Not far away, standing in the waist-deep, ruddy fog which seemed to cover the world beyond the tall hatch, five figures chanted, extending their fingers to the sky. Beyond them a figure clad in white robes sat, as if observing the proceedings, ignorant of the door’s opening.

Roger hissed, an almost mechanical sound, and his shape began to shimmer, then harden. A strange carapace formed around him, or perhaps out of him, as he readied himself for battle. “I am prepared to enter now,” a tinny, electronic voice issued from where his mouth once was.

Everyone stared at Roger during his transformation, Jolene taking several steps back, at a loss to explain the specific oddity happening before her. In the midst of the alien hive, secretly located in an off-the-books government black site, populated by extradimensional demonic creatures, Roger was proving the strangest entity so far.

Catching Ismene’s wide-eyed stare, the thing-that-was-Roger cocked its head. “Do you also require protection?”

Roger took her stammering surprise as an affirmative and extended a long, chitinous finger toward her before she could clarify. She seemed to shimmer and soften, her outlines blurring and morphing. Seconds later Ismene stood, dressed in a 1950s-era pulp comic exosuit, as if she were going to explore the Forbidden Planet.

“Ahem” came a voice from beyond the portal, the man in white breaking the group’s stunned silence.

The swirling miasma of the world beyond seemed to ebb and flow with unholy energy, like a creature alive. The deeply-cowled ritualists continued their atonal chanting as the apparent supervisor drew the group’s attention, spreading his arms wide. “Welcome friends,” he bellowed across the expanse. “It’s about time you’ve arrived.”

“Hi dad!” Seth waved to the larger-than-life figure, the rest of the group turning to their madcap follower with horror. He spoke familiarly, utterly failing to communicate to his friends that he thought the man was Jolene’s father, and not his own. The man’s dark sunglasses failed to hide his amusement.

Roger began spinning near-monofilmanent whips out of the very air around him as Tammy jumped through the door, her sword raised high above her head, charging the nearest of the ritualists. “Be gone!” she roared, kopesh bursting into flames with her assault, cutting deeply into the robed magician.

In a flash, the sword was through the form, and the figure collapsed to the ground, robes falling open. Tammy stood above a lioness-headed woman, eyes losing their luster and tongue lolling limply from her bloody mouth. All triumph draining from her face, Tammy nearly dropped her sword from numb fingers as she realized she had cut down another sister in service to her goddess.

“You were warned that they were here under duress, weren’t you?” the man in white grinned widely, perfect teeth a brilliant white. Standing, two enormous black wings unfolded from his back. “Things are a little different this time.” With a gesture toward the remaining summoners, one of their hoods fell off, revealing Ismene’s loyal production assistant Javier. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”

Ismene moved without thinking, her body reacting before her mind comprehended the consequences of her actions. Screaming with unbridled, unmitigated fury, Ismene raised her bat high and charged the demon she assumed was the embodiment of Tyenx itself. “The hard way it is,” he grunted, not surprised, four oversized hell-wolves stepping out from behind him as a wall of infernal energy erupted to intercept her.

Ignoring the scourging flames, she brought her bat down as hard as she could on the too-smug face of the monster that captured her assistant and forced him to help the otherworldly ritual. “What is it with bad guys and grabbing everyone’s besties? Don’t you ever learn, we don’t like that!” she screamed as she swung her bat down again and again, trying to overcome the demon’s mystical protection and wards. Finally making contact, a flash of light knocked Ismene backwards as the demon Tyenx took a knee, staggered.

“Impressive,” he frowned, as six enormous Stygian shadows rose from the cloying mist, impossibly large and indistinct against the hazy background. “I am tired of your inconvenience. These ties you have make you the most vulnerable, Ismene.”

“I’ve heard it before – go to Hell,” she seethed.

He smiled again, a shark’s maw of vicious fangs glimmering in the omnipresent red light. “Au contrare, you came to me.” With preternatural speed he gripped the front of Ismene’s survival suit, hoisting her from the ground. Fruitlessly she squirmed in his grasp, unable to break his iron hold.

The header image is titled “Illusion of Mist Hellscape” and was illustrated by Nathan Marcinak in 2009