Leaving the ghostly image of the train behind them, the bike and its rider sailed through the astral plane toward their next destination. Around them the landscape changed continuously, with cities and people flowing past like blades on a fan.
A maniacal growl issued from the chopper as the biker deliberately drove through the figure of a police officer who was harassing a group of homeless teens, causing the man in uniform to cry out in confusion and fear. It had only taken the biker one trip through the astral plane after inheriting the bike to realize that beings in the physical world could feel things beyond their five fleshy senses. Maybe someday, he thought, folks will wake up and start paying attention to what's really going on around them.
Merrick exited the astral plane and entered the physical one through a large basement located beneath the ruins of an old church several miles outside of New Orleans. After parking the chopper in the middle of the room, he dismounted and walked over to the old sink and water pump. He pushed the pump up and down several times, waiting for the water to turn from a murky brown to a semi-clear before washing Rance's blood from his face and hands. Once he was somewhat clean again, he gripped the front of the sink and forced himself to face the reflection in the mirror above it.
The light-brown face staring back at him appeared much too battle-hardened to belong to someone that was still in the middle of his nineteenth round with life.
The room's single light bulb swung back and forth on exposed wires behind his reflection's deformed left ear. Muscles throughout the biker's face began to contract on their own, pulling the skin taut over his cheekbones and forehead. He looked down at his hands, the knuckles already beginning to turn white as he tried to shake off the aftereffects of the astral plane. With great effort, he stumbled over to the small cot on the other side of the room, removed his ax and collapsed. Using the astral plane as a shortcut had its perks, like getting from Point A to Point B in only a matter of seconds; it also had its drawbacks, especially for those who used it too often, as the biker had been forced to do these past few days. The major drawback-the life-threatening one-was making the travel-weary pilgrim remember things best left forgotten, memories so vivid it was like reliving the events all over again. It was during these times that Merrick found himself marveling at not just what the mind could remember after experiencing the other side of reality, but what the skin, bones and muscles could remember as well.
Merrick let the physical and emotional memories leading all the way back to the moment of his conception rush over him like a flood of rancid garbage. His body, sweating profusely on the cot, shook uncontrollably from withdraws as he was born addicted to meth in a seedy Philadelphia motel. His mother, a prostitute of Scottish and Japanese descent, and the one responsible for his addiction, pushed him away after cutting the umbilical cord and lit a joint; his father, half African-American, half Sicilian, had been murdered a week before this joyous occasion, another casuality of the unchecked marriage between his mother's habitual drug habit and paranoid schizophrenia
The biker grabbed each side of the cot and tried to stop his body from shaking, but there was no need: his violent, agonizing birth into the world quickly gave way to the waves of trepidation that was the rest of his historical narrative.
The beautiful yet horrifically insane woman kept moving him from one city to the next in search of "work." There was nothing maternal about this woman who had given birth to him; she was as cruel and as unforgiving as the men she kept bringing into their lives, which were mostly dealers in drugs, death and human flesh.
She was also the one responsible for giving him most of the scars that covered the majority of his little body.
Merrick rolled over on the cot and raised the sleeves of his coat, revealing arms that were blanketed in smooth, white circles
Here, baby, let Momma give ya a-little angel kiss.
Nineteen-year-old Merrick sucked air between his teeth and clenched his fists as every cigarette that his mother had ever burned him with, and every razor that she had ever cut him with, burned and cut him now. His hand then suddenly shot up and grabbed his deformed right ear as one of her pimps held it against the engine of the new car she and the other girls were expected to pay for.
Had paid for.
It's the past. Keep it straight, man.
With every passing second Merrick's senses, physical and emotional, became more sensitive to their history. He could smell the car's exhaust-see its fumes mixing with his breath. He's so cold, but his ear's on fire.
In the background, his mother's laughter burns the other ear.
Why is she laughing?!
Was laughing. She had been standing outside when it happened. Just standing there laughing as I screamed my little head off, too spun-out to give a shit.
The cot squeaked as he flipped over onto his stomach and stretched out his arms and legs. A slight tearing at the corner of his mouth was the precursor to one of the worst forms of torture ancient man had devised for his fellow man, a form of torture Merrick the child had been subjected to on and off for the last three years that he was in his mother's care.
An old blanket replaced the pair of socks that his mother had used to muffle his screams whenever she whipped him with her homemade flagellum, a ritual she performed during those times that she was convinced her son was possessed by the Devil.
