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Means and Ends?

Yeah, I know. I asked permission to break the post-twice-in-a-row rule and, without waiting very long for an answer, am posting it anyway. Sorry if I'm overstepping my boundaries, but I can always erase it if it bothers anybody. Just comment to that effect.



Dusty carried "Mickey" over his shoulder, trying to blend in with the crowd making its way out of the park. Some parents were hoisting kids and others were carrying friends who had been wounded as the battle in the Magic Kingdom spilled over into the other parks. Obviously, someone had been blasting around in the Wild Safari area; a cheetah sped past the park guests as they shuffled out.

Once in the parking lot, EMTs directed the walking wounded to nearby ambulances.

"Go with them," Dusty said. "You should be okay now."

"What about you? You can't fight wizards."

"I don’t have to. I'll just beat them to the fountain."

Mickey’s mouth fell open and his eyes bugged. "But... you don't... did I...?"

"No, you didn't. I just had a ...moment of clarity, as alcoholics say."

"You can't!" Mickey reached for Dusty, but the adventurer grabbed his wrist and pulled in a circular motion, spinning the man around.

"Don't worry. I won't touch it." And with that, he shoved Mickey into several EMTs and booked before the man saw which direction he ran in.

The park guests choked all traffic to a standstill in the parking lot as people continued to watch flying women, lightning, disappearing and reappearing portals and even dark, ominous clouds gathering over the park. The police stood by in their riot gear, ill-equipped for the battle, but forming a secure barricade against anyone trying to get back in and prepared to receive anything that might get out.

"Yeeeeaaarrrrggh!" came a cry unmistakably made for battle. Dusty caught a five year old in mid-air as he leapt from his Mom's shoulders with a plastic ice cream spoon aimed at Dusty's eyes.

"You killed him! You killed him!" the kid yelled. "You evil monster!"

Dusty held the kid at arm's length and his Mom grabbed him from there. "I'm sorry," she stammered. "It's been kind of a rough day."

"Tell me about it." Dusty made his way back over towards the Magic Kingdom.

*****

Haaaaaaallelujiah!

Jesus once again stepped up to the podium. He couldn't abide just standing around up there when there were no souls to read about. The book was blank and there was only so much cloud-gazing he could stand. He was bored. Beyond bored. He was feeling downright mischievous. So, when he'd seen the little old man approaching, he'd decided to do something about it. Rather than read the man's life out of the book to him and pronounce judgement inside of two minutes, he would drag this out for his own divine amusement.

Before him stood a little, dirty elderly man carrying carpenter's tools in one hand and leading a donkey with the other. Jesus asked the man to tell him, in his own words, who he had been and why he should be allowed into Heaven.

"In English," the old man said, "my name would be Joseph, but I didn't live in America or England. I lived a modest life, making things out of wood. I'm not remembered very well by most people, but almost everyone has heard of my son. He didn't really come into this world in the usual way.

"I sent my son out to be among the people. He was ridiculed by many, and was even known to associate himself with some pretty unsavory characters, although he himself tried to be honest and perfect. My single biggest reason for trying to get into Heaven is to be reunited with him."

Jesus' mouth was hanging open. This couldn't be... After all this time? He peeled off his peace sign glasses and stepped down from the podium. He approached the old carpenter slowly, scanning his features, reading his sincerity. He looked carefully into the old man's weathered eyes and asked: "Art thou... art thou MY earthly father?"

The old man's eyes brightened as he smiled. "Are you my Pinocchio?"

Jesus' face drooped.

*****

"Come in Silence..." Dusty projected, mumbling the words to himself. He knew she was busy, but somebody had to be able to get him in. Just then, he saw Anita along the top of the wall, commanding tree limbs to entangle black octopus legs rolling up from somewhere just on the other side of the main gate.

The crowd screamed and ran back. The cops turned their attention from the crowd to the wall and Dusty made his move. He charged the wall at a full run, pulling the whip off his hip.

"Anita!"

The Cuban beauty glanced towards the voice as Dusty ran up the hunched back of the cop in front of him, using him as a ramp. He let the whip fly, hoping Anita would catch the end or something. Instead, she moved one of the tree branches over to intercept it. When the bind caught, the limb swept up, launching Dusty into the air, over the wall... and into a roiling pit of fire and magic.

