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Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Thriller excerpt:
Master of Uncertainty
by Richard L. Noble
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
The infant screamed from within the tiny coffin.
The sound was so desperate, even the trees seemed to shudder, losing more of their leaves to a singular, almost life-like wind that picked up suddenly. This current of air morphed somehow and grabbed the newborn’s wail, protecting and nurturing it in the eddies of the skies. Soon a great chorus of a storm rose up from behind to amplify and then next to drown out the fragile sound, concealing it as though in a blanket, in low grumbles of thunder.
It was three middle-aged professors that had first heard the call and who were now frantic in their search beyond the school’s grounds for the crying that had miraculously carried unexpected distances to reach them. The oldest of the three stopped to listen and cocked his head to the side, straining to gauge direction and distance. He turned his portly frame to his two companions to shout over the nearly horizontal rain. “We need to hurry,” he cried. “It’s coming from there.”
“The cemetery?” asked his dark-haired colleague.
“Lord, I hope not,” the first said, unsuccessfully wiping rain from his brow with the muddied sleeve of a raincoat that only minutes before had been a crisp, bright yellow. “If so, we might be too late.”
“Too late for what?” a third academic panted as he caught up. “Why are we even out here?” Barely able to keep his balance climbing the muddy hill, he had to press down on his knee with every step. “We’re not trained for this. We should go back to the school and get help. Carl or Philip would be much…”
“There’s no time-,” the oldest interrupted, glancing back down the dirt trail that now ran like a river toward the centuries-old school. All the leaded windows were dark, confirming that no one else had heard the call. “–if it is what we think.”
“It can’t be,” the dark-haired one said, “The storm would have drowned it out. It has to be a radio. Or a machine.”
Just as the words finished leaving his mouth, as if summoned, a great web of bolts in the clouds flashed to illuminate the metal gate to the graveyard.
For a few brief seconds they huddled closer to one another before the third, tallest companion threw his arms in the air. “If we’re doing this, let’s get it done. I have exams to grade and students to…” The sounds of his voice trailed away as he went to the spiked portal and swung it open with a pitiful screech.
“Should have grabbed a flashlight,” the dark-haired one muttered before following.
“No time,” the oldest said as he caught up to them both standing before a weathered tombstone, apparently knocked over in the squall.
“You can’t be serious?” the tallest asked, shivering as the horror dawned on him. “Buried? Impossible.”
Suddenly, shimmering movements in the mud around the toppled headstone caught their eyes. They jumped back when they realized three giant snakes, thick and many feet long, were coiling in upon themselves as if marking the borders of a triangle. Their tongues flickered lazily in the downpour.
“Dear God!” the tallest and thinnest said. “Snakes!? Here?”
“Death Adders,” the second breathed, hugging his raincoat tighter.
“Bigger than usual,” the oldest said, “but definitely adders.”
“They’re native only to Australia.” The thin one raised his voice as the deluge worsened. “They shouldn’t be able to survive in this cold.”
“Besides, snakes hate rain. They’re cold-blooded, they–” His companion moved toward the serpents. “Careful, they’re extremely poisonous.”
The second man faltered. “How poisonous?”
“One of the most in the–”
The slicing, pitiful cry pierced the night again–the sound that had lured them into the foul weather.
“Who would do something like this?”
“Some sick devil.”
“Wait, there in the middle,” the second rattled through clenched teeth while his finger danced toward the headstone. “See it?”
“Yes, something’s buried there.” The oldest stretched his neck and wiped at his glasses with a sleeve. “I see an edge in the ground.”
“That’s where the sound is coming from, but how do we get past them?”
The snakes, acting as if they heard, suddenly softened and moved aside. Their fully extended bodies were sluggish and rippling while creating an opening for the professors to approach.
“Unbelievable,” they all said together, crossing themselves in unison.
The oldest took a faltering step and as he advanced, the adders continued to retreat as if giving their permission to approach. “I don’t know how or why,” he said, turning back to his companions, “but I think we’re safe.” His eyes were suddenly haggard, sullen, rheumy.
