Robbie the Robotdog’s robotic brain repeatedly processed the information available and continually came up to the same conclusion; the thorn was the source of T.J. Dalton’s unnatural slumber. He had already made several attempts to wake the young man, including placing his cold metal nose against T.J.’s cheek and releasing a small electrical charge. With no other alternative, Robbie could only think of one thing to do — he had to contact Doctor Occult.
Nosing through the pack that T.J. had been carrying, Robbie found the mirror that was to be used to contact the professor. He wasn’t sure how it was supposed to work, so he placed it on the ground and began to call the old man’s name.
“Professor Van Ish? Doctor Occult?”
There was no answer. He let a few minutes pass and tried to contact them again. Still nothing.
Robbie glanced back at T.J. and shook his head. “I don’t know what they are going through, kid, but it appears we are on our own for now.”
Not knowing what else to do at the moment, the canine robot gathered more wood for the fire, then settled down to wait.
Lazarus Lane never heard Kelli Lockhart’s warning cry, but it didn’t matter. He hadn’t survived numerous gunfights, conflicts, and wars by being caught by surprise. The moment he was on the ground, his guns were blazing.
Morgauth stopped, briefly, as the cowboy’s mystical bullets bit into its flesh with more intensity.
Lazarus took advantage of the monster’s pause and began to direct the professor’s subjects to retreat. It took a promise that help was coming to get them to move. Unfortunately, now that it had so many of its enemies in sight, Morgauth wasn’t about to let them leave alive.
From the window above, Lazarus’ friends could see what was about to happen. Kelli implored the two older men to do something.
Doctor Occult looked at the professor. “Aside from the weapons the guards carry, do you have any others in the castle?”
Van Ish thought for a second, then nodded. “Excuse me,” he said. “Let me just pop up to my quarters and get the map.”
“Map?” Kelli asked.
“Unfortunately, my mind has not yet… settled in its wanderings,” the professor said. “There are many rooms in this castle that I’m sure exist, I just can’t quite remember where they are.” He hurried off down a corridor.
Kelli turned back to Richard Occult. “What about you? Can’t you use your magic?”
“I tried while I was in the cell,” Richard said, “and I couldn’t even open the door. My magic doesn’t work here like it supposed to. Even Robbie commented that he preferred science to voodoo. Apparently, most things here follow an opposite set of rules than they do back home.”
Kelli started to say something when a thought crossed her mind. “If I try something foolish,” she said, “you won’t laugh at me, will you?”
“After some of the things we’ve seen, I think you should try whatever idea that you think might work.”
Kelli began searching around. As she looked, she spoke. “What is the most harmless thing you can think of?”
“Well,” Richard said, “the first thing that comes to mind is the phrase ‘harmless as a fly.’ Why?”
“Wouldn’t a paper fly be even more harmless?” Kelli asked as she found a piece of parchment and a quill.
Richard Occult couldn’t help but grin. “Girl, if this works,” he said, “I shall hand-paint the Torpedo when we get home.”
Quickly, Kelli sketched a picture of a fly on a corner of the parchment, then tore it off. Walking to the window, she smiled as well. “If this works, I might just hold you to that.”
Wadding the scrap of paper up, she cocked her arm back to throw it out the window, then thought better of it. Balancing it on her thumb, she gave it a flick with her middle finger.
And away it flew.
Flying farther and faster than logically possible, the wadded-up paper fly continued to build up speed until it outstripped Lazarus’ bullets. Catching Morgauth in the right leg, just above where its knee would be, the paper struck with enough force to tear away everything up to the thigh.
The mouths that ended Morgauth’s tentacles screamed like they had never screamed before as the monster teetered and fell backward.
Had it not been for the fact that everyone was on their knees covering their ears trying to block out the horrendous screams, Kelli might have received a host of congratulations.
“Do you think they will succeed in locating their friends?” Kao Chien-Li asked Mrs. Meng.
“Not all at once,” Mrs. Meng replied cryptically, “but eventually…?”
