The Rainbow Valley Adventure
(Part the First)
I don’t know how long I was out cold. I just know I woke up with a splitting headache, staring up at the night sky. It looked… odd. I couldn’t tell you why. Too bright, I think. Too purple-y. Whatever. I wasn’t in a state to think it over though. I blamed it on being dazed from the blow to my forehead, and sat up.
I groaned and carefully felt my head with one hand– then tried again, this time removing the metal gauntlet first. No blood, no bones shifting around or soft spots or anything. Nice big fat goose-egg on my forehead though. I guessed I was okay. I retrieved my helmet, gingerly putting it back on. If current events were any indicator, my head probably needed the protection.
I got to my feet, wobbling a bit. I pulled a flashlight out of my belt (safety first, kids) and took a wary look around. I was in a grassy clearing, surrounded on all sides by trees. Behind me was a statue of… a winged woman? I did a double take. More demon than woman. Wearing armor. I looked closer; the thing had fangs and claws, too… the hell? What kind of lawn ornament was this?
Where the heck was I? I didn’t know of anybody who’d plant something like this in their back yard.
There was a noise out among the trees. I turned and saw lamplight in the distance. Something told me I’d better be careful; wherever the heck I was, I sure wasn’t invited, and I was pretty sure whoever owned this place wasn’t expecting guests. Or maybe they were – and considering how I’d arrived, that didn’t seem like a real good thing either. I switched off my flashlight, turned off my glowing eyes, and hid behind the base of the statue, my back to the cold stone, hoping my all-black costume would disappear in the shadows.
Beams of lamplight started flickering across the clearing. I heard people chattering, mostly children. They were all chattering about what a great haul they’d gotten, and a couple of grownups telling them to all stay together…. Trick or treaters? I got sucked up by some weird evil black portal through time and space just to be dropped on some trick or treaters? I stayed hidden and listened as the children came tumbling into the clearing.
After a few second a female voice spoke. “All right children, it’s time for the Dream of Darkness story. Everyone gather round and listen to Ms. Y’atha.” Dream of Darkness? Y’atha? Another woman spoke up, this one with a much deeper voice and the fakest African accent I’ve ever heard. And I’ve been to Kenya; I know.
“Come with me and very soon you’ll hear a tale of darkest moon. Gather in my little dears, I’ll tell you where you got your fears, of Maiden Dream, so dark and scary. Of the squat counselor, who makes you wary…”
I rolled my eyes and stifled a groan. Some parents or teachers were doing some sort of “oh how cute” little Halloween outing for a batch of rugrats, complete with a cutesy pootsy little ghost story. In rhyme. I listened in… unwillingly… while Sister Shaka went on, Doctor Seussing the kids about some boogyman she made up called Dream of Darkness, and hoo boy, you better fork over some candy as tribute to the statue or she’ll get mad – all of it in rhyme, of course. I’d heard variations of that old wheeze when I was a kid. I had always loved it when they’d done that with us; it had meant I’d be sneaking back after everyone left and scoring an entire extra bag of free candy.
Then came offering of the tribute. I hunkered down as small as I could while I listened to the kids shuffle up through the fallen leaves to drop their loot at the foot of the statue. I wasn’t feeling sentimental or anything, but popping out of the shadows and accidentally scaring the tootsie rolls out of a bunch of trick-or-treaters and getting the adults all mad at me was a headache I didn’t want. I would just wait until they dropped their candy and left. Of course then I’d be swiping some of it for myself, but hey.
The little rugrats were taking forever, it seemed like. Apparently the kids were a bunch of marshmallows, and were scared of the statue. I could hear the adults chivvying some of them to man up and walk up to the statue. After about the fourth kid had to be wheedled into making the march up, I started getting impatient. “Jeez, already,” I grumbled.
Did I mention I forgot to turn off the voice-changing microphone in my helmet?
My words came out in a bass rumble loud enough to hear across the clearing. I slapped my hand over my facemask, but it was too late. I heard the crowd on the other side of the statue gasp. Some of the kids let out little screams. Aw, sugar.
“Somehalf’s back there!” I heard a little girl shout. (somehalf?) Footsteps pattered through the leaves and a flashlight beam bobbled, heading around the statue in my direction.
“Sunny, no, stay back!” Whoever Sunny was she didn’t listen. Crap, they would have some brave little idiot in the group. I braced myself for what was coming and turned to get to my feet, just as the kid came charging around the statue.
Then my brain broke.
