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Annual #1
 
an FDC original series...

Higher Learning
#10
"Field Trips"
By David Marshall


NOVA Labs, Bogota, Colombia

Mastadon held Chaucer St. Claire off the ground by his shirt collar, leaving the young genius’s feet dangling in midair

“Threaten me if you wish,” Chaucer stammered. “I still maintain stealth a superior methodology if we wish to achieve our goal and avoid detection.”

“I’m in charge, Lab Rat!” Mastadon shouted. “We do this my way!”

Chaucer turned his face away from his lab partner’s hot, rancid breath and the shower of saliva that accompanied it. The assignment was his most frustrating since his arrival at Windsor Academy. Why would a man with Professor Hand’s intellect perpetuate the glaringly obvious stereotype of brains and brawn?

Of course, Chaucer was far from helpless. He could retrieve any number of weapons from his personal tesseract hidden beneath his white lab coat. His classmates jokingly referred to it as his “utility belt” as if it were akin to the crude device worn by Batman. Neanderthals all!

The Dark Knight’s belt was limited to physical storage of items on his person. Chaucer’s device allowed him to store fantastic tools and weapons within a realm of infinite negative space folded onto itself inside each individual compartment. From Acid Ants to Picasso Gas, the synthetic fibers of Batman’s utility belt were ill-equipped to deal with Chaucer’s inventiveness.

The young genius harbored no misgivings about using his toys either, but killing Mastadon would do neither of them good. The hulking young man’s muscle was advantageous and practical in many situations and could prove to be useful in the completion of their assignment, especially if the lumbering fool insisted on attracting attention. Perhaps there was a chance he could reason with Mastadon and avoid the inevitable lecture from Professor Knott about slaying one’s classmates.

Chaucer cleared his throat. “The odds of detection rise astronomically if we simply charge in.”

“So what?” Mastadon shot back. “I’m itching for a good rumble! You get what we need while I beat the crap out of ‘em! See, Lab Rat? That’s true genius! Just leave the thinking to me.”

The thought of Mastadon as the brains of their mission terrified Chaucer even more than the young man’s oversized fists. He hated to lend credence to Professor Hand’s stereotyping but it could prove useful in reining in the behemoth. “Perhaps we should employ both brains and brawn to complete the assignment.”

Mastadon dumped Chaucer to the floor and nodded with a smile. “Now that’s using the old noodle! Follow my lead kid and you’ll get out of this alive!”

It wasn’t quite what Chaucer was suggesting, but if it saved him from choosing between a beating or killing his lab partner then Chaucer would keep his mouth shut and go along. He just hoped his own reluctance wouldn’t be their undoing.

The pair navigated the maximum security maze undetected and quickly found the targeted corridor. A thick steel vault with massive double doors waited at the end. The lab lay behind them.

Surprised by the lack of security the boys approached the doors.

“Perhaps I could…” Chaucer stammered before Mastadon interrupted.

“Like steel doors can stop me?” Mastadon snorted. “Stand back, Lab Rat!”

“No, wait!” said Chaucer. “I’m better equipped to handle this situation.”

Mastadon chortled. “Ok smart guy, let’s see your scrawny ass tear that door off its hinges!”

Tearing it off its hinges wasn’t what Chaucer had in mind, but getting inside was. More importantly he wanted to do so without alerting security to their presence. He retrieved a small vial from his tesseract.

“What are you doing?” Mastadon asked.

“Getting us inside,” Chaucer answered. He removed a syringe from his belt and punctured the vial’s rubber seal with a special needle.

“You shooting up?” Mastadon asked. “Will that give you super-strength or something?”

Chaucer didn’t reply. He sucked a protoplasmic-like material into the syringe. “That should suffice.”

“I’m just gonna tear the door off. Screw this waiting,” Mastadon huffed.

“Give me one opportunity,” Chaucer pleaded. He was eager to see his invention at work in the field.

“Ok, but if it doesn’t have us inside in one minute, the door comes off its hinges,” Mastadon retorted.

“Agreed,” Chaucer replied. He worked the tip of the needle into the seal between the door and its frame and released the material into the tight space.

“What are you doing?” Mastadon demanded. “I can get in there faster than....”

The door fell from its hinge. No alarm sounded.

“What the...” Mastadon asked incredulously.

