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War of the Dimensions

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  • #16
    Re: War of the Dimensions

    Forces of Evil

    “…and here in the bar
    The piano man’s found
    Another nail for my heart!”


    “Ah,” Zorasto said, welcoming the guest. They were at a concert hall in downtown Millennium, on the east side. Not the nice end of town, and the hall had seen better days. Much better days. It was so rundown that it couldn’t even attract a performance of Annie. The archdemon sat on one of the upper tier seats in human guise, allowing him to walk the world of mortals and only mildly upsetting him. David Sutherland smiled and sat next time to him.

    “Sorry I’m late,” Invictus told the demon.

    “Don’t tell me you had a run-in with second born Carson?” the demon asked.

    “Worse,” Invictus said. “DC Traffic. And I couldn’t take the sky chariot for… reasons. Now, what can I do for you, Zorasto?”

    “I thought two men who share such a hatred for the second born Carson should get better acquainted.” Zorasto said.

    “Here? At this farce of a concert?”

    “I suppose we should have met some place more exotic. Perhaps Vegas or Monte Carlo. Then I could have chosen a poker game. Of course, though it’s rather boring when you play for mere money and not souls. I don’t understand how you humans stand to play for mere coin.”

    “But at a concert? For a Squeeze cover band?” Invictus asked. “They could have at least sprung for the originals!”

    “That stupid old bug
    That kills only love
    I want to be good
    Is that not enough…”

    “So play me the song
    That makes it so tough
    Another nail for my heart
    Then play me that song
    That makes it so tough
    Another nail for my heart.”


    “It’s actually a demonic ritual disguised as a Squeeze cover band. You didn’t think I’d listen to that dreary new wave music, did you? Even sea shanties would be an improvement, and I spent neatly two hundred years hating those.” He turned to regard the band. “They’re screaming with the voices of the damned. You just need to listen under the words. It’s actually quite pleasant. “

    “If you have acquired a taste for the sound of Hell and hard times.”

    “Of course. Though not everyone shares my little amusements. Yet. Look over there,” Zorasto pointed out an old woman who was a bit out of place among the crowd of aging rockers. “ The Trismegistus are watching,”

    “Amelia Pruitt. I see,” Invictus said. “The sweet Scottish prune. The Un-UnSeelie.”

    “That old crone.” Zorasto snorted, and he took a drink. “I crossed paths were her once. They’re quite overrated, the Trismegistus. And don’t get me started about the Magnum Mage. Chosen, Ordained, Foretold…”

    “Archmage,” Invictus corrected.

    “Archmage, whatever. Yet another prophecy wanker. It’s all a big joke. A drunken, arrogant violent fool without a shred of brains. It’s a miracle Therakiel didn’t take over the world with him as its guardian.”

    “The angel? Bah.” Invictus snorted.

    Zorasto broke down into hysterics. “Therakiel?” he blurted. “Oh, my wings! Heaven is against me!” He exclaimed, mocking the fallen angel. “And Hell is against me too! Oh my gnashed teeth and tainted halo! I will bring them all down, every last one of them, because I’m a tragic, twisted, sub-Byronic, qlipthotic-eating, gothic wanker! Whose archenemy is a burned out alcoholic Vietnam vet!” And Zorasto, pleased with himself, paused for another laughing fit. “Oh, what shall I do? I know! I’ll do what all tragically twisted souls do in this situation -- I’ll found a church! An evil church!”

    “Therakiel,” Invictus sighed, remembering the incident. “Still it’s a wonder we didn’t lose the planet that time. I mean, the idiot Carson goes ahead in time to solve the crisis, he’s only one of the most recognized superheroes on the damn planet… and still, Caliburn attacks him on sight? And then blames him for the misunderstanding after that annoying little club manager Scarlet steals his precious flame gem? Do you understand just how spectacularly obnoxious you have to be to make me feel one ounce of sympathy for Thundrax? God, that was such a farce!”

    “Please do not bring Him into this,” Zorasto said, referring to the Almighty.

    “Robert Caliburn! Caliburn! He’s the Archmage? Seriously? Even Witchcraft would have made for a better choice!” Invictus said, shaking his head. “But the position’s become just another marketing ploy if you ask me. The mystical community has debased itself.”

    “True. Everyone’s so commercial these days.” Zorasto sighed. “What ever happened to tradition? To old fashioned Occult family values?”

    “I blame the heroes for that.” Invictus said. “And for a lot of things.”

    “Yes. Like Miss Trismegistus 1921 over here,” Zorasto sneered at the old woman. “She’s certainly far afield.” Zorasto added. Scotland was her usual haunts. “But she’s as occupied with the music as anyone. Far too occupied to notice my cloaking spell.”

    “Good.”

    “Though she did bring her familiar, Lorenzo. See?”

    The villain frowned. “I see nothing save for an ugly, fat, dour woman with oversized glasses.” Invictus said, and he took a swig of the demon’s brandy. It certainly had a kick. “Harridan.”

    “The familiar is the glasses,” Zorasto said. “Can’t you smell the beast on them? The hound’s been transmogrified, but you can’t disguise everything.” He sighed. “You might say she made a spectacle out of him!” Invictus groaned. That pun was evil, even for him. “It’s a good thing I didn’t bring my cat though,” the demon added. He had left Devil Puss back in Hell, to wean itself at the River of the Milk of Souls.

    “She has nothing to do with me.” Invictus said dismissively. “Let’s get down to business. You have a proposal to destroy Carson?”

    “I thought we’d brainstorm. I’ve dealt with his father — and his brother — but that’s only the overture. I do have a plan in motion, but I am not adverse to… collaboration.”

    “Ah. Your plan. Undoing the superhuman age, except for the villains,” Invictus said, recalling Zorasto’s most recent caper. It had sent a few shockwaves down the timestream.

    “It’s proven more complicated than I’d like.” Zorasto said.

    “So I’ve heard. Weren’t you at the Captain Battle museum in Haynesville? Some sort of ritual involving the first superhero?”

    “Attacking them at their source,” Zorasto said. “Unfortunately, Captain Locke was there as well, and Carson, of course, and a few others.”

    “Battle’s old sidekick died during the fracas, right?”

    “Heroically, of course,” Zorasto sighed. “Show off. And it was such a nice plan! Pulling Totenkopf out of time was a sweet touch,” He had summoned Totenkopf, the infamous Nazi archvillain, plus some experimental Hitler-bots – giant robots that were vaguely shaped like the dictator. The Fast and the Fuhrer! Zorasto was a showman of a demon lord, and the more appalling the show, the better. Unfortunately, Thundrax and his allies had ended that show. “The Nazis had such style. Why are the Germans so embarrassed about them?”

    “They were overt killers,” Invictus reminded him, keeping an eye on Pruitt. “And their reasoning was seriously flawed.”

    “Yes,” Zorasto said. “They were a little self-centered and arrogant. Mind you, that can be said about so many people. And our army of hate grows by the day.”

    “I know,” Invictus said. His ultimate plan was to grab political power and reshape America, but others were making inroads and cutting him off. “They’re getting very difficult to control.”

    “And how are your schemes going?” Zorasto asked. “Trying to replace the Republic with Iron America? Still using the Song to alter the timeline?”

    The Song were entities of the higher planes of reality, and had (unfortunately) proven difficult to control. “I’m well past that,” Invictus said. “Though the timeline could still stand with some renovations.”

    "Oh, so clever!” Zorasto clapped, a touch of mockery. “Again with the clever euphemism. Oh, I so applaud your command of the language. Mind you, back in my day, do you know what we called clever people? Pagru. Corpses.”

    “I don’t recognize the language.” Invictus said.

    “Akkadian.”

    “Ah,” the villain said. “That was well before my time.” The demon within Invictus only remembered as far back as the 3rd Century CE. A thousand years too late for Akkadian.

    “It used to be spoken from Libya in the west all the way to the Indus Valley,” Zorasto remembered. “It was the lingua franca when I was still young and human. Time is so fragile, memory more so, even for my kind. The days and the torments run together, you know.”

    “Merging into one colossal scream.”

    “Of course, that is Hell, you know. One single unending colossal scream.” Zorasto closed his eyes. No matter where he was, where he went, that scream would always be a part of him. “Oh, Akkadian. Assurri kima teltim ullutim sa umami. It was such a pretty language. As well as utilitarian. People sang the words – when they weren’t screaming in terror at the sight of our swords and chariots. Now a guttural jabber rules the tongues of the world. English.” Zorasto spat the word. “Prose without a hint of poetry. Shouts instead of screams. Everyone shouts these days.”

    “But shouts precede the screams. They always do.” Invictus said.

    Zorasto paused, as contemplative as the demon ever got. “You know, I’m altering the timestream, and you’re altering the timestream. How about we pool our resources? You take the earth, and I take the underworld?”

    “I’ll think about it.” Invictus said. “Mind if we leave and grab some dinner?”

    “You’re not going to let me feast on a few souls along the way?” Zorasto asked.

    “Do nothing that attracts attention,” Invictus scowled.

    “But attention is fun,” Zorasto purred. “And if we’re lucky, we’ll attract the Second Born Carson. And then I can grab a limb, and you can grab a limb, and we can make a wish, and pull.” Zorasto sighed. “Chicken off the bone.”

    “That is not my design for the man,” Invictus said, and they rounded the corner and stepped into a very run-down Chinese restaurant. Wing-Wong’s. Ye hells, what a name. The place was virtually empty. It was silent, except for the clatter of dishes, someone was working in the back room. It still took five minutes for the waiter to seat them. He did not bring them water.

    “Surely you wouldn’t mind it if I had just a little soul…” Zorasto purred.

    Invictus nodded. “Go ahead. It’s not like anyone’s noticing. Though if his soul matches his work ethic, you’ll starve.” He snorted in disapproval. “And these people think they deserve a living wage.”

    Zorasto left his chair, and stepped to the back. Invictus watched him walk around a corner. There was a scream. Then a second. Then Zorasto returned, and reseated himself as casually as if returning from the bathroom.

    “You made a mess?” Invictus asked.

    “Gloriously so,” Zorasto declared.

    Invictus sighed, “Taking a soul quietly, discretely, is one thing. Mass carnage is quite another. I reserve my fun for the appropriate moments,” Sutherland told the demon. “Slaughter is sloppy, slovenly. It’s too easy for even the local Badge Nazis to trace. I cannot be seen to be involved.”

    “You have lost your sense of fun,” Zorasto said. “Oh, poor, poor Invictus! What good is it to win the world but to have no fun in the winning?”

    “Achieving my goals is all the amusement I require,” Invictus said, resolutely. He realized it was the age-old conflict. “I did not meet with you to risk exposure. I met with you because I want Carson’s reputation in ruins before I end his life.”

    “You were less careful when you fought the Champions,” Zorasto said.

    “And I paid for that lack of prudence,” Invictus told him. “Never again. And if Carson expects me to repeat my mistakes, that is his error.”

    “I want his power.” Zorasto stated.

    “Ours are not mutually exclusive goals, thankfully. I get his complete and utter humiliation, and you get his power.”

    “It’s a win-win!” Zorasto declared. “Still, all this talk of power is making me hungry. Let’s do something fun. Something that has absolutely nothing to do with Carson.”

    “Oh?”

    “We’ll strike humanity at its weakest point, their love of money!” Zorasto said with a grin. “Let’s rob a bank!”

    ***************

    Their target of choice was the People’s First Bank of Millennium, again on a rundown corner of the city, across Hockey Pantheon’s café. A large wooden cardboard picture of Gordie Howe overlooked the top of the building. Zorasto smiled.

    “A Canadian game. A Canadian player.” Invictus dismissed.

    “But wonderfully dirty! Elbows that could break a nose at a moment’s notice. A stick that flashed like a slasher movie.” Zorasto mulled. “Your enemies are not the quiet sheep you imagine, Invictus.”

    “Shhh!” Invictus hissed. “Don’t use my name!”

    “Oh right, sorry.” Zorasto grinned. The bastard.

    Either one of them would have had a ridiculously easy time robbing the bank. Together, it was like an Olympic sprinter racing an out of shape seven-year-old. Within thirty seconds, the security guard lay dead at the hands of Zorasto. Invictus rolled his eyes, muttered something about a waste, and then promptly forgot the man existed. After all, it wasn’t his fault the man was dead.

    Zorasto ignored the cash, a mere $22,000. Instead he began chanting near the safety deposit boxes, scrying and looking from box to box. “Amazing the things you can find in these handy metal compartments. Like this!” And he held up a ruby on a chain.

    “The Ruby of Berith!” Invictus gasped. “Now that is a pretty trinket for anyone wishing to command an army in Hell!” He paused. “Of course, as you abide in hell, and I do not, it should be yours.”

    “Happily, it was mine already. Still, I’m glad you didn’t go “need or greed” over this.” Zorasto said.

    Invictus laughed. “I’m not a child. And I have other ways to achieve my designs than trinkets.”

    Then a ray came out of a woman’s hand, and the ruby leapt into her grasp. “Not so fast, Defiler. The owner may not have known how to store it, but the Trismegistus know. And to keep it out of your foul grasp.” It was Amelia Pruitt.

    “Shouldn’t you be a few miles away from here, stopping an evil Squeeze concert?” Zorasto snapped.

    “Wretched scum of a demon,” Pruitt said in her thick Scots brogue, pocketing the ring in a hand that looked more feeble than it was. She was staring daggers at the pair, the way that only a little old Scottish lady could do. “I was not the only one from the Council there. We stopped the ritual ten minutes ago.”

    “But what about the big question?” Zorasto asked. “Did they play “Pulling Mussels from the Shell”?

    “No,” Pruitt said. “Enough small talk. I saw the mess you made at Wing Wongs. And you didn’t pay your bill.”

    “Wing Wongs?” Zorasto questioned. “Oh right. There. I suppose the joke is true. Consume a Chinese soul, an hour again, and you’re hungry for more souls. They just aren’t satisfying. Of course, no soul is.”

    Invictus said nothing. Let his noisy friend draw attention. He was good for cheap theater.

    You haven’t quite explained how you expect to survive me, let alone my friend.” Zorasto said. “I possess the Amulet of… well you don’t need to know that. It renders me immune to any force from the lower planes.”

    “The Amulet of Luxon.” Amelia snarled.

    “So, you recognize it! Then you must know what it can do! You cannot affect me for as long as I hold it.” Zorasto smiled. “Or wear it. The Zorasto collection, now with added invincibility.”

    “Oh?” The mage said.

    “And I do not stand alone…” Zorasto said, and he turned to Invictus.

    The villain had vanished.

    “You seem to have misplaced someone,” Pruitt noted. “You careless hobgoblin!”

    “And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird has flown.” Zorasto quoted with a sigh. “He’s a little shy. The callowness of youth. Even so, you’re hardly a match for me, even without the amulet protecting me, even if you had your entire tinpot council of dotards at your side!”

    Pruitt chuckled, a sound that oddly distressed the demon. It certainly wasn’t what he was expecting. But even the dukes of hell could not openly challenge him! What could one little Scottish woman do?

    “I don’t have to affect you, you oversized boggart!” the elder mage told him, her fingers clenched for the incantation. “All I need to do is affect your bloody amulet. Akmann tihani! Aw’arhul!”

    Invictus, watching at a distance, appreciated the light show, and the brief whiff of brimstone that accompanied the amulet’s descent to Hell -- dragging the possessor along for the ride. The flames were pretty, especially when someone else was enduring him! How easily Zorasto’s brand of evil was snuffed out, a bonfire of hate smothered beneath the sand.

    “Defeated by a mere mortal,” he chuckled. “Oh the shame of it.” He imagined Zorasto wearing an old paper bag on his head, like the cat did on Saturday morning when he was a kid. It was so long ago. He was so innocent. Who would have thought that cartoon-watching tyke would grow up to rule humanity?

    Satisfying himself with the thought, David Sutherland vowed never to ally with such a pathetic creature again. Hell doesn’t just damn you, it stupefies you. Invictus could have gone back, killed Pruitt, and left her body as a marker. But no, it was not worth it. He would deal with the Trismegistus later, on his terms. Everyone would be dealt with on his terms. Always be the piper, never the dancer.

    With that cheery thought in mind, and a dirge on his lips, Invictus returned to his tower, and like any good villain, redoubled his schemes. He had a Carson to destroy.
    Last edited by Thundrax; 06-05-2018, 08:45 AM.

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    • #17
      Re: War of the Dimensions

      The Rival

      And that’s when I punch Red Fury in the face.

      Red laughs, wiping his bloody lip on his suit, and smiles. With a casual flex, the Chicago hero’s monkey suit comes ripping off, revealing what the local press calls his “billion-dollar physique”. The testosterone is flowing like the fricking Amazon.

      The party is aghast, but spellbound. Within a minute, we’re wrestling, and rolling on the marble floor. Dancing under the chandeliers, Red and I, the best way we know how. The dance of muscle and blood, and man, is there a lot of muscle locked in that embrace, the pain waltz.

      Man, I can’t stand the guy. And the feeling’s mutual. I’ve wanted to hit him in the face for twenty years. I think he’s wanted to kick my ass just as long. Bad Craig, bad role-model!

      Say goodbye to that tuxedo. Johnny Versace might weep; We’re as shirtless as sex now. I’m glad Alex or Faye isn’t here. The two men who were voted “sexiest superhero alive” by Uncaped (four out of the last five years) are now acting like a pair of kids, rolling on the floor. We don’t even throw a punch, we just wrestle, we just try to show the other who’s stronger. There’s a lot of grunting, us idiots. Twenty years ago, when Red beat the shit out of me during that one “misunderstanding” between the Peacekeepers and the Northern Guard, he was clearly the stronger party, but now we’re about even. Thank you, Jaye, for the power boost. You may be killing me with this radiation-filled brawn but being strong enough to match Red and give him a taste of his own medicine is worth a slow, painful death.

      “Oh, so you’re putting up a fight, Carson,” Red hoots, mocking me.

      “The question is… can you?” I snarl back. Yes, folks, ask your doctor if overdosing on testosterone is right for you. Responsible doctors will say no.

      “Craig!” Justiciar exclaims, the lone hero to dare stepping between two titans, and pulls me to my feet., I’m puffing and sweating. I’ll never say Red isn’t ridiculously strong. Red is up as well, puffing and grinning like a madman, his emerald eyes twinkling twilight stars in the ballroom night. He’s laughing.

      “What’s the matter, Carson? Didn’t like losing the auction? Didn’t like losing the fight?” He mocks. He’s bouncing like a boxer in a dance, like Muhammed Ali. He’s practically giddy.

      “He’s not worth it, Craig,” David says. “Let’s get out of here. Now.”

      “Trump needs to put a tariff on you!” Red goads.

      I bristle. David pulls back on me, giving me just a slight jostle to disrupt my concentration, and the deathstare I’m shooting Red at the moment. Probably a good thing, as I can see the sparks encroach on the edge of my vision, and that alkaline, electric taste in my mouth. “Let’s go, Craig. Now!” he yells. At least his suit is still intact.

