BEOWOLF: THE END

by Chris N


“All good things…”

Case File: Unknown at this point, but the last for Mike Nero, a.k.a., Agent Beowolf

Time Frame: Sometime in the future--perhaps a few to several years hence…

Chapter 1

Ivan often had a difficult time getting to Florida these days, and ordinarily, he would have passed on the personal request that brought him here today. However, a past friendship behooved him to make this trip…Mike sounded rather serious. It also wasn’t like him to keep details to a minimum, even most personal details. Mike was a notorious blowhard whose love of rhetoric--needed and otherwise, relevant and otherwise—was all too well known by friend and foe alike, and he had a surprising degree of openness of various controversial details of his life. Hence, Ivan was all the more surprised that Mike was “hush” regarding his reasons for insisting that Ivan simply accept his request to take a trip to his Florida residence with no questions asked, saying only that it was “important.”

Yes, Ivan reminded Mike that he had a life, a family, and a career in his home state, as well as important things to deal with both at home and abroad. Mike insisted that he make the trip anyway.

As Ivan flew in the large commercial plane across the shiny waters of the Florida Keys, he couldn’t help looking back to a memorable exploit he had years earlier in this very vicinity. Since it wasn’t an incident that he desired to see repeated, both for the sake of his sanity and the overall safety of the planet, he found himself glancing around the air compressed cabin of the plane, just to make sure that a certain long-haired and incessantly ornery individual was nowhere to be found. He surprised himself a bit when he actually breathed an audible sigh of relief that the man in question wasn’t present. In fact, there wasn’t even the slightest sign of turbulence during the entirety of the nearly completed trip. Seeing this as a metaphor for aspects of his own life, Ivan told himself that he wished his life could always be as serene and trouble free as this plane trip had been. I hope this has nothing to do with the muck monster who hangs out in that swamp near Citrusville this time, Ivan mused to himself, his welcome state of relaxation slightly disturbed. Mike wouldn’t say when I asked him, but he didn’t seem to be implying an affirmative response in his refusal to discuss the reason over the phone. Still, I hope this doesn’t involve that walking heap of slime with the acid touch, because I still have a few visible scars from the time that walking piece of swamp mucous burned me. Ivan hadn’t seen Mike in so long, and spoke to him so rarely of late, that he could only hope that he was the same person he was before…well, not entirely the same, but at least still embodying the positive aspects of his character, including loyalty to his teammates. Or former teammates, as the case may be.

A few short hours later, after an uneventful stint while getting his travel affairs in order upon arrival at the huge Orlando International Airport, Ivan hailed a shuttle cab to the suburban area of Florida that Mike was currently dwelling. The long-time monster-hunter and challenger of the unknown left the cab, gave a small tip to the driver, and walked a block down to the small, single-family hovel that was the current residence of another long-time monster-hunter and challenger of the unknown--one whom he called friend (or used to), and one whom he once, but no longer, called a teammate. The Boogie Knights, Ivan thought to himself, with a wry nostalgic glint in his eyes as the memories passed before his world-weary psyche. Now, those were the days…sometimes. Is there any chance that Mike is no longer a youth liberationist? Maybe I better stick to hoping that this case doesn’t involve the swamp monster I worried about earlier; it’s nice to keep one’s expectations on the realistic side.

Ivan found himself moderately impressed at the small home before him, which bore the address Mike had given him in small metallic letters. It had an old-fashioned mailbox outside, with one of those new-fangled copper satellite dishes protruding from the roof, the only sure sign that this home was actually rooted in the 21st century. The outside lawn had the weeds a bit overgrown, but otherwise well kept, which implied that either Mike didn’t reside here alone or he didn’t reside here throughout the year. This part of Florida has become known for temporary residents moving into the small, convenient homes decorating the area, and since last he heard, Mike had gotten himself a small condo apartment, he was surprised that the infamous loud mouthed former ally of his never told him about this particular place. Was it recently acquired? Has Mike only been here days, at most?

Ivan finally realized that the only way to find the answers to these questions,--as well as many more that he had,--was by knocking on the door. This better not involve that goddamned swamp monster again, Ivan told himself as he proceeded to gently pound the door with his fist.

After no more than a few seconds, Mike opened the door, with a smile on his face that evoked a genuine happiness at seeing an old friend and teammate. Ivan noted that Mike was wearing his patented skullcap to cover the scars he had on his scalp, and the dark brown hair that covered his temples had many more gray and white strands than he remembered. Mike looked heavier than before, with his ratio of muscle mass too much for his 5’8” frame to hold comfortably, as was the case since he first met him so long ago, but now this feature of his was even more blatant. His dark brown eyes appeared to have an odd reddish tinge to them that Ivan never noticed before.

“Ives! How the hell are you! C’mon in out of this incessant heat, and help yourself to the lemonade I have on the counter there!”

The two shook hands. “Nice to see you again, bud.”

Ivan looked at his ex-teammate a bit oddly as he shut the door.

“Yea, same here. Oh, and I thought I would say…”

“This whole thing has nothing to do our fave swamp monster, Ives, so worry not!”

“Ah. Okay. So I guess my next question regards the matter of my having a life that needs attending back home and elsewhere, and the fact that I’m here in this place of yours rather than back there tending to that life. Not that I mind visiting, mind you, but why all the subterfuge?”

“Before I tell you everything, Ivan, please tell me: how do you like this little place I rented from the Canterberry’s while they’re away for the spring? It was closer for my purposes than the condo back home.”

“It’s…rather nice. I was wondering whether you lived here full time or not, but I presumed that you didn’t tell me about this simply because you haven’t been here long.”

“I haven’t been here long this time around, at any rate. The furnishings are rather simple, and I promised the Canterberry’s that I wouldn’t alter the décor here too much while they were gone, so the only things here that bear my own personal touch are the temporary portable altar you see over there, the Fenris Head statuette hanging on the wall to your left, and those two incense censors that you see over there.”

“Okay, seems like a nice temporary residence for you. Pretty comfortable.

“Oh, and thanks for the lemonade,” Ivan said appreciatively, pouring some of the tasty drink into a small cup and taking a few much needed sips of the cool liquid fruit drink.

“No probs.”

Ivan then put the cup down, quickly wiped his mouth, and stared into the eyes of his old friend and ally.

“Now, how about answering all of the obvious questions.”

Mike smiled, but it was obviously a forced smile. He was clearly about to tell Ivan something that his old friend wasn’t going to be too thrilled to hear.

“Okay, you have to promise not to get overwrought when I reveal a certain guest that I have here. He’s very important to what I’m about to tell you.”

Ivan flinched uncomfortably. “I will make no such promise! Mike, what have you gotten me into here, and more importantly, what have you gotten yourself into this time? Why, after all this time, did you ask me to come down here, with all this mystery--which is totally unlike you--with some mystery guest that you think is going to piss me off…?”

A stern, almost impassive, but all too familiar voice suddenly interrupted Ivan’s fledging tantrum.

“That, Mr. Schlablotski, is because I asked him to keep silent on this matter, this being a matter I can assure you he was not comfortable in complying with.”

Ivan turned to the sound of the voice, whose source emerged from a small bedroom in back of him…and the expression on his visage went from one of mere consternation to total rage.

“Enygma! Stephen Enygma!”

“Indeed,” noted the tall, fairly lanky man with the white temples adorning the sides of his dark black hair, greatly thinning on top, as he moved directly into the front room to join the two former BK members. He then beamed an icy smile that was in no way friendly, despite the intent to look that way.

Ivan didn’t smile back, nor did he take Dr. Enygma’s outstretched hand.

“Enygma! Again, you’re mucking with his life? Again, you manipulate him into dragging others into your schemes? What is it this time? Do you need a heart donor to save the life of the ‘one man who can save the world,’ or some similar demented bullshit?”

Mike stepped forward. “Ives…”

“No! You know damn well what this man is like, and I’m not about to…”

“Mr. Schablotski,” Enygma intervened with a professional, nearly emotionless tone. “May I remind you that my ‘bullshit’ has saved this world many times over, and though you may not agree with the fact that I sometimes need to use extreme measures to accomplish these goals, as Mr. Nero here grudgingly realizes, you cannot deny that this world is still here in no small part thanks to me and the missions of my Order of the Secret Defenders. So…I am asking you to mind your manners.”

