Friday, March 18, 2011

Phantom: Final Roar - by Mike Bullock

(This story first appeared in Phantom: Generations Special by Moonstone Books. The Phantom is (c) King Features Syndicate. All Rights Reserved.)


I had done my best to staunch the flow of blood from my left arm, using the juice from the five-leafed plant as Nuran had showed me. The wounds cut deep, through the sleeve and nearly an inch into my flesh, rendering my arm nearly useless. The blood loss was draining my wakefulness, and I spiraled downward into a dream like state. The wound to my chest, I feared, was much worse.

I sat there and gazed upward into the baleful eye of the full moon, wondering how I would get out of this one. The beast had gotten the best of me, and only through divine intervention was I able to escape a quick and final death at his claws. I had struck a lucky blow, temporarily blinding the monster, but he would not let me be for long.

Yet, even though I still drew breath, each ragged gasp brought with it a finality. My son would soon don this mask, as I had the day after my Father’s passing lo those many years ago.

The thought of my son brought a smile to my lips. To see how he’d grown into a great man before my eyes was a wondrous blessing. I prayed that he would not be as grief stricken as I had been on that dark day.

My reverie was soon shattered, as the roar of the beast shook the very earth upon which I sat.

ROOOOOAAAAARRRR!


My heartbeat quickened at that primal sound. It echoed deep within my very being, touching on something inside that answered with a voice lesser men might cultivate into fear. The roar spoke volumes, letting all who heard it know that the King of Beasts was angered- woe unto those who crossed his path.

There had been a time when these majestic creatures lived alone, atop the food chain. Yet, as always, man had found a way to usurp that throne, employing tools, weapons and blood. With that thought in mind, my one good hand clutched at my Father’s sword, knowing that it was all that stood between me and the slathering death that sought me out that night.

I’d heard the phrase ‘deafening silence’ whilst on a trip to Europe many years ago. At the time, I found those words puzzling, as are many things parroted by ‘civilized’ men who have not the intellectual grasp on the words they bandy about, simply reciting them as if it gives their station in life merit and meaning. Such men would not last a day in the Deep Woods.

However, on that night the silence in the jungle was deafening. Neither insect, nor bird, nor frog, nor babbling brook seemed to issue forth with any audible evidence of their existence. It was as if the roar had stolen the voice of all who called the Woods home.

I strained my ears against the silence, as if I could will my hearing to detect even the faintest of noises, which would grant me knowledge of the beast’s whereabouts.

Try as I might, I heard nothing.

All my life, I had been accustomed to working alone. That is the lot of The Phantom. A life destined to solitude, for who can share such a burden when there is but one of us in every generation?

Yet, that night, I felt more alone than ever before. Even my guns, which had always accompanied me like the best of friends, were now gone - lost in the initial struggle with the monster.

It was as if the very jungle cried out to me, demanding that I realize the extent of my isolation.

Then it came again.

ROOOOOAAAAAARRRRRRR!


It is truly strange what thoughts trample through your mind in moments such as these. I’d defeated countless blackhearts, endured unbearable pain, soul crushing hardship and more injuries than I cared to remember, but not once had I questioned my own mortality.

Yet, in that instant, for the first time in my life, one fraught with more danger than most men would ever dream of, I considered my own end. Would I die there, back against that ancient tree with none to know of how I met my maker?

Would there be a final chronicle in the life of the fourteenth man to don the mask? Or would the books on my shelf simply cease to continue after my last adventure? History would announce me as the missing Phantom, the first to simply disappear from the jungle. What legacy would that leave for my son?

From memory alone, I could recite tale after tale of my father’s adventures. Many a night, whilst he was away doing his duty, I would sneak into the Chronicle Chamber. By candlelight, I would devour every word penned by his hand in those majestic tomes. Once I’d read all that he had written, I moved on to my Grandfather’s tales and then his Father before him.

What a grand life we are called to lead!

From the darkest jungles to the high seas to the finest palaces in Europe, the adventures of Phantoms past took me on limitless flights of fancy as a boy. Every night I could hardly wait for my sweet mother to fall fast asleep so that I might read yet another tale of excitement and daring do.

I still recall the night my father, just returned from his latest mission, found me curled up, sleeping soundly with a book of the Eighth held in my arms. He would later tell me he had known of my passion for the Chronicles for several years, but for some reason, that night he chose to wake me and allow me to watch as he chronicled his latest tale.


ROOOOAAAAARRR!

