"And she's been drinking ever since?" asked Tetherys.

{Yeah,} Karnon replied. {Never seen her like this.}

"Maybe I should go talk to her?"

{Yeah, if you could. I think she's still pretty steamed at me.}

She made her way over to the far corner of the bar. Hannah was slumped over on one of the stools, flicking peanuts against the wall and trying to stare her drink into submission.

"Miss Hannah?"

Her stool toppled backward. "Kid? You're back? You're okay?"

"Well, the nuns said they had to give me about 17 different types of opiates and painkillers when they replaced my blood and organs, so I'm seeing some weeeiiiirrrd colours," said a noticeably wobbly Tetherys, "but I'm goo – oof!" Hannah had wrapped her in a bear hug. "Hnnah…yr…crushing…me…"

"You're okay," she whispered. "Thank the gods you're okay."


"Oh. Sorry." She let her go.

"Air!" wheezed the kid. "Air is good!"

Hannah motioned her over to a corner stall, where they sat down. "Teth, I'm sorry you had to go through that. The first one is always the hardest."

Tetherys waved dismissively. "Oh, it wasn't so bad. Just a few minutes of terror, shouting, everything going dark, and cold, hearing my heartbeat slow, slow…stop…" She took on a thousand-yard stare. "The infinite void…that terrible light…peacocks…" She shook herself. "I'm okay, really, ah ha ha ha ha."

Hannah viewed her manic grin with scepticism. "No. Bleeding to death's one of the worst ways to go." She shuffled in her seat. "And it's my fault it happened."

"Wha? No, no, Miss Hannah, it's not. Those monsters, they snuck up on me, that's all."

She shook her head, emphatically. "I should have been watching out for you. Dragging a first-timer along with me into certain death – what was I thinking? I should have been there. I should have saved you." She clenched her fists. "Wasn't strong enough."

Tetherys reached out to her. "But you tried, Miss Hannah. You can't save everyone all the time."

She smacked her hand aside. "Then what good am I?" she snapped. She signalled the barkeep to bring her something strong. "Sorry," she muttered. "You didn't deserve that."

Tetherys nursed her fingers. "Miss Hannah, are you feeling okay?"

She waved her off. "Look, can you…can you give me some space for a bit? I've got some thinking to do."


Tetherys made her way back over to Karnon. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Hannah bite the neck off the bottle of something that could pulverize mountains and chug half of it. "I think she's upset," she told him.

{Yeah, she gets like that,} said Karnon. {Has a thing about kids.}

"Do you know what's behind it?"

Karnon leaned back and exhaled. {Long story.} He noticed that Hannah had finished the bottle and ordered another. {And Hannah'd gut me if I told it to you. All you got to know is that she's got a lot of guilt on her shoulders, and that she thinks she can make up for it by taking on the world by herself.} He shook his head. {She's always charging in ahead, trying to beat up anyone who looks at her or any of her friends funny. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn't. Then she drinks.}

"That's terrible!"

{I've tried to talk her out of it, but she's as stubborn as a mule. And, heck, it worked a treat on most of her raids. But that was back when she had a whole crew and we were up against thugs and riff-raff. Not these monsters, or that Claw.} He shifted, uncomfortably. {I think it's getting to her.}

A bottle shattered against the wall. "'Nuther round, bar (hic!) keep!" said Hannah. "Woo!"

Tetherys stood up, determined. "I'm going to talk to her again."

{Kid, that's a seriously bad idea. She's a mean drunk.}

But she was already at the woman's side. "Miss Hannah! I don't know what happened to you before you met, but you can't keep doing this to yourself. I'm sure all this alcohol can't be good for your liver."

"Whut you talkin' bout?" she slurred. "Pickles it right good."

Tetherys pulled the bottle away. "Stop hurting yourself, please."

"Why shouldn't I?" she snapped, suddenly lucid. "I'm a captain whose crewmen keep dying on her watch. If I can't keep my sailors safe, what good am I?" She slumped. "I went off on this fool of a quest to get fame and fortune, and all I've done is gotten my friends hurt and worse." She sighed. "Maybe I should call the whole thing off."

