ACT ONE: KRACHT’S FIRST TIME
The light flickered back about thirty seconds after the blast. “There you are,” said Kracht, running to embrace Emma.
“Kracht,” breathed Emma, weakly. “Is the light back? I can’t… Kracht, can you see me?”
The mineral waved his hand in front of Emma’s eyes. She didn’t respond. “No,” whispered Kracht. “No, no, Emma, honey, I’m sorry. The lights are on. You’re just blind, is all.”
Emma didn’t say anything to that. She just smiled, that way she always smiles.
“In the name of the silver and the beige!” came the voice over the loudspeaker. “Come out and accept your fate, rock! I wield the silver sword!”
“Shit,” said Kracht. “The silver sword. Like beating me to death with my own mother.”
“Mommy’s here?” asked Emma. “My mommy works for the newspaper.”
“Release the girl, Kracht!” came that voice again. “You know what your alien radiation is doing to her!”
“I know, sweetie,” said Kracht, kissing Emma on the forehead. “But stay with me. That sword was forged from the silver anvil that I was forged on in my first battle, okay? It’s stronger than I am.” The rock shuddered, making a sound like a little earth quake. “And Sir Cedric, the man holding the sword, he’s stronger than I am too.”
“You’re stronger than anyone I ever knew, Kracht.” Emma touched Kracht’s hand, gently. “Tell me a story.”
“Hang on.” Kracht stood up to replace the barricade to the door, which had been knocked around a bit in the explosion. “What story do you want to hear, Emma?”
He turned to look at her, staring off into space. Even at twenty-five years old, she still looked so infantile sometimes. It was his fault, of course. His presence was undoing what constant time manipulation had wrought, reverting her to the child she’d been when she’d entered her first battle. The irony of the matter was as crude and unpleasant as stone.
“Tell me the story of the rock that became a man,” she said, finally. She sounded so earnest it almost cracked him in half.
Kracht sat down next to Emma and held her hand. There was a distant sound of marching.
“Once upon a time…” Kracht started.
Once upon a time there was a little green rock from outer space. The rock was floating in outer space forever, knowing that it would never die, and hoping that it would crash into some planet where it wouldn’t have to be so lonely.
One day a bad man named the Observer found the little green rock. He put the little green rock in a battle with seven other things—people, mostly—and told them they would all have to fight to get out.
One of the fighters was a very hardworking old man with a white beard who made weapons. He found the little green rock first, and while the other people were out fighting, he took his hammer and his anvil and turned the little green rock into the most beautiful, perfect green sword the world had never seen.
Not to brag or anything.
Now, the hardworking old man with the white beard knew that he had made the best weapon he would ever make, and he felt completed in his life, and didn’t want to fight anymore. But he didn’t want his most perfect weapon ever made to go to waste. Luckily for him, one of the other fighters was a princess—a warrior woman—who loved swords. At first the princess didn’t want to take the sword, because she hated the color green, but the hardworking old man with the white beard showed her how sharp it was and she agreed to use the sword in the fight. And knowing his sword was in capable hands, the hardworking old man went to his death fulfilled.
Now, this princess had many magic powers, and one of them was that she could talk to swords. So the princess told the green sword all about the world she came from, where there were all manner of things (most of which weren’t people) and everything was purple and a sword could live happily killing dragons forever and ever. And in return the sword told the princess all about what it was like being a rock floating in the emptiness of space for all eternity. He had a lot to say about that, as it turned out, and had just been waiting for a friend to whom he could say it.
The princess and the sword fought a lot of monsters together, but the worst of them were two of the other fighters in the battle with them. One was a great beige monster from a world where everything has more sides than it ought to, and the monster hated everything that wasn’t people. The beige monster enslaved a ghost who liked to play games to do its bidding, and long after the beige monster died, the ghost had lost its mind and become the worst enemy of the princess and the sword.
In the last round of the fight, just as the ghost landed its killing blow on the princess, the princess sent the sword right through the ghost’s heart, killing them both at the same time. This meant that even though the princess had done all the work, the sword had won the battle, and was allowed to turn back into a little green rock and continue its existence floating through space.
The little green rock, now that it had known what it was to have a friend, was even lonelier than it had been before. However, not long after it had won the battle, it finally crashed into a planet just like it had always hoped it would. This planet was called Earth—the planet you’re from—and like all the planets after what happened in the last battle, there wasn’t anything except people on it anymore, led by the wicked Silver Man.