“I call them Goobots,” Chaucer answered proudly. “Protoplasmic nanobots that can rearrange the cellular structure of objects at the molecular level. As they ate through the locking mechanisms they filled the empty spaces with their own mass so the alarm wouldn’t read a change in pressure even though the door just fell off its hinges, artificial cellular memory.”

“But now I don’t get to bust no heads,” Mastadon complained.

“The last thing we need is to “bust heads,” Chaucer warned.

The schoolmates entered the secret laboratory.

Chaucer scanned the lab carefully. The Colombian government opened its own version of STAR Labs, calling it NOVA. They spared no expense in stocking their labs with technology – some of it alien. Fantastic devices were strewn everywhere in various states of build. How difficult was it to hide a ten-million dollar battle suit designed to deal with metahuman-level threats?

“What’s it look like?” Mastadon asked.

“Do you ever read comic books?” Chaucer asked.

Mastadon shook his head. “No.”

“Then any reference to Iron Man would simply prove a waste,” Chaucer replied.

“Could this be it?” Mastadon asked.

Chaucer whirled around. A sphere approximately two feet in diameter hovered in the air between them. The upper half of the device moved independently of the lower. Twin mounted guns arose from recesses on each half of the sphere and targeted each boy.

The security drone was well-designed – a BOTS unit. The guns weren’t particularly menacing, but looks often proved deceptive. “This hardware is known as a BOTS unit. It’s a basic Luthorcorp security drone infused with the guts of a Durlan anti-grav chamber captured during the Invasion a few years ago”

An alarm blared to life.

“Now the fun begins,” said Mastadon. He leaped toward the BOTS unit.

“Mastadon! No!” Chaucer shouted but it was too late.

The Colombian Jungle

The old Deuce-and-a-half Army transport convoy ground to a halt in the dense Colombian jungle. Indira was hungry and the sweltering heat was making her sick to her stomach. She hoped they finally reached their destination as she climbed out the back of the truck.

It was quickly obvious they were still in the middle of the nowhere, but at least it was an opportunity to breathe some fresh air. A lead truck was broken down. “Just what we need – another delay!”

Bo Freebird poked his head out the cloth tarp. “What’s going on?”

“It’s about time you finally woke up,” Indira replied. She wondered how Tristan put up with his snoring. “A truck is broken down,”

Bo wiped the sweat from his forehead. “And I thought Alabama summers were miserable!”

“I guess we should stand watch since that’s what we’re along for,” said Indira.

Bo climbed out the back of the truck. He looked as unsure of himself as Indira felt. “Yeah, I suppose. Where should we go?”

Indira pointed to the men working on the truck. “Maybe we should ask.”

“Let me do the talking,” said Bo.

Indira followed as Bo approached the men.

The men didn’t seem to take notice of the two teenage villains until Bo cleared his throat to get their attention. “Excuse me, um… señors? Donde esta… crap, I hate Spanish!”

The men laughed.

“You laughing at me?” Bo demanded.

“We speak English kid,” said the man under the truck.

“Oh,” a red-faced Bo answered. “Where should we stand? We’re the protection and all so we thought everyone would feel safer if we...”

The man pushed himself from under the truck’s frame. “Look kid, I don’t care where you stand as long as it’s out of the way. We didn’t ask for you Junior Woodchucks to ride escort.”

Indira grabbed Bo’s arm before he could argue. “Come on. I know what we can do.”

She led Bo back to their truck.

“What did you do that for?” Bo asked “I can take that guy.”

Indira nodded. “I’m sure you can, but we’re here to protect those goons whether they like it or not. If the police or jungle raiders show up, it’s up to us to get them out of here cleanly. Otherwise we sit.”

“Did you hear that?” Bo asked.

“Hear what?” Indira replied.

“That noise,” said Bo. “It sounded like someone dry-heaving.”

“Gross,” Indira curled up her nose. “It’s understandable in this heat though.”

Bo walked alongside the trucks before stopping at the one in front of their own. He pointed to the large, green tarp covering the bed. “It’s coming from inside.”

Indira followed and listened. She climbed on the bumper and poked her head inside. “Is everyone... By Kobra’s name!”

“What is it?” Bo asked.

“You’d better take a look at this!” Indira replied.

Bo climbed up on the bumper and took a look himself. “A truck full of young girls? What’s going on here?”

Inside the truck were eight dirty, half-naked girls with stark, raving fear in their eyes. It was a look Indira knew all too well.

“I don’t get it,” said Bo.

