The Lewis Carroll inspiration is a bit blatant, of course, but it's really a tribute to this man and his awesome imagination. Acquaintance with both the original "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and the earlier Cronos Warchild stories might not be a prerequisitite, but is advised nonetheless.
The whole has had some Monty Python, Bill'n'Ted's, Noam Chomsky, Douglas Adams, Urbanus and Terry Pratchett influences thrown in for good accord.
I - DOWN THE KANGAROO CAVITY
Cronos was beginning to get very tired of sitting by a bozo on the bank, and of having nothing to do; once or twice he had glanced at the newspaper the bum used to wrap a bottle of liquor in, but the pictures were faded and the text was written in a language that didn't make any sense to him.
So he was considering in his own mind (as well as he could, for he was getting slightly sleepy and his mind wasn't particularly famous for considering things) whether the pleasure of killing the drunk with one of his recently acquired killer gadgets was worth the trouble of taking the thing out of his pocket in the first place when rather suddenly a White Kangaroo with pink eyes ran close by him.
Cronos wasn't particularly surprised of the fact that it ran so close by him, nor of hearing the Kangaroo say to itself, "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" It hopped by him at rather astounding speed, then stopped. Panting, its chest heaving and dropping faster than it should, it fumbled in its pouch and retrieved from it a pocket watch that had a piece of broken chain attached to it. Now Cronos was getting surprised, gradually - he had never seen a Kangaroo that could speak, nor one that seemed to be able to check the time on a pocket watch he had never seen any Kangaroo walking around with before. Actually, he had never seen a Kangaroo in all his life - but that's trivial.
Before Warchild managed to get to his feet, the Kangaroo had continued running in the approximate direction it had been moving before. Then, without much ado, it disappeared in a hole beneath a tree.
Cronos followed the track, surprised at the fact that such a large animal seemed to have disappeared in such a small hole. Even though he himself was even bigger than the Kangaroo, his mind got the absurd idea to follow the animal into the hole - which was evidently even much smaller to him. Our dear mercenary annex hired gun, however, had never been one of high reknown throughout the universe because of his intelligence - therefore he wasn't even surprised when he found himself managing to get through the hole and into a tunnel that dipped downward rather all of a sudden.
He fell for a long time - a time that seemed long enough even for Cronos to be able to calculate the square root of 2456.23. He rotated and bumped, got tossed around by branches that stuck out, got nauseated by the smell of earth and the crawling creatures that probably lived in it. He closed his eyes to the overkill of his senses and for a moment he thought he saw the Kangaroo again. It changed into a pink ant. For a brief instant of time there was a smell of honey. He continued to fall. He was beginning to wonder if he'd end up on the other side of the world - Australia perhaps, or Norway or Cuba - when thump! thump! down he came upon a giant heap of sticks and dry leaves and the fall was over.
Already Cronos had quite forgotten what had happened. He looked around him, dazed and confused, finding himself at the beginning, or end, of a long passage at the other end of which, just where it started to fade away in the distance, he saw the White Kangaroo hopping off. Engaging his highly trained mercenary muscles, he dashed after the marsupial (only he didn't quite know he was chasing a marsupial, of course). He was getting close enough to hear it say, "Oh my ears and pouch, how late it's getting", when it suddenly turned a corner that seemed as if it hadn't been there before. He could already smell it, virtually touch its tail when it had turned around that corner. However, when he turned the corner himself the Kangaroo was no longer to be seen.
He cursed a long sequence of miscellaneous words he guessed held some rude meaning, then started wondering about the place he was in. It was a hall of considerable height. As a matter of fact he could not see the ceiling - only the lamps that hung down from it.
When he looked around him, all he could see were walls with doors in them. He checked the doors instinctively, probing them for the likelihood of hiding trained assassins that might leap at him during a careless microsecond. All of them were locked, however. Peeping through the lock holes, he saw nothing but a rather intense sort of blackness that made him feel giddy for a while - the kind of blackness that is so black it seems to carry with it endless depth and infinite time.
How was he to get out of this wretched place? The doors all seemed fairly solid - his razor-sharp killer finger nail was no match for them for certain. He tried his American Express credit card but it didn't quite work out like he had seen so often in films. It just got stuck, and when he pulled it out it looked as if it had just been shredded by a destructive money machine. A weird sense of claustrophobia struck him. He looked around in what he would never admit was a desperate way (but which was nonetheless). He walked around, at a loss of what to do.
He suddenly stumbled across a small three-legged table of solid glass which seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. It puzzled him for a while - where had it come from? His mind ceased puzzling within several nanoseconds, however, in the same way it stopped puzzling soon after discovering, say, a traffic cop after having driven through a red light with a corpse attached to the exhaust pipe.
There was a tiny golden key located on the glass table.
It didn't take long for Cronos to put one and one (or, rather, a key and a lot of locks) together. He snatched the key off the table rather unceremoniously and went around the hall, trying to see whether it would fit in any of the locks. The locks were too large or, he reckoned, the key was too small. He felt in his pockets but there was nothing in them except for a mostly empty bag of sticky liquorice and a killer gadget of the Telector-O-Cute variety. His lack of resources and the sheer magnitude of this problem baffled him for a while, at the end of which he discovered a curtain. Behind it he discovered a tiny door; he had to stoop to try and fit the little golden key in its minute lock, but to his great satisfaction it fitted. The wee door swooped open on its miniature hinges with as little sound as an ant burping.
Behind it he saw a beautiful garden. Cronos had never really been fond of gardens at all - he had never felt any warmth towards flowers, and he had usually found trees useful only to stop your car against when the brakes failed. A continuous flow of gardening programmes on English television had once even convinced him to move to a country where you couldn't receive BBC. But in this particular case the garden meant a place to go, freedom, the end of this strange claustrophobic sensation that seemed to be gnawing at his innards.
Of course there was the problem of size. He would never be able to get in. He tried his foot, but no way. He went back to the glass table, hoping that it might offer something to help him out of this slightly precarious situation. He hated being able to smell something but not quite being capable of laying his hands on it. There was still no way of getting out of this eerie hall. He had to get out. Through that little door (which, by the way, had closed and locked itself rather mysteriously and meticulously when he had turned his back on it).
On the table he now discovered a pill. He looked at it conspicuously lest it should be a poison of sorts. His mother, Adnarim the Beautiful who was at the moment 22 million light years away from him, had always warned him against strangers offering him ice cream and against the eating of substances of which he did not know the origin. But, he guessed, any pill which had the phrase "EAT ME" printed on it could not possibly be deadly - and this particular pill, remarkably, had these precise words written on it. He put the gold key down on the table, took the pill and tossed it in his mouth with the aim of an inebriated retard in a public urinoir. Miraculously, however, it landed on his tongue - as if proudly defying all laws of causality and faculty.
If anything, the pill initially tasted slightly of ink. Within half a second after his powerful molars ground the thing to smithereens, however, the taste became one of tobacco icecream mixed with decayed gelding's gall - not altogether disagreeable, Cronos concluded with some relief. After all, it might have been raspberry.
The hall seemed to become gradually larger. The lamps which hung from the ceiling removed themselves from him so it seemed. The doors around him became bigger. It made him think of being locked up in the middle of a mountain in an absurdly small room with all exits jammed by rockfalls and a ceiling full of shiny stainless steel spikes coming down slowly - only the other way around, in a bigger room and without any of the pointed hardware. Warchild noticed the table growing bigger, too. As a matter of fact, the entire world seemed to increase its size for some reason or another. He began sweating. What if his enemies had grown, too? What if he could no longer carry with him even his tiniest of killer gadgets because they had outgrown him?
Suddenly everything froze in mid-growth. By now Cronos reckoned, to his considerable discomfort, that the world had at least multiplied its size by a factor of ten. He glanced around across the almost endless stretch of enormous tiles all around him. In one direction, however, he discovered a door that seemed accurately built for his size - the door that had previously been too small, the door that had had the garden behind it.
He looked up, through the transparent table top above him, way out of reach. On it lay a golden key.
A commonly used pseudonym for the action of human multiplication passed his lips.
There was no way to get up there. The legs of the table were smooth, insurmountable. He had no rope and no glue. His American Express credit card had been shredded. He might as well give up.
Even though the place where he was now stuck was about ten times as big as it had been previously, even though he could barely see the far ends of it, he still found an odd sensation biting relentlessly at his stomach. He remembered, rather vividly, a girl whom he had seen but briefly and whom he would rather never in his life see again. Painful memories struck. His ego cowered, his arm felt a stab of agony that accompanied the memory. The feeling in his abdomen had been the same. His desolate sense of loss and despair likewise.
He glanced up again. The key lay there, its gold catching rays of light that seemed to come from nowhere, hurling them at his eyes enticingly, enchantingly, luring him. But there was no way he could reach it. He couldn't climb the table. He could do nothing about it except for using a suppository that lay at his feet, having appeared as if out of thin air. It had "SHOVE ME UP YOUR ANAL MUSCLE" written on it in extremely small letters. Its sudden apparation did not even leave him in the usual state of perplexity, not even for the fragment of time known as a nanosecond.
As his mother had never warned him about the possibility of poisonous suppositories he rather unceremoniously pulled down his pants and shoved the small object where it apparently wanted to be shoved.
If his rectum would have had taste buds, damn it, it would have tasted Brussels sprouts.
II - A SEA OF SWEAT
"Unusual and unusualer!" Cronos said to himself. He quite forgot how to speak his mother tongue properly when he discovered his head removing itself from his torso as if his neck was a telescope extending itself. It would be fair to say that today was another record day in the field of bafflement intensity, for it could certainly be claimed that he had never been this flummoxed before. The mercenary annex hired gun had experienced things with which his brain couldn't cope more often than any rational number in the known universe, but never before had it had such unheralded intensity. Had it not been for his entire brain being fully occupied with getting to grips with whatever was happening to him, it would certainly have instructed him to drop into a coma out of which not even Penelope Sunflower's ghost would have been able to awake him.
Time passed. It even tipped its hat politely.
When Warchild got his wits together, which he didn't have that many so he succeeded rather more quickly than might otherwise have been the case, he snatched the tiny golden key off the three-legged glass table and dashed for the minute door. The lamps were beginning to get in the way; by the time he reached the tiny door he probably couldn't even stick his big toe in it.
A sense of defeat swept over him like a tidal wave. Fate seemed not to want him out of this hall - which had in the mean time shrunk back to the proportions it had when Cronos first entered it. Possibly even smaller. A familiar feeling frayed his stomach. He started sweating profusely. It dripped down in his eyes, it made his sideburns cling to his square head, it wet his pants, it soaked his socks, it even started to make the tiles slippery.
Out of nothing he suddenly heard large feet, or paws, slapping on the tiles and coming towards him. It was the White Kangaroo he had seen before, the White Kangaroo that was the fault of all this. He heard the animal's voice coming closer, saying, "The Mayor, the Mayor, won't he be cross when I keep him waiting!" It sounded quite as if it was in a hurry, almost on the verge of panic in fact.
When the marsupial was sufficiently close, Cronos cleared his throat and ventured to start a conversation involving blame, impending doom and a very short life span.
"Say, er...Sir," he began sortof threateningly, but the Kangaroo did not heed him. Instead it dropped a keyring with a tiny Koala attached to it, as well as a magnifying glass - both for no apparent reason other than gravity. It then disappeared without as much as a puff of smoke. Things were getting to be very strange. They were getting sufficiently strange, indeed, to make the mercenary annex hired gun lapse in a severe form of identity crisis.
"Zonk," the tiny Koala said.
"Who am I?" Warchild said out loud, actually starting to talk to himself, "Surely not the man who has an immaculate grip on fate and chance, surely not the Great Warrior who had yet to be bested?" He cringed as he suddenly realised the beating he'd gotten when he last thought he was the Greatest of Warriors. For a second he heard a girl's name repeated in his mind, the f-word.
"Perhaps I'm Napoleon," he continued, his voice bouncing off the walls and doors as if he was in an empty hospital corridor painted frating green, "Now what would he do in a situation like this? He'd probably stick his hand in his uniform - which I don't, so therefore I am not him."
