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A Home for Heroes

#1
PROLOGUE


For days, Nippur burned and no one batted an eye.

Battle had ravaged the streets. Where buildings once stood, now only rubble remained—whether ripped down by the savage members of LAW or the golden chains of the city’s own master, the architecture had seen better days.

Gilgamesh’s gilded throne sat empty. His place, occupied by a contingency of guards with no king to protect, operated on a slower pace than usual. Gradually, a council of some of the King of Heroes’ most trusted advisers formed and attempted to discern what direction the city could take in the absence of their monarch. Would someone step up and lead? Sasuke Uchiha, the king’s de facto second-in-command, had also disappeared without a trace in the midst of battle, leaving no clear successor to the throne. At the head of the council sat Anos, but even he felt some discomfort in the idea of seizing command of New Babylon.

What if Gilgamesh were to return? Would he be displeased to see his throne occupied by a mere mortal? The council could vividly imagine his response.

“You will vacate that chair immediately, mongrel.”

Alas, their leader fell to the likes of one of the very vermin he so detested. With his demise, New Babylon had lurched in pain. It still stood, albeit on very shaky legs, quivering in fear of the creature that had robbed them of their ruler. The armored mouse vanished, too, shortly following the battle’s conclusion, but his small shadow loomed large over Nippur in the days that followed.

The people of the broken city soon inducted the amalgamation of Proto Man and Mickey Mouse into their mythology. To many, his image loomed as a deadly threat, stalking them in the shadows at night, willing to banish them at any moment like he did their king. These rumors persisted, growing and growing until they’d reached a threshold that could only be described as ridiculous hyperbole—rumors of a lion with ferocity to match the king’s own lion, Ishtar, rampaging through the town. Most observers shot down these rumblings, but a few claimed to have seen the unmistakable silhouette of a lion making its way through the back alleys of town in the days since the battle.

To a number of the town’s inhabitants—a smaller contingency, but a present one nonetheless—the mouse-boy hybrid was heralded as a hero. A bard in one of the town’s darker taverns dared to compose a song of glory in the mouse’s name.

The era of tyranny gone,
Our monster’s no longer in fashion.
At the hands of a smaller one
Than any of us could imagine.

We wake to a blood-red sun
A new day is our prize!
At last, our evil is done
And the year of the Mouse arrives.


Perhaps as a symbol of his good will, the Proto Mouse had made one stop before separating into his parts and slipping unnoticed out of town. In his final visit to the castle to inform them of Gilgamesh’s banishment—news they did not take very well—he left the last remaining piece of their king: his sword, Ea. In the days that followed, a shabby memorial to the King of Heroes had been erected in the main hall of the palace with Ea at the center, encased in a giant glass case on one of the foyer’s ornate walls. Anos opened the room to the public, and many grievers poured in to pay, they feared, their final respects to their great ruler. Some scattered roses at the foot of the wall; some nailed notes of love and respect to it in remembrance of him; some sang hymns of mourning. Others still simply prayed for providence for him, wherever he may be.

But while the display may have served for some as a symbol of Gilgamesh’s everlasting glory, for others it simply proved a reminder of the bastard they had once lived under. The group of New Babylonians who despised the king certainly made up a very small minority of Nippur’s residents, but they relished in Proto Mouse’s victory, and deplored the erection of a monument in honor of a man they despised. In some of the darker corners of the city, whispers talked of a young man tasked with stealing it.

Naturally, the palace was on high alert.

Many more guards lined the castle walls than Aladdin had planned for. Since word of their scheme had leaked, Anos and the other council-members had beefed up security in the nighttime hours, which was an obstacle the thief had not anticipated. No matter; he would not have been selected for this job if the powers-that-be hadn’t thought him skilled enough to accomplish it. He would make it work.

He stood atop a building across the street from Gilgamesh’s palace—one of the few buildings on this block that remained completely intact, in fact—and observed the patrol of guards that had situated itself near the gates of the palace walls.

“Abu,” he whispered, and his monkey sidekick scampered up onto his shoulder, “Think you can take care of those guys for me?”

The primate nodded and squeaked out an unintelligible response, and then immediately took off running down towards the three guards that stood before the gates. Quickly, he made his way to the wall, and then climbed along the iron rungs of the gate until he was close enough to leap onto one of the soldiers. He attached himself to the man’s helmet, shutting the visor and causing him to stumble backwards. Another of the warriors noticed and began trying to shoo the monkey off his friend, and Abu leapt to the ground, scurrying off.

In their blind fury, the two chased off after him, leaving their buddy to tend to the gates by his lonesome. As he looked off after them, desperately calling for their return, Aladdin hurried by, stealthily slipping in between two of the bars on the gate and reaching the courtyard of the palace without being spotted.

He pressed up against one of the castle walls as the lone gate guard turned in his direction; he slowed down his breathing, inhaling and exhaling as quietly as he could until the man’s focus left him, and then he hurried away, making his way as silently as he could manage up the steps and slipping through the just slightly open palace doors—they hadn’t been able to completely close them since the locks had been ripped off mid-battle.

Inside the palace, silence reigned. Ea hung on the wall opposite the entrance, surrounded by all sorts of gifts dedicated to Gilgamesh’s memory. Aladdin tried his best not to notice them—it honestly disturbed the boy to think about how many people had looked up to the tyrant. He had only lived within the walls of Nippur for a few short weeks under the king’s rule before Proto Mouse had deposed him, but he had seen the man’s character come out. He had claimed to be fighting for the greater good, but Aladdin had seen no evidence of it. In no way did the boy think Gilgamesh could compare to the Sultan of Agrabah, back home, or the King that ruled even above him.

A King he’d never met, but had always heard so much about. Perhaps one day soon, he would come face-to-face with the famous Mickey Mouse himself.

And this, he knew, was step one.

Slowly, the boy approached the sword, hanging ever-so-delicately on the wall. If he could steal this, the last evidence of Gilgamesh would disappear from view. And perhaps, they would be able to find a clue to the whereabouts of the Saviors. He reached up, placing his hands on the glass casing and preparing to lift it off.

“Stop where you are!”

Drat. His fingers curled into fists.

“Heh,” the guard’s gruff voice snickered, “It’s you again, eh? Didn’t I catch you stealing some bread last week?” Aladdin remained silent, facing away. “Looks like you’re either itching to get thrown in jail, or you’re just not a very good thief.”

The boy spun around to face the hulking guard, who had a large battleax slung over his shoulder. A twinge of fear slithered up his spine.

“Good enough to not get caught,” he snarked back.

“We’ll see about that.”

The soldier swung his axe toward the boy, but Aladdin proved his worth—too agile for the guard, he ducked beneath the weapon’s trajectory and dove past the man, landing into a somersault on the other side of him. Without pausing to see what his guard buddy was up to, he stood and broke into a sprint, slipping through the crack in the door and making a break for the gate.

The doors of the palace swung creakily open behind him, and the guard’s booming footsteps echoed against the hard stone of the palace steps. Aladdin leapt up onto the gate, clambering to the top and flipping over. He barely landed upright on his two feet, and after taking a split second to regain his balance, began to run for the cover of buildings. He maneuvered through the alleyways of a nearby cluster of still relatively-intact shops and, eventually, lost his pursuers.

But he’d also lost his prize. His bosses would not be happy.

Once he was sure he wasn’t being followed, he returned to the Porcelain Throne, the local tavern where a few wayward souls dared to try and formulate a plan to sweep all memories of Gilgamesh from the city. Though at this time of night the bar’s patrons mostly consisted of those too unhappy to return to their own beds, a small room in the back contained a few secondaries—and one prime—conspiratorially huddling over lanterns.

He stepped into the dimly lit space to see Abu sitting on the edge of the table, having beaten him back here. The monkey’s expression drooped when it became clear his master had returned empty-handed. Aladdin looked to the head of the table.

“I’m sorry,” he started, “I was discovered. The guards knew we were coming; they were on higher alert than normal.”

“Disappointing,” the voice of their female leader squeaked.

“We must prepare more thoroughly next time,” the red-maned lion just to her left resolved. “If we’re ever going to find the King, we need more information on what happened here, and we won’t get anything else from the citizenry. We’ve exhausted what the common folk know.”

“With all due respect, Lieutenant Simba,” Aladdin said, sliding into a chair at the table, “…is it possible the King had nothing at all to do with what happened here?”

“Absolutely not,” the girl at the head of the table and the only prime in their contingency growled, “The people I sent out to search for my husband said there was no mistake: he and Blues were here. And I bet they still are, hiding away somewhere, or worse, locked away by some of that awful man’s soldiers. Oh, I can’t bear to think of it.” Her large ears bristled with frustration. “We will find him, Aladdin,” she glared at the thief, “He is here. Now, let’s get back to work. Okay?”

“Yes, Queen Minnie,” Aladdin nodded, “Of course, Your Majesty.”
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#2
The streets of Nippur were never safe once the sun set and darkness crept over the grieving, ravaged town. Once the light of day faded away, the most desperate and unsavory elements of the city took to the streets and back alleys to enact their sorrow and anger on the less fortunate. With the fall of the king, it seemed as if everything had come to a grinding halt. Merchants and traders from the wastes who had formerly seen the town as a safe place to spend a few days and peddle their wares no longer risked it. The roving bands that prowled like wolves in the streets killed any semblance of security.

Nearly eight months ago, the machine had arrived in Nippur seeking solace from the hells of the Endless Dunes. Although he had intended to move on following a short layover, he had taken to the place, despite the fact that he was certain its ruler was some sort of maniac or madman. With his other brothers operating ‘off the grid,’ the machine had tired of the struggle against the wilds. Inside the city’s walls, he could at least take some time to ‘breath’ and plan his next moves.

Since this was the Omniverse, the layover had gone long, and before he knew it, Shadow Man was watching from the rooftops as the city burned. Despite feeling something of a connection with the place, he’d avoided the various fracases that broke out across town, and much to his chagrin, he knew he should have left beforehand. The ninja-themed machine had known of the scuffles inside the palace, and he’d seen the skirmish outside the walls that predated the attack. While he doubted the connections between the early events and the all-out assault, he should have seen the writing on the wall.

Instead of leaving after the vagrant was banished, Shadow Man had lingered in the walls of Nippur.

‘Just for another day or two.’

Now, for better or worse, he was stuck in this place. He was many things, but he wasn’t a coward. The town was struggling on various levels, and if he could lend a small hand here or there, he would—it was the least he could do. Nippur had given him a place to meld back into the shadows and just relish in existence. The Town with No Name had been the polar opposite: Nothing there was secret. The smaller settlement had eyes and ears in every nook and cranny of its old, weathered buildings.

While the government of Nippur clearly liked to have an active role in ‘policing’ its citizenry, the scale of the city cast too many shadows for Gilgamesh’s eyes to see everything, even if he believed he could.

And now that he was gone, Gilgamesh saw nothing.

The ‘Proto Mouse’ …

Shadow Man couldn’t deny that another reason he wanted to stay was to investigate the rumor that the gilded king had been undone by some sort of robot-mouse hybrid. While he was prone to secrecy, the ninja was no slouch—he knew of Mickey Mouse.
Furthermore, he knew the Prodigal Son when he saw him, and the images of the ‘Proto Mouse’ were too similar to Shadow Man’s older brother to be anyone else.

Which begs the question of ‘how did you do that?’ Somehow, the Prodigal or the Mouse had meshed their bodies together, and while Shadow Man knew of fusion, the reports seemed to speak of something different. Fusions of primes were powerful, but they were also pinnacles of desperation—dying or nearly defeated warriors pooling their omnilium together to make a final stand against a stronger foe.

Whatever the Proto Mouse was, it didn’t seem like the desperation of two primes. The fact that no one had seen the composite primes did nothing but add to the mystery behind the legend.

As Shadow Man walked along the rooftops, he caught a glimpse of a man fleeing through the back alleys. Dropping into a crouch, the ninja realized that he had seen the individual before—a street urchin with a pet monkey. The Robot Master had watched them steal some bread after being turned away from the vendors distributing rations to the citizenry.

“And where are you off to?” Shadow Man spoke to himself as he followed the man from the rooftops.
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#3
Minnie Mouse paced. And paced, and paced, and paced.

“Your Majesty,” her lion lieutenant broke her concentration. Tentatively, he approached her and nuzzled her a little. She placed a gloved hand in his long, red mane and stroked gently. “You must not fret. We will find the King.”

