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Twisted Experience and TCW - View topic - TCW Freestyle Feuding
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 TCW Freestyle Feuding 
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding
The rain beat down in continuous sheets, buffeted by strong wind so that it seemed to come in undulating waves of cold, damp spray, soaking everything by slow degrees. The clouds were dark and heaped, illuminated periodically by dull flashes of distant lightning. Far away, there was the low rumble of thunder: a beast over the horizon; a monster lying in wait, out of sight, but not out of mind. It was a night to stay indoors. It was a night to light a fire and be with loved ones.

That was not an option for Darkness, though he would not have chosen it anyway. The decision had been made now, the plan put into motion. Everything in his life had led up to this point. He had been born in the Spring of 1965. He was forty-five now: well into middle edge, greying a little at the temples, more salt than pepper in his beard these past months. His life had left him lean and hard, covered with scars, patched together with stitches and surgical glue. On cold, wet nights, his old wounds throbbed with pain, his back particularly ravaged after years of wrestling at the highest level, but he ignored it as he ignored so much else. The cold and wet were things of Men, and he was not a Man any more. For forty-five years he had fought and struggled. He had died a thousand deaths, he knew now, in this life and in others. Now, he was preparing for one more.

Tonight, Darkness was going to die.

He stood in that pouring rain, heedless of it all, stripped to the waist, hair plastered to his scalp, war paint running down his cheeks. The hilt of his sword was slippery, but his grip was still firm. One hand was less human than the rest of him, though not by much. He was high up, on a rooftop overlooking a city that was mostly obscured by the night's bleak weather. This is where it began, and where it must end. Chicago. Six years ago, he had woken from a dream and begun a war that had taken him across the world and far beyond it. Through the depths of Hell and the halls of Heaven and the netherworld of the human soul in between. He had walked the hellscapes of his own mind and battled through the cracks in reality itself. He had fought demons, werewolves and vampires. He had destroyed the essence of chaos beneath the earth with his bare hands. He had looked into the eyes of hate and let it ravage his soul. Thousands had chanted his name and elevated him to status of hero, legend and god.

But in the end, he was one thing and one thing only: the world's sacrificial lamb. The mortal offering to the bloodthirsty gods to appease their anger. With his blood, he would free mankind. With his death, he would stave off entropy for one more day. He had been born to do this. Everything else had just been killing time and aligning events so that his final sacrifice would not be in vain.

He only had one shot at this. This would be his final death.

At least, if everything went to plan…

There was a howl in the night, and Darkness's head snapped up as all his attention focused on the source of the noise. It was something both eldritch and bestial; a primeval snarl that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. With his Slayer Sense he could feel the monster approaching, ghosting through the night on carrion wings. Surely its power had swollen to such an extent now that it could will itself to appear anywhere on Earth, but it chose to approach this way. It wanted Darkness to know it was coming. And it wanted Darkness to know it knew he knew it was coming. This had all been arranged, and neither side stood to benefit from ambush.

The closer it got, the stronger the pounding in Darkness's head became, so that it was as if a blinding light was hurtling towards him: a runaway freight train, coming to blindly mow him down. He stepped backwards, into the shadows. Though the cloud cover was absolute, he could still make out the faint glow of the sky's newest star. At first, months ago, only his Slayer Sense had been able to detect it, but now he – and everyone else on Earth – could see it with their waking eyes.

Apophis. Wormwood. The Lightbringer. The wandering lump of space debris that was on course to smash into the planet's surface and end all life. Its movement was erratic. It could hit at any day. Mass panic. Pandemonium. Civilisation in freefall now. Only Darkness and a handful of others knew what lurked inside, and about the doom it really spelled. He knew that it was likely to veer away before it hit and that, if this plan was ever going to work, he had to prevent that from happening.

If the universe was going to survive, he needed that asteroid to head straight for Chicago. He needed its occupant's attention focused squarely on this rooftop. He had to draw the gaze of an Elder God, or all this would be for nothing.

The beast approached. It hung in the air near the edge of the rooftop for a moment, then swooped down, landing with an audible impact, both in the physical world and the shadow world of Darkness's supernatural senses. Hellfire clawed out of him towards the thing, for nature abhors a vacuum, and there was nothing so void as this thing, save its mighty master hanging in the sky above their heads. The wings of darkness receded like the spectral things they were, retreating into the world of that which was felt rather than seen, and the monster stepped forward.

It was a thing of death and decay. Entropy given form. More foul, in its way, than even the Abyssal Spawn. It was bloated with power, taller and stronger than it had ever been in all of its long millennia of unlife. The fell energies of the Abyss waxed strong now, empowering it, injecting it with chaos and hate, strengthening it more than any vampiric bite could. It had gone beyond the limits of its kind, both eclipsing the Firstborn and fulfilling their dark potential. The vampires were the scions of the Abyss, and all of their bleak endeavours over the last ten thousand years had led to this creature.

Well, two could play at that game.

"Skaar!" he bellowed over the storm.

Its black eyes focused on him and, for a moment, he was prey, caught in the hungry gaze of the wolf. He shrank before the monster's gimlet stare, but then shook off the ancestral fear. He was beyond that now. The primate part of him had long been consigned to his past; he had left it behind with the rest of his humanity.

"I go by that name no longer," it replied in the voice of a billion screams, "I am Lord Abortion."

Skaar, whatever he had once been, was now just a vessel for the power of the Abyss. Almost five thousand years of undeath had gradually eroded whatever passion and personality he had once possessed, leaving him a blank slate to be written on in blood and pain. Darkness knew now that Apophis had chosen Skaar to be the Champion of the Void after he and Dante had killed him in Las Vegas. Even his cadaverous constitution could not survive the combined wrath of the Eyes of God and the long fall to earth from that high crane. He had been dead: truly dead, but the power of the Abyss knew no mortal limitation. Apophis had regenerated him, feeding his undead body on carrion and crawling things. He had been reborn a second time, now in the image of death, a thing of pure Void, the Abyss's foremost servant. His armour was rusted and cracked, his skin as thin and ashen as paper. Even his fangs, the only part of a vampire that remained healthy and whole, were rotten and discoloured. His eyes were black and flat, emotionless and cold as a shark's. His skull, easily visible through his desiccated flesh, showed signs of weird growth; lumps and ridges in inhuman configurations. Perhaps the remnants of some forgotten ancestral strain of humanity from his life as a man, or perhaps the warping power of the Abyss at work again, changing him into something both more and less than he had been.

He – it – towered over Darkness. As it walked, the concrete buckled beneath it, the micro organisms that were threaded through the inanimate blocks instinctively gravitating away from this thing's awful presence. No life could flourish where Lord Abortion trod and, as it came close to Darkness, he could even feel the surface of his skin wither and shrink away, like film being melted. His own body rebelled at the idea of coming too close to this enemy; a trillion bacteria fighting with all their strength not to be the one closest to this foulness.

"Do you fear me, Azrael?" Lord Abortion asked.

"I fear nothing."

"You speak of intellectual fear. You speak of conquering through willpower the aversion to that which presents danger. This is something else entirely." Lord Abortion reached for Darkness, holding out one ragged talon so it was inches from his face. "This is primal. This is on a level far below your conscious mind. You fear me, Azrael, because you know I can destroy you. You know that I, and only I, can end you forever. I am the predator in the night. I am the gleaming eyes in the shadows. I am the howl on the wind and the charnel stench in the air. Every cell in your body fears what I am. Every molecule you have screams out for release. I am Death Incarnate. I am Fear Given Form."

"No. You are just another obstacle." Darkness lifted his sword, interposing it between himself and Lord Abortion. "Death is a human fear, and fear a human weakness. I am not human. I am Azrael: the Angel of Death. I am the Antichrist: the Destroyer of Worlds. I am the First of the Shadow Slayers: the Champion of Light. Nothing your kind can conjure can scare me. I am beyond such concerns."

Lord Abortion smiled flatly. "You must know that you are no match for me. Even at the zenith of your powers, you could not hope to best me in battle. Even with allies, you would fail. With all your weapons and abilities, empowered by the spirit of your Angelic forebears, on wings of shadow and with a sword of flame, still it would not be enough. I can snap you like a twig."

"Is that enough for you?" Darkness asked mildly.

"It is not, as you know." From nowhere, Lord Abortion drew his own blade. He had fought with the glaive of his human life and with a sword stolen from a fallen Slayer, but now he had taken a new weapon. From the bones of Abbadon, whose infernal rune was still burnt into Darkness's soul, he had claimed a sword of fell provenance. As he held it aloft, it surged into life, its sinuous blade lighting with green fire. Across its surface ghosted the images of tormented souls. It was the Sword of Heroes, a weapon with the ability to draw into it the essence of those slain by it. Who knew what mighty figures of history had been taken by it? Even now, they stared out with sightless eyes, trapped forever in a torment worse than death.

Darkness had faced this horror before and survived. He knew with grim certainty that this time, he would not be so lucky.

"I asked for this fight," Darkness said calmly.

"And I know why," Lord Abortion replied.

Darkness felt a flicker of doubt for a second. Had his plan been discovered? Had Dante or one of the Shadow Slayers betrayed him? It was possible, but not likely. More likely, Lord Abortion or one of his servants had tortured it out of them. If this was a trap…

"You know your forces cannot stand against mine. You know that you are destined to fail. You hoped, because your mind is feeble and human, that you could end this with one fight. Best me in single combat, slay me on this rooftop, and you can end all of this before it begins. It is a pitiful hope, and you reveal the truth of your condition when you make this gamble. Even if killing me were enough to divert my master from His course, your plan relies on an outcome that is not possible. You simply cannot beat me. You came alone, because you knew I would not agree otherwise, but alone you cannot triumph. You have thrown the dice in desperation, but all the faces show one pip."

Maybe I'm trying to roll low, Darkness replied inwardly, thanking whatever fate watched over him that his desperate gambit had remained undiscovered.

"You think that, but you're wrong," he said aloud.

Lord Abortion's eyes narrowed for a second. Darkness knew he suspected something. It was too late now. He knew this had to work.

"Defend yourself."

"I do not even need to," Lord Abortion snarled. He stepped back, giving Darkness room. Warily, Darkness secured his grip on his sword and began to slowly circle his enemy. He had almost forgotten the rain, but once he moved out from the shelter of the wall against which he had been standing he felt an involuntary shudder as his bare skin was almost instantly soaked. Lord Abortion watched him move around with what might have been amusement in a living creature. Darkness took a step closer to it, intending to feint one way and then catch it with a swift backswing, but Lord Abortion moved too fast. Perhaps it simply warped reality around it, stepping from one location to another without needing to negotiate the space in between, or perhaps its vampiric constitution had been enhanced so much that it could move faster than thought. It batted Darkness's sword away with a contemptuous backhand and then aimed a kick at his stomach. Darkness staggered back, winded from the impact of the armoured boot. He tried to recover his wits, but Lord Abortion was much, much too fast for him. The Sword of Heroes carved a ribbon of crimson across his bare chest and the power of the slice actually spun him off his feet so he landed face down on the concrete.

"Do you see now? Do you see how weak you and your kind are?"

Darkness could Sense the Sword of Heroes slicing through the air towards him and, somehow, he rolled out of the way. The sword made sparks as it hit the concrete and, with a roar, Darkness drove his own sword up point first so it skewered Lord Abortion right through the crotch, driving up into his innards and out through his spine. For a second, they both stood transfixed. Then, the monster simply wrapped a claw around the blade and calmly pulled itself free.

"All your grit, all your determination, all your skill and prowess: it is worth nothing against the power of the Afterdark, Azrael. Surely you must concede that."

"I concede nothing." Darkness kipped up and took another swing at Lord Abortion. It was parried again, but now Darkness came at it with furious strikes. He came from every direction in a whirlwind of steel, trying to find some opening. Lord Abortion countered everything, apparently effortlessly. With five millennia to hone his abilities, there was no attack the Vampire Lord could not see coming. Lord Abortion let Darkness take control, allowing him to take the fight to the edge of the rooftop then, with contemptuous ease, it swept the Sword of Heroes across and down, slicing him across the calf and knocking him down again. Darkness landed heavily, taking the full impact on his spine as he fell awkwardly across the raised parapet along the edge of the building. He tried to move but could not. The muscles in his back had seized up completely; forty-five years of wear and tear had chosen the worst possible moment to take their due.

Lord Abortion waited for him to stand up and, when he didn't, it lowered the Sword of Heroes and snarled out a joyless laugh. "Is this it? The battle for the fate of the world ends with an old man's back giving up? I expected better of the so-called Champion of Light. Stand! Stand so I can kill you on your feet!"

With a shudder, Darkness arched his back and, grinding his teeth together to control the pain, he dragged himself laboriously to his feet. He made a token swing with his sword but, with his back muscles still frozen, there was no strength in it. Lord Abortion swatted it aside and then aimed the flat of his blade at Darkness's wrist. His sword fell from his hand, bounced off the parapet and then went spiralling downwards into the night, lost to sight in moments.

"You shall not even have the dignity of dying with your sword in your hand, Darkness."

"I thought you were calling me Azrael now."

"You are not worthy of that title."

Lord Abortion drew the Sword of Heroes back and then, with no further preamble, it drove it into Darkness's gut. The blade easily sliced through muscle, bone and organs, ploughing straight through his body and shearing his spine in two.

There was pain. A hot, searing pain. His blood felt like fire. It overwhelmed him and made him gasp. He felt tears stinging his eyes. It was so long since he'd felt anything. So long since he'd allowed himself to experience pain. This sweet release, this moment of thawing, was almost worth it. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he let his iron self-control drop. Years of anguish dropped away and his shoulders slumped weakly.

His lungs burned. He couldn't feel anything below the waist, where Lord Abortion had cleaved his spinal column in two. He couldn’t catch his breath now. Felt like he was suffocating. His stomach lurched. There was a pain in his chest: his heart. Everything was shutting down. His body was betraying him at the last.

He gave himself to it.

Lord Abortion met Darkness's empty gaze. "It is done then."

"Yes," Darkness whispered through the blood that bubbled up in his throat.

"I expected…more…"

"Oh, there is more. Much more."

Lord Abortion frowned.

Then, it happened. The Sword of Heroes began to pulse with ethereal light as it drew Darkness's lifeblood into it and claimed his soul. It dragged it screaming from his body and, as his life ended, as death's door opened and was simultaneously denied to him, Darkness threw his head back and let out his deathcry.

For the merest fraction of a second, there was an unearthly silence and then…

It smote the heavens. It caused the foundations of Heaven, Earth and Hell to quake. Across the world, those whose minds were psychically attuned echoed that scream. The sound of it reverberated across reality and Lord Abortion staggered backwards, looking around in something like horror.

Revenant hid her face in her hands as she watched from a car parked in front of the building.

Somewhere in the Taurus Mountains, Llenlleawg emptied the contents of his stomach.

Bleeder held on tight to Ta-Te's hand as their crystal realm shook itself to pieces.

Somewhere, somewhen, Bruce's hand began to twitch.

Elsie hid her head under the covers and Cage looked around, desperately trying to find the source of the threat.

Big Bamlicious spilled his drink and pressed a meaty palm to his head. "Fuuuuuuck…"

Deep below Tokyo, Izumi felt a shiver go down her spine.

Freya looked at Revenant. "That's it, isn't it? Even I can feel it…"

Lucifer was driven down to his knees and black blood began to pour from his nose.

In New Orleans, Jason Dante gripped the arms of his chair. "I'm sorry," he told the other person in the room with him, "we knew it would be like this. I just hope…" the words died on his lips as blood bubbled from his mouth and his eyes rolled back in his head.

Darkness's body hung suspended for a long moment, teetering backwards over the edge and then, abruptly, he fell. Directly above him, the skies had cleared and, in the circle of empty sky, there hung a baleful red star. It too had heard the deathcry. It too had responded. Just like three years ago, its orbit had shifted again. Its gaze had focused. It took the psychic scream of a dying Archangel, but Apophis now looked down with black intent upon the planet Earth.

It had been done.

* * *

Six months ago…

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Fri Oct 29, 2010 12:43 pm
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding
Beep




Beep




Beep

As I stare down at my comatose body, I ponder the life that brought me to this place.

This place with its cold, empty, walls, walls once white but over time yellowed by nothing in particular. On nights like tonight, when no one is in to check on me, I sit, elbows on my knees, and watch my body from across the room. Slowly, my chest rises and falls, over and over, endlessly, just slightly out of sync with the gentle beeping of the machines keeping me alive.

Beep




Beep




Beep

If my lifeless body and these lifeless machines would just fucking get in tune together, I might not feel such anger. But every breath, every beep, drives me mad. Sitting in the chair, I let the anger wash over me, through me, building closer and closer to an eruption. The volcano inside me explodes and I'm across the room, back and forth, screaming silently into the hospital room's dead air. My arms swinging wildly, all I want in the world is to lift these machines and see them crash against the dark linoleum floor.

As I continue my futile temper-tantrum, my physical form begins to breathe heavier, more quickly. I don't notice -- I never do -- until it's too late. My body is nearly convulsing on the hospital bed, the machines are beeping wildly as my heart rate soars. The change is coming again, and along with it, the voices. They begin as whispers, sentences half-heard, dull poundings inside me. They grow louder and my anger grows stronger. Some are mocking, others shouting in anger. The worst ones are sounds from the past combined with stories of what could have been. My body is thrashing now, the machines blasting along with it. I try and try to throw them to the floor, at the wall, towards the door, anything to make them stop and let me die.

The voices' volume increases, overtaking the machines now. I scream and scream at them but they all think they're right, they all have such good goddamn advice. Each one pulls me in a different direction while I'm trapped in this room, watching my body seize, foam sliding out my mouth.

The voices stop dead when the door flies open. Some pointless fuck in a white coat stabs my arm with a needle, then walks straight back out of the room, not even bothering to wipe the drool off my face. My anger is slowly being replaced by a numbing calm, and my body has stopped convulsing. My weightless eyelids grow heavy and the room begins to disappear from me. I stumble towards my body as it fades from view.

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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding
"You won't survive this. You can't. You've already lost. Let Llenlleawg fulfil his destiny."

Darkness held the Bleeder's black gaze. "And go through the same thing?"

"He needn't follow your path."

"But he will, if I allow him to. I did not forge the path I now walk: the universe made it for me. What kind of monster would let another man take it in my place? I walk it alone."

"Then we're all doomed."

"Authority is not given to you to guide my destiny any longer. You are my ally or my enemy. You stand with me, or you will fall by my hand. The time for puppet masters has passed. Attempt to install Llenlleawg in my place, and you will be treated no differently to Cain, or Abbadon."

"You'll kill me?"

"If I have to. There is nothing I would not do – except shirk my duty."

"And what if Llenlleawg joins us? What if he comes willingly? Will you kill him rather than let him take your place?"

Darkness didn't answer. He just kept staring at Bleeder, then turned away and walked back towards the glass room's doorway. He stepped through, and back to Earth.

* * *

Llenlleawg climbed down from the top of the truck carefully as the moon passed behind a cloud. "Where did they go?"

Dante shrugged. "Hell by feel of it. Can't you tell?"

"I can smell the Hellfire, but there's a lot of it about. I don't think he liked that, you know."

"Well he wasn't supposed to."

"I don't like it when you two argue," the werewolf continued, "it gets my hackles up."

Dante folded his arms and avoided his would-be protégé's earnest gaze. "Mine too, Lenleawg."

"Llenlleawg," he replied absently. "'Ll': in the throat, like that."

"Yes. Sorry. Anyway, we all do what we must."

"You sound like him. I thought this wasn't a duty; I thought this was about passion, or choice or something."

Dante turned sharply and shot Llenlleawg a pointed look. "Do you always ask this many questions?"

"That wasn't a question. Not exactly anyway..."

"I hope I wasn't this insufferable when I was eighteen," Dante said under his breath as he stalked towards another of the rusting hulks that dominated the skyline. "What's Bleeder doing?" he asked the air.

Llenlleawg shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and disconsolately kicked a half-crushed can across the muddy ground. The clattering it made was surprisingly loud in the crisp night air. "I'm going to have to fight him, aren't I?"

"What?" Dante asked distractedly.

"Darkness. I'm going to have to fight him."

Dante waved a hand dismissively. "Probably. I wouldn't worry about it."

"Why not?"

"He isn't so tough. I've beaten him."

"Yeah, like...once."

"I think it's twice, actually."

"Once. On TV anyway."

"It still counts, even if the cameras aren't on," Dante growled.

"Anyway, I'm not you. I don't think I can beat him."

"Cheat then."

"Cheat? Will that...count?"

"Nothing counts, you halfwit. If it comes to a fight, you'll have to defeat him by any means necessary."

Llenlleawg swallowed hard. "Will I have to...kill him?"

"Does that scare you?"

"Yeah. Doesn't it scare you?"

Dante paused. He tapped his fingers against the ruined trucks rusted wheel arch and pursed his lips before replying, "Yes, it does, actually. None of us know what will happen when he dies."

"You think he will die then?"

"We all die, Llenlleawg. Even Darkness."

"Do you want him dead?"

"I didn't say that."

"So, ideally, we'd just like him to calmly walk away, and just go live his life somewhere?"

Dante seemed to roll the answer around his mouth before voicing it. "That would be the optimum end state, yes."

"And how likely do you think it is that we'll achieve that?"

"Fifty-fifty. Depending on what Bleeder says to him."

"Has Bleeder been able to convince him of stuff before?"

"They have a...chequered...history. To put it mildly. But if anyone has the words to make Darkness see sense, it's him. He can be very persuasive."

Llenlleawg looked away, up at the moon. He felt an involuntary shudder run down his spine as he thought about the transformation that the imminent completion of its cycle would wreak on him. He'd only changed once so far and it had been...strange. He was told he could do it voluntarily, but he'd been loathe to try. Freya said he'd get used to the pain, but at the moment he was reluctant to experience it again. The sensation of being twisted inside out, of feeling your muscles stretch like putty and your bones snap like twigs was not in the least bit pleasant, for all he felt a thousand times more alive in his lupine form. "I don't want to fight Darkness," he confessed, "and I don't want him to die."

"Then you'd better hope Bleeder can talk him around."

Both men turned suddenly as an audible pop heralded the arrival of something from Elsewhere. Air displacing, maybe, or perhaps just the mortal mind trying to make sense of something utterly alien. The moon emerged again, casting the scene into a ghastly relief. Dante narrowed his eyes at the shadowy shape of Darkness, then stepped towards him.

"So what shall it be, brother? Are you ready to see things from our perspective?"

As he came within arm's reach, Darkness casually backhanded him across the face. The shock more than the force sent Dante sprawling as a trickle of blood ran from his lip.

"What was that for?!" he snarled.

"For getting in my way. Again."

"No, it's you that's in my way! What makes your fucking destiny so special?!"

"It's the right one."

"Says who?"

"Me."

Dante launched himself at Darkness with a guttural roar. Both men tumbled to the floor, clawing at one another, trying to find purchase on face or throat, neither able to take advantage. Llenlleawg stepped back, shocked.

"Tell me, boy, how's your history?"

Llenlleawg spun around and found himself face to face with The Bleeder. "My...my history?"

"Yes. I can't say I'm overly familiar with the story of your race. You were firmly in the realms of myth, even when I was alive. But you must know of human events, of their societies and customs, yes?"

Llenlleawg glanced over his shoulder at the pair brawling in the mud. "Is this relevant?"

"Hugely. For thousands of years, in hundreds of societies, their existed a concept known as trial by combat. It was formalised by the English, of course, for they were the race that branded barbarism into what is today known as civilisation – quite an achievement, I think you'll agree. The concept was simple: some justice should be left to God, for there are things that will always be unknowable. When it was one man's word against another, only the Lord could decide the truth. And, such was their 'culture', that it was felt that God most imbued the physically strong with His divine power. So, when no one could agree upon a trial's outcome, a noble could demand trial by combat, and fight to prove his innocence, trusting that God would guide his blade."

"We have a similar tradition..."

"But of course. You came over with the Saxons, didn't you? The werewolves, I mean."

"I don't know..."

Bleeder smiled, bloodily. "In either case, your two mentors are now fighting their own version. Two destinies are at stake, and only one can come true, so they will kill each other to find out which one it will be."

"That's crazy."

"I quite agree. Might as well flip a coin, eh?"

"Exactly! And they're evenly matched anyway!"

"So what's the point? Maybe one will manage to kill the other, but what will that prove? Neither will be convinced in the end. And the death of one will destroy the other."

Llenlleawg looked back at Darkness and Dante again. They were still at a stalemate, grappling in the filth and muck, achieving nothing. His jaw tightened. "It's up to me, isn't it? I'm the only thing that can tip the balance."

"It's why I told Dante to recruit you. I guided his hand from the beginning."

"Did he have anything to do with this?"

"Not really. He's always just been a conduit for my plans. A mere playing piece. He's just a pawn – you are so much more. Potentially, anyway."

"Right. Time to get serious then."

"Atta boy."

Llenlleawg walked over to the furious jumble of black and white and reached in, hauling Dante up by his shoulder and pushing him to one side.

"What are you doing?" Dante demanded, wiping blood from his nose.

"Cutting out the middle man."

Darkness started up at the werewolf. "What is this?"

"Your argument's with me, Darkness. So let's finish this."

"Very well."

Llenlleawg held out his hand and, after a few seconds, Darkness took it, allowing himself to be pulled up to his feet. He realised he had to look up to meet Llenlleawg's gaze, and had felt the strength in the young warrior's arm.

"Hm."

"Shall we find a rooftop?"

Darkness nodded. "It is traditional."

Dante staggered over to Bleeder. "Middle man? Is this your idea of a joke?"

"No, it's my idea of fixing this."

"What if Darkness wins?"

"He probably will."

"And will he kill the wolf in the process?"

"In his current state of mind? Quite possibly. But there's no reasoning with what he's become. He intends to follow this through to its grim conclusion. If Llenlleawg dies though, it will destroy him, and he'll walk away, which is what we wanted."

Dante nodded. "But....that leaves us with no backup."

"There's always a backup, Jason. I have more plans up my sleeve than you can even begin to imagine."

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Thu Nov 18, 2010 8:50 pm
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Linda McMahon
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding
Llenlleawg clenched and unclenched his fists around the haft of his spear-stave. Across the roof top, Darkness spun his sword around his fist, the blade catching the moonlight as it described its wide arc, leaving momentary trails across Llenlleawg's vision. Nervously, he glanced up at the fattening moon. In his mind's eye, it seemed to be growing larger by the second: not quite full yet, but getting there soon. Tomorrow? The next day? How did it work anyway? Was it just on the night, or did it happen sooner than that? Was it different for every werewolf or did they synch up somehow? He had so many questions that he needed to ask Gwen. Of course, he reminded himself, he may never get that chance.

Was it his imagination, or could he really feel his skin start to crawl and...fluctuate...?

"Are you sure you want to do this, Neophyte?"

Did he? His mind returned to a few days ago, in the apartment, when Darkness raised his hand to him. His jaw no longer hurt: his werewolf physiology had ensured a speedy recovery, but the wound to his pride was still sore. What kind of a mentor attacks his student like that? And it's not like he even did anything wrong – Freya was the one who initiated...what happened...and it wasn't his fault that Darkness had feelings for her. Although, like all The Children, he had known about it for years. Still, it's not like he'd ever done anything about it. Freya was fair game. Not that he even wanted to be with her or anything. I mean, sure, she was cute, and he'd always had a crush on her since they were kids together back in the village, and...

"Well?"

"Uh...yeah. I'm sure." He took a firmer grip on his spear-stave and adopted a fighting stance to prove it.

"So what did Dante tell you?" Darkness had begun to move around Llenlleawg's position, implicitly circling him, putting him at a disadvantage: making him into the defender, the one under siege. He smelt his opponent, trying to detect anything that might give him an advantage, but he got nothing. That wasn't unusual, not for Darkness anyway, not these days.

"He told me there were alternatives. He told me it doesn't have to be your way."

"I thought my way was your way," said Darkness as he continued to circle Llenlleawg, "I thought we were on the same side."

"We are on the same side. Your way isn't the only way of doing things, that's all. He said that this was for your own good."

"I don't know how well you know Dante, but he doesn't have a history of making good judgement calls."

"Neither do you..."

Darkness tilted his head in acknowledgement. "That's fair. But that doesn't make him right. Dante and I have always enjoyed the most success when we've worked together."

"Like when you were fighting in the dirt just now?" Llenlleawg asked with a slight raised eyebrow.

"Also fair, but you have to appreciate that deposing me is no way to achieve anything. History has shown that I was put here for a reason. I have a destiny."

"But it doesn't have to be yours. I know that you think of yourself as some kind of machine: as an...an...automaton...doing whatever the universe needs. Well then, why does it have to be you?"

"Why would you want it to be you?"

Llenlleawg paused. "Well..."

"Do you think you could do a better job than me?"

"No...not exactly. But, you know, it helps to come to a problem with fresh eyes."

Darkness nodded. "That's precisely why I recruited you in the first place. To help me. To fight beside me. I need you and the other Children with me in this war. Your perspective is essential to my victory, I have come to believe."

Llenlleawg's expression darkened. "Yeah, so where do you get off on punching me?"

"Where do you get off on fucking my...on fucking Freya?"

"What do you care? It's not like you ever did anything about it, is it? We're adults."

"She's an adult."

"I'm not a child!" Llenlleawg roared. "Stop treating me like an unruly teenager!"

"Then stop acting like one! Where does this sense of entitlement come from? You remind me of Dante, and that's not a compliment."

"That's funny," Llenlleawg sneered, "because he told me I remind him of you: moping around with a chip on my shoulder all day. You want to know why I'm so angry all the time? Maybe it's because everyone wants me to be something I'm not!"

"Like the Antichrist? Because I've got news for you: you're way way off meeting the criteria for that one, son."

"Oh? Have you been so perfect? Because all I've ever seen from you is this iceman act that occasionally thaws out into murderous fucking rage! You're only capable of those two extremes. You hit me, just like you hit your wife all those years ago! I'm more human than you'll ever be, and I'm a pissing werewolf!"

Darkness's mouth was set in a line of cold fury. He took a step back. "Careful you don't speak out of turn, Neophyte. I've attacked men for less than what you just said."

Llenlleawg gestured at his jaw angrily. "I know! And why do you think we're here anyway, eh?"

Darkness pointed with his sword. "You say you're tired of me wanting you to be something you aren't. Well, tell me what it is you want to be."

"I want to be respected! I want to be a warrior! I want to be a hero! I want to be somebody, not just your dumb sidekick! I'm tired of being a bit player in your stupid story!"

"You're still a Neophyte."

"No!" Llenlleawg roared, "I'm tired of that shit! You've never taught me anything! And, no matter what you say, we're all just cannon fodder for you. We're being led into battle by an unfeeling monster and you're going to get us all killed! We need a leader! We need someone with passion and vision! You don't know how to do anything but fight and suffer!"

"Are those Dante's words?"

"No," Llenlleawg replied, shaking, "they're mine. You said you'd turn me into a Shadow Slayer. You said I'd be a knight for truth and freedom. All I've done is watched my friends die and get more and more depressed."

"That's pretty much what being a Shadow Slayer's like, actually..."