Blast marks covered every visible surface and huge chunks of wall were missing from buildings all around a cobblestone square. Smoke screened off almost everything more than twenty feet away, though bright flashes of blue, red and yellow erupted over the screaming of tearing metal or flesh-bound agony. Dusty glanced back and saw that the black tentacles belonged to Ursula from the Little Mermaid. Well, if Gaston could be here, why not? She was suspended from a tree and busy wrenching herself free at the moment. Anita helped Dusty up as she ran past.

"I told you to stay with that guy who tried to kill us!" she yelled.

"We had an uninvited kidnapper."

"Crap! Did you get him back?"

"Yeah. And I got some snazzy new duds in the process!"

Anita shook her head at his getup as they leaped a gaping hole in the ground. "I thought you said your friends could be discreet?"

"I'm sure they can... sometime."

She lead him into the smoke and turned down an alley behind a burger counter.

"No! This way!" Dusty yelled.

"That's open territory! We need cover!" She kept tugging him.

"But the fountain is at the castle!"

Anita stopped and looked at him. "Are you sure?"

"...well, no."

She growled at him.

"But it only makes sense! The Arawaks revered women! They were the Chieftans! They would have had the highest, most regal space to themselves. That would have to still be the high ground today! Or at least, the place they started!"

"They started down low, with the column room, remember?"

"Park construction started there- it had to start low. But when Walt was picking a spot to build his castle- to start the park...?"

As if on cue, the smoke opened off to one side, allowing a view straight up the main walkway, now littered with debris and blasted flower boxes, to the fairy-tale castle of Cinderella. They took off for it without hesitation.

Running up the main avenue, they cast sidelong glances at the blue-skinned, fire-haired figure that appeared alongside them.

"Ta-ta, Fleshlings!" Hades yelled, punching his fists into the ground. The earth shook and began to fall away in an enormous crack that began to zigzag after them. Burnt plants and mouse-eared baby strollers tumbled into the widening crevasse as it closed the gap between Hades and the hauling asses of Anita and Dusty.

With an audible splat, Raina belly-flopped just inches behind the dashing duo, gripping either side of the walk and holding it together as the force of the cheeky Greek God tried to pry it apart. Anita and Dusty stopped, trying to think how they could help.

"Go already!" Raina yelled. They did.

Her muscles strained, her teeth gritted and her arms felt like they were going to burst from their sockets (even though she knew they weren't). Just when the earth she was actually clinging to was about to crumble away, Raina felt the pressure release. She opened her tightly shut eyes to find Alli, the blue-haired babe, standing over her, exasperated.

"Will you get up already? OOF!"

A black energy blast punched Alli through a nearby photo kiosk. Raina took note of the giant staples Alli had made to seal up the crack and nodded in approval. When the black energy blast zeroed in on her, she absorbed it and shot it back at Mozenrath, who screeched like a car in a crushing machine.

Inside the castle, Anita smacked Dusty in the arm. "This is just a tunnel! The castle is a façade!"

"Isn't it all, though?"

She yelled in frustration and Dusty saw her eyes glow green for a moment. Probably best not to be a smart ass while her powers were good and charged up. Surely there was a way into the castle, if only some sort of service entrance... he stepped quickly over to a door like ten others along the tunnel. It was plain, heavy wood with iron bands- your typical castle door- only this one had a tarot card laying in front of it.

"The Tower," he read as he picked it up. He pushed on the door, but it was, of course, locked.

"Stand back," Anita said. A quick chant later, the wood in the door had shrunk and the iron bands swung back on the hinges. The shrunken wood clattered to the floor. Beyond was a dark room that Anita hunted around in for a light switch while Dusty tried to interpret the card; lightning was striking the pictured tower and two bodies were falling out of it to the rocky shore below.

Anita flipped a light on and found a ladder along one wall. It ran up into the ceiling and down into the floor. Anita started down.

"No," Dusty said. "Up."

"How?" she asked. "Whatever the Arawaks built wouldn't have been put into the castle."

"I'm telling you it's up."

"It's down."

"I'm going up."

Again, the glowing eyes, and the growl. But she went up first.

The inside of the castle was several floors of storage, as it turned out. There was a service elevator and a regular staircase near the ladder. Dusty wondered why the card hadn't been in front of one of the easier routes until they broke through to the very top floor, in the top of the tower. Only the ladder went this high. The top floor was small and had a single, dust-caked window looking out over the embattled park. Other than that, there was nothing here.

"I told you it was down," Anita said, getting back on the ladder.

"Wait." Dusty had gone to the window to wipe it and peer out, but he didn't do it. Even though the ledge was covered with years and years of dust, on it sat a squeaky-clean tarot card.

