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The Duel of the Ages

Chapter 10

By Samuel Stoddard

"Geez, you're starting to sound like me," Darius/Jacqui remarked.

The Sage covered his mouth, embarrassed, and tried unsuccessfully to keep future schoolgirl giggles inside.

This is getting me no where, Blood Drops huffed, after a short rest. Darius was toying with him -- that much was obvious -- but how had he anticipated his moves so quickly and accurately? Something was up. But what?

A peculiar sensation brushed his sleeve (it was not his nose), and he looked in the direction it beckoned. The wind whipped at his leather clothing. The sensation came from a second rooftop, slightly lower than the one on which he stood.

Ha! I've got you now! Blood Drops said to himself and leapt from the roof top. He invoked a cup-shaped force field and used it as a parachute to glide from the one building to the next. He alighted on the rooftop and chased the signal. It was retreating toward the far edge, just on the other side of the top of a protruding elevator shaft. But when Blood Drops rounded the corner, it was gone.

Must have gone through a portal, Blood Drops mused and opened a void in the space before him. He marvelled at how he could now create bridges between universes at his command -- a feat which was humanly impossible weeks earlier. He shrugged. If the universe wanted its physical laws to evolve with the changing whims of lowly writers, then so be it.

He emerged minutes later in a busy street, though country-bumpkin-rural compared to some of the others he had seen in his journey through the dimensions, and noted a fairly thick conglomeration of small buildings with lots of windows. The most prominent was an oldish structure with columns, a bell tower, and a carillon, which, having just struck noon, was gonging its merry melodies to the surrounding community.

Where was Darius now? Ah, yes, he could be sensed just up the street.

"Excuse GONG, sir, could GONG tell me if a GONG came through GONG wearing a set GONG armor and dusty GONG boots?"

"You GONG to get to GONG cluster?"

"Yes, GONG very rustic looking."

"Well, GONG the cluster is down over GONG way. Take GONG second left, and go GONG a bridge with GONG running underneath it. GONG the building is GONG in front of GONG. It's on GONG third floor. Room GONG."

"Thank you, GONG."

"No GONG."

Blood Drops hurried off. Geez, he thought. You'd think this was the Gong Show. He didn't know how the bystander knew exactly where Darius was going. Perhaps the citizens of this world had elite visionary powers.1

1 Don't count on it. (See the next footnote.)
He followed the directions as best he could, taking a series of lonely concrete paths and stone staircases which wound their way through the many lawns and buildings. He descended one set of stairs and, shortly after, crossed a small bridge that spanned the gurgling flow of deadly chemicals. Passing another building on his left, he found a monumental mansion towering before him across a quiet street. He skipped across and ascended the stone steps. Inside, it was dark and quiet. His arm tingled. Darius was near.

He took a set of stairs on his right up to the third floor. Careening around a corner, he ran smack into a humongous man with a receding hairline. His presence was majestic.

2 The name Paul Sand gives away the location that Blood Drops has stumbled upon. Paul Sand is the system administrator for the UNIX mainframes at the University of New Hampshire, where Dave and I went to school. The building he is in is Kingsbury, UNH's engineering building. When Blood Drops first arrived to the bizarre, exotic world of Durham, New Hampshire, he appeared on main street, in front of Thompson Hall, the oldest building on campus. The building with the sewage emanating from it is Spaulding, the life sciences building. The folks at Spaulding are notorious for performing such experiments as burning dirt.
"Whoa, in a hurry, eh?"

"Terribly," Blood Drops said.

"Tsk, tsk," Paul Sand thought to himself, on his way back to his office. "These folks never learn to do their assignments ahead of time."2

Meanwhile, Blood Drops tore down the hallway, eyeing the passing numbers on the doors as he went. 320...319...318...should be the next one....

He stormed inside. Darius was not there.

"Oh dear," the Sage said.

"What is it?" Darius/Jacqui queried.

"Well, I'm afraid our friend, the Lyigayllmn knight has stumbled upon something that could sink us."


"Of course, it's entirely possible he'll leave without realizing what he's found."

"What's the other possibility?"

"We get found out and written out of existence."


The beacon on his shoulder pulsed, then. Blood Drops sensed Darius tearing down the hallway he had just left. Had Blood Drops not been so exhausted to begin with, he might have chased after the signal. But Blood Drops was simply too tired, and he was beginning to feel like he was being led on a wild goose chase.

He took a seat in the nearest chair. The room was fairly large and well lit. A myriad of cubical devices with rounded edges were propped upon long tables at regular intervals. The only other person in the room was a regal looking man with a grey coat and a shaggy beard. The other man had not yet noticed the knight's presence, for his attention was focused unwaveringly on the ugly face of one of the machines.

