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Rene Magritte's famous rendering of Stargod's castle
CASTLE OF THE WOLF
Colonel Jameson tried contacting some guy named Lambert via telepathy. I remembered the name being bandied about by the Realmites. The Man-Wolf claimed Lambert was a wizard, though it didn't sound like he was up to Dr. Strange's level. And truth to tell, Kristine's furry spouse couldn't be sure that his psychic SOS reached its destination.
We waited near the stream, or at least the happy couple did. Mrs. J cupped water greedily to her mouth. Colonel J just plunked his whole lupine head in. Eventually the Man-Wolf rose, shook like a dog, and eyed me curiously.
[Aren't you thirsty, Mr. King?]
I flashed my grin. The one with the teeth.
"As a matter of fact, I am."
The Man-Wolf's ears perked in alarm. I chuckled.
"Sorry, couldn't resist. As a matter of fact, I do drink water. Blood is rather salty fare. However, I'll have to pass this time."
"Why?" asked Mrs. J.
"Running water. It disturbs me just to be near it, like an electric current in my stomach. I could hardly stand to dunk my hanky in it a few minutes ago."
I peered out over the innocent trickling brook.
"If we have to travel that way, Colonel Jameson, I'm going to need help making it across . . ."
[That should pose no problem,] said the Man-Wolf. [However, won't you be needing -- nourishment?]
"You'd be surprised how long I can tough it out," I answered. "It's other things that bother me."
I glanced up at the night sky. The two moons had passed the zenith and were headed for the western horizon (I now based my directions on these heavenly bodies).
"Er -- do you have days here?"/span>
Kristine gasped. "You mean -- in sunlight you'd --?"
"It'd be -- unpleasant."
The Man-Wolf studied the sky.
[We still have four or five hours of darkness, Mr. King, so there is no need to panic.]
"Yeah, but --"
[I will see you to safety before sunrise, Mr. King. You have the word of Stargod -- and the Man-Wolf -- and Colonel John Jameson, USAF.]
He stuck out his furry hand like a lodge brother. I shrugged and accepted it.
As we waited, Colonel Jameson filled us in on what happened at his end. Seems the Stooges tried to carry him off dragon-back, but, much to their chagrin, he became the Man-Wolf -- and then, as if that weren't enough, the living eye of that bizarre tempest!
[The Moongem was a sentient force in its own right,] explained the Man-Wolf. [When the gem was destroyed, its energies dispersed across the Other Realm, like Mount St. Helen's ashes spread around the earth. But this was not lifeless dust -- I think when I appeared on this world, it recognized me as its former receptacle. It tried to re-enter me. With great discomfort on my part, I might add.]
"I can imagine," I remarked.
[Eventually, the Godstorm dissipated, and I was surprised to find myself still in one piece. My captors were dead or gone. I started back to the Portal, but it no longer exists.]
"Uh, yeah," I said. "It sort of had an accident."
I explained sheepishly about how I blasted our only way home. The Man-Wolf gave a toothy grin.
[There's no need to blame yourself, Mr. King. Especially just as things are looking up.]
The Man-Wolf, I realized, actually was scrutinizing something in the night sky. Kristine and I craned our necks to see more dragons. Colonel J gave a whopping great howl that almost knocked me down, and the winged lizards circled over us. There were four of them altogether, and as they sailed lower I recognized the three warriors, along with some new guy with a mane of black hair.
They hopped out of their seats before their mounts had quite landed, and they dashed forward like kids meeting Santa Claus.
"Praise Stargod!" they called out. They drew up short to kneel and bow their heads.
[Garth! Gorjoon! Duna! It is good to see you again!] greeted Wolfie.
The quartet raised their heads, and the first three finally noticed me. Never saw happy faces turn sour so fast.
"Stargod! That man -- he is a demon!" warned the Aryan. "I cleft him asunder with my blade, yet he did not fall!"
"He about ripped my head off, too," muttered the Barbarian, rubbing his neck.
"Garth speaks true, my lord," said the lady with purple hair. "He bested the three of us in combat, though we stood armed and he did not."
"I dunno about bested," denied Goon. "He held his own, sorta . . ."
"It is our shame, but the truth must be told," insisted the Amazon. "We spied him carrying your bride in his arms, my lord, so --"
Wolfie planted his fists on hips.
[So you decided to hack first and ask questions later? That attitude has nearly doomed the Realm more than once, Duna.]
The Man-Wolf's hairy arm dropped across my shoulders like a falling I-beam and gave me a bone-crushing squeeze.
[This man was protecting my wife from the dangers of the Realm. I am not surprised he took you for enemies. He is called Hannibal King, and he is to be treated with the respect due a friend and ally of Stargod.]
That ended it, I hoped; Jameson/Wolfie was pretty good at speech-a-fyin'. He let go of me, and my shoulders expanded to their normal width.
Everyone gathered around the Jamesons and gave them updates on world affairs. Everyone, that is, but me and Goon.
The Barbarian still gave me the evil eye, whatever his Stargod said. Finally he marched over bold as brass.
"You want something, Goon?"
"Gorjoon," the Barbarian corrected me. "If Fangsnout says you're OK, I'll go along with that. But you've got something of mine."
I'd almost forgotten, since I'd become used to carrying it, but I still had the Barbarian's zap-stick. I had my doubts about giving so powerful an offensive weapon back to the offensive Gorjoon, but I had a hunch I'd be around these people a while, so I'd better make nice.
I held the staff out to Gorjoon. "Your stick, sir."
The Barbarian whirled it around like a baton, and it stopped with one end pointed at my face.
"It's more than a stick, demon, as you ought to know," he snarled out of the side of his mouth.
[Gorjoon. . .]
The auburn-haired Neanderthal trotted over to Colonel J like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
"I was just showin' him how it worked . . ."
There were seven of us and four dragons. The Man-Wolf climbed aboard one winged lizard with Kristine. Gorjoon rode behind Garth on another. The new guy -- name of Balnac -- got one to himself, because he was head-dragon-leader or something. That left me with the purple-haired Amazon.
I presented myself to Duna as the others prepared to lift off. The warrior woman held the dragon's reins in her hand -- the scaly beast had reins, and a bridle, just like a horse.
"Looks like it's you and me, Babe."
Duna looked back with the ambivalent expression I was getting used to. She curtsied as she had to the Jamesons.
"So it appears, your Majesty."
"My Majesty?" I queried.
"Did not Stargod name you King Hannibal?"
I had to chuckle at that.
"It's Hannibal King, Duna. It's just a name."
I looked over the dragon without confidence. It was about the size of a Clydesdale, the main difference being the long scaly neck, the lizardy tail, and, of course, the wings.
"Is there something wrong, Hannibal King?" asked Duna.
"It's kind of small for a dragon, isn't it?" I asked back.
"They are the best in the Realm, Hannibal King. I do not know how large dragons grow in your world, but these beasts will support us easily."
"If you say so."
The dragon turned its scaly head and nudged me as if looking for a sugar cube. I about jumped out of my skin. For the first time the warrior woman smiled.
"By the Twin Moons, Hannibal King, it's not going to hurt you. After what I saw tonight, I know not if anything can."
"Yeah. I like people to think that."
I studied her face and saw the ugly bruise that had developed where I'd smacked her earlier. I raised my hand halfway to her cheek, then let it fall back to my side.
"Listen, Duna -- I'm sorry about that."
"Think nothing of it, Hannibal King. As Stargod said, the fault was ours. Besides, I've known worse." She glanced down at the pickaxe she had instead of a right hand.
[Hannibal!] came the Man-Wolf's telepathic voice. [There remains only an hour or so of darkness! We must fly!]
The Jamesons were already airborne. Duna hooked her pick over the saddle horn and sprang onto the dragon's back. She wrapped the reins around her artificial hand like a rope around a ship's cleat. I jumped up behind her and tried to figure out the best way to hold on without getting too fresh.
"I hope you know how to steer this thing," I said. "And no loop-de-loops, OK?"
We climbed in a vast spiral, ever higher, skirting the flying mountains like guppies around whales. I tried not to lose my lunch. It was funny, too, because of all of us, only I could fly if I really had to.
Duna steered her scaled beast in silence, following the others at a leisurely pace. The wind tousled her violet hair and sent whips of it across my face.
"How came you to be so intimate with our lord and his lady, Hannibal King?" she asked at last. "Neither Stargod nor Lambert ever mentioned you."
"Just call me Hannibal," I requested. "To tell you the truth, I haven't really known Stargod all that long. On Earth, he seems to be a regular Joe."
"If by that you mean he appears to be a mortal man, I have heard this."
"Yeah. Well, these guys with the white eyes were harassing the apparently-ordinary couple you know as Stargod and his lady, and they hired me to investigate."
"You are a mercenary, then." I detected a hint of disappointment in her voice.
"I started out that way, more-or-less . . . But now --"
Oh, boy, this is going to sound corny.
"Now I've pledged myself to his service. After all, Stargod has named me his friend and ally, and I don't take such responsibilities lightly."
I think Duna's opinion of me crept up slightly. Somehow, that belief dispelled the queasiness in my stomach.
Our destination was a shelf-like plateau atop a particularly large asteroid. It was just as well the Realmites and I had collided earlier; Mrs. J and I could have marched along forever without noticing it.
The dragons circled over an expanse that was half courtyard and half airport, lit by tarnished gold globes that I suspected were not electrical in nature. Dozens of barbarian-types came swarming out of doors, shadows, and culs-de-sac. They cheered John Jameson, who waved from on high as he might have from a float in Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. Our flying steeds landed with surprising grace, and we all dismounted.
Stable boys took the reins of the dragons, and Duna and I were engulfed by a mob of Realmites. I got a few stares, but mostly their eyes were for the Man-Wolf.
"I knew he could not forsake us," said another warrior-woman, this one with a head of ordinary black hair. "With the Undying Ones returned, he had to come again!"
"This time Tyrk is truly doomed!" cried a bald guy with a mustache who looked like a circus strongman. "Praise Stargod!"
Similar sentiments filled the air around us. Some of these Realmites wept tears of joy. Parents hoisted their children onto their shoulders so they could see the Man-Wolf. A few daring souls reached out and touched their furry savior on the arm. The guy was bigger than Elvis. Of course, if these people were looking for a wolf-god, they'd have to search far and wide to find someone who better fit the bill.
The Man-Wolf and his Missis made their way towards a huge doorway carved into the side of a cliff. I looked up to see a number of windows, turrets, and walkways, and I realized that this flying mountain was one vast citadel. There was a giant stone wolf's head over the entrance, the spittin' image of Colonel J.
The throng of Realmites followed close behind "Stargod". Duna and I worked our way towards the citadel's entrance, despite the bottleneck that formed there. I confess to flexing my vampiric muscles a time or two to make room, but I didn't have near the advantage I would have had on Earth -- these Realmites were tough.
Eventually we came to a huge audience chamber lit by more glass orbs. I spotted Colonel and Mrs. J, Garth and Gorjoon on an elevated platform. They were talking to an old man in long, green, officious robes. He had white hair and a bushy white mustache, but what caught my eye were his arms, which showed occasionally among the folds of his garment as he gesticulated. His arms ended at the wrists, which were enclosed in what looked like small rocket nosecones.
