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"A hero has faced it all; he need not be undefeated, but he must be undaunted." – Andrew Bernstein

Moses Ambrose Penn shook hands with Vice Principal Nelsen Heard as he accepted his diploma. Not the real diploma. That would get mailed to his house in a couple of weeks. The one he accepted in front of his mother would serve as a conversation piece. His brother, Alexander Penn, had accepted his diploma just before he did.

As they returned to their seats, the two chatted back and forth like giddy little schoolgirls. They had slain the unconquerable dragon of high school and the rest of their life lay before them. The grave words of the valedictorian lingered in his mind's eye. Unlike most valedictorians, Marshall Roberts didn't deliver some pomp and circumstance speech that puckered up and kissed his alma mater's ass.

Nor did he delve with some risqué narrative about his high school years with instances like sneaking out to a party with friends. Instead, he led a quiet eulogy for the shooting massacre victims. Moses could call what they had done two weeks ago a victory but, for six students, two teachers and one security guard, they had failed miserably. Moses looked around to see if their ghosts had attended the ceremony.

As far as Moses could tell, all of the victims had crossed over without delay. Moses couldn't blame them for wanting to get out of Dodge. A few of them had died heroes, the rest the innocent victims of two maniacs. In any case, they'd get nice fluffy clouds in the hereafter in restitution for the awful nature of their deaths.

When seen in that light, who would want to stay behind? Moses looked around at Detective Roger Lazenby. A stubborn cloud of ectoplasm, he vowed to stay behind until he had made amends for his inability to stop the Belial Stalker. Moses didn't know what his definition of "amends" was. Would he leave after he saved thirteen lives for the thirteen he couldn't save? Or would it take more than that?

"Yoo-hoo, Earth to Moses, all this summer of fun planning boring you?" Moses shook his head and rejoined Alex in working out the greatest summer of their lives. Moses had suggested (a long time ago) that they take a year off to go backpacking in Europe. Suddenly, Moses didn't hunger so much for adventure in foreign lands.

The one major development that had changed since they had first dreamed this up was the number of participants. With Luis drifting into depression due to Abigail leaving him, they had lost two members of their road trip. Worse, Abby would take the first two weeks of summer to visit her Aunt Chloe in New York.

All in all, the great plans of four friends had turned into the small plans of two brothers. Moses hated it. Alex hated it. Indeed but what could they do about? People grew, sometimes apart, and Moses could only hope the same would not happen between two of them. Moses and Alex started piecing together their road trip itinerary. Life's soap opera drama would not be enough to scuttle their plans.

Alexander Julius Penn had no idea what he hoped to accomplish by doing this. Perhaps, there would be some cathartic reconciliation that would ease his guilt. If he had wanted that from Abigail Vennard, he had wanted too much from her. Still, some idiot gene in his biological make-up propelled him to make a go at a clean slate with his girl of many sorrows. Alex patted Abby on the shoulder.

Abby turned around and deflated instantly. Abby must have expected one of her girlfriends to congratulate her on her Graduation Day. She hadn't expected the walking talking bombshell known as Alexander Julius Penn to show up next to her. "Abigail," Alex said as Abby avoided eye contact. "We need to talk. Please."

"No, we don't." Abby threw her hands in the air. "What we do have left to talk about?" Abby smirked. "You think I left Luis so I could get with you?" Alex shook his head. "Good because I didn't." Abby folded her arms across her chest. "Two weeks ago, I picked up a gun for the first time and two men are dead because of that."

Abby sighed. "I think I have earned myself a little alone time." Abby stepped closer. "Don't you think?" All this time worrying about his own anguish, Alex hadn't stopped to think how crazy things had gotten for her. He wanted to apologize but he had already made it clear that he hadn't given her feelings any thought before now.

"You're right," Alex agreed. "I'll go now." Of course, Abigail Vennard wanted her time alone. He had ruined her life and exposed her to supernatural evils. No woman would want to spend time around someone with that much baggage.

