They all called him the Bandit, and he fucking hated it.
"It's just because of how we look!" he hissed, shoving the hover-car into fifteenth gear. Its engine chugged in protest -- the oil gauge for intra-dimensional travel indicated it hadn't been topped off in months, but that shit was expensive out here in the Opal Skull Wastes, so they had to make do. "It's like he's got a little mask on! Let's call him Bandit!" Dogwood waved two claws in the air, one half of an 'airquotes' gesture. "Every goddamn one of us is gets called the Bandit. Racism, I tell ya."
"You could dye your fur." Magna ran her hands through her own hair -- dyed jet black from its natural blue. They'd had to store her vibro-axe in the trunk, and she was getting antsy without it, Dogwood could tell. Magna hated being parted from her axe for too long.
"Do you have any idea how much of a pain in the ass that would be?" Dogwood snapped. "Like, think about it." The hover-car chugged again, and Dogwood kicked the steering column until it stopped. "Bet you wouldn't dye YOUR hair if it was on your ass, either."
"I hate to interrupt what is surely a scintillating discussion, but--" This, accompanied by a polite cough, was the first thing that the alchemist occupying the back seat had said throughout the entire journey. "Are we heading to Middlerock?" Middlerock was one of the few actually civilized areas in the Opal Wastes, a sleepy little hamlet occupying the colossal eye-hole of one of the petrified giant skulls that dotted the area. Dogwood nodded.
"Gonna visit the Braying Kraken," he said. "I caught a whiff of a rumor."
"Must be a very good one if we're going back to Middlerock." Vaelrickk quietly turned a page in the book on his lap.
"Damn good. Best I've ever heard. Totally worth running afoul of the Gnomic Cabal again." The Gnomic Cabal, despite its name, was a crime syndicate and secret society that consisted of very few gnomes and a great deal of cultish activity devoted to worship of cyber-demonic powers. Dogwood came from a long line of raccoon adventurers with very little love for organized crime -- seeing as they did rather dig into the business of desultory, disorganized crime mixed with heroism that adventurers preferred -- and as such he had managed to piss off practically every gang, smuggling ring, and death cult across both the Forbidden and Enchanted Continents. (He hadn't been to the Dark Continent yet. Everybody knew that place wasn't worth the bother, unless the fate of the worldship depended on it, which...well, sometimes it did, and then you just hoped some other poor adventurer would step in and take the fall for you.)
"What is it?" Magna asked. "Treasure? Invasion plans? REALLY GOOD treasure?"
"A procedure for learning Venderant Nalaberong," Dogwood said. Magna blinked. Vaelrickk choked.
"Drakeshit," he said. He wasn't the type to swear, so when he cursed you knew he was really serious. "Mortals can't do it. Everyone knows that, Dogwood! The laws of physics, arcanoscience, and mega-physics just don't allow for--"
"They don't allow for it in our dimension," Dogwood cut him off. "Someone's got an astral grimoire from a dimension where the rules are different."
"How do we know it works?" Magna said. Dogwood shrugged, his ears flattening back against his head.
"We don't, which means we've got two options. Either we grab the biggest discovery in the history of the multiverse before it falls into the wrong hands -- 'wrong' here meaning 'not ours' of course -- or we tragically end up killing a wicked sorcerer and a whole bunch of his demon minions for nothing more than an incredibly valuable artifact and the adulation of the entire Opal Wastes. So, we're going to the Braying Kraken for a little bit of chit-chat. And Magna?"
"Don't break anybody's neck this time, all right?"
The Braying Kraken was quarried out of hellfire opal, like much of Middlerock, and shone like blazes in the powerful Synnibarr sun. Gaudy reds, greens, and oranges flickered off the walls as they approached. It was a beautiful place, really. Perhaps one of the most breathtaking adventuring hubs on the entire worldship. Real shame they had to visit it so often.
The place was mostly empty when they got there -- it wasn't adventuring season, really, and the Wastes were right in the middle of the spawning path for a whole lot of monsters that were not lucrative to kill, so it tended to empty out sometime around laser-jellyfish mating season. In the corner, a chameleon drake wearing golden armor had curled up around a cauldron-sized mug of extremely expensive Venusian beer, lapping lazily at it with his long tongue. A group of aquatic folk huddled in the center of the room, talking in low tones in their own language. None of them took much notice of the newcomers.
