The Stars Move Still

The man struts down Elm Street. It’s nothing more than a skeletal tunnel of dead and gutted buildings. With practiced ease, he side-steps the potholes, the garbage, the greasy brown bones of fleshless corpses, and the blasted out chunks of asphalt and concrete that are the new flora of this world. There’s a rhythm to his walk set to music only he can hear.

Music is extinct. He misses it more than anything else. It’s not because there are no more instruments; some still remain, hidden in shops that the crazies missed in the first days of the chaos. It’s not because there is no electricity to play records, or discs, or digital files; there is, sometimes, in the form of endless supplies of batteries (when they haven’t yet spilled their acidic guts) and the occasional gas-powered generator (when there’s gas). And it’s not because people can’t sing anymore; they most certainly can… they just won’t.

It’s because ‘they’ don’t like music. If you play it or sing it or even hum it they will come and rip you to pieces.

Fuck that. That’s the conclusion he inevitably arrives at when he starts missing music. Fuck. That. He makes his own music now, in his head where nobody can hear it, and it shows in his walk. It always shows in his walk.

He calls himself ‘Prophet’ because he’s a motherfucking rockstar and motherfucking rockstars deserve enigmatic names. A name like that makes certain people stop and think, makes them wonder what your deal is, makes them take you seriously. They’re the kind of people who would rather be led than lead. Like sheep.

Four such sheep wait for him in the middle of an intersection, impatiently watching as he takes his time getting there. He tugs at his crotch because that’s what rockstars do when they’re being watched. Also because these leather pants really make his balls itch in this ridiculous humidity. He doesn’t care. They make him look good. So, too, do the heavy black motorcycle boots wrapped around his feet (which are two sizes too large), and the zebra-stripped vest pulled taut over his otherwise shirtless and hairless chest. Chicks love the vest.

He smirks.

The old him, the one who used to be called Greg Frizer (waiter, Hard Rock Cafe) before the world went belly up, never smirked, never wore vests or leather pants or motorcycle boots, never got the chicks. The new him (the motherfucking rockstar him) smirks all the time and always gets the chicks whether they want to be gotten or not. Especially if they don’t want to be gotten, because that’s how he rolls. He crawled out of the fetid corpse of the old, dead world a brand new man.

“Well?” says the overweight one as he arrives.

He gives him a steely-eyed glare. All those hours practicing in front of the mirror are well spent because the other man withers. “Don’t speak to me, Ed-ward,” he hisses, deliberately over-enunciating the man’s name. “Don’t ever speak to me.”

Ed-ward bites his lip, then looks away. Prophet is sick of his voice, sick of his pasty face, sick of his nauseating odor, and sick to death of how his eyes never seem to look in the same direction. So he has forbidden Ed-ward from ever speaking directly to him again. The small, dark voice of his subconscious urges Prophet to just kill the man and be done with it. He’d rather not, though. Nothing puts sheep off more than indiscriminately killing one of their own. Placing him on mute works for now. This makes Ed-ward hate him even more, which amuses Prophet endlessly.

The skinny one that always stinks of marijuana steps forward. Her name is Polly. She wears her hair bunched up in nappy-looking dreads, and her pastel-colored paper-thin clothes are full of holes and tears. Often he finds himself staring at her when she’s not looking, thinking that perhaps she’s still ‘do-able’. But the illusion of attraction dissipates as soon as she opens her mouth to speak.

“Edward wants to know what the plan is.” Each word scrunches up her face like she’s talking through a mouthful of ash. “We all do.”

Prophet makes a mental note to put her vagina out of its misery tonight when she least expects it… like when she’s using the toilet. He makes that note every day but never follows through. She has a way of putting him off that he doesn’t understand. Whenever he’s around her too long the music in his head switches from arena rock to stoner jams. He hates that. He hates her almost as much as Ed-ward hates him. He wants to fuck her and to kill her at the same time and that drives him crazy.

“Blackfoot took the National Guard Armory last night. He lost half of his crew because the army peckerwoods inside were obviously better trained than them,” Prophet says, slipping a pair of sleek sunglasses from his vest pocket and onto his face. The sun breaks through a gap the buildings, illuminating him. Perfect timing, he thinks.

The third member of the group, a tight little number in her forties who used to have three kids in the bad old days, speaks up. Her name is Claire but he thinks of her as ‘MILF Claire’. “It should be easy to take it from him. His crew will be in bad shape.”

