Disclaimer--- Don't own 'em, at least not in this lifetime anyway.
Author's note--- This story is another chapter in my long-running Dragon Chronicles. Not every story in this series will be listed on FF.net, but all of them are listed in chronological writing order on my webpage. If you'd like to find out more about Zelda or other characters that will appear later in this series, visit my website at http://members.fortunecity.com/zeldathedragon and go to the information page. The rest of my stories can be found in the fanfiction section.
Rating: PG-13 for some down n' out blood, violence, and a twist of horror. Muahaha!
Written by Zelda
Nosedive flipped through the paper quickly, fumbling the big pages in his hands.
"Man, why did they have to relocate all the comics?" he muttered.
Tanya leaned across the galley table and suddenly grabbed a sheet from him. "Just a second there Dive... I've been wanting to read this story."
"What is it?" Dive glanced up. "Big Gamer Beats Big Blue?"
Tanya nodded, eyes scanning the article. "One of the world's best chess players..." she started. "He beat a supercomputer designed to play chess... it's really something."
"Yeah I'm sure." Dive smirked. "Now all those nerds with pocket protectors at the computer companies have to go back to the drawing board."
Tanya shot him a glare, then went back to reading. "Whadda ya know, he's actually in town this weekend for a book signing... maybe I should go."
"Just make sure you're back in time for practice." Wildwing put an empty mug of coffee down on the counter and started to refill it. "Remember? We're playing the Armadillos on Monday and I'm in no mood to be caught unprepared."
"Don't remind me." Mallory shook her head as she came in behind him. "I still have a bruise from that captain of theirs... darn guy boarded me and the ref didn't call it, he was staring right at me for Puckworld's sake...." she walked off, complaining under her breath about the whole mess.
"She didn't get much sleep." Zelda explained with a smile as she came in, a branch of fresh dates in her jaws. She set down in the corner and began munching happily, spitting the pits at Nosedive, who threw them right back.
Wildwing sighed and left the room, followed by Tanya, who used her paper as a shield. She chuckled and folded up her article.
"So are you going to see that guy?" Wildwing asked her.
"Sure. He's actually over at Lectric Land, I shouldn't be long. Practice is at one today, right?"
"Right. Seeya later." Tanya waved and veered off to the vehicle bay, picking up her helmet before entering the hangar and choosing out a cycle.
The store was packed. Both adults and kids wandered around the place, frantic and confused workers tried to direct them into a line. Tanya picked up a copy of the book to be signed and started flipping through it as she waited on line. "Hmmm.... 'Closer to Checkmate', by Bill Archer." she scanned its back cover over. It was a long time before she finally found herself before a table. The man sitting at it was dressed in a button-down shirt, patterned tie, and dress slacks. His brown hair was fluffy and curled back over his head. He was surprisingly young, only in his twenties. She put the book down on the table and smiled at him. "So what was it like beating Big Blue?" she asked.
Surprisingly enough, he shrugged and rubbed his wrist before signing. "Decent for a challenge." he said. "I almost loathe being so good, I can't find anyone to play with me anymore. You see I know all kinds of games. Chess, checkers, bridge, backgammon, cards--"
"Heh, I play a mean go fish." Tanya grinned.
Mr. Archer chuckled. "You live over at the Pond eh?"
"Huh... maybe I'll check out a game sometime."
"Well, it's not chess, but it's worth it. Thanks." Tanya picked up her book and walked away.
The defenseman hardly flinched as the lightweight wing threw the whole weight of his body against hers, and the boards. Tanya pulled away from the check, unharmed, still controlling the puck. Frustrated, Nosedive spun around as she took off, Grin trailing behind her on the other side of the ice, hovering at the blue line. As Dive caught up, Tanya used a shoulder to wrestle him off the puck again. Dive lashed out with his stick and wedged it into Tanya's skates, causing her to spill to the ice, and the puck slide furtively away.
There was a shrill cry of the whistle, and Dive threw his stick to the ice in frustration. "What?" he yelled up at Zelda on the boards above, who was spinning the whistle in her claws.
"You hold your tounge Dive, you tripped her." she scolded.
"Did not!" he protested.
"You don't have to show up to us Dive." his brother smirked from the goal crease. "This isn't a game and Zel isn't a ref."
"Coulda confused me." Dive glared at her again.
Zelda pointed sternly to the penalty box.
"This is just a practice Zel." Duke started.
"Don't you start too!" she smiled. "He lost his patience, he made a mistake, and he pays. Now you and Mallory are a man down."
Duke rolled his eyes and grinned.
"That was great puckhandling Tanya." Mallory high fived her. "You do that in a game and I guarantee you'll have someone open to pass to."
"How do you know?"
"Because all the forecheckers will be back down there with Grin!" Mallory laughed.
"Mal's right, that was a great defensive breakout." Wildwing tipped his Mask. "Now everyone at center ice, we're gonna do a face-off an see what happens from there." He looked over to his brother as he sulked in the sin bin. Suddenly, he noticed someone sitting in the stands, not too far behind Dive. And it wasn't Phil. "Hey!" he yelled up at the man. "Who are you?"
The team stopped and looked up.
Tanya smiled and waved. "Hi there Mr. Archer, didn't know you would stop by so soon!"
"Yo, is that the computer geek?" Nosedive turned to see.
"I got bored." Mr. Archer shrugged. "Hope I'm not interrupting anything."
"Not at all." Wildwing waved. "C'mon team, face-off, remember?" The team gathered around center ice, and the puck was dropped.
Tanya mopped her bill and straightened her hair as she trotted out of the locker room. Practice was a little less fun and a little more showy when spectators were around... she pondered the subject as she pushed open a set of doors, and found Mr. Archer waiting for her on the other side. "Oh!" she started, surprised. "Hi there." Mr. Archer looked at her unphased.
"Nice practice." he said, taking a deck of cards from his pocket. "Wanna play?"
Tanya hesitated slightly. She had just come from a practice... she was tired... but this was a way to relax. "Sure... let's go to the park."
It was really a nice day out. Tanya was actually having fun playing against this Archer guy. But he seemed to be taking the game much too seriously. All he did was stare at his hand, not even noticing when the baseball a pair of nearby kids were throwing nearly hit him in the head.
Methodically, he slapped a five of spades down on the card table. "Got any?" he asked.
"Yup." Tanya grinned. "How are you so good at this?" She handed him a five.
"I have a good memory." he replied, no emotion in his voice, folding the five into his hand.
"Well so do I! Have any aces?" she asked slyly.
Mr. Archer looked up, twitched his eyebrow, and handed her three.
She chuckled and placed the completed set down. "Still my turn. Have any threes?"
"Just one." He flipped it out and gave it to her.
She completed another set and tied him 6-6.
The man adjusted himself on his seat. "We're almost out of cards you know." he said.
"Oh well, still my turn. Have any.... eights?"
Tanya took a card, then smiled and put another set of four down.
Mr. Archer frowned. "Have any twos?"
He took a card, frowned again, and put it in his hand.
"What about kings?"
"No." he shook his head.
She took the last card, grinned, and put down her last set of four kings, winning 8-6.
Mr. Archer looked down at her neat piles of cards in disbelief.
"I have to hand it to you, you're one of the best people I've ever played!" Tanya laughed.
"I can't believe you beat me." Mr. Archer shook his head.
"Well I get regular practice." Tanya smiled. She extended her hand for a shake.
Mr. Archer looked at her strangely, then hesitated and checked his watch. "Oh... look at the time. I'd better be going." He stood up.
