Penny Blood Side Stories #4

By Ari Lee

Monte Carlo, Monaco

February 14, 1919


That Spring, the skies of Monaco lose their icy hue much earlier than the previous year, fading into a bright azure. The first of the early spring tides brought a bevy of fresh fish for the great cormorants who returned from their southern migration, and warmer Mediterranean winds began to tickle the cliffs that ran along the shoreline.


On one of these cliffs stood Vito Andolini. Beneath the steep, brown precipice he had chosen, soft waves crashed into a rocky shore. At this time of year the ocean was a translucent teal, allowing full view of the algae at its shallow bottom. The sun had just begun to set, casting a soft orange glow over the alabaster city of Monte Carlo and the zig-zagging villas that cut through its hills.


Vito lifted the bottle of gin upside-down above his lips, watching carefully to see if there might be one last drop hiding inside. There was none. With a sigh, he tossed it down onto the ground and inched closer to the cliff. The breath of the sea lightly rustled through his frayed overcoat and trousers. His hair itched with filth. Dried blood caked his upper lip.


At least I get a chance to choose how I go, he thought with a weak smirk. They won’t get to turn the lights out on old Andolini. I’ll have the last laugh in the end…


Vito moved his faded leather shoes up to the edge of the cliff and teetered a bit as he took a closer look over the edge. Throughout his miserable life, watching the water had been a reliable source of solace. It would be nice to hear the waves up close one last time before his book was closed. It would be a fitting end.


A soft metal jingle sounded, and Vito caught some movement in the corner of his eye. Glancing at the cliffside, he eventually spotted a man climbing up it, of all things. After a moment of dumbfounded paralysis, Vito watched a thick hand reach up and grab the top of the cliff, as if to pluck it straight out from the earth. With a grunt, the tall, muscular man the hand was attached to leapt up to the ground.


“Oh, hello there,” said the climber, as he straightened his back. “Didn’t mean to interrupt.”


Vito found himself unable to formulate a reply as he studied the curious specimen. Clad in a dirty white shirt, standard Chinos and black combat boots, he could have been a soldier or a guard. He stood tall, and his pectorals seemed seconds away from bursting right through his shirt. A short tuft of dirty blond hair sat on top of his blocky head like a well-tended lawn. His chin was perfectly angular, like that of a Greek statue, and in the burning evening sun, his deep-set eyes looked as pure as blue diamonds.


“…Y-you weren’t interrupting anything,” Vito finally managed to force out, although it still sounded far shakier than he’d intended. “What were you doing down there?”


“Disposing of a body,” the man said casually, as he massaged his wrists. “Lots of corrupt dignitaries pass through the casino, in case you didn’t know.”


Vito found himself stunned yet again, watching in silence as the man went on to stretch his limbs.


“Ready to throw in the towel, are you?” The killer cast a disapproving wince in Vito’s direction.


“Don’t concern yourself with me,” Vito said quickly, returning his eyes to the beach below. “I’m a lost cause.”


“Well, maybe I can be of some help. I’m trained in the art of killing, after all. I can oversee the deed – make sure I’m there to snap your neck in case you don’t go out cleanly.”


Inexplicably, Vito found himself laughing. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”


“I’d ask you the same,” the killer said with his own dark chuckle. “By all appearances, you look adequately healthy, and you’ve clearly still got your humor. What’s more, you’ve got class… Yes, I can tell just by looking at your face. You’re no fool. You’re cultured.”


“Class? Cultured?” Vito scoffed, waving the ripped sleeves of his coat. “I may as well be a sewer rat with all the fleas I’ve got. Believe me, I’m far beyond help.”


“What happened? Jilted? Lost all your money at the casino? People out to get you?”


“All correct,” Vito muttered with a dry chuckle. “Was it really that obvious?”


“A rough time indeed, but not wholly unsalvageable,” the killer said, as he moved up and placed a warm hand on the back of Vito’s neck. Vito recoiled a bit at the touch, but did not try to escape. “And I know people who’ve come back from worse… From war. From the brink of hell itself.”


“Yes, I know there is a smattering of incredible people out there in the world,” Vito said with a sigh, trying to keep his mind from succumbing to the consoling warmth that currently spread through his torso. “Thing is, I’m not one of them. I’m a wastrel. A walking blunder machine. I’m 35, and instead of finally seeing the error of my ways and having a change of heart, I just went and accomplished the biggest failure chain reaction of my entire life. I’ve had enough… I’m tired. I’ve had my share of good food, fun games, and great sex… I just want to go to sleep now.”


“Well, if you insist on throwing your life away, why not throw it away with me?”


The man moved up to Vito until their heads were only a breath apart, forcing him to look up at the well-trained individual’s trunk-like neck and chiseled face. Likewise, the man stared back at him, and Vito could somehow tell that he was dead serious.


“You don’t get it,” Vito said with an irritated scoff. “Even if you manage to talk me down and feel a little better about myself, it won’t matter. Once a person mucks things up enough times, they’re kaput. I’ve overstayed my welcome in this world, and there isn’t a single person left to care about me now. I’m too deep in the mud here… I tried to escape for a while, but now they’ve hired all these assassins and put my pictures around the city, and…there’s just no way out for me anymore, okay? Go find someone else to place your bets on.”


“I’ll kill all the assassins. Then we can escape from the city together.”


“Impossible,” Vito said with a resigned shake of his head. “Besides, why would you do all that for me?”


“I told you already,” the man replied sternly, like an erudite instructor. “You’re different from other people. You have a special charisma to you…an uncommon elegance. And I feel like that you would be very useful to me, my family, and my cause.”


“Your family? Your cause?” Vito mused. “Let me guess, you’re another revolutionary. Out to change the world?”


“Yes,” the man extended his hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. You may call me Sariel – God Himself gave this name to me when he bestowed me with my task of changing the world. May I ask for yours?”


A mixture of frustration and admiration at the man’s lack of self-consciousness swam through Vito’s mind. This Sariel could very well be insane, but then where was all this warmth coming from? Before he could think of anything else, Vito unconsciously raised his own thin hand up to meet Sariel’s. As they shook, an irresistible sense of comfort combined with an overwhelming torrent of energy filled his heart, and he became unable to look away.






Lower Manhattan, New York

September 16, 1920





“Alright, boys, now I want you to repeat back to me. Until around five to noon, you are to do what?” Vito asked, as he flitted his eyes between Georgie and Clarence.


Neither of them could have been more than eight, although you wouldn’t know it from the way they talked. Georgie’s big blue eyes glared up at Vito from just beneath the rim of his ragged newsboy cap, while Clarence passed his gaze over the dusty interior of the Pier #4 warehouse. Next to them stood a large wooden cart attached to a brown, tired-looking horse.


“What, cat got your tongues? That was a question just now, in case you didn’t notice,” Vito sighed, opening his palms as he appealed to his audience. “I’m waiting.”


“S’posed watch over the goddamn cart ’til you get back n’ make sure no one comes inside,” Clarence mumbled as he adjusted his suspenders and shoved his hands into the pockets of his olive trousers.


“So far so good. And what if someone comes along and starts to hassle you?” Vito went on.


“Throw rocks at him and run ‘fore the goddamn cops come,” Clarence eventually answered after another period of silence.


“Very correct. But Clarence, stop swearing. Or have you made it your mission in life to invoke divine torment on every noun that you utter?”

“Goddamn ain’t a swear,” Clarence retorted.


“And I’m the president of the United States. Would you speak to your mother with that mouth?”


“Ain’t got no mother,” Clarence blurted out, before spitting in the grass.


Vito winced. “Well, you got me there.”


“You gonna give us our money or what?” Georgie suddenly interjected. He even took an aggressive step forward, which might have been a tad more menacing had his leather shoes possessed soles.


“Relax, it’s right here,” Vito said with an exasperated exhale, then pulled a handful of bills out from his pocket to show he wasn’t lying. “You get the first half now, and the other half after I confirm that you two completed your tasks. Capiche?”


The two kids let out a murmur and nodded their heads, still looking anything but enthusiastic – not that Vito expected it. The streets had a way of beating the emotions right out of a person.

“Hey, ever seen this one?” In an act of sheer desperation, Vito slid two quarters out of his pockets. Keeping one hidden in the curl of his left fingers, he brandished the other quarter in his right, gathering the boys’ attention with its silver sheen. Then, as if the quarter was teleporting instantly between both hands, Vito quickly let the right quarter drop while revealing the left – back and forth, over and over again, at a speed so fast the poor boys’ eyes couldn’t hope to keep up. When he finished, he let one slide back into his sleeve and braced for the incoming feedback.


“How’d you do that?!” Both kids shouted. “Let me see your hands!”

Grinning, Vito opened his palms, revealing that there was but a lone quarter between them. Incredulous, Georgie and Clarence scanned their eyes over everything, even going as far as peeking down his sleeve, but the other quarter was already well-nestled behind his elbow.


“Magic,” Vito answered with a grin. “I can teleport all sorts of things if I’m so inclined… Better be on your best behavior, boys. Oh, I’ll be happy to teach you later, if you two promise to behave yourselves.”

The kids’ eyes lit up. “Really?!”


“You bet. Oh yeah, that reminds me… You don’t have any way of telling time, do you? Here, take my pocket watch. No need to worry about giving it back, either. I can always procure myself a new one…”


With that, he pulled a small, silver watch attached to a chain out from a pocket of his overcoat and offered it forward. Clarence was the quicker of the two to snatch it up.


“Now, don’t take your eyes off this cart, you hear me? Do a good job, and you’ll each be paid well. Screw it up, and there’ll be hell to pay. Any questions?”


He could tell that at least Georgie wasn’t falling for the intimidation, but it didn’t matter – the expression was merely a way to show that he meant business, as he certainly had no intention of hurting the poor kids. He was convinced they’d do the job in the end, not solely out of fear, but also because it was easy and paid well.


“What the hell’s in the cart anyway?” Georgie asked, although audibly it sounded far more like an exclamation than any sort of question.


“None of your goddamn business,” Vito said sternly as he adjusted his bowler hat. “And you won’t go snooping around inside if you know what’s good for you. Are we clear?”


Georgie displayed a noncommittal shrug and turned his attention elsewhere. Next to him, Clarence was hunched down on the dusty cement, swinging the pocket watch around like a toy.


“Just stick to the plan, and everything will work out fine,” Vito called back as he reached the door. “Trust me.”


Vito turned to leave. The horse and cart had been moved into the warehouse through one of its rear doors facing the piers, which positioned it nicely behind a stack of pallets and wooden crates. There he left Georgie and Clarence, as well as a hefty helping of Clark bars and donuts he’d brought to help them get through the morning.


Once outside, Vito felt the salty breeze of the Hudson ruffle through his hair. Boats, ferries, and cargo ships drifted steadily across its sun-dappled waves, and on the opposite bank, Jersey City was in the process of waking up. It was still early that Thursday morning, which meant that Lower Manhattan had yet to fall into its daily hustle and bustle. A few elderly people could be seen walking along West Street, and seagulls patrolled the ferry terminal to the east as it opened its gates.


Instead of heading straight to Broad Street, Vito walked down toward Battery Park. The scent of sausage grease, fried onions and lemons momentarily invaded his nostrils as he stepped past a street vendor who was busy dishing out frankfurters, knishes and lemonade to hungry men and women on their way to work. Following the streetcar rails in the pavement, a host of motor cars and the occasional horse-drawn cart commuted along West Street, occasionally dodging a pedestrian or two who happened to wander off the sidewalk.


Located on the southern tip of the island, the spacious park boasted greenery that was hard to come by in the Big Apple, as well as a quaint aquarium, bath houses, and ferries to Ellis Island, Staten Island, and Brooklyn. Whenever he felt blue, Vito would often come down here, sit on a bench, and watch the boats drift in and out of the harbor. Never one to pass up the smaller joys in life, Vito casually removed a spare doughnut from one pocket of his overcoat and a small hip flask of gin from the other and presented himself with a brief respite. Not only did the gin calm his nerves, but it helped his muscles stay relaxed – and he’d need that if Sariel wanted him to do any sort of sharpshooting today.


As he enjoyed his breakfast, Vito found his eyes naturally drawn to Ellis Island, the small crop of land just off the southwestern coast of Manhattan. Over half a year ago, he had passed through the immigration station on that island along with Sariel, Franz, and Darya – all of them on separate ships, of course, assuming false identities to stay as far under the radar as possible. The doors to Ellis Island had once been open to just about anyone, save for anarchists, criminals, and ‘lunatics and idiots,’ but the great war had put quite a damper on the American immigration boom. German ships were seized starting in 1917, while the Red Scare in 1919 made everyone double down on entry restrictions.


Despite its image, however, America still worked just like everywhere else – proper capital was capable of opening even the rustiest of doors in the land of opportunity, and thanks in no small part to Franz and Darya’s efforts, the Hellhounders’ coffers now ran deeper than ever. Now on American soil at last, having survived the horrors of the great war and the madness of 1919, this year was supposed to crown a new chapter in their lives – one of worldwide revolution.


Vito tossed the last bite of doughnut into his mouth and took another generous swig from his flask. Soon after he had officially become an American citizen and the Hellhounders acquired their first American recruit, Prohibition had gone into effect. Not a great start to the year by any means, that was for sure. It had certainly made the purchase of alcohol more difficult, but like anything else, there was always loopholes.


Memories of the nights he and Sariel had spent emptying bottles of rum in Monaco and talking about the future suddenly surfaced in his mind, paralyzing him. He couldn’t remember the last time they’d shared a drink since coming to New York.


Vito let out a sigh, bent his body forward, then reluctantly closed his hip flask and prepared to stand up. Time to get back to the grind, before my sentimentality gets the best of me.


As he moved to straighten his legs, a woman walked directly in front of him. Lined with small blue roses, her black wide-brimmed hat obscured the morning light. She extended a gloved hand at Vito, smiled sweetly, then nodded toward the other side of the bench.


“Is this seat taken?” she asked softly.


“Oh, no, help yourself,” he replied, studying the woman as he showed her a lazy smile.


She was clad in a violet velveteen frock with fur around the neck and flowery embroidery around the chest and knees. Her round, stately face, well-curled strawberry blonde locks and otherwise stout figure conjured up images of expensive teas, lengthy throw rugs, and thoroughly-planned eight course meals, making him wonder if perhaps she’d mistaken him for someone else. Once she sat down, she placed a sparkly lace purse to her left side, just between the two of them.


“Such a wonderful morning, isn’t it?” Whoever this woman was, she seemed to be keen on having a friendly chat. “New York is so beautiful this time of year.”


“Sure beats Genoa,” Vito said with a chuckle. “Can’t beat Monaco, though.”


“Oh, I could tell you were from somewhere exotic.” The woman accentuated each syllable with the finesse of a British aristocrat. “Italian, yes?”


“Something like that,” Vito skirted, then took a quick swig of his gin and relented to entertaining the woman’s curiosity. “Got stuck in Genoa after the circus closed down. ‘Cause of the war, you know. Nearly drank myself to death in that god-forsaken city. Poverty, disease, death, you name it – Italy had it all after they ‘won’ the great battle.”


“Oh, yes, I know all about that. Perhaps they should have taken a note out of America’s book. Apparently Italy spent more money on that war than they did over the past 50 years…and now they’re thoroughly bankrupt. A horrid shame if you ask me. On the verge of a socialist revolution last I heard.”


Vito raised an eyebrow and glanced at the woman again. “You’re well-informed.”


“No, I’m Lydia,” she said with a confident smile, then removed her glove and extended a soft, pale hand. “E tu?”


“Vito,” he said, extending his own and briefly shaking the woman’s hand. He couldn’t tell if her eyes had taken a liking to him, or if she was simply lonely – but as he’d learned over the past half a year, random conversations were a daily occurrence in New York.


“I used to live in Paris myself,” Lydia went on, “until I experienced a death in the family, which prompted me to seek out a change in scenery.”


“I know that feeling.” Vito nodded his head, feeling the gin loosen his mouth. “Gambling’s what got me out of the dumps.”


“Ah, I didn’t know I was sitting next to a professional card shark.” Lydia drew her body back as her eyes lit up with glee. “Blackjack?”


“You name it, I’ve played it,” he went on. “Dice, cards, baccarat, horse races… For a time, Lady Luck was my partner in crime. Next thing I knew, I was placing my bets with the best of ’em in Monte Carlo. Oh, I’d lose a bit of money here and there, but I’d always manage to bounce back somehow. Just chalked it up to my unparalleled cunning, of course.”


They shared a laugh, and Vito took another swig – but this time, he saw Lydia’s eyes shift to the flask.


“I know that smell,” she said with a mischievous smile. “Might I trouble you for a sip?”


Vito cocked his head in surprise. “Alright, what gives?” He took a cautious glance around. “Don’t tell me there’s some cop hiding in the bushes…or even worse, a husband?”


“Oh no. Sadly, I am a widow,” Lydia quickly said. “And I’ve never gotten along well with law enforcement.”


“Seems we have more in common than I thought,” Vito said plainly, as he handed the flask over. Lydia took a modest sip, then graciously handed it back.


“Thank you. Now then, where were we?” Lydia tapped one of her rosy cheeks. “Ah yes, the Monte Carlo. I’m afraid I’ve never had the opportunity to visit myself, but the French often speak of its splendor. The House of Grimaldi built it to finance their regime, if I remember correctly…”


“Another bingo.” Vito snapped his fingers. “It’s a veritable tourist trap. The citizens of Monaco aren’t even allowed inside… It’s designed to attract tourists, dignitaries, and all sorts of wealthy foreign patrons from all around the world. I wined and dined with some pretty interesting people while I was there, you know. Even managed to rent my own suite for a bit.”


“Balderdash!” Lydia shouted in surprise. “You most certainly did not. I am calling your bluff, Mr. Vito.”

“I insist it’s all the truth, Miss Lydia.” Vito opened his palms and raised his shoulders, inspired to up the theatrics thanks to Lydia’s amusing reaction. “Like I told you, for a period of time, Lady Luck was my patron saint, and I felt as if I couldn’t lose. Night after night I’d wake up with little recollection of how I’d spent the past 24 hours, and even less concern about what I’d forgotten. Oh, it was a good deal of fun, don’t get me wrong…but like anything in life, there came an end.”


“You began to lose?”


“Any sharper and I daresay you’d be a lethal weapon,” Vito said with a proud smile. “I lost alright. Not just once, not just twice, but over and over again. Along the way, I was also robbed, cheated, and thoroughly used – mostly by my lover at the time, but I digress. Once my coffers had been thoroughly emptied, it turned out I wasn’t as interesting or lovable as my so-called friends had made me out to be. In the end I found myself picking out of rubbish bins just like I’d been doing back in Genoa, although I must say the streets of Monaco were virtually pristine in comparison. I got desperate. I wanted revenge. So I tried cheating, and that didn’t go over well. Wouldn’t be here right now if a dear friend hadn’t helped me out in my darkest hour.”


“What a harrowing tale…” Lydia’s face and hands remained ever animated as she rewarded Vito with big reactions to his words. “Yes, luck may have left your side in the end, but perhaps it switched places with an otherworldly providence that led you to where you are now.”

“An otherworldly providence?” Vito raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t take you for a mystic, Miss Lydia.”


“I believe there are many powers at work in the human world, regardless of which one a person chooses to partner with. And it is only through our own actions that we gain affinities for them.”


“Well, power or not, I agree that I have a lot to be thankful for.” Vito nodded as he slipped his hip flask back into the inner pocket of his overcoat. “In fact, one source of my recent good fortune happens to be waiting for me right now, and he has a tendency to get ornery when I’m late. Many thanks for the friendly chat, Miss Lydia, but I really must be going.”


“Oh, but I didn’t even get to share my life story with you!” she pouted, curling her hands in her lap.

“Very true. In which case, I thoroughly apologize for my big mouth, and may we meet again under more lenient circumstances.”

“I certainly hope we can, Mr. Vito, and I’ll be praying that our reunion comes sooner than later.”


As he stood up, Vito adjusted his tie with his left arm and gave Lydia a big smile, adequately distracting her as he shot out his right arm and pilfered something from her purse. Without a moment’s hesitation, Vito simultaneously moved in front of Lydia as he slid the item into his pocket, then put his arm across his breast and gave the woman a courteous bow.


“Au revoir.”


“Ta-ta,” she replied with glee.


Once he had taken a few steps out of the park, Vito turned back to see Lydia still seated on the bench, with her upper torso and head turned nearly 90 degrees in his direction as she watched him walk away. The exact same smile she’d shown him earlier was plastered onto her face, and she waved a gloved hand at him.


Well, that was an odd one, Vito mused, although such characters were not entirely unusual in the city. In all probability, they would surely never meet again and Lydia would forget her momentary interest in the undercover terrorist by the end of the next month. Such was the human condition, and Vito knew it well. As he turned his first corner and entered Broad Street, Vito pulled the stolen item out of his pocket and gave it a look. It was a small red velvet coin purse – empty, unfortunately, but still capable of earning him some dough at a pawn shop.


