Garadin pushed through the crowd and knelt beside the man writhing on the pavement next to the open rear bay of his silver SUV, still screaming as though his guts were being wrenched out in great fist-fulls. I dropped down next to Garadin, glancing over at him as he leaned over the man. Even in the midst of the emergency I couldn’t help noticing things about him, like the way he knelt with middle knee down, the other two up, just as he always did in the books. It had to be the most stable “bended knee” position in all history and fiction, and there were a lot of stories that featured him positioned like this, whether looking after a victim of some space-calamity as he was now, or pursuing some softer sort of moment beside a chance lover while danger brewed just off-panel…
I forced my attention to the man twisting in agony on the ground in front of us. I did a quick inspection, looking for what might be amiss and coming up empty. He was blond, middle-aged, and slightly doughy, reminding me of all the buff and beautiful football stars from my high school who’d ended up as beefy fridge repairers and glad-handing car salesmen. This one was wearing a light orange-plaid long-sleeve shirt, unbuttoned and open over a gray tee shirt; below were knee-length cargo pants, short sweat socks, and well-worn running shoes. There was no sign of injury or attack that I could see. “What’s wrong with him?” I asked Garadin.
“Look at the hands,” Garadin said. He had opened up his satchel and was looking through it for something. I did as instructed and turned over one of the man’s twitching hands at the wrist, letting out a sharp gasp as I saw what was making him scream. The palms of his hands were covered in large magenta crystals the size of road salt, like he’d taken a header into a pile of the stuff hands first—and each and every one of these crystals seemed bent on burrowing into the flesh of the man’s palm.
I dropped the hand in horror and looked around for the cause. It was easy enough to spot: one of the shopping bags in the SUV’s cargo area had fallen over, knocking open a quart-sized metal canister of something called “Doctor Vengeful’s Safe and Nontoxic Chrome Restorer”—the magenta crystal contents of which had spilled over onto the carpeted floor of the stowage space. Beefy McGlorydays here must have tried scooping it back into its container, only to discover that making your kitchen sink nice and shiny again wasn’t its only utility. I glared at the label—it actually had a cartoon of a splayed hand on the side with the legend “safe to use without gloves!!” around it.
“Garadin, look,” I said, nodding toward the offending cleanser.
“I saw,” Garadin replied, glancing toward it quickly. He’d found what he was looking for in his bag—a silver tube of some kind, like they used for ointments and acrylic paint. A healing unguent, I guessed. To my surprise he pressed it to my chest. Automatically I reached up and placed my hand over it. He held his hand there for a second, steel-blue eyes boring into mine, before he withdrew it, leaving me in possession of the tube. He placed the hand on my shoulder instead. “We need water,” he said. “Lots of water.”
I almost scoffed. We were in New Mexico; asking for lots of water around here was a bit like asking for volcanoes in Greenland. The moment was all wrong for sarcasm, however, so I considered his words seriously, discarding one idea after another. The UltraEmporium we were camped in front of had scads of bottled water, but administering it would be awkward—not to mention the spectacle it would cause. Of course there was freaking waterfall in in Garadin’s homespace, which the Slipnode could get us to in no time at all, but I knew better than to suggest bringing a stranger—not to mention a quantity of malevolent crystals—into the traveler’s forbidden sanctum.
Water. There were lots of pools around, but these were mostly in the ritzier neighborhoods, some ways away and behind a lot of iron fences. My bathtub was closer and obviously more accessible. I was still reno-ing the house I was living in so I could flip it, but the plumping was already done and I already knew the water pressure and volume was fantastic.
“I live ten minutes away,” I told him, returning his gaze. He nodded, understanding.
I made no sign of moving toward my car. I also very deliberately didn’t look at the intricate tattoo encircling his wrist, either, and neither did he, but my awareness of it was obvious. For a single heartbeat he considered me, hand still firmly gripping my shoulder. Then he asked, “You up for this?”
He glanced toward the store, and I guessed he was bent of retrieving whatever stock of “Doctor Vengeful’s” hand-eating crystals had been slipped onto the shelves here before it snagged anyone else. He was leaving me to deal with the original victim. When he looked back I grinned. “Go,” I said. I grabbed the guy’s forearm again, ready for what came next.
“Wash first, then the salve,” he said with a businesslike smile. Then he winkled, and I drew in a breath. “See you soon,” he said playfully.
Then the flecks in his tattoo seemed to glow, and I knew he’d activated the Slipnode’s short-range teleport. My heart dropped like I was on high platform that had suddenly collapsed. I gasped, and with an almost audible foomf Garadin, the crowd with their phones, the parking lot, and the whole UltraEmporium were all gone, replaced with the beige, primer-splotched walls of my own living room—the place I called “home.”
“Well, shit,” I breathed.