Minnie could only frown. It had been six months since she’d seen her husband—give or take—and she hadn’t heard from him in almost that amount of time. She’d felt bad, leaving Ambrosia and taking her diplomatic skills with her just as tensions rose to a boiling point with Berry Blitzkrieg, but Princess Guu knew how to handle stressful situations. And if things had gone down another, more violent path, well… Mireya would surely contribute in her absence.

The half-Elven girl had visited her occasionally during her time alone in the city; she had, after all, just lost her longtime companion just as Minnie had once again lost her husband. The Queen wouldn’t say that she had grown close with the warrior, but certainly something between them had ignited; they understood each other, if nothing else.

She had thought to stay in Ambrosia until Mickey decided he would come back again. After all, that was always how this had worked before. He would leave with little to no warning, go off adventuring—even when he’d stumbled upon kingly duties, he would often just up and disappear, leaving them unfortunately shirked—and then after a while, realize how much he missed her and return home. She would greet him with a warm hug and perhaps a light scolding for being gone so long and worrying her so much. She never actually worried too much, though; coming home was a foregone conclusion. Of course he’d be back.

Something about this time had always been slightly different, though. The Omniverse was a strange and unfamiliar place. She couldn’t know what types of strange threats awaited him out in the unknown verses. It made the fur on her neck stand up.

And then when Simba had returned without his trusty general—well, she knew she needed to take matters into her own hands.

“This is the city, yes?” she asked, opening up her Dataverse device and browsing the news archives she’d saved. Simba nodded, and a quick search reconfirmed it for her. Sightings of an armored mouse engaged in a climactic battle for control of a city called Nippur, in the Endless Dunes. This was the last place Proto Man and her husband had been seen.

“Perhaps he left, your Majesty,” Simba offered, not wanting to succumb to the natural pessimism of the situation. They had been there for weeks with no sign and not even a whisper of Mickey or Blues.

“If he left, someone will know,” the lady mouse resolved as she stood up from her chair. “Someone on that council must have some idea what happened to them, and if we want information, we need something to trade.” She glanced over at Lieutenant Simba. “He must do better,” she shook her head, “he must get Ea. It’s the key to this plan, Lieutenant.”

“He will, Your Majesty,” Simba assured her.

She remained unconvinced. “He must.”

* * *

In the front room of the Porcelain Throne, Aladdin sulked.

How had he been caught? He’d been planning this heist for days; he’d thought of everything. Sure, there had been more guards that he had expected, but he was no ordinary street rat. He knew how to maneuver around tricky situations like that, and yet they’d still managed to outsmart him.

“Can I get you anything?”

The boy looked up. A short, rotund waitress with red hair that rose up like a tower out of her head had sidled up to the table while he’d been lost in thought and now stared down at him expectantly, a pad in her hands. Her too-large earrings clinked impatiently against her cheeks. He didn’t feel up to eating or drinking anything, honestly.

“I’m okay, thank you,” the boy tried his best to force a smile. The waitress stared at him, blinking several times and waving her obnoxiously-large eyelashes at him. Then, she sighed deep and long.

“Fine,” she shrugged, turning around. As she stalked away, Aladdin could hear her under her breath: “Shoulda never left Mudka’s. Damn Omniverse.”

Suddenly, the boy felt a tug on his pants; he looked down to find Abu clamoring up his leg before perching on one of his knees. The chimp gazed up at him, his eyes filled with longing. Pleading. Biting his lip, Aladdin turned his attention back to the waitress.

“Um, excuse me, miss!” he called.

She didn’t speak, but simply turned, placing a hand on her hip.

“…um, can we actually get a little something for my friend here? Maybe a loaf of bread?” The monkey’s eyes grew large, and the redheaded waitress sighed another long, deep sigh before nodding and disappearing into the kitchen. Aladdin glanced down at his buddy and patted him on the head. “You did good tonight, buddy. Better than me, anyway.”

Abu made a noise that sounded something like an ‘awww’ and then snuggled up to his friend. His efforts to comfort Aladdin went a long way, but the chimp’s appearance didn’t resign the thief to accepting his defeat.

No. Rather, he stood up and felt even more inspired than ever to go to the palace and get that sword if it was the last thing he did.

“Abu, I’ve gotta go back,” he muttered. The chimp immediately went into a state of alarm and started babbling incoherently in a language nobody else in the restaurant could fully comprehend. Aladdin ignored him, rushing to the door and barreling out of it before he could change his mind. Trying his best to stop his best friend, Abu followed, leaping across the floor of the Porcelain Throne and slipping through the front door before it shut completely behind the thief.

In the same moment, the waitress burst through the door from the kitchen with a loaf of bread in hand, just in time to see her latest customers ditch out.

“Whatever,” she sighed, and took a bite of bread.
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#4
The Emperor of the Three Romes had watched the city burn for days and relished in every moment of it.  Since his arrival in the Endless Dunes, the Tsartan had known that the Gilgamesh infidel would be an obstacle to his ascendency, and while he had initially doubted reports from his spies, the sight of all that uncontrolled fire had sold him.

The golden king was gone from this world, slain by the very creature that had humbled Cell Delta in the recent past.

Robot mouse… Even the memories were a source of frustration for the Conqueror.  It wasn’t just the defeat—he had been forced to slay all of the men in his traveling party to ensure that there were no witnesses to his humbling encounter with the mouse-machine.  None could live to speak to his tribe that the Tsartan could be so soundly undone by a child-sized gestalt.

Even after the flames had gone out, Cell Delta knew that the scars on Nippur would linger for a long time.  The majority of the people who lived there had been so perfectly molded by Gilgamesh into obedient thralls, and that was one of the benefits befitting a prime—your slaves could be convinced that they were real people, rather than just your willpower given form.

Most secondaries, however, weren’t so perfectly molded as to be immune to human emotions.  After all, a city full of humans would be far more productive than a city of machines, but that extra productivity came from those very emotions that could break them when things went sour.  Love of a leader could make people into warriors, but fear and doubt and confusion made them weak and pitiful.

And while many people in the walled city would survive without Gilgamesh, there were plenty who would be ruined without the presence of their idolatrous monarch.  And there would be a third element of people—those transplants from other places or the more cynical elements of the population—who would see opportunity and perhaps even happiness in the absence of the man.

Cell Delta didn’t care for the citizens of the city.  He’d see them all enslaved or murdered before he was done with Nippur.

For now, however, he needed the place to remain in its present state of perpetual semi-chaos.  If things became too chaotic, his raiders would have difficulty getting into the city to siphon off plunder, and if the situation improved, they’d have to deal with a fortified populace.

“The night party is ready, Tsartan,” a man spoke from behind the emperor.  “As you said, we’ve shifted the infiltration point.”

“Good.”  Cell Delta smirked as he watched the first traces of night start to creep across the horizon.  “Plant charges this time.  Let’s give them something fresh to fear about.”  The cyborg heard the sound a fist smacking against a chest before the clear salute was shouted.

“Your will, Tsartan!”

With that, the man turned to locate his raiding party.  Cell Delta grinned from the cliff as he continued to watch the city of Nippur drift into the night.  Soon, the crumbling city would experience a night from which it would never awaken.

***

Shadow Man crept in the darkness and listened to the conversation between the mouse, the thief, and the lion.  After a quick exchange, the thief went into the front room of the tavern to stew in his frustrations.

Although the machine had been confused as to why they’d be willing to risk so much over a relic gathering dust at the palace, the mouse was quick to reveal the rest of their scheme.  She spoke of ‘Blues and Mickey’ and how they planned to use the sword as collateral in an exchange of information.  The ninja frowned at the desperation of the plan.  Surely they had other ways to follow trails?

Then again, the woman, despite her pedestrian trappings, had a strong air of nobility around her.  If she wasn’t a noblewoman—noble-mouse—than she was certainly some sort of politician or bureaucrat.  She had that perfectly trained balance of firmness and softness that was needed when ordering people around, especially into situations that could result in harm.

“He must get Ea, Lieutenant, it’s the key to this plan.”

Shadow Man turned away from the scene and started toward the palace.
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#5
As they walked, the trio turned to casual conversation to pass the time. Proto Man and Mickey Mouse shared some stories from ‘The Hero’s Graveyard’ as Mireya told them all about her nondescript cabin in the woods. From the way she spoke about everything that she’d done over the last few months, it was clear she was proud of her accomplishments, despite the fact that they didn’t carry the same inherent danger as the actions of her smaller associates.

For his part, Proto Man was happy that his friend had found some solace. After all, he couldn’t remember the last time he had been able to just sit back and put his feet up on a stool.

Dante’s Abyss? You did a lot of sitting there, technically. The android frowned at the memory. While it was true that he’d sat out the competition in its lobby area, he had enjoyed none of that experience. Nothing had pained him more than watching Samus and Harry die at the hands of villains and jerks. Mickey had been the last beacon of light in that competition, and he’d been snuffed out at the hands of the marine with the big gun.

Since it was such a small world, the man responsible for killing that very same marine had been standing just ten feet away at the time.

For such a large place, the Omniverse is very tiny…

Fortunately for the trio, the Nexus was behind them. They’d made their way into the Endless Dunes about an hour ago, and after a detour around Carrefore, they were on their way to Nippur.

“I don’t think I’ve been here before,” Mireya muttered once their tense half-jog away from the imperial town was completed. From the look on the woman’s mauve features, she wasn’t impressed by the sunlight, the heat, or the sand. “I can imagine why.”

“It’s not terrible,” Proto Man replied as he glanced over at Mickey. The mouse nodded his head and smiled.

“So what’s it like to be a secondary, Mireya?”

Upon hearing the question, the half-night elf chewed on her lower lip for a few moments. When the words finally made sense in her head, she answered the question. “It’s not too bad.” She started before trailing off to collect a few more coherent thoughts. “All I’ve ever known is mortality, so it’s not like I’m missing out on anything in that category.”

Proto Man frowned as a question popped into his head. “Is it weird to know that your memories never happened?”

“Nah,” she finally replied as a smile crept across her features. “Who’s to say they didn’t? Maybe there’s a prime out there who knew another me from another world. And even if the memories aren’t technically real, they’re real to me, y’know? My parents never existed in this world, yet I can still remember the smell of my mother’s shampoo and that cheap cologne my father wore to work. Ain’t that a riot?”

Proto Man nodded his head, although he wasn’t sure he’d have the same opinion if their places were swapped.

“Anyway,” Mireya interjected before either of her small friends could add to the conversation. “What’s important is what I’ve lived through and experienced here in this silly old world.”

“Racism?” Proto Man remarked with too much innocence for it to offend the woman.

“Social martyrdom?” Mickey added—his tone just as non-sarcastic as his friends.

“Loneli—”

¡Basta!” The woman interjected, her eyes wide but a smile still present on her features as she hushed her two naïve friends. Once their mouths shut, she flashed them both a warm smile. “I’m glad I met you two. I can’t imagine where I’d be right now if I hadn’t decided to trail the strange metal kid who walked through the Animus and dared to cure the Blight.”

Proto Man grinned as he leaned over and looped an arm around Mickey’s shoulders. “Or his pal the displaced king with the heart of gold!”

Mireya stifled a laugh as the trio reached the top of small sand dune. On the horizon, they all spotted the shape that disrupted the otherwise empty horizon. “Is that it? Nippur?”

Si,” the preteen machine replied, eliciting a nod from the woman.

“I was expecting something bigger,” the half-night said with a grin.

“At least it’s not burning anymore,” Mickey muttered.

“Not currently,” Proto Man added somberly.
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#6
Quote:Starting Quest - Gold Cross Volunteers!

Speaking of displaced kings, Mickey thought idly as the trio stared at Nippur.

The city had regained none of its lost majesty in the absence of its main assailants. Though the members of LAW had largely dissolved their occupation there before Proto Man and Mickey Mouse had left, little had been done to reignite the New Babylonian fervor that burned through the streets during the time of Gilgamesh’s rule.

Now, from their exterior viewpoint, the city-state looked just as derelict and sad as it had when the mouse and his boy had slipped quietly away through the cracks in its walls, supposedly never to return.

Mickey let out a sigh laced with the slightest bit of resentment—he wouldn’t be back here if it weren’t for his goshdarn wife and her insistence on following him wherever he went. He could take care of himself, for gosh’s sakes. He supposed that would never be good enough for her, though; she seemed quite content to worry about him forever. And Mickey would admit that, despite the frustration he caused, it didn’t bother him all that much.

