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American Atheist 22

by Nelly 

Posted: 09 February 2006
Word Count: 6236
Related Works: American Atheist: # 21 • American Atheist: #1 • 

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Raising the dead was never easy and Bishop Cecilio found it particularly difficult.

They were unpredictable. One might savagely attack former friends and family, while another would talk in tongues or claim to be somebody entirely different, back for a second chance at life.

The problem lay with the length of time dead - longer was worse.

Two months ago, a quiet and well-spoken Deacon returned to life, only to suck out a nurse’s eye before he could be stopped. Before that, a brash, larger than life politician had constantly screamed - until staff removed his larynx.

Recently the dead were returning with no memory of who they once had been, no better than walking corpses shuffling aimlessly in their cells. They were destroyed after they served no more scientific purpose, although Cecilio heard rumour the Cardinals used them for sport. He had never seen any games involving walking corpses and he found the idea of kicking a dead man’s head to be unsettling.

Rarely, one would change shape, its flesh like the Bishop’s own, becoming malleable and soft. These were cunning; with strength far beyond what their mortal bodies were capable. No amount of interrogation could reveal what they were or where they had come from.

The head surgeon and his board of directors referred to them as Xenomorphic Transmogrifiers, but the rest of the Charnel house - including Cecilio - called them Changelings and when they thought no one else was listening - Demons.

Who knew what they really were? He didn’t like to dwell on it.

Cecilio stood in the shadows of the Vatican gardens, cupped his hands and lit a cigarette.

Cardinal D’costa had been dead for two days, outside the resurrection comfort zone of twelve hours by a wide margin. Bringing him back was a heavy risk. But Cecilio had taken it all the same.

The idea of a resurrection comfort zone always made him laugh, as if there could be anything comforting in dragging souls back to their physical forms. It was supposed to imply a period of time where the soul could not be tainted by the forces beyond life, where it wouldn’t have gravitated towards the lower realms. It was more a working rule and there were exceptions to every case. Most of those brought back still needed months of rehabilitation: a virtual army of counsellors, doctors and psychiatrists helping them come to terms with what they had experienced. All were deemed worth the cost. The dead chosen to return were based on a political or financial agenda, they usually comprised the cream of the crop: politicians, clergy of a certain status, members of the inner circle; even a political ally had the use of the Charnel house from time to time. All those who came back more or less intact - if bereft of their sanity - had been justified to the cost. He had taken a gamble with D’costa. He knew he would be before Gallo the next day explaining his actions, but returning the young Cardinal was necessary to converting the half-breed Unita. She was worth the cost.

The Charnel house was a nickname for Lab fourteen: a solitary white building hidden by the extensive gardens of the Vatican. It was strictly off limits to tourists, passed off as bureaucratic on the maps. A perimeter fence stopped the over-curious and soldiers with guard-dogs saw to the rest.

He could see the tip of its chimney from where he stood and watched smoke; the colour of soured milk curling into the night. They burnt the bodies after sunset, to help avoid any unnecessary interest. Not that anybody would question the sanctity of the Vatican. It was beside the point, in the hierarchy of things, there were boxes inside the boxes.

He sighed and drew deeply on the cigarette. Above, Jupiter was a bright silvery star, shining to the moon’s right. Yet low in the sky a brilliant white pinprick punctured the night. It was low to the horizon, visible above the dark outline of the western hills. Cecilio guessed it might be one of three comets trailing the short summer nights. It was likely to be Honda, having already been sighted in the pre-dawn light of the British Isles. Comets as bright as Honda always made him uneasy: a portent of change or bad tidings to come.

He dipped his head, looking instead to the gardens. He had come here to reflect on his time with Cardinal Angelo. It had not gone as expected. But then when raising the dead, nothing ever did.

The Cardinal’s body was held in storage outside of the Vaults. Kept chilled, in great lockers near to the west walls. In time he would have been returned to his family, and allowed a burial with his people. It was rare for a Cardinal to die - especially one of the inner circle. Each possessed the Gift, and lived unnaturally long lives; death was usually a result of accident or infighting and manoeuvring for higher positions. Angelo’s death was the first from a hostile enemy to the Church in over a hundred years. Not counting the annual quotas from the army to maintain the illusion of war between the superpowers. The last Cardinal to die had been after America declared its independence from the Church. The Cardinals’ role as holy warriors had set them aside from the other members of the clergy. Cardinals were no mere Priests or Bishops controlling their diocese. They had evolved through two hundred years of war, whether real or not. As all the Church had, fighting non-believers and heretics. It was the way of the world. It made them strong and he believed it would stay this way for a hundred years more.