Prophets nods. “Perhaps,” he drawls. That’s his new affectation this week: Perhaps. It makes him sound smarter than he is. “But no matter how bad his crew is hurting, the fact is they’re inside that fortress and we’re not.” Left unsaid is how desperately Prophet wants to kill Blackfoot. That bastard will get what’s coming to him, he thinks. One way or another.

Finally, Steve speaks up. He’s new to the group, a short muscular man with strapping arms that can easily break a man in half. His imposing physique is intimidating as hell, but thankfully his calm demeanor is reassuring. That even temper makes him a valuable ally, even if Prophet doesn’t exactly like him. Why should he? He’s the rockstar here, not that over-inflated meat balloon. Yet, he tries not to display as much contempt for him as he does the others. Prophet is not suicidal, after all. “We’re running out of time,” Steve says. “A massive pack of Flayers is headed this way and we need to hunker down somewhere until they pass.”

“’Flayers’?” Prophet says. “What the fuck is a ‘Flayer’?”

“Them,” Polly says. She gives him a pointed look like he should know what she’s blathering about. The music in his head skips a beat. ”You know… them.” The urge to dig out her eyes with a knife and grind them under his boot heel wells up from his dark place. That’s how much he hates her.

“That’s her new name for the zom—,” MILF Claire begins before Ed-ward cuts her off.

“Don’t call them that! Whatever this is, that most definitely isn’t it.”

Prophet exhales, annoyed. He doesn’t know why Polly calls them Flayers. He doesn’t care. His sole purpose in this new life is to survive, to be a motherfucking rockstar, and to look good doing it. (And to rule, he thinks darkly) “Come on,” he says. “We’ve got some planning to do.” As he starts walking toward their improvised redoubt, the others fall into step behind him like the obedient sheep they are. “Steve, you’re the one who scouted out that pack. How long do we have?”

“One day, if we’re lucky. I found an old phonograph in an antique store that I put in their path and cranked it up with some Wagner. That should slow them down.”

“Good thinking,” Prophet replies, not meaning it in the least. It was a common sense maneuver, at best. The music will drive the Flayers mad. Even after they destroy the offending device, their orgy of rage should last a good half a day, minimum.

——

They’re inside a well-fortified country-western clothing store (Halford’s Big Red Skies). The roll-down gates over the windows and doors are good for holding small groups of Flayers at bay while the old piles of clothes make for comfortable beds and, if necessary, impromptu obstacles once doused in gasoline and ignited.

The others are doing whatever. MILF Claire cooks up dinner (stewed rat again, probably). Ed-ward skulks in the changing rooms where he always goes to get away from Prophet. Polly and Steve sleep in the same pile. They always sleep together in a bizarrely asexual way. Prophet once asked Steve if he was gay but never received an answer. He hopes he is because he really could use a good blowjob for a change.

Prophet’s pile at the back of the store is the largest. It‘s surrounded by racks of gothic candelabras stolen from the ruined church down the street. He enjoys the faux regality of it all. Dozens of wax candles cast a flickering golden light over him. Shoving his hand down his pants, he idly strokes himself while thinking deep thoughts.

He hates Blackfoot so much that it twists his guts into knots. There used to be a deep trust between them before the other man left, taking almost the entire crew with him. That betrayal cut Prophet deeply. He knows, clearly too late at this point, that his mistake was in trusting him at all, a mistake he won’t soon make again with anyone else. They were too similar: they had the same thoughts and ideas; always liked the same things; and even shared the same peccadillos. Blackfoot was supposed to be his friend, which for a man who never before had a single friend in his entire life, meant everything. Then Blackfoot turned Prophet’s friendship around on him like an assassin’s blade.

“Blackfoot,” he sneers, wondering how exactly they will take the Armory away from him. The candle flames flicker in a breeze he barely notices. “Blackfoot,” he repeats peevishly and this time the breeze gutters half of the flames into gray wisps of smoke. He licks his lips. Dwelling on his old “friend” stirs the memory of some truly horrible music. Not horrible as in “this isn’t my kind of song” but horrible as in something so raw, so primal, so unnatural as to crack the pillars of his soul. Although he’s not the superstitious type, he begins to feel a dark undercurrent flowing between him and Blackfoot. He wishes he knew his real name. Unfortunately, he never bothered to ask. Names, as Greg ‘Prophet’ Frizer knows all too well, are powerful things.