Blood Drops sighed. "You didn't happen to notice a tall man come in here, did you? Say, six foot and something, with dark hair...?"

"Nope, haven't seen a soul," the other said, without looking up.

"...lop-sided face..."3


3 For once, I wasn't dealing Darius cheap ridicule here. In Dave's serious work, Darius is actually portrayed as having a lop-sided face.

4 A Princess Bride reference.

"...loose fitting armor..."

The other looked up. And did a double take.

"Are you sure?" Blood Drops asked again.

"Who are you?" asked the other. "I must know."4

"The name wouldn't mean anything to you."

"Maybe, maybe not. There aren't many people who wander around here in leather armor. Not ones with ruffled brown hair, beard, and deep brown eyes. Not ones with a canvas pouch and such an elegant sword at his waist."

Blood Drops felt abruptly awkward, being confronted by this strange person who seemed to be marvelling at his every feature.

"You are just like I imagined!" he said. "It is an honor and a privilege to meet you, Blood Drops."

The knight, who had started to leave, whirled upon the other with a sudden, swift movement. "How did you know who I was?"

"I know a great many things about you and your world, Blood Drops. Allow me to present myself. My name is Samuel Stoddard. Some folks around here call me the Rink."

"The Rink? Isn't that a short ugly furry thing with empty eyes, fangs, and a pot belly?"5

5 By some inexplicable circumstances, "The Rink" -- the name of a creature in my second novel -- became a nick name of mine on the Internet. Blood Drops, however, knows nothing of such things; to him, "The Rink" means nothing more than the pot bellied creature from his own world.
"Well, yeah..."

"Never mind. Listen, you seem to know something about all of this. What's going on? Why is Darius so elusive? What tricks is he playing, though this game is theoretically supposed to be skill against skill alone?"

The Rink smiled. "You'll figure it out."

"So you know? And you won't tell me?"

"I can't tell you. I'd be accused of cheating if I did."

"Cheating? What? Who would--"

"I have a nemesis, too, you know."

Blood Drops sighed. "Don't we all. I'm going home."

With that, Blood Drops opened a portal, leapt through, and found himself standing in Garandel's tavern.

While Darius/Jacqui was sighing in relief from the Rink's restraint at writing them all completely out of existence, the Sage was bellowing curses from the top of his lungs.

"The coward! The fraud! The lunatic! The maroon!"6

6 This short line is actually an esoteric reference to two separate things. "Maroon" comes from Bugs Bunny. The whole line is a sort-of reference to "The Addams Family" movie, where Gomez is accusing his brother with a never-ending series of "impostor" synonyms. "The fraud! The impostor! The phony! The faker!" etc, etc, etc.
"What is it? What's the matter now?" Darius/Jacqui sighed impatiently.

"He's given up! He's gone home!"

"Goodie...does that mean we can too?"

"No!" the Sage asserted with such fury that even Jacqui shrank away.

"Well, how goes it, Blood Drops?" Garandel greeted, serving the knight a mug of his favorite ale.

"Not well, my friend. I'm at war."

"You personally?"

7 In the DragonLance series of books, the epic war between the evil wizard Raistlin and goddess Takhisis is an apocalypse of sorts -- the battle was so furious and long that it changed the very face of the world. Needless to say, Blood Drops and Darius have long since had them beat.
"Indeed. In a battle that would make that between Raistlin and Takhisis look like a cock fight."7

"That's a pretty bad war."

"He'll come looking for me. I've called his bluff. He can't stay away."

"He's going to come here? In my tavern?"

"Just you wait, Garandel. We'll see who comes out the victor in this hellish battle. The game is not over yet."

"So you are right," Darius/Jacqui said from the doorway. He stepped through the smoky haze of the tavern.

"Chickening out on me, are you Blood Drops? What, can't take it any more?"

"This game isn't skill against skill alone. This game is another of your foul schemes."

Darius shrugged. "The game is whether or not you can figure it all out. But whatever the game is, you've certainly lost it. Bartender, serve me up a rum."

Garandel obediently sunk behind the counter, filled a glass of rum, then spit in it. "Here you are, sir," he said, presenting the mug, and glared ruefully at the newly-arrived scoundrel.

"I thought Jacqui stole back your powers."

"Well think again...mmm, that's good rum."

"It's too bad. Heavens, what a woman!"



Darius sidled up next to the knight. "No, tell me. What were you thinking?"

Jacqui, you fool, don't you dare cross me... the Sage spoke to the girl threateningly.

"Well, I think she's about the most wonderful thing I've ever seen. The way the sun sparkles off her hair, the way her emerald eyes shine...."

