In which a trial by time still goes on.
In the meantime, Atroxia woke with a start and looked about. It was mid-afternoon. Atroxia stretched herself, and Mo woke up soon after. "The battle!" Atroxia exclaimed.
"It's starting soon," Mo said. "Let's get back."
"Right on," replied Atroxia. The two fighters climbed down from the tree and began walking back to the neighborhood.
As Mo and Atroxia walked, the red lion asked him, "Aren't you worried about this battle? I saw the mutants, they don't look easy to fight, at all."
"Worrying won't do you much good," Mo replied. "All you can do is be careful. Curb's idea was to take them out at a distance, basically."
"Mo... I've got to say this," Atroxia paused. Mo looked at her as she gathered the courage to speak. "It would be a pity if you got killed in this battle."
"Same if you were dead."
"What do you mean?" Atroxia wondered, her large black eyes fixed on Mo.
"It's sappy, but I'd be in a living hell if you were dead, as well as the rest of the town."
"Because the revolution would be over before you know what's next," Atroxia sighed. She looked up at the sky. "I don't want all this effort to go to waste."
"Where are you from, anyway?" Mo asked bluntly.
"You know I'm a stranger," Atroxia replied, stopping in her tracks. "Ok, would you believe me? My story is too bizarre."
"I'd ask for proof."
"Don't be too shocked," said Atroxia. "I was sent here, with my sister and the tall blue lady, by a sorcerer to help your town out. Being the Hercules of our time, so to speak."
"Hercules had to perform more than one task back then, didn't he?" Mo said in surprise.
"It's our third task. The sorcerer only gave us four tasks to perform," Atroxia explained. "Please don't think I'm a goddess, or anything like that."
Mo folded his arms. "I hope wherever you came from was much nicer than this wreck, Attie," he said.
Atroxia swallowed, and said, "You'd probably consider my time heaven."
"Better than this wasteland, at any rate. If you were a goddess, though, you'd just appear when you felt like it, or have stopped the Ashen War in the first place!" Mo said bitterly. "You're not a goddess, obviously, if you needed the help of a mage to send you here. The fallout hasn't fried my head yet."
"I wouldn't make a great goddess anyway," Atroxia muttered, and kicked at the sand with her foot.
Mo clenched his hands, then relaxed. "I wonder, could you show me what the past was like, after you save this town?"
"What about Curb? I don't think he'd want to see you go so soon."
"No, I'm not, I'm not going to abandon him. He's been practically a father to me after the Ashen War. I'm sorry if I made you think that," Mo looked down at his feet in shame.
Atroxia went up to Mo and put a hand on his shoulder. "Tell him if you still want to follow me back. I hope he understands," she said.
Mo looked up at the red lion, hugged her, and said, "He might, but I don't want him to think I'm the kind to run away."
"If you've been helping him all this time, he hasn't got much reason to say that you're a coward," said Atroxia. "Still, we'd better get back before the others start looking for us."
"Can't exactly distract them with our newfound closeness, can we?" Mo quipped, and Atroxia chuckled softly in reply. The two thin fellows let go of each other, then scurried back to Curb's hovel.
Mo and Atroxia got back to Curb's hovel, just as Artisa went out to look for her twin sister. "You're back!" Artisa shouted, waving her arms. "Quick, get inside!"
The gunman and the red lion promptly entered. Curb was there. The old man now had armor made from old metal scraps covering his torso. "I hope you had a good rest, Mo," the old man said.
"I did," Mo replied. Atroxia tried to act her usual tough self.
"That's good. We're going to launch the attack at five p.m," said Curb.
Hera looked into the room. "Got speakers?" she asked. "Preferably big ones!"
"Striker has some," Curb replied. "Mo, could you go ask him for the large speakers?"
"Alright, Curb." The sandy-haired wastelander got up and left the hovel. Hera squeezed into the room and sat on the floor, just to avoid knocking her head on the ceiling.
