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American Atheist: 24

by Nelly 

Posted: 10 May 2006
Word Count: 3619
Related Works: American Atheist: 23 • 

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This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

The creature beat upon its chest like a misshapen ape. “Thirteen,” it shrieked, spittle flying from its malformed mouth, drool hanging in great strips from its thick, blubbery lips. It jabbed a stunted finger towards its mangled head and repeated the number, then thrust its hand towards Unita. “Sister?” it grunted, slurring the word, as if unused to speaking.

Unita felt equally drawn and repelled by the sight. It was fascinating to behold. Questions about the possibility of its existence dwindled; this was a phantasm from the world of imagination. A childhood nightmare made real.

With a start, she realised Thirteen was its name. Had it asked her own? Not knowing what else to do, she replied. “Unita: it’s a name - like yours - only it’s mine, my name is Unita,” she finished lamely.

With a powerful shunt forward, Thirteen entered the main cavern, its brittle bones snapping and splitting. Its right eye - which had been stuffed with shards of crystal - now spat and sizzled like fat on a grill, lighting up the side of its rock-like face with a sterile white glare. Fragments of its skull stood exposed, dripping gore and blood across its broad shoulders and pale vein-streaked chest. Three gaping wounds from where the bullets had torn clean through its body stood as testimony to Thirteen’s invincibility. It’s one remaining eye rolled deeply in a creased socket, as if the beast was experiencing a seizure and its muscles trembled - even spasmed - so it looked to Unita for one hope-filled moment that it might fall over and die.

The light from the crystals intensified, sharpening its gruesome injuries into macabre clarity. Thirteen grabbed its head and swayed in agony, mumbling incoherently with pain. Its one good eye swivelled and fixed onto Unita. “Yes,” it said slowly, as if answering an unsaid question, “sister bad!” and tore forwards with a speed that defied its vast bulk.

It was instinct alone which saved Unita; she threw herself forward, hitting her shoulder hard into the cavern floor and curled up into a tight ball, protecting her head with her hands.

Thirteen missed; its grubby, dirt-encrusted fingers trailing across her arms, so its jagged nails drew blood. It smashed into the elevator doors, which crumpled, as if made from tissue paper. Part of the roof collapsed across its shoulders and with a screech, Thirteen fell into a rising cloud of dust and debris.

Unita wasted no time. She scrambled to her feet and bolted back down the corridor. Before she had taken less than a dozen steps, an explosion rocked the cavern. The debris erupted, sending chunks of rock whistling past. She was sprayed with grit and pebbles. Something sharp struck her forehead, drawing blood. Unita’s knees folded and she fought to stay upright.

Thirteen struggled back up; muscles bulging with the effort and once again called, “Sister,” in a long, undulating howl of despair.

Then, as it stole towards her, she shouted out a response. “Stop. Please, stop.” No more than a simple cry for mercy, but her voice made Thirteen pause. It came up short, a trembling mass of waiting destruction.

“You don’t have to do this,” she continued, “you’re not their puppet, you don’t have to kill.” The words tumbled out, she didn’t know if she was getting through or even if it was the right thing to say, but she pushed on. Her life - she grimly recognised - depended upon it.

It listened intently to her words, as if the act of talking was new to behold. She couldn’t imagine Thirteen having much in the way of conversation down in these caverns. Never mind what she said or how she said it. Thirteen was drawn to her, as she was to it.

She started to run out of things to say and panicked. On impulse, she sang random nursery rhymes, barely remembered from her youth. She hummed the parts she had forgotten and although her legs and chest ached terribly from where she had fallen, she ignored the discomfort and sang on.

The light from the crystal gradually became brighter, until it cast a pale reflection upon Unita’s sun-kissed face. As the light grew, Thirteen began to sway, becoming distracted. Abruptly it threw back its head and howled.