      Oh, superhero parties. Caprice could learn a few things about mayhem from you.

      “This is long overdue,” I spit, and a lump of blood stains the marble. I didn’t think he tagged me that hard, I guess he did. I leap at him, and he teleports away at the last moment. He rematerializes behind me, gives me a shove, and I end up facedown, kissing the marble.

      Sexy boy laughs even harder. David, who’s also glaring at the jerk, helps me to my feet.

      “Aw, Justajerk to the rescue.” Red sneers at Justiciar. As usual, David, his anger as chill as winter, won’t allow himself to be baited. Me, on the other hand, I’m a little easier to incite.

      ‘Hey Carson,” he adds. “When you’re finished with your boyfriend, why don’t we settle up? Warden’s Gym, you and me. Black room. Winner take all.”

      The Black Room. I’ve heard about that place. “What, we’re going to kill each other?” I ask, scoffing.

      “No. A long hospital stay should suffice.” Red grins. “But I’m going to own you, Carson.”

      “I’m not for sale,” I growl back, bristling. Testosterone was fun when you let yourself go! “Give me a time to be there…”

      “Craig….” David warns.

      I shoot David a glance. I love you, David, but you’re not my team leader anymore, it says. The man sighs. I know he understands, but still he sighs. Still he registers his disapproval.

      “7 pm tomorrow.” Red smirks, puffing his magnificent chest.

      “Let’s do this,” I snap. And the deal is consummated.

      “For Firehammer,” he snaps at me. “I’m going to beat the shit out of you, Carson. I just wish your ladyfriend was still alive to watch." That one hits hard. It's a cheap shot, but effective. "Get some rest Carson. It’ll be your last pain-free sleep for a long time.”

      5 PM, the next day.

      Now I was just Lance Callahan. The brawl at the auction had long ended. Carson had given me a swollen lip and a s
      ollen eye; it had been awhile since anyone had done that to me, not with their fists.

      “The Canadian golden boy’s gotten a bit tougher,” I say to my dead pal, laying his flowers on the grave. White orchids,
      they were slightly fluorescent, from the Cosmic Garden of the Green Gardener. Three years ago, the Peacekeepers had spared the cosmic garden from the Blight, and the Gardener had rewarded each of the Chicago heroes with a bloom. Man, was that ever an adventure. Man, was that ever a garden. Since then Lance had cultivated its blossoms into a small garden of his own – all for flowers for the graves of dead teammates.

      Thirty years of superheroing. I have a lot of graves to decorate. Orchids, lilies, and lilacs are becoming a big part of my life, and roses were next. Whoever would have expected that from a scrappy kid from the South Side?

      “Hi buddy,” I say. “There’s a big one coming up. One that’s been a long time coming. I guess I could use your blessing, from way up there.”

      The grave stares back at me. Rain droplets are starting to splatter on me, like paint.

      “It might be a fun scrap. I hope it is.” I smile. “I could use one after those vampires we faced last month. No offense to the dead,” he added to the grave. “Vampires suck you know. In every possible way.”

      Silence. Silent smiles from the fallen, and memories of the broken. Silent tears fall. I swallow hard. Lumps in one’s throat, part of a veteran superhero’s daily unbalanced diet. Did Carson cry as often? He always seemed so composed in public. It was fun to rub off the veneer of that jackass. Canadians have so much veneer, it was hard not to scratch them with the slightest contact.

      “Hope you like the flowers.” I tell the dead. “And I hope you like what I’ll do to Carson more. I haven’t forgotten. The kid stood by while his bitch of a teammate killed you.” Mentor, friend, and almost lover. “But I’m sure you remember. The dead have memories etched in their eyes, or so I’ve heard. Twenty years ago, that fight I had with him, I was just getting started. Now I get to put on the finishing touches. I’m going to beat the man until he weeps. Until he begs me to forgive him for the part he played in your death. Then I’m going to drag him here and make him beg to your grave. Then you can rest a little easier.”

      Portentously, the lightning fell. That was one Hell of a coincidence. Maybe the storm wasn’t on Carson’s side for a change?

      “At least I hope it makes a difference. You deserve it.”

      More lightning. Chicago storms. They kick and dance around you, and holler louder than a drunk at a riot. Windier than a pol giving a stump speech.

      “He’s become a bigshot now. He’s no longer that awkward lumbering kid we met years ago: he’s one helluva handsome specimen of the male animal, at least until I get through with him. You’d have appreciated the man-candy. He carries himself way better than he did when you were still running around. But then so do I, so it should be a good scrap. I can tell you one thing, it’s going to be vicious. Hero fights always seem to be, y’know, way nastier than hero vs. villain.”

      The wind was picking up; although in Chicago, you only really notice the wind when it dies down.

      You better be careful this time, Red,
      something on the wind says. Ghosts?

      This is a poor alternative to bringing him back. But at least it’s something.

      “Southside, buddy. Southside. We rock. There ain’t no Canuck who can touch us.” I smile, clenching my fists.


      6:30 pm.

      How did this mess happen?

      I’m in my hotel room at Soho House near the Fulton Market. Nice rooms: comfortable woods, and a sweet poster bed. I lie on the bed as if looking up at the stars.

      I don’t really know the man. The people who do know Red say he’s a standup guy, rugged and a little rough, but genuine. He’s the sort of man that I’m usually friends with. His rep is near spotless.

      I’m constantly revisiting 1994, which, like most of my non-Hell memories, feels like “a little ways back”. Funny how those work.

      You can blame Mechanon, Mk. XIII. Or as we called him: Technomancer. Yes, he was the one Mechanon model to experiment with sorcery. He took control of Lyle’s battlesuit, the Forceknight III armor, and he went on a technopathically-controlled rampage in Chicago. The Peacekeepers confronted him just off the Magnificent Mile. We tried to be reasonable – especially Billy (that is Ravenspeaker) who was insistent that hero should never fight hero, but they mocked us and worse. For our part, most of us were happy to kick the ass of American loudmouths and avenge our team leader. While Ravenspeaker frantically negotiated with the Peacekeepers’ native American member, the Kickapoo, the fight continued and Anne impaled Firehammer on an ice lance. A fluke interaction of powers, the wrong vulnerability at the wrong time. I was standing next to her as it happened. I was the one who felt for Hammer’s pulse, and, not finding it, pronounced him dead. Man, did my voice quaver. It was surreal, like I was listening to someone else pronounce the words. My gloves, normally canary yellow, were crimson. Anne was aghast, as you might expect. She always saw herself as above such consequence.

      I’d never been responsible for a hero’s death before. Not even tangentially, not even in SUNDER, and that was a far more of a rough and tumble crowd than the somewhat more responsible Guard. Later, we were exonerated, and the record wiped clean. Mechanon received the blame for poor Firehammer’s death, one more added to his list of atrocities. But Firehammer was dead, and we couldn’t change that, not even Billy. Red Fury was no fan of the deal that exonerated us, and though it’s been decades, he’s never forgiven us, especially me. We’ve brushed shoulders a few times over the years; Red’s made quite a few disparaging remarks, which I’ve ignored.

      I’ve tried to look at the situation from his point of view. I’m sure I’d be pissed if I were in his shoes. I’ve tried to apologize, but he’s just brushed me aside. Part of me can’t blame him. Another part of me says that a quarter century is way too long to hold onto a grudge, and we need to resolve this shit. Especially if I’m leading the Protectors. No one wins if there’s a schism between Millennium and Chicago’s premier superteams, except for villains like Kostadin.

      “Not in costume tonight?” David asks, seeing me start to don some red MMA-style trunks.

      “I wear the flagsuit to remind myself I’m a foreigner on US soil,” I explain. “I don’t need the reminder tonight. Plus, the flags we wear are kinda a matched set for the two of us, and I don’t want you you associated with this mess.”

      “I am involved. I was part of the team,” David says.

      “You tried to stop it, at least until Mechanon froze you.” I tell Justiciar. “I didn’t. As far as I – and he – is concerned, I own what happened. And he may have a point.”

      “Don’t go guilting yourself, Craig.”

      I shake my head. “I was a dumb kid who made a lot of stupid mistakes,” I say.

      “You were my first friend after I awoke,” David replies. “You were the one who dragged me out of the abyss where Cyberlord left me. So don’t you dare talk to me about mistakes. You’ve always been next to faultless in my book.”

      Faultless. As usual, David is being way too kind with me.

      5 pm

      I shouldn’t be working out this close to the fight, but I’ve got to get at least little bit of this anger out of my system.

      So I punch the bag with enough force to puncture foot thick kendrium. I imagine it’s the Canadian Hercules’ face.

      So damn handsome. So damn destructible.

      “I’m stronger than you, Carson. I’m prettier than you, Carson.” I tell the punching bag. Each blow breaks the machine’s limits. How many tons per square inch was that punch? The scale stops at 5 kilotions. “And this time, I’m more right than you, Carson.” I add, slamming it full force. “For the truth. For Fire.”

      And I break the machine.

      7 pm.

      An ominous clang. The Black Door closes. Red is there, wearing black trunks that are even skimpier than mine. It’s his style, though like me he has the “tougher than his clothes” problem that leads to a lot of accidental nudity.

      “Neither of us decided to do this in our suits, huh?” Red snirked. I’m sure he’s checking me out. Brickhouses tend to do that, even when we’re not gay.

      “This really isn’t a very heroey situation now, is it?” I reply.

      “Well, you’re looking great Carson,” Red says, whistling and grinning.

      “We’re both “specimens,”” I say.

      “We are at that. And you’re going to be the best looking mangled guy in America by the time I’m done.”

      “I’m not really in the mood for speeches, Red,” I answer. Or threats. “No one’s ever said we don’t look every inch the hero. We just have to act the part.”

      “No, not today, Mr. Canada.” Red says. “Today we act nothing like heroes. Just men.”

      “If you say so, Mr. Chicago,” I snap back.

      And then suddenly the room lights up, a scanner washes over us, and something in the Black Room’s infrastructure hums and whirs. Wait, this room has an AI? In a private club’s gymnasium? Even Carl’s, built for metahuman violence, doesn’t have one of those!

      “The disputing parties will state their name and purpose.” a computer voice tell us. “Introductions, please.”

      “Craig Alexander Carson,” I say. “I wish to resolve my dispute with Red over here, so we can move past this.”

      “Lance Bridgefield Callahan.” Red says. I didn’t know his real name. His middle name is Bridgefield? “I intend to beat Craig Carson until he pays for his role in the death of my friend.”

      “This combat will continue until objectives have been achieved.” The computer says.

      “The devil,” Red mutters. “The Black Room’s never done this before.”

      “I think the bell just rang,” I say, and I advance on Red, and smile. There’s a bastard’s grin on both of our faces. The testosterone is really flowing tonight. This is going to be a fight.

      Except – it isn’t.

      9 pm.

      Two hours have passed, and two of the strongest superheroes on the planet are having a cutthroat, no holds barred wrestling match, me and handsome Craig here. Except, despite the fact I can’t stand this man, despite the fact that I want to take my fist and break his nose, I can’t. And neither, so it seems, can Mr. Canadian muscle. Boy scout. Instead, we’ve spent two hours rolling around, trading holds, going back and forth. No punches, no kicks, no bites, no low blows, no eye gouges. Just a lot of muscle on muscle, bravado. and grunts. This is no holds barred, but neither of us wants to be the first guy to use dirty tactics. It’s the cleanest grudge match ever. But wrestling isn’t cutting it. Much as I hate to admit it, he’s way stronger than he was twenty years ago, and he’s so damn experienced it’s hard to catch him at a disadvantage. We’re two grandmasters of muscle chess, and between our seventy years of fighting experience, we’re stalemated.

      “What’s the matter, Craig. You too good to throw an honest punch?” I goad.

      “Aw, you care,” Craig replies, his smug voice oozing the obnoxious like Canadian tar sands. “I’m not going to be the first one to start fighting dirty.”

      “Well, I’m not going to be the first one to start fighting dirty, either!” I shout back.

      “Shut up and get back to grunting,” he says with a smirk.

      “Fine!” I snap. “Be like that, jackass!”

      And we wrestle for two more hours. A kid from Chicago and a kid from Vancouver grunt, a lot. Hammerlock to King’s skull-3. Armbar to Left Arm-2. Leglock to knight’s knee-1. The fighting chess grandmasters continue their stalemate waltz. Is this chess or dancing?

      By the third hour, our bodies are as slick as summer sex, and we’re huffing like a set of bellows in a forge. Huff, huff, huff. We take turns grimacing and grinning like a pair of wolves, luring an opponent in for the kill, eluding the other guy’s traps. And, given that my hate for the guy is rising every second, I wonder why I’m not throwing a punch. It isn’t just my code of sportsmanship. Southsiders don’t have one! It’s not that I can’t do it, but that I won’t. Nor, amazingly enough, will he. Are we being mentally influenced? Is one of our teammates secretly mind controlling us, keeping the fight from getting out of hand? It’d just like one of these idiots from Passive-Aggressive-ada!

      “Time out.” I say, holding up my hands and making a “T” as if I were reffing a football game. I push the palm of my hand gently against his face, on the bridge of the nose, not a slap, just to get his attention. He scowls, but I’ve got it. “Hold up, big guy. This is fun, but we’re not here for fun. We’re here to settle accounts. I’m here to settle your hash. I think someone’s telepathically goading us so we play nice.”

      “The room, maybe?” Thundrax speculates.

      That idea never occurred to me.

      “Hit me.” I say, “Throw a punch. Let’s turn this into an honest brawl.”

      “Fine,” Carson says, and he tags me with a right cross that is so heavy and so sweet that I immediately regret my offer. After picking myself off the ground, Carson walks over to me and throws up his hands. “Your turn,” he says. Huffing, I tag him with a punch that would take off the heads of 99% of the people on the planet. He winces, and snaps his head back. I can’t believe he’s still conscious. How’d this guy get so tough? Back in the 90s, I owned the Maple Leaf chump.

      “Nice punch,” Carson says, blinking, and getting back into his stance. “Let’s do this.”

      We’re point one percenters, and I’m not talking about the lost Toltec platinum mines I own, or Carson’s oil reserves. The fight, finally, is on. The billionaires are throwing down.

      Ring the damn bell. For real this time.


      940 pm.

      I knew this job was dangerous when I took it. That’s a quote from Super Chicken, a cartoon I watched when I was a kid. A brawl with Red certainly qualifies as dangerous.

      So the kid gloves are off. And once they’re off, we fight dirty. Really dirty. Some of the things we’re doing to each other, I’d rather not describe. Use your imagination. On second thought, knowing that most people’s imaginations are pretty disgusting, maybe you shouldn’t. Suffice it to say we pretty much knock each other senseless and keep fighting on instinct.

      Twice during the match, I secure a rear mount, and get him in the dreaded rear naked choke (which takes on new meaning when you blast away each other’s clothes, because Heaven forbid I have a fucking fight where I don’t end up in the buff!) He teleports away twice, but I’m persistent. I know how hard it can be to teleport away when someone’s clutching you, and every time he tries the trick, he’s dog tired for about thirty seconds afterward. So, like Elizabeth Warren, I persist.

      And finally, five minutes later, I’ve got him. Hanging on his back, legs scissoring his waist, I’ve got him. He’s not teleporting anymore, he’s fading.

      And then, I let him go before he loses consciousness. Before I’ve technically won.

      I take a moment to look at us. Naked, burnt. Our bodies are charbroiled third degree burn hellscapes. Not unlike Ricardo Montalban at the end of that one good Star Trek movie; we’re grotesque. It hurts to look at him. I imagine I look the same, a make-up artist’s burn job wet dream. I really don’t feel good about doing that to another human being. To a hero.

      “This is stupid,” I say. Man, that’s hard for me to admit. The other part of me was having so much fun, dancing the combat waltz.

      “What—?” Red can’t believe it either.

      “We’re two of the planet’s veteran good guys,” I say. “We’ve both been diplomats. You negotiated a peace treaty between the surface world and the Subterroks. Me, I’ve negotiated a ceasefire between alien war armadas. We’re twenty-five years older than we were back in the 90s, when this crap happened. We were kids back then, stupid kids – now we’re adults. We’re leaders. Why can’t we resolve this without going all WWF on each other? Shouldn’t we be looking for a better way?”

      It takes awhile, but he shakes his head at me. Man, those green eyes are burning.

      “No way in Hell…” he snarls.

      “Red…” I stammer, taken aback.

      “I mean it!” Red rages. “It may be twenty-five years, but Firehammer’s still dead. And you haven’t even admitted your part. You’ve never admitted it. You’ve been too sanctimonious to own it. Well, you killed my friend, asshole! You!”

      “But Mechanon…” I stammer.

      “Fuck Mechanon,” Red snarls. “And fuck your mercy. No excuses, Carson. Own his death! Own his blood! I ain’t stopping this fight until you put me out, or until you admit your part in what happened.” Red vows, hobbling to his feet. “And you have to mean it.”

      “What if I don’t?” I say. “We fight forever? To the bitter end? Do you think your friend would want that?” I sigh. It’s a sick sound. “I didn’t kill him! You know it, you were there!”

      Red shakes his head. “Not directly, no. But your two leaders were incapacitated. People were looking to you for leadership. You could have ordered your team to stand down. You didn’t, and your ice bitch killed Hammer! The man who took a scruffy, misfit kid out of Southside, and made a man of him. The man who brought me into this business! I don’t give a damn how much time has passed. His justice is not getting swept under the carpet for your convenience!” Man, is he hyperventilating. “Let’s do this, Carson! No more excuses, no more stoppages, Not until it’s finished.”

      This is like soap opera, but the pain is real. I want to say I’m sorry, but no, sorry won’t cut it. Sorry is callous when it’s spoken to graves. Am I responsible? Could I have stopped Ann? Why didn’t I?

      Ann. The woman I loved. The woman I killed.

      Was it inexperience in leadership? Or did I just want to show up a pack of arrogant Yanks who had made assumptions about our guilt? Who had said nasty things at us? Was I that petty? National rivalry is so stupid!

      I look at Red, look upon my handiwork, and despair. He’s back in a combat stance, a classic boxer. The fighting man still wants to fight me, even after all we’ve done to each other. We’ve done a world of hurt to each other, and that world is not enough.

      Am I responsible? Looking hard into myself, and remembering those wild crazy, fever dream-like events, the answer is yes. I didn’t throw the ice lance. Mechanon set up the situation. But I could have stopped it, and I didn’t. The blame was mine.

      Is mine. Twenty-five years later, it’s time to pay the piper.

      Each second increases the physical sting of my body. That’s the least of my problems.

      “You’re right.” I admit. “Dammit, you’re absolutely right. I do bear full responsibility. And I’ll make amends in whatever way you wish. Including giving up my company. Including turning myself in and accepting a prison sentence.”

