ASH/HCC: Lifetrap one-shot

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Wed Jul 14 11:57:34 PDT 2010

     [The cover shows an aged Weapons Master ducking under several blades as
a gout of flame narrowly misses him.  The ceiling appears to be getting lower
as well.  "The final fate of the original Weapons Master!"]

 .|. COHERENT COMICS UNINCORPORATED presents and ASH Universe Tale
 '|`  /|(`| |                    "Lifetrap"
     /-|.)|-|        copyright 2010 by Dave Van Domelen

[April 12, 2016 - Outer Mongolia, People's Republic of China]

     "I'm gettin' too old for this crap," Chuck Morse hissed as he looked up
at the rapidly descending basalt slab.  This was followed by hoping that his
last words wouldn't be a cliche.

               *              *              *              *

[A few minutes earlier...]

     Dr. Bazaryn looked dubiously at the carvings that flanked the entrance.
A careful choice of location on the part of the builders had ensured that
very little dust would cover the door, and it had been the work of only an
hour or so for the two men to carefully uncover it.  There had been no need
to send back for workers, a process that would have been complicated by
the...sensitive...nature of the expedition.  While the short Mongolian
archaeologist had far more field experience than his unshakably bookish
appearance would have suggested, he was still sweating despite the chill
morning air.
     "Now that I see it, I doubt that this is the tomb of Chingis Khan,"
Bazaryn frowned.  "It is too elaborate, given what we know about the extreme
secrecy of his burial."
     Chuck Morse, far less tired from the hour of careful work than his
companion despite being a "senior citizen" by strict definition, smiled.  No
one would ever mistake him for an armchair archaeologist, even without his
green leather jacket or the two swords slung over one shoulder.  He was
clearly a Man of Action, even at this age.  "Well, Adja, I never said it was.
Never thought it was, actually.  But I needed the resources to get into China
to check this one off the list, and your boss is pretty well-known in
archaeological circles as having a thing for Genghis."
     "My...our employer will not be happy to hear that," Dr. Bazaryn's frown
     "Come on, Bazzy, you and I both know he's used to crapshoots.  People
have been looking for Temujin's tomb since the man died, it's more about the
looking anymore than it is about the finding," Chuck shrugged.  "Yeah, I
abused his hobby, but...look, this isn't the tomb of the greak Khan, but it
might be good enough to make the boss happy, yes?  It's the last of Jack
Ripley's unfinished jobs."
     "Jack Ripley, brother of...?"
     "Yeah.  In the 1930s, Jack did a lot of collecting for his brother,
including several trips to China," Chuck tapped the portable computer nestled
in his left vest pocket.  "But there were a lot of things he made notes about
but couldn't fully explore.  Then the war got him distracted for a while, and
after the war China was closed...I picked up a few of the Chinese locations
on his list before the PROC's last big expansion, but this has pretty much
always been inside their borders, at least in my lifetime."
     "Good money in Ripley's leavings, then?" Dr. Bazaryn quirked an
eyebrow.  He'd had trouble nailing down his companion's motivations during
the course of the trip, as they tried to match directions from Morse's
closely-held notes to modern GPS coordinates and the inevitably shifting
desert landscape.  Morse didn't seem to be terribly mercenary, but neither
was he motivated by a love of history.
     "Crap money," Morse smirked.  "Otherwise, I wouldn't have had to dangle
this one in front of your boss.  Most of what the talented Mr. Ripley left
behind was stuff he didn't think was worth the expense, given he had limited
resources to work with.  This one, on the other hand, he seemed to think was
a big score, one that would need more resources than he had available in
order to exploit."
     "And the two of us constitute sufficient...oh, I see.  You wanted to get
proof before bringing in anyone else.  Get a stronger bargaining position,"
Bazaryn nodded.  Morse didn't contradict him, and he probed further, "So, why
do you do this?  Was it all just to set up the big score at the end?  Seems
like you went beyond what was necessary to validate Ripley's notes.  Dealing
with one or two of his leftovers would have been enough to convince my
employer to back this search."
     "Nah, it's more about responsibility.  I dunno how much of my file the
boss shared with you, but he's got to know I used to be a superhero, back in
the 1970s.  Non-powered, which is why I'm still here and not...wherever they
all went.  And even without great power, there's some responsibility.  I've
been trying to nail down loose bits of godly magic around the world before
they can hurt anyone else, since no one with actual powers is around to keep
an eye on the monsters and monkeys' paws anymore."
     "You think this," Bazaryn nodded to the doorway, "is magic?"
     "In this day and age of satellite archaeology?  You bet!"  Morse
gestured at the symbols carved around the opening, "My Qin-era script skills
are rusty, but those look like magical invocations to me, yes?"  When the
hired archaeologist nodded, he continued, "Plus, something was keeping this
from being found from the air.  There may be a whole lot of nothing out here,
but China's very protective of their borders and very interested in ancient
secrets.  If it was possible to find this place any way but with the Mark One
Eyeball, there'd be PROCcies all over by now.  As it stands, I wouldn't be
surprised if they've already noticed that we vanished from surveillance at
some point...your boss's money is enough to let them pretend they don't see
us, but you can bet they do see us.  Or did.  Probably don't anymore."
     Bazaryn knelt to examine the invocations more carefully.  "My Qin isn't
rusty at all, Mr. Morse.  And I'm not sure this is even a tomb...although
whoever once lived here may have died here as well."
     "Exiled sorceror named Fire Tortoise who refused to provide Emperor Qin
with the secret of immortality, yes?" Morse pointed to a name symbol.
"Ripley was no slouch at ancient Chinese either.  He may not have gone in,
but he did write down what the doormat said."
     "The elixir of immortality?  It might be here?" Bazaryn stood up
suddenly, feeling a thousand eyes upon him all of a sudden.  Or, at least,
one set of eyes very high in the sky.  "Ah, assuming it's real, that is," he
     Morse shrugged.  "Could be.  I've met a few immortals, heard of others.
If this guy was still around after two thousand years, though, he stopped
being around in '98.  He probably wasn't home back in the 1930s either, or
Jack might never have made it back from that expedition.  So if his elixir
worked, it's not working for him now.  Whether it'd work for anyone without a
Magene, though, is anybody's guess.  It could just be a poisonous mix of
quicksilver and beetle dung like a thousand other 'immortality potions' that
Emperor Qin tried and died from.  But if the guy was a real mage, then
there's real magic stuff in there."
     "Some of which might be worth quite a bit, even if it has nothing to do
with the Great Khan," Bazaryn's eyes lit up.
     "And some of which might be powering traps," Morse cautioned.

