The O-K Corral

The self-declared new Overlord of Hell was up on his battlements, pacing. Despite his wealth and power, despite the death of all those who had opposed him, despite the joy of listening to the howls of anguish his Earth-style tax system caused, he was uneasy. He looked out into the gloom, with eyes that could see further than any human's.

The plain had been cleared of bodies now. Should any foe come that way . . . the speakers were ready. He shuddered. It was a victory. But it was no way for even a denizen of Hell to have to die. And humans subjected themselves voluntarily to it! In fact they paid for it. He thought back to when he had almost been trapped in that auditorium when that awful thing had begun. He'd felt his skin beginning to crack and melt . . . before he'd managed to stop the performance. If he hadn't thought of screaming "Fire" . . . Well, the management had kicked him out, little realizing how very glad he had been to go.

He wondered, not for the first time, whether "opera" was short for "operation without anesthetic." Well, as a warning he'd play some of that . . . what was the fellow's name? The one who was . . . fond of children. That stuff would make any mere devil or imp run screaming, clutching their ichor-leaking ears. M'lord had never understood the fuss about human young. Prior to his sojourn on Earth he had thought that humans sacrificed children to get rid of them. It was something of a shock to discover that many humans actually liked the smelly little things. And not just to eat!

He turned away from the plain and looked at the great cinder cone of Mount Erebus behind him. No imp would ever think of coming that way. But the old Overlord might. A watch must be kept.

Slogging their way up the other side of the mountain were Korg, Squigs and the members of the Fifth Field Kitchen Unit. And a large number of their cooking pots. Korg panted under his heavy load. "Phew, Squigs. Are we," pant, "going all the way," pant, "up?"

"Afraid so, squire." Squigs paused, tiredly wiping at the sweat that would have frozen on his brow otherwise. "We won't reach the clouds from lower down. Reversing this lot is going to need an endothermic chain reaction. To get it going we're going to have to seed the cloud-top-level where there is sunlight. "

"It's just that the mountain's a lot bigger to a smaller person like me," said Korg peering up at it. "The locals are taking strain, too."

"The temperature is a killer for them. They don't warm up with exercise as much as we do. But the heater units I've made should help. Look, Korg, I still think you should go back down with them."

"No way," said Korg. "Why bother?"

Squigs did not reply. He knew there wasn't much point. Korg might live another six months . . . but Hell was killing them both.

"Congruences from here to Hell are rare. And they're tightly guarded. We've only a few agents there. And we've had no word for a couple of weeks. The guard on their side has at least tripled. Something is going on over there." Huigi's Uncle Sylvester had come in person to brief them. He'd also come to have private words with the count about a of a report of a black hand and a haunting familiar.

Samur came in. Coughed. "Someone to see you, sir."

The Count looked up, annoyed. "Not now, Samur. This is a private and confidential meeting!" Uncharacteristically, Samur shook his head. Walked over to the count, and made a quick sign. He stretched out his hand. Wide-eyed, the count took his hand. Samur stepped across the view of the rest of the company.

"You're a Grand Chorisso!"

Samur nodded. "And I'm afraid I must order you to see this person, now."

But that person had not waited. He had already come in.

The Zoar folk hastily scrambled to their feet.


The old man nodded. He was swaying with exhaustion. "Ja. I see you got your tuchis in a jam again, Mungo."

Ziklevieson accepted the chair the Count had offered him, gratefully. "I'm too old for this now. Too old." He lowered himself down into it. "I've brought for you another computer." He pointed to the bag. "Squigs he said the battery was low. Electricity . . . and batteries, I understand. It was how I defeated Kare. I have for you here the battery from the hovercraft, and the computer. Now, Samur. It is over to you. You've read the guide. Can anything be salvaged?"

The butler-cum-Grand Chorisso shrugged. "I did see what I believe is a "cd" in the remains of Squigs machine. I think it is intact, Isaac. You do realize that this is someone who has never even seen one of these devices intact, attempting to use it?"

Huigi cleared his throat. "I've had one lesson. And so has the baron."

The count tapped his butler on the shoulder, politely. "Just what is happening here, Samur?"

The butler allowed himself a small smile. "You were always quite right, Count Wolfgang. The Recent and Much Mocked Order exists partially to watch the agency. Quis Custodiet ipsos Custodes, as you put it. This is the grand Chorisso of Zoar, as well as the God-King of western marshes."

"It was do the job or ged killed," said the God-King, depreciatingly. "Vasn't anyone else available."