Ivan glared back defiantly.

“Oh, really, Mr. ‘The End Always Justifies The Means’? Was that a threat?” Ivan began to push his hands into two tightly clenched fists.

“Doctor,” Mike mentioned, “he’s only looking out for me, so please don’t…”

Enygma moved up his right hand, silencing Mike’s protest.

“Your former…ally can look out for you and show me the respect I am due simultaneously.”

“Oh, yea?” Ivan queried, growing visibly angry. “I’ll agree to show you as much respect as you’ve always shown everyone else who you suck into that little circle of yours. Which gives me the opportunity to do this!”

Before Mike could even react, Ivan brought one of his clenched fists flying directly towards the gaunt, mustached face of Dr. Stephen Enygma…

…only to suddenly grasp his head and screech in agony as lupine fangs painfully sprouted from his lips, countless strands of thick, animal-like hair literally popped out of every pore on his skin, and sharpened talons appearing from his finger tips, the latter accompanied by a horrid crunching sound.

“Let it be known, Mr. Schablotski,” Enygma warned with only the slightest bit of anger evident in his cool voice, “that I can manipulate that filthy biological…condition…of yours with a simple psychic request to Hoggoth, and I can make the transformation go even further out of control than this, so that your bones literally break themselves apart as…”

Mike’s face grew extremely pale at the sight of his respected friend and former ally in such agony as an all-too familiar transformation was triggered against his will and accelerated in certain ways far beyond the ability of his body to endure.

“Doctor, that’s enough! That’s it! Now! Or I swear by Thor that I’ll end my involvement in this plan of yours now! I’ll ask him to listen to me and not attack you again!”

Dr. Enygma gritted his teeth in a barely visible manner, as he watched Ivan’s partial transformation move further out of his control, causing him even greater amounts of agony. Then, the fury in the master mage’s eyes spent, Ivan’s features returned to a fully human state. The beleaguered man then fell to the floor, gasping in extreme relief and fatigue.

“Enygma…you bastard…you asshole…I’ll…”

“Ivan, for Goddess’s sake, please don’t do that again once you completely return to your senses,” Mike quickly interjected. “And please listen. What I’m talking about to say here is very important to me, a chance at redemption for some of the less savory things I did during the earliest years of my lupine state. And Dr. Enygma has the ability to grant me that chance.”

Taking a few more strangled breathes as the last tiddle of pain receded from his bones, Ivan clumsily pushed himself back to his feet. Enygma stood there glaring at him, almost as if daring Ivan to make another such move. Ivan glared back as if actually considering it.

“Ivan…are you listening?”

Ivan spun around at the rumble of his friend’s rather impassioned voice.

“Yea…I’m listening. And I hope your reasons for asking me here…in the same room with him, no less…is a good one.”

Mike looked down, an expression somewhat reminiscent of sadness appearing on his visage.

“It is a good reason…if you consider an opportunity for complete redemption to be a good reason.”

Ivan sighed. “You never truly forgive yourself for anything, do you? Despite the fact that you were only 13 when you first became a wolf-brother--and don’t give me any of your youth liberation bullshit because I said ‘only’ thirteen--do you know how annoying you can be with that shit of yours? The point was, you were young, you were constantly abused by your classmates, your family didn’t want to understand why you were different, etc., blah blah blah, so when the Brotherhood Of Fenris came your way and offered you the power to resist what you were going through, it was very tempting, and you made a goddamned mistake, which led to other mistakes. But what you did after you took conquered your dark side, with the Monster Squad, with MONSTAAH, with the Boogie Knights, even with the Secret Defenders…”

Mike looked down, not providing his usual long-winded challenge to Ivan’s scolding.

“No, I didn’t forgive myself. And I can’t until I fully make it up to the world for everything I did wrong.”

Enygma smiled slightly…and quickly forced himself to stifle it.

“So after all of our talks, all of our missions together, you still let this stuff haunt you? My past hasn’t been skeleton free either in regards to paranormal mayhem and bad choices, and you know that! Why do you continue to see yourself as so damn unique from everyone else? You used to counsel people, for Crikey’s sake! Yet you continue to think you’re alone in this world in having made stupid mistakes…”

“Ivan, people died because of those mistakes.”

“And very few of them were very innocent, were they? I’m not saying that you were right in doing the stuff that you did, but as annoying as you could be in the past, for as long as I’ve known you, I can say that you usually tried to do the right thing!”

“Ivan, I am not plagued by feelings of self-persecution. I know that others have made mistakes similar to my own, and many never pulled themselves out of the abyss that I fell into. But that doesn’t mean I should simply scoff at the idea of redeeming myself in a pertinent way, instead of just tackling the periodic menace that rears its paranormal head, like we used to do. I requested to the Doctor long, long ago to help me do that very thing, and he finally found a way.”

Ivan turned back to the quiet, almost leaden form of Dr. Enygma, looking immaculate in his beige trench coat, dark blue necktie, and the large, gleaming, golden, odd-looking charm at his throat…the dreaded Eye of Agormento.

“And you honestly believe that…he is going to play fair with you?”

Enygma scoffed, but still allowed Mike to do the talking. For now.

“He’s far from perfect, Ivan, and I know how he can be. But he always more or less delivers on his promises, and he always did so with me before.”

“But there’s always a price for his promises, Mike. And they always seem to have the side effect of placing someone further into his debt.”

Enygma’s eyes again registered a stream of ire, and this time he chose to speak up once more.

“I can assure you, Mr. Schablotski, that I have not lied to Mr. Nero in any manner when I told him that he will be truly free from any debt to my person following this mission. It’s quite important to the safety of this world, and I chose him among all of my disparate ‘Secret Defenders’ to undertake it. You should be proud of him.”

Now, Enygma chose to visibly smile, and Ivan found it unsettling rather than reassuring.

Ivan opened his mouth to speak again, only to have Mike grab his wrist and offer the reassurance that Enygma failed to deliver.

“Ivan…I have to do this. I want to do this. Please understand. Enygma gave me this opportunity, something he promised me almost since the first moment we met, and this time I made it clear that I will refuse to live in any sort of debt to him upon its completion. I promised him this was the case, and I promise you that I made that promise--and that I will stand by it no matter what he attempts. I may have the emotional faculties of an adolescent, but I’m not naïve, like you think all youths happen to be.”

Ivan glared at his old friend.

“Sorry for that comment. But hey, it does remind you a bit of old times, eh?”

Ivan didn’t want to wipe away the genuine smile that appeared on Mike’s face. It was the smile of a person who finally had a long-sought opportunity presented to him, particularly the type of opportunity that provided one to remove a much-despised stain from the tapestry of their lives. So, with a bit of effort, Ivan smiled back.

“Yea, come to think of it, this does remind me a bit of those missions, and what a pain in the ass we could be to each other at times. But we always managed to get the job done, even when it sometimes seemed like what I saw as your immaturity, a sudden unexpected surge of my Anti-Logic, our other esteemed team member vamping out at the most inconvenient times imaginable, you and him literally at each others’ throats over this or that issue, etc., would prevent us from accomplishing it. But we always pulled together as a team in the end.”

Mike smiled again. “Yep. Those times weren’t bad, even though I complained so often during them.”

Ivan took a deep breath, praying to a holy image of choice that things would work out for Mike once this mission was completed. But he just couldn’t get himself to feel comfortable with Enygma undoubtedly pulling the strings from behind the scenes, as always.

“Okay,” he acquiesced out of respect for his old friend. “I understand. Now for the most important question of them all: why am I here?”

“I wanted a few witnesses to this mission, and there are no better people to witness your redemption than those whom you once risked life and limb with. As such, you--not only a friend, but also as my former leader in the BK team--were one of those elected. I want this directly witnessed by you and others I trust and have worked beside for the purpose of posterity, as well as moral support from the sidelines, if that makes any sense.”

Ivan almost smiled. “Okay, I’ll pretend to be flattered, and I do feel better being there, since I don’t trust Enygma for a minute not to pull a fast one on you, and it has been a while. Who else will be there other than you, myself, and…him?”