"Well, it was nice to hang out with ya. Anytime you're in town, stop in for a game eh?"
"Yeah, for a game." He started to walk away, when he suddenly remembered something and turned back. "Do you play chess?"
"Checkers yes, not really chess." she shook her head. "I learned how to a long time ago, and forgot. Besides, if you can beat Big Blue, I'd be a novice.
"Well nevertheless, you should learn again." he folded his arms. "Checkmate is a great feeling. Goodbye. Keep the cards." he walked away into the park.
Tanya took up the deck of cards and reshuffled them.
Grin squeezed a wedge of lemon into his steaming cup of tea as he sat groggily at the Galley table.
Nosedive was flipping channels next to him. "Alright! Cartoons!" he cheered, and cranked the volume to sing along to the opening theme.
Grin rolled his eyes and grunted. "Must my muse be clouded so early?" he mumbled.
"No." Wildwing patted his shoulder, and raised a remote. The small TV on the wall switched to the morning news.
"Hey!" Nosedive battled to punch his channel back in, but got nowhere.
"Tanya souped this remote up." Wildwing grinned. "Just for emergencies."
His little brother pouted over his Lucky Charms for a moment, then stood up and dashed out of the room, leaving a trail of cereal. "Well I'll get Drake 1's big screen!" he teased.
Wildwing shook his head and grinned.
"Thanks." Grin dunked a tea bag in his mug and sighed.
Wildwing sat down and listened to the TV intently as Mallory walked in.
"Morning all, ready for the big game?"
"Uh uh uhhh..." Wing tisked, not looking away from the screen.
"Oh, that's right, I remember." Mallory laughed. "Can't talk about the game to you until practice." She sat down. "Superstition city."
"Couldn't be a normal goalie without 'em." Wildwing responded.
"Spiritual living." Grin smiled.
Wildwing turned up the TV.
"... and the police are following a small and shallow number of leads after a strange man robbed a store in the mall last night. One question they would like to answer is why the man robbed only a store that sold games and puzzles, and not the jewelry store just down the way. Now, here's Fat Joe with the weather..."
"Another wacko." Mallory sighed.
"Perhaps we should assist the police?" Grin asked.
Wildwing sighed. "Let them call us. They said the police had leads. Besides, he sounds like he's just some small time shoplifter." He yawned and started flipping channels. He had too much on his mind already.
Tanya was flipping through her mail as she sat on her bunk, hair still wet from her after-practice shower. The ususal, bills, computer magazines, and then a name caught her eye. "Hello...." She picked up a letter with a return address she recognized. "Mr. Archer?" She opened it, full of curiosity.
How are you? I've missed the competition we had that day in the park. Like I said before, it's tough to find someone who can beat me. Anyway, if you could find the time, please bring the rest of your team to my home in San Francisco. I have a new type of game that I've been dying to play, and I'd hope that people of your intellect would be willing to give me feedback on it. Thanks.
Tanya read it over again. It wasn't really a strange request. It would be something to do anyway, after the game tonight they'd have a four-day break. She put the letter on her nightstand and got into bed for her pre-game nap.
The crowd rose to its feet for a final cheer as the horn sounded blaringly throughout the arena. Zelda skidded to a stop and let out an exhausted sigh along the top of the boards. The team skated from their positions back to Wildwing and gave each other congrads on the hard work they had all done to struggle to a 4-3 overtime win. It was a long, hard-fought win, and all the fans knew it, staying just a few seconds longer in their seats and applauding. Under the flashing lights, Zelda joined her team, bouncing off their shoulders and nuzzling them in turn.
"Whew, was THAT ever work.... I hope we don't have to hit these guys in the offseason." Mallory took off her helmet and swatted her hair back with her glove.
Wildwing grabbed his water bottle off the back of the net with his big blocker mitt and squirted a gulp into his beak. "You're telling me, those odd-man rushes had me sweating bullets all night."
"Power forwards are something we're going to have to work on." Zelda nodded. She bonked heads with Wildwing and followed the team as they trailed into the locker room.
"Boy, that's a relief." Tanya clanked her helmet into her locker with happy exhaustion. "Nice to have such a big win on the board. That should raise a few eyebrows around the league."
"Man I'm taping SportsCenter tomorrow." Nosedive pointed at her. "I wanna see Grin send that sucker through the glass on that check in the first period. He sure deserved it."
"Perhaps." Grin rubbed his shoulder and smiled.
They all quickly removed their gear and took the elevator downstairs.
"So what's on tap for tomorrow?" Tanya asked the rest of them on the way down.
"Hey, I just wanna take a good shower and have a nice long sleep." Duke shook his head.
"We do have a break coming up." Zelda said.
"Probably just another chance for Phil to stock us up with photo ops." Mallory snorted.
"I dunno if my wrist can stand another autograph session like last time." Dive lamented.
Tanya smiled. "I may just have an excuse to feed him if he does."
Mr. Archer's property was huge. Tanya should have expected it, him being quite rich, but he didn't seem like that kind of a guy to own a mansion. Nevertheless, they pulled up at the address to find themselves before a high wrought iron gate, walled by thick boxwood hedge that extended at least a quarter of a mile in each direction.
"Whoa Tanya, this guy must have a money bin like Scrooge McDuck!" Dive laughed.
Wildwing rubbed his beak as he sat in the Migrator's driver seat. This place was impressive. "Is he expecting us?" he asked.
"Not really." Tanya said.
Wildwing rolled down the front windshield and leaned way out to press a button on the call box.
"Archer residence? Who is this?" a man's voice responded.
"Mr. Archer, it's us, the Ducks!" Tanya recognized him. "You invited us down in the letter to me."
"Yes, I remember. So nice of you to come. Just wait a moment and I'll open the gate."
The elegant curves of the gate gleamed black in the sun as it swung open, and the Migrator slipped through. As they wound up the long driveway, the Ducks drove slowly to take a look at the scenery. The mansion itself was on a hill, the driveway lined with boxwood sculptures and ivy topiaries shaped to look like chess pieces. There was a marble fountain in front of the house. A few feet from the driveway on either side, the lush grass led to another boxwood hedge, this time shorter. Beyond that wall lay a hedge maze, with trim and proper gardens and still ponds placed strategically.
"Wow. Nice." Mallory said.
"Why does this guy want us here again?" Duke asked. "I feel real out of place."
"He wanted to show us this new game I think." Tanya tried to remember.
"Dude if he makes us play chess, I am as good as outta here." Dive warned with a grin.
The Migrator pulled up beneath a columned overhang, and stopped. The hatch opened and the team walked out to find Mr. Archer in a crisp gray suit, coming out of a pair of huge white doors.
"Good afternoon!" he waved to them. "I hope you didn't have any trouble getting in."
"None at all." Tanya smiled back.
"Excellent. I'm glad all of you were able to come today. Perhaps Tanya has told you why I asked you to come."
"The game right?" Nosedive almost sighed.
"Yes. I figure that you're the type for strategy. I've been in the planning stages for a new type of game. In fact, I just met with some business partners about the issue. Please, come inside and let me show you." He led the Ducks into a huge, domed room, all in white with a creamy carpet, sparsely decorated with chess and card figures. It was very impressive. "Ever since Tanya beat me in that simple game of go fish, I realized how I underestimated you. You all get very good practice in memory, strategic thinking, such things, every time you play hockey. I was hoping to have your insight on this game I'm creating."
"Well it sounds interesting Mr. Archer." Wildwing said. "Is it like chess or checkers?"