After all, it was good to know someone cared.

“Shall we go in?” the mouse piped up, breaking the silence that had blanketed the group.

“I don’t see why not,” Mireya shrugged, brushing past the two pint-sized heroes and beginning the trek down the sandy dunes towards Nippur’s front gate. Behind her, the mouse and the preteen machine shared a tentative glance.

They could see plenty of reasons to avoid the place.

Still, the former King bounded down after Mireya, Blues right on his heels. The desert separating them from the once-majestic walls of the New Babylon capital shrunk between them, until finally they found themselves face to face with the gates of the city and a rather engorged troop of soldiers standing guard.

As they approached, Mickey adjusted the desert garb he had summoned for himself and Proto Man when they’d first entered the Endless Dunes. It wasn’t much of a disguise, but perhaps garbing themselves in clothes that looked similar to the ones adorning the natives of Nippur and Carrefore would, at least, help them to avoid immediate suspicion. He stuffed his big ears into the large red fez on top of his head, and then stood at a distance from Mireya as she engaged the gate guards in conversation. Blues stuck close to him.

“State your business,” one of the guards droned.

The night-elf glanced back at her associates, looking for some semblance of guidance. Mickey and Proto Man had nothing to offer her; so, with an irritated grunt, she turned back and started making things up off the top of her head. “…we’re, uh, seeking refuge,” she started.

“That’s vague,” Mickey chuckled.

“She’s not the best at talking to people, as you might have gathered,” Proto Man shrugged with a slight giggle. Ahead of them, Mireya began to make up some lie about their merchant caravan being swept away by a brutal sandstorm. The half-night elf began to grow more and more visibly frustrated, though, as the guards rebuked her every effort to convince them that somewhere in the Endless Dunes, a sandstorm had taken place.

“This is a huge desert,” she protested, “there’s no way you can say that you know with certainty that no major sandstorm occurred last night.”

The guard huffed. “Listen, lady, we have the technology—”

Ay dios mio!” Mickey screeched, breaking away from Proto Man and approaching the guards. He turned his attention up to Mireya. “Diles que somos perros perdidos en el mar.

Mireya blinked. “No tienes sentido,” she growled.

He didn’t make sense? The mouse searched his brain—okay, so maybe he was fluent in Spanish, but still didn’t completely know the best way to say some sentences. He bit his lip, trying to think of something else he could say that would make sense, but before he could think of something, the guard spoke up once again, grabbing the night-elf by the forearm.

“Your bosses speak some strange foreign tongue?” he barked. “You’re definitely not getting in now—Nippur is under lockdown following an attack by a major faction of terrorists. We can’t take any chances on foreigners like you.”

The soldier tossed Mireya to the ground. The night-elf collapsed, barely catching herself before scrambling back up. She brushed the sand off of her hands before reaching and letting her mauve-skinned fingers wrap around a dagger in her belt.

“Mireya!” Blues shouted from where he stood behind them.

Pendejos,” the night-elf muttered, taking a step forward just as Mickey lunged and grabbed her by the wrist. “Let me go, sir,” she spat, playing the part of the dutiful bodyguard even still.

“Now, now, there’s no need for violence.”

Heads turned to find the source of the new voice. Standing behind the gaggle of guards that denied them entry into Nippur, a tall, slender man looked down upon them with narrow eyes. Dressed in red and black robes that dropped all the way to the sandy ground, he leaned menacingly on a golden staff capped with the bust of a cobra. Mickey yanked his robes up to cover his face more, and retreated behind Mireya. He couldn’t exactly place it, but something told him that this man posed more of a threat to them than any man he had yet met here in the Omniverse.

“Let them in,” the lanky man smirked, twirling his moustache. “I don’t think they mean trouble, do you, little men?” The grin on the man’s face brought a swelling feeling of discomfort to Mickey’s stomach.

“No,” Mireya replied, stuffing her dagger back in its sheath, “No trouble at all. Thank you, sir.”

“Of course, milady,” their newest acquaintance nodded. “Nippur is your refuge for as long as you need it. I hope it will suffice.”

“I’m sure it will.”

With that, the moustache-sporting man turned around and began to walk back into the gates. Mickey leaned up on his tip-toes.

“Ask his name,” he whispered into Mireya’s ear.

“Sir,” she called after him immediately, “Might we know the name of our benefactor?”

He glanced back, a devilish smile forming on his thin lips. “Of course,” he started, before turning full-on to the mouse and his companions. “My name is Jafar. I certainly wish I had time for more introductions, but I’m here serving as an adviser to the leaders of this broken civilization and I must be going. Perhaps we’ll meet again soon.”

Mickey had a feeling he planned on it.

With that, Jafar turned and disappeared into the crowded streets of the New Babylonian capital. And after a few moments of hesitation, the contingent of gate guards parted, allowing Mickey Mouse, Mireya, and Proto Man to do the same.
[Image: 2agonyw.png]
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#7
Once through the gates, the trio turned to the side streets at the advice of Mireya.  The site of burning effigies with mouse ears did little to make them feel welcome in the wounded city.

“You think they hate us that much?”  Mickey asked once they were safely settled into the network of small alleys and debris-littered back pathways.

Proto Man shrugged his shoulders.  “I’m sure some of them do, Mickey.  To some people, a demagogue isn’t a tyrant… he’s a superstar.”

“I think demagogue might be a harsh word?”  The mouse remarked as they paused to look at the remains of a ravaged structure.  It was hard to tell whether or not the building had been damaged during one of the raids on the city or simply been ransacked during the chaos that followed the attacks.  Either way, the place looked empty, and the rank smell of spoiled meat gave a very clear indication as to why it was unoccupied.

The red robot responded with another shrug.  “Everyone’s got an opinion.”  The trio moved passed the pile of foul-smelling rubble and made their way to the next major street crossing, which stood clogged with people trying to reach the front of some line.  

“Hey, what’s goi—” the words in Mickey’s mouth were muffled by Mireya’s palm clamping down over his throat.  A moment later, the mouse was gently pulled back into the alley by his much taller friend.  Once he was free from her grip, he furrowed his brow and looked up at her.  “What was that?”

“I know you guys are here to do good for the city, but it might not be the best idea to just waltz into a public forum in your daily attire.”  Mireya walked down to the end of the alley and shot a glance around the corner of the building before returning to her companions.  “Yea, that’s a bread line.  This place has probably been rationing its citizens for a while now, and a lot of those hungry people may blame you two for this.”

“They should blame Gilgamesh.”  Proto Man shot back, prompting Mireya to lift her hands up and shrug her shoulders.

“I won’t debate that one bit, but I’m just pointing out the honest truth.  Your presence there might incite people into opposing sides and cause a riot.  Let’s avoid putting this place through any more grief and have you two don some sort of disguise, okay?”

The two smaller primes nodded their heads as ideas started to swirl in their heads.  Mireya watched in silence as her two friends summoned new articles of clothing to conceal their easily distinguishable attire.  Much to her amusement, their outfits were eerily similar, and on top of that, she actually recognized that they were both going for something straight out of a book she had memories of reading as a younger kid in the human duchies—1001 Arabian Nights.

Baggy white shirts replaced Mickey’s normal garb and concealed Proto Man’s gray body suit.  Equally loose-fitting trousers materialized down the length of their tiny limbs before vanishing inside very simple-looking brown boots.  Over the white shirts, both of them managed to create nearly identical brown vests that were loosely tied together.  With the last swirls of omnilium, Mickey’s ears vanished within a white turban.  Next to the mouse, Proto Man frowned and removed his helmet, releasing his unkempt brown hair to the desert air.  In a swirling rainbow of lights, the headgear melted down and shrunk until it took the shape of a pair of sunglasses.

Placing the glasses back over his face, Proto Man turned to look at Mickey and grinned.  “Copycat.”

“Takes one to know one,” Mickey retorted as the two turned their focus back to Mireya, who was still amused that they all shared an out-of-Omniverse connection through a book of desert stories.  “You okay, Mireya?”

The woman stood silent for a moment before realizing that they were staring right at her.  “Oh, yea, yea!”  She shook her head to clear out some of the haze that had settled over her during her thoughts.  “You two ready to go?  We need to find somewhere to stay before we do anything else.”

“Any ideas?”  Mickey asked as he turned to look at the breadline in the adjacent street.

Mireya scowled.  “I’ve been in this verse for less than a day, and the kiosk at the gate was all out of tourist maps.”

The mouse craned his neck to look back at the woman and frowned.  “Really?  That’s a real shame.  You think they have any someplace else?”

Proto Man stifled a snicker and crouched down toward the ground.  With a few sweeps, he cleared away some of the sand and dirt from the partially paved walkway.  “Let’s find out,” he muttered as he started to pull up all the information on Nippur’s streets.  After a few moments of combing the Dataverse, he found enough data to parse together a three-dimensional map of their current neighborhood.  “Here…” The machine said outloud as he projected a holographic layout of the area onto the cleared space on the ground.  Although it wasn’t the highest quality, the three-dimensional image was enough to give the trio a clear idea of what was around them.

“We’re the red dots?”  Mickey asked for clarity, eliciting a nod from his robotic companion.  “It’s a nice picture but can it tell us what is where?”  The mouse inquired, glancing up to see another nod from Proto Man.

“One… second,” the red robot mumbled as a second layer overlaid the existing map.  The new layer provided small labels to identify buildings that were listed as residential, commercial, or crown properties, with the later apparently being owned either directly by Gilgamesh or by his inner circle.  “Now to see if I can find records on whether there’s anyone in these places…” A second sweep allowed Proto Man to flag a few of the places that appeared to have been damaged in the battles that ravaged through Nippur. 

“We should target one of the gold places,” Mireya replied as she gestured to a seemingly unoccupied crown property.  “I’m going to wager a guess that most of those places, if they were being used for anything, were probably emptied out after things went down.”

Proto Man and Mickey nodded their heads and looked at one of the buildings a few minutes from the other side of the large street and its slowly moving breadline.  It was four-story building that was missing most of its top floor.  A stray blast had sheered away nearly all of the sandstone and wood, leaving it exposed to further degradation by the elements.  If they wanted a place to squat while they sorted things out, the plausibly abandoned building would be more than enough.

“That one, right?”  The preteen machine asked before glancing up at Mireya, who thought about it for a brief moment and proceeded to nod her head. 

“That’ll do.  Let’s go.”  The half-night elf stood up and pulled a long, cape-like blanket over her back to conceal the weapon strapped to her lightly armored form.  “I’ll go first and clear a path.  Just follow behind me with your heads down and try not to speak.”

The small primes nodded their heads and followed after their companion as she led them into the large street.
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#8
Despite the amount of time they spent preparing for it, the walk across the street was about as mundane as any other bisection of a thoroughfare. With Mireya leading the way by a few paces, the trio gently crossed through the group. When they got toward the congestion of people, the half-night elf reached a hand back and grasped hold of Mickey’s gloved palm. The mouse then extended his other hand to hold onto Proto Man, and it was in that manner that they shimmied their way across the line. En route to the alley opposite their starting point, they did receive a few angry glares and rough elbows, but other than that, they didn’t provoke any sort of chaotic fracas.

Once they were free from the crowd, Mireya let out a sigh of relief and turned to look back at Proto Man. “You got that route programmed in your head, Blues?” The preteen machine nodded his head, but before he could offer directions, all three of them were sent crashing to the ground by a sudden and vicious explosion in the street behind them. Proto Man landed hard on the side of his face and his right shoulder, but he was shoving off the ground before the first specs of blood could ooze through the scrapes.

Turning toward the blast, the red robot’s eyes widened with horror as his enhanced vision cut through the layer of dust to reveal the mayhem. Those not immediately killed by the last were left in broken, maimed heaps—their mouths ajar as they screamed out for help. People further from the immediate destruction wandered aimlessly with dazed expressions on their faces. A man, holding his severed arm in his other hand, shambled out from the street and collapsed against a long-since abandoned trade cart. At no point did the civilian scream or cry out for help. He just stared with empty eyes at his shattered limb until the light faded.

