The Black Chalice Blues Part 3 of 3

The exciting conclusion to the story that began in Issue 11 and continued in Issue 12.

Listen master can I ask you a question
Is it the fingers or the brain that you’re teaching the lesson?
Oh, I can't tell you how proud I am
Writin’ down things that I don't understand
Well, maybe I’ll put my love on ice
And teach myself, maybe that’ll be nice, yeah

— The White Stripes, “Black Math”

Bursting into the Great Hall, the first thing the Alphabet Agent noticed was what appeared to be an old and battle-scarred jet fighter suspended by cables from the rafters. The second was the glittering eye of Claremont Day, which was looking at him over a rangefinder attached to a long, gray-green metal tube.

“Down!” the Agent yelled, grabbing Professor Astray by his good arm and diving for the near corner of the hall. Something whooshed past, trailing a plume of white smoke and slammed into the wall behind them with a deafening explosion. The entire room seemed to lurch. The suspended jet swayed gently. Prone on the floor, the two of them were showered with plaster, bits of stone, and chunks of burning wood. Smoke obscured everything.

“Christos!” exclaimed Professor Astray, his ears ringing, “what was that?”

“I think it was a Panzerfaust,” said the Agent, who sat up and began patting out the corner of his trench coat that had caught fire. “It’s a German anti-tank weapon from the Second World War.”

“Where the hell did he get...” the Professor started to ask, but just then a strong breeze from the fissure in the wall parted the smoke surrounding them like a veil. Down the center of the Great Hall stretched a long banquet table, already set for dinner with glass and silver and elaborate centerpieces; two fireplaces were at either end of the hall, surrounded by armchairs, footstools, and side tables; and lining every square inch of the walls was a collection of weapons that seemed to cover the gamut of human history. Everything from broadswords, shields, and flails to machine guns, mortars, and something that might possibly be a surface-to-air missile.

“Gosh,” said the Agent. “It’s like the T.G.I. Fridays in Hell.”

And just to make the scene complete, not twenty yards away from them, Claremont Day, Blacksword in a sheath strapped to his back, was searching the walls intently. The Alphabet Agent, whose hearing was especially good at isolating signal from noise, could just make out the Anti-Paladin muttering under his breath, “Flamethrower... flamethrower... gotta be a flamethrower somewhere in this goddamned place...”

“You know Professor,” said the Agent, getting to his feet but still staying low, “cavalier as I am with risking your life, it might be best if you got out of here.” He extended a white-gloved hand and helped the Professor up.

“But... I mean...” — as the Professor spoke he looked rapidly back and forth between the Agent and Day, causing the plaster dust in his hair to fly around his head — “those people in the train station,” he finished lamely.

He was referring to an incident two days before in the Berlin Bahnhof, where Day had finally realized he was being followed and forced a confrontation. He’d decapitated two bystanders in the melee before breaking and running.

The Agent wondered why the Professor brought that up now. Had the sight sickened him? Convinced him that Day had to be stopped, whatever the cost? Or could it be that Professor Astray actually felt some sort of connection to him after all this time? Was worried that he, the Agent, might get himself killed?

“If you think he’s dangerous, just imagine the man who collected all this stuff, hmm?” said the Agent. Crouching, they began moving for cover near the banquet table. “The Anti-Grail is the important thing. You get to the chapel like we agreed and do what you can to — “

The Agent was cut off in mid-sentence by the distinctive “chuck-chack” sound made by the bolt on a Thompson submachine gun. Day turned to them, grinning, the weapon bearing down.

Shoving the Professor back the way they had come in, the Agent turned and sprinted up the hall. The first salvo of bullets went high and wild, peppering a rack of polearms above him. The Agent dived behind the banquet table as a few of them came clattering down.

Unnoticed by everyone in the room, a ricocheting bullet punctured a large artillery shell in the far corner of the hall. A heavy, noxious yellow gas began to pour out, silently carpeting the floor around the shell.

“Gosh, it's like the T.G.I. Fridays in Hell.”

