Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
In the far corner of the cave, the crackling lightning ceased and the mist inside the mat-trans unit began to dissipate. Another robed figure appeared within it, and Grant watched with interest as the figure stepped forward through the opening door, greeting others in the room with friendly authority.
Grant stepped back from the archway as the new arrival turned in his direction and began walking toward him, with two of his similarly dressed companions in tow.
Dammit, they're coming out here,
The ex-Magistrate turned, heading for the access tunnel he had recently used, only to spot the three figures he had left by his open cell.
He turned back, looking across at the far side of the tunnel, to a branching corridor where the other figures were disappearing. A moment later, he ran through that doorway and found himself in another rock-walled tunnel. This one ended in a sharp turn, and Grant heard something from the far end as he rushed along it. Pulling up short, he leaned against the wall and peered around the corner. A bank of elevator doors was embedded in the rock. The glistening steel was at odds with the cavernous tunnel, reflecting the glowing pods of magma like fire.
Grant peered behind him for a moment, checking that he wasn't being followed, before he turned back to examine the situation.
As he stood there, the farthest set of elevator doors slid open and a familiar figure stepped out.
The wall behind shook Kane as he pressed against it, vibrations carrying from the other side of the tight cave. The wall before him, eight feet away and almost lost in darkness, seemed to be rocking, as if struck by a quake.
Kane watched as the wall began to shift. And then, to his astonishment, it seemed to part before his eyes, more akin to liquid than something solid, like the Red Sea's fabled parting before Moses. Where once had stood a solid barrier, now there was a gap running from floor to ceiling, easily wide enough for a man to fit through. Light filtered dimly through this impossible doorway, the orange-red of flowing lava.
Kane was about to take a step forward, wondering what new trick this was, when two figures appeared at the edge of the doorway, their features hidden, backlit by the lava flow in the tunnel beyond. “Kane.”
It was a man's voice, firm and solid, with a slight accent.
“Yes,” Kane replied warily.
The figures strode through the doorway, and Kane saw that both wore hooded robes that hid their features. He waited, pressed back against the wall, assessing the shapes their robes disguised, automatically checking behind them for more people. The one in front was a man, tall and well-built, with wide shoulders and a swagger to
his step that spoke of power and confidence. Behind him was a thinner figure, also tall but more shapelyâobviously a woman. Behind them, silhouetted in the doorway, Kane noticed a mongrel dog following them with weary disinterest, stopping to sniff at the new doorway and the floor and walls.
“Well, it seems you know me,” Kane said, “but I'm a little at a loss. Care to bring me up to speed?”
The couple stopped before him, and Kane watched as they pushed back their low-hanging hoods, revealing their faces in the dim orange glow of the lava flow beyond the cave. To his surprise, Kane recognized both of them, although it took a moment to place the man's features.
He had short, dark hair and a hard face with tanned skin. He was in his forties and had grown a beard since Kane last saw him. His right ear was mangled now, but Kane recognized him as one of the farmers who had been indoctrinated by the Annunaki prince Ullikummis in Tenth City, out in the wilds of Saskatchewan, Canada.
Kane thought for a moment, struggling to recall the farmer's name. Dylan, that had been it. But Kane's team had freed the man, released him from the mind worm that had controlled his thoughts. What the hell was he doing here, holding Kane captive? Was it some kind of misguided revenge? It made no sense.
Standing behind Dylan was a beautiful woman whom Kane had last seen many months ago out in the Snake-fishville desert close to the fishing village of Hope. In her early twenties, the shapely woman had long, dark hair and hazel eyes like pools of chocolate. Her olive skin showed a tan, and there was something altogether entrancing about her, the way she carried herself, the swell of her breasts and the casual sway of her round hips. This
beautiful woman was called Rosalia, and when Kane had last seen her she had been a bodyguard in the employ of a group of immoral profiteers who were trading in pirated DNA. Kane's team had burned down that operation, halting the threat of reborn baronies in the process, but evidently Rosalia herself had escaped. She looked more tired than Kane remembered, tired and drawn. But then, Kane suspected that he, too, looked pretty exhausted just now.
