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Mundementia One: The Book of Going Forth
part 13
by J.(Channing)Wells


We have been at sea for too long.

Waves of Atlantic lap repetitively against the sides of the trawler. It is the maddening noise of a two A.M. foot-licking dog. The heat is Bermudan. There is no rain; not any more. And there is no shelter from the sun save for the air-conditioned interior of a sizable armored car with a surprisingly good sound system, loaded and ready on the ship's flat cargo deck.

This last thing kind of takes the edge off the bleakness, but bear with me, here. We've been at sea for too long... and it's driving us mad.

"Well," says Feeb, who has fashioned her lab coat into a crude sun hat. "That's the last of the pizza rolls."

"Mm hm," I say, darkly, gazing out at the maritime horizon.

"I gave them to Luke," she says. "Poor dear was weak from hunger. Maybe this... will give him enough strength to carry on."

"Mm hm," I repeat, my eyes not leaving their point of fixture.

"Boy," says Feeb. "Isn't it lucky that Buddy remains transmogrified into the form of a petite-yet-statuesque fetching blonde woman? I would sure hate to be in this dire situation with a feebly-hypnotized giant carnivorous zombie dinosaur of my own creation!"

My eyes flicker over to IlsaBuddy, as I have elected to call her. Him. What the hell ever. Seized by the same queer impetus that drove Feeb to fashion a sun hat out of her lab coat, IlsaBuddy has completed some of the partial rents and tears of her former jumpsuit and has fashioned a ragged, crude, tatterdemalion sort of Jill-of-the-Jungle two-piece bathing outfit sort of type thing. This, combined with the raw geometry of Ilsa's physique, is forcing my libido to fire up the weapons-grade reactors located in my bottom chakras and commence a ground invasion of my lower guts. Unfortunately, my conscious sensibilities, hailing from parts far north, are unable to completely shake the the image of the stitched-together teetering-on-the-narrow-edge-of-decomposition reeks-o'-formaldehyde highly fashion-conscious undead killing machine that is the Buddy I have come to know and barely tolerate. Forces are therefore marshalling on either side of Diaphragm Ridge, and I have no doubt that the inevitable conflict will be a violent and bloody one indeed.

"I mean, because, think about it. I," she places a hand demurely against her chest, "am made almost entirely of meat. And that's what zombie dinosaurs eat!"

"Brains," I add. The impending war has drawn my brain's attention away from my tongue, which has apparently become something of a splinter state. "I thought zombies ate brains."

"And what bad luck THAT would be," says Feeb, "'Cause I've got those too!" She smiles. "Did I mention I'm smart?"

IlsaBuddy is currently leaning waaay over the side of the simple barge that bears our small party and our attendant armored car above the salty waves of the Atlantic. She has fashioned a crude fishhook out of a safety pin and a bit of twine, and is using it, gamely, in an attempt to shore up our apparently questionable food supply. I am totally and completely repelled by every last... little... detail...

"Of course," muses Feeb, "I'd be double-screwed, myself, on account of it being a creature of my own devising..."

Damnit, not that I'm staring...

"Anyway," says Feeb, prattling on despite the fact that every scrap of attention I possess is currently focused on Ilsa. "The deep-sea fishing attempts are proving fruitless, but we did manage to find a little jar of bacon bits in Luke's stash, and I think that..."

She can be yours, remarks the One Can. Or someone just like her. Someone whose appearance would be unburdened by those pesky details your mind keeps vomiting up.

Shut up, I will it.

But I _enjoy_ giving people what they want, the Artifact replies, in a grotesquely honeyed tone. If you're too shortsighted to see the potential in what I have to offer, I could certainly turn to one of your friends...

I deny it, gritting my teeth. Buddy wouldn't have the willpower to resist the machinations of the One Can. Feeb wouldn't, either. All it'd have to do is promise her a new laboratory to replace the one I indirectly and unwittingly converted into a total write-off. And Luke? Pfooie. Luke wouldn't have a chance. Sure, he had apparently resisted its lures for a little while, after having seized it from me back on the Chateau, but I'd be buggered if I was going to risk letting him have it again. He had, after all, shown it a ridiculous lack of care whilst it was in his keeping -- he _dented_ it! For crying out loud, he _dented_ it! For one thing, that's not the sort of respect you show an important plot-bearing artifact. But furthermore, didn't he know that deposit recycling programs calculate payments by volume instead of weight? I mean, this is a billion-trillion-gazillion dollar hunk of aluminum here, and that little dent in its side probably corresponds to the gross national product of several medium-sized countries! How dare he harm my precious Can! How dare he harm my Precious!

