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American Atheist: #13

by  Nelly

Posted: Monday, July 11, 2005
Word Count: 3921

Unita opened her eyes and immediately wished she hadn’t.

Her head throbbed with such intensity it brought tears to her eyes. And to make matters worse she felt sick.

She had led a life free from the horrors of disease and prided herself on that fact. She considered herself stronger because of it. It could be attributed to her diet and exercise mixed in with the chores of her daily life, but whatever the reason, Unita had stayed clear of the other illnesses that befell children, with only one noticeable exception.

She had contracted a virus in her seventh year that left her bed-ridden for days. It brought a smell of sickness to the farm; a greasy residue clinging to everything she touched. Its foulness pushed through flesh and penetrated bone, reaching to the very core of her being. She slipped in and out of consciousness through most of that time, so the memory was just a hazy wash of day and night. Ashanti was present every time she woke, feeding her and bathing her burning skin. After a week the fever broke and Unita slowly gathered back her strength. Late at night when bathed in sweat and even the bed-sheets hurt, she had vowed to never feel that way again. If there were a magic cure, she would find it.

But here she was, feeling much the same as she did then. She would have cried but the hangover was too much. It was all she could manage just to lie there and wish the world would stop spinning.

Through heavy, puff-shot eyes she studied her surroundings. They were unfamiliar. A large double bed with stiff boards dominated from one corner of the room and the faint smell of plaster hung in the stale air. A pair of thick curtains were drawn against the setting sun, a single ray of light still managing to peek through a gap in their folds. She stared at the soft purple glow dumbly, before her thoughts came tumbling together in a rush.

The sun was setting; Iron Maiden would be at the tower and she had to leave.

Forcing herself to sit upright in bed took more effort than she thought possible. The room bucked, her stomach churned and she clutched at her mouth, understanding in one awful moment, she was going to be sick.

It shot forth between her fingers in a fine yellow spray that splattered onto the bed sheets and dripped onto the floor.

From outside came running footsteps and Behira threw the door open. She took one look at the soiled bed sheets and said. “Right young lady I’ve filled a bath for you. I want you to strip off and soak. Don’t worry about the sick, just drink plenty of water. I placed a jug next to the bath, you’ll feel better with some liquid inside you.”

Unita looked down at the bed sheets, “I’m so sorry,” she mumbled.

“Don’t be, it’s my mothers fault. She can be a wicked woman.”

“No, its fine. I think Zohar was right. I needed to relax, but I didn’t need that last drink,” she swept a hand to the wet sheets, “or this!”

Behira helped her out of bed and Unita found standing was initially difficult, she swayed for a second before finding her balance.

“Thank you,” she said once the giddiness had passed.

Behira gave a genuine smile. “No! Thank you Unita. If half the things Zohar told us are true, then you’ve done much to prove what this family has long been thinking. And not just us.” She went to add more but abruptly changed her mind. “Never mind all that for now, just go and have a wash. You’ll find spare clothes have been laid out on the bathroom door, they should fit. They’re spare from my niece’s wardrobe, you’re about her size and she won’t miss them.”

“Why not?”

“She’s with God. She was caught in a bombing raid, two years ago.” Behira said matter of factly as if talking about the weather, not the death of a family member.

“Oh,” Unita whispered, now feeling utterly dejected.

“Don’t be sad, it’s ancient history. The time for grieving has long passed, now her memories keep her alive.” Behira stripped the bed in one practised move that would have impressed even Ashanti. “Go on,” she said, shooing Unita from the room.

Unita left her to it. Using the walls for support she walked out into the corridor and noticed steam rising from the room opposite. She gingerly peeped around the door to see an old cast iron tub, filled with water and foam. A folded towel sat on a rail and clothes were neatly hanging on the inside of the door. She felt greatly relieved at this slice of luxury.

Stripping off her damp muddy clothes, wrinkling her nose at the smell of her own body she sank into the warm waters, letting the grime from her travels float free. She found the water jug, taking several deep gulps to satisfy her thirst. Allowing this small comfort, safe in the knowledge there was still time to reach the tower.

Wasn’t there?

The small niggle of worry surfaced as she remembered Zohar’s words. Iron Maiden might not be at the tower. Even if she was, then she might not be friendly. She might even kill Unita, now the truth had been revealed. Furiously Unita shrugged away her paranoia. Iron Maiden must be waiting there, she had said as much in their parting words. Unita refused to allow herself the indulgence of self-doubt, not after so much had happened.

Again she dwelled on Zohar’s plan but quickly dismissed it as the ramblings of an old jaded woman. Iron maiden wouldn’t let her wander the streets with no way of getting back…she just wouldn’t.

She smiled. This madcap ride was about to end.


