Warning: Adult subject matter and language. Reader discretion is advised.
 

Origin Story
by Scott Bennie and Paul Cocker


Iíve never been to Purgatory Prime, but the flight over some fucking incredible British Columbia and Alaska scenery definitely makes it worth the trip. Iím flying pretty damn high. It's high enough to make me even feel the cold, and thatís pretty fucking cold. I mean, it's chilly enough to give John goose-bumps. I guess thatís the way it should be. Iím a man on a quest, and we questing knights have to endure at least one bad weather challenge while weíre doing our little third rate recreations of the Odyssey, donít we?

I land via Purgatoryís aerial entrance, cut out of a huge slab of granite, clearing my way with the guards. The personnel doesnít sound too happy, and not that I blame them; theyíve had a lot more screw-ups lately than theyíre used to, as the big hole in the roof indicates. It took a week of haggling and a phone call to Old Glory to get me clearance to come here, and theyíve spent four days building the appropriate safeguards, since Iíve chosen to meet with two of the highest escape risks in the entire facility: my old sparring partner Hack, and one other.

The elite guards, the Warders, escort me down a ramp and through a series of force-field confinement chambers, clockwork men in steel and silicon armor. Not that these lunchbox supers would have a prayer against me. I observe that Iím not even close to the cells, and while there are six x-ray lasers trained on me at all times, I still wonder how long itíd take me to escape from this place if I were ever falsely imprisoned.

Hey, it happens yíknow.

The Warders sit me down in a small claustrophobic office with walls so white and sterile that they make a hospital look dingy. and I undergo a half-hour briefing on how to handle prison protocols and what not to say to the prisoner. I nod, and I smile, and I swallow the bullshit with sugar, and then I head to my meeting. The Warders take me down a short walk that has a weird, death row feel to it -- I get the feeling Iím descending -- and finally they sit me down in a transparent steel booth, and I watch as the prisoner is led into a circle of silver bars, an anti-magic container, something to keep his spells confined to himself.

"Ezra Jones?" I ask the criminal sorcerer. Itís an introduction, not a serious question.

"Jehosophat!" the eighty-year-old wizard exclaims, squinting through thick white eyebrows, licking the wisp of a lip that penetrates a short but thick white beard. "The First Chosen. Harbringer of the Apocalypse!"

"Thatís what they tell me." I smile. "Apocalypsing, dancing, ass-kicking, I do it all. Iím surprised youíve heard of me."

"They do their best to keep us in the dark, but itís hard not to leave a few lights on." Jones chuckles through a sly smile. He mutters something, and the handcuffs crumple while a lit cigarette appears in his hand. What else would you expect of a warlock from North Carolina? "You didnít happen to know what happened to the Zebra lately?" he asks. "He didnít happen to get eaten by a twelve foot tall demon, by any chance?"

"The Carnifactor was your work?" I scowl. He nods, and leans back in his chair. "It almost ate one of my high school buddies, you asshole!" I snarl. He starts chortling happily. "No, the Zebraís still breathing."

"Damn. That son of a bitch was my lawyer," Jones says. "And a more sorrier attorney you couldnít ask for. Now what can I do for you, Omega?"

"I want to know about the Black Priest," I say. "I heard you met him."

"That I did," Jones answers, surprising me with his willingness to talk. "Back in Ď82. Goddamn, was that twenty years ago already?"

"Almost," I say. He shakes his head and curses the passage of time.

"I was still running my insurance scam, and these murders associated with the Black Mass were making headlines locally, so I started using the Priest as a way to encourage my marks."

"A spiritual protection racket."

"It was damn elegant. And effective too, only it was too effective." Jones puffed. "I attracted the wrong crowd."

"A crowd of one," I reply, referring to that black-hearted Jesuit reject. He nods.

"One was enough. When that man came into my office, Iíd have bet my life savings that he was going to kill me. I didnít know what to do, so I started reciting the Lordís Prayer. He just laughed -- and let me tell you, there is no more chilling laugh than that son of a bitchís in the entire world."

"Iíve heard it," I say.

"You have my sympathy," Ezra Jones says. "But of course thatís not all he did. First, he told me heíd already defeated Jesus Christ once, and so Christ had no power over him."

"He claimed he was Satan?" I scoff.

"No. And that was the interesting part." Jones smiled, taking another puff. "He told me he was originally Barrabas, the criminal Pilate freed when he condemned Christ to death. Apparently Satan rewarded him for his Ďvictoryí over Jesus Christ with immortality."

"Youíre fucking kidding me!" I snap. "That has to be bullshit!"

"It probably is," Jones replies. "Itís not like he doesnít lie, yíknow. But it didnít really matter. He cast a spell on me, forced me to go to the police and confess about all the money I embezzled."

"And also confess about all those teenage girls you were fucking," I add, making sure we didnít skip over the most interesting part of the scandal. "And then you figured that if you canít exploit Ďem, join Ďem, so you became a practitioner of the occult."

Jones nods. "I never met the Priest again. Truth to tell, Iíd rather encounter the Bacchae while carrying the harp of Orpheus than face him again." He pauses, and looks at me blankly for long seconds, as I prod him with an inquisitive gaze. "Iím afraid I donít have much else to tell you. Except for the eight thousand or so legends surrounding him. If you believe the mystical rumor mill, he did everything from infecting rats with bubonic plague in the Middle Ages" He takes another puff, then adds, "to casting the spell on the magic bullet that shot JFK."

I get to my feet. Shit, this was a lot less than I was hoping for. "Well, Jonzie, thanks for your time. And if I were you, Iíd use some of that magic to conjure up a fucking nicotine patch so you can quit smoking."

"Why should I quit?" Jones replies. "Iím going to Hell soon. Why shouldnít I get my lungs used to what Iím going to be breathing for the rest of time?"

******

I first saw the Monolith back in 1986, a five-year old kid gazing up into the night sky. We could actually see the battle between the Protectors and the aliens as it happened up in orbit; it looked like a haze of colored specks surrounding a bright light, and when the so-called "orbital death ray" hit Boston, we could see it as a red streak that shot into the eastern sky. Dad even tracked it with binoculars.

Now, Iím heading up there for the second time in six months. Of course, most of the bullshit that happened to me last year started right after my previous visit, but the lightning doesnít strike twice, does it?

Okay, bad fucking metaphor, given the origin of my powers. At least this time, Iím invited.

I materialize inside the Monolith and the Outsider waves me over. "So, heís finally ready to talk to me?"

"Hell no." The Outsider smiles slightly. "I just figured it was time. Youíre doing this at your own risk."

I nod, and he leads me through a maze of electric blue corridors and strange force-fields. Iím led to a doorway. "Heís in there," the Outsider says. "Be a pal." I nod and walk through it, and I find myself in a huge globular chamber of brass and glass, twenty meters in diameter, its only illumination the huge Earth that covers most of the windowview. Thereís a walkway to the center of the sphere, where I find myself staring at the buttocks of a naked demi-god, kneeling in the room alone. There are a few odd items -- trophies I think -- lining the wall, but otherwise, this place out-Spartans even Sparta. Great fucking view though.

"Perfect solitude." I observe, materializing, interrupting the meditating god.

"Not anymore." Avatar gets up and turns around and glances at me. He walks over to a wall and casually ties a leather wrap around his crotch -- although heís about the last guy on Earth who needs to be embarrassed about what he looks like in the buff. "So they let you in here." Itís less a question than an observation.

"Maybe they got fucking tired of your sulking, Achilles," I say.

"The Achilles myth is Greek. I'm of Babylonian descent."

"I know about your origins. But right now youíre acting more like Achilles whining like a fucking dog in his tent than the asskicker of Uruk." Shit, does he look pissed. "I need your fucking help Avatar, and I canít wait for you to stop sulking, or for you to deal with what happened to you"

"Get out," the demi-god orders, now on his feet and arms tense at his sides in an unintended show of muscle.

I ignore the directive, ready for a fight, Slowly, I walk over to Avatar. "Yeah, Ireland was real shitty, especially for you. But youíre not the only one whose life has sucked lately." He says nothing. "Let me tell you how fucking wonderful the Black Priest has been to me lately. First, his people killed the woman I loved, forced my best friend to watch while they did it, and drove him insane"

"People die," Avatar says callously, his eyes completely cold. "Itís part of the natural cycle. Itís a gift."

