AN 1: I didn't mean for this to turn into another novel, but I was in the mood to write an action piece and it kind of took on a life of its own, even if it didn't gel quite the way I thought it would Anyway, if you're here, you must like the show, so I hope you'll enjoy this extended story. I also hope you'll forgive me any ooc, but I kind of made up some character history based off comments in the pilot movie, so it probably should be considered AU. There are original characters, but I think you'll understand why after you start reading. Heavily centers around Dante and Angie, but I wouldn't leave out Wyatt and Lyle. Reviews are fine, but flames will, as always, be ignored. As always, typos and plot holes are mine. If the Latin's wrong, blame the online translators. I'm at their mercy.
AN 2: Here is your birthday present as promised, Z. It's even done on time.
Rated T for action violence, peril, and I threw in a few bad words here and there (only where I thought they were necessary), and whump. Also, a little grossness, but honestly, we've seen the show, right?
Pairings: OC mostly. Could be considered D/A if you squint. It's intended to be friendship, but interpret it however you want, I'm not picky.
Disclaimer: Don't own anything except my original characters.
"Do I need to remind you that you're still on academic probation because you're flunking Math, Science, English, and History?"
"And that academic probation equals strike two?"
"Or that your mom has brochures—and an application form-from New Haven Military Academy hanging on your fridge?"
"I get the point," Dante complained.
Wyatt wasn't so sure he did. There was more at stake than Dante's academic future. Wyatt wasn't just concerned because he didn't want one of his few true friends bundled off to another high school. Since the military weapon had accidentally formed a bridge between the online game 'Conquerer of All Worlds' and the real world, Wyatt, Dante, Lyle, and Angie had found themselves the only people in the city with the right skills and know-how to defend the real world from the endless parade of Game Leak monsters unleashed into Daventry Hills. Their success depended upon the combination of Wyatt's computer skills, Angie's sensibility, Lyle's athleticism, and Dante's…well, Dante's borderline insanity and self-declared 'complete disregard for personal safety'.
Dante might not take the little things like high school grades and future careers and college seriously, but his mother did. She'd nearly sent him away to boarding school once when Dante had earned 'strike three' and brought down her wrath. Strike two had been staying out after curfew and strike three had been accidentally demolishing the Vice Principal's car while fighting one of the game Leaks. Dante flat out refused to tell Wyatt, Lyle, or Angie what 'strike one' had started off the entire mess.
Considering that Dante wasn't secretive about very many things and had almost no capacity for embarrassment, Wyatt figured it had been something very bad indeed. Wyatt figured defending Daventry Hills from game Leaks-at great risk to his own personal safety-on a daily basis made up for whatever past had earned Dante a pardon for whatever 'criminal' past he was keeping to himself.
So he added: "You're one report card away from eating military rations and torment by sadistic drill sergeants…and military barbers. Buzz cuts, Dante. Do you know how you're going to look with a buzz cut?"
Though Dante was one of the best and bravest online game-players and real life Leak-Barders one could ever meet, he still had a few phobias that could send him running in terror. It might have been dirty play to use one of those phobias against him now, but Wyatt could see the exaggerated shudder run through his friend at the mere mention of the word 'barber' and knew his point had been made.
"Like Gyllenhaal in 'Jarhead'?" Dante tried.
"More like Pauly Shore in 'In The Army Now'."
Dante grimaced in dread. "Which is why I'm saying that if you just hack into the school computer…"
Wyatt was not having this argument a fifth time. "For the last time, I'm not hacking the school computer to change your grades. I mean, I could in like thirty seconds, but I won't. If you want my help…here it is."
They wound their way through the bustling, crowded halls of Daventry Hills High School-as usual, ignored by everyone except the occasional school bully, until Wyatt had guided Dante to a stop in front of the shortest, youngest, and smartest student in the school. Dante himself was diminutive in stature, but the boy in front of him was all of four feet tall, skinny as a broom, with thick glasses, a bow tie, and unruly red hair that stuck out in all directions. He carried a backpack that was almost bigger than he was. There was nothing child-like in the stare that was directed up at Dante. The kid had the frosty gaze of a disapproving police officer.
Dante looked the kid up and down and frowned. "He's going to hack the school computer for me?"
Wyatt grabbed Dante's shoulders, maneuvering him to stand in front of the child. "No…Dante, this is Fred. He's going to tutor you until finals next month."
Dante shook his head. "No."
"He's the smartest kid in the county."
The boy frowned, pushing his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. "I'm eleven…I'm also five grade levels and about seventy I.Q. points higher than you, Cro-Magnon man."
Dante blinked blankly. "Cro-what?"
Wyatt interrupted. "Fred Wilkes, this is Dante Onterro."
The boys exchanged disapproving sneers and grudging nods.
Fred spoke to his new pupil. "I know you. Our moms go to the same post-divorce support group."
"And you're the mini-munch who hogs the Groovemaster game at the bowling alley," Dante grumbled.
"So, I know that you have to do exactly as I tell you or you're going to military school. Do you want that? Didn't think so. Considering what we have to work with…"
"I c.c.'d him your history report on 'Caesar, Inventor of the Salad'," Wyatt explained, cringing at the memory.
"…it will be a challenge. We can't possibly hope to boost you up to a 'C' average, but if we work very hard-including eight hours every weekend-we might just pull your grades up to a 'D' average," Fred concluded.
Dante turned back to Wyatt. "Where are we on that 'hack the school computer' idea?"
Fred pulled a small spiral notebook from his shirt pocket and scribbled something. "I'll add 'Attention Deficit Disorder' to the list of challenges."
"You could tutor me," Dante suggested to Wyatt.
Wyatt pried Dante's fingers off his shoulder and carefully moved out of his friend's reach. "We tried that, remember? You flicked corn nuts at my head and glued my laptop to the desk."
They were interrupted by an ear-piercing shriek not unlike the inhuman screams of some of the game Leaks that had invaded the city. Wyatt clamped his hands over his ears. His gaze swept over the hallways, afraid that Maldark had finally become brazen enough to send one of his monsters out into public. Fred flinched at the din.
Dante pulled out his cell phone. His ringtone was the source of the torturous noise.
"What is that?" Wyatt shouted, not quite able to describe the sound as 'music'.
Dante grinned. "My new band, Fart School Confidential…that's going to be the first download from our mp3 album." His good humor abated when he read the caller i.d.. Scowling, he thumbed the 'send' icon and turned away from Fred and Wyatt.
Fred looked at Wyatt. "I'm going to need more money."
Wyatt nodded, fishing another twenty dollar bill from his pocket. "Right."
A massive hand reached between the boys and snatched the money from Fred's hand. In the distraction created by Dante's cell phone torture, none of them had seen bully-at-large Big Joe creep up behind until he was suddenly towering over Fred and Wyatt. "I'll take that! Thanks, runts!"
"Hey!" Fred let out a futile cry as the bully moved one. "He's already stolen my lunch money today."
Wyatt nodded. "Mine, too."
Dante was pacing in circles. His fist gripped his cell phone tight enough to crush it. "You shouldn't be calling me at all…" he barked into the speaker. "…well, that's just terrific, I'm thrilled for you…but I'm not interested…well, maybe you should take Gloria…you know what, I can't do this with you now…no. I said no!" He hit the 'end' icon as if he were trying to poke out the eye of whoever had been on the line.
"Boyfriend trouble, megacramp?" Fred baited.
Wyatt was genuinely concerned, if only because Dante was not generally prone to angry outbursts. Whoever he'd been talking to, Dante was now agitated and flushed nearly as red as when he'd been accidentally sunburned by a UV blast from Wyatt's Blast-A-Ton 2.0 weapon. "Who was that?"
"Absolutely no one," Dante snapped.
Wyatt knew better than to push it. "Okay…so, Fred, what's the first phase of Operation 'Save Dante From Military School'?"
"We're taking a field trip for extra credit." Fred gestured 'follow me'. He led the way out the school doors to the mostly-deserted main parking lot, where a school bus waited. The driver sat in his seat, reading the newspaper want ads. A small knot of students had gathered. A tall girl with long blonde hair who seemed to have just stepped right off a ranch checked names off a list on her clipboard. A pretty African-American girl with wavy black hair sat on the curb sketching with charcoal pens on an artist's pad. A lanky boy with dark brown curls played piano on an iPad ap. They milled around the bus, waiting to board…
…or reluctant to board, Wyatt guessed when he read the sign posted by the bus: "Field Trip: Daventry Hills Alternative Energy Plant. Hosted by the Future Farmers of Daventry Hills. Learn about the exciting world of Methane energy".
Dante's brow furrowed. "What's 'methane'?"
Wyatt summed up: "In a nutshell, it's a noxious gas produced by cow excrement. Kind of like that odor that wafts from your locker when you forget to take home your leftover lunches for three months…"
"Methane…awesome name for a band…wait…" Dante paused, finally comprehending. He turned to Fred. "…you signed me up for a field trip to a cow poop factory!"
"'Alternative Energy Plant'," Fred corrected.
"Alternative energy from cow poop…which might be cool…" Dante shook his head, beating a retreat. "No, no, can't do it. I'm going home to pack."
Wyatt caught him with a boardinghouse reach and steered him back towards the bus. "Sit. Stay. Speak."
"Good boy." Wyatt gave him a pat on the head.
"Look, I enjoy a good noxious odor as much as the next person…" Dante started.
"You enjoy them a little more than the next person…" Wyatt disagreed.
"...but what kind of freak show voluntarily signs up for a field trip to a cow poop factory?" Dante crossed his arms, clutching his skateboard like a shield against whatever horrors waited at the dreaded factory.
On cue, a familiar dark-haired figure broke from the group of waiting students and nearly bounded across the parking lot in enthusiasm to join the boys. "Hey, guys! Can you believe they still had space on the bus?" Angie greeted.
"There's like seven people here, so, yeah…" Wyatt answered.
As usual, sarcasm would not dampen her zeal. "I know! It's a great turnout. This is going to be so exciting."
The two older boys blinked. "Or not," Wyatt said.
She smiled brightly. "Are you coming with us, Wyatt?"
Wyatt nearly tripped over himself stepping back from the waiting group. "Yeah…I've got to go and…not be on that bus." He pointed to Dante as he fled the scene. "Make sure he doesn't run away."