“This is your future, Kane,” Dylan began. “The world changed while you weren't looking, and you've woken up to the new reality. Rejoice.”
Kane smiled in self-deprecation. “New reality, huh? Just how long was I asleep?” he taunted.
Dylan ignored his frivolity. “Your team, Cerberus, waged a war upon the Annunaki,” he stated, as if this fact was commonplace. “The Annunaki were your betters, of course, but you stood up to them, managed to disrupt their plans and, in your limited and infantile way, stymie their progress.”
“Well, I do what I do what I do,” Kane muttered.
“That is to be commended,” Dylan affirmed. “Though primitive, your efforts repelled the hated Overlord Enlil and the others of his coven. But you did not stop him entirely. Enlil still lives and his power base is growing once more, on the banks of the ancient Euphrates.”
This was news to Kane. The last time he had seen Enlil, the lizard-faced monster was trapped aboard an exploding spaceship called
“The future requires men like you,” Dylan continued, “men of good standing, to extinguish Enlil's threat once and for all.”
Kane ran a hand through his hair as he considered the proposition. “This all sounds goodâ¦Dylan, isn't it?”
The man nodded. “First Priest Dylan of the New Order,” he clarified.
Kane locked eyes with him in challenge. “And whose New Order is that?” he asked, his interest piqued.
“Lord Ullikummis,” Dylan said. “Our savior. He has seen the great works you have done. You, Kane, have faced Enlil when he was Baron Cobalt, Sam the Imperator, and as Enlil himself. And no matter what face he presented, you have always sought to stop him, to strike that face.”
“Well, what can I tell you?” Kane said. “I'm a face striker.”
“Lord Ullikummis studied the history, saw your works,” Dylan repeated.
Kane realized what the man was referring to. Less than two months before, Kane had been part of a team sent to protect an undersea archive called the Ontic Library. According to their information, this archive was the storehouse for the rules that governed reality, hosting a sentient data stream that contained and ordered all of history, down to the smallest minutiae. When Kane's team had arrived, they'd found Ullikummis working his way through the data, where he'd appeared to be searching for evidence of his mother, Ninlil, whose rebirth had been the source of much conflict between Cerberus and the Annunaki overlords. In accessing those records, Ullikummis would have learned of the role of Cerberus, and the almost archenemy status that existed between Enlil and Kane. Ullikummis himself was an adept assassin, so little wonder that he would see the benefit in recruiting Kane's skills if he planned to do battle with Enlil and his armies.
“He wishes you to join him,” Dylan concluded.
“You know, I'm really not a big joiner-upper,” Kane
replied flippantly, “but you thank the big guy for the offer.”
“The world has changed,” Dylan repeated. “Sooner or later, you will submit. Take this path now, and it will be easy. You will become a lieutenant in his army. You will live like a king when the world is reshaped, with a barony of your own, and all you need do is pledge your fealty to Ullikummis.”
Kane looked away, girding himself, hiding his fist behind him as he bunched it in the shadows. “It sounds so easy, but I've got a better ideaâthat you surrender.”
Dylan almost spit, he was so surprised by the demand. “Surely you can't be serious, Kane. Look around you. Look at what you've been reduced to, you and your people. You've lost. You're lucky that he even kept you alive.”
Kane held the man's gaze as he spoke. “You and your boss's little army surrender now,” he snarled, “and I'll go easy on you.”
Dylan sniggered. “You're a fool, Kane. A blind fool. You cannot stop the future from happenâ”
Kane struck suddenly, swinging his arm forward and punching the man in the face with his balled fist, forty-eight hours of frustration and rage finding primitive release in that one blow. He staggered a step backward in surprise and Kane was on him in that instant, swinging his other fist at Dylan's face even as the first priest of the New Order tried to fend off the blows.
