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Drawn Sword

"And each man stands with his face in the light of his own drawn sword. Ready to do what a hero can." – Elizabeth Barret Browning

Doctor Simon Blaise drummed his fingers. It was a habit he had picked up a couple centuries back. He had no right to make this call. Moses Penn and his band of reborn knights had earned their reprieve from the darker elements of this world. Together, they had executed a vile demon general and brought abject disorder to his ranks. Needless to say, they had done good work and they earned a bit of a vacation. Still, the thing in the dark spaces had the patience of Job. He could wait forever to strike again. Once Simon lowered his guard, another child patient would vanish.

The child would get snatched out of his/her bed, kicking and screaming into the dark. Simon took off his glasses and rubbed his sinuses. He could still hear their cries. As an immortal, he didn't need to sleep but he would have liked to be able to.

Simon stared out the window at the forest surrounding the Mother of Mercy Hospital. It reminded him of something. Some lore that might place this awful beast in the grand scheme of things. Simon couldn't remember though. Perhaps, the fog of ages, an immortal's most formidable foe, had clouded his memories of the thing.

Simon needed young blood to aid him in this job. Simon stared down at the collages of newspapers clippings he had scattered across his desk. There had been a string of murders along the I-17 and the I-40 northwest of Sedona a few weeks back. They didn't seem like the usual hitchhiker slasher killer schtick. Police had followed up on witness reports of a man making his way on foot down the interstate.

Cops though couldn't find this man. It smelled like a revenant to Simon Blaise. The superhuman stamina and inexplicable stealth fit the modus operandi to a T. Then, Simon read about the vehicles, the one thing that had the police stumped.

The killer didn't just break into their cars. The killer totaled them. He turned their vehicles into outsider art either before, during or after he killed the passengers. The police had tried out a number of pet theories. None could explain the damage.

The power level. That one aspect of this revenant's profile unnerved him. Most revenants he had encountered in the last five centuries weren't this strong. Most of them only possessed fleeting remnants of the whole undead superhuman package. This one had the whole enchilada. A super-charged revenant terrorizing the commuters on the interstate. It made his skin crawl just thinking about it. The fact that the killings had stopped about two weeks ago did little to comfort Simon Blaise.

It took a lot of the right kind of firepower to put down a revenant for good. That and, as long as it lived, it thrived on the sole operating principle of murder. Its driving purpose was to inflict the very death they had cheated via black magic.

A croak echoed from the air conditioning. Simon placed his glasses on his desk and reached for the bottom drawer. Never a man of violence, Simon still afforded himself the luxury of a firearm. Something he could turn to if he faced something that didn't share his pacifistic tendencies. Simon finger-loaded the revolver and got up from his seat. Simon scurried down the hall like a hundred-sixty-pound rodent.

Simon followed the path of the air vents leading out of his office. Whatever moved about in those cramped uncomfortable metal tunnels did so with impossible stealth. The creature had volunteered that conspicuous croaking noise. If it had not, Simon Blaise would have had no idea that it came anywhere near his office.

The croaking noise derailed his train of thought. A growl or a moan would have calmed his raw nerves. That would have been familiar, the auditory stereotype of every monster that ever lived. But the croaking. That made the monster different. Unfamiliar. Dangerous. Simon realized someone was standing right behind him.

"Stop or I'll shoot!" Simon screamed at a startled night janitor. "Sorry, Sanjay, carry on." Simon laughed at his own jumpiness. Look at me. Immortal wizard hiding behind a gun against what will likely turn out to be some harmless nursery boogey.

Just a job, just a job, just a job, Simon recited mentally to himself. Simon comforted himself by thinking of this job as just a bit of freelance pest control. Simon remembered the times he would read to Merlin from the pages of an ancient bestiary.

"Flip this coin," Blaise would joke as he rolled his trusty denarius across his knuckles. He showed off one side of the coin. "Heads, a type of monster gains enough notoriety to enter into legend." He flipped it over. "Tails, it is forgotten by the normal folks, recorded only by the wizards obsessed enough to catalogue their unique traits."

That fondly remembered attempt at humor on his part summed up the omnipresent frustrations of ever trying to assemble a truly exhaustive bestiary. Present-day scientists discovered thousands of new species. And those only included the one not warped or created wholesale by the fallen angels and their forsaken ilk.

Monsters and fairies lurked among them. To make matters worse, these abominations often still possessed a spark of angelic invincibility. It meant the act of destroying or banishing them only happened under a narrow subset of conditions. Simon Blaise had once encountered a curious breed of vampires who could only die on a Saturday after getting chopped into pieces, cremated and given their last rites.

A blur of movement greeted Simon Blaise out of the corner of his right eye. He twirled around, catching only a glimpse of a tail. "Game's afoot," Simon said gallantly as he pulled back the hammer of the Colt revolver. A blur of movement, this time to his left. Simon turned around again. "Show me your face; I will cure all your ills."

