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No Heroes

"If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes." – Mark Twain

"Alexander Julius Penn," Professor Elijah Addams announced as one of his student aides handed Alex his graded exam. "Impressive work as always." The other students sneered as Alex beamed triumphantly. "If I didn't know any better, Mr. Penn, I'd say you actually lived during most of these time periods." It certainly seemed that way.

The professor turned to the rest of the class. "I'd like to thank everyone here for a happy and productive semester. Enjoy your vacation and do your city a favor and don't mess around in the ruins." Alex shivered as the professor added that part.

Six months had passed since San Uriel had weathered "Sumatran rabies." A hundred and eight years had passed since an incorporeal entity from the Outer Dark crash-landed in Siberia. Alexander, his brother Moses and their friends managed to open a portal back to its home dimension, a return flight the entity gladly accepted.

In the process, Alex had dismantled the leadership of the Sons of Darkness. The New Round Table had saved the day. Nothing left to do but get on with the rest of their lives. Perhaps, the call to adventure would reach them again in a future life.

Unlike the other members of their motley crew of reincarnated knights, Alex didn't miss the days when he used to hack monsters to pieces in the name of Camelot. Unlike the other knights, the king didn't see the high adventure of it so much as the mind-numbing responsibility. Alex Penn had gotten by, yes, but, in his error, he had exposed his family, both blood and otherwise, to unspeakable horrors and depravities.

Luis Lanza, his best friend, had died and been replaced by an efreet with an identity crisis. Abigail Vennard, his one-time love interest, had nearly given birth to the Anti-Christ on his watch. Alex could go on and on listing his spectacular failures.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, Alex silently reminded himself as he approached Professor Addams. The moment Alex had no responsibility to bear the crown, Alex chucked the damn thing into the trash and ran for his life. No more did he have to answer for the physical and psychological well-being of his loyal subjects.

Alex could go on and live his own life with a little help from Hadrian Galileo's supply of money bags and willingness to share the wealth. "Eli," Alex called out. The history professor insisted on people calling him by his first name. It was a common enough habit among the student teachers and art professors but it was a rare trait for history professors who had graduated magna cum laude from Oxford University.

The professor retreated from the mob of students ganging up on him. "I have a question." Professor Addams nodded, ready to hear his question. "Do you really think history repeats itself?" Alex asked with unmistakable note of sheer dread in his voice.

The professor nodded. "Indeed." All his seminars centered around the cyclical nature of history. In all his previous lives, no matter how familiar the troubles he had experienced looked, he had always believed history was a straight line, the inevitable and logical progression towards perfection. "Even our ambition to build a society free of this repetition has its place in the very circle of time it hopes to liberate itself from."

The professor smirked. "You seem upset by this." Alex walked away without saying a word. Most people had the luxury of thinking of history in the abstract. Most people did not have to live to see civilizations rise and fall. Alex did. So did Moses and his friends. The so-called "Ascended" had a destiny to catch the world each time it fell.

Professor Sunshine over there implied that the world would never stop falling. Every golden age ended in a dark age. An endless cycle of loss and suffering. On the first day of class, Professor Addams explained the nature of human history as a series of dreams. "It only makes sense humanity would have its share of recurring dreams."

Or nightmares, Alex editorialized as he went for the door to the lecture hall. Dreams, Alex realized with quiet horror. Humanity is stuck in a dream. All dreams, even the shared ones of human history, had one thing in common. They all must end.

Maybe I should have done this differently, Valac thought as he found himself on the far outskirts of Hell. Fleeing from his wizard master had loosened the familiar binding to his chicken body. Devoid of a nearby host body, Valac had returned home.

Only this time, he had no Nisroc to force him down into the pits. He could take a walking tour of Hell. Valac felt like he hadn't seen Hell in eons. His time on Earth had washed away all his memories of his last stay. A precious kindness to his sanity.

Valac didn't like his chances of finding somewhere to take refuge. Hell had a bit of a population control problem but it had a lot of chaotic landscape that even a demon couldn't make hospitable. Valac could wander across a blasted wasteland the size of the Gobi Desert and never see so much as the tiniest hint of life or habitation.

