The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

Et In Arcadia Ego
Chapter 10

12.15 am 13th August

Liza - the church

Louis - the Tour Magdala

The others - the tomb of Les Bergers.

The tomb of Les Bergers lies open.

"What are we waiting for?" says Dexter. "I'll go get the chainsaw."

A few minutes later they are all set. As Jake ties a rope to the tow bar of his car and fixes the other end firmly around his waist, Sonja suggests some of them should stand guard while the others investigate.

"I'm on it," Jake murmurs. He lets a flare drop into the hole and watches as it falls. "Right, it's two hundred metres down, at least. Can't say much else till I've taken a closer look." He's lowering himself into the hole as he speaks. Waving farewell and flashing the group an enthusiastic grin, he winks at Judith and lets himself drop.

Nate scowls and swings his baseball bat hard. "Bloody Indiana Jones. He's going to get himself killed. Judith, shall we stand guard together?"

"I will stay also," Yuri adds, to Nate's obvious disappointment.

Leaving them there, Sonja and Dexter prepare to climb down the rope after Jake - a task made somewhat harder when Jake decides to stop halfway down to phone a friend for a chat.

Jake's torch sweeps full circle, revealing a narrow, stone-lined passage bending slightly to the right as it goes down. He could almost be in an old well shaft, only no well would ever be this deep. And no well would be built directly under a coffin, he reminds himself. Responding to Dexter's angry shout from above him, he starts to climb down again.

It is several minutes before his feet touch solid ground. His torch cuts a circle in the dark, then, suddenly there is no need for a torch after all.

"Oh my God," Sonja breathes. "What is it?"

'Mon dieu,' Louis breathes to the night air, his heart hammering at the sound of the Ylid's voice, words conveyed to him by thought alone.

A confirmation of his worst fears; that the creature has known of the group's presence in Rennes-le-Chateau from the start. But the tone of her voice and her words… 'I need to speak to you.'

It is not the wrathful challenge that he expected. Rather, there was a sense of command, as if she expected Louis to make himself available at her convenience.

Drawing in a deep breath, Louis takes a moment to calm himself and turns away from the tower to gaze into the sooty blackness of the countryside. That is the direction her presence was moving, he senses: to the village itself. He raises his head. "Mademoiselle," he whispers, secure in the knowledge she can hear him even across the miles, "At the stroke of midnight tomorrow, we shall return to your door here at the Tour Magdala. There is much that I and the others would hear from you if you are gracious enough to hear our petitions…"

The night is silent. But she has heard: Louis is sure of that. She has heard and understood. He stands and stretches, listening to the sounds of the countryside at night, the whisper of le Mistral's touch on the woodlands, that wind that holds sway over the South of France come summer. In the stygian pitch of the open countryside at night, the light of the Magdalene's presence seemed to him almost some beacon or guiding star, shining out across the lands, having borne witness to its fiery ascent to the heavens.

So gods do walk the earth, he thinks. His whole being seems to be burning, struggling to come to terms with the visions of the night. Despite all he knows about Ylids and their use of mankind, despite witnessing the results of Ylid experimentation on the young women of Rennes-le-Chateau, despite the mind tricks Sophia has played - tricks that have driven Liza to the edge of madness… despite all this Louis cannot see the Magdalene as a creature of dark intent. When he thinks of her he must think of a goddess of virtue, an angel who has chosen to walk the soil instead of take to the heavens with her brethren.

Sophia. He breathes her name. Did once you discuss politics and philosophy with the like of Socrates in Ancient Greece? Where were you when La Reine Terrible and Madame Guillotine held sway over France, sweeping away the monarchy, to herald that new age of reason? If only he could talk with her, share some of her knowledge. Here she is, a creature who has lived countless millennia, seen civilizations rise and fall, lived in cities that exist to him only in dusty tomes or as the ancient decrepit ruins they have become.

A moth drawn to a flame. Louis stares into the gloom of the open countryside. Everything else is forgotten, everything save the need to walk in her steps if only for a short time. The grass gives slightly under his feet as he walks. Even this he does not notice.

The brandy bottle falls from Liza's hands.

"Who are you?" she asks. Her voice doesn't sound like her own any more.