The tenuous connection she'd established faded as Thirteen was again wracked with pain. She went to flee, but Thirteen grabbed her by the head, dragging her effortlessly to the ground, her hair ripping at the roots. Thirteen leant forward and pressed its face against her own, scraping her skin with its toughened hide. This close the monster smelled unbearable: rotten flesh mingled with faeces and vomit. She felt her stomach turn, but the fear for her own life took precedence. Lashing out and kicking wildly, Unita tried to escape, but she might as well have kicked at a stone wall. Thirteen didn’t move, or even react to her blows. Occasionally it twitched as the crystals flared in its wounded eye socket.

“Please don’t hurt me, Thirteen.” Why would you want to?” She looked to the purple shards, “Is it the crystal? Does it hurt; make you hurt others?”

Thirteen looked confused.

“You don’t have to hurt me,” she continued, “I’m . . . your sister! We’re family, we’ve got to look out for each other. We can do that can’t we? Protect each other, make each other happy.”

“Sister?” it whispered, uncertainty etching a fine line across its flat face.

“Yes, yes, your sister. Let me go and I can help you. Maybe . . . get you out of here?”

Thirteen’s answering roar of pain broke the link they had formed; it grasped at the crystal in its face, which now shone with an intensity that hurt Unita’s eyes.

“Wait, wait,” she cried out.

But Thirteen showed no sign of understanding and lifted up massive arms, hands clenched into fists. With a primordial scream it brought both crashing down towards her.

Then with a rush of air, a mass of twisting darkness fell upon Thirteen, wrapping around its head and shoulders. Thirteen grunted with shock and a sliver of purple cloak unfolded from the black form trailing onto the floor. Unita caught a glimpse of claws before they struck into Thirteen’s unprotected back.

“Angelo?” she guessed.

Angelo did not respond. Locked in battle with Thirteen, he encircled his hands across its bull-like neck and pulled for all his worth, tightening his grip into a stranglehold. In response, Thirteen threw itself back into the cavern wall. The stone proving no obstacle for its superhuman strength. The Cardinal was knocked clean off and as he fell to the floor, Unita caught a glimpse of his young face and haunted eyes.

“Angelo!” she breathed in recognition, “but you’re dead?”

“I came back.”

“You can’t. That’s impossible.”

“Nothing’s impossible, not to us, not anymore.”

A thousand lines ran the length of the cavern roof, chunks of stone cracked and crashed to the floor, the entire cavern groaned ominously and the floor lurched.

Ignoring the unfolding crisis, Unita said, “I don’t understand?”

“You don’t have to, for now. I’ve come back for you, Unita, by saving you, I can save myself, atone for my sins. And I may add, I’m not the only one who thinks this way.”

Unita remembered Bobby’s bloody corpse. “You can never atone for what you’ve done,” she snarled.

“Perhaps,” he whispered, his face falling into shadow, “I can but try.”

Angelo pulled his robes back, revealing the silver armour beneath, which shone with its own eerie luminescence. His fingers brushed lightly against it and a small section popped open.

Unita struggled to get a better look, not wanting to come too close. She could make out circuitry, wires and a small glass vial filled with a dark red liquid.

Angelo made a slight adjustment, and the liquid drained into the armour, the glass vial dropping out to break into a hundred tiny pieces upon the floor.
He looked towards Unita and winked. “Energy,” he explained, “without it I couldn’t do this!”

A pencil thin line cut across Angelo’s body – like interference across a television set and he moved in and out of her focus. Unita blinked, trying to clear her eyes. Materialising by the Cardinal’s side were two mirror images, wavering like half-imagined phantoms.

“I don’t believe it,” she gasped.

“At a girl,” Angelo said, “now that’s the Unita I remember.”

Thirteen shook the rubble off and faced Angelo. It looked back and forth between the three figures, unsure of itself.

“Come on then,” the three Angelos called in unison. “All that muscle and growing bone, has to be used for something, why not take it out on us.” They all extended their arms, and added, “Unless of course, you want to go back into your cage. With the rest of the filth.”

