Once, not too far from Beetleburg, lived a brilliant but twisted Spark called rithrema Lagos. Having been thrown out of the University after an incident involving an ambulatory, carnivorous custard -
"Hold on," Wooster said, squinting. "Carnivorous? Ambulatory I can believe, but carnivorous custard?"
Gil shrugged eloquently and leaned back in his chair. "Like I said, brilliant but twisted. I didn't make this up. Pour me another, would you? Thanks much.
Now, as I was saying - "
Having been thrown out of the University after an incident involving an ambulatory, carnivorous custard, she decided to go live apart from all humanity in a house staffed by semi-sentient constructs. You'd think this would be the end of the story. Everyone expected never to hear from her again. But five years later, in a neighboring villiage, one day a mechanical horse landed in the town square. It was ridden by a woman who looked human, except for the giant rabbit ears. She called out to the children playing, "Who wants a ride?"
Her voice didn't sound right, and when they looked again her eyes had a funny sheen.
One brave little boy waled up to her and said he wanted a ride. She plucked him up, set him down behind her, and took off. Before anyone could blink she was out of sight. They waited all afternoon, but the boy never came back.
There were murmurs, and crying from his parents, and the matter was put aside. But then, next month, the same thing happened to a girl from the outskirts of Beetleburg. After that, another girl from a villiage miles away. Rumors spread, and everyone told their children not to say yes if the woman offered them a ride. But it soon became clear she wouldn't take no for an answer. If no child came forward, she would grab the one who looked the most intruiged.
Terror spread. Patrols were set up. Before long, the story reached the ears of the Heterodyne Boys, and they decided to find out what was going on.
"And how did they propose to do that, since nobody knew where the horse had gone?"
Gil paused in consternation. "I'd think they would figure out what directions it had been seen going off it, and then look for a convergence. Nobody saw her giving directions to the horse, so it must have gotten its instructions already, and it might not have been sophisticated enough to leave a false trail." He took a gulp of beer. "Story doesn't say. All it says is ..."
They tracked the horse back to a remote valley outside of Beetleburg, and with their faithful companion, Klaus, went there in their dirigible to look for the lost children.
When they crested the hills they saw an amazing sight: a citadel made of living trees, with shimmering windows and surrounded by a field of giant Venus Flytraps, each the height of a man. The roof was too steep to land on, so they set down just outside the field and lept out, with their guns at the ready.
To their amazement, the flytraps pulled their roots out of the earth and began to stalk toward them, with terrible roars.
Readying their guns, they formed a defensive stance. The flytraps surged forward, and the first two rows fell uncerimoniously. Then the unthinkable happened: Klaus's gun jammed. "Help!" he screamed as the flytraps rapidly converged on him.
"Of course Klaus is the one whose gun jams."
Gil waved his pint unsteadily. "S'traditional. Sidekicks go first. Anyway."
"Don't fear!" Bill cried out. "This is a wonderful chance to try out my new Self-expanding Net!" With that, he pulled a canister from his belt, and batted it toward the onrushing flytarps with the barrel of his gun. In midair it burst and turned into a web of intertwined fibers, thin as glass, that fell over the flytraps with a loud PLOOOP noise and enveloped them completely.
"Cheesiest thing I've ever heard." Wooster balled up his handkerchief and tossed it at Gil. "Why didn't he do that first thing?"
"It's a Heterodyne story, they're supposed to be cheesy. Maybe he did it to add drama."
The net quickly expanded, crawling over the massed flytraps even as they turned and tried to flee. In a few breaths the whole horde was covered by it and stuck to the ground. Klaus pulled out his sabre, and they ran for the door or the citadel, hoping to make it before any of th flytraps could free themselves.
The doors were shut with a knot of vines, but Klaus, with a triumphant laugh, sliced them neatly in half. "At last!" cried Barry. They poured into the citadel and slammed the doors behind them. Inside everything smelled vaugely green, and the walls were made of rough stone. They went down the central coridoor for a long way, seeing no doors, until they came to a round room with a giant rose pattern in the floor. Standing in the middle was the woman with the rabbit ears, holding a huge sword which buzzed in her hand. "You will go no further," she pronounced, with some difficulty.