"Absolutely not!" Tetherys shrank only a little bit as the whole bar turned at her outburst. "I mean, no way!" she continued, more quietly. "You can't give up now! We need you!"

"Says who?" said Hannah, from the vicinity of the table-top.

"Says me." She leaned over to look Tetherys in the eye. "I still dream about it, you know. The Claw. I see it every time I close my eyes." She shuddered, then collected herself. "But ever since I met you, now I also see you and Mister Karnon standing up to it. When I see you fight, I am…amazed. It's like nothing can touch you. The bad guys break against you like waves, and protect folks like me on the shore. You're a hero, Hannah."

Hannah scoffed. "You want a hero? Go talk to Hugo. He's your hero. I'm just a washed-up captain without a crew to sail with."

"Your crew is right here," Tetherys insisted. "You've got me and Mister Karnon and Mister Doom (well, sort of). A captain's only as good as her crew, and me, well, I'm pretty messed up. A lot of times I want to go back and crawl into that barrel again. But then I see you out there, and I think, 'No. I can't leave her there by herself. I want to help her.'"

She managed, with difficulty, to sit Hannah upright. "You're my hero, Miss Hannah, and we're your crew. And if you're leading us, I'm sure we can get where we're going. But you can't run a ship by yourself. You have to let us help." She added, with puppy-dog eyes, "Please?"

Hannah couldn't resist bursting out into laughter. "My God, girl, that has got to be the sorriest, sappiest excuse for an inspirational speech that I've ever heard."

Tetherys deflated. "But, I…"

"Lucky for you it worked or I'd put you through the wall just for saying it," she added, giving her a hearty slap on the back.

"Ah ha ha ha."

Hannah took another pull from the bottle, which she had somehow retrieved without Tetherys noticing. "Look, kid, I get what you're saying. And maybe I shouldn't quit yet. But takin' a beating so my friends don't is what I've been doing all my life, and I don't intend to stop now."

"But –"

"But," she continued, "but you're right. A captain needs to delegate. I need to be smarter about this. So, as captain, here are my orders for you."

Tetherys leaned in, rapt with attention. "Yes, Capt'n?"

"Go drag Chewie over here so I can punch him in the nose."


# # #

Several days passed. The team headed out to the northlands on von Doom's suggestion.

They met a giant. It died.

"So what are we looking for here, Doomie?" asked Hannah.

"That's von Doom, to you, peasant," he replied. "And we are looking for Supply Depot Number 447. Our armaments have been woefully inadequate in recent confrontations, and ages ago I secured a cache of weaponry around here. If it is still intact, it could benefit my quest for power immensely."

{Didn't the guild mistress say those M.A.D. folks were around here?} asked Karnon.

"Verily. They shall pay for their trespass."

The team stepped into a maze of dark and twisty little passages, all alike. von Doom invoked a spell of Xyzzy to light the way.

"Okay crew," said Hannah, "let's be extra careful this time. Kid, you're with me. We run block and keep our escape route open. Chewie, follow Doomie and get what you can."

The passage opened up into a wide, tiered pit dizzying in depth – an old, convered mining operation of staggering size. Crude stairs carved into the living rock allowed passage between the different rings, each of which featured large tombs barred by heavy, iron-shod doors. Many had been breached, apparently with explosives. A long line of kobolds and beastmen shuffled down the steps to the bottom, labouring under heavy chests of gold and weaponry. Two sorcerors, whose matching robes bore more sequins and rhinestones than an Elvis convention, hovered above them, watching as the goods disappeared through a wavering, flame-ringed portal.

"Damnation!" said von Doom. "The fiends have already cracked open the vaults."

"And getting away with the goods," noted Hannah. "Lot of goons here. We're going to need something heavier than an axe to take care of all of them."

{Maybe we should fall back, Hannah?} asked Karnon.

