Earth-Bound Angels volume 1 - The Destruction

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Chapter 08: So What

26 October 2086

25 years, 4 months and 3 days since the Destruction

Maxwell swung his sword wide while steering with his left hand, round and round the machines. The IMs were befuddled, shooting everywhere, not sure if to engage them or back away. Another robot fell, and another one and another one, as Maxwell tore through their ranks.

More IMs came from in front and behind. Little by little, they closed a ring around the two survivors. Maxwell’s sword felled one, or John’s gun blew one up, and a second IM took the first’s place. The robots circled their vehicles to tighten their hold and trap the two. John craned his neck over the futuristically sleek lorries.

“All right, looks like they’re gone,” he yelled and squeezed Maxwell’s arm.

“Then we’d better skedaddle as well before these things can invite us to dinner.” Bullets plinked on his motorcycle as he made a last turn. The few hits to his person only made him flinch.

John stretched out his arm with the gun. A bright yellow beam. A short bang. The robot ranks broke for a moment, and they blasted through. He turned around and fired off a few more rounds, the recoil almost yanking off his arm. The jeeps and troop carriers blew up into fireballs of roiling smoke. The turtle cars caught smoke and died resembling Swiss cheese. “Keep the motorcycle absolutely steady for a moment. Looks like a few took off after the others.”

John held tight against Maxwell. The pursuing vehicles were almost gone into the horizon. He winced in preparation pain and fired. The beam squealed up into the air, arched, and roared to the ground. They could not even see the explosions, feeling only a low rumble. John clicked his tongue. “Drat. I did not get them all.”

The last IMs shot at them futilely from their smoking wrecks. Maxwell stole a glance over his shoulder. “Ah, don’t worry about it. They’re in your car and they’re bound to have weapons on them. They’ll be fine.”

“I hope so, I mean, it is a long way back to the basement. You did tell Serena to go back there?”

The last bullets whizzed past them, either settling in the pavement or flying off into the distance. “Of course I did! I wouldn’t forget something like that. I’m fairly certain of it.” He laughed boisterously to emphasise his own security.

“If you did not tell them, they would be likely to pull some heroic stunt and drive off.” John looked behind him. His car was long gone, but the trail was still clear to him. He creased his brow ever so slightly. “The signal scrambler is placed under the car. It would be safe from all this mayhem.”

The loneliness of the wilderness pressed down on them, and Maxwell’s smile faded. The landscape was arid and sandy with only palm trees and bushes growing at random, like some mad architect had scattered them about. “I knew this mission would end badly.” He sped up the bike to vent some steam. Sand blew out of the way. “And it’s all because of that damned radio woman! She planned for this, to lure us out.”

“This ambush was not planned by Amber Summer. It is far more likely that Thorne discovered us from satellite imagery,” John replied curtly.

Maxwell slammed his fist into the handlebar and nearly sent the motorcycle careening off. “Enough, John! We bet our lives and the lives of everyone on that bus, and we threw it all away. You can’t tell me after this that you still believe in her?”

“Think about it logically, Maxwell, there are still many satellites in orbit around earth. We could more easily conceal the car, but a whole bus? It was a foolish risk. I apologise for not thinking of that.” John genuinely hung his head, gun still in one hand.

“I am thinking about this logically! Why do you insist on defending her?” Maxwell’s angered voice boomed throughout the featureless waste. Several small rodents scurried out from their hiding place under rocks or bushes. “You don’t want to tell me anything and expect me to just go along and even put fifty lives on the line. That’s fine! I can trust you. But you cost those fifty lives, and I just want to know what for.”

The sky attracted John’s attention. “Maxwell...” he said in a quiet voice.

“No more excuses. Where exactly do you rank the lives of others? Above or below yourself?” He slammed the brakes on the bike. Sand sprayed everywhere as it came to a violent halt. “Tell me exactly why we believed Amber Summers, or I’m not going anywhere.”

“This is not the time for this,” John replied heatedly. Maxwell craned his neck but John kept his gaze skyward. “Will you just go already, you oaf?”

The emergence of a blocky, black helicopter growled through the skies. The M61 Vulcan mounted on its underbelly whirred to life.

“Go!”

Maxwell did not need John’s words. The motorcycle screeched back to life as the first bullets ripped the air. The belt going from the rotary cannon up into the aircraft seemed to have no end. The burst controller ensured that it wouldn’t eat through its ammunition too quickly. Forty-fifty rounds were fired at a time, pause, adjust, fire again.

“Damn, I forgot about that thing.”

The bullets splintered the pavement as Maxwell zigzagged to avoid getting hit. John waved his gun around, aiming impossible. “Hey, better that it follows us than the others. And did you forget? It has already spent all its grenades.”

“Oh yeah, and how many other weapons doesn’t that thing have?” Maxwell cried out. The noise was almost deafening.

“Well, it might be carrying some heat-seeking missiles.” Maxwell grunted at the prospect, so John hastily added: “I doubt it, though. Any more weaponry would make it too heavy for flight.”

“Gee, now I feel so much better,” Maxwell said jovially. “To think that I actually worried about that attack helicopter’s chance of killing me. Now I can finally rel–”

A single bullet penetrated his skull. Maxwell slumped across the handlebars, and the motorcycle wobbled unsteadily. John had no time to act. The helicopter switched its rounds to incendiary. The bullets ate through the motorbike’s armour as John fired off a single round. It overshot it mark widely.

The motorcycle exploded.


John sat on a rock by the side of the road. Maxwell lay on his back, staring up into the sky. His eyes blinked. He jolted up into a sitting position and looked around confused. Then he sighed deeply and fell back again.

“Looks like we should have been more careful,” was his only comment at the situation.

John stirred as well and went to the sword lodged into the ground off the road. It was cool to the touch but too heavy for John to move, even budge. Leaning up against it was the motorbike. The biggest part that he had found, at least. “So what do you think we should do now? I guess we could hike, but… it would probably be best to go back to the basement and get a car. Thorne should not be looking for us after this.” John kicked the charred fuel tank.

“Or we can just wait.” Maxwell jumped up on his feet and yanked the sword free. It became a guitar slung over his shoulder. The crispy fuel tank fell over.

“Wait? Wait for what?”

Maxwell put his hands on his hips. “Just be patient and keep your eyes peeled,” he mumbled.

The many fragments of their bike wreck were spread all over the wasteland. One by one, they faded into nothingness until only the fuel tank was left. The carbonised crust cleared up so that it shone like new. It was healing itself, just like Maxwell could.

John approached it carefully as the dents and scratches mended themselves. The beginning of the saddle formed like a scab on an infected wound. “How long is this going to take?” Ever the pragmatist, John only cared for the results. The means themselves, while intriguing, were of little consequence.

“Long enough for us to pick up where we left off.” Maxwell sat down quietly on the rock John had previously occupied. “You’re lucky. Dying always makes me mellow, so I won’t raise my voice, but I am still cross with you.”

