It took Bruce several tries before he could open his eyes. When he did so, he thought he had gone blind. His head was pounding rapidly and each beat registered another stab of ice picks into his eyes. Or, at least, Bruce felt that way.
Wow, Bruce thought, Eric really does know how to have a good time.
He would have laughed at his inner-thought if he knew it would not register as a body-movement that would set off a wave of violent nausea. As he lay on the floor of the room, his eyes adjusted to the light registering in the room. It was a good and bad sign for Bruce; good because he knew for sure he could see, bad because he could now see the spinning room around him just enough to make him sick to his stomach.
Bruce closed his eyes again and tried to position his head so that the queasiness would dissipate. As he did so, he wondered where he was and how he got there.
He would find out, he thought to himself.
As soon as the room became steady.
Blackwell motioned for Paul to get up with a slight wave of the gun. When Paul did not react, Gene reached over and pulled Paul up gently by the shoulders. At first Paul complied with the move, yet upon standing up he shook off Gene’s assistance and took a couple of steps away, keeping his eyes to the floor.
Gene pulled his hands away and remained where he was.
“Gentlemen,” Blackwell said, addressing Peter, Paul and Gene, “It has been a grand adventure. However, as they say, all things must come to an end. I must now ask for each of you to do one final task for me and for the greater good of the Elders.”
Blackwell put the box with the Talismans under one arm and moved over to the console that stood at the center of the tubes. Flicking a couple of switches, the tubes lit up behind the three band members and a hum filled the room.
“Take your places in the configuration capsules, please.”
“What do you intend to do to us?” Gene asked.
“As I stated before, Mr. Simmons,” Blackwell said as he held the gun level with Gene’s chest, “the four of you are needed in order to open the portal between my world -- the world of the Elders -- and that of the Ancient Ones. Once that portal is open, the Council will have to fight back and will need all the power they can get to do so. Of course, in consequence they will also realize that it was the four of you that opened the portal. Four Earth mortals corrupted by the powers of the Talismans and who vented their anger upon their caretakers by opening the portal as a means to destroy them. With a bit of a push from their returning hero, who will vanquish the enemy in due order, I will convince the Council that bestowing such powers on your race is a dangerous and futile activity. After that, we shall go forward once again in our great history, instead of stagnating are we have during these past several decades.”
There was a groan heard from another part of the room and everyone turned to see Ace’s eyelids begin to open.
“Wh-what happened?” Ace said as he opened his eyes. He immediately knew the answer when he saw the group in front of him. Upon seeing Blackwell, Ace tried to move forward, but found himself bound in the tube by waves of energy that held his body in place and his arms straight above his head.
“Peter! Gene, Paul! Blackwell must be stopped! We can’t let him destroy the Elders.” Ace said hoarsely.
“I’m afraid the time for fighting is over, Mr. Frehley.” Blackwell said crisply. “Yet, hither comes your destiny.”
“Wait a minute,” Peter said. “There’s three of us and only one of you. What’s to keep us from at least one of us getting to you?”
“Two things, Mr. Criss: one, I don’t think your friend Mr. Stanley is in any kind of shape to help you . . ..”
Paul continued to stare at the floor.
“ . . . And, two, I have a couple of friends of yours hidden away for the moment. Mr. Frehley can vouch for that.”
Ace clenched his fists in anger. “Yeah. It’s true. He’s got Eric and Bruce Kulick in another part of the building. I tried to get them out earlier but Eric accidentally grabbed hold of my Talismans and sapped my Talisman’s energy away. Otherwise I would have beaten Blackie here into a pulp.”
“What will you do to them?” Gene spoke in a precise tone to Blackwell.
“Nothing. Unless I’m provoked. I had originally intended for Mr. Carr to be used as one of the four, but now that we have Mr. Criss here I see no point in bothering with that. Especially in light of the shape I last saw your fox.”
Gene took a step towards Blackwell, but stopped as Blackwell reminded him of the presence of the gun.
“Of course, I could always use him if one of you should decide to play the hero and take a bullet. As to Mr. Kulick, he happened to be with Mr. Carr at the time of our picking him up. It was unintentional, but then again, nothing wrong with having more than one hostage.”
“But why do you need us?” Peter said. “You’ve got the Talismans. We can’t stop you now. Why not get your flunkies to help you and let us go.”
“He can’t.” Ace said.
“True.” Blackwell turned to Peter. “The Talismans must flow through a source in order to be generated. I had originally intended to have four individuals of my own choosing to do this task, but over the years they have disappeared in one way or another. Two that destroyed themselves; another, Parker, whom Mr. Frehley has rerouted to another part of the globe; and Keith, whom is no longer in any condition to help thanks to the violent nature of Mr. Simmons.”
“He attacked me!” Gene snapped.
“And you took care of him. Good for you, Mr. Simmons. It shows the initiative that I always expected in you. A pity as it would have been quite useful for me over the years. Still, I suspect merely knocking Keith out was nowhere near the excitement you had with him a few years ago when you broke several of his limbs.” Blackwell laughed a bit to himself, especially in light of Gene’s face flushing in embarrassment and frustration.
“That was not intentional.”
“No, no.” Blackwell shook his head in mock-sympathy. “Nothing ever is. You never wanted to hurt Robinson. You never wanted to break Keith’s arm and leg. All just a curious accident.”
Gene gritted his teeth and said nothing. It was impossible to hide the fire in his eyes, however.
“Now,” Blackwell said, “I have you four and not only are you all familiar with the Talismans, but the timing is right to proceed with the project as well.”
“The timing?” Ace asked.
“Exactly, Mr. Frehley. You see, I had originally planned to take care of this situation a few years ago when we met up the last time.” Blackwell looked at Peter steadily. “You remember, Mr. Criss? You were there.”
Peter said nothing.
“At the time I had planned to simply get Morpheus out of the way --”
“Yeah,” Ace cut in, “by stabbing him in the back like a coward.”
Blackwell’s facial expression clouded for a moment then returned to its normal pleasant state. “-- And capturing Ace. After that, it would have been a simple feat to bring the rest of you together at the time of the last alignment of the stars.
“Unfortunately, Parker took the opportunity to let Mr. Frehley slip away. After that, I needed to wait until the next alignment would occur, which is in place this month.”
“But how would you know that Ace would show up?” Gene asked, although Ace already knew the answer.
“Having no idea where Mr. Frehley had gone to or if his memory was gone, I had to make sure he came to me when he was needed. As Mr. Frehley suspected, I had created time bubbles around moments in the past and the future. He could only come back here and now when he was ready to use his powers. It also resolved another problem that came into play -- this.”
Blackwell pulled the box out from under his arm. “I needed this box to complete the process. All four of the Talismans were needed, but the only way they can be held together at one time is with this. I had thought at the time that you, Mr. Simmons, had it, but that turned out not to be the case. Knowing that Mr. Frehley would need it in order to find me, I knew that it would turn up soon after he did.
“I expected that he would bring it to gather up the other Talismans, and was a bit disappointed that he did not have it with him. Still, having it bring the rest of you to me instead is a very happy coincident. Otherwise it would now be Mr. Carr, Parker and Keith in the chambers instead of the three of you. So you can thank Mr. Frehley for your current situation.”
“I --” Ace began, but having nothing further to say, he stopped. He looked at Peter who glared back, then turned away.
“Pete? Pete, I’m sorry.”
“Oh, don’t feel sorry, Mr. Frehley.” Blackwell shifted his sight to Ace. “After all, it is ultimately for the greater good of the Elders. And for yourselves as a race as well.”
“And how is that, Mr. Blackwell?”
“Very simple, Mr. Simmons. Your race was given these powers by mine. You didn’t ask for them. You have no reason to have them. And like a child with a box of matches in a room full of gunpowder, the human holders of the Talismans have caused more harm than help to themselves. You were not meant for such powers. You are insects. Nothing more.”
When there was no response, Blackwell continued. “Please believe in this: I care nothing for you or your race. Thus, as much as I discount you, I do not hate you either. You’re simply a device to get me what I want. What the Council needs to see. If there was a way to do this and spare your lives, so be it. Unfortunately, that is impossible.”
Gene spoke. “What will you do with Eric and Bruce?”
“After this is all over, I will release them. Their memories will be wiped of course, so that they remember nothing of this night, but they will not be harmed.”
“And we’re supposed to believe this?” Ace chuckled in disgust.
“Believe me this one time, Mr. Frehley. If you cooperate, as you know you must, no harm will come to these other individuals. I will return to the Elders and the human race will never be visited by us again.”
Blackwell motioned for Peter, Paul and Gene towards the empty tubes. “Forgive the speech, but I felt it might help you feel more comfortable with what lies ahead. Now, if you would please enter the chambers?”
Peter inched his way reluctantly to a tube to the right of the one that already held Ace. Placing a hand lightly the tube, he found that it flexed under his touch. He turned to see Gene doing the same at another tube opposite his own.
“How do we enter them?” Gene asked more in curiosity than anything.
“Simply push your way through, Mr. Simmons. The chambers will conform to your body and allow you to enter.” Blackwell spoke absentmindedly as he readied the console in the center for what was to come.
Peter turned back to the tube and push with all of his strength. He found his arms enter into the tube and look upon the curious sight of seeing them past through what looked like a solid piece of clear plastic. He began to move his right leg forward when he heard Ace speak softly to him. He turned to see Ace looking at him.
“I almost had him, Peter. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to get anyone else involved.”
