Thanks to Wendy for foregoing her Christmas preparations to run a fast eye over this one for typos. ;) And thanks to Archive Editor, Kathy B.
TRICK OR TREAT By Doc. Klein's LabRat
The young woman fled mindlessly through the dark, heedless of the scrub in her path or the sharp spikes of branches that tore at her hair and scraped at her face and body as she blundered through the tangled trees. Her breath rasped in her throat, her heart was a hammer of thunder in her chest, her whimpers caught behind clenched teeth as she ran, eyes glazed with the horror she had witnessed, remembering the terror that stalked her through the night's shadows.
Not knowing where she was headed, hardly feeling the vicious sting of thorns and the tug of foliage that caught at her clothing and spiked maliciously at her face, heeding nothing, knowing nothing...except that she must run. Or die.
She had to escape.
She cast one terrified glance across her shoulder, finally, sure that she would catch a glimpse of dripping fangs and glowing eyes in the shadows behind her. Her momentary inattention caused her dearly. She tripped on a fallen branch, went sprawling headlong. Rolling over and over down the sudden steep embankment that met her, she ended up flat on her back in the middle of a dim, deserted street with a thump that knocked the breath from her throat in a harsh, startled whoosh.
Winded she simply lay there for a moment and then panic and instinct sent her scrambling painfully to her feet. She glanced around her wildly, her only thought that in the glare of the lamps around her she was an easy target for what came ravaging after her in the night.
A sudden threshing in the bushes above her whitened her face, made her stumble back a step or so with a quick gasp of fear. But it was only the wind scuttering through the branches. The gust tossed leaves across the silent street in a strewn of red and gold and whipped her long, dark hair around the chalk oval of her face, where terror was starkly etched.
She relaxed a little, shaking, and then took a moment out of panic to try to get a fix on her bearings. Somewhere, deep within the woods, lay sanctuary, but she had gotten lost in the middle of her flight and now...
She made an indecisive circle, glancing up and down the deserted street. Streamers of fog swirled lazily up ahead, deadening sound and walling her off from the world, enclosing her in a cocoon of dread. The only sound was the heavy, rapid thump of her heart against the walls of her chest.
...that way, she decided abruptly. Yes. It was definitely to the west. And then, her confidence weakening, leeched out of her in the next instant, she sighed. Well, it was as good a direction to start in than any other.
She turned around, intending to head for the end of the street before risking entering the trees - a dark, forbidding hiding place where creatures too terribly to imagine still lurked - and jolted to a halt, eyes growing wide. A shriek clawed its way out of her throat to rend the air.
The demon that had stepped soundlessly from out of the cloaking fog and into the puddle of light directly in her path lunged for her with a ferocious snarl, its hands, with their long, taloned fingers, clawing at the air before her.
There was blood on its mouth and on those hands and...
...its eyes were dark slits in the sickly green flesh of its face and...
The woman screamed again and whirled for the trees, her mind too overloaded with images of horror all at once to comprehend this last. Once more running for her life.
She blundered blindly through the trees and the darkness, until she found her sanctuary. Sobbing, hysterical with terror, she fell into the outstretched arms of the tall, dark-haired young man who ran to meet her. His own eyes dark with fear for whatever had happened to her to bring her to him in this fugue of terror, he gathered her close.
And she let herself be soothed. Knowing herself suddenly safe in the arms of her savior.
She was safe.
Finally, she was safe.
Derek watched the woman disappear headlong into the trees and then hooked his fingers under the bottom of his demon mask and tipped it up to rest on his brow.
He grinned. A sticky red grin. "Coooolllll."
"You got Kool Aid all *over* your mouth," a prim little voice he recognized instantly and loathed just as fast advised from his left.
He turned his head to the grass lawn, the grin becoming a scowl. Stacy Ketch stood right behind him, smiling serenely.
