Akira ran. He had to -- he was being chased!! Hot on his heels were vampires riding polar bears, flying ice demons, hellhounds - all screaming "GIVE IT UP, BOY! You can't win! You were too late to save the Princess -- now you can't even save yourself!! GIVE IN TO DESPAIR!!" < NEVER !!! > And as Akira ran, he saw a light; across Thor's Gap, there stood a vision of such radiance, of such supreme calm and beauty, that it could only be... <PRINCESS KACEE!!> "The Pouch, Akira!" she yelled across the wastes. "Give me the pouch!" With her words the pouch seemed to glow around his neck. Redoubling his efforts, Akira sprinted towards the Princess. But the monster behind him were ever gaining. Still he ran. The snow underneath his paws turned from snow and ice to nettles and ground glass, cutting and scarring him. Still Akira ran. And then he was at the edge of the Gap! The wind howled like an unholy banshee as Akira looked into the never ending blackness. "Jump, Akira! Jump!!" Princess KaCee yelled. <ARE YOU CRAZY?! _NO_ Husky has ever jumped Thor's Gap and lived! NOT ONE!!> "Jump!! TRUST ME!!" <<TOO LATE, SQUIRT!!>> Akira turned, and ducked just in time to avoid having his head taken off as the werebear's claws raked Akira's back! Red hot pain coursed through him as he saw an object fall into the Gap... <The pouch!!> As the pouch disappeared into the darkness, so did the luminescence surrounding Princess KaCee, and she turned to stone... <Looks like you couldn't save your Princess, whelp> a wendigo sneered, <but then, the Elders never should have sent a boy to do a MAN's job!> A vampire arose from the slavering hordes. <Time for the endgame, boys!> A yeti slammed his giant fist into the ice. A fissure shot out directly towards Akira. The ground beneath him crumbled into dust as he fell headlong into Thor's Gap. And as he disappeared into the blackness, it felt as if he were being swallowed by some unholy maw... <nnnnnnNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!> "Steady, boy, steady... You're among friends now..." A cool hand passed over Akira's head, stroking it and calming him down. Hel breathed a sigh of relief. "I think he's going to be okay." "You have the Devil's own luck, Rayne" Adrian sneered. "If that pup had died you'd be in deep shit right now." "I didn't hit him _that_ hard," Rayne scowled. "Oh, come on Rayne!" Hel said. "You slammed him into a tree! You're lucky his back isn't broken! If I hadn't gotten there when I did- -" "I would've seen the collar and stopped. End of story!" "Will you three stop?" yelled Lilith, making herself heard over the din. "I can't hear the TV and you're scaring Akira!" Hel felt a low rumble on her lap. She looked down to see Akira growling at her. "Calm down, boy. There are things in my bloodstream that you really _don't_ want in yours. Here," she said, taking some candy corn out of his pouch. "Suck on these and don't chew. Sidhe's magic is a wonderful tonic, but right now you're about as fragile as spun glass. Better for the magic in the candy to work through your system gradually, as opposed to one big euphoric rush." Scratching behind Akira's ears (<Oooh, that feels good,> he thought), Hel continued. "That's Lilith over there by the TV, and that's Adrian - it's his place you're in right now - and doing a good imitation of the unjustly wounded party over in the corner is Rayne. I'm Hel, the cuddle vampire." "Cuddle Vampire!?" Akira said, wincing as he did. "I said don't try to talk!" Hel admonished. "And yes, I said cuddle vampire. You might call us all refugees from the invasion. But we can talk about that later, and you need to heal. For now, let's just watch Return of the Jedi, shall we?" ***** Luke Skywalker, last of the Jedi Knights, lit the funeral pyre with the torch. The branches quickly ignited, immolating the body of the former dreaded Lord of the Sith, his spirit redeemed by his son's love, and bound for whatever part of the firmament the Jedi claimed as theirs. <AWOOOOOO!!!> Hel scratched Akira's ears some more. "I know, pup, it gets me, too.." Akira was feeling much better. True to Hel's words, the candy helped his body heal in rapid order. As the credits came up and the audio system changed from VCR to Bauhaus, Adrian turned to their guest. "So Akira, you must have some interesting stories to tell if you count Romana as an acquaintance. What's the story, pup?" Biting back the urge to correct him on his age, Akira instead said "Before I answer you, I want to know one thing: why am I still alive?" Lilith smiled. "Are you familiar with the Vampiric Rules for a long and happy unlife?" Akira shook his head. Adrian smiled. "There's only three. Don't eat at Italian restaurants." Hel added, "Don't go out on a sunny day without your sunblock." And all of them cried, "And never, _ever_ screw around with the Kindred!!" After they finished laughing and regained their composure somewhat, Rayne spoke. "You're still alive for several reasons. One" he said, ticking off his fingers, "you're wearing a Kindred collar, and I have no wish to bring the wrath of the People on my head. Two, you still have a mission to complete." "What would you know of my mission?" Akira said with a suspicious eye. Lilith chimed in, "Only what you were saying in your delirium. That must have been some nightmare - you were running in your sleep, you know that?" "Three, " Rayne continued, "for a mortal dog, you've got guts. I like that. It's a shame," he said, fingering the collar, "that you're wearing that little trinket. You'd