Simon needed to cowboy up. Simon sniffed the air for a hint as to its current location. It didn't take long for him to catch its distinctive scent. It smelled like fish. Simon followed the distinctive odor to the children's wing of the hospital where all the other children went missing. This was too easy. The thing wanted him to find him.

Simon didn't care. When this thing showed his face, he'd blast a dozen holes in it. He kicked in the door. The creature had nowhere to hide. Simon flicked the light switch. There atop the hospital bed stood the thing, hunched over its next victim.

"Oh, God," Simon said, his hand over his mouth. "Those poor kids." The thing lunged at him. "No." Simon placed the barrel of his revolver under his chin. He had no way of winning this. The best he could do was send a message to the next hunter.

Alexander Julius Penn finished wrapped the bandages over his right wrist. When Mose said he would glue him back together, he didn't know that it would actually look like something he had glued back together. Alex stared at the jagged scar tissue where Moses had held his severed right hand against the bleeding stump.

Alex had passed out. A strange laugh came over Alex. Eighteen and he had acquired his first battle scar. Alex couldn't help but laugh. Moses assured him that it would not have company anytime soon. "They're on the run," Moses told him.

Whoever (or whatever) Luis killed back in New York held a high rank. Without him, their circus tent would implode in on them. Moses must have recognized the tell-tale signs of a guilty conscience. "We didn't have a choice," Moses said. "We can save the world or we can go to jail for killing a cop, Alex. We cannot very well do both."

To conceal the murder Luis had committed while taking out Belial, they had heaped the dead cop on top of the other bodies at the basketball court. "The perfect game." Moses winced at that. "Officer Stephen Wilkins has a family somewhere."

Moses shook his head. He had warned him about learning the name. He said it would screw him up. "They ought to know that he didn't die some idiotic death." Alex was struggling to breath. "I mean, his death brought down a fire-belching hellspawn."

Moses pursed his lips and let out a long whistling breath. "Yeah, I'd like to give the guy a plaque too but we killed him and the demon possession defense wouldn't even get us a stay at a decent psycho ward in that state." Moses clutched his sinuses. "We did the right thing. We fought the good fight. We earned this summer vacation."

Alex couldn't even believe it. At long last, the summer of his senior year had arrived. For him, due to a nasty stay in an alternate dimension of differing temporal properties, this summer had taken a particularly long time for him to get started. Alex looked down at his right hand. "By the way, how's the hand, Luke Skywalker?"

What a stupid nickname, Alex thought. Alex made the so-so gesture with his right hand. Two weeks of magically-directed healing and yet it sometimes felt like a plastic mold growing out of his wrist. Moses assured him the nerves would recover.

Alex couldn't complain. He should probably count his blessings that it didn't end up growing out of his ass. "How's Abigail doing?" Moses made the so-so gesture. Officer Steve Wilkins, while possessed by Lord Belial, shot Abigail in the stomach.

He did it to distract his wizard during their duel. Moses had fixed up as much of the nerve damage as he could with his magick but Abigail still dealt with random bouts of temporary paralysis, a permanent reminder of her near-death experience.

Moses, while directly unharmed, lost the aid of his wooden sidekick. Lord Belial had smashed the Staff of Merlin when he tried to cast him out the second time. Alex often heard Moses experimenting in his bedroom, desperate to fix his stick. Alex often wondered if the Staff of Merlin could have helped Moses fix his right hand.

Luis Enrique Lanza, the most physically intact of their group, still struggled with the post-traumatic stress of a high-ranking demon bunking in his meat locker. Seeing what Luis had turned into these last two weeks often made Alex wish he had just killed him, a prime example of a thought best kept to oneself. Moses was too busy brushing up on his utilitarian ethics to consider the ramifications of their actions.

Luis Enrique Lanza stared at the four corners of his bedroom. He could still feel him inside. The demon. Moses said he had cast him out. Alex said he had killed him. Luis didn't believe that. He reached for his trusting hunting knife and made the proper incision. The white-hot pain of it scourged the demon from his body.

It granted him a few moments of peace and quiet. None of them had any clue what it felt like to have a demon inside them. The demon had invaded every nook and cranny. And not just his body either. He had ransacked his mind for the killer-diller details. Whatever it took to fool his closest friends and family into believing the masquerade. He had even dug into his soul and struck the spiritual bedrock.

Luis had tried everything to expunge the demon from his body. Luis tried to puke him out but the demon just laughed. The demon continued to taunt him, reminding him how much he had enjoyed their time together. He even bragged about all those people he had killed with his body on their cross-country road trip.

The demon particularly enjoyed that gas station attendant in El Paso. Luis or the demon soaked him in gasoline and lit him on fire. The sheer bald-faced cruelty of the demon shocked Luis. He could have easily blacked out during the entire trip.