“Slaves, Bo,” Indira answered. “Sex slaves to be exact! And we’re protecting the scum responsible!”

“But this is the twenty-first century!” Bo argued. “They can’t do that. Can they?”

“Look at them, Bo. See that empty look in their eyes where their souls are supposed to be? You don’t know what it’s like being forced into sex with a stranger, do you? To give the most intimate part of yourself then being tossed aside like trash?”

Bo’s face was frozen. “I… no, of course not.”

Indira thought she saw something familiar in Bo’s reply. Why did he look away when he answered?

“Hey, you kids! Get away from that truck!” yelled one of the men working on the broken-down Jeep. “Who the hell told you to snoop?”

“I don’t think they want us looking in here,” said Bo.

Indira whipped her head around. “We’re busted!”

A large, bald man jerked Bo off the truck’s bumper. “Did you hear me, boy? I said scram! You too, little girl before we add you to the collection!”

“Release these girls!” Indira screamed.

A few other men joined the muscular man. “Trouble, amigo?” asked one of the man’s comrades.

“Nothing I can’t handle,” said the bald man.

“You don’t know who you’re messing with,” said Bo. “Take your paws off me!”

The man laughed. “Or what, campesino sureño? Will you talk us to death with your hillbilly twang?”

A quagmire of quicksand opened beneath the man’s feet in response.

“What the…” asked the man incredulously. He seized Bo’s ankle in desperation. “Pull me out of here, boy!”

“Go to hell,” said Bo. The ground beneath his feet raised into an earthen mound, lifting him as it rose. As it did so it caught the man’s arm between two craggy rocks and tore it from his shoulder. His frantic cry pierced the jungle air.

The other men searched frantically for something to pull their colleague from the quicksand.

Bo tossed them the severed limb. “Try this!”

The confused men looked at one another with utter confusion on their faces. They picked up the arm and reached it to the sinking man.

“Come on, hurry!” the man screamed as he fought against the hungry quagmire with his remaining arm. “I’m sinking fast!”

“We’re trying!” they answered. “Grab your arm!”

“I can’t grab my arm fools! I’ll sink!” cried the trapped one-armed man.

Bo laughed. “Friends don’t let friends sink alone.”

The rescuers looked beneath them and realized they were now sinking in quicksand too.

Gunshots rang out as other men came running to help. The girls in the back of the truck were crying and screaming. Indira reached to comfort them but they recoiled. “Hurry! The others will be here quickly!”

“We’ve got to get out of here!” Bo yelled.

“Not without these girls!” Indira answered.

“I wasn’t planning on leaving them,” Bo answered. “You gather the girls. I’ll take care of the uglies!”

A chunk of earth ripped itself away from the ground and rose in the air. It formed a surfboard beneath Bo’s feet.

“Bo? How’s that thing flying?” Indira asked.

“Earth’s magnetic field,” Bo answered with a grin. “Cool, huh?”

Indira was impressed. She flashed an approving smile. “Nice.”

She turned her attention back to the girls in the truck. “Let’s go! Ahora!”

Something in her voice must have convinced the girls she and Bo were trying to help them. They scurried from the back of the truck.

Meanwhile, Bo surfed above the men. They took potshots at him but the bullets bounced away harmlessly. He wasn’t without offensive tricks of his own. Cannons formed at the front of his Earth-Board and fired rock mortar at his nemeses.

While the Earth itself followed Bo’s every whim, Indira led the girls deeper into the jungle.

“They’re getting away!” one of their pursuers cried. He pointed to the fleeing girls before a mortar shot took his head off.

A group of men broke away from Bo and gave chase to Indira and the girls. The young women were malnourished and had little strength for running. Indira waived them ahead of her, hoping she could cover their escape.

A path into the heart of the jungle led Indira’s group to a large clearing where many fallen trees lay dead. For once she was glad a logging company was operating illegally within the heart of the protected rainforest. Shots rang out. A bullet struck one of the girls in the head and she fell lifeless.

Indira would run no more. She ordered the remaining girls to take refuge behind the stump of a massive fallen tree. They quickly complied.

About the time they plunged to safety the men reached the clearing and “captured” Indira at gunpoint. One of the men put his gun to her head.

“Slow down,” said Indira. A purple cone of energy erupted from her hands and encased the men. “Very slowly now, like a couple of hundred centuries before you take your next breaths maybe.”