Sliding into a leisurely saunter, Vito walked north into the crux of the Financial District, crowned as the new center of America’s economy due to its great banks and stock markets. America, land of opportunity. After joining the great war late into the game, America had emerged as a victor, snatching glory from the hands of West Europe and converting it into a river of affluence that now flowed through her streets.


Once Vito made it up to the corner of Broad and Wall Street, he found himself submerged within a sea of hats. Nearly shoulder to shoulder they walked – businessmen, traders, bankers, and other members of the wealthy sector, each clad in their suit and cranial garment of choice. On the left side of the intersection stood the New York Stock Exchange. Rising high above the rabble with its thick Corinthian columns, it appeared more like a sacred place of worship than facility for trading stocks, but that was surely by design. Across from it sat the headquarters of J. P. Morgan & Co., one of America’s greatest financers.


Vito stopped for a moment and scanned the area. Despite the scaffolding from the annex that the NYSE had decided to add to the side of their property, the financial square remained rather wide, or at least enough to fit accommodate several moving cars at once. On the north side of Wall St., a statue of George Washington guarded the steps to Federal Hall, the very place where the first president had once been inaugurated. Like a bronze sentinel his eyes remained fixated on the J. P. Morgan building, monitoring the country’s life-blood.


Something terrible is going to happen here today.


The thought came to him quite casually, but it still made a shiver run up his spine. Shaking it off, Vito turned and head west down Wall Street, away from the J. P. Morgan building and toward Trinity Church. Bronze-colored and lined with pointy spires, the Gothic Revival-style church stood out among the modern buildings that now surrounded it. Next to it was a quaint graveyard littered with headstones, including that of Alexander Hamilton, one of the states’ founding fathers.

Shifting past the tombstones, he could hear the church’s organ ringing out from behind its walls, signaling that it was time for the 8:15 am prayer. But at that moment, prayer was the last thing on Vito’s mind – he was far more concerned with how late he was to the meeting.


Oh, let him complain. I had myself a nice morning walk… What could we possibly have to talk about for four whole hours, anyway?

Feeling a tad braver, Vito trudged quickly past the church, eyes locked on the structure behind it – a dark conglomeration of scaffolding, the embryo of a future building. After being pushed out of the financial center by the overwhelming strength of the NYSE, the ‘alternate to the mammoth’ known as the New York Curb Exchange had begun to erect a bigger and better home base. Slated to be finished in 1921, the headquarters were still nothing more than a labyrinth of wooden planks, iron rods, and steel beams – making it the perfect place for the Hellhounders to take cover as they enacted their next operation. The building was well out of sight from the corner of Wall and Broad, but still well within binocular distance, and much like the warehouse at the pier, the construction workers on duty today had been easily bribed into looking the other way.


Vito crossed the street and entered an alley that led to the construction site’s rear entrance. The moment he moved off the sidewalk, he became shrouded by the other tall buildings in the vicinity, masking his destination from any potential on-lookers.


“You’re late,” a deep voice rang out just as Vito turned the corner.


In front of the dark entrance to the scaffolding stood Sariel, clad in a long, charcoal overcoat, fists clenched at his sides. As Vito’s eyes fell on his leader, all trace of resistance left his mind, and he awkwardly winced. At this point, the rebellious thoughts he’d entertained earlier seemed nothing short of embarrassing, and he chastised himself for his lack of discretion. After all this time, he still couldn’t shake those bouts of defiance, despite knowing deep down that they would never work. He had no hope of ever besting Sariel in anything, and thus, no room to ever bargain. Vito was here to serve – for he owed the man far more than he could ever repay.

“Sorry,” Vito said softly, shoving his hands into his pockets.


“You should know full well that sorry won’t cut it today,” Sariel went on, monotone and solidified. “Is the cart secured?”

“Yes, the children are watching over it,” Vito responded quickly. “I stopped to have breakfast as I was walking back, and a chatty lady started talking my ear off. Worry not, I made sure she didn’t follow me.”

“Very well,” Sariel took a single step forward and clamped his hand down on Vito’s neck. “Remember… It doesn’t matter how powerful our brothers and sisters become – there will always be an important part for you to play. Now, I want to see you show initiative today, Vito. Don’t make me hold your hand this time… Not while the others are all here.”

Vito felt the warmth from the man’s hand emanate through his body, bringing back memories of Monaco. They weren’t simply large and kind – Vito had seen their crushing might when Sariel used them to pulverize the body of every last assassin on that fateful day. No, his fists signified much more than physical strength – they were symbols of his complete freedom. God’s chosen knew no master, and would stop at nothing to rid the world of the greedy, corrupt souls who tried to keep it under their thumb. Sariel’s strength kept him steadfast, protective, and most of all, constant. Sariel never lost, and Sariel was never wrong. Sariel had not merely saved Vito’s life that day – he had given him a new reason to live.


Despite all my many shortcomings…he still sees potential in me.


“I know… I know,” Vito shook his head. “I won’t disappoint you, Sariel, I promise.”

“Very well.” Sariel removed his hand from Vito’s shoulder and turned toward the darkness. “Follow me, Vito. We have much to speak of.”





Slivers of light cast thin, long shadows through the construction site as Sariel and Vito passed inside its dark maw. Sariel moved forward with uninhibited purpose, while Vito removed his hat and looked awkwardly around his new environment. Sitting on the ground floor inside were the construction workers they’d paid off, tipsy grins on each of their faces as they drank expensive alcohol and played cards. One of them glanced up at Sariel, who only gave them a slight nod as he continued onwards.

Sariel pushed Vito toward a ladder that led to the upper levels. The outer limits of the building were mostly shielded by dark, hatched tarps meant to keep birds and other pests from getting inside, adding to the gloom that permeated the skeletal husk. As they carefully edged themselves around a haphazard amalgam of boards, pipes, and planks. the outside sounds of traffic and hollering had become muffled and distant, allowing them to converse as they climbed.


Sariel cast his eyes over his companion’s face. Vito’s shoulder-length brown hair was slicked back with pomade as always, displaying his slightly receding hairline. Considering all he’d been through, the man still looked rather young. Vito always dressed well and made sure to practice proper hygiene, but today, Sariel surmised that no manner of pampering could hope to mask the anxiety that seeped from the man’s face. Beads of sweat rolled down from his scalp into the subtle wrinkles of his forehead, and his lips were taut with a pained scowl.

Vito was clearly uneasy – upset about something or nervous perhaps, but in the end, it didn’t really matter. Despite the aptitude of his talents, he possessed a weak mind. He needed someone to give him a proper shove every now and then, or he’d never get anything done. Luckily for them both, Sariel was good at shoving, and he intended to make sure today was an outstanding success. He certainly would accept no alternative.


“Run out of things to talk to me about, have you?” Sariel muttered as they trekked through the darkness.


“Oh… No, sorry,” Vito said hastily. “Just, uh, got a lot on my mind, I guess.”

“Well prepare to clear it out. Franz will begin his briefing once we get up to the room. Speaking of which, have you made your decision regarding the malice infusion?”


Vito did not respond. The lack of acknowledgement, let alone a positive answer sent a jolt of irritation rippling through Sariel’s body, curling his lips into a snarl.


“I want an answer, Vito. Now,” he demanded, as he stepped out to block the man’s way. Avoiding eye contact, Vito tried to swerve around him, but Sariel caught him by the back of the neck and kept him firmly positioned where he stood.


Vito let out a long sigh. “Can we just talk about this tomorrow? I’ve been feeling rather anxious lately…”


“That’s what you said before our last mission,” Sariel quickly cut in. “Want to try again?”

Sariel could see the traces of defiance furling around Vito’s brow. The man was clearly racking his brains and trying to think of the ‘safest’ reply, which only served to further fuel Sariel’s aggravation.


“I asked you a question, Vito,” Sariel repeated, rage burning in his eyes, indignation trembling in his jaw. “Do you take me for a fool?”


“No… No, of course not,” Vito fumbled, running a hand through his hair. “I want to be useful, I really do, that’s why I volunteered to do as much groundwork as I could for–”

“But you’re still weak, Vito,” Sariel went on. “The sheepish grin on your drunken face is the very same one the Kaiser had the nerve to show us when he abdicated after the war. In his stupendous idiocy, the bastard had actually managed to lose…and he had nothing to say for it. Look at the country now. An unstable mess of democracy. All because one man lacked the strength to do what needed to be done. It will not happen again, Vito… Not with the right man in charge. When the new world order rises, do you wish to stand with me? If so, you will need great strength.”


Sariel watched Vito turn his eyes up, pleading with desperately raised cheeks. “But I–”

“Shut up and listen,” Sariel responded. “I humored your worries last year because I too was not fully convinced of the full potential of our newfound technology. But we have both witnessed with our own eyes the wonders it’s done for me, not to mention Darya and the Axeman. They can now do with a finger what you could never hope to do with all the strength within your puny body. If you wish to continue walking with us, you must offer up your flesh as we have offered up ours. And if you do not…then I will know that you do not trust me the way you claim.”


“I trust you,” Vito was quick to appeal with open palms. “I do, Sariel, I just–”


“No you don’t,” Sariel spat. “You did once, perhaps. Maybe when I saved your life in Monaco. Maybe when we bombed the freight. But you lost something that night in September…after I told you of all that had transpired in the consulate.”


“What are you talking about?” Vito’s face seemed to wince and squint at the same time. “I tended to you for weeks after you returned to us, Sariel… I spoke to you, took care of you, cried for you… How could you think I don’t trust you?”

“Yes, you served me very well… Until you insisted I tell you everything. I saw your face grow pale as I described all the blood I spilled, all the terror I created. Watched you shiver as you listened to how ‘innocent souls’ had been caught in the carnage, despite the fact that it was utterly their fault for failing to do as they were told. Then I spoke of the bodyguard who refused to back down. You surely remember that part, don’t you?”

“Just stop.” Vito held up a hand. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I can’t – not now.”

“There it is again,” Sariel fumed. “Your face changed. Incredulity, followed by disgust. I’ll never forget that look, Vito… Oh, if I’d only known what little it would take to drain you of all your loyalty.”


Just remembering it all made the fury bubble up again, summoning aches and phantom pain into his right shoulder and right thigh, sending ripples of indignation along the scarred flesh that now ran down the right side of his otherwise pristine face. He could feel the wood beneath his feet whine in pain as malice surged through his veins.


“I will not be defied again,” Sariel went on. “And certainly not by the very man I scooped up from the brink of death, Vito.”


Sariel watched Vito shiver, but made no move to quiet his own red fervor. Finally, after a moment of cowering, Vito took a deep breath and shook his head.


“F-fine,” he said shakily. “First thing after we finish this mission, I’ll do it… I-I’ll ask Dr. Eugene for a malice infusion.”

“Very well,” Sariel said with a satisfied nod. “Now, let’s hurry on.”


After a few more moments of climbing, Sariel led Vito into a spacious room surrounded on three sides by wooden boards. The fourth side faced the rear end of Trinity Church, and a few holes had been poked through the tarp that shrouded it to allow a clear view of the corner of Wall and Broad.

Despite its position as a makeshift room in a barely-constructed building, the space had been well fitted with furniture hauled in by the Axeman. The table in the center was lined with documents and food: a few wheels of cheese, loaves of bread, and boxes of all-bran cereal. Over to the side was a writing desk and a cupboard, as well as an icebox that had been well-stocked with water and ginger ale.


Sariel’s eyes were first drawn to Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova. She sat over by the windowsill in the left corner, staring out to the city with an apathetic frown on her face. One elbow rested on the windowsill, propping her chin up, while the other rested protectively over her stomach, warming that which lurked within. The tall woman was clad from neck to wrist in a luxurious dress, while two diamond-shaped fragments of concentrated malice hung from her earlobes as softly glowing earrings. The resurrected noble had a bitter attitude, that was for sure, but fortunately she carried an equal amount of apathy towards any sort of argument or resistance within the group. She had only one goal, which she had made very clear since the day the doctor had brought her back to her life. And as that goal would only serve to strengthen the Hellhounders in the end, Sariel saw no need to curb her caustic nature.


Next, Sariel spotted the Axeman hunched over one edge of the table in the center of the room as he penned some new entry in his latest notebook. As usual, both his hair and his beard flowed wildly and freely. He wore a simple white shirt with simple brown suspenders, shiny handaxes strapped to both sides of his waist. Yes, he was a simple man indeed. The eight-foot, self-titled ‘writer’ looked positively comical as he sat in the small wooden chair, barely gripping the thin ink pen between his gargantuan fingers, but Sariel had no intention of mocking him. As the youngest, freshest member of the Hellhounders, the Axeman sought to impress, which was a very useful trait to have. He certainly had a temper, but where Sariel sought power and change, the Axeman lusted only for acceptance and recognition – two things that both Sariel and the doctor were more than happy to lavish upon their new demolition man.


As Sariel and Vito made their way into the room, Darya offered them only the slightest glance of recognition, while the Axeman looked up from his journal with a warm smile. In the rear right corner, Sariel finally spotted Dr. Eugene, who seemed to be fully absorbed in fiddling with some mechanical contraption on a crate.


Herr Doktor,” Sariel spoke up. “Sorry to have kept you waiting.”

“Ah!” Dr. Franz Eugene swerved around to face his companion, creases churning as his lips furled up into a toothy grin. “Sariel, Vito,” he said, giving the man little more than an acknowledgement before quickly turning his attention back to Sariel. “Now, we may finally begin, yes? Only three more hours until noon, you know!”


Sariel considered himself tall at 6’4″, but Franz nearly matched his height. Tall and lanky, ever clad in some sort of multi-pocketed lab coat and odd spiked boots, the good doctor had no intention to hide the fact that he usually only had three things on his mind: research, discovery, and experimentation. Sariel provided the ideas while Franz provided the means, and he knew he could always trust Franz with his life – if only because half his body had become one of the doctor’s latest masterpieces.


“Yes, there’s no time to waste. Everyone, gather around the table,” Sariel ordered. “It’s about time you all learned of exactly what is to transpire today.”


Darya lethargically moved over from the window and took a seat on the north end of the table, while the Axeman merely straightened his back and prepared to listen. Dr. Eugene took a seat at the west, right next to where Sariel stood, leaving Vito to drag a chair from the corner over to the southern side. After removing his overcoat and revealing the corseted leather battle suit that the doctor had crafted for him, Sariel took a moment to gaze down on his subjects. His decision to remain as the only one standing was intentional.


Herr Doktor… On that day, you and I witnessed shortsighted greed utterly ruin the glory of the Deutsches Kaiserreich.”


Bedauerlich!” Franz slammed a curled fist down onto the wood. “The Republic, they now call themselves… Not a modicum of respect for our legacy…for our technology!”


“That was not a war for liberation or peace, comrades… It was started just so the fat old men at the top could scoop up even more power for themselves.”


Sariel plucked a manila envelope from the edge of the table, then removed a map of Manhattan from inside and placed it at the center of the table. The Pier #4 warehouse had been marked and a line had been drawn through the streets that led to the intersection of Wall and Broad.


“Today we will hurt them,” Sariel said plainly. “Our deeds alone shall speak for us, and the people of the world will see us as an unstoppable force of nature.” Sariel traced the route with his finger, feeling the adrenalin pumping beneath his skin. “Today at noon, we will drive a cart into this intersection and detonate a bomb unlike anything American soil has ever seen.”





Dr. Franz Eugene watched with glee as powerful words surged out from the normally taciturn Sariel. Many months had passed since the two of them created the Hellhounders – a group of powerful individuals hell-bent on changing the heinous world for the better through hounding the evil and the greedy to early graves.


At first, they had started small: bombing shipments carrying war profits, assassinating corrupt government individuals… But as they soon discovered, whenever a small snake lost its head, another simply slithered in to take its place. Back in August of 1919, Franz had worried that he’d lost Sariel forever after the mess at the British Consulate… But the noble of God had returned, just as promised, with a bounty of research material he’d stolen after destroying the Munich headquarters of the Thule Society. Franz had been overjoyed, not simply due to the new occult technology he’d gotten his hands on, but from knowing a crippling blow had been dealt to the elite German scholars who had forbidden him from joining. They too were slaves to the coin, seeking only that which could ultimately bring them more wealth in the end – and he would prove it. Soon, the world would quake in fear of a weapon far more powerful than the gas he’d developed for the war, and no one would be able to stop them.


Franz let Sariel’s words sink into his soul and gazed upon his allies with a grin of pure elation plastered on his face. Darya seemed nonplussed, but such was her nature. The Axeman looked thoroughly impressed, while Vito was moving a hip flask up to his bewildered face.


“Any questions thus far?” Franz spoke up. “I imagine this may be a lot to take in for some of you…”


“I still have yet to understand why you needed to call me here,” Darya shot out quickly.


“All in time, Darya,” Sariel said softly. “Anything else?”


“How may I assist?” the Axeman asked eagerly. “And I must say, it’s simply an honor to be able to take part in such a revolutionary–”

“Hold on a second,” Vito said, rolling his eyes as he cut off his associate. “What kind of a bomb are we talking about here? I walked by the intersection this morning and it was flooded with people. Not just businessmen and war profiteers, but women and children, too.”


“Egad!” Franz spun his body to the side and glanced up at Sariel with an amused grin. “By Jove, Sariel, I do believe he’s concerned about the civilians.”


Sariel let out an amused exhale, then turned his confident eyes toward Vito, who had just imbibed another swig of gin. “The only way to properly educate a man is through a jolt of shock treatment. Only by the suggestion of fear might some awaken to the truth.”


“Indeed,” Franz agreed, “and what a strange objection to hear from a man who’s…yes…stolen from innocents and deceived even more. Where were your scruples, Vito, when we massacred all those brave police officers who went after the Axeman?”


“That’s right!” the Axeman exclaimed. “I have yet to properly thank you for your impeccable marksmanship that night, V—”


“That’s not the point!” Vito shouted, shaking his arms in frustration. “They had guns and the Axeman was outnumbered and… Look, I hate the pigs in power just as much as the rest of you, alright? I agree that capitalism is evil… But this is different. Who’s going to rally behind us if we’re killing innocent people just to send a message?”

“You needn’t worry. Everyone will bend the knee once they witness our might,” Sariel said confidently. “Now, for the second stage of our operation.”

“Well, what kind of bomb is it? You can at least tell us that much, can’t you?” Vito went on.


“Ah, yes, of course!” Franz’s eyebrows and cheeks lifted his wrinkles up in eager glee. “The wagon has been loaded with 100 pounds of dynamite and an additional 500 pounds of iron window weights – all laced with a thorough layer of compressed malice, of course. Once the timer reaches zero, the dynamite will detonate, shattering the weights into tiny fragments of shrapnel that should burst out to an impressive degree in all directions thanks to the malice. Yes, neither the windows nor the rooms inside the J. P. Morgan building should be safe from the carnage. It shall be the most devastating blow any American has ever seen outside of wartime…mm, and far bigger than anything accomplished by the Galleanists, I should add.”


“That’s what this is about?” Vito exclaimed, after throwing back more gin. “You just want to outdo those insane Italian anarchists because they refused to cooperate with us?”

“Perhaps this will help to clue them in to what they are missing,” Sariel said, arms crossed as he towered above the table. “Furthermore, sending a message to the American people is only half of our plan.”


Sariel pulled out two photographs from the manila envelope and lined them up next to each other on the table. The first portrayed a well-dressed man with greying hair and a long, rectangular face. His prominent chin and entirely horizontal scowl made him look rather ornery as he stared out from the photograph, downturned eyes focused on a target unseen. The next photograph was that of a much younger man, with short brown hair, large, oval eyes, and the slight inkling of a smirk on his round face.


“A. Mitchell Palmer and John Edgar Hoover,” Sariel announced. “The U.S. Attorney General and his loyal flunkie. Word has it that they are visiting from D.C. this week in order to train some new recruits to the Bureau. Today, we will kill both of them, God willing.”


“The men who orchestrated the Palmer raids.” The Axeman leaned his large frame over the table so he could get a closer look. “Yes, I read about them in the paper. Nasty fellows.”


“Darya, you may not be aware of their illustrious history, so do forgive me as I take the liberty of giving you a…hm…highly truncated breakdown,” Franz began, grinning as he prepared to educate her on a delectable morsel of American trivia.


Darya shot him a daggered glare. “You needn’t bother, as I don’t care.”


“Listen to him, Darya,” Sariel interjected, with a mixture of gravel and soft baritone in his voice. “Just humor the poor doctor. I’m sure Vito could benefit with having his memory refreshed as well.”


“I know who they are!” Vito exclaimed, in between swigs. “How stupid do you think I am?!”


Sariel opened his right palm and aimed it straight at the gambler. Vito’s eyes grew wide, then he yanked his hand away right as a blast of energy slammed into his flask and sent it flying out of his grasp. Vito said nothing and froze, seemingly too shocked to generate a snappy response.


“I don’t think you’re stupid,” Sariel said, “I think you’re a drunk. And right now, the doctor requires your attention – all of your attention,” he added, glancing toward the Axeman and Darya. The latter of the two let out a sigh and slumped back in her chair, while the Axeman folded his large arms and straightened his posture.


