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True Courage

"True courage is not the brutal force of vulgar heroes, but the firm resolve of virtue and reason." – Alfred North Whitehead

"There is no Alexander Penn," Dr. Mary Donegan reminded Moses Penn for the umpteenth time. "You're an only child, Moses." The psychiatrist sighed. "I was an only child too. I know that can get lonely but you have to face the facts. You don't have a brother. You never did." Moses didn't know why he bothered with this lady. Nothing he could do or say or think would convince her of the truth only he knew.

"I have a brother," Moses stated, also for the umpteenth. "He fell into a portal to Purgatory two weeks ago." Moses gritted his teeth. "I would have gone after him myself but I haven't had the ability to concentrate hard enough to use any of my magick." Moses knew how all this must have sounded to her. It was just full-blown schizophrenia with a complex delusional hierarchy, nothing new for this woman.

Perhaps if he tried a different attack, he might convince her. "Doctor, doesn't it seem odd that a person with no history of mental illness should spontaneously erupt into undifferentiated schizophrenia practically overnight?" Moses hoped that this would work. Perhaps, then, the good doctor would see the wisdom of his words and help him out. Dr. Mary Donegan just shook her head dismissively.

"Actually, it doesn't," Mary informed him. "It would surprise you to know how well people can hide the symptoms of the most severe mental illnesses." Mary jotted down a few notes. "Sometimes, it takes a crisis, a tipping point, for the afflicted to seek help." Mary nodded. "Deep down, you know that all this is just a cry for help."

Moses forced a smile. "Do you know what I know deep down?" Moses took a deep breath. "I know that Alex, my brother, my fraternal twin brother, descended through a wormhole created by the Roman god of gateways. I know he landed in the Miskatonic Desert, a nasty location somewhere on the edge of the known universe."

Moses continued on his rant. "I know that, because he descended bodily into Purgatory instead by means of spiritual migration, the transition erased all traces of his existence. I need to go after him. If I thought I could do it alone, I would have jumped in after him myself. That's the problem, Doc. No one will even listen to me."

Mary Donegan shook her head again in that dismissive fashion. "It's truly amazing." Mary pulled her writing pad on her desk. "Don't you see? You're Merlin. He's King Arthur." Mary readjusted her glasses. "You wanted a brother so badly that you concocted this fantasy in which you had one. You looked after him. You sought to protect him like any good brother would but you were unable to."

Moses waited for Dr. Donegan to make her point. "Besides, you said so yourself. You don't know why you can remember him when no one else can." Moses said no such thing. "That shows me that a part of you knows that you never had a brother named Alexander Julius Penn. That's a clear sign of progress."

Moses never said that he didn't know why he could remember him. He said that he didn't know the exact reason. It probably had something to do with his ability to see spirits, the only power he had that still worked. Sadly, Moses would only hurt his case with the doctor if he brought up the dead detective helping him out with his investigation. "You're not just wasting my time. You're wasting his too."

Rumors and gossip swirled around Moses Penn like a hurricane of which he formed the eye of. Moses did not and could not care what they thought. Purgatory had twisted their minds and made them forget that one of their own. Moses himself could feel an unknown force hammering away at him, sucking away at his psyche. Precious memories of his brother were slipping away into Purgatory with him.

The window to act was closing. Above all else, Moses needed to remember Alexander Julius Penn because no one else would or could. The girl in his life, Abigail, and his best friend, Luis Lanza, shrugged it off whenever they heard his name. They could not recall any Alex Penn or the part he had played in their lives. Moses still remembered the look on Alex's face as he fell into the pit.

Moses should have gone in after him. "Not him again," Luis said. Moses walked into the journalism room where all the so-called cool kids hung out at lunch. "Listen, I don't know why you keep coming around here but we do not know this Alexander Penn and, in case you haven't guess, we sure as Hell do not know you." Moses shrugged off Luis' rudeness. How the Hell did Alex ever put up with this?

"You mean, sure as Purgatory." Moses had printed off a series of articles and arranged them in a manila folder. "Oh, and, for the record, all the stuff you don't know could fill the Library of Alexandria a dozen times over." That got Luis' goat. "Besides, I have proof." Moses could tell Luis didn't want to listen. "I can go after him but I could use the help of his friends." Moses smirked. "I'm talking about you."

Moses locked eyes with Abby as Luis continued to ice him out. "Purgatory doesn't wash it all away, Abby." Moses flipped through all those articles he had brought with him. "I believe it is a form of hypnosis." Moses had seen it a couple times in the last two weeks. Moses would catch Mom staring at their guest room, wondering why on Earth she had ever bought a house with that additional room.

Teachers and classmates who knew Alex would flinch at the sound of his name and then claim to have never heard it before. Limbo's whammy hadn't fully destroyed Alex's memory. And it definitely hadn't filled in the hole in the universe Alex had left behind. That could all change the moment Moses lost his memories of Alex. In that moment, the entire universe could realign itself into a new form.

A playing card, the Ace of Spades to be precise, appeared in his hand. Abigail got Luis' attention. "Watch closely." Moses showed Luis the card. "Notice anything unusual about this card." Luis shrugged as he laid the Ace of Spades on the table. Moses shivered as he placed his index finger upon it. The glamour which had taken a hour to build, vanished. "Ya see. The Ace was a leaf the whole time."

How much more evidence did they need? "Nice trick, Houdini." Luis tossed the leaf in the trash. "But it will take more than a card trick to convince us of your baloney." Moses suppressed this urge to reach across the table, and strangle Luis to death. He had nearly died. The kind of power Moses had expended to disguise that leaf had knocked him cold and he had literally tossed it away like a piece of trash.

"My grandpa's a better magician than you." A fake magician would have convinced Luis but a real magic user was an obvious fraud. Moses had brought MapQuest directions to the Weiss Salvage Yard. Moses Penn had been ready to hand it out. In the off chance he had managed to convince at least one of them.

"My magick is getting weaker and I think I know why." Moses looked up at Abby and Luis. True to form, Luis was still checked out of this conversation. "Alex does not exist now. So, he never received that package and I never regained my memories. The world is correcting itself." Moses was cracking up. "If Alex never existed, I shouldn't know anything real about magic or past lives or wormholes."

This was his last chance. "I should only know what I knew before." Moses was done. "I give up." Moses got up from his seat. "I'm going with Plan B, I'm doing what I should have done two weeks ago." He bowed in mock courtesy. "Join me if you wish. Directions are in the folder. If not, enjoy the rest of your lives." Moses needed to switch gears, and mount his (hopefully last) rescue mission.

Even before his descent into the ultimate forwarding address of sinners, Mordred had come into this world by means of an incestuous affair between brother and sister. Valac didn't understand how Morgan le Fay could care for such a beast. By all rights, she should hate this inbred abomination but, instead, she welcomed her son home like any mother would have welcomed home her long-lost son.

"Why?" Valac slivered along in the body of a rattlesnake. "Why risk ruin to save some worthless mutant from the pit?" Morgan's eyes shone an unearthly red as Valac could feel her magick pulling him from the body of this snake. "Please stop."