The man's limbs went rigid with each shred of flesh that was torn from the child's back before relaxing against the invisible restraints that bound him to the cot; his stepfather's fiery sermon continued to lash his spirit while his mother prepared to whip the back of his legs. When the first scouring was done, he tore his goggles from his forehead and grabbed his skull with both hands, trying to process the information and then file it away. In the background, the echoes of his choked cries were replaced by the sounds of dripping water and the cracking of his jawbone.
"Bastard," growled the biker.
James, a deacon from a small church, had swooped in to save them when Merrick was only eight years old. The man (if his stepfather could be called such) was nice enough . . . at first, getting his mother Kioko into a treatment facility while he and his little sister Dinah stayed with a nice family that had a large backyard and a golden retriever. Merrick had even been allowed to attend school for a short time, where he learned his alphabet and played with other children. But it wasn't long after the wedding that he was pulled out of public school to be home schooled. That's when he began to realize that his stepfather was more interested in him than his mother.
The deacon, a heavy closet drinker and perfect double agent, had been the worst possible kind of monster; the kind that had been able to fool others into believing he was one of the good guys. Merrick's mother, of course, had known everything and had even been a willing participant during most of the events.
When the evil bitch isn't playing cheerleader or indifferent spectator.
Merrick's neck muscles, at the memory of his mother's shrill, insane laughter, tensed up so tightly that it felt as if the bones beneath them would snap from the pressure.
GET OUT OF MY HEAD!!! his mind railed against her and his stepfather as he fought their memories for possession of the one thing they had not been able to completely rob him of in the past: his sanity. But the memories soon swallowed up the majority of Merrick's willpower and he found himself helplessly merging again with the past until it was the only reality that existed; a reality that enveloped him within indescribable torments that were inflicted upon him by the cruel hands of his stepfather.
In the beginning of his mother's marriage to the deacon, Merrick had suffered every disgusting form of sexual abuse outside of rape. Then, on his tenth birthday, rape had entered into the equation. Other than the scourging sessions with his mother, those were the only times Merrick could remember his stepfather quoting bible verses to him, verses that had made God sound scarier than the monster that was attacking him. Already a meek child due to years of being subjected to what many would call crimes against humanity, this made Merrick even more vulnerable and easy to cow . . . that is, until the following year, when after hours of mind games his stepfather had tried to rape Dinah on the living room floor in front of him. That's when Merrick had picked up the knife laying on the arm of the couch, a prop from one of his stepfather's earlier performances. There wasn't much to remember between the time he had felt the knife's handle against his sweaty palm, now covered with scars, and the moment he realized that, in his desperation to save her, he had accidentally killed his little sister along with their stepfather. All his senses could remember of those few brief seconds was an overwhelming rage that could not be contained.
The biker punched several holes into an old marquee that separated the cot from the wall next to him. When he was finished, he was swept away on the next wave of gut-wrenching memories.
The judge handed down the sentence: He was condemned to a psyche-ward until his twenty-first birthday or until he was deemed well enough by the "experts" to return to society, whichever came first. After two years of therapy and art classes, he managed to pull off a daring escape that included a dozen security guards armed with German shepherds. Being a free human for the first time in his life, he did what society told him he did best: remain invisible. Soon it was the day before his fourteenth birthday, the day he met Mutt's original owner, an old Irish biker named Jarrod McMurphy. For the next three years he traveled with Jerrod, who came to regard him as a son-no strings attached. During their time together he never witnessed Jerrod shift the chopper into sixth gear, but, he did witness Jerrod do many other things that evoked in him a sense of awe; the first time being when the old biker saved him from something even more perverted than the creatures that he had come into contact with in the past: a demon.
The memory of Jerrod's death was one of the last major events to surface in Merrick's mind before he fell off the cot and onto the basement's dank, moldy floor. While his physical being was busy curling itself up into the fetal position on the cot, his mental one hid in the closest of his sixteen-year-old self.
He peeked through the slats of the louver doors as seven black jackals, accompanied by a man dressed in a tuxedo, walked into the room. The man smoothed back his dark hair and pointed at Jerrod with the end of his cane, which was crowned with a golden fixture that was missing its jewel.
"You're a hard man to find," the man told Jerrod. "I'm starting to think that you've been avoiding the invitation I extended to you. Of course, we both know that would be ridiculous. Avoiding an invitation from the Master's general is like trying to avoid the Enemy's plagues: it can't be done."
"I don't have what you're looking for," Jerrod said.
Merrick, his younger self sensing another's presence, turned his head toward the marquee while his memory brushed against the cheek of a small Asian man dressed in white linen.
The man put a finger to his lips. "Shhh . . ." That was all he said before shifting his attention back to the drama unfolding beyond the closet doors.
