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The Two Faces of Evil - These Charming Men
By Demonprist



In the streets of Calis there was a party in full swing. It was the
start of the weekend and the fun promised to last longer than most of
the city's late night sprees. Calis was always hopping with all kinds of
activities, and the parties that began at sundown were a delightful
offshoot of city entertainment. When the workday ended and you needed a
place to let down your hair and loosen up your straitlaced life, this
was the ticket to nonstop action.
While the clock ticked on people danced, got roaring drunk, gambled in
the hopes of winning instant jackpots, or went to work, as this was the
time during which their business--not always legal--was best conducted.
Some liked to take in the rowdy sights along the boardwalk; others opted
for a casual stroll along the relaxing riverbanks or beaches. Some
people went on dates and some were just out for sightseeing.

A few of the seedier types visited the less savory city dwellings. These
were the kind of folk who frequented the crime district, favoring as
most of them do the cover of night to conduct their illicit deals in.
They kept the cops busy when intergalactic crime was running low. Calis
had its dark side just like any sprawling metropolis.

To the criminals that lived and worked here Calis was heaven. Most of
the heavier problems could be blamed on the big mobs that tried to
muscle in on certain areas. They inevitably staged turf wars over
gambling businesses, giving the police much of their city action. Since
they were more focused on the mobsters the cops tended to dismiss
smaller operations, though they didn't ignore them entirely. Once in a
while a petty offender would get busted. Occasionally officers were
willing to look the other way and release the perpetrator with a stern
warning to stay out of trouble. Counterfeiting, bootleg, and
prostitution outfits could and did flourish so long as they maintained
low profiles. The cops had bigger fish to fry . . . but sometimes, they
were the ones who got nailed instead.

Though few criminals could claim any great love for the law, when a cop
was attacked or killed in Calis a collective groan could be heard once
the news was broken. The understanding among the small-time gangs was
that they could make an illegal living discreetly in return for regular
payoffs. Money was not necessarily the booty. Information was the chief
loot. Some cops and criminals took pains to cultivate resources and
friends from the opposite side because every so often their unorthodox
connections paid off. Slave trader gone to ground and can't find him? Go
down to Calis and find your pickpocket informant who knows where his
hideout is. Need a lead on that escaped prisoner who's responsible for a
few serial killings? Track down the cybernetic network hacker who sees
him in a local bar every Thursday evening for a few beers before his
next homicide. Conversely, any hooker or cat burglar in trouble with
their higher-ranking counterparts could come to the police and find
salvation.

The cops and the lesser criminals in Calis had a mutually beneficial
you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours relationship that was to be
disturbed at great peril. For all the harmonious transactions that went
on between the two sides, there was still a fine line between the
law-abiding and the lawbreakers that unspoken honor demanded upholding
of. When an officer took a hit the whole force came swarming into town
like a horde of rampaging vampires. Though the InterPlanetary Control
Force would never admit to it in public, they relied on their
underground connections for easily accessible sources of information.
But there was a limit to the amount of perfidy they would overlook. They
had the power to shut down any business anywhere, any time, so it
behooved the bad boys and girls to play along within the network of
established rules. These rules could sporadically be bent when a
loophole was necessary for the greater good, but--especially in the case
of Rule Number One--never broken outright. Rule Number One clearly
stated that IPCF officers were strictly off limits where the topic of
assassination was concerned. Most lowly criminals solemnly respected
that rule, but there was always the handful that did not, and on this
night six cops were struck down.

Two died in a hail of armor-piercing gunfire along with the
hallucinogen-mashed pimp they were pursuing for an outstanding battery
warrant. The pimp thought they were giant mutant crabs hatched from his
lice-infested testicles and opened up on everyone, himself included,
with a Stinger machine rifle that he had no idea how to control.

One wound up the victim of a blackmail scheme gone sour when during a
routine investigation he stepped on a mine intended for someone else.

An overeager mob enforcer electrocuted one with a taz-gun and bragged
about it to his don. The don did not find this mistake as funny as his
man did and bestowed upon him a new pair of water-walking shoes . . .
made out of premium-quality concrete.

A getaway truck broadsided another's car during a tavern robbery.

The last officer was murdered by an indulgent shapeshifter who was
taking time out from his busy schedule to scramble a nice mixture of
brains and blood together for an evening snack.

Being bad required a lot of energy. Since he couldn't very well attract
attention to himself by procuring sweetmeats from the food vendors (and
since he had no desire to expend precious power by shifting into an
aesthetically pleasing form to appease any prejudices against mummified
demonic beings) the cop's lifeblood would have to do. Anyway it
contained better flavor than ordinary food and was chock loaded with
vital sugars. He formed his index finger into the slender shape of a
spoon and ate heartily from his victim's shattered cranium. When he was
done he licked the spoon clean and shifted it back into a finger. He did
not need to tidy up further, for he was infallibly clean and his table
manners were impeccable. Not a drop of blood had been spilled upon him
during his dining.

The gunshot hadn't attracted any witnesses. People were too busy
partying amidst the evening festivals that were part and parcel of city
life to take notice of one more loud noise. Thus the remains of
Carlemon-Wassey, formerly the head officer of the InterPlanetary Control
Force's Calis department, would most likely not be discovered until
morning when the cleanup crews arrived to clear away the latest party's
rubble. He had plenty of time to contact his other half and clue him
into the imminent arrival of their target.

Thankfully they were never very far apart at any given moment. Otherwise
tracking methods would have had to be employed and their two most
precious commodities, time and energy, would have been wasted. The
special psychic connection that they shared enabled them to get in touch
with each other at a second's notice--though it was far easier for him
to find his contact than it was for the contact to locate him. This was
an essential part of his plan. He needed his sneaky shapeshifter-avatar
under his control in both mind and body if the game was ever going to
come to successful fruition. He couldn't very well do that if the little
snot had the ability to spy on him. As long as Emanon believed he was
who he said he was there was no danger of rebellion, for he was not just
a god, he was The God . . . even if he was only in the process of
Becoming.

A fully satiated Prince Thaetith watched a bloody speck of brain slowly
slide down the red-and-gray-splattered inside of the windshield and
recalled with a serpentine smile the priceless expression on the stupid
cop's face when he'd realized there would be no escape for him. They
always thought there was a light at the end of the tunnel--only to be
sorely disappointed when he snuffed out that flimsy candle of hope and
banished them to eternal darkness. Even if Wassey hadn't been relevant
to his plans he still would have happily put a bullet through his head.
The police chief was nothing but an ignorant leech. Leeches drained
promising empires dry and left worthless husks behind. Leeches were the
reason Terra was still a dreary dumpsite for the vermin of the universe,
even after all these many millennia.

Thaetith had big plans for Third Earth once he gained absolute power.
The lands must be thinned of inferior peoples. The herds must be
cleansed of the weaknesses that were such damnable traits in the mortal
species before he could comfortably rest on the laurels of the
magnificent kingdom he wished to create. Besides being a useful source
of energy Wassey was pertinent to future schemes. Therefore there was no
harm in prematurely removing him from this world. In the future people
would shower him with gratitude and praise for ridding the planet of
such parasites. He would personally see to it--starting with that
pestiferous nephew of his.

He studied the hand on his right, which was holding the gun that had
fired the fatal shot, and marveled at the exquisite power in this limb.
Elongated razor-sharp nails, tinted jet black by a genetic design of his
own fancy, caught the moonlight and reflected it in such a manner as to
make them appear almost liquid. If he had been of a mind to he could
have changed those nails so that they would actually morph to a
liquidation of infinitely alterable flesh for his evil purposes. His
sinewy fingers were girded with strength, all the better to wield a
weapon or crush the throat of an opponent. The powerful muscles in the
wrist and arm flexed smoothly as he brought the gun before his face. It
received the same loving inspection as his hand. In spite of their
foolishness mortals could be interesting tools for these times. The
inventions they could create raised the stakes in these gratifying games
and kept boredom at bay.

In the beginning Thaetith had liked guns very much. They were
immeasurably handy for those battles during which the use of a more
primitive weapon would have been ill advised. He'd stolen this gun from
an arms dealer whose operation was conveniently based out of Calis.
Contrary to its name a Semmick seven-shot contained only six
hollow-point bullets per cartridge. It was possessed of an inaccurate
moniker because, as gun enthusiasts liked to point out, "you won't need
a seventh to send pussies packing." He had wanted something with plenty
of deadly force but compact and easy to fire at the same time, and the
Semmick, being strictly a collector's weapon due to its meager
ammunition load, offered these features in a slick package. Wassey's
butchered skull was proof enough of the gun maker's skill. He would have
liked to dispose of the wretch in a more macabre style, make a statement
that would really rattle his adversaries, but the cop was carrying a
standard police-issued Python SD. That one had automatic fire and its
ammunition packed a hell of a bigger punch than the Semmick's. The chief
was a large man, a potentially dangerous adversary if engaged by the
look of his robust build, and Thaetith had decided that intimidation was
the best way to handle him, using the exotic shapeshifting magic he had
been gifted with to stun his prey into submission. At this stage of the
operation he could not afford any more severe injuries. The power it
took to repair them was too weakening and could cost him his victory
were he to use it once too often.

Even so he disposed of the murder weapon in a nearby trash receptacle.
Not because he was afraid of being linked to it someday--he feared
nothing now and hadn't ever since the conversion to this existential
plane--but because he no longer needed it. He had no worries of arrest
by any authorities either. His fingerprints weren't in any police files.
Consequently when they found the Semmick and lifted those prints from it
they would not be able to trace them to any known criminal. Guns now
bored him. Their only saving grace was that they accomplished the job
quickly. Otherwise the gun was just another pathetic toy for humanity to
amuse itself with. There was none of that delicious intimacy as with
tried-and-true weaponry. A classic never died. Thaetith much preferred
weapons that could slash and rend and maim and do as much damage as
possible. In short, he was a staunch advocate of the blade.

He gazed at the starlit sky and licked his moist lips. He could still
taste the coppery-sweet silkiness of the cop's blood on his chosen
flesh-form right now. A familiar pre-battle tension was starting to set
his nerves on edge but it was a pleasant kind of expectation. It
sharpened his senses and brought out all the rich textures in the air
for him to savor with this super-enhanced body. His heartbeat increased,
juices pumping like pistons in a powerful purring engine, and his
breathing became heavier, more like the intense immersion of someone
wholly engrossed in an important task than the uneven shallow
respiration of a hyperventilate. He could smell through flared nostrils
the electricity of ripening fear carrying across untold miles from those
who would be victims on this otherwise peaceful evening. He could taste
through parted lips on a tingling tongue the furious violence which
charged his being to its malevolent core, a stark uninhibited havoc that
stretched his senses tauter than the tightest bow. Visions of
bloodletting danced through his mind; he could all but see the
culmination of evil's greatest triumph. Never before had he been able to
remember when last he had felt so acutely attuned, so potent, so
incredibly alive.

Mesmerized by this infusion of dark force he began to chant a favorite
verse from memory, a throbbing dirge from the ancient days that rose and
fell in rhythmic vibration with each invocation:

"Nuk Tem-Khepera kheper t'esef her uart mut-f. Ertau unsu en ami Nu,
behennu en amiu t'at'at. Ask temt-na heka pen entef, kher se entef
kher-f, betenu er thesem, khak er sut."

His breathing quickened and the roughness of his voice increased until
the words were spilling out in an obscene spiel. Masked by the cheers
and cries of merrymakers the pulsing incantation was as
indistinguishable from the voice of revelry as it was from the voice of
the night, for he did not once raise his voice over the ardent clamor.
His blood was racing with the savage thrill of the hunt and anticipation
of the kill, and he spread his arms wide and leaned his head back as his
body arched in true prophetic performance, as if he expected to absorb
more malignant powers surfacing in the darkness. As a former priest he
was in his element.

"A anen makhent ent Ra! Rut aqi-k em mehit em khent-ek er Se-mesert em
neter-khert. Ask temt-na heka pen em bu neb enti-f, kher se entef
kher-f, betenu er thesem, khak er sut. Arit kheperu em ertu mut em
qemam-tu neteru em sekeru! Erta-entu mut seref en neteru! Ask erta-na
heka apen kher enti-f betenu er thesem, khak er sut, khak er sut!"

To anyone but those skilled in the ancient tongues his words would have
sounded like inebriated gibberish. But his point had been made. Any
unseen entities waiting in respectful attendance had heard and
understood his proclamation of impending ascension as he vowed before
them, "I am the uncreated god! Before me the dwellers in chaos are dogs,
their chiefs merely wolves. I gather the power from every place, from
every person, faster than light itself! Hail to he in the heavens who is
strong even before the terror of the darkness. He gathers the power from
every place, from every person, faster than light itself. He restores
the giver of life. He creates the gods from silence alone and comforts
them. He bestows upon me this power from every place, faster than the
shadow follows the light!"

Thaetith didn't really believe in the power of the old gods, but he was
a staunch believer in the power their legends had to control people.
Gods were merely a convenient excuse for amateurs to run roughshod over
the masses and rule them from afar. Soon he would be the New God, a true
and active deity, reigning eternally and unquestionably over all in
fearsome splendor.

Of course, even a god in the meticulous process of Becoming must have
his disciples to oversee some of his work for him. As he coasted down
from his vindictive high he knew it was time for him to summon Emanon to
the surface once more.

No wonder his little boy was bouncing off the walls most of the time, if
this tempestuous state of mind was a fraction of what the clone must
invariably experience each day of his young life. But where Emanon was
dangerously unstable Thaetith was firmly able to exercise self-control.
That was why he was the master and his contact was the servant. Strict
regulation was imperative prior to organizing and executing a hostile
takeover as maker of the New World. Chaos, while occasionally an
exciting side trip, was not profitable in the long run and often cost
more than it was worth. Organized evil was a solid investment you could
bank on. It was also more enjoyable. The prince wanted plenty of
underlings on hand to use and abuse for his entertainment.

Thaetith's mind hummed along like a well-oiled machine, though in his
opinion it was incalculably better than any such inferior technology. He
could call forth power the likes of which hadn't been seen in this
universe for eons. Always he dreamed in bright colors and distinct
clarity. His dreams consisted of fantastical destruction and limitless
torment, usually of the young since they were the most innocent and the
most succulent, although any available victim was welcome to suffer his
wrath. He liked to draw out these terrible visions for as long as
possible in order to get the full measure of the glorious experience.
Sometimes there were blades in his dreams, brightly polished and
gleaming with the icy vigor of a mysterious inner fire, all of them
begging for his majestic caress when they weren't being drenched in
rivers of lifeblood. Beautiful swords and daggers and axes of every
conceivable kind, and many that were too bizarre to describe in worldly
terms but no less lethal populated the corpse-strewn fields of his
dreamscapes where he meted out his favorite brand of justice to those
deserving of it.

In one dramatic fantasy he had actually become the blade itself,
possessing both methodical cruelty and insurmountable passion in the
fury of his divine metal. He surrendered his fleshly form for that of an
enormous khepesh scimitar and watched in jubilation as his body
stretched and conformed to the sensuous shape of the sleek blade,
remorselessly slashing a punishing path through the fools that dared
oppose him. There were so many that by the time the dream ended he had
lost count of the number of enemies he had massacred with such creative
and unblinking efficiency. As his blade-body wrapped up its rampage his
senses had become so heavily aroused by the carnage around him he had
awakened to find the sheets of his bed damp with gooey streams of
semen--proof positive that for him power was the greatest desire in
life. The power of life and death over others was by far the most
satisfying exercise in strength that he had ever delighted in.

The first time he had this blade dream Thaetith had seen it as an omen
that he was destined to become a man of supreme authority. Now, thanks
to a few otherworldly connections that owed him a favor, he was destined
to become a god of invincible sovereignty.

He channeled this power through his being as he searched for a definite
fix on Emanon. Being of the same flesh was helpful but not always.
Sometimes the shapeshifter's essence was so cleverly concealed within
the psychic perimeters he'd carved out for himself it took several
minutes to lock onto him, especially when he was under the influence of
an outer stimulant like this intoxicating city playground. Luck was with
him tonight and he located Emanon within seconds. Thaetith let the
threads of their connection solidify and then slipped back to allow
Emanon the opportunity to reciprocate.

The clone's eyes widened and his body stiffened as he accepted the
contact with his sensitive mind. "You require my service again, Great
Set?" he said in humbled tones, softly so as not to be heard by any
passerby. There wasn't much danger of that because of the racket from a
band contest down the next block.

Thaetith made his presence dominant again. "I hope you have had the
chance to partake of the city's offerings. The time for play is past. We
have work to do. Mumm-Ra and those despicable Thundercats are on their
way to Calis."

Ruby red eyes shone with an unnatural excitement. "I did not see them
anywhere while I traveled the streets," Emanon said, somewhat puzzled.
"They are coming?"

"They are coming," Thaetith affirmed. "I expect them to arrive by
morning, and when they do--"

"--They will have your Heart with them!" the shapeshifter finished. "I
shall kill them all and return your mighty godhead to you, I promise! I
will tear them apart with my bare hands and string them up by their
entrails--"

"You will do no such thing!" Thaetith snapped. "Not until I give the
word."

Emanon cocked his head as if listening to an inner voice. "What do you
mean, Master?"

