Let Slip the Chains
Statement of Ilsa Drake
For the record, let me state that my name is Ilsa Drake and that I am, or was, a senior student at Motavia Academy in Piata. I'm sure you'll note that down independently in your file, but I wanted to begin that way, just in case. Always proceed methodically, I was taught; even if there is a reason why it's possible to jump ahead, one should still take the intervening steps to establish a firm foundation. This is not overcautiousness or pedantry, gentlemen, but the process of scientific analysis, and the only way one can rely on one's conclusions.
But I see from your faces that I must move on, and so I shall. My association with Professor Wilton Baynes began one year ago, when I enrolled in his advanced class in religious studies. He was an anthropologist, you see, but his particular interest was in the period of widespread superstition following the Great Collapse nearly eight hundred years ago. He'd made this his specialty; Professor Baynes was fascinated by the superstitious cults and short-lived religions which sprang up as the society and culture of Motavia decayed after the loss of Mother Brain.
In many ways, perhaps, Professor Baynes was something like those cult-leaders whom he studied. He was charismatic and powerful, a bold speaker who could enthrall a room with his oratory. He was in his fifties, but his hair and beard were still the reddish-brown of youth, and even the way his tall, broad figure was running to plumpness seemed more of a sign of robust health than any kind of weakness—everything about him seemed to be a rejection of the physical deterioration and decay of aging. I admit it; I was captivated, as much by his brilliant scholarship as by the raw force of his personality. Perhaps I was even a bit in love with him, or imagined it to be so.
Given all that, you will not find it by any means surprising that I applied to be the professor's assistant for an excavation project to take place in the mountains southwest of Kadary. His contention was that a variety of cult priests had been buried there in the early fourteenth century AW, and that their tomb-temple could tell us much about the beliefs and practices of their religion. This, in turn, would shed light upon the social dynamic of the region, the kind of pressures that would lead to the people taking up this faith.
I've always been a successful student, receiving excellent marks, and between that and what I believed to be Professor Baynes's high opinion of me I assumed I had a good chance of receiving the appointment. This became a certainty, however, when my only serious rival for the position, a fellow student named Halford Carr, committed suicide not long before the decision was to be made. We were all shocked, and when it was found that Carr had stolen a rare book which apparently had some bearing on the matter, the Bayamare Scriptures, from the Academy library it was assumed that he had become obsessed with getting the post and lost his reason under the pressure.
As you might imagine, the suicide of a fellow classmate was a very disturbing event, but Professor Baynes decided to proceed as scheduled with his investigation. Tragic as it was, he pointed out, Carr's death was centered on Carr himself, his own personal issues and psyche. The research subject could not be held accountable, nor the gathering of knowledge by the living he'd abandoned. And as you know, he picked me to be his associate.
We traveled north from Piata to the village of Mile, then through the Mile Gap into the desert valley where is found Kadary and its surrounding villages. In Kadary the Professor had me attend to the job of purchasing supplies for the expedition while he spent several days running down what he called "certain leads" in local records.
"While the cult we are investigating was not based in Kadary proper," Professor Baynes told me, "Kadary shall not be overlooked. Whatever records may have been retained from that period will have been kept here, and the perspective of outsiders may be more objective than that in the old manuscript and diary fragments I've been consulting."
It took the professor three days to complete his work, after which he announced that we would stop in Palorth to hire a guide and workmen. Since desert travel can be dangerous, what with heat, sandstorms, the possibility of getting lost, and the presence of biomonsters, I was relieved to hear it. My relief, though, did not last.
Palorth was not a very prepossessing village, barely a collection of huts, whose only significance that I could see was that it is the southernmost settlement in the valley. The villagers were eager to see us coming—outsiders meant money, after all—but this didn't last, not once Professor Baynes declared what we'd come for. The mention of the southwestern mountains drew two sets of responses: sly, sidealong glances or fearful, shocked looks. Clearly this area raised doubts and fears in the local population, which was actually a good sign, or so I felt. Superstitions and traditions always stemmed from something (though they often were an ineffective response to that something) and may have hinted at what the professor was trying to find.
Despite the feelings the area of our intended search obviously raised, there were quite a number of locals who were ready, and even eager to take our payment. In an impoverished community such as Palorth, the promise of good wages would always go a long way towards overcoming fear and distaste. Professor Baynes interviewed the men and women closely, to make certain that they suited our needs.
It was then that I began to have my first feelings of foreboding about the course of our investigation. Three men were hired to accompany us, and I cannot say that I liked the look of any of them. The guide, Sorat, was a short, swarthy fellow whose clothes were badly stained; his bristling, unevenly-cut black beard seemed almost to resemble some fungoid growth. To speak honestly, I have never met a man whose appearance I found more unpleasant. Still, appearance was only that, and Professor Baynes assured me that Sorat was by far the most knowledgeable of those who offered themselves as guides. The professor himself had some knowledge of the area from previous investigations, so he could well separate truth from mere boastful claims.
