From the mind of Bobby Nash
LANCE STAR AND THE CROWN OF GENGIS KAI
A serialized novella by Bobby Nash
“I will take my prize now,” The Overlord said.
“It doesn’t belong to you,” Lance Star said, stepping between The Overlord and Simon Prentiss. “Now, you let my friend go and maybe we can talk this out.”
“I don’t think so, Mr. Star.”
“Posturing won’t help you,” Lance said. “I’ve gone up against much bigger bad guys than you. You may call yourself The Overlord, but at the end of the day, you’re just another egomaniacal jerk in a tailored suit.”
The Overlord chuckled.
“I don’t think you grasp the full picture,” The Overlord said, taking a couple of leisurely steps forward. “It’s not the fact that my men have you surrounded, which they do. It’s not even the point that I have your friend in custody, but I do.”
He motioned toward Buck.
The agent of Magnapor’s secret police guarding Lance’s friend kicked the pilot behind the knee, sending Buck Tellonger crashing to the floor, hands tied behind his back and a gun pointed at his head.
“The concept you seem to have trouble grasping, Mr. Star is that this…”
His gestured to take in everything around them.
“All of this, this entire island, belongs to me. Lock, stock, and barrel, Magnapor Island is mine. Not only do I own the earth beneath your feet, but everything on this island belongs to me as well. This cave is my property. These men are my property. The Crown of Gengis Kai is mine as well.”
The Overlord smiled.
“In fact, you, Mr. American hero, became my property the moment you illegally set foot on my island.”
“That’ll be the day, pal!”
Clucking his teeth, The Overlord waggled a finger in front of his opponent. “No. No. This is not the time for your macho American theatrics. Oh, yes. I know all about you, Mr. Star. I have seen you and Mr. Tellonger there in the newsreels. You two, along with your squadron of, what do you call them? Ah, yes, Sky Rangers, no? I see you wave to the cheering crowds and accepting the accolades of your government for flying all around the world and imposing your imperialist American agenda on tiny, innocent nations such as mine.” “Are you insane?” Simon Prentiss shouted.
“Easy, Simon,” Lance warned.
“And now, you have come here to steal from me,” The Overlord continued, pulling a gun from his shoulder holster and pointing it at Lance and Simon. “I’m afraid I cannot let that stand.” “Simon’s right. You are crazy!”
“No. Not crazy. Poor people are crazy, Mr. Star. I am the leader of my people and absolute ruler of this island. I decide what is or is not considered crazy on this island.” “Okay, so insane it is then,” Buck said.
The agent kicked him in the side and Buck fell over onto his stomach, face in the dirt. He groaned under the impact.
The agent kicked him once more for good measure.
“Stop it!” Lance shouted, taking a step forward.
Another agent stepped forward and pointed a cocked gun at the pilot’s forehead. “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you, Mr. Star,” The Overlord said as if admonishing a child. Lance stopped, both eyes focused on the gun pointed at him.
“Professor Prentiss, I will have the crown now,” The Overlord commanded. “No!”
“Step back, gentlemen,” The Overlord said, motioning them away from the polished thrown and the mummified remains of the man history knew as Gengis Kai. “You don’t understand,” Prentiss started, but The Overlord silenced him quickly. “Not another word, Professor. I will not warn you again.”
“You heard the man, Simon,” Lance said, easing his fried away from the throne. “But, Lance…”
“Just do it,” Lance muttered. “Don’t argue.”
The Overlord stood before the throne where Gengis Kai and his crown had been placed at the time of his death. He returned the gun to his holster and then examined the remains, running a hand over the dark, polished stone.
“Simply remarkable,” he said. “To think, this powerful relic has been right here, hidden in plain sight all this time.”
The Overlord reached for the crown.
“No!” Simon Prentiss shouted. He took a step forward, but Lance held him back. “I warned you, professor…”
The Overlord’s fingers wrapped around the crown and he lifted it gently off of its owner’s petrified scalp.
“At least,” The Overlord said, a wide smile cleaving his face. “The power! It’s mine!” “You fool!”
“Not the time, Simon,” Lance warned.
“You don’t understand!”
“Oh, I understand all too well, professor,” The Overlord said.
Entranced, he held the crown in front of him as he admired its simplistic beauty. In all of the historical documents Simon Prentiss had studied, in all of the stories he had listened to spoken aloud, the look of the crown was constantly evolving. Some described it as an ornately decorated crown made of solid gold while others purported it to be platinum or any other rare metal.
The truth, by comparison was a letdown.
The crown was gold, though a thin sheet of gold, unpolished, and scuffed by years of abuse and the ravages of time. Large palm fronds from some local plant were woven into the crown, giving it the appearance of a tiki statue. There were no jewels decorating the crown.
In modern terms, it was worth whatever small amount of gold could be melted from it, which wasn’t much. The crown’s real power came from the legend that surrounded it. Neither Lance nor Simon suspected there was true supernatural power in the crown. The greatest value it held was from a historical perspective. It was proof that a man calling himself Gengis Kai truly existed.
“The crown isn’t magic,” Lance said, trying to get through to The Overlord. His words fell on deaf ears.
