RITES OF PASSAGE

Written by:
JANO


Today: 16 January 2009

A young man walked up to the grand house on the corner of Bleeker Street and Fenno Place in Greenwich Village, New York City. The three storey building was perfectly maintained, and appeared to be an ordinary brownstone townhouse at first glance. The top storey was what made it remarkable. In the middle of the level, right over the entrance, was a round window, with a symbol in it, consisting of two curved stripes with a left slant and two with a right. The freestanding house was not regularly visited, but most people living in the neighbourhood knew who owned it and lived there. It was the residence of one Stephen Sanders, a doctor of some sort and reputed to be a foremost expert on the occult.

The young man making his way up the short flight of steps was not concerned with Stephen Sanders. Any occult expert willing to make himself known to the general public was either a charlatan or a fool. And Ian McNee, as the young man was called, had not made his way from Manchester to New York City to meet with a fraud. He had come to meet with the greatest Sorcerer alive today, the undisputed master of the mystic arts known as Doctor Strange. Undisputed until today, that is.

Before knocking on the door, Ian McNee straightened his appearance. He wore a dark green trench coat over regular jeans and a loose fitting purple shirt. He stroked his hand through his short blonde hair, and cleaned his purple coloured, John Lennon style glasses. A serious look on his thin face, he wanted to knock on the door but hesitated. Doubt went through his mind. Was he sure this was what he wanted? Was he ready to take on so much responsibility? Did he really want to confront Dr. Strange? In those few seconds he stood there in front of Dr. Strange’s house, Ian McNee searched the depths of his soul for the answers, and finally came up with renewed resolve. Yes, I will be the one!

Ian knocked on the door, rather loudly, and waited a few seconds until the door opened. A bald Asian man opened the door, wearing a loose-fitting green tunic and pants. Even through the concealing clothing, Ian could see the man had the honed physique of a Shaolin Monk, and would probably be serving as a trainer and bodyguard to Dr. Strange.

“Yes?” the Asian man asked.

“My name is Ian McNee. I am the foremost Master of the Mystical Arts in all of Europe, and I have come to challenge Doctor Strange for the position of this dimension’s Sorcerer Supreme,” Ian announced himself proudly.

“I see,” the Asian man said.

“Tell your master that Ian McNee has no personal hatred for him, nor bears him any animosity of any kind. I simply seek to ensure that the greatest, most powerful sorcerer in the world holds the Title of Sorcerer Supreme and the responsibilities that come with the office,” Ian continued, his chest swelling with pride and filled with confidence.

BWAM! The Asian man’s fist came out of nowhere and connected forcefully with Ian’s nose. The young magician stumbled backwards and fell down the short flight of steps. Landing on his back, Ian found his glasses had broken, as had his nose. He looked up the short flight of stairs and saw the Asian man standing at the top.

“Doctor Strange regrets to inform you that he does not have the time to answer your challenge at this time. Perhaps you could call again another day, so he may be more prepared for your visit. Good day to you, Sir,” the Asian man said.

“I will redun! Ian McNee will not be dunned away by the dododerd bodyguad!” Ian shouted, holding his broken nose.

“I am not his bodyguard, Mr. McNee. I’m his butler,” the Asian man said, bowed to Ian, and went back inside, closing the door behind him.

Once inside, the Asian man shook his head, and started walking down a darkened corridor towards the kitchen. As he passed the stairs that lead to the second storey, a voice came from upstairs.

“What was that, Wong?” the voice asked.

“Oh, just another idiot, looking to become… what do you call it… The Fastest Gun in The West?” Wong answered.

“I see….” The voice said belonging to a man that came walking down the stairs. He wore black pants, a blue shirt and a red hooded cloak hung over his shoulders. The front of the cloak was closed with a round, eye-shaped, golden clasp. The man smiled at Wong, and he had a handsome face. His longish black hair, grey at the temples, was combed back, and he had pale blue eyes and a black goatee, also showing signs of grey in spite of the man’s youthful appearance.

“It has been a while, hasn’t it? I mean, I sensed somebody would come today. I wouldn’t have dressed up if I had known you would take him out with one punch, Wong,” the man said as he walked up to Wong.

“Yes, my breaking his nose seemed to take most of the fight out of him”

“Do you think he’ll be back?”

“I doubt it. I think it was knowing he got taken out by the butler that really ruined Mr. McNee’s day”

“Ha! I bet there aren’t many butler’s like you in merry ol’ England, are there?”

“I suppose not. I would like to say that we never had so much nonsense with challengers back in Tibet,” Wong said.

“I’m sure you didn’t. But I was not going to be living in Tibet for the rest of my life. Forty years have given me all the Tibetan experience I could ever hope for!” Dr Strange said.

23 September 1967:

“Sanders, you’re a worthless piece of shit, you are!” the blonde girl named Alice shouted, as she slapped Stephen Sanders in the face.

“What did I do, babe? Jesus, will you chill out or something?” Stephen protested as he wiped his long black hair from his face.