The Professor quickly made it back to the gap blown in the wall by the Panzerfaust. Sections of the gap were still on fire and it was starting to spread. He glanced back to make sure Day wasn’t getting ready to cut him in half with another burst. He needn’t have worried. Day was ignoring him completely to advance on the Agent, screaming “C’mon out you creepy bastard!” Astray picked his way through the debris out to the courtyard and began running for the chapel.

Day raked the top of the table twice more with the Thompson. Fragments of glass and china flew. The pain in his skull was singing to him now, the blood throbbing an anthem of ascendance in his temples. Today, this very day, he would achieve his purpose in life. His destiny was out there, waiting for him to claim it, “And I’ll be damned if a freak like you keeps me from it!” he finished aloud.

Underneath the table, the Alphabet Agent squared his shoulders, took a small metal rod about the size of a magic marker out of his pocket and gripped it in his fist, waiting.

Day took two strides forward, dropped to one knee, and suddenly he and the Agent were facing one another under the table. “Man, I wish I could see the look on your face,” said Day.

Just as he squeezed the trigger the Agent lunged forward, jamming the rod down the barrel of the gun. The nearly-empty magazine exploded, spinning a hot barb of metal deep into Day’s left shoulder. Acting on reflex, he dropped the gun and rolled backwards —

— into the worst smell he’d ever known in his life. It seemed to be a horrible combination of rotten eggs, burning hair... and pain. The smallest breath of it was agony. Choking and spitting, Day rose to his feet, his throat and sinuses feeling soaked in acid. The yellow gas was pooled around his shins, like dry-ice fog on a movie set. He quickly made for the only high ground there was; using a chair as a step, he bounded up to stand on one end of the banquet table.

The Alphabet Agent was already standing on the other end. He was backlit by the fire at the far corner of the hall that was now raging well and truly out of control. Above them dark gray smoke was beginning to fill the rafters, obscuring the suspended fighter jet as it descended. Beneath them the banquet table looked as if it were floating on a thick yellow lake of slowly rising poison. They stared at each other through the constricting band of fresh air. The fire reached a belt of ammunition for an old Maxim gun that began to go off like a string of Blackcat fireworks.

“You know,” said the Agent in a Voice exactly like that of Claremont Day’s long-dead father, “you could always give up or something.”

Eyes red and watering, blood running from his shoulder down his arm, blisters already beginning to form on his lips and tongue, Day reached over his shoulder, drew the Blacksword from the leather cross-sheath he’d had custom-made before leaving California, and charged down the table.

The Agent ran to meet him. He hoped to dodge Day’s first thrust and grab his sword arm, but Day was a fraction faster than he expected. The point of the Blacksword dipped suddenly and struck him above his left hip, glancing off his pelvic bone to bury itself deep in his side. The pain — much more painful, the Agent thought, than a wound that size had any right to be — was accompanied by a shock of intense cold that nearly paralyzed the left side of his body.

Day pulled the blade out and back for a slash, trying to keep the Agent from closing with him. But this time it was the Agent who was faster, stepping in and grabbing his upraised sword arm with one hand, and with the other striking hard at the nerve cluster in Day’s armpit with the end of his metal rod.

Day only just managed to hold on to his sword. Snarling with rage, he drove his knee up into the Agent’s wounded side. Still struggling to hold Day’s sword arm, the Agent gasped in pain, clutched at Day’s knee to yank him off-balance, and drove forward with his entire bodyweight.

They both fell crashing to the table, the Agent on top. Howling from the centerpiece now wedged under the small of his back, Day threw an awkward punch with his free hand. He only managed to break a knuckle on the Agent’s porcelain mask. Undeterred, Day pushed out with the heel of his bloody palm under the Agent’s chin, forcing his head up and back.

Which meant the Agent was looking almost straight up when it happened. With a sound not unlike a D string breaking on a hundred-foot-tall guitar, one of the cables supporting the fighter jet snapped free from its anchor. The remaining cables straining, the nose of the jet dipped down out of the smoke, pointing directly to the spot where the two men struggled.