"Is it like poker?" Duke smirked. "I'm good at that."
"No, it's actually a more physically active game. Something like tag, but it requires a lot more... well, skill."
"Whew!" Dive said. "I can do tag. How do you play?"
Mr. Archer looked at him strangely. "Good to see some ambition. You have a real competitive spirit. The first step of the game is to split up and hide. Go on, split up and hide anywhere, inside or out. I'll be 'it' first, to demonstrate how challenging this game is. Let me go upstairs... so I won't see any of you. You'll have five minutes to spread out." Mr. Archer quickly swept up the stairs before the Ducks could ask any questions.
Tanya looked at the others and shrugged.
"I was wrong, this guy's nuts." Nosedive stifled laughing.
"Hey!" Tanya smirked. "He is a little... nerdy."
"Boy is that weird coming from you." Mallory broke in.
Tanya grinned back. "But he's nice once you get to know him. Come on, how bad can this game be?"
Wildwing yawned. "I agree, we drove all the way down here, might as well enjoy it."
"So we just play along huh?" Duke started walking towards the door. "I'm game. See you all later."
Wildwing yawned again and found himself a back door to walk out of. He strolled onto a large marble veranda with sprawling stairs. Beyond him was an immense backyard. It too contained the same boxwood hedge maze, but there was a big pond, with a shack next to it. There was also a wildflower garden, high with blossoming plants to the back, and a huge sculpture garden with giant stone chess pieces, arranged to resemble a game in progress. Jeez did this guy have money! Wildwing wiped the back of his neck and headed off into the maze, hoping to find the wildflower garden.
Dive, Grin and Zelda walked out of the back together.
"Wing!" Dive called out. "Bro?" There was no answer.
"He walked off a while ago." Zelda sniffed the ground. "He may have gone around to the other side."
"Sheesh this guy has some money huh?" Dive scanned the horizon. "I can tell ya one thing, if I had half the moola this guy does, I wouldn't be spending it on plants."
"Plants are soothing." Grin said gently. "Perhaps their slow growth and graceful shapes bring Mr. Archer more than their mere worth."
"Yah, whatever." Dive shrugged.
Tanya stood waiting in the wide room. She wanted to hear more about this game from Mr. Archer. It certainly was taking him long enough to come down, everyone else wandered off at least ten minutes ago. She was about to go when she heard the door open above her. Mr. Archer came down in khaki shorts and a dark green, with an old British hunting hat, strap tied loosely around his chin.
"That's quite a change!" she laughed.
He jumped a little upon noticing her. He shifted his glasses. "I thought you would have been gone by now." he said dryly.
"Sorry, I was just curious about this game." Tanya explained. "Tell me some of the rules. How do you win?"
"The rules?" he reached the bottom of the stairs and went into a cabinet. "There are few." He rummaged around. "It's intense. The ultimate game. It takes a lot of skill, speed, quick thinking to get to checkmate."
"Checkmate eh? So how do you win?" Tanya repeated, walking toward him.
Suddenly, he reached up and slammed the cabinet door shut. Mr. Archer was armed to the teeth with a silvery black crossbow in his hands, and a quiver packed on his back. Tanya gasped and froze as the arrow pointed right at her middle. "How do you win?" He grinned sickly. "You run. You live." He stalked forward, Tanya inching back. "You're last... don't worry." he assured her with a growl. "You see Tanya I'm sick of chess pieces... of whimps with pocket protectors, thinking that they're the kings of the world. I wanted real strategy, real consequences. I wanted my checkmate to be blood real...."
"No... I'm the best." he countered her. "But like I said, you're my queen. The pawns go first. So go on, run."
Tanya hesitated, feeling horribly afraid in the open space.
"I SAID RUN!" he screamed, and Tanya was sent scrambling for the front door. As soon as she was out of his sight, he stalked out the back.
Zelda frilled her ears at hearing the loud noise, blurted by the marbled walls and boxwood hedge.
"You guys hear that?" she started. They were standing among a small, fragrant lavender garden.
"Hear what?" Nosedive asked.
"I thought I heard someone yelling...." she muttered. She instinctively started back for the door, and the two followed her.
As she reached the entrance to the hedge maze, Mr. Archer came barreling out. "All three of you only here?" he snapped. "I told you to spread out!"
"What's going on here Archer?" Nosedive stepped up next to Zelda. He suddenly silenced the both of them as he pulled out his crossbow and grinned. They both had no time to react until it was over. Nosedive and Zelda both swirled around, looking behind as the arrow spun past them, inches from them. The dragon gasped as it hit Grin, so hard that the big Duck stumbled back, crying out in pain as he fell back and crumpled at the base of the hedge, hands around the shaft that stuck from his ribs. Zelda was distracted as Archer cackled, grinning with bloodlust upon seeing his hit, drawing his bow again. She scrambled and hit the dirt. The arrow whizzed over her head, and suddenly she heard Nosedive snarl. Looking up, he held his hand, the arrow planted in a distant tree up to the hilt. Zelda growled and charged to Archer's feet, spinning around and hitting him in the legs with her tail so hard it knocked him flat on his back. The dragon crouched and sprang, claws out, when Archer rolled agilely up, bringing the blunt of his crossbow full across Zelda's left shoulder. The dragon tumbled back, the skin torn and bleeding. She quickly recoiled, turning to face Archer again as Nosedive rejoined her.
"Time for the last move Arch-dork." Nosedive growled, his hand bleeding from the graze.
Archer cocked his bow and grinned. "You still fail to realize that you are but pawns." he shook his head and pointed towards Grin. "And I am now one step closer towards checkmate." With that, he slapped his bow to the ground, and bolted back into the house.
Nosedive charged him, but stopped as he disappeared. "Come back here you coward!" he taunted, but there was no response. What a punk! The pain in his hand brought him back down to earth as he turned back to see that Zelda had already reached Grin's side. Nosedive quickly joined her, as Grin had obviously taken a bad hit. He still weakly was holding the arrow, writhing miserably with closed eyes. A blood stain had already radiated widely from the wound in his ribs, soaked up by his white shirt.
Zelda quickly tried to assess the situation. "Easy Grin." she tried. "I know it hurts, just lie still." Grin obeyed slowly. She went around to his right side to have a better look at the wound. "How deep do you think?" she asked him fearfully. Grin lay still, breathing shallowly, and didn't respond.
Nosedive gulped, something was wrong. "What's happening?" he asked quickly.
"He's going unconscious from the pain!" Zelda breathed. She shook his shoulder. "Come on Grin, stay with us."
The Duck still made no response.
"This is bad." Zelda leaned up, panicked. "We can't let him go out... not now.... that arrow..." she thought. "It's no ordinary arrow."
"Well that was no ordinary jerk that shot it!" Nosedive snapped. "What do we do?"
"Lemme think..." Zelda was frustrated. "It's about a fifth of the length in... the arrowhead is double-barbed." she determined.
"So the only way it'll go from now on is in. Even Grin's breathing will work that arrow in deeper. It's gotta come out." She ruled quickly.
"We have to pull it out?"
The dragon gave a hopeless glance at Grin, and a rub to her aching shoulder. "It's the only way." she sighed. "Grin?" she leaned to his ear. "Stay with us Grin... we're gonna pull the arrow out, on three okay?" Zelda gave a wink to Nosedive, and he knew what to do. They both grabbed the shaft, eliciting a soft moan from Grin.
