It was late afternoon on the tenth of the month, the first day that everyday civilians traveled from Earth to Papyrus, when Mel finally saw some sign that he and his niece might ever return home. Lying in the woods in the center of a nearly-overgrown and then recently traveled path that the two had found themselves on was a torn up piece of stained cloth. Mel picked it up and sniffed at the red stain to confirm his suspicions.
“What is that?” Carla piped up, sounding a bit hoarse from not speaking for the last hour or two.
“Blood. I’m pretty sure this is what Hammerstein was using to bandage himself after the warden stabbed him.” Mel had spent the first few minutes of their long hike bringing Carla up to date on what exactly had happened last night- the rumor of a red-shirted army, the suspicion that a new prisoner had run afoul of said secret society, the weird little rock Warden Genkai had used to open up the portal and even the fight that his niece had witnessed when not distracted by the hole in the fabric of space-time. Carla had been surprisingly silent throughout the story, not bothering to ask questions or even confirm that she cared all that much about what was going on.
At least she was talking to him now. “Why would he get rid of a bandage so soon? I mean, it hasn’t even been a day.”
“Maybe he got himself a new one. Or maybe he lost this one. I mean, I doubt he’s in the best shape, with the beating I gave him. And he can’t have had much rest, because he had to clear out of that sock place before we-“ A thought interrupted Mel’s sentence before it could finish.
Carla groaned. “What’s wrong now, Uncle?”
“We should be dead right now. I mean, think about it. If he had time to run away from us while we slept, he should have known we were there, and then we were unconscious. So why didn’t he, I don’t know, smother us in our sleep?”
“You’re complaining that we didn’t get murdered last night?”
“It just doesn’t make any sense.”
“You know what doesn’t make sense?” Carla pointed into the distance, far along the path to where the trees blended into a mass of brown and green. “If that hammer guy is so far ahead of us, who is that?”
Mel had to shade his eyes and step forward a few feet to see it, but there definitely was something or someone sitting cross-legged a good distance away.
Moving silently was hard enough with the ground littered in twigs and leaves. It was even harder while carrying a bulky bag. Dragging Carla along (Mel wasn’t about to leave her alone in the middle of some mysterious woods in an alien dimension) made it basically impossible, so Mel just made do with being extra careful and keeping the noise to a minimum.
As they edged closer, it became obvious that the man was, in fact, Hammerstein, although he was completely lost in a meditative state. Mel wasn’t sure whether he should attack the man where he sat or try to take him captive or what- he had the hunting knife sheathed and hanging from his side, but using it would make it that much harder to get any information out of their enemy. But it didn’t matter what Mel did because that stupid old hamburger hat jumped clear off of Carla’s head, over the musing mercenary and into a pile of leaves, rustling around noisily like an excited puppy.
Two bloodshot eyes shot open. Carla couldn’t help but shout in surprise for a second before covering her mouth. Mel flung his bag to the ground and gripped the hunting knife’s handle in his left hand. Hammerstein began to laugh.
“You’re here.” The man rose to his feet with ease and stretched his shoulder muscles. Mel saw no sign of the knife wound and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. “I thought you might show, prison guard. You even brought a little friend. How very stupid of you to do so. Now you’re both trapped in here forever.”
“And you’re doing fine, then?” Mel put as much false bravado into his reply as he could muster. “Not to belabor the point, but you’re here too. You were here first. So it’s not so much how are we gonna get out,“ Mel gestured at himself and Carla with his free hand, “as much as how are we getting out.” Here he pointed at Hammerstein as well.
“The solution is simple,” Hammerstein replied. “First, I will kill or otherwise the two of you. Then, I will find our mutual friend Mr. Geier. He has access to Redshirt secrets he has no right to know, secrets beyond even my pay grade. I will take that knowledge and use it to return, and the three of you will never be seen again.”
“You’re going to kill him?” Carla chimed in, but nobody paid her question any attention.
“He’s my prisoner, you third-string henchman wannabe. If anybody is taking custody of him, it will be me.”
“Sorry, little prison guard. The Redshirts are so much larger than your puny custodial powers. We will decide his fate and you will rot on this god-forsaken planet.”