Before he could try again, a tremor ran through the ground beneath the pilot’s feet.
Lance looked down and saw small pebbles dancing across the cavern floor. “Oh, crap,” he muttered.
“What is…” The Overlord started.
“It’s boobytrapped, you moron!” Simon shouted.
Cracks splintered through the hard stone, sending gouts of steam into the cavern and throwing tiny slivers of rock in all directions.
A large explosion happened far below, sending everyone to the ground.
The Overlord lost his grip on the crown and it slid across the cavern floor, bouncing along its uneven surface.
Buck Tellonger took advantage of the chaos. He swiped a leg out and knocked the legs out from under the agent who was guarding him.
The man hit the deck hard.
Buck was on him in a shot with a knee on the man’s neck until he passed out. As soon as the man stopped struggling, Buck pulled the knife off the agent’s belt and cut his bonds. His hands free, Buck looked for his friends.
Lance was pushing Simon to safety, not that Buck saw too many safe spots in the cave. Cracks continues to break open across the floor and ceiling. Some pieces of rock fell from the ceiling and shattered when they hit the bottom.
“Time to go, boss!” Buck shouted as he ran over to join them.
“No one leaves!” The Overlord shouted. The crown was once more clenched in his white-knuckled grasp.
“You don’t understand,” Simon said.
Before The Overlord could respond, the rumble beneath their feet intensified, sending everyone to the ground, no longer able to stand on the violently shifting ground. Somehow, The Overlord kept his grip on the crown.
“Boss! Look!” Buck Tellonger shouted.
Lance Star followed his friend’s gaze and his heart fell into his stomach.
“We’ve got a new problem,” he whispered.
“What are you…” Prentiss started, but then he saw what worried his friend so and his eyes grew wide in shock and terror.
Molten lava poured from the cracks in the stone walls as if the tomb of Gengis Kai was bleeding. The temperature rose exponentially as the fiery liquid began pooling around the risers in the uneven cave floor.
“Oh, how I hate it when I’m right,” Lance muttered. “Time to go, Simon,” he said, grabbing his friend by the arm.
“But the crown…”
“Lost cause, pal! In a choice between us and the crown, I choose us each time! We have got to go!”
Simon wanted to pull away, to argue, but he knew Lance was right. Their fathers had both lost their lives in search of the Crown of Gengis Kai. Neither of them had been able to prove its existence, much less bring it home. At least Simon Prentiss could say that he had seen it with his own eyes.
“Damn! I wish I had a camera!”
“So, do I,” Buck said, pointing toward the lava bleeding from the walls.
The flow had slowed.
“What could cause that?”
“Oh, Simon. I wish you hadn’t asked that,” Lance said.
Lance pointed as the cracks widened, the sharp pop and crack of shattering stone echoing off the cavern walls around them.
“That’s why!” Lance shouted.
“Holy…” Buck said, his voice fading in the din of crushing rock.
“Is that?” Simon asked, unable to completely comprehend what he was seeing. “My God…” Lance muttered.
Lance Star had dismissed the legends out of hand. He had seen many things that defied explanation in his short career, but never had he seen anything like the strange scenario playing out in front of him. It wasn’t the lava. This wasn’t his first time standing on a volcano as it decided to erupt. In fact, this was his third active eruption.
It wasn’t the collapsing ceiling or enemy agents with guns. No. Lance and his crew had faced these type of threats before and thrived.
What he saw in front of him now, challenged the air ace’s beliefs to their core and he felt shame. He felt deep shame for not believing his father or his friend when they first told him the legend of Gengis Kai. The story was preposterous and grew only more so with each retelling. Lance could not believe that sentient beings made out of molten lava were real. That defied all of the laws of nature he understood.
Walking, talking rock men was a flight of fancy too far.
But yet, as he watched those very same creatures he had denied could truly exist step out of the cracks in the wall with molten hot lava rolling off of their rock-encrusted forms like water rolled off the back of a duck, Lance Star could no longer deny the truth.
The Warriors of Hades were not just creatures of legend.
They were real.
And they were standing right in front of Lance Star and his friends.
Lance Star couldn’t believe his eyes.
Over the years, he had witnessed some truly remarkable events. Some of them were even hard to rationalize to himself, much less explain to others. His definition of normal changed on a regular basis these days. Lance knew that monsters were real. He had fought more than his fair share of beasties in his travels, both human and inhuman alike.
Still, despite everything he had experienced, it was not impossible to shock him. He thought he had seen it all.
Then rock creatures bleeding molten lava walked out of the walls right in front of him. They were terrifying. Blackened rock cracked and popped with each move the creatures made. Lava as fiery red as a hotrod and hot like the volcano they stood upon. Technically, inside of as they were in a cave. The lava boiled beneath the surface as it was compressed between moving stone limbs, dripping to the cavern floor with tiny sizzling plops.
The temperature inside the cavern continued to rise.
“I knew it,” Simon Prentiss muttered next to Lance.
“No time to take a victory lap,” the pilot told his childhood friend, wiping the pouring sweat out of his eyes. “We have got to go!”
“No place to go, boss,” Buck Tellonger said, pointing toward the cavern’s entrance where three rock creatures stood, lava dripping from their bodies and pooling around their feet. “Well, this day just keeps getting better and better, don’t it?” Lance said. “I’m open to suggestion.”
