Iron Angels – Snippet 27
Lali stared at Rao, who in turn stared at the fluorescent light suspended above them with its robotic hum. The light’s cold flicker accentuated Rao’s hard face and the deep lines there, like one of those crazy contraptions the mad scientists operated in the old horror films Lali’s grandfather used to watch when she was a little girl.
Rao’s mind worked at something, dreaming? If so, dreaming of what, Lali wondered. The past glories of the cult — there was no other word for the group of madmen he ruled — he hoped to restore to their supposed greatness? Or perhaps the ecstasy of crossing over to the other world he spoke of incessantly? The man had a one-track mind, all right, maybe he thought of other activities a few times daily —
Ecstasy. Rao visited his version of ecstasy on Lali often enough and with force.
She almost sighed, but caught herself.
“See the flicker?”
“The flicker reminds me of the moment the nâga break through, stretching the plasma barrier.”
“Tell me more, I seek only enlightenment.” But the man’s ruminations grew tiresome. She desired information to assist in deciding her next move.
“The nâga’s glorious entry into our world is accompanied by a ravenous hunger for the Sha ‘Lu and the lifeblood contained in the sacrifices we provide.”
More like cattle lining up in a chute, awaiting their turn for slaughter. Lali refused to picture his description of the sacrifice in Old Testament terms, like when Abraham offered Isaac up for sacrifice to Jehovah upon the mountain.
Rao broke his reverie and turned his hard gaze upon her. She shivered, but brought it under control, hoping he had not noticed. His eyes lacked natural pigment. She never could figure the color. All black at times, but morphing into a swirling electrical storm at other times, especially when he claimed to touch another world.
Rao’s eyes narrowed and his mouth twisted, the lips curving into a cruel snarl. “We need stronger khâu. The miserable lot is failing us.” He struck his chest with a fist. “Failing me. One time is once too often, but a second time?” He stood before her, his sinewy arms now hanging, but both hands balled into fists.
Lali swallowed, unsure if Rao desired a discourse, but she needed to placate him if possible. His wrath took predictable turns aimed at her and the bed with the outlandish headboard. “At least the two at the Euclid did the proper thing and incinerated themselves.” She nodded as if reinforcing the khâus’ failure and how none of this had to do with her. Rao had told her of their fate, but he had raged for hours on their gross negligence.
Rao closed his eyes, the lids bright red, as if kissed by preternatural fire. “Oh, but this last one, the accident near the Euclid, that failure was spectacular in its carelessness and stupidity. A car accident? In a van at the very intersection where the hotel stands? How can the police not take notice of the coincidences? The Iron Thorn demands meticulous planning and lack of selfish motives amongst the khâu. Rao,” he thumped his chest, “demands this of them.”
Lali stared at Rao. He cared for his glory, and his alone. A cult. The Iron Thorn was nothing but a cult. Rao’s fanaticism dwarfed Koresh and the Branch Davidians. But there was something real behind his boasts, the man truly touched another world and had the scars and powers to prove those boasts. Demons and monsters, or fallen angels feeding on the sufferings of others? Lali wanted to find out.
“We’re safe enough for now in this industrial wasteland I’ve conquered.”
Oh, how he enjoyed speaking of himself and how intelligent and resourceful he was. Conquered? He hid in this abandoned but surprisingly sturdy building he’d purchased through a series of shell companies — at least that was how Lali understood the whole thing. The former petrochemical plant gurgled and dripped at all hours and a constant electric buzz whirred. The khâu slept downstairs in a storage room filled with bunk beds, always present and tending Rao’s needs, as well as the building’s.
Tepid pools dotted the lower level. A greenish blue film covered the still surface — a petrochemical pond, devoid of life. Like so many places on earth these days.
Rao sucked in a deep breath. “I breathed their air once, you know. The nâgas’ world is dangerous and jagged, but exhilarating. I swallowed their noxious water, their version of water.”
“The price I paid for that was miniscule. He studied his arms. The bands of muscle and tendons twitched in his forearms and biceps, highlighting the angry scars sheathing his arms like tattoo sleaves some men and women have etched into their skin. There was no doubt of his dominance over the Iron Thorn, the Câ Tsang and his place as its leader, the Tip of the Horn.
Khâu cowered before him, understanding the strength coursing through him upon passing back through the aperture into the human world, but also filled them with wonder and hope.
“Failure teaches, does it not?” Lali asked, keeping her tone timid and somewhat obsequious.
Rao nodded. “Yes, failure gives us new blood, perhaps a cleansing. More devoted and more important, more intelligent khâu who understand following my orders without question is their lifeblood.” Rao stood, motionless, staring at Lali. “You, woman, have the aptitude and attitude needed for a leadership role within the organization. You will face the trials soon enough and I’ll know whether you’re worthy.”
Rao spun away from her and leaned on the railing. Lali approached, her footfalls loud enough as to not surprise Rao. She grasped his shoulders from behind and the white-knuckled grip he had on the arms of the railing loosened.
“You’re tense.” She whispered into his ear, the warmth of her breath radiating back on to her face.
He shrugged her off. Rao never admitted weakness. She withdrew, and moved far enough away where he couldn’t spin and strike her if he desired.
“You’re not like the others, there is no worry there, woman.” He didn’t face her, but remained staring over the railing and down to the main area of the plant. “You don’t blindly follow like the khâu. You will someday break through to the other world once my place over there is secured.”
