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"For Paradox!" a girl shouted as she led a group of ninjas along a narrow, winding path. Fearlessly, they leapt across an impossibly wide chasm. At the last second, a strong air current caught them, and carried them to the other side. As soon as the girl landed, she smashed a small shrine, then used the bricks to build a bouncer. She waited until everyone had ridden the bouncer to the cliff above, then took a picture out of her pack. "I'll make you proud," she whispered. "Today, I'll prove myself worthy of second-in-command." Voices from above jolted her out of her thoughts, and she stuffed the picture back into her pack. She fumed under her breath when she realized that the bouncer had expired and reverted back to its original form. Crouching, she leapt up and launched herself toward the wall, but instead of sliding down, she stuck. Nimbly, she scaled the bare cliff face and quickly reached the top. A quick nod to the waiting ninjas and they all leapt off of the cliff into a shallow depression in the ground that was filled with purple fog. And not just fog. Almost immediately, they were surrounded by Dark Ronin and Maelstrom Horsemen. The ninja unstrapped katanas and Maelstrom hammers from their backs and began swinging them, smashing enemies left and right. Once they had destroyed the first wave, they split into groups, each headed to crypt, ready to block them. The ninja girl watched for a moment then ran towards the largest crypt of all. As soon as her comrades had disappeared from sight, a lance hit her from behind, knocking her unconscious. The Horseman that had struck her had more brains than most, and, knowing that he would be rewarded, had hidden and waited for the leader of the raid. He scooped the limp girl up onto his saddle and whipped his horse into the crypt, disappearing with his captive. And by the time that the ninjas noticed that their leader was gone, it was too late.
Spider moaned and rolled over. She was thirsty and had a splitting headache. But when she tried to stand up, a wave of nausea swept over her, forcing her to lie back down. This was her second day on the Venture Explorer, and she still hadn't gotten over whatever it was that was making her feel so terrible. A woman walked over to the cot that she was lying on and offered her a cup of water, which Spider took gratefully. Then she curled up under her blanket and slept.
The next day, Spider was feeling much better. She walked around, checking out the ship and making friends. While she did chat with the other recruits, what she enjoyed most was talking to the crew. She loved hearing about all of the worlds that there would be to explore once they landed. Nimbus Station, Avant Gardens, Gnarled Forest, Crux Prime and eventually Nexus Tower. But the one that interested her the most was Forbidden Valley. The name gave her chills, but it promised danger and adventure. As she listened to the crew members describe each place, Spider felt as if they were familiar, as if she had been there before. She shook her head. Of course she hadn't been to these places before. She was a new recruit! Maybe she had dreamed about similar places during those hazy first days. A sudden urge swept over her, and she ran towards the control room and knocked on the door. "Come in." a rather distracted sounding voice called. Spider opened the door and slipped through, closing it quietly behind herself. The ship's pilot, Sky Lane, was hunched over the control panel, muttering to herself, but turned around and smiled when she saw her visitor. "Hello, Spider. You know what, when we get to Nimbus Station, you really should join Paradox. It'd be perfect for you." Before she could say more, a beeping noise from the dashboard distracted her. Sky ran over and bit her lip. "Uh oh. There are high levels of Maelstrom activity ahead - this could get rough." At that moment, purple light filled the room, and an explosion threw Sky and Spider to the floor.
Stunned, Sky and Spider lay on the floor. Spider struggled to her feet and opened the door to a scene of complete chaos. Minifigures ran around screaming, and she could see Bob, who was there to help and answer questions, trying to calm them. But it did no good. Every few seconds, small explosions shook the crippled ship, sending the new recruits into higher levels of panic. Sky pushed past Spider and ran towards Bob, dodging new recruits as she went. Spider hesitated for a moment, and then began threading her way through the crowd, following Sky. When she reached the platform where Bob stood, he and Sky were having an earnest conversation.
"You need to show them how to unlock their Imagination." Sky was saying.
"But we're supposed to wait until we land to do that." Bob protested.
Sky countered. "This is an emergency. You do the Imagination thing, then send them to me." She pointed to a platform high above them. "I'll help them build their rockets and get out of here."
Bob sighed, then started calling, "Hey, everyone! Come over here! Talk to me!" Minifigures began to cluster around him, and then split off in groups, looking for Imagination orbs. Spider spun on her heels and saw three Imagination orbs floating above a series of platforms. She reached out and touched the nearest one. It vanished, but it felt as if it was flowing into her, giving her energy. Jumping from platform to platform, she collected the rest of the orbs. Suddenly, she felt guilty for taking so much Imagination when there were so many more in need of it. But to her relief, she saw that the orbs were reappearing. She headed towards Bob, and he told her that the Imagination, when she picked it up, would fuel her creativity. She felt the power surging through her, and turned and started building, using a small pile of bricks. A fan took shape. Finishing, she stepped back to admire her handiwork, feeling slightly drained, then proudly turned towards Bob.
He stared at her, and then asked "How did you know to do that?"
Spider shrugged. "It just felt right." Then she jumped into the air current, and it carried her up to the platform where Sky was standing.
Sky smiled, then said, "Smash some of the crates lying around then use the pieces inside to build a rocket. Then get out of here!" Spider nodded grimly, and then began to smash some nearby crates. Inside, she found the nose cone, cockpit and engine of a Pod rocket. She clicked them together at the building site, then staggered over to a nearby launch pad. She dropped the rocket onto the pad, and then jumped into the seat. A flip of a switch closed the roof, and after a moment of searching, Spider found a button that she had seen on the dashboard of the Venture Explorer. On a hunch, she pressed it and the engine roared to life. A second later the rocket shot into the sky. Spider looked back at the burning Venture Explorer, then forward at the world ahead. Then, as she drew closer, she realized that she had no idea how to stop.
Frantically, Spider searched for something to slow her descent towards the planet beneath her. At this rate, if she crashed, she would be so thoroughly smashed that she doubted she could rebuild. Unable to do anything, she shut her eyes and waited for the end. But with a sickening lurch, the rocket slowed, then turned to a vertical position. Spider fell out, and just had time to roll away before the rocket split into three pieces and fell towards the ground. But as they toppled, they shrank, and by the time that they hit the ground they were small, hand-sized versions of what they had been before.
"Interesting." Spider murmured as she tucked the pieces into her pockets. Then she looked up and took in her surroundings. She had landed on an elevated grey octagon that was clearly a landing pad. The gentle hills were covered in lush, bright green grass, and pine trees created a forest that encircled the area. But then a purple creature sprouted from the ground, followed by two more. Soon a robot appeared. Somehow Spider knew that they were Stromlings and Mechanicals, Mechs for short, but didn't stop to think how. Because at that moment, she saw something even more disturbing: a building that looked like it had been gutted by an explosion and a minifigure standing in front of it, clearly injured. Spider jumped off the platform and ran towards him. She skidded to a stop and studied the minifigure in front of her. He had spiky brown hair, and a bandanna covered part of his face. But the most startling thing was his hands-they were black and trailed purple smoke.
"Are you one of the recruits from the Venture Explorer?"
Spider tore her gaze away from his hands and nodded.
"Ok. You need to go to Epsilon, then head on up to camp."
Spider nodded again, then turned and ran across the field. Suddenly she realized that she hadn't asked the minifigure's name, but continued across the open area towards someone standing on a small raised area. No, not standing. Floating. He was wearing a jetpack and held a pair of pistols. A Stromling ran up and raised its dagger, but the minifigure fired his pistols and the Stromling disintegrated into a pile of bricks and a small cloud of Maelstrom gas. He blew his pistols off and examined them, not noticing another Stromling coming up behind him.
"Look out!" Spider yelled as she plowed into the Stromling from behind. It gave a startled squeal and turned around, but Spider pummeled it with her fists and it collapsed into bricks.
"Excellent work," the minifigure with the pistols said.
"Thanks." Spider grinned and pushed her long black hair out of her face.
The minifigure, who was wearing a blue and white uniform with a tag that said "Epsilon Starcracker", grinned back. "In fact, you might not even need a weapon."
Spider gasped and her eyes widened as she remembered. "Maybe not." She put her hands into her pockets and gingerly pulled something out. "Will these work?"
Epsilon's eyes bugged out. "Where did you get those?" he shouted. Spider cringed, and he lowered his voice. "Sorry, but, where?"
"I-I don't know." Spider faltered. "They're mine-I didn't take them. They were just, there, in my pocket." She told him everything that had happened. Epsilon looked her in the eye as she talked, and she met his gaze.
When she finished, he nodded. "I believe you. You really don't know how you got those, or what is going on, why you have these flash backs and memories. I don't know how to help you, but maybe when you get to Nimbus Station, Mardolf the Orange will know what to do."