Picking up a pink bra stained with dried brown blood, he sniffs it. A smoked meat stink jars loose another memory. Once, he and Blackfoot were cooking bratwursts over a campfire when he asked him why he dressed like a cartoon character, what with all the fake feathers and beads and leathers like Geronimo or Sitting Bull. Blackfoot replied that he was three-quarters Indian, that his people worshipped old gods, and that his chosen regalia was in honor of them. Apparently that also meant arming himself with a compound bow and wide steel-tipped arrows. Although he couldn’t hit the broadside of a skyscraper with it, his so-called Indian heritage had blessed him with crazy tracking skills. The man could find a mouse fart in a tornado.

That’s what makes Blackfoot so dangerous, Prophet thinks. He can find anything or anyone. It occurs to him that everyone Blackfoot took with him were people he had personally tracked down and recruited. “What a son of a bitch,” he mutters. The entire crew had been in his pocket all along.

MILF Claire comes over with a bowl of stew. “Hungry?”

“No,” he says. “Thanks.”

She gives him a wan smile, wrinkles popping out to show her age. She used to have high school-aged kids. In better days, he would never have given her the time of day much less even glanced at her. These days, she’s the only woman who willingly has sex with him, and when she does she’s like a wild animal. Although it’s not the best sex he’s ever had, it’s certainly the most vigorous.

Sitting, she puts the bowl aside and draws him close to her, pulling his head down to her lap and gently stroking his hair. A good mother, he thinks before quickly banishing it. There’s no bigger buzzkill than thinking about mothers while you’re working up the blood to have sex with one.

A good mother… He sits up. “I think I’ve got it.”

MILF Claire regards him with studied patience. “Got what?”

“I know how to take him down.”

—–

The National Guard Armory sinks into the ground of a relatively isolated plot of land on Gardenia Street. Its nearest neighbors are 30 feet away on either side, nothing more than burned out husks. One used to be a McDonalds, the other a QuikTrip.

“I don’t like this,” Ed-ward whines. “It feels wrong.”

Prophet ignores him as he examines the Armory.

Although it’s the dead of night, the second floor blazes with lights. That means electricity. He can barely hear the dim stammer of a gas-powered generator on the roof. The first floor (heavily fortified in the best of times) looks like it’s wrapped in steel and then varnished with a layer of barbed wired. The main vehicle entrance is basically an oversized garage door and is impossible to penetrate thanks to the overturned deuce-and-a-half laying in front of it. The truck’s roof faces out toward the street while the undercarriage faces in toward the garage. Murder holes have been blowtorched through it, forming narrow windows through which to shoot rifles or shotguns or even arrows out into the street. The garage door rises half way up to the top edge of the toppled over truck, and can be lowered in seconds. The constant activity inside the garage means Blackfoot’s men are preparing for a fight.

The other door is the pedestrian entrance. Prophet figures Blackfoot had his crew barricade it to the point of being absolutely impenetrable. It’s what he would do. So, he dismisses it as an assault point.

“Maybe we should just let him keep it. Let’s go to the Macy’s over on 10th,” Polly says. “Remember Legion’s crew? They already fortified the top floors.” From his dark place, he once again sees himself stabbing out her eyes. He hates her more each day.

“And get infected with whatever took them out? No thanks,” Ed-ward says.

“He’s right, Pol,” MILF Claire says. “Not even the Flayers go near that place.”

Sighing, Prophet closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. He tries to focus, to tune them out. The music in his head keeps skipping beats. But his inner darkness helps. It’s always there, urging him to knife Polly or fill Ed-ward’s mouth with hot liquid asphalt, but when he needs to center himself it’s also his go-to place. All he needs to do is tap into a very small corner of it…

“Exactly! That’s what makes it the perfect place to hide from the pack,” Polly says.

MILF Claire shakes her head. “If there’s something there that terrifies even the Flayers then I most certainly do not want to find out what it is.”

“Quiet,” Steve says. His voice is soft but it cuts through the chatter. Everyone listens to him because nobody wants to see what would happen if he were to ever get upset.

They shift nervously as they stare at the Armory, waiting for Prophet to come around. They’re scared. He’s scared, and that’s not something he admits easily. Five of them to storm the castle? Maybe he is suicidal, after all.

Exhaling slowly, Prophet begins to feel calm. The darkness has centered him. Now he tunes into the music that drives him. The song is an old one from childhood, one he heard his mother playing frequently on their duct-taped boombox. He doesn’t remember the name or the band. He’s not even sure he remembers the chorus correctly. He just remembers the rhythm, a genetic memory he’s carried his whole life. That song has never left him. It comforts him. It also tends to make the darkness recede slightly, and for that he’s grateful. Sometimes he worries he’ll let in too much of it and go completely mass-murderer on everyone. That would be bad.