“Retreat,” Buck offered, pointing toward an opening in the wall the rock creatures were building around them.
“That’s not out, buck! That’ll take us deeper into the cave!”
“Anything’s got to be better than here, right?”
“I wouldn’t count on it!” Lance said. “Still, we don’t seem to have many other options, do we?”
“What about The Overlord and his men?” Buck pointed toward the men nearby. Two of The Overlord’s agents were down, presumably at the hands of the Warriors of Hades. They were covered in lava, dead and scorched. The other two agents were firing on the lava men as they retreated toward the cavern entrance, but to no effect.
The Overlord, himself, had backed up behind them, also shooting aimlessly at the creatures out of myth. If they could stay ahead of the rock men, they had a chance to escape. The Crown of Gengis Kai had slid to a rest on the cavern floor, the lava moving around it as though to keep it safe or in fear of getting too close.
“We need to get the crown,” Simon said.
“Not in this lifetime, pal,” Lance said pointedly. “We’ve got to get moving!” “But we can’t just abandon it!”
“Oh yes we can,” Lance said.
“Lead the way, Buck,” Lance told his co-pilot. “Time to go, Simon!”
Grabbing Simon by the arm, Lance led him through the only escape hatch they had, which wasn’t much of one. The heat off of the rock creatures was intense. The nearest one reached for them, as if to grab them and halt their escape.
It missed, but Lance Star felt his arm begin to blister.
“Go!” he shouted, pushing them onward.
The tunnel was dark ahead. The only light came from the reflected red off of the lava that was oozing out of the walls. The heat was tremendous and only getting worse. When they reached a bend in the tunnel, they understood why.
Before them sat a giant pool of lava.
Unlike the molten earth behind them, this lava stood stationary in a pool with small fires scattered across its surface and ripples of heat radiating above it.
“Dead end,” Buck said.
“Poor choice of words,” Lance said.
“But accurate. What do you want to do, boss?”
“No way around it,” Lance said of the lake of fire. “Two choices.”
“Both bad,” Simon said.
“We go back… or we die here,” Lance said.
“Perhaps I can propose a third option,” a gravelly voice said from the darkness. ###
Lance was wrong.
There were still plenty of things in this world that could surprise him.
This was one.
The rock creature stood in front of them. It made no move to threaten or stop them from backing away. If he had to describe it, Lance would have said that the creature was patient, almost demure. At least so much as a rock creature with lava for blood could be. “Who are you?”
The rock creature chuckled. The sound was rough, like two rough stones grinding against one another.
“My name is unimportant,” the rock man said. “You have trespassed on our sovereign soil. This is in direct violation of our treaty.”
Lance was confused. He looked from Buck to Simon, who both shook their heads. They were as lost as he was, although he could see Simon’s wheel begin to spin. “Simon?”
Simon snapped his fingers. “You’re one of the Warriors of Hades, aren’t you?” “Warriors of Hades?” The rock man ran a granite hand along the side of his head, adding more rock grinding on rock noise to the echo. “Your words are strange.”
“Don’t you see?” Simon told Lance, grabbing his friend by the arm. “The stories about the crown. In every version of the story I’ve ever heard, Gengis Kai used the crown to fight the Warriors of Hades.”
“This is no time for myth, Professor,” Buck said, his eyes focused on the rock creature.
“It’s the perfect time,” Simon countered. “There are variations in every story about the battle between Gengis Kai and the Warriors of Hades, but there are constants in ever telling of the legend. One of those constants is the battle on this island. They fought here… on Magnapor.” “But it wasn’t called that then, was it?” Lance offered.
“No. In those days, this island was basically just the volcano,” Simon explained. “Where we’re standing now is the original island. The rest of it is built upon the cooled magma from the volcanic eruption that started all those hundreds and hundreds of years ago.” “So?”
“These guys made this island,” Simon exclaimed at the discovery. “In every version of the legend of Gengis Kai, the volcano erupts while he’s fighting these guys.” “Your friend speaks true,” the rock man said. “My people are responsible for this place. We have a great responsibility.”
“Removing the sentry has released the enemy.”
“Okay, this is getting too out there even for me,” Buck said. “We need to go. Now!” Lance held up a hand to stop his friend.
“Hold up, Buck. I think I understand.”
“Maybe. Hang tight a second,” Lance said.
“Is this island… this volcano… your home?”
“This place is where I exist,” the rock man said.
“But you haven’t always existed here, have you?”
Lance looked at Simon. “You said something about this Kai guy sailing across the ocean, looting and pillaging. He was a pirate, no?”
“That’s always been my belief,” Simon said.
“Gengis Kai came here after hearing about a powerful enemy, creatures he described as large and human-like with lava burning beneath rock-like shells. Everything they touched burned.”
“That sounds right.”
“These guys?” Lance said, pointing.
“Does the name Gengis Kai mean anything to you?” Lance asked the rock man. “It means key.”
“So, you knew him?”
“The name is… familiar.”
“He fought your people, this key?”
“Yes. At first.”
“And after?” Lance pushed.