A flash of anger fell upon Peter’s face. “Well, you did get us involved. Because you couldn’t wait for us we had to come after you before we even had a plan in mind. Now I’m never going to see my wife or my daughter again. I never wanted to go through this, Ace. I never wanted to be near these things again. Now I know why. It’s going to kill me. Thanks to you.”
Ace looked away.
Paul had remained quiet and moved as if a puppet with its strings being pulled towards the final tube that was opposite of Peter’s. Paul fought his way into the tube, which moved under his weight like molasses, and took a position facing towards the center with his back against the glass. As he did so, he found his arms being manipulated from his sides to above his head. He saw the waves of energy hold him in place just as it did Ace. It was soon to be the same with the others.
Blackwell placed the box on the tip of the console and opened the lid. Inside the Talismans glowed a fiery red. Holding the box delicately, Blackwell proceeded to fit the box neatly into a cavity on the top of the console and with a final click, the box fit perfectly in alignment on the console. The Talismans began to hum loudly as Blackwell made a final couple of adjustments to the console and began to walk away.
“You know we’re fight the powers, Blackwell.” Gene said.
Blackwell stopped and turned back to Gene. “Of course you will. I would not expect otherwise. But you do not hold the strength to defy the Talismans. No one does. Not even the Elders. Please feel free to try, but understand that ultimately you will be defeated.”
Gene struggled a bit against the binds that held him, even though he knew it was a waste of energy and time.
“I won’t let the powers take me,” Gene whispered to himself. “I won’t let that kind of evil win.”
From the far corner of the room, Blackwell turned on a light above another console, much similar to the one in the center of the room. He turned a couple of knobs and then placed his hands at the side of the console. From where he stood, he could see the tubes clearly. “Good night, Gentlemen. It’s been an interesting and ultimately satisfying experience.”
Paul saw Blackwell pull a final switch and then the tube began to fill with a form of purple energy that filtered as if water from the bottom of the tube and rose above his head in a matter of seconds. He looked quickly to see the other tubes, only to find similar processes occurring with the others, only in different colors.
He could feel the tingle of the electricity intermixed with other alien energies that swirled and moved in front of his eyes in patterns that were formed and reformed continuously. A moment later, he felt nothing at all.
Bruce heard a moan to his left and wonder who was also in the room. Raising his head slightly, he found that the room had stopped spinning and now only tilted slightly whenever he blinked. Rising up on one elbow, he found that every joint in his body ached. Still, the nausea did not return so he continued his attempt to get on his knees and straighten up.
Looking over to the middle of the room, Bruce found Eric facedown on a pile of rubble.
“Eric?” Bruce got on his hands and knees and slowly crawled to Eric.
Another moan came from Eric as Bruce got up to him. Bruce shook Eric easily on the shoulder to wake him. He then pushed hard on Eric’s shoulder when there was no response.
Finally, Bruce grabbed Eric’s shoulders and turned Eric around so that his back was against the rubble. Eric reacted to the lights by squeezing his eyelids.
“Oh, man,” Eric managed to say weakly.
“Eric? Are you alright?”
“What?” Eric shot his eyes opened so quickly that he immediately shut them against from the lights. “When did the lights come on? Bruce? Is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me, Eric? Are you alright?”
Eric groaned but managed to force his body up into a sitting position. “Yeah, yeah. I’m all right. I feel like I just got hit by a truck, but I feel alright.”
Bruce looked around the room to see only that it was a simple office space with bits of broken equipment and wiring everywhere. “Where are we?”
Eric looked around the room and had to concentrate for a moment. “We’re at Blackwell’s place. He had us drugged and brought us here.”
“Blackwell?” Bruce asked. “Who’s Blackwell?”
“It’s a -- he’s a --” Eric shook his head. “It’s a long story that I don’t have time to tell you right now. The main thing is, we need to get out of here and find Ace.”
“Ace? You mean, Ace Frehley?”
“Yep,” Eric said as he groaned again and stood up.
“Ace is here?” Bruce followed Eric’s movements and stood up as well.
“What’s he doing here? Why do we need to find him? What’s going on?”
Eric walked over to the door and tried the handle. “Nuts. It’s locked.” He turned back to Bruce. “We’ll have to break it down.”
Bruce looked at Eric, then the door, then Eric again. “Eric, that’s a solid oak door.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll get out my sledgehammer and I’ll knock it down in just a moment.”
Eric didn’t appreciate the humor. “We need to get out of here and fast, Bruce. And if that means we have to knock down this door, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
“Okay, okay. But how do you intend to do it?”
Eric surveyed the room and reached over to the hard metal chair that they had been sitting in earlier that evening. He limped over to the chair and picked it up. Going back to the door, he moved past Bruce without another word and began hammering at the door.
“Oh, okay.” Bruce backed away a bit. “I’ll give you room.”
Bruce found the other chair and picked it up. At first he thought about helping Eric, but seeing how Eric was concentrating on the door he decided he would instead remain out of the way. Setting the chair back down on the floor, he took a seat and watched the show in front of him.
There were stars everywhere.
Ace looked around to see if there was anything else, but stars were the only things within his sight. No planets, no land below him, nothing. Just stars. Looking at his clothes, he could tell that he was still in his costume. It seemed right somehow, he thought. Especially being out in space and all.
He floated in the void for quite some time. Occasionally turning to see a new formation of stars off in the distant, otherwise just drifting along. It seemed so peaceful in a way, yet disturbing as well. What had happened to Blackwell and the Elders, Ace asked himself. Was it all over so quickly? Was this the beginning of what happened after life?
He had no answers to his questions. It did not matter. For the moment, he was just going to look at the stars.
Some stars remained steady in his gaze, while others moved ever so slowly. Still, they all remained nothing but specks, with the exception of one. It was a time before Ace noticed the light growing larger and at first he thought it was his imagination. It was only when the ball of blue-white fire grew noticeably larger than anything around it that Ace knew for sure his eyes were not playing tricks on him.
It was fascinating to watch and Ace was set to see a wonder of the heavens go by. He had figured it to be a comet, which would be interesting to see so close. It was only when the line of light began to grow larger and steadily towards him that Ace began to grow concern about the situation.
Ace raised his hands in his common hitchhiker position only to find that it did no good. He remained transfixed in space as the light came towards him, faster and faster. As it came closer, Ace saw that it was not a comet at all but seemed like something else entirely.
No, Ace thought, it can’t be that. It’s impossible to be that. Not out here in space.
Yet, even as Ace tried to deny its existence, it came nearer, ready to strike.
It was the proper terminology, for Ace saw a large bolt of lightning heading directly towards him. It was only a split-second away from him when Ace covered his eyes and braced himself for the impact.
When nothing occurred, Ace uncovered his eyes to see why there had been no impact. What he saw made his eyes widen to the point that he thought they would pop from their sockets.
In front of him stood a being of whitish-blue electricity. What really astonished Ace was that it looked exactly like himself, with the same costume and the lines on the face illuminating the makeup design that he wore as well. The being stood in front of Ace with a smile and with both hands on its hips.
It stuck out its right hand towards Ace. “Hello, Curly,” the being said. “Shake.”
Ace reached out instinctively with his hand and shook the being’s hand. In doing so, a bolt of electricity ran through Ace and made him yelp as he drew his hand away and held it by the wrist with his left hand.
The being crackled with laughter. “Man, I love that! Gets them every time.”
Peter worked his way through the heavy branches and vegetation with a machete. The vines were thick and were difficult to cut, leaving Peter short of breath as he hacked away. The humidity of the jungle did not help and he stopped momentarily to mop his brow with the sleeve of his shirt.
He was unsure how he had gotten there from Blackwell’s office. He really did not care, either. Perhaps something had gone wrong and Blackwell’s device had sent them to the far corners of the Earth. It did not explain why his clothes had changed or how he came upon a machete, but it mattered little to Peter. Just as long as he was as far away from the Talismans as he possibly could be.
Sawing through a few more branches and vines, Peter could see a clearing up ahead of him. It was large enough that sunlight filter in and a small building of some sort stood out noticeably. Seeing the site was enough to push Peter onward and it was only a matter of minutes before he made his way to the clearing.
What he saw was not a modern building at all. In fact, the crumbling stones told the story that it had been there for centuries, perhaps even longer. It seemed to be a shrine or temple of some type that stood fifty feet high and took up move of the clearing. Peter saw steps that led down to a doorway at the base of the temple. The doorway was sealed with another piece of stone that looked more solid that the remainder of the temple. When Peter looked up at the face of the temple, he just shook his head in disbelief.
“Oh, no.” Peter bent down from exhaustion and the heat and finally sat down on the hard ground. “I’m never going to get away from it. Never.”
There in front of him was a temple that bore the head of the cat -- the same ugly cat that Peter had come to know from the Talisman. It seemed to stare down at him in mocking condensation.
Peter picked at the ground with the machete as he stared up at the temple. “Why is this happening? What’s the point? What does it mean?”
“What do you want it to mean?” A voice came from the thickness of the jungle behind him.
Peter spun around to see who had spoken, but could not make out anyone in the greenery. “Who said that?”
“I did,” the voice called again, and as the voice rang out, a figure appeared standing in front of the trail that Peter had just made in getting to the clearing.
It was a cat. A rather large cat at that, but still a cat. It’s face was shaped like a Siamese, but was solid black in fur and due to its size looked almost more like a panther than any type of domestic animal. He looked up at Peter and appeared to smile. When it did so, it disappeared.
