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The Death Card: Prologue

Mac O'Roni

This is the way the world ends...
This is the way the world ends...
This is the way the world ends...
Not with a bang, but a whimper.

-T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

     Shrouded in shadows, a tall man in a black leather duster stood smoking beneath the trees, a furtiveness suggested in his stance and the number of butts littering the moon-dappled ground beneath his boots. He started slightly when a second shadow-obscured figure stepped out of the woods, but this reaction was quickly mastered, along with all prior signs of perturbation.
    “You’re late,” he said, pitching his voice low and even. He did not even allow a tone of accusation to enter the words, and his accent was nearly non-existent.
    “I had to be sure this was not a foolish attempt at a trap,” the newcomer said. This man’s voice was cultured but raspy; serpentine, or, perhaps, spider-like. There was something distinctly arachnid in the grasping shadow cast by the thin pale moon. “I have to admit, I was rather surprised to receive your…invitation. You can hardly blame me for having my suspicions.”
     “Not so loud, please. We’re a long way from the mansion, but there’s nothing wrong with his ears. You know who I mean.”
    “My apologies. I shall attempt to utilize a bit more…stealth.”
    The young man cut right to the chase. “I understand you’re gathering conscripts. How’s about a volunteer?”
    The other man laughed. “You? My dear boy, how on earth could you expect me to trust you? You betrayed me once before, lest you forget.”
    The smoldering butt flicked off into the darkness in a magenta shower of sparks. “Do you want me or not? The truth is, I’m sick of getting kicked around by these sanctimonious assholes. But one set of asses is as good to kick as another, to my way of thinking, and if you all don’t want me then I can always try the Avengers.”
    “Don’t misunderstand me, the intent was not to insult. Far from it.” The spidery shadow raised placating hands. “I would welcome the opportunity to work with you again, if I could trust you. Your qualities as a warrior fill me with admiration and I must admit that your unique genetic qualities are endlessly fascinating to a man of my scientific proclivities. Just the chance to study you would almost be worth the risks involved. However, I am merely an agent in this crusade: mine is not the final decision. My…employer will wish to decide for himself. And he will no doubt require certain…assurances.”
    “What kind of ‘assurances?’”
    “I shouldn’t think we’d require all that much, all things considered. Given your nature, I suppose I could vouch for you with him myself, provided you supply me with a simple promise.”
    “A promise? You’d trust my word?” The young man’s voice betrayed incredulity and suspicion.
    The moonlight illumined enough of the other man’s pale-skinned face to reveal a lurid toothy grin. “Not on your life. I was speaking of a more secure form of promise. A Blood Vow, your word as a Master and a Child of the Blood.”
    The young man inclined his head respectfully. “You’ve done your research. It couldn’t have been easy even for you to find out about Blood Magic. Been planning this long?”
    “Ever since the Morlock Massacre, in fact. Well? Are you willing to bind your blood to our cause? Or are you less certain than you have heretofore intimated?”
    The young man’s moon-lighted smile was less toothy but more ferocious. “I’m certain, all right. Lately it seems this place has become a ‘homo superiors’ only’ club. And I don’t think the management considers me membership timber.”
    “Then come; give me your vow and let us be brothers in arms.” He held out one corpselike hand. The young man took it without the slightest hesitation.
    “This is my vow: My blood bound to the magic therein. If my oath be broken, my blood rise up against me.”
    “Excellent. I think this is the beginning of a highly propitious partnership, dear boy. I assure you, those who faithfully serve his Lordship will be greatly rewarded. There are spoils worthy of kings when victory is ours.”
    “I’ll have my reward when I have my revenge.” The words were snarled, and a pair of eyes flashed brilliant red in the darkness obscuring them.
    “Revenge upon the near-family that spurned you?” The spidery voice was amused.
    “On all of them.”
    “Yes, you have had rather rotten luck with families, haven’t you? Well, my my. I wonder what this one will think when they wake to see you standing by his Lordship’s side? In fact, I can hardly wait to see their faces when they find you’ve become one of us. Shall we break it to them now? I hate suspense.”
    “No. I want to wait. They’ll know soon enough, and I want it to be at the…what was that word? At the most propitious moment. I want them to hurt, and I want them to know who hurt them.” There was another flash of burning eyes and lupine grin.
    Mr. Sinister laughed deeply. “Ah, my dear Gambit, your thirst for vengeance does you credit. Lord Apocalypse will be pleased at this addition to his royal guard, I’m sure. Let me say, it is a pleasure to be the first to welcome you into our enterprising company.”