With a snort of derision Thirteen charged towards the Cardinal – or rather towards one of the images floating by his side.

The image vanished as Thirteen struck, and it continued its charge into the cavern wall. As it hit the wall a second time, the roof collapsed; a mass of black rock crashed into the floor and a thick cloud of smoke swiftly enveloped what was left of the chamber.

Unita hid her face with her hands, holding her breath until the worst of it had passed. As the air cleared she saw the cavern had been split in two, with several narrow tunnels joining them together. In one lay Angelo, wiping bits of stone from his robes. In another lay Thirteen, mumbling to itself.

She glanced back to the way out and was horrified to see the roof had fallen over the exit. Now a wall of loose rocks blocked her way. She couldn’t get to Dekel. She couldn’t get to the Gift!

Desperately she began to dig at the pile, throwing rocks to one side and scrabbling at the mass of earth.

“Dekel,” she cried, “are you okay? Can you hear me?” but there was no response.

Thirteen rose from the rubble, the horrible cracking of its bones reaching Unita as she dug in the dirt. The flesh across its arms had been torn clean away, the white bone and muscle exposed. Its legs were pinned beneath the rocks, but with its one good arm, Thirteen reached out and dragged itself forward, splitting its skin further and wailing, “Sister!”

Unita stopped moving the rubble and pressed her back into the wall, facing Thirteen as it crawled towards her.

The bone on its broken arm moved – a random act, seemingly in no connection to Thirteen’s crawl. It shunted upwards, the muscle parting. Thirteen’s cries, became sobs of anguish and it began to gnaw at the exposed stump, catching the bone in its teeth and ripping it wholly out. Then as it ground the bone to powder in its powerful maw, a second bone emerged to fill the place of the first; slotting in and attaching itself to the muscle, seconds later the skin crept over the wound, forming into a vast crusted scab.

An overwhelming desire to flee raced up within Unita, mingled with a terrible fear that bubbled in the back of her throat. But there was nowhere to go and she was forced to simply watch as it began to crawl towards her again, a look of fervent desire in its one eye.

Angelo’s lithe dark form emerged behind Thirteen, bending through the narrow gaps in the collapsed tunnel, contorting his body in an impossible manner. Silver claws glittered in the gloom and he struck - so fast Unita couldn’t keep track - ripping at Thirteen’s exposed back, tearing off strips from the beast with ease.

Thirteen twisted around so it faced Angelo, he snatched at the purple cloak, grasping its hem and dragged the Cardinal closer. The air already heavy with dust became thicker, a great weight settled upon Unita’s shoulders and she had the strangest sensation she was wading through soup. The air before her crackled and sparked and with a rush of hot wind Thirteen’s crystal shards released a searing bolt of lightning, brilliant in its intensity that struck Angelo dead-centre in his chest and cast him back into the darkness.

She started after him, and then realised what she was doing. What did Angelo’s life or death mean to her? If he was killed again in these tunnels, fighting a monster he helped to keep imprisoned, then what did she care? He deserved it. She went back to the digging. Dekel was the important one.

She lifted back one large rock and was surprised to see a dirty face staring back at her.

“I knew you would survive,” Dekel said with a grin.

She burst out laughing, part tears, part joy.

They hugged and for a moment Unita didn’t want to let him go.

“That thing, it's still alive!” Dekel said, pulling away from her.

“Yes, only barely, it’s taken a lot of damage, I don’t think it will survive for much longer. Angelo’s turned up and the two are fighting in what’s left of the main cavern.

Dekel nodded in understanding, “Good, maybe they'll kill each other and not bother us anymore.” He looked her in the eye. “Is this what you sensed in the darkness?”

“No.” Unita shook her head and then clambered through the rubble. “What waits beyond, is the . . .” she hesitated, unsure whether Dekel would believe her.

“Go on, “ Dekel encouraged.

“The Gift waits for us. I’m not entirely certain what it’s meant to be, but it lies ahead.”

