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by P L Nunn


Chapter 3


Jenny wasn't answering his calls, which was depressing and worrisome, because who knew what she was doing in the city and who might be hitting on her. Jenny had an unfathomable tendency to ignore or outright rebuff him when he hit on her, while she'd get flirty and doe eyed when some other douche tried to pick her up. He didn't know if it was a failing on his part or hers, but he knew - - just felt it in his soul - - that if they ever actually got together there'd be sparks to light the whole town on fire. If she ever let him close enough to ignite them.

So he'd moped around the mall, where the likelihood of getting ambushed by a bunch of psychotic assholes in a crowd was slim, bought a slice of pizza and a soda, then sat in the parking lot and smoked one of his two remaining joints and thought about the implications of the Metal Dudes with a vendetta. He knew virtually squat about them, other than that they'd had a vested interest in the arrival of the Pure Evil One, that they'd apparently been around for at least a hundred years or more and that somehow or another the three of them and his ex-girlfriend, Nikki Kane, were one and the same.

That was pretty much enough to make him have nightmares by itself. All three together, and well - - he really didn't want to be on their hit list.

The pot helped sooth the raw edges away. A euphoric little rush of the high hit behind his eyes and he blew the smoke out, leaning his head back against the metal pole of the parking lot floodlight.

He wallowed in the bliss for a while, experiencing a hazy disconnect with his body and the ground and the hard column behind him. If he still had the Book, those asshats would think twice before messing with him. If he still had the Book, maybe a lot of things might happen that he didn't necessarily want to happen. Mastering it hadn't been easy. Forcing it to go against its nature and not unleash a wash of destruction had been like pulling his own teeth. It had wanted to rain down hellfire - - it had wanted death and destruction and a thousand - - a million - - screaming souls sucked down to oblivion. He'd known its nature - - its mind - - better than he'd known his own for those few moments when its power had pulsed through him. And it was malicious and it was terrible.

He blew out a breath, pulse throbbing despite the soothing effects of the weed.

The first time, the book had used him the same way it used pretty much anybody who ever had the misfortune to encounter it. The second time he'd held it, it had felt different. The power of the book had been hot and insistent, rushing into him like scalding water, filling him up and drowning any sense of self in darkness, before Curtis had knocked it out of his grasp.

That had been the book trying to take him over, to use him to fulfill its instinctive need for chaos. At least that's what Hannah had theorized afterwards, while they'd all been sitting in the science lab, recovering from the day's ordeal. She'd thought it needed a human conduit to channel its power. That's why it was always seeking out the desperate and the emotionally compromised, granting their wishes in the most ass backwards and generally fatal way possible.

Only all those people were just victims, tools for the thing to jerk off to, spurting little globs of chaos in its wake. For it to really cut loose, it needed a master of its choosing. The Pure Evil. And it had been waiting for a long time. At least that's what the prophecy said - - what little of the prophecy they'd managed to figure out.

Todd still had no idea why he'd gotten the starring role in said prophecy. Sure, he liked to get stoned and listen to Metal and wank off to pretty much anything, but he was relatively sure he'd never been evil, much less the world-destroying sort of evil the Book seemed geared to respond to.

And when he'd sent the Book away the power that had filled him hadn't been his power, but the Book's. Only that time, he hadn't let it consume him, he'd consumed it, and turned it in upon itself. Exerting his will over it. Sending it away to a place maybe not even in this world.

He took the last drag off the butt of the joint, trying to chase away all the dark thoughts. That's what he got, getting stoned all by himself when he was feeling depressed. His highs were never quite as high when he didn't have Curtis to share them with.

It was after all that deep thought that he got home, well after dark, padding into the house and hoping his mom didn't call him on it. She generally let a lot of shit slide, being distracted by things other than him, especially now that she was the sole breadwinner. She only ever occasionally remarked on all the blood she'd had to wash out of his clothes last year and there had been a lot of blood.

"You missed dinner," she called from the couch in front of the TV when he passed. His step dad slouched next to her, Budweiser in hand.

"You get paid?" the old man asked, barely tearing his eyes away from whatever reality show they were glued to.

"What? You out of beer?" His mom had remarried for the third time a few years ago and Todd and his present step dad never had particularly gotten along.

His mom gave him a look, and he narrowed his eyes, pulled out one of the twenties from today and purposefully bypassed his step dad and handed it to her.

"Be respectful, Charlie's trying." She stuffed the bill into her shirt pocket and patted his step dad's leg reassuringly.

Todd rolled his eyes, and headed for the kitchen and a soda, his mom calling after him that there was cold spaghetti in the fridge, if he wanted any. He bypassed that, grabbed a Pepsi and retreated to his room, with its dog eared metal posters thumb tacked to the walls, its pile of dirty clothes at the foot of the bed, his Cd's scattered on the desk by the second hand stereo and the out of date PC. There was a broken sword on the wall supported by nails over his bed. Her name was Sand Dragon and he'd made her himself. Atticus had shattered her at the Semi-formal before Todd had had the book consume him. With the shit likely to hit the fan, he wished she was in one piece. If he'd had her at the drainage ditch yesterday maybe he wouldn't have run like a little girl from those three assholes.

