Joyous faces the MEK in the stone hallway. Small giggles escape the gray-skinned teen as he takes the war pickaxe in both hands. The handle extends to become longer than he is tall, and a small twist forms for his right hand to grasp, as the blades lengthen and grow thinner. With a war scythe held ready, Joyous grins at his foe.
The four-legged MEK turns to him, its legs clicking against the floor with each step. The legs stoop lower to the ground as its translucent upper shell grows. Swirls appear in the growing top half and form holes, allowing chain-tentacles to emerge link by rustling link. They wave around, extending in every direction. The ends of some are sheathed in different types of elemental magics: rippling fire, crackling ice, hissing lightning, drippy purple slime, and more.
Inside the bulbous membrane another white orb joins the first, floating up from below to join its partner. They stare down at Joyous, moving in concert and tracking him. The two MEKs have fused together, one astride the other as rider and mount.
The combined creature takes a step forward, and steam issues from its leg joints. The fused MEK's tentacles swirl above and around its body, as its two eyes consider Joyous. He stares right back, taking a step forward as well. Joyous chuckles, stamps his feet, and waves his scythe back and forth in front of himself.
Joyous and the MEK pause when a loud thud comes from down the hall. The sound is followed by a muffled boom, a drawn-out screeching, and then a thunderous crash. Joyous and the MEK back away from each other and half-turn to face the noises.
The Drunk emerges from the far doorway, trailing steel chains and covered in a fine powder. His eyes are squinted shut, and his arms are flailing and outstretched. His foot kicks a stone the size of a Small Folk left from the ceiling's collapse, and it flies across the room to pass between Joyous and the fused MEK. The boulder crashes against the metal door and collapses the wall around.
“Sorry!” The Drunk wipes dust from his eyes and blinks several times. His eyes remain watery and unfocused. “Didn't mean ta hit that. Everyone safe an whole?” He sneezes, and much of the stone dust falls from him.
Wiping at his eyes again, he takes a good look down the hall. He smiles to see Joyous. His fists clench at the fused MEK towering above Joyous. Then he spots the scythe in Joyous' hands and his mouth opens. “Boy, what have ya got there?”
The MEK's feet clatter against the stone floor as it bolts away from Joyous, toward the Drunk. The boy snickers and leaps after the running MEK, his scythe raised to slash down its back, but one of the rear tentacles drops down to grab his arm from above. More tentacles follow, and they wrap around Joyous' midsection to hold him up in the air.
Standing his ground with both hands behind his back, the Drunk considers the thing running at him. He sidesteps its first slashing leg-blade, and twists under the next horizontal slice. When a thick arm of tentacles tries to slam against him he raises his palm to meet the blow. His hand rebuffs them, and the arm of tentacles separates into its component parts accompanied by a quick series of popping noises.
The Drunk grunts. “Ya may be a big beastie, but ya can nay underestimate me.”
He grabs one of the MEK's front leg-blades and lifts, flipping the creature on to its back. The MEK's tentacles flail in a sudden fury, but manage to support the upper body as its legs kick and twitch against the air. Joyous is thrown by the tentacles holding him, and he rolls to a crouch.
The Drunk is standing on the ceiling above the fused MEK, but only for a moment. He launches himself at the creature's exposed underside, brings an elbow forward, and supports that arm with his other as he tucks his chin against his chest, making an arrow of his body.
There is a sharp plink sound on impact, like a pebble striking steel armor. The tentacles all fail and the upper body smashes against the ground. Cracks appear in the floor and dust explodes outward in a ring. The Drunk is tossed away with his face set in a frown. He twirls around in the air and lands on the toe of one foot in front of Joyous.
The gray-skinned teen is leaning against his scythe and greets the Drunk with his eyes wide. “That was amazing! I really thought you had it there, but then nope! But you were really cool anyway, Mister.” Joyous' eyes flash and he gasps, “What? You're my Second Father? Wow wow wow!”
The Drunk's eyebrows raise. “Boy? Are ya feeling ill?”
