Netherworld 2: Back Through the Portals

By Dave Eber

Prologue

Deep within the heart of the Biomass Reprocessing Center, Dr. Ally Matthews activated a com screen. It was the only one she knew was secure. It hummed slowly to life, casting an electric blue glow in the dimly lit room.

"Report, Dr. Matthews." As always, the voice sent a momentary shudder down her spine.

"Everything is proceeding according to schedule. The information you provided was accurate, and the test runs of the prototype conversion drones proved successful. The first wave is now active. Boatman himself will be arriving soon to oversee the implementation of stage one of their deployment."

"Of course. No doubt, he takes credit for the design himself."

"Of course," Dr. Matthews replied, her voice edged with bitterness. "I 'shared' the information with him, as you instructed, and it went from being my idea to 'our' project to 'his' latest triumph, just as you said it would."

"Boatman will never let anyone stand in his limelight. Don't worry, that will not last. You will keep me informed of any further developments."

And with that, the image on the screen blanked out, leaving Dr. Matthews alone in the darkness once again.


The Architects' Plan

After the destruction of the Arcanotower in the modern juncture, BuroMil intelligence set about determining where things had gone wrong with the operation. The report they presented to the military high command indicated that their enemies' ability to strike from the Netherworld was the primary reason that the operation had failed. Furthermore, the report concluded that as long as the Netherworld remained outside of Architect control, all operations outside their home juncture would be vulnerable. Backed by this report, Dr. Curtis Boatman presented his plan to pacify the Netherworld using his new Conversion Drones. Based on cutting-edge arcanowave technology, Boatman's plan was to release them into the Netherworld, where they would hunt down its dis-timed inhabitants and transform them into abominations. Eventually, according to Boatman, the populace of the Netherworld would either surrender willingly, or be wiped out.

However, Boatman knew the Architects had enemies in the Netherworld who would step in to stop them. Foremost among them were the Four Monarchs, the self-styled rulers of the so-called "Inner Kingdom". Although individually weak and perpetually squabbling, Boatman knew they would unite to stop him once they got wind of the plan. The Eaters of the Lotus, strong in magic, also laid claim to part of the Netherworld, and would certainly defend their territory. Even the anarchic Jammers were strong in the Netherworld, and they were certain to try and disrupt things. Boatman knew that if the plan were to succeed, he would have to neutralize these threats, and so he set about turning his enemies against each other.

The Architects began with the King of the Thunder Pagoda. They had already been courting him for some time, and now they moved to cement their alliance. They proposed that the Thunder King join forces with them to vanquish his siblings once and for all. Huan Ken would gain sovereignty over the Netherworld, and, in turn, he would grant the Buro free access to all the Netherworld portals. The plan called for the Thunder King to provide the manpower for the attack, while the Architects would supply his armies with high-tech weaponry and back them up with abomination units. They also promised that the Buro would keep the Queen of the Darkness Pagoda out of the fray. Divided, the Thunder King's siblings would be no match for his strength and the Architects' superior firepower. Huan Ken agreed to the plan, and the Buro began secretly shipping him the weapons for the upcoming offensive. Yet, even as the Architects were plotting with the Thunder King, they were also conspiring with his sister as well.


"Some wine?"

"No. Thank you." Dr. Curtis Boatman regarded Ming I as she reclined on a divan before him. She was undeniably regal, yet feral, barbaric, and profoundly evil. She was beautiful, but hard and cruel, and her obsidian-black arm seemed to radiate darkness from within. He idly wondered what it would be like to possess her.

"So, Dr. Boatman. What is this proposal you have for me?"

"You have a relationship of sorts with Gao Zhang, yes? I'd like you to help broker an alliance between the Lotus, myself, and . . . you."

The edge of Ming I's lip curled upward slightly, almost smiling. "And to what end do you propose this alliance?"

"The destruction of a common enemy: the rabble who call themselves the Jammers. I've heard that Gao Zhang hates them even more than we do, and that you bear them no love yourself."

"You've heard this, have you?" her lip curled upward even more. "It's true, it would please me to see the fools destroyed, and Gao Zhang is . . . somewhat more emotional about this issue, but the Jammers hate you more than they do anyone else. Why should I convince Zhang to ally with you, much less do so myself?"

"Mutual benefit. While they are a thorn in our side, their actions hurt us all. As much as I loathe to admit it, we can't eradicate them ourselves. They're too well entrenched here, and the effort it would take to uproot them would leave us vulnerable to our enemies. We all face the same problem. If one of us makes a move, we leave ourselves open. But if we join forces, we can stamp them out once and for all without exposing ourselves."