If Derek had been just a few years older he might have noted that, always china doll flawless in every detail, right down to the snowy white bobby socks she wore to school, Stacy looked particularly cute and adorable this evening. Her fairy outfit was as right out of a storybook perfect as the vast amount of cash her rich daddy had thrown at the store could buy. Her hair was its usual bright, flaring halo of gold, caught at by the light of the overhead sodium lamps, which dimmed in response to its shine, unable to compete. This evening it had been expertly arranged by the deft hands of a personal hairdresser into tight curls, which framed her delicate, heart-shaped face and bobbed enticingly when she moved her head. Only nine years old, Stacy had already perfected the art of tossing them winsomely for effect. She did it now as she looked condescendingly down her long nose at the boy below her.
However, since Derek was some years shy of the age when he would begin to find the mysteries the opposite sex presented intriguing, he simply thought Stacy looked like a pain. Just like always.
When his scowl didn't make those appraising blue eyes falter he pulled the demon mask back down and hid behind its more threatening visage. And when that didn't work, he resorted to the most intelligent retort in his repertoire that an eight-year-old boy could muster when confronted by an annoying female.
"Get lost, snot face," he muttered.
Stacy wasn't impressed. Nor did she move. "Ooooh, geesh. Your hands too!" She tutted, a sound she'd picked up from her mother just that morning. "Gross."
Sullenly, Derek wiped his hands on his shirt and his mouth on his sleeve, which only served to make the sticky mess worse.
"Well, least I don' look like a...a..." he cast around desperately for a points winning comeback and then had it. "A sissy prissy!" he rejoined triumphantly.
That one scored.
Stacy's normally peaches and cream complexion flushed bright crimson. Although she *was* unusually occupied with her appearance and spent much of her time in the schoolyard refusing to join in the games of her peers because it might soil her dress or disarrange her hair, she was also sensitive to being accused of this character flaw. Especially by Derek Whitton.
"I am not!"
"Are too!" Derek crowed, delighted by his strike. "Sissy prissy, sissy prissy!"
"Am *not*! You take that back, Derek Whitton! You take that back!"
Derek chortled, dancing around his victim now as he mocked her. "No, I shan't! No, I won't! What you gonna do, I don't?!" he chanted, using a common, in vogue piece of challenging doggerel often heard on the school playing fields.
Furious, Stacy responded in equally predictable and characteristic manner. "This!"
Infuriated, she put an end to the ya boo sucks argument by thumping Derek over the head hard with her magic wand and then burst into braying tears when it bent in two on impact.
Huddled in the depths of the chair, she was still quivering with remembered fear half an hour later as her worried companion tried to calm her. He didn't understand what had scared her so badly out there, in the wood, and her rambling, disjointed attempts at explanation were giving him no clues. It made no sense. No sense at all.
"Horrible..." she whispered again, eyes staring blankly before her as she relived the horrors she'd seen. Her arms were wrapped around her torso and she rocked slightly as she moaned, "The teeth...and the blood..."
"Zara." Ching crouched before her and took hold of her frozen hands firmly in his. "There are no such things as demons. You know that. Night tales, told to frighten children in the dark - "
Zara blinked and focused on him. Seeing the skepticism lying heavy in his eyes, she flushed and jerked to her feet, pulling her hands from his. "Don't look at me that way!" She paced a few steps and then turned on him fiercely. "I know what I saw!"
"But..." Ching began doubtfully. "Ashbla'l?"
"He's real! I saw him! Out there!" She threw out a hand in the direction of the light barrier that protected them from discovery. She shuddered. And from attack.
"*Something* frightened you," Ching agreed, tone soothing. "But - "
"It *was* Ashbla'l. And all his minions. Ching, if you had seen them..." She turned back for him, earnestly, face growing paler with the memory. "I too thought such dread creatures the stuff of myth and legend alone. But they are real. Ching..." her voice dropped to a stricken whisper as the revelation struck her all at once, "this planet...this planet is - Rhug'Hanr!"
