Hezekiah didn’t leave the Cave too often. He’d quit drinking, so the only time he went up to the VFW was to talk to other Marines in the earlier hours with non-regulars. Hez had compassion, had love, for the veterans in their modest fellowship carved out of their small piece of Brooklyn… but he was too old and too sober to be bothered by drunks. He’d come out, maybe play a few games of Gin, give the others his unimpeachable odds on the ponies and then cut back down below.
But now, Hezekiah was out of coffee. And that was unacceptable.
The elevator was for Yoma. No others. Not for years. Just Yoma. But Hez preferred the long walk. Although… it had been years since he’d taken the underground to explore the city. He hadn’t put the mask on in…
Well now, it was the Strix. Back then, Hezekiah had been the Owl. And just like Yoma didn’t know why she was doing what she was doing now, Hezekiah didn’t know why he bothered back then.
Hez had a mentor when he got out of the Marines. That old grouch was as hard as they come. Smart, but harsh. The man who preceded the Owl didn’t seem to know what to do with the knowledge and skills they had, except for “cleanin’ up the streets, keepin’ ’em safe.” Hez’s mentor had a mentor as well; it was unclear how far back this “cleaning” business went. No matter who was playing at vigilante, no matter the generation, no matter how many scumbags they got off the streets—there was always another scumbag to fill the void. Hez felt like he had it particularly rough during his tenure.
The seventies. It was so much worse back then. You couldn’t scare off anyone. There was so much crime you’d have to either take out a whole cashbox, or whorehouse, or a fuckin’ gaggle of dope-pushers to effect anything. And even if you did that, anyone with a family (or anything to lose) and two pennies to rub together, was leaving.
He remembered being summoned up to Harlem to meet the church-ladies and the reverends. They wanted mandatory minimums and police presence. They were asking him to roll back. “We don’t need the Bird, man. We need the police.”
You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
Anyhow, it had been years. Years and years. Back to when Ed Koch arranged that secret meeting and asked the Owl to wait in the wings. Hezekiah—no, the Owl wasn’t much appreciated back then. So maybe Yoma was right. Maybe what was needed was fear. Maybe she was right about the violence and the grizzly disfigurement and the horror.
People had admired the Owl—most, anyway. But they’d made fun, too.
Hez didn’t have the equipment that was around these days; although resourceful, he had to either craft the tools he needed himself or pay for tech by putting in extra hours at his dreaded day job.
The Owl was partly a punchline. The Strix, though… The Strix was something parents told their kids about to scare the shit out of them. It was like how the Ruskies had Baba Yaga (assuming that tale was still alive after all these years) or Wrinkles the Clown for particularly retributive/punitive parents.
Long and short of it was that it was harder back then, easier now. Back in my day, so on and so forth, it used to be a Golden Age and all that old-man-lolling-in-the-Florida-sunshine-pissing-on-the-world bullshit.
Hezekiah found himself exiting the Owlshead sewer shed and stepping into the abandoned tunnels; he donned his old hood, night-vision headgear, and armor. He had reminisced about fifty years of his life, all the while—almost unconsciously—resurrecting the Owl.
* * *
While the old Owl was underneath the earth indulging in some minor feats of nostalgia, The Strix was aboveground moving in and out of the shadows, looking for… well, she didn’t know what to look for.
But unusually—out of character—The Strix thought about what Hezzy had said about… not knowing? What did he say? Don’t know what’s coming.’ Why are we waiting for what’s coming… but it’s coming no matter. No matter. It’s comin’.
Under the huge metal shell and the apocalyptic cowl and the evil green eyes, the thought and careful consideration of an emotionally wise and worldly (as in been-through-the-ringer) woman. A real woman, ugly and true, real as they come—realer than the realest shit—who knew when to pay attention and when to act.
But what am I looking for?
* * *
MEANWHILE… In the Sonoran Desert
“Man, that’s a fuckin’ trip, Mr. D. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that shit. It’s like… bwaaahhh! Ker-smash! Fuckin’ POWWWWW!”
Carl got out of the car, now fully naked except for a red fisherman’s vest that looked very much like the one Marty McFly wore in Back to the Future, a sock puppet character (also modeled after Marty McFly) over his genitalia, and his sock garters (but not his socks). He ran around the side of the limo and rushed to open Karjiel Donomak’s door.
Karjiel leapt out of the car as soon as Carl had opened the door. “Yes! Yesss! YESSSSS! We are having the fucking time of our lives!”
