Ningún Santuario – Complete

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Just in time for Halloween, the episodic zombie thriller I’ve been posting here is finally complete.  I am enormously flattered that so many of you have followed this over 7 months and across two different blog pages — your encouragement is what motivated me to see it through to its conclusion.    Before I leave you with the links to all 20 installments, I’d like to share a couple of things.  First, all locations mentioned in the story are actual places in New Mexico (except, of course, for the brief scenes that took place in Oaxaca, Mexico and Chicago, IL).  From sites like the Big Chief gas station that may have been familiar to Breaking Bad fans to the Santa Fe apartment complex where Sgt. Martinez lived and the specific venues of local A.A. meetings, I strove to be authentic because New Mexico really is a place of magic — both beautiful and dark.  Second, my knowledge of the rituals and culture of Santa Muerte is scant (not to mention my grasp of basic Spanish), so some inaccuracies are to be expected.  And finally, I’d like to express my gratitude to Vince Gilligan for expertly tapping into the sinister vibe of the southwest and inspiring so much of the imagery I used in my comparatively amateurish tale.  Enjoy!

Ningun Santuario (Prologue)

Albuquerque

LAÇOS DE FAMÍLIA

Diego Huerta

Cibola

Pueblo

Big Chief

Small Mercies

Graveyard Whistling

Avance

Phantasmagoria

Oracle

Justicia Cósmica

Skeleton In The Closet

La Cucaracha

Conduit

Flying Star

Smoke Screen

Convergencia

Tumbleweed

Tumbleweed

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Ningún Santuario Pt. 20 – Finale

What followed plays out in my memory like the recollection of a fever dream. I raised my hands and dropped to the floor leaving the officers with a clear view of Arturo’s mangled face as he passed through the back door, swinging the bloody machete at his side. They shouted “Hands up!” three times with increasing intensity but he continued to lumber forward. Immediately after the third warning, they opened fire. All six officers unloaded their clips causing Arturo to lurch back, regain his footing, move forward and get knocked back again. Echoes of the multiple reports still ringing in the air, he finally fell to the ground and slumped onto his side. They approached him with guns drawn and cuffed his hands behind his back. Then they did the same to me.

I was tossed into a cruiser and transported to SFPD Headquarters on Camino Entrada while Arturo and Martinez were loaded into an ambulance.

For a couple of weeks, I was treated like a suspect in the murders of the two police officers. But when the autopsy results on Arturo came in and it was found that there was no blood flowing through his body and none of his vital organs had been functional for months, the detectives had no choice but to shift their focus. All of the blood on Arturo’s face during the struggle on the balcony had come from Martinez; Arturo had used his teeth to rip a large chunk of flesh from Martinez’ cheek. The coroner declared that Arturo’s body showed months of decomposition and yet a half dozen police officers attested to the fact that he was very much alive when they arrived on the scene. A team of detectives with knowledge of the rituals and beliefs of Santa Muerte were brought up from Mexico to assist with the investigation. When they questioned me, the local cops quickly realized from their matter-of-fact acceptance of the things I told them that this was not your run-of-the-mill murder case.

When my usefulness to the investigation was exhausted, I gave two weeks notice at my job and hit the road for a 2,000 mile return trip to the east coast. This time, I kept to the major highways and only stopped for gas and food at busy truck stops and tourist rest areas. Just outside of Vega, TX, I had to swerve hard to avoid hitting a massive tumbleweed rolling across the blacktop. In my rearview mirror, I watched its lazy meanderings until the distance rendered it invisible.

********************************

Andrew Guilden hadn’t shown up for work in two weeks. After his disastrous ad pitch to the JetBlue execs, he started running across a man in a bloody and rumpled police uniform everywhere he went. The man’s eyes were dead, shot through with gray lines, and a chunk of flesh was missing from his right cheek. He never spoke, but simply stared menacingly at Andrew until he left the establishment. Andrew had seen him in the library, the coffee shop, the convenience store — everywhere but his condo, which he hadn’t left for five days now, scared to even step outside to grab the newspaper from the stoop.

Somehow, Andrew knew that this man’s presence had something to do with Arturo Capella. He also knew that his life was in danger, though he couldn’t reasonably explain to anyone why he felt that way.