      Red gapes at me in disbelief. He confessed? I can see him wonder. Did he really, after all this time?

      Yes Red. I did.

      “We’re men of service and we need to be true to our ideals.” I say. “People mistakenly call us heroes. But even if we deserve the name, we’re not above the law.” I say, swallowing hard. “I don’t think it’s possible to fully repay any of you for the memory of your dead friend…”

      “Fire,” he gasps.

      “…but I apologize to him. And to the dead he would’ve saved if he hadn’t died. To the lovers who might have prospered in his care, to the children he never had. The friends he would’ve made, whose lives would have been enriched by his company. I’m responsible for all of that. The absence of his goodness, the void of his virtue. That was me. Because I was fighting for country and pride, not for ideals.”

      He stares at me, this swollen, charred mess of burns, and then he smiles. “I did it.” He just wanted the admission. Not a pound of flesh. though we certainly scraped off enough of that in the fight. His voice is a laugh, caught on the edges of his injuries. “It’s finally over.”

      “We really didn’t have to do this to each other,” I say, pointing athe burns that line his body. Red shakes his head emphatically.

      “I’m Catholic,” Red replies, his teeth a cheshire cat grin set in a face of ruin. Tooth and truth, that’s what we fought for today. “It was a penance.”

      “One hell of a penance,” I mutter. From his laugh, I think he agrees. I’m tempted to add: was that what you needed to hear? But no, I meant what I said about putting my fate in his hands. No backhanded questions allowed. No mitigation of guilt.

      The lights flash in the room. “This arbitration session has been concluded,” the computer says. A spray washes over our bodies and our injuries start to regenerate. Nanites? “Thank you for using Xavatl’s arbitration booth. Xavatl, the galaxy’s leader in persuasive arbitration technology. Not approved for those prone to cerebral hemorrhaging. Side effects of arbitration may include serious injury if pacification protocols ignored. Consult your medical practitioner before using the arbitration booth. Always have a back-up clone available in the event of accidental death. Void where prohibited.

      “Huh?” Red wonders. He never understood the function of the Black Room. Kinda handy. Isn’t alien tech such a joy?

      And, fully healed, Red and I stare at each other in our nudity, a little embarrassed, though we’re both buff, and there are a lot of rumors about Red. Well, that’s his own damn business. “Computer, give us five minutes!” I shout. May as well not have David or Red’s team walk in on us while we’re naked. If people are going to believe salacious bullshit about me, let it be for things I’ve actually done.

      “Door will open in five minutes.” The computer announces.

      I summon a pair of shorts, remove them and hand them to Red, then make a second pair for myself. For once, people aren’t going to see me naked. I don’t have much shame, but I have a little, at least after draining myself physically and emotionally. But I give us a chance to recover. As for Red, he just laughs and laughs and laughs, a fountain of glee, bubbling as if the world’s been lifted off his huge shoulders. I’m actually glad to see the son of a bitch happy.

      12:00.

      So there you have it. Me and Craig Carson, settling our differences, and having an epic fight in the process. People grow and change, and sometimes age does a bring a little wisdom in its wake, even to a pair of muttonheads like us.

      Of course, I forgive him. I’ve done some stupid shit in my life. I’m going to do more stupid shit in my life. I wish I hadn’t needed to push him into realizing what he’d done, wish he’d come to the realization on his own. But that’s the human animal for you. “Homo imperfectus”. Or “Homo sapiens really”?

      So we laugh, and make fun of each other, and do the usual things that heroes do when they’re friends. We discuss business deals: his mining tech, and my lunar mineral rights. We don’t hug, at least not yet. Give us time. We’re going a little fast, but damn, the combination of our businesses have some sweet potential for good. Profit and prophet. Save the planet’s soul and make a few bucks doing it.

      I think the mediation chamber is telepathically prodding us, encouraging us to make nice, find commonalties, accelerating the natural process of reconciliation. But look at us. Two kids, one from South Chicago, and one from East Vancouver: heroes, ones who struck it rich, handsome walking muscle shows. We could use a battleship for a medicine ball. Damn, we’ve got a lot in common.

      “We’re both human,” Carson says. “And I will find a way to make amends.”

      A memorial scholarship to schools in South Chicago Heights. A fund for local businesses to make low interest loans. Those are a nice start. “Hand ups and not hand outs” he says, and I agree. We discuss some f the other neighborhoods that need a helping hand. We’re finally acting like we should have from the start: as generals in our own personal war against misery.

      It isn’t a perfect accord, though. He doesn’t like Budweisser. The heathen.

      I think I need to beat him up.

      Comment


      • #18
        Re: War of the Dimensions

        Happy Anniversary

        Author’s Note: In the early 90s, I ran in two extraordinary scenarios run by George MacDonald, one of the co-creators of PnP Champions, as I faced his archvillain and Champions’ villain of villains, Dr. Destroyer. On the special occasion of Craig’s thirtieth anniversary in 2013, I wrote a sequel.

        It was a stormy night in Millennium City. Craig Carson was on his guard when he entered the penthouse skylight, where (or so he had been told by his most reliable contact) supervillainy at its most foul was taking place. The room was dark when Thundrax entered, and he could recognize many shapes – it was an ambush. Craig charged himself with lightning – and then the room suddenly came alive with light and noise, bright balloons and the blaring of two dozen party horns.

        “Surprise!” the crowd shouted, and confetti rained down from the ceiling, coating a
        startled Craig Carson’s head like snow. In the room were his secretary Rimi Kumiko, his old Starforce teammates, Lyle Doerksen (the third Forceknight, now retired), Ravenspeaker,, even the monolithic figure of Elemmus from his first team, SUNDER, several other members of the Flux-Carson team as well as Sparrowhawk and his current teammates on the Protectors: many of his closest friends. It was a “mingle-rich” environment, with an interesting person at every turn. But for now, the throng was unified for one purpose, and a rousing chorus of “Happy Anniversary” filled the room.

        “Craig, if you could see the look on your face,” Justiciar chuckled in his Nova Scotian voice, lilted with a touch of an Irish accent, relaxing his all-too-serious demeanor for just one day.

        “Speech! Speech!” Ravenspeaker cawed, looking resplendent in a three-piece suit.

        “Where’s the fricking stripper...” Dust Devil snorted, less amused than most.

        Craig sighed and struggled to put on a smile. Those who knew him best recognized when Craig was faking a smile, but they chose to ignore it, this time. “Believe it or not, I’m not a party person, and I don’t like speaking about myself, only about the things I believe in.”

        “For Pete’s sake, Craig,” Justiciar snapped. “If you haven’t earned the right to believe in yourself, who the heck has?”

        “Then I guess no one has,” Craig whispered, giving the comment the lightest of shrugs, but he continued to smile.

        It was thirty years to the day when a lightning bolt had struck a teenage boy who had scrambled onto the roof of a building in East Vancouver to talk down a woman whom he thought was committing suicide. Thirty years since he had heard the woman say: “You are worthy, Craig Carson, to receive the power of living thunder!” Thirty years since the lightning bolt struck him, and he fell from the roof in a body that was not his own. Thirty years since the birth of Thundrax. His friends wanted to celebrate it, and who was he to throw the world’s biggest wet blanket on it? So Craig Carson played along with his friends as they smiled, toasted him, and then (like all parties) settled into conversations that had nothing to do with him whatsoever.

        Thirty years. Craig had had enough of retrospectives five years ago, which had passed in relative quiet. Now the National, the CBC News, was showing a 45 minute documentary “The Mullet at Thirty”. Media outlets from across the continent wanted interviews. Commemorative plaques and stamps were being sold. The Atlantean embassy, grateful for his help on several previous missions, was hosting a major charity fundraiser in Craig’s name. And the two major comic book companies that sold Thundrax comics (Craig had put his name and likeness into Creative Commons for merchandising purposes, so anyone could legally publish their own Thundrax comic) were having a crossover for the first time, with the gold leafed issue proclaiming “The Ultimate Battle: Thundrax vs. Thundrax!”

        It was all just too much for a humble kid from East Van.

        Craig decided to perform Stress Reduction Treatment #2: Flight. Find a nice
        deserted stretch of wilderness and just go a flight. Somewhere where no one would bother him, and if by chance any supervillain decided to take a potshot at him, Craig would welcome the diversion. It was a stretch of woods in upper Michigan state, and the great lake was clearly visible to the north. He felt bad that he hadn’t been able to join in the spirit of celebration. But it was just a date on a calendar, he told himself. Nothing
        really important.

        Craig probably could have been more attentive. It was a clear day, following an unseasonal snowfall that made Thundrax wonder if Borealis’s recently foiled scheme to open a fissure to the Frost Tomb hadn’t worked after all, with only traces of cloud. But as Craig flew, there was an odd disruption at three o’clock, and from a warp a large metal titan materialized. It was about five meters in height, red with black trim, a very familiar design. Destroid, the robot enforcers of Albert Zerstoiten, the great and powerful Dr. Destroyer, justly feared as the most dangerous man on earth. Craig recognized it as a smaller version of the same advanced model that attacked the Champions HQ in Millennium and Justice Squadron Tower in New York last year. He pivoted, decelerating in a sudden and painful lurch, charged his body with five hundred mega-joules of electricity, and prepared to let it fly.

        But then a second destroid warped into view, then a third, then a fourth, and then a fifth. Before he could react, Thundrax was surrounded on all sides by mechanical marauders. He channeled a tiny trace of electricity to his comm implant, attempting to send a distress signal – and was not surprised in the least to discover it was being jammed. Six super-destroids surrounded him in a force bubble, filled it with sonic feedback that overwhelmed his senses, and Craig Carson slumped into unconsciousness.

        ****************

        Thundrax awoke on a comfortable bed in a perfectly arrayed room. The furnishings were blue and gold, matching the color scheme of the room: the colors of Craig’s old costume, the one which he’d worn for so many years, and there was a large Canadian flag. A small servitor robot, like a beautiful spider, lifted up a camera head with many eyes. “Mr. Carson, I trust you are not uncomfortable. Welcome to Garuda Base.”

        “Garuda?” Craig said, half-questioning, half-moaning. Even in his stupor, he recognized the reference, the great bird of Vedic mythology, who supplicated himself before Vishnu. Given that Destroyer occasionally referred to himself as “the Shiva of the modern world” (which of course, offended several superhumans who saw themselves as the incarnation of that deity), it certainly fit his motif. “I think you’d better take me to your master and get this over with. Provided that this isn’t an elaborate prison cell.” Craig was still wincing from the pain of his capture. “Sorry.” he corrected. “I should do you the courtesy of announcing that I’m a prisoner first before I start making demands.”

        “Thank you,” the robot said, surprisingly well-manner. He’s a supervillain’s C3PO, a
        protocol droid, Craig thought, inwardly amused. “If you do not mind waiting, a meal is being prepared.” it added.

        “So,” Craig smiled. “It’s dinner and a show?” The robot had no response.

        Thundrax decided to relax and wait, casually inspecting the area for surveillance and weak points to exploit in an escape attempt. Craig wasn’t used to gilded cages – when he was taken prisoner, he almost always ended up naked in some sort of high-tech stocks, the traditional fate (or so he previously observed) of buff blond-haired protagonists in pulp stories when they were taken captive – but a cage was a cage, and Craig was not going to be taken prisoner without a fight. But for now he lazily lay on the bed, hands cupped behind his head, his feet resting on a pillow.

        An hour later, almost as if a chime had sounded, the robot stirred. “The master will see you now,” it said.

        “Thank you kindly,” Craig replied, skipping off the bed. “Now if you please lead the way?”

        “Certainly!” the robot said.

        The door opened, and outside the “guest chamber” there were very modern furnishings employing a red and black color scheme, with gold highlights. An intricate piano concerto filled the rooms at an even volume, relaxing yet mournful, set in D Minor. Craig didn’t recognize the piece, but his musical soul belonged to Led Zeppelin, not Mozart or Brahms. He followed the robot, and the images of masked figures set in the wall bespoke the world-shaking ego of its owner.

        He was taken into a large dining hall, a crystal chandelier set high above a table of gleaming black glass: Craig saw images of destruction dancing in the beautiful glasswork that shone from above and both admired and loathed their terrible beauty. But it was the man at the head of the table who commanded his attention, as he always did. He was none other than Albert Zerstoiten, the Old Man, the most brilliant and dangerous mind on Earth. The man who burned down Old Detroit, Doctor Destroyer.

        Well, after battling those Giga-Destroids in RenCen, he had wanted to have a chat with Zerstoiten. Beware of what you wish for...

        “Doctor,” Thundrax remarked cautiously. “It’s been quite awhile.”

        “I am quite aware of the passage of time, Mr. Carson.” Destroyer said, a little curtly. “Please sit down.”

        “Thank you,” Thundrax was calm, and his courteous nature had not yet been fractured. “You look a lot better than you did at our last meeting.”

        “Obviously,” Destroyer said, remembering the confrontation in Multifaria, where Thundrax was among those who had joined forces with him to free him from the grasp of Citizen Harmon, the so-called Shadow Destroyer.

        “My apologies for making small talk, Doctor.” Thundrax said. “I forgot that the great and mighty Albert Zerstoiten never does anything small.”

        Destroyer gave only the slightest of nods and took a sip of wine, which somehow permeated his faceplate. “Mr. Carson, you seem to be in a contrarian mood. But this is not a battle. Perhaps the meal will improve your disposition,” he remarked.

        “Forgive me, Doctor, but I don’t believe a meal will prevent me from being contrarian toward you.” Thundrax replied.

        “Such hostility spoils the palette.” Zerstoiten stated. A host of robots began marching in, carrying various dishes, mostly fusions of Indian, Japanese and Chinese cuisine. “I did not bring you here to kill you, or even to do battle...”

        “Don’t tell me you’re wishing me a happy anniversary,” Thundrax sighed.

        “Why should I not? Have you not assisted in saving the world several times? Are you not worthy of celebration? You have done all of humanity a service, and though Destroyer stands above the common herd, still even I am included in that number. And Destroyer is no ingrate.”

        “I hardly did it for you.” Craig snapped.

        “Nonetheless, you did so. And this is your reward. I have brought you here for your enjoyment and enrichment. As you can see, I am practiced and accomplished in all the predatory arts.”

        “I really hadn’t looked at cooking in quite that manner.” Craig noted, directing them to put a dish of Kobe beef on his plate. “Predatory? Is that your perspective on everything?”

        “There is nuance, of course. But nuance can distract from a broader understanding of things. It becomes more of a tool for dissemblance than understanding.”

        “It can be,” Craig said, striving, ironically, to present good table manners to his host. He was normally a bit of a slob.

        “Genius must eschew falsehood, Mr. Carson.” Destroyer stated.

        “True. But given that, does it really apply to you, Doctor?” Thundrax replied, taking a sip of the wine. “But then again, are you truly a genius?”

        “You doubt my intellect?” Destroyer’s voice had a bit of an edge to it. It bothered
        Craig less than it should have, given that by most accounts (at least, those not tainted with fanboyism), Destroyer was more than capable of killing Thundrax at a moment’s notice.

        “Not at all,” Thundrax replied, after he had chewed through a vegetable dish. “The quality of your table alone speaks to the enormous range and depth of your abilities. But what is ability without accomplishment? You have made enormous technical strides in areas that I can’t even begin to comprehend. Yet, nothing of that vast reservoir of knowledge has found its way into the hands of society.”

        “I will rebuild society,” Destroyer promised. “And then my gifts shall be shared.”

        “Not this again,” Craig sighed. “Look Doctor, let’s face facts. The clock is ticking.
        You’re old. In fact, you’re dying,” He paused to inspect the man’s reaction, not that he could tell much when his face was covered. “And we both know it. I saw your body outside its shell when we were in Multifaria. You could barely stagger twenty feet into your costume unaided. It was a wonder that Shadow Destroyer had your costume so close to your prison.”

        “Not such a wonder,” Zerstoiten rebutted. “There’s a failsafe in my armor that prevents use of my technology without my biometric proximity. The false Harmon had no choice if he wanted to exploit my technological riches. And the sensors needed me: not a magical clone or a simulacrum.”

        “Granted, but that misses my point,” Thundrax said. “The world is getting along quite nicely without the help of Albert Zerstoiten. There are new revolutions in every field of science opening up daily, all without your genius. The world is passing you by. Suppose your heart gives out, or you develop a cancer you can’t beat? You will die, and everything you’ve done in your life will become dust. When I look at you, do I see the greatest genius in the world? Maybe. But I also see the biggest waste.”

        “Then, perhaps we should change that,” Destroyer replied. “Twenty-one years ago, I made you a proposition that would have changed the world, and you refused.”

        “Your offer to empower every human on earth and turn them into a superbeing. I’m very confident I made the right choice.”

        “Yet you accuse me of being an elitist by being exclusionary with my technical innovations, even while you are proud of being exclusive with your own superhuman abilities.”

        “In all likelihood, our species will reach the point of becoming largely superhuman by more gradual and natural methods,” Craig replied. “Without the chaos that would be triggered by a quantum level surge in the number of the world’s metahumans.”

        “And yet you fear such growth, and the means by which it must occur. Even your own company’s innovations.” Destroyer replied. “Yes, I know of them. In fact, I know far more about your company’s secrets than you do. You should be very wary of some of your employees and their special projects.”

        That did not encourage Craig one bit. He told himself that losing his temper would be the surest way of losing control of the situation. “To be honest, I found your previous offer less than credible. I was a second tier superhero on a small local superhero team from Vancouver, SUNDER. I had no reputation, no track record. And yet of all of the superhumans in the world, you gave that choice to me? And not, say, Vanguard?”

        Zerstoiten nodded. “You remind me of someone I once knew,” he said. “One who was not unkind.”

        “Sentiment, Doctor?” Craig scoffed. “From you?”

        “You judge me by my reputation,” Destroyer said. “But reputations are deceitful things. And even at Henderson’s little conference, when I removed your powers, I saw the fires of leadership in you. It is in your nature. I knew that time would temper you and in the crucible of insanity that is the superhuman experience you would discover your destiny. You have become great, Craig Carson, as I alone foresaw, and not from your powers. From your will.”

        “If you think that I would cooperate with you after Detroit...”

        “Did you not already do so when you assisted me in Multifaria?” Destroyer countered. “When the price is high enough, you will gladly take the 40,000 lives that were lost in Detroit – as well as your personal loss – and throw them on the pyre.”

        Thundrax’s eyes narrowed in anger. “When it comes to marketing, Dr. Zerstoiten, you have much to learn,” he said, not hiding the anger in his voice.

        “Then the marketing I leave to you, Mr. Carson,” Destroyer said. “This is my offer. I will give you access to a library of my creative innovations. In energy, robotics, medicine, music, and in fields that are not even dreamt in the imaginations of this planet’s lesser minds. You wish to advance this planet? You wish me to share my innovations with the human race? The box is open to you.”

