Hell's Maw

Hell's Maw

by James Axler

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781460381250
Publisher: Worldwide Library
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Series: Outlanders Series
Sold by: HARLEQUIN
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 638,771
File size: 671 KB

Read an Excerpt

Located in northern Spain, the city of Zaragoza was alive with color. The large city housed half a million people, and its narrow streets and alleyways were brought to life with music and the sounds of the citizens. Parts of the city had been destroyed and rebuilt over the years, but the oldest landmarks, like the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar—a huge, palace-like cathedral dedicated to Christian faith—and the Aljaferia Palace, had somehow survived, repur-posed, to revel in their second phoenix lives.

Above those ancient towering spires, the sky was turning a rich shade of red as the sun set, painting everything with its pinkish glow and turning the Ebro, the river that bisected the city, into a shimmering orange line.

Two figures were hurrying across the Puente de Piedra, a man and a woman. She seemed eager to cross the bridge of lions, while he was clearly more reluctant.

"Come on, Grant-san," the young woman urged, tugging at the man's hand, "I have no desire to be late." Her name was Shizuka and she was the leader of the Tigers of Heaven, the ruling group of New Edo in the Western Isles of the Pacific. A formidable warrior, Shizuka was a petite woman of Asian extraction, with golden skin and dark eyes with a pleasing upward slant, lips like cherry blossoms and fine dark hair.

Shizuka wore an elegant evening dress in midnight blue. The dress sat high across her neck, leaving her arms bare and reaching to midway down her legs, cinched tightly across her hips and legs to accentuate her figure. The figure beneath was slim and athletic, taut muscles moving in slick motion as she trotted across the bridge on three-inch heels.

The man beside her could not be more at odds with Shizuka's lithe and petite frame. In his midthirties, Grant was a hulking figure of a man, six-foot-four inches tall, all corded muscle without an ounce of fat. His skin was a rich mahogany, his head shaved, and he sported a gunslinger's mustache. He wore a well-cut suit with blazer jacket in a shimmering gray-silk weave. Beneath the jacket he wore a wine-dark shirt and a black bow tie that, despite his best efforts not to, he could not help adjusting as they hurried across the bridge that crossed the River Ebro. Grant was an ex-Magistrate, an enforcer of baronial law, from the US settlement of Cobaltville. In recent years he had traded that role for a position with the Cerberus organization, a group dedicated to the safety of humankind, defending it from alien threats and other terrors that had been caused by extraterrestrial intervention or as fallout from the alien barons' schemes to rule the world.

"Why should we hurry, Shizuka?" Grant asked. His voice was a rumble like distant thunder, but there was a tenderness there that spoke of his feelings for his breath-takingly beautiful companion. "This is our chance to relax. So slow down, enjoy the sights. A place this beautiful needs time to be admired."

Grant had been with Shizuka for several years, though they had seemed to have little time to relax and enjoy one another's company in all the time that they had been together. This visit here to Zaragoza was Grant's attempt to change that, a moment's quiet in the ongoing battle against alien incursion.

Shizuka had to admit that it was hard to argue with her lover's point. She slowed down, admiring the view from the bridge as they approached the west bank. The city of Zaragoza had suffered a little at the hands of the nuclear devastation that had racked the Western hemisphere, but much of the city had survived, and what had not had been sympathetically rebuilt over the two centuries since that awful nuclear exchange. There was a palpable sense of age to the place, that tranquil beauty that only old buildings—and old stone—exhibited. The Puente de Piedra was an ancient stone bridge that crossed the Ebro in the center of the city. Two decorative bronze lions had been placed atop pillars at either end of the bridge—four in all—guarding the crossing and the travelers who used it. Making the crossing to the west side, one could see the towering, ornate turrets of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar to the right, a beautiful palace that looked something like an upturned table with its exquisite carved legs thrust up into the sky. To the left stood the rich redbrick building that housed artifacts from the Roman era, and towering behind this was the ornate spire of La Seo Cathedral, its white brickwork recolored in a luminous strawberry red as the sun set behind it. Trees lined the wide avenue that ran alongside the riverbank, obscuring the towering gray-brown structures of ornate design that looked out across the water. Wheeled wags hurried to and fro, transporting locals and visitors to destinations amid the city's bustling nightlife.

"You continue to surprise me, Grant-san," Shizuka said as she took in the magnificent view.

"This is why we came here," Grant said, indicating the panorama that stretched out all around them. "The clean air, the sunlight on the water—I like to believe it's all been put here just for us."

