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When a vampire named Vena Cava is changed into a mortal, she must fight her way back to the realm of the Undying in the hope of reuniting with her baby daughter, Capillary. But Lord Witcher, the handsome warlock who befriends her during her struggle, is the ultimate temptation‌

Undying, a Paranormal Romance Vincent Marcy Copyright 2012 by Vincent Marcy Smashwords Edition

Smashwords Edition, License Notes This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share it with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents PART I — WITCHER Chapters 1 - 3 Chapters 4 - 6 Chapters 7 - 9 Chapters 10 - 12 Chapters 13 - 15 PART II — AORTA Chapters 16 - 18 Chapters 19 - 20 Chapters 21 - 22 Chapters 23 - 25 PART III — VENA Chapters 26 - 28 Chapters 29 - 31 Chapters 32 - 34 Chapters 35 - 36 Excerpt

PART I – LORD WITCHER 1 When Ulna first met Lord Witcher, he puzzled her. On the one hand, he could cast spells and perform magic, but on the other, he had fangs. "Are you a necromancer?" she had asked. "Or, a neck romancer?" "I'm both, actually," he had replied, unperturbed. "I'm a warlock and a vampire. Witcher’s dual nature gave him unusual powers and made him highly influential in the community of supernaturals, which was why Ulna had sought out his assistance. In fact, the undead skeleton had been pestering him about Vena for days, but he hadn’t even acknowledged her concerns—he acted as though she had never said a thing. She responded to his indifference by chattering away in her bony dialect even faster and louder. Luckily, something she said broke through Witcher’s defenses and struck him. She alleged that a vampire named Vena Cava—she was careful to point out that “Vena” sounded like the word “vein”—had turned a disturbing shade of red, or “ruddy,” as she called it; and, of course, she arrayed her prattle in flowing robes of doom and dire for supernatural consumption. “Have you seen her yourself, Ulna?” Witcher had asked. “Or, are you just repeating something that you’ve heard. Saying that Ms. Vena has taken on color is not ambiguous. Either she has or she hasn’t.” “Oh, she definitely has.” The skeleton gave an affirmative shake of her skull. “I’ve seen her with my own eyes.” She raised a bony hand up to her eye sockets which, of

course, did not contain eyes. Witcher responded with a smile. Despite this setback, Ulna could tell that she had piqued the warlock’s interest, and she continued to prod him until she finally succeeded in getting him to take up the matter. Thus, the two supernaturals set off together one night with Ulna's cousin, a severed head named Honcho, in search of Vena. After hours of scouting through assorted mortuaries, gravesites, and sepulchers, they managed to locate the vampire standing beside a freshly re-dug grave contemplating the contents of the opened coffin within it. “There she is,” Ulna whispered to the others. She and Witcher stood, and Honcho perched, atop a domed mausoleum situated in the center of the cemetery and looked down on the unsuspecting vampire in the moonlit graveyard below. “Yes, I see her now,” Honcho said, twisting his blood-soaked neck against the roof of the mausoleum. “She's going through that coffin looking for a midnight snack.” Witcher, who towered over the other two like a dark titan, surveyed the vampire for a moment. Ulna realized that even in the moonlight and at that distance, he could probably see whether her claims were true. “You're as right as a lightning bolt in a thunderstorm,” he said to her with the graciousness for which he was renowned. “It does appear Ms. Vena has taken on some color.” “Her complexion should be colorless,” Ulna responded, “since she has been Undying for ages.” She didn’t bother stating the obvious: that the fact Vena had assumed a reddish hue could mean only one thing for the supernatural community—trouble. If supernaturals who were Undying suddenly started becoming alive again—which to them means Dying —their entire world and way of existence would be imperiled. Honcho’s eyes widened. “She does look…” he hesitated, “alive, doesn't she?” Ulna wrenched her jaws into a bony knot and spit out a torrent of clacking sounds that, translated into common speech, meant, “She certainly does!” “But what can be the cause?” Witcher wondered aloud. “If she had to assume color,” Honcho continued, “you'd think she'd have the decency to turn a ghoulish shade, like bloodless yellow or the color of iodine.” Delighted by the comments from her two companions, Ulna congratulated herself, her snooping instincts vindicated once again. Vena, meanwhile, had hopped into the grave and onto the opened coffin. There, she stood contemplating a heart that she had plucked from the coffin’s occupant and put in a jar. “Shall we speak with her?” Witcher asked. Without waiting for a response, he called down with the volume turned up. “Say, Ms. Vena, might we interrupt your ‘specimen gathering’ and ask why it is you're so red this evening?” Vena jolted, apparently startled by the sudden, jarring clang of the warlock's voice. She looked up at the three supernaturals peering down at her from atop the mausoleum dome. “Oh, you frightened me!” “I do go out of my way to frighten supernaturals on occasion, I will admit.” The warlock's mouth formed a crescent. “But not in this instance, Ms. Vena. My companions and I were merely making an inquiry. Nevertheless, I offer you the most warm-blooded apologies.” Looking to one side, Ulna thought to herself that the handsome warlock’s silhouette

cut a striking figure against the moonlight. “No need to apologize,” Vena replied. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a good fright!” “In that case, I’m happy to have been of service.” Witcher bowed. In the black of night, his orange eyes shone with an honesty that affirmed he offered his assurances with a sincere mind. “We merely wish to inquire whether you feel out of sorts tonight.” “Out of sorts?” Vena’s face twitched. “Do I look ill?” “We are referring to your complexion, Ms. Vena; your cheeks appear to be flushed.” “Flushed?” She started. Sifting through the dirt piled next to the grave, she retrieved a purse and pulled out a cell phone. Tilting the phone in the dim moonlight, she snapped a photo of herself. “If everything were okay,” Ulna thought, “she wouldn’t be visible in the photo. But, of course, everything isn’t okay.” Vena stared at the phone. All at once, she started to howl. “So much for that question,” Witcher murmured. “She had no idea,” Ulna said. Honcho, shuffling along the mausoleum roof by flexing his neck muscles, squirmed past the other two. “Still, I think she could have arranged to turn cadaverous blue, or at least the color of gangrene.”

2 “Down in the dumps, are you, Ms. Vena?” The timbre of Witcher's words announced that his offer of consolation was as genuine as his apology had been. “Perhaps, we can assist you.” The warlock floated from the mausoleum dome and landed gracefully on the grassy lawn of the cemetery. Not privy to such magic, Ulna had no choice but to climb down the mausoleum’s front wall like a bony spider, while poor Honcho remained behind, stranded on the roof. The hapless severed head scurried along the edge of the roof, calling, “Wait for me, wait for me,” and searched for a way down, blood all the while pouring from his serrated neck. Witcher strode over to the distressed vampire posthaste, Ulna bringing up the rear. “It is a melancholy discovery, isn't it?” he asked, with an amiable air. “To be so alive in the dead of night? If only you could sip a glass of blood claret and forget about it.” Vena had climbed out of the grave and, standing next to it, paused for a second to consider Witcher. Ulna, too, considered the warlock she knew so well. He looked unusually “dark and handsome” with a distinguished bearing, and came as close to cracking a friendly smile as a vampire can manage without showing fangs. “I’m afraid, Ms. Vena, that you have become a mortal once again,” he said in a gentle tone. Vena gasped. Witcher scratched his chin. She calmed herself, then regained her composure. “Naturally, it's unnerving to learn such a thing after three centuries of being Undying.” At that point, Honcho burst upon them, out of breath. “You could have waited for the rest of us!” Adopting a self-important air, he jumped up—severed heads often develop

extraordinary athletic abilities in their neck muscles, in much the same way that people who have lost their sight develop a greatly enhanced sense of hearing—onto the pile of dirt beside the grave. “I’m the head honcho around here,” he declared. “Don’t you forget it!” “You are a head,” Witcher conceded, “but you’re not the honcho, despite your name. I’m the senior supernatural in attendance.” To illustrate his point, Witcher levitated the uppity bodiless man eight feet into the air, causing him to swell as big as a pumpkin and his eyes to leap from their sockets like grasshoppers. Honcho began shrieking uncontrollably, until Witcher allowed him to reassume his normal size and drop onto the pile of dirt with a thud. “I think our subject may be wandering off.” Ulna pointed to Vena, who had pulled her hood down and was holding the cell phone behind her neck, spinning in circles in an effort to get ahead of herself. “If you're trying to see whether your back is also red, Ms. Vena, Ulna can probably determine it for you better than anyone.” Vena ceased her circular endeavors and came to a halt. The skeleton clip-clopped forward to meet her, motioning for her to turn around. Pulling the red cloth of Vena’s cloak up with a fleshless hand, she examined the vampire’s back for a moment, then wagged her skull from side to side. “Hopeless!” “Hopeless?” Vena asked. “There’s not an ounce of death in you.” “In all likelihood, Ms. Vena, there isn't a single corpuscle of you that is not this unfortunate color,” Witcher said. “Ulna tells us that you have been in this condition for at least a week.” “A week?” Vena gulped. Feeling the vampire’s gaze cut across her gaunt cheek bones and black, somber eye sockets, Ulna jutted her lower jaw out, then pulled it back with a click-clack—as though in confirmation of Witcher's statement. “Can it be that what we are seeing is makeup?” she asked. “Oh, no, vampires don’t wear makeup. Sometimes, I’ll wear make-down—to give me a more deceased look.” “Yes, there’s nothing like that certain deathly pallor to take the crick out of your bones,” Ulna noted, reaching behind and touching her lower backbone. “But I’m not wearing make-down tonight.” Vena returned the cell phone to her purse and adopted a dejected look for a moment, but then perked up. “Perhaps, I can scrape it off!” Her face beamed with anticipation. “Yes, let Ulna help you, Ms. Vena. She can scrape the red away more easily than you can.” Ulna reached out with a calcified hand and scrubbed the left side of Vena’s face. Unfortunately, she came away with most of Vena’s cheek in the bargain, leaving the vampire with a sizable hole where the red had been. “Oops.” She stretched out her hand again and smeared the skin back over the hole, causing Vena’s cheek to look as though it were covered with a red paste. Ulna glanced at Witcher, a silent call for help. He pronounced a spell, “Be whole!” and the skin of Vena’s cheek returned to its previous composition.

“Did it work?” Vena asked. If she was aware that part of her cheek had been missing, she showed no indication of it. “No, I'm afraid it didn't, Ms. Vena. No difference whatever.” “Aye, there's the rub.” Ulna smirked. “We had hoped for a stroke of good luck, but it never came.” The corners of Witcher's mouth took a wry turn upward. Honcho jumped down from the dirt pile and landed next to the grave. “What we need is sandpaper.” “Hush!” Witcher admonished. “Let's not distress Ms. Vena any further. She's had enough upset for one evening.”

3 Vena motioned toward the current resident of the coffin. “Out!” she ordered. Having just witnessed Witcher’s powers of levitation when he and Honcho got into their little tiff, Vena looked at the warlock with anticipation. He nodded agreement and levitated the corpse high into the air from its not-so-eternal resting place. He then transported it onto the grass of the cemetery some thirty feet from the grave. “Sorry, about this bit of inconvenience,” he mumbled to the corpse, who was in no condition to reply—or care. The coffin duly vacated, Vena plopped herself into it and lay there, momentarily at peace. Ulna and Honcho exchanged glances. “Bravo, Ms. Vena. By feigning death, perhaps you can bring it back.” “I'm not prepared to live again. The first time was quite enough!” “Maybe you can un-die again,” Ulna suggested. “Yes, yes. I much prefer to be Undying again. Someone close the coffin, please. I'm ready to go.” Ulna reached down and pushed the coffin lid shut. The three supernaturals gazed at the closed coffin as though expecting some spectacular event. “It won’t work.” Witcher shook his head. “It can’t work.” “Why not?” Honcho adopted a mournful expression. “Whatever has brought her back to life will simply do it again. No, we will have to discover the cause of her condition and address it. Nothing less will do.” Witcher reached down and opened the coffin. Vena lay still, her eyes closed. “You see,” Ulna said, triumphant. “She is quite dead.” But Vena opened her eyes and sat up, foiling the skeleton's momentary triumph. “I must tell you, Ms. Vena, the color in your cheeks has not diminished one bit,” Witcher informed her sadly. “No?” Her face sagged. “You didn't change the shade of red, either.” Honcho's eyes darted over and back. “You're not a tinge closer to a supernatural shade.” “No offense, Ms. Vena, but the notion that you might resolve such an indelible problem so readily did strike me as the purest case of wishful thinking.” Witcher regarded her kindly; Ulna and Honcho sported grins as well. This show of levity at first brought a laugh from the downhearted vampire, but then

she put her hand to her mouth. “How will I ever get back to my baby, Capillary?” “You have a child in the netherworld?” Witcher asked. “Oh, yes.” Her face brightened. “She's quite the princess.” Witcher cupped a palm around his chin. “This does complicate matters.” “I must get back to the realm of the Undying. And soon. My existence is there, not here.” Witcher nodded. “I regret there is nothing more we can do until we discover the source of your malady.” “Don't despair,” she counseled, as though the problem were as much theirs as hers. “I'll purge myself of this condition.” “We wish you success in your efforts, Ms. Vena, but we must return to our own. We bid you adieu.” She climbed out of the grave and motioned toward the corpse. “We must set this aright first, don’t you think?” “Yes, of course.” He levitated the unfortunate cadaver into the air once again and transported it into the coffin. Shutting the lid, he used his powers to heap the pile of dirt onto the coffin with a wave of his hand. The grave site set in order, the warlock circled around. “We will meet again.” He took Vena’s hand and kissed it. “Yes, I do hope so.” She smiled. He strode off, Ulna and Honcho hurriedly following after him. Ulna turned around and saw Vena looking after Witcher for a long moment. Eventually, the vampire departed in the opposite direction, clutching her purse in one hand and the jar with the heart in the other. “Did you see the way that witch tried to die without inviting us to come along?” Ulna asked after Vena left. “She's not a witch, Ulna; she's a vampire.” Witcher contemplated the ruffled skeleton. “Did you see how she plopped into the coffin as though it were perfectly acceptable to do so?” “She was understandably upset. I’m sure none of us would handle learning that we had become a mortal very well. I wouldn’t.” “If she were polite, she would have turned a supernatural color—say, the color of decaying flesh.” Honcho strained to keep up with the two larger supernaturals and, thanks undoubtedly to years of developing his neck muscles, was able to do it. There was a decided pause. “How did you lose your head, anyway?” Witcher said to Honcho, changing the subject. “I didn’t lose my head. I am a head.” “I mean, how did you get severed? Was it by a guillotine, or by an ax?” “How should I know? I didn’t exactly see it coming. And it wasn’t me that got severed; it was my body.” “So, is there a headless body running around here, too?” “If there were, don’t you think I’d join it?” “Before your body was severed, Mr. Honcho, you didn’t happen to be a horseman, did you?”

“Oh, ha ha ha! Will you stop with the headless jokes? You’re giving me an ache.”

4 The River Styx wound its way through the underworld, twisting and writhing over the barren terrain like a dragon swimming through hellfire. Its turbulent waters were red with white foam woven into them, and its banks were little more than sandbars struggling to hold the river at bay. Corpses floated on the surface, rowboats ferried the dead across, and shrieks echoed from the depths. Standing at water’s edge, Vena attempted to secure passage across the river from the earthly side to the Hades side. She hailed many of the charons—the rowers who transport the dead in their boats—but the black-hooded, silver-bearded rowers with glowing eyes simply gazed at her expressionless and continued on, their boats empty. For centuries, these conveyors of the dead and the Undying had escorted her and her relatives across the River Styx into Hades, but now they wouldn’t even acknowledge her presence. Frustrated with her inability to gain assistance from the charons, she turned away, only to see a steady train of supernaturals coming toward her. They were flowing through the narrow entrance to the underworld, a pass between huge stalactites that pierced the air like giant sepulchers. Lycan the werewolf reached her first. “Are you Vena Cava, the former vampire?” “As you are well aware, Lycan, I am a vampire. There’s no ‘former’ about it.” “From what I’ve heard, you used to be a vampire.” Lycan twitched his whiskers, which shot from his face like fireworks. “We've been lookin' for you.” “Looking for me? What in the world for?” “You didn’t think we’d let you re-enter Hades, did you? Since you’re no longer a supernatural, you’re not allowed in the nether regions.” “I never thought I’d have trouble gaining entrance to hell, of all places!” She laughed in an effort to reduce the tension between them, but Lycan didn’t laugh in return; he scowled, instead. The werewolf’s menacing demeanor made her feel positively uncomfortable. “Excuse me a minute, Lycan.” She walked away and continued some distance down the riverbank. Turning and looking behind her, she saw that a crowd of supernaturals was gathering around Lycan, and that its members were casting hostile glances her way. A voice from the river called to her. “Signorina Cava.” She glanced out over the water. It was Specter. The ghost was floating above the water near her. She thought that he must have flown up from the Hades side of the river. “Judge Specter!” she said. He was a respected judge in Hades who knew her family well. Specter looked at her with huge dough-boy eyes. “Rumor has it, Signorina, that you have become a mortal.” “That's what I’ve been told! But I have no explanation for it.” “You must know that crossing into Hades is forbidden for mortals.” She could hear the concern in his voice; he wasn’t chastising her, he was advising her. “If I am a mortal!” “I must warn you that this situation is dangerous, Signorina. These supernaturals won’t look kindly on a vampire-turned-mortal in their midst.” He motioned toward Lycan and company. She turned and surveyed the growing crowd once again. There appeared to be

several dozen paranormals around the werewolf now. “They’re becoming a mob.” “They’re not a sophisticated group, Signorina. They will see you as a threat. They think that if one supernatural becomes a mortal, then maybe they’ll become mortals as well. You could face reprisals.” “Yes, I see.” “If indeed you are no longer Undying, then you are very vulnerable, since you no longer have your powers. I think you should quietly go, and do so immediately, Signorina. I will try to talk some sense into them, but they are a wild bunch!” “Yes, yes. I will. Thank you, Specter.” She began moving away from the river and headed toward the dense forest whose edge came within fifty feet of the water. With a backward glance she saw Specter moving toward the mob. She disappeared into the trees. An hour later, she tramped along the riverbank, the first moon shining in its fullness to light her way. She had evaded the mob of supernaturals for a time, and she thought that with sufficient distance between herself and the entrance to the river she might also succeed in hailing a charon. The riverbank had become wrapped in a fog, and she grew concerned for her safety because she could not see far—then she realized that part of the fog was a vision. She came to a stop. In the vision she could see her sister, Aorta. “Vena, what has become of you? We're worried about you.” “You won’t believe what has happened. I scarcely believe it myself.” “You look… different, somehow. Are you ill?” “It seems that I’ve become a mortal again.” “A mortal? How is that possible?” “I don’t know, but everyone has noticed it. I’ve been drummed out of the vampire corps because of it. They won’t even let me cross the Styx to come home.” “Who won’t?” “Lycan told me that I’m no longer permitted entrance into the Underworld, and the charons won’t ferry me across the Styx.” “This is much more serious than I imagined. You could wind up stranded in the Land of the Dying for good!” At this point, Capillary, Vena’s daughter, ran into the vision. The baby had just turned three years old and had recently finished teething. She was one of a new phenomenon, as the sorcerers in Hades had been successful in enabling some vampires to give birth. Unlike adult vampires, the child vampires would age, but only until they reached maturity. After that, they stopped aging. Capillary’s fangs had come in and, like all the new child vampires, she took every opportunity to show them off. Forgetting that she was looking at a vision, Vena held out her arms. "Come here, my little Capillary." The girl ran forward, then stopped when she could see Vena clearly. Her eyes grew large, and she ran back to Aorta, grabbing her aunt’s leg for safety and wailing in fear. Tears welled up in Vena’s eyes. “My own child doesn’t know me!” “Naturally, she’s afraid of mortals, Vena.” Aorta tried to comfort the panic-stricken child. “Yes, they are frightening, aren’t they?” Vena wiped a few of her tears away. “Quite!” Aorta laughed, and Vena smiled in return. Aorta's sense of humor could be

annoying, but could cheer her nonetheless. Neither of them spoke while Aorta calmed the baby. Once Capillary quieted, Aorta picked her up and put her on her shoulders. The child sat there staring at the terrifying figure that sounded so much like her mother. The vision started to fade. Vena realized she didn’t have much time left. “I’m just dying to be Undying again, my love,” she said to the baby, “so I can be with you once more.” “We’ll be waiting for you, Vena…” Aorta's voice trailed off, and Vena could see Capillary smile, the child’s fangs showing clearly through the fog. With that, the vision disappeared. Behind her, she heard a voice that she identified as Witcher’s. “You are in danger, Ms. Vena!” She turned around, but couldn’t see Witcher anywhere. Instead, she saw the fuzzy image of many bodies bearing down on her. She had been so preoccupied with the vision that she had failed to sense the storm hurtling toward her. She swung back around and hightailed it to escape the mob of supernaturals tearing toward her.

