The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Et In Arcadia Ego
12:30am 14th August
The Tour Magdala.
Midnight in the Tour Magdala, and a silent expectancy fills the room, a calm before the coming of storms. Judith takes Nathan's hand and he immediately puts himself between her and Louis, Sonja moves to Liza's side, whispering to her urgently. In the middle of the tower room Louis stands still, aware of nothing save the cold press of metal in his hands and an angel's whisper in his mind. "Give me back what you have taken." Whispering into his mind but not possessing it. He has chosen this path freely, he knows, chosen to side with the creature that his fellow travellers have come here to trap or destroy. He looks at Judith, trying to meet her gaze, willing her to understand and use her calming influence on the group. This Magdala - this goddess who walks the world unsullied - must not be harmed.
"Well, Jake, smash the egg timer then," Dexter yells. Louis swings towards him. His finger tightens on the trigger then his expression changes, anger draining away and he lowers the gun. "Don't harm her Dexter," he says quietly, meeting his gaze. "You risk everything with your actions. A 'man of science', you should know the folly of letting your heart rule your head. I understand everything now - at this final hour." He is speaking to them all now. "Sophia treasures the hourglass, because it is fashioned of diamond, carbonised crystal. Judith, your notes from Doctor Culver, was there not a passage about Ylids and how they can 'store' a consciousness in crystal form? Sophia may one day clone a suitable body, the very image of Paul - but without his mind, his countless memories and experiences, and the love he holds for his wife - it would not be the same person. Destroy the hourglass, and we take the life of a Ylid this day." Slowly, he turns to face Jake. "Perhaps it can be said, you hold his life in your very hands, Monsieur Hobart."
Sonja is still talking to Liza, pitching her voice low so only those standing nearby can hear. "Sophia's power lies in her ability to undermine us individually, but we're losing sight of the fact that we're all part of a group. Confront Sophia. How dare she hurt you with her false visions and false hopes when she knows what it's like to have lost a loved one. How can she play on our sympathy and compassion when she hasn't an ounce of either in her body? Tell her!"
Liza shakes her head. "No. I understand about losing the one person you were meant to spend the rest of your life with." She drifts away from Sonja, closer to Louis, and Sonja groans in frustration. Can't people see that if they all worked together they'd find a strength that Sophia could not break?
Jake has made no move to destroy the hourglass. Yuri is staring at the Ylid with raw fury in his eyes. Nate's rifle is at her feet and for a moment he is overcome with the urge to snatch it up and pump round after round of bullets into her - end her evil once and for all. A demon that poses as an angel, he thinks, and lures people to their deaths. It makes her worse - far worse - than any of the other Ylids. He steps back with an effort. What purpose would bullets serve? They may not even scratch her.
"Do not give her the hourglass," he grates from behind clenched teeth. "It is the only thing she wants. She cannot be allowed to have it."
Louis turns back to face Sophia, putting his back to the rest of the group. The gun hangs loose from his hand. "Sophia " he begins.
He gets no further. Liza hits him from behind - a single, well-placed blow just behind his right ear. His knees buckle and she catches the gun as he releases it. The others stare at her open-mouthed.
"Black belt karate," she explains dismissively. "Dexter, destroy the painting."
"No!" Sophia shrieks.
Liza faces her unafraid. She has nothing else to lose: she doesn't care if the Ylid kills her here and now. Judith quickly grabs the portrait off Dexter and hands it to Nate before bending to help a dazed Louis to his feet. Sonja takes Dexter's hand and steers him to stand next to the others, behind Liza. Together they stare at the Ylid.
"You might be able to pick us off one by one," Sonja says, "but can you take on all of us at once?"
Nate backs up her words by taking a canister out of his jacket and holding it over the painting. "Does your knowledge extend to how to repair canvas that's been eaten by acid?" he asks pleasantly. "Make one move toward any of us and you lose the painting." He pauses for a moment and allows himself a slight smile before adding. "So, are you ready to negotiate?"
No one moves. The Magdalen sighs. A sense of power slips from the room, a slow release of tension. Louis offers Sophia the faintest of smiles.
"Sophia," he says, "a time will come when you and Paul are reunited. But can you hide from the attentions of the other Ylids forever? In time, they will seek you out, and you might live perhaps to see your love die in your arms a second time. But you don't have to live in fear, to hide from them forever in seclusion; we are here to offer our help, to cooperate against those that took Paul from your side, for you to know only countless millennia of solitude."
