|Piñatas From Space!: Crazy Games With Cards And Dice|
by Jeromy Henry
|Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice|
by Jeromy Henry
|The Tooth Fairy War and Other Tales|
by Jeromy Henry
|The Wizard's House|
by Jeromy Henry
|The Dreaming Fire|
by Jeromy Henry
The Thirteenth Knight
I'm an idiot. At least, that's the most probable explanation for why I keep ending up in life-threatening situations.
I rode on a scooter down the dark highway. When the occasional car passed me and flipped its lights from bright to normal, I turned my head away to avoid the spotlight. It wouldn't do if someone recognized my face from the nice paper portraits that I'm sure hung in every post office.
The engine whined as I pushed the dinky thing to go above 40. Whenever I hit a hill, the red speedometer needle ticked down to the big 30 at the top of the dial no matter how hard I pushed down the pedal. The potholes jarred me and prodded my sore rear end, and made that appendage even madder at me than it was already. My wrists and elbows ached from holding the handlebars for hours. I did enjoy the fresh summer breeze that whistled past my face, though.
So why did I have to flee down this little-used stretch of Highway 41? Well, some people back in Chicago wanted their money, and I didn't have it. Oh yeah, my parole officer wanted to speak to me really badly, too, and give me a present of some nice steel bracelets. She was such a sweetheart, but that's one date I definitely planned to miss.
It says a lot about my luck that the only transport I could steal was a scooter covered in purple paint and faded Superman stickers. Some big time con I turned out to be. Aside from a way too steady hand on the trigger of a pistol, I didn't seem to have any real skills, in the black market or the white.
Rain started to drizzle. I hunched my jean jacket over my wild brown hair, squinted up at the thin crescent of a moon behind its blowing aura of clouds. Gray masses roiled over the sky and hid the stars.
Then it happened. A bolt of green light split the darkness. I saw a group of people and the silhouette of a few bikes. They stood in a hollow, off to my right, where the land plunged down from the road and then back up to hit a thick wall of oaks. I only saw the scene for a second, but it burned into my retinas in excruciating detail.
A wolf the size of a house confronted a dozen men and women. Shaggy silver and gray fur covered the beast. Drool slipped past a lolling red tongue and past a jagged forest of teeth.
I've seen lots of tough customers, but these people made the heavies from Chicago look like pimps in purple velvet suits waving wacky noodles. The bikers weren't those rich old hippie types that ride Harleys and pretend to be bad boys and girls, either. The group reminded me of an old time gang of pirates, standing amidst a tangle of bikes on their sides instead of the deck of a ship.
A giant in a faded leather jacket and a red headband dominated the center of the group. The hilt of a katana jutted up behind his right ear, and I saw him raise a sawed off shotgun in his right fist. The holster of a pistol slapped his thigh. Throwing knives in small sheathes decorated his front. A gold earring dangled from his right ear. The lines of his pale face looked Scandinavian to me. Pale blond hair slipped beneath the bandana, and icy blue eyes almost seemed to look through me. Then the head and body turned to face the wolf.
I couldn't see the rest of the group as well, since most of them had their backs to me. A slim black guy in a green poncho and jeans stood next to the tall Scandinavian. He held an AK-47. I saw a short girl with a blond ponytail lift another shotgun. She wore a jean jacket. A big Mexican in a lumberjack's plaid shirt and holy jeans held machetes in each fist. A few other figures held shotguns, pistols, swords, and even a fire ax. To the left, a big brunette Amazon topped even the guy in the center. She must have stood six seven, and had impressive curves to match her height. I caught the glint of a sword in her left hand and a gold-plated hand cannon in her right hand. I didn't get a good look at the others before the light burst faded.
The distinct sound of half a dozen shotguns cocking hit my well trained ears. The sound should have sent me running. But didn't I already say I'm an idiot?
I hit the brakes, and slipped the faded brown rifle case from the sidecar of the scooter. I unzipped the case with practiced ease, slipped in a magazine, chambered a round, flipped off the safety, and raised the stock to my shoulder. When some more lights flashed and lit up the scene again, I squeezed the trigger.