"Evidently! I'm so bored of this shit! I'm a werewolf! I should be running under the moonlight with the scent of blood in my nostrils. Instead I'm dicking around on rooftops, learning how to Sense bugs. It's dumb."

Darkness said nothing. He just glanced up at the moon as it emerged from behind a cloud. "You have a point," he said finally, "and if you think I have no right to my destiny, then you should understand how it came to me. I firmly believe, like Bleeder and Dante, that it needn't have been me. I was made into what I am by a series of coincidences and dramatic ironies. Did I have to be a Shadow Slayer? Did I have to get Marked by Abbadon? Did I have to be injected with that demonic serum? Did I have to become the First? I had a choice about what I became, and I think that choice was important. I seized this fate, and that's what made it mine. If you want to be something, you have to earn it."

He held his arms open.

"So, Llenlleawg: you want to be the star? Now is your chance. It's time to learn something really worthwhile..."

Darkness took a step forward, his sword held at head height and, with a feral growl, Llenlleawg launched himself at him. But, as he charged, he felt the world lurch around him. It was if the ground had become ice beneath his feet and, with a strangled cry, he stumbled forward, ducking under Darkness's sword and skittering away across the rooftop.

"What's happening?!" he demanded in a voice that was rapidly turning into a canine whine.

"The moon," Darkness replied calmly, pointing with his sword again, "it's becoming full. It's never as clean as you'd think. For werewolves, the change can last up to a week. It's usually longer for younger individuals, I believe."

"You knew this would happen!" Llenlleawg rasped as he felt himself choking on his own vocal chords. This change wasn't like the first one: he felt totally powerless as his body tried to turn inside out. He tried to fight it, but that made it hurt even more.

"I hoped it would, yes."

"So what now?" Llenlleawg demanded, now aware that he was barely coherent. Darkness seemed to understand him anyway. "You kill me while I'm a wolf?"

"Not at all. I'm going to help you."

"Help me do what?"

"Realise your potential in a way that Dante never could. He has no idea what you are: what you will become."

Llenlleawg collapsed onto all fours as his hands started to change before his eyes, broadening even as his fingers seemed to shorted into stubs. It was profoundly horrifying, and he felt bile rise in his gullet, which further stung the raw flesh of his transmuting throat. He could feel his face changing too, his nose receding as his cheeks reknit themselves into a blunt muzzle. Thick black hair was pushing its way through his flesh, and he could feel it erupting from almost every pore, like a million tiny worms crawling out of him. His heart began to beat erratically: it would be the last thing to change, and in the meantime, it would struggle to cope with his changing shape. He began to sob in agony and fear.

"When I asked you to become a Shadow Slayer," Darkness continued, "Marta thought I was crazy. The idea of a werewolf Slayer made no sense, she said, not just philosophically but biologically. The Slayer Sense allows us to detect the presence of Shadowspawn – werewolves, vampires, demons – because of their fundamental nature and the effect it has on reality. What would it be like to Sense yourself in that way? I, however, had some experience of that, and I saw what she could not. I spent a long time teaching you mastery of the Slayer Sense because, for you, the experience would be wholly unique. I needed you to know the fundamental skills of the Slayer on a deeper level than any other Neophyte in history."

"Why?!" Llenlleawg managed to howl as his teeth lengthened into jagged fangs as the seams of his clothes began to rip, unable to accommodate his changing shape.

"So that you could do what no werewolf has done before and control this transformation."

"What?!"

"Llenlleawg," Darkness said, kneeling down so he could meet his eyes, "I need you to concentrate."

He shook his head, stuck in a grotesque, warping fusion between man and beast, and screwed his eyes shut. When he opened them, they glowed an icy blue.

"Neophyte! Now is not the time to forget the discipline you've been taught. I never showed you how to fight, because I needed you to do this thing most of all. Now, tap into the Slayer Sense!"

"I can't!"

"Open yourself up to your surroundings! Feel everything!"

"No!"

"This isn't a request, Slayer!"

"Argh!" Llenlleawg screwed his eyes shut again as his shoulders heaved and churned, his muscles changing size and shape as claws burst from his new-found paws and left visible scars in the concrete below. Dimly, as his senses were overloaded with the sensations that came with his lupine form, he tried to do as he was told. He tried to recall the lessons through his pain and rage and flick that invisible switch in his mind that would unlock his secret talents. See the flame...see the flame...look into the fire and concentrate all your being on it. Push everything that you are; everything you can see, hear, feel, taste and touch into that flickering flame and become one with it. You are the fire. You are the light. And now...expand...

It was simple when you knew the trick, but Llenlleawg had never found it so hard. It was easy to put everything into a metaphorical flame when you were sitting there, stable, as a man, with a man's senses, but now, between forms, he was so much: two creatures at once. To pour in all of that...

But then, he found the switch. Somewhere buried deep within, he found the inner calm that was necessary, and then the world came alive around him. But this time it was different; so very, very different. As a Slayer, you can Sense the wrongness of Shadowspawn, feel their twisting on the fabric of reality, and that alerts you to their presence. To be in the midst of that wrongness, to feel it emanating from yourself like a whirlpool...it was disturbing and he let out a bestial scream.

"Concentrate!" he heard Darkness command, as if through a dense fog.

He tried. He screwed his eyes shut again and pushed all of his awareness into the Slayer Sense, forgetting the physical sensations that were coursing through him. He was at the centre of a rapidly expanding bubble of weirdness which he could still feel the edges of, so it was as if his perspective had become inverted. He had the dizzying sensation of looking at himself from a great height, seeing from outside the effect his transformation was having on the world.

"You can see yourself, can't you?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Now, remember the exercises I taught you to empower your Slayer Weapon. Remember that it's just an internalisation of the Slayer Sense? I want you to do what I showed you, but I want you to concentrate it all upon yourself. I want you to control your transformation. I want you to master your body as you can your spear-stave."

Again, it was like reaching for a switch. You just changed gear: switched your head around and pushed inwards instead of out. You just need to know the trick again. Become the flame...put it to one side...put it inside the blade... Now, he would put it inside himself. He would imbue himself with the Slayer Sense and...

Old Wolf's eye!

It was so simple. It was so astonishingly simple. He could do anything! He felt the power course through him and now, even as the moon's energies caused his flesh to writhe and worm, he felt it come under his control. He was the master now. With a grunt of exertion, he pushed his fingers back through his paws. It hurt like hell, but it was worth it because now, howling and bellowing, he straightened up, cracked his back into a sensible, bipedal shape and let his snout shrink back into his face.

He roared as he held out his arms, letting his lean muscles contract into humanoid proportions and then back again. How strong did he want to be, exactly? As strong as he could be! He was in control now! He could transform at will, and into any form he wanted along the continuum between man and wolf! He laughed and barked simultaneously as he grew and changed, replacing fingernails with claws and hair with a great shaggy mane.

"What do I look like?" he asked.

"Like a Warg," Darkness said calmly.

"A Warg?"

"Yes. In human mythology, the first of the werekind was named Lycaon."

"We call him Ul'tath; the Wargsire."

"I know. He was the first man to be afflicted with lycanthropy, so don't think your forms are so set in stone."

Llenlleawg looked down at himself. "I'm a Warg?"

"Perhaps. Or perhaps we need a new name for you."

"Yes! Yes!" Llenlleawg threw back his head. "I am the Shadow Wolf! The Hunter in the Night! The Bane of Hell!"

"But you still have much to learn..."

"I do?" He looked at Darkness through new eyes now. "Maybe it's you who..."

All at once, he lost it. That happened when you were first learning the Slayer Sense, he recalled. Sometimes, your concentration just slipped a little and you came out of the trance. The control tumbled from his hands and, with a yelp, he collapsed down onto all fours, surging straight into his lupine form. He blinked.

"As I say: much to learn. But true mastery will come in time. I know you can't answer me," he smiled, "but I hoped this would happen, or something like it. You may yet exceed me, but not in the way Dante and the Bleeder thought."

Llenlleawg tilted his head quizzically.

"In a few days," Darkness went on, "we'll have to see about a new tattoo for you. I've taught you all I can as a Neophyte: it's time for you to advance to the Ninth Circle and fight alongside other Slayers. For now though, you should learn the limits of this form. Go: hunt in the night, Shadow Wolf."

The werewolf watched Darkness for a moment longer, seemed to narrow his eyes and then rushed off, taking a running leap off the rooftop and into the darkness.

"And I," Darkness said, "have a title to defend..."

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Sun Nov 21, 2010 9:16 pm
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Linda McMahon
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding


"No. No. Absolutely not. Why would you even ask?" Gwen folded her arms – an affectation that was more human than werewolf; her species didn't rely on body language – and shook her head firmly.

"It wasn't technically a request," Darkness said calmly, "but I respect your views on this matter. It's why I came to you in the first place."

All of The Children except Llenlleawg were gathered in Darkness's apartment, but the rest of them were keeping quiet in the face of Gwen's stubbornness. In this, they would follow her lead.

"The very idea that you would take that boy away from his own kind when he needs us most of all! Do you know how hard it is for a young werewolf when he changes for the first time? He's learning to inhabit a whole new skin, assimilate a whole new set of unfamiliar emotions and experiences. This time is one of great joy, but it's also one of great danger – improper guidance at this stage could leave him damaged forever. These are a werewolf's most formative years."

"Nonetheless, he is a Shadow Slayer."

Gwen sighed and rolled her eyes. "I should probably have told you this before, but if we are getting 'technical' here, he shouldn't have been allowed to make a life-altering decision like that before he came of age."

"He was eighteen."

"And hadn't ever changed. Years are irrelevant: until a werewolf experiences the change for the first time, he isn't considered an adult."

Darkness frowned slightly. "But leaving home is okay…?"

Gwen opened her mouth and then shut it again. "That's different."

"In what way?"

"There's no precedent for it," Gawain said, coming to his sister's rescue. "We don't leave our homes for the outside world, so we have no rules governing it. Freya, Fenris and Bronson were the first to go in centuries, probably, and you saw how they were treated as outcasts."

"So what's the difference between them and you?" Darkness asked, genuinely confused.

"The circumstances were different," Gawain shrugged, "the Nightwalker showed up, heralding the Wolf Time. Who could stop any young werewolf who wanted to give you their spear? All bonds are broken in such times."

"So why won't you let me take Llenlleawg away?"

"Because," Gwen said, finding her fury again, "he's at his most vulnerable right now. He needs his people around him, to show him the way."

"Maybe he has to learn a different way?" Darkness suggested.

"A different way?!" Gwen spluttered and exchanged an affronted look with Gawain. "Look, you may be the Nightwalker, you may be the Antichrist and the Destroyer and all of the other things that you are, but our ways have served us well for over a thousand years. They've protected us from your kind for generation after generation. I know things are different out here, but there are some things that must be sacrosanct. There are some things that are just werewolf and that is all there is to it."

"Perhaps what it means to be werewolf must change then…" Darkness said quietly.

"Now why would…"

"Gwen," Gawain interrupted, "maybe he has a point."

"Excuse me?"

"There's nothing wrong with the old ways, but look at what we've given up by hiding ourselves away from everything. We're fighting with spears and sewing our own clothes in a world of iPads, broadband internet, jet planes and weapons of mass destruction. The world has passed us by – maybe we should try to catch up?"

"If we hadn't hidden ourselves," Gwen said in the kind of exasperated tone usually reserved for a wilful child, "we'd be extinct. Our ancestors did what was necessary."

"And we all left that behind of our own free will. Why come out into the world if not to embrace the things we've been missing? Darkness didn't bring us along so he could learn about animal husbandry from us. He wants our skills as warriors, as bodyguards, not as farmers and weavers. If we want to be part of this fight, we have to look at the world of humans as something worth saving – maybe even something worth having ourselves."

"Your old ways make you strong," Darkness said, "they have made you into a noble and self-sufficient people. There are no troops I would rather have by my side than werewolves. I trust no one as I trust you eleven individuals in this room now. But Gawain is right: you cannot cling reflexively to a past that does not apply to the current circumstances. I need Llenlleawg to take another step away from his home, so that he can return to it that much stronger someday."

"But why now?" Gwen asked, her eyes filled with pain now she knew she was losing this battle.

Darkness beckoned her over with his good hand and the two stepped away from the group. The apartment was not large and the werewolves' hearing acute, but they all looked away and tried not to eavesdrop. Only Gawain remained within obvious earshot. Darkness spoke quietly.

"I'm not doing this to hurt you, Gwen. I'm doing it to save you. To save all werewolves. Your ancestors were wise. They hid from the Shadow Slayers of that time so they could survive. They made a hard choice, to lose fields and mountains and open skies in favour of a secret stronghold. Now you must make a hard choice too: Llenlleawg is the first werewolf Shadow Slayer in history. I believe he may become greater than any of us can imagine, but if that is to happen I need to bind him to my people as strongly as he is bound to yours." Darkness's eyes grew far away for a moment. "Infernals have the ability to see snippets of the future sometimes, in dreams. Hints of what is to come, or what may be to come. In my dreams, sometimes, I see a pack of wolves running in the moonlight beneath unfamiliar stars. They howl to one another and I know that they are more than they appear."

"Werewolves?"

"Yes," Darkness nodded, "but something else too. They're Slayers, Gwen."

"Are you saying your Order will recruit more of us?"

"No, I'm saying that the destinies of our two peoples are inextricably intertwined. I'm saying that, one day, Slayers and werewolves may be synonymous with one another."

Gwen's eyes widened. "I'm not sure I like the sound of that…"

"No, and the other Shadow Slayers won't either. But I've seen what werewolves can do. You're stronger, faster and you heal quicker than any human warrior. You can smell a lie and track any foe across any distance. What's more, you're courageous, loyal and unflinching opponents of the Abyss. I meant what I said about preferring you over any other soldiers. I'd go into battle with The Children by my side before any Shadow Slayer."

"That's flattering," Gwen admitted, "but it sounds to me like you want to use us. You see us as a resource you can exploit. I won't see Llenlleawg turned into a weapon for this war."

"That's not what I meant. Gwen, what do you think will happen if we defeat the Abyss?"

"I…don't know."

"I do. I have come to understand these past months that this war will claim my life." He held up a hand to silence her protests. "If that is my destiny then so be it: I am a weapon, and this is how it must be. But even if we have victory, the fighting will not stop. There will still be vampires and demons from which mankind must be protected. Do we have any hope of secrecy when the Final Battle truly begins? I don't think so. The world will know of werewolves whether you like it or not, and the Shadow Slayers will have at least one in their midst. What kind of leader would I be if I didn't plan for this possible future? Unless Llenlleawg embraces the Shadow Slayers now, your people will not survive the aftermath of this war: they will be hunted down again, driven to the woods, forgotten and left behind by a changing world. Llenlleawg must be given the chance to shape these changes, not taught to run from them. When I die…others must grow into leaders…"

Gwen shook her head. "Llenlleawg? A leader?"

"I believe he has the potential to be numbered amongst the very mighty. I have seen something powerful lurking within him: something glorious. He may be the greatest your kind has ever seen. Perhaps my kind too."

"Are you saying he'll be the First of the Slayers one day?"

"No. I'm just speaking of possibilities. Nothing is certain these days."

"Llenlleawg aside," Gwen said carefully, "that's not exactly what I meant before. I understand what the Slayers gain from us, but what do we gain from the Slayers? This all sounds like a one-way-street to me. Like I said, you're using us."

"There's something I haven't told you," Darkness said, dropping his voice so even Gawain couldn't hear now, "and it is about Llenlleawg."

"Okay..."

"He can control his transformations."

"That's not really..."

"Even during a full moon."

Gwen paused. "What?"

"He can control it. Resume humanoid form at will. It takes effort, and he isn't yet master of it, but he can do it. I've seen him. He can adopt forms in between too. His potential is huge."

"But...how? We never noticed anything different about him before. He was a normal werewolf, all through childhood. Maybe a little moody, but nothing like this."

"It's the Slayer Sense. He can use his body like a Slayer Weapon by focusing it inwards. You see now why he must be bound to both families? If we can replicate this..."

"Then we can all do it! Every werewolf has to be taught this trick!"

"It's not a trick, Gwen. The Slayer Sense is a sacred, mystic ability. It can be achieved only through rigorous discipline. Llenlleawg has only the ghost of an understanding of it, and it has taken him years to become this adept."

"So we'll do it. Teach us all, Darkness."

"No. I will only teach it to you if you join the Order, and you've refused that offer before. We don't make it twice, and even if we did, I know you wouldn't."

"You won't show us unless we become Slayers?"

"It is part of the duty. You must swear to fight the Shadow without rest for all your days. Without that vow, it cannot be taught."

"We're already fighting the Shadow!"

"Can you make the vow, Gwen?"

"No," she admitted, "I won't submit to your ways. They're not my ways. But you did say that ways have to change – you expect us to change but not you? It feels like we're being used again."

"Change will come. One day, werewolves will be Slayers. Our traditions must meet in the middle. Llenlleawg will guide us in these first, faltering steps though. Let him be both, for now, and then he'll find the way to make them fit."

"You really think you're going to die, don't you?"

"You know I will, Gwen."

"Part of you is already gone," she said sadly. She put her hand against his face. "I hope you can find what you've lost. Before the end."

"All I hope," he replied, taking her hand in his own, "is that I save this world, for you and your people. The cost is worth that."

Gwen didn't say anything to that. Instead, she straightened and looked around at the other Children, who were all conspicuously doing something else. "All right, we've made a decision: Llenlleawg is going to go with Darkness after all."

The others didn't hide their dismay, but no one voiced any objections. It had been done now and that was all there was to it. "There is a condition though," Gwen added.

Darkness lifted an eyebrow. "Condition?"

"You look after him. I know you plan to leave him with other Slayers, but you stay with him long enough to help him integrate. He's never been on his own before. He's always had a pack around him."

"He'll have a pack."

"Yes, that's what I want you to make sure of. You're callous, Darkness; you assume everyone copes the same way that you do, but they don't. Llenlleawg is a werewolf and he has certain needs that can only be met by his own kind. I understand the necessity of this, but he's your responsibility now. If anything happens to him, you'll answer to us." Her tone was deadly serious, and Darkness remembered the words of Magnus, the werewolf Elder of their village, and the solemn duty with which he had charged Darkness: to bring their children back alive. He had already failed in the case of Bedwyr. He had sworn to himself that he wouldn't do so again.

"You have my word."

"Good."

Everyone in the room seemed to relax. Gawain gave Darkness a long look as he walked past. "What was that about Llenlleawg being able to control the change?"

"I'll tell you later," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I need to think things through first."

Darkness walked towards the window, where Cai and Peredur were sitting at the small formica table, idly flinging cards into a pile. It was not clear if they were playing a game of some kind – werewolves had no ability to play any game involving subterfuge – but they seemed content. Cai looked out of the window, frowning at the darkening sky. "Hey, what's that?"

Peredur craned his neck to see what he was looking at. "What's what?"

Cai pointed. "That star. The red one."

"That's One Hand." He glanced at Darkness, looking embarrassed. "Uh...I mean Mars. That's what humans call it, I think."

"That's not One Hand. It's too bright and too red."

Darkness followed the werewolves' gaze and frowned in consternation. "You're right, Cai. That isn't a planet."

"Then what is it?"

A dull feeling started to form in the pit of Darkness's stomach. Knowing what he would find, he quested out with the Slayer Sense. Expanding...expanding...

He felt himself lurch backwards, as if he had just stepped out into a road to find an eighteen-wheeler bearing down on him.

"It's him," he said in a voice barely above a whisper. "It's begun..."

* * *

Somewhere below Istanbul, a wide round table reflected the flickering light of candles set around a vaulted chamber in such a way that they did nothing to dispel the shadows. Those present were things of the night, but even they felt the need to look into each other's eyes when they spoke. Still at the head of the table, by convention, was a pale man with dark hair and nothing else to distinguish him except his completely black eyes. He sat erect, back straight with head held high. His expression was, as always, completely unreadable. To one side, a figure in black armour lounged, a complete contrast to his companion. His skin was likewise pale, but drawn tightly across his skull, like a corpse. His sunken nose was almost hidden beneath the scars of ancient tattoos and the burnished mask that covered half his face. He looked angry, and bared his sharp, gleaming teeth into a snarling rictus.

"Where are they?" he spat.

"They'll be here, Dragon," Seth said, as calmly as always. His voice was dead, drained of any emotion it could have had. Dragon knew, because he knew what Seth was, that there had never been anything there though – he was as dead as Dragon, in his own way.

"Why summon us if they're going to make us wait? I have things to do."

"What kind of things?" Seth asked, turning his blank gaze on the Vampire Lord.

"Feed," Dragon growled, running his blue-black tongue across his fangs.

"Is that supposed to scare me? You'd get nothing from me, you know."

"You'd still die."

"And you'd be left alone against the others. Is that what you want?"

Dragon turned away, saying nothing. He rapped his claws against the table. "What if this is a trap?"

"There's no advantage to killing us."

"You think he knows reason? You think he's capable of planning things? Seth, he is the Abyss. He doesn't think like we thi..."

"I assure you, Lord Dragon, I am perfectly capable of reason."

Dragon froze and turned towards the shadows. How had he hidden his presence from them? What was this creature now capable of? He stared in awe as his one-time lieutenant walked from the shadows into the flickering candlelight. He was larger than he remembered, his face even more feral and twisted. His eyes, like Seth's, were now completely black.

"You're alone," Seth observed.

"My servants are close by, if I require them," Skaar – Lord Abortion – said. His voice sounded like a crypt door closing. It had a finality to it. "Where is the other?"

"Oh, he won't be here on time," Dragon said, waving a hand, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible. This was the first time he'd seen Skaar since his transformation into the Champion of the Void. He hadn't been sure what to expect.

"I do not tolerate insubordination."

Dragon actually felt a laugh escape from his desiccated lips. "Insubordination? How you've grown, Skaar...talking of the Lightbringer as if he were one of your pets."

"It was I who summoned him. He will come when I call, as you did."

"Of course, Great Lord," Seth said, bowing his head smoothly. Dragon goggled at him.

Suddenly, there was a rush of air on the side of the chamber opposite Dragon and a dull popping noise. Another armoured figure strode through the shadows, though his plate was of a different design – sinuous and form-fitting, lupine and serpentine all at once. He grinned wolfishly, but it faded the moment his eyes settled on Skaar.

"So...this is it, is it?"

"Lucifer," Skaar said, "the Void thanks you for your timely betrayal."

"Yes, well, happy to do it," Lucifer grimaced. He skirted around the table and, seeing the position at its head taken, took up a seat opposite Dragon. He placed his hands on the arms of the chair and tapped his fingers rhythmically against the wood, looking at nothing with his eyes of black fire.

"And where is the other?" Skaar asked.

Dragon looked up. "Who? Oh, her..."

Seth was the one to answer. "No one has heard from Lilith in months. Her disappearance coincided with Novamori's."

Skaar nodded with something like satisfaction. "Then are we to assume that he was her chosen disguise?"

"That makes sense," Seth agreed. Dragon shot him a look.

"Does she remain active?"

"Who knows?" Dragon shrugged.

"There is evidence of chaos all over the world," Seth went on, ignoring his vampire ally, "it is hard to know what to attribute to the actions of our allies. However, my spies have uncovered no evidence of her."

"She'll take no further part in this," Lucifer said, not looking up, "I know this."

"How?" demanded Dragon.

"She's my wife, you tool," Lucifer spat, finally looking up, "she is bound to me and I know her mind. Trust me, she's not coming back. She's whimpering in one of her holes somewhere. Even I can't find her."

"Try," Skaar said.

Lucifer turned sharply. "Why? What's it to you?"

"If she lives and does not serve our cause, then she is a threat. Find her and kill her."

That seemed to break even Seth's unflappable calm. He exchanged a look with Dragon. Lucifer had gone deathly quiet. "Kill Lilith?" he asked, his voice icy calm. "You know not what you ask, Lord Abortion."

"See it done. This I command. This the Abyss commands. It is the Will of the Void. Do you defy that?"

Lucifer looked to be about to stand, but Skaar lifted a taloned hand. Dragon felt power then; power beyond his imagination. There was no sound, no sparks, no physical manifestation of any kind that he could detect, just a wanton display of sheer will, hanging in the air. Lucifer, the greatest of the gods of men, giver of fire, the falling angel that met the rising ape, sat back in his chair, cowed.

"As you say," he croaked.

"Good. Seth Drake, Herald of Apophis: I command you to stand."

Seth looked stunned and, for the first time, Dragon saw an emotion besides grim satisfaction or psychotic glee cross the man's face. It was panic. Slowly, he rose.

"Tell me what is in your mind."

"My mind, Great Lord?" Seth asked.

"I would know your thoughts."

"Wh...what thoughts?"

"Thoughts of me. Of this. Of how things have come to pass."

"I live to serve Apophis, and that is all," he replied smoothly, lowering his eyes and bowing his head again, "the Champion of the Void is come, and that is a cause for dark rejoicing amongst the faithful."

"You lie."

"Never, Great Lord."

"DO YOU DEFY ME, HERALD?" Skaar's bellow thundered from the vaulted ceiling, reverberated around the columns and caused the candles to sputter and dance. "I ASKED YOU YOUR THOUGHTS; YIELD THEM OR I WILL TAKE THEM MYSELF!"

"Great Lord...I..."

Skaar roared, a great predatory snarl of purest rage. He lifted his hand again so the palm was upwards and curled his fingers into a savage claw. As he did so, Seth rose into the air, his arms outstretched as if they were being pulled by chains. His head was pulled backwards, and Dragon could see his carotid artery pulsing as the life was choked from him. In spite of himself, he felt his tongue flicker across his lips. The blood would taste foul, but it would be worth it to watch him die...

"SPEAK!"

Seth's words came out in a tumble, tripping over each other in their haste to escape. "I am the Herald the chosen one Apophis's loyal servant it was me who brokered the deal with Spyne and gave Hell to the Abyss Dragon was mine I freed him and gave him his army Lucifer would not sit here without my actions and then they killed my Council brought me down to their level it should be me why is he the Champion of the Void when I have done so much I took the Nightwalker's daughter and manipulated all of you without me we would be nowhere..."

Abruptly, Skaar dropped his hand and Seth was released, collapsing down into his chair and slumping down, breathing hard, his face slicked with sweat. He held a hand to his head and shuddered. Shaking, he tried to meet Skaar's eyes. "Great Lord," he whispered, "my thoughts...you must know...it is not..."

"They are fitting thoughts for the Herald of Apophis. They are thoughts of hate and fury. Fitting thoughts for my greatest servant."

Seth's eyes widened. He started to sit up in his chair again.

"The Abyss does not forget what you have done for us. Without you, we would have floundered. Your work is the foundation of all our victories thus far. That is why you will be first amongst the Dreadlords."

Seth stared. Dragon exchanged a confused look with Lucifer. He mouthed the word, Dreadlords?

"I see that only the Herald knows of what I speak," Skaar said, "so allow me to enlighten you. When Lord Abortion, the Champion of the Void, comes forth, and the Final Battle begins, he will appoint to lead his armies the mightiest servants of the Abyss. For each of the creatures that serve the Elder Gods, there shall be a Dreadlord. The first amongst captains; masters of fear; the Vassals of the Afterdark."

He looked first at Dragon. The other vampire wilted beneath Lord Abortion's gaze. "Dragon, commander of the Ordo Draco, most powerful of all vampirekind save myself: you shall be the Dreadlord of the Night, representing vampires."

Now to Lucifer. "Lucifer, Lightbringer, the Prince of Hell, Fallen Angel and very son of He That Is Despised: you shall be the Dreadlord of Below, representing demons."

Finally, to Seth. "Seth Drake, Herald of Apophis, last of the Purestrain Faithless: you shall be the Dreadlord of the Deep, representing Faithless. Furthermore, I appoint you to lead my elite guard, the Apocalypse, and to be the Lowest in Dread. No more are you Herald: now stand in infamy, Lord Inglorious, Prince of Hate, the Omen of the Afterdark!"

"Bloody hell," Dragon said. Seth just looked awed.

"Great Lord," he stammered, "you honour me too highly. I have only sought to..."

"Oh shut up," Lucifer snapped, "don't pretend you didn't want this." He turned to Skaar. "This is all very nice, but I know what a Dreadlord is – though they went by a different name last time – and you don't have enough. There has to be one for each race. You only have demons, vampires and Faithless so far. What about the others?"

"What others?" Dragon asked.

"Werekind, humans, Infernals."

"Lilith would have stood for one of them," Skaar admitted.

"Humans, as Novamori, knowing her," Lucifer mused, "she would have stayed hidden to the very end."

Dragon looked at each of the others, confused. "So we have to find some Dreadlords for them? Why?"

"It's just how it works," Lucifer said dismissively, "everyone has to feel like they're equal or there's infighting. Except for Prince Omen over there." He jerked a thumb at Seth.

"So find some, what does it matter?"

"It's not so simple," Seth said. His voice sounded different. Dragon hated him, but they had found an ally in each other against Lucifer and Lilith. They were of Earth, unlike the others. Now, it was different. He could see how easily Skaar had bought him. He realised that giving Dragon and Lucifer these jumped-up titles was just an excuse to give Seth a better one and swell his head. So he wouldn't rebel. Interesting that little Seth with no armour and no army would be the one he feared most...

Seth was still talking, and Dragon finally tuned in. "Dreadlords cannot be just anyone. They must lead, not just be seen to lead. Only the Mighty can become Vassals of the Afterdark, for they will become conduits for the power of the Elder Gods."

"Oh right. What about that Spike guy for the Infernals? Or did one of you kill him yet?"

"Spike?" Lucifer snarled. "That cockney maggot? If he is still alive, I'll hunt him down and kill him myself."

"NO," Skaar bellowed. "No more Infernals are to be killed without my express permission! They are too valuable to be squandered any further."

"Fine," Lucifer said, as if it were nothing, "who would you suggest then?"

"What of the Earthborn?"

Lucifer started. "I...don't know where he is..."

"I will take the thoughts from your mind as I took Seth's, Lightbringer. And your thoughts are old and deep...you would not want me to spill them..."

Not hiding his displeasure, Lucifer closed his eyes and let out a deep breath. "Hm," he said after a few moments, and then his eyes snapped open. "Fuck."

Dragon frowned. "What?"

"Shattered glass. Shattered fucking black glass."

"Huh?"

Skaar knew. "That one still has his claws in him then?"

"His first mentor," Lucifer sneered, "and now he seems to have gone running back. I should have killed him when I had the chance, him and his whore. No, I should have turned them into wall hangings. They should have been made to suffer forever. That was the whole idea of Hell, wasn't it? Fuck them. If I catch them, I'll flay them alive. I'll...I'll..." words failed him. "Dante is probably not an option," he finally said, recovering himself.

"He can be corrupted. The Promethean Ring is proof of that," Skaar said. "Do not give up. He is susceptible to flattery and empty promises."

If Skaar had been human, he would have given Seth a sly look as he said that, but he didn't, and the new Omen didn't seem to notice the hidden barb.

"Looks like I'm going to be busy," Lucifer sighed.

"So what about werewolves?" Dragon said, keen to move the subject away from Dante, who was the reason he wore his golden mask.

"There is Goth, Great Lord," Seth suggested.

