A Story Bit-By-Bit
Hellbender: Epilogue – “The End”

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“I don’t like waiting,” Lulu said. “Every second I wait I get more and more cross.”

“Dammon needs to make us wait to show us he’s powerful.” They were sitting on the leather couched outside Dammon’s office, and Bryce was the only one who looked relaxed. Charlene was in full alert, watching their surrounding and Doug was looking around suspiciously too while cleaning out his ear with his pinky.

Lulu groaned. “Can’t he just show us he’s powerful by making his eyes glow red or something? That would save everyone time. One more minute, I’m going over and kicking down his door.”

“We’re not really in door kicking condition, Lu.” Charlene motioned to the sling her arm was in. Doug was also quite stiff due to the bandages under his t-shirt.

“Fine. Let’s play a game.” Lulu looked around the room. “I spy with my little eye something that is…” Lulu saw a familiar face. “…red. Didn’t I blow you up?”

Collette didn’t react. “Dammon will see you now.”

“Glad you got better!” Lulu headed for the office.

Bryce smiled at her. “You are a lovely vision in one piece.”

“Is she going to try and kill us?” Doug whispered to Charlene as he lugged a metal case along.

“Who knows? This is not a good idea.”

In the office, Dammon was standing behind his desk. “Can I get you all something to drink?”

“Are the drinks free?” Doug asked.

“No. In addition to running a criminal enterprise, I bartend. Tip jar is on the desk.”

“So how much are the drinks?”

Dammon looked to Bryce. “So this was the one worth all the trouble?”

Bryce took a seat. “We like to keep him around for his intense knowledge in astrophysics.”

Doug furrowed his brow. “What’s that?”

“Let’s get to business.” Dammon poured two scotches and walked over to hand Bryce one. “So where is the cube?”

Lulu snatched the scotch from him. “Elza’s girls got it. If it’s dangerous, I’d get it back from them soon because those bitches is crazy.” Lulu took a sip of the drink, and then spit it out on Dammon. “Holy crap, that’s strong!”

Dammon took a handkerchief out and blotted his jacket as he walked back behind his desk. “If my suit is already ruined, I guess there is no harm in getting blood on it… unless you’re offering to get the cube back.”

Bryce laughed. “Heck no; we’re out of the cube business. We have something else, though.” He snapped at Doug.

Doug with painful effort picked up the case and put it on Dammon’s desk and opened it.

“These are prototypes we stole from Ronove that allows a human to move through the wastelands unharmed,” Bryce explained. “It’s how we got out of there. I’m sure that’s worth quite a lot to some governments.”

“You were supposed to bring me the cube.”

“This is better than a cube,” Bryce said.

“It’s a cylinder!” Lulu added. “Cylinder beats cube — ask anyone.”

Dammon was silent a moment. “So you don’t know what ultimately went down at Ronove’s facility?”

Bryce grabbed the drink from Lulu and took a sip. “We just kept our heads down and got the hell out of there when the chaos broke out. You want to know what happened, ask Elza. Her psychos almost got us all killed.”

“Loch’s craft crashed into a mountain. No idea how that happened?”

“Maybe he was drunk,” Lulu suggested.

Dammon looked at the merchandise. “So how much do you expect me to pay for this?”

“Nothing,” Bryce said. “We just want you to give us our money back.”

Dammon was silent for a moment as he looked the group over. His eyes seemed to linger on Doug. Finally, he leaned towards them. “I don’t want to see any of you ever again.”

“But I’m so cute,” Lulu objected.

“It’s a deal,” Bryce said.

Dammon leaned back and hit a couple keys on a computer. “It’s done. Goodbye.”

Bryce nodded and slowly got up and led the way out of the office. In the hallway, Collette paid them no attention as they walked by while Charlene kept an eye on her until she was out of view. No one said a word until they left the building when Doug finally said, “So are we like rich now?”

Bryce checked their account on his handheld computer, and he never did answer Doug as he was too busy laughing.

* * * *

“It is great to see you!” Chimezie exclaimed. “I assume everything went well!”

“It did!” Doug answered. “We’re like–”

Bryce cut him off. “It went well. How is everyone doing here?”

“We are very happy to be here,” Chimezie said. They had rented pretty much all the rooms of a small rundown hotel in the worst part of town to house Hellbender’s new fan club, and most of them seemed to be in hallways talking — even those who didn’t share a language. “We are wondering what to do next.”

“We’ll get on figuring that out,” Bryce said.

“By the way, the man who helped us get off that craft is here to see you. He is in your room.” Chimezie then whispered, “Is he really a man?”

“I don’t think so,” Doug answered.

Bryce, Doug, Charlene, and Lulu headed down the hallway, and everyone greeted them warmly as they passed. “Being a hero sure is fun and all,” Bryce said to his friends, “but how much money can we give these people so we can abandon them on a clean conscience.”

“They could help us,” Doug objected.

“Help us what? Spend money?” Bryce opened the door to their room. Inside was a man looking out the window. “Hey — Ed is it? — we want out. We’re rich now, so we don’t really have any more interest in this whole conflict of the gods or what not.”

“It’s a conflict of devils, not gods.” Ed turned to face them. “You think you can avoid that?”

“We’ll try. And tell that Stan guy thanks for the help but please don’t bother contacting us again either.”

“I wouldn’t worry about running into him again; he’s done with you guys. You served your purpose.”

“You told me this stuff about God and devils was made up,” Doug said, “and there was no point to it.”

“And you didn’t believe me.” Ed smiled. “It’s easy to do things when the devil whispering in your ear telling you what you want to hear, but I wanted to see if you had faith. I wanted to see if you were worth my time.”

“Great; you can have Doug,” Bryce said. “I’m rich now, so I’m go to go buy a new suit and find a nice place to stay.”

“We can’t run from this,” Charlene said.

“On the contrary, didn’t Ed tell us the Trans can’t even tell us apart?” Bryce asked. “They won’t know who to come after.”

“What I said is that if an ant stings you, do you fear just that one ant?”

Doug felt a sense of dread. “You get angry and you smash the whole ant hill.”

“So while it seemed like Doug accomplished something smacking around Loch,” Lulu said, “he’s doomed us all. Super.”

“Unless you fight back.”

Bryce groaned in frustration. “So maybe we can strike against the Trans, but they have plenty of people under their command and we’re just a couple of losers with a few even more losery followers.” He turned to his friends. “Remember Death — the guy who exploded people — he knows who we are and he may be after us for this. We need to take our money and find some place to lay low.”

“Lie low,” Lulu corrected.

Bryce stared at Lulu a moment. “I don’t know; I think I might be correct there.” He turned back to Ed. “Anyway, we’re going to be low through some manner and leave battling gods for the more competent people.”

