First Interlude

Dusk was approaching near the shore of Lake Michigan. The bitter, blustery wind kept most people inside where it was warm, so no one observed the lone man carefully negotiating the streets on a motorcycle that was decidedly not designed for the six inches of snow on the ground. And if the clouds were any indication there would soon be more. Clad only in gray pants and a leather jacket, the man should have been freezing, but he carried on as though he were riding on a warm summer day. He appeared to be in his mid thirties, but the lines on his face hinted that he had seen more than his fair share of hardship in his life. He let out a grunt of annoyance as his shaggy dark blonde hair, much longer than he preferred it, flopped down into his field of view once again. The man swept his hair out of his face for the hundredth time with the hand not occupied with the bike's throttle and resolved to pull over and see if he could find something in his saddlebags to tie it back with.

Johnny Blaze, what the ever loving hell are you doing in Chicago in January? he thought to himself This is no kind of weather to be out in when your only transportation is a freaking motorcycle.

We are here to avenge the innocent. another voice intruded into his thoughts, causing him to shudder involuntarily, and not from the cold. We are here because we are needed.

Yeah, okay, but needed for what? Johnny asked the voice sharing his head

You will discover that when the time comes the voice responded, sounding as though it were tiring of repeating itself.

So, you drag me halfway across the country to Chicago in the middle of goddamn winter and all you'll tell me is that I'll know why "when the time comes"? A frustrated Johnny demanded of the other voice. I didn't agree to this!

Yes. Yes you did. came the other voice, sounding a bit smug this time. You signed the contract, after all.

You know damn well this isn't what I signed the contract for. Johnny snarled mentally. Asshole demon.

You know that isn't what I am, Johnathan. the voice intoned. This was explained to you. Repeatedly. Yet you refuse to believe it.

Bullshit. Johnny told it. I know a demon when I see one. And you are a demon.

Have it your way, child. the voice replied. You'll realize your error eventually.

You still haven't told me why we're here Johnny said

Y,,,es I have. the voice replied, and then fell silent.

I demand you tell me why we are here! Johnny thought. Answer me!

"Dammit, Zarathos!" Johnny yelled out loud. "Answer me!"

Suddenly aware that he had just yelled at a being no one could see out loud in the middle of the street, Johnny looked around to see if anyone had noticed his outburst. Satisfied that he wouldn't get locked in a psych ward tonight, he finished tying his hair back and was about to restart his bike when he heard a scream coming from a nearby alley.

Johnny dropped his head to his chest and sighed, wishing he could turn away but knowing the being sharing his body wouldn't let him even if he wanted to.

"Of course it's an alley," he griped "Why is it always an alley?

He got off his bike and pulled a thick silver chain out of the saddlebag he kept it stowed in and hurried toward the alley the scream had originated from. When he reached the alley he saw two men near the end of it fighting to hold a pretty brunette in a waitress uniform down while pawing at her brutally.

"Someone please help me!" She screamed, with the tone of someone who knows no one would be coming.

"Shut up, slut!" the larger of the two men slurred and backhanded her with a meaty thwack sound.

On seeing the young lady being struck, Johnny went from angry to furious in a couple heartbeats time. What's more, the being sharing his body became fully alert but was content to merely watch through Johnny's eyes for the time being. It found this particular mortal both confusing and interesting.

Maybe there's hope for you yet it said into his mind.

Shut up. Johnny told it as he began to walk toward the two drunks and their victim.

"Hey, jackasses!" he yelled as he got closer to them "I learned in third grade that isn't how you treat a lady."

Noticing Johnny for the first time, the larger of the thugs started to lurch to his feet. Reaching into his jacket he pulled out a wicked looking knife and brandished it at Johnny rather unsteadily.

"Whadya say, asshole?" he slurred, weaving a little as he did. "Hey, Vinnie. Keep that little slut warm while I take care of this chump."

"I said I learned in third grade you aren't supposed to treat girls like that." Johnny said "They aren't toys. But I guess you didn't make it that far."

It took a few moments for the insult to register in the inebriated thug's brain, and when it did he charged at Johnny with a snarl.

"I'ma kill you for that, you little prick!" the thug roared, taking a swipe at Johnny's face with the knife he held. Johnny easily dodged the clumsy slash and slapped him across the face with the end of his chain, enraging him further. After dodging a few more drunken attacks Johnny saw his opening and punched the thug in the jaw with the chain he'd wrapped around his fist while he was evading him. The thug dropped like a toilet seat and Johnny had a chance to see what the other thug had been doing while he was distracted.

