Anna’s eyes fluttered open as the sunlight dribbled in through the slats of the window near her bed. She hadn’t meant to sleep so late, but she and the others needed the rest. For reasons she couldn’t readily put her finger on, she didn’t think the Hoods would be left in the dust.

 

She rolled out of the bed, stretching her arms and legs and rubbing feeling back into them. She strolled over to the door, secured the deadbolt, and took off her shirts and wraps, getting in one last breather for her lungs and breasts.

 

She walked over to the bathroom, admired the Dwarven plumbing design, and drew herself a bath. The tub was too large, even for someone like Stockholm, but Jafts and Minotaurs could grow to ridiculous heights, and they were probably the hotel’s most frequent guests.

 

She stripped and slipped down into the warm water, letting it soak through her skin and into her sore muscles. Too much time on the road. She closed her eyes briefly.

 

There was a disturbance of the water, and when she opened her eyes, she nearly shrieked when she saw that Stockholm had joined her in the tub. He had a washcloth over his privates, but she felt awkward and distressed nonetheless.

 

“What,” he said gruffly. “You haven’t got anything I’m interested in, remember?”

 

For a moment, she couldn’t think of anything to respond with, and she erupted with coarse laughter. She splashed the water at him playfully, but he didn’t return the gesture. Instead, he took the soaked cloth and draped it over his snout.

 

“Gods almighty you gave me a scare,” she said. She draped her arms over the sides of the enormous tub, making herself comfy. “You know, you and I have spent a lot of time together on this whole journey. I feel like I’m getting to really know you.”

 

“That’s because you pal around with Flint all the time,” Stockholm said through the washcloth.

 

Anna’s eyes wandered southward through the clear water, and quickly spun away when she caught the slightest glimpse of his manhood. Cripes, she thought, if he were straight, he’d give some lucky girl a run for her money.

 

“I like the Prime well enough,” he said, “don’t get me wrong. But he and I simply lead much different lives. You and I, too, but I think you and I needed to get better acquainted. Especially since I’m going to be gone for a while next year.”

 

“What do you mean you’ll be gone? How can you know that, big guy?”

 

“Just trust me on this, boss lady.” He pulled the cloth off and rubbed soap on it. “I’ll be gone for quite a while, possibly up to a full month or two. I’ll put in appearances where and when I can, though.”

 

“Stocky,” Anna said, hesitating a little. “Um, there’s a few things I know I’ll never understand about you. Ever. But one thing I have to ask is this—how long have you been living like this?”

 

Stockholm stopped halfway through rubbing under his left arm with the cloth, and looking at her with the most serious cast in his eyes he could manage. “How long have you been drifting the lands of Tamalaria?”

 

Thick silence settled in the bathroom, almost taking on a visible hue of a barrier between the two of them. Finally, he gave her a partial answer, which for now, was good enough. “If it’s a question of how old I am, I’ll answer you as honestly as I know how; I’m twenty-two-hundred and forty-three years old. Much older than those of my species, even my long living tribe, live to. As for the how or why of that, I cannot remember. Something happened a very long time ago to me. It involves a handful of the gods, that much I know.” While he wasn’t giving her the whole truth, he figured this much was better than nothing.

 

“The wandering. Yes, I’ve drifted a lot over the last six hundred years.” Stockholm went back to scrubbing his underarms. “I learned all of the combative arts I could, as early as I could, so that I could handle every situation I came across. But I haven’t really had a clear purpose for a long time, boss lady.” He now splashed water on himself. “Now, I do. I make things work for a while, until next year. Then, I do as the gods council me to do,” he said.

 

“I never figured you for a holy man.” Anna raised an eyebrow as she grabbed a washcloth of her own and set to work scrubbing clean.

 

“I’m not.” The Red Tribesman appeared thoughtful for a moment, and then stood up in the tub, turned around, and stepped out. He shook himself off like a dog, his hair poofing out in large tufts like a cartoon character. “By the way, Anna?”

 

“Yes?” she asked, as a tsunami in miniature smashed into her, breaking over her upper body with a wet ‘smack’. “Oh, you bastard! I’ll get you back.” She exited herself, drying off and selecting a new outfit for the day’s work ahead of them. It would be the last day of this long, hard trip. And in the end, she thought, we won’t even do what we’ve been trying so hard to do, not if what Stocky says about the Glove is true. What then would they do with the artifact if they gained possession of it? Would they warn Thaddeus Fly about the curse upon it, since it seemed fated that they would run into the Midnight Suns again in those forsaken ruins? She didn’t know, and as long as all of her companions stayed safe and free of injury, she didn’t care.

 

* * * *

 

As Anna and Stockholm were getting out of the bath, Thaddeus Fly and his band of Midnight Suns stomped up the snowy trail toward the mines. Several signs, each written in a different language, warned of the closed mine ahead. Nobody in the company could read the ones written in Dwarven, but Trent could decipher the signs written in the rough scrawl of the Jafts. The signs left for the blue-fleshed humanoids not only had writing on them, but little pictures of stick figures falling from cliffs, skulls and crossbones, and one picture depicting a group of lawman stick figures beating a central figure about the head with sticks with nails in them.

 

The Minotaur warnings Rage could interpret, since their language was so closely akin to that of the Greenskins as a whole. “Pass, at own, risk,” he read aloud. “Hey boss, I tink it’s dangerous around here.”

 

Fly rolled his eyes and moved ahead.

 

The company came upon the entrance to the mines a couple of hours before noon. Large wooden gates, painted gold and black to warn against entry, stood between two natural rock formations. A sign behind the gates, written in the common tongue, read, ‘This mine closed due to hazardous conditions, to include: sudden drops, instability of shafts, and dangerous, hostile creatures of unknown origin and/or nature. Thank you for staying out. This means you!’

