The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
A Shattered Visage Lies
“He’s not your, like, vessel,” Maddy says, with a muted fierceness. “He’s my friend. So was Ella.”
“Ella?” The Ylid in the red silk robe gives her a glowing and utterly charming smile. “That name does not mean as much to me as it evidently does to you. I regret to say that you and your kind seldom succeed in making much of an impression on us.”
“We’ll see about that,” mutters Kass under her breath. She raises both her hands to her head, pushing her hair back in an exaggerated, affected gesture, and when they reappear from behind her head, a slim knife is gripped in each. They seem to be a twinned pair, far more delicate than the knives bought in Delhi. Kass’s right arm is swung down and forward in one swift and savage gesture, then the left.
The Ylid raises one hand and catches the first knife inches from his face between his forefinger and thumb, and raises an eyebrow as he examines it.
Tokutaro’s reactions are less fast. He jerks slightly, staggers, and then slowly glances down at the hilt jutting from his shoulder.
Kass does not wait for her opponents to react. She is already making full use of her long legs to pound away along the path, hoping that the others will follow her lead.
The creature wearing the body of Robert Montague Flint raises one hand and makes a lazy gesture, as if beckoning to someone standing behind him.
A patter like rain becomes audible. For a moment it seems that rain is indeed falling, descending in a curtain between Kassandra and the rest of the group, long heavy drops gleaming with borrowed sunlight. Then, as the curtain of rain sweeps away from the group, following in Kass’s wake, a few drops strike the river, and the gold-white needles hiss into the water, raising steam. Trees that are touched by the downpour sprout leaves of flame, while their bark blackens and smoulders.
Kass risks a glance over her shoulder, and glimpses the golden storm-front all but at her heels. A few more steps, and she can feel the warmth on her back. There is the choking smell of singeing PVC, and a droplet of something heavy strikes the heel of her boot, with a thick and throaty hiss. Abandoning the path, she darts sideways, and dives into the river itself.
The others see her lithe figure cleave the waters, and then the spears of liquid light bombard the surface for what seems an age. Finally the rain diminishes, and the steam over the water resolves itself into a low-hanging mist. Kass does not resurface.
Maddy gives a slightly exasperated sigh. She has not even looked over her shoulder to watch Kass’s flight, but has remained staring at the Ylid. Her posture has altered, becoming more erect, and her expression less inchoate. Somehow the line of her jaw seems to have become more defined.
“Oh dear… I… Sir, I think I…” Tokutaro falls to one knee, and raises one hand to the hilt which he is still regarding with a slightly dazzled expression.
“Sick at the sight of blood. Poor Okada, you would faint at a splinter in your finger, would you not? Do not pull the knife out, fool, unless you wish to see far more of your blood.”
“Y-yes, sir. Er… I must confess that right now I am in a considerable amount of pain…”
“Nonsense. This knife is a toy, designed to tickle rather than maim.” The Ylid laughs, and clenches his hand, crumpling the blade like foil. “A little like this ‘SITU’ of yours. A toy weapon.”
“Rob was pretty new to SITU – he didn’t know much.” For a moment Yuri, Heather and Dexter are startled to hear what seems to be a stranger’s voice sounding from their midst. The next moment they realise that it is Maddy that has spoken. The pitch and timbre are still hers, but she has suddenly shed all the hallmarks of street-speech, and her accent is in comparison well-educated. All traces of vagueness and stammer are gone. Also suddenly absent is her usual indiscriminate warmth. The Maddy that stands amid the group is almost repellently dispassionate. “Anyway, SITU’s an idea – you can’t destroy an idea. You of all people should know that.”
“On the contrary – of course you can. You can kill all the people who hold the idea close to their hearts, who give it its life force, and then you send in another idea to deliver the coup de grace. For example, I swat your organisation, and then allow the rumour that its members were a dangerous and criminal cult to spread in its own time. Just for example.”