Still, Valac pressed on, hoping the invisible senses of his soul would divine the location of a settlement. Valac wondered if he had made a big mistake by leaving his master. Yes, his brother and his friends had wracked up a lot of enemies. Sure but, at least, they had looked after him even when he had every intention of betraying them.

Time behaved strangely in this part of the cosmos. Time, like everything with the misfortune of finding itself in Hell, had a broken defeated quality to it. Time, the noble sentinel that presided over all things just did not care anymore to stand guard.

Time Down Below differed from region to region and from season to season. In fact, one's awareness of time sometimes got jumbled under enough stress. Valac kept that in mind as he wandered the terrain for what felt like days or weeks. Just as how Earth deserts caused mirages in space, Hell deserts caused mirages in time. Keep on.

Valac couldn't risk going around in circles. As long as he kept to one direction, he would eventually find something. Valac rejoiced as he ran towards a dim light in the distance. Of course, centuries down in the pits had taught him a valuable lesson. The light at the end of the tunnel didn't always lead anywhere pleasant. Keep going.

Valac could no longer feel his feet when he collapsed in a heap at a signpost written in Old Angelic. It basically read as a warning to any creature trying to cause trouble to turn around and leave. Such signs occurred regularly down here as every town from here to Pandemonium lived in fear of yet another civil war breaking out.

Judging by the arrangement of hellfire torches, the tunnel homes carved into solid rock and the welcoming attitude of the natives, Valac had arrived in Neraka. A city of Hell known for its immigrant population of efreets, Neraka was a happy place.

Away from the pits of the major cities and outside of earshot from the moans of the damned, Nerakans enjoyed something resembling tranquility. The higher-ups in the big cities often ignored Neraka during their Shakespearean power struggles. The Nerakans defended their homes with a ferocity that made even the boldest of demons cringe. Only in Hell could an incorporeal creature gain the semblance of actual flesh.

Of course, that semblance of actual flesh came with a steep cost. Nothing could die down here in God's Basement. So, whatever scars one accumulated would stretch on until the end of time or until someone found a way back to a more forgiving realm.

An efreet peeked its head out from its burrow. As soon as Valac turned to face him, the efreet ducked back into the safety of his burrow. Something had spooked the efreet. Putting the fear of God into those who had chosen to live in Hell was no mean feat. Something really bad had happened down here. Valac might be walking into it.

Valac had noticed the idol the moment he strolled down the first street. Valac didn't give any thought to it until identical idols appeared down every other street. Valac knew the idol quite well. An angel with six dragon wings wreathed in fire. This was the traditional depiction of a seraph, the highest order of angels, but, unlike most seraphim, this one did not hide his face. That face had a cruel yet composed look to it.

Lucifer, Valac realized. The shadows crawled out from the ground and took the form of animate suits of armor. Though the thought to fight had crossed his mind, he would last long against imperial soldiers. Valac did not understand why Beelzebub would send his finest warriors to apprehend one wayward demon. Valac held up his hands. The leader of the pack absorbed his spirit into a jeweled ring on his left hand.

Maybe I should have done this differently, Moses Ambrose Penn thought as the spell failed to summon Valac into his new chicken body. Moses had given up on tracking Valac in his previous chicken form months ago. Moses saw no other choice than to break the spell and redo the familiar binding, this time with a new chicken.

Moses stared dumbfounded as the spell yielded nothing but a throat hoarse from shouting incantations at an uncaring ritual space. Moses' magick was crippled. It had been this way since the day Alex got Lord Belial in the scrotum with a broken Excalibur, killing the demon and saving the world, all in one squint-inducing blow.

Unfortunately, Excalibur getting cut in half during the climactic battle had consequences. No longer able to contain eldritch power for more than a few minutes, Excalibur emptied its fuel cell by sending Belial into the Outer Dark. Unfortunately, Excalibur, the Element of Light, served as the primary pump for the other Swords of Creation. Ergo, none of the other swords had their kill-anything power intact either.

