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Hard Times

"Hard times don't create heroes. It is during the hard times when the 'hero' within us is revealed." – Bob Riley

Alexander Julius Penn watched as his brother Moses bashed in the skull of another Romero with the Staff of Merlin. Alex honestly hated the name but Moses insisted on naming them after failing to find any reference to them in any of the usual literature.

By "usual literature," Alex meant the endless collection of books and websites devoted to the exploration of their new roles as Knights of the New Round Table. Moses followed up the skull-bashing with a stiletto blade to the back of its head.

Just to make sure. This new breed of creatures on the streets of San Uriel, California scared the holy hell out of Alex. Entities of pure hatred and hunger, the creatures did not respond to anything short of a kill-shot to the brain stem.

Worse yet, the "disease" seemed to have a hundred percent transmission rate with human beings through even the tiniest mixing of bodily fluids. Then, to really hammer home the bleak nature of the thing, nothing, not even magick, could cure this affliction. Anyone infected had only two choices: wait to turn or do the obvious.

Alex plunged the sword Excalibur into the nearest Romero, a former senior citizen who eyed his flesh with an unholy appetite. The monster inside the old lady smiled as the sword ripped through its lungs. Alex hadn't regained his faith in the sacred blade since it had failed to kill Mordred, the creature that killed their mother and wrapped her corpse in the sheets of her bed in a mockery of a peaceful repose.

These Romeros only compounded his bad faith. Why couldn't I kill him? Alex asked this question a hundred times a day since that fateful night when his undead son/nephew attacked his home and killed his mother. Alex would have died himself if not for Moses' miraculous recovery and equally miraculous increase in his wizardry.

Moses never could adequately explain how nearly dying had jump-started his magick. In the two months since Mom died, Moses Ambrose Penn, the ever-important Answer Man of their operation, had drawn nothing but blanks. He couldn't explain why Mordred (or these Romeros) didn't die when Excalibur pierced the heart.

Moses Penn couldn't explain how he could safely work magicks that could have killed him before (like the restoration of the broken Staff of Merlin). Moses couldn't explain what had happened to Abigail Vennard or if she would ever return.

Hadrian Galileo Wallace, the newcomer to this madness, had picked up the slack. He had arrived at the Penn residence the night Mordred came calling. He hid the sword and the rest of the incriminating evidence of their unearthly indiscretions.

The Wallace family lawyer, a pleasant fellow with the improbable moniker of Woodrow Wilson, was a freaking deus ex machina. He helped clear Alex's best friend, Luis Enrique Lanza, of the charges of kidnapping in relation to Abby's disappearance.

In fact, old Haddy had gone shopping for an apartment this evening while Alex and Moses flushed out another Romero nest. It didn't make a lot of sense. These Romeros should have overran the city by now but something had them on a lease. Moses had walked into the construction site where three women had gone missing.

Moses couldn't sense any sign of movement. Once the brothers arrived, these mindless monsters figured out how to ambush them. "A helluva learning curve for guys who don't even know how to use a toilet," Moses had commented, alluding to the possible origin of the fetid stink these creatures gave off. The Romeros had nothing resembling tactics or strategy. The hunger forbade such extravagance on their part.

A simple ambush required concentration on something other than eating and killing. "I bet these freaks got someone supplying them with cheat codes." Moses took a moment to catch his breath. Alex shredded brain stems left and right, thus ending the reign of the Fulci Avenue Romeros. Alex felt a chill go up and down his spine.

Neither of them had encountered Romeros this far south before. The monsters had arrived within half a block of the Trevena city limits. Too close to home. Moses put on a pair of medical gloves as he collected samples from the dead Romeros.

Moses pulled up the shirt of the last kill. He found the mark. Alex nodded grimly. Moses had yet to find a Romero who didn't have this cattle brand somewhere on their body, usually on their back. That patch of burnt flesh mocked them. How could a Romero, an undead fiend with healing powers, have scars of any kind?

And what did this arcane symbol mean? Despite the allure of an enigma wrapped in a riddle, Alex couldn't focus on Moses' attempts to pioneer the embryonic field of occult forensics. Hadrian had offered to go on more patrols with them but Alex wouldn't allow it. Between letting them crash at his house, helping them find an apartment and getting Luis out of jail, Haddy had done enough for the cause.

What Alex would give to have his best friend Luis back in action? Luis, with some cajoling from his then-girlfriend Abby, had braved the Miskatonic Desert. Together, they had defeated Timothy Hobb, David Kobold and George Drake during the school massacre last April. During the New York thing, Luis, recovering from a bout of demonic possession, executed Lord Belial with Excalibur when Alex couldn't.

In short, "Hell On Wheels" could only begin to describe the phenomenon known as Luis Lanza. Then, Luis started getting the short straw. At first, the possession at the hands of Lord Belial didn't seem like such a big deal. Then again, Alex didn't know about the cutting until weeks later. Throw in an arrest and the lingering question as to Abigail Vennard's whereabouts and Luis just snapped.

According to Luis' grandparents, Luis did leave his room for food and water … two or three times a week. Two months of living like that and Luis looked like one of those photos of the starving children in Africa. In his current condition, he couldn't go a round with a fruit fly let alone these state-of-the-art top-of-the-line freaks.

Moses Ambrose Penn stared into the dining room mirror at a set of glowing eyes other than his own. Moses had awakened in the ER, his head swimming with half-remembered thoughts and his body miraculously healed from those electrical burns caused by creating an Einstein-Rosen bridge to the other side of the planet.

