Limp-Asparagus Lad #52 A Legion of Net.Heroes title "A Lovecraft Pastiche" Written by and copyright 2004 Saxon Brenton Art by Richard Sc*rry --------------------------------------------------------------------- Cover shows the silhouettes of dog-like shapes obscured by fog. --------------------------------------------------------------------- Wendle Johnston staggered down the half-lit street and finally had no choice but to sag against a low stone wall and try to regain his breath. His eyes were wild and staring, and he kept throwing glances back over his shoulder towards the direction from which he had run. There was not much to be seen in the fog, however. As he drew deep breaths to overcome the dry heaves, he also grasped at trying to regain his composure. This was easier said that done, but he forced himself. That had been... whoa, that had been bad. He glanced around and slowly realised that none of the others were with him. Involuntarily he wrinkled his nose; there was a strange smell about this place. Wendle pushed the thought aside and tried to focus. Six of them had been on their way to a role playing game session at the university when they had gotten lost in the fog. Joe (Retcon Lad), Terri (Fourth Wall Lass), Bruce (Chinese Guy) and himself (Anal-Retentive Archive Kid), plus Harris (one of the fuzzy green kiwi birds) and Lenny (who was... well... he looked like a squirrel - let's just leave it at that for now). And once they had become lost even Terri's net.ahuman abilities hadn't been of any help. And then they'd tried to ask for directions... And then... Wendle's pulse began to speed up again as he began to probe the memory of what had happened next. A visceral reaction of fear began to grip him. Steeling himself against the fight-or-flight response, Wendle stared hard into his mind's eye at the caped figure who had stepped out of the fog and... blown a raspberry at them. He remembered the stark terror that had gripped him in that instant. Someone had screamed. Possibly several of them had screamed. He couldn't recall if he had been one of them. Wendle realised that he was gripping his hands into fists so hard that his fingers were beginning to go numb. He flexed them open and closed as few times to get the circulation going again, and tried to think about things calmly. One of his hobbies was reading up on mythology and folk lore, and he was pretty sure he recognised that caped figure in a top hat from a long-lived urban legend. The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Olde Net.ropolis Town. "Ow!" went Bruce. "Hey... What are you doing Lenny?" he said as he massaged the spot were the squirrel had just bitten him. "Just checking to see if you've regained your senses yet," said Lenny calmly. "You haven't exactly been coherent for the past few minutes." "I haven't? What...?" Bruce began, and then tensed as his next impressions were of darkness and damp and biting cold. This place felt wrong, and it was not a good tactical position to be in. And there was something else that he could sense as well... "Someone came up and invoked Fear against us," explained Lenny. "Everyone scattered blindly. Except me, of course," the squirrel-shaped yabon added matter-of-factly. "I grabbed onto you and kept giving you a bite every now and then to see when I could get you back to normal. Are you back to normal? I could give you another nibble if you want," he said, deadpan. "Yeah yeah," said Bruce with dismissive sarcasm. Impudent sidekicks; can't live with them, can't live without them. "I'm fine now, Ljundji," he said, distractedly answering with the original, non-Anglicised version of Lenny's name as he digested the plot summary that the spirit being had given him. He eyed the fog-bound and night-shrouded avenue with displeasure. What little he could see of it in the inadequate light of the ornamental street lamps seemed to glisten from damp with unpleasant suggestiveness. "Lovely," he said sourly. "So we're all still wandering around in the fog in Shimbleshanks, but now we're all wandering around separately." "Yes." "Well, Professor Jones, it looks like everyone but us is lost." Lenny stared at him. "It's a pop culture reference," said Bruce. "Don't worry about it." He glanced around again. "I don't suppose you have any more chance of navigating around than Terri did?" "No. I would know how to travel across my own country with my eyes closed, but this isn't my country. I don't even think we're in Net.ropolis anymore." "Really?" said Bruce, surprised. "What makes you say that?" "This place has... a wrongness about it. And it's more than just the usual wrongness that you get when humans build up their cities and cover everything in concrete and the local earth spirits get driven away or go to sleep deep underground," added Lenny. "At least a city has *life*. But I can't even feel the soul of Net.ropolis from here." The yabon groped for words. "There's a darkness about this place that makes me think this is another one of those bad place worlds." "A dystopia then, in the literal sense of the word," mused Bruce, looking around. He half-consciously lit a smoke to steady himself and paced around, thinking. "I wonder if I could contact the others mentally?" he asked himself as he weighed options. "I doubt it." "I doubt it too," Bruce agreed. "But I'd better try anyway. We'll both look like complete