               *              *              *              *

     Dr. Bazaryn was already least he had the sense to run back
for the entrance, rather than farther in where he'd be sealed in.  That was
probably the point of the classic "falling ceiling" trap convince
people to go away, then block the entry until such time as the trap reset
itself or was reset by the sorceror who called the place home.
     Not that Morse dedicated much conscious thought to that, it was merely a
flicker in the back of his head as he drew one of the two swords strapped to
his back and thrust it into the gap between ceiling and wall at a shallow
     "Morse, what are you about?" Bazaryn shouted from the safety of the
     Sparks flew for a moment as the blade was dragged between two slabs of
basalt, but after a heartstopping second or so the ceiling ground to a halt,
victim of friction.
     "Just keeping the door open," Chuck called back.  He didn't quite have
to duck, but it was a near thing.  "I just hope I can get this loose when we
come back has sentimental value."
     Dr. Bazaryn peered at the sword, which seemed undamaged.  "How did you
know the ceiling wouldn't just shatter the blade and grind the pieces down on
its way to crushing you?"
     "Okay, it has more than sentimental value," Morse shrugged.  "It's also
magic.  Most of its powers will only work for members of a bloodline I'm
pretty sure has died out, but it's still an effectively unbreakable piece of
     "Something you found in Ripley's leftovers?" Bazaryn asked.
     Morse shook his head.  "Bequest from an old friend.  But come on,
sometimes traps trigger other traps, we should get moving before this hallway
fills with scorpions or something."