Unita dressed in her new clothes, they were a tight fit but she enjoyed wearing them. Feeling happy with her appearance she left the bathroom and immediately bumped into Dekel who was emerging from an adjourning chamber. He looked embarrassed and oddly she felt the same.

“I’m ready to go,” she announced after an awkward silence descended upon the pair.

Dekel nodded in agreement and asked. “Have you thought anymore on Nanna’s offer?”

“Yes I’m eternally grateful, but I’m going to see Iron Maiden. You can help me in this as much as you want, but I have to go.”

“Fair enough. You won’t get rid of me that easily, I’m along for the whole journey,” he laughed. “No matter where it ends.”

“Thank you.”

Dekel beamed.

Together they walked into the lounge where the rest of the family gathered for the evening meal. Zohar sat in her usual chair at the back of the room, an empty plate on the table before her. She gave a faint smile as Unita came in, but turned her attention to a narrow window and the final glimmers of the setting sun. A seat with a plate of steaming food had been left to one side and Unita guessed it must have been for her.

Behira was busy serving out vegetables. “Eat while you can,” she said sliding the plate forward. “At the least, it’s a long climb to the top of that tower and a longer journey back home.”

Unita laughed and found she was hungry after all. In fact, as she thought it through she was famished. Her stomach gave a growl and she relented, pulling up a chair. Food never tasted so good as it did then. Steamed vegetables with potatoes, which she wolfed down greedily, finding her eyes straying to the plates of others once finished. The family were busy chatting amongst themselves, laughing and joking. Skittish glances were placed her way, and she guessed they were still nervous around her. That was to be expected. She had made a large impact in their lives and caught herself wishing they had never become involved. For all their troubles they were happy. The danger she brought to their doors was too high for her to even consider remaining. They had done enough. Now was the time to leave.

Once the plates had been cleared, Unita stood up, smiling at the group. “You have been more than kind, I don’t deserve your affections.” She began, but Behira cut her off.

“It was nothing,” she blushed, “but I wish you’d reconsider. It’s too dangerous, you may get caught.”

“I have to try.”

“At least come back if she’s not waiting for you.”

“Of course, there’s nowhere else in Rome I’d want to be.” Unita looked around at their upturned faces and managed a smile. “Thank-you.” She looked at Zohar, “for everything.”

Dekel walked to the door and lead her out of the house. As they left, Behira shouted down the stairs after him. “Don’t get yourself into any trouble while your escorting a nice young girl like Unita here.”

Dekel said nothing, but his face went crimson.

Once outside she was surprised at how cool the night had become. The streetlights were broken; their glass bulbs shattered so just the stone pillars were left. In their place the sky was lit with stars, their ghostly illuminance reflecting from the roofs of nearby houses. No clouds gathered once the sun had set and shadows now coated the roads like wet tar.

“Are you sure?” Dekel asked.

“Yes, now stop asking me and help find that tower.“

“Its not difficult to find,“ Dekel said starting off down the road. “It stands out from the neighbourhoods. If you weren’t in such a rush this morning, you’d been able to find your way without too much of a problem.”

“Easy for you to say, but being chased by crowds of hundreds, kind of puts you off, at least direction-wise.”

They shared the joke and Unita was reminded how easy it was to spend time with him.

They left the cracked narrow roads and moved into the more habitable parts of the city. An occasional street lamp would still be operating, shedding perfect circles of white in an otherwise dark world. They saw nobody else. Unita guessed it was the neighbourhood. The Romans feared entering this part of the city and considering the segregation they had forced on the Jews it was small wonder. She was lost in this thought when she walked into the back of Dekel. He had stopped in the middle of the road, his head half cocked as if straining to listen for a sound.

“What is it?“ she asked.

“I don’t know, probably nothing. “ His expression remained the same and Unita started to feel nervous.

“Come on Dekel, what?”

Dekel held up a finger to his mouth, his eyes reflecting an insistence to be still. Unita listened to the night and faintly she heard a strange sound. It was hard to place, it sounded like an animal, a cat whining to be let in, or challenging another whom had strayed too close. It faded and was soon lost amidst the backdrop of the city.

“What was it?” She asked. The fear moved through her belly like a giant snake, constricting around her stomach and starting to squeeze.

Dekel shook his head and tried to relax. “Nothing,” he said, “it was nothing. Just a cat whining about the state of its dinner.” His attempt at humour fell flat, she knew he was deeply troubled. He reached out taking hold of her hand. Unita didn’t mind the contact she found it reassuring. “Come on, let’s get to a more populated area just to make sure.” They set off this time faster than before. Dekel crossed the road, taking another that ran at a right angle from the first. “Short cut,” he explained. “This will lead us into one of the main drags. A number of bars will be opening round about now and it’s usually busy with late night revellers.”