Skaar dismissed him. "A puppet."

"What of the mercenary? He who wears the hands?"

"A thug. Not suitable."

"Then the other one. He walked with you in the desert, and has connections to the Dhampyr."

Skaar frowned, then seemed to remember. "Bronson?"

"Yes," Seth nodded, clearly pleased to be useful. Like a puppy. "He is the brother of the Nightwalker's she-wolf too. It would be pleasing to have him be the one to kill her."

Skaar seemed to consider. "I will think on this. He is not one of the Mighty, but there is no other that I can see."

"I could stand for werewolves too," Lucifer interjected, "I made them. And humans for that matter."

"One Dreadlord for each: no more, no less," Seth told him, glancing at Skaar for approval. Lord Abortion nodded.

"All right, so what about humans?" Dragon asked, dragging things back on topic. "How many do we have?"

"Many millions," Seth answered, "although not all know it yet."

"Is one of them President MacDonald?"

Seth pursed his lips. "No. There was a time...when Novamori was in his confidences that I thought...but no."

"He can be corrupted too," Skaar said, "humans are the weakest of all, but the most numerous. Make it your priority." Seth bowed his head in obeisance.

Dragon ran a hand across his ragged maw. "And what shall I do, Skaar...uh...Great Lord? Everyone else seems to have their little missions..."

"You shall prepare the Ordo Draco for war, Lord Dragon. Your vampires are our primary fighting force. Continue to prosecute this conflict against the Slayers, and be ready to answer the final call to battle."

"Okay. No problem. Out of idle curiosity," he said, as it were nothing, "what is actually going to happen during the Final Battle? I'm not completely clear."

"Apophis will be unleashed," Skaar answered simply.

"Right. And that means we win, does it?"

Skaar straightened. His eyes unfocused and he stared into the blackness. "The initial cataclysm will kill billions, plunging this world into chaos. Then, as Apophis sinks into the fabric of the universe, His power will imbue each of us. You will take up your mantle as Dreadlords truly then, and scour all resistance from the Earth. The other Elder Gods will follow and, inch by inch, they will turn the whole of creation into ruin. All life in the universe will be annihilated. It will be a time of great and terrible glory."

"Fucking hell," Dragon said quietly. "What did humans do to deserve standing right here, on the doorstep of horror, I wonder?"

"You moron," Lucifer growled from across the table, "this isn't happening because humans evolved here; humans evolved here because this is where it happens. They're God's way of stopping it. Sentient life is his bulwark against the storm. The universe teems with life, but only here has it grown mighty enough to oppose us."

"Oh."

"Are you sure you want this one as Dreadlord?" Lucifer asked Skaar.

"You have all been given your tasks. I too have much work to do. When next we come together, it will be upon the eve of the Great Unveiling. Even now, His star hangs in the sky. Rise, my Dreadlords, rise in horror and hate. The End comes. The End of all Things. Rejoice, for doom calls you to arms!"

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Wed Dec 29, 2010 10:12 pm
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding
There was a knock at her door. Freya could tell it was him from here, but she still didn't know what she was going to say to him. She opened the door slightly. "Can I help you?"

"Freya." Darkness was in the corridor.

"I'm sorry, do I know you?"

"I don't have time for games." He put his prosthetic hand on the door, ready to push it open.

"No." Freya strengthened her own old on the door. "You're not barging in here like nothing's happened."

He narrowed his eyes slightly. "Fine." He removed his hand and turned his back to her, walking away down the corridor. Freya sighed; she knew as she opened her mouth this was not the way to deal with this.

"Darkness, come back. We need to talk." She left the door open as she returned to the high stool she'd been sitting on before he arrived. He followed her in, pausing to adjust his eyes to the dim interior. Even in the full light of the summer afternoon, patchwork curtains were drawn, their hotchpotch of greens giving the impression of light through a forest canopy.

"The curtains...are new?" Darkness asked.

"Rev was complaining her eyes hurt in the sun."

Darkness nodded slowly. As he scanned the room, his eyes fell on a bunch – no, bouquet – of white flowers lavishly overdone with gold through them. They looked out of place in the cluttered mess of Freya's apartment. "They're from Jason," Freya explained, following his gaze, "I did consider binning them, but as congratulations were rather thin on the ground, I thought they were better than nothing."

"What did you expect?"

"From the others? Not much more than I got; a kind word and a pat on the back. From you? Don't worry, I wasn't expecting hugs and 'I'm so proud's, but I was expecting a bit more than a cold shoulder. I know you're a lot of things, Darkness, but I didn't think a bad loser was one of them."

"A bad loser? You know how important that belt was to me, how hard I've worked to get it, what I've been through. What it symbolised and that I needed it. And for you to..."

"What?" she interrupted, "get in the ring with you and win it in a fair contest? We're wrestlers, Darkness; we were doing our job. I thought you were on the same page as me on this. Out there is real life, in there is work and neither has any bearing on the other. Stephen never got it, but I thought you did."

"Neither has any bearing on the other?"

"No, you're right, that's not true. What we know about each other allows each of us to push the other. It's better than working with anyone else because you can let go. Not all the way, obviously, the world doesn't need that, but there's no fear of hurting the other person, you can find the walls and break through. And when you can't get through this time, you'll get through the next, but then you'll run up against a brand new wall. It's always a challenge. And I thought we respected one another enough to know it wasn't personal. So when you didn't even give me a nod, started holding secret meetings without me, I was hurt. I was pissed off. But that was last week. Now, now I don't even know what I want from you."

"I'm leaving."

Freya shook her head. "Fine. If you have nothing to say about this, fine. Just go."

"No. I'm leaving, with Llenlleawg, to join up with some of the Order for a while. There are things I must do."

"And you're just going to leave me here? I'm not just going to sit here and wait for you to save the world! I'm actually offended you would think that. Of all the..."

"I need you to do something for me," he interrupted, "I need you to gather the werewolves."

"No, I want to talk about this without The Children."

"I meant other werewolves. Other clans. I need you to find my army. I can't trust this to anyone else."

"Bollocks. It would be so much easier for you to find them with your Slayer Sense. I've not found a single one since I left my own village – except my dipshit brothers – this is just your way of getting me out of the way."

"Freya," there was a reproachful tone in his voice, "I know you don't need protecting, that you can look after yourself. I know I can send you to do this and I won't have to worry about you or The Children."

"You want me to take The Children?"

"I wouldn't leave them alone, but I can't take them. And it'll add weight to your arguments."

Freya struggled to find a reason to refuse. Apart from the satisfaction of spiting him, there was none. She knew there was no way to change his mind either. Since the red star had appeared in the sky, she hadn't seen him. He'd obviously been making plans and now it was too late to change anything. She could go along with it, or cause irrevocable damage to his schemes. Whatever his reason for sending her away, he needed her to do this.

"Will Rev's Sense be enough to help with this?"

Darkness shook his head. "I have other plans for her." Yep, a whole bunch of schemes. "I will send someone to help you, but until he can meet you I'm sure you and The Children will be able to work something out. You're werewolves; you'll be able to see where other villages are hidden."

Freya shrugged her shoulders. "I guess this is it then. You have it all planned. I'll have to see Stern tomorrow, give back the belt. Won't need to pack much..." She looked around the kitchen-cum-lounge. Battered sofas, wires growing from the TV, clothes, food cartons and empty drinks containers strewn about. Goodbye to a comfortable life. Her attention was drawn back to Darkness by whirring noises. She watched him remove his prosthetic hand and place it on the table. She looked at him askance.

"I won't be needing it anymore." He gave it a final touch with his right hand. "And now you have a trophy your brother would be proud of. You did well, and I'm sorry you can't stay here to enjoy being the champion, that my war – our war - has robbed you of your satisfaction and glory, but there's no more time for games. The world needs you, Freya."

She nodded slowly as he left, not thinking about the thing he had left unsaid.

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"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." DOUGLAS ADAMS (1952-2001)


Tue Feb 01, 2011 8:28 pm
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding
Darkness closed Freya's door behind him, at first instinctively reaching with the hand that wasn't there, then catching himself and letting the arm fall with no emotion. It was gone, had been gone for years: there was no need to dwell on it any longer, or try to pretend he hadn't. He knew why he'd lost it, now. To avoid hurting her. To avoid taking what she had been given. And now he'd done just that: robbed her of glory and of what might have been between them...

No.

A fool thought. A dreamer's thought. Once, he had believed he could juggle his destiny and a life, a human life, but he'd been wrong, and his family had been sacrificed on the altar of fate too. Gone with his hand, dragged into the fires below. He was a force of destruction. He was born to rend the world apart, in the feeble hope that in doing so he might save it from a far worse fate. Everything he touched, everything he loved, was doomed to turn to ashes. He had to distance himself from these human feelings; leave behind her and everything that went with her.

He walked slowly down the corridor, knowing it was for the last time. This had been his home. TCW had been his home. It was gone now. He would take no further part in these on-air struggles. With the appearance of that star in the sky, the need for visibility had evaporated. Soon they'd all know anyway. His job, his only job, was to make sure they survived the experience.

"I hear you're taking a trip."

Darkness had barely noticed Revenant walking towards him, so deep in thought had he been. He gave her a tight smile. "Yes. You could call it that."

"When are you coming back?" She folded her arms and fixed him with her chilling, pinprick stare.

He sighed. "When do you think?"

"So this is the end then?"

"No, this is only the beginning. But my priorities have changed. There is more at stake now, and I've dallied here too long. I have a war."

"I thought we were already fighting your war..."

"Things are in motion now, Rev. Things..." he struggled to explain it, explain how he knew. His encounter with Bleeder, the fight with Llenlleawg, the star – the star above all, literally and figuratively – tickled some memory in the back of his mind. It's happening again, like last time, although everything was different then. Where had that thought come from? "I have to go," he finished weakly.

"And you're taking Llenlleawg and your promoted him to Ninth Circle, I hear. How come I don't get a promotion?"

"You and he are...different."

"Obviously. Different genders, different species, different heights, different hair."

"Not that different hair. It's the same colour."

She stared balefully through her fringe. "Mine doesn't have any stupid braids in it."

"Revenant, it's time for me to leave."

"And what does Freya think about that?"

"I just finished speaking with her about it actually."

She nodded. "I guessed. May I ask how she took it?"

"Not well. I think you knew that too though."

"Pretty much." She looked away and rolled her eyes. "Do men ever learn? You'd think someone who'd been married would have a better idea of how to handle a woman."

"It's going nothing to do with her being a woman. Or me being a man. It isn't about...that...about what I said to her. About how I might...feel about her. This is about something bigger than that. This is about destiny. About fate."

"And you don't think your destinies are tied together? After all you two have been through? You haven't learnt that yet?"

Darkness sighed heavily. "If you must know, I did ask her to do something for me. For the war. She had her part to play, I won't pretend otherwise. I just...can't have her with me. It's not...not..."

"Safe?" Revenant asked incredulously, "After all the times she's hauled your ass out of the flames, and now you're trying to protect her? I never took you for a white knight, not in that coat, but you're just a walking cliché after all. She's ten times more capable than you are, you know that, right?"

"I know," he said with a grim smile, "that's why I gave her a much more difficult job. I'm just going to fight: she's got an entire race to rally to my banner."

"Oh. So she's going to be your...what? Ambassador? Envoy?"

"Of a sort. I have twelve werewolves – thirteen, counting her – I'd like a few more."

"How many is a few?"

"All of them."

"Including Fenris and Bronson?"

He smiled again. "Probably not them. But I need every sword. Every spear. Soon, very soon, things are about to go very, very wrong. You've seen that star in the sky?"

"Uh huh."

"It means something bad. Something very bad. We're running out of time, Rev. This is the endgame – the real endgame – and we're nowhere near ready. I need Shadow Slayers, I need werewolves, I need demons and Infernals. I need every weapon I can gather, and I have to hope and pray they'll be enough when it comes to the crunch. Because if I fail..."

"If we fail," she corrected.

"If we fail, then that's it. This isn't about ideologies. This isn't about tyranny. This is about destruction. Utter destruction. If we can't hold back this storm, we'll be annihilated."

Rev nodded, staring at nothing, rolling her tongue around her mouth, hands shoved in her deep pockets. "So," she said after a little while, "is Freya going alone? With you and her both gone, there's not really a reason for The Children to be here either. I assume the more werewolves she takes with her, the stronger her arguments will be."

"I assumed they'd go too. I have to ask Gwen." He cringed, apparently unconsciously. "That's going to be a fun conversation..."

"Yeah. So what about me?"

Darkness met her defiant gaze, but said nothing.

"I see. Llenlleawg goes with you to do whatever Slayer stuff you want to do. Freya goes with The Children and drums up a werewolf army for you, and where does that leave me? Can't go and be a Slayer, because a werewolf and a vampire would be too much for your little friends in black to stomach in one dose. Can't go help Freya, because I'd be a firebrand in that situation too – they might get on board with a werewolf allied to a Slayer, but a werewolf allied to a vamp? Not going to happen. I'm neither one thing nor the other. Like always."

"Rev..."

She looked away from him. "Torn between two worlds. Maybe I should find some other vampires to hang out with? Be with my own kind." She spat it. She hated vampires as much as anyone, after what they'd done to her, and to her mother.

"That's exactly what you should do."

She whirled. "What?"

"You're right. You can't go with either of us. There's nowhere for you in our battles. You must find your own war. Like Freya, you still have a part to play, maybe at my side, but maybe not. I can't teach you anything else."

"But...you wanted me to be a Shadow Slayer. I want to be a Shadow Slayer. You're just turning me loose?"

"You shouldn't be Slayer-trained. Like me, you have to follow your own path. I'm officially promoting you to Ninth Circle, but I intend for you to be autonomous from The Order. As I was, for a time."

"What am I supposed to do though? Just hunt vampires?"

"Yes. But you must find your own peace with that role, as I did. I killed demons, now I lead them, now I am one, at least in part. Remember that night, when we hunted together? Remember those children with the blood in the fridge?"

She nodded. No doubt wanting to forget that night and all that had happened.

"That's when I began to realise that the line between human and vampire is not so clear as I once supposed. You're living proof of that, but I suspect there are other...grey areas... And Kyle Knight is still out there somewhere, both hating and loving me, trying to Sire, and making mockeries of flesh. He must be stopped...or...well...that is for you to decide. This is your war now."

She shook her head. "I don't want to be alone. I don't want to go through what you did. I was alone already; I did that. I ran across a continent, chasing a rumour of you, looking for someone who would understand what I am. Looking for a better life. You, and Freya, and The Children...you're the only family I have..."

He couldn't have hoped for a better opening. Part of him felt sick, using her like this, exploiting her vulnerability. But he needed her to do this. He needed to pique her curiosity enough to send her on a quest that would lead her down dark paths. She needed to be pushed. Away from him, and towards something greater. All the most legendary leaders of the Order weren't Slayer-trained. She would surpass them all, one day, if she could forge her own path.

"No, we're not. There is another."

"What?" There were tears in her eyes.

"Something Gwen said once, about Caliban..."

"Caliban? What about him?"

"Revenant," he said softly, "I don't think you're the only dhampyr in the world."

_________________
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Tue Feb 01, 2011 8:33 pm
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Linda McMahon
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding


There was a controlled look of satisfaction on Jashith Kuar's face as he surveyed the landscape below him. Near his command post behind him, the gentle thrum of a portable generator reminded him how tenuous their advantage was, how easily it could be snatched away. Nonetheless, an advantage it was, and there had been precious few of those recently. Leading from the generator were huge bundles of cables, like the tendrils of some submarine beast, snaking across the rugged land, secured with huge steel hoops hammered into the very rock face. At the end of each, a huge bank of floodlights. The entire valley below was bathed in brilliant white light. It was ghastly and artificial, causing everything to cast multiple ghoulish shadows, but daring sorties into the nests had shown it would have the desired effect.

Vampires feared the light. In these terrible days, sunlight was only fatal to the weakest of their kind, but they all had the same instinctive terror of its kiss. Shadow Slayers were formidable in the dark too, but to face these beasts in the dead of night beneath an overcast sky was suicide. Kuar would take every opportunity he could to slow his enemies down. The floodlights had been Abiola's idea, and Kuar smiled to think of the stocky Slayer's almost childlike glee when the shipment had first arrived from their allies in America. Setting it all up had been a martial as well as a technical challenge. The vampire attacks had to be directed away so they wouldn’t see the preparations. For weeks now, brave Slayers, including Kuar himself, had lead diversionary missions deep into the vampire-held territory, drawing them out and away, appearing to be increasingly desperate so they would take the bait. He had lost good men in those fights, but it would not be in vain.

"Like what you see?" asked a heavily-accented voice behind him.

Kuar turned and gave Abiola Sefu, his most trusted comrade and the architect of this scheme, a grim smile. He was exhausted – they both were – he had lost count of the months they had been holding the line here in the depths of the Taurus Mountains of Turkey. Across the world, areas of wilderness like this were the sites of a vicious struggle between good and evil, light and dark, life and death. What did the Ordo Draco want with territory anyway? There was nothing to be gained from taking these valleys and, Kuar had come to believe, they only fought here with such tenacity because the Slayers held it. When he had first realised this, he had appealed to Commander Hayes to disengage, to disappear like ghosts and let the vampires flounder, but she had disagreed. Only recently had he come to understand why: never before had vampires made open war like this, and the opportunity to destroy so many could not be missed. The Order had spent centuries following rumours and half-glimpsed shadows, trying to ferret out the taint of the vampire, but now they came openly, exposing themselves to annihilation. Leave here, and the trail would go cold. Yield, and they would just be taken in their sleep another night.

So both forces battled tooth and claw for a network of ridges, canyons and caves that neither side had any use for, but knew that to retreat from would be fatal. This was the last war now, the only chance each side would ever have to ensure the annihilation of the other. "I just hope they come here," Sefu said.

"They'll come." Kuar couldn't remember the last time he'd showered, the last time he'd eaten a hot meal in comfort, the last time he'd had a proper shave or shat indoors. He was hungry, cold, dirty and tired. All of his long trials as a Shadow Slayer had been leading up to this, but they hadn't truly prepared him. The bone-crushing dread of waiting for the next engagement, the exhilaration beyond exhaustion when the fight came, the exultation of tiny victories and the numbing blackness of bitter failures. They were fighting the long defeat now. All they had to do was hold. One order, one objective, one tiny hope: that they could kill enough of these parasites to make a difference in the end. All hope of heroism was gone now, replaced by a bleak determination to continue in spite of everything.

They would not yield. They would not retreat. If they left this place, it would be on the point of a sword, dragging a dozen vampires with them to Hell.

Sefu's idea was a good one, but what Kuar hadn't told him was that he planned for it to be an elaborate trap. The vampires could easily avoid the lights, or wait them out in the shadows. There was no way they could simply illuminate every battlefield like this. So Kuar had ordered them placed around their headquarters. Sefu thought he was using them as part of their defence network, but instead he purposefully made them tempting bait. The vampires would see the nature of this new threat, they would see how the Slayers had pulled back to make a last stand, and they would not be able to resist temptation to come at them in one overwhelming strike. They would aim for the generator, knocking out all the lights at once, and then fall upon them in the darkness.

That would be their opportunity to end this. The vampires would be overconfident, seeking to land a decisive deathblow, but Kuar knew their strength. His 'diversionary' attacks had won them information: the Slayers had a small, but vital, advantage in numbers. If this was to be the endgame in this brutal war, he was certain they would win.

But at what cost? Which of his men would die tonight? Some, certainly. Most, probably. All? Possibly. It was a desperate gambit, born of an endless string of gruelling battles, and no hope of peace save through his foes' utter destruction. At least, thank God, there were no Faithless with the vampires now. For some months the soulless creatures had hunted them through the night, undetectable to the Slayer Sense, fearing nothing. But they had killed a handful and that had made them wary. Hayes said their numbers were few, that the ancient strain was failing, and they couldn't afford to fight like the vampires. Soon, they had retreated to cause havoc elsewhere in the world. He smiled ruefully at the idea of vampires being the lesser of two evils. In all his life before these past years, he had only ever encountered two full hives – each the culmination of years of investigation, planning and subterfuge. Entire decades of his life had led up to the moment in which he could storm just one of their liars, kill a handful, try to stake the Lord and then get out before anyone started asking difficult questions. Now he stood, bathed in brilliant white light, on a mountainside not a hundred miles from a city, willing hundreds of the beasts to attack their position.

The world had gone mad. At that moment, he was glad of the lights for another reason too: they hid the night sky and the sight of that ominous red star which had appeared a few nights ago. He and all the other Slayers had some inkling of what it meant. Prophecies aside, they could Sense the dread power in that thing: they could feel its weight in the heavens.

Sefu grunted beside him and he could feel the other man's involuntary shiver. Kuar had Sensed the same thing, probably a few seconds before: at the end of the valley, a rippling of wrongness that could only be vampires. Supposedly, it was the mineral their brains were transformed into when they were Sired that triggered the Slayer Sense; physically, they were little more than corpses, no more likely to attract a Shadow Slayer's attention than an actual body, but that calcite in their heads made all the difference apparently – it was like a signature, and once you knew it, you never forgot the sick feeling in your stomach that it engendered. Kuar had been present at one of Benedict Ahab's vampire autopsies, back in the Halls, and he could still remember the mind twisting sensation of those crystals as they were dug out of a withered skull and presented to the watching Slayers. They blocked the Slayer Sense, somehow, and that made them vulnerable. Inside a vampire's head, all it did was skew reality enough to make them even easier targets, but when Ahab had held that bare crystal in his hand, he might as well have been one of the Faithless. Uneasily, Kuar realised that if there were Faithless down there, they'd know nothing about it until it was too late – hundreds of vampires, and how many of those nightmare creatures that called themselves The Apocalypse? There was no way to know.

And no time to think about it either, he reminded himself. Already he could see the shadows approaching and he lifted his hand to signal. They'd used radios at the beginning – radios and GPS and cell phones and all the other high-tech kit that the Order had come to rely on, but they had learned the hard way that their scant resources were better spent on food and ammunition than batteries. Gesturing worked just as well, as it might mean the difference between life and death when your magazine fell to the ground empty and you scrambled for more bullets. Immediately his signal was answered by a flash of suppression fire far down the valley. He had Slayers positioned right up the gorge, occupying natural or manmade strong points, some built around the lights themselves, in case the vampires decided to be smart and take them out piecemeal. There was little chance of that though in his estimation: vampires were capable of only a low, animal cunning. When they smelled prey, their hunger took over and they could only assault in a bloodthirsty, ravening horde. Only a very strong Vampire Lord could keep them in check enough to hold them to a rudimentary strategy, and he knew there was no such here. At first, the vampires had been led by Gregor Baltic, a former Shadow Slayer himself, who had had the intellect to match him gambit for gambit, but not the will to hold together his half-bestial army. He didn't know what had happened to Baltic – not dead, or at least none of his men had killed him – but he hadn’t been seen for months now. There was no Lord though, he knew that. No lynchpin they could remove that would cause all the others to fall on each other, or slink off into the night to find easier fodder. The Ordo Draco were no Hive, and Dragon had had the sense to spread Sires and Thralls across the globe so they could never band together against him. They were as much a loyal force as vampires could ever become.

More gunfire tracked the vampires' progress up the valley. No force would be able to hold them in such numbers, so each squad of Slayers had orders to inflict as much damage as they could and then fall back to the next post. That way, they would lure them up the valley with the generator and themselves as bait, and then spring the trap.

The first of the vampires had reached the illuminated areas of the valley now, and they shied back from the harsh light, but still kept coming, driven by hunger and whatever mission they had had forced upon them. Some were clad in full plate armour, lacquered black and trimmed with gold, the sign that they were part of the Ordo Draco and not mere mindless beasts, carrying swords and other weapons, but others wore only a few scraps of the armour, a shoulder guard here or a breast plate there, and they crawled along the floor, snarling and half-feral. Vampires were always a mixed lot: their strength in life determined just how much of their humanity remained after being Sired. Opinions were divided as to whether it was the intelligent – and invariably the most cruel and merciless – ones that were more human or their bestial slaves who at least seemed capable of emotion, albeit only hunger and rage.

The Slayers lining the valley walls kept falling back, peppering their targets with fire. Many went down, some exploding spectacularly where a senior Slayer with imbued ammunition managed to score a kill. But there were so many of them – more than Kuar had expected, in fact – though not so many that they would be overwhelmed. Enough though to spill across the entire breadth of the valley, and they ran up almost sheer cliffs as if they were horizontal. The sound of clashing swords in the shadows told him that some vampires had managed to close on the fortifications before the Slayers could retreat, and now had to be beaten back in hand to hand. It was inevitable, but Kuar disliked it so early in the battle. Letting the vampires up close was giving them the chance to bite, and to Sire. Every Slayer brought down with teeth was a potential enemy tomorrow; their will was so strong that they almost invariably survived and joined the ranks of the undead. Telling them to surrender at the point of death and so deny the vampires their prize had always proved ineffective. The desire to fight, to resist, was strong, especially in those that followed him.

"They're going for the lights," Sefu said. Like the rest of the garrison around the generator itself, he wouldn't move to fight until the vampires were almost upon them, though he didn't know the full extent of Kuar's plan. Nonetheless, he fingered the stock of his rifle impatiently. Kuar frowned at the far end of the valley, watching as the furthest of the floodlights began to shake and then came crashing down in a fiery explosion. Gratifyingly, he could see several vampires caught in the blaze too – fire was a good way to kill the desiccated creatures.

"We're letting them get too close," he growled, "if they close on each emplacement, they can drag the lights down one by one, and we'll lose our advantage altogether."

"No one wants to retreat from them," the Slayer standing to his left said. A lean, hard woman, made even more so by this bitter conflict, Juliette Mason kept her narrowed gaze fixed on the end of the valley. Idly, she fingered the necklace of sharp teeth strung around her neck. Not all of those fangs had belonged to vampires, but some had, and she was keen to add to her collection.

"It's not retreating..." He began to regret not sharing his plans with the others. He had thought it too desperate, too dangerous, and though he was undisputed in command, he had not wanted to fray courage already hanging by a thread. "Tell them to fall back when they are engaged, as ordered. I will brook no dissent in this."

Mason finally looked at him, and pulled out a dirty, battered radio from her belt, quickly repeating his orders, almost word for word.

"They won't attack the lights if they're not being defended. They're not smart enough. They'll follow their thirst," he clarified. Sure enough, the pylons holding the floodlights remained unmolested as the Slayers drew them closer and closer to Kuar's command post.

"Master Kuar," Sefu said urgently, "something to the west...and to the east..."

Kuar's head jerked up and he frowned into the night on either side. There was something there, tickling at the back of his mind. How had Sefu Sensed it before him? It didn't matter, because it was coming up fast, and there could be no doubt what it was: reinforcements, and not for them. He snarled wordlessly and drew his sword. Around him, his bodyguard did the same, looking this way and that. Rapidly, he performed a rough headcount of the vampires surging towards them down the length of the valley. Three hundred? Four? That was the extent of their numbers, he had been sure of it. They'd scouted every nest, ranging for dozens of miles in every direction, mapping the entire perimeter of the warzone. There were no more vampires within range – there couldn't be.

Logic didn't change the fact that, right now, he could Sense vampires closing in on them from either side, in even greater numbers. He could see their shadows flitting over the ridge, and now the emplacements were under attack again, with more lights crashing to the ground in spectacular conflagrations. The dancing firelight illuminated the ranks of the vampires, feral and snarling, white eyes glinting fiercely. His plan was falling apart. Where had these come from? They couldn't have come from thin air, and they'd have been aware of any sudden influx of reinforcements in the region. It didn't matter. "To arms!" he bellowed, "They're coming from all sides!"

And they were: just a few hundred feet away, the vanguard of the vampires attacking from the east was bounding towards them, gnashing jagged fangs and pawing at the ground with their filthy claws. Most of them seemed to be without armour, clearly Thralls, but even they presented a serious threat in such numbers. His Slayer Sense was vibrating like a struck bell, telling him that they were about to be overrun. Could they have been newly Sired? Little of the human remained once the transformation had taken place, so he could not tell if the beasts charging his lines were from the local area, unwitting villagers lured by a vampire's hypnotic gaze. Nor was the state of decay in their bodies any indication: that depended on how recently they had fed, not on how long ago they had been Sired. None of these things mattered now; he had tried to spring a trap, but had instead walked into one. If his forces hadn't been clustered together like this, around a highly visible strongpoint...

"To arms!" he shouted again, hefting his sword. Gunshots rang out in the night, mowing down the first rank of vampires, but the others bounded heedlessly over them, closing fast. Kuar raised his own pistol – it was hardly necessary to aim at the seething mass, but he tried to pick out anything that looked like it might be commanding the rabble – and unleashed a volley of imbued lead. Where the bullets hit, bright flares erupted, but it did nothing to stop the rabid advance. With a grim look on his face, he holstered his pistol and took a firm two-handed grip on the hilt of his sword. Up close was best. They were more dangerous there, but so was he. They could keep coming from bullet holes, but hack off their limbs and they'd go down. Eventually.

He moved towards the concrete barricade, but the first vampire was already leaping across. Kuar screamed his defiance as he buried his sword to the hilt in the thing's chest, its own momentum pushing it down the blade. Its snarling face was just inches from its own, gleaming white teeth, incongruous in brown, rotting features, gnashing at him on instinct alone. It was as good as dead, but it would take it a second to realise. Sneering, Kuar shook the thing of his sword, just in time to meet a sweep of filthy, jagged claws in his direction. To his right, Sefu was fighting desperately with a sword of his own, shorter and with a heavier blade than Kuar's while on the other side Mason held two vampires at bay with a pair of sai. Her expression never changed, her mouth remaining set in a grim line, even as the narrow blades of her weapons hacked through flesh and sinew.

They pushed back the first wave, but now the vampires who had been working their way up the valley – the distraction, Kuar now realised – had reached his lines too, except where pockets of Shadow Slayers were pinned in place but still resisting further down. Better armed and more controlled vampires joined the fray, and now the clash of steel on steel filled his ears. He had no idea where the Ordo Draco had managed to find smiths to make armour and weapons, but they were perfectly serviceable and made them even more deadly. They were being pushed back into a tight ring, and he knew that would mean death.

"Fight them back!" he called out, "Push them past the barricades! We're going to cut our way out of this valley!" Behind them was a sheer rock wall – the only escape was the far end of the canyon.

Sefu nodded grimly and Mason only gave a jerk of her head to acknowledge his orders. The three of them lead the fighting retreat, hacking their way through the mass of clawing, screeching vampires. Gunfire continued to ring out in the night and cries of "To me!" and "For the winged sword!" where small groups of Slayers made valiant stands, alone in the darkness. He had to save them: he had to come out of here with more than a handful of his soldiers left alive. He knew this wasn't his fault, that there was no way he could have known about the vampires' numbers, but that didn't change the dull feeling in the pit of his stomach. He thought of unmarked graves in the Turkish mountains, of good men turned to the Afterdark, and of the shadow enveloping the world. If they couldn't stand against this, who could?

All the lights were gone now, and he could see that baleful red star, glowing darkly near the horizon. It gave their foes strength, he was sure of it. They had reached the barricade, and Kuar vaulted across it, followed closely by his lieutenants. He almost stumbled when he hit the rocky ground, but had enough poise to duck aside from a jagged sword blade and respond with a wild swing of his own that, more by chance than design, took the vampire's head clean off.

