I was the Phantom Stranger.
I see the end of days. I see a woman, ivory-skinned and dressed in black, turn off the light and close the door. I hang up my hat and my coat. I walk out with her. I don’t look back.
I am the Phantom Stranger.
I see a blue world. I see pearls falling onto damp concrete. I see a comet from a doomed world. I see gods fall. I see men rise.
I will be the Phantom Stranger.
There is nothing more to say.
don’t be so sure, darling
I am the Phantom Stranger and I see your defeat.
when? in a million years? i will be defeated, wanderer, but not anytime soon.
I am the Phantom Stranger and I have the first move.
ah. the mortals.
well, wanderer, you now have my attention. try to amuse me this time.
issue 1: call 666-666-666 in case of emergencies
SOMEWHERE IN LAS VEGAS
MADAME XANADU’S TAROT HOUSE
In all of the various casinos that lined the Vegas Strip, the Tarot House was not the most famous but it commanded a certain reputation. It was the oldest on the strip by far and if you asked a local, they would have sworn it had been there since 1970. Or 1950. Or before the Alamo. Regardless, it was a squat purple brick, the old wood and concrete walls intertwined with vines and speckled with vines. Within its walls, its patrons gambled their lives away under the guise of violet curtains and lily-scented oiled smoke that cloyed at the walls.
In the basement of the Tarot House, guarded by two burly half-troll guards with sloping bear-like shoulders, was a door. And a door after the first door. Past several heavy doors wrought in wood, iron, silver, and all manner of strange materials, Madame Xanadu sat unmoving. A cigarette burned impossibly slow between her fingers, embers never traveling further along the rolled paper. Bookcases lined every wall of the room. Ancient tomes marked with swirling scripts, battered things, summoned from the ether, and rested heavy on the shelves, full of words written in tongues long since forgotten. Scattered objects, strange in every imaginable way, filled the gaps between the books. A collection of grim talismans that pulsed with magic and the unmistakable touch of the occult.
The faint, pleasant smell of jasmine was everywhere, overcoming even the burning smell of nicotine. A candle flicked on the table, red wax slowly seeping onto the table. Six chairs had been strewn in front, occupied by six strangers. Cards spun slowly through the air, one held in place above Madame Xanadu's extended finger.
Turning her attention away from the floating card, she spoke, her sonorous voice sickly sweet for a moment, “You wonder, perhaps, why I have brought you here?”
“Free drinks?” The first voice that morphed into a multitude of voices replied, whispers of hideous laughter seeming to shiver into existence from several parts of the tatterdemalion form all at once.
The second voice that replied was clipped, slow, each vowel a cog in some great mechanical device“ Hauling six strangers out into the Mojave desert, each of whom have no prior connections to each other.Everyone here acts familiar around you. They know you. You’re here to collect.”
Ah, an astute observation. There may be hope for you yet.” “I have aided you, one and all, and my help does not come free. You knew this, I told you my price, I warned you, when you sought me out that my services do not come free. You will not refuse me, not now, not ever. We have a contract. We have a deal.
“ YOU THINK YOU CAN HOLD ME TO A CONTRACT?,” The third voice crackled like a furnace, each syllable piercing the air like a fire poker. The temperature in the room rose by a few degrees.
Madame Xanadu smirked, her eyes calmly meeting the two smoldering embers that glared at her with righteous fury.
“Some deal,” The fourth voice bitterly intoned with a heavy french brogue. “An agreement made at gunpoint is hardly a fair bargain.”
What price would you put on your life? Do not play the fool. I saved
you. You would not have made it out of Paris if it had not been for my help. I can happily see you returned if that is your wish? No? How terribly unsurprising. A sensible choice, but your lack of gratitude does you little credit.
The fifth voice, a soft voice, full of the sounds of the West, the City of Angels, interrupted. The most normal figure in the room, the young woman looked like a poster child for a dated music video featuring the Cure. Black lipsticked lips were pursed in a careful frown, a hand rested nervously on the silver ring of her choker, and her painfully obvious magical staff was held in her other hand, leaning lightly against the side of her chair as she gripped it tightly, "Umm, I don't mean to be rude, but I’ve got some things to deal with, some bigger problems, maybe you can find someone else? Someone better suited for this task.”
“Bigger problems? Someone else?” Madame Xanadu hissed, shaking her head.
“Yeah, maybe you can find someone else! You know, some real heroes? Like Zatanna, Doctor Strange, or Brother Voodoo,” the cackling collective cheerfully added, somehow managing a conspiratorial wink beneath the strange garb they wore.
“Are you questioning my judgment?” The goth fashioned girl shrunk under the clairvoyant’s glare as she continued speaking. “ I choose the tools according to the task, but……you wouldn’t be my first choice.”
“ What the hell are you trying to say, lady?” The sixth voice said, no, growled, hackles raised, the anger in it leashed and tugged at its collar frenetically. “ You summoned us here, all the way to bumfuck nowhere, just to shit on us?”
“Pah, Vegas is hardly nowhere, the rooms furnished to you were nothing to complain about. I could have left you sleeping on the floor in some warehouse. Perhaps next time? I do not waste kindness on the ungrateful…”
The fabric shrouded figure shook its head, “It would’ve been a whole lot nicer if I didn’t have to share my room with a stranger, no offense to Miss Stabbity and her glowing sword over there.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. A sad fact that I am well aware of at this very moment. You’re not the best. You’re not even the second best. You’re a bunch of losers. Thieves. Deadbeats. Butchers. Magical sledgehammers, vagabonds, and pantless beasts.”
The wizened fortune teller continued to hold her expression of contempt for a few seconds, emerald eyes before surrendering it with a sigh of resignation.