"All very well and good, Doctor, but it still doesn't explain why I should go out of my way to help you out. As you say, an undertaking like this would leave any one of us vulnerable. However, you can always go home again. This is my home, for now. Where will you be when my enemies decide to turn on me?"

This time it was Boatman who smiled. "I am not unaware of your situation. In fact, one of the reasons I came today was to inform you that your brother, the King of the Thunder Pagoda, is planning a major offensive very soon. He intends to conquer the Netherworld."

"Of course he does," Ming I sneered. "And how do you know about his latest plans?"

"Oh, we're going to be backing him this time," Boatman replied airily.

Ming I's smile vanished. "What game are you playing, Doctor?"

"No game, your highness. You needn't worry about your brother. In fact, I came to advise you not to get involved once the fighting starts. Let him hurl himself against your siblings. We're giving him just enough rope to hang himself with. He'll burn out soon enough, but not before taking your brother and sister with him. And once that's done, well, you'll be in a very interesting position, won't you? And you know that we always remember our friends."

Ming I's smile returned, catlike and cold. "Very interesting indeed, Doctor. You intrigue me. Tell me more."

"My pleasure, your highness. My pleasure."


Boatman presented a plan in which the Architects would hit the Genocide Lounge while the combined forces of the Lotus and the Darkness Queen would assault the Monkey House. Yet, even as Boatman forged the alliance, he was already planning to betray his allies as well. Boatman made sure that the Lotus heard rumors that the Darkness Queen was planning to betray them. Meanwhile, the Architects were planning a surprise of their own. They had engineered a special unit of abominations with so little visible arcanotech that they looked just like the demons from which they had been created. The Architects planned to hold these abominations in reserve until the Lotus and the Darkness Queen had finished their destruction of the Monkey House, and then unleash them on Ming I's forces. If everything went according to plan, the Darkness Queen would believe that the Lotus had betrayed her, and so she would turn against them. In turn, the Lotus would then believe that Ming I had betrayed them and would thus turn on her in kind. Meanwhile the Architects, having confined their forces to the Genocide Lounge, would be left out of the fray.


Kill Dr. Boatman

Hidden within the ranks of the CDCA lurked a conspiracy known as the Purists, a Lotus-backed cabal of scientists-turned-sorcerers who sought to replace arcanotechnology with their own brand of paradox magic. The Purists saw Boatman as their foremost enemy, and, with his arrival in the Netherworld, they saw their best opportunity yet to destroy him. They created the Paradox Beast, a creature of sorcery that they intended to use to assassinate Boatman. However, they knew that he would be too well protected to fall to a direct attack. The Purists needed a distraction before they could put their plan into action, and so they sent a message to their allies in the Lotus warning them about the impending Architect treachery, and asking them for help.


"I understand you've been debriefed the communiqué we intercepted."

"Yes." Mr. Red replied, his face impassive. He regarded the woman sitting opposite him in a private conference room deep within the Hub. Her skin was alabaster, her hair raven black, and her lips blood red. She was dressed in what was technically a business suit, but which on her was more like a second skin. She reminded Mr. Red of a vampire - a vampire from the movies anyway - and it was pretty much what he thought of her too.

"As I indicated, time is of the essence in this matter. This cabal is expecting a reply from their contacts among the eunuchs shortly. Do you have a proposition?"

| Mr. Red shook a cigarette out from his case, then lit it and took a long drag with a studied casualness. "As you know, intelligence reports indicate that the King of the Thunder Pagoda is planning a major offensive with Architect assistance. The message you intercepted from these conspirators also indicates that the Architects will also be busy staging an attack on the Jammers with the Lotus and the Darkness Queen's forces. This is a unique opportunity. Not only will most of the major players in the Netherworld be busy fighting each other, but the Architect's base will be undermanned as a result. What's more, Boatman himself will be there. I suggest that we forge a response to this cabal, telling them to wait for an attack on the Biomass Reprocessing Center. We tell them that, when the attack comes, they are to sabotage the defenses. That should keep everyone busy, and thus distracted."

"And who will you get to launch this attack?"

"We'll get the Hand to do it. They despise the Architects as much as you do. They'll jump at an opportunity like this. Have your agents make sure that they get wind of what's going on. A few words in the right places, and they'll do the job for us."

The woman across from Mr. Red leaned forward slightly in her chair, her eyes a pair of inky pools set in ivory. "It's a risky plan. Bold, but risky. Are you confident it will work?

"I am."

"Very well. A lot is riding on this, Mr. Red. Don't fail me." The woman leaned back in her chair. "Are you sure the Hand alone will enough?"

Mr. Red furrowed his brow. "No, actually, they may not be. But I have an idea on who we can get to help them..."