“What happened!” Mickey shouted as he rushed forward. Proto Man was a half-step behind his partner as they glanced around the warzone for what may have gone down. With his sensors and scanners, the preteen machine was able to get a better look at what had actually happened, and while the gore-stained crater was as good an indicator as anything else, his systems provided him with a little more science. “Improvised explosive.” He muttered to Mickey. “Traces of… yea, this is some high-tech stuff.” When he looked back over his shoulder, Proto Man saw that his companion was crouched down next to a wounded woman with glassy eyes and trembling hands.

“You’ll be okay,” Mickey whispered as he looked down at the piece of shrapnel imbedded into her gut.

While she was initially in a state of confusion, the woman reached up with her gore-stained hands and grabbed at the headgear. Although lacking the strength to rip it off, she had enough to tug it loose, allowing part of an ear to poke through. At the sight of it, the dying woman let out a surprisingly sturdy shriek. “You’re back to finish the job!”

Mickey’s eyes went wide with the realization that the woman was blaming him for what had happened. “N-no, that’s not it at all,” he remarked as he tried to place a hand on the woman’s chest. Although he was trying to keep pressure on the wound, the civilian continued to wail and shriek and smack him away.

“Just finish me off, I want to be with Gilgamesh!” She wailed as she threw her head back against the bloodstained street.

Looking around, Proto Man saw that a few of the less injured people were starting to make their way over to the scene and none of them were wearing smiles.

From the alley, Mireya rushed forward and slid her arm under Mickey’s armpit and around his chest. The half-night elf plucked the mouse off the ground with the ease of a mother picking up her child. Her eyes moved to Proto Man even as Mickey protested the treatment. “We need to go. Now.”

While he wanted to stay and help the injured, the red robot knew that people wouldn’t understand. Already, he could spot knives and rocks in the hands of the few people who had heard the dying woman’s shrieks through the chorus of screams that filled the street. As the first rocks started to land around him, Proto Man fled with his companions into the back alleys. He looked around just once to see that one of the stray projectiles—a dislodged sandstone brick—had smashed open the dying woman’s skull.
[Image: proto.jpg][Image: DAHost.png]
Dante's Abyss 2015
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#9
A few blocks away, the two smaller primes managed to bring their flight from the breadlines to a stop. With a grunt, Mickey dropped down to the ground and turned his indignation toward Mireya. “Why did we run? We could have helped those people!”

“Help them with that?” The half-night elf demanded. “We’ve walked passed effigies of the Proto Mouse being burn from street lights! You two need to figure out the circles that were receptive to Gilgamesh being overthrown, and that is where the two of you need to direct your senseless urge to be everyone else’s bullet shields.”

At that, Mickey Mouse fell silent, and his robotic companion didn’t bother to make any comments. He simply pulled up the map they had been following and ensured that it was still calibrated to their location. “The place is the next street over…” he muttered as the trio continued toward their destination.

When they arrived at the former crown property half a minute later, not one of them was very satisfied with the scorched, crumbling structure. “It’s just for right now,” Mireya remarked as she hopped up and slipped into a large hole that may have been a window in a past life. When she was through, she popped half her body back out and offered a hand to help up her two smaller friends. After they were inside the building, the half-night elf glanced back out into the alley and mumbled some words to herself.

“This place looks horrible,” Mickey muttered as he walked over to what appeared to be a former desk. Broken chunks of wood were blackened by fire, and there were still singed clumps of what may have been rope or paper. “What did you say they did here?”

Proto Man shrugged his shoulders. “All I know is that this place was owned by the government.”

“Owned by Gilgamesh.” Mireya clarified as she looked at what seemed to be a bronze bust of the ‘deceased’ leader. “I think your guess is as good as mine when it comes to figuring out what this or any of those other buildings were used for. Espionage headquarters. Torture location. Smuggling materiel.”

“Could have been, like, an office building or something…” Mickey mumbled as he looked into the shattered remains of a burnt out crate. “Maybe the people here operated stores or something? We shouldn’t be so quick to judge.”

“Those people out there were quick to judge the two of you,” Mireya shot back as she pushed the Gilgamesh bust off of its pedestal and into the broken remains of another box.

“They were scared.”

Mireya glanced over her shoulder and shook her head. “They were angry.”

Proto Man didn’t like the way that the conversation was headed. He frowned as he made his way to the other end of the large room. It was obvious to him that the building was probably used for completely legitimate purposes. While he had no love for the removed dictator, he lacked the perfected cynicism of their multiracial friend. Until he found some sort of secret death chamber, he’d go about believing this was just the Nippur equivalent of an office building.

“What’s our next move?” Mickey asked as the mouse settled onto a small stool. Reaching up to his head, he removed the turban and set it on the nearby remains of a desk.

At that, the half-night elf finally shrugged her shoulders and answered without much certainty. “No clue.” She spoke as she started to unload her weapons and satchels onto the floor. “You want me to scout a forest? I’m your lady. You want me to track someone? I’m your lady. Hell, you want me to build you a house? I’m your lady. I’m afraid that ‘public relations’ isn’t really my forte. Otherwise I probably would still be a blissful citizen of Camelot’s outlying duchies.

“There’s got to be ways we can help out.” Proto Man remarked as he tried to pull up all the literature on Nippur from the last few weeks. “Maybe not something like, with lots of pomp and grandeur, but something that will help people. Volunteer work, perhaps?”

“I hear we got a master house builder in our group,” Mickey said with a grin as he looked over toward the mauve-skinned hunter.

“Somehow I expected that I would wind up regretting that remark,” Mireya shot back with a shake of her head.

Proto Man found something of interest on the Dataverse and projected it in the air for the others to read for themselves. “This article says there’s a nonprofit organization here in Nippur that’s been trying to bring in caravans of supplies from the hinterland. It says they’ve been having a lot of issues trying to bring in simple things like water and bread.”

“Hence the lines,” Mireya remarked, eliciting a nod from both of her small friends. The half-night elf leaned forward and read the remainder of the article before nodding her head. “They need some muscle to guard incoming caravans.” She looked over at Mickey and Proto Man. “I think that’s right down our alley.”

Mickey frowned. “We’re going to help people by hurting other people?”

“We don’t have to hurt anyone,” Mireya remarked, ignoring what would have otherwise been bait for another philosophical back-and-forth. “You two being there might be more than enough to scare away whatever petty pendejos are messing with these aid convoys.”

“That’s true,” Mickey muttered as he looked over to Proto Man. “What do you think, Blues?”

“I like it,” the android shot back as he glanced over at his friend and smiled. “Something like that shouldn’t be too tricky.”

“Where do we find these people?” Mireya inquired before adding another obvious question. “And for the record, who are these people?”

Proto Man scanned the rest of the article to find the answer. “I have the address… They call themselves ‘the Gold Cross’.”

“We can head over there tomorrow,” Mireya interjected before either of the smaller primes could make the call for her. “It’s been a long day, and while you two might be able to go all night, I could use a catnap.”

The red robot smiled as the woman settled onto the floor. “Tomorrow sounds good.” He said as he looked over and shared a quick nod with Mickey.
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#10
As nighttime spread across Nippur, Proto Man found himself unable to ‘sleep’.  He spent some time trying to process the developments since his departure from Teucer’s prison verse, but in the end, he found himself with more questions and frustrations than solid answers.  His thoughts kept going back to the experiences he’d had—hunger, cold, fear, loss… none of them pleasant.  The warlock’s curse had let him see the misery that came with being a human being.  In the end, he found himself happy to be returned to his normal state, but the memories were still there, even if he know lacked the proper faculties to feel the same feelings.

Staring up through the hole in the roof, Proto Man reached into the small bag around his waist and retrieved the little stone he’d received after ‘dealing’ with the Warlock.  The shiny piece of rock, along with the relics, was the only real thing to emerge from that debacle.  If the news reports were to be believed, the situation Proto Man had seen at the Nexus had boiled over into a scene of carnage and mass murder, culminating with nearly half a dozen fatalities.  Among the dead was one of Gilgamesh’s lieutenants—the ninja Sasuke.  How would Nippur react to news of his gruesome demise?  Was it even known that he was the king’s left hand?

Proto Man frowned as he pocketed the little trinket and tried to calm his thoughts.  Even with the majority of his systems offline, he still couldn’t stop himself from thinking about everything.  Of all the features he had, why couldn’t his near-human consciousness have an ‘off’ switch as well?

With a grunt, the preteen machine rolled over onto his side and closed his eyes.  He recalled an anecdote about humans counting sheep when they found themselves unable to sleep at night.  In his mind, Proto Man pictured a field filled with flowers and a small little hurdle.  Hundreds upon thousands of sheep had lined up to hope over the fence and head onto whatever business they had left, so as each one leapt, Proto Man kept tabs.

One… Two… Three…

***

The android awoke the next day to the sound of…

Gunshots?

Bolting up, Proto Man shoved off the floor and scrambled toward the nearest hole in the wall.  Throwing aside the burlap draped over what may have once been a little window, the preteen machine peered down below to see a crowd of people pushing, shoving, and trampling one another in an effort to get through the street.  From his vantage point, the cyborg couldn’t see what was going on, and while Mickey and Mireya had started to stir from their slumber—equally confused and mortified by the sound of fighting—Proto Man was down the stairs before his companions could rise to their feet.

After essentially hurtling himself down three flights of stairs, the red robot barreled through the nearest exit door of the building and threw up an arm to block out some of the sunlight as his optical systems adjusted once more to the change.  Once he could see clearly, he turned in the direction of the gunfire and saw that a small group of armed individuals were behind the fracas.  Clad in robes and wearing masks over their faces, they were equipped with what sounded like muskets but fired concentrated pulses of red energy.

Whoever they were, the people they were shooting at weren’t fighting back, and in the preteen machine’s book, that made them the bad guys.

Racing through the retreating crowd of people, Proto Man activated his buster cannon and lowered his head as a few bolts of energy whistled passed his helmetless cranium.  When he was close enough, the preteen machine slung his weapon forward and released a quick burst of low-intensity blasts, catching the group of attackers by surprise.  A pair of them near the center was knocked backwards by the blasts, and by the time they caught a glimpse of their new adversary, Proto Man was already leaping through the air toward them.

With a quick kick, the preteen machine threw one of the staggered gunmen down to the ground.  Before landing back on his legs, Proto Man also managed a swift hook against a second of his adversaries.  When his feet hit the ground, he had just a quick moment to react before the butt of a rifle swung down at the crown of his head.

Hopping backwards, Proto Man aimed low and fired a blast that struck one of the men’s kneecaps.  With a cry muffled by his facemask, the figure dropped to the ground and watched as his weapon skittered away from his grasp.  Bursts of fire clipped the machine’s chest and arms, but there wasn’t enough punch in the attacks to keep him pinned down.  Scrambling quickly to his feet as he steeled himself against the two intact gunmen, Proto Man held out a hand and activated a rarely used trick.

With a pair of confused shouts, the men were jerked forward by their rifles.  One of them stumbled and fell as his gun was drawn toward Proto Man.  The other man managed to hold on for a few more seconds before the ferromagnetic pull of the preteen machine likewise stole his weapon from him.

“Retreat.”  One of the men groaned as he scrambled up from the ground and tried to flee down the street.  Before he made it more than a few steps, he was smashed across his masked face by a club.

“Surrender yourselves!”  The gruff voice came from a man in what seemed to be unlaundered guards clothes.  Despite his unkempt appearance, his weapon and the effects that demarcated his status among the city were in pristine condition.  One of the nearby men tried to scamper away and received a thunderous blow to the side of his skull.  The bludgeoned vagrant hit the ground with a wet thud, twitched a few times, and stopped moving.  A moment later, a few more men armed with clubs and sporting spit-shined badges filed in behind the original person.

“Death before surrender!”  The original clubbed vagrant roared as he reached into his robes.  A moment later, his body burst like a kernel of popcorn, but instead of a movie theatre treat, there was a ground-splintering explosion within the marauder’s body.  The blast threw Proto Man down the street like a ragdoll, and by the time he had managed to drag himself up to his feet, he saw that there was a mighty crater where he’d been standing a moment earlier.  A quick count of the bodies on the floor revealed that a few of the masked attackers had fled into the adjoining streets.

On the other side of the destruction, the man with the club had already made it to his feet.  He wore a scowl on his face as he tried to rouse his four teammates out of their explosion-induced stupor.  Then, suddenly, something seemed to click in the enforcer’s mind.  He spun away from his colleagues and leap over the crater, landing in front of Proto Man and brandishing the club in the youth’s direction.  “What are you doing here?  You can try to hide yourself, but anyone would recognize you once they’ve seen you defend yourself like that.”