Cronos smiled. He might not be himself, but at least he wasn't Napoleon.
"Maybe I'm Al 'Bumkisser' Darcy, with whom I went to Mercenary Academy," he proceeded, his voice now echoing through the hall as if it was a candle-lit tomb at midnight, "He'd probably hide under the nearest tile - which I don't so therefore I couldn't be him, either."
He sighed with relief, thoroughly glad he wasn't Al. Everything was better than Al, even being Korik St...
Cronos nearly choked on his breath.
"Maybe I'm Korik Starchaser," he muttered, his voice failing to amount to any strength and therefore echoing even less than the sound of two feathers colliding in the vacuum of space infinity, "There is no telling what he would do, really."
Warchild thought deeply. It hurt.
"So if you can't tell what he might do," he concluded, his voice gathering volume as he progressed, "then I surely can't be him, for I know what I am doing now; I'm sweating and feeling thoroughly discomfited!"
Relief set in.
"Besides," he added, "I'm not that much of a wimp."
A grin appeared on his face, widening, triumphant.
"Zonk," sighed the Koala.
But why was everything so strange nonetheless? He was fairly certain of being himself by now, if only because of the fact that you'd have to be called Cronos Warchild to get in these sort of situations. He decided he'd recite the song lyrics of Napalm Death's "Dead", but somehow the word didn't come out like it should:
Maybe he was Korik after all. Or worse - Al. He began to sweat fervently again. Things were definitely strange and altogether not like he preferred them to be. He felt disoriented and nauseated by the circumstances he found himself in.
Also, there was something very odd happening to him - or to his surroundings.
At a rapid speed, he found his head removing itself downward from between the lamps hanging from the ceiling. The doors grew, the walls moved away. He was surprised to see that, somewhere during his identity crisis, he had picked up the White Kangaroo's magnifying glass. Somehow, it caused everything all around him to grow - or himself to shrink, he added proudly to himself. By now he was merely two feet tall and still shrinking. If it continued like this, he feared, he might end up like an insignificant little dot at the end of an insignificant line in an insignificant mail order clothing company brochure.
"Zonk," the Koala intoned.
He threw the magnifying glass away, instinctively sensing that it might be the cause of all this shrinking, or growing. Immediately, both shrinking and growing stopped.
During the lucid moment following this event he ran to the little door, but it turned out to be locked again (both mysteriously and rather meticulously). Also, a glance over his shoulder confirmed his worst thought: The gold key that fitted in the door's lock had found ways of getting on the table again, as if it had much of a will of its own.
Things would have started to get pretty repetitive if he hadn't dropped into an enormous pool of salt water at that time.
Cronos had had swimming lessons at Mercenary Academy, of course, but he had hopelessly flunked (and sunk). All lower life forms, however, have a built-in sense of survival. As the part of his brain that was actually used was smaller than that of a psychopath horsefly, Warchild could be classified as a lower life form - which allowed him to find himself instinctively doggy-paddling to keep his head above the water.
Where had this sea come from? The taste of it was not just salt, it was something as indescribable as the smell that arises from the armpits of Miss Fragilia Franatica, the second Princess of the Zantogian Empire, just before they get their annual washing. He guessed it must be the sweat he had excreted when he was still tall, before he had somehow managed to pick up the White Kangaroo's magnifying glass.
He was quite right.
Warchild looked around when he heard a sound of splashing and spluttering homing in on him. At first he didn't get a good look at whatever it was that was with him in the giant puddle. When it came closer, however, he saw it was a Virgin. He had a way of recognizing them, you see, which was probably caused by the many looting and raping sessions he had embarked on during one of his practical terms at Mercenary Academy. On top of that, recognition was made painfully obvious by the fact that she had long blonde hair, a look of naive-ish innocence on her face, and no clothes on at all.
At first she didn't seem to notice him, or perhaps she was just ignoring him. Maybe virgins also had built-in recognition systems where mercenaries or other potential rapists were concerned. Cronos felt a strange sensation in his lower abdomen, but this time it seemed quite enjoyable. Things were looking better now; fate seemed to be smiling - or at least grinning through its teeth.
"Er...hi," Cronos said.
The Virgin continued to ignore him. She was good at it.
Warchild held out his hand for her to take and shake it. He nearly drowned. Now she noticed him, or at least failed at being good at ignoring him.
"Good day to you," she said, her haughty voice sounding like frozen icicles dropping on stratospheric glaciers.
"I'm Warchild," he continued, "Cronos Warchild." He plastered a smug smile on his face that totally failed to bewilder her. When he got no perceptible reaction from the Virgin, he added, "I'm a mercenary, you know."
"Pray, don't!" the Virgin cried in a frightened voice that seemed to come from a strangled throat, after which she practically leaped from the water and dashed off, frenetically swimming away from the source of her distress.
"But I'm sortof of a nice mercenary," Cronos said, his voice almost faltering, as if close to being on the verge of crying, "Don't you like mercenaries?"
The Virgin ceased swimming and looked at him, somewhat doubtful. "Don't like mercenaries!" she said with a voice like a diamond cutting through the perma-frozen body of an ancient mammoth babe, "Would you like mercenaries if you were me?"
Cronos thought it over. He had never looked at it that way. "No," he said finally, "I guess I wouldn't. But nonetheless I wish I could introduce you to some of my mates from Mercenary College. You know (he said more to himself than to the Virgin), some of them got straight A's at all subjects involving violence, assassination, raping of virg..."
He cut himself off mid-sentence, a truly remarkable feat for someone as overwhelmingly dim-witted as himself. Nonetheless the Virgin had already heard enough. The look of distress came in her beautifully blue eyes again, her nails seemed to be poised, prepared to ward off any infringements of her chastity.
"Beg your pardon there," Cronos said, blushing, almost ashamed of himself, "We won't talk about mercenaries and...er...indecent assault anymore."
"We, indeed!" the Virgin retorted, her voice like an icy avalanche crashing down on an igloo, "I've always hated them and...er...it. My mother, too."
"Do you like murderers, then?" Cronos inquired, "Or perhaps building contractors? I could tell you some great stories about murderers (again he went off more to himself then to anyone else). There was, for example, this case of Fak the Ruthless. You know he's reported to have assassinated at least five dozen people during his practical term, over half of which were children or women. He was a guest lecturer at Mercenary College for a year. He used to be great at looting and raping, too, and... Hey! Why are you swimming off like that?"
All of the pool seemed to be in commotion now, what with the Virgin trying to swim away from Cronos as quickly as possible.
"Please come back, Virgin," Cronos cried hoarsely, almost pleadingly, "I swear I won't talk of mercenaries or murderers any more. Not even of rape of virgins!"
When the Virgin heard the pleading sound of Warchild's voice, she couldn't help but turn around, as if she sensed that the mercenary annex hired gun didn't and couldn't possibly know any better. She panted as she came closer, her complexion rather wan.
"Let's get out of this pool," she said, her voice having lost most of its icy quality now, "and I will tell you why I hate mercenaries and murderers and...er...indecent assaulters."
It was about time they left the pool for, rather extraordinarily, it seemed to have filled up with other animals. There was a large Ant, a Kaka, a Falcon and a rather large Koala. Cronos, his instincts momentarily taking over, led the way and dog-paddled to the shore.
"Zonk," the Koala uttered, as matter-of-fact as it could.
III - A SILLY RACE, A VIRGIN AND A TAIL (AND A TALE AS WELL)
After Cronos and the various other creatures had reached the shore of the giant puddle, he looked around at them. Feathers were clung to bodies, furs looked rather disfunctional, water gleamed off a chitinous skeleton.
"Now how will we get dry?" the Virgin asked slightly irritated, her voice like icy stalactites in a period of dew, "And how will I get my hair in order again? I spent a fortune on it at the hairdresser's only yesterday, you know!"
One of the animals, within the confines of its bill, muttered something about not knowing and not wanting to know at all. The Virgin looked around, her gaze as cold as frostbitten toes in an Antarctican mid-winter night, but wisely decided not to react.
"Zonk," the Koala thought aloud.
There was a brief silence, fragile like capillary glass tubes and as vigorous as a Pitbull grinding baby skulls.
"I know how to get dry before we all catch some rabid kind of pneumonia," the Falcon said, stepping forward, "I shall tell a story. The driest thing I can come up with. Promise."
It had expected some visual support from the others, but none such happened. It cleared his throat and stroked its pointed beak, as if thinking of how to start.
"Once upon a time there was a Princess," it began, eyeing the Virgin to gauge her reaction, "who was very beautiful indeed. Her father, a grumpy old man, wanted her to marry an Evil Prince called Elvis who was also rather frightfully fat and ultra ugly. Her mother felt sorry for her, of course, but they just happened to live in a kingdom where women's lib and that sort of thing hadn't happened yet."
"Zonk," the Koala interrupted.
The Falcon cast a menacing glance at the fluffy creature.
"Zonk," it apologized.
"On the night of her having to wed," the Falcon continued, "she was all dressed up in the most gorgeous gown that made all of the castle maidens jealous. She also wore little glass shoes that fitted her tiny feet exactly, and slightly above her upper lip sat the Mother of all Moles. Her mother wept, and her father drank another beer. She thought it was altogether rather silly that she had to marry this prince whom she did not even love. She shuddered at the thought of perhaps one day having to darn his socks or something as mundane as that. Now the stable boy was something totally different. He was a broad-shouldered hunk with a hugely bulging..."
"Atchooo!" the Koala interrupted rather brusquely, therewith instantly causing the Wrath of the Falcon to be turned upon him.
"Our fluffy colleague here is right," the Kaka now interjected, "We're not getting any drier at all. I propose we do something else. Maybe we had better get physical."
"Zonk," the Koala sniffed in agreement.
The Falcon, though its pride was hurt somewhat, could do nothing else but condescend, too. "I've been meaning to ask you, by the way. What's a 'Kaka' and why do you look like the spitting image of a 'Dodo'?"
"Elementary, my dear Falcon," the Kaka replied, "I am a Kaka but one of my kin has once been mistaken for a Dodo. Basically a Kaka is like a Dodo - only, well, different."
The Falcon pondered it over for a while. It decided to ask no further. It was having troubles with it, but in the end it succeeded.
"Let's run around in approximate circles like a bunch of mental retards and see who wins," the Kaka decided when it was obvious no more questions were going to be asked.
"Zonk," the Koala nodded, and everybody agreed.
They all ran around for about half an hour. Sometimes the Falcon seemed fastest, but occasionally the large Ant overtook it in a flurry of legs and the scent of honey. The Koala seemed to tag along, as did the Kaka. Cronos ran to keep up with the Falcon or the Ant, whichever was fastest at the moment. The Virgin tried hard to keep up with Cronos, whom she considered mentally and physically inferior to herself. Women's lib in the making.
Somehow, they actually seemed to get dry in the process. At the end of it, Kaka rather unexpectedly signalled them all to stop.
"Who's won?" the Virgin asked, her panting sounding like snow stars on frozen windows.
"Everybody has won," the Kaka said resolutely, "there's no question about it."
There were some muted cheers.
"And," the Kaka added with emphasis, "of course, all of you shall get a prize!"
"Zonk," the Koala now cheered with the others.
"Excuse me," Cronos interposed after this bout of happiness, "but who is to give the prizes?"
"Well, you of course," the Kaka cried happily, "who else?"
All of a sudden all creatures' faces swirled to meet his, eyebrows raised in eager expectation.
"Indeed, who else?" the Falcon interjected.
"Sure. Who else but he?" the enormous Ant now added, its multi-faceted eyes rolling.
"There's no question about it, really," the Virgin agreed, her voice like icecream in a hot summer day, "Or is there?"
"Zonk?" the Koala enthused.
"Prizes! Prizes!" they now all yelled rather too fervently.
