When the Clock Strikes Twelve
The Bad Guy Wins

It was easy to see what the cards had meant in retrospect, hindsight a masterful twenty-twenty vision that had unfurled its meaning right before his very eyes in the chime and crackle of old magic, and it was hard to deny that his focus had been on the wrong card as he faced her now. The inverted “Justice” had been an interesting one, preceded by what appeared to have been a straight line of meaning that was so easily read even for someone who had far less experienced than others at connecting the dots the draw of the Major Arcana had left behind. It might have had meaning applicable to the situation that was laid out before a mind outstretched towards the cosmos in ways he knew the Elder Gods couldn’t bring, the fall of a gavel becoming the end point to something he hadn’t enough foresight to play before his mind’s eye – not in this form, fingers digging into an abysmal fount of darkness that had, for some time, protected him.

“Justice” hadn’t been the card to focus on. In all its twist when pulled from the deck, it had been its predecessor that had been the most important, its continuation of a common thread shuffling it away as if just another in a long line that told him the same story: There was a chance on the horizon, a shift not like those readily experienced over the last year, but something else that called for a death of self, of something he had once been, and there had been no reason to believe it would have been so literal. It rarely, if ever, was, the card a joke of an omen that more readily frightened those who didn’t know the meaning behind it; but when it all came down to it and the frenetic exchange of energies had dissipated on the unintended battlefield, perhaps he should have been afraid.

But why be afraid when death had come once before? Why be afraid when it would come again? It was always a different form – the twisted curl of monsters beneath his skin that fated his eye simply by existing, the dark-clad reaper in of familiar lore that came drenched in shadows, or the almost ethereal glow of magic eons older than his own, the very same that had imprisoned that which could stop her.

He had been no other kind though, no resident of the upside-down her balance called “home”. He was not born of the dark as perception might have suggested, no creation of twisted magic found in the depths of dark universes, wretched and slimy with the horrors of maligned worlds. He had been human even under the die cast by The Black Vortex, an imposter in eldritch clothing who, with all the power pulled from the known universe, still found it lacking against a power so ancient, wielding a body far stronger than any form he could conjure from the shadows. She had come first, born of cosmic energies and long-laid magic, and the Elder Gods – they had come after, springing from the Earth like titans until their degeneration. Demons, they now were, their struggle for power and influence in an ever-changing world corrupting the very intention in their creation until the demogorge had come for them all. They were the lesser beings, even Gaea herself, and humanity had been far lesser.

His eyes stared into the distance, body parallel with the ground, unmoving, but it wasn’t the far off distance of the bay’s cold waters that he had been looking at and not the light rock of waves against the rocks that enthralled his vision. They registered no longer, dulled and grayed, operating now on planes in between life and death. No, it was his own body, now just a shell that he had once inhabited before, broken, bloodied, and lifeless, that registered in his line of sight. It had been for his own sake that Henry had knelt down, reaching out with ghostly fingers to drag the lids of his eyes closed in one invisible motion, solemn in his state as his own imperceptible mourner.

Someone would find him eventually. Someone would call the police and report a dead body to a dispatcher who would send out the necessary first response services to secure the scene. His body would be moved, transported to a slam, kept on ice until he could be dissected, cut open to investigate a cause of death most suspicious for a young man in prime health save for the peculiar hole in his gut where his stomach had been, not torn open, but devoid of what had once resided there as the portals, no longer alive with the life that had brought them into his plane, closed. He briefly considered what the obituary would say, what the Internet would conjure from their own rampant imaginations and lack of concrete fact, how the story would be twisted by those who hadn’t lived behind the mask; and just what would his family say of their departed brother and son, the Lee Family the tip of the otherwise unknown iceberg that had been the Hargreeves.

He knew this wasn’t the end – not by a long shot. The cosmos might have left him with the strike of midnight, but where such sustaining power might have been lost, magical energy remained in an ever-present swirl of unseen forces that made it possible to remain. Things would change and this had simply been the catalyst, a sacrificial effort of an old self worn down, tired, and unable to remain to find a fresh slate at the hands of another; it was a chance to cut the fat, to drop the excess, to change and shift and mold himself anew. He would be vicious where gentleness had prevailed and he would be vigilant where attentiveness had ultimately failed; and the end would justify the means.

But for now, he had other matters to attend to, people to see and loose threads to tie until such a time he could address them himself, allowing himself the willpower to step away from what was now a closed door for a new window of opportunity.

It was within the walls of Arcana that he had found himself tethered, drawn not necessarily to the shop itself despite his contribution to its formation over magical ley lines in the dark of night, but to a book within, seated among the iron-bound tomes of Hyborian lore and magic so rarely known. He was one of many, another soul that had been claimed since the dawn of the Darkhold’s creation, and now, it stood to collect what it now rightfully owned to assimilate it into the howls of screaming banshees and depths of frigid darkness from which very little returned; but he stood at a stalemate with the chthonic powers that be, unsure of his first steps off the precipice of existence and into something new, mistrustful even now of that which he had once embraced when he knew not what would happen on the other side.

Time was all he needed, all he could hope to have, but there had been very little of it the longer he stood at that impasse, minutes dwindling to seconds dwindling to fractions of being before his energy faded for good.