“What are you?” Peter asked.
“For the moment,” the cat said as it appeared again, “consider me a Cheshire Cat. Or, perhaps for you, a Chelsea Cat.” The cat smiled again and disappeared.
“Great,” Peter mumbled. “A talking cat who thinks he’s a comedian. Just what I need.”
Gene’s last image was of the blackish-red waves of energy coursing through his very being in the tube. Now he was here.
Now he was in Hell.
He stumbled on the hot, rocky surface, half-blind by the smoke and steam that rose from the lava pits that he came upon with every fifteen or twenty steps. It was hard to maneuver and he had already managed to burn his right hand badly when he had fallen soon after arriving. The sky was deep red with no sun in site, which made it even harder for Gene to see where he was going.
He had no idea why he was walking either. He just felt compelled to move forward. To walk in a certain direction. Perhaps to another final destination. Perhaps to put an end to a dream. He had no idea.
After walking for what seemed to Gene like hours, he came upon the first body.
It was a woman. Young, at one time beautiful. Now just a dead body. Laying on the surface of the steaming rocks, twisted and broken. Gene tried not to look, but a glimpse of her face made him realized he had seen her before. Crouching down, Gene turned the woman’s head gingerly to see her face more clearly.
It was Robinson. Her eyes wide-open and her mouth transfixed into a permanent scream. Blood was on her and her neck was broken.
Gene stumbled backwards, but managed to catch himself before he fell down.
No, Gene thought, she didn’t die. Not like this. I wanted to break her neck, but I didn’t. This isn’t real.
Moving quickly onward, he came across another body. It was Keith. His body was also broken in ways that at one time Gene would have been happy to see.
Gene closed his eyes and moved forward again. Afraid to see what would happen next. He opened his eyes to see where he was going and saw a small hill ahead of him with a throne sitting at the top. On the throne sat a figure, but it was too dark for Gene to make out the figure at such a distance.
Jogging, Gene stopped when he got to the foot of the hill. He had been wrong in thinking that the hill was made of rocks and earth. It was made of bodies. Human bodies. Some with faces he knew, some he did not.
“So,” the figure on the throne spoke in a deep metallic tone, “my creator has come to see my work.”
Gene looked up to see a massive throne that seemed to be about twenty feet high. The only thing that seemed bigger than the throne was the being who sat in it, a huge grotesque demon. The monster wore Gene’s makeup etched in blood on its face and its hooves kicked savagely as the heads and bodies that served as the floor underneath its feet. It held a goblet steady on one arm of the throne, while a long, scrawny hand elegantly pointed towards Gene down beyond. When it spoke, a long, reddish tongue, like that of a snake, helped spit out the words.
“Are you wanting to teach me more, father? Or is it time to teach you? After all, isn’t the child the father of the man?”
Gene again closed his eyes. He tightened them when he heard the booming laughter of the demon above him.
Paul sat cross-legged on the ground. At least he thought it was the ground. He was not even sure where he was or even if he was. There seemed to be no up or down to the world around him and all he saw was white. There was nothing to see beyond that and there was no sound besides the sound of his own breathing.
Paul looked down at his hands in his lap.
“Well,” a voice called out from around him and inside his head. “You certainly did a good job playing the hero, didn’t you?”
“Shut up.” Paul said, as if he half-expected the words that hung in the air.
“Just speaking a certain truth. You know it’s true, don’t you Paul?”
“Shut up. I don’t want to listen to this.”
“Turned over all the hopes and the chances your friends had because you couldn’t put up with having to deal with the powers that you had.”
“I don’t have to listen to this” Paul turned around and covered his ears.
Right, the voice called from inside his head. You don’t have to listen to this. But you will have to think about it. Think about it or die.
The sound ricochet around the room as Bruce tried to plug his ears. He watched in growing concern as he saw Eric get weaker with every swing of the chair. It was obvious from the start that he was not feeling well anyhow and to see Eric wear himself out seemed a bit on the sadistic side to Bruce.
Eric was about to swing the chair again when he turned around to look at Bruce. He panted to catch his breath.
“Take a break, Eric. You’re just wearing yourself out. If you want me to, I’ll get started on the door myself and you can sit down for awhile.” Bruce held out his right hand to Eric to take the chair away from him.
Eric looked at the door and then back at Bruce. “Okay. You’re right. We’ll alternate.”
Eric walked over to Bruce and handed him the chair. “I think I got something going near the doorknob, so try to keep hitting there if you can.”
Bruce grabbed the chair from Eric and moved over to the door. Before beginning, he noticed that there were a few heavy marks on the door, but nothing to suggest that Eric’s effort was actually getting them anywhere.
“Yeah?” Eric sat down on the chair and tried to stretch his legs out.
“I still don’t understand what’s going on here? Why were we kidnapped? And what does Ace have to do with it?” Bruce continued looking at the door and pushed against it to see if the door had been forced forward at all. It had not.
“Bruce, if I try to explain it all, it’ll take years. Just trust me on this. Blackwell is someone that has been hounding the band for, like, forever. The only thing I can think of is that he kidnapped us so that he could get Ace to show up from where he’s been hiding for the past few years.”
“Hiding?” Bruce turned to Eric. “I thought he left the band because he wanted to move on to other things.”
“That’s what we thought. Or at least, what we remembered him doing. But when you think about it, no one has seen him in a couple of years, right?”
“Well, yeah.” Bruce shook his head. “But there’s a lot of people in music that just disappear for awhile. Nothing unusual about that.”
Eric did not say anything as he knew Bruce was correct in his assumption.
Bruce studied the door some more and spoke to Eric when he noticed the hinges on the door.
“Say, Eric. You used to do some construction work didn’t you?”
Eric was puzzled. “Yeah. With my dad. Why?”
“Well, looking at these hinges, don’t they suggest that this door opens inward.” Bruce pointed to the pins in the hinges.
“Yeah, that’s typical. I almost fell on my face when I opened the door earl--” Eric stopped when he realized what Bruce was saying. He felt like pounding his head against the door instead of the chair for missing such an obvious thing. Eric leapt out of the chair and raced to the door.
“Aaaarghgh!” Eric cried out.
“Couldn’t we just pull the pins out --” Bruce began.
“-- And open the door from the other side. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what you mean, Bruce.” Eric looked at the bottom of the three hinges. “We’ll need something to ply them up with, but it should work.”
Bruce pulled out a Swiss-army knife from his pocket and handed it to Eric. Eric opened the knife up and began to work on the first hinge.
“What are you?” Ace attempted to say, forgetting in the vacuums of space that his voice would not be heard.
“What’s that?” The being held up a hand to its ear in mock concentration. “Oh, that’s right, you can’t speak out here. What’s say we go somewhere where we can talk?”
With a snap of fingers, Ace found himself sitting back on the asteroid that he had visited for so long in just the recent past.
“Recognize it?” The being said, looking around the peaks and valleys itself. “It hasn’t changed much since you were last here, but at least we can talk a bit now.”
“What are you?” Ace said.
“S’funny,” the being said. “I was going to ask you the very same question.”
“I don’t understand.”
The being moved in a fraction of a second to another position nearer Ace. “What are you? Are you the hero or the villain?”
“Well, I’m Ace,” Ace said in puzzlement. “I’m one of the good guys.”
“So good that you don’t need anyone to help you?” The being raised its “eyebrows” then moved a few feet away to a standing position in front of Ace. It took a moment for Ace to adjust to the being’s new position.
“Are you talking about what happened to me today?” Ace asked.
“There you go! ‘What happened to ME.’ I seemed to recall there were a few other people in those tubes as well.” The being smiled and shook his head. “Tsk, tsk, tsk.”
“You were there?” Ace stood up. The being reacted by disappearing from Ace’s sight for a moment. Ace felt an electric tap on his shoulder and turned to see the being reclining in the air behind Ace, propping its torso up with one arm.
“Haven’t I always been there?” The being disappeared again, and when Ace faced in front of himself again, he saw the being smiling with its nose just centimeters away from Ace’s. Ace backed away in surprise.
“Oh, trying to control me, are you? Just like what you did with the others?”
“No. The guys were always there. They just didn’t seem to catch on like I did about the Talismans. I just didn’t want them to get involved when it looked like they would be hurt.”
“Didn’t want them to get involved? Or were you afraid of them taking over?”
“Not at all!” Ace shouted, then immediately tried to regulate his voice. “I just knew more than they did. That’s all. I needed to be the leader for them because they couldn’t understand.”
“Or because you wouldn’t tell them. Face it, Ace. You screwed up.”
“I didn’t screw up! In fact, I would have beaten Blackwell if Eric hadn’t had gotten in the way and grabbed my Talisman.”
“Well, I see you’re not putting the blame on others,” The words dripped with sarcasm.
Ace felt the frustration grow inside of him. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that I could have saved everyone if they had just butted out.”
“Like how you saved Morpheus.”
“You take that back. I’m sick of having Morpheus’ death stuck in my face. Blackwell did that not me.”
“Denial, once again.”
Ace advanced on the being and it was suddenly behind Ace.
“Who are you, Ace?” The being took a serious tone with the words. “Are you the lone wolf that needs no one else? Would all your problems be solved if you were just left alone?”
“If I could just have some time to think, yes! Maybe my problems would be solved. I certainly could have beaten Blackwell if I didn’t have to keep an eye on the others all the time.” Ace felt the words come out although he was not sure if he meant them or not.
