Time was running out.
This was the solitary thought on the mind of Goh’Jeihd, the alien known to the world at large as the Comet Rider, as he sailed the solar winds just outside the Earth’s exosphere.
Despair was an emotion that had become a dim recollection for the nigh-immortal Comet Rider but, as he completed his twentieth circumnavigation of his adopted world, he could feel it casting about at the fringes of his consciousness like a hungry animal. Despite pushing his cosmic awareness to its limit in the hopes that he could pinpoint the location of the missing Shroud, he could detect no trace of her anywhere on the face of the planet below him.
Frustration was also a feeling that had jockeyed to the fore of his thoughts of late. Like every other hero on Earth who had some form of enhanced senses, Comet Rider was unable to bring his abilities to bear on locating Jennifer Jones or the architect of her abduction, the succubus Na’amah. The only hope of stopping Na’amah from opening a portal between the Earth dimension and her Qliphothic realm was for the search parties dispatched to places of occult power across the globe to stumble upon a clue to the Shroud’s location before the New Moon rose. For an entity whose senses allowed him to determine the location of a solitary subatomic particle across the vast firmament of interstellar space, such a state of affairs could barely be tolerated.
As the time neared for him to check in, the Comet Rider psionically directed the comet fragment on which he flew into a sharp re-entry trajectory so that he could reach the upper troposphere and establish voice communication with Squadron Headquarters as quickly as possible. Rocketing into the Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 150,000 kilometers an hour, the Comet Rider left behind so breathtaking an incandescent trail in the early morning sky above the Northern Hemisphere that it left those fortunate enough to see it speechless.
“Ironsight, come in” he began tersely. “This is Comet Rider. Report.”
An image of the towering former VIPER agent appeared on the holographic display projected by the comm-link on the Comet Rider’s wrist.
“I read you,” the armor-clad Squadron member co-ordinating field operations in the War Room responded curtly. “Unfortunately, there is nothing to report.”
“Comet Rider,” interrupted AIDA, the Squadron’s android major domo, “we have just lost contact with our search party in northern Canada. There could be some correlation between Na’amah’s attack on Watchman in Canada and our losing contact with our team investigating the area around Force Station Steelhead but there is little evidence to corroborate such a hypothesis.”
“Understood,” the Comet Rider replied. “I will be at Steelhead within ten minutes. Body-slide any available personnel there on my signal. Comet Rider, out.”
Directing a silent prayer to Sol that this was the stroke of luck they had been waiting for but terrified that his comrades had paid for it with their lives, Comet Rider streaked towards northern Canada as quickly as he dared go inside the atmosphere.
Squadron Medical Center was as quiet as a tomb. Its sole occupant, the comatose Watchman, lay in a bio-bed, the nearly imperceptible rise and fall of his chest the only indication that he was alive.
Although his injuries had completely healed, Watchman remained unresponsive.The Squadron’s resident scientists and the UNTIL specialists brought in to supervise his treatment were at a loss to explain this medical oxymoron. His serotonin levels and cerebral activity especially in the hippocampus and amygdala were at unprecedented levels but all attempts to bring Watchman out of his coma had failed.
The sensors on the bio-bed had been configured to alert AIDA, who was currently stationed in the Monitor Room, of even the slightest fluctuation in Watchman’s vital signs. Yet, Watchman’s vitals had remained unchanged ever since Na’amah vicious attack five days before.
In a blinding flash of golden light, Arcana teleported into the darkened room at the foot of the unconscious man’s bio-bed.
“This seat taken, handsome?” Arcana, the Acting Leader of the Squadron, inquired softly, gesturing to the chair to Watchman’s right. Sitting down and crossing her legs, the auburn-haired sorceress materialized a large, leather-bound book and, with great care, opened the tome and began to read aloud to him.
Most of the rank and file in the Squadron had already lost hope that Watchman would ever regain consciousness with the grim acceptance of the inevitable that is characteristic of the war weary. Even those few acquaintances Watchman had made while fighting by the Squadron’s side no longer visited the Medical Center, claiming that finding the Shroud prior to the New Moon took precedence over all other concerns. Only Arcana was ever seen at Watchman’s side. She would spend hours reading to the stone-still Watchman from the very book she held in her hands – “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville – occasionally using her magick to fill the room with illusory reenactments of scenes that she sensed were of particular significance to him.
Tonight, one passage from chapter forty-one struck her as having great meaning for the unconscious man:
“He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”
She stopped reading and looked intently at the still figure beside her.
“So much pain,” she said pensively, her soft hand caressing his marble-cool brow.
Then, as if galvanized by the images that had crossed her mind’s eye, she got up, the book dissipating in her hand as if it were composed of mere wisps of smoke.
“I must go now, dear friend,” Arcana said gravely. “I sense that we are approaching the denouement. I promise you,” she paused, the image of Ahab contending with the whale still resonating in her psyche, “we will bring this beast to ground.”
With that, Arcana disappeared in a golden burst of brilliance.
“No,” murmured Watchman faintly through the breathing tube in his mouth.
Contrary to what many theologians would have you believe, Hell has no lakes of fire in which writhe the souls of the damned nor horned, gibbering imps carrying pitchforks. Hell, like death, is a highly personal affair – no two are quite alike. Although some people’s hells may share a few cosmetic features, this is due more to the fears of those consigned to them rather than the nature of the dimensions that comprise what is commonly referred to as “Hell”. The pain, however, that is inflicted upon the damned is unique to each unfortunate soul.