 

Rage grabbed one of the gate doors and ripped it from its moorings, tossing it aside like so much driftwood. “Da way is clear, boss.”

 

Fly instructed everyone to take a last stock of their belongings before they entered the mines. As they set about securing their gear and pulling weapons out, or in Lain’s case, raising a few corpses from the snowdrifts and the hard packed ground, Fly took Trent and Akimaru aside.

 

“All right, you two.” He put a hand on each man’s shoulder. “You’ve both been down there before, and I recall you telling me about the freaks that guard the ruins. Remind me what we’re up against if we go down there now.”

 

Trent’s mind reeled at the memory of the multi-limbed guardian that had nearly killed him. Other monstrosities dwelled in those ruins, but this time, he wasn’t going in ignorant of them, and Akimaru was not his only reliable companion. Together, the five of them should be able to take care of business, but what if there was a whole community of the creatures down there? What then?

 

“Well, Headmaster,” the Human Ninja began. “I’ll not sugarcoat it, sir. It’s going to be horrific. The one creature I recall with any clarity nearly killed me. If not for Akimaru, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

 

Fly considered this for a moment before looking to Akimaru, the half-breed elemental and Psychic.

 

“Aki? Anything to add?”

 

“Yes, sensei,” Akimaru said. “The creature which Trent mentioned is not unique. There are likely several dozen of them down there, along with others I sensed and saw when we were in those ruins before. I took Markus-san and Solomon back to the surface, and returned there when they were away to Solomon’s home, that Markus Trent could receive healing.”

 

This was news to both Fly and Trent, and so they listened more intently to the white clad Ninja.

 

“There are wild Sidalis down there, along with the monsters that lurk about. In addition, there are men made of mecha, long since rusted over, but still dangerous to us.

 

“The mutants live and hunt in packs, though what exactly they hunt for food, I do not know. The abominations, like the one Trent and I saw, are primarily solitary creatures who lurk and stalk alone, picking at the mutants unfortunate enough to fall to them. In addition, a handful of earth elementals are holed up in one of the larger buildings.”

 

“The mecha men—” Fly was concerned more with artificial drones than with the mutants or elementals. He had little working knowledge of technology. “What did you observe about them? Are they dangerous like the other inhabitants of the underground city?”

 

“Yes, Headmaster,” Akimaru said. “They are dangerous. They hunt as well, but they seem to do it out of habit, out of nature. They use mecha weapons both carried in hand and embedded in their bodies.”

 

As soon as Akimaru said this to him, Fly realized what the Midnight Suns would have to do to survive.

 

“Everybody, make camp,” the Black Draconus said. “We’re going to wait here for a while.”

 

Rage and Lain made no sign of surprise, and made a basic camp along with Akimaru and Trent.

 

When they were settled in, Fly sat in the snow and waited. Norman Adwar, he thought, would be a great addition to the excursion. “We wait for William Deus and the Hoods. We keep the truce, and we work together to find Evergreen. We can use their muscle and their unique skills. Above all, we can use a distraction for the mutants and monsters,” he said.

 

* * * *

 

When Flint reported that he could see campfire smoke, Anna knew that Thaddeus Fly waited for her. The Black Draconus Ninja would want Anna and the Hoods along for the ride as well. She was all too happy to agree—for the time being.

 

“You want I should send up a white flag, William?” Flint asked. “You know, the whole ‘we come in peace’ thing?”

 

“No, Flint, that won’t be necessary. If he’s waiting for us, Fly has serious doubts about the safety of entering the ruins alone. We’ll help the Suns out as far as we can, or as far as we dare. Remember, we’re both after the same thing here.” She addressed everyone in the group. “Help keep each other safe, but by no means let one of the Suns get his hands on the Glove first. We’ll find Evergreen and cut her hand off if it’s required. But we’ll not let Fly have it.  No curse is going to rid us of them, damn it!  We’ll run them out of Desanadron ourselves.

 

Mutters of agreement rose from the Hoods and Lee Toren, and the company continued up the path in the face of the falling snow.

 

Forty minutes later, at sharp incline in the path, they veered slightly right and came within eye- and earshot of the Midnight Suns.

 

Fly’s company sat in a loose semi-circle, a few undead Minotaurs and Dwarves milling about under Lain McNealy’s command.

 

Anna saw the Headmaster’s broad back, and when the white clad Ninja, Akimaru, pointed in her direction, Fly rose and turned to face them, one empty hand up in the air. “Hail and well met,” he called to the Hoods.

 

“Hail and well met.” Anna sprinted ahead of the group, her feet slipping and sloshing about in the fresh fallen snow. She finally made her way up to Fly, sucking air. The mountains were no good for her lungs, she decided, no good at all. She learned over the last few days how the Dwarves, such stout fellows all, could be such good marathon runners out in the plains and forests of Tamalaria. When you worked for most of your life in a region like this, it did wonders for your stamina. “So, what’s the situation?” she asked.

 

“We aren’t entirely certain,” Fly said. “We decided to wait for you and yours,” he said, nodding at the Hoods as they gathered up behind Anna. “In particular, we’ve been waiting for Norman Adwar, so we could ask him a few questions.”

 

This caught Anna’s interest, and she beckoned the Gnome Engineer forward with a wave of her hand.

 

Looking abashed, Norm waddled up through the deepening snow.

 

Fly gave him a perfunctory bow of respect. “Good Master Adwar.”

 

“Um, yeah, hullo there,” Norm said. “Uh, what exactly do you need me for? I’m just an Engineer.” His left hand patting the heavy metal object tucked into his waistband, reassuring himself that it was still there.

