Daywalker’s feet pounded the hard surface of the hotel roof as he ran across its long, rain-slicked surface. When he reached its edge he did not even pause to plan his leap – he simply allowed the toes of one foot to grip the narrow grooves between the roof’s tiles as his other foot reached over the void; then he let go, and allowed his body to sail gracefully through the air to the next nearest rooftop. He landed without a sound and continued running, barefoot and shirtless, toward his destination.
For almost two decades, his world had been under a spell, one which enshrouded the Earth in absolute darkness and forced more than ninety percent of the planet’s population to live a half-life as a vampire. He knew there were people out there who, like him, had managed to survive the spell that transformed the rest of the world; and although he had never met even one of them, he dedicated his life to defeating the Crimson Circle – the three “head vampires” who maintained the spell – and making the world bearable for everyone.
And he was going to defeat them alone.
Sure, in recent days Daywalker had made a number of friends: Aleta, the light-bending Arcturan from the 31st century; Joseph, the remarkable mutant master of magnetism; Ph-Eros, the most irritating person Daywalker had ever encountered; The Mysterious Stranger, an arrogant, aloof magician who was never around when he was needed; Firefly, a kid who could sprout wings from his back and shoot fire from his fingertips…
… and Scamp. Of all the Exiles, Scamp was the one with whom he had developed the closest bond. She was the only person he had ever truly considered a friend, and the only person he had ever willingly opened up to about his past. He suspected that he loved her, and that was why he was going to fight alone.
Stephen Strange screamed in agony as the beautiful landscape of the floating island twisted and contorted, forming a rock-hard, air-tight cocoon around his body. He could not breathe, and his scream excised the last breath from his lungs. Soon, no sound passed his lips, and the land that had registered in his brain as pure nothingness moments earlier* suddenly became everything to him – his whole, hellish, claustrophobic world.
[ * – last issue ]
His mind was bombarded with images so rapidly that he could not even comprehend a single one. For what felt like years – but which the rapidly dwindling logical part of Stephen’s brain knew was only seconds – he remained trapped, unable to break free but not wanting to, despite the torture.
It was painful, it was terrifying, but it was also his fondest desire.
Ph-Eros woke up, looked out the window, and saw that it was still dark.
He went back to sleep.
Ph-Eros awoke again, looked out the window, saw that it was still dark… and remembered where he was: the evil, vampire-ridden dimension that Daywalker so lovingly called home. He rubbed his eyes and swung his legs over the edge of his bed, yawned, and stood up. He walked slowly to the room next door – the large, electric-powered suite that Daywalker and Scamp had occupied overnight and found it empty.
He walked, tired and groggy, through the rest of the hotel’s many rooms – and found that all but one was empty. He began to panic and ran back to the only occupied room in the hotel; the one shared by Aleta, Joseph and Firefly.
“Guys!” he shouted. “Wake up!”
Joseph’s eyes opened first, and the white-haired mutant leaped out of bed and onto his feet. Aleta and Firefly took a few more moments to stir, but as they became aware of Ph-Eros’ growing, terrified impatience they picked themselves up and waited attentively.
“Scamp and Daywalker are gone!”
“Are you sure?” Aleta realised how stupid the question sounded the second it passed her lips. Of course, he was sure, or he wouldn’t have said it.
“Am I sure?” Ph-Eros repeated. “Of course I’m sure, or I wouldn’t have said it!”
“Calm down,” Joseph said softly, his heavy Eastern European accent more than making up for lack of force behind his voice. “You’ve checked the entire hotel?”
“This is Daywalker’s home reality,” Joseph reminded them. “He and Scamp could be anywhere. We should not necessarily be worried.”
“Yes, they could be anywhere, including being eaten alive by blood-sucking demons!” Ph-Eros pointed out.
“Or fighting the Crimson Circle alone,” Aleta added. She turned to Joseph. “You don’t think – ”
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Ph-Eros said. “He seemed pretty keen on the whole loner tough-guy shtick. We need to find them.”