Karjiel had shaved his beard and was now also naked, apart from a white lab coat that looked very much like the one Dr. Emmet Brown wore. He did not, however, have a Dr. Brown sock puppet. Instead, Karjiel wore a Barney the Purple Dinosaur puppet—a real puppet, not a sock puppet—over his own penis.
Facing opposite directions with their arms locked, they jumped in a circle, hopping around while yelling, “There are no roads! There are no roads! There are no roads!”
They stopped as Carl looked off in the distance, seeing some light-artist’s installations and hearing dance music. “Hey, Mr. D… are there supposed to be other people out here?”
“No, Marty McFly. No, there are not.”
Karjiel walked toward the source of the noise. As he drew closer, he heard a thrumming boumph-boumph-boumph coming from a haze of rainbow-and-white light out in the distance—sounds like arpeggiated lasers. Two girls in pigtails and gas masks with full-body tattoos (and not much else) approached Karjiel and Carl; they were holding hands. One of them spoke—the gas mask must have had a vocoder filtering her voice, because she sounded like a funky death-robot.
“Are you the guys delivering the nitrous? You’re late.”
Carl looked over to Karjiel, who answered. “No. No, we’re not here to deliver the… nitrous”
“Oh. Cool. You guys want to do Molly?”
“Who’s Molly?” Karjiel asked.
Carl took the cigar out of his mouth and leaned over to whisper in Karjiel’s ear. “It’s a drug. It’s a nickname. Molly. The real name is MDMA.”
“Ah, of course! Molly. Yes, we would like some Molly, young ladies. Please take us to your distributor, at once!”
One of the pigtailed girls turned to the other.
“What do you think?” The robot voice came out.
“They’re pretty weird.”
“I like weird.”
The first one they’d spoken to—the tattooed-death-robot—turned back to Karjiel and Carl and said, “Okay boys. Let’s go meet Molly.”
* * *
Approximately Five Hours Later
At this point, Karjiel Donomak was rolling hard on MDMA and out of his mind drunk—at least to the extent that he could be. The truth was that the amount of energy—not energy in the sense of exuberance or physiological stamina, but energy as in traditional thermodynamic energy—that Karjiel stored and burnt into entropy to perform his sorcery meant that he could never truly get bombed on any psychoactive substances, booze included. Which was, of course, a source of great disappointment, a source of chagrin to Mr. Donomak.
This chagrin at the physical delimitation of his sorcerous-stasis (or, sorcerostasis, if you prefer), had caused Karjiel to become a bit… ornery. He had told Carl to go off and have fun. And by all accounts, Carl was having fun. In fact, judging by the way women and men (and these days, whatever else) were looking at the slightly engorged and overlong Marty McFly sock puppet, Carl was bound to continue having a good time for the rest of the night. (Of course, that’s just a roundabout way of saying what another festivity-celebrant had said more pithily: Damn, that dude’s got a huge WANG!) Sadly, Karjiel could not indulge his lust in the same way that Carl might, since Karjiel Donomak had been castrated in the late 18th Century (but that… that is a story for another day).
All told, a ball-less and inebriation-frustrated Karjiel was getting sort of pissed at not having the same outlets as most of the animal humans who were bouncing about around him.
Well, I suppose it’s time to get back to business. Karjiel had Carl “drive” him to this specific spot in the desert for a specific reason. All these long hours of hedonism and heathenry were but a brief reprieve from his profane responsibility: A Resurrection, a feeding, the provision to the ancient bloodlines—the gifting of the taken souls to the great Cosmikoum.
Karjiel drew closer, the noise growing louder and louder as he approached the chasm. The white light pollution and the rattling thump of the industrial-level sound systems buried the chasm and the neon-crimson light from within it. This whole scene… to him, it was a representation of the mortal folly that allowed Cosmikoum’s resurrection in the first place.
This latest iteration of this folly, this trend, allowed for the ritual. The seemingly natural instinct of humans to sacrifice education and knowledge—or eventually forget it once no longer deemed necessary—for collections of meaningless things. For the brief reprieve from their pitiful, self-loathing existences gained from a few little heart icons floating up from their computer screens to their attention-hungry eyes. The superficial natural inclination to seek out attention (positive or negative) by degrading themselves in front of audiences. The revelation of their true, miserable selves to the very audiences that were so pathetic, they aimed to be superficially miserable as well.