Except... except... we weren't planning on cashing it in. We were going to destroy it. I mean, weren't we? Wasn't that the whole point? To sail our way over to this Monte Penwell place where L'Abbe's wastrel nephew had stored up enough bad debt to neutralize the Can's ungodly high deposit for good?

Hello? Charles to Charles, come in Charles! Maybe you _ought_ to give someone else the Can for a while? Maybe Luke could--

"NO!" I shout out. "HE SHALL NOT HAVE IT!"

Feeb steps back from me for a moment. "Sheesh, Charles! Okay! I just thought that if we saved the last package of Sno-Balls for Luke, the four of us could probably hold out for another--"

I rapidly blink myself out of my artifact-induced fugue state and lock my brain back onto the topic at hand. Goddamn artifacts.

"Feeb," I say, calmly, "We have been out on the open water here for ELEVEN MINUTES." I gesture vaguely in a behindawards direction. "You can still see the island! We could probably get a particularly adventurous grocery store to rent a boat and DELIVER to us at this distance!"

"...friiink..." comes a weakened voice from within the armored car. "...f-frink... _wheeooo_..."

"OH, SHUT UP!" I shout back.

"Be strong, little one!" calls out Feeb. "There's bound to be land shortly!"

Her eyes brim with tears.

"There _has_ to be!" she says, with hushed determination, gazing out at the water.

Loons. Loons and crazy people.

"Feeb," I say, "I'm going to go over there by the... port... side... stern... castle." I gesture vaguely in what I hope is the right direction. "I don't wish to be bothered because I'm going to be taking in some quality time with my precious here."

Feeb purses her lips at me. "Charles, I'll have you know that I'm kind of worried about the amount of time you've been spending with that thing on this voyage so far."


"Even so!" she counters. "I think that maybe--"

There is a sharp snicketing noise, and my faithful blade Hitty is in my hand.

"You think that maybe... what?" I say, grimly.

Feeb's mouth becomes a granite-like line.

"I'll tend to the rationing," she says, and walks back to the armored car.

She wants me for herself, mutters the One Can, creepily.

"And you shut up too," I say, clumsily re-pantsing my blade and cradling my eyes in my free hand. Feeb's right. I should have handed over the artifact.

No. No, I made the right choice. I'm the only one I trust with it. I'm... I don't want anyone else to hurt themselves with it. It's my responsibility; I was the one that unearthed it in the first place, and its burden is mine to bear. The safety of the world depends on its destruction. This is my story. I'm the hero here. I'm an angel. A half-angel. A magic werethingy. I have powers beyond their comprehension, heck, beyond _my_ comprehension. I'm the only one spiritually and metaphysically equipped for the job. I wants it. It's mine, by right of conquest. Mine. My precious. Mine. Mine. Mine.

I swallow, hard, and complete my cross to the stern end of the boat, or at least the rear of it, which I'm pretty sure are the same thing. The sun is beginning to set over the sea, casting the still-burning island fortress in shades of peach and amber. Beyond the fortress, out upon the open sea, two giant creatures struggle in silent ballet, one a huge and wrathful machine and the other a great purple serpentine form of my own calling.

It's... beautiful in its own way. And kind of cool. A good distraction from this constant artifact-y thing going on in my head, which I cannot classify concretely as either a monologue or a dialogue because, at any given moment, _I can't tell who's doing the talking_.

A moment. A tableau.

And then there is another voice. From right beside me at the rail.

"Hi!" says the voice, brightly.

I startle for a moment. Balls if it isn't Vesper Ji, that weird little dragon from back on the island.

"You!" I sneer, clutching the One Can protectively to myself. "What the Labatt Blue do you want?"

"To illucidate," he says. "For the sake of our home viewers."

"Look, if you're here to say something, just out with it," I growl.

"Your wish, she is, how you say, my command." Vesper grins at me unnervingly and pushes a hitherto-unseen minidragon-sized microphone into my face. "So," he says. "P.B. Given the chance to wield unlimited power, and to dispatch the Giant Walking Talking Gay Robot of Doom in whatever means you chose... you conjured a monster out of the sea to fight with it to the death."

"S'right," I say, bluntly.