“I also wanted someone from the Secret Defenders whom I trust, and whom I consider to be of impeccable character. So I made a choice along those lines, and he will be there also. As for my former teammates in the Monster Squad, Phoebe said she would come, but at the last minute, she found herself involved in another maelstrom she was recruited into by Daimon Hellstorm, Raven Roch, and Regan McNeil, involving some type of demonic menace afoot in the hills of Nebraska somewhere. Far be it from me to expect her to turn her back on the team of demon-smashers.”

“Wait a minute. Didn’t Raven Roch die following that conflict between Pazuzu and Trigon a few years back?”

“Yea, but she apparently got better again.”

“Ah, okay,” Ivan quietly replied. “So why isn’t your other witness here?”

“He’s staying at a local hotel with another Secret Defender you’re acquainted with to graciously keep her company, since she refused to stay here.”

“And why is that?”

“Because this place belongs to me, that’s why. She didn’t want to cramp her style by sharing living quarters with me.”

Enygma looked at Mike with a vaguely annoyed expression on his face.

“You, my friend, need to permit Charley her…lack of understanding of some sociological realities of this world. And you need to cease taking her attitude in these matters personally.”

“I don’t take it personally any longer,” Mike retorted. “I simply would have preferred to have all friends present.”

“And you are also aware,” Enygma noted, “that we needed at least one impartial observer to record this mission of yours from a standpoint that wasn’t one of friendship with you, to offset any possible bias that your friends may include should they decide to record and chronicle this tale in writing for you at some future date.”

Mike laughed softly. “I hardly consider Charley ‘impartial,’ Doctor.”

Ivan’s brow suddenly furrowed with a sense of stark realization.

“Did you two say…‘Charley’? As in…”

Mike sighed. “Yea, Ives. Her. And when she throws flames at someone, it’s not strictly in the realm of the verbal insult!”

Ivan smiled once more. “Nice to see that some of your old sense of humor is still intact, however ornery it may be.”

“My sense of humor isn’t ornery!”

“All right,” Enygma interceded. “Let us curb the juvenile nonsense, gentlemen, and prepare for the mission. To say the least, Mr. Nero has a long evening ahead of him.”

Chapter 2

Several hours later, Ivan had concluded a few important personal calls, so his business outside of the world of paranormal danger was taken care of for the time being. Sometimes he wondered which phenomena was more prevalent in this insane business he has so long been involved in: the danger or the wonder. Then again, he reminded himself, oftentimes you cannot have one without the other.

Being the last person to arrive at the locale in question, somewhere in the southern part of Florida, Ivan noticed what he clearly identified as a ramshackle, poorly kept military base--often of the type used to conduct various black ops experiments--but which the general public would confuse with a quaint little place for soldiers to live and practice their marching techniques. Oh shit, he thought to himself as he saw the ominous looking facility. Maybe a trip to the Everglades and another encounter with its resident swamp monster would have been preferable. If it’s one thing I’ve learned in this lifetime, it’s that black ops military bases are always a lot of trouble and a huge amount of grief for everyone within 50 miles of them. I don’t even recognize this one, and I can only imagine the resident evil lying within. Geez, did I just inadvertently make a dark pun? Considering what happened to an entire town in that particular incident, I really shouldn’t be joking about it.

Standing on a small hillside overlooking the base was a taciturn looking Dr. Enygma, Mike Nero, a woman with dark blonde hair and blue eyes that he instantly recognized, and a trench coat clad man whom he didn’t recognize at first…until he noticed the distinctive yet barely noticeable mechanistic gait of the mystery man.

“Sorry I’m late, people. You know I had no intention of missing Mike’s moral graduation ceremony,” Ivan stated, hoping to keep everything light.

The serious look on Mike’s countenance revealed the seriousness of the situation, however.

“Yup. But I figured I would leave my robe and flat-topped hat at home. It’s a bit too hot out here for them.”

The woman shot Mike a barely concealed look of hostility, as she often did when she heard his voice, and then looked towards Ivan, her expression quickly changing to a more positive air as she did so.

“Hey, Ivan! Good to see you again.”

Her voice was cheerful, but at the same time evocative of great world-weariness, a tone that Ivan could recognize in any individual instantly.

He smiled back. “Hey yourself, Charley. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Sure has. But it’s good to see you again, as always.”

Turning towards the enigmatic man in their presence--who had sandy blonde hair and light blue eyes that shined as if they were actually composed of vector glass--the two shook hands, the man’s grip incredible despite the fact that he was very consciously holding back any force.

“Adam! I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me that you would be Mike’s other witness-cum-provider of moral support!”

“Of course,” Adam replied in a pleasant monotone. “He was one of the more interesting friends I’ve made in this world, particularly during my third return home back in ’04. I, like you, wish that we could help him more directly, but he and the Doctor both insist that he perform this hazardous task alone.”

“Hmmf!” Charley sounded off with a bit of mean-spirited sarcasm. “Heaven forbid anything should happen to him, right, guys?”

Mike glanced at her for a brief second, and then brought his gaze back to his friends.

“She is kidding, Mike, I’m sure you know that,” Adam lamented.

“Of course she is,” Mike replied, with a small bit of melancholy in his tone. “Anyway, I guess we should be bringing Ivan up to speed on this whole upcoming imbroglio.”

“That would be nice,” Ivan replied, his dark sunglasses hiding only a small amount of sarcasm in his facial grin.

Dr. Enygma suddenly turned his gaze from the facility and stepped forward, eliciting an uncomfortable look of ire upon Ivan’s face. The vaunted and mysterious Master of the Arcane Arts then began an explanation.

“I’m certain, Mr. Schablotski, that you recognize the nature of that facility over there,” he stated, pointing in the southwest direction leading to the base in question.

“Yea, I do. What about it?”

“As you have likely surmised, that base has been the focal point of various…experiments of a highly secretive and disturbing manner for many years now. It involves explorations in the use of chemically re-animated, nigh-mindless human and animal cadavers to perform military maneuvers for the government and its various allies…”

Before Enygma could finish his exposition, Ivan removed his sunglasses and slapped his left hand over his eyes.

“Oh man, not again. I was personally assured by my last superior officer in the military that experiments using necro-soldiers had completely ceased! There was a major investigation into this shit just three years ago, a massive but clandestine ‘house-cleaning’ of certain members of the top brass from the Justice Department itself, and…”

“Obviously, Mr. Schablotski,” Dr. Enygma interjected, “your ‘house-cleaning’ efforts weren’t thorough enough. Which would almost be amusing when you consider the moral judgments you often direct at me regarding my methodology of gathering warriors to keep this world safe.”

“Don’t even start that bull, Enygma! You know damn well that I was never involved with, or conciliatory to, any project involving necro-soldiers, or any other project using mind-deficient reanimated cadavers for violent purposes! You also know that I once vehemently opposed a superior officer when I stumbled upon one of those experiments years ago, which could have gotten me a court martial despite the fact that he was breaking the law…”

“Um, Ives,” Mike interceded. “I would opine that now is not the time for a contest of ‘who has the less scruples among us.’ We all have our dirty laundry, so to speak. Using the term ‘skeletons in our closet’ is just too unnerving a metaphor to utilize right now. And that is the very reason why I, myself, have agreed to deal with the situation.”

“So, let me get this straight. You’re going to rush an armed military facility, filled with both living and necro-ized soldiers, on your own? Lycanthrope or not, skills or not, there is no freaking way…”

“Actually, Ives, there’s only one living military dude on the premises. The rest are all necro-soldiers.”

“Huh? How the hell can that be? All of those bases are…”

“The military dude in question--a Col. Dirk Hayden--sound familiar to you…?”

“Nope.”

“Well, this Hayden decided that the U.S. was growing ‘soft’ in the ‘War On Terror’ that his esteemed leader, President Jeb Bush, has sworn to tackle with all due prejudice. So it seems he decided to flip his lid, kill the ten soldiers and three scientists who were conducting cellular rejuvenation experiments at this small facility, and force the scientists to re-formulate some of that necro-juice and transform all of the security team into necro-soldiers…after he forced one of the scientists, evidently at gun point, to poison their food…”

Ivan slapped his left hand over his eyes again.