A Gathering of Heroes

There were only a few seconds of warning before the first bombs fell. It came in the form of a sound of a million angry hornets, speeding out of one of the dark tunnels of the Netherworld straight for the cluster of thunder knights and their slaves. The buzzing grew louder as it approached the cavern, and the armored warriors suddenly found themselves facing a riderless rocket bike. Then the bombs began to fall, not from the bike, but from the hill behind the knights. Tiny, homemade incendiaries exploded with a flash and a bang, spewing forth black smoke that plunged the thunder knights into darkness and confusion. Even as the bombs fell, the bike disappeared into the smoke. Then it suddenly appeared in their midst like a screaming phantom, this time bearing a black-cloaked rider who cut a swath through the hapless warriors. The slaves dropped their loads and fled as the attacker tore through the knights like a scythe through a field of wheat. As the smoke cleared, their leader, notable for his unusual Roman-style armor, caught a glimpse of the cloaked figure as it sped toward him, and his eyes widened as he realized whom he faced.

"The Baron."

Then the bike slammed into him, sending him flying backwards. He was able to raise his shield in time to avoid being skewered by the Baron's flashing blade, but he couldn't save himself from thrown into a gully. As the bike sped past him, he picked himself up slightly and surveyed the situation. The Baron was already finishing off his last warrior. He gripped the hilt of his sword tightly, his eyes burning with hate. Then he felt pain lance through his chest as he caught his breath, and he knew this was not the time to fight. Reluctantly, he crept off into the darkness.

The Baron brought the bike to a halt and leapt off, leaving it hovering in place beside her. She surveyed her handiwork with a certain grim satisfaction. Twelve more of her father's butchers lay dead, though he would never know why. Twelve lives, and she wouldn't lose a single moment's sleep because of them. On the contrary, these twelve meant another night when she wouldn't dream of her mother's cries. Then she noticed what the slaves had been carrying before they had run off: a number of crates made of some kind of hard plastic that was foreign to the Thunder King. One of the crates had broken open on the rocks, and something had fallen out. The Baron approached the broken crate and bent down to have a closer look. Scattered on the rocks was a pile of automatic rifles, their dull metal surface almost invisible in the dim light of the cavern. The Baron went over to the next crate and pried it open. More rifles, all new and unused. The next crate held grenades, the fourth rocket launchers.

Behind her, the Baron heard the sound of metallic clanking as one of the Knights stirred. For once, she was glad one was left alive. She strode over to the prone warrior as he tried to rise and planted one boot on his chest. She reached down and yanked off his helmet, and then stood up and touched the tip of her sabre to his exposed throat.

"Let's talk."


After discovering the arms shipment, the Baron immediately went to the Prof, who put out an urgent call for every available Dragon to gather in the Junkyard. She also sent word to the Jammers, who responded by sending two of their operatives: Red Don, a brilliant techie, and the notorious cyborg monkey Furious George. eventually the Dragons gathered as well: maverick cop Tricia Kwok, "full-contact" historian Dr. John Haynes, legendary bandit-sage Ting Ting, the repentant demon Wu Ming Yi, self-styled ninja hacker Hiro Asataka, the Netherworld hero Suong Xa, and the enigmatic figure known as the Golden Gunman.

Once all the Dragons had assembled, the Prof and the Baron filled them in on the Architect-Thunder alliance. In turn, Red Don reported that Jammer spies had discovered Boatman's plan to unleash the Conversion Drones on the Netherworld. Faced with this threat, the two groups agreed that they needed to infiltrate the Biomass Reprocessing Center. Once inside, Hiro and Red Don assured the Prof they would be able to hack into the Buro network and shut down the Drones. The problem, however, would be to find a way in.

At that point the meeting was interrupted by a mysterious figure who gave no name other than "Mr. Red." He brushed off all questions as to who he was and how he had gotten inside, and proceeded to warn the Jammers that an attack against them by the combined forces of the Architects, Lotus, and Darkness Queen was imminent. He also informed the assembled group that an opportunity was coming for them to get past the defenses of the Biomass Reprocessing Center. All they had to do was be ready to take it. Although neither the Dragons nor the Jammers trusted him, they reluctantly agreed to make the attempt. However, before they could depart, the meeting was interrupted yet again.


"What's that?" Tricia asked, pointing behind the Prof. The white-haired scientist turned to see a small light flashing on the console behind her.

"There's an incoming call," she said, puzzled. "But who would even know . . ." Her voice trailed off as she flipped a switch. The screen in front of her flared to life, revealing a grainy, black-and-white image of a jowly, middle-aged man dressed in a jester's outfit.

"Lusignan!"

"What? Hello. Oh, yes," the figure replied. "Hello. I need you to send a few of your people over to meet me right away. We've got to go rescue someone. Thanks."