I was still shivering as I realized I was still gripping Beefy Guy with one hand the the tube of salve in the other. Gathering myself together, though a combination of cajoling and manhandling I managed to get my whimpering charge into the bathroom and bent over the side of the tub where I got a torrent of warm water going. As soon as I got his hands under the spout he screamed again, but I held onto his forearms firmly, keeping them under the spray. “Shhh,” I soothed in his ear, as Garadinesquely as I could. “It’ll all be over soon.”
“What the fuck is going on?” he babbled, struggling limply against my hold. The crystals had already taken a lot out of him, it seemed. He looked around at my bathroom, which still had the gold-plated fixtures and coral-red Hawaiian-shirt wallpaper put up by the previous owners. “Where the fuck am I?” he wailed, managing to look pained and offended at the same time. I glanced around. The decor in here was truly hideous, but stripping the walls was way down my list at the moment.
“Shhh,” I said. “Don’t worry. The chrome polish turned out to be caustic, but we’re fixing it now. See?” I pulled his hands out of the water to show him. Sure enough, there were no magenta crystals anymore—just lots of holes gouged in the flesh of his palms, like someone had been drilling for water really unsuccessfully.
Beefy Guy screamed. “What the fuck?!”
I’d dropped the tube of salve by the side of the tub. I retrieved it now, leaving the water running, and quickly started squeezing generous amounts of beigish goop onto both hands. It smelled awful, like old sneakers left too long in a gym locker, but… that meant it worked, right? I worked the goo into his hands diligently for a few minutes as Beefy Guy panted anxiously, both of us no doubt thinking about how singular and bizarre this moment was. Beefy Guy was actually not bad looking—a bit ruddy and puffy-cheeked, but he had nice eyes. I kind of wanted to look him up sometime and share a beer, just to see what his life was like when he wasn’t being attacked by evil consumer products.
After I’d massaged the ointment into his skin for a few minutes I could feel a warmth building up from it as the salve sank gradually into his skin. I cradled his hands in mine, and we both gaped as we watched as all the pockmarks began very slowly filling and smoothing over with new, pink flesh, like the city had suddenly doubled its pothole budget and had gone on a spree to fill every last one.
He looked up at me in awe as we knelt together by the tub, the rushing water loud enough I had to lipread his whispered “Who are you?”
I shrugged. “Nobody,” I said, then I had to suppress a grin—this time there was no chance he’d confuse me with a half-gremlin energy-vore.
I was basking a bit in the wonder in his expression when he glanced aside at the tub and his eyes bugged out. He clambered quickly to his feet in a panic, pointing. “The water is… crawling…”
I looked down and quickly got to my feet in alarm. I had assumed that a large enough supply of running water would dissolve the magenta crystals, rendering them harmless as they washed into the Albuquerque sewers. I now saw that such an estimation was… optimistic. The water in the tub was roiling with magenta specks that showed no sign of breaking down—in fact, the slurry of evil now imprisoned in my sloshing tub seemed to be aggressively trying to climb to sides and break free to spread havoc in the wider world beyond. Worse, the tub was slow-draining at the best of times, and now seemed to have stopped itself almost completely leaving the water level to slowly rise toward the sloping brink. It would be spilling out and filling the bathroom floor in no time.
“Shit!” I said. I grabbed for the detachable shower-head and switched the water flow over, hoping to use the spray to keep down the crystals that seemed to be actively trying to climb the sides of the tub—but the water pressure through the shower head was comparatively weak compared to the deluge of the spout, even on “pulse.” “Shit, shit, shit!” I cursed.
“Stand back!” Garadin said, appearing suddenly next to me. I dropped the sputtering shower-head and jumped back next to where Beefy Guy was cowering in the corner by the toilet, as red as the wallpaper behind him. Both he and the wallpaper clashed pretty badly with the orange-plaid shirt, enough so that I had to look away.
Garadin took a quick look at the tub fill of escape-driven crystals, then pulled a small light-blue sphere from his bag and dropped it dramatically into the roiling waters. “Kowabunga!” he cried. There was a wet-sounding crack, and suddenly the tub water was milky and quiescent, its tiny magenta hijackers inert, at least for the moment.
Garadin then picked up the shower head I’d dropped and tested the temperature against his hand. He looked over at me and tutted. “Only warm water?” he teased. “Amateur.”
I folded my arms over my chest. “What, I should have scalded him instead?” I shot back. He grinned and bent to turn the cold water off, cranking the hot water all the way up instead. As he directed the shower head at the contents of the tub, I started to hear a kind of sizzling sound. “That’s it,” Garadin said contentedly. He beckoned me back over and handed me the shower head. “Keep it up until it’s not so evil,” he said. As I took over at the tub, he walked over to Beefy Guy. “Hands,” he said.
