The first thing he is aware of is the smell. The dull odour of damp earth. The bright tang of freshly broken rock. It rouses him from where he's been, the deep place where his mind has been slumbering.
It's dark when he opens his eyes. Not the darkness of his room at night, where light might peep yellow beneath the crack of the door. Nor the dark of a midnight sea, when starlight edges the waves with silver. This is the darkness of the underground. An impenetrable blackness that blinds a person from the inside out.
It's uncomfortable there, lying in a field of rock. His cheek rests upon a stone that smells of iron, the dust of it thick upon his lips. He tastes metal in his mouth, the sourness of old blood caked hard against his teeth. He coughs, once, tries to spit with a tongue that is as dry and inflexible as old leather. He tries to bring his hands to wipe at his mouth, tries to bring his hands…
A flood fills his mouth. There's a moment of fear. A brief moment, fuelled by the darkness and the dust and the taste of fresh blood.
Why can't I move my hands?
Panic coils inside him, cold as a snake. Wraps itself around his heart and squeezes.
He hears movement in the dark. The faintest sound of hope.
Thank God, he thinks, as footsteps approach in the blackness.
There is the soft trickle of dust falling from a wall. The sound of breathing, slow and measured and somewhere close.
He tries to speak, with his cheek pressed flat against the rock. Flinches as a match is struck, close to his eye.
It's blinding. A tiny sun poised hot before his retina. He blinks against the brightness, shutters down eyelids filled with grit. Shutters out everything but that tiny, yellow sun, burning hot in the black spaces of his mind.
Another match is struck, brings the smell of sulphur to the tang of iron and dirt and the warm metal taste of blood. He slides his eyelids open, sees a candle melted to the rock before his face, looks past the bright, rising flame as another candle appears, and another, and another, until the cavernous space is filled with light that flickers and bends and sends shadows leaping dark and light across the walls.
Help, he wants to say to the silent bearer of flame and candle, the mute trudger in the dark. He feels invisible, as though he has become part of the stone he lies on, part of the cavern floor, his flesh solidified into shards of splintered rock. I'm here, he calls with his mind, since his mouth will not obey him. I'm here! he shouts silently, fighting against the fear. I'm here…
The footsteps cease. They swivel in the gravel like a pair of compasses, unerringly target the source of the unheard cry.
Thank you, he thinks as the footsteps turn in his direction. Thank you, he says silently as a pair of scuffed boots move into the line of his sight, halting in a tiny powder-puff of dust.
'You won't be thanking me.'
The voice is deep. It jolts him unexpectedly, echoes in slow waves around the cavern.
'Not when I'm finished with you.'
The man crouches, reaches for him, grabs him by the shirt and heaves him into sitting. Spends a moment arranging his arms and his legs and settling his head limply back against the rock. 'There,' the man says. 'That will make it easier.'
Another match is struck, another candle lit, the flickering flame brought close to his face.
'You won't recognise me,' the voice says, disappointed, as the candle passes between them, 'even though we have met, many times, before.'
What? He tries to blink, though his eyes are filled with grit and it's hard to focus on the face beyond the light. Who? All he can see is shadow. The silhouette of large and powerful man.
A hand darts for his neck, fumbles for a moment at his collar. 'Curare.' A tiny dart is raised into the candlelight. 'Plus a little something extra…'
The dart disappears before he can focus, but it's enough to know that he's drugged, and the knowledge brings with it anger and rage and a terrible, terrible confusion.
Why, why can't he remember?
The candle moves closer to his face, blinding him so that he closes his eyes.
'I didn't mean to do this.' A thick hand reaches towards his mouth, scrapes against crusted blood. The movement reopens the split in his lip, sends new blood trickling down his chin.
Why can't he remember?
'You were stronger than I expected.' The fingers wipe at the fresh blood, a low chuckle animating the great chest. 'Full of fight. But then,' the fingers drop away, 'I would expect nothing less from a Tracy.'
He opens his eyes.
The man leans closer, close, so close, and the candle falls away. 'Virgil Tracy,' the voice says softly, quietly, as if the knowledge might bring the cavern walls crumbling down around them.