"His hands . . ." I whispered.
"Yes," said Duna, holding up her pickaxe-arm. "Taken from him by Arisen Tyrk -- as he took my sword hand. And my father."
I exhaled quietly. The more I heard about this Tyrk guy, the less I liked him.
The Man-Wolf nodded at something the old guy said then he turned to face the unwashed masses.
[People of the Realm,] he began, his furry hand raised for silence, [it has been many years since I last walked amongst you. In that time, the false god Arisen Tyrk has tried once more to claim this world as his own. He will fail in his bid, as he always has -- and this time, his fall will be permanent. This I swear, by the sword of Stargod!]
Colonel J drew out his fancy pigsticker, which glinted just a little less than a lightsaber, and the hall around me shook with the Realmites' cheering. You couldn't convince me Wolfie wasn't getting off on this "Stargod" biz.
At least Jameson remembered us little people. He spotted Duna and me and called on us to join him.
[My wife, many of you have seen before,] Wolfie continued. [But now I must introduce to you Hannibal King, who shall be -- er -- my general in the coming fight.]
"Oh, great," I whispered.
"Fastest promotion in military history," observed Kristine with a smile.
"What are we? Dragon dung?" asked Gorjoon from the rear.
The crowd roared. I smiled stupidly and waved.
The audience hall had tall narrow windows up near the ceiling. I noticed a violet tinge creeping across the sky beyond.
"Uh, excuse me, Stargod," I said, nudging the Man-Wolf in the cuirass. "Do they have any nice, dark dungeons around here?"
I pointed to the windows.
"I sunburn easily."
[Oh . . . I forgot. Perhaps Garth or Gorjoon can stick you someplace the sun don't shine.]
I gave Wolfie a sidelong glance.
"Let somebody else be the comedy relief, Colonel J. You just wind up this war business ASAP, so we can start lookin' for a way back to the real world."
I was given a quick intro to the handless old man, who turned out to be the wizard Lambert. Then I followed the blond Garth and the hirsute Gorjoon through a dozen corridors and stairways.
"How good a general can ya be if ya can't even stick yer nose out in the daytime?" Gorjoon demanded.
"Hush, Gor," said his Aryan companion. "Stargod must have something in mind. Is that not so, Hannibal King?"
"Uh . . . Yeah, sure."
"Perhaps we are to mount an attack at night . . ."
"At night?" snorted the hairy barbarian. "I kin just see our lizard-riders crashin' into each other!"
Fortunately, we arrived at our destination, and I was spared Gorjoon's further bellyaching.
. . . Did I say "fortunately"? I got the drippiest, stinkiest, moldiest dungeon you ever saw as my bedchamber.
"I guarantee you won't see the suns from here," laughed Gorjoon.
"Suns?" I asked. But the heavy door slammed, and I was alone.
I sat on a slab of stone that jutted out of the wall. Only a couple of flickers of torchlight made it through the barred peephole on the door, but I didn't really need illumination.
A critter hopped up on the bench next to me and nosed around. It was a weasel-looking rat or a rat-looking weasel.
"So, what are you in for?" I asked. The rat-weasel scampered away without answering.
Here’s another letter that will never reach you. The others were just ways of working out my thoughts, but this one -- well, I don’t have enough stamps to send it as far as it must go.
Oh, Mother. And you thought loving an astronaut was far out.
Where do I begin? The lurkers in the shadows? The crossing into the Other Realm? John showing up as the Man-Wolf? Not the slobbering monster of the tabloids, but the beast-god of the local barbarians. It’s the same old nightmare, but this time I’m awake.
paper is a rare commodity here, so I’ll just tell you about today.
We flew out to a small village. I rode behind John. I don’t mind telling you, I was scared. I squeezed John's waist hard, but within his scaled armor he was solid as marble.
"Oh, I'm sticking to First Class from now on," I moaned.
John made no answer as he guided the red dragon [dragon!] down toward the tilled land. I rolled an eye up and saw his ears, erect on the top of his head like twin garden trowels. The wind tousled his white hair -- fur.
"The village lies yonder, my Lord," Garth yelled across the airy gulf. “They have lost their dead and thheir living to Tyrk. They will be happy indeed to see you."
Horselike snorts and loud flaps filled the air. No less than a dozen dragoneers escorted us on this flight from the castle. Not that "Stargod" needed to be watched like a toddler, but it was one of his first times steering these beasts. (Not to mention one of my first times aboard one.)
[I smell it,] agreed John. [We'll set down in the central plaza.]
“Smell it.” What an odd phrase, Mom!
Down below, a thin figure beat a tubular gong. People in ratty trousers, skirts, tunics and headgear, all in various shades of brown, spilled out of adobe-like huts. More figures, at work in nearby fields, dropped tools that were little more than sticks and trotted toward the town square.
I could not help swelling with pride at the reaction John’s mere presence created. It was better than the ticker-tape parades he received as an astronaut.
[We're landing, Garth. You can search for your Dragonsword, if you wish.]
"Thank you, Lord."
The blond warrior's dragon banked away over the trees. He lost his sword while fighting Hannibal King.
(Did I mention the detective I hired turned out to be a vampire? I’ll save that for my next letter..)
Anyway, we landed, and the villagers came charging up to the square. Then -- my Lord, Mom, they knelt before John. I could see his blush through his fur. He always downplayed his career in space as just doing a job -- he was certainly embarrassed by this!
[Rise!] he called.
They did, their dirty countenances beatific. I thought of the peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all covered with feces. John asked to see the mayor (or whatever they call the headman) just to shift attention, I think.
The mayor (so-called) showed up and led us to his mansion (so-called). The peasants parted for us -- John, myself, and the Realmite guards. The villagers tried to touch John like a holy relic, but the warriors warned them off.
We hiked past a surprisingly elaborate graveyard. The tombs were made of huge blocky slabs; they reminded me of the menhirs and cairns in my archeology books.
“We knew to expect you, O Stargod,” explained the mayor, who reminded me of Ed Wynn, you know, from Babes in Toyland, “when we started finding our tombbs open and our dead carried away.”
[Excuse me?] asked John.
The mayor swallowed, sensing a faux pas. Gorjoon, the pro-wrestler type, said, “Maybe you should rephrase that, Pohlin. Stargod ain’t a grave-jackal.”
“I -- I meant, my Lord,” stuttered the poor old man, “that the taking of the dead coulld mean only the return of the Undying Ones. And all knew that Stargod would return to crush the Undying Legion . . .”
John grinned. As long and toothy as it was, it was reassuring.
[Good save, Pohlin. I --]
He caught my eye with his fierce molten gaze.
[I could not sit idle with the Undying Ones on the march.]
I frowned. John keeps digging a deeper hole. He’s committed himself to stopping Arisen Tyrk. Worse:
We’ve only been here a day, Mom, and already I’m afraid. Not of Tyrk and his minions, but for John. I think he wants to stay here, where he will always wear the Man-Wolf’s form. He’d have the woes and wars of this whole planet on his shaggy shoulders. That would crush down any man.
We marched on to the motte and bailey which passed for a mayoral manor.
He was born John Jameson; he grew up to be a handsome specimen of H. sapiens.
Then he became less than human: the beast called Man-Wolf.
Then he materialized here and became something more than human: Stargod.
he’s all at once: animal, man, god. I’m afraid he likes it that way.
Oh, Mom, I hope you’re still liberal where it concerns mixed marriages.
How can I stand to look upon his snout, his fur, his burning eyes, his guitar-string whiskers, his tail, you ask?
I don’t know. I studied animal forms in my art classes; they’re all beautiful. Wolves are handsome beasts. Of course, I never expected to marry one . . .
It may be something more than appearance, Mom. He’s telepathic here, and I’m not sure telepathy means simply mind-reading. It’s like his whole body, not just his brain, emits some power. It seems to radiate a satisfaction in its existence. It’s hard to describe. Did you ever watch a young stallion trot around a corral, so absolutely sure of himself? You can see, in a four-footed animal, that he feels life is good. It’s sort of like that . . .
Well. The warriors and the Mayor and John discussed the hows and wherefores of guarding graveyards (yecch!). I looked over some shields, pottery, and even a portrait or two -- the artists at least understand perspective and the "vanishing point." (How many people can study the art of another world?)
Then came an unfair blow to my determination:
Up from the village marched a line of women, each one hard and strong in her own way, whether heavy and large or bony and tough. Their leader was a prison-guard type named Gresha. They had heard that “Stargod” had taken a bride, and they brought something for her.
Duna accompanied me out on the hilltop to meet the procession. A pair of Olive Oyl-thin goodwives carried a bolt of silky, silver material, which merely served as a wrapping for their real gift.
“We worked through the night to finish it,” said the larger than life Gresha. “We pray that your Graciousness ffinds this offering acceptable.”
The thin women unfurled the silk and revealed a white gown of something better than satin. It looked a bit like my wedding dress -- the one you said showed way too much leg.
“It’s beautiful,” I murmured.
I was amazed that anything coming out of that muddy village could be so clean. Patterns of gold and silver thread curled and spun over the bodice and sleeves. Tiny diamonds sparkled on the shoulders and hem and at the wrists.
I looked over the village women in their shawls and bonnets and drab skirts. I thought of Cinderella -- the ballroom gown created by the frowdy little mice and birds.
“Thank you, Gresha. Thank you all,” I said. “I will treasure this . . .”
Eventually I managed to slip away, hugging the dress. Duna followed, puzzled, but I could not confide in her or in anyone else here.
Mom, I hate these people. They want to keep John here forever. Worship him or chain him, there’s hardly any difference. I hate the Realmites like I hated the villains and heroes and scientists and secret agents and that damned moonrock.
I have to hate them, Mom, no matter how nice they are. You understand that, don’t you? I have to hate them . . .
I finally dozed off, or grew dormant, or whatever vampires do in the daytime. Eventually the door creaked open again. I was up in an instant.
Torchlight spilled in from the hall, momentarily blinding me. Two people stood in the doorway. One was the warrior-woman Duna, the other a girl, no more than twelve, dressed in Early Potato-Sack. The girl carried a tray on which rested a pitcher and mug. I sniffed the air a little too eagerly. It wasn't Kool-Aid.
"Hannibal?" asked Duna.
"Right here," I answered.
"I brought your -- er . . . Stargod said you must have --"
Even an Amazon like Duna found it hard to say. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
"Thanks Duna. Just set it --" There wasn't much in the way of furniture; I indicated a narrow table I suspected was a rack. "-- Over there."
The serving girl carried the tray to the rack. I could hear her ticker a mile off. She was scared, and I couldn't blame her. She stubbed her toe, and I was amazed she didn't tumble like Dick Van Dyke. She didn't dare, I guess.
After setting the clay pitcher down like the Queen's own china, the girl waited nervously for her next order.
"That will be all for now, Mera."
The girl lost no time scooting back to the galley. I sniffed the pitcher critically. The blood wasn't human. Nor was it a dog's, cat's, horse's or cow's. Don't ask how I knew. Still, it was warm, spicy, inviting . . .