Barely aware of his surroundings, Moses had left his hospital bed in search of his brother Alex, desperate to heal his broken body. Knowing full well he could only draw upon his own life-force to heal him, Moses had made peace with his own death.

Then, for the first time (but not the last), Moses felt the burning inside. It felt like a fire in his stomach, the white-hot flame of a thousand suns held in check by the feeble tethers of flesh and bone. Wherever this fire came from, its raw intensity gave young Moses a direct link to the Deep, the place where all the magick came from.

By the time he had reached Alex's room, the energy to heal him flowed out of his body as easily as rainwater from a darkened cloud. Moses Penn had never felt anything like it before. At first, Moses had rejoiced in this happy coincidence.

Now, as Moses looked at the beast staring back at him through his reflection, he couldn't help but wonder if he had lost something in the process. A reincarnation of the wizard Merlin, Moses Penn had the soul of a half-demon. Perhaps, his near death experience had caused a radical shift in his human-to-demon soul ratio.

Perhaps, he had lost his humanity and turned into the thing his mentor Blaise had hoped to prevent with a liberal application of holy water and Ecclesiastical Latin. Perhaps, he had turned into a demon. Moses' eyes glimmered at the thought of that.

Valac, the demon chicken wandering around the Wallace' backyard, might know something about his rare condition. After all, if the grimoires held any truth in them, Valac had started his life as a Roman centurion cursed by his role in the Crucifixion.

Perhaps, he might understand Moses' current predicament and what it felt like to make the switch. Moses always thought of demons as the enemies, a dark race of conquering sadists whom terrorized the human world for eons. After two months and some change of him not betraying them, Valac had eroded his opinion of demons.

Perhaps, not all demons walked the earth with evil in their hearts (well, at least, no more so than humans did). Moses stared around at the mess he had made of the Wallace' lovely dining room. Mr. and Mrs. Wallace, a kindly couple with nothing but sympathy for their loss, didn't know about the exact details of their mother's death.

They knew something about an intruder who killed Mom and nearly killed them. both of them. They didn't know the true identity of the intruder, an undead version of a bastard son from Alex's first life, the incomparable sadist, Mordred.

Moses didn't know where Mordred had touched down when he forced him into the portal. Hopefully, it would take the horrific man-monster a while to return. Until then, Moses needed to find a way to kill him since Excalibur obviously didn't cut it.

Regardless, all that would have to wait. Moses hadn't told Alex about the change yet. Moses didn't know how he would explain him leveling up (or down) to full demon status. Moses recalled an gambit Mom used to play on Dad in the salad days.

Whenever she had bad news for Dad, Mom would soften him up first. One sumptuous dinner or sensual back rub later and even the worst news seemed like something Dad could live with. For Alex, Moses needed to yank Abigail Vennard out of whatever hell dimension she had stumbled into. Then, with Abby safely returned, Moses could spill the beans on his demon growing pains to his grateful twin brother.

"Lan bahaw Orbona," Moses said in Old Angelic, "Orbona, oyadh li pashas dabibokh, Cordelia Vennard raklir. Ro wazyor mif bakhazhna!" Moses petitioned all the entities he knew of. Orbona, the goddess of lost children, might have the juice to get Abigail back. Still, what reason would she have to answer the prayer of a demon?

Orbona presided over lost children and performed miracles to reunite parents with their missing children. What a beautiful lie! More often than not, deities didn't live up to their mission statements. Too much contempt for mortals and their brief lives. Good people suffered all the time, often crying out in desperation for any help.

Nobody answered. Moses disassembled the altar. Once again, a startling yet predictable failure. Moses looked into dining room mirror. His demon eyes, flared bright yellow before extinguishing themselves and returning to their original brown. All this power and he couldn't spare a dear friend the deprivations of an alien world.

Luis Enrique Lanza stared at the highway system of scars crisscrossing the countryside of his right forearm. Deep down, he knew he couldn't keep living like this. The cutting and the starving would end him before too long. He had stumbled upon hard times. Nothing could dispute that but how did he let hard times turn into this?

The sight of soiled clothes piled up in every corner caused the self-pity inside of him to swell up in response. People without homes, raving derelicts and the like lived with more dignity and personal hygiene than Luis did. Luis trekked to the kitchen. Grandpa and Grandma always treated Luis' excursions like the Second Coming.

Perhaps, they hoped against hope, Luis would start leaving his room more often, instead of just to stave off the threat of death. Luis hated torturing them. They didn't do anything wrong to deserve this shabby treatment. Ever since his parents died, Grandpa and Grandma did the best they could to keep him happy and content.

Nothing could accomplish either of those feats now. Some nasty bitch had kidnapped Abigail Vennard and the geniuses at the Trevena Police Department arrested him for it. The pigs let him rot in there for days before they let him go.

Luis regretted not telling Alex and Moses about the woman he saw that night. Luis hadn't told anyone about it. Not even the police. Luis Lanza just couldn't do this anymore. Abby meant the world to him but he couldn't take it anymore. Every couple of weeks having to battle some new horrible evil just to keep what he already had.

Luis had heard about the new guy. He had helped them kill a monster while he languished in agony from his stint as a demon sock puppet. On top of that, the newbie had helped them through the logistics of losing a parent. A real wunderkind, that one. Hadrian Galileo Wallace. Luis had never heard such a ridiculous name.

