Issue 3: Action, That's How! (A Caper in Time Part 2)

by Evan Forman and Michael Robertson - One Chapter a Week Starting 27.11.16


Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - King Zaedar is Introduced, He Learns of Our Hero’s Exploits in Issue #2, and A Mysterious Force Awakens™ From The Depths of The Ancient Past
Chapter 2 - John Boss - Incredibly - Escapes from "The White Palace of Death”, Shoots A BUNCH of Dudes, and Makes His Way to The Relative Safety of Dryadora’s Coal District
Chapter 3 - Dhubagèl Escorts Aerin Through The Sewers of Dryadora, But Maybe Also His Subconscious? What I Mean is We Get to Know More About This Previously Mysterious and At Points Unsettling Character, and The Subterranean Setting is Associated - in Jungian Psychoanalysis - With The Subconscious, So That Works
Chapter 4 - That Relatively Sedate Chapter Was Just a Break from The All-Important Action! As John Boss and Chel Make Their Way Through The Coal District In Their Attempt to Find Safe Refuge, But Not Without The Police Giving Chase
Chapter 5 - John Boss, Aerin Liette, Dhubagèl Shaen, Chel Hagar, and More are Finally United, and Ready to Strike Back Against King Zaedar’s Brutal Regime
Chapter 6 - The Past 30 Years of Aerin's Life Are Unlived for the Sake of the Plot, by Which I Mean Primarily the Plot of This Book, but Also the Plot Which the Red Hand Formulate in This Chapter, Which - If That Wasn't Obvious to You, Reader - Is a Clever Bit of Wordplay on the Similarities between The "Diegetic" Rebellion's Plot Which Requires Sacrifice, in a Very Fatalistic, Heroic Sort of Way, and The "Non-Diegetic" Aristotelian Plot Structure Which Requires Sacrifice in a Very Ritualistic “High-Maintenance Volcano God” Sort of Way
Chapter 7 - In a ‘Baroque Formalism’ Power Move, Four Conversations between John Boss the 34th and the Three Members of the Dryadora Red Hand Cell Are Intercut with a Scene of Domestic Mundanity, and a Scene of Great Heroism Which Is Also a Flashback into the past of John Boss the 41st. For the Purposes of Light Genre Parody, a Minor Character Has a Silly Name; A Minor Character Waits for a Bus, Which Doesn't Actually Move the Plot Forward or Contribute to The Themeing in Any Meaningful Way, And a Minor Character Mentions Things from Wurld’s past but Doesn’t Explain Them, Which Gives You That Kind of High-Fantasy Texture without the Bogged-Downedness That Comes with Fields of Exposition: All the Flavour of Fantasy with None of the Nutrition, and I Think That's Beautiful
Chapter 8 - The Night before the Operation, Aerin — Overcome by Insomnia — Hides Away in His Study and Distracts Himself from His Fear of Tomorrow's Events with the Comforting Familiarity of His Self-Loathing. Kreida Tries to Comfort Him and the Two End up Comparing Notes on a Relationship Forged under the Crucible Pressures of Mental Illness. It's Actually Really Nice.
Chapter 9 - There's a Flashback to an Episode from Chel Hagar's past with Revealing Parallels to Another Episode from Chel Hagar's Past: Chapter 7 of Issue #2. You Might Assume This Is Our Only Reason for Jumping Back a Few Years in Time, but Only If You Pay Attention Will You Notice That We're Subtly Reminding You of and Expanding on the Sub-Sub-Plot of Dryadora and / or the Whole Elvin Empire's failing Electricity System, Because That's Going to Be Important Later. We Then Seamlessly Transition into the Red Hand Cell's Infiltration of the DTV Station Where the Tapes of What Actually Happened in the Arena Are Kept. Being the End of Act II / Beginning of Act III, Things Go a Bit Skiwhiff and the Chapter Ends on a Thrilling Cliffhanger That You'll Have to Wait 'Til next Sunday to See Resolved!
Chapter 10 - Aerin and Krieda Spend Most of the Day in Dryadora's Pearl District, a Nice Day out Which Is Actually a Ruse by Aerin to Get near the Arena Where the Prime Minister Is Making His Speech. Krieda Is Conveniently Scheduled to Visit Her Parents in the Afternoon, so This Gives Aerin the Perfect Opportunity for a Heartbreaking Goodbye Scene before He Goes to Infiltrate the Press Crowd and Place Lockswell's Signal Jammer on the DTV Van's Satellite. Aerin and Dhubagèl Engage in Some Breathtakingly Suspenseful Scenes of Social Deception, but Are They Wily Enough to Avoid Detection by the Already On-Edge Members of the Prime Minister's Elite Guard? Also, How Good Was Doctor Who Last Night?
Chapter 11 - The Red Hand Defend the Control Room as Their Broadcast Goes out to the World. They Flee, and after a High-Octane Chase Scene They Escape into the Forests. All Hope Seems Lost, but Then They Are Saved by a Mysterious Character from an Earlier Point in the Story in a Way That Is Surprising but, Crucially, Still Made Inevitable by the Aristotelian Clockwork We've Established up until This Point. I Liked This Week's Doctor Who a Lot More Than Frank Cottrell-Boyce's Last Episode. It's Good That We're Getting More Fully-Realised Alien Planets In The Show Again
Chapter 12 - The Twelfth One

3 HOURS, 22 MINUTES, AND 14 SECONDS

1 — Introduction (Got my hands up, celebrate like it’s my birthday / Five more shots of tequila, I’m thirstay / Feelin’ so good! Feelin’ so great! / Tonight! Tonight! Tonight! Tonight!)

What may at first seem like a cursory glance at the history of jam in Wurld quickly turns out to be something more like seeing the world in a grain of sand. Indeed, the beginning of jam is the beginning of the universe: when the Creator splattered him-and-or-her-self against the cosmic rocks, their eyes became the sun and the moon, and our planet. Their blood became the sea, their fur became the grassy plains and their bones became the giant bones you see scattered around the Abyss, if some tribal religions are to be believed. They are not. In fact, most theologians agree that the Creator’s bones were shattered into tiny pieces upon impact and fall onto our world in the form of snow. The important thing is the Creator’s heart, the heart shared many properties with blood: they are the same colour, and both contain blood. This is a very roundabout way of saying that in culinary terms the origins of jam are unknown to us, but it plays as crucial a part in the Creation story as any other force of nature. We can therefore ascertain that the recipe for jam was not so much invented as it was discovered, jam as we know it being a naturally-occurring feature of the early universe. It is first described in the Encyclopedia Scranatica, literally “On Food”, and the recipe is one of ancient civilisation’s great gifts to us in the modern era. If early humans (jam was most abundant in what would become the Empire of Man, but was allegedly discovered in frozen pockets throughout the mountains of Astor until the early 14th century) hadn’t discovered the means to replicate jam, all the world’s abundance of it would have been totally consumed by the end of prehistory. The identity of the person who unlocked the secrets of jam is anonymous, “On Food” being a collection of many household recipes whose first edition was compiled by Francis the Lesser near the end of the first century, but whose second and most famous edition was collated by Francis the Least. Some theorise that they would have been an alchemist in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, some theorise they would have been a peasant in search of something to put on bread and sandwiches. Whoever they were, it would have been impossible for them to fathom the ways in which their discovery would shape all of history forever.