Bo arrived on the scene seconds later, hovering on his Earth-Board. “I heard gunshots. Is everybody ok?”

“We lost one,” Indira answered. She pointed to the men frozen in time. “Let’s make ourselves scarce before my stasis wears off.”

“It wears off?” Bo replied.

Indira nodded. “I control the rate of decay. If I slowed the real-time effect of the stasis those goons could literally stay that way for eons.”

Bo raised his eyebrows and looked back at the men. “I had no idea you were that powerful!”

Indira smiled. “Does that make me a bad ass, as you call it?”

Bo returned the smile. “Damn right it does but if you tell anybody I said so I’ll deny it.”

“You’re incorrigible. Let’s get these girls out of here,” said Indira.

“Where to?” Bo asked.

Indira thought for a moment. She wouldn’t put the girls back on the streets “We’ll take them to the Professor. Maybe he’ll have some ideas.”

A Pawnshop In Buenaventura

“Please tell me that was you,” Zeke pleaded. There was no way the deep guttural growl came from Georgia’s throat, but he wanted to believe it with everything within him.

“Nope, it wasn’t me,” Georgia gulped

“Lie to me next time,” Zeke answered. He imagined any number of horrors as he turned slowly to face the hot breath steaming the back of his neck. None were as frightening as the fiery red eyes towering over him. In the gleam of moonlight, he also made out two sets of huge, razor sharp teeth.

Then Georgia found a light switch.

Zeke’s heart nearly stopped. He was face to chest with a gigantic, two-headed dog. Both heads had the look of a bull mastiff but the animal was roughly the size of a horse on Venom. Drool oozed from both sets of massive, rubbery jowls. The great beast wore matching jeweled collars around each of its thick, muscular necks. The collars were studded with spectacular jewels. Faeries flitted to and fro inside the gems. Their tiny faces were frozen in looks of pity and apology. It was obvious Zeke wasn’t the first victim they’d seen. Whatever their sentiment it was clear they harbored no miracles that would get him out of the jam. The beast charged.

“Zeke, look out!” Georgia cried.

Zeke leaped the dusty sales counter which looked as if hadn’t been used in decades. The behemoth didn’t bother leaping. He plowed through it.

Zeke leaped back over the broken counter and wove in and out around the junk scattered around the shop. The mutant dog wrecked everything in its way trying to get to Zeke. Who the hell kept such an animal and how did they ever collar it? “Georgia, do something!”

“Like what?” Georgia asked. “I used my last fifty pound Scooby Snack on Mastadon this morning!”

“Find something to hit it with! This is a pawn shop for god’s sake! Maybe there’s a gun or something,” Zeke yelled.

The dog leaped at him again and Zeke barely managed to dodge the attack but it tore his left pants leg.

Finally Zeke ran out of places to run and the two-headed terror pinned him into a corner, growling as it approached slowly. As big as the beast was, Zeke wasn’t powerless either. He wasn’t some ordinary schmuck who broke into a pawn shop. He was a villain - a super-villain even! He hoped.

Fortunately, he’d taken plenty of abuse in the recent training sessions and had plenty of kinetic energy stored in his cells. He unleashed a blast of energy so powerful it emptied the small shop’s shelves of their wares and shattered the remaining display cases.

The canine beast yelped and was hurled away. Zeke couldn’t believe he managed to hurt it! Maybe he was cut out to be a villain after all! “Does Fido still want to run with the big dogs?” The confidence tasted good as it rolled off his tongue.

The behemoth attacked once again. He looked much angrier than before.

Zeke unleashed a second bolt that struck the beast at the point where its two necks joined its body. Again the monster tumbled backward and yelped.

“You like that?” Bo asked. “There’s more where that came from.” He unleashed a third blast of energy, but this time the demon-dog didn’t charge wildly. Instead it fired a bolt of its own from its twin collars. The blast met Zeke’s head on and both diminished into nothingness.

Zeke gulped. He wasn’t sure if the pixies trapped in the collar were prisoners protecting themselves from his energy blasts or if they were loyal to the hell-mutt.

The beast approached again slowly, backing Zeke into the corner once more. Before he knew what hit him, another bolt from the collar caught him square in the chest and hurled him into the wall. He slumped to the floor. Everything hurt down to his toenails. He willed his arms and legs to move but they refused to cooperate. It was as if the blast paralyzed him somehow.