It was an elf. A cartoon elf, one that didn’t even come up to my knee. She had bright pink skin, bright pink hair, and huge blue cartoony eyes. And she was wearing a bumblebee costume with holes cut in the sides for two long, pointed, bright pink ears. She had a paper bag in one hand, and a flashlight in the other.
It… I just… I swear, I could literally hear my brain make a sound like a cartoon spring shooting out of the back of a cartoon clock. I dunno, I think it was just all those things at once that did it. I could have handled one or two of them; the fact she was tiny, or pink, or even that she was talking despite looking so damn cartoony, for crying out loud – but not all at once. I think it was the bumblebee costume that put it over the top, really. All of it together was like getting whacked in the face with a wet flounder.
I mean… a freaking bumblebee costume.
She froze and stared up at me. I froze and stared down at her. “What… the… HELL???” I bellowed. My voice changer made it come out like the bellow of a dyspeptic gorilla.
She screamed, the flashlight dropping from her twitching hand and bouncing away across the grass. She spun around and dashed back the way she came.
I’d always wondered why Alice had chased after that rabbit. I mean, common sense tells you that she should have gone the other way. I think I understood where her head was, after that. You see something that unreal, it’s like you just have to follow it, just to keep it in sight till your brain can decide whether it believes what your eyes are telling it.
I looked around the corner of the pedestal.
They were all elves. Elfs, elves, whatever. There were about a dozen of them standing there, mostly little mid-calf ones, but one or two who came up to above the knees. The adults, I figured. They were dressed in all sorts of costumes, and most were carrying bags of candy. Some with tiny little wings sprouting from their backs. The adults were standing in front, grouping up, some of them had tiny glowing horns (horns?!?) or a glow around their fists or flaring their wings at me. (wings?!!?!) Leading the group was one with bone-white skin and pitch-black hair in a witch costume. “Come out of there, you big disgrace! Quit your hiding, show your face!” she shouted, in that pseudo-African accent.
Poleaxed, I came staggering out of the shadows after her, slapping the side of my helmet, trying to jar my brain back in place, accidentally turning my glow-eyes back on in my attempts to commit percussive maintenance on my skull. I looked up and knew a little head-slap wasn’t going to fix things. Beep. We’re sorry, the Brad you have dialed has been disconnected. Please try again later. Beep! I staggered out of the shadows and into the lamplight. “THE HELL ARE YOU?” I screamed in Vader-ese.
The crowd… troupe, whatever… got a load of me in my spike-studded death metal glory. All the tiny ones screamed.
“Suh-WEET Aunt Jemima’s do-rag!” the one in the witch costume shrieked, staggering back with her eyes bugged out. “Aw, NO! Run for it, y’all!” All of them turned and ran in a stampede.
The screams and stampeding little elf boots faded in the distance. I don’t know which way they went. I was too busy screaming and running in the other direction.
I ran off blind, gibbering and arghlebargling to myself as I flailed through the forest, tripping over rocks and banging headlong into trees. I was concussed, I was insane, I was drugged, that was it, someone had slipped me some acid at the party, that had to be it, LSD in that bottle of beer or mescaline in the mesquite barbeque…
I don’t know how far I ran or how long, just that I kept going till I was so tired I couldn’t run for all the stumbling. I finally regained some of my senses. This could not be happening, yes, I know it’s a cliche, I know everyone says that in these kinds of stories but that’s because all you can say when reality goes on a bender is THIS CANNOT BE HAPPENING, and it’s a hell of a lot more meaningful when you’re really going through it and not just sitting comfortably in a chair someplace reading about it with narrative omniscience on your side.
But whatever was happening, a piece of me knew I was panicking, and panicking was bad. I clutched the sized of my helmet with my hands. “Get a grip, Brad,” I said through gritted teeth, “Get a grip, get a grip, get a GRIP – ” I was sliding into a panic attack –
And suddenly I… wasn’t. For a real short second, the world around me went greeny-black-purple, like the lenses on my helmet had been tinted. This was it; a blood vessel must’ve burst in my brain… Then there was this sort of rush through my body, spreading out in a wave from my chest, and I was calm again.
I can’t explain it or describe it. People don’t do that. They don’t go from having reality itself flipped upside down on them to being perfectly rational and adapted and crap. The thought about drugs at that party crossed my mind again; I haven’t mellowed that fast since that time I went to the ER with a broken leg and the docs bombed me out on morphine. But I squashed that that thought as fast as I could with another: DEAL WITH IT.