*********************************

The grave was a simple dirt mound with a plywood crucifix bearing the name Miguel Ángel Martinez. Three men in black suits prayed over the burial site before walking back down the hill from the unofficial family cemetery in the dusty badlands just outside Oaxaca.

The Royal Garden

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Fyodor had ruled his tiny eastern kingdom for 50 years. At the age of 70, he abdicated the throne to his eldest son and retired to a sprawling villa in the countryside overlooking the Carpathian Mountains. He had been stern but fair to his subjects, he thought, and had wielded his power to facilitate a prosperity hitherto unmatched in the history of the isolated land. Sometimes, for the good of the dominion, he had no choice but to make examples of those who resisted his sweeping decrees. To Fyodor, the crime of thwarting progress was most egregious and the collectivist-minded landowners who had refused to sell off their fertile acreage to trade-oriented government concerns got what they deserved.

But Fyodor had never directly overseen their fates, only issuing orders to his Imperial Guard to dispense punishments appropriate to their crimes. He had never even set foot inside the ominous slate-grey Justice Fortress that rose menacingly from the forest bordering the capital. Though he had told himself that his faith in the judgment of his dedicated Guard made his presence at the Fortress unnecessary, a part of him knew that if he had ever directly witnessed the treatment of criminals by his overzealous officers, he might have been horrified at what he saw. Once, when taking a late evening ride on his trusty steed through the outskirts of the forest, he had heard inhuman wails and blood-curdling screams emanating from the pitch black oubliette portal at the base of the structure. He dug his spurs into his horse’s flanks and returned to his castle at a brisk gait. Nothing was more distasteful to Fyodor than the prospect of guilt arising from personal responsibility.

But all of this was behind him now and Fyodor had decided to start a garden to occupy his time. He had cleared a large plot at the rear of the villa and planted roses, asters, chrysanthemums, geraniums and foxglove in perfectly symmetrical rows. According to this year’s almanac, the colorful floral array he had lovingly tilled was due to bloom any day now.

Fyodor had had a fitful sleep last night. His reveries had been haunted by strange visions of gnarled plant-bodied creatures with human faces distorted in agony. Not one to invoke superstition, he told himself that the unpleasant night had been caused by nothing more than a bad case of indigestion.

When he awoke, he ate a light breakfast and stepped out back into the cool air of the garden. From a distance, Fyodor could see that there had been visible growth overnight. He got closer to inspect the young plants and let out a gasp of surprise. All of the stems that had broken ground were black and hard to the touch. Rather than rising from the soil in straight vertical trajectories, they were twisted and plagued with ugly knotted tumors. Fyodor picked one from the row of chrysanthemums and took it inside for a closer inspection.

He laid the diseased young plant on the table in the drawing room and went back out for his morning walk.

When he returned to the villa at noon, he was shocked to find that the uprooted plant had flowered in his absence. But rather than displaying the pleasant violet florets typical of the bloom, an anguished human face stared back at him from atop the diseased black stem. Fyodor stumbled back a few feet in shock at what he was seeing. Composing himself, he snatched the disturbing plant from the table and hurled it into the dustbin.

That night, while he slept, the garden erupted in thousands of pain-wracked faces, each a frozen testament to unspeakable horrors suffered years ago by the filial-minded villagers who had been found guilty of treason by Fyodor’s notoriously stern Court of Requital. They shivered in the light evening breeze as their roots broached the surface of the soil and pushed themselves up and out of the ground.

A light tickling on his arm roused Fyodor from his slumber. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light of early morning, he saw countless narrow black threads wrapping themselves around his extremities. Slowly, the tendrils crept across his body and contracted, constricting his movement and his breathing. Terrified, Fyodor bellowed for help but his attendants were fast asleep in the outbuildings that formed a ring around the main house. Unable to move his arms which were now pinned to his sides, he began to roll back and forth on his bed. His violent movements caused him to tumble to the marble floor where more of the sinister roots arose from hairline cracks and finished the complete mummification of his body.

Suddenly, Fyodor found himself strapped to an oaken Catherine Wheel in a windowless dungeon. He was no longer beset by the living black root system, but an audience of peasants was watching with rapt attention as a black-hooded beast of a man brandished a spiked club inches from his face. No one spoke, but Fyodor knew that the spectators were those who had suffered similar fates at the hands of the Imperial Guard while he had lounged in his castle with nary a thought about how justice was being dispensed in his name.