A chorus of guns roared along with my rifle. The red fireflies of machine gun rounds buzzed through the air. But instead of bullets, most of the shotguns and pistols spit bolts of colored light. That light is what enabled me to see the blossom of red in the wolf's eye as my shot struck home, and see the sizzle of flesh as bolts tore into the creature. A man screamed in pain as the wolf's jaws tore his arm off. He slipped onto the grass one way, and his arm flew in another direction. Red mist sprayed. Darkness fell a split second later.
What the hell? Had I wandered into Star Wars or something? My sweaty hands slipped on the cold metal of the rifle, and I numbly fingered the safety out of habit.
A howl challenged the storm. Thunder rumbled. Another set of lights cut the night. Most of the wolf lay on the grass. Burn marks and pink craters surrounded by black rings covered its body. Two legs lay several feet away from the main carcass. Before the light faded, I saw the Mexican and the Amazon leap forward and plunge blades into the monster's throat. The light faded before I could see the result, but I heard the sound of steel sliding through meat, and the burbling snarl as the wolf tried to speak once more.
The rain spattered down harder now. My cold, shaking hands slipped the rifle in its case. Zipping it sounded way too loud in my ears. I hopped on the scooter and stomped on the pedal. It roared and leaped off the shoulder and back onto the road.
A minute later, the sound of bikes waking up and wheels spinning in the mud sounded behind me.
"Shit," I told myself.
The red needle hit 35. I looked into the darkness and wondered if I should just ride off the road and hide in the ditch. But before I could try it, a dozen bright headlights speared me from behind, and the deafening roar of bikes snarled behind me. Engines revved, and suddenly a heavy, warm mass of humanity and snarling steel steeds surrounded me. Someone grabbed my arm and shoved the hot barrel of a gun in my kidney.
"Ow!" I complained.
"Slow down," hissed a low voice in my ear. I took my feet off the pedal and eased on the brake. The roar of the bikes rumbled and slowed down with me. I raised my hands off the handlebars.
"I don't have any money if..." I squeaked.
"Shut it," said the low voice again, and the gun hit my kidneys harder. From the corner of my eye I heard a zipper zip and saw the big Amazon slip out my rifle.
"The barrel's warm," she said. "It's him."
That voice sounded musical, and I caught the faint remains of a Southern accent. I couldn't see the big lady, but if I'd only heard her voice, I'd have thought she was a sweet Southern schoolmarm in a gray dress, with her hair in a bun.
"Casey's dead," said the slim black guy. He grinned at me. "Think he'll do for a replacement?"
"We'll find out," said that sweet voice. I turned a little so I could smile at the big girl and maybe turn on the charm. Instead, I caught a split-second glimpse of her hand swinging a black cosh.
It met the back of my head, and the world spun away and got lost.
I dreamed. I knew it was a dream because I floated about thirty feet in the air, and I don't usually do that when I'm awake. I felt like I was swimming.
Thirteen knights charged down a hill. Fog swirled from a stream at the bottom and hid the horizon, trapping the scene in a misty bowl. The knights rode red steeds and black, white, roan, and piebald. Some wore gleaming armor and bore fresh-painted shields. The armor of others showed spots of rust and the dents and smears of battle. I saw yellow lilies on a field of blue, red bees on silver, and a mailed fist on quartered red and green before the knights passed me. The hooves of the chargers kicked up gobbets of mud and grass. Cloaks of red and gray and white flew behind the knights like banners.
Either the dream didn't have a good audio track, or the wet ground muffled the sound of the hooves, but I could barely hear them charge. The yells of the men sounded faint, so I could not tell what they called out.
At the base of a hill, a red dragon looked up from where it drank at the pool. It blinked filmy eyes covered in cataracts and raised its wings. As the knights drew near, the dragon spit a white-hot blast of flame.
Four men screamed. Their armor bubbled. Steel ran like water. The top parts of their horses turned into a blackened framework of bone in an instant, as flesh melted away. The remains abruptly tumbled to the ground. The smell of charred pork filled the air.
One great paw raised up and batted another knight from his saddle. He flew through the air ten feet and slammed into a hill. Just as he slid down in a heap, his companions' lances touched the dragon's exposed belly.