“How?” Aleta asked.
“The Mysterious Stranger may – no, we have lost him, too,” Joseph recalled.
“No,” Aleta replied forcefully. “We didn’t ‘lose’ him – he walked out on us. Again.”
“Either way, we do not have him with us now, and despite our powers enabling us to adequately combat the vampires, we would not know where to begin our search for Scamp and Daywalker,” Joseph stated.
Daywalker perched on a narrow ledge overlooking the entrance to a skyscraper he knew only too well – although its uppermost floors were cloaked in cloud-cover, he knew that they were home to the surviving members of the Crimson Circle. So confident were they in their power that they posted only one guard at the entrance to their building. Daywalker knew he could defeat the one guard easily enough, but what then?
He decided that he would worry about that later. He leaped down onto the hard ground and charged the guard, who reacted slowly – much more slowly than any vampire Daywalker had previously encountered. As the vampire turned, Daywalker tightly gripped his single wooden stake and drove it through the vampire’s back; it pierced the monster’s heart and emerged, jagged and caked with thick red blood, through its chest. He pulled the stake back through the wound and ran quickly through the building’s doors.
Inside, he encountered no resistance. Not a single vampire could be seen as he raced up the tower’s central stairwell, moving rapidly past dozens of floors on his way to the top. He was tired, exhausted, but not at all paranoid. He knew the lack of resistance meant one of two things: that the Crimson Circle was so conceited, so hideously arrogant that they could not bear the presence of lesser vampires in their home; or, more likely, he was walking into a trap. He did not care. One way or another, today was going to be his last encounter with the Circle.
Finally, he stepped onto the building’s top floor and saw, surrounding a large, red, throbbing machine, the three surviving members of the Crimson Circle. They watched him but did not otherwise react to his arrival. He walked slowly towards them and stopped a few feet away from the machine.
“Welcome, Richard,” the Scarlet Witch said. “You know, of course, that we’ve been expecting you. There was no way you could resist coming for us once you destroyed Bloodstorm. But really, did you not stop to think it was impolite to bring along an uninvited guest?”
“What are you talking about?” Daywalker asked.
The Scarlet Witch stepped aside to reveal Scamp hanging from the ceiling via wrist shackles. Her face was bruised but, as always, her dark sunglasses remained solidly attached. She slowly turned her head and tried to look up at Daywalker, but the effort was too great.
“Scamp! But how…? The hotel – ?”
“It followed you,” the Scarlet Witch explained, “and I must say, Le Diable Blanc certainly enjoyed her capture.”
Daywalker turned his head slightly and saw Le Diable Blanc, the pale-skinned, red-eyed, brown trenchcoat-wearing man who once went by the name Remy LeBeau, licking his lips.
“You didn’t…!” Daywalker began.
“Yes, he did,” the Scarlet Witch replied. “She’s one of us now, Daywalker. You shouldn’t have gone and made a friend, should you? Because now, if you destroy us, destroy our plans? You destroy her, too.”
The Mysterious Stranger groaned as the only world he knew for his seconds of eternity began to break away and the smooth coolness of his floating island paradise re-appeared around him. The beautiful woman in white robes touched his naked body again, and his physical pain immediately vanished.
His head, however, was a different story. He could make no sense of the images constantly rushing past his mind’s eye, images that were far beyond his power to recognise. He staggered to his feet and, with what he thought was the last of his strength, managed an ancient, arcane gesture that caused his body to be bathed in a shimmering blue glow, to disappear, and re-appear within the safe confines of the hotel occupied by most of the other Exiles.
Ph-Eros was the first to notice the fading blue glow as Stephen Strange materialised in the hallway, just outside the room in which he stood. He alerted the others, and they rushed to fight Strange slowly transforming from the tall, fair-skinned Stephen Strange into the green-skinned, reptilian Doc Savage.
“Doctor!” Aleta cried. “What’s happened to – ?”
