A Tale of the Flash Avenger
By Katherine Avalon
1983. The Great Crisis.
The two men, both wearing crimson masks, stared at each other. Behind them, energies both tangible and mystical swirled around the enormous cannon that was aimed at the heart of the universe. This cannon was primed to fire a combination of magic and antimatter, which would obliterate all known life if discharged. One of these two men, these two champions, needed to smash the weapon before it fired.
“I can't let you do this, Allen,” said David Gaunt. “You have a wife and kids. You have grandkids. That weird skull-woman Immortée, from my sister's superhero team, she gave me the immortal caveman's serum. Speed 9 or whatever. For a little bit, I can do whatever you can.”
“You have a wife, Gaunt,” the other man said back. “You can't leave Penelope behind.”
The aging hero thought of his wife, knowing how cruel it would be to make her a widow twice over. Her husband Ernest was long-dead but there was still grief in her heart for him. But David had no children, much less grandchildren. In his eyes, Allen was the one who had to live.
But the decision was made for them. A sudden wave of emotion filled the two of them: the feeling of crippling despair. This wasn't a natural feeling. It was being induced in them by a foe who had bedeviled both of them ever since this horror began.
“It's that lunatic with the golden mask,” David said, struggling against the tears welling up in his eyes. “Go, Allen! You have more experience with dealing with him!”
It was true, and Allen knew it. He ran towards the source of the emotion-waves, moving faster than the eye could see.
David Gaunt, alias the Flash Avenger, had never had super-speed before. But now he thought back to Captain Zenith, the superhero who had inspired him, who did have speed-powers. He felt a strange force thrum in him, furious and compelling. At his mental command, he could slow time around him, while keeping his own movements at a normal pace. He was surprised by how slow he could make the world run, and how fast that made him move. Immortée, in addition to giving him the speed-drug, had also treated his tuxedo, pants, and mask with a friction-proof coating. Now he wouldn't run into the issue of burning his clothes while running.
Though if the forces churning inside that cannon only destroyed his clothing, he'd be more than lucky. He and Allen had decided, with their respective scientific knowledge, that a direct attack would be certain death, even at super-speed. But that didn't matter to either of them. David's wife Penelope reported that the strange events which turned the sky red were sending out pounding waves of seething chronons. Other scientists reported earthquakes, weather hazards, and spontaneous antimatter annihilations all over the world. This was a true calamity, and many would die before it was over.
David began to run. It was time.
He and Allen had determined that a vortex force circulating around the energy core would crush the life out of the titanic cannon. There was a containment ring around the heart of the machine—David raced up to that ring and used it as a track to make his loop around the pulsing core. Before he was even halfway there he felt a rain of agonizing radiation. It struck him even as he moved at super-speed, and he knew that for each second that passed the pain would intensify. He was in too deep to go back now, and that meant he had to succeed. For the sake of this world, and many others.
He made his first orbit in a tenth of a second, but he would need to go much faster to create the vortex he needed. He pushed his muscles to their limits, ignoring both the strain of the speed-drug and that of age. The Flash Avenger was in his fifties, and his temples had grayed from time and horror alike. Perhaps if he had always had super-speed, his aging would be slowed, like Allen's, but the fact was that he was not a young man anymore. A lifetime of adventure and service was now behind him. He thought of his earliest adventures, clashing with Esteban Miranda and the Octopus and his own brother Jack, now each seemingly beyond the veil of death. He thought of his work for the government, training new operatives—he thought of his goddaughter Joanna, his reunion with Penelope, his raising of her son. He had crossed more frontiers than he could count.
And this was to be his last.
He struggled not to let his grief slow his run—his grief for Penelope, his true love. He wondered why he felt he would miss her, when he would feel nothing more once this was over. He knew it was impossible to grieve after death, so in truth he would almost be losing nothing. Death was like nothing. One day you just ran into it and you just never ran out again.
But there was her sorrow, he knew.
More memories. Thinking of Miranda, the face-changer, reminded him of Miranda's successors, his later foes: Hamilton Cleek and Phil “Flash” Morgan, turned to evil by sinister forces. They had molded their faces to trick and trap him a dozen times over, but he'd beaten them. He'd beaten them all—but as long as he took on just one more fight, he was doomed to face the inevitable. As long as he pulled at the great chain, link by link, he was hauling himself towards the briny inescapable deep.
The inevitable reared up before him now, bellowing terribly—his whole body burned, and his memories began to turn to mush. He realized now that sheaves of molecules were being shaved off his body, collapsing into their base elements and fading away as hot vapor in the air. But now he was beyond pain. He pushed his legs to drive him faster, faster, until suddenly he was turning not into vapor, but into light. He ran parallel with photons, watching them collapse from rays to particles—he gazed upon the shift of quantum minutiae in slow motion, their observation-dance made as sluggish as molasses. The vortex he created was now approaching gravitational singularity. His loose particles spaghettified against the heavy pull. He realized that if he didn't let go, he'd tear the Earth apart—but the core of the cannon still held firm.
He sprinted just a bit faster, and suddenly the shields holding the cannon's heart together splintered to pieces. Waves of energy flew at him at the speed of light—but he was still so fast that they seemed to take many seconds to reach him. He closed his eyes, savoring a final burst of memories. He cried out into the dark:
But then, a golden glow came around him, accompanied by an angelic hum. Space seemed to hold still around him. He was fading away—his speed now suddenly canceled out, without the whiplash of inertia. Here, more images appeared before him, but they weren't his memories. Rather, he had the strange intuition that these images represented his future. Among them was a shirtless man, a tall, strong brute, with long hair—a man with a golden mask, but not the same man he and Allen had faced—and an imposing women with blonde hair, who seemed dressed in some sort of military uniform. The first of these images kept flickering in and out between the others, as if it had some special significance. David had the briefest sensation of a burning fire, and the feeling of many joined hands—then there was darkness, and he felt nothing.