“Oh, geez…this is just freaking wonderful.”

“And since the living dead guys have proven unable to wield guns--sorry, pieces--effectively in the short time since he necrotized them, he has instead tied experimental explosive devices around their chests, so a small amount of force directed at the dead guys will cause an explosion large enough to create a medium-size crater a half-a-mile in diameter…”

“Oh, fucking geez…this just keeps getting better and better. How the hell did…?”

“We don’t know, bud. There’s a lot we don’t know. The military isn’t aware of this situation right now, but Hayden is mounting those explosives on his necro-soldiers in preparation for the military quickly finding out about this. A supply truck is due in two days, and it’s believed that he will co-opt those personnel to create more necro-soldiers. By the time the big wigs realize that this is going on, he will have an incredible army of mindless soldier minions at his beck and call. A since there is a medium-sized town located only a few miles away…”

“Oh, geezus freaking Christ…how the hell did Enygma find out about this?”

“Let us just say that I have an ‘eye’ for discovering such things occurring on my world, Mr. Schablotski,” Enygma intoned.

“Okay, okay. But what the hell does dude here expect you to do about this on your own?”

Brandishing his small battle mace, which somewhat resembled the battle hammer he once had, complete with a copper metallic sheen and runic symbols etched all over its handle with two large Thurisaz runes on either side of the business end, Mike held it up for Ivan and the others to view.

“As you know, my mace here is capable of delivering a sizable ‘spark’ of mystical/electrical energy upon impact with a foreign object, and you know that such energy is notoriously effective in interfering with the workings of technological devices--including car engines, battery-operated watches, etc. In consultation, the Doctor and Adam agreed it should do the same for the explosive devices mounted on those necro-soldiers, provided I hit the zombies without touching the device attached to their chest areas.”

“But, dude, there’s ten of them, you said! Are you sure that…?”

“The Doctor said that if I make a mistake, the four of you will be spared the effects of the explosives thanks to a certain spell he…”

“That’s not the important issue here, believe it or not. My point is, are you going to be able to take all of those zombies down without hitting the explosive devices stuck to their chests? I mean, with that town just a few miles away…”

“Ivan, those zombie soldiers are going to descend on that town for more ‘recruits’ sooner or later. What Hayden doesn’t seem to be considering in his insanity is that one of those necro-soldiers is bound to be shot or struck with some heavy object once they make an incursion into the town, and more than one of those explosive devices are likely to go off. Taking them on here and now, a few miles distant, there is the least likelihood of the town itself being affected by those explosions--or the necro-soliders themselves biting into the town folks’ skull cases to dine on their brains.”

“And since this operation is so delicate…”

“Exactly. I need 100% of my human reasoning faculties, so I cannot do this in lupine form. It would be difficult to effect the change now at any rate, since we have a waning moon above us, but that increases the effectiveness of the ‘negative’ magickal energy within my mace, thus increasing the ability of those mystical ‘sparks’ to negate the technological components of those explosive devices. And, um…there’s another thing I haven’t mentioned yet.”

“Wonderful. This gets better still, doesn’t it?”

“Unfortunately. You see, Hayden may be a nut, but he’s a very security-conscious nut. So, the largest of those experimental devices he has in his possession--one with considerably greater destructive range than the smaller chest-mounted devices on the necro-soldiers--is located, the Doctor believes, in the front chamber of the base--and he can detonate it by remote control. He is also likely going to be guarding the area himself, and he is likely to be armed with a rapid-fire piece. If I can get close enough, I can probably disable that larger explosive device with a short-range ‘spark’ fired from the mace.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait a minute here. What I want to know is why Enygma didn’t arrange for some high-power or high-stealth assistance for you? Why do you have to go this alone?”

“You know his reasons for doing so,” Enygma noted. “My reasons, as ever, are my own, and you need not be privy to them.”

As a look of extreme anger overcame Ivan’s visage, Mike quickly stepped in to avoid another unpleasant incident.

“Ivan, just be satisfied with my own reasons, and don’t worry about the Doctor’s. It’s not only about absolution. It’s also about not wanting others to risk themselves, because many of the others who can accomplish this mission--including yourself, Charley, and Adam--have family and/or dependants, whereas I don’t. Hence, I’m more expendable than practically anyone else I can think of.”

“That’s a highly uncharitable way to view yourself, as you would put it.”

“No, it’s a matter of common sense, I think.”

“Yea, I agree!” Charley jumped in. “Since he’s the most expendable amongst us outside of that Banner guy, it only makes sense that he take the risk first, without involving anyone who would have so much more to lose than simply their own life. After all, wouldn’t we all rather see him, rather than someone more decent, take the fall?”

“Charley!” Adam exclaimed. “Enough of that, okay? He’s a friend of mine, and an ally of yours.”

“By circumstances, in the latter case,” Charley replied with a tinge of both annoyance and venom in her voice. “And what the hell, I was only agreeing with him. Should I sugar coat his own reasoning to spare his feelings? It’s not like…”

“Charley, I second Adam’s notion,” Ivan stated. “You know we all love ya and sentimental stuff like that, but…can you please give all of that a rest right now?”

“For you and Adam…okay. But geez, you know, I don’t understand how the hell you two can possibly be friends with this guy or have any type of respect for him, considering he’s a…”

“That will indeed be enough, Charley,” Enygma stated, his right arm raised sternly in unison with his declaration, making it quite clear that it was not a request.

The attractive blonde woman simply threw her hands up in acquiescent indignation.

“As for you, Michael Nero…it’s time to prepare. I want this situation dealt with by the morning, and no later. You can see slightly better than the average person in the dark, and several of the surveillance cameras on the inside of the facility are poorly functioning, due to Dr. Crusher and her staff covertly committing a quick but convenient bit of sabotage. Nevertheless, I do not want the hostages to take any further risks of this sort, as that is what you are here for.”

Ivan scowled, Charley grinned, and Adam was unable to effectively emote with the latex skin and lips covering his true features.

Mike looked down for a second and then up again, meeting Enygma’s stern gaze with as much gusto as he could muster.

“Okay…I’m ready.”

But before Enygma could speak again, Mike turned towards his three compatriots.

“Guys, in case I don’t come back…

“Ivan, it’s been real. Thank you for being my friend, and all the accompanying yadda yadda yadda.”

Ivan nodded slightly. “You got it, bud. It was cool to be annoyed by you one last time.”

Mike smiled at his friend and former teammate’s characteristic and quite welcome sarcasm.

“Adam, you were more human than anyone of flesh and blood that I have ever met. Thank you for always believing in me. It meant a lot.”

Adam would have smiled if he could. “The honor belonged to me, my friend. Be well, and most importantly…be careful, so this is not truly the final farewell.”

Mike smiled again, evoking his patented impish grin this time.

“Of course I will, metal-head. Aren’t I always?”

He turned to his last compatriot. “Charley…I’m sorry that you felt the way you did about me all this time. I wish we could have been friends. See ya around.”

She simply glared at him. “Yea. Whatever.”

He then finally looked back at the Supreme Mage.

“Doctor…thank you for this opportunity. I can’t say I enjoyed much of my time with you, but I sure as hell did learn from you, and you did often make things easier for me, the price notwithstanding.”

Enygma smiled in mock amusement. “Indeed. Now make the most of this precious opportunity you have been graciously afforded, and remember the strategy session you had with myself and Kyle.”

Mike raised his rune-inscribed Norse battle mace, accompanied by the return of his impish grin.

“You got it, Doctor. Now lemme at ‘em!”

Chapter 3

Running through the cover of darkness on the grounds of the base, Mike couldn’t help but jump at every shadow, and at every chirp emitted from a nearby male cricket, as he was used to military bases, particularly black ops bases, to have good and sometimes outright elaborate security. In this case, however, the security guards were all dead--yet still quite lively, and quite deadly. And many of the security devices were apparently undermined, but he couldn’t be certain how many.