It didn't take his best friend long to replace him. Alex, for all the melodrama that he had endured during their extended love triangle, didn't mind the break from Abby's wishy-washy romantic feelings. Even if said break came at a terrible cost.

Luis sometimes wondered if Alex felt anything at all. He had lost his mother and, possibly, a friend, all in one night. Instead of taking the time to grieve, he raced out into the darkness to hunt monsters. And, oh, did Alex Penn find them, alright.

The Penn brothers didn't give a damn about Luis Lanza. Whatever ungodly stamina they possessed, Luis lacked in spades. Every battle, every fight and every confrontation chipped away at him, leaving him a less of himself each time he mixed it up with some nasty horror. Luis could still feel Lord Belial flowing through him.

After Luis had stocked up on provisions, he turned back and locked the door behind him, dashing any hope his grandparents might have held onto. Luis lowered himself into his bed like a coffin into grave. Someday, he would have to face the world again, Someday, he would have to resume the business of living life. But not today.

Hadrian Galileo Wallace picked the lock on the front door the Vennard residence. Cordelia Vennard, a single mother working late at a hotel restaurant waiting tables, would not arrive home for, at least, another two hours. Hadrian needed that time.

Hadrian slung his backpack over his shoulder and gave this neighborhood a conspiratorial glance. A fairly white-bred community, it wouldn't take much to get an insomniac neighbor to call the cops over even a minor disruption to his environment.

Haddy Wallace sighed as he surveyed the labyrinthine hallways of the Vennard residence. He told Alex and Moses that he had gone apartment shopping. He didn't lie. He just failed to inform them of what he planned on doing after that. Besides, the brothers needed the plausible deniability. Knowing about his breaking and entering would make them conspirators after the fact. Hadrian wasn't afraid of some jail time.

The cops had missed something. The cops always missed something. An easy thing to do when they didn't have any real clue what to look for. Hadrian, still a freshman in paranormal studies, had only a slightly elevated perception of the unusual. Hadrian pulled out a flashlight and shone the light down the halls.

Hadrian noted the staircase. If he went upstairs, it'd cut him off from his primary avenue of escape, should Mrs. Vennard arrive home early. On the other hand, any evidence he might find would come from Abigail's bedroom upstairs.

Hadrian began his climb upstairs. The staircase, an ancient bit of architecture, creaked with every step, reminding him of the dangers of going upstairs. Haddy tried to imagine the sound of a garage door opening, so he would know what to listen for. Haddy reached the top of the staircase. He felt like he had scaled Mount Everest.

Haddy looked ahead at the door to Abigail's bedroom. What looked like a light glowed through the sliver between the door and the floor. "Bingo," Haddy said to no one in particular. Running his free hand against the railing of the upstairs hallway, Haddy jutted the flashlight out in front of him like a medieval sword ready to strike.

Haddy removed his hand from the rails and wrapped it around the doorknob. "It's now or never." Haddy twisted the knob and opened the door. "Nothing," Haddy realized aloud as he looked into the bedroom. The bedroom looked like the snapshot from the police records. Mrs. Vennard had kept the room in near-pristine condition.

It was just the way Cordelia Vennard had found it the night her daughter had disappeared from her life. A sad reminder of who she had lost and the quiet hope that Abby would return to her the exact condition she had left her. "I'm losing my mind."

In the middle of his self-deprecation, Hadrian Galileo Wallace had failed to check his blind spots. Like Clarice Sterling in Silence of the Lambs, that meant bad news for anyone who went searching for trouble. Still, Haddy didn't see the harm in it since he had once again hit a dead end. Haddy sighed and shook his head. "What a waste!"

The blow came from the blind spot just behind the door. According to doctors, person shouldn't have the ability to feel the blow that knocked them out. Something about the neurological effects of a concussion on the human brain made it unlikely.

Hadrian Wallace didn't care what those quacks thought. Haddy could feel it. He could feel the hardwood of a baseball bat crash against the top of his skull. He could feel a blaze of electrical activity bouncing off his receptors as he yielded to darkness. Next time Hadrian went looking for answers, he'd make sure not to talk to himself.

Alexander Julius Penn felt it in his bones. A tremor in the Force, as George Lucas would say. Alex didn't know what it meant or if it meant anything at all. Alex turned his attention to his research. While Moses still did his fair share of research, most of his spare time centered around developing his magick. Alex didn't mind.

Moses' own investigation into the Romeros hit one dead end after another. According to the mythologies of every culture the two could think to research, these undead titans, these Romeros, shouldn't even exist. Try telling that to the Romeros.

Greek legends contained references to cannibalism. The undead plagued many civilization since the dawn of human history. Of course, lots of monsters had healing powers. The Romeros were the perfect storm of monster traits and only the will of an unknown intelligence kept them from overtaking the planet with their odd disease.

Alex could remember bits of his previous lives. He remembered his time as Albert Loomis, a sheriff in Lawton, Arizona, who devoted half of his life to hunting down a rogue reaper. Alex couldn't help but wonder what other responsibilities besides monster hunting he had shirked in past lives for one reason or another.

Alex pulled up Moses' notes on the Romero on his laptop. In big bold letters, the banner read: ONE HUNDRED PERCENT TRANSMISSION RATE, NO CURE. Those seven words sent a tremor down Alex's spine. Each time the two of them went Romero hunting, they risked infection. Should the tiniest drop of their blood or spit get into a cut or their eyes, the infected would have a few days to settle their affairs.