5 Vena swerved left, headed for a small rise, climbed up it, and disappeared into the woods again. Despite this quick maneuver, the faster constituents of the mob were right on her heels and pursued her into the forest, undeterred. The slower supernaturals dutifully followed after the faster ones. There were centaurs, minotaurs, and flying creatures, both griffins and harpies, all of whom were far swifter than a mortalfied vampire on foot. To Vena, the whole enterprise appeared hopeless. But just when the supernaturals were closing in on her, a great explosion sounded in the sky above them. The ear-splitting boom shocked her pursuers, causing them to stop and look into the sky as though trying to identify what could have caused the blast. Vena, however, continued on, not about to slow down or look above her. Thanks to all the commotion, she managed to evade the mob—temporarily, at least—by crisscrossing through the natural maze of trees that dotted the netherworld landscape. But, alas, her getaway was hampered by two hard-to-change considerations. First, while the darkness, the terrain, and the fog camouflaged her well enough, the creatures stalking her possessed supernatural powers, and because she had become a mortal again, she did not. And second, behind her, she could hear the baying of hounds—hell hounds—which she realized meant the mob could track her by scent. And to her misfortune, there was a decided breeze blowing away from her and toward the Styx, toward the supernaturals who were hunting her. She streaked through the forest at top speed, without regard for becoming winded, for she well understood the handicap under which she labored. In her desperate flight, she cut a wide circle, doubling back imperceptibly to make certain the mob would eventually lose all trace of her scent—a consideration that otherwise would have ensured her destruction. And once she passed the middle of the turn, she did indeed lose them. At one point, in fact, she stood on a ridge and surveilled her adversaries in the double moonlight, undetected. She estimated a hundred supernaturals, a veritable army of creatures of the night culled straight from the pits of hell. She scoured her imagination for

a solution, any shred or scrap of inspiration that might save her, but couldn’t avoid the brutal conclusion that her escape effort was doomed. On the one hand, the breeze prevented her from moving away from the river, since the hell hounds would pick up her scent again. On the other hand, the river itself was an impenetrable barrier; once she arrived there, she would be cornered, and it wouldn’t be long before the griffins and harpies located her there from the air. The river loomed into sight, and a sheen of white moonlight reflecting from the surface etched its outline against the darkness. Along its bank floated a single rowboat, and she could swear a hooded rower standing inside it beckoned her. Utterly out of options and her back up against the wall, she decided to make a beeline for the mysterious rower. When she came close enough to hear, the rower motioned more forcefully and called to her, “Come this way, Ms. Vena. We must hurry.” Witcher! Vena’s mouth dropped open. She ran to the boat and hopped into it. Witcher untied the mooring, pushed off from the shore with an oar, and began to row, the vessel quickly floating downstream. Vena sat in the bow of the craft facing her rower, who stood in the stern. “Lord Witcher,” she said, “you are a bundle of surprises!” She was so overjoyed to see him that it was all she could do to keep from jumping up and hugging him with the most uninhibited passion. With so many enemies arrayed against her, she was in desperate need of an ally. And, what better ally than this extraordinary warlock? Witcher was outfitted in the customary black robe of the charons and even wore a long gray beard. He looked at her with a mischievous smile. “The laws of Hades stipulate that you must be ferried across the River Styx in a rowboat piloted by a charon. So, here I am, Ms. Vena—your charon.” He pulled the beard away from his chin so she could see it wasn’t real and bowed. “At your service, madam.” She laughed. Then she noticed that in the distance back on shore the mob had made it to the bank of the river. They appeared to be watching the rowboat move away from them across the turbulent waters of the Styx. She had been right. It hadn’t taken long at all for the griffins and harpies to find her. She noted the flying creatures over the riverbank. But they didn’t venture over the river proper. Witcher saw her preoccupation with events behind him. He turned and observed the mob for a long moment. “You do understand that the creatures pursuing us will have to secure passage across the river by rowboat like anyone else. They cannot simply fly across or swim across. This fact will buy us valuable time.” He waved a hand in the air, and another explosion sounded above the horde, most of whom ran for cover, pointing up into the sky at an imaginary enemy. Vena’s mouth dropped open a second time. She realized Witcher had been helping her all along. That made sense! No mortal could have evaded so many supernaturals without help. Vena and Witcher tossed over the rough waters, coasting downstream and slowly moving across. It would take a while for the commotion from the explosion to die down. Her thoughts strayed to Capillary. The child’s terror was unsettling, to say the least, but there was little she could do about it now. She looked at Witcher’s aristocratic features. “I never would have imagined such a handsome charon.” Witcher smiled.

They were following the route normally taken by the “recently departed,” except that she was no longer “departed.” Eventually, the horde ceased to be visible. Vena and Witcher had drifted too far downstream to see them. She could, however, see rowboats along the horizon. The mob of paranormals had apparently secured boats—just as Witcher said they would have to— and were in full pursuit again.

6 Witcher paddled on, and the boat made its way to the opposite shore. They moored it to the branch of a tree that stood at water’s edge, and Vena jumped out of the rowboat. Witcher picked up a sword, a spyglass, and a map he had hidden beneath a seat in the boat. “A sword?” she asked. “We’ll be needing it.” He nodded to the rowboats along the horizon and handed her all three items. The red and white of the river stretched into the distance, flowing toward them from the horizon and beyond. Vena looked through the spyglass at where the river disappeared along Hades’ edge. She could see a small fleet of rowboats crossing over its rough waters. “The current will carry them closer and closer.” Witcher picked up a sack of fish and a large crowbar and hopped out of the boat. “By the time they get across the Styx, they’ll be down here.” “When they get here, we’ll need more than a sword!” Vena counted the boats. “There’s twelve boats filled with them.” She noted the numbers of supernaturals. “There may be seventy to eighty creatures altogether. The only weapons we have are this sword and our wits.” “And a warlock’s sorcery.” He smiled. “Flight over the river is impossible,” he continued, even though he was telling Vena things he must have realized she knew already. “The Styx acts as a barrier between both worlds. No motors, no modern weaponry, no electronics can cross the river. “Anyone who attempts to bring such items in will discover they cannot move across the water until they dump the offending items. The supernaturals must use the charons’ rowboats to cross, but once they reach this shore, they can resume flying. We must be invisible by then.” Vena continued observing the rowboats. Witcher, meanwhile, used the crowbar to break holes in the side of their boat. Moving quickly, he loosed the rope holding the boat and slowly turned the craft around to break holes in the other side. He then pushed it out into the water. With one hand, he used his powers to propel the boat toward the center of the river, the rowboat taking on water all the while. “We need to scuttle the boat so they can’t use it to help their hell hounds pick up your scent.” “My scent? You’re not worried that they’ll catch yours?” “No, they’re not chasing me. It’s you they’re after.” About a hundred feet out, the boat went under for good and disappeared completely. “You walk ahead. I’ll walk behind with the fish.” “What’s with the fish?”

“I’m using the scent from the fish to cover over and eliminate yours. I’m also covering over our footprints as we walk.” Vena looked behind them. There were no footprints on the sand behind them. As they walked, footprints appeared, but then the sand covered them over. “As long as you don’t smear those fish all over me,” she said. “Actually, that’s not a bad idea!” He started running after her. Vena started to run, too, giggling. “You’ve lost your mind!” They reached the trees of the forest and disappeared within them. Vena imagined that the supernaturals might have been watching them from a distance with their own spyglasses. Even so, at this point it would be hard for their pursuers to know exactly where they had come ashore. The two vampires climbed up the nearest hill and, careful to remain hidden, continued to observe the river with the spyglass. The first rowboat landed upstream from their position. “Yes, yes!” Witcher cried. “They’ve landed at the wrong place.” He handed the glass to Vena. She looked through it. A werewolf with a half-dozen dogs in tow exited the boat. “He’s got hell hounds!” she cried. “And he’s walking them up and down the beach.” “They’re trying to catch your scent. We’ll give them something to keep them busy.” Witcher waved a hand toward the dogs. She continued to observe them with the small telescope. The hounds came to an immediate stop, baying with unreserved excitement. They had completely abandoned their scent-finding effort. Vena searched around the dogs with the glass looking for the source of the commotion. “Cats!” she cried. “The dogs have spotted two black cats.” Witcher laughed. “Why track two vampires when you can follow such alluring felines, instead?” The tracking hounds were dragging the werewolf behind them, as he yelled at them. Vena could see that the dogs wouldn’t listen, so consumed were they with their obsession for the black mousers. “The tendency to chase after cats instead of tracking is a notorious problem with using hounds. What the dogs don’t know is that they are following an illusion of both sight and smell.” “An illusion conjured by you!” She dropped the spyglass for a moment and glanced at him with a smile. “By the time the image fades and the ruse falls through, the hell hounds will be too far from the action to be players any longer.” She laughed. “The dogs will undoubtedly spend quite a lot of time trying to figure out where their cats have gone.” Witcher pointed into the sky at a harpy flying from a second rowboat that had landed. “We’d better get going. They may have seen us despite everything. Another boat has made it across.”

7 “We’ll wait for them at the top of this bluff.” Witcher motioned toward the crest of an incline, which rose at a steep angle. “Wait for them?” Vena asked as she climbed.

“Yes, we've failed to become invisible and we can’t possibly get away from so many. So, we’ll have to change our strategy. Instead of hiding, we’ll try to reduce their numbers. This bluff can help us.” “Won’t the griffins and harpies have the advantage, though, since they can fly?” “I have a solution for that.” He smiled. “What's your solution?” She couldn’t help but enjoy seeing such a smile. “I’ll project an illusion that will cause the mountain to look farther away than it is.” “Farther away? How will that help?” “It will cause them to crash into it.” “Oh!” She put a hand up to her face. “That’s clever—and diabolical.” “We’ll turn their flying ability and their speed against them.” “Perhaps, we should be flying ourselves.” She stopped climbing for a moment, put a hand on her back, and twisted to relieve the stress. Witcher stopped, too. “We could. But we have some time while they land their boats, and I want to save my energy for later. This is a marathon, not a sprint.” He started again, and she reluctantly followed until they reached the top. “Vena, help me gather some materiel that we can use for ammunition. Anything heavy will do.” She watched him pick up items off the ground and followed suit. Together they collected whatever they could find that had any bulk to it—large rocks, long branches, even small logs that required both of them to carry. Vena looked up in the sky. “Here they come!” She pointed at two harpies flying toward them. “Let’s see how the illusion trick works.” Witcher raised a hand into the air and twisted it. Vena’s vision faltered for a moment as everything went out of focus and then came back in focus. The harpies, who were flying in tandem, suddenly reduced their altitude, apparently in response to the illusion. But they continued to drop down long after they should have leveled out—so low that they collided with the bluff. “Yay!” Vena jumped up with her cheer. “It worked!” “And with a vengeance. You are a dangerous creature, Lord Witcher.” “If you can’t tell exactly where the mountainside is, approaching it becomes perilous, indeed.” “Uh, oh.” She pointed down the slope. “They’re also coming up the bluff.” She could see dozens of supernaturals of every stripe climbing the slope—vampires, frankensteins, ghouls, zombies, minotaurs. But the worst were the centaurs. Because they have horse bodies, they could climb better than the two-legged creatures. “They're moving very fast,” she said of the centaurs. “Don't worry. We're ready for them.” Witcher waved his hand upward. A small boulder nearby that had been too large to carry flew down the incline. Soon the slope was alive with the rolling and tumbling of missiles along its length. Whenever he sent a load of projectiles down the mountainside, supernaturals below scattered in an effort to dodge the makeshift artillery shells. One of the rocks struck a centaur, who screamed, as much from anger as from pain. Some of the

supernaturals found it easier to move out of range than to continue up the face of the bluff. Vena was surprised by how effective Witcher's defensive strategy was turning out to be. Every so often, a few harpies or griffins would appear in the sky headed their way. Each time, Witcher succeeded in tricking them into crashing into the bluff with his illusions. The first moon in its fullness hung over the battlefield, bathing it in golden hues like a blazing lantern. Vena continued to bring over whatever large rocks and branches she could find and to stack them beside Witcher for use as ammunition when the bigger stuff ran out. They made a good team: she rounding up the ‘shrapnel’ and he flinging it down the mountainside with his sorcery. If any creature got through Witcher’s barrage, Vena would run it through with the sword they had brought from the boat. This division of labor kept hell’s hordes at bay for a solid hour. In one case, though, a minotaur climbed the mountain face as though it were a staircase. Witcher lobbed projectiles at him, but the minotaur easily sidestepped them. The majestic black-haired half-bull, half-man approached close enough to mount a challenge, his long horns sharp and curved like supernatural scythes. Then, Witcher's artillery barrage made a fortuitous strike. One of the rocks smacked into a framework of dirt and sticks and sent the entire structure rolling. The minotaur easily dodged the original missile but was standing on the patch of earth when it collapsed. The avalanche carried him down the mountainside until he managed to cushion his fall in a large patch of devil’s weed. Despite this victory and many others, with time Witcher’s and Vena's position became untenable—their supply of ammo ran out. “We’ll have to retreat,” Witcher cried. “We’ve accomplished as much as we can here.” Having flung every conceivable piece of ordnance found on the mountainside down onto the heads of their enemies, the consequent lack of material forced them to climb onto the flattened top of the bluff. The supernaturals saw their retreat and resumed the chase up the bluff side. A ghoul reached the top first. Its long slender body slid up the rock face with almost leopard-like agility. As soon as it stuck its head over the top, however, Vena ran it through with the sword. The ghoul fell backward, nose over feet, its descent like the back flips of a circus performer. “You’re quite handy with that sword, I see,” Witcher called to her. She wagged the weapon back and forth and smiled. A zombie next poked its mug over the edge. Witcher rushed it. The creature rolled down the mountain face, shoulder over shoulder, until three of the other supernaturals snagged it and saved it from the final plunge. Witcher, she could see, was a guerrilla fighter. He used the terrain as a weapon, allowing him to best larger, fiercer and—as in this case—more numerous opponents. When the minotaur appeared again at the bluff's edge, Witcher started after him, but a harpy swooped down on him once more, her knife-edged claws fully bared. Vena helped him beat the monster away, but the harpy kept both of them busy long enough for the minotaur to crest the bluff's top. Their wall of gravity and rock now breached, the two vampires turned and headed into the wood of Sepulcher trees covering the top of the bluff. They separated, and the

minotaur pursued Vena, who circled back around to Witcher. Witcher then waylaid the minotaur from the side with the sword. Leaving the bull on the ground wounded, they continued their flight. Vena looked behind and saw the rest of the mob pouring over the bluff's edge and entering the fray.

8 “There’s a cabin at the far side of the bluff,” Witcher said, out of breath and stopping. “We can hole up there, but we’ll have to fly or they’ll overtake us. Hang on to me; we can go together.” He tied the sword, the rolled up map, and the spyglass together, then hung them around his neck. He leaned down for Vena to grab hold. From his right side she wrapped her right arm around the front of his tall frame coming up over his left shoulder where she grabbed hold of her left wrist. She turned her head so it faced behind him. He stood up, pulling her off the ground. “Are you set?” She tightened her hands, each of which was clasped around her wrists. “I think so.” You have to be positive, Ms. Vena. We have to zoom at high speed.” She braced herself. “Ready!” The minotaur, meanwhile, had managed to recover and had found them. She saw the bull running straight for them despite its wound, and she screamed. Witcher began moving through the air slowly—too slowly, it seemed to her. The minotaur ran behind them and approached within a few feet of Vena. “Faster!” she cried, just dodging the monster's horns. With a sudden lurch forward, Witcher accelerated, and—they were off! They left the half-bull, half-man behind them on the ground. Vena's arms hurt from the acceleration, and she struggled to keep her hands clasped together. Witcher flew up through the trees toward the open sky. She watched as the stalks of the 100-foot Sepulchers receded from them. When they emerged from the woods, she could see more clearly through the dark moonlight. But what she saw made her gasp—half a dozen griffins were coming up behind them. Witcher turned and looked behind him. Then he did something Vena didn’t expect. He dropped down into the forest again. This disturbed her, since it increased the chances of a collision with the trees in view of their high speed. And that’s just what happened. The griffins followed them into the woods and sped up. Two of the griffins were gaining on them until both collided with Sepulcher trees. Then she realized this was precisely why Witcher had re-entered the forest. Flying through the trees would make it possible for him to steer the griffins into the trees with his illusions. They kept swerving in and around the stalks of the Sepulchers, and the griffins kept slamming into trees. With each swerve she was pulled around by the force of it, swinging first behind Witcher and then back around to his side. Or, swinging to his side and then back around behind him. She lost count how many flying creatures met their end with a crash, but eventually she and Witcher were flying above the trees again without any griffins behind them. She pulled herself up and hooked her chin over Witcher's shoulder so she could see in front of them. The cabin he had spoken of loomed into sight, perched on the edge of a cliff, and she could see they were headed for it. The air blew her hair out of her eyes and

behind her, making her face feel cool. Witcher landed on the forest floor, Vena still hanging from his neck, and came to a stop in a standing position. He bent down again as before, this time to let her off. She set foot on solid ground and caught her balance. “What a ride!” she laughed. “Glad you liked it! We mustn’t tarry, Ms. Vena. They'll soon find us. We have to be ready for them.” He rushed toward the cabin, Vena following after him. He entered the cabin, but Vena stood in the doorway, turned, and watched. She could see no one in the distance. “Flying has, indeed, bought us some time,” she thought. “But how much?” Witcher called from inside. “We have to secure the door!” She went inside. “Help me with this.” He pointed to a bureau against the wall. Together they moved it in front of the door, then a sofa in front of the bureau. “The windows, too.” Vena went through the cabin, ensuring every window was closed and locked. Witcher, however, walked into the back bedroom. She finished securing the windows and followed him. He sat at a still-opened window that faced directly over the cliff and had unrolled the map they brought from the boat. Seeing he was up to something, she came over and stood next to him. “It must be five hundred feet straight down,” she said, looking out the window. Witcher looked out onto the forest below, too. The first moon’s rays illuminated it well. He turned back to the map. “You’ll have to continue on without me, Ms. Vena.” “Without you?” Her voice rose to a high pitch. “There’s no other option. My powers are diminishing. I have only enough energy to get you to safety. I’ll stay behind and keep the horde occupied while you escape.” “No,” she said. “I won’t leave you.” “You must.” “I won’t.” “I’m sorry to contradict you, but you’re a mortal now. The creatures pursuing us can and will destroy you, should you stay.” He stood and rapped his hand against his chest. “I’m a supernatural. They can humiliate me, they can harm me, they can even torture me, but they cannot destroy me. He motioned to a position on the map. “To travel through this pass, you must go in that direction.” He pointed out the window. “If you flee through the pass, Ms. Vena, you will find a spring on the other side with restorative waters.” He indicated the spring on the map. “Wait until it’s safe; it may be a few nights; then return and bring the waters to me. They will be my last hope.” She squinted and peered out the window. In the moonlit darkness, she could barely make out what he described as a pass. At that point, half a dozen crashes reverberated through the roof of the cabin one after another, and the building shook repeatedly as though it might collapse under the assault. “That must be more griffins,” Witcher said. “My illusions are still fooling them, but I can’t hold them off forever.” To Vena, the quick succession of blasts sounded like a supernatural form of artillery.

Another boom rocked the cabin, this time at ground level. “They must be ramming the door!” he shouted. The sound of windows breaking rang through the cabin. “And now they’re coming in through the windows!” she screamed. It seemed to her that all the forces of hell were arrayed against them. “We haven’t much time!” Witcher cried. “You must go now!” He stepped back from the window and waved his hand. A wind started to blow and raise her off the ground. She rushed toward him, threw her arms around his neck, and pressed her lips against his. The gale continued lifting her body, until she floated in the air, her mouth still pressed against him, as though the two vampires were glued together. She struggled against the wind for as long as she could, stretching out the kiss through sheer force of will, but the current of air finally pulled them apart. She smiled at him triumphantly, the wind sweeping her out the window and down the mountainside.

9 Witcher heard the horde of supernaturals ramming the door for the final time. He listened as the door give way and the mob poured through it, entering the cabin like a tidal wave. But he was no longer there. He had crawled out the same window Vena had escaped through, and had climbed onto the cabin’s flattened roof, pulling up the sword by the rope that was still attached to it. His powers were nearly exhausted. He was reserving his last bit of energy so he could provide Vena with an effective camouflage illusion to keep the supernaturals from tracking her. Without any powers, he was quite helpless in the face of the army of creatures now attacking him. In particular, he could no longer sustain his illusion that the cabin was farther away than it really was. So, he was at the mercy of the flying supernaturals. As a result, two griffins landed on the cabin roof. By now the paranormals inside the cabin would have searched it and must have known that neither he nor Vena were inside. “He’s up here on the roof,” called one of the griffins. “But there’s no sign of the woman.” Witcher’s goal as he prepared to take his final stand was to keep the mob occupied long enough for Vena to complete her escape through the pass and until she was out of sight. While the mob was still searching around the cabin, he played his final card. In the sky above them, he caused a flare to light up the landscape. The paranormals stopped everything and stood, transfixed. In every direction, the image of Vena fleeing could be seen—three hundred and sixty Venas moving along every degree of the compass. “There she is!” cried one of the griffins. “And there, and there, and there,” said the other. It was the crowning achievement of Witcher’s sorcery. By projecting this final illusion, he ensured the supernaturals could not tell the real Vena from the three hundred and fifty-nine false Venas. While the two griffins stood mesmerized by the illusion, Witcher took up the sword and went on the offensive. “No point in chasing after her! You’ll never find her.” He charged at the first griffin and stabbed it in the torso, then swung the sword and hacked the second in its front legs.