No sooner was he past the inner perimeter of the base than he saw two human-shaped, howling horrors rushing towards them. As they came into view of his slightly enhanced night vision, he couldn’t help but notice, as in the case of many other re-animated corpses he encountered and battled in the past, that they emitted no tinge of a heat aura about them. Their faces were simultaneously twisted into expressions of horror and slavering hunger embedded in a single visage, their military uniforms a bit tattered and unwashed, with large, cubical, light blue devices tightly strapped to their chest regions, barely discernable green digital read-out numbers on a small screen in the front section. One of the necro-soldiers gurgled the word “…braaii-nnnss…” as he and his rotting cohorts in terror rapidly approached. Gripping his mace through sweaty palms, the man called Beowolf knew that he had better not strike those devices directly, or they may go off before the energy spark had a chance to short circuit them. Preparing himself for the coming attack, he poured a lot of concentration into summoning the mystical energy absorbed into the metallic substance of the mace, causing it to visibly crackle with what appeared to be a big static discharge for a fraction of a second. Don’t mess this up, N-dude, he quickly reminded himself.

As the first necro-soldier rushed towards him, showing great speed and ghoulish determination, his hands outstretched and his mouth open and foaming, Mike quickly and deftly ducked under the running dead man’s lunge, and struck him hard in the back of the head with his mace. A barely audible crackling sound and a fast burst of static accompanied the strike, with the explosive device in the chest area letting off a quick beep to confirm that the mystical energy spark deactivated it without setting it off due to the dead man’s organic body acting as a ‘buffer’ that carried the charge to the device sans any direct physical impact on the device itself. The dead man, with the back of his skull pushed through the front of his face from the force of the blow, and with decaying neural matter hitting the ground in a small pile around him, the device was smashed like a dropped pinball machine minus an explosion. The dead body writhed around for several seconds, and then stopped as the mystical energy “shocked” the animated dead creature out of its grotesque semblance of life.

“Yes! It worked!” Mike exclaimed to himself, once again giving himself a taut reminder not to get cocky or overconfident, or this could literally cost him--and many innocent people--absolutely everything.

I won’t fail the people in that town, he chanted to himself silently. I won’t fail the people watching me. No innocent will die if I can help it.

As the second front guard necro-sentry attacked, Mike moved back out of the range of his lunge, and instinctually delivered a strong side kick to the running dead man’s solar plexus, the force of the kick knocking the rotting assailant back several feet, but accomplishing little else. Within a second of recovering from the knock-back, the dead man glared at Mike, pushed his rigor mortis stiffened mouth into a twisted smile, stretched out his arms again, and uttered the word, “…brraaiinns…”

Shit! Mike silently complained to himself. These guys don’t really feel pain, at least not from any type of physical assault. I should have known that after all these years of fighting the likes of them. My anxiousness over the importance of this mission is making me sloppy. I better snap out of it, and I mean fast.

“You want what passes for brains in my skull, assmunch?” Mike queried to his less-than-living opponent. “Then, as a chef might say, ‘coooommee and geettt ‘em!’”

As if on cue, the animated necro-sentry lunged towards Mike, who this time ducked down and slammed his mace into the dead man’s stomach as hard as he could muster, managing to avoid directly striking the explosive device strapped tightly via leather bindings to the creature’s sternum. The decaying flesh around the dead man’s lower abdomen spattered in Mike’s face and shoulders, staining his dark gray uniform, causing him to jump back and retch, gathering a sizable amount of willpower to prevent himself from wasting valuable time by vomiting. With the comforting crackle of energy accompanying the blow, the deadly device was deactivated, and the disemboweled corpse writhed in spasmodic fury for several seconds until the infusion of mystical energy caused the pathetic creature a second demise.

Pushing himself up to his feet, Beowolf looked down at his fallen adversary, noting the zombie’s decayed viscera lying on the ground before him, and he remarked to himself, “Talk about a bad sample of rot gut.”

Turning towards the base itself, he knew that with the front guards taken down, eight more necro-soldiers and their still living, thoroughly insane, and dangerously armed leader awaited him…not to mention the scientific team held hostage in there, whom Mike was determined to rescue from being killed, harmed, or forced to create further such horrors under duress by Col. Hayden. Okay, calm down, he told himself. I feel more winded than usual, so I must be really anxious right now. Despite the incredible seriousness of this situation, I have to stay in control. Am I about to experience one of those horrific fatigue attacks? I better not, because the lives of many innocent people, and my reputation in my own eyes, are greatly at stake. You’ve taken necro-killers before, N-dude…so keep calm. Keep calm…

Managing to restore his concentration, Mike headed towards the eerily quiet base. He continued to focus his hearing and sense of smell, trying to discern the sounds of people walking, no matter how quietly, or the unmistakable scent of rotting flesh. Was some of Enygma’s intel off? And could Hayden have had more time to ‘train’ his necro-warriors in stealth techniques? Is it possible he sprayed them with some type of chemical that effectively suppressed the scent of decay that hung about them like flies to a lamp? Stop worrying yourself, dude, and press on. Think about the people you have to save, and stop thinking about whether or not you may be incapable of handling this. Enygma said you could, and despite how manipulative he can be, in all the years you’ve known him, he’s almost never been wrong.

Suddenly, almost before he could react, a human-shaped figure leapt from an exterior metal stairwell several feet above Mike’s head. Putting his legendary reflexes into action, he narrowly avoided a major catastrophe. Summoning all the physical strength he could muster, the guy sometimes called Beowolf caught the 170-pound animated dead man in his arms, before the device could impact upon his skull or the ground, and detonate. This was no easy task for Mike in human form, and the sudden weight he caught out of mid-air caused him to fall to his knees, and the muscles in his arms to strain almost to the point of literally tearing from his tendons. He yelled in agony, and the animate corpse was thrashing about, desperately trying to force himself into a position where he could take a bite out of Mike’s skull. Straining even further, Mike quickly but cautiously twisted the zombie over so that he would land on the ground face up, praying to Odin that the impact wouldn’t somehow set off the explosion. It didn’t.

Rolling over as fast as he could and recovering his dropped enchanted mace, Mike quickly brought it down on the still-thrashing necro-soldier’s skull, smashing it to pieces, and delivering a mystical spark of energy that both deactivated the explosive strapped to the zombie’s chest and literally driving the faux ‘life’ out of the creature’s dead, decaying musculature.

Breathing hard, Mike again pushed himself to his feet. Three down, seven to go…and then the ‘boss’ beyond them. Geez, I feel like I’m a playable character in a highly formulaic video game, or something.

No sooner did he catch his wind than he suddenly heard the thunk-thunk-thunk of booted footsteps behind him. However, he was too late to avoid the zombie that grabbed his throat with both of the creature’s rotting hands. Shit!

Desperate to prevent the zombie from both biting into the back of his skull and pushing the explosive device tied to its chest into his body hard enough to trigger an explosion, Mike quickly smashed the back of his skull into the zombie’s jaw, dislocating it; this didn’t cause the creature any real pain as it would a living human, but it did render the monster incapable of biting with any great effectiveness, and somewhat loosened his steely grip on the monster-fighter’s neck. Pulling himself from the zombie’s hold, and avoiding the temptation to put his hands on the black and blue fingerprints forming over the skin on his neck, Mike swung around and slammed his mace into the creature’s face with the force of both of his hands. The head detached from its neck, bumping into its back while dangling from its long dried out esophagus, and the accompanying crackle of energy made it clear that the device was deactivated.

Moving away from the side of the base and its exterior stairwells where he realized that he could easily be attacked, the man code named Beowolf suddenly heard a series of loud screams, as if coming from an enraged mob bent on committing bloody murder. This perfunctory assessment turned out to be right on target. Mike noticed three of the six remaining zombies rushing towards him simultaneously, evidently retaining enough of their former military training to know when to shift strategies. Terrific, Mike thought to himself. How am I supposed to get out of this one without either triggering one of those explosives or having my brains end up on a dinner menu?