In a world filled with people who beat cancer and all manner of "incurable" ailments, the idea of a disease that took over so quickly and so viciously mocked the modern world's can-do attitude. The bodily fluids caused infection via healing powers. Once entered into a viable host, the pathogen went to work "repairing" the "damaged" tissue. It improved upon the body's durability by sacrificing higher brain functions.

Despite all their tests, these cannibals had the advantage. Someone planted this plague in this city months ago. By the time the Romeros made their presence known, their ranks had already swelled into the tens of thousands. Before too long, San Uriel would have to face a million-strong phalanx of these killer deadheads.

Alex remembered quite vividly the day the funeral house lowered his mother into the ground. "Irene Mallory Penn, Beloved Wife And Mother," read the tombstone. Moses had harvested graveyard dirt as Alex stood motionless over their mother's grave. Arthur Pendragon ... Evil in all its forms quivered at the mere mention of that name. Except when loved ones needed him the most, the newest model had crapped out on them.

Alex had wanted to apologize but this went beyond a D in biology or a suspension for maiming a bully. Alex had gotten his mother killed. To really twist the knife in and break it off, he never told her about his past lives. Mom died, never realizing what she had died over. Moses had yet to find any sign of Mom's ghost.

"She's at peace," Moses would say. "She has forgiven you." That or she couldn't stand the sight of him and fled to Heaven in escape her worthless son. Alex still didn't know what he would do with the old house. Moses wanted to sell it. Between the two of them, they had zero income. Moses had tried making ends meet by way of alchemy.

Moses could only do for so long before it drew the wrong kind of attention. Alex overruled the possibility of bumming off Hadrian a little while longer. While it helped to have a rich kid on board, Alex didn't want to end up a welfare case. Then came the most heart-breaking of their financial decisions, to not enroll in college this semester.

Alex convinced himself that he would enroll as soon as he had the money for it. God only knew how many others had told similar lies to themselves, never to enter a place of higher education for the rest of their days. Alex still needed to believe that.

Alex saw the creature standing the far corner of the bedroom. The impossibly tall skeletal man in the top hat and dress clothes looked like a reflection in a fun-house mirror, his proportions shifting with each step. Alex unsheathed Excalibur. The tall man raised a hand and the sword flew out of his hand and buried itself in the drywall up to its hilt. Another hand gesture and the lock on the door turned by itself.

"We have no need for violence," the tall man reassured him. "I am Azazel."

"How did you get into my room?" Alex demanded as he got up from the chair.

Azazel gave a thumbs-up and Alex fell back into his chair. "Your room?" The creature produced a handkerchief from his vest pocket. "The guest room of a friend's house hardly qualifies as yours." Azazel smirked. "I would not see the need to make such a trifling distinction if you didn't possess such an untoward desire to kill me."

Azazel made a circle in the air and the chair moved towards him with Alex in it. "I find small talk helps break up the tension." Azazel rubbed his chin. "As for how I got into 'your' room, trust me when I say, you will sleep better not knowing." Azazel leaned up close to Alex. "The lord of cattle meeting with the emperor of the wolves."

Azazel bared the long crooked knives that were his teeth. "A most ironic event but one that needs to happen." Azazel rotated Alex's chair as he walked to the nearby window. "You have no doubt noticed the new kids of the block, those 'Romeros.'" Alex nodded, amazed that Azazel left him such freedom of movement. "They're not mine.

"I don't blame your skepticism. I, Azazel, the King of the Watchers, know the names of all the creatures spawned from angelic stock. These beasts didn't originate from angels." Azazel smiled. "Which begs the question: Where did they come from?"

Alex gritted his teeth. "Why do you care?" Azazel looked offended, even shocked by the question. "These guys will clean us out and then your family can move in and take over." Azazel raised his right hand in the formation of a claw.

Alex struggled to breath as an invisible hand wrapped around his throat. "Wrong, king of cows." Alex was choking to death. "Your people need us as much we need you. It is the fear of the unknown that keeps our two races civilized. Without it …" Azazel released Alex. "We would all die." Alex drew in air in long deep breathes.

"We would both end up kings of barren wastelands with no one to lord over." Azazel patted him on the shoulder. "If you can capture one of them alive, I will tell you whatever you wish to know. Perhaps, I will even enlighten you as to why your precious sword does not always work." Alex asked the obvious question. "I have tried. As you can imagine, I cast a very long shadow." Alex blinked and Azazel vanished.

Abigail Kathleen Vennard stared at the concussed man laying on her bed. She recognized him as Hadrian Galileo Wallace, the newest addition to their merry band of modern knights. He had helped in the hunting and killing of a rakshasa. Abby didn't know much else about him except that she should not have conked him in the head.

Abby took stock of the thin layers of plant matter serving as a meager shield of her modesty. Abby stripped them off and put on some real clothes. Abby's head ached as she tried to remember what happened. She remembered somebody in her room.

Then, Abigail found herself alone in her room with somebody trying to bust in. Acting on instinct, she armed herself with a Louisville Slugger and KO'd the intruder as he crossed the threshold. It was perfect form, a straight A in terms of self-defense.