De-powering Excalibur had de-powered all the Swords of Creation as well. Alex didn't even care about fixing the broken super-sword. "It is a job for another lifetime," Alex would quip. Moses Penn had tried (in vain) to fuse the two shards into one piece.

As far as Alex knew, they had fulfilled their oaths. The Sons of Darkness would certainly regroup under a different leader. Considering how well the non-humans got along, that would take a while. Moses could not shake the feeling that their mission had only begun. Lord Belial had tricked them before. Perhaps, he had done it again.

As Valac had predicted, Moses had learned how to bypass the need to channel from one's soul during summoning. It meant that Moses didn't need to risk his life to bring back their wayward chicken. Alex might have found a way to continue on with life but Moses the wizard had not. They had won a battle and left a war half-finished.

Alex Penn had enrolled at the University of San Uriel a month after the heroic crotch-stabbing that saved the world. Hadrian Galileo Wallace footed the bill. He was convinced that he had a sacred duty to aid his king by any means available to him.

The whole thing was hypocrisy. Alex had renounced his duties as king but still benefited of his position. If he really wanted to walk away, he should not have taken Haddy's money. Moses took his money, of course, but he hadn't walked away just yet.

Moses Penn could not walk away. The important task of a sweep-and-clear was upon them. The gang needed to make sure they had truly finished their enemies and made sure they had completely compromised their ability to make war with mankind.

The Staff of Merlin rested on the floor. Moses wondered if he too might have deserted his post if he did not have the last functional super-weapon in their arsenal. The Staff of Merlin channeled the power of the Deep where all wizards drew the raw power for their spell-craft. It beat a cardiac arrest risk whenever he needed to conjure.

Moses held out his hand. The Staff flew into his grasp. Crippled or not, Moses still had enough mojo to make most monsters crap themselves. During the uprising of Romeros, Moses had performed well. Through post-hypnotic suggestions and memory wipes, he had gotten the group to stay in San Uriel as their loved ones fled San Uriel.

Moses' power level had peaked and, then, the supercharged zombies ambushed their team during a patrol. A former office drone bit off the ring finger on his right hand before the others killed it. Having a Dark One in his meat-bag must have caused some mystical malady. When the Dark One returned to the Outer Dark, the Romeros everywhere had dropped dead. Only Moses had survived having the Dark One inside.

In the six months since then, Moses Penn still could not wrap his head around it. He had lived where hundreds of thousands had died. Even after six months, no one had an accurate body county. Nobody really wanted one. Even Roger Otis Lazenby, a ghost cop who had sworn to stay behind until he had redeemed himself, had boarded his one-way flight to the Great Beyond when the Romero thing reached critical mass.

Like Alex, everyone just wanted to sweep the bloody mess under the rug and move on. Moses Penn had walked the ruins. San Uriel had nearly been burned to the ground by the frightened civilians fleeing from a terror beyond all mortal comprehension.

Valac remained inside the jeweled ring as the suits of armor marched to Ekron, the largest city of Hell next to Pandemonium itself, where Beelzebub sat upon a throne of bones. Valac still didn't understand how a pathetic imp like himself warranted the use of the imperial military. A mere barrier hex could have fell Valac. The guards sent to dispatch him were overkill. Valac left the ring in a blast of orange-red fire and entered a hexagon prison cell loaded down with enough binding sigils and escape wards to keep Beelzebub himself from crawling free of its interior.

Times like these gave Valac insight into why humans in general sucked up to God like sycophantic teacher's pets. It all came down to Heaven and Hell. Everybody had dreams. Everybody had nightmares. Heaven represented the ultimate dream, recompense for servile endurance of Older-Than-Old's unfairness. Hell represented the ultimate nightmare, eternal punishment for giving Older-Than-Old the finger.

Holy hell, Valac thought as he stood himself up. He could feel the sigils and wards working away at him, draining whatever excess hoodoo he might have utilized to plan his escape. Footfalls grew closer and closer until they stopped outside his cell.