“I don’t buy your conspiracy crap.” Mel inched closer to the other man. “You think you have the right to play with my life, to beat my boss, to threaten my niece? The prisoner belongs to me.”
“You are picking a fight with the world’s largest army.”
“Well you’re picking a fight with me. I’m a much bigger deal than your imaginary army.”
“Stop it, stop it, stop it!” Carla was gripping the sides of her head so hard that she was practically pulling her hair out. “It’s not normal, or, or, sane, what you guys are talking about doing! I don’t know anything about this guy, but he doesn’t deserve to be talked about like a tool for either of you guys’ dumb egos. You can’t throw away other people’s lives so casually like that. This whole thing is stupid and complicated and not worth arguing over.”
“I don’t think you see why we’re arguing, Carla,” Mel responded, feeling slightly embarassed
“No, no, Uncle, I get why. I just don’t care. It doesn’t matter which of you wins your dumb pissing contest.”
“Um… I guess,” Mel replied. “But that doesn’t mean we can let him murder that Geier fellow.”
Carla turned to face Hammerstein, relaxing her body a smidge. “Well, sure. This jerk wanting to hurt him is enough reason for us to help him.”
Mel smirked. “There’s two of us and one of you, and I already kicked your ass last night. So come quietly and maybe we’ll try for a nicer sentence.”
Hammerstein laughed again, deeper and broader, and for some reason Mel felt like he really was facing some sort of all-powerful god among men, like there were forces beyond understanding at work here.
“I am not the same man I was the last time we met, turnkey. In this world I have discovered the secret to a great power. Now, there lives in me a mighty warrior, the kind you could never even dream about. I could crush any man with a finger now.” Hammerstein clenched his fists and started tensing his muscles. Light sprung from his body and dust flew up in a mysterious outpouring of pure energy. “Once I transform, this world, all worlds will see me as God! I am the all-powerful, the-“
Mel smashed his elbow into Hammerstein’s face, then slashed the knife across his chest. Immediately, the golden aura surrounding the villain dissipated and he fell to the ground, unconscious.
“Idiot,” Mel grunted. “Even if you were telling the truth, there’s no way we were going to let you become this super transforming, um, um-“
“Super Saiyan!” Carla was practically sweating excitement, her hat gesticulating wildly in sympathy.
“A Super what?”
“Seriously, Uncle? Jeezy Christ, turn on the TV every now and then.”
Carla ran over to retrieve her hat. She rejoined her uncle and the two of them looked at the unconscious man bleeding on the ground.
“What are we going to do, Uncle?”
“We follow his trail, keep going where he was going. Eventually, we can find Geier by ourselves.”
But Carla was still looking at the defeated villain. “No, Uncle Mel. I don’t mean us. I mean what are we going to do with him? We can’t take him with us.”
Mel turned away. “Just leave him.”
“He’ll die out here!”
Mel looked at the ground in front of him for a long time. “This man tried to kill four people since yesterday, including me and you. It sucks to have his life on our hands, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Carla bent down to the man’s bleeding chest, watching his breathing force more pain throughout his body. She couldn’t help but wince at the sight of the blood rhythmically gushing out with each heartbeat.
“Being knocked out that long will have long-term effects anyway.” Mel looked down at the bloody knife in his hand.
Carla wiped her nose on her arm. “Well then, we should put him out of his misery.”
“No, I mean go ahead on the path. I’ll see you in a minute. Don’t look back, and yell if you need me.”
Carla walked ahead a good ways and waited, resting against a tree and trying to compose herself. A few minutes passed and she tried not to think about what was going on. What if the man had a family? What if things had gone differently and her uncle had died instead? It was cool that he could defend them, but no matter how much she tried not to think about it, Carla couldn’t help but wonder how many more people were going to have to be killed before all of this was over.
A hand touched her shoulder and Carla realized she had been crying. She looked up to see that her uncle looked like he had been crying as well. He helped her up, and they left down the path together in silence.
Mel dropped a piece of cloth behind them, the same bandage Hammerstein had used on his arm, fresh blood now swallowing the few remaining bits of white in a deep red.