“You’re it, guys,” Ed said. “Most people alive today made their choice and sided with the demons. There is no turning back for them. You and your new friends are the closest thing there is to a force willing to fight for your world. You either do something, or it falls, for good. Satan got you to stir up the hornets’ nest for some reason, and you can be certain he’ll follow through. Will you?”

Doug stood next to Ed. “I’m fighting this, with or without you guys. I’m not going to go back to being nothing.”

Charlene stood next to him, put her arm around him, and smiled. “I’m with you.”

“And I like doing whatever is the new popular thing,” Lulu announced. “And Bryce is too big of a coward to be on his own, so he’ll join us too.”

Bryce didn’t say a word and walked back out into the hallway. They then heard him yell out, “I’ve decided we must fight back. It took some convincing, but I got my friends to go along with this. So who wants to follow me and be a part of Hellbender and take back this world?”

There was a loud cheer, and Lulu was seething with rage. “Asshole! I’m leader!”

* * * *

For the first time since Charlene could remember, she felt like there was some way this world could seem right. Still, there was something she had to handle first, and it gave her the first real sense of dread she had in some time.

Everyone was sleeping, and she slipped outside. It really was a horrible part of town, and there seemed to be someone around every corner who looked about ready to rob and kill her. She barely gave them attention though, and eventually came to an alleyway far away from the nearest working streetlight.

“Something seems to be on your mind, girl scout.”

Charlene turned around to see a pair of eyes barely visible in the moonlight. “It was never supposed to involve them, Lara. I was just supposed to help you into the military base and disappear with you guys.”

Lara chuckled. “And it matters to you that it involves them?”

She did feel silly, but though there was no rational reason for it, she felt sure of herself. Or she wanted to. “I want out.”

“Okay. You’re out. You know where to find us if you change your mind.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes, what do you expect? Elza never needed to fight to keep people loyal, she just supplies the truth. You can go back to your friends and play house and act like your actions matter, but how long will that last? You can’t unknow what you know, and you’ll only be able to believe the illusion for so long.”

Charlene was quiet for a moment. She didn’t have a response; she just wanted Lara to be wrong. “You ever wonder if there is something more to this than Elza tells us?”

“Constantly. But just because you want something to be true, doesn’t make it true.”

“So what are you all going to do now?”

“What does it matter? You’re out. There’s a war coming for this entire universe and more, and you can either be a part of the fight or just collateral damage. So, go have fun with your friends; I’ll see you when you tire of the fairy tale.”

Lara walked off leaving Charlene alone in the darkness. She wanted to be like Doug and believe they could fight and there would be some purpose and some end to it, but she feared Lara was right. She was too far gone to wallow in such ignorance again.

When she left the alleyway, a man called out something lewd to her. She pulled out her gun and shot him in the face. Then she continued on like nothing happened, because nothing did.

* * * *

“I don’t remember the gates of hell being decorated with bunnies.”

Elza gave the small metal cube to Stan who looked at it with interest. “It seems so feeble now.”

“Of course, you’ve given the others something else to fear.”

“The fools thought they could run away from what they are; I just had to show them the futility of that.” He looked into the cube, beyond its physical form to the eternal void it concealed. And he smiled. “There’s only one end to this.”

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A Story Bit-By-Bit
Hellbender: Chapter 51 – A Proper Ass-Kicking

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The glass shattered as Ronove’s body slammed into it. Doug leapt in after it and ran to Charlene. She tensed in fright as Doug touched her. “It’s okay; it’s me. I’m going to get you out of here.”

She opened her eyes and looked at him. “Doug? I’m so sorry for all of this. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. There’s nothing to it. We just–”

Doug felt as if he was slammed by a tree and was knocked across the room. “Ronove’s plans were to have me inflict pain on the other and leave you be,” said the terrible voice of Loch. “I don’t see why I can’t just tear the both of you apart.”

Doug grabbed his sword and stood back up. “Is that all you got, you little bitch?” He looked around the room; it was empty except for him, Charlene, and Ronove’s crumpled body. It did seem hard to fight someone who didn’t even exist in Doug’s dimension, but he had his theory on it.

Five daggers ripped into Doug’s back. They then pressed upwards, lifting him off his feet. Doug couldn’t even scream in pain, but Charlene was screaming enough for the both of them. He realized he was being lifter up by a massive claw, and the pain was so unbearable his body just wanted to shut down. “I am just beginning, human,” Loch said. “You may not be able to imagine a greater pain, but soon you will not have to imag–”

Doug had turned around his sword and stabbed backwards, and it hit something. Doug was dropped to the ground, and looked up to see a winged demon standing over him. It appeared to be a combination or rock and muscle with giant horns upon its head which were both threatening and somewhat clichéd. Doug’s sword stuck out of its midsection. Doug stood up, his head coming to about its chest, and looked up to its red eyes which seemed to be staring back in shock. “You don’t seem to like taking form in this world,” Doug said to it, “and I think I know why. You’re scared. I may have been smacked around my entire life, but I will not be done in by a worthless coward!”

Loch roared, shaking the room, he swung down, breaking the sword sticking out of him. “You think harming some physical form I made means anything to me?!”

Doug shrugged. “Yeah, sorta, I guess.”

Loch spread his powerful wings, smashing apart the walls beside him. He then snatched Doug with one of his massive claws, and shot up into the air, breaking through the ceiling above him. Doug tried to pry open the fingers, but there was no moving them. Soon he was let go, though, and fell to the hard ground. He was back on top of his Loch’s ship, and flames erupted all around him. Against them, he could see the silhouettes of hundreds of Loch’s creatures. Up against the purple sky floated the massive Loch, the sky cracking with thunder behind him. It seemed like quite a bit of overkill to intimidate one man, and Doug couldn’t help but feel it was a bit pathetic. Frankly, the whole fighting a being beyond his understanding was going a lot better for Doug than he hoped.

Doug stood up as Loch went into another monologue about how Doug was nothing compared to him and how the pain he inflicted would be super bad and Doug would not care for it at all. It was getting quite tedious. “Are you going to do something?” Doug called out. “Or are you just going to float safe up there like a little sissy?”

Loch did not respond right away.

“Okay,” Doug said. “I’m going to go find my friends and get off of this ship, and you can stay up there talking about how powerful you are.” Doug turned to leave and then felt like he was hit by a truck. He was back on the ground with Loch on top of him. A claw grabbed him by the head and lifted him in the air. Doug held on with one hand and swung out at hard as he could with the other. It felt like he punched rock, but the hand released him and he landed back on his feet facing Loch. “You really can’t take it, can you?”

Loch roared, and spires of rock shot up around Doug. “I can twist this universe apart if I so desired!”