Valac looked through the bars at a terrifying sight. A bipedal insect man glared down at him with eight eyes as his gossamer wings twitched. Glowing dark-red sigils covered every inch of the bug's carapace. Floating above his head, a crown of flames proclaimed his rank as the Emperor of Hell. This was the legend himself, Beelzebub.

"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Beelzebub said in that feigned civility all senior demons seemed to find amusing. "Petronius." Valac had not heard his true name spoken aloud in a long time. Beelzebub meant it to intimidate him but his odd decision to intimidate such a lowly hell-dweller like himself only piqued his curiosity.

"You have an audience with one of my ... advisers." Beelzebub took a long time to think of an adequate title for the person Valac was going to meet. It was a strange hesitation for someone who ruled over all the nether-realms and had the right to call anybody here his slave. "And she does not tolerate tardiness." The cell doors opened.

Beelzebub pointed a spear made from the bones of a behemoth at him. "Follow me," he said as he led Valac down the hallways past the cells of other demon inmates who had crossed the Emperor of Hell somehow. Valac had flashes from his last time.

Nisroc had sworn to Lord Belial who would make his stay a living hell even by the standards of Hell. He had kept his promise. He had visited every depravity known to humanity and a few known only to demons. If not for his summoning to Earth, he would have remained in the pit, a toy for a demon even the other demon lords feared.

"Keep walking," Beelzebub punctuated his words by poking him with his bone spear. "She waits for no one." At the end of the labyrinth of hallways resided a gilded door embedded with the finest rubies. Straight inlets of emerald paved the threshold.

Valac considered it a great irony that Hell had such a large surplus of precious stones. Many of the condemned had, in life, yearned for the sort of wealth one could amass from such rare metals. Now, the greedy had all the gold and gems they could hope for and yet they would have traded them all for a single minute back on Earth.

The door swung open, revealing a great hall with hellspawn of every size and shape feasting on a banquet of human flesh, arranged in a number of silver and gold dishes. Beelzebub took an eye from a screaming head like a Roman senator plucking a grape off the vine. "Delicious." Valac shook his head in disbelief. There sat Morgan le Fey, laughing as she entertained her demonic guests. "The food is not bad either."

Eric Weiss laughed at the sight of Valac. "He's scrawnier in person." Eric got up from his seat. "I would like to stay but I do have business to attend to." Eric kissed Morgan's hand. "Have fun, my queen." Eric gave Valac a once-over before departing.

The rambunctious crowd of demons quieted down and bowed their heads like churchgoers about to hear the words of their preacher. Even the screaming head had silenced itself. "Petronius," Morgan said with a laugh. "How decent of you to join us?"

Morgan extended a hand. "Please sit down." Morgan pointed at the squirming entree next to Valac. "I recommend the liver. It came from an Australian." Beelzebub stood off to the side, taking every detail of the encounter. "You must have questions."

Morgan smiled. "I'll answer your first one; you don't even have to ask." Morgan leaned back in her chair made from polished human bones. "Merlin killed me; surely, he told you." Valac couldn't remember if he had or had not. The trip to Neraka across the Ishtar Flats had stretched on for days and had taken a toll on his sanity.

`At that moment, a tremor ripped through the palace. Hell had its share of earthquakes, despite its conspicuous lack of tectonic plates. Nonetheless, this tremor didn't feel like the usual Hell-quake. The granite of the palace ceiling cracked as the tremor finally subsided. Morgan acted like nothing terribly important had happened.

"Now, where was I? Ah, yes ... I went to Hell but Lord Belial planned for such an eventuality." Morgan smiled her wicked Mona Lisa smile. "A great many things have gone according to Lord Belial's design." Morgan's smile turned into a sneer. "Except you. Your betrayal never crossed his mind." Morgan got up from her seat.

"As much as I doubt you could do anything to interfere now, I don't want to take that risk." Morgan extended a hand. "What say you? Join the winning team?" The other demons stood up from their seats in unison. "Or wallow the pits until the end of time?" Valac shook his head as he got up and inched his way towards the door.

