The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Three Faces Of God
The caverns below Chichen Itza
1 am 15th July.
Looking at the scene in front of them, T.R. turns to Steven. "Get Eric and Belle Marie out of here now!" he murmurs.
Sean is speaking at the same time, stepping to the tunnel opening. "Follow my lead " He draws his gun. He ought to use it to shoot Keyes, Steven thinks to himself. That might solve some of their problems. But responding to the urgency in T.R.'s voice, he begins to shepherd Eric and Belle-Marie back.
"Reconvaco!" Sean shouts. The cultists freeze, some of them turning in his direction. Behind him, Martyn and T.R. tense, ready to back him up if need be, Martyn transferring his pistol to his left hand and drawing a knife.
"Long time no see, my friend!" Sean's voice echoes around the cavern. "I think we need to talk about how best to deal with Quetzie. I believe that we both wish to see an end to that threat. I think you should send your congregation home, we need to talk in private."
There is a moment's silence. Then Reconvaco straightens, turns away from Martin in the centre of the cavern and towards the sound of Sean's voice.
That is the moment that Martin chooses to smash the skull into the side of the little man's head.
The sound of the blow lasts for several seconds. Reconvaco pauses, begins to turn back, swaying unsteadily, then finally collapses to the ground in an unmoving heap.
"Shit," Sean groans. He raises his gun.
A quick glance round to make sure Steven and the others are retreating safely, and T.R. moves forward. God damn idiot Keyes, he thinks, his fists curling in readiness, if the cultists don't kill him, I will.
After a shocked pause, the cultists all begin shouting at once: a confused babble of noise, echo overlaid on echo. Standing in the middle of it Keyes realises he can't see Lalina's men any more. Or Astrid and her son. The skull becomes warm in his hands. He lifts it up, turns slightly, and it seems to shift with his movement. Martin finds himself looking at the face of a man of such unearthly beauty that the urge to kneel before it is almost overwhelming.
The crack of a gun going off brings him back to himself. Sean. Martin casts a quick glance around. One of the guards is down, another is coming at him.
"Give it a try, boy," Keyes whispers. He lifts the skull above his head. "OLA! El dios le habala a traves de mi!" he bellows in broken Spanish. The crystal skull turns in his grasp, so hot now that he can feel his fingers burning. "Oh bugger. Su recompensa es actual, pero usted debe arquear abajo y probar su fe!"
"What is the fool doing?" T.R. mutters. Some of the cultists are turning in their direction. T.R. blocks one of them, punching him hard in the stomach. Aberg swipes at a second one with his knife. Anger explodes in him and he lets out a roar and charges forward. The sight of him, knife brandished in one hand, gun in the other, is enough to make the rest or the cultists hesitate. For a moment, at least.
"Soy el criado del craneo. Necesita ningunos otros. Fuera de la cueva. Ahora!" Keyes yells. A guard swings round on him. Too late, Marty sees the gun in his hand.
Two gunshots go off together. A woman screams. Astrid, maybe, or Belle-Marie. Marty finds that all sounds are blending into one. He braces himself, feeling the heat from the skull sear down his arms.
Another scream. Light flares. A silent explosion that rocks the cavern. As one, every torch streams and goes out.
The silence is broken by a low moaning. It takes Martin a few minutes to realise it is coming from his own throat. He picks himself up. There is blood low down on his shirt, he can feel the sticky warmth of it. After-images of the skull dance before his eyes. Then a flashlight bobbing across the cavern. He stumbles towards it, the now-cold skull clutched in his burnt hands.
"And I will show you the way," he whispers, before passing out in Martyn Aberg's arms.
The sound of gun fire echoes through the tunnels. Belle-Marie stumbles and turns back. "Keep moving," Steven urges. Eric agrees. His doctor's instinct is screaming at him to go back and help the wounded, but good sense tells him that Keyes has made his own bed here and whatever trouble he is in now the rest of them will have to try and get him out when there are fewer people to contend with. Moving on at a brisk walk, he does his best to remain calm. He can't afford to put himself at risk. Some of the others are bound to be hurt and they will need his skills later on. Not far now. He glances back. The passageway behind them is quiet, empty. Placing a hand on Belle-Marie's shoulder, Eric walks on. Steven watches them worriedly from behind.
Then comes a flash of light that illuminates the rock around them. Belle-Marie gasps. "What was that?"
"There's no time," Steven says, though he too is staring back the way they came. He pulls himself together with an effort. Two lives are depending on him here. If he goes back now he could put them all at risk and for nothing. He adjusts his night goggles. "Come on: we're nearly out."
"Come on," T.R. snaps, quickly taking charge of the situation. "You two carry him." He prises the skull from Keyes' fingers and steps over the prone body of another cultist. Dead or unconscious, he doesn't know. He doesn't stop to check.
Some of the cultists are stirring as they reach the tunnel. "What the hell happened?" Aberg demands. The blood is pounding in his head making it difficult for him to think.
