Scratch sat at his massive throne within the Nether Realm. The countless souls in agony writhed in arcane spirals around his mountainous legs. The hulking entity reached into the pit dug around his lair. He clutched a handful of his minions and laughed as he watched them squirm in subservience. The immortal closed his fist and gobbled their energy in a single swallow.
A knell rang out across the near black horizon. It caught the attention of the Ruler of The Below for such a bargaining protocol had not struck the Underworld for millennia. His white eyes, devoid of irises, shone arcane light, focusing on the source of the interruption.
The horned entity bellowed across the pit.
“What disturbs my plunder, here? I am The Beast to be reckoned with in this place.”
“It is I, Longtooth.”
“Ah, Longtooth. I remember you. Didn’t I have you banished for draining the energy of my yield? This is my feast and that of none other.”
“Perhaps we can arrive at a bargain, Scratch. I represent entities from the perimeter of your pit…”
“I have no interest in bargains, Longtooth. You were a power- monger before and continue to present yourself as such. Remove yourself from my presence. I care not for this conversation.”
“It is you who shall be removed, Scratch. Our spokesman was serious. Now we will take the necessary action to embody a new economy of power in this Realm.”
The pit was smitten by a violent rumbling. Smaller abysses collapsed in on themselves, crushing the damned that wailed within.
From the outer limits of The Void appeared Titans that were twice the height and girth of the Administrator of Suffering. The horned figures carried giant weapons ranging from scythes to tridents. They scooped and skewered those that attempted to flee the quake only to devour them in their gargantuan maws.
The Titans exuded red light from cracks and crevasses in their skin, revealing the inner fire that they had acquired in a slow stream over centuries.
Scratch rose from his throne and approached the invaders. A cataclysmic battle ensued.
The Fallen Angel fought ruthlessly, clawing and bludgeoning his opponents with profound force. The Titans were prepared for Scratch’s resistance. They hacked and slashed at him with their arcane weapons.
Scratch was struck deep gashes in his chest and limbs. His left forearm was severed entirely. As he knelt to reclaim it he was run through at multiple locations. The Demigod was outnumbered and outmatched. The Titans impaled him on their weapons and carried him to the edge of the pit. Once he was in position they hurled him over the edge. The body of the onetime ruler of the Nether Realm bounced and ricocheted off the edge of the pit leaving a trail of escaping fire until he descended beyond sight.
Longtooth and the Titans turned from the edge of The Void. They set themselves to the work of draining the essences of the Fallen Souls.
Jack Nightingale was a solitary man. His only close friends were a bottle of Captain Morgan rum and the pack of cigarettes he kept in the pocket of his leather overcoat.
Leather was the couture du jour along the Sunset and Melrose strips in downtown Los Angeles. When the sunset finished and the moon shone brightly the center of the coastal metropolis was veritably invaded by punked out freaks with spiked hair and body piercings, leather wearing Goths and tattooed weirdoes on motorcycles. The majority of them were just kids looking for a good time to break the monotony of school and work.
Charlie, the owner of the Deja Vu nightclub, joked at Jack’s appearance and so-called profession.
“You call yourself a Hunter. But you hunt what? Pink elephants in a drunken stupor I say.”
The burly proprietor of the club was a gentle and reserved fellow. He wore a gray sweater and blue suspenders over his worn jeans. Charlie wiped down the counter with his meaty hands and berated the aspiring occultist through his trimmed, salt and pepper beard.
“I can use your business, Jack, but you’ve got to cut down on the sauce. One of these nights the cops are going to find you shriveled and as dehydrated as a sack of raisins. You’re killing yourself, man. And I don’t want to be charged as an accessory to suicide.”
“Thanks, Charlie. I knew I could count on you for moral support. If you don’t believe in the hunt, tell me why you keep that Kreskin’s Crystal under your counter?
“Oh, that,” Charlie replied. “It’s just for nostalgic purposes. It helps me remember when you were sober. Where are you off to, tonight? You’re going to The Ward, aren’t you?”