"What is it with you and your tarot cards?" Anita snarled. "Let's go already!"

Dusty read the card aloud. "The High Priestess."

The room started to hum.

Whether it was from the walls, the floor, the ceiling or something booming in from outside, they couldn't tell. Anita stopped climbing and quickly jumped off the ladder. The humming got so loud, their heads vibrated and they clamped down on their temples to steady their vision.

The ladder sank through the hole in the floor, which promptly closed over it. The window, too, shrank to nothing, leaving a blank wall. The room glowed softly despite the absence of a light source and the dust melted away as the room expanded along the far wall. The plaster sank back like draining water, revealing two pillars marked with arcane symbols. A thin, gossamer curtain with pictures of a sliced, pitted fruit all over it was strung up between them. It was the exact image on the card, save that the card had a lady on a throne in front of the curtain. Here, in reality (or what was currently passing for it), she was silhouetted behind the curtain.

Anita began to mumble her nonsense and Dusty hoped that whatever protection she was conjuring hurried up. The veil wavered in a non-existent wind and a feminine voice, airy and yet charged with power, sifted through it.

"Fool," it said. "Your journey is near completion. I know why you are here."

"We're here to protect you," Dusty said. Feeling like Indy at the end of Last Crusade.

"Liar!" the High Priestess boomed. "You have come for your own glory. Your own gratification. Your vanity has brought you here."

She was right, of course, but Dusty wasn't about to take such needling from a silhouette. He looked again at the image on the card. Long, dark hair and serious eyes. It kind of looked like Anita, but then it kind of looked like... Dusty shook himself off that thought train. Anita's chanting finished and Dusty yanked the curtain aside. He stepped back quickly with his arms up protectively over his face. When the expected attack didn't come, he peeked at the High Priestess... and his jaw almost hit the floor.

"Jik..." he whispered. Indeed, his former lover, the gypsy fortune teller Jik sat upon the throne of the High Priestess. Golden fire filled her eyes and shone from her nose and ears. Her wrists and ankles were clamped to the throne in the same coarse marble of which the throne itself was made. The white, billowy blouse and rust-colored skirt she wore were her own clothes- her travelling clothes. There was no recognition on her face and the golden light shone from her mouth when she spoke.

"To know the location of the fountain is to know the price of immortality, Dusty Fedora. You have had this lesson taught to you before."

"You know I'm a slow learner."

"And the High Priestess before me has taken advantage of that fact."

Dusty turned slowly back towards Anita. She, too was aglow with power, only hers was green. She stood now in front of an ebbing, red portal and next to the hulking man who had just stepped through it. He wore biking leathers and a black T-Shirt, like any Harley rider, but it was the long, red mustache that flashed Dusty's memory back to a day long ago...

A day he'd been chased through town and up a cliffside by three bikers. They were after the gloves and hammer of Thor he'd just retrieved. Dusty had killed two of them, but the third... he'd just... stopped chasing.

"This is who you had to see in town before you left?" Dusty said, not over his confusion enough to sneer yet. "A Hell's Angel? You made a deal with the devil, you know. The real one. Why would you do that if you’re a priestess?"

"To get this," she said, holding out a medallion that was sucking the red portal energy back into it. "I'm only a priestess, not a portaler, like your demon bard. My Naturalistic Magic was taught to me before I ever sailed with de Leon- by my gypsy grandparents."

"So you were there."

"And I'm here again. Much older and much wiser. Fully empowered and ready to stake my claim on the fountain."

"So why bring him?"

"For this," the guy grunted as he pulled a gun out of his backside. He pointed it quickly at Jik and fired.

Dusty got his arm up into the line of fire on instinct. He sailed back into the throne, pulled by his blasted arm. Jik barely grunted as Dusty slammed into her. He was curled in her lap, clutching the bloody hole in his forearm when he saw the throne's restraints melt away from Jik's left wrist and reappear on his own.

Anita put a hand up to stop her gunman. "Wait," she said.

"Don't worry," said the biker. "You're not the one killing people. There’s no magic rebound, you don’t violate the rules of your coven or whatever... Besides, I owe this one."

"I want to see what happened to me when I was freed," she said. The biker grudgingly lowered his gun and watched the scene unfold with beady eyes.

