The tavern, such as it was, had been fairly quiet after the dinner rush. In the before times, the building would have been a decent diner, but things had fallen to disrepair after the long war. With the state and federal governments too busy trying to rebuild themselves, folk were left to their own devices. The restaurant's owners decided to stay open, feeding those in the community who couldn't feed themselves. They were fortunate to be near farm land, having a fairly sure supply of foods to cook and serve. But the rural area also meant they were among the first to lose power.
Most of the people left were gathered near the hearth that had been built on the north wall, the adults chatting in the dim light while the children did the same, a bit farther from the fire. The children weren't talking to commiserate, or set up trades. They were killing time with excited chatter about which stories he might tell, and how many. They knew he would be there tonight, he just had to be! The air had that crisp bite to it that meant Fall was turning to Winter and he always came before the snow fell.
They waited for the Bard of Subterra, passing through town on his way around what used to be the state. Borders held little meaning anymore.
They didn't have to wait long.
With a gust of the night air, the doors opened and the unmistakable figure stepped in. His long coat flapped gently in the light breeze. Behind the bard was a woman in powered combat armor, colloquially called a Mecha Knight, holding a small girl in her arms.
The children surrounded the bard and clamored for a story, and the bard's face lit up. “I thought maybe we'd been too late tonight and you would all be in bed!”
The children shouted all at once. He laughed and chided them “One at a time!”
“Tell the one about how Novaman destroyed the scout ship!” one boy exclaimed as the bard made his way to a table near the fire.
“We heard that one four times last time he was here, and it wasn't just Novaman...” a young girl countered. The bard took off his coat and draped it on the back of his chosen chair. The mecha knight sat at a nearby table, leaving the mob of children between her and the bard.
“Yeah, Jhad and Tempo were there too,” a second boy chimed in. The Bard of Subterra let them continue as he caught the eye of a waitress and motioned his food order to her. One advantage of the rural tows was the simple meals, generally shepherd's pie and a pint of bitter ale.
“Oooh! How about the Tyrathi Invasion?” the first boy offered.
“No, papa told that one last night,” a second girl countered.
The storyteller settled in his chair and spoke. “Okay kids, settle down. It sounds like you want a story from the World of Heroes. Is that right?” He made a slight gesture at the table. A few children noticed it and drew coins from their pockets.
A child replied for the group, “Yeah, but not one we've heard before!” The children that had them put their coins in a small pile on the table.
“But not one you've heard before, yes. Hmm...” the storyteller considered the library of stories in his head. “That's a tall order to fill. Let me see... Have I told you about how Sundog lost his wife?”
The children groaned collectively. “Only about a hundred times...”
The storyteller chuckles, “Alright then. How about Cathy Travis and the Jabberwock?”
“You made that up!”
The storyteller laughed again. “No so. But I think I'll save that for another time since it's not truly a story of the World of Heroes. No, tonight you'll hear how Ten Kelvin and Bearman managed to subdue the Manic Multiplier. You kids know about Ten Kelvin and Bearman, don't you?”
The children muttered in mild confusion, some positive answers, some negative, none very vocal.
“Alright, a quick over view then. Ten Kelvin is a young boy, still in high school. He has a brilliant mind and a clever imagination. His grandfather left him a suit of armor that's able to keep him warm in the coldest temperatures, with boots that allow him to leap great distances. Ten Kelvin himself has invented a pair of gloves that let him spray forth waves of ice at his enemies, or chill the air around him to terribly low temperatures.
“Bearman has incredible strength, endurance and resilience. He may not be fast, but he hits hard and can take it as good as he can dish it out. When Ten Kelvin had to stop him, it took all of his cleverness and a couple of well placed police cars, but that's a story for another time. Bearman usually lets Ten Kelvin take charge when they're together.”
“Now, this happened several years before any of you were born. Back when I was a wee lad. Ten Kelvin and Bearman were in the Bearcave, their hide out somewhere in the hills outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Bearma--”
The children interrupted with a dozen questions at once.
“Where's New Mexico?”
“What were they doing there?”
“Why is it called the Bearcave if Ten Kelvin is in charge?”
The storyteller chuckled again and answered as the waitress brought his drink. She left with a few coins from the modest pile. “It's called the Bearcave because it was Bearman's hideout first. They were practicing crime fighting moves, keeping in peak physical condition while waiting for the city to call them to action. And New Mexico is South of here, and a little East in what's now called The Unbroken Lands. May I go on now?” The children nodded their agreement.