"Follow me! Follow me to glory!" He knew that mere survival was more than he had any right to hope for, but they followed him anyway. He had earned that much.

Out in the valley, surrounded on all sides, the mêlée swirling around them like a whirlwind of steel, fangs and claws, he lost track of time and motion. He was dimly aware that they were fighting their way towards the valley's opening, and the promise of escape, but all he could think of was killing what was in front of him. He knew Sefu and Mason stayed by his side, and that they formed the head of a black arrow of Slayers that grew as they gathered up the others that had been fighting further down, but no more than that. He ducked and spun, dodging blades and claws, answering with skilful ripostes that became more desperate the more leaden his limbs felt. His Slayer Sense was less than useless in this madness, making only a constant buzzing in his head that he couldn't usefully focus on. Had hours passed, or just minutes? He was exhausted, but he was always exhausted now. His eyes blurred with sweat, or tears, or blood, or all three. His breathing was ragged, but if he stopped moving, he would die, and so would his troops. He would not fail them. He would not die uselessly on this nameless battlefield, remembered only as a caution against arrogance if he was remembered at all.

"Dawn..." he heard Sefu gasp between desperate breaths, and when he looked up he saw that the sky was indeed turning grey. They were most of the way up the valley now, but ahead of them was a solid mass of vampires, a clawing, screeching scrum of blood-hungry monsters. There must have been thousands of them, and killing them was more like scything wheat, but his sickle felt heavy, and his arms were dead tired. They would pull him down, eventually, and then it would all be over. In some dark corner of his mind, he welcomed the thought of rest. Maybe it was the only way he would ever know peace now.

"Dawn," Mason echoed, sounding less exhausted than Sefu, but he had never known any expression except cold fury in her voice anyway. If it was dawn, the vampires might fall back. These ones were weak, and that made sunlight a threat to them. But no, the sky was only just lightening, and it would be hours until full daylight. There was no time to wait for deliverance. No time for anything.

With a hoarse yell, Kuar swung his sword again. It felt like lead in his hands, but it bit deep, bringing down another vampire in a shower of sparks as it splintered black armour. He tried to take out another with the hilt in a backhand thrust, but he stumbled on slick stones – slick with blood, most likely – and lost his footing. He felt claws dragging him down, saw bright, bloody fangs filling his vision, knew it was the end...

A bolt of lightning left a purple streak across his vision as it punched into the chest of the vampire reaching for him and caused it to explode in a shower of sparks. Another cleared three of the creatures in one brilliant blast and, suddenly finding himself free of assailants, he rolled onto his stomach, wondering what was happening. He had a second to take stock: his long, black hair was in total disarray, his leather jacket was torn and caked with filth and blood. In fact, he was entirely covered in blood. Some of it was his own, and he realised he was cut in a dozen places. No wonder he had lost his footing: his leg suddenly felt like it was on fire. In his desperate charge for freedom and redemption, he had not allowed himself to notice his wounds.

Sefu was staring at something back down the valley, his eyes, bright white in his dark face, as wide as saucers. Kuar struggled up to his feet. There were still vampires close by, but they had stopped trying to cut them down, also turning their attention to the commotion at the other end of the rocky gorge. More lightning flashed, coming from a knot of fighting, which then turned into a burning ring of vampires, falling back as flames consumed them. There was another flash of fire, like the arc of a sword blade, and the vampires fell back further still. Kuar didn't know what it was, and he didn't care – it was killing vampires, and that was enough for him.

"To the storm!" he called breathlessly, "Rally to that storm!"

The surviving Slayers abruptly reversed their course as they followed Kuar, Sefu and Mason, now reenergised, to where the lightning was blasting apart dozens of vampires at a time. The vampires were confused, trying to flee in two directions at once. Kuar cut them down with almost no effort as they threw themselves towards them in animal panic. Lighting continued to arc over their heads, throwing up earth and undead with equal abandon hundreds of feet from its origin point. The sky was still growing brighter by the second, a bright day dawning, the grey light beginning to gain enough strength to drown out the threatening red of that new, evil star.

Now, Kuar could make out something through the disorganised mass of vampires, some trying to escape like he had just a few minutes ago, and others desperately trying to fight back against whatever had appeared in their midst. There was a dark shape in the centre of the swirling chaos - the eye of the storm - the dark shape of a man, and something else with him, low to the ground. A wolf? What was a wolf doing here of all places? The lightning came from the man, erupting from the ground at his feet and lancing through the chests of any vampires around him. With a thunderous warcry, he leaped into the air, and the sword he carried burst into flame, describing a blazing arc around him. The world seemed to stand still as the mysterious warrior hung in air that had turned to syrup and then landed with a crash like a breaking storm. Where his sword had cleaved, only smouldering ash remained, and where he had landed, lightning once again erupted from the ground.

Kuar stopped dead as the man whirled and spun, cutting vampires apart as if they were made of butter, his bolts of lightning killing any that got through his fiery guard. At his feet, the grey wolf snapped and growled, occasionally racing into the mob to bring down a few kills of its own. Kuar recognised him – how could he not? The long black coat, the dark hair and beard, the warpaint smeared beneath each eye. A sword wielded with one hand, because one hand was all there was.

The First had come. The storm had a name, and it was Darkness.

When the other Slayers realised who it was, they rushed into the fray too, cutting down the vampires even as they ran. All across the valley, the tide had turned, and the rising sun sealed their victory. A circle of vampires remained surrounding Darkness, all armoured in black, defiant even in the face of the final death. He paused in his assault as his wolf crouched behind him, hackles raised and teeth bared, then simply drove his one good hand into the ground. Lightning burst from all sides, each bolt slicing clean through a vampire, aiming straight for their hearts and destroying them instantly in explosions of sparks. Charred plates of armour clattered to the ground and, slowly, Darkness straightened, surveying a scene of carnage in all directions.

"Victory!" It was Sefu who shouted, throwing his fist into the air.

"Victory!"

"The storm!"

"The winged sword!"

His cries were echoed across the valley by those Slayers who were left standing. How many? Kuar tried to count them quickly, but his mind reeled from the facts. Too few. Too many faces he knew but no longer saw. Maybe half their number had not lived to see this unlikely salvation. A grievous blow.

"He has returned!" Sefu called out, "He has come with the dawn!"

"He has come with the dawn!"

"The dawn! He has come with the dawn!"

All of the Slayers took up that cry, except himself and Mason, who was watching the wolf at Darkness's feet with suspicious eyes. Darkness himself bowed his head. What was the man thinking? One by one, the Slayers started to go down on one knee, holding their weapons before them.

"Glory to the First!" someone shouted, "Glory to he who comes with the dawn!"

The words of an old prophecy that was etched into the heart of every Shadow Slayer. Maybe this was the battle it referred to. Kuar could believe it after what he had just seen. He did not kneel though. Instead he looked at Darkness and met his ice grey eyes. He had returned indeed, but too late. Too late to save too many good soldiers. Unable to watch, he just turned away and walked towards the mouth of the valley, picking his way across the hundreds of corpses that covered the ground almost completely.

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Tue Feb 01, 2011 8:34 pm
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding


Darkness moved the sheaves of paper scattered across the rough, fold-down desk as if they held some significance. As if he hadn't pored over them dozens of times already in the last few hours. They were maps for the most part; some printed, some satellite images, some scrawled by hand. The network of valleys and caves hereabouts, and the disposition of the vampire forces that hid there. Irrelevant now, for the most part. Pockets would remain – an infection could almost never be eradicated completely, there were always a few nests left behind – but the real battle here was done. There had been no Lord, but he knew Dragon would not commit more forces to this front while he remained here. In a stroke, he had wiped out the vampire threat in this region.

The thought made him...uncomfortable. Why did it make him think of Highone and Infinity? He hadn't thought about them in years, since the day they'd ceased troubling him, in fact, but now he got that same prickling feeling in his stomach that he remembered from those days. You're causing problems, and all you're trying to do is make a better world. Why don't they understand that?

He glanced sidelong at Llenlleawg. The werewolf was standing close at his side; he hadn't strayed more than ten feet from Darkness since they'd arrived, like a plus one at a party, keeping close to the only friend he had. Well, that was understandable. He had no need to be so visibly alert though, constantly looking from the face of one Shadow Slayer to the next, trying to be surreptitious about it, then touching his hand to the haft of his spear-stave as if someone would snatch it away at any moment. This cave had served as the headquarters of this team – there was no word for a larger force like this one – of Shadow Slayers for over two years now. It bore all the hallmarks of a long siege. Bunks decorated with personal effects, an odd sense of homeliness around the paraffin stove and stacked up boxes that had naturally become a kind of kitchen. But, for all that, it had a sense of impermanence. It could all be moved in minutes and, if it had to be abandoned, it would be. Besides the photos of loved ones and charms hanging from bed posts were weapons, ammunition, tallies scratched in the stone. Fangs.

"Be calm," Darkness said under his breath, "you are amongst friends."

"They don't smell like friends..." Llenlleawg murmured.

"They've been through a lot. You have to understand that. They have...reasons...to feel unfriendly."

"Do you think you can win them over?"

Darkness looked around. Hard faces, hollow eyes. No one seemed to be paying any attention to them now, but the men and women lolling around the cave were as tense as coiled springs. They were wolves every bit as much as Llenlleawg was, and they had spent long months hunting. Once the initial jubilation of victory had passed they had slipped back into their habits. Relaxed, because time to rest was too precious to waste, but never dropping their guard. He had abandoned them to this, and he was not convinced that delivering them from it so abruptly was enough to meet his obligation to them.

There was a commotion toward the cave's entrance. The way out was a narrow tunnel several hundred yards in length, winding almost back on itself so it could be defended against an army by just a handful. Thankfully, it had never come to that. Llenlleawg tensed up even further, grabbing the handle of his weapon apparently unconsciously. Darkness put the map he had been scanning back down, straightening carefully and then adopting a relaxed stance. He had nothing to fear here. Nothing to answer for. They had wanted a leader, and they would have one.

Jashith Kuar walked into the cavern. The Shadow Slayers nearest him nodded and a few pressed fists against their hearts in salute. Affected motions. They wouldn't have bothered with such formalities normally, not after so long fighting beside each other, but Darkness knew this was for his benefit. Kuar stood in the entrance for a moment, hand running across the pommel of his sword. Darkness hoped it was as automatic as Llenlleawg's action, but he wasn't so certain. Kuar was in no hurry. He exchanged a few words with the Slayer nearest him, a stocky man with a close-cropped beard and a scar twisting one side of his face whom Darkness had never met, that elicited a harsh bark of a laugh, and then finally glanced his way. Darkness stiffened as he met Kuar's gaze and realised he had his fist clenched against the table full of maps. "Master Kuar," he said, firmly but not loudly. Kuar returned his attention to the bearded Slayer and said something in a low voice.

"Master Kuar!" There was no mistaking his tone now. Enough of playing this game. He had so little time, and even less inclination. He would not make obstacles of these soldiers, but if they gave him no choice then he would do what he must. All eyes were on him now, including Kuar's, but there was no fear in that look. Not even any recrimination, accusation or anger. Kuar was as placid as a lake on a summer's day. He was a handsome man, despite the hardness that had always been there, now honed to a plane as smooth and unyielding as polished marble, with glossy black hair that hung to his shoulders and a liquid brown stare. Before this, he had been accounted something of a ladies man, and Tiger Khan had had no hesitation in using that as a weapon when necessary. Kuar never seemed to mind.

"I summoned you over an hour ago, Master Kuar," Darkness continued in a more conversational tone, looking back down at the maps in front of him and pretending to sift through them again. "I trust you have good reasons for your tardiness in attending me." He looked up to find Kuar's face even harder, if it was possible. White rage compressed his lips, but his dark eyes never changed.

"Good reasons?" his voice was hoarse. "Yes, they were good, I think. Even you would understand the necessity of burial detail. We lost many before you deigned to show your face. Those men and women deserve the peace in death they were denied in life."

Llenlleawg looked at Darkness with a worried frown. Slowly, he forced himself to unclench his fist, to lay his hand flat on the table. "I do understand. And your compassion does you credit. But this is war, and there are things that must be done. When the First summons you, you are expected to come and, if prevented by duty, to send word of explanation. Since my arrival, I have received no report of the situation here. I expect better of one such as you. I expect better of any Shadow Slayer."

If Kuar had been angry before, it paled into insignificance next to this. His face was as immovable as a cliff face, and his tone completely flat. "Do you mean to dress me down in front of my men?"

"My men," Darkness corrected him, "I have the command now."

"Why? Have you led them these past two years? Have you fought and bled beside them? Have you..."

"I am the First!" Darkness thundered, slamming him palm into the desk and causing it to wobble precariously. "I have the command! Dispute that, and you dispute the very hierarchy of the Order. Is that a debate you wish to start here, now?" Kuar's face finally showed an expression: shock. "Is it?" Darkness demanded.

"No." He inclined his head slightly, absently. "No, Lord First. What would you have of me?"

"Your report, Master Kuar. What I know has been filtered through Commander Hayes. Now I am here, I will have the truth of it."

Kuar seemed to recover himself, and he spread his hands as he gave a crooked smile. "What is there to tell? You seem to have dealt with this situation in its entirety. You saved the day." Someone stepped up behind him. A girl – no, a woman, though she had been a girl when Darkness last saw her – with cropped blonde hair. Tall and lean, with dazzling blue eyes in a face that was all hard planes and sharp angles. She wore her emotions like a carnival mask, except that all she had was rage and hate. Juliette Mason. As grim a Slayer as Darkness had ever met, even before this long fight. She glanced at Darkness, looked away dismissively, then settled her cold stare on Llenlleawg. Her fingers strayed to the necklace of fangs around her neck, toying with one of them thoughtfully.

"I came halfway through your battle," Darkness said, pointedly ignoring Mason as Llenlleawg shifted uncomfortably beneath her scrutiny, "explain to me how it came to be."

Kuar's cheek twitched slightly. The cave was silent now, all eyes except Mason's on the confrontation. "Abiola's lights were a trap. To lure them in. We knew their numbers, and knew we could defeat them. We hoped to trick them into an open confrontation before they were ready. We...I...underestimated them. There were more, though I don't know how that could be."

Kuar's assessment of the situation tickled something in the back of Darkness's mind. Lure them? Maybe there was something in that... He filed it away for later: a problem for tomorrow. "There were more nests than you suspected?"

"No," it was Abiola Sefu who answered, flanking Kuar on the other side. He had kept to the shadows until now. His open face was uncertain. "We scouted. Thoroughly. Master Kuar's theory was sound. I vouch for him. I don't know where the others came from."

Darkness nodded. Someone, at least, was on his side, even if he didn't realise it. "Shadowrunning," Darkness said. He was not completely sure where the thought had come from, except he knew the term from an old lecture of Benedict's, and had never made the connection before. "Dragon can do it. It's possible others have learnt, or he has found some way to transfer the ability. Perhaps to his progeny? I do not know. But that was what it was. They step from shadow to shadow, crossing any distance between almost instantaneously. It is an ability shared by our most powerful foes."

Yes, now he had said, he knew it was true. Seth had always seemed to appear from nowhere, and he had witnessed Dragon's teleportation ability amongst the flames during the Battle of Las Vegas. Plenty of shadows there.

"There was no way you could have predicted this. You are not at fault."

"Funny," Kuar said, voice dangerously low, "I never thought I was. But you – you knew about this, obviously. You knew they could do this..."

"No. I knew Dragon could. That's not the same thing. I couldn't have..."

"You could have been here years ago! You could have ended this long ago with your lightning bolts! You let us die here! And now you hold me to account? Did Hayes even pass on my message? My call for aid? Did you even know we were here?"

"I had my own battles to fight, Kuar," Darkness growled.

"Really? Well, I'm sure the money and the fame made them a lot easier on you. Meanwhile we've been holed up here, in this cave, wondering which of us would still be here the next day. Waiting to be killed in our sleep by Faithless. Waiting to be pulled down by vampires."

"Hey!" Llenlleawg interrupted, "you don't know what Darkness has been through! You think you're the only one who's fought the Faithless? Darkness was held prisoner by them! He was tortured! And he faced an Abyssal Spawn while..."

"Llenlleawg." Darkness's curt command caused the words to die in the werewolf's mouth. The Slayers were all looking at him now. "I don't have to explain myself to you or to anyone," he continued, addressing Kuar again, "but I do regret the loss of life here. If it had been possible, know that I would have been here sooner. I knew about this battle, and longed to fight by your side, to rejoin my brothers and sisters, but I had my reasons for waiting. I had tasks to complete, and still do. However, my hand has been forced." That tickling in the back of his mind again. No time now. "That red star is an asteroid, and it is the method by which the Abyss intends to bring about the end of creation. Within it, or beyond it, perhaps, is the Elder God Apophis. If he is unleashed, he will destroy the universe. We no longer have time for anything except stopping that from happening. I am the Antichrist, as you may have heard, and it is my task to lead this fight. If I fail, all life will be annihilated. I dearly wish I could be diplomatic, that I could spare your feelings, but that is not an option. I must do what I must. I am the Weapon of Destiny, and if you do not stand with me, then you are my enemy. And you will be destroyed."

"So it's true," Kuar snarled, "Forge's prediction has come full circle – there was one who wielded lightning as you do before, and the implications of that nearly destroyed the Order then. I think, if you survive this storm, Darkness, you will tear us apart in another civil war."

"I won't survive it," Darkness said. He spoke without emotion. He had long resigned himself to the reality of his duty. "It will fall upon others to hold the Order together in the aftermath. I would have you be one of those, Kuar."

That stopped him short. He raised an eyebrow slightly.

"You have led well. Better than should have been possible. If not for your efforts, this garrison would have long been overwhelmed. I hereby grant to you the rank of Shadow Slayer of the Second Circle; Commander of the Light. Are there any here who would gainsay this edict?" His words were formal, probably not the done thing these days, but no one spoke up and that was the important thing. "Congratulations, Commander Kuar. Who is your tattooist? I also have an Adept here who needs his bands updating."

It was only then that Kuar started to advance, moving across the open space in the centre of the cavern towards Darkness, radiating predatory menace. A coiled spring indeed. When he spoke, he was very close, and his voice was colder than ice. "The last brother trained with inks was killed seven months ago. We haven't exactly had the opportunity to arrange to have another tutored in the art."

Darkness leaned in too, keeping his voice equally low. "I won't have this conversation here, Commander. I don't enjoy promoting and rebuking a man in the same hour."

"What you enjoy is of no interest to me, Darkness. And don't think you can come here and buy me with titles and honour. The word and the acclaim of a Ronin hold no water with me. Hayes may name you First, and perhaps you were raised in accordance with all the proper laws and ceremonies, but there are some of us who will never forget that you reneged on your oaths fifteen years ago. There are some of us for whom the stink of a traitor is not so easily removed, or ignored. You can save us, you can hurl lightning, you can wield the sword of Aterius Angelus – if that really is what that is – but it takes more than that to make a Shadow Slayer. It takes far more than that to make a First."

Darkness held the man's stare for a long moment. Neither man breathed, and neither man backed down. Two coiled springs. Two predators. Everyone in the room seemed to be holding their breath too. Even if they hadn't heard Kuar's words, they sensed the tone, and saw the investable explosion just over the horizon.

I could kill him. I killed Abbadon. I defeated Skaar. I tore an Abyssal Spawn apart with my bare hands. Before he blinked, I could tear out his throat. I wouldn't even have to do that: I could rupture his brain with a thought. I could burst him to pieces with a bolt of lightning.

Yes, I could. And what then? Just another man dead. Just another loss we can't afford.


"I will not discuss this here, Kuar. And, if you wish to debate the legalities of my raising to First, Commander Hayes will be joining us in a few days."

That was enough of a shock to break the tension. Kuar took a step backwards and raised his eyebrows. "She's coming here?"

"Her and her own command. They have done what they can in North America for the time being. I spoke with her before I came here."

"Are you gathering the whole Order?" It was Abiola Sefu who had spoken. He and Mason had taken up station a few metres behind Kuar now, far enough back to not seem intrusive, but close enough to leap in if something happened.

Would you have killed them too, if it came to that? Would you have killed all of them, if you had to?

"As much of it as I can," Darkness answered, pushing that nagging voice to the back of his mind. He had spent a lifetime suppressing his anger, hammering his rage flat and honing it to the fineness of a blade so he could direct it only when necessary. Why did it seem to nag at him so much recently? Sometimes these past months he felt as if he was two people, one ice and one fire, but he knew which he had to be to win this war. To survive long enough to win it.

"To what end?" Kuar asked. His voice was as flat and dangerous as before, but he seemed genuinely curious.

"I will discuss that with you and the other Commanders when you're all here."

Kuar snorted and shook his head. "Very well; keep your secrets. It hardly makes a difference to anything now, does it? The damage is done." He turned curtly and marched out of the cavern. Sefu was on his heels after a quick glance in Darkness's direction, but Mason lingered a few moments longer. She took in Darkness with her cold stare, then looked at Llenlleawg.

"Watch your back, wolf," she said, fingering the fangs on her necklace again, then turned to follow Kuar too.

Llenlleawg stared after her then turned to Darkness. "What did she mean by that?"

He replied without thinking. "Her family were killed by werekind. Most of those fangs she wears come from werewolves."

"Oh."

Realising what he had said, Darkness looked up sharply. "But that should mean nothing. You bear no more responsibility for her tragedy than I do for the atrocities that all mankind has committed. If she takes issue with you, the fault lies with her. I will enforce that, if necessary. You are a Shadow Slayer, and that's all that matters."

"I know that...I just don't like being threatened." He was holding his chin low, instinctively protecting his throat. After a few seconds he seemed to realise what he was doing and adopted a more normal stance. "What did that Kuar mean about you being a traitor?" Evidently werewolf hearing was no less impressive than their sense of smell. Or maybe he just hadn't been as quiet as he thought.

Darkness smoothed down a map on the table in front of him and drummed a finger irritably. "There was some...unpleasantness...between myself and the Order around fifteen years ago."

"Oh. I didn't know that."

"Not many people do. But you recall that I was apart from the Order when you joined me. I didn't become a Shadow Slayer again until I was made First."

"Right. I guess I forgot. No wonder he doesn't like you then, I guess."

"Yes. He has valid reasons. But so did I, for doing what I did."

* * *

Darkness sat in the oppressive silence of the tiny room, somewhere deep inside the police station. He had tried hard to figure out the layout of the place, but it was either intentionally disorientating or the lingering effects of Abbadon's....of his Mark...were turning his mind to mush. Six-hundred-and-sixty-five men and women had been kidnapped and mutilated by the Destroyer Cult; murdered as blood sacrifice to summon their demon-god. He knew that was significant. He and Benedict had assumed it would take one more to summon Abbadon, but apparently not. Six-hundred-and-sixy-five Marked by the Rune of Hades, rent into their flesh by a jagged obsidian knife and one more – him – Marked by a method less physical, but no less horrifying. He could feel the twisted shape on his soul, like a thief's brand. It was significant, but what did it...

The door slammed open and his head jerked up. A police officer, stout and moustached, his forehead covered with a sheen of sweat in this oppressive heat, stood goggling at him for a second before a whirlwind of astonished anger burst in behind him.

Nothing had prepared him for the sight of her after so long. It was a lifetime ago, and there was a gulf of experience between them now. He had been a different man then, and had seen and done so much in the intervening years but, to his eyes, she seemed unchanged. He started to rise, but she held out a hand to stop him. Her features were small and delicate, faintly elfin, with a nose slightly turned up at the end beneath large, sky-blue eyes. Her dark hair was shorter than it had been – cut just below her ears, curling slightly at the back of her neck. He supposed it must be the fashion now, and it suited her. Her brow was drawn down into a frown that did nothing to diminish her beauty, but then she opened her mouth, revealing fine, even white teeth and let out a torrent.

"Just what in holy fuck is going on, Dee? I don't hear from your for ten fucking years, then you call me out of the blue and tell me you've been arrested and need my help? And don't even get me started on what you're supposed to have done. I can't even begin to...to...argh!"

"It's good to see you again, Anna," he said calmly, sitting himself back down. "Could you give us some privacy, officer?" he asked the sergeant, who was looking more flustered than ever. He shot a look at Anna, who flashed a laminated pass identifying her as a professional in her field, which overlapped enough with his to put her in control of the situation. He nodded his assent and, giving Darkness a stern frown, left the room. Darkness could see his shadow through the grilled window, hovering just behind the door though.

Anna gave another exasperated sigh and then sat down opposite him. She stared at him for a long moment, drumming fingers against the Formica table.

"This is the last place I expected to see you," she finally said.

"Likewise."

"Oh come on – are you telling me you didn't know I was a criminal psychologist when you made that call? I've got no illusions: this isn't a social situation. You need me for what I do, not who I am."

"That's true," he admitted, "but only partially."

"Oh?" she arched an eyebrow, something she'd always been able to do even better than him.

"I need someone on my side who trusts me."

"Trusts you?" She leant back in her chair and fixed him with an incredulous look. She folder her arms firmly and shook her head. "The last time I saw you, it was through tears. Do you remember what you did to me that day?" She leant forward, her face set grimly, and pointed to her eye. "Here. Here's where you hit me. Remember that, Dee?"

He flinched and closed his eyes. So long ago. He was a different man then. So different in so many ways.

"I have no excuses for that." He opened his eyes and met her furious glare. "But I am sorry. I thought I could never hurt you, but I was wrong. I learned a lot about myself that day. In a way, it was my genesis."

"Oh, well that's good to hear."

"It was the day I got my name."

"What? What are you talking about, Dee?" She never used the name he'd once gone by – I love you, but I hate your fucking name. Sorry. That was what she'd said. He'd never liked it either, which is why it had been so easy to take a new one.

"I'm called Darkness now."

Her eyes went flat. "Oh...kay... Guess that explains the getup. So, what, have you been hanging around some goth club for the last decade? They aren't usually troublemakers, in my experience, but you would be the one to prove the exception, I suppose."

"I'm not a goth." He steeled himself. "I'm a Shadow Slayer."

"A...a what?" Her eyes darted towards the door. She knew crazy when she saw it, after all.

Slowly, he removed his jacket to reveal his bared bicep. Her eyes momentarily widened at the sight of the lean, corded muscle, a stark contrast to the doughy boy he had been when she knew him. He gestured to the intricate tattoo that banded his right arm. "One ring for each Circle. I am of the Second, a Commander of the Light, one of the most senior members of the Order. I am a demon fighter, a member of an ancient brotherhood of warriors sworn to oppose the machinations of demonic forces in the world. I am a slayer of vampires, a hunter of werewolves, a sworn enemy of demons. For ten years, I have travelled the world, perfecting my fighting skills, rooting out evil, destroying those who would destroy mankind. I am more than a man; I am a soldier in the service of freedom and light."

There was a long silence.

"Bollocks," Anna said.

He smiled. "No. Sometimes I wish it was, but every word I just said was true."

"Too many shit novels," she spat, jabbing an accusatory finger at him, "demons? Vampires? You were a physics student for fuck's sake!"

"Anna, I want you to listen to me for a few minutes. I'm going to tell you everything. Doing so is a gross breach of my oaths, but it is the only solution to this problem. I spent long hours in contemplation before I called you, but now my decision is made. For the love you once held for me, you must listen to everything I tell you. I don't expect you to believe it, but I hope you'll believe that I believe it. You know me. You know I'm not insane. But even if you can't convince yourself that what I'm telling you is true, rationalise it as some elaborate fantasy and allow me to escape confinement. I cannot be kept here. I was broken out of prison once already..."

"Yes," she said dryly, "I heard."

"...and I don't think I can arrange it again. I completed my mission, and now I must go into hiding for a long time, perhaps forever. You're my only hope, Anna. Only you can speak for me. This is what I've been doing since the 28th March 1985:"

And he did tell her everything. Every mission. In exacting detail. Locations, people, events. It all tied together, because it was all real. There were good reasons she had never heard of the Order and its dealings, plausible reasons for his secrets. Everything hung together perfectly. He only worried it would sound too perfect. But that would serve his ends too.

When he finished, she continued to look at him, carefully considering. She started to speak a few times, but kept stopping, reconsidering her words. Finally, she decided where she wanted to begin.

"This...Mark of the Destroyer...it puts your friends at risk?"

"Yes. I can be found. Abbadon was only banished, not destroyed. If I'm with the Order, when he finds me, he'll bring demons and destroy us all."

"So, if you manage to get out of this – with my help – you won't go back to the...the Shadow Slayers? You'll break you word?"

"To save them? To save the world? Yes."

"And where will you go?"

He shrugged. "Into the wild. Maybe go back to Nepal. I think I'll have to keep moving though."

She pursed her lips. "When...when I last saw you...you said you went to the cliffs. You were going to..."

"Yes."

"But you didn't. You thought you had a higher purpose, right?"

"Yes."

"Now...have you fulfilled that purpose?"

"I don't know. Something tells me I haven't. This thing with Abbadon is not finished, but when it is, I want to face him alone. I don't want to put anyone else at risk."

"I don't think you can do it alone. I don't think a destiny as huge as the one you seem to think you have can be carried on the shoulders of one man."

He sat back in the uncomfortable chair. "Does this mean you believe me?"

"No," she answered, a little too fast, "but I believe that it's real to you. So either you're telling the truth, in which case your crimes are outweighed by the harm you prevented, or you're dangerously insane, in which case you need to be given help."

"Either way gets me out of jail."

"Which is why you called me...."

He smiled. "It was one of the reasons. Like I said: I needed someone who trusts me."

"I don't trust you, Dee, but I'm willing to fight for you. Just this once."

"That's enough."

Some months later, he stood opposite the slight figure of his closest friend. The horizon was turning to red-gold, just a few vapour trails from passing planes high in the stratosphere marring the perfection of the otherwise uninterrupted dome of orange-fading-to-deep-blue above their heads. With a firm movement, Darkness put the wooden box back in Benedict's hands.

"They aren't mine anymore."

"You can't be serious about this," Benedict replied, shaking his head.

"I am. I can't endanger our cause. I have to leave."

"All this for a woman. All this for a stab at normalcy. You know better than anyone that once you push aside the curtain and enter our world, there's no going back."

"I'm not going back: I'm going away."

"To die?" Benedict spat.

"No. Not yet. I think there are still things I need to do. Just not in black."

"You're the best we have!" Benedict's tone had become pleading now.

"Tell Tiger Khan I'm sorry. Tell them all. Maybe I will return one day, when I'm needed most. When I don't put you all at risk with my presence."

"You can't do this. You swore an oath. I've never known you to break your word!"

"What is one man's word next to the fate of the world?" Darkness began to turn away, but Benedict grabbed his arm and he stopped, though he could easily have broken away from the much smaller man's grip.

"You're not a man – you're a Shadow Slayer."

Darkness shook his head sadly. "No; just a man. From now on, that's all I'll be."

"You say you don't want to put us in danger," Benedict said softly as he let Darkness go, "but what about her? Can you protect her if he comes for you?"

"While it is in my power to keep her safe, she will be kept safe."

"And if it isn't?"