Noticing that the three running dead men were soon going to rush over to him over a metal, locked trap door on the ground--obviously used for storage--he suddenly had a brainstorm, but he knew that he would have to act quickly in order to pull this off. Holding his enchanted mace over his head, Mike concentrated, focusing on mental imagery of the power-inducing runic symbols on the weapon, until a small amount of crackling, bluish energy could be seen coruscating around the business end. Realizing that metal was as good a conductor of mystical energy as it was actual electricity, he tried to time the three zombies running over the metallic door, hoping that what passed for their own brains wouldn’t begin to discern what he was attempting, so that they wouldn’t take evasive maneuvers and avoid rushing over the metal door on the ground.

Luckily for him, their lust for gray matter overcame any remaining equivalent of common sense. As the yelling trio of uniformed dead things ran over the metal door, Mike struck the portion of the metallic surface closest to him, consciously releasing the built-up charge of mystical electricity at the moment of impact. Suffusing the metal, the energy saturated the bodies of all three zombies, deactivating each of their chest-mounted explosive devices, and shocking all of them into a second death. Their screams and writhing jointly ceased after several seconds.

“Ha! Yea ha! Mr. Boyd, eat your freakin’ heart out!”

It’s a good thing this mystical electricity, like regular electricity, is ‘deadly’ to them, so to speak, Mike mused to himself.

Suddenly, hearing another almost inhuman shout, Beowolf turned around to see another zombie rushing towards him, this one wielding a long metal pipe, obviously determined to bash his brains from his skull and eat them off the ground rather than extricating the gray matter by way of its teeth. Mike remembered that many of these walking dead can ‘learn’ to wield simple weapons at times. Holding back his mace in preparation of meeting his attacker weapon to weapon, Mike concentrated enough to generate a small charge in the mace. Carefully swinging his charged weapon in unison with his attacker’s swing of his pipe--so that the two metallic striking weapons hit each other with a loud clanging sound--the pipe bent and briefly glowed with a sudden dispersal of mystical energy that was emitted from the mace. Traveling the length of the metal to suffuse the body of the raging necro-warrior, both he and his chest-mounted explosive device were rendered forever insensate.

Mike then slowly raised his mace, preparing for the attack of his last two walking dead adversaries. Come on, man…you can do this. You can do this. Just remember all that’s riding on this, most importantly the lives of those innocent people…

Just then, a wooden trap door hidden under a pile of leaves was pushed up from the ground, out of which emerged a necro-soldier that wailed in seeming rage as it grasped and bit Mike on his leg. Despite the fact that the tough material his uniform is composed of prevented the teeth from sinking directly into his flesh, the pain was incredible and very unexpected.

“Aarrr! Son of a bitch!” Damn, I should have anticipated that! Son of a bitch…!

Barely managing to prevent himself from collapsing due to the pain, as well as the zombie’s decayed but formidable muscles pulling him to the ground, Mike quickly and literally utilized his mace to pound the dead man’s head and neck down into its torso, the energy from the mace deactivating the explosive device in the process. Once completed, Mike then dropped his weapon and fell to the ground, grasping his injured leg with both of his hands, his breathing more erratically than before.

“Ooohhh, man! That freakin’ smarts! Damn it…”

Suddenly, before he could react further, Mike heard a maniacal laughing sound, and glared upward to see the final necro-soldier standing above him, bloodlust clearly evident in what was left of his eyes. Or, more specifically, brain lust.

Uh oh.

Realizing there was no way he could react in time, Mike nevertheless tried to prepare himself as best he could when the zombie leapt upon him, with its jaws likely targeting his skull. Instead, however, the living dead soldier noticed the mace laying on the ground, and retaining enough of his human wits to know a good bludgeon for smashing the brains out of someone’s skull when he saw one, decided to grab the weapon and use it to cause Mike to part with his cranial matter—which was a lucky break for Mike. As the zombie rushed downwards and greedily grabbed the mace, intending to use it to acquire the scrumptious brains suspended within the human skull before him, a huge electrical backlash encompassed the necro-warrior’s body upon contact with the rune-inscribed weapon, causing the creature to lose its perverse simulation of life. It fell to the ground with a loud crash, the now deactivated explosive device tied to his chest smashed to pieces as its wearer landed upon it.

You’re one lucky so-and-so, man…real lucky. Hoping that his luck wouldn’t fail him, Mike recovered his weapon, ignored the pain in his arms and his left leg, and began heading towards the worst of the lot: the front chamber of the base, where he would find an insane military officer, armed to the teeth, and the biggest explosive device of them all.

Though he doesn’t know it, Mike will not be leaving there alive.

Chapter 4

Mike quietly approached the front of the base, the quietness absolutely deafening to him. He used every stealth trick he ever picked up, not knowing the extent to which Dr. Crusher and her staff may have sabotaged the motion detectors, sonic recorders, and surveillance cameras. It was a simple matter for him to use the mace to smash the sophisticated padlock on the outside of the chamber…obviously, this base was considered secure in large measure due to its location and innocuous outer appearance. Further, government budgets being strained as they are under the third President Bush, this place was obviously running on the cheap.

The door creaked open, obviously on hinges that needed some serious oil treatment, if not outright replacement. Mike mused to himself that no matter how far the government goes with its fiscal slashes, it never fails to continue funding these black operations, even a ‘shoe-string’ op like this. As this situation provided ample evidence of, even the seemingly small black ops programs can suddenly turn ultra-deadly if the ‘right’ people are running it.

As he walked into the air-conditioned front of the base’s interior, the air-conditioning providing the only hint that it was inhabited by living humans, he noticed the large, chrome-colored (as opposed to light blue) explosive device, resembling an oversized digital clock. It appeared totally unguarded. Not wanting to press his luck, but at the same time not wanting to hesitate in disabling this deadly device--the latter being the biggest priority here--he slowly raised his mace, meditating on a runic power totem to summon some of the electrical-like energy within it, with the intention of sparking the ground directly in front of the device, thereby disabling it. He slowly moved towards the construct, seeing or meeting no opposition, his eyes, ears, and nose sensitive to any possible hint of life around him.

He barely leapt behind a large metal boiler in time to avoid a savage salvo of rapid-fire ammo that strafed the ground between him and the device. Shit! That bastard really is insane! If one of those bullets hits the right place on that device, it could go off!

Mike then saw the short but burly form of Col. Hayden jump into view about 50 feet down the corridor, smoke issuing from his firearm and fury practically blazing from his eyes. In his other hand was a black device with a red light on the end that resembled a TV remote, obviously the wireless contrivance from which the colonel could detonate the explosive.

“You fucking dove! You piece of shit! Traitor! Coward! You’re not going to fuck up America’s security while this soldier is alive, you peacenik punk!”

Wonderful, Mike told himself. He’s more honeycombs short of a beehive than even Dr. Enygma anticipated. I need to take him out fast.

Initiating a somewhat desperate stratagem, Mike removed several steel throwing spheres from one of his utility belt pockets, somersaulted across the ground in front of the device, and hurled the spherical projectiles at the colonel, hoping that one of them would find their mark--blinding him or hopefully splitting his skull, or maybe even giving him the false impression that Mike had a silenced firearm at his disposal. The spheres loudly clattered off of the walls and various boilers directly in front of him, with not a single one hitting their elusive, quick-witted target; Hayden was anything but a slouch. Taking advantage of this brief second of distraction, Mike struck his mallet on the ground a foot in front of the large, deadly ‘clock’ before him, with a crackling surge of energy deactivating it, its digital read-out screen flickering and going blank with a smell reminiscent of ozone following close behind.

“Yes! I did it! I…”

If not for the metal and plastic of the large former explosive device before him, Mike would have been chopped to pieces by the salvo of bullets that struck the back of the machine. Yelling in surprise, the monster-hunter leapt behind the large, sturdy boiler to his right once again.

“You coward! You filthy shit-eating dove! You dare to shit on the American flag! I’ll kill us all! All of us! Your dovish faggot ass, those asshole traitors in the town, all of us!”

The deranged soldier quickly depressed the hand-held gizmo before him…only to find that nothing happened. Geez, Mike thought to himself. He was really going to do it. Then again, why am I surprised? Finding any degree of surprise in that is as stupid as my almost getting bushwhacked by this loon because I wasn’t careful enough. I have to hope that his ego is more vulnerable to attack than his physical being..