        “And the price?” Thundrax asked.

        “Your life will belong to me, body, mind, and... well, I do not think highly of the soul. However, I will add one benefit. You will have my word that I will take no aggressive action – aside from any requested by you, in defense of this planet – for four years. If I am doomed to die soon, as you say, then I will not live to see my hundredth
        birthday. And you will have spared the world from my predatory interests.”

        “I find it hard to believe you would tolerate a being with mythological origins in
        your employ, Doctor.”

        “That is true,” Destroyer replied. “I would deny you access to your superhuman form, but I would give you a replacement body to command that would exceed it by an order of magnitude.”

        Craig took another sip of wine. “I prefer meat to metal, Doctor.”

        “I am confident in your ability to adapt, Mr. Carson,” the Doctor said. “But you have no excuses left. Either you reject my technical expertise, and prove yourself a hypocrite and your arguments specious, or you will embrace my service, and the world will receive great gifts.”

        “Did you make the same offer to Vanguard? Or Amazing Man? Or Defender?”

        “Vanguard was not an intellectual at heart. He had an indomitable spirit, to be
        sure, but I might as well have made the same offer to Muhammad Ali. As for Dr. Renton, he believed that his own talents sufficed to advance the world, despite evidence that belied his talent for innovation. And I have chosen not to talk with the leader of the Champions.”

        “He’s capable.” Thundrax said. “Are you afraid of him?”

        Destroyer laughed. “I realize we are enemies, Mr. Carson, but that is no reason to insult me. I have personal reasons for avoiding that insufferable charlatan. Fear is not among them. Destroyer is above that frailty. It is one of many reasons why my rule shall be a blessing to our species. But what is your choice, Mr. Carson?”

        Craig Carson rose to his feet. “I thank you for the meal, Dr. Zerstoiten, and the hospitality of Garuda. But as for what you propose, I must acknowledge myself as a hypocrite who makes specious arguments. Better that than to betray everything I believe in, and everyone I know.”

        “Fool!” Destroyer snapped, also rising to his feet. Craig aimed a lightning bolt at
        he titan, which impacted against his armor with no apparent effect whatsoever. “Canadian, you shall not be offered greatness a third time! Know the power of the Destroyer, fall to earth, and mingle with the ants amid the mud!”

        Craig materialized in front of the armored megalomaniac and struck him in the face with his best shot, thunder reverberating within the chamber. It would have staggered all but a handful of people on the planet: unfortunately for Thundrax, Zerstoiten was not only on the list, he stood alone, unchallenged, at the very top. Destroyer responded with a back-handed slap that would have torn the armor from a tank, and then pressed a button on his control. Suddenly, a portal opened up in the floor beneath Craig Carson, with a tube underneath. And Thundrax fell. Somehow, Destroyer had negated his ability to fly. He was banished from Garuda – a great flying base that was suspended five hundred miles above the planet – and indeed he fell to earth.

        Craig silently fought the urge to blurt an obscenity and struggled desperately to ignite his ability to fly, or use his lightning, or any of his abilities. It felt like a cigarette addict desperately trying to ignite a flame from a lighter with no fuel. He couldn’t even generate the electricity to manipulate his comm implant. Yes, he was not in his mortal, Craig Carson body, and under normal circumstances the Thundrax form could survive the fall, but what if Zerstoiten had also turned off his invulnerability?

        Passing through earth’s thermosphere, Craig’s costume ignited and burned away to nothing, but didn’t have any effect on his actual body. Thundrax almost breathed a sigh of relief – this was only going to hurt like hell, he’d maybe fracture a few bones if he could find a way to land flat – and watched the world spin beneath him as he tumbled. He fell to earth in the middle of a copse of Siberian woodland, making a very large crater and passing out on impact. An hour later, some very startled Russians found him, naked and still unconscious, in the center of the crater.

        There was one upside to the incident, the Russians who found him had some very good vodka, and they were more than willing to share. They never, however, found clothes that were large enough for him, so he lounged around in gym shorts while one of the older women made alterations to a friendly farmhand’s clothes. A few days afterward, the lightning came back, and Craig managed to get hold of UNTIL and the Canadian consulate. But during his stay, he constantly looked skyward, and muttered three words, over and over again, repeating them so often that the amused Russians thought they were his second name.

        “Next time, Albert,” he vowed. “Next time.”
        Last edited by Thundrax; 06-10-2018, 12:33 AM.

        Comment


        • #19
          Re: War of the Dimensions

          That Hellish Thing

          A tale of Zorasto, and how he came to be entwined in Craig's life.

          -------
          Hell, 1838.

          In Hell's bleakest reaches, beyond Damnation's Door lay the Desolation of Realizations. Across this vast, grey plain all lies are laid bare, and naught but painful truths may be spoken here. No creature desires to come hither, especially among the peoples of Hell, to whom falsehoods are like meat and bread. However the Lords of Pride have found these wretched plains ever useful in the enforcement of covenants, and thus an oasis of truth sits in the heart of hell, for any with the desire to take advantage of its qualities.

          In the heart of those plains, a trap had been sprung. Within a circle of falsesilver, barbed and burning, the angel Neviel the Whisperer was ensnared, seemingly without hope of heaven. He had been gifted with seven great prophecies by his Lord Most High, and now a lord of hell was attempting to claw it out of him like a carrion beast picking at a corpse with claw and tooth.

          "Speak," Zorasto commanded the angel, shifting his huge bat-like wings. He towered over the messenger, his muscles striated geologically over his huge form, a sneer stretched across his horned, skull-like face. Had he not been in agony, the angel would hae observed that such a dominating physical presence was one of Hell's favorite affectations, overplayed displays of physical strength for the sake of vanity that makes what should be beautiful into something grotesque, a mockery of paragons. But he, even he, faithful servant of the Ancient of Days, was not impervious to torment. His voice croaked and strained as the prophecy was ripped from him.

          "In a hall in Aberdeen, there is a reprobate with one eye and three fingers on his right hand, a crofter who is only known as "Bloody Carson". Against all reason, his family will flower, and become ennobled. Within seven generations, two score and five years after the Great Reawakening, the Living Thunder shall embrace the second born Carson of that generation and he shall become elevated."

          "The Living Thunder of Tarhunt? Of Tanaris? Of Thunaraz and Perun?"

          "Yes, the power of pagan gods shall be gifted to him and he shall become mighty. But that is not the greatest of his powers, for greater than might shall be the spirit that resides within. For one who can wrestle with their pains and subjugate them can transform them into wisdom and compassion that will be a blessing to the world."

          "Spare me the philosophies of the Crucified One," Zorasto stated, and again he lashed the angel with a barbed whip. The angel screamed.

          "Pig-dweller, I know who thou art!" Neviel spat back.

          "Indeed," the demon said with a mock bow. "Once I was Sorme-Astaro, who in ancient Assyria burnt whole cities to the ground, whose sword dripped blood without ceasing! Then I became Astaro-Dammu, who compelled the stars to scream prophecies, who found voices in the silent, dark places of the world! And now I am Zorasto, Defiler of Souls, who after death rose in the estates of hell and who now stands at the left hand of the demon-god Asmiak, looking down on the hordes of the damned!"

          "Bloodletter, sorcerer, demon." Neviel noted. "I know thy cursed history. But I prefer to call thee as thou wert when my Sovereign walked the earth: pig-dweller. For as He did to the Legion, so did He do to you: casting you, whining and wretched, into a host of swine, to stagger on the ground as drunken beasts before His infinite majesty."

          Zorasto snarled and lashed out again at the angel with his flail, tearing at his spirit-flesh. Again the angel cried aloud. "I shall take this Living Thunder for my own!" the demon stated. "And all that wisdom and compassion of which thou boasts? I will defile it utterly!"

          Neviel shook his head. "Ever shall the thunder elude thy grasp, demon, even if you rose four times higher than thy present station. For the wisdom that is the gift of the Most High is ever beyond the comprehension of those who scorn it."

          "I crave not his tongue but his tempest, for with it I shall ascend to godhood!" Zorasto stated, and his burning hand reached up and brushed against Neviel's cheek, singeing it. "Thou hast six more prophecies. I shall enjoy ripping them from you."

          "And each one shall further undo thee," Neviel said. "For it is the heart of the prophecy that matters more than the words, Zorasto. Meaning you may find, and meaning you may give to words that is not intended, and so make a sport of them. But the true value of all revelation is in what it says about the heart of the Most High. Those who search for power and apocalypse will ever miss the meaning of the gift."

          "I tire of thee, thrall of heaven," Zorasto said, turning around with a stretch of his wings. "I hope the crofter proves better company."

          With that the demon lord departed for Scotland, shifting his shape to that of a twisted and unpleasant looking man -- the closest thing he could muster to someone of fair and trustworthy visage. When the one-eyed Carson was drunk enough, as it seemed he would be, his appearance wouldn't matter in the least. Just his words. With a proud, besotted Scotsman, his words would be enough to seal a devil's bargain.

          -----
          1839 Aberdeen Scotland

          "Seven generations?"

          "That is the standard bargain," Zorasto said, opening up the ink well and handing the man a fine red quill. "You are a man of letters, are you not?"

          "Aye," Tristan "Bloody" Carson said with a slur as he cradled his drink in his half-broken hand. The tavern was silent around them, and people had slunk away from his companion in disgust, though none could see him as he truly was. Tristan Carson, however, did not care. As blasphemous as a frigate of sailors, part of him even enjoyed the faint whiff of Hell, shadow and brimstone, that lingered in his senses like strong tobacco. "Aye... I can sign my name wi' the best o' them."

          His face smiling like a shark, Zorasto propped himself up on his chair and puffed himself slightly. "You will not regret the bargain," he said in a low, amused voice.

          Tristan Carson swallowed the drink lustily, and the grinning demon poured another glass of demon rum from the black bottle he'd brought. "So... my family for seven generations. Why seven generations?"

          "Tradition," Zorasto said. "Your offspring shall be my possessions, body and soul, for seven generations. In exchange, immortality shall be your due."

          "And eternity in the prime of manhood!" Tristan Carson stated. "I don't want to get old, or be trapped as a bawling infant by your devilish tricks. Me own brats are bad enough!"

          "The joy of treachery is not what I seek," Zorasto stated, playing with the bottle on the table, tipping it and rotating it in a circle. "Though that is a grand amusement, of course..."

          "Eh?"

          "I have received prophecy that one of your descendents will be someone to prize," Zorasto explained. "The covenant we are striking will bring him into my potentate, body and soul. The power he shall wield will be rended from his body and in devouring it, I shall shine as an infernal sun, rising to the depths of hell, striking down gods. And she who gifts it shall forfeit all right to retaliate."

          "I dinna understand a word ye said, devil."

          Zorasto smiled. "I believe I will enjoy watching you walk through the generations, cursing and spitting at the world, wallowing in the misery created by your enterprises."

          "Ha!" Tristan Carson shouted. "Ye got that right! So once I sign your papers, I wi' be free o'you?"

          "One service will remain," Zorasto said. "When the time is right, I shall ask you to deliver your descendant into my hands. Some years before the day of destiny, methinks, just to be certain. Free, he could still resist my efforts to take his power, even with the contract granting me advantages. 'Tis best to take no chances."

          "So you wan' me to deliver the brat t' you?"

          "Exactly!" Zorasto exclaimed. "But are you capable of such a cruelty?"

          Tristan Carson eyed the rest of the patrons in the tavern and rose to his feet with a crooked smile on his scarred face. "Gentlemen and fellow cutthroats." he said. "Does any man here doubt that I am capable of the vilest iniquities and the wickedest cruelties?"

          After a few seconds of staring down the patrons, one of the tavern goers shouted "No!". Tristan Carson strode to the man, and repeatedly punched him in the face, smiling.

          "I believe this will work out," Zorasto said.

          With blood on his knuckles and a contented expression on his face, Tristan Carson returned to the table and grabbed the quill from its place on the table. "Done," he said, as he put his scrawl to the paper.

          ----
          1974, Vancouver, British Columbia.

          William Carson hurriedly snuck into the house. The television was running: Eilly had been watching "Another World" before William had made his phone call, and two women were screaming at each other, culminating in the sound of a gunshot and a melodramatic music tag. Nuisance or irony? William did not have time to ponder the question. He practically bolted for the basement, where he hurriedly grabbed a pair of large steam trunks and hauled them up the stairs, hitting his head on the ceiling for one last, final time. Like a madman he rummaged through his closets, pulling down the three suits he had carefully ironed and pressed to do his work. He wrestled with his strongest desire: to take pictures of his wife and children, but decided that the fiction would be more credible if he left them behind. Once both pieces of luggage were packed, William turned around to leave... and spotted his oldest son Jack standing at the door.

          "Dad, what are you doing?" he asked his dad.

          A wave of shame fell over Jack Carson. His face reddening, he blurted, as if trying to convince himself. "Removing the dead weight from my life." And with that, he placed an envelope on Eilleen Carson's pillow, removed the wedding band from his ring finger.

          "What the hell are you doing?" Jack Carson demanded, rushing at his father with fists clenched.

          "I don't love you any more. Not you, not your mom, not Cr--"

          Jack's fist struck William Carson flush in the face. However it wasn't the force of the blow that dropped him to his knees.

          "I'm sorry... I'm sorry," the man blubbered. "I thought I'd be stronger."

          "What the hell are you talking about?"

          Through a gauze of tears, William Carson looked at his oldest son. He grabbed the teenager's shoulders. "Forgive me. I'm about to put you all through Hell, but it beats the alternative."

          Jack Carson placed his hands on his hips and stared at his father, dumbfounded.

          "This is going to sound crazy Jack," William stated. "But our family has an enemy, a powerful, magical one. Like a supervillain, only much, much worse."

          "Huh?"

          "You remember all those sermons at your mom's church about demons? I thought I was just humoring her, but it appears I owe Eilly an apology. There's one after us."

          "Uh... what?"

          William Carson sighed. "I don't understand most of it myself. But I need you to act like you didn't see me. You have to keep this from them. Make them forget me. Hate me. So they can live as normal a life as they can. Above all, you need to keep this from Craig. Above everything else, I'm counting on you to protect your brother..." William Carson stopped and frowned. "And just what are you doing away from school?"

          "Uh... we had a soccer game against Tech," Jack admitted. "And after it was over, I skipped fifth period."

          "Good boy!" William Carson said, and he hugged his son.

          "Dad, this whole thing about demons..."

          "I've seen him. I've seen his servant. I need to keep him away from you, no matter what the cost."

          The door came open, and the hobbled man, a tall, rough-looking sort with a wooden leg, one eye and a claw for a right hand. He made a gesture with his one good hand, whispered an incantation, and Jack Carson was frozen in place.

          "Leave the boy alone!" William Carson snapped. "I'm the second-born Carson. It's me that your Zorasto wants!"

          The Hobbled Man launched a vicious left backhand at William's face, knocking the man into the wall. "Next time, you get the hook," he said ominously. "Take your belongings and go."

          "You will NOT harm my son. The boy has already promised to play along."

          Jack Carson felt as though he were being smothered in chains. He struggled violently within their grasp. "I'll kill you, you piece of--" he muttered, and the Hobbled Man twisted his wrist, tightening the chains. Jack screamed.

          "It will appear to the world as though the father killed the son as he was in the process of leaving his family." the Hobbled Man said. "How unfortunate."

          "Please, I beg you," William Carson said. "My son is still part of that curse you spoke of. That means he belongs to your master. He will not... uh... be pleased if you kill someone who could be of use to him."

          The Hobbled Man growled. "Very well," he grunted. "Your son will live. But I will remove his memory of this." With that, the Hobbled Man cast another spell, and Jack Carson fell into a deep sleep. With a heart that was only slightly lighter from avoiding the grim necessity of that deed, William Carson left his home, never to return, never to see the face of his beloved wife again. Few men made such sacrifices for their family, and fewer still did so without thanks.

          ----
          1983 Hell

          In a twelve foot wide circle of obsidian, where a wall would spring from the earth to block him if he ever tried to escape, William Carson sat, naked, emaciated with hunger, holding a paper and quill in his trembling hands. He had been commanded to write down every word spoken aloud by the angel in the circle of chains, to pass the time until the power of Living Thunder passed into him.

          But Neviel had not spoken in the nine years that he had been there and William did not ever expect him to speak. William's eyes rarely left the man, for there was something about the man that gave him hope and strength. Indeed, he didn't even know from whence the man came, or what his importance was to the demon. He only knew that without his presence during his captivity, the darkness of the place would have destroyed him. He wondered what words he would speak, should he ever open his mouth.

          And then, abruptly, the angel opened his mouth, and from it came the sound of thunder.

          "He is worthy," Neviel stated, smiling. Without understanding why, the words came as the weight of a mountain lifting off from William Carson's shoulders, and he began to laugh as he scrawled the words.

          It was not long before Zorasto appeared, fire and shadow emanating from his body in uncontrolled rage. "I have felt the coming of the Living Thunder, and it did not pass into the second born Carson!" Zorasto screamed at Neviel. "How dare you issue a false prophecy! Liar of Heaven, I name you! Thou art as fallen as I!"

          "Nay," Neviel smiled, even knowing what was to come. "You did not take the second-born Carson."

          "What?" Zorasto snarled, his wings stretching in outrage.

          William Carson rose to his feet. "Wait a second. How could I not be the second-born Carson? There was my brother Mark, then me. Sure Mark died in that accident back in '56, but he was still born."

          "And so was thy sister. Mark's twin, who died a few hours after her birth." Neviel stated. "Thou art the third-born Carson of thy generation."

          "A sister? Damn." William Carson muttered. "My parents never even mentioned that,” He wondered why he'd never found out about her, but his thought also turned to Craig, the real second-born Carson. So young, so much like his mother, whereas Jack had taken after him. William was not sure how -- perhaps the power of the plains, whose realizations, while an unbearable torment for demons, was the opposite for mortals -- but he somehow knew Craig would be a fit guardian for immense primal power. The thought made him smile with a father's pride, so that for a moment he was the happiest man in Hell.

          Neviel turned to Zorasto and beamed in triumph: quite literally, as for the first time in his captivity, he shone with heaven’s radiance. “Soon demon, you will experience a great triumph, and power unguessed shall be your mantle. However that victory shall not comfort you; instead, throne and crown will lade you beyond your ability to endure, for those who receive what thou desire in hell are doomed to its greatest miseries.”

          Zorasto drew his flail, its barbs a tentacle mass of shadow and flame upon which runes of torment were inscribed, and he smote the angel three score and two lashes, channeling his hate into each strike. However, they barely seemed to faze Neviel. “Cheap trick!” Zorasto screamed. When he lowered his whip, exhausted, the angel rose to his feet, elysian pride shining in his eyes as he spoke:

          “Bloodletter, sorcerer, demon. Hear the words of the Most High. Thy reach shall ever exceed thy grasp.