"You may not want to watch this, Duna," I said as I poured the thick liquid into the mug.
The purple-haired Amazon frowned. Her left hand balled into a fist.
"I am a Warrior Elite of the Realm, Hannibal King, not a girl-child like Mera. I have seen too much in my day to be disturbed by anything you do."
I shrugged and guzzled the salty, coppery plasma. Duna stood firm, though I heard her gulp. I wiped my lips on my sleeve before facing her again.
"If it's not too much trouble, Duna, I think I could use a new trench -- or tunic, or whatever's fashionable."
"I shall see to replacing your garb with something more appropriate."
She kept staring at my stained and ventilated coat.
"See something you like?" I asked at last.
"No," she answered hastily. "I mean, I wondered . . . You took such injuries, yet . . ."
I spread the gaping tear Garth had put in my trench and shirt.
"Yet I'm good as new? One of the benefits of being a vampire."
I gave her the basics about bloodsuckers, emphasizing the drawbacks, then I stepped back to the stone slab and sat.
"Well, I've spilled my guts. Maybe you could fill me in on the return of Arisen Tyrk while we're waiting for nightfall."
Duna leaned against the rack. I noticed for the first time that she had removed her pickaxe-hand, leaving only a metal-encased stump.
"After the Godwar, after the destruction of Tyrk's stronghold and the death of his minions, Stargod left us for your world. We, meantime, held a great celebration amid the very ruins of Tyrk's citadel. But, when Garth and I went back to the stairway where we'd left Tyrk's body, it was gone.
"By the Twin Moons, there was not a grain of sand we did not poke beneath in our search for Tyrk! Yet there was no sign of him on the air-mountain. None of our dragons were missing, and none of the False One's unwholesome steeds remained alive. The limited magicks left to Lambert could find him nowhere. We came to believe that Tyrk preferred jumping to his death in the sea below to being taken alive.
"For years, nothing happened, and the people breathed easier. The Realm knew a time of peace unique in its history. Then, from villages in the north, came reports of disappearances of able-bodied men, the desecration of graves, and, finally, the Undying Ones manifesting themselves, demanding tribute from the peasantry in the name of Arisen Tyrk."
"Undying Ones?" I queried.
Duna described the skeletal warriors that served the tyrant, and the incredible weaponry they possessed: swords and arrows of solid fire, Buck Rogers pistols, "energy maces" . . . I whistled.
"So far only small groups of Undying Ones have been seen. We hope to nip Tyrk's rise in the bud, before he can re-create his armies."
"Well, with Wolfie and me to help, I'm sure this little war'll be over before you can say Narragansett."
"Narra -- what?"
The purple-haired Amazon gave me another ambivalent look, as if she couldn't decide whether I was clever or retarded.
"You're a strange man, Hannibal King. In some ways, you remind me of Gorjoon."
"Oh. Thanks a heap."
"In other ways . . . well, I do not know. You are unlike any man I've ever met."
I took that as a compliment.
"I've never come across anyone quite like you, either, Duna," I said back. "Most guys would resent a woman plunging a pickaxe into their stomachs, but I prefer a gal with spunk."
Duna shook her head.
"Joking about things so near to tragedy. That is what I mean. I find it hard to understand."
I got off my butt and stretched.
"Sometimes you have to get the bad things out of your system, Duna. Bring 'em out so you know what they are. I know whereof I speak. My wife left me, my friends have scattered to the winds -- those who haven't been aced in various unenviable ways, that is --"
I indicated the pitcher and mug with a sweep of my arm.
"And, jeez! You think I like that stuff? . . . Anyway, joking about it helps me handle it. But here I am, sounding like an old M*A*S*H re-run, when I should be plotting some sort of strategy. That's what us generals are supposed to do, isn't it?"
"You strike me, Hannibal, as one unused to the position."
"Does it show?"
"I guess Wolfie -- I mean, Stargod -- was trying to give an advantage to a fellow Earthling. I just hope it doesn't screw things up for your people."
Duna pushed herself away from the rack.
"I think you underestimate yourself, Hannibal."
"Maybe. But I'm gonna need an aide-de-camp. Someone knowledgeable about war. Someone familiar with this world. Someone who can remain nearby and give me advice."
Now I stepped a little closer to her. She smiled again; it was getting to be a regular habit.
"Someone to counsel you, then," she said.
"Yes," I agreed. I closed my hand over hers. "You know anybody like that?"
[I'm not interrupting anything, am I?] queried the unique telepathic voice of Stargod. Duna and I jumped like kangaroos. Fangpuss was that sneaky. Or we were that preoccupied.
"What could you possibly interrupt?" I grumbled.
[Duna, if it is not too much trouble, I would like to speak with Hannibal alone.]
"As you wish, my lord," said Duna, giving a little curtsy on her way out the door.
"Ya got 'em well trained, I see," I remarked coolly.
[It is not my doing, Mr. King,] the white-furred werewolf assured me. [The people of the Other Realm insist on looking upon me as this Stargod. I would be the first to deny the title, but they won't hear of it.]
"So you might as well sit back and enjoy it, huh?"
Wolfie's lip quivered ever so slightly.
[As long as these people put such trust in me, King, I've sworn to do what I can to be deserving of it. What else would you suggest?]
I settled down.
"From what I hear, you've done pretty good so far. I'm sorry I snapped at you. It's been a long day. Night. Whatever." I stuck my hands in my pockets and leaned against a moldy wall. Little things like termites skittered away. "So. What brings a celebrity like you to the wrong side of the tracks?"
[You're a detective, right, King?]
"That's what it says on my shingle."
[Well . . . As yet, we do not know where Tyrk's new base of operations is. I thought we might go on a little scouting expedition tonight, with that problem in mind.]
"I'm a detective, not Daniel Boone . . . But I'm game."
"Be careful, John," said Kristine on the landing platform.
"I'll take care of him, Mrs. J," I promised.
I checked my goofy flying duds one more time. I had on a cuirass like Colonel J, but he had no need for sleeves or pants-legs, with all that white shag. I had on green Robin-Hoodish tights, and their sole advantage was that they helped disguise my pale legs.
I hopped on one of the little dragons. It couldn't be too hard to handle . . . Still, I wished Duna were here in front of me. Just to steer, of course.
"My Lord," said Garth again, "Are you certain you do not wish a wing of Lizard-Riders?"
Wolfie hopped aboard his dragon and patted its neck.
[This is a recon flight, Garth,] he explained. [Hannibal and I must fly alone.]
Gorjoon snorted and pointed at me.
"What's he got that we ain't got?"
"An IQ in three digits?" I suggested.
Wolfie's hair ruffled a little.
[Hannibal has the Night Eyes, as do I,] he explained. [Tyrk's followers will not expect dragon flights in the darkness.]
Colonel J finally extricated us from the wolf-castle, and we flew. The lizard handled pretty well. And if I was bucked off, I could always go batty.
I glanced back at the floating mountain. Kind of odd not to have Mrs. J along, but she was only human.
[Mr. King . . .] came Wolfie's telepathic voice.
"My friends call me Hannibal," I yelled over the wind.
[Hannibal, then. I had an ulterior motive in asking you along.]
I gave the reins a tug, edging my dragon as near as I dared to Wolfie's.
"Really? What?" I called.
A wing rose up, eclipsing Colonel J's lupine face for a moment before flapping down again.
[I wanted to talk to someone, and you would be more impartial than Kristine or any of the Realmites.]
Wolfie arced east around an asteroid. I didn't know how well the dragons could see in the dark, but they didn't seem alarmed by the flying landmass.
[On Earth, I have always felt inadequate,] said Wolfie. [I always worked to better myself, no matter what my position in life. That's why I joined the Air Force. That's how I ended up being an astronaut. But I've never felt -- whole.]
He waved a shaggy arm to indicate the Other Realm.
[Now I do feel whole. On Earth, being the Man-Wolf was a curse. Here, it is a blessing. I'm afraid if I remain too long, I won't want to leave. Even now I can think of only one reason to return to Earth.]
He nodded his long-muzzled head.
[It's not fair to keep her here -- where her husband is transformed into a hairy freak -- yet she would stay, if I did, out of love.]
We sailed into open sky, uncluttered by clouds or weightless Matterhorns. Only one moon was out; for us, it was plenty.
"That's something only you two can work out," I yelled.
[Perhaps . . . Also there is the matter of the Realmites. You have noticed that they acknowledge me as their lord and master.]
"Yes, indeed," I muttered, thinking of Duna.
[I do not want to take advantage of these people, Mr. King. I don't deserve to be their ruler, let alone their god. Yet I feel that I've betrayed them, being absent all these years.]
I remembered people in the courtyard saying Wolfie couldn't have forsaken them -- though he more-or-less had. Even this return was not his doing.
"I have to admit, they're the ones forcing greatness upon you," I called. "You aren't trying to take over, like this Tyrk guy."
Wolfie sailed out over the ocean. Seeing so much water made me queasy, but oceans aren't really running, except where there are Gulf Stream-type currents. So I still played Follow-the-Leader.
[Yes . . .] mused Jameson. [A friend of mine once said power does not corrupt -- it simply magnifies what's already there. Even so, I'm glad I don't have the temptation I once did. When I possessed the Godstone, Hannibal, I was literally a deity here. Anything I wished -- if I concentrated hard enough, it would come to pass.]
"Sounds like that would come in handy," I said.
[Do I sense a bit of facetiousness?] asked Wolfie, giving me the eye. [Hannibal -- haven't you wondered why the people here speak twentieth century English?]
"I hadn't given it deep thought, but it did strike me as odd," I admitted.
The white-furred werewolf looked away over the sea.
[I did that. Before I came, the Realmites spoke their own language. But I popped in, with the Moongem, and I needed to understand them, and poof -- they all knew English.]
"That is quite a trick."
The Man-Wolf gave a big, gleaming grin, as if proud of it all.
[Well, that power no longer exists, and it's just as well. But if it existed once, it might again -- and Tyrk, if he lives, would certainly try to obtain it.]
The Man-Wolf edged his mount down toward a lonely asteroid floating over the sea. This one had the crumbled remains of a castle strewn over the top.
[Here's our destination.]
I had to put all my attentions into getting my lizard to land, but once we were aground in the former courtyard I asked, "Okay -- so where's here?"
Fangpuss hopped off his lizard and landed in a crouch, looking like a real wolf for a second. He sniffed once or twice, then he rose and sniffed the air.
[This was Tyrk's stronghold, long ago. There may be a clue here.]
I managed to snag my heel on "Scout"'s wing as I swung down. The dragon snorted angrily.
"Oof -- Excuse, me, Colonel, but wouldn't thee Realmites have checked here? It seems a pretty obvious place to start."
The white-furred werewolf sprang up onto a melted hunk of boulder and scanned the asteroid.
[True,] he thought/said. [But I suspect you have talents they lack. And -- not to sound immodest -- my tracking abilities are greater thaan even their wilderness-honed senses.]
"So you can tell fire hydrants apart. Good."
The Man-Wolf frowned down at me. Then his long jaws split in a wicked grin.