“What are we running from? “Unita asked, hurrying to catch up with his long strides. But Dekel remained quiet.

A soft mewling brought the pair to a complete stop. It came from ahead somewhere at the end of the road. Loud enough to float through the night sending shivers down her spine. It sounded too large to be a cat and it also sounded …familiar.

“God have mercy!” Dekel whispered, heading the other way.

Another deep whine rose from the shadows. This time from the direction in which they had just come. Dekel stopped and it was followed by a sharp hiss.

Something stirred down there that was blacker than the deepest of shadows. From the corner of the road, where the crumbling brick ended and the road turned, something observed them both.

She watched with mounting horror as a gloved hand came into view, its long thin fingers running across the stone, the hand clenched into a fist and a single silver spike slid out from between the knuckles with a faint crack. A purple cloak unfolded from the dark, borne by an unfelt wind, tendrils of the cloth reaching out into the night air, like feelers, searching and testing the way before it. And finally a face emerged, long and black, with wide silver eyes and trunk-like nose.

A Cardinal!

A second claw slid out to join the first and it stepped out before them.

Unita went to run, to bolt the other way, but Dekel gripped her hand fiercely. “No!” he shouted, “there’s another!”

And true to his word, sliding from the shadows came a second Cardinal, its robes dragging across the ground, its rasping breath loud and clear in the night.

“What do they want?” Unita said.

“That should be easy, “ Dekel replied, his fear drying out his mouth so his words came in a barely audible gasp. “They want the American spy who the town has been buzzing about all day. My mistake, I didn’t think they would look for you here, but my description must have matched. They have been waiting ever since.”

“What are we going to do?” The terror was bubbling up her throat.

“I don’t know.”

As the Cardinals neared, one clacked his claws together, while the other came on quietly, its arms outstretched by its sides as if preparing to greet old friends. The air stirred and she caught a faint smell like turned earth in the rain. She began to back against the row of houses, looking to see if there was anyway out when a door opened before them. A man stood there, dressed in his night-gown with an empty bottle in hand.

That way!” Unita shouted running for the door.

The Cardinals gave out long shrieks and pounced after her. But Unita made the doorway first. Dekel dragged the man to one side and thrust the door shut in one swift move.

“Through to the back,” Dekel said. But even as they began to move, the sound of breaking glass told them the Cardinals had gained entrance to the house.

“Quick!” Dekel dragged her down a corridor, throwing over a large wooden bookcase as they passed a closed door. Seconds later the door exploded as a Cardinal came shattering through. It landed heavily into the bookcase roaring in rage.

They came into a kitchen and without slowing went straight out through the back on to a well-kept garden. A high chain fence ran around the parameter, a single gate stood closed at the back.

They ran towards it.

Emerging from the night, a shadow launched itself at the pair. Unita saw it first and pushed Dekel to one side. A mass of taught skin and muscle barrelled passed, missing them by inches. It landed on the lawn and spun around flashing teeth within an animal snarl. Unita scrabbled away and it leapt again before abruptly jerking to a stop. A thick-necked Bull-Mastiff strained against its chain. Muscles bulged as it struggled forward, but the chain was solid enough and the Dog could not cover the remaining distance. It stood before the gate, blocking their escape.

“Find another way,” Dekel said glancing back to the house.

“There isn’t enough time,” Unita said, then felt a chill descend onto the lawn.

From the open backdoor a Cardinal crouched, its mere closeness an icy frost on the warm summer’s night. It dragged its claws against the walls, breaking the plaster so it fell in a fine white line.

The dog stopped barking. Tail dropping, it backed away letting out a fearful whine.

Unita ran towards the gate and the Cardinal raced forwards. She fumbled with the metal bolt and drew it to one side, the gate opened and they thrust themselves through just as the Cardinal slammed into it, forcing the gate shut again with the weight of its body.

For a second Unita lay sprawled on the floor watching the Cardinal shriek its frustrations and smash its way against the metal. Then Dekel was grabbing her and she ran on.

She didn’t look back.

Dekel took her straight into the main road and instantly a barrage of intense lights; sounds and smells assaulted her senses. A number of restaurants were open late, with crowds of mainly young people milling about on the sidewalk. Cars were busy on the roads, the vehicles slowed to a crawl. She stopped, shocked at the sudden change, unsure of whether to join the crowds, but Dekel hadn’t let go of her hand and walked forward. Together they threaded a path through the people, putting distance between themselves and the house. Ten minutes passed in which Unita fully expected to be attacked, but it never came. Ten more minutes and Dekel whispered. “This will curse it, but I think we’ve lost them.”