Rhug'Hanr! The very word sent unwelcome and unbidden shivers down his own spine, even as he told himself this was nonsense. Childish myth and legend he had long since shed with the wisdom of being grown.
The purgatory were all lost souls were imprisoned, roaming in endless torment, pursued by the Dread Demon Lord of the Underworld and tormented by his minion beasts. Tales to frighten children, he had never really believed...and yet he did. He did believe. They all did. Rhug'Hanr was real. They knew it in their bones, though they may try to deny its existence by laughing it off as a lore tale.
Rhug'Hanr. Ching flicked an uneasy glance at the shimmering barrier and made a quick, involuntary gesture of protection, whilst cursing himself even as he did for the superstitious fear that leapt in him.
He met Zara's eyes and saw understanding in them. Myths could sometimes have an all too unwelcome hold on reality, deny them as you may. He shook his head. Rhug'Hanr or not - they had their sworn duty.
"But, Kal-El," he said reluctantly. "Zara, we are oath bound to find him."
"Ching, Jor-El sent a child to this world! A child!" She stepped in close and gripped his arms tight, eyes wild in her pinched face. She turned her head away from him, a frightened glance at the opaque barrier shielding them from the horrors beyond its protective wall. "How could a child survive in a world filled with demons? He's dead, Ching. Kal-El was surely dead the moment his ship landed on this demon world!"
"But...I don't understand. Jor-El's data, the disk we retrieved, it said that this was a paradise for our kind. That it was safe. He sent his son into a world he knew was safe and - "
"Jor-El's data was flawed. Or this world changed before Kal came here. I do not know." She faced him, solemn eyed. "But I do know that Kal-El is dead. He could never have survived, a child alone, in the midst of those creatures. Against Ashbla'l? Against the Warrior Killer? The Destroyer of Worlds?!"
Ching stared at her. Almost against his will, his own gaze flicked to the Shield Wall again.
Zara was watching him. "We go," she said firmly. "Now. There is nothing here for us."
Ching hesitated. He thought of suggesting he reconnoiter this world himself. He thought of suggesting they at least made a sensor sweep of the surrounding area. Not that he didn't trust to her word of what she'd seen, but... He thought that perhaps he should protest that Kal must be alive. He had to be.
And in the end, he did none of these.
"Yes." His agreement was a shaken breath. He steadied himself and bowed briefly at his Lady in recognition of her command.
As the ship readied itself to leap into the night sky, Ching looked over at the agitated figure seated on the other side of the Control Chamber and felt himself relax fully for the first time since they'd left the barren rock planet they called home in search of their absent Lord.
With Zara's Oath testimony, no one could claim that they hadn't exhausted all hope in the search for Kal-El. No one could accuse them of failing in their duty. And Zara would be free at last to rule New Krypton in her own right, as tradition and law provided for. Free too, to choose her own consort as mate.
Feeling unaccountably buoyant in spirits all at once, Ching hit the launch button and smiled.
The young man fled mindlessly through the dark, heedless of the scrub in his path or the sharp spikes of branches that tore at his hair and scraped at his face and body as he blundered through the tangled trees. His breath rasped in his throat, his heart was a hammer of thunder in his chest, his whimpers caught behind clenched teeth as he ran, eyes glazed with the horror he had witnessed, remembering the terror that stalked him through the night's shadows.
The ship loomed large ahead and his sobs became wild with relief among the terror, sure that at any moment clawed fingers would reach him, gleaming fangs would bury themselves in his flesh, before he could reach the sanctuary so close...so very close...
He burst through the barrier field and into the torchlit shadows of the corridor. He whimpered, huddling against the wall for a moment and ignoring the guards as he drove himself on.
If Rai hadn't been so full of panic and terror as to be almost senseless, he would have heard the furious bellowing coming from the War Chamber long before he reached it.