Moments later, Mo returned and said, "Striker can help us set up the speakers in the desert by the Ridges, but he needs transport to help carry the speakers there."
Curb looked at the lion twins and Hera. "Time for the Dollarean," the old man said.
The twins went over to him. "Can we come?" Stick asked.
Curb replied, "This battle's a bit too large for you to get into."
"But uncle," Stick whined in a wobbly voice. "We wanna help!"
Her brother looked up at Curb, with big, big eyes. The old man patted the kids' heads.
Mo spoke to the kids, "This isn't a game, and Curb's right, it's too large for you to help out."
The kids looked very sad, and sank to the ground. Atroxia patted Mo's shoulder, and he turned to look at her. "What is it, Attie?" he asked.
"Couldn't they help out at the end?" the red lion asked him. The wastelander kids stared at her.
"But they're kids! What can they do?" Mo protested.
"If they don't fool about, they can help throw grenades, or keep an eye out for the mutants," Atroxia said. She felt that was the most she had ever said, then she began to feel very foolish.
"Please, uncle, we promise we won't be silly," Stone pleaded and tugged on Curb's shirt.
"I know you two won't be, I'm just worried that someone will have to look after you if you can't help out in the battle."
"Well, sir," Atroxia began. "They could help by throwing grenades at the mutants?"
"We'll be really careful, we'll stay close to you!" Stick cried and looked at the old man. She looked with puppy eyes at Mo, who relented and nodded.
"Alright, then, kids. You can follow us to the battle," Curb said.
Artisa looked at her twin sister. "How did you get a way with words?" she thought. "Or is that a way with kids?"
Mo put his arm around the red lion's thin shoulders. "Hey, don't do that," Atroxia hissed at him.
Mo quickly took his arm away. "Just wanted to say you're a good friend," he said. They heard loud shouting from outside.
"Who can drive this?" Striker shouted from outside the hovel. Hera squeezed out of the hovel and saw the scarred wastelander pacing beside the Dollarean.
"I know someone who can. Three, in fact, though that doesn't include me," Hera said, and squeezed back into the hovel. She called to the lions and General Smash. They followed her, and Curb did too. Mo and the wastelander kids looked out curiously.
"Get everyone here, for one last briefing," Curb said to Sump, who had just arrived at the hovel.
"Yes, sir," Sump replied and ran back to the neighborhood. Striker began loading the parts for the sound system into the back of the Dollarean. General Smash, who had just turned up, began helping the scarred wastelander to load the parts.
Finally, the wastelanders who had volunteered for the battle were gathered in front of Curb's hovel. The lion twins, Hera, Mo, and General Smash were sitting next to Curb, while the other wastelanders were sitting and facing the elderly man. "Look, this is the final briefing of our plan of attack for the mutants in the sewer. I suggest that you pay attention," Curb said to everyone, even the two wastelander kids walking nearby. "We're going to draw the mutants out of their main entrance in the Ridge Valley."
"Now, it would be best if the fire was lined up all along the valley. I suggest that all of you get into groups of two or three, and each group lines up along the valley like this..." Curb began explaining to the audience, pointing to the diagram he had drawn once more in the sand.
"Shouldn't there be something to slow the mutants down? We can't afford to have them run all the way to the end of the valley and try to climb up," Sump remarked.
"Scatter mines here, as I mentioned before," Curb said and pointed at the large arrow in the middle of the diagram. "We'll have to set up everything, leaving the sound system for last."
"Curb, who's going to attract the mutants, if Trina's singing is not loud enough to do that?" Mo asked the old man. Curb looked concerned.
"I don't want to risk any of your lives, we need all the hands we can get," the old man said quietly.
"Ask that woman in the white shirt and black pants?" Mo whispered to Curb.
"You, miss?" Curb immediately asked Artisa, who stood up.
"Yes sir?" she asked.
Mo whispered to Curb, "She could make things come to life, just by drawing them."