With Blackguard blaring in his earbuds he switched on his Xbox and geared up the most mind numbing first person shooter he had. He drifted to sleep with the ipod on infinite loop and the game controller still in hand.

And woke to silence, the ipod's battery having run down and a big YOU'RE DEAD. GAME OVER frozen on the TV screen. He flipped the screen off, then pulled the one earbud still in his ear out, tossed the controller that was still on his chest to the side and stretched, luxuriating in the fact that he had nowhere to be and nothing to do today.

He slipped a hand under covers finding the morning wood straining at his briefs and settled into one of his many and varied Jenny fantasies while he leisurely jerked off. He put her in little black lace panties this time and a matching bra - - the push up sort that made her creamy boobs swell up over the edges. He imagined her gyrating over him, long white thighs just out of reach. He could remember the smell of her hair like she was in the room - -

"Ah - - God," he tightened his grip, all the leisure gone, wanking hard and fast, balls swollen and tight and ready to burst. Jenny wasn't even there then, just desperation and need and he came all hot and sticky over his hand. Kept coming and pulling on the head of his dick until the pressure resided, then lay there for a moment, catching his breath, sinking into his pillow in heady satisfaction until the warm wet on his hand became cool, uncomfortable wet and he grimaced and reached for the tissue box.

He messed around at home for a while, nothing better to do, but finally anime porn and video games weren't enough and he bit the bullet and decided to man up.

If the Metal Dudes wanted to kick his ass, facing them down would be better than looking over his shoulder the rest of summer, waiting for it to happen. And maybe if he did face them head on and he could get a few answers out of them in the bargain. It would almost be worth getting his ass handed to him if he managed to get them to spill a few of the details that had been plaguing him since the damned Book had showed up in the first place.

The only place he'd ever seen them with clockwork regularity was the high school parking lot and if they were back in town, maybe that's where they might show up again. So on a perfectly good summer day, when he didn't have any pressing reason to be there, either work or school related, he ended up willingly back on the premises.

He rode his bike around the parking lot, looking for their beat up old Chevy, but it wasn't in the lot. Randy Fucking Savage's black Camaro was, and he scowled at it, lamenting the unfairness of life. If he'd had a smooth ride like that, Jenny probably would have been all over him from the get go. He fantasized about that for a moment, imaging hot backseat sex.

The bike seat began to get a little uncomfortable with all the hot and heavy fantasizing going on in his head, and having a boner right in the middle of the school parking lot would be a little embarrassing if anybody happened by, so he shut down the mental imagery and walked the bike up the sidewalk towards the school while things settled back down to normal. He leaned the bike against the rail at the bottom of the steps and looked up.

The big front doors were propped open, letting in the summer breezes and letting out the distinct smell of school. The scent of buffed floors and disinfectant. Smells that reminded him of Jimmy. It had been over a month since Jimmy had left for parts unknown, and he'd said he didn't know if he'd ever come back - -but sometimes shit happened and who knew. That was Jimmy's philosophy. After spending pretty much half his life trapped inside the school - - well, a little freedom from it was a good thing. It still didn't mean he didn't have a place to come back to, if he wanted. A job that he knew inside and out. People that cared about him.

He got drawn inside despite himself. Maybe just wanting to make sure Jimmy wasn't there after all, because right about now Todd was in need of a friend that wasn't either actively avoiding his calls or pissed at him.

The squeak of his Converse on the tile floors echoed strangely with the school practically empty, only a fraction of its classrooms in use for the summer session. There was still the old banner from last year hanging over the main doors, congratulating the graduating senior class. Still some of the old artwork on display that kids hadn't elected to take home. Most of the abandoned pieces were pretty crappy.

He perked up at the muffled hum of a floor buffer down the hall in the direction of the gym. But it was just an old black guy humming some bluesy tune along with the whirr of the machine. A replacement janitor.

It was seriously depressing.

He stuffed his hands in his pockets and shuffled down the empty hall in the other direction. There'd been a lot of blood in these halls. Todd had spilled a lot of it himself in the course of fighting Book generated chaos. Jimmy had been really good at cleaning it up so no one who hadn't been there might have guessed.

He walked past the science lab, which had pretty much been their headquarters last year during free periods and after school. It had a class in progress now, a teacher he didn't know busily writing on the chalk board while the students he glimpsed in passing dozed, or stared in glassy-eyed misery out the window at the fine summer day outside.

Which was where he should have been instead of wasting his time looking for trouble that might not even be here. The Metal Dudes would show up, when they showed up. Hell, they were obnoxious enough that they might not show up at all, if he actually wanted them to.

So he was wasting his time, loitering around here. He blew out a breath and headed for the boys room to take a leak. He considered maybe hanging around outside and waiting for Curtis to get out and see if maybe after the ice had been broken yesterday, he might be willing to relent a little and talk. But that would make him seem the neediest of needy and he wasn't that desperate. He leaned a hand on the ceramic tile over the urinal and called himself a few derogatory names under his breath.

"You're not what I expected."

He started at the comment, at the smug face of Randy Savage standing right fucking next to him. He lost his concentration and his aim for a second, stream of piss hitting the tile wall next to the urinal.

"What the fuck, dude?"