Spider nodded, but her mind was on what she had found in her pockets. At first glance, it looked like a pair of gloves. But when examined closely, they proved to be of a complicated design. The palms and fingers were rough, and looked like they were designed to ensure that the wearer would not lose their sword. Spider slipped them on, then, to test them, spread her fingers out, and then made a fist. To her surprise, spikes stood up along the back of her hand and between the first and second joints of her fingers. A slow smile crept across her face as she flexed her hand and watched the spikes go up and down. Clearly, the gloves would help her, with or without weapons. If she lost her future weapon, her gloves, if used boxing style, would be painful, if not deadly.
Epsilon whistled, long and low. "Little lady, you got yourself a fierce defense. But you still need something for offense." He held out a sword. "This isn't very powerful, but it'll do until you get to Nimbus Station and join a faction." Spider nodded. This seemed familiar. She reached out to take the sword, but as she did so, the sleeve of her black shirt slid up, exposing her wrist. And something else. Self-consciously, she drew her arm back and pushed her sleeve down, but thankfully, Epsilon didn't seem to notice. Spider reached for the sword again, more carefully this time, and kept her wrist concealed. Experimentally, she swung her new weapon. It felt good, but not quite right, as if her hands were used to something else.
As she sliced at the air, she saw a small formation of white bricks. Another small memory surfaced in her mind, and she smashed the bricks. The rubble vanished, and left behind a few coins, several Imagination orbs and some other things that she knew would heal her if she was injured. She felt fine, but picked them up anyway.
Epsilon pointed her in the direction of the camp, and she nodded, waved, and then raced away.
Spider ran across the field, but seeing no nearby enemies slowed to a walk. Again, she marveled at the way her gloves worked, and how cleverly the spikes were hidden when her hand was flat. Then she remembered what she had seen on the inside of her wrist, and her blood ran cold. As with the gloves, its origins were a complete mystery to her.
A sense of foreboding swept over her, and she turned just in time to see a red laser beam go by, then come back and center on her. She looked up and saw a purplish ball hurtling towards her. She knew that it was made of Maelstrom energy, and would injure her at the slightest touch. She ducked, and then looked for the Mech that she knew had created the missile. She saw it standing on a ridge about ten feet away, and charged at it, dodging a second shot on the way. Hacking wildly with her sword, she reduced it to bricks, but strangely, they didn't melt into the soil the same way that the bricks from the Stromlings had. Spider was puzzled, but continued towards the wall that Epsilon had showed her.
Warily, she darted under a bus that hung from thick cables, then looked around. To her right was a small building that looked like a castle, and next to it stood a girl with two daggers. To her left, several guards stood in front of a large hole in the wall. In front of her, a minifigure kneeled on the ground, studying a map. Behind him was a large tunnel. Spider walked towards him, but he didn't notice her, he was so engrossed in his map. As he pored over it, she studied him. Like Epsilon Starcracker, he wore white and blue, and a tag on his shirt said "Beck Strongheart".
Spider cleared her throat, and Beck looked up. "Soldier! Where's your salute?" he barked. Spider was offended by his gruff curtness, but stood at attention and gave a crisp salute. "Much better. Now, go get a shield from the vendor behind me." His attention returned to his map.
For a moment, Spider glared at the top of his head, then stalked by him towards a small table with a rack behind it. The vendor smiled, which Spider returned. She looked at the goods that were spread about. A large rectangular shield with an eagle on it caught her eye, and she nodded towards it. "How much?" she asked.
"Seven hundred." the vendor replied as he unhooked the shield from the rack and laid it on the table. Spider reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of coins. She counted and stacked the money needed, but as she did so, a small stack of red and white boxes caught her eye. "And those?" she pointed.
"Forty each." the vendor said. Spider counted out enough money for five of the boxes and the shield, and then pushed it across the counter. She scooped up her new belongings and headed back towards Beck.
He was waiting for her, and nodded at the shield. "Good work, soldier. Now go back and get five Sentinel Healing Kits."
Spider held up one of the boxes. "Done that."
Beck nodded again, and Spider wondered if he ever got dizzy from moving his head so much. "Well, if you've done all that, then you're done here, for now." He pointed to the cave behind him, which Spider now realized was a tunnel. "Go through there and follow the path." Spider nodded. It seemed easy enough. She looked around one last time, then plunged into the tunnel.
For a moment, Spider couldn't see anything. Her eyes adjusted to the dim light just as she tripped over a rock. She turned her fall into a somersault and looked around. The floor of the immense passageway was rough-hewn and littered with rocks. Ahead was a giant stone staircase. With a few jumps she reached the top, but stopped short. The ground dropped away steeply, and it looked as if there had once been a bridge, but now the only thing that remained was the supports. A pile of grey bricks sat on the edge. Spider, realizing what they were for but not wanting to use any Imagination, crouched down then jumped to one of the grey poles. She landed, teetered for a moment, and then jumped again. But, having never had good footing on the small support, she fell short, her fingertips barely grazing the other side. Landing on the grass below, she pounded her fist on the ground, then stood and stomped up the hill and jumped back up to where she had started. She scowled at the bricks, then began building. However, when finished, the bridge did not reach all of the way across. But somehow, instinctively perhaps, Spider knew that this jump would be easy. She ran out onto the platform and jumped, flipping when her height peaked in order to achieve the maximum distance. Landing lightly on her feet, she looked around and saw a minifigure with a giant wrench standing a ways ahead. As she ran forward, he took one hand away from his wrench to wave, but one hand was not enough to support the enormous tool. It began to slide sideways off his shoulder, but he heaved it back up. As he did so, the tip clipped the back of his hard hat, knocking it to the ground. He leaned forward to pick it up, but the sheer weight of his tool knocked him over.
Spider, who by this time had reached him, helped him up and gave him his hat. She tried to pick up the wrench, but he waved it away. "Now that it's down, it's gonna stay down for a while. Or at least until I can feel my arms again."
Spider grinned. She liked this odd fellow already. He wore an orange and white suit, and his hard hat was now cocked at a ridiculous angle.
"I suppose that you need to join a faction, so that means that you get to climb the monument." He puffed up slightly. "I helped design it, you know. I, Rusty Steele. But you probably don't have time for hanging around, so just go up to the top, then it's easy."
Spider nodded, and waved as she headed away. She leapt lasers and dodged air currents, smashed and built, until she reached the top of the monument. The view was spectacular, but she needed to keep moving. She jumped into an air current that took her upwards, then sideways onto a large ramp. She plunged downwards into a large grassy area. Picnickers relaxed to her left, and to her right the ground dropped steeply into the ocean. Ahead of her, a Daredevil stood next to a launch pad. The Daredevil removed her helmet and waved. "Hiya, Spider!"
"Sky!" Spider shouted as she raced towards her friend. "You made it!"
Sky laughed and tucked her helmet under her arm. "Being the last off of a burning rocket isn't the most dangerous thing that I've ever done."
Spider was curious. "Then what was?"
"Probably when I explored Crux Prime. I was one of the first to land there, and it had considerably more Maelstrom than it does now." She grinned, and then shifted the topic. "Anyway, you need to go to Nimbus Station and join a faction. Talk to Nexus Jay at the entrance."
pider nodded, then reached into her pocket and retrieved her rocket pieces. She clicked them together and watched as they grew into a full sized rocket. She placed it on the launch pad beside Sky and climbed into the cockpit. Seconds later, she blasted into space for the second time that day.
Spider landed lightly, and stashed her rocket pieces before looking around. A long winding path led down a grassy slope, and what looked like city lights twinkled in the distance. As she ran towards them, she found a small indentation in the surrounding hills. Nestled in it was a strange looking machine - odd bits and parts stuck out of it, and clock was in the center. But something seemed to be wrong with it - the hands spun backwards. Entranced, Spider walked closer, but a hand on her arm stopped her. Turning, she saw the oddest minifigure ever. He wore a strange hat with things that looked similar to springs on the top, and clocks of every kind hung off of him. But the weirdest thing was his eyes - one seemed normal, but the other looked almost metallic. Spider backed away. The minifigure held out his hands. "Do you not want to see my time machine?"
"Umm, no thanks." Spider turned and ran. She continued downwards, holding her nose whenever she passed a skunk. Finally, she rounded a corner and saw Nimbus Station in its full glory spread out before her. Minifigures clustered together on a circle of grass in the center. The outer part seemed to be divided into quarters, one for each faction. Each section had a vendor's booth and behind these a path led to a launch pad.
Directly in front of her stood a minifigure with a clipboard. He waved her down and she stopped in front of him. "Hello, my name is Nexus Jay. Yours?"