Unable to think of any other way out of this, Mike leapt in front of Hayden, dropping his mace to the ground, and spreading his arms in a “calling out” gesture familiar to many street ruffians.

“Hayden, you think I’m not a real man? How about you? Are you a real man? Drop that piece and come and fight me hand-to-hand! Or are you afraid you can’t take a dove like me?”

Mike’s bluff failed. Miserably.

“Iiiii’lllll kill yooouuu…!”

Hayden rushed Beowolf with his piece still in his hands, and began strafing the entire front part of the chamber. Again, Mike barely leapt for cover behind one of the many boilers in the room in time to evade their deadly touch, the bullets ricocheting off of every metal object in sight with a loud banging sound, sending hot steam spewing all over the place, at one point nearly scalding Mike in the face. That lunatic is going to kill both of us! I have to see to it that only one of us suffers the eternal dirt nap.

Taking another small handful of throwing spheres from one of his utility pockets, Mike decided not to risk jumping up and hurling one or more of them at Hayden directly, but instead rolled them on the floor in front of the crazed soldier as he rushed towards his gray-clad adversary. Unprepared for such an attack, the enraged soldier stepped on the perfectly round spheres and became the victim of his own inertia, falling and hitting his head against a steam pipe protruding from the floor, gashing his flesh open and spraying the ground around him with a splash of crimson. Still shouting expletives and patriotic aphorisms at Beowolf, Hayden amazingly jumped to his feet again, determined to defeat his foe at all costs.

In response, the monster-hunter rushed out of his hiding place and quickly grabbed the piece from the ground, turning it in Hayden’s direction. Before he could depress the trigger, however, the amazingly fast and determined soldier leaped towards him, ignoring his brutal head wound, grabbing the weapon still in Mike’s hands, and slamming the bulky “dove” against the wall. The piece went cascading against the ground, forcing the two to lock in hand-to-hand combat with each other. Mike drove his knee into Hayden’s plexus, and then delivered a strong reverse punch to the soldier’s jaw. Hayden’s jaw cracked, but he quickly countered with several blows to Mike’s sternum and face, followed up by a backhand to the monster-hunter’s clavicle that sent him sprawling. It was quite obvious to the pain-wracked Beowolf who the better fighter was here. As to who was more determined to win…

Instead of attacking Mike and finishing him off with his bare hands, Hayden leaped for his piece, grabbing it from the ground as quickly as he could. Reacting just as quickly, spurred on by a rush of adrenalin and desperation, Beowolf reached his hand out, concentrated, hastily activated the psychic link between himself and his rune-shrouded weapon, and summoned it to his hands, the weapon telekinetically flying over as quickly as Mike could summon it. As Hayden turned, cocked his weapon, and prepared to fire a stream of deadly metal rain upon his adversary, Mike hurled his mace in the colonel’s direction with all of his might. The metallic weapon struck Hayden right in the middle of his face, caving the front of his skull in and causing a mini-ocean of red fluid to seep down the front of his khaki uniform. The man’s body slumped to the ground with a loud but wet thud, preceded by the clank of his piece striking the floor’s concrete surface.

“It’s…over! I did it…”

Pulling himself to his feet again after the Herculean but successful exertion he just performed, Mike walked over to the gruesome corpse before him and felt a quick pang of regret upon inspection, but it was clear that his enemy was permanently beaten. Hence, he could now find the hostages at his leisure and free them. Feeling more winded than ever, he still breathed a huge sigh of relief, turning to recover his mace.

As he bent to retrieve his weapon, he was suddenly struck by a sudden, sharp, and pulling pain in his chest, accompanied by a terrific numbness in his left arm.

“What the hell? Did I pull a muscle in my chest, or…?”

Another sudden spurt of pain struck him even harder, sending him to his knees, his left arm going almost dead with numbness.

He grasped his chest area with his right hand, a terrible realization finally dawning on him.

“Oh…no. I can’t be…I don’t…believe this. This…this is so embarrassing for something as…mundane as this to happen…now.”

Another incredible, ‘pulling’ spurt of pain struck him.

“Aaaggh! Oh, man…I…I can’t believe that after all…I’ve ever been through…vampires, zombies, mutants, predatory aliens…that…that in the end my killer would…would be…Mr. Pizza…?”

His sad joke completed, Mike decided to resort to a desperate gambit to save his quickly expiring life. Despite the waning moon above him, he would project every iota of his declining will power into inducing a transformation into his lupine form, hoping that in such a near-immortal state, he could offset the heart attack, and have Dr. Enygma get him to medical aid before he reverted back. As pain and numbness began to hit him like a lethal tag team, Mike hastily concentrated on the image of a full moon, and pushed towards triggering the change that might spare his life.

“Aaaggh… c’mon… c’mon, you can do it…just like you stopped those…those zombies and that…that gun-wielding madman…you…gotta do it…”

The pain hit him harder, he grasped his chest once more, and slumped to the ground. But he was determined to trigger the change, despite all the obstacles impeding it. He forced the image of a bright, glorious full moon across his mind’s eye, and concentrated on the power of Fenris.

Grasping his chest in agony yet again, he looked down to see coarse hairs spreading from the back of his hand, and his fingernails slowly extending into talons…and he swore that he could feel the familiar sensation of sharp teeth spurting from his gums.

“C’mon…man, you…can…do it…effect the change…while there is still time…aaaggghhh o goddddesss…it hurts…but you can…do it…”

Mike watched as the talons on the back of his right hand continued to lengthen, accompanied by the familiar cracking sound, as he held his chest tight. He was certain that he was going to make it…

Several minutes later, Dr. Moira Crusher and her three staff members were cautiously moving down the corridor, alerted to the sounds of the battle. She had been in contact with Dr. Enygma, and she knew that help was coming her way, but she didn’t know how soon, or in what form. She was aware that if someone had engaged Hayden directly, the necro-soldiers would have to have been dispatched already. The fact that she and her comrades had not been blown off the map was also a good sign.

Peeking out of a side corridor, she lifted her hand and motioned to her top aide, Dr. Estelle Mack, to be silent, and she spoke as quietly as she could.

“Okay, try not to make any sound. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on out there, but I’m tired of just sitting back here like this, passively waiting for something to happen. And I’m sick of being afraid of Hayden, despite the good reasons for it. I doubt our illustrious employers are here yet, so this must be assistance sent by…a colleague of mine.”

“Colleague?” Dr. Mack queried. “Who the hell would that be?”

“Never mind right now,” Dr. Crusher replied. “It sounds quiet. Just wait here while I go and see what’s happening.”

Dr. Mack frowned. “Are you kidding? I’m not going to leave you…”

“Just do as I say, Estelle, okay? For once in your life.”

After waiting several minutes for her boss, whom she grudgingly respected despite their many disagreements, Dr. Mack could force herself to comply with those orders no longer. Now telling the other two aides to remain here where it was relatively safe, she set off down the corridor in search of Dr. Crusher.

Upon turning the corridor, Dr. Mack saw the bloody remains of Col. Hayden, obviously no longer a threat, and the bullet-riddled remains of the large explosive device he had set with its digital monitor off, also no longer a threat. Gaining a bit of courage, she walked forward, and saw Dr. Crusher examining the body of a dark-clad man whom she had never seen before, obviously searching for vital signs. The expression on the man’s face was contorted and his eyes wide open, as if he had experienced great pain, and she could also swear that his incisors were noticeably larger than they should be, but seemingly shrinking before her very eyes, though that must have been her imagination. This was certainly the party that had rescued them, however. His body showed no sign of bullet or knife wounds, nor any visible bite wounds from the necro-soldiers on his skull or anywhere else.

Hearing the footsteps of Dr. Mack behind her, Dr. Crusher looked back, an expression of sorrow on her face.

“Moira…?”

Dr. Moira Crusher frowned.

“It was a massive cardial infarction. He’s gone.”

Epilogue 1

Ivan and Adam looked downwards and sighed when Dr. Stephen Enygma gave them the news. Charley elicited no reaction at all.

Ivan was the first to speak.

“Oh…man. I can’t believe this. A heart attack? A regular, ordinary heart attack? I just can’t…”

Adam put his hand on Ivan’s shoulder in consolation.

“Nor can I, my friend.”