2 — Jamarcho-Capitalism and The Ensuing Jam Wars

After the collapse of the Empire of Man, the south-eastern quarter of Wurld was plunged into chaos. The Immortal’s generals attempted to maintain order, but they and their armies quickly turned on eachother in ever-more fractal power struggles. Collisterra attempted to invade numerous times during this period, but the Western Wall provided enough protection that a relatively small army / state of about a thousand men were able to hold off a whole kingdom, for a time. This army’s vigilance created the conditions for what we would now recognise as anarcho-capitalism, and the rise of the jam barons.

It is worth noting at this stage that while the Empire of Man fell, the Empire of Woman, watching from the safety of their utopian island micronation, basically didn't see what all the fuss was about.

Of course, other resources provided more stable foundations for a budding fiefdom: for anyone who could seize and protect a gold or silver mine there was a dynasty with their name on it, but no bounty of gold or shipment of iron swords could hold a candle to the spiritual and cultural value of a jar of strawberry jam. So began the Jam Wars, a period of endless conflict between four or five militias all attempting to take over eachother’s strawberry fields or otherwise decimate their rivals’ jam-production capabilities. Of course, even within these little empires there was competition for the jam profits: workers in the fields would steal strawberries to make and sell their own artisanal jams to compensate for their poor wages. One might imagine that the sticky hand of the free market would allow jam-based economies to flourish unimpeded by state intervention, but on a similar timescale the jam barons each instituted a kind of police force to protect their financial interests, and so monarchy returned to those lands. And then the Collisterran state intervened by invading every fucker.

3 — God and Man, God and Jam

It’s hard to put a definitive year on the Collisterran jam ban, spreading (pun intended) as it did over the colonies in irregular fits and spurts of religious oppression over a 30-year period. Shared religion had been a crucial part of social cohesion after the fall of the Empire, and the ban merely drove it underground, where it nurtured the various anti-Collisterran resistance movements that quickly emerged in cellars and caves across the land. A not-insignificant part of those meetings, the elves of the Abyss would soon learn, was the serving of jam.

After the fall of the Empire, a few elves had ventured over the Northern Wall but found that the Immortal’s former subjects were still happy to enforce his ban with pitchforks and burnings at makeshift stakes. That the lower reach of the Abyss had an excellent climate for berries was no use, when it came to diplomacy the small Elvin territory that did form below the wall only traded spears. This changed when the occupying Collisterrans enforced a policy of non-aggression towards the elves. (Some scholars argue that not a hundred years earlier King Aala Yujra himself was at least partly Elvin.) Despite the opportunity for peace and even limited migration the Collisterran invasion allowed the elves, they were not a species used to being told what to do, and some human resistance cells found their tenacity - but more importantly their white blankberry jam - inspiring. The role this condiment played in the eventual creation of the Dryadoran state cannot possibly be overstated.

4 - Jam in Literature:

It was just about morning. The weak light of the sun yellowed the edges of blue and cavernous clouds outside the bedroom window. Aerin hadn’t meant to fall asleep in the first place but he was dimly relieved to see Krieda lying still and quiet now; fully clothed and dressed for winter, her arms choking out the pillow beneath her head, black stains down her cheeks and smeared on the white sheets. The bottom of her nose was crusted with snot and red with friction. Krieda’s life would not implode for at least another eight months, the oncologist had said, but knowing was just as bad. As Aerin listened to her breathe, he only now dwelled on the fact that his father was dead too, somewhere below a worn-down stone in a field. He then thought about breakfast. He carefully turned over to look at the digital clock on the bedside table but only saw a sliver of his face reflected in the black glass. The battery had run out some time ago.

Aerin slowly and quietly got up off the bed. He only pulled the blanket over her shoulders before he crept out of the room. His bare feet enjoyed carpets, as a concept, he mused as he quietly descended the thirteen steps to the ground floor. He placed his right hand on the mahogany orb at the bottom of the handrail and swung around a little as he turned towards the kitchen, spotting the…

He stopped and actually *looked* at the portrait of Jebediah Jingles and his spurned heirs. What the hell was that about? Why did they keep that there? Was it just funny? A conversation-starter in the event they had guests? An ironic antique from a charity shop? Were the Jingles actually related to Aerin on his mother’s side? Or did Britain actually fake that will? Then why would Aerin own a painting of them? None of these questions, you may have noticed, were relevant.

Onto the cold tiles of the kitchen, all the fake marble gray in the morning light. He took two slices out of the breadbin and up to the black beast of a…

He picked The Thing up and inspected each face of it, hoping he’d find out what it was actually called. He had seen Krieda use it the morning before, and he knew that you put two slices of bread inside, pulled the lever down, gave it a minute or so and the bread came out… “Not quite ‘cooked’,” thought Aerin. “More… ‘roasted’, like some kind of…”

He looked up at the blank wall. “Roaster.”

Jam was still good, it was not an art that had been lost these two centuries. Aerin especially enjoyed the pop of the lid and the sound of clammy resistance as he scooped some up, the crackle as the knife spread across the golden slice. From the full and colourful fridge he pulled a carton of orange juice and carefully measured it by the pitch that rose in tandem with the orangeline (that is, waterline, but for orange), something that with half-closed eyes Krieda seemed to time through muscle memory alone. He yawned and walked through to the living room. A gulp of the orange juice washed away the stale taste of sleep in his mouth, then he turned on the TV.

There’s a faint pop in its mechanisms, and it squeals electrically as black glass turns to a gray picture, and the gray picture turns to fucking Everybody Loves Comharril of all things.

Seeking sweet mercy, AERIN hits the Channel 1 button on the remote while he chews up the first warm mouthful of jammy toast. On the TV, a FEMALE NEWSREADER is looking into the camera.

NEWSREADER: “-at least thirty employees and officers have been confirmed dead as of reporting. The terrorists are thought to have taken hostages and occupied the station’s control room, where they remained for half an hour before the armed forces arrived on the scene. The terrorists are then reported to have fled the scene with hostages, but were captured alive in the early hours of this morning in the woods west of the Dryadora City. We’ve had news come in just an hour ago that the police have performed a major operation in the city’s Coal District, and have discovered a terrorist hideout beneath the city sewers. Military personnel will continue to patrol each district until further notice. We go now live on the scene to Nee Loreon, who has the latest on this developing situation. Nee, what can you tell us?”

EXT. COAL DISTRICT

An Elvin reporter, NEE LOREON stands with a microphone in front of some derelict flats.

NEE: “Well Reanon, we’re still waiting on an official response from government figures on the outcome of these raids but we have been told just now the extent of what the police have found down there. The police have discovered sophisticated radio equipment which the attackers are believed to have used to communicate with other Red Hand cells across the empire, likely scattered across Collisterra. They’ve also found a fully stocked armory of weapons and documents including the identities of Red Hand operatives around Dryadora and the continent at large. Looking at the bigger picture and reading back on official statements, what the events of the past two days seem to represent is a violent realisation that the government has not been doing enough to combat the terrorist threat which has reared its head once again. One member of the public said to us ‘it feels like we’re at war again’.”

