Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
Ezili Coeur Noir smiled at the noise, enjoying the terrible, familiar song of death reversed. All of the corpses had done this when she had revived them; each had sung a beautiful note of pain. It was so pure, so absolute, she wished to one day make an orchestra of these corpses, killing and reviving them to create the music she heard echoing in her black heart.
Already she was walking down the road, instinctively searching for another dead body, feeling herself drawn to it as she repopulated the Earth with her army of the undead. But soon she would not need to search. Once the Red Weed batch was completed by her lackeys, Ezili Coeur Noir would have an endless supply of the dead to reanimate, a perfect orchestra to scream her beautiful songs of death. And prized among those singers would be the three humans she had found in the underground bunker of the redoubt, the three who had challenged her with the brightness of their living souls.
Wreath of Fire
Tigers of Heaven
Tomb of Time
Devil in the Moon
Talon and Fang
Sea of Plague
Mad God's Wrath
Mask of the Sphinx
Children of the Serpent
Rim of the World
Lords of the Deep
Closing the Cosmic Eye
Pantheon of Vengeance
Warlord of the Pit
Cradle of Destiny
Call no man happy till he is dead.
âAeschylus, 525â456 B.C.
Almost two hundred years after the global holocaust, Kane, a former Magistrate of Cobaltville, often thought the world had been lucky to survive at all after a nuclear device detonated in the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. The aftermathâforever known as skydarkâreshaped continents and turned civilization into ashes.
Nearly depopulated, America became the Deathlandsâpoisoned by radiation, home to chaos and mutated life forms. Feudal rule reappeared in the form of baronies, while remote outposts clung to a brutish existence.
What eventually helped shape this wasteland were the redoubts, the secret preholocaust military installations with stores of weapons, and the home of gateways, the locational matter-transfer facilities. Some of the redoubts hid clues that had once fed wild theories of government cover-ups and alien visitations.
Rearmed from redoubt stockpiles, the barons consolidated their power and reclaimed technology for the villes. Their power, supported by some invisible authority, extended beyond their fortified walls to what was now called the Outlands. It was here that the rootstock of humanity survived, living with hellzones and chemical storms, hounded by Magistrates.
In the villes, rigid laws were enforcedâto atone for the sins of the past and prepare the way for a better future. That was the barons' public credo and their right-to-rule.
Kane, along with friend and fellow Magistrate Grant, had upheld that claim until a fateful Outlands expedition. A displaced piece of technologyâ¦a question to a keeper of the archivesâ¦a vague clue about alien mastersâand their world shifted radically. Suddenly, Brigid Baptiste, the archivist, faced summary execution, and Grant a quick termination. For
Kane there was forgiveness if he pledged his unquestioning allegiance to Baron Cobalt and his unknown masters and abandoned his friends.
But that allegiance would make him support a mysterious and alien power and deny loyalty and friends. Then what else was there?
Kane had been brought up solely to serve the ville. Brigid's only link with her family was her mother's red-gold hair, green eyes and supple form. Grant's clues to his lineage were his ebony skin and powerful physique. But Domi, she of the white hair, was an Outlander pressed into sexual servitude in Cobaltville. She at least knew her roots and was a reminder to the exiles that the outcasts belonged in the human family.
Parents, friends, communityâthe very rootedness of humanity was denied. With no continuity, there was no forward momentum to the future. And that was the cruxâwhen Kane began to wonder if there was a future.
For Kane, it wouldn't do. So the only way was outâway, way out.
After their escape, they found shelter at the forgotten Cerberus redoubt headed by Lakesh, a scientist, Cobaltville's head archivist, and secret opponent of the barons.
With their past turned into a lie, their future threatened, only one thing was left to give meaning to the outcasts. The hunger for freedom, the will to resist the hostile influences. And perhaps, by opposing, end them.
“Call no man happy till he is dead.”
âAeschylus, 525-456 BC
She had surrounded herself with dead things, for she found their company more agreeable now than that of the living.