Hell for Jessica Jones was watching helplessly as the villain known as Ripper tore her father limb from limb before her very eyes over and over again. Even though she herself had not actually been present at Force Station Steelhead on the day her father was killed and even though he had died as a result of being crushed under the weight of an armored personnel carrier the VIPER strongman had mindlessly overturned in his rampage, it made no difference. Every shriek of pain her father bellowed out as the monster dismembered him pushed her closer and closer to the brink of madness.
She had already witnessed Ripper cut a bloody swath through the troops at Force Station Steelhead countless times and in each of those times the massacre culminated in the brutal murder of her father. This time, there was a change in the unremitting danse macabre.
Above the cries of the Steelhead troops fighting and dying in the blood-soaked snow, she could hear a whispered phrase echoing in her mind in a male voice that was both familiar and foreign:
“The Squadron takes care of its own!”
As Comet Rider streaked over the bleak Canadian wilderness, his heart sank. Although he could see even from one hundred kilometers away that nothing seemed to be amiss at Force Station Steelhead, he could sense death hanging in the air above it like a dark storm cloud.
Landing in the deserted courtyard outside the Administration building, he signaled AIDA to send whatever reinforcements were available. Mere seconds later, four shimmering body-slides formed around Comet Rider. In the waning glow of the closing portals, four shapes began to materialize. Within moments, Comet Rider was joined by the enigmatic shape-shifter Gl0b, the nature spirit Nymph, the statuesque Valkyir and the Roin’esh warrior Ink.
“We were the only reserves available,” said the imposing Ink in his paradoxically charming lilt.
“I fear we are too late,” responded the distraught Comet Rider, his eyes futilely scouring the facility for any signs of life.
Valkyir nodded, her hand moving instinctively to the hilt of her broadsword. “Aye, the stench of the charnel house fills the air.”
“Perhaps,” the diminutive Nymph said, her voice like the softly gurgling waters of a gently running stream, “Gaia can reveal to us what has occurred here.”
Her slender, plant-swaddled frame rose serenely into the air while the four heroes watched as if mesmerized.
“Our comrades walked upon this very soil not long ago,” Nymph began as if recounting a faded memory of a distant past, “I see Vulcan… Dakota.. Surge… Neon and… Major Calamity. They are speaking to the Director of this installation then…” Nymph began breathing heavily, her slight frame trembling.
“Snap out of it, child,” said the Comet Rider in a concerned voice.
“They were all overwhelmed by a need… an almost primordial drive to… to…” Nymph’s breath came in short, hungry gasps. She writhed as if in agony.
“By Heimdall’s eyes!” Valkyir exclaimed, her hand clutching the hilt of her broadsword powerlessly.
“DEVOUR! CONSUME!” Nymph shrieked into the frigid air, her face contorted into a grimace of such otherworldly malice that her teammates were momentarily taken aback.
Before the shocked heroes could regain their composure, Nymph fell to the ground. The barely coherent sprite managed to mutter a single phrase before unconsciousness claimed her:
The first snowflakes of an approaching storm wafted gently down around the quintet.
Unknown even to the most powerful members of the occult community, there exists a group whose aim is to defend the Earth plane from eldritch threats that no single group dare stand against. This group is simply called The Seven. Each member serves as an agent of one of the Seven Wanderers – the seven planets recognized by the ancient occultists – the Sun, Venus, Mercury, the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars.
The manner in which one becomes chosen to join this august body is a complete mystery. Some of those select few who are aware of the existence of this conclave maintain that the Archmage, who, as the agent of the Sun, is the Crown of The Seven, determines the membership based on the gravity of the threat at hand. Others claim that those destined to join the ranks of The Seven are born with an innate yet unspoken awareness of their roles as vessels of the Seven Wanderers. All that is known for certain is that, once summoned, The Seven must convene to ensure the survival of all sentient life. The Seven has not done so in many years because there has not been a threat dire enough to warrant bringing them together since before the death of the last Archmage, the Russian mystic Bohdan Stanislavski, in 1908.
Dressed in a golden robe, the symbol of the Sun over his left breast, Robert Caliburn stood between two colossal columns – one pearl white, the other jet black – in the center of a large chamber, an altar adorned with the holy symbols from a score of belief systems directly in front of him. A magick circle twenty-five feet in diameter was graven into the marble floor of the candle-lit room.
Caliburn had had no reason for being in Vibora Bay other than the overwhelming compulsion to visit his occasional ally Dr. Ka. Looking around the ritual chamber at the other six equally-bewildered individuals present, it was clear that they too had answered a call beyond their ken.
“My friends,” began the orange-clad Dr. Ka as he stepped into the magick circle, his hand caressing the symbol of Mercury embroidered on the left breast of his robe, “Welcome to my home. I fear that I cannot explain how we came to be wearing these vestments nor why this chamber has been prepared for a working.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” said Bethany Duquesne, the Champion known as Witchcraft, as she too stepped into the circle, the silver symbol of the Moon in sharp contrast to the deep violet of her robe, “but I think we seven are…” she paused, the implications of the words to follow nearly too much to accept, “THE Seven.”
Dr. Black and Dr. White, members of the United nations-sponsored super-team UNITY, stopped mid-step while entering the circle at these words, their black and blue robes swirling about them as if alive. Exchanging a quick glance, the husband and wife team continued into the circle and, as if following a path only they could see, took their places directly opposite Dr. Ka and Witchcraft.
A grim smile crossed the face of the scarlet-robed Antares. “Perhaps this is my chance to atone for my transgressions.” He stalked into the circle and stood next to Witchcraft, the green symbol of Mars glimmering in the candlelight.
Arcana stood outside the circle, the green robe she wore indicating that she was the avatar of Venus.
