[This title has always been bordering on the Acraphobic, and I think now is as good a time as any to reinforce the "mature audience only" label. So, warning: mature images ahead.] Blue Light Productions presents: ________ ____ _ _____ _ _ ____ _ | | | | | | | | | | | | BLiP | | | | | | -|-- | | o | | | | |--| |--| |---| | | |--~ |--| |--| |--- ---- | #33 | | | | | | | | | | | \ | | | | | | |___ | | | | | |~~~ | | | | _ | | | | | |~~~ | | ~~~~~~~~ ~ ~ ~ ~~~~ ~ ~ ~~ ~~~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~ ~~~~ [The cover is a close up of a hand holding a treasure map, which shows the island of Ha'ano. On it is an X. Which is scribbled through. There is another X, and this is also scribbled through. As are several other Xs. Finally, a big question mark has been drawn over the entire island.] -------------------------------------------------------------------------- "Future Dies" 20 years and one day later... "On behalf of the united forces of the Loonited States." The island Ha'ano in the Pacifi.net Islands was a miniature paradise. Palm trees lined the beach, and wild jungle waited temptingly on the island interior, begging to be explored. The sun shone down on the comfortable side of hot, and in the distance was a faint bird song. "Under the universal powers of the Pro-Anti-Terrorist Act of 2011." Lady Marsha Burgenstock stood, wearing a pith helmet, Ray Bans, a comfortable but loose cotton shirt, white flannel trousers and sturdy yet fashionable hiking boots. All in all, the simple looking outfit cost more than the latest of Britney Spears' face lifts. "I, Allan Knewbee." Rick Mansfield stood in a lurid example of a Hawaiian shirt, the greens clashing with the yellows, and neither of them speaking to the reds or the blues. Other stains also adorned the shirt, but no-one wanted to talk about them. He wore knee-length shorts, with mid-thigh high white socks and loafers. His hair was laying limply in long scraggly clumps, and the rest of his visible body (although technically, considering he was a shape-shifter and merely morphed on his outer ware, all of his body was already visible) shone with a faint hint of oily grease. He dealt with the sun by the simple expediency of growing tinted contacts over his eyes. "Hereby arrest you for the crime of the destruction of Sin.ci.net.ty." Veronica Summers somehow resisted the heat, despite wearing a layer of thick black clothing, a one piece that covered her arms, body, legs and feet. Her face bore a thoughtful expression, and there was no sign in her eyes at all that the sun bothered her. "The penalty is death." Allan Knewbee wore a white suit, made from cheap acrylic, from white shirt, white jacket, white tie down to white pants and white shoes. Despite the exquisite cut of the suit, it couldn't quite hide the growing paunch beneath. The sweat stood out on his head, as the sun baked him through his thinning hair, and he squinted through the brightness. "Sentence is to be carried out immediately." Around the four of them were a veritable army of soldiers, all wearing black fatigues, fingerless gloves, tight caps and sunglasses. They also carried very effective P133 rifles which, in the hands of the right marksman, could take out a target at a distance of over 500 meters. Currently, a good half-dozen were pointing the rifles at Marsha, Rick and Veronica. "Fire." Shots rang out. Veronica collapsed to the ground in a heap. "Nooo!" Rick screamed, launching himself at Allan. Allan stood his ground, and suddenly Rick found himself on the pointed end of several large skewers suddenly poking through his body. Dazed, he looked around to see that one of the soldiers had suddenly sprouted several blades from her arms to now pierce Rick's body (although fortunately not piercing any internal organs, as Rick didn't really have any unless he remembered to form them). "You didn't think you were the only shape-shifter around, did you?" Allan asked, retrieving a large white hanky from a pocket to dab away the drops of perspiration. He walked passed Rick, took a quick look at Marsha, who didn't look like she was ready to try anything, then stood over Veronica's body. Savagely, he gave her a brutal kick in the side of her body. "Stupid cow, you really thought you were so much better than everyone else," he said, leaning down over her body. "I am better," Veronica replied, her eyes snapping open. In one fluid movement, she was up, grabbing Allan around the throat, and spinning him around to form a shield between her and the guns