The Earthworm escaped from a hole it created beneath the group and landed hard on the soil beside them. Talmadge jumped out of the vehicle quickly, holding a silver orb in his hands as his eyes beamed brightly.
“I think I found it!” he yelled.
“The Mind Wipe Device?” Ryan asked eagerly.
“I don’t know what it is,” Talmadge responded. “But it was pretty much the only thing that survived the explosion, so I’m guessing it’s pretty important.”
“Pretty good indicator,” Buddy smirked.
“Right,” Talmadge agreed. “So, anyways, it’s got all sorts of flashy lights on it and stuff, and this cool interface. I can’t quite figure out what it does or anything, but it seems awfully important.”
Ryan took the device out of Talmadge’s hands as Salachar stumbled out of The Earthworm.
“Salachar!” Alexa exclaimed. “What happened?”
“Dunna worry about me lassie. When the building fell, I might notta been as quick as I was in my younger years, but tis nothing time won’t heal.”
“Yep,” Ryan concluded, “this is it. This is the Mind Wipe Device.”
“Are you sure?” Buddy asked. “How can you tell?”
“Well, taking a look through the menu settings on this thing,” he said, fiddling with the flat screen display embedded in the orb, “the headings make it pretty obvious. Things like Organize Memories into Categories, Activate Memory Redistribution, and Input Modified Memories, really kinda bring it all home. That,” he said smiling, “and it says Memory Modification Utility right here on the front.” He turned the front of the device to face Buddy and in big letters above the screen were the bold-faced words Ryan spoke.
“Okay,” Buddy smiled, “so we’ve got that in our hands. Now what?”
“Well, we’ve got what Jeff’s looking for,” Ryan answered. “If he weren’t doing whatever he’s doing with Damon there, I’d guess he’d be right on top of us already.”
“Well, that’s a good thing,” Buddy stated. “Isn’t it?”
“Well, yes and no,” Ryan answered. “The way I see it, we currently have a great opportunity to keep this epic battle from happening. I mean, we hold here in our hands the very tool necessary to keep those two from ever remembering who they are, or why they’re fighting.”
“Are you suggesting we use the Mind Wiper to erase both Jeff and Damon’s memories?” Alexa asked wide-eyed.
“I don’t see why not,” Ryan answered. “Damon seemed perfectly happy to be Murphy. And Jeff, well, I have a feeling it will be either that, or we have to kill him, from how determined he seems to be to get this thingie here. And if he gets this, he’ll just do exactly what we’re talking about, but to everyone.”
“I say fire it up,” Buddy spoke. “If we can get out of this whole thing without having to fight, I’d be a very happy man.”
“Although I’m pretty excited to test out my new powers,” Talmadge joined in, “I agree with Buddy. I’m not sure I’m ready for quite so big a test, yet.”
The group looked at Alexa, who shifted her gaze to the ground.
“Okay, well, it appears we have a near-unanimous decision,” Buddy said grimly. “I think that’s the best we’re going to do.”
“There is one thing we might need to consider first,” Ryan said as his eyes fell upon the fireball sitting in the middle of the field nearby. “What happens if we try re-writing their memories while they’re on fire? This might take away their powers. I’m only kind of okay with taking away their memories. I’m definitely not okay with burning them to a crisp.”
“Dammit!” Buddy yelled. “So, you’re saying I need to go in there and face off against not just one discontented super-powered villain who is bent on destroying the world and just so happens to hate me personally, but two of the most insane people who meet that definition, at the same time, in the middle of an unearthly hellfire.”
“That about sums it up,” Alexa grinned as she walked to Buddy’s side. “Don’t worry about it, Captain. You’ve faced off against worse in the past.”
“Have I?” Buddy asked.
“Probably not,” she answered, “but I thought it might help you feel a little better about the whole thing.”
“Right, so, any help you guys can offer me?” Buddy asked. “What about the goo gun?”
“Honestly, Buddy,” Ryan answered, “I don’t have any idea what you’d hope to accomplish with something as small as the goo gun.”
“Okay, good point. Anything else? Talmadge? You figure out any more crypto-thingies that may be able to help out?”
“Sorry, Buddy, I really don’t know much about what I can do, or who is even out there to talk to.”
“What about the Cherufe?” Ryan asked.
“The who?” Alexa asked.