His awareness floats outward, away from his body. This isn’t the first time he’s had such a fantasy. It’s a frequent one, actually, comforting and curiously realistic. While he never believed all the New Age crap in his past life, in this life he has found himself retreating more and more frequently to the surreal mind-space of his imagination. At the very least, this self-taught meditation calms him down, allows him to get his thoughts in order, and allows him to see the big picture. It is solely this quality, this preternatural quietude, this profound mindfulness, that draws others toward him and turns him into a leader. He doesn’t understand it. It just is what it is.

In his mind’s eye, he drifts across the street to the Armory where he feels the other crew’s melodies brushing against him. Some feel like feathers, others like knives. A dozen songs. Everyone has one. Everyone misses music and sustains their own private rhythm. It’s the way of the world these days. He senses their feelings: they’re dead tired from the battle that allowed them to claim this place; they’re hungry because the soldiers who lived here were low on supplies; and they miss their loved ones.

Then it happens. His music stops cold. His body suddenly yanks his awareness back into it. This has never happened before and it makes him nervous. The inner darkness that he kept buried for so long starts to swell, filling the gap left by the music. It also reveals something hidden. He worries that he’s on the verge of finally snapping and going full-bore crazy. He’s seen it happen many times with others. But this is not his hidden mass-murderer. The darkness parts momentarily to reveal one word, whispered like a lover’s gentle exhalation of breath against the skin: “Azura’than.”

His eyes snap open.

He’s back in the present surrounded by his crew. They watch him expectantly. The music is also back, reflected in the cocksure posture he assumes. But underlying the music is that new thing: whispers, increasing, multiplying, expanding. Endless whispers he cannot decipher because the sanity-sustaining music is too loud. But he feels them.

With a calmness that is out of character, he says, “Bring the girl.”

Polly nods, jogging back to where 10 people kneel behind an old delivery van, hands tied behind their backs. She grabs one — a young woman in her twenties wearing the filthy remnants of a business suit clearly designed for a man and probably the only thing she could find close to her size — and drags her forward. The girl stumbles to the ground at Prophet’s feet.

Inside the Armory garage there is commotion. Blackfoot’s crew recognizes the girl. She’s someone’s sister.

Prophet watches with detachment as she sobs. She doesn’t know what is about to happen but she knows it’s not going to be good. He focuses harder on her, trying to hear her song. The image of black-winged birds erupting from her forehead fills his mind’s eye momentarily. They flap and swarm like a feathery storm before diving toward him and bursting to motes against his body.

He turns to Steve, that implacable knot of tautly wrapped steel cable molded into human form. “Steve,” he says. Even to his own ears his voice has an odd quality to it. Resignation? Weariness? He can’t tell. It’s as if he’s sitting in the passenger seat of his own brain watching another version of himself drive. “Baptize the bitch.”

Steve picks up the aluminum can of gasoline sitting at his feet and douses her with its amber-tinged fluid. She shrieks as understanding sinks in, and from the toxic sting as it spills into her eyes and mouth. The other nine people start panicking, too. MILF Claire fires her pistol at the ground in front of them. That’s all the warning they need; their screaming dwindles down into muffled sobbing.

A man inside the Armory shouts, “Stop!”

Prophet slips his sunglasses onto his face like the rockstar he is. Then he takes a Zippo lighter from his pants pocket and snaps it open, just like in the movies he used to watch. The click-clack sound carries across the street.

There’s a loud crack from a rifle. Dust and gun smoke plume outward from a murder hole. The asphalt at Prophet’s feet spits up blasted chunks where the bullet strikes. He knows who fired the shot: Albert, the bitch’s older brother. He also knows Albert tried his damnedest to hit him. He doesn’t know why he missed, though.

MILF Claire and Polly begin dragging more hostages out from behind the van. The commotion inside the armory garage grows, mostly from despair. Steve starts dumping gas over them.

“I’m coming to see Blackfoot,” he says. He doesn’t need to shout. They hear him. Whatever’s going on inside him, it gives him presence. And while his crew can’t see it, he struggles to maintain focus as the whispers struggle against his music for attention. Across the street, Blackfoot’s crew senses something has changed. They know not to fuck with Prophet, despite his being armed with just a fancy cigarette lighter. Whatever’s going on inside him it’s also reaching out to them. He can feel it. “Tell him it’s time for us to have a little pow-wow.”