Angie nodded, accepting her assignment. She held out a hand to Dante. "Skateboard."
Grudgingly, he surrendered his transportation. Angie smiled, back to bubbly enthusiasm. "You'll get this back after the trip. Who's your little friend?"
Fred distanced himself from his student. "I am definitely not friends with this neuron. Let's get this over with." The boy hefted his unwieldy backpack and stumbled onto the bus.
Angie made a face at the boy. "Charming."
Dante decided sacrificing the skateboard might be a fair price for escaping his tiny terror of a tutor.
His cellphone shrieked. Angie discreetly covered her ears. Dante jammed his thumb on the 'Ignore' icon, missing Angie's quizzical stare. "Can't do this…" He looked at the bus. "…can't do that."
He was about to make a run for it, while Angie prepared to corral him, when the pretty artist crossed Dante's path on her way to board the school bus. He froze in his tracks, "Shayne Coulson…" The boy stared after her with unabashed adoration at the glint of the sun on her wavy hair and her meticulously clean-cut appearance. "Well maybe this won't be so bad..."
Angie rolled her eyes.
Once again, Big Joe took advantage of Dante's distraction to creep up from behind and stuff a large chunk of dried cow dung down the back of his shirt. "Little souvenir of your trip, nerd."
Dante spun like a puppy chasing his tail trying unsuccessfully to fish the foul chunk out of his shirt (after all, he still had to get two more days' wear out of his clothes to break his record for longest outfit "worn without washing") while Angie discreetly covered her nose.
"Worst. Day. Ever." Dante muttered under his breath.
The glow of the sphere was lost in the glare of the afternoon sun as it hovered above Daventry Hills High School. Anyone who happened to be foolish enough to stare directly at the sun would have mistaken its shimmer for the after-image of a sunspot burned into their retinas. At best, they might have a fleeting thought of UFOs. However, there was almost no chance that anyone would suspect it was an orb unleashed by a dimensional breach from an online computer game. Had they seen the reflection of an inhumanly distorted head in the orb, they would have surely dismissed it as a figment of their imagination.
Only five people in all Daventry Hills would know that Lord Maldark, the character for whom the game Conqueror Of All Worlds had been named was quite real. Two of those people were about to board the school bus as the face in the orb watched. In particularly, Maldark's attention was riveted to the shaggy-haired being led to the bus by a girl who had him by the ear.
From his throne inside the castle of his game world, Maldark drummed his fingers. A smile curled his mouth into a sneer. He had been searching for months to find the insolent whelps who had defeated his invasion of the dimension called "I.R.L.". At last, his patience and endless supply of Leak spies had brought him success. "Well, well…the Honorable Knight Sir Bickle, away from his Clan and unarmed. How wonderful."
Maldark took the medallion from his neck and gave the iridescent blue stone at its center a tap.
A puff of blue smoke rose from the floor, swirling until a solid blue, muscular torso and an angular face with eyes as black as night materialized at the center of the cloud. The avatar known as the Grim Djinn had appeared in answer to the summons of the medallion that enslaved him to its possessor. He bowed to Maldark. "I am at your service, Master."
Maldark gestured to the image of the boy in the spy orb. "Prepare your Grimferno. Bring 'Sir Bickle' into your arena and see that he dies there."
It was something of a risk using a Grim Djinn as an assassin, Maldark knew. Still, it was also true that there was no deadlier nemesis in his computer-generated realm. One Grim Djinn was worth one hundred monsters because the shape-shifting genie could become any monster it needed to be to defeat an enemy. The risk was that, unlike Maldark's mindless minions, Grim Djinn's killed only by their own set of rules, an Assassin's Creed which they held to with mule-like stubbornness. There was no sport in simple murder as far as the Grim Djinn was concerned, only in a fight with established terms of engagement on their own battlefield, the arena called the Grimferno. But, once their terms were set and their prey was in hand, death was all but guaranteed. He would succeed where the drones barded by Sir Bickle and his Clan had failed.
The Grim Djinn bowed. "It shall be done exactly as you say, Master."
The bus had only seven passengers, not including the driver. Angie had let go of her grip on Dante's ear once she was satisfied that he would not bolt from the bus, but she followed him down the aisle in case he had any further thoughts of escape.
The boy with the iPad abruptly halted his piano practice when the two of them passed his seat. His brown eyes narrowed into a glare aimed squarely at Dante. Angie couldn't see her friend's face, but by the way his shoulders squared in a defiant posture, she could guess that Dante was glaring right back. The boy pointedly turned his back and concentrated on his computer again. Angie ushered Dante further down the aisle.
"Who is that?" she asked.
"Ghost of Cramposaurs Past," was all he said.
Dante spied Shayne and plopped into the bench seat behind hers. Angie took the seat opposite his. She shook her head as he stared dopily at the girl. Dante had been just as infatuated with the girl he'd dubbed 'Clean Cut Maggie' until her parents had taken one look at their daughter's would-be boyfriend and transferred her to an all-girls school.
Shayne sniffed the air, catching the lingering scent of dried cow dung. Angie saw her eyes shift to the large mirror above the driver to see who was sitting behind her. Discreetly, she collected her art supplies and all but ran to a seat near the front of the bus.
"Shot down again, eh?" Angie couldn't resist teasing Dante. He was unfazed by Shayne's skittishness, staring after her. "Why so fixated on Mary Poppins there?"
"She's in my Art class. So clean cut…so smart…and her art is like Picasso on Red Bull. She could animate computer games."
Angie whistled. "Wow. High praise indeed."
"…and she's so hot," he added.
Angie quirked an eyebrow, taking a moment to evaluate Shayne. The girl had a certain beauty, if you discounted her perpetually unsmiling state, frizzy hair, and thick glasses. She found it strange that a boy with utter disregard for personal hygiene and academic pursuits was hopelessly attracted to clean-cut, proper, and brainy girls. He hadn't reacted that way when he'd met Angie. In fact, he'd called her an "N.G.P." (a term both he and Wyatt had refused to explain to her at the time or since) and thrown her out of his room…
"If you say so," she said, beginning to be sorry that she'd asked.
"But if I get within two feet of her, she rabbits."
Angie nodded, "Then she clearly has good judgment, too."
Fred seated himself beside Dante, who quickly forgot about Shayne and slid as far from the boy as he could on the bench seat. "Can we try to get some studying done during the drive?" the tutor demanded.
He set his oversized backpack on Dante's lap and began to draw out thick textbooks. Dante was more interested in poking through the bag to see what else was inside. The child's stash of Hot Wheels cars immediately drew the older boy's attention.
"What are these? Transformers?" Dante tried pulling apart the cars until Fred smacked them out of his hands.
"No wonder you're failing every subject. You have the attention span of a fruit bat. Here, read chapter eight." When Dante stared at the books, Fred sighed. "You can read, right?"
"Yes, I can read!" Dante retorted.
"Everyone? Hello? Can I have your attention up front, please?" The tall blonde cowgirl with the clipboard stood at the front of the bus, fumbling with the microphone. She waved her hands, but the indifferent passengers ignored her. Fred was still wrestling toy cars away from Dante. Big Joe was writing obscenities on the bus seat with a Sharpe pen. Shayne continued sketching, and the musician kept playing his iPad until the computer suddenly let out a racket almost as annoying as Dante's ringtone.
"Nice music-sounds like a zebra in a paper shredder," Dante congratulated the musician.
Dante's cellphone suddenly added to the cacophony. This time, Dante growled as he thumbed the 'Ignore' button. As he fought the phone as if trying to strangle it, the screen turned so that Angie was able to glimpse the caller i.d.
It read: "Dad."
Angie's eyes widened in shock.
The cowgirl waited until both boys had silenced their electronics, giving them scolding stares. Then, she continued cheerfully: "Most of you know me. I'm Ella Munroe. President of the Future Farmers Club, the Neighborhood Restoration Club, and the Hill Helpers. I'll be your guide as we explore the exciting world of alternative energy."
Joe coughed what sounded like "Cow crap".
Ella ignored him. "Who here is ready to save the world-"
Dante promptly raised his hand.
"-with new green technology?" Ella finished.
He lowered his hand just as quickly. "Sorry. Thought you meant something else. Like saving the world with a large bat…" Angie reached across the aisle and pinched him. "Oww, what?"
Ella nodded. "Okay, so why are you here, then?"
Dante was honest. "Academic probation and the need to save my hair from sadistic military barbers."
The musician laughed derisively. "Figures."
Ella fixed her attention on him. "What about you, Julio? Why did you sign up?"
Dante pulled a pair of drumsticks from his own backpack and began drumming on the back of Julio's seat while Julio answered Ella: "Extra credit."
This time, Dante made distinct butt-kissing noises directed Julio. The musician whirled and, for a moment, Angie feared he might actually take a swing at her friend.
Julio tried to grab the drumsticks, but Dante yanked them out of his reach. "You haven't changed at all, Dante!"
Angie grabbed Dante by the ear again and tugged him over to her side of the bus. "What is your glitch today?" she hissed quietly. "You're acting more psycho than usual…and, for you, that's pretty psycho."
Ella was suddenly standing directly in front of Angie, Dante, and Julio, who abruptly quieted down. Big Joe made cow noises from his seat, and the girl whirled on him. "Shush it!" she commanded, not intimidated in the least that he was five inches taller and a good fifty pounds of muscle heavier than her. He blinked in surprise, but promptly shut up.
Satisfied, she turned to Shayne. "How about you-?"
"Why did you join the trip?"
The artist blushed. "Me? I…um…just wanted to get out of Phys. Ed."
Dante smiled. "I love her even more…" He noticed Angie glaring again. "What?"
She shrugged, but the unhappy frown remained.
The cowgirl sulked. "Great. So no one cares that our current energy sources are polluting the atmosphere and rendering our planet uninhabitable. You all just wanted to skip class. Why do I bother?" She plunked herself down on one of the seats. "Let's just get this disaster over with."
A flash of light flooded the bus, blinding everyone on board. When they blinked the spots from their eyes, they saw a large vortex of orange and yellow materialize on the road directly in front of the bus. Only Angie and Dante knew what it meant, their fellow passengers only gaped in disbelief.
Angie gasped, "Is that…?"
Dante nodded. "Yep." It was a wormhole into the game realm…and the bus was headed right for it. He jumped to his feet, running toward the driver. "You have to turn the bus!"