“The Cherufe. I think it was the ancient Chileans who believed in them. Thought they brought about earthquakes and volcanoes and whatnot. They were a sort of magma golem or something like that.”
“How the hell do you know about those things?” Alexa asked.
“They were in a card game I used to play.”
“Are they real, though?” Talmadge asked.
“How the hell would I know?” Ryan asked in return. “I didn’t know the Mongolian Death Worms were even a thing, much less real, until today.”
“I think what my brother is so delicately attempting to say,” Alexa covered, “is that it couldn’t hurt to try, right?”
“Okay, I’ll see what I can do,” Talmadge agreed as he walked away.
“So, is that it?” Buddy asked. “You don’t have any tricks up your sleeves, do you Alexa?”
“The absolute best thing I could possibly offer in a situation like this is to try to kick up enough wind to put the fire out,” she answered hesitantly.
“Okay, so, let’s do–”
“I said in a situation like this. I’ve had zero luck in my attempts to douse Damon so far. Can’t imagine I’d do any better against two of him.”
“Damn,” Buddy scowled. “And neither of you would be any help inside of there either, would you?”
“Sorry, Buddy, my suit’s registering temps of over one thousand degrees Celsius in there,” Ryan frowned. “There’s no chance my armor would be able to survive that.”
“Whole helluva lot of use you two are,” Buddy frowned.
“Sorry,” Alexa shrugged.
“Alright,” Buddy said, reassuring himself. “No big deal, right? Just need to run into the sun, knock out a couple of all-powerful super-beings, and hope I don’t burst into flame in the process. Easy as cake.”
“And you had better do it quickly,” Ryan added. “At the rate that fireball’s growing, I’d say we’ve only got another half hour before it burns down all of Sun City. Even at the size it’s currently at, with the heat it’s putting off, I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of town shoots up in flames anyways.”
“Great, just what I need. To be responsible, once again, for destroying the whole city.”
Without another word, Buddy walked determinedly toward the burning fire before him. The glow, blinding him even from his initial distance, made it that much more difficult to make out his surroundings as he made his approach. He wanted to look back, to turn around and return to his friends. The fear of the unknown filled his every nerve. Each step toward the brightened void required that much more determination, that much more willpower.
Thirty feet away from the event horizon, he felt his uniform burn away. Knowing he was not only going forward to meet his own destruction, but he was going to do so naked, brought Buddy to laughter. Finally, he reached the edge of the flame, where ground gave way to pure heat and he stopped. He slowly turned his head to look at where he had been, his eyes incapable of seeing anything due to the intense light before him.
He turned back toward the fire and with a shrug of his shoulders, entered. The heat immediately outside of the blaze was already barely bearable; within the confines of the hellfire, Buddy felt as though every centimeter of himself burned separately. Five billion separate fires seared across his skin in unison. He was grimly amused by the fact that he was suffering intense pain, yet knew he was not being injured.
Buddy continued forward, cringing with each step. He could see nothing, could hear nothing. White was all he knew as he continued walking through the void.
Buddy questioned the intelligence of walking around without the use of his senses, not to mention clothes, in the middle of what was obviously a battle of epic proportions between two crazed individuals. Even though he was incapable of being injured, the pain coursing across each and every one of his nerve endings caused Buddy to fear he had put himself into a mortally dangerous situation. He had not felt fear like this since the last time he faced off against Dominion, before he understood how far his ability could take him. Of course, that time he was only battling one Damon Memphis, now there were two, or whatever else Jeff decided to be.
And what happened to everyone who had come in here to help Jeff? Maybe they had decided to give up at the same time as the rest of the Meta Mob. It felt empty in here, lonely, and creepy.
He continued onward, uncertain what to do but walk forward. He reached his arms out in front of him, futilely hoping to find something to give his existence shape outside of the blank void.
Just as Buddy was about to give up, he heard the faint sound of someone screaming. Buddy ran in the direction of the sound.
Faster and faster Buddy ran, following the only sense still available to him, his hearing, until he finally tripped over something. Buddy landed on the hot slushy ground with a splash, quickly turning to determine what he had tripped over in this seemingly empty and infinite white.
“Who’s there?” the voice screamed.
“I don’t know. What’s happening? Where am I?”
“Where’s Jeff?” Buddy asked.
“I don’t know. Who’s Jeff?”
“Can you stop the fire?”
