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HerculeHastings

R Powers

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A mysterious wind blew over the wide rooftop, sending Anthony Gregus Carmichael’s long black hair billowing in front of his face. He eyed his opponent warily, a man dressed in a navy blue long-sleeved shirt and jeans. His eyes widened excitedly as a smile cracked on his face, and Anthony knew this wind was not natural.

“Burton Rayne,†he declared, “I shall trounce you and claim the coveted Goblet of Heavens for myself!†He withdrew a slender sword which had been buckled to his side, which immediately glowed with an eerie red light around its entire length. “Incandescent Flame!â€

Flames started erupting from the blade, spitting and stretching to grab the smiling man. They formed different shapes of monsters, beasts and ghouls, flying out from their origin to lunge at him. Burton took a step back and waved his hand swiftly. A gust of wind blew over the fiery creatures and extinguished them at once.

“Fire cannot beat wind, Carmichael,†Burton said with a snigger as he crossed his arms. “Wind is shapeless, always present, never seen. If you’re as good a sorcerer as I am, you can manipulate them, use them to your advantage. Like this.â€

Before Anthony could blink, he had drawn up close, another gust of wind following him, and with a sudden motion wrapped his hand around the swordsman’s neck in a vice-like grip, the other hand pushing his sword away with shocking force. Anthony could feel the air in his windpipe being squeezed away. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t draw in any air. He gasped, the laughter of Burton Rayne reverberating in his head. He let go of his sword. Burton expected it to fall to the ground with a clang, but to his astonishment it seemed to take a life of its own and went for Burton’s neck. Burton quickly jumped away, but not without leaving a gash on his hand. Anthony, now released, choked and spluttered for a few moments as the sword returned obediently to his hand. Behind him, a row of familiars appeared, their spectral frames glinting translucently in the sunlight. Burton looked around him and found familiars materialising all around the rooftop.

“You truly are a master of illusions,†he commented, “but I will not be deceived by them. The Goblet of Heavens is mine!â€

“Are they illusions?†Anthony smirked. He waved his sword. As if propelled by a conductor’s baton, the familiars rushed out at Burton, grabbing his arms and legs.

“Devour his soul, my friends. Devour it, and become more powerful!†he let loose a string of maniacal laughter as the familiars clamoured to get at his head.

More powerful? No one can be more powerful than me!

He struggled and writhed, but the familiars held him back, stopping him from getting up close to Anthony to use his finishing move again. He grinned. Did Anthony think that that was his only finishing move?

“Surrendering now, Burton Rayne?†Anthony laughed, then suddenly his face took on a more serious expression. He began sniffing the air, a perplexed scowl forming on his face. Burton watched silently as his face took on a purple tint and he collapsed onto the ground in a crumpled faint. The familiars instantly disappeared.

He strode up to the now dead body and knelt down to affirm he was dead. The telltale signs of poison were already evident all over his body. He shrugged and got up. 1 man down, 12 to go.

He turned and came face to face with a woman. She had somehow come up to the rooftop without his knowing, and was staring at him quietly, emotionlessly. He stared back, not sure what to do. She wasn’t another of his competitors, no. She was just one of the unfortunate witnesses who had stumbled onto the scene. One of the rare occurrences he had never encountered before.

Should he kill her?

Before he could make his decision, she had turned around again, sedately walking back to the door where she had come from. The natural wind, a very weak one by his standards, was blowing, and her long brown hair lifted and flowed from its caress.

He stood watching in awe till she disappeared from view.

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Jack stood grimly, scythe in hand, before the opposing army. He was alone, the sky was black, and there were thousands he would have to cut down today. He'd stain his clothes and his hands with their lifeblood before collecting their remains and selling them. It was dirty work, but somebody had to do it. A wind blew and the army before Jack started to move, and he stepped forward to meet them, swinging his scythe at the closest ones. He cleaved them at their base, sending them toppling to the ground as he kept swinging at the next in line.

 

Hours passed. Jack perspired and wiped his brow, surveying the destruction he had wrought. The field was littered with remains, and birds began to circle overhead, hoping to feast. Jack went over to his shed and picked up his wheelbarrow, then set about collecting all the wheat he'd reaped, while occasionally glancing up at the birds "I really need a new scarecrow. It's a shame they keep getting stolen for use as practice dummies for soldiers, maybe I can fashion one that isn't such an appealing target this time, hmm."

 

Jack mulled over his mundane concerns as he laboured away collecting the wheat and tying it up in bundles to load into his cart. He moved with a spring in his step, eager to get it all sorted by nightfall so that he could head to the markets early tomorrow morning to sell it. He hummed a jaunty tune and worked contentedly. Life was not bad at all for Jack.

 

That night, his day's work completed, Jack ate a lovely dinner of well-cooked steak and potatoes, then relaxed on his favourite rocking chair with a mug of mead and a good book in front of the fireplace. He read of tales of knights and dragons and chuckled. Such action-packed adventures, and to think in the tavern at town he'd often rub elbows with some of these sorts of adventurers and heroes. Still, even the burliest warrior or the wiliest mage had to eat and drink, had to wear clothes and find shelter of a night. Jack was a sort of jack of all trades, dabbling in smithing and carpentry when there was nothing else to do at the farm but wait for the crops to grow and the pigs to mature. While he didn't get the glory of these all-powerful adventurers, he still had a valuable place in life and was content with it.