The name burns into him, jolts him from his torpor and sends blood rising hot into his brain. He blinks, and sees for the first time the face of his foe, the shadow and the light and the black, the so black eyes.
How does he know?
The man laughs, as though the thoughts in Virgil's mind are as clear as the crystals that glint in the walls around them.
'There are many things I know, Virgil Tracy.' The man rises, plants his feet apart, turns to survey the cathedral of stone that surrounds them, the circle of burning flame among the rubble. 'And after today, I will know a great deal more.' He smiles, a parody of reassurance, the thick lips parting to reveal a row of white and even teeth.
The man moves away, picks through the stone like a cat, each step careful and measured and touched with a grace that belies the thickness of his body and the weight of the earth that presses down on him from above. He reaches the centre of the circle, peels his shirt away from his chest and turns, shows to Virgil the perfect sculpture of his body, the tight cords of muscle, the heavy veins that snake their way along his arms and into the moist skin of his throat. He smiles again, beatifically, revelling in the power of his flesh and the burning power of the flame.
Virgil watches as the man postures, eyes lingering where the light catches on the burnished skin. He tries to look away, swallows on dirt and blood and turns his mind to rescue. To escape.
The man lowers his arms, brings the black, black eyes to bear. 'You are wondering where they are. Your team. Your beloved… family.'
He dangles Virgil's wristcom in the air, caresses it with his thumb.
'A marvellous piece of technology,' he says, 'but not so difficult to decipher.' He slides the wristcom back into his pocket, says disdainfully, 'I turned it off.' He bends, lifts a battered bag onto a rock, brings from it a shining copper bowl.
Who are you? Virgil thinks, as if knowing the who will tell him the why.
The man smiles. 'You have known me by many names, and just as many faces. But after today,' he brings the bowl and positions it securely in Virgil's lap, 'it is my greatest hope that you will know me as Master.'
He crouches down and raises a knife into the light, leans in close and touches it to the cut in Virgil's lip, wets it with bright, bright blood. 'This blade is so sharp…' he whispers, the words trailing away as the knife edge trails towards Virgil's throat.
Virgil braces for the violation, wonders if his flesh will part like soft butter, wonders how it will feel to bleed out. To bleed all the way out.
The blade rests beneath the smooth line of Virgil's jaw, presses lightly into the skin, releases a single drop of blood to trickle beneath the collar of his uniform. The man leans in close and inhales deeply. 'Is that fear that I smell?' The knife falls away as a hand snakes out, grasps Virgil by the arm and positions his wrist limply over the bowl.
The movement is so fast that Virgil doesn't see it, doesn't feel it, knows only that the blade has parted flesh by the sudden gush of blood frothing black into the bowl. Virgil wishes he could pull away, that he could fight before the end, but the loss of blood makes him weak. It drains the thoughts from his brain, slows his heart in his chest, makes the lids of his eyes heavy, heavy, so heavy…
He is jolted by a slap to the face. Fingers gripping tight to his jaw, shaking him, forcing him awake.
'Mustn't die yet.' There is a sudden anger in the voice. 'At least,' the fingers press painfully into his cheek, 'not today.'
Virgil looks down, sees cloth bound rough around his wrist, sees the bowl of black, black blood resting on the cave floor. He feels no pain. He feels nothing, just a dark hole of bewilderment as he wonders where his memory has gone.
Who are you, Virgil thinks again as the man raises the knife and sends his own blood foaming into the bowl. The man smiles as the blood mingles, though the colour drains from the fleshy face, and the heavy lids threaten to fall shut.
Belah, comes the thought, like a moth into Virgil's brain, fluttering and bumping and trying to break free.
It means nothing.
Virgil closes his eyes, his arm hot and heavy where the life has been drained from it. He wants to sleep, and if he must die here he hopes only that it is soft, and peaceful.
Not today. Thick fingers slide rough into Virgil's hair, grasp tight and slam his head hard against the rock. 'I said no!'
Pain explodes behind Virgil's eyes, his head burning where it has met the stone.
