Rendezvous Chapter 4
Every night is the same. I have come to dread the moment when Lady Darkness passes her hand before my face, and I am sent into that void of ethereality known as Sleep. And every dream is the same.
It is always the same.
I stand in a spotlight, surrounded by a dark sea. All is still, but for the beating of my heart, for I know what is to come. I know only too well. And the anticipation, the waiting, it serves only to worsen my anxiety because I know it will come. But I don't know when.
And just when it seems that the tension will drive me mad, I hear that dreaded sound.
KLUNK. Pingapingaping... KLUNK. Pingapingaping...
Out of the blackness, the horrible blocky figure ambles towards me, hefting the left side of its bulk forward. KLUNK. The keys protest with a rattling 'Pingapingaping,' the strings reverberating with each shambled advance. Enter my recurring nightmare: The Piano.
So I run. What else can I do? The spotlight follows closely, and it seems as though my feet take me nowhere. The scenery does not change.
It is always the same.
All around me I hear the growls of pianos, thirsty for the squashing of one tall, green-haired pacifist. Me. A baby grand suddenly appears before me, the raised lid catching me in the throat. I crumple, gasping for breath, and I can FEEL them all around me. Closer. Drawing closer. One of the snarky little creeps plays a quick 'Funeral March' in the key of c minor. Instinctively I throw up my arms in a futile attempt to protect my skull from what is to come.
The spotlight disappears, replaced by a sinister shadow that grows...the whistle of wind through the ivory keys...
IMPACT. Pain...so much pain...the gleeful trills of the triumphant pianos chiming in the air...
It is always the same. It is always the same...
* * * * *
Merlin awoke abruptly, one hand clutched to his forehead. It was cold with beaded sweat. Violet eyes stared up at the ceiling as he struggled to throw off the remnants of sleep. Dimly he could see the frosty outline of his breath, puffing up with great gasps as he regained control of his senses. Though it was only a dream, or rather a nightmare, he always awoke with a pounding headache. For this reason, he rarely went to bed drunk, as it left him with the mother of all migraines when he awoke.
He realized that he probably shouldn't be seeing his breath, and that it was abnormally cold. Wrestling himself up onto his elbows, he glanced toward the window. The chill of the autumn breeze rustled the curtains where the panes had been pushed wide open.
"That you, Maz?" he sighed, his voice croaking faintly from weariness.
"You're getting better at this." The shadows near the closet stirred, and a cloaked figure stepped into the dim moonbeams. A snap of the fingers, and a warm glow began to grow from a lantern that hung rusting on the wall.
Merlin sat up fully, briefly running his fingers through the sweat-damp bangs plastered to his brow. "Why'd you leave the window open? It's freezing in here."
Mazrim Taim gave a faint shrug of his slim shoulders. "Tends to wake you up faster. And this robe is friggin' hot," he blew out his breath, seizing the front of his cloak and beating it back and forth. "I'm sure you were tired of the piano dreams. ... Tired, ha ha, funny me."
"Hilarious." Merlin fumbled at the dresser drawers before taking out a thick gray sweatshirt and pulling it over his head. "So what do you need?"
With a smirk, Mazrim shook his head. "Not what *I* need. It's something *you* need, Merly boy. Did you know you've been cursed?"
He merely nodded. "Yeah, well, I didn't really think that pianos dropping out of nowhere was a normal, everyday occurrence. You mean a literal curse? Like that voodoo stuff?" Already he was hopping on one foot, stuffing the other into a trouser leg.
"Something like that, yeah. Someone's got a huge grudge against you. Besides Hiryuu." Mazrim paused. "And the ice cream man you forgot to pay back all those years ago. And your old piano teacher. And the democrats--"
"Right, right," Merlin nodded. He didn't exactly enjoy having enemies, and as hard as he tried to treat all men decently, some just refused to be civil in any form. It wasn't something he was proud of, yet he knew there was very little he could do about it short of nuking the planet, and that just wasn't his style. "So who?"
"Youuuuu'll seeeeeeeeeee!" Mazrim cackled, gloating as he rapidly tapped his fingertips together. "Kwah ha ha! Oh, and don't forget Abdiel. You'll need it if you're going into Sluggard Hollow."
"Sluggard Hollow?" Merlin blinked, buckling his belt. "I'm not liking the sounds of this--" But when he turned, Mazrim had vanished. "Hm. Always the same..." Even as he spoke the words, he wished that he hadn't as a chill went up his spine. He threw it off quickly and swirled his cloak over his shoulders. Well, if he had something he needed to do, it was probably best to do it on his own. No sense in endangering anyone else.