"You could have simply written it out of existence, you know. You're not stupid, like Ortega was. It could have been gone. Poof. Sayonara. Out of your hair for good."

"Didn't occur to me," I say, stroking the Can ever-so-slightly.

"You _so totally_ lie."

I pause. Why am I even talking to him at all?

The answer? He has a way about him. I can't call it charisma, as such. It's more... a sort of coercion. Words just float to the surface when he's around, like fish in a dynamited pool.

"Okay," I say, at last, helplessly. "I could have. I know that I could have."

Another pause.

"But... what kind of story would _that_ have been?"

"Ah-ha..." says Vesper, with quiet smugness, and then he is gone. No flash, no dazzle, no frills. It's as though someone merely stopped the camera and plucked him out of the scene.

As has already been noted, that little dragon creeps me out.

I turn back out to the sea, the noise of the waves washing over me. And suddenly I am surprised to note -- and I cannot tell if this is a blessing of Vesper's or merely an aftereffect of his presence -- that in the wake of his departure, Vesper Ji has left in my brain nothing but silence. The Artifact is quiet, and for a moment, I am free to watch this portrait of my own creation unfold, possessed as I now am of stable mind and calmed mien. And I enjoy it.

Giant fighting monsters. In real life. Right over there.


* * *

After a harrowing sea voyage of forty-eight minutes, we make landfall upon the ancient volcanic cone of Monte Penwell, which juts angrily out of the peaceful blue ocean. The name is purely descriptive; the wretched volcano does not rise proudly into the air but instead sits lurkily, low and squat over the water, like some titanic ink bottle. Malevolent and dark smoke trickles from the summit, suggesting that Monte Penwell's slumber is a fitful one indeed.

Before we can even dock the trawler at the ancient and rotting timberpier, Feeb has leapt off of the starboard (or "front") end of the boat and begun churning her way through the shallows, an expression of pained desperation on her elfin face. Awkwardly, she reaches the tiny black-sand beach to which the jetty is anchored, and throws herself face down upon the damp, dark shore.

"Land!" she cries out, her tears falling into the swelling tide. "God in Heaven be praised, land!"

"Rawr!" remarks IlsaBuddy from the rail.

"Perhaps there's water! Oh, there MUST be! No just and merciful God would reward us with land, at last, after all this time, and then snatch our salvation so cruelly away by marooning us 'pon a barren rock!"

"For Pete's sake, Feeb," I say, ambling down the pier and letting IlsaBuddy tend to the business of mooring the boat. "Luke hasn't even finished his soda yet."

Feeb hops up and begins brushing the damp sand from her knees. "Remind me to lecture you on the osmotic dehydrating effects of sugared liquids on biological homeostatic systems some day, Charles."

"No thanks," I say, striding forward and squaring my tuxedo jacket as I gaze up at the umbrous mass of igneous stone before me.

"Not to mention the diuretic properties of caffeine!" she calls out as she runs to catch up to me, turning her sun hat back into a lab coat as she goes. "I think I have a film around here somewhere!"

After a second she nears my side, then monkeys my gaze.

We both stand there for a moment.

"Wow," I say. "What a place to store your bad debts."

"Likely it wasn't always like this, Charles," says Feeb. "Likely at some point in the far distant past it was a lush, green paradise full of happy frolicking goats."


"Frolicking ones," nods Feeb. "Happy."

"Mm," I say. "So what on earth happened?"

"Okay, picture this!" says Feeb, throwing her arms wide. She takes a deep breath. "Dateline!" she cries. "America! 1986! Young handsome ne'er-do-well gadabout rogue, Felix de Trephane, fresh from an EXTRAVAGANT holiday to beautiful, beautiful Atlantic City, New Jersey, new-dripping with an entourage of sixteen Asian prostitutes and three specially-constructed Black and Decker Love Machines, returns to his hometown of--"

"Can we skip the cinematic setup? Y'know, cut right to the senseless pseudo-explanation that invariably flies in the face of all proper logic and reason?"

"Oh, that," says Feeb. "Yeah, sure, if you want to be a dork about it. Okay. So. Surely, you've heard of the term 'Financial Burden'?"

"Sure," I say, absently.

