Justin Greystone in The Kidnap (2_105)

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Mission: Impossible

Chapter 1

Mission:  Impossible

Chapter One

by Anna M.C.


Like everyone else with an Internet connection, Anna received an absurd quantity of crank and unsolicited e-mail. Today seemed somehow worse, however, unless she was just getting crankier in her old age (*subject pointedly ignores loud chorus of "AMEN TO THAT!" emanating from the List*). Subject headers like "Lose 50 pounds in one week!" "Make $100,000 in one week!" "Improve your sex life in one week!" clogged her in-box like the weeds you can never quite seem to exterminate at the roots; eradicate them and they'll be back, doubled in number, within -- well, within one week. For some mysterious reason, seven days appeared to be the magic number for the regeneration of both direct-mail advertisements and lawn growth; the connection seemed cosmically appropriate, however, since both phenomena usually shared their origin in the same bovine-based fertilizing substance.

At least now Anna had something of an overall unifying theme going. Her house was a mess, her yard was a mess, her thankless mining company job was a mess, with pending Spanish translations piling deep enough to form their own geological strata, and now her computer was a mess again, too. A flash of color catching her eye, she reached down and disentangled a neon green post-it from her auburn hair, an occupational hazard of combining knee-length tresses with an inherently disorganized, sticky-note-intensive personality. Written in her trademark spastic scrawl, the words "Update W&W List Web Page!" scolded her from the aging, dog-eared scrap of paper. Sighing, she plastered it back up with the 27 others festooning her computer, desk, and wall with their varied graffiti of guilt. Saint Martha Stewart would probably scream a malediction and toss holy water at her if their paths ever crossed. Fair enough, actually, since Anna would probably opt for boiling water to toss in return (with boiling water being the only home economics task she had managed to master in 28 years). The corners of her lips curving upwards in an accompaniment to the lift in her spirits incited by that image, Anna aligned the mouse pointer with the trash icon and commenced a steady "Delete" beat, tapping her foot and humming a Peter Gabriel melody to the rhythm of the clicking. So engrossed was she in her own atonal little inner song that she absent-mindedly discarded one message before the subject header registered with her conscious mind: "WIZARDS AND WARRIERS MASTER TAPES TO BE DESTROYED!!!!!!"

"What in the . . ." Frantically, she opened her trash file and scanned for the message in question. As she opened it, ominous, foreboding music began to play in the background. True, it was because her husband had just turned on "Halloween VIII: Michael Myers Sells Insurance" on the Sci-Fi Channel in the background (Sci-Fi motto: "Quality programming? Been there, done that"), but the effect was appropriate nonetheless. Chewing her lip and nervously twisting a lock of hair around her finger, she began to read:





"Laren, I swear, if this is your idea of an April Fool's joke, I'll weld you to the wall . . ." She glanced at the sender's e-mail address and was shocked to see not a tell-tale "Hotmail" or "Yahoo" account, but "mailroom@warnerbrothers.com". The ominous music reached a climax as Michael Myers forced excessive premiums upon an unsuspecting victim.

"Ronny! Turn that down -- I'm going to use the phone!" She quickly hit "disconnect" on her computer screen and reached for the receiver. With news like this, she needed to talk to someone cool, someone level-headed, someone who would be able to evaluate all the data in a calm, dispassionate fashion and advise upon an appropriate course of action in an eminently sensible manner. Unfortunately, since no one like that existed on the List, CJ would have to do.

Radar rested his head upon his paws, soulful eyes and satellite-dish ears monitoring the frantic rushing of his mistress with the precision to-and-fro swiveling perfected only by terriers and tennis spectators. All this movement could only mean that CJ was Going Out. In his doggy brain, Out was a Bad Thing.

"Ok, keys, check, tickets, check." Finishing a brief inventory of her purse, CJ stopped before the mirror to do a last-minute inventory of herself. As late as she was running, whatever she saw would, for better or for worse, have to suffice. Smoothing down her shoulder-length brown hair, her brown eyes narrowed at noting that the grey strand peppering the left side of her bangs had almost imperceptibly widened. She could individually account for almost every hair; some were attributed to her family, others to her thankless job as director of a small animal shelter. Little did she suspect that, before the night was out, several grey newcomers would be clamoring to join their brethren.

The ringing of the telephone heralded the coming of the grey. "Oh, no. Not now." She was running far too late already. Whoever it was would just have to leave a message. "Peter Pan" was by no means her favorite musical of all time -- heck, she didn't even particularly care for it -- but it was a musical nonetheless, and anyone out to deter her from her appointment with Never-Neverland could go flying without the benefit of a "happy thought."

Unfortunately, curiosity getting the better of the feline-influenced portion of her nature, she glanced at the caller ID in passing. The name she saw convinced her to extend the courtesy of picking up the receiver. However, in her current harried state, that was as far as courtesy was going to go. "Anna, I really can't talk right now, and no, I haven't finished writing the next section of 'Blue Moon,' so just stop asking. I'm walking out the door. Did you forget that I have tickets to the theatre tonight?" She posed the question like Dirk might ask "Did you forget I have to attend Greystone's execution tonight?"

"Believe me, this is more important," Anna snapped. "Have you checked your e-mail recently?"

"No, I'll check it when I get back. You know nothing makes me miss my musicals."

"This will. Call it an instant realignment of your priorities. Just check it. Please? Pretty please?"