"Easy big guy." Dive tried. "One, two..." They both yanked the arrow out on two, Dive cringing as he felt it rip out.
Grin yelled out again, curling himself up in pain, breath coming shortly. He cringed, squinted his eyes and locked his teeth in agony as he tried to make it fade away.
Zelda was back to panicking. "Take it easy Grin, lie still and it'll go away." she insisted.
It was hard for the big Duck to cooperate. Slowly, he opened his eyes and stared up at her. "You'll be fine." she assured hollowly. "Lie still." She fetched a cloth out of a hatch in his belt and pressed it hard to the wound.
Again, Grin squirmed.
"What if he goes out again?" Dive asked, nervous.
"Let him now." Zelda shook her head. "Otherwise this is going to be a real bad night for him." They didn't have to worry, Grin slowly slipped into unconsciousness, still sprawled at the base of the hedge.
Tanya was absolutely frantic, hacking away at her Omnitool, then shifting to her com. Something was blocking all of their transmissions... possibly preventing Wildwing's Mask from functioning. She hoped it was, she hoped he would realize something was wrong. She desperately wanted to call out for her teammates, to cause a ruckus and send them all running to her. But she was also terrified of Archer finding her. How could he turn out to be such a sicko! She hid in the corner of the hedge maze, trying to calm herself down and hack through the scrambling device. In the back of her head, she still couldn't believe that this was going on. She wanted to pinch herself and wake up. And yet, something was telling her this nightmare was getting worse, really fast.
Duke's ears caught some sound that was unrecognizable from the distance... yet he knew that the sound was curious... in a way it sent something through his head that he didn't like. He was well away from the house, almost to the gate, enjoying getting himself lost in the maze of hedge and stone. Now he suddenly felt the need to be back with his teammates. Something was strange about this place. He decided to head back to the Migrator, see if anyone was hanging out there. He slowly started to retrace his steps through the maze, as the sky darkened above him.
Zelda refused to leave his side. Grin's breathing had slowly steadied itself, and he lay still in his drifting unconsciousness. The dragon stayed right next to him as he lay on a few bales of straw, her head down by his waist. She flattened herself against the ground, as if she were hiding patiently behind his body.
Contrastingly, Nosedive was all on the jump. He stood at the door to the pond shed with both launchers in hand, constantly fidgeting, on the ready. He paced about the shed, peeking around the doorframe and trying his com in an erratic order.
Despite her stillness, Zelda was getting nervous just watching him. "Easy..." she started.
"Zelda, I told you this guy was nuts." Dive turned on her. "Grinster's hurt and I wanna get out of here now."
"We can't move him any farther." Zelda sympathized with him. "He's gotta wake up... then we'll try something..."
"Try what Zel?" Dive didn't calm down. "My com won't work... nobody else knows about us except the loon. What if he's hunting the others down right now? I swear that's the Baron's little cousin." he growled. "If I so much as smell a pocket protector...." he spun his launchers on his fingers to prove his point. Zelda started up as Grin slowly shifted. Dive stopped pacing. He groaned softly and started to roll over.
"Easy Grin." Zelda told him, pushing him back. "You still with us big guy?"
Grin slowly lay back and squinted his eyes. He grunted. "I'm here." he finally responded.
"Take it easy." Zelda furrowed her brows with concern.
"What happened?" he murmured.
"Archer went postal." Dive was now stationed dutifully at the door. "Now we know what his game is. We've got to get outta here before someone else gets hurt."
Grin again tried to roll up. It took a lot for him to sit.
"We're getting you back to the 'Grator." Zelda nudged him. "Think you can make it?"
"Can't hurt to try..." he slowly slid off of the hay bales.
"Sure it can." Dive turned.
"No it can't." Grin tisked.
Dive sighed. "I know, I know, pain is an illusion." he repeated. He loaded a few more pucks into his launchers as Zelda helped Grin slowly up.
He hobbled weakly out of the shed, eyes locked on the back door of the house.
"Steady...." Zelda eased he and Dive on.
The teenage Duck stood tense, broodingly in front of the two, creeping forwards, scanning every leaf of the hedge, every blade of grass with suspicious and nervous eyes. Grin stumbled on the steps leading up to the porch. Dive mechanically gave him a shoulder to lean on, still holding both launchers, still not looking away from the ground in front of him.
Zelda kept up the rear, now slowly catching Dive's tenseness, watching the shadows of the house carefully. "Almost there..." she whispered.
"Keep your eyes open." Dive nodded. It seemed to take them forever to creep across the open space, and finally they were out of the front door, the security of the Migrator before them. Nosedive walked up the open ramp and sat Grin down in a chair, then instantly went over to the dashboard and shut the door.
Zelda got out a first-aid kit and started to pad Grin's wound with gauze.
"How bad is it?" Grin asked.
"Not that bad." she answered, relief in her voice. "It's deep but the wound is small.... I'll stitch you up later, after I stop this bleeding..."
"Yayyy." Grin closed his eyes and leaned back.
Dive paused for a few minutes to slap a band-aid on his hand before he went back to scanning the view from the windshield. "What now?" he asked.
"Lock up the 'Grator." Zelda told him for a start. "Unless Archer's packing a scud, he shouldn't be able to get in here. We'll have to use this as a base for now..."
"Why a base? Let's put this baby into battle mode and do a little hedge-clipping!" Dive said. Zelda thought for a moment. "I dunno...." she pondered. "This complex is huge Dive. Assuming the others know there's trouble-they will eventually- they know they can make their way back here."
"If Wing's around the corner and he walks up here five minutes after we leave, the 'Grator's no good to him."
"So we spread out?"
"Take a cycle, I'll fly up and see who I can spot... it shouldn't be hard from up there.."
"What about me?" Grin opened his eyes again.
"You'll be fine in here big guy." Dive said. "The two-way radios still work, call me on the cycle if you're in trouble." Zelda opened the back hatch and flew out, followed by Dive on a cycle. He ripped up the engine and started into the hedge.
Grin watched them go from the windshield. He sighed, got up and hobbled over to the panel to close the door. As he sank down into a passenger seat, he closed his eyes again.
Mallory stumbled over the root of a big tree. She was so lost it wasn't funny, and following the sun was useless since it had already gone down. As the orange sky faded farther into darkness, she peered around the base of a huge oak and tried to gain her bearings. She could have sworn she passed this very tree ten minutes ago. Mallory sighed and sat down. She wondered how the others were fairing. This stupid game was more hide than hide and go seek. She opened her com. "Are we having fun yet?" she sighed into it. Static replied. Mallory frowned and tried again. "Dive? Tanya? You guys there?" Still nothing. Mallory closed her com. Now this was awfully weird....why would her com go out? She took it off and checked it for damage, but there was none. Mallory stood up. It was getting cool out. This was really weird. She wanted to find her way back to the house. Maybe this game was over by now. She picked another pathway out of the maze and started down it. Ten minutes later she found herself before a huge oak tree.
Wildwing vaulted over a hedge, the leaves and sticks slapping his legs. He wanted to get back to the house and he wanted to get back now. Not only was his com not working, but his Mask was malfunctioning as well. And there was some forboding sense in him that was twisting knots in his stomach. He had learned well when Zelda had taught him to never ignore that feeling. Now he was trying to find his way back, over a short hedge maze instead of through it. Suddenly, he saw a figure in the darkness. Beakless, he recognized it as Mr. Archer.
"Bill!" he called out.
The man turned around and waved back, coming towards him. "Hello there Wildwing, something wrong? You're supposed to be hiding...."
