Thanks to a game master shortage, the following confused events occurred outside of normal continuity – as well as beyond the reach of rationality.
The emergency call from Metropolis was… well, you couldn’t exactly call it “unexpected”, it was Crusader after all, but they’d barely gotten the office open!
Some sort of invisible, super-poltergeist? It had already defeated several of the local heroes?
Poltergeist? That wasn’t the usual sort of problem. That was more like… Oh, wait; they’d opened a supernatural services office. Of COURSE something would show up to challenge them. They couldn’t allow that, the place had only opened a few days ago!
Marty was more incensed: “And I haven’t gotten a chance to attack it yet! Oh, Wait! That’s my office! Shit!”
Marty grabbed his drawing supplies as the gate to Crusader took them to Arpherion’s Cavern of Mysteries.
Kevin didn’t really remember having a Cavern of Mysteries – even while being Arpherion – but identities tended to take on a life of their own after a bit.
The Cavern was dimly illuminated by luminescent pools, each a latent gateway to a distant and terrible realm. It was scattered with a variety of strange artifacts, including a selection of strangely-twisted sculptures of inhuman creatures looking down from the walls at the occupants of the cave. By the tunnels going up there were several stabled riding dragons, already harnessed up.
Marty – now The Animator, Bane of Rationality – began to draw on the walls, leaving a trail of strangely writhing cartoon sketches, which struggled free of the walls and swarmed after him like a swarm of bees.
Kevin, sinking into the identity of Arpherion, Dark Master of the Balefire, drew the aura of his power around himself; becoming a phantom apparent only to the direct detection of a human mind. His presence would pass undetected at range and unrecorded by any instrument. He gathered a selection of talismans to load upon Grimjaw while he awaited the completion of The Animators work. After looking at a few of those works – a cute little oil rig with wings, a flock of grinning fighter planes, and the inevitable flying pies – he thoughtfully threw in a butterfly net.
Marty got on Irontooth, with his cartoons flying around his head.
“Why is he looking at me funny?”
“He’s just not used to you yet!”
Irontooth: “My apologies master!”
“Let’s go! I paid good money to have an office to destroy!”
As the Dragons took to the skies, Captain Explode came hurtling by, crashing into the forested hills outside of Metropolis with a terrific blast!
Of course, that was the same way he did everything.
What was it about Crusader that inserted exclamation marks at every opportunity?
Marty looked on jealously, contemplating releasing the oil rig fireball on the Daily Planet. It never gave his cartoon villainy the serious attention and headlines that it deserved!
At the city park, the trees had been woven into a giant Wicker Man. Scores of people – including several lesser heroes – were imprisoned there while an unseen force gouged out a giant ritual circle in the ground! Even the guy with the big red S was helpless before supernatural powers! It was his major weakness other than the green stuff! (And the blue stuff! And the red stuff! And Red Light! And… come to think of it, that guy had a lot of weaknesses. It must be his publicist that kept everyone’s mind off of them).
Anyway, something was wrong: this was a lot more complex then a normal poltergeist – and the “burn people as a mystic sacrifice” things was better suited to Dark Crusader than to Crusader proper.
The Animator had different concerns;
“Awww….. I want to draw a giant ritual circle!…”
“Can you do it in time?”
It turned out to be a circle with snips and snails and puppy dogs with tails!
About then, the Nightwraith – a local shadow-hero – appeared mysteriously, as was his fashion!
“So, Arpherion… I see this has lured you out of your crypt. Are you sure that it is a bigger menace than you are? And (to Marty) who are you, some minor villainous apprentice?”
With a crackle of mystical energies, The Animator spun his cartoon circle out and about them. The Nightwraith looked at it doubtfully – but it worked against unseen menaces anyway. Not perfect, but something.
Meanwhile, the poltergeist had completed the Wicker Man, and was currently cracking open cars and pouring the gasoline from the tanks over the structure and the helpless people trapped within!
Wait, gasoline? Where the hell was it finding vehicles that ran on gasoline? There shouldn’t be anything like that in Crusader outside of a few “classic car” rallies and antiquarian societies!
It was reaching across realms. Apparently without even noticing. Even for Crusader, that was a major power – and certainly nothing that a common poltergeist or demon should be doing!
“I’m the Animator! Fear my friends!”
“The Animator? Not a relative of Herbert’s are you?”
“I am a madman with a pen!” (Marty held up his pen – although, ominously, it did resemble Herbert’s hypodermic).
“I suppose we are allies for the moment then!”
“Arpherion? Do you have a plan, or are you simply planning to wade in and rely on raw evil power as usual?”
