Chapter 1: I thought you lot were supposed to shamble?
“That does it!” Violentia bellowed, more afraid than exasperated. “I’m eatin’ Danandra!”
“You’re not eating Danandra,” Callena told her. “Again.”
“But-” Violentia started.
“This is hardly the time for it, Leni!” Callena told her, through a grimace. She was struggling to hold a shield in place, a shield which sealed off part of a cave they were currently cornered in. It was constructed partly of Callena’s willpower - which manifested itself as a pink, shimmering wall - and partly of rocks, which manifested themselves as rocks. Something very nasty was trying to break it down from the other side with detonations, imprecations and fiery curses: presumably not so it could present them with flowers and chocolates.
“This is exactly the time for it!” Leni replied. “Point A,” she started ticking off on her fingers, “your afterlife is probably safe and sorted, you bein’ a cleric an’ all. Mine’s less so. You know how bad it is for a troll to die hungry? Very bad, that’s how bad. You won’t get into any of the best parties, your slaves all escape to their own afterlives - you might even come back as prey! Point B, Danandra’s soul is probably not in much better shape than mine, what with her messin’ with dark powers the like of which people are not s’posed to meddle in for a livin’. Anyone I eat gets a place in the troll afterlife,” she explained.
“As a slave, according to Trollish holy texts,” Danandra said quietly, apparently unfazed by either the supernatural racket or the prospect of becoming Leni’s last meal. Despite the terrific noise of crackling lightning, roaring flames and unearthly shrieking, her voice was heard by both her companions. Danandra just had that sort of a voice - she rarely raised it, but she was always heard.
“Well, technic’ly, yeah,” Leni admitted. “But you’re a friend so that doesn’t count. It’s heaven, even the slaves don’t have to do anything except laze around and chill.”
“And be repeatedly consumed by trolls for eternity,” Danandra interjected. “Hard pass, Leni.”
“Only one troll,” Leni corrected her. “Me.”
“I suspect that’s an academic point from the slaves’ point of view,” Danandra said.
“Well, I’ve eaten loads of other people so I wouldn’t be forced to eat you all the time, and-”
“Leni, enough. We have to be ready when that wall comes down!” Callena cut in.
“I am gettin’ ready,” Leni said, adjusting her armour. “I honestly do think we might actually die this time. Come on, Danandra - we’re a bit pushed for time here.”
“If I am distracted,” Danandra said, “then we will certainly all be destroyed.”
“Fine - don’t blame me when you end up in some nasty, cursed afterlife instead of a comfy troll palace,” Leni sighed, then looked at the other woman.
This didn’t escape Callena’s attention. “If I am distracted, ” she said, “then we will also be killed. More rocks, please, Leni.”
Leni sighed, grumbled, and then started heaving large boulders from the back of the cave to Callena’s wall - one under each arm, and with little sign of strain at the weight except a pained expression. Violentia was uncommonly strong, heavy and at just an inch short of ten feet in height, very tall, too, although different standards applied in troll society. She was a uniform dark green all over, had black hair, red eyes and a pair of small tusks on her lower jaw (one was tipped in gold). She wore a battered looking collection of armour. Her weapon of choice - a broadsword almost as long as she was tall - was slung over her back.
As Leni supplied the rocks, Callena incorporated them into the shield wall that was keeping the three women temporarily safe from an extremely violent death: or possibly even worse. Cally was - at the moment - very pale, very thin and dressed in a loose white dress. She had long hair that was as white as her skin, pale grey eyes and delicate features - currently sheened with sweat as she kept up the defences. She had her hand outstretched, and it was connected to the wall by a thin, vaguely pink line that, occasionally, wavered alarmingly. When it did so Cally would wince and sometimes grunt with effort.
The last member of the trio, Danandra, was small, slender, freckled and had a wealth of curly, bright red hair which was tied severely back and never let out to play. This exposed her tapered ears, leaving no-one in any doubt that she was elven. She wore glasses and a black robe, and was intent upon a very ancient looking scroll that looked to be made out of something leathery and definitely un-paperlike. She was seated off to one side of the cave and, despite appearances, was probably working as hard as Cally and Leni combined.
“Ready,” she announced. As she did so, the scroll evaporated into nothingness and something blue, sparkly and amorphous started to form in the centre of the cave.
“Ooh, pretty!” Leni announced brightly, then frowned. “This’ll do the business against a phenomenally powerful and apparently really quite pissed off undead mage, then, will it?”
“Presumably,” Danandra said, getting up and retreating to the far end of the cave. Callena ceased her concentration, and the pinkish line disappeared: the effort had left her completely drained, and now everything about her, even her pupils, seemed white and colourless. Her clothes hung off her, loose and unfilled - she was almost literally worn down to a shadow.
There was a triumphant shriek from behind the wall, and the mass of superheated rocks began to crumble. Leni and Callena wisely followed Danandra’s example and quickly joined her behind a pile of rock, one of many in the large cave, although to all three women it seemed neither large enough nor filled with enough potential hiding places.
“Presumably?” Leni asked. “I gotta say I was more hopin’ for something along the lines of ‘hell yeah, just watch this!’, not ‘presumably’. ‘Presumably’ doesn’t really do it for me, frankly.”
“Here he comes,” Callena said. “Quiet - we don’t know how long Danandra’s spell will take, so let’s not draw his attention to us straight away.”
“It should be immediate, and-” Danandra started, but didn’t get any further.
Callena watched through a gap in the rocks as the wall gave way with a final rending explosion. There was, thankfully, very little smoke from the explosions, although there was no shortage of sharp, gritty fragments showering down everywhere. The light from Danandra’s spell now provided the only light in the cavern.
Mahrak the Undying levitated over the fallen rubble and set himself down on a clear patch of cave floor. Mahrak was seven feet tall, skeletally thin, grey, ageless and hairless. He wore heavily embroidered (in grey) grey robes and carried a grey staff. Only his eyes had any hint of colour: they glowed an unhealthy green.
“Come out and show yourselves, and I will grant you a swift and painless death,” he rumbled, voice louder than it should have been, echoing round the cave. Nobody took him up on his offer.
“Powerful magic indeed,” he said, eyeing Danandra’s shimmering handiwork. “It seems somewhat lacking in, how shall I say this, impact? Effectiveness? Essence of actually-doing-something?”