“No you can’t; you suck!” was the best Doug could come up with a retort at the moment. He then charged Loch, ramming him with his shoulder and knocking the beast against one of the rock spires, shattering it. Loch was back to his feet quickly and swung his claw at Doug. Doug blocked it and was just barely able to keep standing. “You hit like a girl!” _A really large one made of rock._

Before Doug could react, Loch had snatched both Doug’s arms and lifted him into the air. “Enough of this. Now I rip you apart.” He then began to pull Doug’s arms out while he hung there defenseless.

Loch cried out and dropped Doug. Behind Loch stood Charlene who let out another kick to where would be Loch’s kidney if he had them. “You’re not looking quite infinitely powerful right now,” she said while trying to look brave, but she seemed even smaller than usual compared to the massive beast. Loch turned towards her.

“Don’t you touch her!” Doug tackled Loch, but Loch grabbed him by the leg and swung him into Charlene. Charlene was back up first and tried to punch Loch, but Loch grabber her arm and struck it with his fist. There was an audible snap and Charlene screamed in pain. Enraged, Doug ran at Loch again, but was stopped as a claw shredded into his gut. He fell to the ground next to Charlene, his hand covered in blood as it held the wound at his belly.

Loch stood over them. “You things never realize the futility of your existence until its–”

A wall exploded behind Loch, toppling him over. As the dust cleared, Doug saw numerous figures emerge from inside the ship. Loch stood up at roared at them.

“Oh crap,” Bryce said. “Um… before you get too angry, realize this wouldn’t have happened if you had an easier to navigate ship layout.”

Lulu stood next to Bryce. “So, we see you can become the form of a powerful demon, but I bet you can’t turn into something small like a mouse.”

“Now I end you all!” Loch screamed.

“We’re not scared of you demon!” Chimezie called out.

Bryce stepped behind Chimezie. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

“I will crush you fleas!”

Doug got back to his feet, one hand clutching his wound as the other helped Charlene back up. “If you’re so powerful, then strike me down.”

“I have nothing to prove to any of you!” Loch shouted, the whole ship shaking at his words.

“Well, I have something to prove.” Doug walked towards Loch, his left hand over his stomach and his right hand in a fist. “So I’m going to give you a proper ass-kicking in front of all these people. How does that sound?”

Loch roared as he swung at Doug, but Doug left hand came up and blocked it as he hooked Loch in the face with his right. He felt blood spatter, and the blood burned his skin like acid.

It was a good hurt.

Doug smashed Loch in the face again and he fell to the ground. He didn’t look massive or powerful anymore; just a pathetic writhing little goblin. Doug reached down and grabbed him by the neck, held him, and slammed him against a wall. Loch tried to feebly claw apart Doug’s grip, but he could hardly even feel the effort.

“You can’t–” Loch shrieked.

Doug tightened his grip on Loch’s throat. “Shut up! You listen to me now! You tell the others they can’t push us around anymore! This isn’t your world, and if you want it, you’ll have to fight us for it!” Doug threw Loch aside. The flames were now gone and Doug couldn’t see anymore of Loch’s creatures. It was just Loch, cowering as he looked at the people around him. He scampered for the edge of the ship and jumped off.

“Ow!” Doug finally exclaimed as he clutched his wound at his stomach and back and fell to the ground. The others quickly ran to him.

“Do you see the power of faith now?” Chimezie asked him.

“I think… something like that,” Doug answered weakly. “Can you die from stomach wounds?”

Bryce knelt beside him. “No, the stomach is one of those useless organs like tonsils.”

Charlene sat next to him as well, holding her arm. “Just hang in there, please. We’ve kinda been through a lot to see you die now.”

“Yeah, don’t piss us off,” Lulu said. “If you die, you’re out of the group.”

“You hero. You save us,” said one woman, smiling. The rest of Hellbender who Doug still didn’t know very well stood around him looking at him in awe.

“What have you done?” cried out another voice. Ronove’s broken body now stood on the surface of the ship.

“I guess we stick to the plan.” Lulu walked towards him, and before he could say another word, she punched him in the face.

Ronove’s body fell to the ground. It stirred for a moment, and then ripped apart as a being of massive being of blue light sprung up from the corpse and towered over Hellbender. “Do you think you can win this?” it screamed. “We are eternal beings! In due time, we will end you all!”

Lulu took a few steps back in shock, but Bryce came up and stood beside her. “So, are you going to deal with us now or later?”

Ronove floated above them for a moment more, and then faded away.

“Good. Later works better for our schedules too.”

Suddenly the darkness of the wasteland ripped away and there were out into blue skies. As their eyes adjusted to the light, they could hear explosions and gun shots around them.

“What’s happening?” Doug called out, trying to stand back up.

Charlene looked over the edge of the ship. “Asmod and Serpine are still fighting.”

“I think they’re avoiding us because we have the big scary ship,” Lulu said, and then leaned over the edge. “We beat up two gods today! You’re nothing! Bring it!”

Doug limped over to take a look. He could see fighter ships and winged beasts, but they were all heading away from their craft. Loch’s vessel kept moving, and soon they were away from the warzone and over green fields with a blue and lightly cloudy sky above them. The others they had freed with Chimezie looked about with hopeful smiles. Doug walked over to Charlene and put his arm around her. Despite the loss of blood, he couldn’t help but smile himself. “It’s a pretty world, isn’t it?”

“It can be.” She smiled back at him. “So how the hell do we get down from here?”

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A Story Bit-By-Bit
Hellbender: Chapter 50 – Undeterred

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For a moment the swim didn’t seem particularly suicidal, but then something bit Doug’s leg. He kicked it off and swam harder, heading into an underwater cavern he hoped would come to an end before he did. He could barely see, but Doug thought he saw some light a few yards ahead. Something brushed up against him and he tried to ignore, but then something bigger slammed against him, knocking him into the cave’s wall. He stabbed back at it with his sword and felt it make contact, and then turned back towards his destination only to see another shape racing towards him. Doug thrust his sword tip at it as he moved out of the way. He felt the blade cut through flesh and bone but he did not have the time to try and see exactly what damage he had done. It didn’t feel as if he could hold his breath much longer, and the extra exertions weren’t helping. He swam towards the light as fast as he could. He thought he was near, but it was hard to tell. Doug’s lungs felt like bursting, and it seemed like he could last only a few more moments.

Something grabbed his leg. Either claws or teeth were gripping into his ankle as he tried to kick away. Doug could see the water’s surface just a foot above his face, and he swung his arms with full forces to propel him towards it. If something was going to cling to him, then he was taking it out of the water with him. It was strong, but he felt stronger, and with one last kick he breached the surface to take a breath.

Suddenly, he was being pulled upwards. Then Doug realized he was falling; it was if gravity reversed soon as he left the water. He slammed hard into a rock floor — but at least not quite as hard as the last couple times he got slammed into things. He lay on the ground for a moment, sopping wet and gasping for air. And then he stood up, holding onto his sword tightly. “Well… that wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting.”