The Animator had a plan! Why not take advantage of what had been provided by the enemy! If Arpherion would bolster his power, he would animate the Wicker Man – it should be relatively easy; the trees it had been woven of still lived, and raged against the force that had uprooted them! With a few deft strokes he animated the Wicker Man and set it upon whatever force was gouging out the mystic circle!
“You Madman! It is full of people!”
“Of course I’m a madman, silly! But I’ll let them out…”
Arpherion spun chains of darkness, tempered and sheathed with supernatural fires, about the poltergeist, pouring raw power into manifestation! Even if it was truly formless, such a spell should hold it briefly!
“You had best hurry!”
“Hey woody! Open up and let the fleshy things out!”
“III HHHEEEAAARRR AAANNNDDD OOOBBBEEEYYY….”
The binding spell flared, dark magical force wrapped around a towering figure! An entity a bit like an upside-down tree, with tentacles instead of roots! It was not truly invisible, it was simply so horrific that the human mind refused to accept it’s presence for the sake of sanity!! Only the obscuring of details in the binding spell allowed their minds to accept it without collapsing into raving lunacy!!!
“!@#$%^&* NARRATOR! Enough with the !@#$%^&* EXCLAMATION MARKS! AND HOW IN !@#$%^&* can I “HEAR” EXCLAMATION MARKS ANYWAY!!!”
“Blast it! Now I”M doing it!!!!”
“Fortunately Crusader(!!!) has an unlimited supply of exclamation marks!!!!”
“If I fireball it, oh the chaos I will cause!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I can hardly resist!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
“Ma… Er, ANIMATOR, not You Too!”
“But if there are people in the way, I cannot annoy them!!!!!!!!!”
Fortunately, the people were desperately scrambling away while the Nightwraith launched grappling lines in an attempt to further entangle what could now be recognized as a the dark spawn of Shub-Nuggurath! An entity that did not belong in Crusader at all!
“KAMIKAZE OIL RIG, EXPLODE FOR GLORY!”
The oil rig fluttered toward the entity, screaming in Japanese for some reason! It had donned a silly headband and was waving a katana! The detonation was deafening, as the flames engulfed both the wicker man – which had been shambling forward following the initial order to attack after it let everyone out – and the Dark Spawn! Flames billowed as the gasoline ignited, and the Wicker Man closed its colossal flaming arms about the unspeakable foe! Small buildings were smashed to flaming rubble!
“Yay explosions! And beer! BEER FOR EVERYONE! Strike planes go!”
The planes hurtled toward the melee trailing silver dust while The Animator drew six packs of beer for those crazy enough to stay!
Meanwhile Arpherion scooped up the people who were too slow to escape, sucking them into his extra-dimensional space!
“Don’t forget the beer! The Animator throws the six packs in!”
“BLAST IT! NOW YOU’RE NARRATING YOURSELF!”
Meanwhile, as the Wicker Man fell to bits, the dark spawn was gravely wounded, but was struggling to rise!
“Well, you just don’t know when to quit!”
“I can’t stop now! Try to hold it back!”
The Animator swiftly sketched out a giant cartoon fiendish boar to fight the thing!
“Go my creation! Go and entertain us!:
The boar lunged forward, impaling a passing pushcart on one awesome tusk!
“Push it back, and I shall reward you with . . . TAFFY!”
Evidently it liked taffy! The raging boar descended upon the Dark Spawn, and began sucking up tentacles like spaghetti while the Nightwraith blasted tentacles loose from a target now damaged enough to be partially acceptable to the mind’s eye, and thus tenuously visible!
The Animator began singing “On Top of Spaghetti!”
With Arpherion at last finished removing the innocent bystanders, his spells of exorcism and banishment joined the physical assault, before that relentless assault the last shreds of the horror dissipated in a swirl of malignant ectoplasm!
“Grimjaw! Irontooth! Take flight!”
“Wait for me, Irontooth! I have taffy!”
“For me master?!”
Arpherion and The Animator had quietly departed to check the office before the Nightwraith was finished patching up minor injuries and concluded that Arpherion hadn’t returned everyone he’d removed from normal reality! Only some of them were re-appearing!
The office was only mildly devastated; there was a wall or two missing, some cracks in the ceiling, and a couple of Thralls, waiting for customers while one tried to get a special priority team from the Ninjaneering crew out. The Animator had to resist the temptation to finish the job! But it was not nearly as much fun if he only finished it! The Animator got on the phone with the Ninjaneers!
“I want the office rebuilt . . . AS A RACCOON! With lasers for eyes! And taffy guns!”
“That’s over budget! And not in the specifications! NOT IN CONTRACT!”
“Waaa!!! I want taffy!”
While the Animator negotiated – in his own insane style – Arpherion was recruiting. His ability to sense who would be likely to sign up had been improving – and, while there had only been a few likely youngsters in the imprisoned group, they were shocked enough at nearly being burned alive that they all did.