"Really, now?" Curb whispered back. He spoke loudly to Artisa, "What can you do to help, by drawing, or anything else?"
Artisa shifted on her feet, and said, "I might not be a very good shot, unlike Hera, but I could draw something that can distract the mutants from attacking us."
"That's fair enough, but can you throw well?" Curb asked.
"I could, sir."
"At least you could do something," the old man said, and began talking about the mines. In short, he said that after placing the mines, the mine-men should quickly find sniping positions along the ridge, in small groups like the rest of the wastelanders.
After the briefing, the volunteers got ready to leave. Striker brought some irradiated potatoes in a sack. "You can't eat them!" Atroxia snorted in annoyance, though the scarred wastelander stuffed the sack into the boot of the Dollarean.
"Attie, those are a source of electricity," Mo explained to her.
"I don't see how," Atroxia retorted.
"Kind of a long story. If we ever get out of here alive, I'll tell you more."
"Hey! Get a move on!" Hera shouted. She squeezed into the car with some difficulty. Mo and Atroxia leapt onto the top of the car, and hung on there. The sandy-haired wastelander checked that his trusty gun was with him. Artisa climbed into the back of the car, and had no choice but to lean partly on Hera, and sit on the floor. Everyone else was ready to go.
The Dollarean drove over the plains, with General Smash at the wheel. The lion twins, Mo, and Hera were piled in the car, as well as Striker. The rest of the wastelanders rode their motorbikes, keeping up with the car. Curb and the wastelander kids rode their motorbike in the middle of the group. Trina stayed behind with the other traders that didn't go.
It took some time, but the entourage arrived at the Ridge. Everyone got down or out from their vehicles, and the six men who had volunteered to scatter the mines did just that. The mine-men crept close to the sewer's larger entrance, and began placing the mines. The mines were buried with a thin layer of sand over them, to hide the mines from the mutants' eyesight.
"Not like they had much to see with, in the first place," one of the mine-men whispered.
"Quiet!" another mine-man hissed. "Do you want to ruin the plan?" he whispered harshly. The first mine-man shook his head, and they continued their work.
Mo bowed his head to Curb, who was surveying the valley. "I'm going to the part of the ridge closest to the entrance, with Atroxia," he said. The old man nodded and waved him on. Curb continued directing the wastelanders to their positions. In the end, the ones who could shoot better were concentrated on the middle ridges and the end of the valley. Mo was the only sharpshooter assigned close to the sewer entrance.
"What about us?" General Smash asked, as Artisa stood behind him.
"Find your own place after setting up the sound system," Curb said. "Or, go as close to the sewer entrance as you can. On the ridges, of course."
"Okay then," the general replied, and strode off. Curb looked at Artisa, then asked her to follow him.
As the other wastelanders settled into position, General Smash and Striker carried the heavy speakers, one by one, to the ridge overlooking the end of the valley. Hera followed suit, carrying the music players containing Trina's latest singing, as well as a CD player and some CDs with Trina's singing before the Ashen War. General Smash went back to the Dollarean, and took out an amplifier. The two men and the giant began setting up the sound system. When it was done, Hera placed her hand on the remote control, ready to turn the system on...
"Wait a minute!" Curb shouted to Hera, just before she turned on the speakers. The giant put down the remote control. She saw Artisa standing beside the old man. Curb turned to Artisa and began speaking to her, while he waved at Hera to lay her hands off the remote. Striker got ready to fire, and sat close to the sound system, while General Smash made his way towards the sewer entrance.
"They like Trina's music so much that they'd lumber out as fast as they can," Curb explained. "So draw something that can slow them down for a while, we want to save those mines."
Artisa nodded, and turned to the rocky cliff behind her. She felt about for a smooth rock face, and took out her paintbrush as she did so. Eventually, she found a suitable rock to paint on, and she started on her decoys.