Cronos fingered his pockets. Out came the most-empty bag of sticky liquorice. He handed them to the Kaka, which he reckoned was the Master of the Award Ceremony. The identical twin of a Dodo pried them loose and handed them around. Just before Cronos was to supposed to get his prize, however, the pieces of liquorice that were left disappeared with a deft movement of the Kaka's feathered hand - filed away for reappearance, no doubt, at a later and probably more private occasion.
"What else have you in your pocket?" the bird inquired.
Cronos hesitated, but eventually took out his Elector-O-Cute killer gadget. Especially the Falcon and the Kaka looked at the gleaming piece of hi-tech metalware with more than the usual interest.
"What's it?" the Ant asked, its multi-faceted eyes looking intensely scrutinous at the mercenary annex gun and about a hundred other places within the wide vicinity.
"It's a thing with which I can electrocute people over the phone," Cronos explained, "It's pretty ingenious, you know, and it works regardless the distance. Moreover, you can..."
"Zonk!" the Koala cried. It seemed to go frantic, its tail curling in an odd way and its entire body shaking much in the way a doomed little friendly Gremlin shakes just prior to colliding with huge quantities of water that it sees inescapably running towards him.
"Sounds much too savage," the Kaka said, eyeing Warchild with suspicious distrust, "for having someone like yourself walking around with it." It inserted a meaningful, contemplative pause. "Nonetheless," it said as it snatched it from Cronos' hands with a fell swoop, "I shall give it to you as your prize."
Cronos was about to get very angry but his poor brain instructed him not to bother. Which was probably just as well.
"Anyway," the Virgin said, her voice filled with the weight and purpose of an ice floe that knows it has to fill the biggest river in the known universe, "I shall now tell you all the tale, the sad tale, of why I hate mercenaries."
She cast a meaningful glance at Warchild. It was lost to him, however, as he was examining his Elector-O-Cute¿ killer gadget to see if the Kaka might have damaged it. He put it in his pocket after assuring himself that no corruption had been inflicted on the thing. He made a mental note not to forget testing the device once he'd get home. You never knew, and it was the only way to be sure.
Warchild found it odd to hear the Virgin speaking of a sad tail whereas A) It was no sad tail, and B) She had no tail. He was fairly convinced of the latter, for when viewing her naked splendidness earlier that day he was sure he had not found evidence of a tail's presence, and he reckoned there surely was no place to hide it.
Nevertheless the Virgin told her tale. Perhaps it should have been called a poem, but that would have made this whole bit of the story too difficult to write. Cronos was half wondering about the tail, half listening to her voice like snowflakes dropping in the sea, so to him the tale ran like this:
"Once upon a time there
was a virgin and a
The virgin, of
course, was I.
They went along
to gnaw at the
it was one
of his most
speaking up that
spoke of rape,
sex and a lot
When the Virgin stopped her tale she caught Cronos deep in thought, almost as if in a trance. To tell the truth, he had actually found it necessary to go into a state not unlike hibernation - for otherwise his brain would surely not even start to understand what this tail was all about. Besides, he seemed to have lost count of the bends. Had there been one one one one one one? Or perhaps one more?
"You see?" the Virgin said to the others while deliberately ignoring Cronos, her voice like the sound of a blunt icepick attempting to cut through the North Pole, "Virgins and mercenaries just don't rhyme."
Cronos pondered on, unperturbed, thinking about ones - too many of them.
"Hey, dude!" the Virgin said rather well audibly to get Cronos' attention, sounding like the Titanic on the night of April 14th 1912. The mercenary annex hired gun had apparently come to the end of his comatose pondering and chose that moment to look up.
"Seven!" he cried, smiling rather triumphantly.
The Virgin said something like, "Ooof!", which sounded like a thousand tons of liquid nitrogen being hurled in the mouth of an erupting volcano. She ran off, all but stampeding.
"Come on, girl," Cronos said, like a mother addressing her spoiled offspring, "What's all this running away for?"
The Virgin didn't answer. Her splendidly nude form ran off in the distance, like a dog with its tail between its legs - only, of course, she didn't have one. Cronos was still fairly certain about that.
"Hmpf," he snorted, "Fak the Ruthless wouldn't have had any problems getting her back."
"Zonk!" the Koala sniggered. With a small >plop< it disappeared.
"Er...hum," the Kaka said, "I think I left the gas on at home." With those words he disappeared through a door that locked itself behind him.
The Falcon flapped its wings and heaved itself in the sky. "I'd better be going too, pal," he said, "good luck to you." Within seconds it was a dark spot growing even smaller, far away.
Leaving behind a vague scent of honey, the Ant had disappeared, too.
So Cronos was alone again. Alone with himself in this truly vast hall filled with doors he couldn't open - except for one, to which the key lay out of reach, on a three-legged table that was too high for him to ascend.
"I wish I hadn't mentioned Fak," Cronos muttered sortof sadly to himself, "Will I ever see Fak again, or any of my other Mercenary Academy mates? Will I ever get out of here?"
The feeling in his lower abdominal area moved slightly up. It also transformed from a rather nice to a somewhat nauseous one. Sweat started breaking out from one or two pores, followed by more.
Then he suddenly heard the sound of feet flapping, coming closer. Was it the Virgin that came back to throw herself in his unmistakably masculine arms, to hurl her regretful tears at his recognizably macho shoulder?
IV - TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY
Of course, Cronos Warchild was quite wrong (rather totally and exceedingly so, as a matter of fact). It wasn't the Virgin but the White Kangaroo - the creature that had been the cause of his current predicament. When it came within speaking range, he heard it cry, "Oh the Mayor! The Mayor! He'll make a eunuch of me if he discovers I've lost them!"
At that moment the White Kangaroo saw Cronos standing.
"Mortimer," the White Kangaroo said in a reproachful tone while pointing to a place behind the mercenary annex hired gun, "what are you doing here? Go into the house and fetch me my magnifying glass and the keyring with the Koala on it. This minute!"
Intimidated and somewhat abashed, Cronos walked off in the direction the White Kangaroo had pointed to. Obviously the animal had mistaken him for somebody else, but Warchild decided not to behead it for this mistake; if he would have killed every creature that was doing something odd today he would end up with a frighteningly huge pile of carrion at his feet. It would take days to rid his hands of the stench of rotting flesh, though - he relished the thought.
Was that a telepathic vulture, circling high above him?
After a brief stroll through green meadows with flowers blooming and butterflies making love in the air, he came upon a small cottage with a rusty copper plaque next to the door. "W. KANGAROO" was engraved on it in rococo style, barely readable to cultural barbarians like himself.
He walked inside and hurried up the wooden stairs when he heard the slow, deliberate footsteps of what he guessed was the real Mortimer. At the end of the stairs he discovered a little room, of which he closed the door behind him. The room was well kept - that is, if you just tried hard to think away the piles of computer printouts, floppy disks and miscellaneous notes that lay everywhere. On a table that was relatively void of the aforementioned items lay a magnifying glass and the keyring with the Koala attached to it.
"Zonk," the Koala sighed.
He wanted to grab these items to give them back to the White Kangaroo - although it eluded him why he would want to do the dratted creature a favour. He didn't get around to actually taking the magnifying glass off the table, nor the keyring with the Koala on it, for at that precise instant a hypodermic syringe materialised next to them.
For a second or two there was a smell of ozone as if just after lightning.
A label was attached to the syringe. It had the typed words "CYANIDE" and "MEDICATE AT YOUR OWN PERIL" crossed out, and "INJECT ME" hand-written below them.
"Whattaheck," Cronos thought to himself, "it doesn't seem deadly to me."
He stuck the needle in his left arm and injected the fluid in a vein, or at least not too far away from one.
His arm turned purple, then cyan. Then his whole body went bright red with yellow dots, then, too, all cyan. The entire process, during which Warchild saw all kinds of strange colours swirl towards him, lasted perhaps ten seconds. At the end of it he felt like his old self again - only much bigger. He found his head pressed against the ceiling, almost causing his neck to break. Previously, the sensation of claustrophobia has been rather dreadful but nonetheless subtle-ish; now, however, it struck him like a freight train transporting lead storming towards him, down-hill, with malfunctioning brakes.
And still he continued growing. There was no other solution but to stick his head out of the window and his left foot up the chimney.
Sweat starting breaking out of him again, running down the various parts of his body in small rivulets; what about the cheap motel room he rented at the moment, cockroach-ridden though it may be? He'd never fit in it - if he could get out of here at all in the first place. And where was he to leave the large trunk carrying his collection of patented and superlatively lethal killer gadgets?
He was torn from his thoughts when he heard feet flapping up the stairs, and a voice yelling, "Mortimer! I need my magnifying glass right now, you hear? Mortimer!"
Next thing he knew, the White Kangaroo opened the door to the little room - or at least the animal tried to but didn't actually succeed as the door had to open to the inside and Cronos' posterior was rather solidly pressed against it.
"Then I'll try to get in through the window," Cronos heard the animal say to itself.
Outside, the White Kangaroo got quite a fright when it saw the huge, square head with the sideburns sticking out one side of its home.
"Mortimer!" it called angrily, "Mortimer!"
Slow, deliberate steps up the gravel of the garden path announced the butler. It was a badger wearing a black uniform, that had a white towel folded around his arm which it held in front of itself.
"Can I be of any service, Sir?" the butler inquired politely.
"What's that?" the Kangaroo spat with badly hidden vehemence, "Would you mind telling me what that is?"
The badger looked up at Cronos' head.
"Shocking, Sir," it admitted, "It seems to be a rather frightfully large head belonging to some sort of giant-ish chap, with your permission, Sir."
"Get rid of it!" the Kangaroo commanded urgently, as if it concerned merely a couple of gnats in the bedroom.
Although Cronos resented the possibility of his huge, rather squarely built shape to be manhandled out of the room by the tiny White Kangaroo and its midget butler, he began to think it would be the only way out. The claustrophobic freight train had hit him between the eyes - it hadn't even lost any velocity, the driver hand't seen him, and the "no speed limit" sign was coming up around the bend.
His left foot deemed the moment fit to send to his brain the signal of a rather irritating itch he had no way of being able to scratch. He bit his tongue.
Voices reached him, barely audible, parts of sentences, as if they were conspiring against him. He also heard a third voice, that he saw belonged to what appeared to be a Skunk of sorts that was called Ted.
"What?!" he heard the Skunk exclaim, high-pitched with fright, "Do I have to go down the chimney?"
"Well, most certainly, Sir," the butler confirmed.
"But I don't want to, you see," the Skunk whimpered, "Why does it always have to be me?"
Cronos saw the White Kangaroo snorting impatiently, flapping its feet on the grass.
"I'm afraid, Sir," the butler tried to explain, "that I can't offer satisfactory answers to either of your questions, Sir. However, if you allow me, Sir, I would advise you to do whatever you have to do quickly so as not to incur the wrath of your master, Mr. Kangaroo, Sir."
"But..." the Skunk whimpered on.
"I think, Sir," the butler cut off the Skunk's words, "that you're at this particular moment in time and space acting like what is reportedly known by commoners as a 'yeller', Sir. Now if you'd be so kind, Sir?" It emphasized its words by gesturing for the Skunk to move its rear end up the roof and into the chimney.
There were some sounds of ladders being climbed, and of Skunk's feet walking across the thatched roof. Cronos pulled back his left leg as far as he could manage, back into the chimney somewhat.
"Hi," said the Skunk in a voice that didn't particularly flow over with confidence when it peeped down the chimney.
A leg extended itself. A boot collided with a black-and-white, rather smelly animal which as a result was sent hurling through the air. It connected itself to the ground somewhere, some moments later.
There were some cries of anger outside. The unconscious Skunk was fetched from its position on a patch of thistles, after which further parts of conversations were carried by the breeze into Cronos' ears.
"Mouth to mouth resuscitation?" the Kangaroo exclaimed, its voice filled with disgust, "Are you kidding? Mouth-to-mouth on a blimmin' Skunk?"
"I kid thee not, Sir," the butler replied timidly, "As a matter of fact, Sir, this is the recommended sort of remedy in medical cases such as this one, if you allow me, Sir."