With no other place to sit, John settled for the sandy ground and crossed his legs. “The reason that I trust Amber is… well… I knew her intimately for a short time. I was a fugitive recovery agent called Lone Wolf, and she hunted bail skippers as the Wheel of Fire. We only ever knew of each other from our handles.” John paused to lose himself in nostalgia. The motorbike behind him rattled. He shook his head. “It was never anything serious for her. Just a way to earn a bit more cash while working as a mechanic for Mattlock Industries. We only had a few moments together before she got engaged to a big project.”

“I can respect that.” Maxwell approved with a nod of his head. “A man’s love for a woman can overrule his logic. But are you telling me we risked all those lives so you could get some tail?”

An engine grew like a tumour, so spontaneously that the wreck flipped up into the air. “No, of course not, this is where it gets interesting. As fate would have it, the project was headed by my brother. Lawrence Summers. I have a different surname, and she did not even know my real name. It was only later when I was invited to birthdays and Christmases that we realised.” There was a small chuckle to his voice at the biting irony, and of the unspoken awkwardness.

“I take it Amber’s relationship with Lawrence blossomed?”

John smiled, not hearing Maxwell. “My brother is an absolutely genius, but there were no one who could build any of his crazy designs. Every engineer at Mattlock tried. My sister, well, she wasn’t smarter than them by any means, but she has a unique way of looking at things. She concentrated on individual parts instead of ever hoping to grasp the whole, or some jazz like that. Point is, she began building things for my brother.”

“That Lawrence must be really smart,” Maxwell said awed with hands in his lap. “But what sort of crazy designs are we talking about here? A death ray?”

“Something much more valuable: a device with virtually inexhaustible storage space. Virtually.” John lifted a red block, about twice the size of a good finger, up from under his shirt.

Maxwell stretched out a hand to admire it. “What would you need all that data for, anyway?”

“My brother tried saving the world’s collected information on them, to test them out. He had to use only three.” John accepted the red stick back and tucked it away again. “Then the warning came, so he gave one to me, one to Amber, and the third he sealed away.”

Maxwell looked at the hidden pendant with renewed appreciation, like someone realising he had held the Holy Grail. “Blimey. They sure don’t look like much.” He scratched his chin.

The motorcycle was taking shape. Wheels popped into re-existence at both ends of the machine. Blue paint washed over the bike with yellow stripes intersecting to form a cross. “My brother used the device to create an artificial brain so intelligent that it could predict any outcome. Sadly, I hear it grew rather cynical. But nothing is ever so bad that it is not good for something.” The motorcycle creaked loudly as it finished shaping itself. The handlebars extended like antennas and the machine righted itself up. John took a moment to admire it. “He created the prototype of the first IM.”

Maxwell went to his motorcycle and put a hand on it. Seemingly satisfied, he nodded and put his legs around it. John followed up behind him and held on to the black backpack. “Wait, you said his name was Lawrence Summers? Wasn’t that the real name of a Bloodbath fighter called Bulldozer?”

The bike roared into life and they were back on the road. “My brother is blessed with brains and brawn in equal dimensions.” The hot desert wind blew past them, playing with John’s ponytail.

“I’d never have thought it of the guy. He was the only one to ever fight me to a draw, in the second to last fight in the second tournament of Bloodbath. Man, I will never forget that match,” Maxwell recounted, his voice laden with sweet nostalgia.

“Yeah, that fight was pretty famous… for being cancelled. Even I know that. Lawrence’s opponent never showed,” John said.

“What? No, that fight was sweet! Even the gods cried in joy. The earth trembled in exaltation. You can’t tell me no one remembers it?” he asked desperately. Lohengrinn appeared in his lap, shaking his head. He extended a hand and caressed Maxwell’s cheek.

“Maxwell? Are you all right?” John tried to look around the giant back to find the head. “I didn’t watch much Bloodbath, but maybe you remember the date wrong? My brother was a professional martial artist for over thirty years.”

“No. It’s all right. Tell me, how did he become a martial artist in the first place, if he’s such an egghead?” The sombre tone had entered his voice again. Perhaps out of sympathy, John began his tale.

22 February 2008

53 years, 4 months and 3 daysprior to the Destruction

Early evening, a study room in New York City, a young man entered. He proudly wore the colours of the LHD, just like many had worn the hues of the RAF during the World War. His unzipped outer jacket was blue with red stripes down the sleeves, and under that he wore a deep red t-shirt. Over his shoulder he carried his backpack. It was filled with books and made a heavy thud on the floor. The other people inside looked up with a jolt, having been so engrossed in their reading that they hadn’t noticed him.

Three people sat in armchairs around a coffee table. The woman with shoulder-length blonde hair smiled. “Lawrence!” she squealed and jumped up to embrace him. He was a hundred and ninety centimetres tall with well-defined musculature, so she reached no further than his abdomen, unable to touch her own hands around him. “Where were you? Didn’t we tell you we were going to start at eight?”

The first of the two other men was relatively tall in his own right, and wore a business suit that sharply set them apart. “Oh he knew. He just doesn’t care about the exam,” the man said tartly. “It’s been like that for every one of our study meetings these last few weeks. Honestly, I don’t understand why we even bother inviting him anymore.”

The second man tensed up and hid behind a thick book. Only his frilly hair stuck up. “P-please. He showed up, isn’t that enough?” The man peeked out from his book and nodded at the armchair next to him. “Let’s just continue reading.”

Lawrence, however, tightened his brows. He was not a man to let insults fly. “If you have a problem with me, I suggest you say so.” Lawrence pushed the girl aside so that she nearly tripped over her armchair. The first man slammed his book into the table with a foul glance. “But only if you don’t mind a few broken bones.”

“I’m not going to fight you, Lawrence. I will just tell you to either take your bar exam seriously or get the Hell out of here. You’ve gotten real uppity with us lately, you know that? Not all of us can be some super geniuses that fly through their education. Those of us here actually depend on studying, and on hard work, and if you can’t conform to that, then you have no business here. If you are planning on studying, then you can do it on your own.”

“Geez, what’s your problem? You think it’s easy trying to adjust to law school when you last studied in college?” The woman cut between them and glared at the business suit.

He crossed his arms and snorted, so that the frilly man retreated back behind his book. “You know what? I don’t care. It’s like this every time and then we end up never studying. I’m surprised any of us have even gotten this far.”

“Well I didn’t come here to have some daddy’s boy telling me that money will fix everything, either. Because let’s be honest, that is the ultimate point you want to make, right? That you’re so privileged and don’t deserve to hang around poor boys who can’t afford a four figure suit.”

Lawrence turned to leave, picking up his backpack. The woman looked between them and approached him, but the first man got up with fists clenched, heaving with indignation. “You really think that’s what this is about? I just want to study, but you have a stick so far up your ass your breath smells like shit.”