The demons grabbed him and hauled him through the door. Morgan le Fey turned to Beelzebub. "No pressure," she said in a stage whisper. "Return him to his cell." Beelzebub nodded. "If you does not see reason in three days, the pits can have him." An amazing piece of work. Even in the last stop for sinners, Morgan le Fey had cut a deal with the senior management. Morgan would have made Lord Belial proud.

Alexander Julius Penn stared at the outdoor patio. Usually, it was filled with the dint of students. The end of the semester had changed all that. Still a few weeks out from summer classes, this campus would maintain the semblance of a ghost town.

Alex looked down at his watch. Why did I come here? Alex could only think of one reason why he had came when called. Abigail Kathleen Vennard, regardless of who she had humped under the thrall of fairy magic, still held sway over his old soul.

Alex could only hope that Abby couldn't tell how much she still owned him. Perhaps, this more than anything explained why they never hit it off without the aid of a wizard. Alex didn't know the golden ratio that would win over the fair un-maiden. When he spurned her affections, he vanished, no longer on a blip on her radar. When he had tried to make his affections known, his ardor had smothered up her wily spirit.

Exhibit A: Abigail Vennard had started dating a brain surgeon named Xander Ovid. The biggest block of wood to arrive on Earth since the evolution of the redwood, the hollow ringing noise his skull made when struck with a tuning fork must have sounded like music to Abby's ears because she was all along the quarterback on the rise to greater college glory. With evidence such as that, who needed an Exhibit B?

Abby unceremoniously tossed the photos in front of him. Alex immediately regretted all those awful things had said about her boyfriend, God rest his soul. Even without his head, Alex could recognize Xander just fine. "Where did you get these?"

Abby shook her head in disbelief. "Never mind, I don't want to know." Alex arranged the photos on the stone picnic bench. Alexander Quentin Ovid, age 19, switching from the fast track to the Big Game to the Big Finish. "He's dead, Jim."

Abby gritted her teeth. "My God, I know you didn't like him but you used to have a lot more compassion for your fellow human being." Alex knew this attack well enough. Accuse the other person in a relationship of changing as a means to wipe away traces of personal responsibilities or past obligations. A low blow for a classy girl like Abby but, in acting like self-centered prigs, human beings rarely disappointed Alex Penn.

"I used to have enough patience for your games too." Alex shrugged. "Things change." Alex smiled. "I got you all figured out. You make all the same mistakes of your Y chromosome counterparts but you allow the reincarnated goddess thing to go to your head. If any man tries to call you on your bullshit, you play the gender card."

Alex combed his hair with his fingers. "Listen, I have never once excused my behavior on the grounds that I have a pair of testes instead of a pair of ovaries." Alex bowed his head. "I mean, is it so crazy of me to expect the same courtesy in return?"

Abby sighed. "I made a mistake coming here." Abby collected the photos. "You see, I got you all figured out too." Alex's eyebrows arched. "Daddy left you. Twice. And you blamed yourself for that." Abby chuckled. "You spend so much time feeling guilty for things you could not control, that, when it came time to own up to the things that matter, you find a way to blame somebody else." Abby leaned in closer. "Like myself."

Alex grabbed the photos like a gambler collecting his winnings. "We're getting too old for this crap." Alex thumbed through the photos. "So, where did the head go?" Abby shook her head helplessly. "They didn't find it?" Abby nodded. "That is creepy." Alex took a closer look at the headless corpse of the late Xander Ovid. "Call it an overactive imagination but these look like teeth marks." Abby nodded, a bit quicker than last. Alex rolled his eyes. He should have known. "It sounds like a great hunt." Alex pantomimed reaching for something. "Alright, let me just get my sword."

Alex snapped his fingers. "Oh, that's right. My sword's broken and I'm happily retired." Without ceremony, Alex got up and walked away. Aside from his best friend who died and got replaced by a monster, Alex had paid a terrible price for his quests.

Even after a year, Alex still felt the blast furnace heat of the Miskatonic each time he stepped into broad daylight. Each time his head hit a pillow, he remembered skinning an ostrich to make himself a pillow and matching blankets. "See you, Abby."