I pushed that thought hard, squeezed out anything else that tried to sneak into my head. Whatever had just happened, had happened. It didn’t matter if it was a dream or a hallucination or an acid trip or whatever. If I was going to survive I needed to stay calm and trust my senses. I was just going to have to ride it out.
The adrenaline crash hit me a second later. I had stumbled up to an enormous fallen tree, a hollow log big enough for a small car to fit in. Ignoring the smell of decaying wood, I crawled back into the dark and collapsed on the dry earth and grass inside. Pink and yellow elves, black-light tornadoes, bumblebee costumes, all of it, I could deal with in the morning. I wrapped my ratty fake-fur cloak around me and was out in an instant.
I woke. It was morning. The birds were singing, the sun was shining in through the cracks in the hollow log and someone was pulling at my boots.
I carefully opened my eyes and looked out at the world through my helmet lenses. Something large and kobold-like was hunched down at my feet, pulling at my stompy goth boots with enormous green-scaled… well, I struggled to call them “hands”. More like paws. It looked about as large as an ape. Two others, slightly smaller, crouched behind it. I froze. I’d never had a run in with any wild animals before but I recalled the advice was to play dead. I lay still and held my breath.
My eyes focused a bit more and I nearly had another panic attack. These weren’t bears or wolves or… anything. They looked like, well like really ugly scaly apes, with short mashed faces and mouthfuls of mismatched fangs that stuck out from behind their lips. Except… they were fully bipedal. Yeah. Two legs with feet, two arms. They had hands, huge clawed hands and arms like Popeye. They had short tails with clubbed, spiky ends, and yellow eyes. They were wearing crude armor, breastplates of some sort that looked like they were banged together out of pot metal and old sewer lids. And they talked.
“Get boots,” one of the things grunted.
“Can’t,” the one yanking on my boots growled back. He sounded like Bobcat Goldthwait with a hangover. “All straps, can’t get off!”
“Too dark dis place, too small. Drag ‘im out, we cut ‘em off,” the third one said, hefting a crude knife. “Get other loots too.” They seized my legs and started tugging.
That did it. Playing dead wasn’t going to do it; these mutants looked perfectly capable of lopping my legs off just to get my shoes. I should have started hyperventilating right there. Instead, another wash of stay-frosty-itis rolled over me, and I decided that if the passive route wouldn’t make them go away, it was time to be proactive. I had wired my voice-changer and my glowing eyes so that I had switches and a volume control in my gauntlet. Carefully moving my thumb, I flicked my eyes on, cranked the volume on my speaker to eleven, and sat up.
“WHO DARES DISTURB MY SLUMBER!” I bellowed as my eye lenses flared molten red.
The response was gratifying. The trio of troll-things shrieked in terror and tumbled backwards out of the log, leaves and bark flying everywhere. I decided I’d better press my advantage. I grabbed my staff – huh, I’d managed to hold onto it through all that mess last night– and rolled out of my hidey hole. I sprang to my feet and brandished my staff, flaring my cape and trying very hard to look much bigger than I was.
The three troll-apes cowered together in a ball and howled. The little one started squalling and ki-yi’ing like my grandma’s ratty little Pekingese when the cat went after it. Perfect; these things might’ve been ugly, but they were easily intimidated. The little one kept shrieking, the sound went right through my head like a railroad spike. Holy crap, I wanted to punt the little thing. “SILENCE!” I roared. The howling and shrieking faded into quavery little whimpers. “Who are you?” I said, pointing my staff at them. “What are you??”
Cringing, the middle one prostrated himself. “W-we orks,” he said, his voice trembling. “I Grunt. This one Dead Rat, him, Rotter.” He indicated the other two.
Orks. Ohhhh…kay. Right. Like… from Lord of the Rings? Or World of Warcraft? Or Skyrim? “And you were trying to steal my shoes because?” I demanded.
“Boots have shinies,” One of the others, Rotter I think, said. “We get shinies for Bossman.” I looked down at my boots. Yeah, the buckles were sort of big and square and silvery. These dimwits probably thought they were silver. Their “Bossman” was probably their pack leader. If these things even had packs… Okay, it was time to go fishing for some info.
“Where are we now? What is this place?” I said, waving my hand around, indicating the woods.
Grunt started getting this crafty look on his face. I didn’t think I liked that. “Halfies call this White Tree Woods,” he said. “They live close in halfie town and – CLOBBER, CLOBBER NOW!”