Samur smiled. "You have read the reports from Zoar about the dread Ziklevieson. It's what his name became corrupted to by the locals. His real name is Isaac Levieson and he's a cunning old man. He puts on the accent when he wants you to think him just a harmless old duffer from some persecuted minority or another."

"Is easier to deal with enemies when they don't expect much," said Isaac calmly.

"I've been keeping him posted about developments here," said Samur. "Anyway, Sadie—the last Overlord—was our great Weenie. She was working on the rehabilitation of Hell, when we believe she was killed. From there things have got worse, on Hell and on Zoar, as well as having a Grand Chorisso killed on Earth, We've decided that it is time to act now against Lord Strate, who we believe is at the bottom of all of this. "

Fifty-five of M'lord Strate's best troops. Standing to rigid attention. They found little to laugh at in the plump figure clad only in seven hoods and a single red and white striped sock. Even if he was upside down. Ecunious, once under-frankfurter of the one-hundred and twenty-seventh Ledge of the Juvenile and Ignominious Order, was also very dead. And Lord Strate was saying that it had to be one of them, who had betrayed the traitor. The troopers knew that there was only one possible reward for this.

Samur, Huigi and Baron picked themselves up off the floor. "It was just rather a sudden noise, that was all," said Huigi shakily. "What's it say on the screen?"

"Welcome to Windows . . . Reading drive D . . ."

The Fifth Field-Kitchen Unit also stood to rigid attention. In this cold it was very plausible that if they stood like that for long they'd remain as proud statues. "Madam-sir. Me and the lads talked it over. We'd like to stay with you."

"But you will go."

"Madam-sir . . ." protested Henery.

"That's an order, Field Commander."

"But, madam-sir, the Lord Strate. He'll spot you at once . . ."

Squigs nodded. "Yes."

"We'll defend you, madam-sir," said Henery.

Squigs looked at them. Fifteen middle-aged to elderly imp-cooks. Scared of a mere devil. Ready to stand with him against their worst fear.

Squigs fought the lump in his throat. "You'll go down. That isn't an order. I just ask it. I might die, but I ask you to see that the revolution goes on, regardless."

"Yes, sir." Henery Seid snapped a four-armed salute. "What about him, sir?"

Korg sat on a rock. "Go on. Get along with you. Pee off."

Squigs sighed. "I can change the world, Field Commander. But I can't change him."

"We need some way of getting inside the defenses of the place. Sure as death, it is going to be heavily defended."

Zikleviesion smiled. "Ja. But there is one thing even more sure than death. I mean, against the deadly reaper you just have to live forever. We go as the irresistible force. Against taxes . . . there is no defense."

They waited until they were sure that the overground's small force was far enough away to be safe. Then they started the McSkillen reaction rocket loaded with the crystal-seeds that the Field Kitchen had been so hard at work preparing. The rocket certainly made it up to the cloud layer before it exploded. But, as Korg said, the purple smoke trail was like a finger pointing straight at them. And the smooth sides of the cinder-cone offered no cover at all. Also, being warm-blooded, they stood out like beacons against the cold mountainside, to beings that saw into the infra-red.

Strate's troops had them in half an hour. Within two hours they were being marched into the grim fortress of the self-proclaimed Overlord. A red, goat-horned being waited for them. Its stubby snout twitched, as they came through the portals. "They are to be taken straight to M'lord," the creature commanded peremptorily. Why did Squigs find the black hand tied behind his back twitching at this unpleasant individual?

"I will take them up myself," Ortant commanded suddenly. "Come on, you." He pushed in roughly behind Squigs, the imp's hand somehow taking the prisoner's. By the time Korg said, "Oy! Leave my mate alone," Ortant's eyes were saucer-wide and his brain racing. But they were still marching in a cloud of guards. There was nothing he could do now, was there?

Even for the Great Weeny herself.

They came into the Demon Lord Strate's Throne room. From the entwined black-marble gargoyles biting one another's heads off, to the three disemboweled plaster ducks on the wall, it was decorated with impeccable taste. For a Hollywood bad-taste horror-movie. If you like black and red. Usually long drippy bits of red. To say it looked like a monster with a terminal stomach ulcer who had drunk a lake of black ink and then vomited his guts out is too harsh. But not much too harsh.

The Demon Lord sat there in state, on his twisted metal throne. He was not in himself a very impressive figure, but the yellow smoke trickling from his slitty nostrils suggested inner fires.

Squigs looked at him without much surprise. "Hello, Dr. Nisebind. Wouldn't a recommendation to the dean of students that my thesis was not of a sufficient standard to award my degree have done, instead of all this?"