as best she could. From somewhere about her person, she retrieved a knife, which she pressed into Allan's jugular vein. "I'm sure a shape-shifter's not all you've got," she hissed into Allan's ear as the latter tried to take in this change in circumstances. "But do you think any of them can move fast enough to stop me?" Veronica staggered back a step, dragging Allan with her. "Gnnh." Pressing hard enough to draw blood, she grunted, "And that includes any mind tricks you might feel like trying to pull." Allan quickly waved his arms at the soldiers. "Down, down," he squealed. "Get back, damn you!" There was a tense moment, then the soldiers lowered their guns and backed off. "You'll never get out of this alive," Allan spat. "Shut up," Veronica ordered, "or neither will you. Let Rick go." Allan's eyes flashed fire for a moment, but then he nodded. The shape-shifter holding Rick up withdrew her arms, and he slumped to the ground. Marsha, moving slowly so as not to startle anyone into shooting, moved over to help him up. "Now what?" Allan sneered. Veronica considered this. "Now, 'Fat' Boy, you are going to order this Bucket-O-Soldiers team to climb back into the helicopter and retreat themselves the hell out of here." "And what makes you think I'll do anything of the sort?" "The same thing that makes me think that you're a cowardly little smeg who'd piss his pants if I even threaten to move this knife one inch deeper," Veronica returned, letting the tip of the knife just prick the skin of Allan's throat enough to let a stream of blood run out. Allan let out a whimper than was rather high pitched. "All right, all right." Turning his eyes (he daren't to move his head if he could help it) to the soldiers, he ordered, "You heard her. Get out of here. Pull back to a twenty kilometer radius and await further instructions." The soldiers didn't move, but Veronica's knife did. "Now, damn you, now!" Allan yelled, his voice reaching the upper registers. The soldiers finally moved, and Marsha and Rick breathed sighs of relief as the soldiers boarded the helicopters, and the rotors folded out. Veronica kept her position, knife ready, as the copters pulled up into the air, and faded away into the distance. Finally, she let her arm go, and pushed Allan away from her, who sprawled on the beach at her feet. Allan panted heavily, but drew enough breath to spit on Veronica's feet. "This isn't over," he said. Ignoring the spittle, Veronica sat down on her haunches, dangling the knife in plain sight. "Indeed it isn't," she concurred. "Because you're going to help us." "Go to hell," Allan replied. "Already there," Veronica said. "And I've already found a nice room for you to move into as soon as you join me." "What the cruk are you talking about?" "Where is the Staff of Ha'ano?" "I have no idea what you're talking about," Allan said. Veronica cocked her head to one side. "You're Faq Boy, yes?" "That's 'Answer Man' to you." Veronica shrugged. "Whatever. But I have a question for you: Where is the Staff of Ha'ano?" Allan snorted. "That's hardly 'frequently asked'." "I've always wondered how often a question has to be asked before it is 'frequently' asked. Let's find out, shall we? Where is the Staff of Ha'ano?" Looking more annoyed than anything else, Allan said, "It doesn't work like that. The question has to come up naturally, be asked by people who don't know they're asking a question others asked before them. You can't just repeat the same question over and over and think I'll just magically know the answer if you ask it often enough." "Where is the Staff of Ha'ano?" "Geez, if that's your idea of a great way to waste time, then you can frocking well just kill me now." "Okay," Veronica said, and lunged forwards. Allan quickly scrambled back. "Okay, okay," he said, raising his hands defensively. "Just lay off." "Where is the Staff of Ha'ano?" "That's not going to work!" Allan snapped, frustration now evident in his voice. "I told you, it's all about context." "You're the one who keeps going on about how knowledge is power," Veronica said. "I'm just asking you to show a little power. Where is the Staff of Ha'ano?" "I don't crukking know!" Allan yelled. "Just cruk off already!" "Where is the-" "Mom, give it a rest will you?" Rick said, now back to looking normal (although normal for him was a wreck for anyone else). "We're obviously not going to get anything out of him that way." "Have you got any better ideas?" Veronica asked. "Or do you want to spend the rest of your life digging this island