The Antlered God

By Atom Mudman Bezecny

When the security klaxon blared through the metal bunker, Queastor Rala covered her ears. She was getting tired of this—it was likely just spacklebirds in the rudders again. She swore for the fiftieth time there had to be a way to fix that glitch, but she had a sworn duty—as much as that mattered on a rot-ball like this—to investigate. She looked back at Aedile Malan.

“I'll check it out,” she rasped.

“No,” the Aedile said then, swaying his head in a failed attempt to crack his neck. “Leave it. No one cares. This is a D-priority boundary. If there were any serious consequences those guns out there would be sounding off louder than those damned horns.”

“True, but I don't want to get in trouble with my Imperator.”

“Is the Imperator Sun himself? Are they Princess Ambia? No? Then don't worry about it.”

“The Imperium still has power, even in the places where Ambia insists on carrying on with a half-breed mutant like 'Prince' Blood.”

 

“Yes, his gene therapy drove him quite mad, didn't it? Poor bastard. I'd pity him if he wasn't an off-worlder.”

Rala was getting antsy now—she yearned to perform her duty.

“Oh, just flip on the security cams,” Malan said, waving his hand flippantly. “They're there for a reason, you know.”

“My manual says I...should perform a personal investigation.”

“You are. With the cameras. Flip them on!”

Rala rolled her eyes and set up the monitors, ordinarily left off to avoid consuming unnecessary power. The two watched them together.

 

“Looks like nothing out of place...”

 

Rala's trained eyes disagreed. “No. There's a gate open.” She zoomed in at the western gate, and indeed, one of the sets of double doors had been opened.

 

“Oh, damn. You're right. Um. Advance a stage. Maybe one of the guards opened it to let someone in.”

 

No such luck. The next stage was consumed by flames—all the guards were the timbers of their own funeral pyres.

 

“Oh, by the Dashiitian ancestors!!”

 

“What is going on?” Malan yelled.

 

In a second, Rala had her spear in her hand. “Whoever did this is close to reaching the Palace. It's up to us to stop them.”

 

“Well, sound the alarm!”

 

“Oh, um, yes. Of course.” The klaxon for their bunker was still sounding, but now she sent a signal to the main palace. Whoever had murdered her guards would have six Imperators on their neck, minimum. They'd be a faint vapor on the air before they got within a hundred yards of the Palace walls.

 

“Go to the courtyard cams,” Malan urged. “I want to see them run.”

She switched over to that view. What a sight that was indeed.

 

Bloody Mary's chest heaved, even though she didn't need air. There was breathable air here on Rheton, thankfully; it would be a short trip for her cousin, Brian Hammerstein, if there wasn't. From Immorté's words the people of this planet were very much like humans—he had his private theory that some ancient race had once brought humans here to study them. It wasn't long before Mary had a chance to see them for herself. Over the next wall was a ghetto of sorts, a beaten down neighborhood full of shacks. Scattered in the streets were the ragged poor. The victims of the Imperium. They stared blankly at she and her cousin, failing to recognize them, but they flinched away from Immorté. Their vanquished traitor prince.

 

“It's fortunate we found this place,” Immorté called back to them, still running. (Brian and Mary were fast, but he was the fastest—if nothing else because his legs were as long as their whole bodies were tall.) “They won't bomb us here at least. At least I don't think so.”

Mary put on a bit of speed to catch up with him, heedless of leaving Brian behind. “They have bombs?”

“Yes, and laser turrets. They don't have lasers on Earth—not yet, anyway. But if you see big bursts of light, well...I'd say run, but there's not much any of us can do against the speed of a photon.”

 

“The speed of light?”

“Lasers are light weapons.”

Mary had no response. She had her eyes locked on the heavens above, scanning for planes or equivalent craft which might be planning to drop bombs. Instead, something altogether more upsetting met her eyes.

 

Two shape streaked across the sky, both wrapped in flames. One of them was instantly recognizable to her—he was dressed in the green-and-black robes, and the telltale jack-o-lantern mask, of the Pumpkin Master. The other was harder to recognize, but the flames she wore were molded into the shape of a raven. The brightness of her fire disguised her appearance, but to Mary's eyes she must have been Thusa Bradford, the Princess of the Royal Family who operated under the name of the Blackbird.

 

“Damn,” Immorté breathed. “They've already broken out the Wild Hunt. Stay low, and—”

 

“I don't need advice on dodging the Pumpkin Master,” Mary shot back.

 

“That's him, huh?” Brian asked, having now finally reached his companions. “The Pumpkin Master? He doesn't look like much.”

 

Mary swallowed bitterly. She remembered that, in a world now destroyed, the Pumpkin Master had hacked Brian's arm off.

 

“There are rumors he had an affair with the Blackbird's mother, Polyphema. That's why he's here—that, and he wanted to use me as a weapon. But I think he learned about me by nailing his way into the Royal Family.”

“That's crude,” Mary said.

 

“Oh, c'mon, Mary, I know you've heard worse,” her cousin murmured.

 

“It's just that I don't want to think about Charles Jason...doing that.”

 

They paused now, but only because they found themselves at the boundary of another wall. This one was unguarded, but Mary could tell from Immorté's actions that the lock on this one was not as simple as the one the soldiers had been protecting. They still had to prevent the peasants here from moving through the different zones of the capitol.

 

But Rala and Malan knew something the travelers didn't; on the other side of that lock was another cadre of soldiers, already preparing their weapons. The two officers grinned—it wouldn't be long now before their strange intruders were blown to ashes. These were elite troopers, armed with state-of-the-art technology. No enemy of the Empire had yet gotten past them.