[At least I didn't have to look far to find my comedy relief . . . I believe we should split up. There should be no danger here, but even if there is, we can't get out of shouting distance of each other on this rock.]
"Famous last words," I said. "Am I looking for anything in particular?"
The Man-Wolf shrugged. [Any sign of recent activity not attributable to the Realmites.]
So there I was, wandering through the shattered ruins and twisted tunnels of that flying mountain.
I spotted footprints, barely visible in a coating of dust. They were not too recent, otherwise they would have glowed to my night-sight. Wolfie was right about that. The Realmites might be living close to nature, but even they couldn't see into the infra-red.
I took a few steps and crouched again. Here was a patch of dirt, a depression that had caught wind-blown soil over the years. There was only a partial print here, but I recognized the crisscross-circle pattern. These prints had been made by the Three Stooges or others like them.
I wondered if they had hot, red blood, like normal people.
I banged my head on a lintel.
[I've found something!]
I scrambled over a crumbly hill and spotted Colonel J's shaggy form against the rocks. Next to him was a weird green glow.
"What's that?" I demanded as I skidded down.
What looked like giant eggshell fragments emitted the green glow. These shards in turn rested on a thick, round dais of familiar design.
[A Portal. At least, it was,] said the Man-Wolf.
He paced slowly around it, keeping his eyes on its eerie light.
[I believe this is the one Tyrk used to reach Earth, years ago. The one through which he kidnapped Kristine.]
I knelt by the dais. Wolfie flared his nostrils, as did I. I didn't smell anything, but there was a buzzing sensation in the air.
"Does it still work?" I asked.
The Man-Wolf grinned widely.
[That anxious to get home, Hannibal? . . . I doubt it. At least, I wouldn't want to try it. Probably end up like The Fly.]
I touched the dais.
"Should it be buzzing, or humming, like that, if it's been broken for years?"
Wolfie reached down and touched it also.
[I don't know. There exists technology in the Other Realm more advanced than that of Earth. Perhaps certain components of this device can still function for years. Maybe centuries.]
I rose again and brushed off my leotards.
"I was meaning to ask you about that. These people act like Game of Thrones, yet they are at least aware of Tyrk's weaponry, which is right out of Star Wars."
[I, myself, do not know the whole story,] said Wolfie. [Apparently these people did have technology once, an advanced technology, but they reached a point of evolution where they decided they did not need it -- at least, not to the extent Earthlings think they need theirs. But technology still existed. It was just -- unobtrusive.]
"Hmmm," I thought. "All very well -- but suppose somebody cornered the market in weapons and machinery?"
[That's what Arisen Tyrk seems to have done. In earlier wars, he took the technology and tried to reduce everyone to helpless peasants. But the Realmites have survived -- they occasionally steal Tyrk's weapons. And they have genuine wizards among them, believe it or not.]
I gave a toothy grin.
"You don't have to tell me about wizards, Colonel. I'm tight with the world's greatest."
I explained to Wolfie about Dr. Stephen Strange, the low-key master wizard of our world.
"I wouldn't be alive now -- so to speak -- if it weren't for him," I concluded. "The Montesi Formula wiped out all the other bloodsuckers on earth, and I was at Ground Zero. He pulled me through. I'll bet Tyrk would fold up and blow away in a minute, if Dr. Strange were here."
Wolfie and I both jerked erect.
[Tyrk! That was Tyrk!]
Wolfie worked his ears back and forth, trying to find the source of the voice.
"STRANGE. YOU WILL NOT MENTION THAT NAME AGAIN."
[It seems to be coming from all around!]
I reached instinctively for my gun -- which I didn't have. The humming I felt when I touched the dais -- I felt it again, though I wasn't touching anything.
A green supernova blinded me. I heard footsteps thump on the platform. Then heavy bodies tackled me to the ground.
The B.O. was familiar. The Three Stooges.
"Strike quickly!" yelled a voice.
I heard several ZAAAKs from the ray-guns, and a howl of pain from the Man-Wolf. Obviously he was their primary concern.
You shouldn't count out a vampire detective, however. I pushed myself up, even though there were four or five burly guys clinging to me.
"Hold him, damn you!" yelled a voice.
"I am trying!" answered another.
I spun in place, and goons flew. I could see again -- a white-eyed face. A good punch and it was gone.
A barrage of ray-blasts downed the Man-Wolf. A few Stooges stayed with him, but the rest focused on yours truly.
"C'mere, Larry," I said, hauling up the closest goon.
ZAAAK -- ZAAAK -- I held him like a shield; thhe rays hit him like solid objects, forcing us both back. I let go and dove behind the dais.
Now what? Turn batty?
Someone hopped off the green platform and landed in front of me. I jumped to my feet to see another white-eyed guy, this one in some outlandish half-Japanese, half-Persian costume.
"Looks like you're next," I said, swinging hard at his jaw.
CRACK. The pseudo-Samarai's head jerked a little, otherwise he didn't seem to notice my love-tap.
I held my aching hand. "What the --?!"
"This farce has lasted long enough," said White-Eyes.
He gave me a back-handed slap, so fast I couldn't duck, so hard I flew back against a boulder and blacked out. And brother, it takes a lot to do that to a vampire . . .
A CHANGE OF HEART
Kristine Jameson wandered through the chambers given to her husband and herself. They were opulent surroundings, like something out of the Arabian Nights: hanging veils, marble benches, parti-colored pillows and smoking incense.
She studied the great, round bed. How embarrassed John had been last night, as they lay there trying to steal a few hours of much-needed sleep! He would touch her hand occasionally, catch sight of his own fur-sheathed fingers, and pull back. It remained for her to pull him near, assure him he was not a monster. She would have been embarrassed to admit that she rather liked stroking his fur. It reminded her of something long forgotten, yet familiar. Arctos. That was it! Arctos, the Teddy polar bear that had protected her in her youth.
Kristine tried to imagine herself with John, he with that silver-white hair thick all over him, and those three-penny-nail claws, and that long, ivory wolf's head.
She remembered the Man-Wolf on earth, loping and howling and slobbering through the streets of Manhattan. Yet those few times when she physically confronted the creature, its eyes softened and its ears folded back, and she could feel John's soul within it.
Here, she could feel John's soul, his goodness, in the Man-Wolf, all the time. Almost -- dare she think it? -- better than she could sense it in his human form. As if the lycanthropic shape were a magnifying lens.
She stepped out onto a balcony and inhaled the cool air of the Other Realm. It was clean, fresh, clear, better than the air in the Catskills or the Bahamas. Below her the forested expanse of the flying mountain stretched out to an abrupt drop-off, and beyond that lay the wide vista of this alien world. It was a beautiful, if harsh, land. You could grow to like it . . .
The people of this land worshipped John -- literally. Could she compete with that?
They had to stay for a while, at least, if there was any chance the Satanic man/god Tyrk still lived. She touched her throat momentarily, remembering his blade against her skin like ice-fire.
She hoped John and Mr. King would be careful. But King was a full-fledged vampire, and John -- her husband was a god, here.
She, on the other hand, a mere mortal . . .
A physical change was not the only thing to affect her husband in the Other Realm. He became greater inside, as well. She recalled times past, when John would give in to that father of his, that cigar-chewing cross between Rush Limbaugh and Dick Tracy’s Flat-Top. She could not imagine the white-furred wolf-man taking such abuse.
She watched an asteroid eclipse the lesser moon. Damn if she didn't feel better, more clear-headed, here! She remembered simpering helplessly in John's wake as he rampaged, like a kindergartner.
She left the balcony, ghostlike in the silk finery the Realmites had provided her. The vacuous Kristine Saunders was dead, replaced by Kristine Jameson.
Jameson. The name became hers when John became hers. It was on that day, the day she and John wed, that she realized they were trying to take him from her.
She slipped on soft boots, made of something like doeskin, only green. Paranoid thoughts, but they sure seemed real. Kraven the Hunter, Captain America, mad scientists, AIM, the Avengers, her volatile father-in-law, the Air Force, NASA -- everyone, good or bad, tried to take John from her. That was why Kristine Saunders, wimp, had died -- why Kristine Jameson, fighter, had been born.
John did not remember his experiences in the Other Realm when on Earth. But he had dreams, and upon waking some mornings, he told her about a land he ruled and a people he protected. Of battles with monsters, and evil armies, and sci-fi weapons, like Tolkien and Conan and Star Wars all rolled into one.
Had they been sheer fantasy? Or could John recall things that happened to the former "Stargod" -- whoever, whatever he had been?
She had commented little on John's dreams out of fear. A fear that he might somehow be summoned back to the Other Realm. Because it was obvious from John's enthusiasm when speaking of his dreams that he liked being here.
Kristine thought clearly here, and for the first time she could define clearly what she had feared for the last decade: If John could experience the wonder of the Other Realm again, he would probably want to stay here.
So she had been guarding John from himself, as well as from everyone else in the world -- worlds. A miracle she hadn't shriveled into a gray-haired harridan like her aunt 'Merelda.
The silver-white skirts hissed along the flagstones of the castle corridor. Kristine smiled. She felt as if she were a dandelion tuft, floating rather than walking.
She had mixed feelings about the Realmites. The way they had welcomed John -- as she had written in her undeliverable letter, she’d nearly burst with pride. It was a true hero's welcome, a thousand times greater than any parade he'd gotten as an astronaut, because to these people he was everything.
She found herself near the audience hall again. The castle was quite a maze. What would it be like, living here? No electricity, cars, planes. None of her friends here, none of her relatives.
She spotted a doorway with a white wolf's head carved above the lintel. Wherever you turned, there was some reminder of John -- or, rather, the lupine Stargod. With a kind intelligence behind that whiskered face, the Man-Wolf was rather a handsome brute.
"No, I will not hold my tongue!" a voice boomed from the wolf-linteled room. "We nearly lost to Tyrk because of her. And when we did win, she was the reason Stargod abandoned us!"
Kristine froze in shock. Softer voices answered the loud one. She was the subject of some heated discussion.
She started angrily toward the doorway as the first voice continued: "By the Purple Forest, the witch will charm him away again, if we let her!"
"Now, Sandor," said a calmer voice -- the wizard Lambert. "There is no reason to assume that. The Elite, I'm sure, and I myself, will be able to convince Stargod and his bride that their places are here in the Realm."
Kristine stepped into view, looking like an avenging angel in her samite gown.
"I knew it," she hissed.
She strode angrily toward the Realmites. There were a dozen seated around a vast, ring-shaped table. She recognized the wizard, the violet-haired Amazon, the blond warrior, and the half-naked troglodyte.
"I knew it," she repeated. "You're trying to take him from me. Just like all the others."
Lambert rose from his seat.
"Now, your Highness, you misunderstand . . ."
Kristine tore loose her gold-threaded cloak and hurled it to the floor.
"Don't 'Highness' me, Lambert. You and your Realm and your damned Moonstone destroyed our lives! John and I survived, barely, with each other's help -- but now the whole nightmare's begun again!"
The gathered warriors murmured angrily. Kristine clenched her fists as if to fight them all bare-handed.
"I won't let you take him from me!"