He had no answers for the man he had once called brother. Smiling gently, he turned and made his way across the black heath land, leaving behind another life. What if Benedict was right though? What if he was doing nothing more than shifting his responsibility from men and women who could defend themselves to a woman who had no idea what she was getting into? What if Abbadon came and took Anna from him?

No. Abbadon could come, but Darkness would face him and this time, he would destroy him. Nothing would stop him. Short of Armageddon itself, he knew he would keep Anna safe.

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Sun Mar 13, 2011 12:32 am
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Linda McMahon
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding


"Try to hold still, kid," John Doe said, "I haven't been doing this long." For such a big man, his grip on the needle was deft though. He squinted as he moved the needle along Llenlleawg's arm, tracing out a second band around his bicep, elevating him to the Ninth Circle even as the ink entered his flesh. "I'm surprised this even works on a werewolf," he added conversationally, "the way you guys heal, I mean."

"It's not really damage," Llenlleawg replied, beginning to shrug, but stopping immediately as Doe winced and raised a hand in warning. "I mean...the way werewolves heal isn't so different from how humans do. Just better. No offence."

"None taken," Doe said with a smile. "So how's that girl of yours?"

"What girl?"

"You know, the vampire or whatever she is."

"She's a dhampyr. And she's not my girl."

"No?"

"Can we talk about something else?"

Doe glanced around the cave. It was almost empty now, as the army of Shadow Slayers packed up their belongings and prepared to abandon their long-held defences. The immediate threat of the vampires here was gone now, but if they remained Dragon would send more to avenge their destruction. It was time to go. "You want to talk about the war, kid? I've had my fill of that kind of thing, personally. Right now, all I want is to find some quiet corner of the world, build a house and never see another Shadowspawn as long as I live. Uh...no offence."

"I was born for this war," Llenlleawg said, his limber fingers toying with the handle of his spear-stave, "we all were."

"Who?"

"Werewolves."

"You think so?"

"We call it the Wolftime. The Final Battle. It's how our race will be redeemed. Never thought I'd be on the front line though."

"Who makes plans to be on the front line of Armageddon? Not even me, and I was Special Forces. I think..." Doe leant back and examined his work critically. "Hm. Not bad. Just need to finish some of the shading. Stay where you are."

From the shadows in an alcove off to one side, Darkness watched his two old friends. He remembered simpler times with both of them, when he was able to switch off his brain and relax. When he had still retained some semblance of humanity. When he looked back, it was as if each of his experiences – fighting Abbadon, back at the beginning of it all; losing Anna and Krissy; his battles with Shogun; being transformed into an Infernal with Dante's demonic serum; the journeys into his own past with Bruce; he and Dante at the Mesa in the Nevada Desert; the inhuman rampage that had resulted in Bleeder and the Titanium Insomniac dissecting his psyche before his eyes; losing his hand and nearly falling to the Abyss himself; battling Skaar in Las Vegas; journeying into the heart of Hell with Freya on the quest for the Promethean Ring; his torment at the hands of The Apocalypse; what he faced down in that basement in Tokyo – had stripped away his sense of self layer by layer, turning him from a man into something much less and, in some ways, much more. He felt like he was worn down to a nub of cold iron now, incapable of turning aside from the fate he knew was his.

"Are you okay?"

He turned to meet the steady gaze of Marta Hayes, one of the people he trusted most in the world, someone who had stood by him and spoken for him despite his betrayal of her and the Order all those years ago. Someone who had once broken him out of prison. Someone who had saved his life a dozen times over and, when he looked into her eyes – her eye, really – all he saw was a tool that he had to use. He assessed her abilities instinctively, weighing up at what point she would break, what it would take to force her to yield, where she was best suited to be placed in the final conflict. "I'm fine," he said calmly.

"You...well...you look it, actually. You just look...fine."

"That's what I said."

"I know. But you never look fine. And this is the worst time to ever be fine. We're on the verge of Armageddon, Darkness. You should at least look a little bit concerned."

Darkness shook his head. "I know what I have to do. Nothing is a problem if you already know the solution."

"Are you going to share it with any of us?"

"Not yet. I still don't know all the details and..."

Marta tilted her head. "You don't know who you can trust?"

"No," he admitted, "I don't. I don't feel safe telling anyone anything right now. Not you, Marta. Not John and Llenlleawg. Not even Benedict. So much has happened. I feel like I'm on the cusp of doing what I was born for, and everything is so finely balanced. How can I know where the next betrayal will come from? How can I risk everything? I can't have any other priorities. I can't be anything but what I am."

"The Weapon of Destiny."

"Yes," he said with the briefest trace of a smile.

"It must be exhausting."

"It is what it is."

Marta leant against the unworked rock wall beside him and watched Doe finish off Llenlleawg's new Slayer tattoo. "He wants to build us a house when this is all over. He's been talking about buying some land up in the Smoky Mountains, just living out there on the edge of some valley, keeping chickens and growing vegetables."

"I'd have thought you'd have had your fill of wilderness."

"All we want is peace. Now. I spent my whole life fighting, Darkness. When we're done here, I'm going to hang up this crossbow and never take it down."

Darkness shook his head. "When we're done here, Marta, you'll have to lead the Shadow Slayers."

"You're the First, Darkness."

"I was born for this war. When it's done, I'll have peace too."

Marta sighed. "I was afraid of this."

"Of what?"

"Of you. Being defeatist."

"This isn't about defeat. This is about destiny. The universe made me for a task. What use am I once it's completed?"

"Freya might have something to say about that."

Darkness gave her a sharp look. "I've closed that door."

"Has she?"

He looked away. "Nonetheless. When this ends, so do I."

"If you say so. I think you might be interested in some texts I've unearthed though."

"Texts?"

"That's right. I was waiting for things to get a bit quieter around here – I saw the way Kuar was looking at you. What did you do to him anyway?"

"Told him the truth."

"No wonder he looked so pissed off. Anyway, take a look." She reached into a pouch on her hip and pulled out a thin tablet computer.

"What's that?"

"It's a...never mind. We've spent the last few years digging around for all the information we can about what's about to happen. Ben had a lot of stuff already from the vaults back in Rome, but there's bits and pieces scattered everywhere. We went to that compound in Louisiana you told us about and, even after the Ordo Draco had finished with the libraries there, it was a treasure trove. No one's ever managed to put all these pieces together before, we don't think – too many disparate groups with conflicting aims, spread across the globe. But you and your friends in that damn wrestling league brought all the threads together for the first time, and now we know more than we ever thought we could. It's all on here."

Darkness took the tablet from her and stared at it blankly. She sighed and turned it on for him. As it lit up, his frown deepened. "How do I...?"

"Oh just give it here. If it doesn't have a big green button on it you have no idea, do you?"

"I was made for swords, not computers."

"Here." She manipulated the screen, holding it up so he could see. "Some we transcribed, some we took photos off, some we were able to scan directly. Ben's been working on putting it all into one big database that we can search. It's crude so far, but eventually we'll have all the knowledge of the Shadow Slayers and every other supernatural agency available in one place, safely backed up electronically. We'll never be destroyed in one fell swoop again. We'll be a dispersed network, divided into autonomous cells, all with access to the same specialist knowledge."

"Don't you think that's dangerous?" Darkness asked, "What if one of your computers falls into the wrong hands?"

"We'll have security measures."

"Which costs money, and requires expertise. And it can all be traced, somehow. This information will be stored electronically, in some cyberspace vault somewhere, yes?"

"I guess..."

"Maintained by laymen, I expect. Somewhere, somehow, someone who hasn't sworn the oaths will be able to access it. I admire your vision, Marta, but there's a reason we kept everything on parchment in a locked library hundreds of metres below the earth."

"Well, like you said, I suppose that kind of thing will be up to me in the end, won't it?" Marta said tartly.

"Just show me what you have."

"Okay. Have you heard of Balthazar the Mad?"

"I..." Darkness frowned for a moment. A memory from half a lifetime ago of being in another time and place, seeing through the eyes of another man, came to him. He remembered his hand – but not really his hand – closing for the first time around the grip of the sword he now wore on his back. "I have heard of him, yes."

"He was a sort of alchemist or druid in 12th Century England."

"He was a sorcerer and a demonologist," Darkness corrected her, "and not as mad as history claims."

"Right...okay...well, he wrote a number of prophecies about the End Times. Not unusual, but a lot of his predictions seem to have been played out in one way or another."

"They're about me, aren't they?" Darkness guessed.

"A lot of them. Freya's mentioned too, and Revenant, and a few other people you probably know better than I do."

"An albino son of Lucifer?"

"He would be 'the white dragon'."

Darkness nodded. "Sounds about right."

"Anyway, it was all underpinned by this concept he had of the whole of human history being made up a series of apocalyptic cycles. He thought that he wasn't seeing the future, but the past, and that all of these things had happened before. He calculated that the same events – Armageddon, the Final Battle – were played out roughly every hundred thousand years, and that each epoch featured a gradual build up of supernatural forces arraying against each other until everything reached fever pitch and a new star appeared in the sky."

"Apophis...the asteroid..." Darkness murmured.

"Right. Ben did some calculations – its orbit brings it this close to Earth every hundred thousand years or so. The closer it gets..."

"The worse things are. Supernaturally speaking."

"Right. But get this: the universe has a counter-measure. There is some spark of humanity, some primal force for order, that manifests in every generation. Balthazar identified it as the same entity, being reborn over and over, gradually accumulating experience and prowess until it became the...the...sum of all heroes, if you like. He connected it to some Biblical apocrypha about the Jewish prophet Ezra being reincarnated by God into the Angel of Death."

"Azrael."

Marta looked up from the tablet where some scans of the fragmented texts she'd recovered had been displayed. "Darkness," she said softly, "does any of this sound at all familiar to you?"

Slowly, he found himself nodding. That word, a word he didn't think he'd ever spoken aloud before, was somehow as familiar to him as his own name – more familiar, in fact. He realised, looking back, that he'd heard it many times already, always from the mouths of creatures who wouldn't use it lightly. Semiazas, The Bleeder, Jael...always, he'd just dismissed it, never let himself think what it might mean, never confronted the truth. They'd called him Azrael, and some part of his brain had just washed over it.

"I'm not supposed to know, am I?" he asked no one in particular.

"No," Marta answered anyway, "not until the end. It has to play out naturally over the course of the cycle. Azrael must grow through the aeons until his final manifestation is ready to do what he must. At least, that's what Balthazar thought."

"The sum of all heroes."

"A simple equation. The best humanity has to offer, distilled over a thousand centuries of battle, until it reaches its apex when, finally, it is unleashed in full force. It's happened to you a few times already."

"Yes. When I fought Abbadon – both times; in a hotel where time literally stood still; when I saved Strikmore from Drakus; even in the ring once, I think..."

"I have that footage, if you want to see it?"

"No. We were...separate...in the beginning, I think. But now, I've reconciled it. That power..."

"It's yours. Native to you. You're the Angel of Death. And I think – as Balthazar did – that that's all the Antichrist is; the final permutation of this manifested power that exists in all of us. The final remainder in the equation."

Darkness was silent for a long moment. Finally, he said, "This changes nothing."

"No?"

"No."

"You're not interested in what Balthazar had to say about the cycles then?"

"What about them?"

"It repeats, Darkness. We've done this before. Our myths, our legends, they all descend from the last time this battle was fought – from the last time the Abyss tried to destroy the world. Ragnarok, Revelation, all the life-death-rebirth deities that exist in almost every culture. It's all the fragmented memories of the last great war against Apophis and his followers."

"So what?"

"So, last time we won, since we're still here. Last time, you won. And somewhere...that memory is still in you...you lived it. That's our edge."

Darkness shook his head. "I don't think so. Surely the process has to begin again each time? This manifestation of human potential that we're choosing to call Azrael can't just get more powerful with each apocalyptic cycle, or the Abyss would have been destroyed by now."

"Maybe it will be this time..."

"I'm still me," Darkness said, "I don't really know anything more than I did before."

Marta smiled sadly. "Finding out you're secretly an angel really doesn't change anything for you?"

"It's just a word. I've met angels. They were no better or worse than humans. They just occupy a different imaginative space. And they die just the same."

"So I'm told."

"I've seen it. Or what was left of it afterwards. There's a place in Hell where the Host of Heaven made their last stand. You don't want to know what the demons did to their bodies."

"Funny," Marta said, "you'd think we'd have all known about something like that."

"We would have, if we could have read the signs. The force of their deaths drew Apophis even closer. It happened just before the Battle of Las Vegas."

"Oh, I see. Benedict had a lot of bad dreams around that time."

"I can imagine. When an Archangel dies, the psychic scream can..." he trailed off.

Marta looked up. "Can what? Darkness?"

He turned and stared at her. "Angel of Death."

"What?"

"I know what I have to do now. I know how I can win."

"You didn't know before?"

"Not exactly."

"So you're not going to die?"

"I die," Darkness told her, "that's written in your prophecies, I'm sure of it. The key to it though, is finding a way to come back to finish what my death will start. I need to find Dante."

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Thu May 03, 2012 11:29 pm
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Linda McMahon
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding


Megan Dante was almost as pale as her father: a serious-faced child with the extraordinary cheekbones inherited from either or both of her parents noticeable even in her soft infant features. She had white-blonde hair, as straight as her mother's and she didn't speak once while Darkness was there. She just sat quietly, content to be on her own in the corner, occupied with stacking wooden blocks.

"Is she all right?" Darkness asked.

Selenia nodded. "I took her to a specialist to have her checked. She's just quiet. It's my fault, really – I spoke to her in her head when she was a baby without even thinking about it. I don't think she's ever quite grasped the value of talking. And the thing with the blocks...she's just intelligent. Incredibly, incredibly intelligent. It's scary."

"She's the first of her kind. There are no rules."

"Exactly. She's healthy though. Her body temperature is a little on the high side, but that's the only physical difference between her and a human child the same age." Selenia bent down and ran a comforting hand across her daughter's head. Megan looked up and smiled. It was a sad, plaintive little smile, but it transformed her face. "I worry though," Selenia said.

"All mothers worry."

"Not like this." She beckoned Darkness over to a small table on the other side of the comfortable living room. They were in Chicago, in an apartment in a building that had once been DanteCorp's northern HQ. It had passed to NovaCorp when Lilith – disguised as business mogul Tomas Novamori – had bought out the company, but with her disappearance, the US government had swooped in and bought all of their assets on the pretext of bailing out an ailing corporation with taxpayer dollars. The HQ had been transformed into an ordinary apartment block and sold to developers. Darkness wasn't sure if Selenia and Dante had bought it for old time's sake, or they had just always held onto the deeds.

"She doesn't sleep well," Selenia was saying as she cradled a cup of Italian coffee in her hands.

"That's true of a lot of babies," Darkness said, taking a sip of his own. The blend wasn't one he'd tasted before – Selenia believed in living well, and her taste was expensive. No doubt it had some connection to her past life in Italy during the middle of the last century too.

"She's a toddler now. And it's not like that. She has dreams – horrible dreams. I have to guard her." She looked at him and Darkness saw the exhaustion in his old friend's eyes, how her pale beauty was now marked by new cares. "I think they're trying to attack her. Her mind is like an open fortress – she doesn't know how to protect herself yet."

"Why would anyone attack her? She's just a child."

"And the heir to the throne of Hell. One day...I think she'll surpass us all. If she lives that long. If any of us do."

Darkness looked down at the table. He had so much less to lose than all the others: John and Marta with their dreams of a home in the Appalachians, Llenlleawg with his boy's dreams of glory, and Selenia with a young daughter to protect. "I need to find Dante," was all he said though.

"I haven't seen Jason in a long time," Selenia replied. There was no trace of emotion in her voice.

"There was a time when I could always tell where he was..."

"I'm his wife. How do you think I feel?"

"Sorry."

Selenia turned and looked out of the window. A panoramic window showed a grey sky and clouds scudding low across Lake Michigan. The air was warm and there was the smell of a thunderstorm on the wind – there had been for what seemed like a long time now. In one spot behind the cloud cover, a faint red glow was visible. "I have to focus on what's important. I have to protect my daughter. No one else will." She looked back at him, an unspoken question in the eyes that looked so much older than the rest of her face.

"No," he answered shortly, "we're on the brink of the war to end all wars."

"Tell me about it." She lifted a newspaper that was folded on the table next to her coffee. "Have you been keeping up with the news recently?"

"Not really." He took the paper and unfolded it. On page one was a picture of President MacDonald, obviously in the middle of a recent speech. The headline was only one word. "'War'," Darkness read aloud.

"Right. A full-scale invasion of Iran. He threatened before, but now...there's talk of a draft. He doesn't want another half-finished job like Iraq and Afghanistan."

"What's possessed him?" Darkness asked, shaking his head.

"More like who. Look at the advisor hovering behind him on the podium. It's a bad photo, but squint a little and I think you'll recognise him. Or rather, you won't, because he's got that kind of face."

Darkness frowned, looking at the grainy image of the completely non-descript man standing just behind the President of the USA. "Is that...?"

"He's not even using an alias now. Seth Drake, advisor to the White House. I don't even want to think about how he arranged it."

"And now the US is sending troops to Iran?"

"Not just them; they've dragged in the rest of NATO. The UN condemned it, Russia and China walked out of negotiations, both vowing to oppose any direct military action with troops of their own. World War Three is brewing, Darkness."

"Damn him. He told me he'd do this. I didn't take him seriously. I thought humanity was smarter than this."

"Really? Whatever gave you that idea?"

Darkness threw the paper down. "I can't stop them doing this. If Seth wasn't involved, I could have dismissed it as a human concern, but he's clearly up to something."

Selenia leant back in her chair and took a long sip of her coffee. "Of course he is," she said after a moment, "the entire world's military, all converging on one spot. That's got to be to someone's advantage."

"Yes," Darkness said grimly, "Skaar's. I think I know where he intends to strike."

"Exactly. If he unleashes Apophis on that spot, he'll annihilate all organised opposition to the forces of the Abyss in a matter of seconds. It's all going to happen in Iran."

"Mesopotamia. Where he came from."

"I had the same thought. Whatever's going to happen will happen in the city he once lived in as a man, I think."

"That's good to know. In a way, this war of MacDonald's is to our advantage."

"In a way," Selenia agreed. They both sat in silence for a while again before she spoke again. "I can't help you find Jason. I wish I could just pack up and go and find him, but I have to take care of Megan. I wish I could fight with you, help you, but I can't. You're on your own."

He glanced up. "I have the Shadow Slayers. Hopefully an army of werewolves soon..."

"But they can't fight Skaar – Lord Abortion, I should say," she corrected, her mouth twisting in distaste, "he's entropy incarnate. I've seen him: any living thing that comes close just melts like celluloid in a flame. In the end, you'll have to face him alone."

"What makes you think I stand a better chance than anyone else?"

"You're..."

"Azrael," Darkness said over her. "Yes, I know."

"Good," she put her coffee down on the table, "I was worried I was going to have to be the one to finally tell you."

"You knew?"

"I've known for years. Since you saved Strikmore from being almost killed by Drakus that time. My perspective is unique, remember. I've been a human, a demon, and now an Infernal. I recognise the Angel of Death when I see him."

"You should have told me."

"Would you have done anything different?"

"Probably not," he admitted.

"Those who've passed beyond the veil of death, for whom entropy holds on fear, can't be harmed by his aura I don't think."

"No?"

"I wasn't. I've died and been reborn. The same is true of you, Azrael."

"I'm not so sure about that. When Skaar captured me in Peru...I felt the same as everyone else around him. I'm human, more or less. It's not the same thing. But if you're unaffected..."

"No. I told you: I have to protect Megan. I can't take her into the maelstrom of Armageddon. You know better than to ask that of me."

"That's why I didn't. What I meant was, if I can find a way to do what you did, somehow. I can defeat him. I need Dante even more than I realised."

"Why?"

"He has that power. It's how he brought you back."

"So what is it you're planning?"

Darkness stood up. "Best you don't know. I'll seek Dante out. There must be a way to track him down – he's much more than just a man, and he leaves a mark wherever he goes without even realising."

"When you find him..."

"I'll tell him to come home."

"No. Tell him to stay away. I don't want him here until this is all over. He paints a target on this house. I hope that's why he went. I hope it was for Megan and for me."

"I'm sure it was," Darkness said.

"You're not, Nightwalker, and neither am I. Dante does what he does for his own selfish reasons. He leads with his heart, and that's gotten him into trouble so many times. I'm worried he's in even more trouble now."

"Last time I saw him, he was with Bleeder."

"I know. I'm praying he had the sense to leave him wherever he found him, but I don't think he could. Bleeder was his first mentor: he made him what he is. He has a hold over Jason that you and I never will, no matter what we all go through together."

"I'll find him, Selenia," Darkness promised, "and I'll make sure he's on the side of right when the chips are down. For all our sakes."

* * *

The palace of glass was in a sorry state now. Cracks threaded every object and surface, casting nightmarish reflections everywhere. The air was cold and the fey luminosity was replaced with ghoulish shadow. Towards the eaves, where columns disappeared into the gloom of the vaulted ceiling, the glass was discoloured and looked like shattered black glass. Dante ran his hand across a transparent chess board and jerked away reflexively as a shard of glass dug into his flesh – all of the pieces were shattered. "Hell is dying," he remarked conversationally.

Bleeder looked up from his seat. His albino-white face, so like Dante's own, looked drawn and tired. "It's not just that," the demon said.

"No?"

"This realm is no longer protected. It was sustained by Ta-Te's power, but now I must shoulder the burden. I am...damaged...and this is being reflected. The flaw exacerbates things though, yes."

Dante walked around the plinth that held the chess set, shaking his hand to speed up his regeneration, so he stood before his old mentor's throne. "What's happening to her?"

"She is dying."

"Why?"

"Because of your father."

Dante waved his now fully-healed hand dismissively. "I know what Lucifer did, that's why Hell is crumbling in the first place."

"No, it's not that. He has betrayed even himself now."

"How so?"

"Lord Abortion has commanded him to do the one thing that will sever his last link to his ancient human past. The one saving grace of the Fallen Angel."

Dante looked surprised. "I never realised there was any trace of humanity whatsoever left in my father. What's his 'one saving grace' then?"

"His love for Lilith."

"And Lord Abortion ordered him to...?"

"Destroy her."

Dante took a step backwards and then turned away. "That's...bad..."

"And that's an understatement. The sisterhood of the Succubi, Ta-Te's race, will cease to be if Lilith dies. Even the threat of it, the evil that now festers in Lucifer's heart, is causing her physical pain. I wonder if the same is true of your wife."

"Don't mention my wife, Bleeder."

"Why are you so sensitive about her? Have you forgotten that it was I who first placed her into your mind, a mere demonic familiar, a slave entity drawn from the ranks of the Succubi to empower my finest pupil? She was Ta-Te's long before she was yours. In her heart, she still belongs to Hell. No matter how many human children she bears, she will always..."

"I said don't mention my wife!" Dante thundered, turning and throwing out a hand as he did so. Bleeder recoiled in his throne, and a new crack snaked up the wall behind him as if he'd been hurled into it.

"It seems that the student now surpasses the master," Bleeder sneered.

"And if you speak of my daughter again," Dante continued, his hand still outstretched, "I will show you just how much I've surpassed you. It will not be pleasant."

"Few things in Hell are," Bleeder said with a smile, revealing his ghastly jagged teeth, stained with dark blood, "this place was one of the few examples of beauty in all this blighted Plane, but now it too is falling into ruin. Such a pity. You are the heir to all of it, but will you have any kingdom left to enjoy?"

Dante dropped his hand and The Bleeder slumped back down. "I never asked for the throne of Hell," he said, "I never wanted to be part of any of this."

"Not true."

"If I'd known what I was getting myself into..."

"You'd have joined in even more enthusiastically. Face it; you were born for this war. Why do you think I brought you into the Hellfire Club? I knew what you were the moment I laid eyes on you."

Dante nodded. "You know me better than almost anyone. You made Jason Dante."

"I did."

"I owe you my life, in so many ways. And Ta-Te. For her...I'll save Lilith..."

"What about your wife?" Bleeder said with another sneer.

"Lilith has no power over her," Dante replied as he turned away and walked towards the door, "but if Lucifer does this, he'll doom her all the same." With a flash of Hellfire, he crossed the border between realities and returned to Earth.

_________________
- lots and lots of short fiction, written by me, regularly updated.

- it's a space opera novel I wrote.

I have some shit on Kindle too: ,


Sat May 05, 2012 2:14 pm
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Linda McMahon
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding


Bronson scratched at his scalp irritably and then grimaced as another clump of hair came free. He shook his hand free of it with a snarl and resumed his scratching. He felt like his whole body was infested with lice, but he knew it was a deeper sickness than that – he hadn't dared look in a mirror for months now, for fear of what he'd see. Just looking down at his arms, at his body, he knew he was falling apart from the inside. Lesions and sores covered his skin and, worse, dark bruising was starting to form on his extremities. The little finger on his left hand was now almost completely black. He was rotting. "You know what? This might have been a terrible mistake."

Baltic looked up from the scraps of paper he held in his talons. The vampire narrowed his pinprick eyes and bared his fangs. "What? Coming here?"

"No, just this whole business." He lowered himself onto a rock with a wince. "At least I look healthier than you."

"Shut up." Baltic threw the papers aside with a contemptuous hiss. "Worthless trash. They were here for years and they somehow managed to clear out completely in a couple of days. Not one piece of useful information in this whole cave system."

Bronson looked around. There was some evidence that the Shadow Slayers had been holed up here, but not much. Everything – all their weapons and ammunition, all their food and water supplies, even the bunks and the other makeshift furniture had been packed up efficiently and quickly. No one would ever know they'd been here, unless they knew what they were looking for. "They've had practice. Shadow Slayers are a tricky lot. You know that though, right?"

"Shut up," Baltic said again. He was wearing black, like a Slayer, with a few pieces of the lacquered armour that marked him out as a member of the Ordo Draco. Baltic had always been more of a strategist than a fighter though. "We had them right where we wanted them," he told Bronson, not for the first time that day, "but Dragon just had to summon me back to Istanbul to 'renew my oaths'. He's chafing under Skaar."

"Yeah, we all are," Bronson said, itching at his scalp again, "do you want to know where the Slayers went?"

"Can you pick up their trail?"

"Sure," Bronson shrugged, "but I don't know how much good it'll do you. They split up. Some went north, some south, some deeper into the mountains. All in small groups."

"That's how they prefer to work." Baltic walked towards the entrance of the chamber.

"We'll never hunt them all down," Bronson said, "you had your chance. Now they'll start hunting you again."

"And you. You're one of us now."

"Don't remind me," the werewolf snorted without enthusiasm.

When they emerged from the caves, it was early dusk. The sky above the Taurus Mountains, where just weeks before the valleys had run with blood, was clear. A few stars were starting to come out, but they all paled into comparison with the great ominous red object that hung low over the horizon. It made Bronson shudder involuntarily, but Baltic paid it no mind. A few other vampires, most armoured members of the Ordo Draco, stood idly outside the mouth of the cave. Baltic beckoned them to fall in behind him as he passed and they moved smartly enough. Vampires weren't natural soldiers; they preferred to slink through the shadows or leap off the walls, but most of these had been Shadow Slayers in life. Even after passing through the veil into undeath, some instincts were hard to shift. Bronson followed behind the group, the only one not buying into the fiction that they were still some sort of army except the hideous and corpulent Caliban who loped along beside him looking thoroughly miserable. Strangely, he seemed to be suffering from a similar kind of affliction to Bronson – his sickly grey flesh was also covered in boils and crusted scabs and the veins visible across his flabby stomach looked diseased and black. None of the other vampires showed any signs of Lord Abortion's entropic miasma, which made perfect sense since they were already dead. Caliban though...

A shout from near the front of the party drew Bronson's attention back to the present. One of the Ordo Draco vampires was staggering backwards, pawing at a smoking hole in his chest. The area around the wound was lit like smouldering ash and it only took a couple of seconds for the creature to collapse into a heap of smoking embers and scorched metal. "Slayers!" Baltic bellowed. The group scattered just as another bullet ripped through a vampire's head, taking half of its desiccated skull with it. It reeled to one side and then went down.

Bronson's eyes followed the trajectory the bullet had taken – his people saw as well by night as day – and he picked out the red light of Apophis reflecting on something for just an instant. "A sniper," he growled.

Baltic heard him and looked up from where he was sheltering in a rocky cleft. "Where?"

Bronson ducked down too and pointed up towards the cliff face above them. "About halfway up. Nice little nest up there I bet. He must have just set up though, or why didn't he shoot us when we went in?"

"It was a trap. They wanted us to go in and find they'd gone. We were cautious when we approached. They're probably still swarming through these hills." Baltic slammed his fist into the rock. "I don't have enough power to Shadowrun all of us out of here. You're the most valuable. We'll leave the others."

"No," Bronson said.

"What? You suddenly developed a sense of honour?"

"It's not that." Baltic had brought them all here by the technique he called Shadowrunning, something he said only the most powerful servants of the Abyss had been able to do in the past, but which now was possible for any of them with the requisite knowledge and a sufficient connection to the power of the Elder Gods. It involved stepping outside the confines of the material world, into the extra-dimensional realm of the Abysmal Ones themselves, just for a split second. Even for that length of time though, Bronson had found the experience profoundly disturbing. That place was Other – a universe mortal creatures were never meant to inhabit, even for the briefest moment, and he'd seen things moving in the absolute blackness somehow. Things that should never be. Things that must never be. "I think I can take him out," Bronson said.

"You? How?"

Bronson ignored the derision in Baltic's voice. "With this." He pulled a box out of his jacket pocket and from it produced a necklace with its crystalline pendant. Carefully, he tied the cord around his neck.

"What's that?"

"Just a present from an old friend."

The vampire narrowed his eyes. "You're...different..."

Bronson glanced at him askance. "Shouldn't make a damn bit of difference to you. It's calcite – the same shit that makes up your brain – and it blocks the Slayer Sense."

"That explains it. Why didn't I know you had something like that?"

"That box was lined with obsidian – it blocks it, apparently. And you can understand why I might have wanted to keep an edge like this secret from you, right?"

"Give it to me," Baltic said, "I'm faster and stronger."

"It won't work."

"Why not?"

"Didn't you hear what I said? It's the same stuff that makes up half your head. You already reek of calcite, and it's that along with the general wrongness of the rotting carcass you call a body that causes you to show up to the Slayer Sense. Another lump of it makes no difference to a vampire. No, it has to be me. It's almost fully dark now – I can sneak up on him without him knowing until it's too late. I'll change form, so even if he does manage to see me, he'll just think I'm an ordinary wolf."

"A wolf wearing a necklace."

"I said it would be dark, didn't I?" Bronson was already taking off his shirt.

"How do I know you won't just use this as an opportunity to slip off?" Baltic asked.

"What do I have to gain from leaving now? Look at me." He gestured down at his bare torso, at the dark lesions that were threaded across his muscles, the sores across his stomach, the clusters of weeping blisters in his armpits. "Where would I go? What would I do? I've picked a side, and that's that."

"Good. Because if you do run away, you can be certain I'll track you down. And when I do, your body eating itself alive will be the least of your problems."

