The Rainbow Valley Adventure
(Part the Prologue)
Some authors open stories with what is called “in media res”, where you’re tossed into a scene with no idea of what’s going on or why. It is generally agreed that authors do this so as to gently cackle to themselves upon returning home, possibly while stroking a cat and sipping tea. There can be no other explanation, given the difficulties that naturally arise when a reader is attempting to understand who these characters are, why they are there, and what on earth (or, given author proclivities, off it) is happening.
The chains clinked idly against the wall where I dangled as I considered this. I had to admit, as my thoughts turned from authors to abattoirs, I was kind of impressed. I had no idea how they’d managed to cobble together a whole human-sized dungeon cell, manacles and all, in the time since they’d gotten ahold of me. Especially the manacles – I mean, it couldn’t have been easy making them with those tiny hands.
I saw a tell-tale shadow coming around the corner, outside my cell. The shadow became two one-foot-tall beings dressed in Roman-style armor who were carrying weapons strapped to their sides and matching sour expressions on their faces. They stopped outside my cell door, glaring at me like they’d like to run me through with their horns.
Yeah. You heard me. Tiny people in armor. With horns.
Right behind them came the source of the light; a tall woman in a white shimmering dress… well, almost more of a giantess, she was nearly eight times the height of the guards… with flowing, candy-floss hair and two massive feathered wings tucked in at her sides. There was a shimmering near her forehead that made me suspect she was packing the same kind of nonsense as the guards, but I wasn’t about to say anything. She was wearing a golden choker, trim golden boots, and a golden tiara.
I rolled my eyes. Oh boy. A Princess. Or possibly a Queen. A Princess that looked like the (un)holy spawn of a Greek myth’s Pegasus and frickin’ Galadriel. Could this world pile up the girly cutesy pootsy crap any higher? I was amazed she didn’t fart glitter.
The shimmer near her forehead solidified into a spiraling horn of light… oh great, Magic Using Pretty Princess. So yes, it could. The cell door unlocked itself and she stepped inside. She nodded to one of the tiny beings sitting outside the cell, who nodded and pulled out a quill and scrolls and began writing. The bars slammed shut behind her.
Whoa, these guys really had no experience with bad guys if they were handling things like this. I mean, her inside with me, and her bodyguards outside? That sounded like a potential hostage crisis to me.
Then again, I wasn’t exactly an expert on these things. And I was manacled to a wall so I wasn’t likely to cause her any difficulty.
Come to think of it, what I knew about the “characters” in this little kid’s fairy tale world gone wrong didn’t make things better for me. From what I’d seen, the more sparkly something was, the more frickin’ powerful it was. Big surprise, right? She had wings and a horn and magical hair that kept changing colors (still have no idea how it does that) and was wearing all the fancy jewelry; that probably meant that she wasn’t locked in here with me; I was locked in here with her.
“I am Queen Aures, the Invictus, Protector and Shield of the Lands of Cwm Emfys,” she said. “And I would have words with you.”
She glared at me with her big over-mascara’d eyes. It didn’t look like a “now you die” sort of glare though. It was more like, I dunno, that look you get from an angry parent. Like she was going to scold me for breaking into the cookie jar. That just flew all over me. Here I was, the dread and terrible scourge of Come Enfis or whatever-it-is, and Princess Glitter Hair was going to pull the ‘naughty child’ stare on me? It just got on my last nerve. No way I was going to be patronized by this screwball.
I looked her dead in the eye and proceeded to deliberately stick my foot in my mouth. “So, how’s it hanging?” I said glibly. She couldn’t see the smirk behind my mask, but she could certainly hear it.
That did it. That stern maternal air got a lot less maternal. She glared at me, swelling up in that way you see mothers do when they’re about to lower the boom. She stepped in front of me and looked me in the eye, lowering her head level with mine despite the fact I was standing tippy-toe in my manacles, and slowly unfurled her wings. The tips of the feathers glowed menacingly. “Now, sorcerer,” she said, “We are going to get some answers from you. If you value your life and your freedom you will answer all of them, immediately and truthfully. If you do not, you will regret it immensely.”