 

“Akimaru, come here,” Fly said.

 

The white clad half-breed stood and stalked over, the soles of his boots never sinking beneath the powder. He stood next to his sensei, his hands hanging loosely at his sides.

 

“Describe to master Adwar here the mecha men you spied in the ruins on your previous trip here.”

 

“You’ve been here before?” Anna’s suspicions of Fly’s motives grew. If he already had an idea of what was down in the ruins, why wait for the Hoods? Could the beings lurking down there be that dangerous?

 

“Yes, I have been here before, along with Markus Trent,” Akimaru said flatly. “I have laid eyes upon more of the inhabitants of the underground city.” Akimaru turned his focus on Norman, who shivered when he saw those frosted, glassy eyes.

 

If he turned on his Identifier, he wondered, what would the readout display say? Or would the device simply implode in on itself?

 

“Master Adwar,” Akimaru said, “there are men who are composed of machinery down in the ruins, armed with mecha weapons that they both carry, and have as parts of their body. I spied no flesh on their bodies, though I could not get close enough to be certain.”

 

Norm’s memory flooded through his mind’s eye—lines and lines of text from ancient technology guides he’d read over the years laying before his mind. Portraits of technology of the Third and Fourth Age scrolled past, dozens, scores of them, and he had to shut his eyes to bring the images into full focus.

 

Two groups waited silently while Norm considered the newest batch of images in his head.

 

Heads, he thought suddenly, that’s the ticket. “The heads, Akimaru, what did they look like?”

 

The half-breed considered this for only a second.

 

“Their heads were shaped like curved tubes. Like the metal items they fire from their carried weapons,” he said.

 

“Bullets,” Norm said. “The heads are shaped like bullets. Okay. I think I remember seeing one of those in a workshop in Palen.” He drew out his pad of paper, and did a swift, crude sketch of the mechanical man he’d seen. “This looks like crud. Any artistic talent, Aki me boy?”

 

Instead of answering, Akimaru brushed gently past the Engineer and over to Styge, who was finishing his drawing’s last minute detail. Akimaru ripped the pad from Styge’s hand, turned it over to a blank page, and handed it back.

 

When Styge had his hands on the pad again, Akimaru clutched the old man’s shoulders gently, and sent the image of the mechanical men to Styge’s mind directly.

 

There came a flurry of pencil strokes.

 

After only a handful of minutes passed, Styge handed the finished drawing to Akimaru, who returned to Anna and Norman, holding the torn sheet to them.

 

“This is what I saw, master Adwar. By the way, Master Styge, very nice work you do here.”

 

Styge gave him his gap-toothed smile, and rubbed his Mohawk roughly.

 

“Yup, that’s as I guessed.” Norman took the picture. “It’s an old model of security droid.” He dropped the obscure word into his sentence as though anyone would know it aside from him and Stockholm. “From the middle of the Third Age, I’d wager. They’re equipped with a long-lasting battery that only powers their bodies when a warm-blooded creature comes within three hundred yards,” he said. “If they’ve been moving around at all like you say, Akimaru, they haven’t got but a few years left in the ol’ fuel cells. Course, that’s a little beyond the scope of our time frame, isn’t it?”

 

Anna, Fly and Akimaru said nothing in reply.

 

“Of course. Now, here’s how we go about dealing with them,” Norman said.

 

The entire group, Hoods and Midnight Suns alike, gathered around the Gnome Engineer.

 

“Don’t forget there’s other things down there to worry about, Norm ol’ chum,” Lee advised.

 

“I haven’t forgotten,” Norm spat irritably. “Now listen.” He pointed fixedly at the drawing. His finger rested on the stomach of the machine drawn on the paper. “This here is where the battery is housed. A direct blow to the chassis will dislodge the battery and take them out of commission.”

 

“Simple as that?” Flint was frankly surprised that anything technology related could be so easy to deal with.

 

“Should be.” Norm’s voice slightly clouded with doubt. “There’s another model, came out not too long after the first run of these, that had a sturdier battery housing inside. A simple blow to the stomach wasn’t enough with them. You had to shatter the housing completely to shut them down. Just bear in mind, though, that these things may be rusted and old, but they’re bound to still be deadly accurate.”

 

“Wait a minute,” Fly said, raising a finger. “You said they react to anything warm blooded, right?”

 

Norman nodded, a smile alighting his face when he realized what Fly was about to suggest.

 

“Not a problem then. I’m cold blooded, as I’m sure Akimaru is,” he said, to which the half-breed nodded. “We’ll personally deal with the mecha men then. Will they even detect us?”

 

“Nope,” Norm said. “They only react to warm blooded threats, like I said. Their targeting systems were developed by the Dwarves during their Third Age border skirmishes with wild Minotaur tribes. You two won’t even register.”

 

That much at least settled, the group looked to Akimaru concerning the other creatures in the ruins.

 

“The many-limbed creatures of black flesh showed little fear of magic and are immensely powerful, physically. However, they are slow, as their legs are very stout. Swift maneuvers, hit and run, will work best. As for the mutants, I cannot say what tactics would work best. They will, as a result, be our largest problem.”

 

With nothing more to hold council over, the ensemble from Desanadron headed into the mines, uncertain of how many of their members would come back to the surface alive.

 

* * * *

 

The Guild members stood crowded together atop the steep cliff that dropped down to the outskirts of the buried city and took in their surroundings with true awe. Other than Akimaru and Trent, had never seen such an enormous unpopulated area, or buildings so tall.

 

Even Lee Toren, who’d seen an amazing sight or two in his time, sucked in air through his teeth and whistled, the sound echoing out over the city. “That’s some scenery, eh? Now, how the hell do we get down from here?”