“I know we said free love, yeah, but does that mean you have to screw every girl on campus? You’ve changed, Steve!” Alice said, looking angry enough to slap Stephen again.

“Oh… Right… So you aren’t screwing that German, right? What’s his name? Murder?” Stephen said, as he took a step back from his angry girlfriend.

“No, he’s called Mordo, and that is only his nickname, you know?” Alice answered, looking angrily at the crowd that had gathered around her and Stephen on the NYU campus.

“Mordo, Murder, whatever… You’re screwing him, right?” Stephen said, a mischievous smile on his face.

“I’m not screwing him! We’re writing poetry together, you know? Like we used to do, back in Philly? God, I can’t believe you are the same guy that barely had the guts to look at me! And now… Now you’re a student, a medical intern, an acid dealer and you call yourself Strange! And you’re even humping Professor Tabooshampar’s niece!” Alice shouted angrily, as surprised noises came from the crowd.

“Take out an ad, why don’t you?! And anyway… Yeah, it’s free love… And let me tell you, did you know that Professor Tabooshampar’s niece actually read the Kama Sutra? Oh yes, it’s true!” Stephen said with a malicious smile. For a few seconds, Alice didn’t know how to react.

“You know, Steve? You can eat shit and die screaming! I never want to see you again!” Alice said, and stormed of. The crowd quickly dissipated after that, leaving Stephen to stand by himself. Most of the things Alice had said were true. Growing up on a farm outside Philadelphia he had been an extremely shy boy. When he went to high school in the city, at first he was to afraid to even talk to Alice, although from the moment he laid eyes on her, the frail blonde girl with the perfect smile had been the most beautiful thing Stephen had ever seen. He started writing anonymous poems to her, and when she finally found out Stephen was the one sending them, they had fallen in love. The next year they had both been accepted at NYU, and the two of them moved to New York. At first, they had tried to continue their relationship, but soon they started growing apart. Stephen fell in with the alternative crowd, let his hair grow out dramatically and started calling himself Strange. Alice joined up with a sorority that helped foreign exchange students. Yet somehow, they always got back together, all the time through Stephen’s drug-addiction and activities as a dealer. When the Summer of Love happened, Strange had gone completely nuts. He indulged himself in free love, drugs, music and every vice he could think of.

This time however, Stephen knew he was in real trouble. Professor Tabooshampar was a psychology teacher from India, who sometimes took on guru-like aspects. He owned a house in Greenwich Village, and he let his favoured students stay in it, Stephen among them. When his niece came over last week, an Indian beauty if there ever was one, he had warned all of his students away from her. She would only stay for a week, and he was not about to let her get westernised by a bunch of lecherous hippies. Of course, Stephen could not leave well enough alone. He approached her, gave her acid, and they ended up having an inordinate amount of sex. The girl, whose name Stephen never even knew, had left yesterday, and Stephen thought he was in the clear.

That all changed just now, when Alice had found it necessary to share her knowledge of Stephen’s wild, acid-induced sexual escapades with the rest of the world. And he was just about to find out how much trouble he was in when he saw Professor Tabooshampar coming towards him, an angry look on his face.

“I told you, did I not?” the professor said, looking almost comical in his appearance, with his stout figure, chubby face and the red fez he always wore.

“I’m not…” Stephen tried.

“I told you to stay away from her! She was not yours to be corrupted, as we have all been corrupted. She was to remain pure! But you would not listen to me, would you, Mr. Sanders?”

“I’m sorry…” Stephen tried weakly.

“No you are not. But you will be. Tomorrow morning, I want you out of my house. And the next day, you will be out of this university. I will see to it!” the professor said.

“You can’t do that!” Stephen shouted.

“I can, and I most certainly will, Mr. Sanders. You are an undisciplined, traitorous, sex-obsessed junkie, and I no longer wish you to be a part of my world. You could have been an excellent surgeon, Mr. Sanders. All of your teachers agree on that. But now, you will have the rest of your life to think about what could have been. You will never be a doctor, Mr Sanders,” professor Tabooshampar said and walked away.

“I will be a doctor!” Stephen called after him, but it was too late. Stephen knew that the professor would make good on his threat, and there was nothing more that could be done about it.

*******

When Stephen came back to his home, the house owned by professor Tabooshampar, his mood had not improved. If anything, it had only deteriorated further. It was a good thing that nobody else was home. Of the twelve students that lived in the house, seven had moved out last year. Of the remaining five one had OD’d last week and another one had moved in with his girlfriend. That left only Gregg Russell, a biology student most famous for his incredibly hairy back, and young Wendell Rand. Stephen never really understood what Wendell was doing as a part of the professor’s inner circle. He was an economy and business student, and most of those were usually uncomfortably straight and narrow. In fact, Stephen was sure he had never personally witnessed Wendell getting high.