“What if I am, Charlie? Don’t I have the right to travel where I please anymore? You’re not my mother.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I take it things on the street are getting hot.”
“That’s an understatement, Chuck. The night scene is roiling with outworlders and would-be poltergeists. Arcane forces are building in the summer heat of our city. I must find their source and countermand them before L.A. is smitten by some power-hungry Demigod on the rampage.”
“Well, do what you must, my friend,” the bartender replied. “Just be careful and watch your back. This city can be a shadowy and dangerous place for those who pry into secrets that are intended to be kept as such.
“Don’t forget about the Consortium, either. The cybernetic program feeds economies around the world and the cyborgs are known to take the law into their own hands.”
“I agree with your analysis, Charlie. Despite the risks involved something must be done to disperse the shadowy vibrations that have emanated around the city of late. I’ll look into things and do what I can. I must be on my way. I’ll see you later.”
Jack slid his money card through the receiver at the end of the counter and typed in a generous tip for Charlie.
“I’ll return within the week if all goes well. If not, I’ll see you in Hell.”
“Perhaps you already do,” answered Charlie. “May The Fates be with you.”
Jack Nightingale exited the Deja Vu nightclub and mounted his late model Harley Davidson motorcycle. He donned a helmet and kick-started the engine. The moon shone brightly through the cloudy marine layer of the L.A. night sky. La luna del cacciatore his Italian cousin called it. It was the hunter’s moon.
Jack was far from alone on the street. Other bikers and drivers of late model cars stared at him as he rumbled by at high speed.
Nightingale was not prescient but he was an Occultist. Demi-humans and Denizens of the Undead disguised their preternatural states from the general population. Jack was not fooled by the ruse of the darker half of the drivers and passengers on the nighttime freeway.
Vampires manifested red outlines in the milieu, while zombies and orcs bore auras colored blue and green respectively. These nocturnal predators wore loose-fitting clothing and heavy makeup to hide their pallid and bony appearances.
None of the spawn of the night desired detection and exposure to the general populace. Similar in disposition to the night feeders and dwellers were the androids and cyborgs generated by the Consortium.
In the Twentieth Century Detroit and its neighboring cities became renowned for their fabrication of varieties of automobiles. In the Twenty-First Century Los Angeles became a bastion of dark things and ruminating secrets.
An early indication of this transition was shown by the absence of a professional football team. People were afraid to group in large numbers even if unable to put their fear into their conscious minds. It didn’t bother Jack much. He liked living on the edge.
Nightingale shifted his Harley into high gear and sped between two buses bearing a variety of masked and painted freaks. The passengers screamed a cluster of epithets as Jack gripped the throttle. He headed toward the horizon. The street reflectors burned with the light of his motorbike. The signs led the way and he was soon to reach the exit for the Los Angeles Psychiatric Ward or The Ward as it was casually referred to.
The Ward was where insanity and prophecy intermingled freely and without restriction. Miles before Jack arrived at the turnout he sensed the auras of the mad and semi-delusional.
Among the flickering life lights of the institutionalized were moments of clarity and repose. These illuminations seemed to fall behind a defensive wall as his Harley rumbled into earshot.
The Ward was a wellspring for medical experimentation as doctors and pharmacists struggled to keep their patients tranquil among spiraling waves of abnormal brain activity.
The oligarchy of the Consortium sent the latest medications and sedatives to aid the process of healing the sick. Cyborgs and androids programmed to assist the medical staff stepped in when patients attempted to gain freedom without clearance by the staff of doctors.
Insulin-induced seizures and schedules that included electroshock therapy still lingered in the psychiatric community as tools to fight suicidal depression and schizophrenia.
Upon his approach to the security kiosk Jack showed his Consortium-approved certification as an Occultist. The guards let him through the gate topped with barbed wire. The moon shone brightly through the passing clouds of the late night sky. It was nearing midnight when Jack rumbled to a stop at the central parking lot and turned the kill switch on his Harley.