"Now, blue lady, you should only start the music after your friend's finished her thing," Curb said to Hera, who waved her hand and nodded to show that she understood. Curb went back up the ridge as quickly as he could. "Age certainly is getting to me," the old man puffed, and he slowed to a walk. He saw the wastelander kids waiting on the ledge, a pile of grenades sitting beside them.
The kids waved to Curb, and he smiled back.
"Look, uncle!" Stone pointed at the figures Artisa was drawing. "Funny men!" he said.
"Those aren't men! They're imps!" his sister remarked.
"Imps aren't that tall!" Stone retorted.
Curb kept watch, knowing that the attack would begin as soon as the music started. The children continued arguing about the figures.
General Smash was sitting on a rocky outcrop, also near to the sewer entrance, but the general could only see up to a large piece of rock that hid Mo from his sight. The general saw Atroxia run up to the large piece of rock and go behind it. "What is she doing?" wondered the general, but he decided he could ask later.
As the white twin painted the strange creatures with twiggy legs, thin arms and little heads, Hera set up the speakers with Striker's help. Artisa started on the beasts' bodies, which looked as if they had their backs smashed into a pulp and forced into squiggly shapes, so that their bellies and back ends stuck out and their chests were sunken.
At the ridge near the sewer entrance, Mo gave a shotgun to Atroxia. "I hope you know how to shoot," he said. "I know you didn't get to take a gun with you."
"I'm not Hera, that's the big blue gunslinger!" Atroxia snorted. Mo smacked his forehead in annoyance.
"Quickly, now, hold it with your hands like I'm doing," Mo said to her. Atroxia held the gun so that her left hand was on the trigger. "Left-handed, huh?" the sandy-haired man remarked.
"Indeed. Fully loaded, I hope?"
"I have the ammunition for it. Have you ever handled a gun in your life?" the sandy-haired gunman asked. Atroxia shook her head again.
Mo sighed. "Looks like I'll have to show you how to load that shotgun," he said. "Now look here, that small red button under the trigger is the safety. Press it..." Mo said, guiding the red lion through the loading process. She eventually managed to open the chamber of the shotgun without dropping the whole thing. "I'll cover for you when you're reloading," Mo said, though not unkindly. "Remember to release the safety when you're done."
"I should've taken Hera's offer of shooting lessons," Atroxia thought to herself. She wanted to take off her gas mask and wipe the few beads of sweat off her forehead, but she was a little afraid that Mo would shout in fear or laugh at her appearance.
Back at the end of the valley, Artisa sent the twenty strange beasts towards the large cave opening in the distance. The creatures wobbled along on the sand with their back ends swaying about, making Stick and Stone giggle. Curb wondered if the grotesque creatures could do the job. Then he noticed the spindly claws sprouting from each of the figures' hands.
He saw Artisa run quickly up the slope, and the men stationed there block the path after she got through. So Curb told the kids, "Get ready to throw stuff at the monsters, okay?"
"Yes, uncle!" the kids replied.
Artisa shouted to Hera to turn on the music, and made her way to the giant's side. She quickly drew some more grenades, and added them to the pile close to Striker.
"I want you, to make believe it's the first time ever..." the speakers blared after Hera fiddled with the volume. The stick men that Artisa had cast continued scurrying to the sewer. They honked, they chirped, and made all sorts of silly noises, waving their claws about. A mutant poked its head out of the sewer, and the figures pounced on it, screeching and clawing at its great fat body.
"Weird things for my sister to make," Atroxia said.
"As long as they work, who cares what they look like?" Mo asked rhethorically.
"Wastelander survivalism, right?"
"Yeah..." Mo sighed.
The mutant grabbed one of the stick men and threw it down, but the stick man hopped back up and sunk its claws into the mutant's topknot. Then more mutants rumbled out of the sewer. The figures chirruped and some of them rushed onto the mutants, making the behemoths lumber about in confusion.
"Stay your fire, Attie. I want to see if the landmines affect those beasts," Mo said. A mutant with two stick men clinging to it stepped onto a landmine sticking halfway out of the sand, and its lower half was blasted into bits. The stick men clinging to the remains cheeped, unhooked their claws, and went to annoy the mutants wandering around outside.