—–

Prophet strides through the Armory hallways without fear. Outside, his crew keeps watch over ten soaking wet hostages. Nobody in the armory wants to see their loved ones go up in flames, so they don’t touch a hair on his head. He smirks. He’s good at it. He smirks and walks to the rhythm of his own music because he’s got their undivided attention; they’re all tuned into him now. Blackfoot and his crew got careless. They didn’t bring their loved ones with them when they fought for the Armory, and afterwards they didn’t have time to collect them while they secured it.

Two women escort him. They’re decked out in ill-fitting camouflage from the armory stores and armed with deadly automatic rifles. The blonde one makes him hear the churning jet-engine roar of a death metal song. She’s wet between her thighs. He knows this with absolutely certainty. The look she gives him when he glances sidelong at her through his shades screams “fuck me!” He knows what drives her, too: death and destruction. He excites her for what he represents. She wants his crew to torch those innocents. What does she care? She doesn’t know any of them. He understands why Blackfoot sent her to escort him because she’s 100% Grade-A psychopath. A small part of him worries that she’ll kill him just to see those people outside go up in flames. She won’t, though. Not yet anyway. She sees his ultimate mission as being far greater than the unlit funeral pyre outside. All she needs to do is stick around long enough to witness the coming carnage. Her song is quickly aligning with his.

The other woman is a nobody, a non-entity. He barely registers her at all. She has no song whatsoever. Although she walks along with them, gun pressed against his ribs, she’s already dead and doesn’t yet realize it.

He says to the blonde, “What’s your name?”

The dead one prods him with her gun. “Shut up,” she growls unconvincingly. He ignores her.

“Mary,” the blonde one replies. The light in her eyes brightens at the attention he gives her.

Prophet nods. “You’re new.”

“Yeah. So what?”

The dead one looks at Mary. “Stop talking to him. You heard Blackfoot.”

Mary ignores her. The dead one is her Ed-ward, Prophet thinks. “Is Blackfoot good to you?”

She shrugs. “Does it matter?”

“Yeah, it matters.” He smiles, giving his cock a tug through the leather pants, then smiles even wider when he catches her looking.

They finally come to a closed office door that, according to the name plate screwed into it, once belonged to Sergeant Major Jim Hetfield. Glancing at Dead Girl, he sniffs contemptuously then gives Blonde Mary one last look. “We’ll talk again when this over.” He makes a mental note to break her and break her hard before her psychopath nature gets the better of her and she turns on him. He can’t wait. Their two songs are so synchronized that the throbbing heavy metal groove in his head threatens to drive him right to his knees. However, the whispers beneath it vibrate with primal agitation. This shit is pure uncut nitro.

Dead Girl pushes open the door, gesturing for him to step through into the office.

—–

Blackfoot sits in the Sergeant Major’s plush leather chair behind a big oak desk. For a second, Prophet is taken aback. He fully expected to see Injun Joe waiting for him, maybe sucking on a peace pipe and slow-smoking a rack of buffalo flank. Instead he finds Blackfoot dressed in military fatigues. He’s buying this army bullshit lock, stock and barrel.

“Greg,” Blackfoot says, clearly using his old name to throw him off his game.

The song in his head has become far too powerful at this point, and much too distracting. He needs it to stop just long enough for him deal with this backstabbing sumbitch but Blonde Mary really did a number on him. Their music… his music and the rhythm that gives him that rockstar stride is stronger than ever. So he opens himself completely to the inner darkness, to the whispers and all their power. The heavy metal thunder resists, then wavers, and that’s when the whispers slip in and supplant it. They wrap around the music, entwine it, and crush it. With the song finally annihilated, the whispers swell into a cacophonous chorus. It stuns him. There’s so much power here. They give him so much more strength than the music ever did. If only he had known this earlier.

All this happens in the space of a single breath.

Blackfoot never told him his real name but Prophet knows it anyway. The whispers tell him. “Timothy,” he says in return greeting.

Blackfoot blinks in surprise. Now he’s the one who is thrown off his game.

Prophet steps forward, closing the distance between them. “You lied to me,” he says, calmly lifting a snow globe from the desk. It shows a miniature diorama of Chicago. The whispers tell him to crush it. The memories it holds are vile and offensive. Giving it a shake instead, he continues, “You used me. You betrayed me.”

Hand unsteady, Blackfoot raises a pistol at him. “You need to let our people go.”

Prophet watches the plastic snow flakes inside the blue dyed water swirl. Brownian motion. Predictability arising out of chaos. They move so slowly. “No.”

