Aleta showed Joseph the hotel room into which she and Firefly had materialised. When they entered the room, they saw that the boy had fallen asleep, sprawled out on one of the two beds that occupied the room.
She picked up Spratt’s orb, which she had dropped carelessly onto the floor when she heard Joseph’s pained cry for help. She looked at it for a moment before finally asking the question that had been on her mind since she had rescued Joseph from the street below:
“What is a vampire?”
Joseph looked solemn as he paced to the window. He used his mastery of magnetism to take hold of the metal fragments in the window frame and pulled it shut before looking back at Aleta.
“A vampire,” he began slowly, “is the body of a dead man, animated by the soul of a demon. They fear the sunlight, for it scorches their skin and causes them great agony. They do not need food, water, or air – they feed on the blood of the living. They can be killed only by decapitation, prolonged exposure to sunlight, or by a wooden stake through the heart.”
“That explains why they were afraid of my lumen pulses,” Aleta said, “but how do you know about them?”
“Vampires often appear in Transian folklore. I have studied it at length, although, until today, I did not believe it.” Joseph looked down at himself and saw that he was still covered in the fetid slime that he had slogged through in the sewer. “Do you know what it is that we are to do here?”
“Negative,” Aleta said. “I have not yet been enlightened by our mysterious benefactor – but he did say I would not hear from him again.”
“In that case, I am going to find a bathroom and clean myself up. I suggest that we then find our companions and decide on a course of action.”
“Agreed,” Aleta said. Joseph walked out of the room and headed down the hall, and Aleta wondered why there had not been any vampires in the hotel. She and Joseph had examined it thoroughly before returning to the room, and there was no living creature in the entire complex – and yet every room had been cleaned recently and the kitchen was fully stocked with food.
Aleta glanced at herself in the mirror and saw how terrible she looked. The left shoulder of her uniform was torn, exposing the flesh beneath. Her hair was filthy, with particles of dust from the Exiles’ encounter with Dragon’s Claws combining with her sweat to cover her hair with a thick layer of grime. She had bags under her eyes, caused by exhaustion, and a small area around her right hip felt very tender.
She stepped toward one of the bedside tables and placed Spratt’s ball gently inside its drawer. She took yet another look at Firefly and then sat on the other bed when she felt a familiar soothing feeling fill her body.
“You said I wouldn’t hear from you again!” Aleta shrieked, jumping to her feet.
Aleta looked all around the room, and as her eyes passed the mirror, she saw the reflection of a dim blue glow emanating from the table in which she had placed the ball. On the bed beside it, Firefly had woken up and was opening the drawer.
The soothing feeling left her body as Firefly’s delicate hand withdrew the orb. He stared at it in wonder, and Aleta stepped toward it.
“Are you okay?!” Aleta heard Joseph’s gruff voice behind her. She spun quickly and saw the white-haired mutant standing in the doorway. Water ran down his half-naked body, but the upper half of his uniform was tied around his waist, concealing his manhood. A dark red ellipse adorned the side of his torso.
“We are fine,” Aleta replied. “What happened to your ribs?”
Joseph frowned. “I slipped while rushing to your aid.”
Aleta turned away to conceal a smirk. In Firefly’s hands the orb still glowed, and Aleta took it from him. As soon as she touched it, pain wracked her body as control over it was taken away from her entirely. Golden solid light objects filled the room, and Aleta spoke in a calm voice that was not her own.
“This is your task,” her voice intoned. “This world is entirely wrapped in evil. Three figures command this evil.” Her hand moved, and three solid light constructs grew brighter as all others dimmed. “Their power is great. They must be met if One is to be freed.”
Another gesture and the three constructs receded as seven indistinct figures became more prominent. They flickered in and out of existence until seven shapeless lumps grew more brightly than any of the constructs seen before, and the one in the center slowly faded away.
Aleta’s body slumped to the ground, and all of the constructs dissipated. The orb rolled to Firefly’s feet, and the young boy grasped the now dull object and placed it in the drawer once again. He slammed it shut and joined Joseph at Aleta’s side.
