The Dead of Night

Pyroman was certain that the dark speck he had spotted on the street below was the masked vigilante referred to simply as the Nameless. He was also certain that he was quite dead.

He released a burst of electricity to notify his friend and teammate the Black Terror searching on foot somewhere below him that he had found the Nameless. As he flew towards the black-clad figure sprawled in the middle of the moonlit intersection, Pyroman became more and more certain that the mystery man was dead. The back arched near the point of breaking and the limbs bent outwards from the torso at awkward angles reminded him more of a discarded marionette than a man. The corpse was surrounded by spent bullet casings glinting in the night like diamonds. He hovered several meters above the mutilated body, gorge threatening to burst from his mouth in hot torrents. He clamped a purple-gloved hand firmly over his mouth and averted his eyes.

Just like Linda!

Postman always rings twice poster
Linda Turner’s most successful film prior to her mysterious disappearance in 1946

The Nameless had been torn to pieces by the same things that had flayed his teammate the Black Cat – better known as Hollywood leading lady Linda Turner – moments after the three of them had emerged from the rift in space-time that had deposited them into this madhouse dimension.

“The hot-headed moron got himself killed,” said a deep, familiar voice behind Pyroman.

The startled Pyroman turned to face Robert Benton, the superhuman powerhouse code-named the Black Terror. “Christ, Bob, are you trying to give me a heart attack!”

“Sorry, Dick,” the elder man apologized, suppressing a mischievous smile. His eyes then fell upon the broken M1921 Thomson submachine lying beside the dead man. “Why’d he strike out without us? Why’d he want to brave this nightmare by himself?”

Richard Martin thought about this for a moment but came up empty. He was used to dealing with quantifiable variables – weight, speed, distance – not the protean labyrinth that is the human mind.

“What Dr. Silverback told us – that we’ve been thrown across time and dimensions – clearly unnerved him.”

“It unnerved him?” Benton laughed heartily. “I found out that my doppelganger in this dimension ate a Ratzi bullet on a French beach years ago. You didn’t see me storming out without even a hair-brained scheme.”

“We should’ve stayed at Champions headquarters like Silverback suggested,” Pyroman said flatly.

“Scram for all I care!” the Black Terror retorted angrily. “The rest of our team is out here somewhere! Goddammit, Tim is out here, Dick! How can I sit on my hands while he may be fighting the monsters that did that to this dumb mug as we speak?”

In his mind’s eye, Pyroman could see Tim Roland – Benton’s teenaged sidekick – surrounded by a horde of slavering ghouls. His cheeks flushed with embarrassment, Pyroman was about to respond when he caught a glimpse of sallow flesh darting furtively behind a nearby copse of trees. He quickly communicated the situation to Benton with a pre-determined hand gesture. Nodding almost imperceptibly, the Black Terror proposed a course of action with a gesture of his own. Pyroman winked.

“I reckon you’re right,” Pyroman began matter-of-factly, electricity arcing between his open hands, “Maybe we should do THIS –”

Pyroman then rocketed skyward. On clearing the grove, he banked sharply and dove towards the figure crouching behind a massive oak tree, a bolt of lightning bursting from his outstretched hands. The ground shuddered as the bolt struck the ancient tree, cleaving it in two. Their surreptitious observer cried out as he was propelled from the bifurcated tree.

The Black Terror plowed through the thicket towards the yelp of pain like a runaway locomotive, splintering the now smoldering trees in his path. Bursting through the scorched trees, he pounced on the satyr-like creature that had been watching them. Clasping the ornate medallion around its neck in his left hand, Benton lifted the flailing imp off its cloven hooves as if it were a rag doll. He balled his right hand into a fist and cocked it a few centimeters from his check.

“You’d better tell me what’s going on or I’m sending you back to the Wizard in a box!”

“Why dost thou threaten my life,” asked the yellow skinned pixie, its emerald-green eyes tinged with fear, “I meant not to sow such strife.”

“Put him down before you hurt him,” Pyroman said, alarmed at how easily the Black Terror had bulled his way through the trees.

The Black Terror gently set the creature down, taken aback at the almost overpowering rage he had just felt.

“Greetings, men from Earth by war afire,” said the satyr, bowing to the pair congenially, “I am called Marrion of the Mire.”