"What's curious, though, is the fact that people suffering from financial burdens are actually possessed of _lower_ quantities of fiduciary capital. And the people with the greatest financial burdens are, patently, those persons who are in debt, and thus, all the way past zero to the negative end of the scale. This provides us with a pressing philosophical and rhetorical question: A quantity of money has mass, but is psychologically freeing. A quantity of _debt_, on the other hand, is psychologically binding, to be certain... _but where, I ask you, is *its* mass?_"

"Mm hm," I say. "I don't like where this is heading."

"You're darn tooting you don't!" she replies. "At least you shouldn't. At any rate, at some point along the line, with all the credit card usage and the mortgages and the bank loans and the pawnbrokering and the selling-your-wife-into-white-slavery-ing going on in today's modern and prosperous society, banks got fed up with the imbalance of it all. I mean, if you have positive money, bam, you have money, right there. You can put it in a vault, take it out, store it in briefcases, flash it around, that kind of Schlitz. Sure, it's numbers, but given enough time and effort you can feasibly convert it all into a tangible physical form. _Not so with debt._"

"Promissory notes?" I ask, mildly.

"Ha!" snorts Feeb. "Promissory notes are to negative currency what your checkbook is to positive currency. It's still nothing more than an abstracted symbol of an already abstracted symbol. No, what the banks decided they needed was _actual negative currency_."

"Currency..." I begin.

"...MADE FROM ANTI-MATTER." finishes Feeb, pronouncing her "anti-" using a long "I" sound.

"This is absolutely Michelobing insane, Feeb," I say.

"Nevertheless, entirely true!"

"So, what," I say. "Felix de Trephane chooses a remote island here in Mislocated Bermuda to store his vast treasure-trove of antimatter currency."

"One full of happy, frolicking goats," adds Feeb, helpfully.

"Can we forget about the goats here?" I ask. "And just get on with what the Coors happened here?"

"Oh, certainly. Things were all fine and peachy keen here on the island now known as Monte Penwell. Felix de Trephane kept racking up bad debts, over and over again, buying up real estate, private roads, luxury goods, but mostly just blowing it all on casino slots and one-night stands. Nothing with any redeeming value. Nothing he could mortgage off and sell. No way to recoup his vast and terrible losses. When he accumulated anti-matter currency, he merely stockpiled it here on Monte Penwell, forgot about it, and went on with his sinful, sinful life."

Feeb glowers. A darkness enters her eyes, and she grins in a distinctly evil fashion.


"Mm hm," I say, unimpressed, still looking up at the mountain before me.

"Blam! Pow!" she says, gesturing all over the place and making exploding noises. "We're talking a total economic China Syndrome here! Seals and containments, breaking everywhere! The very earth rent asunder! GOATS, SCREAMING IN MADNESS AND TERROR, FLEEING FOR THEIR VERY LIVES!!!"

"You don't know," I say, "that there were even any goats here in the first place."

"True," admits Feeb. "But it makes a neat picture, don't you think? Goats? On fire? Fleeing from a volcanic cataclysm?"

"No," I say. "So this quantity of loosed antimatter--"

"--ate its way down, via matter negation and consumption, into the very mantle of the Earth. Creating a new, active, volcanic zone, here off the East Coast of the U.S.A."

"And there it sits."

"A festering sore upon the earth," she says. "An infected splinter that can never work its way to the surface. Our only hope? To feed it the most valuable single object in the world."

I let out a sigh. "Feeb, that was even more full of stupid logical holes than most of your explanation thingies are."

"Hmph," says Feeb. "Name eighty-seven!"

I open my mouth to begin, then shut it, and regroup. "Eighty-seven?" I ask.

"S'complicated," says Feeb.

"Look," I say, flustered. "It is absolutely inconceivable to me that a quantity of bad debt could become so vast that it could acquire the power to eat its way down to the center of the Earth."

"You balk at that," says Feeb, "but you accept that an object can be so valuable as to attain a limited form of sentience?"

"No!" I say. "No, I don't buy that either! Look, I think the whole 'sentience of the evil soda can' thing has been blown way out of proportion, here! What's more, I've asked the can, and it totally agrees with me!"

Feeb blinks at me.

"Don't," I say, defensively.

"Don't... what?"

"Don't do that all-superior hoity-toity woo-hoo, I'm a scientific genius eyelid flutter thing at me anymore. I'm sick of it."

"Rawr?" asks IlsaBuddy, mellifluously, moving up behind Feeb, having apparently finished the business of mooring the boat.

"Thank you, Buddy," says Feeb, crisply, glaring at me. "Luke can stay in the air-conditioned armored car, eating jellybeans and sucking on ice from his fountain soda for now. The three of us will press on."