“Who are you?”
I gave a mental shrug. Stuff it. “Brad.”
There was a pause. “…Brad,” she replied.
“Brad,” I agreed.
There was another pause. “…That is not the name you gave my sweet halfies when you were rampaging through Cwm Enfys, Brad,” she said a trifle sarcastically. Wow, they do sarcasm. I was starting to wonder.
“And I’m sure everyone calls you the Invictus,” I sighed. “Wasn’t exactly my first choice to go around with a nom de guerre, but your ‘sweet halfies’ weren’t exactly going to back off from the Dread Sorcerer Brad.”
“So which shall we call you by?” she said with mock civility. “Your actual name, or your name of choice?
“… Darth Voldemort?”
My snort of laughter confused her. Dang, hearing that name come out of the mouth a sparkly winged magic princess just was too much. Her bewildered look only made it funnier. I spluttered and snorted for several seconds, till I finally gave up. I managed to nudge the visor of my Darth Vader helmet with my shoulder so it flipped up before I suffocated on my own spit. “Ay, whoo, fresh air,” I said, panting for breath. “Forget it,” I said to her baffled expression. “You wouldn’t get the joke if I explained it to you.”
Her expression turned cross. Her pointed ears twitched, her horn flared, and her wingtips started pointing at my face again. “Enough. I have tolerated your flippancy long enough; now answer my questions. Who are you, why are you here, and why have you been persecuting my sweet halfies of the Rainbow Valley?”
“Fine, you freak of nature,” I said. “My name is Brad. I have no idea how I got here. And I’ve been making life for your sweet, sappy, stupid saccharine halfies miserable because they’re JERKS. That clear enough?”
She seethed for a minute. “Fine. I shall make my questions more direct.” She put one glowing wingtip against the pendant locked around my neck. “How did you come into possession of the Amulet of Darkness?”
I smirked at her. “Ding ding ding! You asked the right question…”
Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. It’s the simplest holiday for one reason: No social obligations. No weird relatives visiting – or traveling a thousand miles to visit them yourself. No awkward family dinners. No struggling to buy just the right card or just the right gift. No desperate flop-sweat while you wait to see if that special someone sends you a valentine back. The only expectation is (maybe) you have a tub of candy to hand out to the little rugrats when they come to the door. Other than that it’s just costumes, parties, candy, pranks… what’s not to love?
Especially the costumes. Yeah, I love doing costumes, even though I don’t do it as much anymore. Hey, not everyone can run off to Comic-Con at the drop of a hat, and besides, if I ever showed up at one of those Nerd Herds these days the guys back home would have never let me live it down. Yeah yeah yeah, I’m a peer-pressure driven wuss, get it out of your system. And yeah, whatever. I’m just not stupid and socially tone deaf. Unlike geek boys, I remember that I have to go to school and work and do things with regular people after the party’s over. You go prancing around dressed like Batman in public all the time and then act all astonished and hurt when people laugh at you later, you deserve what you get. Me, I kept it to socially acceptable norms – as in, Halloween.
Of course, at the current year I was kind of stumped for ideas. I was sifting through the debris of an old curiosity shop, looking for inspiration. I’d had a pretty good run the previous couple of years. Last year I’d managed to score an old Darth Vader helmet at a Goodwill store, thrown on a cape and farm-hand style overalls, and gone as “Darth Bubba.” (“Aw, shoot son, come on over to the dark side, it’ll be a hoot!”) That’d been worth a few laughs.
I wasn’t finding anything interesting on the shelves, and was about to the point where I was seriously considering wearing last year’s costume again (sacrilege!) when there was this enormous BANG! somewhere overhead. The shelves around me rattled and jumped. I yipped and hopped out of the way as some of the items hanging overhead came tumbling down.