Alex knew he would never have Abby. He just didn't think he'd have such damning proof. "Damn you guys." Alex turned to face her. "You always internalize this crap." Abigail led one of his hands in hers. "This has nothing to do with you." Abby grabbed the sides of his head next. "If we still have a chance, we'll get our chance." Abby leaned her head against his. "Right now, I need time to think." Alex nodded. Abby sighed. "I want you to promise me you wouldn't lose hope."

Abby looked into his eyes. "Not in me. Not in yourself. Not in anything." Abby looked ready to kiss him but turned away at the last minute. "You just need to have a little faith in people." With that, Abby walked away, leaving Alex quite confused.

Luis Enrique Lanza watched as Abigail Vennard eviscerated Alexander Penn without laying a finger on him. It served him right. His best friend had betrayed him. No just world would reward such duplicity with the bounty of true love.

Luis readied to make his move. Luis felt a hand come down on his shoulder. No longer given to hesitation, Luis grabbed the hand and locked it in an arm bar. The tall muscular man in the combat fatigues countered, pressing his own arms against his throat. "You got the moves," Staff Sergeant Eugene Portland said as he released Luis from his old. "You got the heart too." Staff Sergeant Portland smiled.

"Have you given any thought to a career in the armed forces?" Luis nodded. In light of recent development, disappearing off to boot camp and then to a foreign country … It didn't seem so terrible anymore. "Alright then," the Marine said as he looked around. "Mind if we have this conversation somewhere more private?"

Luis didn't give any thought to Staff Sergeant's odd request. Luis had seen him around campus before. He always peddled the company line, trying to recruit every able-bodied senior he could find. Luis followed the staff sergeant. The two arrived at the empty tennis courts. The graduation ceremony had taken place in the football field out in front. Right now, it felt like it had happened centuries ago.

Staff Sergeant Portland didn't waste any words. "As you have no doubt gathered from the news, there's a war on the horizon." To a man like Staff Sergeant Eugene Portland, there was always a war on the horizon. A career soldier like him couldn't even say the word "peacetime" without it leaving a bad taste in his mouth.

Luis just nodded. "Good." The staff sergeant marched around him. "In this climate of do-or-die, we need the best soldiers." The Marine paused. "I think you have that potential; I would consider you a valuable addition to our armed forces." The Marine smiled again. "What do you say?" Luis Lanza smiled and nodded.

Luis would do anything to get away from this disaster of a life. "Thanks." Staff Sergeant Eugene Portland gave Luis a once-over. "You ready?" Luis nodded, only half understanding the question. "Good." The Marine's eyes turned a fiery red. A thick enveloping column of black smoke jetted out of his eyes, mouth and ears.

"Little piggy better run!" Staff Sergeant Eugene Portland screamed as Luis bolted away. Thirty seconds later and Luis felt a set of arms around his throat. Luis was screaming. Luis was being strangled by shadows. Luis could feel the shadows invading the space behind his eyes, then his ears and then through his mouth.

"Hey, guys." Moses Ambrose Penn and his brother Alex turned around to see Luis behind them. "I'm thinking an apology's in order here?" Luis smiled. "I've acted like a real dick and I just want to apologize for that." Luis sighed. "Abby and I … we always had problems and they had nothing to do with you. I just couldn't see that."

Moses stood transfixed as he stared at Luis Lanza. "What have you done with the real Luis?" Moses joked. "Sorry, well, I cannot speak for my brother here, but I, for one, accept your apology." Moses looked back and forth between Alex and Luis.

"We should not let these petty squabbles tear friends apart, right?" Alex nodded hesitantly. Luis smiled at that. "Alright then, we get together, maybe invite some girls over and have ourselves a pool party, just like old times." Alex raised an eyebrow. "Alright, we have never done anything like that before but, hey, there's a first time for everything, right?" Alex nodded. "Well, hasta la vista, mis amigos."

Moses stared as Luis walked away. "Wow," Alex said as Luis was out of earshot. "Did that rank an eleven on your weird-o-meter too?" Moses nodded. "Guy looked ready to kill himself yesterday. Now, he's looking forward to lazy days and better lays." Alex shook his head in disbelief. "I mean, what's up with that, bro?"