Needles of steel bit deep into scaly hide. Blood fountained. The knights dropped their lances and reined their horses. Broadswords flashed from their sheaths. The dragon screamed and fell on its back, pincushioned by eight lances and borne over by the weight of the charge. Its wings twitched and its legs kicked as it struggled to get upright.
The knights dismounted and shouted again. Swords stabbed and hacked. Scaly flesh flew off in chunks, and sprays of red covered the knights' armor. One knight threw himself forward and buried the head of a great axe in the dragon's snaky neck. Horses whinnied in fright and backed away. A roan and a black bolted back up the hillside.
With one last kick, the dragon raked a knight with his claws. Armor shredded and buckled. Marked from head to waist with four bloody furrows, the man screamed and toppled backwards. The dragon flapped its wings and tried to roar, but all that emerged was a bubbling cough. The beast's head rolled to the side, and it lay still.
Seven knights backed away from the great carcass. One man paced by the body as if measuring it. The neck measured the length of a man, and the tail, two men. It's bulbous body could have swallowed an elephant whole. The knights backed away further as something white and smoky rose from the dead hulk.
The spirit of the dragon floated above its body. The eyes of the translucent white shape sparkled brightly, no longer covered with a gray film. It beat its wings and hissed.
"Evil ones, what have you done?" it hissed.
Several knights edged backwards, but a tall man in dented armor lifted his axe and spoke. "You attacked villages nearby, dragon! You ate our people. They were under our lord's protection."
The image shook its head. "Dragons are creatures of good. A gryphon attacked yon village. Before you killed me, I was too old to fly. I would soon have passed on in any case."
The knight shook his head. "You have killed six..."
The head snaked down to look the knight straight in the eyes. "I was the last of my kind, and killed your companions only in self defense. Hear my death curse!"
The dragon roared. "You will be my champions and stand against the dark. Thirteen in number you shall always be. If one falls, a lost soul shall come to you, take up my talisman, and take his place. Your company will skulk in the darkness and never be thanked, until the end of time. So be it!"
The dragon breathed flame. The men stumbled back, but the spectral white fire flicked around them like moonlight, and did no harm. When it cut off, each man fingered something at his neck. It was hard to see from a distance, but it looked as if each man now wore a silver chain.
The men stood still, as if they'd suddenly become waxworks at Madame Tussaud’s, or a display of empty armor in a museum. The spirit of the dragon floated up and away from the knights until it saw eye to eye with me.
"Monsters come out of the collective darkness of our minds. Others slip through cracks in time and space. Evil always comes, and dragons once stood against it," the ghost whispered to me.
"Choose, Edward Carleton. If you become my champion, no one will ever see your deeds. Humans can no longer sense the creatures of dream and dark. But I grant my followers magic to arm them and let them see the truth. A veil of magic will hide all you do from the mundane world. If you enter my service, you will live a hard life, and die by the sword. No one will thank you for your unseen deeds."
"Wait, how do you know my name?" I asked.
The spirit blinked. "One of my followers saw your driver's license. My spirit fills my champions. What they know, I know."
I nodded. Centuries dead telepathic dragons looking at my driver's license-- hey, it was a dream, so it all made perfect sense at the time.
The dragon continued, "My Champions form a gate. Creatures that come through must kill my knights before they can interact with the real world. Monsters pass through ordinary people as if they were not there, and neither sees the other. My chosen ones always go to the right place, at the right time, to meet their destiny." It looked at me and puffed spectral smoke, as if waiting for a response.
"Uh, sounds like a real deal," I said sarcastically. "What do I get out of saving the world?"
"Redemption," whispered the dragon. The foggy creature broke up into tendrils of steam and dissipated. The scene with the knights faded as well.
My eyes snapped open. I remembered something about a dragon, but pushed the vague thoughts from my mind. Someone had stuffed cotton balls in my skull. A needle of pain jabbed the back of my neck. All those wonderful sensations pushed remembering some dumb dream to the bottom of my "things to care about" list.
Around me stretched a beige wasteland that could only be a cheap hotel room. A beige air conditioner/heater unit sat under beige curtains, beige carpet covered the floor, and beige comforters stretched smoothly over the two beds, the one under me and the one across the room. At least the gray walls and the Monet prints above the beds weren't beige.