After my pulse slowed down I checked the shelves overhead where the bang had come from. I figured one of the plugged in displays had blown a bulb, or something. Sure enough, there was a ruptured lava lamp and what looked like the remains of a plasma ball. The bits were scorched and smoking faintly; it looked like a power surge had hit the socket they were plugged into. A couple of other electronic widgets were flickering or acting like they’d burned out too. Crazy old coot who ran the store always plugged too many things into one socket…
I let the owner know what had happened. He came up the aisle, griped and moaned when he saw the mess, and started untangling cords and unplugging burnt-out novelty junk. While he was pulling the ruined merchandise off the shelf, I noticed a stray piece of junk jewelry in the middle of it. It must have fallen off the rack above the display. I reached over his shoulder and plucked it out of the mess.
I don’t know why it caught my eye. It wasn’t particularly flashy at first glance; it was made of some dull grey metal, with a gem in the center the color of dried blood. Plus it had these wing-like pointed ears on the sides, and a slit-eyed cat’s head. I am so NOT into anything that looked as fancy-fairytale as that.
But the more I looked at it, the more gnarly it seemed. Heck, it looked like the sort of medal an evil overlord would give one of his minions for terrorizing the highest number of helpless peasants that financial quarter, or for shooting down the most heroic rebels. I started to have a rush of inspiration to the head. “Hey, how much for this?” I said.
He barely even looked, and rattled off a price. I parted with some filthy lucre and claimed my prize.
When I got home with it, I got out the old Darth Vader costume parts and went to work.
You ever look at the original Darth Vader costume? I mean REALLY look at it? It’s actually kind of, well, weak. It gives an impression of badass armor at first glance, but then you look again…. and you realized the helmet is kind of plain, the shoulders are sloped and narrow, the panel of buttons on the front of the suit looks like a vandalized jukebox, the gauntlets and boots are just cloth and heck, the actual torso is nothing but a onesie made out of quilted cloth. Why settle for Darth Vader? Why not take old school Darth Vader, and see if I could crank it up to eleven?
First off I added some huge, swept-back horns to the helmet. I had some glowing-eye spectacles from an old “faceless wraith” mask – I hotglued those to the inside of the helmet so that Vader’s black beetle eyes now glowed a hellish red on command. A battery powered voice changer went inside the mouth. No wheezy rasp for me; this thing made me sound like I gargled sulfur every morning before breakfast. I’m a dab hand with simple mechanical devices; I’d re-cut and rigged the faceplate so it could pop up like a knight’s visor. After all, I wanted to be able to eat and drink while I was running around in this getup without pulling the entire helmet off.
The bodysuit was a cheap pair of black coveralls. I upped the ante by adding spiked plates: elbow plates, shin plates, knee plates, shoulder plates. A pair of big black stompy boots I spotted at some ex-goth’s yard sale served for footwear. Fake metal gauntlets from a fake suit of armor replaced Vader’s much wimpier Naugahyde gloves. And his flowing black cloak went by the wayside; I had an old black fuzzy bathrobe that had fallen afoul of my kid sister’s attempt to stone-wash her jeans by throwing chunks of brick into the washing machine. It was ratty and tattered and coming unraveled in places so much that it looked like dead muppet roadkill. A little work with a pair of scissors, though, and it made a perfect barbarian-esque cloak. (Hmm. Muppet Slayer. Gotta remember that one for next year.)
I wavered the longest time on the weapon of choice. I wanted to make a sort of cross between a lightsaber and Skeletor’s sword, but I spent too long dithering about how to make the blade. I ended up bunting, and made a staff out of a fist sized ceramic skull and a six-foot stick of driftwood I’d found. It was less Dark Jedi and more Evil Overlord, but what the heck. The final touch was the amulet, which I slung around the neck of the gorget and pop-riveted the chain in place, so that the pendant rested right at my collarbone. And yes, I put lifts in the boots. I topped out at over six feet tall with ’em. A little short for a Sith lord? Never.