Randy's eyes flitted to the trickle of pee dribbling down the wall, then back to Todd in leisurely appraisal. Todd flushed a little, a mix of annoyance and embarrassment and shifted his body to block the view while he tucked himself away and zipped up. He cast an indignant glare at the other guy once his dick was safely back in his pants. "What's your problem, asshole?"

The guy was a lot taller close up than he'd seemed the last two times Todd had seen him. The tats a lot more elaborate when they were right in his face. A lot of runic looking designs on his arms, and what looked like a big inverted, Byzantine on his chest jutting up from under his tank top.

He felt another little stab of jealousy over the skin art. There had been a conversation with his mom during one of her rare moments of motherly dictatorship, that had ended with a flat out no at the suggestion of a wicked tattoo and a declaration that when he was out from under her roof, he could permanently ink, pierce or otherwise mar his skin to his heart's content, but not until.

"No problem, man." Randy didn't move, still leaning there with a shoulder against the ceramic wall, staring at Todd with this unswerving intensity that despite not wanting to seem like a wuss, made Todd take a wary step backwards, putting a little comfortable distance between them.

"Well then get out of my face, dude."

Randy leaned forward. "When I 'm in your face, you'll know it."

Todd knew a threat when he heard one and despite all his slaying of Book generated horrors and occasional rushes of overwhelming, dark power, he'd never been a kid who willingly engaged in fights - - grudgingly maybe, when his back was to the wall - - but honestly, he'd really rather be getting high or smirking from the sidelines as some other pair of ass holes pounded each other bloody.

If the guy had been a little shorter, or a little less menacing, he'd have scoffed with as much disdain as he could muster when he was feeling just a little bit of embarrassing intimidation, and sauntered past like Randy Savage was less than nothing to him. But instinct that had become pretty good lately, warned not to turn his back on the guy, so he sort of edged towards the door, keeping him in his line of sight.

"Whatever, dude. I don't see why the hell Curtis hangs out with you when you're such a douche?"

Randy did scoff and he did a better job of lacing it with scorn than Todd probably could have. "Because he's a pitiful, desperate little one armed cripp - - "

Todd didn't let him finish the insult. He didn't get into fights willingly on his own behalf, but he'd taken on more than one bully targeting Curtis before. He hit Randy straight in the mouth, only peripherally aware of the pain when the guy's teeth sliced into his knuckles.

Randy staggered back a step, gratifying shock on his face, blood forming at his mouth. Then he was growling, charging forward. He hit Todd full body, slamming him back against the bathroom door, which sprung open, spilling them both into the hall. He hit the shiny floor with Randy on top of him, managed to get an arm up to deflect the blow aimed for his nose and got the tail end of glancing off his cheek. It still hurt like a bitch.

He bucked, trying to throw the guy off, trying to block the blows that were being rained down, at too much of a disadvantage, position wise, to get in any decent return hits.

Then somebody was yanking Randy backwards and yelling at them to break it up. The old janitor angling between them, pushing Randy back when he made to surge back. Todd scrambled to his feet, glaring through his hair, tasting a little blood from a hit that had connected.

"You little prick," Randy stabbed a finger at him over the janitor's arm. "I'm gonna fuck you up."

"Yeah? Get in line, asshole."

There were heads peeking out of doorways down the hall at the commotion and the last thing he needed was a trip to the principle's office when he wasn't even attending school. So he ducked his head and with one departing glower made a hasty retreat. Randy didn't follow. Which was a good thing, because now that adrenalin was starting to drain away, the elbow he'd banged up the other day tumbling down the ditch because of three other assholes was throbbing now, having taken the brunt of the impact with the floor. He clutched it with his good arm while he was stalking towards his bike. He jerked it up and sat for a moment, glaring at the Camaro, before riding over and kicking the passenger side door panel hard enough to make a decent dent.

That act of gratuitous vandalism made him feel better. So he kicked it again before high tailing it out of the parking lot. He ended up not going far. Just around to the football field behind the main building, where he left his bike under the deserted bleachers and found a favorite spot in the shade to pull out his last joint and light up. He sat in the grass against one of the bleacher supports and even the pot couldn't stop whirling, angry thoughts of Randy Fucking Savage.

What a total tool. Why was he even hanging around Curtis if that's what he thought, anyway? And as Todd's thought processes were prone to doing, they finally worked their way back around, long after the fact, to Randy's opening remark in the john. What had he meant by 'you're not what I expected'?

Before he knew it, he'd smoked all but the tiniest nub of the joint and it hadn't even made him feel all that much better. He had practically no money left and no more weed for the weekend. He took that one last precious drag, holding the nub between pinky and thumb and savored the billowy high, knowing it might be the last chance he had for the next few days, unless someone miraculously decided to share a bit of their stash. Which seemed unlikely considering he'd alienated most of the stoners in town that he knew of that might be willing to part with free weed.

It was going to be a long weekend.



Supper was his mom's meatloaf drowned with ketchup in front of the TV. His step dad sat there chowing down, beer in one hand, fork in the other. His mom actually took note of the bruise on his arm and asked about it.

He explained it away by lying and saying he'd landed badly jumping a ramp with his bike. She bought it, sort of reflexively warned him to be more careful and turned her attention back to the TV.