"Oh, all right. I'll humor you," she groaned with bad grace, surrendering to the inevitability of Anna's trademark nagging juggernaut. Random clicks and shuffling noises commenced. "Let's see: "Lose weight in one week, make a billion dollars, oh, yeah, this is all earth-shatteringly crucial, junk, junk, more junk, -- what on earth? Oh, come on, Anna, this has to be a joke. They can't even spell 'Warriors' right."

"Yeah, but take a look at the sender's address, CJ."

"Oh, God." Ominous music, tinny with distance, commenced yet again. "Randy, please turn the channel, you *know* horror films give me nightmares." With a muffled protest from CJ's date, the strains of "Halloween VIII" ended. "There's no way to make a fake domain name like that? Are you sure?"

"Not that I know of, unless we're dealing with someone really brilliant. I'm talking Bill Gates-level brilliant, and in that event I'm guessing he'd know how to spell 'Warriors' correctly. The mailroom clerk identity would be a lot more likely. In which case . . ."

". . . we're up to our collective derrieres in alligators," CJ groaned, letting loose with one of her more endearing colloquialisms. The ensuing grim silence was cold and friendless as the vacuum of space, a vivid (if somewhat melodramatic) foreshadowing of the emptiness of a world bereft of hope for "Wizards and Warriors."

When CJ finally spoke, her voice was reinforced with the sort of brisk, Teflon determination inherent in someone who's specialized in lost causes for far too long to be fazed by anything for more than five minutes at a time. "Well? What do you suggest we do? Try to contact Warner Brothers?"

"Oh, yeah, they've been *really* responsive so far. For all we know they might be doing this just to force us to quit sending them letters asking them to re-air the series once and for all; yet another case of well-intentioned enthusiasm backfiring on me."

"Nagging," corrected CJ.



"Whatever. Anyway, in a twisted sort of way, their logic makes sense: no tapes means no cause left to fight for." For sheer deranged cruelty, it was a plot worthy of a Blackpool.

"Not so fast. We'll make such a massive protest that they'll *have* to reconsider. We'll rally the list. We'll get everybody to fly to California and then we'll stage a sit-in at the offices of Warner Brothers and --"

"CJ, did anyone ever tell you that the 1960's ended several decades ago? What else do you suggest we do, form a big circle, hold hands and sing 'We Shall Overcome'? And how many of us are even going to be able to afford the plane fare?" Lights and sirens flashing, Anna swiftly halted the accelerating momentum of CJ's instinctive activism with the squad car of harsh reality.

"Well, I don't hear *you* offering any better ideas." Moving violation in hand, CJ was clearly retiring to the side of the road to sit and sulk.

"That's because I don't *have* any better ideas." However, just before Anna could surrender to despair, a renegade thought snuck into her frontal lobes and waved frantically for attention. "Wait a minute. I don't have any better ideas, but . . . I know some people who might."


"Dirk, Vector, Traquill, Erik, --"

"Waitaminute, waitaminute. Hold on. Are you nuts?"

"Probably, but that's beside the point. I mean, who knows more about triumphing over insurmountable odds than Erik? Who knows more underhanded ways to scheme your way towards your goal than Dirk? Although granted, he always loses, but with both of them on our side, we'll have the best of both worlds. Plus some wizard magic in the bargain."

"Oh, come on. Them? Help us? Do you honestly believe that they'd lift a finger to do anything more than seize the opportunity to make a really rude gesture? After all the demented fanfiction this List has written, Dirk and Erik hate our guts. Erik will never forgive you and me for the 'Love Voodoo' incident alone," CJ reflected, recalling their betrayal of the Greystone prince to Dirk's tender mercies just for the sake of her Justin obsession. "And I really don't want to know how Dirk feels about Laren's little gender-bender," she added, shivering at the thought of Blackpool's reaction to discovering how Laren's most recent twisted tale had transformed the evil prince into a woman. "Sorry, it's a noble mission, but that's just impossible."

In the background, several thousand miles apart, in a startling display of synchronicity (and bad plot contrivance), Ronny and Randy simultaneously switched the sets to the same channel. A familiar, catchy theme from a particular 1960's TV show began to insinuate itself in the background. CJ could almost see Anna's wicked grin through the phone line. "The thing you have yet to learn, CJ, is that there is no such thing as a 'Mission: Impossible'. At least not when you're writing the plot."

Tentatively, Anna tugged at a slender chain hanging around her neck until she had lifted the pendant up to eye level. Given its magical properties, it should have been a truly awe-inspiring bauble, perhaps some eye-candied concoction of crystal and gold. Instead, it was disappointingly plain, consisting of nothing more than two miniature silver crossed swords. You could probably buy something more superficially impressive for $15 at a Renaissance faire, actually. Only the faint glow which it emitted when you turned it precisely the right way hinted at the power lying dormant within; power which the donors no doubt fervently hoped would remain untapped forever. In fact, they probably even sacrificed the occasional tadmon to placate the gods into ensuring such a future. Ah, well. Life is full of disillusioning little moments for everyone, Anna mused, with a hint of sadism flickering in her blue-grey eyes. Why should princes have it any easier?

"CJ, call Laren and tell him to get ready for -- just tell him to brace himself. I think it's time to call in that favor Dirk and Erik owe the List."



Meanwhile, back in Aperans . . .