The plane hung there a moment, like a heavy drop of dew on the tip of a blade of grass. Then, with a sound like a thousand sledgehammers smashing a thousand grand pianos it tore free, diving straight towards them like a giant metallic bird of prey.

At that exact moment, the Agent suddenly — inexplicably — found himself remembering with almost photographic clarity the moment he had received his current assignment. He had been in one of the large, oval rooms of the Directorate, being briefed by a man in a plain gray suit. The man had been average height, average weight, average everything in fact. And he had of course been wearing a featureless porcelain mask.

“There may be some temporal anomalies,” the man giving the briefing had said, “when the Entity begins to manifest itself.”

“Interesting,” the Agent had replied. He always found it soothing and dull being briefed, not unlike talking to himself. Which, in a very real sense, he was. “Déjà vu, lost time, all the typical things? Or are we talking more critical violations of causality? Events looping themselves? Effects preceding causes? Or perhaps... perhaps meeting some future version of myself?”

The other man (who was not very “other” at all) had inclined his head ever so slightly at that, perhaps wondering if a joke were being made at his expense.

“Since the Entity is trying to impose a history of itself upon the world, it’s unlikely there will be any spatial displacement,” the man behind the desk had said.

(And had he been behind the desk, or in front of it? Both sides were identical as mirror images, right down to the men in the room. The only clue might have been the orientation of the papers on the desk that were occasionally read from or straightened or clipped... but every one of them was blank.)

“The most likely anomaly,” one or the other of them had continued, “is that the memories of events associated with the Entity will arise unbidden, with overwhelming force and clarity.”

“Not unlike a flashback sequence in a novel or a film.”

“Just so.”

“Just so.”

Professor Astray sprinted across the castle courtyard, past the wrecked Mercedes he and the Alphabet Agent had used in their pursuit of Claremont Day through the winding roads of the Hartz Mountains. As a professor of Medieval studies, he knew almost by instinct where the chapel ought to be. It was the most useful he had felt in days, since the chase had entered its terminal phase.

There wasn’t a soul in sight. Odd, Astray thought, a place this size had to have a staff — groundskeepers, caretakers, servants — and the sound of the carnage in the Great Hall should have brought them running by now. Instead there was no one, just as there had been no one at the front gate, just as there was no one guarding the entrance to the chapel when Astray, breathless, finally reached it.

He threw open the tall oak doors. The chapel was shorter than he had imagined it, only a dozen or so rows of pews on either side of the central aisle. Astray’s eyes were drawn magnetically down that aisle to the altar, on which, in front of an inverted crucifix, there stood the Black Chalice.

Like Claremont Day’s Blacksword, the chalice seemed to leech the light right out of the air around it. Yet it seemed less solid, less “here.” It wavered, like a signpost in a desert obscured by the rising waves of heat — like a tenuous radio transmission of itself, being broadcast across some unimaginable distance.

Horrified, fascinated, the Professor took a step forward. As he did so, he sensed something, somewhere at the other end of that transmission, take a step towards him. The sensation froze him in his tracks.

“It’s been waiting for you,” said a heavily accented voice to his right.

Astray’s eyes were drawn magnetically down that aisle to the altar, on which, in front of an inverted crucifix, there stood the Black Chalice.

Starting at the sound, the Professor turned, then quickly stepped back in shock and revulsion. The man moving towards him was wearing a blood-red robe, and seemed so ravaged by extreme age as to be nearly a walking corpse. A few wisps of yellow-gray hair still clung to his scaly vulture’s-head. Blackened teeth were visible past his shriveled, livid purple lips. Half the nose had been eaten away by some rotting disease. Only the eyes betrayed any sign of life or vitality, and those were an unnaturally bright, piercing green.