“Danandra? Is the spell working?” Cally whispered, but there was no response.
Mahrak walked around the glowing spell. He had a formidable reputation for two things: evil and verbosity. He demonstrated the latter now. “A Cloud of Summoning,” he said. “Or I should say ‘the’ Cloud of Summoning, for now this is used there shall be no other, unless the magic arts were to regain their might of old and once more put forth practitioners capable of bending the very fabric of the universe to their will. The she-elf must be a prodigy indeed. I shall take special care when I drink her soul not to damage such talent: it will be useful to me. Yet she is not an ancient sorceress come again - it has not worked - perhaps there is indeed nothing that can be summoned which is a match for Mahrak the Undying!”
Even as Mahrak iterated through his lengthy gloating session, though, the cloud was changing. It seemed to solidify, shrink and grow brighter. Then, with a noise like a thunderclap and a flash of blinding light, it was gone.
Callena was thrown to the ground - Leni was bowled over too, with a muffled curse. Even Mahrak staggered backward a few paces.
He muttered a word of magic - a green glow illuminated the cave.
“Are you alri-” Cally turned and started to say. Leni was indeed alright. Danandra was not. Leni was loosening the straps that held her armour over her belly, looking vaguely guilty.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Oh, Leni. Of all the times!” Cally sighed in irritation.
“I’m not dyin’ hungry!” The troll protested.
Cally glared at her. There really was no talking to Violentia when she was like this.
"This is your masterstroke?” Mahrak laughed. “Pathetic.”
Cally and Leni looked up. In terms of the likelihood of what the cloud had summoned destroying one of the most feared mages currently alive (or doing a good impression of alive, at least), then ‘pathetic’ actually seemed to be a fair assessment.
The cloud had conjured up an unarmed man. He was dressed in a short black coat, carried a black bag slung over his back, wore blue leggings of some kind, and had short black hair. He was stood, shaking slightly, with his back to the girls, so besides the fact that he was shorter than Mahrak (although he was hunched over), they could tell little else about their magically summoned warrior - if warrior he was.
Mahrak had a better view. He sneered.
“An ordinary man,” he said. “Neither sword nor shield. Let Mahrak be the first to welcome you to this world, O doomed visitor - and the one to remove you from it!”
Mahrak raised a clawlike hand, just as the newcomer looked up to see who was addressing him and where he was.
“Die!” Mahrak hissed. Lightning crackled from the palm of his hand and struck the newcomer full in the chest. He was hurled up and flew through the air, over Cally and Leni’s upturned gaze, and crashed into the back of the cave. Mahrak, cackling insanely, kept him there, jerking and convulsing in the lightning, then clenched his fist and cut off the assault. The figure dropped limply to the cave floor, out of sight.
“Huh. Pity,” Leni said. “Still, shows that eating Danandra was the right call. Care to join us in the troll afterlife? I can probably fit you in.”
“Honestly, Leni, why do you have to do this all the time!” Cally berated her. “This is something like the eightieth time and all it achieves is to really, really annoy her – and me.”
“Troll. Sue me,” Leni shrugged. “Been thinkin’ about that, though. I’m not actually hungry anymore, and I have technic’ly eaten her, so in terms of the troll afterlife we’re both good.”
“If we get out of this, so help me I’ll-” Cally started to say.
“You need not concern yourself with finishing that sentence,” Mahrak said, looking down at them menacingly. “You won’t.”
Some few minutes earlier, while Cally had been holding up her wall of willpower, Leni had been keeping it supplied with boulders, and Danandra had been studying a recently stolen scroll that represented their only hope of killing - for good - Mahrak the Undying, the newcomer had been doing something else, quite some distance away.
It was a very considerable distance, in fact: more than most people could grasp without the help of a celebrity scientist and a computer-assisted metaphor. The man’s name, or at least the only name he ever gave, was McKenzie. He looked to be about thirty, but he was in fact a fair bit older. He was an even six feet in height, quite well-built, as if he was down the gym quite a lot but not obsessively so, and no-one would disagree if you said he was a good-looking bloke.
McKenzie could do some things that other people couldn’t. This might explain, at least partly, why he was currently in a bank vault that, legally speaking, he should not be in. He was methodically working his way along a line of safe-deposit boxes: with a wince, he would extend a finger and punch it through the metal, bend it round inside, and rip the box out of the wall. There was an untidy pile of ransacked boxes behind him, divested of cash, which, when he found any, he would stuff into a drawstring bag at his feet. So far he’d scored about forty thousand dollars and a small velvet bag with twenty of those South African gold coins that you only ever saw in spy films. He’d been amazed how much they weighed compared to the change in his jeans pocket.
“That’s enough, Crowbar!” A woman’s voice told him, american and young. “Hold it right there!”
“Evenin’, Christine,” McKenzie said - he had a British accent, and if you knew the country you’d probably say northern, but not for a little while. He didn’t look up. “Long time no see.”
“Step away from the vault!”
“Technically, Christine, we’re both in the vault. I think you probably meant to say, ‘step away from the safe-deposit boxes’, which I grant you doesn’t sound quite so snappy,” McKenzie jabbed his finger through an example of said boxes, wrenched it from the wall with a grunt, and looked inside. There was no cash, but there was a diamond necklace.
“I’m not here to trade insults with a thief!” Christine said forcefully, then, in a slightly less assertive tone, “And my name is Psyonara, if you don’t mind.”
McKenzie attempted, unsuccessfully, to stifle a sudden snort of laughter. “Sorry, but seriously?” He queried.
“Yes,” Psyonara confirmed.
“Isn’t that Japanese for bugger off or something?” McKenzie frowned.
“No, it is not,” Christine answered him with a glare.
“Okay. Stop calling me Crowbar and I’ll stop calling you Christine,” McKenzie looked up. Psyonara - known to her friends and, in McKenzie’s case, ex-boyfriends - as Christine, was petite, blonde, pretty (she wore a mask that covered most of her face, but McKenzie knew what she looked like), and wore a rather fetching catsuit/cape combination in black kevlar, lycra and silver. The media usually referred to Christine as an ‘all-American superheroine and role model’ in the same way they referred to him as a ‘disgraced former vigilante turned criminal’. They’d probably love to swap ‘criminal’ for ‘terrorist’, because nothing ups viewing figures like a terror threat, but had so far refrained in case he turned up at their office to argue the point.
