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Mutation 31: Continuity has Returned and Love is in the Air

by Steve

Interlude

It was dark, humid, and stank like nobody's business. But it was far too big a cavern to be underneath the Tristram outhouse. Besides, the big screen TV, couch, desk and soft crimson lighting certainly didn't belong. Cameron Diaz reclined luxuriously on the couch in a slinky red gown. Behind her was a mountain of paper.

"Where are we?" Rob wanted to know.

"Well, sweetie," smiled Diaz. "We're in a very special Hell for naughty writers who screw with Continuity. I'm Diaz, and I'll be your tormentor for Eternity."

Rob blanched.

"Have a seat. You need to fill out a character profile for every single character you introduced into Collaborative Carnage." She offered him a sheaf of paper the size of a Tokyo phone directory. On the cover, it read "Jigglypuff, Volume 1 of 3500."

"No!" wailed Rob, his eyes brimming with tears.

"If you prefer, I have the complete library of all my movies," suggested Diaz.

"Even Charlie's Angels?" asked Rob weakly.

"Oh yes," said Diaz. "It's the special director's cut, starring Drew Carey instead of Drew Barrymore." She patted the seat next to her on the couch. "We could watch some of it and then make out."

Pale, Rob stomped up to her and snatched "Jigglypuff, Volume 1 of 3500" out of her slender hand. "What the hell/hell is Jigglypuff's favorite flavor of ice cream?" he asked.

***

The cow staring at Lord Cool smelled faintly of Stupidhead the Weak's aftershave. That's how Lord Cool knew, without a doubt, that he was back in Tristram. He sat up and tried to gather his thoughts.

It took awhile.

He remembered waking up inside a glass coffin. He had been freezing his ass off and his thoughts were disoriented: "If I'm in a glass coffin," he had reasoned, "I must be Snow White!" He then began singing 'Someday, My Prince Will Come' at the top of his lungs.

But that had seemed wrong after awhile. For one thing, he was pretty sure he didn't want some guy to come riding up on a white horse to kiss him. For another thing, the title, 'Someday, My Prince Will Come,' made him giggle. Finally, and most importantly of all, he really had to pee.

So, he got up, found a turbo-flush (he really had to get one of those for the house. Perhaps Stupidhead could help him build one), and began exploring. It wasn't long before he came to a brightly lit room where a busty, hot-looking blonde was doing stark-naked jumping jacks.

"Well, this'll do," thought Lord Cool, settling down for a good, long stare.

He continued staring even after the distant screams and explosions echoed down the corridor. "I'll have to check into that later," thought Lord Cool wisely. "It could be important."

Unfortunately, the blonde noticed the noise, and then noticed Lord Cool. She looked worried, grabbed him by the hand and said, "Come with me, if you want to live."

A naked woman saying "come with me" made Lord Cool giggle. But, seeing how the strange woman seemed to have no intention of putting any clothes on, he was more than happy to follow her.

The blonde seemed very confused on several points. At first she said that she was Elsie-6. Then she said she was really Lord Cool. For a while, she even said her name was Rob. Lord Cool took it all in stride. Women often forgot who they were in his presence. They also often had violent epileptic seizures or pretended to be dead until he went away. His own ex-wife, Sugar, had proclaimed him the 'World's Worst Lay' on their wedding night. The Hell Spawn, Red Vex, had gone even further and dubbed him the 'Worst Lay in All the Myriad Realities Throughout the Multiverse.' She was overcome with emotion when she told him this, so obviously she meant it in a good way.

"We have to get out of here," Elsie or Rob, or whoever she was had said as she led him to the escape pods. They arrived just in time to see the last one leave. "Damn!" swore LC6.

"Would it help if I took off my clothes too?" suggested Lord Cool helpfully.

"We'll have to use the Portal!" said Elsie.

That sounded good to Lord Cool, so he followed her again. He was disappointed to find that she had been talking about an ordinary Horadrim Portal in the middle of a room full of machines. Lord Cool guessed correctly that it did not lead to her bedroom.

"Where does that go?" he'd wanted to know.

"No time for that now," Elsie had said as she shoved him through.

"What about you?" he asked.

"I'm coming..." That was as far as she got, which made Lord Cool giggle again. There had been a massive blast of heat and light and the portal had snapped shut behind him. He'd had no way of knowing that CAIN had chosen that moment to detonate the anti-matter in LC6's chest and blow up the Azure Drake.

The longer Lord Cool tried to think, the harder it became to remember the details of his cross-Continuity adventures. Perhaps that was for the best. He struggled to his feet and wondered what to do next.

Across the pasture, a Horadrim Portal opened and a raven-haired goddess appeared. Lord Cool caught his breath. Then he caught his balance after skidding on a fresh cow patty while racing toward her. She was beautiful with her wind-blown hair, her magnificent satin-smooth thighs straddling some sort of softly growling two-wheeled machine. But there were tears in her emerald eyes, her face was forlorn as if she'd suffered an unimaginable loss. Lord Cool was not completely insensitive. He knew she needed a friend. She needed a shoulder cry on. She needed a little sympathy and compassion; she needed a little Cool.

Perhaps, thought Lord Cool trying to scrape the cow crud off his boot, she'll need a lot of Little Cool.

***

Lazarus watched as Spite limped into the Chamber of Bone and collapsed in a corner. She looked like she'd been through a meat grinder, which, for her, could have been an improvement. As he approached her to cast a Healing spell, a wave of nausea swept over him.

"Assume your human form, vile one," he ordered.

Spite regarded him balefully with a swollen red eye, and then complied. As she became human -- and a near perfect duplicate of Sugar -- her revulsion field shut down and Lazarus was able to look at her without feeling queasy.

Once he had finished the healing and Spite was resting comfortably, Lazarus regarded the remains of the Adversary's elite force. Their first mission had been a disaster! MadCow and Molt Lungren were dead, Lifesuck was missing, and Minimum Evil and Dr. Bruce seemed to have switched sides. Of his remaining forces, he was only sure of the reliability of Sister Twisted and possibly Spite. Arch-Mage Suave had returned with his pointy tail between his legs and obsessing over some mystery woman who turned out to be immune to his NQBus powers. As for Multi, her only loyalty was to her own pleasure. At the moment, she and three of her duplicates were in another corner noisily working on rebuilding Suave's confidence.

All they had to show for their efforts was a barely conscious Red Vex. An unmitigated disaster!

Lazarus smiled. An unmitigated disaster that the upstart Maximum Evil had been in charge of. It was time to go see the Adversary and underscore the absent Maximum Evil's shortcomings.

As he made the trek down to Level 16, Lazarus wondered just where Maximum Evil had disappeared. He wracked his brains. He remembered returning to the Chamber of Bone with Sister Twisted, one of the Multi's and the prisoner Red Vex. He also remembered the surviving members of the team trickling in to admit their defeats.

