Shadow of the Void

There was a crash and a cry, and Roland sailed through the air, backwards, into the living room. He landed in a heap on the floor, moaning weakly. His suit's magic was in the process of mending three large, bloody holes in the fabric on his chest which were arranged like the points of an equilateral triangle. Everyone ran to his side.

"What happened?" said Curtis to Jason and Simon, as if they knew.

A rapid series of thuds heralded the arrival of the attacker into the room. It was the stuff of nightmares, a five-foot-wide, eight-foot-tall monster that smashed through the small doorway with its massive bulk. It was hairless, but its smooth, jet-black skin was stretched over bony plates, themselves covering rock-hard muscles. It had no head; a huge purple eye in the center of its torso, protected by a thick transparent membrane, was the nearest thing to a face it had. (As it turned its body to glance about the room, Jason noticed a second eye on its back.) Each of its hands had three fingers: they were oddly shaped, but when curled into fists, as they were now, they formed a compact ball, and the long metal spikes it had on each knuckle (part of some glove-like contraption it wore) described a triangle. The monster's body heaved with heavy respiration through some unseen orifice as it evaluated the remainder of the party.

Jason and Curtis screamed: Curtis, simply loudly; Jason, as if looking into the very mouth of Hell.

Simon was more practical. Being a wizard himself, he cast a green beam of magic at the beast's eye. Sadly, it had no effect whatsoever. The monster then charged at Simon, Jason and Curtis having gotten a healthy distance away by then. Simon waited until it was nearly upon him, then teleported immediately behind it. With only a small twist of its limbs, the monster inverted its whole body to face him again with its other eye. Its anatomy was obviously constructed to be thus reversible.

Jason, unabashed coward that he was, now hid behind a door, opening it only far enough to get a peek at the action. Curtis, on the other hand, entered the melee himself. After a moment of intense concentration, he spread his hands and conjured a beast: a mighty tiger, significantly larger than Curtis himself, appeared in a burst of red light. The orange of its fur seemed especially vivid, as if some ethereal fire burned within. With a roar, its claws slicing through the carpet, it ran up and pounced on the hulking humanoid.

Or rather, it would have, had not the monster reacted in time. Without turning from Simon, the beast slammed one spiked fist directly into the big cat's forehead; the loud crunch made a shiver run up Jason's spine. The tiger, its prodigious momentum stopped, fell to the ground. Unperturbed, it rose again and leaped at the monster once more. This time, through some careful application of magic on Simon's part, the hulk's punch veered a little too much to its left, and the tiger brought it down with a crash that shook the whole house.

Finding no neck to bite, the tiger lost no time in rending the hulk's flesh. It tore through the skin with ease. Its attempts to pierce the monster's skeletal armor, however, merely dulled its claws. Meanwhile, the monster beat it with its fists, which it had no hope of resisting; soon enough, the mortally wounded animal blinked out in much the same way it had arrived. The monster heaved itself to its feet. Except for the web of turquoise blood that covered its body, decorated with the occasional red splotch of tiger's blood, the monster didn't look much worse for wear.

"That's it!" Curtis shouted. "I'm bringin' out the big guns!"

<Oh, my.> Jason thought. <If that mammoth was a small gun…>

The monster had now fully turned its attention to Curtis, so Simon took the time to get farther away from it.

At once, the ceiling was smashed through (revealing Simon's attic, and sending a small hail of cardboard boxes tumbling down) to make room for an elephant. It was nearly twice as tall as the monster; Jason almost felt sorry for the demon.

The enemy was tenacious. It rushed at the elephant and bashed its ribcage, which was at eye level. The elephant wrapped the beast in its trunk and, with some difficulty, heaved it up and hurled it to the floor. The monster was greatly injured; the impact had split its armor plates and most likely shaken up its internal organs quite a bit. It tried to get up for another round, but the elephant simply gave it another slam, plus a stomp for good measure. It disappeared in a great puff of violet flame; the monster had finally been defeated.

In a daze, Jason staggered back into the living room. Curtis dismissed the elephant, and before any of the party thought to comment on all they had witnessed, they remembered Roland and commenced searching for him amidst the wreckage. In fact, he had never moved from the spot where the hulk's punch had thrown him; he was very much unconscious, and gravely hurt, but he had, by some ridiculous stroke of luck, avoided being stepped on by any of the titans. Thus, he was still alive.

"We have to get him to a hospital." said Simon, after the briefest of examinations.

Then some extra incentive for summarily quitting the place arrived. Another monster, just like the first down to the tiniest detail, stormed into the room. And even before our heroes could scream profanity to the heavens, a bearded and cloven-hoofed unicorn, of all things, jumped in through the window.

"Gyeeds!" Jason shrieked. "Verseport to Gyeeds!"

The wizards didn't need to be told twice.

Jason and Curtis appeared in Roland's apartment.

