With Brian Walker in the lead, he and Doctor Fate continued on through the twists and turns of the labyrinthine Hell. At one of the intersections, the detective paused long enough to determine the direction before starting off again.
“Doctor Fate?” Brian asked as they started up a low rise.
“I’m starting to have feelings of hopelessness,” Brian said. “By focusing on our destination, I’ve been able to keep the feeling subdued, but I’m afraid they will grow stronger the longer we’re here.”
“Then we should probably keep moving.”
The two men hadn’t gone too far before they came upon a bridge guarded by more demons. Unlike those of their previous encounter, these creatures were dressed much better. Three wore light green bamboo armor and carried spears, while the fourth was dressed in more scholarly robes. A large set of scales was set beside the road between the travelers and the bridge.
“What do we do now?” Brian asked.
“I believe they expect us to sit on the scales,” Fate said. “I’m sure the one on the robes will tell us what we need to do.”
They drew nearer, and the guards stepped out into the road to block their path.
“You,” the scholar said, pointing to Brian. “Get on the scales.”
Brian glanced at Doctor Fate, who responded with a slight nod. “What is the purpose of these scales?” Brian asked as he handed the basket to his companion and approached the scales. “The bridge looks sturdy enough to hold both of us, plus a dozen more.”
“It is your righteousness that we weigh,” the scholar said, “not your body.”
From behind his helmet, Doctor Fate saw the three guards trade wicked grins. As Brian climbed onto the scales, the older hero whispered words of an ancient spell.
Placing his full weight on the scales, Brian was only slightly less surprised than the demons when the large disk upon which he sat rose instead of sinking. The reactions of the guards confirmed Doctor Fate’s suspicions.
The scales were rigged.
Brian was removed from the scales and directed to stand off to the side. He took the basket from Doctor Fate.
Fate repeated the spell he had cast on Brian, this time directing the results toward himself. When the results were the same as before, the guards were furious.
“You have seen our righteousness,” Doctor Fate told the scholar. “Let us be on our way.”
Before the scholarly demon could reply, one of the guards stepped forward, his weapon raised. “You cheated,” it growled.
“No more than you,” Doctor Fate replied. “Again, let us be on our way.”
The guards leaped forward and thrust their spears at the two men. Fate threw up a shield of golden energy that emitted a shower of mystical sparks when his enemy’s weapons struck it.
“Brian,” he said, “stay behind me.”
“I’ve got an idea,” the detective replied. “Just keep the guards busy and off my back.”
Doctor Fate knew that he could dispatch his foes pretty easily, but he was curious to see what his companion had in mind. It would be a good time to see exactly what this next-generation hero was capable of.
The detective charged the scholarly demon.
In response, the scholar gave way to his more demonic side. He took a swipe at the human with his lengthening claws.
Brian ducked beneath the attack and countered the demon’s move. Before the creature knew what had happened, the human was behind him and had him in a headlock. Despite his leverage, Brian knew that the taller creature would eventually be able to free himself. He brought his legs up around the demon’s waist and began to exert pressure on his foe’s neck.
“Stop!” he yelled to the guards.
Their bloodlust drained away to uncertainty as they looked from the man in blue and gold to the human who had captured the scholar. The odd look they saw in the robed demon’s eyes was enough to cause them to back away. It was a look they had seen many times before, but usually it was in the eyes of those the rigged scales showed to be unrighteous; it was the look of fear.
“We are going to cross this bridge,” Brian told the demons. “And from now on, I would suggest that you let the scale do its job without your help.”
The scholar nodded, as best as it could, given its current predicament. The guards stepped away from Doctor Fate, and Brian forced his captive’s head toward the foot of the bridge. Like a stubborn but hopelessly dominated horse, the demon did as it was forced.
With one hand outstretched toward the guards, and the other pointed toward the scholar, Doctor Fate was prepared to defend Brian and himself when the demons turned on them.
At the foot of the bridge, Brian untangled his legs from around the scholar’s waist. Sensing that the demon was tensing up to do something once it was released, the moment his feet touched the ground Brian brought his knee up sharply into the creature’s tailbone.
As the demon brought both of his clawed hands back to the offended area, Brian pushed it away and joined Fate on the bridge. An instant later, the spears the guards were holding began to glow, causing the startled demons to toss them to the ground.
The two humans rushed across the bridge, quickly putting space between themselves and the demons. After several minutes, they stopped so that Brian could try to regain the trail they were following.
“Interesting move you made back there,” Fate said. “It looks like you really know how to handle yourself in a fight. I think Wildcat will get a kick out of it when I tell him what you did.”