The tropical sunshine flowed in rich streams of honey-gold, its delicious warmth encumbering all physical and mental activity as effectively as a literal coating of the sticky liquid. Palm trees swayed a free-form hula in the soft salt breeze to the distant melody of a steel-drum band, while waves bluer than a Winslow's eyes caressed the sandy shore with a languorous rock-a-bye rhythm. It was the sort of hedonistic hideaway seemingly crafted, by design, for no other purpose than to ease all stress from the human form to the point where the only way to differentiate the sunbathers from the jellyfish was to check which ones were holding the drinks with the silly paper umbrellas.

Tossing said paper umbrella to the ground, a bare-chested, shorts-and-sandals-clad Justin Greystone drained a frozen banana daiquiri in one gulp, then settled back into his beach chair with a sigh of pure, undiluted bliss. This particular island off the coast of Camarand was one of his favorite spots in the world. It was so perfectly tranquil. Then again, perhaps peaceful was a better term than tranquil. He disliked that word; it was far too close to Traquill for his comfort, and wherever wizards were, tranquility was most definitely not.

"A little to the left, darlin'. Ah, that's it. You've got a gift, I tell you." The dark-haired prince shifted his attention from appreciating the natural wonders in front of him to appreciating the natural wonder beside him, grinning rakishly at the sarong-clad, vaguely Polynesian-looking beauty currently occupied with the task of massaging away any remaining indications that he'd once been a vertebrate organism. Moving accordingly to the left shoulder, she rubbed more fragrant oil into his bare skin while giggling appreciatively at the compliment.

Gods, it was perfect. Absolutely perfect.

Well, almost.

Turning reluctantly to his right, he shook his head in bemusement. Hopeless. The boy was hopeless.

"You know, Erik, most sunbathers don't consider swords to be normal beachwear accessories. It's not like you have anywhere to buckle it onto, anyway," Justin teased, gesturing at the red-and gold swimming trunks emblazoned with the Greystone crest which were the only item of clothing Erik was currently wearing.

Irritably brushing away the leaves of the palm-frond a second tropical temptress was using to fan him with, Erik defiantly reached down beside him to drag his sword a little closer to his chair. "Thanks for the advice, but some of us like to stay prepared for anything."

"For what? If you want to catch some crabs for the dinner boil, just scoop 'em up in a bucket. No need to skewer the poor little guys into submission."

Erik shifted uncomfortably, tense as a live wire. In point of fact, the young prince's blond, tanned, breezy appearance actually had the sort of surfer charm which should have blended seamlessly into a tropical paradise; Erik's sun-streaked hair alone seemed to shout "hang ten!" at unsuspecting passers-by. However, his older brother's rougher, more roguish good looks seemed far more at home with the notion of reclining in piratical splendor. Erik looked as out of place in the midst of all that rest and relaxation as Ariel at a Mensa convention. "Look, Justin, something's just not right. I can taste it."

"Have a daiquiri. One of those will wash the taste right out of your mouth. Have two. Hell, have three. Erik, we're on *vacation.* Do you even understand the concept? When was the last time you took a vacation?"

"I've taken plenty of vacations. Last September, I went up to the Howling Hills."

"Erik, you went to the Hills to rescue the villagers of Ende from the Blood Beast. In my book, that doesn't qualify as a vacation. Not enough wine, women and song and way too much blood, beasts, and howling. You need a real vacation."

"Justin, evil never takes a vacation. How can I?"

"Now, that's just not true. What about that Dungeons of the World tour Blackpool went on last --"

Erik threw up his hands in exasperation. "I was speaking figuratively!"

Setting down the empty glass on the small table beside him, Justin leaned forward and pointed threateningly. "Well, figure this, little brother. Either you make an effort to relax, or I'm going to come over there, take that sword of yours and use the hilt to knock you unconscious and MAKE you relax. Seein' you all twitchy as a Winslow in a convent is makin' me all tense. Ain't it, darlin'?" He looked to his masseuse for confirmation, and she nodded vigorously. "See? You're makin' this poor girl work overtime. Listen to ol' Justin, here, Erik: you borrow trouble more than I borrow kolnas, which is saying a heck of a lot." He looked up brightly at a new girl who had just arrived bearing a tray of fresh daiquiris. "Speakin' of which, Erik, could you lend me enough for a tip, here?"

Erik threw a kolna at him with rather more force than was necessary, but Justin caught it with the precision of someone who is used to having objects hurled at him-- often by irate husbands. "Much obliged," he nodded to Erik, tucking the kolna into one of the few spots on the girl's body covered with enough clothing to support the coin. Taking one of the drinks, he looked down at a discarded straw hat lying beside Erik's chair. "Hey Marko, you want one?"

The hat tilted slightly, revealing the head of Marko, nose liberally coated with zinc oxide and buried up to his neck in sand. "Just put it down in front of my mouth." Bending down, Justin set the drink directly in front of Marko, but after several seconds of straining it became clear that the straw was just a trifle too high for him to reach. "Damn."

"Hey, Marko, you sure you're OK like that? Why don't you just let me dig you out and --"

"No. I'll burn."

"Look, you can stay over there under the big umbrella and --"

"I'll still burn. I'm fine, really."

Justin watched him doubtfully. A small crab scuttled by and skidded to a halt in front of Marko's face, eyestalks waving incredulously. The vassal's rounded, benign features contorted with anger. "Oh, I look like an idiot, do I? Hey, Justin, here's a nice juicy one for the crab boil tonight." He watched with malicious satisfaction as the crab shifted gears into High Scuttle and zoomed back to the water, sand flying in its wake.

