And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
The Holy Bible, Book of Revelation 6:8
The sun had just set on the tourist-choked streets of Istanbul. Nyssa Tarchaniotes rose from the antique canopy bed, the Egyptian cotton sheet gliding across her porcelain skin like a lover’s caress. She padded barefoot across the cool marble floor to the wardrobe and selected a black silk abaya delicately embroidered with stars along the hem and neckline. As she slipped the robe over her head, familiar chanting drifted into her bedroom on the evening breeze – the Imam from the nearby Süleymaniye Mosque reciting the Maghrib prayer.
To her, Istanbul had not changed perceptibly in the nearly three thousand years she had lived there. Of course, it had been called many things over time – from Byzantium, named after Byzas, her long dead father, to Constantinople under the reign of the sanctimonious Constantine the Great to the name by which the city is now known. Architecture and other such trappings of civilization too had changed whether due to fashion, war or natural disaster. Yet, the quintessence of Istanbul – the thing that had remained unaltered despite the relentless march of time – was that it was a crossroads through which everyone would eventually travel. Although cloaked from view by ancient magicks, her home was much like Istanbul in that everyone in need of guidance would eventually cross the threshold of her home.
There was a tentative knock on her bedroom door.
Mehmet, her manservant of nearly fifty years, trudged into the chamber as she was brushing her waist-length, raven-black hair, his head bowed as a token of respect. And fear.
“<The querent is early, I see.>” She rose from the gilt vanity table and turned to her servant. “<Show her into the Augury after I have taken my place.>”
Bowing meekly, Mehmet backed out of the room and closed the ornate Neoclassical doors behind him, grateful that he was no longer in her presence. Catching a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror, Tarchaniotes’ expression darkened. Memories of a life now nothing more than dust filled her mind.
Despite the wealth of her family and her exceptional beauty, she had been neither spoiled nor vain. Rather than seeking to marry and start a family as many of her peers had already done, she had chosen to lead a sober, almost monastic, life. At the age of fifteen, she had left her home in the Grecian port city of Megara with her parent’s reluctant blessings to heed the call of Apollo. Like other young women blessed with the gift of prophecy, she was inexorably drawn to Delphi to serve in His temple. In time, she was chosen to become the Pythia – the High Priestess – of His oracle, a mantle she assumed with piety and solemnity. Her reward for her many years of humble, selfless service was rape and death at the hands of a vrikolaka – the ancient precursor of the modern vampire.
Rising three days later from the shallow grave in which the creature had interred her, she discovered to her horror that she had become an unclean mockery of life. What was far worse than the gnawing hunger for blood she now felt was that she could no longer feel the voice of Apollo resonate within her. For months, she wandered the countryside a pariah, subsisting on the blood of livestock by night and taking refuge in caves by day. Her nocturnal existence soon weighed so heavily on her that she decided to return to Megara and her parents in the hopes that the torment she felt could somehow be assuaged. She tried desperately to drown her blood lust in prayer and supplication but, one evening, the drive to feed simply became too strong to resist. In a lunatic frenzy, she had savaged her sister and mother before her father could bring her to bay. A few days later, the thing that had once been Nyssa Tarchaniotes and a heartbroken Byzas set sail for Anatolia – what would one day become known as Turkey – never to return to Greece.
Tarchaniotes had reached the threshold of the Augury without realizing that she had taken a single step. Setting her hand upon the silver pendant adorned with the symbol of the witch-goddess Hecate, she entered the small chamber to find that the querent was already seated at the scrying table. She smiled curtly at the old Caucasian woman, making a mental note to give Mehmet a stern reminder of when people are shown into the Augury. She glided across the polished onyx floor like a wraith and took a seat in the high-back wooden chair across from the querent.
“I am the Seer.” intoned Tarchaniotes dramatically.
“Pleased to meet you,” the silver-haired woman replied courteously, extending a liver-spotted hand. “My name’s Abigail Morgenstern.”
Tarchaniotes stared flatly at the proffered hand. “Please, present your offering so we can begin,” offered Tarchaniotes helpfully.
“Of course,” the elderly woman chuckled. Smiling apologetically, she placed an amber-tinted graduated bottle containing a pint of her blood onto the white marble table top.