The image jumps as the channel switches over.

INT. BEDROOM

An elven woman in jeans and a flannel shirt hurriedly opens the door, her face carries all the exasperation of a housewife’s Monday morning.

Elvin WOMAN: “-Comharril! Your boss wants to…”

CUT TO: Comharril, trousers around his ankles, slathered head to toe in chilli sauce.

COMHARRIL: “This is *not* what it looks like.”

CUE LAUGHTER, FADE TO ADS

The sound cuts out and the TV goes black with a quarter-second collapse of static. In the reflection of the slightly convex glass wall we see AERIN LIETTE standing with the remote in his hand. He falls back down onto the sofa, visibly shaken. There’s a burst of static as if the TV has turned itself on again, but it’s just a flashy transition between this shot and a close-up on AERIN himself. He looks directly into the camera, horror and tears build up behind his eyes. He takes a deep breath, and we linger on this shot for some time, just long enough to be uncomfortable. He takes on a look of grim determination. He knows what he must do.

FADE OUT

It dawned slowly and awfully on Krieda Caishead, the fact that she was no longer unconscious. She’d kept her eyes shut a long while, hoping that sleep would accept her refusal to be alive this morning, and that she could stay in this bed until it would no longer be painful to leave. But she needed to piss eventually. So.

She turned over because the side she’d been sleeping on became sore, and heard footsteps going about the second floor, stopping as Aerin noticed her moving. She wiped sleep from her tired eyes and saw him at her side, kneeling down at the edge of the bed. “Hey.”

It took a while before a whispered little “hey” escaped her lips. “Why have you got your coat on?”

“There’s no milk.” He moved a strand of messy hair out of her face. “You going to be okay?”

“Eventually.” She stared at the same spot in space. “Just not now.”

“I’ll be back soon, okay?”

She nodded, and he kissed her on the forehead, and left her.

Aerin closed the front door, stepping back to take one final look at what could have been his life. His heart rattled in his hollow chest as he stepped off the landing where he’d seen Krieda for the first time. The street was veiled in morning fog, not quite the acidic muck from when he’d arrived, but just as thick. He sat down on the bottom step, knowing what was coming, knowing it was very soon, and more urgently than ever wondering what happens to people when they die.

He stared at a line of moss growing between two paving stones, wringing his hands and listening for the big black van to come, as the big black van would come for every other name on every list in every bunker they found. He felt like he felt when he saw those people in the truck, listening to the dark and bloody tremor of the world’s gears churning below the concrete. He listened for the sound of the van’s wheels trundling down the cobbled street, listened for the crunch as it stopped in front of his doorstep, listened for the thudding of boots as the men with guns formed a semicircle around him.

“Aerin?” said officer Alvus, not quite believing the coincidence. “Aerin Liette?”

Aerin exhaled, his throat dry with worry. “Yes. Like the author.” He rose and buttoned up his coat. “Now, listen. Whatever it is you’re about to do, you must know that Krieda Caishead is entirely innocent, and there is no reason whatsoever for the police to question her or in any way disturb her further. I infiltrated this city under an assumed identity, and she knows nothing of my history.” He pulled up the arms of his coat slightly, exposing his wrists which he held up to the officer. “So arrest me, let’s go.”

Alvus hesitated as he took out the handcuffs. “Um, see that’s the thing. You’re not actually under arrest.” He clicked the sharp metal around Aerin’s wrists and escorted him to the back of the van.

“Then why are you arresting me?”

“I’m not. I’m just handcuffing you and taking you into the back of a police van. Executive orders.”

“Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

Alvus sighed nervously as he unlocked the doors of the van. “It means, Aerin, that the shit you’re in is far, far above my pay grade.” He opened the cage, and Aerin climbed up the step and sat down on one of the facing benches, alongside two heavily armed officers, John Boss, Maurice Lockswell, Taïkur Soka, Chel Hagar, and John Boss.

The second the metal box closed, Lockswell’s head snapped up to face Aerin. “What the fuck happened to you?”

“Sh.” John Boss the 41st sat still and quiet among the masses of huddled flesh around her. “There is still time.”

The engine coughed into life, and the eight of them lurched as the van pulled away from the kerb and down the street.

“aerin!”

Aerin’s ear perked up a millimetre as he thought he heard something.

“AERIN!”

He stood up as Krieda’s palm uselessly smacked the bulletproof glass that was receding away faster than her body could carry her. “OH MY GOD NO, KRIE-”

“-SIT DOWN.” The two guards reached over, gripping him by the collar and hauling him back. “NONONO,” he pulled himself forward to the window, just for the half-second necessary to blow her a kiss before her flailing, screaming form vanished into the mist. They battered his skull with batons and pushed him down against the wall, strapping him into place like the other, more dangerous passengers. His vision was blurred by dizziness or tears, but he was only looking at the drops of blood on his shoes. Nobody asked.

Sometime later, when the van had escaped the city’s gravelly, industrial borders, John Boss the 34th spoke up. “I’m thinking of a baby animal.”

John Boss: “What?”

John Boss: “What do you call…a baby pig?” he sing-sang.

John Boss sighed. “What are you doing, Jacques?”

John Boss smiled reassuringly. “I’m trying to make you laugh. I intend to die soon and you sound like a donkey when you laugh.”

Only this snapped John Boss out of her stoicism. “I don’t.”

At the other end of the huddle, Maurice audibly smiled.

“Oh, fuck you all.”

John scanned the rest of the group. “Taïkur, make the girl laugh.”

“With all due respect,” the orc intoned, eyes closed, “I would like to be alone with my gods now.”

Through the grotty, single window of the van Aerin could see the populated country turn into the vast, grey and silent country, and the vast grey silent country turn into groomed, hereditary country, and the groomed hereditary country flatten out into a domain of little outposts, hidden cars and watchtowers. Then a gargoyle, perched on one side of a metal arch before an unnatural corridor of pine trees blotted out the light in the crowded tin. At the end of the shadow: another old stone archway, and the crunch of tires on gravel. The engine quietened down as the van gradually stopped, then silence. A few long moments passed, and the police officers with guns became just as anxious as Aerin and his fellow prisoners. There were voices outside commanding and coordinating. The…army? Maybe?

“Tell his majesty that his audience has been delivered, are they ready in the foyer?”

“Yes sir.”

“Open it.”

Royal guards?

The doors were pulled open by unseen hands. Light flooded the back of the van, and as their eyes adjusted everyone inside focussed on the eight-foot tall figure standing on the gravel with their hands behind their back, wearing a suit of bulletproof, possibly metallic armour and a reflective gold mask fastened over a balaclava. An elf in a tuxedo and white gloves opened the cage. One police officer stepped out in front of the prisoners and gestured with his rifle for them to come out, followed by the other.

The giant spoke in a low and muffled voice. “His majesty appreciates your efforts and your discretion, officers. You are relieved of your duties, you may return to your headquarters.”