A man with silver hair and beard rose from the table.
"Barely survived, you say? Do not speak to us of barely surviving, 'Highness'."
"Sandor --" began Lambert.
The purple-haired Duna rose. "No, let him speak, Lambert."
Silver-beard grinned harshly.
"Yes -- let us speak. We fought long and hard for that right."
He paused, staring into Kristine's eyes. She met his gaze laser-hard.
"Since my grandsire's day, we have been barely surviving, Earthwoman. We have fought with, and died before, and, yes, fled like white craads from the Undying Legion and their fire-guns. We have suffered beneath the tyranny of Arisen Tyrk. We have given all the fruit of our fields and shops and herds to him. And more than that."
Sandor pointed at Duna.
"Do you know anything about us, Earthwoman? Duna -- do you know how she came to lose that hand?"
The warrior waited a second, but Kristine could not answer. Silver-hair snorted.
"I thought not. Tyrk was wont, every Double Moon, to summon a Realmite to his castle. Once there, he did things to the victim, and sent him or her back to us, tortured, maimed, twisted, yet still living. Merely to remind us of what he was capable. When Duna was chosen, he released her after a fortnight with her hand gone -- her fingers eaten off, a joint at a time, during those long days, by a horde of rat-spiders."
Duna stared at the table's surface, her single hand clenched around a pewter goblet. The liquid in the cup shivered with the power of her grip. A raven-haired man at the Amazon's side touched her arm gently. Kristine felt her own fists loosening.
Lambert spoke again, his voice calm.
"All our lives, Kristine Jameson, we awaited the return of Stargod. As Tyrk grew in power, Gorjoon, Garth, and I took it upon ourselves to hurry the process. And you saw the result: Tyrk, his Undying Legion, the Inner Guard with their weapons of science -- in a day they were gone."
The wizard spread his arms to indicate the Realmites at the table. Kristine could not tear her eyes from the old man's handless stumps.
"We did not and do not expect your husband to solve all our problems. We are well versed in the wiles of war. But the mightiest nation and the greatest hero will acknowledge the need for help. I know it is unfair to say that John Jameson is the only one who can help us, but he is the living embodiment of Stargod, even without the Moongem."
The hirsute Gorjoon rose now.
"Lambert can beat around the hayakoth all night, Earthwoman. Let me be short with you. I'm good at that. Thousands of us might have lived longer, and had lives worth living, if Fangs had come earlier -- and stayed. I figger he would have stayed if it weren't for you. So this is what you can wrestle with, Kristine Jameson: You can go back with Fangs to your land of picture boxes and air-coolers and horseless wagons, and leave us all to Tyrk's torture chambers. Or you can stay here."
Silence again. The Realmites all stared at her, as if expecting an instant decision.
No, not all of them. Duna still studied the mahogany brown table surface. A tear slid slowly down her cheek.
Damn. Maybe I can make an instant decision. Or maybe I always knew what I'd have to do.
She felt like crying, herself. She lowered her head and shaded her eyes with her hand.
"I've been a first-class bitch," she said softly. "Putting my wish for a life of wedded bliss before the needs of a whole world -- a world with mothers and children and brave warriors and hard-working farmers. It wasn't even John‘s wish and mine. Just mine."
She straightened again and sniffed once.
"All right. I'm staying in the Other Realm. And I suspect John will, gladly, if I do."
The Realmites cheered now, when a minute ago they would have happily throttled her.
"All hail Queen Kristine!" cried Duna. The others took up the cry.
Embarrassing. But maybe I can get used to it, thought Kristine.
THE CASTLE OF TYRK
The old bucket of slop in the face trick woke me. I was upright, but I wasn't standing. Chains hanging from the ceiling held my wrists.
If you've been paying attention, you know I could have changed into mist and slipped right out. But I was too woozy to think of that.
Besides, I had company.
A dozen white-eyed men stood in a semicircle before me. One -- "Larry" -- tossed his slop-bucket aside. I spotted Moe and Curly as well. The other white-eyes didn't stand out as much. Except the one who wore banded armor, golden gauntlets, and a Samarai-type helmet with a purple crystal on the front. And an aura of arrogance.
"So this is Jameson's champion," said the armored man. "He does not look like much. Yet a full charge from a blaster should have killed him . . ."
"Lemme guess," I gasped. "You're Arisen Tyrk."
The leader of the white-eyes smiled.
"I am Tyrk, King of the Other Realm -- shortly to be God thereof."
Talk about your swelled head.
"You know of me, sir, but I cannot return the compliment. Still, if you are acquainted with Dr. Strange -- and with the nascent Stargod -- I musst assume you are one of Earth's so-called superheroes."
"Hardly," I said.
My feet dragged the floor. I slid them forward and stood on them. I shook my head a time or two to get a lock of hair out of my eyes.
"It's just little old me, Hannibal King, Boy Detective."
Tyrk rubbed the goatee on his pointed chin.
"There is more to you than meets the eye, 'Detective'. Still, even Strange himself would not significantly shift the balance of power. Your wolf-headed savior is my prisoner, and after the Ceremony he will be so much carrion for the rat-spiders."
They do drone on, the bad guys. Maybe I could find out something useful. I decided to bluff.
"I thought you'd been defeated for good, Tyrk."
He guffawed, and his white-eyed Stooges sneered.
"Your so-called Sorcerer Supreme underestimated me, Hannibal King," Tyrk answered. "True, it was unwise of me to challenge the Unnameable -- at that point. But Strange could no more than imprison me in Tunnel World. He did not destroy me."
I didn't know what "the Unnameable" or "Tunnel-World" were, but Tyrk had definitely met the Doc.
The would-be deity stepped nearer. I had a clear shot at his crotch with either foot -- but they had all those ray-guns.
"I might have slept in suspended animation forever -- but a great surge of power echoing through the Realms woke me and shattered the crystal prison of Xhoohx. I laid waste to the Tunnel World and returned to the Other Realm."
The tyrant turned and strode over to a huge doorway.
"It would seem John Jameson did not take care of the Moongem -- he bears it no more. Yet that is good for me."
Tyrk paused and looked back.
"Without the Gem, he is no match for me. He has only a fraction of the Stargod power. But that fraction will do to make my might supreme. Perhaps, King, I shall let you live long enough to watch as I cut the power from your furry friend, along with his beating heart."
Exit stage right, with a Dishonest John flourish of cape. Most -- but not all -- of the Stooges left with him. Larry and Curly remained.
I smiled at them, then I nonchalantly studied the decor.
This chamber was a dungeon, obviously, but it was surprisingly clean and bright. Almost clinical. I spotted beakers of multicolored liquids and metal boxes with Art Deco dohickeys sticking out of them. The place was like a mad doctor's lab in an old movie. No doubt "experiments" were performed here. I remembered Duna's and Lambert's missing hands . . .
Narrow windows near the vaulted roof let in bright light. It was daytime again. I'd have to be careful, or I could end up a detective McNugget.
Larry and Curly stood like Coldstream Guards until Tyrk and company marched out of earshot. Then they grinned evilly, and Larry whispered in Curly's ear. I suspected they had volunteered for guard duty to get me alone.
"Well, Earthman," said the frizzy-haired Stooge. "You have lost us much esteem in the eyes of our master."
"Don't tell me -- he pulled the old monkey-wrench-on-the-nose routine," I said.
Larry frowned. His bald companion spoke.
"You still mock us, 'detective'? You have guts, as you people say. And I will happily dig them out with my bare hands."
They edged nearer. I wondered if they were stupid enough to get in range. Maybe if I egged them on . . .
"Well, if the rest of Tyrk's goons are as incompetent as you two, we don't have much to worry about."
Larry grabbed me by the chin.
"You think you're brave, Earthman, but you are merely a fool. Tyrk may wish you to live, but Urlak and I will make you plead for death."
This looked like a good time to take my leave. I reared back and gave Larry all I had, right in the crotch. He did a backflip and landed like a sack of cement. Enemy or not, I had to wince.
Curly fired his little ray-gun -- and gaped as the beam passed harmlessly through the coils of fog that floated where I had just been. I drifted up over the bald Stooge and rematerialized.
"Well, well! Something new has been added!" I quipped as I dropped onto him.
He collapsed, but he was not out. I slammed his head against the flagstones. That did it.
I listened tensely. No shouts or footfalls. The scuffle had gone unnoticed.
Well, Hannibal, old boy, I thought, what now?
This citadel was big and dark. And we vampire detectives are sneaky. I decided look for John Jameson all by my lonesome.
First I locked Larry and Curly in some convenient manacles. The key resembled a tuning fork; I learned later that it opened these locks magnetically. Even then I knew it for part of Tyrk's pirated technology. I pocketed it just in case. It would have been easier just to put the Stooges out of my misery, but it's one thing to blow people away in a wild car chase, and another to snuff them when they're out cold. Call me irresponsible.
I left the dungeon and found myself in a dark corridor. This, too, was nearly immaculate. I guessed Tyrk was revving up to be god-king, building himself a new palace and everything.
I peeked around a corner. Nobody. I already knew that, otherwise I would have heard heartbeats and the hiss of breath. I found another corridor, this one opening into an enormous chamber, like the audience hall at the Wolf Castle.
I edged along carefully. I saw no goons, and with "night eyes" any guards would have stood out like neon. Several doors lined the corridor, all closed. I didn't open any, because welling out of the chamber ahead were raucous laughs and angry shouts. Only Wolfie could generate so much excitement.
I reached the end of the hall. Here was a balcony, the floor of the chamber lying actually about twenty feet below my level. The roof humped up another hundred yards, like the Astrodome.
I edged closer and peered down. I hissed.
The white-eyes crowded around a central dais where they had the Man-Wolf. But this poor bastard was a far cry from the conquering hero of the Realmites. He looked more like a coyote on a barbed-wire fence.
Colonel Jameson hung by the wrists from chains. His wolfish head drooped as if his neck were broken. His cuirass had been removed, revealing his polar-bearish torso. There were dark patches on his body that looked like burns, and bloody streaks on his sides and chest like tiger stripes.
A guy in an executioner's hood stepped up and sent a silver and black bullwhip slashing through the air against the Man-Wolf's back. The crack made me jump, but Colonel Jameson didn't flinch. I guessed that he'd already been tortured into unconsciousness.
I bit my lip until my fangs poked all the way through. I couldn't just stand here, but even a vampire detective couldn't defeat Tyrk's whole army.
The decision was made for me. I felt a sharp sting in the back, and the point of a blade erupted out of my solar plexus. Sneak attack -- but how?
I pulled forward and the sword slid out. I spun and did a double-take.
I'd been listening for heartbeats and breathing, right? The backstabber had neither. What I faced was a walking skeleton in chainmail. Not even a whole skeleton -- its jaw was gone, at the very least. But it did have a sword, which dripped with the quasi-blood that flowed in my veins. And, incredibly, it had a voice.
*Ottug! The earthman has escaped!*
I glanced from side to side. The balcony was actually an aisle that circled the whole audience chamber. A dozen entryways like mine lined the upper level, and now white-eyes and living skeletons popped out of them.
