Authors: James Axler
“I’m not here to kill you. I don’t even want to seriously hurt you, because my real contention is with the errant young Sam.”
“He likes to call himself Enlil, now,” Kane corrected. He struggled to focus his eyes, but the shove of a warm, human-feeling hand left him swinging. “You want Enlil, so you do what…lure us out here to hang us up like beef?”
“The enemy of my enemy is…”
“Let me see your damn face!” Kane growled.
“Touchy, touchy,” the Thrush-thing replied. He stepped back and, finally, Kane’s vision was clear enough and focused enough for him to see that the metallic-toned voice had come from his own face. Hard, predator-sharp blue eyes glinted to match the cruel smile on the doppelganger Kane’s lips. It was identical to him, right down to the amount of scruffy beard growth on his jaw and the faint remnant of a scar on his cheek.
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
How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!
—Jean Jacques Rousseau
On the Inequality among Mankind
The deadliest weapon I’ve ever seen used is a lie. It can crumble nations and slay hundreds without effort. Only knowledge and truth can dispel a lie’s wrongs, yet it is a battle to spread the facts, and no truth can revive those who have fallen.
—Brigid Baptiste, scholar and warrior
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 aftermath—forever known as skydark—reshaped continents and turned civilization into ashes.
Nearly depopulated, America became the Deathlands—poisoned 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 enforced—to 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 technology…a question to a keeper of the archives…a vague clue about alien masters—and 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, community—the very rootedness of humanity was denied. With no continuity, there was no forward momentum to the future. And that was the crux—when Kane began to wonder if there
For Kane, it wouldn’t do. So the only way was out—way, 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.
Sitting on the rock, his long legs drawn up to his chest, Grant’s hulking frame bore a passing resemblance to a large gargoyle carved from jet-black obsidian. Though Grant was silent, Brigid Baptiste could tell that the ex-Magistrate was on edge. Too often, opponents of the Cerberus warriors had mistaken the phenomenal power of the massive man’s limbs for a lack of intelligence, underestimating him at their own peril.
As a Magistrate in Cobaltville, one of the fortified baronies that rose from the wastelands of postapocalyptic America, Grant and his partner, Kane, developed the resourcefulness to deal with nearly any crisis. Grant also honed a set of observational skills that complemented Brigid’s keen intellect and Kane’s nearly preternatural instincts. That sharp mind had also made the big warrior one of the best pilots that Brigid had ever seen, adept at flying all manner of aircraft and capable of getting a damaged ship up and running with a minimum of tools.
The turmoil presently consuming Grant stemmed from the fact that Kane had been sent off on a solo quest
to satisfy the Appalachian witch Epona and her cadre of mountain scouts. Grant had been opposed to such a handicap situation, but Kane conceded for the sake of diplomacy.
“Damn fool,” Grant’s deep voice grumbled, startling Brigid from her reverie.
“He can handle himself,” Brigid argued.
Grant’s dark eyes swiveled. The glare of momentary annoyance faded as he regarded her in his peripheral vision. “We all can. But I can still say this situation sucks.”
Brigid nodded in agreement. She turned back toward where Granny Epona sat with her protective cordon of mountain folk. The term “Granny” was a misnomer, as the water witch had the body of a woman in her twenties, lean and tight corded muscles beneath her protective furs and leathers. Her face, windburned to a deep tan by the cold mountaintop winds of this stretch of the Poconos in what used to be known as Pennsylvania, was relatively unlined, making any determination of her age difficult, though Brigid guessed that the woman was between forty and sixty. A breeze plucked at Epona’s black hair, tugging it aside like a curtain so that Brigid was able to see the water witch in profile.
This was the second time that Brigid had met the woman. Their first meeting was when Brigid, Kane and Grant had arrived via interphaser to negotiate for the release of a small team of Cerberus explorers who had stumbled upon the mountain folk. Initially Epona and
her people had been suspicious of outlanders, but their fear of outside interference was tempered by enough reason that the Appalachians didn’t execute them on the spot. It was a reprieve from the usual first contact that the three outlanders encountered, one of cold peace, both sides afraid to trust each other but too smart to make the first hostile move. Something had changed about Epona since then, and the flame-haired former archivist couldn’t quite place it. Given her observational skills and eidetic memory, the incongruence nibbled at her, but there was nothing concrete to quantify her suspicions.
Epona looked up, as if she had noticed the attention locked on to her. “Has Kane appeared at the tree line?”
“No,” Brigid answered.
Grant’s lips curled in a sneer, but he kept his voice low so only Brigid could hear him. “You know, with our Commtacts, those primitive screwheads wouldn’t hear Kane even if he did turn his on.”