over? Assuming that the Staff of Ha'ano is even on the island of Ha'ano." "What do you want this Staff for anyway?" Allan asked. "This," said Veronica, pointing to the symbol on her forehead. "I want to know what this is doing on my head!" | / _-+-_ / / | /\ | |/ | | /| | \/_ | _ / / -+- / | Allan laughed, but no-one else looked too happy. "What?" Veronica snapped. "You want information, and you didn't come to us? Oh, my dear, ex-Queen. Information is our business, and, believe me, business is very good." "Yet you don't know where the Staff of Ha'ano is," Veronica said. Allan nodded at the symbol. "With that, we could easily run searches to find any trace of information about it, and if that includes the Staff of Ha'ano, then fine." "And just how would you go about this search? I don't exactly see any computers on you." "This is the age of miniturisation," Allan replied grandiously. "Cell phones, button cams, bugs smaller than your fingernail. Personally, I prefer the pencil phone, don't like something so small you can loose it bending over, and I can write with it too. Try to stop killing me for a moment, and I might be able to help you." "And just why is that?" Marsha asked. "You want her dead, not to help her." "I have to admit you've created a sense of curiosity in me," Allan replied. Testing the more relaxed atmosphere, he slowly stood up, and smiled falsely when no-one tried to kill him. "There are things I don't know, such as that," he nodded at the symbol, "and just what the Staff of Ha'ano is. Now, you can stick that knife in me-" "Yes," agreed Veronica. "We can." "But," he said firmly, "you'll also be getting rid of the only chance you have of getting through this before you die of old age." The other three looked at each other. "I'm out of ideas," Marsha admitted. "It's up to you, mom," Rick said. Veronica grimaced. "Fine, but this doesn't mean I won't kill you as soon as we do find the Staff." "I expect nothing less," Allan replied, and raised his hands towards his jacket pocket, but froze as Veronica moved the knife to glint in the sun. "The pencil phone, remember? I need to get it out." After pausing a moment, and getting no response, Allan completed his movements and retrieved the pencil phone from his pocket. Giving the pencil a shake to activate it, he brought it to his head. "Give me information retrieval...I don't care, just get it done...Right, run this search...no, this is priority or you'll be scrubbing buckets in five minutes..." Allan rolled his eyes, and made a 'what can you do?' gesture with his eyes. "Finally. Okay, run a search for anything you have on something called the Staff of Ha'ano, and also cross-reference to this symbol." Quickly, Allan pointed the pencil at Veronica and a momentary beam of light hit her forehead. Veronica stood an angry step forward, but Allan raised his hand placatingly. "Just a picture, my dear," he said to her. "The symbol is called the Seal of Tonac," Veronica offered. "Now she tells me," Allan muttered, but repeated the name. "Give me the complete break...really? Okay, we'll check it out but keep looking for anything else." Shaking the pencil to deactivate it, Allan put it away in his pants, smirking. "Lots like you've already got lucky with me." "Somehow I think that will never happen," Veronica returned. "And yet, I'm still going to help you. Around about the centre of this island a place called Pukotala, a village that was here long ago but faded away. The village was excavated years ago, and they found a few items of interest that were moved to a museum. Nothing like a staff, but that could be well worth checking out. I suggest we head there while we wait to see if my staff can find out anything else." "You first," said Veronica, then leaned in close as Allan pass to hiss, "And if you call me 'my dear' one more time, you'll find that I can be very expensive indeed." Veronica gave her own smirk at the flash of fear in Allan's eyes, then shoved him into the jungle. _-~-_ Although it was a relatively small island, it was still large enough to get easily lost on. Eventually, Rick had to morph into a bird to espy the island from above. Easily spotting the open area of the village, he was able to guide them to that destination. The term 'village' wasn't exactly accurate anymore. Although there were two rough huts, they looked recently constructed, as examples of what was once here. The ground was dug up in many locations, with general signs of archeology present, but no signs of any staffs. "I'm not entirely sure