Well, they had been reckless enough to be wandering around Crusader without supervision.
Meanwhile, The Animator had – somehow – negotiated a deal to have the design files on the office changed to a giant raccoon in exchange for large supplies of taffy.
Kevin was beginning to wonder just how far Marty’s influence extended. Crusader had always been a bit cartoonish, but… Wait. The direct interaction with Core had been changing the nature of the realm. Was it starting to split? That would explain a lot of instabilities, as well as the arrival of a Dark Spawn. It looked like the internal realities of visitors were currently distorting the setting around them.
Oh well. More servants for the Dark Powers of… well… me…! Anyway, More Servants! Muha-ha!
GAH! It was getting to him as well!
Meanwhile, The Animator had crammed an entire handful of wasabi taffy into his mouth, not even removing the paper!
“OH GOD MY MOUTH! IT BURNS! WATER!”
“DON’T YELL FOR HELP IN CRUSADER MARTY!”
The wall blew out again, revealing Captain Explode!
“Fear not fellow citizen! I shall save you from the stomach acid of this gigantic raccoon!”
“AHHH! We just had that fixed!
“Such pain! I shall save you from this evil raccoon!”
Captain Explode began to glow brilliantly, with dazzling rays of light pouring out from all over his body!
Arpherion raised a barrier around himself, Marty, and the Thralls just as there was a thunderous explosion!
“CURSE YOU CAPTAIN EXPLODE!”
“Obviously your mind has been warped by the terrible suffering! To the Hospital!”
Despite Marty’s vehement but ineffectual temper tantrum, Captain Explode rocketed himself – and Marty – into the sky, propelled by a steady stream of explosions!
Naturally enough, the hospital found nothing wrong with Marty except grave annoyance.
Back in Core, Marty’s ads were doing reasonably well – so it was probably time to expand them across the Earth and solar system. It was also time for Marty to start getting serious about finding some recruits. The Thralls were all very nice and useful, but it was just too hard to get the customers to take them seriously – at least outside of Core.
Where would it be good to look? There was hardly anyone in Battling Business World with a soul. Core, Baelaria, the Forgotten Realms, and the Linear Realms seemed to be the best current bets. Perhaps Star Trek or Babylon Five? What else was popular, well-established, and fun to live in? Potterworld didn’t really go much beyond the school and a couple of the others which were basically similar. Kids tended to visit and leave. It seemed like the old “game” worlds were among the most immersing: most of the literary worlds really didn’t have much room to put yourself into the setting, and all too many of them were semi-apocalyptic, dystopian, or otherwise unfriendly to a productive family life – but the ones that featured nonhuman races had fertility problems, just like the Dragons in the Dragonworlds did. Wait, maybe Dragonlance? Hadn’t there been a bunch of settings for the same general game?
Marty thought that Linear Realms types would probably adapt easily, they might have some useful cybernetics, and there was no local template – so they should pick up one easily enough elsewhere. The best bets for grownup employees would probably be the gritty, violent, fantasy worlds; they offered melee combat skills and the people there would be used to risks. Still, there weren’t many series that stayed popular long enough to get a decent base population.
Popular… It might be worthwhile to visit Sesame Street and see – if people actually grew up there – where the adults went. Marty wanted to hire the cookie monster for Julia’s birthday party anyway and it was actually in New York City.
The Buffyverse was popular, but the life expectancy there was so short that most people only made flying visits. People didn’t usually put themselves into soap operas in any meaningful sense. Maybe Renaissance Faire World? Anarch had quite a few people. Post-holocaust settings got lots of immigrants, but they didn’t usually have kids before leaving. The worlds of H.G. Wells? So many of his stories came apart one way or another though… A lot of popular places people only visited and left though. How long could you really stay in a cooking-show world? Tropical Paradise World and Idyllic Country Farm World? Tropical Paradise might have some survivalist types.
You’d think that X-Rated Fantasy World would be a good collection point for people, but it never included actually becoming a parent – and most people got bored and left relatively quickly. The same went for most generic afterlife worlds: no aging, no kids.
Wait! How about the “World of Warcraft”? It had had a really big audience for quite some time, so there should be plenty of people there, it would border on most of the other older-generation virtual-adventure-worlds, and everyone around there should be used to simple technologies and personal violence.
Pirate World and Viking World yes – they’d have the right attitude even if they weren’t likely to have really big populations. Terminator World, no; it just wasn’t big on an expanding population.
It was really kind of tricky. A world needed to be exciting and interesting enough to draw people, to have been widely publicized, to allow for a reasonably pleasant background family life, and to be able to support a growing population. That was kind of tricky: optimistic worlds rarely became all that famous, and all too many of the exciting ones were kind of apocalyptic or sealed.