"Get the hell off of her you piece of shit!" he yelled, after seeing that the other man had gotten his hand under the girl's uniform.

The smaller thug looked up at the enraged Johnny like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Johnny noted with approval that his nose was bleeding and he was missing a chunk of his ear.

Good for her he thought. She's a fighter.

"You...you beat up Carl." the thug named Vinnie whimpered in shock "Nobody beats up Carl."

Clearly the thug Johnny had already dispatched was the muscle of this pair, because the smaller, weaselly man barely put up a fight. It was between the seventh punch and the eighth that Johnny felt the sharp pain of a knife entering his shoulder. The larger thug had recovered and attempted to stab him in the back. It was only his extreme inebriation that prevented him from hitting anything vital.

My turn. Zarathos stated in a tone as cold as the grave, and Johnny felt the familiar heat begin to overcome him.

It only took a few seconds for the transformation to finish. The being that the early colonists had dubbed the Ghost Rider rose to his feet and fixed the drunken thug with an implacable stare. The thug, probably believing it was either a trick or a hallucination stabbed the Rider square in the heart with his knife. And then stared at the hilt in horror as the blade melted into slag.

"CARL TOHOLSKI ! YOUR SOUL IS STAINED WITH THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT!" the Rider intoned "YOU HAVE BEEN JUDGED AND FOUND...GUILTY!"

The thug found himself instantly sober, and more terrified than he'd ever been in his life. He'd known that the things he'd done would catch up with him eventually, but never thought they'd come in the form of a six and a half foot tall flaming skeleton. The Rider grabbed him by the throat and lifted him clear off his feet as though he were a kitten.

"NOW...LOOK INTO MY EYES!" the Rider commanded. For a second Carl was confused, wondering how he was supposed to look into the eyes of a skull. The confusion ended quickly when he felt his eyes drawn to the skull's empty sockets entirely against his will.

It started small at first. Pushing Annie Branson down on the playground. Beating up Howard Kilpatrick every day after school. Each memory of an innocent person he'd hurt was accompanied by a stab of pain and he started feeling hotter and hotter. By the time he reached the memories of high school and the kid whose name he couldn't remember that he'd stomped into a coma he was whining and trying to pull away, but between the hypnotic pull of the Rider's eyes and the iron grip on his throat he couldn't move.

Then when he reached the memory of the sixteen year old girl he'd kidnapped, raped, and left for dead his soul burst into flames.

The Rider dropped the twitching husk that used to be Carl Toholski and turned toward his partner Vinnie. The scent of urine would have reached his nostrils if he had any, and Vinnie was pointing a small revolver at him with quivering hands.

"What...what did you do you Carl?!" Vinnie shrieked at him. "What did you DO?!"

"I GAVE HIM EXACTLY WHAT HE DESERVED." the Rider stated flatly. "ALL THE PAIN HE HAS GIVEN INNOCENTS THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE, I GAVE BACK TO HIM. ALL AT ONCE. AND YOU ARE NEXT."

All the blood drained from Vinnie's face and he started firing his pistol as fast as his finger would move, to no effect whatsoever. Upon realizing that he could not possibly harm the creature that had done...whatever he had done... to his friend, Vinnie took off running as fast as his skinny legs would carry him.

The Rider just gazed after him for a moment and uncoiled the chain from his shoulder. He whipped the chain in a quick circle and sent it rocketing down the alley after the would-be rapist. By some instinct, Vinnie turned around just in time to see a white hot chain whipping toward him. Then he saw the alley around him spinning crazily. Then he saw nothing at all.

The young girl who had just been rescued stared at the Rider in absolute shock. Both figurative and literal. She'd lived in this city all her life and knew there were some weird things out there that most people pretended didn't exist, but she'd never heard of anything like this.

"Thank you..." she whispered, almost as frightened of her rescuer as she had been of her assailants. "Who are you?"

"I WAS GIVEN A NAME MANY YEARS AGO BY PEOPLE LONG SINCE DUST." the Rider replied. "THEY CALLED ME...GHOST RIDER. I PROTECT THE INNOCENT, AND IF I CANNOT PROTECT THEM, I AVENGE THEM."

With those words, the being known as Ghost Rider, who was also Johnny Blaze, exited the alley and climbed on his bike, which immediately burst into flames. Then he disappeared into the night with the growl of his motorcycle trailing behind him.