The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Et In Arcadia Ego
Midnight 14th August, the tower Magdala
Yuri casts a glance at Jake, eyes rolling. "Indeed we should go up. There are a lot of answers we need." Yet this doesn't feel right to him. Coldness spreads through him, a certainty that Sophia wants the group to meet her here, on her own ground. And then there is SITU's attitude. They know the Ylids are the enemy, they know what these creatures have done to people throughout human history and now they want to make an alliance with one of them. The only thought that is keeping him going right now is that if SITU is right - if Sophia will aid them against the other Ylids, the one that have tormented and tortured him, it might be worth it.
He shakes his head sceptically and moves back to join Dexter, whispering to him as Jake tosses a rope up. His voice is too low for anyone else to hear, but Dex nods.
"Um, guys, why don't we use the stairs?" he asks as Jake pulls the rope taut and tests it with his full weight. Jake glowers but immediately softens when Judith lays a hand on his arm.
"Dex is right," she says. "Jake dear, I think if Sophia wants to see us, and it seems that she does, then she'll let us use the stairs." Giving him a reassuring smile, she mumbles something about nipping back to the car and hurries off.
At once, Nate's expression darkens with jealousy. For a moment all he can see is Jake's face smiling with something close to triumph. "Bloody hell," he swears. He shoulders the Australian aside and thumps on the tower door with his fist. The wood feels warm to him and almost seems to give under his blow. A voiceless whisper in his mind tells him that the world understands about lost love, about jealousy and pain. And then another thought comes - that he still has time to do something about it. Put Jake out of the picture once and for all and reclaim the affections of Lady Judith. It is only with a great effort that he stops himself pulling his gun out there and then.
Louis, sensing a sudden tension in the night air, steps quickly between the two men. Nate is angry, he can tell, while Jake is so taken up with storming the tower that he can think of nothing else. The others seem divided between trepidation and excitement. He himself he feels like he is about to meet a goddess, and maybe that is partly true. Warm pulses of energy surge through him. His whole body feels so light that he fancies he could jump now and be on the roof of the tower.
Nate strikes the tower door again, calmly this time, then tries the handle. The door swings inwards, opening onto shadow.
"I'm ready," Judith whispers. Her arms are full of flowers and chocolates. Noting the expressions of Nate and Jake she shrugs. "Well, I thought she might appreciate a little gift, and I can't use them all."
One by one they venture into the tower. Jake gives his rope a final tug and leaves it there. They may still need it to escape this place. Louis, waiting by the door, smiles and claps him on the shoulder. "Take good care of your trophy Monsieur Hobart - for that is our hold over Sophia. I believe it is some last remains of the Ylid Paul - his 'essence' perhaps. Destroy the hourglass (and it is fashioned of diamond I hasten to add), and you would perhaps destroy the last hope Sophia has of being reunited with her love. Watch Nathaniel that acid he carries and the very best of luck tonight."
When Judith passes him, he leans close. "You should lead the talk I think, Mademoiselle. Try to temper the anger of some of the party, one of which at least would like her dead. Let's try and make it through the night in one piece, n'est-ce pas?"
Judith nods, a little puzzled by his attitude. She'd been thinking that it was best for him and Liza to go first as they seem to have the strongest link with the Ylid. Still frowning, she goes in after the others.
Finally, only Louis and Liza are left outside. Louis pulls her close. "Chère Liza you and I had best watch over the others tonight I think. Especially the ones carrying weapons. Sophia, if angered, may use one of us against the others - so be vigilant, and watch for the silver mark, like a tikki perhaps, on their brow. If you see the mark, voice it aloud! And I hope she does not see fit to try her mind games again on you. Bonne chance, Liza."
He releases her and she stumbles back a little unsteady. Louis' proximity to her has set up little tinglings the whole length of her arms and a warmth in her that she has not felt since John disappeared. She smiles at the Frenchman tremulously. Can it be that she is finally discovering some other reason for putting her life back together. She dare not think about it further - not yet.
The tower swallows them all.
The staircase winds up, its top hidden in darkness. Nate pauses and passes one of his pair of rifles to Dexter. Jake at the front of the group and Louis at the back are both tense, watching for any sign that they are not alone in the tower. They haven't yet met any of the Prieure de Sion cultists, Louis reflects. He can't ignore the possibility that they might be attacked. The darkness feels claustrophobic to him and he keeps the night goggles on, craning his neck to see any glimpse of light from the top of the tower.
Others in the group seem to be dividing their attention between watching the way ahead and keeping an eye on each other. Liza scans the faces either side of her anxiously. Sonja is watching Liza, Dex and Nathan take it in turns to stare at Louis and Jake casts the occasional glance in Judith's direction.
