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Arthurian

By Comp Ninja All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Step Sideways

"The difference between a hero and a coward is one step sideways." – Gene Hackman


Alexander Penn didn't know anything about the package besides the fact that it weighed a ton. Not a literal ton but a significant enough weight to give him pause. Alex lifted it up and carried it into his room. He had spent this lovely Saturday morning fetching books from the library for his brother, Moses. It was his usual ghoulish collection of subjects: Serial killers, forensics, police procedures and so forth. He called it research but it was really just procrastination.

"Writing the Great American Novel requires inspiration," he would counter. "I need inspiration." Leave it to kooky old Moses to find his "inspiration" in a series of mysterious (and newsworthy) kidnappings. Alex had left the stack of books right where he had found the package, leaning against the house next to the door.

Moses had sequestered himself in the office, a feeble attempt to crank out a few words on his novel. Judging from the curses and sighs muffled only by the wooden door, his attempt hadn't panned out yet.

Alex tried asking Moses if he had ordered something online. Always the curious (and financially irresponsible) type, Moses often acquired hard-to-find material on sites like Amazon or eBay. If he couldn't find it there, he always found it somewhere. If he had one single virtue, it came from his unrelenting pursuit of just about anything that caught his eye. Once the dude got obsessed about something, nothing could tear him away from it.

The weight of the mysterious package in question had caught Alex off-guard. If this thing really belonged to the category of "Strange Junk Moses Brought," why did it weight so much? Books, generally made of paper, didn't weight that much even with fancy covers. DVDs weighed even less. Nothing Moses usually fancied weighed as much as this. Alex rested the package on his bed. If he had any hope of unraveling this mystery, he would need to give the offending object a closer examination. Unfortunately, that raised more questions than it answered.

Contemplating whether this thing had come from Amazon or eBay had forced Alex to ignore a simple (and otherwise obvious) fact. This package had no writing on it. Hence, it had no return address. No indication that it had ever traveled through the U.S. Postal Service. This simple package suddenly seemed like the MacGuffin of a spy thriller. For all he knew now, some madman had planted a bomb outside their house, spoiling for the moment some loser (like himself) set it off by opening it.

Alex dismissed the thought as romantic fiction. Nobody wanted to kill him. Who would waste valuable bomb material just to kill some random nobody? Besides, the police had gone into panic mode with the Belial Stalker. Nothing as obvious as a mad bomber could have evaded their scope. Even a pickpocket would have trouble plying his craft in this state of high octane paranoia and no-holds-barred fear.

Alex Penn tried to put these thoughts out of his head. He reasoned that this package felt heavy but not heavy enough to have a bomb in it. He didn't know what he based that on, merely a hunch that the threat of this package didn't come from the risk of getting blown up. Something else about his package spooked Alex.

Unless he imagined it, he could almost hear it calling to him. Beckoning him to open it and look upon its contents. Alex cringed as he fought the urge to run. Nightmares interrupted his thoughts as he rested the package on top of his bed.

Alex stared at the Superman bed covers. Alex didn't know what anyone at school would think if they knew he still slept in those ratty old Superman sheets.

Like an endless house-guest, the package had worn out its welcome. It sat there, oblivious to how badly he wanted it gone, as in chucked out the window gone. Alex stared this visitor from the outside world. He didn't want it destroyed just yet. Perhaps, he just needed time to think it over. After a day with friends, this package might not seem so ominous. Alex went outside to get the books he had left behind.


A cheap purchase from a friend of the family, Alex Penn's Chevy Malibu soundly fit the definition of a lemon considering how much it cost to keep the thing running. Hell, it would have fit the definition even if it had cost a king's ransom.

Moses' Sonoma, while hardly the winner of any automotive industry awards, would probably outlive his Malibu by a good three or four years. Alex turned his attention to the road. Thinking about the truck reminded him of Dad. And, if he didn't want to crash, Alex needed to have his head in the game. Alex parked in the covered parking lot on the north side of the split-level Trevena Fashion Center.

Summer had reached across spring and would soon have its claws deep in San Uriel, California. Alex aired out his black shirt and pants combo. He needed to remember to dress down next time. Even now, Alex could feel his body working up a sweat in all his nooks and crannies. Luis Lanza, best friend and fellow mall-rat, had promised to meet him in the Food Court. Luis must have conned someone from school into giving him a ride to the mall. Alex stepped out of the car. He inspected the Malibu for any new leaks or dents or anything out of the ordinary.

