Hellboy: Oddest Jobs Page 24


"He's down there," she whispered. "He's calling — calling for help. Can you hear them?"

I couldn't, but what the hell. Down we went.

One member of ibn-Ghaalib's hired flight crew was still unaccounted for, and from the runes on the jeep I knew ibn-Ghaalib himself had a pretty high degree of supernatural power, so I wasn't really surprised at what happened next. Didn't make it easier to cope with, but I wasn't surprised. Because of the shaking of the hill the air was thick with dust, cutting the flashlight's beam to a few feet, and the soft, subsonic rumble of the earth hid every sound but one. Below us somewhere in the darkness I could hear a man's voice — ibn-Ghaalib's — chanting or singing, not in Arabic but in something else, some language unheard on the earth for millennia, words that existed only in those forbidden texts the Bureau tried to trace and keep under lock and key. And under that, woven around it like silver wire around a core of burning iron, a kind of wailing vibration that twisted the heart inside my body and made me want to turn and run.

Damn, I thought, knowing it for what it was. Damn —

A gunshot cracked, somewhere below us. Carmichael gasped and I heard his Walther-PK clatter on the broken stone steps underfoot, smelled his blood as I shot back. Whoever was down there was shooting up into the narrow shaft, like firing at fish in a barrel. I felt a bullet tear my shoulder as I barreled down the stairs, blazing away — Hell, he had to be in a direct line with us —

And I walked smack into it. A line — a field — of spells that necromancers form, to trap and hold the demons they summon. Energy went through my head, through my body, paralyzing me and turning me cold. Bluish light showed me the dry cistern chamber at the bottom of the stairs, the ring of bottles and jars set up in their own protective ring at one side of the long stone room, blurred by the haze of dust. The jars themselves glowed and above each one burned a heatless, terrible little flame. In front of me ibn-Ghaalib swung around from the hole he'd opened in the rear wall, a hole cut through ancient masonry, opening into blackness. His pick, and Fuad's, lay on the floor beside him, and before him the jar I'd seen in his trunk, the ancient one he'd packed by itself, a skull with its eyes sealed with silver.

He faced me with a face like nothing human, eyes glowing with demon light. Damn.

I tried to bring up my gun to shoot and my fingers loosened, my knees turned to water.

The bastard smiled. He opened his mouth and light came out of it, and he spoke words in the tongue of the Great Old Ones, and the trembling of the hill seemed to pass into my own flesh, loosening it around the bones.

For not quite twenty years, I'd lived on the earth. Now I felt my spirit — my soul — tearing loose, being drawn out of me the way ibn-Ghaalib had drawn the zar out of that girl Naseeba at the dance, the way he'd drawn the spirit Azuzar out of Raisha's body. From an ammo pouch on his belt — he was still wearing the white galibeya he'd had on at the zar ceremony — he brought another one of those jars he'd had in his trunk, a little one made of alabaster, and I hated it, hated it like the mouth of Hell because that's exactly what it was. He stretched out his hand toward me, palms marked with the ancient Lemurian signs of mastery, and there was no way I could stop him ...

Because of what I am.

Cold pale skeleton light flared in the black hole in the wall behind him. He swung around to face it, dropping the alabaster jar as he flung up his hands. The jar shattered and it was like an iron noose around my throat being let out one quarter of an inch: I couldn't move, but breath trickled through my lips. Not that that would do me any good, with the thing that was squeezing, soft and horrible, through the hole in the wall, soundless mouths working, eyes the eyes of a woman who's been raped to death — and has dwelled in that last moment ever since.

Get me out of here. Whatever was going to happen next, it was not going to be good news for me.

Ibn-Ghaalib swayed, turned, moving as he'd moved in the zar dance. In the flame glow of the circle of jars I could see the thing that faced him; sometimes a woman — or two women or three women — sometimes like a great, glowing snake.

I don't know what Fuad saw — Fuad crouched with a gun in his hand at the other side of the dry cistern chamber — but he was paralyzed by it, either too hypnotized to notice me moving or maybe too scared to break his boss's concentration by so much as drawing breath.

Made sense to me.

I managed to shift one elbow, move one hoof — it was like trying to crawl out from under a mountain. I pushed myself toward the steps again, toward the line of chill-burning signs that delineated the demon field.

I couldn't cross it.