Stephen went into his room, and looked around at his sparse possessions. The good thing about that was that he would probably be able to fit everything he owned, including his radio, into his backpack. He turned on his radio and started to dance slowly to the trippy music by The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane and New York’s own Velvet Underground. He thought about getting high, to dull the feeling he carried of having failed completely, but had a better idea. One final act of defiance was in order against professor Tabooshampar, the hypocritical cult-leader that preached free love, tantric sex, mysticism, oneness with the universe and the seven spheres. The house was always theirs to roam, but the central chamber on the second floor, the one with the freaky looking skylight, was always off limits to them. Sometimes, the professor would gather the students together and take them to the chamber to hear his speeches. They were however always forbidden from getting high inside the chamber, and they could always tell that professor Tabooshampar was deadly serious about it. What better way to spit in the old fat Indian’s face then to take Acid and trip out in the forbidden room?

As he went to make his way upstairs, a knock came on the door. Stephen figured it was probably Gregg, having forgotten his key again, and went to answer the door. To Stephen’s surprise, it was not Gregg, but Karl Amadeus, the German exchange student also known as Mordo. Before Stephen knew what was happening, Mordo flew at him and started punching him in the face. Stephen managed to fend him of, as the martial arts lessons Wendell Rand had thought him came very much in handy.

“Strange! You are a total bastard!!!” Karl called out.

“Yeah, well join the club…” Stephen said.

“Do you know what you did to Alice?” Karl asked, ready to attack Stephen again.

“Oh… I get it…. So that’s what this is… You’re coming to teach me a lesson on behalf of your girlfriend!”

“She’s not my girlfriend! We are not like that!” Karl shouted.

“No, YOU are not like that. Alice is most definitely like that! She is soooo like that!” Stephen baited Karl.

“You shut up!” Karl said, and came at Stephen again. Stephen managed to dodge the large, muscled German, who looked rather dangerous with his black hair, thick eyebrows and black beard.

“Karl, stop it!” Stephen said.

“Why? You deserve a good trashing for insulting and humiliating Alice!”

“Oh? I humiliated her? That’s a good one! Then why am I the one getting kicked out of school and out of my house? She told the whole world about me and professor Tabooshampar’s niece, and now the old fart is having me expelled and evicted!” Stephen said.

“You and professor Tabooshampar’s niece? The Indian beauty?” Karl asked, his face relaxing.

“Guilty as charged” Stephen answered with a mischievous smile.

“How… How was she?”

*********

“So…. You did it like…. How many times?” Karl asked Stephen, taking a drag of his joint.

“Well…. Like I said to her, `Just call me Mister Multiples, dear’. True story!” Stephen answered, puffing his water pipe.

“Heheheh… You see… I could never get away with that…” Karl said.

“Sure you can, you can get away with anything… If you can’t your not really trying!” Stephen said laughing.

The two men, who had been fighting a few minutes earlier, were sitting on two pillows in the central chamber of professor Tabooshampar’s house, the forbidden chamber. They had been sitting here, smoking marihuana since Stephen had offered to talk out their differences in the chamber. Karl had accepted, and turned out to be as sex-obsessed as Stephen, asking over and over again about the famous Indian girl and whether or not she had really read the entire Kama Sutra.

“Karl, old t**ser, I think it’s time for one final trip through the doors of imagination!” Stephen said, and took four pills from his back pocket.

“Is that acid?” Karl asked.

“It sure is, man! Acid, LSD, whatever you want to call it. Here you go, my German friend!” Stephen answered, and handed Karl two pills.

“Two? Is that wise?” Karl asked.

“Probably not, but what the hell I’m leaving here next morning, going back to the farm outside Philadelphia. I’ll probably be going to Vietnam come winter. Sure won’t need any acid there! No, this is the end of Strange, and the end of the doctor I should have been! So, goodbye, Doctor Strange! Rest in peace!” Stephen said, and put both of the pills in his mouth, closed his eyes and let them melt under his tongue. Karl looked at Stephen rather nervously, and then did the same, chewing on the pills and hen swallowing them. That was when the strangeness began.

********

“So what is it exactly you want, Alice?” Gregg Russell asked the distraught blonde girl as he was walking her to the house he shared with his friends Stephen and Wendell.

“I don’t know… I said some things to Stephen… and some things that I shouldn’t have said in public,” Alice answered, wiping the tears from her swollen red eyes and wiping the back make-up all over her face.

“Like when you told everybody he had been screwing professor Tabooshampar’s niece? Oh please! Everybody would have known about that eventually!” Wendell Rand said, who’s walking along with Alice and Gregg.

“Rub it in, will you?” Gregg said, elbowing Wendell in the ribs.

“Well it’s true, isn’t it? For the past few days, Steve has been talking to everybody how he worked through the entire Kama Sutra with that girl. Professor Tabooshampar would have found out eventually,” Wendell said indifferently, as Alice continued to sob.