Merrick moved his head on the cot as he followed the new arrival's gaze. Outside the jackals were becoming more vicious. Both of his selves made an involuntary sound of fear; the self in the closet drew the attention of the man in the tuxedo.
"Look, what do you want from me?" Jerrod asked, drawing the man's attention away from the closet and placing it back onto him. "I told you I don't have the damn thing!"
The man in the tuxedo grabbed the old biker by the throat and lifted him off of the ground. "You dare lie to The Destroyer!?" The man's face twisted into something unearthly.
Jerrod made a gasping sound and kicked his legs in the air. After a few seconds, he raised himself up using the demon's arm as leverage and vomited on the hand that was holding him by the neck.
Abaddon, disgusted, threw him against the wall on the other side of the room.
Jerrod laughed. "If you say so, but you're still never going to acquire all of the pieces." The old biker's smile broadened. "Not with my help anyway. Now, why don't you just take that fancy invitation of yours and shove it up your prissy little ass."
The demon, in a fit of rage, tore through the room like a hurricane, destroying everything within his path, everything except the closet doors and the old biker lying against the wall on the other side of the room. Once the tantrum was purged, Abaddon calmly smoothed his disheveled hair down into its perfect cut and straightened his tie.
Dusting the debris from his shoulders, the man nonchalantly told the jackals to attack Jerrod.
Merrick's shout filled the basement as his younger self tried to burst through the closet doors.
The man in the closet grabbed him around the torso and concealed him behind a curtain of linen. An overwhelming peace overcame him then, and he knew that he was wrapped in the arms of the angel of death.
Merrick lay on the basement floor, the images of the burning house and the jackal's tooth that he had pulled from Jarrod's ribs fading into the static of his weary mind. After a second or two he threw up, then he got to his feet and retrieved a handful of energy bars and his canteen from the saddlebag draped over the chopper's back fender. He carried his rations over to the cot, sat down, and forced himself to consume the nutrients his body needed.
There's got to be another way to travel through the astral plane without having to deal with all of this bullshit, Merrick thought. Otherwise it's going to kill me.
Or drive me insane.
Merrick dropped the last energy bar to the ground and reached for his ax; the floorboards above his head were creaking. He stood up and looked toward the door at the top of the basement's stairs. Beneath it could be seen artificial light that was blocked somewhat by a pair of feet.
There was a light knocking, followed by a jiggling of the doorknob.
The biker climbed the stairs with his blades ready to take the head of whatever was on the other side of the door. That is, thought Merrick, if what's on the other side even has a head.
With weapon posed to strike, he placed his foot quietly onto the last step, unlocked the door, and then jerked it open.
Merrick stopped the ax's descent in mid-fall before it could decapitate the priest eavesdropping on the other side.
The priest gasped and dropped his electric lantern. Looking up at Merrick with a surprised expression on his face, he began to stutter in two-word sentences.
Merrick rolled his eyes and lowered the ax. "How the hell did you find me?" he asked the priest, who he had met a few weeks prior, but whose name he did not know. "I done told you I work alone."
"A hitchhiker led us here," he told Merrick in a nervous rush of words.
"A hitchhiker, huh?"
"Y-y-yes," stammered the priest. "We didn't know you were here-promise! I heard a noise and . . ."
"Yes." The priest straightened his collar then stooped down and retrieved the lantern from the floor. "The other members of Bart. Cricket-the young Chinese girl you met a few weeks ago-needed a place to forge some weapons."
Merrick swore under his breath before looking at the priest from the corner of his eye.
"We didn't know, I swear."
Merrick secured the ax inside the harness that was still located on his back. "I thought priests weren't supposed to swear," he said sarcastically. "Father . . .?"
"Ramirez," answered the priest; he extended his hand toward Merrick. "Father Ramirez. It's nice to meet you again."
Merrick looked down at the hand, then up at the priest. "Where'd you say the rest of Daggs' little ragtag band of misfits is hiding?"
"They're not hiding," said the priest defensively; a look from the man with the ax quickly produced the desired response. "They're in the chapel, building a fire from the dry pews." He paused for a second. "You should know," he continued in a solemn tone, "that Daggs was killed two weeks ago by the very demon we all seek."
Merrick's eye twitched and his jaw tightened; his thoughts immediately turned to Jerrod, who had introduced him to the South-African-born dwarf and former drug-addicted prostitute, Ridley Daggs, during a run to pick up a package of "customized" parts for Mutt.
"Just out of curiosity, what happened to her leg?" asked Merrick.
The priest looked at the biker with a confused expression on his face.
