3727 Pickwick Lane
Roger Saxon clicked the padlock button on his keychain fob. His BMW honked as the car alarm activated. Frozen grass crunched underfoot as he crossed from the driveway toward his front door. Snow coated the bushes and the lawn. The dusting of powder sparkled in the cloud-scattered moonlight.
Winter nights were quieter than other nights. Never more so than after a snowfall. No birds, no other sounds, except for the occasional whistle of the wind through the bare oak trees that circled his property.
Saxon’s yard was large even for a posh suburb like Newton. In the spring it took his gardening service a half hour just to cut the front section. Landscaped on a slight incline, the lawn stretched out before his stone-faced Colonial style-home on the slope of a small hill. The space was as secluded as the suburbs allowed, bracketed by a white picket fence that framed the driveway on one side and pine hedges that lined the other, blocking off any hint of the neighbors.
It had been a long day. Eighteen solid hours without a break, a dozen interviews from media outlets all over the world, sandwiched between meetings and conference calls, followed by yet another press conference—this one dedicated to covering every imaginable facet of the now-finalized Neutrino Industries merger. He was exhausted.
As he got to his front steps, Saxon stopped for a moment. It was just a brief pause, to take a breath and to enjoy the silence. It was the first time he’d been able to do it all day.
His solitary moment done, and the chill of evening biting into his bare skin, he put his car keys in his pocket and fished around for his house key. It was almost midnight. His wife and his two sons would already be in bed. He didn’t want to wake them. Once he found the key he fiddled with it for an instant before putting it to the lock.
Then he stopped again. He heard breathing, long and slow behind him. He smelled sulfur. He nodded to himself, put the key back into his pocket and let this hand settle at his side. He was no longer alone.
“I thought you might come,” he said, before he even turned around. “But I have to admit, I’m surprised it was this fast.”
He tried to muster up as much courage as he could, but when he did finally turn, he felt his knees go weak. Luther Vayne was standing only ten feet away. He was every bit the horror Saxon had imagined—and worse.
The killer barely moved. He didn’t need to. His very presence was threat enough.
Vayne’s face was a twisted ruin. Gaunt as a death camp inmate. Skull outlines protruded from under his pale skin, stretched taut over the bone. The ink and branding of inscrutable runes snaked across every inch of his flesh. The lines of ancient text left hardly a space untouched—save for two. The bare hollows where his eyes should have been.
His gaze was jarring, vacant and soulless as he stared out from those twin sockets, the skin around them gray and warped with gouging scars. His cheeks sank into the edges of his ragged beard. The hair had receded back from his crown, but was otherwise so long it trailed behind him like a frayed cloak; a mix of age-bleached streaks and dark tangles that fell past his naked shoulders to his waist. With every shift of the night wind, it flared and undulated like the hood of a cobra.
“A long way from Ohio,” Saxon said, his mouth dry and his heart thumping.
“I go where I must,” Vayne answered. “As I always have.”
Even his voice was peculiar—frightening. He spoke in whispered tones, a slow hissing of sorts that stretched every syllable. The words seemed to echo, as though shouted from a great distance.
Saxon squared to face the intruder. He readied for a standoff, though he needed every ounce of strength just to hold himself together. He fought to control the trembling that nearly overcame his limbs, as sweat formed along his brow in the cold of a winter night.
Vayne was deathly still. He had shed most of his prison uniform, retaining only a pair of loose, ragged trousers and leaving the remainder of him exposed to the midnight frost. Runes not only covered his face, but the whole of his body. The blue-black symbols curled and danced over his chest, his hands and even his bare feet.
“I’ve heard so many stories. I had begun to wonder if I’d ever actually meet you. Now at least I can say I’ve had the pleasure,” Saxon said, pushing his false bravado.
Vayne did not answer.
“The Elders warned us about you. They told us the history. They said you would be watching,” Saxon continued.
“It is because of them that I am here,” Vayne replied. “You should remember that in the moments to come.”
“Why is that?”
Vayne smiled. His teeth were yellow and almost fang-like. His mouth was black with rot and decay.
“You will be tempted, I am quite certain, to blame me for the pain you are about to experience. But I would not be here if it were not for them. It is for their arrogance and their foolishness that I must visit great suffering upon you.”
Saxon’s throat seized. He could barely breathe. A chill ran through him that had nothing to do with the temperature.
“They’re ready for you now, old man,” Saxon said, as defiant and he could still manage to appear.
“We all are.”
“You are not. You will never be,” Vayne replied.
Vayne’s voice was somehow disconnected from him. At times his lips moved but made no sound, and yet when his mouth was still Saxon heard him speak. He began to move closer then, though Saxon could detect no hint of footsteps, nor any typical movement whatsoever. Even Vayne’s bodily motion was wrong—unreal. He seemed to move forward and backward simultaneously, like a vintage film reel run in reverse, herky-jerky and missing frames as he bridged the cold space between them.
“I want to assure you, this need not take long,” Vayne continued. “Your instinct will be to resist of course, I understand that. But the end can come as quickly as you choose.”
Saxon stole himself for the confrontation, however useless he knew it to be. He tried to be brave, to stare back at the dark figure. To show no weakness. But it was a hopeless cause. As Vayne came closer the shadows around him began to move of their own accord, raising bat-like wings behind and writhing about his body with black tentacles.
“I won’t tell you anything,” Saxon said.
“You misunderstand,” he answered. “I have not come seeking information. I already know who you are. I am here for one reason only.”
“Which is?” Saxon asked, defiant still.
“To destroy you,” Vayne replied.
“You might get me, but you’ll never get all of us,” Saxon said. “We will endure.”
“But I care nothing for the rest of you,” Vayne said. “My work is nearly done now.”
“What work?” Saxon said. “What do you want?”
“I seek the thirteenth,” Vayne replied. “When the thirteenth is gone, all of her seed will have been erased from the Earth.”
“Wait…her seed?” Saxon said.
“It has been brought to my attention that you may be the one I seek,” Vayne said.
Saxon shook his head, trying to back away as the horrid specter closed the final gap between them.
His time was running out.
“I’m not…I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Saxon said.
“You will, of course, forgive me for not taking you at your word,” Vayne answered. “In any case, I shall know soon enough.”
Vayne closed the space between them in that moment. He clamped his cold, bony hand around Roger Saxon’s throat, pulling him close as if to study the man.
“There is no need to lie, not anymore,” Vayne said. “If you are indeed the leader of the Disciples, then you are the abomination. You must be destroyed.”
“The leader…but you’re wrong, I’m not the leader of anything,” he said.
“Not the leader?” Vayne whispered, continuing to stare at him—without eyes—as he held him fast.
A long, quiet moment followed. Vayne studied Saxon, as if genuinely engaged in some sort of contemplation. Then, a different kind of glimmer appeared across the man’s horrid face.
“Perhaps you are telling the truth,” he continued. “If so, you must tell me everything you know of the Disciples of the Black Flame.”