Shit, heís burned out even worse than I thought heíd be. Still, Iím pissed enough that I donít give a shit if I step on his toes. I close with him, and get directly in his face. Itís a hard face, with lines as sharp as steel, and eyes that are just fucking nasty, real frightening.

"Bullshit, Avatar," I say, poking his chest. "Iíve read your fucking book. You didnít think death was so fucking great when you were questing for immortality, or when your ass-buddy Enkidu bit the big one. Death may be a metaphysical gift, but in the real world, itís usually a fucking curse. Especially when youíre only nineteen, and youíve done nobody serious wrong, and youíve got a fucking lot to give to the world."

Thereís a long pause, and then a sigh. "What do you want?" Avatar asks sullenly.

"Iím doing research. Know thy enemy, where he came from -- yíknow, Art of War sort of shit."

Thereís another long pause. "I donít know much about the Priestís origins," Avatar guesses at my quest. And he didnít even need to use a lifeline.

"If people like you knew Ďmuch,í he wouldnít be much of a threat, would he?" I interject.

"Thatís probably true," Avatar says, and the tension drains from his neck and shoulders. He turns my attention to the blue globe in the window. "Okay. The first records of the man who might be your foe came from the dawn of the last Dark Age. The age of Roman order was collapsing, the old gods were failing, and cults were springing up without number."

"Like Christianity?" I offer.

"A severe religion, even moreso back then, but at least it had honest, humble roots: fishermen, carpenters, olive-growers. Even for a god, thereís something comforting in knowing that itís possible to triumph over oneís pain and imperfections."

"We can both appreciate that right now," I say. He gives me an annoyed look. I smile slightly. Sometimes, you need someone to get under your skin.

"Unfortunately, those who didnít want to serve the Prince of Penance found other willing masters: Tiamat, Kingu, Apsu"

"Evil Sumerian gods?" I ask. He nods.

"Lords of Chaos." His voice catches slightly on the words, but his posture straightens. Shit, I canít really describe how impressive he is this close. Fuck, even I have to resist the urge to get down on my knees and worship him, and short of Autocrat, Iím probably the most self-centered prick on the entire fucking planet.

"And there were others, spirits more ancient than our old foes," he continues. "I believe one of these found the person who would become the Priest, and imbued him with a mockery of life, akin to vampires." His scowl deepens. "And thus Chaos acquired its most faithful servant. Who knows what evil heís committed over the last two thousand years? Heís had fifty generations to ply his trade..."

"And no one knows how to kill him?" Iím getting sick and tired of this invincible evil bullshit. There has to be a way to take him out.

"If his reputation accurately reflects his antiquity, there must be a prophecy somewhere which tells how he may be destroyed," Avatar states. "But heís also very clever. Many people have tried to kill him. Iíve come face-to-face with him three times myself, and Iíve yet to lay a hand on him. Let alone send him to Kur, the Land of No Return."

"That must really piss you off," I say.

"It is hard to stomach," Avatar says. "Chaos should be a dead faith in this day and age, but the Priest keeps it prosperous. I wish I knew more about him. The Priest wraps his history in layer after layer of deceit, like a Russian babushka doll, one lie nested inside another. To my knowledge, two superheroes have tried to find out what truth is hidden in the "innermost doll"." He shakes his head.

"I take it that the results werenít pretty," I observe. Avatar nods.

"The Black Rose disappeared eighteen years ago. No one knows what happened to her. And Rubiconís body was found in New Yorkís East River four years ago."

"Fuck," I say. "So much for all those Ďdonít cross the Rubiconí jokes," I say, and expect him to glower at me, but instead he simply shakes his head sadly.

"As for anything else concrete about the Priest, there have been many legends about him that were propagated by the Black Mass. That he was a French priest who took Joan of Arcís confession, then betrayed her to the Burgundians. That he gave the gun that shot Archduke Ferdinand to his assassin."

"We all have our little mythologies," I blurt. Avatar scowls. I smile in response again.

"I recall something about his involvement with a Nazi supervillain during the Second World War," Avatar says. "Maybe Old Glory knows more."

"Thanks," I say. "By the way, this is a nice place."

"I like the view," Avatar tells me.

"You should have a little more furniture here if you entertain visiting supers."

"I donít," Avatar says. "This is my sanctuary. Youíre only the second person Iíve ever allowed in here."

"Including other Protectorate members?" I ask.

He stares me down without directly answering the question. "I could have had you teleported away the second you came through that door."

"Shit!" I exclaim. "Why didnít you?"

"There are two reasons," Avatar explains. "First, your fight with Autocrat"

"I lost," I admit. Avatar simply shakes his head, pausing, as if examing his own thoughts.

"Donít confuse personal expectations with defeat. No, you didnít lose. We wouldnít be having this conversation if you lost." Avatar snorts as he leads me over to a wall. "Second, you beat Brazos." He points out two objects hanging on the wall; a colorful wrestlerís mask, and a wrestlerís belt. I recognize them as belonging to El Brazos Fuerza, the Mexican metahuman whom Iíd defeated in a contest of strength at the start of my career. "When I beat him, he told me thereíd be two others I should look for, two others who could beat him. First, there was Malcolm," he pointed to the belt, "And now, you."

"Malcolm?" I squint. "Whatís a Malcolm?"

"A friend. He sacrificed his existence defending the time stream, and erased himself from existence. Iím the only one who clearly remembers what he did for this reality."

"Thatís a fucking trip," I say.

"Moreso for him," Avatar adds. "They call him the Forgotten now, and only the best of us have any recollection of him at all." My eyes widen. "I see that you remember him a little. Good."

"Heís never coming back, is he?" I ask.

"He never existed. Heís just a paradox now," Avatar explains. Thereís a lot of pain on his face; the sort of pain a superhero can only get when they watch a close friend die and can do nothing about it, an experience no less horrific for being so clichéd. "Brazos appeared to people at critical moments in their lives, and gave each of us a revelation. For you, he demonstrated your potential to anyone with the brains to recognize it. For Echelon -- his defeat sealed his descent into madness. For Malcolm -- it gave him the confidence and resolve to prevent humanity from being unmade. As for me I donít know yet."

"So thereís a connection between us?" I say, smiling like an idiot. "Cool!"

"I wouldnít be so enthusiastic about it," Avatar warns me. "Any time Iíve made a true connection with a fellow hero, human or god-like, he can measure his life expectancy in months."

"Uh I see." You donít know how badly I want to change the subject. "You suggested that I should look into vampires?"

Avatar nods. "Direct references to the Priest will only turn up propaganda. Think laterally, thatís where youíll uncover the truth. Donít look for the Priest. Look for his footprints."

"Thanks. I owe you," I say.

Iím dying to ask him what really went down between him and Echelon, although that would probably force me to say something dumb, like admitting I collected Echelonís bootleg action figures instead of his. Avatar simply nods at me.

"Although I do want a rematch," I say, again turning to raw bravado. Sorry, but I fucking have to say this. "Iím gonna kick that naked Babylonian bubble butt of yours from Burbank to Boston. When youíre feeling up to another clash of the titans." I smile and expect an irritated but friendly response. Instead, Avatar sighs.

"Itís not a game, Omega," Avatar says, looking down at the Earth. "And even if it were, itís going to be some time before Iím ready to fight again."

Itís hard to know what to say to that. "Well, thanks for your time," I say, a little embarrassed to get so up close and personal with him, even though thatís what I came for. "If thereís anything I can do"

"Iíve been in this business a little long to receive your pity, donít you think?" Avatar asks.

Thatís a bit of a slap in the face, but I wonít get pissed. "I donít think you need to get carded before you can show someone a little sympathy," I say. "Letís face facts, much as we hate to admit it, sometimes we need someone to put a hand on our shoulder or slap our ass and tell us we still matter, especially after weíve wallowed like pigs in shit. Even a fucking god, like you."

"Or you," Avatar replies. If thatís meant as a compliment, it doesnít feel like one.