Bronson gave him a cocky half-smirk as he finished undressing. He glanced out from behind the crag that he'd been sheltering behind to make sure everything seemed clear. The valley was empty now, and all the vampires were hiding. Caliban was crouched a little way further out, hiding his head with his big, shapeless hands, looking absolutely terrified. He was certainly no ordinary vampire. Bronson held out his bundle of clothes to him. "Hey, big guy, look after these for me, okay?" Caliban stared down at them uncomprehendingly. "Just...let's put them here. Watch them. Got it?" If he understood, he gave no sign, and Bronson just edged towards open ground, dropping into a crouch and then sliding straight into his lupine form before bolting across the valley.

* * *

Abiola Sefu tensed the muscles in his legs one by one, trying to ease the cramp he knew was forming. He didn't dare move from his position now, not when there were a dozen or more vampires still hiding down there. The sight on his sniper rifle was set to night vision, but it didn't do much good, and the infrared setting was less than useless against them. He thought he saw something dart across the valley floor far below, from close to where his quarry were lurking, but it just looked like a wolf or a mountain lion. Nothing to be concerned about.

Sefu was one of a handful of rearguard left behind to watch the pass into their former HQ for any enemy that might be sniffing around. He certainly hadn't expected to see Gregor Baltic, and when he'd identified him he'd quickly picked his position and set everything up. It was just bad luck he hadn't been able to get a clear shot of the bastard as he came out. He'd settle for pinning him down though, at least until the other Slayers in his team showed up. He'd radioed them over an hour ago now, and he was starting to get concerned.

Another movement caught his eye. Something below him, on one of the paths leading to his nest. One of the advantages of this particular spot was that it also offered good views of the approaches to it too, so he could defend it if someone realised where he was. He didn't like taking his eyes from his scope, but he risked a quick look through the binoculars down at the path that ran east from where he was set up. The night vision lens picked out a pair of glowing eyes – a wolf, probably the same one he saw before. He relaxed. His Slayer Sense told him that the vampires were still down there, cowering behind those rocks. The only risk had been that one of the Faithless was still lurking around. A wolf was no threat though. If it came too close, he'd just scare it away by throwing rocks or something.

He returned to his sniper rifle, flexing his shoulder as he rested the stock against his arm. He squinted into the sight again, willing something to happen down in the valley so he could get a clean shot. He would tire before them, was the problem. He couldn't wait here all night. Where had his team got to?

Suddenly, he became acutely aware that something had just padded up on the ledge beside him. He turned, confused, to see the shape of a big, ragged wolf looming over him. "Fuck," he said without thinking. He should have been able to Sense an animal that big coming so close. He hadn't even thought about it when he'd spotted it at first. He reached for the pistol holstered at his hip, but suddenly the wolf was on him, bowling him over onto the rocks and sending his sniper rifle clattering over the edge of the cliff. He tried to get a grip on the wolf, but whenever he grabbed at him, a lump of fur came off in his hand. Desperately, as a mouthful of yellowed fangs bore down at his face, he reached for his knife. He ripped it from its sheath and slashed the wolf across the face, sending it reeling backwards with a yelp.

Sefu rolled up into a crouch and finally managed to draw his pistol. He levelled it at the beast. The wolf, dark furred but with luminous green eyes, held itself low, ready to spring. Sefu frowned, noticing the cord around its neck and the pinkish crystal that dangled down at its throat and then his eyes widened as he saw the cut he'd just made across its face begin to close up right before his eyes. "Oh, you've got to be fu..."

It sprang for him. He pulled the trigger and got an answering blaze of gunfire, but if he hit anything it didn't stop his attacker. They tussled again, and then there was a flash and a sound like wet meat being fed through a blender followed by a cry of agony. The weight of the wolf on him was gone and, as Sefu scrambled to his feet, he saw a man lying naked on the ground, with his arms around his body as if he were trying to hold himself together. There was a strong odour of chemicals in the air.

"I'm glad that worked," a voice said. Sefu looked up to see Juliette Mason drop down onto the ledge from above. The lean, hard-faced Slayer picked up a smoking canister that he hadn't noticed before. "Wolfsbane grenade. Just a little something I've been working on."

The man – the werewolf – rolled onto his back. His eyes were screwed up in pain. Evidently being forced back into his humanoid form so suddenly wasn't particularly pleasant. Mason kicked him and he rolled over onto his side again. "Get up," she barked.

He opened his eyes and looked up at her. "I'd like to see you be able to walk after being forcibly turned inside out," he croaked.

"Shut up." She grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet. At first he made a feeble attempt at resistance but that stopped when she reached around him and pressed the blade of one of her sai against his throat. "You're working with those vampires down there?"

"Kind of..."

"You're a mercenary?"

"No. It's ideological, more's the pity. I lacked my brother's foresight, sadly."

Sefu frowned at him again. "Your brother? Who's your brother?"

The werewolf fixed him with a piercing stare. Even in his humanoid form, he had the same luminous green eyes. "I think you'd be more interested in who my sister is, actually."

"No one gives a fuck about your sister," Mason growled, pressing the sai into his neck more firmly, drawing a spot of blood "how many vamps are down there?"

"I'll tell you, and I'll tell you how to kill them, if you help me too."

"What?" Sefu asked, incredulous, "You want to cut a deal?"

"No, I want to defect. I'm switching sides."

"You don't get to switch sides," Mason told him. She was already unconsciously gripping her necklace of werewolf fangs with her free hand.

"Don't you two know who I am?"

Sefu looked at Mason, but she just shrugged. "Should we?"

"My name's Bronson Green. I'm Freya Green's brother. You know who she is, right? Your First's little girlfriend?"

"I know who she is," Sefu said with a curt nod.

"Great. So you know that killing me is maybe not the best idea. Not when Slayer-werewolf relations are so vital to the fate of the universe. Am I right?"

"Let him go, Juliette," Sefu sighed.

"You can't be serious..."

"That's an order, Soldier."

Reluctantly, she dropped her weapon and took a step backwards. Bronson lifted a finger to his throat and dabbed away the blood. The small nick had already almost completely vanished, but otherwise he looked awful – chunks of his hair were missing and the scalp underneath looked red and sore. His whole body was covered in ugly looking sores and scabs and Sefu could hear his breath wheezing in his chest. "They have a fourteen down there," he said, "no, twelve now, since you killed those two with your sharpshooting. Baltic isn't strong enough to Shadowrun them all right now, so the moment you attack, he'll spirit himself away and leave the rest to die. They'll be uncoordinated without his leadership then. How many do you have here?"

"That's none of your concern," Mason said.

"Fine. They're half feral now – most vampires seem to be these days, no matter how much armour they put on – if you pin them down, they'll fight like caged beasts, but without finesse. They'll get in each other's way."

Sefu gave a nod of grim satisfaction. "Sounds simple enough."

"Sure. One thing though: there's another one down there, a different kind of vampire."

"What do you mean?" Mason asked, exchanging another confused look with Sefu.

"I don't know. He's not like the others. You'll know what I mean when you see him. He's no threat to you."

"All vampires are..." Sefu started to say.

"No," Bronson said firmly, "not this one. He has the mind of a child. You need to keep that one alive."

"You're in no position to bargain," Mason sniffed.

"True, but I think your First will be interested in him too. I've smelled something like him before, I just never put two and two together at the time.

"What are you talking about?" Sefu asked.

"Just keep the fat one alive. Trust me: I'm a werewolf, and we don't lie." He grinned, showing almost every one of his yellow, stained fangs.

_________________
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Sat May 05, 2012 11:52 pm
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Linda McMahon
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding


Marta Hayes and John Doe crouched in silence and darkness, both listening intently to the low rumble of an engine, hearts stopped until the sound suddenly cut out. Another few beats and then the sound of doors slamming and heavy-booted footsteps on hard concrete. There were muffled voices.

"Another ammo delivery?" someone asked.

"Who signs for this now?" another voice said.

"The new director. She insists on overseeing every delivery personally. She'll want to check this over herself."

"So call her."

"She's in a meeting. It'll need to wait here. What's in there anyway?"

There was a pause. "The works," the driver – their driver – answered eventually, "amour piercing rounds, grenades, proximity mines, about fifty Kevlar jackets."

"Anyone would think we're about to start a war. We're waiting for a shipment of replacement armour for the MAG suits too."

"Why? What happened?"

"Field test busted three of them up. Those things are dangerous."

"They look it."

"It's all bleeding edge tech. We dropped near enough a hundred million on upgrading our software just so we could talk to their systems. And even when we think all the bugs have been fixed, they end up tearing themselves to pieces half the time. Give me Kevlar any day."

"Damn straight. Where can I get a coffee anyway? I've been on the road all day. If this shipment is just going to sit here for another hour, I might as well be comfortable."

"Sure. Follow me."

More footsteps, this time fading away into the distance. A bleep and then the sound of a magnetically sealed door being opened. Then silence. Hayes and Doe both let themselves breathe again. They continued to wait, each silently counting down the seconds, until they were sure there was no one outside. Doe eased out of his crouch and moved towards the truck's doors. Gently, agonisingly, he opened one very slightly and peered through the minute gap. After a moment he closed the door again. "We're in the right place. The van blocks all the security cameras."

"Good," Hayes whispered, "let's move."

Once again, Doe cracked open the door, this time far enough to squeeze through and, with surprising grace for such a large man, he slipped out and dropped to the floor. Hayes followed him and, a second later, both Shadow Slayers were standing in a brightly lit loading bay. Theirs wasn't the only van, but it was the one closest to the wall so that all lines of sight to them would be blocked. There was a metal gantry running all around the massive room, but no guards patrolled it. Doe looked around speculatively. "This feels wrong."

"Why?" Hayes was checking the weapons and ammunition she had strapped all over her body. Her crossbow was slung over her back, as always.

"Breaking into a US Government building? Killing American agents?"

"We haven't killed anyone yet. You got the terminal?"

Doe patted the satchel that hung on his hip. "It's just strange."

"Well these are strange times. Anyway, you know what the deal is: the administration has been compromised by Seth, and he's installed all his Faithless in high positions in the security agencies. You should be glad he did – they're all paranoid idiots who have no experience with command. This 'new director' is the only reason we're not already dead."

"Sure." They both ducked around the side of the truck so they were between the vehicle and the featureless white wall of the loading bay. Doe opened his satchel and took out a battered laptop. He sat down cross-legged on the concrete floor and opened it up. "This is really more of a Benedict type of job, don't you think?"

"Well he's busy elsewhere." Hayes had a pistol in her hand now and was standing guard at the corner of the truck, occasionally putting her head around to scan the area.

"Busy flirting with some cute werewolf boy I bet," Doe said ruefully.

"Anyway, he doesn't have the expertise with US military software that you do."

"It's not my expertise – it's Captain Christopher Harvey's expertise. Captain Christopher Harvey's command codes. How come I don't remember anything about being him, but I still remember how to hack into a military mainframe and disable their security systems?"

"Muscle memory?"

"Must be," Doe smiled. "Okay, I'm on the server. Call it in?"

Hayes touched her earpiece. "Blue Team, this is Green Team. Do you copy?"

"Copy, Green Team," came Darkness's answer, "is the Trojan Horse in place?"

"Trojan One is deployed. We're still working on Trojan Two."

"Understood. Keep me updated."

"Copy that." She turned to Doe. "You heard him."

"Yes, ma'am." Doe's fingers danced across the keyboard as his eyes roved about the screen. "That guy wasn't lying about their software being upgraded."

"Is it NovaTech?"

"At a guess, yeah."

"We have a key for that."

"I think we'll need it."

"In the pocket." Hayes said, gesturing to the satchel with her gun. Doe rummaged around for a moment and then pulled out a pen drive. He fiddled around with the USB for a second and then plugged it into the computer. "It's the file marked White King," Hayes told him.

"Makes sense," Doe said with a crooked smile. "Okay, looks like that punched right through the firewall. Say what you like about that albino prick, he writes good software. I think..." he paused as he scanned the screen again "...yeah, I've got access." He looked up at his partner. "We did it."

"Not yet we didn't," Hayes said grimly, "upload the blackout algorithm."

"Should I take a second to look around? There's a lot of data just sitting here."

"No time. Even with that stick, they're going to have detected a security breach."

"Okay, I'll dump the Trojan and get out of there." He clicked a few more times. "Uploading...sixty percent...seventy...nearly there...done."

The lights in the loading bay went out.

"Blue Team, do you copy?"

"We copy, Green Team. I take it Trojan Two has done its job?"

"Affirmative," Hayes said.

"Security will be headed for your location. I suggest you start moving. We'll see you at the rendezvous."

"Copy."

The lights came back on as Doe quickly shoved the laptop back in its satchel and threw it into the back of the truck. He slammed the doors shut and locked them. "Okay, you ready?"

"Wouldn't be here if I wasn't." Hayes checked the ammo clip in her pistol and then broke into a flat out sprint across the bay. Doe was right behind her. Above them, the security cameras were blind and inert, staring blankly at nothing. Hayes slowed down to let Doe take the lead as they approached the door and he threw himself against it with all his weight. The frame buckled and, with a kick, he nearly knocked it out of the wall. The corridor beyond was still empty but he raised his own gun anyway, scanning down the hall. "Anyone?" Hayes asked.

"Not yet. With the security systems down they only know where we were, not where we are right now."

"Well there's only one way into that bay from the rest of the building and it's this corridor, so let's move."

"Right."

They jogged down the corridor and, at the end, took a right. At each junction they took a seemingly random direction, moving in a zig-zag course deeper and deeper into the building. They came to the door to a stairwell and Hayes stopped. Doe skidded to a halt a few feet in front and gave her a questioning look. "Guards?"

"Six I think. Coming down those stairs fast."

Doe moved closer to the door and put his ear against it. "I think I can make out six pairs of boots, yeah."

"You're that sure."

"No."

"Well, let's be optimistic for once." She reached over her back and unslung her crossbow. "Tranq bolts for now. Six humans don't need to die – not just yet. You're on point."

"I'm always on point."

"You're bigger, and better with your hands than me."

"That's a funny way of saying 'expendable'." Doe opened the door to the stairwell and ducked inside. Hayes followed him quickly and they flattened themselves against the near wall. Doe looked upwards. "Three flights up. Six, like you said."

"No Faithless?"

"Not that I can see."

"They still coming down?"

"Yep. Fast."

"You're faster, right?"

"Usually. Try not to hit me with one of those arrows okay?"

"I'll do my level best."

"All I ask." Doe reached up and grabbed the railing of the stairs above them and flipped himself right up onto the next level in one easy motion. Hayes stepped out into the centre of the stairwell and aimed her crossbow straight up. One of the men – they were ordinary security guards, albeit armed with semi-automatic weapons and stab vests - spotted her and took aim. Before he even had the sights of his gun aligned there was a crossbow bolt protruding from his forearm. He wavered for a second and then went down. There was a burst of gunfire as Doe reached their level. Hayes took that as her cue to ascend, keeping her one eye trained on the mêlée above. She took a less direct route than Doe, climbing the stairs.

On the landing, as she came in sight of the fight, Doe was brawling with the five remaining guards. The first he had in a tight armlock. He braced a foot against the wall and pushed himself off and up into the air, dragging the guard around with him. He dropped neatly over the opposite railing, smashing the unfortunate man's arm across the metal barrier, shattering it in several places no doubt, then hooked his leg back over and spun up and over, kicking another guard in the face hard enough to spray the wall with blood and teeth. That left an opening and Hayes shot one of the guards in the throat, sending him plummeting over the railing.

Two men remained, and they looked less sure of themselves now. They backed off up the stairs, trying to get the high ground, guns levelled. Doe holstered his pistol and held up his hands in a show of submission, then jumped right at the wall. He sprung off with a grunt of exertion, bouncing right over the guards' heads and landed behind them on the next landing. They turned. Marta shot one in the back and Doe caught the other with a blindingly fast roundhouse that sent him pirouetting to the floor. He landed with an audible crack. Doe winced. "That sounded bad."

"Yeah." Hayes looked down over the railing. The guard she'd knocked off had landed at the bottom of the stairwell and now lay at the centre of a rapidly expanding pool of blood.

Doe was busy confiscating ammo clips. "I told you it was going to be weird," he said, handing Hayes a few of the clips. "These are just ordinary humans, doing a job."

"Their job is ushering in the end of the world, even if they don't realise it."

"I know. Doesn't mean I have to like it though."

"Just think about that house in the mountains, John. These are the guys that are standing in the way of it. These are the guys that want you and me in a cage instead."

"I know," he said again. "Come on, let's go meet the others."

* * *

On a rooftop high above downtown Manhattan, Darkness watched the windows of the non-descript building in the block just across from theirs. "The lights came back on," he said.

"We thought they might," Jack Dane said, "Ben figured there'd be backups for essential stuff. The security systems are still down though." He raised the launcher to his shoulder. "You ready?"

"I always have been."

"Good." Dane squeezed the trigger. The small payload, attached to a rapidly unfurling wire, shot straight and true, unfolding in mid-air. Three hooks detached and their blinking red sensors detected the rapid approach of the concrete wall. As it made impact, each hook deployed a small explosive charge, burying a solid steel anchor into the wall. The other end was already secured to a railing above Dane's head so the wire was stretched taut at a downward angle between the two buildings. Twenty stories down was a busy New York street. Even from here and at this time of night the sound of horns and shouts was audible.

Darkness fumbled with his harness, awkwardly attaching it to the wire with his single hand. He tested it with a few tugs. "Seems safe."

"Of course it is. I've used it tons of times and I only fell, like, twice."

"That's reassuring."

"If it goes wrong, just fly to safety, Angel of Death."

Darkness smiled. "It doesn't quite work that way. Which is why we need this in the first place."

"Charges set?"

Darkness nodded and pulled one from his belt, quickly adjusting their settings. "Let's just hope these work properly and I'm not left dangling against the side of a building for anyone to see."

"Have a little faith, Dark'. I'll be right behind you anyway."

"Reassuring." Darkness stepped up to the edge of the building and then pushed himself off into thin air. There was a heart-stopping moment as his weight pulled the cable down, but then he settled into a smooth glide and zipped right down the wire. The huge concrete and plate glass edifice loomed large in his vision more quickly than he expected and he realised he only had a few seconds to use the charge. Taking careful aim, he tossed it at the darkened window just below the anchor Dane had fired. It hit the glass with a dull thunk, adhering thanks to the sticky gel that reacted with the rapid movement of air. There was another tense moment as Darkness flew straight at the very solid window until a low concussive noise reverberated through the night air. The window seemed to disintegrate before his eyes, the whole pane simply melting into a thousand tiny shards that plummeted straight downwards, leaving only a yawning black space. Darkness tripped the release on the harness and tucked into a ball as he flew into the room beyond. He rolled up to his feet and took stock. It was an ordinary office, closed for the night – desk, computer, chairs, a potted plant. The only odd thing about it was the empty window that let in a stiff, Atlantic breeze and the Shadow Slayer standing in the centre of it. He touched his earpiece. "All clear, Jack."

"Right. Be over in a second." Darkness saw the wire go taut again and there was a whistling noise before Dane flew through the window just as he had and then hopped nimbly up to his feet with a grin. "That was fun," he said.

"There are easier ways to break into a building."

"You could have gone with Marta and John if you wanted."

"And break the computer? I don't think so." Darkness looked around. He noted the security camera in the corner with its light off. He tried the door and found it was locked. With a shrug, he kicked it open. The lights were on in the corridor outside. As he stepped out, he almost ran into a middle-aged woman in smart business clothes and an overcoat. She had a set of keys in her hand and was staring at Darkness, her face as white as a ghost's. "Excuse me," he said slamming his palm up into her jaw and knocking her out cold. She fell to the floor, hair in disarray.

"That was a bit rude," Dane told him as he stepped over her unconscious body.

"No time to be squeamish."

"Oh, I agree. I just thought you should have been a bit more apologetic."

Darkness strode down the corridor, glancing down every intersection to check for any signs of security guards. This part of the building proved to be empty though. He touched his earpiece. "Green Team, do you copy?"

There was the sound of gunfire from the other end of the line. "We copy, Blue Team," Hayes's voice said.

"You sound like you're in trouble, Commander..."

"A couple of security teams have us pinned down on the first floor. I'm not sure we'll be making the rendezvous on time."

"Copy that. Change of plans – we'll come to you."

"No, we should stick to the plan. We'll just have to make a bit more mess than we planned."

"Do what you have to do."

"We've got someone behind us," Dane told Darkness as he stepped up beside him.

Darkness closed his eyes. "Two..."

"And any Faithless they might have with them."

"That's a risk we'll have to take." They spun around. Dane's pistol was already in his hand. The first man they saw was wearing a suit – an agent – and he moved like someone who was experienced in a firefight. He sidestepped and fired two rapid shots before ducking back into the intersection on the other side of the corridor. One bullet grazed Darkness's cheek but he calmly raised his hand. The lights in the corridor flickered and then the fittings exploded in a shower of sparks, plunging them into darkness.

"You couldn't just hit the switch?"

"This way is more satisfying. Cover me."

With the lights off, the advantage was firmly with the Shadow Slayers. Darkness could Sense both of the agents at the other end of the corridor; Sense their nervous movements as they tried to pick out their targets in the shadows; Sense them aiming their weapons blindly. He could make out every bead of sweat on their brows, could feel the tension in the nearest one's trigger finger as he started to squeeze. Darkness kicked it right out of his hand and slammed his fist into the man's throat. The second agent – the one who had fired before – dashed out of cover and then went down to a well-placed shot to the leg from Dane. As he stumbled forward, Darkness sent him flying with an elbow to the temple. He hit the wall with a crash. The other agent was getting to his feet, fumbling blindly for his lost weapon, but Darkness threw out his hand and knocked him off his feet with a shockwave of static electricity. Bleeding from the ears, the agent slumped down against the wall.

Calmly, Darkness walked back towards Dane. "Marta said she'll try to meet up with us as planned."

"Right."

* * *

Hayes pulled a grenade from her belt. "It's time, John."

Doe sighed. They were sheltering behind an overturned table, exchanging fire with ten or so security guards on the other side of a large, open plan office. "They're just doing their jobs."

"Their job is stopping us. Don't forget that. And, more to the point, I'm all out of tranq bolts." Hayes looked over the edge of the table, checking her range – she had long ago learned to compensate for her missing eye – and then pulled out the pin. "Sorry, fellas," she said. With a confident over arm throw, she tossed the grenade across the room and then ducked back. A second later, a flash of light and a thunderous explosion silenced the gunfire. They waited for half a minute and then, with matching grim expressions, resumed their progress. Half the office was a blackened ruin now, and bodies and body parts were spread around haphazardly. Hayes didn't look at them, but Doe paused at one. "John?" she asked.

"This had better be worth it," he said.

"They made their choices."

"If they had all the information..."

"They'd probably have done the same. With us or against us, Guardsman."

"Right." They moved forward, pistols at the ready. On the stairwell to the second floor, they met their first real agent. He tried to get the jump on them but he was human, not Faithless, and they Sensed him coming. Hayes slammed his head into the metal railing, leaving an ugly smear of blood. They burst out onto the second floor – they were crossing each level, using alternate stairwells to keep their targets off-guard – to find the corridor swarming with security and agents. "That grenade must have tipped them off," Doe said as he ducked back into the stairwell, pumping a few rounds into the chest of their nearest assailant with a grimace before the door swung closed.

"Maybe." She removed another grenade. "If not, this one will. Door."

Doe kicked it open and Hayes threw the grenade through. The door closed again and they stepped backwards, bracing themselves against the wall. It was a good job they did: the explosion blasted the door right off its hinges. They moved faster than before this time, running into the devastation. The carpet was smouldering and there were a few low groans from the wreckage of furniture and office decor. Hayes emptied her pistol clip into an agent that stood up suddenly, one arm hanging limp at his side. As she reloaded, Doe covered her, bringing down a bloody security guard. "No Faithless yet," he said.

"Not that we'd know." Hayes headed down the corridor and was bowled over by a burly man who flew from a side office. He wore a dark suit like an agent and landed a pair of hard punches to her jaw before she was able to get a leg beneath him and flip him over onto his back. She scrambled clear, ready to fight, but her attacker went down to a bullet from Doe's gun. "You spoke too soon," she breathed.

Doe stepped up beside her. "These things could be anywhere."

"And you can bet there'll be more of them the further up we go." She touched her earpiece. "Blue Team, do you copy?"

"We copy."

"We just ran into one of The Apocalypse."

"How did it go?"

"We handled it."

"Good. Just watch yourself; they know what they're dealing with now."

Hayes smiled slightly. "Okay, we'll see you at the rendezvous. We're going flat out from here on in – no more stalling."

"Copy that."

* * *

Dane hooked one arm around the agent's and spun him onto his back with a quick movement. The big man landed hard with the wind knocked out of him and Dane dropped a knee to his temple, knocking him unconscious. "You should have been a wrestler," Darkness observed.

"And have to fight you? No thanks."

"I made some of my best friends in the ring."

"Yeah, well I was already your friend." He pulled out his gun and reloaded quickly as he stepped over the prone form of the agent. The others he and Darkness had taken out littered the corridor. Darkness's sword was bloody.

"John and Marta are running interference all the way up the building," he said. "It looks like most of the Faithless are with the target though."

"That's going to be fun."

Darkness kicked open the next door and they found themselves in a control room – banks of computers stared out at them, but all the staff who would have been manning them had long since fled. Instead, the opposite wall played host to a line of agents, all with guns levelled at the two Shadow Slayers. A man Darkness recognised was standing in front of them. "Nightwalker," he greeted him. His mouth smiled, but his flat, expressionless eyes betrayed nothing at all.

Darkness spun his sword around his fist as he walked down a short flight of steps down to the floor of the control room. "It's been a long time, Zhar."

"It has indeed. The director wants you taken alive, just so you know." The row of agents behind him betrayed almost as little emotion as their leader, but Darkness could Sense their cold, controlled emotional responses to the situation. Zhar was just a blank – as far as the Slayer Sense was concerned, he didn't exist. It was highly disconcerting.

"She's even more foolish than I thought then."

Zhar shrugged. "I guess she just wants another try at breaking you."

"She should know better."

"Probably. I could care less, myself, but orders are orders. Give it up: you're outnumbered."

"But not outgunned. You should know that." Darkness thrust his sword towards Zhar, sending a bolt of lightning arcing across the room. It earthed into computers as it passed, causing them to explode in showers of sparks. There was a flurry of gunfire, but the energy field Darkness generated directed the bullets around him. As the lightning struck at the other end of the room, a handful of agents went down, but Zhar remained impassive, his arms folded. Jagged lines of electricity snaked across his body, but none of them touched him. Dane took aim, but Zhar was moving towards Darkness, and fast. He was a huge man, and he barrelled right into the Shadow Slayer, slamming him into a row of computer screens. Dane took advantage of the distraction to race across the room in the opposite direction, drawing his rapier as he charged. Bullets flew from the guns of the remaining agents, but Dane jumped up and twisted through the air, flipping through trajectories calculated instinctively with the Slayer Sense. He arched backwards, spinning over one agent's head and landing on his feet. With a flash, he sent the nearest man down with an ugly wound across his face and then backhanded another on the side of the jaw.

Zhar and Darkness continued to grapple on the floor of the control room. "If you want a job done right..." the massive Faithless snarled, clawing at Darkness's face. Darkness kicked him in the abdomen, but without the Slayer Sense to help direct his blows, without that intuitive feel for vulnerable points, the damage was minimal. He planted his arms on Zhar's shoulders and tried to send a charge through him again, but the man's entire body was like a living insulator and it had no effect at all. Zhar headbutted him and then stood up, hauling Darkness to his feet. He went to pick him up and throw him through the air, but had inadvertently given Darkness enough space to swing his sword. He hacked wildly at one thick arm, and Zhar let him go with an atavistic snarl. He stepped backwards, holding his bloody forearm.

"At least you things bleed," Darkness breathed.

"I'm as human as you are," the Faithless said.

"That much at least is true..." Darkness jumped at him and scrambled over onto his back, wrapping an arm around his throat, but Zhar threw him off onto the floor. Darkness rolled back up to his feet and swung his sword. Zhar danced back and nearly fell over Dane, who was coming up behind him after taking down the last agent. Zhar spun and slammed a meaty fist into the back of Dane's head, sending him down to the ground, but now Darkness was on him again. Zhar was losing blood from the cut on his arm and his swings were slower than before. Darkness ducked and got inside his reach. He brought a knee up into Zhar's gut and then tripped him. Quickly, he scrambled on top of the larger man and held his sword across his throat.

Zhar held out his hands in submission. "All right..."

"You okay, Jack?" Darkness asked.

"Apart from a slight ringing in my ears," Dane answered groggily.

"Remember giving me back this sword, Zhar?" Darkness said.

"Sure," the big man replied. As his Adam's apple bobbed, it grazed the razor-sharp blade and a droplet of blood formed on his throat.

"You're going to help us get to the director's office. Do you understand?"

"You're idiots," Zhar laughed, "do you think she's still here?"

"I know she is. Like you said: she wants me. She won't leave until she's sure I'm neutralised, or knows the situation is hopeless."

"All right. Why should I help you though?"

Dane frowned down at him as he rubbed the back of his head. "I would have thought that was obvious..."

Zhar barked another laugh. "You think death scares me? The power of the Abyss is in my veins. I've been dead since the day I was born."

"Then why bother with any of this?" Darkness asked him. "Why fight us?"

"Havoc," Zhar said simply, "it's all we have." With a guttural roar, he balled his fists together and smashed them into Darkness's sternum. The force of the blow sent Darkness reeling right up to his feet and Zhar rose to meet him, smashing him in the jaw with a thunderous uppercut. Darkness swung, but Zhar ducked under the flailing sword blade and reached for the staggered Shadow Slayer, only for half of his head to explode as Dane shot him at point blank range from behind. The massive Faithless's body continued to move forward with the momentum of his lunge and it fell lifelessly towards Darkness.

He and Dane paused to collect themselves. Darkness leant back against a desk that was now home to a ruined monitor. Blood and fragments of bone were spattered across his face and he wiped himself off with the sleeve of his leather jacket. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it."

"You okay?"

"I think the big bastard knocked something loose. He packs – packed – quite a punch."

"I've fought bigger, but not many of them could screw with my head like a Faithless."

"It's like fighting someone with no face," Dane agreed, "how many more of these are between us and the top, Dark'?"

"No idea."

"Too many more and we're going to be in trouble. We should have brought more men."

"This is about sending a message – risking half the Order does us no good."

"Right." Dane looked around the room. All of the agents were dead or unconscious. He reloaded his gun. "Rendezvous time?"

"Rendezvous time."

They strode out of the control room and into another of the samey corridors they'd been fighting through already. There was the sound of a gunshot from the entrance to a stairwell and a bloody security guard came stumbling through the door, followed by Hayes and Doe. Hayes shouldered past the dying man, letting Doe dispatch him with a running right hand, and holstered her pistol. "First," she greeted Darkness.

"Report, Commander."

"We've given them the run around all the way up. They don't know whether we're coming or going."

"Good. Let's finish this."

"You guys okay?" Doe asked.

Dane grunted and Darkness gave a small shrug. "Ran into an old friend."

"How was he?"

"Not so good when we left him."