“What happened when your fight finished?”
“The key’s eyes were opened.”
Lance looked to Simon and Buck, who both shrugged.
“I don’t understand. His eyes were opened to what?”
“The greater enemy. Once he saw the true enemy, the key joined my people to save this place.”
“You worked together?”
“We became allies against a greater threat.”
“I know I’m going to regret asking this,” Lance said. “But what greater threat?” “The enemy who lies beneath us.”
“Are you buying any of this garbage, boss?” Buck asked.
“It makes as much sense as anything else I’ve heard today.”
Simon snapped his fingers again.
“You’re sentries, aren’t you?”
“We are guardians of the key.”
“Simon?” Lance asked.
“I think I’m starting to get a clear picture,” Simon said. “All of the writing about the battle was either second hand, stories repeated over and over through the centuries, but they all started from a distance. Kai’s pirates watched the battle from the sea, remember? What if they weren’t watching Kai die fighting? What if they saw him working with these guys? Warriors of Hades was a name given them by the pirates. No one who told the stories ever met them.”
“Are you telling me these Rock Men from the Earth’s Core are the good guys?” Buck said, clearly not buying it.
“Tell us what happened,” lance said.
“The great enemy awoke from its long imprisonment. As the guardians, our responsibility was to keep the enemy at bay. The key’s arrival caused our concentration to shift and the enemy awoke.”
“The volcano erupted,” Simon said, filling in the blanks.
“And that’s how the enemy escaped?” Lance added.
“Yes.” The rock man nodded. “This is the only way in or out for the enemy.” “It’s the crown,” Simon said. “The crown is the key. Not Gengis Kai.”
Both Lance and Buck looked at him to continue.
“Don’t you see?” Simon said. “He called Gengis Kai the key and we found him sitting on that polished throne out there. He was still wearing the crown.”
“The crown was boobytrapped,” Buck said. “When The Overlord moved it, the lava started pouring in.”
“Boobytrapped?” Simon asked. “Or a key keeping an eruption at bay?”
“You think the crown is what’s keeping the volcano from erupting?” Lance said. “It’s keeping the enemy, the lava, at bay! Is that even possible?”
“Last I saw, Kai’s remains were still sitting on the throne. The crown was the only thing moved. The Overlord removed the key to this prison and the prisoner is ready to make a break for it.”
“Is that it? We get the crown back in place and the shaking stops?” Buck asked. “If the enemy has not escaped its fiery prison, the key will once more seal the exit.” “Then why didn’t you just put it back instead of coming after us?” Buck asked. “Good question. Simon?”
The professor shrugged.
“The key is a construct of your world,” the rock man said. “It is as deadly to my kind as it is to the enemy beneath. We can no more touch it than he without becoming trapped by its power.”
“Well, that’s just terrific,” Buck muttered.
“And if we return the key, you’ll let us walk out of here?” Lance asked, ignoring his co pilot’s sarcasm.
“You will be free to return to your world.”
Lance blew out a breath while he weighed their options, of which there were surprisingly few. Hands on hips, he nodded. The decision was made.
“Let’s go grab ourselves a key, gentlemen,” Lance said as if it were the most normal of tasks.
“I hope nobody changed the locks,” Buck muttered as he fell into step behind his friend.
Buck Tellonger was not overly excited by their odds of success.
The cavern had grown even hotter since Buck was last there along with Lance Star and his friend, Professor Simon Prentiss. When they left, lava had slowly begun to pour into the room, filling the cracks and holes first before slowly spreading toward the exit. Nearby, the rock men they had come to know as the Warriors of Hades, a name given to them by the history books, stood at the perimeter of the cavern trying to corral the flowing molten rock.
When he had last seen them, Buck believed they were there to keep them from escaping. In fact, they were doing everything in their power to hold back the lava flow, using their own granite bodies to alter the flow of the molten earth. Buck, along with people throughout history, had made assumptions about the nature of these creatures of myth.
It shamed him to realize how wrong those assumptions had been. He had judged the Warriors of Hades on their look at the name given to them by others who had made similar assumptions. It was a vicious cycle.
“Looks like The Overlord and his goons beat a hasty retreat,” Lance Star said, noting the lack of the man who had come at them at gunpoint.
Sure enough, the man who ran the island of Magnapor had taken his surviving secret police officers and exercised the better part of valor.
“Just proves he’s smarter than we are,” Buck joked, only partly serious.
Lance gave him a curious look, then let out a laugh. “You’re probably right,” he said around peals of laughter.
Over the years they had flown together, Lance Star and Buck Tellonger had travelled the world, fought despots and dictators, battled skilled pilots in the air and on the ground, faced off against scavengers, smugglers, and pirates, and ran afoul of things that were hard to accurately explain even to the most open-minded of folks. Standing in a cave filling up with lava in the middle of an erupting volcano while surrounded by sentient rock men and trying to rescue a hat might seem a little strange to your average person.
For the Sky Rangers… it was just another Tuesday.
“What’s the plan, boss?” Buck asked.
“We need to get that crown back,” Lance Star said, pointing across the cavern to the section of floor not covered with lava.
“Easier said than done,” Buck told him. “You know how hot that stuff is we got to cross?”