Morgan's eyes returned to their normal coloration. "You forget your place, Valac." Morgan cleaned away a few stray drops of drool off of Mordred's chin. "The master tolerates you but I do not." Morgan continued to tend to her son. "I do not believe I need to tell you what will happen if you ever speak ill of my son again."

Mordred coughed up specks of blood. "That's it, my darling. Let it out. Soon, you have the strength of Hercules himself." Valac looked out the "window" of this shack in the middle of the Arizona desert. Few humans knew how to live like this anymore, cut off from the rest of the world. Human congregated and gathered under their banners, blind to how vulnerable it made them to those who hunted them.

Valac thought back to the Trevena Incident. Could they have really won that easily? Valac didn't buy it. King Arthur, regardless of what meat his spirit resided in, always had a way with last-minute escapes. Perhaps, Morgan le Fay suspected as much but was too focused on the welfare of her son to care about such things.

Valac knew from the general attitude of Morgan le Fay and her not-so-half-hearted attempt at exorcism that he had worn out his welcome. Valac yanked his way free of the rattler's thin package of meat and latched onto a burrowing owl.

The master had further use for him elsewhere. Valac took to the desert wind and flew off. A lot had changed since Valac's time. Since then, his beloved Empire had become synonymous with decay. The barbarians who sacked the Eternal City lived on and their descendants took over the world. In the centuries since his first death, Valac had learned to sympathize with the supposed losers of history.

Case in point: fallen angels. In the ultimate scheme of things, they were the victims of bad press. Older-Than-Old claimed to welcome honest criticism of His Good Work but He was nothing if not brutal in His hatred of so-called insolence.

The eyes of this burrowing owl zeroed in a passing motorist. The subcompact looked like it were being held together by duct tape and prayer but its driver did not look like anyone anybody would miss. There was so much to do and so little time.

King Arthur's original best friend, Sir Lancelot, boinked his Queen. Back then, all crimes against the king were punishable by death. King Arthur's ardent refusal to kill his bestie caused the Fall of Camelot. In short, King Arthur had the worst luck with friends and his luck apparently had not improved with time.

"I need your help, Blaise," Even in his prior lives, he had not thought of his old mentor in ages. Because of Blaise, Merlin didn't descend into the debauchery inherent to his cambion soul. An old priest with supernatural abilities of his own, Blaise saved the boy and taught him how to yoke his preternatural predilections.

Merlin recalled a speech Blaise had given about the summoning of gods. "Gods?" Merlin remembered asking quite perplexed. "I thought you served only one God." That inconsistency of his mentor's theology had always confounded him. What business did gods have occupying the saintly thoughts of this learned theologian?

"Indeed, I serve only the God of Abraham. And yet, since the dawn of time, God has dealt with charlatans, a host of fallen angels and their kin who sought to usurp His Throne. Lucifer did it first, a sin that cost him a favored son's place in his father's court. Since then, others had imitated Lucifer in this blasphemy. Since there is only the One True God, calling them false gods would be redundant."

Despite the evident depth of his faith, he had a relaxed attitude towards the false gods. "Quite frankly, I see no harm in it. The unbeliever can believe whatever he wants to, so long as he remains virtuous and free of the folly of sin."

Blaise had chuckled. "It is not like Heaven will ever have the same issue of overpopulation that plagues its downward counterpart." Merlin and Blaise had shared a good laugh afterwards. "All the same, gods who promote values in direct opposition of the Seven Heavenly Virtues are no better than the worst demons."

Blaise went on to lecture him on the perils of meddling in the affairs of these false gods. Unlike other creatures whose paths had a tendency of crossing those of Man, gods often possessed a degree of invincibility. A man wise enough to know how to injure a god should be wise enough not to meddle in their affairs in the first place.

Moses Penn shook his head, as he remembered who he was. He had done it again. His efforts to stave off his past lives blurred the line between Moses Ambrose Penn and Merlin Ambrosius. Moses was Merlin but Merlin wasn't him.

Merlin had gone by many names since the Fall of Camelot. Moses Penn was just the latest in a long line of lives he had been born into. An unknown force bound them to this world. Their ilk would know neither Heaven nor Hell until the End of Days. It was only during dark times when Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table awakened to their true selves and were once again thrust back into battle.

The face of evil that most often triggered their awakening was the one belonging to Lord Belial. The patriarch of a clan of misfits calling themselves the Sons of Darkness, Lord Belial saw fit to bedevil the world again and again with the horrors of war in his bid for conquest. Each time, this cadre of endless warriors, armed with the knowledge of many lifetimes, had triumphed, more or less.

They won, in the sense that the old demon had never realized his dark desire for world domination. They lost, in the sense that, as a truly immortal descendant of fallen angels, Lord Belial always lived on to fight another day.

Excalibur had been the obsession of King Arthur through his latter lifetimes to meet Belial on the final battlefield and end the demon king's eternal reign, once and for all. Unfortunately, said sword and its mythical wielder had both fallen into a pit leading to Purgatory, two weeks ago. Moses only wanted his brother back.

The fact that saving Alex might give the universe a fighting chance against the forces of darkness was merely an added bonus. Moses got out of the truck. It was still there, a bottomless pit brought about by a junkyard wizard calling out to a worship-starved god to punch a hole in the barrier between dimensions.

One of the reasons Moses had never acquired a taste for combat was the mutually exclusive paths of war and magick. While magick could be used in the pursuit of war (and vice versa), they were two different things. War demanded confrontation. Magick was a cosmic back-door to such violence. What good were mortal instruments of death against the awesome might of the universe itself?

Luis Lanza didn't know when and where he had lost control of his life. He had dragged his carcass out here and for what? Abby's sneaking suspicion that a diagnosed schizophrenic might have been telling the truth all along? Luis left the safety of his Gwen, a purple Dodge Ram who had seen him through rough times.

Moses looked even crazier now than he had at lunch today. Moses stared, unblinking, into the headlights of his Gwen. Crazy Moses had roped them both into his demented parlor games. And it looked like there was no way out. "Good of you two to show up," he mused. "I had nigh lost faith that anyone would help me in this undertaking." What kind of a fruit used the word "nigh" in casual conversation?

Abigail Vennard, currently on double secret probation, stepped forward. "We believe you." Whose "we," paleface? "I believe you." Abby took a moment to find the right word. Luis knew that look of hers. "I didn't want to believe you, but, when you talk about this Alex, I feel like I knew him a long time ago." Luis' gullible girlfriend was setting the all-time distance record in madness. "It's the oddest thing."

The Moses kid smiled. This con man had them by the throat. "Not really, it's actually quite simple, Miss Vennard." Moses placed a hand on Abby's shoulder. "As an intelligent young woman, you have noticed certain, should we say, irregularities. I know things about the two of you only a friend would know. And your minds can remember pieces, however fleeting, of Alex's life. No matter how hard Purgatory tries to erase them all." Moses was digging every minute of this. What a creep.

"Some of you refuse to hear these memories even from your own mind." Luis scoffed. "We must open our minds to the possibilities." This was the part where Moses asked for their credit card number. "Many times in life we are asked to take a leap of faith." Luis didn't like where this was going. "Now, I must ask the same."