"What? Wait," the Prof replied. "What are you talking about?"

"I said, I need a few of your people right away. Ok? There isn't much time. Could you send them right over?"

"Wait a minute. What are you talking about? Who do we have to rescue, and why?"

Lusignan sighed. "Listen. There's a man locked up in the Thunder King's dungeon. We have to get him out. It's very important, and we have to do it now. So please send over some of your people, and, uh, that fellow all dressed in black too." He motioned his head in the Baron's direction.

"Lusignan," the Prof said, exasperated. "Who is this person? What is his name? What makes him so important?"

"He doesn't have a name," Lusignan replied, speaking to the Prof as if she were a slow child. "No one knows who he is. He was just thrown in there with all the other rabble one day and just left to rot. Everyone's forgotten about him."

"So why do we need to get him out?" This came from Red Don, who regarded Lusignan skeptically.

"I don't have time to explain," Lusignan replied, his voice pained. "All I can tell you is that it's absolutely vital we get him out. If we don't, we're as good as dead. In fact, I suspect we will all be dead. Listen, there's no time for this. We have to get him out of there. Everything hinges on him. Trust me."

"This is ridiculous." Red Don said, annoyed.

"No," the Prof replied, thoughtful. Then she turned back toward the group. "Tricia, you, Wu Ming Yi, and Hiro go with Red Don to the Biomass Reprocessing Center. Suong Xa, you know the Netherworld better than any of us. I need you to get to the Ice Pagoda. Warn the Queen about what's going on, and see if she can get some help for the Jammers. Ting Ting, take Dr. Haynes and the Gunman to meet Lusignan. Get inside the Thunder Pagoda and get this person out, whoever he is." She turned to the Baron. "Can you help us?"

The Baron nodded. "I know someone who can get you inside. I'll go on ahead and contact her."

"You've got to be kidding," Red Don protested. "What about the attack on the Center?"

"We'll just have to do it with less people and do our best."

"This is crazy! You're going to take his story at face value? He's probably insane!"

"Maybe," the Prof replied, "but I don't think so. I've learned to trust his instincts, and mine. You'd better get back to your people quickly and warn them an attack is coming. Now if we're going to do this, let's get going."

As the assembled heroes prepared to depart, Mr. Red hung back in the shadows. His eyes were still focused on the now-dark screen, his face a blank mask. Then he turned and quietly slipped out of the meeting. As he departed, he pulled what looked like a small cell phone from his jacket and punched in a code, then put to his ear and began speaking in a low voice.

"Listen carefully. There's been an unexpected development. This is what I need you to do..."


War in the Netherworld

Lusignan and the Dragons arrived at the Valley of Storms just in time to see the armies of the Thunder King marching off to war. From a hidden vantage point, they watched as massed columns of Thunder Knights, armed with assault rifles and smart guns as well as broadswords and battleaxes, headed off into the tunnels, led by Huan Ken himself. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Netherworld, the Lotus forces, led by the ghost sorceress Je Pai, and the Darkness armies, commanded by General Fung, joined to attack the Silent Jungle, home of the Monkey House. At the same time, the Architects prepared to unleash their abominations on the Genocide Lounge. Finally, the Dragons readied themselves to move on the Biomass Reprocessing Center, unaware that the Guiding Hand was preparing to do the very same thing.

The armies of the Thunder King arrived at the Fire Pagoda, and Huan Ken called on his brother to surrender. Naturally, Li Ting refused, and the forces of the two brothers met in battle. Although the Fire King had a defensive advantage, his forces were unprepared, and with the weaponry of the Architects and their abominations, Huan Ken had a decisive edge. Just when it looked like the Fire Pagoda would be overwhelmed, an army of Ice Warriors, led by the Queen of the Ice Pagoda herself, slammed into the flank of the Thunder forces. Pi Tui's ice guns were an even match for the Architect's weapons, and the surprise attack caused the Thunder army to waver and nearly break. However, Huan Ken responded by summoning the Storm Riders, a ghostly legion of Thunder Knights, who crashed into the Ice Queen's ranks, driving them back. Once the Thunder forces regrouped, the battle quickly devolved into a bloody stalemate.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Netherworld, the Architects, Lotus, and Darkness forces were surprised to find the Jammers ready for them. Led by the Furious George, the Jammers used deadly traps and guerilla tactics to hold their own, and the chi-draining Chizu vines native to the Silent Jungle also frustrated the Lotus and Darkness sorcerers. However, the Strangled Scream, a horrific ally of the Lotus, led an army of demons into the fray. At the same time, General Fung released the skin and darkness ravagers, nightmarish hellhounds composed of inky darkness, onto the battlefield. Faced with this two-pronged assault, the Jammers were forced to fall back.