He couldn’t shake the feeling of unease when he thought about Angelo D’costa.

A young man: not ready for the responsibilities his position thrust upon him, eager to fly the V.N.F’s and prove his skill in aerial combat. It had proved his undoing, eventually leading to his death.

He had undoubtedly fallen into Damnation. His soul would have been already weighed by the presence of the Gift in his system. He would have tumbled through Purgatory, down into the depths of pain itself.

Cecilio had seen only seconds of that realm; Angelo would have spent days there.

Still, he had proceeded and in the Room with no Doors, they had exercised the power to bring life back to the dead. The greatest asset of the Gift was the knowledge it imparted. Not just restoring their bodies, but to actually draw the souls back from the lower worlds. Lower, was how he thought of both Purgatory and Damnation, but it was inaccurate. Heavier would have been closer - or older. One could only travel there when detached from the physical form and then only if the weight of negativity drew them down into it. It had been hypothesised there were other realms; if the soul was weighed sufficiently with suffering it might move into places where only base elements of concepts such as rage existed. Likewise, if souls were lighter, free from the hardships of life, they may elevate, rising towards younger worlds. If that was the case, then none ever returned and the soul could not be drawn back. He understood in the testing labs they were working on ways to breach the barrier with physical objects, but he doubted it would ever work. Matter had no place in the universes of the ethereal.

The Cardinal was drawn back into his flesh; restoring his head had been the difficult part. His hate mail had done the majority of the work, continuing on, despite its host departure from life. The Cardinal’s hate mail was so named for how it responded to the baser emotions of the warrior class. Its power to heal so far medically advanced to be near mystical in its workings. Hate mail usually stopped working when no longer being fed from the Cardinal host. It was testament to Angelo’s own particular brand of loathing to see the armour still working away days later.

They had expected screams or violence; a stand by team of burly orderlies were waiting in the next room, but Angelo slipped back into life with a gentle gasp and small sad smile.

It had shocked the doctors, who demanded psychological profiling before any decisions could be made, but Cecilio had ignored them all and took Angelo from the Charnel house. Even returning his Cardinal robes.

All because he believed he could convert Unita, it was important to him, like nothing else had ever been. For once, he had the chance to save life, not destroy it and he wasn’t going to squander the opportunity. Angelo would be his proof to the girl’s atheist ideals. She would convert and be saved. With time, who knew what she might become?

But after talking with Angelo in the gardens, he sensed the man had come back changed after all. Outwardly, he appeared the same, but Cecilio could sense the man carried within him a new aspect. A fragmented shard of his consciousness, twisted into a different path not thought of before his death. Cecilio was deeply troubled by the Cardinal’s presence.

“What are you?” he had questioned. “If you’re not the Cardinal, what manner of creature stands before me now?”

“I am he. Your Angelo saved from the ashes. Your Lazarus proving your might.”

He had studied the man’s eyes, looking into their depths, searching for a clue to what unsettled him.

“You sense it too.” Angelo said quietly. “You can feel the change within me,” he paused and placed a hand onto Cecilio’s shoulder, “it is also within you.”

Cecilio’s true self bristled and rose to the surface, his skin darkened and he fought to regain control. “You no longer believe?” he said hotly.

“I believe in different things. I know there is life after death. I know pain is a place as real as you or me. I know my suffering in that realm has made me see the error of my ways. And I know my story should come as a warning for those yet to visit there.”

There were too many truths in the Cardinal's words and Cecilio could no longer meet his eye. He looked down to the floor instead. “Do you know why I have brought you back?”

“Yes I do. However, I suspect you do not.”

“What do you mean?”

“Where before I was blind like St Paul, my return has granted me sight. My path lies in redemption and saving wayward souls.”