That and black paint. Loads and loads of high-gloss, metallic black paint.
And I tell you, I put that outfit on and I looked jagged. It was so grimdark you’d think I belched bats. I looked like the guy Sauron would call “Boss.” Anakin Skywalker would have wet his Jedi robes if he’d run into me. “Oh yeah,” I said to my reflection, the voice changer turning my voice into a rumbling gravel bass. “I am gonna own this party.”
Halloween finally came. Someone, I forget who, I think it was the guys from the football team, they had gotten together the stuff for a real blowout. Seems one of them lived in some virtual mansion out in the boonies, an old converted farmhouse or something sitting on a few hundred acres surrounded by woods, you know how rich people do when they buy some place away from all the peasants – well anyway, plenty of room for a few hundred teenagers, their cars and trucks, and the makings of an enormous Halloween costume party/rave/tailgate party. Pretty much the entire senior class and half of the underclassmen were invited, and the rest crashed. Nobody cared, though; as long as you brought a cooler full of something to eat or drink, you were golden.
I arrived and parked my van on the edge of the town . The house was lit up, the music was blasting, and there were high schooler ghouls and ghosties as far as the eye could see. Oh lawd, and the cheerleaders too. Halloween truly was the best holiday. I bagged a can of beer and some ribs from some dude’s tailgate grill and rocked my way into the throng.
Massive rounds of thumbs up all over the place for the outfit. Pretty soon I was chatting up some hot chick dressed in a naughty zombie french maid costume (bonus points for a two-theme costume, double bonus points for making it any variation of “naughty” – and making it work, ding ding ding!) And making one hell of a good first impression, I might add, when there was a commotion nearby. There was some laughter from a couple of jocks, and staggering up through the masses, propelled by a couple of trips and shoves, comes… I dunno, it takes me a minute to figure it out. His hair is purple, his face is sunflower-yellow, he’s wearing some sort of Roman guard armor, and he has two massive pointed ears springing from either side of his head –
Aw, crap. It was a Halfie. Some loser had come to the party as a HALFIE.
Look, I didn’t follow all the trending stuff. But it was hard not to know about these effeminate little weirdoes; they were popping up everywhere. We even had a couple running around the halls of our backwater-town school. Dudes running around collecting toys and wearing t-shirts with cartoon tiny elves on them and crap. It was as girly as hell, and creepy as hell too.
In fact, I think I recognized this one. Some dork who had a locker a couple of steps down from mine; Joe or Fred or Mike or something, who cared. He used to be kind of cool, I guess, or at least not a total loser. Then he’d started showing up at school in a t-shirt with “Rainbow Valley Knight” on it and that was it. He was a laughingstock by the end of the day.
What made it worse is that he didn’t seem to care. It made me wonder if he was retarded or something.
I gave him the once over (side note: black Darth Vader mask with glowing glass eyes; perfect stone face for scoping people out). He’d done a good job on the costume; that sort of made it worse. He’d used yellow body paint on his face and arms, his hands wearing what looked like actually well-made fake gauntlets; his face was touched up a little bit to make it look more “elvish.” He even had a pretty good prosthetic horn, and the ears sticking out from under his tousled purple wig looked almost real. The wig ran down the back of his neck and down his spine between his shoulders – it was actually glued in place, making it into what was practically a lion’s mane. He was wearing a pair of boots that, I swear to God, had sparkles on them. The rest of his outfit was a cheap off-the-shelf suit of Roman centurion armor.
“What the hell are you supposed to be?” I blurted out.
“A gaywad!” someone in the surrounding crowd shouted.
Everyone hooted. Joe, or Fred – Nick, that was his name, Nick – just snorted and brushed himself off. He gave me the once-over right back. “Brad?” He said, his brows furrowing. “That you in there?”
