Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
Those whom the gods would destroy they first turn mad.
Brigid's stomach rumbled, reminding her of her need to eat. She had toiled over the sand sculpture for a long time, shaping it to look like the cherubic little girl in her mind's eye. Abigail had been a part of her life for a short period of time, and yet Brigid felt that she knew her. Not in the way she remembered other things, the way her perfect memory would retain the tiniest detail, but in a way that exists only within a person, when love is felt for another. Abigail was the daughter she had never had, Brigid knew, a horrible trick to mess with her mind. In constructing her image from the sand, perhaps this would be a cathartic experience, to finally make solid the dream she had buried deep within her, and so see it for the fallacy it was.
The girl looked like her, like Brigid, with her flowing hair and her soft face. Brigid's face was harder, the planes a little sharper, but the girl looked similar enough that their family resemblance was clear. The shoulders appeared to slope down into the cave's floor now, the neck springing above them in a slender line. Above that, the head, the face, the hair behind. Brigid had spent a long time working at the hair, carving its intricacies, adding detail to create the illusion of substance and depth. She had used the sharp, flat-edged pebble to draw more detail
there, marveling in the twisting, tangled lines she was carving from the sand. Abi had always had twisted hair, never sitting still long enough to let Brigid run a brush through it. By keeping the sand wet, Brigid found she could make it hold a shape, and could carve into it with miraculous detail and extravagance.
The Annunaki were masters of genetic engineering, and it dawned on Brigid as she worked at the little sculpture that Ullikummis might use it as a template, bringing the child to life somehow, crafting her from clay just like the myth he had spoken of. Could he do that? Would he do it simply to spite Brigid, or perhaps appease her?
It seemed unlikely. Ullikummis was many things, willful and brutal, perhaps, but he was not spiteful, had demonstrated no capacity for spite.
On the front of the sculpture, the face remained a blank thing. It had features, Abigail's lines of jaw and cheek, her little nose. But the mouth had yet to be added, and the eyes were just hollows in the sand created by the heel of Brigid's hand pressing lightly against the moist surface. Still on her hands and knees, Brigid gathered more sand from the far wall of the cave, scooping it up in her hands and adding water to make it cling. The water bottle was almost empty now; she had to tip it almost entirely upside down to get just a few drops out of it.
“I should drink this,” Brigid whispered to herself, as if afraid the sand child would hear. But Brigid didn't drink.
She made her way back to the sculpture that rested close to the chair, the little head and shoulders protruding from the ground, and she brushed gently at the face, smoothing the forehead the way one holds a sickly child. Carefully Brigid took the damp sand from her hand and worked it into the forehead, low across the ridges above
the hollow, empty eyes. Then she plucked the sharp pebble from the floor once more and began shaping the eyebrows with it, chipping carefully away at the ridges of sand until they formed the delicate lines of Abigail's brows.
She had patiently worked at the sand representation of Abigail for a long time when Ullikummis made his presence known. Brigid turned, peering behind her and seeing the great stone figure standing amid the deep shadows of the cavern, the magma traceries running like fire over his huge body. He had not spoken, but there had been a scraping noise, his foot against the cave floor, perhaps, or his hand brushing the wall. He may well have been there for minutes before Brigid had noticed, hours even. It was in that moment that she appreciated how quiet Ullikummis's movements could be. Here he was, a grand thing covered with stone, yet when he chose to he could move in silence, giving no hint of his presence to the unwary.
Brigid fixed him with a stare. “You don't look like the other Annunaki,” she said.
Ullikummis smiled as he stepped from the shadows to reveal himself fully to her. At eight feet tall, he towered over her as she knelt on the floor, working at the sand sculpture she had made.
“My father changed me,” Ullikummis explained, “before I was born. The Annunaki have ways to change thingsâthey understand genetics in a way your humans have yet to comprehend. I was changed while still growing in the egg, prepared for what I was to become for my father.”
“And what was that?” Brigid asked.
“The Annunaki are gods,” Ullikummis stated, “and
the gods fight. My father brought me into the world to act as his hand in the darkness. To kill for him.”
