CHAPTER 5: THE BLACK SCORPION
I am not weak, thought Mabus.
I am strong, and Hell has made me so.
As he stood on the balcony of the Chamber gazing out at his city he gripped the railing and felt the solid stones beneath his feet. I am solid, he thought. I am durable. I am not a wet lump of tissue and nerve endings bottled in a glass womb, I am free. I am whole. I am strong.
And Hell has made me so.
Mabus turned to Groethuis.
“Forgive me Doctor.” he said “I was somewhere else.”
“Where, if I might be so bold to ask?”
“Out there.” he said, stretching a spindle-like finger out to where the line of the storm broke and blurred the red horizon. “He’s out there waiting for us. Out there is Dis, the infernal city. Pandaemonium, where the devils hold council in golden chambers. Out there is Caina, Antenora, Ptolomea…Out there is Judecca. Out there is the Black Throne. And out there…”
“Out there is a little girl looking for her father.”
He fell silent.
“Do you think she’s still alive, Groethuis?”
“She has a sword. She’s a Temporal Adept, she is not exactly helpless. And she’s resourceful.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“No. I think she’s probably dead.”
“Ah. Ever the pessimist. You’re wrong you know.”
“Am I, sir?”
“You are. Marie Dashonde is not dead. Hers is a greater fate. Besides, can anyone really die in this place?”
“It’s an interesting question. I’ve been giving it some study. Now that we have crossed the threshold it seems that none of us needs food or drink or has any need to create waste. We seem to be immune to age and illness. But we’re not unkillable. These forms we have, I’m not even sure I can call them bodies anymore, can be destroyed. As we have learned during these recent battles.”
“Have the advance teams reported in?”
“We’re meeting sporadic resistance. Nests of Incubi bursting out of the sand. We crush them with little difficulty. Our true adversary is the storm. Did you hear about Cole?”
“Yes. I am glad to hear he survived. Does he know?”
“The message was relayed to him as soon as he reached Camp D. I imagine he will be here very shortly.”
“Send him in the moment he arrives.”
“And have our new friend sit in on the meeting. Out of sight. I want him to hear everything and to see Cole. Get a measure of him. See the size of the boots he has to fill.”
“Master, again I must say…”
“I know. I don’t trust him either. But he is perfectly suited to this work.”
“Why does it sometimes feel that we spend more time worrying about the people on our side than the enemy?” Groethuis asked philosophically.
“I assure you I spend a great deal of time worrying about the enemy. We are not winning, even if it feels like it.”
“I agree. This won’t last. We caught them off guard. It will not happen again. Now that they know we can hurt them, that they can be killed by the New Matter Weaponry, they will be bearing down on us with incredible force. The next few days will tell our chances.”
“No. He won’t send an army. What was his sin, Groethuis? Pride. It was his downfall once before, and shall be now. Creatures he regards as no more than insects have slaughtered his troops and set up camp in his domain. He will not let that pass. He will come to take us himself.”
“Alone? Against an entire army?”
“Yes. His pride will allow nothing less. And he is not being foolhardy. This is a being who gave pause to the great creator himself. He was cast down here not only for his crime, but for the danger he represented. We are about to do battle with a creature more powerful than we can even conceive. And he’s on his way Groethuis. He may well be streaking through the infernal sky as we speak, his great wings burning as he goes.”
“…and can we defeat him, sir?”
“Pride, Groethuis.” said Mabus, gazing out at the desert “Pride shall be his undoing.”
A Sufi stepped onto the balcony and whispered respectfully to Groethuis. Groethuis nodded and dismissed him.
“Cole’s arrived.” he said to Mabus.
“Ah Cole, thou good and faithful servant.” Said Mabus, looking up from his black marble desk as Cole entered the throne room “Good to see you with all your limbs attached. We really must improve the design of those planes, they seem to fall out of the sky like rain.”
“What is this?” said Cole coldly, holding a crumpled piece of paper before his face.
“Well I don’t know.” Said Mabus “Is there something written on it?”
“Then perhaps that could offer some clue. Or have your travails on the battlefield cost you the gift of literacy?”
Cole almost said something, swallowed it. Bit his lip. Closed his eyes. Took a deep breath. He had come close to losing his temper at Mabus. That would have been unwise.
“This…” he said, and his voice was as calm and steady as an autumn lake “…is an order. Signed by you. Calling on all Black Scorpions who are active in the field to be brought in and re-assigned positions in the other three branches.”
“Yes. Is there a problem?”
“No. No, I just, I just want to be clear on something.”
“And that is?”