“Hang on,” said Alvus as he walked out from around the van. “We were told we’d be handing over the…” he glanced at Chel “terrorists over to an elite security detail.”

“Indeed.” said the giant. “Hello.”

Alvus screwed up his face. “I’m looking around and there’s nobody here except you and a butler. These are the five most dangerous creatures alive today and you appear to be completely unarmed. Wouldn’t you prefer some of Dryadora’s finest give you a hand?”

A pause, silence except for the wind blowing through the pines. “Allow me to introduce myself properly.” They extended a hand.

After an awkward silence, Alvus spoke first. “Neas Alvus, DCPD.” His muscle memory kicked in for his rehearsed 'confidence' handshake. He looked the gold mask in its rectangular eyes and squeezed their hand just a little, just enough to establish dominance.

They squeezed Alvus’ hand in return. When his last scream had finally been wrung out, they dropped him and held out their hand to the butler. A handkerchief was passed from his tuxedo’s inside pocket, and they wiped the juicy red pulp from their palm. “To spare you all the pun, no, I do not require assistance. You are relieved of your duties, Neas. Walk.”

The two officers and nodded and stepped around the foetal Alvus, setting off to retrace the hour’s drive on foot. The giant turned to the prisoners. “Pheata, show our guests inside.”

Pheata nodded, only Chel hesitated as the group followed him in. She struggled to take her eyes off Alvus, who lay still and quiet on the gravel.

More than the vulgar ornamentation of the palace’s façade, what caught Aerin’s attention was the statue in the middle of the circular courtyard. A mass of overgrown and suffocated plants huddled around a dirty stone column, with vines snaking up towards the toes of what appeared to be a statue of a human skeleton with the skull of a stag. Its arms were raised like its antlers, with two or three vines hanging down from either bone like the muscles of decomposing wings.

John Boss scanned his surroundings out of habit, noting the disparity between the statue’s brown gnarls and the saturated mosaics of flowerbeds around the palace gardens, lining the balconies and peeking out from on the roof; noting the guards at the doors and the snipers in the watchtowers; noting what smelled like cleaning or embalming as he stepped through the tall palace doors, off gravel and onto a pristine stone floor checkered black and white. The dizzying five-storey entrance hall of the palace was somehow brighter than the world outside, light from the arched glass ceiling bounced down the white walls and scattered across the vivid murals of Elvin lore. The only darkness in the room was planned: a bridge connecting the two halves of the first floor was closest to the entrance, the second-floor bridge was about a fifth of the hall’s length away from the first, and this regularity continued in such a way that the rectangular shadows on the floor got punctually thinner as the butler led them to the end.

Here, two curved staircases curved around to a shared landing, flanking a conspicuously empty black pedestal on the floor. The emptiness was noticeable from the entrance, if you weren’t immediately awed by the architecture of light, but up close it began to tell a story. On the front of the pedestal the words “PRAEON II” were engraved in large gold letters. On top, nothing except the pale impression of a square with the outlines of two feet poking out from the front edge.

“Do excuse the mess,” said Pheata, gesturing towards a scar of exposed wiring and assorted toolboxes in the next room. “His majesty has been redecorating. We’re hoping to have all the interior work finished before the year is out, we can’t be shooing the builders away every two days with diplomatic visits and terrorists popping round for tea now can we?”

“HA! HA! HAHAHA!” shouted Lockswell, echoing through most of the first floor and some of the second as they were led upstairs. Neither the butler nor the bodyguard responded.

The halls grew darker and stuffier as they were led deeper into the building’s velvet arteries. From candlelit shadows, portraits of various kings stared each other down as the halls became smaller and ceilings lower. As they turned a corner, everyone’s attention was quietly absorbed by what seemed to be the entrance to the throne room, an obscene-looking door painted with gold leaf and emblazoned with jewels. On each side stood a golden candelabra that gave the door an occult shimmer, and below the lights stood two hooded figures wearing ascetic brown robes and heavy gold chains around their necks.

Pheata approached the monks with anxious trepidation. “I trust that you have made all the… necessary preparations.”

One of the monks nodded. “His holiness is not sedated for the time being.”

Pheata tensed up. “But his nervous system would be-”

“We have been assured that these are circumstances both unprecedented and…” John Boss could feel the monk glancing up at him from under the hood. “…temporary. Opportunities for communion become more precious by the year. His holiness shall be returned to his usual state as soon as possible.”

The butler nodded. “Right. Shall we?”

“We shall.”

“A moment, before we enter,” the masked giant intoned. All turned to face them without hesitation. “You are about to be led into the throne room itself. Know that any movement, any preparatory breath towards motion will be silenced and resultant in your immediate demolition. If any of you should raise a hand against the king, it will be removed. Is this understood?”

Out of everyone, only Aerin nodded infinitesimally. The monks turned in their ritualistic way, and pushed open the gold doors.

On the left-hand side as they entered, the throne room had one floor-to-ceiling window which a third monk was covering with a single large curtain. A massive candle chandelier lit up the room, its various layers of gold arms looking - to the humans in the room - less like a show of wealth and more like some kind of dormant, waxy crustacean held captive by the chains on which it hung from the roof. Directly below that, a circular table with a radial pattern of flowers and leaves burned into the wood. Directly ahead of the group, sitting at the far end of the table with another hooded monk and snarling behind a blue oxygen mask was an ancient and visibly dying elf.

“John Boss, it’s such a pleasure to finally meet you,” he struggled, leaning off his chair and hunched over an ornate cane.

Boss the 41st didn’t try to hide her smirk. “King Zaedar Valler, I didn’t know you were such a fan of my-”

“Which-” The king was interrupted by his own deep breathing. "Which one of you *is* the real John Boss? That is going to be quite important, going forward.”

Boss the 41st looked confused. “As if there are others?”

The king leaned forward slightly, trying to get a better look at both of them. “If I remember correctly, you’re the little bitch our intelligence has been trying to catch for years, while YOU,” he pointed at Boss the 34th, “are the muzzled beast who killed all those people in the arena.”

“The very one,” he replied, flashing his signature grin.

The monk at the king’s side leaned down to his ear and whispered something. He nodded. “Yes, of course, the one-eyed girl should go first. Perhaps it is his HOLE-y-ness,” he turned to the group, “that will be delightful in two minutes - his holeyness’ powers of perception which have brought about her timely capture. Bring her.”

The brute in the gold mask walked over to John Boss and placed their hand on her back as they slowly but forcefully pushed her forward. She walked past the table as the monk helped the king out of his chair. She was stopped a certain distance away from the tapestry at the far end of the room, upon which everyone’s attention was now concentrated.

“Taïkur,” Aerin whispered. “You’re a spiritual guy, right?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Am I right in thinking that’s supposed to be Ai Shub’fhalma?”

“You’re an elf, your god has triumphed over all others. You should know this.”

