by Eric Stein

The door splintered open! Four, five, now six men burst into the small apartment. Stylish, immaculate uniforms identified them as Lone Star officers. Bright yellow lettering on the backs of their vests identified them as members of the elite Special Tactics and Guns (STAG) team. They stood poised for action, shotguns and SMGs pointed about the room.

Lieutenant Frank Vesper stood boldly at their fore. He was tall, almost 2 meters. A richly tanned skin covered rippling muscles. Hazel eyes scanned the room, settling on the only other door. "This is Lone Star!" Frank called out, "We have you surrounded! Come out with your hands up!"

Slowly, the door creaked open. Slowly, two figures walked out. The first was a man, with a bedsheet wrapped around his lower body. The woman who hid behind him had a gun to his head. As one, the STAG team shifted their aim to the pair. "Don't shoot," the woman said, "I've got a hostage."

Vesper held up a hand. "Hold your fire, men." He took his own pistol and holstered it. "Just relax, Ace. Nobody's going to get killed here today, all right?"

"I want a helicopter to meet me on the roof, and a fully fueled 797 waiting at the airport. I'll let the joyboy go once I'm free and clear."

"All right, All right. Just don't hurt him." Vesper pulled a transceiver off his belt. "I need a chopper on the roof. Put a 797 on the tarmac at Sea-Tac. And start Operation R.T."

"Hey!" Ace jostled her captive hard, poking the gun barrel at his head. "What the frag is Operation Artee?"

Frank waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, it's nothing. Different assignment. Don't worry about it. Your chopper will be here soon."

A small pebble tanged off the window behind Ace. "What the!" she exclaimed, and turned to look. Taking advantage of her distraction, Vesper quick-drew his pistol and fired from the hip. His slug slammed into Ace's pistol, knocking it away. "Hey! My gun!"

Frank Vesper brought the gun barrel up to his mouth, and blew away the smoke issuing from it. "Give it up, street scum. If you come quietly, I'll talk to the D.A. for you."

"Never!" Ace yelled. She shoved her hostage at the STAG team, then threw herself out the window. She screamed for almost a second before a loud thump silenced her scream.

"At ease, men." Frank strode over to the window of the second-story apartment and looked down. "I hate jumpers," he muttered to himself. Then he called out through the window to the numerous officers below, "Somebody scrape her up and take her downtown for questioning."

* * * * * *

Ted Astir glanced around nervously. "Are you sure this is the right place, Frank?"

"This is it, all right. Relax." Frank looked around. They were at the edge of a grimy, run-down parking lot in the middle of the Redmond Barrens. "On second thought, better not. Look, there's somebody. I bet she'll be able to help us." Frank headed towards the nearest of several barely-clothed joygirls. Ted sighed and reluctantly followed.

"Miss? Excuse me, miss? I'm looking for a woman."

"Really, Johnny? I'm a woman." The woman writhed suggestively.

"Frank, actually. I'm a STAG, and--"

"Two-fifty an hour, and we can party."

"I just want some --"

"Two-fifty, hon. You look like you can afford it."

"But, I'm a STAG!" he protested, clearly confused.

The joygirl looked him up and down appreciatively, purring. "I bet you are, hon. But rules are rules, and you gotta pay just like all the other Johns."

Frank reached into his trenchcoat and pulled out a wallet. He opened it and showed her the badge. "You don't understand. I'm with --"

"Lone Star!" the joygirl yelled, and ducked behind a dumpster. Several large men materialized from the shadows.

"Um, Frank? Maybe we'd best get going. They don't look too friendly."

Frank shook his head. "No. We need to find Angel. This is our only lead. I'm staying until we get this sorted out." To the men, he called out, "Hoi, uh, chums! We're looking for a woman .."

One of the men laughed. Frank noticed that they all had guns. Big, illegal guns. "I'm not looking for any trouble. I come in peace!"

"Well, trouble found you, Starface," came the reply. "'cuz you're goin' in pieces! Kill him."

Bullets stitched the air, dancing and skipping to either side of Vesper. He reached for his gun, and then yelled in pain. "Ow! I'll get you for that!" Frank ripped out his revolver, and calmly walked its barrel down the line of men, shooting the first six of his assailants. One by one, they fell, screaming.