"Where's Simon?" said Jason, looking around.

"I think he went to the hospital." said Curtis.

"Oh, oh, yeah." said Jason. He hurried around the room, looking for any monsters that might burst through the door or pop out from behind the furniture. Finding nothing, he rooted himself to the center of the room and glanced about nervously in every direction.

"Doesn't look like anything's gonna get us." said Curtis.

"Ah, I… I just don't know." Jason collapsed in a chair. "What in the name of Osiris happened?"

Curtis shrugged.

"The Supernals, I suppose? Thanatos? Probably wasn't a coincidence that the… the black thing had purple highlights. The unicorn… that was like the phoenix! Or, well, it wasn't red, was it? I didn't take a good look at it." He made an annoyed sound. "When will this madness end?"

Curtis thought about that for a moment, then said "Maybe it'll end if you stop looking for it."

"Maybe. Maybe it's all just my fault. Teach me to be so darn curious…"

Both boys had a lot on their mind; neither was particularly in the mood for talk. Three hours of little conversation and activity other than contemplation followed. Jason's mind was a stew of fears and predictions. Whatever entity had called itself Thanatos, it seemed out to get him, probably because of his interference with the cult. Why didn't it come and kill him while he slept? Did it want to kill Roland, Curtis, or Simon too? And how was the entity behind the red creatures involved—did it want to protect him? He had a hunch that the unicorn was a part of that protection, though it had come rather late. Perhaps Leela knew the answers…

And then, Jason gave a cry of delight when the door opened to reveal a haggard but very much living-and-breathing Roland. He thought of running up and hugging him, then suddenly remembered the sight of Roland stabbing Jake in the heart and stopped short, confining himself to saying "Roland! You're alive!"

"Yes," said Roland, "and I could be a lot worse off, too." He walked into the apartment with Simon at his side. The singer's mildness seemed to have remained intact even after that traumatic encounter; he looked the least stressed of the four of them. "That beast fractured three of my ribs, but my organs were undamaged. Thanks to modern magic-aided medicine, I'm back to functioning normally—I'll be fine so long as nothing more hits me here." He tapped his chest.

"I'm surprised they didn't make you rest more." said Jason.

"Oh, they would've," said Roland, "but the emergency room had far more patients than the doctors could handle. They wanted me out of there ASAP."

"Any particular reason?"

"You don't know?" said Roland, aghast. "Just turn on the television."

They all gathered 'round to watch. The schedule for the current channel at that time called for a certain low-rated sitcom. That had been put aside in favor of a pressing newsflash: Gyeeds was under attack. Not by tanks or battleships or bombers, mind you, but by giant ants. The helicopter-camera zoomed in to show indigo-skinned insects the size of rhinoceroses scampering through the streets and into buildings, hunting for humans. They did not eat these victims; their only purpose seemed to be depopulating Gyeeds. There were about three hundred of them, coming at the city from all sides. This was enough to cause considerable damage and loss of life. Massed police forces, bolstered with a few Gyeedian soldiers, could take down the ants without too much difficulty: the problem was getting to all of them, spread out as they were.

"It's every Rogue player's worst nightmare come true." Roland remarked.

And then, that story was interrupted to make way for a new one—no, a whole flood of new ones. A swarm of pterodactyls was attacking Rorosion; electric octopi were menacing merchant vessels on the seas of Colloyus; unicorns had been spotted in the forests of Droydania. Within an extremely tight window of time, the multiverse had exploded with fantastic creatures, most of them definitely hostile towards humans. Most major IDC verses, as well as a few verses which had yet to develop verseportation, had been affected. Many people had seen some of these creatures spontaneously appear, as if created by a spellcaster. None knew their origin.

"Well," said Jason, "I'd have difficulty believing that the timing of all this is entirely coincidental. Obviously, the same… entities are involved." He licked his lips. "Guys, I think I know what needs to happen. We need to hunt down Leela—all of us, together. She's our only hope."

"All of us?" said Roland, looking askance at Simon.

Jason was incredulous. "He probably saved your life—you can't still hate him!"

"Yeah," said Curtis, "what's your problem?"

"I―" Roland turned to Simon. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." said Simon.

"But!" Roland cried. "It should not be forgotten that you are among the most miserable of creatures in existence, and you deserve no pity, for you brought this misery upon yourself! How could you?" he continued, his voice taking on a note of desperation. "How could you rob yourself of sexuality, the greatest of life's joys—nay, joy, life itself? How could you rob yourself of masculinity, the glue that holds the human race together, the source of all strength?" He paused. "I don't believe that children are fools, as Terrans do, but… Simon, I can't help but think this was the product of some naivety on your part, when you were a lad of nine."

Jason rubbed his eyes wearily. "Guys, am I the only one who thinks it's a little odd that Roland here is harping on about this when he was just nearly killed by a headless gorilla-on-steroids from Hell and all of creation has turned into a Japanese monster movie?"