we're better off," Veronica mused. Allan shrugged. "I never said it was here, just that this was a likely location," he pointed out, fanning himself with his hand. By now he had his jacket off, showing off several large stains under his armpits. "Then perhaps you wouldn't mind starting the digging," Veronica said. "Oh, about a hundred square meters to start with should do." Allan opened his mouth to reply, but suddenly slapped his hand on his pants pocket. "Saved by the phone," he glared at her, then extracted his pencil phone again. "What?....you have?...volcano?..." "What? What volcano?" Rick asked, eyes wide. Allan waved a hand at Rick to shut him up. "Yes, I see. When?...okay." Flicking the pencil off, Allan replaced it, then beamed at them all. "So?" Rick prompted. "What volcano?" "You'll find out...NOW!" he suddenly shouted, diving for the ground. Veronica, who had been tense as soon as he started smiling, quickly followed suit. Leaving Rick and Marsha exposed. A hailstorm of bullets exploded into the air, shattering the silence around them with a cacophony of sound that accompanied the strike of death from the barrel of a gun. Marsha and Rick danced in the impact, and only when the storm passed did they collapse onto the ground. Veronica lunged for Allan, but didn't even make half the distance before she was covered from every angle by the return of the soldiers with guns. "You crukking smeg of an arsehole son of a bastard," she swore. "I'll make it the mission of the rest of my life to stick you, gut you, and make your every moment a living agony of pain that would make even the Cenobites flinch. I'll-" "I thought you said we didn't matter," Rick's voice spoke up. "You don't," Veronica said, but was unable to completely disguise the note of relief in her voice. "But I've always wanted to threaten someone like that." "And that, my dear," Allan sneered, as he got up, "is just one of the many mistakes in your life." Turning to the soldiers, he said, "Get the copters here. We've wasted enough time." Marsha groaned, and managed to get on her hands and knees. "Hey," she said, surveying herself. "That was a damn good shirt you ruined!" It was now stained with pink where the bullets had gone through her marshmallow body. "You'll be getting a bill from my tailor over this!" "And you'll be seeing the inside of a jail cell as soon as we get back to civilisation," Allan said matter of factly. "Burgenstock stock is finished." "Was there ever a volcano?" Rick asked, shaking the bullets out of his fluid body. "The Staff of Ha'ano was swallowed by a volcano," Allan recited in a bored, sing-song voice. "To find it, you'll have to find, and get inside, the volcano itself." "Which is where?" "There's a buried entrance to north, or so we think." "Then that's where we're going," Rick said with a tone of finality. "Where you're going," Allan replied, "you'll wish you were inside an active volcano." Shading his eyes, he spotted the helicopters homing in on their position. As the first one came in for a touch down, he said, "Not that you'll live long enough to care either way." Two of the four helicopters, the two most distant, exploded into fireballs, one moment there, the next gone. Before anyone had time to blink, the third helicopter joined the first two in fiery destruction. The people on the ground could see the pilot in the last helicopter trying to reverse the landing, take off and get away. Time slowed down, and the people could see the line of fire that streaked through the air, see the fire reach out and engulf the copter in one swallow, instantly incinerating it and all inside. They turned, their heads moving as one as though on a string, and saw a woman in black, with streaks of red and white on her body. Her blond hair streamed out through the air around her like a halo, and she was an angel of death. The Net.Elementalist touched down on the ground, ignoring the burning wreckage beside her. Her outfit became predominantly white, and Marsha, Rick and Veronica became aware that only the four of them were moving. "You just couldn't do it, could you?" The Net.Elementalist said. "Do what?" Rick asked. "You said you wouldn't cause any trouble, yet what is this?" she asked, gesturing about her. "This wasn't our fault," Rick said. "Blame him." "Oh, believe me, we are just starting here." She nodded at Allan. "And he's going to get some very personal attention. I can still remember how he tried to claim me after I gained control of my powers. And not for any personal