With a shudder, Lazarus remembered Maximum Evil's transformation into ULTIMATE EVIL, but after that, his memories were disjointed. It was as if history had disappeared and been replaced by a collection of bizarre and unrelated events. The more he tried to remember, the less it all made sense.

"Master!" he called out as he reached Level 16. "I need your guidance. Maximum Evil's bungling has cost us dearly."

"Has it then?" The towering obsidian figure of ULTIMATE EVIL stepped out of the darkness, his horns and teeth gleaming with cruelty. Lazarus felt his heart drop into his stomach as the front of his robe suddenly became warm and wet. "Then he has paid the price for his incompetence. Pray that you do better."

Lazarus put two and two together and a recollection rose above the fog of his hazy memories: The Adversary had forced Max out of the body of ULTIMATE EVIL and cast it adrift in the ether. Maximum Evil was no more!

"How shall I proceed, my lord?" asked Lazarus.

"The Boojum has sought to contain me by quarantining this Continuity from the other worlds of the Battle Net," said the Adversary. "That was a miscalculation on the Boojum's part. Now I will be able to consolidate my power more efficiently. However, I still need more time. See that I am not distracted."

"I will, my lord," vowed Lazarus. "However, Maximum Evil severely depleted our forces on his personal vendettas."

"I am aware of that," responded the Adversary. There was a whirring and clanking noise that drew closer. An armored, bovine-looking figure limped into the light. Its duralloy plating was scorched and even melted in places. The left half of its face was a mass of burnt wiring, steel and plastic out of which a luminous red eye shone. Its right arm ended in another bunch of sparking wires and it dragged its left leg when it walked.

"Behold one of the last remnants of a discarded Continuity," said the Adversary. "The CowLord 2000!"

"I am grateful, my lord," said Lazarus concentrating on hiding the doubt in his voice. "I am sure it will shore up our forces and serve you well."

"Despite its condition, the CowLord 2000 is a formidable foe. Its armaments include several weapons that are no longer part of this Continuity and that your foes will not be able to defend against. It is speechless and mindless and will obey your commands and yours alone," said the Adversary.

"I am gratified, master," said Lazarus with a bow. Maybe this pitiful-looking piece of junk had some potential after all.

"Lazarus," added the Adversary.

"Master?"

"The CowLord 2000 has a powerful explosive built into its chest. One powerful enough to destroy Tristram and the surrounding countryside. It will be in your best interests to use that weapon before you even think of disturbing me again," said the Adversary bending down so that Lazarus could look into ULTIMATE EVIL's eyes. "Do you understand?"

Lazarus swallowed. "Yes, Master. I will not fail you."

***

"Hi there, I'm Cool," Lord Cool told Evette.

Before she could respond, a Horadrim Portal opened and Stupidhead the Weak stumbled through. He looked dazed for a moment and then saw Lord Cool.

"Mana be praised!" he cried. "You're alive!" With that, he leaped up and threw his bony arms around Lord Cool.

This was not in the script. "Ah, Stu," said Lord Cool. "I'm really not comfortable with the way you're rubbing up and down against my thigh."

"I'm sorry, my dear friend," explained Stupidhead with tears in his eyes. "It's just that I saw an armored Plot Device blast you to smithereens."

"Well, I'm obviously okay," managed Cool trying to peel the old man off of him.

"I'm so very glad to see you, my friend," sobbed Stupidhead.

"I know," said Lord Cool. "And that's why I'm praying that's a wand in your pocket."

Inevitably, Lord Cool lost his balance, and he and Stupidhead tumbled to the grass in a tangle of arms and legs.

"Oh, I just can't believe this," wept Stupidhead.

Cool glanced up at the bemused Evette. "That's just what I was thinking."

Unnoticed by any of them, the cow that Stupidhead had not seen since Chapter Five of the original "Unlikely Heroes of Tristram" glared at Lord Cool with jealous eyes.

"Zere is no need to be ashamed," Evette assured Lord Cool, her husky voice thick with a sexy French accent that would have made a eunuch pant. "I too 'ave recently learned zee beauty of -- 'ow you say? - zee same-sex love." She thought of Elsie and gave a wistful sigh.

"Gah!" cried Lord Cool pushing his friend off his lap. "We're not gay! Stu! Tell her we're not gay!"

Stupidhead was still busy emoting and off in his own world. "I thought I'd never see you again. I thought I'd never get to tell you that you're the best friend that I've ever had and how much I truly love you!"

"Gah!" cried Cool. "In a manly way!"

"Please," Evette tried to reassure him. "I am completely comfortable with zee man-to-man love. I am Evette."

Stupidhead seemed to notice Evette for the first time. "Pleased to meet you. This is Lord Cool and I am Gonnard the Great."

"Everyone calls him Stupidhead," put in Cool. "But we're not..."

A Horadrim Portal opened and Dolt Lungren stepped through.

"'Allo," Evette said to Dolt. "I am Evette and zis is Lord Cool and Stupid'ead. Zey are lovairs."

"Noo!" wailed Lord Cool.

"Actually, I've already met them," said Dolt. "But I had no idea you two were... that way." He made the universal limp-wristed gesture.

"We're not!" shouted Lord Cool.

"Don't worry," said Dolt. "Many of the greatest warriors of my clan also shunned the company of women."

"Gah!" cried Lord Cool in frustration.

A thought suddenly occurred to Dolt. "Stu, if you and Lord Cool are... you know..." He made the universal wrist gesture again. "...that must mean you are no longer betrothed to Elsie!"

"Elsie?" asked Evette.

"Huh?" asked Stupidhead. He had forgotten about the rumors he had spread about himself and Elsie in a humorous attempt to annoy her.

"That's wonderful!" exclaimed Dolt. Then he hesitated, "No it's not! What am I to do? Now I will have to choose between the beautiful Elsie and my beloved Sugar!"

"Sugar?" asked Lord Cool.

Evette began to cry. "Elsie was also zee name of my lost love," she sniffled.

"Elsie was your lost love?" asked Stupidhead.

"'Beloved Sugar'?" repeated Lord Cool and frowning at Dolt.

"Moo?" wondered the cow, still glaring at Lord Cool.

***

LC3, Biff and Dr. Bruce stopped to rest near the bottom of the stairs three levels beneath the Cathedral. Biff sat down heavily on the steps and patted the seat next to him. "Cute, puny Dr. Bruce sit next to Biff?"

"Gah!" cried Dr. Bruce. "Stay away from me!"

Biff just shrugged and favored his counterpart with a gap-toothed smile.

"What is it with him anyway?" wondered Dr. Bruce.

"It's pretty obvious," said Elsie. "You were created to be Biff's exact opposite, right?"

"That is a known fact," affirmed Dr. Bruce.

"You have a built-in contempt of Biff, right?"

"I can't even bear the thought of touching him," said Dr. Bruce.

"Well then," concluded Elsie, "it follows that Biff has the exact opposite feelings toward you, and that he adores you and yearns to connect with you in a deep, emotional, and physically invasive way."