“I doubt it, they’re here somewhere.”

“Where then?”

Unita shrugged, “On the rooftops, even in the crowds, but close by.”

“I’m not sure, I think we’ve given them the slip I can’t…feel them anymore. Do you know what I mean?”

Unita meet his eyes. “Like an aura, an almost physical manifestation, this time it was fear, because they were hunting, but other times it has been strength. Perhaps they can change it to suit their needs.” He was right though; she couldn’t feel that strange sensation, it was curiously absent.

Dekel broke eye contact to look up sharply. “We’re close to the tower!”

He pointed up and Unita followed his gaze to see a dark column against a now glowing skyline, she felt a surge of hope.

“There’s an alley nearby, “ Dekel was saying, “at the end is a ladder, by some bins…”

Unita cut him off, “I know, it’s how I fell into Rome.”

Dekel arched an eyebrow, “Fell?” he asked quizzically.

“It was misty and the ladder doesn’t properly descend, “she flashed an embarrassed smile, “don’t worry I know my way from here.”

“Doesn’t matter, I’ll wait at the foot of the alley, it you don’t come back in ten minutes then I know Nasargiel took you back to America.”

“Don’t call her that, she’s not an Angel.”

“She’s been modelled on one, just remember she has her roots in religion.”

They came to the alley. Unita recognised it immediately. It ran back twenty feet; she could even see the fallen bins exactly where they had been before. Her hopes soared.

“Thank you Dekel, for everything.”

Dekel tried to smile, but it barely moved his lips. “I wish you would reconsider, this could be dangerous, even life threatening. We should be trying to get you out of the city in another manner. What makes you think she will still be there?”

Unita pushed away her self-doubt. “She hasn’t let me down yet, she didn’t take me all the way to Rome just to leave me here, that would be,” she groped for the word, “what do you religious types say, oh that’s right, it would be evil.” It was a poor joke and neither of them laughed.

“Just be careful, remember I’ll be waiting.”

Unita nodded, then on impulse kissed Dekel quickly on the cheek. He immediately flushed. “I’ll never forget you.” she said, and ran off into the alley.

Dekel watched her go and said, “Nor I you.”


At the end of the alley, the ladder hung suspended in the dark. By standing on the tips of her toes she could just reach the lowest rung, the cold metal feeling comfortably secure in her hands. She took one last look at her surroundings and started the climb. Glad to be free of the city and its weird ways. For Unita it was the equivalent of climbing out of a dark pit, she felt a great weight lift from her shoulders. She was going up in the world both literally and figuratively. As she ascended past the rooftops the sound of Rome grew loud, borne on a favourable wind. Rome lay sprawled out before her, an old drunken whore, decedent and ugly beneath the watery lights and glamour of the streets. Rome really did have many different faces, but when you saw its dark underbelly, all them were false.

As false as the war, as false as religion and even the tenements of her faith in Atheism.

Unita looked back up the ladder and continued her ascent. Would there be one more falseness waiting for her at the top or would there be one more shining truth. Now, as she neared the roof she began to doubt herself, the creeping fear to which she had become accustomed slid into her throat and she felt her mouth dry.

The top of the roof edged nearer and she slowed down, inching over the last rung to sweep the tower roof, searching the darkness for a figure.

At first she saw nothing, the wind up this far was fierce and it stung her eyes, she squinted, frantically searching the shadows, then she saw something. A figure at the opposing end, standing near invisible in the dark.

Was that her?

It had to be. Unita climbed up and jumped onto the stone roof. Her limbs ached and she rubbed at the soreness. “Iron Maiden,” she called, “I’ve come back, I’ve seen the truth you wanted me to see. I’m a believer.”

The figure didn’t move.

“Iron Maiden?” Unita called again, getting closer, “I’m back, I can go home.” Unita started to walk forwards, the fear constricted around her gut and she felt tears springing to her eyes, unbidden and unwanted. Something was wrong she knew it, could sense it, the figure was too small, blending with the shadows in a way the golden woman could not. It almost looked like…

Unita never finished the thought because half way across the tower, the colour of the shadow began to take shape; it was wearing a cloak -a purple cloak.

Unita froze mid-stride and it was then the figure turned, its silver eyes shinning like beacons and its claws clacking away on the stone.

A Cardinal!

“No,” she moaned, backing away. “She would never leave me, she was going to wait. I’ve learnt the truth!”

The Cardinal snickered and advanced, “What truth would that be, American spy,” it cooed.

Unita spun sharply on her heel and found she faced another Cardinal. It grasped hold of her hands and held her tight. “Oh no little one, you get to stay with us, meet the Bishops and tell us everything there is to know about this…Iron Maiden?