“I believe we all know why we are here.” Arcana said after a brief moment’s contemplation.
The six mages nodded in solemn agreement.
“Let the Ceremony of Evocation commence,” Caliburn said in a voice not quite his own.
“So mote it be.” the others responded as one.
Arcana stepped into the circle.
Jennifer Jones was lost. She had been somewhere else just a little while ago. Somewhere cold. She recalled that there had been snow everywhere but it had been blood-red for some reason.
She was wearing a pair of faded Levis, sneakers that had seen better days and a white, cotton shirt tied off at the midriff and the sleeves rolled up. The clothes felt comfortable but she could not shake the feeling that she should be wearing something decidedly different.
Running a hand through her flowing, jet-black hair, she looked about her. She was standing near an imposing, gothic-style fountain in the center of a small, quaint square overlooking a graveyard in a city that she knew should be familiar to her. Above the gurgling of the recycling water of the fountain, she could hear an old song by Blue Öyster Cult wafting gently on the midsummer night’s breeze:
Love of two is one
Here but now they’re gone
Came the last night of sadness
And it was clear she couldn’t go on
Then the door was open and the wind appeared
The candles blew and then disappeared
The curtains flew and then he appeared, saying don’t be afraid
Come on baby, and she had no fear
And she ran to him, then they started to fly
They looked backward and said goodbye, she had become like they are
She had taken his hand, she had become like they are
Come on baby, don’t fear the reaper.
People were milling about in the the square and on the tree-lined streets beyond it. A young couple kissing passionately under the light of the rising moon were sitting on a bench just a few meters away with their backs to her. A young woman in her early twenties pushing a baby carriage was coming around from behind the fountain cooing reassuringly to her child. A young man waiting impatiently for his date was pacing back and forth under the flickering light of a street lamp near the north entrance to the square.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
Jennifer turned around. A tall, handsome man with dark brown hair and a mischievous grin on his face was standing in front of her. He was wearing black jeans, black combat boots and a black T-shirt with a package of cigarettes rolled up into the left sleeve.
His sea-green eyes peered deeply into hers. She walked into his embrace and the two kissed. She looked up at him soulfully as he caressed her cheek.
“Ben, I’m so happy you’re here,” Jennifer began self-consciously, trembling in Benedict Sage’s strong arms, “I… I… don’t seem to know where I am.”
“Baby, don’t worry.” Sage whispered comfortingly. “The Squadron’s coming for you.”
“Can’t you take me away from here?” Jennifer implored, tears welling up in her deep blue eyes. “Please, Ben, I’m… I’m scared.”
“I wish I could,” Sage said, a hint of a sadness crossing his face like a dark cloud, “but I’m dead.”
Each of The Seven knew that the Ceremony of Evocation they had begun mere moments before to summon Na’amah to the ritual chamber was doomed to failure. An entity tethered to the physical plane as the fiend currently was could resist a summoning almost indefinitely. As long as Na’amah’s anchor, Jennifer Jones, was her thrall, she would succeed in opening a portal for the Nehemoth to the Earth dimension .
However, staving off a summons especially from a group as powerful as The Seven could not be achieved without effort: perhaps enough to weaken the spell of concealment surrounding the Shroud, thus allowing her to be found and freed before the New Moon. Of course, the succubus would throw everything she could at the assemblage to ensure the success of her plan. It was a calculated risk but, with less than an hour before the New Moon, there was little choice.
As the Crown of the Seven, Robert Caliburn stood at the altar in the center of the magick circle facing east. Raising his arms out to his sides, his hands upturned, Caliburn began the Orison of Light to protect them from the horrors they all knew awaited them:
Oh, Lords of Light, hear my prayer.
May thy radiance succor us as we dispel the Darkness surrounding us.
May thy power shield us as we journey through the Land of Shadows.
May thy wisdom sustain us as we contend against The Shells that Dwell in the Night.
The remaining six Avatars of the Seven Wanderers, who had been facing Caliburn from their equidistant points along the interior of the magick circle, turned as one to the left and began circumambulating the circle while chanting invocations to their respective planets for the strength to contend with the Pleasant One and her siblings, the Whisperers in the Night. Thick smoke from the incense burning in the brass censers placed in the four cardinal points of the circle rose like scented columns to the arched ceiling. Caliburn’s voice had taken on such a sonorous quality that it seemed that the participants and even the walls of the ritual chamber itself reverberated with its preternatural power.
Arcana had been the first to feel the presence of an invisible presence just outside the magick circle. In one fluid motion, the green-robed sorceress stopped, whirled to where she sensed her unseen adversary and commanded it to show itself. The thing that appeared sent waves of terror cold as a tomb over the sorceress.
Her father had just died and she had started to realize what a heavy burden carrying on for him would be when she had been drawn to southern New Mexico. She had heard reports of a spirit who had been terrorizing those unfortunate enough to cross her path as they traveled through the desert at night. The creature, who had taken the guise of an old woman, was referred to by the terrified locals as La Mala Hora, or the Evil Hour. Arcana had faced dangers far more destructive to both body and soul in her brief time as her father’s heir but there was something about La Mala Hora that had filled her with mind-numbing fear even while preparing to consign it to the Otherside.
Despite her desire to look away, the hunched monstrosity held her gaze – its rotting teeth gnashing at her behind the tattered, black lips like a rabid dog. The putrid smell of decay rising from its slavering maw was so mephitic that it made Arcana gag.
“Queen of Illusions,” Arcana began in a voice resounding with such authority that the remaining Seven momentarily stopped their supplications, “I command you in the name of the Creator to quit this place and return to your realm!”