The other two inched closer too, but stayed wary, glancing at the reptiles. The oldest dropped to his knees and scraped at the wet earth to reveal a stone sarcophagus. “Watch the snakes,” he called back, “while I open this.” His arthritic fingers gripped hard on the lid of the chest, his muscles straining at the weight, slipping from the wetness.
“Need help?” the tallest asked, bending forward, but not too far, his eyes darting to the slithering creatures and their vigil only a few feet away.
“I think,” he grunted, “I’ve almost…got it.”
The stone lid raised enough to scrape off and land in the mud with a wet thud. Inside, nestled in a bundle of straw, was a baby with a ring on a leather cord around its neck.
It was now silent.
* * * * *
At the same time, half-way around the world, another man’s every step disappeared into two feet of white powder. The blasting winds of the frigid terrain, though, quickly obliterated the sunken holes as if nature wanted no life here, not even its impressions.
He too, searched for something.
All around him, in every direction, there was nothing but pasty drifting plains, reddened by the sun dangling at the edge of the horizon as if pressed by the sky to disappear forever. He knew he should have brought warmer clothing, but he had been too eager, too quick to find out about the boy. Besides, the world itself had nagged at him suddenly to come here.
Forced to abandon his shoes miles ago, frostbite had swelled his feet to darkened, purple pineapples. They would surely need to be amputated when he got back to Rome.
Such a nuisance, he thought.
The traveler was no longer careful with each step because he knew he was close. He could feel that the lair was nearby so he no longer bothered to tuck his blue-tinged hands beneath his armpits to keep them warm. Instead, they dangled with every step, plunging carelessly into the snow, coming out like white-frosted mitts, becoming as black as his feet, just as frostbitten, the physical sense of touch in them long gone.
He didn’t relish the pain he would endure when they warmed back up–the shattered cells of his skin and muscles would be like microscopic glass daggers cutting at the now fractured nerve endings. If he could find the place soon, perhaps he could still save his arms and legs.
“This damn body, so frail,” he mumbled as he stopped to scan and get his bearings. It had been many years since he’d been here last, the birthplace of the Aryans–the superhumans who had retreated to this frozen landscape after being defeated during the Second World War.
Now they waited patiently until summoned to fight again.
It became clear to the traveler that there were no points of reference here. The shifting environment changing minute by minute let alone since he’d last traveled here in 1935. He knew relocating the subterranean temple would be difficult–part of the reason it lingered in human mythos and was never discovered.
“Hyperborea,” he breathed as if willing it to be near him.
The sun would be setting soon and he didn’t want to have to search in the dark for the secret sanctuary built long before humans roamed this Earth. He was too anxious to wait. Besides, those damn stars grated on him–sleeping under them–clear and festive as they twinkled, reminding him how alone he was on this planet…
Wait, he thought. A rumbling.
He cocked his head at it. He had been too preoccupied to notice that indiscernible thrum that he knew to look for. He twisted his extended arms out in front of himself as if dowsing for the sensation that belonged to the crystals themselves, pulsing in their place, calling out as they always did.
The slightest taste of a smile brushed against his lips. Not far now. He only had to find–ah, there it was. A depression in the snow.
Using his bare hands, he clawed at the many layers, some soft and fresh, some hard as concrete, packed by time. Hours later, the sun finally gone for its winter hibernation, he carved out a stone door with a black, faintly luminescent swastika emblazoned in its center.
The swastika instantly brought back fond memories of glory.
He grimaced as he remembered his failures, recalling that he had been too overzealous, too brazen that his former prodigy was the One. He was sure that he would fulfill the prophecy, he had all the qualities–charisma, adept with the use of Vril, willing to torture and execute without thought or remorse–except one.
How could he have been so wrong?
The explorer turned a levered handle and the door swung inward. He cursed as a patch of skin tore away from his palm with a sound like pulled Velcro as it stuck to the metal . With a final jerk, the flap ripped free, dangling from the hardware, the gash exposing muscle beneath, blood too frozen to flow.
Because of that one costly mistake with his student, it all ended, he thought to himself. This time he had to be sure. He had to be cautious. The Cardinal’s new boy, he looked so promising, but looks were oftentimes deceiving. No, he wouldn’t let thousands of years of work be for naught because he was eager. He’d waited this long.
