The dimensional travelers found themselves in the midst of a very harsh landscape. On the horizon, an azure sun was beginning to rise. As it began to climb higher in the sky, they realized that, despite the sunlight being given off, the sun was providing no warmth.
“What types of beings call this realm home?” Doctor Fate asked the demon.
“This realm is void of life,” Kuei Lan replied.
Brian Walker was about to comment on understanding why when he stopped and began to look around. “Are you sure?” he asked.
“The only ones that would be in this realm are the ones who are passing through,” Kuei assured him. “And even if you counted those, it would take many years just to equal the number of fingers on one of your hands.”
“I am getting a sense that we are not alone,” Brian said. He looked around for several seconds before stopping and pointing off to their left. “There is someone in that direction.”
“Perhaps we should have a look,” Fate suggested.
With Brian in the lead, they started of in the direction of the other travelers.
As they traveled, Brian took note of their surroundings. Sharp, jagged rocks that appeared to be a cross between onyx and lava, some of which were several feet tall, stabbed up through the lifeless dirt. Small bushes of thorny sage dotted the landscape. There was a strange oppression of the soul that made him thankful he was not traveling through this realm alone. He realized that a lone traveler could easily go mad in the vast solitude of the place.
After traveling for a while, they spotted a rather large outcropping of jagged rocks was rising up in the distance. As they drew closer, a thought popped into Brian’s mind that something was familiar. He narrowed his focus on the area around the rocks and realized that the life he had detected was one he had encountered before. He picked up the pace.
“What is it?” Doctor Fate asked.
“I’m sure it is one of my friends,” Brian said. “I’m just not sure which one.”
That information was enough to spur Fate and Kuei to increase their pace as well. The closer they got to the rocks, the faster Brian got; he ran the last several yards.
Within the protection of the rocks, Robbie the Robotdog heard the approach. Placing himself between the still-unconscious T.J. Dalton, were it possible, his hackles would have been raised and his teethed bared as he prepared to defend his injured friend.
“Occult? Kelli? T.J.?”
Upon hearing the names being called out, Robbie ran to the entrance and began dragging the brush out of the way. “Watch out for the thorns,” he called out to whomever was looking for his friend. “I think they are poisonous.”
The trio found the opening, and was very surprised to find a small robotic dog standing there to greet them. Robbie did not recognize the young man, and the sight of the demon caused him to take a step back in alarm, but when he saw the hero in the gold helmet, he knew they were friends.
“Doctor Fate,” Robbie said.
The hero from the golden age looked at the dog for several seconds before speaking. “Well, I’ll be,” he said. “You are that robot dog that Robotman built, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Robbie said, then quickly changed the conversation. “My friend is sick.”
Brian spotted the body near the fire and rushed past Robbie. “T.J.!”
Robbie quickly explained why he and T.J. were there, and what had happened to the young man. “I’ve even tried a mild electric shock to wake him, and nothing worked.”
Kuei and Fate knelt down beside Brian. Despite wanting to remain at his friend’s side, the detective knew that Doctor Fate and Kuei could do more for T.J. than what he could. He stood up and joined Robbie.
“How were Kelli and Richard when you left?” Brian asked.
“Things weren’t looking all that good,” Robbie said. “The one called Lazarus seemed to be keeping Morgauth at bay with his pistols, but I don’t know how long he could keep it up.”
Brian was surprised. “So, Lazarus Lane is still alive after all this time.”
“And, apparently, he is in pretty good shape,” Robbie added.
Their conversation was cut short when they saw Doctor Fate helping T.J. to his feet. They quickly joined their friend.
T.J. was still woozy, so Brian put his arm around the young man for support.
“I have countered the effects of the sleep poison from the thorn,” Doctor Fate said, “but I won’t know if there are any other side-effects until we get him back home.”
Robbie gently picked the mirror up in his mouth and handed it to Doctor Fate. “You can use this to contact Richard. Just call out for the professor.”
Fate did as he was instructed. “Professor Van Ish? Doctor Occult?”
A second later, his reflection faded, and he found himself looking into the face of an old man.
“Who are you?” the professor asked.
“I am called Doctor Fate,” the man replied. “Doctor Occult knows me.”
The professor’s face disappeared briefly, then reappeared. “Is T.J. all right?”
“He is now, but he had a run-in with a local thorn bush. If you can open us a portal, we can bring him back and check him out a bit more thoroughly.”
The professor nodded. “Give me a couple minutes,” he said, and then the mirror returned to normal.
Doctor Occult was waiting for the group when they walked through the mirror. He helped Brian get T.J. to a divan so the young man could lie down.
“We have a demon outside,” Professor Van Ish told the newcomers, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on Kuei, “and you bring another one into our midst? If Doctor Occult had not vouched for you, I would have left you where you were.”