The hulking dog darted toward him like a lion moving in for the kill. Twin rows of incisors opened to clamp down on him. This wasn’t how Zeke imagined he would die and it certainly wasn’t the time he would have chosen. He winced in anticipation of the inevitable then heard first a thud followed by the beast’s yelp. It turned away.

As it did, Zeke saw Georgia behind it with a bow in her hands. An arrow was sunk into the back of one of the dog’s muscular necks. She had its full attention. Her face was ashen white and her hands were shaking, but she obviously wasn’t going to leave Zeke at the beast’s mercy.

Georgia fired a second arrow as the behemoth approached her. Its collar lit up and fired another bolt that vaporized the arrow in mid-air. Georgia was dumbstruck. Unlike Zeke she had no power to defend herself from the beast’s attack.

Zeke couldn’t stand but he didn’t need to. All he had to do was process even a part of the energy from the beast’s attack. Although it hurt like hell, he was able to lift a finger and fire one of the most explosive bolts he’d ever shot. The pixies tried to warn the mutt but it was too late.

The blast caught the beast in the back of its heads. It yelped as it and fell to the floor.

Then someone stepped out of the back room. “What’s going on here?”

Windsor Academy Campus

Arthur Light busied himself with setting up the newsroom as he called it. In reality it was a computer network that would shame even the pentagon. Not that Dr. Light knew much about computers himself. He left the actual setting up of the machines to a group of network engineers the school hired. It was more accurate to say he oversaw the project.

For the first time in many years, Dr. Light was happy. What better revenge could he take against the Justice League and the cursed Titans than to help foster the next generation of super villains? And then there was his ultimate goal - to reunite the underworld. Professor Knott’s vision was a bold one, but it relied too much on hit or miss prospecting. The requests for donations he sent out reminded Light of those sent by televangelists to their faithful. What Knott didn’t understand was that most of those in the underworld had little vision beyond themselves. By uniting the underworld Light hoped to force even the most reluctant “donors” to see the benefits of philanthropy. He smiled. They would see the Light – all of them. And when the united underworld was fully functional with dollars pouring into the school’s coffers, it would be time for a new headmaster.

“Be careful with those plasma monitors, you fool!” Dr. Light shouted to a man carrying them. “Those things aren’t cheap!”

NOVA Labs

A blast of laser energy erupted from one of the BOTS unit’s electronic “eyes” and caught Mastadon square in the chest, slamming the young man to the floor. His body jerked violently and he cried out in pain as exotic Durlan energy residue spread over him. At last he collapsed mercifully into a still heap.

The top half of the BOTS unit bathed Mastadon with a white light. Satisfied the fallen young man was no longer a threat it turned its attention to Chaucer and floated toward him menacingly.

Chaucer enjoyed a measure of satisfaction knowing the sphere took out his muscle-bound schoolmate first. He vowed to be a more difficult target. He leaped beneath a research table filled with spare parts, knocking them to the floor. He pressed a button built into his tesseract belt. To the naked eye it appeared nothing happened.

The sphere dropped to the floor and searched for him. It hovered mere inches from Chaucer’s face but didn’t appear to see him. His bio-cloak worked perfectly for the time being. He was sure the BOTS unit would activate sub-routines designed to search for an invisible opponent, if it hadn’t already done so but all he needed were a few more precious seconds. The boy genius wasn’t satisfied with merely avoiding detection. He wanted to study the battle droid’s Durlan technology. That meant capturing it and not destroying it.

Chaucer removed a couple of things from his tesseract. The first was a compartment filled with explosive putty. The second was a vial of smart acid. It was designed to seek out heat patterns associated with weapons systems and leave the remaining technology intact. Chaucer set his trap and waited. He couldn’t risk bolting until the last minute.

The sphere’s electronic eye beeped as did when it locked onto Mastadon. Chaucer had been found! But he worked the situation to his advantage. Rather than bolt like Mastadon he waited in place for his devices to work and watched the timer on his wrist. At the last second, he rolled away.

The explosion rocked the lab and loosed the heavy research table from the bolts that held it tight to the floor. The BOTS unit shot into the air, covered in Chaucer’s Smart Acid. Its electronic eye heated up and the unit fell to the floor. Chaucer breathed a sigh of relief. They’d gotten past security and ...

<“Put your hands in the air!”> yelled a security guard wielding an AK-47.

Technology Chaucer could deal with. A security force was a different matter all together. “Mastadon, wake up!”