“You are asking me to dismantle my entire intelligence apparatus. To take the network of spies that has been working undercover in your army, that took years to establish and perfect, that has proved it’s worth time and time again…”
“And I am overflowing with gratitude for their efforts.” Mabus interrupted him “But their time has passed. I no longer need a secret police force watching every move my enemies make.”
“And why do you think that?”
“And why is that so?”
“Because I no longer have enemies in Gomorrah. Or at least, none of consequence. My enemies lie out there.” And he waved his hand in the direction of a window that looked out on the pitiless desert.
“Sir, if I might remind you, we had a major riot against you in this city not a month ago. And you were shot.”
“Both events, I note, that the Black Scorpions were unable to prevent. But in any event that was then. This is now. The war has begun, Cole. My soldiers are no longer restless. And they would not dare attack me now for they know that if I fall, they fall. And I appreciate your frustration.”
Cole looked up a little in surprise at that. Mabus actually sounded like he meant it.
“But the Black Scorpions were never intended to last into the invasion. The situation has changed, and the Scorpions as a whole must change with them. Your men are no longer a police force, they are an army now. Their place is not patrolling the streets of New Gomorrah, but storming the streets of Dis and Pandemonium. How many Red Scorpions were killed in the rioting?”
“Ninety, give or take.”
“How many Greens?”
“How many Blues?”
“All of them.”
“And that is my worry. I need soldiers. I need physicians. I need technicians. The Black Scorpions are to be recalled and retrained in whichever discipline they show the most aptitude in. Is that understood?”
“Yes sir. And I understand your reasoning. But if word gets out that the Black Scorpions are gone, enforcing discipline is going to be a nightmare.”
“Oh.” Said Mabus sounding a little hurt “And I would have thought that the fact that I was up and about and turning people into little piles of dust would be enough to scare them straight.”
“No offence intended, sir.”
“None take. I doubt very much we shall see any problems arise. The war is going well and morale is high. And even if the tide should turn against us, it’s not as if we’re going to see soldiers deserting. Are we Cole?”
There was something in the tone. Cole felt his stomach contract. Did he know?
“No sir. I don’t foresee any desertions.”
“Neither do I. Isn’t that comforting?” said Mabus “You may go.”
Without a word Cole turned on his heel and marched out as quickly as he could without seeming suspicious. He could feel sweat running cold down the back of his neck, down his back and pooling in the heels of his boots. He knows.
Outside the throne room, Isabella leaped out of her skin as he burst out of the door and continued on his way without stopping, leaving her to run after him.
“Cole! Cole wait!”
“We have to leave.”
“Listen to me, we are going back to the apartment, we are packing, and we are getting out of here.”
“But we still haven’t found Joriel.”
“We’re going to have to find him.”
“But we’ve been looking for a month!”
“Then tonight’s got to be our lucky night.”
“And if it’s not?”
“Then it won’t be our lucky night at all.”
And yet as Cole’s brain raced through every possible avenue of escape over and over he couldn’t help feeling that they’d already lost. If Mabus wanted him dead, it was simply a case of thinking the thought. So if he knew that Cole was planning on deserting, why would he not do it? What was he waiting for?
“Poor Cole.” Said Mabus “He used to be such a wonderfully simple machine. Like a spear. You never have to worry about a spear malfunctioning. Because it’s a spear. It’s lethality rests in it’s simplicity. I’m afraid that since the business with the Hangman’s Daughter Cole has become…complicated. His loyalties have become complicated. His mind. His ambitions. It’s so sad. There was a time when I would have looked at him and said “There never was a truer soldier.””
Mabus was silent for a few seconds. When he spoke, the tone was cold and business-like.
“I do not trust you. I want to make that as clear as I can. Do you understand that I can kill you with a thought? Do not speak. Simply nod.”
The figure nodded once.
“Do you understand that I will kill you without hesitation if I believe you are traitorous?”
Again, a single motion of the head.
“Good. Listen carefully. Cole’s network of spies and assassins is being dismantled. I no longer have need of it and I no longer trust him with it. You are to fill the role they now vacate, do you understand? You are to be my angel of death. You will be the thing in the shadows. You will be the reason they fear to speak my name. Do not think this makes you necessary to me. I could do this myself but I have neither the time nor the interest. You are simply a convenience. And tonight we shall announce your existence to this city and this army. You will strike when Cole is in a crowded place. I want witnesses. I want stories and rumours. I want this to be the stuff of folklore. You will strike and you will show them that no one, not Cole, not anyone, no one is safe from me. You will kill Cole and you will make it…dramatic. Nod if you understand.”
A figure stood before his throne as if carved out of shadow. What little light there was fell on the black armour and disappeared like a pebble thrown in a midnight lagoon.
The Black Scorpion nodded, and was gone.