The big Scandinavian sat on the bed opposite mine. He speared me with his eyes. From the grass stains on his jeans and the muddy prints all over the carpet, I guessed that he hadn't bathed or changed since the fight with the wolf. The smell of mud, grass, and sweat that rolled off him helped clue me in too.
I tried to sit up, but a blinding pain arced from the goose egg on the back of my neck to my forehead and temporarily blacked out my vision. I groaned and lay back down, blinking furiously. When my vision quit swirling like a kaleidoscope, I said, "So, uh, what's your name, anyway?"
"Hans Anderson," he said.
I laughed. "As in Hans Christian Anderson? Well, fairy tale man..."
He lifted the shotgun on his lap slightly higher and balanced it on his knee. The black, unblinking eye of the barrel and I had a staring contest. I quit laughing and lay back. Hans was a minimalist, but I found his argument unbeatable.
"Alright," I said quietly, "Who the fuck are you people, what was that nuclear accident wolf thing, and what the hell do you want with me?" I said.
"It is afternoon," said Hans. "Lunch time. We will go to the food court, yes? Talk later."
With the shotgun still keeping an eye on me, I didn't press for an explanation.
I didn't notice much of the walk out to the parking lot. I was too busy groaning and holding my head. Maybe we walked down an LSD-trip corridor full of tie dye colors, maybe we didn't. But that's what I remember.
When we got to the parking lot, I felt callused fingers touch the back of my neck. A cold, icy jolt slammed up and down my spine, and the pain and the golden goose egg just vanished. I blinked and looked around at the group of people from last night. I picked out the Amazon and green poncho guy and the blond pixie right in front of me. The rest crowded behind them.
"What the hell did you just do?" I fingered the back of my neck and stared at Hans.
Hans said, "This bike was Eric's. We buried him by the road last night. It is now yours."
He pointed to a red Yamaha. Someone had scratched a skull sticking out its tongue on the otherwise shiny paint. Mud covered the bike. I fingered the black rubber grip of the handlebar and admired the machine. I think I recognized the model from a web ad-- only a couple of years old. I saw my rifle case strapped on to the back along with some saddle bags.
"Here," said Hans. He picked up a thick belt from the bike and pressed it into my limp hands. They curled by reflex. A brown holster dangled off the belt, and I saw the butt of my Colt poking out. I quickly put on the belt and buckled it while I looked around. I thought it was kind of dumb of the guy to give me my pistol back, but I wasn't about to voice the opinion. I'd have to see if I could find a moment later to check if it was still loaded.
The other bikes looked pretty much the same. I didn't see any Harleys, mostly Yamahas and a couple of BMW's. Mud spattered all of them.
Hans shoved a red helmet at my chest, slipped his shotgun into a black leather holster on the side of a blue BMW, and threw one of his tree trunk legs over the side.
The big Amazon smiled at me and stepped forward. "I'm Ella," she said, in that wonderful voice. "Look, you saved my life last night with that shot. Don't mind Hans, alright? The least we can do is treat you to some lunch, then we can talk."
"Do you always knock out and kidnap people who save your skin?" I asked. I tried to think of something else smart to say, but I found myself lost in two baby blue eyes, even bluer than mine. My gaze wandered over a smattering of freckles on her cheeks. She was one hell of a dish, out of control pituitary gland or no. It felt odd to look up at a girl a head taller than me.
"And if I said 'yes'?" she asked, and winked.
I groaned. I'd just lost that verbal sparring match; Amazon: 1, Ed: 0.
"Look," I managed. "As long as someone tells me what's going on before I go crazy, I'm happy."
She smacked me on the back hard enough to drive the wind out of my lungs, gave one more smile, and mounted a big black bike. I got to see that the back of her looked just as nice as the front.
"Too late, you're already crazy to hang out with us! We'll hold a meeting after lunch. But Hans is worried something is going on at the mall, so we're headed over there to check it out," said Ella.
The guy in the green poncho stepped up. "I'm Danny," he said, flashing even white teeth and pumping my hand. "Listen, something happens at the mall, you stay out of it, OK?"
"Right," I said.
The little blonde pixie I remembered from last night gave me a hug and introduced herself as Crissy. But before anyone else could step forward and say a little bit about themselves or we could pass out the nametags, Hans revved his engine and scowled. The crowd backed off and mounted up.