Stepping through the doorway, the crashing winds abated. The subzero cold still attacked him, though he didn’t really care. At least he was here–
As he traversed the place of worship that he knew so well, he contemplated lighting a candle to find his way before getting the generators running. No, he would be fine in the dark. He enjoyed the dark.
And it wasn’t until after passing through a maze of countless rooms and passages, arriving at his destination, that the traveler finally decided that he wanted to see this place with his human eyes. He brought match to wick and the séance chamber flickered to life.
It was so–untouched, he thought. Exactly as he had left it over sixty years ago. No dust, no movement, the cold hindering even the idea of decay. Adorning the yellow plaster walls and rough-hewn table were numerous banners emblazoned with their beloved symbols–the swastika, the sig rune, and the sonnenrad–each of them all-important to the Hierarchy and the Lord of Light.
Beyond the table was the door to his private laboratory and as he walked toward it, a spring in his gait hinted at a joviality to his demeanor, uncommon for him. Not that he was incapable of happiness–he just didn’t quite understand its significance or appeal. This was the closest he could ever come.
In the center of the portal, he flattened his hand into an impression which, as swollen as it was, had still obviously been formed to match his own. The explorer’s shoulders lifted when he heard the click that meant the mechanism still worked after all these years–the sound only his hand could create–and the portal swung open to where he had created the master race. Where, after thousands of years, and countless mistakes, his labors had come to fruition.
He inhaled and remarked how after all this time, the smells still draped the room–boiled bodily fluids, scorched organs, embalming liquids. And there was that something else, driving him to near-frenzy–
The stench of fear.
The participants–he liked to call them that–they had all been afraid. Every single one. Without fail. Perhaps they collapsed under torture at differing times, but they always succumbed whether from the mere mention of the knife or the actual sawing and hacking of their limbs.
Yes, they had always cried out.
The traveler stepped down into his laboratory and lit more candles–if it wasn’t for these damned eyes, he thought. How he couldn’t wait to be free–when the Lord of Light ruled this Universe.
He retrieved a pair of pincers from the wall and scraped a blackened fingernail along its edge, closing his eyes, breathing deep as bits of his last victim caught under his nail. He set it down. No, he wasn’t here to reminisce. The boy, he reminded himself. That’s why he was here. The Cardinal’s boy.
From the center of the workbench, he cradled the object they had unearthed in the Second World War. He wished he could tune in with it the way the Prophesied One was supposed to be able to–its melody almost perceptible to him. He knew its full power would be magnificent, especially when both were brought together. He acknowledged that his disciple hadn’t truly failed. At least he had delivered them this.
The man carefully wrapped the object in green metal foil before placing it in the knapsack lying next to it. If what he suspected of the boy was true, they would need this soon. He would bring it back with him and then they would search in earnest for its counterpart.
From an ebony cabinet imbued with an unnatural polish like wet obsidian, he withdrew a square mirror and set it in a stand on his desk. In moments, the mirror took on new form–a shimmering mercurial plate–like viscous silver. A crackling hum filled his human ears as the liquid metal contoured into the vague outline of a face lacking any substantive details but hinting at masculinity. When a mouth moved, a thunderous voice reverberated throughout the chamber as if harmonizing with itself.
“YOU HAVE COME. GOOD.”
“Master?” The traveler bowed his head. He hadn’t expected the Lord of Light to be waiting for him. “The Cardinal has been training a boy.”
“I FEEL A NEW PRESENCE IN YOUR WORLD.”
“PERHAPS. PERHAPS NOT. I AM INTRIGUED. THIS SOUL IS POWERFUL ENOUGH TO HAVE STRUCK ME HERE.”
“The crystals will lead me to him?”
“YES. AND WHEN YOU FIND HIM WATCH HIM. TEST HIM. FIND OUT WHAT HE IS. THIS IS MOST UNEXPECTED.”
“Then the Cardinal’s Italian boy, he isn’t the One?”
“I KNOW ONLY THAT OUR CHAMPION HAS FINALLY ARRIVED, THOUGH YOU MUST DETERMINE WHO THAT MIGHT BE. REGARDLESS, YOU WILL MAKE THE CARDINAL THE THIRTEENTH PIUS.”