A spider the size of a house cat scampered into his cell. Judging by the blacker-than-black hoodoo circulating the prison, Valac recognized it as a mobile surveillance unit. Morgan le Fey wanted to watch Valac as he languished in his hellish prison cell.

Indeed, if Morgan le Fey hoped that his situation would make him reconsider her offer, she might have something. It didn't matter how many good deeds he did. It didn't matter how many karmic push-ups he did. Valac belonged down here in Hell.

No amount of philosophical acrobatics could dodge the fact that damnation ran in his very veins. God, the force that forged the Four Elements from the First Light, had condemned Petronius from the moment of his birth two thousand years ago. To make matters worse, he had assisted in the state-sponsored execution of His only son.

As the big spider finally went to another cell-block, Valac remembered his days with the Sons of Darkness. While hardly the most enlightened of leaders, Lord Belial gave to Valac something that he had yearned for all his life. Freedom from freedom.

Valac didn't want to make his own choices. Valac sure as hellfire didn't want to bear the consequences of making the wrong choices. In this, Lord Belial was gracious. For centuries, Valac followed orders with a song in his heart and a spring in his step. Then, it all changed. Valac started to want back that very freedom he had renounced.

To say that temptation had set it did not even qualify as an understatement anymore. He had regained his freedom and to what end? Valac had returned to Hell. Then again, he had accepted slavery at the hands of Moses and where did that lead him? Back to Hell. Damned if you and damned if you don't. Valac had no choice but to think this one out for himself. A scary prospect after eons of surrendering one's will.

On his second meeting with Morgan le Fey, Beelzebub did not arrive to escort him to the great hall. After all, the guy had an empire to run. He could not spend all day playing chaperone to a condemned imp. The guard coming to collect him looked like what would happen if a walrus screwed an octopus. Its tentacles slithered about.

Contrary to popular belief, few demons fit the mold of the red-skinned horned goat-man. On Earth, this fine fellow might have hidden behind a glamour to invoke said archetype in a human audience. Down here, demons knew how to save their lies.

As this remnant of angelic flesh walked Valac down the aisle, pieces of his body withered and flaked off, replaced by bits of pus and blood taking on the appearance of new flesh. Valac thanked his luck to have his head pointed away from this spectacle of regeneration. Even without a true body (and hence no stomach), Valac felt vomit coming on. "Hacamuli," The beast looked up. "You are dismissed." Like that, it left.

Morgan stood erect in a see-through gown made of arachne silk. Arachne silk was one of the rarest materials in the universe. Arachne populations only thrived in certain deserts of Purgatory. "I hope, for your sake, you've given thought to my offer."

The barely there gown made the silent promise of positive reinforcement. If he accepted the deal, he might get the opportunity to seal it Cleopatra style. It was not a bad bonus to stack on top of a Get Out of Hell Free card. "Well?" Morgan asked Valac.

"Thanks but no thanks." Morgan stood up. "You see, I had an epiphany while getting dragged here by rotting seafood. I don't belong here." Valac looked up. "And I don't belong up there either." Valac shook his head. " I could kick in with my old crew but I'd just end up betraying you all and I'd end up down here again by suppertime."

Valac shrugged. "A waste of time if you ask me. So you can take your offer and shove it …" Valac stopped in mid-sentence. A thin point of light pierced through the ceiling of the great hall in the House of Beelzebub and went through his chest cavity.

Moses Ambrose Penn gripped his chest as he dipped his life-force into the spell. His heart was ready to pound its way through his sternum. Moses Penn used to make such a big deal out of adding his life-force to spells. He once projected himself in astral form across the continental United States just to quiz his mentor Simon L. Blaise on the issue of having to mix in his own soul juice. It used to make Moses very nervous.

Now, he could not care less. Their group had one wizard and that was him. The lives of the innocent depended on his magical powers. People perished when he failed to get results. Seen in that light, it made his life a small price to pay in the long haul.

