7

"No!" Drake thundered, chest heaving with passion. "I won't let you kill yourself!"

"Don't try to stop me," Salome said, voice harsh. "I have nothing left to live for." Taking the long knife in her right hand, she set its tip against her heart.

"No!" Drake strained towards her, eyes dilated, reaching through the bars of the cage to grasp her. "Salome -don't-"

With a sigh, Salome removed the knife from her skin and cupped her hand over its tip. Confused, Drake stopped shouting, though his fingers kept clutching and unclutching. Salome glanced at him. "This thing's really cold. Just going to warm it up first." She blew on the tip a few times. "Okay." She set back against her heart.

Drake gasped. "Salome! I- I can't live without you!"

That brought Salome up short. Instead of applying pressure to the knife, she looked up. "Since when?"

Drake's mouth worked soundlessly.

Salome backed a bit closer to Zetta's corpse and reaffirmed her grip on the hilt. If Drake was about to start spouting declarations of love, she didn't want to hear them.

"Since right now," Drake expostulated impatiently. "Salome -you have a knife! You can cut through these bars!"

Salome, whose mind was on other things, such as the death of true love and the end of all hope, looked blankly back at him.

Drake gestured to both cages. "They're only Mana resistant! I'm sure you can cut through them!"

Salome frowned. "No. That seems too easy."

"Nothing wrong with easy," Drake assured her. "Come on, try it."

Still frowning dubiously, Salome angled the knife away from her heart and put its edge against one of the bars. She sawed a few times, and the knife sliced through.

"Snap!" said Drake. "Perfect. Okay, you get yourself out first, and then you free me, and then we'll take revenge on the-"

But Salome had put the knife back against her chest.

Drake began shaking his head frantically. "NononononononoNO! Revenge! Zetta would want to be avenged! We have to get out and-"

Salome hung her head. "What does any of that matter now?"

"Gah -Gi -Guh-" It took Drake several crucial moments to align his verbal skills with his thought process. "Salome, then -if not for me, er, Zetta, then -Why die at all? Be strong. Live! Zetta wouldn't want you to die!"

Salome looked up thoughtfully. "You're right." She waved her hand briskly. "But never mind the logic." Taking a deep breath, she pressed the knife tip into her pure, pale skin.

And then there was a swift whirring sound and a freakish little insect swooped into her line of vision, landed between her eyes, and shouted in a small, though rather familiar voice, "NO!"

Spanish: "NO!"

Italian: "NO!"

Arabic: "LA!"

Salome reeled back against the bars of her cage, the knife clattering to the floor. "Zetta-?" she gasped.

The irately buzzing insect seemed rather tired. Salome had no way of knowing that it had burst out of Snivly's left ear, zipped across the field in front of the commander's tent, and reached Salome in under 2.67 seconds flat, but she could see it wobbling a bit in midair as it backed away from her face, giving her enraged looks. In a moment, it was shouting at the top of its minuscule lungs. And the voice, though rather smaller and bit more high-pitched than she'd ever heard it, was unmistakably her beloved's.

"What the hell is going on here? I leave you for half and hour to take care of business, save our asses, reverse our circumstances entirely, and I come back to find you about to perforate yourself with a-"

"Wh-what happened?" Salome said in a strangled voice.

"What is that?" Drake asked, sounding a bit disgusted.

"You're a... dowdy-cow?" Salome asked, staring as one mesmerized at her Overlord.

"Ladybug!" the dowdy-cow shouted while flames shot out from his wings. "What were you thinking, trying to kill yourself, why didn't you consult me, I did not authorize that, I have everything under control, you think I did this all so I come back and find you-"

Salome's impulse, at finding Zetta alive and healthy enough to be furious, was to throw herself into his arms. However, that plan didn't seem advisable under present circumstances. "How did-" She gestured at Zetta's empty body.

"I'm gifted and talented," Zetta informed her.

"You're a bug," Drake informed him, in case there was any confusion on the point.

"And you," Zetta fired back, "are going to be a heap of free-flowing Mana when I get through with you!"

"Zetta," Salome whispered happily, reaching up to touch his face.

"Hey," Zetta snarled, "don't go whacking me upside the head! Is that the thanks I get for saving our bacon?"

"Hmph," said Drake, not at all happy about how events were transpiring. "How is a bug going to save us?"

"Uh-" said Zetta. As incredible as it seemed, Drake had a point. While Snivly was coming to set him and Salome free, the zombie chieftain would undoubtedly be relieved at finding Zetta's lifeless body. Defenseless body. Zetta winced as he imagined Snivly bending over his corpse, pulling out a cookbook... Zetta shook himself. Well, that just wouldn't happen.

He looked over at his body with more than a little consternation. Jerking his soul out of it had been easy enough, but he wasn't quite sure how to get back in. "Um, just... give me a second." He flapped over and landed on the bridge of his own nose, staring uneasily into his lifeless eyes. The ladybug took a deep breath, squeezed his eyes shut, and shouted, "CONFINE!"

Nothing happened.

The ladybug cleared his throat. "Uhm." He paced back and forth several times along the length of his nose.

Salome leaned down towards him. "Well?"

Zetta ran a hand feverishly over his antennae. "Maybe I've got to give my soul a head start." He skibbled down off his nose, over his upper lip, and into his own mouth, grimacing at the humidity. "Okay," he said, voice echoing with the acoustics, "I'll try it from here." There was the sound of a miniature throat being cleared, then, "CONFINE!"

"-Fine, -fine, -fine," said the echoes.

Nothing happened.

Salome closed her eyes and fingered the hilt of her knife again, wondering in what order she would proceed to kill Snivly, Drake and the other members of the MacAbre Clan. Just as she was deciding she'd go in alphabetical order, the body next to hers gave a convulsive lurch, gagged, and spat a small ladybug fifty feet out of its mouth.