Tarchaniotes picked up the glass bottle and removed the stopper, the unusually heady aroma of the woman’s blood filling the Augury. “You do understand that, once I have answered your question and partaken of your blood, you are bound to never act against me?”
“I do, dearie,” the woman replied, the smile on her face never faltering.
Tarchaniotes’ eyes narrowed in suspicion. Only the most adept in the mystic arts could see through the illusions that concealed her house yet this woman looked like she should be home baking cookies for her grandchildren rather than consulting a seer with such frivolity.
“<My child, I assure you I take this endeavor quite seriously.(**)>”
Tarchaniotes leapt to her feet. “<Reveal yourself!>” she hissed.
The image of the kindly grandmother wavered like a heat mirage and disappeared. In the aged woman’s place sat the goddess Themis.
“<What game are you playing, Titan,>” Tarchaniotes asked, cautiously taking her seat at the scrying table.
“<This is no game,>” pledged Themis, her voice as grave as a heart attack. “<The reason I have come is to… avail myself of your unique services.>”
Tarchaniotes smirked, the tips of her fangs visible behind her full ruby lips. “<As you know, my gift of second sight pales before yours. Why would the Goddess of Prophecy—>”
“<Mind your tongue!>” commanded Themis, her voice like the peal of thunder. “<You have seen what will come to pass, have you not?>”
“<Yes, my Lady,>” answered Tarchaniotes deferentially.
Themis smiled. “<Ask yourself this: when Death reigns over the Kingdoms of Men and Gods, how can one such as you survive?>”
This was a question Tarchaniotes had asked herself often since receiving the vision of the End of All Things. For a while, she had toyed with the notion of demanding passage to another plane of existence from one of the many thaumaturgists who were bound by geas to her. Yet, she knew that she could not abandon her home dimension because, by doing so, she would sever herself from the wellspring of her power. Death would inevitably follow. She had pondered accepting the eventuality of death – to journey to Tartarus and spend eternity among the damned – but could not because, although her existence was a curse, such a fate would undoubtedly be worse.
Perhaps the Titan had a third option?
“<My Lady, you know as do I that the fate of this world is sealed.>” Tarchaniotes closed her eyes, recalling the words of the prophecy she had uttered so many centuries before:
<What the fates have decreed,
God and Man must abide.
The Sun shall devour the Moon,
And Chronos shall devour himself.
On that Eve, all that lives,
Shall become the thralls of Death.>
“<Child, I have not come to learn of the future,>” began Themis, interrupting Tarchaniotes’ ruminations. “<but to enlist your aid in altering it.>”
* Translated from the Turkish
** Translated from the Ancient Greek
When Angela Buckham was a child, she had no inkling that no one around her could do what she could. She had always assumed that they could read the thoughts of others or manipulate objects from a distance just like she could but simply chose to hide their talents for some unfathomable reason. When she discovered that she was the exception and not the rule, however, she chose to keep her talents a secret even from her parents. She had peered into the minds of enough people to understand how intolerant they could be of the strange or the different.
Despite her attempts to blend in, she was met with reservation by most adults and outright enmity by all of her peers, who, sensing her otherness, ostracized her often in the most hurtful manner possible. Even her father, Robert Buckham, starting goaltender for Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, felt unease in her presence. Although she adored him more than words could say, he would make excuse after excuse to avoid spending any time alone with her. In contrast, her mother, Mary, showed her nothing but unconditional love and acceptance. Mary would hold her tightly in her arms and sing to Angela when she returned from school, hot tears streaming down her face after being called every vile epithet imaginable. Sometimes, as she rocked her daughter gently in her arms, Mary would cry too as if the pain her daughter felt was her own.
One balmy summer evening, eight-year-old Angela discovered a thriving ant hill on the periphery of her mother’s garden. She spent hours watching the scurrying ants emerge from the recesses of the anthill in search of food and building materials and return laden with provisions only to repeat the cycle moments later. She was intrigued by how harmoniously the disparate members of the colony functioned and wondered why human society never approximated such a degree of order. The question nagged at her so much that she could not leave it unanswered a moment longer.