Moses clasped his hands over both ears as a high-pitched shriek cut through the ritual space in the backyard of the Wallaces' house. Fine-tuning his third eye, he zeroed in on the words encoded in the caterwaul. He could make out "help" and "me." The cry for help was a foregone conclusion considering the nature of the voice. Then, it occurred to him. Moses had enough mojo to punch a hole in the most secure location in Hell but not enough to make the round trip. Valac was stuck in the ether.

Valac was earthbound but far from safe. If he didn't act quickly, Valac would descend right back into hellfire. Moses stretched out his hands and chanted in Old Angelic. Somewhere in the winds between worlds, a god or a demon or a fairy resided that could pluck him out of the ether and put him inside the brand-new chicken body.

Moses placed his left hand on the Staff of Merlin and formed a spear with his right hand. Whatever mystical forces thrived in the ether had no interest in rescuing a demon. Moses Penn would have to do this himself. Moses yelled out in Old Angelic.

His soul lashed out into the void, groping for whatever he could grab a hold of. Then, like a miracle of God, Moses had his hooks in something. Trying not to get his hopes up, Moses inspected this catch with his third eye. Valac. Moses reeled Valac in.

Scientists didn't have an adequate explanation for that sense that allowed people to know someone had their eyes on them. That made it one of the few genuine psychic abilities everyone possessed. Thinking of psychics reminded him of his father. Forced to labor under a group of monster hunters known as "The Order of the Solar Temple," he had left them without apparent reason for the second time in their lives.

People always seemed to leave Moses. Even his friends who had maintained a physical proximity had deserted him emotionally. Their fearless leader had to walk alone no matter how awful it made him feel. Even his brother Moses had retreated to his "laboratory" to "experiment" with ever greater magicks, in case they needed them.

Alex spent his days listening to the last record of his father, a thumb drive in the hilt of Durendal. Alex could not find anything resembling a hidden message of a personal nature. Leave to the old man to turn his last correspondence into something as frigid as stereo instructions. Even if said stereo instructions had saved their world.

Alex could feel eyes about him but what did he care? He had stabbed the Big Bad in the balls with a magic sword. It felt quite an impression with the others. Not a lot of beasties would mess with him even when he had no means of defeating himself.

Alex Penn reached his car and fumbled for his keys. Alexander Julius Penn, a former heir to the throne of the High-King of Planet Earth, was nothing more than a world-weary USU history major with more scars than an arena filled with gladiators.

Alex started the ignition. Alex stared transfixed as something. It looked like a crown on a chain latched onto the rear-view mirror. With a quick pull, the rear-view mirror came off its hinges. Against all instincts to the contrary, Alex got out of the Chevy Malibu and inspected the damage. Alex turned around to a terrifying sight.

Mordred was perched inside the flatbed of a Ford Ranger, holding a chained crown in his hands. Alex's world went dark as metal landed on his head and pulled a cloth down to his chin. He went to remove this crown. Teeth pressed against his neck.

"Careful," Mordred said in a voice not his own. "One pull and you'll lose eight pounds of unsightly flesh." Alex put his hands down. "If Mordred had his way, you'd be dead already but I promised him a far greater coup and a more satisfying kill. Now walk." Mordred tugged on the chain and Alex had to walk in the direction of that pull.

Moses Penn awoke to Valac pecking his head. The newly chicken-bodied Valac stared him. "Do you have some chicken fetish that your brother doesn't know about?" Moses had nearly sacrificed his life twice to bring Valac back to life. The little hellion could accuse him of necrophilia if he was so inclined. Moses had rescued Valac. Twice.

That had counted for something. Hopefully, that would enough to exchange for some much-needed intel. Here goes nothing. Moses unfurled the piece of paper. One of the witnesses to Alexander "Xander" Ovid's death had described this strange thing.

The artist rendering of it didn't give Moses much to work with. Still, unknown to everybody else, Xander Ovid had joined the New Round Table. A lot of members of their online club had gotten picked off in the months since the Romero outbreak. All of the others had the tell-tale signs of someone trying to hide the obvious. This death was different. A decapitation murder on a university campus vied for their attention.