Proto Man lifted up both his hands to show that he was currently unarmed.  “I’m just here to help.”

“Help?”  The man’s club remained tense for a brief moment, and then it swung away from the child and back to its owner’s side.  “The only way anyone could help is to bring back Gilgamesh or put this place out of its fucking misery...”

“No one took over for Gilgamesh?”

The soldier—or vigilante, Proto Man still couldn’t tell—threw his head back and chuckled.  “Of course, but those burueacrats couldn’t tell the difference between their mouths and their asses.  Gilgamesh wasn’t a nice guy, but he held this place together through sheer force of will.  Without him, the whole thing has been steadily collapsing, and these fucking raiders aren’t helping.”

“Outsiders?”  Proto Man asked, eliciting a nod from the man.

“Most of them follow some desert nomad… I can’t remember the guy’s name for the life of me because he has too many of them.  His crew is fanatical about him, though.  You capture one, and you have to watch them at all hours.  If you don’t, they always find ways to kill themselves, its fucking ridiculous.”

“Can’t you say the same about the people who were fanatical about Gilgamesh?”

“Even the most devoted citizen of Nippur isn’t going to blow themselves up,” the man replied.  “You best watch yourself, Red.  This city’s becoming increasingly divided, and one of those big divisions would love nothing more than to chew you up and spit you out.”

With that, the soldier/vigilante turned and moved out with his associates.  Whoever he was would have to wait for another day.

Nearly a beat later, the forms of Mireya and Mickey parted through the layer of haze that had fallen over the street after the blast.  “What happened, Blues?”  The mouse reached down and hooked an arm under Proto Man to help him up to his feet.

“I’m not sure,” the preteen machine replied with a heavy frown.  “We need to make sure we watch our backs more than ever.”
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#11
A little later in the day, Proto Man went out into the streets by himself. Since the incident earlier, he’d found himself a little frustrated with the whole situation. He knew that Mickey would start giving him those sad eyes that implied they were to blame for the whole situation, but the preteen machine knew better. Sure, they’d topple over the house of cards, but they had poured kerosene onto it and light the match.

So he walked by himself, rather than risk getting into another ideological kerfuffle with Mickey. As he made his way down what seemed to be a small street, he found himself drawn in by a hand-painted sign hanging above a shattered storefront. Along with offering sales of basic goods, the store also advertised the services of the ‘Gold Cross’ with clearing up damages or helping the especially sick or injured.

Pausing abruptly in front of the building, Proto Man pivoted and made his way for the door. A quick glance told him that the door had been stitched together from a bunch of different piece of wood. That’s some genuine safety. Once inside the building, the red robot was hit by a surprising amount of light, which seemed to come down at him from all angles.

“Welcome to Gold Cross Three,” a very pleasant-sounding woman remarked as the android made his way over to counter. On the other side, a young woman with blonde hair and old clothes was trying to sort through what seemed to be a bunch of random tools. If not for the grease stains and the fact that she was pushing twenty, she could have passed for Roll, Proto Man’s younger sister. “Are you here to drop something off or pick up something?”

The preteen machine stepped onto a little stool in order to stand at the same height as the girl across the counter. He glanced around at the room and noticed that a lot of the shelves seemed pretty empty. A look into the backroom, which was covered by a blanket on a metal rod rather than an actual door, showed a storage space without a whole lot of surplus.

“You running low?” Proto Man remarked as he looked back at the woman and adjusted his sunglasses.

Instead of responding right away, the counter attendant simply reached up under the metal countertop and pulled out a small pistol. “Listen, if you’re thinking about robbing us, you might as well just try it now. I’d like to get a good night’s sleep tonight if it’s at all possible.”

Proto Man held up his hands to show that he wasn’t holding his own weapon. “I’m sorry, I didn’t come to start any fights.”

Perhaps it was the tone of his voice or the fact that he looked like a small child. Either way, the woman relaxed and stopped pointing her weapon at him. One awkward silence later, she cleared her throat and started to speak. “I’m sorry, Kid, I’m just so sick of the assholes out there. Whether they’re trying to rob us or lie about their predicament… people can be the worst.”

The machine nodded his head. “I know what you mean,” he muttered as he set his hands on the counter. “Is that why this place is so empty?”

“Yea,” she shot back. “Between opportunists inside the town and the raiders that hit the convoys, it’s impossible to keep anything in stock. If you can’t tell, we’re not the central location. They have first dibs on everything, because they serve the largest and most affluent portion of the town. After them, you have Station 1, Station 2, and then my humble little hole in the wall.”

“Can I help at all?”

The initial response was an apathetic shoulder shrug. A beat later, the woman offered something more tangible. “I suppose you could help escort the supplies? They get hit a lot on their way here, but I’m not sure how you can help… you’re a kid.”

“Everyone has to try,” Proto Man muttered. “Or things won’t change.”

His new acquaintance shrugged her shoulders. “I wish I had that kind of optimism, but it’s hard.”

“Where do I go?”

“If you head to the West Gate, they can direct you along your way,” the woman said before reaching back under the counter. Instead of a gun, she produced a small golden cross. “This will act as an ID card so please do not lose it.”

Scooping up the little piece of tarnished metal, Proto Man nodded and headed out of the little structure.
[Image: proto.jpg][Image: DAHost.png]
Dante's Abyss 2015
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#12
Guilt.

Proto Man had left the trio’s little hideaway shortly after his excursion to the lower streets without much of a word. Perhaps the uncomfortable silence had become too much for him to handle; perhaps he just needed the fresh air. For Mickey, the stuffy atmosphere and layer of discomfort that blanketed their room served as ample punishment for the crimes they had committed against this city and its poor citizens. For hours now, he’d sat slumped against a wall. He stared at his turban sitting on a tiny, off-kilter wooden table, streaked with blood from that poor woman’s hands.

She’d grabbed at it desperately upon recognizing his face. Once his ear had popped out, true recognition flashed over her face and it had gone pale. Her screams filled the street in her final moments, and to hear Blues’ account of the aftermath, she hadn’t outlived her fear… or anger. Which was it?

When he’d been one with his best friend, he had been so convinced. Gilgamesh was evil. The golden-armored man had ruled over this city with an iron grip since its inception. He had made himself a tyrant, treating his subjects like they were… less than people. Treating them worse than they ever could have deserved. The man, truly, was a prime example of everything the former King himself hated. He represented all that Mickey had promised himself he wouldn’t be as a ruler.

So why did these people love him so much?

Even amidst the fighting, the Proto Mouse had caught glimpses of citizens cheering the gilded tyrant on. The pair of pint-sized primes had fought him and banished him based on the pretense that they were a hero—they were saving the city. But did it need to be saved?

Yes. Yes, of course. Gilgamesh had to be stopped. Perhaps, as heroes, they just knew that better than these poor, brainwashed citizens did. They’d been under the thumb of New Babylon so long that perhaps it just became natural to them. They had to be saved from themselves, and the Proto Mouse had been happy to offer them that service. It all had made so much sense to Mickey, back then, and even in the time since then. But as time had gone on… as he and Blues and Belle had made their way through the Graveyard… something inside him shifted.

Perhaps there were places that didn’t want a hero. Perhaps there were places that didn’t need one.

“Stop staring at that thing,” Mireya growled as she appeared from the floor below, carrying two loaves of bread under her arm. Mickey refused silently, his eyes not wavering from the headgear as he didn’t even consider responding to the woman’s command.

She looked down at him for a moment, and then stormed over to the table and snatched it up, tossing one of the loaves of bread his direction. “Eat that.”

“I’m not hungry,” Mickey scowled.

Eat it,” Mireya barked, taking a bite out of her own loaf. She tossed the turban down the stairs and out of the mouse’s sight, and begrudgingly, he dug into the bread. Despite his determination to be antagonistic, hunger plagued him. “Good,” the night-elf nodded, sitting in the opposite corner of the room. For a while, the pair chewed their bread in silence. Mireya’s eyes remained squarely focused on Mickey, who refused to look at her.

The mouse couldn’t bear her piercing, judgmental stare. She knew just how he worked, and he hated it. Blues’ naivete was charming, but she knew that the former King had a deeper sense of responsibility laying inside him—he wasn’t just a boy longing to protect people. He had an obligation. He had a duty.

“I should’ve done something,” he squeaked.

“There wasn’t anything you could’ve done,” the night-elf assured him, leaning back and removing her stare from him for a moment. She took another large bite of her bread. “Those people hate you. They don’t want you, Mickey.”

“But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve my help,” the mouse protested.

“Of course it does,” Mireya shot back. “They’re ungrateful. The two of you freed them from the clutches of a man they worshipped blindly. They couldn’t see his black heart behind his golden clothes. And how do they repay you, Mickey? How? They spit in your face. They burn likenesses of you. They call you the devil in their own dirty languages.”

“That’s why they need us, Mireya,” Mickey said, “Because they can’t see that they do.”

“This is no place for you,” the woman shook her head, standing up. “I’m going to find Blues and we’re leaving.”

“No,” the mouse fought back, pushing himself to his feet, “we’re not leaving. I’ve got to find Minnie, and these people need my help—”

“Send her a tweet and tell her where you are. Stay here, I’m getting Blues.”

“Absolutely not!” Mickey shouted, his keyblade materializing in his hand. He swung it up and pointed it at Mireya. The night elf cocked her head.

“Don’t be dramatic, mouse,” she scowled.

“I’m leaving,” Mickey said defiantly. “You can go find Blues if you want, but I’m going to try and find a way to help these people. They need us, Mireya.”

“Mickey—”

But it was too late; the mouse had turned around and leapt out of the window of their makeshift base before Mireya had time to take even a step toward him.
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#13
When he arrived at the West Gate, the preteen machine was pulled aside by the first person who noticed the little pin he was wearing on his clothes. The individual was wearing the same exact trinket and was sporting the same logo on golden armbands. “Hey, who sent you over here? We weren’t expecting any more hands.”

Proto Man realized that he had never asked the woman from the building her name. “The woman running Station 3 sent me over. She said that you guys needed some help to secure the shipments into the city?”

“Rachel sent you?” After receiving something between a nod and a shrug, the volunteer thought for a brief moment before offering a response. “Well, whatever. We’ll take all the hands we can get, because we’ve already had reports that there’s some issues out in the Dunes.”

“Issues?”

“A few transport humvees set out from the Coruscant gate just a few hours ago. We managed to pull some tricks and have some supplies, ere, ‘rerouted’ from Carrefore to Nippur. Unfortunately, news somehow manages to travel very quickly in a desert.”

“You think it’s going to be hit by marauders or something?”

The volunteer nodded his head. “We’ve already dispatched some riders to go join up with the convoy, but I don’t think it will be enough. The rogue elements out in the Dunes have been extremely vicious as of late. Gilgamesh was many things, but he was a terrifying presence for the small-time warlords and gang leaders out there in the desert. They’ve been more outgoing in the weeks and months since the king’s demise.”

Proto Man rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses. I get it. Sooner or later, these people would have to stand on their own two feet and realize their own potential. “Do you have coordinates or the route that the vehicles were taking?”

“Yes, I do.” The man reached for a piece of tech at his waist. After punching in a few numbers, the little handheld machine spat out a small strip of paper. “Here,” the volunteer tore away the printout and handed it to the preteen machine. Proto Man glanced down and saw that he was looking at a string of numbers that marked coordinates. “Do you require a map?”

“Nah,” the red robot shook his head as his systems automatically scanned in the coordinates and plotted out the quickest path. “I’ve got it.” To sell his point, he tapped at the side of his head and smirked, prompting the volunteer to once again shrug his shoulders in a mixture of ignorance and apathy.

“You say so, Kid. Good luck.”

Proto Man flashed the man a thumbs up and made for the gate. After flashing his pin and pointing back to the volunteer from the Gold Cross, the android was ushered through a metal door in the sandstone walls. One of the guards explained to him that the gate mechanism had been damaged, and rather than try and fix it, they just ushered people through the walls the long way.

“What about shipments and stuff? Big things?” Proto Man asked as he was guided up a spiral staircase and then out onto a small observation deck about ten feet off the ground. On both sides of the semicircular outcropping, there were rope ladders that were dumped overboard for him.