I froze briefly. “Yeah, it’s gotta be you,” Nick laughed. “Only Brad would put that much hardcore effort into a Halloween costume. So what’s up?” This is what made him personally annoying. He was still all the time trying to hang around me, too, howdy, hi, how ya doing, wassup, acting like we were best buds or something. “Hey, have you seen my date?”
“Date?” I repeated.
“Yeah. She’s wearing a Knightess Saturday costume?” he said. Like I knew who the hell Knightess Saturday was supposed to be. And furthermore, yeah, girlfriend. Right.
“Look, I don’t know you, dude,” I said. My voice rasped through the microphone.
“Sure, we got lockers next to each other. Heck, my mom knows your mom–”
“I said I don’t know you, man,” I growled.
“Fine. Whatever. Nice costume anyway, Brad.” He looked at me again and grinned. “Heh. Cool halfie reference.”
“The Amulet of Darkness.” He pointed at my collarbone. “So what, you’re supposed to be Darth Mist, or something?”
“Wha–?” someone around us got the joke and laughed. I didn’t. I could hear a couple of the kids standing round making remarks and laughing.
Nick started to laugh. “Dude, you don’t know what that is?” he said.
The zombie/maid hottie rolled her eyes and backed away from us both. Great. Loser by association. I got pissed. Nothing makes me madder than people making fun of me with references I don’t understand. We were near the edge of the party, out by the woods. I grabbed the dork by his arm and dragged him off to the treeline. Once we were out of earshot I let him go and glared at him. “The hell?” He said, rubbing his arm.
“What is wrong with you?” I snapped. “Don’t you get what a freak everyone thinks you are?”
Nick rolled his eyes as he kneaded his shoulder. “Why no, Brad,” he said. “I never would have guessed that. Thank you for pointing that out, you are so insightful. And I should care, because?” He looked at me.
“And you don’t?” I said.
“Hey, what would be the point?” Nick shrugged. “Look, I’m not a dummy. Most fanboys– Trekkies, anime fans, whatever – get all hurt and outraged when nobody treats them like the rare and precious snowflake they think they are. But I knew the moment I got into this that people would give me crap about it, and I accepted it. It’s a kid’s show, you know? World only moves so fast, even if it is good fun. The real question is why do you care so much about what people think?”
“Look, dumbass, I don’t get your stupid halfie jokes, okay?” I said. “Just stay away from me and quit making me look like a loser.”
Nick curled his lip at me. “Like you needed any help with that,” he said. He flicked the medallion on my chest with a finger. “You don’t want to hang out with people who watch RVA, maybe you shouldn’t wear a prop from the show around your neck.”
He laughed. “Brad, that’s a replica of the Amulet of Darkness,” he said. “It’s from the second season of the show. You might as well be wearing a day-glow t-shirt that says “I Heart Rainbow Valley” on the front.”
What? I’d been walking around all night with kid’s show princess jewelry junk on my chest? I felt like an idiot; I’d picked up some sort of Rainbow Valley junk at the curiosity shop and riveted it to my three hundred dollar costume without even realizing it. I felt my anger just explode. I swore and grabbed the medallion, trying to tear it off.
Trying, I said, because it didn’t budge. “The hell?” I muttered, giving the thing a yank. Nope, it wouldn’t budge. Baffled and frustrated, I tried to pull off the gorget it was riveted to, instead. That wouldn’t come off either! I went from angry to furious. I must have gotten glue on the stupid seams or something. I flipped up my visor so I could get my fingers under the collar at my chin.
Nick’s face went from amused to surprised. “Whoa,” he said. “How’d you get your eyes to do that?”
“What’re you talking about?” I snapped, still pulling mightily at the collar. What the hell was this thing made of? I thought it was plastic– but it felt as tough as steel!