"Despite the shit I said earlier, you do deserve a break," I tell him. "Iíll do my best to hold down the fort during your vacation. But no promises. As much as I hate to admit it, youíre a lot fucking better than me. For now."

"Heh." Avatar almost smiles.

Iím tempted to invite Avatar to come down to Milford and ask dad to let him stay on the farm to work out his issues; I couldnít ask for better security for my folks in case some supervillain tried to mess up the place, and planting and watching things grow is better fucking therapy than talking with some goddamn L.A. shrink, or standing in an alcove on an alien satellite brooding at the view through a big orbital picture window. But I donít have the nerve; instead I gawk at him with a bit of a puppy dog expression on my face, feeling like Iím a fourteen-year-old dork again, and he puts up with my search for idle, comfortable, chit-chat better than I deserve.

Finally, we say our good-byes, and he wishes me luck, and we continue down our paths: heís trying to heal the fucking Ireland size scars that were inflicted on him when he was mind-raped, and Iím continuing with my insane search for the Black Priestís origins. Because once I understand where that bastard came from, Iíll be that much closer to sending him to Hell.

******

"Címon, Michael!" I snarl. "You worked with that mofo for years!"

"Damn right," Michael replies, checking his watch nervously. "And I donít want to talk about it."

"You -- of all people -- have to know something about where that fucker came from!" My voice is loud enough to rattle one of the glass cases in his home office.

Michael clearly doesnít want this conversation, and heís pissed that Iím pressing the point. Fuck him. Itís been awhile since the two of us sat back and had a real donnybrook, and thereís something comfortable about it, that old shoe feeling. "Fine!" Michael snaps. "Heís existed for centuries. He tends to fluctuate between periods of heavy activity, until heís planted enough "seeds" and gathered enough followers, then he lets them loose in the world and watches the fun."

I sigh, and watch the waves pound the California coast outside Michaelís beachfront apartment. Outside, there are kids playing frisbee on the beach, and roller-blading down a bike path. A typical California day. They have no idea whatís being discussed and no real idea what people like the Black Priest can do their lives.

"When was the first shit that youíre sure heís responsible for?" I ask.

"I dunno."

"Think!" I insist.

"Jesus Christ, thereís a lot to think about, give me a goddamn minute!" Michael shouts, and he turns aside for about ten seconds. Iím ready to resume my interrogation, when he finally turns and answers me. "Have you ever heard of Sawney Beane?" I shake my head. "He was the leader of a clan of Scottish highwayman in the 1390s. They were also a clan of cannibals."

"A can of Campbells?" I joke. Michael rolls his eyes. And I'm starting to wonder why I even blurted that out myself.

"The Priest served as a chaplain for a British noble family that incorporated travesties of the Mass into their parties. The decadent assholes probably laughed when people were drawn and quartered for doing one-tenth of the shit they pulled. Then the family patriarch died of a heart attack while screwing a London whore, and after that the family became less enamored with his Ďholy communions.í I guess the Priest got bored by the lot of them, because one day when the family was traveling in southern Scotland, the Priest alerted the Beanes."

"Iíll bet he dined well that day," I say.

"I guess." Michaelís matter-of-fact expression doesnít reflect the horror they must have experienced. "Shortly afterward, King James of Scotland declared the Beanes to be wild beasts. He hunted down the entire clan with bloodhounds, dismembered the men, forced the women to watch before they themselves were burned alive."

"Okay," I say. "What about him betraying Joan of Arc?"

"Oh, thatís fucking propaganda," Michael says, and then he blushes. "Shit, I think I invented that story."

"And handing out the gun that started World War I?"

"That oneís also propaganda. Also, he used to boast about being the priest who baptized Adolph Hitler, though Iím not sure that oneís wrong -- even though the Nazis werenít exactly religious zealots, the Bible is quoted over five hundred times in Mein Kamff."

"So what stories are you sure about?" I ask.

"Back in 1866, the Priest led a cult of grave robbers, necrophiliacs and cannibals in Eastern Europe -- really, really sick stuff -- under the name Reverend Cernobog. I once caught him summoning the spirits of soldiers who died during the Battle of Vis"

"Vis?"

"Austro-Prussian War, 1866. Italy " Michael tells me something they never mentioned in History class. "The soldiers kept calling him that."

"Wasnít Chernobog the big monster in the last sequence in Fantasia?" I remember.

"Uh-huh. And the name of the god of evil -- or the devil -- in Eastern Europe," Michael tells me. "And then there was the murder of a hundred Protestants at the River Bann in Ulster in 1641. The Catholics tortured their prisoners, drove them like hogs to the bridge, then stripped them naked and forced them into the water at swordspoint."

"How can you be sure about something that happened in 1641?" I ask.

"The atrocities were led by a Reverend Cernunnos. I once heard a demon call him that, and told him how much he enjoyed Ďthe sport at the bridge.í"

"Wasnít Cerunnos the Celtic god that led the Wild Hunt?" I ask, remembering another mythological tidbit I read shortly after my encounter with Brazos. Michael nods.

"The Great Horned God," Michael adds. "And between stories about him conducting a Black Mass at Morgan Le Fayís christening, and provoking the St. Bartholomewís Day massacre in 1572, thereís enough bullshit legends about that asshole to fertilize your entire state, farmboy." Michael smiles, and he puts his arm around my shoulder and we jostle each other for a few seconds. "Donít be so driven, Tommy. I know you and the Priest are going to have to go goddo-a-whatever he is one of these days"

"Somebodyís gotta stop that asshole. Sooner the better," I declare.

"I worry about you," Michael says, tightening the friendly grip around my neck. Michaelís gotten a lot more physical with me since we havenít been seeing each other very often. Shit, youíd think Iíd notice if he was getting close enough just so he can tap into my power. But I havenít gotten the impression heís done anything wrong lately, and Iíve really been missing his friendship a lot. "Youíve been through hell lately, and as soon as you get a chance to catch your breath, youíre taking the plunge again and heading in deeper."

Shit, is this genuine concern, or is there an agenda behind that caring smile? I moan and shake my head. "I thought youíd want me to bury that bastard."

"I do. But I donít think youíre ready yet." At least Michaelís fucking honest. "By the way, it was real hard watching Autocrat tear you apart."

"You should try being on the receiving end," I joke. It clearly pisses Michael off.

"And if you keep pushing the Priest, youíll be dead soon -- or worse."

"So I should just be a good little superhero, stop being so fucking proactive, back off and become a reactionary puppet just like everyone else in spandex, until the next time he comes after me -- and someone I love turns up dead again?" I fire back. "No fucking way, Mike!"

"Youíre flirting with disaster, Tommy," Michael warns me. You can tell when Michaelís being sincere -- or really working his ass off overtime trying to manipulate me -- when Michael uses "Tommy" instead of "farmboy."

"I donít have a lot of fucking choice," I say, flailing my arms. "Iím not going to have a normal life until the Priestís finished. And donít fucking tell me that Iím never going to have a fucking normal life, because I donít want to hear it!"

"Then youíre fooling yourself, and you fucking know it!" Michael yells back. "And the Priestís already beaten you!"

"Thatís bullshit!" I snarl back. "How many superheroes have fucking given their arch-enemies some breathing space and lived to regret it? Iíd be fooling myself if I think I can live a half-decent life with that black monkey on my back!"

"Okay. Weíll try to drive that point into your pig-headed skull another time." Michael sighs. He walks over to the bar and tosses me an ice-slick bottle of Sam Adams. I catch it deftly. "By the way that kid from Minneapolis signed with Reebok. Upper management would like you to pick a fight with him and put him in his place."

"Youíre shitting me!" I shout.

"Hey, my bullshitís not that dumb," Michael counters. "I know you like to fight"

"Even Iíve got some standards!" I say, waving my hand to prove the point. "Fighting the Zebra, sure. Fighting this unproven little opportunistic shitbag, fuck no -- let the asshole come to me."

Michael nods. "I tried telling the assholes that a fight between the two of you would only add to his rep at this stage."