“Other gates.” The soldier remarked as he pointed to one of the ropes. “Sometimes we just guide those through the holes in the wall,” he added apathetically as Proto Man hopped over the edge without using the ladder. After rolling out and popping up to his feet, he cleared away his internal display’s notifications and activated an overlay that would direct him to the convoy.

As he raced off into the desert, Proto Man pulled up his Messenger software and sent a message to Mireya: Trying to help out. Be back soon. Tell Mickey. Gracias.
[Image: proto.jpg][Image: DAHost.png]
Dante's Abyss 2015
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#14
The mouse's feet hit the ground three floors below and he sped with haste into the crowded street. Thanks to a combination of his speed and tiny stature, he managed to avoid too many dirty looks and quickly slipped into a tiny alley where darkness hid him from the begrudged citizens of Nippur.

Back across the street, Mireya burst out of the rickety old door to their makeshift base and glanced around the area, her night-elf eyes searching the crowd for the mouse's trademark ears. Mickey ducked behind a stack of crates, peeking up only after he could be certain Mireya had finished her scan. The night elf, indeed, had disappeared on his second inspection, no doubt to some other area of the city to try and track down one of her missing pint-sized companions.

Good. He would find his own way—for a while, at least. Perhaps without Mireya and Blues weighing him down, he could finally find Minnie.

Though, of course, he had no idea where to start. He took a few minutes and materialized a brown cloak, and pulled the hood up over his head to mask his ears in the absence of the turban he'd sported for a little while. Certainly he couldn't allow himself to be recognized by the citizens of Nippur—how would they react? It was anyone's guess whether they would greet him with disdain or with a hero's welcome. Personally, he didn't feel like finding out.

Once he'd made sure that Mireya was nowhere to be found, he ventured back out into the bustling midday crowds that milled through the streets of Nippur. Voices rang out, shouting politics or demanding products from salesmen. For the first time since coming to this city, Mickey listened to them. They sounded eerily familiar—a chorus of beleaguered citizens, living with a constant, invisible struggle. Invisible, at least, to those who claimed to be working for their good. They were not unlike his own subjects, which, he hated to admit, he himself had accidentally turned a blind eye to in their times of need.

This was the curse of statesmen—even the ones with the best intentions. Sometimes, there were just too many people to protect them all. Mickey had learned this the hard way. He still regretted that so many lived poor and unfed in Agrabah; that the Queen of Hearts ruled Wonderland with just a hint of fascism; that he hadn't seen the shadow creeping upon his kingdom until too late.

And now... he could do nothing, trapped in the Omniverse. He simply had to hope they could make it on their own while he and his queen were absent.

The voices filled his ears. He could hear them all, thanks to both his large, potent ears, and his desire to soak up the struggles of the proletariat. "But—but that's all I have, sir," a young girl's voice said, echoing the pleas of the many impoverished citizens around him. "I can't offer you anything else."

"Then get out of my face, beggar," the shopkeeper barked, spitting in the teenage girl's face. She squeezed her eyes shut and wiped the saliva off her face just in time for tears to start streaming down it. "Hmph," the shopkeeper grunted, "Disgusting."

And with that, the next customer shoved her violently out of the way, sending her crashing to the ground, even more sand mixing with her dirty blonde hair. She couldn't have been more than ten years old—she looked to be about the same stature as Blues—but she had lived the life of someone far more mature. She didn't deserve this, the mouse knew.

Nobody did.

Mickey pushed past the customer who'd shoved her and knelt down on the ground next to the girl, helping her onto her knees. He made sure to keep his face hidden, despite her attempts to catch a glimpse.

"T-thank you," her tiny voice squeaked, blinking the sand out of her eyes. She wiped the tears off her face as Mickey held out a gloved palm.

Rainbow energy began to swirl around his fingertips, slowly coalescing just above his open hand. After a few moments, it began to materialize into a rustic-looking sack of gold coins. Once it had finished forming, it plopped into his glove with a few quick clinks, and he held it out for her to take, not saying a word.

At first, she wore a tentative look, trying once again to peek beneath his hood. When he once again shielded his face from view, she frowned and reached out, grabbing the bag and then reaching out and taking his wrist. She flipped his hand over to see the three small lines etched into the top of his glove, and ducked her head down once again, eyes flashing with recognition. "It's you!" she whispered with a glint of anxiety in her voice.

Mickey's eyes fluttered up to meet hers, fear coursing through his veins. But he wasn't met in kind with fear—instead, a glowing smile crept on the little girl's face. She knew him, and she didn't hate him.

SWOOP!

The clink of the gold sounded in the pair's ears again as the little girl was liberated of her newfound wealth. Mickey's prime eyes zeroed in on the culprit: a chimpanzee scurrying away between the feet of the Nippur citizens. He looked back at the girl, who stared silently after the chimp. And jerking his hand away from her, he took off in a sprint after the thief.

* * *

Trying to help out. Be back soon. Tell Mickey. Gracias.

Mireya growled. She would tell Mickey if she knew where the hell he'd run off to. The little thing had escaped her clutches—honestly something that she'd not thought probable—and, in doing so, set her whole plan off the rails.

Well, not her plan in the strictest sense.

"Great, now they're both gone," she huffed, leaning back in her chair. Across from her, the Queen didn't seem to share the anxiety that had washed over the night-elf. "You're unusually calm," Mireya observed.

"Mickey always finds a way to be exactly where he's needed when he's needed," Minnie Mouse shrugged, swirling her cup of water with her straw. "Just because we've lost track of him doesn't mean everything still won't work out exactly as we planned it, Mireya." She glanced over at the obscure figure sitting in the corner booth. "Isn't that right, friend?"

No response. Minnie, ever smiling, grinned and sat up straight once again.

"I'm just glad you found my husband," she leaned forward, zeroing in on Mireya, "I was worried you'd missed him, what with Berry Blitzkrieg and all."

"He and Blues showed up right after we defeated them," Mireya nodded. "Like clockwork."

"I've noticed that this world works like thar more often than not," Minnie replied. "Perhaps it's Omni's will, but... it's not the most unpredictable realm I've ever lived in. You can usually count on things here. Perhaps not people—nah, Mickey says these Omniverse people are the worst bunch he's ever met for the most part, and I'm inclined to agree."

Mireya wrinkled her nose. The pair of mice weren't wrong.

"But at least you can trust that they're going to do what you expect," the mouse finished.

"Not always," Mireya warned.

Her pragmatism shone through especially in interactions with the majestic mouse queen. While her husband's brand of optimism was often foolish or downright stupid, it at least stemmed from a place of honesty, an endearing hope that the world was just as good as he dreamed. Minnie was inherently a good person—don't mistake Mireya, she believed that wholeheartedly—but she had proven much more calculating than her husband, and her recent brush with royal life in Ambrosia had only served to add to the sort of... regal overconfidence she exhibited.

Just then, the door to the Porcelain Throne burst open and Aladdin entered in a frenzy. Mireya spun around in her chair to look at the street rat, then turned back to Minnie. "Who's the kid?" she asked, a hint of disdain lacing her voice. This plan seemed more cracked every second.

"What is it, Aladdin?"

"He found him," Aladdin smiled, "Abu found the King."

Minnie, too, allowed a grin to spread from ear to ear. "Alright, boys. Do your thing."

In the corner, Shadow Man shifted in his booth and slid into view, joining the eager young thief by the door. "I won't fail you this time, Your Majesty!" the boy promised, and then he and Shadow Man turned and disappeared into the streets of Nippur.

Mireya scowled. She just knew something was about to go terribly wrong.
[Image: 2agonyw.png]
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#15
Rarely in the Omniverse had Mickey met someone smaller and more agile than he; but he had to give it to this monkey, it best him on both counts.

The sack of gold wrapped up in its grimy little paws, it sped through the streets of Nippur, weaving between the legs of the cityfolk and sliding around corners with incredible ease. After keeping chase for a while, Mickey finally felt himself begin to actually get tired—this little guy was making him sweat!

The monkey turned into an alleyway, crossing between buildings and then slipping between the ankles of a man and disappearing into a crowd of people gathered in some sort of large, open area. Mickey prepared to follow after him when suddenly, above the heads of the desolate masses, he saw an all-too-familiar shade of blue speechifying to the people. He rolled his eyes and ducked behind a nearby crate.

Kopaka.

"Oh, brother," the mouse exhaled as his gargantuan ears perked up to listen to the Toa's monologue. It seemed, by all accounts, that the creature was still after him to cash in on the Empire's bounty—even after his crew had mopped the floor with him in the Hero's Graveyard. The mouse had half a mind to reveal himself and challenge the Toa to settle his grievance, once and for all... but that urge quickly died as he once again remembered Blues was nowhere to be found. Could he beat Kopaka without the Proto Mouse? Possible. Did he want to risk it? No.

Unfortunately, the cyborg had already derailed his plans. The monkey had disappeared—

"Ow," Mickey clutched his head, glancing down at the piece of fruit that had just smashed into it. His glance tracked it back to its origin: the chimp, clad in a cute little purple vest and fez cap, sitting on a third-story windowsill across the street. Out in front of him he dangled the bag of cpins, taunting the King.

Mickey's first full glance at the little guy awakened a curiosity. Where had he seen him before? He looked suspiciously familiar, now that the mouse had taken a moment to survey him. But before he had time to think further on it, the monkey had turned and clambered up onto the rooftop, and with no other options but traveling right into Kopaka's clutches, Mickey followed, scaling the side of the building with less ease than the tinier primate.

They played cat and mouse across the rooftops of Nippur, but not for long; eventually, Gilgamesh's golden palace rose into view, and the chimp leapt off the building and over the stone walls surrounding the castle. Mickey leapt off the building, trying his best to reach the other side, but just barely missed, sliding onto the sandy ground just outside the gates. At the sight of his diminutive form, one of the guards perked up.

"Hey," he called out, alarming the mouse, "What the hell are you up to, little guy?"

"I—"

"Guard," a slimy voice called from across the road, "Is that how you treat an esteemed guest of Nippur?" Mickey glanced over his shoulder to see the same red-robed man from earlier, this time a collection of his own golden-armored bodyguards surrounding him.

"Jafar," Mickey nodded, keeping his head low and pulling his hood further over his ears. "Good to see you, sir."

"Hm, funny," Jafar smirked, "I seem to remember you struggling to communicate with my gate guards. Where's your interpreter now? Have you been practicing since we last met?" The tall, lanky man leaned over and met eyes with his much shorter conversation partner.

Mickey remained silent. He didn't know where Mireya was, truly. And he couldn't cover this up with Jafar. The jig was up and already escape plans were boiling in his head.

The guard stepped back into the discussion. "Esteemed guest, sir?"

"My guest, guard," Jafar turned his glance to the bulkier man, "and one you'll let inside the castle walls with haste. I was so hoping you would accept my invitation to come visit, little man." Mickey nodded, following Jafar's sweeping robes into the palace courtyard.

Outside the walls of Gilgamesh's not-so-humble abode, the desert was in full view; the streets were flooded with sand, and hot, arid air put an abnormal amount of sweat on the brows of the gilded king's subject. But behind these inner gates, life flourished. Greenery decked the walls and all sorts of flowers and small ponds littered the grounds. The mouse had never seen two such starkly different biomes so strikingly close to one another.

"Welcome to the palace, Mickey Mouse," Jafar smiled, gesticulating grandly at the rich structure that rose before him. At the mention of his name, the fur on the back of Mickey's neck stood up and he froze.

"You know me?" the mouse asked, fearing the worst.

Jafar chuckled. "Of course I know you," he shrugged as if it should be obvious, "You're quite the big name where I come from."

Mickey contorted his face in slight confusion before the realization dawned on him. "Oh," he said, brushing his hood down so his ears popped to life once more, "You're from the Disney Realms."

Jafar grinned. "Quite. From Agrabah."

"Are you a prime, too? Like me and Minnie?" the mouse asked.

"Ah—no," Jafar frowned, "Interesting to hear that Omni brought you and the Queen here, I hadn't heard of her arrival. But alas, he did not bring me. I'm simply a secondary, the product of someone else's creation... perhaps even yours."

Mickey didn't understand—how could he bring Jafar here if he hadn't meant to? Could secondaries just pop up if you thought about them enough? But then, he hadn't even thought about Jafar in particular. He barely remembered the guy, a minor noble from Agrabah. He had thought often if the desert city during he and Proto Man's first trip here, but did that mean he had thought enough to summon Agrabah's citizenry? If that were the case, where was the Sultan? And Princess Jasmine? The people he'd actually known.