reasons." "Fine," put in Veronica. "You deal with these guys, and we'll continue looking for the Staff of Ha'ano." "You haven't even found that yet?" "We have a good lead," Veronica said, slightly huffy. "We can't all of us fly around and destroy things." "Although some of us have had a pretty good go of it," said Rick, remembering exactly how Veronica returned to Earth, and of how Sin.ci.net.ty didn't live to tell the tale. "We going or you whining?" Veronica said. "Which way is north?" The Net.Elementalist pointed. "I'll give you a head start before getting stuck in here," she said. "Although lagging them down to really make what will happen stretch out has its points." The note of sadism in her voice made the other three all shiver, but now wasn't the time to deal with that. Nodding to her, they made their way out of the village. The Net.Elementalist walked over to stand directly in front of Allan. Uncle Allan, as he had insisted at the trial. Sanctimonious bastard. Allan saw the helicopter on the ground exploded, then something blurred, and now the face of a young woman he knew too well was right in front of him. "You would dare to come here," she growled, staring into his fearful eyes with cold burning ones. "To *my* islands." Around them, he could see out of the corners of his eyes that the soldiers were taking aim, but also knew the gesture was nothing more than futile. "Well, 'Uncle Allan', let's see if blood really is thicker than water." _-~-_ Marsha threw a look over her shoulder, but the village was far behind them now. "Will she hurt him?" she asked. Rick shrugged. "Probably. Who cares?" Marsha looked at Rick. "Once, you would have." "I grew older," Rick said shortly. Marsha let Veronica pull ahead before saying. "She really hurt you, didn't she?" Rick didn't meet her eyes. "I don't want to talk about it." "You never do. You keep that bottled up inside, trying to ignore it. Like with Abby." "She left me long before she actually walked out," Rick finally said. "You knew she was seeing CAPTAIN CAPATILIZE?" "Please," Rick said dryly. "I wasn't stupid. I just thought...I dunno, it was a fling or something. She would come back." They walked in silence for a while. "We were happy once," Rick said, breaking the silence abruptly. "We were happy to just be with one another." "What happened?" Marsha asked gently. Rick shrugged. "I drank. Abby grew up, putting pressure on our lives. But that's just excuses for us growing apart." "I always had trouble picturing the two of you together," Marsha said, her tone forcefully light. "Yeah, well, that didn't help either. Men are bad enough at foreplay anyway, but when you can't even be sure what you're touching..." "Ew, please, more than I want to know," Marsha said. "But...you and Fuzzy...I don't think anyone would have seen that coming." "We didn't either, for a while, but that's love. Not rational, but relentless as a freight train..." "And that just brings us back to unpleasant images." "Sorry." The silence returned, but a more comfortable one. Finally, Rick said, "You know, once, I might have thought that we..." "Yeah," said Marsha. "Me too. But..." "Yeah...'but'." They smiled faintly at each other, then looked forwards just in time to see Veronica disappear with a yell that cut off abruptly. The duo hurried forwards to find a hole in the landscape, up from which rose faint but audible cursing and swearing in a multitude of languages, not all of them from Earth. "Your mother doesn't seem to have any problem expressing herself," Marsha said mildly. Rick sighed. "At least she isn't hurt. Come on." Stretching himself down, Rick disappeared into the gloom of the Earth, forming himself into a ladder as he did so to allow Marsha to climb down after him. Below, they found Veronica attending to a shallow cut on her head, trying to staunch the light flow by the simple expediency of pressing on it. "Are you all right?" Rick asked, flowing back into human form. "I'll be fine," Veronica replied shortly. "But it looks like we found the tunnel." Marsha peered around. "Well, yes, but it's rather dark. Did anyone bring a light?" "Allow me," Rick said, forming his left hand into a lantern. The light showed they were indeed in a tunnel than ran off in both directions. "Okay, now which way?" "Hmm." Rick reached out with his right hand, and his arm suddenly telescoped in one direction. "Oof. That way's blocked," he reported, bringing his hand back. Turning, he sent it in the other direction. "Hmm...nothing as far as I can reach, and I think that way's