Ting Ting nervously gripped the hilt of her sword as she moved quietly down the corridors of the Thunder Pagoda. Not that it seemed to matter. The whole place appeared deserted. She had watched the armies of the Thunder King march off to war, but she still expected to see servants or courtiers. Instead, the halls of the pagoda were strangely silent. Now she followed a young, dark-haired noblewoman named Elizabeth who had met them in the valley bellow. She had secretly ushered them onto one of the docked sky galleons, and while she had distracted the captain, Ting Ting and the others had quickly overpowered the crew. Elizabeth then took command and flew the ship up to the empty docks outside the pagoda. Ting Ting noticed that, except to give directions, Elizabeth spoke as little as possible, and she seemed to avoid eye contact with any of them. Now she was leading them through the pagoda itself, and Ting Ting grew uncomfortable with the fact that she was entrusting her life to a complete stranger.

On top of all of that, the jangling bells on Lusignan's costume were really getting on her nerves.

Elizabeth led them into a vast hall with several doors scattered around the perimeter and a massive stone throne dominating one end of the room. Elizabeth strode purposefully across the floor toward one of the doors.

"The dungeons are just down this way," she said. Suddenly, there was the sound of metal scraping upon metal. Ting Ting whirled, her blade flashing out of its scabbard as the doors burst open. Fully armored Thunder Knights came pouring into the room, weapons drawn. As the Dragons formed a circle, a man in Roman armor came striding out from behind the throne. He regarded the Dragons before him, and then looked directly at Elizabeth.

"It seems the information I was given was correct."

"Lucius." Elizabeth said, her voice low and even.

"You shame your father, traitor." Lucius practically spat the words. "I should be out on the battlefield now. Instead, I'll have to give him the sad news that his own blood has betrayed him." He paused, his eyes steely as he looked down at Elizabeth with contempt.

"Take them!"

At his command, the room erupted with the roar of gunfire and the flash of steel as the Dragons and the Thunder Knights met in battle. Ting Ting struck out like a whirlwind, her sword a blur as she cut through the ranks of her attackers. For every one she killed, two more took his place. The knights pressed in on all sides, and as a blade traced a thin red line across her thigh, Ting Ting prepared to sell her life dearly.

Suddenly, explosions rocked the room and black smoke billowed up around her. Ting Ting glanced up to see a dark shape swinging down from the ceiling, cloak billowing. The Baron slammed feet first into a cluster of knights, bowling them over. Her blade was out as she landed, and she was a dark blur as she moved between them, her sword cutting them down where they stood. Then the smoke cleared, and she found herself face to face with Lucius. Their eyes met and they both froze, each locked in the gaze of the other. Then the Baron narrowed her eyes and raised her sword.

"Get down to the dungeon. Rescue the prisoner. I'll finish things here."

Lucius' face twisted into a mask of hate, and he raised his sword and charged. His blade met the Baron's, and the two joined in battle.


At the Biomass Reprocessing Center, the second group of Dragons ran into Hung Hei Kwon and his followers. The two sides eyed each other warily, and the presence of Wu Ming Yi alone nearly provoked the Hand into attacking. However, Tricia Kwok managed to defuse the situation, and she was able to get Hung Hei Kwon to reluctantly agree to join forces with her. Working together, they were able to get past the Hellharrower defenses mounted in the tunnels. At that point, the Purists, acting on schedule, sabotaged the Center's defenses. However, as the Dragons and the Hand forces rushed forward, Boatman ordered the release of a horde of Arcanorats to defend the base, and the Dragons and the Hand were forced to fall back. Then the Purists unleashed the Paradox Beast. Although Boatman was able to escape, the Architects' defenses were thrown into disarray. Hung Hei Kwon and his forces were able to regroup and drive back the abominations, allowing the Dragons and Red Don to get into the Center.

Elsewhere, the situation was getting desperate for the Jammers. Despite having suffered heavy losses, the Architects had been able to raze the Genocide Lounge, and in the Silent Jungle, the fighting had reached the Monkey House itself. However, the tide turned when a strike force of elite Ice Commandos, along with Suong Xa, arrived and launched a counterattack. Furious George squared off against the Strangled Scream, the cyborg monkey matching his incredible firepower against the Strangled Scream's deadly kung fu. When the smoke finally cleared, only one was left standing. Furious George had been battered and bloodied, but the Scream was no more.

With the destruction of the Strangled Scream, the Darkness and Lotus hordes were finally broken and forced to retreat. When news reached the Buro of the defeat, they unleashed their secret unit of Abominations on the Darkness Queen's forces. Believing them to be Lotus demons, General Fung ordered his forces to counterattack. However, Je Pai had expected treachery from the Darkness forces, and so the Lotus launched their own counterattack. Between the abominations and the Lotus, the Darkness forces were on the verge of collapse until Ming I herself arrived on the field, turning the tide of the battle and forcing the Lotus to retreat.