Abigail Vennard descended the staircase and went down to fill an ice-pack for Hadrian. Abby stared at the calendar on the refrigerator. August. At first, Abby had figured Mom had simply left it open on the wrong month. Not so. Mom had her work schedule filled out in its entirety. That's weird. Abigail filled the ice-pack with ice.

Not having learned her lesson with the calendar, Abigail flipped on the TV. The ice pack crashed to the floor as the anchorman with the salt-and-pepper hair casually reported the date. Whether Abby wanted to believe it or not, she had a gap in her life the size of two months, a total of eight weeks or fifty-four days of lost time.

Abigail heard the garage door opening. Her mother must have worried herself sick during her absence. How would she react to the knowledge that Abigail had no memories of her disappearance except for the fact that it had obviously happened?

Mom opened the door, Mom let out an exhausted groan as she placed the keys on the kitchen table. The exhaustion quickly vanished the second after she laid eyes on her, replaced by shock. "Oh my god." Mom wrapped her arms around Abby. "It's you, it's really you." Mom patted Abby down. "Are you hurt?" Abby shook her head.

"Are you okay?" Mom raised her finger. "The number." Mom fished a piece of paper out of her purse. "He told me to call this number." As Mom waited through the busy signal, she kept heaping praise onto God for delivering her Abby back to her.

As Mom continued to wait, Abby raced upstairs. She could hear his groans from the kitchen. Hopefully, Mom hadn't. Abby threw the ice-pack into his arms. "I'm sorry for you hitting you , Hadrian." He winced as he donned the ice-pack. "But you need to get out of here. Right. Now. Or my mother is going to have a conniption fit."

A shout came from downstairs. "Honey, did you say something?"

Abby answered. "It's just me talking to myself." Abby turned around to see her bed unoccupied and the window open. Abby looked out to see him sprinting across the lawn. "Ninja boy sure can move." With that, Abby went downstairs to look in on Mom.

Moses Ambrose Penn felt like a radio station with all the switchboards lighting up. Detective Roger Lazenby had taken to silence after his failure to crack the case of Abigail Vennard's disappearance. His twin brother Alex had a look of confusion, the default setting of his face in these strange days of demons, monsters and freaks. The new guy, Hadrian, seemed the most harried of the bunch. So, Moses let him go first.

"Abigail's back." That got everyone's attention. "She hit me with a baseball bat but she apologize for it and then asked him to leave …" Hadrian massaged the gross bump on his forehead. "God, it freaking hurts to think right now." Haddy noticed the conspicuous hole in the wall. "Hey, why does this wall have a sword sticking out of it?"

Alex ignored the question. "Azazel just paid me a visit." Moses had heard of Azazel. The self-appointed King of the Watcher himself had dropped in for a chat. It were no less bizarre than if Cthulhu had stopped by for evening tea and crumpets.

Perhaps, he knew why a bunch of great grand-nephews had gone ape-scat. "He says the Romeros are not of Nephilim descent." During their investigation, they had ruled out angels, demons and fairies. Except for a hitherto-unknown fifth category of supernatural entities, Moses had, more or less, pegged these things as monsters.

"I don't mind you guys staying at my house." Hadrian pushed the blade back in through the hole. Hadrian listened as Excalibur clambered onto the marble floor on the other side of the wall. "But I'm going to have ask you not to poke any more holes in my house, okay?" Alex marched into the guest room to retrieve his sword.

Roger's turn: "Hadrian is telling the truth," the detective confirmed. "Abigail Vennard has returned." The cop looked back and forth. "Abigail does not appear to remember anything about her abduction." Moses asked him how he knew that. "The cops questioned her about an hour ago. The boys there had her hooked to polygraph."

Moses shook his head. Perhaps, she just didn't want to remember what had happened to her. The detective shook his head. "It does not matter what she wants. Trauma would have made it harder for her to forget, not easier." Moses nodded.

Moses was listening. "It's like someone went into the surveillance footage in her brain and erased the last eight weeks." Roger shrugged. "I wouldn't have believed it either, but seeing how I'm a ghost talking to a wizard, I guess anything's possible."

Moses rubbed his temples. "You alright?" The failed evocation to Orbona had worn him down. He felt like a heretic an Inquisitor had had his way with. Moses Penn considered it one of the great ironies of wizardry. Moses had the magick equivalent of an oil field in his chakras, along with the Staff of Merlin, a virtual Alaskan pipeline to the Deep. Yet, divine magicks still beat Moses senseless like a red-haired stepson.

"I'm fine," Moses lied. The return of Abigail Vennard and a visit from the King Monster himself. Mysteries abound. This looked like another all-nighter in the works. Too bad, Moses could have used his eight hours right about now. "Let's get to work."

Luther Jared Penn often thought of the day his superiors called him back into the field, cutting short his much-deserved retirement. The elders needed him to track a new threat. A new breed of diseased cannibals that had already decimated a number of islands in the Philippines. Luther didn't think much of it at the time.

Just a bunch of mutated aswangs thinking they could munch on the native population with impunity. Just the kind of thing the Solar Templars lived for. Then, when he finally saw these new monsters in action, Luther Penn understood why the elders had forced him to leave behind his family in such a brutal fashion.

Thoroughly mindless flesh-eaters powered by hatred and hunger, the atypical anthrophages (as the elders liked to call them) posed a threat to survival of the human race simply by existing. All attempts at extermination by their most gifted field agents ended in failure. The last attempt got Hector Garland killed and eaten.