“Charleston is a military town,” Brian said. “For the most part, they are a great bunch of men and women, but every once in a while, a couple of them will get to drinking — their combat training makes them dangerous drunks. Occasionally, we have had to deal with them while waiting on the M.P.s; I decided that if I knew a little of what they knew, it might keep me in one piece.”
“After seeing you in action,” Fate told the detective, “I have no doubts that you came out on top of most situations.”
“My fair share,” Brian replied.
Kelli Lockhart and T.J. Dalton quickly shut their mouths and tried to look anywhere but at the cook. The young woman took notice of the many herbs hanging from the rafters, while the young man turned his attention to a large kettle with a slightly askew lid. T.J. jumped when he felt the tip of one of the cook’s rubbery tentacles caress his cheek.
“Ignore that crazy eight,” the octopus said. “He thinks he is humorous.”
T.J. would have never believed it if someone had described them, but the cook’s words actually sounded like the gentle popping of bubbles.
“Still,” Kelli said, “we shouldn’t have stared. It was very rude of us.”
“Think nothing of it,” said the octopus. “Now,” she said, turning her attention back to T.J., “what would you like to take with you to eat?”
“I, uh, I haven’t really given it much thought,” the young man replied.
A tentacle came up and began to rub a spot beneath the octopus’ mouth where a chin would be. After a moment of thought, she raised another tentacle, and an expression of discovery brightened her purple face.
“Do you like gingerbread men?” the cook asked.
“Either you do, or you don’t,” the cook teased him.
“OK,” T.J. said, “I do.”
Two tentacles went into the octopus’ mouth, and she made three short, shrill whistles. Seconds later, a four-inch-tall gingerbread man came walking in from the pantry.
Both T.J. and Kelli were astonished at its arrival.
The octopus wrapped a tentacle around the gingerbread man’s waist and used a second one to pull an arm off and pop it into her mouth.
The gingerbread man’s icing face changed to one of horror, and a high-pitched squeal escaped its icing lips. It fell backward and began to flop back and forth, scattering crumbs everywhere.
The two humans were horrified.
“Stop that,” the octopus said, her brow furrowed in mock anger.
Instantly, the gingerbread man was on his feet, all signs of discomfort gone.
The cook looked at her two guests. “They seem to think that is funny. Actually biting into one causes the gingerbread men no pain. I think they just act like that because of all the sugar.”
The eight snickered. “Sounds like a case of sugar shock,” he said.
Somewhat recovered from what he had seen, T.J. looked at the octopus. “I think I’ll pass on the gingerbread men.”
“How about we just stick to breads, cheeses, jerky, and water?” the cook asked.
“Maybe some apples?” Kelli asked, and T.J. nodded.
“Give me a few minutes,” the octopus said, and immediately went to work gathering T.J.’s foodstuff. Tentacles began to move with precision, gathering and cutting and wrapping and packing everything the young man would need for his journey.
“Are you going with him?” the cook asked Kelli.
“No,” answered Kelli. “The robot dog has volunteered to go with him.”
“Robot dog… robot dog… I don’t believe I have anything to feed a robot dog,” the cook said. She then turned to the eight. “What’s a robot dog?”
“It is that automaton that followed the master back, the one that has been living in the dungeon for the past several years,” the eight told her.
“Oh,” the octopus said with a shrug. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
Kelli could see that this conversation had the potential to go on far longer than they had time to spare, so she intervened. “The robot dog doesn’t require any food.”
“Thank you, dearie,” the octopus said, “for clearing that up for me.”
Once again, the octopus turned her attention back to T.J.; she was reaching him a basketful of food. “You take care of yourself on your journey.”
“I will, Ma’am,” he replied. “Thank you for the food.”
When she started to turn back toward her cooking, the octopus noticed the gingerbread man still standing there. “Would you please clean up those crumbs and then get back in the pantry?”
As T.J., Kelli, and the eight left, they heard the gingerbread man’s answer. “How can I clean it up, you great purple gob? You ate my good arm.”
“Good arm?” the octopus said. “My dear little gingerbread man, it wasn’t just good, it was delicious.”
“I was just thinking,” Brian said, as he and Doctor Fate walked.
“About the Hell notes?” Fate asked.
“I thought I was the detective,” Brian replied.
“After forty-odd years of doing this, I’ve picked up a few tricks from my teammates,” the older hero said. “I’ve noticed that you have been shifting the basket around for the past several minutes. What about the notes?”
“I thought we were given these things to use as bribes,” Brian said, “and yet we’ve not even thought about using them for the purpose intended.”
“The encounters we’ve had so far have been trivial,” Fate said. “If I’ve learned anything over the years, it is that you need more assistance at the end of the adventure than you do at the first of it. Personally, I would prefer not to use them at all, but if we find ourselves in a situation that we can’t talk or fight our way out of, then we will have the bribes to fall back on.”