“By all means,” the Axeman said with a gentle smile. “I’d love to hear what new intel the doctor has gleaned about these two xenophobes.”


Franz cleared his throat, thanked the Axeman, and began to tell his tale. Despite the small pinch of chaos that had just ensued, his spirits remained ever buoyant. After all, it was just so amusing. He could certainly never bring himself to lose his temper with any of his children – especially not Darya, his first full resurrection. As of now, she felt like nothing less than a daughter to him, and even her worst moods were adorable to behold. Meanwhile, there was the juggernaut with the heart of a curious boy. The Axeman excelled as much in feats of strength as he did in loyalty, far exceeding the greatest expectations Franz had entertained during his research.


With any large family, however, there was always one weak link…and that was undoubtedly Vito, the lone Hellhounder who had yet to submit his body to any of sort of malice experimentation. Vito’s one saving grace was his impeccable marksmanship, and Franz dreamt of the possibilities that could be realized by infusing malice in the drunkard’s soul. By this point, with every operation thus far ending as a rousing success, Vito’s refusal no longer hurt Franz’s pride – it was the epitome of stupidity, and he had already spoken to Sariel about how things had to change.


Franz turned his eyes back to the photograph on the table. “Ah yes, let’s start with Palmer, our current Attorney General, known to some as the Fighting Quaker and others as the Quaking Fighter. Over the years, anti-immigrant sentiments have skyrocketed in the states, and Palmer has spearheaded this movement. He and his sympathizers also succeeded in tightening the stringency of Ellis Island, which caused us multiple headaches when we attempted to immigrate. Mm, thanks to his propaganda, more and more so-called ‘patriots’ grow frightened of ‘hyphenated Americans’ by the day – whether they be Jews, Italians, Germans, socialists – oh, or worst of all, communists!


“Yes, of course, educated individuals like ourselves know it’s all a front to control labor unions and make sure the poor keep their noses to the grindstone, mm? Incidents of labor strikes and union disputes are commonly linked to anarchists, communists, and nefarious immigrants, transforming the idea of fair wages into a fully foreign concept…blasphemous to the American way. Can’t have any troublesome thinking getting in the way of the economic machine, now can they? These days, men and women are encouraged to ‘show their Americanism’ by favoring big business over their less affluent neighbors. Mm, of course, the Galleanists didn’t help things with their silly letter bombs… The Italians are against capitalism as much as we are, but their methods and organization leave much to be desired. Yes, they lack vision, unity…


“Ah, but here I am getting off topic again. In any case, starting in late 1919, Palmer organized a group of mass raids in which hundreds of American citizens with unique opinions and backgrounds were detained. As he pulled the strings, it was Hoover, an agent of the Bureau of Investigation, who he placed in charge of carrying out the investigations and smoking out any sort of group that could be construed as ‘radical’. The Attorney General and his loyal assistant… Palmer seemingly had no problem making the BOI do his dirty work – a surprisingly simple task, perhaps, since they are merely floors apart in D.C.’s Department of Justice building. Together, they successfully arrested over 650 people…but only managed to deport 43. Yes, numbers aside, they certainly convinced the American people to see an enemy in every immigrant and to close their minds to any sort of differing opinions, let it prove dangerous to their livelihoods.


“Palmer and Hoover’s inquisition of idiocy culminated in May of this year, where they somehow convinced New York to mobilize its entire police force and mount machine guns on their patrol cars in order to prepare for what they believed to be an attempt to overthrow the American government by a unified anarchist alliance. Yes, but nothing of the sort transpired, of course, leaving them both with a great deal of egg on their face. Despite that blunder, Palmer still had the audacity to run for presidency just this summer…mm, a telling sign of just what sort of times we’re in.”

“What we do today, we do for the future of America,” Sariel added, thrusting out a finger with inspired conviction. “To prevent this land from imploding on itself like the backwards lands we left behind in Europe.”


“How do you know they’ll come to the scene today, though?” Vito asked, having apparently calmed down despite the sudden loss of his beverage.

“Oh, they will come,” Franz said with a slow nod. “Trust me, they will come. If not both of them, then surely one of them. Not only are they both in the area, but…hm…you see, the Galleanists have already made multiple attempts on Palmer’s life – pathetic and fruitless though they may have been, I’m sure it insulted the Quaker’s pride like nothing else. And like I mentioned…this bomb serves as an upgrade to the Galleanists’ primitive creations. When the two of them receive word of a terrorist attack this severe made in such a symbolic place, their…chutzpah, as the New Yorkers say? No, no, it shall not permit them to rest on their laurels.”


Sariel tapped the map with a metallic finger. “After the bomb is detonated, chaos will break loose at the intersection. We will monitor it from here, while Vito will move to a strategically advantageous position from which he will be easily able to snipe the targets once they appear on the scene.”


“With what?” Vito turned back and glanced through the black tarp that shielded the room from the outside. “There’s no way I’ll be able to reach that intersection reliably with a standard rifle.”


“No, you won’t,” Sariel agreed. “Not with a normal rifle.  Herr Doctor, if you would.”

“Gladly,” Franz replied with gaiety, then slid his Malice Cube out from a pocket and raised it in his palm.


The slivers of morning light that pierced the room caused the crimson along the cube’s smooth surface to shimmer and sparkle. A small red crackle erupted from Franz’s arm as he focused his energy on the cube and forced it to shift out of its perfectly uniform shape. With a satisfying click, smaller squares of the object began to jut out, twist, and warp until they detached swirled around each other. The cube broke into myriad tiny cubes, all flying and alternating thin beams of malice between their counterparts as they willed something back out from the subspace in which Franz had stored it. Moments later, the cube was now back in Franz’s hand, fully in tact once more, and a creature had been deposited onto the table: an amber, aberrant thing, quietly pulsating with life.


After a few moments of befuddled staring, Vito stood up and shivered in disgust. “Wh…what on earth is that?”


“Your new weapon,” Franz announced proudly, as he caressed the alien creature’s curved, bone-like thorax. “A gift from another world. I’ve taken to calling it a pharrago… A fitting name, wouldn’t you say?”


True to its namesake, the unearthly creature was nothing if not a confused mess of parts. Its amber back consisted of two hard carapaces curving outward, not unlike a ladybug’s, seemingly meant to protect the squishier parts of it. The most notable thing about its head were the two gnarled appendages that rose up from it, curved and fleshy, akin to that of the human ear. Between them was a military grade scope, like one would see on a rifle, that Franz had nailed directly into the creature’s body to assist Vito in his task. If the creature had eyes, they were not visible – most of its face was taken up by a perfectly circular tube-like mouth that reminded Franz of a tardigrade. From its chin extended two large flesh frills that continued out into thin, spiny insectoid legs. Every last one of those legs had been bound with several leather belts, rendering the creature immobile. It simply lay there, bound and confused, inhaling and exhaling softly.


“Yes, with sixteen legs, restraints quickly became necessary,” Franz explained clinically. “I’ve taken the liberty of installing it with a state-of-the-art scope to aid you in your precision. Simply sit it on your shoulder, mm, or on your knee, wherever you like… When the underside of the creature’s abdomen is stimulated, it will expel a long, thick, airborne stinger than can fly up to 50 miles unobstructed. Both Palmer and Hoover will be skewered and dead within seconds, and no one will have any way of discerning what sort of implement was used to carry out the deed.”


“Y-you expect me to be able to concentrate with that thing on my shoulder?!” Vito shouted. “Alright, that’s it. This is absolutely insane! If you two told me what you had been planning from the beginning, we would have never agreed to this! Right, you two?!” he said, turning to Darya and the Axeman. “…Right, you two?”


“You still have yet to tell me why I’m here,” Darya muttered with unfiltered irritation.

“Why, Darya,” Franz scoffed, emphasizing how insulted he felt. “Surely you must have figured it out by now. The bomb, the carnage, the chaos…just imagine all the malice, ripe for the taking. I would be terribly remiss to not give you and your spawn a chance to reap the benefits of our efforts.”


“Hmph.” Darya countered the doctor’s scoff with her own, although he could clearly see her rubbing a hand across her belly – no doubt as she began to imagine just how many nutrients this single day could yield.


“The Axeman shall serve as our security in case of any trouble,” Sariel continued. “The construction workers down below should be able to fend off any snooping individuals, but if the BOI or the police try to force themselves inside…you will act as our main line of defense. We all know there’s no police force in this world that could possibly stand up to you now.”


“Gladly,” the Axeman replied. “I’ve been dying to repay those fiends for what they did to me last New Year’s.”


“And I shall drive the cart to its destination,” Franz announced as he stood up from the table. “I think it’s only right, being the architect of the bomb. Now then…” he continued, as he removed a pocket watch from the breast pocket of his coat and gave it a glance. “As we’re closing in on 11 AM, I do believe we should all take our positions.”


“I’m coming with you,” Vito said to Franz.


This perplexed the doctor. “Whatever for? Don’t tell me you believe my driving skills to be inadequate?”


“No…” Vito’s nose was red, proof that the gin was still in effect. “I’m the one who hired Georgie and Clarence. I need to make sure they get paid.”


“Hah!” Franz cackled only once. “Worry not, the urchins shall receive their coin. You, on the other hand, should focus on readying your mind for what’s to come.”

“That’s right.” Sariel moved up and put two firm hands on Vito’s shoulders. “Let me help you get focused, Vito. You need to relax both your body and your mind.”

Franz paused only a moment to watch the beginning of Vito’s resistance melt away once again, just like it had so many times before. While even Franz had initially had his reservations about letting a drunk serve as the group’s sharpshooter, he quickly changed his mind after he realized just how neurotic the sober version of Vito could get. Strangely enough, in order for that nervous wreck to relax, he needed thorough emotional reassurance, as well as copious amounts of alcohol.  A neverending, pathetically human cycle of friction, but a useful one nonetheless.


Franz bid his farewell to everyone, then gathered up the necessary tools he’d need for his task and moved to the doorway.


“See you all in the afternoon,” he called back cheerfully. “Remember, comrades – today, we shall change the course of history!”





Once Franz left the room, Sariel handed binoculars to the three and announced he would be going out to do one last-minute inspection of the building’s perimeter. The Axeman admired his leader’s zeal. No matter the hour, Sariel seemed to never tire, and one glance at the man’s sober cheeks made it clear that his cogs were always turning.


The Axeman helped himself to some bread and cheese from the table, then moved over to the window and held up his pair of binoculars. When positioned in front of one of the holes in the tarp, they gave him a clear view of the buildings and people outside. With a bright sun in the sky, the day was well on its way to lunchtime, and rivers of hats continued to flow through the Financial District’s streets.


The Axeman quite liked New York. It was America’s new melting pot of arts and culture, just the sort of place he’d been looking for ever since Storyville had been shut down in New Orleans. Artists and musicians alike congregated all over the city, creating a treasure trove of jazz that was his for the taking. Since arriving in New York, the Axeman had gone out on the town as often as he was able. From speakeasies to the Club Deluxe, he had visited more establishments than he could remember, and the inspiration gained had been incredible. Over the past half a year, the Axeman had successfully penned over five novels, including a manifesto about his view on life and the nature of human beings. That, combined with Dr. Eugene’s gracious offer of psychotherapy, had served as the best sort of healing the Axeman could have hoped for. His trauma had begun to fade and the energy generated by his periodical malice infusions had him feeling better than he had in years.


Perched by the window with his new brother and sister, the Axeman eagerly scanned the streets for any sign of Dr. Eugene. The intersection of Broad and Wall Street bustled with stockbrokers, automobiles, and the occasional food cart. Slaves to money, each and every last one of them. Monsters willing to sacrifice their own children and engulf the entire world in war just to make an extra buck, as Dr. Eugene and Sariel had so eloquently explained.


Vito nudged the Axeman. “I’m surprised you didn’t have more to say about this. Didn’t you go doolally when you found out you massacred a bunch of innocent people?”


The Axeman let out a long sigh, dropped his binoculars, and gave Vito a sidelong glance. The tall, lanky man had reclaimed his flask of gin, and was seated on a chair with his legs crossed and one elbow balanced on a wooden beam. Since the Axeman’s induction to the Hellhounders, Vito had showed him an astounding level of concern and kinship – but only when he was sober, which became more and more of a rarity with each coming day. The Axeman also found himself at a loss for why Vito consistently defied Sariel. His insubordination was never constant, either – it seemed to come in strange bursts, along with the severe lack of tact he displayed whenever the liquor was in control.


“Yes, I did descend into a great pool of madness,” the Axeman answered, “because it had all been for naught but a single man’s greed – in other words, pointless. Weren’t you listening to Sariel, Vito? This is for a greater cause… To send a message to the world, all in the name of righting their wrongs. And what’s more, the anger of all those who die will not be forgotten… We will harvest their malice and use it as fuel for the fire.”


“If you say so,” Vito said, glancing through his binoculars for a moment only before throwing the item down with disgust. “Guess I must be the crazy one if you’re all in such immaculate agreement.”


“When has Sariel ever been wrong?” the Axeman countered as he continued to scan the streets. “Yes, he may be strict at times… But that is only because he cares about us and wants us to better ourselves.”


“…I know that’s what he says,” Vito said finally. “But sometimes I wonder if he only really cares about us when we’re being obedient.”


An eerie silence washed over the room until the Axeman was startled by some rattling to his left. Darya had been silent for most of the morning, as she often was, and to this day sudden noise from her direction still put him on edge. He had only seen a glimpse of her abilities once in their previous hideout, by pure accident, and it had been more than enough to make his hair stand on end.


Offering not an inkling of a glance toward him or Vito, Darya walked determinedly over to the icebox and removed a canteen of water for herself. Sipping it nonchalantly, she moved over to the table, collected some food for herself, then returned to the tarp before finally noticing the two sets of eyes staring at her.


“Before you ask, I don’t care,” she spat tiredly as she sat back down. “I’m only here for the malice.”


Shortly afterwards, Sariel returned from his patrol and joined his three allies at the tarp. While peppering them with enthusiastic descriptions of the amazing success that was yet to come, he was also kind enough to show Darya and Vito some fliers that the Axeman had penned: “American Anarchist Fighters” was to be the name of the group that would be born from the revolution, which the Axeman had personally come up with. Aside from some rousing sentences he had written in the front, partly inspired by Sariel’s own words, the fliers also went into detail about the evils of capitalism and contained demands for freeing certain political prisoners who had been wrongly detained.


“There he is,” Darya spoke up suddenly, cutting right through the Axeman’s thorough explanation. “The doctor’s driving along Wall Street.”


Heeding her, everyone else picked up their binoculars and searched for the black wooden cart that had previously been tucked inside the Pier #3 warehouse. It slowly moved up to the intersection, then Dr. Eugene parked it at the curb across from the J. P. Morgan building before hopping out. Clad in a generic black hat and suit, the doctor looked like an unremarkable old merchant making a delivery. The streets had become even more crowded now that it had become midday, and he only had to take a few steps before he had become lost in the wave of bodies moving through the sidewalks.


Seconds ticked on as the cart and its horse remained still on the street. Cars passed slowly down Wall Street, taking care to avoid stray pedestrians. Soon, the noontime bell of Trinity Church began to chime, signaling the start to everyone’s midday reprieve.


Then, a roar erupted through the streets. The wooden scaffolding that housed the Hellhounders shuddered as the doctor’s cart exploded, filling Wall Street with a blossoming ball of flame. The cart as well as its horse both exploded into fragments which flew out like flaming knives, slicing through stone, glass and flesh. Cars flipped over and shouts erupted from those who had been close enough on the ground to see what had transpired. From both sides of the epicenter erupted horizontal columns of flame while an orange cyclone billowed up into the sky, tinged crimson as the remnants of Dr. Eugene’s compressed malice helped to fuel the inferno.


Next came the smoke, followed by bloodcurdling screams and sirens. The Axeman scanned the streets but was only able to catch glimpses of the burning bodies and mutilated victims that now lined Wall Street. Some who were a bit farther away from the blast had been thrown face first into the pavement, knocked out either from impact or pure shock. Dark smoke clouds rose up from the street, but they were not alone – for with them drifted up pure, unfiltered malice from the souls of those who had just perished.


“Oh my God…” Vito cried, as he stumbled back from the window and dropped his binoculars to the floor. “Oh my God, what have you done?!”


No matter where he looked, the Axeman saw nothing but death and destruction, and it summoned up a great sadness from deep inside his heart. As he continued to stare through his binoculars, tears spilled out from his eyes, and he let out a long sigh.


“The poor souls…” he whispered. “We shan’t forget their sacrifices.”


“They will fuel the start of our revolution,” Sariel added, as he moved up behind the Axeman and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Every last one of their souls will join us as we rise up to change the world for the better.”


Still crying, the Axeman sensed movement from his left and instinctively turned his head to the side. Next to him, Darya stood with her eyes closed and arms raised, reaching out to absorb every last bit of malice she possibly could. Thanks to his own infusion, he could clearly see the deep red energy that now surrounded her body, slowly flowing toward the new life that grew within her. The same was true for Sariel, and the Axeman instinctively knew that he too could reach out and grab a surge of new strength whenever he wished. The strange feeling of invigoration reminded him of the days he’d spent under those bright lights in the doctor’s lab… Each day a new challenge as he did his best to answer the doctor’s expectations and grow ever stronger


“America will never forget this moment,” Sariel said plainly.


“Fantastic, isn’t it?” the voice of Dr. Eugene slipped into the room as the doctor made his way back inside. “Now we can sit back and enjoy the festivities. Palmer and Hoover will surely come out of the woodwork soon enough.”


“This is over the line…” Vito’s voice warbled. “We’re supposed to be freeing innocent people from tyranny… Now you just killed a bunch of them for no reason!”


“Quiet,” Darya spat. “You’re ruining my concentration.”


The Axeman heard Sariel let out a growl, then turned around to see Vito coughing as their leader lifted him off the ground. The drunk let out a cry of agony, but he did not flail – and the Axeman knew why. Resisting Sariel was futile beyond measure, especially for one who lacked the power of malice.


“See what you’re doing to me?” Sariel growled, baring his teeth inches from Vito’s face. “I’ve had enough of your whining, Vito… No one is going to stop…and you still have a part to play. You have no idea how much I’ve bled… How much I’ve sacrificed to bring us this far. Remember, I was the one who saved your life. Now, it’s time for you to step up and return the favor.” 


“Sariel…” Vito coughed. “Did you ever care about me? Or was I always a tool?”


“We’re family,” Sariel answered immediately. “Of course I care about you.”


As if on cue, Franz stepped forward with the bound creature grasped in one hand. Once Sariel lowered his family member to the ground, Vito raised a trembling arm and let the doctor attach the gleaming amber thing to his shoulder.


“Right here,” Franz said slowly, as he moved Vito’s finger up to the creature’s abdomen. “Simply push it as hard as you can, and a stinger shall erupt from its mouth. It’s quite elementary, really.”


“Take him up to the roof,” Sariel said, waving Vito away with a flippant hand. “The BOI could appear at any moment once the fire department arrives and secure the scene.”


Franz made a jovial gesture toward the entrance, then tapped Vito on the back and led him out.


“You never give up on him,” the Axeman spoke, shaking his head in wonder as Sariel turned back toward the window. “No matter how dark his outlook becomes… You’re always there to pick him back up.”


“The key to success is to never give up.” Sariel thumbed the edge of his belt triumphantly. “And the same is true for humans.”

“I will do my best to change, Sariel,” the Axeman said without a speck of doubt in his heart. “I will become something far greater than I have ever known.”

“I know you will,” Sariel said, as he put a protective arm around the Axeman.


Sure enough, after a few more minutes, long red fire trucks appeared on the scene and wasted no time in blasting the street with their long hoses. The Axeman watched closely as the flames died down, revealing a string of charred bodies that from a distance looked quite like a bunch of raisins strewn along the ground. As small spires of smoke continued to wisp up from what little remained of Eugene’s cart and everything around it, the tide of hats returned, blocking off the streets from both sides.


Moving his binoculars around, the Axeman spotted looky-loos climbing up lampposts and statues in order to get a better look at the carnage. From all corners of Manhattan they flocked, like junkies of death, unable to resist the urge to see just how horribly their fellow man had been maimed. As Sariel surmised, there indeed seemed to be no greater human lure than that of chaotic violence.


“Is he in place?” Sariel asked. He was speaking into what looked like a small red jewel – a square from the Malice Cube, which acted much like a two-way radio found on a ship.


“Yes,” the doctor’s voice echoed out from the square – tinny and distant, as if he were lost deep inside a cave. “We’ve found the perfect vantage point. I’ll be right back down in a moment.”


True to his word, Dr. Eugene soon rejoined them down below, and they trusted that Vito would keep his wits about him while he was alone on the rooftop. In time, the streets of the Financial District became so packed with crowds that not a speck of pavement could be seen. Finally, after several bottles of ginger ale and multiple helpings of cheese and cereal, the Axeman spotted a string of police cars driving down from the north end.