Joyous laughs. “No, Second Father. I feel great!” His eyes flash and he nods. “If you say so, Twin Brother.” He smiles at the Drunk, “My name is Joyous, Second Father. I'm Sorrow's twin brother. It's so awesome to meet you, Second Father!”
The Drunk considers him, and then pats Joyous on the head. “Right, boy. That's a good boy.” He turns around to face the MEK, which is using its tentacles to roll over and right itself. In a whisper to himself, “The boy's gone mad.”
Back on its four feet again, the fused MEK wobbles a little. Its eyes focus on the Drunk, and its metal jaws open and close with a rumbling growl. The MEK's legs stomp against the ground, as its energy-covered tentacles all curve to point in the Drunk's direction and the others pull back away.
“Boy, stand back a bit.” The Drunk gestures for Joyous to leave. “This may get ugly.”
“No, Father!” Joyous stands straight and grips his scythe. “I wish to laugh and have fun with you as we defeat this monster!” His eyes flash and he nods. “And Twin Brother Sorrow agrees. Let us help you, Second Father!”
Before the Drunk can reply, a tentacle sheathed in flame flares up and spits a ball of orange fire at him. The Drunk and Sorrow dodge to the side, but then another energy tentacle flares, spitting an orb of lightning. More tentacles flare, firing globs of purple acid, shards of blue ice, and many more. The Drunk picks Joyous up and holds him under one arm. He dashes away from the magical barrage for the exit.
Joyous laughs as they run through the doorway. He screams, “This is going to be the most fun I've ever had!”
In the round cave, the Count and several of the city's larger citizens are attacking one of the three large crates with crowbars, hammers, and knives. The rest of the citizens are lined up in front of the other two, which have already been breached. Palace butlers and city guards form lines going in to both, and move the contents of each out hand to hand. Sudo is distributing bundles of clothes, traveling cloaks, and boots from the first, while the Master of the Forge gives out trail rations and water canteens at the other. Orbs of light hang suspended in the air above the operation.
To the side, men and women in white and black robes wait for anyone who wishes to approach them. Many of the citizens do; the priests and priestesses in white give private counsel or warm hugs as needed, while those in black hold a bony hand over their foreheads and speak with their eyes closed. Klax stands with the white robed group, passing his hand over people to find internal injuries. Bell stands behind him, her arms crossed in the sleeves of a new concealing gray robe around her.
A shout goes up from the third crate. The Count and his crew run away as the side creaks, groans, and falls to the ground with a clatter. The third crate is full to the brim with weapons. Racks of hand-crank crossbows line the inner sides, and the rest of the giant crate is split into four sections: quivers of bolts stacked in one, gleaming swords in another, long spears in the third, and wooden maces in the fourth. A thin staircase inside gives access to each section.
The citizens cheer, and hurry to form a third line. At the Count's call, butlers and guards break away from the other two crates to help the distribution process.
Everything comes to a slow halt as the Drunk charges out of the dark Gauntlet, Joyous still under his arm. The Drunk shouts, “Run, lads and lassies! Get! Hide! Scamper!” His voice is small in the large cave. Still running, he cups one hand to his mouth and shouts, “It's coming!”
The crowds turn to the Count, who smiles and calls out, “What is? A trap guardian?”
The Gauntlet's archway explodes behind the Drunk when the fused MEK stands to its full height before entering the cave. Its tentacles emerge from their holes and swirl through the air, and those with energy start firing in every direction. The metal jaws open, and a whine of steel scraping against steel is heard like a hunting cry. Its blade-feet find purchase in the softer, natural rock floor. The creature surges forward after the Drunk, heading straight for the crowded citizens.
His voice-amplification wand is held to his mouth as the Count commands, “Please do as he says! Find cover against the walls!” Everyone jumps into action.
A piercing whistle comes from Sudo, and the castle butlers run from wherever they were working and kneel before him in four lines. He taps his wooden leg against the ground and nods. His commands are curt, “C-class, citizens. B-class, the Count. A-class, attack. Set!”
The first line of butlers pull out silverware knives and leap straight up, vanishing. The second and third lines draw silverware spoons and forks; the second line runs to surround the Count, while the third line spreads out in front of the retreating crowds. The fourth line looks up at Sudo, but he only taps his foot again and disappears. Several of the remaining butlers sigh, and they all run to join the citizens.