 

“I was unaware that the Lost Prince lived,” Malan said.

 

“I'd heard he survived his exile, but was lost on some backwater planet, unable to accumulate allies to come back for the throne. I guess we were wrong. What strange creatures he has employed. One of them looks like a simple vassal, but the other is...like him. A product of the Old Ways.”

 

“You think maybe the ones who stole the Hemkra Crystal...did it for him? And they stole it so he could manufacture a little helper?”

 

“Maybe. The Princess—the Grand Duchess, I should say—keeps insisting that the Antlered God has not left us, that the Wild Huntsmen do not weaken. But I don't know...”

 

“Don't show doubt. Remember: none of this means anything. Once those elite troopers gun down 'Immorté' and his allies we'll just have to worry about filing a report. You know, they're on our territory now, so those elites answer to us.”

“You mean we get to claim their victory?”

“Perhaps...”

 

In their gossip and speculation, the two had ceased paying attention to the screens. Now that they looked back they saw they weren't missing much—a stray bolt from one of the rifles had blown the cams. But neither of them were worried. A few moments of relative silence passed, and they let themselves relax into the distant sound of gunfire.

 

Soon it was over, and they heard a lift coming up towards them.

 

“That must be them,” Rala said with sureness. “They're coming up to bring the details of the battle for my report.”

The double doors hissed open. The guards were inside, alright, but they were bereft of life. Bloody Mary, Brian, and Immorté stood over their bodies.

 

“Tell us how to reach the Palace,” Mary said.

 

“What?” Malan said, backing away. “Surely you can...see it?”

“Yes, I can see it, you fool. But we need to know how to get there without being bombed...or spotted by the Royals.”

The officers stayed silent; Malan out of cowardice, Rala from idiocy.

 

“I don't have all day,” Immorté said, “And I don't know which route to take. I haven't seen this gate before—I just wanted my portal to take me to one of the low-security gates.”

 

“Low-security?!” Rala balked.

 

“Yes. One which preferably just had a bunch of flammable mooks and two incompetent officers assigned to spacklebird sniping duty.”

 

“We are proud servants of the Rheton Imperium. He are dedicated to the noble cause of Lord Sun, of Zero Pity. You will not scare us.”

Mary and Immorté looked at each other. “He's a titanic skull-man, and I'm a living ghost. I cry poison blood. You're going to tell us where to go or you're in for a living Hell.”

Mary wondered if the Rhetonians had a Hell, but then she wondered how they understood English. She realized they must have learned it due to the influence of the human Terry Blood, who had become Prince of their world, and gone mad when he tried to change his body to be more like theirs. Such a process was necessary if he was to sire an heir with the Princess Ambia. He'd succeeded, leading to the birth of Prince Mik'hel; Mik'hel was the reason why Immorté was kicked off-planet.

 

Now the Queastor was also cringing in fear. She may have been dumb but she had a powerful imagination. “There's no need for threats,” she said quietly. “You'll want to go through that tunnel, on the other side of that plasma gate. That will take you into one of the inner barracks. You'll have to get past the guards, of course, but if you can, you'll enter the Royal Chambers.”

 

“Thank you,” Mary said, with a fake grin, but Immorté frowned at her for that. She ignored him pleasantly.

 

At the far end of the bunker was the plasma screen they spoke of—a crackling barrier of sparks which looked like it would be a painful crossing for the mortals among them. At the flick of a switch, that barrier dissolved, and the round nub of a hatch twisted itself open. Inside was a rank-smelling passage of grubby steel.

 

“Hey, how about finding us something a little fancier, huh?” Brian said.

 

“Going through there will get you past the computerized security,” the Aedile hissed. “We've been more than generous.”

 

With no further words, Mary ducked low, and led them into the chamber. As she passed in she changed her garments to be more modest; after all, Immorté was right behind her, looking up straight at her legs. She was surprised the passage even fit Immorté, but once he was in it was not too much of a surprise. They slowly inched forward into the foul darkness, hoping this stretch wouldn't last long.

 

Eventually the industrial look of their surroundings changed, being replaced instead with cool steel. The space opened up, and there were electric lights—evidently this was some sort of maintenance area. Mary heard a peculiar drumming sound below her feet, and she couldn't help but imagine that this was the lockstep of an army of soldiers moving below them. She recalled that they had been warned about crossing over “barracks,” and now she kept all her senses open for the presence of additional soldiers. While the three of them had worked through the resistance they'd faced so far without any injuries, they'd been lucky, and they were already winded. No matter what, they were by no means safe, even with the assurances their respective combat skills gave them.

 

As they followed the tunnels, they began to see that some of the tiles were replaced here and there with thick panes of glass. They didn't pause to look through most of them, but the glass slowly became the dominant material of the floor, and they could see now that they stood over row after row of locker rooms. It was rather like Mary expected then; she could see now that many of the guards crammed into these lockers were nude. Her embarrassment was overridden by the simple fact that the glass blurred many of the details below them—that worked to their advantage as well. Anyone taking a shower who happened to glance upward might see their movement but couldn't get any fine details.

 

How long did these barracks and facilities go on for? Even seeing the vast tower of the Palace from the base of it hadn't prepared Mary for the scope of this; a whole army was stationed here, ready to sweep over the whole planet if necessary.

 

Up ahead, there was a change in color and lighting which suggested they'd finally surpassed the locker rooms. But then, Brian felt his left foot give out from under him. The bracing which held up the glass pane he'd been standing on gave out, and now, he was falling.