* * *
When David Gaunt awoke he was naked.
Like Adam, he was ashamed of his nudity, and his dazed mind found relief in being surrounded by trees. He was in the middle of a forest of some kind, away from people. No, now he noticed—it wasn't a forest, but a swamp. A bayou. He shook his head, distantly remembering a trip he and Izzy made to Louisiana once upon a time. He was either there or in Florida. Taking up a broad leaf to cover his privates, he tried to get his bearings.
It didn't take long for him to ascertain a few things. First, the sky here wasn't red, indicating perhaps that the crisis was over. Second, his mask was among the clothing he'd lost when he appeared here, meaning that he was out of commission as the Flash Avenger for a little while. And third, there was a motorboat coming through the bayou waters.
David came up with a quick story, then flagged the boat down.
At first, the man and woman aboard the boat were surprised to see a naked man waving at them from the bank, with a leaf over his crotch. But they were evidently open-minded folks, and so they pulled up next to him and disembarked.
The first of them, a broad man with short brown hair, laughed at David's predicament. His sleek blonde companion giggled along with him. The man spoke in a Louisianan accent as he said, “What exactly happened to you, mister?”
“I-I was attacked by robbers!” David cried, feigning anxiety. “They took my wallet, my watch, my clothes, everything! As you can tell from my accent, I'm not from around here. They took advantage of my good graces!”
“Yeah, well, people will do that around here if you're not careful. Your being a Brit doesn't help matters,” the man said. “Y'know, ever since that Emil Nardo gang got up to hijinks with those stolen diamonds in these here bayous, we've had something of a reputation as a crime magnet.”
“We'd better get you some clothes,” said the blonde woman. She extended a hand. “My name's Janet, by the way. Janet Hilton.”
“And I'm Mike Kalavich,” said the man. “I think I've got some spare clothes at my cabin. It's outside of town, so you can get changed without any prying eyes.”
“That's kind of you,” said David humbly. “Though I don't know what to do about my money.” He coughed, taking a moment to come up with an alias. He figured it was better safe than sorry to avoid using his real. “My name's Daniel Garrison, by the way.” He'd picked a name that shared his real initials.
Something was wrong. The way these people were dressed, and something about the way they talked, made David realize he wasn't in 1983 anymore. It was more like the '40s or '50s, judging from the fashion alone. But down in the southern U.S., he knew that people were often quite traditional, and as such it was possible for fashions to be a little behind down here.
It wasn't a long trip to Mike's cabin, where David accepted escort cautiously. He knew that it was foolish to go about unawares among southern Americans, especially when one when was naked. But if they tried to harm him in any way, they'd feel the wrath of the Flash Avenger. It definitely helped that he still felt the speed potion coursing inside of him. If he'd wanted to, he could've ran to the nearest laundry line and stolen clothes from there. But then, if these powers left him at a critical moment, he'd be stranded out in the middle of the swamp.
His new outfit was laid out for him. Mike's clothes fit him well—he was a big man, and while age and a focus on nimbleness left David a slighter figure than his host, he was still bulked up by a long career of fighting and running. The two Louisianans watched him get dressed, and seeing as they'd already seen him naked, David didn't mind too much. He felt the surprise in their faces as they examined not only his muscular figure, but also the various scars he'd accumulated over the last three decades.
“You fight in the War, mister?”
“Which War?” David replied.
“Uhhh...the ones with Japan and the Nazis...?”
“Oh, that one. No, I was too young at the time.”
“Did you fight in the War?” David asked, meaning to deflect Mike's attention.
“Nah, I was 4-F for flat feet,” said Mike, spitting on the ground. “But there's a vet back in town who's come home for the first time in a while—old Johnny Duval.” And he laughed. “Wait till the poor son of a bitch learns I stole his girl.”
Janet laughed too, but at once David felt like she wasn't the girl in question. The blonde had a mean streak to her, evidently, but Mike hadn't touched her once in the short span he'd seen them together. And they were strictly platonic on the trip into the nearby small town.
David saw at once that this community, whatever it was called, was small and isolated. It was entirely possible it didn't even have a name, as Mike didn't mention it when he gave it a small introduction. “Not a bad place to stretch your legs,” he said. “There's fishing work, guide work, a little construction every now and then...a few crazies. There's folks like Manon, who's always rantin' and ravin' about Dr. Cameron's monster and ol' Gator-Face, or the Gator Ghoul, whatever he's callin' it this week...there's the weirdo heathens people talk about, worshippin' Kuhthooloo or Damballa...”
“That sounds like a lot of strangeness,” said David, raising an eyebrow. “Pagan cults? Is that something normal around here?”
Mike laughed. “Strange things crop up in the swamp...strange things.”
Now Mike was staring at a man, who walked the streets before them. He was a giant of a man, larger even than Mike Kalavich. He looked back over his shoulder, and David saw a strong face, with blazing gray eyes that gazed out like stars.
No doubt this man was Johnny Duval, the man Mike had spoken contemptuously about. The man who'd come back from war.
But to David, he looked like the shirtless man from his dream—the strange brute he'd seen in his vision in those unusual currents that burst out of the exploding cannon.
* * *
Back in 1983, the Rama Society met to discuss the strange red skies that appeared all over the world.
Mediums, psychics, and ghost-talkers every era of the 20th Century came together in reverence to the sacred call of the Society. Long ago they had all sworn fealty to this, the largest conglomeration of mediums in human history.