The four Shadow Slayers headed back to the stairwell. Doe craned his neck out and looked up. "No guards that I can see."

"Hopefully they're all chasing shadows downstairs. We're going straight up now."

They moved quickly up the stairs, seeing no one. When they reached the top level, Darkness took point, opening the door into another empty corridor. He pointed forward with his sword. The others fell in behind him and they crept towards their target: a set of glass double-doors at the end of the long hallway. No one tried to stop them. "Grenade?" Hayes asked as they got close to the doors.

"No. I want to hear what she has to say."

"If she's still here."

"She's here."

The doors were frosted glass, but it was dark within and the corridor was well-lit. "This feels like a trap," Dane said darkly.

"It is."

Darkness kicked open one of the doors and rolled into the room. His team followed behind, guns drawn. Inside, it was a well-furnished office with a panoramic view over New York. The lights of Manhattan's iconic skyline made an impressive backdrop. An attractive woman in a spotless black trouser suit, dimly visible by the lights of the city, was sitting calmly behind a glass desk. "Hello, Darkness," she said.

Darkness kept the point of his sword levelled at her. "Rl'yeh," he said, "I'd say I was pleased to see you, but even a Faithless would be able to tell that was a lie."

She smiled bloodlessly. "I'm hurt – we shared so much in the time we were together in Peru. I've seen you in your most intimate moments, Darkness."

"I wish I could say it had an effect on me, but I'm afraid your efforts to leave an impression were outdone by a half-sentient blob of grey goo in a basement in Tokyo."

Rl'yeh's face clouded over. "Such a pity – you used to be so very human too. Where's the fun in getting blood from a stone?" She stood up. "So, have you come here to kill me?"

"We've come here to send a message," Hayes said.

"Oh?" she arched an eyebrow.

"By killing you," Dane clarified.

"I see. Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you then."

"There's four of us and one of you," Doe smiled, "you're awfully cocky for someone so badly outnumbered."

She laughed – it sounded cracked and arrhythmic, as if she'd heard someone else do it once and was just inexpertly copying it. "Poor little Shadow Slayers. So reliant on your little powers. Haven't you learned anything from our war?" She snapped her fingers and the lights came on, revealing over a score of suited men and women standing near the walls. They all had the same emotionless faces as Rl'yeh, the same black, empty eyes lacking any visible iris. "I can see you've already met a few of my brothers and sisters in The Apocalypse on your way to my office. Four mighty Shadow Slayers, bullied by a bunch of near-untrained thugs. We Faithless are such a conundrum for you, aren't we? We use your own most powerful weapon against you and you just can't handle that. Now, why don't you put down those guns?"

"Why should we?" Dane asked. "We'll go down fighting – how many soldiers do you think it'll take to bring us down?"

"I don't care. Capturing you four – especially him," she pointed at Darkness, "is worth any number of our lives. Not that such sentiment even matters to us. We're more evolved than that. I'll throw all of them to the dogs if that's what it takes, and they'd do the same to me. It is this ruthlessness that makes The Apocalypse so deadly."

"And vulnerable," Darkness said.

Rl'yeh stopped. Her eyes narrowed. "What?"

"You had to try and trap us, didn't you? You couldn't resist the opportunity to put us in our place. But while you've been talking, my other team have moved into position. You're right that our reliance on the Slayer Sense leaves us almost defenceless against you, but the Order has been in an arms race against its quarry since the day it was founded. We developed the Slayer Sense to combat vampires and werewolves. Now we've evolved to combat you."

"Evolved...?"

"What was it you said? 'Throw them to the dogs'?" Darkness moved his hand to his earpiece. "Red Team, do you copy?"

"I copy," came a low voice on the other end.

"Deploy."

Rl'yeh turned. There was a whistling noise and the window pane behind her shattered as a black shape burst through it, knocking her to the ground. She clawed out at her attacker, managing to throw it off into the centre of the office. The other Faithless seemed unsure of what to do as they watched a young man with the angular features of a werewolf and a long mane of black hair clamber up onto all fours and, with a bestial howl, tear through his black fatigues as he began to transform.

"That's your secret weapon?" Rl'yeh spat. "A werewolf?"

"No, something much worse than that," Darkness told her.

Llenlleawg rose up onto his hind legs as his face twisted into a long, lupine muzzle. Muscles rippled and expanded beneath black fur that now coated him from head to foot and he grew taller, broader, until he seemed to fill the whole room. He held out his massive arms and razor-sharp claws sprouted from his misshapen hands. He bared his teeth, a mouthful of gleaming white fangs beneath eyes glowing as blue as a sulphur flame.

Rl'yeh flinched back. "He's still a Slayer...still a werewolf...neither of you can fight us..."

"How sure are you about that?" Darkness asked.

All at once, the other Faithless charged in, leaping at Llenlleawg. He hurled the first to the ground and ripped the head clean off another with one swipe of his claw. One shot him in the chest, then stared in disbelief as the werewolf's flesh knitted back together and the bullet was pushed out, falling harmlessly to the floor. Llenlleawg threw back his head and howled. The other Slayers closed in, Doe grabbing one of the Faithless's arms and spinning him around so Hayes could shoot him in the chest. Dane's rapier was flashing back and forth, but not hitting with its usual characteristic precision. Only Llenlleawg, standing two feet taller than any of the other combatants, showed no signs of difficulty in attacking the Faithless. He picked a woman up and snapped her spine in two with no apparent effort.

Rl'yeh stared in disbelief and then turned abruptly on her heel and ran straight for the smashed window behind her. Darkness darted past the mêlée and threw his sword to one side. He grabbed for Rl'yeh's wrist as she was about to jump, locking her in an iron grip.

"Let go!" she screamed.

"Why? Is that death so much better than the one you'll find in here?"

"I'm already dead, you fool. We all are. Don't you understand?"

"Zhar said..."

"Don't listen to anything that fucking moron told you! Look at me, Darkness, look at my hand!"

Darkness frowned but did as she asked. He saw that her flesh was grey and sickly looking, her fingernails discoloured and frayed. Up close her face looked much more pale and drawn, and the whites of her eyes were a dull yellow. "What's happening to you?"

"It's Lord Abortion. It's the power of Apophis. It's anathema to all life – even the half-life of the Faithless – every second any living creature spends in his presence accelerates the sickness. We're all rotting from the inside."

"But why jump?"

"Because you'll keep me alive. You might even be stupid enough to send me back to him. After failing. Do you have idea what he'd do to me? What he's capable of?"

"Skaar has honour."

"Skaar maybe, but not Lord Abortion. There are worse things than death in this world. You know that."

"I do." Darkness let go of her wrist. She seemed to fall backwards slowly, like she was tumbling through thick syrup instead of air. Her eyes still showed no expression at all, but he watched her fall until she was too small to see.

Darkness eventually turned away to see Llenlleawg and the others finishing off the last of The Faithless. The werewolf – or whatever he was now – picked up a tall man who was desperately trying to reload his gun and threw him straight through the wall and then there was a yawning silence, punctuated only by a few feeble groans from the survivors. Llenlleawg crouched down and shrank back into his humanoid form and the tension seemed to melt out of the room.

"We're done here," Darkness said, stooping down to retrieve his sword, "put these ones out of their misery. It's kinder than what will happen if they crawl back to their master."

"There are more where these came from, Darkness," Hayes said.

"I know. But Seth – and Lord Abortion - will know what happened here. We've just torn the heart out of this agency. This will shake them up and force their hand. And that's exactly what we need right now. Let's get out of here."

Glass crunched beneath his boots as he walked calmly out of the ruined office.

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Sun May 13, 2012 2:43 pm
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Linda McMahon
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding


The light of a sombre grey morning filled the Oval Office as Stephen MacDonald, the 44th President of the United States of America, read through the reports on his desk. With a frustrated grunt, he threw the latest one down and eyeballed his newest advisor. "Your boys with the eyes got themselves killed."

Seth fixed MacDonald in his remorseless gaze. "They have a habit of doing that, but there is no better weapon against the terrorists that oppose you."

"FBI...CIA...Watchdog...and now Military Intelligence...facilities have been hit nationwide. We've lost a lot of good men. Your goons are proving to be a liability. If they're our best weapon, we have a serious problem here."

"You overestimate our enemies' capabilities. They are revealing their strength with every attack. We estimate that the Shadow Slayers number no more than a few hundred. Almost their entire force has been committed to this latest campaign. Once we force them to gather in once place, it will be a simple matter to annihilate them with one decisive strike."

MacDonald leant back in his chair. "I'm not comfortable using humans as bait in your monster war."

"You want them destroyed, don't you?"

"The Shadow Slayers? If that's what it takes."

"It will take that. They will oppose you to the very end."

MacDonald gave Seth a searching look. As usual, the strange man gave nothing away. There was something about him that made the President's skin crawl, but he couldn't put his finger on what it was. No one knew more about the Shadow Slayers than he did though. "Have you met this Darkness character? Their leader?"

"Many times."

"What did you make of him?"

"He is what he is. The Antichrist. He is less a man than a living embodiment of an ideal. And that is why you must destroy him."

"I asked him to fight for me. For humanity. For freedom."

"Is that what you stand for?"

MacDonald thought about that. "I will have my war," he said.

"You will," Seth agreed. "And when it is done, my masters will ensure you have a place of prominence. There will be no human higher than you under the new regime."

"Not even you?"

Seth smiled. It looked painted-on. "Do you still think I'm one of your kind?"

"I don't know what you are," MacDonald said, "and I don't think I care. As long as you deliver what you've promised."

"If you meet your end of the bargain, I will meet mine."

"Good." MacDonald stood up and walked across the room. He stood for a moment examining a painting – an abstract piece by a New York artist painted in the wake of 9/11: a salute to the bravery and tenacity of the American people. MacDonald had never really looked at it closely before. He went to run a finger along the gilt frame and then stopped as he caught sight of the back of his hand. The skin was peeling back before his eyes. Even as he stared, the flesh seemed to pucker and wither, like paper in a flame. He turned and saw Seth on his knees in the centre of the office. Before him was a tall figure cloaked in black. He opened his mouth to call for security, but a withered claw stopped him short.

"Do not call for aid," the rasping voice that came from beneath the stranger's hood told him. As the words registered, it seemed as if they were spoken with the sound of a thousand agonised screams, of a thousand lives being snuffed out instantly. There was a stench more vile than rotting flesh and MacDonald instinctively pressed himself against the wall to try and escape what was beneath that ragged cowl.

"Great Lord," Seth said, "is it wise to come here? Our plans..."

"Must be accelerated. The enemy moves against us."

"The incident in New York..."

"The Faithless were not given to you to be thrown away so recklessly."

"We believe they have a new weapon, Great Lord, some means of defeating the Faithless that we had not foreseen."

"I foresaw it. And it will be counteracted. For now though, our hand has been forced. I must take you away from this place for a time."

Seth gestured towards MacDonald. "But, the President..."

"Will still be here when you return. I require you for only a short time."

MacDonald stepped forward. "Excuse me, how short a time is..."

"SILENCE." The robed figure didn't shout, but his words carried a terrible, thunderous finality. The sound of a crypt being sealed. The sound of worlds colliding. It held out one maggot-white talon, tipped with long, black claws, and MacDonald felt some evil power wash over him. He could feel his body weakening. His heart, which his doctor had told him he had to take better care of, lurched in his chest. In his imagination, the very fabric of his arteries were breaking down. He clutched at his chest and sank slowly to one knee. "Better," the mysterious creature said. From this vantage, MacDonald could see beneath the hood – he saw a pale, ruined jaw, and black fangs bared in a rictus smile.

"Who are you?" he hissed, through a jaw he found it almost impossible to unclench.

"I am the Omega. Come with me, Omen. I will show you the future of this world."

A shadow passed across the office and then, inexplicably, Seth and his odd companion were gone. MacDonald eased back into a sitting position and took a deep breath. He reached for a handkerchief and mopped his brow, then glanced down at the back of his hand – it was unharmed. So. There were limits to its power. That was good to know.

* * *

Seth opened his eyes and saw nothing but stars. He frowned. There was something odd about them – there were thousands upon thousands more than he'd ever noticed before and they were so bright. They also didn't twinkle. It was weirdly disconcerting. He tried to roll over and then gasped: he was freezing cold. Colder than he'd ever been in his life. He put his hands on the ground and found hard, unyielding black rock beneath him. He looked up and saw the dark shape of Lord Abortion towering over him. "Where are we?" he whispered.

"A long way from anywhere you have been before."

"Why is it so cold?"

"The power of Apophis can only protect you so much from this hostile environment. Even here, his power over the material world is limited. It is difficult enough to ensure that you are able to breathe."

"This...environment...?" Seth pushed himself up onto his knees and looked around curiously. The black, barren rock stretched as far as he could see, up to a horizon that seemed much too close. He looked up – it was night, apparently, but he saw no clouds, or moon, or anything else besides stars and the blackness of space.

"Follow me," Lord Abortion commanded. Seth did as he was bidden. His movements felt strangely laboured, as if he was pushing his way through some thick fluid. He continued to look around, trying to see anything that would give him some clue as to their whereabouts. They walked in silence for a long time, until they crested a rise. Then Seth realised where they were.

In the sky before them, a blue orb hung suspended amongst the stars. It took up no more of the sky than the moon, but it filled Seth's vision nonetheless. "Is that...?"

"Earth, my Omen. The world you call home."

"It's small."

"We are far away. Further than any human has ever been from their cosy womb. You should be honoured."

"I am, Great Lord." Seth held out his arms. "This is the asteroid, isn't it?"

"Yes. The physical manifestation of the chink in the flawless surface of creation that allows the Abyss to enter the universe."

"Then Apophis is..."

"He is no closer to this place than to any other part of the universe – all of the Elder Gods exist outside of space and time, beyond mortal understandings of physical dimensions. However, here, the power of the Afterdark is greatest. Observe." Lord Abortion pointed. Below them was a hollow like a rough, ragged crater. Lumpen shapes moved in the shadowy depths and Seth strained to see what they were. "Down there is its nexus. It is from there that my power, yours, and that of all the servants of the Abyss emanates."

"What are those things?"

"Abyssal Spawn."

Seth shuddered. "There are dozens of them. With such a force, we could wipe out every living thing on Earth. Contact with just one is enough to destroy the mind of any living thing."

"They are tied to this place. They are those who have failed."

"Failed?"

"The genesis of any Abyssal Spawn is a sentient being. It absorbs the essences of others when it can, but all begin as something else. Something real. Something pure. These were once mighty servants of Apophis. Dreadlords."

Seth shrank back. It was dark, but even he could make out the shape of the Spawn as they seeped and oozed their way through the clefts in the rock; their hideous, shuddering, oily forms, their many gaping mouths, their grey hides bristling with polyps and pseudopods, blistering with staring, black eyes. Like his.

"I don't understand...there have never been so many Dreadlords."

"Do you know nothing yet? You think this is the first time this battle has taken place?" Lord Abortion turned to Seth. "For hundreds of thousands of years, since the dawn of mankind, the battle between order and chaos has been fought upon this battlefield. Each time, great champions from both sides have come forth. Each time, so far, we have been defeated and the Abyss has been turned back."

"And those Dreadlords who were raised?"

"Became the Spawn you see before you."

Seth swallowed. "But this time..."

"This time, we shall be victorious, and Apophis will be unleashed upon the universe. If we fail though, be assured that there is a place for you. There is a place for all of my loyal Dreadlords." Lord Abortion turned away and walked back the way they had come. Seth stood motionless, staring down at the miserable, amorphous creatures sliming across the surface of the asteroid. He nodded silently to himself, and then followed after his master.

_________________
- lots and lots of short fiction, written by me, regularly updated.

- it's a space opera novel I wrote.

I have some shit on Kindle too: ,


Sun May 13, 2012 7:19 pm
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World Champ
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding
Freya stood in the arrivals lounge of Atlanta Airport in Idaho. It was tiny, and she was trying not to look suspicious as she waited for someone she didn't know. All the information she had was a text from Darkness a week ago – a date, a time, an airport. She didn't know who to expect; she'd asked him for help, but that had been weeks ago. She'd almost thought he'd forgotten about them. She didn't have a flight number, so whoever she was waiting for could be delayed and she'd never know.

"Here you go." Lir handed her a cold bottle of water. "There's another plane just landed so they should be here soon."

"Where from?" she asked, fighting with the screw top of the bottle.

"Mexico I think. Looked like a Mexican name anyway."

"I should've bought Gwen."

Lir ignored that. "How are we going to know who we're meeting?"

"I'm expecting a Shadow Slayer and hopefully any Shadow Slayer worth their salt should be able to Sense a werewolf. That's why I bought you."

"And I thought you liked my company..."

Freya stuck her tongue out at him. "I don't show up properly on the Slayer Sense, apparently. Darkness didn't know what I was until I was standing in front of him."

"I always knew you were weird."

Freya hit his arm. "Look, here they come. Look out." Freya and Lir stood together at the back of the lounge. The space near the barriers had slowly filled up over the last half hour and they could no longer see the door the passengers came through. Freya stood on her toes to try and see over people's heads.

"Want me to pick you up?"

"Fuck off."

The room slowly emptied. "When's the next plane due?"

Freya looked at the arrivals board. "Couple of hours. They should have been on that one. Unless something happened." She sat down.

"Darkness would have let you know," Lir said as he sat down next to her.

"Unless something happened," she said again.

"I'm sure nothing's...oh look." Lir stood up again. A last lone passenger had come into the lounge and scanned the room warily, walking around the edges rather than straight across the middle. He was a short man, an inauspicious little figure with a receding hairline.

Freya sighed. "That'll be him. Come on."

"I thought you were going to wait for him to come to us?"

"We'd be waiting for a while. He's not a Shadow Slayer, he's just a...sort of priest, I think?"

"Why would Darkness send us a priest?"

"How should I know? He didn't tell me anything before we left, why would he go explaining himself now he's out of shouting at distance?" They'd reached the lone traveller. His face was half-tanned, as if he'd just shaved off a beard, and his clothes were clean but crumpled. Not from wear, but like they were usually in a bag. "Hey." Freya couldn't hide the disappointment in her voice. "Is that all you've brought?"

Benedict looked down at the canvas bag he was holding. "Yes. It's nice to..."

"Let's get out of here," Freya interrupted. She turned on her heel and headed for the exit.

"Ignore her. I think she hoped for something she knew wouldn't happen. I'm Lir." He held out a hand.

"Benedict. Benedict Ahab."

Lir took Benedict's bag from him, lifting it a lot more easily than the small man had. "We'd better catch her up though. She's not actually pissed off at you, but she still might drive off without us in the mood she's in."

**

It was dark when they turned off the tarmac road onto an unmarked dirt track. "We're nearly there," Freya said, stopping the car. "We've got a walk of a mile or so."

Benedict looked around him as they walk. They'd left the car on the edge of what he assumed was a forest from the sheer depth of darkness in front of him. It was probably positioned so it couldn't be seen from the road they'd left. Overhead the branches started to block out the sky. "Can you see all right?" Lir asked.

"Well enough. Just warn me if there are any giant holes in the path."

They walked for another twenty minutes, always slightly uphill. As they reached the crest, there was a rustling of bushes and two tall young men crashed from the undergrowth, spears in hand. "What the hell are you doing?" Freya demanded of them.

"We're on watch," one of them said, pushing his red hair out of his eyes.

"So why are you falling out of the trees as we come back? You either take out enemies or let friends past – not reveal your position to everyone."

"Well, we didn't know who he was," the other werewolf said, pointing at Benedict with his spear.

"So you thought you'd help by...actually, don't bother. Cai, Peredur, this is Benedict. Benedict, these are the idiots keeping you safe for...ooh...an extra hour tonight?" The young werewolves started to protest but stopped at Freya's look. They slunk back into the trees.

"Wasn't that a bit harsh?" Lir asked.

"No. They know what their duty is when they're on watch."

"They only wanted..."

"I know what they wanted. That's why they're only getting an hour. If they'd done their job right, they could have bored Benedict with stupid questions in..." she checked her watch, "...twenty minutes. Now they can't." They followed a turn in the path and suddenly entered a clearing with a small campfire in the centre and a number of tents in a circle around it. There was no one else to be seen though. "Well, this is it."

Benedict nodded, not sure what to say.

"We'll have to have a bit of a move about. We weren't sure what to expect and we have limited space."

After some quick reorganisation, Benedict had a tent to himself. He zipped it closed, settled himself on the makeshift bed inside and thought back to a conversation he'd had with Llenlleawg before he left. He'd asked what Freya was like and the young werewolf had grinned and said exactly what he'd feared he would.

"Just like Darkness. But don't tell her that."

**

The next morning he was woken by the sun shining through the tent's canvas, making everything green. He opened the zip and the smell of toast greeted him.

"Morning." Freya was sitting by the fire with her back to him.

"Morning," he said, taking a seat on the other side of the fire from her.

"Here." She took the toast from the prongs she was holding and passed it to him. She let him take two pieces before asking, "Why did Darkness send you?"

He tried not to choke as he cleared his mouthful. "I work – or worked – for the Council of Demonology. We had a lot of information on werewolves. Population numbers. Rough locations."

"That's how Darkness found my village?"

"Yes, but the American werewolves are a bit different. They're nomadic – they have territories, not villages."

Freya got up and disappeared into her tent, returning quickly and unfolding a map. She sat near to him, but not next to him. "Here's roughly where we are," she said, pointing at the very bottom of a very large, state-covering green patch.

"Hold on." Shoving the toast between his teeth, he ducked into his own tent, reappearing with a laptop. "I'm not sure how long the batteries in this will last. I didn't know we'd be in...well.." he gestured around.

"We can charge it every couple of days when we stock up."

Ben raised his eyebrows. "In a town?"

"Where else do you think we get bread from? We can't make it. Meat we can get, but we have to buy most things."

"Right, here." Benedict turned the screen around so she could see too. "These dots are encounters, or sightings, or known waystones. Look like you chose a good place to camp."

"Sasquatch sightings."

"What?"

"Bigfoot. That's how we picked. From here all the way north to the tundra is where people claim to have seen him."

"We're not looking for Sasquatches. They're not real."

"Galadd!" Freya shouted towards the trees before grinning at Benedict. "Imagine you're in the woods, alone, and you see that hairy lummox in the trees." She pointed at a massive werewolf who hulked out of the shadows. "The Sawtooth National Park is huge, with sightings all over."

He nodded. "So why did you need me?"

"Precision. Darkness said the Slayer Sense could detect werewolves a mile or so away." She looked at the dots on the screen. "But this might be even better."

Galadd stood there looking blankly around. "Did you actually want me for something?"

"Yes, get the others. We're moving on."

_________________
- Updated 25th July



R.I.P Wild Pegasus and Black Tiger II

"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." DOUGLAS ADAMS (1952-2001)


Sun May 13, 2012 9:19 pm
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding
The swirl of hellfire receded and the real world took hold of him again. It had been months...maybe even years since he left this plane, he wasn't certain. The flow of time in hell had always been different, but as the realm died the miniscule sense of order that had existed had been removed, leaving eddies of time that flowed as it felt like and acted in a decidedly wibbely-wobbely fashion.

He had gone to hell with a much more benign agenda this time, he had gone there to try to find his way in life, tried to find the path forward. He spent his time wandering the blighted landscape of hell, spent his time trying to take it all in. He had thought it impossible but he felt that he finally had grasped the enormity of his realm and of his task. Hell...the realm of pain, demons, punishment and horror was his responsibility. He wondered why anyone would subject themselves to the torture of hell. The more he learned, the less he understood the minds of his own k...

Humanity wasn't his kind he corrected himself, not anymore and likely, they had never been his kind at all. He was for all intents and purposes born this way. A semi-demon, a earthborn demon and a hellbound human two-in-one. He was the son of the prince of lies, the scion of the Lord of the Flies, the heir to the throne of the Morningstar.

All children are born clean slates, at least that is what he had thought they were, in reality he had not been born clean. He had had a crown forced upon him, a destiny he didn't want thrown in his face and he hated it...or at least had hated it.

Now...he felt resigned to whatever it was that would happen. Let the end come he thought. Depite this, something somewhere deep in the fabric of his very being something rejected this, something rebelled against the idea of destinies and set paths. A rebellious side of him wanted to forge his own path, that side wanted to give demons, hell, the abyss and everything the finger. That part only wanted two things, to be left in peace and...

The next thought was so painful that even the “crown-prince of hell” balked at it. It had been such a long time since he had left. So long since he let his guard down or allowed his mind to relax. If he only could be with...

He balked at even thinking about it, he remembered that the last time he had let the thought free he had spent a day and a night in a fetal position in his hotel room in Baton Rouge. He steeled himself and focused on other things, more important things he told himself.

He forced the memories to the very back of his mind and tried to close the door on them for now, but still the door to the part of his mind remained ajar.

He looked up and took in the street on which he stood. The smell of exhaust fumes, sweat, people and...cattle assaulted his nose. In hell there was little save sulfur and fire that smelled, once rocks had been stained by blood and the iron tinge of that metal blood contains had spread in the air. Here on Earth, all kinds of odors and stinks flung themselves at the nose. He wiped the frown the surprised had placed on his face off and mused “India” while nodding. Somehow it made sense that he had ended up in India.

He assumed that the teeming masses of what had once been known as the jewel in the crown would be the kind of hiding place a wayward refugee like Lillith would taken. After all, Lillith was hiding from Lucifer, from his son, from the abyss, from Darkness, from the Slayers and most of all. She was hiding from his wife...

...The images rushed back into his mind through the unbarred door he had left them behind. He felt himself sob ever so slightly as the image of the black-haired woman he loved and the pale, serious girl who was his daughter ran amok in his mind. Again he steeled himself and forced himself to take in all the odors of the market he was walking past. Curry, peppers, food being cooked, chicken being roasted mingled with sweat and fumes creating a strange concoction of smells that baffled his mind. He stopped at an inter section to ponder where to go next, what to do. He needed to find and protect Lillith, if someone other then Bleeder had told him to do this he would have laughed in their face. While he didn't see himself as a man who held a grudge, the memory of Seliena...

There were the faces again...

...the memory of his wife enslaved by the whore of hell still brought his blood to a boil. But find and protect her he would, for Ta-te, for Bleeder, for hell, for himself but most importantly for Selenia.

But where to find the Whore of Babylon? Where could a mayor demoness hide on earth? Of course given the state of the world all bets were seemingly off, he stood there and thought about it for a second, then he saw it, a poster for a Bollywood movie...some Matiné adventure story, a hero that looked like Indiana Jones' Indian cousin fought off soldiers as baboons surrounded them...yelling at nothing it seemed.

A grin crossed his face.

"And demons shall meet with monsters, and one hairy one shall cry out to another; there Lillith has lain down and found rest for herself...". the albino mused to himself.

After looking at the masses of people in the street, the man dressed in white removed his tie and put it in his pocket, undid the op button on his shirt, put on a pair of his trademark cricular shades and allowed some colour to creep up on his skin and eyes.

Time to find a base of operations.
****

_________________

Updated on January 7th 2007.
"HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools"
- Ambrose Birce, The Devil's Dictionary



Thu May 17, 2012 7:36 pm
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Linda McMahon
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding


Dice. He'd always been good with dice. Once, before time had even seemed to exist, he'd be a man. In those days, the dice had been crude things made from bone, and the games had been simple. They gambled, but no one had thought to invent money yet – or, if they had, the idea had been forgotten again. Instead, they played for polished stones, or well-made tools, or for women. Maybe that was how they'd met. Maybe she'd been one of the whores. He didn't remember. He couldn't say for certain if he'd really been that man, all those millennia ago; he carried the memories, in some odd, dreamlike way, but that was it. His human body must have died somewhere along the way. He didn't remember doing anything to make it immortal, unaging, impervious to harm.

Well, almost impervious. Even he was affected by the corrosive taint of the one they called Lord Abortion. Even he, the Prince of Hell, could see his flesh begin to wither and crack. It was a small thing, but it worried him.

With barely a glance in the direction of the table, he tossed the dice. They spun and pirouetted in the air, following a precise path the particular flick of his wrist had ordained and, as he knew they would, came up snake-eyes. He watched the other men around the table from behind his dark glasses. They stared at the pips in disbelief. It was the sixth time in a row he'd rolled the same result. "You're using loaded dice," the nearest one said. Lucifer didn't know his language – or if he did, he'd forgotten it – but he understood him anyway.

"They're your dice," he replied impassively, speaking as fluently as a native, except for a slight excess of sibilance, which he was never able to shake no matter what language he used.

"This is bullshit," the largest of his companions said, standing up. He was tall and broad and, Lucifer knew, was reaching for a knife.

"I wouldn't do that," he said calmly, leaning slightly forward. His palm was raised and, for a second, the other man stood stock still, his eyes bulging. Perhaps. Lucifer told him inside his head, your friends would like to hear about what you did to your sister all those years ago, hm? I saw it, Mahaaveer. I was there, by your side and in your heart when you did those things. I could show them too. He smiled at the others. "I think I'll call it a day, gentlemen. If you don't mind, I'll take my winnings now." Reluctantly, the men around the table threw crumpled, multi-coloured notes towards him, except Mahaaveer, who remained standing, staring blankly into space. Lucifer playfully snapped his fingers in front of his face as he stood up and then shrugged as he swept up his winnings. "A pleasure making your acquaintance."

He walked out of the bar, waving away the thick clouds of acrid smoke that hung around the groups sitting around hookahs and stepped out into the mayhem of the outside world. He was at a dock, and the waters of the Ganges before him were choked with both effluence and humanity. A thousand rickety skiffs, filled with people doing and selling almost everything imaginable, made an almost unbroken surface across the river – it would have almost been possible to walk from one bank to the other, had he been so inclined. Instead, he turned and walked a little way down the dusty street. The crowds seemed to part instinctively before him, the people who moved barely even realising they were doing so. He attracted no attention, despite being a tall Westerner dressed expensively and entirely in black on a scorching day. He was enjoying both the heat and the teeming masses of humanity, all going about their little errands like busy little ants. He wondered if he might lose himself somewhere in the depths of this land and forget about everything that was going on. Would that be so bad?

The sight of a particular face on a cheap, imitation brand shirt dispelled that notion quickly though. It wasn't a good likeness, but there was no mistaking the strong features, the scrubby beard, the two dark slashes beneath the eyes. The man was everywhere now. Even without his little wrestling TV show, he seemed to have captured people's imaginations. He was turning into an icon: a symbol. Of what exactly, Lucifer was not quite sure. He didn't give humans hope, exactly – at least that was not the emotion he was sensing from around him – but he spoke to something deep and long-lasting. Something ancient and powerful, that had been waiting to wake up for thousands of years.

"I need a boat," he said to no one in particular. It took a short time for someone who had one to approach him and offer it. The amount the man was asking for was a pittance, but he paid it. He could have just taken a boat easily enough, but the whole idea was not to attract attention. He could avoid being seen by whomever he wished, but if someone else like him came here and started asking questions, they'd find him. And he was no longer the biggest dog in the yard. Better to lie low, or as low as he could.

He had come here almost on a whim. Lilith was one of the few creatures able to completely hide their presence from him. Their status as equals was the only thing making that possible and, though she might be on the edge of desperation now, she still had that on her side. Still, he could probe the edges of her existence, and he knew the ripples she made. She was in this part of the world somewhere. He just had to find her.