Pyroman found himself relaxing despite the tension of the last few hours. “I’m Pyroman and my big friend’s the Black Terror”

“I meant not to spy upon ye,” apologized Marrion, his eyes never leaving the Black Terror, “When I hid behind that great tree.”

“I’ll bite,” began the Black Terror, his composure returning, “Why were you watching us?”

Marrion looked up at the Black Terror. “Know ye a Lady named Liberty? She suffers from pain and misery.”

“Lady Liberty?” enquired Pyroman excitedly. “You’ve seen her?”

Marrion nodded. “Her keen mind is not her own. She is thrall to an old crone.”

Pyroman and the Black Terror exchanged perplexed glances.

“She awaits on edifice yonder,” added Marrion, pointing animatedly to a brightly-lit building in the distance. “Her body is forbidden to wander.”

“Dick, I’ll carry the imp while you –”

Marrion shook his head. “Take my hands and beside her ye shall be. Quickly, before she expires like this tree.”

On taking Marrion’s paw-like hands into their own, the trio was engulfed in heatless emerald flames. A heartbeat later, they found themselves standing atop the Millennium City Museum of Natural History, the only proof of fire being wisps of verdant smoke dissipating into the night. A glassy-eyed, slack-jawed Lady Liberty and a smiling, platinum-haired woman in her early sixties stood across from them.

Before the Black Terror or Pyroman could come to the realization that they had walked into a trap, Angela Buckham had invaded their minds.

dividerIt seemed that every time Jennifer Jones closed her eyes lately, she would have vivid, gut-wrenching nightmares. She often dreamed of her father getting torn to pieces by the monstrous VIPER agent code-named Ripper as she watched helplessly. Occasionally, she would dream of being strapped spread-eagled to a cold metal examination table while Qularr scientists performed the same invasive procedures they had subjected her grandfather to, their multi-faceted eyes reflecting her futile struggles against the restraints. Tonight, it was the shade of Benjamin Sage shambling after her down the unnervingly deserted streets of a darkened Vibora Bay haunting her dreams. She awoke with a start just as the cold fingers of her deceased lover tightened around her throat.

“Oh, my word,” exclaimed the platinum-haired old woman sitting next to her, “Are you all right, dearie? Would you like me to call the stewardess?”

Flying to Millennium City
The Airbus A380 heading towards Millennium City

“I’m fine,” Jones said, her face flushed with embarrassment. She looked into the elderly woman’s dark brown eyes and saw genuine concern. “I’m sorry if I startled you. I get jumpy on airplanes,” Jones lied. She caught a glimpse of the full moon through her window before the Airbus A380 knifed into a cloud bank, the mist enveloping the airplane like a shroud.

The woman smiled broadly, the wrinkles on her handsome face deepening. “There’s nothing to apologize for, sweetie.” She reached out a liver-spotted hand and patted Jones’ knee gently.

Jones returned the older woman’s smile involuntarily. She could swear the woman smelled of freshly-baked apple pie. “You’re very sweet. My name’s Jennifer.”

“Pleased to meet you. My name’s Abigail Morgenstern but you can call me Abby,” she turned slightly in her seat to face Jones and flashed her disarming smile again.

“Are you visiting family in Millennium City?”

“No,” admitted Abby shaking her head, her voice betraying a hint of sadness, “Morty, my husband of fifty-nine years, died last winter – cancer, you know – and my children… well, they have lives of their own.”

How could such a sweet old lady end up all alone in the world?

“I see,” Jones replied, not knowing what else to say.

“Oh, sweetheart, don’t feel bad for me. We can’t appreciate the high points of our lives without experiencing low points,” Abby chuckled. “How about you, Jennifer?”

Jones thought about this for a moment. “I suppose I’m going back home,” she answered, surprised at how true this statement actually was.

“I’m sure there are lots of people who’ll be happy to see you,” Abby said, patting her on the shoulder again. “What does a bright young woman like you do?”

“I’m the head of a private security company,” Jones lied again, this time feeling an inexplicable pang of guilt for the deception.

“My, that sounds so exciting!” Abby’s eyes sparkled with interest. “Tell me, does it ever get dangerous?”