 

Lain McNealy moved back into the mineshaft, summoning a few agents with her.

 

When there was enough room on the ledge to move about, Lain sent several of her zombies through, giving them orders with words lost to the majority of lands.

 

The Minotaur and Dwarven corpses shuffled toward the lip of the ledge, and crouched.

 

One large Minotaur, only a few weeks dead from the look of him, clung to the ledge. Another Minotaur cadaver climbed down and grasped its ankles. On and on this went, with Lain summoning up more corpses from the mineshaft itself to join the ‘human’ chain that would serve as the group’s ladder.

 

Anna eyeballed the horrific structure critically, and asked Lain if it would hold Rage or Stockholm’s weight.

 

“Certainly,” Lain replied. “When a person is dead, their arms don’t get tired.”

 

Twenty minutes later, the proof was in the pudding as they say, as the Orc descended the ladder of corpses to the floor of the ruins. Stockholm didn’t bother with the ladder, opting instead to leap from several hundred feet up. He landed in a crouch, thudding against the ground with a discernable tremor.

 

“Real subtle there big fellah,” Flint moaned. “Nobody in this creepy cavern’s gonna notice a huge Red Tribe Werewolf leaping out of the sky. Dolt,” he added, trying to keep his voice inaudible.

 

Stockholm, though, clouted him one upside his head.

 

Flint rubbed his head, and tuned up his hearing. Something was breathing heavily, and not too far away. “Heads up and eyes open, folks, I hear trouble.”

 

The two groups spread out, the Hoods keeping to the north of the main road heading into the city while the Suns took the south.

 

They stayed roughly twenty-five yards apart, all brandishing what weapons they had on hand.

 

Anna looked over at Norman. “Um, Norm? What is that?” She indicated his weapon.

 

“Oh, this?” Norm gave a satisfied smile. “It’s called a revolver. Forty-four caliber. Packs one hell of a kick, but I made a few adjustments to compensate for recoil.”

 

His words were all gibberish so far as she could tell, but he seemed pleased, and she knew from the sound of it that it was a weapon. That was good enough.

 

The first monstrosity leaped from around the corner of the first building they approached.

 

Huge and lumbering, it stampeded toward the Midnight Suns, loosing a horrid battle cry as it charged.

 

Trent, his memories of the monster’s kinsmen resurfacing, searched for the crimson eyes that would be found in its upper torso.

 

He spotted them, wide and bloodthirsty, pathetic almost in their primal need and hurled three shuriken in rapid succession, striking the eyes with deadly accuracy.

 

The lumbering behemoth went down in a twitching heap, grappling at its impaled eyes and shrieking its final death throes.

 

Anna’s spine stiffened at the sight of the beast, all muscle and sinew stretched as tall as she and as broad as Stockholm or Rage. A shiver ran the course of her body, and she set her focus forward now, making certain to sweep the interiors of the buildings they passed.

 

None of the structures seemed unstable at a passing glance, but with her usual eye for detail, Anna saw the signs of decay. Crumbling bricks, loose molding, and strange, thick roots wrapping around the foundations of the smaller structures. These telltale signs informed Anna that this marvelous, forgotten metropolis would be nothing but mortar and dust in a few decades.

 

Up ahead, she spotted Lee Toren ducking into what appeared to be a storefront. “Flint, go retrieve our wayward hired hand,” she called to the Wererat, who saluted and sprinted into the shop after the Pickpocket.

 

The interior of the store was littered with a thick layer of dust, dozens, perhaps hundreds of old cobwebs, and the footprints of Lee Toren. The Gnome stood before a shelving unit caked with dirt and grime. Something shiny must have caught Lee’s eyes, because the Pickpocket stared vacantly.

 

“Oi, what have you found, Lee?” Flint asked a second before he pulled the Pickpocket back from certain death.

 

A thick, winged serpent slithered before the Wererat and Gnome, and Flint barely tugged Lee out of the path of its venomous fangs.

 

Flint was about to stab the creature in the head when it turned its gaze upon him. His arms went slack at his sides, and only Lee’s quick recovery saved Flint from the fate he’d prevented the Pickpocket from suffering.

 

The Gnome struck the serpent through the head with one of his daggers, pinning it to the floor as it thrashed under his hand. When the creature fell still, Lee pulled his weapon out, and looked Flint up and down.

 

“Sorry about putting you through that.” Lee shook his head. “I just glanced in and that thing had me, mind and all. We really have to tread lightly…. Hey, what’s this?” He plucked up an object from the shelf, turning it over in his hand this way and that. “Any ideas?”

 

He handed the object to Flint, who sniffed it a moment, and then turned it this way and that. It was a thin, rectangular container of some sort, with something rattling around inside. He grasped the edge of the container, and it opened with ease, revealing a shining, circular disk. The words ‘The Roving Tramps’ were imprinted on the disk like a declaration.

 

“No idea,” Flint said, tossing the container and its disk aside without interest. “Come on, we’re wasting time here. Remember, we’re not treasure hunting, Lee. We have a purpose.”

 

“Oh, yeah, I forgot, we’re down here in these godsforsaken ruins, looking for a woman who can make herself totally undetectable. Sorry for being greedy.”

 

Anna and the rest of the Hoods stood outside, arms folded with looks of disapproval. They continued on down the main avenue in silence, keeping themselves razor sharp.

 

The two groups pulled slightly tighter together as they went, the buildings crowding in around them. Harsh barks and growls sounded around them, the denizens of the city coming out of their hiding places to look at these new intruders, or as most of them thought of the mixed companies, meals.

 

Only two miles away, atop a three-story building labeled ‘Chet’s Hardware’, Teresa Evergreen looked at the sudden activity down the avenue. Her pursuers had come for her.