"We must lull them into complacency first and then make our move. You
will need the key to open my Heart before you can use its awesome power,
Emanon. Have you forgotten my warnings so soon? You must take Mumm-Ra's
place and convince those fools he has taken up with that you are him
reborn while I recall the proper key for you. Without it that puzzle box
is useless."

"Mumm-Ra must know of this key," Emanon suggested. "Else he wouldn't go
to such pains to keep us from our destiny."

"Of course he does. Why do you think he wishes to hoard your inheritance
for himself?" Thaetith said scornfully. "He knows that his time on this
earthly plane is limited unless he can thwart the will of the gods. My
Heart is his only chance at complete resurrection." He switched to what
most ears would have been an intolerable rasp; to evil ears it was no
less a grating sound but more of a darkly seductive lullaby than an
irritant. "Emanon, you are far too indulgent for your own good. If I
hadn't stepped in to save you where would you be? Still trapped inside
Genvironment dangling like a puppet on General Kembri's string." He
ignored the angry growl his mention of the science facility and its
leader elicited. "You are my chosen consort because I, His Everlasting
Highness Setuusekht, have spoken thusly. But you can no longer wander
about with your head in the clouds if you are to succeed. There will be
time enough to fulfil your innocent fantasies after the usurper Mumm-Ra
is vanquished from this world. Be the courageous warrior I know you are
and set smaller dreams aside for now."

Emanon was soaking up every word. His rapt expression greatly pleased
Thaetith, who basked in his protégé's worship. An idolatrous zealot
could easily succeed where scores of hired henchmen had often failed
miserably. "Business before pleasure, I guess," the clone reluctantly
but obediently agreed, as the prince had known he would.

"Yes. Business before pleasure," Thaetith repeated slowly. "I've already
laid out the groundwork for you. I want you to lay low until Mumm-Ra
shows up. When he does wake me at once. I have a special treat for him .
. . and for you. I think you'll like it a lot," he cackled to the
clone's all-too-obvious delight. Emanon was positively salivating at the
chance to wreak some more damage.

His mentor was equally eager to see him accomplish in his villainy. By
virtue of their symbiotic relationship, every time one of them exercised
his astounding abilities they both grew more powerful. Each improvement
was one step closer to the realm of invincibility. What a wonderful day
it had been when he had discovered this pathetically malleable being and
added him to his repertoire of evil!

Yet Thaetith had no intention of letting Emanon cross the final
threshold into ultimate power. That the prince could do on his own. He
wanted his shapeshifter only just potent enough to eliminate Mumm-Ra and
his band of furry feline friends. Once those flies had been plucked out
of his kingdom's ointment he would then decide what to do with his
deadly boy-toy. Perhaps he might keep Emanon close for a spell . . . or
more likely he would dispose of him when he fulfilled his purpose and
ceased to be of worth. Thaetith was not keen on sharing unless it was
the dishing out of his inventive cruelty.

"A treat?" Emanon's eyes widened to huge sparkling orbs. "Tell! Tell!"
he squealed, hopping up and down like a hyperactive child who has eaten
too much sugar--which in fact he had minutes earlier.

Thaetith favored him with a patronizing smile. "It wouldn't be a treat
if I told you what it was, would it? Now be a good boy and run along.
You know what has to be done." His eyes flickered briefly towards the
dead police chief and then back to the shifter again. "I have prepared
you for battle. You'll need plenty of energy to deal with those accursed
Thundercats."

"Ooooohhhhhh!" Emanon whined, squirming uncomfortably, but at last he
settled down and beamed radiantly. "Okay," he sighed. "Great and
generous master," he added quickly, wanting to please so that he might
receive more of what he believed to be Set's gifts. Then his
sharp-toothed grin faded fast in the wake of the memory of his previous
order. "What about Mumm-Rana?" he asked with a slight pout. "She might
be with them. Should I wait and attack her first?"

Thaetith frowned as he silently gnawed that point over. "She rests in
the white pyramid while she conserves her magic," he said at length. "I
suppose she would come to their aid if the fight warranted it." He
paused to give himself another moment to think upon a proper course of
action.

"I could waste everybody with a bolt of my lightning," Emanon offered.
"I can harness enough energy to do it, honest I can. I just know my
strongest charge would burn them all! She wouldn't have time to come to
their rescue." When Thaetith didn't answer straight away his tone turned
wheedling as he continued to plead his case. "I can do it, Great One, I
swear! Please, please let me do this for you, hmm? It would be such an
honor. All I have to do is find a giant current, maybe feed off the
white pyramid itself, huh? Big place like that, there's gotta be some
bitchin' power for the taking. Pow--" he smacked a fist into his
outstretched palm-- "just like that! No more bad guys!" Twinkles of red
lightning sparked across his itchy trigger fingers as he grinned
enticingly for his dark lord's benefit. "I can do it, Set," he said a
trifle too eagerly, forgetting the subservient form of address in his
hunger for chaos. "I want to do it."

The devil that would be a god everlasting raised his eyebrows at this
impudence but chose to let it pass for the time being in light of a
bigger problem. "Yes, but she is able to sense danger before it does any
harm. I do not want to risk her interference now, not when we are so
close to closure." Thaetith's eyes did a slow boil as they changed from
a dark red to an almost blinding crimson. When he spoke his voice was
heavy with hatred. "I will deal with that irritating priestess. You
stick with Mumm-Ra and the Thundercats from now on. Cut off those
felines so that they cannot protect the infidel, then corner him like a
rat before they rally their forces. Do you understand?"

"All right," agreed Emanon with a rabid shine in his eyes that mirrored
his patron's own. "Yeah, hit that uppity bitch good for me. I can't
stand her either. I still owe her one for that fireball crap on New
Thundera!" Unconsciously he licked his lips in anticipation. "And the
Thundercats?" he asked, rapidly clenching and unclenching his fists to
work off some of the fever building up inside. Usually when he was wound
up for some serious skull cracking it was just after Kembri's company
had provoked him with another of their nasty sessions. Away from the
rigidly structured policies of Genvironment he was a free bird waiting
to dive headlong into the fun denied him for far too long, and there was
only one outlet for this wildly churning energy to be had: that of
bone-breaking violence.

Thaetith's smile returned wider than before as he noted how anxious his
pupil was to blow off some of that steam. Emanon's hair-trigger
aggression reminded him of a seething volcano the longer he spent time
with his restless companion. Underneath the stony surface that bubbling
fury could explode in a heartbeat if not carefully tended by proper
guidance. He was never afraid that the clone in one of his tantrums
might get it into his head to attack him, but he did not want the mess
of a total eruption staining his hands. The lad had been fairly good in
obeying commands, for he was a fast learner if a tad on the overreactive
side. Reinforcement was the key to controlling his lethal plaything. A
small reward was in order to preserve the shaky leverage he had
established in the avatar's mind.

"Kill them," the prince said with undisguised pleasure. "Kill them all
as you see fit."

Emanon nodded, cracking his knuckles in fidgety impatience.

"But do be a dear and save their eyes for me, won't you? I'd like a
memento of Third Earth before it enters the golden age of our eternal
empire. Which reminds me . . ."

"What?"

"Look in your left pocket."

Emanon did as he was told and fished out what was left of a pair of
bullet-mutilated eyes. They were so chopped up from the Semmick pistol's
shot that only one iris could be seen, and even that was barely
discernable among the squishy ruins. "Cool! These his?" he asked,
indicating Wassey's corpse with a thumb.

"He wasn't going to need them where he was headed."

"Want me to do the honors?"

Thaetith smiled lazily. "Certainly. We have a reputation to protect,
don't we?"

"As you wish, my lord."

Teacher and student shared an abrasive chuckle. Thaetith relaxed his
grip on Emanon's mind, allowing the killer clone to scurry on his way.
Satisfied that at least this loose end had been tied up he returned to
his own realm to rest for the duration of the night.

They say that evil never sleeps. Not true. Even evil must take time out
to replenish its depleted forces before stepping back onto the stage.

Comfortably ensconced within his secure fortress in the blink of an eye
Thaetith paused in front of a massive mirror to check on his enemies of
the hour. They were running through the Unicorn Forest trying to escape
death at the guns of an intergalactic hunter. His ruthless gaze settled
on the last person in the group, the one for whom he lay in wait like a
poisonous viper. The suspense was almost too much to bear, but after
centuries of patience and planning . . . soon he would strike . . .

His lips curled into a feral snarl. "Mumm-Ra," Thaetith rasped quietly,
his tone dripping with unbridled venom. "At last, little nephew, I will
squash you like the worm you are."

Mumm-Ra had been an exceptional blade once, forged in the inferno of
hatred and selectively crafted with malignant precision. He was still a
blade to some extent--old habits died hard--but he was no longer the
kind of blade that Thaetith desired for use as an unholy weapon. Like
his father before him he was tainted with weakness that dulled and
softened the keen edges of his steel into useless garbage, and like his
father before him he would be made to pay the price for his descent into
the putrescence of humanity.

He thought back to the days when Mumm-Ra hadn't been such a bother and
an inexplicable longing swelled within his breast. The child had been so
young, so full of wicked promise . . . until Durakkon had corrupted him
with his vile goodness. He had tried-oh, how he had tried to extinguish
that brightly burning flame of the boy's spirit! Only to watch his
efforts fail time and time again. For a while it had seemed as though
Mumm-Ra might be well on the road to ruin, but now even that fate had
run its course and been soundly defeated. The bitch, the stupid bitch,
the stupid meddling do-gooder bitch had arrived on the scene when he'd
least expected it and thrown a right royal wrench into his works.

"The bitch," he said out loud, just to hear the sound of his own harsh
voice echoing in the deathly silence.

Chalk Mumm-Rana up as another necessary casualty on the path to
self-appointed godhood.

Upon his revival from the attack on New Thundera Emanon was warned that
the priestess had to be taken out before her brother or else she would
seriously undermine their reigning status. As Thaetith remembered the
scenes of her teaching Mumm-Ra about the Heart, he wondered if that
assignment hadn't been a bite too big to chew for the clone. Emanon was
unbelievably deadly, yes, and his body was easily adaptable, but unless
he got the drop on her first she would destroy him in a straight
confrontation. He was at his best when given free rein to attack with
the powers at his command, either openly or from the cover of shadows,
as long as his targets were weaklings. That was something those
Thundercats had proved to be thus far but that the threatening Mumm-Rana
most certainly was not. He was badly hit the first time that they had
met but he had been salvageable.

Next time he might not be so lucky.

Stealth was the best option they had in pursuing their goal, but
Thaetith wasn't so sure anymore that Emanon would tolerate a lengthy
stalking period and the secrecy required in maintaining the upper hand.
As it was he just barely managed to restrain himself to his master's
will. The prince was a diligent director but even he found himself
limited by the boundaries of biology. If nothing else General Kembri had
done an excellent job of instilling aggression deep into Emanon's
genotype, so permeating an instinct as to prove a towering challenge for
even a god to override.

Thaetith's eyes narrowed. Overcome it he would, or someone (though not
him, he thought arrogantly) would die for want of trying.

It made no difference to him how many and whose bodies piled up in his
wake. There were particular people he wanted destroyed and these were
the unfortunate souls he was aiming for. Extra corpses on the list would
just be icing on the cake. The whole lot of these Third Earthlings would
probably die once absolute power was at his disposal and he began
whittling the weaklings and troublemakers away. Thaetith liked to think
that he never made a mistake more than once. He had grievously erred in
exercising restraint over his instincts where his relatives were
concerned. He was confident that he would not do so again. When he was
doing dual reign as prince and high priest in the ancient days of Egypt,
the Refi-Sakkah incident had demonstrated to him the importance of
covering all bases. The lesson it imparted to him was not to be
forgotten.

Refi-Sakkah was a younger man who had recently taken his vows with the
priesthood and was assisting with funerary preparations when once the
body of a popular and rich lord was brought into a temple of Osiris on
the western shores. The nobleman had been a thorn in Thaetith's side
while alive, so the spiteful mage ordered his body cremated and the
leftover bones ground up into powder, which was to be cast into the Nile
River instead of being properly treated like the rest of the deceased.
Without the necessary spells and rituals the wealthy lord would find it
impossible to enter the sacred lands of immortality; Osiris would turn
him away and he would be lost for all eternity--or worse, devoured by
Ammut.

The young priest had felt this to be an undeserved punishment, so with
the help of his fellow priests he carried out the regular embalming and
entombment that was suitable for a man of noble stature. To appease his
superior he substituted the ashes from a hearth and presented them to
the High Priest in place of the real remains. But for the sharp eyes and
wagging tongue of his cohort Erkheti the sacrilege might have gone
unnoticed. Rarely was there a person who did not merit an honorable
funeral. Even the poorest of peasants managed to scrape together a
burial of some sort. Only the most wicked of Egyptians was sentenced to
that bleak eternity, condemned to wander in nothingness that was bereft
of all life's pleasures; indeed, of life itself. Such a horrid ordinance
could be used only at the pharaoh's discretion . . . or in his absence,
the High Priest of Osiris. Durakkon the sap would have let this
dereliction slide by had he known of it, so Thaetith didn't bother
informing him. The priesthood was his dominion, by Set's thunder, and he
ruled it with an iron fist. No one dictated doctrines to him, least of
all a brat ten years his junior.

Infuriated by the betrayal he punished his new priest a week later with
a barefoot march through the desert during the dead of night and, after
forcing him to strip, had him chained spread-eagled to four posts that
slaves nailed into the ground at his guardsman's prompting. Shortly
before Amon-Ra was due to raise his fiery ball of divination in the east
the prince cut off his victim's eyelids. The disciplinary action took
place before the faction of Egyptian priests who had once called the
youngster their brother; they were gathered at swordpoint courtesy of
Erkheti's personal squadron to witness the folly of disobedience. No one
from the subdued audience was allowed to leave the grisly killing field
until the late evening after, when Refi-Sakkah's pain-crazed screams had
ceased, his traitorous eyes plucked out by vultures and his flesh torn
apart by carrion-eaters that dined generously upon his body.

Thaetith did not tolerate even the smallest challenge to his authority.
He felt that the world owed him the respect and recognition that was
rightfully his. The world had yet to deliver those goods. And he was not
one for denial when it came to his own twisted desires. If a group of
holy men dared to defy him, Egypt's most powerful guardian of the
otherworld, what was to stop his meddlesome family from butting into his
plans?

Ah, family. You couldn't live with them, but you could kill them. Might
as well since they never knew when to mind their own damned business.

The prince watched with calculating interest as the redhead in the
mirror's view tried to keep up with the spotted blonde in front of him.
She looked over her shoulder and caught him floundering, so she slowed
her pace to match his. He flashed her a grateful smile. Shapely feminine
lips the color of fresh roses responded likewise.

"Such a lovely couple those two make," drawled Emanon's tutor
sardonically, before viciously putting a bolt of red lightning through
the mirror and shattering it into a thousand crystalline fragments. Just
as quickly those pieces sprang upward from their waterfall of glass in a
whirlwind flurry and reformed into a whole, unblemished mirror devoid of
imagery as he stalked off to slumber.

It came as no tiny surprise to Thaetith that Mumm-Ra should find this
half-breed Cheetara attractive and he hoped that their blossoming
relationship would mature into something deeper. It would give him all
the more pleasure to see her slaughtered in front of the bastard's face
when at long last he removed his brother's troublesome whelp from Third
Earth.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

At the opposite end of the planet, hidden beneath miles and miles of
vast, empty desert, General Byron Kembri was in the midst of lighting
one of his specially imported Moraisian cigars. On break from reviewing
some neurology research briefings, he was kicking back in his office to
ponder his next course of action regarding the Emanon crisis.
The Mutants and Lunataks had been successfully packed off to what they
thought would be another hidey-hole. In reality they were headed for a
rendezvous with extinction. Kembri preferred to tie up all the loose
ends he could in this Gordian knot. Wiping out his enemies in what would
be made to look like a feud between intergalactic factions was the
perfect capper. A special combat unit he'd ordered earlier was standing
by. Once Safari Joe had reported to him and confirmed the deaths in the
outbreak he would give them the go-ahead to take out the hunter and seal
off that remaining leak.

All that was really left for him to deal with was the traitor in his
flock and the recapture of the Emanon clone. It was unlikely that his
Genvironment spies would turn up new information on his toy any time
soon, so he thought about the plan he'd made for the demise of his
soon-to-be former assistant Loen Tradyk. That one was doomed to
notoriety as the mastermind behind this criminal situation despite the
fact that Tradyk had neither the balls nor the muscle to pull off such a
feat. It didn't matter whether or not he had ever possessed the moxie
for it. Kembri had the power to make it so in the public's mind.

Years from now people would remember Tradyk as the responsible evildoer
who had helped free the Lunataks and Mutants as part of a cloning
experiment of his that had failed abysmally. Tragically, Third Earth's
heroes the Thundercats would have died in titanic battle with their
enemies when they had investigated a trap that Tradyk laid for them,
hoping to steal their genetic material for his own demented uses. All
this would be presented as ironclad proof when IPCF officers arrived to
sort out the bloody confusion and found the disc containing Tradyk's
manifesto on his body. An accidental wound gained from a stray shot, a
major artery severed . . . and no hope of survival from such massive
loss of blood.