The package had felt Alex in a state of anxiety. Suddenly, Everything with a capital E looked primed and ready to attack him. Alex stepped into the mall and allowed the dint of half-heard conversations to distract his mind for a moment. With the reflexes of a ninja warrior, Alex reached into his pockets and donned his MP3 player. Alex took a moment to adjust the volume. Nothing beat the sheer pleasure of drowning out all the noise with the timeless tunes like CCR and AC/DC. Alex hummed along to Thunderstruck as he made his way to the Food Court.

There was the usual selection, Mickey D's in one corner and Paradise Bakery in another. Alex and Luis rarely ever ordered anything. The Food Court was their open court, a place where they could meet and plan the rest of their day. Most days, they ended up at the movie theater just next to the Food Court. Alex had turned in an application there a few months ago. He still hadn't heard back from them.

It always seemed to come down to "them." He had enough of "them." Everything in his life, even the smallest of ambitions, worked on the frail and misguided whims of "them." Some nameless entities who controlled the fates of some many lives and hardly anyone knew what to call them except "them."

Alex turned his attention to Luis Lanza. Luis had the misfortune of being born in the wrong decade. If he had been alive in the '80s, the Ray Ban-wearing gel-haired look would have been a big hit with all the cool kids at school. Unfortunately, he wasn't and it wasn't. "Bucket of bolts belongs in a junkyard." Luis kicked up his feet. "So, what's the plan, my man?" This was the part of the conversation where things got awkward.

Alex returned Luis' smile with his best impression of one. "Maybe you could tell me." Luis raised an eyebrow. That arched eyebrow told him everything. He had hit pay dirt. "You always have this tone in your voice when you're up to something." It was an upward inflection like he was asking a question when he wasn't. Though, Alex would never tell him that. "Even on an answering machine, I can hear it as clear as day." Alex interlaced his fingers as he took his seat. "So, what's up, doc?"

Luis grinned. The sheepishness of that grin told him he would not like this. Luis only went into full-on comedian mode when he was about to drop a bombshell of nuclear proportions. "Remember that rule of ours we had?" Alex shrugged.

They had a lot of rules. Every great friendship needed its share of rules. Alex didn't know which he meant. "You know the one about girlfriends?" They had promised never to date each other's exes or anyone who might complicate things. It was the kind of stuff friends talked about at the end of an eight-hour-long movie marathon in an attempt to stave off the inevitable crash that followed.

"Bros before hoes," Alex remembered saying. The two of them had a good laugh about it afterwards. While not exactly the bottom rung of the social ladder at Trevena High, they didn't have to beat off their lady admirers with sticks either. The chance of them ever needing to deal with this rule seemed faint at the time, especially considerably their tendency for long dry spells in the dating department.

Since neither of them had any exes at Trevena High anymore, that meant he had picked out a controversial girlfriend. Still, Alex couldn't help but cheer Luis on. He had gone through this prolonged dry sleep for over a year now. Alex would have loved to see him with somebody new after Trisha Torres. Perhaps, he had found a girl who wouldn't stomp his heart into the dirt in full view of the student body.

At that moment, Abigail Vennard took a seat at the table. "I broke it." Alex felt the floor quiver as he struggled to keep himself from tipping over onto his side. "Alex." Luis nodded to Alex. "Abby." Luis nodded to her. Luis forced a laugh. "We're all friends here." Alex's eyes stared daggers in Luis's direction.

Of all the eligible women at Trevena High, Luis had picked his crush of three long years, almost as if to spite him. "I need to go." Abby tried to speak but Alex held up his hand. "I just remembered I got a lot of homework and I really should get to it." Alex bowed with as much politeness as he could muster at the moment.

"Nice seeing you again." Alex got up from his chair and made his way in the direction of his Chevy Malibu. Alex felt that familiar vise-like grip around his wrist, the kind Abby had so often had to use on him in the past. "What?"

The question came out like a bullet fired at an unwanted pursuer. Abby stood motionless. "You know what." Alex steered his head away from Abby's eyes. "Luis didn't do anything wrong. I didn't do anything wrong." Alex had tried so hard to forget how he felt about Abby or how frustrated he felt whenever she got together with somebody new. "Please, just talk to me." Alex felt his leg muscles tighten. He couldn't run away, no matter how desperately he didn't want to have this talk.

It had come three years too late, anyways. "Wanna talk?" Alex had tried to avert this. "Let's talk." Alex stepped to the side. "Let's talk about how we never got our chance because you always had a boyfriend. Let's talk about how you're dating my best friend and why I'm only hearing about it now. Let's talk about it."

Abby just stood there speechless despite her insistence that they talk. "Guess we don't have that much to talk about. You didn't tell me because you thought I'd react poorly. And we never had our chance because you had a problem dating a black dude." Alex knew he had overstepped his bounds just then.

