For a single moment, the headmaster had forgotten whose company he kept: he had been marching towards the elevators but Adrianna stopped him once she had heard Carl’s explanation. With news of guests in the Memorial Gardens, the sorceress invited her three allies to link with her: Doctor Howell put a hand on each of the boys’ backs while Carl simply put a trembling hand on Adrianna’s shoulder.
Carl doubted he would ever get the hang of having his body ripped from reality and instantly conjured in another location. He did not know the mechanics of it—was he deconstructed on a cellular level and reassembled elsewhere? Was the effect temporal? Did it stop time and place those touching the Aurelia in some sort of stasis while the world moved around them? The more he tried to understand exactly what was happening to him, the more uncomfortable he was with the entire transit. Still, he could not deny the convenience teleportation offered them: after one quick incantation, Adrianna had instantly shifted the four of them to the Memorial Gardens the school kept.
As he understood it, a handful of bodies were laid to rest here: several students and a few members of the faculty—even a handful of refugees—had lost their lives in the institution’s eight years of operation. Not all of their remains had been requested by their loved ones… It made Carl’s skin crawl to think that his school had its own graveyard. Even more discomforting was the knowledge that close to one hundred people had lost their lives here and on only three separate occasions: two years ago, a clandestine group known as the Affiliation massacred many of the underclassmen; last February, a band of villains assaulted the school and slew several more students; only a few months ago, a graduate named Deimos had come in the middle of the night, intent to slaughter everyone in their sleep.
While several parents had requested their sons and daughters’ remains returned to them, Carl knew from experience that not everyone came from a loving family. There were bound to be students like him—abandoned from birth by their parents—or students whose parents had disowned them when their abilities surfaced. Those who went unclaimed were interred here and given the nature of Roland Birkmeyer’s magic, it was painfully obvious why this was the spot the two magi had appeared at. There should have been no need for questions, Carl felt, but it seemed Adrianna felt otherwise…
“What happened to you, A.J.?” Adrianna asked when she laid eyes on the pair. Carl turned to fix her with a strange look: this was hardly the time to catch up on her old flame’s life. He looked beyond the two intruders to a pair of lumpy figures hidden beneath bed sheets. Unless Carl missed his guess, those were bodies. Whether they had been freshly excavated from this place or brought here, Carl was stunned that his elders seemed so unconcerned with what he found to be alarming. “The last time I saw you, you were about to be captured by Black Box.”
The Dutchman shrugged. “Nothing happened,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Nothing!?!” the sorceress snapped. “Nothing!?! A.J., you—I saw the Sentries dropping in! I was yelling for you to come with us and…” She started to cry. “I teleported! I took Christmas and your little brothers away before they got all of us and… God, all this time I’ve been worried sick about you—your family has been worried sick about you! David told us that we couldn’t risk going after you—that it might bring Black Box down on us—and I kicked myself—blamed myself!—for leaving you there and you tell me that nothing happened!?!”
“I never used my powers,” he said. “I mean, I couldn’t: Bogart took my powers so that he could use them—so that he could hide from those goons… They took me but when they couldn’t identify me as a Neo-Sapien, they let me go.”
Adrianna’s hands were balled into fists that shook with rage. “Why in the hell didn’t you tell any of us you were okay!?!”
“How?” the Rhino asked. “I had no idea how to contact-”
“Your mom? Your brothers? They’re at the same school you spent four years, A.J.! They’re right where they’ve always been!”
The Rhino flashed a smile full of crooked teeth at her. “I missed you too, Adrianna.”
“Don’t change the subject!” she snapped.
“Enough!” proclaimed the Damned. “God, listening to you is grating…”
“What are you doing here, Mister Birkmeyer?” asked Doctor Howell. Carl was thankful that someone here had the intellect to focus on the matter at hand. Still, he cringed slightly when the question seemed to bring only chuckling from the black-clad boy at first.
“I thought I was always welcome here. Aren’t I a student? I should be starting my senior year, after all!”