 

Ten minutes passed, and the Midnight Suns and Hoods made little progress, trying to stay well away from any open buildings and resisting the urge to branch out onto intersecting streets. “This is taking too long,” Fly called over to Anna, who simply nodded. “We need to find the woman quickly, before our hosts decide to take action against us en masse.”

 

“I agree, but we have little choice. We don’t exactly know how we’re going to find her.” Anna stopped in her tracks, and all of her agents, with the exception of Norman, followed suit.

 

The Gnome Engineer was using another of his gadgets, staring at it as he crept along with the revolver in his right hand.

 

“Two streets south of us, we’ve got droids.” Norman finally came to a halt twenty yards beyond Anna.

 

Stockholm stiffened, his nostrils flaring haywire.

 

“Fly, Aki, you two want to,,,” Norm got no further as a mutant crashed through the window of a nearby residence, flying at Norman with one long, leathery arm extended.

 

“Norman, no!” Stockholm gauged the speed of the creature and his own movements, terror ripping through his heart as he concluded that Norman would be flayed alive before he could intercept the wild Sidalis.

 

Its entire body was ropy and thrashing with anticipation, its flat, board-like face a mask of hideous boils that swelled as it closed on Norman Adwar.

 

Norman, either out of fear or instinctive reflex, brought the barrel of his revolver up, aiming straight at the creature’s face, and pulled the trigger twice.

 

Two hollow, booming reports echoed through the cavern ruins as gaping, bloody holes tore open in the mutant’s face. It fell mere inches short of Norman, twitching and its head bleeding. A smoldering, bloody mess decorated the back of its skull as brain matter sizzled and popped around the wound.

 

Norman vomited explosively, much more than he had after beating on Lee Toren in Ja-Wen, the foul reek of his stomach’s contents filling the air as they splashed over the back of the dead mutant.

 

“Well played, Norm, well played,” Flint said, rushing past the stunned Stockholm to pat Norm on the back, which triggered another burst of vomit.

 

“Come now, it’s not so bad. It was you or him, right?”

 

Hands on knees, crouched over to stay on his feet, Norman Adwar nodded a very little bit.

 

The reports of the firearm had scared off most of the group’s visitors, and Fly and Akimaru took full advantage of this, acting on Norman’s previous statement and moving toward the droids south of their position.

 

When they came upon a group of six rusted mecha men shuffling aimlessly about, the two Ninjas stabbed them in their frail stomach chassis.

 

With whirs and buzzing noises, they fell limply to the ground, their artificial lives snuffed.

 

The Ninjas returned to the larger group, and everyone seemed to take in a large sigh of relief.

 

“Well, that’s dealt with,” Anna said.

 

She had no idea what was about to fall upon them, and neither did anyone else, perhaps excepting of Akimaru. The half-breed knew all too well the sound of the creature that bellowed from the far end of the city. It was the primary reason he had ceased his exploration of the ruins. Despite his considerable powers and skills, he would never be able to defeat that particular foe.

 

The true Guardian of the underground city had awakened.

 

* * * *

 

Teresa Evergreen heard the reports of the Gnome’s revolver, and knew that the mixed company of Hoods and Midnight Suns would make swift progress now that most of the city’s inhabitants were scared off.

 

Having the advantage of freedom of movement, she took off west, toward the far end of the city.

 

Teresa explored the ruins when she had first arrived. At the far end of the city, several miles from the ledge that led back to the ruins, she had found a creature that could only be described one way. It was Death given a host body and a license to dispense of the pleasantry of waiting for a mortal’s true end. The construct appeared to be a Half-Giant, grafted here and there with dozens of mecha implements and armed to the teeth with gigantic weapons.

 

An aura of magic hung about the construct, though Evergreen had never met a Giant that could perform spells of any kind. It stood stock still in some sort of constraints set into the wall of the iron cage that enclosed it.

 

A lever set into the wall next to it drew her attention, and when she flipped it down, the construct’s eyes flew open, and the constraints retracted into the wall, releasing the Guardian. It stretched its massive arms and legs slowly, laboriously, and groaned. Yet beyond this, it made no move.

 

The construct’s left arm, she saw as she stood beside it, was encased in an artificial housing of some sort, with the words ‘Technos Corporation Unit D-4’ stamped into the metal. That housing, she realized, was where the flow of magic was coming from.

 

Artificial magic, she thought. How fascinating the era this thing was from must have been.

 

When the creature let out a low, rumbling moan, she felt a little pang of fear. When it roared like a one-man army, she nearly urinated in her pants. The Guardian sensed a threat, and marched off to meet it, breaking down the cage wall in front of it by simply walking into it. Teresa Evergreen smiled despite her fear. She’d like to see her pursuers get past this monstrosity.

 

* * * *

 

When the nearby mutants and beasts fled in a panic, Fly, Anna, and every other agent with them knew they were in deep shit. If the freakish inhabitants were afraid of whatever was coming down the main road toward them, they didn’t stand a chance.

 

“Options, everybody,” Anna shouted as the ground beneath them rippled with tremors.

 

“Scatter and run like all get out,” Lee Toren shouted above the din of stalactites in the cavern ceiling falling all around them.

 

This was exactly what they did, with Akimaru lagging a little behind with Stockholm and Rage.

 

The three of them served as a rearguard until a huge chunk of the cavern ceiling came down in front of them, severing them from the others.

 

Anna turned back and shouted for them.

 

“Go on ahead,” Stockholm called back. “We’ll find a way around.” He turned to Rage and Akimaru. “All right, gentlemen. We can either go around and find the others, or we can stand here and fight whatever it is that’s going to be bearing down on us.”

 

“I vote we run,” Akimaru said without hesitation.