"Do we still have Dangerous on payroll?" I ask. Michael nods. Me and the ex-villain turned Nike trainer have kept a wide distance from each other after I put him in the hospital (and after his old pal, the Chain, tried to kill me in my sleep), but I know the asshole has trained a lot with John. "Letís send Dangeroid out to see if he can punk this kidís ass. Make him pass a fucking audition before I have to bother with him."

Michael doesnít comment on my suggestion. "Heís calling himself ĎSmax!í, did you know that? And that's S -- M -- A -- X, with an exclamation mark." Shit, the pull bastard has officially got the worse name in superhero history. Michael pulls out a picture of a kid with long blond hair and a half-mask, wearing what looks like Sergeant Pepper's jacket and purple tights.

I look at the picture for about fifteen seconds. I canít believe anyone would willingly wear anything that stupid. "Oh my god, Michael Jackson finally finished turning himself into a white guy!" I exclaim. "Or someone crazy glued his band uniform to his skin." Michael laughs his ass off.

"You wanna do something?" he finally asks.

"Whatíd you have in mind?" I ask. "Flying? Volleyball? Clubbing? Call girls?" I smile.

"Nah. Something different," Michael says.

"How about a movie?" I suggest. "Something without capes or muscleheads in it?"

"That almost seems too simple." Michael smiles. "Speaking of capes and muscleheads, did you hear about the Matrons and the Dictator and those others breaking free?"

"Yep," I say. Michaelís referring to a prison break that was recently announced on MNN; someone went up to Alaska and wreaked havoc. "Although the only Revolution the Dictatorís gonna experience is the revolving door hitting his ass when they slap him back in his cell at Purgatory Prime," I quip. "Why the fuck, given all the Ďtalentí in Purgatory, would someone break that asshole loose? Heís a joke, Mike. Heís like the Zebra, all motif, nothing in the suit."

"A telepathic propagandist and master engineer is nothing? I wouldnít laugh, farmboy," Michael warns. "Everyoneís dangerous. So are you up for a comedy? I got the South Park movie."

"Iíve seen that way too many times," I reply. "Yíknow, speaking of blaming Canada, maybe John knows something about the Priestís origins."

"Dude, donít go there," Michael insists. "I know Dr. Wight has given Permafrost a clean bill of mystic health, but he spent a lot of time around the Priest. Iíd play things carefully with him for awhile if I were you"

******

"Tommy!" John shouts, opening the door of his small Alberta house.

Drumhellerís a small town in the center of redneck Canada, a place where they have two seasons: winter, and mosquito. Itís late winter here now; the snowís piled up everywhere like piles of shit (and given how mud-stained the snow is, the comparisonís very apt), making Johnís driveway look like Santaís redneck winter fortress. The house is a rundown Ď50s suburbia job with ugly white gravel and wood paneling, and a large smoking chimney belching over a grey slate roof. Itís snowing slightly right now, in fact itís cold as frozen piss. Itís so cold that your breath comes out of your mouth steamier than a Brittany Spears video after the directorís told her to "go ahead and act slutty" (which I think is pretty much every Brittany Spears video, God fucking bless her).

I embrace him, and John turns to his parents with a goofy grin and says, "Down in L.A., we call that Ďhugging.í"

"Actually, down there we call it Ďcopping a feel,í" I say, a remark thatís sure to endear myself to Johnís parents. "And you can tell the gays from the straights because the straights wait at least five minutes between hugs."

"Weíve heard many wild stories about life down in California," Mrs. Wolfe tells me. Sheís in her late 40s and moderately attractive, in a matronly way, almost as much as mom before she left. Mr. Wolfe's not saying much of anything -- heís sitting in a lounge chair, watching a Friends rerun on a large 36-inch Sony, awaiting a formal introduction. Shit, he reminds me of my dad; heís just about as big, maybe an inch or two thicker around the middle, and his hairís shorter. I remember John saying something about him working as a prison guard.

"Mom dad this is Tommy Champion." He swallows hard and says under his voice, "Donít embarrass me, please."

"Jeez, maybe I should have left you in England with the Priest." I smile back and slap him hard on the back.

"Weíve heard many stories about you too, Mr. Champion," Mr. Wolfe says, slowly getting up from his chair. When somebodyís in a really comfortable sitting position and they still get up to greet you, you shouldnít underestimate just how big of a compliment that is.

"Well, most of the ones on MNN are true, but the tabloids are definitely headed to the minor leagues with their batting average on me," I say. "Me and Ben Affleck are just friends, thatís all." I add, referring to one of The Starís more inane rumors (although it gave me an excuse to become friends with Ben and a few other Hollywood types, and I even got to meet Steven Spielberg -- my agentís negotiating for me to do a voice in the next Dreamworks cartoon).

"You didnít have anything to do with Tom Cruiseís marriage falling apart?" Mr. Wolfe smiles slightly; that oneís an Enquirer rumor, but heís obviously not taking the question seriously.

"Well Nicoleís cute, and sheís got red hair to die for shit, now I wish I had broken that marriage up." I smirk. "Except that Cruise wrestled in high school, and I wouldnít do that to a fellow wrestler -- code of honor."

"Are you involved at the moment?" Mrs. Wolfe asks.

"Mom!"

"Not seriously," I say. In fact, itís been way too long since I had a fuck, but I wonít embarrass John by admitting that. "John and I are just friends, I swear!"

"Now we have two comedians." Mr. Wolfe cocks an eyebrow.

"Except that John is actually funny, and Iím more like the Andy Kaufman or Andy Dick or Tom Green type of comedian that you have to be a schizophrenic or on drugs to appreciate," I say. "John, I gotta talk to you, itís real urgent."

"Sure," John says, and he directs me to the study. His cellphone rings, and he answers it with a sigh. Cellphones are so annoying that they fuck up even Johnís endless supply of good humor. I head into the study, and I wait for John to finish.

A few minutes later, the door opens and a young womanís head pops in. I immediately notice a family resemblance to John -- itís the frost-silver hair -- she must be one of Johnís older sisters. "Hi," she says.

"Hey!" I smile. "Iím Tommy"

"I know," she says. "Anne."

"Youíre Johnís older sister," I assume. She nods.

"Not that much older. Iím in first year at the University of Alberta."

First year. Apparently, the term "freshman" isn't used in Canada. "Cool," I say. "So how bad does it suck being related to a superhero?"

"Well, I have to worry about being taken hostage, although the government pays for a lot of the extra training and some of the protection services, like the satellite transmitter I wear twenty-four hours a day."

"Does it interfere with your dates?" I ask.

"Sometimes. Other times the guys feel like they have to get yíknow real macho to compete with him."

"Thatís ironic," I say. "One of the things I like most about John is his lack of macho bullshit. Itís such a delightful contrast with the rest of my life."

"So, I hear a lot of rumors about you"

"Before you go any further, I want you to know that, yes, I am a corporate sell-out and proud of it, but no I did not get into a drunken fight backstage with Moby at the Grammies. But enough about me." She perks up. "I was wondering if youíd noticed anything weird about John since we got him back from Oxford."

"I havenít noticed anything beyond the usual annoyance."

"Brother-sister shit?"

She nods. "Do you have a sister?" she asks me.

"I did when I was five. She died when she was ten-days-old. SIDS. I donít even remember what mom and dad named her," I say. Thereís an "awww Iím sorry" expression on her face. Truth is, I was way too young to understand what had happened. "Weíve had real piss-poor luck with the family breeding program. I had an older brother who died when I was three. And then thereís my Ďwonderfulí cousin Cynthia, who stayed with us for a few years after her parents died in a car crash. She was like a sister to me -- if sisters are snottty bitches who cause trouble for everyone in their line of sight. She once persuaded her brother that I well, let's just say he  put me in the hospital for no fucking good reason Not to mention she's tried to drive mom to a nervous breakdown"

"Wow. That makes me and Janet sound stable," Anne claims, being kind enough to put up with me when I flick on the Ďrantí switch.

"Well, she was having a hard time dealing with what happened to Uncle Cranston, I suppose."

"Cranston? Let me get this straight -- ĎCranston Championí?" She says it with an annoying giggle.

"Dumb name, ainít it?" I smile. "I think Cranston was his middle name, but he didnít like being called Davie. He was a great guy. I still miss him."