"Spider." Nexus Jay's gaze shot upwards and he stared at her, his eyes scanning her face. Spider shifted uncomfortably. He stared at her for a moment longer, and then shrugged. "I gotta stop working at night," he muttered as he wrote something on his clipboard. "All right, now, you need to go get missions from the faction reps. Then they'll give you faction badges and you can choose which to join."
Spider nodded, then remembered something. "By the way, where is Mardolf the Orange?"
"Down that path and to your right." Nexus Jay said, pointing. "Thanks." Spider dashed off. She ran down the indicated path, and soon reached yet another open area. It opened to the ocean, and there were several launch pads. There were multiple minfigures standing around, but Spider ignored them. She ran up a small flight of stairs, and stopped directly in front of Mardolf the Orange. She opened her mouth to speak, then realized that he was deep in conversation with a Rank 3 Engineer, who glanced at her for a moment, then turned back to Mardolf. Spider sighed, then strolled towards the ocean to wait. She found a small path and followed it until it ended at a launch pad. She sat down and dangled her feet over the ocean. The sunset created a glittering path across the water, and Spider stared at it dreamily. Suddenly, she remembered the last time she had been here, and what had just happened. She reached deep into her pockets, nodded, then ran back in the direction she had come from.
"That was fast."
Spider held out the four badges - one with a blue and yellow eagle, another with a green compass with a skull, one with a red and black eye, and the last with a strange looking orange and white pyramid-like symbol. "I'm good."
Nexus Jay shrugged. "Well, you got them. Which faction do you want to join?"
"Paradox." Spider said with no hesitation. "
Are you sure?" Nexus Jay asked. "This is a permanent decision."
Spider squared her shoulders. "I'm sure."
Nexus Jay wrote something down, then asked, "Space Marauder or Sorcerer?"
Spider thought for a moment. "Umm, I'll take Sorcerer. Actually, make that Sorceress."
Chuckling, Nexus Jay scribbled something on his clipboard. "Ok, the Paradox section is behind me, the one with the same symbol as your badge. Talk to Silas, and then you can get your gear."
Spider ran past him and across the plaza towards a shop with a large red and black eye above it, a larger replica of her badge. At the sight of it, she rubbed her wrist instinctively, then snatched her hand away when she realized what she was doing. She leapt up the small flight of stairs and stopped in front of her faction rep, Silas Prenumbra. "So, you have joined the Paradox." He nodded solemnly.
Spider returned the gesture. "I have."
"Good." Silas pointed towards the shop with the eye. "Tell Growl what kit you want."
Spider walked towards the shop, but the vendor inside was stacking books, so she looked at the gear. Hats, staffs and suits were sorted neatly, but none of them matched what the vendor wore. A dark grey suit was topped with bulky shoulder pads and a helmet with a dark visor. Straightening up, the vendor removed his, no, her, helmet and ran her fingers through her hair. Seeing Spider, she said, "Hello there. I didn't hear you come in."
Spider grinned. "I'm here to pick up my kit."
"Sure thing! Which one?" The vendor placed two boxes on the counter, one with "Sorcerer" written on it, the other with "Space Marauder".
Smirking, Spider said, "Do you have Sorceress?"
The vendor laughed, then grew serious."You know, girls really don't seem to be welcome in the Nexus Force. In fact, they tried to make me keep my helmet on and change my name!"
Nodding grimly, Spider took her new gear and slipped into a fitting room to try it on. It fit perfectly. As she left, she stopped by the vendor again. "Sorry to bug you, but I forgot to ask your name. I'm Spider."
"I'm Madison. Madison Growl." Madison grinned, then put her helmet back on as Spider left. Then she gasped, and called after Spider, "Wait a minute, are you-" but Spider was already gone.
Spider ran out of the shop, and stopped as the events of the day caught up with her. Exhaustion crashed over her like a wave, and she staggered over to the nearest bench and collapsed into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Spider was rudely awakened when the bench abruptly dropped out from under her. Or, more accurately, was shot out from under her. She hit the ground with a thud, but jumped up immediately, her spiked fists held defensively in front of her. A Rank 1 Buccaneer stood in front of her, his pistol smoking. "I'm sorry, I didn't see you there." Seeing her fighting stance, he tensed and pulled out his cutlass. "Oh, you want to fight?"
Spider dropped her hands. "No, not really." She plopped down on the ground and sighed. The buccaneer walked over and tentatively sat down beside her. "You were on the Venture Explorer when she was attacked?" Spider nodded wordlessly. "Yeah, that was pretty scary." The buccaneer continued. "I was kind of worried that not everyone would make it off, but we did. Still, I almost wish that I had listened to my dad and-" he broke off suddenly and looked down.
"And what?" Spider asked gently.
"Never mind. Forget that I said anything." The buccaneer said, folding his arms.
Spider stood up, and the buccaneer did the same. He stuck out his hand. "I'm Spear, if you were wondering."
"I'm Spider." Spider reached out and shook Spear's hand.
"So," Spear said. "What d'you want to do?"
Spider shrugged, but the movement made the sleeves of her jacket itch her arms. Rubbing them, she realized how uncomfortable the whole Sorcerer outfit was after her former outfit. "Hang on a minute." she said to Spear. She ran over to the Paradox shop. Madison was nowhere to be seen. Spider re-entered the fitting rooms and quickly changed back to her old outfit - a long sleeved black shirt and loose fitting black pants. She took off her Sorcerer's hat and stared at it, then dropped it on the ground and stepped on it, grinding it until the peak was flattened. "Not the thing for me." she muttered. Then she reached into her pocket and pulled out a wad of fabric. When she shook it out, it was revealed to be a ninja hood. But it had a strange feature - the black cloth had strands of silver thread running through it, making it look as if it was draped with spider webs. "Fitting." Spider muttered as she tugged it on and tucked her hair up. Then she headed back to where she had left Spear.
He was leaning on a tree, tapping his foot and whistling a pirate tune. Spider strolled up and stopped in front of him, but he simply nodded and kept whistling. Sighing, Spider pulled her hood off and planted her hands on her hips. Spear jumped up and grinned sheepishly. "Didn't recognize you with that ninja thingy on."
Spider snorted inelegantly. "Where do you want to go?"
"Well, there's Gnarled Forest, Forbidden Valley, Avant Gardens, Nexus Tower, and Crux Prime, though Crux isn't recommended until we're higher ranked." He bounced excitedly on the balls of his feet. "So, where to first?"
"Easy. Crux Prime."
"WHAT?!" Spear gasped incredulously. "Hush, not so loud." Spider said, looking around. She put her hood back on and continued. "C'mon, it'll be an adventure."
"But-but we're not supposed to go there yet!"
"You said that it wasn't recommended, not that it wasn't allowed." She turned and started running towards a path with a billboard above it that said "Join the fight at Crux Prime!" She ran under it and slowed down, listening for Spear's footsteps.
He caught up with her as she turned the corner into the race place. "Awesome" he said, looking upwards at the race track that wound through the sky above them. "It would be epic to race up there." Spider watched as several cars sped along, contrasting starkly with the lighter sky above. As they vanished into the distance, she turned away and headed up a short ramp, stopping at the launch pad at the top.
"Well, here goes nothing." Spear said, then jumped into his rocket and took off, Spider close behind. As she raced along, she watched the various chunks of the former planet Crux drift by. Though there were many, only a few were inhabited by minifigures. Most were simply there, unexplored and alone.
The rocket lurched, and began slowing. Looking forward, Spider realized that she was about to land, but not where she had expected. Instead of sharp rocks and steep cliffs, an enormous white tower stretched upwards. And instead of Maelstrom creatures, minifigures bustled about, chatting, shopping and simply watching the crowd. Spider's rocket dumped her unceremoniously onto the ground, then shrank back to pocket size. Spider stashed it away, then jumped as a voice behind her said, "Something tells me this isn't Crux Prime." She whirled around and saw Spear, staring up at the tower with a look of awe on his face.
"Yeah, I think you're right." She quipped, and then pulled on his arm. "I also think that we need to go inside." She plunged down the ramp, through an enormous doorway, and along a hallway decorated in blue. Sentinels, she thought. Then she saw what she was looking for. A console sat in a small niche in the wall. She and Spear stared at it for a moment, then looked at each other, but stopped when they saw a knight emerge from the doorway behind them. He hefted his Powerjouster and stared at them suspiciously, then stepped up to the console.
Spider gasped, and Spear muttered "What the brick?" He stepped towards the console and stared at it, then leaned forward. Suddenly his eyes widened, and he too disappeared.
Now it was Spider's turn. As she drew closer to the console, her cocky grin was replaced by a look of shock. The little thing was pulling at her! Suddenly, everything vanished, and was replaced by darkness. Then Spider realized that she could see stars rushing by, and could hear the wind whistling through her ears. Teleportation! She spread her arms, feeling as if she was flying, when the wind stopped. She slammed into something hard, and darkness surrounded her.