Dogwood took a deep breath, let it out as a sigh, and strode straight up to the bar with his best fang-y grin. The barkeep, who was a dwarf with a bright red beard and a prosthetic eye made out of some kind of cheap red crystal, regarded him coolly. "Ya want somethin'?" she huffed, polishing the already spotless counter. Dogwood's eyes darted to and fro -- marking exits, noting likely places to hide a blaster pistol, and quietly taking in the location of everything flammable.
"Me and my esteemed comrades," Dogwood said, "are looking for a tip."
"Tips go to the waitstaff," said the dwarf. "You that hard up for a job, adventurer? Wanna try a stint as a bar wench before divin' back into the fray?" She smiled slightly to herself, as though she had made a very excellent joke. Dogwood was not amused.
"More of the informational type." He slapped the counter with his paw and then withdrew it, leaving behind a small purse of currency. "I'm looking for the Gnomic Cabal. A little space-birdie told me you might know a thing or two about where they're hiding these days."
At the mention of the Cabal, the barkeep went pale. "You'd best be runnin' along, adventurer," she growled. Dogwood noted her hand reaching under the bar.
"Oh. I see. We're doing this the other way." He lashed his tail back and forth, unable to hold back his excitement. "Well...great."
"I see how it is!" Magna hissed as they fled the burning tavern. Vaelrickk, with the unearthly grace peculiar to elvenkind, tripped over his own feet trying to duck a laser blast from the enraged barkeep some many meters behind. "The Amazon doesn't get to break any necks but YOU'RE allowed to set things on fire, huh?"
"Look, the whole place is made out of opal. It doesn't burn. Everyone'll be fine, the place will be redecorated in a few weeks, and we'll be in the clear again. Besides, I got our info." He brushed aside the fur on his wrist to check the time.
"If I may ask," Vaelrickk said with a melodious sigh, "why, precisely, do you keep checking your watch?"
"I've got a plan."
"Oh," Vaelrickk said, with the practiced deadpan of the nearly immortal. "Very reassuring."
The fortress of the Gnomic Cabal was actually not terribly hard to find -- it was getting inside that was going to prove to be the difficult part. Carved into the opal mountainside like most everything else in this area, the front was a featureless wall of sheer adamantite, its soft rainbow sheen belying its impenetrable and unclimb-able nature. No grappling hooks or rocket boots or even Dogwood's beloved heavy ordinance would suffice to let them inside.
Magna, in her infinite wisdom, merely walked up to the wall and pounded on it with one massive gauntlet-clad fist. Dogwood fidgeted, and checked his watch again.
"Should she be doing that?" Vaelrickk asked. Dogwood shrugged.
"I have it on good authority that the Gnomic Cabal has been hiring--"
"--FILTHY FAR-WALKERS!" Magna bellowed, resuming her pounding. "I could smell their cowardly stench the instant I stepped into this fortress's shadow!" The pounding was punctuated now by kicking, her metal boots ringing on the adamantite wall. Though Magna could no longer technically claim to be affiliated with the Limb-Breaker amazon tribe of her birth, having been exiled after decapitating the Queen's head vizier in a fit of pique, old habits died hard -- and centuries-old tribal blood feuds died even harder. "Come out!"
The door slid open. Silhouetted in the noxious green light was the unmistakable form of a mercenary amazon warrior, heavily armed and scantily clad.
"Think you can take them, Magna?" She huffed, blowing a lock of her black hair out of her eyes.
"There's only five of 'em," she said, with an ear-to-ear grin. "Maybe ten." Her vibro-axe hummed to life in her hands. "Should be a good challenge for me, yeah?"
"Great! Cover our exit. We're gonna need it in a little while." And with that, Dogwood checked his watch, grabbed the alchemist by the back of his sash, and dashed for the now-open entrance.
The fortress's interior was quite a change from the impressive outside -- the hallways were cramped, dark, and decorated with cryptic banners and painted sigils that gave an impression of menace but failed to actually deliver on it. The place was mostly silent, too -- if there were guard robots, or more mercenaries, or cult loyalists prowling about, there was no sign of them. Dogwood ran and Vaelrickk followed, looking vaguely perturbed.
"I don't like this," the alchemist mumbled. "Quiet is usually a bad sign."
"The Cabal's fallen on hard times," Dogwood said with a shrug, glancing down at his wrist. Right on scheduled, at least so far. "Besides, they're probably relying on their--"
Dogwood barely had time to register the fact that his paw had touched a floor tile that was ever-so-slightly taller than the surrounding ones before the flashbang went off, flooding the corridor with blinding light. Vaelrickk yelped; Dogwood pinned his ears back and covered his eyes, but no amount of thrashing around blindly was going to move them out of the way of the spun titanium net that dropped from the ceiling, pinning them both to the ground.