"Left? Left! What do you mean, *left*? She only just set down ship! They can't have found him already!"
"Our sensors show no one but the Lady Zara and her....Protector aboard, My Lord," the Captain agreed hastily. "The renegade Kal-El is not with them."
Lord Nor stopped pacing the room and swung a hard gaze on his subordinate. "Then..." he said silkily, advancing on the man, who cowered against the console. "*Why* did she leave?"
"I - I do not know, My - "
Nor let go of the Captain's tunic, fisted in his hands and turned on the ashen faced scout who'd just blundered into the room and was now leaning up against the steel frame of the door, mouth opening and closing soundlessly. Nor's expression darkened. Now what? As if he didn't have to deal with enough idiots in his command, idiots who couldn't find one woman and her sycophantic protector...now he had this one yelling about demons and looking as though he'd met with Mal'ari herself!
"What?" he said ominously.
"Demons, My Lord! Demons! The planet's full of them! Demons, everywhere..."
"My Lord." The Captain hovered at his shoulder and Nor gave him impatient attention.
"My Lord, our other scouts, the ones who came in earlier, tell the same tale as this one," the Captain reported, voice lowered in a discreet whisper. "Demons. The planet seems overrun with them."
"Mal'ari...Ashbla'l..." The man sprawled prostrate on the floor moaned softly, gibbering out the names of the Damned Ones, his eyes blank and horror filled. "They're real...they are..."
A stir went around the room. Nor glowered around him at his men, but the stench of their fear and the growing atmosphere of unease that swept the room, fueled by rumor and superstition, was a rank stink in his nostrils.
Cowards! And it *was* just superstition, he thought darkly.
"My Lord..." The Captain's voice trembled a little with the unspoken question. Trembled! Von was a veteran of battles bloody enough to have earned him the name of butcher by his defeated enemies. And this was the man who quivered and cowered before him now? Nor gaped at the man, unable to contain his shock and dismay.
"Send out more - " he started and his eyes flew wide as the presumptuous tarkval gripped tight at his arm.
Nor spluttered rage at the unwelcome familiarity and then paused at the flare of warning in his subordinate's eyes. His own eyes flickered across the Captain's shoulder to where the rest of the men were close grouped now and watching him warily. The faint odor of rebellion was in the air. They had sworn to his service and to die at his command without question. They would face down any enemy he sent them against. But not one of them was prepared to face the tangible proof of demons from their childhood terrors come to life.
Nor removed his arm from his Captain's grip, but made no attempt to complete his order. He was no fool, despite his fury. And, truth to tell, his own spine quivered at the whisper of belief that shivered in his head.
It was *not* poss --
His eyes found the man on the floor at his feet, whimpering insensibilities now and he barely suppressed a shiver. He cleared his throat roughly.
"Fire up the engines," he commanded peremptorily. "We're leaving."
"But, My Lord, the renegade - "
The Flight Lieutenant turned from where he'd been studying his console with a look of surprise on his pasty face. As usual, Nor thought sourly, Praj, an overly studious but unimaginative man, had completely missed the atmosphere of tension rising in the room.
"I said, we're leaving! Do you understand?"
"Leaving, sir. Yes. Right away, My Lord!" The Captain pre-emptied another protest from his second in command with a glare at the hapless man and took out his pique on a nearby Lieutenant, cuffing him smartly. "What are you waiting for? The engines!"
"Yes, sir!" The Lieutenant turned away, directing a scowl at the Flight Engineer on the other side of the chamber. The Engineer prudently ducked his head and hastily began punching buttons on his console.
The heavy drone of engines rumbling beneath his feet, Nor stood oblivious to the activity of his minions around him. His gaze fixed sightlessly on the observation panel before him as he watched the blue-green demon planet recede until the vast star-fields swallowed it from sight.
The renegade Kal-El.