Abby shook her head. "The race card, really?" Abby laughed a sad bitter laugh. "You're right about one thing, though. I knew you'd freak out. You always did, even when you didn't know the guy." Abby grabbed him by the shoulder. "I wanted to tell you but Luis wanted to wait." Abby cracked her neck. "As for 'us,' there was never an 'us.' You'd get jealous and stamp your feet every time I had a date but you never made a move. It's like you only wanted me when you couldn't have me." Abigail Vennard's words pierced into his chest cavity and out his back.

"That's a lie," Alex lied. "You felt it." Alex circled Abby at the mouth of the Food Court. "You were just too scared to do anything about it." Alex had always played the part of the gentleman, willfully ignorant of how she looked at him and how he, sometimes, by accident, returned said looks.

Abby didn't need him to make the first move. They had circled each other for years, neither one brave enough to end this waltz of mutually unrequited love. "I'm not about to get lectured to about fear from you." The word you dripped off her lips like acid. Abby held his hands in her hands. "Luis is a good man. He doesn't deserve this." Abby rested her head against his, like a head-butt in this battle of hearts. "Whatever happened or didn't happen between us, we just need to move on."

Alex would have loved to do that but the past had a replay button. The same things happened over and over again. The past lived in the present, permeating its patterns with forgotten memories and ancient feuds. "I can't." Alex pulled his hands free of Abby, turned and walked away. A simple Saturday morning he had turned into an episode of Melrose Place. Alex felt a hand on his shoulders.

"Leave me alone, Abby? I don't care anymore, alright? I just don't." Saying all this before he turned around, Alex didn't realize something. The hand on his shoulder did not belong to Abby. He looked to see a man standing behind him.

"Alexander Julius Penn?" The man produced a badge from his unseasonably warm black trench coat. A blast of fetid air irradiated from his coat. The guy must have worked up a serious sweat because he smelled like a dead pig.

"I'm Detective Roger Lazenby with the SUPD." Two men emerged next to Alex, one on each side of him. "Officer George Moore and Lieutenant Peter Dalton." Roger's face twitched as if to shake a fly off his forehead. "We would like you to come down to the station and answer a few questions."

Alex looked around. He had left Abigail Vennard and Luis Lanza behind. He had seen Roger before. He looked taller on television. Detective Roger Lazenby was the big hero cop trying to track down the Belial Stalker. Alex didn't know what he could possibly know about any maniacs but he'd do whatever he could to help.

"Your cooperation's appreciated, young man." The cop took him by the hand and led him the covered parking lot on the north side of the mall where he had parked his Chevy Malibu. Detective Lazenby lead Alex to a black Lincoln Town Car.

Alex had almost stepped in when he realized something odd about the good detective. His trench coat favored his left side. Alex brushed up next to Roger, "accidentally" brushing aside the trench coat. He looked at the spot the detective seemed to be covering up with his coat. A black splotch bled through his undershirt.

"Is there a problem, young man?" Alex had absorbed enough information from the various CSIs to know that blood didn't always look like blood after awhile. The black splotch could have easily possessed the stereotypical crimson shade of human blood in the hours before it congealed. Alex couldn't understand how a wound that big could remain on his person without killing him.

Alex looked at the detective, trying to lock eyes with him. Motionless bloodshot eyes stared out from behind a pair of sunglasses. Without a moment's hesitation, Alex jammed his thumb into the black splotch. The two officers made their move. Alex followed up with a front kick to Officer Moore's ribs. He then did a palm heel strike to the bridge of George Dalton's nose. The attacks should have crippled them. The three barely moved, oblivious to their injuries.

The sensei always complimented his technique. He called it the closest thing to flawless he had ever seen in a student but he had one weakness, what self-defense experts and military tacticians called "a lack of situation awareness."

It didn't take much time for his opponents to regain their bearings. Alex didn't even see the stun gun before the detective stabbed the blunt end of it into him. Alex screamed as he felt limp onto the asphalt. The detective gave his surroundings a conspiratorial glance before loading Alex into the backseat.

Detective Lazenby turned to Officer Moore and Lieutenant Dalton. "Handle this." As Alexander Penn switched in the backseat of the Lincoln Town Car, the detective pulled out of the parking space. "Very impressive," Detective Lazenby said. Alex fingered the locks of the Lincoln Town Car. It was just as he had feared, locked from outside just like a real squad car. Alex stared through the cage mesh.

The car zipped past the police station without even slowing down. Alex's mind raced down a terrifying train of thought. He remembered all those people who had been kidnapped. What if the detective had brought them like this? What if the Belial Stalker nabbed his victims by posing as a cop? Why not? It clearly worked.