The pair stood watching the three travelers until they disappeared over a rise in the road. As Chien-Li turned and started into the house, he noticed a basket under the table.
“It appears the young one has forgotten his basket,” the man said.
As he pulled it from its resting place and set it on the table, Mrs. Meng entered and closed the door. “He forgot nothing,” she said. “Brian Walker has a good memory, and a good heart.” She opened the basket.
Kao Chien-Li merely nodded as he saw the Hell notes.
The trio traveled for nearly an hour with little conversation between them. For a few brief moments during this time, Brian and the Repentant One thought they heard a few words of Doctor Fate’s side of a conversation with someone apparently somewhere else, but he offered no enlightenment as to whom he had spoken.
“May I ask you something?” Brian asked the demon as they walked.
“You are curious as to my name before I became a repentant demon,” the demon said.
“You are either telepathic…” Brian started.
“Or your curiosity is very evident,” the Repentant One finished.
Brian smiled. “I guess so.”
The demon laughed. It was a deep laugh, but very jovial. “I like you. You have a sense of honor about you.”
“Before I was trapped by Master Lao Jen and spent an eternity in those accursed glasses of his, I was called Kuei Lan,” the Repentant One said. “And to save you from wondering, its literal translation into your language is Demon Blue.”
“Demon Blue,” Brian repeated, like a connoisseur tasting a newly discovered vintage. “I like it.”
The demon gave his new companion a curious look.
“In our business,” Brian said, indicating Doctor Fate and himself, “codenames are pretty much mandatory.”
“So, Brian is your codename?” Kuei Lan asked.
“Ah, no,” the detective replied. “Brian is my real name. My teammates call me, well, actually, they still call me Brian. My actual codename is Tracker.”
“And you want me to go by Kuei Lan?” the demon asked.
“Actually,” Brian said, grinning, “I was thinking more of Demon Blue.”
Kuei Lan stopped, furled his brow, and looked hard at the young man. Brian was about to take a step back when the demon grinned. “I think I like it.”
Beneath his helmet, Doctor Fate chuckled as he saw Brian’s shoulders sag in relief.
Brian started to take a step, but Kuei Lan held up his hand.
“There is no need to go farther,” he said. “Here is where we cross into the next dimension.”
Even Fate was curious.
The demon knelt down and picked up a rather plain piece of stone. His two companions watched as he began to shape the stone with his bare hands. Within minutes, the stone strongly resembled a knife. Kuei Lan muttered an arcane phrase, then blew a stream of steam onto the weapon. Reversing the blade in his hand so that the tip pointed away from him, the demon lashed out with a backhanded strike that slashed the very fabric of space. Without a backward glance, he stepped from this dimension into the next.
Doctor Fate and Brian looked at each other for a couple of seconds, just long enough for Kuei Lan to poke his head back through the rift.
“Are you two coming, or what?”
The two men stepped through.
Once Brian and Doctor Fate had crossed into the next dimension, Kuei Lan grasped both edges of the rift in his large hands and pulled them together. When they touched, he transferred both edges into one hand and pulled the stone knife from where he had tucked it into his waistband. He thrust the knife through the two edges and then stepped back.
The knife flared briefly as threads of light began to knit the two edges of torn reality back together. As the threads moved farther and farther from the knife, the knife’s light grew dimmer, and the knife shrank. When the threads had sealed the rift, there was one final flare of light. Afterward, there was no sign that the rift had ever existed.
Brian was surprised by the appearance of this new dimension. Had he not known better, he would have sworn that he was in one of the many cave systems that seemed to draw a moderate amount of visitors each year in the United States. The trio was standing in a fairly wide passageway that opened into a vast cavern, the far side of which was shrouded in a thick mist. At various places along the walls, and even high up on the ceiling overhead, spots of flickering, phosphorescent lichen supplied a soft and somewhat eerie, sickly green light. As Kuei led the way across the cavern, winding his way between towering stalagmites, Brian had the opportunity to examine the lichen. He was startled to discover that it was not lichen at all, but rather, clusters of two-inch eyestalks topped with ever blinking lime-colored eyes. As the trio passed by, the eyestalks bent and twisted so they could observe the intruders’ progress.