          Never shall thy wings bear thee skyward, save to lift you to heights from which thou shalt surely fall. No door shall open for thee, nor bars raise, save to entrap thee. Thou art a prisoner of shame.”

          “Liar!” Zorasto snarled. “No door shall ever be barred to me! No way shall ever be blocked! I will defile you, and all things you cherish!”

          “Mastery unchecked thou shalt crave and yet that desire shall betray you and lead you into thralldom. You will be twice a prisoner, first of thy malice and then of thy designs, for twisted as they are. Long years shall you endure shackled, screaming and cursing as Hell mocks thee.”

          “Cease your babbling, thrall!” Zorasto snarled. But his voice seemed diminished in comparison to the angel’s. Neviel’s final note resonated across the plains with the authority of His master. And for a moment the demons felt what they had long lost, and in their realization they hated it all the more.

          The strokes fell upon the angel as if they contained all the unchecked cruelty of the world, its miseries, its tragedies, and the rage they inspire, for such are the weapons of the Flails. Buttressed no longer by the words of the Most High, Neviel crumpled beneath their onslaught. William watched in horror as hell's hate was fully unleashed on the messenger. The Flails continued until Neviel was all but dead, a mass of red wounds marring the snow-white beauty of heaven.

          "Do not believe this is over!" Zorasto shouted as he turned and raged at William Carson. "As for you, here you shall remain for the remainder of days, and the shadow of despair will devour you hour by hour, and you shall watch me rend your sons asunder and you shall worship me as I do."

          William Carson looked at the fallen Neviel and somehow, seeing heaven's light still radiating from his broken form, found a hidden reservoir of strength. Hell had not broken him, not yet: if anything, the nine years of captivity had strengthened this man, this humble shoe salesman from Vancouver, and made him capable of things that he would never have thought possible.

          "I'm not going to bloody worship you, demon," the Carson patriarch snarled, staring Zorasto in his elongated, skeletal face. He had never thought himself capable of such courage (not without at least five beers). "We Carsons may not be perfect -- and the one you used to bring me here least of all -- but we're not idiots. Worship is for creatures greater than ourselves, not just more powerful. And you're hardly greater than anyone. You're just a bully, and you ain't getting one hosanna out of me, that I promise you!"

          William Carson expected to die in that moment, and he closed his eyes so that his deathmask would be peaceful, but Zorasto did not strike. Instead the demon cursed and raised his towering shadow over the defiant mortal, and the darkness that fell on William Carson was as cold and cruel as a winter storm. The Carson recoiled. "I may not be permitted to force worship upon you, or else it ceases to be real, but you are still my chattel! You wll never escape this place, until I am satisfied that you are utterly broken. Then I shall cast you onto the earth so that all mankind may see what a miserable creature I have made, a harbinger of all mankind for the time when earth falls unto my dominion."

          "Bold words demon." William Carson fought through the cold to manage one last gesture of defiance. "Doesn't erase your failure, though."

          Zorasto screamed, muttered something unintelligible, a curse about undoing Armageddon and a string of blasphemies directed at the Most High. "I have a hundred schemes in motion!" the demon proclaimed. "This one has occupied enough of my time, for now." he said. Then he departed in a fury of fire and smoke, believing that he had left William Carson and the broken angel to languish in their twin solitudes for years to come.

          But William Carson felt a slight relief as the shadow lifted from him. He turned to his fellow prisoner, who lay writhing on the ground. "Sorry," he said. "Wish I could help."

          The slender angel moaned and then, to William's astonishment, lifted himself to his feet despite the pain of his broken and beaten body. "Your spirit of defiance does more for me than you can imagine," the angel said. The fair lilt of the angel's voice, on which a faint echo of heaven's song could be heard, was like meat and drink to William, by far a better meal than the stale bread and brackish water that his prison provided for him. He sighed and found comfort in the voice, for although the angel could not hide the pain in his voice, even the agony of the ascended held delight.

          "You speak?"

          "I have long whispered to thee, third-born Carson, though I spake to thy soul and not your ears. No need do I have for words, unlike that vain posturer."

          William Carson chuckled. "I don't like him much either."

          Neviel nodded. "Know that thy spirit is thine own, for all souls are a gift of thy Creator, and not a commodity to be bartered, despite your tales. That is a lie that comes from the demon Belial, who has ensnared many with that belief. Zorasto merely emulates the lords of the All-Hells."

          "So Jack and Craig are free from him as well?"

          "Verily, at least in some measure. Some courts and principalities may respect the contract, but no more than that. In making his bargain Zorasto overreached his authority. as demons are wont to do."

          "My wife is dead," William said. "Or was that a lie of Zorasto's?"

          Neviel began to straighten and strengthen his limbs. "It was not." he said sadly.

          "And my sons?"

          "Their lives will ever be filled with peril and pain," Neviel stated, and within William's mind, images of times yet to come danced. The man gasped as he felt waves of emotion rush over him: his grown sons, kicking ass, fighting a good fight. "Death shall prowl at their feet like a wolf, joy will be great, but fleeting. In time, glory shall be showered onto them. They shall be proclaimed as heroes, and all who call them by that name will speak truly, though neither shall love the word." He smiled at William and said in a low voice. "Do not despair. Have faith that heaven compensates for their pain and rewards those who courageously pursue justice."

          "I have no faith in heaven," William said. "Just look at you. Heaven left one of their own to be tortured by that pig?"

          Neviel shook his head. "Judge not the unjudgeable until all things have been revealed, mortal."

          "Screw that," William Carson replied. "Screw all your games and wars, and good vs. evil crap. I don't need faith in heaven. I have faith in my boys. Zorasto isn't going to know what hit him." He sighed. "I just wish I knew I was going to see them again."

          "You shall."

          "Is that your third prophecy?"

          "I do not need the words of the Most High to tell me of what is obvious." the angel stated. "No prison can hold one who possesses thy spirit. The will of any man who would pay the price that you have paid cannot be restrained forever. Verily, you shall see them, though the price may be greater than thou knowst."

          William sighed. "Do you offer any words of hope that don't come with a catch?"

          "In a world that is fallen, no such words may truthfully be spoken." Neviel said. "But take heart! For..."

          "Look," William Carson said. "In the nine years I've been trapped in this godforsaken place, the one thing I haven't missed are the sermons that Eilly used to drag me to. All I know is there's a big demon out there who's out to-- well, conquer the world and transform it into Hell-- and my boys are on the front lines."

          Neviel looked out in the desolate plains of the plains with the insight of his prophecies and the whispers of truth that came to his ears. "Not all of his designs will fail. Indeed, Zorasto will cause a great deal of trouble. Any being who would raise a fist at heaven is not to be underestimated. Yet do not be troubled. For I share thy faith in thy sons, and moreso in the heroes that shall gather around them, valiant men and women who will oppose the darkness, both without and within."

          William Carson nodded and went back to working on a thin crust of bread
          Last edited by Thundrax; 06-23-2018, 07:06 PM.

          Comment


          • #20
            Re: War of the Dimensions

            Dad

            Author’s Note: Boys (Lesson One) is by Jars of Clay, Yes, I’m that uncool. It’s a great song though.

            And so passed the years of might have been.

            "Dream, Carsons, dream.” the angel commanded, and a father and his son tossed in twin slumbers, though separated by worlds.

            One of these men was William Carson. He dreamed, ignoring flame and damnation, listening to false truths spoken to him in the land of lies. The worst was reserved for the beginning, when Eileen Carson passed with a sigh, her hand held by her husband as the tears ran down his face. In a tiny room at St. Paul’s hospital, its windows stained by the tears of a deluge. A death in Vancouver, the city of rain.

            *****

            “Craig!” William Carson shouted, stopping the car. “Get down from there!”

            “But there’s a woman up there!” Craig shouted back. “And I think she’s going to jump!”

            “I’ll talk her down!” William snapped, rolling up his sleeves and pulling himself up the structure. “You stay down here where it’s safe!”

            *****

            “And last of all,” Jack Carson said, hoisting the champagne flute. “Me and Craig would like to welcome Laura into the Carson clan. You may be a stepmom, but I hope you feel as welcome as if you’d given birth to us!”

            Then there was the chorus of a hundred glasses tinkling, as throats burned in alcohol and joy. The band struck up Brahms, graceful and sweeping, an invitation to dance.

            “Hear! Hear!” Craig added, smiling at his own girlfriend. The relationship
            wouldn’t last, the lady’s man, the sly dog. When would that kid ever settle down? Probably never. But for now, his father’s happiness took precedence. Craig missed his mom, but was so happy to see a smile on his dad’s face again.

            William watched as his new bride wrote the name “Laura Ann Carson” for the very first time on the wedding scroll. It was so beautiful. The calligraphy, the paper, everything.

            *****

            The angel’s song did not relent, and heaven and hell were inverted. The fallen were uplifted. A songbird sounded for the first time in the Desolation, its joyful ruckus heralding an impossible spring. In its voice was delight, and Hell knew true joy for the first time since the Spotless Foal made its Descent and proclaimed the freedom of souls, when a crucifixion overturned the cosmos.

            In a mountainous bed in Millennium, Craig Carson moaned, as happily as a man can moan, his slumber absolute in its bliss. He was enjoying his dad again, relishing even his newly born ponch and the wrinkles on his face.

            “Lesson one - do not hide
            Lesson two - there are right ways to fight
            And if you have questions
            We can talk through the night.”

            The alert siren was relentless, and the television was interrupted to display a test pattern. A solar sentinel winged overhead, its wake a comet’s tail. It was a battle of astronomical and Biblical proportions.

            “Does that guy ever not showboat?” Jack muttered. “He’s almost as bad as... what’s he called? The lightning guy?”

            “Thundrox?” Craig suggested. “He’ll never last.”

            “What are those costumed misfits up to this time?” William Carson asked.

            “Who knows?” Craig moaned. “I hope you didn’t have any plans to go downtown.”

            “What’s happening this time?” William asked. “Black Spectre again?”

            “No, there’s some big demon thing running amok downtown, named Zorasto. SUNDER’s trying to handle him.”

            “What’s a Zorasto?” William Carson asked.

            “Demon or not, he’s torturing kids!” Craig exclaimed, disgusted.

            “Honey!” Laura Ann Carson cried. “She’s coming! The baby’s coming!”

            “Screw downtown, we’ll head to Royal Columbian. Craig, stick with me if you
            want to see your stepsister born,” William Carson told his son, and he left to rev up the car, running as fast as his legs could take his aging dad bod. In a few hours, Eileen Ann Carson would enter the universe with a scream and a laugh and the loving pride of her brothers.

            “Sister,” Craig moaned in his sleep. “Sister.”

            Before his eyes, Eileen Carson -- his mother’s namesake -- grew into womanhood, springing from cute to beautiful to wise. And her laughter was like grass shoots upon the turf, sprouting after a clean spring rain.

            ****

            ”Lesson three - you’re not alone
            Not since I saw you start breathing on your own
            You can leave, you can run, this
            Will still be your home....”


            “Craig, you sentimental idiot,” she told him as they watched the stars from the skylift on Grouse one evening. “When are you going to teach me to drive?”

            Craig laughed. “Um, never?” he replied. You want to get into an accident? No one drives a car anymore!

            “You lazy ass,” Eileen replied. “Brothers suck!”

            “Better try your luck with Jack,” Craig said, sticking out his tongue.

            ******

            And the tambourines sang.

            “Dad, I’d like you to meet Manjita,” Craig smiled. “The woman who loves me. The woman who captured my wayward heart with only a smile.”

            “It was mutual,” Manjita brushed Craig’s hair with dancing fingers, with a smile. “And I think it took two smiles. The idiot just didn’t notice the first.”

            “I am pretty clueless,” Craig admitted.

            “Well then,” William smiled. “When are you getting hitched?”

            “Next Sunday.” Craig answered.

            “What?!” William shouted.

            “Dad!” Craig objected, and then he saw a smile break out on his dad’s face. and his joy grew beyond containment.

            “You impulsive little brat,” William mocked. “What am I going to do with you!”

            “Get rid of me,” Craig snirked back.

            “I’ll take him if you don’t want him,” Manjita also smirked.

            Craig laughed, and he read the love in Manjita’s eyes, and babbled nigh incoherently for the rest of the evening. It was hard not to imagine him dancing a jig.

            “Dammit Craig!” William said. “You’re not giving me time to get fitted for a new suit!” But he laughed and embraced his son. Craig returned it lovingly...

            ....but in the middle of a father’s love, something felt off. As though the world was frayed on the edges, and things were starting to fall apart. Then there was a roar in the heavens, and William and Craig watched as the mighty Thundrax, a familiar sight, flew by. The thunder faded, and then all was set right again.

            “What the Hell was that?” Craig wondered.

            “Capes,” William snapped. “Children playing dress up. Best to keep your distance. People just get hurt around them, for all the good they do.”

            “I guess,” Craig sighed. “I see him around here more often than the other capes. I wonder if he lives in East Van?”

            “Maybe you should ask him to come to the wedding.” William asked.

            “Nah,” Craig smiled. “A superhero’s gotta be busy. I’m sure the great and powerful Thundrax has too much time for a dork like me.”

            “Loser,” William Carson spat back with a grin. “That idiot wishes that he were half the man as my boy!”

            “Oh dad...” Craig moaned, wondering what it would be like to be Thundrax. But it was a momentary fancy and nothing more.

            *****

            ”So you know who you are
            And you know what you want
            I’ve been where you’re going
            And it’s not that far
            It’s too far to walk
            But you don’t have to run
            You’ll get there in time
            Get there in time...”


            “I’ve spoken to the Doctor,” Craig said. “It was a minor heart attack, but you’ll make a full recovery. You gotta be careful, though.”

            “Careful? Me? Ha!” William said. Craig grinned.

            “Miracles do happen.” Craig smirked, hands brushing his thinning dark hair. “I know I’ve been busy for the last bit,” Craig added, and he started to get emotional. He held his dad’s hand. “I love you, you bloody old man. I haven’t said it for awhile. Haven’t said it enough. But I love you, William Carson. Happy father’s day.”

            The pulse was strong, as strong as hope, as strong as the luck of a restless man. Then the voice caught, and quavered, and the vision of the world parted for an instant.

            And outside the hospital window, Thundrax soared again, on an urgent errand.

            “Oh. to be that guy,” Craig said wistfully, observing the hero.

            “Craig,” William Carson asked with a scowl, ignoring Doctor’s orders not to agitate himself. “If you could be that guy, do the things that guy does, be the things that guy represents, would you be him? Even if it cost you everything you love?”

            “Me? A hero? Soaring through the heavens like all those old comic books I use to read? Like Vanguard or Beowulf? Bringing justice to a world crying for it?”

            “Yes,” William said. “A world full of scoundrels needs its saints.”

            “But what it it cost me you, dad?”

            “That could be part of the price.” William answered. “Heroes do make sacrifices y’know. But great powers, mighty deeds, fame and fortune, and doing a world of good. Versus one pitiful, broken down ol’ pop.”

            “Broken down, my ass.” Craig snorted.

            “You always did love those old comics. I dare say you were born for the role. So, what would you choose? Either way, I’d love you more than you know.”

            “ I — I....” Craig stammered.

            *****

            ”There will be liars and
            Thieves who take from you
            Not to undermine the consequence
            But you are not what you do
            And when you need it most
            I have a hundred reasons why I love you...”


            And the fabric of the world tore. Like a curtain, reality...

            ....quavered and gave way. For at last, Neviel could sing no further. Hell hated
            song, hated singers, hated any sound that was not a scream or an untruth. Heaven’s song was silenced, and then Craig Carson and his dad awoke with a start, in stereo though universes divided the twain: sweat-soaked and out of breath. The night drew around the father like a dagger, its flash a promise of pain.

            “Neviel?” William Carson asked. “Did I just dream of what would have been?

            “No,” the imprisoned angel rasped. He cleared his throat and resumed his song. The flames roared, and the demons cried, but there was an odd, rare peace in the Field this morning, for the power of the angel waxed, and held sway for a brief hour. It was very un-Hell-like, and many demons spat a curse. Neviel smiled grimly. He would pay for his gift in pain, but did not begrudge it. All kindnesses have their hour.

            “You and your son shared a dream of what should have been. What joy you might have known. Hell cannot keep out all oy, not for one such as thee.” the angel explained. “It was intended as a gift for you both to share. A foretaste of a world like summer wine. What will be, when injustice is undone and all crooked roads are set straight. For one day, the world will be as it should. One day there will be no more need for heroes, for the hero will dwell within us all, like angels, and its spirit will soar, and the hero and the man will be conjoined, like a second marriage. What a feast that shall be! Until then, Happy Father’s Day, William.”

            “Well, then. Happy Father’s Day to you too,” William sniffed, and he smiled as he thought of his children, heroes all, costumed or not, born and unborn.

            Comment


            • #21
              Re: War of the Dimensions

              Prologue:

              “Help, Hitler!” Zorasto had cried. It was an insane scheme, baroque and beyond fixing. Time travel back to 1938. Arranging it so superpowers only affected the worst of humanity. A world of Super-Hitlers and ultra-storm troopers. The planet its lebensraum. Now that would have been a master race!

              And now here he fell amid the burning mud, a lowly maggot writhing and twisting on hell’s hot floor. Oh, such an anti-climax! Thundrax had not even been there, just his friends. This was not how a villain was supposed to be defeated! And that had been Zorasto’s one advantage in all those years. He knew what his role had been. He had never, not once, seen himself as misunderstood. He did not rage against an unjust society – Hell was the worst, but he’d have been just as unjust a potentate as any of the others. And he would have relished in those uncommitted injustices as if they were notes in a rich and engrossing opera. He would have become as fat as universes, if he had his way. And he would have relished it, the ultimate diva. How he would have sung!

              Now, he lay. In Slanders Field, along with all the other lies.

              Slanders’ Field. Now that was a pun worthy of Hell.

              As he crawled in the mud, wallowing in thee familiar stench of brimstone and failure, Zorasto thought he could, through his dim larval senses, feel the footfall of his jailer, the Great Liar himself, as he let rest on the scrapheap.

              “Mercy,” he croaked, Hell’s most familiar song, the one that was beyond consummation. The lover who always pulled back from the moment.

              “Zorasto,” Belial sang, and the voice sounded like a hangman, grim as death and a silence that was not a silence not a silence and not a silence, and the not a silence and the death echoed over the plains. “Defiler, crow’s feast and engine of self-defeat,” he said. “I have brought you someone new.”

              The maggot looked up. Did he bring Thundrax? It was him, wasn’t it? Here to torment him? Here to throw all of his failures in his face? Here to sing the song of his defeat, an anthem mocking and yet heartbreakingly lovely. The sound of thunder on the hills, as sung by a lark? Human virtue that shone bright as a thunderstrike, painfully? It was him, right? Their long grudge would end as all grudges should end, right? The final showdown. The fool, in all his power and pity, would restore him. They would have one last climactic struggle, fire against thunder, the malice of hell versus the most refined will on earth. Villain against hero. That was how these things were supposed to end. In one final, splendid, operatic chord!