               *              *              *              *

     "Amazing, it's a countryside in miniature, complete with lakes of
water," Bazaryn shone his lamp about the chamber.  "It reminds me of Qin's
tomb, although that used quicksilver in the place of water, and it had all
dried up."
     "Must be a spring somewhere, kept magically clear of debris," Morse
nodded.  "Looks like the plants are just models, though, not the real thing.
So he didn't try to import sunlight with spells."
     "True, so...I just felt a tile settle under my foot," Bazaryn
interrupted himself.  In most archaeological sites, that would just be a sign
of age.  Here, though, it screamed "trigger".
     Gouts of flame emerged from the ceiling, out of nozzles that had been
disguised as sculpted golden stars in the painted firmament.
     "Into the water!" Bazaryn shouted, starting to dive for the nearest
     "WAIT!" Morse commanded, grabbing the archaeologist by the arm.  "The
fire's not the real trap!"
     The jets of fire lengthened, coming close to head height and scorching
the miniature trees on the tiny hilltops.
     "Are you crazy?"
     "Maybe, but I've also been set fire to a few times.  Those things look
like fire, sound like fire, even smell a little like fire, but they don't
feel right."
     "Feels hot enough to me," Bazaryn tugged on his arm, looking towards one
of the pools.
     "It feels like fire would feel to someone who never got closer than a
campfire," Morse countered.  "But no worse," he reached up into the roiling
flames, grimacing but not crying out.  When he pulled his hand back, it was
unburnt, if a little reddened.
     "Then why...oh," Dr. Bazaryn looked chagrined, then fished in his pocket
for a small coin and tossed it towards one of the pools.  It sizzled where it
hit, the unmistakable signature of strong acid.
     "The drop ceiling was to convince us to go away.  This one is to trick
us into not only killing ourselves, but also disposing of the bodies so our
host doesn't have to sully himself with the job," Morse nodded.  "Wouldn't be
too hard for an alchemist to rig up a slow drip system to keep the pools full
without diluting the acid, although he may have had to magic up some bits to
make sure they wouldn't corrode.  And look, the fake trees and stuff aren't
actually burnt, it's just part of the illusion."
     Morse plucked one of the models from its hilltop.  As long as it was
within the flames, it looked blackened and skeletal, but outside the flames
it was undamaged save for where Chuck had broken off the trunk.
     "It seems that he values his privacy," Bazaryn muttered.  "I hope he
wasn't the lone exception to the great vanishing...."

               *              *              *              *

     "Okay, this one would leave a mess for him," Chuck quipped as he parried
the barrage of blades.  He'd heard them hissing out of their places of
concealment in time to shove Bazaryn back, but at the expense of letting them
hem him in.  He'd also had to drop his lamp, and Bazaryn was still recovering
from being rudely shoved, so he had to go on less than ideal lighting as the
armatures clicked and whirred and swung sharpened bronze in all directions.
Including directions that impinged on parts of Chuck's body.
     "Morse!" Bazaryn had recovered, and was fumbling to put his lamp on
broad light. 
     "I've faced...worse," Chuck parried three of the blades with his one
remaining sword, while pulling a jitte from his boot to deal with two more.
"Granted, it was forty years ago, but...ah, good, now I can see what I'm up
against.  Give me a little better light to your left, Adj!"
     The light shifted, and Chuck's katana licked out like a chameleon's
tongue and severed spiderweb-thin cords.  All the blades in that direction
fell limp, giving him room to maneuver and time to pulled out a handful of
shuriken.  They weren't the special antigravity-field gimmicked stars he'd
had access to back in the 1970s, but they'd do the job today, and several
more sectors went limp as the throwing blades cut through their control
cords.  With most of the blades out of commission, Chuck was almost relaxed
as he disabled the rest, only occasionally having to duck away from an
unexpected strike.
     "Too bad I had to slice it up.  Woulda been nice to come at this with a
little more preparation, see if I could figure out its cycle.  It'd make a
dandy training room," Morse smirked, picking up his lamp.
     "Are you sure it won't come back to life?"
     Morse gave a short shake of his head.  "This isn't magically animated.
It looks to be purely mechanical, probably driven by falling weights that get
winched back up by windpower.  You've noticed we haven't had any trouble with
stale air, right?  Well, if you're gonna build a good ventilation system,
given the winds outside, why not do some windpower to run things?  Magic is
one of those things that works best when it works least, Adja.  A few spells
to keep things running smoothly over the years, but otherwise depend on wind,
water and wheels...did you just hear that?"
     "Unfortunately, yes," Bazaryn frowned.  "Perhaps your sword wasn't as
unbreakable as you thought, I think that ceiling finished dropping."
     Morse narrowed his eyes and pondered.  "Hard to be sure, but it sounded
a little closer than that.  And more like a door-type slab than an entire
ceiling.  But let's go back and check before going in any
careful, though, we might not have triggered everything on the way in."