If the events of the past two months hadn’t desensitized Professor Astray to extraordinary sights he would have screamed aloud.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“My name is Valentin Kazakov,” the revenant replied, “and you are welcome to my home.” As he spoke, several other men in similar robes — though none appeared half so grotesque — began to file in from a doorway that led, Astray supposed, to a connecting chancellery. He began to feel seriously outnumbered.

“It has been waiting centuries for you,” Kazakov repeated. “I have been waiting decades for you. Some of these men have been waiting their entire lives. All for you. Go,” he pointed toward the altar with a claw-like hand, “go and drink.”

“I’m not the person you think I am.”

“No,” Kazakov said with rising impatience, “you are not the person you think you are.”

“But there’s this man, this other man... with a sword and everything,” Astray explained, feeling suddenly unsure of himself in the face of the other man’s certainty. This was exactly what he and the Agent had taken such pains to ensure didn’t happen.

“Yes, we know about Day. We get reports from our people in the field. And frankly, I wish he had made it here instead of you. No doubt he would be a damn sight more tractable. But he isn’t here, you are, and that’s what matters. That’s all that matters.”

Professor Astray gaped at him stupidly.

Kazakov gave a sigh of disappointment. “Just so you know,” he said, “you are really taking the fun out of this for us. But whatever. Fine.” He clapped his hands sharply, and two final men appeared in the connecting doorway, bringing the number of red robes to twelve. The last two carried between them a woman in a white dress. One held a large, curved dagger to her throat.

“Drink or we kill the woman.”

Professor Astray had never seen her before without her glasses, or with her hair down, or dressed in anything but the most conservative attire, but there was no mistaking Dr. Arcadia Freeman, a long-time friend and colleague, and the woman whose telephone call so many weeks ago had started him on his strange, terrifying odyssey.

In fact, he could remember that afternoon with almost photographic clarity. He had been sitting in his pigeon-hole of an office in the Medieval Studies department at the University of Barcelona, a hot cup of tea on the desk in front of him, a cigarette smoldering away in a red clay ashtray.

He had been grading papers for the summer term when the phone had rung. “Milan? Is it you?” the voice on the other end had asked in English. “I’ve made the most fascinating find and I think you’re just the person to help me get some perspective on it. It’s like some dark parallel to the Grail legend...”

Oh God no, not Milan, thought Dr. Arcadia Freeman as soon as she was shoved roughly though the chancellery doors. He had obviously come looking for either her or the Anti-Grail. Either way he was completing the quest, and playing right into Kazakov’s hands. She had hoped he would have been clever enough to stay away, but perhaps the truth was just too fantastic for him to comprehend.

She wasn’t clear on what was supposed to happen next, but she had seen and heard enough to know that it was more than the fantasy of a madman. Something real and terrible was about to happen, something that could change the whole world for the worse — maybe destroy the world altogether.

Despite the knife at her throat she somehow found the courage to yell, “Milan, don’t do it! My life isn’t worth it! You don’t know what it will unleash —” before the man to her right pulled the knife away long enough to clout her hard on the side of her head.

For the first time in her entire ordeal she wanted to just break down and cry. It was her own fault, she felt. Her own intellectual vanity had led her on, even when every instinct had warned her to get as far away from Valentin Kazakov as possible and stay away the rest of her life.

She could still remember, with almost photographic clarity, that first day when he had given her a tour of the Great Hall. Back then he had seemed feeble and pathetic, not evil at all.

“My God,” she had exclaimed on seeing the jet, “is that a swastika on the tail of that plane?”

“Oh goodness yes,” Kazakov had replied, stumping along with his cane. “That is an Me262, the first jet fighter to see combat. I know the 20th century isn’t your area of expertise, but as a historian it should still hold some interest for you. It is one of only four extant.”

“I had no idea there were jet fighters in the Second World War.”

“Only in the waning days of the war. The British had one too, the Gloucester Meteor, but the two technologies never confronted each other.” Kazakov’s English, while grammatically near-perfect, was still spoken with a heavy Russian accent.

“What did you do in the war, Mr. Kazakov, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I killed a great many Germans, Dr. Freeman.” He stopped and turned to her, a half-smile on his ruined face. “It was all the rage at the time.”