He flopped on the bed and played video games until his cell phone chirped at him. Todd perked up at the sight of Curtis' icon.

Do you wanna talk?

He shut his eyes, relief washing over him. Maybe Curtis had heard about the fight with Randy. And no matter how pissed Curtis was at him, he wouldn't take somebody else's side in a fight. So maybe he was ready to forgive him.

Sure. He typed in, trying for casual, as if the invite weren't the best thing that had happened all summer.

After a moment, a response popped up.

Meet me at school. Parking lot?

Okay. Half hour.

He slipped out the bedroom window to avoid having to explain to his mom why he was heading out so late, got his bike from the garage and pedaled the few miles to the high school. The building was one big dark silhouette. The parking lot not much better, only two out of six or eight parking lot lights actually working. It was pretty obviously empty though. He circled it once, looking for Curtis' bike, then stopped at the sidewalk leading up to the school's front entrance, letting his bike drop on grass he'd personally cut. He sat down on the curb, figuring maybe Curtis was just making slower time than him. He had hauled ass to get here.

There was a rustling in the bushes fronting the line of reserved, teacher's parking spots. He eyed it narrowly, all too aware of that there were most certainly things that went bump in the night and wanted to skin and eat you to boot. A lot of those things tended to pop up around Crowley High.

"Curtis? That you?" He rose, approaching the dark foliage warily. It rustled again, whoever it was not making a lot of effort to keep quiet. Probably just a dog. Yeah, if it wasn't Curtis a dog would be preferable to something that wanted to eat him.


"Guess again, man." Randy Savage stepped out of the bushes.

"Shit." He backed up a step, raising his fists defensively, managed to get a 'What the - -?' out before he heard or sensed or whatever the movement from then parking lot behind him and half turned to see the dark shapes of two other guys rushing at him. Which was around the time Randy's fist glanced off the side of his face and the night momentarily lit up with bright lights. He staggered into the arms of the incoming two guys - - who were just shadowed faces topping dark clad bodies. They caught his arms, twisting them behind him while he was trying to clear his head. There was the wet, coppery taste of blood in his mouth.

"Mother fucker - -" he spat it out at Randy's feet, jerking against the hold his two friends had on his arms. They just tightened their grips, one of them twisting his arm up at an angle that made his shoulder scream bloody murder.

Randy sauntered up, bent down a little to look him in the eye and sneered. "I told you I 'd fuck you up."

"Seriously - -? Are you off your fucking meds or something - -?" Todd got out before Randy buried a fist in his gut, knocking the words and the air right out of him. The two guys on his arms were the only thing keeping him from crumpling to his knees at that point.

There was a screech of tires that he heard through the huge rush in his ears. Randy strode past, and they hauled him around, half dragging him towards a big black car. Some older model four door sedan with another guy sitting behind the steering wheel staring at them. It was about that point that the thought that this was some chicken shit payback for the incident that morning became a little less conceivable and Todd began to get a lot more scared. Nobody went to this much trouble to retaliate for a bathroom scuffle. Unless Randy was a psychopath or a mobster or something.

He started to fight the grip on his arms in earnest, planting his heels, kicking off against the side of the car when he was close enough, which threw them all half off their balance, but didn't make them loosen their hold on him. Randy planted an elbow in his back, between his shoulder blades and slammed him down onto the trunk of the car. Something cold and hard encircled his wrist, then they dragged the other wrist over and fastened the other half of a set of handcuffs around it. Fuck. Just - - fuck.

"Okay, okay, I get it. You're a badass," he wasn't too proud to grovel a little when the odds were so blatantly against him. "You fucked me up big time -- so let's call it even, okay?"

Randy grinned at him as they yanked him up, dragging him towards the back of the car. The driver popped the trunk and Randy opened it. The interior of the trunk was big and dark and Todd stared at it with dawning understanding.

"The hell - - fucking no!" He got a sneaker against the bumper, trying to shove backwards, but Randy caught his legs and between them they lifted him up and stuffed him into the musty trunk. The only bright spot was Randy got a knee jammed up under his jaw in the process, which he hissed at and cursed, but got in the last laugh anyway when he slammed the trunk down with a resounding bang and plunged Todd into pitch, faintly oil, faintly blood scented darkness. He kicked at the trunk ineffectually, until the car lurched forward, spinning tires and screeching around a turn with enough force to send Todd sliding head first into the wheel well. He saw stars again and lay there, panting, twisting his cuffed wrists so he wasn't lying on them.

Trying to wrap his mind around what was happening was proving difficult. Sure, he was pretty immune to the idea of monsters of all shapes and sizes and the resulting blood and gore - - but plain old human violence - - the sort of shit you saw in various gangster moves where people got kidnapped and locked into car trunks to be taken out to the woods and shot in the head then buried in shallow graves - - that sort of stuff was beyond his range of experience. And now that he'd started thinking about the shallow grave thing and wondering if Randy Savage was completely off his rocker or on some really fucked up drug - - he couldn't get it out of his head. Or maybe this was just some really bad prank - - Todd had been known to fuck with the occasional deserving asshole himself - - that had gotten taken really off the edge of far. The license plate of Randy's Camaro had tags that read - - Todd tried to remember - - New York? New Jersey? And maybe they really got elaborate in their punking on the east coast. That would be the best of a really shitty set of bad scenarios he had going in his imagination.