The snow flakes trigger something in him. The clock on the wall seems to slow down. Like a door opening on a vast and horizonless ocean, his awareness expands again. There are more whispers, more voices than he can ever comprehend. It’s so overwhelming that he can barely stay keep standing. He struggles not to show any outward sign that something is amiss.

Blackfoot waves the gun. “Let them go, walk out of here, and we’ll both go our separate ways in peace,” he says. There’s a shakiness to his voice.

Prophet doesn’t pay attention to him. He’s listening to the whispers. Closing his eyes, he turns his inner vision toward Blackfoot. There’s some serious darkness in him but it’s not music, like with the others. He hears the whispers too, Prophet realizes, but he fears them because they’re so primal, so unimaginably ancient, so indecipherable. He does everything he can to resist them, and this is slowly driving him insane. Prophet sees images of Blackfoot sitting shirtless in a blasted out tattoo parlor, carving strange symbols into his own flesh with a quiet needle gun and musty black ink. Blood flows freely from the wounds. He knows that underneath the man’s camouflage uniform his entire body is covered in them. More images of him moving through the city as silent as a ghost, tracking down survivors. He offers them safety, gets close to them, then whispers in their ears. Prophet doesn’t know what Blackfoot says, just that when he’s done the survivors are filled with a strange loyalty to him. Many of them head off toward Legion’s old enclave. In resisting the whispers, Blackfoot thinks he has subverted them and made their power his own. Oh, you stupid fool, Prophet thinks. You’ve made a big mistake.

His eyes open. Only a few seconds have passed; the clock on the wall shows time still ticking inside the same minute as before. “What did you do to Legion?” he asks.

Blackfoot is surprised again. Licking his lips uncertainly, he says, “Nothing. Legion’s crew cleared out weeks ago. How did you… No. We’re done talking.” As his finger wraps around the trigger, Prophet realizes he must have men in position waiting to hear the gun shot so they can snipe his crew before they torch the hostages.

In the second Blackfoot begins to fire the gun, the whispers manifest in Prophet’s throat and mouth, providing another word for him to speak. It feels like an ancient, withered hand suddenly plucking at his vocal chords: ”Ezrak.”

Blackfoot freezes, pistol still raised, finger still in mid-pull. His eyes go vacant while a thin black film seeps slowly into them.

Prophet cocks his head curiously as he watches Blackfoot’s eyes grow darker. Interesting, he thinks, growing more and more detached. The snow globe feels heavy in his hand. He looks down at it, watching the last faux flake spiral around the Sears Tower. The whispers goad him on, so he whips the globe at Blackfoot, striking him in the cheek with a mushy crack. The snow globe shatters along with the cheek bone, spraying blue water and white snow flakes all over. Blackfoot still doesn’t move despite the blow. Blood seeps from his nostrils, eyes, and ears. What’s happening to me? Prophet thinks.

“Color me impressed, Greg Frizer,” a voice says behind him.

Slowly, he turns.

Steve stands in the door. Crowded into the hallway behind him are Blackfoot’s crew, Polly, MILF Claire, and even the hostages. What’s happening? he thinks again. 

Steve smiles. “You’ve finally arrived. I wasn’t sure if it would be you or,” he looks disdainfully at Blackfoot, “that one.”

“You…,” Prophet croaks. His throat still feels like it’s in the grip of an invisible fist. “You’ve taken everything from me. What am I supposed to do now?” It’s a ridiculous question but he can no longer think so clearly.

The vault holding Steve’s thoughts opens one creaking inch at a time. There’s no music there. There never was. His true self emerges. Like his cinderblock physique it’s both horrible and glorious at the same time. Prophet wants to weep uncontrollably in the pathetic hope that the man will embrace him forever and ever; he also wants to rip out his own throat with his bare hands to make sure that can never happen.

“You will serve a new master.”

Behind Prophet there’s a loud thud as Blackfoot finally collapses dead to the floor. “Steve,” he says meekly. “Wait… this isn’t what I wanted…” The whispers embrace his mind, dismantling it thought by thought with a future promise to rebuild it in their image. He wants to scream, I’m the motherfucking rockstar! Not you! I’M THE MOTHERFUCKING ROCKSTAR! But he can’t. He’s no longer in control.

Steve spreads his arms. The former motherfucking rockstar takes uncertain steps toward him, as if being manipulated by marionette strings. When he’s within arm’s reach, Steve does indeed embrace him and it’s every bit as horrible as he imagined. Gently, the big man whispers in his ear, “Shoggshila vru’yazil graal zkraziki.”

Surrender to our everlasting will.