“Our minds are your playground, that’s all it is to you, isn’t it, you abomination?” Dexter has staggered to his feet again. Kass’s dramatic exit gave him the opportunity he needed to grab his dagger, and it is once again hidden on his person. Although not yet ready to make another attempt against the Ylid, he is a picture of barely suppressed rage, and contents himself with pacing to and fro, never taking his eyes of his enemy. “Alien freaks violating humankind…”
“You should fall down with tears in your eyes and offer us worshipful thanks for our ‘violations’! Without us you would still be scrabbling in the dirt to make stone knives for splitting the brains of wild pigs. We have given you all of your most sublime dreams and finest moments, your highest inspirations and greatest heroes.” Dexter’s lip trembles as briefly an image of Elvis flashes before his eyes, flushed, rhinestoned and unrepentant. “In every tottering step you have taken away from the primeval slime, we have been the star that held your gaze and drew you on. You have no history beyond what we have given you.”
“Yeah, well, did we mention we were planning to take back our future?” growls Dexter. “We’re not all going to fall at your feet like – like that bloody stupid little chink.” He points a large finger at Tokutaro.
“So,” Maddy cuts in sharply, “If you’re going to do the gloaty Bond villain thing, would you mind explaining the plot to me?”
Without taking his eyes off Maddy, the man in the red silk robe inclines his head slightly towards Tokutaro, one eyebrow raised questioningly.
“James Bond – a character from a number of spy thrillers written by an English author named Ian Fleming.” Tokutaro’s pallor is now almost ghastly. “They have been made into a very popular series of films, noted for their implausible plots, spectacular action sequences and elaborate gadgets. The villains often capture James Bond, then explain their plans to him in great detail allowing him to thwart them after he escapes.”
“I see.” The Ylid turns back to Maddy. “I think you have a mistaken impression of what I am.”
“Oh, I think I know who you are, alright. If you’re who I think you are, the Firis natives installed you in Rob, yes? Two men enter the fire in Hell’s Valley, one badly burned one is seen to emerge. I assume that was you. What happened to Yashimoto?” She glances from the Ylid to the pale, slumped form of Tokutaro and back again.
The man in the red robe gives a dismissive wave of his hand.
“Oh, there is little doubt that he crawled out of the valley and sought a haven to lick his wounds. Naturally he is aware of my return to the world, and has been eager to recruit me for his schemes, but I have little time for them. In fact, Okada here tells me that an agent of his apparently tried to make contact with him on the train, but chose his moments badly and aroused the suspicions and anger of a person with whom we were… negotiating.”
“Oh yes, this business with Kal… ‘the lady’. Are you talking about a Punt disc, like the one Nefertiti’s after?” The Ylid makes no response, but his face lights up with curiosity and avarice. “Or is it one of the unicorn seals?” The Ylid puts his head on one side, and gently nudges Tokutaro with his foot.
“You recall, sir, the unicorn seals were among the merchant’s seals found at the excavation. They bore the images of animals seen from the side so that they seemed to have a single horn.” Tokutaro’s voice is so faint as to be almost inaudible.
“Yes, yes, I recall.”
“And how is it that the lady can’t approach you? Was it only Cleitus that was full of dubhium?”
“Very good – so you have done some homework. Yes, regrettably Kali does not possess Cleitus’ mastery of the metal. However, even if I possessed this art, I do not think I would enable her to approach Lothal. The lady has something of a history of treachery. Treachery so black that this place,” he waves a hand at the surrounding scenery, “has remembered it for thousands of years. In all that time she has been unable to return here – the very trees and rivers would have coiled their energies against her. She has only been able to walk this soil again by using my power to protect her from the wrath of the land. Even now her people may only tread this soil with difficulty – in these lands they are as things unholy.
“The lady’s assistance has been required, since she is the only person with a strong enough affinity to the artefact to sense its whereabouts, but I have no doubt that the moment she has a strong picture of its hiding place she will attempt to steal it for herself. However, it is no longer necessary to risk this. Now that I know that the artefact is among those which have been uncovered, I need only take possession of all finds, remove them to a secure location and examine them at my leisure. The game is over.”
“Can I have some of that wine?” Maddy asks suddenly. “It must be getting warm.”
“Indeed it must.” The Ylid nudges Tokutaro with his foot again, but the little man seems to have passed out, still propped by the trunk of the tree. The tall man steps away from him, draws his chair from the shadow of the tree and seats himself. “My glass needs refilling, and my usual attendant seems to be indisposed. You may approach and fill in for him, and then take a little wine yourself.”
Maddy hesitates, then steps forward.
“What are you doing?” hisses Dexter. “Don’t – don’t hobnob with this freak of nature!”