Her name was Ezili Coeur Noir and she was the queen of all things dead, the flower of carnage. She stood over six feet tall and her limbs were bird-thin sticks, like the tools of some perverse surgeon. Her skin clung so tightly to those limbs that it seemed as if it would crush the stick-thin bones that were visible beneath. That skin was the rippled leather of a lizard, discolored and rotten with oozing wounds, as if in sympathy with the dead things she had elected to surround herself by. She stood upon two spindly, emaciated legs at an odd angle, as if no longer able to hold herself straight, which left her looking like some hideous mannequin discarded by its satanic puppeteer.
Along her torso, beneath her taut skin, her pronounced ribs showed like the keys of a piano, before finally disappearing beneath two misshapen breasts that hung like deflated balloons. Her elbows and knees were jagged points, like shards of broken glass, and her fingers curled arthritically in on themselves, their thick, jagged nails a sickly yellow.
Ezili Coeur Noir's yellow eyes showed the intolerance of a lizard, twin black slits like the eyes of an alligator, watching inscrutably above a hideous smile that, like the
eyes, was more reptile than human. The yellow of those eyes almost seemed to glow within the darkness of her skin, weathered and aged to a leathery mahogany brown.
Her clothes, like her body, had rotted, their dust-caked remnants clinging to her dark flesh in tattered rags. Death and entropy were all her body understood now, and thus nothing that came into contact with Ezili Coeur Noir could remain intact.
She stood knee-deep in the swampland of Louisiana, where the plant life was so thick that it almost blotted out the rays of the rising sun. The plants nearest to Ezili Coeur Noir were dying as she stood and breathed in their proximity, wilting their life away in supplication to the queen of all things dead, who now stood gloriously among them.
Ezili Coeur Noir had been there all night, watching as her people, her legion of the dead, went about their work. Her people had come from the ground, locked now in various states of decay as she had revived them. They shambled, lurching to their tasks as they dug at the marshy ground, clawing at it with withered hands that ended in broken yellow nails.
Ezili Coeur Noir closed her eyes as her legion of dead dug at the spongy soil, listening to their groans of complaint, their grunts of interest. Most of them had no real capacity for speech anymore; their tongues had shriveled away in death, no longer able to create the shapes needed to turn sound into form. Still, they made noise, the way humans will make noise, as ifâeven in deathâthey feared this dead place where the insects made their home. There were other things here, of courseâamphibians, birds, some hardy types of fish that swam in the deeper pits of water among the marshesâall of whom seemed to
fill the air with creaking and cawing, the hideous shrieks of a child's nightmare.
Two centuries before, there had been other things living here, tooâhumankind. Out here in the depths of the bayou, Army men had cordoned off an area of this sweaty habitat to develop a research station located in the back of beyond, far from the nearest town, with just a single dirt road leading to it. The road endured in patchy remnants, a mud track lined with little sunken posts that stuck out of the earth like sharks' teeth. The patches of road were uneven, and what remained survived from sheer tenacity and nothing more, for it had barely been used in two centuries and it led, categorically, to a patch of nothing amid a swamp full of the same. Or so it appeared.
In fact, the swamp had grown to cover the single-story entrance to the redoubt that had once stood at the end of the road. Nature had buried it, either through choice or when the nukecaust of 2001 had rewritten all the maps. Either way, the entrance to the redoubt was hidden beneath layers of marsh and concrete. But far below that, far below the entrance itself, lay the thing that Ezili Coeur Noir was searching for, the toy she wished to play with. She felt it calling to her.
Instinct had brought her hereâinstinct, arcane knowledge and an all-pervading sense for death in all its beautiful forms. For, to Ezili Coeur Noir, death was a thing of beauty, the perfect punctuation to conclude the statement called life.