"I don't know." All T.R. can remember is the skull glowing and then a burst of light. He'd assumed the light had come from the skull but thinking back he's not so sure. "It wasn't the skull," he says slowly. "The light came from somewhere else. I don't know what it was."
Footsteps behind them. Sean pauses to let off a shot back down the corridor.
"Hurry," Aberg mutters. Dragging the unconscious Keyes between them, they start to run.
The vehicle is still there, a hunched, black shadow against the night. Eric collapses into a seat gratefully. "What now?" he asks. "Do we wait and hope the others come, or do we leave now?"
Steven glances at his watch. It is one-thirty. "We give them fifteen minutes," he decides. "If they're not here by then we go on without them and think of a way to rescue them later." He sighs, slipping off his goggles and pressing the palms of his hands into his eyes. Not for the first time, he wonders why he was chosen for this mission. He's a computer operator, not a fighter. If SITU wants skulls stolen and Ylids killed they should send in a team of assassins to do the job. Only, of course, SITU don't have a team of assassins, he thinks bleakly. All they have is us ordinary mortals who are doing our best in a very bad situation.
Belle-Marie stands up suddenly. "I think I can see something."
The rope is in front of them. Sean slings Keyes over his shoulder and climbs up it, followed by T.R. Aberg fires his pistol once more into the quiet dark of the tunnel then goes after them. Distant voices reach them on the wind, people calling out in Spanish.
Belle-Marie is weak with relief to see them. "What happened? Are you all right." She catches sight of Keyes' burnt face and winces. "Is he all right?"
"He won't be by the time I've finished with him," T.R. mutters darkly. Eric is already bending over him. Burns, he notes. Some of them only surface marks, but others are second, maybe third degree. And then a bullet hole, low down. No exit hole. Not a good sign. The car starts up but he doesn't notice. The doctor in him has already taken over.
The drive back to the hotel is one of tense silence, expecting every moment to hear the sounds of pursuit. As soon as they reach the road, Aberg puts his foot hard on the accelerator and they speed the rest of the way.
The hotel manager, Vizcaya, is waiting for them.
"Where's your first aid kit?" Eric asks.
Vizcaya's eyes grow round. "Senors, what has happened? Your friend is hurt. I shall call a doctor?"
"I am a doctor," Eric tells him. He smiles, displaying a reassurance he doesn't feel, and hides his bloodied hands. "He looks worse than he is. You must have a first aid kit on the premises."
"We need to get our things and get out of here," Aberg mutters to him. "Reconvaco's men know we are staying here. It won't be long before they come looking for us."
Vizcaya stalls them. "Senores, I need to tell you. The police were here, asking questions. They wanted to see all the rooms, but they had no warrant so I didn't let them. I thought you would not want them looking."
Or taking the generator that you've been promised, Steven thinks, breathing a sigh of relief. "I'd better go check everything. Senor Vizcaya, I'm afraid we're going to have to move out tonight."
Vizcaya doesn't seem surprised. "Si senor. I understand." He pauses a moment in thought then looks up with a broad smile. "Senor Smith, you promised me your generator, yes? In return, I can find you new hotel, somewhere quiet where you will not be disturbed. And I can forget where you are if anyone comes asking. Is it a deal?"
They don't appear to have much choice. "It's a deal," T.R. agrees heavily. "Let's move."
Thanks to Eric's credit card, the new hotel is a great deal more comfortable than the Esplendido. All eight rooms on the top floor are theirs and the manager assures them no one will come in, not even the maid, unless they ask specifically. Apart from a quick. quizzical look he didn't even comment on their strange time of arrival. No doubt also to do with the large figure on the credit card slip.
Steven immediately begins the task of setting up the computer equipment. Aberg, after checking his own notebook computer, settles down for a few hours sleep. The others follow his lead.
Only Eric stays awake. Sitting beside the bed holding the semi-conscious Martin Keyes he wonders how exactly he is going to treat him with only the hotel's first aid kit and what he brought in his suitcase. Maybe they should risk taking him to the hospital. Only then Reconvaco's men will almost certainly find them.
He sighs deeply, blinking away sleep. Once again he finds himself gazing at a cup and a spear and the voice echoes in his mind, asking him to make the choice. To heal or to fight. He suddenly wonders whether they are just different sides of the same coin. He shakes his head. Even if they are, he made his choice long ago. Eyes closing, he reaches out with his hands and takes hold of the cup. The grail, source of all healing.
He jerks awake hours later. The sky is brightening and in the half light Martin Keyes is sleeping peacefully. His hands, his face, his body, are all unmarked. Eric stares down at him for a long, long time. Then, tears of gratitude starting to his eyes, he bows his head and weeps.
"You are bloody lucky no one touched this," Martyn Aberg says, laying a protective hand on his notebook computer. "Otherwise you'd have been footing the bill for a new one." He stares at Sean and Martin Keyes, his green eyes narrowing dangerously. "And the next time you or Marty risk blowing this while operation without warning the rest of us," he adds quietly, "you'd better have more excuse than your own smugness. Otherwise I may lose my patience."