Brigid sighed and fingered the Commtact attached to her jaw. The tiny unit was a two-part man-machine interface developed by Cerberus techs with the help of the scientists of Manitius. The little comm unit worn on the outside hooked up to implanted steel pintels and allowed Brigid to communicate with her partners, as well as keep in touch across the globe with the Cerberus redoubt, which served as their home. Thanks to a series of satellites controlled from the redoubt’s depths, the Commtact signal was strong and clear almost anywhere on the face of the Earth.
The insert implanted on her mandible was voice activated and utilized vibrations in the bone mass to allow her to hear without anyone else listening in. She could also speak so softly that someone only a few feet away wouldn’t hear, but her jaw would transmit the sound to the Commtact in a way that it would be clear and audible to anyone with a proper receiving unit. More than once, since the addition of the Commtact to their regular gear, Brigid and her allies had been able to covertly communicate with one another, even under all but the closest scrutiny.
“I’m going to have to teach that boy to turn his Commtact on,” Grant said.
“That would be breaking the spirit of our deal, stranger,” Epona answered.
Brigid whirled, surprised at the silence with which the witch woman had moved, but only momentarily. Epona traveled with mountain scouts who were as stealthy a group of hunters as Brigid had ever seen, rivaling even Sky Dog’s tribe.
Epona continued after both Cerberus explorers took note of her presence. “Would you rather your friend dishonor your people by being a liar?”
Grant’s eyes narrowed. “It’s funny you should mention honor, witch. Where I come from, it’s considered an affront to let your friend walk into a fucking trap just because you want to impress the natives. Something about loyalty and concern for those who’ve watched out for you. Know anything about that?”
Brigid bit her upper lip, both to kill the smile that threatened to cross her face and to bite back an apology for her friend’s rudeness. Sometimes Grant forgot the adage that you could draw more flies with honey than vinegar, but that was the big ex-Magistrate’s way. Kane had often joked that Grant wasn’t happy unless he was complaining about how miserable he was.
Epona smirked. “Your loyalty does your friend honor. Just remember, we are the ones who invited you here. And I am the lawmaker of my people.”
Grant rolled his eyes and turned his attention to Brigid. “She must be confusing us with some other group of travelers.”
Brigid smiled. “Behave, Grant.”
Grant managed a grin. “Where’s the joy in that?”
He settled back down, staring toward the tree line.
The rules of this particular engagement were simple. In order to open up diplomatic channels between the Appalachians and the Cerberus redoubt, Kane had to go into the forest of this particular valley. Hidden among the trees lurked a race of genetic mutations that had taken to calling themselves the Fomorians, claiming to be the descendants of the beings who menaced the Tuatha de Danaan.
Nothing in Brigid’s studies of the interactions of the panterrestrial entities she knew as the Tuatha de Danaan suggested that the Fomorians were anything but Annunaki, whose roles in the history of humanity had been misinterpreted after years of permutations of the
original stories. Brigid was aware that according to the creation legends of the Celts, the Fomorians were allegedly the predecessors of the more human-centric god entities, a parallel tale to the relations between the Hellenic pantheon of Olympian gods and their forebears, the Titans. According to information that Brigid had gleaned from various sources, the Tuatha de Danaan and the Annunaki had warred terribly, thus giving her the impression that those recorded as the malformed and misshapen Fomorians were actually Annunaki, or rather, one of their servant races, which were currently known as the Nephilhim.
Only after the two godlike races had come to peace, and chose to create a supervisory hybrid race known as the Archons, did they fade from the forefront of interaction with humanity. The Archons had been crossbreeds, possessing genetic material of both great races, as well as the stuff of human DNA in them, serving as a bridge between the three species. The hybrid creatures had been charged with retarding human potential, keeping humankind from growing too powerful, lest they grow strong enough to resist the panterrestrial overlords as they slept or lived out their retirement in other dimensions.
Brigid decided to throw a few questions at Epona, as long as she was present. The mystery of what the Fomorians actually were had weighed too much for her to keep her tongue still.
“Your enemies claim to be actual descendants of the
Fomorians of Celtic myth?” she asked the Appalachian headwoman.
Epona glanced sidelong at Brigid, as if weighing her response. “You doubt our assertion?”
Brigid shook her head. “I’m just trying to fit this in to what we know about the Tuatha de Danaan.”
“Our forebears,” Epona stated.