Joseph felt her heartbeat. It was faint, but she was still breathing. He roused her gently, and after her eyelids had fluttered, for a moment, they opened completely and she bolted upright. She pushed Joseph roughly away and ran from the room.
A man floated across the city.
He was a tall man, but not exceptionally so. He wore no clothes and possessed very little body hair, but despite the freezing rain he did not shiver.
He gained speed as he moved, and as he gained speed he gained altitude. He blew through the thick clouds that blanketed the city and emerged into the darkness that lay beyond.
He slowed as the air became thinner, but still he continued forward, seemingly oblivious to everything around him: the tops of the clouds, the dim stars above, and flashes of lightning that offered brief periods of illumination to the otherwise pitch black sky.
He continued onward, and in the distance appeared a bright spark. As the man drew ever closer, the spark grew both brighter and larger until the man finally touched down on its perfectly smooth surface.
The man was on a floating island. From the ground, it appeared to be just any of the other dark clouds that enshrouded the world. From above, it appeared to be a bright spark of hope in an otherwise hopeless universe.
Everything was smooth on the island, as though made of glass and ice and twice as reflective. The plant grew all around, each emitting light of a different colour and creating rainbow spectrums that played across the ground.
At the center of the island was a small, round building. At many points on the building’s outer wall were images, but when the man tried to focus on any one of them it changed into something that he could not recognise but which nonetheless filled him with a sense of rapture.
The man entered the building and was met by an indistinct nothingness. It was not bright, nor was it dark. There was no ground, nor was there a sky, but it did not matter, for there was no gravity to give meaning to such things.
The man took one step and found that he had walked a mile. He took a breath and felt as though all of the mighty winds of the north had filled his lungs. He exhaled and became so light that his body began to drift in the ethereal emptiness without any prompting from its master.
After minutes that could have easily been seconds or years, the man was joined by another. His companion bore the form of a woman, draped in white robes from her shoulders down to her feet. Her long, light hair draped over her shoulders and chest, and a beautiful golden tiara sat atop her head.
She extended a long-fingered hand to the man, and he bowed to kiss it. As his lips touched the soft, delicate skin of the woman’s hand, he again felt overjoyed by everything that was in that place.
“You know who I am.”
The woman’s remark was not a question. It had been eons since the woman had even considered a question, let alone asked one. It had been just as long since her last encounter with another living being.
The man said nothing in reply – he merely watched, rapt, as the woman danced around him, turning the nothingness into a solid image that the man recognised as his own sanctum, where he had spent years of his life trying to free himself from the accursed monster that lived within him.
“This is as much your place as it is mine, Stephen,” the woman smiled. It was a beautiful smile, even without the woman showing the beautiful teeth that the man knew must be there. The man felt ecstatic as the woman called him by name.
“You have come here willingly and consciously, and so it must be that you consider yourself ready. Relax, Stephen Strange, for soon you will know.”
“You’re home?” Scamp asked as her tears began to subside. “How long have you known?!”
Daywalker exhaled heavily. He had wanted to keep the fact that the dark world that the Exiles now inhabited was his home a secret, but he should have known that that would be impossible.
“I can see why you’d prefer this hellhole to the wonderful eighty-second-century desert,” Ph-Eros interposed sardonically. “It has its charms; I’m sure.”
“Shut up!” Daywalker yelled. “You have no idea what you’re talking about! I’ve lived here my whole life. Do you think I’m proud of this place? No. But I have a duty. Less than ten percent of this world’s population is not a vampire, and I am the only one that can save them!”
“There’s that word again. What is a vampire, Daisy?” The tone of Ph-Eros’ voice was not a pleasant one. Daywalker felt as though the other Exiles was condemning him, accusing him of something horrible.
“A vampire is a demonic entity that inhabits the corpses of the dead, corrupting their souls and turning them evil. They need the blood of the living to survive, and exposure to sunlight causes them more pain than they can bear,” Daywalker explained.