a little warmer." Retracting his hand, he shrugged. "May as well try that." "Yes, well, many people have said that," said Veronica, getting to her feet. "And few live to tell the tale. Lay on, MacDuff." "Isn't that 'Lead on, MacDuff'?" Rick asked as he took the lead. "Only if you haven't read the actual play," Marsha replied. "We didn't all have time for a classical education," Rick muttered. "Some of us had a hard enough time just getting by day to day." The conversation went downhill from there, until they were tramping along in silence. At least, until Veronica spoke. "Is it just me or is there light up ahead?" They stopped, and Rick dimmed his lantern, until, yes, they could see a faint red glow in the distance. "We've been traveling downwards for a while," Rick said. "No idea how far underground we are. But this could be the volcano up ahead." "No sense in running into lava," Marsha replied. "Let's just take this slowly, shall we?" Taking it slowly meant that even more time passed before the tunnel they were in started to widen around them. The red light opened up to be a reflected glow, and soon they were at the edge of a large cavern. Tunnels led off it, and redness flowed out of them. As well as heat. In fact, it was noticeably warm now. "Do we split up?" Rick asked. "That one," said Veronica, pointing to a tunnel to the left. "How do you know?" Marsha asked. "It's the one where the light is brightest. If the Staff was swallowed by a volcano, we need to get to the heart, and that looks to be the most direct route." As Veronica headed into the new tunnel, with Marsha close behind, Rick said "Has anyone wondered why, if this is so easy, no-one has come for the Staff before?" "You said yourself," Veronica voice floated back. "The tunnel was blocked. And I doubt anyone else came across that wonderful entrance we found." Rick doubted the answer was that easy, but didn't have any other option than to follow them. As he left, he failed to see the stream of dirt fall from the ceiling to the ground. Inside the tunnel the temperature increased rapidly, leading to them all starting to sweat. Fanning themselves for whatever relief that could provide, the heat also sapped their senses, so when they stumbled out into another large cavern, it took them some time to realize they had come to the end of their journey. Before them was a large rock, positioned in roughly the centre of the cavern. The rock was positioned on a small area of, well, more rock. But around that rock was a moat of molten lava, that bubbled and spat hot fluid through the air. In the large rock on the rock surrounded by the moat was a staff, poking at an angle from the rock. The top was a glass sphere, looking too fragile to exist in this hostile environment. There was something in the sphere, an image of some kind, but for now they were too far away to make it out clearly. "This looks way too artificial," Rick said, after they took the scene in. "Is anyone else getting a weird Tomb Raider feeling right now?" "I was going to go for an Artherian analogy," Marsha said. "But I suppose yours is just as good." "Thank you for lowering yourself to meet me," Rick muttered, barely holding the sarcasm in. "Quiet," Veronica snapped. "We've gone through a lot to get here, and now we just need to get that Staff. Rick." Rick stood there for a moment, before realizing that she wasn't just saying his name. "What?" Veronica rolled her eyes. "Will you just get over there and grab that Staff?" "Oh. Right." Rick moved over to a wall, and became smaller, lighter, and possessed many more agile limbs. Climbing the walls with oddly disturbing skittering movements, Rick moved out onto the ceiling, and crawled over until he was positioned over the rock with the Staff. Dropping down he passed through many forms before landing as a cat. Changing back to a human, he examined the Staff carefully. "Hey," he announced. "There's a small image of Ha'ano in here! Guess it really is the Staff of Ha'ano." Reaching out, he grabbed the Staff, and gave it a heave. Although the Staff didn't move much, the results... The ground beneath them shook. In fact, the whole cavern shook, sending them sprawling onto the ground as an earthquake ripped through the room. Rock crashed down from above, and Marsha barely managed to roll out of the way as several stalactites fell, threatening to turn her into a pin cushion. The rumbling slowly died down, and they took a moment to gather their wits and cough up a lungful or two of dust. "Okay, new rule, don't