[Open on high camera shot, panning down to ground level]
A banner reading "Malachi's Carnival of Wonders" hangs over the entrance of a large and bustling traveling circus. Happy faces abound, as families and young couples race about from tent to tent. At the center of the carnival squats a huge tent of a rich, deep red, with a line stretching from its entrance halfway across the grounds. The sign over the flap says "Knights of Arcanos." At the tent's entrance stands a mismatched collection of students: a handsome, well-dressed young man with blue hair, a petite blonde girl in a sailor suit, a tall, lanky black youth, a towering hulk of a boy in an American football jersey, and a bored-looking young man with a red baseball cap turned backwards on his head.
"Five young people, ripped from the safe world of Tenku High School and thrust into a land of magic and mystery..."
[Cut to outdoor scene of a small carnival]
A short, swarthy man in the red-striped jacket and white straw hat of a carnival barker stands by the tent flap, his small, pointed mustache sticking out at odd angles as a large, feral smile splits his face. Rubbing his white-gloved hands together, he leads our heroes through the entrance.
[Cut to tent interior]
Looking curiously around at the tent's red curtains and the black-and-white checkered tile floor, our heroes pile into a single red roller-coaster cart and ease forward into the dim light. Mists roil up around the cart as they begin to move faster and faster, finally sailing off the rails and into the swirling white mists.
[Cut to camera looking up into clear blue skies]
In the distance, a small black dot appears, swiftly falling and coming into focus as the red cart, our heroes screaming and holding on for dear life as they approach the ground. The cart hits hard, spilling our heroes out onto the rich green grass of a steep hill. They roll down the slope, dumped unceremoniously at the hill's foot. Looking up, they see the edge of a thick forest ... and the small troop of mounted soldiers in medieval armor that has surrounded them.
"Forced to fight their way across the mystic land of Arcanos, our heroes work to fulfill their destiny, and find a way home. Come with us now! Experience the thrill! Follow the adventures of...The Tenku Knights!"
[Cue theme. Cut to series of A-team-animated action sequences, interspersed with Vocals and Voiceover]
Voiceover: “Golf Fairway!”
A young man in pleated khakis and a golf shirt sweeps blue hair out of face and tees off with golf club, rebounding ball off the heads of several orcs.
[Vocals: Go go Tenku Knights!]
Voiceover: “Sakura Legend!”
A blonde girl in mini-skirted sailor suit leaps high into the air as background turns to riot of colors. She tosses four-square ball into the air, and serves it downward with devastating force.
[Vocals: Go go Tenku Knights!]
Voiceover: “Harvey Johnson!”
A young black man in track uniform sprints in a rush of speed lines, delivering lightning-fast and well-placed karate blows to armored foes, who fall to the ground behind him.
[Vocals: Go go Tenku Knights!]
Voiceover: “Tank Doyobi!”
A huge, burly student wearing football jersey rushes into and past the camera. As it turns, the number 18 begins to glow a bright white on his back and he rushes a line of enemies, shoulder-blocking his way through their center and sending the rest flying.
[Vocals: Go go Tenku Knights!]
Voiceover: “And Shiba Batsu!” A youth with baseball bat tosses ball into the air, swinging as bat flashes white and sends ball to light speed.
[Vocals (ending): Tenku Knights!]
[Cut to our heroes landing together atop a hill, back-lit by the rising sun. In a tinkling shower of sparks and glitter, the series logo appears...]
SUPER SPARKLE TENKU KNIGHTS
[Fade to Black]
“Previously, on Tenku Knights...
After their arrival in Arcanos, the Tenku Knights found themselves under attack by the forces of the misguided King Algernon. Thought to be witches, [Cut to scene of fuming Sakura tied to a giant balance scales, being weighed against a duck] spies, [Cut to scene of Golf skulking around a corner in a black cape, shock of blue hair protruding from the hood] or worse, [Cut to scene of Algernon's troops led by two robed priests, thrusting forth holy symbols at our bewildered-looking heroes] the Tenku Knights have finally befriended the king, after convincing him of their good intentions.
[Cut to scene of Golf, smiling big and shaking hands with a white-bearded man in a crown and kingly robes. Behind Golf, the rest of the team attempts to keep Shiba from staving the king's head in with his bat.]
And now, supplied with food and the king's blessing, our heroes set forth to the west, to blaze a trail of legend across the face of Arcanos...and to find a way home.”
[Cut to scene of our heroes walking away from the city gates, King Algernon and his advisors waving and smiling and looking relieved that these incredibly powerful and destructive young people have departed.]
[Go to commercial]
The Tenku Knights were not having a good day. Two days out from the City of Algernon, they realized that they were wandering, with little idea of where they were or where they needed to go.
Having left the forest behind that morning, noon found them lost in a wasteland of blackened tree stumps, the ground covered with ash and the sun beating savagely down on their heads. Mostly, they blamed Golf.
“Thees eez your foault!” cried Sakura Legend, resting against a stump and fetchingly rubbing her tired feet. One limp strand of her normally-bouncy hair drooped in front of her eyes. “Thees whole scenario might only be a very compleecated game, but eet steel makes my feet hurt!”
The rest of the Knights sighed. In spite of all they’d been through, Sakura still thought they were in the carnival, playing a virtual reality game. It was an eccentricity they’d all learned to accept, even when it seemed to border on psychosis.
“Now, Sakura,” Tank said, sweat dripping from his forehead, “I’m sure Golf had a good reason to bring us out into the wilderness without a map. Right, Golf?”