Despite their fears, everything is silent. They move on cautiously, finding their way by touch where there is no light to see by. They go through the rooms of the tower that they remember from their day time visit. The thickly carpeted floors muffle all sounds of their footprints. In the top room they stop. Checking the window, Jake sees his rope hanging there, caught on the parapet above. He unlatches the casement. Maybe they will need to climb the rest of the way after all.
"There," Sonja breathes.
A door they had not noticed before. And would not have seen now were it not for the light: the thinnest outline of gold around it, forming a crack in what appeared before to be an unbroken wall of stone. At the first touch it dissolves. The stones dissolve into a transparent sheet of golden light and they find themselves looking at a stairway of silver wood leading up and up so that they can see no end to it.
"Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly," Dexter mutters. He casts a quick glance in Louis' direction. "We have a job to do here. I suggest we keep our minds on it."
But then, even he falls silent, because someone is coming down the stairs.
Louis stares open-mouthed, only half aware of Judith's whispered warning to him.
"She's looking for a replacement for her lover, remember. Don't let yourself fall under her spell. Not that you have Paul's angelic looks, of course, but "
Sophia is beautiful. They'd all been prepared for it, but not for the sheer sense of wonder that surrounds her, an almost visible light which seems to fill the whole tower. A goddess, Louis thinks, switching his attention to Nate, Yuri and Dexter for a moment, determined not to let them hurt her. Judith thinks he is falling under her spell, but it is her knowledge that really holds him captivated. If only he had leisure to talk to her about all she has seen, that would be his heart's desire and something he would pay dearly for.
"Would you give me back what is mine in return?" Sophia asks him softly.
The others look at him in confusion. They can only guess at what he is thinking.
The Ylid sees the chocolates and flowers clutched in Judith's arms and smiles. "An offering?" Judith finds herself flushing and stammering. She releases her hold on her gifts.
"Uh, we thought you would I mean "
"I know." A kindly smiles lights Sophia's face, then, suddenly her eyes turn cold. "Now, you will give back to me what you have taken."
It is Sonja's voice. Everyone turns to look at her as she steps forward to put herself in front of the alien woman. Sophia's brows rise in slight puzzlement and Sonja stares at her afraid but determined. "You have no hold over me," she says. "Over some of the others maybe, but you have nothing that I want. We, on the other hand, have several things that you want very much indeed, so if you want them back you'll have to play fair with us."
Sophia makes a move towards her and she steps back sharply. "You can't seize both your treasures back at the same time. You might get one but we'll destroy the other one."
Lightning flashes from the Ylid's eyes. It splays around her, cloaking her in light, but Sonja has already seen defeat in her eyes. She knows she is right and waits calmly. Equally calm, Dexter takes out the portrait he is carrying and puts his rifle to it.
"Give it to me," Sophia hisses. Dexter shakes his head. New confidence surges through him. From the start he'd wondered why Sophia's trickery had no effect on him. Now he knows. He doesn't have any gaping hole in his life that needs to be filled. He has nothing that the Ylid can fix on. Louis with his obsessive thirst for knowledge, Yuri and Liza with their past losses, they are all easy targets but the rest of them are beyond her power.
"I've found out how to beat her," he says conversationally. "Stop taking life so seriously." He regards the portrait of the dead Paul. "I wonder how he'd look with a few bullet holes?"
Louis makes a move to stop him and is checked by Nate's rifle swinging in his direction. Sophia lowers her arms. The light around her fades to a shimmer.
"We will talk," she agrees. "Tell me what you want."
"Whatever the others say, I am sorry we ever disturbed Paul's shrine," Jake says. "I was expecting to find something completely different there and under normal circumstances I would never have touched anything."
"But the circumstances are hardly normal, are they?" Sonja points out. "So let's not waste time in feeling guilty. Sophia, what is your attitude to other Ylids?"
The directness of her question takes Sophia by surprise. For a moment she doesn't answer then her lips curve in a scornful smile.
"You seem to know a lot about us. How is that? I know there are other Ylids working in the world. I have no interest in them and they believe me to be dead. I prefer it that way."
The Ylids killed Paul. Louis doesn't know how he knows it but suddenly he does, with cold certainty. There must have been a war, or a duel maybe, and Paul was killed. The effort of keeping silent is painful but he does not speak. Enough time to talk to Sophia when the others have asked their questions.
"So what is Harvest's involvement in this whole fiasco?" Dexter asks angrily. His fingers tighten on the edge of the portrait, threatening to tear the canvas.
Sophia answers quickly. "They saw my need and agreed to help me. Is that so much a sin?"
"It is when women are deceived and killed," Liza points out.