Still, despite the hazy logic surrounding his existence, Jafar was a welcome sight. Good to have friends in a cutthroat place like the Omniverse, no matter how distantly acquainted they were. Mickey glanced up at the vizier, shooting him a smile.

"I must know what you've really returned for, Your Majesty," Jafar inquired, crossing his arms. "It can't be safe for you here—so what is it? Lose something while you and your big Prime friends were trashing the city?" That stung just a bit, and Mickey's face wrinkled a little bit at it. "Oh, no offense intended of course, Your Majesty," the vizier raised a hand defensively, "I'm merely speaking truthfully. The city is in disrepair since the Proto Mouse deposed King Gilgamesh."

"And what state was it in before?" Mickey bit back reflexively. "Gilgamesh was a tyrant who had to be stopped," the mouse argued, though in this moment he wasn't sure he believed that. He took a deep breath, trying not to get flustered. "That's why I'm here, anyway. To help the people of the city get back on their feet."

"Hard to do from your position," Jafar observed, "Seeing as you're one half of their own personal nightmare. Where is your partner in crime, anyway? He was with you at the gate."

Mickey frowned. "I don't know—"

"Sir," a guard called from inside the palace, "They're back! Heading to the roof!"

Jafar scowled. "Well, seems I have some business to attend to," he hissed, "Join me, your majesty?"

Hesitantly, Mickey pulled up his hood and followed Jafar up the steps and into the palace.

The scene inside was pure chaos. Mourners scattered about, screaming bloody murder as a pair of humanoid figures—and a miniature chimpanzee—were backed into a wall by a contingency of guards. The young boy at the front, wielding a scimitar and wearing only a purple vest, a fez to match the monkey's and puffy pants that made Mickey giggle. Behind him was a man that vaguely reminded the mouse of Blues—except with a much darker color scheme. And body type. And... well, he was pretty different.

"Jafar!" the boy called out, reaiming his sword at the vizier.

"Street rat," Jafar growled, lifting up his staff. Red magic began to swirl around the end of it and Mickey suddenly realized there must be some personal connection between the vizier and this boy. Could he hail from Agrabah, too?

The mouse didn't have time to wonder. He lifted up a hand to stop Jafar's killing strike and strode toward the trio of thieves. He could see now what their prize was—Gilgamesh's red, glowing sword, in the hands of the robotic man standing behind the 'street rat.' Ea, right? That was what the blonde man had called it?

Mickey glanced back at Jafar, who had lowered his staff. "What's going on?" the King asked, breaking through the crowd of guards to speak to the thieves. Slowly, he dropped his hood.

"Your Majesty," the boy recognized him, dropping to a knee, "Honor to meet you. I'm Aladdin, from Agrabah."

"Up, please," Mickey insisted, holding out a gloved palm. "The sword, Aladdin."

Aladdin's face grew puzzled, and his companion leaned forward. "What's going on? You said he'd help us take it."

"He will, he will," Aladdin muttered. "Your Majesty—you're not with these guys. They're the bad guys. Your—you've just gotta help us get out of here."

Mickey was confused. These thieves expected him to help them just because the kid had gotten down on a knee and called him 'Your Majesty'? He glanced back at Jafar, scowl still plastered on his face, and then at the crowd of mourners who had gathered to watch the commotion. They wept. They reached out for Ea. And these kids... they were taking it.

Aladdin looked like a nice kid. He looked like he had something to say that he couldn't—but these days, intention wasn't enough to win the mouse's heart. He had become a proponent of actions.

He extended his fingers and the whole crowd watched as slowly, a Key blade materialized. After a few moments, he tightened his grip. Aladdin's face grew pale.

"I can't help you," Mickey shook his head. "These people... they need that sword. Haven't they been through enough?"

"Your Majesty—we need you to come with us," Aladdin said. Mickey sighed.

The other guy reached out and placed a hand on Aladdin's shoulder. "Plan B," he said simply, and he yanked Aladdin away, leaping out the nearby window and pulling the boy with him. Mickey and the contingent of guards raced over, looking down to see the trio of thieves—along with Ea—flying away on a magic carpet.

"I'll get them," Mickey waved the guards away, flipping out of the window and aiming his Keyblade at the ground. He shot a Pearl, and the recoil sent him hurtling just far enough so one of his gloved hands could wrap around the carpet's corner tassel.

Aladdin glanced down, and for a moment, Mickey could see the hesitation as he thought about helping the mouse king up. But before the boy could do anything, his chimpanzee buddy had bitten down on Mickey's fingers and the rodent had released the carpet and begun to plummet down to the streets below.

The fall stopped suddenly as the mouse crashed into the greenery of the palace courtyard, disappearing into the vines and into unconsciousness.
[Image: 2agonyw.png]
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#16
Nice breeze.

About forty feet above the sea of sand that comprised the vast majority of the Endless Dunes, Proto Man enjoyed a nice view as he cruised toward the rendezvous point atop Rush. The canine companion, who he hadn’t seen since the Pale Moors, had been little more than a wireless signal away from him. With Rush at his disposal, the preteen machine could fly to the destination, rather than trudge his way through the shifting sands, and while the wind did occasionally kick some granules up into their faces, they both had cool visors to shield their vision.

“We’re almost there, aren’t we?” Proto Man asked as he leaned forward to try and get a clearer look at the landscape in front of them.

Rush replied with an enthusiastic series of barks as the dog-turned-hoverboard started to descend down toward the ground. Before they touched down, the red robot hopped from his companion and rolled to a stop about twenty yards away from the trio of jeeps. Behind Proto Man, Rush converted back into his quadrupedial form and trailed the preteen by a few paces.

When he was close enough, the android held out the little insignia for the caravan to spot. After a brief moment where he was certain the three vehicles were going to keep cruising on passed him, Proto Man smiled as they slowed to a stop next to him. One of the windows slid down to reveal a sweating man with a shallow wound across his forehead. “You’re the muscle they sent?” He spat as he looked up to see the shiny red dog sitting on its haunches a few yards back. “A boy and his dog?”

Proto Man smiled as he snapped his fingers. There was a pneumatic hiss of air as rocket launchers popped out from the sides of his metallic canine. “His bite is worse than his bark, I assure you.”

The driver didn’t seem sold on the idea, but he also didn’t appear to be in the mood to argue. “They’ll be here soon, Kid.” He shouted as he leaned into his car for a radio. “We’re going full-tilt to ‘Purr. The kid and the dog here are going to… delay the janissaries for us. Pedal to the floor, ladies! Out.” Throwing the device down to the floor of the vehicle, the driver glanced back to Proto Man. “Good luck… and thank you.”

With the trio of jeeps rushing passed him, the preteen machine offered up a little wave before turning to glance into the desert. Despite the pace at which they were moving, it didn’t seem like the convoy was being trailed too closely. After a few moments of staring out into the dunes, Proto Man spotted three dark shapes against the otherwise yellow and white backdrop. As the mounted figures drew closer, it became evident that there was far more than a triumvirate of riders.

Rush started to growl as the three shapes gradually turned into five, seven, and finally nine. The metal dog started to prime its other weapons as Proto Man took a few steps back and activated his buster gun. “Any idea what they are, Boy?” At this distance, the preteen machine couldn’t see any details, but he knew that his canine companion had vastly superior hearing and sight.

“Bark bark!” A beat later, Proto Man got a series of small notifications on the right side of his internal display. Automatically, one of them expanded into a small video feed as the preteen machine saw what Rush could see from this distance.

It took all of five seconds, but the red robot realized that the riders were familiar to him. They were warriors clad in heavy white robes that brandished large firearms fueled and powered by oversized and seemingly archaic power motors. Beneath the riders, their six-legged mounts were a mortifying fusion of camel, horse, and machinery. Wires and tubes adorned the sides of the beasts, and their eyes were little red fires that spoke volumes about the sinister, soulless creatures.

The only piece of good news was that the riders were without their leader. Had Cell Delta been riding at the forefront of the group of mounted warriors, Proto Man would have had his doubts about the outcome of this skirmish. The insane prime, who had taken Heat Man’s life and nearly ended that of the preteen machine, was menacingly powerful. During his last run-in with Cell Delta, Proto Man had been able to upset the maniac only by fusing with Mickey Mouse.

“Don’t kill any of them, Rush,” Proto Man instructed as the raiders started to close in on them. “We’re going to want to take them back to Nippur… they may be able to provide some vital information.” After receiving an enthusiastic response, the preteen machine turned to face the attackers and scowled. Why prey on these people? Surely there were other places in the Dunes where loot could be found, but Cell Delta and his cronies had to pick a beleaguered city for their hunting grounds.

With that question still circling around in his metallic skull, Proto Man dropped back as the first bolts of crackling energy stitched through the sand in front of him. It didn’t surprise him that they’d fire on someone who looked like a child without asking any questions. It certainly had to surprise them when the robed youth released a sparkling burst of yellow energy from his right hand. The concussive blast hit the lead rider square in the chest and threw him from his mount.

The eight other mounted warriors immediately veered off to the flanks as they started to shower laser fire against the boy and his dog. Rush growled as he hopped back and launched a pair of rocket’s from his side-mounted holders. The pair of red projectiles glimmered in the abundant sunlight as they hissed out in opposite directions and found their marks—blasting apart their intended targets. With their homunculi shot out underneath them, the riders crashed into the sands. For the moment, they were removed from the equation, and Proto Man could shift his focus to the right flank trying to swing around him.

The preteen machine managed to take out one of the riders before a concentrated bolt of energy crashed against his shoulder, sending him crashing down to the sands. Red warning lights flared along the edges of the android’s HUD as he scrambled forward on hands and knees to avoid the bursts that ate into the ground behind him. Clenching his jaw, Proto Man dug his hands into the sand until his metal fingertips gripped something solid. A beat later, he flung himself forward, granting himself enough time to make it to his feet and summon his shield. With the bulwark at his disposal, Proto Man could easily turn away the oncoming bursts, and after the initial pounding subsided, he charged his aggressors.

Shots continued to pepper the shield, but the preteen machine held the momentum. His buster arm flashed as bolts of yellow energy crashed against his assailants. Within moments, they were down on the ground—their barely organic mounts fleeing into the dunes. Proto Man had a moment to recalibrate his surroundings before they jumped upon him, brandishing electrostatic truncheons and whirling servo-blades. The strikes came fast and heavy, but after the initial burst, there was clear monotony to his adversaries’ maneuvers.

Dropping the shield, the red robot dashed forward and ducked beneath a high swing of a crackling club. A solid jab to the marauder’s ribcage doubled him over in pain just as one of his peers lunged at Proto Man. The preteen machine stumbled back but didn’t go down despite the cloaked warrior’s best effort. With a smile, the android brought his elbow down onto the top of his foe’s head and stepped aside as he dropped like a sack of sandy potatoes.

Behind him, Proto Man heard the whirr of engines that preceded a sputtering cacophony of energy blasts. Craning his neck, he watched as his canine companion downed his remaining attackers with energized gunfire from a peppercorn barrel mounted on one of his front paws. Although many of them were bleeding or smoldering, the marauders were all still alive, even if death was a more pleasant alternative.

“Is that all of them?” Proto Man shouted to Rush as the preteen machine jogged to meet his friend. With only a solid yip, the metal dog converted into a jet and took to the air to screen their surroundings.

As Rush ascended to get a better view, the red robot minimized the video feed from the dog and turned to deal with their foiled assailants. Two of them had managed to crawl up to their feet and start into the desert, and while Rush immediately wanted to engage, Proto Man told the canine to stand down unless fresh foes appeared.

“They can’t hurt anyone, Boy. That’s what’s important.”

After another visual and thermal sweep from forty feet up revealed nothing lurking in the sands, Rush started his descent. Although he had absorbed enough blows to feel some stiffness in his joints, Proto Man wasn’t slowed down as he worked to drag the unconscious riders into a central location. Summoning some cables, the android and his canine companion worked to bind the seven men before lashing them together into one long chain.

“We’ll take them back to Nippur,” Proto Man instructed as he clicked the hook at the end of the cable to a bracket that projected up from between Rush’s shoulder blades. “You’re good with the weight, right?”