Golf, a slight sheen of perspiration forming on his brow, looked around at his friends dejectedly. It hadn’t seemed so bad when they were lost in the forest. He thought he’d known where they were going then. But then they came upon this clear-cut area, and all of a sudden things didn’t seem so easy anymore.
Sakura was right. He had no idea how to lead a wilderness expedition. He had done so well dealing with the king and his advisors that he thought he could lead the team through anything, but maybe it was time to admit that he was wrong.
“Hey, guys! Look over here!” Shiba Batsu was standing atop a nearby rise, peering off to the west.
Harvey, whose track experience left him faring a bit better than the others, ran to join Shiba, his feet leaving a trail of dust behind him. “Well, will you look at that. Civilization!”
Sakura, perspiring madly, struggled daintily to the summit. “Hmph! You may call a tin-roofed shack ‘ceeveelization’ in America, Harvey, but in France we call it ‘squalor.’”
“Call it what you want,” Shiba said, “but I call it the first sign of life we’ve seen since we left Algernon.” He pointed towards the dilapidated wooden outpost with his ever-present bat. “I say we check that thing out.”
The hulking Tank huffed his way to the top, his jersey soaked with sweat. “Wow! It is a shack! What do you say, Golf? Should we go?”
But Golf was lost in thought, his doubts forgotten. “Did somebody say ‘tin roof’?” He peered intently at the building in question. “Look at that. That’s corrugated tin. This society doesn’t know how to make sheets of corrugated tin. They were still using grass roofs in Algernon!”
“What are you saying?” Shiba asked, annoyed.
“I’m saying that these people shouldn’t have the technology to make that roof. And now that I’m thinking about it, I wouldn’t have expected to see such a large and thorough logging operation here, either. This is practically a slash-and-burn operation! That kind of technique indicates a great need for a large amount of wood, gathered quickly. And that kind of need for fast lumber says that they’re building something on a large scale, which also indicates some kind of technological advancement. And technology, now that we’re staring it in the face, makes me think of one thing: it makes me think of home.”
Sakura blinked. “Oooo! A clue! Thees could be our portal to the next level of the game, could it not?”
Golf rolled his eyes. Sometimes, it was hard to believe that she was a genius. “You could look at it that way, I suppose. Let’s go.” And so the Tenku Knights began their next great adventure...
The Tenku Knights approached the shack with caution. It sat in the middle of a particularly barren stretch of ground, with no stumps for several meters in any direction and a wide path leading off through the stumps to the west. The fine layer of ash covering the ground left small clouds of dust behind the Knights’ feet as they walked. The shack itself was made from rough-cut lumber and tin that looked as if it had been corrugated by hand, with a single dusty window on one side. It didn’t look very sturdy. Either it was put together quickly, for limited use, or its builders weren’t used to putting up this kind of structure. Golf guessed that it was a little bit of both. This place had obviously served as a central hub and loading station, and now seemed abandoned.
Shiba led the way across the open ground, with Tank close behind him. Golf followed off to one side, to better see around Tank’s bulk, while Harvey and Sakura brought up the rear. Shiba advanced slowly toward the door. Meeting no resistance, and seeing no signs of life, he raised his bat to knock.
“Wait!” Golf hissed. The bat stopped mere millimeters from the door. “Do you hear that?” The other Knights paused, listening. A low clicking could be heard from inside the shack, along with a slight, rhythmic hissing.
“Something’s in there,” Golf whispered. “Harvey, go check out the window.”
“You got it, boss.” Harvey, moving silently, gracefully sidled up to the shack’s one dusty window. Crouching so as not to be seen, he slowly raised a hand to the glass and dusted off a corner, raising an eye to peer in. He started, then swiftly withdrew, motioning the others to follow him out of the shack’s earshot.
“There’s wolves in there,” he whispered in disbelief.
“Wolves?” Shiba said sharply. Harvey jumped.
“Keep it down, brother! They’re not just normal wolves! There’s some kind of machinery attached to ‘em, on their shoulders. They got...boxes on ‘em, with all sorts of pipes and tubes. And exhaust pipes. They were all givin’ off these little puffs of steam.”
“Hmm,” Golf pondered. “Steam-powered wolves. What are we up against here?”
“I don’t know,” Shiba said, “but I have a feeling we’re going to have to bash its head in.”
Golf raised an eyebrow, annoyed. “And what makes you think that?”
“The Steam Wolves pouring out the door and heading right for us.”
The Knights turned around just in time to see six Steam Wolves, all snarls and teeth and mottled grey fur, exit the shack. The boxes Harvey mentioned were indeed placed over their front shoulders, with tubes running to every major muscle group. Dual exhaust pipes ran at sleek angles from the rear of the boxes, white steam fairly whistling out in clouds over the barren landscape. The clicking was almost deafening now.
The lead wolf, larger than the others, had another unusual feature: its brain was visible beneath a glass dome, a tiny antenna protruding from the dome’s center. Under the glass, wires ran from the antenna down into various parts of the wolf’s brain. As if it were an opposing linebacker and not a horrible scientific monstrosity, Tank leapt forth to meet the lead wolf hand-to-hand. After a brief struggle he wrestled it to the ground. The wolf growled deeply.
Golf restrained the rest of the team from action. “Hold on,” he said, pulling out a golf ball and a tee. “I think that, with skill and a little bit of luck, I can take care of this problem.” Tossing the tee and ball into the air, Golf pulled back with his club and quickly sized up his foes. They were running in a geometric attack formation, and their steam boxes seemed to have a certain fragility that ought to be taken advantage of...