Somehow, it felt like he had done this before. Not this, specifically, but the feeling of getting outclassed on a battlefield sent a wave of visions funneling through his brain. The detective's dead vacant eyes stared back at him.

"Get comfortable, Alex," he said as he turned his attention to the road. "We have a long drive ahead of us." For a moment, Alex felt a blade slide between his ribs and into his heart. He opened his eyes and checked himself for wounds. There were none, save for the bruise where Roger had punched him with the stun gun.


"They called him the Belial Stalker." Moses Penn deleted the sentence. "They called her the Belial Stalker." Statistically speaking, the Belial Stalker probably belonged to his half of the gender coin. Female serial killers, while they did exist, had their own set of rules and patterns. They usually didn't roll like this.

Therein was the rub. No one had any definitive evidence that the Belial Stalker was even a bona-fide serial killer. For all the police knew, the letters to the police and various media outlets belonged to some attention-starved nut-case.

Moses Penn didn't believe that. There was a devilish intelligence behind those letters, made all the more uncanny by his lack of empathy and self-awareness. No, this wasn't some serial killer groupie gone overboard. He was the real deal. It wouldn't take long before the Belial Stalker earned the title the Belial Killer.

Moses Penn had followed the news about this strange new player in the serial killer game. The Belial Stalker had claimed responsibility for twelve victims already, even though the police could only find evidence for seven matching his profile. Moses didn't doubt the number for a second. The number twelve had deep numerological significance to an occult scholar like the Belial Stalker. Twelve apostles created from the corpses of his sacrificial victims.

The last three victims, SUPD officers no less, Roger Lazenby, George Moore and Peter Dalton, had occurred just this morning. Detective Lazenby had sworn to bring the Belial Stalker to justice. Not only did the serial killer make him pay for his bravado, he punished his partners for his overconfidence as well. The Belial Stalker didn't want the slightest chance of anyone capturing him. He didn't want anyone in Trevena experiencing anything resembling hope.

The modus operandi of this beast in human flesh frightened Moses most of all. The vast majority of serial killers, nearly all of them, in fact, had a set pattern, a ritualistic way in which they chose their victims. The killer didn't have a set pattern. In fact, he seemed to rail against one simply to confound his pursuers.

The Belial Stalker gave little regard for the approximate number of years the victim had lived. The age difference between his youngest victim, Michael Ferrin, and his oldest, Betty Stine, numbered in high fifties. He snatched his prospective victims as freely from the cradle as he did from the grave.

Also an equal-opportunity serial killer, the Belial Stalker claimed from all races and walks of life. Bryan Faraday, a black college student, had gone missing from his dorm room at the University of San Uriel. Lisa Cruz, a Hispanic maid, had disappeared while her family had gone on a visit back to Mexico.

The timing also disturbed the police. He seemed to have no other employment besides kidnapping. From the kidnappings that they linked to him, he had gone about his business at all hours of the day. He could strike as easily in the dead of night as he could in the white-hot rays of the noonday sun.

Moses Penn needed more information. As such, he hazarded a journey into Alex's room. Most people, if asked to decide, would consider Moses the older brother. Moses always took that as an insult. While not as physically gifted as his fraternal twin, he didn't think that made him look that much older. Still, Moses led a sedentary lifestyle. While Alex got out and did stuff, Moses sat at a computer.

Except on days when Mom had had enough of Alex's uncleanly ways, the room looked like the site of a hurricane. It had a de facto carpet made of DVDs and comic books. He looked at the replica katana he had made in shop class. Moses had always admired his artistic gift. Moses could hardly draw a straight line but he still possessed the capacity to enjoy art when he saw it. At that moment, Moses saw it.

It peeked out from under Alex's bed, a corner of exposed cardboard he almost missed as he saw his precious book cramped between the wall and the headboard like a bunch of used tissues. Moses gripped it and pulled it out. It looked like a box. Moses lifted the package and planted it on the coffee table in the living room.

As he had struggled to lift the package, he felt it move. Light issued from the creases where the masking tape hadn't completely sealed it in. Moses popped open Dad's old box-cutter and peeled open the mysterious glowing package.

Moses noticed the next barrier in place for the enigmatic item, a silk cloth bag wrapped around the item with drawstrings tied around its end. Moses undid the knot and dumped the long narrow object onto the love-seat.

"Holy crap," Moses said aloud as he looked it over. "It's a sword." A longsword, actually, not that it made a difference. Whether he had dumped a broadsword or dagger onto the love-seat, the sheer oddity of someone delivering a bladed weapon to the Penn household baffled Moses. "Why on Earth would Alex need a sword?" Moses traced the strange glyphs on the scabbard with his fingers.