After slowly pulling up to the corner, the cars came to a stop and ejected a line of men in very nice suits wearing even nicer hats. At times, it was impossible to see the faces of the people in the seemingly endless crowd – through the binocular glass, all one person had to do was turn in the wrong direction, and their face would be instantly hidden under the brim of their hat, if not someone else’s. It required steady eyes and determination to stay focused long enough to discern the identity of each and every person.


That the Axeman had – along with a deep reserve of patience. It was no different from waiting in the darkness – like a stone, he let his body sink into the wood beneath him, stilling himself enough to keep his eyes steeled. And sure enough, after several painstaking minutes, he found his target.


“There they are,” the Axeman boomed. “Third car from the front.”


A. Mitchell Palmer had been easy enough to sight – the tall quaker and his bold chin were nearly unmistakable, and he towered more than ten centimeters higher than Hoover. Surrounded by police officers on all sides, they did their best to push through the crowd, no doubt eager to investigate the premises.


“Burns is with them too…” Sariel murmured. “The hotshot detective who caught the perpetrators behind the Los Angeles Times bombing in 1910. Yes, of course…they made sure to bring an expert. Vito, do you see the man in the bushy mustache next to Hoover? Kill him too.”


“Either way, you must hurry up,” Dr. Eugene added from behind Sariel’s shoulder. “They surely won’t be visible for long.”


“I’m…trying…” Vito sighed from the other side. “Just give me a few minutes to breathe.”


All was silent within the room as the Hellhounders waited. The fire department’s sirens had long since calmed down, and nothing but the faint, faraway clamor on the streets penetrated their wooden haven. Then, Vito’s voice fizzled back in from the other side.


“Firing now,” he said quietly. “Palmer first.”


The Axeman kept his binoculars focused on the two men as he heard a loud pop from above – much like the sound of a balloon that had just been stuck with a pin.


Then, the Axeman saw something inexplicable.


A. Mitchell Palmer stopped in the middle of the crowd, turned his face in the direction of Trinity Church – and just as the high-speed stinger closed in on him, the Attorney General swung his arm out and swatted away the projectile as if it were a fly.


“What?!” Sariel shouted. “Did he just…”


“No, that can’t be…” Franz stammered. “A pharrago’s stinger can burrow through stone… There’s no way a mere man could ever block one with his bare arm!”


“Then I suppose our Attorney General is no mere man,” the Axeman said darkly. “And now he’s coming straight for us.”

Sure enough, Palmer shoved himself through the crowd with a determined gait and a sinister scowl, nearly throwing bystanders out of his way as he charged in the direction of Trinity Church. Behind him, Hoover remained standing with Burns, both of them shouting words unheard with perplexed looks on his face.


Sariel grabbed the doctor’s Malice Cube and began to shout madly into it. “What are you waiting for, Vito? Fire again! There must be a rational explanation for this… It must have been some kind of fluke! Vito? Vito! Answer me, Vito!”


But there was no answer.


“You gave Vito his own square, didn’t you?” the Axeman asked.


“Yes…” Franz replied uneasily, then turned toward the Cube, which was still in Sariel’s hands. “Vito! Do you read us? Come in!”


The Cube remained silent.


“I’ll go check on him,” the Axeman tossed his binoculars to the side and began to move. “A square, please.”


The doctor plucked a piece off the Malice Cube and tossed it to the Axeman, who promptly caught it in one fist and stormed out of the room. The path from their hideout to the top was quite simple – it only required climbing up three platforms, upon which a small hole in the ceiling tarp opened to the outer scaffolding. Exposed to the elements, one small misstep on the unsteady beams could mean instantly plummeting down ten stories – or into whatever pipe or platform caught your body first.


The Axeman carefully raised up his arms, grabbed hold of the wooden scaffolding, then hoisted his body upwards. Once on the roof, he picked himself up and scanned the circumference.


The rooftop was completely empty. Tools, wooden boards, and extra tarp had been scattered in select corners – but aside from that, he saw not a single soul.


“Well, Axeman?” Sariel’s impatient voice crackled in from the other side. “What’s the situation?”


“He’s gone…” the Axeman said slowly, in disbelief at his own words as he tried to wrap his mind around the situation. “Vito isn’t here anymore.”





“So the little mouse finally fled, did he?”


For the past few hours, Darya had been focused on little besides the endless torrent of malice flowing out from the intersection, loath to deprive her child of a single nutrient. After a long series of irritating tasks and dealings, not to mention hours upon hours of incessant chatter forced into her ears courtesy of the doctor, she had finally been granted what she had once thought impossible, and the rearing of her spawn – her legacy – would forever remain first and foremost in her mind.


Just like everyone else, however, she had been baffled by the failed attempt to assassinate A. Mitchell Palmer. Now, she turned away from the window to see Sariel and the doctor staring at each other with eyebrows equally as furled.


“What do you mean he isn’t there?” Dr. Eugene asked slowly into the Cube. “He just fired at Palmer moments ago…”


“He isn’t here,” the Axeman repeated from the other side. “He’s gone, and so is the pharrago.”


Sariel motioned toward Darya and the doctor to follow him out. Once they made it up to the rooftop, they witnessed the same thing Axeman reported.


“Where could he have gone?” Dr. Eugene rubbed his chin with intrigue as he scanned the rooftop. “We would have heard him if he had come down… And I find it hard to believe he had the constitution to jump from this height.”


“You never know…” Sariel stepped across the roof. “I’ll go inspect the perimeter.”


“What about Palmer?” The Axeman nervously fingered one of the axes at his waist. “He was nearly to the church when we left to come up here.”


Darya let out a sigh. “Give me just a moment. I’ll handle the examination.”


A gurgling sound came out from Darya’s throat as she conjured up a single spider from her stomach and let it hop out onto the pavement. Its tiny, silvery legs carried it across the precarious rooftop with ease, and its light weight prevented it from falling through any of the holes in the foundation. Quickly, it skittered around the edge of the building, transferring all it saw back to Darya’s own mind.


“Nothing,” she replied flatly, just as the spider hopped back into the depths of her mouth.


“Let’s get downstairs,” Sariel said firmly, as he stepped back into the hole. He was uneasy; she could see it clearly in his face. Not only had a wrench been thrown into their plans, but they were now seemingly caught in a string of inexplicable events – and what could scare a control freak more than that?


In many ways, Darya trusted Sariel very little. Over the past year, he had proved that he was very little more than the soulless, chiseled golem she had first seen him as shortly after Eugene initially breathed life back into her. What she did trust was that Sariel possessed an inordinate lust for power and a drive to be a hero – and after encountering so many others like him through her life, she had learned very well how to benefit from such creatures. Much like how Dr. Eugene’s inhuman obsession with technology had bestowed Darya with strength beyond her wildest dreams, Sariel too was a profitable banality well worth suffering through.


After hoisting themselves back down through the dim maze of wood and steel, the Hellhounders were surprised to see that the ground floor had been strewn with a collection of bloody limbs and body parts. Some bottles of beer and playing cards were barely visible among the gore, but it still took the four a few moments to realize that those were the remains of the construction workers.


Dr. Eugene crouched down to inspect the wounds. “Clean cuts, but with scalding around the wound,” he muttered clinically. “Very similar to injuries caused by exposure to malice.”


“Where’s Palmer?” Axeman asked curiously. “Wasn’t he coming for us?”


“Apparently not…” Dr. Eugene surmised. “His sights must have been set on something else.”


Darya slipped out another spider and let it run around the corpses. While it was hard to sense from where she stood, the creature’s acute senses and proximity to the ground allowed it to pick up on faint residue on the energies that had once occupied its space. Carefully, she let the spider’s sensations flow through her, psychically nudging it in the direction of the traces. When the spider moved past the splotches of blood that led forth to the covered entrance of the construction site, she followed it outside.


Once out under the blue sky again, the commotion from the direction of Broad and Wall became louder, reminding Darya of the massacre that had just occurred. Despite the fact that it had just happened, it was already a distant memory – faded and insignificant within the cobwebs of her mind.


All was still in the alley behind the building. Darya looked both ways, then returned her eyes to the spider’s path. It moved only a bit before reaching the center of the alleyway intersection at the corner of the construction site and the other buildings it stood by. There, under the spider, was an open manhole with its cover sitting over to the side.


“Darya? What did you find?” Sariel asked, as he and the others followed her outside.

Without answering, she crouched down before the spider and the manhole. The spider moved to follow the residual energy downwards, but Darya quickly motioned for it to stop. After a moment of hesitation, the creature scampered back inside her mouth.


“It went down there,” Darya said calmly as she stood up. “Whatever did that to those men.”


Sariel and the doctor approached, seemingly speechless. Meanwhile, the Axeman bent down and stared into the abyss. The manhole had been equipped with a thin, metal ladder, but the bright afternoon sun made it impossible to see what lay at the bottom.


“Well, it’s clearly a trap,” Dr. Eugene said, as if it wasn’t the most obvious thing in the world. “They left those bodies there to grab our attention, then left this manhole cover ajar in order to beckon us downwards.”


“A trap?” Sariel repeated, seemingly insulted at the very notion. “And just who would possibly want to trap us, Herr Doktor? No one even knows ‘we’ exist.”


While Dr. Eugene fumbled to formulate a reply, the Axeman put his hands on the ladder and started to lower himself down. “I’ll head in first.”

“I am not going down into some filthy sewer just to rescue Vito,” Darya said quickly. “That wasn’t part of the plan.”


“Darya,” Sariel said, as he slowly turned to face her. “One of our family members is in danger. We need your help.”


Darya let out a scoff, which was followed by the snapping and popping of bones. Two large spider legs erupted from her back, lifting her off the pavement as she prepared to wade through sewer water.


The Axeman lowered himself down, and Darya reluctantly followed. Then, once the doctor and Sariel had also descended the ladder, the latter let out a grunt and slid the manhole back over the top of the shaft.


The tunnel felt dank and cold. Once he alighted, Dr. Eugene pulled out a square from his Malice Cube and attached it to the top of the goggles on his forehead. With a surge of malice, the square began to emit a long, wide beam of red light, illuminating the cramped passage in a crimson glow. Murky water trickled along their shoes, and a sour, crypt-like smell permeated the air.


“Marvelous,” Dr. Eugene sighed as he gazed upon the curved brick that seemingly continued on forever. “I’ve always wanted to come down here, you know… They say New York houses the world’s most advanced underground sewer tunnels – built by the hands of 8,000 immigrant workers, no less!”


“Hurry,” Sariel grumbled. “If Palmer’s down here, he can’t be far off.”


The Hellhounders silently marched in a single file line as they attempted to traverse the passage. Aside from the distant trickling sound of water and the rumbling of trains somewhere else in the strata, nothing else could be heard.


The long tunnel continued until it opened up to a wider square that connected to many other tunnels of differing sizes. Some of them were no taller than a child, while others looked wide and vast. Judging by hunched over and cramped the Axeman had looked in the initial tunnel, it was clear that not all four of them would be able to inspect every last nook and cranny. Aside from highlighting the dark brown liquid that flowed seemingly everywhere, the doctor’s red light also gave the group a view of the gas and steam pipes that ran along the underside of the surface, powering the city of New York.


Opposite from where the Hellhounders had entered, the far side of the square chamber ended in a cliff that continued down deeper into the sewer system via another metal ladder. After creeping up to the edge and shining the light down to various areas along the brick chasm, the group saw him: A. Mitchell Palmer, moments from entering a tunnel deep in the northeastern corner of the lower level.


When the red light hit him, Palmer cocked his head back for only a moment, as if to acknowledge their presence, then continued on. In the dim light, one thing that had not been apparent on the surface was now clear: Palmer’s entire body was shrouded in a ghostly blue glow.


“Get him,” Sariel rasped quickly, then made for the ladder.


“Wait…” Darya cut in. “Don’t you hear that?”


Heeding her, the other three pricked up their ears to the bizarre cacophony of squeaking that was steadily growing louder and louder. Darya slowly turned around to stare at the tunnel openings around them, but she couldn’t pinpoint the exact source.




As the Axeman uttered that word, a skittering horde of the dark, furry creatures came scurrying out from each of the side tunnels. Their tiny claws carried them swiftly across the stone as they rushed in to surround the four, beady black eyes glistening in the red glow.


Darya raised her head upwards and let spiders pour out from her mouth. Obediently, they rushed down the sides of her body and prepared to impede the vermin’s advance. The yellow globules that erupted from their chelicerae melted through flesh and fur, causing the rats to screech even louder as they began to stampede over each other.


“This is why he led us down here?” Sariel scoffed. “To try and scare us with a bunch of mangy rats?”


“Fleeting and simple-minded…” Dr. Eugene’s Malice Cube let out a shift whirr as he readied it. “So go the best laid schemes of mice and men.”


Next to Darya, the doctor had his cube shoot a ray of red death downwards toward the horde. It cleaved both the rats and the bricks beneath it, yet still they came, pouring out of every orifice of the stone. Likewise, Sariel tried to shoot at large groups of them using the nozzle installed in his right hand. Not one to sit by and let others do the work, the Axeman brandished his weapons and leapt toward the group on his side of the square.


“Wait!” Darya shouted. “Stay back… Something’s wrong.”


While her spiders’ acid had initially cut through the front line with ease, they were now ceasing to move forward, nor had they produced any additional acid despite the orders she’d relayed to them. It made no sense – instead of heeding her, as they had always done, the spiders now stood in place and let the rats tear them limb from limb.


Then, Darya saw one of the spiders run back toward her, followed by another, and another, until the spiders had seemingly joined the rats in their advance.


“Doctor!” she shouted. “Barrier, now!”


The doctor wasted no time in obeying her and employed the Malice Cube to erect a red barrier around the four. The spiders and rats alike ran up to it, only to be bounced away with a jolt of malice.

Curious, Darya reached out quickly and plucked the closest spider she could find. It was still moving and spitting yellow globules, but its movements seemed sluggish and confused. Then, as she studied the creature, she realized what had happened.


In the middle of her tiny spider’s back, Darya saw what seemed to be a barnacle: a red, fleshy mouth-like organism surrounded by a conical, hardened shell of white chitin. Angrily, Darya raised one of her spider legs and pecked at the parasite, attempting to crack it apart. While her first nudge did little, she followed it up with a powerful crack – shattering the chitin and revealing the black, frilled tentacles that lay hidden within.


From the back of one of her own children, dark, bleeding tentacles shot into Darya’s hand, taking root. She let out a cry of pain and recoiled, then turned horrified eyes back down to the ground. Upon closer scrutinization, she was finally able to see the red and white barnacles buried under the vermin’s fur – some covering the rats’ faces, others lining their backs. Swollen and veiny, the mouth of each barnacle pulsated up and down, offering glimpses of the tiny black tentacles that lay within.


“Parasites…” Darya murmured. “That’s why these rats were sent here. Not to attack us…but to infect us with parasites…”


“What?” Dr. Eugene asked. “Those rats managed to spread their growths onto your spiders? But how…”

Darya shot a burst of malice through her monstrous appendage and used it to sever the tentacles from her hand, then quickly dropped the spider.


“Destroy it,” she said between gritted teeth. “It’s been corrupted.”


Darya screamed out again as a new barnacle quickly began to sprout up from the wound in her hand. With every crack of fresh chitin through her flesh, she felt all sensation in her hand slip further and further away. Then, before she knew what was happening, her hand shot out on its own and fastened itself around Sariel’s arm.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” Sariel shouted, as he jerked his arm back and tried to break free. When that didn’t work, he pulled back his other fist and prepared to crush hers.


“Wait, you can’t touch it!” Darya shouted. “It’s trying to spread itself…”


“Axeman!” the doctor called across the platform. “Chop her hand off!”


Darya let out a sigh of irritation, then steadied her body with her spider legs as the Axeman’s axe sliced cleanly through Darya’s wrist. Her barnacled hand fell straight to the floor as she let out a pained howl, clutched her arm and staggered backwards.


“Who…” she rasped. “Who the hell’s doing this?!”


“Whoever it is, we need to get off this platform,” Dr. Eugene said. “We’ll just have to proceed with the barrier up… Everyone, stand in close, as the barrier won’t stretch too far. Sariel and I will go down first.”


As the rats and spiders continued to skitter around the group, held back only by the barrier of malice, Sariel and Dr. Eugene carefully shifted themselves toward the ladder and began to descend. The Axeman went next, most likely only since Darya was glaring at him and refusing to move. She took one glance back at the platform before she moved onto the ladder as well – her children and the rats continued to throw themselves uselessly at the barrier, the edge of which now sat only a few inches from her nose. Every last one of her spiders had been covered in gnarled barnacles.


Muttering another curse, Darya crouched down and prepared to grab on to the ladder with her free hand. Lower on the rungs, the Axeman looked nervously up at her. Then, she heard a voice.


“A shield? Aw, come on, that’s no fair.”


Darya swerved her head around to see a figure dressed in a black ship captain’s uniform walking out from one of the tunnels. Bloodstained bandages covered his face, and both of his hands were curled around a long sledgehammer.


“Darya?” the Axeman called up from below. “Is someone up there?”


Darya only had a split second to consider her options before he rushed up to her. Letting out a staccato guffaw, the man ran up to the ladder and swung back his hammer as if to bring it down on her head. Darya kicked off the side of the ladder and escaped, manifesting the rest of her appendages in an attempt to soften her landing. To her surprise, a black tentacle exploded out from her assailant’s chest, catching her in mid-air before she could fall. Overloaded with equal parts frustration and panic, Darya vomited spiders along the tentacle in an attempt to break it off.


Using the momentum of the tentacle, the man leapt off the side of the platform and swung his sledgehammer back over his head. Suddenly, a red blast of malice exploded up from below, slamming the man in the back and changing his trajectory. Unfortunately, Darya went with him, splashing down into the murky river of sewage that ran between the lower walkways.


“Sariel, why did you do that?!” was the last thing Darya heard before the foul muck overloaded her senses, and everything went black.  





When the otherworldly vacuum had first pulled at Vito’s fabric of being, he’d tried to push back against it. Unfortunately, that was the last thing he could remember from his time on the roof. The next thing he knew, he was tumbling through a dark hole, spinning faster than he could keep up with, like the kind of bad dream that woke you up with a start. Only Vito hadn’t been able to awaken. Instead, his life had gone flashing before his eyes – everything from the many failures and shortcomings of his youth to the moment when his downward spiral had supposedly turned around.


Vito remembered sharing a bottle of champagne with Sariel at the crack of dawn. They’d sat and watched the waves all day, discussing the human condition, lamenting the greed of the world, and finding hope in their dreams for the future.


Perhaps that was it, he’d thought, as the sepia memory faded away. Perhaps that was my zenith, and all of this now is just the fat on the end of the steak.


Vito felt his head hit something hard and he let out a moan of pain. Unpleasant jolts ran up from both of his shoulders, one of which still had the pharrago attached to it. He unconsciously reached around to massage the bottom of his skull, desperate to try and alleviate some of the pain. In the next moment he realized he was lying on his side on cement, and his head was pushed up awkwardly against what felt like a brick wall.


Vito let out a small groan, squinted as another ache shot up his neck, then tried to stabilize his vision and survey the room. The room was damp, devoid of any natural light, and enclosed by an arching ceiling. Melting into the cement in each corner was a small group of white candles.

Near the opposite wall of the bedroom-sized space, he saw a figure standing over what looked like a woman on the floor. He was a very tall, well-built man in a dark blue overcoat with long, straggly black hair that came down to his shoulders and a thick beard to match. The woman on the floor was in a violet dress, had curly blonde hair, and looked oddly like…




Failing to make sense of what he was seeing, Vito closed his eyes and reopened them. Once the blur had faded, he saw that a third person had now joined them – A. Mitchell Palmer, eyes glazed over and arms limp, as if he was sleepwalking. As fear rose in Vito’s throat, he closed his right eyelid and tried to keep his left frozen in a half-wink, in the hope that it might look like he was still asleep. The Attorney General’s body was enveloped in a blue glow that began to grow larger and stronger as he raised his arms. Then the glow warped and undulated, shifting out of Palmer’s body…downwards, downwards, right smack dab into the belly of the woman on the floor.


As Palmer collapsed onto the floor, the woman rose. The tall man extended an arm out to help her, but she declined to take it, instead choosing to hoist herself up through her own strength. Once on her feet again, Vito got a clear view of her face and his heart jumped into his throat. It was indeed Lydia – either that, or the woman he had chatted with in the morning had an identical twin.


Vito closed his right eyelid as much as he could while still allowing himself a chance to keep an eye on what was happening. Once Lydia brushed the dust off herself and rearranged her clothing, she tossed a glance to Palmer and nodded in approval.


“Excellent,” she said. “I noticed on my way down here that Davis also managed to intercept our guests.”


“He seemed confident in his ability to slow them down, ” the tall man said. “Something about rats.”


Lydia whipped her head to the side and locked eyes with Vito. “What’s wrong? Not going to reward me for all my careful planning with an outburst or two? I know you’re not asleep.”


Vito continued to play dumb as Lydia approached him, if only because he couldn’t think of a better option. The sweet smile she’d shown him in the morning still remained on her face, but her eyes seemed to have taken on a sinister twinkle.