“You’re always welcome here,” Doctor Howell intoned, “but I meant here—the Memorial Gardens, specifically. Mister Birkmeyer, if you intend to desecrate this place-”
“If you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs,” the Damned said nonchalantly. “I intend to make the best omelet you’ve ever seen… but I need a few eggs.” Realizing that they did not understand him—despite his intentional vagueness—he sighed before explaining further. “You see, the living dead are more than an oxymoron: they are the bridge between this life and the next and the key component in this ritual.
“One-hundred and thirty-seven is the number of the universe… and one-hundred and thirty-seven is how many zombies we would need to sacrifice in order to restore one lost soul!”
“‘Zombies’ is hardly P.C. though,” said the Rhino. “They prefer to be called ‘Post-Life Americans’.”
Carl ignored the Rhino and focused on the necromancer. “What do you mean ‘restore one lost soul’? Are you talking about… Heaven and Hell? That sort of thing?”
The Damned could not help but chuckle haughtily at what would have been his classmate. “I’m talking about resurrection,” he explained. “I’m talking about bridging this world with the next and stealing back the spirit of someone who has already passed on. I’m able to raise the dead—to animate a corpse into a mindless automaton—but this is beyond that!”
“No,” Adrianna said sadly, “this isn’t going to work, A.J.! This won’t bring Taegan back.”
“It will!” the Rhino adamantly declared. “The Damned can do it! He’s going to bring Taegan back and then K.C.!”
Doctor Howell’s jaw went slack. “That’s what this is about? Is that what’s behind you?” Doctor Howell suddenly covered his mouth with his paw. “Are those Mister Mallory and Mister Thinruush’s bodies?”
“Fine!” Adrianna spat. “I get what you’re doing, A.J. but I don’t get why Roland is helping you! What’s in it for you, huh? You’re not exactly the type who’d just do someone a favor…”
“Me? I’m here on orders… After I bailed on you losers, I met a girl—started shaking up with her. A.J. came sniffing us out and pled his case. They made a deal and she had me go with him, figuring he’d need my help.” With that, the Damned flipped out his switchblade and grinned at his old classmate.
With a fluid motion he brought the knife down and slashed open the palm of his hand. He raised his arm high and grinned maniacally as blood flowed down over the heel of his palm, pooling at the black wristband he wore.
His fingers formed into a fist and he laughed as he began to squeeze blood out and onto the ground of a grave. “Isn’t anyone going to stop him!?!” Carl thundered as he shot into the sky. His body started to illuminate the shadow-cloaked grounds as he summoned bands of light to snare Roland’s wrists and ankles.
It was the moment that the others seemed to come alive: as Carl took to the skies, the Rhino transformed into a white rhinoceros and immediately charged for Solon. Thinking fast, Doctor Howell scooped the magus into one arm and thrust the other out to meet the Dutchman’s charge. As the Rhino lowered his head, Doctor Howell slapped his massive hand down on the horn and pounced up and into the air.
As he and Solon dodged the Rhino’s charge, Adrianna had adopted her feline form and raced to reach the Damned. “Bellsack Cetant,” she said as she summoned a patch of writhing, black tentacles to grope and bind the Damned’s body.
“Too late,” the Damned said with a smile.
The Aurelia did not have time to question him: the ground ripped open and a festering hand grabbed her ankle. Two more jutted from the ground and bound her other leg. As she fought to breakaway, they pulled and threw her off-balance. The instant the sorceress was on her back, more and more limbs were rising up to keep her pinned.
“You summoned them, so you must control them, right?” Carl thundered from the air. “Call them off or I swear I’ll end you!”
Roland chuckled. “I’d like to see you try.”
Carl growled. He had been hoping his bluff would pay off: he was not an extremely violent person and did not believe himself capable of seriously hurting someone with his abilities. Still, as the walking dead emerged on the school grounds, Carl knew that he had to act…
He intended it as a warning shot, thinking that if he evoked enough pain with a searing blast of sunlight, the Damned might rescind his army of undead. Taking careful aim, Carl unleashed a beam and watched as it did little but burn through the emo’s jacket.
“Is that all you have?” the Damned asked. “Seriously?”
While Doctor Howell and Solon continued to dodge the Rhino’s charges, Carl pelted the Damned with another beam of white-hot light. Again, he saw his efforts produce no results: the Damned failed to even wince.