“H-how did ever’one become a vampire?” Scamp asked timidly.
“Magic,” Daywalker said softly, “but it was also the magic that protected me. When I was only a baby, a woman named Rhean, a vampire, spread her curse to thousands of men across Europe. They crossed the oceans, creating more and more vampires as they went, but always keeping them a secret.
“Finally some super people found out about them and went on the offensive, but it was too late. Rhean had too many under her control, and she was ready. She cast a spell of great power, augmented by a machine that was intended to turn every man, woman, and child on the planet into one of the undead.
“Only those that were under the protection of the heroes survived. A woman named Wanda Maximoff protected me and half-a-dozen others using her magic, shielding our hotel with a spell that not even she could undo. My parents were turned, though, and they eventually turned her.”
“Wanda…?” Scamp sounded as though she was going to cry again. Like Ororo Monroe, Wanda Maximoff – the Scarlet Witch – had been around for most of Scamp’s childhood. Imagining her as a vampire was almost too much to bear.
“There are two safe houses in this city. My apartment and the hotel where I was protected from Rhean’s spell. The hotel is closer, and there is food there. I suggest we rest and then try to find the others.”
“Is this Rhean still alive?” Ph-Eros asked.
“No,” Daywalker said solemnly. “I killed her. Now let’s go.”
Aleta sobbed, loudly, as she sat on the cold linoleum floor of the hotel kitchen. Her head was nestled between her knees, and her hands were folded behind her neck.
I cannot do this! she thought. I had to fight so hard to overcome my problems with being only a half-entity, after being forced to share a body with my adopted brother Stakar for so long*. When the Hawk God finally separated us, I relished my freedom. Now, I am a slave to whoever it is that is pulling our strings… I need to put a stop to it.
[ * – Aleta and her brother Stakar together formed the composite being Starhawk for most of the time that they were with the Guardians of the Galaxy ]
Behind her was a door that led straight out onto the street and had been used to unload supplies from trucks when the hotel was still active. Aleta heard it slowly open, and she snapped her head up to see who it was.
Daywalker, Ph-Eros and Scamp, entered in single file, each taking on a surprised look as they saw Aleta on the ground before them. They didn’t say anything, and it didn’t take the one-who-knows to know that something had happened to them. Aleta didn’t care, though, and she let them walk off without interruption as she returned to crying her heart out.
She wanted her fiance to be there more than anything but knew she had no way of letting him know that she wasn’t dead.
He’s probably moved on by now, she thought sadly. After all, I did betray him with Kristoff. But I need to know, and if the only way to get back to my own time is to do what our master wants, then that is what I’ll have to do.
Come on, you monster. Enlighten me.
Daywalker showed Scamp and Ph-Eros each to a room before setting off to find Joseph and Firefly. He felt incredibly guilty about the fact that he cared less about their well-being and more about the fact that if anything happened to them while in his reality, he would feel responsible.
He found Joseph and Firefly, both asleep in one of the hotel’s more sparsely furnished rooms. He decided to let them rest and stepped back into the hallway where he came face-to-face with Aleta, Scamp, and Ph-Eros.
“Let’s save this world,” Aleta said decisively. Daywalker smiled.
Joseph and Firefly were roused, and the Exiles gathered to hear Daywalker’s plan, such as it was. Food was brought, and after Aleta had told the others what had happened with Spratt’s orb, Daywalker rose to explain things with more clarity.
“The three figures are called The Crimson Circle. Up until recently, there were four members of the Circle – Nachtgleiskette, The Scarlet Witch, Le Diable Blanc, and Bloodstorm,” he explained. “We ran into Bloodstorm tonight and killed her, and it was there that I got this.”
He indicated the burn on his stomach, which was still far from healed. “It was Bloodstorm who, through the use of her elemental powers, created the blanket of clouds that covers this world in constant darkness. Her death won’t fix things, though.
“All of the Circle’s actions are augmented by a device here in New Orleans. Once the device is used to augment one of the members’ powers, it can recreate the same effect as much as it wants. The only way to remove the clouds now is to destroy the machine.