The car was rolling along at a good clip now, and they were playing what sounded sort of like Danzig, but all he was really getting was the reverberating pounding of big bass speakers nested up against the back of the trunk. After maybe twenty minutes, the smooth ride turned bumpy, like they'd turned off the road and onto a dirt track. He bounced around in the trunk, trying to brace himself as best he could. When the car finally stopped, he felt like a beetle some malicious kid had put in a jar and shaken vigorously.

It was pitch when they popped the trunk, the little trunk light the only source of illumination as two of them reached in and latched hold of him. It was a toss up whether to resist the process or go with and get out of the cramped trunk. He went with the latter, figuring that if he got his feet on the ground he could make a break for it.

They were in the woods. A lot of dark tree shapes that got thicker and darker in the distance. There was a chain attached to two trees blocking the narrow dirt road just ahead of the car, with a sign with a faded no trespassing on it.

He knew that sign and this little back service road. He and Curtis had used to ride their bikes out here when they'd been younger, and play commando in the woods and the ruins of what had used to be a big old nursery that had burned down back in the fifties. All that was left now was the gaping maw of the basement and thousands of daffodils that came back every spring, scattering the surrounding woods. There was a creek a little further past the ruin that was thick with bamboo on its banks. They'd called it Bamboo City. They hadn't been there in a couple of years. Even so, he knew the lay of the woods like the back of his hand.

They jerked him along, Randy gripping one arm, one of the other three guys on the other. They tromped along, the other two shuffling ahead, one of them with a little flashlight in hand.

"How'd you get Curtis' phone?"

Randy cast him a look, the whites of his eyes and his teeth faint glimmers in the darkness. "How'dya know he didn't text you himself?"

"Because he didn't, dickbag." Of that Todd's faith was unshakable. Curtis wouldn't do that to him.

Randy shrugged, considering, then said slyly. "I didn't need him anymore, so I slit his fat throat and I took it."

Todd shut his eyes. Something black and terrible gurgled inside him. The flashlight the guy ahead of the was holding chose that moment to sputter out, and Todd jerked his arm out of the grip of the guy on his left and jammed a knee between Randy's legs. Randy gasped, doubling over and he slammed his head up under the bastard's jaw on the way down. He didn't even feel the impact, the black rage had surged so fast and so huge. He rushed Randy, shoulder slamming him into a tree, bringing his knee up again into his crotch - - curses coming from his mouth that he didn't even really realize he was uttering.

One of the other's made a grab at him, fingers catching at his shirt, but he ducked under and ran, pelting into the darkness, breaking through brush and bramble in his flight. He glanced off a tree and rebounded, crouched for a moment, listening for the sound of pursuit. He heard them crashing through the wood, not as close on his heels as he'd thought.

Randy was a lying sack of shit, that's what he was. He'd just said that about Curtis to fuck with Todd's head. He had to have.

He got up, and it took a little more effort than he expected. He'd taken a lot of abuse the last couple of days and he was beginning to feel it. These woods backed up against the Crowley Heights bottling plant - - the same plant his step dad had gotten laid off from - - and beyond that was a road where there would be people in cars that might stop for a handcuffed kid staggering out into the road. He hoped. This was Crowley Heights, after all and people tended to look the other way at a lot of messed up shit.

A flicker of light through the darkness caught his attention. Not a flashlight beam, but more like a fire. Somebody out camping, maybe? He veered that way, came to a clearing and stopped in the cover of surrounding trees and foliage. There was a light all right, coming from about a hundred candles placed all over the place, and about a dozen guys, a lot of them bare-chested and tattoo covered, some of them sporting black robes, all of them skirting the edge of a damned big pentagram that looked as if it had been spray painted on the cleared earth.

Shit. Satanists. Fucking Satanists. Why that scenario hadn't popped into his head with the others when he was busy freaking himself out in the trunk of the car was a mystery, because - - duh - - Crowley Heights was crawling with the bastards. Only most of the devil worshipping dicks in town were from another generation entirely and these guys looked more like extras out of a death metal video and what the hell was going on?

He backed away as quietly as he could, getting a little distance between him and the clearing before he started to run like hell again. When his back pocket started vibrating it suddenly occurred to him that he had a phone and that maybe calling somebody and asking for help might be a good game plan.

He leaned against a tree and managed to get the cell out, and just twist enough to see that it was a text from his phone carrier reminding him that this month's bill was overdue.

He got his contacts list up and jabbed at a number, any number, only hoping it wasn't his mom he got.

The last thing he needed, if and when he got out of this, was to explain to her why he'd been kidnapped by Satanists. She was already freaked out enough that he'd asked if she was one. She was going to start suspecting he had an unhealthy fixation.

It wasn't home he got, but Jenny's voice mail, telling all and sundry that they could leave a message if they wanted, and that she might get back to them if she was in the mood. That includes you, Todd. Which he rolled his eyes in exasperation at every time he heard and he'd been hearing it a lot this summer in his efforts to connect with her.