The first squealed in pain, lost its footing, and fell from the roof. Witcher used his own momentum to push the second one over the edge, as well, but was caught by a swipe of the griffin’s talons. “You mustn’t abandon your friend,” he called to it. “Go ahead and join him!” He felt his chest to see how bad the wound was. Blood filled the palm of his hand. The sight of the two lion-eagle creatures lying wounded on the ground next to the cabin had the desired effect: it enraged the other supernaturals and attracted more members of the mob onto the roof, where Witcher could keep them distracted, hopefully, through sustained combat. Quickly retreating to the rear of the roof, he squared off. The host from hell poured onto the roof and circled him until he was half-surrounded by creatures of the night on one side and by a sheer drop on the other, the cliff’s boundary lurking behind him. Witcher’s pugnacity had clearly earned him the mob's respect, and they were careful to keep a safe distance. He reasoned that none of them wanted to be the next one stabbed. The cliff face, too, he thought was keeping them at bay. Understandably, few would want to attack him so close to the brink of a cliff for fear they might go over it in the bargain. A centaur moved in on Witcher's left, while the minotaur who had breached the wall of gravity earlier moved in on his right. In front of him, Lycan and a demon approached. Witcher rushed the centaur, clipping it in the leg. The half-man, half-horse retreated with a limp. The warlock next took a pass at the minotaur, swinging the sword at him, but missed. He made the rounds, always hugging the roof’s edge and, therefore, the cliff's. It was both his weakness and his strength as the mob's unwillingness to risk going over the brink gave him sanctuary, however grudgingly. Witcher, meanwhile, had begun to show signs of fatigue. His left side was awash in blood from the swipe of the griffin’s talons. He was one supernatural cornered by four larger supernaturals, who in turn were backed up by dozens more. He raised his vampiric war cry, a sequence of aggressive snarls that signaled both his hostile intent and his outand-out desperation. Although his body sagged with exhaustion from the unremitting combat, his dark silhouette continued to advance and retreat beneath the violet moonlight. He fought as though he might best them all. He was a netherworld cyclone. A hell’s hurricane. A sword-wielding twister. Black lightning crackling in the nighttime sky. He would surge forward, then draw back. Feint left, then jab center. He was a jumping dagger—a barbed stiletto—dancing at the edge of infinity. A harpy attacked him from above, causing him to drop his sword. He couldn’t retreat, so he fought hand-to-claw with the monster. He thought he recognized her as the same creature who attacked him earlier. He flailed his arms and attempted to grab hold of her. The harpy clawed him in the face and drove him toward the roof’s edge. The other supernaturals—although they closed in—were kept at bay by the struggle. Feathers from the harpy and shouts from Witcher spiced the night air. The harpy scratched him on his scalp, yet he managed to get his hands around her talons and pull her to the roof. Picking up the sword, he lunged and gored her horribly with it. Then, he grabbed hold of her and flung her toward the mob, his hands red from cuts inflicted by her claws. Blood from the scalp wound inflicted by the harpy flowed into his eyes. On his left,

Lycan approached, teeth bared. Witcher scrambled forward, bit down with his fangs, and pierced the brown pelt of the werewolf's arm. Lycan yelped with pain and pulled away. Witcher's eyes burned from the blood, and he struggled even to see his opponents through the dark wetness. Nonetheless, he fought on, straining to reestablish his defensive base. Just when it seemed he might recover his position and begin anew, though, the minotaur plowed into him on his right—impact! Solid. Before he could blink, he was a crumpling gallows, a wilting gibbet, flying beyond the roof's boundary. His tall frame sailed several feet out then stopped, frozen above five hundred feet of nothingness, suspended on the cusp of space and time. Compared to the stars and both moons, he moved not at all. It was Hades that rushed up to meet him. He saw the rock face shoot above him and the foot of the cliff rise toward him. When mighty Hades collided with him, it was as though a speeding train had smacked into a bug. The crush knocked the breath from him, producing a simultaneous explosion high in the sky and a thud down below. The great boom threw the cabin and its immediate environs into chaos as the building caught on fire. Supernaturals scattered everywhere, running for cover. Witcher, however, lay stock-still. Silent. Barely conscious, his body was strewn across the rocks at the cliff's base. At the top of the cliff, came self-congratulatory peals of laughter. The words, “No more Witcher,” carried on Lycan’s voice wafted through the air, spiraled downward, and came to rest in the ears of the defeated warlock.

10 Vena swooshed out the window and down the mountainside, carried on the wind Witcher had conjured for her. In the double moonlight, she watched the cabin move away, an army of supernaturals surrounding and besieging it. The ferocity of their attacks shocked her, and her heart went out to Witcher. How lucky she had been to encounter him! In her weakened state—returned to being a mortal, of all things—she could never have fought off such an assault. But how was the amazing warlock going to survive the blitz himself? She turned around to see where Witcher’s sorcery was taking her. The wind transported her down at a shallow angle that seemed designed to bring her as close to the pass between the mountains as possible. She noticed that Witcher was now obscuring her escape with a cloud of vapor to keep the supernaturals from seeing her. When she approached the ground, her speed slowed, and she landed gracefully on the forest floor. The map and the spyglass dropped down beside her. She picked up both. She had no sooner gotten her bearings than the landscape lit up. In every direction she looked, she saw a woman fleeing. She squinted, trying to make out who the woman might be, and then realized it was she! That must have been what Witcher meant when he said he had only enough energy to get her to safety. He had been planning to create yet another one of his illusions—a multitude of her fleeing in every direction at once. Peering through the spy glass, she spied a flock of winged supernaturals near the cabin, its members flying first in one direction then in another, in an apparent state of confusion. They doubtless couldn’t tell which image of her was the true one. She laughed. “Witcher, you clever warlock.”

It occurred to her that he had been leading up to this all along. He had taken out the hell hounds earlier so the mob of supernaturals could no longer track her by scent. They were dependent now on sight alone, and this last illusion would take care of that, forcing the horde to end its pursuit. This latest tactic would completely thwart them. Or, at least it would once she disappeared through the pass he had pointed out to her from the window. Looking about frantically, she identified the pass and ran toward it. She could see it clearly now, thanks to the double moonlight. Although Witcher's wind had given her a head start, the mountains were still some distance away. She worried that Witcher's illusion might disappear before she could get through the pass. She looked back at the cabin. Despite the distance, she could hear quite a commotion and could see a crowd of supernaturals on the top of the cabin’s roof. “Witcher must be cornered inside,” she thought. Just as she finally entered the pass, she heard a loud explosion from the vicinity of the cabin. “Witcher!” She stopped. Looking in the direction of the cabin from behind a huge boulder, she could see that holy hell had broken out over there. Witcher’s illusion was gone, and the cabin was on fire! She considered going back to help him, but she could still hear his words ringing in her ears: “If you travel through the pass, Ms. Vena, you will find a spring on the other side with restorative waters. Wait until it’s safe; it may be a few nights; then return and bring the waters to me. They will be my last hope.” He had gone to such lengths to pull off her escape, she needed to trust his judgment and stick with his plan. She rounded the pass and stopped; the cabin was no longer visible. If she couldn’t see the hordes from hell, then they couldn’t see her, either. She continued in safety.

11 Witcher regained consciousness in what looked to him like the early evening hours. He wasn’t sure how much time had transpired since the battle. Because it was nighttime, he reasoned that he had been unconscious at the cliff bottom throughout the daylight haze for at least a full day, but he felt it could have been as long as two days. Every place on his body that touched ground ached, and his skin sported a black-and-blue layer that reached to his very core, threatening to unwind the inner fabric that bound him together. Along his left side, the slash from the griffin’s talons had etched a still-bloody wound, and when he stirred, he discovered that ghouls had settled on his back while he lay unconscious. One of the ghouls bent forward over the top of his head and stared at him upside down with an inquisitive smile. “I was going to say something to you when you woke up.” The ghoul scratched the top of his skull. “Uh, do you remember what it was?” Witcher blinked. “Weren't you going to say that you're just about to leave?” “Uh, yeah. I guess that was it, now that I mention it.” Witcher turned his head and could see the ghouls out of the corner of his eye. There were two of them. They were all of three feet tall, and the one that had spoken to him now stood up straight and stepped back and forth as though he were preparing to go. “I'm just about to leave,” he announced. “Hold on, Guts!” the other ghoul cried. “Don't you ever read horror novels? The

ghouls never leave until their prey dies and they eat him.” “I think you're right, Viscera, dear.” Witcher turned his head forward again. He heard the ghoul’s voice aimed at him now. “My wife has pointed out that I really can't leave yet, Mr. Dinner. I guess that wasn't what I was going to say to you, after all. Perhaps, it will come to you later.” Witcher did his best to ignore the ghouls. He tried to stand but found he couldn’t. His legs wouldn’t move and one of his arms was no longer attached to his shoulder. “Weren't you going to speak to him about death insurance?” Viscera said. “Yes, that was it!” The first ghoul bent over Witcher's head again and, though upside down, juggled several scrolls with the tips of his fingers. Eventually, he unfolded a yellowed parchment with black lines on it—a netherworld brochure. Speaking in an unusually persuasive voice, he dangled the brochure in front of his captive's eyes. “A supernatural in your predicament really should have term death insurance to protect those nearly dear to him.” Witcher stared into the distance. “The last thing I need right now is to buy an insurance policy from a ghoul.” “Don't take no for an answer, Guts,” Viscera prodded. “We have to stay on top of our investment.” “You're certainly doing that!” Witcher twitched beneath the weight of the two ghouls. Guts flashed him a smile. “Uh, let me just get your information.” He unrolled a scroll with a form on it. “Name… hmmm, I'll put, ‘Dinner.’ How's that?” “My name is Witcher. Lord Witcher. I’m not a mortal, and I’m certainly not your dinner. I'm a vampire and a warlock.” “A vampire! And a master vampire, at that! We can eat vampires, can’t we, honey?” “I think a vampire would be just scrumptious.” “Yeah! Did you hear that, Mr. Vampire?” Guts inscribed some letters on the form. “Now, Master Witcher,” the ghoul said, charging ahead, “what’s your address?” “Here,” Witcher stated for the record. “Here?” Guts wrinkled his forehead. “Is that what this place is called?” “Yes, ‘here’ will have to do.” The ghoul paused for a moment. “I'll just put ‘someplace.’” “Now, how about beneficiaries?” Guts continued, unabashed. “Do you have any offspring?” “Yes. I have dozens.” “Dozens? You look awfully young.” Witcher reflected that for a vampire, ‘offspring’ refers to everyone he has ever bitten and caused to become a vampire. “That’s because I became a vampire just after my twenty-fourth birthday, and I’m Undying so I don’t age. But I'm over six hundred years old, and I've had plenty of time to sow my oats.” “Since I don't know the names of all your offspring,” Guts said quietly, “I'll just put my name.” “You're putting your name for the beneficiary?” “Yes, it's simpler that way. I know my name, and I know how to spell it.” Still bent over and still upside down, the ghoul started to inscribe marks in the scroll with a quill clutched between his fingers. Witcher turned his head to look behind him

again, then waved the hand attached to his good arm toward the ghouls, hoping to levitate them so he could get them off his back… quite literally. But his powers failed him, and nothing happened. Guts immediately threw down the scroll and quill, jumped backward toward the other ghoul, and grabbed her. “He took a swipe at me, he did!” “That was inconsiderate of him!” “It was, indeed.” “I didn’t take a swipe at you. I was merely waving my hand.” “You spooked me!” “I spooked you? For a creature named Guts, you don’t seem to have any.” “I’m called Guts because I eat guts, not because I have them.” “What kind of a supernatural are you, anyway? Are you dead, or are you undead?” Guts let go of Viscera and sat up straight. “Me brain is dead, but me body is undead,” he said proudly. “I won’t quarrel with the first part of your statement.” “Few do, Master Witcher, few do.” Witcher’s head was still turned, and he could still see the ghouls. Guts picked up the netherworld form and the quill from off the ground and had placed his tongue between his teeth. “Let's see: gee, you, tee, tee, ess… G.u.t.t.s. Uh, er… that's close enough.” Sitting up, he spoke to Witcher again. “Of course, I'll see to it any funds that arrive in your name are distributed to your loved ones.” Witcher nodded. “Of course. You can always count on you.” “That's right,” Guts acknowledged. “I can always count on me.” “Forge ahead, then,” Witcher declared. “Do I have your blessing?” “You have your blessing,” Witcher affirmed. “You heard him, Viscera, honey. I have my blessing to sign his name since he's immobilized.” “Then sign it, by ghoul or by fool. When Mr. Dinner expires, we'll be moving to Easy Tomb!” An exuberant Guts signed the form with a flourish. Standing up, he hooked arms with his wife, and both of them started to shimmy in a circle on top of Witcher. “No more scavenging for scraps!” Guts sang loudly. “No more living from carcass to carcass!” Viscera reciprocated. Their faces beamed with the anticipation born of sudden, unexpected opportunity. “I'll be my own ghoul, then,” Guts hooted. “And I'll be my own ghoulah,” Viscera bawled in equal time. “You know you've hit bottom,” Witcher murmured, “when you've got ghouls dancing on your back.” “Oooohhh, Mr. Dinner’s a goner.” Guts kicked up his legs. “And we ghouls have the honor.” Viscera followed suit. “To help him out of his spot.” Guts thrust his mug high in the moonlit air. “And hustle him into our pot,” Viscera purred wickedly, twisting her toes into Witcher's back.

12 The foliage of the trees on the other side of the pass formed a thick canopy that let in little light. Like the wood on the bluff, most of the Sepulcher trees were within ten feet of each other and towered a hundred feet or more into the air with broad-leafed branches. Vena studied the map Witcher had sent along. She located both the pass and the approximate position of the cabin. This was important, as she would be returning to it, if her efforts were successful. According to the map, the spring was located along the other side of the mountain range, about thirty-six miles west of the pass. She hiked all night. When dawn came, she found a crevice covered by tree branches where she could sleep. Even though she was a mortal—or at least, that was what everyone claimed!—she still felt uncomfortable with daylight, even the hazy “undaylight” of Hades. When she awoke shortly after dusk, she resumed her journey, walking until after midnight. It was hard to gauge how far she had come, but she calculated that she had walked some twelve hours since rounding the pass. At three miles per hour, given the difficulty of walking through the forest, that put her in the general vicinity of the spring. She walked up the northern side of the mountain. The climb was arduous, but she eventually passed the tree line where she could look out over the countryside. There, she found a lookout point on a rock, stood on it, and attempted to locate Witcher’s spring using the spyglass. She could see what appeared to be a body of water, still quite some distance away, and decided to head toward it. When she arrived at the body of water, she saw that there was indeed a spring there. A revenant, who looked to be in a daze, was washing in the spring. Vena spoke to her. “Do these waters have restorative powers? I was told there’s a spring in this vicinity with such powers.” “Why, yes. This spring is reputed to have special powers.” Her head wobbled as though it might fall off. “But I don’t believe it. I’ve bathed here for weeks, and I’m no better than I’ve ever been.” Vena laughed. Did Witcher get it wrong? Perhaps she was at the wrong place. Before she could make up her mind, she heard cawing sounds above and looked up, startled. A pair of griffins were flying overhead! She ducked under the branches of a nearby tree for cover. She watched the half-lion, half-eagle creatures sail over the spring. They clearly didn’t see her. When they were out of sight, she came out from under the tree. “They’ve flown by three or four times in the last day or so,” the revenant said. “I wonder what they’re searching for,” Vena said, attempting to learn whether the spirit knew her situation. “You never know in Hades.” She looked at Vena innocently. “Yes, probably nothing good.” If she did know, Vena concluded, she wasn’t letting on. Best to leave it that way. Witcher had said it might take several nights before it would be safe. He was right about that, so he was probably right about the spring, as well. She decided to find a container in which she could carry some of the water back to him. She could see a cutthroat who had ridden up on horseback a short distance away, and who now stood next to the stream formed by the spring.

She hiked over to him and struck up a conversation. “Say, I’ve heard there’s a spring in this area with healing powers.” “You’re lookin’ at it, ma’am,” the cutthroat said. She couldn’t help but stare at the large open scar that crossed his face and made him look as though he had fallen into a patch of barbed wire. He was busy filling two wineskins with water. Perhaps he wants the water to help with healing the scar, she surmised. Nearby, a saddled horse stood tied to a log, busily grazing on the devil’s weed that grew along the stream. “One of those wineskins would be ideal,” she thought. She reached up and removed her coffin necklace. “I’ll trade you this necklace for one of those wineskins.” She held it out to the cutthroat. He stood up straight. “Why should I trade you for it, when I can just take it?” He pulled a knife from a sheath on his belt. Vena bared her fangs and adopted a pose as though she might attack him. Perhaps it was true that she had become a mortal, but she still had fangs and could still make herself look like a vampire. The cutthroat lowered the knife. “Then again, I don’t need all of these wineskins.” He backed up and put the knife back in its sheath. Reaching up to his horse, he pulled down a third wineskin and tossed it over to Vena. Vena picked up the skin and examined it. It contained water and had no holes or leaks. It seemed to be in fine condition. She set the necklace down on the log and backed away. The cutthroat walked over, took the piece of jewelry, and examined it. The coffin on the necklace was 24-carat gold, and she could see the greed come into his face as he eyed the piece. Although the necklace was worth a hundred times more than the wineskin and she was loathe to let it go, under the circumstances, the trade was just what the doctor ordered. He nodded. Vena decided to take her leave, to avoid any further trouble with the cutthroat. She backed up about ten feet, turned, and hiked back to the spring where the revenant was bathing. The revenant smiled at her. She was a simple soul, and harmless. Vena smiled back. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the cutthroat getting on his horse and riding off. The wineskin was made of soft suede leather and could hold up to two liters. It came with a strap she could sling over her shoulder and adjust to carry it comfortably. She emptied the water from it, moved close to the spring, right where the water gurgled up from the ground, and filled the wineskin. Two full liters. While she was at it, she drank from the spring herself. “Who knows?” she mused. “Maybe it will cure me, as well.” There was one last thing to arrange, and she would be ready to return.

13 When Witcher opened his eyes the second evening, a four-inch-tall faerie stood in front of him. “We expected you to kick the bucket yesterday,” the faerie said in a demanding voice.

“I decided to kick the habit, instead.” Witcher shook the sleep out of his ears. “We faeries think it's time you kick in and contribute to the food chain. For years, you've been taking from the chain. It's time you started giving back.” “You mean, you want me to give my body to science?” “No, we want you to give your body to faeries.” “And what will faeries give to me in return?” “We'll give you a decent burial.” “That doesn't sound very decent to me.” “We kicked it around awhile, and that's the best offer we're willing to make.” “You see, my little unfriend, that's the kicker.” Witcher grinned. “It's also the best offer I'm willing to reject.” “Now, isn't that a kick in the pants?” “I have to admit, I got a kick out of it.” “You don't have to admit that.” “I was just lying here suffering in peace, when a faerie such as you came along and kicked me.” “Now, who's going to believe a story like that one?” “Anyone who's undead and kicking.” “Which brings us back to you. Why are you undead and kicking? It's time for you to be recycled into dust. You are, after all, biodegradable.” “Biodegradable? Or, just degradable?” “To a monster such as I, there is no difference.” “You truly are a monster.” “Without us faeries, there'd be no dust, and there'd be no netherworld.” “I admire your dust; I just don't want to become part of it.” “You will. All undead creatures in the netherworld were drawn from the dust, and to the dust they shall return.” “Not this undead creature.” “We expected you to expire several days ago, but here you are. What's the holdup? Don't you know you have everyone behind schedule?” “I didn't realize that, no. How inconsiderate of me.” “I should say so! You've put a crick in all our plans. Do you realize how hard it is to deploy enough faeries to consume a carcass the size of a vampire? It's a logistical nightmare.” Just then, Guts bent over Witcher's head and adopted his usual upside-down posture. “You're finally awake, Master Witcher.” The faerie fled as soon as it saw Guts's face. “You're a sitting duck out here, ya know,” Guts said. “Why, anyone could pounce on you. You're completely helpless. There's no point in resisting the inevitable.” “Of course, the main reason I don't kick the bucket is you.” “Me?” “Yes, you and your wife provide me with first-class shade from the wiles of Hades’ star.” Witcher looked at the star, which shone in the distance, then truned so he could see the ghouls. Guts sat up straight. “Viscera, dear, did you hear that? Master Witcher says we provide him with first-class shade.”