Instead, the bus driver opened the door and jumped from the still-moving vehicle seconds before it-and the students remaining on board-vanished into the vortex.
Wyatt and Lyle were in Social Studies class when Wyatt's cell phone beeped a familiar warning. As discreetly as he could, Wyatt checked. The ap he had created displayed a warning.
Lyle looked at Wyatt and mouthed a question: "Leak?"
Wyatt shook his head, mouthing back: "Wormhole." After their run-in with Maldark's Hampire spy, he had upgraded his ap to scan for wormholes and vortexes along with game Leaks, afraid to have another monster catch them by surprise.
The teacher was oblivious to the pair until Wyatt raised his hand and waved urgently for her attention. "And so Cleopatra committed suicide by…yes, Mr. Black?"
"I need a Hall Pass. Those chimichangas the cafeteria served for lunch aren't sitting quite right."
Lyle jumped in. "Yeah, uh, could I get one of those hall passes, too? I…also ate the chimichangas."
The teacher gave them an indifferent wave. They scrambled for the door, pausing in the hallway to check the readout on Wyatt's cellphone.
"Where's it coming from?" Lyle asked.
Wyatt called up a map, which overlaid the beacon. "Five blocks north."
"We'll take my car. Should we call Dante?"
"We can't," Wyatt shook his head. "He's still on that field trip with Angie and Fred. We'll call him if we need him."
"Wait-what's going on up there?" Lyle slowed the car as they approach the location of the disturbance.
The wormhole signature, they learned upon arriving at the scene, was coming from an intersection bustling with activity. In fact, most of the intersection had been cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape by the police. The sight made the hair on the back of Wyatt's neck stand on end as all kinds of awful possibilities sprang to mind: This was the heart of downtown Daventry Hills. It was impossible that the wormhole had gone unnoticed. Was there a monster running amok down the street? Was that what the police were doing? How were they going to explain themselves and their game-generated weapons?
Then Wyatt saw something that made his stomach flip-flop in a surge of dread. "That's the bus driver!" He gestured to a man who sat on a curb while police questioned him.
"'Bus driver' as in Dante and Angie's bus driver?" Lyle's voice rose with alarm.
Wyatt nodded. "Pull over!"
Lyle parked the car a discreet distance from the commotion. The bus driver was waving his arms in agitation. It wasn't difficult to tell that he was agitated. Wyatt looked at Lyle. "We need to know what's he's saying. Can you…?"
"Got it." It wasn't easy to wield his game weapon within the confines of his sports car, but Lyle managed to maneuver it so that it was aimed in the direction of the driver. "Herein hearhim."
The scepter glowed and, seconds later, the driver's voice broadcast over the car's stereo speakers. "…and this black hole opened up right in front of the bus. I was thrown clear, but the bus was sucked in. I swear I'm not lying!"
The claim was met by muffled snickering. One policeman sighed. "We're going to need to perform a sobriety check…"
They'd both heard enough to know what had happened, but it was Wyatt who said it aloud: "Dante and Angie are in the game."
Reality as they knew it flipped on its ear with a single flash of light. One moment, the school bus was rolling along the city streets…
…the next minute, it was careening through a computer-generated hell.
When the bus driver bailed, Dante retained the presence of mind to jump into the abandoned driver's seat. It was far too late to avoid entering the wormhole, so he braced himself as the bus sailed through the event horizon and into the vortex. The next thing he knew, he was wrestling with the steering wheel as the bus bounced over virtual boulders and ruts in a dirt road which felt real enough as the jolting jarred every bone in his body. He heard the shrieks of the other passengers as they were thrown every which way by the wild ride. Finally, with some effort, he managed to find the brake.
He glanced out the window to see a computer-generated steel wall in the path of the bus. Reflexively, he crushed the pedal as hard as he could until the careening vehicle finally skidded to a stop inches from slamming into the barrier.
That's was the moment Dante caught a glimpse of their surroundings.
They were in some sort of bowl-shaped arena. Metal walls curved from the stone floor upwards, giving way to empty bleachers and finally to a transparent domed roof. Outside the arena, black clouds thundered and lightning split the sky in impressive computer animation. The floor of the arena, where the bus had landed, was dotted with barricades formed alternately of high walls and crisscrossed pikes. Crimson stains and the bones of various game creatures littered the arena, along with broken pieces of game weapons, shields, and ropes.
They were in the game. Dante already knew that much…and he had a sinking feeling he knew exactly where in Maldark's realm they had landed.
Muttered moans and the shuffling of people climbing to their feet drew his attention back to the other passengers. "Is everyone okay? Angie?"
She emerged from where she'd been wedged between two broken seats. "I'm okay."
Joe dabbed at a scrape on his forehead. His eyes were glazed with shock. "That did not just happen."
"You wanna bet, Jughead?" This from Julio. The words were directed at Joe, but his glare was fixed on Dante, as if wondering how to blame their situation on him.
Shayne stared at the impossible landscape outside the bus window, the blood draining from her face. "Ohmygod…what happened? Where are we?" She stared at her own hands, startling at their animated appearance. They felt like flesh and blood hands, and the bus seat seemed solid enough beneath her. She looked at Joe and saw the scrape on his forehead even dripped a smear of blood. "Why do we look like computer avatars?"
Dante finally checked his own reflection in the large rearview mirror. His animated face, with its exaggerated features and hair that was even more unruly in cartoon form, grinned back at him. "This is so cool…I'm an avatar."
Angie frowned. She didn't think the others fully grasped their situation yet, but, like Dante, she knew exactly where they were and how they'd got there. She had an unpleasant feeling of déjà vu. "This is not cool…we're in the game, Dante!" she hissed quietly, not wanting to freak out the other passengers.
He was still grinning that semi-psychotic grin. "I know."
She tugged his ear, forcing him to turn away from his cartoon reflection and look at her. "I've been inside the game before. We can die in the game."
Angie debated choking him until he started taking the situation seriously, but decided their chances of surviving this rose from "nonexistent" to "slim" if they had the gamer geek's help.
Dante searched for their youngest passenger. "Fred? You okay?"
The boy peeked out from underneath a seat, pushing his glasses back on his nose. His eyes were wide and frightened. "Did we just get sucked into a transdimensional wormhole?" He let out a little cry when he finally caught sight of their surroundings and his own avatar form.
"I understood 'wormhole'…and yes," Dante answered, helping the boy out from his hiding place.
There were murmurs of disbelief from the rest of the group. Only Angie was resigned to the reality of their situation. "Maldark?" she asked him.
Julio gaped at them like they were both bonkers. "Maldark as in Conqueror of All Worlds Maldark? Maldark who is a computer game and not a real person?" He snorted, "You're seriously trying to tell us we're inside a computer game? You're still a complete headcase, Onterro."
"I ain't so sure about that, boy band," Ella retorted. It might be as difficult for her to believe it as it was for the others, but the class president and her little friend seemed pretty sure of themselves, so she would give them the benefit of the doubt. Certainly, she didn't have a better theory for what had happened.
Dante took two steps towards Julio before Angie put herself between the two boys. "Do you think Wyatt and Lyle know we're here?"
"Don't use real names anymore. Not in here. Avatar names only." Dante issued the warning to all of them. "You do not want Maldark to know your identity I.R.L. That would be bad. Really bad."
Shayne shook her head. "That's fine for you, but we don't have avatars or avatar names."
Ella asked, "You seem about two chapters ahead of us in this story. So, if you're right that this Maldark fella brought us here…then what does he want with us?"
A deep voice boomed, seeming to come from all directions at once. It was a voice meant to inspire terror with every syllable it spoke. "Sir Bickle, Knight of the clan, Never Fail, your presence is required in the Grimferno to negotiate the terms of battle."
Angie noticed that Dante finally looked nervous. "Oh, that's really, really bad…" he said to himself. She suddenly wished he would go back to being his normal cocky self. She had generally learned Dante never got nervous unless something Very Bad leaked from the game.
"Who's 'Sir Bickle'?" Shayne wanted to know.
"Yeah, that would be me." Dante moved towards the door, already half-certain he knew who—what-was waiting outside in that arena.
Angie grabbed his arm. "You're not going out there?"
"You'd rather they come in here?"
She hadn't thought of that. "Not so much…but you're not going out there alone."
"Would you just-?" Dante started to argue, but Angie pushed past him and jumped off the bus before he could say another word.
Outside the bus, with a better vantage point, Dante's gaze swept quickly around the arena. He saw no signs of an exit or any tunnels that might offer escape routes. The ceilings were too high to reach by climbing the rafters, and even if they did, the translucent roof was smooth and seamless. If he had his Skull Cracker, he might have been able to break it, but without his weapon…
Never give up, he reminded himself.
Angie spied Maldark, who silently watched from high up in the stands. He had not been the one to call out Dante. That challenge had come from the game monster that waited on the area floor. The creature was a Djinn. She knew enough about mythology to recognize that much. It had a blue-skinned human torso that was almost all bulging muscles and blue smoke where its legs should have been. Its eyes were black as ink. "I know Maldark. Who's the other creep?"
Dante glanced over his shoulder towards the bus. They were out of earshot of the rest of the group. The others were watching from the windows, staring with looks of fear at the computer monsters. He might have downplayed the situation for their sake, but with Angie, he didn't sugarcoat it: "That's a Grim Djinn…which means this is a Grimferno. He's part genie, part shapeshifter, which basically means he can turn himself into any monster that he wants. He watches you play the game, scopes out which baddies can kick your ass, then brings you here to his playground so he can turn into that monster and wipe you out."
The blue-skinned creature beckoned: "Come forward and state your terms of battle, Sir Bickle."
Angie raised an eyebrow. "There are 'terms'?" She was used to monsters coming at them head-on. This was something new. "Why got through all this trouble? Why doesn't he just wipe us out and get it over with?"
He shrugged. "They love the game more than the kill. Let me do the talking, completely serious. Grim Djinn's love to trick you if you aren't precise with your terms. He could promise to release you and then release you into a lake full of acid." Dante stepped in front of Angie, keeping one eye on Maldark in case he decided to jump in as they approached the Grim Djinn. He didn't move any closer to the creature than was absolutely necessary, but he squared his shoulders and met the Djinn's dark eyes, refusing to show fear.