"Jenny, please, please check your messages," he pleaded at the phone in as loud a whisper as he dared. "Satanists are up to some sort of sick shit and I'm in trouble - - out in the woods behind the bottling plant - - near the ruins and Bamboo City - - and you need to check and see if Curtis is - - shit - -"

He caught the tail end of the movement as fist came at him from out of the darkness. He lost the phone as somebody bowled him over. He went down into pine tags and leaves with somebody's knee in his gut and no way to block the fist that slammed down into his mouth.

"You little prick - - I'll fucking kill you - -" Randy was screaming down at him, bloody of face himself from his intimate meeting with Todd's skull.

"Get off, you asshole." Todd snarled past the blood filling his mouth, trying to buck the older guy off. Randy punched him in the side and pain flared out from his kidney. It was all he could do to try and breath as Randy fished the cell out of the leaves and pushed himself up. He dropped it to the ground next to Todd's face and slammed the heel of his boot down on it, splintering glass and plastic.

"You giant douche - -"

Randy kicked him again and Todd bit off the insult, rolling onto his side, drawing his knees up from the pain. Randy bent, smiling down, the snick of a switchblade drawing Todd's eyes like a magnet.

"No," One of the other guys had come up, and put a hand on Randy's shoulder. "The boss said, one piece. Don't piss him off."

Randy's mouth tightened, but he snapped the blade closed and rose, snapping. "Just bring him. And don't lose him this time."

At least Randy was limping, walking just a little hunched over like a guy that had had a knee driven up twice into his nuts. Todd hoped he'd driven them right back up into the fucker's body.

They jerked him back to the clearing and everybody stopped and stared. It looked more like the parking lot out behind a Death Metal show that what Todd had become to associate conventional Satanists with. All of these guys were youngish, all of them pierced and tattooed, a few of them wearing ear buds trailing down to ipods tucked in their jeans. The Satanists of Crowley Heights wouldn't know an ipod if it bit them on their asses and that included Atticus. Truth be told he'd much rather have been dragged into a gathering of the towns doddering old devil worshippers than this bunch. Atticus had been about as scary as any sweater vest wearing douche with daddy issues could be - - which was not much at all.

The guy striding up to him now from that black candle lit pentagram was a lot more intimidating. If metal and bodybuilding came up with a conglomerated sub-culture, this dude would be on the cover of the magazine.

The guy was huge, bulging with glistening muscles that it looked like he'd gone to the trouble to oil up for effect. Long dark hair, just a little thinning on the top, and a jaw like a granite block. He had some sort of elaborate occult symbol on his chest. A lot more stretched across his arms. He wasn't as young close up as he'd seemed. Maybe thirty-five or forty. Ancient.

He looked at Todd. Todd looked back warily, a continuous looping what the fuck what the fuck going through his head.

"The Pure Evil One," the guy finally said. He didn't look that impressed. But then maybe the scowl was his normal expression. He sort of reminded Todd a little of Glenn Danzig. He looked like maybe he'd gone to some effort to chase down the look.

"Don't you guys ever give up?" Todd complained. "The Book's gone. I'm retired. Give it a rest, assholes."

The Danzig-wannabe looked down his nose at Todd - - not hard, since he had more than a half head on him - - and sneered. "Betrayer. You spit in the face of the prophesy our brethren have worked towards since our dark lord's Adversary hung dying on his cross."

"Bull shit," Todd spat back. "I'm not your brethren. I didn't betray jack shit because I never wanted it, dickhead. And Danzig's a pretentious asshole. Yeah, I said it."

The Danzig-wannabe widened his eyes a split second before he backhanded Todd right into oblivion. Todd figured this out when he woke up an undetermined time later with the side of his face still throbbing, lying on the ground at the edge of the clearing next to a big pine tree. Somebody had been nice enough to tie a rope around his ankles, nixing any chance at running away again.

The heavy metal Satanists were sort of mulling around, a few of them passing bottles of booze around, or talking in groups like they were waiting for something. Imitation Danzig sat on a rock just outside the spray painted pentagram, looking like he was meditating or something.

Todd carefully eased himself up, brushing his cheek against his shoulder to get rid of the pine tags sticking to his skin. He got his back to the tree with a little effort. He noticed Randy over with a few shirtless assholes, giving him the stink eye. Randy had taken off his own shirt and his chest art was displayed in all its glory. It was an inverted cross, the bottom half it dripping globs of rendered blood. There were a lot of half naked guys hanging out and getting drunk and he really, really hoped this particular cult wasn't into mixing weird kinky sex stuff into their rites. He'd seen the occasional fucked up horror/porn where things really got out of hand. Granted there'd always been a hot chick involved.

There was a rustling in the woods across the clearing that attracted the attention of the metal Satanists. Every head in the clearing turned expectantly as a figure walked out of the darkness in the flickering orange candlelight. A girl. And not the sort of girl you saw once and ever forgot, much less made out with and fucked and had her slip your memory.

Nikki. It was Nikki Kane, padding through the group of staring guys like she was the queen of the world. Which she might have been for the wide-eyed, stares that ranged from lustful appreciation to careful apprehension. Todd had come to appreciate the latter emotion when it came to thoughts of her after finding out her true nature. She walked up to the Danzig-wannabe and dropped a small duffle at his feet.