Moses shrugged. "I don't know." Moses kept staring at the back of Luis' head. "The guy has got demons, no question, but he can't spend the rest of his life moping about them, can he?" Alex was unsure of how to feel about his take on the situation. "Just saying, if Luis wants to reconnect with us, let him. What do we have to lose?"

Moses always felt like the outsider in Alex's circle of friends. The only reason Abigail Vennard and Luis Lanza knew of Moses was via his brother Alex. As such, he often served as the referee in their disputes. He had the objectivity of a third-party observer but the closeness of a beloved associate, a perfect arbiter of sorts.

Still, despite their faith in him, Moses Penn found himself out of his depth. Relationship problems seemed a cut above his pay grade. Moses never had any girlfriends, not that he had never looked. He never had the patience to work out all the pitfalls and faux pas of the dating game. He'd rather cozy up with a good book.

Besides, he had loved a literal goddess in his first life. She stole everything he had and left him for dead. Not exactly a storybook romance. Moses often wondered if his past experiences with women in his previous lives had colored his perception of them now. Moses didn't know one way or another and he probably never would.

"Lemme outta here!" Luis screamed in a voice without sound that echoed across this blighted wasteland. "When I get outta here, I'm gonna kick your ass." Luis knew he had no means of acting upon that threat. And since he knew, the fleshless creature controlling his meat suit knew too. The creature manifested.

Luis could lose his mind buying into the reality of this mindscape. He could not manifest in front of him. Concepts like "front," "back," "left" and "right" made no sense here. They survived merely as his mind's feeble attempt to make sense of the senseless: two minds, one human and one not, at war over a central nervous system.

Before Luis Lanza stood his captor, taking the form of a medieval knight seated upon a noble white steed. The knight opened his visor, revealing Luis' own face underneath. "If I live to see the end of time, I will never understand why you humans choose such morbid settings for your internal struggles. You should really consider redecorating in here." Luis wondered why this creature had left his post.

"You fell asleep," it answered. "As long as I control the reins, you will remain asleep." The knight looked around and smiled. "You take a certain twisted pleasure in torturing yourself, don't you?" The knight stared at a passing cloud of memories.

"You even blame yourself for the mistakes of your past lives." The knight smiled warmly. "Would you like to hear about my past life?" The knight grinned wickedly. "Well, too bad, because I have a captive audience and eight hours to fake sleeping." The knight with Luis' face shifted the features of the landscape into an idyllic setting. "Upon a time, I lived as a horse in the Garden of Eden."

The knight pointed to a white horse frolicking with a naked couple. "I had it made. Until one day, a serpent came along and talked the dumb bitch into eating an apple from the forbidden tree." The knight smiled. "Then, to make matters worse, she got her idiot husband to do the same thing. As a horse, I had a yearning for apples so I took a bite too." The knight pointed as a dark cloud appeared over Eden.

"Older-Than-Old showed mercy to neither humans nor horses that day. We got expelled from Eden and Raphael threatened to kill us if we ever tried to return." The horse aged and collapsed in a heap. "I died, of course, as all mortals must do someday." A giant swarm of flies appeared over the horse's rotten fetid corpse.

"Someone took pity on me and gave me a new lease on life." The flies ate up the horse's meat, leaving only bones behind. "From the bits and pieces, the lord of the flies breathed new life into me and gave me as a gift to his fellow cohorts."

The knight vanished. "Do you know the moral of this story?" The booming voice chuckled. "You have every right to see me as a monster but I'm merely paying off a debt. Eternal life doesn't come cheap and I must serve my masters."

Jet lagged, Abigail Vennard got off the plane. The fact that she hadn't gotten a single wink of sleep since boarding the plane only heightened her exhaustion. She had spent the whole six-hour-long flight thinking about Alex Penn and Luis Lanza.

Abby didn't want to blame herself. In fact, every inch of her wanted to heap this mess onto their machismo and wash her hands of it. But her conviction did not make it true. If her fickle nature had played even a minuscule part in the dissolution of such a long-standing friendship, she would have to square with that someday.