"So, Tommy Champion." Anneís voice has a bit of a sexy purr. "Youíre supposed to be very good."

"I thought I was a fucking bad boy," I say, and she gently touches my chest, rubbing my right nipple. "Oh!" I smile.

She giggles slightly, and I feel like I do with Sarah when I go into dork mode, and I hate that fucking feeling, especially when every hormone in my body is shouting at me: "Respond, you fucking idiot!" So I kiss her, and her lips answer, and I grope her, and her hands answers, and she grabs me and I answer. We remove our tops, but havenít quite reached the stage of heavy fucking when the door opens and Johnís looking down on us and shaking his head.

"Hi I was getting to know your sister," I say. God, I think all the blood has rushed to my dick and made me brain-dead. I mean, I may as well slap my fucking forehead and yell "D'oh!" like Homer Fucking Simpson.

"Tommy!" John says. "Jesus Christ, Tommy, sheís my sister!"

I get up. "Sheís we well we got out of hand. Iím sorry."

"You shit!" Anne gets up and snaps at me, looking really offended. I guess she wanted it "out of hand."

"Hey, not that you arenít an incredible turn on," I say to her. "I just donít want to piss off your brother." Anne stomps out of the room without saying another word.

"Itís too late for that," John says. "Why donít you go?"

"I need to ask you about the Priest. His origins and any other piece of shit you may have picked up"

"Another time, okay?" I get ready to press my objection, but John gets up close to forestall it. "Tommy, you gotta remember that some of the programming the Priest did to me is still inside so seeing you with my sister oh damn"

You know, youíd think someone who worked summers on oil rigs would use stronger words than "damn." But thatís John for you. "Sheís very good looking," I say, in my own defense.

"I know she is," Permafrost agrees. "And I know what kind of hormones you have." He kicks a chair. "But I just donít need this right now. Not now."

"Okay," I say, getting to my feet. "And that shitheadís gonna receive at least five more Excedrins worth of pain because of what heís done to you. Thatís a promise."

"Just shut up and go. Okay? Go. Weíll talk later, okay?"

Iím doing my best not to feel too pissed off -- shit, itís not like we had actually reached the stage where we were fucking -- so I dematerialize and fly through the roof, keeping my eyes trained on John. I expect to see at least a tinge of regret on his face, but Iím not seeing fucking anything.

Kick my ass if I say something lame, like "itís cold as ice," okay?

******

"The Jabberwock says, if everyone does what theyíre told, no one gets hur -- ggh!"

Fortunately, the supervillain doesnít finish his sentence. Just like the Brickwork Men, whom Iíve toppled like nine-pins, one punch and heís out for the count. Itís a cool trick: scout the enemy, become intangible, rocket through the floor, catch them completely by surprise, rematerialize, and knock unconscious. The Tyrannical Trio are robbing a bank in downtown San Francisco. Itís also the first major supervillain crime Iíve stopped in the Bay, and thatís kinda cool. The city has a lot of hostility towards anything that stinks of Los Angeles, and quite a few of the locals see me as just another Southern California invader. Itíll be good to change some perceptions.

"Itís Omega!" Dr. Stygia shouts. He looks fucking elegant in that red and gold ensemble, but his dialogue comes straight from Planet of the Dorks. Even the hostages in this second rate bank job realize that.

"Iíll take care of him!" The Brickyard snaps, doing a double bicep flex. Shit, he is huge, but heís even less impressive than he was in our first fight. After youíve seen Avatar and Core and Blockade and Sandstone in the fucking flesh, these two-bit juice-jobs just donít cut it.

"Youíre ripped, Bricks, but you need to work on your symmetry!" I mock, and suddenly Iím wearing the Brickyard as a nightshirt. With a contemptuous shrug, I throw him down, making earthquake-sized cracks in the bankís shiny linoleum floor. The Brickyard gets back to his feet, flexes again, then wrestles me. I push him back easily. Without even muscling up, Iím still way more than a match for this Ďroid-ridden piece of shit. Cool, that gives me a few extra options in case there are any surprises.

The Brickyard and I trade punches while Stygia watches; the dumbass in the battlesuit should be threatening the hostages and inviting a Mexican stand-off, but heís too busy being entertained by the fight. Of course, so are the hostages; one old lady whoís been tied up and is resting against the wall is mouthing "kick his ass, Omega," although sheís smart enough not to say it out loud. I wink at her.

And I kick the Brickyardís ass, and I kick it fucking hard. By the fifth punch, the only one of his muscles that are doing anything are the ones in his face, which are registering pain. It definitely jazzes me, especially given how much punishment Iíve taken in my last few fights. I throw the Brickyard into the bank wall next to the vault and dent it with his body -- a reinforced wall. I get close to him, punch him repeatedly in the gut -- those rock hard abs ainít gonna keep muscle-boy from puking his guts out in a half hour -- and I whisper to him: "Every time I have to fight someone more than once, they get hurt worse each time. You understand me, asshole?"

"Bite me." The Brickyard gasps. "You skinny little puke."

Usually, Iíd respect that sort of attitude, but my inborn contempt for the musclehead prevents it. I headbutt him, he falls to his knees, then I connect with a right cross that sends him into slumberland. Then I kick him several times in the ribs for good measure. Shit, have I ever kicked someone when theyíre out? Never, before now. The hostages look spooked too.

I turn to face Dr. Stygia. He's backpedalling and palming the air in front of him. "Stay away, Omega," he warns, and even adds, "Iím warning you"

The standard D-Grade villain warning causes any unease Iím feeling to evaporate, so I turn against the villainous cunt. "I have hostages" he adds, suddenly realizing that he should have acted sooner. He probably figures he could use his fire powers to burn the hostages any time he liked, but I steal a trick from Johnís playbook and throw up an ice shield around them.

"You know, people who hurt innocents really piss me off," I snarl. "Youíre no better than Autocrat or the fucking Black Priest, and do you know how much I hate those assholes?"

He fires a blast of fire at me. I reflect it into the ground. "Iím just trying to make a living," Stygia tells me.

"Now we get to the whining part," I say, I grab his wrist and break it. "Thatís for going back to a life of crime after youíd be pardoned. But wait kids, thereís more"

"Youíre crazy!" Stygia shouts. I deliver a sledgehammer blow to his stomach. He drops to one knee, fighting an urge to puke.

"Youíre right," I say with a snarl. Wow, boys and girls, now I can check another one off the list of the top ten superhero clichés! Do I get bonus miles with these? "Please tell me youíre surrendering, and donít keep me waiting."

At that moment, a cop opens the door to the bank. Stygia smiles and says, "Fool," then transforms himself into a jet of flame, and goes streaking out the door. But heís not the only one who can pull off that trick. I transform myself into a cold wind and pursue him. He jets up to the roof, but I catch him and slam him, forcing him back into human form.

"Youíve reached the end, Stygia."

"Maybe. But yours is coming right after mine."

"And howíd you reach that brilliant conclusion?" I scoff.

"Because I know why you're here," Stygia informs me. "And no matter what you do to me, the Black Priest is going to get you."

"Really?" I smile, "And just how do you think heís going to accomplish that? Heíll harass me, sure, but his track record on guys in my league isnít exactly impressive. Otherwise the Protectorate wouldíve been wiped out years ago." Címon asshole, fall into my trap Spill your guts. Itís hard to tell from the glowing eyes and the faceplate, but he looks confused. "Nah, you donít know anything. You call yourself ĎStygia,í but you donít know the first thing about the underworld or even a minor sorcerer, such as the Priest."

"Minor sorcerer? Do you know how many demons are at his command? Do you know how he blackmailed a god?"

"He promised Macha that heíd find her precious Cuchalain," I say, twirling my pointer finger. "Everyone fucking knows that."

"But what you donít know is that five centuries ago, the Priest fought Queen Mabb herself for Cuchalainís body and beat her. He now holds the heart of Cuchalain. Itís one of the sources of his power. As long as he possesses it, itís fated that no hero will ever best him."

"Sure," I say. "And youíre supposed to be a reliable source on inside dirt?"

"Iím a demon, you fool!" Stygia proclaims. "As a denizen of the sixth circle of Hell, I know such things."