“You were an assassin,” Brigid stated.
Ullikummis nodded. “The first one I killed was called Enia. I still recall how she pleaded with me, tried to reason me out of killing her and her unborn.” He trailed off, the glowing lines burbling and fizzing across his stone body.
Brigid looked at the blank-faced sand figurine before her and then spoke without looking at Ullikummis. “Can you still see her face?”
If Ullikummis answered, he did so in silence. Brigid turned her attention back to the sand thing on the floor, working at it with her fingers, forming the features that would define the face.
“My father brought me into this world in violence,” Ullikummis told Brigid after a while. “He created me not out of love but in an act of hate. It was appropriate then that I became his tool of hate, delivering his ruthless ambition at the end of my blade, Godkiller, or with a twist of an enemy's neck. I was not born as you see me. Things were placed inside me, and I was remade as I grew older, changed into the thing my father neededâa living personification of his hatred.”
“But he sent you away,” Brigid said, piecing together what she knew of Ullikummis's story. “He banished you.”
“My father made me a living tool of hatred,” Ullikummis continued. “In turning on me he unwittingly turned that hatred upon himself.”
Brigid was using the flat-edged stone once more, smoothing over the cheeks of the girl's face before her, molding the bright eyes. It looked like Abigail now, the
curve of her smiling lips, the eyes wide open with a child's interest.
Brigid turned as she heard Ullikummis stride toward her, his feet beating the lightest tattoo upon the hard rock floor of the cave. He stood at her shoulder, peering down at the finished representation of the child. It looked almost human, formed of the tan shingle of sand that layered the floor. Brigid was satisfied with it.
“Is that her?” Ullikummis asked, wonder in his voice.
“Yes.” Brigid nodded.
“It looks quite real,” he observed. “Does it look like her? Truthfully?”
“Yes,” Brigid replied. She reached for the clay bottle then, loosened the stopper and brought it to her lips, only to find it was empty.
“You used the last of your water on the girl,” Ullikummis stated, a simple observation.
“You said you would free me,” Brigid reminded him, “once I was done.” Slowly she stood, bringing her head level with Ullikummis's chest and staring defiantly up at him. “I'm done.”
Ullikummis looked down at her, the whisper of a thin smile on his misshapen mouth. “You are done,” he agreed, “and I said I would set you free.”
Brigid looked at Ullikummis, waiting for him to act, to do as he had promised. Instead, all he did was talk.
“Are you thirsty?” he asked, his voice a great rumbling like approaching thunder.
“You said you'd free me,” Brigid reminded him insistently.
“Are you thirsty?” Ullikummis repeated.
Brigid's mouth was dry. Ullikummis had seen her tip
the water bottle, had known that it was empty. “Yes,” she said.
“There is moisture in the sand,” Ullikummis told her. “You put it there, and it retains it for a long time now that you've packed it the way you have.”
Brigid glared at him, wondering what his trick was.
“Until it dries out entirely, you can eat it,” Ullikummis told her. “Like fruit or cake. The sand has no nutrition, but it would serve to slake your thirst.”
“I'm not going to eatâ¦sand,” she said, looking back down at the representation of the girl's head and shoulders. It seemed to stare back at her.
Ullikummis reached out then, his hand flicking in the most casual of gestures. Beneath her feet, Brigid felt rumbling. The floor of the cave was shaking, rocking as something tunneled up from below.
Suddenly the sand representation of the girl split apart, crumbling away as a spear of stone emerged from the ground, its point drilling up through it. Brigid watched as the sand fell away, as all of her hard work disappeared into nothingness. All that was left of the sculpture was sandâshapeless, formless sand.
“Your world,” Ullikummis said, “is a thing of impermanence. No matter how long you work at something, it crumbles, disappears, turns to dust.”
Brigid heard the words as she watched the particles of sand sink away, drifting across the floor of the cave, no more a part of the face than they had been before she had begun her sculpture.
“The Annunaki are capable of single thoughts that last longer than the whole of your lives,” Ullikummis said. “And you wonder why you struggle to understand us.”