Some of these people wanted there to be other things than humans again, so when they found the rock, they made it into a shape like a man where it could move around and talk. And they called the rock-man “Kracht,” and hid him from the Silver Man and his people-police.
Kracht spent many years learning all about the world, which was difficult, as the Silver Man had burnt all the books about animals and magical creatures and all the wonderful things that used to live in the world. Still, he learned, and the more he learned, the sadder he became about all the things he had failed to save in his battle, back when he was a sword.
It was after this period of learning and constant hiding that he was drawn into yet another battle, and another, and these were fraught with peril, for nearly all of his opponents were allies of the Silver Man and wanted Kracht dead. All except one, a beautiful girl named Emma who could control time and space and all kinds of things. Emma took pity on Kracht and the two of them went on the run from the wicked Sir Cedric, who viewed Kracht as a fighter. And they, um… they kept running until… um…
Kracht felt a sudden envy for people who were physiologically capable of crying. It would have given him an excuse to stop talking.
“Kracht,” said Emma. There was a trace of a wheeze in her voice. “You forgot the end part.”
“What end part?” snapped Kracht. “The part where your decision to take pity on me landed you with fatal radiation poisoning? And the last thing you witness on this Earth is going to be Sir Cedric barging through that door and impaling me with the silver sword? Do you want me to say it?”
Emma smiled and shook her head. “The happy ending. The one where you fix everything.”
Kracht punched the floor angrily. “Emma, stop this. I knew a girl who lived in a fairyland, once. She died for it, and it still burned like everything burned.”
The door burst open. In stepped Sir Cedric, resplendent and suitably menacing in his perpetually-flaming Godbeard. In one hand he still held that goddamn megaphone, and in the other the silver blade glistened like a gloating death’s head.
Kracht’s only response was to hold Emma tightly, not sure whether he was protecting her or expecting protection for himself.
“Kracht,” growled Sir Cedric, leveling his sword. “It’s the end of the line and the end of the round. You and I are going to settle this.”
“No,” said Emma, plainly.
Sir Cedric seemed to agree to this. He froze in place; even the light shimmering on his blade held still.
Kracht turned towards Emma in disbelief. Her nose was bleeding. Her tear ducts seemed to be bleeding as well. “Did he stop?” she asked Kracht. “I can’t see.”
Kracht nodded, realized she couldn’t see him nodding, and stopped. “Yeah, honey,” he stammered. “Yeah, you did it. Don’t… you don’t need to exert yourself like that, okay?”
Emma laughed. Her gums were bleeding, staining her teeth. Kracht sought the words to express how badly he wanted her to stop bleeding, and failed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “This is the part where you fix everything. From the beginning.”
She raised one hand (she was bleeding under all her fingernails) and suddenly Kracht felt everything turning upside-down in four directions at once. “We can do this, Kracht,” he heard her saying. “We’re all-stars, remember?” And then everything went black.
And within that blackness were thousands of tiny points of white. Everything was starting to look existentially familiar.
Kracht looked at his hand. He was still there—he was still shaped the way the humans had made him.
Something bumped into Kracht’s side. It was a green rock, floating forever through space. It didn’t look familiar, but he recognized it anyway.
Kracht reckoned he’d be better suited to appreciating the surreality of the situation if everything he’d ever known hadn’t been ripped away into a now-uncertain future. Instead, he felt depressed.
He also felt a telltale tingle on the back of his neck like a hole being opened up in nothingness. When you’ve been through enough round transitions, you can tell the warning signs. Praying he wasn’t too late, he kicked the rock out of the way and—
"GGGGGENTLEMEN AND LADIES, ARE YOU READY FOR THE SECOND SEASON OF THE OTAKU MELEE TO BEGIN?"
Kracht sighed in relief. There was a scent of purple and magic in the air, like an old friend saying hi.
So the bad news was, he’d have to go through it all again. Bad times and good times alike (mostly bad). The good news is, he had advantages. He knew how things might turn out. And best of all, this time he wasn’t a rock.
He tried not to think about whether the girl he’d gone back to fix even properly existed anymore. No use dwelling.
That back-of-the-neck feeling came again and Kracht found himself up on the stage. ”This is the Kracht!” announced the Observer. ”I know what you’re thinking, folks. ‘This is just a rock! What can it possibly—‘ Wait. Hang on, what—shit. This is the Kracht. It looks like he’s been sent back in time to, aheh, to catch us all with our pants down, just a little bit. I’d, uh… watch out for him. He’s looking like the favored constestant from where I’m standing.”
