by Brian K. Asbury
And, indeed, the party was ready to begin. Celebrand nodded to the four at the table, and they finished their drinks, stood up, and approached the bearded man in blue, who was accompanied by two cloaked and hooded figures. The faces of Apollo and Psyche were just visible under the hoods.
“So where’s our Chameleon Chief?” asked Dartalg.
“Right here,” replied Celebrand, indicating a white-robed individual approaching from the opposite direction.
Elvo snorted derisively. “Disguising him as a Curator isn’t going to work,” he remarked. “He might look the part, but he’ll still need passwords and access codes to get past the guards. That portal might look open, but there’s an energy-field across it that will fry anyone without authorization to cross it. And he won’t fool the Custodian for one second, whatever he looks like.”
“He won’t have to, if the plan works,” said Celebrand. “Have a little faith.”
The transformed Jall Tannuz indicated for them to follow, and they fell in behind him to make the short walk to the Vault’s entrance, a doorless narrow archway, beyond which nothing was visible, save darkness. Two armored women carrying energy spears emerged to bar their way. “Femnaz warriors,” muttered Dartalg. “Formidable fighters by any standards.”
“Halt!” ordered one of the women. “Identify yourself.”
The disguised Tannuz smiled. “You know me, warriors,” he said. “I am Curator Talano from Klath Province.”
“You are not due here today, Curator Talano,” said one of the women. “Explain your presence, sir. And who are these others?”
“Visitors to see the Custodian to discuss the transfer of some recently discovered alien technology to the Vault,” replied Tannuz. “He is expecting them, of course, but allow them to present their credentials.” He motioned to Apollo, who stepped forward and removed his hood.
“Hello, ladies,” he intoned in a voice so oily it could have been used to lubricate a star cruiser.
The two women melted under his gaze. As one, they dropped their weapons and flung themselves at him, caressing his body longingly. He turned his head slightly back toward the others. “Still got it!” he said with a wink. Dartalg raised his eyes skyward. Varnu made a mock fingers-down-the-throat gesture. Immorto merely snickered.
“Ladies, ladies, please curb your enthusiasm,” said Apollo, running his fingers through their long hair. “Business before pleasure. You’re going to let us into this excellent establishment, aren’t you?”
“Yes, yes,” said one. “Anything. And then you’ll love us?”
“Of course, my pretty.”
“But what about the others?” wailed the second Femnaz.
“Exactly,” said Celebrand, stepping forward. “We need to get inside. Now. Before they realize what’s happening.”
The two women looked at Apollo questioningly. “Do as he asks, my lovelies,” he said. “Please?”
“For you, my beautiful man, anything,” said the first one.
“And then you’ll love us?”
Celebrand cleared his throat. “Now, Apollo?”
Apollo nodded. One of the two women produced a small remote device and pointed it toward the opening. Nothing appeared to happen, but Celebrand, waving a scanner in the same direction, said, “The force-field’s down. Forward, everybody. Move it!”
As one, they advanced into the opening, although Apollo’s progress was hampered slightly by the two women clinging tightly onto him.
Elvo, immediately behind Celebrand, adjusted his goggles to compensate for the darkness. “Uh-oh,” he said. “I knew this was too easy. Heads up, everybody!”
And suddenly lights blazed, revealing a huge circular chamber and seven more guards of various races, all of them male and all of them looking extremely mean and angry.
There was no hesitation on either side as the two sets of combatants charged into battle. A pair of Khunds were first to reach the invaders, one of them heavily cyborged. Elvo made for that one, his deadly Powersword blazing as he sliced through a prosthetic leg, tumbling the Khund to the ground. That didn’t stop the Khund, who fired his blaster as he fell, but the amazing energized blade deflected the blast into the chest of a lumbering rocky creature of a race he didn’t recognize. The creature staggered back, knocking an armored humanoid following behind it off-balance.
Meanwhile, Celebrand demonstrated an impressive skill in martial arts in knocking the second Khund’s blaster away and following up with a spinning kick into the big alien’s chest that left him gasping for breath. A combination of punches to the face followed, and the Khund went down.
By this time, two of their comrades, a hulking brick-red Garg and a green-skinned, serpent-like creature with wicked-looking fangs, had reached the invading group. Immorto acrobatically skipped out of range of the Garg’s club and then did an agile backflip to connect both his booted feet on the big alien’s jaw. Unfortunately, while this staggered the Garg slightly, it was still fast enough to grab one of Immorto’s legs.
“Eee-yaaah!” yelled the young acrobat as the Garg whirled him around, aiming him at Varnu, who shrank out of sight just in time to avoid being hit. Frustrated, the Garg reached out to grab Immorto’s tunic. Immorto drew his blaster, but the Garg, dropping its club, gripped his arm and bent it back at an unnatural angle, bone and sinew audibly snapping. He then dashed Immorto to the ground, head-first.