Instead, Luis Lanza always managed to wake up in time to witness some random act of violence. Luis could see the sacrificial fire burning behind his eyes. The elderly man had screamed out in a heavy Texan accent. The old man never stopped pleading for mercy from a God who could not (or would not) answer him.

That scene of hideous brutality and unwavering piety bound Luis' soul to that gas station attendant. Luis too had screamed out for the God his grandparents had taught him to believe in. He never questioned the existence of an all-knowing all-caring all-powerful Creator. Not even when He took away his parents. Yet what kind of God would allowed a child of Satan to take such liberties with a true believer?

It just didn't sense on any level. Grandma and Grandpa still wouldn't talk to him. The demon had dragged Luis to a rendezvous in New York City with Moses and Alex. Grandma and Grandpa thought that Luis had decided to run away from home.

Luis didn't know if he had the courage to tell them what really happened. He only knew that he owed more than just some ridiculous lie. This couple had raised him after his parents died. He owed them the truth even if it was truly grotesque.

I wonder what they would think of that, Luis thought, knowing the answer to his own question. Moses and Alex Penn would say that his grandparents would benefit from plausible deniability. The less they knew, the safer they would be

Bull, Luis realized. They just didn't have the balls to tell their mother about what they're doing. Besides, those guys got all the breaks when it came to hiding their secret. Alex got trapped in Purgatory and, upon release, no one but his saviors even remembered that he had left. Even their New York City thing had the rather convenient cover of an impromptu road trip. Luis didn't have any such excuses.

Luis Lanza just vanished into the ether without even saying goodbye to them first. While he didn't want to play this card, Luis had saved Alex's ass from that boss demon at a time when he hardly had enough sense to know which direction was up.

If that meant anything to Alex, Luis should have every right to conduct his private business however he saw fit. This secret of theirs didn't belong to anyone. Luis had just as much of a right as the next guy (or girl) to spill the beans on this bizarre other life. After Luis bandaged the wound, he heard a knock at the door.

Luis reached for the hunting knife and tucked it into the back pocket of his blue jeans. Luis stared at the clock: ten o'clock. Hardly a reasonable hour to expect anybody to entertain unannounced guests. Luis tried to stay calm. Grandma and Grandpa slept through the knocking. Luis turned the silver knob of the front door.

"Abby," he said as a pair of arms wrapped around him. Abigail Vennard had arrived in the middle of the night. Luis didn't want to make any assumptions but her lips pressed against his erased any need. Luis tried to focus on endowing as much passion into every kiss he delivered. Luis looked up at Abby's yellow iridescent eyes.

Abby took his hunting knife and jabbed it into his spine. "Damn," Luis said as he straightened up in his bed. Luis looked at his bandaged wound. That part had happened. Everything else, Luis must have fallen asleep, an inevitable occurrence considering how little sleep he had gotten lately. Just as he always did when he found occasion to sleep by accident, Luis had nightmares of the demon that had taken him.

The nightmares told him more than words could. Luis would never escape the demon's grasp. The demon had lived inside Luis for over a week. He did all the things a hellspawn could think to do in order to corrupt a human soul. Luis had never given in. He had never willingly participated in the mayhem but his strength of will hadn't been a free lunch. Holding onto his humanity had cost Luis Lanza his sanity.

Abigail Vennard, though game for any number of "experiments" relationship-wise, never made the first move. Luis shouldered that burden most of the time. Luis wanted it though. That had weakened his resolve and allowed him to play the part of a hapless hormonal male in the mini horror movie he had just experienced then.

Luis wrapped his pillow around his head. Did the demon have friends? Luis wondered as he closed his eyes. Did they want vengeance for his death? Luis tossed and turned. Had he even died in the first place? Perhaps, he just went away to some nameless hell dimension waiting for the turn of a prophetic key to bring him back into the world and back into his life. Tears streamed from his eyes as he fell asleep.

Hadrian Galileo Wallace never believed in destiny. Haddy always remembered the description of the Fates given by his favorite mythology teacher, Mr. Kelter back in Providence, Rhode Island. The first spun the thread of life. The second measured it out. The last cut it down to size. That last Fate, Atropos, bothered him the most.

What gave Atropos the right to decide how long someone got to live? Who gave her that kind of authority anyways? Mr. Kelter would always answer those questions with an uncharacteristic glibness. "They are just stories," he would remind him. "We created them." He would then pat him on the shoulder. "Not the other way around."

Despite his reassurance, Haddy knew that stories created people just as much as people created stories. He never took a sick day in his life and his sports injuries vanished before everyone else's did. Haddy's tough hide made him braver than most.

It also made him richer. He had gotten into a car crash at age two. He had withstood the force of impact of their minivan colliding with an F-150. Nonetheless, his left leg snapped opened at the knee and twisted metal had cut open his throat. His parents settled up with the best lawyer in town and made sure that drunken asshole behind the wheel would pay for any complications he experienced from that crash.