“Then we have similar interests after all.” He forced himself to look up; it hurt his eyes and he hated himself for it. “I have brought you back to save the soul of the American girl, Unita Seenbys.”

Angelo's face fell in shock and then realisation dawned. “Of course,” he murmured. “The life I took, to be repaid in full.”

Cecilio wasn’t sure what the Cardinal was talking about and started to fear he had lost leave of his senses after all.

“Will you help me?” he asked.

“Of course. It was never in doubt. My lord moves in circles and He has been explicit in His demands of me.”

Cecilio should have sent him back to the Charnel house. Allowed the staff to test and prod and remove his humanity, modelling him like a rough piece of clay, until he better resembled what the Church was after.

Instead he let him go. Only asking him one more question.

“Did you find God?” His voice trembled as he spoke the words.

Angelo slid the cowl of his robe back over his head. “I saw no God in Damnation,” he said quietly, then almost as an after thought added. “But there is a tower, tall and straight. It is the only constant in that shifting realm. The older souls climb it. The Hunters pick off many, but some make it through and they never return. The tower is older than Damnation, perhaps older than the universe in which it resides. Somebody made it.”

Then with a faint rustle of his robes Angelo had left.

Now, Cecilio waited in the gardens failing to gather his thoughts. Had the resurrection of Cardinal D’costa been a mistake? His gut feelings suggested this was the case. He might do more harm than good. Then why had he let him leave?

Cecilio shook his head and stubbed out the cigarette with the heel of his boot. He refused to dwell further on the matter and with one last backward glance at the comet dipped his head under an arch and stepped back into the Vault.


Once, Father Elia would have run up the stairs. Now, he was reduced to a shuffle, and it damn near exhausted him. Between the lump in his belly and the relentless march of time, he had been reduced to a pale ghost of his former self. His skin sagged, his muscles were wasted and even his posture had become crooked and bent. At each landing, between flights, he was forced to stop and catch his breath. By the time he reached the testing labs, he had broken into a heavy sweat that drenched his black suit and his face was flushed red. His chest felt tight and his stomach was swollen - distended, as if he had over indulged on food and wine. He ran trembling hands across his thinning hair, trying to calm the fear still twisting his guts.

The entrance to the labs was a solid stone door, with a thin sheet of murky plastic in its centre. He glanced quickly through, hoping Unita may be there, but saw only a pale lit corridor running off into shadows.

No sign yet - with luck he would catch her before she escaped from the ventilation passage.

The door was locked and he turned his attention to a small dirt brown keypad attached to the wall. These had been installed four years previously. Their design had been kicking around level two for over a decade - courtesy of the Gift. He tapped in his three-digit code and waited for the door to electronically unlock.

There was an audible click and two metal hinges popped back into the wall. The door slid forward an inch, revealing deep handholds set in its side. He hauled the door open, cursing the need for stone. It was over a foot thick, with a slab of lead comprising its centre, a necessary precaution from the practises within the testing labs. He had been here countless times before, always in his youth. This was the place where dreams were made -- or destroyed. Before, he had assumed the inventions to be the work of great minds, working tirelessly for God’s cause. Such naivety had faded now he knew the truth. Everything in the labs was a by-product of the Angel: its weapons and armour. A process over one thousand years in the design. And he had allowed the American spy direct access to it.

Gradually, the door swung back and he entered the corridor beyond.

The tightness of his chest increased and he stumbled, crying out in pain. His breath was coming in short gulps and he desperately sucked down precious air. His chest burnt, like the hand of God was squeezing him.

“Please,” he begged. “Allow me this one chance, my Lord. I have served you faithfully.”

The pain did not ease and he stumbled into the wall. It would have been simpler to fall over, allow whatever may happen to pass. He wanted to, it hurt so much. But that would lead to his death and the spectre of immortality still lingered in his mind.

He paused to wipe the sweat from his brow. If he captured Unita, and dragged her back to the cell, the Bishop need never know she escaped at all. He might be offered the Gift - and live forever. It would change him; he could accept that. The Gift took the recipient to death’s door and beyond. They never came back alone – as if they had lost a vital part of who they once had been in the created gulf, and something else – something dark - had nested in its place. It would be the same for him; forever changed. But it would remove his shortcomings, of which he had many. It would grant him abilities: powers beyond the scope of man. And it would remove the cancerous black lump in his belly. He was beyond caring. Better to be changed, than endure the horrors waiting in Purgatory and Damnation.