Progress down the river was slow. He crouched in the stern of the skiff as his erstwhile pilot poled his way through the traffic. He watched everything and everyone, drifting in and out of minds, picking up a stray hope or fear here and there, spending a few seconds longer oiling his way around a particularly interesting daydream, but ultimately abandoning them all before too long. He'd seen it all before. Millennia of watching and feeding man's nightmares had made him tired and jaded. It was half the reason he'd picked the side he had. He was old now. So old. What was there left to experience for one such as Lucifer save the last and greatest adventure of all? He, the architect of the greatest story ever told, had only one more tale left to spin. Someone had once told him that the only story really worth telling was that of the world's end. Who better to tell it than the Fallen Angel who met the Rising Ape himself? He had given mankind its stories. Now he would tell the last one.

"Here," he said suddenly. The little man in charge of the boat turned around, surprised and started to protest that the money he had paid was enough to take him all the way downriver to Pratitnagar, but he waved him into silence and pointed at the shore more insistently. "Here," he said again. The boat bumped against the dock and Lucifer jumped up to his feet and leapt onto shore. This time he did attract attention and the annoyed people he pushed past shouted and cursed at him. He had no time for a glamour though and he ducked and dived through the crowds in pursuit of the man he thought he had seen. He roved out with his mind, trying to fix on the telltale iron-hard knot of self control and then slowed to a walk when he found it. It was there, sure enough, just a few hundred metres ahead. No other humans were so in control of themselves, so at ease with their surroundings. The talent they claimed as their own was really nothing more than tapping the distant strain of demon that lay within them – where else could such hyper-awareness come from? It was second nature to Lucifer and his kind, but for humans it took years of training and unyielding self discipline. If only they gave themselves over to their basest desires, they would learn that such a thing was so much easier to attain.

And speaking of base desires, even a mind like this one – a clenched ball of cold steel – couldn't hide what lurked in its deepest recesses. Yes, he felt something dark festering there: something cruel and unworthy. Jealousy. Envy. Rage. So unbecoming of a Shadow Slayer. He let the crowds part before him again, knowing that he was subtly revealing himself to the target of his pursuit but not caring, and now he was able to see him. A tall man with dark hair, all in black like himself, and carrying himself with the same confidence. Another, like him, not of this world. Not truly.

"I see you," Lucifer whispered.

Jashith Kuar looked around with a frown. He was sure someone had said something, but there was no one there, just a street full of people. He narrowed his eyes, trying to concentrate. Was that a shadow passing over the sun, or something else? For a moment, he'd felt something press against the edges of his Slayer Sense; an odd ripple in reality. But no. Anything that powerful would be setting off louder alarm bells. With a grunt, he turned back and carried on his way.

Somewhere, riding on the edges of Kuar's mind, Lucifer made himself comfortable. Lilith had the power to hide from him, but not from a Shadow Slayer. Not from a Shadow Slayer with a grudge against his greatest enemy. Not from a Shadow Slayer with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Against a force like that, there was no hiding. It felt good to finally reap some benefit from such dogged single-mindedness.

_________________
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Thu May 17, 2012 9:26 pm
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Post Re: TCW Freestyle Feuding


Extract from The Journeys of the Revenant, the memoirs of Revenant Dhamphyr, First of the Shadow Slayers.

The name for it was Ronin, adapted from the Japanese term for a masterless samurai. How the Slayers came to use it is not recorded, but it appears in our texts dating back from before the First Slayer War. Eastern mysticism has always been a part of the Slayers' arsenal, although it took many centuries before its use sat comfortably with the rest of our beliefs. However it came about, the term and the concept were enshrined since the earliest days of the Order, when the Shadow Slayers were decentralised and varied as much in philosophy and temperament as they did in garb and origin. In those days, it was easy for divergent viewpoints to develop, and for dangerous men with vengeance in their hearts to spend long years away from their alleged comrades in arms. We call the schism that nearly tore apart the Order in the 18th Century the First Slayer War, but in truth there were dozens of times in the centuries before that when Shadow Slayers took up arms against one another, and where entire factions battled each other in the forgotten places of the world while our enemies looked on, laughing at us for our foolishness.

It is no wonder then that the Ronin became, at least for a time, the rule rather than the exception. A Ronin is a Slayer who reports to no superior, who claims no rank, who avows no connection to the Order at all, but who still follows the same broad aims as his brethren. It was once said that to go Ronin was the first step on the path to becoming one of the Fallen Slayers, although now that extreme view tends to be the preserve of fringe groups – indeed, it was so even before the Final Battle. No doubt Darkness's path has gone some way to tempering the old ways of thinking, even though it has been said he would have sided with Forge had he lived through the First Slayer War, so well known was he for his unyielding nature. The modern Order knows though that it is not always oaths that hold a warrior to his course. A Ronin is a powerful weapon; a servant of light not bound to any higher power, able to react to threats as they encounter them, putting no allies at risk should he fall into the hands of enemies, or misguided friends. They are dangerous too, no doubt, for their experiences make them hard and cold, and they can focus on one enemy at the expense of all others at times – such are the misguided Wolfsbane Knights that even now threaten our operations on the American continent.

But I waffle. I'm told it's one of my failings – as a young girl, such as I was when I took up the mantle of Ronin – I was much more reticent. I hope to provide an education for the Order, for the Clans under our protection and for the ordinary men and women of the world. So much was lost in the Final Battle and the Second Slayer War, and so much had been hidden before that. I will not preside over a regime that destroys such knowledge again. But let me begin:

I thought at the time that he was sending me away, but now I know better. When we remember Darkness, it is mostly for his unflinching focus on his destiny, on his role in the Final Battle. He was the leader we needed then, and it was peacetime that was his undoing, but he did plan ahead for the future of the Order. He wanted me to walk the same path he had and, consciously or not, I found myself following in his footsteps. I fled from Beijing that night like a refugee, feeling no different from the day years before when I'd run out of that dilapidated house in northern Florida that was the only home I'd ever known. I didn't say any goodbyes, not even to Llenlleawg, because I felt he'd changed beyond recognising. I wish I'd understood how similar we were back then, how much we really had in common, but that's another story. Out into the endless suburbs of Beijing I went, darting through the night, from building to building like a spider. I must have been seen, but no one dared to stop me, I suppose. I couldn't say how long it took me to leave the urban sprawl behind me, but it seems to me now that I was somehow out in the countryside before dawn came. Where would I go now? I had only Darkness's cryptic words to guide me: the hint that another dhamphyr like me was out there somewhere, that the truth may lie in the malformed hands of the bloated vampire known as Caliban. We had grown up together, in that terrible place, and he was as much a victim of the vampire hive's torment as I was. I had always thought of him as merely the lowest and most degraded of them, and when Gregor Baltic arrived as an envoy from the burgeoning Ordo Draco, he did nothing to dispel that suspicion. Could we all have missed something so obvious? I would find out the answer.

But where was he now? With Baltic, no doubt, but that was no help. Our enemies seemed to appear at will, wherever their dark missions demanded them. We found out later that they had discovered the secret of Shadowrunning, but for now it was enough that I had no clues to begin my quest. I must have struck out almost at random. I thought of hitchhiking, of begging the indulgence of strangers, but it was on that first day that I realised how much the past few years had changed me. When I had crossed North America I was a desperate, scared child, running from things I didn't truly understand. I fell in with unsavoury characters, got caught up in situations I wasn't prepared for and, yes, I was hunted by Lord Abortion – although back then he was nothing more than a five-thousand-year-old Vampire Lord called Skaar. Now, I chose to stay alone and on foot, trusting to my own instincts. I thought I knew everything, although on this occasion, I made the right choice.

I will not dwell on the details of my long journey across China. It should be enough for you to know that my actions during those months were taken out of bleak necessity, when I found myself at the utmost ends of desperation. I am dhamphyr, sustained by lifeblood as is a 'pure' vampire, and only the blood of an intelligent creature – one in whom, we have since come to understand, runs the power of Lucifer, such as a human or werewolf (although not, curiously enough, Infernals, whose blood is poison to us) – will provide the necessary sustenance. You will recall that once, years ago, I drank from the veins of Lucifer himself. His power, unfiltered, had sustained me for many months, but that had long since been depleted. Now, I hungered again and, because of that hunger, I did terrible things. It would be a lie to say I regretted my acts of brutality when I was a Ronin. I did what I had to do to survive. I did not choose to be born as I am, but I had a purpose and I knew I must live to fulfil it. Darkness too had learned the necessity of balancing his demonic side with his humanity, and the sacrifice inherent in choosing the former over the latter. To give up what it is to be human, to be the monster everyone believes you to be in the cause of those who never have to make that choice, is in some ways the most human thing of all, as Gwen once told me. Even in this way, Darkness was preparing me for the future. I would learn as he had, and I suppose that subconscious thought led me south, into the foothills of the Himalayas and beyond. I was seeking the lofty heights of Nepal, though I didn't know it then.

There was a dojo, once, indistinguishable from the exterior from one of the many Buddhist monasteries that litter the roof of the world. For hundreds or maybe thousands of years, an order of ascetic monks had practiced the skills that make the Shadow Slayers what they are. Jackson Dane learnt the Slayer Sense from them in his forbidden quest for mystic knowledge and, after the First Slayer War, he taught it to the rest. For generations, the Slayers had gone to Nepal to train under Master Jade and his order and it had transformed them from mere demon-hunters into living weapons of the light. Darkness had shown more aptitude than most when he trained there. Sadly, I would never get the opportunity to test myself against the same teachers – I never spoke to him of what I found when I came upon the remains of that nameless dojo in the mountains.

* * *

Revenant pulled her jacket closer as the wind whipped it around her and blew another blast of snow against her skin. She had no idea whether her response to the cold was the same as a human's, but if anyone ever claimed she was immune to it, she'd bite them. Hard. She knew from some of the things she'd been told that this had been an important place for the Shadow Slayers, but now it was just a blackened ruin. How long it had been this way was hard to tell. She was above the snowline now, and things could be buried in minutes here. She quested out with her Slayer Sense and found nothing lurking in the remains of the dojo that she could detect – not that she was all that experienced, in truth. She clambered up the last few rough-cut steps to what was left of the building's front porch. The tall doors – clearly once covered in elaborate carvings, but now just as fire-damaged as everything else – hung off their frame. She put a hand to one, intending to move it out of her path, and it fell inwards at the lightest touch, tumbling to the floor with a crash that sent up clouds of ash and snow and shattered the wooden door into several pieces. Continuous melting and thawing had obviously done even more damage after the fire, evidence perhaps that this had all happened some years ago.

Tentatively, still clutching her jacket close to her body, Revenant crept inside. Despite the fragmentary walls and roof, it was still dark within. She had walked halfway down the entrance hall before she came across the first corpse. He – or she, it was impossible to tell – was mostly skeleton now, though a few chunks of charred flesh and the remains of what was presumably a monk's robe still clung to the old bones. She wrinkled her nose in disgust and forged on. Beyond the hall was a wide chamber. Pale light filtered through the holes in the roof and dimly lit a lacquered floor that was decorated by the still-discernible shape of a writhing dragon. Scorch marks were everywhere – it looked like the fire might have been started in this room. A handful of other bodies, not as well preserved here where the cold did not penetrate so fully, were slumped in corners and against walls. Some still clutched weapons in their skeletal hands. Wooden pillars climbed three stories high and, above her head, the blasted remains of balconies looked down over the floor. Yes, this all fit. This is where they trained, and the masters of the order and perhaps even visiting Shadow Slayers would watch the recruits in action, assessing their abilities. She walked to the centre and looked up. One balcony was centrally placed, directly above the dragon's head. Darkness had once stood here, she realised. She smiled grimly, recalling one of the stories he had told her of a return to his own past, courtesy of the bizarre and mysterious character known as Bruce 666, and how Bruce had shown the young Darkness a thing or two in this very room.

She was so lost in her thoughts for a moment as she looked around at a place where, it seemed to her, so much of the world as she understood it had come into being, now destroyed, that she almost didn't notice the tickle at the back of her head that spoke of a ripple in reality somewhere. It was what the Slayer Sense truly was – a sort of trained weirdness censor – but it wasn't just an alarm that could be set on a whim; it required concentration, concentration she'd just allowed to lapse. She spun around, too late to do anything but scream as a bolt of fury flew at her from one of the balconies, sending her crashing to the ground. The ruined floor cracked from the impact, but she was able to scramble free of her assailant and get up to her feet. Breathing hard with the sudden rush of adrenaline, she threw off her coat and held up her wrists. Instantly, at an instinctive flex from her forearms, the two heavy gauntlets she wore opened to reveal the pair of segmented crescent-shaped blades that flew out and enclosed each of her fists. There was a low snapping noise as they slotted into place and then flattened so that the segmentation was absolutely invisible – it was if they were completely smooth blades.

"Where did you get those, girl?" Her attacker asked her. He was in the shadows, but her vision was acute and she could see his size, the shape of his armour and hear from the rasp in his voice that he was a vampire.

"I took them from an old man who was killed by vampires," she told him.

"I see. And you decided to start hunting us in revenge, did you? Such a sweet story."

"No. I was already hunting you."

"Well you found us." He held out his hands. "You must be cold. We shouldn't fight. Come with me, and you'll never be cold again."

Revenant frowned. It was clear this vampire had no idea who or what she was. She glanced down at her bicep, and realised the shirt she was wearing concealed her Slayer tattoo. Well, that was good. She dropped her fists slightly, then sidestepped neatly as the vampire surged towards her. He was as inhumanly fast as she'd expected, but she was faster. She backflipped away from him and landed in a low crouch, fists raised again. She was tempted to just leap right onto the walls, but she didn't feel like giving away her true nature just yet.

"You're quick," the vampire said. She could see him better now – he was Ordo Draco, wearing the distinctive black and gold armour, although it was fragmentary. His arms and legs were exposed, and he wore a motley collection of weapons hung about his person. His face had the distinctive, feral hardness of all vampires, though he looked relatively healthy. That meant he must have fed fairly recently, which did not reassure her. "But," he went on, "you'll get tired. Unlike me. You must know what you're dealing with here. Give it up, little girl: you're out of your depth."

"I used to be. Now, not so much." She darted back around one of the wooden columns that held up the gallery around the main room and, as the vampire charged after her with a snarl she ducked back around and drew one of her blades down his unarmoured calf. He screeched and tried to turn around to grab her, but she craved a slice out of his face. He fell back now, grabbing at his ruined jaw and cheek and she pressed her advantage, kicking him in the stomach, knocking him back into a wall. It was so weakened by fire damage that he crashed right though and landed in a heap in the remains of a much smaller room on the other side. Revenant advanced cautiously, but he didn't move. She activated her gauntlets again and let the blades slide back into their housing, then reached down for a piece of charred wood that was suitably sharp. She had no specific tools for vampire killing with her, but this would do the job.

"Not so fast..." A pair of powerful arms enclosed her and lifted her up off the floor. She tried to struggle free, but was flung unceremoniously to the ground. Something jarred in her back and she rolled away, wincing as she tried to stand up. The man who had grabbed her wasn't a vampire – he looked like a normal human, except for his eyes. Even in the gloom of the ruined dojo, she could make out his flat, dark pupils, bereft of an iris, that indicated a Faithless. She wouldn't have been able to detect him even if she had been paying attention to her Slayer Sense. He walked calmly towards her. "I wonder what you are then?" he asked rhetorically, a small smile playing about his otherwise disturbingly expressionless face. He might have been handsome if he'd been human, but as it was his dead eyes made him look like something alien dressed in the skin of a man, and Revenant felt her flesh crawl as he looked at her appraisingly. She'd seen that look before. She knew those eyes. She'd killed those eyes.

"Get up, cur," the Faithless snapped at the vampire, turning slightly, but being careful not to take his eyes off Revenant. The vampire crawled up to his feet slowly, moving creakily. Even though he was not truly alive, the hamstringing would cripple him just the same, at least until he could feed again. No doubt he hoped to be able to use her for that. "How did you let this child defeat you?"

"She's fast," the vampire whined.

"Not fast enough to escape me."

"She was distracted...if I hadn't..."

"Shut up." The Faithless casually backhanded the vampire across his injured face, sending him to the floor like a whipped dog. "I want to know what she is." He walked towards her and reached down. Revenant lashed out with a kick to his stomach, but he was able to catch her foot and, with an emotionless smile, twisted her ankle in his big hands and flipped her onto her front. She bit off a scream as he pinned her down with a knee on her back and wrenched her shoulder back so hard it nearly came out of its socket. "You're strong," he noted, "but still small. Now, I wonder what we have under this sleeve..." He yanked her shirt back to her shoulder and revealed her Slayer tattoo. "Two bands is it?" he mused.

"She's a Slayer?" the vampire asked. His words were slurred – she'd cut off part of his tongue with her attack.

"Yes. The threshold for entry seems to have been set rather low. Go and get the others." He grabbed a handful of her hair and yanked her head back, then put his mouth almost against her ear. "You should have killed him while you could. It might have impressed me enough to let you live. Instead..." He brought his other arm around and placed his forearm across her throat then flattened his hand against the back of her head. She could feel his muscles tensing – it would take only one quick twist to end her life. If that's what he even chose to do...she could feel his weight on her again, more insistently now, and she knew what he would be capable of if the whim took him. Those eyes. She remembered those eyes, and she remembered this.

She bit his arm. Her fangs sank deeply into hard muscle and he released her with a roar of agony. His blood was toxic to her, but he could feel pain like anyone else and the sensation of her needle-like fangs entering his flesh would be as unpleasant for him as a human with a soul. She spat out his foul-tasting blood and rolled out of his reach as he dived for her. This time her kick connected as he came at her again, and she followed it up with another to his face and felt his nose crunch beneath her boot. She leapt up to her feet and her blades shot out again. The Faithless was standing with a hand across his bloody face, watching her with something like fury in his blank eyes. "What are you?"

"I could explain everything," she told him with a bloody grin, "but I'd rather you died ignorant."

He charged at her again swinging with, to her, ponderous force. She dodged his swing easily and sprang off the column directly behind her, using it to propel herself into the air and onto the wall. She scrambled up the vertical surface like an insect and, as he gaped at her, she leapt off and fell down upon him like a dervish, her twin blades a whirlwind of death. She sliced his torso to ribbons, covering his shirt in blood. She hacked off first one hand and then another. She took off an ear as she pirouetted right over his head and then paralysed him with a slice across the spine. As he fell to his knees, she yanked his hair back and exposed his throat to her indelicate attention.

"You're a Slayer," he mumbled feebly as blood ran down his chin from the internal injuries she had caused, "you can't fight us. We are death."

"I'm the Revenant." She crossed her hands in front of his throat, fists turned away from him so the razor-sharp blades crossed at his Adam's apple. "And there are worse things in this world than death." With a grunt she uncrossed her hands with one quick movement, slicing his throat open. He fell forward with a pathetic gurgle, facedown into a rapidly expanding pool of his own blood.

She looked towards the entrance to the big room. Her Slayer Sense told her the vampire minion was returning with a few of his friends. She dispassionately stepped over the corpse of the Faithless and then jumped back up onto the column and then up and up again until she was up in the ruined rafters high above the ground. Waiting.

"Vengeance," she whispered, "that's what I am: all mankind's vengeance against a hostile universe. I'll find my way back to you and the others one day, Darkness, but until then, I'll do what you never could. I'll redress the balance. I'll make them pay. All of them."

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Sun Jun 03, 2012 4:21 pm
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Post Back in the Zone
July 2013 - Northwest United States

“Warning! You are entering the Combat Zone!”

Red lights flashed as Gideon Flint, overdressed in a slightly rumpled suit and tie, descended a steep flight of concrete steps into a dimly-lit underground arena looking down on a wrestling ring sealed behind a steel cage. Two familiar figures were already facing off inside – Luis Palo and Vicente Vega, both of whom had been with Twisted Championship Wrestling years back, before coming to this new “underground” federation supposedly inspired by TCW, Underground Combat Wrestling Alliance.

It was Gideon’s first time back at a show in years. For a few seconds, he felt his heart beating faster and had to remind himself to breathe. He made his way through the tightly-packed crowd, to a seat near the ringside barrier reserved for him by one of the promotion’s road agents, Jason Fragg, who had been with TCW when Gideon was still an active wrestler. At the commentary table, Gideon saw more familiar faces, former TCW commentators Miguel Sanchez and Isaiah Cain, arguing with each other as Palo and Vega locked up, now behind an announce table with a “UCWA” banner across it.

Fans screamed and threw their bottles and trash at the cage for the sake of the cameras streaming the event live. Gideon ducked a half-full water bottle, which hit one of the cage’s steel bars, spraying its contents into the ring and tripping Palo, whose shoulders were immediately pinned by Vega for a quick two-count. The arena was small, but it was packed, and the fans were already amped up. The noise was starting to get to him a little, though, so Gideon took a small metal tin from inside his grey suit jacket and fished out a few pills that he quickly dry-swallowed.

A middle-aged man with an unkempt beard looked over at Gideon, eyes widening when he saw the “HELL” in Gothic letters tattooed across his right hand.

“Hey,” the man asked, “Are you Misfit from TCW?”

Gideon found himself smiling. “Yeah, that’s me.”

The man shook the shoulder of a small boy sitting beside him.

“Hey Logan, this is a wrestler Daddy used to watch when he was in college!”

Gideon’s smile dropped a little as the man’s excited compliment sank in. Was it really so long ago?

The awkward moment was interrupted by a hand clasped on Gideon’s shoulder. He swiveled and began to ball up a fist instinctively before catching himself. The atmosphere really was getting contagious.

“What do you think of the show so far?” asked the smiling blonde man, who reached out a hand to shake Gideon’s.

“It’s a hot crowd, Sammy,” Gideon replied in a measured tone. “What about you? Looks like you more than landed on your feet.”

Sam Eubanks, the well-tanned and impeccably dressed former TCW ring announcer, gave a short, good-natured chuckle.

“Talent relations now,” he said. “You can see we’ve been using a lot of guys who started out in TCW.”

“Younger guys mostly,” Gideon said as his eyes darted between Sammy and the action behind the cage, where Palo’s head was being ground to hamburger against the bars by Vega. “Can’t say I really knew most of them very well … except for Acolyte, err … it’s the Apostate now, right?”

“He’s one of our biggest draws,” Sam said with a proud tone. “I’ve gotta say, he learned a lot from the New Hellfire Club. The fans still love that stuff.”

“Apparently the Chinese didn’t.”

Sam shrugged.

“I got out before the end … they didn’t tell us anything, but when execs start jumping ship, it’s time to go.”

People surged forward, pressing Gideon and Sam against the barrier, as Luis Palo scaled the cage, his face a crimson mask. Vega tried to catch his opponent, but took a kick to the head that sent him limp to the mat.

“I heard Lance Canada tried to buy the whole thing back, but couldn’t get the financing together,” Gideon half-shouted over the crowd’s roar. “That was good for a laugh.”

Palo launched himself from the top of the cage, into a corkscrew splash that levelled Vega just as he stumbled to his feet.

“There’s someone you wouldn’t mind getting your hands on again, am I right?” Sammy asked, elbowing Gideon’s shoulder.

“Kicking Canada’s ass one more time? Now that’s tempting,” Gideon said, rubbing his neatly-trimmed goatee for effect. “But I’d rather get my rematch against Rachel Hunter if I was coming out of retirement.”

“What if we had something else in mind?” Sammy leaned in and asked.

Vega hit the side of the cage and rebounded right into a diving seated senton off the second rope that drove him to the canvas. The referee, Jimmy Jones Jr., another TCW alumnus from Gideon’s days, counted as Luis made the cover. The bell rang. A leggy redhead, Justine Lynn, climbed into the ring with a microphone.

“Ladies and gentleman, your winner, Luis Palo!” Lynn announced as she raised Luis’ hand in victory, her dress becoming smeared with blood in the process.

Sam pointed Gideon toward a door at the rear.

“C’mon back and meet some of the guys. Jason wants to show you around,” Sam grinned, already ushering Gideon to move before too many people decided to go for a beer or hit the bathroom.


In the back, Gideon and Sam found senior UCWA road agent Jason Fragg browbeating a young wrestler with frosted hair, who Gideon only remembered as “Spaz,” in true military fashion.

“Goddammit, boy, Smiley doesn’t have the branding iron tonight,” Fragg barked in the young wrestler’s face. “You walk that shit off and act like a fucking professional fucking wrestler!”

The young wrestler looked up at Fragg, still dejected. “What about the car battery?” he finally asked.

Fragg sighed. “For fuck’s sake, I will ask him politely not to shock your genitals again, but if you don’t get out there tonight and butch the fuck up I will personally fry up your nuts!”

The wrestler got up and made his way to the ring entrance. Sammy ushered Gideon to Fragg, whose look of annoyance actually brightened for a moment.

“Holee shit, look who got respectable!” Fragg shouted and clapped Gideon on the shoulder, taking in the former wrestler’s business attire, complete with tie.

“What can I say, it comes with the job.”

“Thought I heard you went back to school?”

“That too,” Gideon said. “I’m also managing the Xavier Clerick Trust.”

“Oh yeah. Fucking sorry to hear about Xavier, Gideon. Fucking shame.”

Gideon shrugged. In his suit pocket, his hand went to the old, dented Zippo that had once been his tag team partner’s. He’d quit smoking, but kept it on him anyway.

“Anyway, glad to see you’re back to work Jason, even if these guys probably aren’t.”

“They’ll fucking listen if they know what’s good for ‘em,” Fragg scoffed. “Some of these fucking snots still don’t understand that this shit’s the real deal, like TCW was. That’s what the boss wants. Shit, that’s why I didn’t just pack it in and live on my veteran’s pension.”

“You, retire?” Gideon asked. “Don’t bullshit me now, man.”

“Hey, if a fucking pup like you can do it,” Fragg replied, only half-joking.

“Still blunt as shit, I see,” Gideon said with a sigh, rubbing his temple as he glanced over at Sammy. “OK, what’s the big idea? Please tell me it’s not some kind of hardcore match with Plausible Deniability, because I don’t know if I can take another one of those …”

“Think bigger,” Sam said excitedly, cutting Gideon off.

Gideon stopped, thought for a few seconds, then looked at Sam incredulously.

“Really?” Gideon asked. “C’mon. No. No way. Can you really make that happen?”

“I’m trying as we speak,” Sam replied, which elicited a throaty chuckle from Fragg.

“There’s no way you’ll get Darkness. And Dante, how can you get him?”

“Believe me, I’m working on it.”

Gideon shook his head.

“Hey, why not invite Bleeder while you’re at it?”

“Very funny, Gideon. Then again, maybe I should ask you. We all heard the rumors that things got … spooky, even for you, around the Hellfire Club.”

“That’s between me and my psychiatrist these days. You’ll just have to raise the dead on your own.”

“Let’s say I can perform a few minor miracles.”

“OK Sammy, what then?”

“A big tag match. Six or eight guys. The New Hellfire Club …”

“Versus?”

Sam stopped, hesitating for a few seconds.

“Still working on that end as well. Maybe Canada and Bam … I’ve got a lot of feelers out now, but I know we’ll geat one hell of a card together.”

“Pun intended?”

“Sure, why not?”

Luis Palo came around the corner, wiping blood from his eyes with his shirt, followed closely by a doctor in a bloodied white coat, both of whom nearly collided with Gideon and Sam.

“Watch it, shitbird!” Fragg screamed. “You will learn some goddamn fucking respect!”

“Hey, Trevor, how’s it going?” Gideon called to the doctor, who was still following the vison-impared Luis down another hall and into a men’s room.

“Can’t complain!” Dr. Kian called back as he followed Luis into the toilet, going back-first to avoid contaminating his gloved hands.

“The people you run into at these things,” Gideon remarked to Sam.

“Ahem,” Fragg coughed loudly, “That reminds me, Gideon, you said you’d meet some of the guys.”

“Sorry, let’s do it. Sammy, wanna meet up after?”

“You bet. Come to dinner with my partner and me,” Sam said. “We know a great tapas place downtown. We can share a pitcher of sangria, maybe talk over some more ideas …”

“This isn’t going to end in karaoke, is it?” Gideon asked with a raised eyebrow. “Because I know you and I know Blake, and if there’s sangria involved it could get ugly.”

“What ever happened to the wild man of TCW?” Sam shot back with a sly grin.

“He got engaged to a woman who politely told him to knock that shit off.”

“Took you to the pound, did she?” Fragg barked while making a “scissor snip” gesture with one hand.

“I kinda like having someone to come home to. You should try it, Jason.”

“Try again, you mean. No thanks, Misfit, four times was my fucking limit.”

“I keep trying to tell him about the healing power of true love, but he doesn’t listen,” Sam said with exaggerated concern that prompted a sour look from Fragg.

Several barely dressed women sauntered past the men on their way to the ring entrance.

“Bra and panties cage match,” Sam said in a distinctly underwhelmed tone. “The boss likes eye candy too.”

“Can’t argue with the classics,” Gideon replied as his eyes followed the women down the hall.

“Want to meet up with the ladies later on?” Fragg asked after a look from Sam.

“No thanks, man,” Gideon quicky said. “I’m done with that too.”

“Heh, look at the reformed fucking man,” Fragg half scoffed, but with a bit of admiration as well.

Gideon lowered his head and closed his eyes. Maybe, but if that was so, why the hell was he even thinking about going back to this craziness?

“Heh, don’t tell the dirtsheets,” Gideon said, still squeezing his eyes shut and rubbing his temple. He had a flash of something – like flames behind his eyes. A second later, it was gone, leaving an unsettlingly bright afterimage. Something else too, a sound, like bells ringing in his ears, and a laugh.

“You OK, Gideon?” Sam asked. He put a hand gently on Gideon’s shoulder. Gideon’s eyes snapped open, and he gasped like a drowning man.

Fragg’s head shot around. “Christ, Flint, you gonna fucking make it?”

“Sorry, just getting a monster headache. Must be the noise.”

“Then let’s get this fucking show on the road,” Fragg said loudly, pointing them toward a locker room. Gideon followed, still blinking hard to clear up the spots in his eyes, his ears still ringing with strange laughter.


Much later that night …

Gideon stumbled down the steps of the bar, Blake and Sammy’s sloppy off-tune duet of “You’re the One That I Want” still ringing in his ears. He remembered he had to call Jess. As his fingers dialed, Gideon debated whether or not to tell her about the handshake deal until he knew more. He hadn’t even met the cowboy midget who ran UCWA yet. And anyway, so many of the other guys from TCW were missing in action, not just the Hellfire Club. For all he knew, the show might not even come together. Maybe it would just be getting her hopes up for a big wedding and first-class vacation in Aruba if he told her too soon.

His hand was starting to shake. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea right now. Jess’s phone was already ringing. Too late, now you’ve got to commit.

A sleepy voice answered.

“Hi babe,” Gideon said softly. “Did I wake you? Oh, I’m sorry … no, just out … business, mostly … c’mon … hey, hey, wanna hear some good news? Remember I was meeting up with Sammy Eubanks today … er, yesterday I guess.Yeah, the UCWA guy. Well …”

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Tue Aug 06, 2013 4:48 am
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