"Oh, Grant," Shizuka whispered, turning back to him and gazing longingly into his eyes. "I forget how you can make me melt within."

For a moment Grant looked regretful. "Easy to forget," he admitted. "I don't make enough time for 'us' sometimes…"

Before he could say anything further, Shizuka placed her index finger against Grant's lips. "Because you are too busy saving people's lives, my brave hero," she reminded him, "and there can be no shame in taking that choice. A weaker man than you would turn his back on his obligations."

"Especially when there's a hottie waiting at home for him," Grant said, a broad smile appearing across his face as he admired his lover. But the smile faltered when he saw Shizuka's flawless brow furrow in uncertainty. "All right, all right," Grant said, holding his hands up as if in surrender, "so maybe I shouldn't have called you a hottie. You're a capable, vibrant woman who…who knows what she wants and…and."

"Go on," Shizuka encouraged, an air of challenge in her voice.

"And…intelligent, beautiful and wise," Grant finished, an uncertain note of hope in his tone.

Shizuka crossed her arms over her chest and nodded. "Hai. Quite true," she agreed. "However, that was not what caused me to question your statement, Grant-san, because I am a hottie. Rather, when have you ever known this hottie to stay at home waiting for her man?"

Grant looked suitably chastised. "You have a point."

Shizuka raised Grant's left arm then and twirled beneath it until she was wrapped in his grip, ready to walk beside him across the bridge. "We both have busy lives, Grant-san," she reminded him. "You with Cerberus, me with my obligations to the Tigers of Heaven. There is no shame in our choices, nor in shouldering the responsibilities we have both been tasked to endure. However, today is not about that. This night, this week—it is all for us, with no buzzing Commtacts or pleading advisers."

"I never had an adviser," Grant stated as they strode arm in arm across the vast stone bridge.

"And I have never had a Commtact," Shizuka replied, whip-fast.

The Commtact to which Shizuka referred was a remarkable tool that Grant and his fellow Cerberus operatives relied upon for global communications. It was a small radio device that was embedded beneath the skin of all Cerberus field personnel, including Grant. The subdermal devices were top-of-the-line units, the designs for which had been discovered among the artifacts in Redoubt Yankee several years before by the Cerberus rebels.

Commtacts featured sensor circuitry incorporating an analog-to-digital voice encoder that was embedded in a subject's mastoid bone. As well as radio communications, the Commtacts could function as a translation device, operating in real time. Once the pintels made contact, transmissions were funneled directly to the user's auditory canals through the skull casing, vibrating the ear canal to create sound. This facility had the additional perk of being able to pick up and enhance any subvocalization made by the user, which meant that it was unnecessary to speak aloud to utilize the transmission function.

Broadcasts from the unit were patched through the Keyhole communications satellite, or Comsat, and then relayed to the Cerberus redoubt headquarters in Montana. Thanks to the nature of the vibration system used by the Commtact, if a user went completely deaf they would still, in theory, be able to hear, in a fashion, courtesy of the Commtact device.

"Anyway, you promised me a romantic evening of dinner and dancing," Shizuka reminded Grant.

"The evening's barely begun," Grant told her, pulling the modern-day samurai a little closer as they walked past the lion-topped columns at the end of the bridge.

The pair had arrived just a few hours before, booking into a grand, family-run hotel after traveling via interphaser. Based on an alien design, the interphaser could tap quantum pathways and move people through space to specific locations instantaneously. The technology was limited by certain esoteric factors, the full gamut of which had yet to be cataloged, but what was known was that the interphaser was reliant on an ancient web of powerful, hidden lines called parallax points that stretched across the globe and beyond. This network followed old ley lines and formed a powerful technology so far beyond ancient human comprehension as to appear magical. Though fixed, the interphaser's destination points were often located in temples, graveyards or similar sites of religious significance. These sites had frequently emerged around the interphaser's use, ancient man sensing the incredible power that was being tapped for such instantaneous travel. Cerberus personnel's access to an operational interphaser had taken many months of trial and error to achieve.

This time, the quantum jump had brought Grant and Shizuka close to an ancient church, more ruin than building now, located in the middle of a dusty, overgrown graveyard on the east bank, their arrival unseen. From there, the couple had made their way to the luxurious rooms in which they would be staying. The rooms were typically Spanish, painted in light colors to reflect the heat and sparsely decorated to leave them uncluttered. The bed featured a brass frame shined to look like gold in the fierce sunlight that blasted through the open window of the balcony, and a complimentary bottle of wine had been left cooling in an ice bucket for their arrival. At reception, Grant had deftly navigated the questions about how their trip had been and when they had arrived; the interphaser was a method of travel exclusive to the Cerberus organization and not something he wanted to advertise.