Moses glanced over the edge of a hole in the ground. "Thank you and good night." This freak show and gone on long enough. "I am going to pretend that you didn't just ask us to jump into that hole." Breaking their bones when they hit the bottom would be their best-case scenario. Luis grabbed Abby. "We're outta here."

Luis imagined what Moses would look like in the hospital gown of a mental patient. "You have had about enough of this Kool-Aid cultist crap for one night." Abby wrestled her arm free of his grasp. Luis knew that look. It was the look of somebody who was going nowhere except straight down a hole. "You can't be serious. That's a long drop and I can't even see the bottom of it from up here."

The glint of sanity had gone out of her eyes. "Please, Luis," Abigail said. "This is the only way we will ever know the truth." Moses had let their sanity tires go flat. "If you wanna leave, leave already." Luis was not going to let Mad Merlin claim the life of his girlfriend. Even if said girlfriend was burning his ass for no reason.

"Listen, Abigail," Luis explained. "We are a team. That means a fifty-fifty vote on everything except this." Luis dragged Abby back to his Gwen. "Right now, I am exercising my right to an executive veto." Abby struggled against him but he wasn't letting go this time. "You will thank when you realize how crazy this is."

Luis knew he was being a prick. He did not care. Somewhere in this psycho bitch was the girl he had fallen in love with. If being the big bad in this kept Abigail Vennard from hurting herself, it beat being a nice guy by a good country mile. "Suit yourselves." Like a celebrated performer acknowledging his audience, the late great Moses Penn bowed, turned around and walked in the direction of that hole.

Luis could not do anything to stop him. If a schizophrenic stranger wanted to end his sorry life in such a grandiose manner, Luis had no ability (or desire) to stop hi. Abigail Vennard, on the other hand, well, Luis could do something about that. Luis Enrique Lanza had almost succeeded in shoving Abby in the car before she had a chance to look back at Moses. Luis looked back too and beheld something crazy.

And, when Luis said "crazy," he meant, "crazy," like one of those once-in-a-lifetime terrors destined to make a guest appearance in future therapy sessions. An eerie blue light irradiated from the pit. "It's a sign, Luis," Abby insisted. "It's safe." Abigail pointed at the pit. "Moses was telling the truth. We have to go now."

This was a game changer, just not the kind Abby thought it was. "No, no, no, no, no." Luis was freaking out. "Just stop and think." Luis grabbed Abigail by the shoulders. "Does that look natural to you?" His vision panned across the horizon. Luis struggled to wrap his head around this situation. Long nails dug into his face. A moment of pain later, Abigail had jumped in and Luis had followed her down.

Abigail Vennard floated in mid-air, flaunting the pull of gravity as she made her way down this strange tunnel. Abigail had no idea why she had taken the leap. Now, Abigail knew she had made the right decision. Alexander Julius Penn was the real McCoy after all. Abigail flapped her arms as if they were wings. This was great.

Gravity reasserted itself with a vengeance and so did the idea that she might end up a pile of broken bones and smashed organs. Abby crashed against the wall of the cave and rolled onto the floor. "Ouch." Abby picked herself up off the cave floor. Luis Lanza landed in a heap next to her. Abby got a good look at where she had clawed up his face. "Sorry," Abby said in a voice barely above a whisper.

Abby hadn't meant for her nails to dig so deep into him. She had been manic. Luis' whole skepticism platform ran on the premise that Moses was an only child with delusions of brotherhood. On the off chance that Moses showed her something that could verify part of his story, Abby had been willing to believe the whole.

Luis Lanza, being a stone-cold cynic, was not going to let this go. "Sorry?" Luis looked ready to flip out. "You're sorry." Luis lumbered towards her. "You made me jump in after you with the understanding that I might die and you're sorry …"

Luis fell to his knees. Luis screamed. The flood of fractured memories was hitting Luis all at once. "What the Hell just happened?" How was she supposed to know? Before she had jumped in, Alex was just a rumor, an inkling of something she could not put into words. Now, it was as clear as daylight that she, Luis, Moses and Alex had all been friends for years. Luis wanted to know why they suddenly remembered. Abby wanted to know how in God's name they could've forgotten.

Moses Penn held up his green glow-stick as he searched the cave. They had landed in the middle of a rather extensive cave system. "What took you so long?" Moses tossed Abigail a red glow-stick and Luis a yellow one. "Half an hour passed; I thought I would have to go at this alone." Abby shook her head confused. Half an hour passed? Not even a full minute had elapsed between their two jumps.

"Bull and crap," Luis said with all the elegance of a rampaging warthog. "She jumped maybe a whole minute after you did and I must have jumped in a second after her." Abigail cracked her glow-stick and allowed the arc of light to illuminate the cave. By some strange quirk, the few glowing rocks embedded in the cave walls provided enough illumination for them to look around in the darkness.

There appeared to be luminescent fungi on these rocks. "Time must flow differently here in Purgatory." Moses took in the cave by the light of his glow-stick. "A minute back home must last about thirty over here." Abigail remembered stories. Her mom used to tell her about the fairy mounds and how the fey, a mischievous people by nature, delighted in subverting humanity's fragile notions of time.

"I wonder if Alex went through the same thing." The way Moses said that betrayed a note of concern behind his curiosity. Abby had switched into scientist mode without even concerning the simple fact that this was no safari. Alex had been trapped in Purgatory for two weeks and, if she followed the line of reasoning Moses was hinting at, the passage of two weeks had been much slower on the Limbo side.

"So what if Alex went through the same thing? What does that even mean?" Abigail wondered how Luis got dressed in the morning. Moses ignored him. Moses did some calculations on an invisible chalkboard. Luis, a hardcore skeptic who would not believe in vampires if one was sucking him dry, got one thing right.

Moses could be a kook sometimes. Nonetheless, Abby figured even a certified kook got one right occasionally. "That equals sixty weeks and a year only has fifty-two weeks." Abigail Vennard, a neophyte student in fairy quantum mechanics, put her hand over her mouth. "Alex would have spent over a year alone in this desert." Rescue missions, being so chaotic, always held the risk of rescuers needing rescue.

An hour had passed since Moses Penn had dropped the bombshell about Alex's stay in Purgatory. An hour here was two minutes in Earth time. How time could flow so differently here perplexed Moses. What aspect of this side-pocket in the universal pool table required time would take such a counterintuitive route? The frustration of playing catch-up with cosmic quirks was a familiar feeling.

This new revelation only worsened Moses' already guilty conscience. Moses should have jumped in after Alex when he had the chance. Moses decided to hold off on dropping Bombshell Number Two. Moses didn't know if he could get them back through the old portal again. Janus, a messy deity, had left his godly mojo behind. The ley line node had retained it. Moses managed to piggyback off of Janus' juice.

While Janus had hemorrhaged magick on the Earth side, hardly any of it had reached Purgatory. Of course, once Moses found Alex, he would likely find Excalibur as well and then he could simply harness its power to blast that portal open a third time. Moses knew now what had triggered the return of his memories. That sensation of magick flowing through his body had reignited his inner wizard.

These memories were just a formality, a means of confirming his return to form. It was like jump-starting a car. Then, he heard them, a ghoulish chorus that would haunt Moses at least until the end of this lifetime. The wails of the damned, those spirits trapped in this cosmic prison, crying out for freedom from this dreary dimension. Moses could not help them; they were beyond any help short of God's.