“I do, and I know that Ai Shub’fhalma is usually depicted in their female emanation, more often than not on top of their male one. But here there’s just…” He scanned the image, the talons of fire and rays of light from the sun all pointing towards the singular, masculine figure who dominated the image, “…nothing.” More jarring than this uncommon depiction was the Black Crown, which was known by every Elvin child to be a charred and ghoulish thing created by a coven of witches during the elves’ return from the Abyss, cursed so that the circular branches would tighten around and burst the head of any who tried to wear it who was not the rightful heir to the Dryadoran swamps. So why was it unburnt here? And why was it being handed down from a god? But the thing that most troubled Aerin, more than this parody of ancient Elvin religion, was the figure at the bottom of the mural: a burning man with raised arms, which belonged to no tradition he could think of.

John looked at the people around her impatiently. “Right we’ve all seen the picture and it’s shit, now can we get on with this?”

“Child.” Intoned the monk. “You are about to behold something which has only been seen by four living people outside of our order.”

“Five.” The king interrupted. “There was Dhubagèl Shaen’s assistant last night.”

“And that is why, Zaedar, I was careful to specify ‘living’.” The monk sounded furious without ever actually raising his voice above a plainchant drone. “It is less than fortunate that he was present during the emergency.”

“oooOOOOooOOooOooOOOooo” said John Boss, waving her hands against their restraints.

“Quiet!” King Valler raised his cane to strike, and limply pawed at her face. She laughed. “Jaros?”

“Of course.” The giant wrapped the fingers of one hand in the curls of John’s hair, lifted her up off the ground and punched her face, and punched her, and punched and punched again before dropping her on the mess of broken glass and wires that used to be her implanted right eye.

“COME HERE YOU LITTLE SHIT!” shouted Maurice as he sprinted over the table and jumped off towards the giant, stretching his arms out forward to strangle the beast with his handcuffs, still kicking and shouting but not totally oblivious to the sourceless tendril of pulsing green energy which had fastened around his neck and kept him dangling in the air.

“What!?” Taïkur blurted. The monk’s hood had fallen back in the rush, and the light streaming out of the sockets of his golden mask seemed to drain the light around him as he held his exposed, gangrenous arm up to keep Lockswell in position.

“What do you intend to do now, little monkey?” Valler mused.

“I’LL KILL YOU!” he snarled and kicked at Valler, who stood just out of his reach, only flicking spots of wet mud off his boots and onto the king’s silk pyjamas. “I’LL KILL YOUR WORLD I’LL KILL YOUR FAMILIES I REFUSE! TO DIE! UNTIL I HAVE BURNED YOUR MANORS AND THROWN YOUR CHILDREN INTO CARPETS OF HUNGRY RATS, I’LL-”

“Mo,” said John, her knees bleeding over the stone floor. “It’s fine.”

“IT’S NOT FINE!” He spat at the king. “IT WON’T BE FINE UNTIL EVERY KING AND QUEEN AND PRINCE ROTS BELOW THE FEET OF THE ONCE-DOWNTRODDEN, NEVER-DOWNTRODDEN-AGAI-”

“Baby,” she stood up, despite the brute above her and the wincing agony of each step she took towards her husband. She reached up to him with both hands, ignoring his restraint - for it was just a restraint like any other, and its composition did not matter - and stroked the tight curls of his hair. “Yes, it will. Everything will be fine. You know it will. Promise.”

“They’re going to kill me aren’t they? I’m Maurice fucking Lockswell and I’m about to be killed by that fucking genital wart.”

John smiled, glancing at the rotting monk from over her shoulder. “I think they are.” She turned back to him, her sudden maternal sweetness unaffected by the blood covering her smile. “But I don’t want you to be scared if they do, okay? You only get to feel your last feeling once and I don’t want it to be fear, because there’s nothing to be scared of, be-”

“Oh, come on,” groaned the king.

“-because wherever you’re going, I’m right behind you. Always was, always will be.”

Valler stepped forward. “Do you have any last feeble grunts before I give the order?”

Maurice Lockswell looked at his wife for the last time, and nodded. “No.”

“God, give me strength,” the monk declared. He closed his gnarled, tumorous hand into a fist, and Lockswell’s neck snapped.

John’s kindness faded as Lockswell landed on the floor. King Valler crept over and squashed her cheeks with a large, meaty hand as he inspected her bloody face up close. “You aren’t crying. Why aren’t you crying? Do you not wish to mourn your pet?”

A silence, which she swallowed. “I have the rest of my life to mourn his.”

“And how long do you think that will be?” he smiled with two rows of blackened teeth.

“You said everyone who sees what’s behind that curtain dies.”

“Yes?”

“Hurry up then, I’m bored already.”

Valler pushed John away, towards the mural of Ai Shub’fhalma. “It’s time.”

The monk hid his face once more, and pressed a button on a device on his wrist. The old clockwork machines at either side of the room began to whir. Ai Shub’fhalma split down the middle as the curtain parted. Valler’s old hands trembled as light flooded this dark and hidden section of the room. Immediately in front of John Boss was a step, the entire hidden section was a raised platform, part of the medieval stone architecture that made up the ancient heart of the building. What was not original, however, were the wires. The platform was covered with wires in all directions, other than a small clearing for one person to stand as they operated a console of dials and meters. At either side of the platform, two massive speakers sat like monolithic statues guarding the thing at the centre of it all, a tall, imposing and baroque… vat… of some sort, filled with murky brown water and little ragged bits which slowly circled around their source: tall and gold and emblazoned with filthy jewels, a throne, and the corpse which reclined upon it.

“John BOss,” said a low electronic voice that crackled from the speakers. “It has been an… incredibyl long time since I heard that nmae.”

“Sorry, do I know you?” said Boss, feigning ignorance as best she could.

“Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.” the voice stabbed. “Have the cneturies really been so cruel?” With great effort, the corpse lifted up what was left of its face. The electric voice made sense now, since its lower jaw had rotted off at some point and now lay uselessly at the bones of its feet. The corpse wore the brown, disintegrating remains of regal clothing with a soiled coat of jewellery draped across its shoulders. Above the empty caverns of its cheekbones, and above the one remaining eyeball - held in place by the glacial collapse of the left side of its face - it wore what was unmistakably the Black Crown of Dryadora.

John Boss took a step back in dawning confusion. “You’re…” She turned to Zaedar Valler. “You’re not actually the king then are, you? You can’t wear the crown because…” she turned back to the corpse, and very quietly the words left her. “Oh my god.”

“Yes.:” The speakers crackled as the voice spoke up. “I am Kinf … King … Praeon… Valler THe …Secondg. You are a liar, you are non John BOss.”

“I…”

King Praeon Valler II glacially shifted his gaze to the group at the back of the room. “John Boss.”

Zaedar stepped forward. “We have brought John Boss to you, you requested her here. Remember?”

“no,” stated Praeon. “I wanted to speak too… ” he heaved his arm up and attempted to point at John Boss the 34th. “An old friend.”

Everyone turned to where Praeon was pointing, Aerin began to sweat. “John, what’s happening? Have you met him before?”

“Apparently,” Boss whispered. He casually sauntered over the room, past Zaedar and the guard and stood next to John. “It’s been a long time, Praeon.”

“An understatement to say hte leasst. Ha. Ha. I thought i’d see nthe last of you, but two hundred yaers later, you have been delivered to me once agaiun.” Theoretically there was no way this programmed voice could take on a quality of warmth, and yet… “Where did you come form, John Boss? Did I dream you here?”