Somehow, the rickety old white piano's sudden crushing pounce did not really surprise Merlin. ~I'm getting too old for this,~ he grumbled to himself.
* * * * *
After managing to get himself back in order, Merlin crept quietly down the unusually creaky steps of his porch. Faetan and Tannin's house was just across the road, and he'd seen glints of red through one of the windows...so Tannin was probably still awake. He hadn't stopped to look too closely, however. He suspected Jiharn was doing just that judging by the snickers from the quivering and very fake-looking bush situated so strategically. Side-quest #1: Send the pervert home.
He picked up a small stone and lobbed it into the bush. "All right now, that's enough of that," he hissed, wary of waking up anyone. "Go back to your hideous castle, and leave the ladies alone."
The bush stiffened in guilty shock, then slowly slinked away. Merlin was about to go back to his business when he noticed something trailing from beneath the bush's edge...lots of blonde hair.
"Aw, no, Zero!"
The bush suddenly went even more rigid, and a sleepy head popped up from the leaves. "Eh? Wh--what?"
"What are you doing?!" Merlin rushed forward, shooting a nervous glance over his shoulder. "I would've guessed it to be anyone else before you! Peeping at Tannin?! Honestly, man!"
Zero blinked, glanced around, and suddenly went red. "Uh... Why am I in a fake bush?! Crap, I'm sleepwalking again!"
"I thought reploids didn't sleep."
"Yeah, so did I. Funky stuff, eh?" Zero laughed nervously. "And what are YOU doing out here, creeping around their house?" Zero passed a glance towards Faetan's darkened window.
Quickly Merlin threw up his hands. "Hey now, I was doing nothing of the sort! I came out, saw the snickering bush, and decided to intervene."
Both viewed the other with a skeptical eye, until the reploid finally broke the silence. "And why were you out here in the first place?"
"Interesting that you would require Abdiel for some fresh air," Zero nodded towards the sword before Merlin could conceal it with his cloak.
"Ah, well, Dark Macc is still on the loose, and..." Merlin watched Zero cross his arms, and knew that he wasn't buying it. "Fine. Supposedly I can find out about my piano curse by visiting Sluggard Hollow."
"But that place is crawling with woofs!"
Merlin blinked. "Crawling with what now?"
"Woofs, woofs! You know, the howling things that are like nasty versions of dogs?"
"You mean wolves."
"That's what I said, woofs!" Zero said indignantly. And he suddenly went down as a black streak pummeled into him.
Merlin blinked again. "Evening, Faetan."
"Heya, Merl!" she beamed back, looking triumphant and pleased with herself as she sat on top of the startled Zero. "Man, I thought for sure that you were Jiharn," she reached down to pat the reploid's cheek. "Care to explain the bush?"
"Long story," Zero muttered and spat out a dirt clod. "But it's nothing Jiharn-like, I can assure you." He fretfully ignored Merlin's light cough. "What are you doing up?"
"Well," she stood up and brushed away the pine needles, "this little long-storied bush has been frequenting Tannin's window for the past two weeks--"
"Two weeks?!" Merlin stared at Zero, who merely shrugged ignorance as he climbed back to his feet.
"Yeah," she nodded. "So Tannin started dancing to keep the attention of the 'bush,'" she added the annoying finger quotes, "while I went out and pummeled the peeping Tom." She looked at Zero as though sizing him up. "This wasn't quite what we were expecting."
"Is that disco?" Merlin squinted towards the window where Tannin was busting a move.
Faetan shrugged. "Eh. It's not really important what kind of music we're lacking at the moment...I want to know why you're out here, because she ain't buyin' the story of 'Oops, he got away before I could tackle him.'"
Zero looked uncomfortable. "That sounds like a perfectly plausible story to me..."
Merlin sighed. Too many people were getting wrapped up in this, yet he knew he couldn't shake these two adventure-seekers. They would have literally clung to his legs to make sure he didn't leave without them, and then others would come out to see what was going on, and soon he'd have a whole troop of happy fighters to be responsible for. "I'll tell you on the way, we really have to get moving."
"Where are we headed?" Faetan asked, trotting beside him to keep up with his long-legged gait.
"To Sluggard Hollow," he said softly as the clouds scudded darkly across the full moon.
An oddly convenient bush, that had somehow sprouted binoculars, moved into place, peepers fixated on the redhead dancing to 'Disco Inferno.'
"Burn, baby, burn," Jiharn giggled.
Mist crawled in serpentine fashion over the ground, swirling past ankle-length as the three stepped into the silent hollow. The earth was damp and marshy, sucking noises accompanying each footstep. All around them were twisted, gnarled trees that seemed to be reaching towards the moon with silent pleas of agony.