I shrugged and fumbled with the helmet straps. My stomach whined at me, and the vacuum under my ribs sucked painfully, causing me to almost double over. I winced. Alright, I could wait for an explanation, if someone would just get me some food.
Our bikes roared like a pride of cigar-smoking lions. They spit clouds of blue smoke and carried us away.
I gulped down half my cheeseburger and stuffed in a few bloody fries for good measure. Murmurs of voices, the sound of shoes tapping on the gleaming tile, and the gurgle of lots of colored high fructose corn syrup spilling over ice surrounded our four pushed-together tables. Crumpled McHappy's bags and orange plastic trays littered the table, along with half eaten fries, burgers, iceberg salads, and other wonderfully healthy stuff.
"I haven't eaten since yesterday," I mumbled. "Damn, this is good!"
Next to me, plastic crinkled as Ella unwrapped three McHappy toys. "I just need one more!" she said.
I swallowed the half a cow in my mouth and pointed. "What's with the toys? You've got kids?"
Ella turned and glared at me. "I like the toys."
I raised my hands in surrender. "Ok, ok!"
Hans suddenly stiffened and grabbed something on a silver chain around his neck. The others stopped talking and put down their food. I hear the click as they cocked shotguns and scraped back their chairs. I heard the chime of steel as someone drew a sword.
I looked around wildly. No one seemed to notice our armory. I'd been too hungry before to think, "Wait, I'm travelling with a group of wackos loaded down with assault weapons, swords, and shotguns. And hey, I have a six shooter strapped openly to my belt in the middle of the food court. We might get in trouble with the cops!"
"Uh, guys?" I asked.
They all ignored me.
"I'll handle this one," said Ella. She reached in a pocket and pulled a small pink compact out of her jacket pocket.
"Hey..." I said.
Hans waved me back. "Stay here. There is a basilisk."
"A what?" I asked, before the name clicked. Oh, yeah, it was a mythological monster that turned people to stone. I just knew that section on mythology in high school would provide practical, real-world help to me one of these days.
The gang stepped around a stroller and shoved aside two large ladies dressed in identical green silk blouses and black miniskirts. One frowned and flipped off Hans. The party halted right by the little corridor. I heard some kind of hissing, and the scrape of what might have been claws.
Ella pushed the little compact around the corner. The hissing stopped.
Danny flashed a set of even white teeth and clapped me on the shoulder. "It's OK now. Come take a look."
I peeked around the corner. A stone statue nearly twelve feet long filled the hallway. Its white eyes glared at me, and its tongue flicked out from behind two inch long fangs. The other gang members crowded around and whispered.
"I still feel something," said Hans. He started to turn around, but didn't get a chance to finish.
A gun roared. Hans' left arm vanished at the elbow, and blood spray-painted the wall. A chatter of an assault rifle came from the opposite end of the room, and Danny cried out and fell at my feet.
I dropped to the tile and tugged on the handle of my Colt. The damn thing was stuck. I looked wildly around from my worm's-eye perch and saw the others spin around and lift their guns. Blaster bolts in green, red, and blue spat from the shotguns and flew across the room.
My Colt came free. I twisted on my back and finally caught a glimpse of the attackers. Men and women with pasty faces and slicked back hair, dressed in black leather bodysuits, filled the opposite end of the food court. Some wore black cloaks lined with red silk too. Light glinted off the silver rapiers in the hands of some of the vampires. That's what I guessed they were, anyway. Other black-clad monsters held M-16's, uzis, pistols, and rifles.
What really freaked me out was that a whole crowd of people sat at tables between us and the vampires. A hail of bullets passed through a bald, paunchy businessman shoving a pizza in his mouth. Three girls in white blouses and blue skirts laughed and giggled at each other as a vampire with an uzi ran through their table. It was as if the people were some kind of holographic projection.
But I didn't let the freakiness distract me. I lifted my Colt and shot at the closest vampire. I hit the bastard in the hand, and his M-16 spun away and landed in a potted plant. Beams of blue and purple light speared three vampires and blew fist-sized holes in their chests.