Spider opened her eyes to see a star and meteorite studded sky above her. A shriek cut through the air, and she sat up quickly. She was at the top of a small drop off that led to a rocky plain swarming with Maelstrom and Nexus Force recruits. Spear stood at the edge of the drop off, looking through a pair of binoculars, apparently studying the lay of the land. Spider clambered to her feet and walked over to him, then tapped his shoulder. Spear yelped and spun around, his hand on his cutlass, but relaxed when he saw Spider. "Well, we're here. Are you ready?" Spider nodded, and Spear jumped off the cliff, flipping twice and landing on his feet. "Beat that." He called, grinning. Spider stepped back, and then launched herself up and forward. She too flipped twice, but a second before landing ducked forward and performed a somersault, ending on her feet.
"Aww, you're no fun, ninja lady." Spear said with mock grumpiness, and received an elbow to the ribs. He scowled at Spider, then they turned simultaneously to the battlefield. An open plain was surrounded by cliffs, and in the center a strange machine generated rings of light. Recruits from every faction battled Maelstrom creatures, occasionally aided by lasers positioned along the landing area.
Spider turned towards Spear, but he had vanished. Scanning the rocky plain, she saw him preparing to go head-on with a Dark Ronin. He raised his cutlass and shouted something unintelligible, then plowed into the Ronin. The infected samurai whirled around and raised its blade, but before it could strike, Spear smacked it in the side of the head, and then began slashing at its ghostly legs. Clearly surprised by his ferocity, the Ronin stared for a moment, but recovered quickly. Its katana sliced through the air and connected with Spear's arm, but the injury only seemed to infuriate the buccaneer. He whipped out his pistol, charged it, and then released the trigger. A small projectile flew out and hit the Ronin in the face. It vaporized, leaving behind a brick and a small green stamp that Spider, who by this time had reached Spear, recognized as a faction token. "Are you alright?" she asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine." he said. "That Ronin, however, is not." He picked up the brick and token and stuffed them into his pocket. However, when he withdrew his hands, he was holding a small green soda can. He popped the top open, then guzzled the contents. As he drank, the wound on his arm shrank until it disappeared.
When he was done, he crushed the can, and then chucked it at the back of an Ape's head. Spider groaned as the enormous creature turned to face them and bellowed in rage. "Ok, now you've done it." As the Ape lumbered toward them, Spear seemed to waver, but then clutched his weapons tighter. "Well, I started it, so I might as well finish it." He straightened up and shouted at the top of his voice. "Come and get it, you big oaf!"
"If we stay here, we're gonna get it too." Spider said as the Ape paused to pound on the ground and bellow again. She grabbed Spear's arm and pulled him, struggling all the while, into a gap in the wall.
As soon as Spider let go of him, Spear started shouting. "Why did you not let me fight it?" He yelled. "It would have been the biggest enemy I ever-" he broke off as a roar shook the entire planet. A roar that sounded very, very close.
As the roar died away, the two companions turned, weapons ready, but saw nothing except rock. Then, Spear whispered, "Look". Following his gaze, Spider saw a strange, flickering light. She crept forward, Spear on her heels. As she rounded the corner, she had to squint because of the sudden brightness. Narrowing the opening in her hood, Spider studied the area in front of her. "Caldera Mar," she muttered under her breath. "Indeed." Spear muttered back. The name truly fit. Meaning "The Cauldron" in the language of the First Builders, the enormous pit looked exactly like its namesake. Glowing orange, the mammoth crater was swarming with Maelstrom creatures. A few courageous minifigures that were huddled together held their own, destroying enemies left and right. But it was not the pit or what it contained that startled both Spider and Spear - it was the chunks of rock that floated weightlessly above it. "Incredible" Spider breathed.
"Yeah, how do they do that?" Spear questioned. Spider shrugged, then jumped as the roar exploded through the air again. But this time, they could see its source. A dragon was perched on a platform against the cliff that created the area's border, and was being attacked by two minifigures. A Space Marauder and Engineer, the two combined their abilities to make ferocious attacks. Spider watched in awe as they dodged fireballs, leapt shockwaves and ducked swipes of the dragon's claws. But then she noticed a crafty look in the dragon's eyes. It seemed to realize that brute strength wouldn't work. It began to coil its tail. Realizing what it was going to do, Spider leapt into action. She jumped from rock to rock, skirting along the cliff. When she reached the dragon's platform, she paused for a moment. The dragon had tightly coiled its tail, and when it released it would seriously injure, if not smash, the two minifigures. Three minifigures, Spider realized grimly, for she too could easily be struck. She quickly unstrapped her staff from her back, raised it high into the air, and then brought the sharp end down on the dragon's tail.
The dragon emitted a shriek of pain and whirled around, catching Spider's shoulder with the tip of its wing. Already close to the edge, the blow knocked Spider backwards. "Hold on!" she heard Spear yell, but couldn't find a handhold. She dangled for an agonizing moment, then slipped and plummeted downwards into the pit, landing in front of one of the most feared enemies of Crux Prime.
Spider lay still, not daring to move. Flogmore stared at her, his glowing eyes flaring and dimming rhythmically. His raspy breathing filled the air, almost drowning out the sounds of the continued combat above. Spider gradually slid her hand onto her back, seeking her staff. Then, remembering that she had been holding it when she fell, she stopped. Turning her head by degrees, she looked around. There! She started to wriggle to the side, but a grunt from Flogmore stopped her. He moved his right arm, making his hook and chain clank ominously. Spider froze, now realizing just how bad the situation was. The most powerful admiral in the universe was standing over her, and could attack at any moment. She looked at her staff, tantalizingly close, yet so far away, and then made her decision. She looked around one last time, and, seeing no one nearby, tensed and prepared to lunge for her staff. But she forgot to look up.
Flogmore suddenly crumpled to the ground as a minifigure landed on his shoulders. Spider took advantage of his momentary disability and rolled to the side, scooping up her staff and standing up in one smooth motion. Flogmore and his assailant were already on their feet, searching for an opening in the other's defenses. Spider wasn't surprised when she saw who it was. Spear ran behind Flogmore and swiped at him, then leapt backwards as the admiral spun around and sank his hook in the ground and fired his cannon. Rings of Maelstrom energy blasted out of Flogmore's left arm, and while he reeled from the power of each shot, his hook held fast. He quit firing, and his chain quickly retracted, ripping the hook from the ground. He looked around, searching for Spear. Spider lifted her staff into the air, and began summoning energy to blast Flogmore.
"Nyah nyah bet you can't find me!" A voice echoed through the pit. Spider snickered. Flogmore screeched in rage as he spun around and around, unable to see the taunter. Then Spear leapt up onto a crate with a Venture League logo on it and yelled, laughing. "Hey, you old slowpoke! Catch me if you can!"
Flogmore growled. "Surrender, for the beatings will continue until the morale improves!"
"Surrender?" Spear asked, pretending to be shocked. "No, that wouldn't be as much fun as this is!"
"Then prepare to be smashed!" Flogmore shrieked, and plunged towards the cocky buccaneer. He fired his hook at the crate, smashing it, then, as Spear leapt away, fired his cannon. But Spear turned, jumped over the wave and came down on Flogmore's chain, his cutlass smashing into it. A second energy blast came out of Flogmore's cannon, but with nothing to hold him in place, Flogmore flew backwards and smashed into a wall. Several large chunks of rock fell, hiding him from sight. Spider stared at the rubble, and then looked at Spear. He was rolling around on the ground, laughing. When he saw Spider, he stood up and staggered over to her, still laughing.
"Did - did you see that?" He gasped, bending over as he shook from more laughter. "One moment he was the big bad guy, and the next he was flying like a bird." He slapped his thigh, but Spider wasn't laughing. He looked up, and saw her staring behind him, her eyes wide.
A group of Maelstrom creatures advanced towards them. Apparently the ruckus Spear and Flogmore had created was greater than they had thought. The mob contained mostly Pirates and Admirals, eager to avenge their fallen kinsman, but there were also a few Ronin and Stromlings. A squabble erupted within the small army, and when it calmed Spider could see that some Pirates had been trampled by a Spiderling. The oversize arachnid cringed as the Pirates grunted and waved their blade-like hands, then scuttled away. The advancing Maelstrom paused, and the creatures seemed to converse in their strange grunting language. Then they turned as one to Spider and Spear, and charged. Again, Spider raised her staff. Almost immediately, it glowed with an eerie purple light. She focused, and a blast of energy shot out, vaporizing a Stromling and severely injuring two Pirates. A swift blow from Spear's cutlass dispatched them.