The creature cackled.
“Return to your realm, for I know your true name!” Caliburn shouted from his position at the altar. “Begone, before I rain ruin down upon your head!”
The entity looked away from Arcana and glared at Caliburn, its eyes searing their mark onto his very soul.
“Mine is the gift of prophecy, mortal,” Na’amah snarled, “You and these other fools will be nothing more than rotting corpses before the dawn!”
Suddenly, the magick circle graven onto the marble floor throbbed with eldritch light as scores of jabbering demons surrounded the seven sorcerers. A protective dome of pulsating sapphire light formed about them like a shining soap-bubble of steel as the hellish hordes brought their powers to bear.
Mayfair hated monitor duty. She understood the need for having someone in the Monitor Room around the clock but she felt her talents were being wasted babysit an endless row of screens. The most useless ones in her opinion were those trained on the outside of Squadron Headquarters because there was simply nothing to see but featureless darkness. The Shroud in a stroke of scientific genius had devised a way of projecting the massive complex, itself a quantum duplicate of the Champions’ Building, into a barren dimension.
“Mayfair, this is Ironsight in the War Room.”
“I read you. Any news from our team in Canada?”
“No,” said Ironsight curtly. “I’m getting some strange energy readings from outside the building, quadrant four. Check your sensors.”
Making a mental note never to invite Ironsight to her chat show, Mayfair glanced at the external screens. They all displayed an unbroken expanse of blackness.
With the exception of monitor 4.
Although a level-one diagnostic reported it was working properly, monitor 4 showed a field of white. Sensors confirmed that the anomalous energy readings Ironsight had picked up were coming from the area surveilled by monitor 4.
Then something about the image caught her eye – there were tiny patches of squirming grey scattered throughout the otherwise stark whiteness. Always one to fear the worst, Mayfair began altering the resolution and magnification of the video feed. She shrank in horror at what was finally revealed – monitor 4 was picking up an army of monstrosities so numerous that it had blotted out the camera’s field of vision flying through the void directly at them.
“We’ve got comp’ny!” Mayfair shouted into the intercom as she activated the external defence grid.
For the first time since becoming self-aware on the parallel Earth she had once called home, the android named AIDA faced the prospect of termination.
She had flown to the Medical Center on level ten as quickly as her jet pack would allow when she had received notification that Watchman had awakened from his coma. Having seen to the immediate needs of her patient, she had been returning to the War Room on level twelve when Mayfair had reported that they were coming under attack. Forty-six seconds later, main power throughout the complex had failed. Emergency power went into operation fractions of a second later.
Re-routing power to internal sensors, AIDA discovered how dire the situation was. Not only had intruder counter-measures been placed in a self-diagnostic loop, rendering them inoperative, but the external defence grid had also been deactivated. By far the most alarming revelation was that Headquarters had been breached from the north-east section of sub-level three adjacent to the Power Core.
If there was even a momentary power loss to the Dimensional Shunt keeping Squadron Headquarters sequestered in the pocket dimension in which it was situated, it would be obliterated as it phased back into normal reality, completely annihilating the Champions’ Building and a good part of Millennium City in the process.
The immediate priorities were three: repel or at least contain the invading force in sub-level three before it could damage the Power Core, reboot intruder counter-measures and reactivate the external defence grid.
Mayfair in the Monitor Room would be of no help – the bio-monitor on her comm-link indicated that she had sustained an incapacitating but non-fatal injury of indeterminate origin. However, other than elevated adrenal levels, Ironsight in the War Room was fine.
“AIDA to Ironsight, report to the Power Core immediately. Defend it at all costs.”
“Acknowledged.” responded the armor-clad soldier after a moment’s hesitation.
“I will attempt to reinitialize our defensive systems and join you as soon as possible. AIDA, out.”
Having reached level five through the access tubes running between floors, AIDA made her way towards the Monitor Room as quickly as she could. Once defence systems were online, a simple matter in itself, she was confident that whatever force had infiltrated headquarters could be held at bay until reinforcements could arrive.
From out of the darkness, a massive hand darted out at her. Before the android could react, her unseen assailant had grabbed her by the head in a vice-like grip and flung her across the corridor into the far wall. The impact would have liquefied the bones of a human being but, as many in the Squadron had said when they believed she could not hear them, she was not human. The damage to her systems, however, was extensive.
Accessing the Squadron database, AIDA found a match for the creature now facing her from the opposite end of the hallway – it was a denizen of the Qliphothic Realms. The fiend stood 2.75 meters in height and weighed approximately 850 kilograms. The body was a mass of rippling muscle covered in what appeared to be a thick layer of sallow, leathery skin. Each of its four extremities ended in four-clawed appendages that bore anatomical similarities to both hand and paw. There were no visible oculi with which to see on its mammoth head yet it displayed ample evidence that it was keenly aware of its surroundings. The creature’s mouth was perhaps its most prominent feature. It comprised nearly fifty percent of its head and it was lined with twin rows of dagger-like teeth. A thick, brown liquid which ostensibly served as saliva dribbled from its pallid lips.
Snarling at her, the demon dropped to all fours. It tensed its muscular haunches as AIDA got back to her feet.
The creature lunged at her.
Charlie Archer used to be someone.
He used to be a husband. A father. A soldier. All that ended in Iraq when his patrol got torn to shreds by an anti-personnel mine.
They said he had been lucky. He had survived when the rest of his comrades had been sent back Stateside in caskets.
Of course, he would never be able to think clearly again. Not without his meds. Even then, it was difficult to deal with stuff – like his job at the local convenience store, where he’d almost invariably undercharge customers; or his wife, who just couldn’t understand why he still woke up screaming in the middle of the night; or his six year old daughter, who was suddenly afraid of daddy.