"Marko, are you absolutely positive you're OK?"

"Oh, sure. Don't worry about me. I'm having a great time." Marko's deadpan face and voice contained not a trace of sarcasm, but still . . . Justin wisely decided to leave well enough alone.

"I've joined up with a regular bunch of party animals," he grumbled. Closing his eyes, he concentrated fully on the ministrations of his attendant's magic fingers.


"What?" Justin half-opened one eye and peered suspiciously at Erik.

"What if something happens? What if something happens and we're not there?" Erik clutched at his sword as reflexively as he might cuddle a security blanket.

"Sounds like a perfect arrangement to me."

"I'm serious, Justin. Anything could happen at any time."

"Which is why you should never have told Traquill where we were going."

"Justin!" Not even their late mother could pack as much disapproval into a two-syllable name as Erik could.

"All right, all right. Erik, nothing is going to happen. The Festival of Fools is a national holiday; even the thieves, murderers and monsters take some time off to party. If something happens, Traquill knows where to find us and can transport us back, gods help us both. So just take this drink and please get drunk enough so that I can stand being around you." He thrust the daiquiri at Erik as if daring him to refuse.

Accepting the drink absently, Erik stared at the ocean, its turquoise depths far calmer than his haunted blue eyes. "But Justin . . . it was this time last year that . . . other thing . . .happened."

Justin's eyes snapped fully open. "Hey. I thought you said you NEVER wanted to talk about the Listi-- I mean, 'them,' again." He quickly changed words in mid-stream, remembering the disturbing facial tic the mere mention of the "L-word" produced in his impressionable sibling.

Fixing Justin with a worried look, Erik suddenly dropped his gaze and laughed self-consciously. "You're right. I am being ridiculous. I need to just relax and have a good time and forget about everything for awhile."

"Now you're talkin'." Taking a sip from his own daiquiri, Justin closed his eyes. Once again, all in his world was bliss -- until a shadow, literally and figuratively, passed overhead. "Hey, Erik, sit down, you're blocking my sun."

"That's not me, Justin." Both Greystone princes sprang to their feet simultaneously at the sight of the ancient wizard Traquill standing before them.

"Uncle Tray! What's the matter?" Marko exclaimed, irritably shooing away the seagull attempting to perch on his head.

"We've got trouble in River City, boys," the wizard intoned.

"Gods, I knew it!" Erik shouted, exhibiting the self-righteous "I told you so" tone that made Justin want to try burying him in the sand and dumping an entire bucket of crabs on his head. "What is it? It's Blackpool, isn't it?" He sounded eager for the fray.

"Much, much worse than that."

"Worse? Oh, no, not another Blood Beast?" Erik sounded considerably less gung-ho.


Erik took one daunted step backwards. "What could be worse than a Blood Beast?"

"The Listians."

Half a mile away, the steel-drum combo stopped playing abruptly at the sound of Erik's heart-wrenching scream. One drummer regarded the other with concern. As minutes passed, and no second scream followed, the drummers resumed their song. Indifferent to Erik, Justin, and Marko's imminent descent into hell, the rhythms of paradise flowed on.



"Halt! Who goes there?" The Greystone guard, a large, square man with a jutting jaw and a bulldog build, examined the newcomers with open hostility. He had spent a long and tedious day watching the dust motes swirl while everyone else ate, drank, and made borderline-illegal merriment on the streets of Camarand. He'd run out of elaborate sexual fantasies about four hours ago, moved on to elaborate fantasies of revenge, and now was primed to lighten his load of misery by heaping it onto the hapless shoulders of anyone within range.

Incidentally, now is a good time to note that everyone, everywhere, has a double in a parallel universe. Approximately half the science fiction and fantasy novels ever written are predicated upon that basic premise. It just so happened that this soldier's double was, at that very moment, reporting for his job as a security guard on the lot of Warner Brothers. It also happened that, in a matter of hours, he would be equally peeved, but for different reasons.

Three of those reasons were drawing to a halt before the Camarandian guard right now.

He sized them up in a single glance. The trio consisted of a 6' brunette and a 6'2" blond guy standing on either side of a pudgy 5'7" redhead, all of them bespectacled and none of them looking particularly threatening in terms of the Sharp Weapons Quotient. Instead of a sword, the blond man actually appeared to be carrying a . . . toothbrush. In fact, when all three of them stood together like that, they looked a little like a shortsighted letter "Y". In short, perfect harassment fodder. The day was looking up.

"What are you, deaf? I said, WHO GOES THERE?" He screeched the question directly in the face of the woman in the middle in deference to Bully Rule Number One: Always pick on the shortest person immediately available.

Instead of answering, the woman merely smiled and reached up to her throat. Wordlessly, she displayed a crossed-swords pendant twirling gently on the end of a silver chain.

On the Warner Brothers lot, Fred in Security spilled half a cup of hot coffee on his lap in response to a sudden wretched chill running down his spine. He didn't know why, but he suddenly knew that this was going to be a very bad night.