Brigid’s brow wrinkled. According to what she knew about Appalachian granny magic in the wake of the Cerberus explorers’ first encounter with Epona and her people, the arts of magic they used were supposedly imported with the Scottish and Irish immigrants who had first arrived on American shores back in the late 1700s. Given the region that they had originated in, it was likely that the isolated and secretive water witches and witch doctors who practiced the arts had links extending back to the Tuatha de Danaan. The only thing that stuck awkwardly in Brigid’s evaluation of Epona’s veracity was that the practitioners of granny magic tended to locate farther south than the Pennsylvanian Poconos, the original territory stretching from the Virginias down to Georgia, where the remote location of their territories allowed the immigrants to retain the ancient Irish and Scottish songs, dances and recipes far more easily than their island predecessors who were dragged into modern society by being made part of Great Britain.
“You seem doubtful of my story. Is it because we’re not in our traditional homelands?” Epona asked.
“That’s part of it,” Brigid said.
Epona smiled. “We migrated in the wake of the great war. Rather than displace people in valleys that weren’t affected by the nuclear bombs, we wandered until we finally settled here. However, if you wish to check our genealogy, we first originated in Georgia. I assume you explorers have traveled there.”
Brigid nodded. “Radioactive fallout zones in Georgia would have forced a migration to more hospitable climes. But what about the Fomorians?”
“The Fomorian warriors who hound the mountain folk were often like us. It was the touch of Bres the Beautiful that awoke the true power within those we thought were merely men,” Epona explained.
Brigid’s eyes narrowed. She didn’t particularly like the reverence that tinged the Appalachian woman’s words. When Epona’s gaze focused on the worry in her features, Brigid pressed on. “Bres the Beautiful, who was the son of Balor, the leader of the Fomorians, correct? He’s still alive after all these millennia?”
Epona smiled unnervingly. “You came to us seeking information on whether Enlil, one of the Sumerian gods, was using one of the many valleys in the Appalachians as a potential hideout. An Annunaki can live for thousands of years, but a son of the beings who fathered the Tuatha de Danaan cannot?”
“In our defense, Enlil and his kin were stored inside of the genetic codes of their descendants until they could be awakened by a signal from their great ship
Brigid said. “They hadn’t been awake the whole time. However, we have encountered another Tuatha, the being known as Maccan.”
“Aengus,” Epona corrected. “His true name is Aengus, son of Dagda, high king of the Tuatha de Danaan and Boann.”
A smile crossed Epona’s lips. Brigid anticipated the source of the granny witch’s humor as her studies of the Tuatha de Danaan sprang to the forefront of her infallible memory. “Boann, who has among her other identities the goddess Brigid.”
Epona nodded knowingly. “It is good to speak with an outsider who knows of our faith.”
Brigid returned the smile. “It’s more a case of occupational necessity. The figures you worship are still alive and well in some form or another. They and their Annunaki counterparts are precisely the reason why making an alliance with you is so vital.”
“Even with the aid of every mountain scout among my people, the Appalachians stretch for thousands of miles. We have not been able to locate the heart of the Fomorian base of operations—what makes you think we would be any more useful in ascertaining whether Enlil and his kin have taken refuge in one of our valleys?” Epona asked.
“Because at least you are a set of eyes and ears in this area. Indeed, you contacted us simply because the Fomorians seemed to be increasing their intelligence and the quality of their equipment,” Brigid pointed out.
“Otherwise, you would not have made use of the radio we left behind for you.”
“Well played, Brigid,” Epona said. “There are some things we are not capable of handling. The Fomorians were balanced against us because we at least had the advantage of homemade rifles crafted by our gunsmiths while they relied more upon their brute strength and natural endurance. However, things have shifted.”
Brigid glanced at one of the mountain scouts. The man sat on a rock, a five-foot-long rifle resting between his knees. Though she was not one who took much interest in the minutiae of musketry, it didn’t take a firearm fanatic to realize the quality and art involved in the production of the long weapon, nor was it any surprise that the rifle’s bore was designed to fire cartridges that were meant for more than any normal person. Externally, the arms that the scouts carried were hand-carved wood and steel, the wooden furniture painted and adorned with runes to bless them. The steel barrels were set into heavy firing mechanisms, single-shot bolt action by their appearance, and there was no mistaking the half-inch cavernous hole at the end of the long tube. Taking the opportunity to get a closer look at one of the long brass fangs that were stuffed into a belt loop around the scout’s waist, she recognized the .50-caliber cartridge that was the same type that Grant used for one of his favorite weapons, the M-85 Barrett.
The fact that the scouts chose this as their primary rifle caliber when it was likely that they would encounter
their hated enemies meant that the Fomorians were not simply deformed humans, but creatures of phenomenal strength.
“You said that Kane would recognize them when he saw them,” Brigid said. “Unfortunately, I don’t recall any past lives as he does. How did you, er, recognize him?”
Epona chuckled. “I would be a poor water witch if I could not identify the modern embodiment of Cuchulainn.”