The other two men were selected to provide strong backs to act as bearers or in case heavy labor such as large-scale digging was needed, as well as strong arms should monsters or bandits show themselves. They were the brothers Caldwell and Arthur James. Both were big, strong men who displayed a disturbing ease with their bow guns and hunting knives, and they had a vacant, slack-jawed look most of the time. On the other hand, they seemed to like Sorat no more than I did, which I had to consider a reference in their favor.
We set out the next day for the mountains, as soon as the professor explained fully to our guide what we were seeking.
"Several centuries ago, there was a cult based in this region who called themselves the Fellowship of the Joined Ones. I've found manuscripts which indicate that the cult priests were buried in a hidden tomb, near a place called the Gray Fangs, located in the mountains southwest of here. Do you know this place?"
Sorat nodded eagerly.
"The Gray Fangs? Of course, of course. I know them like the back of my hand. C'mon, I'll take you."
The trip took several days, for we traveled a course nearer to west-southwest than due southwest. The James brothers proved well worth their price, for they made it possible to do without the hand-cart we'd needed to bring our supplies from Kadary to Palorth. Along the way I was able to encourage Professor Baynes to tell me more about the Fellowship, which he'd been generally taciturn about at first, perhaps because he didn't want any academic rivals getting wind of his project.
"As you already know, Ilsa," he said, "when Mother Brain was destroyed and the Great Collapse threw our civilization into confusion, religious and cult activity peaked. People had trusted in technology, and technology had failed them, so instead they looked for meaning in divine forces. In addition to traditional religious beliefs, a number of new cults flourished. Some of these cults held very savage, even nihilistic beliefs, which is not too difficult to understand when you consider that the people of that era had lived through what they surely saw as an apocalypse."
"Savage times can make people act as savages," I agreed.
"Originally, I believed that the Fellowship of the Joined Ones was another example of that—a cult which offered a sense of power and control to members who'd had a whole world snatched from them, and important to illustrate the reaction of we Parmanians to changing conditions here on Motavia."
We'd dropped to the end of the group by then, forced to do so by the professor's unaccountably slow steps. When he spoke, he did so in a low, almost whispering voice, quite unlike his usual forceful speech. I realized that he wished to be as private as possible in the things he was telling me, and I cannot deny that I found the notion disquieting.
"My research into cult activity in the region led me to the Testament of Xayn, a book in the rare collection the Academy calls the 'Madison bequest.' It is a record written by the high priest of another Kadary-area cult, one from the end of the fourteenth century, more than fifty years after the Fellowship fell out of favor. The Testament contains descriptions of rites and rituals which were disturbingly familiar to those practiced by the Fellowship."
He did not have to tell me that he meant something more than merely the practice of human sacrifice or the like. All death cults had certain similarities to each other because, although separated by time, place, and root culture, they served the same psychological needs for their disturbed or desperate followers.
Still and all, there was an obvious explanation for the two cults resembling one another, and I felt constrained to make it.
"Existing in the same small region, and within a few decades of one another, isn't it likely that the Xayn cult used elements of the Fellowship's faith in their own practices? It's even possible that members may have been shared."
"Perhaps," he said doubtfully, then hesitated.
"Professor, if there is something more, you should tell me. As your assistant, I need to know what I should be looking for in our work."
I could actually see indecision in his gaze as he looked at me, a quality which I had never associated with Professor Baynes. Finally, though, he won out over his fears.
"The Testament was not the only book of the Madison bequest I consulted. Have you heard of the Bayamare Scriptures?"
I recognized the name at once as an occult work of some note, but it also held a more immediate meaning.
"Carr," I said, shocked by the realization. "I heard that the night he...he killed himself, he'd broken into the library and stolen the Scriptures."
"That is true," Professor Baynes told me. "Carr was, apparently, trying to promote his own chances for becoming my associate by researching the source material and getting a leg up on his competition. This desperate act, of course, showed just how close to the edge he was, and that tragedy needn't concern us further, but he was quite right in that the Scriptures are what makes this investigation so significant from an academic standpoint."
"The Bayamare Scriptures are the holy text of a cult that existed over seventeen hundred years ago, a millennium before the Great Collapse. Parmanian society has gone through a number of sea changes during that time, including of course the destruction of our home planet Parma—but yet both the Xayn cult and the Fellowship incorporate many terms and rites referenced in the Bayamare Scriptures, eleven centuries after that religion's existence!"
Professor Baynes was right. This was a phenomenal find.
"This...but how could an obscure death cult survive that long?" I demanded, forgetting my place as an assistant in the enthusiasm of the moment.
"Perhaps it existed in the shadow of technological civilization, and after the Great Collapse became more prominent due to the social changes that made such a cult more attractive to the population. But it would be highly unlikely that such a faith could remain viable for so long, hidden and unseen, in the face of such change."
"But what else could it be?"
"Perhaps..." he began slowly, but I could see the wall coming up in his mind, shutting him off before he told me anything. "Well, I'll just say that I have speculations which this investigation may bear out."
With that he straightened, squared his shoulders, and picked up the pace, saying, "Come on, Ilsa. If we don't start moving Caldwell and Arthur will think that we're part of the baggage!"
The sudden show of joviality did not fool me for a minute, though. I knew there was something he was keeping from me, something important.