 

Jack went to bed and slept peacefully that night, glad he didn't have to worry about sleeping out in the wild or being on the run or fearing for assassins targeting him in his sleep.

 

The next day he rose with the sun, had a breakfast of eggs and bread, prepped his cart, then rode into town to attend the markets, humming a happy tune the whole time.

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For a few weeks Burton did not see the girl again. He was busy, at any rate, for the battle of the Goblet of Heavens was getting more intense. Participants had heard of his victory against the great Anthony Gregus Carmichael, the Shadow Master, and he was being challenged everywhere he went. There was that old woman in the supermarket who turned out to be able to summon beasts, and the little girl in purple who was able to traverse different worlds. He had blown up the old woman by creating differences in air pressure inside and outside her body, and had surrounded the girl with hydrogen just for the fun of watching explosions happen, a crazed smile plastered on his face. Yes, he had been keeping himself productively and happily busy.

Something went wrong with him a few days later, though, when parts of his body started disappearing away.

He would be bathing, soaking himself in the bathtub and reaching for a cake of soap, only to find his entire right arm missing. And yet he was still able to feel it – he could feel himself lifting and lowering the arm, but he wouldn’t be able to see it. What was even stranger was that his arm would be touching completely different things – he held a cup of some ice cold drink once, and at other times he would feel people smacking it hard. And then a few minutes later his arm would be back, bruised and aching, or clammy cold as if it had, well, been holding a cup of some ice cold drink. The peculiar phenomenon occurred a few more times, with different parts of his body. Sometimes his leg would disappear, and he would be stuck where he was, unable to walk. Once his ear disappeared, and he began hearing yells and noises of spoons clattering and rushed footsteps, even though he was all alone in his study. It was thoroughly disorienting, and he didn’t know what had gone wrong with him.

The most likely answer, though, was related to this Goblet of Heavens tournament. Doubtless some competitor was out there, hidden in the shadows like a coward, trying to weaken him before confronting him in battle. A low blow, but he must grudgingly admit it was pretty effective. He had been so paranoid about randomly losing parts of his body that he hadn’t dared to leave the house anymore. He gritted his teeth. He had just defeated a Beast Summoner and a World Traveller; what was there to fear about somebody transporting parts of his body to peculiar places?-

Just a sec. A World Traveller. Transporting parts of his body to peculiar places. Something clicked in his head.

She had taunted him to come close, and he had taken the bait, attempting to catch her before she teleported away again. At the time, a mysterious grin had emerged on her face. He had not understood why. Now he knew. Even in death, she would not let her killer off scot-free.

But how was he to break a curse lain by someone who was dead? He closed his eyes to think, a worried crease on his forehead – an uncommon occurrence. Then suddenly his thinking was disrupted by loud cheering and carnival music, like a circus band had just entered his study. He opened his eyes to find himself in another place entirely.

He was in some kind of town square, with villagers dressed in plain brown clothes singing and dancing to someone playing a trumpet and another to some kind of instrument that produced sound by pulling on opposite ends. He had been flung into some kind of street bazaar, except that this street was nowhere he knew. The streets were cobblestone, with mountains in the distance, and the air carried a lingering smell of animal dung. He was in a very surreal place, like in those books and movies of high fantasy.

What kind of a world had Esther Cray, World Traveller transported him into?

Nobody had noticed his presence much; they were all so absorbed with watching the performance. He picked himself up, looking for the way he had come in – surely that must be the way he would go out too. There was no void signalling the route he had come from, no clue how he could go back home. He reasoned that he would probably return in a few minutes, as experiences of the past had told him, and settled into a bench instead to wait and think about how he could extricate from this mess.

A girl walked past him and he looked up suddenly.

The girl was walking towards the growing audience, tip-toeing once in a while to catch sight of the performers above the dozens of taller heads in front. Burton stared. It was definitely her, the girl he had seen after defeating Anthony. She looked precisely the same, except in completely different clothes.

“H-hey!†he said awkwardly, walking up to her. She turned around and shrank back, looking at him incredulously. He noted with some embarrassment that he was dressed in his comfy home clothes of a singlet and shorts.

“Do you remember me?†he asked. “I’m from the other world, the other world where we met. I was fighting Anthony, the shadow guy. The one with long hair.â€

“I’m sorry, I don’t. You must be mistaken,†she said quickly and tried to walk away.

“Wait, no, I can’t be,†he said, giving chase. “You must tell me how to get back to our world.â€

“Susan, what’s going on here?†Burton was suddenly stopped by a handsome young man with a shock of light golden hair and dimples on either side of his face.

“I don’t know who he is,†Susan muttered uncertainly, looking up at him.