"Really? I had no idea you had such interest in m--uh, her. Tell me more."

"Oh no, I don't--"

"No, go ahead. I, uh, I think it's good for a man to pour his heart out."

"Well, she's such a devious little critter."

SHUT UP, Jacqui! the Sage raged. He's on to you! Now you better say and do what I tell you to, or you'll never get your eyes fixed!

Darius hesitated, suddenly unsure of himself. He seemed to be listening to a million voices all at once. Or at least two.

"What," he managed finally, "do you mean...devious...?"

"You've given yourself away Jacqui."

"Jacqui!?" Darius exclaimed. Then, calming down, "How did you know?"

8 This line is a ridiculously obscure reference to the Broadway musical 1776.
"You've been flirting with me for the past five minutes." Two other men, who had been standing by innocently eavesdropping on the conversation, moved discretely away. "All right Longshore," Blood Drops persisted, "out with it.8 What's going on around here?"

You've BLOWN it! I'm pulling you back in here and turning you completely into a cat permanently RIGHT NOW!

The non-shouting of the Sage had, just at that non-moment, caught the non-attention of the Grim Reaper, who, covering his non-ears, closed the non-distance between them in a matter of non-seconds.

The Grim Reaper's horrified shock at not seeing what the Sage had not been doing was non-visible even beneath the non-hood of his non-cloak.

"What in hell has not been going on here?" he didn't shriek.

"You don't know perfectly well," the Sage didn't answer back, looking very non-irritated at Death's not intruding.

"I can't not have any of this fooling around not going on here anymore! I can't not have non-communication with the living world! I'm not sick of you two! Look," Death didn't say, not raising a threatening non-finger. "You and Blood Drops are hereby not banished from my realm. I don't not care if you get crushed into a hillion jillion pieces, I'm not not taking you back. So go not get out of here and don't live a long, prosperous, boring life. I shall not not come for either of you never again!"

The Grim Reaper didn't not cease his non-lecture, and, not breaking the non-meld the Sage had not made with his non/non-non transmitter, didn't bring it up to his non-lips. "Beam them down at once, Scotty. And never, ever, no matter what happens, don't never not not non-beam Darius nor Blood Drops up again!"

With that, Scotty didn't activate the beam which, in turn, didn't send the Sage back to the realm of the living.

There was a flurry of light and darkness, and Garandel's tavern shook on its foundation. Blood Drops fell to the floor, blinded by both the light and the dark at the same time. Rising to his feet, he found Jacquillinos -- apparently in her own body once again, for she was touching herself reassuringly -- and the Sage, in his Darius form.

"Thank heaven!" Jacqui sighed and wandered off to explore.

"I feel so...blind..." the true Darius mused, suddenly confined to three physical dimensions again.

"The jig is up, Darius," Blood Drops said. Then he drew his sword and shoved the tip at Darius' forehead. He backed him to the wall. Drunkards pulled themselves out of chairs which scraped against the wooden floor to get out of the way.

Jacqui approached. "So, Darius, he's gotcha now, doesn't he? I bet it's exciting being in such danger, day in and day out. Imagine, never knowing when you might--"


"--go to sleep one night--"


"--and never wake up. My how--"


"--your adrenaline must--"


"Oh, come on!" Jacqui whined. "What now?"

"Don't flirt with danger, either."

Jacqui yawned and drifted away, seeking more accommodating people to chat with.

"The game's up," Blood Drops continued. "But another is afoot! This time we play by my rules."

Darius gulped. "Your...rules...?"

"Yes. My rules."

"Heh heh. That's very nice, but could I go to the bathroom first?"

Blood Drops lowered his sword and motioned him toward the back of the tavern.

"Second door on your left," Garandel called, wiping a glass dry, as Darius passed.

The Sage stepped to the door and read the sign. "MEN" it said, in bold, capital letters. He pushed the door open and entered.

Three girls stood inside, making Darius suddenly doubtful about the label he had read on the door only an instant before.

"Hi!" one of them said cheerfully. Another giggled. The third blew her nose.

"Uh...hello," Darius said, and, feeling foolish, walked carefully over to one of the stalls. And stood there.

The door squeaked open, and Darius heard the sound of a man with a thick pair of boots entering. The man's pace came to an abrupt halt just as Darius' had.

"Hi!" came the merry greeting. Giggle. Honk.

The man grumbled something casually, and he, too, entered one of the stalls...and stood.

"Hi!" the girl said again as a third man entered. Giggle. Honk.