dills if we have do something the hard way when there was an easy way out all along. Is it safe here though?" Lenny considered. "It should be. But give me your cigarette first." Bruce blinked. "Huh?" "I can use it as a firestick." "Ah," said Bruce, beginning to vaguely comprehend what the Dreamtime spirit was up to. He sat down in a lotus position and took a final drag before handing the cigarette over. He threw a last distrustful glance at the fog, then he turned his attention to his own preparations and softly began to chant some lyrics from the Carpenters: "With your mind you have the ability to form, "And transmit thought energy far beyond the norm. "Please close your eyes, and concentrate, "With every thought you think. "Upon this recitation I'm about to sing..." Lenny kept a watch out during all of this, splitting his attention between Bruce and the murky street. He held the cigarette upright beside him like a spear - which was an incongruous, almost silly sight. However, as long as Lenny was bound against his will into this material form there was very little djang... supernatural might... that he could call upon to defend himself or his human companion. The cigarette might not have been much of a weapon, but it made a passible stand-in for the hearth fire of a camp and therefore *defined a boundary* between themselves and whatever it was that was lurking outside. And there were several of them out there, at least. Unfortunately, while most night monsters acted like wild animals and were afraid to approach a camp fire (real or metaphorical), some were powerful enough to ignore this limitation. Worse, there were some mythologies that barely abided with these very human limitations of magical cause and effect. Lenny hoped he wasn't turning them both into sitting ducks. Harris was not a happy little kiwi bird. He had had a nasty fright. The fact that it had been a blind panic imposed from outside only made the situation more galling. After a lengthy and quite intense session of composure grooming that had gotten his green feathers back in order, he was now stalking through the streets of Shimbleshanks softly hissing to himself. There were two priorities on his mind. First, find the others. The humans, poor soft things that they were, were probably in an even worse state than he had been. Second, but perhaps more importantly, was revenge. There was an entire sub-discipline of xenopsychology that dealt with how different types of creatures developed intelligence. Hunter-gatherers like humans were usually thought to gain sapience as a tool because of the evolutionary pressure of finding new food sources. Herbivourous creatures were suspected to develop intelligence as a way of outwitting predators. The current line of thinking about the kiwi birds of Net.Zealand was that they achieved self-awareness and analytical thought because of habit of developing new and ever more spectacularly nasty ways of punishing people who had done them wrong. Harris wasn't particularly vindictive as kiwis went, but you had to scratch the line somewhere. Elsewhere, Limp-Asparagus Lad was practising. He was flying over the city of Net.ropolis, and only partly paying attention to the skyscrapers that he was dodging around. The major part of his attention was focused inwards, tracking the minute fluctuations of drama that flowed through the world. It was this inner compass that guided him... although he prudently kept an eye out for obstacles. He saw no point in risking a collision with a building at over 60 km an hour, after all - but neither did he want to fly higher into the flight paths of the faster moving freighting zeppelins. He would have had an even harder time dodging them in his distracted state. Ever since he had been shown that his drama manipulating powers enabled him to perceive as well as suppress drama, the World's Most Boring Mutant Hero had been labouring to refine that skill. It was hard work, on several levels. For a start, unless he consciously willed his drama dampening field to a minimal intensity Limp-Asparagus Lad was always suppressing the very drama signals he was trying to sense. For another, there were effectively two 'volume' settings to what he was receiving: the louder drama signatures of net.heroes and net.villains on the one hand, and the softer ones of the 'millions of stories in the big city' from the ordinary people on the other. And then there was the fact that sometimes he could sense things that were about to happen as events cast their shadows before them, causing dramatic tension built up. Meaning that Limp-Asparagus Lad was trying to discover, from trial and error, what particular dramatic sensations meant, even though he himself was effectively a white noise generator and in any case there wasn't always a way to immediately confirm cause and effect. Tonight he was following a particular prickling sensation, and soon found himself homing in on a fire in a tenement above some shops. The screams of people trapped on the fifth floor would have alerted him to the danger that they faced even if the growing sense of drama from their location had not. He removed his replacement Insecurity Blanket from his shoulder, wrapped it over his head, and then flew through an open window, trusting that his insulated Legion costume would protect him from the worst of the heat. He found a father and two children