“Wake up, Charlie,” a voice whispered into his ear as serenely as a babbling brook on a spring day, “you’ve got places to be.”
Clutching the baseball bat he used to protect himself from the more predatory homeless of Millennium City, Charlie rose from the refuse that had served as his bed and made his way to the closest entrance to Millennium City Mall – through the storefront of Bloomingfield’s Department Store opening onto Alexander St.
Gl0b had learned much about humans during his sojurn among the solids. Among his people, a race of shapeshifters, the physical form meant nothing. Yet, among the solids, the body was pleasing only insofar as it adhered to an ideal that very few of them could ever achieve. Since his people were asexual, it was unnecessary for them to mate with another of their kind in order to propagate the species. His friend Arcana had explained that humans, though, indulged in mating practices often as a form of recreation than as a means of procreation. Perhaps the greatest difference between the species was that the solids formed communities while his race had no such concept – for the most part, they lived and died alone.
Community had become an important thing for Gl0b. Although he would sometimes dream of the lightless depths of the lunar caverns that had once been his home before being captured and brought to Earth for study by UNTIL scientists, his home was now Millennium City among his friends in the Squadron Supreme. It was true that he had some difficulty creating a rapport with some of solids, yet there were others like Jennifer and Arcana that seemed to understand him and genuinely care for him. Nevertheless, he loved each and every one of them, which is why what awaited him in the snow-covered wastes filled him with greater sadness than he had ever known.
It had begun lightly snowing shortly after he and his four teammates had arrived at Force Station Steelhead in Canada. The flurries that fell so dreamily to the snow-covered ground filled Gl0b with a sense of tranquility. Within moments, however, the weather turned inclement. The squall rapidly escalated into what the warrior woman Valkyir called a blizzard.
Although the temperature had not dropped radically, gale-force winds lashed at them relentlessly while the snow fell at such speed and in such abundance that visibility dropped to near zero, making flying to Kigatilik’s Maw to the south-east an impossibility. Nor was body-sliding to their destination an option as Squadron Headquarters would not respond to the heroes’ hails. The nature elemental called Nymph strained her powers to the utmost to create a pocket of temperate weather around them as they set out on foot to find and free the Shroud.
They found the first bodies a few minutes later. Three of the Canadian soldiers stationed at Steelhead had apparently beaten their missing teammate Dakota to a bloody pulp before bludgeoning each other to death. They came upon the bullet-riddled corpse of the fire-wielding Vulcan twenty minutes later surrounded by the charred bodies of seven dead Steelhead soldiers in a circle of scorched earth that Vulcan had made into their funeral pyre before succumbing to his wounds. They found Surge fifteen minutes later – she had electrocuted the eight soldiers that had attacked her without suffering life-threatening injury. Once she had killed her assailants, though, she had apparently sat down cross-legged amidst the smoldering corpses and allowed herself to freeze to death.
The image that would haunt the quintet until the day they died was that of the interlocked bodies of Major Calamity and Neon. The two had literally torn each other apart with teeth and nails like rabid animals. Their flesh was riven with gouges so deep that bone could clearly be seen and both had gaping wounds where their teeth had rent chunks of flesh from their bodies. Major Calamity still had the hunk of flesh he had torn from Neon’s throat in his mouth while Neon’s thumbs had frozen in place where she had jabbed them into Major Calamity’s eye sockets.
The five heroes stood in stunned silence, each saying goodbye in their own way. The grisly tableaux in front of Gl0b was almost too much for him to bear. Tears filled his eyes as he thought about the lifeless bodies of his friends left in this frozen wasteland like macabre breadcrumbs for them to find.
“The Shroud is very near,” Nymph said, her eyes peering beyond the veil of falling snow into the distance.
“Good,” Gl0b began, trembling in grief and rage. “Let’s get Jenn an’ then send this bitch back ta Hell!”
The heroes came upon the prostrate form of the Shroud in an area paradoxically free of snow outside the mouth of a cavern a kilometer from where they had found Neon and Major Calamity. She was lying in the middle of a magick circle that had been hewn deeply into the ground. At its four cardinal points facing outwards, the nightmarish skulls of titanic creatures from some hellish realm had been placed. The totems pulsated with an eldritch light, casting impossible shadows across the clearing. The ashen ground within the circle had been rendered barren.
As the heroes approached, they could see that the Shroud still lived but her breathing came in labored gasps. The quintet shuddered when they realized that whatever had sapped the life from the earth beneath her had slowly been leeching the life from her since Na’amah had captured her weeks ago.
“Ya gotta do somethin’,” cried Gl0b as he looked up at Nymph, tears clouding his vision.
The sprite walked past the shapeshifter towards the magick circle, stopping just outside it. Compassion welling up inside her at the plight of the helpless Shroud, she recited the invocation Arcana had taught them:
Lords of Light, I invoke thee,
defend me in my battle against the forces of evil,
against the Shells of Iniquity in the High Places,
against the Whisperers in the Night!
Lords of Light, I beseech thee,
free your charge from the yoke of Darkness,
that she may again see the Sun!
Lords of Light, I implore thee,
destroy the shackles restraining Jennifer Jones,
that she may again see the Sun!
So mote it be.
An unearthly wail emanated from deep within the dark recesses of the cavern that aroused a pang of fear in the heroes so primordial that a chill ran up their spines. The unholy light radiating from the totems ebbed slowly to nothingness. Snow began to fall gently inside the circle and the quintet knew that whatever magick had held the Shroud captive had now been dispelled.