Occasionally, entire groups of eyestalks would go black, like someone or something had passed between them and the travelers. Even though Kuei kept his focus on their destination, Brian and Doctor Fate were constantly looking around. Finally, the older hero voiced his concerns.
“I believe we are being followed,” Doctor Fate said.
“Not followed,” the demon replied, “herded.”
“I don’t believe I like the idea of being herded,” Brian said.
“Neither do I,” Fate added.
“So far, we don’t have anything to worry about,” Kuei assured them. “Whatever is in the shadows can sense the power we have at our disposal and are doing their best to keep us from stopping and invading their territory.”
Brian breathed a sigh of relief. “I wish we could let them know that we had no intention of doing any such thing.”
“Don’t let your guard down quite yet,” Kuei warned the detective. “Chances are they are not only herding us out of their territory, but into the territory of something else. It isn’t unusual for weaker dimensional creatures to point an intruder towards an area inhabited by something a whole lot more belligerent. They figure that their neighbors can easily handle anything they themselves are unable to deal with.”
“Can we stop for a minute?” Brian asked. “I want to try something.”
The demon slowed, but did not stop. “That probably isn’t the best of ideas. Do you require rest?”
“No,” Brian replied. “I want to see if I can get a sense of our surroundings. I am learning to sense things of a mystical nature.”
“It would probably be best if we kept moving,” Kuei said. “Perhaps you should learn to focus on your surroundings while you are moving.”
There was no malice in the demon’s words, and Brian realized that there was wisdom in what he said.
“Do you trust me, Brian?” Doctor Fate asked, from behind the detective.
“Of course I do,” Brian replied.
Doctor Fate put his hands on Brian’s shoulders. “Close your eyes and focus, and allow me to guide you.”
Brian had grown up reading and listening to stories about the Justice Society of America, and he knew that, more than all of their powers combined, the greatest legacy of these heroes from the golden age was their ability to inspire trust. Without reservations, he closed his eyes.
It took a few moments for the detective to let his body sync up with Doctor Fate’s steering, but once it did, his mind began to isolate itself from its physical surroundings. Once his mind was at total peace, Brian began to let his mystical senses reach out and examine this dimension. As he searched, he discovered that, with a little effort, he could actually get an image of what was herding them.
The creatures were not all that large, some of them standing barely over a foot tall. At first, they reminded Brian of black and gray teddy bears, but after he finally focused on one, he realized these were like no teddy bears he had ever seen. While they appeared to have the face and body of the cuddly toys, there were a few nightmarish differences. Instead of fluffy little ears, short barbed horns poked up through the skin on top of their heads. Sharp jagged claws existed where there should have been soft, velvety paws. From the base of their spines, long, serpentine tails with spiny ridges swished back and forth.
Brian shuddered slightly. The sheer numbers of these creatures should have given them the courage to face three intruders. If they were herding Brian and his companions to something else, then he dreaded seeing what awaited them.
Letting his senses expand, and focusing less on the creatures, Brian tried to get a sense of what was ahead. After a few moments, he spoke.
“I seem to be hitting a wall of some sort,” he said.
“That would be the next dimensional barrier,” Kuei said.
Shortly thereafter, the trio reached a point where the Repentant One called a halt. The tension was almost palpable as the citizens of this dimension waited to see whether or not the invaders would leave or make a stand.
Kuei knelt down and sketched a large circle in the dust. He motioned for the others to step into the circle, then uttered a few words in his native language. Immediately, the edge of the circle began to glow, and the three travelers began to sink into the ground. Just before their heads vanished beneath the circle’s rim, Kuei let out a loud roar that sent the small creatures fleeing.
He smiled at his companions. “I’m still working on that ‘Repentant’ part.
In the next instant, they were somewhere else entirely.