Dr. Green rose from his desk at the main entrance to The Ward. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and held an electronic clipboard. He approached Nightingale and shook his hand.
“Ah, Jack, it’s good to see you. What vibrations have you detected in the world of the streetwalkers?”
“Too many, I’m afraid, Doctor. There is an unnamed evil gathering within the crossroads and highways of greater Los Angeles. I’ve come to speak with The Traveler. I must know what’s happening in the Nether Realms.”
Jack took off his leather trench coat and set it on the back of Dr. Green’s chair. A large, hulking guard entered the small room. His nametag said ‘Butcher.’
“We had to move The Traveler to a more secluded cell. Things are getting hairy in gen-pop.”
Sounds that the Occultist thought to be ventilation equipment in the next room acquired an eerie, complex bass beat. It much reminded Jack of the stomping and chanting of the tens of thousands of sports-crazed fans that echoed around stadiums during home games.
Nightingale and Officer Butcher followed the lead of Dr. Green through the security office and a series of barred steel gates and surveillance cameras. Padded cells lined the right side of the passage ahead. Each chamber was sealed in turn by a padded door with an observation window at shoulder height.
The stomping sounds grew louder as the trio of men neared the doors of the cells. Jack glanced through several of the observation portals as he followed the lead of Officer Butcher and Dr. Green.
Supine patients struck their heels and palms against the floor and walls in a staccato rhythm. This was the source of the piercing bass sounds. Many of the patients screamed and moaned at the passersby.
“Release…Please release me!” chanted one resident.
“Yes…let us go! Our Master approaches!” cried another.
“I don’t think they’re referring to you, Dr. Green,” Jack said.
“I agree, Nightingale,“ answered the Doctor. “This last week The Ward has been on edge with the emergence of magnified, arcane energy. Some entity or group of geists is building power within our city.
“I advise you to be careful when interviewing The Traveler, Nightingale. He is a source of information but will assert himself to find leverage to escape these walls. Don’t make any deals with him. He generates enough trouble with the orderlies and staff here.”
At last the trio reached the cell of The Traveler. The man had been institutionalized for attempting suicide years before. His cell, although padded contained a small desk, an easel and art supplies. A scuffed violin and bow stood on a stand in the corner. Strangely the carpet was lifted and rolled into a corner of the room. A pentagram, rendered in red paint, had been recently applied to the floor. The interconnected star figure gleamed in the light. It was not yet fully dried.
“Greetings, Traveler,” said Dr. Green.
“How are things going, Buddy,” added Officer Butcher.
“Hello, my friends,” replied the middle-aged prescient. “Is that you, Jack? I haven’t seen you for a while. Something is afoot. Yes?”
“Traveler, preternatural auras have flared to a state I’ve never seen. Who or what the source of this energy may be, it can’t be good for the people of L.A. or the world, for that matter.”
The patient of The Ward looked at the men with an amused expression. His file, hanging on the wall next to the large, protective glass window indicated that his age was unknown.
The Traveler was shirtless and his arms and torso rippled with toned muscle. He clearly followed a regimen of pushups and sit-ups on a regular basis. The Traveler’s eyes were a dark blue and his hair was tinted to conceal any gray.
The Traveler stared at the three visitors and chuckled. His face was moderately wrinkled and his eyebrows arched with ire.
“It’s Scratch. He’s got you all grasping at straws.”
“Now hold on a minute,” said Officer Butcher. “I thought the rules said that outworlders can’t cross over into ours.”
“Except for the expunged and weakened ones, forced to search for power in this realm in a spectral state. Isn’t that correct, Jack?” asked Dr. Green.
“That was the status quo, until now,” replied Nightingale. “Something has happened. A battle lost or an entity destroyed. Whatever the case may be the poltergeists are here, now, in L.A.”