All around the queen of death, the corpses worked at the soil, pulling and wrenching, tossing aside sodden chunks of earth that hit the ground with wet slaps. As the ground was sifted, black-shelled, multilimbed inhabitants crawled from the soil, disturbed by the outrage. The undead men ignored the beetles and the worms and
the termites as they scrabbled from the upturned sod, letting them land and feast on their decaying flesh with hungry mouths. There were other things here, too, finding their way in the early morning gloom, flying insects that buzzed incessantly as they sought out the rotten flesh of the moving living-dead things, yearning to gnaw at it and to lay their eggs in rotten muscles, in ragged ears and between the gaps of the undead men's smiles. The undead ignored them, or perhaps chewed on those insects that landed between their lips, an old instinct from the days when they had needed to eat, just muscle memory now playing its cruel tricks. The undead care not for the needs of the flesh, are undisturbed by such things as turn the stomachs of the living.
There came a noise then, a single, sharp thump that sounded of metal. Ezili Coeur Noir opened her eyes to slits, wide black vertical stripes crossing the yellow as she looked out at her people. They looked at her expectantly, twenty corpses that had once been men and women, and two of them just children, recently dead things now who barely stood tall enough to nose at the oyster entrance to her lifeless womb. She saw the expectation in their blank expressions where others would just see the rotting faces of the butcher's blade. They had found it, she knewâthe door to the redoubt.
Ezili Coeur Noir stepped forward, her spindly legs flicking out uncomfortably, like the long limbs of a house spider, trotting forward with a disquieting gait. Despite her skeletal form and the hideous way her decomposing legs ground against the sockets of her hips, the queen of death still strode with an indefinably regal air, her head held high. She dominated all that she saw; there could be no question that here was the ruler of all that her reptilian eyes surveyed. Even through their dead orbs, her
corpselike minions saw this and several of them genuflected in appreciation as she tottered past them, the upper half of her body swaying as though a leaf on the mildest breeze.
The door was buried amid the sludge of the swamp, hunks of powdery concrete clinging to its surface. Reinforced steel, the door lay in front of the queen of death, nine feet by twelve, not flat but at a slight angle that made it a locked portal in the ground. A few brave rays of sunlight sneaked through the thick plant cover to glimmer on its metal surface, and pools of water began leaking over it even as Ezili Coeur Noir looked. Here was the entrance to the redoubt, the entrance that had been hidden for over two centuries.
Without taking her eyes from the gleaming surface of the steel door, Ezili Coeur Noir issued an instruction in a voice with all the vibrancy of ashes crushed in the palm of the hand. “Open it.”
The corpses hurried to obey, pushing past one another in their haste to serve their terrible mistress. Groaning and mumbling, Ezili Coeur Noir's undead workers pulled at the door, struggling to make it move on its hinges. The door resisted. Not only had it been designed to withstand the impact of a nuclear blast, but also its hinges had been undisturbed for two hundred years; to move such a thing now was like trying to lift a mountain.
Ezili Coeur Noir observed with but the mildest of interest, barely watching as her favored subjects worked at the door, throwing themselves at it, ripping at the seals with the broken nails of their decaying hands, tugging away the concrete debris that had amassed there. The corpses felt no pain and could never tire, for they were at the peak of tiredness, the tiredness that comes only with the grave. And so they simply followed the instructions of their mis
tress without question, working at the door with all their effort until at last something moved. There had been a magnetic seal in place here, operated by an electronic lock, but even a magnet can be conquered, given enough force, facing an opponent with relentless and tireless ambition, limitless reserves of strength.
It took half an hour, but finally the corpses stepped aside as the door glided back on its tracks, grinding slowly to the side to reveal the shadow-filled interior of a long-forgotten military base. Two of the corpses had lost limbs in their struggles with the door, and one his head, but the others had used the broken bodies as props and levers until the door finally gave. Now the broken corpses simply waited with the others, blessedly unaware of how their incompletion might make them inferior. Ezili Coeur Noir strode forward, the sunlight playing in the jutting spikes of yellowing bone that poked upright atop her head in a crest.