I seized the first skeleton by the vertebrae.
"Thanks for givin' me away, Bony," I growled as I chucked him over the rail.
The white-eyes below turned en masse and focused their blank orbs upon yours truly. Meanwhile, Stooges and skeletons approached from both sides.
A zap-ray shaved the stubble off my cheek. I followed Bony over the rail and landed on him just as he was pushing himself up. There was a brittle crack as I smashed him against the flagstones.
Out of the frying pan . . . I faced the battalion of Stooges. On the dais, the executioner coiled up his whip, forgetting Wolfie momentarily to watch the show.
I dodged behind a pillar just in time to avoid being zapped. Behind me -- a corridor opening, like the one on the floor above. I had an idea. I made like a coward for the hallway, bowling over a Stooge or two.
ZAAAK -- ZAAAK -- The zaps were getting close,, but I reached a branch corridor and ducked in. The cattle-stampede noise behind me told me that most, if not all, of Tyrk's goons followed.
I changed into mist and wafted up to the ceiling. As the evil hordes clumped down the hall, a barely-perceptible patch of fog whipped by over their heads.
I billowed out into the audience chamber like a little black rain cloud. Not everyone had left, but they were all distracted.
It worked on Curly, so I solidified right over the boy in the hood and let gravity do the rest. The executioner collapsed with a grunt.
Time slows down when you do crazy things. It seemed to take a minute or five to reach Wolfie, yet the nearest Stooges hadn't quite turned around before I used my tuning-fork/key to release Wolfie's right wrist.
The Man-Wolf hung by one arm like a shaggy side of beef. Time was precious, to say the least, but I had to gasp at the red hatchwork of welts that was Colonel Jameson's back.
The remaining goons cried out as I unlocked his other wrist. No time for sympathy or subtlety. I tossed the Man-Wolf over my shoulder and jumped off the dais, the side opposite my precipitous entrance. No white-eyes here, and, for a moment at least, the dais would block zap-rays.
I carried Wolfie into the nearest corridor. I had no idea where I was going. I twisted left and ran and twisted right and ran again. There were rooms and alcoves and trap doors. I ducked into a chamber full of barrels that stank like a seaside dive. I dumped Colonel J behind some hogsheads and shut the door. Maybe they wouldn't find him if they were still chasing me.
I doubled my pace and dodged around every corner I saw. I knocked over huge urns and ugly statues to make noise, hoping to keep the goons on my tail, yet not let them see I was alone now.
I dashed up a flight of stairs, four at a time. Someone pointed and yelled, and then I heard a hailstorm of steps. Still after me. Good, I guess.
I caught hold of a post at the top of the stairs and swung hard to the right, into another hallway.
There waited Arisen Tyrk with a row of Stooges.
"Lose your way, Mr. King?" he asked. "Rather an odd time of day for one of your kind to be out."
And it sounded like he'd figured out what I was. Great.
"Well -- I gotta blow," I said.
I tried to turn to mist. I couldn't.
"Oh, Mr. King," said Tyrk. "You wouldn't want to drift off now. We're going to have a lovely chat, you and I."
"You wished to see me, Majesty?" asked Duna.
The warrior-woman fell into step beside Kristine as the Earthwoman paced along a window-lined hall.
"Yes, Duna," answered Kristine. "There are things I wanted to discuss, with a warrior -- and also, a woman."
The purple-haired Amazon smiled thinly.
"The women of the Realm are warriors, Majesty. Girl-children, mothers with babes, even the old ones. Circumstances dictate this, true, but most would have it no other way."
"That's precisely it, Duna," said the Earthwoman. She held out her arm, encased in a puffed white sleeve.
"All I've done in my life is paint and mold and sculpt. A little jogging on the side. For the last few years I've been taking self-defense classes -- too little, too late, I fear."
The hallway opened upon a wide balcony. Kristine stepped out and inhaled the unfamiliar scents of myriad flowers. Duna followed.
"I am an unworthy queen for a realm of warriors, Duna. And an unworthy bride for a -- a being like John -- Stargod."
The Amazon snickered. Kristine blinked.
"Forgive me, Majesty," Duna said, raising her stump of arm to hide her grin. "I have always heard that married folk grow to resemble one another -- now I see it is truth. By the Gold Moon, how many times has Stargod voiced such doubts?"
"True enough, Duna," the Earthwoman conceded. "Still, he is a deity, here, and I am a mere mortal. How can I make myself worthy of John?"
The Amazon touched Kristine's arm.
"Your Majesty, you have spirit enough for any man, king, or god. Sta -- John would travel to the ends of the Realm for you, and I am certain you would do the same for him."
Kristine thought over the wild chain of events that brought her here.
"That's true, too. But I'll always feel that I'm his Achilles' heel."
"His what, Majesty?"
Kristine paused by the thick stone railing. A jungle of rainbow-hued flowers lay against the tower like scree at the bottom of a cliff.
"His weak point. A frail creature whose fate could undermine all he fights for. Tyrk knew that when he took me hostage before."
The two women stood quietly for a moment, studying the colorful landscape -- and skyscape.
"Duna," the earthwoman began again, "I wanted to ask you something."
The Realmite stood at attention.
"If it is within my knowledge, Majesty, I shall answer."
"It's your -- er, armor."
Duna glanced down at the shiny links of her bikini-like outfit.
"It's nicely-made," continued the earthwoman, "but does it really help?"
The violet-haired Realmite smiled again. To Kristine's surprise, she pulled a dagger from her belt and held it out, pommel first.
"Take it, Majesty," said Duna.
Kristine did so. The dagger was warm with Duna's body heat.
The Amazon spread her arms as if to embrace her.
"Now stab me. In the stomach."
"What? Are you crazy?"
Duna's expression was one of sly amusement.
"You wished to know if my armor works, Majesty. Test it."
Kristine hesitantly brought the point of the dagger close to Duna's naval. About two inches away from her tanned midriff, the blade encountered a surface.
Kristine looked into Duna's eyes, confused. Duna's grin was wide.
"Try harder, Majesty."
Her every instinct rebelled against the act, but Kristine thrust the dagger at Duna's naked skin. The point slid sideways against nothing and passed around the Amazon's waist.
Kristine handed the dagger back to Duna.
"Now, touch me with your hand," instructed the Realmite.
Flabbergasted, Kristine obeyed. Her fingers met no resistance.
"My armor knows flesh from metal," Duna concluded.
The warrior shrugged.
"It is the ancient magic. Or the old science. Sometimes even Lambert can’t distinguish the two."
"A force field. That must come in handy. Especially when your armor is so -- revealing."
"I am guilty of vanity, Majesty. I am told my form is not displeasing to male eyes."
"If you've got it, flaunt it," said Kristine. Then she had an idea.
"Duna -- is there more armor like yours?";
The white-haired Lambert, accompanied by a young boy who served as his hands, led the way into the dark catacombs beneath the Wolf Castle. Water dripped and rodentlike vermin squeaked. The page in front, and Duna behind, held torches.
"Really, your Majesty," said Lambert again, "we do not wish you to risk yourself in combat . . ."
"If John fights, so do I," insisted Kristine. "Besides, I'd feel safer with something more than a silk skirt between me and an Undying One."
The magician nodded, and the little troupe continued. The torches soon revealed a great, silvery door, topped by a fearsome wolf-head. Lambert waved an arm at it, and the twelve-foot door scraped slowly aside.
"Could use a little WD-40," whispered Kristine.
"Here is the Armory of Wolf Castle," announced Lambert. "Unfortunately, we have raided it frequently over the years, and anything damaged we are hard-pressed to replace."
The silent page and the handless wizard led the way in. Kristine and Duna followed. Lambert spoke several curious syllables, and a dozen braziers burst into flame around them. Kristine gasped.
"That's quite a trick, Lambert," she remarked.
"A minor cantrip," said the sorcerer.
The armory reminded Kristine of a museum -- shields, crossbows, and suits of armor hung on the walls. There were also rifle-like weapons and grenade-looking lumps of metal, and a few Erector Set contraptions she couldn't begin to figure out.
"Majesty," said Duna, "If you insist on exposing yourself to danger, it would distress us if you accepted anything less than full battle gear."
"Doesn't sound as showy as a chainmail bikini," observed the Earthwoman. "But anything to make you happy."
Lambert and his page marched on to the far end of the armory. They reached a row of standing figures that looked strangely familiar.
Kristine gasped again. The half-dozen suits were far from the clanking caricatures of knightly armor she knew from television. They seemed as sheer as Spandex, and they glinted silver-gray in the light of the braziers. They covered one's entire body, except for the head.
A helmet sat atop each suit. Each helmet had a muzzle-like visor and pointed "ears".
"Man-Wolf," said Kristine. She laughed and clapped her hands together. "They all look like the Man-Wolf!"
She stepped boldly up to the nearest wolf-armor and touched its chest. It felt cool and smooth, like satin.
"Fair warning, Lambert. Her Majesty is about to strip."
The suit weighed only twenty pounds or so, and once it encased Kristine, it seemed to weigh nothing at all. It split open along the back and front for one's entry, and it closed with no trace of a seam.
"You need but will the suit open and closed as it pleases you, Queen Kristine," said the wizard.
She closed her eyes and concentrated. When she opened them, there was a vertical slit along the suit's torso.
"Amazing! How can it -- oh, never mind."
At the wizard's command, the young page scampered off into the shadows. Kristine took the suit's helmet and slipped it over her head. She looked out through the gaping jaws.
The page returned with a scarlet cushion in his arms. On it lay a double-barreled hair-drier.
"We have captured a few of Tyrk's fire-guns over the years, Majesty," said Duna. "This one is fully charged."
"Hmmm. You don't think I can handle a sword, Duna?" Kristine asked from within the helmet.
"You would know the answer to that better than I, Majesty," said the Amazon.
Kristine bit her lip.
"Give me the gun."
Back in her quarters, Kristine studied herself in a six-foot mirror. She turned her left side to the glass, then her right. She removed the blaster from her thigh and replaced it several times. It stuck to the armor as if magnetized.
"Cool. Just like Robocop."
"Robo -- what, Majesty?" asked Duna, who stood to one side.
"An obscure Earth reference," explained Kristine.
The Earthwoman touched her gauntleted hand to the muzzle-visor of the helmet.
"I've seen something like this before," she mused. "Elfquest. Yes. In one part they dressed in shiny armor with wolf-helmets."
She glanced towards a veiled window.
"This world does have two moons . . . Naaaaah."
She slid her hands over her torso. The incredible armor had altered to fit her shape. At least, she didn't remember it having a bosom down in the catacombs.
"This is wonderful, Duna," she exclaimed. "But it feels so light -- are you sure it will provide protection against swords and arrows -- and ray-guns?"
An orange flame and jet-engine roar enveloped Kristine. She stumbled several steps forward.
"Ask and ye shall receive, Highness," said a coarse voice.
Kristine recovered in time to see Duna slam the hoary Gorjoon against the wall of her chambers.
"Have you gone mad, Gorjoon?" demanded the Amazon. "Assaulting Her Majesty with your damned Power-Staff?"
Gorjoon shoved back with the weapon in question.