"My com and Mask aren't working." he said sternly. "What's going on here?"
"Oh, my I'm sorry about that." Bill slicked back his hair. "I've been having trouble with my television satellite dish, perhaps that's what's scrambling your coms..."
"They operate on a separate frequency." Wildwing still continued sternly. "Where are the others?"
"Still playing. You Ducks are mighty good at this game, I didn't expect it to go this late. I've only gotten Grin so far..."
"Look I'm sorry Mr. Archer, but we need to finish this another time. Could you show me back to the house? We need to get the team back together."
Bill sighed and shook his head. "It's a shame you have to end this so soon." He started back, Wildwing walking beside him. "But this game can't be played in groups. It takes an individual. That's why I was able to catch Grin so easily."
"Well your brother and the dragon were with him. You can't think right in groups." Bill waved a hand. "Teams have no personality."
Wildwing looked behind him, and suddenly yelled out as he felt a hard blow to his side. There was a deep scar in his armor, and Mr. Archer standing with a crossbow a few feet away with a puzzled look. Wildwing instantly jumped back. "What are you doing?" he yelled.
Archer loaded another arrow. "Now just play along Wildwing." he smiled. "This is just how the game goes."
"What?!?" Wildwing was in shock.
"Why yes!" Archer was nonchalant as he stalked towards the Duck. "You see, I said it was the ultimate game. The game of survival.... there's no blood in checkers, no loss in cards. You play your best when there's something real on the line."
Wildwing turned his back only to leap over another hedge and draw his shield.
Archer followed, surprisingly agile. "So go ahead, be yourself." he continued. "It's the ultimate rush isn't it? Fight or flight, run and hide, or die."
"What are you, nuts?" Wildwing came out from behind his shield and raised his launcher. "What have you done to Grin?"
"He lost." Archer smiled.
Wildwing shot a puck at his feet. "Your 'game' ends now Archer." he snarled.
Archer dropped his crossbow and frumped.
"That's more like it." Wildwing slowly climbed over the hedge and back to his side. "Take me to the others now, or you won't have enough brains left to play CandyLand, let alone chess."
Arched backed away from the bow nervously. "You musn't take this game so seriously Wing, you're a rather poor sport." Bill still talked lightly.
"We'll see how seriously you'll take it when the winner loses." Wildwing snapped back.
Archer just grinned. "That won't happen." Archer looked down. Suddenly, he swung his leg out and hit Wildwing hard in the back of the knees, the Duck buckling back and hitting the dirt path. Archer then cracked a blow with his hand to the back of Wildwing's neck.
The duck rolled away and up quickly. He hadn't expected a geek like Archer to know martial arts. Archer twitched an eyebrow and backflipped over a hedge wall. He quickly started off running. Wildwing shot a few pucks behind him, but Archer seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, and dodged them. He suddenly ducked below the line of the hedge, and Wildwing lost sight of him. Plowing through the sharply molded boxwood, he hurdled at least six walls before he reached Archer's position, but he was long gone. Wildwing drew his shield and looked around him nervously. He had to get back to the others... now.
The cycle roared dangerously close. The sound was delightfully reassuring, it finally broke the invisible binds of fear that had held Tanya into that little corner of hedge long past the sunset. Hearing the familiar motor, she stood up, eyes darting among the hedge for it's flashing white body. And suddenly the hedge a few rows before her exploded in green, and the cycle burst through. Nosedive jammed on the breaks just in time to avoid hitting her!
"Whoa! This is no time to be road-pizza Tanya!" Dive wiped his brow.
She was so relieved to see him that she jumped up and hugged him."You have no idea how good it is to see you in one piece." she smiled.
"Yeah well your friend sure ripped into Grin." Nosedive snapped. "We've gotta get everyone before he does!"
She leapt onto the back of the cycle and they both took off. "I still can't believe it!" she said emptily. "He seemed like a nice guy...."
Nosedive chose not to answer her. Yeah... he did seem normal for a nerd. He shook the thought away and pulled to a stop beside the Migrator.
"Go in and stay there, look after Grin. I'll call Zel and tell her I found you!"
Tanya was barely off the cycle before Dive roared away again. Tanya sighed and turned back. She opened the hatch with her access code and walked up the ramp.
Grin relaxed slightly back in the chair upon seeing her. "Good that you're okay." he said.
Tanya didn't realize how badly he was hurt until she saw him. Still loosely gripping his wounded left side, he looked back at her weakly. "Yeah, wish I could say the same about you." she smiled slightly and kneeled down beside him. "Come on, let's have a look at that."
Grin shifted uncomfortably and helped Tanya redress the wound.
"This is the most wacky situation we've been in since we got tangled with the Baron." Tanya started. "I wish I knew what this dumb game was all about."
Grin nodded slowly. "Obviously a greatly disturbed young man. His attachment to the game he loves most has driven him to madness. He actually called me a pawn."
"Yeah... he passed me over because he said I was his queen." Tanya sniffed. "I have no idea what he was thinking. I'm not going to be his queen anytime on my schedule."
Grin pondered it as he winced. "Perhaps that's not quite what he meant." he started.
"Well then what did..... of course!" Tanya snapped her fingers and stood up. "That's not what he meant at all! So that's what his game is!"
"A game of chess...." Grin said.
"Taken to new heights! I guess he got tired of knocking over plastic pieces." Tanya growled. "That sicko wants to knock off real people! He's playing a game of chess with flesh and blood."
"And he's the one who's calling all the moves." Grin added.
"You're right..." Tanya started. "None of us know how to play chess, it's gonna be tough to predict what he's gonna try to do."
"There could be a rulebook in the house." Grin gestured.
"No, I'm staying with you for now." Tanya ruled firmly. "You're hurt pretty bad."
Grin straightened himself in the chair.
"Besides, it'll be impossible to understand the game anyway, because we don't know what pieces he's labled the others with. I'm a queen, you're a pawn, that's it."
"So are Dive and Zel."
"That still dosen't help much." Tanya moved to her dashboard console. "That still leaves Mal, Duke and Wing up in the air, there are what... knights, rooks, kings, and the bishops left."
"We also must determine what piece he considers himself to be."
"That's right. I'm gonna contact Dive and Zel. If you're a pawn and you were taken out, they might be next."
"Chess is a game of great strategy." Grin reminded her. "He's got a hit list... he's got a pattern."
"Yeah... only we don't get to look at the chessboard." Tanya growled. She stooped down and picked up the radio unit.
The darkness was working against her. With the clouds masking starlight, the darkness was working against her. Zelda flapped hard to hover for a moment in the air, above a small sculpture garden. Flying like this would be useless if she couldn't see... and there was no way for her to smell her teammates from up this high. She snorted and swooped back to earth, landing in the shadows of hedge chess pieces. Sniffing the earth, she instantly caught a strange scent, still fresh. The dragon growled and crept towards it. "Archer.... you're insane. Give this up before someone gets killed!" she snapped into the blackness. Archer's form melded into its own from the shadow of a knight.
"Insane? No no, you're not one to understand a human's sense of challenge, of competition..." he started.
"But I am familiar with the human definition of insanity." Zelda replied, looking for his crossbow. "There is no competition where there is mortal danger... there is only survival. Give this up now."
Archer chuckled and shook his head.
Zelda snapped upon catching the scent of something else.
"No Zelda, you don't understand." he repeated. There was a metal click and a rusty squeak behind him. "Survival is the greatest competition of all." The eyes of four animals blazed at his sides.
