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Surmounting Difficulties

"It is surmounting difficulties that makes heroes." – Louis Pasteur

Abigail Kathleen Vennard took another cleansing breath as she sat in the full lotus blossom. She often turned to meditation to center herself during trying times. Seeing the avalanche of past lives crashing down on her life left her in a state of disarray.

Aunt Chloe, the one woman she always turned to for comfort, seemed too far away and wrapped up in her own self-pity to be of any real emotional support. Abby could care less whether or not she had ever slept with other men after Uncle Danny.

Still, it killed Aunt Chloe to know that she knew that. If Abby could name her one great flaw, it would be the dark and random forces that she allowed to guide her through life. No one seemed to understand what made her do the things she did.

And a part of her liked to keep it that way. As if an aura of mystery could put her beyond reproach. Therein laid the actual problem. Abigail didn't often know the method behind her own madness. An inventory of her motives escaped her wisdom.

Take, for instance, her life as Lady Guinevere, the great love of King Arthur. Guinevere yearned for an old lover and gave into her lust for Lancelot. King Arthur's son/nephew (don't ask) goaded his father/uncle (please don't ask) into trying them for treason since any crime against the crown constituted treason (which meant death).

When he failed to kill the two people in this world he loved the most, his mercy sparked a rebellion that brought down Camelot. In this messed-up game of thrones, motives counted for everything. Mordred, the bane of Camelot, hated King Arthur and would have said and done anything to break his bonds to the people he served.

So what drove Guinevere to play her part in all this? Did she hate King Arthur? Did she return his love? Did she plot against Camelot? None of the above. Guinevere just saw a chance to settle an old score and did so without good taste or common sense. Mom said that she had a superior attitude to the world around her.

Even when a demon-possessed cop pointed a gun at her, Abby believed, right up to the last moment, that something would stop the bullet before it reached her. Abby couldn't believe it when the bullet pierced her. Even now, she lived through the "seizures" with a sense of unreality, wondering why she should endure such agony.

Even back then, Guinevere didn't feel like she belonged to King Arthur and his world of knightly endeavors. What purpose did she serve in that old backwards milieu, save as the damsel-in-distress for King Arthur to rescue from his enemies?

Perhaps, part of what drew her back to Lancelot came from his own disconnect with the ways of chivalry. He didn't lust for honor. He didn't lust for glory. He didn't lust for fame. He merely lusted for the love of a good woman and a place to call home.

Abigail Vennard often pondered what King Arthur and his Round Table would do when the Sons of Darkness finally yielded to extinction. Abby knew the answer. It would never end for Arthur and his lot. The cosmos would have some new monster to throw onto the tip of his sword. He would fight until the end of time, blind to all that splendor he had missed in life during his quest to defend it for all forms of mayhem.

To add the absurdity, the Penn brothers took direction from a-chicken named Valac. Abigail didn't need the gift of prophecy to know that their hellfire rotisserie would turn on them at the drop of a hat. The way Valac earned their trust pissed her off. Abby had insisted that her alone time had nothing to do with their melodrama. Alex questioned that. Now, he'd believe everything that a demon chicken told him.

"It's you again." The same owl had perched on the same oak tree every night since she had gotten home from New York City. Abby didn't want to sound like a full-on schizo but ... Whenever she looked at the owl, it stared back. Then again, owls just had those kinds of eyes. "Go away," Abby said with a laugh. "Go haunt someone else."

"A fragment of the firmament fell to Earth last night." Moses looked around the living room. Moses wanted to see if anyone was struggling with the concepts set forth in his impromptu lecture. Heavenly cosmology wasn't exactly a subject covered extensively in high school. Valac had planned on turning on the Penn brothers at his earliest convenience. He really did but such a daring coup of his own would take time.

Especially seeing how his owner could easily banish him back to Hell with a few words of Latin. No, it served Valac best to bid his time until he could get Alex to set him free. He could ready see the cracks forming in Alex. A descendant of African slaves, Alexander Penn equated Valac with a human slave rather a demon familiar.