The tee stuck unerringly into the ground at his feet and the ball fell perfectly onto its top. Swinging with strength and supernatural precision, Golf let fly. The ball glanced off a particularly poorly-placed coupling on the first wolf’s steam box, loosening a tube which flapped loose and sent a scalding blast of steam into the back of the wolf’s head. The ball, further propelled by the steam blast, ricocheted off the wolf’s skull and continued on, doing the same thing to the next wolf in formation, and the next, until the entire Steam Wolf squadron had been hit. The first wolf, yelping in pain, had time to snap ineffectively at Golf’s elbow before falling to the ground, dead. The others fell behind him in the dust.
Golf brushed a small bit of wolf spittle from his sleeve, and smiled. “Piece of cake,” he said.
A loud clanging from the team’s left signaled the end of Tank’s struggle with the lead wolf. He stood, shaking his bloodied knuckles. Beneath him, the wolf’s steam box was flattened and half-removed from the body. But the brain-case had been left intact...
...and, many miles to the west, a shadowy figure sat back from a domed glass screen gone cloudy. “Well,” it said, “perhaps these Tenku Knights are the ones I need after all...”
“Oooo, look!” Sakura cooed. “Thees design ees just like the technology from Giant Robot! And thees one ees a direct copy of the train from Steam Investigators!”
“Aren’t those anime series?” Golf asked.
“Oh, yes. Two of my very favorites. The game designers must like theem, too.”
“Sakura, this isn’t a-- Oh, never mind.”
Golf and Sakura were standing over a table in the makeshift shack, examining blueprints they’d found in the bottom of a filing cabinet. The interior of the shack was just as shabby as the outside. There were two filing cabinets, one chair, and the table they stood over in the single room. The floor was dirt, and everything sitting on it was covered with a layer of grime. Sakura daintily picked a discarded rag up off the floor and attempted to clean the chair. Only partially successful, she sat down, a look of mild distaste on her face, and peered more intently at the train design.
“Thees train ees not an exact replica of the Steam Investigators one after all,” she said after a moment. “See, here and here the steam is directed in an entirely different manner. Technological constraints, I would guess. But someone must be quite the fan to have copied the design so closely.”
Golf raised an eyebrow. “That photo-graphic memory of yours is pretty handy sometimes, Sakura. If all this advanced technology wasn’t clue enough, this anime train design clinches it: there’s somebody else here from our world...
Somebody with a scientific background, and a means of gaining power. Maybe even somebody who’s been given extraordinary abilities like ours. I’m starting to think that maybe we didn’t wind up here by accident.”
Outside, Tank labored with a broken shovel he’d found near the shack. Three open graves lay to his left on the blasted plain, with space for three more to his right. He paused to wipe a slight sheen of sweat from his brow and looked at the lifeless bodies of the Steam Wolves. As soon as they’d disabled the boxes on their backs, the wolves had dropped dead on the spot.
Harvey jogged down to Tank from over a hill behind the shack. “Whassup, big man?”
“I’m just diggin’ graves for the Steam Wolves,” Tank replied sadly. “The poor things. Golf says they were probably dead before the steam systems were attached to them, but I still feel bad for them. I can’t leave them out here for the vultures to pick apart.”
“Guess I’d better help you with that,” Harvey said. “Me and Shiba found something over the hill, and I think we’ll be moving out soon. Shiba’s going to tell the big brains about it now.” Harvey thrust a thumb toward the shack, and Tank looked up in time to see Shiba step inside.
“Heads up,” Shiba said as he entered the shack. “Me and Harvey found something interesting over the next hill. Come check this out.”
Golf and Sakura followed their friend behind the shack and over a rise. There, at the bottom of the hill, was another shack, this one with a loading platform attached. Empty wagons were lined up on one side of the shack, and a primitive crane sat on the other side. And beside the platform, running off to the west for as far as the eye could follow, was a set of railroad tracks.
“Harvey took a sprint down the line,” Shiba said. “He tells me that the tracks just keep going west until they hit a wall about 20 miles up. Then they enter a tunnel, and he couldn’t follow them anymore without attracting attention. If we follow them, though, I bet we’ll find whoever’s behind this operation.”
“I’ll bet you’re right,” Golf agreed. “But first, I think we need to gather some intelligence on exactly who and what we’ll be finding at the other end. We need to head back to King Algernon’s castle and ask him about his neighbors to the west.”
Shiba gave Golf a sharp look. “Couldn’t we just go west and find that out?”
“Sakura and I have discovered something back at the shack. This situation is more complicated than it seems, and I want to make sure we have all the information we can get before we go in. If I’m right, those tracks could lead us home.”
Shiba Batsu stood upon the battlements of Castle Algernon, hitting rocks out into the night. His eyes scanned the darkness, looking for more Steam Wolves to come pouring over the hill and lay siege to the castle. They should have headed west, he thought. They didn’t need to spend an entire day coming back here. There was no telling what was waiting out there in the dark.
“Shiba?” Tank’s massive shadow fell over the lower battlements as he stepped out onto the castle wall. “Shiba, we’re due to meet with King Algernon. The others are already in the high study.” Tank pointed up to the central tower. Light poured out the windows, and the silhouette of Golf’s unruly bangs appeared, peering down.
“You go ahead,” Shiba said. “I’ll be along at some point.”
“But Shiba, Golf is hoping the king will be able to tell us something about the Steam Wolves. Don’t you want to know where they came from?”