"Quickly now," Mo said to Atroxia, and he got ready to fire at the mutants. The red lion followed suit and managed to shoot one of the mutants in its neck.
"Not bad at all. Aim higher the next time," Mo remarked. The red lion snorted in acknowledgement.
The overgrown lumps of flesh had enough of the stick men, and lumbered further away from the sewer. They heard the speakers blaring, "Make believe it's the... Make believe it's the... Make believe it's the first time."
The mutants lumbered in the direction of the music. The gunmen stationed along the ridges began firing, yet the mutants lumbered on. However, the stickmen caught up to the overgrown mutants, and the ugly clawed figures began fighting with the mutants, giving enough time for the wastelanders to shoot the fat three-handed creatures.
A mutant that managed to evade the stick men shuffled along the valley and was nearly at the end when Hera saw it. "Fire!" Hera shouted and raised her gun. The blue giant hit the mutant square in its head, and the monster's brains dribbled out. The monster keeled over with a rather loud thud. Striker looked at her in surprise, then quickly readied his gun in case more mutants got to the end of the valley.
Stick threw a grenade at another mutant that lumbered along the valley. The mutant looked up and swallowed the round thing. Stick and her brother stared at the mutant as its head exploded into pieces.
"Love will find a way and it's always true," the speakers continued blaring. By this time, Mo had run out of ammunition for his gun. Atroxia's shotgun was out of ammunition as well. The two thin people looked at each other.
"This is it... We're both out of ammo," Atroxia muttered.
"I hope the others all make it," Mo said. "Though with your sister and the big blue lady helping, they should be able to."
"They should," Atroxia sighed, then unconsciously fiddled with the torn edge of her gas mask.
"I've been wondering what you look like under that broken gas mask," the sandy-haired gunman remarked.
"Mo, look, I'm not very beautiful," the red lion protested. "Everyone thinks I look like a boy, and I have to tell them I'm she..."
Mo chuckled lightly. "You can't be looking any worse than the mutants in the sewer. Prove it."
Atroxia sighed heavily. "Get ready, then," she muttered, and pulled off the gas mask in one swift moment. Her thick black hair puffed out around her head, and she pushed it back into her usual style.
Mo stared at the black-haired woman in front of him. "You're not too bad," he said, feeling rather surprised. "Why do you keep bringing yourself down over that?"
Atroxia looked away, then said quietly, "Each time I told anyone my real gender, they all thought I was the ugliest thing since a Gorgon."
"You can't turn people into stone with one look, or I'd be a statue right now," Mo quipped. That made Atroxia look at him. "Seriously, though, looks aren't any good if you don't have a good heart. There could be a girl that was Venus' double, but she could be mean to everyone she met."
General Smash watched the sewer carefully, until he was certain that there were no more mutants in there. He shouted to a sniper sitting quite a distance away from him, "Pass the message: They've all come out!"
"They've all come out!" the sniper yelled to the next one up ahead, and so on, until the message reached Curb at the end of the valley. The old man quickly ordered everyone to unleash all their might. The wastelanders began shooting, while the little kids and Artisa flung the grenades at the mutants.
Atroxia looked away. "You're a great shot, Mo," she said.
"I had to practice for a reason," the sandy-haired gunman replied. "Our lives here have been a nightmare ever since the Ashen War ended."
"I'm going to stop it, I swear!" Atroxia placed a hand on her chest.
"Even if it means we might never meet?" Mo asked her.
Atroxia hesitated. "Even then," she replied, her voice a little harsh from holding back her tears. "If stopping the war means that my only chance at love is gone..."
"Then stop the war anyway. Nothing's worth the nightmare of a nuclear armageddon," Mo sighed. "Not even our love."
"I will, I promise," the red lion's voice was husky. Atroxia took several deep breaths, then spoke in a calmer voice, "Might be a bit early to give you a memory of our love, but..."