“So it is time? We are ready?” He would have liked to have been giddy, but not in front of the Lord of Light, even if he knew how.
“WITH THE THIRTEENTH YOU CAN TRULY MANIPULATE THE HIERARCHY AND THE SECOND GUARDIAN WILL SOON FALL. HE AND HIS MALAKIM WILL HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO COME OUT OF HIDING TO FACE HIS BROTHER.”
He bowed his head. “I will do as you command.”
“GOOD. OUR VICTORY HINGES ON YOU.”
“I will not fail.”
“NO, YOU WILL NOT.”
The sheet of liquid metallic glass went placid then, resuming its mirror-like state, leaving in its wake a lingering reverberation before going stiff.
The explorer was noticeably bothered. There were two out there in the world? He hadn’t expected this. It had taken him months to get here for this cryptic, short conversation?
Shaking his head, clearing his thoughts, he focused on what the Lord of Light had commanded of him. He sat down at the desk to write the letter that would ordain the Cardinal, the thirteenth Pius. The twelve before had been experiments, shadows of this culmination of leadership. The thirteenth would be the Hierarchy’s pinnacle achievement. He had been all but ready to bestow the thirteenth in the 40’s, but their failures saw an end to that.
Finishing the letter, he stamped his sigil into melted wax. Below it, he began to sign Dietrich Eckart–but then reeled back his bloated, bruise-colored hand. He had given up that name when he faked his own death in 1923 to further the Nazi cause without hindrance.
“Fool,” he sneered. “You have a new name now.”
For a moment, his previous name begged him to lament how his greatest student could have been the Prophesied, could have ruled the world. But ultimately his disciple had failed him, had failed them all.
For shame. Such talent, now gone from this world. The man pressed his pen back onto the document and signed the new name to go with his new body–Clementi Boole.
He glanced at the clock on the nightstand. It was three in the morning and it was time. Everyone would be asleep. He exhaled, sat up and rubbed a hand on top of his buzz-shaven head, his calluses catching on jet-black stubble.
Here he was, finally in New York with his dreams laid out before him, yet he still couldn’t shake that sense of unease that he was the fish about to nibble on the delicious hook. He’d been brought to New York after his graduation to be further tested–
Or so they had said.
Chewing a fingernail, Mark wondered if he should really go sneaking about. St. Peter’s was the seat of the most prominent Catholic diocese in the nation and its Records Room was rumored to house secret files on the Kennedy Assassination and Roswell and Area 51. He couldn’t simply go in there, besides, if he was caught, he’d lose forever this opportunity. Here he could make a difference. Here he could be somebody. Did he want to throw all of that away?
Setting a robe around his shoulders, he winced as his bare feet touched cold stone and he walked to his sink to question himself in its mirror–
In the center of his boyishly handsome face, his sapphire eyes were bright and intelligent, but with a softness at their edges that told they were still untested, unproven. It was as if he had the potential to do incredible things but lacked the wisdom to know how. He leaned in closer, groaned when he saw that they were also weighed down by a curiosity that prodded him to do what he was about to.
He turned away, embarrassed by his own reflection, to glance down to the ring he always wore on his left hand. He thought it was lead when he bit into it. Couldn’t be though, since he never removed it and his lead levels were normal–the lab technicians downstairs had tested for that too. Father Gregory had said the ring was from his parents–his only connection to them–parents he’d never met.
Mark pulled down on his cheeks, stretched down his eyes. Unfortunately, he could no longer tolerate the strange experiments they were conducting on him–that’s why he had to do this. He splashed water on his neck, wiped his hands on a washcloth, took a breath and sneaked from his quarters to the hallway beyond.
St. Peter’s Cathedral in central Manhattan with its gothic architecture had made Mark uneasy since he and Father Gregory had first arrived a month prior, but even more so since the arrival of the new Administrator, Clementi Boole. Mark hadn’t met the man yet, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to.
It felt like–dread–hung in the church now.