Bill and Barry fired at her at once, but she laughed and deflected the bullets with her sword. "Fools! You'll never win against me!"
"Nonsense!" Barry said. "Can't you see how you're being used? Join us, and we'll free you!"
"I do as I please," the rabbit-woman hissed, and lunged forward.
But Klaus knocked the blow aside with his saber. "Run!" he yelled to Bill and Barry. "I'll hold her off!" He lunged at the rabbit-woman, and she was forced to step aside to parry it. Bill and Barry wer able to rush past her and duck through the door on the other side of the room. It turned almost at once into a set of stairs going down, spiraled like the curves of an intestine. Behind them they could hear the clanging of Klaus's saber against the rabbit-woman's buzzing sword, but after a few turns it echoed, then died out altogether. The only light was the soft glow of some strange moss on the walls.
"That's another thing," Wooster said. "There's always a strange glow."
"Becoming evil," Gil declared, "doesn't give you the ability to see in the dark." He held out his mug and Wooster obligingly refilled it. "I should have put on the philosophy final, don't you think?"
Wooster considered. "You're very drunk," he decided.
"And so are you. It's still a worthwhile point. What exactly does being evil do for someone? No special powers, not even the niggardly ones. No Evil-Doer's Clubs. People hate you whereever you go. So why do people turn evil?"
"Well, some people say it's a natural consequence of being Sparky." Wooster frowned. "There was an essay on it in the Times a few years ago. I don't remember who wrote it. I think I'm drunk too."
"If we were sober we'd have been in bed an hour ago. Term just finished, it's traditional."
There were many branches off the stairs, and from time to time they would take one, but find only locked door or empty rooms. Then the whole edifice began to rumble around them, with a noise like something breathing. Pebbles started to fall down the stairs. "I should have brought my escape chute," Barry panted.
Bill slapped him on the back. "Buck up. We'll find something."
At that moment there was a hideous scream from one of the braching tunnels. Bill and Barry done down it, to find that it terminated ina large door painted pink. Barry pulled out his automatic lockpick, and they got it open and dove through, only to find that they were plunged into darkness. "Hello?" Barry called out. A moment later there was an answering wail, and then a click as a gas lantern came on. It revealed a room that looked like a nursery, with beds shoved against the walls and toys spread over the floor. Huddled together in the middle of the room were all the missing children. Some of them now had rabbit ears or claws or other visible additions. Holding the lantern was a little girl with a sweeping fox tail. "Please, misters," she said. "What's going on? The bunny-lady always brings us lunch but she's an hour late and the floor keeps shaking and we're scared!"
"Don't worry, children," Barry decalred. "We're here to get you out and bring you back to your parents." There was a ragged cheer.
"But first," Bill said, "we want to find the one who did this to you. Do you know where she is?"
"Miss Arithrema?" the girl piped up. "She's always in her lab. The rabbit lady took me down there to get my tail. I'll show you!"
"Alright! Children, follow us," Barry decalred. "But when we get there, stay outside until we come get you."
With the fox-tailed girl pointing the way, they wound through the twisty coridoors until they came to another set of locked doors, these made out of twisted wood. "Stay here," Bill told the kids, and they surged through.
On the other side was a room filled with terrifying things. Giant skeletons loomed about, potted plants twisted and moaned and writhed, and in the center of it all a pool cast an eerie green glow over the scene. Across the room was the mechanical horse, frozen in a rearing pose. And seated at a table strewn with things that looked like spleens sat a woman in a white dress and black gloves, holding a smoky glass bottle. "So you have come!" she declared.
"We've come to free the children you stole. Surrender now, and you won't be harmed."
She laughed. "I'll never surrender!" she declared, and threw the bottle at them. Barry knocked it aside and it exploded on impact, putting out a cloud of yellow smoke that set them both to coughing madly. "My deadly spores will destroy you from the inside out!"
"Never!" Barry said, and stumbled out of the smoke. But Arithrema was doing something to the potted plants with a pronged device, and they were uprooting themselves and advancing on the brothers. "Damn, I wish we hadn't used the net already," Bill said, and began firing on them - but these plants were so bushy is was impossible to find the stem.
"It's alright," Barry panted. "I can make something if you just keep them off for a minute." He began to pull things from his pack while Bill fired on the onrushing plants, then pulled out his expandable claymore when they got too close. In a moment there were hideous clangin noises, and then a sudden whoosh.