Suddenly, a scuffling of paws on dirt, a howl into the black, and Zelda was tackled by four doberman pinchers, each at least twice as large as she. The dragon tore away and bared her teeth to them like a scared rabbit, backing against a hedge as the howling, snapping animals enveloped her in their sound and black fur. Flight was her only way out. She launched herself off of the ground powerfully and flapped, catching the air. Suddenly, there was hot breath, and her ankle wrenched in a toothed vice. The weight of the dog pulled her back to the earth, and there the hounds fell upon her. The dragon lit up the blackness with a plume of flame, throwing a dog away only momentarily. She clawed and bit and struck again and again at the four dogs, but found herself fighting a Cerebus of shadow and animal, into which all her blows seemed to disappear. The dogs howled and seemed to grow in size and weight as she slowly shrank beneath them, panicking with the blackness all around her, crashing into the sharp hedges. Suddenly, a golden light flashed above her head, and a dog was swiped away, squealing. In that light, Zelda found another one and knocked it clean across the garden with her tail. The light swiped twice more to send the four dogs away, yelping in defeat.
The glow cast a shadow across Duke as he chased them for only a few feet. He turned to find Zelda uninjured enough to be spitting mad.
She wiped blood from her mouth and staggered up. "Duke! Talk about the knick of time... I owe ya one."
Duke stooped down and used the light from his sword to find dozens of small wounds on her, each dribbling blood. "You gonna be okay kiddo?" he asked.
"Don't worry about me, Archer's still around here." Zelda was back on guard, limping around the garden.
"You haven't tried your com?"
"Nope, was actually just napping in a hammock over there by that pond until those dogs woke me up..."
"I hate guard dogs." Zelda spat blood again. "We've gotta get back to the Migrator. Archer's whole invitation was a trap. He's playing a game of chess with us as the pieces!"
"You mean he sent those dogs on you?!" Duke stood angrily.
"He's gotten Grin too... pretty badly... and we can't find the others..."
"Who's the others?" Duke asked quickly.
"Mallory and Wing... I hope they're okay." she whined.
"I haven't seen them." Duke sighed. "I had no idea."
"I'm happy enough to find you, we've gotta get back to the Migrator."
"Shouldn't we split up?"
"No... no we have to get everyone back." Zelda told him. "Archer has a strategy... he's playing a game with us but we can't see the board. The Migrator's our only stronghold."
"Can you get us back? I got lost in these mazes, that's why I gave up and went to sleep."
Zelda sniffed the air. "I think so... come on." she limped quickly off and Duke followed, his sword a lantern for them as they slowly picked their way through the winding paths of hedge.
Some noise stirred him from the drowsy half-sleep he had sunken into. His eyes faded slowly into focus and he raised his lead-weight head to hear the pounding from the hatch better.
Tanya was up at the console, tapping into the outside security cameras. "Zelda's found Duke!" she grinned, and opened the hatch.
Grin sat up straighter as Zelda limped up the ramp, snorting angrily.
Duke walked quickly in behind her and up to Tanya. "What's going on? Where's the kid?"
"Out on a cycle looking for Mal and Wing."
Grin weakly raised a hand to calm the stormy dragon at his side. "What happened to you?"
"Guard dogs." she snapped at nothing. She wiped blood out of her eyes and grabbed a wad of moss from a compartment. "We've got to find the others."
"You want me to take another cycle out?" Duke asked.
"No." Tanya turned around. "We're changing strategy. Archer's playing a game of chess with us, but we don't know how to play back. I need you to get into the house."
"What, you want an instruction booklet?" Duke scoffed. "Archer's packing more heat than we can handle alone. Our priorities should be with the others."
Tanya nodded. "You're right, but Dive's out there."
"And I'll be joining him just as soon as I get cleaned up." Zelda reached for another moss wad. "We need to figure out Archer in order to reach some sort of endgame."
Duke frowned. "Right, I'll try and be quick. Gimme a radio unit."
"Here." Tanya handed him one. "Channel three, I'll keep it open for ya."
Duke slid out of the hatch and disappeared.
Grin blinked, his eyelids growing heavy from weakness again. "Was it wise to let him go?" he asked.
Tanya stared out of the windshield for a moment. "I hope it turns out to be."
He slunk into the dark house like a cat. He was used to breaking and entering. He was used to the night, and the shadows it created. He was not used to being scared. As Duke stole his way into the house, he was greeted by no shadows, no curtains, no nooks or crannies. What stared him down was a gaping openness, mocking him with a ghostly white silence. He felt as if he were in a bubble, no place to hide, no shadow that seemed inviting enough to conceal him in. In each slice of darkness he saw the gleaming eyes of the guard dogs as they ripped Zelda apart. He saw the black outline of the man who vaulted over hedges and vanished from view. The white marble dome of the front parlor gave an unusual altitude to the room. Duke sucked in his breath and dashed silently across the room, suctioning himself to the wall on the other side. He slid along that until he reached a set of doors, slightly ajar. He peeked in to see a royally furnished hallway. It was too dark to see what was at its end. Duke took one last look around before he darted into the hall, and felt safe. In the cloistered environment of potpourri and plush red carpet, Duke didn't mind the darkness at all. He slunk along the wall, keeping his eyes wide open. As sharp as his senses were, his mind wandered. He really didn't want to be here, perhaps that was why he felt so nervous. He still thought he would be doing better if he were out on a cycle now. Mallory and Wildwing were still out there... he wasn't sure, but he didn't want to trust that they could stand up to Archer and whatever else he had hidden in this big death trap. Duke quickly stole down the hall, and found himself peering into the master bedroom, almost as big as the front parlor, and just as hollow and spooky. The canopy bed was veiled in a gray, wispy fabric. Light came in from three huge, uncurtained windows. One of the panes was tilted open, and a faint draft came in. The fabric of the canopy drifted like a ghost on the lightest zephyr. It's motion in all the stillness made Duke jumpy, suspicious of himself. He looked along the walls to see the room was sparsely decorated. All the tables and chairs had chess piece legs. At the semicircular room's corners, two grand staircases spiraled out of Duke's view above him. Duke hung a right, back to the wall the whole time, eyes on the uncommon movement of the canopy's veil. He felt his way to the banister of the stairs, and then faced another conflict of stealth: look before him or keep his eyes on the bedroom as he walked up? The window was open... Duke threw up his hands and turned around, slinking lowly up the stairs. As the darkness before him took shape, Duke saw exactly what he wanted to. A huge study spread before him, with a curved wall stacked to the ceiling with books. Duke slumped his shoulders upon studying this further. He'd be searching for hours! On the side closest to him, were thick, leather-bound volumes. There were books on everything, not only chess but gardening, interior decorating, philosophy... Duke scanned over the volumes to find a good deal of education. As he squinted to see further down the bookshelf, it became less uniform. There were smaller books of altering sizes, from a thick history of old National Geographics, to simple novels and mysteries. Duke walked to the very right side of the shelf to find old, worn paperbacks. This was what he needed. He pulled out book after dog-eared book before he finally came across one that looked promising. The cover ripped off, with the pages yellowed with age. He flipped through it to find a tutorial of chess in the front, to complex strategy charts in the back. Duke grinned and tucked the book into his jumpsuit. Suddenly, the silence of the room was violently shattered as his radio crackled to life.
"Duke?" it was Tanya.
Duke panicked and fumbled the box in his hands. "SHHH!" he whispered harshly. There was a pause. "Well what is it?"
"Sorry." Tanya clicked. "Did you find anything?"