Feeb looks up at the mountain before us.

"_Alone._" she says.

"Rawr," says IlsaBuddy.

"Whatever," I say. "Let's just ditch this thing and get this whole ridiculous vacation over with, finally. Ditch... my... Ppp-p-p--"

I swallow the last word after gritting it down with my back teeth. Feeb glares at me but says nothing.

The three of us begin our ascent of Monte Penwell, leaving the beach far behind.

* * *

It is not long before a cleft in the rock presents itself. This is a good thing, as Monte Penwell itself consists largely of a sort of hand-mangling black basalt. Plus, we don't have any proper climbing gear. And I'm wearing a tuxedo.

I could have changed back into my everyday collegiate attire at some point during our brief maritime episode, of course. Feeb kept a parcel of my clothes. But I never felt like it. And despite the fact that this is all kind of awkward, I don't regret the decision. I mean, after all, if you're going to be climbing the giant evil mountain of doom anyway, you might as well do it in a tuxedo. That's what I always say, at least.

"Look," says Feeb. "A cleft in the rock!"

"I noticed," I say.

"Rawr," says IlsaBuddy.

We, the three remaining members of our little company, take a moment to peer inside. All is dark within, held up next to the bright (if failing) Bermudan sun without. Some great and cavernous space is within, though; you can just tell. Fireforced air whips at our hair and catches our clothing, particularly effectively in the case of IlsaBuddy, who stands strong in the infernal breeze, jaw set proudly, her unbound tresses flowing backwards and slightly to her right.

"What luck!" says Feeb, off to _my_ right, busily fiddling with the straps of the small satchel full of stuff she swiped out of Luke's hoard. "This cleft may well take us directly to the central cone! And certainly there will be a bridge over an expanse of hot lava of some kind!"

"Rawr," responds IlsaBuddy, in the affirmative.

"Prepare," cries Feeb, finishing the adjustment of her packstrap, "to spelunk!"

"Come on," I say, grimly. "I tire of this."

The three of us fall into darkness.

* * *

There is, in fact, a bridge over an expanse of hot lava of some kind.

The rough and twisting path that we have tortuously followed through the walls of Monte Penwell finally empties out into a tremendous red-lit cavern, deep within the heart of the mountain. It's the sort of cavern which exists in patent defiance of any geological physics that I can personally recall but which is perfectly in keeping with all sorts of cinematic convention. Feeb raises a finger and speaks in dark and stentorian tones,

"Look!" she shouts, over the rumble of superheated air. "The way to the cone!"

I follow her point with my eyes, rubbing them against the irritation of ash and sulphur. Before us, impossibly suspended over the pluming cherry-red magma below, is a single thread of a bridge, slender, without kerb or rail.

"Heineken it," I say. "I'm climbing up the outside." I turn to go.

"Charles," says Feeb, halting my progress with a slender arm. "You'd never make it. You know that. There you'd be, pawing ineffectually at the nigh-vertical mountain with bloody stumps before you were halfway to the summit, unable to ascend or to descend, trapped on an exposed rock face while vultures came, tearing out your pancreas and sqabbling over it amongst themselves." She takes a deep breath. "Any fool could see that."

"Thanks," I say. "Thanks for improving my day with that image."

"You're welcome!" says Feeb, brightly, then resumes her forbidding mien. "I'm afraid that this represents the only way."

The One Can is positively thrumming in my hands. I grit my teeth again. "We could just turn around," I say. "Find a store rich enough to cash in the deposit on this thing. Heck, everything else I've encountered here is overblown and ridiculous. Why not... um... a store where... er... everything there is made of solid gold or something?"

"There actually is one of those," says Feeb. "Whole chain of them, actually."

"What's it called?"

"Pamidas," says Feeb.

"Huh," I say. "Well, anyway, find one of those! We don't even need to trade it in for its full value! I mean, (a), we'd get it off our hands for good, and (b), even a _fraction_ of this can's worth would be enough to set us all up comfortably for several lifetimes! Think about it, Feeb! Unlimited funds for world domination! A brand-new lab! Full of shiny glowy machines and things!"

Feeb narrows her eyes. "Promise me huge, pointlessly-rotating gears."

"Sure! Huge pointlessly-rotating gears!"

"Promise me giant extendable lightning rods," she says, walking close to me.

"Lightning rods! Sure!"