Valkyir scooped up the unresponsive Shroud while Ink and Gl0b flanked the statuesque demi-goddess, their eyes never leaving the entrance to the cave.
“By the gods,” Valkyir exclaimed wide-eyed, “she feels as light and fragile as a child.”
“Hold on tightly, my friends,” began the Comet Rider as he commanded the very earth beneath his feet to to form a platform for his comrades. “as I return us to Steelhead so that I may heal Jennifer away from this accursed place.”
People say that those inside a magick circle are safe from whatever is outside it – that the runes and sigils inscribed along the circumference of the circle provide protection from entities seeking to harm the mage within.
That is an oversimplification.
Although the symbols of power and even the circle itself serve to repel the fiends seeking to attack the sorcerer, demons are not without other means at their disposal. They are not only unmatched at inflicting psychological as well as physical pain but also masters of deception.
Minutes after Na’amah and her forces appeared around the circle, Dr. White shrieked as a child would when waking from a nightmare and then collapsed in front of the altar in wild convulsions – her wide, uncomprehending eyes glazed over in abject horror. Her husband, Dr. Black, rushed to her side and cradled her quivering body while Witchcraft crammed a stout piece of rubber she had conjured into the woman’s mouth so that she would not bite her own tongue off.
“Despair, sorcerers,” cackled the crone that was Na’amah, “The Nehemoth shall rape your world as you watch impotently and Lilith, the Mother of Monsters, shall devour the souls of your loved ones before enslaving you for all eternity!”
Dr. Ka invoked the power of Thoth, the Egyptian Patron of Magicians, to aid him in banishing the demons that had amassed at the eastern quarter of the circle while Arcana standing across from him besought the Lords of Light to sustain them during their tribulations. With a degree of resolve that Robert Caliburn would for the rest of his days marvel at, he coolly stood at the altar in the center of the maelstrom and continued the Ceremony of Evocation. Having left the beleaguered Dr. White in the care of her husband, Witchcraft stood at the southern quarter reciting Psalm 23. Opposite her, Antares assailed the creatures attempting to breach the circle from the northern quarter with potent curses.
Abandoning her guise of La Mala Hora, Na’amah assumed the likeness of the emerald-clad Arcana and moved with serpentine suppleness to face Antares. She found his eyes and began weaving her spell.
“Antares,” the succubus began, the green robe she had been wearing transforming into a delicately embroidered, white negligee, “ti adoro!”
“Demon, take your true form!” the Italian mage commanded.
“Sei l’amore della mia vita.”
“You are not Arcana,” said Antares, a hint of despair creeping into his imperious voice, “She never loved me.”
“Voglio stare con te per sempre.”
“Together… forever…” a smile crossed the young sorcerer’s lips as he started moving clumsily towards her.
“Ho bisogno di te!” the fiend cried seductively, her breasts heaving with passion.
“I need you also, cara.”
Antares’ lumbering gait stopped just within the magick circle, mere inches away from the temptress. His body quaked as if it were being pulled apart by opposing forces. From his vantage point at the center of the circle, Caliburn saw too late what was transpiring and yelled out a warning to the lost soul.
Na’amah caught Arcana’s eye as the sorceress had turned to see in horror that her friend had lost his battle against the succubus. The demon smirked knowingly and then turned back to the bewitched Antares.
“Baciami!” the succubus commanded as she extended her arms, inviting his embrace.
Antares’ right foot crossed the magick circle.
A triumphant roar filled the ritual chamber as Na’amah plunged her right hand into the Italian’s chest and tore his still-beating heart from his body. His corpse fell to the floor with a sickening thud and the hellish hordes poised outside the circle erupted into uproarious laughter. Turning towards the succubus, the mages each readied their most destructive spells only to find themselves transfixed by a spell of paralysis.
“I can see why you were chosen to be the Avatar of Venus,” Na’amah said as she sauntered towards the immobile Arcana. “You certainly have a way with men.” Na’amah looked back at Antares’ lifeless remains and snickered. “Poor fool. Doomed to never touch the object of his desire.”
Na’amah regarded the blood oozing down her upraised hand from the heart she still held in it before dropping the pound of flesh unceremoniously to the floor. In mid-step, the succubus halted and, throwing her head back, bellowed in such rage that even her servitors cowered in fear.
“My conduit has been freed!” snarled the fiend. “It makes little difference, witch. I shall slay you all at my leisure after I prepare the way for my sisters!”
Na’amah’s threat still lingering in the air, the infernal host vanished. Having regained the ability to move, the assembled mages with the exception of Arcana gathered around Dr. White. Her convulsions ceased after the demons had departed but she had slipped into a fitful sleep from which she could not be roused. Arcana stood over Antares’ corpse, a furious tempest of emotions raging within her. She felt grief for the loss of her friend, horror at the recollection of the malevolence The Seven had faced and concern for the innocents sleeping unsuspectingly in their beds as their world teetered on the brink of eternal darkness. Yet, above all these emotions, Arcana felt guilt.
“Arcana, do you read me?” said Nymph over the comm-link around Arcana’s left wrist.”We have freed the Shroud and taken her back to Steelhead. She has suffered unimaginably but the Comet Rider promises that she will recover.”
“Stay with her while I teleport the rest of your team to Millennium City. With Jennifer free, Na’amah will have to resort to using her own life force to open the portal. We can put an end to this nightmare once and for all.”
Bidding a silent goodbye to Antares, Arcana teleported away in a burst of luminescence.