“Not as hot as it’s going to be when this cavern fills up with it.”
Lance looked around. The cavern was large and contained raised and lowered ledges, rocky outcroppings, and more nooks and crannies than he could count. Streams of molten lava, burning red and yellow flowed down the cavern walls from newly formed cracks in the tunnel walls. Waves of heat radiated off the floor.
Sweating profusely, Lance felt the first wave of lightheadedness. The heat would overtake all of them soon.
They had to act fast.
“Stay here,” he told his friends.
“What are you planning to do?” Simon Prentiss asked.
“We need that crown,” Lance said as it was the most normal thing. “I’m going to get it.” “There’s no way you can survive that heat,” Buck Tellonger added.
“Perhaps, I can assist you,” the rock creature said. “My people regulate the heat of our surroundings to nourish and strengthen ourselves.”
“How does that help us?”
“We can absorb a small fraction of the heat from this chamber for a short time while, allowing you to safely cross.”
“Seriously?” Simon asked.
“We can only limit the heat. We cannot remove it.”
“I’ll take every advantage I can get,” Lance said.
“It will be done.”
“Then, I guess I’m ready when you are.”
“We have begun,” the rock man said. “You may begin.”
“Be careful, boss.”
“Oh, I think we’re way past careful, Buck,” Lance said offhanded. “If things go belly up, you know what to do, right?”
“I’ll make sure he gets out,” Buck said.
There were open spaces in the floor, raised sections that the lava flow had not reached yet. Lance clocked each one of them. The plan formulating in his pilot’s brain was simple enough. He would leap to the first open space, hoping not to burn himself or, worse yet, fall into the lava and be flayed alive. If his new rock-covered ally was correct, the effect would be somewhat minimized. Otherwise, he would never be able to make the leap over the molten liquid without blistering his skin.
“Here goes nothing.”
Normally, the pilot kept in shape. He ran the perimeter of Star Field every morning before starting his workday at Lance Star. Inc. On occasion, he hit the weights with the other Sky Rangers after they turned one of the empty rooms off of the maintenance bay into a workout room. He was in tip top form on most days.
This was not most days.
The oppressive heat was taking its toll. Sweat poured off of him in waves, creating moments of lightheadedness and nausea.
And that was before he leapt headlong out of the proverbial frying pan and into the blistering hot oven.
A successful jump took Lance to the first clearing, a section of floor that rose a couple of inches higher than its surroundings.
He wobbled on landing but kept his footing and remained upright.
Lance took a moment to find his next island in the lava.
Lance stumbled upon landing and tipped off balance, landing on his knees before he steadied himself.
The heat buffeted him from all sides.
The crown was two more jumps away.
Of course, then I have to get back, he realized.
The next jump was close and relatively easy.
The last one… well, let’s just say the last one was going to be tough.
Lance calmed himself, mentally preparing himself for the leap. The distance was too great for a standing jump so he decided to get as much of a running start as he could, though there was barely enough room for more than three steps.
It would have to be enough.
Lance made his move, poured on the speed, and hurled himself in the direction of the crown.
He landed hard, the toe of his boot snagging the lava and splattering small droplets onto the riser.
He fell forward and came up in a roll before stopping just inches from the edge. The heat from the lava was intense at this distance.
Slowly, he got to his feet, but needed a moment to steady himself. The extreme temperature was quickly sapping his strength.
Move your tail rudder, Star! he told himself. No time for lollygagging!
Lance touched the crown with his finger, making sure that it was not too hot to hold before he scooped it up in his hands. He hadn’t thought to bring gloves but there was a back-up plan in case. If the crown was too hot, he could have torn strips from his shirt if need be. Surprisingly, the crown was cool to the touch and he held it easily.
The crown was surprisingly ordinary, all things considered. Lance took a moment to inspect it. The crown was thin, a metal beaten roughly into shape by primitive tools that left it pockmarked and not smooth by any stretch. Gold had been plated onto it in a way that reminded the pilot of dipping it into a vat of gold and allowing the excess to drip off of the crown. A few ornate inscriptions decorated the crown along with a few choice gems. From a strictly monetary standpoint, the crown wasn’t really worth all that much.
Up until now, the crown’s intrinsic value came solely from its historical context. Now, Lance understood that the crown was much more valuable as a key. What surprised him was that the palm fronds that decorated the crown had not wilted in
the heat. He wondered if they were made of the same metal as the crown and painted to appear to be flora, but no. He felt the leaves between his fingers. They were real and still alive after all this time.
How is that possible?
There was no time to ponder the question. The lava levels were rising. If he had any plans to get back to safety, then he had to move quickly. From the far edge of the cavern, kept safe by the rock creatures, Buck and Simon shouted warnings to Lance to pick up the pace.
The ace pilot retraced his path, leaping over the small rivers of lava, thankful that the rock creatures were able to keep the temperature lowered so he wouldn’t blister and burn as he crossed. It was still hot, but he could handle the artificial sunburn it was giving him easier than he could broken, blistered skin.
At the last stop on his return trip, Lance changed direction. The polished black stone throne remained untouched by the lava, even though it was in one of the lower elevations of the cavern. He had no idea I this was the doing of his new rocky friends or if something in the throne repelled the super-heated magma.