It was a given that there was endless arguing. Every psychic present seemed to have their own theory about the nature of the crisis around them. In addition to the diversity of beliefs, the members of the Society were all rather old. Many of them had extended their lives through unnatural or hazardous means, while still others existed only as vampires, liches, or unusually tangible ghosts. At the head of the table, Swami Yomurda, Prince Saliano, and the Prince's servant Degar were attempting to convince Chandu, Chandra, and Paul Bavian that astral worms had infested the Akashic records, and that the universe was having an information breakdown. Nearby the Great LaGagge and his cousin Rosalie LaGrange took on Drs. Zodiac, Webb, and Armand on the issue of astrological alignments awakening the Great Old Ones. Madame Zola, Madame Musselwhite, and Madame Mystera (not to be confused with her nearby apprentice, Mademoiselle Mystera) sparred with Celia Harland and the indomitable Dr. Acula. It was a total disaster.
From his seat in the middle of the long table, Julian Julian watched as Azrah splashed his wine on the face of Prince Alihabad, while Alabama the Great was threatening to beat Maximus with his own cane. The Great Stanton was getting drunk in the corner with Markov and Count Nikola, while Peter Dwight (alias Count Merlin) seemed to be having a quite valuable but irrelevant conversation with Dr. Earl Godfrey. Julian was too nervous to speak above the thundering crowd, to try and bring order.
But then the Chairwoman of the Rama Society, Princess Liana, raised her hand, and as if by magic, everyone paused. Perhaps it was their oath of fealty; perhaps they were afraid of the hidden power of the aging woman who dressed in fantastic robes and a bejeweled tiara.
“Let us behave like adults, not children,” Liana pronounced. “We are all students of the occult—most of us began as fraudsters, true, but we learned that there is true power for those who seek it. Let us show we are deserving of our great knowledge.”
“I agree, Princess, I agree,” said Dr. Valonius. “Let us have peace in this chamber, and collaborate.”
Julian never liked Valonius. He was the man who gave the Rama Society a bad name—or so Julian thought. In truth, the Society's notoriety was due to its origins. Back in the 16th Century, the area of Massachusetts that comprised Salem, Mapleton, and Arkham saw the rise of a prominent cult. These Egyptian Priests of Arkham were the namesake of the latter city, the most haunted of the trio. By the end of the 17th Century, the membership of this forebear to the Rama Society was formidable indeed, featuring such notorious witches as Joseph Curwen, Simon Orne, Edward Hutchinson, Keziah Mason, Quentin Cassave, and Rinaldo Sabata. They were associated with Abigail Prinn, the so-called “Queen of the Fourth Dimension,” and many sons and daughters of the Whateleys, the Marshes, the Collinses, the Karnsteins, the Stricklands, and the Fowlers fleshed out their ranks as well. This hideous alliance of witches was erased from history only by the blood and sweat of heroes from the clans Van Helsing, Belmont, and De Grandin.
Of course, Valonius had been responsible for the Society's harassment of one Myra Maynard some decades back. He had also conducted unethical brain experiments under the various aliases of Ord, Odo, or Ood, including carrying out human-gorilla brain transplants with the aid of such infamous flesh-butchers as Dartworth Devoli, Paul Coriolis, Alexi Bandov, and Theodore Coslow.
But his proclamation had silenced the room just as effectively as Princess Liana's entrance. Julian didn't like that he had a chance to speak, but there was nothing he could do about it.
“I propose that we hold a séance,” Valonius said simply. “There are dozens of us here—it would truly be the largest séance of all time. This hall should be large enough to hold us all in a circle...”
“What would we be calling forth with this séance, exactly, Dr. Valonius?” demanded Alexi Gregor. Gregor was joined by his two sons, Alexi Abernel and Craig Marcus Alexander, who were powerful psychics themselves. Also near him was Alexis Collender Xavier, the product of an old experiment; Xavier was shaped from Gregor's psychic protoplasm and retroactively inserted into the bloodline of the Xavier family.
“We would be reaching out to the legendary Avenger of God Himself—the spectral Host of Heaven,” Valonius answered.
A great murmur broke out. “How would this help us?” George Landal wanted to know.
“We can use his power to destroy Gamba, the Great Devil God of Evil, who is responsible for this unfortunate event,” Valonius explained. “Then the world will return to normal.”
Baroudi and Rulu were offended by the intended invocation of a spirit of the Christian God. They raised a good point, but unfortunately they were outvoted by the Westerners. Valonius' suggestion became their mission in what Julian thought was too short a time. He knew that gleam in the doctor's eyes—he had mesmerized the group, certainly. He had come here with the intention of forcing this séance—but Julian was sure he couldn't have altruistic goals in mind.
The nervous psychic energy in the air grew more agitated, as if the crisis' effects were seeping and coalescing in this room. Julian grew only more uncomfortable.
Undeterred by the ripple, the Society hurried through a final vote and at once began preparations for their séance. They cleared out all the furniture so that they could form a huge circle. While enormous, the lodge hall was still perhaps too small for them to all link hands. But as they formed the circle one by one, they could see that there was room after all. Julian was the second-to-last to join; though he wanted to abstain, it would be bad luck to be the very last. And bad luck was the exact opposite of what he needed now.
Valonius psychically conferred with Princess Liana, and at his direction, she began telepathically leading them. He had told her which part of the astral plane to reach into to retrieve God's Avenger. The link between each of them spread across the circle, and they managed to squeeze their disparate energies into one uniform will. This collective consciousness sought out the patch of mystic energy which Valonius had directed them towards. Each could feel each others' immeasurable worry as they entered this unexplored region of the psychosphere.
In the darkness behind their eyelids, they could see a faint pale shape before them. The Avenger was said to have pale skin, hidden within emerald robes. They felt the dead dryness of his flesh. But something was wrong—Julian alone sensed it. The others were blinded by Valonius—and now another presence was leeching into the collective mind, infecting it like a disease.
Julian reared back, recognizing what was happening.