"It took some doing, but as promised, you've got your ingredients, Drexel."

The Danzig wannabe - - Draxal, rose up, towering over her, but she didn't seem impressed. She looked right past him, in fact, zeroing in on Todd with one arched brow.

"And you brought the guest of honor."

Draxal sneered, glancing towards Todd himself. "Are you sure he's the one? He looks like nothing but a punk kid, to me."

Nikki shrugged. "Oh, I 'm sure. He's harmless though. A limp dick without the Book."

Todd narrowed his eyes, offended at that analogy.

"You've got a ritual to prepare. You should get to it," she suggested, brushing past Draxal and slinking towards Todd like a predator on the prowl.

She blocked out his vision of what they were doing over by the pentagram, standing with her boots on either side of his bound legs, smirking down at him with a faintly bored expression.

"Bet you didn't think we'd party again, huh, lover?" she purred.

He glared up. "I should have known you had something to do with this. You and those other three douches."

She dropped down, sliding forward to sit on his thighs, trailing fingers up his chest to his jaw. He jerked his head back hard enough to smack it up against the tree, all the biting things he might have said drying up from the tactile memory of the last time she'd been perched over him. And even the knowledge that she and the Metal Dudes were somehow one and the same didn't dull the edge of that particular memory.

"You scared, lover?" She bent close, brushing the hair away from his ear, the tip of her clever little tongue flicking inside. "You should be," she whispered. "What they're gonna do - - its going to hurt like a bitch."

He made an embarrassing whimpery sound that he choked back, twisting his head away. She sat back, smiling coldly, twining a lock of his hair around her finger.

"What? What are they gonna do?" he finally choked out.

"You locked the Book away - - I bet you don't even know where, huh?" She slid her fingers up under the hem of his t-shirt and he shivered at the scrape of her nails on his skin. "But that's okay - - because there's no seal that can't be broken. They're going to rip you open like ripe fruit - -" she pressed her lips against the side of his mouth. "- - and mangle those locks of yours."

He shut his eyes, swallowing. "Why? Why do want the end of the world so bad?"

She drew back, canting her head, looking at him as if he were the most curious thing. The frantic bleating of what sounded like some hoofed animal drew his attention, and he leaned a little to look around her at the Metal Satanists leading a reluctant goat into the middle of the inverted pentagram. The lot of them were humming, chanting low and incomprehensible things.

"Oh, Jesus - -" Todd breathed, as the big guy sliced the poor thing straight across the throat with enough force to half sever the head, holding it up by a grip on its snout while the spasming body spurted blood, soaking the ground inside the symbol.

Nikki slapped him lightly, drawing his horrified attention back to her. "This really isn't the place to bring up that name, baby. I think they're almost ready for you."

Fuck. Fucking fuck.

She pushed herself up, stepping back and leaning against the tree as two of the guys, who'd donned black robes with big hooded cowls for the ritual came for him. They dragged him up, not bothering to untie his ankles, so struggling was a lost cause. He did anyway. Frantic and scared.

Somebody caught his feet when they reached the circle, so he wouldn't scuff their carefully spray painted lines. They laid him down, hands reaching out while he bucked against the handling, uncuffing one wrist and dragging that arm out to what looked like one of those metal stakes used to chain up big dogs, and fastening the empty cuff around the eyehole. There was already a cuff fastened to a second stake that they forced his arm towards and fastened his wrist to the waiting cuff. Which left him staked out in the middle of the thing, arms stretched out to the two top points of the five point star, his feet secured to a third dog stake at the bottom downward facing point. The ground was wet from the goat blood, and it began soaking through his shirt and jeans.

"You dicks - - you sons of bitches - -" he was hyperventilating a little in his panic. They weren't paying him a lot of heed, all of them holding the nubs of black candles and forming a circle around the outer edge of the pentagram that blocked out everything but their creepily underlit faces and a night sky devoid of stars. Nikki hadn't joined them, not a part of this cult. Just using it for her own ends, like the Metal Dudes had used Atticus' society.

"Whatever she told you - - she's a lying, double crossing bitch." He tried to get that plain fact across, but their chanting was drowning him out, and the big guy, Draxal moved through the circle, the only one without a robe now, his hands and his chest still bloody from the goat blood.

"Hear us, oh Dark Unholy Master," he cried to the sky in what was actually a pretty good imitation of a Danzig roar. "Black winds of death forever cry in pain calling the disciples of the Dark Master and the Impaler to gather under the banner of the black holocaust". It even sort of sounded like it would have made pretty good lyrics to some death metal song. In fact, now that he thought about it, he maybe had heard those selfsame words in a song - - but he was a little distracted at the moment to remember exactly which.

The guy was holding a stone bowl in one bloody hand and a knife in the other, both of which he raised high. He started bellowing something in Latin. Todd thought it was Latin because weren't most archaic/Satanist rituals preformed in that dead language? Of course he knew about as much Latin as he did particle physics - - which was to say none - - so it was only a layman's guess.