Two decades of hunting all the things that went bump in the night taught him one valuable lesson: Everything had a weakness. Swords of Creations like Durendal and Excalibur penetrated the ectoplasmic barriers of the chi reserves within chakras.

In layman's terms, it made anything with a soul in its body vulnerable to their attacks. Luther knew with enough patience and perseverance that he would discover a means of wiping out these atypical anthrophages. He just had to keep right on it.

Of course, two decades of keeping right on it had taught him one valuable caveat to the first rule: Everything had a price. The five Swords of Creation, the first weapons forged on planet Earth, required the pain-staking labor of a thousand lifetimes to locate and (in some cases) reforge. The only available means of banishing these atypical anthrophages (ATAPs) required an even steeper price than that.

One Luther Penn had no desire of paying until he had all the facts straight. Azazel grinned again. "It's really a waste of time, old chum. You know and I know what I'll find and we both know what you'll have to do." He nodded. He would do it. If it came to that, he would … Luther Penn prayed to God it would never come to that.

"Still, have it your way." Azazel paced around Luther. "After all, we need each other. And, once we get rid of those Romeros, you will need me more than ever." With that, Azazel disappeared, this time leaving behind a rather theatrical puff of smoke.

The rush of facts staggered Abigail Kathleen Vennard. Mom had waited on going to the police station to give Abby a chance to sleep, a chance she had passed up. She felt out of touch like she had missed almost all her classes and had a final exam.

According to Detective Anthony Hemsworth, she had disappeared two months ago. Luis Enrique Lanza, her ex, had gotten arrested in connection with her sudden disappearance. Hadrian Galileo Wallace's lawyer, Woodrow Wilson, cleared him all charges, citing insufficient evidence. The charges against Luis never went to court.

It was a cold comfort considering that he had never seen the inside of a jail cell before and probably could have lived without the experience. Tony (as the detective himself insisted on Abby calling him) didn't get that badge by standing around and looking pretty. Tony could sense that Abigail had withheld information from him.

Not about the disappearance. Abigail still did not know what had happened during her mysterious summer vacation. She neglected to mention all the mythical monsters that she had rumbled with in the months leading up to her disappearance.

It didn't take a rocket scientist to guess that her strange disappearance and enigmatic amnesia probably had something to do with otherworldly phenomena she and her friends had gotten mixed up with lately. Alex Penn himself had endured a year-long exile to the Miskatonic Desert.

Fortunately for Alex, the quirks of that alternate dimension left the ordinary world none wiser to his prolonged absence. Abigail obviously didn't go to Purgatory because everyone and their mother knew about her disappearing act. "I need to go outside and get some fresh air." Tony Hemsworth nodded and Abigail went outside. Abby needed to consider her options.

Detective Hemsworth, while not a demon or a god or a rakshasa, still had an air of danger to him. He could expose Abby's friends for the freaks they had turned into. That or butter her up enough until she dished on them herself. Either way, Tony could spell the end of their masquerade and the start of a new list of charges.

Even Hadrian's fancy lawyer couldn't save them, no matter which President his parents named him after. Abigail cursed when she realized that she had given her cell phone as evidence. Of course, it didn't matter. Wherever Abby had gone to during her magic carpet ride, it had turned the insides into a microchip chop suey.

Abigail loaded the pay-phone with quarters from her pocket. Abby only noticed the severed phone line when she started pushing buttons. Alex and Moses needed to get down here and clean house. Alex could steal police records while Moses went to work blanking memories, starting with the cop closest to guessing their little secret.

Then, Abby could contact Luis and apologize for what happened. Abby didn't have anything to do with it but Luis hadn't completely recovered from his time as Kermit the Frog to Lord Belial's Jim Henson. At the very least, he needed to know he had friends who cared about him, a valuable commodity during these hard times.

Abigail tried the other pay-phone and dialed the home number of the Penn residence. "I'm sorry, the number you're trying to reach …" Abby hung up before the computerized voice could finish its error message. Two months away in Neverland and the world as Abigail knew it had gone to Hell in the proverbial hand-basket.

Then, Abigail Vennard saw it. She missed the receiver, letting the pay-phone dangle from its cord. She watched as a short round man dressed in the old tattered remains of a tuxedo staggered out of the bushes. The egg-shaped gentleman had an intricate V-shaped burn mark on his forehead.

A migraine ripped through her head. The mark on his forehead brought back a disjointed collage of memories. The jaws of the man elongated to an impossible degree as saliva flew out of his throat and into the air. His shrill battle cry summoned the others, a baker's dozen, all staggering towards her with that look in all of their eyes. A look half hunger and half hatred.

The Trevena High School massacre had taught Alexander Penn a valuable lesson. Never leave your weapons at home. Because one never knew when a visit to the mall or a day at school could turn into a life-or-death struggle. Alex and Moses had weighted the pros and cons of bringing weapons this close to a police station.

Though they never get them past security, it gave Alex peace of mind to know that they had the weapons stashed in the trunk of his Chevy Malibu. It was walking distance from any possible sources of mayhem. That was the great equalizer here.

Moses didn't like it. If a cop searched the car, he reasoned, it would make for a slam-dunk case of weapons possession followed by a judge handing out lengthy prison sentences like candy on Halloween. Besides, if something did go south of Hell in a hurry, a police station had plenty of weapons to draw on, in case of an emergency.