"I haven't seen her for a few years," said Merrick. "You know, when she still had both of her legs?"
"Oh, yes, I see what you mean. Well," the priest began, "about two years ago we came into contact with some really nasty reapers; we accidentally got trapped inside a burning building with them. Anyway, Daggs was bringing up the rear when a couple of the monsters got hold of her leg. She ordered us to leave her and complete the mission-and we did, except for Bomber who stayed behind to help. Next thing we know, here comes Bomber running out of the building with a one-legged Daggs on his back." Father Ramirez shook his head. "Poor kid. You should have seen the number that woman did on his head. I don't know if it was because he cut off her leg to save her, or because he saved her at all, or because he was cussing up a storm, but I tell you here and now as God is my witness, that boy looked like the Elephant Man for two weeks!"
"Daggs didn't like her little misfits cussing, huh? That sounds familiar."
"That's because she wanted them . . ."
"To be better than her. Yeah, yeah, I know."
"Oh, so you were one of her misfits as well?"
"No," said Merrick, following the sound of music and voices coming from the front of the church, "someone else's."
The biker entered the room where worshipers had once congregated to listen to their minister. Now it was little more than four crumbling walls with a bare steeple and a broken stained glass window.
Father Ramirez passed by him and joined a young Asian girl and large cowboy, whom he addressed as Cricket and Bomber. The two were standing in front of the team's renovated RV talking while the girl used her telekinesis to set up a tray of bullets. When she was finished, she lifted a dropper filled with clear liquid and began filling the bullets' hollow points.
"Add tears of a saint . . ."
"Who'd you get 'tears of a saint' from in the twenty-first century?" asked Bomber.
Cricket finished the first two rows of bullets, and then laid the empty dropper on the table. "From Adam Sandler," she said. Then she added offhandedly: "I had to kick him in the balls twice to get em, though."
"What?" Bomber adjusted his privates and gave the girl a wary look.
"Hey, who's the weapons expert here?!" Cricket asked, refilling the dropper and starting on the third row of bullets. "Me," she answered. "So I think I know what I'm doing, okay? Besides, I don't need some redneck questioning how I acquire Bart's needs."
"Excuse me, Miss Weapons Expert, it just seems a little uncalled for, that's all."
Cricket rolled her eyes. "You're so ridiculous. Do you even know Sandler?"
"You mean the actor?"
"No jackass, the gas attendant."
"Well, not personally . . ."
"Then why are you taking what I did to him personally? It's not like I kicked you in the balls. So why don't you shut up about it already and just be grateful your ass is covered"
Bomber threw his hands up in front of him. "I give up, Father. Maybe now's a good time ta have that little talk."
Cricket finished the bullets and then adjusted her wrist braces, each containing a hidden switchblade which she checked before pulling out her Luger and cleaning it. "What little talk?" she asked the priest.
Father Ramirez cleared his throat. "Well my child," he said, looking down at the gun in her hands, "I was just thinking that perhaps-how do I put this? ...Perhaps from now on you should consider conducting business in a more ladylike fashion. Kicking people, well, you know"-the priest whispered and pointed toward his crotch- "down there isn't becoming of a young woman as intelligent and as professional as yourself.
"And by the way," he raised his voice along with his eyebrows, "what you did to that necromancer last week, my child, was just downright heathenish!" Father Ramirez straightened his collar. "Yes, I think it's time you start contemplating what it really means to be a lady working on the side of good."
Cricket looked at the priest, dumbfounded. "In this line of work, are you serious? Anyway, it's not like 'acting ladylike' was on the list of qualifications when I signed up for this job-and I'm not even getting started on the fact that I'm being reprimanded, which is ridiculous.
"And for your information, Father, a real lady kicks Sandler in the-"
"That'll do, child," said Father Ramirez. "That will do."
"Oh, come on, Father," Bomber said. "Even I had to agree with that last part she said, and I'm the only one who hasn't met 'im yet. I'm startin ta think he's never gonna come callin on me ta do a run through the underworld. I mean, what's wrong with me? I'm a badass mother-"
"Watch your mouth," said a tall African-American woman exiting the RV.
Bomber glanced in the woman's direction. "Take it easy, August," said the cowboy. "She ain't here."
"No, but I am," August said, "and she left me in charge. So no swearing, ya got it?"
"Yeah, I got it -- but I don't like it." He looked from her to Merrick. "Well, well, wuddaya know," he said in his slow southern drawl. "Look who we got here, boys and girls, Mr. Alpha Man Macho himself.
"Whatcha doin here, Mr. Macho? Finally get scared of bein out there by yerself with all them big scary monsters runnin' 'round loose?"