The portal Moses had opened only stayed open for a minute. Moses shuttered to think what cosmic horror might have crawled out from the other side. If Heaven was God's Attic and Hell was God's Basement, Purgatory was God's Closet. It was a place where He shoved things that neither belonged in the attic or the basement.

Despite the intrinsic moral ambiguity of this place, Moses had to be on his guard. Just because one of God's failed science projects hadn't earned itself a one-way ticket to Hell did not make it harmless. A mindless beast, a creature free of sin due to its lack of forethought, could still be a monster in every other sense of the word. The three of them might have to contend with such innocence in due time.

Of course, these concerns only masked the alpha concern, the ultimate concern, rattling around in the back of his head. Alex loved camping but he did not exactly rough it out in the sticks. Tents, marshmallows and campfires defined the bulk of their experiences with Nature. Moses had no idea if Alex could take on this lifeless desert by himself for over a year even without the threat of killer beasts.

Of course, Alex wasn't really Alex anymore. He was King Arthur Pendragon. Moses Penn looked down at his feet and saw a sad yet familiar sight, Alex's cream white MP3 player. It looked like it had been lying in the dirt for a year now. Moses knew instantly what he had done with it. Faced with absolute terror, he played his MP3 player until it died. It must have lasted days before its battery went south.

Then, he abandoned it and continued on in his trek through the caves. Moses choked up as he stared at the MP3 player in his hand. Moses, last Christmas, had bought this for Alex as a gift. To know that this sentinel of sanity had served Alex to the bitter end brought a smile to his face. Moses could feel the madness of this place, trying to invade his mind. Hope was Limbo's Kryptonite.

Moses could only hope that Alex had held out longer than this MP3 player had. "I'm sorry." Moses pocketed the abandoned MP3 player. "I'm going to find you." The tremble in his voice was not one of fear but of hope. Moses led the way. Limbo was like any prison. Certainly, someone had managed a jailbreak. The evidence of monsters in his world confirmed that much. Escape was possible.

"Listen, Abby." Luis Enrique Lanza did his best not to alert Abigail to an apology in progress. "You know I'm crazy about you." Luis decided to speak from the heart. "If anything ever happened to you, I would lose my mind. I swear to God I would." Maybe it was the dry desert climate here but Luis was sweating bullets.

Abby paused a moment before responding. He caught himself praying that he hadn't made the biggest mistake of his life. "You shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain," she pointed out matter-of-factually as she went about her inspection.

Luis' hands dropped to his sides. Luis had nearly dropped the L-bomb. Abby reacted as if he had read off the ingredients for a pound cake. This was messed up beyond repair. "We should continue our search and have this conversation later."

Luis spun Abigail around. The search could wait. "I'd rather have it now." Luis didn't mean to sound like the jealous boyfriend in this situation but, even before Alex reentered their lives, something always felt off about their relationship. Luis couldn't put a name on it before now. "Tell me; are you still in love with him?"

Abby shot him a death glare. Luis had hoped he would not have to go there. "No." Abigail turned away. "But that doesn't mean we're okay." The force of those words knocked the wind out of Luis' lungs. "We do nothing but argue. We hardly ever go on dates and, when we do, we hardly ever enjoy ourselves." Abigail took a deep breath. "I mean, we might both enjoy taking a break for awhile."

Luis was floored. No, he was more than floored. He was pissed. "You couldn't find a better place to do this." Luis then recalled Abigail trying not to have this conversation. He just hadn't realized which conversation she was avoiding.

"Now I know you're lying." Luis pointed an accusing finger at her. "You still have feelings for Alex, don't you?" Luis could live with losing her. Abigail Kathleen Vennard had been a slippery fish to reel in. He knew it was only a matter of time before she swam free. Damned if he would let her get away with lying to his face. If this relationship was deader than disco, Luis wanted to know the cause of death.

Abigail shook her head fiercely. "You asked me if I was still in love with him." Luis remembered. "You never asked me if I still had feelings for him." Abby tilted her head. "Those are two very different questions." Luis pleaded with her to stop playing games and just answer the question. "I do." Luis bowed his head in defeat. Abigail's words struck Luis like an axe to the neck. "I really did want this to work."

Luis was losing it. "Did?" Luis' breathing grew shallow. "I'm a 'did' now." Luis would need to breath into a paper bag if he kept on hyperventilating like this. "Fine, go back to him." Luis laughed. "Oh, that's right. You can't go back to him because he never took you in to begin with." Luis poked Abigail in the chest. "He always waited until someone else had you and then he would whine about it like a little bitch."

Abigail shook her head. "How can you say that about him?" Abigail looked him over. "You're his best friend." Luis was insulted by such a generalization. He'd known Alex since the first grade. Of course, that made him his best friend but that didn't mean that he couldn't hate the guy. If anything, it gave him the right to.

"Ye gods." Luis looked down at the cave floor. He noticed the object as his mind fled this conversation-turned-breakup. He thought something about this dank dirty cave would lift his spirits. Instead, he found something that crushed them.

"I'm not a doctor but this looks like a human femur." Abigail nodded. Instead, Luis found something that crushed them. Abigail saw it too. So, at least, he was not crazy. It lacked the chalk-white color of a medical skeleton. In fact, it looked like a chicken bone which scared the crap out of Luis the longer he thought about it. He picked up the offending bone and saw all the little cuts and scrapes that had hit the bone while something (or someone) had peeled off all the flesh with a knife.

Luis raised his yellow glow-stick. Something about the darkness always interfered with his instincts. Luis should have suspected something (or someone) in front of him, especially with the evidence of that femur. Instead, Luis screamed as he saw someone in the dark staring back at him with a look of hunger on his face.

"Jesus." Moses Penn saw the thing chasing after them. Moses had hoped that the Mad Arab had been exaggerating the terrors native to the Miskatonic Desert. He didn't want to believe the stories about the ghouls. And yet there it was in the pale flesh. Their kind kept the flesh-and-blood inhabitants of this Purgatory Gobi Desert on their toes. Moses examined its clothes. This beast made full use of its quarry in much the same way Native Americans used every part of the buffalo.

Moses Penn felt like yelling but nothing came out. Moses stepped in front of his two colleagues. He stood in the way of the ghoul hell-bent on killing and eating them. A ripple of light shook the air. In one of his old lives, Merlin had weaponized his glamours as a sort of improvised flash grenade against photophobic adversaries.

The primordial energy of the universe seared the flesh of his arm. This ghoul was a troglodyte (a ten-dollar word for a cave-dweller). It recoiled from the sight of bright light. The ghoul fell to his knees. As he listened to this ghoul cursing at him in its alien tongue, he could make out the whispers of other ghouls plotting revenge.

Merlin had picked up this particular ghoulish dialect under circumstances he would rather not expound upon. Needless to say, theirs was a cold crude unadorned language punctuated by vulgarity and threats. Moses tried to run but found himself on the ground after three steps. He had spent all of his energy on that spell.

Only the burns along his arm and the pain that accompanied them kept Moses from blacking out. Abigail and Luis both grabbed one of Moses' arms. Moses growled as Luis grabbed him by a patch of burnt flesh. They carried Moses out of the caverns. The ghouls shrieked. The smell of a roast drifted through the air.