"Gah!" repeated Dr. Bruce when Biff winked at him.

"Gah!" echoed Elsie.

"What? asked Dr. Bruce.

"Omega Code. Continuity compression in progress. Emergency download," gasped Elsie dropping to her knees and clutching her head in pain. "Disturbance in the source... a dozen LC's cry out in terror and then cut off... CAIN offline... Tenez-moi, mon Evette aimee! ... COWLORD 2000 FEARS NOTHING! ... We'll have to use the Portal..." Elsie curled into a ball and began screaming as the fragmented memories of the other LC units, destroyed each and every one, burned themselves into her internal database.

As usual, she was aware of the lags when they occurred, and the last several had been big ones. But this was new: Somehow, when she had been between Continuities, CAIN had dumped all available data from the other LC units into her. A last desperate act before its own destruction. The data had been held in temporary storage while she was acclimating to the new Continuity, but now it was integrating into her conscious memories.

It was not a pleasant experience.

Elsie felt the confused and dangerously homicidal mind of LC1 being wiped so she could be cannibalized to create the CowLord 2000. She felt LC2's passion for Evette and her noble sacrifice to save her. She felt the sudden shock into non-existence when Captain Farnham detonated the anti-matter capsule in LC4's chest. It went on and on, right up to the last LC unit in production, destroyed without ever having been activated when CAIN ordered the destruction of the Azure Drake to thwart Maximum Evil.

Elsie was also conscious of the fact that her screams had attracted the denizens of the level. She saw Biff and Dr. Bruce fighting off skeletons and fallen, as well as odd creatures of indeterminate Continuity. The latter were obviously soldiers in the Adversary's Army of Things That Should Not Be. She also noticed other changes: Dr. Bruce's Continuity had been adjusted. He was now casting Fireballs and Chain Lightning rather than using the high-tech weaponry her fragmented memories recalled. He was now using a Mana Shield instead of the force field he'd originally had. Biff seemed unchanged, but smelled a little riper than she remembered. Her own sword had been replaced with a King's War Staff of Haste, and she now knew that Dr. Pepin had built a bomb into her. She also knew that despite Lord Cool's memories and certain aspects of his personality, she was not, nor would she ever be, Lord Cool.

"I am Elsie," she finally managed. "I am the last and only Elsie."

***

"The question is," said Solo, "What do we do now?"

She, Ichabod, CowLad, Ubet Choas, and Deathspit had materialized in the magma caverns near where Sugar and Mini-E had been wondering the exact same thing. There was no sign of Maximum Evil or ULTIMATE EVIL.

A few minutes later, they had encountered Journeyman Jay surrounded by a pack of bright yellow Storm Lords. They raced to his aid, but by the time they reached him, the monsters were peacefully wandering off. One of them said something that sounded like "puppy chow" or perhaps "peek-a-boo." Journeyman Jay had hastily tucked the Compelling Orb inside his black cloak and introductions were made all around.

"Do we continue searching for Maximum Evil and the Adversary?" continued Solo.

Ichabod shook his head. The visor of his mighty CowLord armor was up, which meant that the CowLord personality was down. "We've already accomplished half our objective," he said. "We've found Sugar and Wirt. Assuming a Town Portal will work, we should head back to the surface and regroup with whatever is left of our party."

"Can you tell us anything about what Max and the Adversary are up to?" Solo asked Choas.

The diminutive wizard shook his head. "While I was trapped in Life Sun, I was omniscient and omnipotent..."

"Holy Viagra, Choas!" said CowLad. "Stupidhead used to have the same problem, but then he started taking a potion for it!"

Choas shot the young sidekick a look of annoyance, but otherwise ignored him. "...I was omnipotent," he continued. "But here, I'm just an ordinary, but reasonably powerful, Sorcerer. If you need some Guardians or a Lightning Wall, I'm your man. And I can certainly whip up a Town Portal to the nearest bar." With that, he opened a blue portal to Tristram.

Ichabod said, "We're all together and nobody important is dead..." Journeyman Jay remembered Journeyman Kay sadly. "...if that doesn't call for a round of drinks or six, nothing does."

"Holy Fake ID, Cowlord!" exclaimed CowLad. "I'm underage!"

Ichabod rolled his eyes. "A round of drinks and some milk for the boy," he amended.

*****

Dolt, Stupidhead, Lord Cool, and Evette had likewise decided that alcohol was in order, and had chosen a relatively quiet table in the Tavern of the Rising Sun.

"And so zat is how I came to be 'ere," concluded Evette over a pitcher of beer. Talking about Elsie had been difficult, both emotionally and because her English was limited.

Dolt said, "Your Elsie sounds a lot like my..." He glanced at Stupidhead, still unsure of Elsie's standing with him. "...er, our Elsie. But that's impossible."

"I don't know," mused Stupidhead. "My memories are fuzzy, but a lot of strange things have been happening. It's possible that Elsie..."

"Can't you two see that talking about Elsie is painful to her?" interrupted Lord Cool, hoping to change the conversation to a direction that would lead to Evette going upstairs to one of the tavern's private rooms with him.

"No," said Evette. "I am okay. You are kind, and thoughtful, so like mon Elsie amiee." She looked up at Lord Cool with grateful green eyes.

"Heh, more than you can ever guess," muttered Stupidhead, smiling into his beer.

"Who's Elsie Amy?" wondered Dolt.

"I know how to make it better," suggested Lord Cool. He was on a roll. "Why don't we go upstairs where I can slip you a Little Cool."

Evette looked puzzled. "I do not understand. What is zis -- 'ow you say? -- little cool?" she said. "Please forgive me. It was easier with Elsie; she spoke zee Francais."

"It can be easy with me too," Cool assured her.

"It's true," affirmed Stupidhead patting Cool's hand and batting his eyelashes at him. "He's quite easy."

"Gah!" cried Cool jerking his hand away. This time he was doing it on purpose! "Can I have a word with you in private?" he hissed at the old Sorcerer.

"It is okay," said Evette. "I am not offended by zee man-man love!"

Cool grabbed Stupidhead by the shoulder and marched him into the corner. "What the hell/hell are you doing?" he wanted to know. "Why won't you tell her we're not gay?"

Stupidhead straightened his robe. "My friend, I am far too old to care what some green-eyed, silky skinned love goddess from another dimension thinks of me," he said. There was a twinkle in his eye. "However, I'm just immature enough to care what she thinks of you!" He reached down and pinched Cool's butt.

"Gah!" cried Lord Cool.

"C'mon," grinned Stupidhead. "Who's your Stupidhead?"

"Stupidhead?" shouted Lord Cool. "I'LL GIVE YOU STUPIDHEAD!"

The tavern fell silent and Cool felt the eyes of all its patrons burning into him.

"I'd like some stupid head too!" yelled someone from the back of the bar.

"Gah!"

*****

Sugar entered the tavern just in time to overhear what Lord Cool had shouted at Stupidhead. Her first thought was, "Well of course, what other kind could he give?"