"But what?" Mo asked her. "What are you thinking of?"
Atroxia promptly hugged the gunman and kissed his cheek. "Something along those lines," she said. "Go ahead and kiss me."
Mo closed his eyes, and leaned towards Atroxia. The red lion held his head gently, and pressed her lips against his. She purred as she kissed the gunman. Mo put his arms around Atroxia and stroked her back, feeling the rumbling near his heart from the lion's purring.
"So this is what I've been missing all along," Mo thought to himself. He could feel Atroxia's soft thick hair brushing against his face as he kissed her. The gunman then leaned away from the red lion, pulling his lips away from hers.
The music stopped at that moment, as Hera turned off the sound system after all the mutants were killed. Artisa dismissed the ugly stick men, and they faded into nothing.
Atroxia began nuzzling Mo when he stopped kissing her. The gunman stroked the lion's thick black hair, liking how it felt under his fingers. After a few moments, the couple stepped back from each other. "Let's get back to the others," Atroxia said. "I want to know if they managed to finish off the mutants."
Mo let go of her and stood up. He gave the broken gas mask back to Atroxia, and she quickly put it on after pushing her fringe out of the way.
The pair went to the end of the valley, where the other wastelanders had gathered. Atroxia quickly let go of Mo's hand before she greeted the others.
"We did it!" Sump shouted happily. "Now the Blastermaster's workforce has been taken care of, we can face him on!"
Curb looked sternly at the excitable wastelander. "Don't get too jumpy now, the Blastermaster's not an easy thing to dispatch," he said.
"Curb, if we can take out the hulk, the gnome would be easy to finish off," Mo said, looking at the old man.
"Just how do you plan to take him out?" Curb asked the sandy-haired gunman. "Snipe him? Won't exactly be an easy feat to accomplish."
Hera raised her skinny arm. "Mister Curb, I think we'd be able to plan better at your place," she said.
General Smash added, "Might as well, there's nothing more we can do here."
"Right then," Curb replied. "Get the sound system back to the town!" he ordered everyone. The wastelanders, the general, and the three women began helping to dismantle the sound system, and pack it back into the Dollarean. The people then went back to Tradertown on their vehicles, without any incident.
Later that evening, Curb, the three women and Mo were poring over plans of attack in the old man's hovel. Trina was there as well. The singer described the Blastermaster as well as she could. The little wastelander twins were chattering away in the bedroom.
"You can't even get close to the Blastermaster's pet hulk," Trina said nervously. "It's got two massive arms, one with a chainsaw attached."
"The other arm?" Atroxia wondered. Artisa was making a pencil sketch of the monster based on Trina's description.
"It uses a truck tire as its knuckle guards. Even if you could get close to it, it's as big as four of you," Trina said in reply to Atroxia.
Mo asked, "What's on its head?"
"A spiked leather harness when I last saw it. The hulk's body is huge! Five times more muscle than the big blue lady over there, twice as tall to boot. It's got car parts as its armor too."
"I'm not much of a muscle-lady, nor an Amazon," Hera said. "Any other things we should look out for?"
"There's a seat for the gnome himself to sit on. He's tamed the hulk so well that it won't throw him off, as long as the harness remains on it."
Artisa had finished sketching the monster, so she placed the paper on the table. "I hope I got the monster right," she said.
"Considering you three ladies never saw the monster, I'd say that's a pretty good picture," Mo said, then looked askance at Atroxia. The red lion snorted and looked away. The gunman realized that she was simply acting when he saw a faint red tinge to her face.
Just then, there was a knock on the door to the hovel. "Yes, who's there?" Curb asked loudly. He said to Mo, "Take a look, would you?"
The gunman made his way to the door and peered out. It was Sump, and he held an envelope in his hand. Mo said, "It's Sump. Should I let him in?"
"Alright, if he's by himself."