A roar escaped Lawrence like a veritable battle cry. He swung around and lashed out.

It was the woman who stood behind him.

She screamed as she was flung off her feet and crashed into the table. It broke under the force with a loud bang. The frilly man fell back in his armchair. The business suit nearly stumbled over his. Lawrence heaved with rage, but icy realisation quickly washed over him. Her left arm was bending the wrong way. Her wails were excruciating.

“I… I’m sorry.”

“No, I am,” she sobbed, heart hammering up in her throat. “For thinking you were any different, Lawrence, because you’re not. You’re just a bully.”

Again anger screwed up Lawrence’s face. He took a step forward but the business suit hoisted her up from the wreckage and put his arms around her. His eyes were that of a cornered animal. Lawrence stopped up. “For fuck’s sake, I told you I was sorry!”

The frilly man scooted up against the wall, shivering. The woman clung with her right hand up against the business suit to try and get up on her feet. She looked just as angry as Lawrence did. She screamed, “Get out!”

Lawrence looked ready to tear up the place. Rage on the others’ faces turned to fear. They backed away from him in the moment Lawrence took to decide. He wheeled around and punched the wall instead. Cracks spread up the concrete. Even after he was gone, the three students huddled together.

Lawrence took his moped that he had parked outside the study hall and went into the darkening New York night. He drifted aimlessly down the streets, finding the cold wind whipping against his face tempering his rage. It wasn’t fast, his moped, but he was far away from the university when he snapped back to reality.

The aroma, and especially the sights, told him that he had been going in circles the entire time. He had ended up only a few blocks away.

Music spilled out loud and obnoxiously from a nightclub. The single neon sign atop the door gave its name as The Cloth Lance, the place he always went for a drink. Everyone assumed he was above the legal drinking age with his height, and what he could use was a drink.

It wasn’t prestigious coming on a moped. They would surely tag him as a student, so Lawrence swung behind the nightclub where they kept the parking lot. His school bag he ditched in a bush. He would usually be able to salvage it later, but his careless throw suggested he wouldn’t care if it was gone.

He jumped back down on the concrete when a noise caught his interest. It was someone falling. He only gave it a cursory glance, but that was enough to reveal two figures. No, there was a third on the ground that the other two was busy kicking. For the first time, Lawrence flashed a smile that could make anyone’s blood run cold. He cracked his knuckles on reflex, though the desired sound failed to materialise.

A can of energy drink rattled away from Lawrence’s feet. They snapped their heads toward him and forgot the smaller guy. The taller of the two thugs stepped forward with a knife in hand. “This doesn’t concern you, stranger. Walk away nice and easy and you won’t get hurt.” He was cast in shadow from the broken light in the corner, but the knife he proudly boasted gleamed from the cigarette of the other man.

Lawrence did not heed threats and advanced. The two almost touched, eyes locked, daggers flowing back and forth. Lawrence smacked his head into the darkness and found the guy’s head. The thug’s face gave a sickening crunch, and the knife flew away.

“You just made a big mistake, you just did,” the other one said with a voice ruined from years of smoking. The cigarette fell from his lips. He stomped out its embers and bent down for something by his feet. “This had nothing to do with you. You only had to look the other way.”

“Yeah, but I felt in the mood to crack some skulls. Such a shame for you guys.”

The brawny man brandished an iron pipe proudly, dented from previous usage and a long relationship. He tossed the pipe from hand to hand and up into the air, showing his proficiency. Lawrence didn’t flinch, didn’t even move. The assailant raised his improvised cudgel above his head. With a yell, he charged.

Lawrence blocked the attack with his left arm and countered with his right fist, right into the man’s abdomen. The thug clutched his belly and dropped the pipe, and half his stomach, down on his own feet.

Thinking himself victorious, Lawrence moved into the darkness for the man that they had assaulted. Applause made him halt. A pair of shining gold-crowned teeth stood out from the darkness.

“You have done well to defeat my lackeys, though I wouldn’t clap myself on my back just yet. They were only ruffians I had hired so I wouldn’t have to sully my own fists on pond scum. But you? You I wouldn’t mind fighting.”

The distinctively Japanese accent belonged to an Asian fellow in a sharp suit. He loosened his tie as he stepped forward. Lawrence remained where he was. The victim on the ground writhed and his face became visible. The scraggly, middle-aged man had a pleading, apologetic look on him.

Had it been a warning, then Lawrence ignored it. He met the strange businessman halfway between the shadows and the light. “This is not your lucky day,” Lawrence said with a quiet, murderous voice. “I’m in a real bad mood.”

The Japanese stranger took strips of cloth from inside his suit and wound them around his fists. There was a satisfied gleam to his eyes. “Oh no, sir, it is you who are the unlucky.” The stranger bowed to Lawrence. “I am Mr Lee, and I own this most prestigious establishment. My honourable opponent here thought he could make a ruckus inside.”

Lawrence clenched his fist, standing as the untrained rookie that he was. “And why would I be unlucky? You don’t look that strong to me,” he said, prompting a derisive laughter from the stranger.

“Things are not always what they seem. Perhaps you recognise me? I got pretty far in the last Bloodbath tournament.”

Not even that was able to faze Lawrence, despite the serious implications behind it. Lawrence initiated with a quick fist. Mr Lee dodged it and the next five punches, flowing gracefully past his attacks to stand right in front of Lawrence. There was no time to raise his fists. Mr Lee planted a palm on Lawrence’s chest. He stared confused down at himself. Then he staggered back into the brick wall fencing the parking lot off. Mr Lee followed up with another swath of attacks before Lawrence could ever react. He slumped down the wall and landed on his belly, bewildered and dazed.

“You bring me utmost pleasure.” Mr Lee emitted a short laugh and unwrapped his hands again. “Your body, it is… so soft, and it does not bleed either. Most peculiar.”

He reached up into the darkness and screwed the bulb back in. Light flooded the little corner. He laughed again as he left for his nightclub.

For a long while, Lawrence could only lie with his face mushed against the parking lot surface, his posterior sticking straight up. The two goons were much deeper out, unlike the guy they had assailed. There was a rattle of glass bottles and beer cans as the man got up on his feet. He grumbled and wriggled with his dirty raincoat for a pack of cigarettes. “That wasn’t smart, kid. In fact, that was really dumb. But also brave, and you saved my ass, so thanks. Damn, where did it go?” The man coughed deeply and bumbled around, his trash clattering.

Slowly Lawrence righted himself but found standing up to be difficult. He leant against the wall that had served as his punishment. “What just happened?”

The man searched around the second thug’s pockets, rolling him over into his own vomit to search his shirt, finally finding a crumbled carton of cigarettes. He fished out one that still seemed usable with a minimum of sick on it. “You got strength, kid, but what you lack is focus. Aw Hell...” The man reached into his own coat pocket for a lighter but quickly retracted his hand again, bleeding and covered with lighter fluid.