The goddess smiles. "I am Sophia. I am wisdom. And you have acted in ignorance."

Liza's head shakes slowly. "No. I am not the one trying to hurt you. It is the other way round. I loved John. We were going to be married - we were going to spend our lives together. Do you know how much it hurt me when he disappeared without warning? And when you masked Corbu and made me think he'd come back, that was the most hurtful thing anyone has ever done to me."

A look of annoyance crosses Sophia's face. "If you think an eternal lifetime of loving someone and knowing he is dead is easier to bear I'd gladly swap hurts with you. But I can bring your John back. No mask this time, but really him."

Liza feels a brief swelling of hope, quickly quelled. "You can't. No one can." She looks at the pieces of statue on the floor. Some last, rational part of her mind tells her that she needs to keep the Ylid talking until one of the others gets here. "I'm sorry about the statue," she says. "If I've caused any harm in destroying it, I didn't mean to."

"You have caused no harm. Not to me. I liked it, that is all." Another slow smile lights up her face. "It does not matter." She tilts her head to one side and purses her lips thoughtfully. "Now, you should tell me why you are here."

Liza stammers in her effort not to tell her everything at once. "Why are you here?" she counters. "Where do you live?"

"Where your friends will not be able to intrude." She holds her hands out. On the backs of them Liza sees faint marks, like stigmata. "All I want is to live my life here in peace," Sophia says. "To honour the memory of my husband even if it is not possible to see him live again. You may tell your friends that. Tell them to leave the village, to leave me alone and I will let them go. But if…"

She stops, her eyes opening wide. "No!" The gasp escapes her. Her hands clench hard and twin drops of blood splash onto the stone floor of the church. Liza starts forward but in that moment the Magdalene is gone. The church is empty save for the broken stone of the statue and two dark patches on the floor that quickly fade and vanish.

Louis, halfway to the village, raises his head. A stream of something hot crosses him in the night, a single wordless cry of pain hangs on the air and is gone.

The shrine is full of candles. Each one lit and sending out gold light, none of them burning down. Bending close to them, Jake can feel the heat on his face. He blows at one and the flame wavers then comes back as strong as ever.

Beyond them, set into a hollow in the rock, hangs a portrait of a man. Surrounded on all sides by candles, he gazes steadily out with grey eyes. He is blonde, fine-boned, almost angelic in his beauty. It could be a portrait of Gabriel, or of Christ himself, but they all know straight away that it has to be Paul.

Carefully, they make their way forward. Dex has his chainsaw at the ready, glancing around constantly for the first sign of a threat. But everything is quiet. Their own footsteps sound like an intrusion in this silent place.

Gently, Jake reaches past the candles and lifts the portrait. It comes away easily to reveal a small, gold box in the wall behind it. Passing the portrait to Sonja for safe-keeping, Jake steps through the circle of flame and lays hold of it.

Sharp points of pain pierce his hands. All the candles go out at once.

"Let's get out of here," Dexter snaps. The buzz of his chainsaw sets the ground trembling.

Or maybe it's not the chainsaw, but something bigger, something heading in their direction.

They run.

Yuri, Nate and Judith wait impatiently at the edge of the tomb. Nate has one arm around Judith's shoulders and shows no sign of ever wanting to let go. Yuri gazes around, keeping an eye out for any sign that they've been seen, but his mind is elsewhere.

The whole thing is so obvious that the Russian can barely contain his thoughts, but he has to, he tells himself repeatedly, otherwise 'they' will come after him. They have already started to enter his mind and he can sense them now, watching from the darkness. The coffin contains one of 'them', in the only safe state that 'they' can be in for mankind. Dead. Yuri hopes.

But what of the treasure concealed beneath the coffin? The Secrets of God. The Ark of the Covenant - its contents, the original texts given by God to Moses. The Bible, First Edition, © God, 1600 BC. He allows himself a small smile. Charlton Heston and Harrison Ford aside, what is the big deal? He hopes he is wrong about the Ark and the treasure is nothing save what was already found in the coffin, now sitting at the university.

No, on second thoughts, he hopes it is the Ark. That is what he thinks it is. And that must be what Sophia wants. If they have that, they can negotiate with her, as SITU wants. A pity they don't want the group to kill Sophia, he reflects. Even if she is working against the other Ylids, she is still one of them.