His hands trembled intensely and he felt the room sway. He couldn’t remember a time when he had felt such utter panic. He forced himself towards the black doors that marked each of the hundred rooms in the level, but abruptly stopped. Chewing at his bottom lip, he mentally checked the location of the showers to the room on this level.

No, he concluded, it wasn’t the first door, but three further down. He went on, but the tightness of his chest became a solid band of pressure and he grunted in surprise. He groped the wall for support, but with nothing to hold onto, his legs buckled and he toppled over.
The pain intensified and his hands became claws. He grasped at his chest, as if he could remove the pressure. Flashes of colour exploded before his eyes. He cast about wildly for help, but there was no one present. He tried screaming, but the sound stuck in his throat, it was all he could manage, just lying there.

He wasn’t ready for death - it wasn’t fair! He tried to remember what Bishop Cecilio had said about the Guardians, could he find solace with them? But Cecilio’s words had been cryptic and vague. There were no answers forthcoming.

Then the pain pushed past his conscious thoughts, taking hold of him completely, so he could do nothing other than writhe. He bit through his tongue and blood exploded into his mouth.

This was the end; there was nothing he could do about it.

The corridor darkened; he couldn’t breathe, he tried to draw air, but none would come, his eyes rolled up into his head and his bladder failed.

Death stole upon him.


Unita paced the narrow confines of the lift, angry and frustrated at her inability to escape. She had tried to prise the panel from the wall, but it wouldn’t move. She even ripped the leather from the seats, but found only plain wooden boards beneath. “It’s too convenient,” she spat. “I feel as if I’m being led, all my choices neatly pulled away, so I’m left with just one.” She glanced over to Dekel. “Behind that door there is a great and terrible presence. I can feel it down to my toes.” She turned her attention to the doors, slamming her palms against the metal, then rested her head against the wall. “I feel so helpless,” she eventually admitted, “I know it’s irrational, I keep telling myself to calm down, but I can’t. It’s getting worse, the deeper we go. It’s waiting for us, I’m certain.”

She lowered her head and tried to think. Her anger wasn’t going to help matters. She had got them into this situation; she could get them out. But try as she might, no answer provided itself. If only there was a way to stop the lift, but if there was, it was beyond her ability to fathom. They were trapped: unwilling passengers, until they reached their destination - wherever that may be? She didn’t want to think about what waited for them once the lift stopped. She had an idea, more of a barely perceived conception of what dwelled in the darkness below. It sent an odd tingle through her skin, a faint rush of blood to her cheeks.

Abruptly she was brought out of her reverie by a deep hacking cough. Dekel was spitting blood onto the carpeted floor.

"I’m not feeling too well," he whispered. His teeth were pitted with black stains and Unita caught the pervasive odour of decay when he spoke. He looked dangerously thin. His skin – a dirty yellow – was pressed against the bone, so he looked gaunt to the point of being skeletal. His eyes were dull and lacklustre. Wrinkles radiating from the mouth had become so pronounced they resembled sores. His lips were cracked and weeping.

"What did they do to you?" Unita asked, not bothering to hide the shock in her voice. "You’re getting worse!"

He didn’t answer, although his left hand strayed and patted his shirt pocket.

"Come on; you have to tell me." She glanced down to his shirt. "What’s in your pocket?"

"Nothing!" he snapped. Then in a quieter tone, "It doesn’t matter . . . it’s not important." He wrapped his arms tight across his chest and stared away into space, making it clear this was a subject he didn’t want to talk about.

Unita sighed in frustration. How was she supposed to get through to him? He was wasting away before her eyes, a frail figure of the man he once was. She had to do something -- she had to try!

Through his ripped shirt she could see dark sores sprinkled across his skin. The shirt was badly torn as if a savage animal had attacked him and a stain of red soaked the shirt to his lower back.

"You’re injured," she pointed to his back,” and you’re bleeding!"

He glanced down looking confused. "That can’t be right. I was healed." He touched the shirt and winced in pain. Unita noted the red stain was spreading.