The first thug groaned. Lawrence immediately kicked him in the face. “Whatever you say, old man. I’m going home. I don’t feel much like a drink anymore.” The animosity had been temporarily beaten out of Lawrence, leaving him mellow and sounding slightly depressed.

Reluctantly, the scruffy man searched the thugs for a lighter, at length giving up with a drawn-out moan. “I’d be fine if I could find a damn light. You wouldn’t happen to have one, would you? No, don’t even answer that, I have a much better question for you. Have you ever thought about learning Muay Thai? It’s like kickboxing’s bigger, meaner brother.”

“Sorry, I have enough on my plate to worry about. I need to find myself a new study group… or find some way to apologise to my previous one.”

The man halted his actions and stood, despite his unkempt appearance, like a serious man. There was wisdom and pain hidden behind his blood-shot eyes. “I was conscious for most of my beating, you know. Not everyone would have come to my assistance.” Lawrence was about to say something dismissive, but the man held up a hand. “First, let me say it properly: thank you. My name is Albert Wednesday. I saw you, kid. You have potential, but you can’t let all that fighting get pent up in you. It will just manifest at the most awkward of times.”

“You got the wrong man, pops. I’m a law student, not a streetfighter. My parents would skin me alive if I dropped out.” Lawrence hoisted both schoolbag and moped out of the bushes.

Albert put a hand on his shoulder. “Be honest with yourself, kid. There is a fighting spirit within you screaming to be let out. It’s going to tear you apart.” Lawrence ignored him and pushed his hand off. “Rumours have it there will be another Bloodbath in ‘15. I could have you ready for then. You have a real shot of winning.”

Lawrence put one leg around his steed and turned it on with keys from his jacket pocket. “I told you I’m not interested. Now leave me alone.”

Albert shoved his hands into his coat pockets for warmth. “Something happened today. I don’t know what, but it’s only going to happen again, and maybe then you won’t be so lucky to come out scot-free.” His words made Lawrence pause. He turned off the ignition again.


“A few days later we got a call from my brother. I do not know what he said, but our mom was yelling loudly. We never spoke of my brother again after that day.” John finished his story with a sigh.

Maxwell procured a roast knuckle, still steaming, from under the saddle of his motorbike. “You can tell a story pretty detailed, you know. It’s almost like you were there yourself.” He smacked audibly in his eager to comment.

“Nonsense, I was eight at that time. Seven, even; it was before my birthday. We lived in the complete opposite side of town.”

“So let’s see if I got all of this right. Your brother is the Bulldozer, trained by Wednesday himself… Those are very important things to mention, John. Here I thought you were just a bounty hunter, but now I see awesomeness runs in your blood.” Maxwell threw the cleaned bone over his shoulder.

“I am only telling you now, because it is now that it has relevance. We must go to my brother.”

“Wait, your story just ends there? What about Wednesday and Mr Lee? They were the most famous people in Bloodbath history, right up there with your brother. They fought each other in the first tournament where Mr Lee broke Wednesday’s legs in three different places!” Maxwell reached into his backpack and grabbed a beer, taking a sip before continuing. “Wednesday never fought again after that, but he trained Lawrence and later his own son into prominent fighters. Your brother in particular. He was undefeated champion for thirty-five years.”

“I am sorry, Maxwell, but I did not expect him to be relevant. He just told me to gather survivors and wait for him to take care of things, but we have no choice now. We have to go to his shelter and help out anyway we can.” John looked out into the expanse of sand, hoping to find a clue or an omen. A bird passed by far overhead.

Maxwell tapped the neck of his bottle against his lips. “You’re a very pragmatic kind of person, John, so I suppose I can’t blame you for being reticent. But if you have any other family members worth mentioning, you better tell me now,” he said seriously.

John scratched his neck. “I need to recharge for a bit,” he said and clapped Maxwell’s shoulder. “Wake me up if anything happens.”

They rode on through a town where the ruins still had walls, and in many cases roofs. The hills had once been green with grass, but only sickly-looking weed bowed in the wind. Morning became midday became evening became darkest night. With no streetlamps or car lights or neon signs, the world had been enveloped in a black blanket. Only the stars and the obscured moon provided any illumination. They stopped only once, for Maxwell to answer the call of nature. John did not look like he had even stirred from his seat from when Maxwell returned.

“How much longer? I mean, where is your brother’s shelter? We’ve been heading straight west this whole time. It must be close to Eden.”

“We are going to Los Angeles, which should not be much farther.”

“How can you tell?”

John bent down from the bike and brushed the sand away. Little straws of grass, lush and green, popped out of the ground. Once he had seen it, Maxwell realised that he could hear animals as well. The air was again spiced with the faint calls of birds and deer. There were bushes and even flowers to spot in the distance. Maxwell smiled broadly. All weariness left his body and was replaced with giddiness. He bounced back on his bike and drove on.

The weather became humid. Soon, his back and brow was thick with sweat. Seas of purple and blue flowers opened up around them. Dragonflies and mosquitos hovered over large ponds. It was like a scene taken straight from a fairy tale. “Boy, I had almost forgotten how green it is here. You think LA will be like this too?” Every time he looked to a different side, a new wonder popped up.

“I do not know, Maxwell.” John was far more worried and moved his head little. There was no more sand; just the grass under their wheels and wildlife skittering away from them. “But it would not surprise me.”

The only remnant of a road was the steel beams with signs on them. Plants covered them in a layer of green. “How much longer is it?” Maxwell asked and paused beneath it.

John reached down for a metal plate in the grass. Once it sat on top of the gate and announced the distance to destinations and nearby off-ramps. Now John had to wipe off the lichen to even glean that information. “Not long now. A few more miles.” He flicked it back over his shoulder and their ride continued with renewed speed.

Trees sprouted up out of the distance. They were few at first, spread out like a jungle grasping for the edges of the wilderness, but they quickly became dense. The crowns knit together to banish the sunlight. Vines snaked up the trunks and colourful fruits hung from the branches. In no time at all, the light was reduced to a permanent twilight.

“Well this became ominous quick. I don’t remember the forest in Eden being this, uh… creepy?” Maxwell said. All of his senses were alert and alive. His nostrils flared for the sweet, alien scents. His ears wriggled from the screeches of unknown wildlife. His eyes darted back and forth, taking in everything around him.

The trees separated and intertwined almost consciously to form a path for them. Detours were prohibited by compact bushes and large ferns. Maxwell looked back. Even the way they had come was closed off. “Guten Tag, meine Herren, you are currently trespassing on Lord Arcana’s private jungle resort. Hunters have been released to deal with the situation. Enjoy the beautiful surroundings… they will be your last.”

The sudden voice ended with a sinister cackling. Though both survivors sought the source, they were unable to locate it. The jungle itself had spoken. “Lord Arcana?” John laughed nervously. “So much for your theory, Maxwell. None of the survivors ever mentioned meeting this one.”