Rosalia, the woman who had entered with Dylan, moved then, taking two swift paces forward before high kicking Kane in the face with professional detachment. The blow knocked the ex-Magistrate back against the wall, and Kane felt his head spin with nausea as the rusty taste of blood filled his mouth.
Behind the woman, somewhere close to the open door, the dog yipped before assuming a low growling, clearly irritated.
When Kane looked up, he saw the dark hair of Rosalia as she pressed her face close to his. “Don't be a fool, Magistrate man,” she hissed.
It was good advice, Kane knew. He was weak from lack of food, and his body was still recovering from some battle he could not fully recall. Or perhaps he could. The name Ullikummis had triggered something in his memory, and he was just beginning to remember what had happened in Cerberus's main corridor.
Kane discarded the nagging memory for the moment, struggling to stay on his feet as he leaned against the rough wall.
Dylan stepped close to him, standing over him but not bothering to strike him. “You will learn the error of your ways in time,” he said, “and you will come to embrace the New Order. The Life Camp is calling you, Kane. You cannot begin to imagine how the world has altered, how different it is becoming.”
The priest turned and paced toward Rosalia, who waited at the doorway, her dark eyes fixed on Kane's pitiful figure as he slumped against the wall, gingerly fingering his lip, which dripped with blood.
“The world is changing,” Dylan said yet again as he stepped through the door. “Your timeâthe age of Cerberusâis over.”
Then he was gone, and Rosalia followed him, the dog trotting along at her heels. Kane watched as the strange stone doorway slid back into place, the magma glow of the space beyond obscured by a rock wall. Once more, Kane was locked in a cell with no exit.
“First priest, huh?” he muttered as he wiped at the blood that trickled from his mouth. “Didn't I know you when you were just the understudy, you self-important prick?”
Grant hunkered down in the shadows of the tunnel as the silvery elevator doors in the rock wall slid apart just a few feet from him.
Striding from the elevator, much to his surprise, was the familiar form of Edwards, an ex-Magistrate like Grant himself, and a member of the Cerberus outfit. Edwards was tall and broad shouldered, with hair cropped so close to his scalp he appeared almost bald. His lack of hair left his ugly, bullet-bitten right ear on show. Like the other people Grant had seen here, Edwards was disguised in a dark fustian robe, its hood pushed back from his head as he scratched his ruined ear. Grant was relieved to see a friendly face, and he realized immediately that the ex-Magistrate must have had the same idea as himâdisguising himself in one of the enemy's robes so that he could scope out this prison. The thought struck Grant that maybe Edwards was part of a larger rescue party, and he waited for a moment to see if anyone else would emerge from the elevator cage. No such luck.
Or maybe Edwards had come with Grant, whose memory was so scrambled it was hard to recall how he had come to find himself in that cell. Maybe they had infiltrated together and Grant had been captured. Maybe his long-trusted partner, Kane, was somewhere nearby, too.
Grant watched as Edwards reached for the hood of his robe, pulling it down over his face.
“Edwards,” he whispered, stepping out of the shadows to reveal himself to his Cerberus ally.
Edwards turned to look at him, his face an emotionless mask.
“Man, am I glad to see you,” Grant continued, as he took a step forward, keeping his voice low. “I guess they caught us both, huh?”
With the speed of a flinch, Edwards's right arm snapped out, his fist clenched. Surprised, Grant tried to avoid the blow, but he was too slow. With the solidity of stone, Edwards struck him across the left cheek, sending him lurching against the nearest wall.
“Whoa, whoa! Cool your jets, man,” Grant cried. “It's meâGrant. I ain't one of them.”
Edwards's blue eyes focused on him, and his brows knitted in an angry scowl. “Yes, you are,” he replied, following his first punch with a vicious left cross.
Grant was so surprised, he didn't have time to avoid that blow, either, and he grunted as Edwards's knuckles rapped the side of his face, knocking him even farther backward. Grant stumbled as he tried to stay upright.
Edwards's hood fell back from his face, and before Grant could protest, the shaven-headed figure drove another punch at his skull. Grant deflected it with a grunt, batting the swinging fist away with his outstretched hand.