Valac shook his chicken head. "Whoever you pissed off, you better get down on your knees and beg their forgiveness." Moses asked him to identify the item. "You do not want to know." Valac walked off. "I don't want to know but I do not have a choice."

Moses repeated the question. "Listen, you've got no time to pull any hero crap." Valac spread his wings dramatically. "If somebody wants you and yours dead, he has picked the perfect weapon for the job." Moses repeated the question a third final time.

"You win." Valac looked down at the drawing. "It is a flying guillotine." Moses shook his head helplessly. "You never watched any kung fu movies?" Moses shook his head. "The flying guillotine is a throwing weapon. You aim for the head but any old limb will do just fine." Valac pointed at this drawing with one of his chicken feet.

"It latches a set of knives to the target's neck which saw through the limb when the user gives the chain a good hard pull." Valac did a sweeping gesture with his foot. "Ka-plunk! No more head." Moses locked eyes with him. He needed more information.

The wizard could have looked this up on Wikipedia. What Moses really needed to know was who could build something like that. "Listen, if you want my advice, I say you run for it. I know only one person who could build something like this and, if I'm right, you don't want to mess with this creature." Moses remained silent, wearing him down with his gaze. At the five-minute mark, it finally worked him over. "It's Nisroc."

Moses crashed onto the lawn chair in the backyard. "Tsk tsk." Valac circled the wizard. "Did you really think you could jack his shit up and you would not hear from him?" After banishing Mordred to the ends of the earth, a demon named Nisroc had seeped into his body. He held him at bay for months until he gained complete control. "He wants another chance to yank your puppet strings; he won't stop until he gets it."

In his years aiding Lord Belial in his conquest to take back the world from the scourge of mankind, Valac had met some very brave and very stupid humans. Moses Penn left them all in the dust. His plan for getting his brother Alex back hinged on a most unstable blend of luck and timing. Even the tiniest error could seal their fates.

Valac' feathers ruffled. Nisroc had posted a comment on the New Round Table website. Written in Old Angelic, it named a parking lot at the University of San Uriel downtown campus at an hour past midnight. "I do hope you know what you are doing, wizard." Though he would not say it, he obviously felt the same. "Here goes nothing."

The wizard and his chicken familiar pulled up in the GMC Sonoma next to a blond-haired blue-eyed guy holding a leash to a hood over Alex's head. The flying guillotine, Valac realized as Moses tried and failed not to show any emotions. For the longest time, neither side spoke as Nisroc/Mordred took time to size up the opposition.

"Here's the deal." Nisroc tugged on the chain. Moses flinched. "Brother lives ... if and only if you let me in." Moses didn't seem happy with that request. Moses shook his head. Nisroc smiled. "You would risk your brother's life over your stubborn pride."

Valac understood Moses' reluctance. Centuries of taking over hosts taught him a thing or two about human defiance. Even the hosts who had a good reason to allow a demon in often quarreled over stupid things like how many times they got to blink.

Moses launched the Staff of Merlin. Flat-footed, Nisroc didn't have time to pull the chain before it was knocked out of his hands. Moses made a few hand gestures as he told the Staff to grind Nisroc into the parking lot's asphalt. "Go-bakhazh, Ba'al-Peor!"

Nisroc fell to one knee. "Counteroffer," Moses drew the Staff of Merlin back into his hands. "Leave this body." Moses pulled out a knife and plunged into his heart. "Or I fill you up with more pain than you ever thought possible. Go-bakhazh, Ba'al-Peor!" With that second surge of pain pulsing through his borrowed nervous system, the shadow of a bird of prey emerged from his body and took flight in search of a new host organism. Mordred fell to his knees, his heart no longer protected by his demonic patron Nisroc. "The ruler of this world has returned to claim his throne, crying king."

Mordred's eyes rolled to the back of his head. The flying guillotine rusted into pieces. Valac was in awe of their "victory." Nisroc would return. Mordred had posed no real threat in his weakened state. They had accomplished nothing by killing him and letting the demon lord go. And there was an army in Hell, gearing up for Apocalypse.

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