Maxwell’s gaze hardened as he furrowed his brow. “The power of lords is unrivalled, to be sure, but creating this jungle? Incredible.” His eyes became searching, paranoid. He had not overheard the part about hunters.

“I do not think he is lying, either. There is something is off with this whole jungle.” John kept his shades pointed straight ahead. Perhaps his eyes were closed and he was contemplating. “This might be hard to grasp, but this jungle is not of our time, nor is it of this world. Something is messing with my visual powers.”

The ground was uneven and streaked with roots. Maxwell slowed down to keep control of his vehicle. “Don’t worry about seeing, you can leave that to me. I’ve driven around jungles for the last century.” Still, it took everything Maxwell had to keep his motorcycle steady. Muscles bulged and tensed in arms and legs with each bang and bump of roots.

John took out his gun and turned around. “Is there any chance we can go faster?”

“I’m going as fast as I dare. This is a lot harder than it looks,” Maxwell replied curtly.

An oversized bird sprang out of the foliage. Its clawed wing sank into Maxwell’s left arm. Its mouth hissed at his face, showing long rows of pointy teeth. Maxwell punched it in the face out of sheer surprise. The primitive bird flopped off with a screech.

More birds popped out and gave chase. Their long tails helped them keep balance as they agilely closed the distance in no time. Another one sprang for the bike but received a prompt kick to the belly from Maxwell. John fired his gun to keep the beasts at bay. “Oh, this is an absolute atrocity,” John said in high, nasally tone as Maxwell cranked up the speed. Their ride only got bumpier and John’s shots went all over the place. “We have flora and fauna from the Triassic and the Jurassic periods, and now these little deinonychuses from the Cretaceous. Someone really ought to clean up this prehistoric park.”

“Dy-non-what?” Maxwell shouted back. One of the dinosaurs sprinted up on their side and threatened to pounce. John’s gun gave a crack and the dinosaur exploded into a ball of fire. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Ignore that,” John said in his normal voice, banging his right palm against his head. “I don’t think these things are made of flesh and blood.”

The herd behind them grew. John killed as many as he could hit, but their numbers wouldn’t decrease. John rolled the drum of his gun and fired again. The ground evaporated. The dinosaurs exploded and embers flew everywhere, but more simply took their place. “At least we can know for certain a Lord is behind this. No one else could have made this whole thing.”

The motorcycle rattled over stones and roots, heading ever in the direction planned for them. “Fascinating. Listen, I just want to get away from these dinosaurs alive, so could you perhaps keep this motorcycle a little steadier?”

“I’m trying, dammit. You just concentrate on eradicating them and I’ll concentrate on the road… shit!”

A dinosaur jumped them from the front. The bike banged into it and smacked it away. The impact nearly rattled the survivors off the road. Only an incredible exertion of strength retained Maxwell’s control, and the motorcycle carried on. “Dammit, no one told me we would have to deal with a forest that time forgot. Lords strutting about like they own the place and this unnatural landscaping… shouldn’t we Knights have been informed of Thorne’s supernatural breach?” He spat off to the side and felt a pair of hands caressing his shoulders.

They were not John’s. The bespectacled bounty hunter still did his best to keep the primitive birds away, the motorcycle kicking like a bronco beneath them. Neither was it John’s voice that softly whispered into his ears. “There are not many Knights in the Americas. They have been slow to wander from the old world.” Lohengrinn’s silky voice sighed before continuing. “We are alone in this. The few others have their own priorities to deal with. A lot more things than we can see has gone wrong.”

“What about this Lord then; what can you tell me about him? Anything will do.”

“Only thing for certain is that he made this jungle. He might even be behind the unnatural desert covering most of the North American continent. The voice that spoke to us was weaved into the trees and the air. It unsettles me. It feels like this whole jungle is him, or, perhaps more accurate, that the he is the jungle.” With those words, the presence left Maxwell.

He smiled defiantly. “We’re reaching the end of the line, John. There’s a clearing coming up.”

John took his eyes off the dinosaurs for a moment. The clearing could not have been described any better. It was a flat area devoid of trees and flowers and grass and bushes. There was only stomped dirt like a circus ring. “Why does that not calm me?”

Maxwell again increased the speed, renewed vigour flaring up in him at the sight. It became impossible for John to keep his aim. Rather than stubbornly continue shooting, he put the gun away for risk of losing it and held on for dear life with both hands around Maxwell. “Because it’s probably a trap. But anything’s got to be better than being hunted down by oversized chickens.” Maxwell leant in over the handlebars.

The dinosaurs kept behind them but made no more attacks. One by one, they sprang back out of sight. Still Maxwell went faster and faster. The clearing was only seconds away and the last dinosaur vanished. The motorcycle raced into the circle of stamped dirt.

The world around them turned upside down. It took a moment for them to realise that they had left their transportation. By then, the hard ground rushed up to greet them. It offered them no cushioning. Maxwell landed on his side and tumbled along the ground; John gliding down next to him, face first.

Maxwell staggered up instantly. His left arm dangling uselessly by his side but was warm with ecstasy. It snapped and cracked before he could even rise to his full height. Several other scratches and bruises were next until only the blood remained of the injuries.

“My sincerest apologies, John. Whatever we hit, I really didn’t see it.”

John pulled his head out of the dirt gently, so he could replace his broken shades with a spare set from inside his coat. “In your defence, we did not really hit anything.” Only then did he get up and dusted himself off.

Maxwell looked back towards the entrance. Only it was gone. Trees and bushes had closed off the circle again.

His bike stood frozen just inside the circle, not leaning up against anything and not falling down either. “Well I’ll be… You’re right. How’s it doing that?” he asked and went back to it. It was not cold to his touch. It was as warm and wet as the climate. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

“Oh ho, oh ho ho ho ho ho!” The sinister voice returned, cackling like a maniac. “Willkommen! Having survived the preliminary round, the chiselled Adonis and his black-haired friend enters the ring, like from the proverbial frying pan and into the fire.”

The two survivors looked wildly around them for a source to the sudden voice. The arena was clear of anyone but themselves. A bright flash brought their attention to the sky. A bright cloud loomed overhead. Blood dripped from its belly, vanishing like dew before any could hit the ground. It went on like that for a few more minutes until the blood cloud disappeared again. The heavens parted, and a beautiful rainbow arced across. Fire shot up in a thick plume, and a man emerged from within. A dismayed expression crossed Maxwell’s face.

Their attacker was dressed like a medieval court jester, complete with a jangling hat and a sceptre with a face resembling his own. His skin-tight tunic and trousers, in all the darkened colours of the rainbow, left nothing to the imagination. John groaned.