"Sure you do," I say in a completely mocking tone. "And what does he use to control your kind?"

"You miserable bastard!" Stygia says. "Youíre pumping me for information!"

"Youíre not as stupid as you look," I say. "But I got you by the nards, dude, so fess up. There ainít no one up here to testify about excessive force," I add, baring my teeth in an obnoxious grin to rival Michaelís. "Tell me what you know about the Priest!"

"Iím not sure where he came from," he stammers. I canít believe that Stygiaís cooperating, but when I look at him as he cradles his fractured wrist, I can guess at his motivation. "But at some time, he won the favor of the Dark Gods. Over centuries, the Priestís followers made pacts with demons, but his followers bequeathed all the benefits to their master, and they took all of the disadvantages."

"Man, thatís a real P.T. Barnum act," I say.

"Thatís why heís always used religion as a cover. In part itís because the Dark Gods like it, but also because it requires perfect faith to damn yourself forever and receive nothing in return. Every century or so, he finds a patsy foolish enough to give him great power. The Priest has borrowed the third hand of the arch-demon Asmodeus. His tongue is wetted by Mammonís spittle. There are so many parts of the Priest that have been taken from demons and devils (for whom his followers paid the price) that thereís hardly any part left of him thatís human."

"Especially his soul," I mutter.

"No!" Stygia exclaims. "Youíd like to think that, wouldnít you? But human souls are special. They are capable of greater nobility than any angel -- or greater depravity than any devil. Demons are mere reflections of evil, devils beings humanity's darkest potential. And the Priestís heart is very human, hardened by centuries of power and depravity, and eyes that are blind to everything except the most sinful places of the soul."

"Youíre so full of shit!" I exclaim, ready to freeze dry the asshole.

"Maybe," Stygia replies. "Or maybe the Priest is more powerful than you can imagine. Capable of greater wickedness than you can imagine. He took the confessions of the two Princes of the Tower of London, then mocked them and slit their throats as Richard III watched. He raped the Duchess of Clarence and gave birth to the monstrous Prince Albert Victor, who became the worldís first serial killer..."

"He was Jack the Ripperís dad?" I scoff. "Man, I really have to get this guyís press agent. The guy must be a fucking genius. The Priest just happened to have a stake in so many of humanityís low points?" I shake my head. "Next thing youíll say that he gave Bill Gates the source code for Windows."

"Perhaps he did," Stygia offers. "Sometimes he plants seeds that do not bear fruit. Sometimes, he sends acolytes as cunning and evil as himself to do his dirty work. Sometimes, he lies, and takes credit for other peopleís labors. But even if one in every twenty of the tales is true, his accomplishments have been outstripped by no man in your history. His is a most enviable darkness."

Iím ready to pound the shit out of him, but once again, I have piss-poor luck -- a police helicopter shows up. I encase him in a force-field containment, and strip away pieces of his battlesuit (the Dictator designed it) that magnify his pyrokinetic powers. Under the mask, he looks human enough. Iíll have to check in with Dr. Wight at some point and see if I can verify his story about being an AWOL demon. I watch the police escort him and the other trio members between us.

"This ainít over between us." The Brickyardís struggling in his force-field brace. The cops escorting him look a little spooked. "Next time we meet, Iím gonna teach you what physical strength is all about."

"Good-bye, Bricks!" I shout back. "Have fun doing push-ups in your cell!"

"Itís not over!" the Brickyard yells. "Youíre gonna be my bitch!" Fuck, I got way bigger things to worry about than that muscleheaded puke. I finish up with the police and the containment authorities, and head back to Los Angeles. A lot of the journals and background reports that Iíve requested from the Feds have arrived, and I got a ton of reading to do.

******

Lately, Iíve focused my patrols around Los Angeles, with frequent excursions to San Francisco and Las Vegas, and occasional trips to Portland, Seattle, Denver, and San Diego added to the mix so Iím not predictable. Denver of course, is only a few minutes from home, so invariably when I hit Denver, I also head back to Milford.

Denverís quiet today, so of course Iím heading home. Itís a spectacular, if cold, winter sunshine afternoon and the Rockies look fucking awesome. I sweep down over the plains like some Egyptian fertility god, inspecting the barren fields. At whim, I slow down and use my powers to enrich the topsoil, which will give them a better crop yield next year. I remember the Doc down at the University of Colorado talking to me about this kind of shit, telling me how it can affect crop prices, how I shouldnít do this, etc. But there are people who feel uncomfortable about me using my powers to do anything; they get nervous when I even take a shit. Hey, assholes, I gotta do what I gotta do: breathe, eat, wrestle, fuck, fly and "meta." (Lately on MNN, "meta" has become a verb, meaning "to use oneís powers." I intend to meta until I die, or until the world fucking burns down.)

I arrive at the farm, walk through the front door, and hear what sounds like a struggle in the living room. I bolt there with superhuman speed, and find that all the furnitureís been pushed aside, and Steve Doerksen and dad are wrestling on the floor, with Steve on top.

"What the fuck," I shout, grabbing Steve, pulling him off dad, and muscling him into a wall.

"Back off, Tom!" dad says, getting to his feet and wiping the sweat off his forehead.

"We were just Ďrasslin," Steve says. "You know I wouldnít hurt your dad." My mouthís gaping in astonishment. "Buckís been acting up, and your dadís been working out with me so that if I have to manhandle him Iíll have a chance we talked about this!"

"I just" I canít really find the words. "Shit"

"Didnít you know that your old man could wrestle?" Dad smiles. "You should check your school records. Your uncle Sean was State Champion back in í70, and Crannie took silver in both í72 and í73. And if I wasnít so busy dating and studying, Iíd probably have had my own medal collection."

"You never wrestled with me," I say, sulking.

"Sure I did, when you were small," Dad explains. "But you got so carried away when we roughhoused, and your mother was scared Iíd hurt you, so I stopped. And by the time you hit middle school, it was obvious that you were going to do a lot better at it than even your uncle Sean, and no dad volunteers to get whipped by his boy."

Iím not really hearing the words as heís saying them. Part of me doesnít care, and thereís another part of me thatís as pissed as hell that Steveís filling the void that I left behind in his life, replacing me as dadís son. I know itís a bullshit fear, but itís there.

"Okay," I say. "Well, I had a couple of things to say." I look at Steve and squeeze his bicep. Man, if he had been this big in high school, he wouldnít have been such a fuck-up as a wrestler (although Steve was a choke artist, and choke artists will always be choke artists, regardless of the tools). "Shit, youíve put on a lot of muscle lately."

"Thanks."

"If youíve been Ďroiding, Iíll kick your fucking ass." I smile, and then I turn back to my dad. "Dad is Buck here? We probably should have a family meeting."

"Buckís in Lincoln, with his group." I nod. Buck attends a support group for people like him whoíve been brain damaged, twice a week. I guess I lost track of the days.

"Iíve spoken to some neurologists at UCLA. Theyíve pointed out some of the dangers of blindly using magic in delicate medical procedures -- they even had pictures and shit -- so Iím going to take some courses and work with some of the doctors. If everything goes well, I should be ready to start using my powers to reverse the worst of Buckís brain damage by next summer."

"Great!" Steve exclaims.

"But there will be a long period of education and rehabilitation," I mention. "Weíre not going to restore memories from dead brain cells."

"Well, it would be good to get your cousin working right," Dad says. "Iíve got work to do, so Iíll let you boys talk"

No, I donít want dad retreating to his "cave" (to use masculine psychobabble), not now. "Dad?" I say. "What can you tell me about the Black Priest?"

Dad stops and gives me an odd look. "That sounds more like your job, Tom."

Iím not sure why I asked him this, but now that Iíve started down this road "Has he ever been sighted in Nebraska?"

Dad nods. "Actually he turned up right here in Milford, back in 1978. There were a lot of churches in town, same as now, and one of his cults tried to take over the leadership at Grace Missionary. There were a lot of farm killings, animal sacrifices. Hell, even our dog went missing. Then the Nebraskan showed up, confronted him, and broke up the cult."