“That is indeed the case, my friends,” said The Traveler. “I have seen many things in my travels over the years. The fabric keeping our place in the space-time continuum has been rent in a most powerful and desperate fashion. The stakes were changed and perhaps entities wore out their welcome in The Beyond.
“Where once we mortals were tormented in our dreams alone now The Fallen are among us. Scratch was pushed. He was attacked from below.”
“Well, he’s not known to win many popularity contests here or elsewhere,” added Dr. Green.
“There’s more,” said The Traveler. “Where Scratch goes his minions are sure to follow. From this point on you must notify the cyber-police of the emerging threat to the social harmony of our world.”
“I will do that immediately,” Officer Butcher replied.
The large security leader stepped back from The Traveler’s cell and activated his cellular phone. He began a hushed dialogue with the dispatcher on the other end of the signal.
“I have taken precautions against invasion of poltergeists and larger daemons here,” The Traveler said. “Despite this action none of us are safe from the wiles of the greater entities fallen from grace.”
As if on cue the foundation of The Ward began to roll and shake in an earthquake of moderate force.
“It seems that my disclosure of information has not been appreciated by an unseen audience.”
The men were knocked off their feet by the temblor and struggled to regain their balance. The Traveler moaned and addressed his visitors.
“Please, Officer Butcher. Unlock the door. You have my word that I will not attempt to escape from your custody. A cacodaemon from the Fell Regions approaches. My pentagram will not hold for long. You may re-lock the door and give us time to move to a safe sanctuary before the monster runs rampant through The Ward.”
The security official closed his cell phone and grabbed his key chain. Smoke began to rise from The Traveler’s pentagram. Gleaming, arcane light outlined the figures hastily written within the five-pointed star. The surface of the design warped and twisted. Bubbles expanded along it and the shape of clawed hands rose into the air from beneath.
“By all means proceed, Officer,” said Dr. Green. “We may trap this invader for a time in The Traveler’s cell.”
Officer Butcher selected the correct key and opened the door. The Traveler leapt from his confined chamber and joined the visitors watching from the exterior. Steam emerged from the ad hoc seal and filled the observation hall with infernal heat. The security guard quickly locked the door once more. The claws pushing into the pentagram ripped through it and a gray, horned cacodaemon pushed his head into the room. The face of the cacodaemon was covered with the scars of numerous battles and exuded glowing red light from his eyes.
“Rrargh! Your days are numbered, Traveler,” declared the evil being. “You have spoken too much of the goings on below. I am Beezle. Scratch’s dominion has been compromised and the rest of us are free of his draining harnesses.”
The cacodaemon swung at the observation window with a gristly lochaber axe. The thick glass cracked at the point of impact and was only held together by the binding wires within the pane.
“The emergency release switch is in the control room,” said Dr. Green. “Let us hurry there and give the patients here an opportunity to escape.”
As the men reached the door to the control room the sound of smashing glass and tearing steel emanated from the hall. A few of the patients of The Ward had not recovered from their insulin-based seizure induction. Those that did helped their companions to hurry past the security door.
“Hurry, men! The Ward is no longer safe. We will lead you out,” cried Dr. Green.
Again the building was rocked by the sound of intense force striking the window of what had been The Traveler’s cell. Beezle succeeded in rending the security wire free of its attachment to the surrounding wall.
The last of the patients hobbled over the threshold of the control room. Nightingale slammed the door shut behind them and engaged the lock. He took a moment to look at the security screen displaying the observation hall. The cacodaemon turned his bullish head to stare at the camera.
Jack watched as the humanoid stepped into the full range of the lens. He had the legs and cloven hooves of a goat. His tail was scaled and forked. His torso and arms were humanoid, although larger and more muscle-bound than any man of Earth. Behind each shoulder blade Beezle possessed a pair of leathery wings that unfurled behind him.
The minion of the Titans drew in a deep breath and exhaled a blast of flame from his maw. The plastic casing of the security camera melted, rendering the device defunct.
Nightingale pushed his companions from the rear.