Suddenly a couple of clouds broke.
"A little bit of Plantiac, perhaps?" a voice thundered from the heavens like the Gods playing a double bass drum.
They all startled, Cronos inclusive; it even caused the Skunk to come to, be it reluctantly. They looked around but couldn't see anything. They decided to ignore the mystery voice, which was never heard in Wonderland henceforth.
"Terrible! Terrible!" the Skunk accounted, "It was simply terrible! There were fiends and monsters and flames and...and giants! I stood no chance against their superior numbers. I mean I tried, mind you, but even my proverbial strength and the smell I can excrete left me at the shortest end. And then there was this huge, black monstrosity that, in spite of my heroic defence, catapulted me out of the room without as much as giving me a fair chance."
"I see, Sir," the butler nodded, "I see, if you permit me, Sir."
"Shut your face," the White Kangaroo said, and lapsed into a fit of thought.
Time passed. It looked at the scene incomprehensibly, then continued its eternal path.
Cronos, for his part, was quite glad he wasn't growing anymore. Things would have looked severely disfortunate if he hadn't - possibly even worse than they looked now.
In the mean time, the animals outside seemed to have some sort of idea. The butler disappeared. After a while the badger butler came back, pushing before it a large wheelbarrow filled with a dark brown, semi-solid substance. A peg was located on its nose.
"There you are, Sir," the butler said, slightly out of breath, "the ma'ure, Sir."
The White Kangaroo looked up at Warchild's face, the beginning of a triumphant grin dawning on its face.
"The smell's awful," the Skunk said, "Simply terrible."
Before Cronos knew what happened, he was being subjected to a volley of what he guessed was human manure. Most of it missed him, but some of it clung to his hair and some of it made its way inside the room, just smelling awfully.
"Stop that," he bellowed, nearly making the house burst at the seams, "or I'll...I'll (he was searching for a foul enough punishment for these vile creatures) do something I'll regret later."
Warchild did not get the time to put any of his threats into practise, though, for at that moment the manure transformed itself in raspberries. Raspberries, of all things!
Cronos might not have been very bright, but even an imbecile laboratory rat would by now have learned that, whenever edible things occurred in the story, its size would change from small or big or big to small (or its surrounding would mutate with the same effect). So, in spite of the fact that raspberries to Cronos were just about the worst things to eat - but one - he tossed some of them in his mouth.
There was a quick feeling of giddiness, accompanied by a growing of chairs and tables, and next thing he knew he was gazing at a printed-out computer program listing on the floor of which the letters were almost one third of his height.
He dashed out of the door, jumped down the stairs, and ran towards the forest next to the White Kangaroo's abode with all speed he could muster. He almost stumbled upon a scene involving the throwing of more manure and the performing of apparently obscene things to a poor Skunk.
He guessed this was an appropriate moment to feel some sense of guilt, but his extensive training at Mercenary Academy had made sure he didn't and wouldn't ever.
The assorted animals that were gathered around the Skunk and the wheelbarrow with manure thought for a moment that they noticed Warchild's tiny form just in time to see a tiny booted foot disappearing in the dense undergrowth of the forest. Just like humans, however, who for example don't see gnomes as they don't believe in them, the animals thought they'd had a collective fata morgana and proceeded throwing excrements at the window.
"First I've got to grow back to my usual size again," Cronos thought to himself when he knew he was safe, hiding under a fairly large tuft of grass, "Then I've got to find my way to that garden I saw when I just got here. Maybe some killer weed'll grow there, or poisonous fungi that may come in handy in future assignments. Perhaps..."
A sudden high twittering sound, repeated two or three times, made an abrupt end to his train of thoughts. He looked up into two black eyes and a large orange bill that belonged to a yellow, cutely fluffy chicken. Incidentally, it was also terrifyingly huge.
"Easy does it," Cronos tried to coax it, almost on the verge of panicing, "Issy nice chicken, yes?"
He had never seen this big a chicken - but, then again, he had never been as small as this before. He tried to think of it as a huge mound of lean meat, but the image didn't work - it kept on making sounds at him, opening its bill menacingly, threatening to misinterpret him for a bit of delicious fresh corn.
It was completely uncertain whether the chicken wanted to eat him or if it wanted to play with him. Either way, it did make an awful racket and at several occassions almost flattened the mercenary annex hired gun under its clawed paws. Again, Cronos cursed himself for having opted to bring along the Elector-O-Cute killer gadget, which had by now repeatedly proven to be completely useless.
He was beginning to think he would either not get rid of the chicken or not get out alive, when in the distance he heard a cock crowing. If the chicken would have had ears, it would have pointed them; it seemed to listen intently for a few moments, after which it hopped off to somewhere far away from Warchild.
He sighed in relief.
"I'd surely like to have caught it and cooked it," he mused, "If only I had been somewhat bigger."
Even Cronos knew that one wasn't supposed to go around chasing and killing animals that are about four times as high as yourself when all you're carrying is a device with which you can kill people by telephone. The problem it came down to, again, was size. How was he to grow up to the right size again? He couldn't see any cakes, suppositories, bottles, icecreams or pieces of liquorice anywhere. Not even any raspberries! All he could see was a large mushroom that didn't seem edible either.
On top of the mushroom, however, sat a small llama - arms and legs folder like only preciously few llamas can do, sedately smoking a bong. It didn't seem to notice Cronos at all, nor did it seem to notice the entire world around it, including the very mushroom on which it sat.
V - ADVICE FROM A LLAMAOID
They looked at each other for a while, like opponents gauging their enemy's strength. Cronos thought it looked really silly to have a llama sitting on a mushroom with its legs and arms folded much in the way he had seen statues of fat men with long earlobes do in Oriental travelling brochures. But, then again, he had seen llamas in much sillier poses shooting camels with lasers and such, now he came to think of it.
"Chill out man, nicely groovy and zany and altogether rather ozric," the llama said suddenly, almost startling Warchild, "Zarjaz world we live in, innit? Almost better than 'Star Raiders' on the Atari 8-bit."
The mercenary annex hired gun let it sink in for a while. He was about to produce a reply along the lines of "Sure" or "Indeed" when suddenly the llama spoke again.
"Who might you be, squire?"
Immediately, a D.E.A. (Damaged Ego Alert) sounded in Cronos' head. Had his fame, or notoriousness, not reached this subterranean world? Had the stories about his flawless killings, that had so far spread across all the inhabited planets of the known universe like wildfire, missed out on this meaningless little whatever-it-was?
Somewhat hurt he replied by mentioning his name in the usual Bond-James-Bond-style.
"That sounds like a seriously unsound name to me, chum," the llama practically laughed out loud, letting Warchild's name roll over its tongue as if sampling cheap wine.
"It will not do, man," the llama concluded after some more rolling and sampling. "I will therefore call you 'Jeff'. Now you have to agree that's much better to start with. Seriously groovy, as a matter of fact."
Cronos stared at the llama, somewhat amazed at the animal's capacity to insult both him and his parents in one go without as much as flinching an eye, nor disconnecting its mouth from the bong. Somehow, the name 'Jeff' in his mind connected itself with the image of a bearded chap with long hair sitting on a stuffed yak, wearing an afghan, smoking a Camel cigarette and in his hands holded an empty bottle of Inca Cola. He didn't quite know where the image came from but, frankly, he couldn't be bothered.
"This world seems altogether rather strange to me," Cronos said out loud after accumulating in his mind all the weird things that had happened so far while being underground.
"You!" the llama retorted, visibly agitated, "Paugh! What makes you think you've got something to say around here?"
Now that was a question that Cronos A) Couldn't reply to, B) Hadn't expected and C) Wondered about what had caused it. All these factors together left Cronos in a state that, should careful evaluation have been necessary, would have had to surpass hibernation - a state that would have been almost unmistakable from, if not identical to, death.
"May I add, by the way," the animal added as an almost trivial afterthought, "that there's a drop of nasal fluid on your upper lip?"
This, almost literally, was the drop that made the bucket run full. Sniffing violently and wiping his nose with his sleeve, Cronos walked off much in the way the Virgin had walked off from him earlier.
"I say, old fruit," Warchild heard the llama yelling behind him, "come back, man! No need for all that running off all of a sudden."
He turned around and traced his steps back to the animal. He didn't like the smugness of its smile.
"Be excellent to each other," the llama said. Muttering to itself, it added, "I've always wanted to say that. It does have a nice ring to it, even if I say so myself."
"Is that all you have to say?" Cronos asked, "Is that why you wanted me to come back?"
"Well, you know, dude...er...no," the Andes inhabitant said. It even took the bong out of its mouth. If blew a puff of smoke in Cronos' face that made him feel dizzy for a couple of moments, then said, "So you think things have been rather strange to you?"
"Yes," Warchild nodded, "I mean I've changed sizes at least one one one one one times today. Animals talk. You talk. And you're smoking, too. Only a while back I tried to recite the lyrics to Napalm Death's "Dead" and the word, one word mind you, came out all wrong. I don't know what's happened to me. Am I one card short of a full deck? Am I not quite the shilling? Am I not the usual top billing? Am I..."
He cut himself off, just short of saying that he thought he was a banana tree.
"Am I slightly mad?" he asked to wrap it up, genuine concern filling his voice.
The animal shifted its position on the mushroom, as if it had suddenly discovered that its rear end was sleeping. It closed its eyes for a moment, which looked as if it was reading the answer to Cronos' questions from the insides of its eyelids.
"Well," the llama said after a while of breathless contemplation, opening its eyes, "Perhaps you could recite the lyrics to Metallica's "Orion" for me."
Cronos thought hard for a while. Then he thought hard for another while or two. He then said:
"If birds could talk
The world would be quite different
This is the strange dream
That birds have at night
It is no longer possible
When they're awake
Cannot man teach them to do so
Or let them be?"
"See?" Cronos said, initially sporting some pride at being able to say something as profoundly deep and extensive as this, then disappointed, "The words came out all wrong."
The llama looked like a psychiatrist who was about the judge a ten-year-old little girl mentally incapacitated for the rest of her life. Its face did not so much frown, but more sortof contorted. One of its front paws seemed to stroke its chin in a wholly un-llama-like way.
"First of all," the llama said, "that wasn't "Orion" for that's an instrumental song. Trick question there. You did do "To Live Is To Die", but again it seems the words didn't quite come out right. Incidentally, did you know that the real lyrics to that song were probably partly ripped from Stephen Donaldson's 'Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever'?"
Cronos failed both to recall ever having heard of the author's name before and connecting all of it with the current situation. He tried to express naive innocence, something which unfortunately only caused his mouth to drop open and his eyes to stare at no particular point somewhere in the distance.
"Thought you didn't," the llama said, more to itself than to Warchild. The silence that followed lasted the better part of five minutes.
The South-American animal broke the silence first.
"So what size would you like to be?"
"Dunno," Cronos said, not quite prepared to answer a question as intrinsically complicated as that, "I guess I don't care that much, really. I'd basically like to be able to stay the same size for a while, you know."
"I don't," the llama said, dryly.
"I don't," it repeated.
"Know," replied the llama.
"Yes. I don't know."
The animal rolled its eyes at the human's obvious stupidity.
"You don't know what?" Cronos insisted.
"I don't know that you'd basically like to stay the same size for a while," the llama explained more elaborately.
"You don't?" Warchild asked incredulously.
"Well, now I do but when you started about it I didn't."
"Ah. I see," said Cronos, unsure.
"No, you probably don't," the llama disagreed.
"I don't what?"
"This conversation is getting nowhere", the llama broke off.
Cronos fell silent, already quite having lost trace of it way back.
"I'd like to be slightly bigger than I am now," he said finally, "four inches is such a darned lousy height to be, or should I say lowth?"
The llama snorted, standing up on its hind legs, precisely four inches tall. "No it isn't," it said, hurt.
Cronos had another attack of guilt again, but somewhere along the relatively infinite line of nerves and synapses it got nipped in the bud. His face remained utterly void of expression.
Another silence followed. It lay on the ground, writhing, pleading, as if almost begging to be broken.