A horrifying realization suddenly came to his mind. At the top of his lungs, he shouted a desperate warning to his son that was stopped short by a vicious blow from his torturer’s mace.

The flowers now stand in colorful rows, a perennial testament to the late king who planted them. Though the villa is uninhabited and no one tends the garden, they appear each year in a verdant spontaneous rebirth, patiently awaiting the next regal retiree.

Convergencia

 

corona

Ningún Santuario Pt. 19

The apartment was dead center between the two stairwells leading back to the parking lot. There was nowhere to run. Martinez opened his door and motioned for me to follow him inside.

He switched on the light and tossed his keys on to the coffee table. The place was a dump.

“I’m between cleaning ladies,” he said in a tone that seemed oddly friendly and familiar considering our short but confusing history. “Grab a couple of beers out of the fridge, would you?”

“I don’t drink.”

“Like hell you don’t. A few months of court-ordered A.A. meetings and you’re coming off like Carrie Nation? Besides, your sponsor’s not likely to find out from his slab at the morgue.”

He had a point, so I went into the kitchen, grabbed two Coronas from the refrigerator and carried them back to the cluttered living room. Other than the missing screen, I couldn’t discern any other signs of someone having forcibly entered nor was Martinez acting like anything was amiss. The sun was setting, but Martinez suggested we go out to the balcony at the rear of the apartment to drink our beers.

There were two plastic deck chairs with a rusting wrought-iron table between them. We sat down and uncapped our beers and Martinez tilted the neck of his Corona towards mine. Finding him harder to read by the second, I returned the gesture and we clinked bottles.

“Cheers, Andrew. We’re just gonna drink and relax for a while.”

“Why do you think Arturo’s planning to show up here?”

“First of all, Arturo doesn’t plan anything. In his current state, he’s even dumber than he was when he was alive. He’s being guided by forces beyond his understanding and he’s powerless to resist them. Right now, I’m sure that he’s coming for me. And with you here, his arrival is all the more certain.”

“What he wants with me is a mystery I’ve been pondering every waking moment for months now. But you? Did he know you when he was alive?”

“No, but his people back in Mexico do. Arturo’s a distant cousin on my mother’s side. I never met him, but I keep in contact with family in Oaxaca who told me some things about him. I’m involved in this completely against my will, Andrew. Quite a while back, I was dispatched to his murder scene and…fuck it. The less you know, the better. Just expect him to show up at any moment and when he does, don’t do anything stupid. I have this all planned out.”

“Does your plan involve me getting out of here alive?”

Just as I asked the question, I noticed a storage closet to the left of Martinez’ chair, the door slightly ajar. As he drank, he kept a relaxed grip on his pistol in its unclasped holster.

“My plan involves me getting out of here alive. I don’t really give a rat’s ass about you, my friend. But I’d guess that anything I do to protect myself will benefit you, as well.”

Arturo burst out of the closet and swung his machete fast and hard into Martinez’ chest causing it to bounce off the Kevlar vest beneath his uniform. Martinez stood and aimed his pistol at Arturo’s forehead, squeezing off three rapid shots that sent his attacker stumbling backwards into the cluttered closet with a crash. Martinez stood over him and began speaking in rapid-fire Spanish while periodically making the sign of the cross with his free hand. I stood frozen against the railing farthest from the melee. Arturo had managed to sit up and was struggling to grab the gun from Martinez’ hand. They rolled out of the closet and toppled the small table, sending the beers crashing to the ground. Arturo was considerably larger than his opponent and his superior reach enabled him to push the blade into Martinez’ neck, just below the Adam’s apple. Arturo rolled on top of him as Martinez pumped another round into his face, which was now a blood-drenched mess, a section of yellowed cheekbone jutting through the skin. Undeterred, Arturo grabbed the machete handle with both hands and using all of his strength, brought it down just below Martinez’ chin, decapitating him. The head rolled slowly towards the railing where it came to rest, eyes wide open displaying his final moment of terror. Police sirens seemed to be approaching from every direction, but I couldn’t move. Arturo and I stood on either side of the balcony, predator and prey facing each other down. A sickening smile spread across his bloodied face, but he remained standing right where he was. He seemed to be relishing the moment, trying to make it last. Martinez’ gun was out of reach, but there was ample room to access the apartment through the open screen door. I took my chance and bolted inside just as a half dozen Santa Fe police officers burst through the door with guns drawn.

