, squishing a number of bunnies into paste on the way. "We've fought him off before," he said bravely. "And he's not stopping us this time."
  "That's right," Bob said, punting a few bunnies through the window and striding to my side. I heard the sudden whine of F-16's overhead.
  There was a loud sizzle; some bunnies squeaked in death-agony as napalm charred their flesh from their bones. "So don't think this changes anything," Kenneth snarled, stepping back over the blackened bones to rejoin us.
  "Hey," Claude whined, "stop mangling the bunnies! They're good eatin'!"
  Malarkey snarled, a low bass rumble that shook the building. The priest chuckled. "If you say so," he said cheerily. "If Malarkey doesn't tear you blasphemers limb from limb, I'll see you at the cafeteria. Byee!" The priest waved cheerily and walked away, veering around the foot and disappearing from view.
  "Well," I said, "time to kick some Nerd butt." I strode purposefully toward the foot on my hind legs, claws outstretched. Malarkey ... the ultimate Nerd. We'd put a damper on his plans many times before. It looked like he was using these fundies just as he'd used all his other followers. We'd stop him, then stop them, then save the engineer. All in a day's work.
  I suddenly felt a tugging on my ankle. "No!" a high-pitched voice screamed. "Stop it! He's mine, I tell you, mine!"
  I stopped, curious, and glanced down. Evan dashed between my legs, waving a banana menacingly, and pounced on the foot. He swung the banana viciously at a toe. The banana pulped itself against the enormous claw. Malarkey screeched.
  I looked back helplessly at my colleagues, confusion evident in my eyes. "How'd HE get here?" I whimpered. Malarkey yowled in the background. Evan started kicking the wounded toe.
  Gandalf smiled disarmingly. "Uhm ... he teleported to the banana."
  Malarkey started hopping up and down to try to dislodge the were-elf. Evan mashed a lemon into the banana's incision.
  "The BANANA was here?" I whimpered.
  "Stop whimpering; it's pathetic," Bob begged me.
  "Uhm, sort of, yeah," Gandalf admitted.
  "How?" I asked, fighting to keep the tremor out of my voice. Malarkey's hopping grew more distant. Evan kicked some more.
  "I ... uhm ... brought it," Gandalf said, shuffling his feet. Bunnies leapt out of the way as his claws moved.
  I walked calmly over to a nearby wall. Malarkey hopped behind some nearby dorms and out of sight, Evan still attacking his toe. I started whacking my head against the wall rhythmically.
  Claude scurried over to my side. "It's okay, Ash," he said comfortingly. "Stop hurting the wall. It's okay."
  "I didn't even eat any!" Gandalf protested in the background.
  "Why me?" I shouted to the heavens. There ensued a great and profound silence.
  "Why him?" Phillippe asked offhandedly. He paused. "They're laughing," he commented.

Chapter 6

  "Enough," I growled. "To the cafeteria." I was sick of Evan, sick of Nerds, and sick of bunnies. I had a raging need to inflict damage.
  I started purposefully striding across campus. Two or three bunnies insisted on clinging to my legs. I had to hop a bit as I walked to shake my legs alternately in an attempt to kick them off. All in all it wasn't very graceful.

  In terms of grace, it sort of reminded me, in fact, of the time I was walking uphill with two of my friends after a shopping run. It was during a long role-playing session, and we'd taken a midafternoon break to procure refreshments. I had been charged with carrying the 2-liter bottle of Pepsi, and somehow I dropped it, and it rolled all the way down the hill --
  -- Okay, okay, let's stay calm now. Put down the pillow. There's no need to be vicious. Just hand the pillow over and I'll tell the rest of the story with no more interruptions. Okay, okay, dragon's honor! Stop waving that thing at me!