Doug appeared to be standing on Loch’s ship — a giant structure that looked like it had been carved out of rock. The sky around them was a swirling dark purple; it didn’t seem quite like the wasteland but it didn’t seem like regular old reality either. He at least had enough light to see that the top of the ship was empty except for him.

And then he heard a scream.

“Charlene!” It seemed to be coming from in the ship, and Doug spotted a stairway leading down. He charged down it through a thin hallway lit by glowing veins that stretched through the rock walls. Eventually he saw a room lit ahead of him. There lay Charlene on the ground, crying. She seemed to be alone, but he felt a frightening presence there. Charlene screamed again, and for a moment Doug saw something standing over her ripping into her.

“Char–” Something grabbed Doug by the mouth and slammed him into the wall. He tried to strike at it with his sword, but his arm was pinned to the wall. Something grabbed him from the other side, and he tried to kick it only to have his leg restrained. He was completely immobilized, able to do nothing but watch Charlene scream and the massive beast attacker her once again before disappearing just as quickly.

“Don’t waste your breath on trying to call to her.” Ronove hobbled in front of the defenseless Doug. “She can’t see or hear you.” Ronove tapped an unseen wall between Doug and Charlene.

The claw stopped holding Doug’s mouth so he could speak, but he didn’t feel there was any purpose into talking to Ronove.

“As I have explained, this will be a painful process, but I assure you there is an end to it,” Ronove said.

Charlene screamed again. She looked to be in too much pain to even plead against the torment.

“Right now, you’ll react to her screams of agony with anger and despair, but after enough time the only thing you’ll feel is boredom. Then perhaps we’ll be ready, but to be sure I’m going to make you watch the rest of your friends suffer as well. Even those you befriended while imprisoned at my lab will meet unspeakable torture only for having known you. It may seem wanton, but what it will prove is…”

Doug was getting really tired of listening to Ronove, so he decided to ignore him for now. Instead he tried to get a glimpse of what was holding him. They appeared to be large beasts unlike anything he had ever seen before, and they held him so tight it was if he was welded into the wall. The faces’ of the creatures seemed to be mainly a mouth of sharp teeth pointed in every direction, and they had red eyes that were almost painful to gaze into. They seemed too fearsome and powerful to even notice Doug struggling against them, but he was kinda curious how they would react if he spit in one of their eyes.

It did not appear to be expecting that.

The grip was loosened just enough for Doug to yank is sword arm free and stab the creature on the other side of him. It let go and fell to the ground, and then the other swung at him. Doug dodged out of the way and cut off its limb. He then stabbed it through its stupid toothy face.

Ronove’s expression was as inscrutable as usual, so he couldn’t quite tell if he was surprised or not. “What exactly do you expect to accomplish?” Ronove asked. “You don’t even have the brainpower to understand just how futile your…”

Doug ignored him again and turned to Charlene. The massive creature appeared again and Charlene screamed as it grabbed her, tormenting her for a moment before disappearing again. Doug touched the wall between him and Charlene. He thought it was some invisible force field, but it felt just like glass. All he needed was something large to throw at it.

Now he finally turned his attention to Ronove.

* * * *

“We have to fight back!” Chimezie yelled.

“Great idea,” Bryce said. He looked around the room they were in. Solid rock with no exits. “We’ll get right on that.”

“We need to cause trouble!” Lulu said. “If they’re going to like torture us for all eternity, we should at least making it really annoying for them.”

They heard a scream. Bryce assumed it had to be Charlene — which probably meant Doug was out there. He really didn’t want to just be sitting there, but he didn’t see any option. “Clearly, we have nothing to lose by being difficult considering what’s already being threatened against us, but it still seems like we should have some sort of plan here. Eventually, they’ll come for another one of us and… then what?”

“We are not less than them,” Chimezie preached to the group. “We _can_ fight them. We must have faith!”

“I’m liking the attitude,” Bryce said, “but could we at least have some sort of substantial action we’re planning here? We have beings with power beyond our understanding; what’s the plan of action there?”

“I already kicked the Ronove guy before. We could also try punching him in the face,” Lulu suggested. “He looks very punchable.”

“Okay; good.” Bryce paced the floor thinking. “We now have a plan for Ronove: Punch him in the face. What about the intangible force of evil that is Loch? He doesn’t seem to have a face to punch. We’ll need another plan there.” Bryce looked around the group. “It’s a brainstorming session; just start throwing ideas out there. It will help if it’s in English.” No one said anything. “It can’t be _that_ desperate. Do you know of any fictional stories at least of someone taking on a massive, unimaginable powerful being?”

“It’s not fiction, but once Jesus faced down Satan,” Chimezie said. “Jesus was fasting in the desert and Satan tried to tempt Jesus into turning rocks into bread.”

“And what did Jesus do?” Bryce asked.

“He resisted the temptation.”

Bryce was slightly confused. “So he defeated Satan by not turning rocks into bread?”

“We’ve been not turning rocks into bread all day that hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” Lulus said.

“Puss n’ Boots!” exclaimed one of the women.

Bryce turned to her. She was a small, frightened looking blond woman. “Excuse me?”

“Puss n’ Boots is a story of a cat with… uh… boots. He face powerful ogre, so he tricks ogre to turn into mouse. He then eat mouse.”

Bryce nodded thoughtfully. “So the plan is to trick Loch into turning into a mouse and then we have a cat eat him. It’s a stupid plan, but it is one plan better than we had before. So where do we get a cat?

“Oh!” Lulu exclaimed. She then reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out a little pin. “Look; a kitty.”

Bryce smiled. “That’s a start.”

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Hellbender: Chapter 49 – Suffering

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“Watch the threads, buddy!”

Bryce could feel a claw into each of his shoulders, dragging him into Loch’s ship. Soon he was a in a room where he could see more creatures holding people. Bryce couldn’t get a good view of the creatures — they seemed like shadows with teeth and either arms or tentacles holding everyone still — but he could see a number of unfamiliar faces of the prisoners they had freed from the research building. “Lulu! Doug! Charlene!” he called out as loudly as he could, but then the creature that had him gripped him about his body even tighter.

“I’m starting to think that Doug is more trouble than he’s worth.” Bryce looked to his right and saw Lulu held fast by one of the creatures. She did her best to look unconcerned as she blew bubbles with her gum. The others were not doing so well, and Bryce heard sobbing and cries of panic.

“Let’s hold it together!” Bryce heard Charlene call out. She was somewhere to his left. “The Transcendents aren’t mindless beasts; we can find out what they want.”

“Perhaps the others are panicking because they’re more familiar with what the Trans want,” Bryce said.

“This is true.” Ronove was now standing before them. “You do have hope, though, because I will use all my abilities to see that there is an end to this.”

