A Tale of the Ringbearers by Brother Grimace
Robert's apartment held more people than Daria had ever seen there before.
There was a somber tone in the apartment, though, despite the huge, crystal punch bowl that sat in the middle of the table on the side of the living room – which seemed a LOT larger than before - or the piles of sandwiches on platters next to the bowl.
"Hey," Robert said, rising from the couch to take Daria in his arms and hold her close. "Missed you."
"Robert... I've only been gone an hour." Daria relaxed in his embrace, and then looked up to see the stubble on her boyfriend's face. "Where have you been? It looks as if you haven't shaved in a couple of... weeks? What happened?"
Daria glanced over to the couch; it was then that she confirmed that the apartment somehow seemed... bigger... than it usually was, as there must have been at least fifty people comfortably seated and meandering about, all turning as the man she knew as Archangel spoke. "Go ahead," he repeated, accepting a glass of punch from a sleek, busty young woman of Slavic appearance who, as Daria realized as she looked into the woman's large, dark eyes, had to be far, far older. "Tell her. Better yet – show her."
Robert turned to Daria, and she felt a cold chill pass through her. "I – got a call – just after you left. An emergency beacon went off, and they needed everyone they could get who wasn't on a specific mission that couldn't be put off." Robert took Daria's hand in his, and led her to an empty spot on a couch Daria knew wasn't there before she left. "It was – it was-"
"There they are!" a hulking, muscular Cuban Ringbearer called out, Quintessence swirling around his body as he lead the charge across the desert skies. "My God – it's like the beginning of the Great Zack Walkabout..."
Those four words sent a chill through even the most senior of the Ringbearers in the formation; Archangel, with Julie Renner close behind, took up the lead. "No screw-ups, people – in desert conditions, those things can survive for years and infect God knows how many people! Medavoy, Barris, Sharp, Hannon – shadow 'port with all of the fire-affinity Bearers and set up a flame barrier behind them a good four miles across – make sure none of those bastards slips back and gets away!"
Sixteen Ringbearers disappeared, tiny blips of darkness hanging in the air where they were for an instant as the African-American Ringbearer turned to Renner. "Take ten people – you see that road? When we start blasting, any MetaZacks hiding in the bunch will make for it – it's the easiest way out of the box we're going to drop on them, so when they try to head out that way, you bag them. Don't take any unnecessary risks – HQ wants more for study – but if things get bad, you dust them all."
"Actually, I'm doing gold today," the young woman laughed. "I want to get that house in Florida, but with what's happened on Wall Street over the past couple of weeks, it'll be impossible to get a loan!"
"Make sure that you get good insurance on the place-"
"Why do you think I'm gonna Midasize every Zack I see today – do you know how much they're charging for home insurance down there?" She gave Archangel a sloppy half-salute, then banked away, motioning for several other Ringbearers to follow along as her superior shook his head, and then called out a single word.
In an instant, a blonde-haired, scrawny young man appeared from darkness in front of him, and then darted about with the excited manner of a puppy being teased with bits of meat dangled above his head. "Yeah, Boss? Yeah? Yeah? Can I get me some? Can I?"
Archangel noticed the way the boy wore his t-shirt (a blue one with a particularly outrageous image of a barely-clad, white-haired woman with a sword in one hand and a severed head in another, standing on the words 'HEAVY METAL') and swore a dark and unholy punishment on whoever the idiot was that showed Beavis that he could make an unlimited supply of glazed doughnuts and triple-espresso coffee with his Ring. I think that maybe a month or two using his or her Ring on custodial detail on one of the planet-side bases, cleaning up after everyone and having to sanitize toilets and urinals, will make that person think twice before they teach him any more new tricks.
"I am – Flameholio! I need no TP – I shoot fireballs from my bunghole!"
Oh, Lord. "Beavis! You're taking the lead today!"
It was almost as if the sky itself had caught fire. "Fire!" the boy yelled, white-hot tongues of flame dancing across his body as he activated his elemental-affinity power and augmented it with the power of his Defender Ring "Firefirefirefirefire! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Burn!"
"Go get 'em, kid." Archangel said, activating his lifeforce armor (thank God I've got a First Ring, he thought, the extras help out) before surrounding himself in a corona of flame and waving the other Ringbearers forward after Beavis. "Attack!"
Daria watched as a pale-skinned twenty-something woman with short black hair, impossibly long legs and wearing a Maple Leafs hockey jersey hand Archangel a glass of punch before easing herself down upon the couch between him and another whose entire look screamed 'soccer mom'. The young woman looked around the room and counted to fifty before trusting herself to speak.
"Wait a minute. You're saying that - you set Beavis loose on a crowd of innocent people?"
Robert shrugged. "Well, we didn't know that at the time."