“Let’s be on our way, Gentlemen. We have no means to repel this monster here. The Consortium is sure to be sending containment cyborgs by now.”
The group of escapees moved through the exit of the control room and Officer Butcher locked the door behind them once more. They headed up the subsequent flight of stairs and ran outside the architecture of the The Ward.
The sound of the rending of the first door of the control room rose from the bottom of the staircase. The screech of the metal door being torn from its hinges assaulted the ears of the humans.
Beezle snarled with frustration.
“I am coming for you, Nightingale. Your name is legendary, even in Hell.”
The escapees reached the extensive parking lot of The Ward. A small army of Consortium cyborgs had the building surrounded. They allowed Nightingale, Dr. Green and Officer Butcher to pass through their protective line.
Beezle emerged from the same door and spat fire at the security corps. Two transportation vehicles were knocked over by the blast and a dozen of the cyborgs were destroyed.
Jack turned and saw the Consortium forces open fire upon Beezle with a variety of weapons including high-powered rifles, assault lasers and missile launchers.
The gray cacodaemon emerged from the stairway entrance and was riddled with bullets. Lasers streaked his scaled hide with smoking lacerations. A pair of cyborgs activated missile-launching devices where their forearms once were. They fired a thundering volley of explosives at Beezle. Several of the projectiles missed their target and detonated on impact with the concrete frame of The Ward. Two shots struck their mark and Beezle was blown off his feet, slamming hard into the wall behind him. The Denizen of the Underworld realized that his target was getting away. He released a yell of vexation.
“Rraargh! I have received my fill of this harassment. Mark my words, meddlers. You haven’t seen the last of me or my kindred. Our numbers are legion. And we are on the move into this puny realm called Earth. It will take more than your pop-guns and beams of light to detain us.”
Beezle spread his wings and took flight into the night sky. The cyborgs fired a pursuing volley but their attempts to force him to the ground were ineffectual. The cacodaemon spat a fireball at the Consortium police. One patrol car was destroyed in a condensed firestorm.
Jack Nightingale turned away from the battle scene and spoke to Dr. Green and Officer Butcher. The three men were still short of breath from their hasty escape from the basement of The Ward. They trotted across the surface of the parking lot and wended their way through the security vehicles and troop transports.
The Occultist was relieved to see his Harley intact. Dr. Green and Officer Butcher both drove company cars that they entered and guided to the freeway and sanctuary.
The Hunter made it to his condominium without interruption. He ate a light dinner and settled down to a turbulent sleep. His mind remained filled with apprehension of the newly emerged Beezle and the premonition of The Traveler. The lights and sounds of passing traffic came through his Venetian blinds to etch eerie rays on the ceiling of his bedroom.
Jack was awakened early in the morning by the cries of his black cat, Nightfang, who he had forgotten to feed the previous day. He’d finished filling his pet’s bowl with kibbles when his cell phone rang.
Jack opened the device and spoke into the microphone.
“Jack, its Butcher. We’ve got some trouble at the LA security station.”
“What kind of trouble, Officer?”
“Poltergeists. They’ve breached our electric gate and are moving in on us. I already called Dr. Green and he’s on his way…Hey, you! You don’t belong here. An Occultist is coming. Arrgh!”
The sounds of a scuffle permeated the cell phone. Jack heard moaning as a malevolent voice spoke into the receiver.
“Jack Nightingale. I know you. Call me Longtooth. Your friends have been incapacitated by the strength of The Titans. The day of the destruction of the Occultists is at hand. It’s only a matter of time before your soul is hurled into The Void.”
“You’re mistaken, Longtooth. Don’t hurt my friends. I will deal with you and your ilk personally.”
Jack closed his cell phone and grabbed his deployment bag before hustling to his Harley.
The freeway was nearly empty and Nightingale reached the security station in record time. What was usually a nondescript concrete structure surrounded by barbed-wire fencing had become a focal point of evil energy. The structure was surrounded by the light of an eerie, red cloud.