“Without you shading me every day,” Witcher turned his head so he could see the ghouls, “the star would bear down on me, and I would have perished long ago. Vampires can’t stand intense starlight. You're keeping me undead.” Viscera’s eyes grew large. “We're keeping him undead?” “Perhaps, we should sit off to the side in the dirt awhile,” Guts suggested. “I sure hate to give up my cushy vampire sofa,” Viscera lamented. Guts grinned. “He does make a comfortable chair, doesn't he?” “You two have been living in luxury up there for several nights,” Witcher demurred. “I suppose having a comfortable sofa is more important than having a delicious corpse dinner and really living.” At this remark, Viscera jumped off Witcher, and Guts followed. “The sacrifices one has to make to succeed in this line of work,” Witcher heard Viscera mutter under her breath. Guts place his hand on her shoulder. “Don't worry, Viscera, honey; it won't be long now. The star will do our job for us. Success is within our grasp.”

14 When Witcher awoke on the third evening, the stars above were murmuring a thousand faint whispers, and the netherworld air was cool. “What in Hades are you doing?” he asked the ghouls. Guts and Viscera had pulled up his shirt and he could feel scrubbing against his back, or so it seemed. “We’re marinating you, Mr. Dinner,” Guts said. “So when you expire, you’ll be tastier.” “You’re what? And quit calling me dinner! I’m not your dinner.” At that point, a branch rapped Guts up beside the head, knocking him off of Witcher. The branch then swung at Viscera, who quickly moved out of its path. Witcher looked up to see who was connected to the branch. Vena! She kept clubbing the two ghouls and pushing them away from the wounded warlock. “Go to hell!” Guts blocked one of the blows with his arm. “But we’re already in hell.” “Oh, that’s true!” She laughed. She raised the branch and smacked him again. “Go to hell, anyway!” The two ghouls were soon in full retreat and running away. “She hit me with that stick. Did you see that?” “I certainly did. It was inconsiderate of her, it was!” “It was, indeed.” Witcher raised a hand in greeting. “I couldn’t be happier to see you, Vena.” “How could you put up with those worthless ghouls?” she said, dropping the branch. “They are worthless, but harmless. They had the paradoxical effect of camouflaging me from our enemies, thanks to their peculiar habit of sitting on top of me. They also shaded me from the light of the star.” “Lord Witcher can turn anything to good account, I suppose.” She smiled. He tried to hide from her just how desperate his situation was. The one arm, of course, was still separated from his body. He had also become aware that there was a large gaping hole in his back, and his midsection appeared to be completely crushed. She looked up at the top of the cliff, pensively. “It's a long way up.”

“It's even longer coming down,” he laughed but stopped when the pain seized him. She removed the wineskin slung over her shoulder. “I brought you something. It’s just what you asked for.” She set the wineskin down in front of him. “It’s filled with the waters you requested.” His eyes lit up. “Help me turn over.” She obliged him, then did her best to put his separated arm back into the hole just under his shoulder blade. She opened the spout of the wineskin and handed it to him. He took it with his good hand, raised it, and drank a swig of the water. The ghouls stood a few yards away, observing. He heard Guts whisper, “What’s she doing?” “She’s putting him back together, she is.” “How can we eat him, if she does that?” “Don’t worry. She won’t be able to do it. He’s hopeless.” Witcher tried to push his legs outward, but they wouldn’t go. After attempting to move his legs from side to side, he took another gulp of the water to give him strength, but his legs still wouldn’t budge. This was the brute fact that had kept him pinned in one place for so many nights. Since his collision with Hades, his body didn’t respond as it should. The supernatural energy, the raw electricity, the somatic juices that enervate the body and enliven it, had been squeezed from him by the cruel press of gravity's merciless embrace. Witcher hoped that with the help of the restorative waters those juices might re-enter his body and resume their normal operation. He tried to extend his legs again. To his surprise, they stirred. The movement was slight but undeniable. “Hey!” he cried. Vena cheered. The ghouls moaned. He took another gulp of the water, then reached over with his good arm and adjusted the bad one. “It’s becoming attached again,” he said, “thanks, no doubt, to the restorative waters.” Vena smiled. “You did good.” He smiled back at her. He tried to move his legs again, and they responded once more. With each attempt, the movement was more pronounced, until he could slide his feet forward and backward and outward. He even managed to pull himself up on his knees for a long moment and half-stood, half-thinking he might succeed. With each attempt, he dragged himself forward, first an inch, then several, then a foot. Eventually, movement extended throughout his length, until both legs would move, and he could stand on them, however wobbly, if only for a moment. Over the next hour, with many gulps from the wineskin, he progressed from standing to hobbling to walking. By the time the first moon stood high in the sky and delivered its evening exhortation, Witcher was making wide circles near the foot of the cliff and had quickened his pace to a normal gait. Vena shouted, “Maybe we should call you Lord Walker!” An hour later, Viscera and Guts stood by as an enthusiastic Witcher ran along the cliff, curved outward, and swerved back around. “I don't understand how you recovered, Master Witcher.” “Time.”

“Time is all it took?” “Yes. I recovered just in… time, and with a little sorcery, of course.” Viscera was crying as they spoke. “What's the matter, Viscera, darling?” “Mr. Dinner didn't perish!” She sobbed between words. “What are we going to do now?” “Be careful,” Witcher cautioned, “or you'll hit bottom.” “We're just a couple of aging ghouls with a depleted stock portfolio and no retirement plan,” she sputtered. “Don't worry, Viscera, dear,” Guts said in an optimistic tone. “If we scrounge around long enough, we're bound to find some carrion to keep us going.” At this thought, she perked up a bit. “That's right. Scavenging is in our bones, isn't it, partner?” “You bet it is. We're scavengers through and through!” Witcher came to a halt in front of them. “And are you through?” He raised a hand and saluted the two ghouls. “Carry on!” “We always do.” Viscera nodded. “We always do.” Witcher marched away from them, Vena beside him. “Yes, you are a couple of characters.” “We're plainly that,” Guts mused. “We're plainly that.” When Vena and Witcher had walked some distance, they passed by the faerie and its associates. “I'm still undead and kicking, my little unfriend,” Witcher yelled over to the faerie, with a foot raised high in the air. “Isn't that a kick in the pants?” the faerie said. “I have to admit, I got a kick out of it.” “You don't have to admit that,” the faerie shouted back. They marched further and further from Witcher’s former hosts—the ghouls and the faeries—all of whom he noticed stood watching his and Vena’s departure with dumbfounded expressions on their faces.

15 Witcher and Vena walked far from the ghouls, Vena leading the way through the pass and back to the spring with restorative waters. The journey took a night and a half. At the spring, Witcher drank to his heart’s content and even took a swim, during which Vena disappeared for a time. After she returned, she asked, “So, is everything working right?” She grabbed his once-separated arm and moved it up and down, back and forth. She put her hand in the hollow of his back and then along the front of his chest to see that he was whole again. He watched her and laughed. “I do seem to be in working order again, Vena. I even have my powers back.” He waved his hand, and an explosion sounded above them. “Good.” She kissed him. “You’ll be needing them.” “I will?” She nodded toward a cave behind them. This was the “last thing” she had arranged before returning for him. Witcher turned and looked at the opening of the cave. “A catacomb?” Vena smiled. She brought him into the cave’s entrance. It was quite long and dark

but lit with torches. She led him through it. The cave curved many times, its walls smooth and the ceiling decorated with stalactites. They came to the end of it where an open coffin sat on a bier. Torches hung on either side, and the white satin of the coffin’s interior shone orange in the torchlight. She had traded away the rest of her jewelry to obtain rights to the cave and purchase the coffin from a nearby ungraveyard. Although the residents of Hades were already dead and didn’t ‘die’ again in any meaningful sense, they still liked to rent coffins and be buried in them for the sake of nostalgia. The coffin had been dug up, its present renter persuaded to vacate it temporarily, and the emptied box placed on a bier as per her specifications. To one side of the coffin stood a table. On it a bottle of “blood wine” rested in a wine bucket surrounded by wine glasses, candles, and two dishes with place settings. “You are resourceful,” Witcher said. “You’ve thought of everything, Vena.” “Shall we eat?” she asked. Witcher pulled out a chair for her, and she sat down. He took the wine from the bucket and opened the bottle with his powers, despite a corkscrew lying next to the bucket. Pouring some wine into one of the glasses, he swirled it around and smelled it. “Quite pleasing.” “It’s a Blood Bordeaux, 2007,” she explained. “AB negative.” He poured some into Vena’s glass, and she drank. He sat down. “AB negative is my favorite,” he said, sipping the Bordeaux. They both took turns lighting the candles. Vena howled, and three mummies appeared to serve them. The mummies wore livery, and each carried a large silver platter with a dish on it. The dinner began with a skull appetizer and progressed to a worm soup. The third course was a humble Caesar’s salad. “It was made by Caesar himself,” Vena said. “I don’t doubt it.” “Or, so the mummies claim.” She laughed. “In fact, they maintain the salad was prepared by no less than Augustus himself.” “Hmmm. To be waited on by former emperors. That must be Augustus over there.” He motioned toward one of the mummies who was leaving to bring in the next course. Witcher nicknamed the other two “Julius” and “Nero.” “We’d best keep Emperor Nero away from the torches,” Vena joked. “I’m not sure the Roman emperors became mummies, Vena. Perhaps we should be thinking of pharaohs.” “Marc Antony did conquer Egypt, you may recall.” She smiled. “Yes, yes. In quest of his Cleopatra.” He sipped more Bordeaux and stared into her eyes. “Actually, it was Cleopatra who conquered Antony,” she said. “How could that happen?” “It can.” She stared back into his eyes. “The Roman Empire was nothing compared to Cleopatra,” he conceded. “If I had to choose between trading places with Antony or Octavius, I would choose Antony any century.” Next, they ate a demon fruit sorbet, topped with whipped plasma. The main course

was a Heart Amore, and there was an Embalming Fluid Brulee for dessert. All in all, the menu featured some of the finest cuisine to be found in all of Hades. After dinner, they slow-danced while the mummies played violins. When Vena informed the mummies that they wouldn’t be needed any longer, they cleared away the dishes and took the table with them. “Good night, Lord Witcher,” Augustus chimed. “Good night, Lady Vena.” Julius and Nero bowed. The two vampires walked around the curve of the cavern with them and watched them leave. Witcher turned to Vena, his eyes alight with supernatural confidence. He picked her up and carried her back to the coffin. “My Marc Antony!” she said, laughing. The coffin’s lid was open from head to foot, and Witcher set her in the box. She lay with her head on a satin pillow, her red cape flowing along her length. She lowered the hood from her head, revealing her raven hair. Witcher climbed into the coffin and lay beside her. He leaned over and kissed her passionately, then moved to her neck, biting her hard. Blood spurted from her neck into the coffin. Explosions sounded outside above the cavern, and Vena thought to herself, “My nightmare has become a dream.”

PART II - AORTA 16 The dust cloud throbbed in the Elysian haze and oscillated like the twin drumbeats of an animal's heart. Fully the size of a tornado, the huge twister huffed along the misty plain, boiling and churning as it went, a storm of senseless emotion that rolled and burned with self-absorption. Witcher, always steadfast and undaunted in the face of a storm, levitated himself directly in the path of the tempest. Rising and hovering effortlessly, he awaited its approach, his orange eyes like impenetrable walls of a marble crypt. The cloud of dust and fog working itself in his direction with such ferocity nevertheless came to a sudden halt in front of the warlock’s formidable gaze. The soil, cinders, and swirling mass of particles that filled out the storm's body altogether evaporated and left behind the source of the disturbance: a mob of panic-stricken supernaturals. At their head, Honcho perched and Ulna stood, their brooding features clearly visible despite the humorless fog. “Where, might I ask, are you headed in such a furor, my friends?” Witcher inquired. “By now, you've heard the news, surely, that Vena has brought calamity down on the Elysian Fields.” Ulna's tone had an unmistakable I-told-you-so-ness to it. “I have heard that a number of creatures there have become mortals.” Witcher’s demeanor made clear his unwillingness to accept the assumptions on which Ulna's conclusions were grounded. “You also must know that the mortalfied paranormals found there were the same earthy shade of red as Vena, and that she's been sighted tramping through those very fields.” Honcho, too, spoke as though his presumptions were fact.

“Our predicament, it would seem, Mr. Honcho, has become a mystery.” “What do you mean? There's no mystery! We already know who did it. The mortalfied supernaturals are red, and Vena is red!” The bodiless man’s voice rocketed into a squeak, and he became so racked with choler he looked as though he might explode. “What more do we need?” Mephisto the demon shouted, his night-like hair set on edge with fury. “Where there's smoke there's hellfire,” a Medusa cried. “Where there's smoke, my dear Medusa, there's uncertainty.” The warlock spoke with a deliberate calm intended to cool the ardor of the distraught rabble of creatures. “Why not clear up the uncertainty by submitting your suspicions to Zygo the sorceress? If Vena is behind these events, then Zygo will surely know of it. And if Vena is not behind them, then only the sorceress can tell us who, or what, is.” “Why should we speak with your sorceress,” Ulna bawled, “when we already know who did it?” The skeleton’s bony features seemed to morph into a miniature dragon's face, and one could have been forgiven for thinking she might start spitting fire at any moment. “And do you, Ulna? If you pursue your present course and are mistaken, not only will you have perpetrated a grave injustice against Vena, but you will have lost scarce time.” “How many more supernaturals will become mortals while you engage in this folly? The sorceress can set us on the correct course. Only she can provide us with a view of the larger picture.” “We've let this vampire run free for too long!” a zombie moaned. “She's become a curse!” a wide-faced mummy yelled. “Her curse runs the gamut,” a werewolf howled. “From the lowest to the highest, no creature of the night is safe!” The mob of supernaturals started to boil and churn again, and it seemed the tempest would recommence, until, Judge Specter descended into their midst. From high atop a mountain peak, the ghost floated to the misty plain between the crowd and the warlock. “Witcher is right in this matter,” he said. “We must be certain before we act.” Buoyed by Specter's support, Witcher took the opportunity to press his point. “These events, my friends, are far beyond the comprehension of mere supernaturals like ourselves. Can any of us really account for hell’s abundant mischief? Can we predict the movement of the River Styx along our horizon? Or the varied shades of the night's rising and setting? Can we decipher the wiles of the moon? Or answer for the wind's numberless infidelities? We cannot. These marvels are far beyond our feeble powers to explain. Why Vena became a mortal again remains a mystery to us all. And why these creatures found in the Elysian Fields have come to life also remains a mystery. We require guidance from outside our community to set us in the right direction. I recommend we appoint an expedition to carry our concerns to the sorceress. She alone can counsel us and instruct us regarding these issues.” “What have we in common with this warlock?” the werewolf asked. “After all, he defended that crafty vampire when she fled!” “I’m just as I appear before you now, a concerned citizen of Hades.”

“Destruction to warlocks!” the zombie cried. “Destruction to vampires!” the mummy roared. In the face of so much belligerence, Specter raised his hands as a signal for calm. The crowd of supernaturals percolated, then quieted. “We don't have agreement on the question of Signorina Cava. Why not submit our dispute to a neutral arbitrator? Zygo is neutral in our conflicts. She can decide for us. If your claims are correct, then their truth will be borne out.” At this stage, Ulna and Honcho paused to confer together. It appeared to Witcher that, despite the expressions of fervent emotion from the crowd, Ulna and Honcho realized that his and Specter's arguments would probably carry the night. Such strong opposition from two of the community's most respected members undoubtedly made them uneasy. At length, Ulna pulled up from her conference with Honcho. “We agree,” she said, Honcho nodding assent beside her. The undead skeleton spoke with a flourish, as though carried away by her own sense of grandiosity. “Let us appoint, then,” Specter responded, “three members to put forward your point of view, and three members to represent Witcher's point of view.” “In addition, we will nominate one neutral member. I give each group three hours to select its delegates.” With this, the mob of paranormals scattered.

17 Witcher quietly strode over to a tombstone that lay flat on the ground. Seated on it, a harpy dined on tiny faeries who periodically ran across the tombstone’s contours. “Madam harpy,” Witcher said gently. “May I trouble you for a favor?” “Oh, certainly not!” the harpy declared. “I don't have time for favors, what with my schedule the way it is. I have to catch food until noon and, of course, work on my crypt until sunup. I couldn't possibly perform any favors.” The brown and white mottled birdwoman glanced at him, expressionless. “What did you have in mind?” “I need to find two members of our community and have them brought here within the next few hours. Are you up to it?” She reached for a faerie, but missed. “Searches of any kind just wear me out.” She took another swipe, grabbing and swallowing the unfortunate faerie, who seemed none too happy about it all. “I couldn't possibly conduct such an extensive supernatural search this evening. Let me think. How about when winter comes? I might be able to squeeze it in then, if I jockey a few appointments around. Whom do you wish to find?” She spoke in a deadpan tone. “I have in mind a pair of vampires—a certain Vena Cava and her sister, Aorta. Never, however, won't do, I'm afraid. We really need their services within the next few hours.” “I'm new to these parts, and I don't know either of these vampires,” the harpy answered. She seemed to Witcher little more than a bundle of brown feathers with a human face. “I have no idea where to find them. I'm afraid you're out of luck, sir. Out of luck, I tell you.” “If we cannot locate them, we may be out of luck, indeed. They are both somewhere in the Elysian Fields as we speak.”

Without further comment, the harpy flew from the tombstone, and Witcher returned to his new-found friend, Judge Specter. “I'm confident,” he said to the sympathetic ears of the esteemed ghost, “that my friend, the harpy, will find Vena and Aorta, whom I wish to nominate as delegates.” Specter's dough-boy eyes brightened at Witcher's statement. “You could not have made better choices. Bringing Signorina Cava into this now will allow us to protect her from the rabble.” Witcher afterward walked beneath the boughs of an agony tree, where his attention focused on a clearing in which another collection of paranormals congregated. At the center of the group were Ulna and Honcho. “What we need,” Ulna was saying, “is a delegate—” “That we can manipulate,” Mephisto interrupted. “Yes, perfect,” Honcho blurted. Mephisto hovered behind a Medusa. “What we need is someone lacking intelligence, someone we can use as a puppet.” “That's not me!” the Medusa declared, walking away. Mephisto now leaned in close to a mummy. “We could use a delegate that will do strictly what he's told, a delegate we can mold like protoplasm.” “You've got the wrong supernatural, baby!” the mummy answered with a snort. “I do what I please!” And he shuffled away. Mephisto next sidled up behind a ghost. “What we require is a stooge, a spineless, cowardly incorporeal —” “The remark about being spineless really rankles,” interrupted the ghost, who glowed in the moon’s light. “Why do corporeal creatures believe that a spine is the ultimate expression of courage? Try and stand up to death without one some time.” The ruffled apparition floated away muttering to herself, her transparent arms held high. Disgusted with Mephisto's antics, the remainder of the paranormals dispersed as well, leaving behind just the three of them: Ulna, Honcho, and Mephisto. Once the others had departed, the irascible demon threw open his arms and proclaimed, “I accept. I humbly accept your nomination as delegate to the Zygo Expedition. Thank you. Thank you very much.” He bowed. Witcher smiled at Mephisto's maneuvers and returned to Specter's side to wait for the harpy to work her magic.

18 Jugular, with Capillary sitting on his shoulders, hiked along a winding mountain trail on his way to meet Aorta and Vena. Aorta had sent a black pigeon to Jugular, her boyfriend, with a message telling him where she was and that she was with Vena. Jugular hiked for another half hour, spending most of the time talking and singing to Capillary. The trail was unusually rugged, and the mountainside was covered with mortuary trees. In Hades, descending to the lower depths is like climbing down from a tall mountaintop. Eventually, he came to a level area—the Elysian Fields—and followed Aorta’s directions until he found himself entering a camp. “Jugular!” came Aorta’s voice. He looked over and saw Aorta waving at him. Vena was closer and started when she saw them.

“Capillary!” she called. “It’s mama!” She ran forward to meet them. When Capillary saw Vena, however, she began to wail in terror. Vena stopped. “Not again!” Jugular put the child down, but she grabbed hold of his leg and bawled even louder. “Don’t you want to see mama?” he said, but she was too terrified to answer. “I think it’s hopeless, Vena. She’s too frightened of mortals.” “Yes, I see.” “Hi, honey.” Aorta came over and kissed Jugular on the cheek. She bent down and tried to comfort Capillary. “Look who’s here,” Jugular said. “Aunt Aorta.” Aorta’s presence did seem to soothe her. She quieted and started giggling when Aorta played with her hair. “Don’t you want to see mama?” Aorta said, and motioned over to Vena. Vena opened her arms. “Come here, my little Capillary.” But the child began crying again and clutched at Jugular’s leg. He picked her up and carried her over to Vena, and the crying increased. Vena held her for a moment, but she wouldn’t calm down. Vena kissed her and handed her back to Jugular. Walking to the back of their little camp, Vena emerged with a sweet treat that she gave to the baby. Jugular visited with Aorta and Vena for an hour, during which Capillary never stopped bawling. “I can’t stay too long,” Jugular said, finally. When it was time to go, he turned and began walking away backward. “Wave to mama,” he said, lifting Capillary’s tiny arm and making a waving motion. But she would have none of it; instead, she started blubbering uncontrollably. Vena laughed at her. “It isn’t all that bad, is it?” Jugular waved, turned around, and walked on. As he walked, he saw two harpies fly overhead and land in the camp.