 

Mary caught him, and the pane, swaying from inertia, made no sound. He barely jerked his booted foot back in time to avoid it striking the frame. Aside from a single bolt clanging on the floor, there was no sound—and even then that bolt falling was swallowed up by the chatter of the resting guards.

 

She had to pull him up before anyone took a glance upward—or before one of them made a noise. As she pulled on him, Immorté stepped forward to help. The two of them working together were able to save Brian from plummeting down.

 

Then the glass under Immorté gave way, and in a second the boom of his resounding weight echoed through the barracks.

 

The soldiers wasted no time in drawing swords, sidearms, and rifles to aim at the Lost Prince. Immorté raised himself up and got ready to fight. Mary dropped down to join him, carrying Brian on her back to shield him from the fall. As soon as she was down on the ground, however, time seemed to stand still. The men threatening them didn't work. Then, slowly, they parted to one side, and a familiar figure once more greeted Mary's eyes.

 

“Hello, Francine,” the Pumpkin Master said. “You've gotten far—farther than I was expecting. Thusa and I were headed back to the Palace under the assumption that you'd manifest right in the heart of things, and try to kill Prince Blood directly. Instead, you decided to try a little misdirection. I was just responding to the late Quaestor's report when I started making my way back through here, to spread the word to my armies that you were about. And now, here you are.”

 

“You shouldn't have come down here, Charles. I'll take you down and your men right with you.”

 

“Oh, the men won't be joining me. Why, they're hardly clothed. And in any case I don't need the help.”

 

He rose then, levitating by the power of his mind. He snapped his fingers, and the showering guards vanished. They had the barracks to themselves. Once again he called the bright flames to his hands, and readied them against her.

 

She dove at him, and got in the first blow. She intended it to be the last. As soon as her claws cut through both his garments and his skin, she called back to Immorté. “He's all yours.”

 

Immorté's eyes flashed, and that same flash carried to the Pumpkin Master. All the blood in his body was now on fire. Immorté couldn't sustain this power for long, but he wasn't afraid to push himself beyond his limits—now he was also using his telekinesis to lift the goblin-man in the air. The masked warlock screamed, and Mary wondered if now her future would be changed. In an instant, they'd beaten him, and it seemed his defeat would prove lethal.

 

But then he spoke, in a voice undeterred by pain: “So it's blood you need, eh? Then I don't need blood either.”

 

The flame that charred him from within vanished as he mystically voided all his blood from his body. He fell down laughing, and the only fire left was his own.

 

“You fools. If I can do that, just imagine what I can do against your petty claws. You can't beat me, Mary. You're fin—”

 

Brian Hammerstein was up at him then, and he drove a hard left into where Mary had cut him. He groaned and doubled over, and as he staggered back Brian hooked his foot around his forward leg. As he toppled backwards Brian caught him with one hand, but only so he could bring his right hook down into his mask.

 

It was metal, so it hurt Brian's hand, and he couldn't break it—but he left a pretty damn big dent. What was more he turned the helmet into a gong which reverberated into Charles Jason's skull. He collapsed with a second groan, this one softer than the first. Now it was over.

 

“Good to know: Pumpkin Master can stop having blood,” Immorté intoned. He looked up then—they all did. Bright scarlet lamps built into the walls now flashed with strobe pulses, and a high-pitched whistle could be heard. Another security klaxon.

 

“Let's get moving. We must be almost there,” Mary said confidently. Brian shook his hand. “Anything broken?” she asked him.

 

“No, I don't think so. Of course, the euphoria of doing that might be canceling some stuff out.”

 

Mary laughed, and led the two into the first corridor she saw that didn't go into another locker room.

 

Once more the atmosphere of the Palace changed, and they were confronted with a heavy plate of steel. When this steel slid open, however, it led out into a richly-decorated hallway, with violet carpeting and large golden jewels built into the sleek stone walls. There was comfortable, sunny lighting provided by the mushroom-shaped electric lamps, which hummed at a frequency seemingly calculated to be relaxing. This was the Rheton Palace proper.

 

“We don't have much time before more annoyances show up—and the Pumpkin Master gets back on his feet. Let's find the Blackbird,” Immorté said.

 

“We're deliberately looking for the Wild Hunt now?” Brian asked.

 

“I'm thinking we can take her as a hostage against my father. We just have to find a way to nullify her.”

 

“I assume you mean one of us cuts her, and we threaten to burn her if she makes a false move?” Mary asked. “If that is the case, I will participate only if we don't actually kill her.”

“No promises,” Immorté said. “My niece is capable of terrible evil. You'll know when we meet her.”

 

He then pointed up the steps, which led to another sliding door such as that they'd just exited through. When he approached the door he found a glowing panel, and typed in a button combination that he seemed to know by heart. The door opened into another hallway, but it was clearly in a moment that this corridor was actually just a thin strip which ringed a larger chamber. Not the Throne Room of the Palace, but somewhere just as special. This was where the Hemkra Quartz was once stored.

 

Immorté wasn't the thief, as the Queastor and Aedile had speculated. A servant of the Elder Gods called the Nothing Man had stolen it, to set up events which would happen later. That was now many years ago, and save for a few footprints in the dust there was nothing to indicate the colossal, empty altar had ever been used at all.

 

But there was one frequent visitor of this place: one who didn't believe that the power of the Antlered God lived only in the Quartz. When she had helped raise her brother Phorcys, now sent to Earth to ensure the capture of the exile, Thusa Bradford had been marked as a “student of the motherly arts” by the old priestesses of Rheton, and become one of their ranks. Though the Quartz was stolen when she was a mere Initiate, she remembered the faith of the crones who withered and died in the absence of their precious crystal. Sometimes she still lit the old briers and waited for a sign of change.