Alex had better taste to point out that Moses could pull the old Jedi mind trick on any curious cops in the vicinity. Moses could live with cherry-picking the trauma memories of frightened students. Ask him to do the same thing to a cop and Alex got an earful about the rule of law. Moses Penn didn't like the implications of putting the whammy on the overworked and underpaid to expand upon their right to bear arms.

Moses Penn had stayed awake 'til dawn trying to crack the enigma of Abigail Vennard's disappearance. All signs pointed to the fairy realms but Moses still didn't know who or why. Because of that, Moses didn't have the energy to fight his decision.

As Alex basked in the glory of his tiny victory, thunder echoed through the cabin of the Chevy Malibu. Glass shards dug into the cushions as a hole pierced its way through the windshield and exited through the left passenger side window.

The noise whispered in Alex's right ear, taunting him with how close it had came to punching a hole through his skull. "Holy crap!" Alex pulled into a nearest parking lot. "Holy crap! Holy crap! Holy crap!" As Moses prayed to his scatological deity, Alex popped the trunk and put the Malibu in park. Even as the near-victim of a ballistic auriculectomy, nothing could wipe that self-satisfied look off Alex's face.

Alex had called it. A simple trip to the police station to talk to Abigail Vennard and whose car got poked with a speeding bullet? Moses grabbed the Staff of Merlin. Moses Penn tossed Excalibur to Alex with perhaps a bit more force than necessary.

A sore loser, Moses powered up the Staff of Merlin with eldritch energies. Alex unsheathed the sword of swords. The two walked up to the front entrance of the police station as more bullets whizzed by them. Moses knew the deal. If they spotted any Romeros in there, they all had standing orders to take one alive. One of them, Alex reminded himself. That left them plenty of creative freedom with all the others.

"How do you know?" Azazel asked as Luther Penn stared at the news report of the shooting at the Trevena Police Department's downtown station. Azazel always asked that question. Psychics fascinated Azazel. Stuck in the halfway point between ordinary folk and wizards, psychics like Luther Penn could pierce through the veil of the senses and see what even the mightiest of wizards could sometimes miss.

Luther envied wizards. Pointy-hats didn't have to deal with their magick 24/7. No such luck for a part-time psychic. Luther Penn always had his mind plugged into the Akashic Records. Hell, it took Luther nearly one decade just to figure out how to screen out the endless barrage long enough to function like a normal human being.

Luther still remembered the day Hector Garland had found him on the streets of Detroit, a homeless thirteen-year-old diagnosed with schizophrenia. If not for him, Luther might have ended up another feral psychic locked away in a funny farm.

"I just know, you kid-eating bastard." The former archangel gave him much latitude when it came to his verbal jabs. He had witnessed the eldritch abomination devour a kindergartner, backpack and all, in three eighths of a second, for no reason.

As far as Luther could tell, his brand of humor amused the foul beast the way a court jester amused its king. Whatever the case, Azazel welcomed Luther's abuse. "Alex and Moses will die if I don't do something." That was just common sense talking.

Azazel shook his head. "Then, let them die." Azazel walked in front of the TV, blocking his view of the news report. "Those kids will never reap the full benefits of learning from their mistakes if their daddy always pulls their fannies out of the fire."

Luther would have pointed how such barbaric parenting techniques only worked with monsters like him and his children but that would have crossed the line. Though a child-eating crawling chaos, Azazel loved his extended family and even the slightest of slights against them could end with his favorite court jester wearing his insides on the outside. In this, Azazel understood a father's love for his children.

Luther Penn pulled out the carpet at the foot of his bed. He loosened a couple floorboards and found the safe. He entered the combination and opened the safe. "It's no use," Luther told Azazel. "I'm doing this whether you like it or not." Luther lifted Durendal, sheath and all, from its bulletproof hiding place under the floorboards.

"My family's in danger." Luther strapped the sword to his belt. "Bad enough I've already let Irene die." Luther shook his head. "Not making the same mistake twice." With that, Luther gathered his helmet and bowling bag and walked out the front door. Luther never imagined his sons would end up a part of this netherworld.

Azazel appeared in front of the stairwell leading to the parking lot. "You, my friend, amaze me." Luther grinned. "I could gouge out your eyes before you can even blink and yet you treat me like some pesky fly you need only shoo away. Look at you. Standing tall when even kings have fallen to their knees and begged me for mercy."

Luther shook his head. "Well, I know something those kings of yours didn't."

"Oh, really?" Azazel seemed amused by that comment. "And what is that?"

"Monsters like you don't have any mercy. A lot of good it would do me, begging you for something you don't have?" Luther grinned. "My old man used to beat me whenever I told him about my visions. Whenever I started to bleed out, I'd beg him to stop." Luther pulled up his sleeves a little and showed him the scars. "He'd just beat me even harder. Once he had my fear, what reason did he have to give it back?"

Luther pulled up the sleeve on his left arm. "Non timebo mal," Luther read the tattoo aloud. "Fear no evil," he translated for the spindly cosmic horror. "So either do something …" Luther poked the ex-archangel in the chest. "Or get out of my way."

Alexander Penn found Abigail Vennard huddled in an office room with a guy who looked more like a bodybuilder than the usual huff-and-puff police officer. Mister Universe, his name-tag said "Anthony Hemsworth," a detective no less, stared in awe. Detective Hemsworth was floored by the longsword in Alex's hands. He looked back and forth between Abby and Alex as they shared a moment amid the gunfire and cannibalistic murders. "This guy a friend of yours?" Abby nodded. Whatever else others might call them, the two of them still qualified as friends. Moses came behind Alex with the Staff of Merlin in his hands. "What the Hell is happening here?"