Except nothing ever happened. He just healed and moved on. In retrospect, Hadrian shouldn't have had any beef with destiny and he should definitely believe in its power. Of course, his miraculous stamina only obscured the question of destiny.

Why did kids in Africa starve to death for no goddamn reason and he got to live in a country where most people would have to Google the word "famine" to know what it meant? What gave some the right to grow fat and others to die like dogs?

Adding to the hypocrisy of so-called destiny, Hadrian got a check in the mail every month since his last birthday for "complications" that never did, never would and never will happen. It felt like robbery. He tried giving the money away once.

That only pissed off his usually easygoing parents. They needed the money. With Dad having to move again and the prospect of Haddy paying for tuition to the University of San Uriel, Haddy agreed. Still, it took every ounce of willpower not to cook those checks on the barbecue grill on days when he felt most like a damn thief.

Hadrian's friends, the few he managed to make as his father's work with the military bounced him across the country, always said the same thing. "What a drama queen," said Oliver King from Minneapolis, Minnesota. "Bleeding heart know-it-all," raved Victor Plancy in Des Moines, Iowa. And those pricks counted as his friends.

Hadrian Galileo Wallace couldn't even repeat in mixed company the things his enemies said about him. Hard to imagine anyone kissing their mothers with those mouths. Even the occasional girlfriend somewhat tired of the whole "Mr. Perfect Save The Whales And Hug A Tree" attitude that had drawn them to him in the first place.

Sometimes, his attitude even embarrassed him but he couldn't help it. The world needed a couple more heroes and he couldn't think of any other way to supply that need than to champion the causes that mattered. Sure, that meant walking away from people he didn't share his "Save The World" perspective on life.

Hadrian just knew that behind his gee-golly attitude ulcerated some hidden need for an equally hidden purpose. One tucked away behind the clouds, put in the exact spot necessary to evade him during his years spent constantly searching for it.

Haddy continued his fencing lesson on a plastic torso. Dad used to challenge him to matches back when he had the time to. His latest work with the military would bring an end to those salad days. Still, Hadrian did not want to get too rusty.

Haddy had won quite a few championships at his old alma mater. Hadrian still couldn't believe he had graduated from that awful prep school. If not for his favorite classes, fencing and mythology, he'd have lost his mind before receiving his diploma.

Mom tossed the newspaper at him. He pierced it with his rapier. Mom shook her head and returned to her room. Hadrian looked at the bottom of the front page of The San Uriel Gazette. A Doctor Simon Blaise had committed suicide while under investigation for the mysterious disappearance of five child patients at the nearby Mother of Mercy Hospital. It sounded like the trappings of a mystery adventure.

Haddy returned the rapier to its rack. Hadrian's parents didn't care for his little adventures. Having his record expunged should have corrected his attitude toward going out and getting himself arrested. If it happened again, Hadrian Galileo Wallace would have the arrest on his adult record and no force in Heaven and Earth could expunge that one short of an apocalyptic cessation of Western civilization.

Haddy didn't worry. Just like the many times before, this seemed awfully important. In addition to his desire for adventure, something about the name Blaise sounded familiar. Like an old friend he hadn't heard from in years. Again, Hadrian didn't believe in destiny but he seemed willing to make an exception just this once.

And if this random visit to a hospital yielded nothing but chaos and an arrest, Hadrian would finally know for sure if such a beast as destiny had survived into an age when even priests preached the absolute chaos of mortal life. Hadrian packed an overnight bag and arranged a series of pillow to pantomime himself asleep in his bed.

"The game's afoot." It was a quote from "A Study In Scarlet." Of course, to the many scholars in love with the Immortal Bard, Sherlock Holmes was himself quoting King Henry V. The whole thing went something like this. "The game's afoot: Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"

Before she had received the vision, Abigail Vennard always went back and forth on whether or not she believed in all this reincarnated Camelot business. Abby had seen enough to know that the universe operated on a set of principles alien to the ones that she had cling to her whole life. Nonetheless, that did not necessarily make Alexander Penn the King of England or his brother Moses the wizard of all wizards.

Now, she saw with terrifying clarity the part she played in all this. Alex and her had quite a life together. She truly did love her as far as she could tell but her yearning for the man she had left behind ... I'm Guinevere, Abby finally realized.

The sordid melodrama between her, Alex and Luis had happened before many times like a telenovela repeating the same plotline ad nauseam. The fact that the same conflict arose again and again didn't surprise Abby. Her parents before the divorce behaved the same way. They would argue again, over the same damn things, always reaching the same damn conclusions and making the same damn accusations.

Emotions outpaced reason in a passion play. Even the River Lethe could not remove the curse of history repeating, even across lifetimes. Abby had refused Alex and Moses' request to investigate the Mother of Mercy Hospital ala Scooby-Doo.

Abby had about enough of them. Because of them, Aunt Chloe had to take sleeping pills just to have nightmares. Luis hadn't left his house since their return from New York. Abby could forgive them for all that if they could just accept the fact that they had won the great cosmic war that destiny had chosen for them to fight in.