Gregg and Wendell had found out about Stephen’s expulsion and eviction through the usual channels: the campus grapevine. Apparently, some students had overheard the professor chastising and punishing the flamboyant Stephen ‘Strange’ Sanders, and from there on news travelled fast. As they were making their way back home, the smartly dressed blonde Wendell and the shaggy, dishelved looking brown haired Gregg had run into Alice, known to them as Stephen’s sometimes-girlfriend. She had been distraught, as she had also heard about Stephen’s expulsion, and had talked to her friend Karl about it. Karl had become enraged at Stephen’s insinuations about him and Alice, and had gone to Stephen’s place on 177A Bleeker Street to get even.

Both Wendell and Gregg felt very badly about Stephen getting kicked out. Although the three men didn’t spend that much time together, they had become friends when they all started living at professor Tabooshampar’s house. Their reasons for joining the strange professor’s inner circle were all different. Gregg had joined because of a genuine interest in the strange, almost magical theories the professor espoused. Wendell, a martial arts fanatic, had joined because of the meditation techniques the professor taught. Stephen always seemed interested in everything the professor thought, but they all figured he was mostly there to meet chicks, which were always in abundance when the professor held his meetings in the top-room of the house.

When they got to the house, the door was open. Although this was not that uncommon, it did have Alice, Wendell and Gregg worried. They went into the house and started calling for Stephen, and Alice called for Carl. There was music coming from Stephen’s room, but there was nobody there. Then Gregg heard screams coming from upstairs.

“I’ll check it out! You stay here with Alice!” Wendell said, and ran up the stairs.

“I’m not staying put!” Alice said, and also headed upstairs, leaving Gregg no choice but to follow.

Once upstairs, the threesome noticed that the screams came from the Forbidden Chamber. Carefully, they opened the door to the room, and what they saw inside was something they would never forget. Both Stephen and Karl were lying on the floor, writhing and shaking uncontrollably. Once every while, one of them would scream, not in pain but from sheer terror. Throughout the room, swirling coloured mists were flying. They passed through the floor, through the bodies of Stephen and Karl, and through each other, causing unworldly sounds and strange whispers all over the room.

“No! No! Get away!” Alice screamed, as one of the swirls headed for her, and ran back down the stairs.

“We have to get them out!” Wendell said, and Gregg ran in to take Stephen by the shoulders. Wendell followed and took the much bigger Karl to safety, outside the room. They shut the door of the forbidden chamber behind them, and the bodies of Stephen and Karl seemed to relax, although they remained unconscious. From the darkness that came from under the door, Wendell and Gregg figured the unearthly lightshow had stopped.

“We better wake them up and ask what the hell that was!” Gregg said, visibly shaken by the spectacle he had just witnessed.

“I’ll get some water downstairs, and see where Alice went,” Wendell said, and headed downstairs. He was much more composed than Gregg on the outside, but inside his mind was in as much turmoil, trying to comprehend what he had seen with his own two eyes. As he headed down the second flight of stairs, Wendell saw that the awfulness of the evening was not yet over. At the bottom of the stairs lay Alice, her neck bent in a strange way, and with her eyes wide open, looking up at Wendell. He ran down the stairs and knelt beside Alice. As he checked for vital signs, he already knew the result. Alice had in all likelihood been so panicked that she stumbled and fell down the stairs. There were no vital signs, and her neck was obviously broken. She was dead.

26 September 1967:

Stephen Sanders, Wendell Rand and Gregg Russell were sitting in a coffee shop by the docks. For the past few days they had been sleeping in central park. It wasn’t too much of a problem, as it had been a beautiful late summer, extending the Summer of Love before it would all come crashing down in the winter. Today however, it had started to rain. Each carrying a backpack that contained all of their worldly possessions, the three former students had gone inside to talk over their options, after all three had been expelled and evicted thanks to professor Tabooshampar’s efforts.

“Alice’s funeral is today” Wendell remarked.

“Great! Let’s all go to Philly, I bet her parents would be thrilled to see us, and so will my parents!” Stephen said sarcastically.

“He’s just saying, Steve,” Gregg tried to calm his friend down.

“We need to talk about what comes next,” Wendell then remarked, “None of us will be very welcome back home, and for some of us that is not even a possibility.”

“Yeah, I really don’t see myself going to Rumania to live with my folks. They moved back to the old country when I left for University,” Gregg remarked.

“And I don’t even have a home. I lived at the Children’s Home, and only left after I gained this scholarship,” Wendell said.

“I’m… I’m so very sorry… For all of this… I really am…” Stephen said.

“We talked about this, Steve. It really isn’t your fault. Me and Wendell, we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Alice dying has nothing to do with you, not really,” Gregg said, trying to stop a discussion they had already had amongst themselves a hundred times. Stephen looked down at the table they were sitting at. No matter what Wendell or Gregg said, he blamed himself for what had happened anyway.

“So… What happens now? I guess we could always make our way to San Francisco… It’s where all the bum’s are these days. Steve should be able to make a fortune selling his stuff,” Wendell said.

“I don’t know guys… I really don’t know…  I don’t think I’ll be taking any more drugs for a while… What I saw… That night… I don’t know,” Stephen said.

“What did you see, Steve? I mean, I don’t want to pressure you too much, but… What happened there?” Gregg, always interested in the fantastic, asked.