Kembri smiled and exhaled a puff of heavily scented smoke. Tradyk was
stupid. He had seen his defection coming miles away, ever since Emanon
had been born, and the sudden arrival of the escaped convicts had just
been the window of opportunity that he needed to make a break for
freedom. Tradyk would be an inevitable but regrettable casualty of this
situation because of all the knowledge and skills that he had possessed.
It was going to be hard trying to find another such worthy geneticist
and therapist to replace him. Kembri was a tyrant, but he knew when to
give credit where it was due. The general chose to momentarily overlook
Tradyk's escape from the underground base in favor of fitting him into
the cover-up he had in mind for the others. He had told Sephi to take
special care that Tradyk was the last to die in the resulting conflict.

The first to go would hopefully be Lion-O.

Kembri's placidity vanished as swiftly as the next stream of smoke he
blew out. Taking on Thundercats was nothing new to him. He'd dealt with
the Thunderian nobility before and come out on top--but he'd never
encountered nobility with such a tight foundation as these particular
Thundercats. Even worse, they were as staunchly loyal to their leader as
he was to them, making it a tricky task for someone to erode that
hard-won stability. Perhaps the best way to topple them was to
demoralize them by killing their beloved lord first. Then again, if they
were as fiercely devoted to Claudis' son as he suspected, Lion-O's death
might provoke them to struggle harder. Kembri was counting on the former
to help lead him to victory over the Thundercats. In his years of
battle-hardened experience nothing took the fight out of the troops like
seeing a respected leader kick the bucket. His mood lightened once more.

Thinking of his past seldom failed to cheer him up. Born and bred a
Thunderian noble himself, Byron Kembri had lived up to his father's
expectations and then some.

Jurgen Kembri had been almost as much of a relentless taskmaster as his
son. He came from a distinguished clan that had made its fortune from
administrative service for eons. The Kembris were one of the select
families who were able to trace their heritage practically as far back
as the time of the Felidagopales peoples who had first colonized the
original Thundera. In his father's days the prestige of old money
carried more weight with the people and opened doors that would
otherwise have remained closed. Ever aware of the longstanding family
pride Jurgen set out to carve his destiny as one of the movers and
shakers of society, perhaps even one day going so far as to attain the
most honorable rank of a Thundercat. He pushed himself to his limits and
beyond, becoming a military advisor to Thunderian heads of state. Sadly,
his chief dream of joining the Thundercats was denied him on the grounds
of a deteriorating heart condition inherited from the far side of his
mother's family. The explanation given was that this genetic defect
would someday render him unable to perform the rigorous duties that
would be demanded of this position.

Embittered by the committee's decision against him Jurgen decided if he
couldn't uphold his family honor, then he would create someone who
could. He made a drastic departure from matrimonial tradition, rejecting
a woman from a neighboring cougar clan that had married off its
daughters for centuries, and set forth in search of a suitable mate.
This was easier said than done--he was a notoriously fastidious man,
given to extreme criticism, and any woman he chose would have had to
have the patience of a dozen saints to put up with his insanely high
standards. When he finally settled on a purebred cougaress named Onar
Icti-Sansu from an upstanding clan who rivaled his own borderline
psychotic tendencies his parents released their collective breath. They
had feared he would fail in this outlandish quest and allow his lineage
to die out, but as Thundera would learn in years to come failure was not
an option for a Kembri. If he couldn't enter by the door of life's
promising elitism then by Jasu he would break in through one of its
windows.

During the endless days that had marked his travels Jurgen had done a
lot of studying up on genetics. He had learned how the curse that
increasingly gave him painful chest palpitations could be circumvented
in the blood of any offspring he might beget. He had also gained an
extensive knowledge of other defects and the means by which he could
avoid their consequences as well. Armed with this new information, some
very expensive supplies, and his own sturdy soldier's background he set
about creating the perfect son (any Kembri worth his salt always had
sons) with Onar. By the time his child entered the world he was
determined that the young Byron, vaccinated in vitro with his father's
DNA investiture, would have all the necessities of upper-crust society
that he himself had enjoyed, and all the ones that he had never had the
chance to obtain.

Byron didn't disappoint. Much to his parents' happiness he was a model
son, never breaking down into tantrums or pitiful whines like most
little boys, never lazy or sloppy in his chores and schoolwork, and most
importantly, always in control and on the rise to power. Family
affection was sparse in his home and often came in the guise of material
rewards for successes achieved. Failure brought with it an
all-encompassing shame and the harsh criticism of his parents. It was
difficult at first but Byron soon figured out how best to play the game
of life and come out a winner. If you thought hard about it, that was
all that really mattered in the end. Love, in his estimation, was just a
pipe dream fit for idiots and daydreamers. He was different. He was
special. He was a Kembri, the cream of Thundera's finest breeds. No
Kembri ever bowed to the fickle whims of a weak heart. That would be
tantamount to failure, an irrevocable soiling of the precious family
heritage.

Growing up Byron learned from a true master, his father Jurgen, what was
most prized in life and he embraced this rigid dogmatism with all the
driving force of a hurricane. All throughout junior school he did
exceptionally well, and when he moved on to higher education he made it
his goal to exceed any academic standards set by those who had gone
before him. He joined clubs and took part in any extracurricular
activities that pertained to his areas of interest--science and
military--blowing his competition away in every major contest. By the
time he graduated with full honors simultaneously from four different
universities Jurgen Kembri was a very happy man. So thrilled with his
son's success in upholding the family creed of overachievement was he
that he gifted Byron with an outrageous trust fund and a lofty position
with one of Thundera's army sectors. Several years later when he was
brought word of his son's impending appointment to the rank of colonel
he changed his will so that everything of value the family possessed
became Byron's at the time of his death, setting the stage for a
lifetime of luxurious living.

Byron was shrewd enough to see that his future could be immeasurably
brighter and broader than the one his father had envisioned for him, for
by then the ruler of success by which he strictly adhered to in his life
had long left Jurgen's ideal in the dust. A few years before his final
heart attack his father had proposed that he try for Thundercat
membership and gain the precious honor that he himself had once thought
within his grasp. Byron had his sights set on something higher. The
promotion to colonel had afforded him the additional privilege of
becoming a Thunderian council member with considerable say in political
matters. More than that, it offered him a tantalizing glimpse of
unlimited power that was his for the taking if he so desired. He
hungered for it from the day he first set foot inside the hallowed
chambers and saw the Lord of the Thundercats holding court at the
council table. In studying the breathtaking scope of the countryside
afforded Thundera's commander-in-chief by the immense window in front of
his throne, he had known instantly that this was his destiny.

Kembri's ambition to rule took center stage in his actions. He had spent
years building a solid career in the fighting forces and now he wanted
to ascend to a more fulfilling profession. He had been born for nothing
less than the seizure and exercise of power, of that much he was
certain, and pity the person who got in his way. Countless hours of
study in his favorite genetic fascinations had given him the power of
fledgling godhood. All he need do was put this power to use and the
universe would be his to command.

He leaned back in the impossibly large plush chair and inhaled another
delicious breath of cigar smoke, imagining that he was already the
eternal king proudly surveying his boundless kingdom. In a sense he was,
for as soon as the bugs in his Emanon were solved he would truly be
unstoppable. "Here's to you, Dad," he said aloud, tipping the ashes away
in a sweeping salute to spirits unseen.

He hadn't loved Jurgen in any real sense of the word, but he had greatly
respected him for his strengths. In his more philosophical moments he
supposed that this mild affection for what Jurgen had done for his son,
rather than for what he had been, could be considered a form of love.
Mostly whenever he thought about his father it was with admiration for
the soldier and pioneer in him. Jurgen Kembri might be long gone from
this world, but his mighty legacy lived on in Byron Kembri.

Perhaps forever . . .

Kembri's illustrious career as geneticist began when he joined a
high-powered pharmaceutical firm called Mercyst that researched common
Thunderian diseases and devised cures for them. In less than three years
he had gained everything he needed to know about the isolation and
destruction of those silent killers. When the firm's headmaster
transferred to another galaxy it was a simple matter for the young
cougarian to move in and set up his own modus operandi. He had seen to
it that his predecessor was so enamored of him as to tender a
recommendation that Byron be considered for the position. Under the
then-colonel's heavy-handed guidance the company expanded into broader
research as it sought out as many diseases as possible for study.
Everything from minor viruses to exotic birth defects was covered. No
galactic location was considered too remote to explore in the hunt for
new illnesses to defeat. More remedies became available and Mercyst's
popularity dramatically increased. Kembri's already substantial wealth
grew larger as he drew a hefty commission from each success credited to
him.

Then the big break came. Nearly seven years after he set foot inside
Mercyst its parent company went belly-up in bankruptcy and had to sell
its chains to pay off debts. Here, Kembri realized, was a golden
opportunity to grab control of his destiny. He did some checking and
found that though his workplace was bringing in money by the millions,
the profits were not enough to save its sire. After many clever
negotiations he bought Mercyst for a bargain and set about turning it
into his private corporation. By that time a general he wielded enough
power to act on his own as he pleased, and he did, more so than any
other of his rank in Thunderian history. Deciding to transfer his base
of operations to an abandoned training camp in the wilderness, he took
an extended leave of absence from military duties and spent that time
relocating Mercyst, which was now called Genvironment, to its new home.
He recruited his own handpicked men from the army as security and
renewed the contracts of those scientists and researchers he felt were
necessary to his plot. Those he deemed unworthy were let go with
generous severance pay and positive recommendations, that they might not
complain in the future of such premature unemployment and therefore
hinder his goals with possible investigations. Kembri wanted nothing to
interfere with his plan for the facility to be fully operational within
one year's time of its move.

When everything was ready Genvironment entered the arena of genetic
alteration. Kembri was no stranger to the basics since he had already
done such tinkering when he was an intern at Mercyst. In order to find
cures for diseases, a certain amount of creative license had to be taken
if a team wanted to get to its destination. Now that he had the means at
his disposal he intended to push his organization into a more intense
level of biotechnology: the previously forbidden realm of cloning.

He had done extensive exploration into the subject prior to
preparations. Cloning was actually not so much forbidden outright as it
was swathed in intimidating mystery and intrigue. There were outlandish
tales of zombie clones fit only for a child's imagination, and a few
educated speculations as to what one could do with a homegrown
duplicate, but there was no real documentation of the history of
cloning. Only a handful of worlds had ever implemented severe penalties
against the use of recombinant DNA for that purpose and they were all
light-years away in distant galaxies. Of his own backyard, so to speak,
there were no known attempts at cloning, unless one believed in that
part of the old wives' tale that the citizens of Plun-Darr were the
descendants of specially-engineered creatures in an ancient genetic
experiment gone horribly awry. But by that token one would also had to
believe in the other half of the legend that explained the existence of
Thunderians as successful offshoots of a similar experiment.

Kembri was not a true believer, but he did feel that there was more than
a grain of inspiration in this folklore. Hadn't his father told him time
and time again of his heroic quest to produce a genetically superior
heir? He knew there just had to be a way to gain control over one's own
biological inheritance. Jurgen might not have had the best knowledge or
materials to create a super flesh-and-blood enhanced warrior, but he had
certainly been on to something when he'd thought of the idea so long
ago. His son was only too happy to spend the next several decades of his
life retooling formulas for the perfect fighter clone.

There was mixed reaction to this among his colleagues. The official
announcement was that Kembri planned on revolutionizing Thunderian
battle and making the planet more resistant to hostile Plun-Darrian
takeovers through the use of super-warriors. Privately the gossip went
that their control freak of a boss was seeking ways to extend his own
reserves of power and perhaps even attempt to turn himself into a
mutation of some kind. The green-eyed jealousy monsters would have
raised quite a stink had Kembri tried to hog all the treasures for
himself, so for that reason he did the majority of his work related to
augmentation and cloning alone, because his underlings were closer to
the truth than they ever realized. As days became weeks and weeks
stretched into months, and months filled out into years, he was growing
impatient to find something that would give him a new lease on life. He
was well into his eighty-fourth year when at last he hit upon the right
DNA combination that remade him into a new and healthy young man
virtually overnight.

Naturally the problem with this was readily evident. He needed a way to
explain his restoration without coming under intense public scrutiny.
While he maintained a mostly hermitlike existence behind the curtains of
Genvironment, his presence was required every now and then at the
obligatory public assemblies when all officials were called to give an
account of their activities. He knew he wouldn't be able to slip his
sudden transformation past the other nobles, much less the Lord of the
Thundercats. And though most of his immediate families had long since
passed on, there were some relatives whose close observation might trip
him up if he allowed himself to come into contact with them. A fire he
rigged to look like an accident late one night killed his remaining kin
and incinerated an elderly cadaver he'd harvested fresh from the morgue
to provide a body that would later be identified as the former General
Byron Kembri. He was now a man without a history--but that would shortly
change in the coming weeks while he rewrote history to suit his
purposes.

The special injections of youth serum he'd invented enabled him to keep
his vigor for as long as he desired, provided that he stick to a
carefully fixed schedule and administer these injections once at the end
of every month to continue the cycle of renewal. With the healthy new
DNA strands that chopped out aged parts and wrote themselves into the
spaces, he had the ability to throw his entire system into genetic
standstill and arrest the tracks of time at whatever age he desired to
project. The downside was that he would either have to keep taking shots
for the rest of his life or invent a better formula, one that would not
require a steady diet of injections. His current work of art was nothing
short of incredible but it was not perfect, forcing him to adhere to a
monthly booster shot to keep the natural law from taking its cue. If he
missed even one his body would play catch-up--stimulating its own
progress beyond normal patterns and causing a decade's worth of ruin in
his cellular structure in mere days. By the end of a single week he
might very well be on his deathbed for having staved off the fate of all
flesh for such a lengthy period. With Genvironment and his colossal
amount of capital invested into it, he would, he was certain, be able to
remedy this snag in due course.

This far into his artifice the general, who had made all the
arrangements for the 'new' Kembri's entrance on Thundera to proceed
smoothly, returned to the armed forces and easily passed himself off as
their venerated general's son. His story was that his parents had met
and married in the city, divorcing amicably shortly after his birth
because his mother hadn't been able to cope with Genvironment life. Away
from proper civilization she had been a fish out of water in the
technical world of science that her husband had so loved--almost
obsessively, some said--so she had taken her infant child overseas with
her to live in a friendlier environment. He had been studying at a
prestigious university on a scholarship fund as a present from his late
father, and had only just recently graduated with honors when his mother
succumbed to a stroke. With no other family to anchor him to his
childhood home it seemed natural for him to take up where his father had
left off and inherit the vacant post of general. In those days rank was
handed down from generation to generation.

This constructed past was solidly backed up by valid documentation that
had been made by Kembri with the help of his detailed knowledge of
computer technology. He did not need to create phony identification to
validate his presence; rather, he manipulated the system into setting up
a legitimate catalog of information for a man who in reality did not
exist. Those who had known Byron the elder or heard of him and his
peculiarities found no fault with the strapping youth that claimed to be
his offspring. The nobility accepted him as their peer in no time at
all.

At about the same time Kembri was making his second mark on Thundera a
young man named Claudis was assembling his own path to glory. Claudis
was the son of the former Lord of the Thundercats and had inherited the
ruling right when his father was killed in battle. At just seventeen and
somewhat sheltered, he was inexperienced and inept at running a planet
the size of Thundera, but what he lacked in clout he made up for in
charm. With an affable personality and willingness to learn he quickly
gained the support he needed to keep society on track. Despite
Thundera's and Plun-Darr's constantly being at odds with each other for
the majority of his reign he managed to achieve a good many economical
and political successes. His crowning point was when he engineered a
five-year period of peace with Plun-Darr, during which time he met and
married his wife Evelyne.

Kembri's and Claudis's paths didn't cross until the end of this peace.
Plun-Darr's simian king Geriopheles was poisoned by his successor, a
cutthroat reptilian warlord named Bolgar the Treacherous. Bolgar had
amassed a formidable reputation as a greedy conqueror, so Thundera's
leaders weren't overly surprised when he immediately shattered the truce
between their planets and declared war on his neighbors for the next
sixteen years.

In the earliest clashes Thundera was getting clobbered. Claudis became
desperate for someone to aid him in tactical defense and the first
person he turned to was none other than Byron Kembri. Kembri had made
quite a name for himself in the seclusion of Genvironment's scientific
clique he so carefully nurtured and in the public eye, as someone who
could get things done when others would have squabbled over the details.
It was the general's gift for planning and the bravery he constantly
exhibited on the battlefield that brought him to the attention of Jaga,
who was a close friend of Claudis and a former Thundercat Lord himself.
Claudis was duly impressed with the general's record, so he offered him
a commanding position in his highest council. The opportunistic Kembri
accepted and before long Thundera was the one doing the pounding instead
of Plun-Darr.