"Hey -- I was just provin' a point."
"Enough, both of you!" cried the Earthwoman. "I am unharmed, Duna." She pointed at the grinning Neanderthal. "As for you, Gor -- next time I ask a stupid question, act like you didn't hear it."
Distant shouts reached Kristine's ears. The wolf-helm didn't muffle noises at all.
Duna swept aside a sea-green window veil.
"Two dragons approach the court -- by the Twin Moons!"
Kristine and Gorjoon joined Duna. Two riderless reptiles sailed in for a landing.
"My God," whispered the Earthwoman. "Those are John and Hannibal's dragons."
The black-haired dragon-master Balnac gathered the reins of the two flying reptiles as Kristine dashed out onto the court.
"What happened?" she yelled. "Oh, no!"
Strapped to the dragon on the left was John's scarlet and gold scabbard, complete with its huge sword.
"Balnac -- what happened?" exclaimed Duna aas she skidded to a stop.
The dragon-master stared into the red-black eyes of John's erstwhile mount.
"Nashaa says they were ambushed in the ruins of Tyrkhold -- Stargod and the Earthman were taken to the False One's new fortress. The dragons were released so that we may know of our Lord's defeat."
"Stargod was taken?" asked Duna, incredulously.
"The furry lummox probably tried to talk them into surrendering," grumbled Gorjoon. "Guess we'll have to go save his tail."
Kristine stared into the obsidian orbs of John's red dragon.
"Balnac, you can talk to these creatures?"
The black-haired warrior dropped to one knee before her.
"Can they remember where this fortress is?"
"They can retrace their flight by the landscape and sun and currents, Majesty."
Kristine turned to face the gathering Realmites.
"Well, people of the Other Realm -- looks like I'm going to test this armor sooner than I thought."
Pain. That seemed to make up much of the Other Realm. John knew pain here as he had never known it elsewhere.
Memories blurred in his mind. He saw clouds like lumpy giants, hurling lightning bolts at him. They sizzled and snapped across his back like whips.
. . . Or were they whips that burned like lightning? He recalled a coiled lash, snapping out, searing him, as a thousand blank eyed men watched and laughed.
Pain. Hanging by his arms. Crucified. God. Stargod. Hard to be a god. Was this the fate of saviors, messiahs? He had been told much about would-be deities from the red-white-and-blue man. Thanos. Korvac. Beyonder. If this was the price of godhood, let them keep it.
Buzzing in his head. He wished he were flying, up in the cool air, where there was no pain. Flying up, away, leaving his twisted, inhuman body behind.
[----- castle ---- john ---]
The buzzing grew insistent. That telepathic power he had here. Couldn't turn it off, any more than he could turn off the Man-Wolf form.
He wished you could turn off life like a switch on some Kevorkian machine. He was ready. There was only one reason he would refrain.
[--- John? ---- John? ----]
Kristine. Near here. And here was Tyrk's stronghold.
John Jameson awoke. It was dark in this place, wherever this place was. He smelled only sour grain alcohol.
He could see barrels, vaguely, by a greenish glow of fermentation. Kegs of mead. He could see his own hands, by his own body heat. Hairy and clawed. He was still the Man-Wolf, and still in the Other Realm.
So was his wife.
[KRISTINE!] he shouted mentally.
[---- John ---]
Damn. He could not receive the way he could send. If anything, others' thoughts were harder to hear when he was awake.
Well, as long as he could speak . . .
[Kristine! Get away from here! Tyrk is here!]
He twitched his ears toward harsh, hoarse voices.
"I hear -- this way!"
Damn! thought John. Those psychic bursts must have been audible for miles. Tyrk's minions knew where he was. Worse, they now knew Kristine was nearby.
He sprang to his feet. Lines of pain rippled over his back, his legs, his arms -- anywhere muscles or skin moved. The lashes. His cuirass had been removed for the whipmaster's attention. His broadsword was gone.
Well, I'll have to make do.
He raised his left foot and kicked the pantry door. The thick wood exploded out. He grinned in spite of everything. He was less than Stargod, without the Gem, but he was more than the mindless Man-Wolf of Earth. He was some magnificent common ground.
He sprang into the corridor, hunched like the hunting beast he resembled. Goons approached from both directions. Like Tyrk, they all had glowing white marbles for eyes. They even smelled like Tyrk, as if they were all clones.
"Bring him down," ordered a mop-haired man in the lead. Half-a-dozen white eyes lifted ray-guns.
John took a step, another, and leapt. He sailed over the heads of the white-eyes. He landed and rolled and sprang sideways into another hallway.
He ran, though he wanted to stay and fight. He found a marble staircase and reached the top in two hops. He had to escape, and his nose caught fresh air flowing down from above.
A skeleton-thing sprang out from behind a curtain, a curling fire-sword raised. John seized its skull in one hand and plucked it loose like a daisy.
He watched, briefly, as the headless skeleton stumbled around. He took its fire-sword in one hand and held out its skull in the other.
He ran off again, the fiery weapon clenched in his hairy fist.
The pain of his innumerable welts was now a burning exhilaration. Though he feared for Kristine and himself, he thought, This is great!
Not Stargod. Not Man-Wolf.
He found himself twenty feet below a bannistered walkway. He crouched and sprang easily up to it.
He thought of the villain who had re-created the Moongem. Dreadmund, who dubbed himself "Starwolf" once he used the artifact. A scumbag like him didn't deserve such a title.
"Full power!" yelled someone. John twisted to see more white-eyes. "The infidel must be stopped!"
John raised the fire-sword.
[It worked for Luke Skywalker.]
The crimson "blade" flared white. It completely absorbed the blast. Good.
ZAAAK -- ZAAAK -- SPZATZ -- SPZATZ --
He whipped the sword around fast enough to block the oncoming bursts of energy. Somehow he knew which gun was going to fire next, and where the beam would be directed, like that strange prescience Spider-Man possessed.
Starwolf. He had the "wolf" part down, all right, and he, John Jameson, Astronaut, had reached for the stars . . .
ZAAAK. A beam of energy hissed painfully over his side. He'd been a fraction off. ZAAAK -- Another hit his leg. He gritted his teeth and sprang into a side-corridor.
The burns on his ribs and thigh made him growl as he ran.
Teach me to get cocky, he thought.
At last -- light streaming through a window!
He skidded to a stop. A latticework of iron barred the window. He smiled grimly and seized the grill. His muscles bunched beneath his ivory fur, and the grill crumpled with a grinding sound.
He tossed the latticework aside and clambered out. Cap couldn't have done that so easily.
A hundred foot drop to the court below. The walls were sheer, but John had performed this stunt before. He worked his claws into the mortar and climbed slowly down. After twenty feet he peered over his shoulder.
It was daytime now. Purple clouds danced before the golden sun. Winged specks wheeled and dove in front of the clouds.
[The dragons! Kristine! Get away! Tyrk's army --]
*Will win gloriously* buzzed a second psychic voice.
A winged dragon skimmed the side of the castle. The voice came from a jawless skeleton mounted thereon.
The skeleton fired, singeing John's shoulders. Above, the Man-Wolf heard a babble of voices at his escape window. More goons with more guns.
He glanced down. Quite a drop, but he released his hold on the stone wall and fell.
I can do this. I can do this.
The tower flared out at the bottom. He hit the curving wall with his feet, a glancing blow that sent him spinning. He rolled into a ball and tumbled along the slope.
He felt like a sock in a drier, yet he always knew which way was up. He knew when to fling out his arms and legs, so that he could flip high in the air and land perfectly upright.
No time to dwell on how amazing it was. Shadows rippled over him. Dragons with skeletal warriors, a squadron of them. They ignored the wolf-man. Their target was the oncoming wave of Realmites.
[Kristine, they're making for you!] John Jameson shouted mentally. [Garth, Gor, get her away!]
The dragons seemed to be originating from someplace to his right, beyond a stand of trees. He loped in that direction, dodging gnarled trunks and bounding over fissures. If he could hijack one of the winged beasts, leave this damned asteroid --
He emerged into an open area, another landing field-cum-courtyard.
Wait -- he had not flown to Tyrk's old headquarters alone. Where was --?
"There you are, Jameson! I feared you would not escape in time to witness my triumph."
The Man-Wolf turned from the wheeling dragons to face a score of white-eyes. They were led by a man in vaguely Oriental armor, whose sight and smell made John growl.
[Tyrk . . .]
Arisen Tyrk stepped forward with a smile. He waved his right hand, and his minions froze in their tracks. With his left arm, he supported/dragged a shriveled hulk of a man.
This last miserable creature clawed ineffectually at the tyrant, then sank to his knees only to be hauled upright by Tyrk again. Smoke billowed out of his hair and mouth. He made the gurgling sounds of the drowning.
"Come now, Mr. King," said Tyrk. "Everyone knows we Bad Guys cringe in the darkness, while heroes bask in the light."
John's lupine jaw hung open in horror.
"You do have some curious allies, Man-Wolf," said Tyrk. "All ineffectual, however. I am Arisen again, if you'll pardon the expression, and this time I intend to stay in power."
The werewolf snarled.
[Let him be, Tyrk. I'm the one you want.]
The tyrant shrugged. With a casual flick of an arm, he tossed the detective towards a huge tree with purple leaves. King bounced and rolled and then scuttled like a crab into the shade.
The vampire detective groaned. He had suffered the tortures of the damned for John Jameson, a man to whom he owed no true allegiance.
The Man-Wolf studied the tyrant's army of goons. He could not dodge all their weapons if he made for the bastard.
Think, John, think. What would Spider-Man do? What would Captain America do?
He envisioned the former’s dizzying acrobatic tumbles and flips. He could do such things in the Man-Wolf’s body -- with practice.
"We've had a fine talk, Hannibal King and I," Tyrk continued as John's brain worked furiously. "He tells me the Weirdstone was destroyed -- then re-created -- only to be destroyed again. The timing suggests that this re-creation caused the surge that awakened me in my Tunnel World prison. It is a pity it exists no longer -- a pity for me. A disaster for you."
Arisen Tyrk paced in a wide arc around John. The Man-Wolf circled him in turn.
"Doubtless you are trying to think of a way out of this predicament," said Tyrk. "I believe it is time you truly appreciated your failure, John Jameson, as savior, king, god -- and man."
Tyrk shouted something in an unknown tongue. To the Man-Wolf's amazement, the white-eyed goons sheathed their weapons and marched back to the castle.
"You and I, alone," said the tyrant. "Let us end this now, 'Stargod'."
John folded his ears and switched his tail. This had to be a trick, but even as he watched the last of the white-eyes filed into the gates of the citadel.
"No deception, Jameson. If you win, the Undying Ones will fall like the liches they are, and my minions will collapse like feeble old men. If I win . . ."
He smiled. His teeth gleamed as white as his eyes.
The Man-Wolf listened and sniffed. There was no denying the fact that Hannibal King was the only other creature besides Tyrk and himself within several hundred yards. Tyrk was here alone.
[Let's rock,] said John.
He crouched, head low, and danced nearer. Tyrk merely stood there. It felt wrong to attack even such as he, when he did not make a move.