“I apologize if I’ve upset you,” Kuei said, “but you can trust me. I’m not like other demons.”
“It’s true,” Doctor Fate said. “Our friend is on the path of repentance.”
“Plus,” Kuei said, with a grin that did nothing to promote his claim of innocence, “I have an idea that might just solve your other problem.”
At that moment, Kelli Lockhart entered the room. He spotted Brian and walked over and gave him a hug. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I’ve brought friends to help,” Brian replied, then introduced her to Kuei and Doctor Fate.
“It’s a good thing they showed up when they did,” Robbie said.
Kelli looked at the robot dog, then realized that his appearance meant T.J. was here as well. She looked around and saw the young man resting on the divan. She rushed to his side and knelt down beside him.
“Are you all right?” she asked. Before he had a chance to answer, she looked up at Richard Occult. “Is he all right?”
Doctor Fate joined them by the divan. “He was scratched by a thorn which put him into a deep sleep of some sort. I managed to wake him, but we don’t know what other effect the thorn has had on him.”
A panel opened on the front of Robbie’s chest, and a piece of one of the thorns dropped out. The professor removed a gauntlet from a suit of armor and scooped it up. He dumped it out on his desk.
Kelli reached for T.J.’s hand as the others gathered around the desk. A startled gasp escaped her lips as she touched him. The hand that had been scratched appeared to be made of wood.
At that moment, a three of diamonds entered the room. “Master,” it said, keeping a wary eye on Kuei, “Morgauth is starting to rise.”
“Perhaps I should see to this Morgauth while the rest of you see what you can do for you friend,” the Repentant One said.
The professor told the card-man to take Kuei to where Lazarus was.
“I’ll go, too,” Robbie volunteered. “I would hate for the gunslinger to think our new friend was on the opposing team.”
“Good idea,” Richard said.
“Robbie,” T.J. said, his voice low, “thanks for watching over me.”
“Yeah, well… let’s try not to make it a habit,” Robbie said as he led Kuei away.
Kuei’s sudden appearance at his side did, indeed, cause Lazarus Lane to turn his guns on the newcomer. Fortunately, Robbie and the three of diamonds were able to convince him that the demon was a friend.
“Sorry about that,” Lazarus said, turning his guns back toward Morgauth.
“I am getting used to that reaction,” Kuei said.
“Our friend here says he might be able to take care of Morgauth,” Robbie said.
“Be my guest,” Lazarus replied. “What do you need me to do?” He was a bit surprised by Kuei’s answer.
“I need to have a face-to-face confrontation with the creature,” Kuei told him. “What I need you to do is keep me covered. If that dirty sidewinder makes a move, slap leather and make sure his next permanent address is Boot Hill.”
Lazarus’ mouth dropped open.
“Sorry. Master Lao spent a lot of time watching westerns,” Kuei said. When he saw that Lazarus was still confused, he smiled. “I’ll explain later.”
Turning his attention back to Morgauth, Kuei began walking toward the monster. As he walked, he called out the creature’s name.
Morgauth immediately recognized the one that was closer to his own hellish kind and paused in his rampage. “Have you come to serve me, little demon?” The monster’s voice was a choir of maddening chaos as its words issued forth from a multitude of mouths.
Kuei covered his ears in an attempt to hold onto his sanity. “I have come to give you what you want,” he said, “not to serve you.”
“All shall serve me,” Morgauth responded, “whether it be as slave or as sustenance.”
“Even one who can willingly open a passage for you?” Kuei asked.
Morgauth paused for a moment to give the matter some thought.
The three of diamonds, who was still standing near Lazarus, leaned close and whispered, “It appears that this one is attempting to betray us.”
“Yes, it does,” Lazarus replied. “But something tells me that we can trust him. Despite him being what he is, I still got a sense of there being more good in him than evil.”
“Might I suggest, then, that you keep him covered just in case?” the card asked.
Lazarus nodded. “Just in case.”
“Well?” Kuei asked.
“If you can give me what I seek, then I shall consider allowing you your freedom,” Morgauth replied.
Kuei started walking toward the monster. As he drew nearer, Morgauth extended a tentacle until it was inches away from Kuei’s face. An eyeball oozed up from thing’s flesh and rolled down the rest of the length of the tentacle until it came to a stop just above the mouth.
“How is it that you can do this thing?” the mouth asked.
“Because,” Kuei said, fanning away the fetid breath coming from the mouth, “I can.”
The eyeball slowly pivoted until it was looking back at the main body. Several seconds passed before it looked back at the demon.
“Show me,” Morgauth said.
“You know that the human in the castle can open portals using mirrors,” Kuei said, reaching into his vest pocket. “What I have is even more powerful than his mirrors.”