I attempted once or twice more during our trip to draw the professor out on this point, but he proved intractable and so, not wanting to anger the man who was both my employer and responsible for determining if this investigation would add to or subtract from my chances of earning an assistant professorship, I dropped the subject. Besides which, I was sure that if it was as important as Professor Baynes's manner suggested it could hardly help but come up again during the course of the work and would be more naturally dealt with then.
Before long, we caught sight of the Gray Fangs, and when we did I was forced to admit to myself that Sorat knew his way around the area as promised. The Fangs were two peaks along a ridge, tall and seemingly needle-thin so that they did indeed look like a beast's lower canines. The trick to finding them lay in the fact that another, larger mountain blocked the view of them from the northeast. One had to approach them from nearly due north, and this direction placed one well off any trail or trade route from the area's towns and villages. The landmark would very likely go unseen by anyone except an explorer, or someone who had reason to look for it as we were.
"There stand the Gray Fangs," Sorat announced. "To approach them will be much trouble, for there is no trail, no pass that leads up to that ridge."
"That's all right; we don't actually need to get up there," the professor said. "The Gray Fangs are one of the landmarks necessary to find the place I seek."
He rummaged through his pockets, quickly coming up with a slip of paper.
"Yes, here we are. 'Between the shadow of the Gray Fangs, on the graven wall, the Devoted shall ascend above the star-stone to rest until they are called.' That is the place I am looking for. I wish these were clear directions and a map, but the ancients rarely concerned themselves with such things. They preferred cryptic hints and riddle games."
In truth, I never understood such things myself. If the intent was to conceal the tomb from any but other members of the Fellowship, why write it down at all? And if so, why write in clear landmarks which anyone who did some research could discover? Why not write in a code which, for example, substituted arbitrary words for others, and therefore would require a key to read?
"Ah, the wall. Now that's pretty clear," Sorat said. "See there? That little gap between the hills? That canyon ends in a cliff face, seventy feet high and a couple of hundred feet across."
"And, if my sense of direction is clear, that would be in line with the shadow cast by the Fangs throughout the year." Professor Baynes took out a compass and ran through some calculations in his head. "Sometime between three and five this afternoon, during this time of year, if I'm not mistaken."
Since according to the professor's pocket watch, it was half past one, we set off in the indicated direction at once, increasing our pace so that we would make it in time. We did, and the first strip of blackness was painting the western edge of the wall even as we approached it across the rocky flat. As we came near, the shadow crept east even as Algo moved in the opposite direction behind the mountains. I understood—we all did—the meaning of "between the shadow" at once, for the doubled peaks left a gap, a bar of sunlight, between them. We watched it proceed, eagerly looking for any sign of the 'star-stone' or for something to reveal itself as the shadow moved, but all we were rewarded with was the occasional sparkle of the light glittering off a crystal in the desert floor.
"Is this it?" Arthur James asked. "Where are we supposed to dig?"
"I don't know. We were supposed to see the next landmark, the 'star-stone.' Is this the only wall you know of that could fit the description, Sorat?"
"In this general area. There are others, of course, but you can't see the Gray Fangs from there."
"Then that—wait a minute. The cliff itself creates a shadow, so anything illuminated by the light between the Fangs' shadow has to be on the desert floor. Everyone! We're going to begin a methodical search of this canyon. If you find anything, mark its location and I'll examine it."
As it turned out, I was the one who made the find, a large, half-buried chunk of crystal-studded rock which I realized after a time had edges too neat and precise to have been natural. It hadn't been obvious, because it was tilted at an angle as well as being partially buried in the dirt, but those edges were carved to points spread equidistantly around the outside. There would be nine if the pattern held, rather than the traditional five or six points, but I was sure I'd found the star-stone.
"Professor Baynes!" I called. "I think I have it. Come here and see!"
Not only the professor, but everyone did, to look at my discovery.
"Yes...yes, this is it for sure," he said. "It could hardly be a coincidence."
Arthur nudged his brother.
"Better get the shovels and a pry-lever. We'll have it up for the prof in no time."
"No, wait," Professor Baynes ordered at once. "The manuscript said above, not beneath the star-stone. This isn't the tomb door, but something else."
"But what else? There's nothing above it but air."
"It's at an angle, though," I said. "Maybe it points a specific direction?"
"That's it, Ilsa!" the professor exclaimed gleefully. "This stone is a refractor. That's why it's angled, and made of crystal. When the light hits it in a certain way—that's the importance of the shadow—it focuses and redirects that light in a different direction, to indicate the location of the tomb!"
"Then why did it not work this afternoon?" Sorat asked.
"Because it hasn't been cleaned for centuries. It's dirty, it's weathered, and it's partly buried. We need to dig this stone free without disturbing its position, then clean and polish it as best we can. But that's a job to start tomorrow." He clapped his big hands together. "I'd love to get to work now, but we'll need light to work by if we want it to be done well. Let's pitch camp and get some rest. We've all earned it."
It was that night, there in the canyon beneath the Gray Fangs, so close to the hidden tomb-temple we were seeking, that I had the first of the dreams. I cannot remember the details, other than that they were disquieting and left me shaken and uncomfortable.