"So...why the name Sluggard Hollow?" Faetan ventured, unnerved by the lack of night sounds.
"Sleepy Hollow was copyrighted," Zero explained quietly, his scanners on full alert.
"Ah. So, Merl, ah...what are we looking for, exactly?"
"Em...I'm not quite sure. Mazrim just told me to come here, all mysterious and vague."
"Who?" Zero blinked. Faetan just stiffened.
Merlin turned to look at the reploid. "You haven't met Mazrim? He usually shows up when he's got secrets to reveal."
Zero shook his head. Faetan looked away.
"Then I should introduce myself." A cloak of mist fell away from one of the dark trees, and Mazrim stepped forward. He slipped the hood from his face, revealing youthful features and dark, curly hair. SPROING!!! The hair jumped up into an enormous fro, startling the others. With a silent curse, Mazrim smashed it down with his hands. "Blasted humidity..."
Zero hid a snicker, while Merlin wondered why they were being bombarded with so much 70's disco nonsense. If it wasn't pianos, it was always something else...
"Or both..." he muttered sarcastically beneath the mahogany upright piano.
"Ah hell, not again," Zero sighed and moved to ease the instrument off of Merlin. "This is getting old!"
Merlin chose not to say anything, and busied himself spitting out the marshy earth. He was glad of the darkness, since he really did not want to see what he was spewing out of his mouth.
Mazrim and Faetan were still looking at each other, the former with a casual smile, the latter with undisguised anxiety.
"Been awhile, hasn't it, Fae?"
"Guess so." An awkward pause hung in the air. "Does this mean that you--"
"And the others are...?"
The frown faded as she smiled hopefully. "Good."
Merlin worked the kinks out of his spine and peered at the both of them. "You two know each other?"
"Yes," they both said at once, and Faetan colored a little. "Ahem. So about this curse...?" she shifted her weight to the left.
"Through here," Mazrim placed his hand on a gnarled black branch, and uttered a few quiet words that the others didn't quite catch. A large chasm yawned open just before Zero's feet, and he skittered back a few paces. Crumbling stone steps wound down into absolute blackness.
"Hey, it's dark down there," Faetan pointed.
Mazrim snickered. "No duh George. Merlin? You brought your flaming sword, did you not?"
Faetan went pale again as she shot a sharp look at Mazrim. He didn't bat an eyelash as Merlin withdrew his sword. "Aflak," he spoke aloud, and the blade was suddenly ablaze with fire, scattering the shadows.
"Aflak?" Zero choked on his amusement. "Heh heh heh..."
"Hey, I didn't choose the power word!" Merlin sulked, and moved forward to lead the way. Mazrim came behind him, followed by Faetan, with Zero bringing up the rear guard. With each step, the darkness receded, and strangely enough, the pungent stink of moss and decay began to fade, replaced with what smelled like vanilla aromatherapy candles.
"Bizarre...I don't like it," Zero grumbled, casting a wary eye all about. "What kind of fiend uses aromatherapy candles?"
"Not sure," Merlin replied distractedly, squinting his eyes in an effort to see beyond the veil of shadows. The steps leveled out into a stone walkway, and the tiny tunnel suddenly opened up into an enormous, grand cavern with sparkling marble pillars. Candles lined the walls, releasing a calming vanilla scent as they burned.
Mazrim held up a warning hand. "Don't be lulled into a state of sluggishness," he muttered. "Resist the candles!"
"Aw, but they're so relaxing," Faetan said with a nonchalant and almost sleepy grin. "Loosen up!"
With a sigh, Mazrim reached into the pockets of his robes and withdrew a small vial, then shoved it in front of Faetan's nose. She suddenly jerked back with an expression of disgust.
"Necessary," he responded, and replaced the little bottle. "Now you know why the place is called Sluggard Hollow. Keep on your toes."
She looked displeased, and rubbed at her nose as though to remove the memory of the stink.
“Welcome to my humble abode!” echoed a soothing, yet sinister, voice.
Zero grunted. “Marble pillars and thousands of candles... If this is humble, I’d just love to see his idea of luxury.”
“Silence, sarcastic metal one!” the soothing voice suddenly became deep and almost demonic with a raspy roar. Hundreds of thin metal cords abruptly dropped from the ceiling, entangling Zero’s arms, legs, and throat. The reploid strained against them, which created a very musical effect, but was unable to free himself.
“Now that wasn’t very nice!” Faetan snarled, balling her hands into fists. “Why don’tcha come out and fight like a man?! Stinking piece of maggot-infested filth--AGH!” The wires snaked around her wrists and ankles, then jerked her into the air.