Dusty tried to get out of the throne, but found both of his feet already clamped down as well. The shackles were moving around, the stone seemingly made of sentient liquid as it adjusted him into a proper sitting position. With only his last hand free and the last restraint searching for him, sliding up and down the arm of the throne, Dusty wrenched Jik up from the seat. Just as the golden power left her eyes, she blinked, bewildered, into his. For a split second, they were themselves- in a place far removed and long ago, in love and happier than either of them had ever been just to see each other. Then, the golden fire filled Dusty's vision and flipped him around in the seat. Jik fell from Dusty's grasp and crumpled to the floor beside the throne, where she was only conscious for a split second before collapsing into an unmoving heap.

"Huh." Anita huffed. "And I woke up in the park infirmary. Some park employees had found me and thought I was a Hunchback of Notre Dame character because of my clothes. They wouldn't say where they'd found me, though." She brushed her contemplation aside and looked to her henchman, who was pointing the gun at Dusty from his hip, then lowering it. Then pointing it, then lowering it. "Don't," she said. "We need him now." The biker growled low in his chest and lowered the gun one final time. Anita approached the throne, careful to stay out of reach of the still-struggling Dusty. "Now... do you know where the fountain is?"

"Did you check up your ass?" Dusty snarled, good and mad now. "Because it might be up your ass."

The biker snorted a laugh, but choked it down. Anita tapped her foot. "That's okay. We'll just wait for the enslavement to take. I remember when it got me. It took a few minutes. I'd just taken a sip from the fountain and, just like our tour guide here... I accidentally freed the guardian. As the power took me, my poor father was crying; vowing to leave markers so they could find me again... he knew he'd start with a column. And he'd make sure to give De Leon false directions, so he couldn't find me first. Of course, he killed my family for their deception."

"So was it the fountain or the throne that kept you young for so long?" Dusty asked. Anita frowned, watching the wound in his arm heal. She didn't expect him to still be this coherent. "I guess releasing the guardian kinda ruined your research."

"That was a simple mistake that I will not repeat. I plotted my escape years ago, I just had to wait for somebody to figure out how to find me. Leave it to a gypsy. She said she was going to destroy the markers, though. She'd had a vision of you here and she was going to keep you from it. But she followed them first and, well... curiosity enslaved the cat."

"That's how you... knew about me..." Dusty said, his words becoming more forced as his willpower waned.

"Yes. It all turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But don't they all?"

As golden light filtered out of his ears, nose and mouth, Dusty chuckled. Anita didn't like that at all. "Show me the fountain!" she yelled, her too-cute nose wrinkling up under green-glowing eyes.

"I know..." he said. "I know so much... maybe everything..." He was going limp, the power of the throne overwhelming him with its influx of knowledge both arcane and mundane. His voice became hollow and echoed. "The Chieftain women were always held high... even when their homes were destroyed... SO high... literal metaphors. The High Priestess is always at the top, overseeing... but... oh. Really? ...Hahahahahahaa..."

"I think you're losing him," the biker said. Anita risked getting a little closer.

"Where is the fountain?" she growled.

"The fountain is here..." Dusty said languidly. "Behind the throne."

"Yes!" Anita's face split open in a toothy, covetous grin. "I want to see it! Now!"

"Then come on!" Dusty shouted suddenly, golden light pouring from his eyes, mouth, nose and ears. "Step right up!"

The throne slid forward, revealing a small, dim antechamber of pure darkness behind it. In the center, in a glorious shaft of sunlight, was a bubbling plot of swampland smeared with fog. Anita's eyes widened in recognition.

"There it is," she said. "There it is..."

The biker went in first, gun drawn. Earning his pay, no doubt. Anita stalked in close behind him. Dusty laughed again as she passed him.

"I know something else... I know that nobody ever leaves the seat up here," he said.

Anita couldn't help it. She stopped. "What?"

Dusty turned his glowing eyes towards her. "Because this is a girl's throne." One of his hands was suddenly giving Anita the finger. She turned to run to the fountain, but couldn't move. A shackle had manifested out of the solid rock of the base of the throne, reached out and wrapped around one of her ankles.

"NO!" she screamed. "NO! NO! NO!" She tipped forward and instinctively caught herself on the arm of the chair. Shackles were immediately up around her wrists, dragging her into the proper position to sit on the throne. She arched her back, fighting for all she was worth.

As his sight slowly returned, Dusty crawled out of the throne amid Anita's struggling. "Sorry, Lover, but only a woman can be a High Priestess. And you were already a priestess to boot. It all turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But don't they all?" Anita screamed in rage, gold fire leaping from her eyes, as she flipped around and dropped her butt into the seat- where it stayed.