"All right, fine, I'll admit it was cool the way he ran screaming like that, but I'm still not clear on *why* anyone here would give the List a favor. I'm beginning to think that the only thing they'd really like to give us would result in most of our typing fingers being broken." Primed by a lifetime of comic books and fantasy novels, Laren (a.k.a "Galen Blackpool") was actually handling the situation rather well for someone who'd just been teleported with virtually no warning into the foyer of King Richard Greystone's castle, although his voice retained the tight edge of someone clinging to rationality with fingernails and teeth. Freshly brushed teeth, at that. When the summons came, he'd been in the midst of preparing to leave for the night shift. Reflecting on the night of work -- and pay -- which he was now very likely to miss, he wondered why List disasters could never occur on weekends. On the bright side, though, he was freshly groomed, minty-fresh, and more than ready to make a more intimate acquaintance with Cassandra, Bethel, any number of Winslows, Ariel, or even the ethereal Belladonna, should she be in a corporeal mood. Laren was, in short, a Man with a Plan; unfortunately for the List, saving the series tapes comprised only a very minor aspect of that plan. Were he Justin's sibling, the elder Greystone would no doubt be fighting back tears of fraternal pride.

"Oh, please. I think I'm going to be sick." CJ indulged in some eloquent gagging sounds which recalled Laren from dreams of his hoped-for harem with a guilty start. He quickly ascertained, much to his relief, that CJ had not suddenly acquired any psychic abilities; instead, she had just noticed that the walls of the corridor were lined with tapestries. Her revulsion was inspired not by shoddy workmanship, for the textiles were quite beautifully executed, but rather by their subjects. Or, more specifically, subject in the singular -- since every one of them portrayed Prince Erik Greystone performing some valiant deed.

"That's a little too much moral fiber for me," Laren agreed, earning the coveted Most Gratuitous Pun of the Story Award.

Panting a bit, the three of them were hastening towards Traquill's quarters. Actually, they were supposed to have been transported directly there, but Traquill's skills being what they were, they were lucky they hadn't landed in the moat. Still, it left them with a healthy trek ahead, and Anna attempted to explain the situation to Laren (and everyone else reading this, for that matter) without breaking stride. "Look, did you ever read 'April Fools of Death' on the fanfiction page? The one written before you joined the List?"

"Yeah, it's the unfinished story about the Listians going to Aperans, right?" The one where all the List women drooled nonstop over Dirk, he added mentally. Not that he was bitter. No, not in the least. He laughed a carefree, nonchalant little laugh, then subsided when both CJ and Anna looked at him strangely. His role as one of the few Listian males left him feeling a peculiar bond with the vanquished guard. Lone, proud pillars of testosterone cruelly buffeted by a raging sea of estrogen, both faced the bleak knowledge that they were, in the end, hopelessly outnumbered. "Sorry. Go on."

"Well, didn't you ever wonder *why* it was unfinished? You see, the way that visit ended involved several incidents that were rather . . ." Here Anna paused, groping for an appropriate adjective. " . . . embarrassing for the powers that be in Aperans, both North and South." The word failed miserably to convey the necessary impact. "Embarrassing" was having your friends discover that you owned a 1970's disco compilation CD. Dirk and Erik's experience had been more akin to revealing a closetful of the entire 65-CD "Have a Nice Day: Super Hits of the 70's" collection from Rhino Records. "The thing is, we promised Erik and Dirk to remain tactfully quiet about the details, and as a token of appreciation for avoiding any further unpleasantries, they presented the List with this pendant. It's a direct line to Traquill and Vector."

"In other words, you blackmailed them into giving you a favor to avoid unspeakable humiliation," CJ translated. "Sneaky. Underhanded. I like it!"

"You would."

"It also explains why you never update the web page! You're not lazy, it's all just top secret classified information!"

"Shut up, CJ." The truth, like Blackpools and Blood Beasts, usually hurt. Anna had been chosen as the custodian of the pendant due to her role as webmaster, but Dirk and Erik could probably have saved themselves the trouble of the bribe. She tended to update the fiction pages once in a -- well, let's just say that the title of CJ's latest story, "Blue Moon," was in all likelihood a backhanded tribute to Anna's timeliness.

As usual, CJ blithely ignored Anna. "I still don't understand one thing, though. Why didn't Dirk just squish all of you like a bug? I mean, I understand Erik would be too hampered by his hero hang-ups, but I don't see Dirk as being too squeamish about terminal silencing."

"Trust me, he tried. Several times. For some reason, though -- something to do with magic, I think -- he couldn't."

"Something to do with magic?" CJ looked openly skeptical. "Is that a technical term?"

"Look, if you want detailed technical explanations, ask Vector. I'm sure he'll even be delighted to draw you a diagram." The Law of Interdimensional Matter Transference (a.k.a. the "Law of Narrative Convenience" in more cynical circles) was the "something" which Anna was so unsuccessfully attempting to describe. Since the Listians were not part of the fabric of Aperanian reality, they could not be physically harmed by anyone from that realm. If Dirk had been left to his own devices, it was quite certain that the only crossed swords Anna would have been privileged to see around her neck would have been life-size. Or death-size.

"OK, no need to get touchy. By the way, Laren, thanks for coming on such short notice. It was really nice of you. I mean, you probably had plans you had to cancel. Like I did," CJ concluded with a meaningful glare at Anna, weighing each word with the full force of "Peter Pan" deprivation. Tilting her head upwards, Anna nodded appreciatively at them both. If she spent much more time with these two, she reflected, she'd begin to understand Ariel's grudge against tall people.