“I know where they came from. They came from the west.” Shiba pointed off to the horizon with his bat. “That’s where we should be.”
“But Golf says we need to understand the history of the area before we go. He says that might give us a clue to who we need to find if they have a connection to our world. That sounds like it might get us home.”
“Yeah. Golf’s got a lot of good ideas, doesn’t he?” Shiba tossed a rock high in the air and readied his bat. With a grunt, he swung. The bat flashed briefly, then sent the rock flying. It vanished for a second, before bursting into flame and disappearing over the horizon.
“I hate this place,” Shiba said. He held his bat out for Tank’s inspection. “See that?”
Tank examined the bat’s surface intently. The lacquer was perfect and unmarked over the fine grain of the wood, and the Louisville Slugger brand was as deep and dark as it had been the day it left the factory. “See what?” Tank said, confused. “There’s not a mark on it.”
“Exactly. I’ve been hitting rocks with it for an hour. There ought to at least be a nick or a dent in it. But there’s not. Not even a scratch.” Shiba bent to the pile of rocks at his feet and picked up another.
“Here, I never miss a swing. I always put the ball exactly where I want it to go. That last one’s gonna bounce off the roof of the mining shack where we fought the Steam Wolves. I’m better than Mickey Mantle, Tank. I’m better than Babe Ruth. I’m better than anybody!”
“Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted, Shiba?”
“But it doesn’t count, Tank! I didn’t work for it! It’s not me hitting the ball that far! It’s the bat! I want to be good on my own terms, not because I suddenly had super-powers thrust on me! I don’t know if I’m getting any better here or not! I’ve got to get home so I can work on my game!”
Tank stared at Shiba without understanding, then hung his head. “We all wanna go home,” he said in a small voice.
Shiba sighed and jumped down from the battlement, patting Tank on one powerful shoulder. “Yeah, buddy. We do. Now let’s go to the study and see what new trouble Golf can get us into, huh?”
They walked into the castle, leaving the battlements empty and quiet. In the distance, a metallic echo sounded from over the hill...
Sakura sat back in the only comfortable chair in King Algernon’s High Study and wiggled her toes. “I think all zis walking ees damaging my beautiful feet! When we are done with zis game, I will have a word or two with the carnival owners about reducing the amount of walking involved.”
Golf stared at her in disbelief. “Sakura, how...HOW on earth can you still believe we’re playing a carnival game?! We’ve been here for over a month!”
“Oh, I know eet seems that way, Golf, but really eet must only have been an hour or so.” She sat up straight, her attention leaving her feet as she stared meaningfully up at Golf. Harvey, standing by the western window and playing absently with the telescope mounted there, perked up his ears. “This oughtta be good,” he muttered.
Sakura took a deep breath and began. “Think back, Golf. We may have done a lot of things and fought a lot of people, but do you really remember all the tedious time in-between those incidents zat would have had to have passed eef we had really been here a whole month?”
Golf stared at his beautiful companion in disbelief. His mouth opened. It closed. It opened again. Finally, noise came out. “Yes! Yes, Sakura, I do remember all that tedious time. I remember every tedious minute of it! I remember figuring out how the monetary system in this place works, and I remember using that money to make sure we had food to eat. I remember sitting in a dungeon cell for three days while the priests made sure I wasn’t a demon. And I remember the walking, Sakura. The endless walking. The walking you were just complaining about. How can you persist in this delusion that we’re playing a game?
Sakura brushed a strand of her luxurious blonde hair back from her face and nodded. “Eet ees a wonderful simulation, isn’t eet? Do you think they use mirrors, or some sort of advanced holographic technology?”
Before Golf could reply, Tank returned with Shiba in tow. “So.” Shiba said. “What do we know now that we couldn’t have found out walking in the other direction?”
Golf spun on his heel to face Shiba. “What we know,” he said, fire in his voice, “is that these Steam Wolves are the product of an evil tyrant known only as the Necromaster. He rules a kingdom to west of here called Zardoz that King Algernon and his people believe to be haunted by demons. We, however, based on the evidence we found at the shack, believe that this Necromaster is merely using advanced technology that seems like dark magic. Further, based on Sakura’s knowledge of steam power and Japanese cartoons, we believe that this Necromaster is not a native of Arcanos, but is in fact from OUR WORLD!”
Shiba blinked. “All of which we could have also •gured out if we’d just gone west instead of returning here.”
“That’s not the point!” Golf shouted.
“Well, then what IS the point, Golf? You brought us all the way back here to learn something we could have found out with a stop at some old hermit’s shack!”
“There WERE no hermits! Hermits need food! And the entire area had been stripped of all vegetation! Without vegetation, there are no animals! And without vegetation or animals, hermits can’t eat!”
“Gee, Golf, where did you learn so much about hermits?” Tank asked.
Golf sighed. “Look, forget the hermits. Shiba, I’m just ticked off because you weren’t here for our meeting with the King. I know you don’t have much of a life waiting for you back home, but I’ve got a family to support. And every day I spend here is a day I could have been spending in a golf tournament, making sure that my mom gets to eat a meal every now and again. So if you’re done practicing your swing, maybe you could help us figure out what we’re going to—”
Golf turned suddenly, and raced over to the window. “Of course! The telescope! Why didn’t I think of this sooner?” Golf grasped the king’s ancient spyglass in his hands and trained it westward. “With the enhanced vision I’ve developed since we’ve been here, I’m sure I can use this telescope to see right into the heart of the Necromaster’s kingdom! A-ha! There!