The genie inclined his head in honorific greeting. "I am Grim Djinn, Master of the Grimferno and servant of the Lord Maldark."
It was important to follow the Grim Djinn's ceremony, Dante knew. Disrespect would only antagonize the monster and he could instantly choose to vaporize them all instead of granting them the chance to fight. "Sir Bickle of Never Fail Clan."
The Grim Djinn glanced to the girl behind Dante, waiting.
Angie blinked. "Who, me? I'm…" She hesitated. Never having played the game, she had no game avatar alter-ego.
Dante said the first thing that came to his mind: "Lady…Methane."
Angie freaked. "What? No…I'm not…wait!"
The Grim Djinn was already moving on with his ritual: "I am tasked with the extermination of all enemies of Lord Maldark. Are you familiar with the rules of the Grimferno, Sir Bickle?"
Angie interrupted. "Well, I'm not…I want to know the rules."
The monster obliged: "We begin with the count of your warriors. I see seven in your ranks. Who else stands with your clan? Let them declare themselves now," he addressed the teenagers watching from the school bus.
Shayne and Ella exchanged nods. "We do," the blonde girl answered for both of them.
"Hi," Fred added nervously when the black eyes locked on him.
The trio glanced at Julio and Big Joe. Joe pointed crossed his arms and turned his back without uttering a word. Under their glares, Julio caved. "Fine. Me. I declare. Whatever."
Grim Djinn made note of their answers. "Do you speak for your Clan, Sir Bickle?"
Julio jumped up in his seat. "No! He doesn't-!"
"Shut it!" Angie snarled at him.
"Yes, I do," Dante said.
Again, the Grim Djinn was satisfied. "My terms are this: Our battle will consist of seven rounds, one for each of you. Anything within the arena may be used as a weapon. You may fight single-handedly or your clan may fight as one. You must destroy your opponent to win your round. For each round you win, I will release one of your clan. For each match that you fail to destroy your opponent, one of you must remain here as servant of Maldark until the day you die."
Angie calculated the odds that they'd win all seven rounds and didn't like them one bit. Judging by the look she saw on Dante's face, he wasn't much more optimistic. "What if we say no?" she asked.
"We don't say 'no'," Dante told her.
"Then I shall destroy all of you here and now with my honor intact, for I have granted you the chance to survive," the Grim Djinn answered with a smile.
"Fine. We lose a round, and after the battle, one of us stays here until we die. Agreed," Dante said. "Now, here are my terms: One, when you 'release' us, you mean you send us back to our world just exactly as we were before you snatched us."
The Grim Djinn inclined his head in consent. "Agreed."
"Two, we choose who goes free when we win a match, not you."
Angie was suddenly grateful that Dante was the one doing the negotiating. It would never have occurred to her to ask such a condition. Although she suspected Dante would be the last of their group that the Grim Djinn would set free, and she knew with certainty Dante intended to be the last to go, if the genie were to send him away after the first victory, the rest of them would almost certainly be dead.
"Three, we want weapons."
The Grim Djinn paused. "You may have what you brought with you into the Grimferno."
That didn't sound like such a good deal to Angie, but she saw Dante's mouth quirk in a smile. "Agreed. And the bus is a safe zone. You and your freaks don't go inside."
"Agreed. Those are the stipulations." The genie brought his hands together in a clap that resounded loud as thunder in the arena. "Let our combat begin."
Dante waved to Angie, but never took his eyes off the Grim Djinn. "Back to the bus, go."
She hurried, asking as they went, "What was all that?"
"Grim Djinns are tricky. You have to be specific with them. They may say something like 'I'll release you from the Grimferno', but when they release you, it's into a pit full of toilet snakes...or the cafeteria on 'Mystery Meat Monday'."
"Eww…do you think he'll keep his word, then?"
"He has to. Grim Djinns who break their word lose their powers forever." They climbed the steps of the bus, and Dante shut the door behind them (for whatever meager protection that would afford them).
The rest of their temporary game 'clan' greeted them with glares.
"We need to weapon up…everyone, empty your pockets and your backpacks, let's see what we've got…" Dante started emptying his backpack onto one of the seats.
"Wait just a minute-where are we and who is that freak and why are we…avatars?" Julio demanded.
Joe still sat, rocking back and forth and muttering repeatedly. "This is not happening…"
Ella stuck her finger in his face. "You got to get a hold of yourself, mister!"
Julio watched Dante work. "And said you are in charge? I'm not taking orders from a neuron like you…"
"Listen to me: Dante is the only one here who knows how to beat Maldark's goons. Have any of you ever played an online game in your lives? Have any of you logged six hundred hours of game play in Conqueror Of All Worlds? Of course you haven't. Right, so you'd better do exactly as the nerd says or you're going to die."
"She's right. None of you are doing anything but running around panicking like itty bitty startled sheep. If the little fella has a plan, then I'm in." Ella helped Angie collect the rest of the backpacks and piled them on the seat by Dante.
Dante appreciated the support, if not the affectation. "'Little fella'?"
Angie made a face. "Oh, like that's worse than 'Lady Methane'. I cannot believe you named me after cow farts! And, you didn't answer my question: Do you think W-" Angie caught herself. Dante was right, the Grim Djinn could be listening. She had to be more careful about not using real life names. "-Black Death and Wizza know where we are?"
"The app was programmed to track Leaks, but Black Death retuned it to detect wormholes after that Hampire slipped by…so, maybe."
She hoped he was right. "And Black Death can track us here?"
Dante was more confident about that. "If there's a way, he'll figure it out. We just might have to hang here for a while."
"Fantastic." They were going to have to fight. There was no way around it. Angie frowned at the collection of items laid out on the bench seat. There was nothing among their few possessions that was going to take down a monster like Grim Djinn.
Fred moved to sit in the seat opposite Dante. He watched in silence for a couple minutes before quietly asking him: "Can you really get us out of here?"
Dante put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "I can kick Grim Djinn's butt; that much I know." He winked, and the boy managed a smile despite the apprehension in his eyes. "Come on, people, we've got to hurry. Let's see the loot!"
Ella apologized. "All I have is my notebook, but if I could get my hands on some of them broken vines and ropes out there, I could make a pretty good rope out of them."
Dante handed her the spare shirts he carried in his backpack. "What about these?"
She grinned. "I think I can work out a little something with these."
Shayne opened her satchel and shyly dumped out her sculpting tools. It was a collection of small detailing tools, wooden potters ribs, a wire clay cutter, a putty knife, needle and ribbon tools, and a metal scraper. The small tools didn't look like much of anything to the rest of the group, but Dante stared like he'd just hit the motherload.
He picked up the putty knife, the garrote-like wire cutter, and a small detailing tool that had a pointed blade at one end and a hook at the other. He whistled appreciatively. "Now, these'll do."
Angie didn't see how tiny blades that weren't much longer than her fingernail were going to help against the Grim Djinn…or how anything else in their hodgepodge of 'weapons' was going to save their necks. "What are we going to do with that?"
He held up a hand for silence and held out the putty knife almost reverently. "Wait for it. Remember your Glove of Schoolage?"
Angie remembered when Dante had given her that leather glove, her weapon against Maldark's monsters. It was booty that had been boosted from a game leak that the guys had barded. It hadn't looked like a weapon…until Angie put the glove on her hand and it transformed itself into a giant fist of pure steel.
As she watched, the putty knife in Dante's hand morphed into a full-on dagger that at least twelve inches long with a curved blade and a hilt etched with inhuman skulls. On the seat, the wire cutter sprouted jagged teeth that looked like they could bite through concrete, and the detailing tool became a javelin capped with a wicked hook.
"I am a fan of the Arts," Dante told Shayne, passing the blade to her. She favored him with a smile, beaming.
Ella had torn the shirts into strips. As she began braiding the strips together, the fabric solidified into thick, unbreakable cord. She let out a delighted whoop and eagerly set about adding to its length.
Joe's backpack was a treasure trove of items any good schoolyard bully needed: Cans of paint, a half-empty box of snap caps, marbles, all doused with rotten eggs that had been smashed during the bus' landing in the Grimferno. Dante went for the box of the tiny explosives.
"Snap caps…I cannot wait to see how these level up in here," he said, tucking them into his pocket.
Sulkng, Joe filled his pockets with what he could of the items Dante had left untouched.
Angie picked up her cell phone, and then Dante's, testing them. It wasn't exactly a surprise that the devices were useless inside the game. "These aren't working."
"Fine with me." The last thing Dante wanted to see that day was his phone. He searched the bus until he found his skateboard. He held up the board, waiting hopefully: "Come on, baby, upgrade for daddy…"
The board complied. With a sudden jolt the deck changed from wood to titanium, its edges grooved and lethal-looking. A dragon's eye design appeared at the center of the deck. When Dante rolled the board down the aisle, the now-spiked wheels sent sparks flying and tore grooves into the floor.
Even Joe was impressed. "Looks like something out of Ghost Rider."
Eager to try out the next weapon, Dante dug out his drumsticks. Obediently, they stretched into a mallet-shape, not quite as long or large as his Skull Cracker, but still impressive. He slammed one stick against the back of a bench seat. The mallet tore a hole clean through it.
"Not exactly a skull cracker, but the next best thing," he approved.
Fred stared in dismay at his own offerings, which was all of a calculator, thick textbooks, and a package of water balloon. "I haven't got anything," he apologized.
Dante gripped the boy's shoulder. "Not true, amigo…you have these…" He took the balloons and set them with the cans of paint from Joe's bag. "…which will go nicely with our friend's supplies. Let's fill some balloons."
Fred rolled his eyes. "You don't have to humor me. I'm still smarter than you, remember. Paint and a balloon against computer monsters?" He shoved the items aside. "I can't fight. I've never played video games…"
"Fred, come here." Dante waved for him to stand. "We're not going to let anything happen to you. I promise." The boy remained unconvinced, so Dante wracked his brain for another approach.
"Look, I've seen you at the arcade breaking the high score on Groovemaster. You stick close to me, and if something comes at you, use some of those dance moves to dodge and weave. Try it."
Fred didn't move; he just stared at Dante.
"Try it," Dante insisted. When Fred still balked, Dante grabbed Julio's iPad.
"Hey!" Julio made a snatch for his computer, but Dante dodged him effortlessly. Julio had to settle for making a rude gesture at the back of Dante's head and slumping back into his seat.