Iíd heard of the Nebraskan, a big, marginally superhuman guy who rode a teleporting horse around Omaha and fought crime in the late 70s. But I never imagined he fought the Priest, and in my own fucking backyard! "How come I never heard about that asshole showing up in Milford?"

"Donít be so anxious, Tom," Dad says. "It was a long time ago. And thereís something about that man that makes people not want to talk about him." Dadís certainly right on that account.

"Anyone knows what he was doing here?" I ask.

Dad shakes his head. "The most popular theory was that he was looking for the grave of the Indian princess who died here back in the 1870s. But that was just bullshit. No one really knows."

"Wasnít that first guy you beat last year associated with the Priest?" Steve asks.

"Soulkiller? I heard something to that effect," I verify Steveís statement. "But Iím just surprised to see the Priest come within a thousand miles of this hole-in-the wall state." Fortunately, everyone in the room knows not to be insulted by the remark.

"You saw what he did in the late 80s," Dad speculates, "where he was manipulating Jim Baaker and Ben Mitchell and a lot of other television evangelists. At its best, religion takes our highest qualities and elevates them to something greater than ourselves. I suppose it's in his best interest to corrupt religion and make sure it doesnít get us to that point. So it shouldnít be a surprise to see him targeting the Bible Belt."

"Besides, once you figure him out, youíll kick his butt." Steveís trying to be encouraging. "No sweat." I smile at Steveís response. "We have faith in you."

"Yeah," I answer. "Faith. Thatís all we really have, isnít it?"

******

"I came to talk about vampires," I say, stepping into good olí Doc Wightís parlor.

I'm at his Boston "lodgings," one of his bigger Victorian homes. The foyer doesnít exactly look haunted, though the foul weather sets a perfect gloom. Outside, the rain is coming down in big gray sheets, and the thunder and lightning is a nice touch. In classic horror movies, Iíd say this is what you'd call setting the mood. But I don't hear Vincent Price's voice, or see a pastey-faced Lon Chaney, so I know I'm in no cheesy fright flick.

"This is very opportune," Wight tells me. "We have much to discuss."

We step into a large study, a room that has a couple of big leather chairs, a pair of reading tables, and everything else is packed with overflowing book shelves. It should be a dust trap, but everything looks immaculate.

"Doc, if it's no problem, I have a question for you."

"About vampires." Dr. Wight takes a deep breath. "I have done some study. It is rather technical"

"I got time," I insist.

"Well, it begins with a rare medical condition," Wight answers. "There are many accounts of night-stalkers during the medieval times who ate raw meat. Some anthropologists claim that such origins could have been due to a medical condition, a congenital blood disorder known as iron-deficiency porphyria."

"Or they could have been demonic undead freaks," I counter with a smirk.

"A few of them were," Dr. Wight agrees. "But arenít you at all fascinated by the scientific possibilities? The metabolism of the sufferers of this condition is very inefficient in combining iron with complex compounds called porphyrins to yield haem, a much needed component of the blood pigment haemoglobin. The disease results in their skin becoming increasingly impregnated with iron-free porphyrins, which are stimulated by daylight to incite a chain of reactions causing skin lesions and other disfigurements."

"And a stake through the heart kills them, right?" I quip.

"Mr. Champion, please listen to the details. You might find your devil in them," he says. "To avoid this the sufferers tend to only come out at night -- they also suffer from gum tightening which causes the teeth to protrude -- giving them vampire-like appearances and habits. Even more fascinating is that garlic activates an enzyme which destroys that which is most valuable to them -- the precious haem which their bodies are lacking. Hence, garlic is pretty much a deadly allergy to them!"

"So letís say the Priest has the disease." I try to cut to the chase. "I donít see how we can use it against him. Obviously heís got magical ways around the diseaseís effects. And where do real vampires come from?"

"From Romania and Bulgaria," Wight answers me. "And yes, during the reign of Vlad the Impaler, the Priest was there. When the Wallachians finally removed Vladís head, the Black Priest conducted the burial rites at the Isle of Snagov." I blink at Wightís statement. "I know youíve been asking questions on the Priestís background, Omega. You should have come to me first."

"You were always on the list, Doc," I say.

"Nonetheless, you should have been more discreet," Wight says. "Nothing you could have done would be more likely to provoke a response from your enemy than a thorough inspection of his past."

I shake my head; itís not like the assholeís been leaving me alone. "Somebodyís gotta stop quaking in their fucking boots and take on this guy, Doc. Hasnít he been fucking up the planet long enough? And what about the vampire connection?"

"Well, as I was about to say" Dr. Wight smiles. "Vampires began as diseased humans, despised humans, humans so desperate about their condition that they allowed their bodies to become habitats for demons, and thus the first modern vampires were born."

"So the disease came first," I say. "You donít suppose he engineered AIDS so he could gain control of the gay community, and join them up with demons." My idea's intended as a joke, but Wightís face is absolutely stone for five seconds. "Youíre fucking kidding me?"

"Itís not beyond the realm of possibility," Wight says. "And I know of at least two supervillains who fit that profile"

"Shit!" I exclaim, almost mad enough to stomp. No, letís change the subject, and quick. "So what else do you know about vampires?"

"Well, I know that Stokerís Dracula was based on a true story. A friend of Stokerís, a Professor Arminius Vambery from the University of Budapest, uncovered some documents in Wallachia that indicated the Priest had resurrected Vlad Tepes as a vampire in the late eighteenth century. Stoker followed a paper trail to England, and discovered that Dracula had wreaked havoc there for six years until he was staked by several adventurers in 1864, including Dr. Joseph Bell."

"Is that name supposed to ring a bell?" I pun. Wight ignores it.

"Arthur Conan Doyle used him as a model for Sherlock Holmes," Wight informs me. "I can state with some satisfaction that several of my ancestors were also involved in ending that monsterís existence. Iím not sure how Stoker tracked down the story, and many of the details were changed, of course."

"This isnít getting me anywhere, unless I run into some Dracula questions when I appear on the next celebrity Jeopardy," I say.

"Well, I suppose Iím steering you toward my great grandfather because he has a great deal to do with what I really wanted to talk about with you. Iíve discovered something very distressing that concerns you, Omega. First, how much do you know about your family background?"

"My great grandfather came over from England around 1920 and settled in Lincoln."

"And before that?"

"Havenít a clue," I admit, throwing up my hands.

"What do you know about a Reverend Thaddeus Edward Collins?" Dr. Wight asks. I must have a blank expression on my face, because Wight continues without a response. "He was a British biologist and adventurer in the 1880s and Ď90s. He considered himself the spiritual successor to Darwin."

"Darwin, Iíve heard of," I admit. "Collins, I donít know shit about."

"Thaddeus was the Dr. Frankenstein of his day, quite literally. He became convinced, based on excessive anxiety over the trivial troubles of his time, that the only way to save the human race was to produce a superhuman. To achieve this end, itís said that he became a sorcerer of frightening power, and he was tutored in the black arts by an Anglican bishop who liked to wear black."

"The Black Priest," I say. "I take it that Collins unleashed some monster upon the world, and I need to smash it?"

"Monster thatís a debatable label," Wight says. "As for smashing it, Iím afraid that would be quite suicidal."

"Hey, Iím pretty tough, Doc, remember?" I protest. But Wight isnít laughing.

"Collins grafted the parts of angels, demons, and humans into one single magnificent being," Wight goes on. "My great grandfather, my great-uncle, and several adventuring companions tried to stop him from bringing it to life, but they were too late. And on September 21, 1899, a bolt of lightning struck the being--"

"Wait a minute," I interrupt him. "Doc, you do realize that I was struck by lightning on September 22, in 1999?"

"One century later, yes," Wight says. "On the exact same day, if you adjust for the date line. But there are even more disturbing parallels than that. The electrical shock interacted with the creatureís nervous system, bringing him to life. Collins called him Humanityís Champion, and then finally named him ĎDavid Champion,í because his body reminded him of Michaelangeloís greatest work of art. He was your great grandfather."

"Holy shit!" I gasp, collapsing into a chair. "Holy fucking shit!" Good fucking God, did he just say what I thought he said?

"There are numerous implications, my young friend," Wight warns me. "The descendants of this perfect man are themselves both blessed and cursed, blessed by the angel component to be the paragon of man; one need only look at your family members to see the truth in that."