Her second thought was: "Omigod! You're alive!"

Deathspit was slightly quicker on the uptake than Sugar and tore across the tavern to his master. He skidded to a halt at Lord Cool's feet and wet the floor in excitement, leaving a smoking hole in the floorboards.

"Deathspit!" cried Lord Cool picking up the puppy. He was careful not to let the dog lick his face. That was the sort of mistake that even Lord Cool didn't make more than once. "Deathspit!" he cried again. "Who's Daddy's good widdle puppy-wuppy?"

Once again, Cool felt the stares of the people around him. He set Deathspit down on the table. "Ah... good dog," he said in a deeper voice and scratching the puppy's ears.

Then he noticed who was standing in the doorway. "Sugar!" he cried. It seemed there was an echo in the bar. Then Cool looked around and saw Dolt Lungren already racing toward her. Thinking quickly, Cool stuck his foot out to trip the Barbarian Warrior, but misjudged the length of his stride. Dolt's foot hooked underneath Lord Cool's knee instead of at the ankle and both men tumbled across the floor to rest at Sugar's feet.

"Beloved!" cried Dolt. "You're safe!"

"Hey, baby!" said Lord Cool regretting that, from his vantage point on the floor, he could almost, but not quite, see up her skirt.

Sugar looked down at the two men. On the right, was the tall, dark, handsome, and well-muscled Dolt Lungren. On the left was Lord Cool, trying to crane his neck to look up her skirt without looking like he was craning his neck to look up her skirt. His monumentally comic effort to do so brought an instant smile to her lips. Sugar studied her two would-be suitors, immediately recognizing the potential complications that lay ahead. She had spent some time with Dolt and found him to be aesthetically pleasing and earnest, if somewhat clumsy, in his affection for her. He was quite inexperienced, but she considered him trainable.

On the other hand, there was Lord Cool. Living with him had turned out to be impossible, but she still had very fond feelings for him. There was something about him that she couldn't quite put her finger on... Actually, she could put her finger on it, but she wasn't about to in the middle of a bar full of witnesses. Lord Cool had the enthusiasm for her of a fourteen year-old experiencing his first piece of tail. Regrettably, he also had the expertise of a fourteen year-old, and never seemed to get any better. She shuddered, remembering the belly-button incident. Still, each time with Cool was like deflowering a virgin. It was never very good, but it was always memorable.

Fortunately, neither of the men was that bright, and the fact that this triangle was starting out with both of them on the floor at her feet was definitely a promising indicator. "Boy, am I thirsty," she commented, and then watched as Dolt and Cool scrambled to their feet to get her a drink. Nope, this wouldn't be too bad at all.

Behind her, Mini-E was wringing his hands anxiously.

Dolt beat Cool to the bar despite taking an empty pitcher to the back of the head. As Cool pondered the broken pitcher in his hand, Evette caught his eye. "Who is zis?" she asked, nodding at the approaching Sugar. She was followed by Mini-E, Ichabod, CowLad, Solo, Ubet, and Jay.

"Oh, she's my wifaaahhhhsister," answered Lord Cool, recovering nicely.

"'Wifazister'? I am sorry, I do not understand zis word." She shrugged and waved at the approaching party to join them.

*****

"Gonnard? Is that you?"

Stupidhead looked around to see who had spoken.

"Down here!" said Ubet. "Great Mana! It is you! Geez, it's been a dog's age!"

"Ubet Choas!" cried Stupidhead. "I can't believe it!"

"You two know each other?" asked Solo.

"We apprenticed together in Lut Gholein, under his father, Heekikt," said Stupidhead rising to meet his old comrade. Stupidhead and Choas slapped hands, spun once, touched elbows together twice, hopped on one foot, belched three times and then smashed their foreheads together.

"That secret fraternity handshake didn't used to hurt so much," commented Choas when he regained consciousness.

"We were much younger and drunker then," agreed Stupidhead. He held out a hand to help Choas up. As Choas stood, he let out a high, piercing shriek. While Choas had been out cold, Stupidhead had performed the super secret sorcerer's robe wedgy on him. Just like in the old days.

Choas wiped the tears from his eyes and proceeded to extract from between his buttocks about three feet of fabric and his pointed hat. He sniffed his hat gingerly and then put it back on his head. "You old son of an acid hound," said Choas. "Still up to your old tricks."

"Every chance I get," smiled Stupidhead. "Remember when I did that to Drognan?"

"What a screech," chuckled Choas. "Lysander's ears are probably still ringing. Now then, I do believe that tradition dictates the you owe the wedgy victim a drink."

"I thought it was the other way 'round," said Stupidhead, "but I'll play along."

With that Choas jumped up on the table and shouted, "Hey everyone! Drinks are on Gonnard!"

The tavern erupted in cheers and Stupidhead shot Choas a dirty look.

*****

Lazarus wasted no time moving back into his old lair on Level 15. The Chamber of Bone was a dump and he was glad to move his team out of it. With the CowLord 2000 obediently doing all the heavy lifting, the move was quick and effortless. He took advantage of the relative peace and quiet to evaluate his team.

Spite was still in her human form, and she and Sister Twisted were seated at stone slab that had served as his sacrificial altar when he served Diablo. Arch-Mage Suave was once again looking both arch and suave after his sessions with Multi and her duplicates. He was supposed to be monitoring the scrying mirror for any sign of their enemies, but it was obvious that he was just preening.

"CL2K? Please get Mr. Suave back on task," said Lazarus.

The CowLord 2000 clanked over to Arch-Mage suave and poked him with the exposed wiring of its severed right wrist. Suave jumped, nodded politely to Lazarus, and resumed scanning the Catacombs for any unauthorized movement.

Lazarus noted that Suave had swapped his silken sorcerer's robes for a pair of tight, black leather pants and an open-necked white shirt. He was still sporting the short horns, bat-like wings and pointed tail as part of his NQBus motif. There was also a glowing blue gem embedded in the flesh at his throat. It didn't look like a soulstone, and Lazarus wondered if it served some purpose or was just another affectation on the part of the vain sorcerer.

On the subject of dressing up, Multi had discovered the wardrobe of outfits left behind by Lazarus's harem of succubi. She and a few of her duplicates were entertaining themselves by dressing up in the scanty demon hide outfits and, of course, undressing. That reminded Lazarus of the last surviving member of his harem.

He left the main chamber of his lair and walked down the hall to the cages, the CowLord 2000 clanking along behind him. Red Vex looked awful. Her normally porcelain skin was dishwater-gray and her red hair was matted and soaked with perspiration. She was covered with bruises from her many fainting episodes. Her ribs showed. Lazarus wondered how long it had been since she'd last fed. The way time and Continuity had been jumbled up lately, there was really no way to tell. But since succubi fed by draining the life force from their prey during the act of sex, it was certain that she'd received no nourishment since her traumatic encounter with Lord Cool.

"What a sad sight you are, my once-beautiful Red Vex," said Lazarus. "It pains me to see you like this."