The strange white glow from earlier flared out and a current of electricity passed through his body. Moses managed to catch his fall by going down on one knee and then the other. Moses' head missed the corner of the coffee table by a fraction of an inch. Moses' eyes rolled to the back of his head as he blacked out.


If he managed to get away from this madman, Alex would need to give a complete description of what he had seen. From the looks of things, Detective Roger Lazenby had taken him to the junkyard at the very edge of the Trevena city limits. As Alex passed rows and rows of cars harvested for parts, Alex arrived in front of an old-timey country home complete with front porch swing and garden of red roses.

Hunkered over the rose garden, a twenty-something-year-old man in a brown pair of gardener's overalls looked over in Alex's direction. Alex saw no point in trying anything stupid. He had seen the guards on the way in. If he had been allowed him to get this close, they had taken the proper precautions. Just then, a red point of laser light appeared on Alex's forehead as if to confirm his suspicions.

"They're beautiful," the gardener said as he walked toward Alex. "The roses, I mean." The gardener gestured to his guards. "They're beautiful in their own way but we'd both agree that they cater to a rather unique aesthetic." The gardener extended a hand. "I have misplaced my manners. Greetings are in order. I'm the Lord Belial. It's a pleasure to finally meet you in the flesh." The psycho calling himself Lord Belial shrugged. "Well, the second flesh, anyways."

Lord Belial signaled as a dark gray Mercury Marauder containing Officer George Moore and Peter Dalton pulled out next to the Lincoln Town Car. The two officers approached Alex. Lord Belial gazed longingly at his roses. "It's so simple with roses. A few seeds, a little food, a little water, and, presto, I've created life."

Alex looked around as a couple more guards, a young black man and a young Hispanic woman, shambled toward him. "You have no doubt gathered that these individuals no longer fit the puritanical definition of the word alive." Flies hovered around the two newcomers as flesh hung off of them like loose articles of clothing.

"You see, Your Highness," Lord Belial continued, "I want to live forever." The two newcomers walked away as the three officers continued to watch on with dead vacant eyes. "And, like any reasonable person, I would rather not spend eternity in the form of a rotting corpse." He glanced over at the three officers. "San Uriel's Finest have proved to be my best batch yet. My prize roses if you will. I still have a few bugs to work out but I'll be ready to take the plunge myself in no time."

Lord Belial circled him. "But all of that is neither here nor there." The red dot on Alex's forehead vanished. "I'm more concerned with another round of idiocy you plan on starting up again." Lord Belial rested a hand on his shoulder. "How many times do I have to kill you for you to realize that there's no reason for us to fight."

Alex Penn just stood there, too confused by the madman's ramblings to get a word in edgewise. "Do you consider this a battle between good and evil?" Lord Belial grinned. "Because if that's your angle, you gotta stop you right there." Lord Belial shook his head in disappointment. "You have no proof, none whatsoever, of the existence of such superstitions. The whole good-versus-evil shtick is just a big old steaming pile of lies cooked up by that bastard know-it-all deity of yours."

As the madman continued his theological rant, Alex made the mistake of trying to make a move on him. A geyser of dirt erupted at his feet. "Oops," Belial taunted. "Don't get too comfortable." Lord Belial gave an okay sign in the direction of a water tower. "Bryan's ex-Marine and a dead shot even without the laser scope."

Lord Belial clapped his hands together. "I mean, see that. The invisible sky-bully has you so brainwashed into seeing me as the bad guy that we can't even engage in a pleasant conversation without the risk of it turning into violence." He sighed. "He has you convinced that you must fight but you don't. This whole thing's none of your business. It's a private manner between relatives. A celestial family feud if you will and I'd appreciate it if you'd just butt out of it."

Lord Belial snapped his fingers in front of Alex's face. "Well, damn." Lord Belial cracked his neck. "You didn't touch the sword, did you?" Lord Belial chuckled. "I think that is a first for you. It shows you got a little common sense left over from the last time I killed you. Showing some progress, I see, I like that."

Lord Belial snapped his fingers as the three officers walked toward Alex. "Still, it's only a matter of time before one of your entourage touches it and then he'll come after you and the whole cycle starts over again." Lord Belial waved dismissively at the water tower. "That means I can't kill the live bait."


"Hey, kid, you awake?" Moses Penn opened his eyes to a ghost. "I'm Detective Roger Lazenby, at your service." The horse face of the hero cop floated from its place three inches from his head. "Not sure why you can see me now but whatever."

Moses knew why he could see the dead detective. He knew a lot of things he hadn't known before. "Listen, we don't have much time. Your brother doesn't have much time." Roger shrugged. "Turn to Channel 8 and you'll see what I mean." Moses grabbed the remote and went to Channel 8. "Damn shame."