“Loving the new look. It’s very you. Hey, you want?” McKenzie held up the necklace. “Girl’s best friend, apparently.”
“I don’t want stolen jewellery!” Psyonara said.
“Good - speaks well of you. There’s a shit-ton of shiny in that pile behind me, but I thought, y’know, probably of sentimental value to someone. You sure? No? OK,” McKenzie dropped the necklace with exaggerated carelessness. “How’d you get in, anyway? Jimmy zap you in or is Susie hanging about somewhere? I know you didn’t force the vault door. I’d’ve heard – I had a right bloody time of it trying to keep it quiet when I did it.”
“The police let me in,” Psyonara said.
“Aw, really? It’s gonna be a right pain in’t arse getting out now. Glad I didn’t wear my favourite jacket,” McKenzie said. “The bullets leave little streaky marks on the leather where the lead rubs off and you know what a bastard leather is to clean.”
“If you come with me, nobody needs to get hurt,” Psyonara said.
“Nobody’s gonna get hurt in any case, sioh-, seeoh-, look, will Psy do? I can pronounce that.”
Psyonara sighed. “Fine.”
“Good. Nobody’s gonna get hurt by muggins here anyway. You probably don’t want to be in the line of fire when I leave this vault, though, or at least do that shieldy thing that you do. I know I’m a guest in this country an’ I shouldn’t moan, but seriously, the police here are way too trigger happy,” McKenzie said.
“You’re not going to walk away from this one, Cro-, McKenzie,” Psyonara told him.
“Probably true,” McKenzie sighed. “I imagine there’s going to be some sort of tiresome, ‘the guns aren’t working! Aim for his head!’ shootout now, and probably another bloody car chase. Why do they always seem to think that aiming for the head’ll help? I blame zombie flicks, personally. Also, while we’re on the subject, I was going to go for sushi and maybe a beer after, so thanks for banjaxing that, by the way.”
Psyonara also sighed - she’d never been blessed with much in the way of patience, and she was starting to remember why their relationship had ended: when he was in a frivolous mood there was no shutting him up. “Why are you doing this, McKenzie?”
“This?” McKenzie yanked out another box, this time discovering a roll of fifties, and shoved it into the bag. “With any luck, by the time I get to the end of the row, I’ll be able to show you. You could help, by the way, instead of standing around looking ornamental. Some of us are working, here.”
“I don’t mean this,” Psyonara said, ignoring the jibe. “Why did you, y’know-” She made a sweeping gesture, “-go.”
“You’re a lovely girl, Psy, and a dear friend, but you’re not much for eloquence, d’y’know that?”
“I already said I didn’t come here to trade insults with a thief, Crowbar,” Psyonara said.
“That really is a daft name, you know. I keep meaning to pop down the library, find out which journalist came up with it, and then knock their house down while they’re at work.”
“Why did you go, McKenzie?”
“Missing me? It was fun, but let’s face it, neither of us were exactly cut to shreds when you went off with whatsisface at New Years’. Probably for the best - you were all of what, twenty three? I was beginning to feel a bit odd about the age difference, to be honest,” McKenzie ripped out another box.
“You know what I mean. You used to be one of the good guys!” Psyonara said.
“Ah,” McKenzie said, peering into the box. “Here we go - make sure the right people see this, will you? You’re infallibly, totally and nauseatingly honest - one of the “good guys”, in fact, except in the particular of disappearing off with bartenders at New Years’ parties without properly ending an existing relationship, but hey, we’ve all got our foibles,” he withdrew a sheaf of papers wrapped around a portable hard drive from the box, and handed it to Psyonara.
“What’s this?” She asked, ignoring the relationship jibe.
“Buggered if I know, or indeed care. Evidence of someone being extremely and illegally naughty, your sort of thing. I’m being paid - shitloads - to hand that to a law enforcement official. The random cash is icing on the cake. Anyways, since the role of law enforcement official is tonight being played by your good self, I reckon that - haha! - My Work Here Is Done. Nice seeing you again,” McKenzie drew the strings on the bag and slung it over his back.
“McKenzie,” Psyonara raised her hand. McKenzie was slammed backwards against the vault wall.
“Ouch,” McKenzie said. “Let’s not get into this, Christine.”
“Why did you leave?” Psyonara asked. “Stop avoiding the question.”
“Why aren’t I one of your ‘good guys’ anymore? Easy question. There are no good guys. There are no bad guys. In all our diving around, nearly getting killed for little thanks and I gotta say remarkably little money, did we once stop a famine, halt a war, or even, shit, we didn’t even actually do much of your stock-in-trade hero shit like rescuing people from burning buildings or holding up collapsing bridges, did we?”
“We did our part,” Christine protested. “Some of us still are,” She added pointedly.
McKenzie’s voice lost it’s flippant tone. “It’s pointless, Christine - the world flows round you and it doesn’t give a fuck, no matter how you struggle against the current.”
“What you did in Africa was brave but-” Christine started.
“Let’s call that a learning experience, shall we?” McKenzie finished, holding back unpleasant memories. His first freelance operation - which now seemed embarrassingly naive - was to topple an African dictator. He was your average murderous kleptocrat: universally despised. No grey areas there, McKenzie had thought, and he’d done it for free, too. It wasn’t hard - he’d fought his way into the palace, found the bloke already dead, killed by his own bodyguards in all the chaos. McKenzie had left with a smile on his face, congratulating himself on making a difference.
The country went up in civil war soon after the elections failed, and then descended into ethnic violence. It was a learning experience, and the lesson was this: bad shit always finds a way to happen. You can’t stop it, you can only move it around.
“It’s time to stop, McKenzie. Lemuel has promised to intercede with the authorities,” Christine said.
“What are they gonna do anyway? Put me in prison? I’ve already broken out of five.”
“Three,” Christine corrected him.
“Whatever,” McKenzie said.
“They’re going to build one even you can’t get out of.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” McKenzie snorted.
“You will see it: or you leave with me and Lemuel will help you repay your debt to society. It’s a one time deal. You take it now or it’s gone,” Christine said.
McKenzie looked at her in her ridiculous outfit. “No deal, Christine. The one thing I still have that I care about any more is my freedom. It really is that or death for me. Lem can fuck off - pardon my French.”
He pushed clear of the wall - Christine set her jaw and raised both hands. McKenzie was pushed back.