“Edwards!” Grant cried as the fierce ex-Mag came at him with a savage right jab. “It's not a trick. It's me. They had me in a cell butâ¦”
Edwards wasn't listening, Grant realized. Not exactly renowned for his even temper even in the best of circumstances, his teammate had built up a head of fury now,
and was coming at him with the relentlessness of a thunderstorm, driving punch after punch at his face and torso, years of Magistrate training making his body a lethal weapon. Grant held up his left arm, blocking Edwards's latest blow and turning it against him, making his fist snap back and cuff himself across the nose. Edwards ignored it.
Grant leaped backward, putting a few feet between them. “Look, I don't know what's going on, but you keep up this ruckus and we're going to get ourselves caught and tossed back in our cells.”
Edwards dipped his head, and for a moment Grant thought he was acknowledging the point he had just made. But noâhe suddenly charged again, his boots slapping against the rocky floor. The tunnel was too narrow, Grant realized; he had no chance to step out of this maniac's way. Even as that fact sank in, Edwards's shoulder was slamming against his ribs, forcing Grant to give ground. There was nothing for it, he knew. Edwards was out of control, and he would have to fight back, restrain him if the man was to see sense.
They had fought before, when Edwards had been under the influence of the faux god Ullikummis. Grant recalled how Edwards had been singular in his purpose then, too, when Grant had infiltrated Tenth City with Kane and Domi to rescue Edwards's scouting party. As Brigid had explained it, the architecture of the metropolis had been designed to grip the inhabitants' minds in stasis, forcing them to do the bidding of Lord Ullikummis. It had been a subtle and strange form of brain control, and the implication that it had been employed across the globe and was inherent in the design of every city ever built by man was worrying, to say the least. But like so much that the Cerberus warriors had encountered
since Ullikummis had returned to Earth, the implication remained unexplored while other problems commanded their attention.
Grant stumbled backward once again, almost toppling over one of the strange ridges that broke up the tunnels. He stepped up onto it before kicking out with his other foot, slamming the charging Edwards across his breastbone. His old colleague staggered back, his arms wind-milling as he fought to keep his balance.
As he stepped down from the low stone wall, Grant heard other sounds coming from the tunnel at his back, the noise of hurried footsteps as prison guards were alerted and rushed to grab their escapees. If he hadn't been sure before now, Grant knew at that moment that he needed to stop this insanity or dispatch Edwards quickly and come back for him later.
“Just listen to me for a moment,” he urged. “Try to think. They have a mat-trans. I saw it. If we work together we canâ”
But Edwards didn't seem to be listening. He had stepped back slightly, and Grant noted how he was lowering his center of gravity in preparation for delivering a nasty double kick. A moment later, Edwards's right leg swung forward, slamming hard into the cartilage at the back of Grant's knee before sweeping up to connect with his face. Grant held his position as the first blow struck, not quite placed to pop his kneecap, though Grant knew he had to put that down to luck. He was more concerned by the second blow, anticipating it and deflecting it with both hands.
Edwards's foot came back down to the floor, but he was already spinning, driving his left knee upward toward Grant's groin. Grant stepped aside and his opponent's knee missed him by the smallest of margins.
Then he saw the opening in Edwards's defense, and he grabbed the material of the man's tunic in his left hand even as his right fist powered out, striking him across the cheek. Grant cried out as his fist connected, for it felt as if he was striking a solid wall.
“What the hell?” Grant spit as he followed up with his right fist again, swinging it in a powerful cross.
Edwards took the blow to the side of his face without even blinking, the whites of his eyes flashing red in the dim magma glow of the inset lights.
Grant glanced back down the tunnel, saw the approaching forms of the three guards he had dispatched outside his cell. “Dammit, Edwards,” he said, turning back to his old colleague, “there's no time for this shit. You have to trust me or we'll both end up dead.”
“Don't you get it yet?” Edwards snarled in response, his leg kicking upward at Grant's face. “Haven't you figured out where you are?”