As Abigail shuffled off the Boeing 747 in a state of semi-wakefulness, she had caught a glimpse of the moon still high in the sky. She had left San Uriel the night of her graduation at around midnight. After the flight, she arrived in New York City at what should have ended up six o'clock in the morning. That put her off by three whole hours. Abigail had never told her mother why she had opted for the red-eye,

Abby didn't think she needed to know about her recent spate of boy troubles. Abby didn't want that to color her mother's judgment to allow her to take this trip by herself. Aunt Chloe always had this gift for blighting up even her darkest days.

Whenever she saw her face, Abigail Vennard felt as though she could do anything. Aunt Chloe had a quiet strength about her, something Abigail sought to emulate in these trying times. She looked around for the "Vennard" sign. Abigail wondered if Aunt Chloe might have forgotten when she was supposed to pick her.

Then, Abigail Vennard saw her pulling into the airport terminal. Tabitha tilted her head at the peculiar sight. She had never known Aunt Chloe to arrive late to anything. Whenever she planned to go somewhere, she always planned to get there early. "Abby." Aunt Chloe opened herself up for a hug. "It's been too long."

The two hugged as others reunited around them as well. "Well, it seems that we must get you to my house so you can get some shut-eye." Aunt Chloe smiled. "For tomorrow we take in all the sights New York City has to offer." Aunt Chloe, Mom's older sister, had an Audrey Hepburn quality to her, a great beauty who still was still gorgeous even in old age. Aunt Chloe knew how to handle men. She had met a great man years ago. They never had kids and he died before his time.

After that, she swore off all men, knowing none would equal her Daniel. Aunt Chloe never made the mistake of trying to wade back into the deep end and risk her sanity swimming with sharks. Abigail wished she could do what she did, swear off all men. Unfortunately, something inside tugged at her, forcing her to keep trying.

Dressing in drag sucked. Especially after the things he had done to this body. It felt unnatural but trying tell that to the higher-ups, demons who had spent ages as hermaphroditic hybrids of light and flesh. Valac growled as he drove her PT Cruiser back to her apartment. Valac recalled the night she had invited him into her apartment. Her beloved Daniel had seen to her retirement though not as well as she deluded herself into believing. Aunt Chloe claimed to have sworn off all men.

Valac didn't believe that. Eventually, he did locate this one young urban professional Chloe fancied. Poor Johnny wouldn't even remember the greatest night of his life. Valac had drained his mystical reserves jumping this old lady's bones. Valac admired her strength of spirit but it didn't take long to locate that tiny kink in her own suit of armor, a hole in every soul that allowed his kind to creep in. Valac looked over at Chloe's niece, Abigail, and hoped his master would call with more instructions as to the great game. Valac rapidly was hoping his patience.

Any other job where a boss could call you up in the middle of the night and ask you to go to New York on a moment's notice would, at the very least, come with a halfway decent pay. Valac didn't get anything of the sort. Demons didn't get any benefits, merely the chance to move up in the ranks and be a boss demon someday.

Besides, demons like Valac represented the bottom rung of Jacob's Ladder, sort of speak. Nobody really knew why some humans ended up demons and other didn't. Valac could hazard a guess. Valac had participated in an act of deicide.

Perhaps, that pissed off the management enough to revoke his humanity in addition to sending his soul spiraling in the all-consuming pit. Due to his racial handicap, many considered Valac something of a slacker. Most demons around the two thousand year mark had sustained a sizable rank, human-born or otherwise.

Valac still thrived as the bag-man. He didn't call upon any allies nor did he command any legions. He survived by doing the dirty jobs even other demons were not comfortable with. A dark mysterious fellow, even by demonic standards, Lord Belial never ran out of dirty jobs for Valac. The school massacre had been a fiasco.

Lord Belial had nearly skinned him alive for running away from Excalibur but he had forgiven him in the sense that he gave him a chance to redeem himself. One more last chance or he would end up a plaything in the bottomless pit again.