“You could have beaten Blackwell long ago if you had put some more trust in your friends. They are your friends, you know? They did come after you even though you tried to trick Peter.”
“They just wanted to get Blackwell. Just like I did. And see where it got them? It’s their own fault for what happened.” Ace turned his back on the being.
“So you really do believe that you can solve things if you were on your own?”
Ace said nothing.
“So be it, Ace. Let’s see you solve getting off this asteroid on your own.”
With that, Ace heard a sharp buzz of electricity behind him. He turned to see that the being has disappeared. Ace smirked and studied the area around him. The being was nowhere to be seen.
Ace attempted the hitchhiker’s gesture. There was no response.
“Uh-oh.” Ace looked up at the stars and suddenly realized that he might be there for a very long time.
Peter continued to pick at the dirt with the machete.
“What are you doing?” The panther called from the edge of the clearing.
“Nothing. Just taking it easy.” Peter did not know what he bothered even responding to something that had to be just his imagination.
“I’m not surprised.”
Peter turned to see the panther pacing a bit back and forth. Its eyes never left Peter.
“Look,” Peter stood up and faced the panther. The panther stopped and sat up to look into Peter’s eyes. “I don’t know who you are, or what you are, but I’m sick of playing games.” “Games? There are no games here. This is life. This is real.”
“You’re wasting my time. I need to get out of here.”
The panther grinned and disappeared for a brief moment. “The only one wasting their time is you. As to getting out of here, you can at any time.”
“How am I wasting my time, cat?” Peter gripped the machete tighter than before.
“Just as you always have. Just as you turned away from the Talismans years ago. You had a world open up to you and you turned away. You had a chance to be something that so few rarely get to be and you walked away. Now you are here again. Now the chances so rare are once again in your grasp. Instead, you sit and moan and refuse to advance.”
The cat again appeared in the same position that it was before. “Now who is wasting their time.”
“I didn’t ask to be here. I didn’t want to be here.”
“Yes, yes. I know.” The panther began to pace again as if bored by the conversation. “You were forced to be here. It is the only reason you are here at all.”
“I don’t want these powers.” Peter’s words made the panther stop in its tracks.
“You don’t want the powers, Peter? Or is it that you don’t want the responsibility that goes with them?”
“If you know so much, then you also know what they did to Gene. I don’t want that to happen to me.”
“How do you know they would happen to you? You never knew that. You’re just afraid of the change that could occur to you. You’re afraid of the consequences of your actions.”
“No, I’m not.” Peter laughed.
“Then why are you afraid to move? Why won’t you move towards the temple? It is your exit to freedom.”
“How do you know that?” Peter snapped.
“How do YOU know that?” The panther replied.
It was a good question, Peter thought. In the back of his mind he knew that the temple was the answer to his being where he was. Yet it seemed impossible to move forward because of what may lay ahead inside. He tried to remove the thought from his head.
“No, it’s a lie. If I go, I could die.”
“If you stay you will die. Die in the jungle so close to your answer.”
“What if I go back to the jungle and find another path.”
“There are no others. The choices are here and now. Go back and you will rot. Stay, stagnate, never change and you will die. Move forward, no matter the consequences and you might live.”
“Then I could die?”
The panther seemed to be perplexed by the question. “Perhaps. But are not the chances better? Will not the adventure be worth it?”
Peter turned back to the temple and viewed the texture of the stones for a moment. He then took a step towards it and stopped.
“No, it’s a trick. I won’t do it. I won’t change.”
The panther seemed to sigh and lowered its head before speaking again.
“Then you will die.”
With a quick flash of teeth shinning in the hot tropical sun, the panther raced toward Peter and leapt at his throat.
There was silence. Gene listened and heard nothing. After a moment, Gene wondered if it was all a nightmare and had gone away.
Then the thunder of hooves on the ground shook the land underneath Gene. He opened his eyes quickly and tried to steady himself only to find the mammoth body of the Demon in front him. The Demon bent his head down to look closely at Gene.
“Why do you shut your eyes, father? Is not this all that you ever wanted to see?” The voice came deep and low, but with a touch of innocence mixed in the spite all the same.
“No,” Gene looked at the land around him and then back up at the Demon. “I never wanted to see anything like this. This is not my dream. This is not my reality.”
“But this your wish, father. You’ve always wanted to be ahead. To be the best. To knock those aside that stood in your way.” The Demon rose up to his full heights and threw his arms up in the air. “This is my world to show you what you can have. This is what you have told me you wanted and I have given it to you.”
“It is the world of the Talisman, not mine!” Gene backed away a bit from the Demon. “You’re just the powers of the Talisman. You’re trying to make me believe that this is what I want. You’re trying to corrupt me.”
The Demon hissed at the sound of the word. “The Talisman?” The Demon screamed and advanced one hoof towards Gene, shaking the earth once more. The Demon reached out a hand towards Gene. “Father, how can you be so naïve? The Talisman is nothing compared to what is inside of you. This is not the world of the Talisman. This is the world of your mind!”
“You’re lying. You’re trying to confuse me.”
“You know it’s real, father. The Talisman merely activated something inside you that have been there all along. Your hate. Your anger. Your will to do whatever it takes to rise above the scum around you.”
Gene back a little further back and almost stumbled.
“First Robinson. Then Keith. You wanted them out of the way and you made them get out of the way. It was so easy. So simple. So exciting. Wasn’t it, father? Wasn’t it when you called upon this world?”
“I didn’t want that. It was the Talismans --”
The Demon shrieked again in anger. “The Talismans are nothing! You control them and you will use the power to make the world into your own image.”
“You’re not apart of me!” Gene yelled.
The Demon seemed surprised by the words. “I am not the Talisman.”
The Demon began to haze out in Gene’s eyes, turning into a reddish mist. The fog dwindled and moved towards Gene until it was merely two feet away. It then began to reform into a recognizable figure in front of Gene.
It was himself. Not as the Demon; not as the makeup character he had played on stage for some many years; not as a twisted version of himself. It was merely a mirror of how he looked right then and there.
“I am you. Nothing more.”
Gene took another step back and felt heat behind him but could not divert his eyes from the vision in front of him.
“Don’t you see, father? The Talisman merely heightens your awareness. And with a little push from me, you can use so much more.”
“No. Shut up.”
“Destroy the others and the power of all the Talismans can be ours.”
“You don’t need them. They only filter the powers away. Destroy your friends and you can stand alone.” The vision of Gene in front of him grinned slightly as it stepped towards the faltering man.
“Destroy them all. Then we will be one.”
Gene found the words coming from his own mouth and not that of the vision in front of him. Looking at the Demon, Gene saw only himself with a smile on his face. In wild desperation, Gene tore at his hair and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Shut up!” Gene screamed.
Gene took another step backwards and tripped. Falling, he managed to twist his body around and open his eyes to see where he would land. His hands and one knee pressed against the lava-like rocks on the ground and the smell of burning flesh rose up into the air.
The Demon and Gene howled in pain at the same time.
It was the only thing Paul could think of to say. He knew it made no difference. It made no sense. But there was nothing else he could think of to say.
Or what, the voice inside Paul’s head asked. You may be able to shut out your friends and turn away from your destiny, but how do you shut up this voice you’re hearing now?
“Why are you doing this to me?”
Because you know the answer is inside your mind. You’re just not willing to let it out. If that means I have to help you in order for you to see, so be it.
“Who are you?”
Who are you?
Paul laughed. “I’m nobody. I’m nothing. I’m a failure and a fraud. Now leave me alone. You got to hear what you wanted to hear. Go away.”
Why do you want to be alone?
“Because I want some peace. Okay?”
Peace from what?
But who am I?
“What? Didn’t I just ask you that? Why am I even bothering? Just leave me alone?”
Do you want out?
You can leave anytime you want.
That’s for you to find out. And for me to help you.
“What do I need to do?”
“Trust? What? The Talismans? What good have they ever done me? I can’t trust them.”
No. You don’t understand.
“I can’t trust the Talismans. You’re just making it up. Wanting me to give in.”
No. You don’t understand at all.
“You don’t understand, Bruce.” Eric had pulled the final pin from the door’s hinges and was busy trying to drag the door out of the wall from the wrong side. “This isn’t just a kidnapping. This is a lot more serious than that.”
“All I’m saying,” Bruce grunted as he worked on the other side of the door by pulling and pushing alternately, “is that we should get out of here and call the cops.”
“They won’t do any good. Just like we’re doing on this door.” Eric let go of the door and fell back on the floor in exhaustion. They had managed to scoot the door out a bit from the wall, but the two were still weak from the drugging and the heaviness of the door merely added to the fatigue both felt.
“What are you doing, Eric?” Bruce looked down his bandmate. “C’mon, we got to get this door out of the way.”
“Just needed to sit down for a moment. We’ll get it just as soon as you put a little more muscle into it.”
“What are you talking about, Eric?” Bruce snapped.
“C’mon, Bruce, I’ve been through a lot more than you, you need to pull your weight. If you would just push the door out a bit more, we’ll be through.”
“Are you saying I can’t do it?” Bruce’s face grew red. “Listen, I didn’t ask to be here. You’re the one that got that cab for us tonight. You’re the one that started beating on the door in the first place. If it hadn’t been for me finding the hinges, you would have been here all night trying to get it open.”
“So it’s my fault, is that it?”
“My fault that you can’t get this door open.”
“I can get it open.” Bruce jumped up and down in frustration. It was the most emotion Eric had ever seen from him.