She didn’t really believe him. He’d use her to gain more power, but share in the power? She doubted that. If only she could supplant him, but that would require cunning and planning, long term goals to be sure, and all the while she’d have to endure his advances.
“Failure tenses Rao,” he said. “The police and FBI search for men like those weak khâu. But Rao and you, woman, have nothing to fear.”
She once again approached him. She breathed on his neck and pressed her lips there. She suppressed a shiver, fearing the touch would burn her. The man radiated unnatural heat.
“But you can’t do everything yourself.” Her fingertips dragged down his back.
Rao straightened and faced her, taking in her entire body. He lifted her arm and studied her tattoos, then with his other hands fondled her piercings. His face twisted, the disapproval of the markings and piercings obvious. He couldn’t resist her, but would any woman have had the same effect on Rao?
“You serve the Câ Tsang.” Desire sparked in his cold eyes, the only spark there. “Luckily for me, giving into my desires for your flesh is not against the tenants of the Câ Tsang.”
She pre-empted his coming advance and pressed against him. Her right hand glided down his chest and slid inside the loose waistband of his pants, squeezing what she found. “The only Iron Thorn I desire rests beneath here.” Rao wore no underwear, since he despised restrictive garments.
“Do not presume.” He yanked her hand free of his pants. “Rao will take you when he desires. No sooner.”
She touched her cheek and grinned. “Do you not desire me?”
“It is not for you to decide what Rao does and does not do. Who Rao desires. If he desires. You are still khâu. We seek communion with the nâga and their world. Do not forget your place.”
“You tempt me with those wicked, half closed eyes.” He touched her cheek and dragged his fingers over her mouth. “And those lips.”
Lali understood full well what she was doing with her half asleep appearance and slightly parted lips, showing a hint of teeth and the tip of her tongue.
“You have tasks to complete before I will take you.” He turned from her, and she understood why. He’d grown excited at the thought of taking her and didn’t want her to notice — the bulge or his weakness.
“Let me help you,” she said. “Has something happened?”
Rao’s shoulders heaved, as if he tried to stifle a laugh. She pressed against him from behind, pushing her breasts into his back.
“Do not touch Rao unless instructed to do so.”
Rao didn’t quite trust her, but he was close — maybe. She pulled back from him, but only a few inches.
Rao turned and faced her, taking a deep breath as he did so. “It is time you learned of the ritual. The failures of the other khâu have caused the nâga consternation and forced them to feast outside the parameters.”
What did he mean? Parameters? She couldn’t hide her confusion from him.
“You wear the vacant expression of the men, those pitiful khâu. Ah, but when you think for yourself you don’t court disaster, unlike them.” Rao shook his head. “I’ll forgive your confusion, and understand I’ve told you more about the nâga than any of them. The last three khâu failed me. As leader of the Câ Tsang, Rao is infallible. Remember that. But you asked what was wrong, and now I’ve told you. Think you can help Rao?”
Lali shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“The Euclid Hotel was the perfect place for the ritual. We risk much by continuing to use the old building.”
“The police?” Lali asked.
“Yes, but the khâu, your brothers who immolated themselves took much for granted and allowed the police — the FBI — to find them and our ritual chamber in the basement. And then the mess over near Animal Control. I don’t think the authorities have put it all together yet, but we’re in danger.”
“Certainly not from the FBI?”
He shook his head. “Only if they move beyond their by-the-book, boy scout mentality, which isn’t likely given their history. The real danger, now that the police and some of the FBI people have been vocal, is the guild.”
“The guild. Yes. This particular branch of the guild uses Völundr’s Hammer as its moniker. I have some thoughts on where they’ve been hiding.” Rao gestured for her to take a seat.
He strolled about the metal platform high above the floor of the plant, footfalls silent under his felt soles. Night had come and with the darkness, Rao’s comfort level increased and he became more loose than during the daylight hours.
Lali remained silent, satisfied to accept his teachings, at least for the moment. Rao had no adepts, only the acolytes, the khâu, but Lali believed she was to be his one adept.
“Information you provided has assisted me greatly in my current strategy, but I have need of more information from you.” He dropped his chin to his chest and stared at her. “Tell me, were you tasked with finding me? Tasked with learning about the Iron Thorn.”
“Of course not.” She answered without a hint of hesitation.
“Then what is the lure? I mean, what drove you to accept my summoning?”
“You. You’re fascinating.” She cocked her head and tilted it forward slightly, casting what she hoped was a glint of mischief at the powerful man.
He cocked an eyebrow at her. “What draws you to the Câ Tsang?”
“To serve and learn of the nâga. Lean of the greater purpose, and seek enlightenment on the other side.” A rote answer, of course, which she sort of meant…
“Good,” he said. “But we will never achieve such if the bumbling ways of the khâu persists. You will arrange for the next sacrifice.”
“But — ”
“But nothing. Obey or be punished.” He raised his hand high above her, as if to backhand her. “Rao needs to do something about the current group of khâu.”
She winced at the thought of the coming strike, but said, “Sacrificing one or two of the khâu to the nāga would set things right through fear, would it not?”
Rao lowered his hand. Was that a smile on the man’s face, a cruel smile, a sneer perhaps. “That is an idea,” he said, “which I will consider, but I have another task for you.”
“What will you have me do?” she asked.
“Continue with your life and your job. Pay attention to the people you meet and what they discuss. When the time is right you will be provided all you need to know of the next sacrifice.”
“Yes, Rao. I seek to serve you and the Câ Tsang.”
“Excellent, Eulalia. Now go.”