Holding her favorite teddy bear firmly in a plump hand, Angela opened the screen door and ambled into the kitchen. She would have asked her father to explain the mystery to her but he was away for a big match against Nottingham Forest. Closing her eyes, she extended her thoughts outwards in search of her mother but she need not have bothered – she would be in front of the telly in the living room. Her father didn’t like his wife going out while he was out of town and what Robert Buckham did not like simply did not happen.
Mary was sitting in the living room watching one of her favorite television series, The Third Man, a Benson and Hedges held tightly between tobacco-stained fingers. She was reaching for the tumbler of Glenkinchie on ice on the oak end table when Angela approached her.
“Mummy, why aren’t people…” Angela’s question died on her lips when she caught sight of the angry scarlet contusion surrounding Mary’s left eye – a parting gift from her father.
Mary put her whiskey down and regarded Angela silently for the longest time, the swollen flesh nearly forcing her eye shut. She attempted to smile reassuringly.
“What would you like for supper, sweetheart,” she asked brightly, breaking the awkward silence. “Would you fancy some spaghetti with meat sauce,” Mary asked as she rose from the armchair, her immaculately-pressed, emerald-green, swing dress swishing gently as she moved.
Angela grabbed her mother’s hand before she could move towards the kitchen. Mary hesitated before looking down into Angela’s steel-blue eyes.
“Why does daddy hurt you,” Angela asked earnestly, tears welling up in her eyes as another question broke the surface of her consciousness. “Why does he hate us?”
Mary squatted down, her eyes level with her daughter’s. “He’s— he’s— having a hard season, luv,” she began hesitantly, unsure whether her lie would sound convincing. “If the club can’t hold onto their ranking in the First Division, he’s afraid he’ll get sacked so—”
“Stop lying to me, Mummy!” Angela cried, pulling away from her mother. “Daddy’s been hurting you… he’s been hurting us for years!”
Mary Buckham’s eyes went blank, her jaw slack.
In that moment, the answer to her question was revealed to her. It was not a quality inherent in humanity that precluded them from living in harmony with each other. Rather, it was the absence of a trait in human society that was at the root of the senseless pain around her – there was no singular will powerful enough to impose order on the chaos around it as the queen ant does on the thousands of drones comprising her colony.
“Spaghetti sounds lovely,” Angela said softly as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “Go start dinner and I’ll come along once I finish up in the garden.”
Her mother straightened up and made her way as woodenly as a puppet to the kitchen, Angela following closely behind. As Mary went about preparing the meal wordlessly, she walked through the screen door to the garden and retraced her steps to the anthill. She looked down at the insects skittering to-and-fro, completely oblivious to her presence. She closed her eyes and projected her thoughts outwards, her mind seeking the alien clicks indicative of the rudimentary brains the ants possessed. Satisfied that she had located every single ant in the colony, she psychokinetically compressed the exoskeletons protecting their internal organs until they liquefied and erupted outwards, killing the insects instantly.
Now, years later, Angela Buckham was looking at a very different kind of ant hill. Safe behind the barrier her superpowered thralls formed, she watched from the rooftop of the Millennium City Museum of Natural History as what seemed like an endless stream of once-human creatures clawed their way through dirt and concrete until they emerged onto the eerily-deserted streets below. The mindless revenants would then shamble off, often in large groups numbering thirty or more, in search of brains if Hollywood was to be believed. She asked herself whether tonight’s experiment had somehow served as the catalyst for this macabre turn of events.
When she usurped the leadership of RAPTURE in 1993 and severed its ties with the British government the following year, her agenda had been a straightforward yet ambitious one: to discover the underlying connection between the “precious gifts” people like her possessed and the “magic” wielded by some metahumans. She had become convinced that, despite being couched in the nonsensical language of the occult, the abilities so-called magicians used were nothing more than cruder variations of hers. Yet, they could manipulate reality in novel and often astounding ways – ways that were paradoxically beyond her. Once these formidable secrets were unlocked and added to hers, she could then launch her campaign to cleanse the globe of Homo sapiens and pave the way for mutantkind to inherit a brave, new world – a world under her control, of course.
To achieve her goal, she would need test subjects. Unfortunately, the metahuman population in Europe paled compared to that of the United States. Consequently, she relocated RAPTURE to Ravenswood Academy in Millennium City to take advantage of its burgeoning numbers of metahumans. Over the next twenty years, little headway had been made to either confirm or refute her hypothesis, a fact which infuriated her to no end. When one test subject disclosed how powerful the artifact called the Spear of Destiny truly was, the vestiges of a plan formed. She soon laid the groundwork for what would become Project Sleepwalker. However, not only did it fail miserably but the forces unleashed also set in motion horrors she could never have anticipated.