The voice laughed. “Ha ha ha, look at me! I’m an idiot!” he imitated in her voice while utilizing the cords as puppet strings. Her hand flopped into her face, and she snarled furiously. “Ow ow, I’m so dumb, ha ha!”
“That’s enough!” Merlin bellowed. “Come out now!” The voice sounded so familiar to him...where had he heard it before?
Something wound tightly around his ankle, and suddenly he found himself hanging upside down by both feet. “Now that was a dirty trick! Maz, get us do--” He stopped, staring at Mazrim in shock. “What are you DOING?!”
“Trying to get to the next level, keep it down,” Mazrim waved his hand in annoyance, his attentions fully engaged in his Virtual Boy.
“What was all that tripe about being on your toes?! You’re playing VIDEO GAMES at a time like this?!” Zero snapped, annoyed.
Mazrim pressed pause to glance up. “That ‘tripe’ applies to you three, and you didn’t do a very good job, elsewise you wouldn’t be all tangled up in piano strings.”
“Well as long as it’s on pause...” Faetan sulked.
“Sorry, no can do...I don’t want to run low on batteries.” And he turned back to the game, while she uttered a string of specialized curses under her breath.
From a large archway, a lone figure stepped into the room with deliberately slow and dramatic movements. As the candlelight fell on his face, it revealed cold, dark eyes, and a thick moustache above the cruel smile on his lips. Long, dark curls hung past his shoulders, and a cape swirled at his feet.
“What an interesting catch. You,” he pointed at Zero, “I think I shall utilize your hair to string my golden piano.”
“You fiend!” Zero went pale.
Merlin was still studying the man's face, scrutinizing his familiar features. "I know you...I'm sure of it..."
The man sneered, and gave his hair a flagrant toss. "I doubt your pathetic little brain could remember back that far. So I shall assist you. It was a long time ago, when we were both children..."
Suddenly, the memories came crashing back. "Mrs. Flachenstein!"
"WHAT?! NO! A student of Mrs. Flachenstein! But you don't remember me...you never even paid attention to me! While I poured my heart out into the Moonlight Sonata, you won them all over with your 24-hour marathon of Chopsticks!!! I will never forgive you! NEVER!"
Merlin's mouth moved silently. "You...you're..."
"That's right," his dark eyes narrowed. "I am YANNI."
Zero felt like he wanted to lose his lunch. "That new age pianist?!"
"Precisely. Now..." he purred as a piano rolled up next to him, "you will all sleeeeep..." Nimble fingers danced spider-like over the keys, a hypnotic melody rippling through the air. Merlin fought it, trying desperately to stay awake...
...he could not...
* * * * *
Merlin awoke to the sound of a growl. Pushing himself up on one elbow, he turned to come immediately face to keyboard with a monstrous, gleaming, black Yamana grand piano. It was sleek, beautiful, and VERY deadly. Quickly he scooted back, only to feel another piano pressed up against his spine.
He was surrounded by them, and they were all looming above him with savage snarls reverberating their strings.
"They're such beautiful pets, aren't they?" Yanni smirked as he wound his way through them, stroking his fingers over the Yamaha. It seemed to purr at his touch.
"Why are you DOING this?" Merlin shook his head. "I mean, I've heard of evil plots before, but this one is REALLY...well...stupid!"
"SILENCE! Do not question ME!" He flipped his hair and hmph'ed. "I will extract my revenge in any way that I see fit."
Merlin's eyes narrowed. "Where are the others?"
Yanni cackled. "It doesn't matter now. You should be more concerned about your own fate at the moment. And as much as I would love to end it all now with a large crushing leap from dear Yammie here..." he stroked the Yamaha's sleek curves, "...it just isn't done that way. And so, we will duel." He tossed a long, sweet-smelling rod to Merlin, who caught it, and then Yannie moved into fencing position. "Enguard!"
"Uh..." Merlin looked at Yanni with a perplexed look. "You mean to duel with incense?"
"Precisely. Now, ENGUARD! Lest I run you through where you sit!"
"Fine." Merlin climbed to his feet, reflecting on just how stupid this was. And where was Mazrim anyway? He held out the 'Jasmine Wind Song' rod of incense, his other hand moving behind his head as he bent his knees, ready for the match...the really STUPID match...to begin.
The pianos moved back to create a large ring for the two combatants, who slowly circled one another.
"Tell me one thing," Merlin spoke slowly, keeping his gaze locked with Yanni's. "The pianos...how are you doing this?"
Yanni laughed arrogantly. "It was easy...when they learned that you'd abandoned them to take tuba lessons, it was all too easy to organize their chaotic hatred into one lethal purpose...CRUSHING YOU." He suddenly advanced with a quick lunge, which Merlin barely deflected.