Mite and his team were the first to return to Squadron Headquarters to investigate why all attempts at communication had been met with eerie silence. He ordered his team to fan out and search the sprawling complex while he made his way from the Teleporter Room on level one to the War Room on level twelve.
Reaching his destination, Mite immediately re-routed internal and external sensors directly into the command-and-control console. A full security sweep of the building quickly revealed that no intruders were present though he left defensive systems active should they return. The diminutive synthezoid then turned his attention to the level-by-level survey of the building and the search for the four Squaders – AIDA, Ironsight, Mayfair and Ultraviolet Cherry – who the duty roster indicated should still be somewhere within its walls. As other teams sent to find the missing Shroud began returning to headquarters, their members were redeployed to bolster the existing search parties.
Reports soon began trickling in to the synthezoid.
The Communications Center on level three had suffered extensive damage, rendering all communication with the outside world temporarily impossible. One search party located Ultraviolet Cherry in serious condition near an access tube to the ravaged sub-level three, from which the invaders had entered the building. Another discovered Ironsight alive but pinned beneath tonnes of rubble outside the Power Core, the power supply of his armor almost completely spent. Mayfair was found unconscious at her post in the Monitor Room but no trace of AIDA could initially be found. As the search party sifted through the ruins surrounding the undamaged Monitor Room, they found what was left of the unresponsive android. Her lower half had been riven from the rest of her body and extensive charring on her torso indicated that her internal power core had overloaded.
Once the injured had been taken to the Medical Center on level ten and AIDA had been taken to the Cybernetic Lab on level eleven, Mite stationed security details on each level. Having ensured the security of the installation, he coordinated the efforts of the damage control teams.
Then, he did the only thing left to do: sit and wait.
Charlie Archer stood in front of the shattered display window of Bloomingfield’s, shards of razor-sharp glass strewn about him.
“Drop the bat,” the disembodied voice whispered to him, “You won’t be needing it anymore.”
Like an obedient child, Charlie stooped down and placed the baseball bat gently on the ground, dim recollections of playing softball under the summer sun struggling unsuccessfully to reach the surface of his consciousness. He had begun to rise when the voice whispered to him again.
Charlie reached down and grabbed a dagger-like shard of glass. He clutched it so tightly that his hand started to bleed.
“Good,” the voice said chuckling with glee, “Now, go! She’s waiting for you.”
Charlie shambled through the department store as if sleepwalking, leaving tiny droplets of blood behind him like the discarded petals of a withering rose. Exiting the deserted store, he shuffled towards the atrium. Charlie stopped when he saw a gorgeous, auburn-haired woman with emerald-green eyes standing in font of the fountain. She wore a flowing, white, boat neck gown that, instead of obscuring her figure, only served to accentuate it.
Charlie felt his manhood swell.
“Charlie,” she smiled beatifically, “I’ve got a problem. I was expecting my family to… drop in… but something’s blocking the door. Could you help me?”
Charlie nodded, his mind lost in thoughts of kissing her, touching her, taking her.
“I knew I could count on you, Charlie,” she smiled widely, ivory fangs visible behind the voluptuous lips, “See, I need what’s coursing inside you. I need your blood. Will you be my sacrificial lamb of your own free will?”
Charlie nodded, his body trembling in anticipation.
“Slit your throat and I’m yours.”
She undid the button on the back and the gown slid off her shoulders, revealing her naked form.
He ejaculated as he plunged the glass shard he had been holding deep into his neck just below his left ear. He then dragged the makeshift blade across his throat, blood gushing out of the ragged wound in hot torrents across the body of the fiend in front of him.
A shimmering pinprick of light appeared between the dying man and the succubus about two meters off the ground. Unable to draw his eyes away from the quickly expanding doorway between dimensions, Charlie sank to the floor as his life ebbed away. Before his heavy eyelids finally closed, he saw what was on the other side of the coruscating portal – a world rife with gibbering nightmares jostling their way towards his.
Na’amah whirled at the sound of the voice of the hated sorceress just as the tiled floor beneath her erupted, hurling the demon into the fountain behind her. Ink, Gl0b and Valkyir bounded from the jagged rupture as Comet Rider flew into the atrium from the department store behind them, his hands seething with cosmic power as blinding as the midday sun.
Still garbed in the green robe of the Avatar of Venus, Arcana stood removed from the combatants. After regarding them impassively for a moment, she closed her eyes.
Ink sprang on the succubus as she began to rise from the blood-clouded waters of the fountain, his hands having assumed the semblance and consistency of double-edged, steel swords. With a fearsome cry, the towering Roin’esh warrior thrust the blades into the demon’s chest, emerging from her back slick with a fetid, black ichor. Shrieking in fury, Na’amah exploded with eldritch energy, hurtling him through the air as if he had been shot from a cannon. Ink crashed through the reinforced storefront gate of “Jay’s Jewelers” and disappeared within the darkened interior.
Meanwhile, the howls of the Qliphothic entities collectively called the Nehemoth could now clearly be heard from the other side of the inter-dimensional doorway.
“Face thy ruin, demon! cried Valkyir, drawing her enchanted broadsword Tyrfing from its golden scabbard.
Na’amah whirled to face her attacker as the warrior woman lunged at her. In a blur of deadly motion, the blade whistled across where the demon’s neck should have been. The fiend, however, deftly side-stepped the stroke meant to decapitate her. Before Valkyir could react, Na’amah’s right hand clamped down on her right wrist like a vice while the fiend’s left clutched a handful of her long, fair hair. Na’amah then savagely yanked Valkyir’s head back and down while bringing up her left leg, the knee smashing into the base of the warrior woman’s skull with bone-shattering force. Valkyir’s limp form sank to the floor like a rag doll.