Moses held onto consciousness. I'm not dying like this. Luis and Abby might need another miracle to save them from the depravity of these cannibals. Not here, not now. Alex needed him. Moses had to decide quickly whether he was more than just the tail end of a wizard's unending string of lifetimes. Even the old wizard had no direct experience with Purgatory deserts and ghouls on their home turf. If Moses was to survive this, Merlin wasn't going to be the cure-all to every problem.

Moses needed to remember what was important to him in this life. And, in this life, that was locating his brother and getting him out of this awful place.

Moses looked forward to where they had been running. There it was the light of day. He could see it. It was another nifty consequence of this space-time anomaly. Nighttime in California was midday in Miskatonic. As Luis and Abby stumbled into the light, they accidentally tossed Moses onto a jagged rock. One of the ghouls did try to get at them. His long blood-encrusted fingers reached into the rays of the sun. His fingers sizzled like eggs. A blister or two later and the beast retracted his hand.

A barrage of rocks flew in their direction. "Keep moving." With that, Moses dragged himself along the ground as Luis and Abigail ran for their lives. Once they reached safe distance from the rock-slinging ghouls, the three realized their new dilemma. The sun had protected them from the savagery of the ghouls.

Now, what would protect them from the sun? Anyplace dark would spare them the possibility of heat stroke but then increase the chance of death by ghoul. Anyplace out in the sun would have the exact opposite problem. The three of them had to find shelter fast. This desert was a place even the angels feared to tread.

"We attack now." In the time he'd spent here, this chieftain, in his ancient wisdom, was the only individual of the tribe who spoke the language he had brought with him from this other place. The chieftain (who had spent an even longer time here than Alex had) also spoke the language of this particular desert dwelling tribe. As such, the chieftain served as Alex's interpreter to the rest of the tribe.

Alexander Julius Penn stared as the three strangers arrived in his territory. Alex Penn still hated going by this damn name. The name meant nothing to him but everything he had on him confirmed this identity. He didn't recall anything about life outside this desert. All he could deduce was the fact that he had arrived from somewhere else and he had done so not so long ago by mysterious means.

The particular language of this tribe was much like the desert itself. A harsh unforgiving tongue, it took years, sometimes, even decades, to learn enough to carry on a casual conversation. Not that such a thing ever occurred out in this desert. Words were spent carefully in a desert where the wrong sets of ears were always listening. If it were not for the chief, Alex would have died a long time ago.

For a moment, Alex convinced himself that he might know these three strangers. Each one seemed to hearken back to some earlier time. Alex shook his head. The desert had a way of playing tricks with your mind. It conjured illusions and kept the eye free of the hateful realities that they concealed. The chieftain had taught Alex a couple tricks for overcoming the desert's maddening effect.

Alex placed his hand on his sword. An eldritch weapon, the sword had served Alex well on this land of sand and violence. It reminded his enemies of his fearsome might. "It looks like we will dine well tonight." Alex sneered at the chieftain. The chief meant it as a joke; Alex wasn't laughing. Even in a place this extreme, Alex insisted on rules and restrictions. An honor code was essential to one's sanity.

Not partaking in the flesh of a man separated humans from the night people. He had originally mistaken the old chieftain for one of the night folk when he first met him. It was only his gentle demeanor as well as his insistence that he would not eat him that he finally warmed up to the idea that this place was more than just a cannibal's paradise. Besides, back then, Alex Penn had nowhere else to go.

Alex Penn found one thing weird about desert living. Between life-or-death situations where survival and self-defense hung in the balance, Alex often did find cause for boredom. From what little he could remember about the other place, Alex had lived in a world saturated with stimuli. Here, Alex had little to do with his free time besides watching the sand swirl about. "I will take them all by myself."

The chieftain was disgusted by the idea. Alex playfully patted the chieftain on the back. "Come now, chief. If I die, you shall inherit my shiny blade you secretly covet when you think my back is turned. If I live, you may take your share from the three travelers' odds and ends." Alex smirked. "I think I have proved my mettle in the past." Alex unsheathed the sword. "The three are no match for me, chief."

Even if they were canny enough to take him all at once, it would be a miracle if anyone scored even a glancing blow. Alex stared at them with an altogether different sort of hunger in his eyes. He could have ambushed them and taken them all out, one by one. Alex, in his ennui, had chosen these kills for sport. He wanted to give the three a fighting chance. Alex wanted an actual challenge this time.

Alex eyed them with suspicion. The one in the middle the other two were carrying in their arms bore some of his features. Their female, if she were willing, would make an excellent addition to their tribe. The second male was lean yet muscular. With a little persuasion, he could be recruited into their militia. If there were no takers, their deaths would be quick and painless. Either way, he won.

The warrior in the baboon mask jumped down from the cliff. Moses tried to stand up straight but already he felt his legs wobbling under his weight. Moses walked up to greet this desert warrior. "Please, stranger, we mean you no harm."

Moses was not sure if the masked stranger could claim the same thing. Moses winced as pain torn through his flesh. "We only desire safe passage through this desert." The warrior gave no sign of hearing him. "Do you understand me?"

The masked warrior chuckled. "You want safe passage through this desert? There is no such thing." The warrior held his sword out in front of him. "You have invaded our land and you have nothing of value to us." Somehow, a situation involving an ambush by a masked swordsman had actually gotten worse. "We must make an example of you all lest we encourage another raid from the night folk."

Moses had a light bulb moment. Moses felt the gears turning in his head. "You mean the ghouls?" Moses continued to crank out the words. "We met them. We barely escaped with our lives." Moses recognized the sword held out in front of the masked warrior. It was different from the other blades. It was longer and sturdier-looking. "We came out here searching for our friend, Alex Penn. Do you know him?"

The warrior lifted his mask. "I do if only in passing." Moses gave Alex a quick once-over. Leave it to his brother to go native in this Road Warrior desert. Moses stepped forward to hug him. Alex pressed the blade against his throat. "You know him but I do not know you." Alex sheathed his sword. "You will all accompany us back to camp." The other warriors unsheathed their swords. They had no choice.

Moses tried to stay calm as the three of them were marched across the desert. This type of hysteria happened all the time in deserts. God only knew what a Purgatory desert had done to Alex's state of mind. The old life of Alexander Julius Penn had vanished like a pyramid swallowed up by a freak sandstorm.

Alex was so close to Moses right now and yet so very far away. Luis walked up next to Moses. "What the Hell has happened to Alex?" Luis did not mince words. They had journeyed to the far side of Creation to find their lost comrade.

Instead, they found this desert-baked knight errant barking orders at them. Alex had spent over a year in this desert. Moses had no way of knowing what had transpired during his extended stay or how that had affected his memories.

Alex looked on with suspicion in his eyes as Moses and Luis held their little conference. Moses didn't know that man. The Alex who had vanished into the pit two weeks ago was gone. The sixty weeks spent in Purgatory had altered his personality. Something about this strange desert had blasted away his memories of Earth. It was likely that his earliest memories now were of waking up in those ghoul-infested caverns. It was hardly a happy thought to start a new life on.