Dusty caught sight of the biker holding the gun on him just in time to duck. The bullet sank into the wall without leaving a mark. Dusty scooted around the back side of the throne and into the dim, swampy room. The smell of swamp gas and hot mud assailed him as soon as he went in.

"You realize she can't pay you now," Dusty called, not seeing the man on either side of the throne.

"That's all right," came his voice from the front of the room. "I got paid up front. Besides, this one will be payment enough."

Dusty knew he was talking about Jik. He stepped around the corner to stop him from carrying her off, but Jik was still on the floor. The gun, however, was pointed at Dusty's heart.

"Besides, this is personal."

BLAM!

Dusty felt himself get slammed in the front and then, immediately, slammed in the back. Water seeped up into his ears and over his face. He couldn't draw a breath to replace what had been knocked out of him. The shaft of sunlight glinted through the water and blinded him. It actually got brighter. This was happening quicker than he ever thought it wou...

****
Haaaaaaaaallelujiah!

The white light faded to a softer, textured white and some swipes of blue as Dusty found himself not only standing on clouds, but completely devoid of pain. He turned around and found himself before enormous, pearl and gold gates that seemed to lead nowhere.

At a nearby Podium, some tired hippie- was that Jesus?- was listening to a man in a suit. The listener's head was propped up in his hand, keeping him from going to sleep.

"I stole money from homeless people when I was a teenager. I beat a few up. I overcharged my clients. I lied about my age. I cheated on my wife a hundred and fifty-six times."

The hippie- it had to be Jesus- glanced up at Dusty and his eyes brightened. He seemed excited to get the man to shut up. "Enough! Hast thou done anything at all in thy life that was good?"

"Well," the man said. "I was driving my car once down this country road when I saw this gang of neo-nazi rednecks harassing this girl who was walking along by herself. There must have been twenty of them. I was so outraged, I got out of my car with my tire iron and jumped on their leader. I ripped out his nose ring by the chain, beat him down with the tire iron and shouted at the rest of them that if they didn't leave that girl alone, I would do the same to them."

"Astounding!" Jesus proclaimed. "Whenst did this happen?"

"About... ten minutes ago," the guy said.

"Ah. Thine actions were brave, but, alas, not enough for the Lord's redemption." He pressed a button on the podium and a trap door swallowed the man up. Jesus laughed hysterically. He'd actually enjoyed that! He sucked up his laughter and leered at Dusty. "Next?"

Dusty approached, taking his hat off. "Look, um. I know you probably don't normally do this... Jesus. But I have to go back. A woman is in trouble and so are a lot of-"

"Quiet. It is not beyond my power to send thee whence thy came, but thou must prove that thy art worthy of such grace."

"Hoo boy. Look, I'm never going to pass this test. I'll come right back. I just need to-"

"Answer three questions and your request shall be granted."

Dusty knew a trap when he heard one, but he had no choice.

Jesus seemed smug somehow. "What was the name of the ship that crashed into the iceberg? The famous one."

"The Titanic." Hey, maybe this wouldn't be so hard.

"How many people died on board?"

Dammit. "Uhhh... One thousand, two hundred and twenty ...eight?"

Jesus scowled. "Correct."

Dusty smiled.

"What were their names?"

Dusty's face fell. Jesus cackled. "Underestimate not the vengeance of the Lord! Hahahahahahah!" He reached for the trap door button.

"Jesus!" came a shocked voice. Dusty and the Savior turned to see Saint Peter standing at the base of the podium in shock. Well-worn suitcases sat at his feet. "What in... Heaven's name are you doing?"

"Oh, I... uh... I thought thy were on vacation?"

"I was. But the whole place went to hell. Literally, it seems. You just can't underestimate mankind’s power to freak out. Especially when they're all crowded in together at Disney World."

"You were at Disney World?" Dusty asked.

Peter and Jesus looked sideways at him, like cool kids who had just been interrupted by the AV Monitor.

"What?" Dusty asked. "Look, I have a situation here!"

Peter smiled placatingly. "I'm sure you do. It's just that we aren't used to being spoken to so... irreverently."

"Tell you what. I'll never take either of your names in vain again if you send me back right now. I'm part of what's going on at Disney World and there are people in trouble! Surely you'd like someone to help..."

"What does the book say?" Peter asked.

"Oh. Ummm..." Jesus opened it up.