“Yes, quite unfortunate,” Dr. Enygma continued, showing little emotion in his tone, “but the most important thing, in the end, is that the mission was successfully fulfilled, the yonder town is safe, another small black ops base hidden ‘in plain sight’ will be dismantled, and Dr. Crusher and the rest of the hostages are safe. And all of those necro-soldiers…a soldier gone mad because of a love for his country that went too far…and our mutual colleague can now all rest in peace.”

Ivan turned around, almost trembling with anger.

“I’m glad, Enygma, that this whole thing was business as usual for you. I wouldn’t want to see you hurt your own feelings with remorse over a man who you sent to his death. You knew this would happen, didn’t you?”

Dr. Enygma was quick to respond.

“I knew he would get the job done. I knew the job needed to be done. Not even I could have predicted a mundane cardial infarction to occur upon the completion of the mission, however. An interesting if not particularly glamorous way to meet one’s demise. Nevertheless, lives were saved, and a disaster was averted.”

Ivan glowered, with both of his gloved fists clenching.

“A life was lost here, Enygma! God damn you, don’t you…”

Adam grabbed Ivan in a powerful grip, but only exerting enough force to stop his further motion. His gentle words belied the strength in his limbs.

“Ivan, don’t lose your temper. I…cannot say that I am impressed with the Doctor’s attitude, as always. But the most important thing is…this is no way to mourn our friend. He knew he had a real possibility of losing his life here, even if not in such a fashion. This is likely one of the reasons he wanted us all present in the general vicinity. Though we couldn’t join him on the mission, he didn’t want to die alone.”

“Yea, please don’t lose your cool over this, Ivan,” Charley stated with genuine concern. “I know this isn’t a popular thing to say in front of you particular guys, but you need to see that it’s better that it was Nero who we lost on an important mission rather than one of the more decent among us.”

Ivan turned around. “One of the more decent…?”

Adam looked at her. “Charley, I wish you would cease this type of…”

She threw her arms up dramatically once more.

“Okay, okay, you guys thought the guy had some redeeming qualities! Fine! I’m sure Ted Bundy and Jason Vorhees did too! But still, I just don’t understand how…”

“That’s what your problem is, Charley,” Ivan said quietly. “You didn’t understand, and you never wanted to.”

She sighed. “Look, Ivan, I’m sorry he died if it upsets you and Adam, okay?”

“Yea…look, I’m going to take a quick flight up to Buffalo to inform his family of this. As difficult as this type of thing is, I would much rather that I do it than to have Enygma the Compassionate Wizard handle this.”

“By all means,” Enygma said, with no discernible tone to his voice. “I’ll take care of the disposal of his remains, and I’m sure we are all aware that he wished to be cremated. Charley, will you take care of that task right now?”

“Sure,” she said, walking over towards the base. “Too bad, Doctor, you never allowed me to fry him when he was still alive like I wanted to.”

“Charley, that’s enough!” Adam exclaimed before Ivan had the opportunity to do so.

“Yes, Charley,” Enygma agreed, “just proceed with the task at hand. Make sure he is burned to ashes. And please stop aggravating this situation with your comments.”

“Okay, okay…geez. I’ll see you later, Ivan, and I hope all is well with the family.”

Charley steadfastly proceeded towards the front of the base where Mike’s remains awaited, the air itself seeming to heat up around her slim form.

Ivan looked towards the two men standing before him.

“Adam, will you, by any chance…be coming to Buffalo with me to inform his family?”

“Of course,” Adam replied. “There is no need for you to do this alone. I certainly wouldn’t want to, and he was my friend too. And please do not harbor ill will towards Charley for her comments. There is much that she and many others among human society of the present era are not yet willing to understand. She is a good woman at heart.”

“I know. Let’s just get the hell out of here, okay? And Enygma, Adam and I will see to the funeral arrangements, also.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Enygma said, finally smiling.

The master mage remained standing there as Ivan and Adam walked off into the dusk.

Epilogue 2

Two days later, Dr. Stephen Enygma was walking through the corridors of a dark building alongside Dr. Moira Crusher, located in another state. They passed by several people wearing medical robes, and they moved purposefully towards a specific room behind a large, metal door.

“I must thank you for seeing that this task was taken care of, Dr. Crusher. From what I have heard, your entire familial lineage is rather gifted in terms of medical or scientific talent, and it will be interesting to see what members of the Crusher family accomplish in the future, as I believe they will truly reach the stars. Nevertheless, I was unaware that you had connections at one of these facilities until last year.”

“Well, I’ve always wanted to keep up on all the latest advancements, all the latest possibilities. And now that I want nothing more to do with government employment after the incident with Hayden, I plan to do research here full-time. It’s a hell of a lot more noble than government bio-warfare experiments. I never was an unethical person, you know.”

“Of course not.”

“And I was glad to do this favor for you…and for him…considering how you both bailed me and my aides out of that horrid situation. I am in debt to both of you.”

Enygma smiled. “That you are, Dr. Crusher. And please do not forget this.”

She coughed gently. “Of course I won’t.”

“Good. Now, it’s through that door that we wish to go, correct?”

“Yes. I always have full access to it.”

Within seconds, Dr. Enygma, supreme mage, and Dr. Crusher, medical scientist supreme, enter the metal door and close it behind them. They stand in a large, sterile chamber with many small, chrome, Dewars cylinders before them. Enygma looked up at each of them.

“Which one?”

Dr. Crusher pointed to one particular cylinder. “That one. Resting peacefully.”

“I commend you on making sure that his head was removed, specially treated so that his brain was vetrified, and placed in that cylinder of liquid nitrogen before Charley incinerated the rest of his remains.”

“Of course. His entire body would just be excess baggage. His brain was the only important thing we had to preserve. Now that his brain was successfully vetrified inside its cranial housing, there is the hope that some day--perhaps many decades hence, perhaps longer--medical science will develop to the point that we can regenerate a new body for him and all others who have themselves put into cryonic suspension, and hopefully they will suffer minimal loss of identity should they be revived. Now, you said you wanted to inspect his Dewars cylinder for some reason…”

“Yes I do, Dr. Crusher. Now please be silent for just a moment.”

Staring intently at the opaque metallic cylinder, Enygma concentrated, and a wide beam of light from the Eye of Agormento, visible only to him, issued forth…and Enygma smiled obliquely as he spied a spherical, electrical locus of conscious but comatose energy cavorting above Beowolf’s cylinder, with what looks like a thin, web-like strand of intangible silvery cord connecting it to the head carefully frozen and suspended inside the cylinder. In a few more seconds, Enygma verified the identity of said energy sphere, which was beyond the ability of most other human beings to even detect.

“You were successful, Dr. Crusher. He yet lives, in a manner of speaking. You preserved his brain before his consciousness could permanently leave this plane of reality for one of the many planes that lie beyond.”

“Um…okay. Good. I was every bit as prompt in conducting the procedure as you insisted.”

“Indeed you were. Of course, his future on this plane of reality is still far from secure. Something could happen to this facility in the years to come, future biological science may not master the regeneration process for he and the other individuals who are in cryonic neural suspension, another alien invasion like the one back in 1898 could occur…anything. But at least this way, he has a chance. He asked me for another chance, to have the opportunity to seek absolution, to save many innocent lives, and in return, to get a new start in life, without being in debt to me afterwards. This should provide that very thing for him…hopefully. Only the decades to come can determine that for certain.”

Enygma looked up at the cylinder once again.

“Fare thee well, Mr. Nero. You were…useful.”

With that said, Dr. Enygma and Dr. Crusher turned and left the room, the heavy metal door sealed and locked behind them, leaving all of the cylinders alone.

Though Mike was catatonic, his brain frozen and converted to a glass-like substance that perfectly preserved it inside his cranium, if one with the proper gift could “read” the almost totally inactive mind within, and did so long enough and patiently enough, an occasional stray thought would pass into the realm of coherency. And if one with such a gift could listen in at this very moment, they would “hear” one particular stray thought from the brain inside this cylinder saying,

It’s…so…peaceful…here…

Theme music: “Dream Weaver” by Gary Wright and “Dust In The Wind” by Kansas