Grant dropped low as Edwards's foot brushed past his jaw, kicking out his own foot in a sweep designed to knock Edwards's legs from under him. The blow struck hard, and Edwards sagged against the far wall of the tunnel, collapsing to his knees with a grunt of pain.
“Why didn't you tell me?” Grant growled at the ex-Mag, leaping toward Edwards's toppling form, his fists bunched.
“Look around you,” Edwards growled, indicating the rough walls and the flickering volcanic lights. “You're in hell now, Grant. And you're here to stay.”
Grant stopped short, his fist poised to strike Edwards in his wickedly grinning mouth.
The man took advantage of his momentary hesitation, driving his foot up across his foe's jaw, knocking him backward. Grant cried out as he rolled away, tumbling
across the rough tunnel floor beneath the glowing embers of the magma lights. His mind was racing, trying to piece together what Edwards had just told him. Could it possibly be true? Wasn't hell just some crazy old myth, like all the others he and Kane and Brigid had exposed across the globe? Another primitive belief based on nothing more than ignorance and superstition?
From behind, the three people Grant had come to think of as prison guards hurried toward his fallen form, their feet clattering on the hard floor. The lead figure was pointing at him, his finger jabbing the air.
“Stop him!” he called.
Standing over Grant's sprawled form, Edwards smiled, his teeth glinting orange in the eerie glow of the volcanic lights. “Already ahead of you,” he assured the prison guards. “This little puke ain't gonna cause us no more trouble.”
“Sorry, Mojambo,” Grant snarled, “gonna have to rain on your parade here.” Then he leaped from the floor, driving himself at Edwards like a wound spring.
Grant struck out with both fists, slamming one into the underside of the man's jaw, even as the other pounded into his solar plexus. Edwards yelped with pain, toppling over into a fetal crouch. Behind him, the three hooded guards rushed forward, and Grant turned to face the newcomers.
“Grab him,” one of the guards ordered, “quickly!”
Instantly, Grant went on alert. He struck out blindly with his fist and caught the first of the men across the chest. He followed up with a low punch to his gut, striking with such force that the slender man doubled over, spitting gobs of blood as he tumbled to the floor.
Then the second one was upon him, and Edwards had recovered also, pushing his muscular form off the rough
rock floor. Grant spun, booting the first in the face in a roundhouse kick that left him facing the ex-Magistrate again, whom he identified as the more dangerous foe.
As Grant turned, the third guard rushed at him, holding something in his bunched fist. Instinctively, Grant raised his left arm to block the blow, which had been intended for his skull. Flames of pain rushed through his forearm, and Grant screamed in agony, his voice high and strained.
Then Edwards socked him in the jaw, even as Grant tried to block him. It was like being hit in the face by a hammer, such was the power behind Edwards's punch.
Grant staggered back, found himself stumbling against the rough tunnel wall, his ankles catching on one of those low ridges. Then the guard struck again, and Grant saw that he held a sliver of rock shaped like a blackjack, and was using it to strike out at his foe.
The tunnel before Grant seemed to whirl, the elevator doors to spin, and his vision blurred as he was set upon by the two men. He kicked out blindly, and felt his toe connect with one of his attackers. The dark form fell backward, toppling over and slamming into one of the walls with a thud. But the other one struck Grant again, kicking at his chest and face, forcing his head back against the hard floor of the cavern.
Grant was conscious of how the sounds around him changed, becoming distant as his skull struck the rock again. He reached out, trying to push his opponent away, but couldn't seem to locate him through the miasma of his fuzzy vision. Then he felt another hammerlike punch, and his head snapped back once more.
And as Grant sank into unconsciousness under the rain of blows, he heard Edwards laugh.
“Welcome to hell, bitch,” his old colleague guffawed. “Enjoy your stay.”
The rock wallsâ¦the glowing magma within themâ¦it all seemed to make some perverse kind of sense in that instant. Grant couldn't recall how he had come to be here, but maybe Edwards was right. Maybe he was trapped in hell. Maybe they all were.