 

Stockholm peered into the half-breed’s eyes, and saw genuine terror. If a creature such as Akimaru was worried, then he should be too.

 

“All right, point taken. You’ve seen it before, haven’t you?”

 

Akimaru nodded hurriedly, and led the trio down a side street. Rage plunged a heavy fist into the face of one of the monstrosities that had first threatened the company, or at least one of its kinsmen, breaking its face and sending it flying ahead of him. As it fell heavily to the cavern floor, he ran over it, crushing several vital organs under his sheer weight.

 

“Nice, very nice,” Stockholm commented as he took in labored breaths.

 

“T’anks,” Rage replied.

 

The trio turned again, running up a road parallel to the main road. After a few minutes they made their way back to the main company, who had only moved about a hundred yards back toward the city’s entrance.

 

They’d gathered in a circle around Styge, who Stockholm saw was seated on the ground, chanting and waving his hands in mysterious motions.

 

“What’s de old guy doing?” Rage inquired.

 

“The only thing that matters right now,” Stockholm said with a wicked, murderous smile. He looked at Rage and put a heavy hand on his shoulder companionably. “He’s saving our asses.”

 

* * * *

 

As soon as the company separated from Stockholm, Akimaru and Rage, the others ran up the street a little way, and waited for their safe.

 

Styge took an immediate seat, pulling out his sketchbook, and the others l watched as the denizens of the ruins came flying at them from all directions. They appeared to be set on getting one last meal before going into hiding from whatever creature scared them so badly.

 

Flint, Fly, Trent and Lee Toren defended them, knives and shuriken flying with deadly accuracy.

 

Norman fired into the oncoming assailants seemingly at random.

 

His shots weren’t, however, as random as they appeared—several more mecha soldiers had come lumbering from their hidden posts, and he took them down as priority number one.

 

The mutants of the ruins were wild and unskilled at the use of their powers, and so they came bodily at the company—they could be dealt with by the others. The mecha men acted purely on programming, and had to be put down quickly.

 

Anna had little battle prowess, and backed herself up against Lain McNealy, who was reviving fallen mutants and monsters as soon as they perished from their wounds.

 

It was a stalemate at best, but everyone knew they had to protect Styge. The old man was up to something, and from the sound of the words escaping his mouth and the hand motions he was making over his drawing of the Blue Dragon, it was something on a scale beyond grand.

 

The last of their assailants scattered as another bellow from the Guardian sent shockwaves through the air and ground.

 

Anna looked south, and saw Stockholm, Rage and Akimaru running toward them, rejoining the group just in time to be of no help.

 

Flint, who had suffered a few scrapes and cuts, was breathing heavily as Stockholm approached. “Fat lot of good you did,” he mocked, smiling at the Red Tribesman. “I know you and Akimaru could both have jumped over that boulder in the road.”

 

“True enough, but we weren’t about to leave Rage behind.” Stockholm looked not at Flint but at Styge. “He’s really going to manifest a Blue Dragon in here, isn’t he?”

 

Flint merely nodded, and sank down to one knee.

 

“Flint, are you all right?”

 

“I think one of those buggers had venom.” The Wererat held his left arm up for Stockholm to inspect.

 

Sure enough, one of the slash wounds had swelled up and turned a bright, vibrant orange.

 

“It won’t kill me, but it’s going to be hell going to the bathroom I think, ha ha.” He dropped his rear end on the ground.

 

The entire company as a whole looked up then, responding to another loud, ominous growl from directly above them.

 

A Blue Dragon hovered in the air, snarling violently as it floated westward, down the road toward the city’s Guardian.

 

* * * *

 

Teresa told herself to stay put. However, curiosity was a hard thing to conquer, and she wanted to leave nothing to chance. If the Hoods and Midnight Suns managed to steal a victory over the construct, she could slip past them while they licked their collective wounds.

 

Up the main road she sprinted, barely able to keep stride with the Half-Giant.

 

A few miles later, she spied the Blue Dragon, snarling and snapping at the air, shimmer into existence.

 

“Styge,” she whispered aloud.

 

In her surprise, she let her cover slip for just a moment.

 

The Half-Giant construct wheeled on her with uncanny speed, raising the artificial left arm toward her.

 

“No, wait, I’m not what you’re after! Look, look at that Dragon.”

 

A burst of lightning force erupted from the end of the mecha arm, ripping through her body, sending currents of force and agony through her muscles, her bones, her very soul. She tried to cry out, but found her lungs melted to liquid in her chest. The construct stood still for a moment, its face devoid of any emotion or interest.

 

As Teresa Evergreen fell dead to the ground, the construct loomed over her a moment, and spoke its first words in over a millennium. “Target neutralized,” it said in a half humanoid, half mechanical voice.

 

It turned back toward the east, and stomped steadily down the road, the Blue Dragon coming into full view now.

 

“Target acquired.”

 

* * * *

 

Flint slapped Styge’s cheek, shook him by the shoulders, and hollered in his face.

 

Nothing worked—and Styge remained motionless on the cavern floor.

 

Though the Wererat didn’t know it, Styge was still very much alive and awake. The continued physical existence of the Blue Dragon took a large toll on Styge, but it was a price he could afford to pay—for now. Too long at it, though, and it would be lights out, permanently.

 

The Blue Dragon floated downward toward the ground and its oncoming attacker.

 

The construct Guardian pounded forth, bound to the restraints of gravity despite its full complement of otherworldly powers.

 

As the two colossal opponents closed on one another, the Blue Dragon brought swirling lightning to bear, and the construct aimed its mechanical left arm at the Dragon’s zig-zagging chest and underbelly.