She had tried very hard to chuckle politely at the joke, but hadn’t quite been able to. The collection of weapons, which had first struck her as impressive, now seemed obsessive, and more than a bit sinister.

Kazakov had drawn out the awkward moment, like a master violin player drawing out a note, and then briskly changed the subject. “Let me show you something,” he said, “that does relate to your field of expertise. It’s the reason I asked you to come visit today when I heard you would be in town for the symposium.”

“Is it here in the hall?” she had asked, glancing around the walls.

“Oh heavens, no,” the Anti-Grail King had replied, “I keep it in the chapel, where it belongs...”

Valentin Kazakov found himself suddenly, with almost photographic clarity, remembering the first time he had ever seen the Black Chalice. Recognizing this as a sign of the advent of the dark power he had long pledged his life and soul to, he let the memory wash over him unquestioned.

In 1936 he had been 25, and one of the youngest Majors in the Soviet Union’s NKVD, on special assignment in Spain to aid in the fight against the Fascist menace.

The Loyalists, desperate for arms and equipment, had been strong-armed into transporting the gold reserves of the Spanish state to Moscow for “safekeeping.” It had fallen to a handful of loyal officers to arrange the shipments, and he had been proud to be one of those chosen.

And one night, in an antechamber of the old Spanish treasury, in a bricked-up room that had not seen the light of day since the Inquisition had been in force, he had begun the dark epic of which this day was the culmination. There, for the first time, he had been filled by its unholy power, had been given his role to play in the grand drama, and the knowledge that when the final curtain fell, it would extinguish the stars themselves...

“You know,” said the Alphabet Agent in a Voice exactly like that of Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, “I hate to interrupt everyone’s reveries, but I would just like to say: Yoink!” And with that snatched the Anti-Grail from its altar.

He had been given his role to play in the grand drama, and the knowledge that when the final curtain fell, it would extinguish the stars themselves...

Everyone shook themselves free of the memory virus to stare at the Agent. Standing before the altar, he was singed in places, filthy with soot and plaster dust and stained with blood — his own in a dark patch down his left side, and Claremont Day’s across the lower half of his mask. The Anti-Paladin’s bloody handprint looked for all the world like an obscene grin.

Kazakov gave a disgusted sneer. “Kill him,” he said simply, and six of the red-robed men began to stride purposefully down the center aisle. The two holding Dr. Freeman didn’t budge. The rest flanked their king.

“Wait,” said the Agent. “One more step and I pour your magic chalice out.” He spilled a little for dramatic effect. The six men stopped and looked back at their master.

“It is a cup that cannot be emptied,” said Kazakov.

Perturbed, the Agent inverted the cup. Soon, more muck had poured out of it that it could ever have contained. “Interesting,” said the Agent. The smell was horrible. The six men continued their advance.

“Wait!” said the Agent. “One more step and I’ll smash it to bits.” He raised the chalice high over his head. Again the six men in robes looked back to their leader.

Kazakov shook his head. “It cannot be destroyed.” The six men turned back and were nearly at the altar.

“Well... shit,” said the Agent. “Wish I’d planned this out a little better.” He braced himself for the attack, and drew his short metal rod.

And that was the moment when Professor Astray put everything together.

“It doesn’t matter who drinks from it!” he called to the Agent. “They were going to have me drink from it! It just has to be someone, anyone who wasn’t here waiting with it!”

“What, just as long as it’s any one, specific, particular person?” the Agent called back.

Astray nodded furiously.

“Well, I really hope this works then,” said the Agent, and with that he turned his back so that no one would see what his mask concealed. He removed it with one hand, raised the Black Chalice with the other, and began to drink.

Somewhere, in a far dark corner, something powerful and ancient began to scream. And Kazakov was screaming with it.

“Noooooooo!” he cried, understanding on some deep level that the undoing of his life’s work was taking place before his eyes. From a hidden fold of his robe he drew a 9mm Luger Parabellum pistol and aimed it at the Agent’s back.