The lummox didn’t stir as more men filed into the room and surrounded the boys.

<“We’ll escort this one and the rest of you bring the large one,”> said one of the men.

The men under his command moved quickly to obey but struggled with Mastadon’s heft. The rustling caused him to stir. “What the...” the confused young man asked. “Hey lab rat! What’s going on?”

“I took out the security drone but the resulting explosion alerted the guards to our presence,” Chaucer explained.

“Really?” Mastadon asked. “You took out that floating thing?”

Despite being captured Chaucer managed to grin proudly and stuck out his puny chest. “Affirmative.”

“You should have warned me you knew so much about it,” said Mastadon. “I’m gonna pound you when we get out of this!”

“Speaking of which, have you had enough of these bullies?” Chaucer asked.

Mastadon smiled. “You’re alright, Lab Rat!” Mustering his great strength he slammed his arms and legs together. The men holding him crashed into one another and dropped him.

<“The large one resists!”> cried one of the men. His face was quickly introduced to Mastadon’s oversized fist. Another group of security guards joined the battle royale.

Mastadon seemed to enjoy himself. Chaucer used the distraction to slip away from the leader who’d assigned himself to guarding the boy genius but was being sucked into the fray unwillingly as more and more of his men fell to Mastadon.

Chaucer retrieved the battle sphere. “Ready to go home?” he asked Mastadon.

“But mom, I’m just starting to have fun!” Mastadon replied. “Did we get what we came for?”

Chaucer shook his head. “But I did get this!” He held up the BOTS unit.

“Sure! It almost killed us so let’s take it home!” Mastadon answered, as he moved toward Chaucer.

At last the two boys stood side-by-side and Chaucer pressed another button. A force shield formed around them just as the men began firing their guns. The bullets bounced off the shield. Chaucer pressed another button and the room faded from view.

“What did you do?” Mastadon asked.

“Personal Wormhole,” Chaucer replied. “Hang on! I haven’t worked out the bugs yet!”

A Pawnshop In Buenaventura

“I asked what is going on here?” the voice reiterated. Thankfully their canine attacker ceased his aggression at the sound of the voice and heeled at the man’s side. He stuck close to what shadows remained in the room. It was impossible to gauge how tall he was or to make out any details of his features as they seemed distorted by the fleeting darkness. “It seems Fluffy has caught a couple of intruders.”

“Fluffy?” Zeke asked. “You call that monster Fluffy?”

The man with the booming voice stepped into the light. He was every bit as imposing as his pet, if not more so. He stood nearly eight feet tall. His scaly skin was the color of blood. Two large, curved horns protruded from his head. He removed the arrow from Fluffy’s back.

Holy smokes! It was a demon!

Once the initial shock of his startling appearance wore off other details came to light that made the demon seem much less intimidating. Bunny slippers covered his cloven hooves. A bicuspid tail poked out the back of a pair of light blue pajamas which were decorated with a sailboat pattern. Despite his height he had a bit of a gut on him and he looked more sleepy than upset. “Yes, my beloved pet’s name is Fluffy. What’s wrong with that?”

Zeke lifted himself from the floor and regrouped with Georgia.

“It doesn’t fit,” Georgia replied.

“Oh poo! What do you know?” the demon scoffed as he bent down to one knee and rubbed one of the beast’s heads behind its ears. “It fits him to a tee. Doesn’t it boy?”

The two-headed dog wiggled like a puppy and licked his master’s fingers.

“See? Just a baby!” the demon affirmed.

“A baby what?” Georgia asked.

The demon raised a finger to his lips. “He’s sensitive.”

“What’s really going on here?” Zeke asked.

The demon stood. “I asked first and you’re in my shop, not the other way around.”

He had a point.

“You’re a demon,” Georgia blurted out.

The shopkeeper laughed. He genuinely enjoyed their discomfort, so much so that he lost his breath while laughing to what sounded like a hacking smoker’s cough. “I prefer the term celestially challenged,” the demon replied. “Damon Brimstone. And to whom do I owe this pleasure?”

“Our names aren’t important,” Zeke shot back.

“Of course they are,” Brimstone replied. “Our name tells us much about one another.”

“I’m Georgia. This is Zeke. Why haven’t you killed us?” Georgia asked.

“Ix-nay on the illing-kay,” Zeke whispered.