Whatever unearthly presence they'd uncovered was strengthening their bond, trapping their minds together, and then bring that enslaved power under its control. Julian shifted all of his energies, which were not inconsiderable, into protecting himself. He was still trapped but he was not forced into the psychic coma which overcame those who were possessed by the unknown presence. In a sense he was sitting in the thing's mouth, and not letting it swallow him.
A roaring flame burst out in the center of the massive circle. Flowing from that flame was power, raw mystic energy—and the shadowy entity was feeding on it. Restoring itself.
Julian sensed that Valonius had accomplished this feat using the mind-enhancing drug known as tana. The tana-energy spread into the flame which became the source of the dark thing's power. The unusual effects of tana powered the demon Julian knew as Yasta-hiqun—a renegade priest of ancient Egypt who had stolen the tana to resurrect his dead lover, in a blasphemy against the Egyptian faiths. He had been mummified for this, but his servants discovered that he could be revived using the brew of the tana plant.
Once he realized this, he saw a light shined on the foul thing which sought to devour his life energy. The monster's empty eye sockets were pitch-dark, and his rotten flesh was only barely concealed under layers of gauze wraps. Though terrified, Julian knew he had to do something. Yasta-hiqun, and his master Valonius, were using the power they stole not only to heal the mummified sorcerer, but also to open a dimensional gateway. Julian tried to look away from this door, knowing he would go mad if he gazed out between universes. But this gap was even greater than that. It was like the two sorcerers were reaching into a completely different Multiverse—one similar yet different to the one which formed Julian's reality. They were looking for something there—something they couldn't easily find on this Earth.
He had to do what he could to divert their attention.
Reaching out into the astral plane, Julian searched for one of the many magical comets which arced across the uncanny skies. He found one, glowing gold, though it was the strangest comet of its type he'd seen. To his eye (his third), it looked to be a man, a nude man sealed within a golden shaft—but he knew he had to be wrong. He redirected the path of this imaginary meteor, launching it straight at Valonius and the undead monstrosity.
But his aim wasn't great, at least in this case, and the spiraling shape rocketed past his targets, disappearing into the gate they'd made.
The effort weakened Julian. He would need rest, at least for the moment, if he was to try to break free again.
Around them, the crisis raged, growing worse by the second. Yasta-hiqun had done his master's bidding well—from his throneworld in the coming future, Gamba looked back, and praised him.
* * *
“Daniel Garrison” had easily befriended Johnny Duval. He proved a strong and sober individual, haunted somewhat by his past experiences but made a hero by them. They were sharing a beer in the local bar, having the corner of it to themselves. Daniel, or more properly David, was still trying to get his bearings. Johnny was able to confirm that it was October, 1945. David's suspicions of being stranded were proven true, which filled him with a deep concern.
But there was another matter, a less personal one: Johnny Duval was dealing with his own conflicts. Because he needed information, and because he was a normal human being, David was listening to and sympathizing with Johnny's troubles.
“It's just that ever since I got back from the war, I've been having this identity crisis,” Johnny was saying. “It's like I don't know who I am anymore. My girl Toni, Toni Rousseau, has moved on. She's started dating Mike Kalavich...”
“I remember that,” David put in.
“And so I've been spending time with Janet Hilton. But I don't know much about her, that's the thing. She keeps being secretive for some reason.”
David was going to tell Johnny about how when he first met Janet, she'd been hanging out with Mike Kalavich, the source of his woes. But Johnny kept speaking:
“There's also just the fact that I feel different about Toni, somehow. Maybe I grew up a lot during the war, but she doesn't feel like my girl anymore. She feels more like...more like a daughter. I want to guard and protect her, but I'm not so keen on kissing or sleeping with her anymore, you know?”
“I've experienced that myself,” said David, lying somewhat. “I'm a little cautious of Janet Hilton. I remember hearing Caspar—you know Caspar Cranhomme, the fisherman?—say he thinks she had some connection to those Nardo gang girls and their diamonds.”
Johnny frowned. “I have to admit, I can't say I disbelieve Janet could be a crook,” he said, rubbing his glass between his hands. “But I don't like the thought of it. She's a sweet girl. I never knew her before I went away from here, but she seems familiar in a way...”
David thought back, recalling that her face did seem familiar. Maybe he knew her from one of his crime files.
He sighed, knowing he was no closer to the truth of this place. He thought to himself that the world he'd left behind would be sure he was dead. Izzy, Penelope, his stepson—they'd all think he was killed destroying the dark one's cannon. But he realized that the destruction of that cannon meant the salvation of countless lives. He wasn't one to pat himself on the back, but he had done a good thing. Even if it cost him everything.
He was just finishing his beer when Mike Kalavich strode in. Johnny Duval instantly sat up, as if tugged magnetically by the man's presence.
David didn't understand Mike at all. He seemed to enjoy attacking Johnny for no reason at all—if there was a previous grudge between them, Johnny didn't know about it. He was always on guard now around Mike, in case he tried something.
Tonight, he decided to try something. As he entered, Mike brought with him his girlfriend, Toni Rousseau. He made sure that she saw Johnny and he saw her. He smiled the whole time like he had just gotten away with the entire fifth grade's lunch money.
The couple sat down next to Johnny and David, and Mike ordered dinner. He looked over at Johnny, then looked David up and down.
“You pick up an appetite for foreign boys overseas, Johnny?”
David raised an eyebrow. Neither he nor Johnny took being called gay to be an insult, but it was the jab behind Mike's words that counted.
“David's my pal, Mike,” Johnny said. “He's helping me pass the time, while I figure out what to do around here.”
“Oh, sure, sure. I'm guessing you have a lot of time on your hands, now that I'm with what's yours.”
Toni didn't like being fought over like a piece of meat. “Mike, knock it off. Johnny and I aren't on bad terms, no matter what you like saying.”
“I think Johnny's a little jealous, though. Maybe of me. Maybe of you, for having such a hunk to yourself.”