"Take your shirt off," she demanded. When he didn’t move, she shouted, "Now!"

Reluctantly Dekel unbuttoned his shirt and slid it off over his shoulders. The result was deeply unpleasant. Dekel’s muscles were completely wasted, so his skin barely hung over his bones. Each of his ribs was starkly visible, as were a great map of veins spreading throughout his yellow skin like ugly purple snakes. He was covered in crusty black scabs, which leaked a pale viscous liquid. The smell of his body odour had her in mind of animal fat left out on a summer’s day and she gagged.

"Oh no . . . oh please no," she murmured. ”What could have done this to you?"

"Just stop the bleeding," Dekel said quietly and covered his face with his hands.

His spine jutted from his back in sharp ridges, stretching the skin so tight she was scared to touch him - in case he might split. Blood oozed up from the wound and ran in thick streams into his pants. It looked bad, but she told herself, even the smallest of injuries could produce plenty of blood and bent low to examine the wound. The skin was cut in a straight thin line, with no deviations. Like a thin strip of flesh had been neatly removed. It had a surgical quality to it.

"You said you were healed?" she pressed.

"After you left, I was captured by Cardinals," Dekel said cautiously, as if it hurt to remember. "They set upon me with their claws; I can still remember the metal ripping through my back, my insides splashing into the alleyway." He took his hands away from his face and Unita realised he was crying. "I thought I was dead. I should have been. Only I woke up in a holding cell hours later, no wounds – nothing - just the ripped shirt to remind me it wasn’t a dream."

"But that doesn’t make sense?" She studied the cut. "Why would they heal you only to have another wound open hours later? How is it even possible?"

Dekel shrugged, "There has been so much madness in the last twenty-four hours; this is one more part of it. I don’t know what to think anymore. Can you stop the bleeding?"

"I should be able to." She wiped at the blood with the shirt, smearing it in streaks across his ribs. The skin beneath was darker than the rest of Dekel’s body and swollen into a large lump. "How does it feel?" she asked, trying to keep the concern out of her voice.

He managed the faintest of smiles; "I’ve barely noticed it."

"Tell me what happened to you, maybe I can help?"

"It’s difficult. I was captured and taken to a holding prison in the east quarter of Rome." His tears ran unchecked across his face as he spoke and he stopped to wipe them away.

"Go on." She placed her hand over his and noticed the skin had an oily texture.

Then Dekel told her what had happened the night they parted ways. He spoke of his imprisonment and the conditions the men were forced to endure. He talked of Leonard: the French man he had befriended. She caught a tremble in his voice when he mentioned Leonard, but did not press, allowing Dekel to tell the story in his own words – in his own time. Dekel continued with his removal from the cells and interrogation by the German officer, Hans Gerber. Then he paused, gathering himself for what followed. His eyes, which had been dull, cleared, and she caught a glimpse of the old Dekel struggling through his illness. He talked quietly of the golden cockroach: how it had freed him from the cell and transformed into a ball of light. How he found Leonard dead, tortured at the hands of his jailers. Finally he whispered of Nasargiel, the mound of dead men and the key she fashioned from the remains of Hans Gerber.

It was a lot for her to accept. She still struggled with the concept of Iron Maiden being Nasargiel. She found herself wishing it wasn’t true, but one look at Dekel proved otherwise.

"After I fled the jail,” Dekel continued. “I should have gone home, but fear pushed me in what I thought was a random direction. But when the walls of the Vatican loomed out of the night, I realised I had been led, like a mindless drone. It couldn’t have been coincidence. It must have been the key Nasargiel had placed in my pocket. And as I thought on it - it moved, twitched as if alive!”

Unita looked down to the crumpled shirt she had discarded on the floor. “Is it . . . ” the words stuck in her throat and she coughed to clear them. “Is it still in there?”


“Show me.”

Dekel reached into the shirt and withdrew something wet and shining.

“Are you sure?” he asked, “it’s all that remains of the man.”

She nodded, but kept quiet. Dekel extended his hand and showed her the key.

The head of the key was a cut black stone, with eight polished sides. But the stone was far darker than anything she had ever seen before, like staring into the depths of an abyss. With an effort she tore her gaze away and studied instead its bone white length. Odd symbols ran along its side. She didn’t like it; it felt wrong, out of touch with the surroundings - with her and Dekel. She couldn’t put her finger on it exactly, but it didn’t belong.