It was during one such fight that he forged an alliance with his future
co-conspirator, the much-despised Sephi-vo-Notar, whose beginnings were
not unlike Kembri's. He too had enjoyed a privileged life and never
lacked for anything. But where Kembri had sought the road of legality in
constructing his career so that he would avoid coming under suspicion,
only resorting to criminal activity when no other option was available,
Sephi had flagrantly aimed for the route of barbarism in his chosen
profession. He found favor as a lesser warlord under Bolgar's eye.
Plun-Darr, which had never been much for lawfulness anyway where morals
were concerned, but was merely a pawn to be used at the king's
discretion, became an excellent breeding ground for the unscrupulous
vo-Notar to finance his evils and profit from them. Sephi was a born
guttersnipe. There was nothing he would not do in the name of profit, no
crime he would hesitate to commit if it meant a huge personal gain. He
built his fiefdom practically in the same manner Kembri had; the
difference between him and the general was that the perch on high from
where he viewed his fortunes was on the other side of the legal fence.

With a long and obscenely colorful record of cruelty it wasn't long
before he was sitting at the right hand of the big man himself, King
Bolgar, as an advisor in the arts of science. Bolgar had recruited him
for a special task, that of creating a more powerful army, so that a
decisive victory might be won over Thundera once and for all. The king
wasn't content to abide by the usual methods of defensive improvement
and beef up the armament of his fighters. What he wanted was a
super-powered warrior capable of not only standing up to but also
crushing anyone who opposed the reptilian's rule. Bolgar had heard of
Kembri's considerable prowess within the scientific sect and correctly
interpreted the motives behind the general's fast rise to power in the
military. He imagined that with Sephi's talent and Kembri's muscle
combined, his dream of an invincible clone-powered army would quickly
bear fruit and give him the inevitable triumph over his enemies forever.

Sephi too was aware of the dynamo Claudis had appointed to his war
council and he was just as curious as Bolgar was to meet him. Being of
similar temperament--that is, he had no loyalty to anyone save for
himself and held a concrete belief that he was destined for
greatness--he expressed strong interest in fulfilling his master's evil
objective. With his king's blessing he accompanied Bolgar as they went
looking for Byron Kembri to offer him a unique proposal.

Perhaps it was fitting that their deal was brokered against the blustery
backdrop of a stormy night. Rain and lightning were not the culprits at
work because an advancing Thunderian regiment was hammering its fist
into the backsides of retreating Mutants in a raucous shelling nearby.
Sequestered comfortably away from the lines of battle in his private
suite with Bolgar the Treacherous and Lord Sephi-vo-Notar, Kembri took
all of three minutes to make his decision. A partnership was born out of
the intensely electric atmosphere as the power players discovered a
mutual fondness for one another. Sephi's imaginative sadism was the yin
to Kembri's ruthlessly coordinated yang, and the maleficent Bolgar
couldn't have been happier with the resulting union.

The clone makers plotted their breakthrough mission, which was to be
handled with extreme care by authorized scientists of both Thunderian
and Plun-Darrian descent in a covert and uniquely synergistic (albeit
evil) endeavor. Another year passed before their first living clone was
brought into the world, a copy of a Thunderian socialite who was not
directly involved in governing but who knew many important contacts on
the inside. From that day forth Genvironment's founders never looked
back. They were in this business for the long haul, and they were
dedicated to their calling with all the religious zeal of fervent
prophets.

Working closely with Sephi Kembri made sure that the first few clones
they turned out were utterly lacking in personality. Automatons were the
only way to ensure that these beings did not suddenly experience a
change of heart about their directives out of some moralistic idea.
Sephi had had a good deal of practice with brainwashing techniques, so
he guided the clones through a program he created that ingrained into
their brains all the statistics and vital information about their
lookalikes that they would need when in operative status.

The reptilian would first acquire a subject, then spend hours pulling
details from that person, right down to minute preferences such as food
or grooming habits, before transferring this data to a matching clone
and discreetly disposing of the original in whatever torturous fashion
amused him the most that day. Every clone was put through what came to
be called "the stuff-and-wringer show," as Sephi-vo-Notar crammed as
much input as he could into the clones beforehand and Kembri squeezed as
much information as he was able to out of them once they returned from a
successful outing. As soon as they were relieved of active duty they
could safely be dispatched in random public 'accidents.' In the unlikely
event that a clone might be required to reenter society at a later date
after finishing a mission, Kembri kept copies of each individual's DNA
code hidden away on private files. Now he had records of and could
duplicate all the Thunderian officials that had been cloned if it became
necessary in the future. In this way Genvironment grew to know more
about Thundera than Thundera's spies themselves.

Life has a funny way of altering the plans of those who would be
reckoned with, not necessarily for the negative, and Kembri and
Sephi-vo-Notar were no exceptions to this rule. Their road to despotism
would be paved not between the soils of their respective territories but
on that of another distant planet. Strange tremors had begun to cause
worry among the people of Thundera, and while any great damage of either
life or structure had yet to occur the government was concerned that
these quakes might grow worse if left unchecked. As it happened their
fears were not unfounded. One of Kembri's geological sections had done a
lengthy investigation into the earthquake phenomena and discovered
unsettling evidence that supported theories of later and more severe
damage. While specialists worked to find a way to prevent the
catastrophic impact future quakes might have the general hastily set up
a meeting in a favored hotel with his reptilian conspirator to discuss
the more immediate problem of relocating Genvironment's projects once
again. Plun-Darr, Sephi cautioned his friend, was not a possibility due
to the inner turmoil of Bolgar's quarrelling courts, which often staged
violent protests that spilled over into public brawls. They needed a
relatively quiet place free from most major population where they could
harvest their warriors without interruption. Kembri said he thought he
had heard of several such planets and promised to reconvene with more
information.

The next time they met a tremor registering a hefty 5.2 on the scales
rocked the hotel building and knocked out all the power within a
ten-mile radius. No one was injured in the event but both Kembri and
Sephi knew they would have to act fast in order to preserve the bulk of
their efforts. Who knew when the next quake might strike, or how strong
it would be? From a list of nine possible contenders compiled by
Kembri--ranked in preference of their requirements for secrecy and
availability of raw materials for basic living as well as those needed
for work-related purposes--three planets looked to be the most promising
habitats for the new Genvironment:

First on the list was Plun-Darr's sister planet Blue Plunder, and being
in fairly close orbital range would have eased the considerable labor
involved in relocation and the setting up of necessary elaborate
communication systems. However, its government was presently under house
arrest by the InterPlanetary Control Force thanks to their minister's
penchant for sponsoring slave smuggling rings. They could not expect to
properly conduct a highly secret operation with IPCF's people swarming
around like flies over a dead carcass. So Blue Plunder was out.

The next planet, Umiachri, had a population of roughly six thousand to
its name because of limited tolerance for the wintry climate. Since it
was an enormous planet a population of six thousand was bound to be
spread widely over the available surface living area, and Kembri had
noted that its people were inclined to avoid intergalactic outsiders
altogether. IPCF patrolled the area maybe once a year, adding to the
desirable isolation factor that they sought. But as Sephi rightly
pointed out, the technologically deprived planet was too well isolated
from outside influence. The glaring absence of any modern-day mass media
or bustling centers of civilization lent disappointing testimony to the
fact that Umiachris were more than determined to shut themselves away
from the universe, they were devoted to reclusiveness with a passion.
There were no teleconference stations, no radio transmissions, no
broadcasting of any kind for the circumference of the planet. It would
be a lucky thing to find a magazine that was dated from this century
alone. Certain supplies would have had to be imported, and because of
the undependable courier outfits back then any requests for specialized
items could take months to process and might tip outsiders to their
operation if the agents were caught red-handed with the loot.

That eliminated Umiachri from the lineup. Briefly Kembri and Sephi
entertained the idea of moving Genvironment to one of the moons of
Plun-Darr but quickly nixed it. The peoples on those moons were known to
be hostile to their neighbors even though technically all five moons
were under Plun-Darrian government control. These were Bolgar's
territories in name only, however. In reality Lunarians lived by their
own code, a basic existence that did not need government bodies to
dictate every single facet of everyday life. This would have been a fine
example of harmonious cohabitation without external influence as there
were plenty of these autonomous planets flourishing in the galaxies--but
civil war amongst the different lunar races created an
every-man-for-himself anarchy that would have been more than a
disruption to business.

Only one choice was left, and after thorough inspection of its
attractions and detractions did Kembri and Sephi-vo-Notar decide that
Third Earth was the perfect relocation site for their ambitions. Terra,
as it was sometimes called, provided ideal isolation without cutting off
Genvironment workers from all-important resources. Its normal population
consensus was fairly large for a planet of its size and history, but
there were many more than adequate spots that would serve as excellent
concealment. There would be no accursed bumbling governments to harass
newcomers either since the planet was independently functioning, a rare
success of its kind in that galaxy. Third Earth civilization would
actually be beneficial to Genvironment because its biggest major city,
Calis, was one of the finest cornerstones of intergalactic commerce.
Here items of every imaginable thought could be bought for a song in
plentiful supply. In addition to the favorable market there were an
amazing amount of dealers specializing in whatever trade you could think
of that was of interest to your business. Whether gained by legal or
illegal means the widely accepted motto of dealers and customers
everywhere was that if the object of desire wasn't to be found in Calis,
it couldn't be found anywhere else, period. This included the booming
information business, which was by far the most highly sought commodity
in the city. Contractors from all corners of the planet as well as
intergalactic travelers went there to exchange sensitive information in
the hope of profiting from someone else's fortune--or misfortune.

IPCF was not long in building a base there to monitor some of the
underworld's shady action, and though their outfit was more active here
than on any of the other previously considered planets on Kembri's list
it was still a growing base vulnerable to infiltration. Certainly it
should prove an easy task to slip one of their own in with the rest of
the regular crew and establish a linkup through which the police
themselves could be spied upon by Genvironment for security breaches or
possible avenues of mining. Through its own spy network the Interstellar
Council had picked up on Genvironment's activities and was interested in
maintaining as detailed a dossier possible on the organization, if for
no other reason than to one day perhaps approach Kembri with an offer of
employment with them. Not for a second would he have considered that
career move. He liked being in command too much to relinquish the reins
to one of their bureaucratic stiffs. Still, he'd wanted to have an
insider just to keep tabs on and put the screws to the Council if they
got too close for comfort someday. With his bountiful array of
technological tricks it could easily be done, and it tickled him to
think that the hunted could become the hunter whenever he wished. Thanks
to the incredible advances being made these days no fantasy was outside
of reality anymore.

Unique modernization somehow coexisted peacefully alongside a part of
the planet that remained securely shrouded in the mysteries and magic of
its old worlds. Much of Third Earth was lush jungle and gentle
countryside; where no societies dared intrude nature also took it upon
herself to stake her claim with arid deserts and forbidding mountains.
Several notorious inhabitants would also help keep nosy interlopers away
as few people were brave enough to weather the fury of some accidentally
aroused mage and his minions. The area brought to his council's focus by
Kembri was a sultry stretch of land called the Phosphorous Desert, part
of a larger desert territory that was locally known as the Desert of
Sinking Sands. That inhospitable geography was home to the intriguing
but fearsome Egyptian demon priest named Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living.
Apparently his reputation was so bloodcurdling that not even the deadly
robber baron tribes who sometimes pillaged Third Earth would venture
into his lands--a sobering fact considering that these rogue bands
feared practically no one they crossed swords with.

Few had ever come face to face with Mumm-Ra himself. Fewer still had
lived to tell about it. Reports of the mage's astonishing power were not
exaggerated (although it was said by some that the mere sight of his
devilish visage would strike a man stone cold dead on the spot) but
rarely had he actually left the pyramid that was his keep. In some
obscure circles Mumm-Ra was even regarded as something of a curious
enigma, though no less frightening. Taking the sorcerer's extreme
potency and his ornery reputation into account, Kembri decided that most
of the rumors whirling about the living dead were just that. No stranger
to the charisma label himself he knew from experience that lesser beings
claiming a brush with greatness tended to play up what they thought were
mystical aspects of the encounter until it was a polished anecdote they
could pass along to the next ignoramus. For all their technological and
scientific discoveries the people here somehow didn't seem able to rise
above their baser natures. Third Earthlings were quick to give the
Desert of Sinking Sands and its associating lands a wide berth when on
the move, afraid of incurring the undead wizard's anger.

Such superstition, Kembri had explained to his crew, would surely work
in their favor if they set up shop in an area people made a special
point of avoiding at all costs. They would have the comforts of
civilized society while retaining their much-needed privacy and still be
able to turn out the warrior clones he and Sephi had in mind. It was
doubtful, he reassured skeptical council members, that this Mumm-Ra
would cause them any grief unless they attempted to interact directly
with him, for it seemed that the mage only roused from his eternal
slumber when purposely provoked. Much to the general's happiness Third
Earth was approved by a generous margin as the new Genvironment base.

Preparations to move their efforts out of the spotlight back home were
not as cumbersome as was feared, but neither did the plan proceed as
smoothly as they had hoped. For one thing the tremors were increasing in
force and occurrence. It was very time-consuming to have to stop in the
middle of calculations and save precious equipment from quake damage. A
reprieve was granted when a technologist came up with the idea of
ventilation shafts tunneling into the ground. The hope was that the
pressure from the building heat inside the planet's molten core could be
relieved by giving that heat a way to escape without resulting in
further destruction. While workers labored to dig shafts that would ease
the strain continuously placed on ever-stressed plates within the planet
Kembri and Sephi concentrated on their latest branch of business. Their
clone projects so far had met with limited success. They had cloned
several important Thunderian leaders and planted the doubles in their
places, but the information feedback they were getting was not enough to
render any substantial payoff. They had to go to the very top; they
would have to get up close and personal with Claudis if they really
wanted to score some huge capital.

It was Sephi who suggested cloning Claudis' wife Evelyne. Through her
they could open a gateway to whatever information they wanted, for did a
wife not share even the most intimate of secrets with her mate? A woman
had the manipulative ability to probe her husband with the oft-cursed
feminine wiles that ordinary men lacked. Evelyne's clone stood a better
chance of getting something out of him than an associate's clone did,
Sephi said, and Kembri agreed. A mercenary was sent to steal samples of
her DNA material when she became pregnant with Claudis' firstborn son
and was visited by her personal physician for regular checkups. Within a
month a working clone had been grown to adulthood and was ready for its
field duty. Through selective programming Kembri and Sephi endowed the
Evelyne clone with characteristics and mannerisms gathered by the
general, who had had secret video recorders installed in every room of
the Cats' Lair household to observe the lioness's habits.

Extra traits Kembri had insisted were vital to the execution of this
particular job were also added. The female clone was given a variety of
feline advantages rather than having her make do with the ones natural
selection had encoded her breed with. Edited into her code were the
hardiness and strength of the panthers, the intelligence of the tigers,
the robust swiftness of the cheetahs, and the cunning and grace of the
jaguars. Outwardly there was no sign of genetic tampering, a miracle in
spite of the fact that the panther clans were renowned for their
physical talent. Extreme muscle reconfiguration might have meant a
significant alteration in the female clone's body, a blatant giveaway
that this was not the original Evelyne. The next step in their fiendish
plan was to switch the real Evelyne with the phony. This they could not
do until she had her baby, an event that was estimated to be as little
as seven months away and as far as eight. An annoying hindrance, but one
they were forced to endure since it would be impossible to explain a
suddenly evaporating pregnancy. Kembri figured that the best time to
perform the switch was when she had just given birth and was secluded,
deep in the restful throes of postnatal recovery.

Then something happened that no one at Genvironment had counted on.
Evelyne shrugged off her usual routine one morning and traveled towards
Claudis' camp on the outskirts of a fishing town. One of the cloning
scientists thought to impress his bosses by hustling the plan into its
next phase, so he quickly arranged for a freak rockslide to take place
on her chosen route. Kembri and Sephi were far from impressed when
presented with the battered cadaver; the general was so enraged by this
lack of restraint that he snatched up the nearest ray pistol and
personally terminated the employee himself. He and Sephi quickly set out
to determine how best to salvage the operation. On close examination of
the body it was found that the fetus inside was barely alive. More to
the point, Sephi said, the infant was at a critical stage of development
where its growth was as yet unnoticeable in Evelyne's abdomen. All they
needed was a suitable replacement womb and they just happened to have
one handy . . .

A radical decision was made to implant her baby in their clone's body to
preserve the illusion that the real Evelyne was alive. Thankfully no one
at Claudis' camp had been notified of the accident yet, so Kembri
concocted a story that neatly incorporated the rockslide and 'Evelyne'
into an irrefutable package of a Plun-Darrian ambush. The bonus was that
he could accurately claim to the Lord of the Thundercats a need to keep
his wife under surveillance by undercover Genvironment forces due to the
traumatic stress brought on by the accident and the enemy subterfuge
involved. When his tale reached Claudis he was quick to accept his
general's advice, unwittingly opening the door for evil to slip into his
own home.

The whole scheme might have worked if the Evelyne clone hadn't
self-destructed in everyone's faces. Towards the end of the pregnancy
the clone began showing alarming traits that none of the researchers had
edited into her DNA map. She became prone to fits of amnesia, left
unable to remember her programming for hours at a time, and sometimes
wandered about Cats' Lair babbling in a haze akin to a junkie's stupor
though she was never under narcotic influence. She developed a severely
aggressive streak and took to threatening anyone from acquaintances to
strangers on the street. Not even the baffled Claudis understood her
sudden, vitriolic and profane rages that more often than not were
directed at him. Incredibly the sole calming factor that held her under
a measure of Genvironment's control was the baby growing in her belly.
For all her disturbing actions the Evelyne clone never once tried to
harm herself or the new life within her. It didn't take Kembri and Sephi
long to decipher the real motive behind her unexpected defection from
procedure: Somehow the clone had developed a personality of her own
separate from the cover they had crafted for her. She must have come to
see herself as the victim of some terrifying altercation that neither
she nor anyone else she knew was able to explain, and so had decided
that no one except her innocent child was to be trusted. Hence her
violent mood swings and personality manifestations.