Mo opened the door, but Sump simply put his head around the door. "Ah... A letter for the three strangers, Curb sir," Sump said and held out the envelope. Atroxia strode to the door and took the envelope from the fidgety wastelander's hand. Before the red lion could thank Sump, he left, shutting the door behind him.
Everyone in the main room of the hovel crowded around Atroxia. "Open it!" Artisa urged her twin.
"Alright, alright," the red lion replied, tearing the envelope open. A folded piece of paper fell out, and Hera picked it up. The letter, which had a date on it, read:
Greetings, three stoogettes!
So you think you can beat me just because no man can? Ha ha, I meant no human being can beat me, not only male humans, but females too. I challenge all three of you to battle me at the Dome the morning after you receive this note. You'll be mincemeat and all will see my might!
P.S. Swallowtailed stranger, don't think I have no idea of what you truly are!
"I'm not a stooge!" Hera shouted. She glared at the note. "Who sent this?"
"Sounds like the Blastermaster to me," Mo said grimly. "He's the kind to duel unfairly with anyone who tries to fight him. So far, he's won every single match, no thanks to his hulk helping."
The lion twins looked worried, as did Hera. "A big monster, with arms as wide as two of me, and twice my height..." Hera shivered.
"You three should follow the crowd that will be heading to the Blunderdome tomorrow," Curb said. "If only to hide for a little while before the challenge... I'll inform the others. If they can't do anything to help in the fight, the least they can do is to help boost your morale."
At that moment, Stick and Stone looked into the room. They saw Hera sitting cross-legged with her head in her hands, and the lion twins shivering as they stood next to each other. The kids quickly went back into the bedroom, and pretended to be fast asleep. They could hear the others discussing among themselves, and soon fell asleep for real.
Curb came back into the hovel after informing the other rebels about the duel. He said to the others, "You might as well get some rest. Trina, you'd better get back to Striker's. Be careful, alright?"
Mo got up. "I'll make sure she gets there safely," he said. Atroxia felt a sour sting in her heart as the sandy-haired gunman said this, though she kept quiet. Curb observed the red lion silently as Mo and Trina left the hovel. Time passed, and Mo came back. He nodded to Curb, to say that Trina was still safe and sound at the other rebel's home.
Hera said, "There's not much use staying up and worrying about the battle. Lions, you might want to get some rest. I'm going to."
Curb replied solemnly, "I'm afraid you'll all have to rest here. Our room's too small to hold everyone."
"That's alright, mister," Artisa said, as she began drawing mats to place on the floor.
Mo asked the elderly man, "Is it alright if I sleep out here with them tonight?"
Curb could guess why Mo wanted to do that. He replied, "Yes, you may. Though you don't usually sleep in the same room as the kids anyway. Sleep well."
By then, Artisa had finished creating the mats, and some pillows. She laid the bedding out on the floor. Hera quickly lay down on the oversized mat made especially for her. "Thanks," she said.
Artisa looked at Mo. "Want any bedding?" she asked.
"I'd like that. Thank you," he replied. The white twin quickly made a mat and a pillow for the gunman.
"No wonder you're a sorceror, miss," Mo said. "Things appearing as soon as you draw them."
"Only if I color them," Artisa replied. She yawned, then said to no one in particular, "I hope you sleep well."
Atroxia snorted softly in reply, while Hera raised her hand to acknowledge Artisa's remark. Soon, the four people were lying down in the main room, trying to sleep. Mo looked longingly at Atroxia, and she looked back at him. "If you look at me like that, you might have a hard time sleeping," she hissed at him.
"It could be the last time we ever meet," Mo sighed, but he turned on his side and closed his eyes. The red lion placed her arm across her eyes soon afterwards. It took a long time, but the four finally drifted off to sleep, dreaming about battles.
Atroxia woke up sometime before sunrise. She crept over to Mo and patted his shoulder lightly. When he opened his eyes, Atroxia quickly placed a finger over her mouth, and motioned to him to leave the hovel. The pair quietly got out of the hovel, and into the storeroom. They shut the door behind them and looked at each other.