“ But you will do, you will suffice for this mission.”
“ What mission?,” The fourth voice enquired.
“ The Phantom Stranger has gone missing.”
“ IMPOSSIBLE. I WOULD HAVE SENSED ITS PRESENCE.”
“ Yes, if only you had the patience to remain with your prior host, Spirit. You only have had time to acclimate to your mortal form for a week.”
“ I don’t get it. Who the heck is this stranger guy?”
“ He is a Lord of Balance.”
“Never heard of him,” the multimodal voice quipped, draping itself over the armrests of the large fabric chair it had claimed. The opossum perched on their shoulder released a low yawn, before they continued, “Balance doesn’t sound like my problem.”
The second voice interjected, their voice terse.“ He is an agent of the Green Hooded One, the Guardian of the Aether, the Spectre. They are the gatekeepers of this reality. ” With realization, the second voice slowly turned their head to the clairvoyant with a new look“ And you are as well.”
“ The Hooded One has many voices and hands on which to act, hedge mage.” The second voice bristled at the jab. Madame Xanadu took no heed of it as she continued on. “ But your observations are correct. He has gone missing.”
“ I don’t get it.” The final voice, the beastly one, asked. “Why doesn't this Spectre guy just deal with his own business?”
“ Take care of how you speak his name, half-breed. You talk blithely about matters of which you know nothing about.”
“ What my esteemed colleague means to say is that the Spectre has many matters to focus his attention on. Direct intervention by him in the mortal plane would take an inordinate amount of focus and limitless power does not equate to finesse. It’s why the Spectre usually uses agents such as Xanadu over here or…the Stranger.”
“ A simple explanation, hedge mage,” said Xanadu.
“ But where would we even begin finding him?,” The voice of voices spoke once again, amusement turned to a screeching whine.
“ I do not give you the answers, soulkeeper. Only this promise. That your debts will be released upon completion of this task.” Xanadu took another drag from her cigarette, her face growing more shadowed before stubbing it out in a copper ashtray. She snapped her fingers and a circle of candles lit around the seven figures, turning the room red and orange. From under her left sleeve, a curved dagger emerged, pale scrimshaw gliding across the flat, and the ruby encrusted grip glowing ominously in the candlelight.
“ Your hands,” said Xanadu. “ If you would please.”
Slowly, six hands came forth, four of flesh, one of flame and one of fur.
“ Hold on,” The fifth voice whined. “ Are you sure you cleaned that knife properly-”
Xanadu was swift yet gentle, the edge of the dagger biting through the skin and sinking into the flesh. Streams of ichor pooled into a small pewter basin, swirling together in a stormy red eddy. Xanadu began to chant slowly, her voice pouring like a river into every corner and crack of the small basement.
“ I, Madame Xanadu, in authority of the Lords of Balance, the Earth and the Hooded One, bind you to three truths. I bind you to find the Phantom Stranger. I bind you to not seek any ill intention against my patrons. I bind your shadows to be one until this pact is fulfilled.” She paused and the candle flames became frozen. “I bid you six thee farewell.”
The pewter bowl bubbled, a fountain of red spraying up in the air, before the . Before the six strangers could say a word, Madame Xanadu clapped her hands and stood up.
“ Alright, we’re done here.” She said quickly. “ Shoo now. I have a very important guest coming in the next 30 seconds.”
“ Wait, where do we begin looking - “
“ Get. Out.” She nodded towards the pair of burly trolls that arrived in, wielding clubs that were about the size of a man. “ Boris, Kochansky, please escort our guests out.”
As they were being roughly guided out of the basement, the faint shadow of Xanadu’s voice could be heard behind them, growing ever more quiet.
“ Ah, Mr Luthor, I have been expecting you. I assume your investments in LexCoin have paid off…..”
The doors to the Tarot House slammed shut, leaving the hastily shepherded group of magicians with a fading vision of the two considerably sized trolls and their menacing cudgels. A chill wind battered the unlikely party, the unlucky souls who had been unceremoniously tossed out into the desert night. Bright neon strips loomed in the distant, no longer glowing pleasantly, but instead shining with a fell light that filled their hearts with uncertain dread. The threads of the ritual still hung heavy in the air. Powerful magic did not fade so quickly. They were bound together now and the chains that bound them seemed to rattle in the darkness.
“ So, where the hell do we begin?”, The wolf-man asked,
“ In a bar with good drinks, I know just the one,” the laughing tatterdemalion offered, shrugging with obvious boredom when they were met with pointed glares.
The trenchcoat hatted man sat on the side of the boardwalk, ignoring the looks drunk tourists and casino-gamblers sent his way. He reached into his trenchcoat and produced the pewter bowl that he had snatched from Madame Xanadu. The bottom was still dried with blood from all six of them. He took out a piece of chalk, hastily sketched a circle on the concrete and placed the bowl in the centre. With a snap of his fingers, the pewter bowl cracked in two and smoke erupted from the pieces that were split in twain.
“ Oi, wolfie.” The trenchcoated man recoiled briefly as the wolf-man snarled, hackles raised again. “ You mind taking a sniff?”
The wolf-man lumbered forward and took a deep draught of the crim-coloured smoke.
“ I smell……baobab against skin……powdered sugar…beignets……seawater……..gunpowder and blood…….the stink of split blood against leather whips….”
“ Well, anyone up for a trip to the Crescent City?,” The trenchcoated man asked.
“ Hell seems as good a place as any to start…” The french swordswoman said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
The midnight sky began to purple as dawn fiunally arrived and stretched their shadows, six in total, as they lengthened across the asphalt strip of the Vegas Boulevard into the barren desert beyond.......