Gloria Espino, the anchorwoman for Channel 8 News, stood in front of an entrance to the Trevena Fashion Center. "Michigan tourist, Darlene Norgaard, age 27, has fallen victim to a gruesome murder. Authorities have speculated a possible connection to the Belial Stalker, making her the eighth victim of his rampage."

"Thirteenth," Roger corrected the TV. "Darlene Norgaard's the thirteenth victim and she's lucky they just killed her." Moses stared askance at the detective. "Call it a hunch but I noticed something all the victims had in common." Roger paused. "They had all really nice cars. Bryan Faraday drove a black Lincoln Town Car. Michael Ferrin owned a Mercury Marauder his dad brought him for his birthday. All of those vehicles had disappeared along with their owners."

"I tracked them down to the Weiss Salvage Yard." A sprout of blood issued from his side. "Damn Eric Weiss had me pegged as a problem." Roger growled. "I shouldn't have given that damn statement to the public. I showed my hand and the little prick had me dead to rights before I knew what hit me."

Detective Roger Lazenby sat down on the love-seat, a strange gesture considering that he no longer had a need to rest nor an ass to sit on. "Next thing I know, I see this big white light and I figure God thinks I'm done down here and deserve a rest." Roger shrugged. "But how the Hell can I rest with that psycho killing people and bringing them back as his slaves?" He gritted his teeth. "Hell, bastard's even got my old meat-suit down there punching his clock."

Detective Lazenby shook his head. "I'm done yet. Not until that prick rots in Hell for he's done to those poor folks." Roger smiled at Moses. "I never thought I'd find anyone who could help me. I'm just lucky I guess." Roger laughed. "God, what I'd give for a cigarette right now?" Moses stared at Roger and closed his eyes.

Roger bobbed his head. "Oh, I was talking about your brother, right." He got up from his seat. "Eric's got him locked down tight at his junkyard a few miles from here. You can't just barge in through the front door either. He's got three guards posted at all times and one sniper who could shoot the hairs off of a man's balls." Moses winced. "Pardon my French." Roger started to pace around. "You wanna get in, you'll need a plan." Roger winced. "What? What can get past them?"

Moses Penn smiled at that. "Not a what." A shimmer of light cascaded over his body. Roger stared askance. Moses finished the transformation. "You, you can past them." Roger took a step back as Moses assumed his likeness. Part of the wisdom the sword had given him (or returned to him, rather) included the fairy art of shape-shifting illusions. "He wouldn't let anyone fire on one of his slaves. He worked his ass off to make them. Why would he let anyone put a hole in one?"

Roger shook his head in disbelief. "How did you do that?" Moses Penn didn't have time to explain. Short answer: he learned it from a wizard a long time ago. "I know the way," the detective said as Moses scoped up the keys to his Sonoma. "I hope this works, kid." Moses wouldn't say so but he was hoping the same thing.


Valac had a dream once that he had turned human. Not possessing a human host but in his own human body doing the normal human things humans did. Valac had hoped the master could interpret the dream. He just laughed it off. According to him, many of non-human denizens of the earth had that dream. It meant nothing.

Valac stared down from his perch on the water tower next to the zombie sniper. Move along, nothing to see here. Valac cawed. I'm just a tourist taking in the sights. The master had given him instructions to keep an eye on Eric Weiss. While not a formal member of their social club, the wizard had paid his dues.

Besides, the master found his co-opting of his identity somewhat flattering. The zombie slaves only sweetened the deal. Besides, it helped to have a bunch of decoys running around to muddy the waters a bit. Valac stared at a brown truck as it pulled into the Weiss Salvage Yard. He gave its two occupants long hard looks and cawed again: one ghost and one living breathing human being.

The ghost didn't interest him. While curiosities to behold, ghosts didn't really do much except talk off the ears of the few special people who could interact with them. The human interested him. He had on this glamour in the likeness of the ghost in the passenger seat. Then, Valac caught a glimpse of the human's soul.

"Merlin," Valac whispered. Bryan Faraday looked at him with suspicion. Valac cawed a third time. Bryan looked away. He hadn't seen that old wizard in ages. Not since his stooge, Sheriff Albert Loomis, had tricked him into shooting whiskey and holy water while inside a barkeep in the Arizona Territory.

Valac didn't know how Merlin lived with the constant failure. Each time the wheel turned, Merlin gathered whatever bits and pieces of the Round Table had returned and tried once again to put his boss out of business. Each time, the master reminded them why he had lasted as long as he did. Valac had a mind to go down there and claw out Merlin's new set of eyes but the master had given him orders to observe and report and nothing else. Valac's eyes flashed red.