“Let’s finish this then,” Dekel said, but his voice wavered. For the first time, Unita realised Dekel's arm was broken, hanging listlessly by his side, which added to his already wasted state. It was impossible he should still be alive - letting alone standing. She smiled, to reassure him, choosing not to mention the obvious and stepped past. As she did so, Thirteen’s cries of anguish echoed out from the chambers. She hesitated.

“Come on, Unita,” Dekel warned.

Sighing with frustration, she said. “I can’t.”

“Of course you can, you owe that Cardinal nothing.”

“It’s not the Cardinal, it’s Thirteen - the monster,” she quickly added, when she saw Dekel’s confused stare. “He’s like me, a half-breed, he doesn’t deserve to die like this, and it should be . . .I dunno . . . quick and simple. He shouldn’t die in combat - alone.”

“You’ve finally gone mad,” Dekel hissed. “That thing was bred to fight. Have you thought about how it got muscles wasting away down here? It’s fulfilling its role, probably all it’s ever known.”

“But not what it was born to do,” Unita argued. “It was a mother’s child once. She was murdered trying to escape and her child has been tortured, then transformed into that monstrosity,” she jabbed a finger back at the sounds of Thirteen crashing through the rubble. “Its life has been a tragedy, it won’t die alone and not by the hands of those who imprisoned it.” A fierce determination lit her face. “We’re family,” she reasoned, “in one way closer than the bond I’ve got with my mother. I can’t leave it.”

“Listen, please,” Dekel pleaded, drawing in close to her, “What about me? I need you! I’m not going to last much longer.” He stared down at his body. “I’m dying, you know the scary part? I don’t even feel the pain anymore. There’s a chance I might make it, but not without you.”

“Give me the gun,” Unita said coldly and Dekel's shoulders sagged, the fight falling from him. He handed over the weapon and sank to the floor.

“I’ll . . . I’ll wait here awhile, yeah, rest until you’re back.”

Unita felt powerless to help him, but drawn irresistibly to Thirteen. “I’ll only be a couple of minutes,” she whispered and felt tears roll across her cheeks. “Please, Dekel, give me this time.”

Dekel didn’t respond; his breathing had become shallow and he stared hard at the floor.

Unita crawled back through the rubble and slid into the cavern. It was still partly obscured in dust, but ahead she could hear sounds of battle and occasionally the ground trembled. Grasping the gun for reassurance, she edged forward and into one of the new passages. It was barely big enough for her to fit through and it threaded a precarious path through the partly collapsed cavern. Still listening to the sounds of combat she moved on, until with a sharp bend in the tunnel, the passage opened into what was once the area near to the elevator doors.

Thirteen was lashing out wildly at Angelo, who was little more than a black wraith twisting out of its way. Either ducking beneath or jumping away from the other’s heavy blows. At one time he rolled across Thirteen’s back, in a staggering display of agility. As he moved, Angelo slashed with his claws, until the monster was covered in numerous cuts. A pool of blood had run down Thirteen’s legs and gathered around its feet, making its footing treacherous. Angelo danced back and forth, coming dangerously close to Thirteen’s flailing arms, only to side step at the last moment. He forced Thirteen to overreach, and the results were predictable. Thirteen slipped with a sickening crack of bone.

Angelo closed like a striking snake, sinking his claws into Thirteen’s neck, repeatedly stabbing and gouging in a frenzied orgy of violence. Thirteen squealed like a vast bloated pig and rolled its hands into one massive fist.

Before she realised what she was doing, Unita shouted a warning, but Angelo was too far-gone to either care or understand.

The beast spun and caught Angelo hard across the face, blood erupted from the Cardinal’s mouth and he was sent spinning to the floor. Grunting with maddened pleasure, Thirteen grabbed him and lifting up his still form, slammed the Cardinal with all its considerable strength into the crumbling walls.

Thirteen then thrust Angelo up, so his head struck the cavern roof with an audible crack and brought the body down with such a blow that Unita doubted anybody could have survived.