19 Witcher saw the harpy he had spoken to earlier flutter in the night air with Vena on her back. A second harpy followed carrying Aorta. The harpies flapped and beat their wings over the infernal plain, as though they were pulling the two vampires behind them. “We bumped into your friends while we were hunting for food,” the first harpy said, when she came near Witcher. “You’re luck is better than it should be.” “I think it is, Madam Harpy. I happened to ask the right creature of the night for assistance.” Vena and Aorta jumped off the harpies. “Not at all,” squeaked the brown and white montage of feathers and flesh. “It was the purest luck, mind you, the purest luck, nothing more. And don't think I'll be available for more favors; I won't. You can count on that. Now, I must attend to my crypt. I've neglected it much too long already.” She flew off in a huff, and her friend followed her, flashing the vampires a smile as she passed. “I'm very happy to see the two of you,” Witcher said graciously. The community of supernaturals urgently requires your services. You've been appointed to head the delegation that will take our concerns to the sorceress.” “Concerns about what?” Vena asked, wrinkling her brow.

“Concerns about the red wind that has swept across our landscape of late and left so much destruction in its wake, Ms. Vena.” Witcher addressed her formally. Vena smiled and reciprocated. “I see, Lord Witcher.” Just then Ulna and Honcho approached Specter with Mephisto between them. “We three,” Ulna said, “are our choices as delegates for the expedition.” Mephisto raised both his hands into the air and clenched them together in a show of triumph. “And these are my two delegates,” Witcher said. “Vena!” Ulna cried. “You’re using Vena as a delegate?” “Yes, Vena is the best choice to put forth my position. Or, I should say, our position,” Witcher replied. Vena smiled. “I see no problem with Signorina Cava joining our expedition,” Specter said. “She is quite welcome.” Ulna and Honcho whispered back and forth, but decided to say no more. Witcher had gambled that they wouldn’t oppose Vena’s participation at this point, since so much else had been decided. He was concerned, though, that he might have a mutiny on his hands further down the line. “We need,” Specter continued, “to choose one neutral delegate acceptable to both sides.” The ghost glanced first at Ulna and Honcho's group, then at Witcher's. Witcher spotted Evilyn the wicked faerie scamper across a clearing to a brutality bush. The wee faerie nibbled at the berries on the bush evidently believing she had gone unnoticed, but Witcher spoke up on her behalf. “I nominate Miss Evilyn as our neutral delegate.” He nodded in her direction. “Evilyn?” Honcho asked. He glanced at the unassuming little faerie. Evilyn pulled away from the giant shrub that towered over her. She turned toward Witcher, her timid features taking in the assemblage of supernatural creatures. “Am I under discussion?” “You are, in fact, Miss. We would like you to be a delegate for the expedition we're forming to seek advice from Zygo the sorceress about the red wind that has swept over our landscape of late.” “I'm merely a faerie, sire.” The tiny paranormal chewed on a berry. “In the hierarchy of supernaturals, I'm afraid I count for nothing.” “No one counts for nothing in the netherworld, Miss Evilyn.” The stately warlock smiled at her benignly. “We need your perspective. Above all, we need your powers of observation.” “In an undertaking as big as this, I'm just an afterthought.” The faerie frowned. “And after I thought, I selected you.” “I'm only a cipher in the underworld, sire.” “You are more than a place holder, Miss Evilyn. You are filled with meaning, and we wish to tap into it. You are cordially invited to join us. We travel to consult with Zygo about matters of great import to our netherworld.” Evilyn's over-sized eyes blinked in unison. “Since there's some question whether Evilyn will come with us, we wish to nominate a neutral delegate as well,” Honcho said. With this introduction, Lycan walked out from behind the spiny octopus arms of an

agony tree that hovered over Ulna and Honcho. “Lycan?” Witcher exclaimed, aghast. The werewolf was greatly feared by all the supernaturals in Hades, and rightly so. This, he thought, must be Ulna’s and Honcho’s answer to his selection of Vena as a delegate. Witcher observed the giant wolf, attempting to size him up. It wasn't so long ago that they were doing battle on the top of the cabin. “We will accept your nominee on one condition.” “And what is that?” Ulna asked. “That he guarantee the safety of all members of the delegation. Can you agree to this stipulation, Mr. Lycan?” Witcher noticed Vena and Aorta studying the werewolf carefully. He scratched his chin with the claws of his right paw. “In view of the seriousness of the matter under consideration, I will agree to your condition.” “On your honor as a werewolf, sir?” Witcher attempted to pin him down. “On my honor as a werewolf of the Canis Lupus family, I guarantee the safety of all members of the delegation.” “We have our mission assembled, then,” Specter said with satisfaction. “Ulna, Honcho, and Mephisto.” He glanced from the one group to the other. “Witcher, Vena, Aorta. And two neutral delegates, Evilyn and Lycan—eight in total. Let us seek out the sorceress before the first moon's crescent gives way to a half-moon.” With this admonition, the expedition of supernaturals set out. Witcher, who alone knew the way to the sorceress, took the lead, accompanied by Vena and Aorta. He turned back after some time and glimpsed Evilyn following in the distance.

20 The next evening the expedition of supernaturals continued their trek in search of Zygo. Under Witcher's leadership, they traveled to a ridge of mountains east of the Styx, whose stone pickets rose above the netherworld like a huge palisade. “The sorceress is at the top of this summit, my friends,” Witcher said to the group. He motioned toward the highest of the ridge's peaks. After a climb up the mountainside that consumed the remainder of the night, the supernaturals reached its crest and found, as Witcher had told them they would, a small hamlet populated with zombies. Upon arrival in the village, the dusty, travel-worn creatures greeted its inhabitants, who seemed quite accustomed to visits from the local supernaturals. The zombies ushered the troop toward a ceremonial crypt, a round dome-like structure with a circular opening on one side that functioned as an entrance. “What sort of creature is that?” whispered Vena when she saw the inhabitants. “Those are the villagers,” Aorta said authoritatively. “They're zombies who reportedly practice the darkest arts and hunt in packs like wolves.” “They practice the darkest arts?” Vena asked with interest. “Yes. These zombies are the only creatures in the supernatural kingdom that know how to do it.” “Do you suppose they might teach me their magic? I could really use it. There are so many things I would like to do.” “Of course, you can ask them, but you may have to barter.”

“I'm not sure a vampire has anything that would interest them.” “You could always howl a vampiric dirge,” Mephisto suggested. “Yes, howling is my fate-given talent, isn't it?” Vena parted her lips into a grin. “I think,” Witcher advised, “that we will have our schedules full simply inquiring about the red wind that has swept over the netherworld of late. There will be no time for excursions into necromancy.” Vena sighed. Dawn ascended over the supernaturals, and with the rising of the star that shines on Hades, a daylight haze permeated the air. The troop settled in and waited outside the crypt in anticipation of an audience with the sorceress later when the nighttime returned. The zombies had provided coffins for the vampires among them. Vena thought that all of the supernaturals, even Mephisto, who was not nocturnal in his habits, would likely sleep soundly that day due to exhaustion from the long trek up the mountainside. Vena herself slept like the dead, though everyone kept maintaining that she wasn't. With twilight, she awoke. There were signs of movement inside the crypt. Smoke rose from within it, and a drumbeat tapped out a quiet rhythm that radiated through the crypt's walls. Outside, darkness had taken hold. The supernaturals, meanwhile, still ragged from their journey despite a full day’s sleep, lay piled near the ceremonial tomb. Lycan had sprawled out for his full length, while Mephisto and Ulna had curled up in front of him. Evilyn and Honcho had taken up residence on top of him. Aorta and Vena, however, had elected to remain apart from the unpredictable werewolf. They preferred the safety of the two coffins on a high rock that overlooked the crypt. Witcher, too, lodged in a coffin in the rocks above the sorceress's ceremonial tomb. Although Witcher had told Vena that he had spoken to Lycan and had managed to get the werewolf to reconfirm his pledge to insure the safety of the troop, the vampires were understandably apprehensive around the big wolf. Bedded down in these locations, the supernaturals waited—half in sleep, half in meditation—for another two hours. The sorceress finally emerged from the crypt's entrance, bobbing in time with the beat of the drum, and awakened them. Vena was surprised at Zygo’s appearance. The sorceress wore a dice-shaped mask, hand-painted an exquisite turquoise color. Two lightning-like rays of black angled from the top center of the mask, passed through where the eyes should have been, and on through where the cheeks and temples should have been. Between the black rays, a golden beak extended upward and downward like the arms of a ‘K’ and made the sorceress look as though she were about to caw. From the back of the mask, three white feathers shot upward, suggesting the prongs of a pitchfork. Clad in black leather with a shirt and matching pants beneath a kilt and shod with moccasins, Zygo had covered the lengths of her arms with long white and brown feathers that curved forward to form two ‘wings,’ their sharp points some five inches beyond the tips of her fingers. Dressed like this, she danced for nearly an hour, during which time Witcher, Aorta, and Vena joined the other supernaturals closer to the crypt. Eventually, the sorceress stopped, faced the troop of supernaturals, stared up at the sky, and raised both ‘wings’ in front of her with a majestic air. Holding this pose, while the drum beat out a subtle rhythm behind her, she spoke to them in perfectly accented supernatural. “Death,” she said with all the solemnity of a shaman addressing a religious assembly of her people, “is a chasm.”

Aorta exchanged glances with Vena, Vena with Evilyn, Evilyn with Honcho, Honcho with Ulna, Ulna with Witcher, Witcher with Mephisto, and Mephisto with Lycan. The sorceress's words seemed to hover over and ricochet around them, borne by the melody of the drum. Mephisto, who tended to use his hands when he spoke, stood up and flung them high above him. “That's it?” “We've traveled a full night on foot. We've scaled half the Carpathian Mountains. We've camped out all night long. We've watched you dance most of the morning away. And when you finally speak to us, this is all you can say? Death is a chasm?” The sorceress turned to the demon and dropped her wings. “You mean, death isn't a chasm?”

21 The supernaturals became restless and started to murmur among themselves. Mephisto put both of his hands on his face. “In what respect can death be considered a chasm?” His eyes widened. The sorceress followed Mephisto's lead and adjusted her mask with both hands. “Death is a waterfall?” “I don't think so.” “Death is a horseman in winter?” “Hardly.” “Death is a charon rowing across the Styx?” “Not at all.” “Death is a burst of daylight?” “A burst of daylight?” Mephisto put his hands on his hips. “How can you compare something as sublime as death to something as trivial as daylight?” “When you get a burst of daylight in your coffin, Mr. Demon, it seems anything but trivial.” Zygo reached up, pulled the mask off her head with a pop, and held it against her heart. The lovely cadaverous tones of her skin gathered in wrinkles about her face like nested parentheses, and glints of silver flecked her round, short-cropped hair. She squinted at the pesky demon, making her eyes into hyphens. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to wear a getup like this in these temperatures?” Although nighttime, the heat was still quite suffocating, Hades having achieved its customary incandescence in the afternoon. Zygo fanned herself with the feathers of a wing as she spoke. Witcher elected at this stage to intervene. “We don't wish to be a bother to you, Madam Zygo,” the diplomatic warlock began. “I may be hot,” the sorceress interrupted, “but I'm not bothered. If you supernaturals already know what death is, then why did you come to see me?” Witcher stepped in front of the group. “We've come to see you, Madam Zygo, because our community of supernaturals is in disarray, torn by conflicts over events that have rocked the netherworld in the last few weeks. A red wind, it seems, has swept across the netherworld and laid low every creature that happens into its path. Neither we nor our ancestors have encountered its like. Our collective supernatural wisdom, drawn from

many eons of residing in Hades, cannot explain the source of this catastrophe and cannot guide us in our response to it. We have come to you in quest of a solution to this mystery.” “You are right to say that a wind is blowing across Hades. We here are well aware of it. I may not have the best metaphor for death…” She peered at Mephisto again with hyphenated eyes. “But I know why the netherworld is being repainted in red.” “Many of our number believe this crisis has to do with a vampire named Vena Cava,” Witcher said, looking at Vena, who blanched. “This matter has nothing to do with Vena Cava.” Zygo sighed, but with patience. The troop of supernaturals turned their heads toward Ulna and Honcho. The two paranormals smiled sheepishly, their faces standing out like a pair burning coals. “They have to do with the unpox,” the sorceress continued. “The unpox?” the supernaturals echoed. “Yes, the unpox is repainting the netherworld in red. But if I merely tell you about it, you won't believe me. You'll have to witness it for yourselves. The full answer to your quest will be found in the lowest circle of hell. Go there, and all will become clear to you, if indeed that is possible.” Zygo motioned, indicating that the meeting was over, and the supernaturals began to disband. The sorceress’s reference to the unpox, however, had set off a small debate between Vena and Aorta. “It appears that Uncle is at it again,” Vena said. “And you thought he wouldn’t do it!” “But is it a plot to destroy Hades, or a plot to expand its borders?” “Whatever it is, it’s definitely a plot!” Aorta shook her head, and Vena frowned. Zygo turned and took one last opportunity to address Mephisto. “Death is a bed of daisies in a marble garden?” The demon shook his head. “Death is a worm salad?” He made a sour face. “Death is but a dream?” “That one's pretty good, actually.” The demon slinked away.

22 After their encounter with Zygo, the troop of supernaturals continued their descent into Hades toward Lake Acheron as per Zygo’s recommendation and had made considerable progress. “The lake is just over this ridge, my friends.” Witcher motioned in front of them. All five supernaturals stopped abruptly when they crested the ridge; Witcher's prediction proved correct. In what was once a red rock basin feeding into a narrow gorge, the waters of Lake Acheron nestled cozily in front of them like a teal-colored soup simmering in a kettle. But the hellscape was awash in red, random splotches of color that smudged the scenery indiscriminately. “Here's our source of unpox,” Witcher said, interrupting the hush that had come over them. “Presumably, these red spots are where a supernatural has perished.” What caught Vena's attention more than anything was the spectacle of rotting

carcasses—former werewolves, zombies, demons, and vampires—strewn along the lake’s sandy shore like fluorescent blemishes on a once picturesque hellscape, screaming out a visual alarm in the cold, cold moonlight for every netherworld creature to heed. No one spoke. She looked over at the other members of the troop. Evilyn’s face took in the scene with visible distress, and Mephisto’s features had metamorphosed into a stunned grin. “I've always wanted to know what was coming down the pipeline,” Aorta said, with knitted brows. “But I had no idea it was this. The riverbank, patiently sculpted in tones of paste by hell’s cruel caress, is now steeped in horror.” A ghoul passed by them. “First I died of the pox,” he said. “Now I’ve been brought back to life by the unpox. ‘The pox on the unpox!’ I say.” Amid the bedlam that had seized the river basin, Vena, Aorta, and Witcher stood on a huge oval rock above the lake and stared at the chaotic scene. With eyes the size of melons, they watched supernaturals that had been changed into mortals scurry about the lakeshore, madly trying to rub off the unplague. “What do you make of it?” Vena asked her companions. “I've never seen anything like it.” Aorta's face tightened. “Nor have I, Ms. Aorta.” Witcher nodded agreement. “We now know why Zygo advised us to come and see for ourselves,” Vena said. “Yes. Had she told us, we wouldn’t have believed her.” Aorta looked aghast at the sight of so many vampire carcasses. “No, we wouldn’t have,” Witcher said, with evident sympathy for the distraught vampire. “I'm not sure I believe it now.” The corners of Vena's mouth turned down in a pensive frown. “Perhaps, this is all a bad vampire dream. A nightmare of sorts.” “Yes, that's it.” Aorta pursed her cheeks. Vena could see that, like her, Aorta was struggling to make sense of the picture laid out before them. “We netherworld supernaturals with our limited powers have misunderstood the actions of Uncle Iliac, who is among the most intelligent of supernaturals, after all.” “Precisely,” Vena said, grasping desperately at Aorta's attempt to explain it. “If we investigate further, we'll surely discover that it's an illusion, that there is some wickedly sensible purpose in what appears to us as the purest madness.” “I'm afraid our eyes are telling us the truth, Vena.” Witcher arched his neck in the bitter nighttime breeze. “Madness it may be,” the warlock told them with his characteristic pragmatism, “but this is Iliac's doing, and there is no misunderstanding it. We may find ourselves cast onto the trash heap of supernatural history by the carelessness of your uncle.” “Any one of us could wind up like these poor supernaturals scattered along the shore of the Acheron.” Aorta shivered as she gave in to the bleak reality of Witcher's assessment, her ashen skin hardening against the words floating out between her lips. “I don't understand it.” Vena scratched the top of her head. “I thought Uncle was cleverer than we humbler supernaturals.” “Sometimes, Vena, creatures of the night can be clever in the smaller things that don't matter, but foolish in the larger things that do. Prince Iliac, it would seem, is prone to just such folly.”

“I’ve changed my mind.” Vena shook her head. “I no longer want to learn the dark arts.” “Don't you mean you're not changing your mind?” Aorta turned toward her with a curious expression. “Well, I'm not changing my mind about this. Even a netherworld supernatural without a knowledge of the dark arts like me can see where all this is going.” “You've more insight into these matters than a thousand creatures of the night who know the dark arts, Vena.” Witcher smiled at her charitably. Aorta moved closer to her sister. “You’ve always had a good head on your shoulders.” The blond vampire warmly put her arm around Vena’s shoulders. “I don't know.” Vena’s face creased with tension. “I've survived so many of hell’s cruelties. I've lived through years of metamorphosis and change; I've experienced both life and death. I’ve undergone the transition to Undying and adapted to being a vampire. And, of course, I've evaded werewolves all my years, but I fear I will never survive Uncle’s schemes.” “Indeed, Vena. None of us may survive them.” Witcher regarded her for a moment. “We simply cannot withstand a thorough contamination of Hades by the unpox.” “Perhaps it is a cosmic error that a supernatural being like Iliac has come to possess such powers,” she observed. Vena turned to Aorta, who was surveying the shoreline: the red smudges that gleamed in the cold moonlight, the decomposing carcasses of flesh, the frenetic movements of once-supernaturals who had become mortals. “Hell has become littered with the living,” said Aorta. There was much nodding of heads.

23 Their observation mission to the Acheron accomplished, the troop of supernaturals made the journey back to the netherworld community without incident. After several nights of travel, they came into a small canyon with Witcher in the lead. Hemmed in on two sides by steep walls of granite, the canyon widened to form a clearing, where the delegation of supernaturals found themselves swamped by a crowd of reporters and curiosity seekers trying to get a look at them. Realizing that the situation constituted a security risk, Vena persuaded Witcher to conjure an illusion that caused her and Aorta to blend into the walls of granite, making them invisible to the crowd of supernaturals. A zombie bounded forward to greet them. “Reporter for The Hades Last Will and Testament. Lord Witcher, have you been to Lake Acheron, sir? What's the news from down there?” The zombie twitched with anticipation. “Yes, we've been to the Acheron,” Witcher responded quickly. “And the rumors you may have heard about the unplague are true. We've all seen it for ourselves.” There was a pause in the buzz emanating from the crowd as the members of the troop nodded agreement with Witcher's account. “What Lord Witcher has told you is true,” Mephisto declared. “All of us can vouch for it. The lake, my friends, is awash in unplague.” Evilyn pushed out to the front of the group. “It's true,” the wicked faerie averred, drooping her oval eyes into an ocular frown. “Our beloved Hades is contaminated with

the unpox.” Vena watched silently as the meeting unfolded. Witcher’s efforts seemed aimed at commandeering the momentum created by the others. “Supernaturals scurry about the site and strive vainly to clean up the unplague like gulls trying to return rain to a rain cloud.” The warlock’s forehead crinkled. “Make no mistake about it—the netherworld is in crisis.” The crowd of paranormals percolated momentarily, a sense of alarm sweeping over it. Another reporter stepped forward to address Witcher. “The Nightly Undertaker.” The newspaper harpy’s notebook lay opened and ready. “What is the truth about the crisis facing us, Lord Witcher?” The harpy’s silhouette glowed a deep yellow in the moonlit air. The first moon balanced on the horizon like a giant melon sliced in half, and the moon shadows in the canyon had grown long and jagged. Witcher rose up and adopted a somber expression that prompted the informal press conference to quiet unexpectedly. The seriousness of the netherworld community's predicament had apparently begun to sink in. “Originally,” the warlock began, “Hades was meant to house the Undying.” He spoke in his loudest voice, and with an air of authority. “But now, Prince Iliac has infected the netherworld with his unplague—the unpox.” The lines in his face hardened. The assembly of paranormals blinked in unison, suggesting to Vena a lack of comprehension of Witcher's explanation of their dilemma. The canyon was packed with creatures from every corner of hell who struck her as filled with curiosity about the fate of the netherworld and the misdeeds of Iliac. She noticed that a miscellany of the ‘curious’ had lined up along the top of the canyon walls and were watching the makeshift press conference with beastly fascination. “Prince Iliac has gone too far,” Witcher continued. “He’s contaminated all of Hades, endangering every one of us. Since we supernaturals are undead,” he explained with special emphasis, “we cannot survive as mortals. At first, we seem fine, but our bodies begin to age at an accelerated rate, and it's only a matter of weeks before we expire for good. We don’t become dead or Undying again. We simply cease to exist entirely.” The warlock's face morphed into a pensive frown, and his eyes softened. “This, then, is the essence of the crisis facing us. We in the netherworld are Undying creatures trying to survive on an increasingly mortal landscape. If Iliac’s unplague continues to contaminate the netherworld, all of us may perish.” Hooves, hands, and wings shot into the air. Witcher motioned toward one of the hooves, and a centaur stepped forward. “The Grave Digger. Is it really possible to have an unplague in the middle of hell?” “Yes,” Witcher replied without hesitation. “Iliac’s unplague reverses the process of dying, causing us to return to life. But the return is an illusion, because it leads to total destruction.” Paws, hands, and wings shot into the air. Witcher motioned toward a wing waving wildly above the rest, and a griffin with black feathers flew up and perched on a Sepulcher branch. “The Midnight Mortician,” he said. “Why has Iliac contaminated Hades, Lord Witcher? What is his goal?” “Iliac has contaminated the netherworld,” Witcher explained, “in the hope of causing the inhabitants of hell to overtake and invade the Earth.”