"It's weird." said Curtis.

"Roland." said Simon gently. "I understand your pain, and I'm sorry. I only ask that you tolerate my presence."

Roland looked surprised. "No, you don't understand." he insisted.

"Here's what I don't understand." said Jason. "How does all this, well, sorrow for Simon's eunuchism add up to a hatred of him?"

Roland stared at Jason. He seemed to be concentrating on the question intently. He took a deep breath, and then, he finally spoke.

"In all honesty, the reason I hate Simon is because I'm afraid of him. I don't understand why he'd sacrifice what he did for anything, especially something as frivolous as his singing voice. Clearly, Simon and I differ on a very fundamental level: our senses of value are completely unlike. So long as I can't fathom that difference, I can't trust him. In short, Simon, I'm quite convinced, deep in my heart, that some evil lurks in yours. I won't say that castration is evil, and I don't know what form your evil took, takes, or will take, but… you are evil. I know that fact as instinctually, as truly, and as unswervingly as I know that life is good. Life is good, and therefore, that which opposes life—you—is evil."

There was a long silence.

Jason looked at Simon's face. His reaction was very strange; he seemed to be caught between pity, sadness, and fear, but he wasn't in the least angry.

"I do not" said Simon "believe myself to be evil. I recognize the value of human life, though I surrendered the ability to beget it. Chiefly, I value peace, charity, and kindness, all of which I do my best to promote. As for sexuality, I realize its value to some, but I don't regret my lack of it. As for masculinity, I consider the term ill-defined."

Roland shook his head. "There's no point in arguing. I'll never understand you."

Jason sniffed. "Simon," he said, "you're willing to join us in our quest to find Leela, right?"

"I wish to." said Simon. "We have common goals, and thus we should cooperate. Additionally―"

"But―" said Roland.

"Hold it, Role." Jason interrupted. "Let him finish."

"Additionally, there really isn't anything else I can do now, as I no longer have a home. I can't return to Droydania, since I'd be imprisoned for leaving."

"Imprisoned for leaving?"

"Yes, the Droydanian Empire has forbidden travel to Gyeeds for decades. Gyeeds welcomes immigrants, and it's much too powerful for Droydania to control, so it's a popular destination for people who want to escape Droydanian oppression. Migration from Droydania to Gyeeds is one of the main issues behind the Schism; I'm surprised you didn't know of it."

"I think I did know… kind of. Interdimensional politics have always eluded me. So you verseported here, as I suggested, knowing full well that you wouldn't be able to return?"

Simon nodded. "I didn't believe I had a choice."

"Well," said Roland loudly, "you certainly can't live in my apartment."

"Where will you, then?" asked Jason.

"Somewhere in Gyeeds, I think." said Simon. "I'd prefer to deal with that problem after we finish our search."

"Okay." said Jason. He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "You were casting spells before; can you hold up your own in magical combat?"

"Yes." said Simon. "Even though my technical skills are mediocre, I can use what I spells I know to good effect."

"Yeah," said Curtis, "thanks for helping my tiger."

"Good." said Jason. "The more wizards we've got, the better. So, Roland, here's the thing: I, Curtis, and Simon are going to find Leela. You can come if you like, but obviously, that entails getting over Simon."

Roland looked shocked, then indignant, then angry, then annoyed. In due time, he said "Fine. You can be so cruel, Jason."

Jason nodded. "So, we've got a nice party here. A formidable ensemble. Curtis, I neglected to tell you before, what you did to fight off that monster—that was amazing."

"Oh, yes," said Roland, "from what I heard from Simon…"

Curtis nodded, grinning. "That was me at my best. I did a lot better than when we fought the vampire, right? They don't call me the best Imagination mage in the world for nothing!"

"They don't call you the best Imagination mage in the world," Roland pointed out, "just one of the best."

"Well, they should."

"Whatever!" said Jason. "Let's get to the bottom of all those crazy critters now, shall we?"

"I would like to know their origin." said Simon.

"Man, if only I could make 'em!" said Curtis.

"Someone can," said Jason, "that's for sure. The question is, who? Or, more to the point, why?"

And so, the four set off across the multiverse to find Leela Aranin, and thus, they hoped, the answers to all their questions. They were a motley crew indeed: Jason, the ten-year-old Midwestern Yankee with an insatiable curiosity, a taste for trickery, and a magical nose; Roland, the intrepid Adventurer of Gyeeds whose spells burned as hot as his fervor; Curtis, the little prince of Dojum who could comprehend everything but modesty; and Simon, the Droydanian eunuch with the patience and composure of a mountain. All knew that much lay ahead; none guessed as to its nature. And, even as the world about them was in turmoil, no one of the four imagined what changes would be wrought on it in a little less than a year.