"One side will get you bigger, the other will get you smaller," the llama finally said, "You sort it out, Jeff."
Cronos hated being called 'Jeff'. He also wondered of what one side would cause growth and the other shrinking.
"The mushroom, you git," the animal said, reading his mind.
"That's all we need," Cronos thought to himself, annoyed, "A telepathic llama."
"I heard that!" the Llama said, again sounding hurt. Amid a huge fractal explosion it disappeared off the mushroom, leaving behind only the scent of burned herbs.
Now Warchild faced a dilemma he had faced the last time during the first grade at Mercenary Academy: Mathematics. His tutors had at the time insisted he learn basic arithmetic - Cronos had found it inescapable to fail. Now he had to face the consequences: Which side was which? After all, the mushroom was as round as it could possible be, so there was no way to determine which side would be one and which other.
A pain crashed through Warchild's consciousness - he had another lucid moment. The total amount of these occasions during his life had been very, very rare. The fact that he had had two lucid moments this day seemed to indicate he was making progress.
This all just serves to prove that statistics can be wrong quite utterly.
During the time the lucid moment spent in Cronos brain, he picked two pieces off the mushroom - one on either side. He hoped it would work.
Of course, the bit he first tried was the wrong one - Murphy's law works rather effectively even for those who often seem immune to the laws of causality and faculty.
The shrinking that resulted from eating the wrong bit of mushroom was rather devastating. One moment Cronos was still about four inches tall, and after the blink of an eye he was suddenly very small. The mushroom towered above him like a vast monument of the first nuclear explosion - only much, much bigger and at this particular moment vastly more impressive.
"Oops," the mercenary annex hired gun said.
A beetle, that had been about as large as his fist until about one second ago, now looked at him even more threateningly than the frightfully cute and flawlessly yellow giant chicken had done before. It moved its antennas, as if probing the air for molecules that had had the audacity to pop off Warchild. It seemed to like what it sensed, and came closer for a first bite.
Cronos swallowed most of the other piece of mushroom, wishing to become big as soon as possible. There was a very short crunchy sound, not unlike that of a black boot crushing a beetle, and after that there were only the strange feeling of an elevator quickly gaining upward momentum, and clouds.
He tried to feel his head, but couldn't. His hands simply weren't long enough to reach his head that now seemed to be balancing on a neck quite resembling some sort of nutty snake. He was having problems breathing, which Cronos reckoned had something to do with space being much closer now - and wasn't space empty?
He looked down. Now and again the clouds around him would tear up for a moment, allowing a brief glimpse at the scenery below. Most of it was green with a spot of blue here and there - which he assumed were lakes of sorts. A bit to his left he saw a small cottage with a thatched roof. In its garden he saw a White Kangaroo, a badger dressed as a butler, and a Skunk that seemed to be out cold. On a road, way off before him, he saw a toad driving a car rather more rapidly than it should.
He was surely feeling spaced out - which is a fairly accurate description of what a bite of the growing side of a mushroom can do to you if you've previously inhaled the smokes of certain mind-expanding herbs. When he closed his eyes, his head seemed to be rollercoasting. When he opened them, it still seemed to.
The feeling wore off just in time for him to be aware of some creature of the sky flying into a part of his neck. He looked down to his neck that seemed to hang below him like a rope from a balloon. He couldn't quite see his body.
A small flying thing circled around him, towards his head, up from the spot where it had collided with his neck.
"Can't you watch where you're going?" a voice said, now close to his ear. It was fairly obvious that the voice wanted to sound enraged, but it totally failed in obtaining the objective. Instead the voice radiated infinite love and passion.
The owner of the voice flew around him, so that in the end Cronos could see it straight before him, fluttering and complaining. It was a small angel, no, a flabby baby with Pampers on. It had a golden bow in its tiny hands, and a very small arrow container was located on its back, attached to a strap.
"Oh no," the tiny winged form said when seeing Warchild, "you."
"I'm afraid you've got the advantage," Cronos said, having heard this sort of dialogue in a film once, "I have never seen you before."
The baby angel tried to put on a scornful face, but only succeeded in showing infinite dedication and friendship.
"You big lummox," it said, gayly flapping its wings now and flying to and fro in front of Warchild's face, "Don't you remember Loucynda? Or Penelope? And what about Klarine Appledoor?"
Cronos had fleeting visions of a most beautiful shaped breast upon which hung a name plate, of coal-powered engines hidden in folds of flesh that functioned to pump around gallons and gallons of blood, and of a rusty-locked chastity belt.
"Sure I remember them," he said to the little angel, "But I still don't remember you."
Warchild had not been really sure of many things in his life - but he had been sure the Virgin had had no tail and he was sure he didn't know who the hell this little angel was.
"I see," the angel said in a tone that was supposed to convey sadness and hurt but that only spread warmth and devotion, "You really, honestly don't know me."
Cronos shook his head. "No."
He didn't even feel sorry, nor did he feel slightly guilty.
Quickly, the flying marksbaby changed subject.
"I've seen you look better, Cronos Jehannum," it said as if visiting an old friend, "Much better than this huge ugly thing with a neck like a spaced-out snake and breath smelling of weird herbs, raspberries and tobacco icecream."
"I'm no ugly thing with a neck like a spaced-out snake and breath smelling of weird herbs, raspberries and tobacco icecream," Cronos said, "I'm but a small mercenary annex hired gun." It seemed that a tear welled up in his eye. It was visible for an instant of a nanosecond, then Warchild blinked his eyes and it had vanished.
"If you flew into me just to insult me," Cronos said in as menacing a tone as he could manage with half of his speech apparatus a rough two hundred feet below him, "I'll have to insist you leave."
Another quote from a film he'd forgotten to forget.
"OK," the minute angeloid muttered, "If that's how you want to play it. Fine. Don't expect me around when you need me, though."
It flapped its wings somewhat more intensely, after which it flew off into a cloud and vanished from sight.
Warchild remembered the pieces of mushroom he should still have in his hands, a long way down. He bent his neck in a huge arc until it almost formed an "O", with his head close to his chest - which was quite like a spaced-out snake indeed. By biting off small pieces off each bit of mushroom he eventually reached his right height - or at least he got the surroundings to the sizes he seemed to recollect from before he'd made the jump into that hole under the tree in the park near his motel. He stuffed the bits of the mushroom he had left in his pocket.
It felt strange being in a world that had its usual size again. He checked his neck. It was still there - or, rather, it was still as always hidden between his broadly built shoulders and his square head with the long sideburns.
He walked away from where he had seen the White Kangaroo's cottage - he had no intention of ever having manure hurled at him again, certainly not if the manure had the tendency to transform into raspberries, of all things!
Within a few minutes he found a small house. It was scarsely more than a yard high, however, so he reckoned it would be best to eat some more of the mushroom bit that could make the world grow again.
He did. The world grew.
VI - FROG AND GARLIC
As soon as he had gotten used to his diminished size, he took in his surroundings - that's the kind of thing a mercenary is trained to do. He kept an eye on the house for a while until he reckoned it safe to go in for some more detailed exploration.
He had just come out of his hiding when he saw a small DHL car coming up the driveway. He had seen many weird things while he was underground, but this thing beat everything: The car had two eyes popping up from the bonnet much in the way a frog's would. There was no front bumper on it either - instead it had a huge, grinning mouth. It looked like one of those small child's toys, only life-sized.
Cronos was even more amazed to see the car rise on its hind wheels and knock the door with a front tyre, sounding like a soft, rubbery 'thud'. It whistled a postman Pat tune in an almost absurdly casual way.
A mole opened the door. The animal was covered, like most of its kind, in a thick black fur that was most fit for crawling underground. Unlike most of its kind, however, it wore dark glasses and a sports jacked, put on back-to-front, with a Kriss Kross logo patched on its back (which was in the front). Behind both its ears it wore hearing aids that looked every bit as impressive as the car audio systems that cheap people living in cheap neighbourhoods have built in their second-hand Opel Mantas to impress their cheap neighbours. It bobbed its head left and right like Stevie Wonder (or, for that matter, like Ray Charles). The fact that the mole was handicapped at two of its most important senses, by the way, suffices to prove that only this way one can fully appreciate Kriss or Kross or, indeed, both of the silly brats.
"I AM ADRIAN, THE BUTLER!" the mole yelled at the DHL vehicle, "CAN I BE OF SERVICE TO YOU!"
The car heaved a sigh, which almost perfectly succeeded in conveying the meaning of the sentence "Oh no, not that stupid mole again..."
The mole, of course, was blissfully unaware of this.
"I have a message for the Mayor," the car said, the sound of a barrel full of pistons rolling down a mountain into a car mechanic's workshop, "An invitation of the King of Spades to play golf.
"THANK YOU, SIR!" the butler said.
The car went inside. The butler closed the door, quite forgetting to walk back in itself.
Cronos decided it was time to do something. Anything. He walked up to the front door and knocked on it a couple of times.
"THAT'S USELESS, SIR!" the butler said.
Warchild looked at the insectivore for a couple of moments. Deciding against starting anything resembling a conversation, he tried to mimic "Why?" with his facial expression.
Remarkably, he succeeded.
Even more remarkably, the blind mole sensed it.
"WE ARE BOTH ON THE SAME SIDE OF THE DOOR!" the mole explained, "SO I CAN'T LET YOU IN AS SUCH. AND INSIDE THEY CAN'T HEAR YOU ANYWAY!"
Warchild put aside the implications of what the butler said for, indeed, quite a racket seemed to be going on inside, though he couldn't make out what it was all about. He was just going to connect his ear to the door when it flew open and a self-cleaning garlic squeezer missed him by a mere fraction of inches. It flew off into the bushes.
It was followed by an insulted red DHL car which brushed some dust off its wings and disappeared down the road, bonnet in the air, muttering angrily about idiots and the things that bolts go in.
The mole walked in and melted into what it probably considered to be one of the more comfortable shadows that seemed to leap and lurch in the house.
Cronos decided to walk in, too. He stumbled upon a wholly odd sight.
He had entered a kitchen that scented thoroughly of gas - or at least, reckoned Cronos, of something that smelled like gas. He found the Mayor sitting on a stool in the middle of it, trying to soothe to sleep a baby that was lying in his lap. A cook wearing a flat black cap with a ridiculously erect thingy on top of it and holding under his arm a lengthily shaped loaf of bread cursed to himself as he appeared to have added too much red wine to the soup he was brewing. He kept on adding garlic to it, too, which was probably the main reason behind the intense smell that pervaded every cubic inch of air and behind the baby refusing to be soothed.
"It's OK, Maggie," the Mayor said, eyes watering, "it's OK. It'll be alright in a minute. Just let Francois here finish the soup. It won't be a minute."
For a moment the baby seemed to contemplate the truth of this statement. As a new wave of garlic smell wafted by and as it seemed to realise it would not be a minute indeed, however, it started refusing to be soothed with redoubled vigour.
When he tore his eyes off the ugly infant, Cronos also noticed the Koala which sat rather inconspicuously behind the Mayor. It smiled broadly - rather too broadly for a Koala, Warchild thought. From ear to ear, as a matter of fact.
"Excuse me," Cronos asked the Mayor, unusually timidly for someone of his persuasion, "but why does your Koala smile like that?"
He wasn't at all interested at why the Koala smiled that way, but somehow he felt it would be the appropriate thing to ask.
The Mayor looked up at the mercenary annex hired gun, seemed to gauge him for half a second and then snorted.
"It's a Cheshire Koala," he said as if it was common knowledge. After a while, during which Cronos had succeeded in not coming up with any noticable reply, the Mayor added, "You don't know a lot, do you?"
Warchild didn't like the tone of that remark, but he'd be the last one to lose his temper over something involving his intelligence. He'd read somewhere that smart people didn't react to insults, so he'd be damned if he did.
He snorted in reply - or at least he produced a sound not completely dissimilar to it.