The gang had slain Lord Belial. The Sons of Darkness, would wither and die without him. Luis (or Lancelot) had destroyed the demon that had deviled his friends since the days of Camelot. That sounded like V-Day for King Arthur and his Round Table. Nothing left to do but wait for their remaining enemies to turn on each other.

Except Alex needed to find the thrill of combat in his life. He couldn't believe that Merlin's immortal mentor had simply snapped, killed a bunch of kids and then killed himself. Abigail could barely handle a sequence of lifetimes held together by gossamer threads of memory. If she had to live one life across the gulf of centuries, Abby would have blasted herself her brains out too. Alex and Moses needed a war.

Abby stared blankly as a memory of sleeping with Lancelot while King Arthur quested resurfaced in her mind. Did she owe Alex the benefit of the doubt seeing how often she had abused his trust in the past? Abby sighed. "Oh, Hell," Abigail said as she realized she had talked herself into joining Alex's quest. Abby stared at Alex's picture on the wall. As Joan Jett would say, "I hate myself for loving you."

"Please, not there, anywhere but there!" Valac screamed as Nisroc shoved a modified corkscrew in. Valac could not hear his own screams above the other screams, cries and pleas for mercy. A few of the neighboring souls looked over at them.

Nisroc was a celebrity down here in the pits. His presence putting the hurting on a nigh-powerless imp was jarring to say the least. Guy had no business down here on the production floor. It was like seeing Paris Hilton as a bellhop at a Hilton Plaza.

Oh, God, Valac thought. Four months in Hell and I still know who Paris Hilton is. Even amid unspeakable torture, Valac could still spare a moment for mundane indignities, such as shame. Having any ability to snark at the stench of his own fetid rotten flesh made him unique among the tormented. Perhaps, for this reason, Belial had asked Nisroc to oversee his torture. He wanted to make sure he wasn't laughing.

Given his sloth, the fact that Nisroc said yes meant something. Valac didn't care what that something was. Nisroc didn't torture with the frenetic energy of most demons. Instead, he had this ability to construct new utensils of pain application. His inventive streak earned him the jealousy of the other demonic tormentors. Down here, when a demon did something truly gruesome, they called it pulling a Nisroc.

As Nisroc prepared to reintroduce the corkscrew to his lower intestines, a column of light appeared. The light descended upon them. The while light burned Nisroc but left Valac entirely unscathed. It actually worked, thought Valac. As Valac ascended into the light, Valac took a moment to give Nisroc the one-finger salute.

The fugly little winged troll let out a high-pitched screech. Valac continued his ascent from the bowels of the underworld. "I will have you again soon enough," Nisroc vowed as Valac drifted out of earshot. Valac found himself in a black garbage bag.

Valac clawed his way out of the bag and stared at his non-torture-chamber surroundings. Just as he had hoped for. A summoning circle crafted by the black wizard for his black king. His gambit for early release from hellfire had paid off.

"You're Valac," Alex informed him. He pointed at the sharp angles of his sigil and his human name written in human blood. O Negative, if he was not mistaken. Demonic senses were highly sensitive to the subtle yet distinctive characteristics of human blood. It made sense seeing how almost all demonic magick required some.

"We wrote your true name upon this circle." Valac stared at himself or, rather, herself. "We hope you like your new vessel." A chicken. These geniuses placed his demon soul inside an egg-laying chicken. Where the Hell did two black kids from the suburbs get a hold of a live chicken. Valac tried to show some sort of gratitude.

After all, everything else had gone according to plan. More or less. As per custom of a familiar binding, the owner of the sacrificial blood used to inscribe the sigil, namely, Alexander Penn, had the right to send him back whenever he pleased.

"I guess it is true what they say." The two looked askance either because they found the concept of a talking chicken disturbing or they didn't understand what he had just said. Perhaps, a touch of both. "Every dog has its day." The two blinked in confusion. "Or, in this case, every chicken." Oh, hey, Valac could get used to this.

The two nodded as if they had finally gotten the joke. Getting turned into a familiar always felt like the first date. Everyone had a piece of advice. Firstly, try to come off mysterious. Let the owner believe that you knew more than you let on.

Valac could have told them about Eligos' martyrdom but then what? Their conscience would get the better of them and Valac would end up back in Hell getting a corkscrew colonoscopy. "What piece of forgotten lore might I furnish you with, my liege?" Sometimes, the owner was old school. Talking like this was all but required.

"Cut the crap," Moses said as he clutched his chest for a moment as if he had trouble breathing. Valac recognized the signs of an inexperienced wizard dipping into his life energies to fuel a familiar binding. Valac almost felt sorry for him. Perhaps, he would allow him to stick around if he offered to perfect his magick.