The spotlight shut off, but Kracht retained the feeling that all eyes were on him. He had scared the Observer. This was going to be easier than he thought.
He would fix everything.
ACT TWO: RETURN OF THE QUEEN
Jen craned her neck up off the ground, feeling large and clunky. She looked hideous.
Well, that wasn’t entirely fair. Aside from an outer layer of crunchy tendrily bits, she was starting to look mostly like Maxwell, who pulled the unshaven loner look to some effect, if not entirely to Jen’s tastes. A tentacle was lazily sliding its way back into her torso, which was becoming more feminine at roughly the rate that a rock smoothes out in a still pond. She felt around for the itchy part of her brain where Fantha had built her nest, and nudged it. “Taking our time, aren’t we?” she asked.
Hey, this isn’t as easy as it looks. This hunk of meat has been changing up so much it’s starting to sag on a molecular level. Plus, jettisoning Sikarius took a bit of a psychic strain, even with all the magic floating about.
”Jettisoning—shit. Hungry man’s going to end up in control of the giant man-eating dragon-spitting city that’s already fucked everything up in this ocean, isn’t he?” Jen tried wiggling her toe, and a fanged mouth on her ankle screamed like a man.
Don’t knock it, sassed Fantha. He’s bringing glory to our species. He’s one of the greatest that ever was, really.
”You really need to get your priorities straight.” Jen meant to say it telepathically, but ended up saying it out loud. It sounded squelchy.
Oh, look who’s talking. Jen, you believe in altruism. A philosophical dead end and a waste of time if ever there was one. Now. While I’m rebuilding you, want any improvements made? I could bring you up a cup size or give you the wings of an angel without much added difficulty.
Jen felt her hair growing back. It was an odd sensation, as she reflected it ought not to be, because her hair was growing all the time anyway. “I’ll pass,” she concluded, after a moment’s thought. “Jen 1.0 is the only hardware I know how to use properly. Besides, you don’t want your parasitic buddy-cop to also be your genetic level plastic-surgeon. That’s like having a dentist who is also your masseuse and babysits your kids, it’s just confusing for everyone. I give you leave to dress me up, though. Something practical, but cute. And green, obviously.”
Fantha retreated a ways back inside Jen’s shoulder, as though in shame. About that, she said. I’m having some issues with the pigmentation. All the green is being diverted.
”Diverted. To wh—oh.” Jen looked outwards, content to see that her toes were more or less toes again. Beyond her toes, however, was Kath, draped in a shimmering, hissing green gown. And in front of Kath was Kracht.
The (bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch usurping bitch) mermaid touched the rock lightly on his chest, and Kracht began to scream. At the same time, the mineral began to grow, and also to become more… ornate.
Jen felt herself enough ro rise to her feet. Bits of not-her fell off like swollen ticks. She felt around for a sword and found she didn’t have one, so she raised her fists awkwardly.
“Alright,” she said aloud, looking from Kath to Xadrez and back again. “Whose ass do I kick first?”
ACT THREE: KRACHT HAS NEVER SEEN “GROUNDHOG DAY”
Things were going swimmingly.
Well maybe that was an exaggeration. Jen, Arkal, and Maxwell were all dead, yet again. The battles went on, pointlessly as ever. Emma Broderburg seemed no longer to exist. And the greatest threat to the hegemony of the Grandmasters was perhaps the last person Kracht would ever want in charge of anything. Still, he’d put a kibosh on the whole human supremacy thing easily enough—there was just one last supreme human to take care of.
”Join me,” shouted the Criminal, his voice booming in accordance with his freshly-tailored omnipotence. ”And I will spare my life and make you my Crimineral, first among my Gentlemen! Together we shall form a new set of Battles—true Battles of wit and skill, broadcast for an audience of a trillion demographics!”
Kracht had difficulty responding to this, partly because it was so fucking stupid, and more so because he was restrained from moving by the Criminal’s unshakable telekinetic grip.
The Criminal seemed to have realized this. ”You may speak,” he decreed, and Kracht found that it was so.
“I’m not joining you,” said Kracht. “But I do have something for you.” Finding that he could move his arm (infinite is the generosity of the Criminal), Kracht opened a door that didn’t exist and pulled out a dish of cured salmon. He offered it to the Criminal. “Lox?”
The Criminal looked at the fish platter as though appreciating how nonsensical this plan was. ”The lox, though seemingly scrumptious, is obviously a trap,” he conceded. ”However! Having divined the secrets of no fewer than five grandmasters, I am surely immune to whatever poison you may have concocted. …Still, I see no reason to play your game.”