“It’s horrible, guys. The place is an industrial wasteland. There’s no trees, no birds... Even the grass is dead. Every building seems to be devoted to some kind of industrial production. But what are they...” Golf’s voice
trailed off, and he stood up from the telescope.
“Well, what is it?” Harvey asked. “Don’t leave us hangin’, brother!”
“Weapons,” Golf said. “They’re making weapons. And not just swords and pikes, either. They’re making guns. And the army I just saw looked big enough to over-run Algernon in a day.”
Shiba’s mouth formed into a hard line. “I guess that means we’re heading back west.”
...And, miles away to the west, another eye peered back at Golf through another spyglass, one of superior scientific design. With a hiss of steam, the Necromaster sighed. “Well. I suppose I’ll be having visitors, then...”
Atop the high tower of Castle Cognitus, beneath the smog-choked skies of Technopolis, the capitol of Zardoz, stood a solemn figure peering through an elaborate spyglass pointed east. One hand absently played over the brasswork while the other, fingers jacketed in steel, held a shock of night-black hair out of his eyes. His dark cloak flapped about him, obscuring his body from view. He turned from the powerful telescope with a sigh and headed to the long •ight of stairs leading to the throne room below.
“Prepare the Steam Throne,” he said to the servants waiting there. “I need to think.” The servants rushed ahead to do his bidding; the Necromaster of Zardoz did not like to be kept waiting.
“So they have discovered my plans,” the Necromaster pondered aloud. “And now they will make their way here to stop me. If only they truly understood my purpose. I do not seek power for power’s sake. I do not defile these lands for mere personal gain. I seek what they seek. I crave the answers to the eternal questions. I only want to go... home.”
He paused, then, at the base of the stairs. Looming large and grey in the center of the room, humming and chugging, stood the Steam Throne. Its intricate gears and cogs whirred in anticipation of his arrival. The dully-gleaming exhausts extended and locked into place, fanning out above the seat like a steel peacock’s tail. The port in the seat back opened, revealing a writhing mass of wire and tubing that spilled forth almost organically to extend the wasp’s sting point of the Thinking Jack.
The servants stood ready on either side of the Throne, goggles in place and rubber gauntlets covering their hands. The one on the left... Mikhail, the Necromaster thought, took hold of the Jack and waited. The Necromaster crossed the room and seated himself on the Throne. The beast almost seemed to sigh at his weight.
“Now,” he said, and Mikhail plunged the Thinking Jack into the socket at the base of the Necromaster’s skull. The world flashed red, and then he was back. Back at the carnival. Back... on Earth...
A banner reading “Malachi’s Carnival of Wonders” hangs over the entrance of a large and bustling traveling circus. Happy faces abound, as families and young couples race about from tent to tent. At the center of the carnival squats a huge tent of a rich, deep red, with a line stretching from its entrance halfway across the grounds. The sign over the flap says “Mage of Arcanos.”
At the tent’s entrance stands a thin, awkward-looking boy of 14, his black hair parted on the left and slicked down over a high forehead dotted with acne. He adjusts his thick glasses up the bridge of his nose and wheezes. Reaching behind the plastic protector in his shirt pocket, the boy pulls forth his asthma breather with a practiced desperation. One hit, and his breath clears. He straightens his white dress shirt and brown pants, and turns toward the tent.
A short, swarthy man in the red-striped jacket and white straw hat of a carnival barker stands by the tent flap, his small, pointed mustache sticking out at odd angles as a large, feral smile splits his face. Rubbing his white-gloved hands together, he leads the boy through the entrance...
Another red flash, and the boy has been replaced by a young man clad in the Black Robes of Wizardry. He stands in a wooden basket suspended from a brightly-colored canvas sack that hangs in the sky without visible support. The crowd below gazes in wonder at balloon, muttering under their breath. The young man raises his hands, and a flame rises slowly behind him. With a slight hissing sound, the balloon rises higher into the sky. The people below point and clap, delighted.
“It was easy enough to bend these savages to my will,” the Necromaster muttered in his Thinking Trance. “Easy enough to fool them into believing that my simple science tricks were powerful magic. Easy enough to turn their primitive tools to the building of my Empire of Steam.”
Images flashed through his head, of wasted forests, ruined mountainsides, rivers choked with filth. “All this devastation,” the Necromaster whispered. “Wrought by me for ten long years, with one purpose in mind: turning this land into a mechanological powerhouse, and using it to conquer, land after land, until I find the person responsible for my presence in this land devoid of science! Until I find the Archwizard Malachi, and make him send me back home!”
The Necromaster bolted to his feet, ripping the Thinking Jack free. The Steam Throne seemed almost to sigh at his withdrawal. “Let these Tenku Knights come!” he shouted. “Let them come, and let them try to stop me! For stopping me will also mean their--” His voice died, broken by a wheezing fit. He reached beneath his cloak, adjusting a dial on his chest. His breath cleared. “Their doom.”
Previously, on the Tenku Knights Christmas Special: A Bat for Shiba (unreleased in the United States), our heroes made their way into the industrial nightmare-kingdom of Zardoz. There, Shiba Batsu’s beloved Louisville Slugger was shattered in battle with the Super Steam Badgers. He was bereft, until a young child named Hito, orphaned by the Necromaster, showed Shiba that his real power came from within. Then, armed only with the glowing white light of pure baseball spirit that lived within his soul, Shiba lead our heroes through the night to the gates of Castle Cognitus! And now...
Harvey scrambled over the castle wall and disappeared as his friends watched silently from below.