The man stands over him with the bowl, the black eyes lingering on his own. 'I need you awake,' he says, and he shrugs, as if the statement excuses the sudden violence and the bloom of warm blood that has blossomed in Virgil's hair. Virgil steels himself against the pain, opts to take his refuge in denial.
None of this is real.
'We shall see,' the man says as he sits, cross-legged among the debris, scooping dust and dirt and shards of powdered crystal into the bowl. He talks as he works in the candlelight, the words falling from lips tinged with a strange, quiet beauty.
'There is a statue of my brother, where I live.' The man pounds his fists into the bowl, kneads together the mud and the blood. 'Life size,' he continues. Then corrects, 'Larger than life size.' He tips the bowl, pours out clay like molten copper, moulds it into a smooth, smooth mass. 'It keeps me… ' he stands, comes to kneel by Virgil, leans in very close. 'Connected to him,' he finishes, his breath hot on Virgil's face.
The thick lips part, displaying again the even white teeth. Hands reach toward him as Virgil presses back against the stone, tries to move away from the fingers, the breath, the mouth that is burning close, so close, too close.
'But the connection,' the man breathes, 'has become weak. My brother fights against me. He fails me.' Fingers rest light upon Virgil's brow. 'So I need another...'
There is silence as the muddied hands move across Virgil's face, taking their measure of his jaw, the high bones of his cheeks, the broad expanse of his brow. Fingers smear their way into the orbits of his eyes, trace his lips with a touch as light as butterflies.
Virgil inhales warm air, chokes on it as something moves inside him, a thousand colours exploding into his mind, a seething mass filling his brain in bright, bright bursts. Butterflies, he thinks in his stupor. He can feel them, fluttering at his mouth, slamming against the confines of his head, trying to break free. He flies with them, slams against the inside of his own head in his desperation to escape. Virgil's world has splintered into a thousand pieces and he feels himself falling, falling, a raging descent that splinters the world into a thousand pieces more.
The questing hands fall away, and all that is left is the flickering light, and the eyes, burning with a darkness that is brighter than flame.
'Good,' the man says, satisfied.
Good. The word echoes in Virgil's head, brings bile rising sour into his throat.
'It seems we are ready.' The words echo from the cavern walls, reverberate in the confined spaces of Virgil's skull. Ready.
No, thinks Virgil. Not ready.
The man returns to the circle, to the waiting mound of mud and blood.
The heavy hands push at the unnatural clay, moulding it, shaping it, the outline of Virgil's face materialising beneath fingers that are imbued with unexpected skill.
Not yet, Virgil thinks, projecting his defiance to the figure that glistens amongst the flame.
The man pauses in his work, and Virgil sees moisture glinting on his brow. 'Too late,' the man says out loud, leaves an echo of certainty on the inside of Virgil's head. Far too late.
Virgil feels his temperature rise, the salt slick of sweat trickle down the back of his neck. He is trapped in a fever dream, a dream where fire burns and a bald and half-naked man sculpts by the flicker of candlelight. Virgil feels laughter bubble at the back of his throat, chokes back a cough as air hitches once more in his lungs.
He is going mad. He knows it.
The skin around the man's eyes creases, considering. 'Perhaps,' he concedes, studying Virgil with a practiced eye. 'But even that is not without its uses.' The voice fills the cavern. Fills Virgil's head. Unbidden, uncontrolled, unwanted.
'Let us speak of brothers,' the voice continues, the words as soft as moths beating against Virgil's skin and fluttering aimless inside his brain. 'Brothers,' he says as the moths part, darkness giving way to light. 'Are the missing pieces of us.'
A kaleidoscope turns in Virgil's head, reveals to him a jungle, long grass, towering palms. Images move across the eye of Virgil's mind. Blue sky, pale cloud, a young boy adrift in a field of green.
'My brother was the soul of patience and compassion. The light to my dark. My secret…' the voice breaks away, searching for words in the dark. 'Humanity.'
The kaleidoscope moves, the image changes. The boy steps closer.
'But Time,' the voice continues, 'destroys everything. It steals away innocence and youth. Peels away our delusions one pitiful layer at a time.'