Hands reached out of the dark, grabbed my wrist. Dragged me. It was like having the meat combed off my bones. I think I blacked out. Next thing I knew I was lying curled in the small stone space at the bottom of the stairs, Harik and Raisha crouched above me, the stone of floor and walls quivering like a Chihuahua on cold linoleum and the sound of ibn-Ghaalib's trapped demons wailing going through my brain like splinters of glass. Light and shadow flickered from the cistern, flashes of fire, the crack of lightning and the ozone stink of demonic power.

Raisha took my hand. Bony little claws, and warm. Despite the hammering African heat, my flesh was cold as the dead.

She whispered, "Possess me."

"What?"

She brought my hand up, pressed it to the side of her face. "You are a demon. If I am shot, you can carry me through, to do what I must do. And my human flesh will protect you from the runes."

"No." The alabaster jar had broken, but I knew there were others, including the one he'd prepared for Big Mama. And that strange coldness still flooded me, the shuddering sense that any minute soul and body were going to peel apart ...

Death? Could I die? I'd always thought so, but now I wasn't so sure.

And what would happen to me then?

"You must." She leaned over me, forced me to look into her eyes. "If the Guardian Zar destroys ibn-Ghaalib we will all of us be killed. Azuzar and all the others will be taken into her forever, to who knows what end, now that she has been freed? And if ibn-Ghaalib destroys her ..."

Metal scraped on the stairway above. Carmichael whispered, "You ever shot one of these things, honey?" By the smell of the blood he'd lost a lot of it, but he was hanging on.

She said again, "You must."

Maybe I could have let her die — though I doubt it. But not all three of them.

And either way, I was toast.

I closed my eyes. Felt her bend down, her mouth pressing mine.

My breath went into her. My spirit, into the place where Azuzar had dwelled for so many years.

It was ...

... It was nothing I ever, ever want to do again.

Pain. Hate. Human memories of a life enslaved and oppressed. Thermonuclear rage ignited in me and I staggered to my feet, swaying like a drunken thing, barely even conscious of the great crimson carcass lying on the stone at my feet. Barely conscious of Harik staring up at me — at us — with naked horror and shock. I scooped up Carmichael's pistol and charged across the line of demon signs and yes, her human flesh protected me, though I felt as if I'd run through barbed wire, and yes, Fuad shot her and I/we didn't care. I broke his neck before he got off a second shot, before I even turned to see what was happening in the center of the cistern. Ibn-Ghaalib swung to face me — us — with his eyes red with hellfire and that demon smile on his mouth, his hands gripping the pale half-visible limbs of the Guardian Zar. It — she — writhed, snapping at him with her snake mouth as he drew her toward the silver-sealed skull. I strode toward them, knowing he would devour her in the next moment and have the strength of both, undefeatable. He'd devour us both before we were out of the room. I shot at him as I strode — almost point-blank range — and saw the bullets tear through his flesh, and he began to laugh; light poured out of the holes instead of blood. I stretched out my hand — Raisha's long, delicate fingers — and felt her scream inside, wrench at me, make me stumble. I reeled against her dragging strength, pulling me aside, away, across the square stone room. I yelled at her, You crazy bitch — ! as she flipped Carmichael's gun around in her hand, and the next second she flung herself down on her knees in the circle of demon jars, gun butt raised like a hammer.

Ibn-Ghaalib shrieked something, let go of the Guardian and threw himself at us like a tsunami of fire as Raisha brought the gun butt down on the first of the jars.

I convulsed, gasped, and nearly broke the back of my skull on the stone steps beside which I lay. Harik grabbed my flailing hand — my own hand, my more or less human left hand — and shouted, "Hellboy!" at me, in the same second a blast of searing, oily heat pounded over us from the cistern. I don't know who screamed louder in there, Raisha or ibn-Ghaalib. The sound was nothing human, anyway. With the dust and the fire and the whirlwind of demon energies as all the entities ibn-Ghaalib had absorbed into his body ripped out of him again as the jars were smashed, it was pretty hard to tell what was going on.

When I got to my feet a few minutes later — feeling strange in my own body again and shaking like a leaf — and shined the flashlight into the cistern chamber, the result was not pretty.

Raisha lay in the middle of the room, covered with — well, let's just call it mess. Ibn-Ghaalib wasn't the first person I'd seen torn apart from the inside by demons, but he sure was the most comprehensive.

