Ch. 1.1 – Alex

Alejandro Deleon looked at his drafting table, colored pencil tapping at its edge. He frowned at the latest version of his cover art, shaking his head. He ignored the cooling coffee he’d brewed for himself at work.

Smith raised his sword, a weapon of steel and power alloyed. Sharp enough to cut a hair lengthwise yet broad enough to serve as a shield, the energy trailing behind it seared the air. Motes of power hung behind it where Smith swung, yet the Pale Knave blocked it with a wave of his hand. Behind the Knave, the Divine Lady writhed, fighting the bonds that delivered her might to her champion’s nemesis…

Alex grabbed his eraser and wiped away the Divine Lady. “Gah. Too cliche. Come on, I can do this. Archetype, not stereotype.” Tan fingers ran through short, curly hair. Alex tried again, not quite distracted by the pulsing in his forehead. He ran through a handful of pencils, each color further emphasizing a new duel between powers.

Behind the Knave, the Lady dodged his master, the Devil-Prince. Her magic clashed against his, barely holding him back as…

He grimaced. Too far the other way. Plus, the Devil-Prince is supposed to look just a little off, not have one arm a hand longer than the other, he thought caustically. Alex erased the Lady again, taking half the Devil-Prince with her. He shook off the tension building behind his eyes and began to sketch once more.

Pinned beneath the Devil-Prince’s power, the Divine Lady tried to bless Smith with her favor, but the Knave tore at it with his unholy spirit. The power of the Smith-sword wavered.

Alex stared at the page, caught between frustration and disbelief. And the Smith-sword wavered right along with it, he noted dryly. Somehow, he’d put a curve in the middle of the massive blade. His jaw twitched. And now I have a full-blown migraine. Wonderful. Some part of his mind tried to object that tension-headaches weren’t migraines. Alex told it to shut up. “Fine,” he snarled, hand dropping onto the paper, ready to crush it. “I give up.”

His hand didn’t close. No. I don’t give up, he rumbled. This is… The headache throbbed, and Alex squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. “Screw it,” he said finally, whirling around and grabbing his jacket and portfolio. “Blowing off some steam for one night is not ‘giving up.'” He threw his door open and almost slammed it behind him, striding out with a will. As he walked off, Alex began to smile for the first time in hours. I’ve got a whole pseudo-weekend ahead of me. Time to enjoy it.

He didn’t notice that the headache had stopped the moment he decided to leave.

* * *

The Red Rock Room’s music was loud and pounding. Not usually my style, but tonight… The drumming was almost primal, and the guitar beat was almost drum-like itself. Tribal metal. Is that a genre? Alex wondered idly.

To the artist, the place was less interesting visually than it was musically. It has possibilities, though. It was dark, with pulsing multi-colored spotlights overhead. Rave 101, right out of a Hollywood set for a club. The patrons came in several varieties, ranging from his own geek chic to a sort of neon neo-punk to some variant of goth. Everyone seemed to be into the music, though, heads or feet moving to the beat.

All we need is someone to lead the raiding party, Alex thought with almost disembodied glee. He felt on fire, wild, energized. That’s downright bizarre, the rational part of his mind mused, after an utter failure of a sketch. He smiled wryly. Maybe the Rave Gods have summoned me. It wasn’t a serious thought, but it wouldn’t quite disappear. Memories of a father fervently in service to one god and a mother who believed in none at all bubbled up, then drained away.

Sure, no Rave Gods, Alex decided, but something’s alive in this. The one thing I’m sure of is that there’s something out there. If there’s no soul, where does art come from? Various heavens drawn by Jack Kirby came to mind, and he imagined the club’s air crackling with a thousand dots of power. A moment later, he spotted an open seat at the bar and headed for it purposefully.

One of the neon punks stepped sideways right in front of him. He was a head taller than Alex — and Alex wasn’t exactly short at nearly six feet. The Neon was kitted out in a bright red leather jacket torn artfully in three places, hair done up in shocking blue-violet spikes, and eyes that glittered in a spiral that was clearly contact-lens unnatural. He grinned and put his fists on his hips. Spikey’s looking for trouble, Alex thought. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was disturbed by how it excited rather than frightened him. “You lost, geek boy?” the punk asked, just a hint of gravel in his voice.

“I already tried Hare Krishna, but thanks anyway,” Alex quipped, grinning back. Great. Leading with your foot in your mouth again, Deleon. Smooth.

The punk blinked at him. Then he laughed. “Good one!” ‘Spikey’ said, clapping Alex on the shoulder. “Guess you’re supposed to be here after all.” He stepped back out of the way.

Alex shrugged and continued forward, but predictably, someone had already gotten the seat. As tests go, that wasn’t exactly Horatius at the Bridge, he thought, slightly irritated. That idle notion stopped him cold. Not exactly the typical Guardian at the Gate. What is this, some kind of vision quest? For a wild, half-paranoid moment, Alex glanced around. Nothing else seemed unusual. Spikey was already chatting animatedly with a knot of fellow neons, the newcomer apparently forgotten. Nah, he decided, and headed for a lone chair tucked near the wall.