"But I had to!" Merlin retreated as the incense blades clashed in staccato beats. "That 24-hour marathon brought contracts, and with those, money to feed my starving family!"
"Pah, you capitalist."
Suddenly Merlin went rigid, his eyes flashing. "What...did you...JUST CALL ME?!?!"
"You are a capitalist! All you care about is money! Money money money! You abandoned these precious little dears for a pence piece!"
"HYPOCRITE!" A new rush of energy surged through Merlin's veins, fueling him. With a double ballestra, he leaped forward, taking Yanni by surprise with a sudden onslaught of fierce blows. "Now you've gone too far, and you will pay!"
"Now, Merlin, heh...don't be too hasty! Remember that I still hold your friends captive! Yeah...?" Sweat began to run down his brow, gathering in his thick and nasty moustache.
But Merlin didn't hear a word...the blood pounding in his ears echoed too loudly to offer any quarter to this fiend who had made his life a miserable hell. "How many times have I been crushed...how many times have I been squashed when I least expected it, when I was needed the most!" His incense slipped past Yanni's guard and suddenly smashed itself at Yanni's chest.
"YAAAAAAARGH!!! Oh agony! Oh wretched pain!" Yanni dropped his rod to claw at the air, squealing and crying.
Merlin stared. "Dude...it didn't even pierce your shirt." The incense had merely crumbled into a mellow-smelling heap.
"Yamaha! TO ME!"
The giant black piano bounded over all the others. Yanni climbed onto its lid, clutching his hand to his chest as it bore him with rapid speed out of the dungeon. The other pianos snarled at him, then tore off after their master.
"We'll meet again! I swear it on my award-winning fingertips!" And he was gone.
And Merlin was left alone, feeling just a little bit dumber after the whole experience.
* * * * *
It didn't take long to find Zero, Faetan, and Mazrim. Zero was bald and cranky looking, running his hand over his smooth shiny pate in disbelief and muttering obscenities under his breath. Mazrim was crouched contently in the corner of the small cell, still playing his Virtual Boy. Faetan looked up at him...GLARED darkly...and shoved past him rather rudely while grumbling.
"Geez, what's up with Fae?" Merlin blinked, somewhat confused.
Zero coughed and whistled innocently.
"You didn't TELL me that you hadn't mentioned your deal with Hiryuu! I was teasing her about it, and then she got all mad and stuff!"
Merlin slapped his hand to his forehead. "Zero, I was going to EXPLAIN that to her!"
"It's been a month! I thought you would have done it already!"
"Yeah, well, these things take time, y'know...? Right...?"
"Rightyeahwhatever, let's get out of here." Zero activated his nanites to program his hair back into place.
A swirly, singular Charlie Brown-like curl appeared on his brow. Merlin snickered.
"All right, quit messing around!" The nanites obeyed, and he was soon equipped with his long, golden ponytail of glorious wonder once again.
"So Mazrim...you said I would need Abdiel, but I never even--"
"You lit the really dark passageway with it. Weren't you paying attention?"
Merlin frowned. "You could've asked me to bring a flashlight, or a torch."
Mazrim shrugged. "Nothing's cooler than flaming swords." He paused for a moment, then glanced around. "Does anyone have any spare batteries...?"
The door to the Drunken Monkey Tavern burst open, and a sad, drooping figure dragged himself slowly across the floor. "So...weak..."
984 got out of his seat, moving to the flat and motionless Tenchimaru. "Hey, there you are...you look awful! Ha ha!"
984 suddenly started snickering even MORE evilly, so Spoony came over to explain. "Uh, Tenchimaru, it seems there's a bit of bad news. See, your mom--"
"OHHHHHHH!" Tenchimaru echoed instinctively.
Spoony stared at him. "Anyway, she came into town looking for you, got worried, and then spotted this here tavern, and--"
"My mom hates taverns," Tenchimaru mumbled, still face-down on the floor.
"We know," the two of them both stated at once, and 984 started laughing again.
"She took over and remade it the Inn of Wholesome Goodness."
"The only thing to drink is warm milk."
"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!" Tenchimaru screamed pathetically, twitching.
"Where were you anyway?" 984 stopped snickering for a moment. "Why are you crawling like a pathetic weakling slug?"
Tenchimaru shivered. "I was almost married..."
The door suddenly burst open again to reveal a busty blonde in battle armor. "TIME FOR YOU TO PAY ATTENTION TO ME!" Valkyrie Esker laughed evilly.
"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" Tenchimaru's sad, sad plea echoed into the night...