“Oh, right. Let me get out of the way while big, bad Bruce knocks the door down.”
“That’s it! Get out of the way!”
Bruce backed up to the far wall of the office and took a breath. He then started running towards the door in a tackling-motion.
“Yyyeeeeeearararrghghghgh,” Bruce yelled, barely missing Eric who scrambled out of the way just in time.
Bruce felt the door give against his shoulder and he soon found himself viewing the hall outside the office in a sideways-manner before he hit the floor. He bounced twice before coming to a stop against the wall in the hall.
As the dust settled, Bruce looked up at the door to see it leaning in the doorway. He next saw Eric pop up from behind the door with a big grin on his face.
“Thanks, Bruce,” Eric said as he moved through the doorway. “I knew you could do it.”
It was an overcast day at the capital and the Council was getting ready to meet once again about pressing matters. Several members of the Council moved on the steps towards the building, some in conversation with each other, some content with their own thoughts.
Surprisingly, no one seemed to take note of the darkening skies about the Capital. More so, no one took notice of the wisp of light that appeared about a hundred yards away. As the light disappeared, Ace and Keith stood before the Capital. Ace seemed confused and almost stumbled when he saw the building in front of him.
“It’s the capital!” Ace exclaimed. “We’re here with the Elders!”
Keith shook his head. “Yeah, Mr. Frehley. We’re here. A place that you’ve heard Morpheus tell you about, but never actually allowed you to visit. Every wonder why? Well, it doesn’t matter. In fact, nothing will matter to the Elders within just a few minutes.” Keith stepped up to Ace and pointed to a segment of the sky above.
In the sky came forth a circle of darkness that faded into the clouds above and hardened into a solid. Within the circle came the sketching of lines that at first began to form a pentagram, then moved on to other lines that looked likes ones Ace had seen before.
Members of the Council on the yard of the Capital finally took notice of the sky as well. They knew what the circle meant and some fled in fear. Many stayed where they were. They knew the day might come. They just hoped that it never would.
The circle solidified and with a deafening cry came the Ancient Ones. They poured from the circle and made their way to the Capital. More members of the Council came from the building to see what was the matter. In front of the group from the Capital was the Chairman, who looked to the sky with grim resignation.
“They have come. The Ancient Ones have arrived. The Talismans have been corrupted.”
Ace attempted so many variations of the hitchhiker pose that his wrists were beginning to ache. Trying one more time, this time spinning in place to see if it made any difference, he managed to jam his thumb into the side of a rock off to his left.
“Ow!” Ace grabbed his hand and tenderly touched his thumb to see if it was broken. He moved over to a small rock and sat down.
“Way to go, Ace.” He said to himself. “Maybe you can break your neck while you’re here as well.”
The words fell from his lips and hung in the air through the echoes of the valleys.
“Man,” he said out loud, since it did not really matter. “You’re really screwed up this time. You had everything in the palm of your hands and you blew it. Now you’re right back where you started from with no friends, no help, nothing.”
The wind howled and Ace folded his arms.
“No, I always tried to do the right thing. I just went about it wrong.”
Ace looked at the stars above and wondered if he would ever see again the being that had left him there.
“Maybe he was right. If I had tried to work with the guys instead of trying to do everything my own way we wouldn’t be in this mess now . . .
“ . . . I wouldn’t be in this mess now.”
“I happened to hear what you said and thought I would check up on you.” A voice called from above Ace.
Ace turned around on the rock to see the lightning-entity standing over him. It had its hands behind its back.
“Why did you come back?” Ace asked. “I thought you wanted to see how I got off of here on my own.”
“But we know the answer to that question, don’t we?” The entity smiled.
Ace sighed. “I know. I can’t do it on my own. I’m going to need help. Your help.”
The entity reappeared in front of Ace and sat down next to him, although there was no rock underneath him, only air.
“I think you’re getting the picture.”
Ace shook his head. “Yeah, I hate to admit it. I mean, I’ve been pretty much on my own for a lot of years. A lot of years. I’ve been in scrapes. I’ve been in trouble. But, y’know? I always got out of them. Me. By myself. I thought I could do the same here.”
“But it didn’t happen.”
“Yep. It got too big. No. It was always too big for me to deal with by myself.”
The entity agreed with a shake of its head. “Nothing wrong with wanting to solve things on your own, but sometimes you’ve got to get help. You can’t always do things on your own, or else you’ll probably end up alone. Alone when you will really need someone there for you.”
“I hate to admit it, but you’re right. But what can I do now to make it right?”
The entity stood up. “No. No. No. What can you ALL do to make it right.”
Ace stood up as well. “I’ve got to get back to the others and see what we can come up with. There’s got to be a way yet to beat Blackwell.”
“Exactly! I think you’ve got the idea!”
“Thanks, man.” Ace smiled.
“Thanks!” Ace held out his hand to the entity.
The entity reached out to Ace’s hand. Just as it was about to grasp it, Ace pulled his hand back in a Brooklyn salute. In doing so, his hand pulled back into a hitchhiker’s pose and he began to disappear. Before he was gone for good, Ace saw the entity laugh out loud. Ace quickly joined him in the laughter.
Bruce and Eric cautiously climbed up the stairs. They had found nothing on the lower floors and were about to reach the top when they noticed that there seemed to be some type of activity occurring above them. They looked out on the top floor to see the four tubes in the center of the room; the bright, multi-colored lights extending from them making them both want to shield their eyes.
“What is happening, Eric?” Bruce whispered to Eric.
“I don’t know. I really don’t.” Eric turned away from the center of the room and saw Blackwell behind another console by the opposite wall. “But I do know him. C’mon.”
Eric started moving away in a crouch, hoping Blackwell was too busy with his toys to notice him. Bruce stayed where he was.
“Wait a minute, Eric.” Bruce whispered as loud as he thought he could, but Eric was already on the move. Reluctantly, Bruce followed Eric into the shadows of the room.
Neither of them noticed the hand reaching out from one of the tubes. A hand that was seemed to be in a hitchhiker’s pose.
The black figure flashed towards him and Peter threw himself to the ground and rolled a few feet away. As he stood back up, he saw the panther rebounding from the leap at the exact position Peter had been just seconds earlier. He was surprised at how quickly he had moved, but had little time to think on the topic as the panther turned around and stared at Peter.
“Why do you want to kill me?” Peter said, holding his arms out and keeping a spring in his feet as he watched the panther.
“Why do you want to die here?” The panther replied.
“I don’t want to die here. I just want to get back to my wife and kid.”
The panther growled. “Your physical life is not my concern. It is your life on this coil that matters to me. Why do you want to stagnate? Why die here?”
“I just don’t want the Talisman. I just want to go back to the way things were.”
The panther took the words as a cue and leaped at Peter without warning. This time, Peter managed to move in time to miss most of the blow, but a swipe from the panther in passing lead to a streak of blood on Peter’s shoulder. Peter screamed in pain.
The panther turned once again to Peter and spoke. “Things change. They always do. To say they do not is to deny reality.”
“This isn’t reality,” Peter panted, holding his shoulder. “This is some type of dream.”
“Isn’t the blood you feel real?” The panther seemed amused.
Peter could find no response to the question. The wound on his shoulder certainly felt real enough at the time.
“Okay, I don’t know what it is, but I’m still not going to move forward. I’m going to stay right here.”
The panther began to pace in front of Peter. “Why won’t you go forward? Why don’t you want to see what lies ahead?”
“Because I know it’s the Talismans. I know they will change me.” Peter watched the panther for a break in its stride, but none came.
“You don’t want to be changed? Or is it that you do not want to face the changes that may occur once you move forward?”
Peter said nothing.
The panther stopped. It stared at Peter with eyes that only now Peter had noticed were green, like emeralds. “Life is about change, Peter. A progression. An action. And actions have consequences. That is what life is about. To hide, to shield oneself away may keep consequences from happening, but there is just as many good fates possible as poor ones. To stagnate does nothing but bring death just a little bit closer.”
“But I could die!”
“True. I won’t guarantee what would happen if you go to the temple. You may live. You may die. At least physically. But if you move, take a stand and make an action, at least you won’t be killing your soul slowly here without ever realizing the gain such risks could have brought you.”
The panther turned away from Peter and started walking back towards the jungle. “Your death is not my objective. It’s your life that matters. If you can look at things in that final moment and felt that you at least tried, then the risks will be worth it.”
The panther disappeared into the jungle, but Peter could still hear its voice. “Do what you will, but make a decision and make it quickly. Move and risk and choose life, or hide and stagnate and die. Maybe not physically. Just spiritually. Just spiritually.
“Until we meet again, Mr. Criss.”
The voice died out and Peter took several glances at the jungle surrounding the temple. He saw nothing beyond the wind blowing the vines and grass.
Turning to the temple, he took a couple of heavy breaths. He then began to walk.
It seemed to Peter that an hour passed before he reached the structure, although he knew it could have only taken him less than a minute. The sun cast a shadow upon the temple and Peter felt a chill go through him as he was engulfed in the darkness of the stairs that lead to a door at the temple’s base. Raising both hands, Peter pushed again the door.
It did not move.
Peter hesitated for a moment, his mind flashing to the thought of simply walking away. He shook the alternative away and pushed against the door once again.
It seemed to move slightly under his hands. Pushing harder and with all his weight, Peter shoved against the door again.