For almost an hour, Alex sipped at his drink, enjoyed the music, watched people come and go, and drew. As was so often the case, the people most interesting to him were the ones that stood out the least. A mature woman watched the neons as though she were writing a paper on them; her conservative haircut and quiet demeanor belied her “green goth” outfit, and Alex considered research an entirely plausible explanation for her presence.

The longer he watched, the more electric he felt, like all the inspiration he’d lost was returning, squared. Alex’s new panorama was one of the Divine Host at their ease, a techno-magical bar top that conjured soma and ambrosia serving gods and heroes. Smith and Hunter “danced” in an arena, sword and spear clashing, while a small crowd cheered. The Divine Lady had become a God-Witch in black, striding past the bar with a drink held elegantly in one hand while watching the warriors spar. Her smile held hints of weighing, considering, admiring. Now that’s more like it! Alex chuckled. Now all I need is a writer to give them decent names. He continued to watch as he sketched.

One fellow geek literally danced among the crowds, moving from partner to partner with fluid ease, but Alex guessed he was looking for more than a casual hookup. A moment later, a young lady in a purple blouse, black stretch pants and short goth boots, sitting as quietly in a corner as he, stood out like a dark beacon. She was a bit thin, though not pale, and her long black hair had surprisingly understated violet highlights. There was a subtle power about her, almost serene, while she scanned the room and chatted with a few regulars. Huh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her before, but she must be a regular herself. She definitely knows the people she’s talking to.

* * *

Alex got up to order a third drink just as a faux-vampire sidled up to subtle-goth’s table. The goth’s black dye almost hid his auburn hair, pale makeup slightly runny in the heat. A thin leather jacket and skintight jeans, all in black, completed the ensemble. She smiled at him and nodded, but the two others she’d been chatting with suddenly found other places to be. The room seemed to darken, a hint of a chill following it. One of the red spotlights seemed to settle on them. Deciding against the drink, Alex instead started working his way toward the duo. I really hope I’m not imagining this.

“…say we blow this cliche stand and do some dancing of our own?” the guy said, the intent of his smile obvious.

The lady smiled politely. “No offense, Max, but I’m waiting for someone.” She gestured to the empty length of the booth with her cocktail glass. “You can wait with me if you want.”

Max paused, raising an eyebrow. “That depends on the preferences of whoever you’re waiting for.”

“I’ll know in a minute,” she replied evenly, taking a sip.

Again there was a beat, Max looking annoyed. Then he laughed. “You haven’t changed, Sara.”

“You have,” she replied quietly. To Alex, she sounded sad. “Your makeup’s awful. What’s wrong?”

Instantly, Max’s demeanor shifted. The smile vanished. His hint of a leer turned into a deadly, melancholy focus. The chill intensified. Alex was suddenly the closest person in the room to the pair — everyone else slid away. He didn’t think any of them had even realized they’d reacted. “God, I’m sorry, Sara,” Max half-growled. He did sound a bit remorseful, but it felt like a wolf apologizing to a rabbit. “It’s the Grayboys. They’ve got me by the short ones.” Sara’s eyes went wide, and she shrank into the booth. “I wanted you to enjoy this, at least. Please, don’t fight.” Max’s head turned a fraction towards Alex. “And call off that inbound meatsack. Neither of us wants any trouble here, right?”

“It looks,” Alex said with more courage than he felt, “like the lady doesn’t want to go with you. That’s already trouble.” The power coursing through him seemed to gather in his hand. Martial training tried to kick in, but the chill slowed his body. Instead, the electric feeling became almost literal, as if the air itself could shock him.

“A would-be shining knight. Just great.” For a moment, Max deflated. He really doesn’t want this, Alex realized. Then there was a blur, and Alex was suddenly staring into blood-red eyes. An instant later, Max’s head shot back and his entire body convulsed. Alex stared at his hand, stunned. I shot lightning from my palm. Holy God, I shot lightning from my —

“Hit him!” Sara blurted, and Alex immediately took her advice, slamming his electric palm into Max’s solar plexus. When the not-so-fake vampire doubled over, Alex pulled him up, rammed his forehead into the man’s nose, then kicked him in the gut when he stumbled back. Max dropped in a twitching heap.

It only took seconds for the bouncers to show up and drag Max out. It took Alex just as long to realize they weren’t going to roust him too. They’re not even asking me about a taser, he thought, stunned. He started to look around for Sara, but found her clinging tightly to his arm before he’d begun to turn. “Thanks,” she said breathlessly.

“N-no problem,” Alex replied quietly. “Just…can you tell me what just happened?”

Sara laughed gently. “Glad to.”

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Written by Peter Flanagan

Peter Flanagan was born in the Bronx, New York, giving him the right to root for the Yankees while making less than six figures. After a long, largely pleasant interregnum in suburban Connecticut, he moved to the Inland Empire, California to be with his wonderful wife and muse, a stepson, and a crazed feline. An occasionally too-avid player of and writer for tabletop roleplaying games, his other passion is metaphysics, which informs most of his fiction.

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