With a bark, Rush started to jog back toward the desert town without the slightest hint that he was too encumbered by the grown men dragging through the sand behind him. Although a few of the warrior regained consciousness along the way, they were quickly disabled with a soft punch in the gut or a smack to the side of the head.

It took the twosome a little longer to return to Nippur, but they made it intact to the same gate through which they’d made their exodus a few hours earlier. The preteen machine was greeted by a line of soldiers and a few of the Gold Cross volunteers. At first glance, everyone seemed uplifted by the appearance of the boy and his robot dog, but when they noticed that he was dragging a line of half-conscious marauders from the desert, their smiles started to melt.

“Who are they?” One of the guardsmen barked as he stepped forward to cut off Proto Man’s path.

Proto Man unhooked the cable from Rush and let it drop to the ground next to him. “They were attacking the Gold Cross convoy. I figured that maybe it’d be useful to interrogate them? Possibly discover where they’re hiding? You’d be able to plan against these raids in the future with some intel, right?”

The Gold Cross volunteers still seemed happy, but the guards weren’t sold on the idea. One of them stepped forward and crouched next to one of the unconscious figures. As if he were handling nuclear waste, the citizen-turned-soldier pushed away part of the beaten marauder’s cloak to reveal a face that was more machine than man. The outstretched digits instantly recoiled as the guard glanced up at his superior and then to Proto Man. “What… what were they riding?”

“Oh, I know who they’re with,” the red robot replied nonchalantly as he stooped down across from the guard. “They’re with Cell Delta. They ride around those creatures with all the tubes and metal.”

Without a pause in his step, the officer in charge of the little guard squad moved forward and brought his club down heavily against the skull of the unconscious marauder. Amid the bursts of electricity and the crunch of broken steel, there was still the discernable noise of shattering bone and the ooze of ruptured brain. Proto Man felt his nonexistent stomach twist in a knot as the guard attempted to deliver a similar blow to the next prisoner. There wasn’t a second thought as the red robot fired a low-intensity bolt of energy into the soldier’s chest and sent him doubling down to the ground in pain.

“What was tha—”

Manic eyes glanced up at the preteen machine as the guard fumbled for his club. “You’re an imbecile for bringing those things here!”

Before Proto Man could beg for some clarity, one of the formerly bound marauders sat up off the ground. The half-man, half-machine warrior sneered as he ripped away his cloak to reveal that his chest was one large explosive device. “Tsartan akbar!”

There was a brilliant flash of light that stole away the world.

The preteen machine was scooped up into the air by the blast and carried twenty feet before he slammed into part of the wall. Before he had a chance to gain his bearings, the initial explosion triggered the suicide devices implanted into the remainder of the raiders. As if struck down by a furious god, the West Gate of Nippur was swallowed up in a rapid succession of fiery yellow blossoms.
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#17
The staff members of the Gold Cross were certain their lives were over the moment the explosions started, but when a violent wave of concussive death didn’t instantly envelop them, they found themselves blinking against the dust and smoke. As the fallout settled, the guardsman who had moments early verbally chewed out Proto Man found himself staring up at the preteen machine. Fully empowered and brandishing a massive shield, the robot had made himself seem massive, and through some means, he’d protected the half dozen people behind him from the brunt of the explosions.

With a wheeze, Proto Man dropped the shield and fell to an ankle as his physique shrank down to his normal proportions. Although he could hear chatter from the people behind him, the android’s eyes were glued to the gruesome ditch that had once been the line of marauders. After the series of explosions, there was only a shallow trench dotted with charred viscera. While he’d managed to save the people in his immediate vicinity, there were others who had been nearby and caught parts of the explosion.

Turning to face the group he’d protected, Proto Man pointed to a few people lying on their sides near the edge of the square. “Start with those people over there, and we’ll work our way around. We need to help the injured…” Some of the volunteers were still a little shell shocked, but there were lives at stake. “Come on!” Proto Man shouted as he stumbled forward, grabbed the nearest person, and hoisted them up from the ground.

Within a half hour, the ruins at the West Gate had been turned into a makeshift collection of tents to care for the wounded. For his part, the preteen machine spent all that time and then most of the afternoon making sure everyone received the attention they needed. Once he was certain that the wounded were stabilized, he set about repairing the wall with some freshly summoned blocks of sandstone.

“It should hold,” the red robot remarked once the new segment of the wall was in place.

“Thank you,” the guardsman replied as he wiped some sweat from his forehead. “You didn’t have to do this.”

“Of course I did,” Proto Man shot back. “It was the right thing to do.”

Before the conversation could get any more sentimental, the machine bid farewell to the guards and the volunteers and slipped back into the streets of Nippur. With some luck, his work with the Gold Cross would make him less of a persona non grata within the ailing desert town.

While that was one reason to celebrate, Proto Man couldn’t avoid the reality that he had zero idea where Mickey had gone in the interim. Despite the hectic events of the day, the preteen machine feared that the wackiness of ‘time’ in the Omniverse may have put more of a gulf between the two friends. Was it possible that Mickey had already gone through weeks of some other turmoil? Maybe he wasn’t even in Nippur anymore?

So after spending the remainder of the afternoon scouring the Dataverse and the places they’d traveled days prior, Proto Man set his sights on the Nexus. At this point, he couldn’t even get in touch with Mireya, which left him more concerned. The feisty half-night elf had a habit for getting herself into violent situations when she was crowded in by people. Fortunately, there were no accounts of street brawls in Nippur, so the android peacefully exited the main gate. Unlike a few days earlier, he left the city as Proto Man and made no effort to mask his identity. He had donned his scarf and helmet, and he strode proudly the entire time.

Nippur would endure… or it would collapse into the sands. For the moment, Proto Man knew he had left the place just a little better than when he’d arrived with Mickey and Mireya earlier in the week. He wasn’t sure if he’d be back sooner or later, but he doubted that this was the final time he would visit the sandstone city.
[Image: proto.jpg][Image: DAHost.png]
Dante's Abyss 2015
Host
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#18
EPILOGUE

Two years later…

Nippur did endure, indeed.

Mickey Mouse and Proto Man disappeared from the New Babylon capital, but the memory of the two pint-sized primes responsible for the city’s destruction did not quickly fade from the minds of its citizens. In the days that followed their week-long excursion, rumors persisted that they remained in the shadows, lurking, just waiting to enact some new form of chaos within the walls of the glorious city of gold.

These rumors never came to fruition. After raiders had destroyed the West Gate, Proto Man slipped unnoticed out of the city, thus far never to return. Members of the Gold Cross, which had been melded with a new hospital complex established by Gilgamesh upon the gilded king’s return, whispered of the preteen machine’s goodness, and in some corners of the city, people began to believe it. But when the old leadership of New Babylon began to retake their holdings on the capital city, any such positive talk of their king’s assailants was squelched quickly.

After falling unconscious in his efforts to chase the street rat and his companions, Mickey Mouse had been shuffled to a secret hideaway, where Aladdin, Abu, and the Shadow Man presented him to his wife and Queen, Minnie. The pair had absconded in the dead of night, feeling themselves no longer welcome here—as if they’d ever felt truly welcome in the first place. As a parting gift, the young thief Aladdin sent the mouse off with a small brass lamp, one of the treasures he’d swiped from the Nippur stockholds, and his trusty magic carpet. Mickey would see it put to good use. While Blues might have resurfaced when large threats rose to try and stomp the Omniverse into submission, the mouse couple disappeared from all records, nestled deep on an uncharted island in the Vasty Deep, far away from those who chased them: agents of Nippur, agents of the Empire…

For his part, the street rat faded back into obscurity. Without the Queen, Simba, Mireya, or the Genie around, he and Abu found themselves marvelously unprotected and susceptible to all kinds of unfortunate accidents. He kept a steady patronage to the Porcelain Throne, to keep his ear on the pulse of the city, but for the most part left things well enough alone. Even when Gilgamesh returned miraculously from the Underverse and resumed power, he kept his head down.

He always hoped, deep down, that one day the mouse king would emerge from hibernation and return to Nippur. That he would see his Majesty again, under better circumstances. But after long enough, even that dream drifted into the background.

That thought remained dormant until the ninth Dante’s Abyss began, and the face of the one Nippur had come to know as ‘Murder Mouse’ was blasted across every screen, pitted once again against the King of Heroes.

For hours, most establishments tuned their televisions to Fight #5. The televisions in the Porcelain Throne in particular ignored all other New Babylon matches—Sasuke Uchiha’s, Victor Wolfe’s, etcetera—in favor of watching their captain of the guard team up with their worst nightmare to fight the king and some red-headed boy. They watched as the mouse king sparred on equal footing with their own monarch, neither seeming to have a consistent advantage. They watched as Gilgamesh transformed into a screaming demon. They watched as the kings began to… talk rationally with one another, just before Yu Kanda swooped in and guaranteed the mouse’s team the victory.

Aladdin watched, too, with bated breath. Mickey Mouse was alive and well, and back in the public eye. That could only mean good things, right? As demon Gilgamesh flew outside the ring, the young thief stifled a cheer—since the King’s triumphant return, even rebellious sects like the patrons of the Porcelain Throne had begun to sympathize with him, recognizing the effectiveness of his new policies.

In a booth over in the corner, a tall, lanky, hooded man entered into a rough coughing fit. Aladdin’s attention was drawn. “Long live the king,” the man said through hacking, raising a fist. Aladdin couldn’t figure out which king he meant.

He continued to choke on the bar’s seedy air, long spindly fingers bringing a jet black handkerchief to his face. As images of a downed Gilgamesh danced across the screen, commentary droning over them, the hooded man emerged from his booth and headed for the door, grabbing a long, bronze staff adorned with a cobra’s head from the wall nearby. A staff Aladdin knew all too well.

Jafar.

Without a moment’s hesitation, the young thief got up and placed himself between Jafar and the doorway. The former vizier paused, then reached up and removed his hood.

“So,” he said calmly, “We meet again.”

“Surprised to see you down here amongst us common folk, Jafar,” Aladdin replied.

“Surprised to see you still amongst the living folk, street rat,” Jafar spat. He stood up as straight as he could, but was bested rather quickly by another coughing fit. “Still sending your prayers to that false king?”

Aladdin smirked. “He’s a mouse, I’m a rat, we’re basically kinfolk.”

“You’re both trash is what you are,” the former vizier scoffed. “Incredible that he somehow managed to defeat the one true king. Probably has something to do with the traitorous captain of the guard holding back.”

“You speak like you’re still a member of New Babylon’s leadership,” Aladdin snarked.

Jafar’s current predicament only confirmed the rumors the young thief had heard; in the months before Gilgamesh’s triumphant return from the Underverse, the mustachioed man had been ejected from the high councils. Apparently his schemes had been unearthed, and his draw to the power structures of New Babylon revealed. Aladdin had always known that the man could only have eyes for ultimate power and not the good of the people, but he was happy to see that at least some of this faction, whom he’d thought pure evil for so long, at least had some limits.

So, it was true then: Jafar had been living in relative exile in the poor sections of the city for almost a year. He’d heard tell of it, but had never seen his face with his own eyes.

And now, perhaps, it was time to take care of him for good.

Aladdin reached into his belt and pulled out a curved knife, still perfectly silver since it had never before been used. He took a step toward Jafar but was met with a beam of flaming energy ejecting from the wizard’s staff that surged straight through his bare chest, leaving a burning, charred hole straight through him.

Back at his table, Abu began screeching and flailing wildly. Other patrons of the Porcelain Throne gasped and stood up from their seats, watching in horror as Aladdin crumpled to the floor, dead. Jafar, for his part, took a deep breath of relief and hurried past the young man’s smoldering form toward the door. He’d nearly reached it when that same curved dagger lodged itself in the back of his head, stopping him in his tracks.

Dark red blood oozed from the wound as Jafar’s eyes rolled into his head. Behind him, Aladdin took his last breaths, having used the final bits of his energy to destroy the evil wizard who’d haunted him for so long, in this world and his last.

Evening set on the lives of Aladdin and Jafar just as it set on Nipput and New Babylon. The staff of the Porcelain Throne hurried to sweep up the violence, wondering if it predicated another conflict between supporters of the mouse and supporters of their king like the one which had nearly cost them their city all those years ago.

They couldn’t know that it was actually the dying gasp of such a conflict.

They couldn’t know that within hours, the long-standing war between their two kings would finally be over, sealed with a song.

Nippur would survive. And thrive.
[Image: 2agonyw.png]
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