There was a little rumble in the sky, a distant throb of thunder to go along with the cloud covered sky and Draxal paused, head back eyes closed as the breeze from the oncoming storm fluttered sweat dampened hair.

"It is time," he decreed and dropped to his knees, right at Todd's head.

He held the stone bowl out for his followers to see. "The ground bone of St. Issac of Aqualine. The sulfuric excretion of a hound of hell. The dried semen of Pope Evaristus - -"

"Gross - -" Todd made a miserable sound and pulled at the stakes, which showed no sign of cooperation.

Finally Draxal produced a small red filled vial that he poured into the mix of noxious sounding stuff in the bowl and mixed together with the knife. "Bound together by the blood of the Book of Pure Evil, the unholy and the holy shall join in riotous fornication and shatter the chains keeping the Dark Book from this realm."

The knife came down, but all it did was slice open Todd's t-shirt right down the middle. It had been a cool shirt. A classic Iron Maiden from the '82 tour that he'd found at a thrift store.

But the indignity of that was swept away when Draxal made his next cut. This one a line across Todd's chest.

He yelped, more surprise and fear of damage he couldn't see, than initial pain.

"You crazy fuck - - Shit - - shit - -" The pain came after all. Burning like acid had been injected under his skin. He hardly even felt the second cut until a few seconds later when whatever was on the blade started eating into his flesh. It felt like it, anyway. The guy leaned over him, and all he could see were the hard planes of his stomach with the bottom half of the tattoo. He could smell the guy's sweat mixed in with the stench of the stuff in the cup, mixed in with blood - - blood seeping into his mouth from a bitten cheek. But the sting of that was nothing compared to the centralized agony at his chest.

He arched off the ground, screaming and other than a few of them moving in to hold him down, they ignored him, chanting all the louder, until the sound of them and the sound of the blood pounding in his head took on the same tempo. Draxal kept cutting.

It went on forever, long enough at least that between the shock of the mutilation and his struggles against it, he exhausted himself to the point that they didn't really need to exert all that much pressure to keep him from twisting in his bonds.

Draxal sat back finally, raising his bloody hands upwards and chanting nonsense words that the others echoed. With an effort, Todd lifted his head enough to see what they'd done to him. Not mindless slashing, but a symbol carved into the center of his chest, ragged edges of flesh inflamed and seeping blood and just - - crap. Really, awful looking and throbbing. It started to burn. Not just burn, but to actually glow, emitting a deep red light interspaced by sparks of bluish white. The pain of the actual infliction of it got put to shame as the thing started searing through him. Veins, flesh bones, every part of him felt like it was being burned to ash from the inside out. He opened his mouth a soundless scream, vocal chords too frozen up to actually make a noise.

Something inside him fractured, spider webbing into a thousand hairline cracks, crystalline and brittle. He felt the force of something throbbing beyond the splintered web - - something that swelled, throbbing with a familiar chaotic energy.

No. No. No. But it was a numb recognition and a numb denial, powerless in his exhaustion.

It railed against him, railed against the prison he'd made by pure instinct for it, and he had nothing in him to hold it back. All his stamina eaten up by the pain, all his will drenched in the blinding fire of the symbol carved into his chest.

With a sudden flare of hellish light, the dam broke. The sky let loose over their heads, flaring with blinding white light as a strike of lightning arced into the edge of the clearing. The thunderclap that followed was this tremendous deafening boom that shook the very earth. And in its wake, something fluttered in the air above the pentagram. Above Todd. Every face looked up in awe and reverence. One or two of them lifted hands, making a go for it, but the Book never had been that cooperative. It flittered upwards as the wind began to whip in earnest and disappeared into the darkened wood.

It took most of the pain with it. All the heat, all the searing agony trying to devour him from the inside out. He looked down and before his eyes, the angry slashes began to fade, gaping edges of torn flesh and all, just absorbed back into his skin. Other than the blood and a dull, throbbing ghost ache where the slices had been, he was whole again.

He made a small, miserable sound and dropped his head back to the goat's blood-soggy ground.

"We did it," somebody said, voice filled with awe.

Draxal sat back on his heels and laughed this deep, booming laugh. Todd really, really hated him.

"What do we do with him?" That was Randy Savage, moving to stand behind Draxal, looking down with a mean set to his mouth.

Draxal looked up, through the ring of dispersing metal Satanists, towards Nikki, who'd slithered up to the edge of the circle.

"Oh, he still has value," she said, not bothering to elaborate. "Let him go. For now."

Draxal waved a hand and a couple of them went to unlock the cuffs.

Randy pulled back his teeth in a snarl. "We gonna let this bitch run the show? I owe this little shit."

Remarking that he thought he'd been paid in full for any pain Todd had caused him - - so get over it asshole - - seemed inappropriate sitting in the middle of a circle of his over excited, blood thirsty cronies. So Todd clamped his teeth on the comment and clutched his aching wrists to his chest as soon as he was free to do so, clambering sort of clumsily to his feet and trying to keep his back to as many of them as he could at a time. They grinned at him, leering at their upper hand. High on their success.

Draxal waved a hand and they shifted, allowing him an opening, a pathway out of this damned satanic circle. He took it without hesitation. Backed away until he reached the edge of the clearing, then turned and bolted into the woods.




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