“You been working out?” He asked, through gritted teeth. “Please don’t say anything trite like ‘my powers are growing’, by the way.”
“Well, they are. I’m stronger than you, Crowbar,” Psyonara answered.
“Doubt it,” McKenzie replied, and punched his hand into a safety deposit box, then another, and then another, using them like handholds to drag himself out of the vault.
Sweat broke out on Christine’s brow, above the mask. She grunted with effort, then lowered her hands. McKenzie fell to the floor, ripping out a couple of boxes and landing in a graceless heap.
“Right,” he said, then coughed. “Ow. Fuck. Glad we got that sorted out. Oh ferfucksake, what now?”
Christine reached into a belt pouch and produced a small, silver gadget that resembled a remote control, but with a bit more bling. She pointed it at McKenzie.
“I hope that’s not a taser, Christine,” McKenzie asked. “’Cos they itch. Times must be ha-”
He was interrupted by a bona-fide science fiction zapping noise, and suddenly found himself surrounded by a swirling blue cloud of fuck knew what - energy, gas, plasma, he didn’t know. He did know he couldn’t move, which was sort of a prerequisite for getting away with his ill gotten gains.
Then, he started to be able to see through himself.
“Christine!” He shouted. “The fuck’ve you done?”
“I-I-I don’t know!” She replied, aghast. “It’s not supposed to do that!”
“Well turn it the fuck off then!” McKenzie said.
“I can’t!” She said, desperately stabbing at buttons. “Lemuel said it was just supposed to knock you out!”
“Oh, Lemuel said that, did he?” McKenzie said.
Christine threw the device with the force of her arm and her mind, smashing it into hundreds of pieces against the wall. The blue swirliness didn’t stop - but pain started, the kind of pain McKenzie hadn’t felt for a long, long time.
He screamed. He felt unbearable pressure all around him.
“McKenzie!” Christine shrieked.
She was thrown to the floor by a sudden shockwave, and the vault was flooded with blinding blue light. Christine could see the bones in her fingers as she covered her eyes.
Then, there was silence. Christine struggled to her feet.
“McKenzie?” She asked. “McKenzie?”
But the vault was empty.
- o O o -
McKenzie got shakily to his feet and dusted himself off.
“Well this is some pretty shit,” he said to himself, looking around.
He was still underground. If this is a bank vault, though, he thought to himself, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.
At this point it should be noted that McKenzie was not thick, and that he’d also had a very odd existence. It wasn’t his first time getting zapped from one place to another, even if none of his previous teleportations had been so painful, weird or ended with electrocution at the hands of a cackling freak. In point of fact, he didn’t actually feel that bad: being electrocuted had actually left him feeling sort of tingly, although being slammed into rocks hurt just as much as he’d expect. At any rate, he wasn’t the sort to be thrown into a state of irrecoverable shock by finding himself in the situation he was in - those sorts of people would all be dead, now - killed either by the journey or the evil laughing grey fucker.
About which... McKenzie looked around and spotted a good, head-sized rock.
Cally thought about saying something defiant. She probably should - these things were expected of you, facing the end - but she couldn’t come up with anything appropriate.
“There were three of you, before,” Mahrak said. “I still sense three before me. Ah, I see. Trolls: you are all so thoroughly predictable.”
Leni growled, leapt to her feet, drew her sword and swung it at the undead mage with all of her considerable might. At least, she intended to. She only got as far as the growl.
“I wouldn’t try to move,” Mahrak said. “It’ll just depress you when you can’t. Now, I am keen to get better acquainted with the she-elf. Shall we bring her forth?”
“No!” Leni yelped. Mahrak laughed and levelled his staff at her. An instant later, she was violently and noisily sick.
Trolls had exceptionally strong constitutions, which came as no surprise given that their dinner often tried to escape for quite a while after being eaten. They were rarely sick, but when they did throw up it was fairly titanic. The following few moments were pleasant for no-one, with the possible exception of Mahrak, but it was pure torture for Leni - and not especially painless for Danandra, either. Being eaten by Leni was not a new experience for her, and, due to a number of abnormal conditions which didn’t usually apply, was irritating, annoying and disgusting rather than deadly. Normally she teleported out (she’d got very good at it), but the cloud of summoning had taken all her magical oomph, so to speak.
It was highly undignified, coming out slimy and stinking. If it hadn’t been for Mahrak levelling a staff at her, she’d have been furious.
“There you are,” Mahrak said. “Did either of you think that your souls would escape my grasp so easily? Now, prepare to be truly consumed as your spirit is torn into a thousand tiny-”
“Oi! Twat features!” A man’s voice rang out. Mahrak looked up, eyes narrowing. He had heard a great many challenges from a great many challengers over the years, but had never been called that before.
A rock caught him full in the chest at very high speed, thrown with such force that it propelled him several metres across the floor.
“Hope that hurt as much as the welcoming ceremony did, fuckface,” McKenzie muttered, striding purposefully toward him. He paused by the girls, momentarily distracted. They were, to say the least, a surprising sight. There was a girl so pale she was almost translucent and, well, a monster who was green and had tusks (but who looked very, haha, green about the gills) - by contrast, the ginger bird covered in gunk seemed almost normal, sixties sci-fi ears notwithstanding.
McKenzie was, however, used to weird. “Evenin’,” he said. “Would you excuse me for a minute? Ta.”
Mahrak was on his feet again. “Impertinent fool! I shall torture you for a thousand years in payment for your temerity!”
“You got quite a high opinion of yourself, don’t you?” McKenzie said.
Mahrak extended his staff and unleashed a torrent of fire. McKenzie half-turned away from it and threw up an arm as the crackling flames washed over him.
Mahrak lowered his staff. McKenzie straightened up. A few wisps of steam rose from his clothing, but he was completely unharmed.
Danandra had located her glasses - all three of the girls watched the fight unfold.
“I take it back,” Leni said. “That cloud of summoning is pretty cool. Sorry I, erm-”
“If you were sorry, Leni, it wouldn’t keep happening, would it?” It was Cally who replied.
“It’s not like she’s hurt, is it?” The troll said.
“It’s disgusting, Violentia,” Danandra said. “For form’s sake, I shall probably go through my standard ‘don’t you dare ever do that again’ speech later, but since you are not likely to change and I am as incapable of hurting you as you are of hurting me, I see but little point in it,” Danandra snapped her fingers and most of the unpleasant slime hissed away into nothingness, but she was still damp. It would be a while before she really recovered her powers.