That terrible sound, like living thunder, throttled the very tree against which I laid. It also shook me from my reminiscing. Perhaps my blood loss had rendered my ingenuity useless, for it was at that moment that I realized continuing to languish in my memories was sure to spell my end.

But, I thought my memories might hold the key to salvation. Surely, I was not the first Phantom to face defeat at the hands of such a monster! In the vault of memories this experience had opened, I scoured for a tale of such an encounter.

My father, the finest swordsman to ever live, found himself more often than not ‘pon the decks of ships, fighting off wave after wave of brigands, buccaneers and raiders. While many were monstrous in their deeds, none held the distinction of brute physicality my current foe possessed.

What of the twelfth? Certainly, he might have faced such a foe! If not him, then possibly the Eleventh or Tenth?

ROOOAAAAARRRRR!!

The dull pain in my skull reverberated with every bellow from the beast. The power of his latest spoke volumes to me: he was much closer than before.

The throbbing made concentrating far more difficult than I had ever experienced. Perhaps I’d lost more blood than I’d first guessed?

Regardless, I was unable to deftly finger through the memories of my ancestor’s tales with any clarity or function. It seemed a fore drawn conclusion that my end would come before I had discovered that one memory that scratched at my mind like a loose tooth.

Blurry thoughts, half-remembered imaginings and jumbled word pictures fought for control of my mind, each vying to take control from the true master of the moment: pain. If I could just put aside the anguish long enough to concentrate, I would solve this riddle of remembering and know how my ancestor had felled the beast that stalked him on that far away night. But, I was no longer the ruler of my own mind and because of that, thoughts I could not control shot through bringing with them a dream like haze of twisted musings and smoky visions.

At that moment, I realized I must gather my wits and honor my legacy. No Phantom would simply wait for death to slink upon him, with slathering jaws and hot breath, rank with the smell of decaying meat.

NO!

Those men who regaled me with their escapades as a child were not the timid variety. They would rise to the occasion and face their foe, staring right into the maw of their own destruction with little more than a wry smile and fierce determination to give their best, even if the odds were insurmountable.

With that thought in mind, I firmly planted my right fist in the ground, and by sheer force of will, gathered my legs beneath me and pushed myself erect.

There I stood, ready to do battle as the thirteen who had come before me would have done. I could no more dishonor their memory than they could do so to those who preceded them. Nevertheless, if I were to rest a moment longer…

NO!

I was Phantom! I would stand my ground and face the beast with all the fury I could summon from within my soul. This would not be the day that my blood ran out. This would not be the day that issued the age-old cry “The Phantom is dead, long live the Phantom!”

And there I stood, trembling from pain and exhaustion, light headed from blood loss and hunger, battered by the beast who seemingly had slunk up from the very pits of hell. Ready to die, as many had at the claws of this monster. But, I would not falter.

ROOOOOAAAAARRRR!

As the thundering sound shook the earth underneath me yet again, I raised my Father’s sword, ready to do battle with the beast. He had bested me before, but this time he would learn that even a mighty predator such as himself stood no chance against The Man Who Cannot Die!

It was then I heard something else in the night. At first, my mind went wild, as if I’d just regained my hearing from a spell of deafness. What was that sound I heard? It was familiar, somehow, reminding me of a more peaceful place, and a time of solace.

Plap! Plap!

The sound had a rhythmic sense to it and in that rhythm was a serene peace brought on from a faint memory. What was it? Where had I heard that sound before?

My mind faded into reverie for the briefest of moments. There she was, standing in all her beauty alongside the brook that ran behind the Skull Cave. The mother of my child, the love of my life… My nostrils involuntarily flared as I took in the scent of her who owned the heart that beat within my chest.

Plap! Plap!

A voice in my head urged me to look around for the source of that sound, but I could not take my eyes off her fine, chiseled features, like that of a porcelain doll. I drank in her beauty as I had every time I’d set eyes upon her since the moment we first met. To this day, she was still able to steal my breath away. Her fair ivory skin, smoldering blue eyes, long silken black hair-

Plap! Plap!

There it was again, the rhythm had become annoying, like a fly who evades every attempt to shoo him off. Yet, that sound prevented me from focusing solely on the vision of my bride. My eyes fell away for the briefest of moments and alighted upon a drop, falling rhythmically from a leaf near the brook, splashing ever so gently on a river rock below.

Plap! Plap!

My gaze once again rose to her face, but something was not right. A painful darkness clouded her features and her mouth voiced silent words as she extended her alabaster arm, gesturing ever so gently with her finger in the direction of my feet.