He heard distant blaster fire. Every second Tyrk lived meant danger for Kristine and the others. He sprang.
His momentum should have smashed the white-eyed tyrant flat. Instead, Tyrk slapped him, CRACK. The Man-Wolf fell aside with an undignified whine.
He flipped and rose to his feet. Tyrk turned to face him again.
A quick glance toward the Realmites. Dying dragons whirled down like autumn leaves.
The Man-Wolf sprang again, claws outstretched. The tyrant's gauntleted hand shot up to catch him by the furry throat.
The rest of the werewolf's body swung into him, but it was as if the tyrant were a steel post.
[Like an insect. Caught me --]
"Indeed, Jameson," said Tyrk. He squeezed. John's skull seemed to swell like a balloon. "The tables are turned. My power has never been greater. You, however, lack the Weirdstone. You are but a fraction of your former self."
The Man-Wolf caught the tyrant's wrist in his claws. He could not budge himself or Tyrk's arm.
"You never were more than a fragment of Stargod," Tyrk remarked as John struggled. "His followers believe he died on your Earth's moon. He didn't, actually; he merely split up."
Tyrk tossed the Man-Wolf aside again. John clutched at his own throat, coughing flecks of blood.
"The same thing happened to me when I escaped through that wretched shattered Portal," continued Tyrk. He watched the aerial dragon-battle and spoke as if to himself. "I materialized as a dozen different entities, some on Earth, some elsewhere. It was a most disconcerting problem, trying to pull myself together. I finally enlisted the help of Mr. King's friend Strange. He was fool enough to track down my other selves and help me re-join . . ."
The white-eyed Tyrk turned to the Man-Wolf again. John climbed shakily to his feet.
"A shame you cannot gather all your parts, Jameson. You are more now, I admit, than the feral fragment you melded with on earth, but you are nothing compared to the Stargod of legend. Truly, I do not need your energies. But I will have them."
Strong as Thor, thought the Man-Wolf. Can't beat him . . .
He caught the stink of burnt flesh. Hannibal King had dragged himself erect in the shade of the purple tree.
I promised . . . to the death . . . but I have obligations.
He crouched again as if ready to spring -- then he charged with a cheetah's speed at Hannibal King.
The vampire detective pushed himself away from the tree trunk. He lived, but he still looked like a shriveled corpse. John hated to do it, but he crashed into King full tilt, scooping him up in his hairy arms.
"Ouch," said Hannibal King.
"So you are no more than a coward," called Tyrk. "Very well, then, Jameson. Flee. I shall come to you soon enough."
The Man-Wolf dodged trees and hopped bushes.
[Hannibal -- are you all right?]
The vampire's cracked lips parted.
"A little overly done . . . Hey!"
They left the copse. For now King had to suffer the sun's rays. Ahead lay the sheer edge of the asteroid.
"What're you doing?" hissed King, shading his face with an arm.
[We're going for a dip,] answered John.
He jumped, landed with his knees bent at the very edge of the flying mountain, and sprang into empty space.
The Realmites' dragons stayed in a tight delta formation, Balnac in the lead. Ahead of him flew two riderless reptiles, the erstwhile steeds of John and Hannibal King.
Kristine held her reins in one gauntleted hand; the other she kept clasped on the saddlehorn. She felt like the 8-ball in a billiard-rack, in the middle of the delta.
Some leader, she thought.
"Majesty!" yelled the blond warrior Garth over the wind. "The Wolf-Helms were built to allow their wearers to communicate over long distances! We do not know how they work, but it is possible that Stargod can receive your thoughts!"
Telepathy? Cybernetics? Some combination of the two? It didn't really matter. Kristine nodded and concentrated.
John? John? This is Kristine! Come in!
The last two words seemed silly, but who cared?
John! Can you hear me?
For how far a distance did his thought-projecting work? There were so many unanswered questions. She and John could unravel the Realm's mysteries together, in the years to come -- after they got rid of Tyrk.
There's an optimistic thought. John!
They flew for hours, it seemed, over jungles of deep green and violet, over rivers and pools and farmlands gone fallow. Finally, a voice carried over on the wind.
Balnac, ahead, pointed to the northeast. Kristine saw nothing but a small, forested asteroid . . .
No, something shimmered like a mirage on top of the asteroid. But heat-waves could not take on so regular a form: Walls -- turrets -- peaked roofs.
"That's it! Tyrk's castle!" yelled Kristine. "It's invisible, that's why no one could find it!"
The dragons around her banked to port. Kristine tugged on her reins, but her steed followed the others, probably of its own accord.
Lessa of Pern I'm not, she thought. She patted the blaster on her thigh. I hope I make a better Annie Oakley.
The shimmering outline of Tyrk's castle drew nearer.
"Beware, Majesty," called Garth. "If Tyrk can shield his castle from view, he might hide the Undying Ones as well!"
"Duly noted," Kristine yelled back. Then she tried again to contact her husband.
John, I know you're in that castle! Please answer me, John!
The name echoed in her mind like an explosion.
John! I heard you! John!
At least he was alive. Where are you?
Stupid question. He must be imprisoned in the citadel ahead. They'd have to land and invade it.
[Kristine, get away from here! Tyrk is here!]
"Majesty!" called Duna, on her right. "The Undying Ones rise!"
Black dots popped out of the mirage-shimmer over the asteroid, like flies waved off a plate of food.
"Hoo, boy," said the Earthwoman. "Well, I'm not leaving without my husband."
She snatched the blaster from her hip and raised it high.
"I say -- Attack!"
The Realmites cheered around her, an accolade diluted by the roaring wind. Red, green, sky-blue, rust-brown, and orange reptiles swirled around Kristine. She held her reins tight in her left hand, the ray-gun gripped in her right.
Kristine's flying beast banked to maintain its position between Garth and Duna.
"Dragon of mine, I hope you know what to do, 'cause I sure don't," she called to her steed.
The oncoming spots grew longer and more defined. More dragons with humanlike figures on their backs. Only these figures were topped with jawless skulls.
The first of the skeletons fired a salvo of energy beams.
ZAAAK -- A red beam struck Duna full in the chest. Krista gasped -- but, though she was slammed back against the spine of her dragon, the Realmite rose again. That bikini force-field actually worked.
The Earthwoman glanced from side to side. There were thirty Realmites accompanying her. They had bows and crossbows. Only she held a blaster.
That was close. She aimed at an oncoming skull-head.
Smoke spurted from the skeleton's hauberk. There was little kick from the weapon, but its loud crackle reminded Kristine that she had never practiced with it.
"Well, sink or swim."
Out of the corner of the wolf-helm's "mouth", she spotted another Undying One banking toward her. This one held only a bow and arrow.
The arrow flared like a meteor on the way over, and it hit like TNT. Kristine's dragon flapped its wings wildly. Even so, her stomach floated up against her lungs as they dropped through the clouds.
Isn't anything simple here?
"Come on, girl," Kristine called, patting the dragon's scaly neck, "you can pull out of this!"
The reptile exhaled like a steam-brake and straightened its wings. It curved slowly back up to the heights.
The two squadrons of dragons circled within circles like World War I dogfighters. The ray-guns blasted, Gor's staff zapped, crossbows sprang.
A raven-haired woman among the Realmites raised her hand, and a purple lightning bolt shot from her palm. A sorceress? At least she was on their side.
Kristine felt John's telepathic voice in her head again, but she was too hyper to make out his words. She fired her gun at a reptilian belly above. The dragon convulsed but did not fall.
A shadow engulfed her. She glanced up to see a crippled Realmite dragon hurtling earthwards.
She dug her heels into her own mount as she would on horseback. Her beast folded one wing, and the world turned sideways.
Swoooosh -- A heavy body dropped by, inches from her head. Her dragon stretched out its pinions and the horizon resumed its normal position.
I'm getting air-sick.
*There is the woman,* buzzed a cicada song twisted into words. *Capture her, and our victory is complete!*
An orange lizard swerved in her direction. Other dragons altered their courses.
ZAAAK -- ZAAAK -- She hit the orange dragon in the snout. It jerked its wings shut like umbrellas and dropped into the cotton clouds below.
"Damn, I hated to do that," muttered Kristine. "The dragons aren't our enemies."
ZAAAK -- A blow like a baseball bat between the shoulders. She twisted and fired blindly.
[Kristine!] John again. [Garth! Duna! We have escaped! Retreat! Return to the Castle!]
Kristine felt a surge of relief, but --
Easier said than done.
She scanned the skies. Everyone and their dragon seemed to be converging on her, the skeletons to capture her, the Realmites to stop them.
A meteor-arrow zipped past, then more zap-rays cut the air.
"Down!" she yelled at her green mount.
The dragon lowered its head and neck and dove.
How do I call a retreat? she wondered.
ZAAAK -- ZAAAK --
The scaled beast shuddered beneath her. It let out a grunt she felt more than heard. She looked back as best she could in her helmet. Smoke billowed off the creature's tail.
"Sorry, girl," she called into the wind. "Oh -- Watch it!"
She pulled the dragon's reins hard. It grunted again and leveled out. They passed mere feet above a purple-leafed forest.
Kristine looked up at the swarm of dragons following her. She waved her arms.
"Break off!" she yelled. "Retreat! Let's go!"
A sky-blue dragon curved down on her right. She reached for her blaster, then she saw it was Balnac.
"Majesty!" he yelled. "I am going to attempt something! But I must speak to your steed!"
"Uh -- Sure!" Kristine yelled back.
Balnac shifted his gaze to the Earthwoman's mount from his position thirty feet away. More rays shot by, but fortunately they were meant for Kristine, not the preoccupied Balnac.
ZAAAK -- A whack on the head with a mallet. Fortunately?
"All right, Majesty," yelled Balnac. He pulled his left foot from his stirrup and swung bodily around. He knelt on his dragon's back, facing the pursuing skull-heads.
"I -- try -- now!"
Dragons shrieked and Undying Ones buzzed. Two out of every three dragons pulled up like hummingbirds encountering plate-glass. Now the startled reptiles fluttered off in all directions. Their riders cursed and tugged their reins.
The remaining dragons closed in behind Kristine. They were all ridden by Realmites.
"Holy cow!" exclaimed Kristine. "Balnac, that was amazing!"
Seated properly aboard his blue dragon again, the long-haired barbarian grinned.
"Aye, Majesty! I put their dragons in mind of Time-Wasps, their deadly enemy. But I fear the deception will not fool them twice. Best to leave before we lose more riders."
"Okay," agreed Kristine. She turned again and yelled as loud as she could. "Warriors of the Realm! We fall back for now -- we must search for Stargod!"
She heard shouts of acquiescence. It probably rankled them to retreat, but this spur-of-the-moment invasion could not have ended well. As it was, three or four Realmites had perished.
John, I hope you're well away from there, she thought. I could make a suicide run after you, but I can't drag these people down with me.
John Jameson, Man-Wolf, Hannibal King, and all related characters are copyright © by Marvel Entertainment. The articles and fiction on these web pages are not for profit and are not meant to infringe on the copyrights of Marvel Entertainment or the Walt Disney Company.
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