“You will pay many times for this!” someone called out who Bryce recognized as Doug’s new African friend. “You think you are powerful, but you are nothing, demon, and I do not fear you!”

“But then you forget the words of Jesus.” Ronove approached Chimezie. “For he warned you to fear the one who can destroy both body and soul.” Ronove walked among the group. “This was not my first choice of where to conduct the experiment, but at least on this craft within the midst of the physics anomaly we can be assured of no interruptions.”

“Where’s Doug?” Charlene demanded.

“He is fighting his way here. It will be a great effort for him and take great courage, and all it will achieve is a chance to watch you all suffer.”

“What the hell is it with Doug?” Bryce yelled in frustration. “Why do you even care about him? We’re his friends, and we hardly care about him.”

“I assure you, you humans are all worth the same to me; I can hardly tell the difference between you.” Ronove continued to hobble among the captive people, staring at each one. “This Doug simply is an opportunity. He cares deeply for a few of you, and I think that may be the key to destroying him. That he risked himself to help these others is merely a bonus when he will see that all he liberated them to was greater suffering.”

“Wait a second, Stinky,” Lulu said, “You’re going to torture us all to destroy Doug?”

“It’s more complicated than that, but yes.”

“I know what would really torture him,” Bryce suggested. “If as soon as he got here, you made him watch you let us go.”

“Let us go with a big barrel of money we’d get to spend without him,” Lulu added.

“Interesting idea, but I will stick with my current strategy,” Ronove said. “As I said, have hope for there will be an end to this. When I have successfully destroyed this Doug, then I shall work on bringing an end to the rest of you and humanity shall have its closure.”

“So you’re going to have a big production like this to destroy each person,” Bryce asked. “Seems like a lot of work.”

“I do not worry about how much time is involved,” Ronove said. “The fact is, no more souls are entering this universe, so if each soul can be destroyed — regardless of how much time it will take — that means there will be a finite end to humanity. That is what is important.”

“Well, thanks for coming down an explaining all of this to us,” Lulu stated. “That was really nice of you. If we have a comment card to fill out at the end of this, I’ll be sure to mention it.”

“Explaining things — even in your primitive methods of communication — helps one think.” Ronove took long looks at more of the captives. “That was not my purpose in coming here, though. Loch waits for you with great anticipation. Perhaps you can feel it even with your limited senses. For a being not bound by the constraints of the temporal dimension, he can be quite impatient. Only through great convincing was I able to keep him from tearing into all of you immediately. I hope to go through this in a more measured fashion.” Ronove approached Charlene. “You do not fear me as much as the others. What do you think you know?” He stared at her a moment. “Often, your brains are almost too primitive for me to understand, but one thing I do fathom: Your suffering will hurt Doug the most.”

“You really think this will accomplish anything?” Charlene asked defiantly.

“One thing is for certain.” Through seemingly great effort, Ronove curled the edges of his mouth into a smile. “There is no harm in me trying.” He looked to the others. “I shall take this one, and the rest of you shall wait here. Do not try and commit suicide; it will be of no use.”

“Don’t commit suicide — check,” Lulu said.

Bryce was dropped to the ground and saw a flurry of movement of the dark creatures scampered past him. When he lifted himself up, he saw the group of them — sans Charlene — were alone in a room with no doors, just solid walls of black rock. “What an asshole.”

“I’m sure Charlene will torture him right back.” Lulu stood up to address the group. Many were stunned silent while others were crying. “There’s no reason to be down, people; let’s keep a positive attitude. Now why don’t we put our heads together and brainstorm some ways to commit suicide. Who’s got shoelaces?”

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Hellbender: Chapter 48 – Discouraging

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“I’m Ed.”

“Well, Ed, we’re kinda busy here,” Stan said with more than a hint of annoyance.

Doug looked at Ed quizzically. “You live here?”

“Yeah, it’s right in the middle of nothing. It’s nice and quiet.” He motioned behind him down a cave path. “I’m roasting some chicken if you guys want some.”

Doug was pretty hungry, but it didn’t seem like a time to pause to eat. “I have to help my friends.”

“If I were in your position, dude, I would not be rushing off to anything.”

“Why? What do you know? Are you one of…” Doug pointed to Stan. “…them?”

“I’m just someone who just got screwed in this type of conflict before.”

“He’s nothing, Doug,” Stan stated quite firmly. “Ignore him.”

“I don’t really care if you listen to me or not — I’m pretty much done with the whole caring thing — but I just heard this guy filling your head with a bunch of nonsense so I thought I’d say something. He’s trying to convince you that you can win this, but it’s a load of crap.”

“I can’t win?” Doug asked, a little more scared now.

Ed laughed. “Come on. Look what you’re up against. What the hell do you expect to do?”

“Well, I saw I have some power–”

“Like you understood anything you saw when you were tortured. The truth is all you humans are completely screwed, and there ain’t nothing you can do about while you wait for those in power to finally figure out how to get rid of you.”

“I don’t believe you,” Doug said, though he didn’t quite sell it.

“You believe him?” Ed pointed to Stan.

“The fact is, you won’t know who tells the truth until you try,” Stan said.

Ed laughed again and looked to Doug. “Yeah, _he_ won’t know until you try. You’re basically a canary in a coal mine for him. The guy set this up to see whether or not you get completely slaughtered, and he has his plans either way.”

Doug approached Ed angrily. “So what do you expect me to do? Just abandon everyone?”

Ed shrunk back a little. “Hey, don’t yell at me. I’m just telling you the truth. You getting crushed by forces beyond your understanding isn’t going to help your friends either. You can either play this stupid game, or you can walk away.”

“So nothing will stop Loch, Ronove, and the others? What about God?”

“Come on, dude. What do you think? You really think Him, Santa Claus, and an honest lawyer are going to swoop in at the last minute and save the day? This world is just crap fighting crap over more crap. That’s all it ever was and all it ever will be. You can try and put a meaning to it if it makes you feel better, though.”

Doug was getting frustrated to the point of breaking. “So you’re saying it’s all pointless?”

“People made up religion because they just can’t accept the fact that whether you spend your life helping people or murdering babies, it all ends the same. And whether you help your friends or walk away, it won’t make a difference in the end. I’m just telling you because it seems like one of you humans deserves to know the truth from someone who knows.”

“He’s just a disgruntled loser,” Stan told Doug. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“Shut up!” Doug yelled. “I’m not listening to you anymore!”

“You never should have listened to him in the first place,” Ed said. “That’s a good policy with any nutter who introduces himself as the Devil.”

Doug turned back to Ed. “And I’m not listening to you either! You do seem like a loser.”

He chuckled. “Sorry I’m not as awesome as you.”