She shook her head. "No, we've come this far. Let's do this quietly. Chewie, you –"

von Doom sputtered with rage. "Stealth be damned, woman! One does not sneak about when vagabonds are trampling about one's yard!"

"That might be so, but – wait, Doom, what are you –"

von Doom strode to the edge of the precipice summoned a thunderclap. "HEAR ME, WORMS!"

Hannah face-palmed. "Oh, for Crom's sake."

"You trespass upon the unholy grounds of Lord Voldemortus von Doom! Surrender now, so that I might lobotomize you at my leisure!"

The sorcerors appeared before the heroes in a flash of smoke and flame, along with a sizeable retinue of swarthy goons. "Look, Siegfried," said one, "ze vwashed-up tyrant is threatenink us!"

"Ja, Roy," said the other, "eez very funny."

"Ho, ho, ho, ho," they said, in unison.

"You DARE mock von Doom!?" roared the ex-dictator. "Minions! Destroy them!" And then he heroically ran away.

"Damn it, Doom! Chewie, get after him!"

{But –}

"Don't worry." She kicked off a nearby boulder, flipped, and landed right in amongst the soldiers (and, incidentally, on top of one of them). "I got this!"

Kobolds and beastmen piled onto her, clawing, slashing and biting. She became a whirlwind of flesh and steel, deftly parrying, dodging and outright ignoring their menial blows and paying them back tenfold. "Hey!" she shouted. "Magic guy! You and me, let's go!" She lashed out at the one known as Siegfried, giving him a deep cut across the chest.

"Augh! Roy! Zhe costumes, she ruins them!"

"Never fear, Zhiegfried!" Crimson sparks arched between the two mages. "So long as we are linked, the show shall go on!"

Hannah cursed as she watched the rent in the man's chest (and, inexplicably, his robe) mend before her eyes. "Getting real tired of this healing-factor crap."

"And I tire of you, woman!" shouted the wizard. "Fry!" He smote her with thunderbolts.

Hannah spun and deftly blocked it with one of the many kobolds trying to hug her into submission. "Hah!"

"I never knew true love!" wailed the creature, as it died.

"Zhat was mine favourite stagehand, you monster!" said Siegfried. "Get him, Montecore!"

A huge black and white spider leapt upon the melee around Hannah. "Come on!" she cried. "The more the better!"

The wizard cursed. "Bah, this is getting old. Time for my next trick!" A rock whizzed by his head, and he traced it back to its source. "I'll need a volunteer from zhe audience!"

"Eep!" said Tetherys. She ducked just in time to dodge a fusillade of fireballs. "Hannah! Help!"

"On the way, kid!" Hannah struggled towards her, but a fresh mob of kobolds pinned her down. "Damn it!"

Meanwhile, Karnon had finally caught up to von Doom (who sure could move for a 3,724-year old) near an apparently unopened vault. {Doom! Stop splitting the party, damn it!}

"They can handle that rabble," he replied, dismissively. "Some of my finest works were stored within these walls. I will not have them desecrated by these petty thieves. Besides, we shall need powerful magics if we are to come to their aid."

{That's not an excuse, and you know it!}

He rolled his eyes. "Fine. I don't give a damn about them; I just want my money back."

{Better. Honesty is important.}

"Blast!" cursed the mad one, as he examined the mystic wards on the door. "They bypassed the lock! Curse you, Mastercraft!" He kicked in the door.

Inside were rows of spear racks, armour stands, sword cases and ammunition barrels – all empty.

"Hellfire and damnation!" raged von Doom. "These bandits shall hear from my lawyers about this!"

{Then you've risked our lives for nothing,} he growled.

"Not yet, minion, not yet." von Doom frantically searched the room, upending tables and opening chests. "Perhaps, if the dark gods favour me…ah ha! YES! The fools missed it!"

He thumped a small skull embedded in a wall panel. The panel turned on a hidden axis to reveal a long iron barrel with a metal rod and hose hooked to it.