She looked at him with hollow eyes and shuddered violently. "Then kill me," rasped Red Vex.

"Wouldn't you rather be made whole again?" offered Lazarus.

"Hole?!" Red Vex fainted.

Lazarus sighed. "CL2K, wake her please."

The giant machine stuck its wrist between the bars and jolted her awake.

"Get a grip on yourself," ordered Lazarus.

Red Vex visualized getting a grip on herself, and fainted again.

After the CowLord 2000 had jolted her awake, Lazarus ordered it to go and fetch a Multi. "If you don't feed, you will die," Lazarus told Red Vex.

"I know," said Red Vex bitterly. "But I can't feed, thanks to that cursed Lord Cool." Just saying the name made her feel woozy.

"Then you'll simply have to learn again," said Lazarus.

"I can't!" insisted Red Vex.

"When I was a boy, my father taught me how to swim by throwing me in the deep part of the pond," said Lazarus. "Either I'd learn to swim or I'd drown."

The CowLord 2000 came clanking down the hall with a Multi tucked under its left arm. "What's up, boss?" asked Multi. "Hey, did you know this thing vibrates?"

Lazarus ordered the CowLord 2000 to put Multi down. She was wearing one of the succubus outfits, or at least, part of one. Red Vex moaned and averted her eyes.

"Multi," said Lazarus. "Red Vex's frigidity is killing her. Help her..." He paused. "...overcome it."

Multi smiled wickedly. "My pleasure." She split herself into a trio of Multi's. "And believe us, it will be." Red Vex shrank into the corner of her cell in terror.

"Either they will restore you or kill you. Welcome to the deep part of the pond," Lazarus told Red Vex as he and the CowLord 2000 left.

*****

Solo studied the group gathered around the table. Sugar sat between Lord Cool and Dolt while Mini-E hovered anxiously behind her. Dolt was busy flexing and telling her about one of his adventures while, at the same time, Lord Cool was attempting to arouse her with naughty limericks. It was clear already that Sugar was not enjoying the competing affections of the two men as much as she thought she was going to. Served her right.

"...And so I felled the beast with a mighty blow of my great axe," Dolt was saying.

"There once was a girl who raised piglets..." Lord Cool was saying, Deathspit napping contentedly at his feet.

"I have an idea," suggested Mini-E, barely audible over the other two men. "We could do each other's nails and trade gossip!"

There hadn't been any milk in the tavern, so the barkeep had sent CowLad/Wirt out to the pasture to get his own. He'd been gone for a while.

Meanwhile, Evette was telling Ichabod about the world she'd come from via Elsie's improvised Horadrim Portal generator.

Finally, at the far end of the table Journeyman Jay listened as Ubet Choas and Stupidhead the Weak reminisced about old times. Although she was interested in hearing about Evette's world, there was something familiar about Journeyman Jay that nagged at Solo. So she edged toward his end of the table.

"So anyway," Choas was saying, "We figured anybody crazy enough to pull off a stunt like that must have balls the size of boulders. That's when everyone started calling him Gonad the Great."

Jay laughed and Solo smirked. No way would she ever be sharing how she got her nickname!

Choas turned to Journeyman Jay. "I've been meaning to ask you, young man," he said. "Where'd you get the Compelling Orb?"

"Huh?" Jay was startled. "What Compelling Orb?"

"Oh, come on. Don't try to kid a kidder! I saw you use it on those creatures in the caverns," said Choas. "My father had one, but no one ever knew what became of the other two."

"Your father had one?" asked Journeyman Jay.

Choas nodded. "Sadly, it was out of charges and nobody knew how to recharge it."

Stupidhead chortled. "That's just what he told you. I happen to know for a fact that it worked just fine."

"How?" asked Choas. "I've never heard about this."

"I, er, borrowed it one weekend and took it to the Harem Guild's headquarters," said Stupidhead smugly.

"No..." said Choas.

"It's true," affirmed Stupidhead turning to Journeyman Jay. "And when I got back, his father..."

"Heekikt Choas?" supplied Jay trying to remember the man's name.

"Like you would not believe," concluded Stupidhead.

"Well, as long as you already know about it, I guess there's no harm in showing it to you," said Jay. "I got it from Journeyman Kay, who got it from his order. I don't know much about it myself. I don't even know how to undo its effects." He reached into his night-black cloak and drew a small metal ball set with a glowing blue gem.

Solo stared.

"Well, as far as I know, you can't undo its effects," said Choas.

"That's why I'm forbidden from coming within 5000 feet of the Lut Gholein Harem Guild or any of its members," put in Stupidhead.

"Although sometimes a sufficient trauma will do the trick," continued Choas.

"So what makes it work?" asked Jay. "This glowing blue gem?"

"That's its power source," nodded Choas. "The orb itself is primarily a handle." He reached over and put his hand over it. "See, you twist it like this to prime it."

"You!" cried Solo jumping up and pointing at Jay. "Now I remember! Because of you, I almost wound up married to Biff!"

"Oh, yeah. Sorry about that," said Journeyman Jay.

"Sorry?!"

"Look, I was only trying to be nice," protested Jay.

"Well, if you think it's so nice, why don't you marry Biff?"

The Compelling Orb gave a flash of blue light and Jay's expression went blank for a moment.

"Uh-oh," said Choas and Stupidhead together.

"I don't think I really meant to do that," said Solo lamely.

"Well, lucky for Jay, Biff's probably not within a thousand miles of..." began Stupidhead.

"Pretty friend Solo!" boomed Biff coming through the tavern door.

*****

"Moooo!" complained Bossy the cow. She'd been increasingly agitated since seeing Stupidhead. He never called, she complained.

Well of course not, said Bessie the cow.

He's human, you're a bovine, agreed Agnes the cow.

No, wailed Bossy. What we had was special! We were meant to be together! I know it!

Bossy, cautioned Bessie.

He'd know it too if it wasn't for that Lord Cool! Bossy spat out her cud for emphasis.

This is really not good for you, counseled Agnes. You've got to move on; find a nice bull.

I don't want a bull! I want... Bossy stopped. Wirt, a.k.a. CowLad, was making his way through the pasture toward them.

That's one of his friends, whispered Bossy.

So? asked Agnes.

I need you to help me keep him here until Lord Cool comes to rescue him, said Bossy.

Then what? asked Bessie.

We kill them both so my beloved will be free to return to me, said Bossy.

You are one mad cow, commented Bessie.

Will you help me? pressed Bossy.

Agnes gave a great bovine sigh. OK.

But only because of our herd mentality, added Bessie.

The three cows quickly surrounded the human and glared at him with their big brown eyes.

"Holy..." began CowLad, and then finished weakly. "...cow."

*****

"Look out! It's Dr. Bruce!" cried Solo drawing her swords and casting a Mana Shield.

"Pretty friend Solo not hurt cute, puny Dr. Bruce!" warned Biff stepping protectively in front of his counterpart.