“You can put it back now,” she said quietly. Dekel slipped it into his pants. “Go on,” she pressed, “what happened next?”

“I ripped it from my pocket and threw it to the floor. And then I vomited. Thick strands of bile hanging from my mouth as I emptied the contents of my stomach onto the sidewalk.” He grinned sheepishly, “I did manage to stagger out of sight into one of the gardens that bordered the walls. The key remained where I had left it. I had a curious sensation it was watching me, although studying might be a better word for it, like one might observe rats in a cage.” His gaze shifted, his eyes became unfocused and his voice dropped to just above a whisper. “I had enough presence of mind to quit should I have chosen - but I couldn’t - even though I was playing into Narsargiel’s plans.” He looked back to her, holding her gaze. “You had no one else. Nobody would save you, and I felt partly responsible for your capture.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Even so, I should have tried harder, found a way to make you see differently.”

“I don’t think it would have made a difference,” she said evenly. “My mind was made up.”

“Perhaps . . .” he didn’t sound convinced. “I had to try. I couldn’t approach the Vatican direct: I was covered in blood, my clothes torn and I still carried the machine pistol. They would shoot me dead within fifty feet of the place. So I sat concealed within the trees and bushes of Salita ai Giardini, wracking my mind to find a way in, but coming up with nothing. All the while the key lay there, a silent observer, watching me – mocking my failure, until finally I could bear it no more. Grabbing it in my hands, even though I found it utterly repellent to do so, it was my intention to throw it away - far away. It was at that instant, it chose to show me a way in.”

Unita arched an eyebrow in disbelief, “How?”

“An image direct to my mind, like a vividly clear photograph. Part of the wall wasn’t really a wall!”

“That implies the key has intelligence.”

“Like the soul was still trapped within,” Dekel said darkly.

“So had Hans Gerber known about the Vatican wall in life, or was this added by Iron Maiden?”

Dekel shook his head, “I’m uncertain, it could have been a part of both. Using the hedges and Poplar trees I crept up to the wall, certain they would see me and shoot me dead. Only it didn’t happen and I made the wall without incident. The key did the rest. Part of the wall . . .” he groped for the right word, “ . . . I don’t know, kind of vanished and beyond was a passage way. When I stepped within, the wall returned.”

“How could they make walls vanish and reappear?” Unita asked, voicing the unsaid question. “How far advanced is the science here?”

“Far beyond anything we’ve ever seen. Anything we should be capable of.”

“How did you find me?”

“The key again, it led me to you, warned me when others were close by and I think it protected me from a kind of defence system. I only felt it briefly, like cobwebs across my face and a deathly chill. The key flared for an instant white hot and when the heat dissipated moments later, the force was gone.”

“I imagine it was the Guardians,” then in response to Dekel’s confused stare, “I’ve been told there is a collection of ghosts protecting the Vault from any intruders. I don’t believe in Ghosts, mind. At least not in this context.”

“So what are they then?”

“Another advanced science?” she guessed. “Not ghosts. Whatever they are, their origins can be firmly explained by the material world.”

Dekel looked doubtful. “So what did it do to protect me from them?”

“Perhaps they recognised Gerber from before and allowed you to pass, surely they would recognise anything from Iron Maiden as a threat.”

Dekel was nodding slowly. “She must have counted on that to get me in. But it still doesn’t explain why?”

Unita didn’t have any of the answers and the two fell quiet as they absorbed the information.

"How are you feeling?" Dekel asked.

It was an odd question to ask of her, especially coming from him in his present condition. Dekel was such a caring man; she had never realised the extent of his devotion until now.

On impulse, she reached over and hugged him as tight as she dared. "Thank-you," she whispered in his ear.

He smiled and she felt oddly embarrassed. She was about to suggest she bind the wound when his skin rippled.

The wound had increased in size, the skin folding out so what shrivelled muscle he had left was now partly visible; a deep unhealthy brown. "It might not have been the Cardinals, that did this to you?" she murmured and reached out to place her fingers near to the cut.

Underneath his skin, something shifted.