Toni made a noise of disgust. She didn't know that Mike was like this. She stood to leave, but Mike grabbed her arm.
“I don't think you ought to leave so soon, honey.”
“Leave her alone, Mike!” Johnny shouted then. As he jolted upward, his bar stool toppled over. He seized Mike by the collar and lifted him off his feet, but Mike only laughed.
“I always knew you were like this, Duval. I always knew you were just a big bully on the inside. I know you've done worse than me—you always have.”
“I don't know what the hell you're talking about, Kalavich. I've always kept my nose out of everyone's business—I've always stayed on the up-and-up. I think you're a drunken piece of shit.”
Mike Kalavich replied by punching Johnny in the face. Johnny's face lit up then, and he climbed up onto the bar, and hunched down like an ape. He stared at Mike and when he made a move to step away, Johnny jumped him. Knocking him to the ground, he leveled a stern blow into Mike's skull before Toni pulled him off.
“Stop it! Stop it!” she cried. “Father—please stop!”
All eyes in the bar were on them then, but a gasp rippled through the crowd as they heard Toni call Johnny her father.
Johnny stood up then, eyeing his ex-girlfriend strangely. “What did you say?” he asked.
“I-I don't know...”
“No, you called me 'father.' And I'm no priest.”
Johnny turned away from her, with the implications beginning to churn his stomach. He looked down at Mike, whose face was breaking out in bruises. “You keep your mouth shut around me,” Johnny barked. “And look for a girl more appropriate for you. I hear that that Janet Hilton is a crook, so maybe talk to her instead.”
“Wh-what?” Mike asked then. “How dare you?! Janet's a fine woman! I knew I was right about you.” He spat on Johnny's shoes. “Who told you such rubbish?”
Johnny looked anxiously at David, and said, “Caspar Cranhomme has his own opinions about her.”
Then a strange look came into Mike's eyes. “Caspar?” he asked. “Did you say—Caspar?”
“Yes...he's a local fisherman, Mike, you know this.
Mike stared off into the distance, like he was being haunted by an unwelcome. “C-Caspah...” he lisped. He shook his head, almost like he had been reminded of something. “Caspah...”
“Mike?” Johnny asked. He looked around. “Well, I didn't mean to hit him that hard...”
“Caspa...Kaspa!” Mike spat the word out like a revelation. He jumped to his feet, and laughed. “Oh—oh, Kaspa!”
“Mike, what's going on with you?” Johnny demanded.
“I remember...” Mike hissed. “Oh, yes, I remember. I remember you, 'Johnny Duval.' I crossed over to your Earth. I was split into two men. In one form, you killed me—in another, your son killed me and possessed my corpse.”
“My—son?” Johnny whispered. “I-I don't have a son.”
“Yes, you do, but not here! In the real world—the world beyond.” David was taken aback by those words. He had felt since the beginning that this place was manufactured somehow. But he could never speculate on those suspicions until now. “And Toni—she is your daughter. But I won't tell you any more. You still don't know who you are, do you? Good. That's my advantage, then...” At once, he began to strip off his clothing. Johnny raised a hand in protest.
“Mike—come on now! What the hell are you doing?”
“You don't remember our first brawl, when we fought as two kings of the jungle. Royalty of our stripe doesn't need clothing. We live as the animals do—for we are sons of the beasts. I'm the protege of a race of hyper-intelligent lions, while you are the legendary lord of the apes.”
When Mike had started stripping, people began leaving the tavern in throngs, fearing that they were in the presence of madmen. David agreed with that opinion, but refused to leave. Whoever Mike was, he was dangerous, and David didn't want to let his new friend get hurt. Toni Rousseau also remained.
“Fate saw me resurrected to fight with you again!” Mike cried then. “And this time, I'll prove that I'm the real king of the jungle!”
He dove towards Johnny, and David rushed to his side.
* * *
Julian Julian watched the events of Yasta-hiqun's synthetic reality play out before him. He was beginning to understand what had happened. The “golden meteor” he had deflected in an effort to stop the mummy was in truth a man, as he had sensed—this David, or Daniel, or whatever he was called, was being pulled through the Multiverse's superstructure by an unknown force, until Julian deviated his path. But Yasta-hiqun's own goal was also one of deflection. In opening a gateway to a parallel Earth, the mummy had sought to steal away one of that world's heroes—the man who had become Johnny Duval. And Johnny had dragged much of his history with him, resulting in his new world being populated by the ghosts of people he knew. Julian still didn't know why Yasta-hiqun had done this, but there must be something special about Johnny Duval.
He knew that Yasta-hiqun was serviced by a number of priests, belonging to an ancient Egyptian order. (This was the same order that preceded the Rama Society, in a historic detail that Julian remained in the dark about.) Back in the 1940s, one of his most infamous priests was called—called—his memory struggled back to the time when he had investigated the occult under his true name of Laszlo, before he'd gone into the psychic business. Andoheb! The high priest of the cult of Yasta-hiqun had been named Andoheb! But that was just an alias, Julian recalled. Andoheb's true name was Elwyn Clayton. Clayton had been a student of the dark arts who transformed himself into a vampire in a mad quest for eternal life. He seemed to suffer from a hereditary madness passed down from his father, Robert E. Lee Clayton, whose own father, rumored to be an English nobleman, was said to be somewhat barmy himself. Elwyn Clayton was long dead, but his spirit may have lived on. Perhaps seeking him would give Julian more information.
He willed his mind to find Elwyn Clayton's essence, if it still existed. To his surprise, he found it fairly quickly—but it was connected to Yasta-hiqun's, and so psychically he was quite close.
However, it was Clayton who had initiated the link. Long ago his failure had earned him Yasta-hiqun's wrath, and as such his ghost had to force an allegiance between the two—by using their previous connection, Clayton forged a new one, and began to leech the energies that Yasta-hiqun had fed upon.