              “Yes, bring your thunder…” the Defiler croaked. “Bring your vengeance! Have I not plagued your line for generations? Did I not cast your brother into the void of time? Come!”

              But it wasn’t the champion’s voice that answered him. It was another man’s voice, though just as familiar. A heavenly one.

              “Do not do this mortal,” Neviel said.

              William Carson sighed, stepped on the maggot that was Zorasto, and ground his foot into the dirt of Hell.

              “That was for Jack,” he said.

              And with that step, the three thousand years of pride and failure that was the Defiler, was at long last ended, its existence only a brief, pathetic yelp in eternity, closer to Ecclesiastes than to Milton.

              “Guess I belong here after all,” the third born Carson said, and he brushed the remains of Zorasto off his foot.

              ******

              They call him the Hobbled Man. And he just introduced himself to me as Tristan Carson, my great great great grandfather. Or is it four greats, not three?

              I hate all this ancestral crap. Predestination garbage. Here I thought I was just an ordinary kid from East Van. And that Zorasto was the only one who bought into this destiny bullshit. But no, I have… an ancient evil Carson to deal with.

              And his pet, a black tentacled demon that’s trying to devour my soul.

              “Ow!” I snarl as it lashes my face.

              It draws blood, lacerating my cheek. I’m not sure if the demon’s that powerful, or whether his spells have weakened me.

              “Ow!” I repeat as I see the Hobbled Man grinning.

              “Grburbububl…” rasps the demon.

              Its barbs catch on my costume, tearing at it like blackberry thorns. Some pierce my flesh – you know they’re sharp when they can do that – and red lines form on my faces and torso. Scratches from hell, literally. I fry it with lightning. Full thunder, I’m not holding anything back. I do watch for signs I’m hitting an illusion: a human scream, an unexpected recoil. But none of that happens, instead the bush burns, with white-blue incandescence. Runes gleam on the Hobbled Man’s forehead.

              “Yes, Thundrax yes,” the Hobbled Man says. “I’ll take your power, pup, and send you back to your kennel, to snivel along with the rest of the Carson dogs.”

              The bastard’s siphoning the thunder from me. So I hold back on the thunder, let it swell, and then set it off in one supercharged burst. Man, is that trick hard. Man, does that trick ever hurt. But it does exactly what the doctor ordered (or would if there actually was a doctor of thunder). The runes on Tristan Carson’s forehead smoke, and he’s blasted backward ten feet, to topple on his back. His wards were only proof against part of the impact.

              “Gah!” he cries, arguably the most satisfying gah ever.

              “Sorry, Captain Hook. But there’s no way in heck I’m letting you have that kind of power.” I snarl back. I remember what had happened the last time I faced him, how he fractured me, and it took a hundred and eighty-one attempts and the intervention of Sebastian’s science to reassemble myself. “The Living Thunder is worth by deed, not blood. You have no power over me. Nothing you can do or say can hurt me again.” I vow.

              “I sent your father to Hell.” Tristan Carson tells me, a gleam in his eye.

              And my jaw drops low enough to swallow the fucking planet.

              “He did not go quietly. He was quite the screamer,” the Hobbled Man goads me. “Quite a satisfying display of cowardice. Like father, like son.”

              “You’re lying,” I snarl, after the comment takes forever to sink in. You filthy sack of shit. “You just read about that! Just had to make it personal, didn’t you? It’s probably part of some ritual. You need the rage of living thunder!”

              “He would have given me his wife, if she’d been home. The craven dog.”

              “You bastard!” I scream.

              He laughs, and it wounds the world.

              “My father’s dead!” Dead to me, if not literally.

              “Worse than dead, thanks to me pup,” he says. “Your father is in Hell. Naked, in torment, starving, well his son lives a life of wealth and privilege! Congratulations, boy! That’s common sense worthy of a true Carson. Me!”

              “I congratulate you on your research--” I stammer, repeating my assertion. I’ll thank him with my fists.

              “Yes, it was the best research, child,” he sneers. “Life. I remember it oh so well. It was Groundhog’s Day, 1975. One of my contacts had warned the man, a fatal mistake. Zorasto believed he was the second born Carson and thought he would receive his power; to repay my debt to him, I agreed to turn over William Carson, alive and unharmed. Your father was in the process of leaving your home, trying to escape me, but I stopped him. Your brother had returned home from school early – playing hooky; I threatened to gut him, and I’ve have done it too. So, to save his life – and yours - your father went willingly with me. And I took him to Zorasto. In Hell.” And he laughs again.

              It’s the mistake of his life. Finding humor in the pain of an angry god.

              I can’t really describe my feelings at the moment. Numb with fury? Is that a thing? I’ve had these moments before: when I found Ann’s body; when I found Sarah’s limbs in my freezer, when I discovered that the Westons had been turned to monsters. In that alternate world, when the building collapsed, and I heard the screams calling out for me to save them.

              But this one is way worse.

              Forty-five years. I spent forty-five years blaming dad for deserting us. Nearly forty years blaming him for not being at mom’s side when she died. Every Christmas, every Easter, our poverty bespoke his betrayal. Every quarrel I had with Jack was directed at him. Every long hour washing dishes in a filthy kitchen at work, for obese smelly men who looked for an excuse to yell at you. Every insulting minimum wage pay cheque that would go directly into a rich man’s pocket. Those were all lies. Every year my anger grew, every year I vowed never to be like him. When, in fact, my sacrifices made me more like him than I imagined possible. When, in fact, no man ever loved me more. No man ever sacrificed more. No greater love.

              I scream. I shriek. Or howl. All I know is, that for a moment, I’m a chorus of outrage. A chorus of Pain.

              The storm cannot be contained. Almost immediately, Tristan Carson shrieks and falls to his knees, blown away by the anger. The building around us is matchwood, splinters in the eye of god’s wrath. It only took a split second.

              “YOU FOOL…” I snarl.

              “You cannot kill me!” he howls, realizing his error. He holds his good hand to ward against the tempest. It’s as ineffectual as you might expect. “I’m indestructible.”

              “SHALL I FLY YOU INTO THE SUN, AND LEAVE YOU TO BURN UNTIL IT GROWS COLD? SHALL I SEVER YOUR ARMS ND LEGS AND BURY THEM ON THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE EARTH? WHAT GOOD WILL YOUR IMMORTALITY BE THEN, HOOKED MAN?”

              The menace in that voice would give Zerstoiten pause. It’s the voice of Storm Island. I’m listening to it as if the words weren’t coming out of my own throat.

              “Mercy, sweet devil, mercy.” He gasps. He had no idea I was capable of this.

              I had no idea I was capable of this.

              ******

              “Craig!” Lewis Frey says. He’s probably in his nineties, but he’s as hale and hearty as a man of fifty. As me, in my other body. As my friend Wally Thompson, who was cursed with immortality for some inexplicable reason, as long as he lived above the sixtieth parallel.

              I smile at Lewis. I know the owner of Club Caprice, the walking swear jar of demonic infestations, put his thieving days long behind him. But still I check my wrist for my gold watch. It’s still there.

              “Lewis,” I tell the man curtly. “I need to go to Hell.”

              ******

              Mount Baker. The last mountain of my boyhood. The last of my mountains.

              One winter, when I was 9 or10, my brother took me tobogganing here. We got into an argument, of course. He never took me here again.

              Baker. Koma Kulshan of the Salish. When I grew up, I saw a sad basset hound’s face in it shadowy face.

              And Lewis told me that it was my way into Hell.

              I suppose I should have talked to the Trismegistus. After all, Lewis isn’t a mage; he’s just Shermy, the innkeeper, a man playing at the role as if it were Christmas. But no place on earth has more demons per square inch than Caprice, and Lewis knows his patrons with all the ruthless precision of capitalism, the coldest, cruelest, and most calculating force on earth.

              “The first thing you need to know about Hell,” he told me, “is that there is many of the damn things in the Netherworld. And not all of them are bad. The one that most of the demons in this club come from is best called Urban Fantasy Hell. It has all the affectations of Hell – the darkness, the fires, that brimstone smell that you just can’t wash out of your wings – but none of the theological damnation, none of the soul-destruction. It’s Hell without a devil. Or God.”

              “I remember.” I once talked bout the Hell I had faced in the confines of Caprice, and I mortally offended a nearby demon, who loudly declared I didn’t know what I was talking about (even though I wasn’t talking to her), and then shunned me thereafter. Even though I was quoting from the official texts of the Trismegistus.

              “Of course she did,” snorted Lewis. “Her personal canon eclipses any lore, y’know. All the lore achieves is to make her less special. But she comes from Urban Fantasy Hell. Not a false Hell – every Hell in the netherworld is as true and as false as any other - but a more mundane Hell.”

              “Hipster Hell, without all that pesky, annoying theological stuff. For the cool demon crowd.”

              “Now, Craig, that’s unkind,” Lewis says.

              He was right. But enough critique; sneering at the cool demon set wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Eventually Lewis was forced to relate legends that are older than Ann Rice, stretching all the way back to Ariosto. The entrance to Hell, he said, was likely volcanic and familiar. And Baker, a two mile high volcano in Washington State, within ogling distance of the Canadian border, was my personal entrance to the Underworld. So I scout it for signs, finding one burrowed in the side of huge fir tree.

              Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”

              “Cute,” I say. I’ve read Dante.

              The first apparition I meet is Pastor Bennett. A rough, occasional visitor to my home church in Vancouver, Eagle Ridge Alliance, he’s never especially liked me, and when I’ve attended, he’s taken peculiar delight in accosting me in his sermons. False gods and pride. I always thank him for the sermon, but not this time.

              Next, I encounter a chimera. It’s my old political career, brought to life as a beast. It’s a dragon, whose neck and face bears an uncanny resemblance to the Peace Tower of the Parliament in Ottawa. It speaks with the voice of my old political nemesis, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. I fight it for a bit, then realize, after being scorched by its eternal flame, that I can’t beat it. So, I play by the rules of its symbology – I start a motion to dismiss it and call a summer recess. There’s nothing that politicians like more than a recess. The poor beast doesn’t have a chance as it’s voted out of existence. Politicians enjoy a recess more than school kids!

              You’d be amazed at the similarities between politicians and the Breakfast Club.

              The third, most fearsome barrier is a flaming door, set in a tunnel that’s burrowed in the side of the dormant volcano. It’s Zorasto’s fire. And Josiah Brimstone’s, the demon hunter who snagged me once and imprisoned me in Hell;s worst recesses. And Malys. And Belial, and every Hellish creation I’ve ever pitted my strength against. Damnation manifested in physical form.

              “You shouldn’t go, Craig,” a man’s voice tells me — in English that’s spoken with a heavy Quebecois accent. I turn around to spot a man in buckskin and black, holding a large Bible. The torture he suffered in life is shining in his eyes, but there’s also a certain tranquility.

              “Forgive me, sir, but I don’t recognize you,” I tell him.

              “Francis Brebeuf,” the priest tells me.

              “Patron Saint of Canada.” I acknowledge the name with a nod. I may not be Catholic, but I’m no dummy. Father Francis was a Jesuit missionary, a martyr who was, among many achievements, the man who forged the alliance between the Hurons and the French, immersing himself in their culture. Good man, horrible death, tortured by the Iroquois, by the Mohawks. This is really starting to become a Canadianized mirror of Dante, to an uncomfortable degree.

              “He’s my dad.” I shrug. “Turning back isn’t an option. I rescue people. It’s my job. But what good is my job if I can’t do it for my own family?”

              “Hell is failure,” he tells me. “And failure is Hell. By definition, you cannot succeed. Here, failure of the worst kind is a theological certainty. Nothing good lives down here. Nothing good can be achieved here.”

              “I know.” I smile. “I’ve been here before.”

              “Then God have mercy on your soul, in the land that mercy has forgotten.”

              “I guess I’ll have to give Hell its wakeup call.” I say. “Do you have any useful advice, your eminence?”

              “Love is your lifeline.” Brebeuf tells me.

              “I know that better than anyone,” I say. I thank the father, and, my burning fingers grasping the door, I push it open. Its like pushing aside worlds.

              Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate,” a voice says, portentous and hollow.

              No, Dante, not this time. I’m not abandoning hope, though I enter Hell. After all, though I dare not bring anyone here, hope is still my teammate.

              ******

              1984

              “That awful game again,” I moan, as Hell’s airs seem to bite at me, and the darkness hides gnawing things. I was not a fan. “Dungeons and Dragons my ass. The kids wanted to play their game. Zorasto just gave them what they wanted. Why are we putting our necks out for these nerds?”

              Shamus raises an eyebrow. He’s certainly never heard me talk about people like this before, Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about people this way before. But nerds are just... annoying.

              “And I really didn’t sign onto SUNDER to spend my birthday among the damned.” I mutter.

              Cryo sighs. “Shut the hell up.” He snaps at me. “Whining doesn’t make this place any better, unless you’re actually trying to make things worse.” Frost muttered, like one of his ice javelins directed at me.

              “What did you just say?” I snarl.

              “That’s it!” Shamus intervenes, brushing his hands on his trenchcoat. “It’s this place, it’s amplifying the parts of ourselves that want to grouse – and worse.”

              “Hell’s psychic?” I say.

              “Big time,”Shamus tells me.

              “Oooo, aren’t you just smarter than everyone?” Cryo snorts at our leader. He’s bristling from the heat. Hell is bad for everyone, but for our resident ice mutant, it’s the worst.

              “Nah, George is,” Shamus demurs. Hell seemed to be affecting him the least, though he had to be hurting, as we were all reeling from Avenger’s death at the hands of VIPER and She-Devil, and Shamus had to be hurting more than any of us. Perhaps he was expecting to find him down here?

              “I’m sorry, Shamus,” I say, pointedly not apologizing to that jerk Cryo. “It’s just that I wasn’t expecting to spend my birthday down… In this place.”

              “Well, happy birthday,” Inferno adds. Alone of the team, Inferno seems at peace in the peaceless realm. He’s a fire elemental who once met our earth elemental member, Elemmus, and hit it off well. He’s apparently able to purify metals to a ridiculous degree, which our battlesuit clad member Flux finds extremely useful (or would, if Flux could ever hit a target).

              Between me, Elemmus, and our occasional member Solar Sentinel, SUNDER isn’t lacking in the strength department.

              “Just you wait, kid,” a figure in white says. Where’s he come from? I stare at the newcomer. He’s my height and build, and has my face, but shorter hair. A red maple leaf adorns the center of his chest, and his uniform has a ightning stylings. He looks almost exactly like me! The heck—what am I doing in Hell, dressed like that? Or is that just a mockery of me?

              “Are you—” I stammer.

              “Of course I am. Happy birthday, Craig,” the man tells me.

              “Who the Hell are you?”Cryo wonders.

              The man, wearing a most un-Hell-like smile, ignores the ice mutant, and instead he corners Shamus. The psychic detective has a rare frightened look on his face, but the white-clad me – is he real or an apparition, maybe? – throws his arms around our leader and hugs him with tears in his eyes.

              “Get away from him,” Elemmus says.

              “Not a chance,” the other me says.

              “Okay, That’s enough. Maybe you can explain what exactly’s going on?” Shamus tells the hugger, as if he’s a Christmas tree and the duplicate me is a string of tinsel.

              The man in white releases the boss and wipes away a tear. “Hope it wasn’t too tight,” he says. Is he referring to the hug? He stares at me, then shifts his gaze back at Shamus. Our leader is still trying to work this one out. “I don’t think I ever said this, but thank you for everything you did for me. Good or bad, you made me the man I am today.”

              “I don’t trust him,” Cryo said, because of course he doesn’t. The man ignores him, and instead flashes our grumpy psychic detective the biggest smile in the recorded history of hell.

              “Well, whoever it is, his mind is really strong. I can’t read it.” Shamus frowns.

              “Somebody trained me well,” the man says, his grin fully trained on Shamus. “A man who needs to send his coats to the cleaners every once in awhile. Plus I got a lot of practice over the years. Listening to disco is a great way to train your mental defenses. If you can learn to endure that shit, Hell is a piece of cake. And then there’s putting up with Avenger...”

              “Could someone explain what’s going on?” Inferno asks. The man turns, and the smile immediately fades. What is it about Inferno that changed the man’s mood? He visibly composes himself before answering.

              “I’m him,” he says, pointing at me. “From some point in the future.”

              “Wearing white?” Cryo says. “You’re trying to steal my look?’

              I, that is to say him, laughs uproariously. “Sorry Frost,” he tells Cryo. “I don’t know how long this time collapse will last, so let me inform you of what you’re up against.”

              “Go on,” Shamus says.

              “This is way bigger than you suspect. Zorasto has declared war on play.” The man explains.

              “What?” Cryo interjects.

              “Those D&D players he kidnapped are only the start. He’s attacking the concept of play on an archetypal level. If he’s not stopped, and the kids aren’t rescued, then every time children play, every gaming related discord will feed him and strengthen him. And do you know how often kids argue during games?”

              “Good grief!” Shamus exclaims, realizing the enormity of Zorasto’s plan. My heart sinks too.

              I flashback to boyhood games of Monopoly, and all the times Jack smashed the board and stomped away from the game screaming obscenities. I could get pretty obnoxious over Pennsylvania Avenue. From what I understand, that’s a pretty universal experience. Then there’s Hands Down, and Trouble and the Game of Life… Nothing trigger quarrels like competitive fun. And if they all fed Zorasto...

              “That’s diabolical,” I say.

              “It’s who he is,” the man in white says. “Forget the Brotherhood. Forget VIPER. Forget even the Overlord. Forget even William Donaldson…”

              “Who?” Shamus asks.

              “You haven’t met him yet. Oh joy. He’s a real pill.” My pretty much twin says. Man, this is trippy. But his posture, his eyes… they’re so different! Coming to a theater of operations near you – the Thundrax of Tomorrow!

              “Necessary detail only,” Shamus says. “Info dump now, chit-chat later.”

              “Sure,” he says. “Forget those others. Forget Malachite or Borealis. This is the big one. Zorasto’s assaulting innocence itself.”

              “I know,” Shamus says. The man chuckles sadly. Odd to see someone displaying normal emotions in Hell. Only Shamus and Inferno have managed that so far.

              “Look for Cage Young… the big jerk… and good luck.”

              “Good luck, old friend,” Shamus says, knowing way more about what’s going on than he’s willing to tell. As usual.

              “You too,” the big man sniffs, his facade of strength about to break. “Oh, and expect things to get weird. Zorasto conducted a lot of time control here. There are a ton of breaks in continuity here. “That’s why we can meet. You may meet other mes, or yous. But the mind will put things together.”

              “Let’s hope so,” Shamus said.