Sickened, she watched Thirteen turn slowly towards her, clutching the ragged remains of Angelo’s cloak. It lifted the cloak up and shook it vigorously, a look of bewilderment dawning across its face. Its other hand was empty.

Angelo was gone!

“Where…?” Unita whispered, and then noticed a glowing figure clinging to the roof. Angelo hung from the boulders, his silver armour giving him away. His face was a bloody mess and he trembled with the effort, but still his eyes found hers.

“Do what you have to do,” he hissed.

She lifted the gun and fired. The shot punched through Thirteen’s face, ripping out a section of skull. Thirteen stopped short in its tracks and staggered. Soundlessly its jaw opened and closed as if trying to speak. Its one eye stopped its endless rolling and locked with her own.

She wasn’t certain what she saw there: confusion, betrayal, pain, even understanding. But the pupil dilated and Thirteen released one long sigh before collapsing onto the floor.

The gun shook uncontrollably in Unita’s hands and all she wanted to do was drop it, but then Angelo fell from the wall, coughing blood and she gripped the handle harder.

Unita staggered towards him; gun aimed at his head. As she came into his view, Angelo’s eyes narrowed and he tried to rise.

“Don’t,” she hissed, “stay where you are.”

A faint smile flittered across his face. “You’re a rotten shot, and how many bullets do you think you’ve got left?”

“One is all I need.” She pressed the gun against his head and Angelo’s smile faded. “Do you think I can miss from this distance?”

“You couldn’t…”

“Don’t you dare tell me what I can or cannot do! You killed Bobby; you probably killed Nonfather Fletcher. You brought me here and fucked it all up. So don’t you dare tell me anything.”

“Unita, please…”

“Shut up. You killed Bobby.”

“Yes. I didn’t mean to, he jumped in front of me, took a bullet which was meant for me.”

“You put him there, you twisted his mind, you killed him.”

Angelo sighed. “I could argue, but in my heart I know you’re right. I killed him, as surely as I pulled the trigger myself. Should I be punished? Yes, and do you know, I have been punished. I was killed by Iron Maiden and my soul was so weighed down with suffering I fell into what can only be described as Hell. One minute in that realm is a lifetime of pain and suffering. I have paid for my crimes again, and again, in ways you can not possibly begin to imagine. So should I be punished? Then yes. But the question you really want to ask yourself is, should I be forgiven? Because if you can’t forgive me, then go right ahead and pull the trigger, send me back to Damnation, but know this. If you do, if you find it within your heart to kill me in cold blood, then it will taint your soul and in time, you could join me there.”

Her hands shook uncontrollably. “I hate you,” she spat.

“I know,” he lifted up his hands and placed them against the barrel of the gun, “if I were you, I would hate me as well.”

And before she knew it, Unita started to cry. Angelo took the gun away and brought her close to him, where she remained, weeping into his silver armour.


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Comments by other Members

toshi at 12:35 on 12 May 2006  Report this post
Hi Neil

I decided not to read this last night as I suspected it would be too scary to read just before I went to bed. I was right! This was pretty gruesome stuff - you didn't spare us any of the details, did you? Your writing is easily the scariest I read - it is very powerfully written and the descriptions are amazing. I have to say that I was not sorry when Thirteen hit the dust (finally!) I think Unita should have listened to Dekel and got the hell out of there while she had the chance. Anyway it was a really great battle scene. Very absorbing.

Here are just a couple of things I noticed:

so it looked to Unita for one hope-filled moment that it may fall over and die.
"might fall over"?

Thirteen’s answering roar of pain broke the link they had formed, it grasped at the crystal in its face, which now shone with an intensity that hurt Unita’s eyes.
Put a semi colon after "they had formed"?

Ignoring the unfolding drama, Unita said, “I don’t understand?”
"Drama" seemed a bit of an understatement here! I could suggest crisis or maybe something more?

I thought the way Angelo split into three was a great idea.

