Jack swung his fire axe at the Plague Doctor’s head, but he blocked it with the tip of a syringe.
‘Oh, my!’ said the Plague Doctor. ‘Is this any way to greet an old friend? You moved faster than this back in New York City! Life in the country has made you slow!’
The Plague Doctor thrust a second syringe at him. Jack dodged backwards, barely keeping the sharp point from puncturing his throat.
Puck shoved her bladed hockey stick in front of Jack to keep him from counterattacking. ‘What the hell is wrong with you?!’
‘This guy…’ said Jack, ‘he tried to kill me back in New York!’
‘Nonsense, my dear lad!’ said the Plague Doctor. ‘I was trying to help you! You looked so depressed back then, even when you were in the middle of hacking up a squad of coppers with that fire axe of yours! You needed to be cured of your malady, and I had the medicine!’
‘Your medicine is poison!’
The Plague Doctor gestured to himself. ‘You dare to question my integrity as a man of medicine! You have insulted by honour, good sir! I hereby challenge you to a duel to the death!’
The Blue Nasties and the Lonely Hearts raised their weapons at each other.
‘This is absurd,’ said Mezu.
‘It sure is,’ said Puck. ‘Nevertheless, my slasher gang, right or wrong.’
Sam made a puppy face at Marilyn. ‘Chief! Help!’
Marilyn pumped her fists up. ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’
The battle began. Jack slashed madly the Plague Doctor, hoping to smash through his syringes if he tried to block, but the slasher was crafty enough to dodge behind the Nurse, who met Jack’s attacks with a butcher’s saw, turning a one-on-one fight into a one on two fiasco.
To his left, Puck and Mezu were fending off long range attacks from Mantis’ twin chain sickles and Jellyfish’s twin multi-headed steel whips.
To his right, Sam was lobbing hatchets from her backpack at the Aztec and the Hawaiian, who were nevertheless advancing while batting the projectiles aside with a stone-edged wooden sword and a shark tooth-edged wooden sword respectively.
Colonel Ripper jumped into the melee and swung his roaring buzzsaw in a circle. ‘Enough!’
A gust of hot force sent Jack and the others flying off their feet and crashing to the ground. Jack rose to a sitting position and found he had a stinging laceration across his chest. Looking around, he saw the surrounding trees had been cut down. This guy was a monster!
‘All of you, stay down!’ said Colonel Ripper. ‘Or I’ll kill you!’
The menace in Colonel Ripper’s eyes made Jack feel small. Looking at the others, he could tell they felt the same way.
They all stood up and rushed Colonel Ripper anyway (except for Sam, who hid behind Billy the Cameraman with Marilyn).
Their battle cries were equal parts rage and terror. Slashers were prideful creatures. They’d kill over a slight, and they didn’t like to be told what to do. Living like a cowboy, dangerous and free, was the most attractive part of the otherwise corrupting life. Jack had endured the alternative in college: it was living a kind of half-life under the scrutiny of your peers where you were saying half of what you meant to say, doing half of what you meant to do, being half of what you were meant to be. To hell with that! They all knew they’d probably die, but sometimes you had to fight, even when you knew you were going to lose, just to prove that you were alive.
Colonel Ripper sighed and dropped his buzzsaw.
‘Look!’ said the Plague Doctor. ‘The Colonel’s gone soft in his old age! Whoever takes his head shall become a member of the Big Five!’
They all struck him at once.
Colonel Ripper didn’t bleed, bruise, or even stagger. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and swiftly punched them all in the gut. The blows brought them to their knees.
‘How?’ Jack held his aching stomach and threw up blood. ‘How are you doing this?’
‘You dumb blonde,’ said Colonel Ripper. ‘That’s what I’m trying to teach all of you, that is if you can keep your hands off each other for five minutes! What I’ve done is entered the Zone. It’s a special physical state which slashers can activate which lets you cut through near anything and become nigh invulnerable. Supposedly, the King in Yellow taught our kind how to use it decades ago.’
‘You mean like the slashers in horror movies?’
‘Affirmative. Now are we going to finish up with introductions and motivations, or are my dogs going to be enjoying some mystery meat tonight?’
Jack and the other slashers got up and dusted themselves off. It wasn’t just that Colonel Ripper had proven that he was infinitely stronger than them which made them respect him; it was the fact that he had exercised restraint when he could have slaughtered them all. He had displayed both the harshness and gentleness one needed to be a great teacher.
The Plague Master bowed to Colonel Ripper. ‘Sorry, old boy. This Texas heat has gotten me out of sorts. I am known as the Plague Doctor. I am a provider of alternative medicines to the sick in mind, body and spirit. I aim to rid the world of all maladies within my lifetime.’
Genocidal maniac, thought Jack.
‘Hey, Plague Doctor,’ said Puck. ‘Why does your slasher gang look like it’s composed entirely of couples?’
‘Because it doubles as a dating agency,' said the Plague Doctor, 'Believe it or not, there really is someone for everyone.’
The Nurse hugged the Plague Doctor’s arm and smiled. ‘Hiya! I’m Nurse Lovejoy! I want whatever this hunk wants! I’m his future girlfriend, fiancé, wife, and baby momma in that order! So, hands off, ladies! I’m looking at you, red!’ She scowled at Marilyn.
Mantis crossed his arms over his black karate gi. ‘I am Mantis. It is my goal to cleanse the world of the disease that is the human race so that it may return to the plants and animals to which it rightfully belongs.’
Jellyfish held up the sides of her swirling rainbow minidress and curtseyed. ‘Heeey! I’m Jellyfish. I, like, want world peace or whatever, so I, like, kill squares to achieve that. Super psyched to find a guy who cares about the environment and animals and stuff like I do. I’m really, like, one with nature. He’s got a bod too, so I think I can fix him.’
The Aztec and the Hawaiian didn’t say anything. They just stood there, arms crossed, their bronze muscles glistening in the sun.
The Plague Doctor cleared his throat. ‘I believe these two gentlemen have taken warriors’ vows of silence and chastity until they have slain a thousand men each so that they may then commit ritual suicide together, ascend to their respective warrior heavens, and meet again on the bridge between worlds to get married as transcendent beings.’
Marilyn clasped her hands together. ‘Oh, that’s so romantic!’ She smiled and blushed at Jack. ‘We should do that!’
‘That’s a sin!’ said Sam. ‘Sinful boy love!’
Puck rolled her eyes. ‘Man, love is for wimps. Give me hate any day.’
Mezu shook his head. ‘A warrior should be married to his sword.’
‘Quiet, Mezu,’ said Jack. ‘No one wants to hear your haikus. This isn’t a poetry slam.’
‘Okay,’ said Colonel Ripper. ‘Now that we’ve got that nonsense out of the way, we can move onto the combat training. The way to enter the Zone is through your adrenaline. To that end, we will be conducting adrenaline-boosting exercises for the next month. During this time, I will be battling you continuously to see how you’re doing. At the end of the month, we will have one more battle, and anyone who can cut me using the Zone will pass. Understood?!’
Everyone spoke as one. ‘Understood, Colonel!’
‘Alright, alright, alright. First thing’s first, everyone give me fifty push ups for attacking me just now.’