A hush came over the motley collection of supernaturals. Each creature seemed to be attempting, with knitted brow and scant success, to comprehend Witcher's explanation. Lycan raised a defiant paw into the air. “I've always been opposed to unplagues!” At these words, a cheer went up, “Hurrah!” and pandemonium thundered through the supernatural-packed canyon. The werewolves howled, the harpies cawed, and the griffins caterwauled. A squadron of winged faeries buzzed the crowd, and in the midst of the bedlam, chanting could be heard: “Down with unplagues! Up with undeath! Down with the unpox! Up with the netherworld!” A band of disgruntled minotaurs at the front of the assembly rose up, horns shining in the darkness. “Thumbs down on contaminating Hades!” “Hear! Hear!” came the cry, and another cheer went up. “It's time we threw the villains out!” a hell hound barked, her paws raised high. A minotaur sniffed nervously at the evening air. “I thought we were the villains!” At this point, Witcher moved forward and attempted to regain control of the meeting. “We are villains,” he conceded amiably. “Make no mistake about that.” A smile parted his vampiric features. “But we're not the villains.” “That's the problem, then,” the minotaur cried. “There's room enough for only one set of bad guys in Hades.” “And that's us!” the hell hound finished the thought. Another round of cheers went up, and the crowd continued chanting: “Out with the villains; in with us villains! Out with the villains; in with us villains!”

24 A riotous atmosphere prevailed over the multitude for untold minutes, until Witcher motioned for calm, adopting a solemn expression that indicated the mob's antics were inappropriate to the seriousness of the occasion. When the creatures of the night duly quieted, he continued to discourse on Iliac, as if there had been no interruption whatever. “The Prince’s unplague is turning Hades upside down, and the remains of supernaturals are scattered all along Lake Acheron as a result. First, his victims contract the unpox, which transforms them into mortals again. Then, they begin to age at an accelerated rate until they perish.” “When they ‘perish,’ Lord Witcher, won’t they become dead, and afterward Undying?” a werewolf asked. “They’ll just wind up right where they started.” “But they don’t become dead, and afterward Undying. The unpox prevents it. They simply cease to be.” “If that were true,” a frankenstein cried, “we’d all know about it!” “Prince Iliac’s ghouls dispose of the bodies to hide what is happening. Iliac miscalculated; the unpox wasn’t supposed to work this way. It was meant to empty out Hades and bring calamit down on the Earth. Instead, it has brought a calamity down on us.” “We should count ourselves lucky that we don't have the unpox,” the hell hound barked. “Or we, too, might be scattered up and down the Acheron!” Paws, hands, and wings shot into the air. Witcher gestured toward an emaciated hand in the second row, and an awkward creature stepped forward. “Guts the ghoul for The

Hades Scare-ald.” He unrolled a scroll of parchment and began to read. “Master Witcher, doesn't your description of ‘Undying creatures trying to survive on an increasingly mortalfied landscape’—your words, sir—imply that with this crisis, we supernaturals have become...” He raised his head and pronounced the words with a slow and deliberate intonation, “Creatures of daylight?” A pall descended over the gathering of paranormals as Guts’s question sank in. Each supernatural exchanged glances with its neighbor—until someone cried out: “GET HIM!” The mob of by-now-utterly-perturbed supernaturals erupted into would-be violence, and a riot exploded within the canyon walls. In the madness that ensued, Guts was buoyed up, bouncing first sideways, then frontways, then backways, on a sea of supernatural limbs, each creature clamoring for a piece of the insolent ghoul. Vena was glad she had asked Witcher to make her and Aorta invisible. “SPEAK FOR YOURSELF!” Witcher roared in answer to Guts's question, and another round of cheers went up. “IF YOU CAN!” the animated warlock continued. Many in the crowd began to chant: “We love Witcher! We love Witcher!” Meanwhile, the supernaturals pushed Guts from creature to creature, some lunging at the ghoul, trying to take a bite out of him. Guts—he looked horrified by the tumult his words had unleashed—attempted to stand, rise up, and take to the trees. But he couldn't get his balance. After repeated attempts at bloodshed, the mass of supernaturals had cornered him and were about to tear the desperate ghoul limb from limb, when from out of nowhere, Judge Specter flew into their midst, and sandwiched himself between the angry horde of paranormals and the helpless ghoul. The ghost spread his incorporeal ‘body’ over Guts to protect him and, despite all the bedlam, ruckus, and sheer lunacy, began shrieking in an effort to bring calm to the assembly. The crowd percolated further, then quieted for an instant. The judge took the opportunity to speak. “Creatures!” he implored. “Beasts! Fellow supernaturals! Have we really come to this? At each other's throats like... well, like monsters?” The distinguished ghost surveyed the mob with disdain. “Just because we are monsters doesn't mean we have to act like monsters.” He scowled at the multitude. “If we move against this defenseless creature, won't we make his very mischaracterization of us come true?” Guts's yellow frame cowered beneath Specter's protective cover, the ghoul's eyes wide with terror. The incensed mob of supernaturals settled somewhat at Specter's words, and the ghost pressed his point. “Why focus on this ghoul's unfortunate description of us, when we have so much more important business to attend to? Lord Witcher has brought back news that impacts our situation in ways no one could have ever imagined.” “Who could have predicted the erratic behavior of Prince Iliac? Witcher merits our undivided attention; our fragile community of Paranormals is now in the gravest danger.” The crowd backed away from Guts, and Specter released the ghoul from his protection. Guts waddled from the mob visibly shaken. “It was only an innocent question,” he muttered.

His wife, Viscera, came around and met him. “They just want a scapeghost, that’s all.” She smoothed his ruffled hair. “I did just barely escape. I'll give you that much, but I'm not a ghost.” He scratched the flab of his stomach. “Though I must admit this whole affair has gotten my ghost.” “I didn't know you had a ghost.” “Well, I don't want another one! If I don't have a ghost, then no one can get my ghost.” He stomped around and wandered away from the gathering of paranormals, fussing and fuming all the while, Viscera offering him what comfort she could. The press conference, meanwhile, proceeded without them.

25 “Our challenge,” Witcher told the crowd, “is to find a cure for the unplague.” At this point, Specter came forward and relieved Witcher. “To survive the unpox, we must rely on one of our own number, on a certain vampire named Vena Cava.” “Vena?” the cry went up. “Yes. Vena.” Specter glared at the multitude with irritation. “It should be apparent by now that Signorina Cava is wholly innocent in this affair. We in the community of supernaturals have done her a great injustice, and we must correct our error posthaste.” “Poor Vena has borne the blame for all the misdeeds of Iliac,” Evilyn said. “Specter is right about Signorina Cava,” Mephisto said. “Our judgments about her could not have been more mistaken.” “Not only is Ms. Vena completely innocent of the wrongs ascribed to her,” Witcher said, “but she, of all creatures, holds the key to our survival. At this point, only she can save our fragile community from certain extinction.” “Clearly, we jumped to conclusions,” Lycan chimed in. Vena was surprised to hear support from her nemesis. That they had converted him to their cause was encouraging. “We mistakenly saw Signorina Cava as a mortal,” Specter continued. “We failed to see her better points and to adopt a balanced view, and now we are paying the price, for without her cooperation, we will not survive.” “What have we done to our friend?” Evilyn asked no one in particular. “It behooves us to find Signorina Cava and make amends,” Specter concluded. The gathering fell silent, then started cheering when Witcher dropped the illusion that hid Vena and Aorta. The two vampires suddenly appeared at the front, where they had been all along. “We must travel to Prince Iliac’s fortress and obtain a cure for the unpox,” Vena said. Another cheer went up. “Vena and her sister, Aorta,” Witcher said, “are the best choices to lead us in such an effort. They know Prince Iliac and his compound better than any of us.” With that, Witcher waved a hand to indicate that the press conference was over, and the crowd of paranormals began to disperse.

PART III - VENA 26 “The uncure is an antidote for the unpox,” Zygo said. “Even someone as evil as Prince Iliac wouldn’t develop an unplague without also developing an uncure, in case the unplague infects his own people, or even himself.” Iliac’s fortress loomed in front of them, built on the crest of a two-hundred-foot hill. The fortress was surrounded by huge walls which seemed greatly heightened by the sheer drop of the mount around them. The combined height of the mount and the walls was three hundred feet to the top of the castle’s perimeter. “There it is.” Vena inclined her head toward the imposing structure. Even though they were a good half-mile from the castle, they could see it quite well since it dominated the landscape. They stood in a bend of the only road leading up to the castle. Vena had sent for Zygo to help them with their effort to craft a solution to the unpox. Witcher stared at the fortress, creasing his brow. “We’ll have Lycan’s supernaturals storm the front.” He seemed to be thinking out loud. “While Iliac’s soldiers are busy repelling the attack, a search party can enter from the rear and look for the uncure.” “Aorta and I should be the only ones to go,” Vena said. “Yes, we know the layout of Uncle Iliac’s fortress, and we know where the uncure is most likely to be.” “Not only that, but if you’re caught, it won’t go so badly for you, since you are Iliac’s nieces.” Vena laughed. “Even Prince Iliac respects family ties!” “I wouldn’t underestimate how wicked Iliac can be,” Aorta said, shaking her head. “The frontal attack will have to be very convincing,” Vena said. “It’s best that we not tell Lycan or any of his troops what our plan is,” Aorta added. “Yes, as far as they are concerned, we hope to storm the fortress and capture it,” Witcher said. “There is no need, of course, to actually capture the castle. The uncure is what we want. Nothing else.” “I must have the uncure in a decent state to make the potion for Vena,” Zygo cautioned. “It cannot be damaged, and it cannot be corrupted—not by heat and not by contamination. Ideally, it should be packed in ice. When the potion is ready, we must administer it to Vena immediately. She doesn’t have much time left.” She looked at Vena with concern in her eyes. Vena shuddered. She felt weak. “If we don’t get her help soon enough, she will begin aging at an accelerated rate and, since she’ll be a mortal, she will perish for good.” “I will need something to give me strength,” Vena said. “I fear I may not be able to withstand the stress in my present condition.” “I can make an elixir that will give you more resilience,” Zygo said. “How much longer does Vena have?” Witcher asked. Zygo glanced at her. “Forty-eight hours. If we can get the uncure to her within that time frame, she has a chance.” Witcher looked at the sky. “It’s still early evening. We have only two nights—until dawn the night after tomorrow. That will give you about fourteen hours in which to make

the potion. It’s not much time.” “The unpox is slowly making all of the cells of her body alive. I know many think she has been completely mortalfied, but that isn’t true. Her system has been unusually resistant to the unplague and has put up a good fight, yet her time is running out. We can’t wait any longer than forty-eight hours.” In view of how little time they had, Witcher and Vena afterward hiked into a small village they had passed on their way to Iliac’s castle. “We need a good map of the compound,” Witcher explained. “Aorta and I can provide that for you. We’ve been inside Uncle Iliac’s compound many times.” In the village, they spoke to the butcher and obtained a roll of butcher’s paper and a cold box. They also found a stationer and acquired some writing instruments, erasers, and rulers. At the apothecary, they purchased two mirrors. “This is all we need,” Witcher said. Vena smiled at him. “What are the mirrors for?” “They’re not for combing my hair.” He laughed. They ate a small dinner of blood curry at a restaurant, and then hiked back to where their party had settled. He placed the roll of paper before Vena and Aorta. “Do your best to diagram the inside of Prince Iliac’s fortress from memory. Show me where you can enter and exit, and where you believe the uncure is likely to be. I will use the diagram to provide you with support, to get you inside, to keep Iliac’s forces busy while you’re there, and then to get you out safely with the uncure.” The two vampires worked hard on the drawing, Vena sketching in the outside walls, and Aorta penciling in the structures within them. “Don’t you think the uncure would be here?” Vena asked, pointing. “No, it would be in Uncle’s laboratory, which is over here.” Aorta indicated a room near the very center of the compound. “It’s located underground to keep it cool and has a series of vents along this wall to remove any fumes.” They kept discussing the fortress’s structure, attempting to tease the details from their memories. Eventually, they presented Witcher with a finished drawing. He studied it at length. They had marked the rear left tower of the fortress as the best place to enter and exit. Vena referred to it as the “Queen’s Rook.” “The guards on the Queen’s Rook cannot see directly below them,” she explained, “and seldom think to look that close, anyway. The towers are designed to see far and wide, not immediately below.” “The trick is to get over the moor and near the Queen’s Rook without being seen, but I can accomplish that for you,” Witcher replied. “Yes, with your sorcery.” Vena smiled. “Once we’re near the tower, we can enter without being detected,” Aorta added. “The uncure is most likely located within Iliac’s laboratory, secured by guards. We’ve marked the spot on the map. It’s right here in the center of the compound.” She pointed to a U she had penciled in on the map. “The uncure must be kept in a cool place,” Zygo said. “And, it’s probably stored in Petri dishes.” “You can bring it back in this.” Witcher lifted up the cold box he and Vena had

obtained from the butcher and placed it on the table. “Once you find it, bring it to me as quickly as you can so I can begin working on the potion,” Zygo said. “I wish to call Lycan in to talk with him. I don’t want anyone to see this U or question it’s meaning.” Witcher erased the U on the diagram. “Lycan?” Vena asked. Understandably, she felt uncomfortable around the unpredictable werewolf. Vena had to remind herself that Lycan was their ally. “Perhaps it’s best if you excuse yourself from the meeting,” she said to Aorta. Aorta laughed. “Gladly! I want nothing to do with that vicious monster.” “It’s precisely his viciousness that we require,” Witcher said. He sent a pigeon to Lycan, and the werewolf arrived about an hour later. Witcher showed Lycan the diagram. “We’ll have to storm the front gate.” “Yes, yes.” The big wolf examined the map, his huge teeth arching into a grin. “We’ll need to build a siege engine to break through the gate, and catapults to bombard the castle walls.” “It will be hard to get the engine up the hill,” Vena said. She watched Lycan intensely, but could detect no hostility from the werewolf. She felt safe since Witcher was present. Even without her powers, she needn’t worry. The warlock could protect her. “Sure,” Lycan responded. “But the centaurs can pull it up there. The minotaurs can build the engine and the catapults. We could be ready in twenty-four hours.” “While you’re attacking, we will attempt to enter the compound and aid your efforts.” “I see.” He looked at Vena with a curious expression. “That can work, I suppose.” “Then it’s a go?” Witcher asked. “It’s a go,” Lycan confirmed. “We’ll plan to attack in the hour before midnight tomorrow night.”

27 Lycan supervised the minotaurs, skilled builders all, as they constructed two catapults to batter the fortress’s walls and a siege tower one hundred feet tall to scale its gates. They worked through the night and right into the daytime haze. In Hades, the closest star was far and didn’t shine high in the sky. So, there was no true daylight, only a haze. Unlike vampires, minotaurs could cope with the haze, though they preferred not to do so. Lycan also supervised the centaurs, who despite having bodies of horses, nevertheless required six hours of hard labor to wheel the engine, the catapults, and seven wagons loaded with boulders up the winding road leading to the front gate of Iliac’s castle. When the siege engine was in place, it was close to midnight. An army of demons, zombies, and werewolves massed around it under Lycan’s leadership. They numbered more than five hundred in all. Lycan raised his right hand as a signal for his private army of supernaturals to prepare to attack. He rolled his arm forward, and archers sent a volley of arrows over the fortress walls, signaling the commencement of the battle. The throng began marching toward the gate. Two teams of minotaurs, their bull’s heads glistening in the moonlight, began operating the catapults, flinging boulders into

the walls of the castle. Lycan watched as they went through the process. Two minotaurs would turn the handle that cranked the catapult’s bucket into place. Then another pair would lift a boulder from a nearby wagon and set it in the bucket. A third pair would turn the catapult itself to the desired horizontal and vertical position, aiming it at the fortress walls. Finally, they would release the bucket, and the catapult would heave the boulder with tremendous force, causing the catapult to rock forward and back. The sound of the boulder slamming into the wall was enough to deafen anyone close by. In the meantime, a contingent of six centaurs pulled the siege engine along the road, rolling it toward the gate. The engine consisted of a large wooden tower that rose one hundred feet into the air, the height of the castle gates. Unfortunately, the engine was coming within striking distance of Iliac’s archers. Lycan had stationed his own set of zombie archers inside the engine. As the centaurs wheeled it closer, Lycan’s archers did their best to keep Iliac’s soldiers from hitting the wooden tower with flaming arrows. At the same time, demons with shields and spears stood around the centaurs, protecting them from attack. This rather imposing train of centaurs, demons, and werewolves slowly moved the siege tower into place against the gates of the fortress, the periodic boom from the catapults providing them with cover and keeping Iliac’s forces at bay. Lycan gave the order, “Storm the gate!” and his ragtag army climbed up the inside of the siege engine, scaled the gate, and began to drop down over it into Iliac’s fortress. Once inside, they crossed swords with Iliac’s soldiers. Iliac’s archers posted along the walls of the castle and at key points within the compound repelled any griffins or harpies who attempted to fly into the interior of the fortress. Some winged creatures managed to get past the archers and fly into the fortress. There, they fought with Iliac’s soldiers, but were usually crushed by superior numbers or forced to fly back out. Lycan saw Prince Iliac’s bearded image standing on the castle walls and commanding his men. He waved his arms around and shouted while pointing at the siege engine. Concerned that Iliac had instructed his men to set the engine on fire, Lycan spoke to the captain of his archers. “If anyone approaches the siege engine from the castle side, your men will have to pick him off. They should target each one individually and ensure that none can set the engine on fire.” Many of the supernaturals that poured over the front gate and fought hand to hand with Iliac’s forces were destroyed. Iliac’s archers mowed down the first wave of troops. But before Iliac’s men could reload, the second wave of Lycan’s forces hit them and took out the archers. Behind the archers were swordsmen and spearmen, who took their toll on the invaders. A third wave of invaders came over the gate and pushed Iliac’s soldiers further back. It looked for a moment that Iliac was lost, but his soldiers managed to regroup and pushed Lycan’s forces back against the gate. One of Lycan’s lieutenants yelled up to him, “We can’t get the gate open!” In preparation for the battle, Iliac’s forces must have jammed the gate by nailing the hinges shut, Lycan thought. Unable to get the gate opened, Lycan’s forces found

themselves pinned against it and were being cut down by Iliac’s men as a result. Lycan ordered a cessation to the infusion of supernaturals over the gate. It had become a trap that was sucking in too many troops. He turned and addressed the minotaurs. “Raise your sights higher so the boulders clear the wall.” By raising the catapults’ sights higher, they could fling the boulders over the walls and onto Iliac’s men. The sudden bombardment of boulders from the catapults put an end to Iliac’s resurgence. The soldiers found themselves overwhelmed by the influx of huge rocks. Lycan stood on the siege engine and called out the co-ordinates to the catapult team for the continued bombardment. When he could see that Iliac’s forces were routed, he ordered a new surge of troops over the gate and into the fray.

28 Witcher, Vena, and Aorta had circled around to the rear of the castle and had taken up a position along the edge of the forest that bordered the moor leading up to the castle walls. They could hear the commotion caused by five hundred supernaturals storming the fortress and the sound of boulders crashing into the walls. “Lycan’s begun the battle!” Vena said. “Hurrah!” Aorta cried. “His timing is a bit later than I had hoped, but this will work just fine,” Witcher said. He watched the castle with the spyglass. He had set up a table with the map of the fortress sprawled out on it. Oil lanterns lit the map’s surface. He put down the spyglass, and the three vampires pondered the map. He had arranged the diagram so they looked at its view from behind the fortress. He pointed to a position off the map, just in front of him. “We’re right here.” “I will transport you over here, to the ‘Queen’s Rook.’” He pointed to the left rear tower, which from behind was on their right. “As you fly across the moor…” He motioned to the space leading up to the tower on the map. “You’ll be camouflaged by a fog that I will conjure for you.” “Sounds fine so far,” Vena said. “Will you help us get over the wall as well?” “Yes. In fact, I can transport you to the top of the wall, just beside the tower.” “It will be better if we land on the floor of the compound, well inside the walls,” Vena said. “Okay. How about here?” He pointed to a location on the map. “That’s ideal,” Aorta said. “When you get there, ignore any explosions you may hear. They’re just sound; nothing is actually exploding.” Witcher smiled. “I provide them as diversions to keep your opponents occupied. But they mustn’t divert you, too!” “How do we signal you, when we wish to return?” Vena asked. “Use these.” Witcher pulled out the mirrors they had acquired in the village. “When I see a signal like so…” He tilted one of the mirrors back and forth, causing the first moon’s light to flash at them. “I will know it’s you, and I will bring you back—again, under cover of fog.” He handed the mirrors to Vena and Aorta. They duplicated his effort, standing apart and signaling to one another.