The city guards and castle smiths look to each other. Some shrug and start to follow the citizens. Then the Master of the Forge speaks up from among them, “All right you miserable lot! Grab a weapon and prepare to attack!” The guards and smiths look to the MEK, which is now about halfway across the room. They look back to the Master of the Forge, who sighs and nods.
“Okay, fair enough. I'll go first, so watch me and see how I fare before jumping in yourselves.” They all cheer and run for the weapons crate.
Over among the priests, the oldest man in white strokes his long, white beard and speaks up, “Anyone who can use Light's beam, surround me and channel into mine. Everyone else will conserve their energy for healing.”
He closes one eye and raises his palm to the ceiling. Above, a bubble of hard light forms. Many of the white-robed priests and priestesses step back and bow their heads, while the rest raise their hands toward the bubble and join him in chanting together.
“Light, we birth your first blessing in this dark place. We feed and we focus your power to banish the darkness. Grant us your first blessing as a beam!”
The gaunt old priest in black cackles and grabs his shovel. “Diggers!” He points to the MEK, his bony finger wavering. “Bury it!” Behind him, the frail priests in black all pull out small hand shovels and spades and trowels. They scoop into the ground and join their leader in throwing the stone at the fused MEK.
The Drunk leaps forward and crosses the remaining distance to land near the Count. He places Joyous on the ground and wags a finger at him. “Boy, no complaints now. I want ya ta help as ya can, but leave the beastie ta me.” Joyous' eyes flash and he nods with a big smile. The Drunk's bushy eyebrow raises but he turns back to face the fused MEK. “Good lad.”
Screeching, the MEK brings its energy tentacles forward. They flare, pointing at the backs of the running crowds. But then the Drunk appears before it, hurtling through the air between the tentacles, his fist pulled back. He grunts and strikes it between the eyes. The MEK's blade-feet try to keep going as the top half is thrown back, causing the large creature's feet to fly out from under it and the whole creature to spin in the air. Its tentacles pierce outwards, stabbing the ceiling and floor and holding the whirling creature in place.
Silverware knives streak from the shadows of the ceiling to strike the MEK. A large beam of harsh, bright light spears the creature's top half, burning through any tentacle hit, as rocks and stones strike its sides in a rain of blows. Crossbow bolts come next from the castle smiths and city guards, some hitting their mark and others landing off target. The Master of the Forge, the red scales covering his body, flies in on flame wings and swings a hammer made of fire against the fused MEK.
One tentacle lashes out and wraps around the Master of the Forge. He flaps his wings to escape but its grasp remains tight. Another tentacle reaches for the Drunk, but he smacks it away with the palm of his hand as he floats to the ground. More tentacles stretch out and search the ceiling, plucking butlers from the shadows above like grapes from a vine. The MEK glares at them all, its eyes whole and unbroken, and puffs steam from its leg joints. It smashes everyone it has grabbed against the ground, with a sickening crack from each butler and a loud thud from the Master of the Forge.
“No!” The Drunk's eyes glow bright as he shouts, “Ya will not hurt them!”
Standing in front of the MEK, his eyes burning a molten gold, he strikes it under the jaw with a stiff uppercut. His punch leaves an indent and the MEK lurches backwards, cracks appearing across its lower body. It tightens its grasp on those it is holding as tiny fibers start sucking at them, and the cracks across its body disappear. The fused MEK begins stomping around, trying to pierce the wily Drunk with its blade-feet.
Joyous turns to the Count and laughs. “This isn't going well I guess! But we can help. Twin Brother said you are the Count and that we have a key for the black door. Can I unlock it now, please? Pretty please? Please please please.”
Watching the combat from within a circle of butlers, the Count nods. “Quickly, if you can.”
Looking across the room towards the black door, Joyous grins. “Fast is my middle name! Not really, that was a joke!” He laughs and pulls back his arm to throw his scythe. “Watch me go!”
He throws the scythe, but instead of leaving his fingers, the scythe pulls him along for the ride. He crouches atop the spinning weapon and flies across the room in a dark blur.