The Evelyne project went swiftly downhill after the birth of Claudis'
son. The clone refused to allow anyone near her or the babe, exploding
in fierce tantrums whenever someone attempted to defy her. Once she took
a rifle and shot off a slew of rounds at Jaga when he tried to have her
sent away to a mental facility for examination. He escaped uninjured,
but the attack prompted him to spearhead an investigation into the event
that had so sharply divided her behavior into two chronicles: before and
after the Plun-Darrian ambush. He turned up limited evidence subtly
linking Byron Kembri's name with a plot to murder Evelyne, one that did
not indicate as strong of a Plun-Darrian role as was previously
believed. A very worried Jaga passed this disheartening information on
to Claudis, hoping that his friend would be able to read between the
lines of this troubling episode and realize that his trusted general was
quite the opposite of a worthy confidant.

Alerted to the prying by spies Kembri paid a visit to the old snoop late
one night and told him in no uncertain terms what would happen if he
pushed the envelope on this deal any further. He had, he said, recently
taken the liberty of eloping with Jaga's younger sister Celitha behind
his back, to whom he had also thoughtfully administered a series of his
latest improved youth serum injections as a wedding gift. Jaga's
vehement denials that his sister would never agree to wedlock with
someone so reprehensible died away when Kembri produced wedding photos
and the signed marriage license for confirmation. Celitha, he assured
the elder commander, was happy with her new situation and would stay
that way unless her brother insisted on digging up the past. If that
proved to be the case, the general would inject his wife with an
incurable Genvironment-engineered toxin during the next scheduled serum
treatment. The toxin not only poisoned a person to death but forced the
body into a slow-acting and painful putrefaction in front of the
victim's own eyes, a state that did not need additional details to
describe. Any attempt on Jaga's part to warn her of or rescue her from
the trap she had unsuspectingly stepped into would also necessitate the
use of the lethal injection. Kembri left the tearful lord a half-hour
later, satisfied that his threat had had its intended effect.

He refocused on the Evelyne crisis. Her child was barely a year old and
he knew he needed to move fast to have the problems in his surrogate
mother corrected before they spiraled completely out of control. But
before he could arrange a reprogramming session the real catastrophe
hit.

Claudis, having done some research of his own into his wife's perplexing
actions, took Jaga's clues into his hands and went looking for answers.
He found them when he stumbled upon the name of one of Genvironment's
smaller outposts in a treasury official's account folders. Someone in
the treasury had created a dummy corporation to funnel money through to
this outpost, even though no such funding had ever been approved to his
knowledge. Wanting to see the place for himself, he followed his man out
to the eastern islands where it was located. It was not where the actual
cloning operations were done, for the ratio of guards to scientists was
minimal, but there was more than enough evidence to provide vivid
testimony to evils within Thundera's inner sanctum.

Surveying the glimpse of power the facility contained he realized in
instant horror what had happened to Evelyne. The woman he had known and
loved was not what she appeared to be. Perhaps she had never existed at
all, instead steadily devolving into a soulless monster by fault of an
inhuman nemesis. Distraught, he returned to the lair, picked her up and
brought her back to the Genvironment facility where he demanded the
truth. A wild struggle ensued as the clone, evidently thinking him to be
part of the group of geneticists that had treated her mind like a ball
of putty, flew into one of her rages and savagely attacked the
Thundercat Lord. When it was over he was badly wounded and the Evelyne
clone was dead, skewered through the heart by the Sword of Omens. One of
Kembri's response teams showed up minutes later to cordon off the mess,
summoned by a silent intruder alarm.

For all his learnedness and quick thinking Claudis was still a bit
naïve. Kembri pounced on that the moment his blood-soaked,
grief-stricken leader held out a pleading hand and begged him to find
the villain behind this nefarious plot. The worldly Byron was almost
shocked by the realization that, surrounded by damning evidence of evil
at work hand in hand with his own people, Claudis did not suspect his
friend the general, his countryman, of being the primary perpetrator. It
wasn't until much later, during the infamous brain-scrubbing sessions,
when he would learn his lord had been unable to believe the accusations
made in Jaga's report. Obviously Claudis shared the same fatal flaw as
everyone else when he chose to put his faith in the basic goodness of
mortal nature, underestimating its susceptibility to and capacity for
sin. When it came to idealistic harmony most people could talk a good
game, but behind that face of humanitarianism they were really only
interested in looking out for numero uno. The Code of Thundera sounded
great and made for lovely publicity, but it was just one more disguise
to be exploited. Who better than Byron Kembri to twist it for his own
desires?

He had all he could do to keep from bursting into silly laughter in
front of Claudis as a medical crew whisked him away for treatment. Maybe
that light at the end of the tunnel would turn out to be the gateway to
a new dimension of success instead of a speeding bullet train.

Kembri gave orders that the Thundercats' Lord, instead of being
transferred to the councilmen's hospital, was to be taken back to the
current main Genvironment base for treatment, where unbeknownst to
Claudis he was prepped for some heavy-duty brainwashing. A freshly
graduated behavioral modification specialist by the name of Loen Tradyk
was hired by the general to aid in the meticulous task of erasing from
Claudis' mind all memories of the Evelyne controversy, which would be
replaced by carefully fabricated ones. The explanation given him was
that Claudis had suffered a nervous breakdown due to the tremendous
strain of seeing his wife murdered by a Plun-Darrian agent, who was also
responsible for the shocking changes in her. Tradyk was at first kept
ignorant of the real reason behind these mind games, but when Kembri
took a good look at a profile Sephi had constructed of the meek
scientist he knew it would be a crime not to take advantage of such a
sweet opportunity.

Loen's background was loaded with skill aplenty in mind therapy and
control techniques, and he too had experimented with genetics, although
his chosen area of work was in healing practices. His rate of success in
these projects was not nearly as impressive as Kembri's but he was not
at fault there as his intelligence was well above average and his
application of knowledge was even superior to that of some of the
regular scientists Genvironment hosted. Tradyk's mistake was relying on
university grants to keep his money flowing, and as any fool knew most
of the big men on campus were reluctant to sponsor a nobody who was
unable to produce a significant breakthrough in his majoring fields.
Never mind that said nobody needed their large bankroll to get required
ingredients before he could churn out ample evidence of his talent in
the first place. If plunked into the appropriate setting where raw
materials were easily obtainable, and harnessed with the right degree of
authority, Kembri was positive that the youngster his colleague had
discovered would prove in due time to be a valuable asset. He offered
Tradyk a permanent position with Genvironment, with promises of
advancement under his and Sephi-vo-Notar's tutelage.

Loen readily accepted. The young man thought that he had found a chance
to get his hands deep into a wondrous job. He quickly learned that while
life at Genvironment was never boring, it was far from the socially
conscious paradise he had expected when he signed on. He and Kembri
clashed from the very start when Kembri ordered him to wipe Claudis'
memory spotless so that the false memories of the Evelyne controversy
could be inserted. Tradyk disagreed with this method, arguing that it
was much easier, not to mention less stressful on Claudis, to guide him
through a rehabilitation program and render potentially harmful
recollections impotent. After a rather heated discussion Kembri
prevailed upon his assistant to follow through with the original plan
when he threatened him with public disgrace.

The general was one of those people who are extremely gifted in the
ability to read others and manipulate them accordingly. From his first
meeting with Loen Tradyk Kembri had pegged him as a brilliant scientist
but a hopelessly deluded dreamer, a man who blinded himself with visions
of grand nobility that blotted out the reality of the world in which he
had to contend with. Tradyk was just out of college and unsure about
himself and his purpose in life. As a boy he was shy and unpopular.
Adolescence brought with it in addition to the usual teenage woes a
sense of discontinuity as he struggled to cope with unfeeling relatives
and scoffing peers. Sciences were the only things that interested him so
he threw himself heart and soul into their labyrinths. Though correctly
identified early in school as genius material and never faltering from
high academic achievement he saw himself as a drifter, a castaway of
society because of his lack of establishment in a world that liked to
play favorites with those who held power. His inability to accept or
even enjoy the natural selfishness inherent in all mortal nature
crippled that scientific revolutionary side of him that Kembri found so
attractive.

The trouble with independent freelancers was that they inevitably
skipped over this reality when looking at the bigger picture. They
mistakenly believed that everyone else had the same utopian fantasies as
they did when the opposite was painfully clear. In searching for an
alliance to call his own Tradyk could not have come under the thrall of
a more powerful faction. Genvironment was largely Kembri's doing and he
ruled his empire with all the wisdom and whim of one born into power. He
had been around long enough to know that denying a man like Tradyk the
chance to pursue his dreams would be suffocation. To a more financially
and emotionally secure person the threat of banishment would not have
held weight, but Loen was homeless, penniless, and desperate. As
expected he capitulated in the end, something much to his shame he would
become accustomed to in the long years ahead.

Reluctantly Tradyk set about helping Sephi-vo-Notar systematically
eliminate designated portions of Claudis' memory through an intense
yearlong schedule that was interrupted only briefly by Kembri to oversee
the precarious process. Playing cut-and-stitch with someone's mind was
akin to performing a rigorous tango on threadbare ice. Done properly
brainwashing altered a patient forever with inviolable results that did
not incapacitate him or her at all; a single technique incorrectly
applied had devastating consequences. Tradyk's job was to walk Claudis
through the minefield without turning him into either a vegetable or a
maniac.

At the end of the quarantine a delighted Kembri reviewed the work and
pronounced Claudis fit to enter society once more. As always the general
covered his backside--the Thundercat Lord's absence was said to be part
of an important military campaign that he had conducted on Plun-Darr,
ending in victorious conclusion when King Bolgar retreated on the
defensive . . . for the moment.

With the dissipation of that crisis Tradyk got his first insight of what
was in store for him as a lackey of Kembri's. He had hoped to utilize
his ideas and science's magic for humanity's moral design, a foray into
unknown territories for the good of everyone. What he got was a perilous
navigation through web after web of treachery with no rewards for the
right actions and too many punishments for the wrong ones.

Part of Claudis' brain rewiring therapy included the installation of a
posthypnotic suggestion that made him believe that Kembri was a close
and trustworthy friend. Before the brainwash their relationship had been
on a friendly but professional level. Altered, Claudis began to treat
Kembri like a member of his own family, which was exactly what the
general had had in mind when he ordered Tradyk to input this frame into
the new mind makeup. The changes carved into the pliant structure of his
mind told him that he and Kembri had served a heavy tour of duty
together while involved in the nonexistent Plun-Darrian campaign. During
this period it was only natural that they would start confiding in one
another, sharing personal pieces that only a family member or good
friend would be privileged to hear. The ensuing bond of brotherhood
persisted even after the strategic operation and so spurred Claudis to
make the decision to allow Kembri into his closest circle. Was there
nothing he would not do for such a dear friend, after all?

Ah--but there was still the matter of the botched clone espionage. Too
many people had commented on Evelyne's strange behavior; there were an
impossible number of eyewitnesses who could provide viable testimony to
the fact that there was at least a very bizarre conspiracy afoot. Rather
than risk exposure from a bogus story that would surely be blown Kembri
chose to embellish the truth without actually giving it away. In one
fell swoop he both satisfied the public's curiosity and left the door
wide open for Genvironment to get its sticky fingers into any pocket
that it wished to fleece. Jaga was no longer a problem because the
threat of his sister's torturous murder rendered him an impotent player
on the board. He had no choice but to keep his mouth shut and mind his
own business. Plun-Darr--or more precisely, Sephi-vo-Notar--ended up
with the blame for Evelyne's murder and subsequent cloning. The black
mark on his record, instead of angering the reptilian, only pleased him.
The whole idea was his to begin with, so why not add another entry to
his list of misdeeds? Proudly he volunteered to his partner to become
the scapegoat that they needed, for, as he chuckled, "if ever s-s-such a
dishonor belonged to the Plun-Darrians it is-s-s this one."

Claudis and the original Evelyne had been much beloved among the people.
Their son was shaping up to walk in his parents' footsteps and as such
the people were more than willing to shower adoration upon the boy for
his having suffered the tragic loss of his mother without even getting
the chance to know her. Sephi knew full well that though Thundera would
be screaming for his blood after his indictment, he would never stand
trial. Kembri would shelter him in the wings of Genvironment and
strong-arm any that nosed further into the case.

With the new mindset that Kembri had ordered programmed into Claudis he
began helping himself to anything his greedy hands could slither into,
assured of no obstacles because his lord believed that he was acting in
his best interests. Claudis had openly declared Kembri the head of all
investigations and prosecutions regarding the clone disaster, and the
rest of the government was held in check by the general in one way or
another--be it by bribery or duress. Thundera retained its one-upmanship
over Plun-Darr where the feuding was concerned, and at no time in its
final years did the planet ever want for resources. But on close
inspection stockpiles would have been seen to decrease substantially as
Genvironment skimmed from the tops to establish its own formidable
hoard.

Byron yawned and stretched luxuriously in his chair. "And look what I
have today," he laughed softly, eyeing the spacious view of his
expensively decorated office.

Shortly after Claudis gave him the green light to perpetrate a rip-off
the Thundercat led forces in a confrontation with Plun-Darrian warlords.
Sephi-vo-Notar, on vacation at the time, had the pleasure of reporting
to Kembri that he had witnessed the battle in which an iguana corporal
formerly under his supervision had flung a grenade at the melee in a
last-ditch effort to claim victory. Claudis was far enough away to
escape death but the shrapnel careening through the air struck his face.
It took a four-hour operation to reconstruct the broken bones of his
cheeks and nose, nearly a full liter of blood, and when he came out of
the ordeal he was in almost worse shape than he was before being brought
to the hospital.

Eventually the bruising and scarring faded--but though Claudis' looks
did not suffer any lasting damage, he was left permanently blind. Now
more dependent on his peers than ever before, he struggled to hold on to
his dignity even as it spilled out of his control as steadily as sand
sifts through an hourglass. Sadly, as he found out many an embarrassing
time, there were not very many folk who took a blind person seriously.
To their thinking it was as if the brain had been ruined along with the
eyesight. Questions were raised concerning his qualification to continue
governing. Tremors worsened and panic set in. During the last days of
Thundera he was reduced to little more than a spectator (forgive the
inaccurate pun, if you will) on the sidelines while his people hastened
to flee their dying world.

Comforted by the fact that Genvironment's safety was guaranteed now that
the complex had finished moving to its new home Byron thought about what
to do with his wife Celitha. In time their marriage had cooled into
polite regard as his frequent travels between work and home took their
toll. Soon she had come to see that theirs was really a union of
convenience rather than a genuine marriage, so she asked him for a
divorce once they too had fled to safer ground. She did not want any of
his material assets, she said, for he alone had earned them and deserved
to enjoy them. "I don't want to trap you in a situation that you're
bored with," she'd told him with that bland smile of hers. "I'm not
happy either. And unless I miss my guess, you feel the same way. So why
don't we both cut our losses while we're still on friendly terms?"

In any other circumstances Kembri would have been quick to grant her the
separation she wanted, for he also felt that he was being dragged down
in the bog of a marriage he neither believed in nor had wanted in the
first place. He did not wish to see her go forever though, for she had
proved to be more of an asset than he'd originally thought when he had
had matrimony on his mind as a way of keeping her brother off his back.
She showed herself a capable partner, diligently attending to his
personal bookkeeping (what bit he felt she could handle without
revealing something she must not find) and handling his scant social
affairs with grace and class. She was also an undemanding and taciturn
person by nature, not likely to barge into someone else's business
without asking permission, and that helped Byron keep the wool securely
covered over her eyes about his true intentions. All Celitha had been
told was that her husband was a main shareholder in a highly reputable
biological engineering firm, and one of the fringe benefits was that he
was given access to new medicines first, ahead of even the noblemen. She
was content to accept this explanation and had asked no further
questions when he started her on the youth serum treatments.

No, he did not want to lose her skills. But neither could he have taken
her along with him to Third Earth, where the underground cloning
missions demanded his full attention from now on. No matter that she
might have had promise as a personal assistant--she was still first and
foremost a security risk to his future. Nothing in the world could have
convinced him to jeopardize that golden nest egg.

He supposed now that he could have taken her to Sephi and asked that she
be brainwashed to accommodate his wishes, but what with Thundera's
falling apart and the frantic race for escape amidst enemy raids there
just hadn't been time to consider scheduling it. He was forced to settle
for a quick and quiet murder, deciding to use a pill recently added to
Genvironment's biological arsenal that induced total bodily shutdown
within hours. The toxin was tasteless and left no residue that could be
traced during an autopsy later on, so he planned to grind up a tablet
and serve it concealed in her bedtime tea after she returned from
organizing escape plans at her geo-engineers' meeting.