“It can sometimes but my team is-”

The Airbus suddenly shuddered like a frightened animal, causing several of the passengers to yelp in surprise. A soft ding echoed throughout the airplane as the crimson ‘fasten seatbelt’ signs flickered to life.

A reassuring female voice came over the loudspeakers, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing some turbulence. Please return to your seats and keep your seat belts fastened. Thank you.”

Abby looked out the window into the murky darkness, her gaze fixed on seemingly nothing at all. “We’re heading into some nasty weather.”

Jones was struck by the absolute certainty in the woman’s voice but chalked it up to a case of the jitters. “There’s absolutely nothing to worry about,” began the smiling Jones, trying hard to sound convincing, “Flying is still the safest way to travel.”

It was then that Jennifer Jones realized everyone in the airplane had suddenly stopped in mid-motion as if they were flies caught in amber. Even the constant hum of the engines had been replaced by an eerie silence. She turned to Abby who, like herself, had somehow been unaffected by whatever unseen power had frozen the rest of the passengers and crew in their tracks.

“I thought we could use some alone time,” Abby explained smiling.

You did this?” Jones asked incredulously.

Who the hell am I dealing with?

As if in answer to her unasked question, Abby began to waver before her eyes like a heat mirage. In moments, the frail old woman Jones had been chatting with was gone. In her place sat a statuesque woman in her late twenties clad in a flowing, pearl-white robe that left her arms bare. Her thick, raven hair was pulled back into a ponytail. The blindfold concealing her eyes was the same deep blue as that of her cloak. A short double-edged sword sheathed in a tanned calfskin scabbard hung at her side.

“My true name is Themis,” she announced in a soft yet powerful voice. “I’m not here to hurt anyone as you can probably tell since your – what do you call it again?” Themis paused momentarily, “Oh, yes, your ‘danger sense’ isn’t warning you of an immediate threat.”

She knows who I am!

“All right, you’ve got my attention. What do you want?” Jones demanded.

“What I want is a massage,” Themis chuckled, “but what I need, my dear Shroud, is to give you a warning – if you and your Squadron fall tonight, death shall reign where once life flourished.”

“Very cryptic and completely useless as warnings go,” Jones said dourly.

Themis smacked her forehead with the palm of her right hand, “It’d totally slipped my mind that you’d need an object lesson.”

Dead in the street
Two of the many corpses around the Shroud

In the wink of an eye, Jennifer Jones was no longer sitting in a plane cruising 30,000 feet above the earth. She was now standing alone on a battle-scarred street in downtown Millennium City, her jet-black costume bleached a ghostly white by the preternatural moonlight. The air was thick with ozone – the pavement, pitted with scorched craters. The battered and broken remains of human beings were strewn around the area. One of the many dead, a red-haired woman in her mid-twenties, had been completely eviscerated. Squatting down for a closer inspection, the Shroud was shocked to see that the costumed young woman had been partially devoured.

“Get away from ‘er,” ordered a deep voice behind her.

The Shroud sensed two figures – a man and a woman – standing about five meters behind her yet her danger sense had given no indication that they posed a threat. Hoping to ease the tension radiating from the couple like palpable waves of heat, she stood up slowly and turned to face them, her hands hung loosely at her sides. If the situation had not been so grim, she might have chuckled at the duo’s quaint red, white and blue costumes. She moved methodically towards them, her open hands rising as she did.

“Let’s not do anything we’ll all regret.”

It was only after it was too late that the Shroud realized her mistake. The star-spangled female recoiled when she caught sight of the mutilated corpse behind her. Her danger sense buzzed in her mind like a swarm of maddened bees.

“My God,” the appalled Maiden America exclaimed, “she’s murdered the Black Cat!”

“I ain’t never hit no dame before,” the towering Major Victor growled as he stalked towards the Shroud, “but I guess dere’s a foist time fer evrythin’!”

dividerFlying over the frigid waters of Lake Erie towards Millennium City while her teammates – Wethrvayn, Tempo, Jailhouse Rock and twelve-year-old Cody Harrison – sat comfortably in a bubble of hard-light behind her, Alexandra Marrero, the teenaged super-heroine known as Spectrum, mused how lame goodwill missions were.