“Stupid young hothead!” muttered Dartalg, firing one of his patented darts into the Garg’s exposed neck. The ruddy-skinned alien looked momentarily puzzled, then dropped like a stone. “That’s the way you deal with a lumbering nuisance like that,” he muttered, dodging out of reach of the snake-like creature.
“Don’t let him touch you!” warned Celebrand, who had finished with his opponent. “He’s a Sligar. Their skin is a deadly poison.”
“I know!” said Dartalg. “And unfortunately they’re resistant to most drugs.” He dodged again as the Sligar lunged at him once more. The movement took them close to Apollo, who gestured to the two Femnaz women. Needing no further encouragement, they drew their weapons to engage the creature threatening the object of their adoration.
The armored man and the rocky creature had now recovered and joined the fray. Elvo, having rendered the cyborg both harmless and armless, engaged the monster, forcing it back with blows from the Powersword. An explosive dart again staggered the armored man, but he quickly recovered and charged again, swinging an enormous mace that crackled with energy. However, he suddenly clutched his head and screamed.
“What the–?” muttered Dartalg, who was in the process of fitting a more powerful armor-piercing dart into his blowpipe. The armored man dropped to the ground and didn’t move. Jall Tannuz, who had contributed little to the fight thus far, met his gaze and shrugged.
Suddenly, something tiny emerged from the armored fighter’s helmet and grew into Varnu. “Amazing what a little pain in the inner ear will do,” she said, dusting herself off. “He really should do something about his wax problem, though.”
“If you don’t mind,” Elvo shouted, “I wouldn’t object to someone lending a hand here.” He was forcing the silicon creature back but making little real impression.
“As you wish,” said Jall Tannuz. His form shimmered, and a Carggian rhinopotamus charged from his position into the rocky creature with such force that it was knocked off its feet. A volley of blaster shots and explosive darts from the others made sure it didn’t move again. They all looked around to see that the reptilian Sligar had also fallen under the onslaught of the two Femnaz.
Apollo was leaning against the wall, smirking. “That’s the way to do it, my friends. Let others do the fighting for you.”
“Cretin!” muttered Elvo. “What about Immorto? Is he–?”
“Dead? Of course not. I’m Immorto!” The young acrobat was rising to his feet, and apart from tears in his clothing and slightly ruffled hair, there was no sign of the injuries that the Garg had inflicted upon him.
“Astonishing!” gasped Dartalg.
“Yes, very impressive. As was your performance overall.” The voice came from the other side of the chamber, from the seventh guard, who had not moved at all during the fight. “But now you have to face me.”
“Right,” Jall Tannuz said, now back in his more familiar orange-skinned form. “You’d be Ornitho, then? The amateur shape-shifter who can only do birds.”
“That’s me,” said Ornitho. “Although that’s not strictly accurate. I can do any avian form. If it has wings, I can become it.”
“Big deal. You’re still a pathetic amateur compared to me. I can become any life-form you can name.”
Celebrand stepped forward, threatening Ornitho with his blaster. “Give it up, Ornitho,” he said. “You’re outnumbered ten to one, and no matter what avian form you become, you’re no match for us.”
“We’ll see about that,” replied Ornitho. “Gentlebeings, you’ve made a big mistake trying to break into here, as you’re about to find out.” He took a deep breath, and his winged humanoid form was suddenly replaced with a much larger shape. It filled his side of the chamber, and it was purest white in color, bigger than a Jovian camelephant, and looking neither quite reptilian nor mammalian, but somewhere in between. Folded on its back were two snow-white feathery wings.
“What’s that supposed to be?” said Varnu.
Elvo was backing off. “I’ve got a very bad feeling about this…”
The winged creature suddenly exhaled with hurricane force, literally blowing the entire company off their feet. Jall Tannuz transformed into an octopoid creature, using suckers to anchor himself to the ground and the nearby wall. “What is it?” he gasped. “What kind of creature in the universe can do that?”
“An extinct creature,” yelled Celebrand, struggling to regain his feet. “But once they thrived — on the planet Krypton!”
“Krypton?” gasped Tannuz. “You’re not serious?”
“I didn’t sign up for this!” cried Varnu. She shrank, let Ornitho’s mighty breath waft her toward the entrance, and then regained her full size. “Bye, folks. I’ll buy you a drink if you get out of this alive!”
“No!” Celebrand shouted. “Varnu, stay where you are! He’s probably reactivated the–”
A blinding light filled the portal as the Imskian pilot crossed the threshold. Her charred, blackened form fell back and was still.