The gaunt leader of the black-robed priests turns to watch his flight, and gapes. “A Reaper of flesh?” He cackles and reaches down for another shovel-full of stone. “We die in interesting times.”
The scythe's blade sinks into the black door and Joyous steps off, grasping the scythe's handle again. With his other hand he reaches into a pocket and pulls out the crystalline key. “My first time turning a key! This is so exciting!”
More silverware knives and chunks of stone and crossbow bolts strike the MEK's side, but they either shatter or bounce off its hard shell. Another beam of light burns away more tentacles, but those grow back in an instant. The MEK starts firing energy blasts at its attackers, immolating or freezing or cooking or dissolving anyone it hits. It throws the bodies it its grasp away, along with the Master of the Forge, and starts to canter towards the crowd against the wall, behind the Count and the open crates.
The Drunk grabs the MEK by a blade-leg and stops it. “I think not, foul beastie.” He spins around and throws the MEK back over his shoulder. It slams against the wall, halfway between the black door and the cavern's entrance.
Instead of chasing it, the Drunk runs to the Master of the Forge and bends over him. “Lad, are ya conscious? I could very much use that ring a fire now.”
Groaning, the Master of the Forge sits up. He reaches into a pack around his waist and holds out a small, red ring. “Take it if it will help. But the flames will burn you as well.”
Taking the ring, the Drunk nods. “Aye lad. Fix it for me after the fight.” He pats the Master of the Forge on the shoulder and then helps him to stand.
With a loud creak and a moan, the great black doors begin to open. Joyous pulls his scythe free and bounces up and down. “I did it! Door successfully opened! Everybody, I got it open! Who's awesome? I'm awesome!”
The citizens all turn toward the opening door, and with a cheer they start to stampede for it. The Count calls out to them, “Wait! It isn't safe yet!” But they don't heed him.
The MEK pushes itself away from the wall and stands. Its eyes consider Joyous jumping beside the black door and then the crowds running his way. The MEK's jaw opens and its teeth grind as it charges toward the crowds. Knives and stones and bolts hit it, but the MEK pays no attention to these ineffective attacks.
The gaunt leader of the black-robed priests cackles and sticks his shovel into the ground. “Damned God, bury this foe within your dark embrace.” A black aura appears around his body and pulses once.
A giant slab of stone under the charging MEK flips up like a trapdoor, catching the MEK and almost capping it within the hole. But the MEK's feet slash against the ground, cutting the stone to pieces. It continues on, as the citizens reach the door.
The leader of the white-robed priests strokes his long, white beard and nods. “We must change tactics. Light, bind this foe with bonds formed of your first blessing.” A white aura appears around him.
The bubble of light above sweeps forward and splits to become three bands of hard light that wrap around the MEK's upper body and constrict it. But the MEK's lower body continues running, and its jaws crash open and closed several times as its tentacles struggle against the bands. The citizens begin to filter through the opening door, all of them trying to get through first as the fused MEK approaches.
Sudo appears between the MEK and the citizens, several large forks held in each hand and one gripped between his teeth. A leg-blade sweeps toward him, but he catches the tip between the prongs of several forks. The other front leg-blade tries to take his head off, but he catches that too. Twisting his torso, he attempts to change the path of the MEK. But its back legs dig in and it pushes forwards, bowling Sudo over. He vanishes before the MEK can impale him with its leg-blades.
Joyous hefts his scythe and starts to walk toward it with a wide grin, but the Drunk and the Master of the Forge fly in on wings of fire and land in front of him. The MEK rears up and brings two leg-blades down toward them.
The Drunk grunts and claps his hands together, catching the blade headed for his forehead. He laughs and turns to the Master of the Forge. “We can defeat this together, lad!” But then his smile cracks.
The Master of the Forge does not respond. The MEK's leg blade has pierced through the armored skin of both his arms, which were crossed over his face and now fall to the ground. The leg blade has gone deep through his head, directly through his brain, and the tip is poking out on the other side. Blood leaks from his clenched mouth and ears. The red scales vanish from his body, which then slumps to his knees.