If he were ever to write his memoirs he would be the first to gloat over
the serendipitous synchronicity that so often seemed to propel him
towards grand destiny. The murder pill, as it turned out, was not
necessary. Celitha died when on her way to the meeting place an
attacking Skeeter Z hit the vehicle she was traveling in. Byron knew she
was dead because he had been right behind her in an aircraft loaned him
by one of the agricultural officials. He had seen the burning wreckage
and the charred body pulled out of it, and known beyond a doubt that his
security risk had been neatly taken care of without his having to lift
so much as a finger. Widowed and with nothing more to keep him tied to
his disintegrating home planet, he packed what few possessions remained
to be transported and made his journey to Third Earth.

Genvironment was well into its first quarter at its new complex when
Kembri received word that Thundera was no more. With the planet's
destruction survivors aware of his existence would assume him to have
perished along with many others in the cataclysm. He felt no twinge of
regret for any of his actions, nor nostalgic remorse for lost causes. He
had always known that such a day would come sooner or later and he had
prepared for it.

He had a new challenge to keep him from dwelling on the past.

Kembri's self-assured smile was replaced by a frown that furrowed its
path into his smooth cream-colored brow. Despite all the precautions,
all the preparations he'd taken against just such an occurrence, his pet
project the Emanon had malfunctioned. As far as he was concerned
malfunction was one step removed from failure and that was intolerable.
It was imperative that the shapeshifter was caught and whatever had
fouled up in the bedrock of his programming fixed.

Personally Kembri felt that the problem was brain-based. Genvironment
had done so much work on the clone's head that some inconsistencies were
to be expected, especially since its creation was the first of its kind
ever to be brought into the world. Tests would have to be done to
determine if the trouble was biological or stemmed from some other
faulty process. If they didn't know the cause, they couldn't make the
cure, even though Tradyk had called it a distinct character formation
when Emanon's behavior began resembling more like human independence
than automaton obedience.

"Bullshit," the general muttered. As if any such thing could happen to a
brainwashed clone!

Emanon had no life to speak of, really, no self-serving will that would
have shown up early on in his existence. He had no inkling of what it
meant to be a real person. He had only the primal fuels of raw instinct
and emotion on which to function. The latter was what probably had
caused him to mutate into the personality anathema, for emotion was
inspired by thought, which in turn was propelled by curiosity. Curiosity
about one's own heritage often led to the contemplation of a purpose in
life, the need to feel part of a greater whole rather than plod around
in the orbit of solitude, isolated from the rainbow of humanity that
brought animation to the spirit. If that were so, Kembri thought with a
worried twitch of his lips, then Emanon's streak ran far deeper than any
of them had theorized.

"Damn Tradyk and his musical therapy!" he groused as he stubbed the
fragrant cigar out in a crystal ashtray.

The practice of using music to ingrain preferred traits into a clone's
being had apparently worked too well. Tradyk had imagined that catchy
combinations of lyrics and musical arrangements would be instrumental in
helping the clone better perform its duties than if they fed the thing a
plain diet of drugs and brainwash instructions. His proposal was that
music had a posthypnotic imprinting strength of its own that would last
long beyond practical mind reconfiguration techniques, and his research
seemed to support that.

When some Genvironment volunteers were tested on programs of classical
melodies and extremist formats, the evidence showed marked inclinations
that almost always manifested themselves in behavior. The group
subjected to the timeless, elegant compositions of early-period First
Earth musicians with names like Strauss, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms,
reported that after one hour of listening to the elaborate songs their
mental and bodily functions had improved significantly.  Further testing
revealed more bonuses.  They thought faster and with better clarity;
they felt more relaxed and approached mundane tasks like filing and
researching with more energy. Their blood pressures lowered to healthier
levels and their digestive processes had less trouble in breaking down
and absorbing nutrients. They slept more soundly and awoke refreshed.
They felt optimistic, motivated, inspired by inner feelings of pleasure
and contentment. Overall they were happier and more productive
employees.

As First Earth matured in its technological production, the standards of
music changed drastically. Not all the changes were for the worse; in
fact there were a good number of First Earth musicians whose
compositions had benefited the population as a whole. Jazz, pop, rock,
soul, metal, alternative--it didn't matter what slot in the
musicological spectrum they occupied. In the end they all blended
together in a melting pot of heartfelt music that left a lasting legacy.
There were humans whose talent ruled the charts and stole hearts by the
millions. Bands showcased the multifarious roles electronically or
naturally spawned notes could play in productions. Some singers
epitomized sensuality and others a whimsical sense of the absurd. Then
there were those who were just out to have a good time with their brassy
tunes and shake up their listeners while doing it. Still more artists
with odd and colorful titles brought their own sensational personas into
their heralded creations. It was First and Second Earth's musical
inventors, pioneers who had helped shape modern Third Earth musical
culture into the eclectic, innovative, and often popular potluck that
existed today.

As with any industrial civilization, a few individuals tended to ferment
in their own pools of genesis on their terms. Sometimes these musicians
recorded albums that prompted worthy social examination and stimulated
informative discussions of hidden concerns that needed attending to, but
more often than not they churned out depressing if not downright hostile
views of life and the world at large.

The volunteers who picked the extremist format were given recordings of
hardcore metal, rap, and miscellaneous hybrid groups, whose main
connection being that their content featured songs contradicting the
joyful and soothing atmosphere that was painted by the classical
artists. During their session the personnel said that the key theme they
immediately zeroed in on was nihilism, a frightening hatred simmering in
the moody, usually violent arrangements. That same mindset similarly
affected them; they showed heightened feelings of edginess and were
quicker to anger than their classical counterparts. They became prone to
high blood pressure, ulcers, headaches, and experienced longer bouts of
depression and frustration.

Aggression rather than assertion pinpointed another factor in the makeup
of this kind of music. Most of what could legitimately be considered
hardcore presented that aggression in the wording of their lyrics, which
usually conformed to the
'it's-a-dog-eat-dog-world-and-I'm-gonna-get-my-share-first-no-matter-what'
views that more selfish humans embodied, as the musicians spewed forth
undeniably filthy lyrics promoting murder, bigotry, oppression, and
other equally detestable perversions that plagued humanity. The songs
that shaped aggression into their instrumental arrangements instead of
communicating those blistering emotions via words were not nearly as
guilty of obscenity as their vulgar cousins but no less influential.

Tradyk's conclusion was that while music itself could not force people
to act in certain capacities, it had enough power to subconsciously
influence them to behave in such a manner as to see a spillover into
their everyday actions, whether those actions were conscious or
unconscious. Kembri had received this news with limited interest, for he
was not a patron of the arts like his co-worker and in fact dismissed
all artists, musical or no, as "presumptuous fairies." Still, Tradyk's
theory held promise, especially if it offered a more effective way to
install and run brainwash programs. His greatest concern was that any
musical program they put in their clone's mind would have to be
carefully monitored. Music was, after all, a product of imagination, a
seed of the soul, and its power to influence must not be underestimated
at any cost.

The dangers of musical therapy could best be exemplified by the
improvements in the characters of the Genvironment volunteers. While the
general was pleased by this local outcome, he was less than thrilled by
the harrowing realization that this was at best an impractical part of
science. He did not want his warrior clones to suddenly start waxing
poetic at creative writing salons instead of assassinating enemies if
they were raised on Bach or Italian operas. The arts were not his taste;
he was into pragmatism, not philosophy. With unease he gave this part of
the brainwash therapy to Tradyk who not surprisingly handled it with
consummate skill. You might say that he had an ear for the business . .
.

To prepare a musical program that would satisfy Kembri's requirements
for the clone Tradyk spent two months searching for songs and two months
sorting them out to discern which were acceptable and which were of no
help at all. He could not visit the Calis music shops due to his
quarantine, immediately effective once the project began to take shape
with the warrior clone's actual creation, so he often sent a lower-level
assistant out with a list of artists whose recordings he was interested
in acquiring. Through listening sessions that wearied him to no end he
played his selections over and over, sometimes as many as hundreds of
times in a row, while he paid close attention to the lyrics and any
subliminal messages they might contain. Then he would listen repeatedly
to the instrumental arrangement so that he could get a handle on the
attractiveness of a song's sound--its rhythm. Sometimes a song might
have perfect lyrics but be saddled with a limp or garish rhythm that
destroyed the impact of its message, in which case it was promptly
tossed.

He rejected almost as many songs as he set aside for final review, but
he got what he wanted. At the next intergalactic conference of all
Genvironment factions he played his choices for them and explained why
they had been singled out for use in the clone's brainwash program.
About half of the members agreed with his findings and recommended that
he be allowed to proceed. The half that didn't wanted to know if the
musical therapy was planned to last up to a certain point, as it might
prove to be useless or even harmful. Since Kembri had veto power over
all aspects of clone harvesting he took that question into consideration
before rendering his verdict at the conference's end. Tradyk would get
to continue in his therapeutic work, he said, but he had a six-month
deadline in which to produce favorable results. If he could not fulfil
this objective then the musical therapy would be discontinued and a more
conventional method of brainwashing would be pursued.

For his program Tradyk had created two categories of music to expose the
clone to. The first was mostly made up of particularly blatant messages
and jarring sounds that Kembri wanted as the basis for behavioral
guidance. He wanted the warrior to be highly aggressive in order to
ensure a one-hundred-percent kill rate on the battlefield. Genetics
would draw out the biological map there. Tradyk was expected to take
care of the mental one.

The second set of musical selections was a very subtle, in fact
subliminal, one that communicated an infinite amount of messages through
suggestive wording or imagery triggered by different kinds of sounds.
This batch would serve as reinforcement, permanently etching messages
into the subconscious and planting the groundwork for future mission
setups. It was like a foundation for a building: first lay the support
firmly into place and then fill in the details. Once the clone was
outfitted with this mental frame any plans for mission outings that
Kembri chose to send it on could easily be implanted in the brain
without going to the trouble of an in-depth brainwash. The statistics
could simply be inserted during a routine evaluation and the killer sent
on its merry way to carry out the tasks demanded of it. Used in
conjunction with the drug and hypnotism therapies attributed to
Sephi-vo-Notar, the musical therapy was supposed to be inviolable.

Therein was the crux. It was supposed to be. Tradyk's program was
supposed to give the handlers complete control over Genvironment's
mutant assassin.

"But damn it, what went wrong? Where did it go wrong?" wondered Byron
aloud as he took another cigar from its lavish case and lit it as he
resumed his semi-anxious thoughts. He replayed a lyric in his head from
a First Earth band called Garbage that had been one of Tradyk's staples:
This is the noise that keeps me awake, my head explodes and my body
aches . . .

Breakdowns happened so infuriatingly easy.

This one had to be stopped. Had to be reversed. But before he could act,
he had to know the extent of the corrosion.

Just how much damage had the sounds of music done to Emanon's warping
persona?


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

When you walk down a dark street, there are two possibilities that can
happen. One, you will make your way unmolested through the shadows. Two,
you may be accosted by something a little more intimidating than a
spider or street rat and with considerably less good humor. Dirgelgeemer
Himilmeyiin Putomineckhuurtineg Nashdezchien--who called himself Dirge
to avoid tongue-tying the ones of those who knew him--was about to find
out how curiosity can kill not a cat, but a timid, slightly buzzed
armadillian brusquely escorted out the bar door by his hulking associate
and ordered to bring back a sparring partner.
Grumbling to himself about the Demolisher's unreasonable demand that had
interrupted his chance with a flirtatious waitress, Dirge waddled along
the alley clutching a half-empty bottle of expensive tequila while
wondering where he was going to find a fighter at such short notice. He
supposed he could always stroll down to the police headquarters and ask
them if they had any vagrants scheduled for release. A drunkard or petty
crook might not make for much sport, but if nothing else it would keep
the Demolisher occupied while he set up some side action for himself.

Dirge was a person of three passions: drinking, gambling, and fixing up
fights for his partner the Demolisher. Not surprisingly this hobby took
up more of his time than the other two interests did. He had been with
the caninian for years, acting as a combination manager/babysitter. It
was his job to recruit the fighters, stroke Demolisher's ego, and be the
receptacle for his abuse when things were going wrong. In domestic
capacities, he cooked meals and cleaned the quarters of their spaceship,
which he also helped pilot when the boss wanted to catch a few winks
before a fight.

They never stayed in one place very long since Demolisher was a restless
soul always on the prowl for fresh blood. The vagabond lifestyle suited
Dirge just as much as it did his employer, for neither one had any
family or friends to speak of and no roots to tie them down anywhere.
They had each other and that was plenty. Demolisher needed Dirge to
handle the small details of life that distracted him from his favorite
activity and Dirge needed him for a meal ticket. For his troubles (which
he sometimes thought never ended) he had a warm bed to sleep in and all
the rich food and drink from the various eateries they frequented that
he could stuff his belly with. It was Demolisher's great strength that
kept the two of them from having to hold actual jobs. Through sheer
intimidation the caninian could persuade anyone to give him what he
wanted for free. Seldom was he denied. Few people who were aware of his
reputation wanted to tangle with him, believing it easier to appease his
volatile temper than confront it. He did possess a fair amount of prize
money won from several fights that he could have lived comfortably off
of for some time. But Dirge knew he would never do anything so sensible.
Fighting had been in the Demolisher's blood for far too long. He would
never willingly give it up.

Dirge's greatest fear was that his boss would drop dead in the middle of
a fight and he would be forced to give up all the comforts he had
enjoyed. Demolisher had no will, and although the spaceship he owned and
the money he transported within it would quietly be claimed by the
armadillian in the event of his death, one day that nest egg would run
out. Dirge did not like honest work and tried to avoid it if possible.
He had served on several assembly lines and toiled on farms before he
met the Demolisher, and despite the abuse he took from his boss he could
honestly say that he enjoyed his job--most of the time, anyway. At least
it was never boring, but then when you were jumping around hollering
encouragement to your employer as he bashed some poor bastard's head in
how could you be bored? He got no respect as a toady, but as the only
other option was unthinkable to him he chose to put up with it in favor
of the catering he received whenever they made city stops. They
practically bent over backwards and then some as soon as it was
announced that the Demolisher was coming to town, and Calis was better
than most cities for whatever desire you were in the mood to indulge.

He paused next to a winking neon sign at a females-allowed-only strip
club advertising exotic male dancers and scratched his groin vigorously
before moving on. Right now he was in the mood for a fresh margarita and
a brutal brawler, the former of course meant for him. Dirge was
indifferent to violence unless it involved him. Then he would run
bawling like a scalded cat to Demolisher, who would promptly stomp the
offender flat--not because he actually cared what happened to his
servant but because he wanted a good fight just for the hell of it. That
was okay with Dirge, who often got a spiteful kick out of seeing a
tormentor reduced to a cowering stain on the ground. He had no talent
for the physical and he knew it. Far better and safer to let his partner
do it for him.

The alley ahead split into two halves. One led left and the other led
right. The coward in Dirge longed to take the right path because it was
the more brightly-lit of the two and therefore less prone to devils of
the night, but his muddled brain told him he would be more likely to
find a Demolisher-worthy fighter in the dark. Criminals usually
preferred places that were out of sight of the general law-abiding
populace, all the better to do their dirty work in. He wondered what
kind of bloodthirsty miscreants he would dig up if he took the left
path.

Probably some ill-tempered demon-thing that had a penchant for dwarf
tossing and collected his victim's eyeballs for trophies. Third Earth
seemed to be crawling with all sorts of unimaginable degenerates.

That right path was looking better the longer he stared at it, more so
every minute that ticked by . . .

Dirge sighed. He had no choice. The Demolisher was waiting.

Regretfully he turned away at last from the gentle glow of entertainment
clubs and novelty shops, and ambled at a discreet pace down the
forbidding gloom to his left.

All the while he reminded himself that no matter what kinds of freaks he
bumped into, Demolisher's ire if he failed to bring back an opponent was
sure to be much worse than any mugger's meanness. His anxiety brought
out his inner wino and he paused halfway down the street, interrupting
his muse on the problem of locating someone willing to duke it out with
his boss to look down wistfully at his bottle of precious tequila. It
had mellowed to a warmer temperature but it was still decent spirits.
You could never say Calis suppliers served cheap liquor. When he
returned from this ridiculous hunt he would order another one--after he
finished this stuff first.

Cheered by that thought Dirge grinned lopsidedly to himself and leaned
against the rear door of an ultramodern fashion boutique. He happily
raised the bottle to his wide-open mouth, tilting it to let the liquid
gold slide into his eager gullet when the door all but exploded on the
side of his head. He was flung sideways into the opposite wall by the
impact and his tequila splashed onto the pavement in a starburst of
copper and fragmenting glass that was accompanied by his shrill screech
of indignation.

"Now look what you did!" he accused the person who had barreled through
the back entrance without a care for whomever might be lurking about
outside. He picked himself up from the ground, dusted his clothes off,
and turned to give the guilty party a stern lecture on the value of
pricey tequila.

"Stupid jackass, watch where you--" Dirge's words were halfway out of
his mouth before he realized that it was not smart of him to have
spouted off. By the time his alcohol-addled brain cells registered that
fact and kicked in to paralyze his loose lips his beady eyes were
already bulging with fear of the monstrous creature that loomed--no,
towered--over him like some nightmarish specter of doom.

"Muh-Muh-Muh--" he sputtered, but that was all he could get out.