“–energy-barrier! You fool! You stupid bloody young fool!”
“That’s enough!” commanded the transformed Ornitho, stepping forward with a grace that belied his monstrous form. “As a Kryptonian winged one, I have all the powers of Superman. None of you can harm me, and I could kill you all in an instant if I so wished in several different ways. I’m sorry about the girl — I didn’t mean her to die, but she should have stayed put.”
“You really do it, don’t you?” said an awestruck Jall Tannuz. “You actually become the creature — you don’t just take on its appearance.”
“I did tell you that,” said Elvo, his expression grim. He sheathed his Powersword. “All of you, put up your weapons.”
“Since when do you give the orders?” snarled Tannuz.
“Never mind. Just do as he says,” Celebrand said, laying his blaster carefully on the floor. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed Apollo inclining his eyes in the direction of Psyche, who had stayed well back out of the fight. He gave his head the briefest of negative shakes.
The others followed suit as Ornitho stepped closer. “And you, blondie, had better release my colleagues from your thrall,” he said to Apollo.
The handsome Geeqouite merely shrugged. “Would that I could, my feathered friend, but my powers are automatic. Women love me. What can I say?”
He jumped back as a blast of heat-vision melted the floor inches in front of his feet. “I wonder if your powers will survive your death,” growled Ornitho.
“I’m serious!” Apollo squealed. “Please — there’s no need to kill me! Just let me out of here. As soon as I’m out of range, they’ll return to normal, honest!”
“Excuse me? Perhaps I can help?” This was Dartalg, stepping between Apollo and the monstrous winged being threatening him. Ornitho eyed him warily, noting that his blowpipe lay on the floor out of reach. He brought his huge head close to the former assassin.
“What can you do?”
Dartalg gave a smile so weak that it suggested it was an expression he rarely wore. “My darts are tipped with many different drugs, including one which I’m sure can reverse the effects of Apollo’s natural super-pheromones on your two Femnaz. If you’ll allow me to find the right one?” He indicated the bag where his darts were stored.
“Very well,” said Ornitho, his eyes narrowing. “But be quick.”
“Of course.” Dartalg reached into his bag and withdrew something in a metal-foil wrapping. He turned as if to stab one of the Femnaz guards with it, then suddenly whirled about and hurled the missile with deadly accuracy, right down the winged one‘s throat.
“What? Oh, my…” The transformed Ornitho staggered back. “What have you done to me?”
“Everyone — out of his way!” ordered Celebrand. They scattered as the huge form of Ornitho lurched about, trying to dislodge the dart from his altered throat. Then, quite suddenly, he shimmered back into his humanoid form and collapsed in a heap.
“What did you do to him?” gasped Immorto. “Hell, what could you do to a creature from Krypton?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” said Dartalg somewhat superciliously. He tossed the wrapping from the dart toward Immorto. “Lead foil. Necessary to conceal a kryptonite dart. One tipped in a powerful narcotic for good measure, which is why changing back didn’t help him.”
“Oh, right. And you just happened to have a kryptonite dart in your pack? Who are you kidding? How many Kryptonians have you ever met?”
“None,” admitted Dartalg. “Actually, it was his idea.” He indicated Celebrand as he walked up to the group’s leader, picking up his blowpipe on the way. “Just how did you know, Earthman? Even Elvo didn’t know he could turn into one of those things.”
“I’ve heard of him doing it before,” said Celebrand. “It was one of the reasons the Zeraks hired him.” He picked up his discarded blaster and holstered it. “Actually, Ornitho’s powers are limited in that he can only assume any given form for a maximum of one hour in every forty-eight, but it would have been long enough to dispose of us if he’d wanted to. Luckily for us, he’s not a killer.”
“Yeah, well, not so lucky for him.” Jall Tannuz transformed his arm into a sharp, bony spear and stalked toward the fallen Ornitho. “He’s still breathing, and that makes him still dangerous.”
Celebrand moved to block his way. “No killing, Jall.”
“You’ve got to be joking! He killed Varnu. He deserves to die!”
Celebrand stood his ground. “Varnu died because she disobeyed orders. It’s unfortunate, and we can mourn her properly later, but Ornitho was only doing his job, and we’re here to do ours. I’ll kill you before I let you murder a helpless man, Jall. Back off.”
The orange-skinned mercenary glared at Celebrand with murder in his eyes and opened his mouth as if to respond, but then seemed to think better of it. He transformed his arm back to normal and stomped away.
“O-kayyy,” said Elvo, approaching Celebrand. “So, family squabbles over, what do we do now, boss?”
“We proceed into the Vault,” said Celebrand. “It’s time we confronted the Custodian.”