“This, this thing we’re in. It’s fire. It’s you.”
“But, it can’t be, can it? How could I possibly be the man capable of so much destruction?”
“Look, pal, we all hate ourselves from time to time, but right now, you’re threatening to destroy most of Sun City, maybe the world, if you can’t get a hold of yourself.”
“I can’t control it. I can’t control him. I don’t–”
“Alright, Murphy, just relax,” Buddy grimaced. “Let me try something.”
Buddy felt around, trying to find Damon’s body. His fingers stumbled upon the man’s naked foot and white gave way to black.
Buddy stood in the center of the white spotlight within the dark room he recognized as his subconscious mind. At his feet lay the naked form of Damon Memphis or Dennis Murphy. Buddy looked down at himself and saw that he too was naked. He closed his eyes and imagined clothing on the two of them, feeling that whatever was about to happen, would probably be less awkward when clothed.
“Murphy!” Buddy yelled, kicking the man at his feet. Murphy slowly awakened, his eyes turning upon Buddy as he jumped quickly to his feet.
“Where are we?” Murphy asked frightened.
“Don’t worry about it. Right now, we’ve got to find your off switch.”
“Look, you’ve got some serious mental issues going on here, issues that will take a shrink ages to deal with. I don’t have that kind of time. Right now we need to find a way to turn off Memphis so he doesn’t manage to burn down the entire world, okay?”
“Are you talking about me?” a cackling voice came from behind them. Buddy turned and found the evil grin of Damon Memphis.
“Memphis!” Buddy growled.
“I…I don’t understand,” Murphy stuttered.
“Why are you here?” Buddy asked.
“To finish what I started, of course. To complete the task I was given by God himself.”
“You know I can’t let you do that,” Buddy said, assuming an attack position.
“Is this how you intend to defeat me yet again, Buddy?” Damon asked. “Do you honestly believe you can keep me from achieving my ends through our pathetic mental link?”
“Murphy,” Buddy shouted, “you can control this. You can control him.”
Murphy cackled wildly, joined soon thereafter by Damon. They began circling Buddy slowly. Buddy felt dizzy and quickly lost track of which was which.
“Don’t you get it, Buddy?” one of the Damons said.
“Or are you too damned stupid to understand?”
“Murphy!” Buddy yelled again. “Fight back!”
“This isn’t something that can be corrected simply by strength of will.”
“Oh, no, this is something much, much worse.”
“I removed you from this world once, Damon,” Buddy said, fear filling his voice. “I can definitely do it again.”
“Ah, but here’s the trouble, Mr. Jackson,” the voice snarled. “Which one of us are you going to remove?”
“As long as I’ve got you here, you can’t cause any more trouble out there. I’ll stall you for all of eternity, if I have to,” Buddy felt small.
“Now that’s where you’re wrong, Buddy. Well, you’re always wrong, but this is where you’re wrong once again.”
“The burning fires of perdition are still raging within the realm of the earth outside of this mental prison you’ve placed yourself in. Having us joined in mental combat with you won’t do anything to delay the destruction of this wretched creation.”
“Hey, you don’t even know what all I’ve got planned out there. You ever heard of the Cherufe? Because they’re going to totally kick your–”
Both of the Damons laughed wildly in unison. “You think the mythical creatures of a long dead race of humans can truly pose any threat against us? I am the chosen one of God, the Creator of all that is. Do you honestly believe anything he has placed within this once green earth can destroy me?”
“You ever consider the idea that these things might not be of this earth?”
“Nonsense,” Damon laughed further. “God is the creator of all. Were these supposed beings of fire and metal truly alien in origin, they still would be of the same father. The father who sent me to destroy his creation once and for all in the purging fire.”
“Can you guys stop doing that? I’m really starting to get dizzy here,” Buddy stalled.
“What? Little old Buddy Jackson can’t handle a little spinning? Are you too weak to manage turning on a pivot foot?”
“Wait a second,” Buddy exclaimed. “I know what’s going on here.”
“Oh yeah?” one of the Damon’s said indignantly.
Buddy locked his eyes on the one who had just spoken and shot him a giant grin. “You know what, Jeff? No matter how many times I get to do this, it never gets old.” The target’s eyes widened as Buddy swung forward and landed his fist in the face of the offender. The fake-Damon’s body fell to the ground and shifted into the form of Jeffrey Flores.