He had had the displeasure of meeting Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living once not
too terribly long ago. His was a face not soon forgotten, no matter how
hard Dirge had tried. Dear Demolisher had lusted for a match with the
devil and gotten what he wanted at the expense of his manager, who
shuddered and repressed the urge to release his terrified bowels as he
remembered how he'd ended up as a volleyball in their scrape. He'd hoped
never again to run across the opponent he dubbed Mumm-Rot, but it seemed
that fate was not the generous mistress he'd been led to believe she
was.

Mumm-Ra was still standing on the back step of the shop he'd exited,
watching him from the open doorway with hooded ruby eyes. He'd been
smiling--smirking, actually--with vague amusement at Dirge's misfortune.
Now that smirk was fast fading in the wake of a fiercely darkening scowl
thanks to the insult the armadillian had impulsively tossed at him.

Dirge swallowed a greasy wad of nausea. Fate was most definitely not a
sweet mistress. She was a sadistic bitch.

The threatening aura surrounding the undead sorcerer was reinforced by
his severe choice in dress. Last time Dirge had seen him he was wearing
a red cape and a sissy skirt-type thing which would have been laughable,
had Mumm-Ra not quickly dispelled any notion of ridicule with a painful
blast of red lightning. Now he was dressed in black head to toe, with
big shiny boots that had wicked-looking metal spikes in the plump soles.
The glossy, formfitting material of his clothes appeared to be vinyl,
but it must have been an exceptionally expansive-friendly type because
rippling muscle could be seen flexing agitatedly underneath the mostly
skintight constraint. The pants were only marginally less snug than the
sleeveless vest, which exposed sinewy biceps and part of a muscular
chest. He had also added a pair of taut gloves cut from the same
material as everything else. Those were missing the fingers and reached
halfway past the forearms. Topping the spooky ensemble was a matching
obsidian choker collar that looked like something normally worn by
sadomasochistic people into submissiveness--though its wearer was
anything but.

The demon priest fixed icy red eyes on Dirge, who trembled as the full
force of their evil depths bathed him in a dim glow. "You got a problem
with that?" he rasped menacingly, pointing a toe at the remnants of
glass below. His voice sounded like he ate rusty nails for breakfast
every day. But his scariest features were the eyes. Dirge hadn't liked
them any better the first time around. He liked them even less now. They
had been outlined so heavily with thick kohl that their terrible ruby
orbs seemed to burn from the bottomless sockets of Death himself. They
intensified their light and he saw that there was a heavy
shoulder-length braid of shiny black hair, so black that there were
faint hints of blue in the strands, trailing out from underneath the
serpent headdress he wore. The hair lent a grotesque semblance of
humanity to him . . . but still, the eyes had it over everything else.
The eyes were the worst.

Dirge tore his gaze away from those evil eyes and bowed his head in the
air of one who instinctively knows his place. "N-N-No, sir, I-I-I was
just talking to my-myself," he stammered apologetically with what he
prayed was convincing mortification. "I'm c-clumsy and dumb, sir,
n-n-not much upstairs in the old noggin I'm afraid. Everybody says so."
He laughed weakly. "They must be right. I'm always d-d-dropping things,"
he said as he gestured tipsily to the broken tequila bottle.

Mumm-Ra casually folded strong arms across his chest and studied him
with what might have been disdain. "Really," he rumbled, drawing the
word out into a lengthy exhalation with an exaggerated curl of his lips.

He lashed out at the armadillian suddenly, pinning him against the wall
with the swift striking accuracy of a viper. Dirge wheezed and clawed
futilely at the viselike hand clamping him by the throat to an even keel
with the hateful red glare permanently searing its way into his retinas.

It was Mumm-Ra's turn to accuse him. "You were looking at me funny."
Dagger-talons squeezed harder, cutting off more of his prey's air.

"N-No I wasn't!" squealed a frantically shaking Dirge in denial.

"Yes you were, fat boy!" hissed the angry avatar. "I didn't like it."
The vise tightened until Dirge couldn't breathe at all. He began to turn
red, then purple from oxygen deprivation. The stooge screwed his eyes
shut, desperately wanting to block out the hideous demon intent on
torturing him for some perceived slight.

Abruptly the trap sprang open and a squalling Dirge landed in the dirt
smack on his butt. Sobbing, gasping, rubbing his sore neck and pointing
an accusatory finger, he whimpered, "I-I-I-I know what you are! I'll see
to it that you're reported for this--this outrage!"

He did not know it then but that was the worst thing he could have said.
Dirge paled snow-white as he watched the horrible ruby eyes shrink to
needle-thin slits of blazing fury. His attacker spat contemptuously and
seized the unlucky armadillian by the throat once more.

"You're with them!"


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"What in the seven seas of Scaramanth is taking Dirge so long? I'm
BORED! I need an opponent who FIGHTS!"
The drinkers and carousers that had gathered inside the Deca Dance pub
to cheer on their hero noisily agreed, but inwardly they all shared an
uneasy shiver at the end of this petulant declaration. Thus spoke the
Demolisher, caninian ravager of endless planets, savage hunter of
numerous weaklings, and--as many of the rougher crowd had painfully
learned this evening--brawler extraordinare. Demolisher--whose real name
was long ago dropped once he decided to spend his life in pursuit of his
passion--had practically no patience where his entertainment was
involved. When he wanted something he wanted it that same instant.
Heaven help the poor fool who delayed his gratification for even one
second.

Already Doran the bartender was wishing that the ugly little critter who
earlier had accompanied the big brute inside the pub would return with
another moron for him to batter. In the midst of venting his frustration
over the lack of worthwhile warriors, the Demolisher had broken four
pitchers of beer, cracked apart a pool table, and now looked to be on
the verge of smashing the barstool he was viciously drumming his boots
on through the front windows. Deca Dance was by no means a swanky
hangout--the place didn't even have a working bathroom anymore, so
customers had to go across the street to the brewery to take a leak--but
Doran liked to think he could prevent it from turning into a complete
dive. His duty was not always an easy thing to do when he had to juggle
a room full of grouchy drunks and goons like the cranky caninian.

In its heyday the place had been a celebrated nightclub. Ever-fickle
tastes and money mismanagement by the previous owner lost that title to
the far more hip ThunderGate, a rollicking hotspot that had opened
several years ago in downtown Calis and was owned by one of Third
Earth's finest rock musicians. Erich Zann, christened Erich the Mad
Bassist for his rip-roaring bass solos, was as popular for his excellent
entertaining skills as he was for his universally loved music. Much to
his fans' delight he occasionally dropped by to headline onstage at the
Gate when not on tour or in his recording studio. His latest album had
gone gold several times over and his newest single, "Soul Scythe," was
number one on every music chart from here to eternity. Who could
possibly compete with that kind of exhibition?

Doran's current boss was a nostalgia buff and had elected to retain the
outdated title of this place, despite the fact that Deca Dance now more
than lived up to its less-than-wholesome namesake by pulling in the
opposite of the kind of clientele he wanted. Lowlifes likely to be
prowling the streets in search of mischief inevitably ended up here
sooner or later if they couldn't find anything worse in the south side
of town, where the roughest of the rough generally congregated. Thanks
to the mob action on the sidelines of some clubs Calis police had gained
a reputation for cracking down hard on troublemakers, but they seldom
bothered this locale unless a truly outrageous fight broke out and
serious casualties were involved. Usually the simple threat of police
intervention was enough to quiet any rabble-rousers that got out of
line. Nevertheless, you did not dare walk into Deca Dance at this time
of night unless you knew how to use your fists.

That point was being emphasized by the Demolisher, who upon first
entering had demanded a round of the strongest whiskey available, paid
for it with gold coin and then proceeded to beat up a toasted patron who
had made a wisecrack about where he'd gotten the money from. From there
he'd challenged every man in the place to a fight, the winner to receive
a free round of drinks and a purse of five hundred gold coins if he
should defeat Demolisher. Many had jumped at the opportunity to score a
fortune but none had succeeded yet. Every person who had accepted the
proposition had gotten his carcass soundly and agonizingly thumped. No
one was foolish enough to try for the prize a second time, not even when
a piqued Demolisher upped the ante to a thousand gold coins. And so he
had resorted to the services of Dirge, his faithful lackey who rounded
up interesting prospects.

Doran haggardly glanced at the front entrance for what seemed to him
like the hundredth time and was relieved to no end when the squat form
of the armadillian appeared under the hazy lighting. He hastily poured
another round of whiskey and shoved it under Demolisher's nose when the
muscle-bound monster stomped over to greet the newcomer.

"Dirge! It's about time!" bellowed the caninian after he downed all four
mugs in quick succession. "You'd better have a good fighter for me, you
little pipsqueak!"

"Yeah!" chorused a few former opponents, who, having failed their own
chances in the limelight, were now egging on the Demolisher in his.

To everyone's amazement the normally fawning Dirge ignored his boss and
waddled straight to the bar. He was so short that he had to use his
stubby tail as leverage in order to climb up onto the stool. With some
difficulty he managed to perch on it at last, his pudgy legs dangling
off the edge. He straightened and looked expectantly at Doran.

The bartender was so surprised by this uncharacteristic display of
insolence that at first he didn't see the armadillian waving to him. He
blinked, then approached Demolisher's hireling with a measure of
caution. Everyone had taken their potshots at Dirge because the
brown-nosing geek was too obnoxious for them to resist taunting. But if
their abuse had touched a nerve somewhere, then it wasn't inconceivable
that he had used the distraction provided by Demolisher's order and
returned with a weapon with which to take bloody revenge. That and
stranger things had happened before at Deca Dance. Doran casually put
his hand underneath the counter, where a laser tommy lay ready for
immediate use, and calmly if not gruffly asked, "What d'ya want
t'drink?"

"Kokonis," was the haughty reply.

"You got money?"

"Yeah. Make it a big mug too, ugly."

Look who's calling whom ugly, he thought. Admittedly, he would never
rank as movie-star-handsome in his lifetime, but he was not ugly. A
steady supply of horny girlfriends was proof that despite his well-lined
face, hooked nose, scraggly black beard, brawny build, and brusque
demeanor he was far more capable of attracting feminine notice than this
piggy creature. Doran was tempted to wave a meaty fist in the little
creep's face and set him straight, but he refrained from doing so
because it might draw the Demolisher's attention. That kind of brutality
he did not need, for he relied on his overbearing appearance to
intimidate others and cover up the fact that he was not a very good
fighter. Plus his latest girlfriend had promised him an all-nighter when
he got off work later. It wouldn't do to get cut up in a bar fight and
come to bed bearing a set of shiners. Women tended to be put off by that
sort of thing. They just couldn't understand why it was so important for
a man to defend his masculinity. Never mind all the things they did in
the name of womanly pride . . .

A sanguinary light gleamed in Dirge's beady black pupils, further
surprising him because it sent a sliver of ice cold fear down his
spine--something that had never happened before in spite of all the
violence he'd spent his job hip-deep in. These eyes were not subordinate
eyes. These eyes had the piercing glower of someone with fierce
backbone, whereas earlier they had been dulled, gluttonous, ignorant.
They trained a steady bead on his own eyes and scrolled smoothly across
his face as if reading a psychic map of secrets stenciled on in ink
invisible to mere mortals.

Doran concealed the twinge of apprehension he felt and went to pour the
Kokonis, thankful for the chore since it saved him from having to look
any deeper into those eerie eyes.

"Dirge! I'm WAITING!" roared the Demolisher, downing another mug of
whiskey from the poker table nearest him, not bothering to wipe away the
froth this time. "Where's my fighter?"

The barkeep returned with the chilled Kokonis. Without turning around on
the barstool Dirge grabbed it and greedily drained the beer in several
gulps. He swiped an arm across his wet lips and casually answered, "In
the john across the street, shithead."

No other disrespectful reply could have succeeded in clearing the area
faster. There was dead silence for perhaps a breadth of two seconds,
then a sudden low "ooohh" and the rattling of dragged furniture as
everyone scrambled to clear the way for another butt-kicking bout
courtesy of the Demolisher.

The caninian's eyes bulged in disbelief and his oversized jaws worked
furiously in conjunction with his meager brain to spit out a scathing
retort. "What--did--you--just--say?" he demanded with a heavy,
alcohol-saturated breath that punctuated each word.

Dirge tapped blunt nails on the countertop, tilting his eyes to the side
as if in silent debate. With a poise that came as gracefully as if he'd
been born with it he swiveled around on the barstool to face his
outraged superior. He locked eyes with Demolisher and with maliciously
grinning lips formed the previous epithet that he gleefully sneered out
now for the audience's benefit.

Demolisher's open jaws snapped shut with a scraping of pointy teeth.
Steam seemed to sputter from his flaring black nostrils. Then suddenly
he let out a howl of laughter. "You're drunk!" His beefy shoulders
trembled with hilarity. "You're drunk!" he repeated, snickering and
sounding very much like a pack of rutting hogs. "You dumb tub of lard,
you went and got plastered again!"

The spectators that breathlessly waited for what they both hoped and
feared was to be a forthcoming beating were quick to join him in his
braying. "Stupid little piss-bucket's capped off his rocker!" "Peel th'
scales off 'at one!" "Soak his fat in the fryer, that'll sober him up
real fast!"

They continued their teasing catcalls and hollered encouragement as
Demolisher, laughing the loudest, flounced over to his servant. Much to
the patrons' amusement Dirge was picked up and tossed into the air like
a Frisbee, coming down just as Demolisher drew back a balled
sledgehammer of a fist and walloped him in the gut. He went sailing
through the air to a chorus of shrieks and cheers, crashing into and
putting a good-sized crater in the weakened drywall behind the bar
counter.

Demolisher blotted the tears of laughter from his eyes and chuffed
arrogantly, flexing his bulk for impressive show. "And don't come back
until you're sobered up and ready to bring me a decent fighter!"

He turned and stalked back towards the poker players. "Deal me in!" he
ordered the card shark, a lanky sallow-faced type who was quick to obey.

The semi-disappointed bar patrons resumed their noisy activities.

Doran continued to refill empty beer mugs.

Demolisher's dazed victim staggered to his feet and puked up his
Kokonis, along with the dozen other beers, seventeen root beers, thirty
different kinds of ice cream cones ranging in size from single dollops
to triple-decker scoops, five bowls of spicy nachos with extra sauce and
cheese, twenty-two chocolate candy bars, nine hot dogs with everything
on them--but hold the pickles, please--twenty-eight slices of angel food
cake with vanilla frosting, forty-one slices of chocolate fudge cake
with butter-whipped fudge frosting, and two breath mints that he'd
consumed before arriving at Deca Dance.

He shook his head to clear it and focused queasy eyes on the colorful
contents that used to reside in his stomach as of five seconds ago.
Because of an edited gene that controlled pain sensitivity, he felt no
serious hurt from the stomach blow, only rolling waves of oily nausea.
When you had spent the whole day gorging yourself on tons of treats it
was both enormously satisfying and hugely amusing to relish that sated
feeling for a while, and it was a damn shame to have to lose it in the
middle of a fool's paradise.

Enough of this bullshit.

Emanon slithered out from behind the counter in a lightning-fast river
of onyx ooze and stealthily reshaped into a Demolisher-proof form.

The caninian was enraptured by the beginnings of a high-stakes poker
game so he did not see the shapeshifter's startling metamorphosis. His
companions did and as one they dropped their cards to scatter for
protected corners. As blitzed as they were they could still recognize
trouble on the spot, even when it came in the form of a seriously pissed
gigantic mummy-demon from hell.

A perplexed Demolisher felt a tap on his shoulder as he watched the
other players flee. He got up, spun around and the irritated snarl he
was about to make at being disturbed fizzled in his throat the instant
his eyes met a pair of ferocious red sockets.

"Will I do?"

"Mumm--"

WHAM! Steely claws sank into the meat of Demolisher's shoulder and
slammed his head down into a swiftly rising knee. The blow served not
only to take Demolisher off guard but also to antagonize him.
Unfortunately he could not do anything about it because by the time he
had blinked away the stars of pain dancing through his bleeding nose he
was being thrown across the room, flying face first right onto the pool
table he'd cracked earlier. It took the brunt of his weight with a
shuddering groan that widened the first hairline fracture in it to a
jagged split down the center and caused the table to wobble
precariously.

He coughed painfully, sucking down the wind that had been knocked out of
him, and heard a tubercular cackle behind him. Demolisher recovered his
senses and rolled off the battered pool table with a furious battle
roar. "MUMM-RA! I WILL DEMOLISH YOU FOR THIS!"

The caninian charged headlong, yanking from his boot a two-pronged
dagger that he slashed at his aggressor. The weapon passed unhampered
through thin air and was wrenched from his grasp before it completed its
deadly arc. Demolisher countered with a punch that struck a
concrete-hard abdominal barrier, nearly breaking his knuckles in the
process. Yowling and clutching his left fist, he tried to retreat for
another attack but was sent tumbling along the length of the serving
counter, forcing Doran to grab his laser tommy and hightail it for
safety. His trip ended with a reeling dive into the wall where he left a
hole to match the one he'd given 'Dirge.' He clawed his way out of the
crumbling plaster and chips of drywall and jumped back onto the counter
baying loud enough to wake the dead.

He looked down and there was his fuming adversary with the huffy
declaration, "I am not Mumm-Ra!"