have made an excellent hellhound." Hel got up from the sofa and helped Akira down. He was able to stand and trot a little, but it would be a while before he could move at a full run. "Now then," Hel said, "what is this mission, and how can we help?" And, as Akira finished telling his story to the assembled coven of vampires, they looked at each other with worried faces. Finally, Adrian spoke. "Akira, old son, I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you..." ***** "Look down there!" Rayne said, as he and Akira perched in the trees in Cuddleland forest. Akira saw troops upon troops of Goths and Vikings march through a portal towards what Rayne called "The Dark Lands." Some were bruised, most were unscarred: all of them looked thoroughly disgusted, as if they had been cheated out of a great battle. Realization hit Akira like a freight train: this was one of the five visions Romana had shown him! But he'd gotten it totally in reverse - it wasn't the Goths going through the portal to invade Cuddleland; it was the invaders going home in defeat! "The invasion was a bust; for every Goth that came through spreading darkness and gloom, there were either five cuddlers hugging him to death, or he would just pass through the cuddlers, ignored. Some were even converted over to the Cuddleland side..." "So not only did I not get here in enough time to warn Cuddleland of the invasion, but the warning would have been moot anyway?" Akira said, head down. Rayne smiled a sad smile. "That's about the size of it." The pair jumped down to the ground. "I'm going through that gate now myself," said Rayne. "Cuddleland is a nice place to visit, but it's no place for a Vampire like me to be living in. My suggestion to _you_ is that you go back to the place where you ported in. Maybe there's a clue you missed there." As Rayne stepped into the portal, Akira yelled "Take care, bloodsucker!" Rayne shot back, "Live well, puppy!" And then he was gone... ***** Arriving at the meadow; Akira ran across the flowered field until his instinct told him he had the right spot. He then looked and sniffed around - and saw a bronze plaque with an odd crystal set in a white marble stone. He padded up to it and read: <"This plaque commemorates the Rescue of Princess KaCee and Heidi the Tower Dweller on this first ResQ Day celebration, Feb. 25th, 1995." <FEBRUARY 25TH, 1995??!! That was over two weeks ago!> If Akira felt bad before, he really felt bad now. He had failed on both his primary and secondary objectives - and moreover, he had no way of knowing whether that failure was a function of the gates, his own slowness or whether the pack had simply received the note too late! <I don't even know _how_ Princess KaCee was rescued -- huh? What's this?> Just below the crystal was a note saying "Touch for story." Akira put his paw on it and suddenly found his mind bombarded with images. He sat and watched as the story of the Rescue unfolded before his eyes. He saw the scene presented in Romana's vision, and was thrilled with the teamwork exhibited by such a diverse assortment of beings. He saw the girl in his other vision hugging gargoyles into so much masonry rubble and little golden baby dragons being released (!) and the uncommon bravery of Sir Pooky. And at the end, he saw Princess KaCee and Heidi, and thought he'd never seen a Human princess more beautiful. Granted, she was the first human princess he'd ever seen, but that's beside the point. As the story ended (with a flourish of cheers and a "This has been a Thumper-CAM Presentation" logo), Akira pulled his paw away from the crystal... and sighed. He'd been given the responsibility of rescuing Princess KaCee from the Tuaturas. Not only had he gotten there too late, but from what he just saw, any aid he might have given would have been highly superfluous at best. He'd taken on the responsibility of warning Princess KaCee - and by extension, the whole of Cuddleland - of the coming invasion. Not only had he botched _that_, but from what Rayne had told and shown him, Cuddleland didn't *need* defending; at least, not through force of arms. And to add insult to injury he'd blown off the hero of Cuddleland who only tried to offer succor just because he reminded Akira of a Bear! In all his young life, Akira had been trained never to consider failure as a possibility; now, not only was he facing it, he was having his nose rubbed in it. He felt so low he could crawl under an ice slug and still have clearance for a Kodiak to slip by. <Well, at least I can still deliver this message to the Princess, seeing as she must be all right. I -OH, NO!!!> The dream. He had argued with Princess KaCee across the howling winds of the gap and lost the pouch for being too slow. And as the pouch fell into the gap, the princess turned to stone as a result. The vision. He argued with Dorothy the kamikaze Cuddler in front of a human- shaped multi-colored rock - and the pouch lay between... <Princess KaCee's been turned to stone! I just KNOW it!!> Akira howled. <And it's all my fault!!> "Hey, what's the matter doggie? You lost or something?" Akira turned around, and his seeing eye saw a young girl wearing a headband with a red circle in the middle and strange yet familiar hieroglyphs on either side. His mind's eye, however, clouded by dark despair, could only see a stone statue standing on the opposite side of Thor's Gap...
John T. Carr III ( email@example.com).
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Last modified: November 05, 1998 by Locksley