Eric pressed against the machines that stood just yards away from Blackwell and with a firm hand guided Bruce to stand beside him against the machine. Eric looked around the corner and saw that Blackwell was still busy working with the console, only now at a more fevered pitch than before. Eric also noticed the gun sitting on top of the console.
“Okay,” Eric said to Bruce that he hoped Bruce could hear over the loud hum of the machines, yet not so loud that Blackwell would hear as well. “I’m going to divert his attention and you go after the gun.”
“What?” Bruce cupped his ear in order to make out what Eric had said.
It was too late. Eric was already moving out into the open so that Blackwell could see him.
“Hey, Blackwell!” Eric screamed over the hum.
Blackwell turned and seemed a bit surprised by the appearance of Eric. “So, Mr. Carr, it appears that you made your way out of the office.”
Blackwell began to move towards Eric, who backed away, leaving the console unguarded. Eric moved back towards the machines and with a quick flutter of his right hand motioned Bruce to move around the machine the other way.
Bruce noticed the motion and edged his way around just as Blackwell came into his sight. Bruce found himself in front of the console and saw that the gun was still sitting there. He picked it up and ran over to Blackwell, standing in front of him.
“Stop right where you are,” Bruce was going to say Blackwell’s name but could not think of it, “you. Or I’ll shoot you where you stand.”
Blackwell stopped and raised his arms into the air. He saw the smile on Eric’s face and turned to see Bruce standing with both hands on the gun, his legs spread apart as he had seen on so many television shows.
“Mr. Kulick,” Blackwell began. “Pleasure to see you as well.”
“Enough, Blackwell,” Eric said, moving up to Blackwell. “We’ve got you now and we’re going to end this here. Now where is Ace?”
“Oh, Mr. Frehley?” Blackwell pointed with one hand to the tubes in the center of the room. “I’m afraid he’s busy for the moment.”
Eric looked at the tubes, but could not see much beyond the bright colors and lights. “What have you done with him?”
“You mean, what have I done with all of them?”
Eric swung back to Blackwell and grabbed him by the shirt. “What do you mean?”
“Your friends, Mr. Simmons, Stanley, Frehley, even Mr. Criss are all in the capsules. It’s part of the final plan, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
“Turn it off.” Eric pushed Blackwell towards the console, as Bruce got out of the way.
“I can’t. Once the equipment is on, the Talismans take over. If I try to shut it down, you’ll not only destroy the portal between the worlds, but you’ll kill your friends in the process. Probably us as well.”
“They’re dead anyway, aren’t they? Why don’t I just make sure your plan doesn’t work.” Eric reached over to Bruce and grabbed the gun from his hands. Eric pulled the hammer back and was about to shoot the console when a voice called from behind him.
“No, Mr. Carr. Don’t do it. You do and everything that your friends have worked towards will be destroyed.”
Eric thought he recognized the voice, even though he had only heard it once before. He turned and dearly dropped the gun when he saw who it was.
No one saw the two hands that emerged from the tube full of emerald light.
Gene rose up from the ground, although his knee felt suddenly like lead and looked at his hands. They were bloodied and scarred black from touching the ground. He gritted his teeth and tried to remain silent.
The demon in front of him howled onward, however. A hand lashed out at Gene from the Demon and Gene blinked at what he thought for sure was to be a massive blow against his face. Instead, the hand reached through Gene as if transparent.
The Demon looked at his hand in astonishment. It was then that Gene noticed that the Demon-version of himself was scarred in the same way as he was, including the earlier burn he had received on his arm when he first arrived.
“You -- you have the same burns I do.”
“Of course,” the Demon hissed. “I am you. I am everything you want to be. I am your hatred. I am your lies. I am your power.”
“Then it’s true.” Gene moved forward and the Demon backed away slightly as if afraid to get burned again. “You are apart of me. It wasn’t the Talisman doing those things. I only did what I wanted to do.”
“Yes, father.” The Demon seemed to gain strength at the words spoken by Gene. “I am you. You used me to obtain your goals and it was good. Now we can work together to gain it all and conquer them all. Rule together, if you follow my orders.”
Gene was silent for a moment. He then turned and began to walk away.
“Where are you going?” The Demon cried in confusion.
“Away from you.” Gene continued walking, never turning back.
“But you need me,” the Demon grew in size and became larger than it had ever been before. It raised both fists in the air and pummeled the ground so hard that the very world shook under their feet. “You’ll never survive without me.”
Gene stopped, but refused to turn around. “Oh, I may need you from time to time, but I do not have to be a slave to you. You cannot hurt me. You know that yourself. You saw it when you tried to hit me. You are not in control. I am. And, for now, I don’t need you.”
The Demon began to shrink in size. “Heed me!” It screamed in desperation.
“No.” Gene began to walk again.
Gene laughed. “Never.”
“I am death! You must obey me!”
“No. You may bring death, but you are not death.”
The Demon reverted to the vision of Gene once again, then began to turn into a smaller mass of black ooze. It cried out. “I am the destroyer!”
“Perhaps. But not today.”
“I am the shatterer of worlds!” It gurgled once more, then was silent. Gene never once looked back.
“Yes. But not of my world,” Gene stated evenly.
Gene found himself in front of a large boulder and a door immediately appeared. Gene turned the knob on the door and proceeded to walk in.
“What are you doing here?”
Morpheus seemed amused by the question. “I am here to see that the final destiny of the Talismans are fulfilled. Thanks to your friends,” Morpheus turned to Blackwell, “and thanks to you, Blackwell.”
“What are you talking about, Morpheus? You want to see the Council destroyed as well?” Blackwell seemed baffled.
Morpheus shook his head. “No. The Council may be destroyed, but the time of the Elders was meant to draw to a close, as you well know, Blackwell. It is the destiny of the four here today that you are fulfilling.”
Blackwell’s anger grew with every word spoken by Morpheus. “You fool! I don’t know how you survived, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that these insects are no longer in our way. It’s too late now, Morpheus. The Talismans have taken them.”
“Have they, Blackwell? Have you taken a look at the capsules?” Morpheus pointed behind Blackwell.
Blackwell spun around to see the lights faltering inside the tubes. He could now see the hands emerging from two of the tubes, with another pair of hands coming from out of the darkish-red light that filled a third.
“No,” Blackwell said, running to the console and moving the controls. “It cannot be!”
There had been silence around Paul for quite some time.
“Why should I trust the Talismans?”
Why do you not trust?
“Because they made me something I didn’t want to be. I don’t want to be a superhero. I don’t want to have powers!”
“Because the guys are expecting me to do something with them. And I’m no hero.”
“I’m just a guy. I’m just a stupid jerk who plays music. I don’t want to change the world.”
“Because . . .”
You don’t know why?
“Because I don’t want the responsibility! Is that good enough for you! I don’t deserve it!”
You don’t deserve it?
“Don’t you get it? I’m not the right person for this. I CAN’T DO IT!”
Why can’t you do it?
“Because I just can’t.”
Because you don’t want to.
You believe the world is fine just the way it is?
“NO! Of course not. People are dying in the streets, chemicals in the air, loneliness and desperation around every corner. The world isn’t fine at all. It could always be better.”
Then why can’t you do it?
“Because I don’t think I can.”
Don’t you want to try?
“Of course I want to! Do you think I don’t want to? I would love to be able to make a difference. I would love to make things right. But I can’t!”
Can you even try?
“ . . . No . . .”
“Because I will fail.”
How do you know?
“Okay, okay. I don’t know. You’re right. Nobody knows. But I just don’t know if I can.”
Why don’t you try? What harm will that cause?
“You said I would die!”
Only if you stay here. Only if you let your dreams remain dreams. Only if you refuse to see what more you can become.
“Wh . . . what if I’m wrong?”
Then you are wrong. For now.
“What if I fail?”
Will the world cease to be?
“What if I fall?”
Will no one catch you?
“What if I die?”
Why won’t you live?
“Your answers don’t help.”
Your questions don’t need answers.
“Oh God. I’m afraid.”
We all are afraid.
“God, I’m alone.”
We all make these journeys alone.
“Then who can I believe in?”
“How about me?”
The voice came from outside of Paul’s head and across the room. It was a familiar voice and it stunned Paul out of his rocking, cradle-like position. He looked up to see a hand reaching out to him.
Focusing on the person standing in front of him, Paul laughed and wiped the stream of tears from his eyes. The image spoke to him.
“You don’t need to trust in the Talismans. They are nothing compared to what has been inside of you all along. You don’t need to believe in them. You only need to believe in something more.”
Paul looked at himself and slowly reached out his trembling hand.
Paul’s hand reached out from the tube of purple light.
“No!” Blackwell screamed. He raced to the machines and tried to see where any of the programming may have gone wrong. Morpheus moved up to him.
“Don’t you see, Blackwell? Don’t you realize what this means?”
Blackwell would have none of the question. “It simply means that there’s a break somewhere in the equipment. I’ll fix it and then things will be right.”
Bruce inched over to Eric, who watched the event in front of him without a sound. “Eric? Isn’t that the guys?”
Eric could only nod his head as he watched Gene, Paul, Peter and Ace slowly emerge from the tubes. As they did so, the colors from the tubes emerged with them and followed them to the center console where the four Talismans remained in the box. All four appeared to be in a trance.
“You’re losing, Blackwell. As you knew would happen. As we had always discussed would happen.”
“Shut up, Morpheus! They cannot win. They cannot defeat the Talismans! No one can overcome them. No one!” Blackwell refused to turn back towards the center of the room, although he could tell from the lighting that something had gone wrong.