Kracht, knowing better than to interrupt, simply stood and tried to make the lox look as delicious as possible.
”I shall eat your lox,” said the Criminal. ”If you can best me in a small contest! The situation is thus: I’ve tired of the Grandmaster name ‘the Criminal.’ It’s bland, it doesn’t suit me, and if you are to truly become my Crimineral, that would seem a bit redundant. The two of us shall brainstorm new names for me. If I come up with a name that satisfies me before you, you are forever my slave and my bitch, and I shall do with you as I please. If you are the one to name me, I shall sample your delicious-smelling seafood dish. Do you agree to these terms? No matter! We shall begin at once! Name for me a name!”
”The Mastermind,” offered Kracht.
”The Miscreant!” countered the Criminal.
”Keep ‘em coming, Kracht!” yelled the Criminal, inappropriately loudly. ”I think we’re really getting somewhere!”
Kracht was never good in these 'seems like a game but of course it’s deadly serious’ situations. ”Um… the DJ?”
Something clicked in Kracht’s mind. He smiled triumphantly. “The Scofflaw.”
The Scofflaw considered this for a moment, then realized he was considering it as the Scofflaw, not as the Criminal. ”The throwback... it’s so powerful! …Very well. Give me the lox.”
Kracht handed over the fish. The Scofflaw produced a fork and knife made of the most brilliant diamonds, and wolfed it all down rather gracelessly. He gave a triumphant belch. ”Ha! That was delicious and I don’t feel a thing! Your gambit has failed, Crimineral.”
It was at this point that the Scofflaw realized that Kracht was moving his legs. He attempted to dispel his dishes and restrain his foe, but rather simply managed to drop the plate on his foot and make a futile dramatic gesture with his arms. ”Confound it!” he blustered. ”What did you do?”
”Sorry, Scofflaw. It ‘lox’ away your powers. Carnea was very proud of the pun.”
As Kracht approached Scofflaw to knock him out with a single punch to the jaw (Scofflaw’s jaw seemed to be a direct conduit to his sleep synapses), the world stopped. A familiar face, bleeding from all ends, came into his mind behind his eyes. ”We can do this, Kracht,” it said. “We’re all-stars, remember?”
And then he was in space again, floating endlessly next to a green rock.
As he felt himself being drawn into the Observer’s battle for yet a third time, he tried to count the weeks of fighting in both the first and second iteration of All-Stars, and came to an uneasy conclusion. Emma had messed up, or else overshot the mark; whatever she’d done with her dying breath had stuck him in a permanent cycle. Having saved the universe once, Kracht would have to do it again, and again, and again.
Until he died.
ACT 4: THE VERY MODEL OF A MODERN MAJOR-GENERAL
Xadrez felt like a bell, only instead of making sounds he rang smug satisfaction. It was the only emotion he really knew, except perhaps for smug dissatisfaction, and his body seemed acoustically shaped for it. Watching Jen gradually morph into her old self, in accordance with her own wishes and against his better judgment, sent a chime vibrating through him.
It dispelled when the former queen shoved her figurine in the breast pocket of her new outfit—a shimmery red number that perpetually looked like it had been worn the previous night in a dance club—and made a rather emphatic declaration of ill intent towards the spirit. Xadrez narrowed his eye-parts, puffed up his chest-parts and floated over to her.
To what do I owe the pleasure of your ceaseless nagging, my former lady
I seem to recall having just not only saving your life, but recovering it from the other side of saving
Expending in the process the lion’s share of what autonomy I have left
Jen rolled her eyes. ”Jesus, Xadrez, you fucking negotiated with my fucking usurper just to bring me back to life, and that after trying to convince my body to let me die so you could get both me and Kracht out of the way and get this battle done with. There were so many ways to get me back in my body, for fuck’s sake! I just thought of another one right now!”
”I don’t know, I could get all the children to clap and say they believe in me.”
Xadrez made a dismissive gesture. There’s no time for jokes, Jen
Jen stuck her tongue out. ”The magical logic is sound,” she insisted. ”I don’t joke about this stuff.”
Forgive me for my flight of rationality, sighed Xadrez
I forget how much of a crutch it can be in this world of yours
The girl and the tactician paused their spat to look over at Kath, entranced in the process of transforming Kracht. The rock, his neck having disappeared into a stone doorframe, turned his gaze as best he could back at Jen. ”Good to see you back, Jen,” he said, cracking a smile. ”I’d… fallen into this pattern of seeing you dead. After a while I thought it had stopped hurting seeing everyone die but… it’s good to see you moving on to the fourth round again. Do you… do you think you can survive this thing?”