Valac found the analogy somewhat adorable. A sentimental yet fascinating misunderstanding of the relationship between humans and demons. Valac never considered himself as a slave. He had freedom like anyone else. His freedom just didn't matter as much as everyone else's. Valac allied himself with heavy hitters.

He did it so he could move on up. Valac considered time as a demon familiar more of an unpaid internship than a bout of slavery. Still, Valac could use Alexander Penn's bleeding heart to his advantage. He could lean on the slavery angle, hinting at the hypocrisy of it. He couldn't do it all at once. That would make him suspicious.

Alex would consult Moses and he'd end up back in Hell by tomorrow morning. No, Valac needed to play this out as smooth as possible. Then, when the opportune moment arrived, he'd leverage his sympathy and ask for his release from his duties.

Of course, that provided its own challenges. Moses, the ever-vigilant wizard, hadn't taught Alex the manumission incantation, the one that could set Valac free. Valac could tell Alex about it but Moses would consider that grounds for expulsion.

Somehow, Valac would have to sneak the knowledge of that incantation into Alex's usual diet of occult information without alerting his brother. Valac still didn't know exactly how he would do that. Moses Penn was a canny and paranoid wizard.

Of course, besides securing his release and avoiding hellfire, Valac had one other concern. Excalibur. If he managed to really piss off his owner, he could always run him through with the Devil Slayer. Then, what would happen? He would end up in the distant reaches of the cosmos, fending off shrieking horrors with infinite teeth.

In short, Valac would end up in the Outer Dark, a region of the universe only one person had ever returned from and even he got sent back. In that, Valac had the advantage. None of the Penn brothers saw him as enough of a threat to warrant a sword thrust. He had helped them defeat Eligos (or Lord Belial from their viewpoint).

That meant a lot to them. Perhaps, the notion they would have to stick it to him lingered in their minds but not in any meaningful way. For the most part, they allowed Valac to do and say just about anything he felt like saying or doing.

Valac continued to peck at the fence around his enclosure. The chicken, a mysterious bit of business, now made sense. Cats and dogs could end up inside the house from time to time. A chicken, an outdoor animal, would need a place to stay, usually somewhere in the backyard so it could take care of its chicken-related needs.

By an innocent alteration of the typical familiar vessel, the Penn brothers had banished Valac to the backyard. Valac continued to scratch the symbol into the dirt. Combined with a sizable occult reference, the symbol would lead Alex to the correct incantation. Once he knew how to release him, Valac would have his foot in the door.

Valac would need to scratch this symbol many times in the near future until eventually Alex happened upon it by chance. Valac stared over at Moses. Whatever happened, the wizard could not find out about this circuitous attempt at subterfuge.

Moses Ambrose Penn stared out the window at the demon chicken. He couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. His brother Alex looked up from his studies. "I think Valac figured out why I picked a chicken for his vessel." Moses smirked. "Boy, did he ever look pissed." Moses loved tormenting Valac. Alex got in on it from time to time but he still looked forward to the day when he'd teach him how to set him free.

Moses had that penciled in for sometime next year. "He still don't trust him, do you?" Moses shook his head. "Why?" Neither of them had the time to do through that list. "He saved us all from a man-eating rape monster and you still don't trust him?"

Moses Penn hated this conversation. He hated it the first time. He hated it the second time. He hated it the third time. Now, at the seventh reiteration, Moses hated this conversation more than the Devil and his legion of demonic lackeys and flunkies.

"Try to understand." Alex sniffed at the condescension in his voice. "Valac is a demon familiar trapped in a vessel. If you die, he goes back to Hell. If you say the word, he goes back to Hell. His survival depends on gaining your trust. I'm the reason he hasn't told you how to set him free because I could send him packing in a second."

Moses couldn't overemphasize the fact that he'd risk death to see that imp go swirling down the infernal crapper. "It's because you're one of them." Moses arched an eyebrow. "Face it. Your soul's half-demon. You're biased. If you don't come off hard on demons, everyone will think you're soft on them." Moses gritted his teeth.

"That's it. I'm right." Moses let out in a low growl. "Listen, Moses, just because you're afraid to let your sympathy for their kind cloud your judgment doesn't mean you have to act like a dick-hole around them." Moses locked eyes with Alex.