"Here, use this for inspiration…just not any of his music," Dante encouraged Fred. Music filled the bus. "Come on, give us some kung fu dancing. Fred, you're the best dancer in the arcade. Move." Still, the boy would not budged, partially from doubt and partially from the five pairs of eyes watching them. Dante could have cared less that they had an audience. What mattered was keeping Fred's spirits up. When the boy wouldn't start, Dante demonstrated some moves.
Feeling very much the world's biggest jackass, Fred finally mimicked Dante. He moved timidly at first, but became bolder when no one laughed. Momentarily, he forgot the monsters outside and moved at full speed…whereupon Dante took a few mock swings that didn't come anywhere close to connecting to the bobbing and weaving boy. Fred's wildly gesticulating arms knocked away Dante's hands. A couple minutes of the pseudo-combat, and the boy was grinning.
"See? Invincible," Dante nodded.
Julio snatched his iPad from Dante's hands, ruining that moment.
Angie watched the two boys exchange looks of death. She was already tired of playing referee with the pair of them. "I get why you're ditching your dad's phone calls…not that I agree with it…but, seriously, what is going on with you and that guy? Who is he?" she asked Dante.
He turned back to inspecting their arsenal and distributing weapons to the passengers. "Nobody. He's nobody. He's definitely not a back-stabbing, band-stealing, best friend-deserting megacramp." He raised his voice for that last word so that it resounded in the enclosed bus. "Definitely not that."
Julio didn't get a chance for a retort. In that instant, an explosion right outside the vehicle sent the school bus and its passengers flying.
Wyatt hated wasting the time it took to drive back to their warehouse headquarters, but staying at the scene of his friends' disappearance wasn't going to help. If he was going to have any chance of opening a wormhole and breaking them out of the game, he needed the equipment and the extra power that their benefactor, Max Ross, had spent months settling up in there.
Even with all Max's computers and billionaire toys to help, Wyatt had never attempted to pull anything as large as a school bus out of the game world…especially without knowing where inside the game it was hidden.
There were too many variables, and worry for what was happening to Dante and Angie with every second they lost driving to the warehouse was distracting Wyatt.
No, worry and hasty, ill-considered actions would do them no good. Dante might be a few cards short of a full deck, but few people played the game like he did. He'd defend the kids on that bus with the skill, zeal, and determination befitting his knight avatar. And Angie might not be a gamer, but she had learned a thing or two fighting game Leaks these past few months. If Maldark underestimated her, then he was making a big mistake.
Wyatt had to trust the two of them to stay alive in the game and keep the others alive, because he knew they were in there right now trusting him to find a way to rescue them. If he were to be of any help to his friends, he had to approach the situation like any other computer problem: Break it down into precise steps and tackle them one at a time…and don't panic.
So, while Lyle drove, Wyatt began working the problem, punching equations into his laptop and testing the firewalls of the game.
Wyatt was being too quiet, intent upon his laptop and the complicated streams of high-level computer coding that Lyle couldn't begin to follow. He felt marginally better having the techno-geek working on the problem, but Quiet Wyatt was a bad sign, Lyle knew. Quiet meant Wyatt didn't have the solution yet. But, just in case he was wrong, Lyle asked, "How are we going to find Dante and Angie inside the game?"
"It's a little like using a satellite to find one person on Earth when you don't know what city to search," Wyatt admitted, "especially when the satellite is controlled by an eccentric billionaire who doesn't want you to use it."
"You can get them out once we find them, can't you?"
"I'm doing my best, but Max keeps upgrading the firewall every time I hack the game specifically to keep me from doing things like opening wormholes." Wyatt made a growl of frustration at his laptop and instead pulled out his cellphone. He dialed a number Lyle recognized as Max Ross'. "And Max isn't answering. If I had an idea which of Maldark's goons grabbed them, I'd have a better idea where to look."
They had reached the warehouse. Wyatt collected his laptop and backpack and hurried inside, Lyle right behind him. They had a fleeting moment of hope that the creator of Conqueror Of All Worlds might be inside the warehouse. Max sometimes hung out with them when he was installing new equipment for fighting game leaks, having one of his manic-depressive mood swings, or when he just didn't feel like being anyplace else. However, there was no sign of the billionaire when they entered their headquarters.
Wyatt set up shop at his computer station and resumed his efforts to track Dante and Angie's location. Lyle watched, unhappy about not being able to do something more constructive to help. If this were just a matter of tracking down a player's avatar in the game, Lyle could have used Wizza to-
That was it. Lyle had an inspiration. "Wait, maybe I can help."
While Wyatt worked from his computer station in the warehouse, Lyle took over Wyatt's laptop and queued up the game. Seconds later, he had his avatar, Wizza, ready to go.
"What are you doing?" Wyatt asked.
"I'm trying a Seeing Eye spell…you can focus it on one avatar in the game so you can see what they see and hear what they hear so you can locate them. It's meant to help you sneak up on a rival player. If Dante and Angie are in the game, they're digital coding just like an avatar, so the spell should work on them, right?"
Wyatt pondered that and gave a shrug. "It's worth a try."
On the screen, Lyle's avatar raised its wizard's staff, preparing for the spell. "I can only use this on one of them…and it's going to make a third eye right in the middle of their forehead…so which one?"
"You mean which one of them isn't going to have a hairy freak out having a third eye in their forehead after already being turned into a computer-generated avatar by a game monster?" Wyatt rephrased the question.
Okay, when Wyatt put it that way, it was kind of a no-brainer. "Dante."
"I think he'll really enjoy that," Wyatt agreed.
Lyle donned his headset. On the computer screen, Wizza echoed Lyle's command, raising the Thunder Pole: "Videns oculus ostendere me Dante!"
A sphere appeared at the center of the screen. Images slowly formed within the sphere…images of the animated fire of an explosion, images of the bus as it rolled end-over-end and its passengers were tossed every which way. When the images stilled, Lyle and Wyatt saw the scorched windows of the school bus and a monstrous shadow passing outside the bus with inhuman speed.
"Ohmygod…" Lyle breathed.
For the second time, the bus careened across the Grim Djinn's arena. This time, it flipped onto its side before the rear section slammed into the field's wall with the horrible sounds of metal grinding against stone. The bus bounced off the barriers twice more before righting itself; and its momentum was finally halted. Broken glass rained on the passengers; dirt and sulfurous smoke poured in through the broken windows.
How is it possible to be transformed into a game avatar and still feel every bump and bruise? Angie wondered miserably, clinging to the legs of one bus seat to keep from being thrown around the cabin during the vehicle's wild ride. For that matter, how could the smoke really stink like sulfur? She almost gagged as the acrid smell assaulted her senses until, gradually, the smoke began to thin. Aside from the bumps and bruises, Angie didn't feel injured.
She pushed herself to her feet, squinting through the haze of dirt and smoke. "Is anyone hurt?"
There were groans and mumbled curses in answer, but all answered 'no' as they slowly climbed from behind and beneath the seats, dusting broken glass and torn bits cushion foam from their hair and clothing. Angie did a quick head count and came up with four. "Dante?"
A grumble answered from the demolished back seats: "Oh man, that sucked…"
When Dante emerged from behind a broken seat, rubbing at his aching forehead, Angie wasn't sure whether to be relieved or pissed off. Since her friend didn't appear to be otherwise hurt, she chose the latter. "What happened to the bus being a safe zone?"
He'd already figured out his mistake. "My fault-I said they couldn't come inside the bus. I should have told them that they couldn't destroy it either."
"Yeah, way to use precise language there, Silvertongue," she scolded.
Julio whirled on Dante, all but screaming at him, "You're going to get us killed!"
"Yeah. You're the one those freaks want, so get out there! Why should we get our heads ripped off with you?" Joe added, until Ella reached over from her and smacked him not-so-lightly in the back of the head. He glared at her.
"You're not helping, sugar," she told him, arching an eyebrow to include Julio in her reprimand.
A shriek from close by-piercing, blood-curdling, inhuman-drowned out any further words. A shadow shot, quick as a flash, past the broken windows. Another cry followed, this one like a cackle of demented laughter.
Angie scrambled to find her Glove of Schoolage while Dante snatched up the dagger where it had fallen behind the driver's seat. Fred was right on Dante's heels. Whether it owed to familiarity with the game or borderline mental instability, the older boy was the only one of the group not losing his head. Fred felt safer sticking with him. The others took cover, flattening themselves against the floor of the bus.
"What was that?" Angie asked.
"I don't know. Why don't you go out and take a look?" Dante suggested.
Their attention focused on the side of the bus, where the shadow had appeared, they were unprepared when the windshield exploded inward. Something dark-robed and massive landed on the hood of the vehicle. A bony, leather-skinned hand snaked through the broken window. An equally ghoulish, decaying face followed the hand, baring sharp yellow fangs at them. When the creature wailed, its breath stank of rot.
The creature screamed.
So did the teenagers. So did Fred.
Still moving with blinding speed, the wispy arm reached for them and caught Fred by the back of his neck. The child didn't have time to utter a peep before the monster dragged him away.
Almost as quickly, Dante scrambled out the broken window in pursuit. "Fred!"
Angie wasn't far behind him. She paused only long enough to notice the others were not following. "Come on!"
They didn't so much as twitch. She didn't have time to shake them out of their panic, so she left them there.
Dante was standing behind the engine block, staring up towards the dome of the arena. Angie followed his gaze to the creature the Grim Djinn had conjured. It was a grisly, grotesque witch who looked comprised of rotting flesh. Shredded blood-red robes shrouded her misshapen form. She flew a broomstick formed from bones and hair, dragging a screaming Fred along for the ride.
Spying the two teenagers below, the witch changed her trajectory and dove straight towards Dante and Angie. Angie ducked behind the wheels. Dante gripped the large blade as if it were his Skull Cracker and put himself in the witch's path. When the creature skimmed just inches above his head, Dante swung the dagger, but missed when she veered away.
She let out another cackle at him.
Angie raised her iron fist, her eyes tracking the witch. "What is that thing?"
"A Baba Yaga. Grim Djinns always favor the classic mythological monsters," Dante answered.
"As in a child-eating witch?"
"Wow, impressive knowledge of mythology." Dante looked away from the witch and her prisoner just long enough to bump his shoulder against Angie's, his own way of showing approval.