“I wouldn’t play the stubborn game if I were you…” Lydia said, as she extended her pointer finger and somehow ignited its tip with a small orange flame. “I’d be loath to have to mark up such a handsome face.”


She crouched and moved the finger toward his face until Vito suddenly flipped open his eyes and recoiled. “Okay, okay, you got me…” he said, holding up his hands in defeat. “What do you want with me? H…how did I get in here?”


“Remember this?” Lydia pulled the small red coin purse out from her pocket, then knelt and dangled it in front of Vito’s face. “This is what you get for trying to steal someone’s hard-earned money. Theft is a cardinal sin, you know.”

With a puff of smoke, the coin purse transformed into a small red devil with black wings and a pitchfork. It hopped out of Lydia’s hand and sat on her shoulder, giggling with glee.


“Familiars can be summoned back to their masters at any time, regardless of how far away or confined they may be,” she explained with delight. “And in some unusual cases, the master can summon their prison back with them.”


“…Magic?” Vito coughed out. “You teleported me here with magic?”


“Look below you,” Lydia said with a smirk.


Vito turned his eyes to the floor. Below where he had been laying, he saw a large white circle drawn in chalk that enclosed a six-pointed star, along with four smaller, five-pointed stars drawn in blue at each of the cardinal directions. Hebrew words that Vito couldn’t read filled almost every gap.


With a gasp, Vito scrambled outside of the circle, which caused Lydia to laugh. “No need to be so afraid. Nothing will be coming through that unless one of us wills it to.”


“Wh…who are you?” Vito stammered.


“Lydia Liddell Mathers,” the woman boomed, suddenly assuming an aura of confidence that was completely at odds with the persona she’d previously shown him. “Daughter of Samuel Liddell Mathers, founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.”


Vito was familiar with this name – it belonged to a secret society dedicated to studying Qabalah, astral projection, alchemy, and other occultic things. Clandestine and often times completely incoherent, he’d always seen them as just another bothersome sex cult.


“The Golden Dawn…” he repeated, choosing his words carefully. “The, um, famous group of mystics, yes? I know your father was quite famous for his translations…”


“Once, perhaps,” Lydia said with a frown. “Before that bastard Crowley came along and ruined everything. All in the past, though, for I now serve a different master. A master who has a far better use for that man you just tried to assassinate.”


“Palmer?” With each new reply that came out of Lydia’s mouth, Vito found himself in even further disbelief at what he was hearing. “You went to all this trouble just to save that scumsucker?”


At this, Lydia merely chuckled. “You and your little club are poking your noses where they don’t belong. It’s time to say bye-bye to your conceited little friends, Vito… They have overstayed their welcome in this world.”


“What are you talking about?” Vito pulled himself up into a sitting position and tried to discern the meaning behind Lydia’s cryptic words. “We’re just trying to free people from tyranny… Look, I agree with you, that whole bomb thing went way too far… I wasn’t on board with that! But if you’re trying to take someone down too, why don’t we just work together?”


“You would speak of working with us?” Lydia’s eyebrows perked up. “Despite not even knowing what we aim to do?”


“What…do you aim to do?” Vito ventured, feeling the hair stand up on the back of his neck.


“Humanity has been rendered obsolete,” Lydia said with zest. “And so we seek to bend every last mortal to our indelible wills.”


“What do you mean we…? You’re human too…aren’t you?”


Lydia’s eyes widened, and her pupils seemed to shrink a tad. “Whatever gave you that impression?”


Vito found himself at a loss for words as Lydia stood back up and walked back over to the tall man, who Vito had almost completely forgotten about. The man with the long scraggly hair remained silent as Lydia moved past him and began fishing for something within Palmer’s coat.


“But I can’t deny there’s something adorable about you, Vito, so I’m willing to give you a chance at special treatment, just this once,” Lydia said, as she removed a small, stained bag and walked back over to the circle that he had just escaped from. “Unfortunately, you’re far too weak…much too human to remain free under the new regime. But I’d be more than happy to make you one of my very favorite servants. I’d even let you sleep at the foot of my bed.”


Lydia bent over the magic configuration and dumped the contents of a small vial over the circle, which made the room stink oddly of myrrh and cinnamon. Then, she undid the tie on the small bag and dumped its contents out into the central star, filling it with what appeared to be torn-up bits of organs and viscera.


Lydia turned her eyes back to her captive. “Accept our leader when he comes, and you will suffer far less than all those who resist us. Trust me on this one…it’s for your own good.”


The woman closed her eyes and put both hands around her throat. “I summon you, O Bornless One,” she slowly chanted. “He who has defiled earth and heaven, he who knows no flesh. May the ground quake in your blasphemous presence once more.”


Once she finished, the smaller stars around the circle began to glow with a deep blue color. A neon green dot opened up in the very center of the configuration, slowly spreading out until it was large enough to swallow the meat and entrails whole. Space itself seemed to shiver, and the candles within the room flickered. Then, Vito saw long fingers extend from within the green rift. Pale, muscular arms followed, flexing to pull whatever they were attached to out from the other side.


Next came an emaciated face, much like that of a skull. Purple lips, a thick nose, and a chin that could kill. Abyssal black pupils and clear white irises. Lush platinum hair billowed out from the gore-stained ground as the alien face rose high, followed by the rest of its body – every inch hairless, slick, and glistening.


Five thick, olive green tentacles extended from the creature’s body – two from his shoulders, two from his hips, and one from the delta between his legs. As he moved out of the portal and took a few experimental stomps forward, all of the protrusions flicked capriciously like cat’s tails.


“Ahh…” he sighed, cracking his knuckles with a popping squelch. “Thank you for doing the honors again, Lydia… Crossing over from the other side is always such a terrible bother. Is that the Attorney General?”


“Yes, Lord Vaxyl…” Lydia said, as she straightened her back and greeted him. “Prime for the taking.”


“First things first, then…” Vaxyl moved over to the Attorney General and shot the tip of one of his tentacles into the man’s chest. A squirt of blood shot up from Palmer before Vaxyl removed his tentacle and licked it clean. “Give him a few hours, and the bud should take root. In the meantime…we would be remiss not to greet our new guests.”


Vaxyl shot his eyes over to Vito, and his tentacles quickly followed. Vito let out a cry of surprise and tried to find something to grab onto, but there was nothing. In seconds, the pharrago had been ripped away and Vito had been pulled across the floor, bound and immobilized by the thick appendages that pinned him to the ground.


“This is the new servant you spoke of, yes?” Vaxyl looked up to Lydia, pale lips curled upwards in sadistic glee.


“Yes, my lord,” Lydia replied. “I would like you to condition him for personal use, if possible.”


“Coming right up…” Vaxyl cackled, then stuck the tip of one of his tentacles into his own navel and pulled out what looked like a tiny plant bud. “Hold still now, human… This won’t hurt a bit.”


Vito screamed as he felt the tentacle push into his gut, giving birth to a horrible pain. As something terrible bloomed within him, he felt sharp tingles rush through his flesh, causing his muscles to spasm in agony.


“Or maybe it does,” Vaxyl added between bouts of laughter. “My mistake!”


As he left Vito writhing on the floor, Vaxyl stood up and looked to his two comrades. “Well then, shall we be off? I can sense them approaching… They’re very close.”


“Davis must not have been able to get them all,” Lydia said with a sigh. “So like him.”


“Shall we intercept them, my lord?” the tall man asked.


“I believe we shall,” Vaxyl mused as he walked toward the exit. “Lydia, do watch over the buds while we give the dogs a proper welcome. Oh, their spirits must be so high, bursting with all their strength and their malice. What a treat it shall be to bring them all to their knees.”





“Sariel, why did you do that?!” Franz shouted. Beyond the smoke wafting up from Sariel’s hand nozzle, the shadow of Darya was only barely visible as the murky river washed her away.


“Better they both fall than let her alone suffer a blow.” Sariel lowered his hand confidently and fixated his eyes on the edge of the canal. “Besides, Herr Doktor…you can always rebuild her.”


“Oh yes, because it’s just that easy!” Franz threw his hands up in protest.


Sariel motioned for the Axeman to get behind him as he stepped forward. “Onward.”


Franz rolled his eyes with an exasperated sigh, but made sure not to fall too far behind as the two large men traversed the walkway over the canal. The rats had ceased their assault now that their master had been washed away, leaving only the rushing of water to echo through the arched chamber. Through the blackness, the Financial District’s sewage flowed steadily southwest toward what Franz theorized was the waste treatment center on the edge of the Hudson River.


As the three followed Palmer’s path, the muggy, rotten air thinned, and a cold gust of subterranean wind blew across their faces. No more did brick arch over their heads – instead, they moved through a winding passage that had been chiseled through the cement. The architecture told Franz that this was most likely a maintenance tunnel that had been built for easy passage between the sewer and the other aqueducts of New York City.


Once Sariel shoved open a door made of dark iron, the Hellhounders found themselves in a wide, arced tunnel that looked large enough for a train to traverse. Franz looked both ways, shining red light from the cube on his forehead in order to illuminate the cavern. The tunnel continued down into a gaping abyss, lined on the left with partially-melted white candles.


Franz reminded the other two to stay on guard as they moved onward – Sariel and Axeman in the front, with Franz following close behind. A few steps in, they started to hear it: agonizing, frantic wailing, echoing out from deep in the tunnel.


Faint screams trickled through the cement tunnel like an invisible wraith, luring them further in. A deeper room the size of an auditorium loomed ahead, with two sets of two tunnels stacked on top of each other on the other side. The remnants of transport tunnels that were no longer used, Franz surmised, or perhaps a subway add-on that had yet to be finished. To their left and right, smaller catacombs continued down on either end, barely visible in the dim candlelight. It wasn’t until all three of them stepped out of the tunnel and into the expanse that the realization finally hit Franz.


“That’s Vito…” he murmured. “Isn’t it?”


“Yes,” A new voice echoed. “It is.”


Franz, Sariel and the Axeman swerved their heads to see two tall figures shifting out from the darkness on the left. One was a tall man dressed in a blue overcoat with long, unkempt black hair and an equally thick beard, while the other was a humanoid creature – tall, with coarse pale skin and five olive green tentacles extending from his muscular frame.


“Where’s Palmer?” Sariel blurted out.


“Palmer? Didn’t you come down here looking for Vito?” the pale one replied with an amused smirk. “A bit confused, are we?”


Sariel raised his right palm and fired a burst of malice toward the two. Neither of them moved, but the pale one lazily flicked up a glowing tentacle to block the attack. Franz watched carefully, noticing the violet miasma rise up from the appendage that effortlessly nullified Sariel’s power.


“Foolish human…” the pale being scoffed. “You know not what you do.”


Sariel let out a growl and lurched forward. “Wait!” Franz reached out to his ally’s back. “Let’s hear what they have to say first, Sariel… Something doesn’t feel right about this.”


“Finally, a human with some brains,” the tentacled one went on. “Abandon all notions of defiance and ambition, mortal, for you stand in the presence of your new god.”


“…God?” Sariel spat the word and curled his fists. “I’ve spoken with God, and he was nothing like you.”


The creature’s purple lips curled up with glee. “Then you must have been speaking with someone else. Someone who’s since retired.”


“Lord Vaxyl,” the bearded man spoke up. “Should I subdue them?”

“Not just yet, Ramses,” Vaxyl said, lifting a knotted finger. “Whether it comes to dooming the entire human race or subduing a motley crew of infidels…there’s never any need to rush things.”


“Mr. Vaxyl, Mr. Ramses,” Franz quickly ventured. “I am Doctor Franz Eugene… Perhaps you’ve heard of me? Ahem… In any case, you claim to be a God, yes? But what is your aim? Why kidnap Vito? Why prevent us from relieving Palmer of his earthly tether?”


“One of my disciples, Lydia, took a liking to your Vito. Something about him being adorable, or possessing special potential, or some other nonsense. Either way, what sort of a god would I be could I not bestow my loyal servants with a slave or two?” Vaxyl scratched his massive chin with a tentacle. “As for Palmer…I have great plans for him and the rest of his precious BOI. I’d already gone to great lengths to incite his rampage, you see, with the help of the Galleanists…”


“Aha!” The wheels within Franz’s mind churned as he quickly put everything together. “So you were their mysterious benefactor! Yes, it all makes sense now. That must be why they became so self-destructive…and that’s how you found out about us.”


Franz noted the proud aura that emanated from Vaxyl’s face as he spoke again. “They all proved instrumental in further developing America’s xenophobia. A nation of immigrants demonizing those who had the ill fate to join the party too late… Nothing short of poetic, wouldn’t you agree?”


“You hate the humans,” Franz ventured, studying every shadow of Vaxyl’s expression as he hurriedly attempted to analyze them. “You want to make them suffer.”


“If it pleases me,” Vaxyl said with a non-committal shrug. “Death is a release – an ill-befit prize for all the transgressions of man. Instead, I will give them a slow, agonizing death… Over centuries, perhaps millennia if I see fit. As your new god, I’m free to do whatever I want with you wretches.”


Sariel let out a scoff. “Sacrilege.”

“I’ll say,” Franz jumped in. “Haven’t you ever studied history, Mr. Vaxyl? Our creator never spares judgment for those who attempt to emulate him. You’ll die a painful death, just like every other man who’s attempted to play god.”


“Oh, I’m not playing god…” Vaxyl chuckled. “But if you insist on getting hung up on semantics, you may think of me as a deity of death who has come to guide humanity to its ruin.”

“Disgusting,” Sariel grumbled. “Just like a child burning ants beneath a magnifying glass… Pure evil.”


Vaxyl’s eyes widened, and he quickly tapped Ramses on the back. “Can you believe this guy?” The creature turned his attention back to Sariel with a newfound curiosity. “Is this some kind of joke? Or did you already forget the stunt you just pulled off on the surface?”


“Oh, but Mr. Vaxyl, that was part of a revolution,” Franz explained calmly. “Sacrifice with meaning – a way to send a message, for the greater good of humanity. And thanks to my technology, their souls live on in us, even now.”


“I can’t take it…” Vaxyl slumped up against Ramses’ back as laughter bubbled up out of his throat. “He actually believes what he says!”


“Mock us all you like…” Franz smirked. “But you would do well not to mock the power of technology.”

“Technology?” Vaxyl stepped away from Ramses and raised his tentacles high. “Technology or no, human could ever hope to match that power of those who have transcended your weaknesses.”


“But we have transcended,” Franz claimed. “The malice has given us powers beyond anything we could have ever dreamed. Why not work together, Mr. Vaxyl? We both seek to change the world… Is there no hope for compromise?”


“Compromise? With a god?” Vaxyl scoffed. “No, no, no, I refuse to have conceited, confused fools like you people running around and disrupting my plans any further. No, there will be no compromises… It’s time that you humans learned your place once and for all!”


A dark violet gleam flashed across Vaxyl’s monochrome eyes as he stuck out his chest and arched his tentacles. “Chosen blood runs through each and every one of our veins. We were never born as your kin… You may think you’ve surpassed your limits by manipulating malice, but you’re only fooling yourselves. The power you wield is no match for true transformation.”


“An intriguing hypothesis.” Franz fingered his chin as he moved forward to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Sariel. “Why don’t we do indulge in a little experiment then, Mr. Vaxyl? Your greatest warrior against ours, one-on-one, with no interruptions… What better way would there be to confirm what you say is true?”


“Trying to buy time, are you?” Vaxyl chuckled. “Who will it be, then? The oaf in the back, or the neanderthal in the front?”


“It’ll be me,” Sariel said quickly.


“Well then,” Vaxyl gave Ramses a sharp thwack on the back with a tentacle and took a step back. “Time to sit back and enjoy the entertainment.”


“As you wish, Lord Vaxyl,” Ramses said calmly, then moved forward until he was only a few paces away from Sariel.


After one last amused glare, Vaxyl leapt up to one of the upper pipes on the rear end of the room and perched himself on the edge. “You’d better get back too, old man,” he called down. “I will not stand to have you spoil this experiment with any nefarious inference.”


“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Franz called back, raising his palms high to show his innocence. With a flick of his wrist, he motioned the Axeman to follow him. As the Axeman drew close, Franz let out a whisper. “When I give you the signal, I want you to go find Vito. I’ll cover you.”


With that, Franz and the Axeman moved back to the opposite end of the room. In the center, Sariel and Ramses remained quiet, sizing the other up as they prepared for blood. Vito’s pained cries continued to sound out from a distance with no indication that they would be softening any time soon.


As the two combatants squared off, Franz took a moment to closely study Sariel’s opponent. Ramses looked to be in very good physical condition, and stood nearly as tall as Sariel himself. He had an oblong face, with deep-set eyes, thick eyebrows, and a full-grown beard. He appeared to be devoid of fear, and Franz could detect faint traces of otherworldly miasma emanating from the man’s skin. Oh, what a treat it would be to dissect him after the festivities… If only I could count on Sariel to leave him in one piece.


Without warning, Ramses leapt at Sariel and extended his left hand toward his collar. Sariel caught Ramses’ hand with his right, then raised his own left in retaliation. Ramses caught the fist with his right inches before it reached his face.


Red and gold miasma erupted around the two men as they struggled to overpower the other. As Sariel had a few inches on Ramses, his back arched forward as he tried to push the brunt of his weight down on his opponent. But Ramses stood strong, looking up at his foe with listless eyes.


“What’s wrong, child of god?” Sariel growled. “This all you got?”


A red glow began to emanate from Sariel’s right hand, which still enveloped Ramses’. When it grew brighter, Ramses grit his teeth and shot out his knee in an attempt to retaliate – but it was too late. Sariel opened his palm and unleashed an explosion of malice, searing the flesh and causing Ramses to recoil in pain.


Sariel did not let that momentary lapse go to waste. As soon as Ramses recoiled, he swung his left fist forward and punched the man square in the jaw. Ramses fell back, and Sariel quickly followed up with a heaving punt that sent his opponent’s body careening back across the cement. Franz glanced up at Vaxyl – even in the dim light, his frustrated scowl was clearly apparent.


“Now,” Franz whispered quickly to the Axeman. “Go save Vito. I believe the candles should lead in the right direction.”


Obediently, Axeman nodded and dashed into the dimly-lit hallway.


“What do you think you’re doing, old man?!” Vaxyl cried from the other side of the room, then stood up and readied his tentacles. “There was to be no interference!”


“Why so panicked?” Franz asked calmly, as he fingered the Malice Cube within his pocket. “Surely your warrior will be able to defeat us and catch up with him soon enough…won’t he?”


“Silence!” Vaxyl screamed and extended his tentacles through the expanse above Ramses and Sariel. By the time they reached Franz, he was ready.


A whirr erupted from the Malice Cube as Franz brandished it in its palm, allowing lasers of malice to quickly craft another red barrier around him. A loud thwack vibrated through the air when Vaxyl’s lengthy tentacles slammed into it and were promptly deflected.


“Festering fleshbag…” Vaxyl growled. “I’ll skewer you before their battle’s through!”


Despite the commotion around them, Ramses and Sariel remained steeled on each other, limbs quaking as each attempted to overpower the other. Sariel released an even bigger explosion of malice from his arm, causing the entire room to quake as it crashed into Ramses before he had a chance to rise to his feet. As the smoke cleared, Franz noted golden miasma around the man’s arms, crossed defensively in front of his face. Despite what damage he may have managed to avoid, his coat was now in tatters, and thin rivers of blood dripped down both his face and his ligaments.


“Ramses!” Vaxyl shouted from above. “Stop playing around and transform, right now!”


“But Lord Vaxyl…” Ramses muttered, slowly rising on shaking feet. “He’s only a human.”


“Not all humans were created equal… And this one’s obviously had some vexsome modifications done to him. You vowed to bring the human race to its knees with me, didn’t you? Well then start with him… Show him just how different you truly are!”


“As you wish.”


As a torrent of darkness engulfed Ramses, a bizarre screeching noise sounded out, loud enough to drown out Vito’s cries. In the next moment, it dissipated, and Franz found himself enthralled by the new creature that stood before him. Gone was not only Ramses’ hair, but all trace of his human face. Instead, he now possessed the face of a beast with a long snout, jagged fangs, and smoldering red eyes. Long, thin ears rose straight up from his head, and he now easily stood two feet taller than Sariel.


As his transformation continued, Ramses ripped off his coat to reveal bulking muscles lined with dark fur and golden spots. A long bushy tail extended from his rear, and a small dagger shaped like an ankh glinted at the edge of his black-and-red waistcloth.


“A werejackal,” Vaxyl proclaimed. “Sadly, the humans where Ramses was born were too foolish to understand the miracle of his birth. Instead of worshiping him as their new god, they called him a monster, subjecting him to years and years of exorcisms and torture in the hopes of ‘purifying’ him…until I found him. Until I gave him the courage to fully awaken the transcendent gift that had been bestowed upon him!”