"I'm half-human, remember? That counts for something. And if Blaise hadn't caught it in time and baptized me, my soul would have belonged to the pit. And you wouldn't have anyone to mentor you in the ways of magick and destiny." Moses hated referring to previous lives during arguments. Folks had enough ammo from one life to start a thousand fights. God only knew what dragging in previous lives would do.

Alex gritted his teeth. "Why did you even give Valac to me in first place? You seem to have all the answers." Moses often wondered that very question himself. He knew a lot of lore but the moments of truth always came down to what they didn't know. Besides, the future world king needed all the help he could get.

Moses stopped at the threshold of his bedroom. "I want to know the moment he even hints at his freedom. And you had better tell me the truth because I'll know if you're lying." Moses slammed the bedroom door behind him and flopped onto his bed.

Damn you, Blaise, Moses thought. Why did you have to die? Moses stared at the ceiling. Moses had brought a rogue element onto the battlefield in his fervor to replace his dead mentor. He pulled the blankets over his head and took a long nap.

Abigail Kathleen Vennard opened his eyes. Abby felt the air sucked out her lungs. Abby was no longer alone in her bedroom. "Boo!" said the woman of her age standing in her room staring at her with glowing white eyes. For a brief second, Abby Vennard saw inside the woman, the shape of a tall owl with an angel's face.

The pale-skinned red-haired woman formed a frown on her face after her display. "I do not believe it." The lady shook her head in disbelief. "You do not even recognize your own daughter." Abby ran to the door. She tried to open it.

The lock wouldn't budge. "Don't bother," the lady said. "We need to talk. We can't accomplish that if I let you run away." The lady extended a hand. "I'm Herodias. You're my mother, the fairy goddess, Diana." Herodias rolled her eyes in disgust.

"I'm sorry. Do you need to write this down?" A notepad and a pencil floated into her hands. "I never understood your fascination with these mud monkeys, especially the males." All the varied words and conceptions Herodias spewed her way mixed and churned in her head.

"I'm a little ..." Abby paused a moment. "No, I'm a lot confused." Abby rubbed her left temple with her index and middle finger. "You're what and I'm who?" Herodias clicked her tongue. From what she could gather from the situation, this woman, Herodias, seemed disappointed by her as if Abigail failed to live up to some standard of greatness she had imagined for her.

"Here," Herodias offered. "I'll give you a hand up." Herodias smiled. "My friends call me Hero." At long last, Abby shook the hand in front of her. "Good, see, we're connecting already." Hero smirked. "Now for the uncomfortable part."

Hero gave a short whistle. "I need you to abandon all your friends and family and come back with me to claim the throne of the fairy realms." Hero levitated a portmanteau onto the bed. "Here, I'll help you pack your things."

Abby held her hands up in the shape of a T. "Hold up. Time out." Abby stared at Hero. "You want me to pack my things, leave behind everyone and everything I know so I can help you claim the throne of the fairy realms, correct?"

Hero's eyes darted back and forth. "Is there an echo in here?" Hero reached into Abby's closet and pulled out some clothes. "That's what I said. Mab's dead and the fairies need a queen. I'm that queen but I need you to prove that."

Abby felt her blood pressure rising. "How will I help you prove that?" Hero stopped in the middle of packing to look at Abby. That caught her attention. "I don't even know you and you don't seem like queenly material to me, Hero."

Hero opened and closed her hands in rapid succession. "Your opinion of me doesn't matter. It doesn't. Blood's what matters. Queen Mab can trace her bloodline to one of your descendants. That makes her royalty. If I could do the same thing, then I could make sure some unseelie bitch doesn't ascend to the throne instead of me."

Abby stared transfixed at this woman. "Listen, my kind faces some extreme discrimination. It's not easy having demon and fairy ancestry. People assume things. Like this host." Hero twirled around. "Marie O'Dell here begged me to possess her."