"...rely on their traps?" Vaelrickk finished for him. There were footsteps down the hall, coming closer, and the spark of electropikes.
"Relax," Dogwood said, puffing up his tail. "This is part of my plan."
They let Dogwood keep his bazooka, at least. It was hard to load and fire a bazooka without someone noticing, and while it had served for a blunt instrument a couple of times in Dogwood's life, it really wasn't well suited for the practice. Letting him keep it was a useless gesture, but one that Dogwood appreciated nonetheless -- nothing was more comforting than the solid feel of a good rocket launcher on your back.
"Would you stop checking your watch like that?" Vaelrickk hissed. "It's making me nervous."
"I've timed something really carefully," he said. "Gotta make sure everything is still on track, yeah."
"I assure you, Dogwood, time will STILL proceed forward at the expected pace unless affected by gods, or drakes, or wizards, or particularly ambitious ninjas of a particular school of--"
"Ah. Adventurers." The leader of the Gnomic Cabal, whose identity was entirely concealed by a shimmering black robe marked with the signs of the unholiest of gods, paced back and forth in front of what could be charitably called a throne -- festooned as it was with bio-electric jacks and jury-rigged cybertech, it was more of a hellish command center than a display of religious glory, although someone had helpfully outfitted it with an enormous eagle skull with a single mote of fire in each eye. The only clue to his identity was the fact that the veil draped over his face betrayed a distinctly snout-like shape.
Dogwood narrowed his eyes. "You're a raccoon," he hissed.
"So are you. It matters little." The Lord of the Cabal waved his gloved hand. "Our plans cannot be stopped by the likes of you. What we have set in motion, the barter we have made with the powers of Cyber-Hell and the fallen gods of long ago, all these things are written in the stars, and this worldship shall--"
"Actually," Vaelrickk interrupted with a polite cough, "we're just here for the grimoire. I mean, I don't doubt we'll be meeting again if this speech is any indication but--"
The Lord of the Cabal stopped short, unused to being interrupted. Usually prisoners were dreadfully interested in his plans. "The interdimensional one? Fine. It's worthless. Chicken scratch, really." He pried a data-stick off of his throne and tossed it at Dogwood. It hit him in the face, and he barely managed to catch it before it clattered to the ground. "Can't read a word of it. Take it, if you like."
Dogwood held the data stick in one hand and looked at his watch with the other. Not long now. Five...four...three...
"Of course, it's all immaterial because I'm going to kill you anyway. Demons of hell, heed my--"
Power sparked around the Lord of the Cabal's feet -- hellish power, smelling of brimstone and electronic torments. He raised his hands, and the hall filled with the rageful shriek of the fallen.
Dogwood loved explosions, even if he wasn't the cause of them, and the result of a frenzied herd of flying laser bears, diverted from their usual mating route by the enticing scent of a burning tavern, crashing into the secret headquarters of a sorcerer about to call up a pyroclastic terror, would rank among his top ten for years to come.
Magna met them at the smoking ruins of the entrance, covered head to toe in blood and with her vibro-axe still humming in her hands. In waiting for them, she'd managed to lasso one of the laser-bears, and she was currently calmly sitting atop it, patiently ignoring its roars of fury.
"I think I'll keep this one," she said with a manic grin, patting its grey flank. It fired a blast from its mouth that leveled a nearby tree that had somehow escaped the devastation. "It likes me. Did you get the mark?"
Dogwood held up the slightly singed data stick. "It's apparently unreadable, so I think our next stop is gonna be the alchemists' guild up in...the Isles?"
"They moved it," Vaelrickk said, still looking stunned. "It's um. On the moon now."
"Oh. right. Great." Dogwood shrugged. "See? It all worked out in the end. My calculations about bear migrations were spot on."
"Why don't you TELL us what your plans are next time?" Magna sighed. The bear seemed to have calmed down a bit and accepted its fate.
"If I told you I was planning on diverting the migrations of laser bears to our own advantage, would you have believed me?"
"Not a chance," she said, with a grin. "Come on, you two. Hop up. She's faster than the hover-car, I bet. So, the moon?"
"And beyond, most likely," Dogwood said, waving his prize data stick. "Gotta see if this thing works, right? Magna? Vaelrickk? We're gonna be GODS."
Vaelrickk sighed heavily. "Sounds like a bother," he said, but smiled a little in spite of himself.