“Your eyes. They’re all red-greeny-purple, like in the show – ”
“Will you shut up about your damn cartoon show?” I yelled. I felt my temper go up in a ball of flame like a frozen turkey dropped in a deep fryer. I was grappling double-handed with the gorget, doing a frenzied dance trying to pry the thing and the medallion on it off my neck. My little performance was gathering an audience. A girl came running up and took Nick by the arm. “Nick, what is it?” she said. Well dang, the mythical missing girlfriend. Even in my aggravation I noted she was darn cute. She was wearing a platinum-blonde wig with pointed ears even longer than Nick’s, gold feathered angel wings, and a blue leotard decorated with silver arrows and stars. Sonofagun, a halfie chick. The myths were true.
“Dunno, I told him he was wearing the Amulet of Darkness and he started doing this,” Nick answered. “Brad, what’s wrong?”
More kids gathered. I started cussing and swearing for all I was worth. When I ran out of curses I started stringing words together at random. I think I spoke in Klingon at one point. The kids standing around gawping at my display backed off a step. I didn’t even notice. I didn’t even notice the sickly purple-greenish illumination, like some sort of weird inverted black light, shining on them.
I certainly didn’t notice that the weird light was coming from me.
“Omigawd, it’s real!” the cute halfie girl suddenly shrieked. “It’s the real Amulet of Darkness! Just like in the show!!”
“Look at his eyes!”
Something in me, I dunno, it was like something came uncorked. My guts just flooded with rage. “Screw your stupid halfie crap!” I snarled, wheeling on them. Everyone took a serious step back. Whoa. That voice changer was effective. “Screw your stupid Rainbow Valley! If I could I’d burn that stupid cutesy fairyland to the ground and piss on the ashes just to see the looks on your stupid faces!”
Yeah, it was complete overreaction. But hell, I was a senior in high school, and here I was doing the I’m-on-drugs-get-the-spiders-off watusi with a couple of Rainbow Valley Adventure fans in front of the entire school. I still had another half a year of high school to look forward to and my rep was undergoing a ritual killing right in front of me. So, not a happy place.
There was a loud roaring sound; wind suddenly sprang up around us, stirring up a torrent of leaves and dirt and whipping cloaks and other loose bits of costume around in the air. It was like someone had opened a wind tunnel Weird light the color of a festering bruise bathed everyone. We all looked up. Several people screamed; a black-light colored funnel cloud a dozen yards across had formed directly overhead. I could see more purple-black glowing light glowing in the depths of its throat.
Directly over my head.
Before I could do more than scream (thank God my voice changer made it sound like a much more manly roar) I was plucked off my feet by the roaring wind and hurtled into the sky. The last thing I saw before I disappeared into the dark whirling void was Nick and his girlfriend staring up at me, mouths hanging open. Then the funnel closed and I was hurtling through blackness.
Well, not blackness blackness. It sort of looked more like the sort of “darkness” you get on a black-light posters; black boiling clouds interspersed with lots of luminescent tinged linings of indigo, purply lightning veins, flecks of bilious green. Afterward I would reflect that it seemed there was an artist with a very limited palette involved in the whole mess. At the time though I was too busy grimacing and screaming to appreciate the thematic continuity.
I hurtled. Or fell… or… flew… for – I dunno… a brief bit of forever. All around me the darkness, it, it raged. I could feel it. It was like the universe itself had a hole torn through it, and I was plunging through it.
Then the purpling void opened up in front of me and I fell. I had just enough time to appreciate the still, starry night around me before I noticed the ground rising up to meet me at speed. I started to scream again – I think I managed to get out “Aiee” before I slammed face down, full length, into the very, very hard ground.
Pain. Pain, pain, painy pain pain. Every part of me hurt simultaneously. At least all my spiky pads had protected me. Though I was kind of regretting not going for the armored codpiece. I rolled over slowly onto my back, groaning, and pulled off my helmet so I could clutch at my head unimpeded.
I looked up just in time to see my missing skull-topped staff plummeting out of the sky, skull first, straight towards my unprotected face.
then forehead met forehead and the world went sincerely dark.