Suddenly Carl recalled the abjurer at the frat house: his magic existed in the realm of wards and protective barriers—the Damned was shielding himself with magic. “Solon!” he cried, flying towards the pair distracted by the Damned’s bodyguard. “I need you to do that thing again!”
As he flew to carry Solon away from Doctor Howell, he watched as the Rhino was blindsided by a beam of light. Following the afterimage to its source, he saw Sergio hurrying down from the school, followed by Gage and Gregaro. Above them, Owen was racing across the sky to join the battle.
Doctor Howell continued to leap and bound his way out of the path of both the Rhino and the undead legions the Damned had animated. Gregaro plunged into them and began throwing punches, dropping one zombie after the next.
“Everyone clear?” Gage asked, standing beside Sergio. The blind boy’s robotic teammate helped to turn him so that he would avoid hitting those in the middle of the scuffle. Once he was clear, Gage unleashed a torrent of electricity from his fingertips that struck several of the Damned’s minions.
Carl and Owen flew over their battle, each with their own respective missions. Owen descended into the midst of the battle, intent to save Adrianna; Carl carried Solon in to dispel any magical wards the Damned might have placed on himself. Doing so not only caused a few of the zombies in their vicinity to fall lifelessly to the ground but also freed the Damned of the Aurelia’s magical bindings.
Carl descended low enough to safely drop Solon on the ground. “Keep doing that!” he insisted. “Keep turning them back into normal corpses and I’ll deal with the guy who summoned them in the first place!”
As Carl raced to confront the Damned, he spotted him near where Owen knelt. “Notice anything?” Carl heard the emo ask. “The undead have no life in them, Owen! They’re one-hundred percent immune to your abilities! Help me. I’m only trying to resurrect heroes who died protecting this world—nothing so heinous! Help me hold your teammates back and I’ll animate a lifeless woman for you to do whatever you want to…”
Carl had to keep from gagging as Owen ripped the clawing paws away from the Aurelia. “You think I’m that shallow?” Owen asked as he scooped the sorceress into his arms. The feline’s eyes were on him as he turned on the necromancer. “I don’t care if I can touch her or not! If she isn’t someone I can talk to—share my life with—love!—then what’s the point?”
Carl raised an arm for the Damned. “Call them off!” he demanded. “Or else!”
“Or else what?” the Damned asked him. “Forgetting how well that worked the last time you threatened me?”
Carl unleashed another blast and watched as it had the same effect as before. His mind tried to wrap around it: the Damned was a Neo-Sapien whose ability allowed him to ignite oxidized blood; he had been trained by the Aurelius to wield arcane energies. Nothing about his Neo-Sapien power suggested this level of endurance and Solon had dispelled the effects of all of the spells just seconds ago.
Carl did not know how the Damned was protecting himself but he realized he was not protected from everything. Carl bound the Damned’s wrists and ankles once more and charged forward.
Helping the Aurelia to stand on her own, Owen watched in confusion as Carl rushed headlong at the Damned. He and his teammate watched as Carl moved to pry open the Damned’s hand.
“Stop it!” the Damned growled. “Stop it or else!”
There was no containing the grin on Carl’s face. “So, I was right,” he said.
“Stop it or I’ll kill her!”
Carl ignored him and pulled the necromancer’s hand open; the knife dropped out and hit the ground. “Give it back!” the Damned thundered as Carl dropped to retrieve the blade. “Give it back!”
“The zombies!” Carl snarled, motioning to the horde still fighting his classmates and headmaster. “Call them off!”
“Look at her!” the Damned ordered, nodding his head towards the Aurelia. Carl turned and saw what the Damned did: the clawing her undead captors had done had drawn blood—crimson matted in her ivory fur. “You give me the knife right now or I’ll cause her to burst into flames!”
“You even think about it and I put this between your ribs!” Carl snarled. “Give it up, Roland! I know you’re invincible somehow but you were able to cut yourself with this! It must be enchanted to get around whatever’s protecting you! You want to make it through this unharmed? Call off the zombies!”
“You don’t have the guts,” the Damned said. Suddenly, the Aurelia screamed and Carl reacted…
Carl thrust the enchanted switchblade into the Damned’s side…
To Be Continued... wrote:A match made in Hell.