”Of course, Kracht,” said Jen, a tear on her cheek. ”That was never the question.”
”Attagirl,” said Kracht. His voice was beginning to weaken as his lungs spread out and flatten inside of him. ”Looks like it’s not going to be me this time. Not to pick favorites, but I guess it ought to be you. No offense, Arkal.”
”None taken,” said Arkal, absentmindedly dissembling Weo’s old scythe over the pirate captain’s dead body. ”Or maybe a bit.”
Xadrez bristled at his blatant exclusion, but had no means to talk to the rock. Instead he took it out on Jen. Shouldn’t you be going to save him? he shot at her.
Jen shuddered. Fantha gave her an affectionate pat on the head. ”Yeah, sorry,” said the former queen. ”I’ve been putting it off because… I’m already pretty sure what’s going to happen.”
”Are we going to rescue the rock?” inquired Arkal. The old man groaned and snapped the scythe’s head back onto its base. ”I suppose you wouldn’t be alone. It’s an undignified way to die, being opened and walked through. Besides, I want to try out the features on this thing.”
Before Jen could properly counsel him against it, Arkal touched the scythe in a precise spot, shooting a burst of intense heat straight at the mermaid. Then something green happened, and Arkal was on the ground.
That set Jen off. ”You bitch!” she shrieked, walking over to the shipwreck and grabbing a floppy-looking cutlass off the ground. She pressed the flat of the blade against her cheek, as though embracing it, and after that tender display defaulted to her murderous rage. ”I am going to cut out your overexposed clitoris and feed it to the Ovoid,” she shouted, ignoring Kath’s unresponsiveness.
As Jen charged to her inevitable demise (you’d think she’d learn better so soon after dying twice in a row), Xadrez simply said, Stop
And she stopped. Very completely.
Jen turned towards Xadrez in fear. ”What… what did you just do? Xadrez?”
Xadrez shrugged his neck. I honestly wasn’t certain that would work
But no, it seems your body is rather wired to the ramifications of magical oaths
Or need I remind you that your life was a gift from the new queen to me
Jen trembled, realizing what had transpired. ”I… belong to you?”
Until you repay the debt with another life, be it my own or otherwise
An unfortunate consequence of my heroic actions on your behalf, yes, but I doubt it’ll have any adverse affect on our relationship
It’s not as if you have a reputation for rebelling against authority
The feeling of self-satisfaction came around again like a bell ringing in the hour. Or was it just a doorbell…
Feeling a prickling at the back of his neck, Xadrez turned away from Jen once again. Kracht seemed to have completed his metamorphosis, and looked rather ridiculous as a door with a humanoid head sticking out the top. Kath, heedless of the various attempts on her life around her, grabbed the doorknob and opened him…
ACT 5: A RIFF IN TIME
There seemed to be something a bit perverse about the way Converse’s metallic arm plucked the strings of his electric guitar—it was all mechanical, like a calliope. Still, Kracht had to admit, there was a lot of life to his music.
He had, by his count, five minutes left before the loop took him back again. The mineral’s future was in the hands of Converse Xodapop, Time Shredder, and that was not a comforting notion. The former time cop was eminently qualified to solve Kracht’s problem, but the “muse” he was bonded to—more or less an entity of pure chaos—wasn’t quite as trustworthy.
”Sorry, Kracht babe,” sighed Converse after a particularly riveting 4-D guitar solo. ”My flow won’t jive to the frequency of this time wall you keep hitting up against. Looks like your record’s gonna keep on turning.” Converse adjusted his sunglasses. It was night.
“Damn,” said Kracht. “I can’t keep going back and saving the universe again forever, Converse. What if I slip up?”
Converse put on his most serious face, which was recognizable only by a slight furrowing of his shades and a twitch in his handlebar moustache. ”Yeah, well, see, I’ve been thinking about that. That chick that put you in this temporal stranglehold really did a number on the timestream.”
”It was an accident. She was dying.”
Quantos struck a frustrated chord. ”Yeah, well, it had better have been an accident. Frankly, Kracht babe, I’ve half a mind to follow your flow back to that moment and shoot the chick before she can put the mojo on you and launch us all into Paradox City.”
”Don’t,” said Kracht. “That timeline was a hellhole. That can’t be the solution.”