This close to the door, she could smell the stale air, which had been trapped within the redoubt since it had been sealed all those years before. Her stub of nose wrinkled for a moment in her decaying face, and her lips pulled back from sharp teeth as she was dealt the full force of that putrid air. Ezili Coeur Noir chuckled then, reveling in the stench of the absence of life. Here was a part of the Earth that had been hidden so long that it had been effectively taken from the living. Now it stood as a shrine to death, proof positive of life's inability to truly conquer her planet.
As the stale air dissipated, the queen of death stepped into the shadow-drenched interior of the redoubt, her long toenails clacking against the hard concrete floor. Obediently, her little army followed, their loyalty to their mistress beyond reproach. They were recently dead things,
and yet they still moved, for she had granted them life, after a fashion.
Despite being unoccupied for over two hundred years, the redoubt reacted to the movement within. The motion-sensitive strip lights flickered on along the floor and high in the ceiling, illuminating the vast, slope-walled corridor that Ezili Coeur Noir and her people now found themselves in. The light mattered little to the queen of death; she needed nothing but her inherent sense of all that kills and rots and dies to guide her way. Corpses to the left of her, corpses to the right, Ezili Coeur Noir strode down the redoubt corridor, lights flickering on with her every step, the footsteps of her posse echoing into the darkness ahead as the distant lights winked on. In such close proximity to the corpses, Ezili Coeur Noir could smell their rotting flesh as it clung to their bodies, insects burrowing among its rotten folds. The corpses reeked of death and the smell pleased her, its perfume a scent she would bathe in given time.
Wide enough to fit two automobiles, the tunnel sloped downward at as light incline for a long time, with no visible breaks, no doorways or recesses. From far at its dark end there came a low rumbling, as ancient generators groaned back into life and machinery began to whir. Here and there black wiring led down from the overhead lights or up from the floor, ending in a junction box set at the midpoint of the otherwise blank walls, each one cased in black plastic with a little door that worked on a simple spring-loaded hinge. Every thirty paces there was a small red box covered by a glass panel, the fire alarm system that had been installed centuries earlier.
Here, Ezili Coeur Noir knew, buried deep in the sub-levels of the forgotten redoubt, was a thing that could do her bidding on a colossal scale. She could sense it, in the
way that she could somehow sense all things that brought decay, a flaming beacon in her mind, calling to her with siren song.
The blank-walled tunnel sloped for almost three hundred paces, and by the time the group had reached its end, the motion-sensitive lights behind them had begun switching off, leaving the area by the entry door in darkness once more. The walls were a bland gray, smoothed concrete and plaster left unpainted. Here and there, notations had been scratched on the walls, tiny markings in pencil, the initials of a soldier or a workman scrawled lightly into the plaster in a spot close to the curved ceiling beside one of the recessed strip lights.
At the end of the tunnel the group stopped at a set of steel double doors that were set horizontally like the jaws of an immense trapped animal. The grinding, whirring noise came from behind these closed doors, and Ezili Coeur Noir halted in front of them. In silence, her undead entourage waited obediently behind her.
Then, the horizontal double doors split, one shunting upward while the other retreated into the base of the floor, and a steel-walled box was revealed. Small halogen lights flickered on in the ceiling as the doors disappeared from view. It was an elevator, reinforced and large enough to hold a supply truck. The tunnel leading here had one purpose only, which was to take people to this elevator, and so the redoubt was designed to automatically call the elevator once the entry doors were opened.
With all the grace that the dead can muster, Ezili Coeur Noir stepped through the doors, and her undead companions shambled behind her, walking into the large boxlike construction of the elevator cage. Behind them, the elevator doors rumbled closed on tracks that hadn't been
used in two hundred years, and then the elevator began to descend into the core of the buried redoubt.
Standing in the shaking elevator, the sound of long-unused pulleys whining in her ears, Ezili Coeur Noir glanced around her, taking in the dead figures who had come to form her entourage. Ezili Coeur Noir had granted the dead life, but truly she wanted the reverseâto give the living the glorious gift of death.
Ezili Coeur Noir was the queen of all things rotten, all things dead, and in that lay her power. For all things must rot, and all things must die. And so they would, and so they shall.