Mark was aware of something newly macabre about the place, as if he was being watched all the time, not by the clergy, but by the building itself. The cathedral had become cold and dreary all of a sudden, colorless, as if haunting specters had taken up residence. Even the normally spiritual torchieres were now casting demonic shadows along the soot-draped corridors.
He shivered, told himself it was only in his head, but he broke into a run anyway until he reached the electronic keypad. He hastened to check both directions. Hurry, he told himself, swallowing as he stared at the glowing numbers.
It hadn’t been particularly difficult for Mark to figure out the code. Only four numbers were covered in fingerprints and stains–9, 8, 5 and 1. And after a few hours of research, putting together all the clues, he learned that construction on St. Peter’s Cathedral began in 1859.
With shaking fingers, Mark reached out to punch in the digits, but then reeled his hand back. He noted the inscription above the door:
At its portals, the world seems left behind and every advancing step brings Heaven nearer and deepens the soul’s union with Divinity.
What would God think of this?
“God,” he said to himself. “I have no choice.” He took a breath, steeled himself to jab in the sequence. With the final beep there was a soft rush at the lock.
Stepping inside, he saw books along one wall and a boxy, mahogany desk sitting squarely in the center of a Persian rug and a third wall housed filing cabinets from floor to ceiling. A tapestry covered most of its opposite.
He scanned the filing cabinets he’d come for. Opened one–A-Ammerman–rifled through to–there it was. A fat folder–the biggest in the drawer–on him, Mark Acanth. As he spread it on the desk, he hadn’t realized he was so important.
Since he and his mentor, Father Gregory, had arrived from Saint Francis School for Boys in Vermont, things had seemed a bit suspicious. He truly believed a conspiracy lurked in his latest life in New York, especially when he was more likely to see white lab coats and clipboards than cassocks and bibles. Perhaps this folder was proof.
Why would a cathedral have a medical laboratory anyway?
There were pictures of him taken every year since he was born. School and what looked like surveillance photos. A piece of his hair was taped to the binder. There was a close-up shot of the splotchy birthmark around his navel, a form of the vascular skin disease, port-wine stain. He fingered it beneath his shirt as he read, self-conscious that his namesake was being so scrutinized.
He found lists of his grades, his exam scores, his teachers. His aptitudes, his proficiencies. There were charts and graphs with notes and questions. Someone had made a note, concerned he was learning too fast, that everything was too easy for him.
Jesus, he thought, he was an experiment.
He found a piece of paper with a hand drawing of a sideways eight within a circle. Then he found a fact sheet with three headings: parents, birth date and place of birth. All three were blank. The pain bit instantly and he was reminded again that he had no identity. That was what he’d come to find. A name. Maybe an address. Some connection to his past.
Yet, now he was puzzled at how extensive this file was, but no information on his parents or his birth. Something must have happened. Murdered? A cover-up? A fact sheet stated how much he weighed each year, how much he grew over time. Somebody was going through a lot of trouble to have monitored him for his entire life.
Reading on, it said he was an introvert. He had social anxiety. That he liked apples and had no friends, never met a girl. That he had never left Saint Francis School for Boys before coming here. He aspired to become a priest. That last entry was circled with a giant red exclamation point next to it.
They knew more about him than he did.
Within his folder, there were three subfolders, one with Father Gregory’s name and two others–Rajeev Umashankar and Spencer Freeman. All three had been teachers at Mark’s former school. And then, on the last page, written in an edgy, angular script that hinted at the author’s frustration, ink pooled at the corners of the letters–
IS HE THE ONE?
Mark slammed the file closed. Let out a ragged breath before putting it back in the cabinet. Wiping his hands on his pants, he realized that he was more confused than he had been before. He should’ve left things as they were. He mimicked his mentor’s Irish accent, recited one of his favorite quotes–
“In much wisdom is much grief–and he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow.”
As he turned to leave, Mark found himself turning toward the tapestry. It nagged at him, and he couldn’t help staring at the scene of a church nestled amongst gnarled trees. He leaned in. There was a dark-robed figure there with a face hidden in shadow, pointing to the moon at the edge of the fabric.
Was it pointing it at the moon, he wondered or something behind it?