trapped along with a firefighter in a hallway. Flames separated them from escape through the stairs and windows. "Help is here," he called to attract their attention over the noise of the inferno. The children were crying, but the adults took on a sudden look of hope. "What do we need to do?" asked the firefighter. "I will fly us out, but I will need to go through the roof," L-ALad said, knowing that the Insecurity Blanket couldn't possibly protect them all on the way back through the flames. "Give me your axe, and I'll make a hole up through the ceiling. Wrap the family in this," he said, handing over the blanket. Then the Legionnaire flew a few paces away and up to the ceiling, where he began hacking away. The effect of his flight.thingee in nullifying both his weight and that of the axe as well made the task easier; all of Limp-Asparagus Lad's strength was able to go into chopping away a large hole in the ceiling and the roof above. It was over more quickly than would have otherwise been possible, but the time still seemed to crawl interminably. Nor was the heat and smoke that was rising to ceiling height making anything easier. Coughing and eyes watering, he dropped back down to floor level. Knowing that carrying the four of them would be beyond the normal carrying capacity of his flight.thingee, Limp-Asparagus Lad activated a plot device. That would expedite the plot by allowing them to escape as a group. He waved them forward and croaked in a monotone, "My flight.thingee cancels weight. Put the boy on my back and have him hold tight around my neck. I will carry the girl around my front. You two hold on around either shoulder." Flames were licking closer by the time they had arranged this. Then they took to the air and cleared the hole above them as carefully as L-ALad could manage in his half-blinded state. Suddenly they were out in the open. As quickly as possible Limp- Asparagus Lad flew to one side to be out of the hot air of the updrafts, and then down to the ground to where the paramedics were. Even as he was touching down the Man of Dull was reaching out with his mind for any other sense of drama in the building. For a horrible moment he sensed lots of it, but then realised that it was generalised. That contrasted with the many individual sparks scattered around it. Hopefully that meant it was the burning itself, rather than lives still trapped inside, but he needed to be sure. "Is everyone accounted for?" he asked the fire chief. "As far as we can tell, Mr... uh..." "Limp-Asparagus Lad." The fire chief blinked. "Uh, sorry..." he began, and L-ALad recognised at once that the man had never heard of him. The Legionnaire had encountered this before, and replied with a simple, "There are a lot of members to the Legion of Net.Heroes." "Yes. Well, whatever the case, thanks for rescuing those people. We appreciate the help." A short distance away, Henry Boxwood was watching the family business and home being consumed by flames. He sighed. It was times like this that he could feel all of his 57 years. At least Peter and the grandchildren had been rescued by that net.hero. That was something to be thankful for. "Pardon me. Are you Mr Boxwood?" a voice asked. Henry turned from the fire to see a man in a business suit. "Yes?" "My condolences on the fire." "Thank you." "My name is John Johnson the third. I appreciate that this might be a bit early for thoughts of rebuilding, but if during the next few weeks you need to take out a loan to get your business back on its feet, feel free to contact me," he said, handing over a business card. Henry read it. It proclaimed: John Johnson III. President, Net.robank. 'Community before profits', and a contact number. Henry blinked. Oh, him. Yes, he'd heard of Johnson. The bank president who did all the community work. A lot of it by financing loans at insanely low rates of interest for businesses that were rebuilding after disaster, most particularly from net.ahuman conflict. The Crusading Banker, they called him, although what other banking executives labelled him often wasn't fit for publication. "Uh... Thank you Mr Johnson," said Henry, somewhat overcome but the suddenness of it all. "Think nothing of it, Mr Boxwood," replied Johnson with a stentorian voice. "Disaster can strike at any time, and it is beholden upon community leaders to follow the lead of the net.heroes. After all, Net.ropolis would have been abandoned years ago if people and their businesses hadn't been able to re-establish themselves." "Very true," murmured Henry," who was still feeling a bit overwhelmed. "And now, I must go," announced Johnson, turning to face down the street and thumping a fist to his chest like a Roman salute. "For there are more citizens that cry out for prudent financial assistance!" And with that he stalked off into the night. You see, there are reasons why cities with superheroes remain viable communities despite all the property damage. They aren't necessarily *sensible* reasons - which is why they tend to be handwaved away as 'genre conventions' in worlds that like to pretend that they're realistic. But they *are* there. Professor Guttman was the only person on the street. It was misty here in Shimbleshanks, but he could sense that no one was about and hiding in the fog. Even the local night terrors were giving this place a wide berth tonight. The Professor stood before