              “ Oh, and Shamus? Avenger was just teleported, not disintegrated. There’s a bit of Avenger drama yet to come. Eventually he goes into... get this.. law enforcement!”

              “No!” Shamus exclaims.

              “You’ve never known me to lie,” the man in white says. “Well, Scout’s honor. Law enforcement! And he’s elected mayor too!”

              “I don’t think I can handle this,” Shamus says.

              “I have to admit, I find it pretty hard to believe, and I lived through it! It’s all going down soon too.”

              “I’ll keep my voting hand warm,” Shamus says.

              “Well, take care of yourself, old friend,” he (or is it I) says. “I miss you.”

              “Miss me?” Shamus asks.

              “Would miss you,” the man corrects. Shamus’s eyes narrow.

              “In this line of work? Good luck with that!” Shamus says, and the man disappears into the mist. And with that, accompanied by a discordant chord and a distant bird cry, he, the future, is gone.

              “C’mon guys.” Shamus says. “You heard the man. We’ve got a future to save.”

              “Who’s that?” I say as I spot a new figure in the distance, and the next chapter of the future beckons.

              The Present

              35 years ago. That’s what I just saw, just talked to. Years before Shamus disappeared. On the mission which Inferno did not survive.

              Ghosts of the past. Zorasto really made a mess. No wonder the Dukes of Hell got so pissed at him. But I’m happy. Far happier than expected to be. I came to Hell hoping to find my father, the man who sacrificed for me. I didn’t expect to meet the man who was my second father too.

              I need to find some plains. A plain where I cannot lie, but the truth always hurts. A typical Hell deal. I continue traveling onward. Mountains of torment? Check. Chasms of Madness? Check. Fountains of blood? Check. And predictable. I’m surprised I don’t find Club Caprice here.

              I can make jokes, but it’s the blackest of humor, and the cruelest. Torture and depravity shouldn’t stir the human soul to anything except sorrow. It’s moral cancer.

              And then, on a tree of woe (Hell loves its crucifixions, mocking the Great One), I find a large African American man, naked, and bigger than me. He’s screaming as carrion demon birds are feasting on his eternally regenerating eye sockets. He’s cussing up a storm, as usual. I scare the birds with a thunderclap and wrench him free from his cross.

              “Down you go,” I quip. “It’s not Easter, no crucifixions allowed.”

              “Why you---” he says, lips curled. I’m grinning at the sight, which I’m rather sure he doesn’t appreciate. The gigantic man jumps me and we wrestle. Oddly enough, it’s fun. I get the distinct impression of Jacob wrestling an angel. We grunt and sweat for a bit, digging our feet into the rough, sharp soil of the Underworld. Struggle is the closest thing that Hell gets to pleasure.

              “I’m not losing to a damn demon,” he grunts.

              “I’m only a demon between the sheets,” I joke. Again, it’s a Hellishly inspired joke. Normally I don’t talk about my sex life, let alone make quips about it. Some things are meant to remain private.

              “UGH!” the huge man roars, trying to overthrow me. But he can’t.

              So the match continues. I don’t intend to lose, but don’t ask me to change my name when I win, as Jacob did in the Bible.

              The man is as strong as ever, but I’m way stronger than I was when we first met. It’s like wrestling Bulldozer, not trivial, but not a challenge either. Finally I pin him until the delirium fades, and his eyes revert to normal, to two glasses of sheer meanness. Waking from that only to see my grin must be Hell for him.

              “Hello Cage,” I smile at the demon hunter.

              “Oh,” Cage Young says, grumpily as ever. “It’s you.”

              ******

              “So, over those peaks is the Desolation of Realizations,” the naked man tells me. It’s like I’m walking with an African-American version of Den from Heavy Metal.

              ‘So what do they do?”I ask.

              “Cruel truths.” Cage says. “Great place to hide when demons are dogging your trail a little too hotly.”

              “How long will it take us to get there?” I ask.

              “The same as any other place is Hell,” he replies. “A disappointingly long time.”

              Traveling in Hell is as much over psychological distance as physical. Cage, chewing on a bitter tasting herb like tobacco, surges ahead. At least he isn’t jumping me for an impromptu brawl, which he’s done four times on the journey so far, not counting our first meeting. Cage Young is a fighter, and he’s not particular picky about who he fights. Fortunately, I’m far too strong for him to handle, and I easily weather his fits of rage.

              “Demons don’t like this place,” he adds with a nod.

              “And my father is kept here?”

              Cage doesn’t even bother to nod. “I don’t know about any human,” he says. “But there are angels. Prisoners taken in the great war between Heaven and Hell.”

              “Wait?” I wonder. “Angels?”

              “Nothing is forsaken by the Most High. Not even this place.” Cage answers. “He sends angels here to bring hope every once in awhile and torment the damned.”

              “That’s how you can stand to live down here? Heaven’s hope?”

              “Nope.” Cage says. “That’s just a raid in the war, to let the dukes know who’s in charge. I survive down here from the rich satisfaction of slaughtering demons.” The demon slayer flashes me the most obscene of grins. “Hell is a very target-rich environment for me. You might say that Hell is my heaven.”

              “Do the angels help you?” I ask.

              “Nope,” the demon slayer says. “I’m as badly fallen to them as the demons. Assholes.”

              Given his fits of rage, I can see that the angels have a point. But saying something won’t get me an inch closer to finding dad.

              So we trek onward, and approach the peaks surrounding the plains. They loom like jagged gates; they’re almost cartoonish in their sharpness.

              Then Cage stops, and abruptly turns around and starts running away, I move to grab him. He shoots me a look that’s almost frightened.

              “We went too far,” Cage said. “He’s coming.”

              I had heard nothing. I’m still not hearing a thing, except for a sudden panic in the man’s breathing. “Who?” I ask.

              “What a stupid fucking question, “ he says, pointing at a flying beast. “Him.”

              Out of the sky, a dragon is flying toward us.
              And, without saying a word, with the living thunder welling in every orifice in my body, I rise to meet it.

              “Looks like Black Paladin’s dragon, Malys.” I say. ‘But bigger.”

              “It’s his sire,” Cage cries back to me, still running.

              Dad, I don’t care how powerful this thing is, I’m not letting it get between us. Nothing, angel, demon, or demon hunter, is coming between us again.

              And so the dogfight begins, with me cast in the role of the dog. Well, if I’m a dog, I may well be Cap’s fierce fighting hound, Ajax. Or a rottweiler. A dog as fierce as a dragon.

              I meet the monster in the air, teleporting the moment I see the fire come out of its mouth. It’s baleful green flame, reminding me of that one time I ran into a possessed Kondo Rimi. I whirl, and dodge. Compared to some of my aerial foes, the huge beast is ungainly. Unfortunately, it’s damn tough. Twice as tough as its son, whom I’ve never beaten. I attempt to smash through its wing, but its membrane, shielded by a thin coating of metal, is more than sufficient to counter anything I’ve got in the strength department. I do nudge the beast so he has to make a correction in mid-air (Otherwise I’d have been dragon chow right there and then), but I get swatted to the ground, landing in a pile of dirt, rocks, and thorns near Cage Young.

              “That looks like it hurt!” Cage shouts unhelpfully. I don’t have time to quip, rolling as the dragon dive bombs me, the reptile bastard.

              “Let’s try something else,” I say, ascending again.

              “Dinner’s that way!” Cage shouts at the dragon, pointing at me. The dragon climbs in pursuit and tries to draw a bead on me. Shadowy dragons congeal about it, instant reinforcements for the monster.

              “Fine.” I say, and after its maw alights again, I move in an arc. This time I’m adding descent velocity to my attack speed. And I charge myself with lightning. I better give it everything I’ve got.

              Death or glory. Thank you, Joe Strummer. At this point, I’m willing to knock Zep out for the title of best band ever.

              And I rip through the wing, crippling the great beast. We plummet together, the dragon’s flight speed carrying it some distance. Its distress cry cannot be described.

              I land near Cage Young. The huge man fold his arms. “That looked painful,” he says with a grin. “By the way, dragons don’t need wings. And I think you made it angry.”

              “This is Hell.” I say, brushing myself off again. “Angry is the default. I don’t have much fight in me,” I admit, and then I grab the huge man. “But I’ve still got flight.”

              “It’ll be on your tail.” Cage warns. From the look on his face, I think he’d enjoy seeing me turned into dragon chow? What happened to the guy? He was a badass, yes, but he wasn’t remotely this psychotic thirty years ago!

              “Then let’s take it some place dangerous,” I say, and that’s when I grab the naked demon hunter and fly him over the mountains, to safety. Like him or not, he’s still my best way to find dad. And so we soar over the mountains. Craggie, jagged peaks, like something you’d see in the most surreal of cartoons. The ones made by Eastern European animators on meth.

              “You won’t like what you find,” he warns me.

              “Bite me,” I reply, and immediately regret it, as that’s what he does. He may be a human pit bull who’s the size of Andre the Giant, but I can barely feel them.

              “Not literally, moron!”

              “Just wondering what all the fuss is about you.” Cage smiles. “It’s not your taste.”

              “Of course not.”

              “You're still a nice kid after all these years,” he tells me, and he means it; we’re in the truth effect of the Desolation now. “You poor idiot, expecting the impossible. There are no happy endings in the land the Lord has forgot.”

              “Then prepare for a first,” I snap back. “I’m making my own happy ending today.” I vow.

              “Everyone thinks they can beat Hell,” he tells me. “Yet nobody ever does.”

              “Including you and your demon slaying armies?” I ask.

              Despite the flight and the risk of losing it, he draws an ancient stone knife. “What’s that: I frown.

              He slides it along my left a bicep, and it bleeds. Ow! It doesn’t bleed a lot, but the knife could do damage if he was in the right mood. And he knows it.

              “It’s the blood of Thunder,” he smiles, basking in my vulnerability.

              “How special,” I scowl.

              “Baby’s killed a lot of demons. But it don’t discriminate. It’ll kill you just as quick.” Cage boasts, the threat twinkling in his eyes. “You like pain, Carson? Baby likes pain.”

              I briefly glance at the bleeding arm. It was only a slice, but he could kill me if he wanted. Mythic blade, I’m vulnerable to its magicks. Out of earth’s earliest myths, it’s a weapon that predates the living thunder, and it’s my biggest weakness. It’s like that glowing green rock that could kill you-know-who. I have no protection against it. That knife could kill me if he wanted, we both know it. And I don’t care.

              I’m almost there, dad.

              ******

              Groundhog day, 1975, Vancouver

              “Dad, why do I have to go to kindergarten?” Craig whined.

              His hands were on his hips, and his lip upturned in disgust. In fact, it was the epitome of youthful disgust. William Carson laughed.

              “Because I need one of my sons to be smart,” he told his son.

              “Fuck you, dad!” Jack shouted.

              “Language!” Eileen Carson shouted back from the kitchen. “How many times have I told you, Jack Bailey Carson?”

              “Dad started it!” Jack snarled back.

              “I didn’t swear,” William Carson said. “I just called you an idiot.” He chuckled.

              “Fuck you, dad,” Jack snarled back, picking up a soccer ball. “We’ve got a game against Tech fourth period.”

              “Kick their ass, son.” William Carson said.

              “They’re gonna bleed,” Jack grinned, heading out the door.

              “Bill, a Mr. Neville phoned. I think he was a store rep,” Eileen reported.

              “What did he want with me?” William Carson asked. “I don’t have any purchasing power!” Little did William Carson suspect the message would be the catalyst for a day of murder and mayhem – that would end with William Carson being dragged to Hell…

              ******

              In Hell’s bleakest reaches, beyond Damnation’s Door, lay the Desolation of Realizations. Across this vast, grey plain all lies are laid bare, and naught but painful truths may be spoken here. No creature desires to come hither, especially among the peoples of Hell, to whom falsehoods are meat and bread. However the Lords of Pride have found these wretched plains ever useful in the enforcement of covenants, and thus an oasis of truth sits in the heart of hell, for any with the desire to take advantage of its qualities.

              In the heart of those plains, a trap had been sprung. Within a circle of falsesilver, barbed and burning, the angel Neviel the Whisperer stood ensnared, seemingly without hope of heaven. He had been gifted with seven great prophecies by his Lord Most High, and at his feet groveled a wretch, its skin blackening, his limbs twisting, his feet broken. What was left of William Andrew Carson, father of Thunder.

              “Dad?” I shout, rushing to my father’s side.

              “Craig,” William Carson says, trying to move away from me, His son. I can see the wheels turning. Why did I choose now, of all moments to come to his rescue. Hell has the shittiest timing, I’m sure he’s thinking. Unable to drag his broken body away, he tried to ward me away with his hands. God, they’re starting to devolve into claws. What happened to him?!

              “I.. I…” he rasps “S-stay away.”

              “The Hell I will,” I snap, and I embrace my father, openly weeping. I couldn’t give a shit about appearances. “Dad, what happened?’”

              “I wanted to save you,” William Carson said, and he wipes away the tears as if I were still a small child and not a walking mountain. To fathers, all sons are little boys.. “Craig, no.”

              I‘ve been called the mightiest man in Millennium, and lately it’s been with good reason. But the Mighty has broken down. The Mighty kneels. I’m that five year old boy again.

              “Craig Alexander Carson, stop that now! What would your mom say?”

              “Mom would understand.” I weep.

              “I know,” William Carson sighs, remembering his wife. She had been so loving, so brave. And she had fathered at least one extraordinary son, my brother. Dammit, Jack should be here. Mom should be here.

              My tears are rivers. Hell is the incarnation of sorrow, but the self-pity of Hell is nothing compared to the sorrow I feel at the moment. I clutch my his father closely, torn between a need to hold and protect him and a fear of crushing him. It would be just like Hell if I killed him by accident. Like Ann. Dad bows his head but he’s relishing the embrace. For the first time in ages, is he feeling like himself, human, still human? God, I hope so.

              “What the Hell happened?” Cage Young asks. I haven’t even noticed the man since I saw dad.
              Neviel glares at the demon hunter, but the whispering chooses to answer the question: is it for my sake. He owes me that much, for a lifetime of sacrifice and goodwill. How many people have I saved over the years? Only now do I realize everything was for him and mom.

              “He tried to destroy Zorasto,” Neviel explains. “But murder, however well-intentioned, will never be rewarded, and especially not in this place. Zorasto was not a demon. He was but a human host, twisted and defiled. Do you know what your enemy truly was?”

              “An ambitious jerk?” I groan.

              “True,” Neviel answers. “But I speak of his nature, not his character. The true Zorasto is an eternal spirit. He can diminished, he can be crushed, he can be defeated, and become subservient to the fabric of this place. But he cannot be slain.”

              “Baby begs to differ,” Cage Young says, flashing the dagger in the light, or what passes for it, of the infernal sky.

              “Then baby is in error,” the angel snorts. “ The demon is an infection, “ He turns again to Craig and William, “And your father, the infected.”

              “Yes,” dad sadly croaks.

              The angel again turns to Cage Young, who’s stoically watching the scene. “You’ve only slain the flesh of demons, you and your living steel. You’ve never come close to touching their spirit, their essence. You’ve achieved nothing here, except to increase Hell’s suffering. You’ve played into the Lords of Hell’s need for a bogeyman, someone to instill fear in the demon ranks. You distract them from the atrocities committed by their true enemies, their lords of Hell, who serve only themselves. Fear of you only brings them closer together. Congratulations, man of violence.”

              “Bite me, angel,” he says, “If what I’m doing is nothing, it’s the most satisfying nothing ever.” He turns to us, the sobbing pair. “But I can’t let this happen.” His dagger appears in his hand with a thought. Useful talent, especially when naked. “I’ll make it quick,” he promises.

              “No!” I cry.

              The next moment is a flash of chaos, a hellish strobe of tragic events. The metal flashes as it falls, aimed dead center at dad’s chest. His eyes widen in horror. A bloodsong sings. Then I, the big damn hero, teleports into its path at the exact moment the dagger falls --- and the dagger plunges dead center into my chest.

              The key word there is probably “dead”.

              “Craig!” dad shouts.

              I cough, spitting blood. Good, I protected dad from the big idiot.

              Dad embraces me.

              I collapse to my knees, the dagger lodged in my heart. I sense the dagger as a living thing within me, appalled. Much good it does me.

              “Well shit,” Cage Young says with a scowl. “That wasn’t supposed to happen!”

              I’ve been stabbed before. I’ll spare you the recaps, but it’s never fun. The heat of the wound, followed by the coldness of blood loss, the feeling of one’s life force ebbing. On previous occasions I’ve panicked, but this time the realization of death is almost peaceful. But I really don’t want to die at my father’s feet. I look to the angel, who looms above us in horror. Even an angel can be dismayed.

              “Well,” I say. “This sucks.”

              ******

              I adjust to the feeling of metal in my chest. Despite my earlier fears, I can continue to exist in this state, at least a little while. I rise to my feet. This hurts like… well, you know the place we’re at. I try to keep as rigid as I possibly can; no sense moving the dagger without necessity. I turn to Cage Young.

              “Dude,” I tell the man, continuing to spit blood. “You need a twelve step program to kick the murder habit. Asshole.”

              Cage doesn’t say much. I suspect he has no problems with my label. “You shouldn’t move,” is about all the demon hunter musters. The dagger, which is sentient, is letting him know what it thinks of the incident that saw it lodged in my heart. It can’t be fun being chewed out by a sapient weapon.

              “Don’t tell me what to do,” I reply. The blood’s welling in my chest. I’m remaining alive on pure life force now. It’s one of my greatest and most dubious gifts: remaining alive when I shouldn’t. But it won’t last long. I need a hospital. Or
              a healer.

              “Craig…” dad murmurs.

              “Dad, don’t. I’m not letting a little metal shank put me down for the count.” Again, I turn to the angel. I fake a smile.“Well? Have I earned a little divinely love and care?”

              “Earned it, yes, a hundred times over,” Neviel says. “But whether you can receive it from me, the answer is no. I can barely heal myself in this place, let alone others, even the deserving.” Neviel says.

              “You’ve healed me a few times,” dad notes. The angel bows his head sadly.

              “Once, when I was far stronger,” Neviel says. “But not from so grave a wound. And Hell is an affliction. It weakens you over time. As your current state amply demonstrates.”

              “I thought I was being punished,” dad says.

              “Hell is its own punishment,” Neviel replies.

              I grab the dagger and with a grunt, I pull it through. The cascade of liquid Thundrax that follows is devastating. “I’m not sure this was such a good idea,” I wince. The cold is getting worse, that’s not a good sign. Maybe my heart can regenerate in time. Maybe my divine body can fight the infection of Hell. Maybe I’ll die.

              “I’ll make a deal with the powers here to save you,” dad says, clearly desperate.

              “No!” I insist. “You’ve wasted too much of your life down here as it stands. I’m getting you home, and healed up if it’s the last thing I do!” I brandish Cage’s dagger. I get the oddest feeling from “baby”. Is she an extension of Cage? What the Hell is he? “This isn’t going to be pleasant,” I tell dad, “so please hold still.”