               *              *              *              *

     Morse had been right.  A doorway between the falling ceiling trap and
the acid pits trap had been sealed off by one of the ubiquitous basalt slabs
that much of the interior was made from.  Basalt wasn't even native to the
rocks outside, the mage must have put a lot of effort into building the
place, even if the actual maintenance took very little magic.
     "Looks like the blades were the last trap before the living area,
though," Bazaryn noted as they entered another chamber, appointed as a sort
of "living room".  Small flames flicked to life all around them in sconces
and oil lamps, giving the room a warm glow.
     "And maybe the blades were part of the living area too, if the builder
was big into practicing his swordplay.  A lot of mages are handy with swords,
I've found.  The 'robes and staff' stereotype is false as often as it's
true," Morse pointed out.  "But don't let your guard down, Adja.  Especially
if the sword room was serving double duty.  If this guy was willing to live
with traps that close, he might have worked traps into every part of the
place.  Just less destructive to property."
     "Yyyessss..." Bazaryn mused, casting a more suspicious eye around the
room.  "Not likely to be a falling ceiling here, or acid vats, but subtler
poison traps are certainly possible.  Especially since the alchemist could
have immunized himself to any poisons in use."
     "Like, say, poisoned lamp oil making a cloud we're breathing in right
now?" Morse pointed at a sconce.  "Or drugged, anyway.  I mentioned I'd been
set on fire before right?  Well, I've been drugged a few times too, and this
is starting to feel like another of those times."
     Dr. Bazaryn's eyes widened as he looked past Morse's shoulder in
horror.  Chuck whirled around, but there was nothing more threatening than a
credenza.  Tacky, perhaps, but not horrifying.
     "You don't see it?" Bazaryn was pointing now.  "We've triggered a
summoning ritual!  A demon's emerging from the wall!"
     "What, it's the drugs!" Morse shouted, trying to grab at the
archaeologist, but this time the man slipped away and ran, panicked, from the
     The walls started to twist, and it looked like that credenza was
starting to get ideas about walking.  "Not sure if this is a trap or just how
the wizard liked to relax," Chuck muttered as he started to follow Bazaryn.
Hallucinogens were tricky, they keyed off emotional state more often than
not, and Adja had been pretty damned wound up.  Even with his experience
dealing with mind-altering substances, Chuck was having trouble keeping his
perceptions straight.
     Then he heard the scream, and was pretty sure it wasn't a hallucination.
     As quickly as he dared, he made his way back to the miniature park.
There he found Bazaryn sprawled half out of one of the pools...the other half
was quickly dissolving in the pool.  It looked like Bazaryn had simply
tripped, or lurched away from some new phantom monster, but it didn't really
matter now.  Dead was dead, and the little Mongolian was very dead.

               *              *              *              *

[April 15, 2016]