“As the head of the Circle, it is the Scarlet Witch – the woman who saved me from becoming a vampire – who commands all of the undead on the planet. Whenever they feed on the living, her power increases, and as her power increases, so does the strength of each of the other vampires.
“Most of the vampires here were not created through normal means. Normal human blood cannot sustain the demonic spirit that inhabits the hosts. When they feed, the blood is transmuted. Rhean cast a spell to turn the world’s population into vampires, but she left herself a backdoor, so that is she ever turned into a human again, so would her evil army. The spell simply transmuted the blood of every human into the same blood as that of the head of the Circle.
“If the head of the Circle possessed human blood, so would everyone that was affected by the spell, and the demon spirits would be forced out of the hosts. I think we need to find a way to do that.”
“I agree,” Aleta said, “but I don’t think we’ll come up with anything until we’ve all rested. Daywalker, you said the hotel is safe?”
“Then let’s sleep on it.”
Daywalker showed each of the Exiles to individual rooms before retiring to his own. It was a large luxury suite, with a king-size bed, a spa, television, and it was the only room other than the kitchen with electricity.
He sat on the end of the bed and removed the top of his uniform, wincing as the fabric rubbed against his burn. He touched the tender spot gently, and as pain shot up through his torso he thanked God that he was still alive after Bloodstorm’s attack.
He removed his boots, and as he was about to put them under his bed he heard someone open the door. He looked up and saw Scamp standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the bright lights of the hall.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi,” Scamp said.
“Are you okay?”
Scamp entered the room and sat beside him on the bed. She saw the television at the foot of the bed and said “Ah didn’t think vampires would be big fans o’ TV.”
“You’d be surprised,” Daywalker said. “There haven’t been any new television shows since Rhean cast her spell, but they still play re-runs of old shows. I don’t think vampires can be on TV, because of the whole ‘no reflection’ problem.”
“Oh,” Scamp looked down at her feet.
“Did you want something in particular?” Daywalker looked at the side of Scamp’s head, and finally reached forward to remove her dark glasses. Behind them were two beautiful brown eyes, which he saw when Scamp looked at him directly.
“You’ve changed,” she said finally.
“Is that good or bad?” Daywalker grinned.
“It’s good. When we first met, you were real nasty, ‘specially to Ph-Eros. But since we came here you’ve really opened up.”
Daywalker blushed. “I guess I just didn’t know how to act around other people. When we all got taken to that deserted planet, I just kept worrying about my world, thinking that the Crimson Circle would find some way to transform the last humans while I was gone. I was scared, and I’ve been alone for so long that I think I forgot how to rely on other people for support.”
“I like you better, now,” Scamp said. “What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t,” he smiled and put on Scamp’s sunglasses. “Blade, Richard Blade.”
“I don’t get it.”
“It’s from a movie,” he said as he removed the glasses. “My friends call me Rick. What’s your name?”
“Carol,” Scamp replied quickly. “How old are you, Rick?”
Daywalker could tell that Scamp wasn’t comfortable answering any questions, so he filed them all away for another time and wondered if it was in any way connected to why she always wore dark sunglasses. He handed them back to her, and she hastily put them back on.
“Ah’m… twenty,” Daywalker could see how hard it was for her to tell him her age, and he started to wonder why she was asking him so many questions. “Have you ever…” She leaned toward him and pressed herself against his arm. “Have you ever… y’know…”
Daywalker suddenly realised what Scamp was asking and pulled away. “No, I haven’t.”
“Do you – ”
“Okay.” They sat in silence for a few minutes before Scamp rose and left the room. Daywalker laid back on his bed, his arms and legs outstretched, wondering why he hadn’t taken Scamp up on her offer.
He started to get up, to see if he could catch her in the hallway, when his door swung open again. It was Scamp, and she strode purposefully over to him, took him in her arms, and kissed him.
“Whoa…” Daywalker said.
Written by Adrian J. Watt’s of SoftPixels