Ignoring Vaxyl, Sariel dove forward and prepared to deliver another malice-infused punch to his opponent’s face. Before he could reach Ramses, the creature spun around to the side, perfectly evading Sariel and getting behind him before there was any time to react. Sariel tried to reposition his body, but Ramses’ massive right claw had already connected with the back of his head. The room crackled as golden power surged out from the beast, and Sariel’s body went flying into the wall.


“You don’t get it, do you?” Vaxyl scoffed. “You have no hope of besting such a foe… You should be abandoning all hope…quaking in fear… For you now face an incarnation of Set, god of violence!”







It filled her world. As Darya tumbled and twisted through the torrent of sewage that pushed her downstream, she could feel her spiders working hard on her wound – both disinfecting the flesh and regenerating it and she flowed onward.


Throughout it all, she kept her eyes and mouth closed, blocking out the filth and trapping herself in darkness. Meanwhile, her remaining hand cupped her stomach, communing with the new life that slept within. Acquiring something she didn’t want to lose had been an eye-opening experience – and it had made her more cautious than ever.


Every second in the water vexed Darya – the lack of control, the horrible filth. Even now, so many months after life was first breathed back into her, the memory of that dark prison still remained deeply ingrained within her mind. The experience of being stripped of all freedom and autonomy might never leave her heart, but she vowed to let no one capture her ever again.


Once Darya’s hand was adequately healed, she dug a couple of her spider appendages into the floor of the basin and used it to slow her trajectory. Then, with a powerful surge of malice, she leapt from the water onto the ceiling and let her extra legs carry her along.


Unfortunately, the tunnel and its waters were too dark for her to catch any sight of her assailant. Instead of returning back the way she came, Darya decided to employ a different plan. She continued ahead until the tunnel opened up to a wider room with a walkway on either side of the basin and an iron lattice gate that kept large items from passing out into the river. Small tunnels were barely visible on either side of the dim room, with only slivers of light that trickled through from the chamber beyond the iron gate. Judging from the echoes of rushing water, Darya imagined she had been washed right toward the Financial District’s water treatment plant, and thus the edge of the Hudson River.


After scanning the floor for any signs of rats or other barnacled creatures, Darya remained tucked into a corner of the ceiling and sent a horde of spiders out from her mouth. Rapidly, they set about layering the floors and walls with thick, sticky webs, crafting a makeshift lair for their mother. With all eight of her arachnid ligaments thrust into the cement, her body was well-supported and prepared to neutralize her opponent before he could surprise her again. She would be ready – and if he decided to go for any of the other Hellhounders instead, all the better.


Of course, there was one more possibility – that her opponent was skilled at moving through the water, and had aimed to drop Darya into it even before Sariel’s intervention. If that had been the case, and he had not been at the mercy of the current like she had been, then he could have very well chosen a different route to surprise her just like had tried to do during the rat assault. Darya was prepared for this as well, and had already sent a few spiders into the corridors in order to scope out her surroundings. If he attacked them with rats again, they would be sacrificed, but it was still a risk worth taking in the name of security.


And so, Darya waited. No matter how much time passed, she would not make the first move – she saw no wisdom in it. Everything her opponent had shown her thus far told her that he wasn’t the patient type, and that, if anything, was a weakness worth capitalizing on.


Finally, she saw a ripple in the water, and a head covered in bandages rose from its filthy depths, followed by a torso clad in the same sailor’s uniform she’d seen earlier. In his hands, he still held the sledgehammer.

He let out a tired sigh and shrugged his shoulders. “C’mon, lady. You’re really gonna just sit there? Where’s the fun in that, eh?”


But Darya remained still and focused, watching his every move. He had emerged from the water for a reason. Perhaps her preparations had thrown him off, or perhaps he’d gotten a different idea – either way, this was surely the first step in a new trap.

“Not even gonna talk to me, eh? How uncouth,” the man said, as he waded closer. “Just thought it might be worth havin’ a little chat before we got down to the ol’ violence, you know? Get to know each other a little better…”


Darya watched the man as he slowly waded up to the iron gate, noticing how he seemed perfectly comfortable to draw near while he remained in the water. In the dim light, she could see how his bandages extended down past his neck, tied so tightly that not an inch of skin was showing.


“The name’s Davis,” he began. “I’m–”


As he began to speak again, Darya commanded her children to strike. She certainly had no interest in listening to some diatribe about who he was or what he fought for, and now that he was well within her domain, it was as good a time as any. They swarmed upon him from every angle, spitting out digestive enzymes and covering him in fleshy silk. Davis swung his sledgehammer out and tried to smash them, as she had anticipated, which left him wide open at the nadir of each attempt. On his third swipe, she leapt down on top of him, skewering his limbs with each of hers and ripping at his face with sharp, manicured nails.


Davis remained still, eyes fixated on Darya’s – and although it was hard to tell due to the bandages and the blood, it seemed as if his mouth was curled up in the form of a smile.


“Who’s trapped who, Ms. Saltykova?” he asked, as laughter bubbled up underneath his words. “Who’s trapped who?”


Thoroughly irritated by his impudence, Darya sent a portion of her spiders across the webs and through the tunnels, searching for any sign of backup – she found none.


“You’re all alone,” she rasped, as she watched her spiders burn away the man’s clothes and sear what lay underneath. “Nice try.”


“Am I…?” Though he should have been wailing, Davis continued to laugh. “AM IIIIII?”


She never heard them coming – and the ripples in the water were so faint that it was not until they crawled up onto the cement that one of her spiders detected them. Shining with a dark luster and a small barnacle emerging from each one of their backs, the roaches poured out from the filth like a plague. Many fell victim to the sticky webs she’d layered on the ground, but more simply crawled over them.


Her spiders clashed with them, spitting enzymes all over the roaches only to watch as tentacles burst out from the creature’s back and pierced the spiders’ abdomens, repeating the same tragedy that had occurred with the rats. But there were far more roaches than there had been rats – and soon, Darya could feel them crawling up her legs.


I’ll never be able to destroy them all, she quickly realized. I have to neutralize what’s controlling them…what’s powering them… And I already have him within my grasp.


But when Darya focused her eyes back on the body of the man who lay in front of her, she faltered. For what was beneath the tattered captain’s uniform felt not like common flesh but a horribly disfigured sort of blue leather, held together by myriad bulging barnacles. While the man’s flesh had been pierced and blood gushed from his wounds, thick black roots had already begun to pull his body back together.


“What?” Davis chuckled. “You thought you were the only one who could fix your own boo-boos?”


Horrible pangs of loss began to harrow Darya as her children fell to the barnacles one after another. She could feel more roaches swarming her legs and biting at her skin. It made her hair stand on end, and that moment’s lapse was enough for Davis to lift his arm and slam her in the side with his sledgehammer. Arms, legs, limbs, stomach – as she fell to the side, they came at her from every angle, probing her flesh with their thin antennae and feasting upon her.


There were simply too many – she couldn’t keep up, no matter how powerful her ligaments were or how many spiders she spat out. Darya felt the tentacles from the barnacles dig into her skin, infecting her arms and legs with their essence. She let out a bloodcurdling scream and tried to pick herself up, but realized she had already lost control of her limbs. Soon, Davis was looming above her, bandages frayed and fallen to reveal his bumpy, barnacle-ridden body.


“Don’t worry, I’m not gonna hurt you,” Davis said with a giddy chuckle. “Not yet, at least.”


He set his sledgehammer to the side and knelt down before her, rubbing a knobby hand over her belly. She shivered in disgust.


“See, I know all about you, Ms. Saltykova,” Davis proudly proclaimed. “Isn’t much Lydia’s divination couldn’t tell us, once we figured out who was in your group. Even told us how you earned yourself a little baby bump.” He grinned as he lightly poked her belly with his finger. “That’s why I set my sights on you.”


Darya tried to shut out his words as best she could and struggled to regain control of her limbs, but it was no use. She cried out again as a barnacle began to emerge from her right palm, and quickly shot out spiders from her mouth, commanding them to sever her limb from the shoulder before it could go any further. It was madness – pure madness, and yet she knew it was the only course of action at this point.


“Seems like you weren’t much interested in hearing about me earlier…” Davis said, pouting with a purple bottom lip. “Honestly, that just makes me want to tell you even more. I always felt I was different, you know… Never got along with humans, far as I could tell. So I became a sailor. Thought it’d help me see the world, maybe find a place where I could fit in, settle down… I saw a lot, y’know. A lot of things I’ll never forget.”

Davis seemed more interested in telling Darya his life story than preventing her from neutralizing his barnacles, so she continued the painstaking task of severing her own limbs and regenerating them. Some roaches began to feast on the severed limbs, while still more swarmed over her, forcing her to deploy more spiders in a desperate attempt to hold them back. The sheer number of spiders she expelled had started to make her throat feel a bit sore – but Darya refused to lose her cool. It was fine – everything was fine. She had saved a trump card specifically for a situation like this.


“Then, along one of my journeys, I got a cut in my hand… Later, I found out a little baby barnacle had gotten inside it. Oh, I’d seen this sort of thing before – rare as can be, but happens once in a blue moon to deckhands who get their hands wet a little too often. Heard it was so painful it kept you from sleeping…but you know what the weird part was? I didn’t mind it one bit. Even felt kinda good, you know? Almost like I’d earned myself a new little friend…


“Then it spread. Seemed like the barnacle and its kin felt awfully comfortable inside my person. Weren’t until I met Lord Vaxyl that I discovered why… See, I ain’t human. He showed me the way…how to unlock further strength. The blood that flows in my body ain’t the same blood that flows in yours. I’m better… I’m more special than you.”


As he continued to speak, Davis waved his hands, commanding the roaches to skitter away from his prey. “Now that I know who you are, and you know who I am… I think we can finally get down to brass tacks. Ms. Saltykova.”


Darya hurriedly looked to her right arm, the first limb she’d severed. It was still regenerating, and it looked like it wouldn’t be ready in time to launch a counterattack. So be it.


“Along one of my voyages, someone stole my boat…And I ended up stranded on an island in the southeast for quite some time. Saw some awfully strange things there, I’ll tell you. The famine had ’em selling all sorts of meat in their markets. Human meat, too. Children under 12 went for quite a pretty penny, ’cause of how tender and good their meat was for stews. You could go up to a butcher and they’d bring out the naked body of a boy or girl, whatever you asked for. Then you just had to choose what cut you wanted from it. Tastes damn good too, as I soon found out. Cook it up with some oil and butter, and them suckers taste even better than ribeye.”


Darya’s eyes widened as she felt Davis rubbing her belly again – caressing it slowly, as if trying to feel out what was inside.


“But no matter how hard I tried, I could never seem to get my hands on any babies. You think, if a kid’s meat is nice and tender…right? Sort of begs the question, so to speak. Then as soon as I heard you had a bun in the oven, Ms. Saltykova…I guess I sort of let my curiosity get the best of me.”


Metal glimmered in the dim light as Davis pulled a razor out from his pocket and flicked it open. Darya felt adrenalin pumping through her body, and she sent one last message out – the most important message, and one that she knew would not go unheard.


Davis looked at the razor, then let out a sigh and gazed down on Darya like she was a particularly difficult puzzle. “Alright, this is the part that’s gonna hurt.”


Davis lowered the razor to Darya’s stomach and casually slit open her dress, pulling apart the lace and the bodice to expose her belly. As he ran his barnacle-encrusted fingers over her flesh, Davis let out a sigh, and Darya groaned in disgust.


“Oh, how I’ve waited for this day…” Davis lowered his face right to Darya’s belly, brushing his lips against it and warming it with his putrid breath. “Hard to find a woman at this stage out and about, you know. Most of ’em stay hidden at home…away from the water…oh, how I’ve—”


A flabbergasted gurgle escaped from Davis’s mouth as a chubby, pale arm exploded out from Darya’s stomach and punched straight through his nose. Darya let out a shriek of pain, but a grin adorned her face when she felt Davis’ energy surge through her.


“Oh, my sweet child…” Darya cooed. “Such fervor. You don’t even know your own strength.”


After staring down in disbelief for a few moments, with spittle dangling from his slackened jaw, Davis tried to hurriedly wave his hands and call his roaches back – but it was too late. In only moments, his body had shriveled up just like a prune, as if the very life had been sucked right out of it.


“Wh-what are you…” Davis whimpered.


“My baby has a particularly ravenous appetite,” Darya answered calmly. “While your own meat leaves much to be desired…now that I’ve seen what you’re capable of, I think your energy should more than suffice for dinner.”


“My…energy?!” Davis screamed. “You’re draining my…? Y-you can’t do this… I’m different! I’m special!”


“No you aren’t,” Darya replied, as she watched the eyeballs pop out of Davis’ shriveled head. “And now you’re just an empty husk.”





“Oh, quit exaggerating. It can’t hurt that bad.”


The Axeman focused his ears on the voice as he crept through the dim stone passage, imagining that it belonged to Vito’s torturer. With every step he took, the Axeman let his massive frame seep into the darkness, becoming one with the shadows. He was no longer the soft human he had once been – he was a boogeyman, a messenger of death sent to cull all those who dare to prey upon the weak. Although his moves were silent, a chaotic symphony of jazz brewed within him, churning his malice with the fervor of a well-tuned trombone.


“You’re fighting it, that’s why it hurts. Just accept our lord’s gift, and it shall assimilate with you in no time. This is what you get for flying too close to the sun, Vito… No matter how malice-drunk you may become, you’ll never be any match for those who exist outside of humanity. You’re simply inferior. That’s all there is to it.”


After a few more steps, the Axeman slid up to a corner and carefully peeked around. The entrance in the stone led to a small room lined with more candles and a magical configuration painted in the center. Near it stood a woman dressed in a violet frock and a gaudy hat with her back turned to him. In the far corner of the other room lay Vito and A. Mitchell Palmer. Vito was writhing in pain, while Palmer looked eerily still.


The Axeman kept both his breathing and his malice low as he carefully slid his hand down to one of the axes that hung at his waist. It had been several weeks since he had last been tasked with relieving a villain of their life, and he could feel his adrenalin rising. This wasn’t simply a matter of their plans being ruined anymore – a family member’s life was at stake.


He made no sound as he crept around the corner. By the time his shadow loomed across the floor, eclipsing both the woman and her pentagram, it was too late.




With one fluid motion, the Axeman swung his axe into the woman’s neck, severing it clearly from its base as if it had been made of paper. Blood spurted out from the stump as the body fell, thudding to the ground next to the severed skull. There would be no more failures – no more half-finished jobs. After the days he spent training and honing himself within Dr. Eugene’s lab, the Axeman had been born anew. No longer would he ever falter in the face of death.


Flicking the excess blood off his axe, the Axeman casually attached it back to his hip and walked over to Vito. As he crouched, he passed his eyes carefully over the man’s body and focused on the organism that had been implanted in his chest. Protruding out from Vito’s solar plexus was a dark green, scaly bud with green tentacles that tore holes in his clothes. With eyes swimming, body drenched in sweat, and limbs quivering in pain, it looked as if Vito was on death’s door.


“H…help…” Vito whimpered. “You gotta cut it out…fast…”


 “Hold on,” the Axeman said softly, then placed one hand on Vito’s shoulder in order to stabilize the man’s body as he unsheathed his other axe.


Like a surgeon performing a minute incision, the Axeman lowered the upper point of his axe blade to the top of the green anomaly in Vito’s chest and pushed down on the growth, attempting to puncture it. As soon as he felt the fibers of the thing give way, black tentacles shot out from within and began slithering up his arm like a line of eels. Both gasped in surprise, but the Axeman slid his bloodied axe down his arm and shaved them off like thick hairs.


As black blood dripped from the severed tentacles, the Axeman returned to his task of removing the green entity in Vito’s chest. A horrible hiss erupted from the growth when the Axeman began to pull the top of it away from Vito’s skin, revealing multiple black root-like appendages burrowed deep in the man’s flesh. Keeping a firm grip on the growth while also brandishing his axe, he briefly locked eyes with Vito.


“Brace yourself,” he said. “This might hurt.”


“Goddammit,” Vito sighed, then grit his teeth. “Please, just get this thing out of me already!”


The Axeman nodded, then yanked on the growth with all his might. The sound of wet snaps rang out as the Axeman followed through with his pull, ripping every last bloody root out of Vito’s flesh. A series of hisses erupted from the parasite, synchronizing with Vito’s shrieks of pain, until the Axeman tossed it onto the ground and stomped it to bits beneath his boots.


“Axeman…” Vito breathed, as he struggled to catch his breath. “Thank you…”


“We’re family,” the Axeman said sternly. “I know you’d do the same for me.”


Once the parasite had stopped moving, the Axeman turned his attention to Palmer and raised his axe. “Now we can finally complete our mission,” he added with a sigh of relief, then walked over to finish the job.


“Wait…he’s still alive,” Vito said. “They wanted Palmer alive for some reason…to manipulate him somehow. It’d be smarter for us to remove that green thing from him and take him hostage for now…we could use him as a bargaining chip.”


The Axeman furrowed his brow as he listened. “Who cares about that when we can just kill them all?”


“You don’t get it, do you?!” Vito screamed hoarsely.  “I’m not like you people… I’m not superhuman, nor am I some kind of monster. I’m weak… I can’t simply chop people’s heads off when I’m in peril!”


The Axeman listened to Vito’s words and pondered them for a moment as he crouched over Palmer’s comatose body. He tried to put himself in Vito’s shoes and understand things from his point of view, just like he did with all the characters in his novels… But no matter how he tried, his mind remained cloudy. In the end, all he saw was a pathetic man drenched in blood, looking for another excuse to run and hide.


“I don’t understand how you think,” the Axeman said plainly.


“Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me…” Vito scratched his head in frustration. “Look, just don’t kill him, okay? I’ll tend to him after I find something to seal up my own wounds… I’ll take care of him. Just leave him to me.”


“If you insist…” the Axeman muttered, then began the second incision.


It proved just as simple a task as the first, especially since Palmer was seemingly locked within some sort of coma. As he yanked out the green growth, he cast his eyes to the side to check on Vito. Now that he had dressed his wound with some tattered clothing, Vito’s breathing had slowed – but his eyes still looked concerned.


“What are you worried about?” the Axeman asked, as he threw the second parasite underfoot.


“When you attacked that woman, you chopped her head off, right…?” Vito stammered.


“Cleanly,” the Axeman answered. “Why?”


“It’s back on her neck now.”


The Axeman frowned and turned around. Sure enough, the bloodied corpse had seemingly stretched its arms out, dragged its head across the floor and reattached it to its neck.


“That really hurt…” A female voice murmured as the body rose back to her feet, as if lifted up by invisible threads. Two hands continued to cradle her head, pushing it in place with her thumb and forefinger. “I have to admit, you took me by surprise back there…”


The Axeman gripped his axe and lurched forward. “What in the–”


Deep, maroon malice began to spill out from the woman’s body, interrupting the Axeman and bestowing the blood that stained both her flesh and her dress with a fresh new glow. He watched in curiosity as the wound on her neck sealed, her eyes turned yellow, and two long, gnarled horns extended out from her scalp. Simultaneously, her dress snapped open in multiple places, while her skin began to redden and pulsate. Finally, a long, forked tail extended out from the small of her back, flicking against the ground like a heavy whip.


“I’m Lydia Liddell Mathers,” she rasped. “Pleased to meet you. You must be the Axeman, yes? The infamous killer of sleeping innocents in New Orleans. You called yourself a demon in the paper. Yes…a demon from the hottest hell.”


“You read my letter?” the Axeman asked curiously. “Did you…like it?”


“It appalled me,” Lydia said with a chuckle. “A mere human…a sloppy murderer at best, fashioning himself as a demon? Oh, I’ve always wanted to meet you, Axeman… Just so I could witness the fear in your eyes when you come face to face with a real demon.”


“Oh, but you misunderstand!” the Axeman began. “That was all fiction – a mere decoy, you see, to keep people out of my business. I’m no demon, Ms. Lydia – on the contrary, I’m a hero. I protect our world from liars and tyranny…and from what I can tell, you appear to be the villain here.”


The Axeman gallantly leapt forward and swung his right axe out in an attempt to behead her once more, but Lydia moved back and snapped her fingers, creating a roar of flame that licked at the ends of his hands and shirt. Frantically, the Axeman pulled his arm back and smacked at the fire that had begun to sear his flesh.


“Hack, slash, chop…” Lydia grinned, displaying fangs that looked almost as yellow as her eyes. “That’s all you know how to do, isn’t it? Such a pity… You’ll never be able to lay a finger on me, fleshie.”


As if to prove her point, Lydia pointed a sharp fingernail at the ground and summoned a wall of orange fire. Bright, warm, and seemingly ceaseless, it slowly stretched out to both sides, dividing the room between them.


The Axeman felt his forehead begin to sweat as the heat washed over him. Keeping his grip firm around his axe, he turned around to look back at Vito, who was still sprawled on his side.


“Stay there,” the Axeman said sternly.


“The room’s on fire! Where the hell do you think I’m gonna go?!” Vito shouted, wide eyes stricken with panic.


The Axeman turned back to Lydia and studied the environment, looking for a way through. But flames played along the ceiling and walls, offering not a single glimpse of passage. The inferno was unavoidable.