He pulled back a corner of the weaving and barely made out a slight deviation in the wall as if there might be a doorway behind. He traced a finger along an edge.
“Where is the catch?” he breathed..
He let the wall-covering fall back into place, to slide and pivot books. He ran his hands up the legs and underneath the desk. He swept inside drawers, moved the lamp, turned knobs. Yanking open the filing drawers, he traced the insides with stretched fingers.
Maybe there wasn’t a secret door at all. Could be where a painting hung at one time or a foundation was repaired.
“You’re doing this to yourself,” he whispered. “You want there to be something special in your life.”
Then Mark saw it. The silver candelabrum that had been converted to hold an electric bulb had fingerprints all over its base and burned onto the sepia-colored glass. With a careful twist of the sconce, the murmur of moving stone stewed from behind the wall-hanging. He shook his head with a flat smile.
When the secret wall opened entirely what he found was nothing more than a closeted bookshelf and another doorway which he inched open to a dark tunnel that ran straight well beyond the reach of the room’s light source. His eyes flicked to either side and noticed that there was no light switch.
He’d explore this later, he thought. When he had more time. He wasn’t afraid, he told himself. Besides there was no light and he didn’t have a flashlight.
He turned instead to examine the books. He found one on ancient Assyrian catacombs, another on medieval weapons and torture devices. He grimaced. Who would read these? Why were they hidden behind a secret door, he wondered.
Soon he came across a jet-black tome with no title. Turning it over he found no words or pictures, nothing but again that strange circle circumscribing a sideways number eight embossed in the center of its cover, drawn in a coppery red. This symbol had to mean something. Twice now he’d seen it.
The book’s aged leather was coarse like callused skin, cut crude unlike any he had handled before, as if the tanner had been rushed. Carefully opening it, Mark saw that the pages were faded and worn, containing hand drawn words and pictures. The writing was characteristic of the quill and ink sort, yet fluid, written in a combination of Egyptian hieroglyphics and…was that…Hebrew?
Every other page, on the left side, contained a picture. Flipping a few, he thought they might have been done with both watercolors and ink, appearing crisp almost like a photograph. The artist was skilled. Very skilled. The pictures however were fantastic. They represented the artist’s view of another world or another time.
Some were of mysterious gardens with unearthly plants and vegetation. Blue trees with giant orange crystalline pods. Strange alien buildings. Human-like figures wearing exotic clothes and heavy armor, riding dragon-like beasts to fight giants. Creatures that were half animal and half man.
Others, however, were horrible scenes of death and war. Beams of light shot from the clawed fingertips of grotesque beings as they destroyed structures and burned fields. Odd, horse-like creatures burned in pools of liquid fire. Men and women were locked in battle with unknown weapons. Fields of lifeless bodies were sorted by the survivors.
Flipping through, Mark was mesmerized. He wanted to go to this place, explore this world. It felt real. The pictures were so clear, so vivid, so wonderfully crafted.
This was a land of magic and he wished he could be there, to live an adventure. His life was so boring. He wanted to be a hero, to fight for good, destroying evil, aspired something bigger out of life.
As he continued to turn pages, a piece of parchment fell to the floor. He brought it to his nose and it smelled like ripe mushrooms. Creases tore as he unfolded it carefully, the paper old and brittle. Hundreds of years old, he guessed, for it to be that fragile. On it was written a message:
Weird. That was today’s date.
Someone reading this, perhaps a century ago, with his same name? He pursed his lips as he nodded. Even stranger.
The time has come for you to know who you are. You are one of them now. The transformation is complete. The end is near and I’m afraid you must find it soon. I can help you as much as I can but you must provide your own awakening, this book is only the key.
The signature at the bottom was blurred by a reddish-brown stain that punctuated the paper in a random pattern. It flaked as he scratched at it with a fingernail. Was that…dried blood? He could only make out the last part of it.
Then, suddenly, the morning bell rang throughout St. Peters and Mark nearly dropped the tome, been here longer than he realized. He folded the note as hurriedly as he could without it tearing and shoved the volume back on the shelf. Only after putting everything back the way it had been did he head for his room, puzzling where the secret passage led and what the note had meant by the one.