  Anyway ... we walked toward the cafeteria. It was barely within sight when we first caught the smell. The air suddenly turned decidedly damp green.
  I choked a few times, backpedaled, and took a deep breath of fresh air from outside the radius of contamination. "Gah!" I squeaked.
  Art stepped cautiously toward the green fumes, clank-clank-clank, and there was a faint whirring and hissing as his armor analyzed the fumes. "Highly corrosive," he warned.
  "Good gods, the Nerds really polluted this place up!" I said, gulping in fresh air, eyes watering.
  "Naw," Bob said, sniffing at the fumes. "That's just a side effect of the normal cafeteria food."
  "But how are we going to get in there to rescue the hostages?" Claude asked.
  "Burn the area out to neutralize the fumes?" Kenneth suggested. June cleared her throat softly.
  "Hazmat suits?" Art pondered. June coughed.
  "Dimensional-cheese through the area?" I mused. June cleared her throat quite loudly.
  "You'd better step back from the fumes, June," Bob advised. "You're developing quite a cough -- YOWCH!" he yelped as she kicked him in the shin.
  June, suddenly the focus of attention, smiled innocently, not fooling anyone. "Might I suggest...?"

  "I must say," Kenneth admitted, "for a non-mage, she comes in pretty handy." He was right behind me as we wended single-file through the haze. I was right behind Art, whose infrared lenses were leading us unerringly toward the building.
  "Pretty handy, heck," Claude smiled from behind him. "She's a full member of Lockjaw. There's a reason for it; don't forget that."
  I nodded and glanced down at the new neckpiece I was wearing; June had given one to everybody. It was a single bath bead on a loop of string. The bath bead's fragrance leaked out into a sphere around us, allowing us to breathe over-perfumed but fresh air.
  "There's the door," Art called from in front of me. "What now?"
  "Uhm," I said, singularly at a loss for ideas, "strike in the name of Truth, Justice, and Tolerance?"
  "Okay," Art agreed, and there was the sound of the cafeteria door's steel body folding under protest neatly in half.
  "Uhm," I started, then shrugged. "Just be sure not to ..." There was a flash of light from in front of me as six of Art's missiles fired off in a volley spreading through the room. A group yell rose up from behind me as the rest of Lockjaw trampled into the ensuing fray.
  "err..." I hesitated for a moment to digest this. Bob fiddled with his remotes, and the F-16s screamed overhead, guns blazing. Fragments of the cafeteria's ceiling flew past my face. Gandalf leapt toward the door and raised his arms; orchestral music sprung up from the PA system, punctuated by the occasional "CLANG!" from inside. Claude whipped his firearm from its shoulder holster and started firing randomly inside. "Be sure not to ..." I repeated weakly.
  "Not to what?" Phillippe asked me as he trotted toward the fighting.
  "Not to kiAAAAH!" I began, breaking off as I saw Kenneth plant himself in the doorway and raise his arms. I threw myself to the ground. There was a blinding flash, a deep rumble, and an enormous heat wave exploded past me, debris flying everywhere.
  There was silence for a moment.
  "It stopped, right? He's done, right?" Bob called timidly from somewhere behind me.
  "I think so," Art's voice called, muffled, from further away.
  Three dragons, a windigo, and a draconid got unsteadily to their feet. Art had been half-buried in rubble. June had elected to stay behind in the library to keep the rabbits from overrunning campus. Kenneth stood on a little sliver of land sticking up from the blast crater that had been a building fifteen seconds ago.
  I remembered belatedly I had something to say. "Not to kill the engineer," I finished lamely.
  There was a period of quiet punctuated by the steady patter of falling detritus.
  "Why didn't you tell us earlier?" Kenneth whined defensively.
  Phillippe looked around. "Hey, Death, can we have a casualty count?" he pleaded to the heavens.
  "Eighteen humans and forty-nine lawyers," Death responded instantly. "Plus three human students and a yip-dog from fumes propagated outward by the explosion."
  "Well, at least the students aren't our fault," Bob rationalized. "They knew of the fume danger when they signed up here."
  "I do feel sorry for the yip-dog, though," I sighed. Bob, and the others, nodded.
  "'Yip-dog'?" Phillippe asked Death, puzzled.
  "You know. As opposed to dogs that actually bark."
  "Oh, right," Phillippe nodded.
  "Hello?" a voice echoed from the ruins. Seven pairs of eyes blinked at once.