Hero stared at Abby. "If I could prove that I'm the daughter of Diana, the fairy goddess herself, then it won't matter that the Devil's my daddy." Hero rolled her eyes. She reached into her crimson satchel and puffed a handful of dust into Abby's face.

"I tried to do this the fun and easy way but you're obviously resisting." Abby yawned as she curled up onto her bed next to the portmanteau Hero had finished stuffing. "I will explain everything on the trip over but we need to go. Right. Now."

Luis Enrique Lanza had taken to stalking Abigail Vennard. Luis didn't have a nicer word for what he was doing. Luis followed her around. He spied on her and, on one real weird nightly outing, he even watched her sleep like the king of all creepers.

Luis climbed the oak tree in her backyard to look in through her bedroom window on the second floor of her house. Luis looked in through the window this time to see a pale-faced red-haired woman carrying Abigail in her arms. "Wow," Luis shouted as he lost his footing and descended face first into the ground below.

Luis clenched his eyes, not wanting to witness his own pointless death. Luis opened his eyes and found himself floating an inch off the ground. Luis rotated in mid-air. Luis couldn't believe his eyes. Not only had he not descended into the ground to the detriment of his spinal cord. Luis now rotated in mid-air like a pecan pie on display at a diner. Luis couldn't move a muscle. He simply hovered like that.

As if waiting for permission to let his body finish its descent to the ground. Luis landed on his back. The red-haired woman stood at his feet. "Abby's not home right now but if you'd like to leave a message." The lady dropped Abigail on the ground behind her. Luis lunged at the strange woman, his strikes missing her as she moved way too fast. "You're wasting time and energy. Give it up already."

The fight continued on. The lady seemed bored as she parried all his blows. Luis roared and stepped up the speed and force of his blows. The lady held in a yawn with one hand. All the while, she defended herself with one arm. "What're you dense?" Punched him in the gut. "Retarded or something?" Belted him across the face. "I'm a god-damned goddess." The lady wrapped his arms across his chest.

"Listen, I'm not going to hurt your pretend girlfriend. I just need her for a couple days. I'm going to bring here back unharmed." Luis socked the lady in the jaw. "Ouch, that hurt my feelings." Luis felt a sudden impact against the bridge of his nose. "So much senseless violence." Luis started to black out. "Nighty night."

"What the Hell?" Alexander Penn watched as the police dragged Luis Lanza to the squad car next to Abigail Vennard's house. Moses stayed behind and allowed Detective Roger Lazenby to search the premises. Alex would have to take Moses' word on that because he didn't possess the ability to interact with the dead like Moses did.

Alex Penn barely possessed the ability to keep track of the living. Alex gripped Excalibur in his hands and waited for Moses to show up. A tear rolled down one cheek as Alex considered the unthinkable. Which also happened to be the inevitable.

What if something had came to town spoiling for revenge? Alex always had that fear in the back of his head that something would take offense to losing the cohesive element of a strong leader to a bunch of pissant reincarnated souls? He wanted something to point his sword at and kill. Except whatever happened here, whatever or whoever did this, had left the building. "Show's over. Nothing to kill."

Moses stepped out of the shadows like a ninja. "Detective Lazenby did a thorough search of the premises. No sign of forced entry." Moses' eyes darted back and forth at all the cops spread across the yard like raspberry jam with a butter knife.

Cops inside the house said that found Luis at the crime scene." Moses shook his head. "It doesn't look good for Luis and, with everything that has happened to him, who could blame him for going around the bend?" Alex shook his head.

None of it fit, even with the testimony of a ghost."Luis didn't do this." Moses asked him why he thought that. "Luis cuts himself." Moses jutted his head in his direction. Alex hoped he wouldn't have to reveal that in order to buffer a case for Luis' innocence. "He's dangerous, alright, no doubt about it but only to himself."

Alex dropped another bombshell. "Luis told me that he had started stalking Abigail." Moses raised an eyebrow. "My point exactly, Moses. Why would tell me something like that if he planned on doing something to her?" Alex continued. "He's obsessed but he's not sloppy. If he did something to her, he'd have made a run for it."