Converse groaned. ”Yeah, yeah, I can dig it. But hear me out, daddy-0, something’s got to get done about these chronological remixes you’re dropping. Look. You go back and everything gets rewritten but you. You remain constant, despite the fact that you should be knocking yourself out of your own history every time you hit rewind. And now you got the memories of a bunch o’ histories that never actually happened, you dig? That shit’s a paradox, and paradoxes are not my groove, yo, they are bona-fide discordant. Now your Emma chick’s temporal voodoo has been doing a good job of buffing out the scratches on the vinyl, so we can rock to it for the time being—haha, time being, that’s a joke, Mr. Mineral, little occupational humor, can you dig it?” Kracht could not dig it. ”A’ight, a’ight. Now, like I’m saying, this loop-de-doop is sustainable while you’re around clinching it and lynchpinning it, pardon my parlance, but if you slip up and someone sends you to the big rock quarry in the sky, well then, the bigger half of existence as we know and love it is going the way of the Dodo and the Gordian Knot, if you catch my coattails.”
Kracht considered this while Converse caught his breath from the run-on sentence. “I guess I just won’t mess up,” he concluded.
”Better men than you have made such promises, my friend,” laughed the Time Shredder, slinging his guitar over his back. ”Don’t sweat it, my main man, other solutions present themselves. Now, listen, I’m gonna take a trip, surf the wave of your kooky causality, see if I can’t find the point where you jump ship. Now, either you end up breaking through the time wall and having yourself a nice ol’ future—in which case, everything’s peachy like mango—or, more regrettably, I find the iteration where you bite the big one, in which case I just do the legwork and stitch that time loop into a stable-ass mobius strip, turn it into a fully-functioning timeline. Sound like a plan, Stan?”
Kracht wasn’t entirely happy with the idea of Converse messing around in his future, but he didn’t want existence to be erased on his count, either. “Alright, do it. We’ll need a power source for you to time travel, right?”
”Ha!” Converse unsheathed his axe and hit a few chords. ”Baby, I’m half past way too convolutionary for the jigawatt tango. The only power I need… IS THE POWER OF ROCK AND ROLL!”
And Converse Xodapop began to shred. It was the most beautifully metal thing that Kracht had ever heard, in all the iterations of his life.
Purple lightning began to flash around the time ex-cop’s fingertips. ”Hang tight, Kracht the Rock that Rocked, I’ll be back before you can say ‘instantaneity.’”
He disappeared in a flash of violet pyrotechnics. At the same moment, he was standing behind Kracht. ”Something in your ear, daddy-0,” he chuckled, reaching for the side of Kracht’s head.
“What did you find out?” Kracht asked. “What happens? Do I die?” But he was already hearing Emma’s voice echoing in his head. The last thing he saw before he was pulled back to the past was Quantos pulling his hand out of his ear and revealing a shiny new quarter.
It didn’t hurt.
The transformation itself hurt. Quite a bit, in fact. Being a mineral, Kracht didn’t really perceive pain the way most people did, but he was willing to bet that human-style pain felt a lot like turning into a door, only less intense.
Being opened up, though… it just felt hollow. He felt cold and empty, like an old wardrobe, which was quite a shock given that he’d felt like a solid chunk of rock for the entirety of his very long life.
He looked down at Kath, who was looking through him pensively. He wondered what she was seeing. Green fields, perhaps.
The mermaid moved to step through… and stopped. A green effect like a strobe light signified something very strong punching through Kath’s magic defenses and curling around her in serpentine tendrils of beige. Kath screamed, the first sound she had made since beginning to construct the door, and struggled with the Ovoid as its material snaked its way up Kracht’s frame and up to his head.
A tan tentacle wrapped around Kracht’s skull. Contact was made. The entire world began to look like a Cubist painting, all angles and diagrams and directions that ought not to exist. Above all, there was a presence… an insistence… something both more and less than a voice in his head. It sounded confident. It wanted to know what was going to happen next.
“Give me five minutes,” Kracht said out loud. “Five minutes to talk to the others. Then I’ll tell you.” The tendril tightened around his head. Kracht felt himself softening, beginning to splinter. “You can’t threaten me,” he reminded the anomaly. “This is the end for me anyway. Give me five minutes.”
The tan receded, and refocused on Kath, encasing her entirely in a bubble that had a worrying tinge of green in it. Kracht felt her influence recede, but the empty feeling remained.