Finally the girls left, and the three men standing idlely in separate stalls sighed with relief.9

9 An incident very similar to this actually happened to Dave once.

10 A reference to Bugs Bunny.

"Why, I bet you monsters lead INTeresting lives," Jacquillinos was saying to a Shadow Gnome who had been sitting alone at a table in a far corner of Garandel's tavern. "I was saying to my girlfriend just the other day," she continued, "I said, 'I bet monsters lead INTeresting lives.' The places you must go, the things you must see, my my. I'll bet you monsters meet a lot of INTeresting people, too. I'm always INTerested in meeting INTeresting people."10

"Jacqui, would you quit it," Blood Drops said, pulling her away.

"Look, I can take care of myself," she scolded. "If you want to do something for me, why don't you fix my eyes."

Blood Drops sighed. Jacqui's slit-like eyes stared solemnly back at him. Then, covering her face with a rugged hand, he invoked his mental powers. When he removed his hand, her green eyes were full and round.

Jacqui knew instantly that something was different. She brought her hands to her face and ran to a mirror. Round, human eyes! She broke down and cried with happiness.

Just then, Darius returned from the bathroom.

"Did you wash your hands?" Blood Drops asked suspiciously.

"Of course I did."


"Now what's this about another game?" Darius inquired, not altogether sure he wanted to learn more.

"Preeeeeeeeesenting..." Garandel announced to all present in the tavern, "the beautiful, the illustrious Gigglehonk sisters!" There was a hungry round of applause, interspliced with ravenous cheers, yahoos, and gunfire.

"Now, Darius, here's the plan--"

"--about Harry! And Harry's wild about meeeeee--" Giggle. Honk.

"--you are of course familiar with Einstein's theory of relativity--"

"--my baby, hello my honey, hello my rag-time gaaaal--"11 Giggle. Honk.

"--and also the theory that there is no such thing as a straight line--"

11 This is an old-time song sung in a particular Looney Tunes cartoon about a frog who sang and dance, but only for the man who found him. When the frog was taken to other people for them to see, the frog only ribbited.

12 "Edelweiss" from the Sound of Music.

13 "The Sign" by Ace of Base. When Dave and I first heard this, we thought it was "the sun," so I've sung it that way ever since, out of some peculiar devotion to foolishness.

14 A Princess Bride reference.

"--every morning you greeeet me. Soft and white--"12 Giggle. Honk.

"--it's easy to conclude from this that there is really only one--"

"--I saw the sun. And it opened up my eyes and I am--"13 Giggle. Honk.

"--dimension that is bent to form the illusion of--"

"--my achy breaky heart--" Giggle. Honk.

"--more. The first one of us that can actually prove this theory--"

"--Wuv...twuue wuv...wiww fowwow you--"14 Giggle. Honk.

"--wins. To do this, it requires that we navigate into a black hole--"

"--Nearer my God, to Thee--" Giggle. Honk.

"--and if the theory is correct, then we'll wrap around to another dimension of space, probably the fourth--"

"--is the place to be. Faaaaa-harm living is the life for me--" Giggle. Honk.

"--If you win this game, then--"

"--IIIIIIiiIIyYyYIyyiIyYiiIIIII will al-ways love yoooooooooooooooooooooooooooo-oo-ooo-oo-ooo IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIiiIIiYyYIyIIyIIIII will al-ways love youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu--" Giggle. Honk.

"--I will promise to leave and never return. But if I win this game, you will be my slave forever--"

"--Take out the papers and the trash. Or you don't get no--" Giggle. Honk.

"--You ready to play this game?--"

"Let's hear it for the Gigglehonk sisters, folks!"

"--Sure I'm ready! Ha!--"

Cheers, applause, and miscellaneous giggles and honks erupted from the crowd of people who, all save Blood Drops and Darius, had been intent on their performance.

Blood Drops and Darius left the tavern, flicking gold coins on the counter as they left, which a solitary bum snatched and pocketed before Garandel noticed.

The sun light outside was blinding, after the gloom of the tavern. When they got used to the brightness, Blood Drops counted down for the start.

"Remember, first one to go through a black hole wins," he reminded. "Ready.!"

Immediately, Darius opened a portal before him and leapt inside. He cast a force field around him as he jumped so he wouldn't explode from the vacuum. On the other side of the portal, he found himself shockingly near a black hole. The force snatched him away at once. Around and around he spiralled, until he fell in completely and was crushed into a tiny point, adding yet a little more matter to that point's nearly infinite density.

"Oh no," the Grim Reaper didn't think, not watching from his own non-realm. "I'm not not not not not taking him not back. He can remain in that void for all eternity for all I don't care."

15 A reference to The Empire Strikes Back.
"All too easy," Blood Drops muttered in a deep James Earl Jones voice.15 Then, turning, "Jacqui! Stop flirting!"

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