"You stay away from me!" Dr. Bruce told Biff. He had been trying to keep Elsie between himself and Biff all morning.

"It's all right!" shouted Elsie. "He's with us now!"

There was a prolonged silence as the two groups regarded and reacted to one another.

The newcomers made no impression on Mini-E. He was busy mourning the truth that Sugar would never notice him with a couple of big, stupid jocks like Dolt and Lord Cool vying for her attention.

The last time Lord Cool had seen Elsie, she'd been naked as a jaybird and promising him that she was coming. He giggled.

Elsie stared at Lord Cool. She felt a pang of attraction toward him, but was able to dismiss it as simple narcissism. In fact, it was a little startling to realize how uncomfortable the fact that he'd seen her naked made her. Knowing, firsthand, exactly what was going through his mind didn't help matters any. Especially since what was going through his mind was politically, factually, and anatomically incorrect on every single point. She suppressed the urge to shield her belly button.

Dolt Lungren caught his breath. Elsie looked more radiant than ever in her skintight blue body suit and gripping her war staff. He was thankful that Sugar and Evette had stepped out to powder their noses. How could he choose between Elsie and Sugar? Short of convincing them to duel one another to the death, he had no idea. Nonetheless, he had to go to the beautiful Elsie.

Deathspit started to run to Elsie, and then stopped and looked back at Lord Cool. Then he looked at Elsie. He wet the floor in confusion, leaving another smoking hole.

Ichabod noted the arrival of Biff, Elsie and Dr. Bruce and waved before turning back to his drink. He'd been listening in as Stupidhead and Choas exchange lies about girls they used to know. It was fun; it reminded Ichabod of hanging out in the tavern with Zhar and Cain countless Continuities ago. He also wondered what was keeping Wirt. Even with the CowLad persona impressed on him, Wirt was far from stable and probably should not have been left unattended for long.

Stupidhead and Choas were busy with their own conversation, but Stupidhead wondered if Elsie was still hung up on Sugar. If so, would the two of them get together? And if that were the case, would they let him watch? If not, well, that's what scrying mirrors were for.

Journeyman Jay's jaw dropped. Biff, with his rock-like muscles, many scars, and masculine odor, was the most magnificent man he had ever seen. He wanted to say something but his voice came out a hoarse whisper.

Solo was still suspicious. "How do we know he's on our side?" she pressed.

Elsie started to answer, but was forced to admit that was a good question.

At that moment, Dr. Bruce noticed Biff edging closer to him and leaped away with a scream. "Thanks to the Adversary," he panted. "That malodorous lummox wants to play snugglebunnies with me! Believe me when I tell you that I have no intention of serving the entity who created that situation."

Solo could sympathize with that, probably more than Dr. Bruce knew. She looked guiltily at the smitten Journeyman Jay.

To Jay, it was clear that Biff only had eyes for Dr. Bruce. He felt his heart breaking. Why couldn't the innocent big lug see that Dr. Bruce had nothing but contempt for him? He reached inside his cloak and carefully thumbed the blade of his King's Dagger of the Heavens. One way or another, he'd free his sweet, gentle Biff from Dr. Bruce's unholy hold.

At that moment, Sugar and Evette returned, and there was another awkward pause.

"Elsie!" cried Evette. "Ma cherie!" She raced across the tavern, only to trip over the still-puzzled Deathspit.

Dolt had also been hurrying toward Elsie. He stepped in the hole Deathspit had left in the floor and went sprawling to land at Elsie's feet. Evette landed next to him.

"Elsie, ma belle Elsie. J'ai pense que je perdu vous pour toujours!" said Evette looking up at Elsie, her eyes shining.

Dolt opened his mouth to say something and then looked guiltily back at Sugar.

Ignoring Dolt, Elsie knelt to help Evette up. The words came to her automatically, her built-in database providing the translation: "Ma belle Evette aimee. Vous savez que je ne vous laisserais jamais."

Yet even as she said so, she felt her eyes drawn toward Sugar. She knew every inch of Sugar, or at least she would have if Lord Cool had been paying better attention. But there was something beyond the attraction she felt for her -- Lord Cool's -- ex-wife. Lord Cool had never had the inclination or the attention span to learn the things he should have known. Merely hearing the word "clitoris" consistently put him into a deep sleep. Elsie felt a need to show Sugar that she knew more, could do better -- be better - than she ever had been as Lord Cool.

This was lost on Sugar, who was caught entirely off-guard by Dolt's strong reaction to the strange blonde with obviously fake boobs. Who was this woman who had such a hold on Dolt? Her Dolt. She looked from Dolt to Lord Cool. From his vantage point, Cool had a choice view of Evette's butt and seemed to be in some sort of trance.

Suddenly seeing an opportunity, Mini-E piped up: "We could give each other make-overs!"

"Oh be quiet," grumbled Sugar without sparing him a glance.

Mini-E's lip quivered as he fought back tears. "Big boys don't cry. Big boys don't cry," he whispered to himself.

Dolt and Cool both noticed Sugar getting up to leave in disgust. "Sugar!" they called together. Dolt got up to catch her.

Elsie turned her attention away from Sugar, reluctantly. "Evette..."

"Oui?" replied Evette expectantly.

"Do you still have the 'Fallen Madonna with Big Boobies'?" she asked in English.

"Oui... Yes. Of course," replied Evette, confused.

"I need to see it," said Elsie. "If my memories -- or if LC2's memories -- are correct, it may contain the key to defeating the Adversary once and for all."

Evette handed Elsie the metal tube containing the precious canvas. Elsie tried to ignore the spark of excitement that ran through her when their fingers touched, but succeeded only partially.

"Stu, Ichabod, Solo, I need you to take a look at this," said Elsie clearing the table and unrolling the painting. "Dr. Bruce, this might interest you too."

"Nice rack," commented Lord Cool when he saw the painting.

Evette favored him with a smile. "You do not 'ave to pretend to be zee sexist pig. I told you I am not offended by zee 'omosexual -- 'ow you say? -- lifestyle."

"Gah!"

Evette was looking over Elsie's shoulder and Elsie could feel her pressing against her back. She smiled and whispered something in French to Evette, who blushed.

Lord Cool tugged on Stupidhead's robe. "Stu! Stu!" he whispered.

"Fascinating," murmured Stupidhead studying the painting.

"Yeah, I told you it was a nice rack," said Cool impatiently.

"No, no," said Stupidhead irritably. "I mean, yes she does have a nice set, but that's not..."

"Teach me how to say something in French to impress Evette," whispered Cool.

Choas and Ichabod were also studying the painting as Stupidhead gave Cool something to say. "There must be thousands of magickal formulae embedded in the very pigments of this painting," breathed Choas.

Dr. Bruce was also examining the painting when he felt Biff press up close behind him. "Gah!" he cried leaping away. "Stay away from me!"

As Biff once again began to edge closer to Dr. Bruce, Solo noticed Journeyman Jay trying to edge closer to Biff.