“None of you know anything, so I’m done listenting to any of you! I’m going to go help my friends. I don’t know exactly how, but I know it’s worthless trying to get any answers out of you… things!” Doug turned to leave to see more cave walls. He then looked back to Stan and Ed. “Um… so how do I get to Loch?”

“I’ll show you,” Ed said and motioned for Doug to follow. He led Doug down a torch lit path to where there was a chicken roasting on a spit next to what looked like a small pond. “Sure you don’t want any chicken?”

“I don’t have time to be eating chicken!” Doug snapped.

Ed frowned. “It’s good chicken.”

Doug looked around. “Where’d Stan go?”

Ed shrugged. “Maybe he’s moved on to other things.”

“So how do I get to Loch’s ship?”

Ed pointed to the pond. Doug looked at it more carefully, and thought he saw something moving in the murky water.

“I gotta swim through there?”

Ed nodded. “Underwater tunnel will take you to Loch’s ship.”

“But the ship is flying in the air. That doesn’t make any sense.”

“What does.” Ed walked over to check on his chicken.

Doug took another look at the water. “Is it a long tunnel? Will I be able to hold my breath for it?”

Ed cut off a chicken leg. “How am I supposed to know how long you can hold your breath?”

Doug poked the water with his sword, and he thought he saw something grab at it. “Are there things in there?”

“Yeah I forgot to tell you about that.” He took a bit of his chicken. “I’m not sure what they are, but they will rip you apart if you fear them.”

Doug saw more movement, but no shapes for his mind to latch on to. “I just have to… um… not fear them and they won’t touch me?”

“Yeah… I think… I’m not really sure.” He took another bite of chicken. “Maybe they rip you apart no matter what, but I’m quite sure fearing them isn’t going to help.”

Doug glared at Ed. “You really suck.”

“Whatever. Hey, it’s a hard path, but if you survive it, it will make getting ripped apart by Loch feel like you really earned it.”

Doug stared at the water. He was pretty sure those things were going to tear him to pieces, but he wasn’t going to make it easy on them. “So you sure this will take me to my friends?”

“Yep.”

“Then that’s all I need to know.” He gripped his sword firmly and prepared to jump in.

“Hey, one last thing, dude.”

Doug looked at Ed with annoyance. “What?”

“Good luck.”

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A Story Bit-By-Bit
Hellbender: Chapter 47 – Fallen

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“Ow.”

Doug was lying on his back hurting all over once again from being slammed against something — this time the ground. He had no idea how far he fell, but he was pretty sure he’s wasn’t dead.

He didn’t seem to be in completely darkness anymore, and could see flickering torch light against rock walls. There were loose pieces of broken rock around him, and he soon came up with the theory that he crashed through the roof of an underground cave. Doug slowly lifted his head up and did see a hole in the rock roof, but only black beyond it. He checked his pocket and found that the reality stabilizer was still in there and functioning.

“So how do you get out of here?” Doug thought. “And how do you get back up to that ship? And how can you even fight someone as powerful as Loch?” Except it wasn’t Doug thinking; it was a familiar voice of someone behind him.

Doug sat up and turned around. It was Stan. Instantly he was angry — this was all because of his manipulations he was sure — but he pushed the anger away. “Can you help me?”

“Yes I can.” Stan held out a hand and helped Doug to his feet.

“We have to hurry,” Doug said frantically. He knew they could all be dead already, but somehow he didn’t think that was Ronove’s plan.

“There is no rush, Doug. We’re in our own little bubble in reality. Everything else will wait for you.”

“So my friends aren’t being tortured right now?”

“Not at the moment.”

Doug thought about that for a second. “I don’t trust you.”

“I’ve manipulated you, Doug; I haven’t lied to you.”

“I still don’t trust you.”

“Fine, but hear me out. You are planning on facing Loch, but do you know how?”

Doug saw his sword on the ground nearby and picked it up. “No, but they’re scared of something.” A thought struck him. “They certainly seem to have been making a lot of effort to impress me. It’s like how Bryce boasts the most when he’s least sure of things.”

“They are still unsure of this world,” Stan said. “They know they have power, but they don’t know the extent of it. They know the other world better.”

“I think I saw that! And I’m powerful there!” Doug was silent a moment. “Except I don’t know what good that does me.” He looked to Stan. “So is this God or Jesus supposed to help me?”

“Loch and Ronove see God as an unreasoning, powerful force that you humans are tied to. They think of they have removed that connection, but they fear they are wrong.”

“Are they?”

He nodded. “They are. God is not so easily defeated. The more the try and push against Him, the more He will push back. And that is why you will win this.”

There was a chuckle for somewhere else in the cave. “Now he’s lied to you.”

Doug turned to see a man standing there. He was about Doug’s age and was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, both of which had rips in them. His hair was short but unruly — like he had just woken up.

Stan stared at him a moment. “Who the hell are you?”

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Hellbender: Chapter 46 – Separate Reality

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“Dude.”

There was nothing but darkness around them, yet they could see each other just fine. The ground below them still looked like the floor from the building, but a few yards away it faded into nothingness. It was like the entire world had faded away and all that was left was the little piece of floor they all stood on. Around them was nothing but the eeriest quiet… until a woman started screaming.

“Chi-something, handle up on your people!” Bryce shouted, still holding up the small, glowing cylinder.

“Okay, but what’s happened?” Chimezie turned to the freed prisoners and smiled unconvincingly. “Everything is under control, I think.”

Lulu addressed the group. “Here’s what’s happened: We destroyed the generators in the building that were holding wastelands at bay. We stole some portable reality stabilizers Ronove had made…” She took one out of the metal case and turned it on. “Thus we’re all safe from irreality… as long as the batteries hold out. I really don’t know what the battery life is on these things. For those who can’t understand what I’m saying, I’m going to smile now so you know everything is happy.” Lulu smiled.

There was a third reality stabilizer in the case and Doug took it. “So will the wastelands stop Loch?”

Lulu shrugged. “I dunno. Seemed worth trying at the moment.”

“And we weren’t on the ground floor,” Charlene shined a flashlight into the darkness, but it didn‘t yield. “Shouldn’t we have fallen when the building was ripped apart?”

“Hey, I don’t know how it works when reality falls apart, okay?” Lulu said. “We’re in unchartered territory. Ooh! I could write an article about this if we somehow survive.” Lulu turned back to address the rest of the group. “Just stay near us so you don’t get ripped from reality.” Lulu frowned. “I can still remember Lara! That means she wasn’t ripped from reality! Well, hopefully something else horrible is happening to her.”

“I think it’s time we pick a direction and start walking,” Bryce said.

“I’m in charge I get to pick.” Lulu looked around and eventually pointed one way. “We go this away.”

They all started walking. “Don’t look at any circles in here,” Doug told Chimezie and the others, “or your head will explode because of the pie.”