Then, like a tidal wave, the bulk of the evil army crashed over them with a roar. Instantly, Spider found herself fighting for her life. Two admirals on either side of her sank in their hooks and fired. Spider jumped straight up into the air, and the energy waves collided underneath her. They bounced off of each other and smashed the very Admirals that had fired them. Spider landed, and then stabbed at a Ronin's breastplate. The ghostly warrior reeled, then brought its katana down in a deadly arc, but before it could strike a sudden blast of fire consumed it and a nearby Pirate. Thinking that it was from Spear's pistol, Spider continued battling. Then she realized that his pistol wasn't capable of such a high level of damage. She turned just as another blast flew by and incinerated an Admiral and another Ronin. A large turret had been built, and was firing rapidly into the Maelstrom. She could vaguely see a minifigure inside at the controls. It seemed to be an Engineer, the very one who had been fighting the dragon. She wondered what had happened to the Space Marauder. Suddenly, purple bullets began raining down. They seemed to be aimed at the Maelstrom, but several peppered the ground around Spider. One ripped through her sleeve, tearing off a chunk. She looked up, and saw the Space Marauder, Wormholer in hand, standing on one of the elevated chunks of rock. She then stepped back against a rock pillar, to find Spear already there. Though clearly trying to stay out of the hail of bullets, he seemed to not want to leave the fight entirely. Sniping from the sidelines, he caused mayhem among the remaining Maelstrom.
Moments after the Engineer and Space Marauder joined the battle, the tide began to turn. Soon, the few remaining Maelstrom creatures fled, scattering across the glowing floor of Caldera Mar. The Space Marauder jumped down from his perch, landing heavily. His gloved hand slapped against the Engineer's in a victory celebration. "That," he shouted enthusiastically, "was awesome!"
Spider and Spear studied the two newcomers. After a moment, the Space Marauder said "Well? Can you talk? Who are you?" He gestured at the Engineer. "That's James. James McFour, if you want to be picky. And I'm Thunder."' He held out his hand to shake, but his Wormholer was too heavy for one hand. Spear jumped back as the still-spinning blades swung by. 'Hey, watch it!"
Unfazed, Thunder hefted his weapon and grinned. "Sorry 'bout that. Still getting used to her." He slapped the engine, and it coughed slightly, then resumed its gentle purring. "So," he stared at them expectantly. "Now that you know me and James-"
"James and me." Spider corrected.
"James and you?" Thunder seemed confused.
"No, James and you."
"That's what I said."
"No, you said me and James."
"I wasn't talking about you and James, I was talking about me and James."
Spider groaned and slapped her forehead, and Spear and James chuckled. "Whatever. I'm Spider."
"And I'm Spear."
"Nice to meet you guys. You know, you guys really shouldn't be here. I mean, rank two here is a stretch, but rank one..." James whistled, long and low.
Spear muttered "It's her fault."
Spider ignored him and said, hotly. "Oh, yeah? Well, how helpless would you think we are if I told you that we just defeated Admiral Flogmore?"
Thunder made a choking noise, and James' eyes bugged out. He gasped "You what?"
"I just told you, we defeated Flogmore."
"Actually, I did." Spear said. Immediately, Thunder jumped on him and started asking for details of the battle.
James looked at Spider and shook his head. "How did you-"
Spider cut him off. "Spear cut his chain."
James nodded thoughtfully, then asked. "So, have you picked up your tokens and such?"
"No, not yet."
"Well, go look. If you're lucky, Froggy, erm, Flogmore-"
Spider burst out laughing. "Where did you come up with that?!"
James seemed to be blushing behind his visor. "It wasn't me! Thunder was trying to find a way to shorten his name, and that was what he got. And, what I was GOING to say, before you INTERRUPTED me, was that he might've left his hat behind."
Still giggling, Spider stepped up to the rocks. "How are we gonna move these?" Suddenly, beams of light shot by her, and struck the boulders. However, instead of destroying them, they lifted the huge stones into the air.
"Levitation." James grunted. He was holding his hands out, controlling a small device on the ground. "Hurry."
Spider turned and began tugging at a sack that had been revealed. It was quite heavy, and she struggled to move it with no avail. Then Spear was there, and together they dragged the sack away - "Flogmore's pack." Spear huffed - and the boulders thudded to the ground. James collapsed, sweating, and pulled a vial out of his pocket. He quickly drank the contents, then tucked the empty vial and now-dark device away.
Thunder jogged up. "C'mon, let's get out of here before the Maelstrom regroups."
"Let's go then." James turned to a nearby fan and leapt into the air current, the other right behind him.
When they landed on the rocks above, Thunder turned excitedly to Spider and Spear. "All right, let's see what ya got!" Together, Spider and Spear upended the sack. Out poured coins, tokens, bricks, and various weapons. Gripping a corner, Spider shook the sack until the flow slowed and stopped. Then she dropped it, and she and Spear began sorting. The items for Spear had a slight green aura around them, and Spider's glowed red. Using that, everything was distributed quickly. Spider didn't have much. Just a couple hundred coins, about a dozen tokens, and some bricks. A glance at Spear showed that he had had much better luck. Multiple stacks of coins and tokens glittered in the pulsing light from Caldera Mar, and he was testing the edge of a wicked looking sword.
Spider sighed, and he looked at her, then at her meager rewards. "Aww, Spider, I'm sorry." She huffed out a breath, and then looked at Thunder. He seemed disappointed. "I can't believe that you didn't get Froggy's hat."
At the nickname, Spider laughed until her sides hurt. Unsure of why, but enjoying the moment, the others joined in. Spider collapsed, wiping tears from her eyes. Then, seeing the sack that had held the rewards, she reached for it. On a hunch, she reached deep inside. Her finger brushed what felt a feather. She tugged it gently, and it resisted for a moment. It seemed connected to fabric of some sort. She gripped it and pulled. It gave, and she brought it out into the dusky light of Crux Prime.
At that moment Thunder looked at her. His spluttering and pointing got the attention of Spear and James. Finally, intelligible words came out. "Flogmore's hat."
Indeed it was. Made of black felt, it was crowned with a feather that trailed purple smoke. Spider studied it for a moment, and then looked up. The others were staring at her expectantly. She reached up to pull off her ninja hood, but paused. She looked at Spear, who seemed puzzled by her slowness, then down at the hat. Leaving her hood on, she brought her hand away. Reaching out, she snatched Spear's headscarf, ignoring his exclaimed "Hey!" She threw the scarf back at him, but before he could put it back on, she plopped Flogmore's hat on his head. His jaw dropped, and Spider grinned. "Like it?" She studied him critically, head to the side and hands on hips. "I think that it looks better on you than it ever would on me."
"Wow, thanks Spider." Spear said, removing the hat for a moment and looking at it. He replaced it, and then stuffed his buccaneer scarf into his pocket. Spider shrugged, then knelt and began to tuck her coins and tokens away. Spear did the same.
Thunder came over to Spider, and she looked up. He was digging through his pockets. When he brought his hands out, they were holding a small sack. He handed it to her, and when she opened it, hundreds of tokens were revealed.
Spider protested. "But Thunder, you need these-"
He cut her off. "I stopped counting when I hit 3,000. Oh, and James wanted you to have these." He slapped several purple coins into her hand.
She had a feeling that he winked at her as she stood up, bounty tucked away, then the companions walked shoulder to shoulder towards Sentinel Point Zeta.
The trip back to Nexus Tower was uneventful. Spider had a better landing, and James and Thunder seemed to be veterans at teleportation. But they had hardly started down the hallway when an Assembly member ran up to them. "Augie!' James exclaimed as he skidded to a stop.
"James! Thunder!" Augie said cheerfully, slapping James on the back and elbowing Thunder. Once Thunder quit his pretended death throes, Augie nodded to Spider and Spear. "And who might you be?"
Spear stepped forward and held out his hand. "I'm Spear, and this is Spider." Spider nodded, testing to make sure her staff was secure on her back.
"Nice to meet you two." Augie shook Spear's hand, and then turned back to James. "Sorry to take you away from your buddies, but Overbuild called a meeting, and you need be there."
James half laughed, half sighed. "Don't I always? Being second-in-command of the Assembly can be a drag, but it does have its perks." Several bricks were extracted from his pocket, and once they were snapped together turned into a small robot. He laid his Serratorizers on a tray that it held, then removed his helm, revealing short black hair with a slight wave to it. He grinned. "Cute, isn't it?"
Spider gave a short huff of laugher, and then said. "Well, I guess you'd better be going to your meeting."
"Yeah, I guess. Bye guys. And girls." James winked at Spider, and she laughed. James and Augie walked away, the little robot that still held James' Serratorizers trailing behind.
Thunder sighed. "Well, what now?"
After a moment of silence, Spear said. "I'd like to go to Gnarled Forest."