"You weren't... ?" Peter was aghast. "Jesus! I realize you have the capacity to be perfect, but you could miss things about people by judging without consulting the Great Book. What are you thinking?"

"Yackest, yackest, yackest," Jesus said, reading Dusty's entry. "Oh, thy art right, however. Things lookest less than rosy for thy future, Dusty Fedora. Especially after thine willful trip to Hell. But..." Jesus flipped a page, looking confused.

"What?" Peter asked, ascending the podium and crowding in next to Jesus.

"It sayest not how he died... wilst thy get down?"

"This is my podium!"

"Ah, NOW thy covet thy position? Thine art still, technically, on vacation time." They both scanned the entry in silence for a moment before looking up at Dusty.

"Didst thy ask for forgiveness before thine death?" Jesus asked quickly.

Peter sputtered. "You don't ask them that!"

Dusty didn't quite have the balls to lie to the Lord's face, so he opted for silence.

"Well, the book sayest nothing!" Jesus said.

Peter scooted the book over in front of him. "It says you were fighting one of Hell's Angels... tell me what happened." Jesus threw up his hands and stepped down from the podium. Dusty felt undeniable relief.

"I was in some sort of sub-dimension... maybe time travel? I don't really know. And if I don't get back, an evil woman or even a group of evil wizards may get control of the Fountain of Youth, and the woman I..."

"What woman?" Peter asked, even though he had to know.

"The woman that left me," Dusty said.

"And do you not wish to leave her now?"

"Of course not."

"Why not?"

"Because..." Dusty didn't dare speak an untruth here. He had to be sure about what he said. He was sure that getting one's spirit condemned to Hell was far more permanent that sneaking in while alive. He searched himself- probably the first real reflection he'd done in a long time, and found the truth of his desire. Even as a spirit, it made his throat constrict and his eyes water to admit it... but that was his reason, nonetheless. "Because I love her."

"Well why didn't you say so?" Peter rapped once on the podium and Dusty vanished in a swirl of cloud.

"What wast that?" Jesus asked from the foot of the podium. "Thou can't sendest someone back just because they loved someone! None would yet perish!"

"I sent him back because I can't cast judgement on someone who didn't die in the material plane. You didn't try that while I was gone did you?"

"...Nay."

"Because your father gets pretty irate when you do that."

"I sayest NAY! ...So why tellest him he is redeemed because of love?"

"Because it can't hurt anything," Peter said. "Especially if he believes it."

*****

The light broke apart again and Dusty opened up for a big lungful of air. He sucked in water instead, however, and the ensuing coughing fit doubled him up and out of the shallow pool he was lying in. He coughed up murky swamp water, his esophagus burning as his lungs blow-dried themselves out. He burped and swallowed some of the dirty water.

"What the hell?" he heard the biker yell from the throne room.

Dusty put his hand to his chest as he looked out for the biker, but he saw nobody. His chest was healed, though the hole was still in his shirt- right over his heart. He crawled up behind the throne and peeked out at Jik. She was still lying on the floor. Peeking out further, he saw the biker locked in a death struggle with the throne. It had two clamps on Anita and two on the biker- one on the left leg and left wrist of each of them. The biker's free hand was yanking the portal medallion off Anita's neck. Anita reached up slowly, out towards the biker, though she hardly seemed aware of what she was doing. The throne let go of the biker's ankle and drew her wrist back down. It didn't want the biker bad enough to let her go.

The biker put the medallion in a shirt pocket and drew his gun, reaching across his body to point it at Dusty. He fired several times, missing as Dusty ducked down. After several ear-splitting blasts, the gun only clicked as the trigger was repeatedly squeezed. When he heard the gun clatter to the floor, Dusty stood up and walked wide around the throne, to Jik.

"Help me," the biker said, panic plain on his face.

"Are you high? You tried to kill me... or did kill me"

"You help me out and we both walk away!"

"I'm walking away as it is," Dusty said, picking up Jik's limp body.

"This medallion is the only way out!"

"No it's not," Dusty said. "I learned all sorts of things in that chair. The most currently relevant being that we- that's everybody not currently attached to the throne- have only to bid the priestess... goodbye."

The throne slid back to plug the hole to the fountain's nook.

"NO!" the biker screamed, hopping along to keep up with it. "I'll kill you! You're dead! Dead!"

"Been there," Dusty said as the wall pooled up to cover the throne. "Done that." The biker screamed as he sank into the plaster and the throne room became reality once more.