the weak point in the worldwall, raised his staff and invoked a spell to open the way for him. There was a sensation of pressure and of resistance to that pressure as the power of the spell built. The mist swirled as air currents cavorted into existence, but that at least was to be expected. Gating spells were a type of magic that worked with the invisible forces of space-time, and were therefore intrinsically tied to the element of net. Of air. The gate formed. The Professor stepped through, noting that the other side seemed to be even foggier. That was going to be an inconvenience; past experience showed that divinations would be suppressed, skewed, or otherwise unreliable in this place. Still, he had known all along that finding his way around this place would require considerably more effort than usual. The Professor in Defence Against the Dark Arts walked into the fog. The good news was that Joe had quickly found Terri by the simple method of deciding that randomly wandering about would cause them to meet up again and then enforcing that decision with a retcon to make it stick. The bad news was that after that first test to make sure his powers were working, local reality - such as it was - was resisting. He couldn't seem to get any of the others back by the same way. Or at least, not without taking the risk of putting a considerable - and possibly unsafe - amount of effort into it. "Which gives us a hint that this is deliberate," pointed out Terri grimly, "and whatever it is that's behind this could be trying to compensate." She looked around. They seemed to have arrived at some sort of market square. It was deserted, but had the creepy feeling of having been abandoned only a few minutes ago. The fog seemed thinner here, or at least the strangely coloured pale lights of the stores and stalls gave a better view of the place. All of the businesses were open and had unidentifiable wares on display, but no one was about. There were distant muffled sounds of a busy marketplace coming from beyond the surrounding buildings, as though a bustling normal market was taking place tantalisingly out of reach only a street away. "Do you recognise this place?" she asked. "No. I don't think so, anyway. Things look different at night." "There aren't any night time markets in Shimbleshanks. The place pretty much shuts down at sunset." Then she glanced around sharply as she caught sight of movement out of the corner of her eye. "What is it?" "I thought I saw something..." She stood and carefully scanned the square, then shook her head. "Nothing." They heard snickering. On the other side of the market they spied two unkempt children, a boy and a girl of perhaps seven or so, who were watching them with knowing smirks and sniggering to themselves. Terri cast a suspicious glance at them. As soon as he saw this scrutiny the boy made an obscene gesture with one hand. It was then that Terri noticed that his hands were deformed and shaped like claws. The girl began to chant some nonsense children's rhyme, pitching it to be a taunt: "Larkin children / free from your lies / quicksie-windsie / plucks out your eyes." Terri reflexively scanned the narrative captions to get a description of who they were and what they were up to. Then she silently cursed herself when all she got was the same gibberish that had been plaguing her all evening. 'Yigub ngh! Thogh mghw'nath Yigub ngh! Likub ut f'gorth itep wi'gnak itep Asab n'yarl os ut ptah,' the caption read. Or seemed to read. In contrast to Terri's normal experience, the captions weren't even in a clean and legible typeface. Beside her she could feel the tenseness in Joe's stance. She put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Horror." He gave her a puzzled look. "Pardon?" "I think this is a horror setting." She met his eyes, and then said with a grim pedanticism, "The juxtaposition of the unnatural with the mundane is the basis of fantasy literature. Most stories combine the two in a way that creates awe and wonder. But the horror genre has the unnatural intrude into the mundane in a way that creates fear. This place has all the hallmarks: disempowering the protagonists, keeping them in ignorance and unable to control their situation... Next something'll happen to make us realise that the world isn't they way we've always thought it has been, and get us to react in fear and loathing." And then she gave a nasty grin. "Or *try* to." Joe shared a flinty smile with her, then turned his attention back to the two sing-songing guttersnipes. "Well, I guess they're in real trouble then, 'cause I suddenly feel like having a pissing contest to see whose metaphorical dick is bigger." Terri looked panicked for a second. He saw the expression, and said, "Nothing fancy that'll blow up in my face. Geez. I've had enough of that for one evening." He paused for a second, then asked, "Are they real, or just scenery sock-puppets designed to give us the creeps?" She shook her head. "Dunno. They've got captions, but I still can't make head or tails of what they say." "Fine then," Joe said and pointed at the lobster-handed boy. In his mind he gave a sharp /jab/, hoping to catch... whatever... off balance. Immediately a decrepit shop sign - illegible from soot and age and the fact that it also was written in gibberish - fell from where its was hanging above the boy's head and crashed down onto