To her surprise, the gesture made her feel the tiniest bit better. Taking a deep breath, she nodded. "All right. How do we get Fred back and bard her?"
That was the problem Dante had been working out. He studied the layout of the Grimferno from its pillars, its blast walls topped by crisscrossed pikes, and its bowl-shaped walls that were not unlike the half-pipes at the skate park. That gave him an idea.
He climbed back onto the bus, emerging seconds later with his souped-up skateboard and one of the mega-sized blast caps. He handed the cap to Angie. "If she tries to swallow Fred, distract her with this…but do not hit me."
Angie frowned. "Why? Where are you going to be?"
Dante grinned. "I'm going to grab some air." With that, he climbed onto the skateboard and launched himself off the hood of the bus.
"Okay, great, I don't know what that means!" Angie called after him.
As Dante hoped, the curved walls were rather like the world's gnarliest, scariest skateboard park. Having been leveled-up by the arena, his board glided nearly as fast as the Baba Yaga was flying overhead. He was soon keeping pace with her easily. It would have been the most awesome ride ever if Dante hadn't been frightened for the witch's young prisoner.
The witch was looking rather hungrily at the child in her grip. Dante had to distract her. "Hey!"
Fred heard his shout. Terrified out of his wits, he twisted in the Baba Yaga's grip, trying to see him. Forgetting Dante's warning about names, forgetting everything except the desperate need for rescue, he cried: "Dante! Help!"
"Remember your moves, bud!" Dante called.
The child's brow furrowed in confusion.
The Baba Yaga finally realized she was being chased. The beast lowered her hideous head and shrieked a threat at Dante. The blast of her toxic death-breath hit him like a fist, making his eyes water. Blinded for a moment, he glided toward one of the walls of criss-crossed spears.
Fred cried a warning: "Watch out!"
Dante blinked, rubbing at his stinging eyes and trying not to fall as his board careened wildly. He saw the danger and managed to jump. The board cleared the points of the pikes by a hair's breadth.
Angie nearly had a massive coronary as her friend nearly impaled himself on the spiked wall. "You are scaring the hell out of me!" she yelled at him.
Undaunted, Dante angled the board and skated back into the path of the Baba Yaga.
Fred saw him coming at the witch head-on. Some still-rational corner of his mind warned him that he was as good as dead if he didn't do something-anything-to get away from the monster. Above the deafening pounding of his own heartbeat, he tried to make sense of Dante's instructions. Moves? What moves?
Then, all at once, Fred understood.
He kicked his legs, beginning to swing his body in something like the dance moves he used on the arcade game. The shifting of his weight threw the Baba Yaga off-balance, and the broom dipped mid-air. As she righted the broom, Fred kicked again, and once more they bobbed wildly.
It was working.
The monster turned her head to screech at the child. Working not to panic, Fred twisted and somehow landed a kick to her misshapen nose.
Stunned, she lost control of her broom, which lost altitude…
…low enough that, when they passed above the bus, Angie threw a snap cap into the Baba Yaga's path.
The explosion was nowhere near enough to harm the monster or her prisoner, but the concussion disoriented her. When Fred gave one more mighty kick of his legs, he slipped from her grasp. He hit the dirt hard enough to make him gasp, and her grip had left scratches on his arm, but Fred was otherwise unharmed.
Distracted by the loss of her prey, the Baba Yaga failed to notice that she had sailed right into Dante's path. With all the speed the new skateboard could muster (which was quite a bit), he jumped at the witch and tackled her right off the broom. They hit the ground together.
He pushed away from the monster, scrambling to put enough distance between them to attack. She bared her pointed teeth, jaws opening to devour him. She screamed; Dante screamed right back at her. He raised the dagger. "Hasta la pasta, death breath!"
She charged. Dante was ready, putting every hour of game practice into play to time his strike. He swung the blade and lopped off the avatar's head in one strike. The Baba Yaga vanished in a cloud of blue smoke, her wail echoing in the arena.
The blue smoke floated to the stands above and swirled back into the form of the Grim Djinn. Maldark stared at the master of the Grimferno, displeasure at the prisoners' victory blazing in his black eyes.
From the bus, Angie called: "Dante! Get out of there!" He was still in the middle of the arena, reveling in their first victory, completely vulnerable if the Grim Djinn sent another monster after him or if Maldark decided to vaporize him instead.
"That was the sickest ride ever! You have got to try this board!" He retreated to duck behind the bus with Angie and Fred.
He was grinning like a kid at Disneyland. Angie could have smacked the smile off his face if his usual complete disregard for his own safety hadn't just saved Fred's life. Instead, she grabbed him by the collar and gave him a healthy couple of shakes. "You could've got yourself killed, Dante! This isn't a game."
"Actually, Angie, it is a game…" he pointed out.
"You will not leave me alone in here with them!" In one wave, she encompassed both the lurking monsters and the students in the bus, who were only just beginning to peek out from their hiding places. In case she hadn't made her point, she gave him one more shake before releasing her grip.
Dante waited out a little wave of dizziness. "Okay, dang! Chill! I told you, I know what I'm doing!"
"Fine! You know what you're doing…just make sure you clue me in from now on!"
Rolling his eyes at her, Dante turned his attention to the boy hiding by the bus. "Still in one piece, Fred?"
Ashen-faced, Fred dove at his rescuer, arms wrapping around Dante's waist with all the strength in his thin frame. Dante patted the boy's shoulder, encouraging: "Slick moves back there, bud."
"I'm sorry I used your name in front of the Grim Djinn," came a muffled apology.
A shadow of doubt darkened Dante's face, but only for a split-second. No point getting upset about what can't be undone. "It's all good."
That was when he noticed Angie staring at him, more precisely at his forehead. "What?"
Angie pointed to the spot right between Dante's eyes because, well, the space between his eyes suddenly glowed with a ball of green light. When the light faded, it left behind an almond-shaped spot. At first, the dark spot had looked like a smudge of dirt or a scrape from the fall from the skateboard. But, then, she could have sworn she saw the 'smudge' blink at her. "You've got a…a…right there."
Dante untangled himself from Fred's death grip and searched the area until he found one of the bus' rear view mirrors laying a few feet from the wrecked vehicle. He checked his reflection in the mirror, pushing aside his bangs from the dark spot on his forehead. "What the-?"
It was a third eye, partially hidden beneath the bangs, right in the middle of his animated forehead.
His grin promptly returned. "That is so cool…I'm a tri-cyclops!"
Angie and Fred backed away from him, staring at Dante as if…well, as if he'd just grown a third eye. "What is that? A spell? The witch-?" Angie asked nervously.
A spell! Dante suddenly knew the answer. "It's a Seeing Eye Spell. It's Wizza! He's looking for us!"
Angie muttered a small prayer of thanks. Dante climbed onto the hood of the bus, from which vantage point he could glance around the full length of the arena, including the stands where Maldark and the Grim Djinn prepared for round two. If the spell had worked, and he had faith it had, then Wyatt and Lyle were seeing everything that Dante was seeing.
"Guys, if you can hear me, we're in the Grimferno…" His gaze, and the gaze of the magical eye, lingered on the blue-skinned avatar above. "…and, oh yes, that's a Grim Djinn."
They could not hear the words, but all Wyatt and Lyle needed was one look at the blue-skinned avatar, half-man and half-smoke, to know who had taken their friends. They saw Angie and Fred, a bit scraped up but otherwise appearing unharmed. Since the images they saw were changing, moving as Dante moved, they knew he was also alive.
As the Seeing Eye fed Wyatt's computer images of what Dante was seeing, they watched as the arena began to reshape itself. Trees emerged from the floor of the Grimferno and grassy fields sprouted. The illusion of a cloudy sky hid the domed ceiling. Only the wooden walls with their crisscrossed pikes and the bits of armor and bones of former combatants remained. The arena might now have been a battlefield of medieval times, except for the charred, battered school bus lying amidst the rolling fields of grass. They recognized the place from the game-the Fields of Yasbaugh, nesting place of any number of deadly creatures.
The Grim Djinn was preparing for the next round of his game.
"Wyatt, if you're going to make that wormhole, do it fast," Lyle suggested.
"Now what's he doing?" Angie asked.
The group watched from the bus as the barren arena morphed in to green grass and forests so tranquil it could only be hiding something worse than the Baba Yaga.
"Psycho genie stuff…" Dante guessed.
Julio glared at him. "This is the kind of freaky-ass stuff you play on your computer? No wonder you're freaking warped, man…"
Dante's voice was saccharin camouflaging venom: "Tell you what, Boy Band, you just keep hiding under your seat and I'll ask the mean old djinn if he can hold you prisoner in a nice, safe Foo Pets game."
"Will you two knock it off?" Angie asked again.
The Grim Djinn surveyed his handiwork, finally satisfied. His task completed, the avatar turned its attention to the teenagers hiding inside the bus.
"Knight of Never Fail, come forward!" he commanded.
Dante snatched the baseball cap off Joe's head. "Sorry. Need to borrow this." Right now, their only ace in the hole was the fact that Wyatt and Lyle knew where they were. The last thing Dante wanted was for the Grim Djinn to spot the Seeing Eye on his forehead and spoil that advantage. He put the cap on backwards, hoping his friends could see through the mesh and bangs. It'll have to do.
He hurried from the bus, afraid to keep the Djinn waiting again. He heard the hurried shuffle of footsteps following him and knew it was Angie. What surprised him was that the sound of several others' footsteps followed hers.
Dante met the Grim Djinn at what he guessed was the center of the transformed Grimferno. The creature nodded acknowledgment of defeat, but the djinn still smiled over the precious bit of information he'd won during his loss. "Sir Bickle…but not Bickle. Dante, Knight of Never Fail, you have won the first round of battle. By our terms of engagement, you may now choose one of your clan to go free."
True to his vow, the Grim Djinn clapped his hands and the wormhole reappeared. Dante didn't for one second entertain the idea of their group rushing into the portal together. The Grim Djinn would have made toast of them before they were halfway to the gate.
He waved to the ten-year-old, not needing to look to know the child was right behind him. "Time to hit the road, bud."
As Fred appeared at Dante's side, Julio protested. "Who said you get to decide?"
Ella frowned at him in disgust. "Are you serious? Of course Fred has to go!"
Shayne agreed. "He's just a kid!"