“I don’t know, what does King Praeon II dream of these days?”

In the corner of the room, one of the monks was scribbling down every word said with a quill. He stopped, and waited anxiously for the next line.

“I dream of… the old dayus. I dream og the soprtsmsnship and the games. NOt sratecraft, npt the snakes you see around you in in my court. I dream of th ebattles. I dream of the day you died.”

Boss perked up. “Oh? And how was the dress rehearsal? What did you like and what do you think could be improved for the real thing?”

“Ha. Ha. Do not think I have grown careless in my old age,m firend.”

“That is *amazingly* cautious,” John smiled.

“If you are not a vision, you are still an threat.”

“Oh come on Praeon,” Boss goaded. “Are you suggesting that Aerin and I have somehow managed to leap two centuries forward in time and we did it all just to visit you in your decomposing dotage?”

King Praeon considered for a moment. “Very well, iwhat what moral authority do i ‘ of all people ‘ have to deny a rewrite on history? Ha. Ha. The battle came down to too combatantws. You fouhgt well, and died… wellm, I wanted i have always wanted to as kyou abrerout that.” The voice enunciated.

“Oh?” Boss raised an eyebrow.

“In my dreams, I see you dying a number of ways. I don’t deel the forceful push rowards fantasy, yet every time I rry to remember our fbattle you die on a diferent patch of land, or pile of rubbles nad deaeth, or on andother fortess wall. The tactics you used beforehand are differentt, clebever er every time I remininsece. Every time I rememeber wa our batt;e, Jhn BOs, whay entertains me is that you seem to get a little bit further every time.”

“Does that not worry you?” asked John, a challenger’s smirk growing on his face.

“Not in the slightest,” the voice said, clearly and perfectly. “These conflitcting dreams are variaotonws on a theme: every tkme you die the same way……h…… hliariously1”

John Boss was silent for a few seconds, then his face burst into a grin. He turned to John Boss. “I like him. Don’t know about you lot, but I like him.”

“He’s a-” Boss the 41st stalled, confused and getting angry. “He’s the most prolific murderer in all of history! I don’t know who the fuck you are or what the fuck you’re doing talking to that corpse, but-”

“AAaeriiiii-iiin!” Everyone looked at him as Praeon stuttered. “AAerin liette!:”

“…Yes?” Aerin mumbled after a moment.

“I remmebr tyou too! Are you and John still traipsing around thoe continnent? Having adventure sand getting into scarpes? are you still doing your lityle stories?”

“…Yes.” Aerin mumbled after a moment.

John turned his attention back to Praeon. “Never mind the good old days, look at you! Set yourself up really nicely: you’ve got your own empire, a circle of creepy monks tending to your every need. Hey, if you do something wrong, you’ve even got a decoy king for the people to blame!”

“I AM NO DECOY!” Shouted Zaedar against the ruins of his vocal chords. “I HAVE RULED THIS KINGDOM FOR DECADES IN THE ABSENCE OF THIS CORPSE! I HAVE KEPT MY PEOPLE SAFE FROM THE LIKES OF YOU! I HAVE SENT SO MANY MARVELLOUS YOUNG MEN AND WOMEN TO DIE BECAUSE OF YOU FUCKING APES AND YOUR BLOODY RED HANDS! You say you fight for freedom, freedom from what? The surveillance that keeps our cities safe from crime? The Siran, the wall between us and total anarchy in these turbulent times?” He coughed violently. “I have- I’ve-”

“Child.” Purred the voice of Praeon, reverberating off the walls in every direction. “Look at me. Look at me.”

Zaedar turned to face his ancestor. “What is it…” he hesitated “…your hole-Y-ness?”

“You have kept nobdy safe. Every death, every move in this little gang war has been in accoradacne with my will. Remember that they exist at my allowance, remember their purpose, remember who whose arm controls the fmous READ HAND.”

“The Red Hand has no ‘arm’!” Spat John Boss the Younger. “We have no leaders, your fucking thugs found the Manor months ago and killed everyone inside! Or does your rotting fucking lettuce of a brain not remember that?”

A monk stepped in front of her. “You will not speak to his holiness unless spoken to.”

“No, no, no.” Said Praeon. “Why do you think I brouhgt you all here? speak, and screa n and shot.” He used one of his few remaining motor functions to gesture across the room, what should have been an indulgent unfurl of the arm was an animatronic pivot that began with Praeon’s elbow resting on the arm of his throne and his right hand resting in the hollow cavity of his crotch. He lifted his arm slowly and began the laborious process of moving it horizontally, his atrophied wrist pointing towards the monk on his left and pivoting across the room, past the John Bosses stood in front of him, and moving towards his descendant. The gesture, which had at this point lasted fifteen seconds, was interrupted when - having no remaining muscles to support it - Praeon’s arm flopped to the side of his throne and - being sealed inside this tank of fluid - was fated to stay there forever.

Zaedar spoke with strained breath. “Your holiness, memory betrays you again. I brought John Boss here, remember? Me! He destroyed a symbol of our authority and I ordered him brought here because you said his name, yes? Because the name set some trigger off that brought you back up to the surface. It just so happens that in doing so I took the terrorists’ Dryadoran cell along here with him. All of these things, *I* have brought to *you*.”

Praeon was quiet for a moment, and another. And another. “Ha.”

“What?” Zaedar’s bony hand clenched around his cane.

“Tell them the storu of my wires, do you remember their pirpropse?”

“You had those wires attached when I was just a boy, your holiness. The monks told me you radiated holy light on the inside, that you would anchor yourself to one place for the rest of time so all the lights in the Dryadoran empire would shine forever.”

“It is true, the previous order of mlonks bound ancient magicks to my mortal form that it would burn with the numinous degenergys to power the world. This is not why I did this. Your father was just as much of a teachareous little turd as his spwan, I knew he wanted the throne for himself so I anchored my self to it, I made myselef the bedrock of this empire;s prosperity. If I ever fall, the world comes odwn with me.”

Chel’s eyes widened a little as she spoke up. “Oh! That’s why the electricity’s been patchy all over the country the past month or so, isn’t it? You’re-” She laughed a little. “Right, so every time the power cut out, what was happening is that you were having a little die and it came back on once these monk guys brought you back to…whatever it is you call this. And the outages are getting more frequent every decade! Which means you’re on your way out soon!”

“That’s a very impressive deduction Chel!” Shouted Boss across the room.

“Kill her.” said Praeon.

“[I call upon the unknowable with a wave of the hand. Chel Hagar’s horrified face becomes a dissonant polyform of genetic expression as her ancestors claw out through their double-helix prisons, a thousand potential bodies trying to surface at once. They all scream, die.]” wrote the monk transcribing all this.

John Boss the 34th didn’t turn away from what, among other things, was once Chel Hagar.

John Boss the 41st shouted furiously, “ME! Do me next!”