Moses Penn had not considered the possibility of their rescue turning into a deprogramming. The Alex he knew was not the touchy-feely type, but he still had emotions. Moses didn't know if he had the wizard chops to fix Alex's broken mind.

"Thank you, God," Luis exclaimed as he stared at the most unbelievable sight. Their oasis had a circle of tans propped up next to it. Luis clambered across the jagged rocks and narrow winding paths to get there first. Alex held out a hand and pointed up at the ridge. The archers' bows were trained on the newcomers.

Luis Lanza returned to his normal pace. "So, you went all Apocalypse Now on these guys?" Alex raised an eyebrow. "You rule this motley crew?" Luis pointed at the folks dressed in Arabesque clothes. They were just going about the day-to-day process of survival. And, from the looks of things, they were doing a bang-up job.

For a second, Luis thought Alex hadn't heard him. "No," Alex answered after a long pause. "That honor does not belong to me." Alex pointed his sword at an old man surrounded by children. The old man was addressing them with wide hand gestures. The old man was just like Luis' grandfather during story-time.

"The chieftain saved me." Alex waved them past the guards. "The night folk had me ready for supper when he arrived and made short work of them." Luis nodded in approval. It sounded like an impressive feat for an old-timer.

Moses Penn, the mentor of the group, had mentioned that some trauma might have separated Alex from his old identity. Getting lynched and nearly eaten by monsters could ruin just about anybody's day (and long-term mental health).

Still, how could he forget everything? How could he forget his best friend and his own brother and his not-girlfriend? How could so much of Alex's life vanish into a puff of smoke like that? Abigail Vennard spied the chieftain as he continued to entertain children. "The night folk pose a constant threat to our way of life. They have made use of free captives in the past to spy on us during the daytime."

Alex sighed. "We could not take the chance that you might give away our location. If they knew where we make camp, they could easily kill us all in our sleep." Luis had watched a lot of Nat Geo as a kid. It still perplexed him how people could live under such conditions. Along with the mundane threats of any desert, the Miskatonic people labored under the threat of cannibal raids and psychic madness.

Luis Lanza stared as a weeping elderly woman swung a scimitar through the neck of a wounded young man. His severed head rolled into a basket as the old lady choked back tears. "That man was bitten trying to rescue his brother from the night folk," Alex explained. "The black venom in their saliva can turn one of us into one of them." Alex had a faraway look in his eyes. "Trust me. Hazred is far better off dead."

Luis sought to lighten the mood. Luis asked him about the goofy baboon mask. "It is the god Thoth." Alex inspected the mask as he said those words. "It is the only thing the night folk fear more than the sun itself." Alex put the mask on over his head. "I've worn this into all my battles. It has kept me alive when others have fallen." At least, Luis Lanza hadn't missed out in a career as a comedian.

Luis, Abigail and Moses arrived inside a tent filled with weapons. Alex waited outside. "Pick your weapon." That got everyone's attention. "The night folk cannot allow our numbers to swell even by the smallest of margins." Alex nodded. "As soon as the sun sets, they'll come looking for you." Alex could tell that none of them were getting the gag. "We will have to meet them on the battlefield."

Then again, maybe, Luis Enrique Lanza still had a future as a comedian. Right now, Luis was the only person who could see the humor in this. Same peeps who had been ready to D&D murder-rob their asses were now on a recruitment drive. Luis picked out a mean-looking scimitar. This certainly beat being dead.

The four of rode out into the desert on four amicable ostrich mounts. Moses looked at the sword as Alex rode up beside him. "I wish to go back with you," Alex informed him. Moses nearly fell off his ostrich. That was unexpected. Moses had been anticipating a huge blowout with him on the subject. "I do not belong here."

Instead, Alex was ready to go. "The chieftain treats me well but even he told me that if the chance to leave here ever came up, I owed it to myself to go home." Alex reached into his pouch and produced a crumbled-up notebook. "When the chief arrived here, he had a journal on him. It belonged to a man named Howard Carter."

Alex handed him the item in question. "He thinks that it was his journal but he doesn't know for sure." Moses thumbed through the weathered pages. "This man served in the French Foreign Legion during the Second World War." Alex smirked.

"I don't remember what a World War is or how there could be two of them but I am told that would make him well over a thousand years old in our time." Moses nodded. "This section says how he got here." Alex pointed at the page. "A sandstorm in North Africa swallowed up his troops. The night folk forced him to feast upon the cooked meat of his fellow soldiers before he managed to make his escape."

Alex sighed. "It is only a manner of time before something equally horrible happens to me." Moses patted Alex on the shoulder. He regretted everything that had happened to Alex here. Moses wished he could do it all over again; he would have jumped in after Alex the first time. Then, all this could have been averted.

Moses was deceiving himself. If Moses had jumped in after him the first time, he would have had no one to carry him when the ghouls zapped him of his strength. He would have ended up a three-course meal fed to his own brother. "I have wanted to go back but I know that the journey would take me back into the caverns where the night folk hold court. If they found their way to the camp, it'd be a slaughter."

Moses always admired Alex's strength of character. He would not allow the ghouls to track down their village. Alex wanted out but he wasn't willing to throw anyone under the bus to do it. They needed to track the ghouls back to their base camp and strike at them before they had a chance to regroup. Moses stared up at the old caves they had narrowly escaped with these lives only a few hours ago.

Moses stared longingly at Excalibur. He could feel its magick just out of reach. A swoosh of air followed. His ostrich fell onto her side, a spear jutting out of her torso. Moses couldn't describe the next five minutes. Luis and Abigail lashed out at the oncoming ghouls. "The head, aim for the head!" Moses cried as their blades dug into their flesh to no effect. Its brain was the only vital organ a ghoul needed.

Heeding his advice, the ghouls fell as the quartet pressed on towards their destination. Moses looked at the clearing where they had first landed in this world. In the middle laid the chieftain's corpse. "I'm sorry," Luis said. The night folk had made short work of his esophagus. "I didn't even know he was following us." Luis cringed as he looked at the body. "How did he even get here in the first place?"

Moses wanted to know. Alex didn't seem to care. Without a word, he walked with his sword drawn towards the corpse. For the first time since they had gotten here, Moses understood how long Alex had lived in a desert between worlds. Sixty weeks hadn't meant anything to him. Now, it did. Alex had spent months figuring out how to survive and how to hold onto his sanity. This dead thing at their feet was the only one here who had helped him do both. "Go in peace, old friend."

Alex raised the sword, over his head, ready to land the finishing blow. The chieftain rose to his feet. The sword was instantly ripped away from Alex. The chief shoved Alex into a cave wall. Drawing on the sword's mojo, Moses shot a beam of light at him. The chieftain stared unblinking into the blinding light. "Impossible."

If the venom had turned him, the light should have blinded him. "Nothing is impossible, boy." The eyes on the chieftain turned solid white. "Though, I will admit some things are certainly more likely than others." Moses blinked. He could see it now. The features of a spectral baboon flickered on and off the chieftain's face.