The window and the hole in the floor reappeared along with the booming and yelling outside. Dusty collapsed to the floor of the tiny tower room, letting Jik slide into his lap. He held her face, said her name a few times and ran his hand through her hair. He couldn't tell if she was breathing, but he didn't want to check her pulse. Not yet.

"Come on, Baby. We're close. This is almost over for us..." He was pondering a certain irony in that statement when her eyes flickered open. Deep, sweet chocolate brown instead of unholy gold. Dusty smiled, unable to speak due to the lump in his throat.

"Thank you," she whispered. He kissed her softly on her parched lips. She held up a tarot card.

"The Two of Cups," he read. Its meaning was clear. Two people looking into each others' eyes.

"You were sending those?" It was less of a question than it sounded like.

"The throne could still feel her," she whispered. "And through it, I felt you."

Dusty reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled out the stack of cards he'd been keeping with him all along. Now, they were burnt, wet and had a hole through the middle of them. He put his cards on top of hers and moved to put the whole stack back in his coat.

"I need you to hang onto me while I carry you down the ladder. Can you do that?"

She was looking at his most recent card, the lightning-struck tower. "No need," she said.

The room exploded suddenly in a white-hot blast. Dusty covered Jik as brick and plaster tumbled down on top of them. The awful, choking air of the battlefield outside swept in and Dusty caught a glimpse of Mozenrath, floating in mid-air, firing black lightning in seemingly random directions as a host of AIWL heroes flew at him from varying angles. Another bolt blasted the floor next to Dusty and Jik, splintering more wood. What remained of the room tilted forward and the two of them, along with huge chunks of the wall and floor, tumbled out into the smoky ruin of Disney World.

Dusty wrapped himself tightly around Jik as they fell and took the full force of a six-story drop to the cobblestones below. He felt his shoulder dislodge and he felt his head crack when it hit. As he forced his eyes open, he could tell he was hurt badly. From somewhere off and up, Mozenrath screamed in raging defeat as the tower and the whole facade of Cinderella's castle began to crumble down. Dusty flopped over on top of the cowering Jik as the debris buried them in suffocating, silent darkness.

...Jik's breath came in short, measuring gasps in the black. The dust in the air choked her whenever she inhaled. "Dusty? Oh, Honey, are you okay? Say something..."

"This castle sure is heavy." Dusty grunted. Jik risked creating a tiny little fireball to illuminate the situation and found Dusty on his hands and knees over her, his joints locked and a huge piece of the castle archway leaning across his back. He was wobbling, his strength fading fast. His eyes ere shut with the strain of just not falling on top of her.

"Oh my God," she said. "Your back's probably broken!"

"It was. I felt it snap back into place."

She looked at his face- smudged, but uncut. Even unscraped.

"You didn't..."

He nodded and looked at her finally. "...I guess I did."

Gray light began to peek into their pocket and the archway suddenly flew off of Dusty's back. Raina and Weirdbard, plenty scraped, bruised and bloody, had dug them out.

"You're alive!" Weirdbard exclaimed, obviously not expecting that to be the case.

"Oh, if you only knew, Buddy." Dusty helped Jik to her feet, which she reclaimed weakly, like a newborn deer.

"So, I guess we can find the fountain now?" Silence asked, floating down nearby and morphing her cinged, dragonscale armor into more generic tunnel-crawling clothes.

"I found it," Dusty said.

"Huh!" Reiko huffed as she, too, joined the group. "Considering how you just took that fall, I'd say you drank from it."

Dusty nodded. "Not on purpose."

Aphrodite glanced at Jik, who was wrinkling her brow at Dusty. She looked hurt and morose.

A shout went up from near the front gate and hundreds of heavy boots could be heard tramping through the debris.

"The cops," Imp 13 said, sitting on the shoulder of a well-sated Ares.

"Ah, more fodder!" the War God said with a smile, wagging his fingers in preparation. Morrigan licked her lips and stood shoulder to shoulder with him.

"I don’t usually say this- in fact, I never do. ...But I like you."

"No more fighting," Weirdbard said, ripping a hole in space with a talon. "Let's go."

"But-" Ares started.

"Shush!" Silence yelled, pushing him into the portal. Morrigan, who would not be pushed, backed away, shrugged, then vanished all on her own.

One by one, the rest of the group filed into the portal until Weirdbard, Dusty and Jik were the only ones remaining in the park.

"Give us a minute, huh?" Jik asked.

Weirdbard nodded. "They’ll be here very soon. Be quick." He stepped through.