“That was a big risk you had Harvey take,” Golf whispered to Shiba. “He almost didn’t make it.”
“You heard him,” Shiba said. “‘My hang-time is unstoppable in this universe.’ I knew he‘d do it.”
A sound like a pan hitting the floor echoed out from inside the Steam Fortress.
“That’s not the point. We might have found a safer way inside. Now Harvey’s all alone in there.”
A muffled voice sounded from the other side of the wall. Sakura thought it said “Who goes there?”
“Harvey can handle himself in a fight, maybe better than any of us. Haven’t you been watching him in action these last few weeks? Or have you been too busy coming up with ingenious plans?”
More voices now, raised in fear and alarm. Something that sounded suspiciously like a sword being drawn made its way to Sakura’s keen ears.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Golf snapped, his voice rising.
At last, a sound at the gate. The doors shook a bit as the bolt was removed on the other side.
“It means,” Shiba said, shouting now, “that there’s a time for thinking and a time for acting. And you don’t know which is which!”
The gates swung open. A beleaguered-looking Harvey ran out, a phalanx of steam-powered soldiers at his heels. A white cloud of steam gathered over the courtyard behind as reinforcements gathered.
“Oh, so you think you could do a better job leading us?”
“Boys?” Sakura said. “Boys? I think we have zee problem...” But Golf and Shiba weren’t listening. They argued forehead-to-forehead now, oblivious to everything. “In point of fact, I think I WOULD do a better job!” Shiba shouted.
Tank moved calmly between Harvey and the Steam Guards, assuming a linebacker’s crouch. He launched himself at the approaching soldiers with a shout, knocking over their front line with one mighty push and advancing into the courtyard. Sakura and Harvey sprang into action behind him. Harvey ran patterns around the courtyard, delivering jabs and uppercuts to a series of foes, leaving them weaving until he came back to finish them off. Sakura leapt about, launching spike after spike and neatly removing Steam Guards from the fray. By this time, Tank had grabbed a wagon and was taking out five Steam Guards at a time.
Outside, Shiba and Golf continued to argue. Over Golf’s shoulder, just inside Shiba’s line of sight, a lone Steam Guard knelt by the gates. He wore black, and had some sort of sighting apparatus over one eye. He held something to his shoulder, and it seemed to be pointing at Golf, who was going on about how many ways there are to approach a problem. The Steam Guard seemed to be ready to do whatever it was he was going to do. Shiba saw his fingers tightening...
“Golf, look out!” Shiba snatched a club from Golf’s bag just as the Steam Sniper pulled the trigger on his musket. Shiba’s vision flashed white, and everything seemed to move into slow motion. He could see the musket ball’s trajectory perfectly: it would hit just behind Golf’s left ear. He lifted the club and swung. With an echoing metallic clang, the ball struck the club. At the moment of impact, the club seemed to become a bat, and Shiba knocked the ball away.
Time resumed its normal flow. Harvey raced up and cold-cocked the Steam Sniper with a vicious left cross. “Take that, sucker!”
Shiba looked down. The club was a club again, and Golf looked up, stunned, from where Shiba had knocked him to the ground. “Shiba. You... You saved my life.”
“I guess I did.”
Tank and Sakura came to the gates. “Uh, guys?” Tank said. “If you’re through with your argument now, we’ve taken care of the Steam Guards. I think we can get to the castle without much trouble.”
Shiba looked up and grinned. He tossed the club back to Golf. He wouldn’t be needing it. “Yeah, Tank. That sounds like a good idea. Let’s get into that throne room.”
The last line of the throne room’s defenses broken, Shiba rushed forth to the huge double doors, the rest of the Knights at his heels. There, he paused, looking about for a weapon. If they were going to face the Necromaster of Zardoz, he needed something to replace his shattered bat. Not finding anything handy, he pointed at a nearby table. “Tank!” he shouted. “Break that!”
“Sure thing, Shiba.” Tank lumbered over, sized his target up for a moment, then brought both fists crashing down. Shiba stepped up to the resulting pile of splinters, grabbed a table leg, and wrenched it free. Holding it in one hand, he turned it this way and that, getting a feel for it. Then, giving a shout, he slapped it suddenly into a two-handed grip, his body flashing a blinding white. When the Knights’ vision cleared, Shiba was left standing in a pile of smoking rubble, and the table leg had become a gleaming, perfect baseball bat, a tiny whisp of smoke rising from the Louisville Slugger brand.
“There,” Shiba said. “That’s better.”
“Coool,” Harvery whispered.
Golf walked over and offered Shiba his hand. “Good show, old buddy. Now, let’s go kick some tail.”
Shiba smiled. “After you.”
“Oh, no. I might be able to handle diplomatic affairs, but I’m done leading us into battle. That’s your job.” Golf stepped back, and gestured toward the throne room. Shiba stepped up to the doors again, and this time kicked them open.
On the other side was a huge, dark chamber, the Necromaster’s legendary Steam Sanctum, where only a few had dared step. Worktables and racks of tools and equipment cluttered the sides of the room, while a red ribbon of carpet ran down the center from the door to the raised throne dais.
Across this vast expanse of marble floor, the Necromaster himself sat, his ornate Steam Throne hissing gently beneath him. He rose, an imposing figure even from across the room, his deep purple cape draped over his broad shoulders. A strange scar ran up the side of his neck from his collar to behind his ear. It glowed a dull red in the dim light.