"It's not like I had a choice. One minute I was brushing my teeth and the next -- whammo." Laren waved the toothbrush he was still holding for emphasis.

Anna wrenched away the toothbrush and bopped him on the head with it before handing it back to him. "You are just constitutionally incapable of accepting a compliment, aren't you? Thanks anyway. We really do need you here."

"Aw, it's no problem. Glad to be of service. For protection against Dirk, right?" Flexing his arms to their best advantage, Laren brandished his toothbrush in a vaguely threatening manner, assuming the Kung Fu Fightingstance of someone who routinely tied his bathrobe belt around his forehead and intimidated his bathroom mirror with a Jackie Chan impersonation.

"Um, no, not really."

"Oh." He deflated a bit. "Why, then?"

"To talk to Dirk. After last time, Blackpool tends to react to female Listians like a shell-shocked veteran reacts to sudden loud noises."

"Really? Can't imagine why, you guys are all so sweet and subtle," Laren replied cheerfully. If his voice dripped any more sarcasm, they'd all have to wear wading boots with non-corrosive soles.

"Shut up, Laren." They hadn't gotten that pendant by being sweet and subtle, Anna mused, thinking back to the conclusion of the List's first Aperanian adventure. Slightly worse for wear after the never-to-be-mentioned fiasco at the Festival of Fools, she and the other Listians involved had attended the presentation ceremony on a sunny day last April in the throne room of Castle Baaldorf. All in all, the event had been deprived of the usual tone of pomp and circumstance which tended to grace such things. It didn't help that Kiri had repeatedly whispered scandalous uses for Velveeta in the ear of a violently blushing Geoffrey, or that Celine had spent half the time trying to trip Erik and the rest trying to pry a silver stud off Dirk's armor for a souvenir.

Now, those were the sort of experiences which filled the photo album of memory with mugshots that no one could ever forget. At least not without the aid of extremely extensive and expensive forms of therapy.

"All right, guys, this is it." Anna waved them to a halt before the huge set of arched doors leading into the wizard's laboratory, the carved oak scarred and charred with the evidence of past alchemical activities gone explosively awry. As Laren reached out to knock, they suddenly began to creak open by themselves, then just as suddenly lurched to a wobbly halt. After a space of about ten seconds, the tip of a pointy hat peeked through the narrow opening, followed shortly by a wizened, white-bearded face. The Wizard Traquill moved as haltingly as his doors, and the creaking of his joints was quite possibly even louder.

"Drat. I can never quite remember that spell. I think you can make it through anyway -- just suck in your stomach and turn sideways. And hurry up, you've been dawdling far too long already. Did you stop to admire the Erik Tapestries or something?"

Biting back their retorts, the not-so-heroic trio squeezed painfully through the narrow gap (Anna vowing anew to diet). Immediately, the acrid fumes of wizardly concoctions assailed their nostrils. "So, Traquill, have you spoken with Erik yet? And has Vector spoken with Dirk?" Anna inquired, looking curiously at a bright vermilion liquid seething and bubbling in a huge glass vial.

The old wizard smacked her hands away, treating her to the same glare sales clerks use when lollipop-toting children have begun sorting through displays of silk lingerie. "Don't touch that! One drop and you'll never grow old."

"Really?" The three of them eyed the potion with heightened interest.

"Yep, 'cause you'll be dead."

"Oh." The three of them backed swiftly away in a well-choreographed dance of self-preservation. The "no harm, no foul" clauses of the Laws of Interdimensional Matter Transference were a bit less cut-and-dry where magic was concerned, and no one wanted to be the designated guinea pig.

Traquill turned and tottered unsteadily towards a huge book lying open on the table. "Now, back to your questions, before I forget them. There's your first answer." He pointed to the corner, where Prince Erik Greystone sat, arms crossed, both his gold lamé and his eyes glinting dangerously as he regarded them in a particularly unfriendly fashion.

Anna, CJ, and Laren exchanged uneasy glances, and then, as she always did when uncertain how to proceed, Anna forged ahead with manic cheerfulness. "Erik! Hey. You're looking good. Remember me? Boy, it's been a long time."

"Not long enough." The chill in his tone could turn fruit juice into sorbet.

Anna adjusted her glasses nervously. "Oh, yeah, he remembers me all right."

Petulantly tossing his leonine mane of blond hair, Erik rose and paced the room. "All right, Traquill, the Voodoo Twins and the wanna-be Blackpool are here. Now please explain why I should be so worried about these disappearing tapes, so you can get these three back out of Aperans as soon as possible. We have enough undesirable elements of our own without taking the trouble to import any. Besides, I've practically had to tie Justin up to keep him from bolting for the nearest boat back to the island. He's not at all happy about the idea of you cutting short his vacation like this. He won't even put his shirt back on or let go of his daiquiri glass." He paused, momentarily distracted by the husky whimper CJ emitted as the image of a bare-chested Justin in bondage played havoc with her glands.

Traquill looked up and nodded at Erik, the wicked twinkle in his eye transforming him into a sort of demented Santa. "Now, now, settle down, Erik. I won't let them hurt you."

"Traquill . . ." By now, Erik's teeth were clenched. His fists were clenched. His jaw was clenched. Quite frankly, his entire body was clenched. No one could be as intense as Erik. Not even close. He transformed moral indignation into an art form.