Moses took a step back from Alex. A sick slasher smile appeared on his face, a cold cruel certainty that Luis would take flight rather to risk a confrontation with a guy armed with a broken heart and an indestructible katana. "Luis did not do this," Alex reiterated in his closing summation. "I'm thinking ... that he saw whoever did."

It came down to the simple task of planting their ghost detective in the interrogation room. After that, Detective Roger Lazenby could tell them everything Luis had told the living cops. Moses could see the gears turning in his head. "I'll get Roger right on it." Alex raised an eyebrow. "What? The guy's living rent-free in our house and I got tired of calling him 'Detective.' Besides, he doesn't care. He's dead."

Hadrian Galileo Wallace had already healed from his injuries. Haddy stared out his bedroom window. What a joke, he realized. First time he encountered a real adventure, Haddy got sidelined by a stab wound. A pathetic first outing. Hadrian caught himself replaying in his head the events of that evening at the hospital.

Boy, did I suck. Still, his stab wound had healed just like all the other wounds. That meant he still had another adventure left in him. Hadrian stared at the clock. Late. Too late for anyone to go outside who didn't want to get into any trouble.

Not too late for me, Hadrian realized as he started packing up his provisions. Something had changed since the night he got stabbed by Excalibur. Haddy started remembering things. Weird things about a past he couldn't possibly have had.

He even remembered a name. Galahad. Hadrian heard the name before as a character of Arthurian legends. A slight footnote in his exhaustive education yet it sounded so familiar. A part of him started to think it was because it was his name.

Hadrian Wallace looked down at the collection of newspaper clippings on his bed. He didn't know much about these new friends of his. Even watching one of them kill a rakshasa didn't make them trustworthy. Moses and Alex Penn had piqued his curiosity. He found an article in the The San Uriel Gazette about one Luther Penn.

A loving father and a caring husband by all estimates, forty-two-year-old Luther Penn just vanished without a trace over three years ago during the holiday season. A missing person who barely got a thin column on page eight. Still, Haddy cross-referenced Luther Penn with a missing persons database. He was still missing.

What did it mean? Hadrian caught himself. Having a missing father didn't change his opinion of the Penn brothers but it did yield an interesting hypothesis. Did Luther Penn's disappearance have anything to do with their current situation? It had to. The Fates had a hand to their lives reaching back through the centuries.

For the first time in his whole life, Hadrian felt like he belonged to something greater than himself. Haddy never felt so alive. Hadrian had registered with the New Round Table under the name Galahad. Haddy read the motto banner of the website. Omni mutantur, nihil interit. "Damn right." Haddy went looking for the answers.

Moses Penn saw the front door to the house ripped off its hinges and tossed into their mother's rose garden. Alex unsheathed Excalibur. Moses stayed as close to Excalibur as he could. If something bad had happened (or needed to happen), Moses would have to draw upon the energy from the unbreakable sword to gather up mojo.

The two brothers stopped and stared at the hulking man-monster standing in their living room. Easily six eight, the growling man had an unkempt mane of blond hair over his shoulders. Once upon a time, he might have had a face one might call "angelic." Now, he looked like a mile of bad road, his face a collection of carcasses.

Of course, none of that drew the attention of the two brothers. In his hand, the humanoid creature clutched a long blood-stained machete. At that horrible moment, Moses realized that Honda Civic in the driveway meant that Mom had come home early from work. "No, no, no, no," Alex chanted as he stared at that bloody machete.

The monster merely grinned, satisfied by Alex's terror. Moses needed to focus. The blood on that machete could belong to anybody. Moses listened for any signs of Mom. Nothing. Which meant either they had arrived just in time or way too late.

"You bastard. What did you do to her?" Alex raised the sword. "Answer me!" The monster grinned again. Either unable or unwilling to speak to them, the mute monster gestured in reply. He lifted his machete to his neck and pantomimed the slitting of a throat. "Aah!" Alex screamed as he charged headlong into the beast.

Moses jumped back, knowing full well he didn't have the juice to bail Alex out in the middle of a heated sword-fight. Regardless, Moses still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Moses Penn ran into the kitchen and began mixing ingredients. Salt, pepper, graveyard dirt and the crushed petals from the prize roses in the garden, their seeds planted during the last full moon thanks to Mom's fascination with astrology.