Now I’m no bad dude buttkicker, but I’ve been in a few fights, so I was smart enough not to cringe back and let them bulldoze me. I lunged forward instead, and punched the middle one, Grunt, straight in the chest as hard as I could. There was a loud “BRANK”, like someone punching in a car door with a sledgehammer, and the ork went sprawling backward, a dent the size and shape of my fist in his breastplate. Crap, what was it made out of, aluminum?
I brought my staff around in a swing, cracking the skull across Rotter’s jaw. His head jerked to the side, then he shook it off, spittle flying, and came at me again. Crud.
It was at that point I decided to take advantage of a design flaw in their protective gear: they were only armored from the waist up. I brought my staff around in a golf swing, straight between Rotter’s nads. Ka-RUNCH. He moaned and dropped, clutching himself.
Dead Rat tried to make a go for my leg then, snarling and grunting. I hauled back and punted him as hard as I could. I must have put some adrenaline behind it because he went sailing into the air off my boot and disappeared in the undergrowth twenty feet away, his dying-moose-sounds dopplering into the distance. All of us gaped in the direction he’d disappeared in astonishment. Man, he’d caught some serious air. He must’ve weighed less than a Nerf ball.
I remembered what I was doing and returned my attention to the two fuglies lying at my feet. By that point I had a head of steam going. Grunt seemed to be the leader. I planted my boot on the back of his neck, crushing his face into the dirt. “You were saying?” I growled.
“Mercy, mercy,” Grunt whimpered.
“You try that again and you’ll find out how much mercy I don’t have,” I said, pressing down for emphasis. They said nothing. They lay there clutching themselves and looking at me with intimidated expressions that gladdened my happy little heart.
The next instant Dead Rat came running back into the clearing, yelling like his scales were on fire. He threw himself into a huddle with the others. The shrieking was like nails on glass. “ARGH! Shut UP already!” I yelled at him, readying another kick.
He cringed back. “Mercy! Mercy!” He wailed. I held my kick back and he toned it down. “Gots trouble,” he whimpered, looking back the way he came and shivering.
I caught a whiff of something on the breeze. It was like rotting leaves and compost and something else I couldn’t identify. The scaly little trolls could smell it too. I could see their noses wrinkling. They started whimpering and moaning. Faint growls echoed through the trees.
“Rock hounds,” Grunt moaned.
“Lots and lots,” Dead Rat agreed unhappily.
I saw the eyes first. Dozens of pairs of glowing yellow eyes, appearing in the shadows all around us. I grabbed my staff in a two-handed grip and waited for their heads to poke out of the stones around. They drew closer, growling, and I realized – their heads were the undergrowth. They were made out of cobblestone and wood!
They slunk into the clearing and I got a good look. It was a blend of wood and rock from nose to tail: bark, stones, dead leaves, pebbles, lengths of driftwood. Weird yellow light glowed where their eyes should be. I could see more of that same light seeping out between the bits of bark and rock that made up their skin.
Rock Hounds. I got the joke. I wasn’t laughing.
They formed a circle around us. The orks snarled at them; the rockhounds didn’t look impressed. I could figure out what would come next. I’d seen it on Animal Planet. They would keep us surrounded, penned in. They’d take turns lunging at us, harrying us till they wore us down; then they’d pile on us and tear us apart. My heart was hammering in my chest. I was scared spitless…
…No. No, I wasn’t. My emotions were backfiring again. I wasn’t scared. I was pissed. Some little part of me took a moment to be confused by this– then the first one lunged. I brought the head of my staff around in a grand-slam swing. Boom, headshot.
The hounds’s head exploded.
“What the…?” I said. Gone, head go blooey. Bark, gravel, and bits of rotten wood and leaves rained down. The hound staggered in place, like it was confused. I caught it in the ribcage on the backswing. It burst like a lawn and leaf bag, rotten bark and punky wood going everywhere.
“Hell!, they’re nothing but wood!” I laughed. “Just rocks on the outside – wood and junk all the way through!” I lit into the others, swinging like Babe Ruth on uppers. Limbs… heh, get it?… went flying everywhere. Three or four of them latched onto me, trying to bear me down. Their teeth barely dented my costume armor. I grabbed them in my gauntleted hands and smashed them against the ground, against the trees, against each other. It was compost carnage.
In a minute or so I’d busted the last of them to pieces. I smashed the last one’s head on a rock just for the irony and dusted my hands off. Sweet Mary and Joseph, that was satisfying. I dusted my gauntlets off. “So much for that,” I said. I turned around, just in time to see the first one reforming.