From beneath his suit coat, Professor Astray drew his .357 Ruger Redhawk a fraction of a second faster and shot Kazakov through the heart.

Something somewhere made a great, last, futile struggle to incarnate itself — for a moment, Professor Astray almost thought he could see the outline of its vast wings encompassing the world — and then collapsed back into the nothingness that spawned it.

Everyone stared, struck insensible by the loop-de-loop reality had just been put through. The Agent replaced his mask and turned back to face the people in the chapel. His hands were now empty. The Black Chalice was gone.

“Bleah. That tasted terrible.”

Professor Astray sipped his beer while waiting for the Alphabet Agent to finish his phone call. He was sitting at an outdoor table of a small restaurant in Munich. His ticket back to Spain was open-ended, and he thought he might enjoy a few more days in Germany before heading home. Perhaps, if Dr. Freeman were feeling up to it, they might take in a show.

The Agent came back to the table. “Sorry about that. There’s some trouble with a parallel universe that’s set to invade.”

“Oh... uh, is it serious? I mean, of course it’s serious, it’s just... is there anything I can do to help?”

“Relax, Professor. Nothing I can’t handle. I’m actually looking forward to seeing what their version of me is like. Now, where did I leave off?”

“The airplane was about to crush you and Day.”

“Right. Well, I managed to break his grip, plant my feet, and dive for the end of the table. When the plane landed it broke the table in two and catapulted me to the far side of the room. I managed to make it out the same gap you did, only with a little more burnt hair.”

The Agent’s hair, Astray couldn’t help but notice, seemed fine now. In fact, by the time the Agent and the two academicians were driving away in Kazakov’s Rolls-Royce, the dark stain on his side was already shrinking, and the grin Day had painted on his mask had nearly faded away. For all the two of them had been through, Astray still found it unnerving as hell.

It had been no trouble getting past Kazakov’s apostles. They had been far too shell-shocked from losing their king, their chalice, and their destiny all in the space of ten seconds. Some looked downright suicidal.

“So you’re sure Day is dead?” Astray asked, hoping he didn’t sound too anxious.

“Well, being crushed by a plane and doused in mustard gas and having a large burning building collapse on top of you will usually do the trick. Still and all, I never saw a body. And if there was anyone who would survive a thing like that, it would be Clare.”

Day found the thought less than comforting.

The waiter came with the bill and the Agent waved off Professor Astray as he reached for his wallet. Even though he hadn’t had anything, he paid with his blank credit card, which the waiter looked at uncertainly for a moment, but in the end accepted, rather than say anything.

“So tell me Professor,” the Agent said after the waiter had gone, “we’ve been through customs I don’t know how many times on this little caper. How did you manage to keep a hold of that gun?”

“Well, I guess everyone could see I was traveling with you and decided not to say anything.”

They both shared a laugh over that. Their first and only one together.

The waiter returned and the Agent signed with a scrawl. The Agent and Astray both stood and shook hands.

“Here’s my card,” said the Agent. “Don’t worry, it’s safe to touch. For some reason, there are only two kinds of people this sort of weirdness ever happens to: those who have it happen once, and those who have it happen time and time again. If you think you’re one of those second types of people — I mean if Day shows up again, or if anything else large and bad and inexplicable starts to happen — you just give me a call.” The Agent turned to go.

“You don’t have a name, do you?” Professor Astray asked.

The porcelain mask half-turned back to him. “Of course not. That’s the whole point. You know that, or you wouldn’t have gambled everything on it. Ballsy move, by the way.”

“No friends? No family?”

“You need to be a person — a single, in-particular person to have those sorts of things.” The man in the mask turned and strode off down the street, saying, “The work is very satisfying, though.”

Professor Astray watched him walk away until he rounded a corner and was gone. Only then did he look down at the card he held in his hand.

It was completely blank on both sides, as he somehow knew it had to be.

© 2003, Steve Spaulding
Image: Mario Marino, Black X Homepage

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