do that again," Marsha said. "Hey, don't blame me," Rick said defensively. "I had no idea that was going to happen, and you guys didn't seem to leap to the brakes." "Relax, we're not blaming you," Veronica said. "Just...don't touch it for now." "Then how, exactly, do you expect to use it to remove the Seal of Tonac?" Rick asked. "Guess Mohammed will have to go to the mountain after all," Veronica replied. "Stretch over to us, and we'll climb over there." "Easy for you to say," Rick grumbled. "You're not the one who'll be hanging over scorching lava." Despite the moaning, Rick stretched out, as high as he could, up and over the lava to land on the other side, and formed himself into a ladder. Veronica climbed over quickly, but Marsha was only halfway when a viciously hot burst of lava spat from the moat and landed on Rick. Rick immediately, involuntary, retracted away from the pain, pulling himself to the Staff side of the moat, but leaving Marsha to fall through the air. However, Rick's motion had imparted enough movement to her to make her fall with a heavy thud just on the inside edge of the lava. She lay there for a moment, gasping painfully, but rolled quickly as the lava threatened to strike out again. "On the list of things not to do again," Marsha muttered, then suddenly raised her hand to her hand. "Hey, where's my hat?" Veronica pointed, and Marsha managed to turn just in time to see the brim falling below the surface of the lava. "Damn, that was an expensive hat," she mourned. "Never mind that," Veronica said. "This Staff is what we need to concentrate on at the moment." Marsha, just managing to struggle to her feet after the fall, shared a look with Rick, also standing up while nursing a bad burn on his side. "She just has no clue," Marsha said quietly. "Does it hurt?" "Like smeg," Rick replied. "But, as she said, never mind that now," he mimicked. Veronica ignored them, and bent over to get a closer look at the Staff, especially where it went into the rock. "I don't think it is stuck in there," she finally announced. "It just needs to be slid out exactly along the angle that it is stuck in there." She considered it further. "In fact, I doubt it is particular to Ha'ano," she said. "Probably only became known as the Staff of Ha'ano after some idiot shoved it in this rock and caused the very volcano that was said to have swallowed it up. Stick it in any island, or whatever, and you'll probably get the same effect. Only a different picture in here," Veronica said, tapping the sphere at the end. Another tremour vibrated through the cavern, and they all froze. But, apart from more dirt cascading from the ceiling, nothing else bad happened. "I thought we said not to touch it," Marsha said crossly. "Yes, but I can probably slide it out carefully enough..." Veronica raised her hand to try, but Marsha grabbed her. "No," Marsha replied forcefully. "Then how are we to use this to remove the Seal?" Rick asked. "Not sure." Veronica bit her lip contemplatively. "Perhaps if I simply touch the symbol to the Staff, that might be enough to break the Seal." "Or it could bury us all," Rick said. "But I can't think of anything else to try." Veronica knelt down, her eyes fixed intently on the Staff. "Okay. I'm going to do this. Everyone else keep very still." Moving forward slowly, she placed her head up against the glass sphere. And screamed. Veronica fell backwards, light blazing from the symbol on her forehead. Marsha barely managed to grab Rick in time to stop him from grabbing Veronica and making matters worse. Veronica twitched violently, flopping about like a fish out of water, then fell limp, the light fading away. And as the light faded, it drew the symbol away with it, etching it away in reverse, leaving perfect skin behind. "What the hell is going on down here!?" a voice yelled. Rick and Marsha turned to see the Net.Elementalist standing in the entrance to the cavern and looking pissed. They couldn't tell exactly in the lava-light, but it almost looked like there was blood on her face. "Abby, stay back," Rick called back. "This whole area is unstable. One ill-timed burst of power, and we will all literally be crushed to death." Abby scowled. "Are you saying I can't control myself?" "What? No, not that at all," Rick said. Abby jumped into the air, her lag powers keeping her up and letting her float over to join them on the rock. As she passed over the moat, the lava slowed down, but returned to normal speed as she landed. "What happened to her?" Abby said, as she spied