The eyes of the being on the Throne flamed. "Harkness-Smythe! I thought it was . . . someone else." The Demon Lord looked at his watch.

"Still got your time fetish, I see. Wise. You don't have much of it left." Squigs was carefully defiant. He'd dealt with this . . . person before, at oral examinations. There was a narrow line to walk, between losing his interest, and attracting his naked anger.

"You know this guy?" Korg asked casually. As though he was not standing bound between hulking guards.

"Unfortunately, yes. I told you I had had a lecturer from this . . . beautiful place. Only I thought he was dead."

Lord Strate snorted yellow smoke. "One of the skills of Demon Lord, being dead . . . apparently. And something you are about to be. And not just apparently." The Demon Lord smiled, showing his fangs.

"May I be excused, M'lord?" Ortant bowed. "There is business to be seen to."

Strate nodded. "Order the oil heated, Ortant."

The majordomo scurried away.

Squigs waited until the imp had gone, matching Strate's smoldering stare with his own. The Demon Lord was the first to break the silence. "I'm glad to have captured you, Harkness-Smythe. It is the one last loose end tied up. No one now has the equipment for the prediction of congruencies, except me."

"Oh, really," said Squigs cheerfully. "The trouble with ends . . .the more you tie them this end, the more they fray at the other end. The end that's on Sylvan. My computer. It's with a certain very powerful agency."

Strate snorted jets of yellow-blue smoke. "The Environmental Protection Agency. You might as well have given it straight to me."

Squigs felt a cold finger of doubt run down his spine. "To you . . ." he faltered. The Demon Lord smiled evilly in triumph. The coldness spread up again. And the parrot materialized on Squigs' shoulder. "Awk. What a complete crock of shit!"

Squigs had the satisfaction of seeing naked fear in Lord Strate's face.

As they stood there, an imp came scurrying in, holding all of its numerous hands above its pointy head. "M'lord! M'lord! The sky is falling!" it squawked loudly, in total panic.

Korg snorted. "Chicken Little."

"Calm yourself, Reshonable! The sky can't fall." M'lord Strate's cool assertion at least stopped the imp running around in circles.

But it didn't still the imp's penetrating voice, "No, M'lord, really, it is true. Look on my back and my head if you do not believe me."

Strate stood up. Walked over and took one of the many flakes of black dandruff from the hair of the pointy headed imp. Looked at it. Ground his fangs. Stared at the prisoners. "What have you done?" His voice hovered between anger and fear.

Korg grinned. "Tell the little fowl to stop panicking. The sky isn't falling. The Earth is just rising."

Squigs felt the silver ring grow hot, and his bonds fell away. "Or at least the loyal members of the overground are. THE DAY OF THE AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION IS AT HAND!" He raised his black hand, in open palmed salute. "VIVA! THAT MEANS LIFE, BY THE WAY! WHAT THERE WILL BE AGAIN AFTER THIS," Squigs shouted, his voice strong and carrying above the hubbub.

Lord Strate laughed, instantly quelling the incipient riot "I don't know who you are. Whether you are merely that impudent student, or whether you are the Overlord herself. But definitely you are a fool, to align yourself with that bunch of no-hopers! Bah! I control all the wealth and all the power. You have nothing, and can do nothing!"

Squigs shrugged. He was head and shoulders above the others in the room so it was a very visible gesture. "By next week you won't be able to sell dragon teeth for backscratchers. You might even have to pay people to take 'em away." This was something of an exaggeration . . . but it did send several of the paper-merchant-devils scurrying quietly out of the room.

But the whispers of panic did not seem to affect Lord Strate. "But you forget one thing. I have the card that beats all. I have you!"

Ortant, leading a file of troops came in to the throne room. It was quite a substantial file. Fifty-five strong. They marched up to the prisoners. "Ah! Ortant. My loyal majordomo. Is the oil ready?" Lord Strate rubbed his long hands. "Harkness-Smythe, you will reverse all your moves, and be glad to tell me everything . . . before I've finished with you."

The majordomo bowed. To Squigs. Lord Strate realized that the troops who had filed in earlier were some of his best. Or they had been before he had sentenced them all to death that morning. One of them had been responsible for the death of his informer, hadn't they?

Staring at his majordomo . . . bowing to that snotty former student, Lord Strate realized that none of them had.

The Demon Lord stepped back. Reached for a deadly black unit beside his throne.

A CD player.