A cold smile formed itself on Nor's saturnine features. One consolation there at least. His rival was dead. And by all accounts of what walked the night on the planet now far below him, that death would not have been an easy one. Or quick.
Nor chuckled and raised a hand in traditional and mocking salute to a fallen enemy.
"Mahran-Stal!" he whispered the old greeting to the vanquished and then his laughter got the better of him, ringing across the silence of the flight chamber until it drew anxious glances from the men around him.
From the Journal of Lord Trey, Chief Elder of the Council of Nobles, New Krypton.
This in the Third Epoch After Landfall, in the Time of the Dynasty of Ra.
...and too, the news that Lady Zara had brought back with her from that dread world was hard believed and gave grief and horror to the populace. Many were there who questioned its veracity, many more who wondered if the Lady Zara had gone mad on that long journey ere she had ever returned to us, with her tongue dripping its vile terrors of demon and myth. But the Truth Oath was valid and undenied and the Orb of Lies failed to glow its accusation of falsehood as she held it in her hand before the Council of Elders and her word was held as truth by all who listened. For it could be nothing else.
Grief swept the world as it learned of the death of our Lord, Kal-El. Though we had never known him as ruler or man, still he was our destined Lord and he was mourned. More for the manner of his passing than for his loss itself. And yet still there were those who whispered in the streets and markets and even in the Chamber of Council itself that his death merely proved the wisdom of the First Council, late of Krypton, who had sent us here to continue our line. And the madness and arrogance of the Noble Jor-El, who had refused to listen to such wiser voices than his own and had in the end succeeded only in destroying his blood and name. And there were not many who gainsayed them.
Prohibition was placed on the world of Earth and its surrounding systems, that none may disturb the minions of Ashbla'l. An unnecessary proclamation, since none that I have encountered seem eager to disrupt that Dread Lord's rule on that far planet. Still, it bears no harm in the setting in the stones for all to see and heed.
Peace was yet to come to our own world however. Struck by a passion of rage and a glamour of his own suit for the Crystal Throne, Lord Nor did challenge the Lady Zara's claim to rule. But the people had an unaccustomed sympathy for the heroic daughter of Ra, fuelled by her account of Earth, her escape from Ashbla'l itself and her valiant attempts to retrieve Kal-El from his doom already the strands of legend. And so Nor failed to achieve the support for his insurrection he might once have done.
Nevertheless, his pride and his arrogance were strong in him and he set to war against the House of Ra and all who stood with her. In the Council, he declared his intent. But Ching, a minor noble and Protector Sworn to Zara offered himself as champion to Zara's claim as was his right and hers by ancient custom and challenged Nor to prove his own. The battle there in the Chamber of Council was bloody and long and Ching fought hard and valiant, but at last he fell beneath the drei of Nor.
Nor's belief in his victory was presumptuous however. And in that presumption lay the most fatal of errors and the seal of his doom was laid upon him. Dismissing Zara's champion as dead or soon to be so and no further threat, he made claim not only on the throne but on the defeated Lady Zara also and sought to assert his rights over both without further delay. So distracted, he was taken by surprise and given swift dispatch by Ching.
Ching's wounds, though grievous, were not mortal and after tender care by his Lady he was restored to health without delay.
So we have lost sons and bloodline of two Noble Houses, we of New Krypton, their names removed from the records of our race and their loss is sorrow to us all. Still..."We grieve not so long as there is life." So runs the motto of the House of Ar. But, truly, it may hold for all of us who have carved life here on this barren rock, so poor a replica of our beloved home world. We have hewn a civilization here and nevertheless call it home. We are a pragmatic race. Lord Nor is dead and so too our destined Lord, Kal-El. But life remains here and we prosper beneath the wise and benevolent rule of Lady Zara and her chosen consort, Ching and that is comfort for us all.
Grace be to the Great Gods we shall do so for an age to come.
Signed, Trey, Lord of the Noble House of Ar, Chief of Elders, here this day in the City of Light.