“Who said anything about killing you?” Brimstone replied. “We’re talking about names. But I suppose I could get Fluffy to tear you limb-from-limb if you like. He hasn’t feasted on human flesh for centuries. I’m sure Kibbles and Bits gets old after awhile.”

Fluffy growled.

“But then again if I killed you Hugo would be most upset with me,” Brimstone added.

“You know the Professor?” Georgia asked.

Things were getting crazier by the minute.

“I sure do,” Brimstone replied. “We met years ago, Hugo and I. I remember one time in New Orleans...”

“So this was a setup?” Zeke asked. “You knew we were coming?”

Brimstone looked disappointed the teens weren’t interested in his story, but nodded. “Yes and no. He told me to expect company and gave me some basic instructions, but silly me forgot to put Fluffy up in my bedroom.”

“So this was supposed to be easy?” Georgia asked.

“Not at all,” Brimstone replied. “My wares are guarded by magic. If you tried to leave my shop without paying or bartering for them, or without me giving them to you gratis, an unsettled soul would retrieve it for me in a most unpleasant manner.”

“And what is an unsettled soul?” Georgia asked. “A ghost?”

“Not a ghost,” Brimstone answered. “You probably call them Zombies. I call them the Unsettled. You say potato, I say pot-ah-to.”

Zeke sighed and removed his black hood. “So that’s it? We fail?”

“Zeke! What are you doing?” Georgia cried. “Put your hood back on!”

“Why? He knows everything anyway. “We blew it big time.”

“Nonsense, boy! All that’s required to pass your assignment is for each of you to return with an item of your choice from my inventory. Is it not?” Brimstone asked.

Zeke nodded.

Brimstone extended his hand toward his counter. “Choose freely.”

Zeke was dumbfounded. It was certainly a bit much to take in. “I didn’t think demons were supposed to be helpful.”

“Again - celestially challenged,” Brimstone answered. “I didn’t use to be this way. I was quite a hell-raiser if you’ll pardon the expression.” He laughed at his own joke and continued. “I still remember when the Son of the Morning fell. I was pissed, ya know? We all were! We had a great gig going up there, but was Lucifer satisfied? No! The smooth-talking bastich convinced a bunch of us we could take the Big Guy if we worked together. The buzz spread quickly and we assembled to fight but the Big Guy took us out with nothing more than a gesture! Hurled us from Heaven like lightning! Most of us were sent to hell, but some of us were cursed to roam the Earth and generally wreak havoc. I was once known as a Prince of the Air! Fancy title, huh?”

“So how did you go from a ... celestially challenged prince to a junk yard owner in South America?” asked Zeke.

“Salvage yard proprietor,” Brimstone corrected. “I quit. I primarily dealt with wars and strife but I was just bored. I mean, how many nigh-omnipotent beings does it take to stir up dissension among humans? You guys do a good job of tearing one another down without outside interference if you know what I mean. So I walked away during the Middle Ages. ”

“And the Professor?” Georgia asked.

“Hugo and I met through mutual friends years ago. He fancied me another of those crazy villains like the ones he studied in Gotham. You should have seen his face when I transformed for him the first time!”

“And Fluffy?” Zeke asked.

“Fluffy has been my pet since I settled in the New World to get away from the strife in Europe. Things went well until that Columbus guy showed up and brought all of Europe with him. What’s a demon to do to get away? Move to the Antarctic?” Brimstone replied.

“He’s scary,” said Georgia.

“Not at all, young lady,” Brimstone replied. He motioned for the two teens to approach. “Go ahead and pet him! He knows you’re not a threat now. He loves being scratched behind the ears.”

Georgia stepped forward and held out her hand. Fluffy sniffed it cautiously and then licked it. “Hey Zeke! He really is gentle!”

Zeke wasn’t so sure, but didn’t want to be shown up. He repeated Georgia’s bold action and was surprised when Fluffy licked him too. This was the same beast that nearly killed him minutes before? “I like his collars. Are those faeries?”

“Good eye, son,” Brimstone replied. “The collars were a gift from Hades. Fluffy saw Cerberus wearing one like it and wanted one too. They’re from the same litter you know! Hades presented them to Fluffy as a gift.”

“Hades?” Georgia asked. “Isn’t he a malevolent god-like being?”

Brimstone shook his head. “He gets a bad name because of his job, but he’s a good guy for a god. And speaking of gifts, I promised that each of you could choose an item from my inventory! But be careful what you choose. You will have to live with the choice.”


 

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