him, knocking him to his knees and giving him a nasty gash to his forehead. The boy cried out in pain. His companion looked down at him then turned back to screech at the two Legionnaires, only to be confronted by the sight of Joe calmly, patiently, and with calculated intimidation walking towards them in a I-can-keep-this-up-all-day-if-I-have-to stroll. The girl dragged the boy to his feet and began to run away; the abuse that she yelled over her shoulder at Joe was belied by the very real look of fear that had now taken over her features. Joe humphed to himself as he drew to a stop. "Looks like they were real after all. I guess I'd better forgo turning them into trees or something." Terri raised an eyebrow. " 'Turn them into *trees*'?" "Yeah, sure. Like, back during the 90s in the _X-Men_, Colossus's mad brother Mikhail was going around turning pizza delivery boys into trees. More recently there was also that girl Kelly in PAD's _Captain Marvel_. And there's Sersi and her matter manipulating powers. Frankly I'm surprised that Minority Miss hasn't experimented with restraining villains by temporarily turning them into trees. There are enough characters about with those sort of abilities for her to be able to emulate their powers." Then he finished with the light banter and looked down at is hands, a hint of worry suddenly clouding his face. "You know, that was easier than I was expecting." "Maybe reality in this place is predisposed towards destructive effects?" she suggested. Joe tched his tongue against his teeth. "I was kind of worrying about being lured over to the Dark Side of the Farce, actually, but your idea isn't a pleasant option either. My powers cause enough damage on a metaphysical level as it is without being boosted to cause more." Then he changed subject. "So then. Suggestions?" "We need to find Wendle," Terri said without hesitation. "We need to confirm whether this place has a guiding intelligence behind this, or whether it's the equivalent of a pitcher plant or something, with monsters and freakazoids and stuff preying on the victims." Joe nodded. If anybody had any idea about where they were, what the dangers were, and where the weak spots would be, it would be Wendle. With any luck he might even have his copy of the Junior Word.chuck's Guidebook with him. "Other than that: superhero Standard Operating Procedure," Terri continued. "Find the source of the problem, and have a Fight Scene with it. It doesn't need to be intelligent for us to beat the snot out of it, although we might have a problem if there isn't a single weak point for us to exploit." She shrugged. "I kind of doubt if anything in a horror setting can be redeemed with Love Conquering All, but we might be able to chase something bad away with it." Joe nodded again and looked as though he had come to a decision. "So then, time for the pissing contest, I think," he said, cracking is knuckles. "It's safe to say that whatever's going on, we're supposed to run around in circles until we drop, right? And if we want to take control of the situation we need to find our way to the center?" Terri considered. "Well... Being played with in a 'welcome to my parlour said the spider to the fly' is the other obvious option, although that only works if the victims are normals. Keeping the net.heroes distracted while a plan proceeds elsewhere would be another possibility. But, yeah. Whichever one of those it is, we need to get make our way to the center. And quickly too," she added, throwing a uneasy look over her shoulder. "This place is giving me the heebie-jeebies." "Probably deliberately. The question is whether it's an environmental effect, or something that's a conscious choice," was his reply. "But we can work that out later. Now, let's see if it puts as much effort into keeping us away from the center as it does in keeping us in," he said, and began to concentrate. "As if that's going to stop you if you decide to really pull out all stops," Terri commented with good-natured sarcasm. It was a valid point. It was not a question of whether Joe's abilities could overcome the resistance to his retcons that this place was generating. Joe had an *insanely* high value for his raw power levels. It's just that he rarely used such overwhelming force because of the risk of damaging reality. Most of the time he preferred finesse over blast effects, and had put most of his training into developing control rather than generating ever higher levels of brute force. Rather, the question was, did what passed for reality in this place have the wherewithal to avoid being shredded if he shoved it around too hard? And how closely was this place linked to the Looniverse - was it a localised distortion, or one of the Outside Words? With these issues in mind he mentally pushed against the resistance that he felt, slowly taking its measure and building up just the right amount of force needed to do the job, rather than simply grabbing the fabric of reality by the metaphorical scruff of the neck and pointing it the way he wanted it to go. It took several minutes of increasing the ante before Joe finally said, "Okay, it's done. Regardless of what this place really is, standard superhero conventions of 'fight your way to the villain's sanctum' are now in operation. All roads lead to the center, and we'll meet the others there." "Then let's go," said Terri. "We'll want to