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Avenger Assembled

Dead Men Do Tell Tales (IC)

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Date: April ??, 2010. After The Dragon Wakes and This Woman's Work.

The cemetery was a Gothic place of the old school, full of massive marble funerary monuments to the long-dead grandees of Freedom City's past. Heedless of respecting the dead, Avenger perched like a black falcon atop the mausoleum of the Wading family as the cold winds of an April night blew in off the Atlantic, waiting for his contact to arrive. This cemetery was about to be the center of a very nasty occult ritual, if his sources were right, but he and Dead Head were going to put a stop to that. Or so he hoped.

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Avenger's ears picked up the approach of his contact first, for he was whistling a vaguely familiar tune. Not long after, he saw the source of the whistle, the Friendly Neighborhood Zombie known as Dead Head.

"Hey, hey! Watch th' bootmarks on th' tomb there, man," he admonished, glaring up with his flaming green eyes. "How'd you like it if someone were walkin' over yer grave?"

He looked around the immediate area, nodded to himself, then leaned against the corner of the tomb. "So, remind me again why we're here an' not at yer place finishin' th' Hammer Horror film collection?"

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Avenger eyed Dead Head at that. "More common than you might think." Disappearing from the top of the mausoleum, he reappeared alongside the zombie, a tombstone obscuring the lower half of his body. "Never could stand the aristocracy of the dead. Don't need a catacomb." As a wind picked up, he said, "Broke up a cult called the Necro-Kings about a year ago. Some kids found their toys and are thinking of staging a comeback. We're going to make sure they find something better to do than necromancy."

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"I ain't talkin' 'bout aristocracy, ya dour doofus," he retorted, "I'm talkin' 'bout not trompin' about on people's eternal homes! An whether they're in a gold-chased marble crypt, or an unmarked hole in a potter's field, th' dead are all equal, an' all equally deservin' of a modicum respect."

Dead Head was on edge, and Avenger's words had sparked him off. But the real source of the problem was the reason they were there: the Necro-Kings, and those who would replace them. Dead Head could feel the spirits of the dead getting antsy, agitated by these kids' tamperings, or dragged back from Beyond against their will to serve those who had no real clue as to the full impact of what they were doing.

"I've dealt with th' kind before. Got any specifics on these kids? Jaded trust fund brats lookin' fer a new thrill? Punks lookin' t'raise some hell? Goths lookin' fer answers Beyond th' Veil? Aliens lookin' to use our dead as an army? ... yeah, okay, that last one's a bit of a stretch."

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"Have met undead aliens before," said Avenger with perfect reassurance. "Tricky customers. But not these. Just stupid children, echoing rituals they don't understand. Not that it'll save them, or us, if they stumble across something particularly vile. " Avenger spoke with real contempt; Jack had plenty of experience with cultists, and it hadn't been at all pretty.

He paced around the cemetery, abandoning his usual practice of climbing on mausoleums and tombstones for the sake of his guest's sensibilities. "When the living make traffic with the dead, nothing good can come of it."

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"'When th' livin' make traffic with th' dead'," Dead Head repeated, staring bewildered at the vampire vigilante. "Avenger, what do ya think it is I do every wakin' hour?! Heck, technically it's what you an'-" He caught himself before blurting out Taylor's name, "it's what you an' yer woman do every day, too! Don't tell me yer some closeted biophobe, thinkin' the th' dead an 't he living' ought not t'have any interactin' at all... are ya?"

A moment later his irked expression broke into a laugh.

"How is th' little woman, anyway?" he asked between chuckles.

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You have no idea what I mean, my revenant friend. And maybe it's better that you don't. Glad for the chance to change the subject, Avenger gratefully growled, "She's doing well. Another few weeks, and I'll be a father." Avenger shook his head at that. "Never thought I'd hear myself say that. Always regarded the idea with horror, much less what it would have meant...after."

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"Seems more folks than not are surprised t'hear themselves say those words," Dead Head replied, nodding. "An' even when it's 'normal' folks involved, it can still be horrifyin'! I can't even begin t'imagine what it'll be like fer you, though, given... well... given the way most'a yer kind looks on that sort'a thing."

"But," he said as he stood up some flowers on a grave which had fallen over, "if people bound their actions t'what society said, miscegenation an' segregation laws'd still be in effect. Then again..." he paused, "Well, it's clear you two love each other -- an' Lord alone knows how that came t'be! -- an' that's th'important thing. Jes like I know you two are gonna take great care'a that kid. Well... as best as ya can, at least."