At the end of the day, it really didn’t matter.
Lance leapt over a river of lave and landed in the clear, once again crumpling to the floor upon landing. Even with the assistance of his new friends, the heat in the cavern was nearing
critical levels. Lance was in great shape, but he was still only human and there were limits to the amount of stress his body could endure.
He was nearing the threshold of his tolerance.
“Lance?” Buck shouted.
The pilots pushed himself up to his knees and held up a hand to keep his friend back. Lance knew Buck Tellonger well. He was a bulldog of a man, afraid of nothing, and loyal to his friends. There was no doubt that the man would throw himself in front of a bullet for any of his friends, probably even for a stranger. If Lance hadn’t let him know he was okay, Buck would have leapt over the lava to be at his side.
Lance appreciated that his friend wanted to help, but Buck’s mission was clear. If anything happened, it was Buck’s job to make sure Simon made it out safely. Studying the throne, Lance couldn’t see anything that resembled technology that could stop the very imminent eruption of the volcano. The mummified remains of the man history referred to as Gengis Kai sat slumped on the throne, his dead eyes staring out int nothingness. “I guess sometimes you just have to go on faith,” Lance said before placing the crown once more on top of the head of Gengis Kai.
From somewhere beneath him, Lance heard a loud CLANG! like steep doors snapping shut.
Almost instantly, the shaking stopped, the lava flow slowed, then stopped. Miraculously, the molten streams cooled quickly, filling the cavern with steam. “I can’t believe that worked,” Lance said, letting out the breath he didn’t realize he had been holding.
“Balance has been restored,” the rock creature said. “The key is once again in place and the enemy is secured. Both your world and ours are safe once more.”
“How is this possible?” Simon Prentiss asked the guardian. “Please, you have to explain…”
“No, he doesn’t,” Lance said now that he was safely returned to his group. “Trust me, Simon. There are some things it is better off not knowing. You have to believe me on this.” “You can’t just expect me to walk away from this, Lance! Don’t you see? This is it! This is the find of a lifetime! Your father died trying to locate this place!”
“That’s right,” Lance said, staring directly into his friend’s face. “This damned crown has already cost me a father. Please don’t let it cost me a friend as well.”
“You know it exists, Simon. You’ve seen the crown with your own eyes. You’ve seen Gengis Kai’s burial chamber. You can amend the history books.”
“With rock monsters and ancient enemies kept prisoner under a volcano?” Lance’s face scrunched. “Yeah. That part might be a hard sell. Just leave that part out.” “Just leave it out?” Simon balked. “That’s not how science works, Lance!” “Welcome to the Sky Rangers, professor,” Buck joked. “Oh, the stories we can tell you that never made it into a mission briefing.”
“I can’t just leave without asking them…” Simon continued.
“Asking who?” Lance asked.
That was when Simon realized that the guardians were gone. They had silently returned to their guard stations beneath the surface.
“I’m sorry, Simon,” Lance said.
“What do we do now?”
“I think our best bet is getting out of here,” Lance said. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve had all the steam bath I can stand.”
“You’ll get no argument from me, boss,” Buck said and started toward the exit. “Fresh air sounds great right about now.”
“I wouldn’t get too comfortable, if I were you, Buck,” Lance said as they stepped out into the humid island air. The breeze, as warm as it was, still felt cool compared to the air inside the cavern.
“Why not?” Simon asked.
“Don’t forget, the volcano and rock men weren’t our only problems,” Lance reminded him. He pointed toward the horizon and the small dots that pockmarked the sky. “What’s that?” Simon wondered aloud.
Lance and Buck immediately recognized them for what they were.
“Airplanes,” Buck said. “The Overlord’s men?”
“That would be my guess, Buck. Fighter planes,” Lance agreed. “We need to get to the plane before they get here. We need to go! Now! Run!”
Exhausted, the three men found the strength to make a run for their plane. Lance did a quick calculation in his head while on the move. There was a very good chance they wouldn’t reach their plane before the planes reached them, much less get in the air before the attack run started.
Suddenly, the volcanic eruption didn’t seem so bad.
“Time to hustle, gents!”
By the time Buck Tellonger dropped into the pilot’s seat of the cargo plane, the attack had already begun. Four planes showing the colors of Magnapor Island’s Overlord, shades of green to denote the tyrant’s capitol the locals referred to as the Emerald City, were inbound on approach. The man was nothing if not egotistical. The planes were heavily armed and bore down on the volcano, the airplane parked nearby, and the two men running from one to the other.
While Lance Star hung back to help his friend, Professor Simon Prentiss to the plane, Buck sprinted ahead so he could have her ready to fly when his friends boarded. Prentiss was a brilliant archaeologist, smart, studious, and brimming with knowledge. What he wasn’t, however, was an athlete. He was in sorry shape and easily winded. He had even tripped and fallen twice.
After the events of the past day or so, they were all starting to run out of steam, even Lance, who was in decent shape.
“Come on! Just a little farther,” Lance told his friend as they ran. “Move your feet, Simon! We’ve got to go!”