The Bardo Asylum

 

mahakala

I came home last night to find myself sitting on the sofa, idly flipping through the pages of my dog-eared copy of the Bodhicaryavatara.

“Don’t be startled,” he said. “I am you. I’m not some time-traveling future you come to issue a warning nor am I an alternate version of you from a parallel universe. In fact, it’s funny that those two fantastic scenarios were the first things that came to your head when you saw me sitting here. It just goes to show that you’d rather believe any bit of sci-fi nonsense than the obvious fact that you’ve been downright duplicitous in your thoughts and behavior for nearly half a century.”

I blinked hard and looked myself in the eye. It was like staring at the reflection of my reflection in a hall of mirrors. He waved the book in the air.

“Do you believe this shit?” he said, pointing at the cover illustration of Santideva sitting on a lotus flower. “You don’t have to answer me because, of course, there is nothing you know that I don’t. That said, I’m going to speak of you — of me — in the first person from here on out in an effort to make this dialogue a little less awkward. I’m just a physical incarnation of the voice in my head. The ego voice. The voice that arises from self-awareness.”

“Not to be rude, but I prefer you in your proper state of invisibility.”

“Of course I do. As long as I refrain from looking myself squarely in the eye, I can pretend that there are countless potential higher versions of myself that can be realized with the proper training. When I see myself just as I am — the way that other people see me — it’s a lot harder to deny the fact that my potpourri of carefully selected images and ideals are nothing more than the delusional dualistic diversions of a coward. Tell me, what do I think about this whole ‘karma’ thing?”

“What would compel me to submit to an unwelcome interrogation conducted by me?”

“I’m embarrassed to have asked such an illogical question. It seems that if all of this self-conscious Buddhist practice I’ve worn on my sleeve for the past several years had had any practical effect whatsoever, I’d realize that anything I do is of my own volition. Yet, here I am resisting a conversation that I initiated.”

“I got home, opened the door and found you sitting here. I assure you, I had no intention of walking into such a situation.”

“And I was just sitting here reading when I spoiled my own quietude by walking through the door and acting surprised to find myself right where I had been all along. So let me get back to my question. I used to think of karma as some kind of cosmic justice system that ensures adequate punishment or reward for one’s actions. What can I say, my folks brought me up Catholic. But now that I’ve taken the time to learn its intended meaning, it seems to be similar to Newton’s laws of motion. Any action will create an appropriate reaction. Every cause creates an effect that creates a cause and so on. Not so mystical, is it? I was secretly disappointed when I learned the real definition. But this — this little chat I’m having — it must have been caused by an effect, right? And as counter-intuitive as it is to my understanding of basic physics, perhaps here’s the so-called mysticism I told myself I so desired. Anyway, everything I’ve ever done is significant according to the law of karma. All of the actions I’ve performed when laboring under the delusion of an inherently real self set pendulums in motion that will sooner or later reach their fulcrums and swing the other way. I wonder if I’m ready to start calling to mind some of those actions whose reactions have yet to come to fruition.”

I was starting to break out in a cold sweat and my pulse was becoming more rapid. Aside from my body double lounging on the sofa, no other features of my home were amiss. But the atmosphere felt off. For some reason, I began to think about the notion of linear time being a contrivance and how past and future exist only in the abstract. A terrifying suspicion arose in my mind that I wasn’t ready to analyze.

“This is challenging my so-called sense of logic, isn’t it? Ironically, I always eschewed the spiritual components of spirituality because they seemed so incompatible with my wishfully stoic image. That intermediate period between incarnations the Tibetans call the Bardo — I really brought my proud cynicism to bear on that one. But I’m not a Vulcan nor am I a scientist nor have I ever approached my life with logic, always emotion that I then immediately denied through verbal gymnastics, creating an artificial after-the-fact rationality. I do talk a good game, I’ll give me that. But it was just my ego — my self-cherishing — that nurtured this tendency to deny my own motives. The pendulum has been hovering at the brink of a backswing for quite some time now.”