"I mean, don't get me wrong," he turned to Avenger with hands raised up in defense, "she's a great gal, very carin' and kind. I mean, she lets me into yer house t'catch up on all the latest horror an' sci-fi movies, you cain't get more amicable than that! But... you... " Dead Head shrank down a bit, "yer a vampire, man, an' they ain't known fer their compassion. Sure, ya love her, an' you'll love th' kid, as best you can... but, let's be honest here, the best ya can do is always gonna be a bit tainted. You'll love 'em both, but there's some part'a ya that's always gonna be lookin' at 'em as yer next meal, or as a threat to your own existence, a burden to yer freedom t'hunt. Which kinda means my bit about comparin' what you two have to a mixed-race marriage an' segregation an' Civil Rights falls apart when th' differences 'tween you an' her are a heck of a lot more than skin-deep."

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Avenger was dead silent, and perfectly still, almost long enough for Dead Head to wonder if he'd made a mistake, before the vampire spoke. "So, you do have a realistic outlook," he said, something like black humor in his voice. "Wondered sometimes if your condition had driven you insane. Physically, from the decay, or mentally from the social isolation. Only the restless dead to talk to, their words ever-haunting your nights." He snorted, and it was more a growl. "Expected every superhero in the city to turn on me when what I was leaked out. Don't know why it didn't happen. Suspect grim and gritty persona coupled with popular entertainment made vampires appear unthreatening. Still expect it to happen, sometimes. Heard you had a do-gooder come after you the other day."

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"Yeah, two brothers been drivin' all around the country, huntin' monsters an' such." He shook his head and gave a little smirk, "Shot me full'a rock salt. Salt! Can ya believe it! They didn't even hear me out, they jes started shotin' soon as they saw me! An' when they saw that weren't slowin' me down none, they brought out a big, whatchacallit, kukri, took ma head clean off! I thought if I played 'possum they'd leave me be, an' move on, an' they did... after settin' me on fire. Good thing I cain't feel no pain, y'know!", he laughed and slapped one knee. "So I jes lay there, let 'em burn me t'ashes. Lucky for me they then buried th' ashes, so the wind couldn't blow me away. Crawled up an' out th' next day. Keep meanin' t'look up what happened t'those two. Think they're still in town?"

Dead Head suddenly leaned in close, and spoke in an exaggerated 'stage whisper,' "Hey, y'wanna hear soemthin' really scary? Somethin' sure t'give you -- yeah, you -- nightmares? I used t'be jes like you!" He stood straight and resumed his normal voice, "I was fightin' cultists an' graverobbers when you still had a heartbeat, an' I was as grim and dour as you! I never ate anyone, 'least, not knowin'ly, but I was a terrible force, seekin' bloody vengeance fer th' dead, showin' not a hint'a mercy. An' it weren't just 'cause of the restless dead I was dealin' with, day in an' day out, it was dealin' with all the people what made them restless dead in the' first place, th' drug dealers an' the slavers and th' jealous husbands an' the serial killers. Like what that guy Nicky said: 'He what fights with monsters oughta beware that he himself don't become no monster. An' when you take a gander into an abyss, th'abyss also takes a gander inta you.' But...," he paused, looking past Avenger for a moment, "... but I moved on. They say there's five stages'a grief, Denial, Anger, Bargainin', Depression, an' Acceptance. Most'a th' undead fall into that pattern, too, an' most never get outta th' first three stages, Denyin' that they ain't alive no more, or Angry at everyone an' everythin', or Bargainin' their humanity for more time here, usually by robbin' others of their own. I moved past those, skipped right over Bargainin' an' Depression, an' have been happily sittin' in Acceptance fer about two years now."

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"Won't deny what you've suffered. Your condition is worse than mine." Certainly, Jack wasn't so stupidly self-involved as to flagellate himself around a hideous reflection of undeath when his own version of the condition made him a handsome, popular man. "The violence was just a red herring. Hoped that i everyone thought I was a thug, no one would show any interest in teaming with me. Find out what I was. Same with the voice, the mannerisms. No one seemed to care. About that, or about other things." He looked up at the Moon overhead, easily visible beneath city lights. "It's difficult for me to relate to people. What they're thinking; what they want. Thought processes are not really the same anymore. Can't understand it sometimes. Not even the people I love." He looked down at his hands, and pictured them covered in blood. "Taylor's never even mentioned the people I've killed."