Ting Ting looked up at the tower of leering masks and grinning skulls, and then trudged wearily inside. Her clothing was torn and tattered, her body cut in a dozen places, and her blade stained dark with blood. Dr. Haynes and the Golden Gunman walked beside her, equally battered and weary. They had fought their way down into the dungeons, where Huan Ken left his prisoners to hang in iron cages over the open sky. There, Lusignan had found the man he was looking for, but the Thunder Knights had fought them all the way. In the midst of the fighting, even as Lusignan had freed the nameless prisoner, he had been knocked through one of the holes in the floor. Ting Ting rushed to the edge to see him plummet to the valley below. His last words had been an order to take the man with no name back to his tower. Then he was gone.

When Ting Ting had returned to the great hall, she had found the Baron slumped at the foot of the throne. Lucius was dead at her feet, but she had been cut deeply by his blade during the battle. The Baron had pulled her scarf off of her face so that she could breathe freely, and Ting Ting saw what had become of Elizabeth. After inspecting her wounds, Ting Ting saw that she would live, but that she was in no condition to travel. And so they had departed for the tower with the nameless prisoner. Ting Ting glanced over at him now. He followed them without speaking, and seemed to have little will of his own. Ting Ting wondered again what the point had been, and if it even mattered now.

The faint sound of voices echoed through the hall of Lusignan's Tower. Warily, Ting Ting led the others toward its source. They entered a room filled with TV screens from floor to ceiling, littered with cast-off junk and spare parts. A middle-aged man in a jester's outfit sat in a chair watching a rerun of Starsky and Hutch on one of the screens, his back to them. Ting Ting's eyes widened in astonishment as he turned to face them.

"Oh, hello, glad you could make it," he said.

"You... you... you're dead!"

"Me? Dead? You must be thinking of someone else."

"But I saw you fall," Ting Ting protested. "How did you survive?"

"Oh, that wasn't me."

"But... who was it?"

"Oh, that was an automaton I created a few years ago to replace me. Well, actually, the Prof and I created it together. Did a good job too I suppose."

"Replace you?" Ting Ting asked. "But why?"

"Oh, well, you see, I had to be out of the Netherworld for a while. I thought it best not to advertise because, well, you know, as soon as you say you're going on vacation everyone starts pestering you to look up their aunt or bring them back a souvenir."

Ting Ting looked confused. Dr. Haynes stepped up to face Lusignan. "Maybe you'd better start at the beginning. Why did you have to leave the Netherworld?"

Lusignan pursed his lips. "Well, without getting into the wherefores and whys, lets just say I knew that bad things were going to be happening. You know, war, armageddon, basically everything that's happening right at this moment. I kind of like it here, so I went out into the world looking for a way to prevent all this from happening. That's how I learned about our friend here." He gestured to the prisoner they had rescued.

"Him? What's so special about him?"

"Nothing, nothing at all. In fact, he's the very opposite of special. You could say he's the embodiment of the common man, the everyman if you will, though he's not exactly a man at all, even though he is. That's what makes him so important."

Dr. John shook his head. "I don't understand."

"Don't worry," Lusignan replied. "You will."


Lusignan called forth the man with no name and subjected him to four tests, in which he was assaulted by the elemental forces of fire, ice, darkness, and thunder. When it was all over, the man was no more. In his place stood a proud warrior whom Lusignan named as the Once and Future Champion. Lusignan explained that the Champion was not so much a man as an archetype, the incarnation of the legendary hero found in every culture throughout history, who rises at the time of greatest need to do battle once again. The man with no name, Lusignan explained, was like a chrysalis, the Champion in his nascent state of the nameless everyman. The tests were a catalyst, a means to effect the transformation, and they had imbued the Champion with all the powers of the Four Monarchs. Now that the Champion had risen again, Lusignan ordered the Dragons to get him to the battlefield before it was too late.

By this time, the battle among the Monarchs had dissolved into complete chaos. The Lotus forces, fleeing Ming I's wrath, ran smack into the battle at the Fire Pagoda. In desperation, Je Pai summoned an immensely powerful demon lord known as the Burning King. Chiu Fa, the chief demonologist for Li Ting, engaged her in a magical battle of wills for control of the demon. However, the Burning King proved too much for either of them to control. The demon lord broke free, and then turned on both sorcerers and incinerated them. As the forces of the Four Monarchs and the Lotus scattered in terror before the Burning King's rage, Lusignan and the Dragons arrived on the field. The Once and Future Champion, aided by the Dragons, engaged the massive demon lord in battle. The Dragons used their guns and kung fu to harry the demon, who responded by hurling balls of searing fire at them. However, it was the Champion who finally dealt the killing blow to the Burning King, sending him back to the Underworld with an inhuman howl.