"Then Gnarled Forest it is!" And the three were off.
Spider turned to go up the ramp where she and Spear had landed not too long ago, but Thunder stopped her. "C'mon, I'm gonna show you a shortcut." He continued down the hall, the decorations changing to green, with huge holographic maps on the walls. He ran up a staircase, the others hot on his heels. Suddenly he vanished. A second later the room they were in shook with a massive blast. Spider braced herself against a wall until the tremors faded. Spear looked slightly shell-shocked.
Laughing at his expression, Spider said. "It's a space cannon, pirate boy. I saw it in the blueprints."
Spear's mouth gaped wider, but Spider didn't stop to think why. She stepped onto a raised platform, and was beamed up into an enormous cannon. An ear-splitting blast echoed around her, and she flew through the air, skidding across a ledge, and then stopping nearly at the feet of the infamous space pirate Hael Storm. She jumped up as Spear landed right where she had been a moment ago. He gasped. "Spider, we have to-"
"Catch him!" She pointed at Thunder, who had made a glowing square of Imagination. He dove through, vanishing instantly. Fearful of losing him, Spider did the same. Again, she felt the thrilling rush of teleportation. Then she landed, stumbling slightly. Thunder steadied her. The air behind her quivered then seemed to push Spear out. Eyes wild, he grabbed Spider's arm. "Why did you say that? That you'd seen the blueprints?"
Flustered, Spider stammered "I - I don't know." Thunder and Spear were both staring at her. "It just came out. I don't know why." She looked down. Thunder mused "It could be possible."
"What?" Spider said flatly.
"You could be-" He broke of as three minifigures materialized one after the other beside them.
'What?" Spider said again, slightly more interested.
"Not here," he said. "Let's go to Gnarled Forest. There are plenty of places there were we can talk in private."
The three of them started down a ramp that led to yet another landing platform. A second ramp took them to a runway that connected to the main building. It was big, but not as big as Nexus Tower. Mechanics fiddled with wires, and clusters of minifigures chatted, though most of them landed then immediately took off again at a different launch pad. That seemed to be what Thunder was planning on. He went straight to the launch pad closest to the building, and then whipped out his miniscule rocket model. It was quite flashy, in a dark way. Sleek and black, with red here and there, it was clearly a specially designed Paradox rocket. Spider's Pod rocket was quite bland in comparison.
Spear brought out his Classic rocket, expanded it, and leapt into the cockpit. Spider was right behind him. Once she settled in and was off, she turned, looking for Thunder. She could barely see his rocket behind her. Looking forward again, she searched for Spear's rocket, but couldn't find it among the scattered stars and planet chunks. Shrugging, she turned up the radio and settled back for the ride.
It seemed like no time at all before her rocket slowed and tipped, depositing her on a raised platform. Putting her rocket pieces away was an easy and familiar task by now. Looking around, the first thing that hit her was the noise. Calling birds, rushing water and an occasional unearthly screech filled the air. Massive trees surrounded the platform where she stood, and stretched as far as she could see. Colorful mushrooms sprouted on the ground at the base of the landing ramp. A minifigure in a green and white suit was standing not far from a fork in the path, but he didn't seem lost. Instead, his bored manner suggested that he had been posted there.
The roar of a rocket stopped Spider's survey. She stepped to the side as Thunder landed. He had removed his helm during the flight, revealing short brown hair and a cheerful face. He looked around and saw Spider, but his gaze was puzzled. He asked, "Where's Spear?'
At that moment, Spider realized that he was not on the launch pad. Looking around, she realized that he was nowhere in sight.
Together, Spider and Thunder searched above and below the landing platform, but to no avail. Spear was nowhere to be seen. "Let's ask him if he saw Spear." Spider pointed at the minifigure that stood on the forest floor. The two of them ran towards him, hoping that he would know where their friend had gone.
"Excuse me," Spider slid to a stop next to the minifigure. A name tag on his green and white uniform said, "Hugo First". Under that, in smaller letters, was, "Venture League Grunt". Spider wondered if that was his rank, or if it referred to his method of communication: when he saw her and Thunder he simply grunted in acknowledgement. "Excuse me," Spider said again. "We're looking for a rank one buccaneer. Have you seen him?"
"Hmm," Hugo looked up thoughtfully. "Come to think of it, I have."
"Where? Which way did he go?"
"Well, I'd say about seven have come and gone today alone."
"He would have landed just a couple of seconds before we did."
Hugo guffawed. "Lil' lady, us Venture Leaguers are quick on our feet, but nobody but maybe a ninja could get down and away that fast, let alone without me noticing 'em."
Spider was crestfallen. A glance a Thunder proved that he too was disappointed. "So, do you have any idea where he could be? We saw him put his rocket on the very launch pad we put ours on."
Hugo thought for a long time, so long that Spider began to wonder if he had fallen asleep. Finally he said, "Did he have a pirate hat on?"
"No." Spider said.
At the same time, Thunder said, "Not a normal one. He was wearing Flogmore's though."
For a moment, the thought of a rank one buccaneer with Flogmore's hat seemed to surprise Hugo, and then he said, "In that case, he must've gone to the pirate camp. Don't ask me how it works, but whenever someone wears a pirate or admiral hat their rocket goes to the pirate camp instead of here."
"Thanks!" And with that Spider and Thunder were off running. Thunder was in the lead, and had a good pace going, but suddenly he stopped and threw his arms out, stopping Spider. The two of them were standing at the edge of a huge ravine. A broken bridge swayed gently. Creeping up to the edge of the drop-off, Spider's view of the bottom was obscured by a constantly shifting mist, though she could hear rushing water.
She stepped back and looked at Thunder. He winked at her, and then put on his helm. "Come on," he said, grabbing her arm. Before she could react, he leapt off the cliff, pulling her with him.
"Freefall!" Thunder's gleeful voice echoed throughout the ravine, for a moment drowning out the sound of the water they were plunging towards. Instinctively, Spider relaxed and spread her arms and legs a moment before she smacked into a hand surface. Clambering to her feet, she saw that they had landed on a platform that was situated on a thick support, surrounded by rushing water. Flaming skulls sent beams of light though the thin fog. Thunder was grinning. "Didn't expect a solid landing, did ya?"
Spider snorted. She wasn't entirely pleased with how Thunder had yanked her over the jump, but at least she wasn't wet. The clicking of bricks caught her attention, and she turned to see Thunder finishing a trampoline-like contraption. Nodding towards it, he said, "Climb on."
Doing as he said, Spider found herself flying through the air. She landed on a rock ledge, Thunder right behind her. Going ahead of her, he took several large bounds downwards, Spider right behind him. They ended up near a large tunnel. Plunging into the darkness, Spider began to feel a sense of foreboding. There seemed to be a strong source of evil ahead.
Emerging from the tunnel, Spider and Thunder froze. Above an aimlessly wandering group of Maelstrom pirates, a one-eyed stone face glared down at the two Paradox members. Spider shivered as the lone red eye seemed to fasten on her, and a wave of fear crashed over her. Legs quivering, she stumbled forward. Looking at Thunder, she saw that he too was being affected by the sculpture's gaze. Shaking, Spider stepped forward and raised her staff defiantly. The eye continued to batter her with fear. Pirates turned towards her, and began to shuffle over. Purple bullets from Thunder's Wormholer began to stream by her, mowing down pirate after pirate.
The fear became stronger, and both minifigures gasped. Thunder slowly went down on his knees, and Spider's arm began to ache from holding up her staff.
Pirates began to close in. One reached out with a corroded arm, waving a bladed hand. Weakly, Spider smacked it away. Her strength was almost gone, and Thunder was shaking. "It's never...done this...before," he gasped.
Suddenly, a shout echoed off of the rocks, and Spider found herself surrounded by blue flames. Feeling restored, she straightened up. A rank three daredevil stood next to her, his suit flaming with Imagination. "Stay close to me," he said, and together they darted over to Thunder. He stood up, and then leveled his Wormholer at the pirate horde. Together, he and the daredevil cleared a path, using Wormholer and Rutcarver. Pirates began to fall back. Finally, they reached an open area, and sprinted away. But as the daredevil's flames faded, so did Spider's strength. She began to feel dizzy, but fought the urge to rest.
Seeming to sense her fatigue, the daredevil stopped in a grassy area. "Rest," he said. "It should get rid of the fear residue. We can talk later." Gratefully, Spider curled up in the soft grass, and dozed off.
The first thing Spider heard was rushing, pounding water. There seemed to be a lot of that in Gnarled Forest. Then she began to hear whispered voices. "It was the weirdest thing that ever happened to me here. Or anywhere, for that matter."
"I'll say. I've never seen anything like it."
"Then how did you know that Fig on Fire would destroy the effects?"