Valac watched as Merlin, now stuck in a piece of dark meat wrapped in an illusory piece of white meat, walked up the front porch stairs. Valac looked over at Bryan Faraday. Obedient or not, these zombies had the IQs of coffee tables. Valac swooped in for a closer look. His crow body landed on the front porch swing. Eric Weiss had something nasty planned for Merlin. Valac wanted a front row seat.

###

Moses Ambrose Penn had heard a lot of warped things in his life. He nearly fainted when he read about foot-binding but this place put all those nightmares to shame. The Weiss residence looked like any ordinary homestead except that it had a creepy quality to it like the skeletons would burst out from under the floorboards.

Moses stared as one of the walkers shambled by. Detective Roger Lazenby had warned how about the walkers. He had failed to mention the smell. The inside-out diapers and the rotten meat of the world had nothing on this puke-inducing nasal phenomenon. Moses' glamour fluttered as he struggled to remain focused.

Moses went door to door in this uneasy house, seeking out his brother Alex and hoping to God that Eric Weiss hadn't changed his mind and decided to kill him. Moses didn't like this place and not just because even a ghost feared going inside. There was darkness in this place, an air of madness that bled out from the walls.

Moses looked out through a window and saw a crow perched on the swing. The bird seemed to stare at him, asking with his eyes how he planned to get out of this place alive with an occult serial killer on the prowl. Moses turned his attention away from the bird. The house had a basement. He should go there and take a look.

I can't do this. Moses didn't have the chops to be the hero in this story. A real hero would have busted in through the front door, killing a dozen or so of these ungodly abominations, freed his brother and set fire to this house of mortal sin. Instead, Moses felt his heart hammering away inside of him, just as eager as he was to leave this place.

"Crap," Moses Penn cursed as his foot broke through one of the steps on the way down the basement stairs. Moses caught himself on the rails and pulled himself free of the gaping hole. As he regained his footing, Moses noticed the little art project Eric Weiss had commissioned down here.

Blood-made glyphs adorned the walls. "Janus," Moses murmured as he stared at the largest symbol, one so big it occupied the area of the entire wall facing the staircase. The blood portrayed a head with two faces facing in opposite directions. It represented Janus, the god of doorways in Roman myth. Moses turned away and caught a glimpse of his brother, chained to the basement wall.

"Alex." Moses ran to Alex's side. Encrusted with blood, Alex stared vacantly as Moses allowed the glamour to fade. "It's alright." Moses produced the longsword from his duffel bag. Just as he had suspected, the otherworldly sword sliced through the chains with unnatural ease. "C'mon, let's get out of here before we get caught."

Moses turned away from Alex for, at most, a second or two as he returned the sword to its scabbard. Moses fell to the floor as a current passed through his body. Alex stood up. "You're not the only one who knows some tricks."

Alex vanished, revealing Eric Weiss in his steed. "Well, well, if it isn't the legendary Merlin, here to bail his king out of another one of his own messes." Eric smirked. "Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge fan and I think, in another lifetime, you and I could have had great fun." Moses was dangerously close to passing out.

"Shame you haven't cleared away the mothballs just yet." Eric shoved the stun gun into his left armpit. "I'd have loved to fight you in your prime." Eric grabbed Moses by his hair and pulled on it until he had exposed his neck.

"You know, a few centuries ago, a marvelous device like this could have only been a wizard's tool." Eric held the stun gun an inch from his throat. "Now, you can mosey on into any army surplus store and buy them for sixty bucks a pop."

Eric shrugged. "Not that you will get the chance to." Eric held the stun gun an inch from his throat. "It's time to die again, old friend." Moses always wondered if he could do it. Everyone had a theory as to who could do it in a pinch. Some believed that only certain people possessed the capacity to go that far while others believed everyone had that spark in them. Moses jabbed the blade of his box-cutter into his throat, twisted it and pulled it across in a diagonal downward slash.

Jesus. Blood from the ripped neck slipped out everywhere. Moses hadn't known until now if he would have the guts to kill anyone. All in all, he would have enjoyed never having to find out. Walkers descended the staircase, all of them tripping over that same hole Moses had created on the way down.

As Eric breathed his last, the walkers collapsed into a large heap of rotten corpses. Circling the pile of corpses, Moses bent down to inspect Eric Weiss. He had a smile on his face. Moses looked at where Eric had chained himself to the wall. He saw what looked like the handle of a door. Moses pulled at it with all his remaining strength and the door yanked opened, nearly leaving its hinges in the process.

Past a short passage characterized by dust and rodents, Moses emerged in a small room, his face inches from where Eric had tied Alex to a gigantic wheel. "You okay?" Alex nodded absently as Moses used his bloodied box-cutter to cut the rope.