She frowns a little. "Explain."
"SITU know more about cloning than we ever would," Liza says impulsively. "Not all the brains are employed by big corporations like Harvest, you know."
For the first time a flicker of hope appears in the Ylid's blue eyes. "You're saying you will offer me my husband back in return for my cooperation? How do I know this SITU will have any more success that I have?"
"A trade of knowledge for knowledge," Judith murmurs. "Help us, and they will find a way to help you."
Sophia gazes directly at her. "You lost a husband once."
"Yes, and I got over it." She squeezes Nate's hand. "I was lucky." Anxious to end this before Sophia can turn on them again she glances at the others. "Either we can make a deal here or we'll just have to leave."
"You will return what is mine," Sophia says.
Dexter sighs. "That is getting a little monotonous. We'll return the painting as a mark of good faith. When you're obligation to SITU is complete, the hourglass will be returned. Maybe, before that, they'll have found a way to bring back your husband." He scowls suddenly and levels his shotgun at her. "Make up your mind. Lady, I don't know much about you, but I'll bet you can't dodge bullets."
Louis steps in front of the gun at once. Liza looks as if she's ready to hit him again, then changes her mind.
"Sophia," she says, drawing in a deep breath. "If you agree to this, I will volunteer to be the next guinea pig for the cloning." She is trembling slightly. "My life is over without John, I don't care what happens to me."
Sophia's eyes open wide in surprise. She looks at them all, looks at the hourglass clasped safely in Jake's hands, the portrait in Nate's. Then, finally, she turns back to Liza and holds out a hand to her. "Very well," she says. "I agree. Give me the painting and go."
ET IN ARCADIA EGO
From G. M. Blaize
To: Dexter Owara, Lady Judith Larch, Nathan Garston, Louis Tregalier, Elizabeth Petherton, Jefferson Hobart, Sonja Forrester, Yuri
Subject: Mission debriefing. Rennes-le-Château, France.
May I personally offer you my congratulations. The discovery of Sophia has proved a major break through for Situ. Although I do not believe we can ever trust her fully, while we hold the hourglass she values so highly she will cooperate with us and her knowledge and powers will be invaluable.
It is evident that she has been attempting to resurrect her dead husband for some time. The lists taken from Plantard's house confirm the names of the women that died during Harvest's involvement. There may have been many more through the ages, using a range of more primitive techniques.
We would guess that the Prieuré de Sion has always been under Sophia's direct control, first in the guise of the Knights Templar, then as Freemasonry. The legendary treasure is surely Paul's remains, and this also ties in with the idea of 'sang real' royal bloodline. Not Christ's, as many have imagined, but that of Sophia's husband.
Some mystery remains - the role of the statue of Asmodeus, for example, linked to Sophia in some way, and the tombstones obliterated by Sauniere. Our guess is that some of this points to further links with Sophia and some is part of a deliberate cult of mystery instituted by the Ylid to hide her true intentions. Intentions that have now been uncovered, thanks to you.
We have analysed the crystal hourglass. It is, as Louis suspected, constructed of diamond and contains the spirit of the dead Ylid, Paul. We have also found traces of dubhium - the element that allows Ylids to approach each other in safety. Should Paul ever be restored there would be no obstacle to him and Sophia taking up their life together. While we have the hourglass in our possession we intend to make good use of it. Judith suggested it could be used as a weapon against other Ylids, but the presence of dubhium makes this impossible. However, the hourglass represents, essentially, the 'soul' of an Ylid in stasis. It may be that it can be used in ways we have not yet fathomed.
The Statue of Asmodeus
Dexter obtained some shards of stone from this. On analysis we found nothing unusual. Liza's experiences suggest the statue was some sort of focal point for Sophia and as such it is a pity she destroyed it. Attempts to reconstruct it are underway at Toulouse university. The Rennes-le-Chateau police are still officially looking for the vandal who smashed it.
The Ylid skeleton
Paul's skeleton was returned to its resting place by archaeologists of the University of Toulouse, supervised by Jake. He retains his suspicions that Charles was working for Sophia directly or indirectly. The only evidence that this is the case, however, is the department's funding at the hands of Harvest, obviously intended to direct archaeological interest away from Rennes-le-Chateau. Charles, however, may have been an innocent participant in this. We are open-minded on this matter and are keeping the area under surveillance for the time being.