Brigid turned, but Ullikummis was already striding
away, leaving the cave. She found herself alone once more, just the empty clay flask, the mirror and the chair for company. He had promised to set her freeâ¦.
It was like going through withdrawal.
It was like dying.
Kane lay there, his face pressed against the rock floor of his cell, the sand rough on his skin as the stone forced itself upon his nervous system like some swooping bird of prey, impressed its will upon his own. He could feel it there, this physical lump within his flesh, like a tumor under the skin. And in a way it was a tumorâa cancer, an infiltrator inside his body, changing him and making him less himself and more the infection.
He scrunched his eyes tight, lying in a ball, reverting to the fetal position as all mammals do when in real pain. It was only right that he adopt such a position, Kane realized, for he was being born, or at least rebornâthat was what Dylan of the New Order had said.
He was being expelled from the old world, ejected from the world of Cerberus and outlanders and Magistrates. That world was redundant now, a distant memory or a dream. The new world was one of gods who would stride the Earth as they wished, who would control its people as was their right. Kane felt all of this in his mind, words whispered to him from the obedience stone burrowing beneath his flesh.
He reached for it then, the nails of his right hand clawing at his smooth skin where the stone had been absorbed, plucking at the diminishing lump that was hiding
in his own body. He scratched with his nails, tearing until a sliver of skin was pried free. A tiny trace of blood blossomed along his wrist then, a thin line of red in the faint dawn glow of the swirling magma light. In that glow, Kane saw how his fingernails were darkâblack crescents like negative moons topping each of his fingers where the sweaty skin and blood was congealed beneath his nails.
He tore at his flesh again, actions born of desperation, revealing more lines of blood. The blood intermingled, and the three thin lines became one blotch as blood filled in the space between them, flowing across his skin. But the stone would not be freed. Kane could feel it and yet he could not reach it. It was buried too deep already, clinging to him deep down beneath the flesh.
The cool air of the cave played around his arm where he had cut himself, making the blood there tingle as it dried against his skin. Reluctantly Kane drew his right hand away, the dried blood and slivers of skin still darkening his nails. He could not remove the stone.
“No,” Kane spit, the word coming from his mouth like vomit.
He didn't want this to happen; he didn't want to be changed, to be altered. Rosalia, the dancing girl, had promised to help him, had told him this was the only way to fool them, the only chance at freedom. But as he lay in the dark cave, the six-by-eight cell that was his world, he wondered if she had tricked him. If, after all his protestations, his refusal to submit, his insistence that First Priest Dylan and his master, Ullikummis, surrender, they had found a way to make him join them, after all. Perhaps this whole thing had been a trick.
Kane was shaking as he lay on the cave floor, rocking back and forth as he curled in a ball, with spasms jolting the muscles of his arms and legs. His body was trying to
reject the stone that had been placed inside it, antibodies rushing to battle the thing that had been inserted within him, hopeless in the face of such an obstruction.
“Damn you, Rosie,” Kane gasped, sweat beading on his top lip like human rain. “What did you make me do?”
He lay there, shaking, shuddering, a newborn infant feeling the sheer alienness of the world about him, and he cursed himself for falling for it. He had always had a blind spot for a pretty face, no matter what way he couched it. So these Annunaki-devoted bastards had sent a pretty face, knowing that he would cave, that he would believe her, despite his doubts. That he would want to because he believed in some inherent nobility within people.
The stone was moving now, he could tell. Clawing its way under his skin, branching out with tendrils, with feelers, reaching through his flesh and his nervous system, plucking at parts of him until there was no real way to know where the stone thing ended and Kane began. The stone was Kane now and he was the stone. At the back of his neck, something seared, fizzing and molding itself into his spine, his brain stem. Kane lay there in the gloom, shuddering beneath that internal assault, and felt the streams of water on his faceânot sweat but thick, salty tears running down his cheeks, dripping into the thin carpet of sand that covered the rock floor.
“It works better on the weak-minded,” Rosalia had told him.
“Dammit,” Kane muttered to himself, “I'm not weak. I can't be.”