“You now what happened. Karl and I, we took Acid. A lot of Acid. In that room that professor Tabooshampar always said we couldn’t enter, and certainly couldn’t get high in,” Stephen said, trembling as he talked about that night.

“And then? I mean, I’ve seen you tripping. Hell, I’ve done it myself once or twice! But this was no trip. This was real!” Gregg said.

“So yeah, I figured I was just, you know, defiling the place or something. I planned to piss all over that room and take a shit in it after I was done. I had no idea… No idea about what would happen, what I would see.”

“So what did you see?” Wendell asked, also getting interested.

“It’s hard to describe. I felt like I was seeing the world… differently. Like I first started to notice how the world is made up of so much more then what we all see… There was… energy there… but different. Swirling, and affecting me, in ways I never thought possible. You’ve taken acid, right Gregg?”

“Once or twice, yeah…” Gregg answered.

“Then you know how it can feel… Like all of a sudden you can see and feel much more than you normally can. But it’s not real. This time… This time it was. Real! All of it was real. I felt like I was experiencing what the world was truly like for the first time. As if some layer of paint was stripped away, and I could see what was underneath,” Stephen tried to explain his fantastic experiences.

“But how was that so terrifying? When we came in, you and Mordo were screaming in fear,” Wendell said.

“The terrifying part is… There were creatures there, beyond what we can see… Beings, who exist in this… super-reality… And they are strange, and frightening, and I couldn’t understand them at all… I would have drowned in my own fears, if not for you guys getting me away from that.”

“From what you describe, it sounds like that… new reality you were seeing, was bleeding into our world,” Gregg suggested.

“Maybe it did… But there was one other thing that kept me… more or less sane… There was this vision I had, in the middle of all the chaos… of a temple… sort of Buddhist-like, way up in the mountains. And there was this guy, some really old guy, ancient, really… He kept talking to me, but I couldn’t understand. Every time the fear got to overwhelming, that guy was there, and he helped me focus… kept me from drowning,” Stephen said, still visibly shaken by his experiences.

“You know what I think, Steve? I think you OD’d. I think you had the worst acid-trip ever, and hallucinated your heart out in a near-dead experience,” Wendell said.

“Then how do you explain the lightshow? That was bloody insane!” Gregg said.

“I’m not sure yet. Obviously, there’s more to this the world than meets the eye. But I don’t think the secrets to the world can be discovered by an acid-trip and by professor Tabooshampar,” Wendell stated.

“I know what I saw. I know what I felt. And it was real. I’m an expert on Acid-trips, and this was no ordinary trip. It was much, much more,” Stephen defended his feelings on the matter.

“I think I believe you, Steve. After all, some the stuff that professor Tabooshampar talked about seemed… I don’t know… to make sense? In a way?”

“Hmmm…. Well, if what Steve is talking about, and what he saw, is real, then we should really go out and prove it, don’t you think so?” Wendell said.

“Prove it? How? You want the three of us to break into the professor’s house and all take acid in his forbidden chamber?” Gregg asked.

“We should go out and find the old man from my vision,” Stephen said with very serious look on his face.

“Right!” Wendell said, getting almost enthusiastic.

“You’re tripping, man! Both of you are! That guy in Steve’s vision lived up in the mountains in a Buddhist temple. You’re talking about going to India.”

“I sure am!” Wendell said.

“You’re both crazy!” Gregg said.

“Come on, Gregg,” Stephen said, looking excited for the first time in three days, “We did the drugs, we had the sex, we listened to the music, and we’ve dropped out. Going to India is really the only thing we haven’t done yet.”

“We could go to San Francisco,” Gregg said.

“Okay, we’ll go there first,” Wendell said.

“Right! And from there we go to, to India, to find this old dude,” Stephen said.

“Ancient One,” Gregg corrected Stephen.

“Excuse me?” Stephen said.

“Ancient One. We’re talking about an old man living in a Buddhist temple. You don’t call that an Old Dude, you call that an Ancient One”

“Ancient One. Whatever. So, we’re going?” Stephen asked.

“Hey, it was my idea!” Wendell said.

“Alright. We’re going on the hippie-trail!” Gregg said, and the three friends all started laughing.

*********

Karl Amadeus was on the plane back to Germany. He was not looking forward to explaining to his uncle why he had gotten expelled from NYU. To Karl, getting a choice education and possibly staying in the United States after graduation, was more then just an ambition. People like Stephen Sanders, or Alice, could never understand just how important it was for Karl to move away from his roots. They did not grow up in post-war Germany. They didn’t loose most of their family, including their father and mother in the Dresden-bombings. He had been just a baby when it happened, when Germany gambled all on the words on a madman and lost.