The pulse in my veins jumped at the sight of her anguished visage. Then my eyes followed her motion as the lines between memory and reality blurred. I looked down, and there it was, the source of the sound. On the ground between the roots of that ancient tree. There, on my left boot.

Plap! Plap!

A crimson puddle that seemed almost tranquil at first, before it was violently interrupted-

Plap!

ROOOOOAAAAARRRR!

As I stared downward, ever downward at the smallish puddle of my own life force, pooling on the toe of my boot, I became at once aware of a new battle I must fight. For the very ground itself was seeking to rush upon me. What new deviltry was this? A fight against man or monster was one I could relish, but to fight the very earth itself seemed too much for even one called Phantom.

Succor came by drawing nearer to my opponent, as I descended to one knee and stabbed at the ground with my father’s sword. From here, the clouds cleared briefly from my mind as I heard the voices of those who came before me, in a violent chorus of men among men.

GET UP!

The impact of their words drove my head back upward in a dizzying manner, as if I’d been struck with a mighty uppercut intended to clear the cobwebs from my mental passages.

GET UP!

The voices continued to exhort me despite my body’s best efforts to defeat them. Through clenched teeth, I replied, while pushing myself to attention once again.

“GET UP!” The force of my own voice, echoing into the night, gave me a renewed sense of my current predicament. It was as if I needed to speak in order to reassure myself that I yet lived.

ROOOOOAAAAARRRR!

It seemed I was not the lone witness to my outcry, as the monster replied in his own way.

Knowing what fate awaited me, I stared down the blade of my Father’s sword. How many villains had met their fate at the end of this fine weapon? How many lives had this sword seen ended? While killing is not the way of The Phantom, many a man has died in the presence of those who wear the mask. The pirates and brigands who faced my father were no different.

ROOOOOAAAAARRRR!

And now, would I still have the strength to end the life of that which stalked me on this night? When the time presented itself, would I still be able to employ this blade to win the day?

As I raised the blade to the air, I knew what must be done. I would wait here, for the beast to approach, then, as so many before me had, I would end this threat to the jungle and those who called it home. For fourteen generations, the peoples of these lands had depended on the Phantom to protect them and exact justice.

These things could not be deferred due to illness, injury or even the mightiest of monsters. No. The beast would die on this very spot. I would make sure of that, even if it meant my life was forfeit.

Young Kit. Will the morrow be the day you finally assume your destiny? Will the boy I remember so fondly become the man I’ve trained you to be?

There. In the fog. Deep within the recesses of my mind I see him. A lad of only five summers, armed with bow and arrow, stalking his prey through the undergrowth outside the waterfall. I watch, with eyes only a proud father can possess. He has tracked his quarry for some time and now moves in for the kill. He steps forward, from his cover, and I instinctively reach out to prevent his error, but it’s too late. His impetuousness has alerted the gazelle, which flees with a speed that Mercury himself would envy.

He turns to me, and with downturned lips, says “Father, I failed…”

I reached out for my son, with a soul rending ache to assure him he had done well-

ROOOOOAAAAARRRR!

My eyes opened once again, as the night rushed in, washing my memory of young Kit away and replacing it with the dull pain and lightheadedness that were my only companions on that night. Oh, Kit, you must always know that you could never fail me. You are no more capable of such a thing as I was of failing my father. It simply could not be…

ROOOOOAAAAARRRR!


There comes a time in the life of every man when the realization of just what you face rises up. It was not the beast that opposed me, but my own death. The specter of it haunted every fiber of my being, from the pit of my stomach to the front lines of the battle raging within my mind. It was at that moment when I realized I did not fear death, for no real man does, but what I did fear was the thought of no longer living.

I could not reconcile the idea of never again holding my beloved in my arms, feeling her warm body against mine, soaking in the scent of her beautiful tresses, drinking in the ambrosia of her loveliness.

Nor could I come to terms with never again walking shoulder to shoulder with my son, guiding him on his path through life, passing on to him that which had been passed down to me. Where would I be without these two, whom I loved more than life itself?

Where would I be?

I thought back to a time when I first donned the mask. A time before her sweet embrace, before the pure joy of hearing my boy laugh with unbridled vigor, a time before I really lived.

Some say I was more fearless then, yet I know the truth. It was not fearlessness that guided my hand, but reckless abandon, brought on by a kind of selfishness a man possesses before joining in marriage. A knowing that only I hung in the balance of my life. No others would suffer were I to fail.