Beefy Guy showed him his hands. Garadin nodded approvingly at the healed-over skin, which was still mottled pink where the little holes had been. Even if he had pink polka-dotted hands forever it was still a fair trade, I figured. “Nice work,” Garadin said to me.
“Thanks,” I said. I stole a quick glance at his very round and inviting triple ass before returning to my work, directing my crystal-killing 120 degrees at any remaining spots of magenta in the slowly emptying tub. Everywhere I sent my spray, the crystals died a gratifyingly audible death.
“Who are you people?” Beefy Guy said again.
Garadin clapped his right hand on Beefy Guy’s shoulder—the hand with the tattoo around the wrist. “You want to go home, don’t you?”
Beefy Guy nodded vigorously. Whatever all this was, he was done. I had no doubt he’d write off the whole afternoon as cleanser-induced delirium. Garadin gave him a cheery smile. “Off you go, then,” he said. “Be well.”
I blinked, then with the faintest possible foomf Beefy Guy was gone, and it was just me and Garadin. He came diffidently over to check my progress, standing just that little bit too close. My attentions hadn’t gone unnoticed, it seemed. Well, subtlety is for losers.
Garadin looked over the tub as I continued spraying, pretending to inspect my work. “What about you, Joe?” he asked.
“I am home,” I told him, with just the right edge of smarm to appeal to this sex-loving, planet-saving man I knew well, yet didn’t know at all. Very deliberately, I transferred the sprayer to my left hand, leaving my right hand free to grab his butt. And did I grab his butt? I just said subtlety is for losers, didn’t I?
We stood in my living room, mulling over the two cases of “Doctor Vengeful’s Safe and Nontoxic Chrome Restorer” Garadin had managed to extract from the Super UltraEmporium’s shelves and stock. The good news was that they hadn’t had the stuff for long, maybe a few weeks, and Beefy Guy had been the only taker so far. Most folks didn’t trust their fixtures to someone named “Doctor Vengeful,” it seemed. That still left 47 quart canisters of extra-universal malevolence to deal with.
Garadin was unperturbed. “I’ll find a hot spring to tip it all into,” he said. “No worries.”
“It seems pretty… penny-ante,” I mused.
Garadin nodded. With a gratifying synchronicity we turned together and started walking back toward my bedroom. I wanted to pull those boots off him one at a time, just for the sake of having three of Preter Garadin’s boots on my bedroom floor. Of course, that was only the beginning. “The crystals—they don’t belong here, right?” I asked.
Garadin nodded again. “They were just malevolent and anomalous enough to trip my astral awareness, but not quite potent enough for me to home in on them directly,” he said. “That’s why I was there. I knew something was wrong, but… I didn’t know what I was looking for until I stepped in it.”
I smiled fondly. I could think of half a dozen adventures where Garadin had said something similar. “So the crystals were just a lure to bring you to this universe,” I said.
“Undoubtedly.” Garadin sat on the edge of my bed, his three dark-clad, well-formed legs spread slightly apart. I bit my lip, my blood already running hot as I started to get hard. We regarded each other intently for a few minutes.
“How do you know about me, Joe Capshaw?” he asked at last.
I sighed. I was so past the usual fanfic revelation scene. Instead I walked over to my desk, grabbed my iPad, and spent a few seconds pulling up my digital copy of Garadin Metaverse, volume 1. I handed it to him.
He looked the cover over with interest—fuck, even the way those so-expressive eyebrows went up was hot. He scrolled through for a bit, making various amused or affronted faces in turn before setting the tablet aside.
“That explains a lot,” he said. “I take it there’s a fair number of these Garadin Metaverse books?”
“Fifty-five so far,” I said proudly. “And that’s just what’s in canon.” I smiled quirkily. “Some of it’s kind of…” I raised my own eyebrows suggestively.
“Sounds like it’s fairly accurate then,” Garadin said drolly. “Someday I’ll have to investigate how this universe ended up with a fictional account of my doings.” He bent to reach for his rightmost boot.
“Let me,” I said quickly, kneeling before him. He smiled and surrendered his foot to me, and I carefully removed the boot, setting it aside so I could massage the white-stockinged foot underneath. I met his gaze, and my pulse quickened a bit more at the lust so obviously darkening those pretty steel-blue eyes. “So, shall we hunt down ‘Doctor Vengeful’ together?” I asked, pressing his foot firmly against my thigh as I reached for his middle boot. “I mean,” I added, pausing as I glanced up at him, “that is why you’re here.”
Unexpectedly, Garadin reached down and grabbed my shoulders in a firm grip, pulling me up into a long, lingering kiss. “‘Doctor Vengeful’,” he said eventually, breaking the kiss to eye me rakishly, “isn’t going anywhere.”
Part-time social media hunk Xavier has a weird feeling about this tropical beach shoot, and it only gets stranger as the shoot goes on.