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"Eh, I wouldn't say I got it worse than you. I mean, sure," he undid his shovel from the makeshift holster on his back, stuck it in the dirt, and leaned against it, "I look like roadkill left out in th' Alabama sun fer a week, an' most times I smell like it, too. An' the dead talk t' me, all the danged time. On th' upside... the dead talk t'me, an' through me can talk t'others, an' helping folks find closure is remarkably upliftin'. Also, I can do this!"

The zombie held out his hands, and did the "sliding thumb" trick. Except he really was sliding his thumb off and on. Then he snapped off his right hand at the wrist, and it quickly scampered all over him like a grotesque spider, finally stopping to perch atop his shoulder. The whole time, his rictus grin was a bit wider, as if he was a smiling kid with a new toy.

He turned from the thing on his shoulder back to Avenger, "ya said Taylor's never mentioned the folks you killed. Okay, but have you mentioned 'em to her? I know yer way'a thinkin' ain't th' same as it was, what with ye unnatural hunger, but any relationship needs t'be built on trust an' mutual respect. Honesty's th' best policy, man, lies'll always come up t'bite ya in the end. Always."

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"Take that under consideration." said Avenger blandly, even as Jack mulled over what promised to be a deeply difficult conversation. Taylor never did like talking about his previous encounters with women. "And see, there's where the confusion sets in. Honesty. Not something I have a lot of experience with." He cocked his head, shooting a glance behind him, something Dead Head was beginning to realize Avenger did a lot when he wasn't being invisible. "Seen too many friends die from it. Especially in their relationships."

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"Was bein' honest somethin' ya had trouble with before ya got turned?," the zombie asked, cocking his head to one side. "'Cuz if so... well, I can see how it'd be even harder for ya now. But, fer what it's worth, my advice is t'let her know about any skeletons in yer closet. If th' relationship is strong enough, if there's enough love an' understandin' there, then it'll survive."

Dead Head got that far-off look again in his eyes. "Lot of 'em out tonight. Either somethin' really nasty or really funny is goin' down. Looks like they're headin' this way," he pointed to the east, then began shambling that way. "Speakin'a trouble, y'all heard any more from them folks what crashed yer weddin'?"

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Avenger made a small noise. "We've made a child together who stands on the doorway between life and death. Little late for us to have reservations about each other." He crept his way along by Dead Head, his voice drifting in and out of shadows that were opaque even to Dead Head's eyes. "The dragon sleeps. But his plans are many, and he'll strike any day." For just a second, Dead Head caught a glimpse of Avenger perched in a tree. "Only met my grandsire once. A terror, by any imagination. Can't imagine what made him."

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"Seems an awful lot to put on the kid, an' he ain't even born yet. If havin' a kid was a sure-fired way'a makin' a relationship work... well, there'd be heckuva lot less single parents out there."

"I hope it does work out for y'all, though, I do!," the zombie quickly added, "but only as long as yer together fer the right reasons. All the right reasons. Ya made the step from bachelor ta' husband, but are ya sure ya can make the step from... not-a-father to father? I mean, can ya really see yerself... well, not settlin' down, exactly, since yer both in the business'a helpin' others, an' she does so on a pretty darn big scale, too, but... whoa."

Dead Head froze in his tracks, as did the hand on his shoulder. Before Avenger could ask what was up, if he saw anything unusual, he began to speak again.

"She's probably gonna be away more'n you, tendin' t'all that magic stuff, so you'll be the one stuck babysittin'!"

Passersby at the edge of the cemetery could just hear a haunting laugh on the night wind.

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Avenger was tense under Dead Head's hand, then he didn't feel like anything at all, his body language for a half-second like nothing more than the animate dead. "Been around the young before. But only new vampires. Not much experience with babies." Avenger thought about the new vampires he'd helped raise, the savage creatures of impulse and violence who lusted for food and satisfaction in a thousand terrible ways. Surely human infants couldn't be like that. "And we'll need to stay together. A dhampir is an enemy of both worlds. However tolerant the heroes of Freedom CIty may have been, my own people have different standards. And not all human beings are so forgiving of our nature." Slowly, he relaxed.

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Dead Head snorted, "Preachin' t'the choir, man. Jes remember, always support th' head, babies got weak necks."