"I think I've got just what we're lookin' for sweetheart." Duke grinned.
"Good, then get your tailfeathers outta there now."
"Archer just walked right past the 'Grator and in... I think he's after you..."
"Great." Duke breathed. He clicked off the radio and stowed it in a pouch in his belt. There were no detours between the bedroom and the parlor... just the corridor. The windows! That was his only way out, but to get there he'd put himself in full view of anyone in the hall. As Duke crept silently towards the stairs again, he couldn't help but pondering Archer. He bypassed the Migrator... surely he knew that some of the Ducks were in there! This guy was a real psycho. Duke crouched and slinked down the stairs, pausing at the base. His hand on the cold marble banister, he paused, barely breathing, listening for any sign of life from down the hall. There was nothing... no sound whatsoever except for the rustling of the drape over Archer's bed. Duke sucked in his breath. He picked up the radio again and whispered into it. "Tanya, just listen. I can't see him anywhere... I'm going to try and get out through a window, right side of the house. Just be ready to lemme in." he clicked the radio off and stowed it again. He closed his eyes, trying to quiet the thumping of his own heart. That guy could be just around the corner with his dogs... or something worse. But Duke didn't hear a thing. He opened his eyes and launched himself soundlessly from the wall, darting across the room towards the window, not looking back. He gripped the window frame in relief as he lowered himself through the narrow space, and he slid into the night air. Suddenly, there was the sudden shattering snap of glass at his ears. The pieces hailed down on him seconds later. Duke did not look back. He let his instinct take over and raced from the window, flattening himself against the house. He paused for a split second, and his eye caught the shadow of a figure at the window he escaped from. Duke dashed around the corner of the house, and there was the Migrator welcoming him. He sprinted for it, and suddenly there was a loud noise and a tearing at his shoulder. Duke felt a searing pain rip through as he ran, and suddenly an arrow stuck into the side of the Migrator. Duke bolted around the corner of the vehicle, scrambled up the ramp, and was stopped by the inside wall of the hull. All that greeted Archer was the shut door.
Dive crashed headlong through another hedge, his lights cutting sharply through the darkness. He really didn't care how much damage he did, he didn't owe this Archer punk any respect. He swerved to avoid another pond. Breathing hard, Dive pulled the cycle to a stop. Jeez! He coulda killed himself back there.... at this rate he'd be as likely to run over his bro or Mal than to run into them. Suddenly, his radio clicked. Dive took a nervous glance around before he picked up the unit. "I'm here."
"Good." Tanya answered. "Duke got back... in one piece."
"He got the book?"
"Sure did, I'm scanning it over now."
"Great." Dive sighed with relief. "Come up with anything yet?" he was hopeful.
"No. We need Archer to tip us off. You, Grin and Zel are pawns, I'm a queen. That's still all we know."
"How is the big guy doing?" Dive asked.
"Better." Tanya replied.
Dive didn't know how to process that.
There was a pause.
"Look, you'd better get moving. Archer didn't waste any time hanging around the Migrator."
"Right. I'll check in later." Dive clicked the radio off. He looked around again before he gunned the motor and was off.
Tanya's eyes scurried over the pages as she flipped through the book. Securing a bandage over his merely grazed shoulder, Duke peered over to see just how valuable the book was going to be. Tanya's brain scrambled to comprehend what she saw before her. She had mastered computer schematics in a blink, this should be no problem for her. And yet, the complexity and the options open to the player in the world of chess loomed higher over her with each page she scanned. As Tanya failed to understand, she began to panic again.
Zelda reared up at the Migrator's console beside her and sniffed the book. "Any breakthroughs yet?" she asked.
Tanya frowned and didn't look up from the pages.
Zelda lowered her ears and walked away. "Well something's making me nervous about this. I'm going back out."
"Me too." Duke stood up as well, and started heading for a cycle. "The more of us out there searching, the better chances we have of finding the others."
Grin nodded. "Both of you be careful out there. This place has many hidden dangers."
Zelda opened the hatch just enough for her to fly out, and seconds later Duke followed on his cycle. He waved up to her before he revved off around the corner from which he had fled the bedroom, and disappeared. Zelda sighed and dove down in the opposite direction.
Mallory checked her watch, ten minutes of walking and there wasn't an oak tree in sight! She would have jumped for joy if she weren't so worried. It had been hours since nightfall, and not a squeak from anyone else. This mansion wasn't that big. She had the gut feeling that something was really wrong around here, and she was itching to find out what. As she rounded a hedge, she found herself before a long, rectangular still pool of water. Now all it reflected was the blackness of the cloudy night sky above. Mallory sat on its edge and ran her hand through the water, the silvery ripples twisting to the edges of the pool. Above the sloshing of the water, Mallory thought she heard something. She stood up and looked around, but saw nothing. Still, the sound remained: a far-off kind of buzzing. Mallory stood stock still as she listened to it come closer, getting louder. There was a flash of light from the hedge ahead of her, and a tearing of brush. Mallory turned to run, when the front of a Duckcycle ripped through the hedge she was just staring at. The headlights blinded her as the cycle screeched to avoid the sudden pool. The vehicle snapped up upon hitting the raised concrete edge, spun over in midair and landed with a violent splash, throwing sparkling water into the headlights. Seconds after the cycle came to its violent halt, someone struggled from underneath it, sloshing through the water and staggering to the end of the pool. Mallory called out to the ragged figure, freezing it in its tracks.
"Mal, you gotta get outta here--" Duke started, a hand out toward her, but suddenly there was a whizzing through the air, and something snapped into the rear fender of the smashed cycle.
Mallory's weaponry training told her instantly it was an arrow, but from where? Mallory looked back to the torn hedge to see the lean figure of Bill Archer stalking through, reloading his crossbow. Mallory ran and grabbed Duke, pulling him out of the way, just as another arrow whizzed by them both.
"What's going on here?" Mallory yelled, mostly at Archer.
"I'll explain later, run!" Duke gasped, and they both took off, vaulting over the hedge and away from Archer. Duke struggled as he ran, grabbing her arm and pulling her down a side pathway. He finally stopped, hands on his knees, exhausted. He shook the water out of his hair and leaned heavily against a hedge.
"Now..." Mallory started. "What's going on here!?!"
"Shhh!" Duke hissed. "Archer brought us here... to play a game of chess, literally!"
"He's been chasing me around for the past 15 minutes...." Duke panted. "He's assigned each of us as a chess piece... and he's knocking us off left and right!"
"I don't believe it!" Mallory growled.
"Believe it when you see the hole he put in Grin's side." Duke frowned. "Come on, we've gotta get back to the Migrator before that nutball can find us again." He started off at a quick jog, Mallory right behind him.
"Duke? Duke! Come in!" Tanya repeated over the radio. There was an agonizingly long pause, and he didn't respond. "Duke, where are you?" Tanya tried again desperately. There was still no answer. Tanya put down the receiver and glanced around nervously. "I...I don't know what happened to him... Archer was chasing him..." she stammered.
Grin nodded slowly. "Yes, he was.... " he said plainly. "Perhaps Duke abandoned the cycle?"
"Why would he do that?" Tanya asked. "He could ride faster than he could run... I wish I knew his location." she lamented.
Grin fell into thought as Tanya switched radio channels to alert both Zelda and Dive. When she put the radio down, he sat up a bit. "We should have known this was coming." he shook his head.
"What do you mean?" Tanya asked.
Grin pointed at a half-roll of thick gauze Duke had used to hastily bandage the graze on his shoulder. "Archer just wanted to finish the job."