“To reiterate, I am Lord Arcana, the greatest magician of the nineteenth century.” He hovered above them, just out of their reach and bowed back with his girth thrust forward. “You have made the mistake of entering my kingdom where my word is law. Everything you thought impossible has become possible. For surviving act one, we will now hurry to the second one.”

Again Lord Arcana cackled and held his lean belly. John stared confused up at the spectacle. “Are you really a Lord?”

“Yes of course I am, how else do you think I pulled all this?” Lord Arcana’s face contorted with rage. Red suffused his cheeks even through the heavy makeup. “It’s… UNAPPRECIATIVE scum like you that haunted my mortal career! But fear not, I will dispel all doubts and show you why Lord Arcana is truly the greatest magician who ever lived.”

A girlish laughter rang out among the trees, making Lord Arcana snap his head to the left. There a young lady appeared from thin air. She had cropped black hair and dressed in an ancient nurse outfit like Florence Nightingale. She was of human appearance but with unnatural beauty and gifted assets. Only a flesh-coloured tail protruding from her trousers gave away her demonic nature. “Sweetie, I told you to wear your suit for first appearances. You know how important those are.”

A vein throbbed threateningly in Lord Arcana’s forehead. He tapped his fingers irritably on his cane. “Krankenfrau, how pleasant of you to join me. WHEN I NEVER SENT FOR YOU!” The cane whipped out at her. She giggled as she sprang back, out of reach. Lord Arcana again turned towards the survivors, massaging his temple. “I apologise most humbly, I have to constantly remind her of her place. Let’s just get on with it I suppose.”

A snake of fire spewed from the cane, coiling on the floor of the arena, condensing and snarling. It took a shape, growing into a biped. John and Maxwell fell back against the tree line.

Four metres tall… six metres … eight… it didn’t stop until it was twelve metres tall, balanced by a powerful tail. Green washed over its body and filled it with texture, right up to a pair of beady eyes twirling madly before stabilising. The dinosaur roared upon completion and reared its massive head towards the sky.

“Oh come on, allosauruses rarely grew to be more than eight metres tall! I will admit our knowledge is shaky, but most of the truly large ones have been attributed to other species entirely. Furthermore–” John began in the nasally voice. He made an expression like one trying to hold back an acid reflux; slanting his head and screwing up his face.

Lord Arcana stood at an angle up in the air with an angry frown and arms crossed. The sight of the dinosaur, however, thawed him and he smiled again. “My dear Klaus hasn’t been fed for so long. I think you’ll make a tasty enough morsel.” Again his cackling rang through the jungle. Like the bell at a boxing match, it stirred the allosaurus into action.

Klaus lumbered forward, flaring its nostrils and swinging its head, trying to find its prey. It looked back up at Lord Arcana who only shooed it towards the survivors. John and Maxwell split up and ran around Klaus. The dinosaur did not even need a single moment to deliberate. It stalked Maxwell instantly. The powerful tail swung from the momentum and caught John in the stomach, sending him flying off.

Maxwell grabbed his guitar tightly and smiled cockily. “I’m going to tear you up!” he said and sprinted forward, his enormous sword poised for fight. The dinosaur awkwardly waddled forward with its head bowed low and jaws wide open. Slobber fell from its mouth as it anticipated its meal. Maxwell was quicker. He slid under the loud clang of jaws closing. The sword caught it around its neck. It staggered sideways from the blow and fell to the ground, stunned. Maxwell, on the other hand, could barely hold on to the sword. The recoil almost shook it out of his fingers. “What the Hel?”

Lord Arcana’s gloating laughter filled his ears. “I forgot to mention…” he said and rested his left hand on his cheek. “Klaus is completely indestructible. Your struggling is futile.”

Finally Maxwell dropped the sword down by his feet and shook his hands. “You could have told me that earlier.” He put them up under the opposite armpits to soothe the agonising pain searing through them. “Goddamn that smarts.”

At this, however, Lord Arcana bowed forward again towards Maxwell. “You think you will learn anything from having everything explained to you?” he spat indignantly with eyes wild with fury. “No, as my papa always said, you only learn that the fire is hot if you touch it!”

John crept towards Maxwell while adjusting his shades. Maxwell picked up his sword again. “Boy, it takes nothing to set off that guy,” Maxwell whispered. The allosaurus scrambled up on its feet, shaking its head and roaring. Maxwell took a step back. “All right, I’ve got a plan. You distract that oversized lizard with your little peashooter, and I try killing it.”

“I am not sure I could, Maxwell, I have already spent a lot of energy of those deino… denoi… those smaller dinosaurs from earlier. I do not think I could even hurt the allosaurus.”

Maxwell, however, was already lunging himself at the foe. His blade crossed its thick hide. The slashes clanged dully through the jungle. John dropped his shoulders and took his gun out slowly. It sputtered like firecrackers as yellow orbs escaped the muzzle. They splashed harmlessly on the dinosaur’s skin without leaving a scratch. He bit his lip and lowered his gun. His gaze was lost in careful consideration, weighing pros and cons of various measures he could take.

The beast snapped at Maxwell, but he danced around the arena. The jaws found only the air. Back and forth about the dinosaur, trying to find a weak spot. Not the side, nor the belly. Klaus howled, enraged from Maxwell’s constant jabbing. It stomped around so that both survivors left the ground momentarily.

Though Maxwell huffed and sweated, his actions were as agile as when he started. If anything, it was the dinosaur that had gotten faster. “Is there no way to stop this thing?” he asked, starting to sound as agitated as the beast he was fighting. “I have never met a more resilient beast in my life!”

In answer to his pleas, Lohengrinn appeared on the dinosaur’s back, lounging like one would on a sofa, with a mirror in his hand for admiring himself. “Ara, the beast has an impenetrable hide. The sword, it does nothing!” He flashed his teeth and studied himself from several different angles with a broad, self-satisfied smirk. “I wonder how sturdy it is on the inside, though.”

“On the inside?” Maxwell asked curiously and stopped. Klaus snarled at him and focused its massive head on him. Realisation made him smile. He turned back towards John. “All right, I’ve got a better plan now, but you gotta trust me on this one. It might look like—”

Klaus’s jaws snapped close around Maxwell’s waist. The dinosaur lifted its head and shook Maxwell. His lower body flew off into the bushes. Sword and body and all were promptly swallowed. Blood dripped from its mouth, dissipating before hitting the ground.

“Maxwell!” John cried out painfully. Even knowing about his regenerative powers, Maxwell had just been swallowed by a dinosaur and was in the process of being digested. John, unprepared and shocked, instinctively fired his gun. They volleys aimed for the soft eyes, but Klaus simply shrugged them off.

“You just made the fatal mistake of settling my mind,” John shouted while putting his gun away. Between his empty palms, a ball of pure light gathered. “I am going to feel this one for days, but what other options do I have?”