Karjiel remembered the Proto-Sinaitic script which offered the origins of the Great Head, of Cosmikoum:
Long ago in old days the brothers were close in bond
leaving none of their soil untilled by both hands
They did not war, and their wives and mothers
walked freely between each farm, both plots of land
The brothers counted and forgot the names of stars
each night they would go out and name them again
Then a night came where the stars were smaller
and one red star was larger than the others
The red star came and made a loud noise
and the red star’s noise was louder than all the others
Inside the red star there was a dying animal
and the animal from the red star was cunning and evil
As he neared the glowing red chasm where the ancient immigrant lay long in hibernation, waiting for the blood and souls of the fools who willingly surrendered them, Karjiel spotted a cage filled with Cellheads in the distance. Somehow, the hopped-up ravers had trapped them in one area. There was something strange going on, and although all things strange were usually within Karjiel’s purview, he found himself ignorant of what exactly could moderate or control these possessed humans; he had planted the seed of possession himself, and yet there was something here that Karjiel did not understand.
Surrounding the rift were brass poles tethered with velvet rope, along with men in tight-fitted black shirts inflated with silicone-injected musculature. Their sweat-glistened faces were stern. Karjiel walked over the rope while reaching into the pocket of his costume lab coat to pull out the brass sphere.
Someone immediately yelled at him. “Yo! Yo! YO! My man, you can’t be back here. This is a VIP area.” The owner of the voice was at least as tall as Karjiel—very tall indeed—and one of the more regular-proportioned meatheads out of the group of black-shirted, artificially muscled men.
“VIP?” Karjiel asked with a slur.
“Yeah, bruh. Celebrities, shit like that. Rich folk. You gotta be on a list, bruh. So, are you on the list, bruh?”
Karjiel was equal parts amused and angry. “Certainly. I am a close business associate of your employer.”
“You know McFarland?” the bouncer replied.
“Most certainly,” Karjiel replied with a deadened, malevolent grin.
The bouncer looked him up and down for a minute before deciding that the once-over glance wasn’t a great way to see if someone was being earnest in such exotic environs. “Yo, tell McFarland one of his money-guys or somethin’—or, like, some guy that knows him—is here to see ’im,” the bouncer spoke into a small handset. “Alright,” he told Karjiel, “just wait one minute. He’s comin’ right over.”
A football field’s length away, the Cellheads were going nuts in their enclosure. The smartphones drilled into the front of their heads glowed brighter and brighter, blood leaking from the edges where the screws and nails had been ceremoniously jammed in. They’d been somewhat docile since becoming entrapped; but now they were throwing themselves against the fence of their large-scale cage as hard as they could, growling and foaming at the mouth.
The man—the boss—that the bouncer had called for, name of McFarland, walked up to the part of the velvet rope where Karjiel was waiting and looked straight at the bouncer, ignoring Donomak.
“What’s up, Double-E?”
“This cat says he knows you,” the bouncer answered McFarland.
McFarland laughed. “Doc Brown here? Nah, man. Never seen this dude before in my whole life.”
McFarland’s eyes floated over toward the Cellheads’ enclosure. They were going insane now, their flesh peeling off as they raced up the side of the fence and barreled through the barbed wire at the top. McFarland pointed and said something to another bouncer close by.
“I…” Karjiel began speaking, his face bright red, his breathing labored, “have been very patient. The time for speaking... is done. Let me through. Now.”
McFarland was looking nervous; a dozen of the bouncers had come together behind him. At the same time, Cellheads were escaping their enclosure, causing screaming and panic among the segments of the crowd that weren’t completely blitzed.
That was when McFarland made the biggest mistake he could have made; he let his fear turn to panic. “Yo, bounce this fuckin’ fuck!”
The dozen bouncers behind the velvet rope ran at Karjiel, who already had the brass sphere held at the tips of his fingers, behind his back. Karjiel dropped the sphere down half an inch, getting a firm grasp, then whipped his arm around, sending the sphere hurtling toward security.
Before the men were even close to him, the sphere rocketed into the air. With lightning speed, it ripped and tore a curving path through skin and organs, boring almost a hundred holes through the bouncers’ bodies before returning to Karjiel. A thick red mist permeated the area surrounding the now collapsing bouncers.
As millions of tiny blood droplets settled on his face and white lab coat, Karjiel looked to the brass sphere, examining the leftover gore and innards of McFarland’s security detail. He felt much better.
McFarland fell and scuttled away from Karjiel like a panic-stricken crustacean. Karjiel let go of the brass sphere again—it smashed through amplifiers and mixing boards and monitors, silencing the music. Karjiel looked down at the petrified party organizer. “You are a physical coward, are you not?”
McFarland was unable to respond. He pissed his pants and continued to scuttle.
Carl noticed what was happening and ran over to be next to Karjiel. The two pigtailed women in gas masks followed out of curiosity.
“Is this guy givin’ you trouble, Mr. D?”