“Not quiteiteite yet,” jittered the voice of Praeon. “I want you to knpow just how the baord lays, the sTWATE of play. I did not ‘ifind’ your Manor, it’s locarion has been knowon to me since the begginning, sincece you roganisation made it;s home there, since before anyone in thois eoom wasborn. I allowed it to flourish because it was conventietn. Nothing unites anation like an enemy, but what of the nation that has dominated every knwon land? Who can it fight then but an enemy within> AN enemy on yout street, an enemy in your heda, an anenmy in a sunken church next ot a minor vein of your city;s sewers? Having crushed all nations, I allowed you to gorw like a cancer that you might be diagnosed, that we may strain every sinew to fight you for time immemorial.”

Zaedar Valler’s breath clouded up his oxygen mask. “Praeon, what are you talking about? You knew?! You’re deranged! This is absu-” He erupted in a coughing fit.

“That you did not is a testemenat to your ignoresance. Ha. HA. HA. How does it feel, little child, to feel your beody decay beneth you as I sit here, statueesqyqer, ruling over the course of hiustory with wisdom beyond comprehensio-”

Zaedar Valler struggled over to the console, grasped the “volume” dial, and muted the king.

“Give Praeon his medicine. You know how painful it is for him to be fully awake.” After a silence, one of the monks nodded and disappeared through the side door. “Close the curtain too, then get out. All of you.” The monk at the golden lectern closed his musty old book with a thud, and carried it out with him. When the door creaked shut, and the curtain had finished its whirring, Ai Shub’fhalma gazed once more over the throne room: over the proxy-king Zaedar, the Bosses, Aerin, Taïkur, Pheata, the corpse of Lockswell, the liquefying pile of Hagar and the guard in the gold mask.

“Bring those other two over,” Zaedar croaked. Pheata gestured for Aerin and Taïkur to move forward and they did; Taïkur taking his place next to John Boss the 41st, and Aerin standing next to the 34th - furthest away from Zaedar and his brute. “Do you have it with you?”

Pheata nodded. “Of course, your majesty.” He reached into the inner pocket of his suit and pulled out a small revolver which he handed to the king. Zaedar pulled back the hammer and shuffled over to Taïkur, placing the gun to his forehead.

The king’s sigh whistled through the holes in his mask. “Formality dictates that I inquire about any last words or requests.”

“Your decorum is appreciated,” said Taïkur. “You fucking impotent incontinent zombie.”

Aerin jumped as Zaedar pulled the trigger, the recoil of the gun sending his wrist flying back. The squeal of the oxygen tank’s duff wheel got closer as the king got to John Boss the 41st. Hammer back, gun between her left eye and the bleeding hole in her face.

“Anything?”

“Yes, actually.”

Zaedar lowered his gun. “Oh?”

“Is it true?” She’d gone quiet now. “What Praeon said? Is it true that you let the Red Hand exist as a scapegoat? As a threat to keep the population under control? A justification for all of…this?”

Zaedar didn’t respond for a moment, looking back at the burning figure on the tapestry, the mythology behind him. “I hope not.”

“Isn’t the doubt enough? If Praeon lied about us, what else could he be lying about? What shit has he been drumming into your head since you were little? What history? What sciences did he dream up to relegate our species to common beasts?”

Zaedar paused, and lowered his gun slightly.

“I don’t know.” He drew a long, strained breath, and sighed. “But I know the people must be protected, the wheels of civilisation must turn.” He placed the gun back to her head.

“That’s what you think, but look around you. This planet is dying. The clouds are becoming poisonous fog, the water’s turning brown and the coastal towns are drenched in it. Everything’s about to go to shit. And when it does, when the wheels start flying off the runaway train, they’re going to turn on you. And while the peasants drink royal blood at the end of the world, the humans in the cages and on the farms will get free and devour what’s left. They do not have mouths, but you will learn the hard way that they still have teeth. You can’t protect your people, because they were never yours. So shoot me, Zaedar. Because if I fall, your sad old world is coming down with me.”

John Boss was smiling when she died. This was in no way a sufficient consolation.

Before the gun had finished firing John Boss the 34th and only ripped it from the old man’s frail hand. He ran behind the curtain, pulling the hammer back as he disappeared. Jaros chased after him, throwing the tapestry out of his way. BANG! Click. BANG! Click. BANG! Click. BANG! Nothing. John Boss the 34th flew out of the curtain and slid off the ancient round table as he landed on it, sent rolling in the puddle of flesh near the door. Jaros strode out from the tapestry, bleeding in three places. Boss shot back up onto his feet and on the table, holding his hands up in a boxing stance. The handcuffs were stained and warped at their ends where he’d shot them apart. The brute charged forwards and John jumped up as they dived under him. He gripped onto the chandelier, swinging his feet up and scaling its underside, gritting his teeth through the shower of hot wax as it swayed. The brute stood up on the table, trying to reach for the bottom of the chandelier.

“Oh, don’t bother.” The butler pulled out a second gun, stoically fired off a few rounds into the mess of gold chains, and John Boss the 34th’s corpse slapped onto the stone floor. Pheata sighed. “Finally.” Jaros made their way back to Aerin and Zaedar.

“AS IF A FUCKING GUN WILL PUT A SCRATCH ON ME!” cried John, coughing on the floor. “COME BACK HERE YOU FOUL CREATURE, BE A MAN AND FACE ME IN THE RING!”

Jaros turned around and sauntered over to the far edge of the table. “I am no man.” They jumped off the table, flattening John’s chest beneath their boots. The colossus stood there for a few seconds, to make sure, then walked back over leaving a trail of bloody footprints. Pheata checked his gun. “Still one more. Your majesty?”

“Certainly.” Zaedar took the gun, and pointed at Aerin. “Anything you’d like to say before I can get on with the rest of my day?”

Aerin exhaled, his hands shaking in their restraints. “One question.”

“Yes?” Zaedar sighed.

“Who am I?”

“You’re…” He paused. “Hm. Actually, you weren’t mentioned on the files. How is this important?”

Aerin cleared his throat. “Think about this: King Praeon remembered me. He remembered me from a long time ago. Does this not raise multiple questions about mortality, the nature of time itself and - most importantly to you - my actual identity?”

“Praeon’s deluded.”

“But he remembers! The name ‘John Boss’ set him off. Why? He saw the girl on the floor and he knew - he *knew* - she wasn’t the one he was looking for. He recognised John Boss and he recognised me. Why?”

Zaedar furrowed his brow in exasperation. “Even if Praeon wasn’t hallucinating, the same would apply to your friend the corpse.”

Aerin raised a finger and pointed. “See here’s the thing though: I’m not a corpse, am I? I’m still living, I’m still useful!”

“If it’s information you’re trying to bargain with, don’t bother. The Red Hand doesn’t have the infrastructure to organise anymore, we’ll find the last scraps soon enough. I will personally ensure your organisation’s total elimination from life, thought and memory.”

“I don’t have information, Zay-zay.” Aerin shrugged. “I don’t know anything about the Red Hand, I’m not even *in* the Red Hand, the opportunity presented itself so I lied my way in.”