"Right here, up and down the curtain by her left arm," said Ichabod. "These are all forbidden spells. The kind The Sorcerer Who Must Never Be Named used when he accidentally created the Adversary."

"That's some pretty serious reality manipulation," agreed Solo. She was nowhere near as well versed as the full-fledged sorcerers at the table, but she knew powerful juju when she saw it.

"Evette!" said Lord Cool loudly. "Je suis un sissy flamboyant et je n'aime pas de filles!"

Evette and Elsie both giggled. Noting the puzzled expression on Sugar's face, Evette pointed at Lord Cool and made the universal wrist gesture. Sugar just looked at Lord Cool and scratched her head in confusion.

"Gah!" cried Lord Cool, realizing he'd been had.

"What are those?" wondered Choas pointing at the painting.

"Her areolas?" questioned Stupidhead.

"No, you dirty old letch," snapped Choas. "There."

"Those are the three Compelling Orbs!" exclaimed Ichabod.

Elsie ran her finger over the painting as she read the code. "Properly imbued, the Orbs can be used as the three corners of a Compelling Matrix. If we could catch the Adversary inside the matrix we could force it to dissipate and rejoin the Boojum."

"Too bad we've only got one Compelling Orb," said Ichabod.

"I know where the second is," said Choas. "All we have to do is pick it up from my father at the sorcerer's university in Lut Gholein."

"Of course, that still leaves us one shy," said Journeyman Jay.

"This Compelling Orb," said Dr. Bruce. "It wouldn't happen to be a metal ball set with a glowing blue jewel, would it?"

"Sure," shrugged Jay.

Dr. Bruce smiled. "I think I know where we can find the third Compelling Orb."

*****

Arch-Mage Suave gazed into the scrying mirror. He was, of course, admiring his reflection, rather than scanning the Catacombs and Church. After his sessions with a few of the Multi duplicates, he was feeling more like his old self again. However, he was still concerned about the mysterious blonde and why his power had not affected her. He touched the glowing blue Compelling Gem embedded at his throat. He did not have enough information to know whether the problem was with the gem or some kind of resistance on her part.

The chamber door flew open and everyone -- Suave, Sister Twisted, Spite, Lazarus, and a quintet of Multi duplicates -- looked up. The Multi duplicate that staggered through the door was nearly naked. That, in and of itself, was not unusual. What was unusual was the fact that she looked about a thousand years old and was grinning ear-to-wrinkled-ear. "What a ride," she managed, falling to her knees before the other Multi duplicates.

Any other comment or explanation she might have made was cut off by a Bloodstar in the back. The Multi clone expired and disappeared in a whiff of smoke.

Red Vex stood in the doorway in all her buxom, flame-haired, ivory-skinned glory. "Ladies and gentlemen," she said. "The bitch is back."

"What happened to the rest of my duplicates?" wondered one of the Multi's.

Red Vex shot her a look that was devoid of humor. "They were delicious."

Another Multi was poking through the fine ashes of her sister. She whistled. "Wow, the must've came and went at the same time."

Red Vex hissed and hit that Multi with a Bloodstar, punching a grapefruit-sized hole in her chest. The Multi evaporated in a puff of smoke while her sisters scattered.

"Let that be a lesson to you all," announced the Hell Spawn. "Red Vex is the plaything of no man, woman, or doppelganger."

"But you look like such a nasty little plaything," taunted another Multi.

Red Vex turned to fire again, but Lazarus ordered the CowLord 2000 between her and the disrespectful Multi clone.

"Bitchy, isn't she?" whispered a Multi.

"I like 'em bitchy," replied another Multi, duplicating herself.

"Enough!" ordered Lazarus. "It is good to see you fully recovered," he told Red Vex.

"It's good to be myself again," she agreed. "I suppose you expect me to serve your master in gratitude now?"

Lazarus shook his head. "I doubt any of us could truly make you do something you did not want to do."

Arch-Mage Suave fingered the Compelling Gem, but remained silent.

"Good," said Red Vex.

"However," continued Lazarus. "I'm guessing that I do know what you want to do, and I think we can help each other."

"What I want to do is find the man who ruined me," snarled Red Vex. "I want to find Lord Cool." She spat the name like something foul tasting. "And when I find him, I will drain him. I will drain him and drain him until his eyes implode. I will drain him until his liver turns inside-out, his skin bleeds, and his balls swell up and burst like overripe melons."

"Ooh," breathed a Multi. "I know what 'drain' is a euphemism for."

"I'm getting hot already," added another, duplicating herself.

Lazarus smiled. "I'm sure we'll do everything we can to arrange you a date with the illustrious Lord Cool."

*****

"'How'd you know I was ripe for the plucking?'" said Lord Cool, delivering the last line of a dirty limerick. According to his calculations, Sugar should already be taking her clothes off.

"Will you be silent?" snapped Dolt. "I am trying to have a conversation with my beloved."

"You weren't acting like I was your beloved a couple of minutes ago," accused Sugar.

"Yeah," said Lord Cool. "She needs a real man!"

"You weren't much better," Sugar told him. "Why don't you go look at Evette's butt some more or something?"

Cool glanced across the table, but she was seated facing him and he did not have a good view.

"From what I've heard," added Dolt coolly, "you are exactly one-fifth the man that I am."

"What's that supposed to mean?" demanded Lord Cool.

"Besides, you're gay," finished Dolt making the universal wrist gesture.

"I am not gay!" shouted Lord Cool.

Evette looked up and shook her head sadly. "You must not be afraid to come out of zee closet," she advised him.

"Gah!"

"I'm a real man," offered Mini-E.

"Will you people kindly take it outside?" scolded Solo. "The rest of us have some serious work to do!"

"I told you to stay the hell/hell away from me!" Dr. Bruce shouted as Biff drew too near.

Solo closed her eyes and counted backwards from ten.

Sugar, sensing the Bard was about to express her frustration in Chain Lightning, said: "I'm going out to the fountain."

Automatically, Dolt and Lord Cool followed her.

"I have an idea," said Mini-E brightly and getting up with them. "Maybe Dolt and Lord Cool could duel to the death for you! On a flimsy rope bridge. Over lava."

Deathspit got up, looked from Elsie to Lord Cool and back again, and finally followed Lord Cool outside.

Elsie watched Sugar leave, admiring her walk. Evette regarded Elsie carefully.

"Zis Sugar, you 'ave zee feelings for her, no?" she asked frankly.

"Ahh..." hesitated Elsie.

"Sweet Zakarum in a Barrel!" swore Solo. "What the hell/hell is it about Sugar anyway? What's she got that I haven't got?"

It was a rhetorical question, of course, but the way the eyes of every man at the table (and Evette and Elsie) flickered toward her chest provided an obvious answer.

"That's it!" shouted Solo. "I need a smoke."

"I didn't know you smoked," said Ichabod.

"I might start," snapped Solo. With that, she stomped toward the back door, muttering something about how she should have stayed with the tribe of bisexual Amazons when she had the chance.