be quick now that any opposition that there might actually be has been tipped off." Wendle was regretting not having brought his handgun along. He had owned it for several years, and was a moderately good marksman thanks to coaching from his father, but had never really concentrated on it too much before taking a job at the LNHHQ to work his way through university. These days he was more conscious about personal safety as a normal among a group of net.ahumans - especially after he'd had his arm broken in the fight against the Gingrinch Who Stole Christmas last year in that story a few Christmas specials ago. [Limp-Asparagus Lad #40 - Footnote Girl] Wendle wrinkled his nose and carefully scanned the area as much as the murk would allow. He did not like this place. There was something about it that put his teeth on edge. He also felt as though he was being watched - occasionally he even heard scuffled footsteps. He knew that panic was his worst enemy in a situation like this, but he couldn't help himself from jumping at shadows. The whole situation would have been embarrassing if it hadn't been so fearsome... or so *angering*. Wendle had reached the point where he could no longer tell why he was trembling so hard. Maybe it was the fear. He was honest enough with himself to admit that he was genuinely terrified. But a lot of it was the burning need to grab whatever was out there and *smash* it's SMEGGING FACE IN! Was that just a comforting power fantasy? A security blanket for the poor little normal person who hung out with the omnicompetent net.heroes? Wendle licked the beads of sweat off of his top lip. He didn't have an answer for that... ...Which was another thing that he resented, actually: being so much in the thrall of fear that he was having trouble thinking straight. Whatever the case, he could hardly complain about the outcome of the Gingrinch fight - he'd been reckless and had paid the price. And it had brought the dubious benefit of showing that Wendle was a lot more fragile than the others. That had been a somewhat galling bit of self-discovery, but Wendle prided himself on his pragmatic and clear-headed stance. He accepted it, if perhaps with ill grace, and tried to take sensible precautions. And right now he really wished he'd taken the precaution of bringing his gun. There was the sound of footsteps. Wendle turned and took up a defensive stance. They hadn't been slithery, squamous type footsteps, but it never hurt to be prepared. It turned out to be a black woman. He barely recognised her because of the dim light in the mist and her dishevelled state, but then he realised that she was in a few of his classes. Name, name, name... Ah. Elizabeth, that was it. She looked freaked. Not good. At the moment he wasn't even sure he could defend himself, let alone someone else as well. Then the issue became moot. The street beneath and around them sagged, as if it were some vast deflating souffle. Some of the cobble- stones sunk even further, creating an even more treacherously uneven surface. A pack of gibbering, cackling, groobly somethings emerged from the drains and shadows on either side of the street and rushed in to attack. Elizabeth went feral, her face twisting into a mask of literally bestial rage with big pointy teeth, and she began slicing and rending her assailants in a frenzy of ichorshed. .oO( Oh. She's a Buffyverse-style vampire, ) thought Wendle as he tried to defend himself. ( Okay. Fine. So she doesn't need help from the likes of me. ) He felt a pang of irritation at continuing to have to be the token normal. It was irrational, but was probably a more useful emotion than the incapacitating fear. He had encountered much worse than these drooling, rubbery things before, but there was something about them here and now that repulsed him and horrified him and made him want to run away. Even the fact that courage was one of the Nine Noble Virtues wouldn't have kept him from turning tail and running were it not for an angry thought that kept insisting: 'running is what they *want* you to do'. Mercifully they didn't seem to have much intelligence, and they didn't co-ordinate with each other. Wendle was able to hold off a small group with simple defensive manoeuvres, for which he was glad. Despite Elizabeth's continuing rending of them, Wendle had no real idea of how resilient these things were, and in a near panicky desperation he was holding back from committing himself to any offensive manoeuvres that would leave his back unguarded. Then Elizabeth was beside him, grabbing two of the things that had been menacing him and slammed their heads together, causing their malformed skulls to smash like eggshells. A third one squealed like a rabid rat and leapt at her. Wendle would have used its own momentum to send it flying it some of its packmates, but Elizabeth simply grabbed it by the throat. She ignored the furious scratching attacks from its five disturbingly articulated limbs, while it ignored her crushing grasp around its neck - at least up until the point when the crunching sound from its neck vertebrae and the way it went limp indicated that she had killed it as well. There didn't seem to be any more left. The others had either fled back into the darkness or lay where they had died. That left Wendle to face off against Elizabeth, who looked like she was still in a homicidal state. He took a