  "Uhm, hello?" Claude said cautiously, reloading his gun.
  A pile of debris shook a little and a thin, wiry human with scratched thick glasses pulled himself out. "Are the lawyers gone?" he asked in a hushed voice.
  We exchanged glances. "You're the engineer?"
  "They're dead."
  "Yes!" the man said, dancing around gleefully. "Thank you God!"
  Phillippe opened his mouth to speak. "He says you're welcome," the other six of us hurriedly chorused. Phillippe blinked, closed his mouth, and glared at each of us in turn.
  "So ... uhm ..." Art said haltingly. "If you don't mind me asking, how in bloody hell did you survive that?"
  The man stopped his dancing and pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. "The explosion?"
  "Well," he said excitedly, "we were in a cafeteria, right? They were serving mashed potatoes today. I shaped the potatoes into a bunker and poured the gravy over it as you guys started attacking. The gravy hardened it into a material stronger than concrete. By the time the explosion hit, I was inside. I scratched my glasses by fighting off a lawyer who was claiming legal patent rights to the potato bunker and trying to evict me."
  "Brrrr," we shuddered. Thank goodness the explosion had hit when it did, I thought -- or he might have collapsed from an aneurysm right then and there once all 49 lawyers started arguing over who owned the bunker.
  Guido sauntered up. "Well, boys, I am forced to congratulate you on a job well done," he said with a broad smile on his face. "Not only is the engineer alive ..." he trailed off as the engineer ran up to him.
  "Mr. Laraglione sir! Mr. Secretary of Defense sir! I've just discovered a substance with unimaginable military implications! It alone allowed me to survive the blast whose effects you see here --" Guido interrupted him with a swift kick in the rear.
  "As I was saying, not only is the engineer alive," and Guido punctuated his statement by booting the engineer again. "Research grant!" the engineer squeaked. Guido continued. "But the lawyers are dead, the fundamentalist cultists are dead, the Nerds have been delivered a major setback, and the town will be feasting on rabbit stew for a week." He nodded. "Your team did not let us down, Ash. And, as promised, a spaghetti dinner for everyone tonight, on me."
  I suddenly felt a great many murderous stares on the back of my neck. "You hired us out on this mission for ... a spaghetti dinner?" Gandalf asked incredulously.
  "Now, guys," I said as I turned and smiled disarmingly, "It's not the rewards we're in this for. It's the thrill of saving the planet, the joys of friendship, the ... ack!" I stumbled as I sauntered backwards through the rubble in the general direction of Away. "The feeling of satisfaction that comes from protecting Truth, Justice, and Tolerance!" They closed in. I looked pleadingly to Guido.
  "With garlic bread, of course," he added.
  Lockjaw relaxed visibly. "Oh, that's fine, then," Claude said, echoing the new common sentiment. "See you at eight?" he asked Guido.
  "Eight o'clock is a good time for you, my friends, and that's just because you're you and not someone else." Guido smiled. "Until then, 'sogne bien,' eh?"
  "Hrm?" Kenneth blinked.
  " 'Dream well,' " I murmured.
  "Oh, okay, then," he said with a nod.
  In the background, the rubble of the cafeteria shuddered. "Ooooh!" a lunch-lady squealed excitedly. "Look! Splattered blue stuff!"
  "Add it to the salad," another one shouted from the other side of the ruins.
  "Let's get out of here before I get too sick to eat spaghetti," I urged everyone as the bile rose in my throat. The suggestion was well-received.

  "Well," I said as I tore through another plate of pasta, "all's well that ends well." General nods of agreement followed. I handed the server another column of empty plates. I love all-you-can-eat restaurants.
  Bob watched me eat with a chuckle. "For a thin dragon, Ash, you sure can pack that stuff away," he commented. "How wierd."
  "Weird," I said automatically.
  "'Weird'. Not 'wierd'."
  He looked puzzled. "That's what I said!"
  I shook my head. "You vocal-typoed it. It came out 'wierd'."
  "Oh, for..." he started, then shook his head and wiggled his fingers in sudden resolve. There was a sudden clang and I found myself looking at June's shoes up close and personal. The foam-covered anvil bounced to the floor next to my head.
  I shook the stars from my eyes. Yep, the job was done, and things were most assuredly back to normal.

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