Buddy turned and glared at Damon, who was still spinning around him. They locked eyes. Damon’s face turned into a dark grimace.
“You don’t yet understand, do you, Buddy Hero?”
“Understand what? That you and Jeff were trying to fool me into thinking this was just a mind game? That you were linked in order to attempt to overwhelm me? Or that I’m ultimately winning once again?”
“No,” Damon grinned, “you don’t understand that we have already won.” Damon laughed again. Jeff stood and joined in the laughter.
“Yeah, and how do you suppose that is?” Buddy asked, feeling indignant.
“Because, Buddy,” Jeff answered, “we’re not actually here. We’re just imprints left in your mind. Damon gave me the idea, based on how his memories were left in your head. When you touched me in the blaze, I did the same thing. We’re ghosts.”
“Which means,” Damon laughed, “we’ve now taken over the mind of the stalwart Buddy Hero, the man who would defeat us. Except, now that we’ve taken over, you’re no longer a threat to anyone.”
“You know what, Damon?” Buddy asked. “I think I finally understand you.”
“Oh, do you now?” Damon asked, his eyebrows rising. “And what is it that you understand?”
“That you’re nothing but another of Arthur Flores’ lackeys. You and Jeff both. You’ve both just done whatever that fat old man told you to do. Why is that? Are you both looking for a father to love you?”
“Shut up, Buddy!”
“So here you both are, throwing a tantrum that will end in the destruction of the world. It’s quite brilliant you two are pretending to be the same person. You are the same person. And after all that Arthur’s put you through, after all of the games, the manipulations, and everything else, you still sit here looking for his approval. Well, I’ve got news for you, for the both of you.”
“Oh yeah?” Jeff asked.
“Arthur’s dead, and he didn’t give a shit about either of you.”
“Those words would possibly have purchased some time for you, Buddy Hero,” Damon began, “but as we’ve already told you, we’re nothing more than figments of your imagination, items created based on the memories still residing within your feeble brain. The idiom of ‘words will never hurt me’ has never been so true.”
“Maybe not,” Buddy smiled, “but how do you feel about sticks and stones?” A baseball bat appeared in Buddy’s hands and he swung it at Damon’s head. The darkness fluttered momentarily.
Damon stumbled backwards a few steps. “Oh, Buddy,” Jeff laughed. “Don’t you get it? You’re barking up the wrong tree. Attacking us isn’t going to do anything to get you out of here.”
“Oh yeah,” Buddy asked cockily, “seems like that knock to the noggin’ did something. I’d be more than willing to try it a few more times on the two of you.”
“Besides, I don’t know if you two know this, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time unconscious during my life and if there’s one thing I know, it’s sure-fire ways to way up from a dream.”
“Oh yeah?” Jeff scowled.
Buddy’s smile grew larger. “How do the two of you feel about heights?” The floor dropped out from beneath the trio and they all fell fast toward a dark empty nothingness.
“How the hell do you think falling is going to wake you up?” Jeff snarled.
“It’s not the falling that does it,” Buddy answered as a flat surface appeared beneath them. “Let’s see if you can stick the landing.”
Buddy jumped awake, breathing heavily into the hot air. He looked around and found himself still within the heated arena of Damon’s flames, still that much more uncertain as to how to defeat the menace in front of him.
Buddy stood, crouched down as low as he could, and jumped into the air. Within seconds he found himself above the blaze. Looking down at the city below him, he was quickly able to determine where the center of the fire was located. He landed roughly on the ground, still in the midst of the flames, the earth still melting around him, threatening to pull him under.
Buddy jumped again, lunging toward the area he had spotted earlier as the center of this now miles-wide burn-fest. Once his head got above the flames, he noticed several creatures walking toward the edge of the fire which were glowing like hot embers.
“The Cherufe!” Buddy thought to himself.
“Buddy, where are you?” came a voice in his head.
“Talmadge?” Buddy thought back.
“Yeah,” the voice said strongly. “I’ve found the Cherufe. They’re on their way in. Have you found Damon yet?”
“On my way,” Buddy responded. “Can you direct them to my location?”
“I’m not sure. I wonder if,” Talmadge paused. “Okay, yeah, I think so.”
“Okay,” Buddy smiled. “Bring ’em in.”
Go to Chapter Twenty-Nine