All of a sudden the cook turned around agitatedly. He started yelling in some sort of foreign language that sounded as if all the accents were put on the wrong syllables. When the Mayor ignored him and continued trying to put the baby to rest, the cook started throwing things. First he threw cutlery, then some pottery and eventually other things ranging from garlic pieces and wine bottles to snail's houses and pictures of De Gaulle.
The Mayor nor the baby seemed to notice the things being hurled at them, not even when they bounced off them. The baby simply continued crying, so the Mayor eventually resorted to singing sortof a lullaby.
"Shake and beat your little Maggie,
And fold her when she cries;
She's only a helpless baby,
But kick her 'till she's nice."
(Where the cook and the baby joined)
"Hey Hey Hey!"
The lullaby was having little effect. Showing the total ineptness of men in the handling of babies, he started bobbing the ugly creature up and down on his lap in what was hardly a comforting fashion. The baby started hollering so loudly that Cronos could barely hear the words of the second verse:
"I shake and beat my little Maggie,
And I fold her when she cries;
For even though she's a baby,
I'll kick her 'till she's nice."
"Hey Hey Hey!"
Still the baby kept on crying and generally being any parent's nightmare. It was clear that the Mayor had no intent to cope with it any longer. He flung the ugly thing into Cronos' arms and got up.
"I must get ready to play golf with the King," he said as he left the house without as much as bidding the others goodbye.
The baby made a distinctly queer sound.
Warchild had never been one to handle babies - not unless they needed to be manhandled, that is. Ever since he had seen "Three Men and a Baby" he was afraid of ever having to hold a toddler, afraid of being urinated on, afraid of having other people witness his shameful lack of talents in the changing of nappies without getting excreta all over him.
Deep in thought on how he was to get himself out of this situation, he wandered out of the Mayor's house into the forest. He looked at the baby and was considerably relieved to see that it seemed to have fallen asleep. Its mouth had gone wide as if smiling, and its eyes seemed to bulge out a bit when they were closed.
He sat down on a tree stump. Somewhere, deep within him, paternal feelings were struggling to get out. The baby, ugly though it had been before, did have nicely bulging eyes and a a kind of friendly green complexion.
Its eyes opened and it said the first word Cronos had heard it utter - not counting the hollering, crying and yelling.
"Oo-Wrribbit," it said with a voice that sounded like warts, sticky wet skin and deep ponds filled with mud and tadpoles.
To his considerable flummoxedness, Warchild found himself holding a human-baby-sized frog. It looked quite absurd, with its powerful hind legs extending from Cronos' grasp and its absolutely amphibian grin.
He put it on the ground, first checking to see if no-one had witnessed him walking around rather sillily with a large frog of sorts. The animal leapt off comfortably, nonchalantly snatching an innocent fly from the air in mid-leap.
"Oh shit no," the fly said as it stuck to the tongue, just prior to being swallowed whole and consequently digested, "Not again."
Shortly afterwards, at the start of its following - short - life, it appeared as a bowl of petunias at a totally different place and an altitude of roughly 300 feet.
In the mean time the green jumping wet thing, totally unaware of the petunia's pending death or most of the other things that were going on in the multiverse enveloping its wart-ridden form, disappeared in the shrubbery.
Cronos, for his part, did not even notice the disappearance of the amphibian. Instead, most of his attention was absorbed by a Koala that sortof drifted in front of a tree branch above him. It was grinning inanely - the kind of grin Warchild would otherwise rather have hit off the face if it hadn't been for the fact that the Koala looked cutely cuddly and, indeed, cuddlily cute.
He hoped the Koala knew the way around here. He had seen it before, so he guessed it must be a native to this world underground.
"Where should I go?" he asked.
"Where do you want to go?" the Koala replied philosophycally.
Cronos thought for a while. Peculiarly, it didn't hurt.
"Not any place in particular," he concluded.
"Then," the Koala stated with a sense of importance not unlike that of a judge sentencing someone to death, "you should walk into no direction in particular."
"But..." Cronos said, but his train of thought had already derailed by the third dot. He decided upon another approach.
"What kind of creatures live where?" he inquired.
"Now that is a proper question," the Koala said, smiling from ear to ear to the point where Cronos thought the mouth might connect on the back and the top half of the fluffy head might flop off, "To the east (it pointed to the left) you will find the house of Mr. Cranium. To the west (it pointed to the right) you will find Arthur and Martha's place."
Cronos nodded the way game show hosts nodd when listening to a candidate's life history for the hundredth time.
"They're all quite insane, you know," the Koala added as an afterthought.
Warchild looked at it blankly.
"No," the Koala said, "no, you probably wouldn't."
The Koala considered it an opportune moment to start disappearing. At first its fluffy tail faded away, followed by its paws and body. In the end there was only the head, some seconds later only the asinine smile.
"That's funny," Cronos thought to himself, "Hmmm...I've seen a Koala without a grin but never have I seen a grin without a Koala."
By the end of this thought the Koala had disappeared altogether, having been replaced by the proverbial thin air in or behind which the animal seemed to have vanished without as much as a >zonk<.
The mercenary annex hired gun decided to go to Cranium's house. It sounded somehow like the most logical thing to do, even though even Cronos felt logic had nothing to do with it. He walked to the east until he saw a house - at least he instinctively knew it should be a house though it actually looked only like an enormous top side of a terrifyingly vast skull. Two ear-shaped forms were attached to its sides. Some large birds had opted to build nests in them. Of the two huge half eye-sockets Mr. Cranium seemed to have made a door and a window.
The house was out of match with Cronos' size. He therefore decided he should eat some of the right side of the mushroom he found he still had in his pockets.
His surroundings shrunk somewhat.
He wondered what kind of person would go and live in such an absurdly silly place. You'd have to be as mad as a hatter!
VII - A TIMELESS PARTY
He probed the front door, which swung open invitingly into a room in which he saw a long table on which sat three - or were it four? - people.
Most prominent of all sat a person whom he guessed was Mr. Cranium, excentric and slightly mad. He had a large bald head with tufts of hair behind and above the ears, an impressive attempt at a failed moustache, and half-glasses resting on a pompous nose that looked as if it had just been harvested from a beet plant and glued to his face ineptly.
To the left of the excentric gentleman sat a siamese twin. One of them wore a T-shirt with the name "Arthur" written on it, the other wore one with "Martha" on it.
Now Cronos also noticed something sitting between the siamese twin and Mr. Cranium. It was a huddled form of a human, long-haired dude with John Lennon glasses sitting partly behind an almost absurdly huge mug of beer.
"War? Knuckles Busted? Stuhl gebaut? No Rob!" the human form muttered in what seemed like sleep. He belched, wagged his head, then farted. After that he - or it - seemed to drop in a more intense sort of sleep from which no further miscellaneous sounds arose.
Warchild cast a glance at the clock. It was noon.
The creatures present, with the exception of the nodding humanoid thing, looked at Cronos in fright when he barged into the house and helped himself to a chair. Obviously they considered it a very uncivilized act of him just to walk in and sit down and the same table where they were enjoying a nice beer. They succeeded in showing undisguised disgust and contempt at this infringement of what must be one of their prime rules of life.
"Would you..." Arthur said, "...like a cup of tea?" Martha finished.
Warchild nodded. Surely there could be no harm in them offering him something as innocent as a cup of hot water with herbal extracts?
Arthur nor Martha made a move, however. They seemed to be waiting for Cronos' coin to fall. It took a while. Then, as if reluctant to obey Newton, a coin fell with an inaudible 'clank'.
"But there is no tea," the mercenary annex hired gun finally said, "And you must know it is highly impolite to offer me something that you don't have. Not to mention that it might be lethal." He added the latter bit with a hint of threat in his voice.
Now Mr. Cranium spoke for the first time.
"It was highly impolite of you," Richard retorted, "just to enter my place and sit down at this table."
Wisely, Warchild decided not to react. Instead he glanced at the clock. It was noon exactly.
Arthur and Martha seemed to have forgotten all about Cronos already. They were lifting large mugs of ale to their lips and drinking. The humanoid with the long black hair and the small round glasses continued having a nap attack. It snored quite ghastly, as if sleeping the sleep of the Dead. Only Mr. Cranium kept on looking at Warchild unperturbably - or perhaps at a spot just behind Cronos' skull.
It unsettled Cronos somewhat. He was not used to feeling unsettled, and generally took care of feeling very settled indeed by obliterating any thing or person that might have the slightest of unsettling effects on him. Last time this had happened was when quite an innocent motorist had folded his Chevrolet sedan around Warchild's left leg when he had crossed the road rather suddenly. Though putting Warchild's mind at ease, it had had a profoundly unsettling effect on the motorist's next of kin, the stomachs of the two dozen people that stood watching and the social worker of the sewage maintenance man who just happened to be at work in the manhole down which miscellaneous unidentifiable but definitely gory bits had dropped.
Just in time to prevent the rather notorious acts Warchild would have deemed necessary to settle himself, Mr. Cranium said, "Do have a beer."
It did not so much sound like an invitation as a command.
Warchild reached out and got hold of a mug of formidable dimensions. In it was a foamy liquid that smelled slightly of urine topped by the stuff that comes off rancid milk when you skim it.
Cronos sighed a deep sigh of relief. Even though he wouldn't recognise a good red wine if he would drown in it, there was no way he would not recognize a mug of Dessip if he saw one. This was real men's stuff.
He put the mug to his lips and started drinking. When, after two minutes of swallowing without bothering to breathe in between, he had downed the entire mug he had just time enough to burp the Mother of all Burps before passing out at noon exactly.
It is said that being sober is not the opposite of being drunk, much in the way that silence is not the opposite of noise but just the absence of it. The opposite of silence, of course, is anti-silence, the kind of silence that can shred bones, grind minds and generally cause vastly more intense insanity than the worst imaginable LSD trip, the kind of silence you get when you go beyond silence and come out the other side where sound un-exists.
The opposite of sober, much in the same way, is anti-sober (which is sometimes referred to as Dessip in popular speech, hence the beer's brand name). It does not leave you flat-out drunk and tottering across the road, it does not cause spasms or retching, nor any pains in any regions of the body. People who suffer from anti-soberness suddenly see what the world is really like - the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth - and would by now have changed the world to a far better place if it hadn't been for the fact that anti-soberness usually lasts for a very short time, immediately after which the stage of brainmurdering drunkenness sets in (including the effects hinted at above, as well as some surpassingly more nauseating ones).
If a Cyrius Cybernetics BrainSlator would have been connected to Warchild's skull, the following short and very intense conversation with himself could have been recorded:
"So this is what the world is really like? Hm. Does not look like a fun place at all. What are those weird things? Maybe if I'd change a few things it would be a happy place for all sentient beings in the entire univ..."
HEAVY MENTAL 'THUD' (signalling the end of the Dessipid phase).
"Oh my. Where's the loo?"
After that, even the sophisticated microcircuitry in the BrainsLator would have had difficulty noticing any brain activity other than that associated with the sudden reverse movement of the entire digestive system, followed by a deep sleep, some more reverse digestive activities, a lot more of deep sleep and, finally, thoughts about a lamp that protruded from a high, domed ceiling.
The lamp seemed to gaze at him intently. It seemed determined to continue staring at him, as if it was playing a game of "Who looks away first." The lamp seemed keen on winning. Insofar as lamps could have any expression, it looked smug.
In the end the lamp won.
From his horizontal position on the ground, Cronos looked around carefully and found himself back in the large hall with the many doors, the lamps hanging from the ceiling and the glass table with the golden key on it.
He shook his head once he recognized the place he was in. He had no idea how it had happened, but he surely wasn't going to try and find out - the mere thought didn't even start to cross his mind.
He sat upright, an intense pain jabbing at his head for a few throbbing heartbeats. When it had ebbed away he ventured standing up. Apart from a few more painful jabs, which he was trained to suppress, everything seemed to work out fine.
Now what had gone wrong last time? He had taken the key when the surroundings were small and when they were big the key was back on the table. Hm. He felt in his pockets, relieved to find some of the mushroom still left in it - of the side that would make the surroundings grow. It was the last bit. He hoped he wouldn't be needing any more of it.