The whine of an engine filled the sky and Lance pushed Simon to the ground a second before machine gun fire chewed up the area just in front of them as one of the enemy planes strafed the area. They were lucky that, in haste to get to them first, the pilot overflew the target and missed. Lance doubted they would be so lucky on the next pass.
The plane pulled up on a high arc, ready to come around for another pass, but not wanting to get in the way of the next plane’s attack run.
“We’re sitting ducks out here, Simon! Time to run!”
Lance pushed Simon onward. This time, the professor did not argue.
More bullets tore into the ground nearby, gouging out pieces of hardened molten rock and the sand that covered it. The air filled with dust and debris.
Lance Star pulled the weapon from his belt and fired off six shots at the plane passing by overhead. He knew it was an empty gesture. Even if he hit it, there was no way he was going to damage the plane enough to bring them down with a handgun fired from the ground, but he hoped the pilots in those planes wouldn’t know that. If it bought them a few extra moments, it was worth the wasted ammo.
He also needed to buy Buck time to get the plane airworthy.
The cargo plane was just ahead. As Simon ran toward it, Lance popped his last magazine into the gun and stopped to face down the next approaching plane.
He squeezed off shots until the chamber was empty.
The pilot of the attack plane veered off course. With his firing solution altered, his field of fire went wide and missed the crazy American pilot by a mile… so to speak. Simon was already climbing aboard when Lance reached the ladder. He took the steps two at a time and pulled the ladder into the plane behind him before sealing the hatch. “We’re in, Buck!” he shouted. “Let’s go!”
Before he even got the words out, Buck Tellonger had the plane moving. Lance and Simon grabbed onto the side seats and held on tight as the plane bounced and bobbed over the uneven terrain as they worked to pick up speed for takeoff.
“Hold on!” Buck shouted.
Bullets peppered the cargo plane’s hull like angry raindrops attacking a metal roof. A few of the offending projectiles burst through like infuriated bees. A couple of shots ricocheted inside the cargo space. Lance and Simon dove for cover.
“Come on, Buck…” Lance muttered as he wrapped the seatbelt strap around his arm to keep from being thrown about the cargo area. Unlike dice in a cup, there was no chance he or Simon would roll anything but snake eyes.
“Hang on, Simon!” he shouted. “Hang on!”
The plane shook beneath him to the point it felt like it was going to fly apart at the seams. Lance knew better, of course. The team back at Star Fields built their birds tough and sturdy. Lance Star’s planes could take a pounding and keep on flying.
At least that’s what the press releases always said.
All part of the business side of things.
Lance understood that no plane was perfect. He had walked away from more than a few hard landings, which is pilot talk for crashing. Dogfights were a completely different matter. Not only did you have to have the better plane, but the pilot’s skill made all the difference.
Until he was able to stand, Lance was trapped in the cargo hold and of no help to Buck. Then, as suddenly as the thought hit him, the plane defied gravity and parted company with Mother Earth for trip to the heavens. Buck had gotten them in the air, but that was only half the battle. There were still enemy planes on their tail.
Another burst of gunfire peppered the plane, illustrating that very point vividly. Once he freed himself from the entangled straps, Lance made his way quickly to the stairs leading up to the cockpit. As he climbed the four steps up, he took a moment to check on Simon.
The professor gave him a thumbs up.
“Stay strapped in!” Lance shouted. “Things might get hairy!”
“Might?” Simon echoed.
He couldn’t be certain, but Simon thought he heard his friend laugh at that as he slipped through the hatch.
In the cockpit, Buck Tellonger worked the yoke like the combat veteran he was, performing maneuvers honed over countless hours of training and practical combat all the while chewing on a disgusting, fat, unlit cigar. Buck was an air ace, one of the top combat pilots living today. Despite the danger all around them, Buck was also having the time of his life. Lance dropped into the copilot seat and strapped in.
“Weapons coming on-line,” Lance said as soon as he was in place.
“Hurry up, Lance! This bloke’s gettin’ on my last nerve!”
“Keep your shirt on, Buck,” Lance said calmly, as though they were not in a fight for their lives.
“I’ll get you lined up. Ready…” Buck said. “Bandit at two o’clock. I’m adjusting… and fire.”
Lance squeezed the twin triggers and opened fire on the enemy plane.
He scored a direct hit. Smoke immediately poured from the plane as it lost control. The pilot fought for altitude, but it was a losing battle. The plane was going to crash.
“Eject,” Lance muttered.
The pilot did not listen.
The plane plowed into the side of the volcano at top speed, ripping into the hard-packed wall before erupting into flames, the explosion sending flame and smoke billowing into the air. Lance and Buck held their breath. They were both thinking the same thing. Will the explosion trigger an eruption?
Thankfully, the volcano refused to play.
“One down,” Lance said. “Find me our next contestant, Buck.”
“You got it, Boss.”
Lance watched through the window as the enemy plane swung wide to realign for another attack. Buck took the plane into an arc that successfully mimicked the other pilot’s trajectory. Meanwhile, the enemy pilot’s friend, was coming around to flank them. No matter which target Lance focused on, the plane was going to take a hit. Thank goodness we build ‘em tough, he thought.