 

The Blue Dragon, as a creature purely of Illusion magic and only temporary physical presence, didn’t have to wait as long to summon its power as a real Blue Dragon would. A bright starburst of power erupted with a thunderclap from its throat, searing into the Guardian’s chest, hurling it back through the air.

 

“I could have done that,” Fly said without much enthusiasm.

 

With their feared Guardian locked in combat with a Dragon, the city’s freakish residents felt safe enough to explore out into the streets to see who would live, and whether or not their earlier prospective meals had left the ruins. Seeing that they hadn’t, several abominations made their way toward the company, who turned to face them.

 

From having squared off with one another on many occasions, the Hoods and Midnight Suns moved around one another with a strangely fluid grace, agents from one Guild aiding those of the other with expertly times cooperative attacks.

 

Norman’s revolver ran out of ammunition, and he fell back toward Styge so that he could reload.

 

Anna stepped into his place, pulling her short sword and deftly dodging and rolling aside from the multiple heavy limbs of the mutants, monsters and hybrid animals.

 

She struck out at them where she could, but she was getting winded again, and wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace for too long.

 

Norman returned to her side, his revolver cracking off reports even louder than the Blue Dragon’s breath weapon, sending bullets tearing through the creatures’ heads and chests.

 

He wasn’t exactly a marksman, but Norman had found his niche all right, she thought.

 

Akimaru sprayed shards of ice at the oncoming assailants, and tapped a few on the forehead with his bare hands. Those unfortunate few didn’t even live long enough to feel their heads burst apart when Rage or Stockholm took their cue from the white clad Ninja and punched or kicked through the skulls that had become cold as ice, and as fragile as glass.

 

These three, of all of those assembled, worked together with the seemingly least amount of forethought or effort. The battlefield was the kingdom to which each had been born, the closed fist was their scepter, the body count their proof of heritage. The only crowns upon their heads were Stockholm’s matted, bloody fur, Akimaru’s ice spikes covered by his mask, and Rage’s thick sheets of sweat.

 

Flint, Norman and Anna moved with similar grace, though they had Markus Trent alongside them. While Anna wasn’t very skilled at melee or missile combat, she was a Rogue, and knew a thing or two about dirty fighting—which Trent and Flint were all about.

 

Kicks aimed at what they thought, and often rightly so, were genitals. One of them led a freak away from the others while Trent sneaked up behind it and slit its throat.

 

Norman was able to use these loosely formed tactics to reload when he needed to, and thankfully, he’d brought a whole load of bullets along for the trip, in case the revolver worked. If it hadn’t, he’d probably be dead by now.

 

Fly worked in conjunction with Lain’s many undead servants, nearly two dozen of whom she had summoned from the corpse ladder that would let them out of the city. Accompanied by the falling mutants and monsters, these lurking, shambling combatants served mostly as decoys, but a few were very freshly dead, and more than worthy allies under her command.

 

Together they cut down a large number of the residents of the ruins.

 

Styge, meanwhile, stayed focused on keeping the Blue Dragon image solid. He only had a few minutes left to work with.

 

Whatever the Guardian was, it was terrifying, going blow for blow with the Blue Dragon. When Styge floated the Dragon over it, seemingly out of reach, the Half-Giant grabbed large chunks of debris from the fallen stalactites around him, and hurled it into the chest or broad side of the illusion made real.

 

The Blue Dragon would fan a little, wisps of smoke billowing out from around its mostly ethereal body as Styge prepared it for another gust of lightning, letting it circle a little of its own free will.

 

The Blue Dragon swooped down sharply at the construct, releasing its thundering fury full force into the Guardian’s upper body.

 

It flew not straight back, but down to the packed granite floor.

 

Styge motioned the Dragon down atop it, and could feel the construct’s ragged breathing beneath the hard scaled talons of the blue reptile.

 

Perhaps he could defeat it after all. Wouldn’t that just beat all, he thought.

 

The Guardian had other ideas, however. It jerked to the right, grabbing the Dragon by the throat.

 

Styge’s drawing, while beautiful, had been too entirely accurate—Blue Dragons were among the smallest of the legendary wyrms, and the construct’s enormous hands clamped fully around its throat, squeezing down suddenly and violently on its windpipe.

 

With an audible snap and moan, the image of the Blue Dragon shimmered into nothingness.

 

The construct looked around, confusion clearly reflected in its analytical face.

 

This apparently did not compute, or something like that, Norman observed as he fired off his last round in his current load.

 

The Half-Giant came at the group again as their straggling assailants fled.

 

“Scatter and retreat,” Anna called out.

 

Apparently, though, there wasn’t too much of a hurry.

 

After a few hurried steps, the Guardian stumbled, severely injured by the Blue Dragon.

 

Stockholm slung the old Illusionist over one shoulder and was making away with him, but the Red Tribesman looked over his shoulder at the Guardian.

 

It had halted a dozen yards away from Lain McNealy and Thaddeus Fly, and slowly pointed its mecha arm at them.

 

Black fire belched out at them, and both Headmaster and Necromancer fell to the ground screaming and on fire.

 

“Come on,” Flint tried to tear Anna away from the scene of carnage, but she would not be budged—not this time.

 

Every reasonable synapse in her mind beat on her to turn, take the Wererat’s advice, leave this tomb of death and freaks. But she cannot—not so long as those two still screamed, because that means they’re still alive.

 

“You want to save them, don’t you?” Flint was incredulous.

 

“I’ll draw its attention,” Anna said.

 

Flint pointed with one long, narrow finger at the changing scene.

 

Akimaru was wrapping Rage’s right hand with a thick layer of mystic ice as the Orc Berserker waited patiently, showing no signs of discomfort or pain.

 

Meanwhile, Trent danced around like a jester, keeping the Guardian busy with his feints and lunges. The Human Ninja even landed a few shallow stabs to the creature’s legs.