     "Well, this sucks," Morse summed up the situation.  The falling door
hadn't reset on its own, meaning it required some sort of spell to lift.  It
was possible you just needed to say the right words, and even possible that
those words were written down somewhere, but he hadn't found them yet and he
was running out of food.  At least he'd figured out which of the pools had
drinkable water, and the hallucinogen has stopped affecting him (he hoped)
after a while.
     The basalt door and walls were harder than anything he could find in the
vault other than his own weapons, and the only thing he'd brought that could
have cut through in less than a Very Long Time was inconveniently on the
other side of the door.  The bronze blades from the automated sword room were
fairly soft metal even by the standards of ancient Chinese smithing, so that
was probably deliberate, to remove any opportunity to use tools from inside
the vault to break through the door, trapping any survivors of the other
traps until the owner could come home and deal with them properly.
     Too bad the owner wasn't ever coming home.  And Chuck had probably
overstated the likelihood of surveillance to the late Dr. Bazaryn...if the
people who'd been bribed simply turned the sky eyes away from the vicinity in
case their briber had a way to check for compliance, then there wouldn't be
anyone coming any time soon.
     Chuck tapped on the door again, trying to estimate the thickness more
accurately than "very thick."  With what he had available, it might take
years to chip through the stone.  The contents of Bazaryn's surviving pockets
hadn't been any help in that regard, although fortunately the archaeologist
kept his own pocket computer in a hip pocket rather than in the now-dissolved
shirt pocket, so at least there'd be more reading material while Chuck
waited.  Both his and Bazaryn's computers used kinetic rechargers in addition
to traditional plug-ins, so as long as the warranty didn't expire they'd keep
working.  And most of the vault had lighting that Chuck had figured out how
to was a home, not a tomb, after all.
     Well, it was a home first.  A tomb second.  And it was looking like he
might get to enjoy both aspects.
     "Simple problem: break through a damn thick block of rock.  Simple
solution: keep chipping.  It might break or dull every blade I brought with
me, but it'll work.  Eventually.  VERY eventually."
     Chuck sighed and walked back into the main living area.  Bazaryn's
corpse had finished dissolving now that Chuck had nudged it the rest of the
way in, and the room didn't smell too horribly anymore, but it wasn't really
a happy fun place.
     Sitting out on a small table was a gold-encrusted pill case that he'd
found while looking for a way out.  As far as he could tell from his limited
command of Qin-era writing, the sorceror who'd lived here needed to take one
every hundred years or so to maintain his immortality, and each pill knocked
him out for a while...hence the need for all the traps and defenses.  It
reminded him of Lord Ebon, who'd supposedly been buried by townsfolk after
discovering his own immortality formula, since he'd seemed to be dead at the
     There was one pill left, so the guy hadn't died because he ran out of
elixir, at least.
     Maybe the elixir WOULD work for Chuck.  Maybe the elixir only worked for
paranormals, maybe only for the guy who made it in the first place.  But it
wouldn't be too much longer before Chuck started to starve, at which point it
wouldn't matter if the things were just beetle dung and mercury, he'd just
die with a slightly nastier taste in his mouth.
     "Juuust in case these knock me out longer than it takes for someone to
find me," he smirked, writing "I'm probably not dead yet, check carefully" on
the back of a bit of scroll and setting it on his small pile of weapons.
Then he lay down and swallowed the lone remaining sample of the fabled elixir
of immortality.
     His last thought as oblivion claimed him was that it was April 15, and
if he'd managed to avoid taxes for years now, maybe nothing was inevitable?

               *              *              *              *

[February 23, 2026 - Outer Mongolia, Central Asian Confederacy]