 

She had come here again to find comfort after chasing the intruders. She had begun to sense with her powers that something had happened to Phorcys, and that she might not see him again. But she had since learned that her visions were linked to probability and not a fixed, definite future. She was only seeing one possibility that involved her brother's death. Their dear Bloodhound—a strong warrior. He made them all proud.

 

But now she sensed the coming of the fugitives. She sensed the approach of her uncle.

 

“Immorté,” the Blackbird whispered in the darkness. “You shouldn't have come here.”

“I am here all the same,” Immorté said simply. “You're coming with us, niece. I'm taking you to your grandfather, and with you as my captive I will release this world from slavery.”

 

“Pretty speech. But you know I'm not going down without a fight.” She waved her hand. “None of us are.”

“None of us?”

 

And she waved her hand again—this time her hand was covered in flame. The flame darted outward and lit the torches of the old altar, and now, in the rafters, the three could see them. Again Immorté's descriptions of each of them returned to Mary and Brian. They saw the aged form of the eyepatch-clad Polyphema, matriarch of the clan; her brother Riven, who stood proud, his blond hair turning white; and above them all, steadied by a shadowed figure, was the forefather of them all. Terry Blood, late of Earth, who had sired Immorté in a dark ritual with his alien wife Ambia.

 

“Where is Ambia?” Immorté said, possibly having heard Mary's thoughts. “Where is my brother, the usurper? Where is Mik'hel?”

“Ambia is back on the Home Planet with her father, the Emperor,” came the rich voice of Terry Blood. “And my heir is here, performing a service asked of him by his grandfather.”

 

“I was your heir once, but I'm glad I never ended up with that life,” Immorté said. “It's more than the people out there on those streets, in those gutters, Father—you command the Rhetonian fleet. You send it to helpless worlds and make them vassals; and now you're sending those same ships to Earth.”

“Our former homeworld must be annexed. One cannot disobey the wishes of one's father-in-law, but when that man is Sun of Zero Pity then one truly can't disobey. He wants revenge on the world of the human Gordon.”

The word “human” sounded strange in his throat. He coughed, and the shadowed figure braced him again.

 

“You cannot stop me, 'son.' I am the Prince Consort of the direct descendant of the Emperor—I am brother-in-law to the Lord of Krankor—and my children fulfill the ancient prophecy of the Huntsmen. Now we only need the attendance of the Antlered God.”

 

“The Antlered God is a myth—a shade reflected in the facets of the Quartz. He can't help you,” Immorté said.

 

Now Thusa spoke, approaching her uncle. “You speak correctly when you say that he is a shade of the Quartz's sparkle—only a flash of glow, in the right light. But that is because he is a remnant of a being who came here long ago. Just as Earth dreads the shuddering birth of Tsuu-Aas, also called Manos, so too did Rheton once fear the brush of Cernunnos. An old friend of Manos, it's said. Cernunnos was a Horned God, and when he touched the Many-Faced Quartz—some say in an attempt to destroy it—a part of his reflection was trapped within it. Boiled by the angry wars of Rheton, this shard of Cernunnos slowly grew until it was the four-eyed Dark God of our planet. When I became a priestess of the Quartz as a young girl, the Antlered One spoke to me...and now, through me, his bidding is done.”

It was very cleared then what the will of the Antlered God was, at least as far as Thusa interpreted it. Thusa surrounded herself again with a Blackbird made of flames. It was time for the next fight.

 

Mary cautiously watched the foursome standing in the rafters. None of them made a motion to fight. It was just them and Thusa—and Thusa was sure she could win by herself. It was time to put that to the test.

 

This time Immorté dove forward to make the cut. He seemed intent on ending this quickly, even if it meant that Mary and Brian didn't get a piece of the action. But as he tore at her, it was clear she wouldn't go down as easily as the Pumpkin Master. He couldn't pierce her skin because the flames closed it again right away. Air wasn't reaching her veins.

 

They had to try the backup approach. Mary soon had a cup full of tears, and she flung them as a rich splash of blood. In Immorté's presence that blood became fire, and so a small waterfall of flames reached out towards the Blackbird. However, as those fires touched those she generated, they were swallowed up and dissolved at once—made part of the larger fire. It was clear that blood and flame were not the secrets to beating her.

 

As Mary rushed forward to attack her, she felt the spectral heat of her flames roar up before her. As a ghost, she was weak to those flames, but she tried out her talons anyway.

 

Bad idea. Pain flashed through her hands, and at this another slap of force came out of the Blackbird, impossible to see. Even after fighting the Pumpkin Master and the Bloodhound, Mary was unsure for the first time that she could defeat this Wild Huntsman.

 

Upon seeing that the flames harmed her, Thusa Bradford laughed and stepped forward. As she did so, though, a blur came up and slammed hard into her. It was Brian. “Brian, no!” Mary exclaimed, but she saw quickly that there was no need for alarm. His fists were finding her even with the flames around her.

 

“She switched to psychic fire to hurt you, Mary!” Immorté said. “Brian, pull back, before she...”

 

Suddenly, then, the flames, seemed more tangible—they were easier to see, Mary realized. At this, Brian screamed in agony, and pulled back. He'd managed to spare his knuckles the brunt of the attack, but Mary understood now. The flames Thusa let out affected the physical world now, rather than the psychic one, and that was her opening. As she struck Thusa she could do so with the same brashness Brian had shown. Now her claws found skin, and she needed only a small gash.