Leni had the grace to look slightly ashamed, at this point. The subject was dropped, and attention returned to Mahrak and the newcomer.
McKenzie sniffed. “Oh help, I’ve been burnt to a crisp,” he said sarcastically.
“Then perhaps you would care to cool down!” Mahrak sneered, and again lowered his staff. A jet of howling cold blasted forth from its tip, coating the floor beneath it in ice. McKenzie felt chilled to his very bone, and his forward progress was suddenly halted as the ice covered his body. A moment later, a large, irregular block of ice with a vague, McKenzie shaped mass within it was the result.
“Almost a worthy adversary,” Mahrak said. “Now, I think-”
There was a creaking, followed by a cracking, followed by a crash.
“Since we’re apparently doing the whole one-liners thing,” McKenzie said, dusting ice off his sleeves, “I’m torn between ‘why don’t you chill the fuck out’, ‘no need for the cold shoulder’ or just a simple ‘cracking effort’. What do you think?” McKenzie said.
“I think that it’s time you went back to where you came from, boy,” Mahrak replied.
He levelled his staff again, but this time unleashed not fire or ice but a pulsating aura of green.
“I banish thee back to the hell that spawned thee!” Mahrak roared.
McKenzie stood there, glowing green, and watched as it faded. Far from feeling fatigued or hurt by the repeated magical (call a spade a spade, McKenzie thought, this is magic all right) assaults, he actually felt quite good, as if he’d taken something illegal, expensive and mood-improving.
“Ah well,” he said. “That one I was hoping might maybe work.”
“DIE!” Mahrak hissed, and let rip with a series of glowing red bolts, seemingly made of pure energy.
They slammed into McKenzie, knocking him back on his heels but otherwise leaving him unhurt.
“Will you knock it the fuck off!” He shouted, holding up a hand to ward off the bolts, which were pulled off course and smacked into his hand, disappearing with a fizzle. Electricity sparked between his fingers for a few moments, and the euphoric feeling returned.
“Well, that’s new,” he commented, holding his hand in front of his face and watching the sparks. They faded, as did the euphoria.
Mahrak’s staff caught him squarely on the side of the head, swung with terrific force, magical assistance, and a blood-chilling scream of rage and frustration. McKenzie hit the deck.
“Ow!” He said. “What the fuck is it with you?”
“You may enjoy magical protection, creature, but I still possess the strength of many men! If magic proves wanting, then force it shall be!”
He swung the staff again. McKenzie scrambled out of the way, got to his feet, and lashed out with his right fist. It was unaimed and not particularly effective, but it was still enough to knock Mahrak to the ground.
McKenzie didn’t waste any time - he put the boot in, and from McKenzie that was enough to lift Mahrak off the ground and slam him into the nearby cave wall.
McKenzie was surprised when this didn’t prove enough to put Mahrak out of the game, but not very. The zombie (what else am I gonna call him, seriously, McKenzie thought) picked himself up, shucked his heavy robes and sprang forward, staff whirling.
“I thought you fuckers were supposed to shamble,” McKenzie muttered. He held up an arm and blocked the staff, which hurt like hell - way more than any bit of wood normally would. He kicked Mahrak in the stomach. The zombie staggered, but kept in the fight, driving the staff into McKenzie’s chest and knocking the breath out of him.
McKenzie lunged and grabbed Mahrak’s arm, pulled him off his balance, and broke it over his knee - or at least he meant to break it, what he actually did was bend it.
“The fuck!” McKenzie exclaimed, pulling his hands back. “That’s-, ew!”
Mahrak laughed, and the very same arm straightened and caught McKenzie under the chin, knocking him to the ground.
It got a bit scrappy after that. McKenzie hadn’t ever bothered to pick up much in the way of fighting technique: he’d never really needed it. Mahrak, unfortunately, wasn’t the sort of opponent you could beat simply by hitting him until he gave up or stopped fighting back. It was like punching a rubber bag - you could do it a lot, and while you might be better at punching by the end of it, the bag would be no worse off. Mahrak was landing a few blows of his own, which hurt, like a kicking always did, but weren’t slowing McKenzie down at all.
“Here!” A female voice shouted - a very loud one, but female nonetheless. McKenzie turned to see the really big green bird with the scary dentistry: she drew a small knife and tossed it to McKenzie. In her other hand she was toting a fucking massive sword, and she was flanked by her two friends.
It looked like a small knife when she threw it, anyway. When McKenzie caught it, he realised it was actually a dagger the size of a machete.
“Time to finish this, Mahrak,” the big scary woman said. “Think you can manage the three of us and Mr. Fireproof here?”
“Fools!” Mahrak sneered. “Your gamble has failed. Your champion may be strong, but-”
The expression on his face changed from hatred to surprise in an instant. McKenzie hadn’t ever bothered with martial arts, but he was pretty good at throwing things. With a smooth overhand cast, he buried the machete up to the hilt in Mahrak’s forehead - a good six inches stuck out the back. The undead mage sank to his knees, and then collapsed backwards, the staff rattling to the floor.
Everyone stared for a moment.
“Nice!” Leni said. “I was more thinkin’ along the lines of decapitation, but a win’s a win.”
“Zombie, right?” McKenzie asked. “You go for the head. I should know, believe me. Does that actually work?”
“No,” Mahrak said. “It does not.”
“Shit it,” McKenzie said, as he dived in front of a fireball aimed at the women, who had, in turn, hit the floor. It hit him with a flash of blue flame and another buzz of euphoria, but no damage to anyone.
“Will you hide behind your creature forever, noble heroines?” Mahrak asked sarcastically.
“Well, since fireballs don’t seem to be an issue for him, er, yeah, that sounds like a plan to me,” Leni answered.
“Thanks for that,” McKenzie said sarcastically, once again getting into it with Mahrak. “You got any-” he dodged the staff. “-better ideas? All I got is ‘keep hitting him’ and frankly it’s not working.”
McKenzie grabbed the machete and tried to pull it out, but to no avail - it just made Mahrak laugh and earned him a good smack around the head from the staff.
“Ow!” McKenzie said. “That is really starting to get old!”
“The staff!” The short ginger one said, now from behind a rock. “The staff is the key - break the staff, and you break his power!”