“What are they doing, Eric?” Bruce said.
“I -- I don’t know.” Eric whispered.
Paul arrived at the console first and placed himself squarely in front of the Talismans. He reached out towards the Talismans with both hands.
Gene placed a hand on Paul’s shoulder and his other hand on Ace’s shoulder. Ace did the same with Gene and Peter, and Peter completed the circle by grabbing Ace’s other shoulder with one hand and Paul’s with the other.
Morpheus turned back to the center of the room. “Look, Blackwell. Look!”
Blackwell turned just in time to see Paul reach into the box and pull out all four Talismans with his hands.
“No! He can’t do that! No one can!”
Looking down at his hands, Paul saw two of the Talismans in his right hand and two more in his left. Pulling his hands apart, he then brought his hands together with all of his force.
At the moment of impact, the colors that had emerged with the four band members clashed together into a blinding white light that filled the room and pierced out into the sky towards the circle that hung through the dimensions and towards the world of the Elders.
The Ancient Ones were enjoying their work on their elders and creeping towards the final destruction of the Capital when the white light swiftly filled the portal and into the world of the Elders. It cut through the Ancient Ones in a mere moment, with not even enough time for the ones who saw it coming to scream. It was the flash that had driven Ace and Keith back to their proper time so far in the past.
Blackwell had shielded his eyes and tried to look into the ball of white fire in the center of the room. After a moment it began to dissipate, but Blackwell still could not see into the fire.
“It’s over, Blackwell. Your destiny has been fulfilled.” Morpheus put a hand on Blackwell’s shoulder.
“What are you blabbering on about, Morpheus,” Blackwell stated in hopes of sounding in control. “This is merely the beginning of my plan. We will be rid of these insects once and for all.”
“Don’t you see, Blackwell? Can’t you finally see the reality of the situation?” Morpheus grabbed Blackwell by the shoulders so that Blackwell had to look directly at him. “Look into the fire and see what we always knew to be true.”
Blackwell turned again to the center of the room. The light had now dwindled and Blackwell could make out the figures there.
“No. It’s impossible.”
Yet he could see it with his own eyes. Gene, Peter and Ace stood behind Paul, only now their hands were at their side and they stared ahead at what they saw. What all in the room saw.
Paul stood in front of the console with a single glowing orb in his hands. It was immediately recognizable to one and all as the four Talismans merged into one.
“That’s impossible.” Blackwell said in disbelief. “No one can hold that much power. Certainly none of the Elders have ever been able to. He could only be holding it if . . . if . . .”
Blackwell fell down on his knees in defeat. He raised his hands to his mouth as if he wanted to scream.
Morpheus looked down at Blackwell. “Yes, Blackwell. Say it. You know it’s true.”
Blackwell shot a look at Morpheus. “Yes! It’s true. Damn you and damn us all, but it’s true.”
Blackwell took one more look at Paul holding the combined Talisman. “They’re not the insects . . .”
He dropped his head. “ . . . We are.”
Eric opened his eyes to find himself looking at a brick wall. Moving his head slowly, he saw Bruce looking at the wall as well.
“Bruce?” Eric weakly said.
“Yeah?” Bruce attempted to say, only managing the first two letters.
“Where are we?”
“Looks like Brooklyn, guys.” Peter called from behind them. They turned to see Peter, Ace, Gene and Paul standing on a street corner, the sun rising up to the left of them. All were dressed as they had been the previous day before anything had happened.
“What are we doing here?” Eric said as he and Bruce turned to the others.
“I don’t know.” Gene looked at his hands and noticed that there were no marks to suggest any of the struggles he had gone through. “I don’t remember much after Blackwell forced us into the tubes.”
“How about you, Ace?” Paul said.
“Nope. I remember having a really vivid dream, but that’s about it.”
“Man,” Peter shook his head. “What happened to us? What happened to Blackwell? Why aren’t we dead?”
A person came up to them at that moment and spoke. “I think I can put your minds at ease a bit.”
Ace saw the person and immediately ran up to give the man a hug. “Morpheus! You’re alive!”
Morpheus laughed. “Yes, of course. Unless you keep me in this bear-hug much longer.” Morpheus patted Ace on the shoulder and Ace finally let him go.
“But we saw you die,” Peter said.
“No, no. You just thought I died. Killing off Elders is a lot harder than you think.”
“What happened? Where’s Blackwell?” Gene said.
“Blackwell is defeated. And so are the Ancient Ones, finally and for good.” Morpheus said to the group.
“But how?” Eric asked. “What happened? I just remembered all of the guys being in the tubes and the next thing I know we’re here.”
“Blackwell,” Morpheus began, “had a serious problem. He really could never believe that the Talismans were something that should have been given to the Human race. He felt that he could control them. And he did seem to have some limited powers over you. Even made Mr. Stanley here turn against you in the end.”
“So, that wasn’t Paul’s fault?” Peter said.
“No, Blackwell left a subconscious message for Mr. Stanley to hand over the Talismans when and if the time came. It was not really of Mr. Stanley’s own will.”
“Oh, man.” Peter said. “That’s good to know.”
“Blackwell was manipulative. But he really felt he was doing the right thing. Now that he has seen his error, he has allowed himself to be taken back to Council.”
“What will happen to him?” Paul asked.
“We will take him in and help him decide on a new course of action. He will not trouble you any longer, that’s for sure.”
“And how do we know that?” Gene smirked.
“Because we won’t be coming back ever again to Earth.” Morpheus said it with little emotion.
“What?” Ace yelled. “Why not?”
“Because with the destruction of the portal between our dimensions, it takes a lot of energy to visit your world. Most of the Elders were lost in the battle with the Ancient Ones, and it takes all of our combined energy just to allow me to visit you this one last time.”
“Then we failed.” Gene said in disappointment.
“Failed?” Morpheus brightened. “On the contrary, you succeeded in what we had always hoped would be your destiny. You are the victors. You are the heroes.”
“But how?” Gene demanded. “We never won any battles, we never used the powers to fight evil. I don’t even think we ever really learned what our powers were. How can we be the heroes when we never fought anyone?”
“You still misunderstand, Mr. Simmons. Heroes are not born out of individuals that merely pick up a weapon or throw a punch. Any toddler can do that. Power for power’s sake is nothing. The ability to use power wisely and constructively is what really matters. Your battles were not about winning against others, but against those things inside of you that hamper your ability to be more than just animals running around on a planet.”
Morpheus looked at the group of men in front of them and spoke to each in turn. “You all learned something about yourself that you never did before. Awareness of what can make you greater and make your world greater. The ability to understand each other better as well. That is all that mattered. Nothing more.”
“But what about the powers the Talismans gave us? Didn’t they change us?” Peter asked.
“The Talismans do nothing more than focus the abilities you already have inside you. Maybe allow you to do things that are not presently available for humans to do, but someday, well . . .” Morpheus shrugged his shoulders.
“What about the Talismans now?” Paul asked. “Where are they?”
“They were destroyed in your final action. They are no more.”
“The Talismans?” Ace asked in confusion. “They’re gone?”
Morpheus shook his head. “Just as well. They were only meant to be used for a purpose by the Elders in helping your race for reasons we had forgotten over time. One that Blackwell thought for sure was untrue until today. Now you have proven that we were right in given you the powers. You have proven that your race may one day be even more powerful than our own. Perhaps also that you may be able to weld such power in a better manner than we ever did.”
“So we no longer have any special powers?” Peter asked.
“You don’t need them anymore. You never really did.”
Morpheus suddenly felt a wave of fatigue. He swayed for a moment, then look at the faces of the six men in front of him. “I have to go. The energy needed to keep me here is fading quickly. I only wanted to let you know that I am proud of you all. You are all champions in my eyes.”
And with those words, Morpheus smiled and faded from sight.
All six watch until there was nothing left to see. Only the sound of an occasional car passing by broke the silence for several minutes.
“Welp. That’s it then, huh?” Peter finally said.
“Yes.” Gene cleared his throat. “You know, I’m going to miss the old guy.”
“Well, at least he’s safe.” Ace said. He then turned to Peter. “Peter, I wanted to let you know that I’m really sorry about what happened. I never should have turned my back on you guys --”
Peter raised a hand to cut him off. “No, let me say that I’m sorry, Ace. I should have faced up to this a long time ago. I guess I was too worried about what would happen to me to help much anyway. Now I’m glad that I had a chance to jump into the fire again.”
“So, um,” Eric coughed. “What do we do now?”
“I don’t know.” Gene said. “We finally got the four original members of the band back together and we have two additional guys as well. What can we do?”
“Well, I don’t know, Gene,” Ace said. “I just got back from Limbo --”
“And boy are my arms tired,” everyone chimed in. Laughter filled the streets for a time.
“No, seriously, I just got back and I need to think about stuff for awhile. Besides, you guys have a good band going now, no doubt. Let’s just see what happens down the road, but for now . . . y’know.”
Gene shook his head in understanding. “Peter?”
“Hey, I was just starting to put another band together myself. I was a bit worried about it, but now . . . well, now I think I would really like to see what happens on my own.”
“Okay.” Gene turned to Eric. “Does that answer your question?”
“Uh,” Eric hesitated. “I just meant, do we get breakfast or what?”
Gene slapped his forehead at the group laughed once again.
“There he is!” A young female voice shrieked from across the street.
The group turned to see two 14-year-old girls on the other side of the street jumping up and down and waving at them. Looking for traffic, the two girls ran towards the group and the majority of them moaned at the two girls ran up to Gene.