"I'm just saying we should decide together," Julio sulked.
Angie folded her arms, joining the other two girls in staring him down. "We can decide together when we fight together-you let Dante and me take on that Baba Yaga by ourselves. If you want a say, crawl out from under the seat and help us."
Dante glanced back to see their reactions. Their expressions ranged between shock, outrage, and shame.
Ella wore the latter expression. She dug at the virtual grass with her toe, her eyes downcast. "She's right. I said I was in, and I should've been there. Just tell me what you need me to do next time, and I'll do it." Brightening, she displayed a length of strips of cloth that she'd woven into a makeshift rope for them to see. "Look, just like I promised." As it had with their other 'weapons', the virtual world transformed her flimsy creation into a length of rope strong as steel. She grinned, delighted.
"Yeah, me too," Shayne seconded. She was not ashamed of her fear (she figured anyone with half a brain would need a few minutes to adjust to such an…improbable…predicament as this); she was only resolved that she would not give in to her fear next time. "That was amazing, what you did." She was staring at Dante in admiration. For his part, Dante took just a few seconds to enjoy having Shayne's attention.
"You know, I did help with that witch, too…just in case anyone's keeping score," Angie grumbled under her breath, stomach knotting at the exchange.
The sarcasm was wasted on Dante. He didn't notice Angie's frown for several seconds, and only frowned right back when he did. "What?"
The Grim Djinn boomed at them: "Make your choice or forfeit your chance."
Dante put one hand on Fred's shoulder and urged him towards the waiting wormhole. "That's you, Groovemaster."
Fred hesitated. "I want to stay. I want to help."
"Sorry, no can do, bud," Dante said. "I need you safe-you're my only hope of avoiding military school. I shave my head for no one."
The younger boy offered a wan smile. Still reluctant, he finally gave a single nod and stepped through the portal. He was gone before he could pause to look back.
"Okay, at least we know Dante and Angie are with the Grim Djinn…it's not great news, but at least it's not Maldark."
Assessing the situation, pouring over the facts, formulating a plan, all of that was what kept Wyatt calm despite the worry. The Seeing Eye was feeding them some information, although its usefulness was seriously hampered by the cover of the baseball cap and Dante's thick bangs.
The inability to communicate with their friends in the Grimferno was going to be a hindrance in coming up with a rescue plan. Wyatt's mind was already turning over that problem, and coming up empty at the moment.
Lyle paced the warehouse, pausing now and then to watch the obscured images on the computer screen. "You know Maldark's got to be pulling that djinn's strings. "
Wyatt knew. His fingers were flying over the computer keyboard, searching for any signs of abnormalities that might indicate real people transformed into computer coding. He had to find Dante and Angie's exact location among the coding before he could work on breeching the firewall and creating an exit for them.
Maybe he couldn't attack this by coding. Maybe they had to approach it like any other quest in the game. How would Wyatt try to locate an adversary if he were playing the game? Once he thought about it in those terms, the answer was obvious: "We might be able to help. Do a tracing spell on the Grim Djinn; we can send Wizza to back them up."
Lyle grinned, liking that idea and glad to have something to do to help.
"I'm going to try to isolate the coding for Angie's cell phone, see if I can get a message to them."
The Grim Djinn had not yet reappeared. During the brief lull in the battle, the teenagers retreated to the school bus. All eyes watched the blue cloud that swirled above the arena for any sign of attack.
Something about the metal cocoon of the wrecked bus still gave Shayne some feeling of safety, despite knowing all the while that the monsters outside could rip open the vehicle any time and carry her away as easily as they had done with Fred. She'd given up hoping this was a nightmare. Now, she was clinging to the desperate—and fading-hope that they might miraculously find their way out of…wherever the hell they were.
So, she sought out the only person who seemed to be keeping his head while all others were losing theirs. Shayne thought it perfectly in keeping with her life in general that, at the moment, their best hope for survival was the goofy kid from art class who tasted every paint to see if the colors had different flavors and used the ends of the brushes like Q-Tips to clean inside his ears.
She slid onto the seat behind Dante's. She knew it was a dumb question, but still she asked him: "Is it over?"
The fact that Shayne, of all people, was actually speaking to him-to say nothing of sitting inches away from him and staring at him as if he was captain of the last lifeboat on the Titanic-sufficiently flustered him that he nearly didn't realized she'd asked a question. Dante hated to disappoint her. "Intermission before round two."
She slumped back in her seat, looking miserable. "We're going to die in here."
"Nah. My friends-my game clan-they know where we are. They'll think of something."
Shayne wanted to believe it, but her doubts prevailed. "They're outside. We're digital avatars inside a computer. What can they do?"
From her spot in the back of the bus, Angie could only hear snippets of the conversation, but she had a clear view of the pair. She felt that familiar and unexplainable knot in her stomach from the way the girl was making googly eyes at Dante. Oh, puh-lese…
Angie had kept the words to herself, but she heard the exact same words muttered aloud from the boy sitting across from her. She turned to see Julio utter a snort of derision clearly intended for Dante.
Fed up, she pounced defensively: "Okay, what is your problem? Dante just saved Fred's life. He's trying to keep us alive in here and you're being a colossal tool!" She tried to keep her voice down, but the anger came across loud and clear.
Julio rolled his eyes. "Yeah, well, I don't know what your story is lady, but having my life in Dante Onterro's hands is not exactly making me jump for joy."
Angie's eyes narrowed into a gaze that would have sent Wyatt, Lyle, or Dante running for cover had it been aimed in their direction. Julio just cocked an eyebrow back at her. "Why don't you give him a break and help instead of doling out the snark?"
"Why don't you stay out of it?" Julio snapped.
"Because it was you arguing with Dante that let that witch sneak up on us and almost got Fred eaten," Angie scolded, "and because Dante's my friend and you've been insulting him all day. That's my job, not yours!"
Julio turned to face her. He leaned closer to stare directly into her eye, wanting the girl to internalize what he was about to say. "Listen, you seem…a little uptight, but basically nice. Let me give you some advice, 'cause I think I know him a whole lot better than you do." He glared again at the back of Dante's head. "We were best friends, hell we were like brothers, until his old man left. I tried sticking up for him just like you do. I tried helping him back then. I tried a lot. You think he's off the deep end now? You think that stunt he just pulled with that witch was some reckless shit? You weren't there for the attitude and the arrest and the whole bag of freak he opened up after his folks split up. He wouldn't listen to me, and I made a promise to myself that I wasn't going down with him. I'm not going down with him this time, either, so back off of me, lady! If you're smart, you'll get the hell away from him as fast as you can."
Angie blinked, the barrage of accusations leaving her momentarily stunned. It occurred to her, in that nanosecond, that she'd heard all kinds of gossip about Dante since coming to Daventry Hills High School, had heard the word 'criminal' tossed around from students whose opinions she generally gave a flying fig about, but until that moment it hadn't truly hit her that there might be truth to any of the rumors. Wyatt had even told her that the day he, Lyle, and Dante had met I.R.L., the first words the quarterback had uttered were "This criminal and you?"
She'd heard Dante make bad jokes about his probation officers and his bad reputation, but somehow she had dismissed it as making light of false rumors. He'd talked about what happened to his mother after the divorce, but he'd never said a word about what the break-up had done to him. She had never thought "criminal" meant criminal.
The last voice she wanted to hear at the moment spoke into the stunned silence: "You know, we're like two feet away inside a steel tube, so thanks for sharing with the group, Julio. Real nice."
Cringing, Angie turned to see Dante standing right behind her, his arms crossed. To her horror, every pair of eyes on the bus was staring in their direction, everyone on board having overheard Julio's tirade. Dante was frowning at Julio with an expression Angie had never seen on her friend's face before now-embarrassment.
Angie glanced back and forth between him and Julio, fumbling for something to say, her face flushing bright red. Dante wanted to tear into his ex-best friend, where the hell did Julio get off blabbing shit that was nobody's business…where did he get off shredding Dante in front of one of a very few people he actually trusted, who actually trusted him in return?
He wanted to, but what good would it do? Shaking his head in disgust, Dante turned and stormed out of the bus, thinking the Grim Djinn's monsters would make better company right then.
"Dante!" Angie shouted after him. "Great…we just completely humiliated one of my best friends. Thank you for that." She tossed the words over her shoulder at Julio as she hurried after her friend.
She found him standing in front of the battered vehicle, his back to her as he stared up at the ceiling of the arena. The lame apology she was about to offer was forgotten when Angie saw what had distracted Dante.
The blue-skinned creature circled overheard. When the two teenagers emerged from the bus, it let out a high-pitched roar and dove at them in a blur of scales and wings.
"Move!" Dante shoved Angie to the ground as the creature spit something in their direction. She saw a ball of gooey, sticky thread impact the side of the bus.
The teenagers still in the bus rushed to the windows at the sound of the roar outside, the need to see whatever was coming after them now stronger than fear. From their vantage, it was impossible to see what was out there.
Ella picked up her new rope and led the way to the door. She could have given a pig's eye whether Dante was a criminal, an honor student, a stoner, a lunatic, or a freaking roadie for Skillet; she was observant enough to know that the safest place in this bizarre, computer-generated freak show was right behind that boy and his dark-haired, spitfire gal pal.
Shayne was of the same opinion, because she was right on Ella's heels, picking up the drumsticks and blade. Julio and Joe did not budge from their seats.
"You boys coming or what?" Ella baited them.
Reluctantly, they followed…but only as far as the door.
Dante picked himself up off the ground, still trying to get a good look at the Grim Djinn's new form. As an afterthought, he turned the baseball cap backwards to uncover the Seeing Eye on his forehead so that Wyatt and Lyle could see what he was seeing. Someone shoved the blade and a snap cap into his hands. A sidelong glance told him it was Shayne. She and Ella moved to kneel beside him on the right while Angie, donning her Fist of Schoolage, stood to his left.
"What is it this time?" Angie asked.
Ella squinted at the creature as it zoomed overhead. "It's a dragon. I think."
It wasn't until the creature leveled itself for another pass that Dante got a good enough look to be sure. The monster was half-dragon, half-insect. In the game, it would have only been the size of a dragonfly, but the Grim Djinn had decided to level it up to a beast as big as a house.