She jumped back.

"What? What did you see?" Dekel asked urgently.

"I don’t know . . . I think . . . there’s something inside you!" she looked up and saw her own panic reflected for one instant in Dekel’s eyes. Then the lift slid to a stop and with a light chime of a hidden bell the doors hissed open.


Bishop Cecilio sensed the change as he stepped back into the Vaults. Outwardly, the corridors remained the same: rough and narrow with rows of light snaking away into perpetual gloom. But it didn’t feel right. The presence of the Gift was stronger than before: it permeated the air, an unwelcome stench settling upon his skin and cooling his heart, a slight chill others might mistake for the deepness below ground or the vastness of the Vaults. But he knew different - the Gift had stirred.

It had never done that in his lifetime or the time of any other he knew of - not in over one thousand years. There could be only one reason, it was responding to the American girl, Unita.

He set off down the corridor, his mind a whirl. She should have been in the cell, protected by Naldo and Elia. This had been his plan. Had she escaped? He needed to know what had happened. Who to blame?

He ignored the lifts in favour of a stairwell and flew down them in his haste. He stopped as he passed the testing labs, glancing through the open door and noticing a man lying prone upon the floor.

Recognising the garb of a priest, he stepped forward and at once recoiled at the sight of Father Elia.

Elia clutched feebly at his chest and his face had become purple. Cecilio ran over and stared down, his mind a mix of emotion. Elia was dying. Of course he was, they had all known for so long, but to see his old friend lying here, so weak and defenceless came as an unforeseen shock. He shivered in spite of himself. Elia was a friend. Yes, he was capable of sin and lies, like every man, but deep down he was good and Cecilio knew that was an asset to be valued for its increasing rarity.

Beneath Cecilio’s flesh, his true self shifted uncomfortably. It didn’t like the display of passion for this elderly man. He should carry on and leave him; he had outlived his usefulness anyway. But he found himself kneeling down by Elia’s side and stroking the old man’s hair instead. His true self could wait.

“I’m here,” he said softly. “You don’t have to die alone.”

Elia’s eyes fixed on him with a terrible clarity and black blood trickled from his mouth.

“Unita . . .” he began, but Cecilio shook his head.

“I know. Don’t worry, she won’t get far.”

“Please . . .” Elia struggled with each word, “give me the . . . Gift.”

Cecilio continued to stroke his hair and then lent down and kissed him lightly upon the forehead.

“You think it would save you,” he whispered and felt tears spring to his eyes, “but it would destroy you. Make you a monster . . . like me.”

Elia's head fell back and his body convulsed, but still with the last breath rattling from his lungs he pleaded. “The Guardians?”

Cecilio nodded, his shoulders sagged and he watched Elia die.

“If you want to continue as part of their collective, then you must hate. Hate for what you are. It is the only emotion strong enough to keep you tied within the electromagnetic field of the Gift.” He stared into empty space. “I urge you not to.”

He glanced back at the body and noted how different Elia already looked: just the vessel remained now the soul had departed. He gently placed Elia’s head back to the floor and stood up.

On his skin were two drops of Elia’s blood, he studied them curiously and then looked anew at his hands: they were old and leathery, like his body, ancient and frail. If he were to recapture the American, then he might have to deal with the Angel. And he was far too old for that. He allowed himself a moment to wipe away the tears and then began to search for Unita, his mind capable of expanding and touching upon all those nearby. He caught flashes of conversations, scenes of different rooms and then the scent of the American girl.

He looked back at the body. He would find her. . . . and make her pay.

With a cry of anguish he shed his skin, having no need for it any more and allowed his true self to step out into the light.

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Comments by other Members

paul53 [for I am he] at 09:34 on 11 February 2006  Report this post
Well worth the wait. I thought I might need to recap, but I was soon back in the thick of it. Wonderfully macabre with an atmosphere that grips.

Only a few points:

Angelo face fell in shock and then realisation dawned. “Of course,” he murmured.
sp. Angelo’s

“Are you sure?” he asked, “it’s all which remains of the man.”
… all that remains … ?

“Another advanced science?” she guessed. “Not ghosts. Whatever they are, their origins can be firmly explained by the materiel world.”
sp. material – materiel is a military term.