“Oh my god!” One girl screamed. “I can’t believe I’m meeting you! Wait ‘til everyone hears about this at school.”
The other girl held out her notebook to Gene with a pencil. “Would you please sign this for me.”
Gene smiled as he signed the notebook. “So, girls, have you been enjoying the shows?”
“Oh, yeah,” one girl said as Gene signed her notebook as well. “We love all of your stuff.”
“Well, good to meet you, girls. Have a good day at school.”
The girls knew it was their cue to leave and began backing away, never taking their eyes off Gene, who seemed to have grown a foot in front of the others guys.
“Thank you,” one girl called out. “Thank you, Mr. Dio!”
Gene waved and his smile froze as the girls turned and ran off.
“Dio?” Bruce said.
“Dio?” Eric echoed.
“As in Ronnie James Dio?” Peter smiled.
“RONNIE JAMES DIO!” Gene yelled. “Hey! You two get back here!”
The group had a hard time controlling their laughter as Gene tried to get the attention of the girls.
“Aw, c’mon Mr. Dio,” Eric said between hiccups. “Sing ‘Rainbow in the Dark’ for us, please?”
Gene had his arms folded in front of himself and looked at the wall. “I don’t look anything like Ronnie James Dio.” Gene said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Do you know any Black Sabbath?” Ace called out.
“Naw, man,” Peter chuckled. “We’re in Brooklyn; you gotta know a good doo-wop song in order to make it in Brooklyn.”
With that, Peter began singing a few scats from an old song he knew as he snapped his fingers in time.
“Okay, okay,” Gene gave up. “But let’s find some breakfast while we’re at it. I’m starved.”
“I would still like to know what the heck is going on,” Bruce said, as the group started to move away from the street corner and down the street.
Eric felt someone was missing and saw that Paul remained at the corner. He broke away from the group and walked back to Paul.
“C’mon, Paul, we’re going to get something to eat.”
“Nah. You go ahead, Eric.” Paul waved him on and smiled. “I’ve got some thinking to do.”
“You okay?” Eric said.
“Yeah. Go on ahead.”
With that, Eric turned and ran to join the group already halfway down the block.
Paul watched them go, then spoke.
“Okay, you can come back out now.”
Immediately, Morpheus returned and faced Paul.
“Amazing. You still felt my presence even though I was not physically there.”
“Yeah.” Paul kicked at a small rock on the ground near his feet. “I guess it’s just a remnant of the Talisman’s powers.”
“You know, Morpheus. You lied to them.” Paul said.
“In what way, Mr. Stanley?”
“Blackwell never had any control over me. I gave him the Talismans because I wanted to be rid of them.”
“Yes, that’s true, Mr. Stanley?”
“Why did you do that, Morpheus?”
“Well, I could tell that it would have a distancing effect on you and the others if they thought it was true. Besides, what really mattered is that you overcame your problems and chose a path that made you wiser.”
Paul said nothing.
“Which,” Morpheus said as he held out the red box, which held the glowing orb that was the final Talisman, “is why I wanted to give you this.”
Paul stood back, looking at the orb. “The Talisman? I thought I saw this in a dream. So it wasn’t destroyed.”
“The four Talismans are now one. Just as the twelve Talismans were converted into four so long ago. Now this is the only remaining power of the Elders anywhere.”
“But -- but why give it to me?”
“Because you have traveled the farthest of the Guardians, Mr. Stanley. You saw the other side of power and decided you wanted to make the world a better place. You set your life down in order to achieve it. Who else better to make sure it is passed on to someone else just like you?”
“What do you mean?”
“The time will come, Paul, when you must choose a successor to help continue your race down this path of awareness and achievement. The Talisman will help for some time to come in assisting your race with that destiny. With the destruction of the Council, we can no longer see to it that the Talisman is passed on properly. It must be done here.”
Paul reached into box, pulled out the orb and held it in his hands. “But how will I know when to pass it on?”
“You’ll know. You’ll know, Paul.”
An odd notion struck Paul at that moment.
“This is the first time you called me by my first name, Morpheus.” Paul said, as he placed the orb back in the box.
Morpheus began to fade away from view. “Because we are equals, Paul. And why shouldn’t we be on more even terms?”
With that, Morpheus faded away forever.
Paul looked at the orb in the box and softly closed the lid. As he did so, he could hear the distant laughter of his band-mates and looked up to see them still singing the doo-wop song as they turned a corner down the street. Paul smiled.
It didn’t sound that bad, Paul thought.
It didn’t sound that bad at all.
And so the novel comes to an end. But before you go, I did want to leave everyone with a little something extra to close the book. To do so, I’ll have to set it up a bit for everyone.
When I first started the novel, I had decided to stick in a scene in Chapter Two that featured a tip-of-the-hat to a certain comic-book character. Of course, there certainly are homages throughout the book, but this particular scene was the most direct and obvious one that I had written into the novel.
The scene dealt with Gene’s cab-drive from the hotel to the Frisch’s in order to meet Peter. During that cab-drive, Gene spent some time talking to the driver of the cab. Although I never spelled it out completely, anyone that had ever read the first comic book to feature KISS (albeit in only a few panels of the story) would be able to recognize who the cab-driver was.
Unfortunately, when the chapter was published on the KISS Asylum web-site, I heard from many people who had no idea why I made such a big deal over such a minor character in the story. In fact, more than one person told me later that they had expected the cab driver to return somewhere in the story, little realizing that it was really just a cute in-joke for comic-book fans.
Perhaps too much of an in-joke. After some thoughts about the situation, I rewrote Chapter Two so that Gene gets a ride over in a cab driven by a normal, everyday, boring ol’ cab driver. While I was sorry to see the scene go, it did allow me to make Gene’s quick exit at the restaurant more plausible. (I had the original cabbie drive away, only for Gene to somehow find another cabbie waiting for him when he left in the original version of the chapter – a bit implausible at nearly four in the morning, don’t you think?) So, in losing one in-joke, the whole chapter read better ultimately.
Still, it was with some regret. When I mentioned to a couple of friends that I had dropped the scene, they voiced their opinion that it was a shame to see it go as well. So, for those who are interested, here is the scene as it originally appeared in both STRANGE WAYS and on KISS Asylum. Enjoy!
* * *
Gene sighed and stepped out of the hotel, finding the cab right outside the hotel.
"At least he wasn't lying to me," Gene breathed quietly to himself. He walked over to the cab, and the driver motioned him into the back with a jerk of his thumb. Climbing in, he settled himself in the hard seat as the cab pulled away from the hotel.
"Hey," Gene said to the cabbie. "Did the guy who sent you say anything in particular about getting me?"
The driver, who seemed rather short to be driving, stopped chewing on his cigar and looked at Gene's reflection in the rearview mirror.
"No," he said, exhaling a small cloud of gray smoke. "He just told me to pick up some long-haired guy and take him to the corner of Brown and Wayne."
"And he said you'd pay the fare."
"Swell." Gene moved back into the seat. He leaned forward again to talk to the cabbie. "Did he look like he was . . . crazy or anything?"
"Look, mac," said the cabbie, glancing up at the mirror, "I just drive 'em around. I don't ask 'em if they've seen their shrink lately." The cabbie puffed on his cigar for a second, then spoke again in reflection. "He seemed okay -- looked like he hadn't slept in days. But, besides that, fine. Anyway, I don't bother asking personal questions. My own life is too screwed up for me to worry about anybody else's problems --"
"Okay. Okay" Gene interrupted. "I get the idea." He slid down further into the seat. He was still tired, and the cabbie's complaints were not helping. It was dumb to ask him about Peter anyway, he thought. All the cabbie wanted was his fare.
Gene rested his head against the top of the seat and closed his eyes. He was starting to drift off when the cab stopped.
"Hey, mac," the cabbie said, irritated. He tapped on the window. "We're here!"
"Hmmm . . .? Oh," Gene pushed himself up in the seat and searched his coat pockets for some money. "Wait a minute. Um, how much do I owe you?"
Gene got out of the car and reached in his pants' pocket. He found a crumpled twenty-dollar bill and tapped the driver's window to get his attention.
Rain poured into the cab as he rolled down the window. A shadow obscured most of the cabbie's face and hid him from view. All Gene could make out was the outline of a figure, sitting on what appeared to be two telephone books, and his cigar, sticking too far out of his face to be right. The driver's cap perched atop his head made him even more difficult to identify.
"Well?" The cabbie said impatiently.
Gene handed the twenty to the driver. A white glove, connected to a yellow arm, covered in feathers, appeared from the shadow and grabbed the bill.
"Uh, yeah," Gene said, taken aback. "Keep the change."
"Thanks, buddy." The cabbie poked his head out of the darkness briefly to look up at Gene.
"Why! Why, you're . . . you're a --!"
"Yeah. I know," said the driver, rolling up the window. "Don't spread it around."
The cab pulled out and drove away, leaving Gene standing in the rain.
* * *
By the way, the restaurant that I had Peter and Gene are meet in was a real one that I used to frequent with my brother every so often in our college days. I changed the street name, but it was one that was a common eating-spot for students at the University of Dayton. It was also one of the last Frisch’s in the area that had not been updated and still served the great chocolate milkshakes that could never been duplicated whenever they upgraded any of their restaurants for some reason.
They never bothered upgrading that particular restaurant, however. Instead, a parking lot took its place back in the early 1990s.
Ah, but the memories are still there. And in here as well.