 

“Now, Immorté!” she cried, and jumped away.

 

In an instant the Blackbird felt her flames spread to her insides. Being a creature of fire kept her protected, however, though she staggered from the effort of containing the fire within. She still had her telekinesis, but her uncle did too. He also had telepathy, and that's what he used now.

 

“You will not use your psychokinesis,” he urged her. “You won't. You really don't want to.”

She struggled against him, but he had a stronger connection to the world of magic, and it was no use. Soon it looked like it was over. That was until a heavy, rushing punch came slamming hard into Immorté's ribs.

 

He gave a cry of pain, and collapsed. The flames within his niece vanished, and now she had her own fire back. Her strong Rhetonian body began to heal her vast injuries.

 

“Who...?” Immorté choked out.

 

There was a second rush, and soon Mary felt the fury of this new combatant. She swore the arm that drove into her was steel—but it had to have been so much more, if it could harm her ghostly form.

 

Now the Blackbird strode towards the fallen Prince. “There's a story that says our family is cursed, you know. I always assumed it had something to do with your...birth, uncle. But recently I've been forced to adopt a new theory. I found out that once upon a time, there was a woman who hated us so much, because we took everything away from her. And she was a Witch. With a wave her hand, she did something to our family. Now the legends say we are Ghosts...a Ghost Family.” She kicked him, and sent him flying with a psychic thrust.

 

“I don't entirely know what that means, but I've always been proud of all the titles our family has accumulated. 'The Ghost Family' does seem appropriate, though, because we are all like phantoms. Some of us are skeletons. Skeletons from out of closets.”

 

Mary looked up. The man towering over her had blond hair, which differed greatly from the black hair of his cohort; it was such a light blond it looked nearly white. Like Thusa's mother, he was a cyclops, but in his missing there was...stone. Stone covered much of his body—no, that wasn't it. Stone made up much of his body. His arm, and one of his legs. They were made of a dark stone that could move like flesh. He wore a tight, black garment, which Thusa also wore—it was the same sort of thing which also covered Immorté. Prince Blood, Polyphema, and Riven wore ornamental robes.

 

“Speaking of skeletons in closets,” Thusa continued, “there are other stories that my mother was unfaithful to her husband Amos, left behind to die back on Earth. They say she slept with the man I call my Uncle Jason—the Pumpkin Master. And together, they conceived an unholy spawn, a demi-golem, made partially of magic. Magical stone, to be precise, the substance of the Stone God. This man is Ladon Blood, the Falconer of the Wild Hunt—and he's my lover.”

And the two embraced then, kissing passionately.

 

Bloody Mary found the strength to stand. “B-but if he's your mother's son by Jason, he's—he's your half-brother...” she said. “He's your half-brother, and your lover?!”

 

“Yes,” hissed the Blackbird. “We aim to continue the family line together—keeping it pure.”

 

“Yuckkk,” Mary breathed. “Kissing Cousins—but a step further. No wonder you're helping out the KKK back on Earth.”

 

It had been the so-called Falconer who had stabilized his grandfather up on the rafters. He'd been able to keep himself hidden in shadow with the use of his psionics—which now threw both Mary and Brian against the nearest wall. Already however Mary could feel this telekinesis was weaker than that of his siblings. Maybe that had something to do with his “demi-golem” status. It didn't matter. Once she was back on her feet Mary went after him, trying to break those rocky arms of his with her claws.

 

Immorté and Brian went for the Blackbird. Brian asked himself privately if this was a good idea—after all, Immorté wasn't a ghost like Mary, so she'd be using the same type of flames on the both of them. But then, Immorté raised his hand.

 

“You can't take both of us, Thusa. Not only are we both superior fighters, but I have a ghost form just like Mary.”

 

“That's not true. I saw your mind,” the Blackbird replied. She then thrust a bolt of flame out at Brian, but he nimbly dodged it.

 

“But I'm blocking my thoughts now, and in the heat of battle you can't get through the mind of a ghost like Bloody Mary,” Immorté said. “You think that Mary is just my henchman, but she's actually my honored teacher.”

 

“What, that young girl? I can sense your age, uncle. You are not a young man—you wouldn't let a little mosquito like her boss you around.”

 

“But she taught me how to refine my thoughts, so I can trick even you, and hide the fact that she taught me the secrets of her Mirror-Realm. Once I turn to my spirit-form you'll be helpless.”

 

Thusa found some doubt in herself, but Brian heard a voice in his head. It was Immorté's voice: “Shield your thoughts. Don't think about bluffing.”

 

Brian didn't know how to “shield his thoughts,” but he knew what was going on, and he focused his mind on what he was about to do next. He sprinted up to the Blackbird, and raised his left—no, right hook. He felt bad about hitting a lady, but he knew an uppercut would bring her down.

 

She wasn't focused on him. She saw him as inconsequential next to her uncle, and so she changed her flames back again as she prepared to attack Immorté. Brian's fist smashed in no problem. As he expected, that floored her, and once more shut down her flames.

 

Right about then was when Mary had discovered she couldn't do much else than scratch her foe's golem-arm. But she could scratch his flesh-arm, and once she hit his arm she went for his leg too. Two screams; and he was hobbled. Both lovers were down, and the three above them still weren't coming down.

 

But then the altar next them began to spark. The torches blazed brighter, stirring at the touch of an unseen wind. Brian looked down, and saw that the Blackbird was stirring her hand subtly, while lying on the ground.