“This is going to be tight, boys,” Buck called out a warning. “Brace yourselves!” Once the targeting was lined up, the ace pilot opened up with the guns and sent streams of bullets into the plane’s starboard wing, chopping it to pieces. Thick, oily smoke trailed out of the plane as it spiraled into the ground much like his friend had moments ago. “Splash two!”
Before they could enjoy the victory or line up their next shot, another enemy plane opened fire on the plane.
Buck took it into a dive to avoid taking fire.
He was only partly successful.
Bullets peppered the hull, knocking new dents and dings they would have to bang back out once they got this baby back home to Star Field.
“Hold onto your hats, boys!” Buck shouted. “This might get a little bumpy!” The ground was coming up to them hard and fast. If Buck miscalculated by even a fraction of a second, they would hit the ground at top speed. It would be the kind of impact where there were no bodies left to recover. Buck was as skilled a pilot as any Lance Star had ever met, but they were all exhausted, the plane shot up, and Buck had recently taken not one, but two beatings from The Overlord’s not-so-secret police.
All of this made Lance a touch nervous.
He need not have worried.
At the last moment, Buck jerked the yoke hard and pulled up out of the dive into a steep arc skyward, narrowly avoiding the hard deck by a matter of feet. With all of the damage the plane had taken, they heard rivets pop and metal strain as they gained altitude, but she held together. Lance Star, Inc. built their planes to take a lot of punishment, but even Lance was beginning to think they were pressing their luck.
The plane that had been chasing him did not fare as well.
Unable to pull out of the dive in time, the pilot slammed into the ground at top speed. The plane exploded on impact.
That’s three down…
The cargo plane continued to climb.
“Buck…” Lance said as pressure increased on his chest.
“I know,” the pilot said.
“I know,” he repeated through grit teeth.
Buck came out of the climb and leveled off. For just the briefest of moments, they felt weightless, held in place only by their seatbelts. It was an odd sensation.
Then everything returned to normal and Buck took her back down quickly, angling around so they could find their final target before the other pilot could get a firing solution on them.
Midway into their descent over the island, the other plane came into view. It was an easy target and Lance opened fire on it.
The enemy plane exploded in a ball of fire as Buck piloted them around the falling debris and headed out toward sea, putting as much distance between them and the Emerald City as possible.
“Waa-Hoo!” Buck shouted in triumph. “Now that’s some mighty nice shootin’, partner!” Lance clapped Buck on the shoulder, smiling proudly.
“That wasn’t a bad bit of flying either, Buck, ol’ boy.”
“We aim to please, boss.”
Exhausted, Lance leaned back in the co-pilot’s seat and breathed a sigh of relief. “How’s your friend doing back there?”
Lance looked back to check on Simon Prentiss, who was sitting in the cargo area on a bench along the hull.
“You still in one piece back there?”
“I’ll live,” Simon said.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get your prize.”
“It’s okay, Lance. I got to see it with my own eyes. I held it in my own hands. That is more than any other archaeologist has done in our lifetime.”
“I think my old man came close though,” Lance said.
“I think he did too,” Simon agreed. “Part of me wishes he had found it.”
“And the other part?” Lance prodded.
Simon Prentiss smiled and shrugged.
“Welcome to the history books, pal,” Lance told him. “I figure you’ll get a book or two out of this.”
“At least,” Simon beamed. “Maybe a whole series. I’m thinking lecture tours, book signings…”
“Maybe a motion picture?” Lance added.
“Now there’s an idea,” Buck chimed in. “Whoever they get to play me better have one handsome mug. They kinda broke the mold when they made this face.”
“Thanks for helping me do this, Lance,” Professor Prentiss said.
“Anytime, pal. That’s what friends are for.”
Simon smiled, then added, “That was some… ah… amazing flying, Mr. Tellonger.” “It’s even more fun when people aren’t shooting at ya,” Buck said with a laugh. “I can imagine.”
“You ever get the urge to go up for a joyride, just holler.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Simon said, suddenly nervous about the prospect.
“What’s our next step, boss?” Buck asked. “You want to go back there and get into it with The Overlord or keep flying? There’s no way their letting us land at that airfield again.” “Right now, I’m too tired to even think about The Overlord,” Lance said. “Besides, as much as I hate to admit it, he is the rightful government of Magnapor, corrupt though he may be. He’s got the law and firepower on his side. Besides, he ain’t going anywhere. I’d bet dollars to donuts we’ll get into it with him some other time.”
“Oh, yeah. We’ll be back here eventually,” Lance said. He even sounded exhausted. “Let’s go home before The Overlord sends any more of his goons after us.” “Best plan I’ve heard all day,” Buck said.
“Take us home, Buck,” Lance said as he leaned back and closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Buck Tellonger set a safe cruising altitude and pointed the plane in the direction of the good ol’ U.S. of A. They would have to stop off in Hawaii to refuel, but Buck always enjoyed a visit to paradise. Maybe he could convince the boss to let them stay a day or two for a well earned vacation. It had been too long since Buck had danced with an island girl at a luau. He just hoped this volcano stayed quiet for the duration of their visit.
As the plane flew off into the sunrise, Lance Star got the best nap of his life.
Until next time.
Lance Star: Sky Ranger will return.