Memories of cultists making sacrifices of babies, using their innocent blood and pure souls to powers their dark and terrible rituals, bubbled up in the revenant's mind. With a shudder, Dead Head shoved those memories down.

"So... Dracula... got any theories on why he's so danged powerful? He ain't th' first vampire... is he?" He looked at Avenger, eyes filled with curiosity, "I mean, there's been stories an' legends 'about vampires fer millennia 'fore Stoker's novel, or even before Vlad th'Impaler was kickin' 'round. Did see two flicks that had interestin' theories. One, made by the guy what did them Mafia flicks, said he cursed an' turned from God when he found his wife was condemned 'cuz she committed suicide when she heard he'd been killed in battle, an' God cursed him right back, only t'be finally killed by the reincarnation of his wife, usin' the sword he'd used t' desecrate an altar. 'Nother one said Drac was really Judas, cursed fer what he did t'Jesus, an' could only be killed by hangin' him again. Oh, an' another one -- the one what had that fella from that hero origins movie, th' one that bombed -- said Drac was cursed by God, an' could only be killed by an angel what got bit by a werewolf. Man, where do they come up with that stuff?"

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"All I can tell you is what I know. The blood of the Dragon is more...potent than the blood of others. The transformation cannot take place accidentally, or quickly. To fall into the blood of the Dragon is to accept personal corruption. Damnation." He sounded tired as he spoke, hashing over some very old wounds indeed. "Have heard that Vlad Tepes was simply another name for Him. That he lived even before those years, so long ago, when his first children come from."

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"Oh! Maybe he fed on a real dragon, ages ago, and that's what got him so juiced up?"

Dead Head looks at Avenger. Well, at where he last knew him to be.

"Hey, who's t'say dragons weren't real? Why would they be more preposterous than vampires or witches or demons or aliens runnin' around?"

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"I don't know, Dead Head," said Jack, suddenly dropping Avenger's persona for a moment. "I find it's best not to speculate on the habits of my kind. Within a few centuries, nothing they do is something I want to dwell on. The immortality of someone like Daedalus or Scarab is different than what we experience. After enough human lifetimes go by, you simply aren't one anymore. And you?" he asked suddenly. "All things end, Dead Head. How do you see your road ending?"

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Dead Head laughed again, "Endin'?! Near as I can figure, I cain't end! Y'know how havin' yer head lopped off is th' surest way t'put down a zombie -- or, for the matter, a vampire? Well, that don't work on me! Nothin' does! I been through just about e'ry punishment imaginable, an' I keep comin' back!"

"An' that's jes fine by me, 'cuz there's a whole lot in this world I wanna see, an' so many people I can help. Yeah, I was grim an' broodin' when I first got changed, but after a few years, I learned t'let go'a all that anger an' grief, an' use my energy t'help people, an' t'jes enjoy mah existence."

"Whoa, back up a sec: Daedalus an' Scarab are immortals?"

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"Scarab, I know for certain is," said Avenger calmly. What the heck, she'd been pretty free and easy with his secrets, hadn't she? "As for Daedalus, I've seen pictures of the Freedom League's encounter with Count Orlok in the 1960s, the ones Orlok's people made while they were retreating." Orlok had been decapitated by a blast of light from no less than the first Star Knight himself. "I find it unlikely at best that the two men are even father and son." He didn't comment on Dead Head's personality. It seemed...cruel.

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"Soo... Scarab's some sorta mummy, an' Daedalus uses his super-science t'keep himself alive?," Dead Head asked. "Oh! Does he keep himself goin' with electricity, like Frankenstein's monster?"

Dead Head had no clue as to the truth, though if he ever laid eyes on Scarab, he would probably see echoes of all her past incarnations clustered around her. It would be quite an unusual sight, even by his standards.

"Hold on, I'd heard Scarab had died back in-"

Dead Head suddenly froze, then he frantically turned this way and that, looking all around him. The hand on his shoulder scrabbled about, finally sliding down his arm and reattaching to its wrist.

"Avenger, we's alone out here. All the haunts an' spooks're gone, or gone hidin'!"

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Avenger completely disappeared himself at that, re-emerging a few moments later in a cloud of night and fog. Keeping his ears peeled for human interlopers, he trusted Dead Head to listen for the spectral. At a loud shriek in the distance, he said, "Rear gate. Made sure the locks were rusty. Must be coming." He crouched low, his leather gloves creaking in the dark. "Must know they're coming."

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