"It's a Pyrausta," he said, like the word was going to have any meaning to non-gamers. The dragon-insect puffed its jaws to send another web at them. "Everyone down!"
The girls instantly flattened themselves against the grassy ground, covering their heads as Dante threw the snap cap as hard and as far as he could. The explosion forced the creature to change course as it took its shot. The sticky thread missed them by inches.
Julio had never left the bus, so he merely crouched beneath the driver's seat. Only Joe stood, unmoving, watching the creature.
Dante saw the danger as the Pyrausta set its sights on the hulking teenager. The blood drained from Joe's face as the beast roared at him. In panic, he did precisely the worst thing possible and tried to outrun the monster.
"Joe! Cover!" Dante shouted.
It was too late. The Pyrausta netted the boy with a ball of webbing like a spider trapping a fly. Towing its cocooned prize, who screamed all the while, the creature flew to tops of the trees of the arena and tied Joe to the support beams with its web.
Joe blinked, wide eyes taking in his predicament. He heard tiny squeals from somewhere to his left. The cocoon that mummified him made it nearly impossible to turn his head, but he managed the movement. What he saw elicited another scream of terror: There was a large nest tucked among the branches, and inside the nest were five Pyrausta hatchlings. The tiny dragon-insects bleated hungrily, their slimy, gawkish bodies wiggling towards the trapped boy.
Dante scratched his head as he stared up at Joe. "Okay, did anyone here not fail the rope climb in phys. Ed.?" He asked the group.
Shayne stepped forward. "I used to climb trees with my brothers. I'll give it a try."
Dante traded her the blade for the drumsticks. "You can cut him out with this."
Ella offered her the rope. "Here, tie this around your waist. Me and Julio will lower you two down once you bust him out of that cocoon." She saw Julio peeking out the glass door of the bus and slapped her hand against the glass in front of his face. "Hey, Boy Band! If you don't get your keester out here in two seconds and make yourself useful, I'm gonna shave that hair off your head and weave myself a saddle blanket, darlin'."
Meekly, unhappily, he slinked out of the bus. He moved to join them, careful to keep Ella between himself and Dante. She fixed him with a look that said he'd damned well better not think of bailing on them.
Shayne stared hesitantly at the imposing height of the trees and the baby nightmares keening from the nest. Dante encouraged her "We'll keep thatthing off your backs…just climb really, really fast."
He gestured to include Angie in his pledge. After the awkwardness in the bus, she was grateful for the nod and implicit trust.
"I got this." Shayne's expression was not as confident as her words, but she squared her shoulders in determination.
Dante and Angie broke cover, weapons ready, with simultaneous cries of: "Tulta Munille!" Dante pitched another snap cap at the dragon-insect. The explosion disoriented the Pyrausta and created a smoke screen. Using the cover, Shayne dashed across the arena and began free-climbing up the tree. Ella quickly followed, watching for the beast as she waited below. Julio grudgingly joined her there.
Dante and Angie lured the Pyrausta in the opposite direction, weaving behind the trees and diving behind the remaining barricades and pikes as the creature unleashed a volley of fire and webbing at them. Julio and Ella watched their game of cat-and-mouse with the blue-skinned monster.
Shayne nearly lost her grip on the tree. Barely catching herself before she fell, the let out an involuntary squeak of fear. Splinters dug into her hands. She paid no mind to the pain, thinking splinters were much better than going splat on the arena floor. She was regretting every time she'd skipped phys ed and vowed never to miss class again.
Ella called to her: "Don't look down. You're doing fine."
Joe was almost eye-to-eye with the baby Pyraustas. Tiny, sharp teeth bit at the webbing, which was now miraculously protecting him from being devoured. He tried to discourage them by blowing into their faces. That seemed to only spur them on. One tried to bite the exposed tip of his nose. Joe turned his head out of reach. Nearly immobilized, he could not see how far away his rescuer was.
Desperately, he implored the carnivorous lizards, "I'm not part of this! You guys want Onterro, man! He's your 'archenemy'. Go eat him!"
Joe's words carried to the beast that chased Dante and Angie. The blue-skinned Pyrausta halted in mid-air. Dante could swear it smiled at him as it taunted in the Grim Djinn's voice: "Sir Bickle of Never Fail…but not Bickle. Dante Onterro."
Shayne couldn't believe her ears. She screamed at Joe: "You complete loser! I ought to leave you here!"
"No, please! Don't leave me! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" He begged until she finally began sawing through the webbing with the blade.
"Well 'sorry' ain't gonna undo it!" Ella said.
"I'm sorry!" Joe repeated.
Dante had no time to dread the fact that Maldark's henchman now knew his full name I.R.L. The Pyrausta had renewed its pursuit with vigor, knocking down walls and barricades faster than Dante and Angie could hide behind them. Dante turned and threw another snap cap, but the dragon-insect was ready this time and batted the sphere away with its tail. The explosive landed by a pike-topped wall. The concussion didn't quite bring down the barricade, merely toppled it so that it slanted at an awkward angle.
It gave Dante an idea.
He caught Angie's shoulder, waving to the damaged barricade. "…plan, I have a plan! See that wall that's half-falling down?"
"When I give you the signal, use your glove and knock it all the way down."
Angie tried to fathom his plan, but trying to follow Dante-logic was a little like jumping down the rabbit hole into Wonderland...scary and surreal. Therefore, she simply asked, "What's the signal?"
"Probably me screaming like a giant dragon is ripping out my intestines," he answered.
She nodded agreement and headed for the damaged wall. Dante ran in the opposite direction, luring the Pyrausta.
Overhead, Shayne reached Joe just in time to stab one of the baby dragon-insects as it snapped at his exposed eyes. The tiny beast vanished in a shower of sparks and smoke. It was tricky keeping her grip on the branches and cutting him free of the webbing, and she had to stop several times as the remaining lizard babies flew at her face, baring their fangs. Each one exploded as she drove the blade into their hearts. When the last one was barded, Shayne was finally free to cut Joe out of the cocoon.
She tied the rope around herself and the boy. Joe clung to the girl, almost weeping with relief. "Thankyouthankyouthankyou…"
Poised behind the wobbling barricade, Angie watched Dante lead the Pyrausta around the arena. Several times, the dragon-insect nearly struck him with its balls of webbing. At one point, Dante tripped face-first over one of the skulls that littered the arena. He barely managed to roll onto his back and swing the drumstick baton to bat away the Pyrausta before it bit him in half.
Recovering quickly, he was up and running again, heading straight for Angie and the damaged wall. "Now, Angie!"
She slammed her Fist of Schoolage into the base of the barrier. The wood splintered and the wall groaned as it resumed its slow fall. Heading right at it, the Pyrausta behind him, Dante feinted aside at the last possible second to avoid being crushed by the falling pikes and timbers. The dragon-insect was too large and had too much momentum to change its course quickly. It slammed into the tumbling barricade, impaling itself on the pikes atop the wall.
The Pyrausta exploded into smoke and sparks.
Angie pumped her fist with a joyful cry, "Yes, yes, yes!" She allowed herself just a minute to revel in their victory, fist-bumping Dante, whose grin matched her own.
The Grim Djinn rematerialized almost at once. He made no move to interfere or attack as Shayne and Joe were lowered from the rafters, or when Dante and Angie ran to join the rest of their group.
Neither Dante nor Angie said a word of rebuke to Joe, but Shayne and Ella still fumed.
The Grim Djinn boomed: "Sir Bickle…but not Bickle…Dante Onterro, Knight of Never Fail, you have won the freedom of another of your warriors."
Shayne nodded,"'Warriors'." She decided she liked the honorific very much.
Angie whispered to Dante, "He knows your name."
"What's done is done," he shrugged. There was no point freaking out about the Grim Djinn possibly tracking him down in the real world when there was no guarantee they'd survive this virtual world.
Ella raised an eyebrow in disapproval at Joe, who avoided her gaze. "Can we kick Captain No Stones off the island?"
"Hey, excuse me for having a moment of stress when baby dragons were eating my frickin' face!" Joe defended himself.
Dante settled it: "Angie or Ella or Shayne."
Angie didn't know if he seriously expected her to bail, but just in case, she crossed her arms and refused to move. "I'm not going anywhere."
"It ain't gonna be me. I haven't had a crack at that blue-skinned cramp yet." Ella didn't know if it was possible to psych-out a computer-generated monster. Just in case, Ella cracked her knuckles and grinned at the Grim Djinn with the same "life-as-you-know-it-is-over" smirk she'd given her boyfriend when he'd sneaked around behind her back with her sister.
"Guess it's me, then. You guys be careful." Shayne was no more eager to go than Fred had been. As the Grim Djinn opened the portal, she reluctantly passed the blade back to Dante. When he reached to take the weapon, Shayne grabbed his wrist and tugged him closer. She leaned forward and quickly kissed him on the cheek. "I'll say this: You really know how to show a girl a-strange and disturbing time. I'll see you in art class?"
Nope. She wouldn't. She'd see the weird kid who never finished a project and taste-tested the paste for quality assurance. And she'd still make sure to sit on the opposite end of the classroom. But, it was a nice thought, at least. Dante didn't correct her out loud. He stepped back and watched as, somewhat self-consciously, she ducked through the portal. It swirled shut behind her.
He felt the familiar intuition of a woman glowering at the back of his head. When he turned, he saw Angie was giving him almost the same glare Ella had just given the Grim Djinn. Wasn't he the one who was supposed to be pissed off here? What the hell had he done to earn the 'Angie Look of Death' this time?
"Seriously, what?" Dante asked her.
In her usual way (which drove him absolutely nuts), she shook her head and evasively answered, "Nothing."
Maldark's face was a thundercloud as the Grim Djinn returned to him. "I should not have entrusted this task to such a worthless rot. You have been defeated twice now by those pathetic creatures and you have failed to rid me of that bothersome insect!"
"I have uncovered the true identity of your enemy," the Grim Djinn bowed low to the grassy ground, supplicating.
His master backhanded the genie across the face. "Am I sending him a Christmas card, you fool? I care nothing what he calls himself in his own realm! That was not your mission."
The Grim Djinn tried again to calm him. "You can use his identity to track down the rest of his clan."
Maldark screamed with such fury that the virtual animals of the Grimferno forest fled from the area. "I want him dead! Perhaps I erred in trusting you with that task. If you want your freedom, do as I've commanded: Kill him."