Jen tried to run Kracht’s way, but was blocked by a piece of Ovoid that threw her back. “Jen,” said Kracht, his voice beginning to crack. “Don’t worry about me. There are bigger things at stake. Arkal, and Xadrez, I suppose, you need to hear this too.”
”I’m listening,” said Arkal, softly. Jen picked herself up and nodded, saying nothing.
Kracht tried to clear his throat, which only served as a reminder that he no longer had a throat. He began to speak anyway. “Xadrez has already been contacted by a man named Reinhardt. He’s purportedly leading a revolt against the grandmasters of the various battles, and he’s trying to recruit as many contestants as possible. He might be dead already, or soon, I don’t know—time always gets a bit scratchy in the space between battles—but his ideals live on, and most of them aren’t honest or noble.”
The Ovoid bubble encapsulating Kath was beginning to go green and ripple, like a nauseous cartoon character. “The name of the game is humanity,” Kracht continued, wondering if he wasn’t being a little overdramatic. “Reinhardt and his allies want us all made in God’s image. An eye for every arm and an opposable thumb for every lung. They want us perpetuating the norm, working nine-to-five, getting married two by two and occupying every corner of the universe with no surprises in the middle. These people… I don’t know, they look at the world and all the beautiful crazy things—mermaids and giraffes and aliens and ideas—they just look at all these things that are alive and being themselves and all they can think of is ‘Why is this here? How can we get this out of the way?’ I’ve never understood it, but then again, I’m a rock.
“My job for the last—for a very long, non-linear time—my job has been to stop them from getting what they want. But of course I never could, because every time I’d just go back and my going back would undo it all. Jen, Arkal, maybe without me you two can give us a victory that lasts. I’m sorry I couldn’t be with you to see it. Oh, and hey, if you ever see Emma Broderburg, tell her—Aaaargh!”
The Ovoid coated over him like a syrup, impatiently, as Kath cut her way out of her 4-D prison, screaming about how no one was going to stop her from getting what was hers by right. Kracht could barely hear it. All his senses were dimming now, except for that intrusive sense of something wanting to know what was going to happen next.
The insistence was rhythmic. The Ovoid wanted to know what was going to happen next. It wanted to know what was going to happen next. It wanted to know what was going to happen next.
Kracht could barely manage a whisper. “I… don’t know,” he said. It was the truth. He’d lost all sense of things. “I don’t know,” he repeated. It was true. He had no idea. It was funny, really. He didn’t have the foggiest idea what was going to happen next. Probably he would die. Maybe he would just start laughing.
It was the second one. Kracht laughed, a powerful laugh that shook the doorframe like an earthquake, prompting Kath to disentangle herself from the last strips of beige clinging to her and jump through him.
The hollowness Kracht felt was filled up both by his laughter and by the buzzing of the dragonlets that followed her through the door. The rock found all this hilarious—the numbness of the magic draining out of him and the pain of the Ovoid angrily tightening its tendrils on him until he cracked in a dozen places.
The door slammed like a punchline, and with a sound like laughter, Kracht crumbled into so much chartreuse dust.
EPILOGUE ALPHA: MINDFUCKS APLENTY
Converse Xodapop took a detour in his journey through his bro Kracht’s lifetimes, and wound up in a place that can only be described as a “domain.”
The entity sitting there observed his entrance and tried not to appear spooked. “Yo, Obby!” shouted Converse by way of greeting. “My most observant servant! How’s grandmastery on this fine timeline?”
The Observer did his best to seem very not-amused. ”The Observer is nobody’s servant,” he snarled in his best Alan Rickman impression. ”What are you doing here, little time traveler?”
”Oh, you know, not belonging. I’m from a history that’s just gotten rewritten, this whole multiverse has a big ‘no loitering’ sign up with my name on it.” The observer raised one cosmic eyebrow. “Don’t worry, I’m checking out and fading away soon. Have you seen the version of me they got going on in this timeline? Total narc, am I right? Alright, but I can see you’re a to-the-point kinda guy. Minimalist. I’ll give the rhyme sheet Philip Glass for you, then. I’m here about Kracht.”
”Are you going to tell me how to run my battle?” asked the Observer, flourishing appropriately. ”That would be... badass. But unwise.”
”On the contrary, my Grandbrother!” assured Converse. “I’m a big fan of your work! I’ve been reading through all the memories I’ve pulled from Kracht’s head, and let me just say, they are absolutely just the tops. Riveting stuff. Now, I know you’re setting up Kracht to win all the time, but—“
”Am not! The battle's fair. It's been calibrated and such. Hell, Keleth might have won.”