"You look like Mumm-Ra to me, fungus face!" retorted Demolisher as he
unclipped a betty-bouncer bomb from his belt. He pulled the pin off the
marble-sized explosive with his steam-shovel jaws and threw the weapon.

Emanon disappeared in a thrumming of blue electricity just as the
betty-bouncer detonated. He reappeared behind the counter with an
identical flash and flew at the canine in a rabid bloodlust. "I'll show
you fungus, Fido! You're going down to the doghouse tonight!" Red
lightning ballooned from his hands and blew out the walls on either side
of him with mushrooming charges.

"Knock it off assholes or I'm gettin' the cops in here!" yelled an angry
Doran above the din, to no avail. He fired several blasts from the laser
tommy into the ceiling to quiet the unruly mob but neither combatant was
in any hurry to end the battle.

The bar patrons were taking bets to see how long it would take for one
of the fighters to be downed and who would be left standing. Demolisher
would have been even more pissed off if he knew he was not getting good
odds. However, his biggest concern at the moment was not to polish his
ego but to dodge a kickboxing heel when it flashed into striking range.
He leapt off his perch, taking a boot in the ribs with a thud and
growled deep in his thick throat while flinging one of his coilers at
his opponent. "Mumm-Ra or not, this ought to squeeze some sense into
your decayed brain!"

Emanon laughed disparagingly as the tiny coil whizzed over his head,
thinking it was another bomb that was supposed to explode upon impact.
"Missed me, missed me, now you gotta--ugh!"

He found himself trussed up like a turkey in unwinding electrified bands
and hoisted into the air like some fisherman's prize catch. Now really
angered he tuned into the coiler's flow and sapped its energy right out
of it, sending a surge back through the steel bands and shattering them
into a thousand deadly shards. People raced for cover and screamed; some
from the contagious excitement of violence and some from injury when
they were struck by pieces of viciously sharp metal that embedded itself
with fiery precision in tender flesh.

Demolisher was gaping like a kid whose mad experiment has gone badly
wrong and has no clue on how to clean up the burgeoning mess. He pitched
another coiler at Emanon and threw in his forkscrew lasso for good
measure, but crackling bolts of bright lightning similarly repelled
them. Glass shimmered and separated into shiny hail in a weird melodic
tune; walls sizzled, popped into flame with a thundering resonation. A
few bolts singed the top of the caninian's head and he bellowed his fury
as he felt them blaze their trails through coarse fur.

Doran the bartender had had enough. Brawls were one thing. Wizards'
duels were another. He swung the laser tommy in Emanon's direction and
barked out an order for him to cease and desist or else.

The shapeshifter did not take kindly to the ultimatum. Either that or he
was just in the mood to waste someone for the hell of it and wanted the
perfect excuse. No matter what the reason Doran hadn't any time to think
about it, because the maniac's right arm unfurled into a rope that
snatched the laser tommy out of his hands, flipped it around and blew
him away in a quicksilver blur. A woman nearby screeched to kingdom come
when she was sprayed with jets of blood and pulpy tissue.

The boisterous mood in Deca Dance abruptly soured after that. Now there
was complete bedlam as people frantically stormed for escape or rushed
Emanon to stop him from killing anybody else. Only the Demolisher was
having fun, as only he could, enjoying himself in the middle of
insanity. He launched another assault on the cartwheeling shapeshifter,
trying to get in his licks but more often stumbling over the fallen
bodies of those who met on the receiving end of acrobatic flesh-changing
maneuvers.

He noticed two bandits boldly run up to the shifter. Where one tried to
slice off an arm with his bowie knife there erupted a hydra of arms to
pummel him in retaliation--wham-bam-no-thank-you-mister--then he was
rudely punted out the door minus his bowie, which was sticking like a
flagpole out of the other man's forehead. Someone jumped Emanon from
behind only to have his roundhouse right suddenly reverse its path and
smash into his own face, all without ever having made contact with the
intended target. One guy attempted to play baseball with a cue stick for
a bat and Emanon's head as the ball; that miserable encounter ended as a
javelin toss with the bum still gripping the end of the stick as it
hurled out the shattered front windows and took him with it.

In the seconds it took to dispose of the attackers Demolisher reached
his prey and leveled a miniature pen-like utensil at him. Emanon whirled
to confront the next would-be challenger and got zapped in the face with
a blinding yellow ray. Screaming like a banshee he pressed balled fists
against his teary eyes and left himself wide open for a jaw-rattling
piledriver from Demolisher. His entire body quivered from the impact
that would have knocked a lesser being unconscious but he didn't black
out. He shot to his feet and bared razor teeth at his enemy, unleashing
a deafening caterwaul that made the Demolisher hesitate in the act of
aiming the crossbow he carried on his backpack.

Too late the caninian realized he should have taken the shot when he had
it; Emanon bulldozed into him with all the berserk strength of a tornado
in the next instant. They fell as one with the shapeshifter on top and
morphing even as the two were hitting the floor. Demolisher didn't even
touch the ground before he was lifted and flung all the way across the
bar into a set of tables. When he crashed in a shower of wood and glass
he didn't get up that time. Lucky for him, but not so lucky for everyone
else.

Emanon was too pumped up with boiling black fury to notice his rival's
departure from the melee and was consequently taking out his frustration
on anything that moved as well as a few things that didn't. Like a
crazed Slinky he somersaulted over the bar counter, and to the tune of
splintering wood telekinetically ripped the structure from its place and
sent it tumbling across the room like an enormous battering ram. It
ricocheted off the wall with a boom and careened into a cluster of
dumbfounded people, plowing them over as if they were no more than
weeds. He was more hands-on with the heavy brass holding post standing
beside a pyramid of kegs, snatching that up by the base and yanking it
free from its bolted-down position mugs and all to take a crack at a
fleeing beer server. The guy wasn't one of those involved in the fight
but that made little difference to Emanon at this point; he was swept
away on a tsunami of violence, compelled to destroy in order to
extinguish the wildfire of energy surging inside.

The post and its leftover beer glasses bit into the server's back
flattening him like a giant's fist on a gnat. The shapeshifter threw his
weapon aside and directed a sizzling stream of lightning at a grizzled
pirate thinking to ambush him from the side with a cutlass, cooking him
in his tracks and melting the yellowed Plexiglas barrier behind him
separating the pub's diner from the barroom.

He was even less merciful with a group of thugs that began firing their
shotguns at him, leaping from floor to ceiling to floor again in a ball
of contorting flesh that nimbly avoided each shot until he was standing
eyeball-to-eyeball with the leader of the pack. The man pulled the
trigger on his gun, and when it jammed and failed to expel the bullet he
saw that Emanon had shoved a squirming appendage up the barrel that was
clogging the firing mechanism. He tried to wrest his weapon away but to
no avail. Emanon's finger threaded its way out from the breach, wrapped
around the shotgun and flicked it away as if it were no more than a
twig. Then he proceeded to do the same with all five of the gang,
winding shiny tentacles around their struggling bodies and hammering
them repeatedly against wrecked furniture until they were
indistinguishable piles of bloody mush.

A woman's terrified wail soared above the thunder and he dropped the
last victim to wade through the mess after a cowering prostitute in the
corner. She cringed and ducked her head, holding up her delicate hands
in surrender. The pathetic gesture failed to placate the homicidal
shapeshifter, who dragged her by her stiletto heels out from underneath
the table where she had taken refuge and swung her at someone else
creeping up behind him. Her head connected with the sneak's own and both
skulls were staved in with a sickening crunch as their bodies dropped.

Emanon next tried to tear down the balcony overhead and bring it
crashing onto some screaming out-of-towners but a new diversion grabbed
his attention. Immense arms engulfed him and put all their strength into
squeezing him senseless. He countered by driving his elbows into the
attacker's belly and goring him through to the spine, as each limb
boasted a prickling curved spur that punctured vulnerable organs. He
pirouetted with a flamboyant twirl and gouged the face of a person in a
karate kick that left deep-seated lacerations from the spikes in the
bottoms of his boots.

Sensing another viper coming up on his left he spun and hurled three of
his fingers--the digits literally separated from the hand of their own
volition and reshaped with a fluid grace into glossy obsidian orbs that
raced at his enemy. As they hit home the shrieking goon was enveloped in
a web of flesh that stretched and looped tightly around his neck,
bringing him forward head over heels in a whiplash move.

SNAP!

The detached fingers freed their hold on the limp corpse and streaked
back in a single puddle to form their respective joints on Emanon's
hand. Meanwhile he busied himself with the fanning of a
pyrokinetically-induced bonfire that was sweeping a trail of destruction
through Deca Dance's liquor stockpiles and consuming whatever else its
dragon-tongue flames lapped up, be it debris or unlucky bystanders too
slow to escape the mayhem.

By this time the Demolisher had recovered his senses and was about to
risk another whack at defeating the seemingly unstoppable shapeshifter.
He squinted through the mounting heat and coughed, spitting out the
gritty taste of smoke. The raging fires were billowing into incendiary
pillars and making it harder to breathe, but he refused to be deterred.
This was just too much fun to walk away from! He groped on the littered
floor for his crossbow and found it, clutching it in his hands as if it
were the end-all-be-all of salvation. With a speed that even he would
have admired had he the time he raised it and without bothering to aim
loosed a series of shots that blistered into the creature's blue-gray
hide. Emanon screamed, more so from the gall of his sudden attack than
from the brief burning agony of gunfire. Where his back was riddled with
the Demolisher's shots his chest suddenly emerged, and the back of his
head morphed into his face complete with maddened scarlet eyes, as he
switched position without ever moving from the spot he stood at.

The caninian, who had missed out on most of the spectacular
shapeshifting during his timeout, was flabbergasted by this seamless
alteration in bodily form. A dark pleasure at the sight of the
impossible transformation sent shivers of ecstasy through his body.
Finally he had discovered a real warrior he could respect, one who would
not flee in cowardice nor sputter out after a lukewarm tussle. Emanon's
titanic tantrum, instead of discouraging the Demolisher, aroused in him
a powerful attraction and craving to prolong the fight, that he might
savor this unique brand of violence for all it was worth.

The incensed shifter cast vengeful eyes in his direction and charged
like a hellhound. "YOU!" he snarled wetly. "I WANT YOUR ASS!"

"COME AND GET IT FREAK!" Demolisher bellowed back, muscles bulging and
straining with manic glee as he ran with breakneck obsession towards his
destiny.

They body-slammed each other so hard that the few bar-hoppers with
courage (or foolishness) to stay and watch thought surely all bones had
been smashed. But it was not to be. Thanks to Emanon's genetic
plasticity he wasn't so much as nicked from the collision. He was
reshaping his bodily form again at the moment of impact, contorting
around the Demolisher who was grappling with the behemoth the only way
he could in such close quarters. He hit all the switches on his armory
straps; their compartments belched bullets and fire and heaven knew what
else but the damage done was inconsequential compared to the enemy's
healing ability.

Slashes and holes ceased their bleeding even as they began to weep
rivers of red, smoothly knitting in the wake of the attacks that further
inflamed Emanon's white-hot wrath. The shapeshifter retaliated by
grabbing his opponent in a bear hold and slinging him overhead with no
more regard for his care than he had any of his other victims.
Demolisher landed in a flailing of arms and legs, cracking his broad
shoulders on the debris-strewn floor. He jumped up to eat a knuckle
sandwich from the whirling dervish and went down like an anvil taking a
plunge off a mile-high cliff. The canine carouser scrambled to his feet
and immediately wished he hadn't when the next shape-changing trick
revealed an emerging foot that rammed like a hundred-ton wrecking ball
into his privates. Demolisher sank to the ground and stayed put, howling
at the top of his lungs in agony.

The crippled caninian thought to be spared now that he was incapable of
fighting. He was woefully mistaken. One final whimper of torment
escalated to an oscillating whine as Emanon hauled him up by the ears
and whipped him round and round faster and faster until they were both a
dizzying mass of cyclonic energy spinning endlessly about the raining
destruction. The shapeshifter quickly tired of this petty amusement and
Demolisher's wild merry-go-round ride ended on the next upswing. He
rocketed from the demon's grasp like a cannonball ejected at the speed
of light and zoomed out the front door into the brewery building across
the street, where he landed headfirst on top of the same toilet from
which his pal Dirge's tail protruded.

Over dwindling cries of pain and terror the victor could be heard
simultaneously laughing and yelling in a gravelly claptrap, "OH YES,
YES, YES, YES!" while he danced a two-step jig and opened up with red
lightning all over the shambles of Deca Dance for a grand finale.

The whole building came apart at the seams then, exploding with such
force into a spiraling fireball that later, once curious passerby saw
the scant remaining skeleton of the structure in the clearing smoke and
ebbing flames, they would tell their future generations how it had
looked, well . . . demolished.

The wily Emanon had split via a drainpipe next door the second he heard
sirens pulling up outside. From the safety of a nearby rooftop he
watched police and fire crews gathering to determine what sort of
apocalypse had happened. There looked to be a dozen vehicles responding
to an emergency call, and more were showing up by the handfuls all the
time.

He shook his head in childlike awe and giggled spontaneously. "Good
job," he congratulated himself out loud.

Uniforms were running back and forth from their vehicles to the area,
exchanging commentary about the shocking sights with their dispatchers.
A sergeant dashed into a makeshift morgue being set up inside a tent by
the firefighters, then just as quickly dashed back out again and headed
for a dumpster, where he vomited after ostensibly having seen something
that did not agree with his constitution.

A second, higher giggle burst forth from the watcher above. "Jeez, I
trashed the whole place!"

Deranged laughter blossomed with the same flash-fire intensity as his
anger and he rolled around the roof holding his sides in a fit of
merriment. "The whole fuckin' place! WOW!" He threw back his head and
hooted with mirth. "It-It-It just--It just--" he dissolved into
hysterics--"FOOM! Went up in a--in a--in a barbecue!" He flipped onto
his stomach and pounded the roof with his fists while howling madly.
"Weenie roaaaast!"

A full-blown seizure took over then and Emanon completely broke up into
stitches. Guffawing at the top of his lungs he thrashed about, kicking
and hitting and stomping and smacking the roof with as much force as he
had when beating up bar patrons. Tears flooded his eyes and his
diaphragm muscles began to cramp from the workout they were getting but
still he laughed on. And on. And on. And on. And so on until he was
practically dying from laughter, choking on his own hiccuping gasps of
breath, coughing and hacking and wheezing with such effort that he
almost expected to see his own lungs come flying out of his mouth in a
blob of spit and blood. That gross image was so uproarious it kindled
his titillation even more, and he was now not so much cackling with
laughter as he was sobbing it out, pouring forth shuddering heaves that
echoed off every building and street as far away as the next block.

No one paid attention to the lone reveler in his paeanistic wallowing.
They were too concerned with the commotion below at the site of the
former Deca Dance.

Slowly Emanon's spasms of laughter began to subside, trickling down,
down, into quieter and quieter burbles, and then he lay spent and
sweaty, sprawled on top of a skylight. For him the stimulant of violence
was a potent aphrodisiac; the subsequent coasting down from mountains of
abject fury and humor was similar to the post-coital languor that lovers
experienced directly after a tryst. Unconsciously he licked the beads of
sweat from his lips, panting like a dog in the throes of exhaustion. It
was a state of mind all too familiar to him in recent months. He could
not help being what he was.

"Ye gods that was fun! I should do it more often!"

Set would be proud of his demolition derby. It was exactly the kind of
mindless unrestrained ravaging that amused him so. Emanon almost wished
he had a camera with him to photograph the calamity, but then he
remembered that he had no need of such nonsensical devices. The God had
seen to it that he was outfitted with all the assets he would ever need
in life.

I ought to pay the kook and lizard lips a surprise visit one of these
days. Give 'em a piece of the action they missed tonight. Bet they miss
me. NOT!

He crept to the edge of the roof and peered down at the ruins and the
people that were futilely trying to clean the smoldering embers up.
Bodies were soon being carted off in heavy black bags to await
identification; not that it mattered because most of the victims had
been pulverized beyond all recognition.

He studied every detail carefully, making a mental record of the scene
so that he would have a nice clear documentary to show to his mentor
later. Set would appreciate his thoughtfulness. Maybe he would even
reward him for it. That thought was inspiring.

At length Emanon stood up and wiped the dampness from his face. He was
somewhat surprised to see thin stripes of reddish film on his fingers
when they came away slippery. Thinking he had been wounded he looked at
the rest of his body for injuries. Finding none to speak of he realized
that the blood must have come from the scumbags he'd fought. His heart
fluttered, partly from wonder at his own power and partly from
exhilaration at having caused so much devastation.

A fresh sheen of perspiration still covered his skin and with the
incoming breeze on the wings of the night he felt chilly in spite of the
heat provided by tight black vinyl. Coming so soon on the heels of such
a hellacious excursion, this discomfort yet did not diminish his chipper
attitude one bit. He could always bathe and change into clean clothes
when he got home; the blood- and sweat-soaked vinyl outfit would be
saved as another souvenir for his master to enjoy.

Surveying the tattered wreckage of the Deca Dance pub and savoring the
destruction he'd wrought Emanon sighed rapturously. The entire disaster
had lasted less than ten minutes.

"Damn I'm good!"

                    Next Chapter



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