Tanya chewed on that thought for a moment, before she went back to trying to contact him, a knot tightening in the pit of her stomach.
Dive took a long time staring over the tops of the hedge maze before he moved again. Tanya's warning had made him jumpy. If Duke was down.... Dive shook the thought out of his head. Maybe he had just lost his cycle, maybe he was running around here. Still, Dive couldn't see or hear anything. He turned his cycle slowly to let the headlights sweep across the hedge before him, but still nothing. He tried to keep the motor quiet as he rolled around a corner, sweeping the hedge again. If his searchlight didn't catch the eye of his brother or Mallory, maybe it would flush out Archer. If that loser did stick his hat above the hedge, Dive was ready with a launcher in hand to shoot it off. He looked around nervously, watching every rustling leaf and triple-checking everything before he moved on. As he crept along, his mind slowly began to wander. His brother was lost somewhere in this crazy place... somewhere. And where he was, Dive didn't know. If he was okay, he didn't know. Dive closed his eyes and wished more than anything he could just talk to him. Archer and his tactics were scaring the living daylights out of him. To see what he did to Grinster was bad enough... if he found his brother like that... His fear failed to boil over into anger, and instead it withered into cowardice. Dive was almost afraid to find his brother. He was busy being disgusted at himself when he heard a stick suddenly snap, in a hedge right in front of him! Dive froze and killed his headlights. If that was Archer, he wanted the jump on him. Dive moved slowly closer towards the hedge, walking his cycle, launcher aimed. Finally, he was holding an arm right over the hedge. He could hear Archer breathing. Dive closed his eyes, and fired a single puck.
The voice was Mallory's! Dive jumped back as Duke and Mallory drew their own weapons and popped above the hedge.
"Dive!?" Duke asked.
"Whoa, am I glad to see you guys!" he laughed.
"What did you think you were doing?" Mallory asked. "That nearly hit me!"
"Sorry, I thought you were Archer." Nosedive picked up his radio. "Hey Tanya, I've got a two-for-one deal over here." he joked. "A real find."
Tanya sighed with relief on the other end. "Thank goodness, that takes a lot off of my mind. Get them back here ASAP, and keep your eyes open."
Dive nodded. "We'll be there in a jiffy."
Duke and Mallory climbed over the hedge to meet him.
"You had me worried sick Duke, what happened?"
"A little cycle trouble." he rubbed his shoulder. "Anybody pick up Wing yet?"
"Haven't heard in from Zel." Nosedive sighed.
"Come on then, we should get back." Duke turned.
"Where is she anyways?" Mallory asked.
There was a squeak from the shadowed corner of a hedge. "Here.... guys." she choked.
The three of them turned to see Archer himself emerging from the shadows, crossbow in one hand, Zelda's neck in the other. Tied up by bolas, the dragon struggled weakly to escape. The three instantly drew their weapons and took a step aggressively forward.
"Give her up Archer." Mallory warned. "You've got no chance against the three of us."
Archer grinned. "Ahh but you see the question is whether or not you should give her up." he waved the dragon in front of them teasingly.
"What are you talking about?" Duke snapped.
"Your little pawn here had been left all alone." he started sadly. "Unprotected as she was, there was no doubt that sooner or later someone would be around to finish her off." He pivoted the crossbow at Zelda's skull, causing the three Ducks to back off. "Now, the question is what your next move is going to be? Give up your pawn for a better strategy, or sacrifice the time and energy of your higher ranks to protect her?" He waited for an answer, amused.
"You're crazy Archer." Duke started. "There are no pawns, there are no bigger pieces. We're all the same here." Archer shook his head.
"It's a sad thing you simply won't learn how to play." he sighed. "You'll only find how hard defeat is to take." he lifted Zelda up and aimed his crossbow, when suddenly he yelled out and fell forward, face hitting the gravel. Zelda and his crossbow spilled out of his arms. A puck bounced off of his back and rolled to a stop beside him.
"Take that." growled Wildwing, running up behind him.
"Bro!" Nosedive yelled out happily.
Wildwing smirked at him.
"Man I thought you were done for!"
Duke untied Zelda quickly with a swipe of his sword, and she bounced up beside him.
"The game's over Archer." Wildwing started.
Archer rolled up slowly, holding his back. He spied his crossbow only a few feet away, hidden in the shadows. "That's what you think!" he yelled, and grabbed it.
Wildwing had just enough time to raise his ice shield and block the arrow away. The others lost no time in tackling him and tying him up. "That's what we all think." Wildwing stooped down to his eye level. "This wasn't a game Archer, you know why? It wasn't fair. We didn't know the rules, and don't tell me this was a tutorial. A game isn't a game unless everyone has a fair chance. By blindfolding us, you end up the real loser."
"So what now big bro?"
"Leave him for the cops." Wildwing growled. "They'll be along soon enough. Where are Tanya and Grin?"
"Back in the 'Grator." Mallory answered. "And we should be getting back there ourselves."
"If I never see another chess piece in my life, it'll be too soon." Dive plunked himself down on the couch and yawned.
"I couldn't agree more, I'm sticking to go-fish!" Tanya seconded.
As Dive and Wildwing got into a war over the ownership of the remote control, Grin walked into the Rec. Room, folding his shirt down over a large gauze patch taped over his wound.
"You doin' okay there big guy?" Duke looked up from a magazine.
Grin nodded. "My physical self will be united once again in but a short time."
"I take it that means you're okay." Mallory raised an eyebrow.
"Whatever." he shrugged and sat down.
Wildwing got up. "I think I'm going for a soda, man I'm hungry." he shook his head and walked out. As he walked towards the Galley, he passed by Zelda, who nodded at him and rumbled gently. She must have just come from the infirmary, checking up on Grin. As she passed, he thought of something, and called her back.
Zelda turned around to face him. "What is is Wing?"
"I...wanna thank you for looking after Dive like that." he said. His eyes, now undefended by the Mask, let out their brightness, and a loose air of tired defeat.
Zelda paused, curiously. "I really dunno what you're talking about Wing. Your brother was part of a solution, not a problem. Why did you think he was?"
Wildwing shrugged uncomfortably. "I was... worried about him. I hoped he didn't set you back any."
"You know, he handled himself well." Zelda told him. "He's getting to be a lot more like you." Wildwing smiled. "I'll take that as a compliment." he said.
"If that's what you wanted to hear." she nodded. "But nonetheless it is the truth."
"Thanks Zel." He turned away and walked off.
Zelda was still puzzled as she started walking herself. It was only natural for him to be worried about his little brother, but never before had Wildwing thought of him as an obstacle to the group... not that she knew of anyway. She pondered this fully as she walked into the Rec. Room, unnoticed, and sat on the floor by the edge of the couch, where she knew she wouldn't be accidentally stepped on. She was disturbed by a short shower of unpopped, greasy popcorn kernels.
Nosedive peeked over the edge of the couch. "Whoa, sorry Zel." he grinned. "Hey did you see where my bro went?" he waited for an answer.
"Yup, towards the galley I think."
Dive nodded and turned back towards the TV.
It suddenly clicked to Zelda: Wildwing wasn't used to having Dive worry so much, not only about him, but about the rest of the team. She grinned and lay her head down. She was right, he was getting to be more like his older brother.
Mighty Ducks-The Animated Series, including all logos and characters (except me) are copyright and property of Disney. You may copy, print, or whatever with this document, so long as it is not altered and I (Zelda) am credited.