“Break his staff,” McKenzie said flatly, as Mahrak bounced him off the very same rock. “I’ll get right on that. You know how hard this bastard is hitting my head with that fucking stick? Trust me, if it ain’t broke yet, it ain’t gonna.”
McKenzie returned his attention to Mahrak. “So how’s this gonna go, man?” He asked. “Are we going to beat each other up all night, all week, or until we cave the roof in and are stuck down here for good?”
“Simply until you are dead,” Mahrak hissed.
“Thought you might see it that way,” McKenzie said, grabbing hold of the staff as it whirled towards his head yet again. The two combatants struggled to wrest it from each other’s grip. “I take it you wouldn’t be interested in some kinda you-walk-out-of-here, we-walk-out-of-here, we-never-see-each-other-again type deal then? ’Cos I gotta say, I’ve pretty much had enough of this shit.”
“You presume correctly,” Mahrak snarled.
“Fuck,” McKenzie said simply, then he got a good hold of the staff, put his feet on Mahrak’s chest, and heaved with all his strength.
Mahrak lost his grip and, with an enraged scream, went flying across the cave to impact upon a wall, leaving McKenzie lying on the ground but holding the staff. He didn’t waste any time - he got up and swung it as hard as he could against a boulder - the boulder cracked. He held it at each end and put his foot in the middle, pushing and pulling as hard as he could - it didn’t even bend.
Mahrak was picking himself up.
“See?” McKenzie said to the watching women, shaking the offending staff. “No fucking dice. Told you.”
“I am quite certain of my conclusion,” the ginger one replied, not without a certain snippiness.
“Well bully for you, clever clogs,” McKenzie replied. ”You break the fuckin’ thing, then,” he tossed it in her direction. “I’m about thirty seconds away from saying fuck this noise and getting out of this fucking cave and away from this fucking arsehole, with or without you lot, by the way, so I’d think fuck-off quickly if I were you.”
This news went down with the women about as well as would be expected. “You’re supposed to destroy him!” Danandra objected, then turned to the other girls as if for support. “He’s supposed to destroy him - you’re supposed to destroy him!" She turned back, looking pissed off.
“Get that in writing, did you? Time’s running out,” McKenzie said, tapping his watch, which was still faithfully keeping time, telling him it was twenty one minutes past midnight, July the 13th, 2013. “Seriously - thirty seconds. You might want to invest that time in the growth industry of fucking off out of here while the fucking off out of here is good. Just saying.”
Then Mahrak was back, and McKenzie turned to face him. Leni tried to break the staff, to no avail.
“Fool!” Mahrak laughed. “You think that a mere twig could possibly contain all the power of-”
“Yeah yeah, whatever,” McKenzie said, as Mahrak sprang for his throat. McKenzie slammed his fist into Mahrak’s chin, which was as rubbery as the rest of him, knocking him back.
Wash, rinse, repeat. Mahrak got up, maybe hit McKenzie, maybe didn’t. McKenzie punched, kicked or picked the zombie up and threw him through the air - he got up and came back. The girls did not leave.
McKenzie glanced at his watch: it was half past. “Well, this is going fucking nowhere,” he addressed Mahrak. “I’m done: good fucking bye. You wanna come after me and keep up this pointless fucking waste of everyone’s time, that’s your lookout.”
“You would leave them to my mercies?” Mahrak asked.
“Gave ’em plenty more than thirty seconds - they chose not to run. Believe me, I’m not the hero type,” McKenzie said.
“You’re supposed to destroy him!” Danandra objected - this time looking afraid and perplexed, not angry.
“Yeah, you keep sayin’,” McKenzie stated flatly. “Best of luck.”
Five years back, the look on her face would’ve been enough to keep him fighting. Two years ago, probably, the looks of hopeless fear worn by the other two would’ve done it. Now, it just made him feel tired, weary and sick.
Bad shit always finds a way to happen.
Mahrak laughed - he held out his hand, and the staff pulled itself free from Leni’s grasp and flew into his. “Fare thee well then, hero! Now, ladies, let us discuss what I shall do with your skins when you are dead. The troll will be a rug, the elf shall be a set of cushions, and you, my dear, will make excellent scrolls.”
McKenzie was already walking away. He got fifteen feet or so before it started to become hard work. Well, no wonder - he felt tired. He took another step - it was even harder. The next one was like walking in mud, and then it was simply as if he was up against an invisible wall.
“Hey!” McKenzie shouted back at Mahrak, shoulder-barging the mysterious barrier. “What’re you playing at! I thought we had a deal!”
“I am doing nothing - begone before I change my mind!” Mahrak answered.
“I fucking would be gone by now, if not for this weird force-field bollocks. Cut it the fuck out, pal.”
Danandra looked at Cally, with sudden hope flaring in their expressions. “Could it be?” Cally asked.
“Perhaps,” Danandra said. “It would certainly apply in this situation.”
“Sorry, what are we talking about?” Leni asked. “Does this mean we’re not getting our souls sucked out and then being turned into soft furnishings? ’Cos that would be great.”
“Silence! You, she-elf , explain.”
“No. What will you do, kill me twice?” Danandra flared back.
"Thrice. It can be arranged.” Mahrak levelled the staff.
“Tell him, Danandra,” Leni prompted hurriedly.
“Very well, if you insist. The simple fact is that no matter what he says or what his intentions might be, our mutual and indestructible friend over there will not allow you to do us any harm, and he will not rest - will not be allowed to rest - until you are dead,” Danandra said.
“Pathetic speculation,” Mahrak sneered. “I shall demonstrate.”
Mahrak raised his staff high in the air, his eyes flared bright, and he pointed at Callena. “Die!” He roared.
Whatever painful and terminal doom he was about to inflict on Cally never came to pass, though. Instead, Mahrak was blasted off his feet and clear across the cave by an incandescent, crackling bolt of not-quite-lighting, not-quite-fire, but pure destruction. Just the force of the impact as it hit Mahrak was enough to throw the three women to the ground.
McKenzie lowered his hand, looking at it in surprise. A few sparks still zipped between his fingers.
“That’s never happened before,” he murmured.
“Awesome!” Leni said. “Why didn’t he do that earlier?”
Mahrak wasn’t dead, although his grey skin was burnt in patches.
"Pure quintessence!" He rasped.