A shout from below startles him out of his reverie.

"Get us up, now!" Dexter bellows. "And get the cars started. We've got trouble."

Jake's hands are bleeding, palms and backs. The gold box he clutches is stained crimson. Dexter spares him a quick glance then flicks the chainsaw on and severs the rope hanging into the open tomb, almost severing the tow bar with it.

Nate is already moving, bundling Judith into his car. The ground starts to shake as he starts the engine. Lumps of earth fall down the shaft of the tomb. Even the stars are moving, spinning into streaks overhead and the wind screams, flattening grass and trees, threatening to turn the cars over.

In the car, Jake finally gets the box open. He stares at the contents in wonder, his blood-stained hands trembling.

Nestled on crimson silk is an hourglass. It is fashioned out of what looks to be a single, huge diamond and the sand it contains is not sand at all but something that shimmers like tiny flecks of starlight.

As he shuts the box again the earth gives one more shudder and is still.

It is dawn before Louis returns to the house. He is pale, exhausted, but his eyes burn with the fervour of a pilgrim who has reached his own Mecca and witnessed some private miracle. He offers to fix brunch for those who want it. Dexter is the only one who responds with any appetite. Yuri and Liza are both pale and Judith, who came out of her bedroom clutching a box of chocolates and a single red rose to find Nate waiting with another huge bouquet for her is having trouble concentrating on the needs of the investigation. Jake's hands are bandaged and he guards the portrait and hourglass box jealously, not letting anyone else touch them.

"I think Liza touched on several ideas yesterday that make a certain kind of sense to me," Louis begins when they are all seated. "The goal of the Prieure du Sion is the restoration of the Merovingian line in France, or so I have heard - and they may be working with the Ylid to achieve this end. Perhaps the blood of that line is important to whatever agenda the Ylid has in her fertility experiments on the young girls of this region. Is she seeking distant relatives of that bloodline in order to create another in her likeness? And what does this mean if so… that a Ylid may have founded that line?"

Jake looks up. "My guess is that the girls are all Ylid-kin, descendants of Sophia and / or Paul. Harvest are trying to recreate Ylids from the DNA of the offspring, and with DNA extracted from the skeleton they can do it properly, so we need to do a deal with Sophia. The girls' ancestry probably converges during Merovigian times. Sophia is either the Magdalene or her ancestor which makes Jesus part Ylid." He pauses. "That would explain his alleged powers. And, by the way, I was the one who said Sauniere's secret was knowledge. Liza just repeated what I said and suddenly she's credited with the idea."

"It was my idea too," Liza protests.

Jake's eyebrows rise in disbelief. Heading off an argument, Judith speaks up quickly.

"It doesn't matter whose idea it was. We have Sophia's treasure now. What are we going to do with it?"

"If we give Sophia Paul's mortal remains, what do we get?" Jake asks. "Can she use the DNA, and do we want her to anyway? Will her gratitude be sufficient to keep us alive?"

"I don't think she'll be too grateful that we stole what's left of her husband and then condescended to give it back," Dexter points out grimly. "That place was a shrine to him. Sophia wasn't trying to find the remains of her husband, she had them already and was trying to keep them secret."

"And she knows we have them," Jake finishes. "There's no point trying to fib to an Ylid, I suppose."

Louis is still thinking aloud. "How do we gain access to the locked parts of the tower? Maybe Nate can do it -" he shoots Nate a quick glance. "Or the eco-warriors. Can we block Sophia's control over us if the need arises? I think we all need to see her and talk to her, but is it wise for all of us to go to the tower?"

The phone rings at that point.

"Blaize here," Geoff Blaize says. "How are you getting on?"

Nate groans and tells him.

"Good. You have the treasure, that's the important thing. Now you must meet Sophia, persuade her to trust us. This is important, all right?"

"We know," Yuri assures him. He personally would still like the go-ahead to kill Sophia, but if Blaize is mad enough to want an alliance instead, they'll have to do their best. He puts the phone down and looks at the others. "So, if Sophia keeps her appointment at midnight, we have the day to find out what more we can about her."