With the battle ended, Lusignan assembled the Four Monarchs together and proceeded to explain to them how they had all been duped. His intent was to teach them a lesson about being stupid and power-hungry and easily manipulated, but it didn't quite have the desired effect. Instead of resuming the battle against each other, the Monarchs set off to destroy the Biomass Reprocessing Center, leaving Lusignan, the Dragons, and the Once and Future Champion racing behind them.


The Final Countdown

Gunfire echoed through the corridors of the Biomass Reprocessing Center as Tricia Kwok unloaded her Desert Eagle into the last of the TacOps troopers, the armor-piercing rounds cutting through their body armor like tissue paper. On the other side of the room, Wu Ming Yi flung the lifeless body of an abomination to the floor, while Hiro sat calmly at a keyboard, his body motionless except for his hands, which moved over the keys with a fluid grace. Tricia crouched down behind a computer bank and began plunking shells into her Mossberg as sparks shot out of the damaged ceiling above her.

"Are. You. In. Yet?" She asked through gritted teeth. Next to her, Red Don worked feverishly at the terminal. Sweat glistened on his forehead beneath a shock of unruly red hair.

"Almost," he replied. "I just need a few more minutes."

"You said that a few minutes ago," Tricia replied angrily. "I thought you were supposed to be good."

"Hacking a network ain't like shooting bobos girl. One wrong move and we could -" His speech was cut off at the metallic sound of a door sliding open. Tricia turned her shotgun toward the doorway, but instead of a fresh horde of Buro thugs, there was only one man standing there, his clothing disheveled and his breath ragged.

"Boatman..." Red Don whispered.

Tricia instantly stood up and shoved the barrel of her shotgun into his face. His eyes widened and he stepped back, then raised his hands.

"I surrender."

Tricia pumped the shotgun.

"No, please," he begged. "You've got to help me! It's after me! It's going to kill me! You've got to stop it!"

"Stop what?" Tricia asked. Then the door behind Boatman exploded revealing a monstrous, inhuman creature of glowing crystal. Boatman turned white and dove under one of the terminals. The creature spotted him, and turned in his direction. Tricia pulled the trigger on her weapon, and the shotgun roared as the shell struck the creature at point blank range. It turned towards its attacker. There was no sign of any damage where it had been hit.

Tricia pumped her shotgun again, and took a step backwards.


The Dragons were no match for the Paradox Beast, and even the timely arrival of Hung Hei Kwon only slowed it down slightly. They would all have been ripped to shreds had not Wu Ming Yi torn into the beast, forcing it away from the others and out toward the reactor core. Even as Tricia yelled for him to stop, the Demon, his body torn by the Paradox Beast's claws, gave a final howl and flung himself upon the creature. The force of his leap propelled both of them backward over the railing and into the heart of the reactor, where they were instantly vaporized.

With Wu Ming Yi gone, Tricia returned to the command center and made Boatman her prisoner. She forced Boatman to give up the codes to grant Red Don and Hiro access to the Buro network. Once they were in, they issued the self-destruct command for the Drones, obliterating them.


"Freeze!"

Tricia spun toward the sound of the voice, bringing her shotgun to bear. Even as she turned she saw the soldiers spread out into the room, their guns at the ready. Hiro was already out of his seat, sword in hand, but he wasn't moving. Hung Hei Kwon backed up slowly, only to realize that he had nowhere to go. Surrounding them were about two-dozen heavily armed commandos. It took Tricia a moment to realize that they were carrying MP5's, not Buro weapons, and that they weren't wearing standard-issue Buro uniforms either.

"Put down your weapons!" The leader commanded. Reluctantly, Tricia set her Mossberg down on the floor. Hiro and Hung Hei Kwon followed suit. The commandos quickly seized the weapons, and then resumed their original position. Their ranks parted, and a familiar figure casually strolled into the room. Tricia's eyes widened, then flashed with anger.

"You!"

Mr. Red took a drag on his cigarette, then ground it out beneath his heel.

"Hello, Ms. Kwok. Nice work you've done here."

"What are you doing here?"

"Reaping the fruits of your labor, as it were." Mr. Red nodded, and two of the commandos grabbed Boatman and roughly dragged him away from the Dragons and over to Mr. Red.

"Wh-what do you want with me?" Boatman asked.

"What does it look like, Doctor? My associates are very eager to meet you. They have much to discuss with you."

"Who are you?" Hung Hei Kwon demanded angrily. "What is this?"