"It might not have been the Church, which did this to you?" she murmured and reached out to place her fingers near to the cut.
Bit confused. Is it:
"It might not have been the Church which [that] did this to you?"
"It might not have been the Church. Which did this to you?"
Either does not sit well with “she murmured” though a full stop and She muttered this as she placed her fingers …

He would find her. He looked back at the body . . . and make her pay.
Bit awkward. Either:
He would find her - he looked back at the body - and make her pay.
Or, better:
He looked back at the body. He would find her.. . . and make her pay.

Nelly at 10:40 on 11 February 2006  Report this post
Cheers Paul for taking the time. I think I had got as far as I could without some advice. The opening para I kept changing and changing, I might still go back and tinker with it some more.

On the plus side, I've got another 20K sat in rough, so I should be able to produce more on a regular basis.


sazzyjack at 16:37 on 11 February 2006  Report this post
This is fantstic. It flows well, and the pace is great. You have a very assured style. Glad you will be uploading more on a regular basis.


Nelly at 15:48 on 12 February 2006  Report this post
Thanks for looking through Sazzy. Glad you like it.

toshi at 17:23 on 21 February 2006  Report this post
HI Neil

This is fantastically atmospheric, actually quite dark and scary in places - powerful stuff! All the characters even in this small segment have huge depth and weight. It also flows exceptionally well. I think you gave each episode the right amount of attention and length. It goes to make a very full and obviously well-thought out story which was a pleasure to read.

I can't quite work out if it is supposed to be horror, dark fantasy, or sci-fi - perhaps a mixture of all three?

I do think that occasionally you should substitute the characters name for "he/she" as I sometimes lost track of who was being talked about. For instance:

"They were destroyed after they served no more scientific purpose, although he {Cecilio] heard rumour the Cardinals used them for sport."

"Cardinal D’costa had been dead for two days, outside the resurrection comfort zone of twelve hours by a wide margin. Bringing him back was a heavy risk. But he [Cecilio] had taken it all the same."

"Now, he [Cecilio] waited in the gardens failing to gather his thoughts. Had the resurrection of Cardinal D’costa been a mistake? "

“Will you help me?” he had asked.
I think this should be "he asked". You shifted the tenses a few lines back and it still ought to be followed in this sentence.

Looking forward to the next upload, though I have a feeling it will be even scarier than this one!

Best wishes

Nelly at 18:39 on 21 February 2006  Report this post
Welcome back Toshi, I was beginning to fear you might have left for good. Thanks for looking through and I'm glad you liked it. Each chapter seems more difficult to write than the last. I had reached a mental barrier with this one and needed some good advice before I could continue. I have written a fair amount more, having jumped ahead with the history of the world before coming back to this and the next chapter.

Thanks again for the pointers, I shall edit and keep them in mind as I go.


Patsy at 00:05 on 27 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Neil,

Fantastic as always! Sorry it took me so long to get to this -- I've been off for a bit as life has been mad of late.

The entire "Bringing folks back from the dead" section was quite gripping, and so well written. Learning more about Angelo's return from the dead was great as well.
I liked the fact that Cecilio refused to give the gift to Elia "for his own good", and advised him not to become a Guardian. The fact the we see flashes of his humanity only in the next few moments to see it all fall away for good was a wonderful bit of writing.

Things to consider:

I couldn't remember what happened to Dekel. Did Iron M. do something to him? Or was he never healed in the first place? Could just be because it has been so long since I read those early chapter, but you might want to recap a bit of what he has gone through.

"show me."
Dekel reached into the shirt and withdrew something wet and shining.
"Are you sure?" he asked, "it's all that remains of the man."

This threw me the first time I read it -- you may want to add: "Are you sure (you want to see?") on the end, as I wasn't sure what he was talking about at first.

That was all that wasn't covered by others! Wonderful as usual :)

Patsy :)

Nelly at 11:16 on 27 February 2006  Report this post
Thanks Patsy and welcome back. I know what you mean about life being hectic, sometimes it seems you don't have enough hours in the day.

I'm kind of saving what happened with Dekel. He doesn’t know and in the next chapter we learn a little more, until the truth of the matter is revealed. I'll also have a look at clarifying the section you mention.


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