Vesper pulled a quick-loader out of a pocket and reloaded his gun. He ducked slightly as a shell spanged off a lamppost to his left. A couple of bursts chewed into the ground at his feet. Frank snapped the cylinder back into place and opened up again. Four shots later, the rest of the group was downed.

As the echoes died down, Frank called out to his partner, "hey, Ted, call the cleanup squad. And keep an eye on those guys, ok? I'm going to finsh my talk with our friend here."

Ted Astir slowly emerged from behind the dumpster, pulling the errant joygirl with him. "Sure thing, Frank. Hey, are you okay? I heard you yell, but you don't look like you're bleeding."

"Yeah, I'm fine. Broke a nail." Vesper stuck the offending finger in his mouth and sucked at it, grimacing.

* * * * * *

"Okay, we'll meet tomorrow, then, and grab that Angel joygirl. See ya!"

"Yeah, g'night, Ted." Frank closed the door behind him, and started walking to his apartment building. He made it to the front door before he remembered that he needed milk. Turning, he headed to the corner store. Picking up some milk, he headed over to the counter to pay, only to notice a man with a shotgun pointed at the clerk.

"Hey!" Vesper called out, "I know you. You're Blade! I've been looking all over for you. You're under arrest for the murder of Sick Willie. You have the right to --"

"Shut up, starface!" Blade retorted. To emphasize his point, Blade pulled the trigger on his shotgun. The shelves behind the clerk exploded, spraying a sudsy blue liquid all over the clerk, Blade, and Vesper.

"No, really. I mean it. You also have the right to an --" As Frank spoke, another robber walked up behind him. Raising the butt of his shotgun, he brought it down hard on the back of Frank's neck. Frank's world went black.

* * * * * *

Vesper woke to find himself cuffed to a chair. Blade stood a few feet away, gazing at him. Behind him, a handful of odd-looking men shuffled aimlessly. Frank sucked in a breath as recognition dawned. Not men .. ghouls!

"You'll never get away with this, Blade!" he stated defiantly. "My men will come looking for me!"

"Ah, Mr. Vesper. Full of ourselves today, are we? Your men, of course, will be too late. By the time they get here, the first batch will be complete." Blade gestured at the walls. Vesper, turning to look, gasped. The walls were covered in cocoons. "You see? No one has ever thought of using ghouls as hosts for insect spirits before. Ghouls are mindless and disgusting; and nobody cares what happens to them. Nobody notices when they disappear. And if I feed them? They follow me, willingly. What could be more perfect?

Soon, very soon, I'll have an army. And then ..." Blade smiled, "and then, my takeover of the Barrens will begin! Within a month, I'll have secured a foothold so strong I'll never be dislodged. Then, slowly, carefully, I'll take control of VIPs, executives, politicians ... within a year, Seattle will be mine! And who knows .. after that, perhaps I can expand farther. Today Seattle! Tomorrow, the world?" A smile crept across Blade's face.

"You'll never get away with this, Blade!"

"Oh, no, you're right, Blade never would. But, you see, I am not Blade." With that, Blade's form expanded, contorted, and stretched. Perianwyr the dragon revealed himself.

"Perianwyr! But ... why? You're a bounty hunter. This isn't like you."

A door creaked open, and in walked Morgan, Perianwyr's long-time partner. "Peri? Fluffy got caught up in a tree again. Your turn to fetch her down." A rumbling bass emerged from the dragon's long, sinuous throat. "Again? Blast that wretched beast!" Perianwyr turned to the door. As he exited, he addressed the ghouls, "After Morgan leaves, you may eat."

Morgan walked over to the computer on the room's only desk, and started typing. While he wasn't looking, the ghouls edged closer, dripping saliva from between jagged teeth.

"Morgan? Morgan?" Vesper tried to get his attention, but Morgan ignored him. After a few moments typing, Morgan turned from the machine and headed for the door. "Mooooor-gaaaan? Morgan? Morgan!" As the door slammed shut behind him, the ghouls drew closer, emitting a horrible noise somewhere between a hiss and a cackle.