The god Thoth lovingly caressed Alex's sword. "Do you know the worst part of the whole living god thing?" A cruel smile crawled across Thoth's face. "It is having dealing with other gods." The ghouls they had just slain got up, fully healed, and surrounded them. "Those thugs on Mount Olympus banished me to this gulag. For eons, I languished until I met a man came with the key to my restoration."

These ghouls shrieked with approval. "I delivered Howard Carter from the ghouls. At that point, he was quite mad from being forced to dine on his brothers-in-arms. Randolph surrendered himself to me so that I may walk out of this world wrapped in his flesh." Howard Carter AKA Thoth howled with content.

"Your brother, a hapless wanderer, arrived at this very spot." Moses glared at Thoth. It might be impossible to stare down a god, but, perhaps, Thoth was right about the impossibility of the impossible. "He spied my true form and attacked me." Thoth positioned hand around Alex's neck. "Me!" Thoth growled at him.

Steam issued from where he had touched Alex's throat. "So I went into his mind and remade it in my image." Thoth licked his lips. "I become his savior." Moses could hear the pride of a master manipulator in Thoth's booming voice.

"I wish I had a brother like you." Thoth's white eyes flared in rage. "My brothers stood idly by as the wrath of Olympus came down upon my head. And, unlike you mud monkeys, their memories of me did not vanish." Thoth caressed Alex's sword. "When I return, I will reap a bloody vengeance. Now, do your work."

A smirk crossed Moses' face. "You overplayed your hand." Moses had him now. "You can't make me open that gate, can you?" Moses circled Thoth. "So, here's what I'm going to do; I'm going to keep the portal closed until Alex wakes up, gets his sword and runs you through. Then, we leave, literally over your dead body."

The god was dumbstruck. He wasn't expecting a mere mortal to outmaneuver him. Moses felt a cold blade wrap around his neck. Droplets of blood rolled down his neck. "You think this is the first time I have had to deal with the Ascended." Moses recognized the scimitar. It was the one Luis had picked out back at the camp.

"I took the liberty of sparking memories from a past life." Droplets of blood went down the side of his neck. "Lancelot here is not onboard with your plan to endanger the life of his king." Moses had seconds to find a way out of this mess.

"Stand down, Merlin." Luis spoke in an unearthly disembodied voice. "He has our king. We cannot risk losing him." Luis' voice quivered. "Not again, never again." Merlin didn't have much in the way of choices. Business as usual for a defender of Camelot. "Do as he says," Luis shouted in his ear. "Or, by the Oath of Avalon, I will kill thee, bastard son of a demon." Luis was high on past life memories.

Moses needed to reason with him. If Moses opened the portal, a vengeful god would have possession of Excalibur, a weapon capable of killing virtually anything. If he tried to double-cross Thoth, Luis/Lancelot would slit his throat. "Choose quickly. My patience wears thin." Moses hoped this final gambit would work.

"I can see right through you, Sir Lancelot." Luis' grip on the scimitar loosened ever so slightly. "Do you think all this will make up for your betrayal?" Moses tried to recall all the sordid details. "I am not just his wizard in this life; I am his brother. Strike me down and he will never forgive you; your sins will have doubled."

Light emerged from every inch of his body. The ghouls scattered as Luis shielded his eyes. Howard Carter's white eyes dulled. "I can see you, Howard Carter. Your jailer is weakened. Fight back. A moment's courage is all it takes."

Alex's eyes fluttered open. Howard and Thoth vied for control over the same body. Alex pouched as warriors, one man and one god, exchanged psychic blows within their shared mindscape. Bones and muscles stretched and snapped as the battle of souls raged on. Alex grabbed the sword as Thoth flung him from his back.

"Ha ha, my child. You have your sword once again." Thoth grinned. "I would like very much to watch you die by it." Moses needed to time this just right. Moses extended one hand in the direction of Excalibur and the other hand into the opening where they had fallen into this world. Faint blue light shone down from above.

"Hurry, I can't hold this much longer." The three friends fell back as the ghouls tightened their defense. Moses looked up at the blue light above their heads. Right there, it was so close. The ghouls would have carved up their tendons into fine slithers of bacon before they could accomplish such a laborious climb.

The spell needed an extra kick. Moses started chanted half-remembered charms. Moses added his own life-force to the mix, a dangerous concoction that had felled many a wizard in their time. "Here it comes and here we go." The pulse of that blue light crashed down around them. "Oh, crap." Moses felt his heart stop.

Before he blacked out, Moses watched Thoth, blinded by the light of the portal, race towards Alex. Excalibur, in one stroke, entered right below Howard's jaw-line and out the top of his skull. The baboon-headed Egyptian god poured out of the wounds. The godly remnant screamed as its form scattered like ashes poured into a howling wind. A final grin stretched across Moses' face.

Memories returned like a flood of life crashing against his soul. Alexander Julius Penn remembered everything. He remembered how he had crossed over. He remembered meeting Thoth for the first time and how he had warped his mind to keep his true nature a secret. He also remembered how Moses had leveraged the leftover guilt from a previous life to break Luis' concentration and open the gate.

Alex wrapped his arms around Luis and Abby, amazed by how much they had risked coming after him. He no longer wished to quarrel with Luis and Abby anymore. They had done nothing wrong, and, if he had been able to accept that, he might not have had to spend over a year with the desert dwellers of Limbo. No, Alex didn't want to be angry with them anymore. They were his friends, his true saviors.

Alex turned to Moses lying in the dirt. "Moses?" Alex shook his brother's arm. "Moses?" Alex asked again, louder this time. A hot rush of adrenaline shot through his veins. Alex lifted him up. Alex carried Moses to his truck. Luis and Abby stared at Alex. "Call an ambulance!" Time was running out. The truck kicked over.

Alex blazed out of the parking lot. "Please hold on." Alex said a prayer over Moses' body. Alex called 911 and located his brother's best chance at survival, the Trevena Regional Medical Center, right along the freeway. "Please don't die."

Alex rammed Moses' truck sideways into the parking lot. Alex yelled as paramedics engulfed Moses like ants. Alex held onto Moses' hand, trying to get him to return his grip. "You're okay, you're okay, you're okay," Alex reminded Moses. Alex had heard him trying to breathe on the ride over. There was still hope. Alex couldn't remember how much time had passed before Mom showed up.

Alex told her what the doctor had told him. Moses had had a heart attack. A cardiac infarction, they said. Moses had been revived. Nonetheless, there would be permanent damage. Amid the chaos, Mom had yet to acknowledge Alex's return.

In fact, she acted like he had never left. Luis Lanza and Abigail Vennard looked on as Moses slept. Doctor Simon Blaze would not allow any visitors. Moses needed the rest. "Your son nearly died, Mrs. Penn," Doctor Simon Blaze told Mom. "I wouldn't worry though. I have your son on a very special regiment. We will have him up and slaying dragons again in no time." The doctor winked at Alex.

Alex had no clue what that wink meant. Still, if the doctor said Moses would live, Alex had no problem with a creepy wink or two. Alex took a long hard look at his brother through the glass. His miraculous recovery was almost but.

Of all the people who had risked much to save him, Moses had risked the most. A wizard at the beginning of a long learning curve, he had gotten laid up in that hospital bed with a busted heart trying to save them from that crazy desert.