"Behold!" Barry cried. "The Explosive Fan!" The air rushed past them, blowing away the yellow spores, and then Barry pulled a lever and began to wave the fan over the plants. Instantly it emitted a stream of blue powder. Whenever the powder touched the plants they began to crackle and blister, and in a few moments they were lying in pieces on the floor.
There was a terrible scream. "My beautiful flowers! You'll pay for this!" Arithrema roared and arched her fingers, and suddently huge silver claws burst through her gloves.
"And then there was a swordfight. I'm no good at swordfights. Can we skip this bit?"
Gil frowned. "But the dramatic clash is the best part."
"No it's not. You'll keep throwing in fencing terms I've never heard of and then explaining them using more fencing terms I've never heard of." Wooster thumped his mug on the table. "There was a fight. What happened then?"
"Oh, alright ..."
The defeated Arithrema ran across the lab, and pulled on a chain. Instantly the giant lizard skeleton collapsed on top of the brothers. "You'll never take me alive!" she called.
The brothers began to struggle free. "Please!" Barry called out. "Surrender!"
"Never!" And with that, Arithrema climbed atop the mechanical horse and slapped its neck. At once it fell out of its stance. As soon as its hooves hit the floor, there was a thunderous explosion and the horse and rider vanished in a flash of light. The floor began to shake again and this time it didn't stop after a few seconds.
"Where did she go?" Bill cried out.
"Never mind that! We have to get out before the roof falls in!" Barry turned back and opened the doors, where the crowd of terried children were standing, whimpering. "Do any of you know a fast way out?" he called.
The children didn't know. They were just about to panic, when up the coridoor came Klaus, brandishing his sabre, with the rabbit-eared woman trailing behind his disconsolately. "Forgive me, mistress," she wailed. "He was too strong!"
"Bill! Barry!" Klaus yelled with joy. "Come with me! She told me of another way out!"
"Excellent! And the madgirl is gone for good!"
"What?" screamed the rabbit-woman. "How? My mistresss could not be defeated - "
"Vanished in a flash of light," Barry said, "with her horse. Will you come with us?"
"I have no choice, now." The rabbit-woman began to weep.
Klaus awkwardly patted her shoulder. "We'll find you a home too once we get these children back. Come on." He led them down the coridoors - and as fast as he could, for the tremors were increasing and gravel was raining down around them. They veered left, then right, then down a dark tunnel with a stiff breeze, and suddenly they shot out, below the citadel and further down the valley. As they turned to watch, there was a tremendous boom and the entire
citadel collapsed on itself.
"Hold on. I thought it was at the bottom of the valley."
"So the valley had a sloping floor." Gil frowned into his empty mug. "Look, do you want to know the ending or don't you?"
"Well, it's obvious, isn't it?"
"Really? It's so obvious, you tell me."
But thankfully, the airship was safe.
They took all the children to the airship and got them aboard, and the rabbit-woman came as well. She apologized to the children for helping to kidnap them, and they all said it was alright, they liked her anyway.
Bill and Barry offered to take off the tails and ears and whatnot. Some of the kids said yes, but there were a few who liked having them and said no.
The rabbit-woman went home with Klaus and served him faithfully ever after, and can still be found somewhere on Castle Wulfenbach, helping out in the labs.
"How was that?" Wooster waved his mug about, slooshing the last of the beer.
"Close, but not quite. Really ..."
The rabbit-woman took off for the woods as soon as they were in the open air. Bill and Barry tried to call her back, but she stopped only long enough to declare "I will never stop looking for my mistress!" before she vanished into the trees, and they never saw her again.
Gil sighed heavily. "There. You were right about the children, though. I met one of the girls once. Worked in a bar in the south. She liked having claws. Said it was great when dealing with drunken idiots."
"Mmm." Wooster nodded. "Just one question, though."
"Why the hell was the story called The Heterodyne Boys and the Doorknob of Doom? There wasn't a single doorknob in the whole thing. Not even a non-sinister one."
"Eheh." Gil blushed. "I think there was once, but I forget where. Come on, it doens't need a doorknob, does it? Rollicking good story anyway."
"Hmmph. You always say that."