"If you ask me, Martin is pretty damn lucky anyway," T.R. says. "Either he wasn't as badly hurt as he looked, or Eric performed a miracle last night."
The surgeon avoids his gaze. "Something of both, I believe." He smiles but his expression remains strained. "Did you actually kill Reconvaco, Martin? It seems to me that if he is Ahuan's agent she might be drawn in if something were to happen to him."
"True," Sean agrees. "Personally, I'm hoping he's still alive, but we'll have to wait and see. One other thing, I want to bring Lalina into this." He throws a quick glare around the room, staving off potential opposition. "She could be useful to us. Her people know the score here, and they can probably get around unnoticed, which is more than we can do at the moment."
George Kelsall looks up from his corner of the room. "I agree. The Zapatistas were taken in by Reconvaco on the last mission. They'll not make the same mistake again. And right now, I'd say we need all the help we can get."
With no one arguing, Sean stands up. "Good. I'll go and find her." He doesn't add that what he's really looking forward to is the look on her face when he tells her they have the skull. He might even get her to smile. For some reason the thought makes him happy and he goes out whistling.
Martin Keyes stirs. "I want to contact Astrid," he says, speaking for the first time that morning. The night's adventures have left him visibly shaken.
Eric frowns and shakes his head. "I've got a theory about her, too. Her name means star, does it not, and Mario is simply a version of Mary, the Madonna. Astrid was the one who gave away our position last night. I wouldn't be surprised if she is Ahuan herself, in disguise."
Keyes looks at him in disbelief. "That's ridiculous! She's just a woman who needed help. If she was Ahuan she she "
"She might not have vanished at the critical point last night?" Steven puts in drily.
Keyes jumps to his feet. "You don't know what you're talking about. I'll go and bring her back here, then you can talk to her yourself." He goes to the door. Steven gets up to stop him. T.R. puts a hand on his arm.
"Let him go. I don't think he can cause more trouble than he already has."
The skull sits on the table in the middle of the room. Even in daylight it seems to glow slightly. It is facing roughly west, and every time anyone moves it, it seems to wait a few seconds then slowly turn itself back. When they draw the curtains, the face becomes visible. Eerily beautiful, it is the face of a man, drifting in and out of focus so they have to stare for some minutes before they can be sure they have seen it clearly.
T.R. finally looks away from it. "I've seen the face before. On a mask representing the god Quetzalcoatl."
"It certainly looks like the one I saw before," Kelsall says, stepping in front of it to get a closer look. "The question is, what do we do with it?"
"Use it to contact Quetzalcoatl," Eric suggests. "I know it's risky, but he might well be able to help us against Reconvaco."
"And Ahuantepec," Belle-Marie adds. She shivers, looking at the skull. "Why does it always face the same way?" She looks at T.R. expectantly.
He shrugs. "I contacted Hernandez earlier this morning. I didn't tell him we had the skull, I just asked him about any associated legends. He said if it was a skull made for a specific god, it would always turn to face him. Which means, in theory, it would face all directions at once because God is everywhere."
Steven bends closer. "But it doesn't," he says slowly. "Because Quetzalcoatl is a real being, who has an exact physical location."
The bar is closed when Marty gets there. Impatiently he bangs on the door, only stopping when it opens.
"Si senor, what do you want?" The bar owner peers at him suspiciously.
"Astrid," Marty says. "Where is she?"
"She is not here. Gone."
There is something in his tone that sends a shock of cold through Marty's stomach. "What do you mean, gone?" he asks. "Where is she?"
The man raises his hands palms up in a shrug. "Senor, she work here three days only. Says she wants job, then last night says she no want job. Senor, we are closed. Sorry."
The door begins to close.
"Wait a minute," Martin shouts desperately. "I left some things with her last night. I need them back."
"Sorry senor," comes the answer. "I cannot help you. Until three days ago I never saw the woman Astrid. I don't know why I gave her job. She took everything of hers yesterday. Bags and a briefcase. I cannot help you more."
The door shuts firmly. Martin sags against it in despair.
Martin rejoins the group while they are still studying the skull. No one speaks to him and he stands and watches them for a while before sitting down as far from them as he can get.
"You mean if we go in the direction the skull faces we'll find Quetzalcoatl?" Belle-Marie says. "It can't be that easy, surely."
"As easy as escaping fifty-odd cultists through tunnels they know inside out and we don't," Steven replies. "We managed that one."
"Yes, I know." She looks down at the carpet, troubled. "If Astrid is really Ahuantepec, as Eric said, why did she take us to the skull? And if the blast of light didn't come from the skull, where did it come from?"
The door opens before anyone can think of a reply.
"Everyone, this is Lalina," Sean says. He is leading the young woman by the hand, looking triumphant. She smiles at him once before turning to face the others. Her eyes darken into a frown when she sees Keyes there.
"You caused my people a lot of trouble last night," she says severely. "Now, what can we do to resolve this madness?"