"I didn't." From the voice, the speaker was grinning. "It was a wild guess."
"It would seem that the Imagination in the flames countered whatever that thing was doing." The two speakers grew quiet. Then, "When do you think she's going to wake up?"
"How about now?" Spider sat up, rubbing her head.
Thunder jumped to his feet. "Spider! You're alive!"
"Of course I am." Spider mumbled grumpily.
The daredevil knelt beside her. "Here, drink this." He uncorked a clear vial and handed it to her. Sipping it hesitantly, Spider's eyes widened. The daredevil laughed. "Good, isn't it? I made it myself. A mixture of the different faction drinks, and a bit of Notion Potion. I almost blew myself up with the first one, but since then I've perfected the recipe."
Spider finished the contents of the vial and began to put it into her pocket. The daredevil put out his hand to stop her. "Actually, I keep those. Clean 'em, and then refill 'em." Spider gave him the vial. He grinned, then said, "Your friend and I are already introduced, but since you were asleep, I'm Crash. And you're Spider?"
"Hmm-hmm." Spider hummed a yes.
"And I also take it you're looking for a friend?"
Spider jumped to her feet. "Yes, have you seen him?"
"Sorry, but no. However, Thunder and I have been talking, and we've decided to head towards Brig Rock. It's the next big landmark."
"Well, I'm ready to go."
Thunder hefted his Wormholer. "Same here."
"Then off we go!" Crash flipped out his flareguns, burst into flames and was off.
Soon they reached a rainy area. The cold drops stung Spider's face, and she narrowed her eyes and tightened her hood.
The group scrambled up a dilapidated staircase, leaping over gaps. When they reached an area where they could either continue up, or stop, they stopped. Cliffs surrounded the area on three sides, and on the fourth was a sheer drop and the staircase.
"Here we spend the night." Crash fired his flareguns at a pile of sticks and leaves, and they burst into flames. Thunder put down his Wormholer and promptly went to sleep. Crash smiled. "We don't need a watch here. This is a safe area." A moment later he too dozed off.
But after her earlier nap, Spider wasn't that tired. So she wandered off, towards the staircase they had come up. Sitting near the drop off, she watched the glowing red eyes of Maelstrom creatures move about underneath her. Flares of a purer light showed that Nexus Force recruits still fought in the darkness. After a while, Spider slowly dozed off.
Spider awoke tied and gagged with her own hood. She began to struggle furiously, but could not loosen her bonds. Soon, exhausted, she lay still, her mind racing. Since she had slept away from the protection of the fire, something had captured her. Something intelligent, to have tied her this well. Squirming, she looked at her bonds. They were thick vines, with large knots. She could feel a sore spot on her head. That must be how she had been carried here and not woken up.
She looked around. She was in a wooden shack, empty except for bits of splintery driftwood. A desperate idea sparking, Spider rolled over to the largest piece, then began to rub the vine around her wrists against it. She gave a hissed exclamation as splinters stuck her wrists, but kept rubbing. When she couldn't stand the splinters any more, she stopped, then braced her arms and pulled. The vines groaned, and then the knot slipped slightly. By twisting her arms back and forth, Spider slipped her bonds off, and then quickly untied her gag and ankle bonds. Standing up, she hopped from foot to foot to loosen up and surveyed her situation. Her staff was gone, and she had no idea where her friends were. Peering out of a crack in the wall, she scanned the area. The shack was on the beach, with several others nearby. She sucked in a quick breath when she saw the minifigures here—pirates. No way could she get out through the door. Walking to the back of the shack, she looked through another crack, and then smiled. No pirates back here, and she was fairly close to the trees. But she didn't dare break down the wall. Looking up, she nodded. The planks in the roof looked loose—she could climb up onto the roof, then drop down outside. Tugging her hood on, she realized that there was no way to get on the roof. Then her eyes widened and she grinned as she clenched her hands into fists. She stepped up to the wall and reached up, then smacked the backs of her fists on the wall. The spikes on her gloves bit into the wood, and she heaved herself up. Moving her hands up one by one, she scaled the wall, then pushed up several planks and scrambled onto the roof. She stayed low, even though others didn't normally look up. She jumped lightly off the back, and then darted for the cover of the trees. Once there, she listened for a moment. No sounds of pursuit, yet. Sliding soundlessly through the jungle, she stopped when she heard familiar voices. It was Thunder and Crash. They were talking to someone with an accent that sounded like a pirate. Grimacing, Spider peeked out of the trees. Thunder and Crash had their backs to her, and were facing a minifigure with the most impressive beard spider had ever seen. After staring at it for a moment, Spider began to pick up bits of the conversation.
Thunder was saying, "We last saw her last night."
"Yeah," Crash said. "She seemed kind of restless though."
The pirate said, "And ye say that she be a ninja in black?"
Crash and Thunder nodded eagerly.
"Well, me men just picked up someone by that very description. She be down in that shack." He pointed at the shack that Spider had just escaped from.
Grinning, she stepped into the open and said, imitating his accent, "No, she don't be!"
Crash and Thunder simultaneously shouted, "Spider!" The pirate gawked at her. "Bu-but-how?"
"Ninjas always have multiple tricks up their sleeves." Spider smirked.
Scowling, the pirate said, "Me and me men don't like being outsmarted."
"Well, today it happened. I guess your egos will eventually get over it."
"Hmph," the pirate grumped, then said, "I suppose you'll be wantin' this back." He gestured towards a female pirate that stood a little ways away, and she ran up, holding Spider's staff. Smiling almost kindly, she held the staff out, and Spider took it gratefully.
Turning to Crash, she said, "I think that I'd better go. I'm not welcome here. But since we haven't found Spear yet, I'm asking you to stay behind and look for him. If you find him, tell him that you're a friend of Spider and Thunder. We'll be in the Forbidden Valley."
Suddenly, pictures filled her mind. In slideshow fashion, she saw soaring grey cliffs, dark clouds overhead, and deadly chasms and drop-offs, all surrounding a majestic tree. Rising above everything else, buildings nestled in its branches, surrounded by fluttering red leaves. Then her mind snapped back to the present, with her friends staring at her. Crash said, "Sure, but are you all right? You kinda checked out for a minute there."
"I'm fine," she mumbled, then said, louder, "C'mon Thunder, let's go."
With a wave to Crash, the two Paradox members connected their rockets and were off to Nimbus Station.
The ride was brief, and so was their time in Nimbus Station. Spider bought some Rank two gear at Thunder's insistence, so when they stood by the Forbidden Valley launch pad, Spider was carrying a stronger staff and an orb.
Thunder sighed contentedly. "Quite a view, eh?"
"Yeah," Spider murmured. They were standing on a ridge, overlooking all of Nimbus Station. After a moment, she shouted, "Last one to the Valley is a stinky fish!" Whipping out her rocket, she blasted off, Thunder right behind her. She noticed that he tugged on a ninja hood before taking off.
She landed on the tree. Surrounded by leaves and twinkling lights, she felt sure she had come home. Thunder landed behind her. "Ugh...guess I'm the fish." Then his face twisted into a devious grin, and he said, "But not if I can beat you to Cavalry Hill!" And he leapt off the tree.
Even before Thunder's gleeful laugh had faded, Spider was leaping off after him. Twisting in midair, she landed on a lower portion of the tree. Thunder was already streaking away. Spider sprinted after him. As she ran, she began to feel different. It was probably just her imagination (no pun intended), but the longer she was in the Valley, the more her senses sharpened, and the more she felt as if she about to learn something important.
A ghostly hissing caught her attention, and she looked around. A pair of eyes glittered in the shadows, but didn't move. Spider continued down the path. She could see Thunder ahead. He was at the top of a small staircase, about to leap into an air current. Putting on a burst of speed, Spider reached the staircase and started up, when she slammed into someone. "Sorry," she murmured, and started to go around. A katana blocked her way, and she looked up.
Grim Daisho seemed to smile down at her. "Please, don't go." Spider started to back up, but Grim said, "Why so afraid, Lady Spider, Ronin's Bane?"
His words resonated through Spider's mind, beginning to trigger memories. But before she could begin to sort through them, Grim's katana slashed downwards.
Ducking away, Spider asked, "What are you doing here, Crux spawn?"
Grim hissed angrily. "I am here on a mission for myself. I seek revenge for all of my kinsmen that you have slain. I seek to eliminate you." His blade cut through the air again, but this time Spider was ready. Hoping that her gloves were still as strong as she remembered, she reached out, grabbing the blade of Grim's katana. With a quick twist, she wrenched it away and hurled it over a nearby cliff. With a parting kick to Grim's breastplate, she leapt into the air current. She heard the Ronin wail in anger as she landed on the other side.