“Mistress, I’ve got some important news,” the mole she had planted in the Squadron Supreme said via psionic link.
“If it’s about your encounter with Doctor Arcane, I’m already aware—”
“Members of the Squadron eXtreme are fightin’ a creature in Westside,” Ultraviolet Cherry interrupted. “Initial reports indicate some kinda super-zombie!”
“What of it?” Buckham snapped, annoyed at the little twit’s presumption.
“Mistress, it seems ta me that things’re escalatin’ pretty quickly.” There was a momentary pause. “Maybe you should get outta there?”
Buckham was about to tear into the young telepath when a tremor shook the ground. “Perhaps you’re right, dear Madi. Inform security that I’m returning to the Claremont Building with… some new friends. Keep me informed of any further developments.”
“Of course, Mistress.”
Bearing herself and her puppets aloft in a bubble of telekinetic force, Buckham headed downtown moments before pandemonium erupted.
The Shroud landed hard on the black BMW sedan, its windows exploding as the roof collapsed. Before she could shake off the cobwebs, a hand as undeniable as a vice clamped onto her left ankle and jerked her unceremoniously to the ground. She rolled to the right seconds before a massive boot would have crushed her skull. She sprang to her feet, removing a flash-bang micro-pellet from the hidden compartment on the left forearm of her costume. In one fluid motion, the Shroud launched herself upwards and backwards while tossing the miniature explosive at her lumbering opponent. She landed on her feet as it went off, temporarily halting the inexorable advance of her enemy.
Despite the Shroud’s best efforts, the costumed couple that had appeared moments after the woman named Themis had teleported her to Millennium City were convinced that she had murdered their friend, the Black Cat. She was certain that the star-spangled pair was new to the superhuman scene or she would have heard of them. The Shroud made it her business to know everything she could about the players in the metahuman community – fighting unknown quantities was a severe tactical disadvantage.
Better get my head in the game before they knock it off my shoulders!
Despite being a skilled fighter, the woman going by the name Maiden America apparently had no superpowers. Major Victor, her hulking boyfriend, was another matter entirely. He was neither as fast nor as agile as the Shroud was but he was definitely stronger and more durable. The two seemed to be well-versed in team tactics: Maiden America would keep her off-balance so that Major Victor could press the attack. Judging from the assorted contusions, a fractured jaw and several cracked ribs, their strategy had been quite effective so far. She had to even the odds quickly or she would lose this fight.
The telltale buzzing of her danger sense warned her of imminent attack. Maiden America was closing in from her left while the big guy was shaking off the effects of the flash-bang. Feigning a bout of intense pain, the Shroud lured her foe in. Keeping a close watch on her partner, she waited for her opponent to commit herself to an attack. A split second before Maiden America could land a vicious roundhouse punch, the Shroud sidestepped the blow.
“Up and at ‘em, Major,” Maiden America managed to shout before the Shroud’s elbow connected with her chin, knocking her out.
“Dat tears it, toots!” bellowed Major Victor as he charged at the Shroud. “If she’s hoit, I’m gonna tear ya apart!”
“You’re boring me, Major Buzzkill,” the Shroud retorted.
Can’t pull any punches with this guy or I’m toast.
The Shroud stood her ground as Major Victor hurtled towards her. A heartbeat before the bone-shattering collision, she leapfrogged over him. Straightening her body in mid-air, she rammed both heels into the base of the man’s skull. The force of the blow sent her dazed opponent crashing headlong through the steel-reinforced south wall of the Schwartz Building. The only sound coming from inside the darkened interior of the deserted building was the soft tinkle of fragmented masonry falling to the marble floor. Before she had a chance to savor her victory, the Shroud was engulfed in a dense column of smoke.
It looks like my other playmate’s packing toys.
Her danger sense more than making up for the momentary loss of visibility, the Shroud turned to face Maiden America as she sprinted towards her. Her grim smile concealed by the full face mask she now wore, the Shroud was about to pounce on her when she sensed an attack coming from behind. She cartwheeled to the left, narrowly dodging the cast iron lamp post the recovered Major Victor had torn out of the street to bludgeon her with.