But Yasta-hiqun was too powerful for Clayton's flimsy, degenerated soul, and he threw him away like a piece of trash. Julian tracked his movements, as the fallen vampire tried desperately to rescue himself from spiritual oblivion.
Clayton stopped his plunge towards the invisible flames of nonexistence, but at the cost of trapping himself within the body of an ancient man back on Earth. This unlikely specimen had been alive for thousands of years, sealed within the ice of a polar mountain, and so Clayton was looking at an eternity of paralysis. He couldn't even scream to lament what had happened to him.
The frozen man's brain overlapped with his, and so Clayton knew the name and history of his unwilling host. His name was Îgah Jan-Gel, a chieftain of the ancient patriarchal tribe of Guna. He bore the formal title of High Chief, which in his original tongue was pronounced Kr'. Kr' Îgah Jan-Gel was unable to escape the fierce cold which killed off much of his tribe, and he was frozen alive in his sleep. He had gone mad several times over, as some strange chemical property of the ice kept him distantly conscious all this time, while also preserving his body.
After an unknown span of time, two scientists, Dr. Dexter and Dr. Gilmore, excavated Kr' Îgah Jan-Gel from the ice. At first, Elwyn Clayton thought that this was his release. He sensed a kindred spirit in Dr. Dexter, who was also a student of the dark arts—like Dr. Valonius, he was an associate of the man who called himself James Brewster, whose essays on human-gorilla hybridization had rocked the world of science. However, Clayton soon discovered to his horror that he was slipping out of the body he'd stolen. The ancient chieftain's will was growing stronger as he thawed out, and Clayton's was too weak to resist. Soon he was slowly drifting back towards the inescapable gravity of astral erasure.
Julian briefly ignored Clayton's plight to instead study Dexter. He wished to know if he too was a priest of Yasta-hiqun.
He learned, from probing Dexter's mind, that the scientist was not who he claimed to be. This student of the blasphemous Henry Frankenstein was actually a man named Ernest Sovac Lorenz, who had escaped justice by using the brain surgery techniques of Dr. Richard Clarke to transplant himself into the body of a gangster named Eric Marnay. Drs. Lorenz and Clarke were both brothers in a scientific conspiracy, which Lorenz knew as the Citizens of Immortality. These Citizens—whose leaders were called Beaumont, Savaard, Garth, and Kravaal—believed that illicit science was the way to obtain eternal life; this included the process of stealing people's bodies through brain transplants. Seeking to know the origins of this group, Julian Julian discovered they had descended from a Massachusetts cult—the same order that had inspired the Rama Society. The Massachusetts witch-band, the Rama Society, and the Priests of Arkham, as they were called, were all the same group, all with an origin in worshipping Yasta-hiqun.
Psychic sweat dripped down Julian's astral forehead as he considered the full implications. This was a full-on mystical assault on the mortal world! Yasta-hiqun joined with Gamba, Gamba joined with the power of the group he'd seeded centuries before.
Another fragment of the Priests of Arkham existed in the modern day—they were under the command of a sorceress named Edwina Tara. Scanning the Akashic records, Julian discovered that Dr. Tara used her power for good, and thus she might be willing to aid him against the mummy. But she was strangely absent from her own history—he couldn't reach her. He dimly sensed her traveling around the greater Multiverse, but ultimately, she was beyond contact.
It was all up to him.
He reached out into the half-reality Yasta-hiqun had created, to see what he could do to aid Johnny Duval and David Gaunt. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of Johnny's spirit-aura—bound into the aura was a sparkling blue flame. He recognized these strange cerulean flames. These energies could only have come from one of the various fountains of youth that formed from cracks in the dimensional skin of a universe. Johnny Duval, whoever he was, had once absorbed energies which made him eternally young. That was what Yasta-hiqun wanted with him—that was why he had done of all this. The flames of immortality strengthened the ancient sorcerer a thousandfold.
Julian touched the mind of Johnny Duval, and released the memory block Yasta-hiqun had placed on him. A word-trigger had released “Mike Kalavich,” also known as Kaspa the Lion-Man. Now Johnny would remember his true identity.
* * *
David didn't understand what the hell was going through Johnny's mind.
The two had fled into the swamps after Johnny beat the tar out of Mike Kalavich—or “Kaspa,” as he had begun calling himself. Admittedly, Mike had held his own, until Johnny started fighting like a mad ape. Now he beginning to talk to himself, and David had no idea what he was talking about.
“The Brute. The Brute. Not Duval, but Bradford—Toni's not my girl, but my daughter...”
“Johnny—Johnny, I need you to calm down,” David urged. “I need to figure out how to get out of here, and we won't get anywhere with you talking like that.”
“Janet Hilton—my wife. Connie. But is she truly...?”
“Johnny!” David was tempted to smack him across the face, but held back from doing so.
“And Mike—an old rival, like he said. There's a reason why we fight...”
Johnny shook his head, and suddenly there was a sobriety in his eyes.
“Daniel,” he said, “I have to explain myself. Everything that Mike Kalavich was saying—I understand it now.”
“Well, please tell me, as I'm very confused,” David said.
“I'm not Johnny Duval. That's a false name, as false as this reality around us. My real name is Johnny Bradford, but in Africa, I'm known as the Brute. I-I am a guardian of the jungles. I was taken here by some outside force—carried away from the monastery I've made my home, alongside a stepson I never knew I had. The people of this artificial reality resemble people from my world. Mike Kalavich resembles a rival adventurer named Kaspa. Toni Rousseau is actually my daughter Shalimar. And Janet Hilton is my long-lost wife, Connie Bryce.”