These thoughts were rooted in an immaturity. Soil that had not yet been tilled with the wisdom of my lineage. For me, becoming the Phantom was a ticket to adventure, a chance to live the lives I had spent many a childhood night reading about in those old tomes. The sheer weight of my calling had not sunk in. Nor did it do so until the day I first heard my son cry out, fresh from the womb and new to this world.

ROOOOOAAAAARRRR!

It was then the beast chose to appear once again. I found the corner of my lip upturned slightly at the sight of his face. I had achieved a reckoning in our first encounter, evidenced by the deep wound he bore upon his countenance.

ROOOOOAAAAARRRR!

Apparently, my smile did little to please the monster, as he bellowed out in defiance of my spirit. Once again, my ribcage shook from the sheer power of his voice. Many a lesser man had fallen from courage upon hearing the mighty beast announce his presence. But I was not a lesser man.

I was PHANTOM!

As I had done so many times before, I found myself taunting my adversary. Knowing that an opponent who cannot think clearly, cannot fight clearly either.

“What are you waiting for, Beast? Afraid you’ll not be able to stomach a meal such as this?”

ROOOOOAAAAARRRR!

He stalked to the left, acutely aware of the sword held out to my right. The crook of the tree I stood against would protect my back, but the monster was still able to flank me somewhat, were he fast enough, due to my useless left arm.

This would be a simple victory for me, had I not lost my guns in our first encounter. However, those pistols were all the beast feared, that is until he saw the flash of my steel once again.

I caught him across the chin this time, drawing blood anew, as he had thought to take advantage of my inability to fight from the left.

ROOOOOOOAAAAAAAAARRRRRRR!!!!

This time his bellow nearly knocked me from my feet, as the ferocity of his anger slammed into me like a blow all its own. My sudden recoil did more to further the monster’s cause, as my head collided violently with the mighty tree, sending white flashes through my vision and causing my knees to buckle.

And there was the moment the monster had been waiting for as he lunged forward, claws extended, teeth barred, unleashing all the primal energy his thousand pound frame possessed.

BOOOOOOOM!

The sound of thunder brought with it darkness… and rest.

***

Those were the last words of my Father, the Fourteenth Phantom, as he relayed them to me mere hours after his encounter. From his deathbed, he urged me to take up pen and tome, to chronicle his last night on earth.

While many sense impending doom before it strikes, I find that in retrospect, I had no doubt that my father would slay the beast that had slaughtered more than a dozen villagers when the grip of rabies took hold. Never had I thought this aberration of nature would best a man like my father. Despite the rogue lion’s freakish size and hellish ferocity, the thought had never occurred to me that he would bring the end to the one called Phantom.

It was a testament to Father’s mighty will that he survived the initial attack at all. His wounds would have killed a lesser man, outright, and should have laid him low far sooner than they did. I am convinced that his failure to give up in the face of death is the only reason he still drew breath when I found him.

I had taken it upon myself that night to follow my father, believing that even a man such as he would not stand against the mightiest rogue lion the Deep Woods had ever seen. Had my tracking skills been better honed, I might have arrived in time to prevent his mortal wounding and shoot the beast before he could injure my Father.

However, I must take solace that my aim was true and kill the monster I did, preventing him from doing further harm to the man whom I owed everything.

By recalling his teachings, I was able to stop the blood loss and bring him home, where Nuran tended to his wounds and helped him regain consciousness. Once awake, he bid me do three things.

One, tell my mother he loved her, always and forever.

Two, retrieve the latest chronicle book from the chamber and document his tale exactly as he related it to me.

And, three, always honor the mask I would soon wear with bravery, courage and selflessness.

After retrieving the tome, I promised him I would do as he asked and with his last breaths, he told me of his final moments in the Deep Woods.

***

And this ends the Chronicles of the Fourteenth Phantom, just as it began.

Very soon, the Bandar will gather outside and begin their chant. At that time, I will cloth myself in the uniform of my calling and once I’ve donned the mask, I will step forth into my new life. A life I will lead until death comes for me as well. You see, despite the legends of The Man Who Cannot Die, the Reaper awaits us all. There is little we can do to stave it off, but just as my father did, I will give death such a reckoning that it will know it tangled with a Phantom on that far away day. Only this way, can I truly honor my father’s memory.

But I must attend to matters of today, the chant is calling. Sadly, I shall end this now, and begin my new life. As I do so, I find it only fitting to conclude this tome with the chant reverberating through these hallowed walls right now.

The Phantom is Dead! Long Live the Phantom!