The laugh lines patterning the wizard's countenance abruptly yielded to frown lines. "Seriously, Erik, you need to set your personal feelings aside for a minute. This is a matter of life and death."

Erik froze in mid-pace; the phrase "life and death" was always enough to override his (justifiably) paranoid mode and activate his hero instinct. "What do you mean?"

"I'm talking Armageddon. The big one. The final curtain. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Take a look at this." Traquill gestured towards the book.

To clarify, it was not "The Book", of course. First, "The Book" always announced its presence with uncompromising capital letters. Second, "The Book" had a disconcerting tendency to reduce all unprotected mortals within a three-mile radius to very small, smoking, greasy spots. However, the book on Traquill's table was a quite impressive book of magic in its own right, distinguished by many powerful spells, an exhaustive chronicle of ancient Aperanian mythology, a unicorn-skin binding, and little filigreed hollows on the cover which had once held very expensive gemstones before Justin Greystone had, at the age of eight, pried them out to pay off a gambling debt.

Erik, Laren, Anna, and CJ all clustered around to look, Erik carefully maintaining a suspicious distance, as if their depravity might be catching. "And lo, Kaltrinnia did speak, saying unto him: 'Before The Book, there were The Tapes,'" Erik read aloud, squinting at the archaic lettering."' They are Beginning and Ending both, for should the wellspring of our realm e'er be cast into the abyss of celluloid oblivion, then all Creation shall surely follow.'" They all looked up at Traquill with the expressions of students attempting to guess the answer sought by a particularly hard-grading professor. "I'm thinking that's bad," Laren hazarded. "Generally words like 'abyss' and 'oblivion' aren't harbringers of cheerful tidings."

"Basically, it means: trash the tapes, and we don't exist anymore," Traquill summarized in his characteristically blunt, no-nonsense, Cliff Notes style.

"What?" Erik exclaimed, springing to his feet and staring at the book, his hand reflexively clutching at the hilt of his sword as if he could somehow combat the words themselves. CJ, Anna, and Laren exchanged horrified looks. Suddenly, the stakes were a lot higher than they'd bargained for.

"Yep. This is serious business, kiddos. If you don't save those tapes -- well, the good news is that Dirk's out of business. The bad news is, so are we." He looked at the Listians expectantly. "So what are you going to do about it?"

"Us?" CJ yelped. "That's what we came here to ask you. I mean, what do you want us to do? Steal the tapes?"

Before Traquill could reply, everyone's attention was turned by footsteps tromping loudly right outside the door. They sounded rather like a very large man wearing very heavy boots. Spiked boots, to be exact.

"Why, you took the words right out of my mouth, my dear." The light streaming through the narrow passage between the doors was suddenly obliterated by a giant, leather-clad shadow. The voice of this particular shadow stroked its way along a listener's eardrums with the liquid sensuality of a cat performing figure-eights around its owner's ankles -- provided, of course, that it was the sort of cat which subsequently unsheathed its claws and snacked on said owner's Achilles' tendon. The eyes were a startling, almost electric blue, crackling with the dangerous energy of a soul which had long since crossed over into the hinterlands of madness and built a nice little summer cottage there. In short, a word and a wink from such a shadow could turn a girl's knees to pudding.


Inside the room, Anna and CJ were busily undergoing pudding metamorphosis, while Laren was equally busily taking notes. "How the heck does he do it?"

"He's taller than me, he's got beautiful hair, and he's got a voice that could make love to a wall," CJ replied, never once taking her eyes off Dirk.

Laren discarded his notepad in disgust. "That was a purely rhetorical question."

"Dirk, right on time. Come on in. Dunno if your shoulder pads'll make it through the doorway, though. You might have to ditch the armor," Traquill grinned.

Dirk's blowtorch gaze fixed him with an asbestos-melting glare. "Vector, open the doors." The wizard moved from behind Blackpool and twitched one hand in a barely discernable gesture. Immediately, the heavy doors glided open soundlessly.

"Showoff," Traquill muttered as the two villains strode into the room as if they owned it.

Anna shuffled uncomfortably from one foot to the other as Blackpool suddenly did a double-take upon noticing her. "Oh, gods. It's you."

She offered up a sheepish little wave. "Looks like you remember me too, then."

"The one with the hair fetish? Now, how could I forget. I remember you very . . .vividly." He moved in closer, resting one hand upon her shoulder and bringing his lips to hover mere centimeters from her ear. "In fact," he whispered, his warm breath bringing chills to her spine, "I dream about you quite often."

"Really?" Anna quavered, her voice reaching upper levels of the scale normally associated only with dog training and Minnie Mouse. Clearing her throat with embarrassment, she repeated, in a slightly more dignified manner, "I mean, really?"

"Indeed. Prior to meeting you and your little friends last April, the only recurring nightmares I ever experienced always involved spiders. Now, I close my eyes, and there you are. Sometimes I wake the entire castle with my screaming." He pulled back, crossed his arms, and indulged in a devastatingly sardonic smile at her reaction.

"Actually, Anna usually has that effect on men," CJ teased.

"Very funny, both of you. I'm dying laughing here," Anna sniffed, a poster child for hurt pride personified.

"Well, I'd prefer just dying, but I'll take what I can get." Noting Erik's position at the book, Blackpool raised an eyebrow in mock astonishment. "Why, Greystone, you've learned to read. That *is* progress," he taunted, savoring the look of pure venom Erik shot back.