Maiden America was not so fortunate.
Although the makeshift bat had struck a glancing blow just under Maiden America’s left ear, the impact was sufficient to snap her neck like dry kindling. She toppled to the ground like a rag doll.
“No!” howled Major Victor in despair as he rushed towards his injured teammate. Pushing past the Shroud, he knelt down beside the dying woman. “I’m… I’m… so sorry,” he sobbed, “Don’t leave me, doll face.”
“Listen, she’s still alive. We can—” the Shroud slurred, her injury making it difficult to speak.
Major Victor cocked his head towards her, fury flashing in his eyes like a distant storm. “Dis was all yer fault!” he snarled, gently scooping up Maiden America’s limp form “I outta kill ya right now but she comes foist.”
With that, leg muscles like steel springs catapulted him north-east towards City Hall, Maiden America cradled in his arms like a sleeping child. The Shroud was about to launch herself into the air in pursuit of the duo when the ground beneath her shook. At first, it felt like nothing more than a mild tremor but, before it had subsided, an even more powerful one rocked Millennium City. She took to the air as a third shockwave jolted the city. The ground shuddered like a frightened animal and the skyscrapers swayed like saplings in a tempest.
“Shroud to AIDA, what the hell’s happening?”
“Our geoscience sensors have detected twelve independent epicenters of seismic activity scattered around the city.”
“Is that even possible?”
“The statistical likelihood is—”
“‘Improbable, I get it,” the Shroud interrupted. “Postulate probable cause.”
“Field Team Epsilon was returning to Millennium City prior to engaging an unknown entity in Westside 2.35 minutes ago. Similar seismic activity was recorded prior to the entity’s appearance.”
“Get me eyes on Epsilon!”
The small holographic projector on the comm-link on her wrist came to life, displaying an image of the battle between Field Team Epsilon and a chillingly familiar figure. The creature was wearing little more than filthy, tattered rags but the belt around its waist was intact. Double-tapping on the holographic display to freeze the image, she zoomed in on the belt buckle. Despite picture degradation, the Shroud could make out a capital letter H inscribed on the oval buckle. Through the mist of childhood memory, she recalled a name now all-but forgotten.
“Johnny Hercules,” whispered the Shroud incredulously as she banked south-east towards the Westside docks.
Tens of thousands of innocent people and scores of metahumans including Johnny Hercules lost their lives in the summer of 1992 when Dr. Destroyer unleashed an orbital bombardment cannon on the city of Detroit. The city was laid to waste and its charred remains would have become a macabre testimony to one man’s madness had state and federal authorities not pledged to rebuild. A handful of years after the Battle of Detroit, the Millennium City she knew and had come to love was born, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the decimated city. Yet, buried alongside twisted steel and shattered concrete in that mass grave were nearly seventy thousand corpses.
The tremors suddenly stopped. A chill ran up her spine.
It’s the calm before the storm.
As if to verify her observation, the pavement two blocks away exploded upwards as the rock and earth beneath it burst its way to the surface, sending slabs of asphalt the size of automobiles skywards. For a brief moment, the cloud of debris hung motionless in the air like a swarm of angry bees before it came crashing back to earth.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” the Shroud blurted. “AIDA, send reinforcements to Epsilon. I’m going to investigate the nearest disturbance.”
“The Scarlet Sorcerer was dispatched to assist Epsilon 1.35 minutes ago. His life functions were terminated almost immediately.”
Although AIDA would surprise even the Shroud with occasional glimmers of human-like behavior, it was times like these that reminded her that her AI left much to be desired.
“Creatures similar to the entity Epsilon is battling are emerging from all twelve seismic epicenters, including the one on your current heading.”
“Run all biometric recognition search engines on the thirteen entities. Compare results with all metahumans killed in the Battle of Detroit.”
There was a brief pause. “All thirteen entities return positive matches.”
“Sound EMCON 3,” began the Shroud dourly. “Upload emergency response protocols to each Field Leader’s comm-link. Base field assignments on the postulated identities of hostiles established by previous search results.”
“Affirmative, Shroud. You are heading towards the location where the hostile designated ‘Flechette’ has emerged.”