Ever since joining the Squadron eXtreme a little over a year before, she had had plenty of chances to strut her stuff. While some of her fellow mutants wanted nothing more than to learn how to lead a normal life, she relished every minute of “the life”. Except, of course, those times when you had to aid in clean-up efforts after some whack job tore apart downtown Cleveland with an army of giant armadillos.

Giant armadillos? She chuckled at how ludicrous some ‘dastardly super-villain plots’ actually were.

Windor Ontario
Amateur photographer Dennis O’Neil took this picture seconds before a shipping container (top left) would have crashed into downtown Windsor, Ontario

The forty foot shipping container rocketing across the Detroit River towards the Canadian city of Windsor broke her reverie.

“Cody, maneuver A7! The rest of you, hold onto your lunches!” Spectrum barked to her teammates over their comm-links.

As the newest and youngest addition to the Squadron eXtreme flew out of the hard-light bubble to take up position a hundred meters below her, Spectrum positioned herself in the flight path of the impossible projectile and concentrated harder than she had ever concentrated before. Dividing her attention between keeping the bubble with her friends intact and stopping the oncoming container from flattening unsuspecting Canucks as they slept would be risky but there was no other option available. A hard-light construct in the form of a giant catcher’s mitt burst from her outstretched hand, intercepting the speeding container with a thunderous crash. Before the debris could rain down upon the sleeping city below them, Cody incinerated it into harmless ash.

“Great job, squirt!” Spectrum exclaimed.

“Thanks, Alex,” the grinning Cody responded as he fell into formation alongside her, “but stop calling me ‘squirt’!”

Never letting an opportunity for a jibe slip by, the speedster known only as Tempo added, “Yeah, ‘pee-wee’ is so much more descriptive.”

“You guys are… are…,” Cody paused, searching for the most scathing insult he could come up with, “goofs!”

“Sick burn,” scoffed the weather-manipulating Wethrvayn.

The foursome chuckled at Cody’s failed comeback. The members of eXtreme sometimes bickered, mostly about trivial things, like teens often did. Deep down, though, they all cared deeply for each other, a fact not lost on Spectrum, who could have used friends like them while growing up.

Westside Docks
The Westside Docks in Millennium City, the glass and steel skyscrapers of Renaissance Center in the distance

“Headquarters to Field Team Epsilon,” the synthesized voice of the Squadron’s android major domo AIDA came through their comm-links, “I have determined that the object you intercepted originated from the Westside docks. I am uploading the exact co-ordinates to you.”

The hologram projector built into the comm-link Spectrum wore around her left wrist projected a three-dimensional representation of the team in relation to their location, a dotted line indicating the origin point of the deadly projectile. Unlike many in the Squadron, Spectrum did not like AIDA. In fact, she got a real bad vibe from the android – maybe because she had read so much Asimov when she was younger. Whatever the reason, the fact that AIDA monitored the activities of every Squadron member via the comm-links they all wore and had unrestricted access to every single byte of data on the planet sent shivers up her spine.

“Looks like we’re headin’ for Westside, people. Pizza’ll have to wait.”

“If Gino’s closes before we’re done, I’m gonna be hella ticked off,” the geomorph Jailhouse Rock grumbled.

Johnny Hercules
The revenant atop the knoll

As they neared Westside, the five youths could see that massive quantities of dirt and rock had been forced towards the surface, forming a volcano-like structure in the middle of the docks that reached nearly a kilometer from base to truncated summit. The structures at the epicenter of the geological upheaval had either been leveled or buried under thousands of metric tons of earth while shattered shipping containers and overturned semis were strewn in a two-kilometer radius around the knoll. It was what they saw atop its apex that made the mutants break out in gooseflesh – a mangled mockery of a man stood defiantly at the edge of the crater, roaring in fury into the chill night.

Depositing Tempo and Jailhouse Rock at the base of the mound, Spectrum ordered, “Hang back here while we see why Mr. Sunshine’s so grumpy.”

“Whatever,” Wethrvayn said simply, her shoulder-length purple hair extending outwards in all directions from her scalp as static electricity crackled about her hovering form.

Projecting a protective force field around her body, Spectrum flew cautiously towards the raving monster, Cody and Wethrvayn flanking her. The snarling grotesquerie bellowed at the approaching trio with such ferocity that it raised the hackles on their necks. The monstrosity then rammed its hands into the loose dirt of the crater, tore free a two-ton chunk of reinforced concrete and hurled it at Spectrum before she could weave out of the way. Although her force field protected her from the brunt of the impact, the inertia sent her sailing halfway across the Detroit River.