"Alex needs help. You have no choice, demon." Valac stared at the sword Excalibur plunged into the center of the circle. That explained Moses' lack of being dead. Had he summoned a familiar and bound it using only his life-force ...

Well. the budding wizard would have been transformed into a desiccated corpse in a matter of minutes. Valac stared at the sword hellspawn called the Devil Slayer. He had probably seen it more than any demon in recorded history save one.

Moses Penn wrestled with the morality of what he had done. They needed a new source of wisdom now than Dr. Simon Blaise had met his maker. Why Alex insisted upon this demon defied explanation. He said that he had allied himself against Belial. The card he gave him, the one with the address of Chloe Phillips, Abigail's aunt, also contained a human name (Petronius) along with his sigil.

Alex thought of Valac as a good demon. His actions only proved that he had a knack for treachery. Alex sweetened the deal by insisting on a familiar binding. They wouldn't just summon a demon and hope it behaved. A familiar binding would attach the demon to whatever form and whatever owner the wizard designated for him.

The captive demon could not break free of the predetermined form. Nor could he disobey a direct order from his owner. Alex hated the idea of having a slave. "He's not human," Moses promised him. "You cannot enslave what has no right to be free."

Besides, nobody just dropped into Hell for no reason anymore than someone turned into a demon by sheer happenstance. This hellspawn had done something awful and that had lead to his transfiguration into his current state of damnation.

There were no innocent victims when it came to familiar binding. Alex, if he so desired, could set the demon free but Moses strongly advised against that. Only the strength of this familiar binding and the will of the Almighty kept this domesticated demonic servant from turning their lives into a direct-to-DVD sequel to The Exorcist.

Moses stared intently as Valac the Demon Possessed Chicken pecked away at his feed. Valac looked up at Moses. "What?" the demon asked. When he didn't answer, Valac went back to eating. Moses knew why he resented this creature. His father, his first father, had impregnated a woman and gave birth to him. His half-demon nature made him adept at magick and filled everyone whoever met him with fear and unease.

Even now, his reborn soul possessed the taint of his demon nature. Ever since Dr. Blaise's death, Moses had tried to sort through the massive archives of occult lore that Moses Penn had copied from the website before the webmaster pulled its plug.

Try as he might he couldn't make heads or tails of it. He couldn't decide what information they might need and what information they could safely discard. The two of them needed a consultant, someone who knew the subject inside-out and could give them exactly what they needed to know at a moment's notice in the heat of battle.

In that light, choosing a demon seemed like the next best thing to an immortal wizard. And, if not for the impressive track records demons had of screwing people over, Moses would have agreed. To make matter worse yet, the demon Valac didn't exactly have the most developed body of literature in the occult lore of the website.

None of the usual sources knew anything about this Valac character. The big-name demons had contradictory biographies occult scholars could spend their entire lifetimes deciphering. Valac, on the other hand, had a blurb that stated the obvious.

Valac worked for Lord Belial and didn't have a lot of power or knowledge. That disappointed Alex but not Moses. The weaker, the better. That kept the demon from running roughshod over them. Regardless, a lot of variables influenced how useful or dangerous this demon slave could prove in the long run. What powers did he possess? Could he read minds or locate hidden treasures? What could Valac do for them?

Sons of Darkness, Hadrian Galileo Wallace remembered as he pulled out of the garage. He had waited until now to make his move on the Mother of Mercy Hospital. In the interim, he had done some digging into the honorable Doctor Simon Leveaux Blaise. It seemed the good doctor had a thing for the occult. He had his own website.

There, he had meticulously collected and analyzed dozens, if not hundreds, of references to every sort of paranormal, supernatural and occult phenomena. The good doctor even speculated about (and Haddy tried not to laugh at the sheer absurdity of this deduction) the existence of a secret society composed of humans, demons, fairies and monsters, hell-bent on bringing about the end of the world.

How (or even if) the doctor's arcane beliefs had anything to do with the missing children evaded Hadrian. Needless to say, Dr. Simon L. Blaise had an ear for some weird crap. Mom and Dad wondered why Hadrian grew weary of ordinary pursuits.

Ultimate Frisbee had left him cold. Scuba diving, though diverting at first, didn't justify its expenses after the first couple of trips. He could look up all the sea life he wanted to in a book. Haddy wanted to see things no one had ever seen before.

In a way, Dr. Simon Blaise's website inflamed that familiar old desire. For such things did exist, Haddy would certainly like to meet one someday. Hadrian tried not to his hopes up. Between Ghost Hunters and Destination Truth, shows dedicated to exposing the supernatural did the job of proving that such nonsense didn't exist.

If they had, someone would have caught something more substantial than a couple of grainy photographs and technically incompetent grade-zero footage. The human intelligence thrived best on a worldview rooted in the scientific method.