"Who am I? I'm the reason you're here. Who do you think it was that made sure you knew that Boatman would be here? By the way, thank you for securing him for us. It saved me a lot of trouble."

"So that's what this was all about?" Tricia asked. "You gave us the information just so we would get inside the base. You set us up just to get your hands on Boatman?"

"You make it sound so trivial, Miss Kwok. Getting a hold of Dr. Boatman is no easy task. Plus, there was the matter of the Drones to deal with. You handled that quite well. I truly am impressed."

"So why did you warn us about the attack on the Genocide Lounge, and the Monkey House?" Red Don asked, rising from his chair.

"I needed you to trust me, and what better way to gain that trust than to warn you about the attack? Besides, I didn't want to see you get slaughtered too quickly. I needed your people to keep your attackers busy for a while. Oh, and that reminds me, I also made sure that the Thunder King knew about your little visit. I don't know what that fool was talking about, but I figured that it was best not to take any chances. I'm sure he prepared a nice reception for them."

Tricia stepped toward Mr. Red, but two commandos blocked her path, guns raised.

"Sorry, Ms. Kwok, but I really can't stay. Dr. Boatman will be coming with us. As for you, it's been a pleasure working with you, but I'm afraid your usefulness is at an end."


As Mr. Red was about to give the order to kill the Dragons, the Monarchs and their forces arrived and assaulted the Center. In the resultant chaos, Boatman escaped and used a gatemaker to flee back to 2061. Before departing, he activated the self-destruct sequence for the Biomass Reprocessing Center. Once completed, it would cause the reactor to overload and explode, killing every living being in the Netherworld and rendering it uninhabitable for generations to come.

With only minutes remaining, the Once and Future Champion finally arrived at the Center. By then panic had set in, as both the Monarchs' soldiers and the few remaining Buro troops attempted to flee their impending doom. The Champion called the Four Monarchs together and explained that he could stop the device, but that he would need all four of them to channel their power into him if he was to succeed. He warned them that if even one of them held back, they would all be destroyed. The Champion then went inside the Center, and for the first time since they had murdered their father, the Four Monarchs all worked together equally. They channeled their power into the Champion, and he used it to contain the explosion. The Dragons and the Four Monarchs watched as the Center erupted in massive fireball, completely destroying it, with the Champion still inside.

With the destruction of the Center, the conflict finally came to an end. The Four Monarchs, their armies battered and their power diminished, all returned quietly to their Pagodas to nurse their wounds and, perhaps, to contemplate their folly. The Ascended sent out their agents to track down Mr. Red, who had disappeared when the Monarchs assaulted the Center, but they were unable to locate any trace of him. Hung Hei Kwon returned to the Temple of Boundless Meditation to report his failure, the Purists were forced to go even deeper underground, the Jammers organization was in tatters, and the Lotus forces in the Netherworld were seriously crippled.

Worst off were the Architects of the Flesh. With the Biomass Reprocessing Center destroyed, their foothold in the Netherworld was lost. With the failure of the Conversion Drone project, Boatman's role in the debacle was called into question, and his grip on power became less secure. Even as he feverishly analyzed the implications of the situation, he could sense that his enemies were gathering in the shadows, just waiting for the right moment to strike.


Epilogue

In a small apartment overlooking the darkening skyline of New Angeles, Dr. Matthews activated a com screen. A familiar, yet still alien, voice addressed her once again.

"Report, Dr. Matthews."

"Initial reports indicate that the Biomass Reprocessing Center has been completely destroyed, along with all the Conversion Drones. Early analysis suggests that the Netherworld has become almost impossibly dangerous for Buro operations right now. It will take months to re-establish any kind of foothold there, and most likely years before we regain our past level of strength."

"Dr. Boatman?"

"He's been in seclusion recently. Bonengel has called for a full investigation of the situation, and Boatman himself may be called to explain his actions. Rumor has it that the Buropresident is livid. They've already questioned me several times."

"Do not worry. You are secure. Have you learned anything new about the attempt on Boatman's life?"

"There's been no further information on the creature that tried to kill Boatman, or who created it, although BuroMil Intelligence is convinced that it's the work of a previously unknown conspiracy. I haven't been able to uncover any additional information through my own channels either."

There was a momentary pause before the voice spoke again, "This concerns me, Dr. Matthews. It is vital that Boatman not be killed. You will continue to investigate this conspiracy using all available resources, and inform me of any new developments immediately. A new future is coming, Dr. Matthews, and we must ensure that nothing occurs to jeopardize its arrival."

"Of course."

With that, the screen went dark, leaving Dr. Ally Matthews alone again as the sky beyond her window slowly faded to black, replacing the long shadows of twilight lingering over the city with the silent cloak of night.