Acting on pure instinct, I lunged at him and wrapped my fingers tightly around his throat. As I pressed deep into his larynx, I began to gasp and choke.

“Nice try. Now I’ve got bruises on my neck. Can I get on with it or must I make more ridiculous attempts to delay the inevitable?”

At that, he took a step towards me so that our noses were touching, then another to reassimilate into a single entity, a reintegration without corresponding physical sensations. There was no pain aside from that of the fresh bruises on my windpipe. Then I realized that everything around me — the walls, the floor, the furniture — was becoming watery in appearance; shimmering, shivering, and growing increasingly translucent.

At the very moment physical appearances dissolved completely, there came a pause. A timeless pause of a nanosecond or an aeon. Consciousness winked out.

***********************************

GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! Like a demon, snarling, convulsing, biting down on my own tongue, I heard the inhuman sound escape my lips and reverberate throughout the asylum. There were screws digging into my temples, my arms and legs strapped to a gurney as two grotesquely brutish men were holding my midsection down. A man in priestly vestments stood at the foot of the gurney reading Latin passages from a leather-bound book in a booming oratory. I understood every word he spoke. I understood that I had been deemed insane by a council of church elders — possessed by a malevolent spirit that could only be banished through prayer or bodily torture or death. The priest closed his missal and declared that prayer had been insufficient. I was paralyzed with terror as the men began to tighten the screws.

Nancy And Her Apples

 

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Nancy was a middle-aged widow, a nice lady with a kind and generous soul, who enjoyed nothing more than baking for her church group every Saturday. Everyone especially raved over Nancy’s apple pie, it was so delectably delicious. Her crust was heavenly, with just the perfect amount of flaky, buttery goodness that melts in your mouth.

What was her secret? Surely, she’d be willing to share it with everyone, figuring that she was such a lovely person and all.

“I’ll take the recipe to my grave,” she’d reply to her inquiring church friends, giving a cheeky wink, then giggling softly to herself within her own private mirth.

One particularly hot day, Nancy was in her tidy and immaculate kitchen getting ready to bake yet another pie when there was a knock on her door, which wasn’t anything unusual since people were dropping by all of the time.

“Be right there,” she called out, rushing to the door with baking flour sticking to her hands and under her fingernails.

But when she answered the door, nobody was there.

“Well goodness,” she said, “I must be going crazy!”

She headed back to the kitchen and much to her surprise, the apples on her counter were suddenly, amazingly alive.

Animated. They had mouths, eyes, ears and a nose.

All of them, the ones that hadn’t been chopped and peeled yet, were all staring at her like she was a murderer.

The biggest apple spoke.

“Nancy, we beg of you, please don’t kill us and put us into your pie.”

Nancy blinked a few times. Perhaps she had hit the bottle of vodka a wee bit too early that day.

The smallest apple started to cry.

“I haven’t even gotten to see the world yet,” it said in a childlike voice that broke Nancy’s heart.

“Of course not! How could I kill you, sweet little apple? You’ll all stay here with me, I’ve always wanted children,” she said, grinning with joy.

“I’ll just switch to baking brownies.”


“The saddest thing I ever heard,” Beatrice said, shaking her head sadly, her gray hair perfectly coiffed because the Lord expected you to always look presentable at church.

Imogen sighed dramatically. “Imagine, going crazy like that. Well, she was always a bit unstable after her husband passed.”

Beatrice nodded her agreement. “I heard that there were so many apples in her house, the men in the white coats could barely make their way to take her away.”

“And the smell, rotting apples everywhere! Such a shame, really. Well, I guess that her apple pie recipe will really die with her, just like she said it would.”

A slight shudder ran down Beatrice’s body, leaving behind a trail of goosebumps.

“Well dear, I don’t know about you, but I’d be perfectly happy if I never ate another bite of apple pie.”

She paused for a moment. How silly of her, fruit doesn’t have any feelings, she thought hastily to herself.

“But I’d love a cold glass of your homemade lemonade.”

Imogen smiled graciously. “I made it fresh this morning.”

She just loved the screams that the lemons made when she squeezed them.