A pile of leaves, rocks, and debris, shot through with yellow glowing foxfire, was slowly pulling itself together. The three orks were bashing away at it for all they were worth, but it wasn’t doing much good; it was growing too fast. The head formed and snapped at them; they retreated, whimpering. It finished forming and prowled towards us, a growl rumbling in its chest. It was bigger, much bigger. And it looked a lot tougher.
I looked back; the ones I had just smashed were pulling together now. It looked like the seven or eight rockhounds were now clumping into three, much larger ones. Their heads now came up to my chest. They pulled themselves up, fully formed, snarling.
Apparently they decided I was the bigger threat. They ignored the cowering orks and rushed me.
I lashed around me with my skull staff, cracking a bit of them with every blow. Wooden, fanged jaws closed on my arm and leg. This time, it hurt. They snarled and savaged at me, bearing me down. I screamed in pain as I felt fangs pierce my costume armor and sink into my flesh.
Fire, I needed fire! I fished in my pocket for a lighter. It was Halloween; I’d loaded my pockets with odds and ends for cheap pranks, and a lighter was key to most of them. I got the lighter out just as a set of stone jaws closed on my hand. Thinking fast, I rammed my arm down the monster’s throat as far as I could and flicked the lighter. For a second the hound stood there, doing its level best to tear my arm off at the elbow. Then the leaves and tinder mixed in with the chunks of wood caught. smoke started rolling out of its nose and ears and it let go of my hand. It started doing a mad dance, shaking its head wildly as it caught fire from the inside out.
“HAH!” I gloated– then I lost my grip on the lighter. I went to one knee as claws and fangs tore at me, watching helplessly as the little plastic lighter skittered away into the leaves.
One tore at my arm; the other lunged over my back, clawing and snapping at my face. Any second now and it would rip my helmet off and that would be it.
Rage exploded inside me. The world went greeny-purple-black. I hated those creatures, hated them more than anything in the universe at that moment. “Burn, beasts!” I roared, and rammed my clawed fingers into its throat. Wood crunched under my grip like balsa. I might as well have been squeezing a stump for all the effect it had on the rockhound, though… then black flames burst from my fingers.
Nnnnot jet black, really. Bloody red, but shot through with black, sort of like molten lava looks, you know? It’s hard to describe in words, but you’d know it if you saw it. Whatever it was, it certainly burned like ordinary fire; in an instant the rockhound’s head and neck burst into flame. Like, fwoosh. I let it go, and it fell to the ground, writhing and thrashing. It’s head was already a blackened lump by the time its body caught fire.
I turned and saw the third one running away. “Oh, not a chance,” I said. I clutched the black flame in my hands and… threw it at the fleeing rockhound. A jet of black flame streaked out of my hand and hit the wolf square in the ass. There was a FWACKOOM, and the rockhound exploded in a ball of fire, burning wooden dog (dogwood, heh) shrapnel raining down everywhere.
I stood there for a minute, my lungs heaving, staring down at my hands. Blackish flames were still licking up and down my fingers. They didn’t hurt. They weren’t even singing my gauntlets.
I had shot fire from my hands. FIRE. RED-BLACK fire. From my HANDS. It was about at this point that somebody decided that it was okay to freak out now.
“Who are you?” I heard Grunt quaver.
I wasn’t paying attention. I was too busy listening to my brain make that noise Beaker from the Muppet Show makes whenever Bunsen brings out a new experiment. MI MI MI MI MI MI MI…. “What?”
“Who? Who are you, Dark One?”
That pulled me out of it. Well, partway out of it. I was still silently going oh my god oh my god oh my god I have Dark Magical Powers oh my god… Pieces of an idea started tumbling into place.
“I am….” I thought quick. I was still a little giddy from shock and power rush but Oh what the hell. “I am DARTH VOLDEMORT.” I pounded my fist against my chest. “…From the planet VULCAN!”
… Yeah. I know.
The three of them made some faltering attempts to repeat it, finally settling by consensus on “Darth Voldemort! Hail Darth Voldemort!” They kowtowed and groveled.
I stomped over and picked up Grunt by the scaly scruff of his neck. “Now. Who do you work for?”
“We work for Bossman. He makes us gather gems and shiny and blood and GAK.” My fist around his throat changed his mind. “You, we work for you, you Bossman now,” he squeaked. I let up on his windpipe.
I let my eye lenses light up, bathing his face in their red glow. Almost looked like an ugly pug from this angle. He couldn’t see it, but I smirked in victory. “Good dog,” I said.