“Alex!” Jailhouse Rock yelled.

“I’m fine, Reggie,” Spectrum responded curtly as she whizzed back across the river towards the monster. “Get his attention, Reg! Cody, Suzy, keep him pinned down! Temp, you’re on crowd control!”

“I’monit!Considertheareasecure.” said Tempo excitedly as she darted away, her voice little more than a high-pitched buzz.

Cody flew perilously close to the behemoth despite the nearly paralyzing fear he felt. “OK, creep,” he yelled, trying to sound intimidating, “I’m gonna … I’m gonna… um… Forget it, I’ve got nothin’!” Twin tongues of white-hot flame spewed from his hands, encircling the raging horror in a ring of withering fire.

Wethrvayn then unleashed a scintillating bolt of electricity at the atrocity with apparently little effect. “He’s shruggin’ off everything we’re throwin’ at him!” she exclaimed in disbelief.

Jailhouse Rock triggered his mutant power, transforming from flesh and blood to a nearly indestructible form composed of organic rock. Solidifying the loose dirt and rock beneath him into a platform, he rode a wave of earth like a surfer towards the crater. On clearing the summit of the mound, he leapt at the snarling abomination, his diamond-hard fist connecting with its jaw with an ear-splitting thud.

The monstrosity simply laughed.

The roaring aberration retaliated with a vicious backhand, sending the young mutant hurtling towards a sea of overturned semis and shipping containers.

Catching Jailhouse Rock in a giant hard-light catcher’s mitt before the fateful crash, Spectrum set him down at the base of the hillock to recover. After she had made sure her friend was simply unconscious, she darted towards the summit. Meanwhile, enraged by the mutants harassing it from the air, the fiend brought its open hands together in a thunderous clap – the resulting shockwave knocking Cody and Wethrvayn from the sky. The pair landed unceremoniously in the loose dirt a few hundred meters from the mound’s peak.

“Headquarters to Field Team Epsilon, dispatching backup.”

Spectrum had never been so happy to hear AIDA’s robotic approximation of human speech before. While she removed the dazed Cody and Wethrvayn from harm’s way, the Scarlet Sorcerer, the new resident magician of the Squadron Supreme, stepped through a shimmering portal behind the monster.

“Agent of Darkness,” chanted the magician, his hands raised in an arcane gesticulation, “the Light binds you!”

As the creature turned to face this new threat, it was restrained by tendrils of eldritch energy. At first, its manic efforts against the eldritch bands subduing it were in vain but the more the monstrosity exerted itself, the stronger it became. With a final herculean effort, the atrocity freed itself – its shackles blinking out of existence. Before the Scarlet Sorcerer could cast another spell, the grotesque man-thing had sprung on him. The monster dug its cold, dead fingers into the magician’s shoulders until the bones were ground to powder. With a sickening sound Spectrum would never forget, the brute then rent the wailing sorcerer in half. Its gaze fixed defiantly at Spectrum, the gore-covered revenant laughed as it discarded the bloody mess that had moments before been a man.

“I’m gonna squeeze you like a tube of toothpaste!” screamed Spectrum at the chortling fiend, a hard-light vice materializing from her outstretched hands.

“The Blood Moon is upon you!” the monster growled in a gravelly voice as it slowly forced the energy construct apart, “We will devour all life for the Arch-Lich!”

There are more like him?

Before the terrifying implications dawned on her, a bolt of lightning cleaved the night sky, striking the howling abomination and sending it tumbling down the mound. A statuesque young woman stood on the smoldering circle of earth where the lightning had struck, her hands resting on her hips. She was clad in a black leather body suit which left her right arm and left leg bare. Each shoulder was protected by a pauldron adorned with an eagle with outstretched wings. The eagle motif was reproduced on the metal belt about her waist. Her exposed left thigh was shielded by a bare cuisse while a row of metallic stars ran down the length of her right leg. Scalloped metal boots and a matching gauntlet on her right hand rounded out her armor. She bore a circular shield emblazoned with a five-pointed star in her left hand and a one-handed, double-edged xiphos was sheathed in a leather-covered metal scabbard hanging from her belt.

xiphos
Atalanta’s xiphos in its scabbard, picture courtesy of the Squadron Supreme

“Foul creature, yield to Atalanta, the Arm of Olympus!” proclaimed the raven-haired woman, drawing her short sword.