Valac shivered at the thought. Some demon lords laughed at the possibility of going back there. Some said they could do a century balancing on their heads. Valac didn't have their bravado. Hell scared him and the worst creatures always fought their way to him, making the century or two it took to escape the longest years of Valac's eternal life. Time on Earth didn't always flow the same as it did in the pit.

Sometimes, a century would pass down there while only a decade would pass here. Sometimes, vice versa. Whatever the case, Valac couldn't rely on returning to the life he had started. For all Valac knew, King Arthur and his lot would have been reborn again by the time he broke out of Hell. Valac had one thing figured for sure.

Lord Belial didn't mean to just kill them. If he wanted to do that, he would have sent him to kill Abigail, not take her sightseeing. No, whenever Lord Belial got personally involved, it meant that he had planned fates far worse than death for his enemies. Valac waited anxiously for the call with more instructions from the boss.

"Oh, Jesus." Moses Penn pulled up the photo of the late Staff Sergeant Eugene Portland. "Who would do something like that?" Some creep had leaked the picture onto the Internet. The man with the broken neck had dented an AC unit on the roof of Monmouth High, almost like someone had thrown him up there.

"Not who." Moses clicked a different tab. "What?" He had brought up a site on demonology. "As far as I can tell, this murder fits the M.O. of a demon. They move from body to body, never able to stray more than six hundred sixty-six cubits or roughly a fifth of a mile from their current host without picking out a new body."

Alex stared at Moses. "Demons?" Alex rolled his eyes. "Eric Weiss had psycho in his blood; he believed in demons too." Alex got up and paced around the office. "So, in addition to ghouls and gods, we have to deal with demons now." Moses nodded weakly. "Great." Alex returned to his seat. "Well, keep dishing it out, Q."

Moses rolled his eyes. He hated that nickname. "Anyways, most humans, when possessed by a demon, retain no memory of the experience. Sometimes, a strong-willed human will fight the demon for control of his body and will retain memories of that. When that happens, the demon usually kills the previous host."

Alex chuckled. "Just out of curiosity, who put up this website?" Moses scrolled down to the webmaster, a Doctor Simon Blaise. "That the same immortal doctor who claimed taught you magic in a previous life?" Moses nodded. Alex chuckled again. "Remember a time when that sentence would have sounded utterly insane?"

Yes, their world had tumbled down the rabbit hole, never to return to the world they knew. What could they do about it? This brave new world needed them to put the pieces together and figure out how to defeat the latest evil trying to cross blades with them. "Well, at least, we can trust the authority of this folklore."

Who better to train them in the ways of demon-hunting than a bona fide wizard? The rest of the website contained files covering the varying individual demons. The largest section belonged to a nasty critter by the name of Belial. "Hey, I remember that name. Eric Weiss called himself that before ..." Alex trailed off.

"I killed him?" Moses offered without looking up from the screen. Moses felt no guilt whatsoever. Sometimes, it didn't do to just rap them on the knuckles and send them on their way. Sometimes, you had to kill someone to be taken seriously.

Moses knew that sentiment, if said aloud, would make him sound like a monster. Moses Penn did value human life. Alex's efforts to save people during his crusade against crack houses made Moses proud. Merlin mentored Arthur in each life and some lessons never changed. Someone always ended up with the dirty jobs.

The phone rang. Alex answered. It sounded like Luis. His grandparents had called their house. Apparently, Luis never came home after graduation. Alex told him about that. Judging by the bits of conversation Moses could hear through the door, Luis needed a place to crash. After a long pause, Alexander invited him over.

As Moses sorted through as much of Simon Blaise's website as he could, he heard a noise. It sounded like someone unlocking the door. As per custom, Alex went to greet Mom after another long day at work. Moses had just clicked on the link to the Belial entry when a hard thud crashed against the door to the office.

A badly beaten Alexander Penn slumped over into the office. Moses looked up and saw Luis Lanza standing in a darkened living room, his yellow eyes glowing in the dark. "Hello, son." A tendril of smoke reached out from behind Luis' unusually deep shadow. "Long time, no see." That dark booming voice didn't belong to Luis.