I’ve survived betrayal. I’ve survived bullets. The Axeman let malice wash through him, rejuvenating his confidence. And I’ve survived a journey to the brink of hell. This is nothing. No matter what happens, I will survive.


As the Axeman approached the flames, Lydia simply laughed. “What’s wrong, demon? Afraid of a little fire? My parents went to great pains to perfect the summoning ritual that infused my mother’s conception with demonic blood. Many sought to summon angels instead, but they forgot the wisdom of our forefathers. To the transcendent, what are demons if not the strongest of beasts to tame? I exist as the culmination of all their work with the Order, built from the wisdom of the manuscripts that Crowley later stole right out of my father’s bloody hands!”


With every insult and every high-pitched titter, the Axeman’s anger rose. He could feel her conceit boring into his soul, seeking to deprive him of any sense of solace and self-worth he had managed to scrounge for himself.


Just like everyone who jeers me, she actually fears me… Yes, deep down, she knows I am a threat. Dr. Eugene taught me that. And so she attempts to enervate me – but I cannot be weakened… Not anymore.


Steeling his resolve, the Axeman released a brave roar, raised both arms and flung himself through the flames. His carved his left axe deep into her shoulder, but she swung her other side away. Simultaneously, she wrapped her tail around his leg and brought up a hand to the Axeman’s chest, causing heat to swarm through it.


I cannot be weakened… The malice protects me!


Lydia fired a scorching blast from her hand and pulled back with her tail, causing him to stumble back. A burning pain racked his chest, but he kept his legs firm and away from the flame wall behind them.


“I do not fear pain,” he Axeman declared. “In fact, I welcome it.”


“Shut up!” Lydia screamed. “You don’t know the meaning of true pain, you–”

Before she could finish, the Axeman swung his right axe toward her face. This time Lydia caught it with her tail, causing the blade to cut deep into her forked appendage. The axeman tried to pull back, but Lydia only grinned and yanked harder, seemingly savoring the pain until the axe broke free from his hand and went flying across the room.


“So neither of us fear pain. You still won’t win…” she laughed. “You’re too weak.”


The Axeman grit his teeth as he watched his axe clink off the opposite wall. He still remembered the day Dr. Eugene presented the finished products to him. As of now, it felt so comfortable to have them secured at his side – a symbol of his evolution.


Seething, the Axeman sheathed his left axe and attempted to tackle the demon to the ground. Once more, Lydia resisted, smothering him with fire and ripping at his skin with her claws, but the rage had already overtaken him. As of that moment, the Axeman could see nothing but pure red, lusting for nothing but blood and dismantlement.


They wrestled, befouling each other with blood, spit, and heat. During the mayhem, the Axeman felt like he saw a dark red glow out of the corner of his eye, but could linger on that momentary thought for no more than a split-second. With every new burn and drop of blood that spilt from the Axeman’s mouth, he felt the darkness grow within him, spurning the toil of brutality. Finally, the demon caved beneath him, and the Axeman prepared to sever her head from her neck once more.


“Axeman!” Vito’s voice cried. “Behind you!”


The Axeman turned around just in time to see a hulking beast towering over him, staring down with googly, empty eyes. Its large, wrinkled head and massive horns eclipsed his view of the ceiling, and thick serpents that extended from its voluminous earholes. Coarse hair covered its naked chest and flabby belly, while a scaggle-toothed second mouth gnashed between the creature’s stump-like legs. Its hands held a pitchfork that looked as thick as a tree trunk, which it effortlessly swung into the Axeman’s torso.


Powerless against the overwhelming force, the Axeman was sent flying not into one of the room’s walls, but straight through it – taking dirt and cement within him as he fell into the adjacent chamber. The hulking demon followed, quaking the foundation every time it took a step closer. The Axeman tried to pick himself up and felt a horribly sharp bolt of pain shoot through his chest. Something had been broken.


With a low guffaw the ogrish creature swung its pitchfork again, clearing the rest of the wall away as if it had been made of cotton candy. Accepting the pain just like he had so many times before, the Axeman winced and forced his body to stand.


“My parents called out to many different lords of hell during their procreation sessions.” Lydia joined the demon at its side. “But the first to truly answer their call was Haborym – a Great Duke of Hell, and master of fire. He rules over twenty-six legions of demons…and once he placed a fragment of himself in my mother’s womb, we became as one.”


Feeling his vision fade, the Axeman struggled to focus on both of his enemies. Lydia ignited sparks with her fingertips while the demon stomped its way through the cement rubble. He no longer had any sense of where he stood – all he saw was blackness and the two devils marching through it. Far in the distance, he could tell that Doc was still there…swollen, bloody, and beaten, still calling him soft after all this time. He’d never learn, he’d never change, and it was truly infuriating.


The Axeman charged toward the demon and felt fire explode from his right. He ignored it and let the demon grab him with its massive claws, feeling the putrid stench of the creature’s sweat assault his nostrils.


I’m the hero, the Axeman told himself, allowing his shroud of darkness to grow. The hero can’t die.


The demon spread its jaws and bent over, peppering the Axeman with drops of saliva as it prepared to devour him whole. Lydia had ceased her fiery assault, perhaps out of concern for her demonic servant. That was good. Ignoring the throbs of pain that screamed from his tattered, charred flesh and the broken fragments of bone within his body, the Axeman closed his eyes and made everything go dark.


Once he felt the demon’s foul, warm breath tickle his hair, the Axeman flexed his arms and pushed outwards, breaking free of the monster’s grip. A second afterwards, he raised his remaining axe and shoved it into the monster’s mouth, propelling it forward as deep as it could go. Whereas the monster’s skin and fur seemed as hard as iron, its insides were not so. The Axeman made sure to push up and rake his axe across the top of the monster’s voluminous maw as he dove inwards, then shoved it up through the back of the creature’s throat, pulverizing membrane, bone, and brain.


And they still call me soft, the Axeman mused, tearing his hands through the viscera, dismantling the demon’s head from the inside out. They still laugh at me, right to my face.


They’re so wrong. And wrongs must be righted.


Heaving and coughing midst the shower of gore, the Axeman managed to remain standing on quivering legs as the demon fell to pieces around him. After wiping the blood out of his eyes and looking to his side, he saw Lydia standing right next to the demonic pile with a burning orb the size of a barrel balanced between her hands.


“Impressive,” Lydia snarled. “For a human!”


The Axeman tried to leap out of the way, but his body’s response was far too slow. Lydia launched the fireball at him before he could move anywhere, immolating the Axeman on the spot. Fire invaded him from every side, eating away at his darkness and causing the man to fall flat on his back. Lydia’s inferno ate away at his skin, asphyxiated him, and filled him with pain beyond words.


And then she was upon him – straddling him as he had once straddled her, claws raised and prepared to deliver the killing blow midst the hellfire.


“It’s been a delight, Axeman,” she sneered. “Happy trave–”


Her words ended in a shocked gurgle as a pharrago stinger impaled her straight through the eye. For a moment she simply sat there, frozen in disbelief, until she shifted her head to the side and looked deep into the room.


“Vito… Vitooooooo!”





Why did I just do that?! What was I thinking?!


Paralyzed by sheer horror, Vito had watched it all from the floor. He hadn’t expected that Lydia’s blood would be capable of activating the summoning circle – that had been a terrible surprise, to say the least. He’d winced as the demon nearly swallowed the Axeman whole, then nearly lost his lunch as the Axeman somehow tore the gargantuan monster into pieces and stood to face Lydia once more. Naturally, his heart had jumped into his throat when he saw the fireball that Lydia had downed his ally with. Like a never-ending nightmare, each new development was somehow more abominable than the last, as if he fallen straight into a living hell.


This is sheer madness…I didn’t sign up for this!


Humans didn’t scare Vito much. He knew what to expect – how they lied, what vices they were most inclined toward. But this? Demons? It defied all explanation, and it was certainly not a world one like him could ever hope to survive in.


And so he had been left paralyzed with fear – until he saw the flames devour the Axeman’s body, and something spurned him to crawl across the room and grab the pharrago. In the end, he’d done something extremely stupid – something a hero would do. Something the normal Vito wouldn’t do. Yet he had done it all the same, and now watched as Lydia slowly yanked the pharrago’s stinger out from her eye socket.


“I gave you a chance…” Lydia growled. “I was even going to make you one of my special pets… And this is how you repay me?!”


Shaking, Vito pressed his hand to the underside of the pharrago again and let it fire another stinger. This, of course, Lydia swatted away with ease. With the element of surprise lost, he truly was doomed.


I’m a goner… He quickly flitted his eyes over to the fallen body of the Axeman, charred and still. Not even the Axeman could beat her… I should have run away…far, far away from all this insanity.


The face of Sariel resurfaced in Vito’s mind as Lydia lumbered toward him. He borrowed extra time for me…and I still somehow managed to squander it all.


“Come here,” Lydia rasped, then grabbed Vito by the collar of his coat and dragged him across to the configuration on the floor. Her battle with the Axeman had already drenched it in a good deal of blood, while the river gushing out from her eye steadily added to it.


With a finger, Lydia slashed open the wound that Vito had just sealed up and threw him onto the configuration.


“Wait…” Vito pleaded frantically, feeling the glowing configuration absorb his vitality. “Wait, I’m sorry… I’ll be your slave, whatever you want, just don’t kill me!”


“I seek loyalty, Vito…” Lydia stomped down on his back. “And you sorely lack it. After my father was expelled from the Order of the Golden Dawn in 1900, he vowed to take revenge…and then, when he died of a broken heart, I inherited his vengeance. I invoked a thousand curses on Crowley and his sycophants… But the more power I amassed, the more I thought: why stop there? These days, any wizard of moderate talent can tame a demon or two… I needed more than just the power of Hell. And so I sent out a call to the other side–and Lord Vaxyl answered me!”


“He’s…not a demon?” Vito whimpered. “What is he?”


“Something far more. Soon, he will attain control over this world, and I will be seated next to him as his queen. No one will stand in our way… Not Crowley, not the magic orders, and certainly not you feeble humans. Gather, princes of Hell!” Lydia roared. “Come and feast on this fresh offering!”


A dark green glow emanated from the configuration on the floor, and Vito felt the fabric of space and time distort right at the tip of his nose. He saw a demon that looked just like the one the Axeman had ripped to pieces, followed by several other disfigured denizens from the underworld. Within moments, the room was filled to the brim with demonic kin. Vito unconsciously turned his nose to the ground, trying to blot out the horrible sights, wishing there was some way to teleport himself away from the horrible smells and sounds that filled the vicinity.


“We’re going to skin you limb by limb and eat you,” Lydia spoke with the same bouncy delight she’d shown him in Battery Park. “And then we’re going to do the very same thing to all your friends.”


Vito’s bladder emptied itself. His entire body was shaking, right down to his toes, and his scalp felt numb. It was over. He’d finally screwed up so hard that he’d earned himself a place within a demon’s stomach. I should have jumped that day. I knew this was all a mistake.


Then, he heard the sound of metal severing flesh. Vito winced and tensed up his body, yet felt no pain. Schak. There it was again – but no pain. Schak. Schak. Schak-schak-schak. A powerful gust of wind burst through the room, blowing out all the candles within and drowning it in pitch black darkness. Demonic roars filled the room. With each new sound, a new level of panic gripped Vito’s soul, yet he couldn’t bear to look up. Then, he heard Lydia’s voice.


“What in Hell’s–you?!


A glimmer of hope shot through Vito’s heart, and he quickly turned his body around to try and see what was going on. In pure darkness, he could see very little – save for the undulating dark shapes that populated the room. As if scrawled in jagged charcoal, they zig-zagged to and fro on an endless canvas of darkness and gore.


Schak. Schak. Schak. The chopping sound continued to ring out, peppered with thuds, splats, and booms. Vito dared not move. Despite the fact that he could no longer smell the putrid demon breath, he felt no safer.


Then, Vito saw a burst of flame. In the darkness, it illuminated the bloodstained, gnarled face of Lydia and her glowing yellow eyes – flitting back and forth in the abyss as they searched desperately for something.


“Where are you…?” she murmured. “You think you can hide from me, you little maggot?!”


With an angry thrust, she tossed a fireball at one side of the room, immolating it along with the candles that lined the ground. Illuminated once more, Vito passed his eyes over the shadowed floor to see that it was now covered with demonic arms, tails, heads, torsos, and tentacles, each severed cleanly at the joint.


“Show yourself!” Lydia screeched, throwing more fireballs at the other walls.


One went as far as the rear corner, narrowly missing the comatose body of A. Mitchell Palmer. When all four walls were lit once more, Vito realized that he and Lydia were still in the center near the magical configuration, just as they had always been – while every last one of Lydia’s demonic sentinels had been dispatched in the dark.


“Ah…” Lydia’s fanged mouth gaped. “You…but you…”


Vito used his elbows to prop his body up and looked straight ahead. There, in the center of the room, stood the Axeman. His body should have been burned to a crisp, but Vito couldn’t actually see any of the man’s skin, let alone his clothes or his face. Instead, the man’s hulking frame seemed to be shrouded in an armor of pure darkness – cloudy and murky, swirling around each limb and muscle like a miniature storm.


“Axeman…?” Vito asked, but received no answer.


In a split second, the Axeman cleared the distance that separated him from his target and split Lydia’s skull open from the forehead. With one dark arm fastened around her neck, he used his other hand to hack at her over and over again like a woodpecker – a steady, fervent rhythm, which did not stop even after her head split apart and her brains splattered all over the ground.


“Axeman…” Vito tried again, gulping as he watched the dark being dismantle the demon’s body. “Axeman, can you hear me? Are you okay?!”


Still no answer – and that was the moment Vito began to hurriedly scoot himself away from his ally. The Axeman was still quite consumed with the task of hacking Lydia to pieces, after all, and Vito didn’t want to stick around to find out what he would task himself with next.


Once he reached the edge of the room, Vito stood up and broke into a run. He didn’t care where the corridor led him – he just wanted to get as far away as he could.


I’m done. I’m getting out of here. Sariel made me confident enough to handle weapons smuggling, sabotage, and terrorism… But this? Monsters from another world? DEMONS? No, no, NO! I’m out! And if he thinks he’s gonna turn me into a monster like the Axeman, they’re…

Vito stopped in his tracks as the face of Sariel surfaced in his mind again. That’s all it took to grip him – and instantly, he found himself quickly flipping through all the memories they’d made over the past months. Evenings upon evenings spent on long walks and even longer conversations. The time and effort he’d put into getting to know Sariel better – into earning his trust…his approval.


I can’t do it. I can’t accept that all this was for nothing… I can’t abandon him. I know that he cares about me deep down… He can be strict, but once everything’s settled down, it’ll be the same as it was before. We’ll be able to laugh and drink together again…


An image of Dr. Eugene’s lab phased into his mind next. Sariel had given him a tour of it once and shown him all the equipment.


Is that really the only way…? Do I have to become a monster…just to stay at his side?


Vito was pulled from his reverie as he heard footsteps coming from the other end. He reluctantly squinted and focused his eyes to see Darya marching slowly toward him. Her dress was bloodstained and in tatters, and her hair was wet, but her flesh was untarnished. She herself looked wholly bored and disinterested as she approached him.


“There you are,” she muttered, almost an afterthought. “But you’re going the wrong way. Everyone else is down there,” she said, pointing a finger toward the opposite end of the hall.


“It…it’s the Axeman…” Vito stammered. “He’s gone mad… I, I don’t know what to do… All of this is absolute madness!”


Darya stared at him for a moment, but deigned to offer him even the slightest comfort. Instead, she gazed down the hall. “Take me to him.”

“Wh-what…?” Vito looked up. “But I just told you, he’s gone mad. There’s no telling what he’ll-“


“Just do as you’re told,” Darya spat. “My patience wears thin… This isn’t the first time he’s lost his head. It happened plenty during the doctor’s training.”


Seeing no hope in pushing back any further, Vito let out a long sigh and crept back toward the room where the carnage was happening. After slowly peeking out from the corner, he saw the Axeman’s shadowy body hunched over the remains of Lydia and her demon horde, still hacking away at the mushy viscera.


Darya pushed past him and opened her mouth wide, allowing a stream of spiders to crawl free. Once they converged on the Axeman, he began wildly swinging out at them – missing some and completely flattening others with the thick side of his blade. Darya stood at the entrance to the room for a few moments, then – when the Axeman had finished a particularly laborious swing – she dove in close and swung her palm hard across his cheek, administering him a staggering slap.


The sheer force of the blow sent the Axeman careening onto his back. Darya nudged him with her foot, then summoned her children back inside her. After a few moments, the darkness shrouding the Axeman faded.


Seeing this, Vito crept into the room and looked down at his ally. The Axeman’s white shirt had been lacerated and charred, while his suspenders were nowhere to be seen. Any trace of burns or wounds were nowhere to be found, most likely due to the power of his malice.


“Can you stand?” Darya asked.


“…Yes, I believe so,” the Axeman said, as he slowly pushed himself to his feet and let out a sigh. “Seems like I went a tad overboard back there. Terribly sorry about that, Vito.”


“It’s…fine…” Vito murmured.


“And thank you for the backup. I daresay I wouldn’t have been able to neutralize that nasty woman all on my own. What a headache that was.”


Darya turned her back on the two and walked toward the exit. “I’m sick of this place.”


“Indeed,” the Axeman nodded, moving into his own stride. “Sariel and Dr. Eugene would surely appreciate our help.”


As he moved out of the way, Vito stole one last look at the back of the chamber. While maimed demon corpses still littered the room, there had been one corner that had miraculously remained unscathed the entire time – the corner where the comatose body of A. Mitchell Palmer had been. As Vito looked upon it now, however, he realized it was empty. No corpse, no viscera… There was simply a clean, body-shaped spot on the floor, as if he’d up and disappeared all over again.


“W-wait!” Vito called out. “Didn’t you two notice? Palmer’s gone!”


“Palmer…?” the Axeman echoed. “Oh, that’s right. Palmer’s body was in here, wasn’t it?”


“Yeah, he was right over there. But he’s gone now…” Vito scratched his head. “He didn’t wake up…did he?”


“Not that I can remember,” the Axeman said, standing by the door. “Perhaps he got wrapped up in the carnage. Like I said before, Vito, there’s no point in using him to bargain, or whatever you were planning. Especially now that Darya has returned to us… We have no need for roundabout strategies.”




Vito took one last look at the corner of the room. It didn’t make sense. He glanced over to the hole in the wall, which the Axeman had been thrown into. That room had its own exit, so it was possible that Palmer could have cut across somehow while the Axeman was busy mutilating the corpses.


But how? And why did it happen when I left the room? Almost makes it seem like he was waiting until there were no eyes on him…


Vito felt another dark wave of unease wash over his heart – but it was quickly cast away as he felt the Axeman’s hand grip his shoulder.


“Come, Vito,” the Axeman urged. “As we speak, Sariel fights for you.”





A powerful boom erupted through the room as Sariel and Ramses traded blows once more. Claw against fist – and with every strike, Sariel learned more and more about his opponent. He had suffered damage both in the form of powerful blows and lacerating slashes, but every wound he accepted had granted him new knowledge.


Ramses had taken Sariel by surprise after he finished his transformation. The beast’s speed and physical capabilities had skyrocketed, which had taken some time to get used to. Now, after trading copious blows with the monster, Sariel had learned just how he moved, just what sort of detailed strengths he truly possessed. With every new attack, Sariel’s enemy became less of a threat.


Fangs, claws, and the occasional swing of his ankh-shaped dagger – Ramses was frighteningly powerful and not completely brainless, but that was where his philosophy of combat ended. Sariel imagined the were-jackal had never served in any sort of organized military group…and thus, he had never been trained in the art of murder.


There was a great difference between those who were merely skilled at performing violence, and those who were truly skilled in the art of subduing an opponent and taking their life. After Sariel’s tour through hell in the great war, he became extremely well-trained in the latter – and it made a great difference when fighting someone who only knew how to brawl.


No matter what sort of ferocious lunge or swipe Ramses threw at him, Sariel either blocked or dodged the attacks entirely, analyzing his opponent’s body and waiting for a weak point to reveal itself. Regardless of his monstrous strength, Ramses bled like any other beast – entirely killable.


Ramses swung both of his massive claws down toward Sariel’s head, but as of now, such an attempt was easily avoided. Shifting his concentrated malice from his arm down to his leg, Sariel quickly thrust his body to the side. Then, before Ramses could recorrect his course, Sariel grabbed onto the monster’s right arm and pulled it down as he turned. The moment he felt Ramses’ bulky elbow touch his shoulder, Sariel yanked down on the beast’s wrist with all his might, snapping the arm with a loud pop.


Ramses let out a howl and reached out for Sariel’s right arm with his left. Sariel let him take it, while simultaneously swinging his own foot and jabbing his heel into Ramses’ achilles’ tendon. A split-second before, Sariel had used his toe to activate the spring-loaded knife in his sole, which expertly cleaved the beast’s tendon like cheese. He was in killing mode now – each limb of his opponent was merely an obstacle, and he knew how to eliminate them all in the most efficient way possible.