Moses added the holy water from the fonts of the neighborhood's church. Shaken, not stirred. Moses entered the living room and watched Alex sliced off the monster's hand. Even severed, the hand neither surrendered the machete nor stopped moving.

Without hesitation, Alex plunged Excalibur into him. The pause stretched on. The beast stared blankly at the hilt sticking out of him. The man roared, grabbed Alex by the neck and threw him through the wall. The drywall caved in around Alex.

The sound of bones snapping filled the master bedroom as Alex ricocheted off the headboard of Mom's bed. The flying projectile that was his brother's bruised and broken body crashed against the mirror of the dresser drawer. Alex landed in a heap at the foot of Mom's bed, barely breathing. Moses needed to get his head in the game.

The beast stepped in through the hole as Moses went through the door. Moses felt a dry heave coming on as he saw his mother in her bed, eyes widen open, sheets soaked up her blood as she slept the eternal sleep of death. Next to the light switch in the bedroom read the name of their mother's killer in letters of blood: MORDRED.

Mordred smiled as Mom's chest cavity collapsed as he stepped on her corpse on his way to Alex's half-dead body. Moses' body twitched with rage as the glass bottle containing his anti-monster cocktail smashed against Mordred. The beastly man merely smiled as his flesh roasted. Moses ran up to Mordred and grabbed the hilt.

Moses stared at the broken mirror behind Mordred and shot him a big toothy grin. "Buckle up, deadhead." Moses' eyes light up from the fire of Excalibur. "You're going for a ride." Moses gripped the sides of his forehead. "Lan bahaw Janus, oyadh li sikle li ratav zuz, gotudanen oy linyogh." Electrical currents coursed through them.

Time stopped as Moses pitted his stamina against an undead monster. So he couldn't kill him. Moses figured out that much when Excalibur, the demon-killing monster-murdering god-slaying weapon of choice, failed to get the tiniest spark out of him. But immunity to Excalibur didn't necessarily make him immune to magick.

Moses could still send him away. If he could stay awake ... The spell, a potent piece of portal magic, needed him to stay awake to close it after or the portal would swallow up the house with them in it like it had done to Eric Weiss. Of course, this portal didn't arrive in Purgatory. It led somewhere between here and Australia.

As far as quick-fix solutions went, sending Mordred to the far corners of Creation would buy them time. But for not Mom, Moses realized as the spell faltered. No. Moses gritted his teeth. Stop it. He needed to concentrate. He would have plenty of time to mourn the dead as soon as he kept them from joining their growing ranks.

Moses Penn couldn't begin to describe the pain as electricity raced through him. He felt the heart inside his chest pounding against his rib-cage. Moses coughed as blood ran down his chin from his lips. I hope this works. Moses imagined Mordred falling into the broken mirror like a demon drawn into the bottomless pit. "See ya."

A halo of burning light engulfed Mordred and pulled him into the broken mirror. Mordred unsheathed himself from the sword as he fell into the mirror of the dresser drawer. Mordred unsheathed himself from the sword as he tumbled into the looking glass and vanished. Moses stood with Excalibur as he finished the spell.

"Lan werbe ya dothi, Janus." Moses closed his unarmed fist. "Ladnan godanen." The portal was not closing. Moses repeated the incantation again. With that, the portal closed. Moses fell to his knees, exhausted beyond all hope of exertion.

This was a textbook example of a Pyrrhic victory. Their mother had died at the hands of an undead slasher. Abigail Katherine Vennard had been kidnapped. Luis Enrique Lanza rotted in jail. Alexander Julius Penn wouldn't have the aid of Moses' healing touch for his life-threatening injuries and Mordred would certainly return.

With that last ounce of strength he didn't even realize he had, Moses tossed Excalibur under Mom's bed. The police would find it. His only hope was it wouldn't fall into the wrong hands. Moses stared at Alex's closed eyes, not knowing if the spark of life resided in him. Moses closed his eyes and drifted into the black sea of oblivion.

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