Pausing only long enough to whisper a single sentence into Heather’s ear, Maddy walks towards the waiting Ylid. She stoops over the ice bucket, pulls out the bottle, retrieves the Ylid’s glass from its resting place on the earth floor of the path, and refills it with wine.
The Ylid accepts the glass, and then reaches forward and down into the breast pocket of the unconscious Tokutaro, and pulls out a small bottle of pills. Removing the lid, he shakes the contents out onto the ground, and hands the tiny vessel to Maddy to use as a glass.
“Sit down.” Again Maddy hesitates, then she seats herself in the place indicated by the languid wave of the Ylid’s hand, on the ground next to his chair. As she sips from the little bottle, she keeps her eyes lowered. For all the new and icy clarity of her perspective, at this proximity the sheer presence of the tall man is almost too intense to be born. She feels that looking at him might burn her eyes, or something behind her eyes.
“What now?” She is still managing to keep her voice fairly level. “Killing us out of hand would be a bit… well, dull.”
“Maybe… but perhaps not as tedious as your recurrent company.” Even without raising her eyes, Maddy can feel the Ylid’s smile like sunlight on her skin.
“If you let my friends go free, I’d like to stay and talk. I’ve been in SITU a lot longer than Rob – and I’m much more interesting.”
“Perhaps, but probably not. It usually takes a few centuries for a meaningful personality to develop. Still… you might know some things of interest.”
Another languid wave of the hand, as if to dismiss the other members of the group. The sun is now sliding from sight, and as it does so, the space under the tree seems to darken disproportionately, so that the three figures seated beneath it are no longer distinct. There is only the smoulder of the rich, red robe, the flame of Maddy’s hair, a glint of evening light upon Tokutaro’s spectacles. The pale ovals of three faces recede and vanish amid the blossoming darkness.
The wind freshens suddenly, and once again, there is a brittle, papery drumming, now much, much louder. In this half-light the thin droplets of liquid gold are startlingly lurid as they sweep towards the group, blackening the rushes like acid.
The three figures beneath the tree cannot now be seen.
“Run!” Heather turns and suits her actions to her words.
Where now… the river?
Heather casts a quick glance sideways, but the river surface is a-dazzle with spears of falling, burning light, and with white steam. A good judge of her own speed, she thinks she might stay ahead of the advancing lava shower for a little while, but… she glances back at Dexter and Yuri, who are both gasping to keep up…
But they won’t…
Before moving to the side of the Ylid, Maddy had whispered three words. Use the amber.
Great, thinks Heather. Thanks a lot, Maddy. And just how do I do that? It didn’t come with instructions…
While the Ylid had been talking, Heather had taken the opportunity to slide the stone out of her pocket. Now she slows and half-turns, holding the amber above her head like a warding amulet. There is no appreciable change to the rate of the stormfront’s approach.
“Bugger it,” she mutters, and flings the stone back down the path behind her, then turns and carries on running. No time to dawdle and watch the results.
“Jesus Christ!” It sounds like Dexter. Immediately afterwards, there is a sharp cry from Yuri. Heather has a horrific mental image of the pair of them falling beneath the scalding torrent, and yet the cries suggest surprise rather than pain. Then, close behind her, she hears a strange, rhythmic noise, not unlike a drying sheet billowing and flapping on a line. Before she can look behind her, something grips at her collar and she is lifted from the ground, legs cycling wildly.
She reaches up in search of a handhold, to prevent herself dangling from her collar and strangling. Her palm comes in contact with a texture at once smooth and slightly downy, unexpected and yet familiar. It buckles a little in her grasp as she takes a firmer hold. Twisting her head, she looks upwards and gives a stifled gasp.
“You probably don’t want to look up,” Dexter says through his teeth.
The eagle has a wingspan of over twenty feet, and is fashioned entirely of paper. Each wing is not a simple sheet, but is pleated in a complex fashion which skilfully suggests the sliding of individual plumes the one against the other. Dexter and Yuri dangle from one talon. The other grips Heather’s collar. The razor-sharp beak of its great head is slightly open, and the eyes are blankly white, giving it an eerily blind appearance.
But how can it carry us… won’t it tear…?