“Let’s finish this then,” Dekel said, but his voice wavered and for the first time Unita saw his arm was broken and hung listlessly by his side, adding to his already wasted state so it was impossible he should still be alive, letting alone standing.

This did not read quite right. Should it be "...by his side; added to his already wasted state it was impossible he should still be alive, let alone standing."?

He forced Thirteen to overreach, and the results were predicable.
Did you mean predicable or predictable?

I was wondering if you had read Dan Simmons Endymion and sequel as that also is a story based around the catholic church, in the future.(They are both sequels to the Hyperion duet, but there was less about the church in the first two). I suppose there are others. I think Grass by Sheri S Tepper is too, and Philip Pulman's Dark Materials as well. I always find books with religious overtones scarier than books with say just vampires or monsters in them. It brings back memories of watching Omen II as a child and all that scary music playing!

Well I certainly look forward to the next installment (with some trepidation I might add)!

Best wishes

Nelly at 21:43 on 12 May 2006  Report this post
Thanks Toshi for reading through. All your points are valid and I'll do the usual edit to reflect them. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading most of the Authors you mention. I'm ashamed to say I do have the Dark Materials, but have only ever read part one, the other two are gathering dust in a box under the stairs. I understand they have remade Omen, to go out on the - wait for it - 6/6/06.

Thanks again,


Patsy at 22:05 on 14 May 2006  Report this post
Hi Neal,

Been waiting for this one, and it did not disappoint! I liked the fact that Angelo came to save her from 13 -- that was a nice touch. He seems to have learned his lesson from being dead (It's not every day you can say that line!). I liked the changes in his character.

Things to consider:

[quote] Whatever moment she had faded as Thirteen was again wracked with pain. [/quote]
I had to read this several times -- is there a "," missing? Or perhaps reword? Something like: The tenuous connection she'd established faded ...??

[quote] "You can't. That's impossible." .... "Perhaps," he whispered, his face falling into shadow, "I can but try." [/quote]
The section between these lines doesn't feel right to me somehow. Maybe it's what they are saying being too calm in the face of what's going on around them? The dialogue doesn't sit right on my ear. Perhaps take another look at these lines?

[ quote] ...genuine joy at seeing the Jewish boy at least alive,... [/quote]
Would Unita think of Dekel as a boy? I thought she was younger
than he was?

[quote] "Good, maybe the two will kill each other and not bother us anymore." [/quote]
Good. Maybe they'll kill each other...??

[quote] ...adding to his already wasted state so it was impossible he should still be alive, letting along standing. [/quote]
...adding to his already wasted state. It seemed impossible he should still be alive -- let alone standing??

[quote] "Give me the gun," Unita said coldly and Dekel shoulders sagged, [/quote]
...Dekel's shoulders sagged...

[quote] ...I have paid for my crimes again, and again, in ways you can not possible begin to imagine... [/quote]
... can not possibly...

You might try giving 13 a bit more humanity so that we have more sympathy for him? Even after all this time, there must be some little bit of his Mother in him somewhere? No creature/person is all evil, or all good -- it is the degrees in between that make them special and memorable. It would make her leaving the wounded Dekel and returning to finish him off a bit more real if she saw something in him that we could feel sympathy for. A memory of his Mother? A broken locket? A broken toy or scruffy stuffed bear? Something 13 tries to protect when Angelo is attacked, and that Unita gives back to him just before he dies?

Hope it helps :)

Nelly at 13:12 on 15 May 2006  Report this post
Ooh that's a brilliant idea. I don't like the way Thirteen is introduced, only to be killed off in the next chapter. For such a fantastical character, I want more depth to the little time he has. But barely being able to speak does have its narrative drawbacks. I had considered flashbacks, but dismissed them as breaking the flow or action of the chapter.

Something it protects and perhaps clumsily explains to Unita before the crystals force it to attack, is a good concept, thank-you very much. All your other points are valid and shall have an edit to reflect them in.
Glad you're still enjoying it.


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