              Then, still bleeding, I bend down, grab the foot and I take a dagger to the infection that is Zorasto. Then I begin to suck out the poison. The angel described it as an infection. Maybe I can suck it out.

              “Craig!” dad says.

              “Mortal,” Neviel warns, uncertain of the outcome of my actions, for all his prophecies. It may be the biggest mistake of my life, but I pay him no heed. Someone else needs me.

              “I love you dad.” I say to William Carson. The shoe salesman. “I’ve saved whole cities. I’m proud of every man and woman and child I’ve ever helped. But they’re not my dad. I love you. Now let me give my life healing you.”

              “No,” dad says. The world bristles around us, like a rising storm. I can feel the air surge around us, the rankness clearing, the foulness fading.

              “Yes,” Neviel smiles. “You’re removing the poison. Not just from your dad, but from this place!” Cage says nothing, but takes his dagger back. It’s singing a gospel chorus in the man’s fingers.

              “Stop that,” the behemoth mutters to his weapon. “Man, this is corny as Hell. And I’d know.”

              “But it’s working…” Neviel says.

              ”Just don’t say it!” Cage moans. “Please don’t tell me this is the power of..”

              “…the love of a son for his father. The son is sacrificing himself for the father.” Neviel is smiling as he feels my emotions surge through his body. A tidal wave of love. “It’s the most un-Hell-like thing imaginable.”

              “It’s asinine,” Cage moans as he takes a mortal wound to his cynicism.

              “No, killer, it’s beautiful,” the angel counters. “To Hell, this is desecration.”

              “It’s not the only one,” Cage observes.

              I couldn’t care less about their opinions right now. Though like Cage, I’m not enjoying the moment. I’m cold, and I’m losing strength fast. Finally my world grows black, even as I see dad’s flesh start to get more human. He’s fighting the poison. I’m fighting the poison for him. Zorasto is losing again, and he’s not even alive to taunt me. It’s an amazing feeling.

              I remember a song I wrote for mom when I was 10. The tune is almost identical to the Beatles’ Across the Universe. I guess I wasn’t much of a musical prodigy: few kids are Mozart. The song is as earnest and as saccharine as anything composed by a frightened, too nice for his own good kid, but it’s special to me: I sang it to mom on her deathbed. I have no idea why this ancient ditty, this sketch of a chorus, is popping into my brain right now. But I sing it.

              “Life wouldn’t be worth living, but for sentiment and dreams, my love, sentiment and dreams.”

              And so, to the strum of little Craig’s imaginary acoustic guitar, the mighty Thundrax falls. But let’s face facts, Craig Carson. Isn’t this the death you’ve been waiting for all this time?

              ******

              I wake up in my apartment in Millennium. I’m alone,my chest is covered in dried blood, but I’m not dead. My heart is strong, my body warm. The air is fresh and peaceful, and feels sweet in my lungs, rubbing against my skin. This place is not Hell. It’s beautiful. There’s no sign of Neviel, or Cage Young, or dad, but based from the quantity of blood that’s smeared and dried all over my chest, it wasn’t a dream.

              “Thank goodness,” Kivioq says.

              "Kivioq?” I question the voice. There’s chatter on my team channel. Something about MEKKA and a battle off-world. It makes sense, otherwise I’d be waking up in the Barlowe autodoc.

              “Craig, please be silent and listen,” the AI instructs, conveying urgency in his voice. “I have a message, and you will want to hear this immediately.”

              “I need to find my dad,” I insist.

              “This will tell you where he is,” Kivioq answers, and I’m suddenly facing a hologram of my father. He looks a lot more human than he looked in Hell.

              “Craig,” dad says. “I need to complete my healing in a special place. It shouldn’t take too long, maybe a year or so, right?” he looks to someone “off camera”.

              “At least,” I hear Neviel’s voice. If Cage Young is about, he doesn’t say anything. Not that I’m that concerned: the man can take care of himself. Although, like me, he may have a hard time adjusting to serenity. When one has lived a life of drama on the heights, it takes a special gift to appreciate the small. But it should be savored. Life is unique unto itself, great or small.

              So observes the shoe salesman’s baby boy.

              “But I will be back.” Dad promises me. “It won’t be like the old days. But they will be good days. As for what happened to us…”

              “I blacked out.” I note.

              “Hell couldn’t contain such love as you showed. Such sacrifice. So it spat us out.”

              “So we infected Hell as badly as Zorasto infected you.” I say.

              “Precisely.”

              “It would have taken too much effort to destroy us, so out we popped. All from the power of love.“ Or Huey Lewis.

              This has to be the sappiest end to an adventure in my life – and, without a fucking doubt, the absolute best. I’m grinning like a sheepdog on a warm spring day. I realize my entire life, all the pain, all the trauma, all the sacrifice, even the tragedies and mistakes, has been preparing me for this day. The day I rescued dad. The day I beat Hell. “If you’re not back in a year, I’m coming for you.” I promise my dad. “No more tragedy. Happy endings only from now on.”

              “God almighty, I hope so,” dad says.

              “Craig,” Kivioq informs me. “A tornado’s formed on the outskirts of Millennium City….”

              I turn to face the camera. “Call of duty, again. Time to repay the world for giving me such a great dad!”

              “Kick its ass, son,” dad says, and I seal the promise with a nod and a gaze of resolution, and I head into black skies. That’s the duty of this storm god with a man’s soul. To calm the sky, to bring joy, and spread kindness. To protect the good in this world.

              Man, am I ever the biggest dumbest sap on the planet. Sentiment and dreams indeed.
              Last edited by Thundrax; 07-15-2018, 02:51 PM.

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              • #22
                Re: War of the Dimensions

                Fortress-ified

                Author’s Note: Okay, this really warrants a warning label, and an explanation.

                This is written for my accountant, an old college mate. He’s Dark Prowler’s player, but he also played a dumb brick in Champions (100 STR!) named Super Fortress. He doesn’t like Trump, as Mr. Trump’s trade policies are really hitting hard against his client base. This year’s commissioned story doesn’t pull punches.

                If you don’t like politics in your superheroes, or you’re tired of Trump-bashing, stay the hell away from this story. It is not kind.

                Otherwise, thank you for choosing Thundrax.

                ******

                “Ma! Beer me!”

                “I’m busy! Get it yourself!” his wife shouted.

                “You;re already over there and I’m not!”

                “Bit me!”

                Fortress grumbled and sucked on the empty Coors can, inhaling the alcohol fumes. He considered getting up and going to the refrigerator and getting a sixpack. Maybe later.

                Man, what a boring baseball game. When does football start? Not Canadian, not college football either. Real football.

                “Ma, I need beer!” he repeated.

                “Get it yourself!” his wife shrieked.

                Super Fortress, who called himself only Super Fortress, had been a hero. A great superhero. He claimed to be the strongest man on earth, and Vanguard, whom everyone else thought was Earth’s mightiest hero, didn’t feel motivated to press the point. In the early 90s, a new band, Billy and the Heroes, invited Fortress to join on as its drummer. So Fortress retired to become a rock star. It was all a plan to capture his archvillain, but the band broke up before it could be attacked. At the same time, Fortress received a cheque for millions from a billionaire he once rescued, and he decided to retire. After all, Clinton had just become president, and the country was sure to go down the tubes.

                So Super Fortress retired. After controversial remarks in a few interviews led to him being labelled “the Ted Nugent of superheroes”, he stopped giving interviews. He made his home in a rundown home in Atlanta, living common law in squalor after his first two divorces sapped away his income.

                On his front yard, there was a cheesy sign of Fortress in his now long past prime, waving an American flag. Normally bare-chested (he was an extraordinarily well-built man in his sculptured heyday), he painted on a MAGA shirt during the 2016 presidential campaign.

                “I’m not saying he’s a bad superhero,” one of the presidential candidates said. “I’m just saying that the Protectors could do better, a lot better, let me tell you, than a muscle-headed pretty boy, let me tell you one thing.”

                The reporter nodded. “So you’re telling us here at Fox and Superfriends that you’d like Thundrax booted out of the country?”

                “We don’t need American superhero jobs taken over by Canadians, let me tell you! There has to be some American who can step up and send this clown back to Justin! We need American superheroes in charge of American superhero teams!”

                “But two years ago, Mr. Carson helped save Congress….”

                The president sighed, looking stone-faced, orange, and deeply unhappy as he discussed anything he found unpleasant: like anything other than himself or his golf game. “I’m the real superhero here. I’m a real stable genius. Supergenius.Thundrax has one building, I have many buildings. He’s in charge of one little superteam, I’m the captain of one big superteam called America. And as my good buddy Invictus recently reminded me - a much more powerful superhero, by the way —Thundrax — and what kind of a name is that — had to rely on a whole team of American superheroes. All sorts of people! I hope that an American superhero will step up and kick his behind back to where it belongs.”

                And, watching this, Super Fortress had an epiphany. Also, he had to go out and get beer anyway. Why not leap up to Millennium and send the jerk back to Canada personally?

                ******

                “So Trump mentioned me by name?” Craig asked. “Kivioq can you play the clip?”

                “He wants to kick you back to Canada?” HUGIN reported. It was serious when UNTIL’s AI directly intervened, telling Kivoq to stand down. Normally, he only did that for Destroyer, Mechanon, EUROSTAR, Firewing, or Takofanes. But mutterings that he was going to pull out of the UNTIL treaty had alarmed the AI, and he was intervening as best as he could to keep the situation stable. “Perhaps you should head back to Canada for awhile. Defuse tensions?”

                “Maybe once Alex returns to the team. Though Alex was with GLOBE, and GLOBE is Canadian…”

                “Craig, there’s a derelict in Memorial Park, calling you out.” HUGIN reported. “It looks like he’s wearing a “Make America Great Again” shirt. It’s a very poor fit. Good upper body development, but from the pecs down… it’s a disaster zone.”

                Craig sighed. The word “derelict”? That meant an irrational man who needed to be handled diplomatically but was often the least capable of reacting to it. Or as some called it, “the All-Lose Scenario”. “On my way.” Craig affirmed. “And HUGIN? Do we have any ID? Or is he a civilian?”

                “Yes. My word, he’s aged badly. Can that man be what’s remaining of… Super Fortress.”

                “What?” Craig said. He had met him several times in the eighties, back when he had been rude and dismissive over several warnings that Craig had given. A fake hero, secretly aligned with VIPER, had earned his trust, flashing the “Real American” card. “I’ll put on my diplomat’s hat.”

                “He wants a fight, Craig. And for a mutant of his strength, it’s impossible for his powers to decline that badly. Be careful.”

                “Í won’t let any bystanders get hurt.” Thundrax promised. Once before, he had matched physical strength with Fortress three decades ago. He wasn’t even remotely a match for him then, and unless the years were truly cruel, he doubted he would be now.

                Knowing this, he landed next to the tattered titan. The mighty American’s hair had long turned grey, with a scraggily beard, and his pot belly, once a proud six-pack, was pronounced and protruding. He was still badly winded from leaping and stomping across the country in Grond-like leaps.

                “Need liquid?” Craig asked the puffing man.

                “Beer,” Fortress huffed back, too winded to care that the object of his errand was being charitable.

                “I’ll be right back.” Craig said, clapping the man’s sill broad shoulders and flying off. Three minutes later, he landed again and handed the old hero a case of Budweisser.

                “This bud’s for you.” He said. Fortress grabbed the case and guzzled it in a fashion that offended even a man with Craig’s less-than-prissy table manners. Then he did the same for a second six-pack.

                “Now,” Fortress said, stripping off his shirt with reverence. He flexed his pecs a bit, but they had sunken like Trump’s jowls.“I’m going to kick your ass back to Canada. For Donald Trump! And for America!”

                Man, he’s sweating like a pig, Craig thought. It was macho posturing at its finest. Fortress had always been a bit of a self-parody, but now?

                “You can try,” the Canadian said. “Or we can go about this a more peaceful way. How about I take you out to Comerica Park? We can catch a double-header and I can treat you to all the corn dogs you can eat! Then I’ll take you out for drinks over at Nemo’s bar. I think they have an old picture of you in their superhero wing. I bet they’d be over the moon if you signed it! And you’d absolutely be an amazing hit with the kids!”

                Fortress thought about it for a moment. All that glory sure was tempting! “Nope!” he finally said. “You’re not going to deceive me with your Canadian hospitality!”

                “But, but… beer, Fortress. Ice cold beer! And Al Kaline’s glove!” Craig cajoled. “C’mon. Any dumb ol’ ape can do the macho thing. Even jerks like us! But beer and sports memorabilia? And a jukebox full of Zep records and Metallica? That’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!”

                “Well….” The old hero mused.

                “C’mon, Fortress, ol bud, lighten up! Everyone knows you’d kick my ass in a fight. Back in the day, you kicked everyone’s ass! But only you can Make America Fun Again!”

                Fortress’s disposition immediately turned sour, and Craig realized he had pushed the living apocalypse one quip too far. Impressively glowering, he sneered at Thundrax: “Are you mocking Donald Trump?”

                “Why no—” Craig replied.

                "Nobody sneers at Donald Trump and gets away with it! Not on my watch!”

                “C’mon Fortress….” Craig begged. But the man shoved the Canadian in his pecs, the universal symbol between macho strongmen that The Battle Was On… Craig sighed and removed his shirt. Challenge accepted.

                Fortress’s wild swings completely missed, but he forced Craig back and he felled him solely from the air of the whiffed punch. Now that was strong! Craig realized his danger but didn’t especially care. He danced around Fortress, throwing Muhammed Ali mock jabs. Fortress leapt at him and planted himself face down on the dirt. Craig straddled the former hero’s back and rode him like a bucking bronco. And did the man ever buck! Fortress reached back, grabbed him, threw him to the ground with a snap mare and tried to follow with a double footed stomp to the stomach. Craig rolled to his feet and nailed the hard-charging ex-hero with a running dropkick.

                The fight continued. Fortress threw a series of increasingly weaker punches, sweating profusely and huffing. Craig continued to dance with Fortress for a few minutes, and then, seeing the man too exhausted to defend himself tripped the hero to his back. Fortress landed on his still broad back with a thud. Craig knelt on the man’s stomach and loomed above the personification of American brawn, hands spread-eagled on the man’s pectorals. Fortress huffed, unable to fight back.

                “Are you two making out?” a woman, who was walking her pug on a leash, asked.

                “No!” Fortress exclaimed. “I just need to catch my breath, and then I’ll kick his ass.”

                “No, miss. Just a couple of old friends having a friendly tussle. Nothing more.” Thundrax said to the woman. “It’s okay for two people to show affection, but I don’t do it in public. By the way, that’s an adorable pug. What’s her name?”

                “Nate.”

                “Oh. Terrible name, sorry,” Thundrax said. “But he is a real cutie. Hey Fortress! We really should be doing this in cutoffs if we’re going full eighties for this fight! Note for next time.”

                “Just give me a minute to catch my breath!” Fortress huffed.

                “I suggest yoga,” Craig quipped at the out of shape hero, whose heart was pounding like a jackhammer. No immediate sign of going into cardiac arrest, good.

                “You two are weird!” the onlooker exclaimed.

                “The eighties were a little strange. Great music, though.” Craig replied. Pointedly ignoring the heroes, she hurried away from the scene of the fight, her dog immediately regretting the forced march.

                “Just give me a minute…” Fortress huffed again. The fight had left him beet red. All he needed, Craig thought, was a little white and blue to complete the ensemble. What happened to the star spangled briefs he used to wear?

                Craig let his opponent get to his feet. At least they weren’t endangering any bystanders, whether or not they thought they were weird.

                “Ten seconds,” Fortress said. “Then I kick your ass back to Canada.”

                “Hey big man,” Craig smiled. “I’ll tell you what. Rather than putting anyone in danger…. Because I know even on your worst day, you only hurt bad guys and bad architecture… you can punt me in the ass. You think you can kick my ass? I’ll give you your shot."

                Fortress gaped in disbelief. “Huh?” the old hero wondered. This had to be a trick. Canadians could be such tricky creatures!

                Craig turned his back, leaned over, and stuck out his ass. Good thing Dark Prowler isn’t here, he thought. I’d never hear the end of it!

                Fortress took several deep breaths and a couple of warm-up kicks – ow, he may have sprained something! – and then charged his foe. “Donald Trump!” he shouted with glee, and, with a mighty thud, he kicked Thundrax over the Detroit River. As the hero hurtled out of sight, Fortress collapsed to his back from the exertion. His entire body ached.

                “Ow.” He moaned, shutting his eyes.

                Craig returned two minutes later, rubbing his butt. “Great kick, Fortress!” he announced. “I’m going to feel that for days!”

                “But wait—” Fortress huffed. “I just got rid of you!”

                “I came back,” Craig grinned. “UNTIL treaty. I didn’t have any hassle on the UNTIL signal crossing the line – this time. Man, I bet you’re hungry after an epic punt like that! How about I treat you to lunch at Aladdin Sweets and Café? Followed by pictures at Nemo’s. I’ll even wear one of those stupid hats as a peace offering.”

                “No way,” Fortress said. “I want you to sign an official document saying that I kicked your ass over the Detroit River. And that, when Trump sends you back to Canada, you’ll stay there.”

                “Of course, ’ll abide by any lawful directive.” Craig snapped, suspecting that if the day came to bar him from the country, it wouldn’t be lawful. But for the moment, Trump’s interest was not focused on UNTIL.

                “And that you officially admit I’m better than you.” Fortress added. “In writing!”

                Craig sighed. Man, this is juvenile, he thought. But if this earns the world some peace and gets them to a place where Fortress is happy, sure.

                So an afternoon followed where Craig treated the man to the best ethnic cuisine and culture that Millennium had to offer, hoping the lesson would set in. Fortress complained about the curry being un-American and asked for hot dogs. They finally served him a half dozen steaming ballpark franks, with plenty of moustard and relish.

                “Much better. Make food great again, Not this foreign garbage.” he chortled. Craig shut his eyes to keep the man from seeing them roll.

                And, after dinner and a double-header, and more Buds than was wiser, Craig bought the old hero a ticket back to Atlanta – first class, of course - and sent the man on his way. Because, in the larger scheme, though Craig considered the times disastrous to the point of despair, politics would eventually sort itself out. Craig had reconciled with his enemies before. It wasn’t about having the bigger pecs, but being the bigger person. That, he thought, is how you made America – and the whole damn planet, this world populated by stupid and glorious humans – not just great again, but greater than it ever was. Fairer, kinder, more sustainable, cleaner, more prosperous: a world of problem solvers and troubleshooters. It was even on Craig’s mission statement, formulated many years before anyone seriously considered Trump as president.

                Make every tomorrow better than every yesterday.
                Last edited by Thundrax; 07-15-2018, 05:35 PM.

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