Turning her head away from this disturbing spectacle Heather is treated to a view of the landscape revolving below her, the river a winding snake gleaming evening light from every scale, flanked by the darkening terracotta plain. She glimpses the great dockyard of Lothal, now seemingly no bigger than her thumbnail. She swallows thickly, and grips at the talon with both hands.
“Ah… I suspect you may not wish to look down either,” remarks Yuri.
“No one wants to talk to me about this… maybe I am going crazy…” As Leda Piers covers her face again, and gives a long, shuddering sigh, Judith and Graham exchange a glance over her head.
“Keep her busy.” Judith mouths the words silently. Graham nods.
“Not at all,” he says quickly, patting gently at Leda’s shoulder. “You just take a moment and rest there.”
“I think your tea is getting cold,” Judith adds. “I’ll see if I can’t get you some water or something. Stay right there.” She gives Graham a quick smile and walks swiftly away, but not in the direction of Massey’s hut.
After peering through the doors of a number of the rough shanty huts in which the archaeological team appear to be living and working, Judith has discovered one which contains a long table strewn with a range of mud-covered items, each labelled with a tag of coloured plastic. When she has ascertained that it is unoccupied, she slips within.
If only Jake Hobart were here… Jake, she is sure, would know better to make of this collection. She passes quickly along the table, gingerly turning over items, then replacing them as she found them. Many of the fragments seem to be lumps of mud with tiny pieces of pottery embedded in them. There are some clay tiles, and a number of bricks, some brushed clean. One or two misshapen stones prove to be actually clay figurines, most portly renderings of a female form.
Her attention is caught, however, by a slightly more sophisticated sculpture of a man’s head and torso. The figure has long, heavy-lidded eyes which are all but closed. The mouth is wide, full, and downward-sloping, in a matter that suggests self-importance and serenity. The lower cheeks and chin are scored with vertical lines to indicate a beard. An ornate ribbon binds the brows, and suspends a circular ornament, about the size of a coin, in the centre of the forehead. On impulse, Judith slips the little statue into her backpack.
A little further down the table, she notices a square of white stone, carved in a familiar fashion. This unicorn seal is slightly chipped, the horned beast bisected by a narrow vertical crack. Near it lie several more, of better quality. Judith chooses the largest and best preserved, and soon that is nestling next to the clay figure in her backpack.
She is padding carefully back towards the door when she becomes aware that across the floor of the hut lies a trail of dark and shapeless footprints. She stoops and touches the floor – the prints are virtually pools of water. They lead to a heap of tarpaulin which is situated between Judith and the door. After casting her eye around for a suitable defensive weapon, and eventually hefts a heavy clay jar to shoulder height.
Her back against the wall, she edges past the pile of tarpaulin, watching for the slightest tremor in its fabric. She is a yard from the door when she treads upon a fold of the tarpaulin and feels something move under her foot. In that instant the tarpaulin is thrown back and the figure that had been concealed beneath it rears suddenly to its feet. Judith’s eyes widen and she tenses, ready to throw the jar at the figure’s head.
“I do apologise for this.” Leda seems to be mustering her mental resources. “I promise that I’m not usually like this.” Graham has no difficulty in believing this. Even in the more broad-minded academic environments, a tendency to adopt a divine aspect without warning would probably have drawn comment.
“Don’t… don’t concern yourself.” Graham seats himself beside her and pats vaguely at her arm again. “After all, none of us are at our best when we’re abroad, are we? Strange food, strange weather, out of our element… I’ve been suffering from a bit of sunstroke myself.”
“It’s not just that. I’ve travelled with Dr Massey all over the place – most of the Scandinavian countries, and of course conferences all over the world. I was with him in Pakistan until recently, working on the Mohenjo-Daro site for months with no problem at all.”
“Well… perhaps it’s stress-related. I gather you’ve been having some trouble with your backers and… well, it does sound as if the job of organising things around here tends to fall on your shoulders.” Graham is quite pleased with the way in which he has manoeuvred the conversation towards the subject of his curiosity.
“Dr Massey is a very busy man,” Leda says, a little defensively. “He takes a lot of the legwork on himself, as well as the expert analysis – it just doesn’t leave him with much time or mental room for practicalities. So yes, I do try and keep the wheels turning, and yes, the situation with our backers has been a bit fraught…” She suddenly glances at Graham shrewdly. “Are you asking me this as a sympathiser or a journalist, by the way?”