the prone form of Veronica. "She got the Seal removed," Rick replied, and he went to kneel by her, putting a hand to her neck to check her pulse. "I'm sure she'll be fine. Removing the Seal must have knocked her out." Abby, meanwhile, was nearing the rock in the centre. "And is this the Staff you've been looking for?" "Yes," replied Marsha, crossing over to Abby's side. "But don't touch it. It seems connected to this island in a very dangerous way. Did you notice an earthquake before?" Abby nodded. "Yes, that's why I came down here." "Smeg." Marsha and Abby whirled to see Rick leaning over Veronica's mouth. "Her heart stopped," he said quickly. "I think she's dying." "Try CPR," replied Marsha, dropping to his side. "I...I don't..." "Move aside." Pushing Rick away, Marsha quickly and efficiently moved Veronica's head back to clear her airways, checked to make sure there was no breath, then confirmed the lack of circulation of the blood herself. "Right, I can do this," Marsha said, quickly locating the correct spot to press down on on Veronica's chest, "but we might need to get out of here quickly." Rick turned to Abby. "Can you fly her out of here?" Abby nodded. "But I don't think we'll be quick enough. I'll clear us a path out of here." Before Rick could say anything, Abby launched herself up, aiming for the ceiling. Turning her flame powers on high, Abby hit the ceiling with a blast of flame. "No!" Rick yelled, but it was already too late. The cavern, already unstable, finally started to collapse around them, sending chunks of rock crashing to the floor. Acting quickly, Abby switched over to lag to slow the rocks down, but not even that would stop the now inevitable destruction. "I've got a pulse!" Marsha yelled, that was quickly followed by the sound of Veronica coughing. "We've still got to get her out of here!" Rick yelled. "Working on it!" While she kept the rocks from failing, Abby was still also tunneling up to the surface with flame, but the division of concentrating was making progress slow. "Mom, can you hear me?" Rick said, kneeling down beside Veronica. "We've got to get out of here now." Veronica coughed and groaned, trying to shake her head back into consciousness. "Be careful," Marsha said, holding Veronica's head still. "We don't know what that Staff did to you." "I...I remember!" Veronica said, elated. "I'm out!" came a voice from far away as Abby finally rocketed through the top of the island. "I know...I..." Abby flew into the air...and out of the range of the rocks in the cavern. Which came crashing down. On the floor. On the moat. And on to the Staff. The ground dropped away beneath them, then slammed into them again in a violent heave. Lava erupted from the moat, spewing upwards. The ceiling broke away entirely, but left more rock behind to then crash down. Amidst this, Veronica struggled to speak. "Barry," she coughed. "Barry, don't worry. This doesn't have to happen." Rick tried to become harder than the rock, but was slammed around by continual, building earthquake, and more lava exploded into the room through the walls. "Don't let him win!" Veronica screamed. Marsha lay there, where she had been thrown, watching the oncoming lava with quiet finality. "It doesn't have to be real!" _-~-_ Several hours later, as the sun went down, Abby stood on the balcony of her palace on Tongatapu, shaking in the cooling air. Princess Tupou held her tightly, stroking her head gently. "I...I tried...the island...it disappeared beneath the sea..." Abby said in short breaths. "I searched, but..." "Hush, hoku 'ofa," Princess Tupou said. "It's not your fault." "But it is!" Abby cried out, and now the tears came. "He was my father...and I killed him." "You didn't mean to," Princess Tupou said, but she knew how hollow that sounded. "Please, just hold me." As the sun faded away, darkness fell on the two lovers, and over the ocean. Beneath the waves were the remains of Ha'ano island, including the people who were still on it when it sank, now forever lost to the world. And the world would never be the same again... -------------------------------------------------------------------------- NEXT ISSUE: One man, one blade. And one lot of trouble for the Alt.Riders. CREDITS: All mine. NOTES: Okay, I'll confess. Some of this arc will happen. Some of it won't. Some of it will, but not the way presented here. Think of this as what happens if the writer stopped right here. This is the future they currently have. Whether or not they keep it remains to be seen.Back to the Index.