The emotions I woke with, however, were soon banished by the bright morning sun and my own eagerness to begin work. I was, after all, a scholar, and the chance to solve a centuries-old mystery and uncover a lost secret fired my blood. Whatever the nature of this puzzle, I wanted to help find the answer. Thus I threw myself into the work with passion and enthusiasm. In less than an hour we had the star-stone clear of the dirt; it took much longer to scrub it clean and polish its surface as best we could with the tools we had at hand. Even as the shadow of the Gray Fangs began to settle over us we were not certain if we had done enough, but then, when the central bar of sunlight fell directly across it, a beam of light seemed to lance upwards from the stone, pointing directly at a spot not on the cliff but on the hillside making the east wall of the canyon. Within three minutes, at my estimate, the beam vanished, the sunlight no longer striking the stone at the necessary angle.
It was enough, though. We had taken note of the light's direction and with a bit of simple calculation could retrace its course at any time. We left the James brothers on the valley floor to direct us if we lost track while we climbed, and then Professor Baynes, Sorat, and I ascended the hillside. It was not always easy going, but neither was it impossible or even sufficiently difficult as to require equipment. At last, we found ourselves at a long, narrow crevice leading into the hillside.
"No way of telling how deep it is," Sorat said. "It could be something, or just a crack in the rock."
"No one could squeeze through that," I remarked, "not unless they had the plasticity of a Zol slug. Perhaps with picks and strong backs we could widen the entrance?"
The professor nodded slowly, but he was clearly distracted by some other concern.
"Perhaps so, but...This wouldn't be sealed, not if it was supposed to be entered again. Why leave complex directions and a precisely aligned marker if the tomb-temple was to be closed up for all time?"
He had a good point and neither of us could dispute it.
"These are the foothills," Sorat suggested after a few moments. "Possibly in the centuries since this place was used, an earthquake, a rockslide perhaps, something closed off the cavern?"
"That would make more sense...though this does appear to be a single piece of rock, not a collection of fallen stones."
"A secret door?" I asked.
"Certainly worth looking for. If not...well, we'll see how deep we have to go the hard way."
Careful examination revealed no hidden switches or other means of opening up the crevice into a portal. By shining the beam of a dark-lantern into the gap and craning our heads about to get the best view, we were able to tell that the crevice's left-hand wall went on for an indeterminate distance, but the right wall seemed to extend for only about a foot until darkness took over. If there was a passage, it would be behind that side.
"Since we're here and we have the tools, we'll see what we can do. If there's something there, we'll find out," the professor announced. "We'll start tonight."
I was surprised by the professor's decision to begin at once; there were only a couple of more hours of sun left, not enough to get the job done. I was even more surprised when he hefted a pick and went to work beside the two brothers, wielding it with almost as much strength and quite a bit more enthusiasm.
"He is like a man possessed, your professor," Sorat said slyly, drawing near me as we watched. I hadn't sensed his approach, and the sudden awareness of his presence made me flinch.
"You don't like me very much, do you, Miss Drake?" he said. "I've seen the way you look at me. You think I'm an undereducated beggar. Maybe a criminal—a bandit, who knows the desert well from years of hiding in its corners, striking out at passing victims. You wonder if maybe my knife's looking for a place in your backs!" He opened his mouth, revealing broken teeth, and cackled shrilly.
And some part of me had to admit that he was right. I had been thinking exactly those things, and had been all along. It was not the way of a scientist. Or was it? The difference was between a baseless prejudice and the analysis of observable data.
Sorat seemed to see the thoughts rush through my head, for he grinned again, wickedly.
"Now, Professor Baynes, he does not agree, does he? He sees me as a good guide, a knowing one. But is he right, eh, you ask? Does he know something you do not? Or is it something else? He is a driven man in this search."
Watching the professor's arms rise and fall rhythmically as he wielded the pick, even as the golden rays of the setting sun painted the hillside in amber and bronze, I could see what Sorat meant.
"Of course," I said. "He is on the verge of a great discovery, one which could be a landmark moment in the study of Parmanian culture and history. Between the scientist's excitement and, if we wish to consider the practical aspects, the prestige such a find will bring him, it's no wonder Professor Baynes is enthusiastic about this investigation. This is his life's work bearing fruit. Why, what we find in this canyon might change Parmanian culture forever."
It sounded hollow to me even as I said it, but Sorat replied, "You think so, do you? Well, perhaps you are right, Miss Drake. Perhaps you are right."
And with that, he flashed me a smile, with closed lips, that seemed almost...knowing.
The chill of the desert night gripped us tightly after sunset, and I was forced to don my heavy cloak against the wind that whistled down the canyon. The professor, though, seemed to notice none of it. Flushed with excitement, he spoke rapidly and energetically, reporting their progress so far and laying out the plans for the next day.
"Things are going very well indeed," he said to me. "Better, in fact, than I had expected. The stone is not so hard as it appeared at first, and fragments easily under the pick. I daresay we will be through in half the time I had originally anticipated."
"Professor," I murmured, "do you think that...that this is really something you want to do?"
"Ilsa, what do you mean?"
"Well, you described the Fellowship of the Joined Ones as a death-cult. These were people who worshipped something..." I hesitated, not wanting to use the word, but I could think of no other one which accurately described my feelings. "Well, something evil. Isn't it better that such a thing stay buried instead of being brought out into the light?"