She hurled herself headlong at the brute as it scrambled back to its feet. As the two clashed, Spectrum and her teammates regrouped at the base of the knoll.

“I’m gonna bust that mother up,” growled Jailhouse Rock, his hand rubbing his chin.

“Who is that?” stammered Cody dreamily, unable to takes his eyes off the newcomer.

“Great time get wood, pee-wee” Wethrvayn snickered.

“Knock it off!” Spectrum snapped. “This Atalanta bought us some breathing room but that thing’ll hand us our asses again if we don’t hit it as a team. Now, while I head towards–” Spectrum stopped as a small LED on their comm-links – the emergency level indicator – began flashing yellow.

EMCON 3! Madre de Dios, could this night get any worse?

“AIDA to all members of the Squadron, Emergency Condition Three is in effect. You have each been assigned one of thirteen locations in Millennium City that are under attack by unknown forces. Response assignments and mission parameters are being uploaded to your comm-links. Report to your Field Leaders immediately for deployment. AIDA, out.”

“Wait,” began Wethrvayn, her characteristic smirk fading, “what does that mean?”

“It means,” answered Spectrum bleakly, “that we’re on our own.”

The five young mutants stood stock-still, each one silently processing the chilling fact that twelve identical horrors to the one that had single-handedly bested them with ease had erupted from beneath the earth to sow death.

“What’s the plan, boss lady?” Jailhouse Rock asked, breaking the tense silence.

“Maneuver A5,” Spectrum said grimly, “Go, eXtreme!”

The quintet sprang into action.

dividerEight-year-old Jeremy Blaine led the life of a typical boy growing up in small town America. He would play under the cloudless Oklahoma sky on warm spring days like other children his age. He would help his pa around the family farm on weekends like other children his age. He would accompany his parents to church every Sunday like other children his age. Yet, neither the speed of his fastball nor the degree of his conscientiousness nor the depth of his devotion to his Creator could shield him from the horrors that were visited upon his home town of Tahlequah when Takofanes the Undying Lord first assaulted the world of the living.

SONY DSC
The ghost town of Tahlequa, Oklahoma – picture by Conrad Van Orton from The Day Death Visited, Doublewright Publishers, 2015

In a single night of chthonic terror, everyone in the small town with the inexplicable exception of himself had been transformed into a mindless, undead servitor of Takofanes. Cowering behind a dumpster down the street from his home, he trembled in fright and fury as the shambling horde traveled eastward behind the Arch-Lich. A verse from the Book of Exodus reverberated in his young mind like a litany as the horrific night gave way to morning:

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

The ensuing decade was a blur – a seemingly endless sea of foster homes and social workers. He excelled both academically and athletically but his achievements were only important to him insofar as they would facilitate his crusade to rid the world of magic and all those who used it. When he came of age, he inherited his parents’ modest estate, which he used to finance a sojourn around the world so that he could learn everything he could about his enemies and how to destroy them. By the end of his fifth year, he had learned enough to begin his crusade in earnest.

Blaine returned to the United States and set up a base of operations in a small brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. To insure a steady flow of actionable intelligence, he cultivated contacts in the New York occult subculture for the next year. Learning that the cult known as the Brujeria was using an abandoned textile mill in Queens as a meeting place, Blaine went about devising a plan to eradicate the small enclave completely. Although the leader of this particular group – a sorceress named Ashley – was too powerful to be killed by a mere fire, eighteen incendiary devices in key locations throughout the factory proved more than adequate to trap the rank and file in a four alarm funeral pyre. As the fire spread through the run-down building, he expected the rage which had been his constant companion since he was eight to abate – at least, temporarily. However, the fury seething within him only intensified – feeding on the destruction he had orchestrated as the fire fed on the human kindling screaming in agony within the inferno across the street.

It was not until Blaine put a bullet of electrum magicum between Ashley’s eyes in her own bedroom later that evening that Blaine felt at peace. On arriving home, he stowed his gear, took a hot shower, had a light meal and went to bed. He closed his eyes and slept a dreamless sleep for the first time in years. The following day, Blaine awoke a new man.

Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he leapt out of bed and padded barefoot downstairs to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Clasping the steaming mug emblazoned with the words “Game Over”, he sauntered into the living room and plopped down on the window seat. He sat there for a long time, watching the first snow flurries of the year drift lazily to the pavement. He wondered whether he should give up his vendetta. After all, hadn’t he sacrificed enough? Hadn’t vengeance been served?

Astaroth Sigil
The Sigil of Astaroth as published in the Clavicula Salomonis Regis (The Lesser Key of Solomon), 1652

The following evening, while walking home from the nearby art gallery where he worked as a security guard, Blaine came upon a graffiti artist plying his trade despite the cold. He would not have given him a second look had not the symbol the teen been spray-painting onto the wall drawn his attention. With practiced ease, the young man was reproducing onto the naked brick the intricate sigil of the arch-demon Astaroth.

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

The white-hot rage he thought had been expunged by the blood he had spilled the night before overwhelmed him. Ensuring that there were no passers-by, he slipped as silently as a shadow behind the unsuspecting youth. He then clamped his left hand down onto the teen’s mouth while his right hand plunged the silver dagger he always carried into the base of the struggling teen’s skull. The twitching body toppled to the snow-covered ground, urine seeping from the relaxing bladder.

It was on that night the Witchfinder was truly born.

Now, years later, Blaine stood above one of the most powerful magicians of his time – Doctor Arcane – and an attractive young friend, who was obviously quite formidable in her own right judging from the defensive spell she had just cast. The unconscious elder sorcerer was bleeding profusely from a gaping exit wound between the spine and left shoulder blade and would be dead in a matter of minutes. The sorceress was writhing in agony on the glass-strewn floor, the basilisk venom burning its way through her body like wildfire. From the looks of her, she must be related to Stonehenge, Arcane’s wife, though he didn’t recall reading in her dossier that she had any living relatives. It didn’t matter who she was, though.

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

He leveled the silver-plated 9mm Luger at the head of the auburn-haired sorceress and pulled the trigger. The bullet whizzed towards Arcana only to be stopped scant millimeters before piercing her skull by a field of ebon energy that had suddenly enveloped her. Flattened by the impact, the electrum magicum slug tumbled harmlessly to the floor. Before the Witchfinder could react, he was propelled across the room by tendrils of obsidian energy to smash into the opposite wall with bone-shattering force, the Luger toppling from his hand. He scrambled unsteadily to his feet, searing blades of pain ripping into his sides from three broken ribs.

“Jeremy Blaine, you shall inflict no further harm,” said a voice as cold as the grave from across the room.

Through blurred vision, the Witchfinder could make out a petite young woman dressed in a sleeveless, jet-black gown and matching hooded cloak. She had emerged from a portal in the center of the room, which stood open behind her like a dark gash in space. The woman glided slowly across the debris-strewn floor towards him, her flowing cape undulating behind her like a thing alive. Now that his unknown enemy had the element of surprise, Blaine realized that escape was paramount. His hand darted to a flashbang grenade hanging from his belt, pulled the pin with his thumb and threw it at the figure bearing down on him as implacably as a nightmare. The resulting explosion bathed the room in unforgiving white light.

By the time the hooded woman’s vision returned, the Witchfinder had disappeared. Undisturbed by Blaine’s escape, she moved to Arcana and knelt down beside her. If the putrid green foam bubbling out of the wheezing sorceress’ mouth shocked her, the cloaked stranger gave no indication. Laying her gloved hands on Arcana, she lowered her head in concentration. The dying woman began convulsing violently, her sea-green eyes wild.

“You must not cross over!” said the cloaked woman through gritted teeth, the strain on her face as she struggled to keep Arcana alive concealed by the shadowy recess of her hood. “If he claims you tonight, all is lost!”

Without warning, Arcana’s flailing limbs stiffened, her back arching almost to the point of snapping. Her body then collapsed into a clammy, lifeless heap. As her death rattle rose from ichor-stained lips, the pupils of her unseeing eyes dilated, nearly obscuring the emerald iris.

The silence of the tomb held uncontested dominion over all.

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