“I’m surprised this can work with moonlight, but it can!” Vena said. She looked up at the red-black sky. It was a cloudless night, and both moons shone, the first in its purple fullness and the second an orange crescent. “They’re quite effective!” Aorta said. “Yes, that’s perfect,” Witcher said, when they turned their signaling efforts his way. Next, he handed the cold box to Aorta. “Of course, you’ll need this for the uncure.” Aorta opened the cold box, carried it over to an icebox, and placed a block of ice into it. While she was thus engaged, Vena pulled Witcher to one side and planted a kiss on his lips. Witcher laughed and kissed her back. Vena thought, we’re two teenagers stealing kisses at a school dance. They returned and stood straight-faced behind Aorta, as though nothing had happened. Aorta turned around. “Now we have the ice we need.” “Very good.” Vena smiled. “Yes, excellent.” Witcher smiled, too. “What’s so funny?” Aorta asked. “Nothing,” they answered in unison. From behind Aorta, Zygo approached, walked past Aorta and up to Vena. She held out a glass. “This elixir will give you the resilience you’ll need to cope with the stress.” Vena took the glass. “Good. I can use all the resilience that comes my way.” She downed its contents. “Remember, time is essential. You must get back with the uncure as soon as you can,” Zygo lectured. “I can’t be certain how long it will take me to transform the uncure into a form we can administer to you.” Vena and Aorta both nodded.

29 The two vampire sisters stood at the edge of the moor, ready to go. They were attired in their family colors—purple and black. These were the same colors Prince Iliac would be wearing. The colors would announce their nobility and family connection to Iliac, which should give pause to any soldiers that might consider opposing them. Aorta held the cold box in one hand and a sword in the other. Vena held only a sword. In the distance, an occasional flaming arrow arched upward, over the castle walls, and then back down again. Witcher stood in front of them, his back to the castle. “Good luck to both of you.” He waved his hand. A wind began to blow and lifted them up. Vena felt herself rising into the air. She rose to a height of roughly three hundred feet, equal with the top of the castle walls. She looked over at Aorta, whose image flickered in the double moonlight, but soon disappeared altogether as Witcher’s fog illusion engulfed them. Vena felt herself moving toward the castle. The fog cover Witcher had conjured extended over the entire moor and up to the castle’s perimeter, making it hard for her to see exactly where she was. The flight seemed quite long, but was exhilarating. The air at that altitude was cooler, and she thought she could feel Zygo’s elixir kicking in and giving her more strength. She saw the Queen’s Rook to her right as she whizzed by it, and the wall below her as she passed over it. Once she entered the fortress, the fog cleared somewhat, and she could see that the entire compound was in a state of chaos.

Iliac’s uniformed soldiers fought hand-to-hand with a collection of supernaturals whose numbers surprised Vena. Lycan is giving them a hell of a fight, she thought. They were well within the castle walls as planned, but as she approached the floor of the compound, she could see that there was a problem. She was about to land on top of a soldier who was sword fighting with a werewolf. She bent her body into a crescent and just managed to avoid the collision. Witcher put her down right where she had requested, but he evidently couldn’t know that someone was standing there! Aorta wasn’t so lucky; she collided with the soldier. She managed to avoid dropping the cold box, but dropped her sword and fell to the ground herself. Vena saw her wipe her mouth and look at the blood on her hand. She had run smack into the soldier’s armor! “That must have hurt,” Vena mused. The werewolf immediately took advantage of his sudden good luck and ran the unfortunate soldier through with his sword. He then turned and attacked another soldier. Vena helped Aorta up off the ground, then picked up her sword and handed it to her. They were no sooner standing on the compound floor than a boulder came flying and struck the ground ten feet in front of them, throwing dirt and brick everywhere. “We underestimated how hard this would be,” Vena thought. She could see that Iliac’s soldiers were simply too busy repulsing the onslaught from Lycan’s forces to pay either of them much heed. That much was working as planned, if nothing else. “The laboratory is over there.” Aorta motioned toward the center of the compound with the sword. She could hardly speak, thanks to the blow with the soldier’s armor. Vena ran along the outside of a building in the direction Aorta had indicated, and Aorta followed clutching the all-important cold box close to her. Some of the soldiers noticed them, and one of them shouted, “Who goes there?” Vena realized he was confused by their clothing, which identified them as part of the castle nobility. Neither of the vampires responded, but continued along the wall, and the soldier didn’t pursue them. But another soldier stepped in their path. She raised her sword. “We are Prince Iliac’s blood. Let us pass.” The soldier hesitated, then yielded. They continued along the wall, explosions sounding all around them. Each time, Vena noticed the soldiers in the compound would run to and fro in a state of chaos, trying to find the source of the blast. Vena and Aorta entered a corridor that took them inside the center of the compound. They made their way downstairs toward Iliac’s laboratory. When they turned a corner, Vena saw guards on either side of a door. “That must be it,” she thought. “You take the closer one,” she whispered. “Got him,” Aorta whispered back. They approached the guards, all the while hiding their swords behind them in their garments. The guards looked startled to see two noble women of Prince Iliac’s family approaching. When she and Aorta were within striking distance, they took out their swords from behind them and attacked the two guards simultaneously. The guards were completely taken by surprise by this maneuver, and the two vampires easily defeated them. Aorta set the cold box and sword down on the floor, turned into a mist, and passed under the door. A moment later, the door opened, and she stood in the doorway, smiling. She and Vena dragged the guards inside the laboratory, then picked up the cold box and Aorta’s sword and carried them inside as well. They closed the door and locked it.

“We’re looking for Petri dishes, for cultures,” Aorta said. They started searching for anything that resembled Zygo’s description of what the uncure might look like. The laboratory was filled with chemical apparatus: flasks, test tubes, burners, and other glassware that Vena had never seen before. And it was naturally cool, apparently due to its underground location. Vena thought, “I’m out of my element here. It’s best to leave the identification of the uncure to Aorta. She’s the geeky one.” They searched for quite some time. Vena heard the door knob rattle as though someone were trying to open it. The door burst open, and she shrieked. Soldiers rushed into the room. They swarmed over her and took her sword. Aorta, however, managed to hide. “What are you doing in here?” the leader of the soldiers asked. “I’m Prince Iliac’s niece,” Vena said. “I’m authorized.” “We’ll see about that!” They took her out of the laboratory and shut the door behind them. Pushing her along the corridor and outside, they brought her into the middle of the compound. They stopped below the wall where Iliac was supervising the defense of the castle. One of the soldiers approached Iliac. “We found this woman in your laboratory.” He pointed to Vena. “She says she is your relation.” Iliac’s face lit up with surprise when he saw her. “Bring her to the control center,” Iliac instructed, motioning toward a building behind her. “Have Basilic come.” Basilic, who was Iliac’s second-in-command, was familiar to Vena. The soldiers pushed her toward the building, and Iliac came down and followed them into a room. They closed the door. Iliac smiled. “Vena, my dear niece, what are you doing here?” “I’ve come to get the uncure!” She wrested herself from the soldiers’ clutches. “Why in Hades would you need something called an uncure, dear child?” “You well know, Uncle, that I am hardly a child.” “Yes, yes, my mistake. Certainly, there is no reason for you to want anything from my laboratory.” At that point, Basilic entered the room. He nodded to Vena. Unlike the other soldiers, Basilic knew who Vena was. He was an older vampire who had worked faithfully for Vena’s family for centuries. “I have become infected with something called the unpox…” Vena noticed Basilic’s eyes grow large. “Which I have been led to believe comes from you.” “From me? Surely, something so pernicious could not have emanated from me.” “I have become alive again, Uncle. Or, so I am told. My existence has been turned upside down. I am no longer considered Undying. I’m thought to be a mortal once again, of all things. I am no longer permitted to cross the Styx. I no longer have access to my child, who runs in terror when she sees me—since she believes me to be a mortal, which is terrifying, indeed.” Iliac paused. “This story of yours, Vena, is quite wild. Perhaps you have come under the influence of some delusion. Maybe you’ve been eating mushrooms. I think it is best for you to remain here for a time and rest until you return to your senses.” “I’m not under the influence of any delusions, Uncle. Nor do I wish to remain here. I must obtain the uncure, for myself and those who depend on me.”

“This delusion is severe, indeed.”

30 After the guards took Vena out of the laboratory, Aorta emerged from her hiding place. She continued to search the laboratory until she found what she was looking for: a set of round, clear Petri dishes containing cultures. Carefully picking up each dish and placing it into the cold box, she surrounded the dishes with gauze to keep them from toppling. She put the lid back on the cold box and made her way over to the entrance. Opening the door, she peeked outside. The corridor was empty. She rushed into the hallway and made her way back outside to the compound. The problem was she had to find Vena. But where had the guards taken her? She remembered Zygo’s words. “Time is essential. You must return as soon as you can.” There was only one way to find Vena quickly, she thought, and that was to get caught herself. Undoubtedly, they would take her to the same location where they had taken Vena. She walked up to a soldier and smiled at him. Immediately, soldiers swarmed around her. Iliac’s men brought Aorta some distance from the center of the compound and through a door. Inside, she saw Vena between two guards with Iliac standing in front of her. “We found another one!” a guard escorting her said. “Aorta!” Iliac cried. “You’re here, too?” “Of course I am. We have to do something to end this unplague of yours. It’s destroying Vena!” “She had this.” The soldier lifted the cold box and placed it on a table. “And this.” He held up her sword. Iliac peeked inside the cold box. “I see. My nieces have always been the smartest members of the family. You should come to work for me.” He smiled. “Nothin’ doin’!” “Absolutely not!” “I can offer you affordable medical, good dental, and a 401k.” “Don’t even think of it, buster.” “We need what’s in that box to help Vena.” “Well, I wouldn’t want to stand in the way of that.” Iliac ran his hand through his beard. A huge explosion sounded outside, causing Iliac, Basilic, and his soldiers to run out of the room. “That must be one of Witcher’s illusions,” Vena said. Aorta laughed. “Let’s go!” Vena picked up the cold box with one hand and her sword with the other. Aorta grabbed her sword and followed her. The two vampires slipped out the door and ran into the compound. When they got outside, Vena saw why Iliac and Basilic hadn’t returned. One third of one wall had been knocked down, and supernaturals were pouring through the opening. Iliac called to his men, “Secure that breach!” The soldiers scurried to repel the invasion. But Aorta noticed that whenever a supernatural encountered Iliac’s soldiers, it evaporated. She realized the breach in the wall wasn’t real. It had to be another of Witcher’s illusions. From the smile on Vena’s face, she gathered that she had also

realized it was an illusion. “We had better hurry!” Aorta cried. “It won’t be long before Uncle figures out something’s up.” They ran toward the back wall of the castle and the Queen’s Rook. On their way, soldiers pursued them. Aorta crossed swords with the soldiers, doing her best to protect Vena, whose ability to fight was handicapped by the need to hold the cold box upright and stable. Another explosion sounded above them, startling the soldiers, and Vena made a break for the back wall. She climbed up the stairs along the wall, Aorta behind her walking backward, sword fighting and keeping the soldiers at bay. Aorta ran the last of the soldiers through, and the wounded man fell back down the stairs. Vena came out along the top of the wall, and Aorta followed. Vena took out her mirror and signaled in the double moonlight to Witcher across the moor. “You have to signal, too!” she said to Aorta, who took out her mirror as well and flashed it in the moonlight. Aorta saw more soldiers coming up the stairs. But before they could get up to them, the two vampires began to rise into the air. Two archers pulled back their bows and aimed at them, but Basilic rushed over and stayed their hands. He shouted, “Princess Vena has the unpox. She must be allowed to leave unharmed.” With that, Vena and Aorta started to fly across the moor, Vena holding the cold box with the uncure in it close against her. But a soldier far from Basilic fired an arrow that struck Vena in her right arm. She flinched and dropped her sword, but not the cold box, somehow managing to keep her grip on it. She continued flying over the moor, despite the wound. Aorta realized that the fog illusion may have prevented the archer from seeing the color of Vena’s clothing. One ruse had cancelled out the other. Aorta looked behind her and saw Iliac come onto the wall. He cried something and pointed toward them. But Basilic didn’t budge. She thought fondly of Basilic, who had always been kind to her and Vena when they were children.

31 Witcher was waiting for them when they landed. “Are you okay?” “No!” Aorta cried. “Vena’s been wounded!” Vena set down the cold box and grabbed the arrow sticking out of her arm. But before she could get a good look at it, she fainted. Witcher had moved toward her and caught her, picking her up in his arms. “Luckily, Zygo is here and can help her.” He began walking toward the back of the camp. Aorta picked up the cold box and followed him. “I was quite concerned,” he said. “For a while there, it looked as though you wouldn’t return at all.” “We almost didn’t,” Aorta said. “We were both captured and brought before Iliac.” “You were captured?” “Yes, but thanks to your explosions, we escaped.” Witcher smiled. “I see. I guess you weren’t able to get the uncure, then.” “We have it!” Aorta held up the cold box. “Great!”

Zygo approached Witcher when she saw him carrying Vena. “She’s been wounded,” he said. “Put her over here.” Zygo motioned toward a cot. Witcher obliged, and Zygo examined Vena’s arm. “The wound itself is superficial,” she said. “But it may be sufficient to finish her off. The real problem is that we’re running out of time, and the unpox is taking its toll on her. This arrow will be one more burden on her system.” She cut the arrow out of Vena’s arm, stitched up the wound, and dressed it. “I really need to begin making the potion for her.” “We have the uncure.” Witcher motioned toward Aorta and the cold box. Zygo took the cold box from Aorta, set it down on a table, and peeked inside. “Beautiful!” Witcher, meanwhile, wrote out a message on a small piece of butcher’s paper: “End assault: have solution to unpox in hand—Witcher.” He attached it to the foot of a black pigeon and released it to fly to Lycan. They broke camp and moved under cover of the remaining darkness to a cave where Specter awaited them. Inside the cave, Witcher carefully placed Vena inside a coffin. Zygo removed a specimen of the unpox and examined it under a crystal. “So this is the unpox that is wreaking so much havoc on all of Hades.” Aorta rolled up her sleeves. Her knowledge of the dark arts, Witcher thought, will make her an invaluable assistant in Zygo’s attempts to craft a potion using the uncure. “The Earth contains bacteria,” Zygo continued, “but Hades has only unbacteria, which are bacteria that are Undying, microscopic counterparts to supernaturals.” “And they’re wicked, too!” Aorta said. “With this unbacteria, Prince Iliac hoped to expand the borders of Hades to include the Earth,” Witcher said. “Why have two separate worlds that are opposites, he must have thought, when it is possible to incorporate the World of the Dying into the World of the Undying and rule them both? Prince Iliac hoped to be ruler of Earth and Hades.” “And all his success turns on this microscopic loop.” Zygo showed him the circle formed by the uncure. Witcher used his sorcery to project the image outside of the crystal like a hologram. “That’s the unpox?” “It’s a corporeal version of the unpox. The actual unpox is incorporeal, which is why we can’t isolate it by simply taking a sample from Vena. It’s a ghost bacteria. But the version we’ve stolen from Iliac is corporeal, and we can use it to develop a potion that will neutralize the incorporeal one.” “I think for Uncle Iliac,” Aorta said, “all of this is just a setback. He accidentally infected his own family with the unpox. He’ll let us take the uncure, he’ll regroup, and then he’ll try again.” After examining the uncure at length, Zygo formulated her strategy. “The unpox, it seems, has one vulnerability: it is not alive. If we can make it come to life, then it will be harmless, just another bacterium, easily neutralized with an antibiotic. But as long as it remains Undying, it will be the scourge from hell.” Time was running out as the dawn approached. If they didn’t have the cure ready by twilight, Witcher thought, Vena would be a goner. After a few hours, Aorta had sequenced the bacterium’s genome and showed them a

circular diagram of it, with different genes of the circle marked. “The harmful genes are the ones that I’ve colored in red. The promoters are here, here, and here at these sequences.” She pointed at several sections of the loop. “You have our full confidence, Zygo and Aorta,” Witcher replied. Witcher had done his best to make sense of their explanation. “Too scientific,” he thought. Vena, who had regained consciousness, laughed at him. “I tried to tell you not to listen, but I couldn’t get your attention.” “Their description crossed my eyes.” He shook his head as though trying to get something out of it. “Aorta has a brain.” “She does at that. I’m beginning to appreciate that all the members of your family are quite talented.” Zygo and Aorta mixed up a proto-version of their potion, administered it to a culture of corporeal unpox cells they isolated from the uncure and, as they reported it to Witcher, found it did indeed render the cells alive. Following up with an antibiotic, destroyed the unpox cells without rendering them Undying. The problem was they couldn’t be certain what effect their anti-unpox potion would have on Vena. There was no time for trials or controls, much less for experiments. They would have to go with what they had and hope for the best.

32 A collection of supernaturals gathered in the cave where Witcher and Zygo had taken Vena, waiting eagerly to see her transformation from a mortal back to a vampire. Zygo handed a glass with the potion to Vena. She sat up in the coffin they had provided for her, and studied the glass for a moment. Absolute silence descended over the gathering as she drank down its contents. She pulled up, and her eyes widened. She turned three shades of yellow, swelled twice her normal size, and seemingly exploded, her hair standing on end. She shrank to half her normal size, turned the color of June bugs in December, whirled her head erratically in a counter-clockwise direction, thrust her tongue two feet from of her mouth, bugged her eyes out of their sockets, and started gagging. Waxing the color of tangerines, she flailed her arms out to her sides as though she were drowning and waved her hands maniacally, screaming as if to halt a train. She leapt to her feet and capered about the cave, prancing on imaginary coals. At length, she flopped over in the coffin, lay on her back, flung her arms high in the torch-lit air, and turned the brightest shade of mortal red. “Hmmmm,” Witcher said. “I don't think this version of the uncure is safe for supernatural consumption.” “Nuh uh.” Aorta shook her head. “Doesn't seem to be.” “Perhaps I shouldn’t have added quite so much arsenic and cyanide,” Zygo commented. “Actually, uncures aren’t my specialty.” “What’s your specialty?” Witcher asked. “Poisons.” “That explains a lot.” He looked at Vena, concerned. “Is she okay?” “It’s a good thing she has a goblet in her gullet,” Aorta said. “She has a goblet in her gullet?” Witcher walked over and put his hand on her forehead.

“Yes, she swallowed it when we were children.” Specter touched his belly. “That must be some goblet!” “I understand it's one hundred percent wrought iron,” Aorta explained. “Rot iron clearly does the job.” Specter gazed at Vena with admiration. “Yes, it does. It stops all the rot.” “And what a lot of rot that is,” Witcher observed. All of the other supernaturals were abandoning the scene, leaving poor Vena lying in the coffin. The show had been a disappointment for them, Witcher thought. Honcho brought up the rear when the group filed past the temporarily-out-ofcommission proto-vampire. He swiveled from side to side in disapproval. “Some creatures of the night never miss an opportunity to ham it up,” the severed head declared. “She’s giving us her best effort,” Witcher replied in Vena's defense. “I just hope this test hasn't taken too great a toll on her.” Witcher bent his tall frame and set his eyes on Vena's face. “Are you still in the land of the Undying, Vena?” No response forthcame. “It may take a few moments for her to recover,” Specter suggested. Witcher nudged her gently. “Are you all right, Vena?” She shuddered, then gradually came back to consciousness. Sitting up nonchalantly and acting as though nothing had happened, she smiled. “I just haven't gotten used to drinking unpox-based beverages, yet. That's all.” “It's enough to give any netherworld creature pause,” Aorta agreed. Specter nodded in confirmation. “I think there's truth to the old adage that you shouldn't mix your beverages.” “That’s entirely the problem, Judge,” Witcher said. “This particular beverage and the unpox don't mix.”