Post-war Germany had no place for fallen nobility. Karl was taken in by an uncle living in Hamburg, the black sheep of the family, and the man worked his fingers to the bone to get Karl away from his heritage. Now, all that hard work had been for nothing. Karl was shipped home, expelled and disgraced, branded an unwanted alien by the US authorities. In his mind, Karl knew exactly whom he blamed. Not professor Tabooshampar, who only did what was proper in getting rid of a bunch of what he saw as degenerates. Also not Alice, sweet Alice who he loved to discuss poetry with and could have been so much more to him if only he had taken the chance. No, Karl was certain the blame rested solely on the shoulders of Stephen Sanders, the hippie degenerate that corrupted him and made him take drugs.

His thoughts about Stephen Strange also made him think about his experiences as he lay writhing in terror at the onslaught on his senses in the house of professor Tabooshampar. His experiences had been the same as Stephen’s, as he experienced a second reality, chaotic, beautiful and terrible. But where Stephen had remained sane by clinging on to a vision of peace and serenity in the mountains of Asia, Karl had given into the despair that always slumbered in his tortured poet’s heart. He too, had had a vision of clarity that provided him the focus to make it through his ordeal. However, instead of the old man Stephen saw, Karl saw a burning man. The burning man was clothed in shimmering colours of red and purple and his head had been on fire. No helping hand had been forthcoming from the man, no feelings of peace and serenity. Instead, the burning man seemed to be laughing at Karl’s misfortune. He seemed in control and comfortable in the roaring chaos of unknown energy. At that moment, Karl had screamed for help from the burning man, pledging his unending servitude if the burning man would but reach out his hand and save him from the thing’s he could not comprehend.

Of course, there had been no burning hand reaching out to Karl to save him. Instead, there had been Stephen’s felloe degenerates coming to his rescue. Karl hated them with all his heart. Not only had they caused his downfall, but they had also caused the death of sweet, caring and loving Alice. A tear came to Karl’s eyes as he thought of Alice, but as he had done so often in the past days, he turned his grief into hatred. Hatred of Stephen Sanders, and right there on the plane taking him back to the homeland that no longer had a place for him, Karl vowed that whatever he had to do, no matter how long it took, he would destroy Stephen Sanders for what he had done.

Unknown to Karl, three seats behind him there was a man listening to Karl’s every thought. If Karl had been able to focus his mind more on the present instead of on wrongs done to him in the past and a thirst for vengeance in the future, he might have recognised the man. He had dark skin, a chubby face and wore a red fez. As professor Tabooshampar heard every thought Karl had about vengeance on Stephen Sanders, he knew he had found an ally.

2 March 1968:

It had taken Stephen, Wendell and Gregg almost half a year, but finally they had reached the harbour-city of Calcutta, on the mighty Ganges River in the West-Bengal region of India. Although they had left the very evening of the day they made their decision, making their way to San Francisco from New York, the journey had taken them far longer then they would have expected. At first, money really had not been an issue. Stephen had more then enough left to accommodate him and his friends all the way to California, now that he no longer needed it to buy new product to sell. Starting out, Stephen had been very on edge, probably due to withdrawal symptoms. As much as everybody said that marihuana and acid were non-addictive drugs, Stephen knew that was a load of bull, and he displayed all the symptoms of a man stopping cold turkey to prove it.

After a few weeks, taking it slow in cheap motels in the American mid-west, Stephen began to improve. Whereas he still looked like death warmed over, the need to get high abided. Wendell had been instrumental in getting Stephen through the worst of it. To the serious Wendell, his martial arts studies had always been as much about achieving focus and clarity through meditation as on the physical aspects of actually fighting. He started training daily with Stephen, and although this always resulted in Stephen getting his ass royally kicked, much to Gregg’s amusement, after a while the results began to show. Stephen’s body and mind began to adjust to a life without drugs, and became more relaxed and more focused. More than anything, he wanted to prove that the things he saw on that fateful evening in September were genuine.

Gregg meanwhile had taken on a new hobby. He had become convinced that whatever had happened to Stephen was somehow mystical in nature, and he began hunting down books on the occult in every town they visited. Once he read them, he sold the books, but the more he read, the more resolved he was to find Stephen’s Ancient One, who Gregg suspected could be a powerful sorcerer. Wendell thought it was utter rubbish, and instead believed that the old man on the mountain was a mystical teacher, a guru, only one that actually had the knowledge and insights into the world that most guru’s only claimed to possess.

Stephen had no clue as to what the Ancient One represented. In kicking his drug-habit, it had become important to him to focus on reality, and he approached the matter of his visions with a completely open mind. There was no proof for the magical and mystical theories his friends professed. However, there was also no proof that dismissed them. To Stephen that signified that he simply did not know anything, apart from the visions he had experienced himself. He was ready to believe, and ready to learn, but on the other hand he had adopted a rational stance on all matters concerning their journey. In a way, Doctor Strange, the hippie medical student, had really died inside professor Tabooshampar’s forbidden chamber.

Of course, that didn’t mean the three friends did not have a blast in San Francisco when they finally got to the city. The Summer of Love was over, yes, but there was still more then enough to enjoy about the hippie-capitol of the world. While Wendell especially had been concerned about Stephen getting back into drugs, he needn’t have worried. Stephen still was as fun loving and mischievous as ever, especially where the ladies were concerned, but he did not touch any drugs or even alcohol during their entire two-week stay. While Stephen and Wendell partied, Gregg just took advantage of the time to get stoned out of his mind on marihuana, and getting his hands on some really obscure texts dealing with the occult.