“Forget about that!” Ph-Eros interrupted. He rushed forward, placed his hand on the doctor’s body and whispered quietly, so no-one else could overhear. The doctor’s transformation stopped, and he returned to his normal body, and slowly extended one, shaking hand toward the gather Exiles. They were all bathed in the same blue glow they had encountered several times over the past few days and felt their bodies slowly fading away, only to re-appear abruptly behind Daywalker.
Aleta and Firefly staggered as they tried to get used to the aftereffects of teleportation, but Ph-Eros and Joseph seemed unaffected by the experience. Ph-Eros ran straight to Daywalker’s side and saw the Crimson Circle and the captive Scamp while Joseph ducked into the shadows in order to make sense of what was taking place.
Gambit! Joseph recognised Le Diable Blanc by another name. He’s an X-Man. What could-
He paused. He had heard a sound, like the scraping of metal on stone. He waited to see if he heard it again, but for a long time, there was no sound at all. Then, suddenly, from out of the darkness leapt a black beast with glowing, golden eyes, carrying a sword.
“Nachtgleiskette!” the Scarlet Witch shouted. “Down!”
The creature – Nachtgleiskette – paused mid-leap. As he fell toward the ground, his body was transformed into a puff of black smoke, accompanied by the smell of sulfur, which quickly vanished and re-appeared at the side of the Scarlet Witch.
“Nightcrawler!” Joseph cried. “Two X-Men!”
The Scarlet Witch smiled. “And I’m your daughter. Or at least the daughter of this dimension’s Magneto.”
Another person to call me Magneto, Joseph thought.
“Yes, Exiles. I know your secrets. Just as I know that Daywalker has a decision to make.”
Not much longer, Joseph decided privately. He slowly moved his fingers, and the metal shackles holding Scamp’s wrists opened, dropping her body to the ground. She scrambled slowly across the floor to her fellow Exiles, without any opposition from the Crimson Circle.
“Have her back,” the Scarlet Witch said. “For all the good it will do. She’s one of us, now.”
Joseph looked down at the girl’s neck and saw two puncture marks, just below her chin. Aleta, Firefly and Ph-Eros also rushed to examine her – so no-one noticed as Strange’s body began, once again, to shift and change into the larger form of Doc Savage.
“What will it be, Richard?” the Scarlet Witch asked. “You destroy the machine, you destroy me – and, in turn, all of the other vampires in this world. Including your friend.”
“Of course I won’t destroy it,” Daywalker said, as Doc Savage lumbered up behind him. “Or you. You’ve won.”
The Scarlet Witch smiled. “We could have crushed you with our sheer weight of numbers, of course. But it was far more satisfying to see you surr – what? NO!”
Doc Savage charged forward, heading straight from the Scarlet Witch, not caring who – or what – was in his path. Especially not the fragile, red machine that was the only thing standing between him and his target.
Ph-Eros was quick on his feet, but even as his hand brushed the Doctor’s back, and he whispered his secret words, nothing happened. Daywalker realised what was going to happen and tried to move between the behemoth and the machine – but even his strength was not enough to stop the oncoming beast. Doc Savage’s raging fists pushed through Daywalker as if he was nothing, and Daywalker’s body – no, his corpse – struck the machine with the full fury of Doc Savage’s massive strength.
The machine buckled as the familiar blue energy descended to surround the Exiles – the living Exiles, at least. As they faded from view, the machine split apart, its cogs and gears and mystic bindings scattering throughout the building.
The Crimson Circle members gagged and strained against the mystic forces that bombarded them from within. They were not, after all, true vampires; their state was created by Rhean’s mystical means, a sort of artificial, magickal replica of vampirism. Without the machine to maintain the spell, the ravages of a life half-lived rapidly destroyed their bodies, bodies that, had the spell never been cast, could never have survived on blood alone.
They did not fade to dust but collapsed to the ground, broken wrecks, their bodies nearly unrecognisable, dead beside Daywalker. At least, two of them did – Nachtgleiskette’s body was gone entirely.
NEXT ISSUE: Atlantis attacks!
Written by Adrian J. Watt’s of SoftPixels