”Yeeeeah, well, the stats say otherwise. As a matter of fact, if Kracht keeps up this winning streak, the damage to the timestream is gonna go all irreversamundo!” Converse cracked a smile that would have frightened children, had any been present. “All I’m saying is, maybe it’s time for you to change things up. Look through the records and find the right place to throw a curveball at him. You know this is the first time my boy Kracht is going to meet a Jen Tull with power over green things?”
The Observer remembered that he had his eyebrow raised, lowered it, and raised his other, which he hoped would be even more formidable. ”I didn’t know that,” he confessed, sulkily. ”I kind of only skimmed over Kracht's memories.”
”Well, maybe you should reconsider that policy,” said the Time Shredder, popping a USB drive out of his arm. “Here, you can have my copy, if you do a favor for me.”
The Observer raised both eyebrows at once, displaying an omniscient inquisitivity that might have shattered a lesser, or more likely a greater mind. ”Oh, come on. Like I don't can't access his memories myself without your help,” he huffed.
“Hey, brother, I’m not asking for anything we don’t all want! All I’m looking for is a little stable time loop action. When Kracht dies, you just take these memories and put a copy of him back at the beginning of the battle, so everything goes hunky-dory and we can all finally get on with the future. Sound good?”
The Observer stubbornly refused to respond.
“Attaboy, my Observish Dervish! I know you got my back.” Converse put the USB drive down on the floor. “Well, my work here is done. I got my ticket out of this existence, and its all-aboard, dig?”
With one final power chord, Converse Xodapop allowed causality to catch up with him, and winked out of history. The Observer, after a quick glance around to make sure nobody was scrying, allowed himself to giggle. That had been a welcome distraction.
EPILOGUE OMEGA: FAIRY TALE ENDING
Kath emerged in a bath of placental fluids and brimstone. She removed herself from that rather disgusting situation, and found herself in a cave. Behind her was a bloated, reeking dragon corpse with her womb cut open; in front of her was a furry four-legged man and an eight-limbed maid wearing an outfit that, despite her limited knowledge of the philosophy of clothes, Kath would be confident in describing as “slutty.”
The baby monsters hovered expectantly, awaiting so much of a gesture from Kath. She decided to let them kill the woman. She personally had had her share of blood for the hour.
The spider-vampire shouted “Deities, we couldn’t stop it! Avenge me,” and then Kath’s new friends made short work of her, starting with the clothes and working inwards to the gooey bits. The centaur bucked, considering making a run for it, and charged at Kath.
Wondering when she became so much faster than anybody else, Kath simply sidestepped and grabbed the horse-man by the hair (when will these landlings learn to shave?) and leapt up onto his back. She spent a moment pondering what it would be like to have sex with this appealingly musculatured chimaera, but his body language and the morningstar he kept fumbling for suggested he wasn’t in a consenting mood. He was also crying. Adorable.
Kath put her sword to the centaur’s neck and managed to convince him to stop. “Whoa there, fella,” she whispered in his ear, feeling his abdomen up and down with her free hand. “No need to confront. I’m your new queen, it would seem.”
The centaur grunted either in anger or in humor. “You fish-smelling cunt, I’ll obey no queen who was born alongside a thousand dragons. That would be stupid.”
Kath rolled her eyes. “Stupider than calling the woman with a sword to your neck a fish-smelling cunt?” She demonstrated the perils associated with having a sword to your neck. “Hardly.”
Kath hopped off the corpse and addressed the dragonlet swarm. “And you,” she told them, feeling haughty. “Don’t think I'm nurturing you until you’re grown. Get proactive. Fly to all corners of this place and start killings. Go on, I’m sure you can handle the separation bends.” The little ones reluctantly took her word and flew off, leaving only a single monster contentedly digging a hole in the woman’s face. “Little shits,” she grumbled.
Kath walked out into the green, feeling sadistic and dangerously post-feminist. The world before her seemed so vibrant and completely realized that she would have to burn it all down before it could become her canvas for something new, which would probably also involve fire.
Fire was something you couldn’t do underwater. Kath was eager to begin experimenting with it.
She walked into the town that lay at the shadow of the cave. She was of two minds: either she should get herself straight to the castle and coronate herself right away, or else she should find a body of water, get a taste for the oceans and rivers of the Place. Either way, there would be plenty of opportunities to rack up infamy on the way. And there’s no such thing as bad publicity, as they say.