“Oh, I’m not a journalist. I’m just, um, here with…” Graham nods his head in the direction of Judith’s departure, and his unfeigned blush does more than his words to suggest that he, at least, is travelling through Lothal for personal reasons. “And these are confidences, anyway.”
“Do you think that you can persuade your friend not to print details of our petty internal politics?”
“Oh yes,” Graham says truthfully. “I think I can promise that.” Leda relaxes a little.
“Well, it’s a horrible mess. As I say, we were previously working at Mohenjo-Daro, on a project funded by a number of sources, but mainly by a certain English research body – effectively they were calling the shots. Well, as usual, we started running out of funds anyway, so we attended a few conferences in the hope of drumming up interest. In Montreal this year we had what you might call half a success. Someone was interested in funding us to investigate the Indus civilisation, alright, but in Lothal rather than Mohenjo-Daro. They wanted our entire team to re-locate, without delay, and they were willing to pay through the nose for it.”
“Who were they?”
“We don’t really know much about them – we seem to have a ‘mysterious benefactor.’ The person who usually represents them is a Japanese man called Tokutaro, so I can only suppose some Japanese corporation has decided to take an interest in us.”
“If they were willing to fund the whole expedition, why do you have two backers?”
“Ah – that’s the complicated bit. Basically, as I say, they asked for the whole team. Well, a lot of us were recruited by Dr Massey, but not all of us. Some of the really key members, such as Luke Pearl, Dan Fisk and Dr Troth have long term positions with the English research body which had been providing the bulk of our funding. In addition, we had signed some papers with them over our work at Mohenjo-Daro which didn’t make allowances for as all leaving Pakistan. The whole thing had to be renegotiated, and the bottom line was that they were willing to let us take a break from the Mohenjo-Daro project, but that they wanted a piece of the Lothal expedition.”
“And there has been a conflict of interest between the two?”
“Yes, almost from square one. Our Japanese backer kept issuing courteously worded orders about where we were to dig, and our English backers didn’t much like them laying down the law. The bewildering thing is that a lot of the Japanese suggestions did seem to bear fruit. More recently, there have been differences of opinion concerning the destination of our archaeological finds – both seem equally determined to seize the plum ‘pickings’ for their respective museums. I feel as if I’m supervising a jumble sale, rather than organising a quest for knowledge.”
“Oh dear. Have they been fighting over anything in particular?”
“No, not really,” Leda mutters, wearily. “Anything and everything. It would take less time to list the things they haven’t fought over. We found a selection of gold beads that the Japanese were willing to leave to the English, and a some rather fine fragments of early Vedic pottery which the English agreed could go to the Japanese, but we’ve had outright war over the coins, the measuring weights, the reliefs, the merchant seals, the religious figurines, the sculptures, you name it.” Leda straightens, and glances around. “It’s getting dark. Your friend seems to be taking rather a long time.”
“Ah, yes, she does. Perhaps she got lost…”
“It’s alright, I’m here.” Graham, who has himself become uneasy at Judith’s long absence, glances up with a smile of timid relief as he hears her voice. “I’m afraid I quite lost my bearings – I must have been wandering in circles for ages, and couldn’t find anyone to ask directions. I didn’t like to climb up onto the mound for a better look in case I trod on anything of critical historic importance.”
“My fault.” Leda stands and stretches her legs. “I shouldn’t have left you without an escort.” She casts a glance at the sky. “It’s getting chill. I expect you’ll be wanting to get back to your hotel – I’ll find Luke and get him to give you a lift.”
“Ah, yes – but I was hoping we might take a few pictures of the site first in this rather lovely, atmospheric, evening light,” Judith says quickly.
“Oh, the whole Mound of the Dead thing.”
“The Mound of the Dead. That’s the literal translation of Lothal. Funnily enough, it’s also the translation of Mohenjo-Daro. I’ll get Luke.” Leda turns and walks back towards Massey’s hut. As soon as she is out of earshot, Judith turns to Graham with an urgent and questioning gaze in her large green eyes.
“Earlier on Leda… did you see…?” she asks.
“Yes… she changed into something else… something powerful…”
“I can’t help but see the hand of an Ylid in this – I really cannot think what else could have caused such a transformation. Perhaps the poor girl is an Ylid, and doesn’t even know it. If so, then I think we must do everything in her power to persuade her to leave this place, so as to remove her influence from Lothal.”