"Yeah, and write, too. I'll be glad to do your epitaph, if you like."

"OK, I think we've all established everyone's educational credentials," Laren snapped, stepping between them. "The important thing to keep in mind here is that we obviously have one of those 'Vulkar's Revenge' situations on our hands. We've all got to work together towards our common goal, or else no one survives to gloat over anyone's death, and we all know that's no fun. The gloating is always the best part."

Dirk regarded him with interest. "You think like a Blackpool, boy."

"I consider that the highest compliment I've ever received," Laren replied, eyes growing suspiciously moist as he placed his arm around the dark prince in a bonding gesture straight out of a "Bud Light" commercial. "I've always thought of you like a brother, Dirk. It's made me realize how lucky I was to be raised as an only child."

Blackpool eyed the arm as if considering precisely how much effort would be required to sever it at the shoulder. "Don't push me." Laren hastily removed his arm.

Spine ramrod-straight, Erik marched over to Traquill, clicking his heels together with military precision. "If all of Aperans is in danger, then we have no time to lose. I'll gather everyone in the throne room and explain the situation."

Stifling a yawn, the elderly wizard rolled up his sleeves. "Right, and I'll bring the rest of the List here for briefing, too."

Erik froze in mid-stride to the doorway. "What? Are you mad? Bring that crazed bunch of Blackpool groupies here again? Why? Marko and I can handle this ourselves."

CJ almost choked. "Oh, yeah. You'll blend right in at Warner Brothers, Golden Boy. I'm sure they have scads of personnel running around in sparkly lamé tunics and bright red capes."

Traquill shook his head, his entire body tottering with the motion. He looked as if he might crumble to dust at a sudden jolt, leaving only a pointy hat and the lingering odor of Ben-Gay. "Erik, I know you like to play hero alone, but there are two teensy problems. First, you always screw it up. Second, the lady has a point; you'll need people who blend in on Earth. Subtlety is not your strong suit. Or his, either. In fact, both of you have the least subtle suits I've ever seen," Traquill chuckled, directing a dismissive nod at Erik's gold lamé and Dirk's leather ensemble.

Erik pressed his hand over his eyes in a gesture of long-suffering submission. "Oh, all right, but keep those two away from me," he snarled, stabbing an accusing finger at Anna and CJ. The gesture was lost on Traquill, who had contrived to fall asleep in the intervening eight seconds; neither Aperans' nor Erik's existential crisis could perturb him enough to postpone his regularly scheduled nap.

CJ rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on, Erik, stop being such a baby. Traquill found a cure for the voodoo spell before the day was out."

Blackpool clicked his tongue with disapproval. "Thank you for reminding me. That was a totally unacceptable outcome, CJ. I was very disappointed." The look in his eyes indicated that disappointment was usually a terminal emotion for the poor unfortunate soul on the receiving end.

"Well, considering the fact that Vector never made delivery on his promise, I'd say we're even," she retorted, drawing herself up to her full height. While impressive for a woman, it could not compete with Blackpool on the Intimidation Scale.

The black-robed wizard glanced up from where he'd been unobtrusively scanning Traquill's bookshelf for monocle-related titles, and crossed his arms defensively. "It's hardly my fault. I warned you I was too weak to transport Justin to you without my monocle."

Erik stared at CJ in utter disbelief, suddenly realizing that he'd been betrayed not for 30 pieces of silver, but for what could probably have been purchased with less than half a Kolna's worth of cheap ale. "You wanted my brother? You left me in Blackpool's power just because you wanted a fling with . . . Justin, of all people?" CJ grinned and nodded. "Sick. You're all sick!" Erik hissed, and stalked out.

Dirk witnessed his departure with a tiny smile of amusement. "I must admit, there are certain ... compensations to having you Listians about." Treating them to a parting wink, he departed for the throne room as well. He preferred to trail slightly behind Erik whenever possible, enjoying the entertaining manner in which the Greystone prince practically walked backwards, bumping into and tripping over furniture and pedestrians, in an effort to keep his back guarded from a Blackpool attack.

Anna waylaid Vector as he attempted to follow his master. "Before you go, could you take care of the business of transporting the Listians here? Traquill seems a bit, um, preoccupied right now." As if on cue, Traquill snored loudly and rolled over into a more comfortable position in his chair, his pointy hat slipping down over one eye.

Vector flashed a purely predatory grin at her request. "My lady, I'm surprised you trust me. After what happened last time, I could very well choose to transport them all to the Caverns of Chaos out of sheer spite."

"Yeah, but Traquill might transport them there too, out of sheer incompetence. You may be evil, but at least you know what you're doing."

With a loud snort, Traquill awoke, clutching clumsily at his falling hat with arthritic fingers. "Young lady, I may be old, but I'm not deaf. I resent your implications! I'm perfectly capable of performing such a simple task. I got you three here, didn't I?"

"More or less," CJ muttered.

Ignoring her, Traquill jammed his hat firmly down upon his head and stomped out towards the throne room, an image of elderly ire. With a small apologetic shrug, Vector followed. For a moment, CJ, Laren, and Anna simply looked at each other. "I've got a very bad feeling about this," they chorused, experiencing a moment of gestalt unison (a side effect of too many Saturday chats). Then, squaring their shoulders with resigned determination, they too headed out the doors toward the throne room and into a future which promised to be . . . interesting.


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