He looked at me with a stunned expression—the look of a man who has just come face-to-face with a noxious heresy that has manifested itself seemingly from nowhere.
"What are you saying? How can you apply words like 'good' and 'evil' to our studies? We are on the verge of discovering cultural factors that may have influenced Parmanian society for nearly two millennia! If there is something here to be learned, it is our obligation as scientists to forcibly bring it out for all to know, not leave it hidden. There is Truth here to be discovered! Truth cannot be set aside merely because you find it personally repugnant. What is ugliness in one pair of eyes may be beauty in another!"
He spoke with all the power, the force of personality with which I have said his lectures contained. Yet there was a difference, an underlying tension perhaps—a sense that this was not the man passionately speaking of his beliefs, but the beliefs carrying away with the man. The Professor Baynes I knew was a scientist whose charisma was an outgrowth of his intellect, his confidence in the mind, in reason, in logic. This man who spoke to me then was a man of faith, a believer, perhaps a fanatic, and I did not understand.
No more, really, did I understand my own forebodings. They were as alien to my own nature as Professor Baynes's near-ravings were to his.
When no answer was forthcoming from me, he said coldly, "I expected better of you, Ilsa. As my assistant, you are supposed to aid me in my work, not attempt to stand in the way of this investigation's goals. Your attitude is highly inappropriate for one in your position, and I can only hope that a night's reflection can make you see better of it."
He stopped short of directly threatening my academic standing, but then again, he did not have to. A good recommendation from Professor Baynes would all but guarantee myself the assistant professorship I sought, but a critical report would do the opposite. I said no more, acutely aware of my own position. Would that I had found the courage to do otherwise!
Shaking his head sadly at what he no doubt felt was my shortsightedness and seeming betrayal, the professor returned to his tent. By the shadows cast from the lamp inside, I could tell that he remained awake for a long time, no doubt poring over the Bayamare Scriptures or the collection of manuscript pieces about the Fellowship he'd come to refer to as the Kadary Fragments, both to gather clues about what to expect and to help him understand what he was to look for in order to prove or disprove his hypothesis.
Sitting before my tent in that cold desert night, I was forced to admit it to myself: I wanted the investigation to fail. More accurately, I wanted the professor to be wrong. For us to turn and leave without unsealing the tomb was not enough. Our actions would not change the truth. What frightened me was the possibility that there had indeed been a religious movement, a fanatical one stretching back centuries, enduring despite the progression from monarchy to the pristine world of Mother Brain through the Great Collapse and—who knew? Perhaps even to the present day! It had moved from Parma to Motavia, escaping the destruction of our home planet, after all.
The thought that such a thing could have a pervasive influence on our culture, lingering in the dark corners of Parmanian civilization like a lurking spot of insanity in our collective subconscious was something I did not want to admit, not even as a detached, analytical observer. Was evil that much a part of the Parmanian nature?
Professor Baynes had also hinted at an alternative possibility, but I could not think of what that could be. How else could death rituals endure to the present day, surviving through the centuries, if they had not been preserved and passed down?
It was no wonder that my dreams were once again frightful.
I awoke the next morning shaken and uneasy, as if a gray shadow hung over my spirit even in the brilliant glare of Algo that beat down on the desert. Nonetheless I was resigned to the work, for I knew that leaving the job undone would not soothe my fears. Only a completed investigation with a negative result could do that.
The professor, on the other hand, threw himself into his work with the same feverish enthusiasm as he had the day before, working alongside the James brothers to break through the stone. The space was only wide enough for two men to dig side-by-side, so the three of them rotated in and out to keep themselves fresh and their work proceeding at the fastest possible pace. Before midday, the professor shouted with glee.
"Hah! There; we're through!" One of the men had struck off a chip that pierced all the way through the stone, opening up a tiny hole. With this evidence of their success, they redoubled their efforts and soon large chunks were flaking off and they had an aperture broad enough to admit even the largest of us.
"Ilsa?" the professor called. "Come quickly, and bring the lanterns! We must explore at once!"
This time it was he and I who led the way, while our hired associates remained outside. The purpose, of course, was for us to make the initial investigation in a careful fashion without breaking or damaging anything, and to make detailed records, including sketches, of the find so every object could be placed in its proper context. Only then would artifacts be removed, packed, and taken back to the Academy for careful study and analysis. Method was everything, for only that way could we be sure not to miss vital clues or accidentally give something unwarranted significance.
We opened the shutters on our dark-lanterns to give the maximum possible light and began to explore. At once, we realized that the professor's directions had been accurate. Beyond the hole hacked in the rock was a tunnel, not a natural one but one walled and floored by cut stone blocks.
"It looks like your research paid off, Professor."
"Indeed it does," he agreed with satisfaction. "This is undeniably the place. There in the floor is the cult symbol, unmistakably." He pointed, and I could make out the twisted character inlaid in the flagstone.
"And here; this should answer a few questions. Take a look at these images."