Luis surveyed the scene of his own carnage. Moses figured that Luis had grabbed him by the throat and thrown him against the door. An easy task for someone had heaved a corpse onto the roof from ground level. Luis bared his teeth like a predator. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Lord Belial."

Alex finally got to his feet. "Yeah," Alex said as he continued to cough. "I've heard that one before." Alex backed into the kitchen where he had kept Excalibur behind the refrigerator. "And it wasn't funny the first time either." Luis laughed a dark booming laughter as if he had said the very thing he wanted to hear.

"Well, then, have at me," Luis said. "But know this: I am just as dangerous dead as I am alive. If my friend does not hear back from me in a timely manner, he has my permission to tear out the beating heart of your dear sweet Abigail." Alex removed his hand from behind the refrigerator. "Now that I have your attention ..."

Luis stared at the two of them. "Heed my words." The thing wearing Luis paced around the living room. "Until now, I've often insisted on fighting you from afar. I brought down Camelot without ever setting foot in England. Still, I am a warrior at heart and this insipid cloak-and-dagger routine bores me to no end."

Luis turned to Moses and Alex. "I want a real fight." Luis removed a map from his vest pocket. He laid it on the coffee table. "Meet me here in a week's time." Luis' yellow eyes returned to their familiar brown. "You show up and your lady might get a chance to die from old age this time around." Luis licked his lips.

"Try to warn her, she dies. Try to back out, she dies. Anything other than facing me on the chosen battlefield would be folly." Luis looked around the kitchen. "And do try to make good time on your road trip. You will need your weapons and I highly doubt airport security will make an exception for wizards and future kings."

Valac hated this country. It had a smug self-importance he had only seen in the most powerful of demon lords. Worse yet, ancient prophecy seemed to confirm its place in the grand scheme of things. If the end of the word had a starting point, it would be in the U.S. of A. Valac could, at least, take comfort in that factoid.

Just as he had hoped for, the master had touched base with him. Lord Belial had more than just death planned for them. He wanted a fight, a no-holds-barred beat-down against King Arthur and his meddlesome wizard. Lord Belial had waited ages for a chance to break their bones with his own hands (his own borrowed hands).

Valac had the important task of making sure that Abigail Vennard, the designated damsel-in-distress, never got in on the gag. Valac smiled as Abigail took a dozen pictures of the Statue of Liberty. If she sensed a dark conspiracy gathering around her, she did a better job at hiding her true feelings than most demons.

Valac readjusted Chloe's scarlet dress. While he would never admit this when asked, Valac had gotten used to Chloe Phillips as a host. Not just her body and the plumbing that it entailed. Valac had grown used to the rhythm of her thoughts. Too bad Chloe had put up such a fight. She'd remember that and that meant Valac would have to kill her as soon as he found himself his next host organism.

Valac regretted that. As much as he enjoyed the artistry of death, had an element of restraint rare in his hellfire family. Like fatties in a buffet line, other demons knew only how to stuff themselves silly. Valac, the other hand, knew when he had had enough and when the situation didn't require gratuitous bloodshed.

If he didn't have that element of restraint, it would make Valac no more useful than that hulking monster stomping about the American Southwest. Because of him, Morgan le Fay, one of their most valued assets, spent more time cleaning up after her son than helping them aid Lord Belial in his bid for world domination.

Valac put on Chloe's sunglasses. This always happened to demons during extended stays in one host body. The line between the host organism and the demon parasite blurred. He started thinking of himself as the host and vice versa. Valac knew that the sun could only damage the eyes of Chloe Phillips but, as he struggled to maintain his own identity, her eyes seemed just as valuable as his own.

Chloe muttered something about how many tourists went to New York City to see the Statue of Liberty without realizing the obvious. Staten Island didn't reside in New York City or even the state of New York. To get a glimpse of the green babe, one had to hop a ferry to New Jersey. Valac rolled his eyes at that bit of unsolicited trivia.