“Why would you do a thing like that?” Zaear narrowed his eyes in their cavernous sockets. “If you weren’t already with them, if you’re just a civilian…”

Aerin, betting on the fact he was probably dead whether or not he tried to flee, took a step back from the gun, and started to aimlessly stroll away from Zaedar, smiling as he stayed alive. “Because it was fun.” He took on some of the swaggering mannerisms of Dhubagél. “Shits and giggles, my guy. I wanted to get a taste of the underground life, you know? I’ve spent too long in cloistered halls like these. I needed to get out there!” He gestured grandly at the large window. “Mingle with all sorts, see things from the other side, get both points of view.” He looked down at the city of Dryadora on the horizon. “Sorry to have pulled a fast one on you babes but…” he clicked the corner of his mouth and looked back at Zaedar. “I’m no collaborator, and I’m *certainly*,” he pointed “no civilian.”

Zaedar, either through curiosity or fatigue, actually put his gun down. “So who are you?”

Jaros stopped prodding at their wounds and looked alert. “Do you-”

The king raised a finger. “Shh!”

Aerin spun around on his heels and walked back over to his audience. “My name is Aerin Seane Curtach Liette, I'm the official biographer slash” - he made a cutting gesture with one hand - “hagiographer to our pal, King Praeon Valler II.” He stopped, and grinned. “You may have heard of me.”

As the giant strode over to John Boss the 41st’s dead body behind him, Zaedar turned to Pheata for any kind of input. Pheata looked at Zaedar, looked at Aerin, Zaedar, and back at Aerin. “Well, your majesty, we’d have to check the portrait gallery to be sure… but now that I think about it…” he swallowed, “…I have seen that face before.”

The mood was interrupted by the sound of Jaros tearing open John Boss’ replica police armor with their bare hands. “Oh for fuck’s sake.”

Zaedar snapped. “What!?” He turned to see what the fuss was. There was a plastic circle, sort of like a plaster, stuck to John Boss’ chest. From that, a wire taped down to her breast and side came down to about her stomach, and vanished into a newly cut stitch about the length of a hand. There was a lump there, under her skin, and a blinking red light shone through.

Jaros ran away from the bomb, and dived towards their king.






And the world came down with her.

Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - King Zaedar is Introduced, He Learns of Our Hero’s Exploits in Issue #2, and A Mysterious Force Awakens™ From The Depths of The Ancient Past
Chapter 2 - John Boss - Incredibly - Escapes from "The White Palace of Death”, Shoots A BUNCH of Dudes, and Makes His Way to The Relative Safety of Dryadora’s Coal District
Chapter 3 - Dhubagèl Escorts Aerin Through The Sewers of Dryadora, But Maybe Also His Subconscious? What I Mean is We Get to Know More About This Previously Mysterious and At Points Unsettling Character, and The Subterranean Setting is Associated - in Jungian Psychoanalysis - With The Subconscious, So That Works
Chapter 4 - That Relatively Sedate Chapter Was Just a Break from The All-Important Action! As John Boss and Chel Make Their Way Through The Coal District In Their Attempt to Find Safe Refuge, But Not Without The Police Giving Chase
Chapter 5 - John Boss, Aerin Liette, Dhubagèl Shaen, Chel Hagar, and More are Finally United, and Ready to Strike Back Against King Zaedar’s Brutal Regime
Chapter 6 - The Past 30 Years of Aerin's Life Are Unlived for the Sake of the Plot, by Which I Mean Primarily the Plot of This Book, but Also the Plot Which the Red Hand Formulate in This Chapter, Which - If That Wasn't Obvious to You, Reader - Is a Clever Bit of Wordplay on the Similarities between The "Diegetic" Rebellion's Plot Which Requires Sacrifice, in a Very Fatalistic, Heroic Sort of Way, and The "Non-Diegetic" Aristotelian Plot Structure Which Requires Sacrifice in a Very Ritualistic “High-Maintenance Volcano God” Sort of Way
Chapter 7 - In a ‘Baroque Formalism’ Power Move, Four Conversations between John Boss the 34th and the Three Members of the Dryadora Red Hand Cell Are Intercut with a Scene of Domestic Mundanity, and a Scene of Great Heroism Which Is Also a Flashback into the past of John Boss the 41st. For the Purposes of Light Genre Parody, a Minor Character Has a Silly Name; A Minor Character Waits for a Bus, Which Doesn't Actually Move the Plot Forward or Contribute to The Themeing in Any Meaningful Way, And a Minor Character Mentions Things from Wurld’s past but Doesn’t Explain Them, Which Gives You That Kind of High-Fantasy Texture without the Bogged-Downedness That Comes with Fields of Exposition: All the Flavour of Fantasy with None of the Nutrition, and I Think That's Beautiful
Chapter 8 - The Night before the Operation, Aerin — Overcome by Insomnia — Hides Away in His Study and Distracts Himself from His Fear of Tomorrow's Events with the Comforting Familiarity of His Self-Loathing. Kreida Tries to Comfort Him and the Two End up Comparing Notes on a Relationship Forged under the Crucible Pressures of Mental Illness. It's Actually Really Nice.
Chapter 9 - There's a Flashback to an Episode from Chel Hagar's past with Revealing Parallels to Another Episode from Chel Hagar's Past: Chapter 7 of Issue #2. You Might Assume This Is Our Only Reason for Jumping Back a Few Years in Time, but Only If You Pay Attention Will You Notice That We're Subtly Reminding You of and Expanding on the Sub-Sub-Plot of Dryadora and / or the Whole Elvin Empire's failing Electricity System, Because That's Going to Be Important Later. We Then Seamlessly Transition into the Red Hand Cell's Infiltration of the DTV Station Where the Tapes of What Actually Happened in the Arena Are Kept. Being the End of Act II / Beginning of Act III, Things Go a Bit Skiwhiff and the Chapter Ends on a Thrilling Cliffhanger That You'll Have to Wait 'Til next Sunday to See Resolved!
Chapter 10 - Aerin and Krieda Spend Most of the Day in Dryadora's Pearl District, a Nice Day out Which Is Actually a Ruse by Aerin to Get near the Arena Where the Prime Minister Is Making His Speech. Krieda Is Conveniently Scheduled to Visit Her Parents in the Afternoon, so This Gives Aerin the Perfect Opportunity for a Heartbreaking Goodbye Scene before He Goes to Infiltrate the Press Crowd and Place Lockswell's Signal Jammer on the DTV Van's Satellite. Aerin and Dhubagèl Engage in Some Breathtakingly Suspenseful Scenes of Social Deception, but Are They Wily Enough to Avoid Detection by the Already On-Edge Members of the Prime Minister's Elite Guard? Also, How Good Was Doctor Who Last Night?
Chapter 11 - The Red Hand Defend the Control Room as Their Broadcast Goes out to the World. They Flee, and after a High-Octane Chase Scene They Escape into the Forests. All Hope Seems Lost, but Then They Are Saved by a Mysterious Character from an Earlier Point in the Story in a Way That Is Surprising but, Crucially, Still Made Inevitable by the Aristotelian Clockwork We've Established up until This Point. I Liked This Week's Doctor Who a Lot More Than Frank Cottrell-Boyce's Last Episode. It's Good That We're Getting More Fully-Realised Alien Planets In The Show Again
Chapter 12 - The Twelfth One