 

“The power of the Antlered One still lurks here,” she whispered, almost beyond his hearing. Immorté approached but Brian stopped him from interfering with her speech. “It can still be tapped without the Gem. The Antlered God is beyond time...and his thorny hands can probe into the future.”

 

“We have to stop her, Hammerstein, before she works her magic,” Immorté said.

 

“I think it's too late. I saw those torches flash just before I punched her...”

 

Bloody Mary looked up at the altar, then looked down at her stone-eyed enemy. “What's the meaning of this?” she asked. He maintained his thus-far-perfect silence. “Talk!”

 

“I'll tell you,” the Blackbird said, lurching up then. “I have reached beyond time, and I have touched a vein of potential. A world which my brother and I will live to create.”

 

“I've seen this world. She shared the vision with me,” murmured the Falconer, and his voice was low and gravely—Mary could now see that it was because half of his tongue was made of rock. “The Old Ways of Rheton will come to Earth when the Emperor's fleet prevails. And we will establish a mighty church. Our son, bred of two Huntsmen, shall be Chosen by the Gods, and once he inherits our Church he shall lead a Storm of Blood over the cosmos...”

 

A Storm of Blood—a Bloody Storm. At once, Bloody Mary remembered her recent battle with Tsuu-Aas of Terrax. Were these alien Royals trying to bring about his dominion early? Was Tsuu-Aas the creature that was about to come through that swarming sea of butterfly sparks above the altar...?

 

No. Something else emerged. He was clad in armor like Tsuu-Aas, but he was not the Atlantean Lord. His armor was too angular, too geometric. It was hewed from steel, machined by an expert. Maddened eyes stared out from a jagged mask, and a long, formal-seeming cloak trailed behind him.

 

“Who dares call forth Ultrablood...Highest Brother of the Storm-Church?”

“My vision has come to pass,” moaned Thusa Bradford, in seeming ecstasy. “Sivas Blood, our son! It's me, your mother! And your father, Ladon!”

 

The tall man on the altar seemed to have difficulty understanding Thusa's words.

 

“This is not 1990,” he said. “I've been sent back in time...why? How?”

 

“You must aid us! Aid your parents! Invaders have come to Rheton and threaten all you love!”

 

“Rheton?” he whispered. “Of course...the ancestral homeland of Ultrablood.”

 

“'Ultrablood'?” Mary mimicked. “What is this?”

 

“He is our potential future son—haven't you been listening?” the Falconer intoned. “He is the ultimate psychic. All matter yields to his psychokinesis—all energy, to his telepathy. He is a reality-warper.”

 

Now Sivas Blood, or Ultrablood as he insisted on calling himself, was examining the altar. “I can feel this place once held a Dimension Gem. A...'Hemkra Quartz,' you called it? I don't know what it's missing, but it's wrong—it doesn't match the rest of the timeline, at least the timeline I can see.”

 

Brian found his way back to his cousin now. “I don't know about you, but that guy seems a bit too strong for his own good, if you ask me. His power is...tripping him up. He's getting distracted.”

“I'll just put a new Quartz here,” Ultrablood said. “All I need to do is create a...minor dimensional calamity...”

 

“Son, come away from there.” The Blackbird now strode up towards the altar, but he spun and knocked her away—his blow striking her before his body had a chance to. As he did so, however, he flickered, and the storm of sparks returned again. He clutched his head.

 

“Don't try to tell me what to do!” he barked suddenly. “I am...Ultrablood. I am...the guardian of Rheton.”

 

Now he bent his hand low to the ground—and the ground came up to meet him. He pulled solid rock, and solid metal, up towards him, like a fountain flowing the wrong way. He broke off an “egg” of metal and lifted it up with an invisible hand to the air before his face. He forced this egg into the shape of a cube—then a pyramid. Once more, he seemed to be unaware of his surroundings.

 

Thusa Bradford slowly struggled to her feet. Mary went to her, to offer help—it was clear that some of her bones were broken. But the fallen Blackbird refused her help, and did so strikingly. She tossed her back again, but did so weakly, and at this, anger came up in Mary. She raced forward, and without thinking sliced her again. She screamed out, and at this Ultrablood's head turned to face her.

 

“Don't hurt my mother!” he roared, and he raised both hands at her. White light spat out of his hands in a steady beam, and wherever that light touched, there was raw destruction. The floor was pulverized, bursting outward as shrapnel. Mary went back to Brian, to shield him from these blasts, but Immorté found his way to Thusa.

 

“Stop, Ultrablood,” Immorté said stiffly. “It's over.” And with his psychokinesis he suspended Thusa in the air. He stared at where Mary had cut her. “Mary, I'm sorry.”

 

Mary and Brian looked away as Immorté's fires came again. This time, Thusa was too weak to save herself, and with a last shriek she died, her body crumbled away to ash.

 

Even as she looked away from the gristly sight, Mary thought about the ramifications of what had just happened. Ultrablood came from the future, but now one of his parents was dead before his birth. Immorté had killed two birds with one stone by killing the Blackbird.

 

It didn't take long. As Bloody Mary stood, she saw panic entering Sivas Blood's maddened eyes. From the edge of the altar chamber came a rush of cyan flame. This must have been the energy of the time-paradox, coming to remove “Ultrablood” from existence. The caped Huntsman raised his hands to defend himself, as the crest of the wave splintered the beam that Prince Terry Blood stood on. Mary couldn't see what happened to him.