“Gl0b, get the human clear!” shouted Comet Rider as he transposed himself between the dying Charlie Archer and the furious demon.
“Lemme get ya outta here, bub,” Gl0b said, scooping up the unconscious Archer. Looking down at the waxen countenance of the man in his arms, Gl0b knew the human had little time left. “I’d better patch ya up fast an’ get back ta my friends.”
As Gl0b dashed with his charge into the department store, the Comet Rider unleashed the entirety of his power into a tightly-focused blast of withering energy at the monster standing before him. The foundations of the Millennium City Mall shuddered like a terrified animal as Na’amah was engulfed in a maelstrom of unfettered cosmic power.
The Nehemoth amassed on the other side of the portal between worlds were moments away from spilling out into the Earth dimension and drowning it in blood and madness.
Amidst the settling plaster dust, the hideous simulacrum of Arcana stood unscathed by the Comet Rider’s vicious attack, her face a twisted mask of savage hatred.
“Foolish little creature,” the demon bellowed triumphantly, “you command the power of suns while mine is that of an entire realm!”
The succubus raised her right hand almost nonchalantly and, with as much thought as a human gives to swatting a fly, released a bolt of arcane energy at the dumbfounded Comet Rider. With a scream of pain, the alien crumpled insensate to the debris-strewn floor.
Chilling laughter filled the dust-filled air as the Nehemoth began clawing their way through the thin membrane that separated their reality from ours.
At that moment, Arcana, who had remained still throughout the one-sided battle, was enveloped in a throbbing nimbus of emerald energy.
Sensing an influx of energy that was both familiar and anathema to her, Na’amah turned to face the sorceress. Unhinging her jaw like a snake and opening it unnaturally wide, Na’amah spewed a jet of hellfire at Arcana. Before the tongue of flame could near the motionless magician, Gl0b threw himself in front of her, shielding her with his own body. The alien shapeshifter emitted an ear-splitting shriek as he collapsed to the ground, eldritch flames consuming his malleable flesh.
The first of the Nehemoth skittered through the doorway into our world.
“Arcana,” Na’amah began in mock surprise, a ghastly smile crossing her face, “such cold-blooded disregard for the lives of others! You would have made a wonderful succubus.”
As Na’amah began to recite a spell of desolation, Arcana opened her eyes. Yet, what now regarded the succubus was no longer a mortal woman but what the ancient qabbalists called Shekhinah, the embodiment of Divine Love.
Na’amah recoiled while the few Nehemoth that had crossed over into the Earth plane cringed in terror before the emerald-clad entity. In a voice resonant as the peal of a church bell, Shekhinah addressed the succubus and her siblings:
Children of Shells and Iniquities,
I call thee to the Living Beauty.
Wanderers in the Wild Darkness,
I call thee to the Gentle Light.
Long hast thou dwelt in Darkness,
Quit the Night and seek the Day.
The assembled creatures writhed as if in unspeakable agony. Behind them, the portal began to shrink rapidly, dragging the struggling demons unceremoniously through the dwindling aperture. In moments, the doorway between worlds had again been shut.
The entity within Arcana departed.
Arcana came to, momentarily perplexed at to why she was lying on the floor and why her friends were looking down at her in concern.
She then remembered everything.
“Gl0b!” she cried, scrambling to her feet.
“His essence has moved on,” explained the Comet Rider mournfully.
The heroes made their way carefully across the rubble-covered floor to the remains of their comrade, Ink supporting the still dazed Valkyir. They gazed solemnly at the pool of gelatinous liquid seeping slowly into the cracks of the shattered mall floor that had once been the alien shapeshifter called Gl0b. Tears clouded their eyes as each of them recalled the mischievous yet lovable imp that would no longer make them smile even in the face of great adversity.
“Can nothing be done?” warbled the Roin’esh warrior despite his inner certainty of the finality of Gl0b’s demise.
“‘Twas a warrior’s end, ” proclaimed Valkyir fiercely, “Thou shalt sit at the right hand of the All-Father himself in the Halls of Valhalla.”
“I have come to a decision, my friends” announced Arcana, stifling her tears, “Once Jennifer has recovered sufficiently to resume command, I will resign from the Squadron.”
In unison, the dumbfounded heroes turned to the sorceress.
“Dear child, surely you cannot blame yourself for Gl0b’s death.”
“But the blame is mine, Comet Rider!” Arcana sobbed as tears began trickling down her cheeks. “I foolishly believed I could lead the Squadron in Jennifer’s absence. I could not. I thought I could stop the architect of this nightmare single-handedly. I could not. I thought I could avert death from claiming those around me. I could not. My hubris brought this ruin upon us!”
Before the heroes could respond, Arcana disappeared in a brilliant burst of golden light.
“I’m… um… sorry to interrupt.” a timid voice ventured hesitantly from behind the stunned heroes.
They turned to the disheveled Charlie Archer, the only trace of the mortal injury he had inflicted on himself was the blood drying on his stained, denim shirt.
“I’m not sure why I’m here or what’s happened but I know that little guy saved me… that you all saved me.” Charlie smiled as he pulled a hand through his unkempt hair. “Guess I just wanted to thank you.”
He turned from the heroes and walked purposefully away, the pain and bewilderment that had been his constant companions since Iraq a distant memory. Putting on the baseball cap that had been stuffed into the back pocket of his tattered jeans, he stepped through the shattered display window of Bloomingfield’s. After making his way past the scores of curious onlookers and emergency response personnel that had been drawn by the din of battle, he walked down the street as the sun rose above the horizon, ushering in a new day.