"Well, this is it..." Atroxia said fearfully. "I might not see you again, Mo."
The sandy-haired gunman quickly hugged her. "I'm afraid for you too," he whispered. "You've done so much for Tradertown already."
"We've got until sunrise for this," Atroxia muttered. Mo placed a hand on the red lion's head. "I can't fail us now, not when I failed once before in my own time."
"What do you mean?" Mo asked curiously. "You failed one of the trials before this?"
"No... It was a battle to protect an important artifact in my time," Atroxia explained. "The nasty old man who tried to steal the artifact succeeded by a landslide, and he claimed that one of the fighters wanted to sell it. Everyone turned on her then. I should have said something, but I didn't know what to say to stop him."
Mo looked at Atroxia seriously. "You can't change the past, but you could make up for it if you win this duel," he said.
"My mother said only villains ever win. What if she was right?" Atroxia snarled, looking as if she was about to cry.
"There's nothing I can do if so," Mo sighed. "Though I hope she's wrong about that, for everyone's sake."
Atroxia looked at him, then replied, "Thank you." She then leaned against Mo, who stroked her back awkwardly. "Mo... Just in case I don't come back, can I kiss you again?" the red lion whispered. Mo nodded, and the red lion leaned towards him after taking off her gas mask. They kissed, and Mo could feel a stinging at the back of his eyes. Without realizing it, both of them began shedding tears.
A while later, they parted. Atroxia sniffed and wiped the tears from Mo's face. The sandy-haired gunman placed a hand under the red lion's chin and made her look at him. He then wiped the tears from her cheeks and they hugged each other again. Atroxia began purring as Mo hugged her, and closed her eyes. Mo just waited. When he saw the faint hint of golden light shining under the door, he patted her back.
"Hm?" Atroxia looked at Mo.
"The sun's nearly up," replied Mo. "Good luck."
Atroxia stood up and put on her gas mask. "So be it," she said. "It's do or die."
"Let's get back before the others wonder where we are, and make ridiculous assumptions about it," Mo said. Atroxia took his hand and they walked back to the hovel.
The red lion let go of the gunman's hand before they reached the hovel. When they got back, Hera and Artisa had just woken up. "Where'd you go, Attie?" Artisa asked sleepily.
The red twin bluffed, "Oh, I was just leaving for the storeroom to take a gun."
"Better to be prepared," Hera yawned. She checked her own gun to make sure it was fully loaded. Curb entered the main room at that moment and looked at the three women.
Curb said, "If you're ready to leave, then go. Good luck."
Hera stood up slowly. "I'm ready, sir," she said. "What about you, lions?"
Artisa had drawn a staff with a curved blade at its tip. "I'm ready," she said, waving the staff around slowly.
Atroxia looked at the ground, then up at Hera. "Give me a moment," she said. "I want to pick out a gun to shoot with."
"But, Attie, you can't shoot very well," the blue giant said in concern. "I don't like to ask this of you, but do you think you're up to running and distracting the Blastermaster so that your sister and I can take down the hulk? If you could poison him in the meantime, that's a plus."
Atroxia hesitated, then placed her hand over her heart. "I can do that much."
Curb bowed his head. "Again, good luck."
The three women replied, "Thank you!" and went out of the hovel to wait for the crowd heading for the Blunderdome. When the aforementioned crowd appeared, the three women held hands, then slipped into the mass of people. Curb and the wastelander kids joined the crowd some time after.
"Where's Mo?" Stone whispered to Curb. "Uncle? Is Mo coming with us?"
The old man replied quietly, "He's coming, but not so soon."
Sure enough, the twins and the old man could see a head of sandy hair with gray stripes at the very back of the crowd. Mo followed the crowd, thinking to himself, "I really hope whatever Attie said about villains always winning is wrong, at least, just this once."
To be continued...