The upside of an extended stay always came from the increased docility of the host. After huffing and puffing and beating their chests for hours (sometimes days), the host grew to accept the invading consciousness as a fact of life and carry on as a passenger in their own lives. Besides, Valac hadn't gone anything too horrible.

Yet. Chloe's cell-phone rang. Valac answered it. "Hello, sir." The master asked about Abigail. "Fine, fine. Nothing out of the ordinary." Abigail looked over at him. The master asked if she suspected anything. "No, no, I don't think so." Abby walked up to him. "Goodbye." The master could have blown their cover just then.

Showing the first signs of suspicion so far, Abby asked about the call. "Oh, you know, the usual gentleman caller trying to set up a date." Valac and Abby shared a smile. "Nothing I couldn't handle." Valac slipped the cell-phone back into the purse. "Tell me, do you have any gentleman callers? I mean, a lovely lady like yourself ..."

Abby groaned. "Aha!" Valac raised a finger in his Eureka moment. "One of those complicated things, huh?" Abby nodded. "Will they or wouldn't they?" Valac smirked. "You can always talk to your aunt about these things, dear." Abby groaned some more. "Or not." Valac snapped a picture. "Why ruin a perfectly good day?"

Abby surrendered. "I have these two guys." Valac's ears perked. "I've known both of them since the third grade." Abby looked over the railing of the ferry. "I like both of them but whenever I end up with one of them, I feel like I've betrayed the other." Abby bowed her head. "I feel like a whore stringing them along."

Valac grinned. "Do whatever feels right." Abby looked up in confusion. "I've met a lot of men since my Daniel passed away. Sometimes, I wondered if I might start over but it never felt right." Valac spread Chloe's arms in a theatrical gesture. "Why spend your little life agonizing over these things? Just do whatever comes naturally."

"Look!" Moses pointed with his staff. "It worked." Paul, an old hunting dog of the motel owner, stared through his formerly cataract-ridden left eye. Alexander Julius Penn rolled his eyes. Moses had done this every step of their cross-country journey through the continental United States, finding infirm animals and healing them with his magick. Not that Alex didn't see the miracle in what Moses had done.

He just didn't see the point. The two had a date with a demon lord in New York in a couple days. What would Moses do when he met Lord Belial on the battlefield? Heal him to death? They needed Moses to develop more offensive capabilities.

Moses hoped that starting small would jump-start his engine, sort of speak. To supplement his abilities as a wizard, Moses stopped at every Internet cafe and public library along the way to keep plundering Simon Blaise's website for tidbits of occult science. As one might expect from an immortal wizard, Simon knew his demons.

Simon knew their tactics and their weaknesses in vivid detail, giving them a fighting chance against Lord Belial. Alexander Penn stared down at Excalibur. Alex never thought he would have a confrontation with the big boss demon so early in the game. Usually, big boss demons resided in the shadows until they had weakened his foe with legion of underlings. This big boss demon did things a little differently.

Ironically, this tactic might actually work where other demons would have failed. By refusing to wait on his underling legions to "soften" them up, Alex and Moses wouldn't have the opportunity to refine their craft. Belial had the best chance at killing them than he ever would. Alex stared at the map on the dashboard. Alex and Moses argued over the best way to get from Kansas City to New York City.

Moses wanted to drive straight past Columbus overnight without sleeping. At that would have worked fine if they had the chance to sleep when they got to New York City. But once they got there, they would need all their senses intact and in ready-to-rumble fight mode. Alex and Moses had screwed around enough already.

The trip across the country should have only taken a full week. They had screwed around getting to Kansas and they would have to make up for lost time eventually. Regardless, the two needed their sleep. Moses couldn't cast spells while drowsy and Alex could barely lift this sword if he didn't get his eight hours.

In the end, Alex gave in and went with the drive all night approach. If they made good time, they could find a motel in NYC to spend the night. Alex shivered. He had brought this danger down upon Abigail Vennard's head. If she had never known him, Lord Belial wouldn't have her guarded by one of his most trusted lieutenants.