“Thank you for helping us,” one woman said uneasily, obviously not adept at the language.

“No problem!” Doug said cheerfully. He looked around the darkness. “I just hope there is an end to all this.”

“There is never an end.” The horrible voiced echoed all about them.

Doug shoved the reality stabilizer into his pocket, drew his sword, and shouted into the air, “Leave us alone!”

“I am a being beyond your comprehension,” Loch said, sounding like he was coming from all directions at once. “Do you really think you can stop me with a piece of sharpened metal?”

“Maybe if I stab you in your stupid face!” Doug shouted despite Loch’s apparent lack of a face.

“Come on!” Bryce whined. “We’re a bunch of pathetic idiots! There has billions of more important things for a being such as yourself to worry about.”

Loch laughed. “The others have their thoughts on what to do with your world, but all I enjoy is making you things suffer.”

“You will fall, demon!” Chimezie yelled. “We are protected by the Lord, and your power is still no mach for His!”

“Yeah, what he said,” Lulu added. “We’ll smack you around with the Lord and stuff.”

Loch laughed again. It shook the ground and felt like it was about to shatter Doug’s skull. “You humans have always come up with such odd notions to give yourself hope. I assure you, I will inflict upon you such agony that you will beg for death within seconds. Within minutes you shall realize that such peace will never come for you. There is nothing that can stop me. You were created for no other purpose than this agony.”

Doug felt a tight grip on his arm. Charlene was beside him, rifle in one hand and looking as scared as he had ever seen her. “He’s wrong. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.” Doug looked up again. “If you’re so powerful, come and take me, asshole!”

“Alright.”

The darkness gave way slightly and now they could see creatures approaching from all around. First they were just moving shadows, but soon they could see limbs with claws. Some of the people screamed, other fired weapons in panic.

“Run!” Bryce yelled as he fled in one direction, firing ahead of him. The others followed, but then the ground started to move. The darkness faded some more, and Doug could see they were on Loch’s ship which was slowly rising out of the ground. He fled towards the edge of it, but then turned to see the creatures had descended upon most of the group and he couldn’t see his friends. Then something sharp hit him in the back. He fell to the ground and saw nothing but jagged teeth before his face.

Gunfire stunned the beast, and Doug stabbed it with his sword and knocked it off of him. Charlene then grabbed him and helped him from the ground. “We have to get off of this!” she yelled.

Doug looked over the edge of the ship into more black. He had no idea how far down it was, behind him were the creatures and everyone struggling against them. “We can’t leave everyone.”

Charlene looked a little uneasy, but she quickly firmed her resolve. “Okay.”

A beast leaped upon her. “Char–” Doug started to yell, but something swiped him in the face. Before he could regain his senses he was falling, staring up at Loch’s ship as it receded further into the darkness. Soon he lost sight of it entirely, and it began to seem like he would fall forever into nothingness.

But it did come to an end.

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A Story Bit-By-Bit
Hellbender: Chapter 45 – Plan B

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“I found him!” Lulu called out. “He got the crap beat out of him by a girl.”

When Doug reached them, Lulu was helping Bryce to his feet. Bryce’s face was covered in blood, and he did not look very happy. “You should see her.”

“I’m sure you mussed up her hair something fierce.” Charlene said as she walked up behind Doug. “Being stupid is supposed to be Doug’s job.”

Bryce smiled and tried his best to act like nothing happened. “I just had a few things to discuss with my lady friend. If she said anything useful, I think I forgot it due to the concussion.”

“Whatever.” Lulu let go of Bryce. “The important thing is…” She pumped her fists in the air. “Hellbender is back together! Yay!”

“What’s the plan now?” Chimezie asked as he caught up with them, Ronove’s prisoners following him closely.

“We’re back together plus!” Lulu shouted.

Bryce noticed one of the females in the new group and smiled. “And how are you doing?”

She smiled back. “No speak English.”

Bryce sighed. “Yeah, they’re not going to slow us down.”

Explosions rocked the building. “So do we have a plan to get out of here?” Doug asked. “I think like everybody is warring outside, so I don’t think it’s very safe out there either.”

Bryce took a long look at Doug. “Loch wouldn’t have any special reason to want to torture you and your friends would he?”

Doug shrugged. “Not any more reasons than anybody else.”

Another explosion shook the building. It felt like the forces outside were trying to bring it down. Hellbender’s new recruits were starting to panic. “Tell them to calm down,” Charlene told Chimezie, “We have a plan for this situation.”

“I don’t speak all their languages,” Chimezie said.

“Just do something!” Charlene shouted.

Chimezie looked to the freed prisoners and smiled while giving them a thumbs up. It seemed to help a little.

“So what’s the plan?” Doug asked.

Bryce took the metal case from Doug. “It’s the sort of plan it’s best not to think about.”

Lulu smiled. “But if it works, it will be crazy!”

More explosions outside. Doug wasn’t sure if Asmod’s and Serpine’s forces were soon going to be invading the building or if they were just going to level it. “Shouldn’t we do the plan now?”

Bryce looked a little nervous. “Um… I’d rather wait until things are just a bit more dire.”

“I assure you things will never be more dire for you.”

A feeling of dread filled Doug, and he turned around to see Ronove standing in the hallway. Ronove was not alone, though. The place began to darken, and before anyone could react the walls were ripped open by black tentacles that grabbed them and held them all in place.

“I regret to inform you,” Bryce said, “but some crazy woman took your cube. You better handle up on that.”

“I’ll leave that to the concern of Asmod and Serpine,” Ronove said. “Loch and I have decided other things are more important.”

A laugh echoed about them. A horrible voice both high-pitched and low said, “So many things to play with.”

“Let everyone go!” Doug shouted angrily.

“Do not waste your breath,” Loch said. “I cannot comprehend any noise you make other than screams.”

“DO WE NEED TO TALK LOUDER THEN?” Lulu shouted.

Ronove approached Doug. “There is only one way out of here. We will help you find it.”

Doug looked around. Everyone was bound by the black things at Loch’s command. Charlene was next to him, and she struggled to get her mouth free from what was wrapped around it. “Detonator in my left pocket!” she yelled.

Doug jerked his right arm and free and reached over into Charlene pocket and pulled out a small device. He fiddled around with it until he found a button. Then he pressed it.

There was an explosion below them, not nearly as loud as those outside, but suddenly all the tentacles retreated and Doug was dropped free to the ground.

“What did you do?” Ronove asked.

Doug shrugged. “I dunno.”

“Hi-yah!” Lulu launched into a flying kick at Ronove, sending him falling backwards. Bryce scrambled for the metal case.

The building was now shaking continuously and Doug could hear a sound like metal being torn apart. “So what did I do?”

Bryce took a cylindrical device out of the metal case that . Charlene motioned for everyone to get close. “Stay near us if you want to live!”