Ichabod, Stupidhead, Choas, Dr. Bruce, Biff, and Journeyman Jay remained at the table, along with Elsie and Evette. "Someone needs to go to Lut Gholein and pick up the second Compelling Orb," said Elsie. She was grateful that Solo's outburst had given her an excuse to steer the subject away from her relationship -- such as it was -- with Sugar.

"Not me," said Stupidhead. "If I set foot in Lut Gholein, the Harem Guild has promised to teleport me -- or selected parts of me -- to an alligator pit in Kurast."

Choas shrugged. "Well, obviously I should go, since it's my father who has it," he said. "It might be good to have Journeyman Jay along with his orb to help convince Dad that we need it for legitimate reasons."

"Then Biff should come too," said Journeyman Jay.

"No!" cried Biff. "Biff want to stay with cute, puny Dr. Bruce!"

"You stay away from me!"

Jay sighed. The only way to get Biff to come with him was to invite his rival along. "Dr. Bruce should come to Lut Gholein too."

"Cute, puny Dr. Bruce go camping with Biff?"

"Gah!"

"We also need a way to imbue the orbs," continued Elsie.

"Sugar once mentioned that the smith at her order, the Sisters of the Sightless Eye, had an enchanted hammer that gave her the power to do that," volunteered Stupidhead. "The Sisters are pretty shy about having men in their fortress, so you and Evette are the best candidates for that mission. And Sugar, of course."

"I'm sure Solo will be glad to help too," said Ichabod. "Once she cools off."

"So what do the rest of us do?" wondered Stupidhead.

"That's easy," answered Dr. Bruce. "You, CowLord, CowLad, Dolt, Mini-E, Lord Cool, and Deathspit raid the Chamber of Bone and monkey pile on NQBus until he coughs up the last Compelling Orb. While you're at it, you take out the rest of my ex-teammates and clean out the dungeon to clear us a path to the Adversary."

"Your basic explore and destroy mission," nodded Ichabod.

"We should all try to avoid side quests," advised Choas.

"That goes without saying," said Elsie. "Time is of the essence."

"Hey, where is Wirt anyway?" asked Stupidhead.

"He went out to get some milk," said Ichabod. "It's taking him an awfully long time to milk a cow though."

*****

Out at the fountain, Dolt and Lord Cool had actually warmed to the idea of dueling to the death for Sugar.

"Or maybe you could have a contest to see who can kill the biggest dragon without armor or weapons," suggested Mini-E.

Dolt and Cool both nodded. That did seem like the definitive way to prove their manhood.

"And while they're gone," Mini-E said to Sugar excitedly, "I can do your toenails!"

Sugar had heard just about enough. "Are you all insane?!" she shouted.

Cool and Dolt looked at one another, each trying to judge the sanity of the other and finding the results inconclusive. Mini-E began to cry.

"And you," snapped Sugar, "stop your blubbering!"

"I can't help it," wailed Mini-E. "I'm the exact opposite of Maximum Evil."

"Oh, you are not," scolded Sugar. "The exact opposite of Maximum Evil isn't Minimum Evil; it's Minimum Good."

"It is?" asked Mini-E drying his eyes.

"And, semantically, Minimum Good is the same as Maximum Evil," added Sugar.

"So it is," said Mini-E thoughtfully and standing up straight. "Why, you're absolutely right!" Minimum Evil's brown eyes changed to black and his all-cotton pastel-colored outfit likewise changed to black leather.

The last words Sugar heard were the last three words she would ever have expected to hear from Dolt Lungren and Lord Cool: "Sugar, you idiot!"

Maximum Evil switched on Auto-Kill, and Dolt, Cool, Deathspit, and Sugar collapsed like marionettes with their strings cut. He knelt next to Sugar's body and was surprised to find a pulse. "Must be losing my touch," he said. "Ah well, it's for the best." He picked her up in his arms. "I guess I get to do your toenails after all. After that, we'll just have to see what else I 'do.'"

Solo came around the side of the Tavern of the Rising Sun just in time to see Maximum Evil laugh maniacally and teleport away with Sugar in his arms.

"Not again..." she groaned.

*****

"If he hadn't just been coming out of his Minimum Evil phase, you boys would be toast," Choas told Dolt and Cool. "Don't expect to be so lucky a second time."

"I guess this alters our strategy," said Ichabod. "No doubt you two will need to try and find and rescue Sugar."

Dolt looked at Lord Cool. "We will put aside our differences to rescue my beloved."

Cool shot him a devious look. "If you'd like, I can even cower in the background while you die heroically. That'll impress her."

Dolt nodded. "You are more generous than I was willing to give you credit for."

"Another change in strategy," said Elsie. "I can't trust you clowns not to get yourselves and Sugar killed. I'm coming too."

Lord Cool giggled, but Evette looked troubled. "I will come with you, my love," she told Elsie.

Dolt looked at Elsie. Her presence would complicate things with Sugar.

"Looks like you're on your own to go see the Sisters," Elsie told Solo.

"Suits me," replied Solo. She'd had just about enough of her companions for a while.

Ichabod whispered to Stupidhead. "Dolt, Cool, Elsie and Evette going after Sugar is a disaster waiting to happen," he said. "Emotions will be running high. You'd better go along and referee. CowLad and I will take the Chamber of Bone, assuming CowLad gets back from wherever he went."

Stupidhead's first -- and smarter -- instinct was to try to weasel out of it. But then he saw Cool craning his neck to look down Evette's shirt as she spoke softly with Elsie in French. "Cool! My beloved comrade and partner in countless swinging and thrusting adventures," he called. "I'm shocked that you would think to go on such a dangerous and penetrating mission without me, the man whose staff you once held, just as I held your sword!"

Evette gave Elsie a meaningful look. "You see, zere 'earts beat as one. Zey will bring us luck!"

"Gah!" complained Lord Cool shutting his eyes tightly.

******

Will Dolt, Cool, Elsie, Evette, Deathspit, and Stupidhead be able to rescue Sugar from Maximum Evil? If they do, who will win her affections: Dolt, Cool, or Elsie? What about Dolt and Elsie? And Elsie and Evette? Will Cool ever be able to convince Evette he's not gay?

Will Choas, Dr. Bruce, Biff and Journeyman Jay be able to retrieve the Compelling Orb from Lut Gholein? Will Biff be able to express his emotions for Dr. Bruce? Will Jay be able to express his for Biff?

Will Red Vex get her revenge on Lord Cool? Will the cows get their revenge on Lord Cool, or will they take their frustrations out on CowLad? Will Spite eat Dolt? Will Arch-Mage Suave dominate Elsie? Will Lazarus have the CowLord 2000 blow up everything, just to be on the safe side?

Or will everyone just get in space ships again and screw around with Pokemon until they need to be removed from Continuity?

For the answer to these questions and many more, it can't hurt to tune into Chapter 32 of Collaborative Carnage!


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