“Whuh?” Leni asked.
“Quintessence,” Danandra gasped softly, her eyes wide. “The fifth element - raw magical energy. Every mage fears it.”
Leni chuckled. “Every mage but you. Sounds like the sort of thing that would get you properly t-”
“What have you summoned, she-elf?” Mahrak glared at Danandra, interrupting Leni.
Danandra blinked, seeming to bring herself out of some inner contemplation that was making her blush, and shook her head. “His staff!” She shouted to a still bemused McKenzie. “Destroy his staff!”
McKenzie looked up. “Shit a brick, are you still on about that? It ain’t breakin’!”
“Not with your hands - with your, your hands!” Danandra made a meaningful zapping gesture. “It can only hold so much - pour your fire into it!”
McKenzie shrugged. He was apparently not getting out of this fucking cave anyway. “Alright then - cop a load of this, stickfuck!”
He couldn’t have said quite how he knew to let rip with the fireworks, but he did. McKenzie extended both arms toward Mahrak and relaxed something inside himself. There was a reservoir there, filled by the fantastical energies he’d endured and absorbed during his journey here, and overtopped by Mahrak’s magical assaults. It wanted to empty itself: McKenzie just had to open the floodgates to let loose a torrent of power. It leapt from his hands with a reverberating boom and a blinding flash.
“Oh my gods,” Danandra said under her breath, chest heaving as she watched. The amount of sheer magical energy pouring out of the newcomer was...intense.
“Come on!” Leni said, grabbing Danandra and dragging her into cover.
McKenzie willed the electricity to pour into the staff, and it did. Mahrak screamed and chanted hurried words, holding up a hand. A glowing green shield appeared - it lasted about as long as you’d expect a leaf to last in front of a flamethrower - the roaring fury McKenzie was unleashing ripped it to shreds.
The staff glowed red, then orange, then bright white. Mahrak screamed and screamed.
“It’s gonna blow!” Leni yelled. “Get d-”
The staff reached its limit, was forced beyond it, and added its own scream to that of Mahrak’s. It was an awful, nail-dragging noise, the sound of tortured magic, spells pushed too hard and on the verge of breaking.
The girls were behind a boulder - the biggest they could find - wisely under cover. McKenzie was not.
It happened in slow motion. The staff flared, and he turned off the juice. Mahrak seemed to persist for a moment as the blast front passed through him, but then his body lost structural integrity - he was ripped limb from limb and blasted flat to the cave floor. The shockwave rippled outward, flinging small rocks (and some not so small) before it.
It hit McKenzie and picked him up, carrying him with it to smash with teeth-rattling force against a cave wall with a brief shower of sparks, and a short tingle of something pleasant. Odd, McKenzie thought, I never used to enjoy being thrown against walls.
Then he fell about ten feet to the cave floor again, cracking his head against a rock.
The cave was utterly dark. Danandra said a single word, and a point of light appeared overhead, bright but flickering.
“Ow! Fuck.” McKenzie got up. The women emerged from behind their sheltering boulder.
McKenzie picked his way across the floor to where a few, dried up lumps of grey leather and sinew lay in an oddly neat pile. Atop them, mouth open in a silent scream and still impaled on the machete, was Mahrak’s dried and shrivelled head.
He was joined by the three women. “So, ” Leni asked, “is he dead yet, or what?”
McKenzie reached down and picked up the staff - he broke it in two effortlessly. The wood was dry, brittle and old - as lifeless as the wasted remains at his feet. He hardly needed the extra evidence, though - he could feel that the otherworldly force that had kept Mahrak upright and walking was gone. He could feel it from the three women - the short one most of all, the pale one nearly as much, but different, somehow. The big one only radiated a little bit. McKenzie could feel it in himself, coiled inside, waiting for release - but there was not even the merest flicker of power remaining in Mahrak’s bones.
“Yes, I’m sorry, but the evil scary magic zombie passed away a few moments ago. Were you close?” McKenzie handed the two halves of the stick to the short ginger girl. The big scary woman picked up Mahrak’s head by the convenient handhold provided by the scorched hilt of her knife.
“Thank you for not abandoning us. We are truly-” The pale girl started.
McKenzie held up his hand. “Hear that?” He asked.
“What?” She asked back.
There was a cracking noise from above, and a shower of stone chippings clattered to the cave floor, followed by an ominous grinding noise.
“How deep underground are we?” McKenzie asked her. “Please say ‘not far, the exit is just round the corner’.”
“Run!” She shouted, and they did.
McKenzie followed as the girls ran, scrambled, slipped, cursed and screamed their way out of the cave. The grinding noise got louder and louder, and the chips from the ceiling started to become large rocks.
“How far’d you say?” McKenzie shouted.
“About two hundred paces!” The pale girl shouted back.
“Paces?” McKenzie asked. “Is that metric or imperial?”
Whatever the exact measurement, McKenzie could see faint daylight ahead. The big woman was surging forward, but the other two were lagging behind - the albino girl especially was hampered by her loose, flapping clothes.
McKenzie caught the pale girl up under one arm, angled to intercept the short, slender one, and caught her under the other.
“Quit wriggling!” He shouted, as he started jumping from boulder to boulder. He had soon caught up with the big woman, but very large rocks indeed were starting to fall now.
In the very best dramatic traditions, they flew out into sunlight just as the cave collapsed, followed by a shower of dust, gravel and a resounding boom. McKenzie tripped in long grass and fell to the ground, landing in a heap and a tangle of limbs with his two burdens. The big woman, in turn, tripped over him and went flying. She let go of the head, which landed on the ground about two inches from McKenzie’s.
“Ew! Shit!” He yelped.
“Would you please get off me!” The ginger one snapped at him.
“Not a problem!” McKenzie snapped back. “By the way, a ‘thank you’ wouldn’t be out of the question, about now,” he sniffed. “What is that stink? Smells like someone threw up and then shat in it.”
“What a delightful turn of phrase,” Danandra - the source of said odour - grumbled. McKenzie extricated himself from the confusion of arms, legs and monochromatic clothing.
“Well, that was fun,” The big woman rumbled. “Name’s Violentia, ” she said, extending a massive hand - and an equally massive, be-tusked grin - to help him up, “but my friends and business associates call me Leni.”