“I thought I recognized her...Connie Bryce was one of the assistants of that masked vigilante from the '30s, Flint Golden,” David said. Johnny didn't know that name. David realized distantly that the photograph he'd once seen of the mysterious Flint Golden matched the vision of the golden-masked man he'd experienced before.
“I have to remind Shalimar and Connie who they are,” Johnny said. “Only together do we have a chance of getting out of here...”
Before David could argue with him, there was the sound of boots stomping through the swamp. Johnny and David looked around, only seeing the source of the noise when it was upon them. Mike Kalavich remained naked, save for a loincloth he had made from shredding his shirt. With him was “Janet Hilton,” who Johnny claimed was Connie Bryce. David realized that Johnny's strange babbling likely reflected the truth, as he knew who Connie Bryce was, even if he didn't know of Flint Golden. In David's experience, Flint Golden was an obscure figure anyway, so it made some degree of sense. At the very least, Johnny knew more about this place and the people in it than he did at the moment.
And Mike was here to hurt both of them. But that wasn't all. Janet, or Connie, held Toni Rousseau in her grip. She had a knife to her throat. At once, Toni gasped out, “Father...please help me...”
“We all remember who we were, Brute,” the blonde woman said. “I remember dreaming of my shadow—Connie Bryce, who lived on the other side of the mirror. She always had a better life than me. When Mike told me about my true self I remembered her first, and how jealous I was of her. And now I have a chance to kill her husband and stepdaughter...”
Johnny was silent, but David could tell he was struggling. He tried to imagine what it would be like to be reunited with Penelope, only to learn she was instead a different woman with her face. He had to do something.
He grinned. Days had passed since he landed in this place, but that barbarous immortal vandal made a damn good speed potion. A Gibberne derivative, he was sure. Time slowed around as he zoomed towards Janet Hilton. In an instant, Toni, or Shalimar as Johnny had called her, was free, and David had Janet's knife. He let her get a glimpse of what had happened before he rushed back, holding the knife at her throat this time. “I don't like to do this, lady, but I need to know more about what's going on.”
Kaspa growled at David, but Johnny took a broad step forward, to challenge his old rival. Janet laughed and said, “My real name's Lois MacFay—in the 1930s I had a criminal record as long as your arm. I was dead, rotted away in jail, but some mummy thing brought me back. It's called Yasta-hiqun.”
“Yasta-hiqun?” Another name David knew. About forty years ago—from his perspective—there were rumors around the town of Mapleton, Massachusetts and the coincidentally-named Mapleton, Louisiana of a living mummy who murdered a handful of citizens. To him, mummies implied great antiquity, the sort of antiquity which was more often than not associated with the occult. He'd had paranormal encounters before—now he was wondering if it wasn't possible that magic had brought him here.
But he remembered that for many, magic is the power of thought made real. And the closer he and Johnny and Shalimar and Lois and Kaspa got to the truth, the more their previous reality asserted itself. The ground began to shake, and silently, they all knew what it meant. They knew they'd all be devoured by this mutual dream of theirs if they didn't find a way out.
It was clear that Lois and the Lion-Man wouldn't let them escape such a fate so easily.
* * *
Julian Julian had “caught” the spirit of Elwyn Clayton as it fell from the caveman's body. It was both an act of mercy and a desire to absorb what remaining information he could from the fading sorcerer. The fallen soul “breathed” weakly in Julian's “arms.”
“You—you saved me...” Clayton whispered.
“I did,” Julian said, before entering the vampire's mind. He felt resistance.
“You will not steal my occult secrets, fool!” Clayton shrieked. “I-I fought for years to drain that magic from the world! It shall not become yours!”
Julian at once sensed all of the countless evil deeds Clayton had committed throughout his long life, and suddenly found justification to shove down the vampire's resistance. He knew now that he needed to find the secret of Clayton's bond to Yasta-hiqun, and forge one of his own, if he was to save both the heroes in the false world and the Rama Society. He began to pry that secret loose, and in doing so, he hastened Clayton's end.
The dying creature snarled and hissed at him, but Julian focused on his cruelty and knew that there was no point to his continued existence. Slowly, Clayton's personality drained of his soul, like a film fading to black. In the end, there was only energy, energy that Julian could use.
He needed to direct it to two places: he had to open a doorway in the false reality, and create a gap in the link between Yasta-hiqun and the Rama Society. Maybe he could do both at once. Magic was the realm of ideas, after all, and all that he thought was made to be.
In his mind he “aligned” the tether binding the mummy and his order with the psycho-physical structure of Yasta-hiqun's trap-world. Then, gathering the energies he took from Clayton, he blew a hole in both.
Yasta-hiqun was severed from the Rama Society. A psychic shockwave burst out, and Julian was blown away from the Society's amalgamated mass with the force of a hurricane. He didn't get to see what happened to the false dimension, and he never would—now he was back in the conscious world, with his psychic senses blinded for the moment.
When he opened his eyes, he saw rampant chaos around him.
The feedback from the severance had touched every mind in the room, with deadly results. Now, everyone in the Rama Society was the victim of mystical flames—Julian was spared only by his earlier split away from the collective consciousness of the group. He watched in horror as Balzamo danced a panicked dance of fire; as Norman Osgood shrieked in agony as his glasses melted along with his flesh; as Quentus Ratcliff collapsed on the ground, murmuring unheard prayers to a forgotten pantheon. Roger Lime, alias the Father, met a temporary end, but Jennifer Baylor's was more permanent. Madame Malatesta called out to her late husband, while Adrian Marcato Jr. implored his dead father to save him. Carl Reiner fell tugging at the robes of the dying Dr. Acula, and Cronin Mitchell and Dan Thomas put aside their old rivalry to perish in a final embrace. And there were more still: Virginia Ducci, Christine Steinwetz, Mary Woodhouse, poor Mr. and Mrs. Montserrat, Tom Kovack, Henry Krasker, and Blake Hart were all wiped from the Earth in a matter of moments.