Hellspawn

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The crowds were getting sparser, even for weeknight residency shows at a second-rate Atlantic City casino. In 1989, Hellspawn had played its final show at Madison Square Garden to a packed house of frenzied leather-clad metal heads. They had four platinum albums under their belt and when Billy screamed out the last verse of “The Deal”, the noise from the crowd nearly drowned out his impassioned delivery:

When all is said and done
This life was just for fun
The women and the fame
were the spoils of the game
I will thank you, Lucifer
when I meet you in the flames
of HELL, HELL, HELL!

20,000 upraised fists had punctuated his words while the gratuitous pyrotechnic display shot red and yellow sparks the length of the arena.

Here in the ballroom of the Claridge Casino, the largely disinterested crowd of middle-aged nostalgia seekers had to settle for a cloth backdrop bearing the word Hellspawn and the band’s trademark pentagram. They didn’t give a fuck anyway and Billy guessed that most of them were just looking for an excuse to put their feet up and decompress between rounds of blackjack. Tonight, the band played “The Deal” as the final song in their set, but no one sang along, pumped their fists, or raised a lighter and Billy wasn’t even sure that they were listening. They used to reserve this song for the encore, but no one cheered them back to the stage anymore. Billy half-heartedly thanked the remaining people in the seats and trudged back to his dressing room.

Closing the door behind him, Billy sat down at the make-up table and stared at himself in the mirror. He looked pathetic. A 54 year old man with a coat of foundation and white powder barely concealing his age lines beneath a ridiculous edifice of hair held in place by copious applications of hairspray. Washed up. He was a divorced former rock star whose only talent hadn’t been in demand since the days that MTV played videos.

A knock on the door jarred him out of his depressing reverie and he opened it to find a note laying on the faded brown carpet of the hallway. Billy picked it up and sat back down at the table. He unfolded the small piece of stationery and read two words written in exquisitely archaic penmanship: TIME’S UP.

There was no greeting, no signature, just the puzzlingly succinct message. He got up and peered down the hallway, but no one was about, not even his band mates. With a shrug, he closed the door again.

Ignoring the advice of his cardiologist, Billy grabbed a bottle of Jack from the shelf and took a few generous swigs. As the warmth of the liquor began to spread throughout his body, he looked up and was startled at what he saw staring back at him from the makeup mirror.

His reflection was featureless, like a styrofoam wig head. Billy squeezed his eyes shut for a few seconds and looked again, but the bizarre image remained. He’d done more than his share of drugs, but this was unlike anything he’d experienced before. As he continued to stare mesmerized at his reflection, he noticed a burning sensation running up and down both of his arms and legs. From the pentagram tattoo on his right bicep, tiny white dots were emerging and scampering up his arm and over his entire body. They didn’t seem to have legs or any other common biological features, but they were clearly alive. Billy jumped up from the chair and began swatting at himself, spinning in frantic circles and letting out involuntary gasps. He dropped to the floor and rolled back and forth, trying to crush the creatures that were invading his body.

Then, as suddenly as they appeared, the burning stopped and the tiny white creatures were gone. He rose slowly from the floor and leaned on the vanity in front of the mirror trying to catch his breath. Finally composed, he looked up and let out a blood-curdling scream that reverberated throughout the entire ground floor of the hotel. His reflection was still faceless and white as bone, but now every inch of exposed skin was equally white and foam-like. Billy tore off his shirt and found that his torso was also a smooth, bleached landscape, like an alabaster mannequin. There were no nipples, no hair, no tattoos. Just a white, featureless bilaterally symmetrical form.

Overcome with panic, Billy raced for the door but it wouldn’t budge. He fell to the floor and wrapped his arms around his knees, rocking back and forth, emitting desperate moans that had no mouth from which to escape. The carpet fibers began to undulate and bunch in around his supine body. The floor opened up and the living fibers arched over his torso, pushing him through the crevice until he found himself free-falling through pitch blackness.

He was in a never-ending, gut-churning blind plummet. Visions of scantily-clad groupies, debauched coke-fueled orgies and arenas full of adoring fans flashed across his mind like a rapid-fire slide show, then abruptly ceased. His mind would only fix on three words for the rest of eternity as he fell through the bottomless darkness: Thank you, Lucifer.

Hellspawn had played its final show and despite all appearances, it had been fucking momentous.