Removing a pair of wireframe sunglasses, the demon put them on.
“How can one as great as I fit through such little lenses?” Morgauth asked.
“Because I have been through them, and they are roomier than they appear,” Kuei said.
Several of Morgauth’s tentacles began to sprout eyes like the first and crowded in close to the demon’s face. With nearly a dozen of them wriggling back and forth before him, Kuei spoke.
“Master Lao Jen extends this invitation.”
Kuei Lan covered his ears as the mouths began to scream in fear and rage.
Lazarus, the three of diamonds, and all of the others, both inside and out of the castle did likewise. Despite the noise, however, none of those within sight of the scene could avert their eyes.
What first appeared to be the tentacles reaching toward the glasses soon became obvious. Some force within the mirrored sunglasses was drawing the monster in. Kuei put one foot behind him in an attempt to brace himself. As more and more of Morgauth was drawn into the lenses, Kuei’s attempts became more labored. He felt himself beginning to be pushed backward.
Amazingly, he felt a body pressing against his back. He heard Lazarus screaming something in his ear. Soon, he felt more and more bodies behind him, supporting him, helping him to stand firm.
With one final screech that was cut off abruptly, Morgauth was pulled completely into the sunglasses.
Kuei felt like collapsing, but found himself being supported by those who had come to his aid. There was a rousing cheer when he muttered two simple words.
Lazarus Lane, Robbie the Robotdog, and Kuei Lan arrived in the professor’s study, expecting to find a joyful gathering; the scene that greeted them was far from a happy one. Richard Occult, Professor Van Ish, and Doctor Fate were deep in conversation, while Brian Walker was holding Kelli Lockhart to his chest as she sobbed uncontrollably.
“T.J.,” Robbie said, brushing past the legs of the demon and the gunslinger. Arriving at the divan, his sensors detected no signs of life. “Ah, kid. I was only kidding about making it a habit.”
“What happened?” Lazarus asked.
Richard walked over to the man. “We’re still trying to figure that out,” he said, “but it appears T.J. has been turned into wood.”
“How?” the gunslinger asked.
“While we were in the other dimension,” Robbie said, his metallic voice sounding even more hollow than usual, “he was scratched by a thorn.”
Kuei walked over to the desk and picked up the thorn. “This isn’t right.”
“What do you mean?” Doctor Fate asked.
“It doesn’t matter!” Kelli cried out. “T.J.’s dead.”
Ignoring the girl’s grief, mainly because he had no clue as to how to deal with it, Kuei continued to explain himself. “This thorn should not have been in that dimension.” He turned to the professor. “Since you know the location of the dimension we came from, do you think you could take a look at those that border it?”
The professor thought for a second, then began to nod. “I can certainly try.”
Richard asked, “What are you thinking?”
Before Kuei could respond, the professor spoke up. “I think I found the one you were looking for!”
“That was quick,” Richard said. “What did you find?”
“That my luck isn’t all bad,” Van Ish said. “The mirror was still locked onto the dimension we were observing. I remembered one of the other dimensions we had looked at while searching for this one. It also had some of these thorn bushes.”
“Right,” Richard said, “but we ruled it out, because thorns indicated that there was life there.”
“And since we moved on to the next one, we just forgot about it,” the professor said.
“Then why did you choose this particular dimension?” Lazarus asked.
“Because, at the time they were observing it,” Kuei answered, jumping back into the conversation, “the thorns hadn’t begun to pierce the veil between the two dimensions.”
“What does any of this matter now?” Kelli asked. “T.J.’s dead.”
As she gently pushed away from Brian and began to wipe away her tears with the palms of her hands, the detective joined Robbie beside the young man’s wooden body. Laying his hand on his friend’s forehead, he closed his eyes. Thinking this was his way of grieving, the others lowered their voices to the level of a whisper.
Doctor Fate turned his attention toward his new friend and cocked his head slightly to the left. Behind his helmet, his eyes watched the scene, unblinking.
“I guess our only course of action,” Brian heard Richard say as he opened his eyes, “is to return his body home and locate his next of kin.”
Kelli began to cry again.
“He doesn’t want you to cry, Kelli.”
Everyone turned toward Brian.
“He’s right,” Lazarus said. “What little time I knew the young man, I got the feeling that he wouldn’t want us to cry for him like this.”
“That’s not what Brian said, though,” Doctor Fate said. “He specifically said ‘doesn’t,’ didn’t you?”
Brian nodded. “T.J.’s trapped in wood, but he’s not dead.”
“The detective has been honing his gifts as we searched you out,” Fate said, before anyone could ask.
“How is he?” Kelli asked, relieved to hear what she considered good news.
“Aside from telling me that his nose itches,” Brian said with a grin, “he said he would really like to go home.”
“I think that can be arranged,” Richard said.