"Nope," said Merrick, slowly taking off his gloves and shoving them into his coat pocket. He smiled as the cowboy took in the trophies he had won during years of training with Jarrod: his scarred and misshapen knuckles. "Not at all. I'm just wondering what the hell you people are doing here. And don't give me none of that hitchhiker bullshit, either."
"It's true," Cricket told Merrick. "He had a scar across his right eye."
Father Ramirez turned to the biker and said, "Before we go any further, perhaps I should introduce you to the members of Bart. The two next to me are Bomber, Bart's mechanic, and Cricket, our weapons expert. The lovely young woman standing in front of you is August Fairbanks, Bart's new captain, and that,"-he gestured to a red-headed kid about Cricket's age, who was sixteen at the most-"is Kody Kincaid. He's only been with us for a couple of weeks; he showed up the same night we were double crossed by one of Daggs' old contacts."
"Yeah," snorted Merrick, "there seems to be a lot of that going around lately."
"So we've noticed as well," said the priest.
Merrick walked nonchalantly throughout the room, taking in the team's equipment. He then stopped to browse through the artifacts resting on top of a couple of card tables that had been pushed together.
The biker ran his hand over the worn cover of a massive book that was several centuries old before opening it and flipping through its pages.
"Please!" cried the priest, running forward and grabbing the book. "These pages are very fragile."
Merrick jerked the book away from Father Ramirez; a page had caught his eye before the priest had closed the book; he looked for it now. "What are you," he asked sarcastically, "Bart's librarian?"
"Well, yes, sort of. I'm the team's archivist."
"That's great. Can you tell me about this?" Merrick laid the book on the table and pointed to a familiar-looking jewel fixture, this time complete with jewel.
"That's the Devil's stone, also known as the Stone of Light," said the priest. "It was knocked from Lucifer's crown by Michael during the battle that would ultimately seal Lucifer's fate and that of his minions."
Merrick closed the book and looked up at him. "I know the story. Tell me what happened to it afterward?"
"Man," said Bomber, "you're a sarcastic little cuss, ain't ya?"
"What, you got a problem with that?" asked the biker.
The cowboy suddenly looked unsure of himself. "Maybe."
"Well," said Merrick, "if you do, you just let me know. But I'm telling you right now, I'll kill you before you cut off one of my legs."
"Hey," Bomber said defensively, "it had to be done, okay. Besides, I built her a better one, didn't I?"
"You know something important, don't you?" August interrupted them, her demeanor reflecting every bit of the stone-cold professional that she had trained hard to become. "Don't you?!" she asked the biker a second time. "Maybe information that has something to do with the stone, or perhaps David's seal?"
Merrick didn't answer.
"Oh, please! Stop with the lone-wolf routine," she told him, with not only words, but with eyes that were as fierce as they were soft. "Abaddon has the jewel's fixture at the end of his cane, so if you know something about it that we don't, you should seriously think about sharing that information; whether you like it or not, we're on the same side. Not to mention the fact that Daggs saved everyone in this room more than once, except for maybe Kody, but that was because she died soon after saving him the first time. And I think-no I know!-you at least owe her one, Merrick, because everybody did."
"Tell him, August. Tell him about the connection," urged the priest.
"What connection?" Merrick asked.
August took a deep breath, placed her hands on the table, and leaned over a pile of scrolls that appeared to be much older than the book. "My father, Dr. Pascal Fairbanks, worked for a very famous museum; he was an archeologist and linguistics expert. About five years ago he was murdered by Abaddon."
"And the connection is?" Merrick asked sarcastically.
"The connection is, asshole," Bomber answered for her, "that Daggs, your friend Jerrod, and the doc were all friends. Apparently they were part of some-I don't know-group of guardians or some shit." Bomber quickly shielded his genitals with both hands and looked down.
"Sometimes I miss her," he said lowering his hands, "sometimes I don't."
Cricket laughed. "You know, if you get to missing her too much, I could always-"
"Don't even think about it," warned the cowboy.
"Will you two shut it up!" snapped August. She looked up at Merrick. "Lucifer seeks the Stone of Light, for what purpose we don't know. But what we do know is that he needs the Seal of David to find it, which was split into to four pieces. Each piece was given to one of the four guardians of the seal. Abaddon has already claimed two: my father's and Daggs'. We also know that Jerrod was given a piece."
"The fourth guardian is unknown to us," added Father Ramirez.
Merrick began making his way to the basement. "As interesting as all this is," he told them, "I got more important things to do."
"Oh, really, like what?" asked Bomber.
Instead of answering, Merrick left the room.