33 When twilight set in and everyone had awoken, Specter discovered that Vena had disappeared. “She must have risen as soon as darkness fell.” “She shouldn’t be wandering around in her present state,” Zygo said. “She could be delirious.” Despite an informal search party led by Witcher, she still hadn’t turned up by dayhaze the next morning. “We couldn’t have found a better champion in our search for an uncure than Signorina Cava,” Specter said. And Witcher noted that, “Once Vena embarks on a task, she pursues it with determination. She’s pursued this objective with the same tenacity with which she pursues everything else, so her sudden disappearance is a mystery to us all, Judge.” “Yes, a creature as single-minded as Signorina Cava would never have given up her task before it was completed,” Specter mused. Understandably, he was concerned that some misfortune might have befallen their intrepid proto-vampire. But what? These concerns prompted him to commission a systematic search of Hades by netherworld flying creatures for the missing Vena. “Watch for her in haze-shade; she may be ill. The potion she took may have taken its toll on her,” he charged the motley collection of flying beasts—harpies, griffins, hydras,

and ghosts—with the seriousness of their mission. “We must find her before the star's daily tirade does her in. Give special attention to any groves of Demon Trees you may find; she has a weakness for their fruit. Also, examine closely any bodies you may encounter. Signorina Cava may have succumbed while drinking blood from one. Subject such areas to extra scrutiny. She loves to haunt them.” “What should we do if we find her, general?” a yellow-eyed hydra asked respectfully. The collection of flying supernaturals had lined up in three rows in military fashion and awaited orders. “Simply report back to us her whereabouts and her condition,” came the reply. The flying supernaturals flew in shifts, scanning the netherworld floor assiduously for the former vampire. They scoured the countryside from the heights for a glint of the creature on whose fangs the entire supernatural community had pinned its hopes. Griffins flew up high, hydras down low, harpies in between. Each surveyed the landscape for a single solitary, proto-supernatural with mortal complexion and red cape. They flew along every ravine, down every creek, over every moor, through every wood. With each dusk came a new round of flights, and with each dawn came the disappointment of failure. Every evening Specter, Aorta, and Witcher pooled their incorporeal, vampiric, and warlockian brainpower to carefully map out the night’s search. First, they studied the previous night's flight patterns, then they decided into which patch of netherworld they should extend their solemn quest. Yet, there was no sign of Vena anywhere. “She has vanished from Hades,” Specter said in frustration. “It does seem that she has taken refuge somewhere secluded,” Witcher replied. “But we mustn't give up. Hades can easily swallow up creatures like ourselves.” “Maybe she’s skipped out,” Honcho suggested. “Perhaps she's no longer in Hades at all; she is half-mortal, after all.” “It would be completely out of character for Vena to abandon her work,” Aorta countered. “Without a viable uncure for the unpox, the whole netherworld will be out of characters,” Specter replied. “No, Signorina Cava must be somewhere within the confines of our netherworld.” One morning, Mephisto stood in front of the search party of hellish creatures and chastised them. “How could we have lost the one creature of the night on whom our whole nightmare turns? Without Vena, our bad dream simply won't hold together. Our netherworld will become a dream without characters. That's where we're headed, aren't we? Nightmares without characters?” “End of nightmare,” Evilyn said. The wicked faerie, all three inches of her, stood before them shaking her head. “Sometimes, the fate of an entire netherworld can come down to just one creature,” was how Specter summed up the mood. He realized there was still some likelihood that the community might hold out on the strength of the potion Vena had already taken. But knowing the full effect it had had on her was essential. He searched for Vena in private, but did all he could in public to encourage the belief that the existing potion would get the community through their crisis. He was convinced, however, that the supernaturals' fates depended on pinning down a reliable cure. He knew that Zygo had been working on a second potion which he hoped wouldn’t

have side effects quite as strong as the first. He worried that if the crisis persisted long enough and Vena couldn’t be found, the entire netherworld community could easily perish once and for all. So, when the harpies and the griffins, the hydras and the ghosts had scoured every square inch of hell in search of Vena—but still hadn’t found her—he directed them to begin anew. “There must be something wrong with our system,” Aorta declared. “We know Vena's somewhere inside our netherworld, but where?” “We must begin again from scratch,” Specter admonished the squadron of winged supernaturals. “Perhaps, our search should be scratched, general. It's hopeless,” the yellow-eyed hydra responded. “We should show the same determination Signorina Cava has shown us in her quest for an uncure. She could be camouflaged under the cover of Sepulcher Trees, or shrouded in a sea of Agony Bushes. She could be hidden under a grove of Mausoleum Trees, or masked by Coffin Brush, not easily seen from the air.”

34 Each night's flights failed to produce results, and as frustration levels began to mount, Specter encountered more and more supernaturals forced closer to the breaking point. Quarrels erupted, and even pitched battles, as more desperate creatures turned up alive. Red carcasses began to dot the landscape again, since many supernaturals opted to try their luck with blood sources polluted with the unpox. Specter had counseled the community to restrict its use to sources that had been certified as pure, but there were always temptations to cut corners. Since the efforts to find Vena from the air had failed so dismally, Specter commissioned a squadron of centaurs to scour the countryside. “We need a land presence,” he had said in defense of his decision. Zygo and Aorta continued to work on a second potion, even as the new search for Vena got underway. As requested, the centaurs scoured the countryside, searching every grove of Mausoleum Trees, every cluster of Agony Bushes, and every clump of Coffin Brush. Then, early one evening, the news came in. “We've found her!” Lancer the centaur announced to Specter. The centaur was surrounded by three assistant centaurs. Witcher flew into their midst. “Magnificent!” the delighted warlock said. “Where is she, Mr. Lancer?” “Nowhere,” the centaur replied. He and the others formed a horseshoe around the warlock and the ghost. “Nowhere?” Specter stared warmly at the half-horse, half-men. “Yes, she's smack in the middle of it,” Lancer, who acted as the group's informal spokesmonster, said. Rays from the early evening first moon bathed the centaurs, causing their coats to glisten against the pale red of the horizon. Aorta, meanwhile, came toward them in the background to hear the news as well. “She's in the middle of nowhere?” Specter asked incredulously. “That's why we couldn't find her, commander. The middle of nowhere was the last place we thought to look.” “She did say that she would stop at nothing in the pursuit of her objective,” Aorta

said, coming to a stop beside the group. “And, presumably, there's nothing in the middle of nowhere,” Witcher pointed out. Witcher, Aorta, and Specter set out immediately to reach Vena. By midnight, thanks to the guidance of the centaurs, they were at her side. They had also sent the centaurs to fetch Zygo so she could examine Vena and report on her condition. The warlock, vampire, and ghost waited impatiently while the punctilious sorceress checked Vena over from head to toe. She pulled up from her examination and turned to Witcher. “I don't normally examine vampires, but I know enough about them to make a diagnosis in this case. I'm sorry to announce that, despite our best efforts, Vena is coming back to life.” “Back to life?” the three echoed in unison. “Yes, she’s finally succumbing to the unpox. Her defenses are in tatters. Up to now, she has been half-undying and half-mortal, but she won’t be part-undying much longer. Soon she’ll be fully mortal; then she’ll begin aging at an accelerated rate, and finally she will perish for good.” “Our nightmare is coming to an end!” Specter floated in circles with frustration. “A bad end, Judge,” Witcher said. “It’s ridiculous, isn't it?” Aorta said. “An unplague in the middle of hell. What an absurd premise for a dream!” “It makes one wonder who would dream up such a ridiculous horror story,” Specter said. “Nothing like this could ever happen in the real world.” He came to a stop. “Of course not!” Zygo interjected. “After all, there are no bacteria in Hades.” “This demonstrates why Vena is in such dire straits,” Witcher said. “It's a wonder she's lasted this long.” Word that Vena was on her last legs circulated throughout the netherworld. Paranormals from every corner of hell began to make vigils to the middle of nowhere to see for one last time the creature who had so single-mindedly tried to rescue their community from Prince Iliac’s schemes. Vena lay under a Mortuary Tree, its green bark a sharp contrast to her own red complexion. Eyes and mouth closed, the flushed proto-vampire reposed, occasionally stirring and clearly alive. Specter and Witcher watched as one by one, supernaturals filed past her, silently, reverently. Ghosts and griffins, zombies and ghouls, vampires and frankensteins. Swarms of faeries also paid their respects to Vena. “Because of our small size, the unpox affects us more than most classes of supernatural,” a faerie explained. The contingent of Inveterate Incorporeals and the Order of Hellish Creatures were in full regalia during all of the vigils for the vampire. The supernaturals frequently stated that the only reason Vena was in this condition was because she had agreed to help them, spearheading the effort to get the uncure from Iliac. They acknowledged that through her cunning and influence, she had succeeded in obtaining the uncure. She was also the one who had taken the risks associated with the first batch of Zygo’s potion made from it. “Vena is the only creature that has ever taken us seriously,” Evilyn opined. Specter asked Zygo what could be done to help Vena. “The only thing we can do is to try giving her the second potion,” she replied. “We believe it’s ready, but I’m concerned Vena may be too far gone. It's not clear to me why she's still here, but the chances she will recover and become Undying again are small,

indeed.” “Let’s give her the second potion you’ve been working on”, Witcher said, “and hope that the uncure will pull her out of it this time.” Aorta and Witcher raised Vena up and Zygo poured the potion down her. “Hopefully, this will give her a fighting chance,” Witcher said. Later that evening, the sky was heavy with clouds, the winds were howling like werewolves, and the horizon was brushed in gray. In the hours since dusk, the landscape had turned all shadow and light. Given such hopeful weather, Specter asked Witcher if this could be it. “The signs are indeed favorable, Judge. If not tonight, then soon,” Witcher replied. In the midst of the gloom, a line of supernaturals had queued up to see Vena. Witcher, Specter, and Aorta occupied the wayside, where they watched the vigil and chatted. The night wore on. The clouds grew heavier, the winds turned noisier, and the horizon waxed gloomier. For an hour, a moonless sky darkened ominously until the floodgates opened, and down came the flood. The downpour drenched their poor intrepid would-be vampire without mercy, and then, to everyone's astonishment, they noticed that Vena’s appearance had changed. With the shock of sudden rain, Vena opened her eyes. “Why am I?” she cried.

35 Aorta bent over the vampire’s face. “Are you Vena Cava, by chance?” “Of course I am!” Vena said. She seemed startled by the apparent senselessness of the question. “Don't you recognize me?” “It's been so long since we've seen you in your supernatural state,” she answered, “we couldn't be sure it was really you.” “You mean, I'm no longer a mortal?” Vena sat up, fished through her purse, and— pulling her cell phone from it—snapped a picture of herself. She took a look at it and showed it to Aorta. “It was true, by ghoul and by fool!” Aorta thought. Vena was completely invisible in the picture. She must have returned her supernatural hue again! The color of ash—the tint that normally provided her some measure of camouflage, the natural de-pigmentation that permitted her to blend into the netherworld and become less visible to ghost and zombie alike—now sat upon every speck of her newly deceased skin. “You look like a vampire again!” Aorta grinned with delight. “Yes, you've done it, Vena!” Witcher announced with genuine excitement. Black stripes of rainwater sliced the tapestry around them, and a burst of lightning lit up the brooding rainscape. “What have I done now?” the groggy vampire asked. Her eyes were watery puddles that flickered with the flash of lightning, a fugue of thunder rippling them afterward as an encore. The other supernaturals—Specter, Mephisto, and Evilyn among them—crowded around her while she struggled against the delightful flood of rain from above. “You've succeeded in reversing the unpox,” Aorta said. She danced a festive jig, wriggling and figgling like a plucked guitar string. “Now we'll be fine. This new potion will hold us.” “We'll be fine?” Vena scarcely seemed conscious.

“Yes, we will,” Witcher replied. “With a viable potion, Hades can overcome Prince Iliac’s unpox and repopulate the landscape with more supernaturals who are Undying.” Specter beheld Vena for a long moment, floating above her, his gaze raining down a silent deluge of reproach on the stricken vampire. “There really is no excuse for your behavior, child,” he said, sternly. Vena stared up at the old ghost through the unremitting spikes of rainwater. “I know it, Pa” she said, guilt suffusing her vampiric features. “But I've learned my lesson; I'm turning over a new leaf. I won't be doing anything to make myself look this foolish again.” “You may regard your actions as foolish, Vena, but they have prompted a veritable outpouring of devotion from these netherworld supernaturals.” Witcher motioned to the line of creatures that had queued up to see her one last time—for the supernaturals had continued to wait, despite the cloudburst. “You stopped at nothing to reverse the unpox.” “And ‘stopped at nothing’ is the correct way to say it,” Aorta said, surveying the soggy rainscape. “There's absolutely nothing out here.” The shadow and light sketch of the netherscape appeared soaked in ever-present water, and the sizzle of rain purred on like a steady drumbeat around them. “I had to stop somewhere,” Vena replied. “But is nowhere somewhere?”

36 In the week following Vena’s recovery, the uncure that Zygo and Aorta had developed circulated throughout Hades and put a stop to Iliac’s unpox. Vena, meanwhile, spent the time with Witcher in the hills above the seventh circle of hell while she convalesced. He, too, had taken the uncure, since he was at risk for contracting the unpox since he had imbibed Vena’s blood. The chalet they shared looked out over hills of Gallows Trees, each of which shot straight up and then turned horizontal at the top with a vine-like branch hanging down where one would expect the hangman’s noose to be. As a nightly ritual, they would sit out on the balcony taking in the scenery. Sheer cliffs hemmed in the chalet, and the wind would whistle a lovely, eerie moan as it squeezed around it. In the distance they could hear the baying of werewolves, and in the valley below wagged orange flickers of hellfire. The violet first moon and the orange second moon hovered in the heights above and complemented the red and black sky. They would sit in the same chair, Witcher holding Vena in his arms from behind her while they spoke. “I’m definitely Undying again,” she told him at the end of a week. “Zygo and Aorta came through.” “Yes, after some trial and error.” Witcher smiled. “Your trial, their error.” She turned around and made a mock slapping motion at him. “But it worked out,” he grabbed her hand. She laughed. She felt safe in this cocoon, surrounded by Witcher’s love, and it had become clear that her return to a state of Undying was total. She poured him a glass of Blood Bordeaux, AB negative. “My nightmare is coming to an end,” she told him. “But I can’t marry you, Lord

Witcher. You’re not wicked enough.” He sipped the wine. “That’s why we crossed the Styx surreptitiously, isn’t it? So your nightmare could end. It’s why we fought the supernaturals who were hunting you, and why we spirited you to safety. And it’s the reason we stormed Iliac’s fortress—all so you could revert to your Undying state and return to your child. After all, you are one of the few vampires to have successfully given birth to a child in Hades.” “Yes, you’re quite right.” She enjoyed the strange power she had over him. “My Marc Antony.” She kissed him. “I couldn’t have done it without your help.” “It won’t be long before you’ll be traveling up to the Earth again to haunt the cemeteries there, like the one I met you in.” “Yes. Now I can return to my former routine.” “So, you think I’m not wicked?” he asked. “The only thing wicked about you, Lord Witcher, is your sense of humor.” “What could be more wicked than that?” She stared into his eyes. “You’ve transformed my nightmare into a dream.” “You will always have my Undying love, Vena.” *** Judge Specter entered the mausoleum, whose outside had been decked out for Vena and Witcher’s wedding. He knew full well that everybody who was anybody in Hades had come to see the two vampires tie the noose. The inside of the mausoleum had been prepared for a viewing—three viewings, in fact. At the front of the auditorium, behind curtains separating them from the pews, stood three coffins. The two outer coffins were large, the central one small. All three coffins faced toward the pews and the front door, the smaller one sitting lower than the other two. Supernaturals filled the pews: Ulna, Honcho, and Evilyn, Guts and Viscera, the griffins and the harpies, the centaurs and the minotaurs; even Lycan was there. Specter sat in the last pew and waited for the ceremony proper to begin. Mephisto walked in, sat down at the organ, and began to play a mournful dirge. The organ moaned and shrieked a lament that prompted everyone in attendance to weep with sorrow. The organ stopped, the curtains parted, and the coffins opened. Vena and Witcher sat up in the two outer coffins, Capillary in the middle coffin. All three vampires faced the pews. A grim reaper walked between the two larger coffins, handed Witcher a large stainless steel serving dish, and cackled. Witcher took the dish with his left hand. Unbuttoning the front of his tuxedo shirt and reaching inside it with his right hand, he pulled out a red mass of pulsating flesh, plopped it on the dish, and handed it to Vena. “Oh!” Ulna started sobbing. “He gave her his heart!” “Have you ever seen anything so romantic?” Evilyn, who sat next to Ulna on the front pew, dabbed her eyes with tissues. “And it’s still beating!” Vena—she was always fascinated by hearts—stared at the mass of flesh on the dish as though it were a cobra that had hypnotized her and was about to strike. Capillary reached up and touched the heart. Aorta was dressed as maid-of-honor—she wore her finest black dress—and took up a position beside Vena’s coffin; while her boyfriend, Jugular, was dressed as best man and took up a position beside Witcher’s coffin. Both maid-of-honor and best man bared

their fangs. The reaper retired. Judge Specter took the reaper’s departure as his cue and floated up between the two larger coffins. He floated over Capillary and behind her coffin, then turned toward the audience. In his hands he held a large black book, which he opened with a formal air. The assembly quieted, and he began. “Dearly Departed, we are gathered here tonight to join this couple,” he held a transparent hand outward and waved it from Vena’s coffin to Witcher’s, “in unholy unmatrimony. If anyone present objects to this union, speak now, or forever hold your peace.” No one answered. He turned to Witcher. "Do you, Lord Witcher, take this vampire,” he motioned toward Vena, “to be your awfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this night forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and health, so long as you both shall be Undying?" Witcher turned and took in Vena’s features. Specter noted that she no longer betrayed any signs of mortalfication, but looked thoroughly deceased. There wasn’t the slightest trace of life in her cheeks. “I do.” “And, do you, Vena, take this vampire,” he motioned to Witcher, “to be your awfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this night forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and health, so long as you both shall be Undying?” Vena stopped staring at Witcher’s heart, turned toward Witcher, and set her eyes on his face. “I do,” she said. Judge Specter reached over, grabbed the mass of flesh from the dish on Vena’s coffin, and motioned for Witcher to make way. “Oh, yes.” Witcher brushed his hair from his eyes and opened his shirt with both hands, exposing a gaping hole in his chest. The judge inserted the heart inside the chest cavity. The warlock proceeded to close his flesh over the hole and then to button his tuxedo shirt. When the last button slipped through the last button hole, Specter motioned toward Capillary, who had stood up in her coffin and faced the ghost. “May we have the ring, please?” Capillary shook her head. Specter pursed his lips. She shook her head again. “We must have the ring, sweetie, for the wedding to continue.” Vena smiled at the child. Capillary placed the ring into Specter’s ghostly hand. He handed it to Witcher. Witcher took Vena’s ring finger, slid the ring onto it, and said, “With this ring, I thee unwed.” The organ sounded for a few moments, then stopped. Specter announced: “I now pronounce you vampire and vampire, or, er, warlock.” He waved Witcher toward Vena. “You may bite the bride.” Vena bared her neck. Witcher leaned over and bit. He held the bite for a long moment. The organ sounded for the final time; Capillary showed her fangs and lay down in

her coffin; Vena and Witcher leaned back onto their satin pillows; the coffins closed. And they Un-died happily ever after.

THE UNEND (There’s more below)

Review Request If you enjoyed this novella, please consider leaving a review on the site where you bought it—even if the review is only a sentence or two—so other readers can discover the book, too. Thanks. – Vincent Marcy

Excerpt Excerpt from Iliac’s Revenge: Book Two of the Vena Cava Series: Vena walked through the rows of graves, eyeing each tombstone and looking for any newly buried residents of the cemetery. She was doing more than haunting the graveyard; she was teaching Capillary the art of haunting one, as any conscientious vampire mother would do for her seven-year-old daughter. Capillary walked behind her mother, going on and on endlessly, telling her pet hell pup about the cemetery. “This is where all the dead humans are put. They’re put in here.” She pointed at a grave. “About five feet down, inside a casket.” She squatted and patted the top of the grave. “You see?” The hell pup was small enough to fit in one hand, and she carried it just below her chin. “Okay, Miss Chattercoffin,” Vena said. “Too much talking will attract the wrong sort of attention. You’re supposed to be haunting.” “I’m just explaining to Voodoo how it all works.” “I suspect she doesn’t need to know how it all works. She’s just a puppy.” “Oh, Mom!” Vena continued walking, searching for a new grave and keeping Capillary in view out of the corner of her eye. Capillary, meanwhile, stayed behind and continued her monologue with Voodoo. A few minutes later, Vena heard her scream. She looked over and saw that Capillary had jumped back from the grave. A mound of dirt had swelled up over the grave and now rose into the air. It collapsed back down. “Did you see that?” Capillary asked the hell pup, laughing with disbelief. The mound of dirt over the grave swelled up again, pushing the grass growing over it to the sides. It began rising and collapsing in convulsions, and then the dark soil began spewing upward higher and higher like a geyser. “Capillary, get away from there!” Vena called to her. But the child ignored her. Instead, she moved back a little further, seemingly mesmerized. At that point, a metal box shot up through the grave and into the air a good thirty feet. Capillary shrieked and ran to get out of its way as it came down.

Vena started running toward her daughter. The coffin hit the ground, bounced once, and turned over, coming to rest on its side. The lid fell open, and a body rolled out of it. Vena stopped and watched in horror. The body moved. It struggled to get loose from its grave clothes. It was a frankenstein. He stood straight up, looked around, and saw Capillary pinned against the fence. The frankenstein walked toward her. Voodoo barked at him. “Moooooother!� Capillary cried.

Undying a Paranormal Romance  

When a vampire named Vena Cava is changed into a mortal, she must fight her way back to the realm of the Undying in the hope of reuniting wi...

Undying a Paranormal Romance  

When a vampire named Vena Cava is changed into a mortal, she must fight her way back to the realm of the Undying in the hope of reuniting wi...