Haddy sighed as he removed the bolt-cutter from his backpack and dispensed with a man-sized portion of the chain-link fence. As Hadrian slipped in through a window, ninja style, he felt a warmth in the air as if someone had come through this way. Haddy scoffed at the improbability of that. It would be like two separate groups of home invaders breaking into the exact same house on the exact same night.

Perhaps, the night janitor had lingered in this room for a few moments. Perhaps, trying to lock the very window he had entered through. Haddy reached for his backpack and walked into the south wing. Everybody dies. Hadrian Galileo Wallace, for his death-defying prowess, would face the reality of his own mortality someday.

Until then, Haddy only could hope he accomplished something with his life besides the occasional conviction and imprisonment in juvenile hall. Haddy looked around. An ax in a breakable glass case. He hadn't even known places still had them.

Haddy wrapped his shirt around his fist and punched through the glass case. He loaded the fire ax into his backpack. Haddy meticulously picked the glass shards from his shirt as he put it back on. Five innocent children had already gone missing.

Should a madman try to overpower him, what better than to defeat an ax-crazy serial killer than with an ax? Hadrian produced a flashlight. One of those As Seen On TV brands that generated its own power after a minute of hand cranking. After said minute of hand cranking, the flashlight illuminated the hallways.

"Holy Christ!" Alexander Julius Penn screamed as Abigail Vennard emerged from the shadows. Moses waved the glow-stick an inch from her face. "You scared the crap out of us." Moses arched an eyebrow. "I mean, out of me." Alex looked down the hallway. She had came pretty close to them before alerting them to her presence.

Alex wanted to know why she came but she had the answer written all over her face. She came because of him. "Stay close," Alex said. "There's something following us." Abby pointed at Valac, currently flashing his coal-black eyes of his chicken form at them. "He's cool." The chicken looked up at Alex quizzically. "He's with us."

Alex's head craned around in all directions. "By the way, you have any idea what kind of creature we're dealing with." Abby didn't know who Alex had directed that question at. Abigail must have assumed he meant for Moses. Not even close.

"I can't tell you much." Abby bent down on one knee and stared transfixed at the talking chicken. "It's not a demon. My senses could detect Gehenna sulfur or brimstone at concentrations of about one part per billion. All the sulfur in the air belongs to the usual sources and, of course, myself." The chicken nodded politely.

Alex didn't take much comfort in that. Abby's eyes dilated when Valac made the not-so-subtle implication of his own demonic origins. Alex would have to sit down and explain the demon chicken thing later. "Doctor Simon Blaise killed himself and everyone pinned the missing children on him even though no one has recovered any of the children, alive or dead." Alex hoped his calm narration would put Abby at ease.

Her eyes still hadn't left Valac. Not even for a moment to focus on the words coming out of his mouth. "I think something spooked the doctor. Something real nasty. Something so terrible that he chose a bullet to the brain over its assault." Alex remembered reaching for Excalibur by sheer reflex alone. During the battle of ten seconds, the horned thing knocked the sword out of his right hand.

Aggravating his recent "surgery," Alex dropped the blade. The monster wasted no time. It picked the sword up off the checkerboard floor. One moment from running Alex through, Moses jumped onto its back and gripped the sides of its head, drawing on the power of Excalibur to hit this damn abomination with a telepathic whammy.

Dazed but conscious, the feline creature stumbled off into the darkness with Excalibur in tow. Moses rushed up to Alex. "You okay?" Alex nodded. The beast had gotten lucky and tapped his trick wrist in just the right spot. "Don't let him get away."

Moses turned to give chase. Valac jumped in his way. "Move." Moses made out the shadow of the beast turning a corner into the south wing. "He's getting away." Moses rose his foot in an "I'm-going-to-stomp-on-you" gesture. Valac didn't budge.

Valac shook his head. "Go ahead." Valac walked under Moses' foot. "Step on me but I just saved your life." Moses' foot landed off to the side of Valac. "That was what you humans call a rakshasa." Valac paced around him. "It might look like a a shoddy B-movie monster to you but rakshasas are basically man-eating demigods.

"Oh, did I mention the best part? They are rapists. No wonder the doctor shot himself. Better to die than to be taken alive." Everybody gathered around this wise chicken. "That's the good news. They aren't necrophiliacs. Kids might still be alive."

Valac looked down in the direction of the south wing. "Now for some bad news. Unless someone here brought gold with them, that rakshasa just stole the only weapon that can destroy it." Valac stepped out from his tiny circle. "Don't worry." Valac stared into the darkness.

"It'll come back. It knows the sword could have killed it. It's paranoid now. It doesn't wanna die and it doesn't know that we don't have any gold weapons. So as long as we act like we have the advantage, we can get close enough to get the sword back."

Everyone stared at Valac, impressed by his strategy. "I'm a demon, remember? I'm good at this stuff." A scream echoed from the south wing. With that, all of three of them (four of them, counting Valac) moved in the direction of the scream. The gang circled a bleeding blond kid their age in an all black burglar attire, clutching a chest wound as it gushed blood everywhere. The nearly dead kid pointed to his backpack.