The Shroud landed on the fifteenth floor of a skyscraper under construction across the street from her quarry. Skimming across the unfinished floor as silently as a shadow, she crouched behind a support column on the north-west corner of the building. The mockery of the hero once known as Flechette stood on the summit of the kilometer-high mound, wailing maniacally into the night. She hoped that she would not have to engage him until backup arrived. Although the bruising and cracked ribs had almost completely healed, the fractured jaw still jabbed hot knives into her skull whenever she moved.
The Shroud activated the holographic GUI function of her comm-link. Her fingers gliding deftly across the virtual keyboard, she first established real-time video surveillance on Flechette. She then checked on the status of the Field Teams dispatched to the disturbances around Millennium City. Eight teams, a few of whose numbers had been bolstered by other metahumans, had engaged their targets. Three teams had already suffered losses.
No time to mourn the fallen, Jones.
As her target seemed to be more interested in howling at the moon than causing mayhem, she scoured all available databases for any information on him. What both UNTIL and PRIMUS had on Flechette was sparse to say the least. The second man to bear the name Flechette, former Army Ranger Daniel Wilson had no metahuman abilities but was a skilled hand-to-hand combatant and military strategist with an exemplary service record. Other than the fact that he was best-known for the amount of firepower he would take into combat with him, that was all there was on him. The Shroud felt a twinge of sadness that Wilson had made the ultimate sacrifice only to become a mere footnote.
The deafening shrieks of the revenant abruptly ceased. The insect drone of her danger sense reached a fever pitch. Flechette spun towards her position, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher materializing in his hand. The Shroud lunged into the void just as the projectile struck home, obliterating the steel-reinforced column she had hidden behind. Twisting in mid-air to right herself, she landed at the base of the mound with the grace of a jungle cat.
“You pity me, little girl?” jeered the creature.
“Of course not,” she replied, drawing the molybdenum-injected Escrima sticks from their thigh holsters. “I haven’t put you back in the ground yet!”
Flechette cackled. “I love a girl that plays rough!”
Like all twelve-year-olds, Arcana loved the summer holidays. While other children her age would play baseball in Kubert Park or hang out at the shopping center in downtown Jerusalem’s Lot, the Arcanatis children did things differently. Every summer, Arcana and her brother Tony would spend July with her maternal grandparents in the Crowley ancestral estate in Seven Heads, Ireland, and August with their father’s parents on their farm near the small town of Kalavryta in his native Greece.
Arcana enjoyed holidaying with her grandparents not only because of the place they held inside her heart but also because their lives were infinitely less complicated than her parents’. She relished August most of all. She would wake up before dawn and help her grandfather Ioanni tend the livestock. In the meantime, her grandmother Helena would milk the cows, feed the chickens in the henhouse her father had built years before and collect fresh eggs for their breakfast. At eleven o’clock, her grandfather would go to the local kafeneio – a small café frequented by the older men in town – and argue good-naturedly about politics and football until it was time for lunch. Arcana and her brother would help their grandmother prepare lunch, her brother showing an aptitude for cooking that surprised and delighted his grandmother to no end. By half past one, her grandparents and Tony would have retired for an afternoon nap, like almost everyone else in Greece did as the young Arcana believed.
She had never got into the habit of afternoon siesta and preferred to spend her time exploring the village and its surroundings on her bicycle. One afternoon, her afternoon expedition had taken her to the Holocaust Memorial situated a few kilometers north-east of town. Built to commemorate the slaughter of every male aged twelve or older by the Nazis, it stood on a hill overlooking the town, the massive white marble cross clearly visible from anywhere in town day or night. She stood solemnly at the base of the cross, her eyes transfixed on the sleeping town below. It was odd that she felt such peace in a place where so many had died such violent and senseless deaths.
Return to your vessel, the wind seemed to whisper.
She was about to mount her bicycle and head back to her grandparents’ house when she noticed blood seeping through the green cotton sundress her grandfather had just bought her. Her eyes widened in shock as the blood trickled slowly down her inner thighs. Horrified by the onset of menstruation, Arcana was about to run screaming down the hill when she spied a young boy around her age standing beneath one of the fir trees ringing the monument. His dark eyes held hers.