Archangel transmuted the water in the shot glass next to him into aqua vitae – an incredibly potent alcohol-based fluid – then poured it into his punch. "Over half a million people from all over the world. Biggest damn 'zombie walk' I've ever seen. I really hate 'zombie walks."
"We had to throw the entire planet into temporal stasis," Julie added, wincing as she saw Archangel drink the entire cup of punch and visibly recoil from the effect. "It took us two weeks to revive and heal everyone we roasted. Oh, people were pissed off!"
"Not everyone," the leggy Canadian yawned, selecting a chicken wing from the large platter of snacks that floated around the room – something that Daria noticed everyone else there seemed to treat as a normal thing, as she saw from the way Robert took a small dish from the platter and spooned several large BBQ meatballs from a covered dish. "They took the compensation, didn't they? We cured a few diseases on their world, and the Shipstone power systems we started them off on will cure all their energy problems inside a decade. Don't forget that we gave everyone at Burning Man who got roasted a perfect human form, and blanked their memory of getting toasted – plus, we gave each of them ten thousand Euros and ten ounces of diamonds."
"Don't forget the terraforming," the 'soccer mom' spoke up. The Middle East on that world is going to be a breadbasket this time next year. Oh, yeah. They've got passenger pigeons again, and cats. Idiots killed most of them off during the Middle Ages, except for those Siamese hybrids in Asia. I've never seen a housecat the size of a mountain lion before..."
"Being fair, it wasn't his fault," Robert told her. "Besides, we did revive them."
Daria gave her boyfriend a look that should have sent his head bouncing merrily away from his shoulders. "Well, wasn't that was nice of you. I mean, don't those Rings of yours tell you 'hey, those aren't zombies' before you make a crowd of people do the 'Burning Man' dance?"
Several snorts of laughter filled the apartment, and Daria turned to see the leggy Canadian bury her face in her hands, shaking as she tried not to laugh. The 'soccer mom' busied herself tearing off sheets from the roll of paper towels she drew from the kitchen with her TK as Archangel and a few other Ringbearers, looking a bit tipsy, didn't try to hide their mirth – or their glasses still.
"There are," a reed-thin young man with a New England accent said, glancing in Daria's direction as he enjoyed a piece of flan. "Problem was, it was a newbie Ringbearer that sounded the alarm – she's only a month out of training, everything looked like a textbook upper-level Class Three outbreak about to explode into Class Four... even the media was covering it like it was the real thing. Dumb ass news people and their 'sweeps month' stories."
"She did everything right, except for scanning them before sending an alert – and being honest, I'd probably have sent the alert before going in close, too," the Slavic woman with the old eyes spoke up. "She'll get extra training – and it'll be a while before she gets a Whisperer post again. Archangel, make sure she gets assigned to one of the ships."
Daria turned as she felt something nudging gently at her arm, and looked down to see the floating platter next to her. "No, thank you," she said, and the platter floated away. "Does this happen often – mistaking normal people for the undead?"
"Only in the Dakotas – and Eastern Europe, too," the New Englander cut in. "Weird. It's like that on every Earth that's has even the slightest Z-outbreak. They warn you about in training."
The room was quiet for a moment. "Everyone, consider yourselves on forty-eight hours liberty," the Slavic woman said, standing up and placing her empty saucer on a table. "If you decide to use one of the rooms here, please remember to lock the door and use your v-fields. They don't know about us on this Earth, so remember - no funny stuff, and no sightseeing. If you want to leave for somewhere else, use the portal set up on the third floor."
Pulling Archangel off the couch, the Slavic woman led him through a door Daria knew had never been in the apartment before, and ignored the sound of footsteps as Robert tugged at her sleeve.
"Aren't you all taking this a bit calmly?"
"Leave them be," Robert said softly. "People let it go in their own ways – and when you've seen as much as some of them... hey, read this."
Daria took the small booklet Robert handed over to her, placing his dish on a platter as it passes by. "I picked it up back there. Normally, I wouldn't get anything from another reality, but this..."
Daria drew her attention from the pale Canadian and the 'soccer mom', holding hands as they headed for the door leading 'upstairs', to the booklet that still smelled faintly of burnt paper. "We of the Global Coalition for Necro-Animatory Syndrome Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity object to the outdated and offensive term 'Zombie.' We prefer the politically correct term 'Ambulatory Deceased', or in the case of those in the United States, 'Necro-Americans."
She looked up at Robert, who simply nodded. "Yeah. 'Zack-bangers' Weird people. Look, I'm off duty for two days, so, would you like to, you know-"
"No, I don't mean that. I mean – is there anywhere you'd like to go? You know, just to get away from everything..."
The young woman saw the weariness in her boyfriend's eyes, and ran her hand across the stubble on his cheek. "We'll find somewhere nice and quiet, with a really nice view. First, though – explain what's going on with your apartment."
"That's easy. Did you ever read 'A Wrinkle in Time' when you were little...?"