Moses and Alex crawled back out the dusty rat-infested tunnel. Alex stared over at Eric's body. Reading his intentions, Moses handed Alex his sword, sheath and all. Alex pulled the sword free of its confines and walked through Eric. Alex didn't want to take any chance. Eric Weiss had dreamed of cheating death. They couldn't trust him to stay dead. The sword didn't thrust Alex into a mini-coma.

Alex must have already regained his memories. Just as Alex approached the body, light irradiated from Eric's blood. The symbol of Janus burned with the same unearthly glow. A tremor shook through the basement, knocking Moses off his feet. Alex went down on all fours as he tried to turn and run back towards Moses. A deep hole opened up under Eric. The earth swallowed up his corpse in one bite.

He tricked me. Moses reached out a hand to Alex a moment too late. The gaping maw widened and Alex tumbled in, the sword flying free of his grasp as he descended into the pit. Moses stared into the pit. He needed to do this. He needed to save Alex. Moses felt a hand on his shoulder. Moses looked up to see a ghost.

"Don't do it," the dead detective warned it. "It's not worth it." Moses growled and banged his fists into the nearby wall. He took a second to catch his breath and ran up the stairs like a man on fire. Moses didn't want to leave. He wanted to dive in after Alex and save him from whatever lurked at the bottom of that gaping hole.

Moses cleared the front porch just as the growing pit drew the entire house into it. The crow darted past Moses, nearly scratching his face off as it did. The tremor stopped. Moses stared at the giant hole in the ground that had claimed his brother, the sword, the madman, his undead legions and the house where he lived.


Valac landed inside a hippie on a rock next to Morgan le Fay and a bunch of her new friends. "Arthur has descended into Purgatory." Valac bowed his head. "He will not bother us anymore." Morgan, dressed in a loose-fitting tunic, took a moment to let that juicy morsel sink in. "Eric Weiss served us well, my lady."

Morgan smiled at the compliment. "I knew that little bastard would come in handy someday." Morgan redirected her attention to all her new friends, a band of neo-hippies from Sedona. Morgan had lured them to this remote desert campsite with the promise of an orgy. "Ladies and gentlemen, time to disrobe." Valac watched as the men and women stripped at Morgan's behest. Clothes fell into the dirt.

Valac stared quite intently as Morgan followed in suit. Their bodies had been anointed with conjure oils. Valac's borrowed hippie eyes could not help but linger on Morgan's naked form. This human, the only unattached member of this clique, had intentions of lying with Morgan, the woman who had arranged this. For a centuries-old witch, Morgan le Fay still had all the curves one could want in a female.

These free-loving smelly free-loaders were going to get an orgy, alright. Just not of the sexual variety. Morgan mumbled a string of words in Old Angelic, an ancient celestial dialect that made Enochian look like Esperanto.

The candles forming the outline of a baphomet flared out into a wreath of hellfire. The connection that bonded a demon to a human host went both ways. Valac could not just shut off his pain receptors, which would have come in handy when it came time to be burnt to ashes. The lucky members of this group like the owner of the host body Valac had picked out would have only to endure a round of instantaneous incineration. The unlucky ones would endure a far less forgiving fate.

A college-age brunette crawled at the dirt. An imp had emerged from the fire to drag her kicking and screaming into the eternal flame. The same story played out six more times. The conjure oil they had rubbed all over their bodies marked them as tributes. This was a traditional offering of human souls necessary to muster this kind of power. Morgan slid a dagger across her left forearm.

Morgan's half-human blood dripped onto the bonfire. Morgan spoke the final incantation of the spell. The bonfire in the middle of the icon of baphomet roared with approval. Morgan stepped into the fire. A fiery blast of hellfire blossomed from the bonfire. Valac's host was turned into a shapeless pile of ashes.

Valac stood there in his pure demon form. Morgan stepped out of the burnt-out bonfire, a creature in her arms. Unscathed, Morgan le Fay cradled the crippled hellspawn with all the tenderness one could expect from a mother toward her son.

"There, there, my child." The thing opened his eyes to the stars above. The tormented beast raised from the pit wept. Valac knew the feeling quite well. Many civilizations had risen and fallen since this poor devil had seen the stars in all their majestic beauty. That experience alone must be overpowering.

Valac could not move from the area without taking hold of a new host body. Since everyone except Morgan and her son had been engulfed in the fires of hell by their unwitting participation in a black magic ritual, Valac was stuck here. Morgan, whose witch blood had shielded her, sat at the center of the great and glorious sign of Baphomet. "Fear not. Mother will protect you. Welcome home, Mordred."


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