The dinosaur growled at him and sniffed the air. It was confused, as if John smelled like an enemy but not a meal. It roared thunderously in frustration. The orb in John’s hand was still wispy and smoky, far from the condensed ball of explosion that would put an end to the dinosaur. Firing it would only waste his energy and undoubtedly leave the dinosaur with only a small burn mark.

A ball of fire sent him off his feet.

“Oho, not trying something untoward, are we? Be a good boy now and join your friend. Klaus, don’t just stand there, you dumb beast, eat this brute!”

The roars of the dinosaur turned into a howl of pain. Klaus stopped to curse at the skies. A white instrument protruded from its side. The blade forced its way sideways across the dinosaur’s belly. Embers belched from the wound like blood, and Maxwell tumbled out. His hair clung to his face, wet from sweat. The dinosaur fell to the ground with a wail, dead.

“NO! My poor little Klaus! Everything’s going to be all right, Klaus, you can still move. Hurry now, stand up!” Lord Arcana frantically floated down to his creation. Deep red light spilled out from the wound, pulsing like a heartbeat. The Lord embraced Klaus around the neck. The dinosaur rolled its eyes back and exploded with a thunderous bang. Lord Arcana shot up into the air, somersaulting several times before hitting the ground with a loud thud.

Maxwell got up, shaking, combing back his hair with a hand. “Well… that was anticlimactic,” he said and started towards Lord Arcana.

“But it looks like that opened the exits. Let us just go.” John grabbed Maxwell by the arm and nudged him towards the motorcycle.

Krankenfrau touched down in front of them and curtseyed in her heavy dress. Her naked, fleshy tail swished dully between her legs. There was a soft, black tuft of hair at the end, and a teasing smile on her lips. “My master is not going to like this. You better hurry on before he wakes up.”

Once Maxwell got to see her up close; her soft cheeks, her auburn hair and the way her large uniform somehow still accentuated her ample curves; an interested smile cracked his face. “Well now. We’re not in any hurry; we could stay a while and get better acquainted.” He made no effort to hide his eyes wandering up from her long legs and to her full lips.

She batted her eyelids alluringly at him, but John still had a tight grip around as much as he could of Maxwell’s arm. “Yes we are, Maxwell, we have been delayed long enough. We need to leave now!”

“Ah, he’s right, I suppose, but look me up when this whole crazy war is over, eh?”

“I will hold you to that,” she said to him, but her eyes were on John. They took in the whole mystery that was him and lusted for answers. John didn’t notice with all his attention at tugging at Maxwell. Krankenfrau gave John her most enchanting smile as she passed by him. One that he didn’t see. “Take care out there. Lord Arcana still has many traps.”

Krankenfrau knelt down by the moaning Lord and gently touched the back of his glowing cape. With a poof, they disappeared.

Maxwell investigated his motorcycle curiously. There was nothing anywhere to suggest it was being held in place. It started up as it should. With John sitting behind him, it again carried them on their adventure. “Where to now?”

“I do not know.” Before Maxwell could protest, John cut him short. “There are no ruins to guide us and I cannot sense any directions. This jungle is befuddling, but if we take into account where it started, our route and how long we have travelled, I should say we are on the outskirts of the city. Not much longer from here.”

“Well that’s something at least. And look!” They exited the clearing opposite of where they had entered, and the jungle sprang to life again. Oversized insects swarmed about and was quickly devoured by dinosaurs the size of chickens. Mystical flowers of many colours grew all around the green floor. Nothing to hinder them going in any direction anymore.

John was not completely clueless either. Every now and then he adjusted the course by clapping Maxwell on the shoulder in the direction he wanted to turn in. “We are getting further towards town, I think. It’s difficult to gauge with no stars or landmarks or anything to guide us. We have truly entered another realm.”

Maxwell didn’t seem to mind, though, and whistled happily as they went deeper and deeper into the jungle. A swamp appeared on their right, bringing a cacophony of fluttering with them. “This isn’t that bad, John, it’s a nice change from that cramped basement and those arid wastelands.” A small dinosaur squeaked at the motorcycle and ran off. It dove into a hole between trees. The hole disappeared. Trees mingled together. Bushes sprang into existence. All sounds died out in an instant. “Uh-oh. John, it’s happening again!”

“Hmm, what?” John replied as if shaken from a dream. He looked around him and saw a path constructing itself before them. “Drat.”

Maxwell looked behind them uncomfortably. “The road isn’t closing behind us… You think we should turn around?” he asked nervously.

John also cast his glance back fleetingly. The ferns shook from mild tremors in the ground. “I do not think it will be a possibility.” Distant roaring confirmed his opinion. “Something is coming, and it is large.”

Maxwell tensed up so that his knuckles whitened around the handlebars. He increased the speed as much as he dared, but the ground had only become mushier. Gnarled roots and large rocks littered the forest floor and made their trip a shaky affair. Earth sputtered up around them. “Why can’t that guy accept defeat?” he cursed as wicked cackling echoed through the forest. “It’s like he’s stuck to my shoes or something.”

A mighty crash! A great beast burst through the left side and tossed trees and shrubberies everywhere. Ungodly cries followed. Maxwell put up his arms in defence from the rain of dirt and stones. The motorcycle careened dangerously from the force and the inattentiveness.

“What the Hel is that thing; I’ve never seen anything like it … John? John, are you all right?”

John had his lips pressed tightly together, like a man afraid he’s going to vomit. He nodded his head in acknowledgement and fired his gun at the beast.

“Well if you nod so. It looks like one of those really famous ones, what are they called? Tristate… Tricell… Trifecta…” Maxwell thought aloud. Lord Arcana stood on the dinosaur’s back with arms crossed, howling with laughter. The earth shook before the beast’s heavy footfalls. The gun nearly slipped from John’s hands, instinctively making him gasp.

“A truly beauteous rendition of the triceratops. The green colours mixed with the more earthen would have camouflaged it well in the jungles of the late Maastrichtian stage of the Late Cretaceous Period. However, I fail to see any bristles on this one. Many of its relatives have been discovered covered in intact hair.” John tilted his head as if in pain. Maxwell looked over his shoulder to stare at John. “I’m fine.”

The triceratops stampeded madly down the path Lord Arcana formed before them. The front horn inched dangerously close to John, despite Maxwell increasing the speed at great personal risk. “You know, you sure can talk big for an uneducated street rat,” Maxwell observed, his knuckles white from his grip around the handlebar. “You mind telling me what that’s all about?”

John pelted the enraged beast with useless splashes of energy, bouncing off its horned neck crest. The beak snapped infuriated at him. “Is that really important right now? Just concentrate on driving; the last thing we need is to crash. I am just glad Lord Arcana did not also erect a barrier in front of us.” John lowered his gun again. His shots couldn’t even slow down the triceratops. His thumb rolled the drum. It clicked into place and John fired again. The recoil rattled the bike worse than the triceratops did. The glowing beam of yellow splashed like a jet of water in the dinosaur’s face.