"Zetta!" Salome cried, throwing her arms around him.

Zetta, entirely unaware that Salome had almost inadvertently stabbed him, was still gagging and longing desperately for some mouthwash. He struggled to a sitting position just as Snivly MacAbre shuffled up, his hands in the pockets of his kilt.

"Um, listen," said Snivly, "you remember what I said about taking over your Netherworld and eating you all for lunch? Well -you know -my conscience was sorta... bugging me, and I thought I-" He gave a great choking sound as Zetta stood, reached through the bars of his cage, and grasped him by his scrawny neck.

"Always," Zetta breathed, "listen to your conscience."

oOoOoOo

The MacAbre Clan had been put to work cleaning every pair of muddy shoes belonging to Zetta's soldiers. Q and Zetta's platoon had arrived at midmorning, dragging Drake's soldiers along in chains, awaiting Zetta's judgment. Zetta was in no mood to be rushed. After Snivly had released him and Salome, he'd ordered that particular Mana-nulling cage to be disassembled, and he'd commissioned his Netherworld's resident artist to create a commemorative modern art sculpture out of it, to be displayed in the east wing of his castle. Then, he'd gone into his tent-

"What is-?!" Zetta blazed, pulling out his sword as his hair exploded into a raging bonfire, sparks shot out of his nostrils and smoke puffed gently out of his ears.

Pepe jerked awake with a soft scream and sat bold upright, clutching a two-handed flamberge in one hand and a bright red falchion in the other.

Apollo, still in Zetta's favorite clementine-colored pjs, slowly lifted himself off of the beanbag chair and stared at Zetta, horror multiplying on his features by the second.

Moncharmin, still in Zetta's bed, was fast asleep and continued to snore, drooling all over Zetta's pillows.

(That night, Zetta's platoon was gratified to find three newly-reincarnated hell kitties to boss around and do menial labor. Zetta's laundresses, however, were not remotely happy about all the bloodstains that had been mysteriously splashed on his tent, his carpet, the bedding...just about everything.)

So Zetta went into his tent, brushed his teeth, gargled, flossed, and soaked for two and a half hours in his Jacuzzi. By the time Zetta was ready to levy judgment, it was well into the afternoon. Two lackeys carried out his port-a-throne and set it on his port-a-dais in front of his tent. Zetta settled himself on it, invited Salome to sit on the armrest, and banged his ruby-encrusted gavel on the other armrest.

"All right," said Zetta, in his best high-and-mighty mode as Drake was brought forward, still in his cage. Drake's soldiers were arranged in a picturesque crescent behind him, chained and miserable. "You have all been charged with breaking and entering-"

"Zetta-" Drake pleaded. "You wouldn't hurt me-"

"-unprovoked assault-"

"-known you for years, practically raised you, didn't I, always thought you were the nicest little-"

"-and generally being losers. This demands punishment." He bared his fangs. Salome rubbed his shoulder lovingly.

Drake squeaked. "Now, now, don't be hasty. You- don't act rashly, what does your code of law really want in this case? I'm thinking two or three hours of community service-"

Zetta was deep in thought for a moment, then he nodded. "I'm killing you all." He withdrew the Zetta Sword.

In the pandemonium that followed, it was difficult to follow the action. One could say with absolute certainty that people were being punished. Yes, there was much squealing and yelping, reeling and railing, demons being thrown into the air and loop-de-looping, all punctuated by Zetta's happy laughter. But it was difficult to say who was being killed at any given time, unless, of course, you were the one actually being killed. It was all rather a blur.

After five minutes, Zetta leaned against the hilt of his sword and surveyed the damage. Salome smiled fondly, Zetta's elite platoon clapped, and Q stood eagerly at attention.

"All right, Q," Zetta said, feeling all warm and tingly with Mana, "sort through this mess and nab any souls that look worth reincarnating. I'll see to them after dinner. Oh-" He straightened. "And as for King Drake-" Zetta looked around. He frowned. He turned around, scanning the entire clearing for any sign of the Lion Overlord. "What the- Hey, where'd the cage go?"

Zetta's minions all looked around, but there was no sign of King Drake or his Mana-nulling cage. All tingliness vanished from Zetta. "The hell? Where did-" He whipped around, brandishing his sword. "I didn't pulverize the cage, did I?"

Salome raised an eyebrow. "You might've. You were in pretty good form there."

"But - Dammit, I want my revenge!" Zetta shouted. He whirled on Cummerbund. "Shut that damn thing off!"

Cummerbund jumped six feet and hastened to comply. Blushing, he switched off the boombox which, for some reason, had been playing "Chariots of Fire".

oOoOoOo

Deep in the marshland jungle, Drake raced to freedom. Oh, they could try to capture him, try to torture him, try to defeat him, but they'd never succeed. Once again, he had outwitted his foes, through sheer guts and willpower, he'd-

"OW!" Drake yelped as the cage hit a large rock and went flying for several feet before it banged back onto the ground and continued its descent.

Yes, no doubt about it, he was King Drake the Mighty, King Drake the Magnificent, charging on to greatness. For a moment, during Zetta's punishment-fest back at the camp, he'd almost -almost- been worried, but then Zetta had knocked the cage over, and, unnoticed, Drake had gone rolling away downhill. And rolling. And rolling. The cage had probably been going for miles now. It had been pretty uncomfortable at first, but Drake was getting used to it. He was beginning to think he'd have to get used to it, as there wasn't any level terrain in sight, just downhill slopes, down, down into the mist.

This wasn't one of those flat Netherworlds, was it? The ones where you could just go flying right off the edge and into space if you weren't careful?

No. Of course not. Really.

Would this hill ever end?

Still, he was alive. All in all, a good day to be King Drake the Third.