Valac strutted his stuff as Abigail Vennard looked on laughing. Valac never thought spending this much time around mentally health humans would actually lift his spirits. "You're a good dancer." Valac had put on a dance mix CD and they had decided on a girls' night in. Valac curtsied politely. Abby giggled at that.

"Let me try." As with most women from her generation, Abigail danced in a manner reminiscent of music video, all blatant sex appeal with none of the finesse and style of the older set. Valac waved his hands. "No, no, no" Valac corrected Abby. "Nobody dances like that unless they're getting a twenty in their G-string."

Tabby laughed at that. "Here, I'll show you." Chloe Phillips, back in her Chloe Lovecraft days, used to work the dance circuit. She still had all the muscle memory intact from those days. "See," Valac said as he continued to dance up a storm.

"Now, you try, dear." Abby followed and the two danced the flamenco as pizza delivery rang their doorbell. "Pizza!" the two women exclaimed in unison. Abigail Vennard raced ahead of Valac, grabbing the money off of the kitchen table.

Silas knew exactly what the boss would say. He would tell him that he had gotten too close to the subject. He would tell him that he ran the risk of going native. Valac didn't care. The boys hadn't contacted Abby. Valac had done his job. What difference would it make if he decided to have a little fun? Sure, Lord Belial would butcher those two idiots and Valac would have to dispose of Abby in due time.

What part of that had to spoil this? Valac's skin crawled as Chloe's cell rang. Silas answered it. "They've arrived. Process with the plan." Silas knew the plan. When he had heard it, he considered it the master stroke of genius. Silas would kill Abigail. Lord Belial would inform them of her death before the fight took place.

Hopefully, the bad news would unbalance the wizard and his king enough to make their deaths quite satisfying. "Yessir," Valac said. "Right away." Valac had never told anyone this but, in his human days, he had had a family of his own.

Abigail Vennard had the smile of a ten-year-old girl from an empire long since decayed. "Consider this your lucky day, bitches." Valac evacuated from Chloe Carter. Valac hopped down to street level, mugged a nearby hobo and took his meat suit.

"Jesus H. Christ in a taxicab!" Moses Ambrose Penn exclaimed as they reached the street corner. Lord Belial had indicated this spot on the map of Manhattan as the rendezvous point. A few night owls had showed up to shoot some hoops on the basketball court. Someone (or something) had snapped through their bones like twigs and left their bodies strewn about the chosen battlefield.

"I'll get sick later," Alex said, clearly trying to summon some steely resolve from his words. Moses held the Staff of Merlin out in front of him, the illuminated end serving as a flashlight as he surveyed these poor devils. "Come on out, Lord Belial!"

Alex removed the holy sword from its sheath. "You and I have unfinished business!" The basketball court filled with corpses remained silent. Why hadn't any cops arrived yet? Moses looked through the windows of the buildings on both sides of the basketball court. Lord Belial must have cast a glamour to hide the bodies.

The court stayed quiet. Moses didn't like this. They had arrived just when the demon had instructed them to. They had made no effort to contact Abigail. What if the demon had already killed Abby and planned to do the same to them?

Moses shook his head. No. He needed to stay calm. A life might still hang in the balance. The two brothers took a moment to gather up their courage. They had arrived here too sleep-deprived and anxious to face their enemy. If they didn't have the energy to face Lord Belial, they might as well still have the courage to. "Are you scared?" Alex flicked Excalibur through the air. "Are you scared that I'll kill you?"

A bearded man in ragged clothes appeared on the blacktop. "Believe me when I say that my master fears nothing. Not me, not you and certainly not death." The hobo held up his hands in surrender. A business card appeared in his left hand. The man handed the card to Alex. "Go to this address. You must save Abby before he ..."

The tip of a scythe popped out through his chest, a centimeter below the heart. "How does it feel, traitor?" Luis Lanza said in the voice of Lord Belial. Luis swung the ominous agricultural tool. The hobo splattered against a brick wall. "I shall deal with you later." Luis turned to face Alex and Moses. "Time for the two of you to die once more."

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