Karjiel chuckled. “No, Carl. This man is no trouble. No trouble at all.” The enigmatic warlock, covered in blood, turned back toward McFarland. “Take off your clothes.”
The unhappy crowd, half-terrified and half caught in the thrall of unusual circumstances, began to gather near the velvet ropes. The crimson light in the chasm glowed brighter, and a low rumbling tone—a deep, deep, vocal tone—came from beneath the earth. The now berserk Cellheads managed to knock over the barbed wire fence, as the outward-facing smartphones in their heads glowed bright as the stars in the desert sky.
“I said... take off your clothes.”
McFarland continued his backward crawl, and in his deep-seated fear, was unaware of his increasing proximity to the hellish chasm. Karjiel curled his hand toward the petulant man-boy; a high-pitched ring filled the air, and McFarland began to spasm.
“NOW!” Karjiel commanded.
McFarland cried as he stripped down to his underwear—Gucci boxers with the company logo branded all over. Carl stood near Karjiel and began to dance like a maniac; his two new gas-masked cohorts danced with him.
One of the dancing girls yelled out, “The undies, too!” Karjiel looked back to Carl, who was now standing still, simply repeating to Karjiel, “There are no roads. There are no roads. There are no roads.”
“You heard the lady,” Karjiel said.
McFarland pushed his Gucci boxers down until he was standing stark naked. Karjiel smiled. Carl and the two gas mask girls were chanting in unison—there are no roads—and now the crowd was chanting, too, not noticing that they’d been encircled by the Cellheads, all of whom had escaped from the enclosure.
“Carl…” Karjiel whispered quietly.
“Yes, Mr. D?”
“Take your new friends into the limousine. Wait for me.”
Carl nodded and grabbed both women by their wrists and they scattered toward the Maybach.
Still, the crowd frothed, chanting, “THERE ARE NO ROADS. THERE ARE NO ROADS.”
Karjiel let go of the brass sphere and it rocketed into McFarland’s chest, punching a hole through him so cleanly that one could see to the other side, see the crimson glow coming from the chasm behind him. McFarland’s eyes showcased terror and disbelief before rolling up into his head; he plummeted into the gaping rift, becoming kindle for the fire. A plume of smoke and ash shot out of the earthen furnace as he was consumed.
Karjiel walked over to the edge and held out the sphere over the chasm. The brass globe opened, and blood streamed from it, falling down, down, down into the open earth. Along with the blood, a number of small particles—bright green luminescent seeds—were carried aloft and then down in gravity-defying spirits of smoke. As the seeds reached their destination at the bottom, plumes of sparkledust purple smoke shot up from the crack in the earth like it was Pompeii-in-miniature. Karjiel inhaled deeply, breathing in the fumes—the fumes transformed him, allowed him to see outside himself; his eyes glowed purple, as did the screens on the pates of the Cellheads surrounding the enthralled crowd.
And Donomak whispered:
Din țărână în țărână.
The ground shook. Again and again he whispered it, until Cosmikoum received the sacrifice due to him, and his great skull began pushing out from the chasm in the earth.
* * *
Back in Brooklyn—Very Early the Next Morning
It had been a long night, but Hez (or, the Owl, if you like) hadn’t found anything worth his time. He was on his way back to the Owlshead watershed system of tunnels—he had just left the abandoned transit tunnels and the occluded municipal underground when he heard a skittering, chittering sound.
There were about twenty Cellheads running around naked in the underground. It was difficult for them to locate him; lucky for Hez, the years had not diminished his ability to move stealthily.
Still, it was not stealthy enough. One of the Cellheads turned and caught direct sight of Hez. He could see the illuminated rectangle on its head; he switched off his night vision so he could look color-true and accurate. It was glowing a deep, bright purple.
* * *
Inside the Maybach—Somewhere Outside Our Dimension
Karjiel had been anointed—he could see now. Through any of them, through all of them.
One of the Cellheads broadcast a transmission from somewhere dark. Karjiel saw something that looked like a mechanical bird in rags. Decades ago, when crafting this plan, Donomak had been warned. Watch out for them, the Owls. He had heard of The Strix. But now it appeared the old one was still alive.
Karjiel Donomak smiled and whispered to himself, “I see you, little birdie. I see you.”
* * *
Hezekiah waited for the Cellhead to react, to do something, anything. After a stare-down that lasted about ten seconds, Hez swiftly retreated.
He couldn’t see it, but trailing behind him, all the way back to his underground warehouse beneath the VFW in Sunset Park, was a sewer rat; tracking him as he returned home.
And on that rat, someone (or something) had mounted a small smartphone.
And the phone glowed purple.