From what Moses had told him, he could have walked away and allowed all the memories of a phantom brother fade away. Instead, Moses Penn fought back. He marshaled the aid of a dead detective's ghost to track down Alex's whereabouts in Purgatory. He had showed true courage and that had saved all their lives.

Doctor Simon Blaze walked in. "Funny how that is." The doctor reviewed his chart. "When I needed a miracle, my brother just happened to bring me to the only miracle worker in town." It was a statistical anomaly in the extreme; even a wizard as accomplished as Merlin would not have toyed with a cosmic variable like fate.

"A somewhat unforgivable contrivance on the part of the universe, even for rare individuals in our line of work, wouldn't you agree?" It had been literal ages since the two men had talked. And, yet somehow, they always managed to fall into the same old topics. The twist in this conversation was a noble one though. Moses was the one chastising Blaise for being overtly bold in his magical procedures.

Blaise returned his smirk with one of his own. "Would you rather I return you to the slumber of sweet death." A small smile crept onto that old doctor's face. Moses shook his head. "Then, take your miracle and do not wish yourself dead for the sake of realism." Blaise sighed. "What fiasco brought you to this state of untimely death? Your lives just seem to get shorter and shorter, old friend."

Moses decided to tell the truth. "I rescued my brother from the Miskatonic Desert and blocked an angry god's return from exile." Moses looked at Blaise. "As for my recent brush with death, I overexerted myself in the heat of battle." The wicked grin crept across his face. "It is a mistake that you never seem to make."

Blaise sighed. "Must we have this discussion every time our paths cross?" Blaise showed him the signet on his ring finger. "I am an immortal. You and your friends are the Ascended. Why do you think God gave you and your compatriots this rare gift? To live many lives where most souls only get one life? The Lord works through you, not me. I can aid the war effort but solely in a logistical capacity."

Moses looked at the clock. "You always knew just what to say to ease your guilt." Moses looked back at Blaise. "But we both know that your guilt is not what needs easing. Someday soon, the End of Days will commence. When that happens, even cowardly immortals will have to take up arms against the legions of the pit."

Moses was trying to impress upon the gravitas of the situation. True to form, Blaise laughed it off like Moses had told some marvelous joke. In his frustration, he asked Blaise what he found so funny about the end of the world. The laughing immortal wiped away an errant tear. "I've heard rumors of Apocalypse for eons." Moses remembered now. His mentor Blaise was a smug Apocalypse denier.

"Did you know, even during the time of Christ, believers thought the end was coming within their lifetime?" Blaise laughed. "And every generation since then has believed much the same. And you would welcome the opportunity to prove that you, a devil's child, can overcome his infernal father and walk on the side of angels?"

Blaise thought everything was a damn joke. "I bathed you in holy water and instilled on you a desire to spurn your dark heritage. You aided Camelot with magick to serve as a beacon of hope in an age of despair. It collapsed due to the machinations of your hell-born father. And, in each new life, you forfeited the chance to rebuild what he tore down in the name of a petty revenge fantasy."

Moses cringed as Doctor Blaze gave him the look of a disappointed mentor. "Look, my son," Blaise said as he pointed at the TV set on the overhead platform. "We live in age of miracles. Feats beyond any magick can be performed by ordinary folk. Miracles beyond even the power of the heavens happen at the push of a button. And, yet, we are no more civilized than the barbarian hordes that sacked Rome."

Blaise took a long time to get to a point. "The world may not end but this civilization will end and, when it does, it will take centuries to rebuild. And where will the great Merlin be then? Helping the innocent or hunting the guilty?" Blaise turned to Moses. "Have you ever tried to look into the future to the day when you are reborn into the ashes of a dead world your thirst for vengeance had enabled?"

Blaise shook his head. "Of course, you haven't." Blaise paced around his bed. "Like your father, you only entertain the thought of inflicting vengeance onto those who wronged you." On that note, the doctor departed. The argumentative immortal had left Moses with a lot to think about. Merlin had focused on all the wrong things. Perhaps, God had given Moses Penn a chance in this life to right Merlin's wrongs.

The puddle was no ordinary puddle of water. It seeped in under the door and zigzagged across the floor. It came to a stop in front of the cot containing Mordred. Out from the puddle, a head formed, followed by shoulders, arms, a torso and feet. Valac yawned. Nimue was the undisputed mistress of the overly exotic entrance.

Draped in a water-logged shroud, the unearthly feminine figure saw them. "Can you do it? Can heal him?" Valac had the misfortune of working alongside the witch for centuries now. This was the closest Valac had seen Morgan to groveling. From his rattlesnake body, Valac hissed at her. Nimue shrugged off his disgust.

Fairies gave Valac the creeps. They were not like demons, the offspring of rebel angels who risked hellfire for freedom. The originals, the first fairies, were the angels who refused to take a side. They were the universe's first draft dodgers. And how did this divine admiral of the heavenly navy punish these cowards? He gave them choice real estate on Earth, a place that was an unspoiled Eden at the time.

Valac took cover as a tremor shook the earth. Beneath the floorboards would serve as a makeshift bunker as the sorceress unleashed twelve kinds of bad juju to ease this abomination's pain. Valac rocked back and forth in his hiding place. Soon, it would be finished. Nimue made the Sign of Satan on Mordred's forehead. "This will hurt very much." Mordred hollered his lungs out like the proverbial stuck pig.

The screams ceased. "It is done." Nimue dissolved back into water and departed. Valac popped his head out from under the floorboard. Not that he cared but Mordred did not look healed. If anything, Mordred actually looked worse somehow. A heavy pair of large feet planted themselves on the floor of the shack. Mordred gave his surroundings a weary once-over. Mordred did not utter a word.

After centuries of the bloodiest torture, he probably didn't have all that much to say. Walking was a new experience for him. Mordred stumbled into the kitchen pantry. Half expecting him to furnish himself with a meal, Valac coiled up. Mordred armed himself with a rusty machete and marched out the door.

There was a look of determination in Mordred's eyes as he moved outside. Valac didn't know why he bothered coming out here. The commute was not an easy one. Valac had to hitch-hike the whole way, riding host after host, just to end up in a shack in the middle of the desert. He had trouble keeping up with Mordred though the machete-wielding fiend never seemed to move any faster than a walking pace. Whatever Nimue had done to Mordred, it certainly put the pep back in his step. After an hour moving in one unwavering direction, Mordred looked down at the black asphalt of a lonely interstate. As if by magic, a silver minivan peeled around the bend. A man, his wife and their three daughters sang in unison to "The Wheels on the Bus." By anyone's estimations, they were a truly happy family.

Valac considered his knowledge of bodily mutilation a point of pride. Nothing surprised him when it came to all the shapes a body took on the scenic route on its way to dying. Valac could not imagine anything new Mordred could show this old devil, especially with so crude a tool as that rusty old machete.

Valac, a jaded connoisseur of dismemberment, watched a liver get shredded. Mordred do this one maneuver with a spinal cord he had only ever seen done in the darkest depths of Hell. And how Mordred, on a whim, had ripped off the arms and legs of the youngest daughter and the mother and then tried to rejoin them into a composite corpse of their mismatched parts. Words could not express. One glance at this unholy mess and even Job would have cursed the Almighty.

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