Julian Julian soon stood alone in a room full of charred bones. He raised his shirt to cover his nose against the overwhelming smell of roasting meat.
The greatest psychic minds of the 20th Century, and they were all dead. Except for him.
He mused over his experiences, and came to the realization that without all of these other psychics plying the markets, he effectively had a monopoly on any sort of business related to the psychic arts.
There was also the fact that if the police showed up and found him here, he'd be in a lot of trouble. So he had nothing to lose by hitting the road right away.
He was undeniably traumatized by everything he witnessed. But as he walked out into the blue skies, Julian Julian had a foretelling of the future. He saw that he would have a prosperous career in TV soon enough, pitching prophesies to live audiences in competition with the televangelist crowd.
He was not a cynical man. On the contrary. In the face of adversity, he considered himself quite hopeful.
Besides, did he not deserve to live? He had saved the lives of three heroes, and without an excess of pride in his heart, he could say that he did it for the sake of the Multiverse.
Beyond the veil of reality, the effects of his good deed fanned outward.
* * *
As the false Louisiana burned around them, consumed by an unearthly swamp fire, the Flash Avenger, the Brute, and Shalimar made their way towards the gaping doorway which had suddenly appeared before them. In the distance, as the bayou burned, the various inhabitants of the swamp cried out before they were once again made unreal.
Kaspa and Lois MacFay were in hot pursuit. “We won't return to death!” they shrieked at them. “We won't be unmade after our resurrection!”
David wanted to use his super-speed, but after his last use of it, it was finally fading from his system. The portal seemed infinitely distant, no matter how far they ran.
“Johnny,” he said then, maintaining his long dash, “I just want you to know that it was an honor to meet you. I know very little of who you were before this, but I can see a hero's spirit in you.”
“Likewise,” the Brute returned. “I hope that when this is over, our paths cross again.”
And Shalimar said, “I know little of you, Daniel Garrison. But I, too, consider you a great warrior. Thank you for helping my father and I.”
“It's what anyone else would do,” David murmured, hoping that was true.
They were almost there. The nightmare was almost over.
But Kaspa the Lion-Man was still as swift as his namesake, and he caught up to David. His strong hand seized him by the shoulder and jerked him off his feet. The Flash Avenger splashed down into the water, and Kaspa wound his fingers around his neck.
“Let's see if your friends return the favor you did them,” he growled. David struggled against his grip. Over Kaspa's shoulder, he could see the Brute and Shalimar turn backto aid him.
Straining against Kaspa's grip, David gasped out, “Don't! There's barely any time left—!”
But at once, as if from nowhere, Shalimar produced a long-bladed dagger, and with a single sharp motion, plunged it into Kaspa's back.
The Lion-Man screamed in agony, but maintained his chokehold on David. Working his hands down, he cradled the Flash Avenger's head, aiming to snap his neck. But David surged forward with all of his strength, shoving the big man off of him. Turning around, he could see that all that remained of the swamp was a tiny little scrap, just barely enough to hold the five people and the portal. Everything else was a sea of flames.
Shalimar was at the portal then. “Hurry, father! We'll go together!”
The Brute wasn't far behind her, and David wasn't far behind him. Johnny took Shalimar's outstretched arm, while David grabbed onto Johnny. As one, they passed through the doorway, into the black void beyond. David looked back for a moment, despite knowing the tales of both Orpheus and Lot's wife. He winced as he watched the flames overtake Kaspa and Lois, who began to scream in agony.
They were free. But it wasn't over yet.
At once, David felt his previous momentum reassert. He flashed back to the crisis and his run around the cannon core. And the strange golden light which flowed over him. Now that light was back again—and it surrounded Johnny, too. Shalimar was gone from sight, but David and Johnny were moving now—and heading for the same destination.
Johnny arrived first, David observed, but he didn't know what happened to him. He awaited his own fate as he danced through an endless emptiness.
At last, he began to materialize. He only understood now that once he had crossed into the portal and touched the golden light again, he had been turned into a stream of particles, without tangible substance. Slowly, his body coalesced back into flesh, but the strain of the last several days overtook him. As soon as he was made physical, he needed to vent his deep strain in the most direct way possible—by working his body.
He sprinted around the room he appeared in before he even saw what that room looked like. To his surprise, he did so at super-speed. The energies that brought him to this place must have given him one last charge of power. He began running around the room to get a better look at where he'd turned up.
He saw that he was in a metallic chamber of some kind, like the inside of a submarine. It was brightly lit and at one end of the room was an enclosure, whose floor was made of a ring of circular pads. David recognized that he had materialized on one of these pads. Mechanically they were tied in with the blinking control panel at the opposite end of the room. This panel was, of course, being operated by a person. There were several people in this room, standing stiff as statues besides David's speed, gazing up at the enclosure he'd emerged from. David tended to observe machinery before people, like the engineering aficionado that he was, but now he took time to look at the humans.
As he examined the people, he was surprised to realize that he recognized one of them. Her uniform marked her as the leader of these people—the tall, blonde woman who so resembled the one from his vision. He had seen her before, when he—he—
His memory was fading, along with his speed. He began to slow down, until at last he stood before the blonde officer, at the same frequency as her.
“Alright, everyone,” the woman said, raising an eyebrow, “you know the drill. We're stunning this one too...”
The others in the room produced pistols of some kind, and aimed them at David. At once, he raised his hands in surrender. “Wait!” he called out. “I'm not here to hurt you! I don't know how I got here, but please at least let me explain who I am!”
The woman raised a hand, and the others lowered their guns. David couldn't place the make of those pistols—they looked like something out of a sci-fi pulp. Where the hell was he?
“My name is David Gaunt,” he said, “and I'm afraid I am very, very lost.”
TO BE CONTINUED!