     The Western Dragon enjoyed these brief escapes from the administrative
duties thrust upon her by fate.  Whether running the heavens or the earth,
using scrolls and ink or computer screens, paperwork was an inevitable part
of ruling.  So it was a welcome respite to take the occasional flight out
into the hidden places of China when an excuse presented itself.
     Fire Tortoise had been rather reclusive when she first knew him,
millennia ago, so she hadn't been terribly surprised when he didn't emerge
during the chaos of the so-called Godmarket, when she'd been roused from her
healing sleep.  And they had never been close, so she hadn't sought out the
immortal.  He'd almost definitely vanished with the other human mages in
1998, presuming he'd survived that long to begin with.
     But he'd built his lair well, and the former celestial bureaucrat
expected there was much within it that survived and would be worth her time
to recover, once she could clear the time in her schedule for a little trip
to the wastelands.  Today it'd risen to the top of her very long To Do List,
so here she was.
     And she was instantly on alert when she saw the slowly decaying vehicle
sitting near the entrance, the tires flat but the dry air having done little
to rust the metal of its chassis.  It was difficult to tell how long it had
sat there simply by looking at the state of disrepair, and it was a model of
truck that had been popular among the well-to-do in the area for a few
decades.  Searching the interior, however, suggested it had been last used
around ten years ago.
     "Tomb robbers?" she arched an eyebrow and smirked.  "Well, Fire
Tortoise's lair wasn't meant to be a tomb, but it looks like it's become
     A minor exertion of her heavenly power over the wind, a power she rarely
used around humans lest it cast doubt on her disguise as one of them, and the
doors were cleared of a decade's worth of debris.  She immediately smelled
unfamiliar magic as she opened the door.  Almost lost among the background of
Fire Tortoise's spells, it bore the faint tang of European mages.
     "Ah, a magic sword," she stepped into the low-ceilinged anteroom and
spotted the source of the scent.  Releasing her true nature, she easily
arched her serpentine back and shoved the ceiling back up to its resting
position, causing the sword to fall out of the seam between ceiling and wall.
Once she was confident the ceiling would not have the temerity to attempt to
crush *her*, she resumed human form and picked the weapon up.  "Interesting,
I do believe that in the right hands this could kill me, or at least force me
to abandon this false form."
     tap tap tap tap
     She looked to the end of the room, where a slab door sealed off the rest
of the lair.  Someone or something had just started tapping insistently on
it, with what sounded like metal, probably drawn by the noise of the scraping
ceiling block.  The door itself sounded less solid than it looked from her
     Fire Tortoise may never have trusted her enough to share the secrets of
his defenses with the dragon, but she'd be a poor excuse for a celestial if
she couldn't intuit the needed spell to lift the door.  But did she want to?
Whoever or whatever was making the tapping sound had likely been sealed in
ten years ago, and that brought up all sorts of unpleasant possibilities.
Especially since ten years ago the territory had been under the influence of
the old Anchor Premier, Xu.  None of the weaker mystic entities would have
had an easy time of it, to be sure.
     Still, focusing her senses, she didn't detect any great power beyond the
door, nor a twin to the power of the sword in her hand.  She opened the door.
     "Oh, hi," a young man in an odd mix of worn American-style clothing and
what must have been Fire Tortoise's possessions stood there, holding the stub
of a sword.  He must have been chipping away at the door for years to get it
in that condition!  "I don't suppose you have anything to eat on you?  It
turns out the elixir of immortality doesn't stop ya from *feeling* like
you're starving...."


Author's Notes:

     This was written for High Concept Challenge #11, "Deathtraps".

     In case it's not clear, the "legacy hero" Weapons Master in the new
Freedom Alliance is not Chuck Morse's son, it's Chuck himself, rejuvenated by
the elixir of immortality and pretending to be his own bastard offspring.  So
the "final fate of the original Weapons Master" is to become the "second"
Weapons Master.  I alluded to this back in ASH #88 (set a few months after
the final scene of this story), but at the time had only plotted out very
roughly that Chuck had gotten magically restored to youth in an undefined
adventure that somehow involved the Western Dragon.  Time will tell if the
elixir gave him the same sort of immortality that it gave Fire Tortoise
(unaging for the next century) or merely restored his youth and he's aged
normally since waking up.  As for how he got from Mongolia to St. Louis and
established his new identity...that's for future stories to tell, not for
endnotes.  ;)  The fact that he had an appointment with the Western Dragon in
ASH #88 does provide something of a hint, though.
     Jack Ripley first appeared in Coherent Super Stories #18, and "Lifetrap"
now establishes that he survived past World War II.  For those who didn't
read CSS #18 (and you really should go read it), Jack is the fictional
younger brother of the real Robert L. "Believe it or Not!" Ripley.  Jack had
the paranormal ability to copy the skills of anyone he touched skin to skin,
a rather useful talent for a world-traveling collector of curiosities.
     I deliberately did not name the man funding the expedition, in case I
later decide I need him to have been someone else.  :)
     Fire Tortoise probably didn't have a literal credenza in his lair, just
some piece of furniture that Chuck decided was credenza-like.  But who knows,
maybe the mage redecorated some time during the 19th or 20th Century and took
a fancy to a credenza.

     I pasted a big chunk of this story into an online writing analyzer that
was making the rounds on Facebook (, and was told I write like
Dan Brown.  Hm, mysterious ancient crypts and traps, in a world that has only
a nodding similarity to reality?  A fair cop, I suppose.  (Yes, I know this
sort of program checks things like sentence length, use of punctuation, etc.
And not content.  Still, it's vaguely apropos.)


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