Charles doesn't look surprised to see the group walk into his office.

"Come in," he says. "Did you know there was a minor earthquake in the region of Les Bergers yesterday? Our people are up there now, re-excavating the area so the coffin can be returned."

"Why does it have to be returned so soon?" Jake asks. "In my experience, any major find is kept in storage for years and then moved on to a museum. I've never known a find to be reburied."

"Ah, but this is a coffin with a body in it. It's different. Besides," Charles shrugs. "The authorities have insisted. We were lucky to get a look at it at all."

"And you've had no more luck dating it?" Sonja asks him.

He shrugs again and shakes his head. "You can look at the results yourself. You see? Every reading we've made gives a different answer. Even testing the same sample by the same method. It is strange." He pauses, scratching his head. "To be honest, we've never seen anything like this before."

Nate casually scans through the charts on the walls. "Six foot three is tall for a skeleton, isn't it?"

"It is tall, yes. Not unknown, but unusual, especially in old skeletons. The average height of the population has risen over time, you know."

"So you've no theories as to who it could be," Jake queries. He elbows Nate out of the way to look at the wall charts. Nate scowls and shoves back. All Charles' results show is that the skeleton is male. It can't be Sauniere, he was well under six foot - Jake checked. Most probably it is Paul, but there's no way of checking that. He walks across to where the coffin is resting and lays a hand on it in thought.

"Careful," Charles says.

"Sorry." Jake withdraws his hand. He's had long enough. The bug is safely planted in a crack in the wood. If the coffin is moved again they'll be able to trace it.

After stopping to buy a bottle of sulphuric acid at the local garage, Nate settles down to a hard afternoon's research. The others join in, finding out everything they can about the local girls who were used in Sophia's experiments.

It is no surprise that all the girls were local. All of them were young, too, but there the similarities end. They all come from different families, had different friends. Some have relations living in the area, some don't. After doing a quick round of some of the relatives, Nate concludes that the only thing they had in common was that they were all local, ordinary girls. He buys a large scale map of the area and marks it with pins where all the girls lived. All he ends up with is a random looking pattern.

The only thing of note is that the dates of death get closer together as they become more recent, but they are still at least a year apart.

"Do you think Sophia's stepping up her efforts?" Judith wonders, looking at the list.

Nate frowns. "It looks like it. The question is why?" He gives up and pushes the papers aside. "Let's leave this. How about dinner out tonight? I promise to have you back well before midnight."

It was the police who removed the things from Corbu's house, Sonja discovers. A genuine forensics team, not someone connected with the Freemasons. But on the other hand, the police could well have Freemasonry connections, so who's to say they weren't involved.

She phones Blaize to discuss her suspicions and to talk about the meeting place in Paris that Perez mentioned. "If Ylids build up power bases in places where there is a strong cult of superstitions, maybe we should be investigating the base in Paris," she suggests. "Or could you send in another team to report back to us if they find anything important?"

"Sonja, I'd love to, but there isn't time," Blaize tells her. "We don't have a free team to send, and you must stay in Rennes to negotiate with Sophia. Paris will bear investigation, though, I agree. I think we'll look into what's happening there when you've completed your investigation. Any more progress, by the way?"

She has to tell him there isn't. He sighs. "Well, good luck, and keep in touch. You must not fail. That's an order." He tries to make it sound like a joke, and doesn't quite succeed.

With a decent set of grappling irons and rope they can climb the outside of the tower, Jake reckons.

They all gather there an hour before midnight, equipped with night goggles, video cameras and recording equipment. Nate has a pair of long-range rifles supplied by Green Dawn and Dex is carrying his chain saw under one arm. Jake insisted on bringing the portrait and the hourglass with them. Yuri now has the painting and Jake himself is clutching the box protectively.

Scanning the area around the tower shows up nothing new. But the tower itself glows with a pattern of heat and cold, gradually flaring into brilliance as they look higher so that, looking through infra-red goggles, the top appears to be burning like a small fire.

"Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair," Dexter murmurs, looking up.

Jake stows the golden box safely in his backpack and swings a rope experimentally. Excitement stirs inside him. "Well," he says. "Mustn't keep a lady waiting. Shall we go up?"

Light flares golden in the windows above them.

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