Ramses yanked on Sariel’s arm and tried to chomp down on it. Sariel let go of all his resistance, forcing the beast to trip and fall backwards through a combination of his own force and perforated heel. Once on the ground, Sariel curled his body around Ramses’ other arm and snapped it as well with expert precision. The beast’s limbs were thick, powerful, and certainly hard to break – no mundane human would have been able to manage, but Sariel was far from mundane. In truth, the sheer knowledge of how to kill someone was not enough. One needed to possess the proper strength to carry out the executions – but thanks to the malice, as well as all of Dr. Eugene’s enhancements, Sariel now possessed the strength of a hundred men.


With both of his arms broken, Ramses began to panic. Sariel watched as the golden miasma cloaked the creature’s body – he was channeling something. Wasting not a single second, Sariel quickly used his foot to sever the beast’s other achilles tendon, then shot into the air. Ramses’ mouth stretched wide open, acting as a cannon for a potent beam of golden energy.


“You’re dead meat now!” The voice of Vaxyl echoed through Sariel’s ears as his jump reached its height. Up until this point, Vaxyl had been busy trying to destroy Dr. Eugene’s barrier – a nearly impossible task, as Sariel knew all too well from his own training – but it seemed as if the creature had decided to change targets. Sariel quickly looked back just in time to see Vaxyl launching another stream of tentacles at him – he wouldn’t be able to avoid them all in time.


Of course, there was no need. Dr. Eugene fired up fragments of the Malice Cube just in time, erecting mini-barriers in each one of the tentacles’ trajectories. Sariel began his descent unscathed, just as Ramses launched his desperate counterattack.


Brilliant golden light engulfed the room as the beam erupted from Ramses’ mouth, seemingly about to swallow up Sariel whole. The amount of force the beast commanded was truly something – surely able to decimate a city, if not an entire army, by Sariel’s estimation.


But I’m still stronger.


With a blazing red fist, Sariel cut straight through the golden energy, slamming his knuckles deep into Ramses’ throat. As he unleashed the better part of his reserves, Sariel felt his malice burst through the back of the were-jackal’s head, demolishing the cement floor below. For good measure, Sariel let his knee slam into the beast’s throat upon his descent, focusing all of his weight and inertia on one of the creature’s greatest weak points.


Finishing his assault, Sariel stood over the beast. Beaten and bloodied, Ramses had become little more than a furry, broken mess.


“Pledge allegiance to me or die,” Sariel muttered, as he placed his right foot on the creature’s face. “Your choice.”


Sariel waited only two seconds for an answer before stomping through Ramses’ head. A loud splat echoed through the room.


“H-how…” Vaxyl gaped, eyes fixated on the mutilated corpse of his servant. “H-how could a human–”


“You’re next, slug,” Sariel said as he rocketed into the air.


“Wait, Sariel!” Dr. Eugene shouted. “You need to replenish your malice!”


But Sariel ignored the doctor’s concern and opened his palm. As he let another burst of malice erupt from the nozzle in the center of his hand, he brought his right leg up in a mid-air roundhouse in an attempt to corner his new target.


“Silly human…” Vaxyl sneered. One tentacle swatted away Sariel’s leg, while a second rose to deflect the blast of malice.


Sariel quickly brought his fists up to block a third tentacle, then felt a fourth slam him into the air like a volleyball. Finally, Vaxyl’s fifth tentacle went crashing into Sariel’s back, sending him careening back over to the doctor’s side of the room.


Dr. Eugene sighed after Sariel hit the ground with a gut-wrenching thud. “What did I tell you?”


“I can take him…” Sariel grunted, as he pulled himself to his feet. “Just you watch.”


“Hmm…” Dr. Eugene stroked his chin. “No, I think we’d be wise to use brains over brawn with this fellow.”


“Don’t you fools get it?” Vaxyl laughed and leapt down to the ground. All five of his thick tentacles danced menacingly around his muscular frame, body steaming with green miasma. “I exist on a higher plane of reality… Humans will never be able to scathe me!”


“That remains to be seen,” spoke the Axeman, as he and Darya stepped into the room. “Allow me to lend a hand,” he said, before dashing straight at the monster with his axes raised.


“Axeman! Darya!” Dr. Eugene’s eyes lit up. “So glad to see you’re both in one piece… The very thought of having to rebuild you was giving me the jitters.”

“Whatever you’re planning, do hurry it up,” Darya murmured, expelling a gaggle of spiders from her mouth. “It’s getting dangerously close to nap time.”


As the Axeman brought his weapons down on one of Vaxyl’s tentacles, Sariel picked himself up and prepared to rejoin the fray. Before he could reach the creature, however, he felt a pulse of energy push him back. Veins popped beneath the Vaxyl’s dry, wrinkled skin as he poured otherworldly might into his appendages, flinging both of the Hellhounders back with pure force.


“Lydia! Davis!” he shouted. “Where are you?! What have you imbeciles been doing back there?!”


While he waited for a reply, Vaxyl angrily let loose his tentacles on the spiders that had surrounded him. Acidic yellow goo that splashed up from their corpses onto his body, but he remained unfazed.


“Lydia?!” Vaxyl shouted again. “Davis?! I expect an answer!”


“There will be none,” Darya said, crossing her arms. “Davis is dead.”


“As is Lydia,” the Axeman continued, as he picked himself up. “By the looks of it, devil, your entire crew has perished.”


“You…maggots…” Vaxyl seethed, causing more steam to rise up from his withered flesh. “You blithering pustules!”


Vaxyl’s temper reached its peak, and a surge of otherworldly energy pulsated through the room. His face twisted, as did his body, muscles churning and rearranging themselves in order to transform his body – and then, Vaxyl’s withered flesh burst right off his body in a fountain of gore.


From flayed flesh sprouted new tentacles: green, sleek, sinewy, and much longer than what he had displayed before. They spilled out from his bottom half like monstrous hair, pushing his torso upwards like a grotesque monument.


“Wretched humans…” Vaxyl seethed. “I’ll make sure you all die slowly!”





Vito cowered at the edge of the tunnel, only slightly peeking his sweat-stained face beyond the corner a he witnesesed the horrors that were unfolding. Sariel’s brutal execution of a hulking beast, followed by that Vaxyl’s hideous transformation… With every new second, it only got more insane.


What am I watching…? What the hell is this?!

Rising up from his mound of tentacles, Vaxyl looked huge, powerful and hideous – but not even that seemed to deter Sariel. Showing no hesitation, he leapt onto the mountain of tentacles and began ripping them out one by one, firing blasts of malice at any stray appendages that dared to threaten him. The Axeman continued to chop tentacles left and right while Darya remained a few steps back, commanding a torrent of her children.


This onslaught continued until Vaxyl let out a guttural howl and flexed every last one of his tentacles in unison. A shockwave of green energy burst out from within, sending Sariel and the Axeman flying back like human bullets. Of course, Dr. Eugene was quick to catch both men with his red barriers before either of them went flying through a wall.


“Please, Sariel, think of the repair funds we would incur if one of your parts happened to be damaged!” Dr. Eugene said, as Sariel fell near his feet once more. “I shall take care of things from here.”


“You?!” Vaxyl let loose a laugh that sounded like a dozen kookaburras chirping in unison. “You’ve seen how powerless your best warrior was against me, old man… Just give it up. Your collected might will never compare to mine!”


“Oh yes, I am in full agreement with you there,” Dr. Eugene said calmly. “And thus it shall not be me who does the fighting. To tell you the truth, Mr. Vaxyl… I’m really quite the pacifist.”


Dr. Eugene pulled out his Malice Cube once more, expanding its rotating squares. Once the gyrating lasers of malice created another portal, three beasts phased in from the doctor’s storage space.


The first looked similar to a pterosaur, with a wide wingspan, a long, bladed head, and a snake-like tail lined with barbs, while the second was a large turtle-creature covered in a spined shell with long, protruding root-like legs and a single massive eye where its head should have been. The final beast had a canine head that sat upon the body of a centipede and walked with a series of long spindly legs that constantly twitched.


As the monsters set their sights on Vaxyl and charged, he simply laughed. “Bottom-feeding beasts from the otherworld… This is the best you can do, old man?! Honestly, I’m disappointed…”


Once the flying creature passed over him, Vaxyl easily captured it with his tentacles and tore it to pieces. Green blood rained down, which he happily lapped up with his bumpy purple tongue.


“When I was little, I fed on beasts like these every day. Even bigger ones, to be perfectly accurate…” Vaxyl snorted. “Your stupidity truly knows no bounds, human!”


Laughing triumphantly, Vaxyl scooped up the turtle creature and gave it the same treatment as the pterosaur. Then, after the final monster attempted to pelt Vaxyl with a steady combo of claws, fangs, and thrusts, he trapped it between his tentacles and smashed it like a grape.


But Dr. Eugene showed no signs of worry. Rather, his eyes remained locked on Vaxyl, watching the different splatters of blood stream down the creature’s body. The Axeman and Darya slowly returned to his side, curiously watching to see what the doctor was planning.


“What’s wrong, old man?” Vaxyl giggled. “Run out of clever things to say?”


“Oh, no,” Dr. Eugene shook his head. “I’m merely waiting.”


“Waiting for what? For me to come over there and kill you?”


“Waiting to see which of the toxins you fall prey to,” the doctor explained clinically. “I know you aren’t familiar with my career, Mr. Vaxyl, but over the years, I’ve developed many unique toxins and gases that are highly efficient at tampering with living creature’s immune systems. I like to think I’ve done very well for myself, considering how often they were employed in the recent war.”


Vaxyl squinted his eyes as he tried to make sense of what the doctor was saying.


“As these toxins were developed personally by me, and thus do not exist in the otherworld, I thought they would be the perfect weapons to use against creatures like yourself… Creatures who would otherwise be too difficult to subdue through more mundane means. Yes, as you just claimed, those beasts were all weaklings that advanced beings such as yourself prey on day after day within the otherworld… That is specifically why I chose them to harbor my agents.”


“Wha…” Vaxyl stammered, staring down at his body as early signs of blisters began to form all over his tentacles. “What did you do to me?!”


“Ah, it looks like you are susceptible to the blistering agent…” Dr. Eugene said, as he pulled out a notepad and began to furiously scrawl upon it. “Very intriguing. And it looks like you’re also short of breath…”

“Why…” Vaxyl heaved, as he clutched at his throat. “Why…why am I burning?!”


“Oh, good,” the doctor murmured, continuing to scrawl on his pad. “I was worried the combustible agent might have malfunctioned. This should do splendidly.”


“You scheming little coward…” Vaxyl roared, as he beat his tentacles against the ground and began to charge toward the doctor. “I don’t care what you did to me…I can still kill you!”

“Unfortunately, you can’t.” the doctor shook his head definitively. “It’s just as you said, Vaxyl – we lack the brawn to best you. Unfortunately, in this world…no manner of muscle could ever stand up to the raw might of technology.”

A large splat echoed through the room as Vaxyl’s body detonated into a shower of tiny wriggling pieces. Bloody chunks of tentacle, flesh, and hair painted both the walls and the Hellhounders, signaling the end to their long battle.


“Doctor…” Darya sighed, looking at the viscera that now covered her dress. “Why couldn’t you have just used that from the start and saved us all the trouble?”


“Oh, Darya, my dear…” The doctor shook his head. “If only you knew the amount of time and resources it took to make those creatures immune to the very toxins they were implanted with. In fact, I’m thoroughly disappointed that I had to use them at all. Imagine the secrets we could have unlocked had we been able to subdue such a wondrous specimen while he was still intact!”


With Vaxyl exterminated, an eerie silence blew through the spacious room for the first time. As the Hellhounders regrouped and took a moment to clean the gore off their bodies, it was Sariel who ended up breaking the silence.


“Where’s Vito?” he asked. “One of you saved him, didn’t you?”


Right on cue, Vito walked out from the side tunnel where he had been hiding for the duration of the battle. Unlike his resolute allies, he felt withered, tired, and shell-shocked.


“Sariel, Doctor, Axeman, Darya…” he muttered apologetically. “Thank you for saving me.”


The doctor and the Axeman moved to speak, but Sariel quickly cut them off.


“Save your thanks. This is all your fault,” he shot out. “First thing once we get back, it’s malice infusions for you.”


Shock gripped Vito’s heart, as if a butcher’s knife had been thrust straight into it. Despite how well he thought he knew Sariel, he still couldn’t believe what he was hearing.


While the other three remained silent, Sariel’s eyes remained locked on Vito. Still frozen in sheer disbelief, Vito opened his mouth.


“Wh…what did you just say?” he stammered.


“Where’s Palmer?” Sariel continued. “You’re the one who failed to shoot him; you should have secured his body by now.”


Vito felt his body begin to tremble as another dagger was thrust into him. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Is that really all he has to say to me? Those are the first things that came to his mind?


I must have thought of running away a hundred times today…but I never did. I couldn’t bear to abandon him. Because I always wanted to believe that deep down, he really did care about me… That no matter how blunt or cold he could be, I’d still be able to trust he always possessed some sort of compassion inside him.


“Weren’t you…worried about me?” Vito tried again, desperation causing his voice to waver.


“Of course I was worried,” Sariel said plainly. “You’re weak. That’s why we need to make you stronger, Vito.”


He doesn’t care. He really doesn’t care. As the realization set in, Vito felt a hole open up in his chest, causing his throat to tighten. He cares about something else… Whatever he wants me to be, whatever that is. This morning, I helped him kill dozens of innocent people. Then demons from hell tried to make me into their slave, and then they tried to kill me. Over and over! But even after all that, I still decided to stay. Not just because I owe him for saving my life… Because I wanted to believe this was real. I didn’t want to accept that this had all been a mistake…that everything Sariel says is just a lie to control me!


The thoughts alone made him feel like his body was about to burst apart. There was no way he could voice them, of course – not after everything that had happened, and certainly not now that he’d heard those words.


I loved a psychopath… I loved a monster!


“What are you waiting for, Vito? Go find Palmer,” Sariel ordered.


“In the meantime, we should comb the rest of this area…” Dr. Eugene spoke up. “Who knows? Maybe if we’re lucky, that creature had some spare specimen tucked away for safekeeping…”


I have to get out of here. I have wait for the right timing, then run, and never look back… If I stay here too long, they’ll kill me – or worse. And Sariel will never lift a finger to help. He’ll just blame everything on my own weakness.


As the other Hellhounders began to move out, Vito looked Sariel deep in the eyes and nodded his head. “As you wish, Sariel…”


“That’s more like it,” Sariel snorted, as he too turned to leave. “You may be a coward, Vito, but we’ll make a fighter out of you yet. We don’t give up on family.”


Yes, I’m a coward. We all know that. Vito tightened a fist. But I’ll never become a monster.





Letting out an exasperated sigh, John Edgar Hoover shuffled the documents on his desk into a pile and prepared to call it a day. Days had passed since the bombing, yet he still had zilch to report back to the Attorney General. Not that it particularly mattered at this juncture, since Attorney General Palmer hadn’t been seen since he deserted them at the scene of the crime.


Where the hell could he be? Hoover adjusted his tan tie and got up from his seat. Not even the DOJ knew anything…


Hoover stood up from his small wooden desk and moved over to the window that faced the street. Outside, a light rain cascaded down on pedestrians as they wandered through the night. Hoover and the rest of the BOI had already interviewed many people in the area, desperate for just one lead that might push them in the right direction. But there was nothing to be found. No one knew where the cart had come from, who had driven it, or even how the bomb had been built. They’d found some crude letters attributed to the “American Anarchist Fighters” littered around the scene, but they were so similar to what the Galleanists had been churning out for years that it didn’t seem particularly out of place. After combing the area, they’d also found some murdered construction workers and a hideout built inside the New York Curb Exchange’s new building, but not even that had earned them a piece of hard evidence linked to a specific group or person.


Hoover let his eyes drift along the road. It was well into the evening, and all the other agents had vacated their desks. Hoover, on the other hand, wasn’t in any hurry to get back to his apartment. There was still much work to be done.


Now, if only I could make a crumb of progress in this case. Oh, who am I kidding? Time has passed. Those state trooper pinheads couldn’t find a piece of evidence if it smacked them in the face. The commie bomber’s probably already on a boat back to–


Hoover was interrupted from his mental tirade by the sound of the office door opening. He watched in disbelief as the tall figure of A. Mitchell Palmer stepped inside.


“Mr. Palmer!?” Hoover rushed over to the man and cast eyes over his face. “Tell me this isn’t a dream!”


“It’s real, as far as I can tell,” Palmer said with a nervous gulp, then took off his hat and moved into the room. “Take a seat, John, because what I’m about to tell you may be hard to swallow.”


Hoover did as he was told and moved back into his chair. “You know we’ve got that stash hidden behind the filing cabinet if you want…”


“No need for that just yet,” Palmer said, as he sat down on the corner of Hoover’s desk. “Honestly, John, I have very little recollection of what transpired over these past several days. Oh, and news of this is not supposed to leave this room, of course.”


“Of course, sir,” Hoover said, as he sat back in his chair. “Are you in good health? What’s the last thing you remember?”


“Stopping just outside the office to help some woman, right before we were to leave. Said she’d dropped her coin purse under a car and needed a man with a long reach… Can’t remember any more than that.”


“But you got in the car with us after that,” Hoover was quick to point out. “You don’t remember that?”


“Not a bit,” Palmer said, shaking his head.


“You don’t remember walking out on us once we got to Wall and Broad?”


“Not in the slightest.”


“Damn,” Hoover said, as he slapped his knee and scooted to the edge of his chair. “But that doesn’t make a lick of sense. You were there, Mr. Palmer! Then you told us to wait for a minute, took a few steps out, waved a hand like you were swatting a big fly, then walked off. Both Burns and I called out to you, and it was like you couldn’t hear us. We tried to push through the crowd and catch up to you, but next thing we knew, you’d disappeared into thin air.”


“Curious indeed,” Palmer nodded. “But I have yet to tell you what transpired when I awoke, John.”


Hoover let out a sigh and slumped back in his seat. “I’m all ears, sir.”


“I woke up on the edge of the road – head in the dirt, soaking wet, as if I’d been knocked flat into a puddle. Standing over me was a long-haired, middle-aged man in a coat. He helped me up and asked if I was okay. I stretched my arms and legs and told him I felt tired, but not particularly ill. This seemed to please him, and he turned to leave.


“But my curiosity was far from sated, so I grabbed the man’s shoulder and sternly asked him to tell me what happened. He hesitated for a moment, then looked me straight in the eyes and told me I’d been possessed – not just by any spirit, but a demonic entity on the brink of death who fled into my body as a means of escape from her assailant. She was weakened and sought to regain her strength…but before she could, he found a way to neutralize her: he doused me in holy water, banishing the demon’s enervated soul back to Hell.”


“Demonic possession?” Hoover scoffed. “Sheesh, Mr. Palmer, he really expected you to believe that?”


“Oh, I didn’t at first. But when I searched my person, I realized nothing had been stolen. I also wasn’t injured, as far as I could tell. Still, I remained suspicious. I asked the man if he could come back to my home with me so that I could properly thank him for his help. But he firmly declined, saying it was just a means of penance, then hurried off before I could accost him any further.”


“Huh.” Hoover tapped his wooden desk with his fingers. “What do you reckon he was, then? Some kind of priest?”


“He certainly didn’t look it, I’ll say that much,” Palmer gazed out the window and remained lost in thought for a moment. “By all appearances, he was a hustler at best, and a veteran crook at worst. But for some reason…perhaps due to my discombobulation, John, I believed him.”


“Well, as they say, truth is stranger than fiction,” Hoover said. “And you’ve certainly convinced me of one thing, Mr. Palmer.”


“What’s that, John?”


“I think this does merit a drink after all,” he said, as he stood up from his chair and moved over to the filing cabinet.


Hidden in a small alcove behind the heavy iron cabinet was a small nook in the wall that housed a bottle of George Roe Irish Whiskey: aged 16 years, and one of the last bottles that Hoover had purchased before sales had been prohibited. Hoover removed the bottle with aplomb, then grabbed some glasses from a shelf to the side and placed everything on his desk.


“That’s a federal law you’re breaking, John,” Palmer said with a smile.


“And what are you gonna do about it?” Hoover asked with a defiant grin, as he poured a generous helping into each class. “You’re the one who just evicted a demonic squatter from your person.”


The two men erupted into a laugh, then picked up their glasses.


“America suffered a terrible blow on Wall Street, and I’m sure it won’t be the last tragedy she sees. But regardless of what hardship she faces in the future, she shall keep her head high and march on,” Palmer began, as he raised his glass. “I can sense that my time to relinquish the reins is coming… It’s a different era now, and our country requires new blood to keep its proud heart pumping. Men like you and Burns. You shall be the ones to keep the flame lit while the old fossils like me settle into our graves.”


“I shall not fail her, sir,” Hoover said solemnly, as he raised his own. “As far as I’m concerned, things can only go up from here.”


“A toast to the Bureau,” Palmer said, clinking his glass with Hoover’s. “A toast to the future.”