Professor Baynes pointed to the wall. There was the first of a series of small paintings, each sized to fit a single block. I was surprised to see that the first showed the faithful standing before the same rock wall we had just penetrated. A throng was there, outside the lines indicating a door or barrier. The second painting, directly beneath, showed the leader of the multitude with his arms raised, chanting. In the third scene, a few feet down the passage, the cult members were pouring in through the now-open door.
"You see, Ilsa! This explains the sealed door," Professor Baynes enthused. "When the Fellowship was active, they used magic to dispel the door, shift the stone out of phase, something."
"Magic?" I asked. Academy records, of course, spoke of Esper magic being used in the past, but this was an area of power no one knew the details of in any practical way. Attributing archaeological phenomena to the influence of magic was outside the realm of logic, at least without solid evidence.
"Indeed. This explains why the rock was so easy for us to dig through, despite being of a type of stone customarily much harder and more difficult to cut. Repeated transformations from its natural state to some passable form and back again have undermined its structure. A hypothesis only, but I believe it adequately fits the known facts."
I knew that it would likely raise the professor's ire again, but I had to speak up.
"Professor Baynes," I began hesitantly, "why do you believe that magic was involved in entering this site? The paintings are suggestive, I agree, but we did not make an exhaustive search for other means of entrance. How can you be so sure?"
"I did say that it was only a hypothesis," he said, not angrily as I'd expected after his harsh words the night before, but nervously, almost as if trying to dodge the issue.
"But why even think of it?" I asked. "Why magic? No one would think...unless...Professor, did you expect to find indications of magic use? Was there some suggestion the Fellowship could use magic in the Kadary Fragments?"
"Not directly, no," he said.
"The records of the Fellowship's existence are at best partial and fragmentary, but do you remember that it seemed to be a bridge between the Bayamare religion and the cult of Xayn? The latter is well-documented in sources besides the Testament of Xayn itself, and the use of magic—or at least some power of that general nature, beyond the common use of techniques—is often mentioned. The Bayamare Scriptures, of course, tell their own story."
"So you deduced that the Fellowship likely had access to this power as well."
"Then this is the other reason for the cult's survival, the one you didn't talk about, Professor? It has endured because it has access to unusual spells or techniques?"
"Yes, yes indeed," he replied, but his gaze slid on past me, and I could not help but think that I was not getting the entire story. I chose not to press the point, though, and we continued to explore.
As we proceeded down the passage, the wall paintings grew progressively more disturbing. Scenes of worship turned to those of sacrifice, of Parmanians and Motavians stretched on altars beneath the knife. Worse yet were those where the sacrifices were performed by things not entirely human, or by monstrous creatures out of some fevered nightmare. I had to look away from the final depictions, which were hideous in the extreme, and was thankful when the professor quickly moved on out of the corridor through the arch at its far end.
Professor Baynes had repeatedly referred to the site as being a "tomb-temple," and it was clear what that meant as we stepped into a large, vaulted hall. The floor was stone-flagged like the corridor's, but the walls and the six pillars that supported the roof were carved with fantastic, abstract patterns, swirls and loops that strove to capture the viewer's gaze in an almost mesmeric fashion. The beams of our lanterns fell upon niches in the side walls, in a number of which were placed stone sarcophagi.
"You see, Ilsa? When a cult-priest died, the Fellowship would inter the body here. It was believed that the dead spirits could lend their strength to the rituals of worship, that even in death the cult followers would continue to serve their god."
Their god, I thought. I could only speculate what malign conjuring the imaginations of the death-cultists would create for them to pray to. I cast my lantern beam down towards the side of the long temple opposite the door, past the broad stone altar. Beyond the altar stood the statue. I let out a little gasp as I saw it.
"Ilsa, what is it?"
I sighed heavily, but with heartfelt relief.
"I'm sorry, Professor. It's just the statue of the cult's deity. For a moment, I mistook it for a living creature."
He turned his own lantern in that direction.
"Yes, I see what you mean. Very unusual, that. Come, let's have a closer look."
Somewhat gingerly, I followed him down the center of the temple hall, around the altar, and up to the god's statue. It was tall, approximately nine feet. The torso was roughly barrel-shaped, and it had two almost spindly legs ending in large, birdlike claws, two talons pointing forward and one back. Its arms were curved and bent, but had no discernible elbow or other joint; they more closely resembled the flexible body of a worm or snake. There were no hands; both appendages ended in long, bladelike growths of bone or claw. There was no head, either. Instead, two more tentacles sprouted from the thing's trunk, segmented to seem even more wormlike than the arms, and each having a lipless mouth at the tip. Even more curious, the left side of the idol was a sickly purple in hue while the right was a dark, rich brown. At first glance, it seemed like paint, but the professor said at once upon examination that the two sides were made of two separate kinds of stone. I took a second look and confirmed that he was completely correct, though it made my stomach turn to follow the twisted lines of the thing. The statue was of a monstrosity that had no place in nature, I was certain, an abomination that did not belong in our world. It was a fitting idol for a cult that practiced the kind of rituals I'd seen in the corridor paintings.
"The Joined Ones themselves," the professor breathed. "This is it, beyond a doubt. The sanctuary of the Fellowship of the Joined Ones, lost for centuries, and the home to its mysteries."