{That better be one hell of a weapon, Doom,} said Karnon.

von Doom's hideous laughter sent chills down his spine. "'Hell' is precisely correct, minion," he said, cackling with malicious glee. "For behold: one of my earliest triumphs in the field of alchemical science, the Wand of Atrocities."

{Uh, why's it say "Property of U.S. Army" on the side if you made it?}

"The very fires of Hades caged and bottled," he continued, in a reverent whisper, "ready to be unleashed on my command. Pure, untainted, elemental force in liquid form. That accursed Richards thought he had taken everything from me, but he did not know about this place, nor this treasure."

{So can it help us or not?} snapped Karnon.

von Doom cackled. "Oh yes, yes, this will indeed help von Doom. Flesh shall melt. Cities shall burn. The world shall once more tremble before the FURY of VON DOOM! AH HA HA HA HA!"

He swiftly strapped the awkward-looking iron tank to his back, grasped the attached wand, and snapped his fingers under its tip. There was a small "whoomph" as it ignited. "Let the Heavens weep and Hell wet itself in terror! For now, all of creation SHALL BURN IN THE FIRES OF DOOM! AH HA HA HA HA!"

He sprinted back outside, ran up to the nearest of the two sorcerors and tapped him on the shoulder, giggling.

"Eh?" said Roy.

"BURN, INTERLOPER! AH HA HA HA HA!" von Doom squeezed the trigger of the M2-flamethrower and unleashed a torrent of pyromaniacal death.

Roy screamed. "Zhiegfried! Zhe unkind man ez burning my hair!"

"Zhen annihilate him!" he shouted back. "I'm busy killing a little girl!"

"Stay back, crazy man!" A wild spray of fire bolts flew from Roy's fingers.

One of them turned von Doom into a torch. He didn't care; he was having too much fun. "AH HA HA HA HA!" He vaporized as the flames finally took him.

Roy breathed a sign of relief. "Oh, thank goodness that is over."

Karnon stepped forward. {Yeah, that laugh was getting on my nerves.} He raised his axe. {Now, pucker up!}

Back near the entrance to the cavern, Hannah was feeling the pressure. Every minion in the area was in front of her, including the flamboyant mage, and Tetherys was behind her, attempting to set up an escape gate before she passed out from her injuries. "Why won't you just die already, you crazy man?" she asked, as she took another swing at the mage.

"Hmph!" said Siegfried, as he regenerated instantly. "You must be mad to be facing an immortal vizard like myself!"

Hannah heard a portal burst open behind her, followed by maniacal laughter. She smiled. "I ain't mad, but he is!"

"Agh! Miss Hannah! Duck!" Tetherys tackled her to the ground.

"KNEEL BEFORE DOOM, INSECTS!" A tsunami of elemental rage swept just inches over Hannah's head, scorching the hairs on the back of her neck. Siegfried screamed, stumbled around on fire for a bit, and crumbled to ashes, along with his minions.

Roy saw the sight from across the room and wailed in distress. "Siegfried, no! Now how can our act go on? We're a two-man show!"

{Gimmie a second,} said Karnon, as he took careful aim.


{There,} he said, after his mighty (and precise) swing, {Now there are two of you.}

Karnon headed back to join the others. Hannah was helping Tetherys bind her wounds. von Doom was busy setting corpses on fire.

"Yes, yes, YES!" he cried, black tears of joy in his eye. "The power is mine, once again! von Doom's re-ascension has begun!"

Hannah sidled over to her partner. "Uh, Chewie? Is it just me, or is he even more unhinged than before?"

{Nah, he's always excited when he gets a new toy.}

"AH HA HA HA HA!" von Doom annihilated a passing bat.

{Armoury was mostly empty,} he continued. {Looks like they've already started hauling off the good stuff.}

"Then let's get after them. Hey, Doomie! Stop with the crazy, we're going after them!"

"Do as you with, infidels," he cackled. "von Doom has no further need of you!"

"You realize they still have almost all your stuff, right?"

"THIS SHALL NOT STAND! Come, minions! These vagabonds must PAY for their insolence!"