"Anything you want! ANYTHING!"

Feeb slaps me.

"I want my father back, you SON OF A BITCH!!!"

We pause.

"W-what?" I manage, at last.

Feeb stares at me for a moment. "Sorry," she says, at last. "Got a little carried away again."

"Whatever," I say, rubbing my cheek. "All's I know is you keep finding reasons to slap me." To think I nearly _kissed_ this woman...

"You keep finding ways to deserve it," she replies. "You know all that crap you were spouting off? That was the Can talking, Charles. Not you."

"No," I say, "it is me. It's me not wanting to walk across a FLAMING BRIDGE OF DEATH."

"Hogwash," says Feeb, starting out across the expanse. "It's perfectly safe!"

A howl comes from the depths. A terrible, damn'ed howl. Others follow.

"Feeb," I say, calmly. "Please don't ever, _ever_ say that sort of thing."

Feeb turns to me, her eyes a picture of fear, and in that moment, They arrive, rising from the heated depths on leathery wings. They are both diabolical and monstrous, no two of them are like any other... two. Lizard-skull things. Winged fetus heads with twin fanged maws. Hideous clockwork octopus lawnmowers.

"Oh, no," breathes Feeb. "Demonic avatars of Felix de Trephane's various debts!"


"We can't, Charles!" cries Phoebe. "They'd catch us in the turns of the lava tubes! We have to go forward! AND HURRY!"

"Feeb!" I shout again, hesitating, though deep in my stomach I know her to be right. Still, I tarry--

--and IlsaBuddy snatches me by my bow-tie'd collar, then leaps forward like the animal she truly is beneath the frigid Scandinavian exterior she's currently displaying. I am dragged for a moment but I quickly regain my feet, fleeing with all my strength from someone else's financial woes. Hitty leaps to my hand as I go.

The One Can sits, as a millstone, in my other; it is numb, yet prickling. I am sickened, as I run. There is the taste of lead in my mouth. My Precious is unhappy.

"Feeb!" I shout out, my pace never slacking. "What the Pabst are these things? I thought all of this was--" I gulp down heated and noxious air. "--all of this was a physics thing! A scientific construction! Antimatter! What's with the gargahooling demons?!?"

"It's worse than I thought!" she calls back. "Felix de Trephane's creditors must have gotten their anti-matter... FROM THE PITS OF HADES!!!"

"Wait, wait, wait!" I shout. "Antimatter... from..."

"OH, FOR CRIPES' SAKE, CHARLES!" she shouts. "Do I need to spell everything out for you? The anti-matter universe needs mystical, ethotically-attuned soul-destinations of its own!"

"So what happens," I shout, "if you're a good person, and you die and are mistakenly sent to antimatter heaven?"


Her caution comes not a moment too soon. To my left, a fat and sucking thing, like a grouper, improbably suspended in the air by a score of tiny insect wings. Its mouth, when it opens, is a black pit into a tremendous void far too large to be contained within its corpulent, leechlike body. I can see distant stars.

This all in a flash of vision; then, I am wrenched sideways across the narrow bridge by the force of some tremendous vacuum, as though the insatiable emptiness of the creature seeks to pull me in. IlsaBuddy is again my salvation, her hand lashing out in a quick grab at my well-polished shoe. I strike with my faithful Hitty; a solid blow, and the empty creature folds into itself like a balloon. If you were filming this, it would actually make a pretty sweet ad for one of those debt-consolidation companies.

Ilsabuddy releases me to fall to the surface of the bridge as she turns and fells another demon (a free-floating cluster of green, turning eyeballs, like grapes) with a powerful roundhouse kick. Meanwhile, Feeb is engaged in the process of clearing the path ahead with some kind of electromagnetic repulsor device, a battery of shining nickel rails; It appears highly scientific. Her left hand rests upon her breast, where I know the token of L'Abbe de Trephane still lies, and from it emanates a soft, pale glow.

For a moment, we're actually winning. The end of the bridge is in sight, within our grasp.

And then...

...the legions fall away. Leaving us unmolested. Feeb looks back at me and for a moment, we share an incredulous glance. We pant. And we are about to resume our run, when something stops us.

Another rule of cinematic convention you ignore at your peril: the legions never fall away like this unless there's something far, far worse on the way.

Thunder. A tremble of the narrow bridge.

And suddenly: a great clawed shadow-hand, clutching the lip of the spanse directly behind us.