“Ah,” he said. “The legendary Tenku Knights. I wondered who was causing so much trouble in my stronghold. Well, you’ll find me much more dangerous than the simple cyborgs you’ve fought thus far.”
The Necromaster threw off his cape with a cry, revealing a black double-breasted military uniform beneath. Around his waist was slung a gunbelt, two oddly-shaped holsters at his hips. The Knights tensed for battle.
Suddenly, the Steam Throne reared up behind the Necromaster, transforming to a vaguely humanoid shape in a rush of steam! Leaping over its master’s head, the Throne landed with a crash of splintering marble and rumbled across the chamber at our heroes, white steam trailing from exhaust pipes on either side of its skull.
As the rest of the Knights leapt aside, Shiba went to work. The Throne barreled into him at top speed, and Shiba fell back a step, absorbing the rush with his bat. For a moment the two swayed, each trying to force the other off. Then, with a grunt, Shiba shoved the towering Throne away. It fell backwards onto the floor and transformed again, spider legs sprouting from its sides with tiny jets of steam and the human legs combining to form a scorpion tail.
The combatants circled each other, the Throne’s engines chugging quietly in the silence. Then, Shiba leapt forward, shattering one of the spider legs with his bat. Listing dangerously, the Throne struck out with the scorpion tail, narrowly missing Shiba’s back as he leapt out of the way, more marble shards flying beneath the attack. But as Shiba landed, the Throne’s head swiveled and bit him on the thigh. Shiba fell to the floor with a cry of pain.
“SHIBA!” Tank jumped forth to protect his friend, shielding Shiba’s body with his own. The scorpion tail flashed, gouging deep into the flesh of Tank’s left side. The sickening sound of breaking ribs filled the room as Tank shouted in pain. In quick measure, the Throne landed a series of lightning attacks on Tank’s heavily-muscled back. Blood began to seep through the big man’s jersey, the white 18 stained crimson. But still he did not move.
Beneath Tank’s sheltering form, Shiba stirred. “Thanks pal,” he said through gritted teeth, “but you’ve done enough.” With one smooth motion, Shiba threw Tank off him, out of the path of the Throne’s attacks and dodged three sharp legs as they pounded down around him.
“TENKUUUUUU!” Shiba shouted, leaping into the air and bringing the bat down, point-first, into the center of the Throne’s back. Shiba was lost in a gout of steam for a moment, as the Throne convulsed and died beneath him. When the steam cleared, Shiba stood atop his fallen foe, skin red and fairly gleaming in the light.
“Now, Necromaster,” he said, pointing his bat at the evil industrialist, “It’s your turn.”
The Necromaster of Zardoz laughed a high, thin, unpleasant laugh. “You stand no chance against me!” he shouted. “Look! Already, the strongest of you lies bleeding on the floor! And why? Because I cut down a few trees? Because I brought progress to a bunch of savages? All that is nothing compared to my greater goal. I want what you want, Tenku Knights. I want to go home.”
“Home?” Golf asked, one eyebrow arching. “Then... Was I right? Are you from our world?”
“Does the name Malachi’s Carnival of Wonders mean anything to you?”
The Tenku Knights looked at each other in amazement. Golf took a slight step forward. “So you came here through the carnival, too? What’s going on?”
The Necromaster sighed. “All I know is that we were brought to this land by the Archwizard Malachi for reasons he has not seen fit to share. He rules a kingdom far to the west of here, a stronghold that not even the power of my science was able to penetrate. And so I came to Zardoz, to forge this backwards little fiefdom into a scientific fighting force capable of storming Malachi’s walls and forcing him to send me back. I wasn’t ready, but with you here... We could go to Malachi, my friends, and we could defeat him. He’d have to give us what we want. He’d have to send us all home.”
“All of us but Tank, is that it?” Shiba Batsu asked. He was kneeling beside his fallen friend, trying unsuccessfully to staunch the flow of blood. Shiba got to his feet, tears streaming down his face. “He’s not breathing, you bastard. He’s not breathing.”
“Tank?” Sakura said, choking back a sob. “Tank?” She went to the big man’s side and shook his shoulder. “Get up, Tank. Th-Thees ees just ze first life. You get two more. Eesn’t that how zese things work? Golf? Why doesn’t he get up?” Golf hung his head. “I don’t think he’ll be getting up, Sakura. I think he’s dead.”
“No.” Sakura stood, stumbling back from Tank’s prone form. “No, that can’t be.” Her gaze traveled up to the Necromaster. “You. You did thees! I theenk I loved zis large man, and you took him away.” She glared terribly, a single tear betraying her cold eyes. “Now, you weell pay. Now, you weell taste ze wrath of ten generations of ze Legend clan. Look upon ze face of your doom, Necromaster. Gaze in wonder, as you fall victim to... Ze Legendary Serve!!”
Electricity crackled from Sakura’s eyes. Her hair lifted on an unseen wind as she rose slowly into the air, her ball floating above one outstretched hand. It spun, becoming opalescent, then glowing. She stared at it, her eyes narrowing. With another crackle of her Four-Square power, the ball became a streak of light. It crashed into the Necromaster’s chest and rebounded off against the walls, striking him again and again.
Pummeled viciously, he found his back against the wall before regaining himself and finally batting the ball away. He stood erect then, and wiped blood from his mouth. “Very well,” he said. “I thought we could work together, but if you value this idiot’s life above your own... so be it!”
The Necromaster flicked a switch on the side of his neck and the black cloth of his uniform tore away. Tendrils of metal hissed loose from the wall behind him, snaking out to cover his body with a criss-crossing network of steel musculature. “Behold!” he shouted. “The Battle-Armor of the Necromaster of Zardoz!”