Guns chattered some more. I ducked and saw bullets draw a connect-the-dots picture on the wall an inch above my head.
Crissy fell next to me. Her head cracked sickeningly against the tiles, and I could see leaking red holes all across her green blouse. Her blond hair splayed out like a curtain and hid her face.
I shot a vampire in the eye, and it tumbled backwards. Its sword stuck in the floor and stood upright, quivering.
A vampire's head exploded when it met a red bolt. Another one lost both arms as green beams passed on either side of it. The guns abruptly fell silent as a vamp with an uzi turned into four steaming chunks of cauterized meat, leaving only a half dozen attackers with swords. They charged.
"Becky, Greg, heal!" bellowed Hans. I saw a tall brunette in a jean jacket nod and place her hands on Danny's chest. They glowed green. I only saw it for a second from the corner of my eye, and then I blasted away at the vamp in front of me. It staggered back and hissed. Its crimson mouth opened wide enough to show me inch-long porcelain fangs. Three neat holes made a triangle on its chest. I guess these guys didn't need a stake in the heart like the ones in the movies, because he fell over and lay still.
Hans parried a rapier blade with a ring of steel and slid his katana neatly into a vamp's heart. It crumpled to the floor and coughed up a black smear of blood. Ella's sword arced and took another vamp's head off. Hans shoved his ruined arm into his side and fell to his knees, clearly exhausted, blood drizzling in a stream from his arm to pool on the floor. A thin Asian lady dropped her shotgun and screamed as a sword pinned her stomach to the wall. A bolt of red shoved a vampire away from her and threw it back three feet, even as its shoulder and right arm flew on a different trajectory.
I spun open the chamber of my Colt and shook it. Casings rattled on the floor, and I shoved my shaking left hand in a pocket and hunted around for more bullets. But I needn't have bothered.
Heaps of black cloth and leather lay all over the food court, and all I could hear was the chatter of people in the background and the heavy sob of my own breathing. I shook all over. It took me three tries to put my gun back in its holster.
I hadn't had time to get scared during the firefight. But now the gerbil in my stomach started running on his exercise wheel, and I felt like throwing up. I tried to get my breathing under control and stop my hands from shaking. I kept repeating to myself that it was over. Luckily, something happened to distract me.
My eyes widened when I saw a young couple step over a prone corpse and head to McHappy's. An older lady with a tray talked to an even more wrinkled companion as their feet passed through a blood-smeared heap. I just didn't get how these people could ignore the army of dead vampires.
Ella stood over Hans now. She had her eyes closed. A weird green glow lit up his body, apparently radiating from her hands. After a minute, it vanished. I saw him nod, raise his left hand, and flex his fist.
If I hadn't already been sitting down, I'd have fallen over. My mind blanked out. Had he just re-grown an arm? Who the hell were these people, aliens?
"No, we're not aliens," said Danny. He coughed and then grinned at me. I guess I must have said that out loud.
"Aren't you dead?" I asked, scooting away on my butt until my back hit the wall.
Danny laughed. "If you don't kill us right off, we can heal each other. It's magic, my friend."
Crissy nodded and flexed her left hand. I could see the bullet holes in her shirt, but her chest rose and fell just fine. My eyes probably lingered on the holes longer than they needed to. Her green eyes looked tired when they turned my way.
"I hate vampires," she said. "They're too damn smart. We're lucky no one died this time."
"Fix the damage. Let's get back to the hotel," ordered Hans.
He stepped around a blond three year old in a green dress and put his hands on a vampire. A silver mist enveloped the thing, and it vanished. Danny waved his hands at the abstract bullet art by our heads. The holes glowed blue and filled themselves in, leaving a smooth wall behind.
He grinned at me again. "You'll get used to it."
I peeked around the corner, but someone had already gotten rid of the basilisk. Damn. If I ever managed to get a mansion in Hollywood, I'd have loved to put that statue in my foyer as a conversation piece.
No one talked much as we trailed back to our table. Ella grabbed her toys and a box of cold fries. I grabbed my Coke and took a sip. I started to ask Hans something, but he chopped his hand down.
"We will go back to the room," he said.
My hands still shook as we pushed open the glass doors and headed out into the sunshine. I dropped my keys on the blacktop twice before I managed to start up my bike.