After two weeks of debauchery, the three friends decided it was time to move on. India was waiting for them, and Gregg had found a few serious leads on the Ancient One, a man of mystical might and magical ability, living in seclusion in Tibet, in the mythical village of Kamar-Taj. They spent the last of Stephen’s drug-money on gear and supplies for their trek into the Himalayas, and to secure passage on a small, slow freighter headed for West-Bengal. With nothing else to do during the long, two-month journey, Stephen began reading the books Gregg had taken with him. He was particularly interested in a book called “Notations on The Book of Cagliostro with a view to The Darkhold” and an ancient medieval text in Latin, which Gregg swore was an original, entitled “Astral journey’s of The Great Agamotto”. Wendell occupied himself with his training, and even somewhat befriended some of the crewmembers on the freighter, helping out as much as he could.

Gregg became more and more restless as the journey continued. He had always been very much an outdoorsman, and as the bad weather hit two weeks into the journey, Gregg began to suffer from cabin fever. One night, Gregg finished off an entire bottle of Whisky of piss-poor quality in one sitting, and started to talk to his two bunk-companions.

“Guys, I have to tell you something,” Gregg slurred in the middle of the night, waking both Stephen and Wendell.

“I know, you love us… You told us already,” Stephen said.

“Well, it’s true, innit? But no… There something else…” Gregg continued.

“I swear Gregg, if you’re going to vomit up whatever you ate, I’ll make you lick it up!” Wendell threatened.

“No, it’s not that… I can hold my liquor…” Gregg said.

“Go back to sleep, Gregg. Tell us all about it in the morning”

“I might not want to tomorrow… You see, I feel funny…” Gregg persisted.

“I told you Gregg!” Wendell warned again.

“What is then, Gregg?” Stephen asked, sensing there was more to Gregg’s behaviour than just alcohol.

“Well, you see, it’s like this… It’s a full moon out, and I feel funny… I always feel funny during a full moon, and I usually get stoned on night with a full moon so I don’t feel funny,” Gregg said.

“Okay, so you got drunk instead of stoned. What? Is that against your principles or something?” Wendell asked somewhat sarcastically.

“Well it ain’t working like it should, you know? Usually I don’t feel this funny… But now I do… And it got me thinking… What if my dad is right, you know? What if it’s all true?” Gregg said, speaking incoherently.

“What on earth are you talking about, Gregg?” Stephen asked.

“Well, that’s just it, innit? I mean, to you guys, I’m Gregg Russell, but back in the old country… I’m Gregor Russoff… And people say my dad’s a wolf man…”

“I don’t bloody believe this! Because you feel ‘funny’ and there’s a full moon, and you couldn’t get stoned, now you’re a bloody werewolf? Are you shitting me, Gregg?” Wendell asked angrily.

“Well it’s the truth, I tell you… I’m not shitting you… They say when men of my family turn eighteen, they become werewolves!” Gregg shouted, sounding drunk but very serious at the same time.

“A werewolf… I don’t believe that, and neither should you!” Wendell said.

“I’m Rumanian… Transylvanian, even. We take curses very seriously, Wendell!” Gregg said, getting a little angry.

“Gregg, calm down. You’re twenty-three, just like us, and you have never turned into a wolf, have you?” Stephen said, trying to reason with Gregg who was obviously freaking out.

“That’s just it… I’m not twenty-three! I’m seventeen, and I turn eighteen in May!” Gregg said, starting to cry.

“You’re nuts! If you’re eighteen, than I’m Richard Nixon!” Wendell said.

“Then you better get your ass to Washington, because I swear to God I’m seventeen!” Gregg said angrily.

“Gregg, you’re not making sense! We’ve known you for two years. Are you saying you were fifteen when you moved into professor Tabooshampar’s house? That’s crazy!” Stephen said.

“It’s not when both you’re parents are over six feet tall, you start shaving at twelve and you’re a child-prodigy, tutored by your parents,” Gregg said.

“If that is true, it would explain a few things,” Wendell said.

“Like what? My hairy back?” Gregg said.

“Well, there’s that, and also the fact that every girl you ever went out with said you were such a gentleman!” Stephen said, and both Wendell and Gregg started laughing.

“Guys, I am serious, though… Come next May, I’m gonna turn into a wolf… I’m sure of it…” Gregg said after a while.

“Maybe… Maybe this Ancient One can help you, too…” Stephen said.

“You think so? And you believe me?” Gregg asked.

“Right now, I’m willing to consider every possibility,” Stephen said.

“I suppose you’re right there, Steve. Come to think of it, Gregg being a werewolf isn’t any more outlandish and crazy then what I witnessed in the professor’s room,” Wendell said, still not convinced, but willing to go along with his friends nonetheless.