The Necromaster, fortified with science, launched forth into the center of his foes, and they returned his attacks with all their might, the pure power of sports coursing through their veins. Many were the blows that were struck, but ultimately to no avail. The power of the Necromaster’s augmented form was too much for them, and they were forced to fall back.
The lord of Zardoz laughed again, then, bloody but not beaten. His eyes were wild, and steam vented forth from every joint on his mighty battle-suit. “You have been good foes,” he said. “Malachi chose wisely this time. But not wisely enough.” He fell back to the wall, his hand falling upon a lever. “When I throw this switch, the floor beneath your feet will give way, sending you plunging to your deaths in the bottomless pit below. Farewell, Tenku Knights! Farewell!” The Necromaster threw the switch, and the room began to shake. Cracks swiftly appeared beneath the Tenku Knights’ feet. The stone floor began to give way.
“NO!” Tank Doyobi, his body broken beyond repair, lurched to his feet and leapt at his friends, his tremendous strength knocking them clear of the pit. “Leave them alone,” Tank said to the shocked Necromaster in a rasping voice. Stone blocks falling away beneath his feet with each step, Tank advanced on his enemy. They struggled briefly before the Necromaster broke Tank’s grip and stepped back. He stared at the young football star, fear in his eyes. He hesitated, and that was all Tank needed.
“TENKUUUUU!!!!” Tank shouted, launching himself forward. He hit the Necromaster shoulder-first and drove them both over the edge of the pit. They fell into darkness, leaving behind them no trace save Sakura’s sobs. The battle was over.
And so the Tenku Knights found themselves honored guests of the state. Following the demise of the Necromaster, a new government quickly stepped in to fill the void left by the tyrant, a benevolent government with the best interests of Zardoz and its people at heart. Though still anxious to find their way home, the four youngsters decided to stay for a few days, to rest, and to take part in a very special ceremony. In four days’ time, the Tenku Knights were to become Knights for real: Knights of Zardoz.
In preparation for the ceremony, the front hall of the Necromaster’s palace was cleaned in record time. The wreckage left behind in the final battle was removed, the floors swept and polished to a shine. New ornamentation was brought in, bright tapestries covering the drab stone and exposed machinery that reminded the people of Zardoz too much of the tyrant. A makeshift throne, constructed out of the few remaining scraps of wood left in the kingdom, was placed in front of the bricked-over doors to the pit that was once the Necromaster’s throne room.
And seated upon that throne, much to the Tenku Knights’ surprise as they entered on the day of the ceremony, was Hito, the orphaned child who taught Shiba such an important lesson about believing in himself.
“Hito!” Sakura shouted in delight, and raced across the throne room much faster than she was supposed to. She nearly swept the little boy up in her arms, but Golf raced forth to stop her.
“It is good to see you again, Hito,” Golf said. “Or should we call you ‘Your Highness’?”
“Hito is good enough for you, my friends,” Hito replied. “After all, you are the greatest heroes of the Realm.”
“But how’d you get to be king around here?” Harvey asked.
“Yeah,” Shiba Batsu added. “No offense, kid, but last time I saw you, you were living in a shack.”
“I was as surprised as any of you,” Hito told the heroes. “As you know, my parents were killed when I was very small. I remembered only my mother’s beautiful voice, which sang me to sleep at night in happier times. But two days ago, after you slew the evil Necromaster, Grand Vizier Kurakawa came to my shack and told me that I was the rightful heir to the throne! My parents were not killed by wild boars as Auntie told me, but were executed by the Necromaster when he took power.”
“It is true,” Grand Vizier Kurakawa, who was standing beside the throne, told them. “Young Hito was placed in the ghetto in the safe keeping of Captain Shinji, who disguised himself as an old washer-woman.”
Captain Shinji, who our heroes had until now only known as Hito’s Auntie, stepped forward from the Honor Guard to the throne’s left. He looked much less feminine in his uniform, and the Tenku Knights wondered why they had not noticed his thick five-o’clock shadow before now. “It was my honor to serve the throne,” he said in a deep baritone.
“But enough of this!” Hito cried. “We are here today to honor you, Tenku Knights, and to officially dub you all Knights of the Realm.”
Sakura wiped a tear from her eye. “I just weesh Tank could be here to be Knighted weeth us.”
“He will be honored,” Hito said. “A portrait of your fallen friend is being prepared that will hang here in the throne room for all time, a tribute to the man who gave his life that Zardoz could be free.
“But now, kneel here before the throne, my friends. It is time for you to accept your Knighthood.”
The picture blurred and became foggy as the Tenku Knights knelt before the throne, but the shadowy figure who stood over the scrying pool didn’t care. He had seen enough.
He smiled as he waved a bejewelled hand over the pool and the waters cleared. “So they become true Knights at last,” he chortled. He turned to his manservant. “Prepare the clowns, Malachi. It appears that we will have visitors sometime soon.”
The short, swarthy man he addressed opened the door to do his master’s bidding. In the light from the hallway beyond, the small man was revealed to be wearing the red-striped jacket and white straw hat of a carnival barker. He paused before leaving, and his small, pointed mustache stuck out at odd angles as a large, feral smile split his face. “So I did well this time?”
“Very well indeed, vile one. The Tenku Knights have proven their mettle. They’ve beaten their predecessor and will inevitably follow his lead to us... and their doom!”
And the cold, ugly laughter of the two evil men echoed from the walls...