 

Ultrablood wasn't shrinking into cowardice. Rather, his raised hands served a purpose. He turned them in the air, and produced from nowhere a psychic sword. With this sword he swung outward and sliced the wave of paradox-force in half. It erupted with enough force to shake the whole Palace, but the time-traveling “High Brother” was unharmed.

 

“This is impossible,” Mary said. “One of his parents...she...he...”

 

“I guess you can beat time-paradoxes if you're powerful enough,” Brian said, having figured it all out as well. “Mary, he's gonna turn that power on us soon.”

 

“I'll take care of that,” Immorté said, having overheard them. “You two—you know what to do. Focus on the Falconer.”

 

Mary had been thinking the same thing...though she knew it would probably be death for Immorté. Ultrablood was now starting to change the shape of the altar chamber—once it had been rectangular, but now it was a hexagon. And now, an octagon. He stopped only when Immorté charged him.

 

The Falconer took up the fight again against Mary.

 

Brian wanted to help his cousin—he wanted to help Immorté, too, but fighting Ladon Blood was a much saner fight. Even if he was made of rock, and could move things with his mind.

 

As Mary's claws once more met the dark arm of the Falconer, Brian found that the battle had done much to damage this chamber. There were many stones scattered across the floor, each of them a tempting weapon. But then he found a long-cleaved splinter from one of the beams the paradox-wave had broken. It speared straight through the heart of the old man, Prince Blood. Up above Brian, Polyphema Bradford and Riven Blood seemed to disregard their father's death, instead trying merely to preserve themselves.

 

Taking up this spike, Brian found a stone which had had a divot carved out into it by the trauma. He removed his belt, and got to looping it together with his wooden splinter.

 

Bloody Mary's talons had found the Falconer's face and chest a few times now, but like his half-sister he could heal himself at a whim. She could only gain ground, but there was no point in that. Behind him, she could see Ultrablood toying with Immorté—tossing him around like he was a doll. But Immorté fought back with his own powers, eventually freeing himself. Then Ultrablood went back to his white-light bursts—there wouldn't be much left of this room soon if he got his way.

 

Mary stared into Ladon Blood's normal eye. There was no mercy in it, no sympathy. But there was a reflection. She saw someone charging up behind her, heading fast towards him. It was Brian, and he had a sledgehammer in his hands. Where had he...?

 

She had to get this lined up right. Immorté was winded, and Ultrablood would catch him soon. Just as that sweeping beam came up on him, Mary dove under it, and the Falconer went for her, pausing only just in time to evade the burst. But that was when Brian's “hammer” came down, right at where Mary had clawed up Ladon's leg.

 

The stone finally broke, and the Falconer roared in pain. As he toppled forward the force of his son's blast burnt away his torso—in a second he was completely consumed, and it was over.

 

Ultrablood saw what he had done. His mother's premature demise was his great-uncle's fault—but his father's death was his. Another paradox-wave would come...and Immorté had tired him too much. Even a demi-god had his limits.

 

This wave came in larger and louder than before. The room shook again, and this time Riven Blood and his sister plummeted down. There was no psychic sword for Sivas Blood. The storm came over him, and he was lost in it, and when it passed, it was like he had never existed.

 

Only now did Immorté see the speared body of the Prince Blood, now dusted finely by the rock kicked up during the battle and the wave. Shock passed over him, as the moment he'd waited a hundred years for had swept over him in an instant. But there was no time to celebrate. As long as the Royal Family lived, the Imperium lived on Rheton—and there were still ships bound for Earth.

 

He was still paralyzed for a few moments, however. In this time, Mary and Brian made their way over to where the other two Huntsmen had fallen.

 

“Riven!” Polyphema Bradford yelled. “Riven, no!!” Mary could now see that the Prince Riven Blood, Polyphema's brother, was buried under a sizable amount of rubble. The limpness of his exposed hand revealed how this fall had affected him.

 

With her one remaining eye, Polyphema sobbed heartily. She stared hatefully at the encroaching ghost and boxer. “You monsters! You killed him!”

 

“Your grandson killed him. Now. You have sent the fleet to Earth, correct? You are planning to invade our mutual homeworld?”

 

“I owe nothing to the Earth. The ships will be there very soon—I have nothing to miss in the rubble-to-be.”

 

“You're gonna stop those ships. No matter what.”

 

“Or what? You'll kill me?” She laughed. “Now my whole family is dead, save for my stepmother. She will be desperate to avenge her husband, by the way.”

 

“Not if I prove to her that I was able to persuade her stepdaughter to stop the fleet.” Mary raised her claws as if she was getting ready to part the Princess' face from her body.

 

“Do your worst. In the end there is only death—and joining with my beloved family in the world beyond.”

“She's not the last,” Immorté said. “Mik'hel isn't here. He—”

 

“You fool, Mik'hel has been on Earth this whole time,” Polyphema laughed. “He's been attempting to recruit a vampire army with his brother-in-law—the Black Raven's brother. With that army at his disposal he'll take care of whatever the fleet misses.”

Mary raised an eyebrow at that. “You're setting up a backup plan for an armada of spaceships blasting everything to Kingdom Come. That's odd.”

 

“You've got a point, Mary. C'mon, let's take her. We'll find a computer.”

“Computer?” Mary asked.

 

“I can't come with you!” Polyphema said bitterly. “My legs are broken.”

“Your ankle is twisted, but I'll carry you,” Immorté said. And he lifted her with his mind. “Like this, so that I don't have to touch you.”

“So cruel to your half-sister. Father was right—you do belong out there with the filth. I'll make a chattel-slave of you yet, boy.”