“Thank you. Now, as I was saying, Bearman heard the sound first, and got to the console before Ten Kelvin. Someone was calling them on the emergency line. Rex Summers, Chief of Police, needed their help immediately. Three banks had been robbed by the same man all at the same time!”
A child objected, “That's impossible! One man can't be in three places at once!”
“That's exactly what Bearman said to Chief Summers. The Chief couldn't explain it, but they need the duo's help to stop this new menace.
“The Chief said they got a good look at the guy's face on one of the security cameras, but couldn't find a match in their database. When he showed the pictures of the guy to Bearman and Ten Kelvin, Bearman recognized the guy as one of the technicians that worked at with his father at Tyren Industries named Stan Norec.
“There was just one problem with ol' Stan being the guy that did it. Stan had an accident at work a few days before the crimes, and when the Chief, Bearman and Ten Kelvin went to talk with him, he was laying in bed with two broken arms and a broken leg. Hardly the sort of person that could have robbed a bank, much less four at once.
“Once they were outside Stan's apartment, Ten Kelvin told the chief something very important: his gauntlets sensed three men hiding in the closet. The Chief suggested they call for backup, but Ten Kelvin didn't want to wait. Bearman pondered the implications of this and decided Stan Norec was two sets of twin bothers!
Ten Kelvin said it was possible, but the more likely explanation was that he worked in the cloning lab at Globex and had cloned himself. But Stan hadn't counted on the heroic team of Ten Kelvin and Bearman!
“They knocked again but there was no answer, so Bearman kicked the door in and Ten Kelvin leveled his ice beam into the room, but there was no one there. They quickly searched and found the rest of the apartment as deserted and the living room, but there were plans on the kitchen table for another bank heist! Apparently the heroes had forced Stan in to putting his plans in to action sooner than he wanted.
“Quick like lightning, the heroes dashed off to the bank. This time Ten Kelvin chose to use his ice skates and jumping boots, knowing it would give him a more direct route over the city's roof tops than Bearman could take in the car. Ten Kelvin got to the bank first, and saw Stan Norec, all four of him, already inside. Ten Kelvin decided to go in alone, knowing Bearman would be there soon.
“He shouted to the clones, telling them to give it up. He had the plan all figured out, and their jail time would be less if the gave up now and came along quietly. The clones were having none of that, and before the hero could react, each of them split in two. Now Ten Kelvin was alone against 8 Stan Nories! As the clones ran at him, Ten Kelvin knelt down and shouted.
“Was he calling the name of the ice?” one of the children interrupted, his tiny voice filled with awe.
The storyteller chuckled and tousled the boy's hair. “Something like that. Ice spread out along the floor all around where Ten Kelvin knelt. Before the clones got closer than five steps, most of them fell and slid past the hero. And right in to Bearman, who was waiting at the door with a net. They were too feisty for the net, so Bearman started hitting them on the back of the head with his meaty hands, knocking them out as Ten Kelvin jumped and ducked, letting the clones slide past him.
“No matter how many were knocked out, it seemed there were always more coming. After ten minutes, Ten Kelvin got bored and started freezing the clones where they stood, looking for the one with the broken leg, the original Stan Norec.
“He found him in the vault, counting stacks of bills into a bag. Ten Kelvin called the ice again and Stan stopped counting, literally frozen in place.
“And that's the story of how Ten Kelvin and Bearman defeated The Manic Multiplier.”
The storyteller took a long drink as the children cheered and applauded.
One of the children spoke up, “But ... where did they put them? If there were so many multiples, where did they put them all?”
“You have a good ear for detail, son,” the bard said. “By the end of that fight, there were dozens of Stans. More than the jail could comfortably hold. Fortunately, there was a side effect of Stan's bizarre power. His clones only had a limited life span. While the city was still trying to decide what to do with them all, they kept the clones in a small apartment complex, with guards posted all over the place, while the original Stan was in a jail cell downtown. After a couple of days, everything was quiet in the apartments. Only three clones were left, the rest had vanished in to thin air, so they were moved to a normal jail. When a guard was taking them to the cafeteria for dinner one night, all three vanished at once, with a dozen people watching. That left only the original Stan, locked in his cell. And that is how the story really ends.”
The bard paused to dig in to his meal, then took a long drink to quench his parched throat