step backwards and held up his open hands, going, "Whoa. It's okay. They're gone. It's over. Everything's cool. It'll be okay." For a long tense moment she simply stood and stared at him, hyper- ventilating. An incongruous thought occurred to Wendle: surely she didn't really need to breathe. Was this a sign that she was so upset that her body was atavistically returning to unneeded functions? Or was it tell-tale proof that she was putting on a calculated affectation to scare him? He could cite anecdotes from vampire lore to support either notion. Then she turned away. Anguish filled her features, and to Wendle it seemed that her heavy breathing was more like sobs than growls. He glanced around while she composed herself, but he couldn't see or hear anything that suggested that they might be at risk from renewed attack. "What's going on here, Johnston?" Elizabeth demanded, her voice thick with emotion. "What is this place?" Wendle tried to think of an answer that was both concise and coherent. The others knew him well enough to be indulgent when he started rabbiting on about stuff. Someone that he'd met in class only a few times would be less likely to do so, especially in a high stress situation. "Net.hero type stuff, I think. We... some of my friends and myself... met someone dressed up like an old urban legend called the Phantom Raspberry Blower. He's usually dismissed as a transplant of the Jack The Ripper story to Ame.rec.a, but now I'm not so sure. He... made us go crazy for a while. When I came to, I was lost in this fog. I dunno where the others are. How about you?" "Something like that," she admitted. "I was walking home after class when someone in a top hat and cape jumped out and blew a raspberry at me. God, that is so stupid when you say it like that! Then the next thing I remember I'm wandering around in a place without many lights and even fewer street signs and none of them are written in any way that makes sense anyway..." She broke off. "What does he want, anyway!?" Wendle shrugged. "Could be any number of things. Studying our behaviour, maybe. Perhaps feeding on emotions. Whatever it is, it involves creating fear." She glared at him. "You're kidding." "No, I mean that," he protested. "If he wanted anything else he could have done it while we were zonked out of our minds. For some reason he wants people alive and conscious and scared. I mean, look at this place. It's a put on! You've already mentioned the street signs. Have you also noticed the way that the buildings started out as decrepit and unsavoury, then moved on through disturbingly twisted, and since then have been trying for the unpleasantly organic look that you get in pictures by H.R. Giger?" Then, sounding more confidence than he actually felt because he knew that that there really were some places that would be like this naturally without any conscious design being involved, he exclaimed, "Elizabeth, he - or they, or whatever - want us to feel freaked out and afraid! Don't let them get the better of you!" He drew a deep breath to calm himself after that outburst. It seemed more difficult to do than normal in this place. Or maybe that was just an excuse, because lack of control scared him. Meanwhile she watched him inscrutably for a few seconds, then, "Okay then. What do you suggest?" "I don't know," he admitted. "I was hoping to meet up with my friends. Some of them are net.ahumans. We'd have a lot better chance with them." Elizabeth looked dubious. "Wandering around in the fog looking for people is more likely to attract the attention of those monsters again." Wendle nodded. "Probably. But it's not as if those things don't know where we are anyway." He wasn't actually going to mention it, but considering that most of the rest of the guys were net.heroes, it was more the case that *they* would find *him*. He sighed. This was beginning to wear on him. "What do you mean, you heard whispering?" demanded Lenny. "Exactly what I said," replied Bruce. He was striding down the street with Lenny on his shoulder. "I tried to contact the others, but that didn't work. It was like the whole universe was filled with static rather than the Music of the Spheres. Eventually I took a look at that static, trying to find something coherent - *anything* coherent - to see if there was a way through it or around it or something. And what it turned out to be was whispering. Actually, I'm surprised you haven't noticed yourself. It's only just barely subaudible." "Could you tell what was being said?" "Nope." Then Bruce grinned with a vicious satisfaction. "But I think I got a direction for where the heart of all this nonsense is." "So... you want to use that as a landmark?" "Uh-huh." Lenny considered this. "That could work. But it might get hard to sense it right out on the edge as you move away from it." Bruce stopped and stared at the squirrel-yabon. "Move away? We want to move *towards* it... Oh, I see. Sorry, I didn't think of that." "Me neither," admitted Lenny, who had realised the source of confusion at almost the same instance. Dreamtime spirits - himself included - where almost always spirits of *place*. And since this wasn't Lenny's country, the yabon's automatic instinct had been to back away from the owner. "You want to wait this one out?" asked Bruce. "No, no, I just reacted without thinking." Which had been careless of him, he knew. When you