Frank burst up out of the chair, having earlier freed his hands with a palmed paperclip, which he now discarded. Taking advantage of the ghouls' surprise, he burst through their ranks and rushed to the door. He slammed it shut behind him, and glanced about. Finding a wooden plank, Vesper jammed the door shut with it. He turned and ran down the hallway after Morgan, quickly catching up to him. Morgan turned on him, drawing his pistol and releasing the safety.

Vesper, skidding to a stop, raised his hands in surrender. "Morgan, wait. You can't do this. Look at how you're treating those poor ghouls. They're human beings, just like you and I. You don't need me to tell you that. They just got a raw deal. They deserve to be looked after and treated, not used and betrayed. I know you've always been a bounty-hunter, but, Morgan, there was a time when you knew better."

Slowly, Morgan lowered his handgun. "You're .. you're right, Frank. I can't do it. But I won't cross Peri. We've been through too much together. You'll have to deal with him yourself."

With a quiet hiss, smoke began to issue from behind Morgan. As Morgan turned, Perianwyr materialized out of the shadows. The dragon growled, an inhuman noise which shook Vesper to his very soul. Fluffy, frightened, leapt from his arms and fled up the hallway. The dragon's deep voice echoed through the narrow passageway, "You betray me, Morgan? After all I have done for you? I thought we were more important to each other than that. I thought we had something ... special."

Morgan's head fell. Dolefully, he shook his head. "I'm sorry, Peri. I just can't. I won't stop you. But maybe, if you think about it, you'll decide this is wrong. If so, you can find me where the sparrow hops sideways." Morgan walked past the dragon, heading for the surface.

"We'll discuss this later," Perianwyr called out over his shoulder. Then, turning his attention to Vesper, he smiled. "The ghouls will break down your pathetic barricade any moment now. Personally, I can hardly wait. I understand they'd like to have you for lunch." The dragon laughed maniacally.

"Laugh all you want, dragon. I know something you don't know."

"And what's that, mortal?"

"Shhh .. listen."

The dragon scrunched its face and cocked its head, listening carefully. "The ghouls. Why have they stopped trying to break down the door?"

Suddenly, the door slammed open. A hulking figure ducked and squeezed through the door. He wore only a loincloth, revealing a body liberally coated in muscle. He stood almost two and a half meters, and carried an axe just as tall. The hilt of a sword peeked out over one shoulder. Deep breaths only accentuated the stranger's impressive physique.

The dragon stood agog. "What? How can it be? That's Neil the Ork Barbarian! But ... but ... he's not real!" Frank checked quickly over a shoulder, then leaned in towards the dragon and quietly said, "I wouldn't say that to his face if I were you."

With a roar, Neil charged down the corridor, waving his axe wildly. As Perianwyr inhaled deeply, Vesper quickly stepped to one side. Flame rushed down the corridor, engulfing Neil. The huge ork threw an arm in front of his face and pressed forward. As the flame died out, Perianwyr screamed and rushed Neil. The ork extended a massive arm and swung a mighty blow, catching the dragon just under his ear. The axe bit to the bone, and the momentum of the swing slammed Perianwyr's head into the wall of the corridor. Stunned, the dragon collapsed.

Neil gave his axe a tug, but it was firmly lodged in the dragon's skull. A swift kick to the dragon's head didn't loosen it, so he reached back and drew his sword. The two-meter flamberge caught the light and sparkled as Neil grasped it firmly by the handle, pointing the tip down at Perianwyr's crown. Neil brought the handle over his head, staring grimly down at the still-dazed dragon. "For goodness' sake!" he cried, and brought the blade down. It sank deep into the dragon's skull. Perianwyr yanked his head up, the blade protruding from it. He cried out one final time, a blood-rumbling scream that pierced the very soul. As the scream died out, the dragon's head fell, and did not move again.

* * * * * *

Frank Vesper, construction worker, rose from his easy chair and stretched vehemently, popping his back twice. With a mighty yawn he headed for the door, tossing the Sen-So-Matic "Lone Star Adventures III" chip onto the chair as an afterthought.

©1999, Eric Stein - used with permission