 

Anna watched in fascinated horror as the plan struck her mind’s eye.

 

The scene in her head played out only a few seconds ahead of the physical events, and it went something like this.

 

Rage, right hand covered with magical frost and ice, lumbered toward the Guardian as it wheeled about, trying to get Trent in the sights of the mecha weapon on its left arm.

 

As Trent slowed, he back-flipped high over Rage, who roared as loudly as the construct, thrusting his fist into the end of the barrel arm of the construct.

 

A huge conflagration and a wave of concussion force sent everybody, including Lee Toren, sprawling to the ground.

 

And what has everyone’s favorite wise-ass, amoral and cravenly Pickpocket been doing since the battle between the Guardian and the Blue Dragon had begun? Just what he had always done best.

 

He secured the object the Hoods had hired him to help them seek out, and waited atop the ledge leading into/out of the ruins.

 

The Glove of Shadows hung loosely tucked into a vest pocket as he sat and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it as the concussion wave struck the entire city.

 

* * * *

 

Smoke and dust clung to the air around them as the Hoods and Midnight Suns pulled themselves into sitting positions. The blast had blown the entire left arm off of the Guardian, they saw, looking up and west to where it lay still, looking shattered and lifeless.

 

The bloody, spent meat of the severed appendage lay only a few yards away from Rage, who was also very badly off.

 

The Orc Berserker’s face was shredded, the broad, flat green nose torn open to reveal bare nasal passages, the fleshy lid of his left eye completely ripped off. A small piece of metal shrapnel was deeply imbedded in the eye itself, and several dozen other pieces of ancient metal littered his chest and stomach. His right arm was a mess of gore, the flesh and much of the muscle burned to the raw, bleached bone. All of this Anna, Stockholm, Flint and Fly took in at a glance.

 

Akimaru and Trent had also been very close to the source of the wave of force, and had been knocked hard into nearby storefronts, the glass shattered into thousands of shards.

 

Trent, still nearly unconscious was losing the feeling in his broken left leg. Sweat and tiny tendrils of blood matted his hair to his head. Even had he been fully awake, he couldn’t have seen the carnage, because he lay in a heap behind a store counter.

 

Akimaru suffered far less injury than Markus Trent, but that was mostly due to his unique physical and magical make-up. When Rage-san had thrust his fist into the cylindrical tube at the end of the Guardian’s left arm, Akimaru had thrown up a wall of ice shielding in front of him. This barrier had absorbed the brunt of the concussion wave. However, the explosion had been too much contained fire, and Akimaru had been tossed like a twig in a tornado through the window of the shop opposite Trent, and subsequently through the wooden counter itself inside.

 

He was bruised, certainly, but not in any way broken or seriously threatened.

 

Thaddeus Fly had felt the least impact from the concussion wave, because the force of his breath weapon was so much like the force of the wave. He had only been pushed backward a dozen or so yards, and would have stayed on his feet if the Wererat hadn’t been hurled bodily into him. The two had gone down in a tangle of angry, panicked limbs, each grappling for the other’s throat, certain that they had been set upon by creatures of the ruins again.

 

When they had one another by the windpipe, they looked into one another’s eyes, and shared a silent laugh.

 

Stockholm had experienced a brief moment of clarity just before the explosion. He had grabbed Norman Adwar and tucked him against his broad chest, crouching forward and keeping his back to the oncoming blast.

 

The two Hoods flew through the air, Stockholm letting his body go limp at the precise moment of the strike, and tensing up again as Norman shrieked like a banshee in his arms.

 

Stockholm managed a nearly impossible mid-air turn, and landed heavily on his back, with Norman safely propped seated on his stomach.

 

“Get, off,” was all the Red Tribesman managed after recovering his senses.

 

Lain McNealy had been completely taken by surprise by the concussion wave. Thankfully for her, her undead minions had stood before her in a line of sacrificial lambs. She had only been knocked a few feet, and was dusting herself off.

 

When she looked over at Rage, she let out a high-pitched, horrified moan of fear. “Rage! No, Rage.” She flew to his side and knelt next to him. “Say something, green meanie, tell me how you feel.”

 

Anna stood next to Lain, and placed a consoling hand on her shoulder.

 

Lain didn’t object, but didn’t pay much heed either.

 

Rage’s lips pursed suddenly, and he coughed, a harsh, strangled noise. “I feel like boigra, teacher,” he muttered through bloody lips. “Can I skip class today? I t’ink dat’s only fair.” He tried to sit up.

 

Fly joined them, as did Flint, Norman, Stockholm and finally, Akimaru and Trent, the white clad Ninja supporting Trent under the arm like a walking crutch.

 

As they all gathered around Rage, who had now successfully sat up, they heard another low, primal roar issue from the Guardian.

 

“Oh shut it.” Norman lanced his gun hand out to his right and pulling the trigger four times in rapid sequence.

 

Four ragged flaps of flesh burst apart in the Guardian’s forehead. To conclude the ordeal, Stockholm leaped through the air and landed with a devastating kick to the construct’s organic throat.

 

Brains blown apart, bled nearly to death, and with no more fresh oxygen coming down its windpipe, the construct fell dead as fast as it had come to life.

 

Anna looked around the company, and spotted Styge’s limp form where Stockholm had been forced to set him down in order to protect Norman Adwar. He easily could have protected them both, so why set down the old Illusionist?

 

Anna bent over Styge.

 

His eyes were wide open, and a satisfied smile graced his dry, cracked lips.

 

She guessed Stockholm’s motive for leaving him on the ground, and then took Styge’s wrist between her fingers. Her guess was confirmed—she found no trace of a pulse.

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