“I'm not happy anymore!” The Master of the Forge's blood is splashed across Joyous' face. His eyes are wide and his grin is pulled back in a rictus. He screams at the MEK, “This isn't the best day ever anymore because of you!” The scythe glows umber and doubles to twice its size with a thump like a heartbeat, then doubles again, and once more to be as big as the MEK. “I'm not joyous anymore!”
He leaps straight up in the air, and slices his scythe down the fused MEK's front. The attack opens a wide gash, and the MEK's right eye cracks. The bands of light remain untouched.
The teen's skin flushes with its old dusky gray color, and his eyes turn a clear, milky white. His smile disappears into a flat line, and the scythe's handle becomes several shades darker, almost black.
Sorrow nods and twists himself around in the air. “I am no longer Joyous.” He slashes his scythe across the MEK's midsection, between two bands of light. Another wide gash appears, forming a large cross on the MEK's front, as its left eye cracks as well. Sorrow lands on the ground, and the scythe shrinks to its normal size.
The MEK lets out a wail and thrashes about, pulling back its leg-blades and bursting the bands of light. Its tentacles fling outward in every direction. Sorrow spins his scythe around, cutting down the tentacles that reach for him, but many more pass by. They reach for the screaming citizens at the black door and wrap around them, as the fibers emerge to drink their life.
“Oh no ya don't, vile beastie.” The Drunk pulls out his silver hip flask and the fire ring. “Ya won't be healing from them this time.” He takes a large swig from the flask, and then brings the ring to his lips. Fire appears around his hand, burning blue, and he blows through it to create a fireball that engulfs the MEK. The tentacles are burned from their bases and wither away. The Drunk waves his hand around to put out the flame.
Sorrow nods. “Thank you, father. I had not considered the creature's ability to heal. But I believe I can dispatch it now.” His eyes flash black and he nods again. “Thank you Twin Brother. I will try that. Shade.”
A black sphere appears around his body, pouring out from the chain armor under his clothes, covering him completely and for several helms around. From within the inky darkness he comments, “This was intended to be a defensive measure, but now – we shall see.” The scythe flashes outward several times, slicing through the shadows, which fall apart in ribbons. Five Sorrows are left as the darkness collapses, each black as midnight. Their mouths move in unison, “This will indeed aid me.”
He dashes straight for the MEK, bringing five scythes in running slashes. Two carve through the MEK's four leg-blades and they break, dropping the creature. The other three run straight up its side, slicing through tentacles even as they emerge. When the reach eye level, two of the shadow Sorrows sweep to either side and dig their scythes into its ooze-skin, impaling one eye each and pulling the skin taunt as the third slices up the center. The fused MEK splits into two halves and the white orbs inside pop out.
Standing in front of the crates, the Count directs the continued efforts. Sudo and the Drunk wait behind him, a towheaded boy in the Drunk's arms and a girl with an eyepatch in Sudo's, both now wrapped in traveling cloaks. Klax is between them, holding his hands out over the children.
The city guards and castle butlers are back to helping distribute the goods, but everyone is silent now. They move slow, as if at a funeral. The white-robed priests help the few who received non-fatal injuries, while the black-robed priests are digging a large pit in the center of the room. Bodies are stacked beside it.
At the mouth of the Gauntlet, Sorrow sits on a large stone. The black scythe hangs at his hip, reduced to the size of a handaxe. His voice is a whisper, “My apologies, Zander. If I had been faster, your death might have been avoided.”
The gray, featureless specter beside him shrugs. “No worries, kid. Pretty cool way to die, all things considered.”
“I will keep that in mind, Zander. I did not know there were cool ways to die.” He turns to the specter. “Tell me if I can help you, Zander. I can tell your family of your fate, to bring them the human emotion of comfort.”
The specter chuckles. “I don't have a family. Not anymore. Parents died a long time ago. Hated my adoptive family. Don't have friends or anything. And I wasn't actually married with kids, I just wanted more of the loot. I wasn't even sent by the Count, that was a lie too.”
“Oh.” Sorrow blinks. “Well … I would have given you all the loot if it could mean you didn't die.”