Professor Baynes unbuttoned his jacket and took out several sheets of new paper, which he laid down on the stone table of the altar. I could see that each was covered in the neat, classic cursive I knew to be the professor's handwriting, though on some the letters were cramped and blotched, indicating that he had written in great haste and excitement.
"Now." He again did not so much speak as he exhaled the sound reverently. "Now we will see the truth!"
Professor Baynes had unnerved me before, with his wild talk and uncharacteristic emotion, but seeing his expression and hearing his voice here, in this place, positively terrified me. This was not the man I knew.
"W-what truth?" I stammered.
"The reason behind the cult's survival! It is not one religion enduring through the ages, but a series of successive cults which continue to be reborn no matter how forcibly they are suppressed because the Power behind them is real! We have here a key—a source from which to restore all that the Great Collapse took from us so many centuries ago!"
"We put our faith in technology, then," he ranted, "in the fallible works of humanity! We were punished, rightfully punished, for our hubris by the Collapse. That drove us back to the divine, to seek the Will of Heaven, but the lesson did not last. Humanity feared the truth and they rose up against it, crushing it out—but I will bring back that truth, bring it back and lead us forward into a purer, cleaner age than that in which we now suffer."
He was mad, I realized, completely insane. Had his study of this death cult, those blasphemous books, driven him to this? Or had, as was hinted by his speech, it begun much earlier? Had it been a kind of religious mania that had driven him to study these post-Collapse superstitions in the first place? These were speculations for trained analysts, though. All I wanted was to escape, to get out of that haunted place and away from the respected mentor who had degenerated into a raving lunatic before my eyes.
I turned to flee, and suddenly realized that we were not alone! The other three members of the group were there, blocking the exit; in the shadowed temple I did not see them until the last moment and by then it was easy for Caldwell James to reach out and grab me, easily overpowering my struggles and holding me firmly by the arms.
Sorat seemed to ignore my presence, instead focusing on the professor. He walked down the center aisle between the pillars towards him.
"So! You are as good as your word, Professor Baynes," the unpleasant-looking guide said, and I realized that here was a case where outward appearance truly did reflect the inner man. "You have found the lost sanctuary sacred to the forgotten god, the dark master. Is it so that you have also rediscovered the ancient rituals of worship, the magics that died with our priests so many centuries ago?"
"I have. Your ancestors lost touch with those ways following the crusade against Xayn, but kept the faith all these years. Now, the lost lore has been recovered, and will usher in a new era on Motavia! I will show you—I will conjure forth the shadow of the One Beyond, even as did the priests who inhabited this temple—but to do this, there must be sacrifice!"
"Yes," Sorat hissed, "and it was wise of you to bring one along, a young woman who will feed the dark master well."
He turned, drawing forth his knife and advanced back towards me as Caldwell frog-marched me up towards the altar. I could see Sorat's face contorted in a hideous leer of bloodlust, though perhaps it was only a trick of the mind, as there was not enough light that I should have been able to make out his expression, let alone in fine detail.
What I could see, and what Sorat did not, was Professor Baynes raise his hand behind the man's back. His voice rang out powerfully.
The paralytic technique took hold of the guide, gripping him in a mental vice so that he could not control his body. His limbs grew slack and he slumped to the floor, the knife rattling off the flagstones with an echoing clangor.
"Fool," Professor Baynes cursed the man. He walked over to Sorat and hefted the smaller man over one shoulder, then stooped and took the knife in his free hand. "I explained when I hired you that the faith must be brought into the light. It must be seen, and its divine grace studied and thereby shown to be superior to common science. It cannot creep and crawl in the darkness like a damned thing, or else people will see it as such and fear it."
He dumped Sorat's form onto the altar next to the outspread pages, and continued to speak as he ripped open the man's robes to bare his chest.
"A religion run in such a manner attracts only mental defectives like yourself. You wanted to sacrifice Ilsa, because violence against women appeals to you in some visceral fashion. She is my associate on this Academy investigation. How am I supposed to persuade my skeptical fellows of the importance of my discovery if she is not here to do her work? Worse, what if she does not return at all and the shocking death of a senior student becomes associated with the investigation in everyone's mind? No—two deaths, for common psychology would link in Carr's suicide as well."
He then turned to me and continued his lecture—which, I realized, was exactly what it was, the teacher attempting to educate the student.
"You see, Ilsa, it is analogous to how a doctor must, upon occasion, amputate an infected or severely damaged limb to save the body. It is not pleasant, but everyone understands the necessity of the procedure. Likewise, the extraction of a decayed tooth. Yet what if the doctor stalked his patient in the dead of night, ambushed her, and sliced off the limb or pulled out the tooth without explanation? That is what Sorat is like, what the mistakes made by the Fellowship and Xayn were. Blood sacrifice is necessary to earn the grace of Heaven, but they make the act not a devotion of society as a whole, cutting out one part for the good of all, but a perverted act to gratify their own urges. It's no wonder they raised fear in the surrounding towns and had armies crush them out."
He turned back to the altar and raised his arms in supplication before the idol. The professor then began to chant in words that were from no language I knew, syllables that, not unlike the ones used in technique use, were no doubt part of his "magic."