Everyone seemed to understand and huddled near Bryce. Doug could now see down the hallway blackness coming towards them. The void of the wastelands was folding in on them. “Oh crap.”

Bryce held up the device which had rings around it that started to glow. “If this doesn’t work, just know the devil told us to do it.”

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Hellbender: Chapter 44 – Questions

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Bryce was angry — he could admit that to himself — and perhaps he was acting a bit rashly. Lately there was no course of action that kept him out of danger, though, so he felt he might as well go for the slightly more dangerous yet satisfying route in hunting down Lara.

Bullets whizzed by Bryce’s ear. Lara wasn’t alone, and her associate was firing at Bryce wildly while running. Bryce fired back a bit more accurately and slightly less panickedly, and then it was just him and Lara. He realized his gun had gone empty, but he didn’t want to kill Lara anyway — not immediately.

As he caught up on Lara, she tried to swing her gun around towards Bryce, but he blocked it and slammed his fist into her face while stripping the gun away from her.

She touched the blood on her lip and looked at Bryce and smiled. “Well, Edmund, I guess–”

Bryce interrupted her with another right hook to her face and then grabbed her by her neck and slammed her against the wall.

Lara’s smile was gone. “Aren’t you the tough guy.”

“I’m getting a little tired of that ‘I know so much and you don’t expression.'” Bryce placed the gun to Lara’s forehead. “You’ve been playing me since I first met you, and I want to know why!”

“You think I know everything? I just have my instructions and I follow them. As I understand it, you had an ally helping you three get in here who would know a lot more than me. The Devil usually knows all the details.”

“He does probably no more than he’s telling and is playing us to…” Bryce elbowed her in the face. “…but you’re the only one who knows anything that I’m able to smack around.” He put the gun back to her head. “Why Doug? You all think this is some joke putting him through this?”

Despite the threats and the now bloody face, Lara still didn’t look very scared. “My understanding is there’s not a damn thing special about him. The powers that be just needed someone to get the ball rolling.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know all the details, but I know in the end it’s just a power struggle. Nothing more interesting than that. The reason Elza gets our loyalty is she offers us a piece of it.”

Bryce let go of her neck and grabbed the pouch containing the cube from her. “And what’s this about?”

“That, my friend, is the rock God made that he cannot lift. And right now that’s what we’re all hiding under.”

He pressed the gun harder against her head. “I don’t need the metaphysical crap.”

“Best I can give you.” She smiled. “We’re the ‘Last Children’; we need to stick together and help each other out.”

“I’m done with you.” Bryce backed off a step, and now firmed up the gun with both hands as he pointed at Lara’s face. “Goodbye, bitch.”

“You’re not going to kill me.”

“Why not?”

Lara smiled. “You’re just not.”

That only enraged Bryce further, but as he began to pull the trigger, Lara was on him, punching him in the face while grabbing the gun. He fell to the ground, and Lara was on top of him, hitting him repeatedly in the face with the gun. Dizzy and with blood getting in his eyes, he watched as Lara got up.

“That was fun; we should tussle again sometime.” She walked away. “Have fun with Loch.”

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Hellbender: Chapter 43 – Action Hero

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“She’s still alive and on the fifth floor.” Bryce rushed down a hallway, hand to his earpiece. “But she’s under fire.”

Lulu led the way. “Remember: A lot of people are shooting at each other, but very few specifically want us dead. So, if we’re not all trigger happy, maybe most people will leave us alone. So let’s be regular happy.”

“Anyone get in my way, I’m fighting back,” Doug said.

“So we saw.” Bryce took a glance behind them. “Let’s not be bloodthirsty, though. Bloodthirsty gets you killed.”

The building rocked from a few more blasts outside and they could hear gunfire nearby. They headed down a stairwell and there were dead bodies lying by the fifth floor exit. “Always encouraging.” Lulu took a rifle off one while Bryce kept his pistol in one hand and the metal case in the other. He tried to inch the door open to get a look outside, but Doug didn’t have the patience. He threw the door open and marched into the hallway.

At the end of the hallway stood Lara holding a pistol. “Hey, if it isn’t the man of the hour.”

Doug pointed his rifle at her. “Where’s Charlene?”

Lara dropped her gun and raised her hands. “Do you mean physically or metaphysically?”

Doug slowly approached. “I don’t know what that means.”

“That’s okay; I was just saying it to distract you a few moment longer.”

Out of the rooms around him came a five more of Elza’s forces, all holding rifles. Doug glanced behind him and they had already surrounded Bryce and Lulu. Another was holding Charlene with a gun to her head.

“Great job, action hero,” Bryce said as he dropped his gun.

It pained Doug to give in again having just won his freedom, but he didn’t see any other choice and dropped his rifle. Lara picked back up her gun. “Good boy.”

They moved Lulu and Bryce towards him and tossed Charlene to him. She had a bloody wound on her arm. “You okay?” Doug asked her.

She looked the most distressed by the situation. “I’m sorry.”

Doug carefully put his arm around her so as not to touch her wound. “I’m sorry I’m not more useful.”

“So… what now?” Lulu asked Lara.

Lara shrugged.

“Seriously,” Bryce said. “What possible reason do you people have for making all this effort to just jerk us around?”

Lara laughed. “It’s because we’re all insane and devoted to… what’s her name.” Lara pulled out the bunny cube from a pouch. “It’s all stuff above your head. You’re only going to make things even worse trying to place reason behind it all.”

Doug stood up to her. “If you hurt my friends, I will kill you!”

She smiled. “I thought you would have figured out by now that death doesn’t really scare us.”

“Then I’ll find something that does scare you and do that to you!”

Lara chuckled and put away the cube. “I’m starting to like you.” She noticed the metal case Bryce was still holding. “What’s in that?”

“Can’t we have secrets?”

Lara smiled. “There’s little left in this world that would surprise me.”

“Drop you weapons and let them go!” Everyone looked down the hallway to see a dozen scraggly looking people holding rifles.

Now Lara’s smile went away. “What the hell?”

“Hellbender!” Chimezie announced.

Bryce dove to the ground, bringing the others with him. “Just shoot them!”

Gun fire erupted, and Doug could see a couple of Elza’s forces drop. He still had his sword on him, and quickly drew it and cut through one of the enemy. Lulu was grappling with Lara, but Lara struck her in the face with her elbow knocking her off of her. Doug went to cut her down, but caught a foot to his face. Lara fled towards a side hallway with two others. Charlene grabbed a rifle, shooting at them and gunning down one as Lara and the other got away.

Doug noticed a scary amount of determination in Bryce’s eyes as he stared where Lara had fled. “Bloodthirsty get you killed,” Doug reminded him.

“Not bloodthirsty; just have a few questions.” He handed the metal case to Doug and was off.

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