The boy smiles in the grass. Like a flower in a field, he raises his face to the sun.
'Time showed my brother his delusions. Revealed to him my true nature.' The dark eyes glance upwards, fix intently on Virgil.
Virgil studies the child-flower, sees in the burnished face the essence of something… familiar.
'There is my brother,' the voice says as the world turns inside Virgil's head. 'Kyrano….'
The jungle falls away. There is silence. Darkness. A void into which Virgil has fallen. Is falling. It surprises him when the tears spring forth, when sobs rack his chest silently. He is drowning, drowning, losing himself, losing everything. Virgil mourns, knowing he is lost. He is lost…. He opens his eyes, sees through his tears the man crouching before him, raising a moulded face to meet his own.
'The secret,' the thick fingers reach to trace his jaw, leaving there a smear of darkness, 'is in the blood.' He presses a thumb against Virgil's mouth, leaves a burning imprint, salty and sharp as acid.
Virgil watches as the sculpture is folded beneath a skein of cloth, watches as the mirror of his face, made of mud and blood, disappears into darkness. And the word comes once more into his head, through the connection that has ignited between them.
'Belah,' Virgil says aloud, his tongue thick around this first word, the split in his lip re-opening in a warm trickle of blood.
Belah stiffens, the dark eyes momentarily troubled. And then he smiles.
'Excellent,' he says, and he is truly delighted.
The voice is a buzz in his ear. Muffled and faint and far, far away.
A hand taps at his cheek.
He opens his eyes, blinks them, shifts his head away from the light.
'Stay with me,' Scott says as he repositions the lamp, aims the beam towards the crystalline wall and sets off a thousand stars sparkling in the dark. He raises his wristcom, says 'Alan, I need a stretcher and a collar at this location. Now.'
'Scott…' Virgil says, though his mouth is dry and his lip is cut and it stings and why, why, why can't he remember?
'What happened?' Scott kneels beside him, his face engraved with worry and concern. 'When your communicator cut out – ' He stops, looks down at Virgil's hands, looks for the wristcom.
Scott has seen the cloth bound around Virgil's wrist, stained and heavy with blood. 'What the hell?' He raises Virgil's hand, presses a thumb soft against the stain. 'What the hell,' he says again, uncomprehending. He looks hard into Virgil's eyes and squeezes his brother's fingertips. 'Can you feel that?'
Virgil's fingers close upon Scott's own. 'Mmm,' he nods, rests his head against the wall.
Scott lifts the lamp, shines it bright into Virgil's face, sees there the stains, the mud and the blood and the tracks of old tears. His eyes cloud as he leans forward, pushes his fingers into the tangled mess of Virgil's hair.
It makes Virgil think of another time, when other fingers crawled through his hair.
Virgil flinches, remembers the hard slam of his skull against stone. No, he screams inside his head, unsure why he is screaming.
Scott pulls back, sensing the change beneath his fingertips.
'I don't…' Scott begins. He doesn't know what to do. 'Virgil,' he says. He is too afraid to touch. He can only stare, as the shadows gather at his back. 'What happened?' Scott asks again as the darkness roars around them.
Virgil's head moves against the stone. He doesn't know.
'I don't…' Virgil says. He doesn't remember.
Scott turns, casts his gaze around the cavern, the rubble, looking for he knows not what. 'C'mon Alan,' he murmurs to himself, to prevent the darkness and the silence from overpowering him. 'What the hell's taking so long?' He turns back to Virgil, sees a fold of paper tucked neat into the crease of his brother's sash.
Scott slips the paper free, unfurls it to reveal a crumpled and faded photograph. He brings it into the lamplight, his eyes encompassing a deep green forest, a grove of palms rising to a pale blue sky. And in the foreground two young men, smiling.
'This is Kyrano,' he says, finally, looking up. 'How the hell did you get a photo of Kyrano?'
Virgil's eyebrows come together. He does not remember.
Scott turns the photo so his brother can see, points a finger at the man by Kyrano's side. 'Who is this?'
Virgil shakes his head. He doesn't know. But the answer falls, unexpected, from his lips.