I wriggled and twisted, trying to get away, but the grip on my arms was as firm as ever. Perhaps the brothers had been impressed by the professor's oratory and so had come to accept his will over Sorat's. Or perhaps they were simply used to violence as being the usual manner of settling disputes among their number. To the strong went victory, or some such trite phrase. To me, it all meant nothing except that I was unable to break free and escape.
Then, the chanting reached a crescendo, and with a single, sharp word, Professor Baynes reached out and sliced Sorat's throat with surgical precision. In that instant, the room seemed to vibrate, the walls and floor trembling not with physical movements like an earthquake, but something else, as if a kind of energy was pulsing through the temple. There was a pressure against me, a force throbbing against my mind; the atmosphere was leaden with it. In the niches at the sides of the temple, the sarcophagi seemed to leak flame, orange tongues of it that seeped from every chink and crack to coalesce as vaguely manlike haunts of living fire.
The dead priests, come to lend their power to the ritual.
And then I saw it.
It hovered in the air, or seemed to, between the altar and the idol of the Joined Ones. It was an image, taking shape within an aura of liquid blackness that pulsed and shone like a lamp, only emanating shadows, an effect I could clearly see now that the flaming haunts were providing light for the hall. The image was not that of the Fellowship's gods. The Joined Ones' complete alienness was horrible, but this was somehow worse. It was a face, one with unnatural ridges suggesting some kind of armor, like chitin, sunken and burning eyes, and jagged fangs in upper and lower jaw, but nonetheless a face. The suggestion of humanity in its semblance gave it something that the unnatural monstrosity lacked: the ability to convey emotion.
This devil was suffused with it. One could not look at it without knowing at once that it despised everything. All life, all hope, everything; it wanted to destroy all.
This was the Will of Heaven?
The room began to shake now, the terrible presence of the gathering magic now manifesting physically. Tiny chips of stone dust flaked from pillars and the ceiling, and were it not that all that terrific power was directed, focused by Professor Baynes's spell on the act of summoning, I feared it would be much worse.
Was this what he had learned in the Bayamare Scriptures? Had Carr learned it too, and killed himself rather than face it?
For all the professor's talk about "necessary sacrifice" and "bringing the truth into the light" he was as mad as Sorat. No, worse, because essentially Sorat had understood the nature of what he served, its malign desires akin to his own lust to inflict pain and torment, to see blood flow. The professor was deluded by his own false dreams to want to conjure this thing. I cannot rationally say that I knew the spell would work, but I was utterly convinced of it nonetheless, that the demon would burst forth into our world to raven and kill.
I could do nothing physically—I was still held firmly; the brothers showed no emotional reaction at all to what was happening. There was still a chance, though; the professor was completely consumed in his ritual and had his back turned. Though I could not move, I could see and speak.
Trying to gather my will in the face of the waves of emotion that rolled off the demon and washed over me, I summoned the power to use a technique. The energy positively crashed into me, so saturated was the temple with conjured magic, and I hurled it outwards.
Chilling ice struck the professor in the back and he staggered, hurt but more importantly distracted! Caldwell James hurled me hard to the floor in a fit of rage when he realized what I'd done, but in the next moment I heard a scream, a bellowing, furious, horrid shriek encompassing the frustration and fury of the demon denied, and Professor Baynes's spell exploded, the power rushing outward to hammer at people, walls, pillars, and spirits alike. My prone position spared me the worst of it, but I was still forcefully slid over five feet across the floor. The brothers were knocked flying, and the haunts were snuffed out like candle-wicks, but I did not see what became of the professor.
In truth, I did not look back, but merely scrambled to my feet and, ignoring the throbbing ache—I truly believe I did not notice the pain, my mind blocking it out—I ran as best I could towards the arch. All around me I heard the rumbling of vibrating stone, and dust showered from the walls and ceiling. A tiny, sharp fragment of rock struck my cheek, slicing it, but I did not stop. A pillar fell apart to my right just before I entered the corridor, and I could see fissures running up through the walls as I continued to flee. To my mind it seemed that I was barely running ahead of a cave-in, but in truth I had squeezed through the exit hole and managed to nearly get down the slope to the canyon floor before I heard the roaring sound that indicated the final collapse. A swelling plume of dust burst forth from the hole we had dug, and when it cleared I saw that the gap was choked with tumbled stones.
I did not hesitate, though, not even to breathe a sigh of relief at the narrow escape I—no, all Motavia—had had. I went at once to the professor's tent and tore through it until I'd found every scrap of paper, every manuscript, even the volume of the Bayamare Scriptures bound in violet serpent-hide, and set them alight with the fire-starter. As I watched the pages blacken and curl, I felt part of my soul sicken with the scholar's hatred for destroying knowledge, but the far greater fraction felt nothing but relief.
You understand now, do you not, why I acted the way I did? One door may have been closed, but that devil is still out there, still waiting for someone who from ambition or despair or ignorance wishes to turn it loose. We must stop it, must destroy the ancient records, the writings the cult-priests left behind to lure in future generations. You must see that it is done!
But you won't, will you? You do not believe me. You will do nothing, and the world will burn beneath the dark force's black hate.