I don't think Professor Harik saw the Guardian whipping and flickering around the chamber through the slow-settling dust, but she wasn't pretty, either. I held him back as he started to go in. There was someone else in there, too. A shining shape, like a man in a white galibeya, knelt beside Raisha's head. "You owe her a debt," he said, and the Guardian bared her fangs at him — several mouthfuls of them. "In the name of the woman that once you were," he said.

She didn't look a whole lot like a woman these days, that's for sure, but she withdrew, coiling herself just outside the hole in the wall that led to the inner chamber. I thought I saw an iron chest in there, with a simple gourd bottle sitting on top of it, but I wasn't going to get any closer. All the things that a woman can have done to her — all the things I'd learned, from those few minutes within Raisha's brain and Raisha's memory — looked out at me, unanswerably, from those unspeakable eyes. Azuzar turned for a moment toward me, dark eyes in a face green as a corpses, and beckoned with a long-fingered green hand. As I stepped across the dead line of demon runes, he turned Raisha over gently, bent down, and kissed her mouth, pouring into her like a breath-drawn mist.

I kept a wary eye on the Guardian Zar as I picked Raisha up — careful not to even think about getting near that iron box and I don't care whose notes were in it — and said, "All right with you if we lock up when we leave?"

She bared her teeth again. There was ibn-Ghaalib's blood on them, and little chunks of other stuff. She didn't look like she'd mind.

While Thomas was talking Harik through flight prep and the jarhead bandaged Carmichael and Raisha, I took a couple of grenades from a box at the back of the plane and tossed 'em down the shaft to the old cistern. When we took off, I could see the subsidence in the ground where the stairway had fallen in. So far as I know, nobody's ever been back there.

On the bench in the back of the plane, Raisha rested easily, her breath gentle, her face the face of a woman wrapped in the sweetest of dreams. I went to the other side of the cabin and lit a cigarette. Looked out the window at the red towers of Timbuktu shrinking behind us in the hot noon light. I knew everything that was in Raisha bint-Tahayet's heart; everything that was in her mind, in her dreams, in her past. Her sweetest hopes and her vilest hatreds: love poisoned, betrayal endured smiling for years. Everything that had happened to her in her life, had happened to me.

And I knew she knew that about me.

I knew — and I was right — that I'd be dreaming her dreams for years, waking in the morning feeling stained and shaken and hating myself and her, for what we both knew. You should never know someone that intimately. I knew — and I was right — that I'd have a bad night, when years down the road she finally came to die. She was a strong, wise, likable woman who'd had a hard life and had gotten through it gracefully, and under other circumstances I'd probably have liked her.

But I knew I didn't ever want to look on her face again.

And God help her, I knew she wouldn't ever want to look on mine.

* * *

In Cupboards and Bookshelves

Gary A. Braunbeck

* * *

We should be thankful we cannot see the horrors and degradations lying around our childhood, in cupboards and bookshelves, everywhere.

— Graham Greene

The Power and the Glory

During those times when Hellboy found his thoughts wandering down paths he knew from experience were best avoided, Trevor Bruttenholm would take him aside and say precisely the right thing to soothe the disquiet and discomfort that were Hellboy's constant companions. Neither Bruttenholm nor Hellboy ever used the word loneliness when they spoke of such things, although, sometimes, Hellboy would acknowledge a certain aloneness at the core of his existence, and Bruttenholm would smile and laugh and say something like, "Well, it does have that impenetrable Kierkegaard ring to it that I so often in my thoughts associate with you."

"Are you laughing at me, sir?"

"No, dear boy, I am laughing near you. You ought to try joining in sometime."

"Only if there will be pancakes later."

"Dear boy, there will always be pancakes."

But Trevor Bruttenholm — the closest thing Hellboy had known to a father — was no longer here, yet that aloneness remained, a constant aide-memoire that he wasn't merely the last of his kind, he was alone of his kind, with no heritage, no real sense of purpose or meaning, and no promise of ever finding the answers to and behind his existence. Sometimes Hellboy felt as if he were one breath away from being cast afloat into the darker corners of the universe, unbound, unfocused, but never un-made (something that would be a mercy, especially at times like this). Sure, he had friends, good friends like Abe, like Kate Corrigan, like Liz and a small handful of others at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, but they hadn't come along this time, so if he were feeling a bit, well ... anxious, he had no one to blame but himself.

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