I turned on the radio as we rolled out of the lot. I enjoyed the rumbling vibration of the steel horse under me. It was a huge improvement over my stolen scooter. My heart slowed and thumped in time to the beat. My veins throbbed like bass strings as the sound waves passed through my bones. The singer's voice lifted my confused thoughts and cast them away, if just for a minute. Only the music mattered, only the road, nothing else.
We sat on the beds and on the chairs, in a great big ring. Hans pulled an amulet of silver out of his pocket, rubbed it with his thumb for a minute, and then held it out to me.
"Take it," he said.
The crude disc, about as big as the top of a Coke can, bore an embossed image of a dragon. The thing glared at me with a diamond eye. Heavy silver links went through a loop on top of the disc. Tarnish and a splash of the last owner's blood made it look as if the dragon breathed flames.
As I took the talisman, a jolt of electricity shot up from it and slammed into the center of my forehead. The dream with the dragon came back to me in a rush. I shook my head to clear it.
"Wait, I had this dream..." I started.
"We all had it," said Crissy. The little blonde smiled at me. I found it hard to see her as a lost soul. I wondered what had happened in her past.
"The dragon chose you. Monsters come out of people's dreams, out of time and other places. We fight them. Only if we all die can the monsters become fully real," said Ella.
A light clicked on in my head. It was only about 40 watts, but hey, we all do our best. "That's why the vampires walked right through people, and no one noticed the fight at the food court!" I said.
Hans and the others nodded.
We hadn't passed out nametags, but I think I had the group sorted out by now. The big Mexican lumberjack guy who never spoke was Manuel. Becky was a biker chick on the wrong side of forty. She had a square jaw like Superman, long auburn hair, and a slight paunch. Greg wore round wire-rim glasses and a faded AC/DC shirt that showed off his pipe stem arms. He reminded me of an accountant trying to dress as a stoner. But the way his hands broke down a pistol and cleaned it without looking down once showed competence that I could respect. My eyes skipped over the rest of the faces, old, young, hard, and soft.
As different as they appeared, they all shared one thing. They all looked tired. Bloody holes, mud stains, and rips covered everyone's clothes.
"A couple more questions," I said. "How do you shoot the funky colored blaster rays? Do you have laser guns? And where do you get money?"
Danny lifted his shotgun and answered. "This is my wand," he said.
"Wand? Like those little sticks wizards wave around in books?" I asked.
Danny shrugged and cocked the shotgun, grinning at me the whole time. "Yeah, but mine's cooler."
Crissy punched Danny's arm. She nodded at the amulet in my hand. "Now that you have the amulet, your gun will shoot the same way as ours. You'll learn how to sense monsters and heal. The magic comes pretty quick, trust me."
"When we run out of cash, we find a buried treasure, or someone feels moved to make a donation. It always works out," said Ella. "I hope you don't mind shopping at the Salvation Army. No point buying new clothes in this business."
"No one looks at us. The police don't pull us over, ever. You are safe," said Becky.
"Our bikes fly, too!" put in Danny. Maybe he was pulling my leg, but I shrugged. Flying motorcycles wouldn't surprise me after everything else I'd seen.
I nodded. "I'm in," I said.
So maybe I was crazy to join a group that risked death every day. But as I thought back to my failed cons, my lousy string of jobs I'd tried to hold onto, and my pitiful escape from Chicago, I knew I had nothing to go back to. Did I have any friends left? Would one damn person back there give a rat's ass if I lived or died?
"Brother," said Hans. I could see tears in the corners of his eyes. He gripped my hand hard enough to crush my bones to powder, and shook it once.
The others leaned in and reached out. The room felt close and warm with all those bodies in it. Okay, the smell wasn't so great, kind of like a bunch of six year olds who just came in from playing in the mud. But I felt something warm bubble up my chest, a fierce desire to be someone these people could count on, to be a part of something for once and not an outcast.
These were my brothers and sisters now.
This story originally appeared in the Pulp Empire anthology Heroes and Heretics in December 2011.
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micheledutcher - I like the idea of Knights in Shining Armor being people riding motorcycles instead of horses. The other-worldliness of this story makes it a fun read.
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