A pair of giant, disembodied, demonic eyes hovered over the security station. They followed the motion of the Occultist as he brought his motorcycle to a stop a safe distance from the infested building.
“Is that you, Scratch?” Jack breathed out loud.
A deep, bass voice emanated from the direction of the preternatural eyes.
“Indeed it is I, Nightingale. My incubi have arisen from Hell and await you within. Your friend, Officer Butcher, is no more. He is now the first of my recruits. His will was strong and he was not easily turned to our cause. Officer Butcher’s struggle is over, now, and he has become the first of a new generation of earth-born minions I have dubbed The Kraken. What once was Butcher will serve me well as the primary agent of The Kraken.
“Reflect before entering this meager station, Jack,” continued Scratch. “It is now the primary stronghold in my siege of power and submission.”
The red cloud surrounding the station thickened and intensified, nearly blurring the view of the structure within it.
“I will not heed your warning, Scratch!” Nightingale replied. “If what you say is the truth you have attacked my friend and that is unacceptable. This realm is the native home of we humans. There is no room for anarchic cacodaemons and entities set on disturbing the peace of the etherium that resides here.”
“Very well, Jack,” answered The Beast. “Venture inside if it so pleases you. My servants and I have shifted our nucleus of energy to this place. Those who assist us will be rewarded. All who stand in the way of my legions will suffer and then be obliterated.”
“You are a potent Occultist and your resources will aid us once bent to our disposal.”
“What happened, Scratch? Did something push you this far from your traditional territory?”
“Yes, Jack. As I’m sure you’ve sensed by now there has been a fight. The details do not concern you. Suffice it to say that I have been permitted to journey to this place and expand the boundaries of my operation.”
Nightingale thought before responding.
“I’ve heard enough, Scratch. Be gone from Earth or contend with me. You know the stakes. Your strength here is not what it is below. You will be turned from this place and it won’t be without casualties. I will avenge Officer Butcher and any others that you aspire to control.”
“So be it, Jack,” answered the hovering, daemonic visage. “I welcome you to this structure. Explore it while you can. We shall meet again.”
The daemonic visage faded then disappeared entirely.
Jack faced the occupied building, exasperated.
I've got to get a hold of Mr. E and The Traveler. They'll know what to do, thought the Occultist.
Nightingale turned from the possessed edifice. The sound of his motorcycle kick-starting into gear filled the night.
We'll be there soon, Officer Butcher. You'll be back to your old self in no time, Jack considered.
The freeway was virtually empty and Jack sped as fast as the law would allow. Mr. E was notoriously difficult to locate. The prescient wizard worked in a variety of low-profile occupations throughout the city ranging from fortune-teller to night-club owner.
There was one hang-out Nightingale knew the sage was partial to over time: Hell's Kitchen. It was a clandestine dive on the east side of town. Mr. E was a powerful aid to those who knew him and sought him out. Thus he chose to lay low and avoid retribution from entities he helped to locate and, sometimes, eradicate from existence altogether.
Jack soon reached the structure in question in parked his motorcycle among several that rested out front.
Hell's Kitchen was filled with smoke. A variety of shady figures lounged in corners of the leery establishment. Jack avoided eye contact with many familiar faces and went about his business.
A large bouncer dressed in a vested shirt and slacks approached the Occultist.
“Nightingale, I'm not surprised to see you here on a night like this. The freaks are crawling out of the woodwork.”
“Thanks, Igor. It's good to see you, too. Where's Mr. E?”
“Busy. But I think he'd like to see you. Come with me, Occultist.”
Jack followed the bouncer up a flight of stairs to a closed door simply labeled, “Office.”
Igor pounded on the door with his meaty fist and the sound of bolts sliding free soon passed through.
An emaciated, sweaty face appeared through the partially opened doorway.
“Rizzo, I've brought Nightingale. Let him in to see Mr. E,” said Igor.
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