Immorté said nothing, instead turning to go. They left the altar behind at last.

 

They wandered the now-dark halls of the Palace until at last they found a glowing panel set in the wall—this seemed to satisfy what Immorté was looking for. He had to divert his focus to work on it, but he kept Polyphema levitating all the same. “This terminal's in the Palace for a reason...I'm sure I can connect to the fleet network from here.”

 

“I hope you know what you're doing,” Mary murmured, looking into the screen. The various symbols on it meant nothing to her.

 

Immorté stayed silent for some time, until at last he sucked in a deep breath. “This...isn't good.”

 

“W-what is it?”

 

“I'm getting signals from...hundreds of ships. No...thousands. They must have really started abusing the gravity engines in my absence.”

 

“What does that mean?” Brian asked breathlessly.

 

“Rheton's Palace has powerful gravitron generators in it which can be used to violate the laws of physics. Space and time are linked, and if you use gravity to bend space, you can also bend time...”

“I get it,” Mary interrupted. “They didn't have these ships before when you left, which was, relatively, not that long ago. But they built all these ships in that time by...bending time with these 'gravitron generators.'”

 

“Easy to do centuries worth of engineering in minutes if you have the right technology...and the right slaves.”

 

“Our mighty ships cannot be halted,” Polyphema proclaimed behind them.

 

“Like I said, I'm getting active signals from these...two-and-a-half thousand cruisers,” Immorté said anxiously. “They—they're already in hyper-transit. They'll be entering Earth's solar system very soon...”

 

“And the flames shall come down from the sky,” Polyphema said. “Faster than light, a laser Armageddon. It will be like Heaven caving in...and all the worthless screaming ants will drown in ash, like old Pompeii.”

 

“Except they won't,” Immorté said then. “You lying witch.”

Mary turned to look back at Polyphema then, and saw her face blanch. She'd become too cocky, having seen her half-brother's anxiousness. She'd left her thoughts unshielded.

 

“There's a hidden file, isn't there? I just needed to look hard enough...” And now Immorté typed like he had a typewriter before him. “Yes...yes. I see.” And he laughed. He laughed richly and deeply, tilting his head back to do so.

 

“What? What's so funny?” Brian said. “Earth is about to blown to smithereens and you're...laughing?”

 

“The fleet's not coming,” he said. “It was all a ruse. The ships are active, alright, but their location was forged. They're here. On Rheton.”

“They haven't launched?”

“No. It was all a ruse—to try to scare us into submitting. I bet they were planning to use telepathy to make us think the Earth was destroyed...and then, with nothing left us for us to live for, they'd finish off. Those birds'll never take off now, I'll see to that.”

 

Bloody Mary felt relief, and bitterness towards Polyphema for her cowardly trick. Such tricks were the hallmarks of empires—tricks, exploitation, and force.

 

“I just have to send a virus into the systems sendin' power to their engines, and it'll take them a little bit to get that virus decoded,” Immorté said. “By a little bit, I mean—a few years. And in the meantime...” He meddled for a bit longer. “I'm going to seal you off from those gravity centers. No more physics manipulation for you for a long while.”

“Without the gravitron devices it will be the end of Imperial rule on Rheton!” Polyphema exclaimed.

 

“And yet, here we are. With a quadrillion-digit lock on the chambers and activators.”

 

Polyphema lashed out then, and they learned firsthand that she was a proper member of the Wild Huntsmen. From her surviving eye there was a red flash which struck Immorté in the spine—he cried out and collapsed immediately, a testament to the ray's strength. But she made no move to attack Mary and Brian. Instead, she reached into a pocket on the inside of her robe.

 

“Mary, stop her—!” Brian shouted, but it was too late. She took out a small pill and swallowed it at once.

 

“Better to die than to see what I've built...undone...”

 

And then, only then, was it over.

 

Or so Mary thought. That thought found its way to Immorté's telepathic mind.

 

“We've done a lot today, it's true, but it's not over,” he said. “Mik'hel's still back on Earth. We can't—”

 

But in reading her thoughts, Immorté opened her up his own. Mary could feel the panic in his mind—the rising confusion that often comes after the success of a long-term goal. Sometimes it was hard to go on living in a world with the horizon now being in the distance behind. Much of the Ghost Family was gone now, but the worst of them—Mary could feel Mik'hel's cruelty through Immorté's memories—was still loose.

 

“Let's rest for a little while. Maybe you can show us where you keep those weapons you owe us,” Mary said. “But when you can stand again, I'll need the both of you ready. We're going back to Earth, because if there's a vampire army in the works, you'd better believe that we're sending it back to the grave.”

 

Before all that, there was one other thing she wanted to do. Hearing it, Immorté opened up a channel so that she could broadcast her voice, through the city's speakers, to the people below.

 

“People of Rheton,” she said. “Today we have come to the Palace of the Imperium, and seen to it that the Wild Huntsmen are no more. The Prince Blood is no more, and gone is his grip on this planet. If your prophecies are true your heroes have yet to come to Rheton—I have seen for myself what those who took their names have done to you all. I leave you with this, Rhetonians: all prophecies that come true do so only through hard work. The Imperium made your planet a Wilderness—but you can be its Huntsmen.”

 

She hoped that would sow the seeds she desired. She'd help water the soil in the time they took resting here. She would go down to that city—and she would meet the people. And she would help them. That was what she did. No matter how long it took, she would make the seed of hope grow here again.

 

A brief rest (a working rest). Then, back to work.
 

To be continued in The Wild Hunt's Revenge...!

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