"Thatís for sure. Thatíd explain Buckís fucking strength, or my grandfather taking out machine gun nests by himself in World War II. And whatís the demon side supposed to do, if I canít guess?"

"The demon component dooms the bloodline to live fated, self-destructive lives. But I fear the Priest used the Champion family as a crucible to his own end."

"To create me," I say, through gritted teeth. "Iím his fucking masterplan, arenít I?"

"Iím sorry Thomas," Wight says. "But it certainly looks that way."

Iím silent for a few minutes, literally. Wight just looks at me. Finally, he gets on my nerves, and I blurt out, "Yíknow, this is one fucking plan thatís just going to backfire," I say, to myself as well as Doc Wight. "Now what else do you know about the Priest?"

"Heís been linked to everything from the Spanish Inquisition to the Hellfire Club to the Michigan Militia," Wight says. "What else have you uncovered?"

I repeat the things I heard from the others, at least the stuff that probably wasnít bullshit. "I also heard he was associated with some Nazi supervillain -- Der Fesselnder," I say.

"ĎThe Spellbinder,í" Wight translates. "Iíve heard stories."

"I got Fesselnderís journals from Agent Stone -- the Allies used them as evidence to convict him at Nuremberg -- but I canít read German, so I was wondering if you could look through them and see what you could uncover," I suggest. "Iíve done a little bit of translation, something about joining a pre-Nazi cell that organized themselves in a Munich gay bar in the early 1920s, but it didnít really make me want to read too much further. If a couple of guys consent to sticking their cocks up each otherís asses, I ainít got no problem, but their shit went way beyond that. I canít stomach losers who canít feel good about themselves unless theyíre abusing kids."

"I see," Wight says.

"Although I did skip forward to the World War II part, when heís got Old Glory under hypnotic control, wanking off while Flagbreath was standing around in the buff. Fortunately thatís all he did -- he got scared that Glory would wake up and kill him if he took it any further -- so Glory managed to escape without well, yíknow."

Iím making a sick joke about this, but the truth is that it was actually a big relief to discover that the old-schooler had managed to avoid "the fate worse than death". Hey, I like the fossil. Iíve had talks with a number of veteran superheroes, and if you get them drunk enough, to a man theyíll admit that their deepest fear is getting raped by a psionic while theyíre subjected to mental domination.

"Sick little fuck!" I holler.

"He was a Nazi." Wight scowls.

"Yeah, but there are sub-species," I reply. "Although Iíd rather get ass-fucked a thousand times than to have been one of the first Allied troops into Auschwitz. By the way, donít tell Old Glory that I found out about the whole gay Nazi sex object thing."

"Iíll do my best to keep it off his reading table," Wight promises.

"You go into this business, expecting glory, expecting to do good things, and once you hear some of the shit from the people who have lasted, you wonder what the fuck you were thinking."

"You do indeed," Wight concurs.

"You think youíre on top of the world, and then the world crumbles beneath your feet." Wight looks bored. "Youíve heard this before, havenít you?" He nods. "Okay, enough with the self-pitying bullshit rant. By the way, when our great grandfathers met, what happened?"

Wight goes over to a cabinet and offers me a glass of brandy, and pours himself a big one. "Mine died," Wight answers.

"Jesus Christ, Iím sorry," I stammer. "I hope it wasnít painful."

"He grabbed the controls at the moment the lightning struck," Wight informs me. "He was electrocuted. His last words were: ĎThis never happened in Shelley.í"

"So the first thing my great grandfather saw when he was born was your great grandfather dying?" I shake my head. "Man, in my family, even the births suck."

******

Kansas Cityís an odd place for a supervillain to hang out, but here I am.

Iím going back to my roots, and taking on the Soulkiller, a pretentious asshole who thought he could make a lot of money terrorizing small Ďburgs like Omaha rather than go to the big city, where superheroes would likely show up and crash his little party. It seemed like kidnapping and blackmailing would prove high-profit industries, but unfortunately, Steve and Martin got me drunk enough that I actually agreed to put on a ski mask, go to Omaha, act like a superhero, and beat the shit out of the big bad Soulkiller. Which is what I did, and thatís what started the whole fucking ball rolling: Steve Doerksen, Martin Wiens, Buck, a case of Sam Adams, and a couple of bottles of Smirnoff and Jack Daniels. And after I beat the fucking idiot to a bloody mystical pulp, a police SWAT team surrounded me with shotguns and some tough guy with a fucking sergeantís badge pulled the ski mask off my head while WOWT-TVís cameras were recording the scene for everyoneís scrapbooks. I almost resisted their attempts to arrest me and became a fucking supervillain that day, except I thought it would be cool to be arrested and see if anyone was dumb enough to mess with me in lock-up. I was a dumb little shit back then, but then I still am.

I guess the notoriety Iíve received has rubbed off a bit on Soulkiller, being the first supervillain beaten by Omega is like Catastrophe being famous because he was the first guy that Avatar clobbered when Mr. Pre-Olympia showed up for the first time in modern times. Thatís too bad for him; if the asshole doesnít tell me what I want to hear, Iíll hit him twice as fucking hard. Iím a lot bigger and stronger than I was when my powers first showed up.

Soulkillerís supposed to be hiding out in this big, Neo-Gothic style house in one of the older Kansas Shitty neighborhoods. As soon as I enter the house -- a dust-ridden termite trap of faded paint, loose floorboards, and broken furniture -- I know somethingís very wrong.

"Dr. Bloom!" I shout out Soulkillerís real name. His modus operandi is almost identical to Ezra Jonesís, except instead of being a professional con artist, Bloom was a televangelist who defected to the other side, corrupted by a hellish tome called The Book of Fire.

"Dr. Bloom?"

Thereís a faint smell of sulphur. I figure Iím heading into a trap, and a serious one, if the size of my goose bumps are any indication. But I walk in anyway.

"Dr. Bloom," I say again as I turn into the living room, a Blanche Dubois nightmare of destroyed sophistication. The curtains are rotten but thick, and drawn to block out the sun. Only a shaft of sunlight permeates the room, bisecting a body thatís slumped on its back on the floor, a stilletto impaled in its throat and a bloody trickle marking a path from the door to his face like a series of Burma Shave signs. Itís Soulkiller. Heís fucking dead.

And as soon as I inhale, the curtains ripple, and out step three figures: Macha; Hellhound (not to be confused with Hellblade), a big werewolf dude whoís wearing a huge black Snidley Whiplash cape (fuck, didnít Avatar strand this asshole in Hell six years ago?); and another Black Mass operative, a teen-aged delinquent and casual killer named Misfit.

"So," Misfit says, balancing a dagger rather deftly on her middle finger, which is pointed at me, giving me the bird. "You just couldn't leave enough alone, huh?"

"Youíre violating your curfew, kid," I say, even though I'm probably older than her by not even a year. "Not to mention about six other laws thatíll make the stateís D.A. want to sit you down and pour some volts into your brain."

"Too bad," Misfit replies and slinks her sinuous body into a crouch. I've got to hand it her, with that cute face and skin-tight leather bodysuit, she mixes school-girl innocence with hardcore porn raunch."They can spank me if they catch me."

"Oooo! Gratuitous S&M references! How fucking boring," I reply. I then turn to Macha. "Youíre rather quiet today, Irish."

"Hellhound deal with him," Macha orders, ignoring my attempt to goad her.

I get ready to accept the Hellhoundís charge, but instead of coming at me claws bared, he draws a huge, almost cartoony weapon out of his cloak. It's a two-foot-long matte gray device that looks like a cross between a trombone and a rifle, and he aims it at me. Three beams strike my chest, but I donít feel anything. The device makes a sound like an elephant thatís having the life squeezed out of it, and I can feel a pressure wave building up around me. For a second, the world stops.

"We wonít kill you, Omega." I hear Machaís voice, a pretty Irish whisper. "Youíre simply going to wish you were dead."

There are no glib replies in my throat, not this time. The pressure wave builds to an intensity that even I canít take. The world has teeth, as I feel something sharp bite me -- and thatís when everything goes numb.

Everything goes black
 

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