After that, none of three friends spoke about Gregg’s drunken confession. But whether Stephen and Wendell believed Gregg or not, all three of them now considered May 1968 to be a grim deadline for finding the Ancient One.

**********

“Master! Master! I believe I have found them!” Karl Amadeus called as he rushed into the small Mosque built on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The place was dimly lit, and although it appeared as a Mosque on the outside, with its dome and minarets, nothing inside had anything to do with an Islamic house of worship. The whole building was filled to overflowing with objects and artifacts that more belonged on the set of a horror movie instead. There were the bubbling test tubes and laboratory equipment, the library filled with ancient books, with titles speaking of forbidden lore, the dead animals, hanging upside-down from the ceiling, the crystal balls, boiling cauldrons and runic markings and arcane symbols written all over the walls.

The Mosque was the primary dwelling of professor Tabooshampar, the place he always returned to when he was not busy somewhere else. It was the place he had taken Karl to after he had contacted him on the airport of Hamburg. Karl listened to the professor’s offer of getting revenge on Stephen Sanders, and when the professor started speaking of mystical realities, Karl was willing to believe the strange man. For all Karl knew, the professor could have told him he was from outer space, and he still would have gone along with anything he said. As long as it leads to avenging himself on Stephen Sanders, Karl was willing to believe anything.

When they arrived in Los Angeles a few days later, professor Tabooshampar charged Karl with following up leads to find out where Stephen and his friends had disappeared to after they had been forced to leave his New York townhouse. The professor never gave any explanation as to why he wanted to find the three friends, just hat they had something that belonged to them. None of that mattered to Karl, though. He started calling everybody he knew in New York to get more information on Stephen, Wendell or Gregg. Nobody seemed to know anything, though, and nobody had seen them after the incident. Next, he started contacting friends and relatives of the three, only managing to contact Stephen’s parents. It seemed they had mostly disowned Stephen, and refused to even talk about him.

In the meantime, the professor was always working in his weird-science laboratory. Karl had no clue what he was doing, except that he wore dark robes when he was at the Mosque, and that he somehow seemed to involve himself in witchcraft. Finally, Karl asked the professor, calling himself simply Taboo when he was at the Mosque, to arrange a visit back to New York for him. The professor did as Karl asked, giving him a new identity as Karl Amadeus Mordo. Much to Karl’s surprise, the professor asked Karl whether he was sure he wanted to use a cursed name. Karl had stated that it was his curse to bear, and the matter was never discussed among them again. The professor did start to involve Karl in his strange experiments after that, which Karl viewed as alchemy. He also requested Karl start calling him Master. Again, Karl did not mind. As long as it got him the vengeance he sought.

Once he got back to New York, Karl started going by the frequent hang-out’s of the three friends. Both Stephen’s and Wendell’s did not provide any leads, but Gregg’s did. He found out that Gregg frequented bookstores and had an interest in books dealing with the occult. He would read them and resell them, and Karl guessed that whatever had happened to Gregg, he would still maintain that hobby. Getting back to Los Angeles, Karl started calling every bookstore in America that sold esoteric books and finally he hit pay dirt. A man matching Gregg’s description had sold of a dozen or so occult books in San Francisco a few months back, using the money to buy another text of some renown: “Notations on The Book of Cagliostro with a view to The Darkhold”.

Karl explained all this to the professor, or Master Taboo, and the Indian professor was delighted.

“I’m sue it’s him! It must be! Strange, though. I would have expected Sanders to be the culprit.”

“The culprit of what?” Karl asked.

“The thief! The thief, my young friend! These stupid boys have defiled my chamber, and stolen from me. And I want to regain that which belongs to me!” the professor said.

“Do you wish me to go to San Francisco?” Karl suggested.

“Oh no… No, they will be long gone from there… No, I think I know where they are going, young friend. You see, I have seen in your mind what you saw as you opened the doors of the seven spheres inside my chamber”

“Where are they? Tell me, and I’ll get back whatever they stole from you!” Karl said, eager to get going.

“They’re going to India. They may already be there. And it’s ironic, that they wish to go to the old recluse. But their journey is doomed. None can successfully complete a quest of the spirit, with the cursed Darkhold in their possession.

********

Stephen was lying in bed in the small boarding house in Calcutta. Both Wendell and Gregg were out taking in the sights of the exotic harbour in the strange country that might as well have a whole different country all together. Stephen was tired however. He felt the need to continue on with the journey, to start looking for the mythical village called Kamar-Taj. He wanted to be well rested to start travelling as soon as possible.

Right now, however Stephen was bored. He had read both of the books Gregg had taken with him, and he was eager to read more about the mystical world. Deciding to re-read some passages from the Latin book, Stephen went through Gregg’s backpack, and found a third book; he had never laid eyes on. He took the massive volume, bound in dark leather and filled with ancient parchment, out of the bag and laid it on the bed before him. There was a runic symbol on the cover of the book that looked a little like a stylised D, and although Stephen saw the book for the first time, he recognised it. This was the fabled tome of darkest magic, The Darkhold.