Record of autopsy report for Sandrine Bellaire
For your information, we enclose the following transcription which was taken from the video tapes of Sandrine's autopsy at Harvest.
Subject - Sandrine Bellaire. Age 19 at death, a resident of Rennes-le-Chateau.
We can clock this one up as another failed experiment, gentlemen. The subject shows extensive internal damage with much bleeding. Some of the symptoms are in keeping with a severe immune reaction. This is the third attempt at indirect fertilisation via an agent, in this case a Maurice Perez, and the system is obviously not working. Damage to body tissue is worse around the area of the uterus, confirming that the infection started there. It seems that the subject's body was reacting to the introduction of incompatible DNA, resulting in a severe allergic response. Note the symptoms as usual. Tissue rupture through out the body. Internal bleeding mainly in the abdominal cavity and spreading through the system. External damage to the hands only - had the subject survived it is likely these lesions would have spread. Note the cause of death as unknown.
SITU's, and an unwitting humanity's, war against the Ylid tyrants has now moved into a highly dangerous phase. You should be aware that all of you may be in personal danger. This successful mission has left no Ylids, apart from Sophia of course, aware of your identities, but they may have other ways of gaining this information. If any of you wish to enter secure accommodation, we can readily provide it, and we can of course cover for you with employers, etc.
Over the coming months further missions will be launched aimed at breaking the power of individual Ylids at their home bases: once this wave of attacks is over, we will be ready for the final conflict between their kind and ours. I know that you will be standing alongside me.
Liza is the only one to see Louis leave the small cottage in Rennes-le-Chateau. Dawn is breaking as he turns in the open doorway to speak to her.
"I'd best say goodbye to someone I think." He smiles to her, shouldering his pack. "Liza, I'm sorry for what you have been through here - thinking you had found John once more, only for it all to become some lie, some game. I hope you find him one day, truly I do. Listen, here " hurriedly, he writes down a number on a piece of paper. "Call this lady in Paris, and tell her I gave you her number. She runs the design school for the University. If you ever want to walk the Parisian catwalks, and taste the limelight once more, just call her." He pushes the paper into her hands, kisses her gently on the cheek and bids her adieu.
Outside, the transit van from Toulouse sits waiting - a simple drive to the city, then a choice of rail or plane. SITU, no doubt will be wanting a full report from him and in time he will do it, but first he needs some time on his own, far away from this place of goddesses and demons. His family home in Tuscany, maybe, or further afield. To taste simple pleasure again - riding the hillside trails, or painting a landscape of vineyards and white stoned cottages. To taste the first wine of the harvest with friends. And perhaps in such pursuits he might forget this night, if only for a time.
He feels a trace of regret as he climbs into the van. Goodbye little village, he thinks. You can keep your secrets for another thousand years.
The party in Wellow Hall is in full swing. Judith is glad she invited everyone back, even with the constant rivalry between Jake and Nathan. (She explained to Jake that, flattered as she was, she couldn't hope to match his adventurous lifestyle and was happy with Nate, but he won't give up on her.)
"I've knitted you a new jumper," she announces coyly to Nate, waving a clingy, raspberry-pink creation at him. He winces.
Dexter, sitting with his arm around Sonja, laughs. "It'll match the brown trousers you should be wearing from now on, Mr Spineless."
Nate scowls. "It wasn't cowardice, it was common sense. When someone's got a gun pressed into your head you do what they say until you get a chance to hit back. You should remember that for your next mission - it might come in handy."
Dex, who has already booked courses in driving and shooting in readiness for the next mission, grins easily. "I'll be ready. Will we stick together, do you think? I doubt we'll be seeing Louis again. What about Liza? She didn't come back with us, so where is she?"
Liza has made it as far as Toulouse before she changes her mind. Telling the taxi driver to take her back to Rennes-le-Chateau, she sits back in her seat and closes her eyes. She doesn't open them again until she feels the taxi stop.
A hill rises to her left, crowned by a lone tower. Its walls are creamy white and the late afternoon sunlight glances off its windows turning them to gold.
Liza passes her purse to the taxi driver. "Keep the lot," she tells him.
She begins to climb.