F e b r u a r y   2 0 0 3

Guest Writer

Doomed because of one major flaw
by Jess Gulbranson

We’ve been following our rumpled yellow-haired hero ever since early 2001, when he lost his motel – along with everything else but the red hooded sweatshirt on his back – in a poker game. He’s been bouncing around through several different dimensions ever since. Here’s episode 23 ...

el found himself in the stinkiest place in the Ordeal: Clay's laboratory. The fart-like stench of the bottle he had broken earlier was nothing compared to the orgy of weird smells in the basement space beneath the brownstone.

It was a square room, faced entirely in marble, its gleaming expanse filled with foundries and furnaces, beakers and jars, and God only knew what. Mel fought back the urge to retch.

"You'll get used to it," Clay said, as he wandered a few paces into the maze of tables and counters, tweaking glass knobs on stills and shaking test tubes. Mel wasn't sure whether the lab was state of the art or hopelessly lost in hokum. He wasn't a scientist, but he was perplexed by the fact that it seemed to be both. Strangely enough he was already getting used to the smell.

"I should hope so. That can't be good for you!" Clay shrugged in response, then pulled two stools up to a relatively clean workbench. They sat down, and Clay arranged two empty test tube thingies in front of them, then put a single drop of clear fluid into each. He proffered one to Mel, who took it without drinking. Clay downed his, and pointed at Mel's.

"What you're holding there is a graduated cylinder full of the best martini ever made," Clay said. "Drink up."

"I wouldn't say that it's full, chief."

"Go on. You'll need it."

Mel complied; as the drop of liquid went down, he realized that it was exactly as promised. It was like drinking a full martini, olive and all.

"But that's ..."

"More than a hundred percent alcohol. I know." Clay's smirk had returned. "You want another?"

"I was going to say 'magic.' And yes, though I would have preferred a cocktail onion."

"Dammit Jim, I'm an alchemist, not a miracle worker!" They shared another of the potent drops, then Clay collected the glassware, which he tossed into a bucket. The graduated cylinders shattered, and the noise was horrendous in the marble room.

"I get the feeling I'm about to be pushed out of the nest, Clay. So out with it."

"Fair enough," Clay said. "Here." Clay reached into his coat and removed a mirror, which he handed to Mel. It was a battered, ordinary shaving mirror, though the glass seemed to be polished obsidian. Instead of his reflection, though, it was ...

"Anne." Mel pondered. "Is this one of those magic mirrors that shows you your heart's desire?"

"No. It shows something important, though. For years I saw Her in there, and I guess that's what She wanted. Then, one day, I started seeing you. She wanted to know why that was."

"You say you saw me? What then?"

"Let me show you a picture I have of Her."

Mel snorted. "I already saw that 'Beach Blanket Bingo' picture."

"That's not the one. She gave me that one, and said that you took it."

"What? I'd remember taking a snap like that."

Clay produced a picture from his coat and handed it to Mel. It was Anne, alright, but older. Maybe older than Mel, even. She was still beautiful, sure, but mature-beautiful, and Her face was so severe ... Mel had to wonder what caused Her to look so grim. "I really don't understand."

"It's like this," Clay began. "The Ordeal is a magnet for extraordinary people who don't fit in. It doesn't help that the DCB recruits people like that, because once you're here, you're stuck. The DCB mainly employs people who can do magic ... Alchemists like myself, people who study death, like Eriksen and Ducumber, and fortunetellers like Her.

"The boys and I were all working for the DCB at the time, then She arrived, like you see Her there in the picture. I fell for her instantly, though it was hands-off while we were working together. She was the best they had – so good that people thought she wasn't just predicting the future, but changing it. A lot of names got thrown around, but the one that stuck was Saboteuse.

"She quit, I quit, and it was heaven under her spell until the mirror changed. That's when I joined the Custodians, to try and get this Messiah thing under control. That's also when She left. We had a disagreement."

"Heavy stuff," Mel sighed. "So what do I do now?"

Clay leaned in close. "As far as any of the Custodians know, you have to ask the worst of the Ordeal, and take it on. Now, the worst thing I can think of is the DCB, and we all agree. That may not be it, though. You'll just have to find out."

"Can you help me out at all?"

"Nope," said Clay. "That's against the rules. You need to prove that you're the Messiah without our help. Now, like I said before, the Ordeal is a magnet for legends, and not all of them are Custodians or DCB. My old mentor Escobar, for example, or the Master. I take it you've met him? Well, he's attracted quite a cult around the Ordeal who think that he's the Messiah. He denies it of course, and periodically beats the living shit out of his worshippers to try and prove a point. If they give you any crap, he may help you."

"I'd believe it."

"Otherwise ..."

Mel thought to mention Daniel's strange belief about the Master, but wasn't sure if the diminutive wooden man had told Clay. "Alright, Mel. Let's get you started. First ..."

Clay was interrupted by a flash of blinding light. Standing before them, with drooping mustaches and a purple robe, was Frank Burley.

"Swounds, brother Alchymist, lief begone I ere this hell-pit!" He looked around the laboratory, and gestured at a retort. "Prithee brew a physic, and return poor Francois de Burleis to Averoigne!"

Another flash came, and another Frank appeared behind the first. He had a shaved head and a space suit. In his hand was a baseball bat, which he promptly swung at the first Frank's head. Old-timey Frank went down, knocking over a series of glass pipes with a crash. The second Frank leveled the bat at Mel, and pointed at the exit stairs like Babe Ruth signaling a home run.

"You had better get the fuck out of here. The DCB is going to show up any minute."

"He's right," added Clay. "Skedaddle, and good luck."

"One more thing," said Mel. "What did you and Anne break up over?"

With a pained look, Clay answered. "She thought the Custodians were fools, and that I was a bigger fool for joining them. She said our plan was doomed because of one major flaw."

Clay sat down on the floor abruptly, as if all the wind had gone out of him. "Do you know why she looked so sad in that picture? She was in love with you once. Back when she was young, and I'm not talking about some doppelganger of you. The real thing. She looked that sad because you died. I'm sorry. Now get going!"

Mel took one last look at Clay, and at Frank, and at Frank, then ran for the stairs.

Look for Mel's past adventures, check out an interview with our dimensionally challenged hero, and e-mail Jess at j_gulbranson@hotmail.com.

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