Thunder was waiting for her, leaning on what looked like a small altar. "What took so long?"
"I met an old friend," Spider said sarcastically. But Thunder wasn't listening. Instead, he was gaping at something beneath them. In a moment, Spider understood why.
Ronin and horsemen were milling about underneath them, most of them staring up at her. "Oh, no," she said. "No, no, no." She stumbled backwards, bumping into the altar Thunder had been leaning on. At her touch, the top sprang open, revealing a silver-edged katana and a strange looking blaster.
Thunder gasped, "No way!"
Barely hearing him, Spider reached towards the weapons, in a trance. The moment she touched them, they seemed to hum with life. The floodgates in her mind opened, and she began to remember everything—her full name, her family, her past successes in the Force. Then a memory, stronger and darker than the rest hit her—her last day before her lost memory—and she blacked out.
Voices and pictures drifted in and out of Spider's mind, some of them recent, some from long ago. Then a deep, resonating voice said, "I know you are awake, little one." She went limp, but an amused chuckle made her open her eyes slightly. She was lying on the floor of an enormous cavern, its sides riddled with tunnels. A man in black stood over her. Recognizing his face, she couldn't stifle her gasp.
The man smiled sadly. "So, you recognize me?"
Spider nodded and sat up, scooting backwards slightly.
The Baron watched her. "Don't worry Spider, I won't harm you. Not now, at least." He laughed bitterly, looking at his hands. "Oh, the destruction that these have caused. And this." He tapped the side of his head. "I was so foolish, thinking that I could make something so chaotic and powerful, and get away with it, and control it." He cursed and pounded a fist into his palm. Spider flinched slightly. "I'm sorry, Spider. It's probably good that you awoke when you did. Currently I am having one of my few sane moments. Mostly, though, I am that power-hungry maniac that everyone says I am." The Baron sighed, seeming genuinely upset. "But even now, during these moments when I wish to be a normal minifigure again, I cannot leave this place. I alone know the chant, the password, to exit this place, and you cannot work it on yourself."
Spider was suddenly hopeful that she might actually see her friends and family again. But the Baron's next words shattered that. "However, leaving this place is not as easy as entering it. In fact, you will probably lose your memories as you pass through the final barriers."
Spider was torn. She could return to the universe she knew and loved, but at a cost. She would no longer know anything that she knew now. After a moment, she said, "Send me back. Though I might end up wandering the universe unknown to all, including myself, there is always the chance that I will meet someone who knew me, and who can trigger the return of my memories."
The Baron smiled, and reached down to pull Spider to her feet. He placed his hands on her shoulders, but before he spoke the words to send her back, he said, "I admire your strength and resourcefulness, little one. Use them well." With that, he muttered a few words under his breath and stepped away. There was a flash of light, then several more, then nothing.
Spider woke to violent shaking. "Spider, wake up!" It was Thunder's voice, and he had a firm grip on her shoulder. Without opening her eyes, she smacked his hand away. Thunder yelped, then shouted, "Hey guys, she's up and hitting! I think she's fine!"
Spider stood up. Who was Thunder talking to?
Spider knew that voice. "Spear!" She whirled around to see her buccaneer friend grinning and holding a smoking pistol. "I've been sniping at the bad boys down there," he gestured down the cliff, "while you were dreaming or whatever."
"Not dreaming. Recovering memories."
"Okay, and now that you've got them?" It was Crash, leaning against the altar with the weapons. HER weapons. Picking them up, she grinned as they seemed to adjust themselves to her grip. Looking at her friends, she smiled, "Last one to the Tower is a stinky fish?"
"Again?" Thunder groaned.
The four of them laughed, and together they raced off.
As they landed at the Nexus Tower, Spider once again was awed by the majesty of the enormous creation. She sighed happily as fond memories of its creator scrolled though her mind. Doc juggling, using all four hands...Doc trying to teach his robotic dog to build...Doc giving a complicated lecture as the other faction leader dozed off from boredom, while Spider watched through a window, snickering. Then, as the memories faded, she started down the ramp after her friends. When they reached Nexus Naomi, the hologram smiled. "Welcome to Nexus Tower. Can I help you?"
"Nope, we're fine," Spider said. "Though, do you know the fastest way to the Paradox Study?"
At that, Crash grinned. "I can find out."
Spider raised an eyebrow, wondering what the daredevil had in mind.
"Actually, it'll take all of us. You and Thunder head through the Core, and Spear and I'll each take a side. Whoever gets to the Paradox Study first, their way is fastest. Got it? Let's go!"
The four spilt up, Crash to the right, Spear to the left, and Spider and Thunder straight. "And no special Venture stuff, you two!" Thunder hollered after the departing buccaneer and daredevil as he and Spider sped towards the Map Room.
"Aww, man!" Spear's voice echoed back to them. Chuckling, they raced along their route, weaving around startled minifigures. One shouted, laughing, "Hey, where's the fire?"
Thunder pointed at Spider in response, and she thumped him. The minifigure laughed again, shaking his head. When they reached the portals, a silent agreement passed between them, and they split up. Spider smiled as she stepped in—she had helped design these. They were perfect for the Paradox—if there were an accidents, no Maelstrom could pass through these. She smashed, then rebuilt, grimacing. She had to admit, it wasn't her favorite thing to do. As she neared the next portal, she saw a daredevil step in.
"Crash!" she shouted.
"Huh?" He turned to look at her.
"No, literally, crash!" At that moment, Spider, going too fast to stop, skidded into Crash. They smashed, then rebuilt simultaneously on the other side.
"I think I got your hand," Crash mumbled. When Spider looked at his hand, he started laughing. A moment later Spider joined in, then Spear and Thunder, who had come from the other side.
When everyone had calmed down, Spear asked, "So, who won?"
"I say that that race was invalid," Crash said, giving Spider a look. She could barely hold back another wave of laughter. But then she saw something that made it easy.
Vanda Darkflame sat in her usual spot, leaning against a wall, polishing her katanas. In the dim light, the purple streak in her hair glowed a vibrant amethyst. It illuminated her face, showing the lines of care and sorrow that had begun to mark her face.
Spider shook her head. This wasn't the Vanda that she remembered. She remembered Vanda laughing, her face clear and eyes bright. Slowly she walked up to her, and knelt down. The leader of the Paradox looked at her and jumped to her feet, suddenly all business. "Yes, welcome to the Paradox."
"Hello, Vanda. Remember me?" Spider hoped that she did, otherwise she would get thrown out and considered crazy.
Vanda regarded her suspiciously. "Maybe. Who are you?"
Spider took a deep breath. She hadn't told her friends this yet, and turned to see if they were listening. They were standing close behind her, faces alight with anticipation. She turned back, and pulled off her hood.
Vanda gasped, and slowly reached out to touch Spider's face. Spider smiled gently. "It can't be," Vanda murmured. "They told me you were dead."
"Well, they were wrong." And with that, Spider Darkfire stepped forward to hug her cousin, Vanda Darkflame.
Epilogue Sighing, Spider leaned against the balcony railing. She stared out over Crux Prime, watching miniscule figures move about. Stepping over to a set of binoculars, she peered through and scanned the landscape beneath her. In Sentinel Point Zeta, several minifigures took refuge under a shield generator. Above Caldera Mar, Roo Morg pounded his chest in fury as a quartet of minifigures darted in and out, swiping at him whenever they came close. At the quarry, a minifigure attempted to tame a skeleton dragon while another attacked a skeleton watchtower, surrounded by whirling snow and ice.
Spider stepped away from the binoculars and smiled. Spinjitzu had been around before her memory wipe, but just the Imagination kind. Now she wanted to try out this elemental stuff.
Looking down at her wrist, which was clearly visible with the short-sleeved shirt she was wearing, she rubbed the red-black symbol etched on it. The symbol of the Paradox faction, it signified her loyalty and background.
A knock drew her inside. She opened the door to see a group of good friends: Spear, Crash, James, Thunder, Vanda, and a Space Marauder named Yonder. He was a good friend of Vanda's, and had come with her one day when she was visiting Spider.
With all of the minifigures, and the space of Spider's suite, a party was soon in full swing. Soon, others that she and her friends knew started to drop by. It wasn't long before everyone she knew, even distantly, was there.
Leaning back in her chair, Spider watched an arm wrestling competition in the corner. A female knight was taking on opponent after opponent, but finally met her match in Crash. Thunder and Yonder were leaning against a wall, talking about various valiant weapons. An adventurer brought out a tray of snacks, and was promptly mobbed. And Hael's parrot circled above it all, chirping out things like, "Shiver me timbers!" and "Monies! Gold monies!"
Vanda came up behind Spider and said, "I'm so glad your back."
Spider just smiled. She was glad too. After searching through the shadows, she had finally found the light. She was home.