With a mighty roar, a tremendous beast hauls itself out of the depths. What it is cannot be seen: it is like a great shadow in the middle of which is a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seems to be in it and to go before it.

The flames from below roar up to greet it and wreath about it; and a black smoke swirls in the air. Its streaming mane kindles, and blazes behind it. In its right hand is a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it holds a whip of many thongs.

"Crap," says Feeb. "I know this one."

"Run!" I cry. Feeb stands immobile.

"No," she says. "It would overtake us."

Feeb hardens the line of her jaw. "I will stay here."

"What are you, nuts?" I scream.

"GO!" shouts Feeb with uncanny fervor. "Fly! Better me than all of us!"

"I can't fly!" I shout back.

"Fly," says Feeb, calmly. "You know, run quickly."

"...oh," I say. "I just never know delusional you're being at any given moment, is all."

"Understandable," she says.

Meanwhile, the huge deathbeast just sits there, waiting.

"What's... erm... it doing?" I say, eyeing it carefully. "Waiting for us to finish our dialogue?"

"No," says Feeb, shaking her head. "It wishes the sport. When you two run, it will be upon us all."

"What the Huber Bock is it, Feeb? And-- wait, how on earth _do_ you know what it is in the first place?"

"I have seen it before, Charles," says Feeb. "I faced one myself in my Freshperson year at LUD3A. Of course, mine was much smaller, and more contained. This debt of Felix de Trephane's has remained unpaid for such a very long time, and has grown fat and bloated with variable interest. It is possibly one of the first major debts he ever accrued."

"You don't mean--" I say.

"I do," says Feeb. "It is his Federal Student Loan."

Feeb swallows.

"A Fafsa," she mutters, her voice small. "And I am already weary."

The Fafsa roars, shaking the very walls of the cavern.

"FLY!" Phoebe cries out.

"I am so TOTALLY not leaving you here!" I shout back at her face.

Phoebe's lips are a tangled mess of pain. "BUDDY!" she shouts, at last.

"Rawr?" comes IlsaBuddy's solemn reply.

"Remove him," says Feeb. And I am once again torn backwards.

At our motion, the Fafsa springs into action. Feeb tears the Projectionist symbol from her neck and holds it aloft, and the glow becomes a glare, a shining magnesium beacon, cold and white. IlsaBuddy and I are already moving to the far end of the bridge; I fear I am hindering our flight in my careless backward stumble but I cannot look away.

"YOU CANNOT PASS!" shrieks Phoebe, casting up a curtain of light from her medallion. Her enemy halts, facing her, and the shadow about it reaches out like two vast wings. It raises the whip, and the thongs whine and crackle. Fire comes from its nostrils. But Phoebe Dimmesdale stands firm.

"YOU CANNOT PASS!" she shrieks, again, and even from this distance, the flecks of spittle can be seen. "I am a servant of the Projectionists, and a fully-registered honor roll student at La Univeristas da Deus dela Amber of Hoderund, Kansas! I wield the Amulet of L'Abbe de Trephane, and... um... THIS REALLY COOL ELECTROMAGNETIC GUN THINGY! AND _I_ SAY, *YOU CANNOT PASS!!!*"

The Fafsa makes no answer. The fire in it seems to die, but the darkness grows. It steps forward, slowly, and suddenly it draws itself up to a great height, and its wings are spread almost from wall to wall; but still Phoebe can be seen, glimmering in the gloom; she seems small, and altogether alone, like a tiny and heartbreakingly adorable tree before the onset of a storm.

From out of the shadow, a red sword leaps, flaming. Phoebe's shield glitters white in answer.

There is a ringing crash and a stab of white fire. The Fafsa falls back and its sword flies back in molten fragments.

"YOU CANNOT *PAAAAASSS!*" screams Feeb again, squeezing her eyes shut and shaking her head up and down with the force of her rebuke. The Fafsa readies its whip of many cords.

"BUDDY!" I shout back at my captor. We have reached the end of the bridge, and the darkened rocky expanse of another lava tube gapes before us. "SHE CANNOT STAND ALONE!!!"

Phoebe turns to me. "GODPABSTIT, CHARLES," she cries, "WHEN I TELL YOU TO FLY, _FLY, ALREADY!_"

And at that moment, the Fafsa's whip strikes her, bringing her to her knees. The merest shell of white light surrounds her crumpled form.

", you fools..." she croaks. The Fafsa raises its whip once more.

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