Moses emptied a box-cutter, a lighter and a roll of duct tape and a carton of glue onto the floor. The kid was crazy. He was sealing that hole with glue, duct tape and prayer. The kid noted his incredulity. "It'll hold," he assured Moses. Since Moses was a wizard, he should have known that the kid was being entirely serious and sane.

"The name's Hadrian Wallace." Hadrian Wallace described his encounter with the rakshasa. It slashed him across the chest. It tried to bite him. Hadrian had donkey kicked him in the groin. The beast had ran off clutching his crotch. "So would anyone like to tell me what the Hell I just kicked in the nuts?" Everyone remained silent.

They could hear the creature crawling through the air vent. Alex looked down at Valac. "Please, we need an answer." The rakshasa crawled closer. "It's gotta have another weakness beside the sword." Hadrian laughed as Alex continued to plead his case to a chicken. Alex bent down as Valac whispered the answer to him.

Valac nudged his head to the air vent. Whatever happened, the creature could not overhear their plan. Alex rifled through the contents of Hadrian's backpack. "We are going to need this." Back into the hospital room to make the required alterations, Alex called to the beast.

"You think it's okay to rape children?" Alex didn't get an answer. "Well, I think it's okay to kill monsters, friendo." That got the rakshasa's attention. The horned beast descended upon an empty hospital bed. "Hey, ugly." Alex lit Hadrian's lighter. The beast turned in the direction of the hissing noise and saw a jet of pure oxygen filling the air.

"Go to Hell." Alex tossed the lighter in after the beast. The fireball consumed the room. Excalibur slid across the floor. The horned fanged thing stumbled about in anguish, its fur singed and ashen. The creature was blind and deaf from the explosion. Alex picked up his sword and lopped off its head in one fell swoop.

"So, let me get this straight," Hadrian Wallace started in on the enormous task of understanding their lives. Moses Ambrose Penn felt sorry for the poor bastard here. Trying to make sense of their lives was not for the faint of heart. Moses Penn was a reasonably open-minded fellow and sometimes he couldn't wrap his head around it.

"You're a reincarnation of Merlin and your brother's a reincarnation of King Arthur. His best friend's a reincarnation of Lancelot. And this fine lady just found out she's a reincarnation of Lady Guinevere. Our future world king wields a sword made from the shards of Excalibur and takes advice from a talking demon chicken."

Moses Ambrose Penn tried to think about anything Hadrian might have left out. Moses nodded. "You all live such interesting lives." Hadrian pulled himself onto his feet and walked around the living room of the Penn residence, more or less okay.

Between purchasing a live chicken and bringing home a complete stranger, Mom had pretty much given up on trying to figure out their summer plans. "I wish I could have done more for you than just bleed on the floor and lend you a lighter."

Abigail Vennard turned up the television. Between infomercials and documentaries about human sexuality, TV didn't have much on at one o'clock in the morning (or night, depending on one's point-of-view). Abby finally reached Channel Eight News' Gloria Espino. "It seems an act of arson has brought happy endings to a number of families tonight. An hour ago, a man-made fire broke out at the Mother of Mercy Hospital, causing the death of Sanjay Patel, a janitor working the night shift."

Moses smirked. That hardly sounded like a happy ending. They did not know Sanjay only moonlighted as a human being. "During the excavation, the local firefighters discovered a secret room in the hospital's basement. Authorities would not comment on the condition of the children found at the scene." Half-hearted smiles followed.

This didn't feel right. They had beaten the bad guy, gained a possible new ally and saved a bunch of children in the process. Why didn't this feel like a true victory? The group dispersed. Moses thought about those kids. Would they even tell the cops about the shape-shifting monster? Would anyone be crazy enough to believe them?

Then, it struck Moses like a thunderbolt out of the blue sky. Moses Penn had misinterpreted Doctor Simon Blaise's wishes. He didn't want him out on the street, using his brother Alex as a vigilante henchman. He wanted him to rebuild Camelot.

Moses sat in front of the computer and stared at the blank screen. In seconds, his fingers blazed across the keyboard. He had wondered how he would rebuild Camelot in this modern day and age. Moses Penn had the answer he needed.

The Sons of Darkness had constructed an elaborate network of malefactors and human haters to get their message out into the world. They had only one weakness. They had no sense of how much the modern world had outpaced them. Moses could warn the world about the threat of the Sons just by pressing SEND. Moses paused. The prenatal website needed a name, something awesome that would inspire folks.

Moses Penn typed the words: The New Round Table. Beneath that elaborate medieval banner, Moses wrote down his favorite Latin proverb: Omni mutantur, nihil interit. Those bastards had tried again and again to kill his dream of an enlightened civilization. Each life, he got yet another chance to rebuild it. "Everything changes." Moses published the fledgling website in the hour before dawn. "Nothing's truly lost."

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