He tried to dismiss the pain, to feel past it, but it burned brighter in his spine, a supernova bursting beneath his flesh. This mindscape wasn't his forte; this
was Baptiste's world, this battleground of the soul. Kane thought of her, of Brigid Baptiste, his
his soul friend, a treasured companion throughout eternity. He tried to picture her, emerald eyes in a porcelain face, her swirls of red hair billowing about her head like a sunset halo. What would she do?
Kane shook, trying to visualize Brigid, how she would trick this attacker of her mind and of herself. How would she run some clever interference and so block its infiltration, stop it as it tried to claw at her brain?
Is that what it was to be strong-willed? Kane wondered. Did it take a sense of self so strong that it could overcome any obstacle? Perhaps.
Kane, however, needed a physical thing, something he could strike, could shoot, could kick. And this invader beneath his flesh had none of those attributes; this thing was hidden from any possible attack.
Rosalia had said something else, he remembered. She had said that the stone needed a broadcast unit to be effective. What was the broadcast unit? This place? This tiny cave with its flickering light? Kane's muscles tensed, his toes scrunching up in his boots, his fingers turning in on themselves, not in fists but so that the fingernails dug into the flesh.
“Stop,” he breathed. “Stop. Leave me. Leave me alone.”
The stone continued to burrow and to expand, making new synaptic connections beneath his skin. Kane cried out, an animal noise now as he began to lose himself to the stone's will. The Annunaki were their masters; the Annunaki were their gods. And man? What was man other than a worthless thing, a thing of dirt next to the gods of gold?
Kane wailed and cried and jabbed his fist at the wall
before him, or maybe it was the floor. And all he knew was the pain of metamorphosis, of change.
The pain racked his firm body for a long time, and lying there in the cold cave, in his underfed and dehydrated state, Kane was unable to do anything other than suffer the pain, feel it as it coursed through his system like some melancholy sickness, meandering through his bones and muscle fiber, jabbing and taunting him. His mind raced on, thinking of devotion, of obedience. He had been indoctrinated from birth to accept orders, had been trained as a Magistrate in the golden city of Cobaltville, and it had taken a supreme effort of will to break that indoctrination, to dig beneath the surface and turn away from the commands that had ruled his ordered life. That decision had led Kane to Cerberus, and he had been questioning ever since, as if frightened that accepting anything was to step back into his former role of unquestioning enforcer. And now he felt that call again, that need within him to be given instructions, to be told how to live and whom to obey. A Magistrate was taught to judge everyone, and yet he never judged himself.
“What if I judged myself?” Kane asked the darkness, trying to keep his reason intact. If he chose to judge now, if he found something to judge, perhaps he could shirk off the commands of the stone and stay focused on the things that made him. Perhaps merely by remaining strong he could rid himself of this mind worm that coursed through his system.
It attacked him, slithering around inside him, reaching for the core of him, the center of his being. Kane was its victim now, a willing participant in his own demise. It had seduced his insides, and already it was feeding him instructions. No, not instructionsâsuggestions. It was
telling him he was okay, that this would be good, that the new dawn was coming, that the new age was arriving, that the world was better than he had ever seen it.
Hunkered in upon himself, his body locked in that familiar fetal position, Kane cried. Eyes closed, he sobbed quietly in the darkness, knowing that he was disappearing, that he was lost. For a long while, the sound of Kane's tears were all that could be heard in the little cave, until finally he cried himself to sleep.
ND THEN, AS IT HAD BEFORE
, a woman's voice came. “Wake up, Magistrate man,” she said, her voice throaty, with the lilt of an accent.
Kane's eyes opened, and he was immediately aware of the pain in his wrist where the stone had burrowed. His right hand reached there immediately, felt the ridge where he had scratched open the wound and the congealed blood had scabbed over into a bumpy line like the segmented shell of an insect.
“Are you awake?” Rosalia asked, her voice hard and urgent.
Kane turned his head to look at her beneath the faint glow of the roiling magma, and his head felt as if it was full of cotton candy, sticky and sweet and weightless. She was crouching at his side, and behind her Kane saw the familiar form of the mongrel dog, which seemed to follow her with little enthusiasm.