Jik grabbed Dusty's face and kissed him hard. "Thank you for saving me," she said. "But I'm not going."

"What?"

"I'm sorry, Babe. My leaving wasn't really my decision in the first place. I had to go."

"What does that mean?"

"Just what I said."

"Doesn't this seem awfully seredipitous for you to not come back?"

She shook her head sadly. "This wasn't a meant-to-be. It was all some... cosmic mix up."

Dusty had a hard time forming words. He wanted to argue that there was no such thing, but he had first hand knowledge and knew better.

They could hear the police coming closer. Jik backed away, letting Dusty's hands slide off her own. He grabbed them at the last second.

"You've got to come back, Jik. I mean... I miss you."

"I can't," she said with finality and a teary sob.

"Then I'm not going either."

"Oh yes you are. If you don't go through that portal you'll regret it."

Dusty smiled. It hurt. "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow..."

Jik smiled, too. "But soon. And for the rest of your life. Which, by the way, is going to go on for quite a long time now. I never drank from the fountain, Honey. We're in two different places even more now than we ever were."

"But... I didn't mean to... It should give me plenty of time to find you, though."

"Don't. Not unless you want to watch me grow old and die."

She pulled her hands out of his as he worked the truth of things into his mind.

"I don't care," he said.

"You will," she countered. Dusty had every intention of arguing with her all day... but she was right and he couldn't. He knew what was in store for him now just as much as she did. The throne had told them both.

So this would be it. The last time he would see her- bruised, dirty, backing away... he would never see her again. Not even in...

"Hey!" he barked suddenly. "Umm... live good. I mean, live a good life. There really is a test at the end. I can give you the answers with a little research."

She shook her head and began quickly chanting a spell.

"Where are you going?" Dusty asked. He couldn't help the angry tears and the burn in his sinuses. "Tell me where you're going, at least!"

"I love you," she said as she faded from view.

And that was it.

Dusty stared at the spot where she’d been, willing her to come back. What good was immortality without her to share it with? He would have to find some way to reverse this, but he knew somehow that it wouldn't be so simple. The smoke blowing over Jik's last visible location blew aside to reveal a line of armed and ready riot policemen.

"Halt!" they yelled in unison. Dusty turned and leapt through the portal. He heard the command of "Fire!" as he slipped through the ether.

On the other side, the crew was waiting in the foyer of the castle on AIWL Island. "Close it!" Dusty said, spreading his arms and legs wide in front of it.

"Where's Jik?" asked Weirdbard, standing ready to close it up anyway.

Dusty's body rocked and exploded in little places as he said "Not coming!" The portal was closed in an instant and Dusty went down to one knee. Those assembled watched in amazement as his perforations closed right up and the leaking blood was reabsorbed by his skin.

"Well, well, well," Raistlyn cooed. "Looks like someone finally managed to keep the treasure from one of his hunts."

"Too bad it wasn't the one I wanted."

"What did you mean about Jik not coming?" Alli asked

"Just that. What happened to you guys? We won, right?"

Everybody looked around at everybody else. Beat up, but victorious. "Yeah," Reiko said. "We kick ass."

*****

Later that night, after a shower, free drinks for everybody and a concert by a sparsely lit blues band, Dusty flopped down on his bed. "Play it," he mumbled into his pillow.

As muffled as the command, from under a pile of dirty clothes in the closet, the soft tinkling of Sam's piano began and Dusty wondered if he was better off now. Or if he was worse. If anything had changed. Or if anything would change... as time went by.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
mystra
Sep. 4th, 2003 05:21 pm (UTC)
Rules? We don't need no stinking rules.
In other words, everyone can post as much as often as they want.
^_^


And you do realize every time I read your posts, I worship you more, right? lol

Ownage. Wicked rock, you do.
dustyfedora
Sep. 4th, 2003 06:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Rules? We don't need no stinking rules.
*blush*

Thanks. :D

prophet_iv
Sep. 5th, 2003 03:44 pm (UTC)
A little late in the reading, I am. But my god, what wonderful tales you weave. I don't know if it was just me, but I had to go back to see how Dusty had sipped from the fountain. A mark of a true writer, when he is able to place the answers in plain view and keep the secrets hidden until the right time. You, my friend, continue to amaze me.
dustyfedora
Sep. 5th, 2003 04:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Khai! I actually had him drink some to cool his throat, but thought the more subtle approach might make folks miss it so they'd be more surprised when the effects manifested. Thanks for noticing!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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