He took the key, walked to the small door, opened it with the small key, ate something of the mushroom, shrank to a height of about half a yard and walked out onto the splendidness of King Spades' Green.
VIII - KING SPADES' GREEN
It was the kind of green that golf game designers would love to buy a license of. Roughs were located at nasty spots in the hilly landscape that looked almost artificial in its neatness. A couple of trees seemed to be meticulously placed here and there. Beautiful rosebushes were placed at places where they seemed to fit most perfectly. In the distance Cronos saw a flag or two, beckoning in the soft breeze.
These were the kind of surroundings where he would gladly spend the rest of his life killing people - even though there didn't seem to be any phones around.
His arrival at King Spades' Green seemed not to have gone by unnoticed. From behind a rosebush he though he saw someone signal urgently. He walked to the bush, noticing that all its roses were red except for a white one. He considered it odd, but heeded it no further.
"Psst!" the voice hissed, as urgently as its owner had previously beckoned, "Go away! If the King sees you on his Green he'll chop off your gonads!"
Cronos now saw the thing that was talking to him - for it was a thing indeed - was a miniature model of the Chinese Wall with arms and legs. This was very odd, but not half as odd as the fact that it spoke in what Cronos failed to recognize as a Yorkshire accent.
"Go away!" it repeated, still quite urgent, "I am very serious. Take a hike! Go and steal bicycles! Beat it! Go away unless you want to end up like so many others! Piss o..."
The miniature Chinese Wall swallowed its words as it was interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming closer behind it. Before either the Chinese Wall or Cronos knew it, they were surrounded by four totally different dogs, four totally different cars and three miniature Wonders of the World (indeed, and all boasting legs and arms). In front of them stood a playing card - the King of Spades, flanked by a Weasel dressed in a mink coat. The King was muttering something quite angrily about a bowl of petunias, rubbing a bump on one of its edges. The Weasel seemed just to be agreeing.
"Ha!" the King suddenly exclaimed, his voice triumphant, "Finally I have the Chinese Wall! As I already have the Pyramids of Gizeh, the Colossos of Rhodos and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, that means I'll surely beat the others at Quartette!"
"Gruesomely so, Your Highness," the Weasel agreed.
The King surveyed the dogs, the cars and the Wonders of the World with a satisfied grin.
Nobody really knew what to say to that, or dared to. Even though he would probably have dared, Cronos didn't quite know what to say either.
"What is that doing on my green?" the King suddenly inquired when he noticed Warchild standing around, stabbing a finger at the mercenary annex hired gun, "Surely that is not one of the objects to be collected?"
Unanimously, the other collectables shook their heads. Nope - there was definitely no category to fit in a dim-witted human.
"Well then," the King cried, "What are you waiting for? Chop off his gonads!"
"Diabolically so, Your Supremeness!" the Weasel chimed in enthusiastically, its tiny teeth flashing for a moment.
Warchild felt an all-too-familiar sensation creep down his stomach and into his loins. Visions of upset females flashed before his eyes for a second.
A broad-shouldered Gorilla, Warchild's more primitive alter ego so it seemed, appeared from behind a bush as if it had been hidden there all along. It licked its lower lip as if it was craving for a banana, and in its hands it held a knife that looked very sharp indeed.
The King turned around, probably having other pressing matters on his mind.
"Come on, Cat," he commanded.
"Disgustingly so, Your Ampleness," the Weasel assented, following the King. The dogs, cars and miniature Wonders of the World followed, too. The Chinese Wall managed to cast a fleeting glance of symphathy at Warchild.
The Gorilla grinned. The knife flashed. A killer gadget was fumbled with, useless without a phone at hand. An upper lip was licked.
At around that instant, it became no longer apparent what happened. A cartoonesque cloud of sand evolved around the human and the primate, grass flinging off in several directions. The occasional sounds along the lines of "BASH", "WHACK" and, indeed, "THUD", were hurled at who cared to stand by and watch.
The sounds were enough to have the King decide that the pressing matters, whatever they were, might have to wait.
"I put five on the human," the Hanging Gardens of Babylon cried.
"Ten on the gorilla," the DHL car yelled.
"Which one?" a Great Dane asked.
"No bets!" the King shouted.
"Horribly so, Your Elatedness!" Cat the Weasel concorded.
"I disagree!" a Pitbull grunted.
"One more remark like that," the King whispered between his teeth, "and I'll have your gonads chopped off as well!"
"Detestingly so, Your Splendidness!" Cat joined in.
Few moments later the dust settled upon the unconscious form of the Gorilla. Its fur was wrinkled, it had a black eye and its nose seemed broken with a tiny stream of blood pouring out of one nostril.
It was dead, too.
Cronos brushed off some grass and sand, then snorted derisively.
"It seems," the King said, a hint of reverence in his royal voice, "That perhaps your privates don't need to be chopped off after all."
"Resentfully so, Your Supremeness," the Weasel added, slightly hesitantly.
"Perhaps I should invite you to a game of golf," the King concluded after a second or two of thought. He shushed away the Quartette collectables. Some Pink Flamingoes appeared from behind bushes where they seemed to have been all along, as well as a couple of Hedgehogs that had probably been hogging behind a hedge all that time.
The Weasel didn't say anything. It just looked at Warchild, then at the gorilla. A shiver ran down its weasly spine.
"You know what it's like with our kind," the King added jocularly, patting Cronos on the back as if they had been pub pals for years, "We call a spade a spade. Takes some getting used to, but most manage. Eventually."
One of the Pink Flamingoes was inserted in Warchild's hands, head down. One of the Hedgehogs slowly coiled itself at Cronos' feet.
"Am I supposed to hit the Hedgehog with the Flamingo?" Cronos asked nobody in particular.
"Yes," his Flamingo muttered in an irritated tone, "you're supposed to. Don't worry. I'm used to it. I suppose the Hedgehogs are, too."
Warchild swung the Flamingo's head in a totally incompetent way. Miraculously he succeeded in letting the Hedgehog fly off in the distance, where it eventually landed on the ground, dizzy, after having collided with a tree which it would have preferred somewhat less sturdy.
Cronos walked to the place where the Hedgehog lay, an unnaturally pale complexion on it. Suddenly the White Kangaroo was walking next to him, carrying on its shoulder another Flamingo.
"Where's the Mayor?" Warchild asked.
"Be silent," the marsupial whispered, "He's sentenced to have his you-know-whats chopped off."
"Hm," Cronos hm-ed.
"Don't you think," the Kangaroo said, desperate to change the subject, "that playing golf is difficult?"
To be honest, it has to be told that Cronos even found it difficult to play croquet - let alone play golf with a live Flamingo that constantly tried to bend its neck so as to avoid actually hitting the live Hedgehogs, which also found it necessary to walk off constantly.
He nodded to the Kangaroo, that had in the mean time already walked off to another hole altogether.
At that instant the Cheshire Koala appeared again, bobbing gently above Cronos, who looked at it with rather bewildered incomprehension.
As soon as it had enough of a mouth to speak with, it inquired as to how things were going.
"Well, actually things are sortof strange down here," Cronos said, "but I'm starting to get used to it. Or at least I think I am, so I might not actually."
The King saw the mercenary annex hired gun talking to the floating Koala. He came closer, intent to find out everything about any odd things that were happening on his green. The Weasel tailed behind, muttering an agreement.
"What are you talking to?" the King asked.
"I think it's a something Koala," Cronos replied, quickly adding "but it isn't mine," in fear of having some vitals chopped off by a hypothetic animal more formidable than the Gorilla.
"I don't like the wretched creature," the King said, turning up his nose and extending his hand, "but it may kiss my hand."
The Cheshire Koala made a strange sound, then said, "I'd rather not, if you don't mind."
The King's healthy black'n'white complexion turned red slowly, then passed beyond that and eventually became an angry sort of deep purple.
"I want its gonads chopped off this instant! The impertinent sod!" the King cried, more agitated then Cronos had ever seen him so far.
"It's a Koala, Your Solubleness," whispered Cat.
Warchild decided it might be wise to go off and attempt to hit some more Hedgehogs.
The Flamingo, which had intently followed the proceedings that were going on around the King and the Koala, was entirely unaware of what hit it (or, rather, what it hit) until it was abused into moving an innocent Hedgehog some three hundred yards away.
"Good," thought Cronos to himself, rather satisfied, smiling smugly at himself. He trundled off towards the part of the green where the spikey creature seemed to have hit the ground. The Flamingo, all but unconscious, hung across Warchild's broad shoulders.
The Hedgehog lay in a state of stupor. Obviously it could no longer rely on either the ability of the Flamingo to bend its neck away in time nor its own ability to trudge off when noone was looking. Cronos' utter ineptitude at playing golf had obviously been too much for either of the creatures to take into consideration.
Warchild had folded the Pink Flamingo (which moaned a muffled moan in some sort of protest) into shape and was just about to swing it with his usual lack of talent when the sounds of consternation reached the inner part of his highly trained mercenary hearing aid.
He lowered the Flamingo (which sighed the deepest sigh of relief it had ever found necessary to sigh) and walked back to where some things seemed to be going on that involved the Cheshire Koala.
All of the major parties involved in the conflict started speaking to Warchild at once. His brain overflowed, his eyes crossed, his lower jaw fell open rather sillily and a slab of wet meat fell out. Eventually they all shut up, allowing Cronos to get his system going again.
The executioner, a Chimpanzee who was obviously intended as (but quite failed to be) a spare Gorilla, said you could not chop off any gonads if there was no body to chop them off from.
The King just said that if something wouldn't be done about this pronto, everybody's gonads would have to go. Suddenly everybody started looking very grave.
Having not been trained to be a judge or jury, indeed, only having been trained in disciplines fairly closely connected with his profession of mercenary annex hired gun, it was remarkable with which advise Cronos succeeded in coming up.
"Well," he said, gravely so as to fit the mood, "it's the Mayor's Koala so you could consult with him."
After it saw the King cast a short but intensely meaningful glance at its scrotch the executioner ran off immediately, making the kind of assorted noises that monkeys make when their trees are being burned down.
When after a while it came back with Mayor, the Cheshire Koala had vanished entirely.
Some of the creatures present start to look for it nervously. The others got back to the game.
IX - WHO BROUGHT THE SKUNK?
The Mayor was happy to see Cronos. Nobody had ever felt happy to see Cronos again, except possibly for his dear Mother and the great loves of his life (of which there had been preciously few), so it made him feel all funny inside.
They chatted idlily for a very short while. The conversation was cut short mainly by the fact that Cronos found himself constantly capable only of talking about killing people and the gadgets required for that, which tended to put off the Mayor. The man would probably never be happy to see Cronos again.
The Mayor was oddly relieved to find something else to direct his attention to when two biped Crocodiles suddenly popped out of proverbial nothingness and clasped hold of him.
"Resistance is useless!" one of them bellowed in a most Vogonesque fashion, prodding the Mayor with a stick in a rather unfriendly manner. The second guard looked at Cronos mutely, if possible even more menacing than the other had spoken. It was a look that suggested the beholder to either piss off or get his butt kicked - which Warchild of course totally failed to recognize as such.
Assuming it was some sort of mysterious Wonderland ceremony of greeting, Cronos attempted to return the nasty grin as evilly as he could manage. He found it difficult as he lacked the required dental outfit. Nonetheless, the guard started to sweat and suddenly found it necessary to direct its attention to the manner in which its esteemed colleague continued prodding the Mayor.
"Might I inquire as to the reasons for my apprehension?" the Mayor asked, trying to sound somewhat dignified but failing.
"You may," said the second guard in a matter-of-fact way, followed by one of his ominous glares and silence. The Mayor started to sweat.
"Resistance is useless!" the other guard bellowed, as if trying to make a point. It prodded again. It was rather obvious it liked doing it. It had probably been hit a lot by pop and mom Croc.
They lead the Mayor off to a large amphi-theatre court that had previously been hidden from sight by some purple trees. Cronos, for lack of anything better to do, decided to follow and see what would happen.