“Let’s go,†said the man decisively, and before Burton could say another word, the pair had left, their pointy shoes clacking on the stone ground. Burton let out a big sigh. He sorely needed a rest, and some time to think of how to get out of there, pronto.

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"That price is simply unfair! I was paid a lot more last season." Jack protested, as the merchant he was dealing with offered a frankly insulting price for his wheat.

 

The merchant shrugged, "I am sorry friend, but suppliers from the next county have had a bumper crop this year and are selling low. This is business, not charity, I buy from the cheapest supplier."

 

Jack sighed, but bore no ill-will. "Very well, I cannot fault you. I accept your price."

 

He had already haggled around and found the prices were indeed low this year. He counted his meager earnings and frowned. He wasn't sure how he was going to afford to feed his pigs now. This meant he'd have to sell some for slaughter before they had matured and fattened properly, meaning he'd get less money from that as well. He was aware that this sort of bad luck was exactly what led to downward spirals that landed people on the streets begging for coins. And he remembered that, as he passed by such a beggar, and parted with one of his few coins despite his own troubles.

 

I still have my property, and some hope to recover. These poor beggars have far less hope, it is the least I can do to give them what I can.

 

Jack spent the rest of the day going around town looking for any upcoming work. He could use his other skills to try to earn enough to make up for this shortfall. But there wasn't much going. He managed to get a tentative job from a blacksmith as a helper. It seemed the royal army was dealing with a rebellion somewhere in the realm and needed extra weapons, and the blacksmith supposed that he could use a cheap helper to increase his output during this rare boom.

 

As the day came to a close, Jack spent most of his money on what supplies he could afford and had his cart loaded up. Since he had come all the way to town though, he had a routine of spending the evening at the inn for some revelry, before heading back home. He had only enough budget to allow himself a single ale, and so he sipped at it slowly and made it last. Looking around the inn there were the usual faces, though many were other farmers who'd also suffered bad prices as he had, so the mood was dull this evening. But Jack did notice one new face, a man sitting in the corner brooding, wearing naught but a singlet and shorts, as if he'd lost his clothes.

 

He must be having a particularly hard time. Jack thought. He decided to head over and give the guy some company.

 

He sat down with the man and introduced himself, "Hello friend-stranger, my name is Jack. I've not seen you about before, I am curious of your story." he noted the bartender passing by and gestured to him to bring another ale. He of course didn't budget for it but this poor man seemed he wouldn't have any money on him either, so Jack simply had to buy him a drink if they were to sit and talk.

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He was in some kind of rowdy cheapskate tavern, that much Burton could see. He sat and glowered at a corner, shivering slightly in his ultimate outfit of singlet and shorts. He had contemplated beating up a passer-by and stealing his clothes, but the clothes that people wore in this world were so tacky that he wasn’t sure he was prepared to stoop this low and sacrifice his image. Not that anyone cared (and he reluctantly admitted that his present image was not much improved), but he could not calmly imagine himself in pointy boots and a leather tunic.

Besides, if he were cold, he could just make the air warmer. He leaned back and did just that, making the air particles vibrate more rapidly to increase the temperature around him. When he had settled on a comfortable temperature, he let out a sigh of satisfaction, and turned to see a weird young man sitting beside him, looking at him with a strange soppy expression.

"Hello friend-stranger, my name is Jack. I've not seen you about before, I am curious of your story."

What?

Burton stared at Jack wordlessly, trying to make sure he wasn’t some kind of antique clockwork toy. He was a walking stereotype of a fairytale pixie, except he was visibly human, and didn’t have shiny skin and a round nose like in cartoons. He beckoned at the bartender for another ale, probably for Burton, which made him very affronted. Had he said he could sit down here?

The ale was, however, quite refreshing in such strange surroundings. Burton was not a person who could resist curiosity, and when the ale arrived he had taken a sip in spite of himself. Sure, it took a little time to get used to, but it had a distinct "taste of adventure", if such a thing could be said, and it probably also helped that said drink came in a fantasy-style wooden mug.

It suddenly occurred to him, though, that this Jack fellow might well be gay and coming with specific intentions, and he immediately straightened himself and sobered up. After all, which man would buy a drink for another man he didn't know?

“I’m sorry, Jack,†he said seriously. “I’m straight. And I don’t talk to strangers, no matter how good the ale is. I’ll pay you back for this… when I get back to my home world, that is.â€

“Your home world? What does that mean?†asked Jack incredulously, and Burton shrugged and decided there was no harm in telling. Why keep secret a tale of bravery and ability? That country bumpkin-looking person would probably be impressed.

“I come from Earth, which you mayn’t have heard of, “ Jack shook his head wildly to confirm his theory. “I came because I was fighting a witch who can traverse through space. I killed her, but she laid a curse on me, and I got involuntarily teleported here, wherever here is. I’m guessing it’s nowhere near Earth, though, because everything’s so different here. But yeah, I’m confident I should be back home soon. I just must find the way out.†He flicked his fringe lazily and took another gulp of the ale. He had no idea why it was so good. Did they add butter in there?

"Also," he could not resist adding, "do you always talk like that? It's quite weird."

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