The midday heat of the Spanish sun was enough to knock both of them out, however, so instead of exploring the city Grant and Shizuka had spent a restful few hours just catching up with each other, tracing the familiar curves of one another's bodies before indulging in a late-afternoon swim in the hotel's pool. Now, at a little before 8:00 p.m., the pair made their way toward their destination, a small café that became a restaurant when the sun set.

As the chill of the approaching night began to make itself felt, Grant and Shizuka strolled past a Roman theater, a series of stepped levels organized around a semicircle where ancient actors had once performed. Now it was a little tribute to those long-forgotten days, where only the occasional play might still be performed for a specific celebration or anniversary.

The sky had turned a pleasing shade of indigo when they found the restaurant, Shizuka still aggrieved that they were late. The owner—a large-bellied, red-faced man with a graying mustache and ragged, curly hair—did not mind their tardiness. It seemed that that was very much the culture of this city. "Time," he told them in ebullient Spanish, "is whatever you make it, and you may make of that what you will."

Inside, the restaurant was softly lit with candlelit tables and floor-length windows that were open along a side that faced into an alleyway to allow a through breeze to keep the place cool. As they were shown to their table, Grant squeezed Shizuka's hand, and she looked up at him. He said nothing, but his look seemed to say, Look at this place. Look at all the wonderful things out here for us to enjoy. It was a world away from the one they knew.

And so they ate, unaware of what was occurring barely a block away.

After food came dancing. Grant jokingly tried to swear off, claiming he was too full of paella to move, but Shi-zuka shot him a look that could leave no doubt as to why she was the ultimate authority in New Edo.

"You will dance and you will enjoy it," she said.

"I will dance and you will enjoy it," Grant corrected with a mischievous, boyish grin.

They made their way down the alleyway that ran beside the restaurant, passing parked vehicles and other couples enjoying the city's nightlife. Spain was a country of night people, the heat of the day too fierce to enjoy. Now the burning heat had turned to a refreshing night breeze, and Shizuka rubbed her bare arms as they crossed a junction and made their way toward the grand hotel that was their destination.

From outside, the grand, four-story building was awash with lights, its windows burning brightly in the darkness.

"There's a dance hall inside," Grant explained. "I hear it can be quite an experience."

Shizuka smiled as she looked up at her taller companion, her face alive with delight.

Even from here, a dozen yards from the steps that led to the open front doors, they could hear the strains of a band, acoustic guitars rushing through some local number at furious speed, maracas click-clacking to keep time as the tune hurtled toward its finale, a blur of tumbling notes and riffs.

Grant and Shizuka hurried up the steps, a spring in Shi-zuka's step as she led her lover through the lobby toward the grand ballroom, which dominated the hotel's ground floor. Grant stopped momentarily to tip the doorman before dashing after Shizuka as she reached for the double doors into the ballroom itself, the strains of a flamenco emanating loudly from within.

Grant reached for Shizuka, wrapping one muscular arm around her and pulling her close as she pulled one door open. "I love you," he said as he brought Shizuka's face close to his own.

"I love you, too, my bravest one," Shizuka told him before kissing him on the lips.

Then the pair turned back to the doors that were swinging open where Shizuka had pulled their handles. The hurtling notes of the furious flamenco became suddenly louder, twin guitars racing through notes as if trying to outpace one another, the maracas chattering like an insect swarm, a woman's voice melodically reciting in a foreign tongue. But what lay beyond was enough to stop the two warriors in their tracks.

The ballroom was vast with an ornate ceiling and richly decorated walls, each carving lit by a flickering candle or the low, shaded light of a bulb. To one corner, the band was playing, four men in dinner jackets and a female singer with luxurious, dark hair tied up tight to her head with a flower clipped there and wearing a wispy dress the rich red of rose petals.

But no one was dancing. Instead, perhaps a dozen couples, dressed in their most beautiful clothes—the women's dresses cut to accentuate their curves, the men's suits cut to hide their own—were hanging from the ceiling in rows, each couple lined up together, two dozen nooses wrapped around two dozen necks, their feet swaying a few feet above the perfectly sprung wooden floor.

Grant and Shizuka stared at the scene in absolute horror. And suddenly a city of half a million people felt very, very empty.

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