“McKenzie,” McKenzie said, accepting the help - her hand completely engulfed his. “Well, that seems to have solved your little zombie issue, girls. No charge. Which way’s the nearest airport?”
“About two days’ ride south,” Leni answered.
“Ride being on a train, right?” McKenzie asked,
Violentia shook her head. “No wagon trains up this way - everyone is - was - too scared of Mahrak. We came here on horseback. Well, they did,” she indicated the other two.
“Horses?” McKenzie said. “I am in the arsehole of nowhere,” he looked around - they were in a grassy valley slung amongst mountains - a few hundred yards away, a very oriental looking castle brooded over the valley, surrounded by a cluster of houses that probably counted as a major urban centre in these parts. It felt like high altitude. “This is where, Tibet? China?”
“Northern Izmodeia,” Leni told him. “About fifteen miles from the border with the Greater Eastern Vyrinian Empire.”
“Man, the shit that never finds its way onto a map. Have they heard of US dollars here? Especially at the airport. Looks like a lovely tourist spot, but I’d prefer to be somewhere I definitely know does not have an extradition treaty with the USA for a while,” McKenzie replied.
“If it’s gold, they’ll take it,” Leni told him.
“Gold? Totally retro. Lucky for me I packed a bit. Nice meeting you all, well, it wasn’t really, best I can say is it wasn’t fatal, but still. See you round. Or not. Preferably not,” McKenzie said, and turned to face the castle.
“Hold it right there!” The short ginger one spoke up crossly.
“She always like that?” McKenzie asked Leni in an aside.
“Mm-hmm,” Leni confirmed. “Sometimes worse.”
“You left us for dead in there!” Danandra told him.
McKenzie paused. “Yeah, well, technically, yes, I suppose. Technically. I’ve seen deader people, though, so let’s call it quits, shall we? Buh-bye now.”
“You can’t just-” Danandra started.
“I can just,” McKenzie cut her off.
“You really can’t just-”
“Danandra!” Cally shushed her. “Sir, McKenzie, please wait a moment. As I was saying inside, we are most grateful for your help-”
“I’m not,” Danandra interjected.
“We really are very grateful indeed for your help,” Callena overrode her. “My name is Callena, and this is Danandra. You have already met Violentia.”
“Charmed,” McKenzie said. “Like I said, though - gotta go. Things to see, people to do.”
“Please! You really do need to hear us out,” Cally went on.
“I really don’t,” McKenzie replied, and walked away.
“See how far you get!” Danandra called after him.
McKenzie, once again, got about fifteen feet before once more coming up against the invisible but impenetrable wall.
“Well, this sucks,” he said, prodding at it with a finger. “Which one of you is doing this? I’m not ordinarily a bastard, but you may have noticed a certain streak of ruthlessness in my nature, which, if I do say so myself, I’ve put a lot of work into cultivating. If this doesn’t cease immediately, I will start experimenting with the hand-sparky-electrozap upgrade, quite possibly on people’s teeth.” McKenzie snapped his fingers, causing a burst of sparks and a soft exhalation from Danandra. “That is so cool,” he went on. “Anyshit - cut it out.”
“Chatty, isn’t he?” Leni remarked.
“It’s not us, good master McKenzie,” Cally told him. “We need to talk.”
“Why is it women are always saying that?” McKenzie shook his head, and walked back. “Go on, then.”
“Thank you,” Callena said. “Um, I don’t really know where you’re from, but it’s quite evident that you’re not the human being you seem to be, and you don’t seem to be surprised by the appearance of my two friends here.”
“Well, there are more things in heaven and earth, etcetera. Admittedly your green mate there would look a bit out of place down the local pub, but it’s a weird old world. Carry on.”
“Yes, well, you see, we came here to kill Mahrak,” Cally said.
“The zombie motherfucker?” Mckenzie asked.
“Yes, the, um, zombie, as you say.” Despite her extreme pallor, Cally blushed. Leni snickered. Danandra glowered. “The way we did that was to use a very old and powerful spell to summon something that could destroy him, since we could not do it unaided. We did not know what would be summoned, only that it would mean Mahrak’s end. In the event, what the spell delivered was you,” Cally explained.
“OK, so, when you say ‘it’s not us’, what you actually-actually mean is ‘it’s us’.” McKenzie wore a dark look. “Gee, it’s lucky for you girls that I’m not some kinda borderline-sane killing machine with impulse control issues and questionable moral standards that can shoot electricity out of his hands, isn’t it? Otherwise you might be in trouble.”
“Please, Master McKenzie, we had no idea that a living, breathing human being would be summoned. I am really very sorry. However, possibly because of your, erm, attempted retreat, earlier in proceedings, there seems to have been an unanticipated side-effect.” Cally paused.
“What Cally is trying to say is you’re cursed, like us. Have you done anything in the past you’re not proud of, McKenzie? Have you broken any oaths, abandoned any friends or otherwise wandered recklessly off the path of righteousness? My guess is you have. Well, you won’t again,” Danandra chimed in bitterly, trying to wipe her face and arms clear of the remaining slime. “You work for Lord Lemuel now, same as us.”
The change wrought in McKenzie by those words was immediate and chilling. He went from looking mildly pissed off to simmering with rage within milliseconds. Sparks jumped from his fingers to the grass with angry zipping noises - where they struck the ground ugly, spike-leafed plants burst into life.
“Whoa, calm down there, McKenzie,” Leni said, backing away.
“Master McKenzie, please be calm! Danandra did not explain the situation very well-”
Danandra was simply staring at the sparking McKenzie, her bottom lip between her teeth. Her hand went to the front of her clothes and started to pull at them.
“Danandra!” Cally hissed, noticing.
Danandra looked at her hand as if seeing it for the first time. She smoothed down her robes and crossed her arms firmly.
McKenzie closed his eyes, clenched and unclenched his hands, and breathed out. The sparks subsided, although the thorny plants looked to be a permanent addition to the local ecosystem.
“Actually, that fucking explains if perfectly,” McKenzie seethed, oblivious to the new flora he had summoned into being. “Fucking Lemuel still fucking with me after all these years. When I get my hands on that meddling, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou bastard I’m going to punch him so hard his teeth’ll land in a different time zone.”
“I take it you know Lord Lemuel?” Cally asked.
“Oh yeah,” McKenzie explained. “We go way back, Lemmy and me,” he hawked and spat. “Talk: I’m listening.”