The court was quite large. On top of what seemed to be not unlike a stage there were a desk behind which sat the King of Spades and Cat the Weasel, a chair and table on which (for a reason unaccountable) lay a Limburg Pie, and two benches on which sat a variety of jury-creatures scribbling zealously. Before the desk stood Ted the Skunk, flanked at a safe distance by two other Crocodile guards wearing pegs on their noses.
Cronos saw that the jury consisted mostly of creatures he had met during his stay Underground. He saw the Koala, the Ant, the Kaka, the Falcon, Mortimer the Badger, Adrian the Mole, Mr. Richard Cranium and Arthur and Martha - the last two sitting closely together, talking avidly about something or other.
"Please lead in the defendant," the King said, trying to make his voice sound weighty and succeeding rather well.
"Most obnoxiously so, Your Flatulence," Cat agreed.
The two Crocodile guards that had fetched the Mayor now lead the poor man to the chair behind the table on which lay the Limburg Pie. It was a cherry one. It puzzled him. The guards posted themselves at each side of the Mayor, disabling him from escaping should he have intended to.
Cronos saw there was only one place left for him to sit, which was amidst the jury-creatures. He folded himself between the Kaka and the Koala.
A murmur ran through the jurors and most of the attending audience that sat opposite the judge's table on the other side of the amphi-theatric structure.
"Resistance is useless!" something shouted at the top of its voice, after which the audience's droning quickly died away.
"Zonk..." whispered the Koala, a bit sad.
There were some instantes of hushed silence, hanging in the air like a death verdict. Then the King rose from his seat, and with him everybody in the court.
"Herald!" the King shouted, "read the accusation!"
The same White Kangaroo that had ran into Warchild at several occasions during his stay in Wonderland now appeared on the stage. It looked ridiculous, what with half of a trumpet sticking out of its pouch and it wearing a powdered wig of sorts. It unfolded a piece of paper, waited until everybody sat again and started to read.
"The accused, Mayor Mr. Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden- schlitter- crasscrenbon-fried-digger- dingle- dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-applebanger-horowitz-ticolensic-bur-ander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich... (here it had to breathe deeply, after which it continued as if nothing had happened) ...grumblemeyer-spelterwasser-kurstlich-himble-eisen-bahnwagen-gutenabend-bitte-ein-nurnburger-bratwustle-gernspurten-mitz-weimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shonedanker-kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm, henceforth to be referred to as 'the Mayor' for economic reasons, is accused of...bringing Ted the Skunk!"
Some "ooohs" and "aaahs" went through the audience, after which they hushed again as the White Kangaroo continued, "The Court calls the first witness, Miss...er...Virgin."
It took out the trumpet and blew a cheap Louis Armstrong impression.
A door at stage left was thrown open and a bailiff showed in the ostensibly nude form of the Virgin. Some whistles arose from the male spectators, some eyeglasses were connected to the females. Although the audience consisted solely of various animals and birds, none of them seemed to remain totally unaffected by the way in which the Virgin's beautiful long hair covered vital bits of her anatomy and simultaneously revealed enough of them to shake (not stir) anyone's imagination.
To add extra effect to the Virgin's arrival, Cronos' system considered that precise moment opportune to start growing a bit. The Kaka cleared its throat and inserted a feathery elbow in Warchild's side.
"Would you mind not growing, Sir?" it said irritatedly. It sounded like a parrot immitating human speech in an awkward way - which was probably precisely what it did.
"You're growing, too, mind you," Cronos retorted.
"Would you mind," the creature said, insulted, "keeping those filthy remarks to yourself?"
It turned around demonstratively to study the Virgin, avidly scribbling things on its piece of paper.
Forward stepped a Hyena, wearing a powdered white wig just like the White Kangaroo which looked even much more ridiculous on this African carnivore. It also wore a black cape of some kind. It walked as if thoroughly aware that everyone was looking at it, and enjoying it.
"Erm...er...," the Hyena started, having difficulty retaining his composure with such a mass of soft, naked, human flesh in front of it, "Miss...er...Virgin, what have you to say about Johann Gam... er...the Mayor?"
The Virgin looked around at the assembled crowd as if waiting for a most opportune moment to start her testimony. Suddenly she did.
"The Mayor is innocent," she said simply.
"Ah!" the Hyena cried.
"That is a most important thing to know," the King said.
"Most hideously so, Your Stupefyingness!" the Weasel chimed in.
"Oooh," said some of the spectators.
"Aaah," said some others.
The jurors were busy scribbling things on their notepads. Cronos considered it odd that they all spelled guilty like "guilty".
In came a Snake now. A hush went through the crowd, for it was none other than Tansa, a lawyer enjoying global fame in Wonderland. It was reknown for its capability of bending justice to its own needs, something it was better at even than most other lawyers. It, too, wore some sort of powdered wig.
"Might I interrogate the witnesssss now?" it said, its voice filled with devious cunningness, if indeed the sound of a punctured car tyre losing air could have any such qualities.
The King nodded gravely. The Weasel nodded too, but emphatically.
"Misssss Virgin," Tansa began, "what make you capable of claiming that Joh...er... the Mayor isssss innosssssent?"
"Well," the Virgin started, "..."
"Isssss it no ssssso," the Snake interrupted, "that you can only know thisssss if you've DONE IT YOURSSSSSELF?"
The reptile rose to its full height in front of the witness, trying to intimidate her.
There was a satisfied murmuring from the crowd. The jurors scribbled enthusiastically. The King sat back in his chair, smiling broadly. He had always kinda liked the Mayor and he hadn't felt comfortable when he heard the Mayor had allegedly committed such a hideous offence. The Virgin, on the other hand, put him ill at ease just by being here. He didn't feel bad at all about her being guilty. Justice had been served once more, and he could finally get down to munching that Limburg Pie that just sat on that table for not much of a particular reason.
The Virgin was not intimidated by the Snake, however, no matter how much it looked like lawyers generally do. Even when the pathetic animal rose to full height it was hardly larger than...er... Anyway, she had seen bigger things in her life.
"You must be out of your mind," the Virgin spoke haughtily, "I will not have you accuse me of anything of the sort!"
The crowd went through their "ooohs" and "aaahs" again, the King moved to the edge of his chair, the imagined taste of cherry vanishing from his royal tongue.
"Ssssso you deny!" Tansa cried. If the animal would have had a fist, this would have been to moment for it to be connected to the table, with force.
Cronos was feeling ill at ease, just like the King. Only with Warchild it was caused by his overall continuous growing. He was already getting too big to fit on the jury-creatures' bench any more.
The King rose from his chair.
"If...er...um...you allegedly...um...er...didn't do...er...um... it," he said, addressing the Virgin, "that is to say, er...um... bringing Ted, then who...er...um...has?"
"Most...er...loathsomely so, Your...um...Divinity!" the Weasel concorded quietly so as not to disturb amazement and wonder, which both hung in the sky, chatting leisuredly while waiting for the outcome.
Without thinking twice the Virgin looked Cronos Warchild straight in the eyes. He suddenly felt some part of his body was perhaps growing slightly quicker than the rest of it.
"Him!" she cried, affecting emotion and tears, "that big lummox over there!"
She sniggered and snorted derisively, slowly pointing her virginal hand towards Cronos Warchild. When she was positive all the court now gazed in awe at the mercenary annex hired gun, she stepped down and left the court.
Amazement and wonder decided to stay for a while longer.
X - CRONOS' INNOCENCE
Warchild arose, startled, tossing over most of the jurors' benches as he had already grown larger, almost up to his natural size. The creatures fell over. Deja vu struck Cronos mercilessly, upon which he frenetically tried to put all the animals and birds back on their benches for fear of treading on them. His first kill had been his foster mother's cat, which he had reduced to a flat mass of blood and gore by inadvertently lowering his rear end on it. He didn't like to think back of it, nor did he like to have things repeat themselves. As far as repition was concerned, everything that had happened underground had already been, somehow, uncannily familiar.
"What do you know about thisssss busssssinesssss?" Tansa asked, attempting a hypnotic stare on Cronos that bounced back off and made it feel sleepy for an instant.
"Nothing whatever," Warchild said firmly. He might have been dimwitted, but he had a great sense of justice. In his views the guilty had to die horrible deaths, preferably by his hands, and the innocent needed to go free and generally live long and happy everafter. As he could not imagine killing himself he logically concluded he had to be innocent of whatever ridiculous charge was made against him. Besides, he knew nothing of any Skunks whatsoever, except maybe for once having kicked one.
If Tansa would have had a brow, it would have frowned it. If it would have had hands and hair, it would have put its first in its latter.
Rather unannounced, the King suddenly sprang up from his chair.
"Silence!", he yelled at the top of his royal voice, the Weasel's frantic agreement lost in the noise. The King took a leather-bound tome from the table, opened it and read, "Rule forty-two: All persons more than a mile high have to leave the court."
All eyes (some of which were on stalks) immediately turned at Cronos, who suddenly felt stage fright homing in on his subconsciousness at positively awesome speed.
"Peremptorily so, Your Multiformness," Cat added after a while, which it had spent stunned at the King's suddenness.
"No way," Cronos said.
"Way," the King replied.
"Yesssss way," the Snake lawyer added superfluously.
"Two miles," the Hyena spoke.
"I don't care a pair of fetid dingo kidneys," Warchild said, folding his arms demonstratively. One of the members of the audience uttered an insulted bark.
The White Kangaroo was the first to send silence to the hospital. "There's more evidence to come yet, Your Majesty," it said, "A letter written by the mercenary annex hired gun and addressed to Ted the Skunk, as a matter of fact."
Of course Cronos was as little able to read and write as politicians are able to talk honest sense - so it was quite out of the question that he should have written that letter, or whatever it was.
"What'sssss in it?" Tansa asked with the inquisition so familiar to lawyers.
"Dunno," the Kangaroo said, fumbling its trumpet's mouthpiece lamely, "there is nothing written on the outside."
"It has to be written to someone," the Hyena remarked smartly, "it rarely occurs that letters are written to no-one, you know."
"Open it," the King commanded.
"Mandatorily so, Your Slovenliness," the Weasel enthused.
The White Kangaroo solemnly opened the envelope and took out a piece of paper. Even most jurors started to doubt whether it had been written by Warchild when it was proclaimed to contain only poetry.
"It doesssss not look like the mersssssenary'sssss handwriting," the Snake said, unable to bar disappointment from entering its voice. The jury-creatures looked at each other, not quite knowing what to make of this.
"He must have faked another person's handwriting!" the Hyena remarked, smart as ever. The jurors smiled happily, scribbling down something.
"Cod's Wallop!" Cronos cried, rising to his feet whereby he tossed most jurors off their benches again, "and I am sick and tired of all this. Ever since I came here nobody liked me! Ever since I arrived here everybody has been very nasty to me, and now you're trying to sentence me, or something!"
He breathed in deeply.
"Mummy!!" he cried, sobbing, shoulders shaking.
The sheer power of his voice moved the tables, let the Limburg Pie dash off with its proverbial tail between its metaphorical legs and caused most of the creatures present to land on the ground spreadeagled, prostrate, or both. Even the King found himself on the ground, his royal arse in the air.
Some Old Wonders of the World came running into the courtroom. Numbers floated through the air. Colourless green ideas started sleeping furiously.
"Order!" the King yelled.
"Mummy!!" Cronos howled.
Warchild found himself screaming into an empty street. He was wet; it appeared to have rained. Dusk had fallen. The moon and stars looked at the mercenary annex hired gun mutely, seemingly intent on remaining that way.
As Cronos was not trained to think but to fight instead, the difference between dream and reality was altogether rather vague to him. He wondered how he came back on that bank, and he also wondered what had become of the bozo that seemed to have done a pretty good job at going off somewhere.
Warchild felt his pockets. A curse rolled off his lips.
His American Express Travellers' Cheques had been nicked again.
Original written July to September 1992. And I'm very sorry about the (lack of an) equivalent of the "Lobster Quadrille". I figured if I didn't even know what a quadrille was, I should leave it be.