Brian couldn’t deny the logic of his friend’s reasoning, so he simply nodded and continued to follow the mystic trail.
After walking for what seemed to be a couple of hours, they found themselves at the edge of a small village. At first the place appeared to be deserted, its emptiness adding to the general hopelessness of this dimension.
Brian slowed up until Fate was walking beside him. “I get the feeling that we aren’t the only ones here,” he said.
“One of the advantages of wearing a full helmet,” Doctor Fate replied. “My darting eyes have been less conspicuous than your own. I’ve noticed several shutters crack open ever so slightly. I haven’t seen our observers, but I can confirm your suspicions. I get the feeling that something is about to happen, so stay alert.”
As if on cue, a howl broke the stillness.
Fate was the first to hear the rapid slap of rough paws on packed earth, but only by a second. The two men watched as dozens of large, deep-crimson dogs blocked all streets save one, the one upon which they had arrived.
“Any idea what’s going on?” Brian asked.
“Not really,” Doctor Fate replied. “Just be ready for anything.”
The detective nodded and stepped so that he and the hero were back to back. The two men began to move in a slow, tight circle. They were somewhat surprised when only one dog attacked.
The beast charged the two and, less than a dozen paces away, leaped at them. It came from a side street, attempting to catch them off-guard.
Neither man was taken by surprise, however, and ducked beneath the assault. As the creature passed overhead, Fate’s gloved hand shot up, and a golden ankh appeared in the dog’s path. It passed through the arcane symbol and howled for just a second before exploding in a shower of mystic ash.
“Not what I expected,” Brian said as he and Fate continued to circle back to back. “A lone attack, I mean.”
Before his companion could respond, a second dog charged the duo. Unlike its predecessor, however, it leaped with the intention of knocking both men down.
The two men quickly separated, allowing the beast to pass between them. Brian brought his elbow down, catching the canine just behind the neck; Fate also brought his elbow down and connected with its spine. With the added force of his superhuman strength, he felt the spine snap. The dog dropped and rolled several feet before lying very still on the dust.
The interval between the third dog’s attack and the second one’s attack was shorter than the one between the first and second dogs’ attacks. This time, the attack came straight at Brian. Holding himself in check until the last possible second, the detective threw a punch that connected with the animal’s throat. The animal slammed into him, knocking him back against Doctor Fate before it dropped to the ground. Aside from getting the breath knocked from him, Brian suffered a laceration on his cheek from the dog’s paw. Ignoring the pain, he quickly dropped down on the dog, letting his momentum deliver a devastating blow, once again, to the creature’s throat. It shuddered for a moment, then became still.
From that point on, the attacks came quicker, until the two men were doing their best to fight off the entire pack. Their clothes were quickly being shredded, and bloody scratches decorated their exposed skin. Fortunately, they had been successful in their attempts to protect their throats from the ripping jaws of the animals.
“We’ve got to do something,” Brian shouted, above the howls. “We can’t last much longer.”
“I’m trying an incantation,” Fate replied, “but something is making it hard to grasp the magic. I suspect the sheer number of these creatures is causing the interference.”
Brian let his body take over defending itself and began to concentrate on the magic around him. He pictured himself standing in a river of magic, then allowed his perception to expand. He could sense Fate’s nearness, but not in the magic. Within his mind, it appeared that while he was in the river, his companion was on the shore, reaching toward the magic like a man dying of thirst. Slowly, fighting the current with every step, Brian began to make his way toward the shore. Drawing nearer to his friend, he bent down and scooped up a handful of the magic. It wasn’t much, but when it splashed against the hero, it allowed him to push against the force that kept him separated from the river. Brian repeated the action several more times, each time allowing Fate to draw closer. He was preparing to throw yet again when his concentration was broken by one of the dogs’ sharp teeth sinking into his arm.
Brian screamed in pain and began to drive his fist into the dog’s face. He had landed nearly a dozen punches when the animal exploded in a shower of mystic ash. He felt Doctor Fate’s hand on his shoulder and, looking around, saw that all of their attackers were gone.
“Quick thinking,” the older man said.
“Occult once told me that I had to control the flow of magic around me to be able to follow where it leads me,” Brian said, cradling his arm, “so I figured that if I could control its flow around me, I might try to redirect it.”
“Let’s see about that arm, then leave this place,” Doctor Fate suggested.
Brian looked around, then nodded. “I think I’d rather leave first, then worry about the arm.”
Doctor Fate picked up the basket of Hell notes, which had fallen sometime during the fight, and, holding it by the straps, motioned for Brian to take the lead. Still cradling his arm, the detective started walking, glad to be putting this village behind them.