All colour drained from Maxwell’s face as he desperately tried to regain control of his motorcycle. The wheels skipped haphazardly across the ground and sprayed loose rocks everywhere. “At least warn me before you do that!” he shouted angrily, as his steed wobbled back into his control. “What are you even doing?”

John clicked his tongue in frustration and pocketed his gun. “This dinosaur is sturdier than the last one. How about letting it eat you again?”

“Ha! No dice, my friend. A dinosaur expert like you should know the triceratops only eats plants. Everyone knows that.” Maxwell followed his statement with a loud roar of laughter.

The triceratops got ever nearer with its beak-like mouth snapping at them. “I do not think such information was ever relayed to it. Though, the triceratops is speculated to have feasted on carcasses…” John bit down on his fist and leant against Maxwell’s back.

A silky presence, smelling of wide-open meadows and endless skies, enveloped Maxwell. “Aim at the feet.”

“Hey John, how about firing those beams at its feet?”

John stared intently at Maxwell for a long moment. “That is… brilliant. The great strategist emerges again.” He turned around to face the dinosaur, once more with his gun out. Light streamed down John’s arm and condensed at the mouth of the barrel. An orb grew, as did John’s grimace. He held it for as long as he could. The crack from the gun was the loudest and sharpest yet. The explosion tore a deep hole into the path between the dinosaur’s feet. The triceratops easily skipped across it. “One more time!”

The ground trembled with the second explosion. The dinosaur nearly stumbled but only slowed down a little. Maxwell gripped the handlebars as tightly as he could. He used all of his strength and skill to keep the motorcycle steady. Lord Arcana laughed maniacally, unperturbed.

The gun glowed hotly for a third time. With expert aim, another hole blew into existence. The mighty beast groaned as one leg slipped into the pothole. The triceratops stumbled and hurled Lord Arcana off. He landed with a dull thud just short of the motorcycle.

“Phew. That did it, finally.” John relaxed his arm with a sigh.

“Well, we’re not out of the woods yet, so to speak… look!”

Maxwell grinned at his own joke and pointed ahead of them. The path faded away like a bad mirage. Trees and bushes parted into a more natural state. Maxwell slowed down and the ride steadied. “We are getting close to our destination,” John said relieved.

Nothing else had changed, however. There were still no ruins or anything to indicate it had been a city only twenty-five years prior. The jungle had swallowed up everything. “How can you be sure? I swear these trees are just repeating themselves.”

John nodded though Maxwell couldn’t see. “The jungle has only replaced the world above ground. Everything from basements to sewers are all still below our feet,” he explained with an unnatural calm. “My brother’s shelter is like ours; it was designed for similar purpose. Besides, if you have not noticed, we have been driving steadily downwards. Los Angeles was turned into a crater at the beginning of the Destruction, but my brother’s shelter was on the outskirts of town. We are going up again.”

“Why… I… OUGHTA!” a voice screamed through the jungle. A man appeared before them and struck his jester’s cane into the ground. The forest floor undulated like the sea. The motorcycle flipped high into the air. John was dumped unceremoniously on his back, while Maxwell managed to land on his feet.

“This isn’t good, John. Looks like the Lord himself has come out to play,” Maxwell said and straightened himself up.

John scrambled up on his feet and made sure his shades were properly positioned. An aura of malevolence distorted the air around Lord Arcana. “He can just try. I am ready for anything.”

Lord Arcana swaggered towards the survivors with a wicked grin. “Hee hee hee,” he cackled. His appearance changed. The golden aura faded, and his colourful clothes became frayed and dirty before their eyes. His face paint cracked. His hat was ripped, and the mock replica of himself on his cane was missing a large chip. “You have pushed me too far, mein Herren. I will kill you both, now, with my own two hands. COME ON!”

“Don’t let him goad you, John. Remember, a Lord is only a step away from Devil himself.”

Maxwell’s hand on his shoulder pinned John in place as the seething rage that was Lord Arcana came closer. There was still a good distance between them when a rustling drew their attention. Lord Arcana looked over his shoulder and stopped. “Hey mister! Don’t you ever give up? You’re starting to look pretty pathetic.”

“No, not you again… NOT YOU LITTLE BRAT!”

Lord Arcana forgot everything about the survivors and instead turned towards the voice. He thrust his cane, glowing redly, out at random. The energy beams whined out and blasted the jungle. Trees uprooted. Dirt sprayed up. Bushes and stones rained down. The enemy was a blur, as if she moved faster than they eye could follow.

A three-pronged boomerang sank into the forest floor before Lord Arcana. He reeled from the surprise and his barrage ceased. A red cloth fluttered from one of the tips. The blur flickered around it and stopped. A woman materialised. She was short and lithe, wearing a red pair of shorts, a scarf around her middle and a black top exposing her arms and cleavage. Her lips were full and glistening, and her hair reached down to her legs.

Lord Arcana heaved with rage. His whole being was engulfed in an aura of choking fury and wickedness. The grass evaporated beneath him and revealed sandy ground.

The woman, however, simply stared smugly at him, even as he calmed down enough to speak. “You… someday I will find your shelter and I will burn it to the ground.”

He raised his cane for the attack, but the woman grabbed the boomerang. She was visible with the weapon in hand, but still fast. The three blades went to quick work and slashed away at the Lord like a hungry beast. He backed away from the onslaught, unable to react in time. The woman danced around him and ripped his suit to shreds until he was left standing in his long johns.

The woman pushed the boomerang behind her and held out her right arm. A solid beam of fire burst from her palm and into his exposed ribs. His emaciated form rocketed into the sky with a howl. His jester’s cane dropped somewhere over the jungle.

John went forward with slow, unsure steps, looking at the woman that had appeared. “Amber…” he choked, unable to speak any further.

The woman, Amber, disappeared in a blur and reappeared around his neck, bubbling with laughter, flailing her legs off the ground. “John! Good God, it’s been forever, but what are you doing here? Did… did I give the wrong coordinates? I didn’t accidently send you here instead?”

“Well now, John never said you were this easy on the eyes. Hey, I’m Maxwell, Neon Knight, humble adventurer and all-around saviour, at your service, milady.” Maxwell flashed his broadest and most charming grin.

Amber slid down from John and looked Maxwell up and down. “What the Hell are they feeding you? Whatever it is, they should stop before the trees get jealous.” She turned back to John with an expectant expression on her distinctly Eastern-European features.

John was silent for a moment trying to put into words what had happened. In the end, it was Maxwell who spoke up and placed a hand on his shoulder. John’s knees nearly buckled. “The coordinates were all right, but we had an accident on the way here and we lost all the survivors we brought along. John thought it best to come here to regroup, and to see his brother again,” he explained in a voice that had turned serious in the matter of seconds.

“No… that’s terrible!” she exclaimed and clasped her hands to her mouth. “Look, you two come with me, it isn’t safe to discuss things like that out in the open.”

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