“What did you do to me?” he asked, the words plunging from his thick tongue as though he was drunk. “What did you make me do?”
“Stay still,” Rosalia commanded, and she grasped his left forearm, exposing the place where the stone had burrowed. Kane saw something flash in her hand then, smaller than a knife, just a little spike, like a toothpick.
“What are youâ” he began, pulling away.
But Rosalia shoved his hand back down, pressing his arm against the floor with surprising strength. “Don't squirm,” she ordered, sounding as if she was dealing with a tempestuous child.
Kane lay there, his strength already ebbed away under the strange assault of the stone and of everything that had led to this moment. He watched as the beautiful, dark-haired woman pushed the little sliver of metal against his wrist, plucking at his flesh just next to the scab he had created with his nails. The thing in her hand was a sewing needle, Kane saw now, no longer than his pinkie finger.
“You made a mess of yourself,” Rosalia told him, but it was just an observation; there seemed to be no emotional resonance to what she said.
Automatically, Kane tried to pull his wrist away, flinching as he saw the needle breaking into his flesh.
Rosalia shot him a look. “Stay still,” she snarled, and behind her the dog whined. “Look away if it helps you. And you, stupid muttâbe quiet.”
The dog's whine died in its throat and it lay down on its belly, pale eyes fixed on Kane. Kane looked at the dog for a moment, wondering what breed it was. Its sharp features looked a little like a coyote's, but that wasn't all that had come to make the ugly thing, he was sure.
Kane winced as he felt the needle pluck at his flesh, and he resisted the urge to pull his arm back from where Rosalia worked at it. “This going to help me?” he asked, fearing it was another trick.
“I told you I would,” Rosalia said.
“Yeah,” Kane recalled, “but I'm not so sure I believe you.”
She looked at him, and he saw the anger on her
features. “You stop that shit right now, Magistrate man,” she told him. “You and me are getting out, but if you start questioning me now, then we'll be getting out only as corpses.”
“You want me to trust you,” Kane responded, “but I haven't seen anything to make me believe I should.”
“See this, then,” Rosalia spit, and she jabbed the little sewing needle deep into Kane's wrist, twisting it as she rooted around beneath the skin.
Kane drew a sharp breath, not really feeling pain so much as thinking he should. It was so unnaturalâso unrealâhaving this woman prod at his flesh with a needle. Then he felt something almost tickling against his bone there, buried deep beneath the flesh. Something hibernating that was waking up, pulling into itself, dragging its parts back to its body as it took up a defense. The stone, Kane realized.
He lay on his back and brought his other arm up to cover his eyes, to block the dull flickering of the dim orange light. Kane concentrated on regulating his breathing as Rosalia probed beneath his flesh with the needle.
Then her voice came to him, husky and enticing. “It's made itself right at home,” she said. “Good.”
Kane turned to her, anger and fear rising. “Good?” he snarled. “Good? Is that all you can say?”
“Keep your voice down,” Rosalia spit.
“He put that thing in me and all you can say is âgood'?” Kane continued, ignoring her instruction. “You made me do this. You told me it was the only way.”
“And it is,” Rosalia assured him, drawing the sewing needle carefully from his wrist. A single drop of blood clung to its point. “We'll remove it soon enough, Magistrate man. You just keep calm.”
Kane gritted his teeth as another surge of pain vibrated
through his arm. “I thought you were going to take it out,” he growled.
“Do you even listen?” Rosalia retorted contemptuously. “For now, you will need the obedience stone. It is your key, you understand? PishâMagistrates.”
“Hey, you listen, sweetheartâ” Kane began angrily.
listen,” Rosalia snarled, waving her finger in his face. “You have such fucking trust issues you're going to get us both killed. Put your head in the game, Magistrate man. I'm relying on you now.”
Lying there, with the alien thing implanted beneath his skin, Kane let out a long, slow breath. “It's Kane,” he said finally. “My name is Kane. Not Magistrate man.”
“You think I care?”
“Look, Rosie,” Kane said. “I'm trying to trust you, but you have got to meet me halfway here. Otherwise, we're both going to get ourselves killed so fast it'll make our heads spin. Right?”