stopped to think about it, respecting someone else's territory was hardly the best response in a case where they've kidnapped you to toy with you with fear. Lenny shifted mental gears to try to see things from Bruce's perspective. "So, you think we'll find the others in the middle." It wasn't a question. Now, there were two ways this could go. Dutifully he asked, "How do you want to do this?" "We head for the heart. When we get there, we find the others, as well as whatever's causing all of this, and we deal with it." Lenny was impressed. No sneaking in, rescuing somebody, and then sneaking out. This was real hero type thinking. Normal people tried to deal with supernatural dangers by avoiding them, placating them, or praying to their gods to deal with them. But since his exile from the Dreamtime Lenny had discovered that other cultures all over the world *also* had folklore and legends where the heroes would go out, find the source of a problem, and pound the crap out of it. Ah, humans. Sometimes he almost felt like he was back home. "So which way?" "This way," said Bruce. Then he added, "Oh for crying out loud!" as a pack of three vaguely dog-like creatures suddenly burst from the concealing fog. Lenny grabbed onto Bruce's shirt as Bruce executed a series of backward flips to take the pair of them out of reach. "Ha!" scoffed Bruce once he had gained some space. " 'Night of a Million Billion Ninjas'!" he said. Then he took a single step to the left and vanished in plain sight. The hounds milled around in confusion. Bruce watched them intently from above, having scaled up between two twisted buildings in the few seconds immediately after he had turned invisible. Lenny noted Bruce's thoughtful interest and asked sotto voce, "What do you think?" "I'm wondering if they're wandering monsters or evil minions," whispered Bruce in gamers' jargon. "We could follow them back to their master if they're evil minions. In either case, did you see how they've got big anime-style cute eyes?" "Combined with long drill-like tongues. Yes." "Mmm. Makes me think of the dir/ wraiths, who drill into peoples' brains and suck out the file directories of their minds - memories, personality, the lot. Nasty. I can just imagine how these dogs hunt: they come bounding up, and their victims see those big puppy dog eyes and have just enough time to go 'Aww, cute' before being brain-sucked," Bruce said in a sour undertone. "Very nasty," agreed Lenny. Bruce looked skyward speculatively. He whispered, "Come on," and began shimmying his way upwards. "Where are we going?" "To the roof. I want to check something out." Soon they were on the top of the building. Bruce looked around, noting that there actually was a top to the building and not just an empty shell like a stage set, then scanned the nonexistent horizon. "I was wondering if we could see the glow of Net.ropolis' lights from here," he said. "A big city lights up the sky even on a clear night, but no such luck." Indeed, up on the roof was even colder and darker than at street level. "The fog seems a lot thinner up here," observed Lenny. "Yes," said Bruce as he took out a tiny splinter of wood, shook it once and caused it to expand out to a ten foot long pole. "I think we can take advantage of that. We need to go that way," he added, nodding in one direction. "Let's try travelling along the skyline." Then he jogged to the edge and pole vaulted across to the next building. --------------------------------------------------------------------- Character Credits: Anal-Retentive Archive Kid (Wendle), Elizabeth, Fourth Wall Lass (Terri), Professor Guttmann, Retcon Lad (Joe), and the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Olde Net.ropolis Towne all created by Saxon Brenton. Chinese Guy (Bruce) and Lenny (Ljundji) are both Public Domain and kind of sort of created by Dvandom (Dave Van Domelen) and Saxon Brenton. John Johnson the third, the Crusading Banker, created by Kieran O'Callaghan. Used without permission. Limp-Asparagus Lad owned by Saxon Brenton. Created by Mystic Mongoose (Robert Armstrong) and wReam (Ray Bingham (chaos and entropy incarnate)). Harris the Kiwi created by Saxon Brenton, but is owned by Descrii (Ian Porell). --------------------------------------------------------------------- Add Notes: Okay, so it's not so much a Lovcraft pastiche as a pastiche of Stephen King's short story 'Crouch End' - but that itself is a Cthulhu mythos story. Anyway, a correction. In the notes for last issue I incorrectly stated that Dvandom's response to Crazy Guy's continued presence in the _Birth of a Villain_ cascade had been in _Crazy Guy_ #31. Actually it was in #30. There was no #31, unless you count the series wrap-up. I'd better add a caveat about all the stuff about yabons, as well. There is so little original recorded material on these creatures (one paragraph in _Bunjil's Cave_) that for the most part I'm relying on Patricia Wrightson's stories and notes. To paraphrase the introduction of the _Rifts China_ RPG sourcebook, it derives from real yabon lore, is designed to evoke the feeling of the topic, but ultimately isn't the real thing. John Johnson the third's only previous appearance was in _F.I.S.H. Force_ #5. I remembered him at the last moment in late February after several months of background research for urban development themes for fictional cities.Back to the Index.