Sophia's eyes flash angrily. "I have waited thousands of years for this. Longer than you can imagine. If I do nothing then a hundred years from now everyone living in this place now will be dead anyway and I will still be alone. Is not the sacrifice worth it?" She reaches out for the portrait, almost pathetic in her pleading. "Let me have him back. I have loved him so long, so much "
Dexter feels a pang of pity as he moves the painting out of her reach. An attempt at mind control, he wonders? He scowls. "Harvest have been helping you attempt to clone your dead husband back to life. Is that right? Why?"
Her shoulders move in a small shrug. "Because I asked it of them," she replies haughtily. "Some people are still loyal to me."
Her tone of voice reminds them all that she has the power to kill at a whim. Sonja finds her breath coming fast and tense. It is only by holding the treasures that they are safe, she knows. They cannot afford to make any mistakes now. "How close are you to achieving your goals?" she asks. She is surprised at how steady her voice sounds.
"One more. Always one more." The Ylid meets her eyes and smiles. "It will not be long now. We will be together again." A sigh ripples through her. "I have not meant your kind any harm. I used people only in good faith and only with a good chance of success. Many gave themselves willingly to the experiment. You were the ones who came here, disturbing my grief, desecrating my sanctuary, destroying and taking what has been mine since the beginning of the world. I will offer you this much: leave me in peace and I will leave you."
"We can make you a better offer," Louis says, unable to hold his peace any longer. "The organisation we represent is knowledgeable in many ways about the movements of other Ylids present on Earth. If we could work together in some fashion - SITU's experiences and resources alongside your knowledge of Ylids - we could see you avenge the death of your Paul in whatever way you see fit."
"You are asking for a partnership?" She almost laughs in astonishment. Louis gazes at her with something close to wonderment. "Where did you come from originally? From Greece? Did you once live with the other Ylids on some island paradise as Atlantis? Did the Ylids war, and did Paul die at the hands of his brother Ylid?"
Sophia is silent for a long moment. The only thing that moves is the light that surrounds her, expanding and contracting as if it is breathing. When she looks at Louis again it is with a peculiar mixture of hope and despair. "How is it you remember these things?" she asks. Then, dismissing her own question she turns to the group as a whole. "Very well. Give me back the portrait and the hourglass as a sign of your good faith and we will discuss this."
Louis moves as if to hand the glass over and is stopped at once by Yuri and Judith.
"What is in the hourglass?" Judith wonders. Her guess is dubhium - the mysterious substance that Ylids need in order to approach one another safely. Otherwise, she remembers, something in their body chemistries react and cause them to spontaneously combust. Maybe that was why Sophia couldn't ever find these 'treasures' - because she couldn't get close to even the remains of an Ylid.
Sophia appears to pick up her thoughts and laughs again, softly this time and with real amusement. "You really don't understand at all, do you?" she says. "I have not been searching for these things through the ages. I have been protecting them. These and Paul's body - which will be returned to its proper resting place as soon as the damage there has been put right."
"So the hourglass..?"
"Contains nothing that you could want or use. That is all you need to know." The Ylid's voice has grown cold again.
"Some magical substance that will revive Paul," Jake guesses. "If so, why have you not used it?"
"Magic?" Sophia dismisses him with a toss of her head. "If magic existed I would certainly have used it. But all that interests me now is this alliance you talk of. In truth, I have never thought of entering an alliance with humans. It is an intriguing prospect. You can tell your masters that I will think about it - once you have given me back the things you have stolen."
"You can have them back when we are safely out of your reach," Yuri says. One eye is on Louis, the other on the Ylid. "One more question. Why are terrorists in Algeria taking an interest in reports on seismic activity in the Mediterranean, to such an extent that scientists releasing their findings are captured and tortured?"
Sophia turns to face him. "You were tortured. I can see the pain still there in your mind. I am sorry, I do not know why. The activities of other Ylids are of no interest to me. But I can heal the pain." Her voice becomes a lullaby. She reaches for him and he steps forward unconsciously. "Let me see where it hurts," she murmurs. "Let me make it better."
"Leave him alone," Nate snarls. Sophia turns her attention to him. "And you so much jealousy in you, you feel you could die with it. When you truly lose your love, as I have, you will understand."
Nate's arms begin to feel heavy. He lowers the rifle a fraction then realises what he is doing and quickly brings it up to shoulder level, aiming at the Ylid.
Yuri catches a motion behind him, shakes off the last remnants of Sophia's spell and turns, but it is too late.
"Drop the rifle and kneel down," Louis says calmly. "Do it slowly." The gun in his hand is rock steady, pointing at Nate's head.
Nate has been at both ends of a gun too often to argue. The rifle hits the floor with a dull thud. Louis kicks it to Sophia's feet and steps back, towards the Magdalene, his gun trained now on Dexter. "No one harms Sophia this night," he shouts.