“<Where are you going,(***)>” the boy asked, walking slowly towards her.
“<Please,>” Arcana implored, “<I’ve got to get back home.>”
“<There’s nothing to fear,>” the pallid boy said, his face now mere centimeters from hers. “<You’ve become a woman. You’ll make me a fine wife.>”
Arcana’s blood ran cold.
Return to your vessel, urged the voice, now more clearly.
“<Please, let me pass,>” she begged, “<Can’t you see I’m bleeding?!>” She held up her blood-slick hands for him to see.
The boy chortled, “<These hills have been drenched in blood. What’s a few more drops?”
“<I’ve got to get back home,>” Arcana repeated weakly.
“<Your place is here,>” he responded, his cold hand caressing her cheek. “<With us.>”
The ashen flesh of dozens of rotting corpses suddenly pressed in on her, the stench of their fetid breath making her gag.
Return to your vessel, Arcana Arcanatis! cried the voice.
Arcana sat bolt upright, her sea-green eyes wide with shock. She was sitting on the floor of her living room, a young woman dressed in a sleeveless black gown and matching hooded cloak kneeling beside her.
“Rest for a moment while I heal your father’s injury for you will both need your strength before the dawn.”
Arcana wiped the drying froth from the side of her mouth with the back of her hand, “Who are you?”
“You may call me Cloak,” she said simply as she knelt beside Doctor Arcane.
The recollection of her experience flooded Arcana’s thoughts like a tidal wave. “I died,” she concluded.
“But I couldn’t move on.” Arcana broke out in gooseflesh.
Cloak remained silent, her body bristling with energy black as pitch. A moment later, she removed her hands from Doctor Arcane’s chest and stood up, visibly drained. To Arcana’s joy, her father’s eyelids fluttered open and he began to stir.
“Let us move him to the couch,” the mysterious Cloak suggested. “He will recover but he will be terribly weak for a while.”
The two women helped Doctor Arcane back to his feet.
“The Witchfinder must’ve followed me here,” Arcane began, his cheeks flush with shame, “I’m so sorry, dear heart,” After Arcana cast a small spell to make the shards of glass littering the sofa disappear, he sat down. “My carelessness could’ve gotten us both killed.”
Arcana sat down next to her father and hugged him tightly. “It doesn’t matter now. Thanks to our young friend, we’re both fine.”
The faint rustling of the wind through the leaves of the plants on the terrace inexplicably stopped, as if the earth itself had suddenly held its breath. Cloak walked purposefully towards the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Lake St. Clair. She gazed at the moon hanging serenely in the night sky for a few moments, her hands clasped behind her back. The baleful silence yawned before them like the mouth of some ravenous animal. Then, almost imperceptibly at first, the pale light of the moon began to wane as its orbit slowly brought it in line with the penumbral shadow of the Earth.
Cloak finally broke the eerie stillness. “The Moon has entered the mouth of the Dragon,” she began with grim finality, “The reign of man nears its end.”
“The Voynich Prophecy!” Doctor Arcane exclaimed.
He raised his right hand into the air and muttered a short incantation. As his daughter watched, a time-weathered codex shimmered into existence, floating ethereally before the elder sorcerer. The pages of the leather-bound book began turning of their own volition until a section roughly in its middle was reached.
The page on the left featured an illustration Arcana recognized as a map of the heavens. The star chart detailed the course of the Moon around the Earth, the points where the Moon’s orbit crossed the ecliptic demarcated by the ancient symbols of Caput Draconis and Cauda Draconis – the Head and Tail of the Dragon respectively. She leaned forward to take a closer look at the densely-written page on the right her father was studying but could not even recognize the script used despite her extensive knowledge of several languages.
“My God,” said Doctor Arcane, the color draining from his face.
Arcana shuddered. “What does it say?”
Doctor Arcane translated the passage for his daughter:
“When the Daughter of Death walks the land once more,
And the Moon enters the mouth of the Dragon,
Man’s reign over Earth shall see its final hour,
For the dead shall rise to supplant the living.”
Cloak turned away from the window and regarded Doctor Arcane. “I am she of whom the prophecy speaks, Ioannis Arcanatis.” She bowed her head in shame, “I am the daughter of Takofanes.”
*** Translated from the Modern Greek