The cop laughed like he had the funniest joke in the world. "Excuse me?" The detective shook his hand and waved his hands. "You're the civilians. I'm the cop." Detective Hemsworth pointed at Alex. "Put down the sword." He pointed at Moses. "Put down the stick." He pulled out his gun. "And let the grown-ups deal with this."

Alex rolled his eyes. "Moses, can you handle this?" After a pause of lasting anywhere between three seconds and three hours, Moses finally nodded. "Thank you." Moses placed the tip of the staff against the bridge of the officer's nose. White light illuminated the veins on his face. "Now," Alex started. "Let's try this again."

Detective Hemsworth's face went blank. "They attacked us. Thirteen of them. No weapons." His pupils dilated. "They just started eating us." The detective shook his head. "We tried shooting them but those damn things just kept getting back up."

Det. Hemsworth grabbed Moses by the shoulders. "How could they get back up like that?" The cop peeled back his shirt, revealing a bulletproof vest. "I got shot once. Even with the vest on, I broke a few ribs. You don't just get back up from something like that." The detective listened for the unholy wails of the Romeros. "But they do."

Moses came the glowing light trained on the detective. "Okay." Alex gulped down a Dixie cup from the water cooler. "Did any of the police officers get bitten by one?" The detective nodded. "How many?" The detective held up five fingers as if the Romeros might hear him if he spoke aloud. Alex looked over at Moses. "We're dead."

Five cops, three days, five Romeros. These cannibals had laid siege to a police station and none of Trevena's Finest had managed a lucky shot at their brain stems. That meant open wounds and infectious bodily fluids. "Give her your gun." Detective Hemsworth handed the gun to Abby. "I sure hope you still know how to use a pistol."

Thanks to the shootout with the police, the Romeros didn't have to worry too much about hand-to-hand combatants anymore. All attempts to get close enough to tap their brain stems would certainly cause infection. Too high a price for anybody to pay. The Romero bashed his fists against the glass window next to the door. Alex barricaded the door and ran back behind the detective's desk. "It's gonna get in."

Abigail got up, pointed the gun at the location of the Romero's brain stem and pulled the trigger. Click. Click. Click. As the three of them fumbled with the safety, the symphony of blood and steel greeted their ears. Det. Hemsworth, still in a full-tilt hypnotic state, remained on the floor behind his disk as the three of them looked up.

There stood their savior in an all-black biker get-up with a sword in one hand and the still-biting head of a Romero in the other. Not one cubic inch of skin showed through. It was the perfect combat attire for doing battle with infectious opponents.

Even with the visor of his helmet down, Alex felt the stranger's eyes upon him. "Until our paths cross again." With that, the Dark Knight Biker deposited his bounty into an empty black bowling bag and exited the room as silently as he had entered it.

"Durendal," Hadrian announced to everyone standing with their eyeballs inches from the computer screen. "Longsword with a golden hilt." Haddy turned to Moses. "You felt its energy, didn't you?" Everyone turned their attention to Moses. "Did it feel like a magic sword?" Moses nodded cautiously. The sword gave him the same sensation Excalibur used to. Like standing in the same room with a furnace.

"Well, believe it or not, the French had a long glorious military history before their gutless capitulation to Nazi Germany left them branded with the enduring reputation as cheese-eating surrender monkeys." Hadrian scrolled down the page. "One of these French bad-asses, Count Roland, possessed a sword that, get this, contained in its golden hilt the following items: the baby tooth of Saint Peter, the blood of Saint Basil, the hair of Saint Denis and a pair of the Virgin Mary's panties."

Everyone made a face. "If my sword had a secret compartment, I would put all sorts of odd stuff in it." Hadrian scrolled down the page. "Excalibur and Durendal are both swords of incalculable age and extreme durability. Get this; when Count Roland wanted to destroy Durendal so the Saracens wouldn't get it, he smashed it against a mountain. According to legend, he ended up breaking the damn mountain instead."

Moses sighed. "I'm sorry." Hadrian shut down the computer. "Your masked stranger has excellent taste in mystical weaponry and clearly knows a thing or two about fighting these new monsters but, other than that, I have got nothing."

A collective groan circled the office. Moses turned his head in the direction of the backyard as if staring through the wall. Somewhere in the cosmos, somebody (or something) knew the complete unabridged story about the black knight who swooped in and saved their collective asses in the eleventh hour of their super-zombie siege.

Mr. and Mrs. Wallace had the volume on the TV in the living room cranked up. The top story, "The Siege of Trevena," a name more fitting of a noble battle from the dark ages than of a no-holds-barred kill-fest that had happened just a few hours ago. Even the intrepid reporters chalked the whole thing up to drugged-up gang members.

Perhaps, Valac the demon chicken could give them a couple pointers. Moses had never noticed it before but it seemed like Valac had started avoiding him. Until now, he hadn't had time to notice it. Valac had never heard of these new monsters. Neither did he have have clue one who might have played a hand in their creation. A terrible thought crossed his mind. A demon could see souls. Perhaps, he knew about his change and waited patiently for the opportune time to blackmail him with that knowledge. Moses looked at the sword Excalibur and considered his options.

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