"Keep off. Or I press the play button!" he shouted. There were flecks of green foam on his lips. Even Squigs' would-be rescuers froze. There was no silicate being here who did not know what had happened to the armies on the plain. Ortant worked his obviously dry mouth. "Oh Great Weeny, say the identifying word. There are Siblings of the Juvenile and Ignominious Order among his supporters ranks. Tell them who you are! We will never stop him in time, but they may."

Squigs hesitated. And was lost. He didn't have an identifying word to use, unless it was in one handed sign-language.

The Demon Lord saw his advantage. "Say it, then."

Korg pushed forward. "I don't need words, mister." He began to walk forward amid the whispers.

"Ahem!" The doorman's voice from the back of the huge room was a little shaky. "M'lord. The . . . the people from the IRS are here, M'lord."

The silence that only this statement can produce fell, as the new party walked forward.

Kate and Venus looked odd in their severe grey suits. Not as odd as Slugger of course. But nature has not designed some people to wear ties. Of course there is nothing to say that members of an audit team can't wear evening dress, but it did make Huigi, the count and his daughter look a little conspicuous.

"You . . . you have no right to be here!"

The tall black woman leading the delegation raised an eyebrow. "The Audit-Teams of the Infernal Revenue Service cannot be denied access.' Paragraph 17, of Act 14 of the Taxes, Surtaxes, Excise Duties, Levies, and other Governmental Looting Proclamation of 2 June 1."

"But, but, but that's my proclamation!" yelled Demon Lord Strate. "Go away!"

The black woman stared unblinkingly at him. And then recited what was obviously a well known mantra. "Attempting to deny access to IRS agents will result in the total confiscation of all assets."

"But . . .but they're being confiscated for me," stuttered Strate. "I'm the new Overlord, Dammit!"

She sniffed. "I quote from the Act once again. 'Such monies and/or property confiscated, will be rendered to the relevant authority, after the deduction of appropriate levies for administration.'" She smiled grimly. "In layman's terms, that means regardless of the amount confiscated, the Overlord will receive nothing but a bill for further administrative costs." After allowing Strate to foam at the ears for a few moments she added, "Anyway, I am the Overlord. Not you."

"Kill her!" shrieked Strate.

The Overlord turned to Squigs and waved her empty sleeve. "The word is 'Onanism' by the way. And I don't suggest any of you resort to violence." She and the others produced Supa-Doopa Water Blasters. Squigs groaned. Holy water might work on real spirit-world demons . . . but against these nasties . . .

Lord Strate also was not perturbed. "Bah, you fools." He walked unconcernedly over to Squigs. "First I'm going to kill you. Then I will kill her! Water has no effect on the denizens of Hell."

The tall black woman smiled seraphically. "But hydrofluoric acid does." She had taken advantage of his move to walk over to his throne and rip the power cable out of the CD player. She picked up the empty CD box from on top of it. "La Traviata." She shook her head. "Is there no bottom to the depths of your villainy?"

Lord Strate caught Squigs' faint nod at someone. With a desperate snarl he lunged toward his tall nemesis. And Squigs Harkness-Smythe, Honorary Chairman and Life Member of the Wimp Society, stuck out his jaw aggressively, and shoved Lord Strate back. Just as Korg knelt behind the Demon Lord . . .

The crash was impressive. Before he could stand up, the two had seized him again, and between them, they defenestrated Lord Strate. They threw him out of a window five hundred feet above the rocks below.

Silicate-people don't damage easily. But they can be broken.

As they peered out of the broken window at the scattered pieces of the Demon Lord, Mungo solemnly said, "You know, glass people shouldn't be thrown out of their houses like stones."

He looked immensely proud of that mixed metaphor. Squigs was ready to bet he'd been saving it up for years.

Korg found himself being picked up and pressed to Venus's bosom. "I been dreaming of having a tet ar tet like this!" he said a trifle thickly, hugging her too, and endangering several of her ribs.

Squigs found someone touching his elbow, tentatively. Kate stood there smiling at him. "You all right, you mad skellington?"

For once Squigs didn't let his stammers get the better of him. He also picked her up so that his feet could not intervene. He avoided talking altogether by kissing her soundly. Then he set her down, and knelt in front of her.

"Just what the hell are you doing?" she asked, suspiciously.

"Kneeling down so you can swat me easily," he said with a smile.

She bit her lip. Only a small snort of laughter escaped. But she did go rather pink. And then she stepped forward and hugged him. Kissed the top of his curly head. "Now get up, do, my hero. Everyone is looking at us! And I've done enough making a fool of myself in public already with the Crum."

The parrot appeared and gave a mighty wolf-whistle. "AWWK! Sit on my face!"

Squigs gave the parrot such a look of menace that it shut up and vanished.

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