“And if she will not be persuaded?”
“Well, then I suppose we will have to, er, subdue her and take her prisoner.”
There is a pause while Graham considers without great enthusiasm the prospect of subduing an Ylid. Still, he resolves to muster his courage rather than leave Lady Judith to face the task alone.
“Alright,” he says, quietly. “If necessary. But I do not think we can try it here – it seems rather too public.”
“Yes,” sighs Judith. “And we have other urgent considerations. Just now I ran into Kassandra. She was hiding in one of the storage huts – in fact, she and I came within a hair’s breadth of braining one another with antique pottery before we recognised one another. It seems that they met a man on the riverbank, and Kass seems fairly convinced that he’s an Ylid of some sort – Shiva, or Yashimoto, or someone. She made a break for it, he performed some kind of magical attack, and she only escaped by diving into the river. She doesn’t know what happened to the others.
“You know, if Leda is an Ylid… well, one thing we know that does kill an Ylid is proximity to another Ylid…”
“So you think we should try and bring Leda in close contact with this other man and destroy them both?” Graham bites his lip. “It… it seems a bit harsh on the girl. Perhaps she can be… cured?”
“You know, I even considered trying to knock her unconscious, convince Luke Pearl that he needed to drive us all to the hospital, and count on losing him there.”
“Oh, I don’t think we’d ever have shaken him off if he thought Leda was hurt or ill.” Graham meets Judith’s questioning glance with a small smile. “Ah – it’s just something I noticed. You remember how it was when Leda… changed? You remember the way one found oneself looking at her, as if she was a goddess, the centre of the world? Well, that’s the way Luke Pearl looks at her all the time…”
Crouched in the shadow of the Mound of Death, Kass watches the small group of figures conversing in the light of a single doorway. She has been apprised of Lady Judith’s suspicions with regard to Leda Piers.
“Come on, Judith. Talk our new friend into one last little stroll across the ruins under the moon, and she’s ours.” The conversation by the door is concluding, and the woman in the black ponytail disappears back into the building. Judith turns her head roughly in the direction of Kass’s hiding place and shakes her head very slightly. Then she walks with Graham and another young man in the direction of a waiting jeep.
By the time she reaches the group’s Land Rover, Kass is shivering. The evening air has a distinct chill, and her hair and clothes are still water-logged. Jaw clenched to prevent her teeth chattering, she climbs into the Land Rover, and turns the key. The Mound of Death casts a long shadow across her path, and for a moment a lean, pale face confronts her in the mirror, a face that others in the group might not have recognised. Her hands still shaking from the cold, she fumbles in her bag for a lipstick.
A few moments later, Kassandra de Sade is driving back towards the Saurashtra river, her war-paint immaculate.
She has been driving for a short while when she is surprised by what appears to be a small blizzard in her path. As she draws close, she realises that the swirling, curling flakes are each the size of a child’s face. One strikes against the windscreen and lodges against the wiper, and she realises that it is a large and ragged fragment of white paper. Before she has time to wonder at this, she recognises three familiar figures in the midst of the blizzard, and applies the brakes.
Yuri pulls the passenger door open. “You are a very welcome sight, my friend.”
Kass peers out into the darkness.
“That,” Yuri says heavily, “is a question I would give a great deal to answer.”
“So… tell me more about this Nauru.”
The young woman that Maddy knows as Marilyn stirs a little uncertainly, and raises her eyes to stare at her interlocutor.
“I… I don’t quite remember what I was saying.”
“No.” Alexander smiles. “I can see that you do not.”
Marilyn realises that her cheek is resting against the red silk of Alexander’s robe, and sits up.
“Where are the others?”
“Oh, they left.” Alexander makes a dismissive gesture. “You asked me to let them go, and since I had no particular interest in them I decided to do so. They called to you for some time, but you were absorbed in our conversation and paid them little heed, so eventually they gave up and walked away.”
How long have I been here? But sure it cannot have been all that long… it is still barely sunset…
Casting her eye along the horizon, Marilyn is struck by the fact that although the landscape is suffused with a ruddy gold light, she cannot see the setting sun itself. The entire horizon is a ring of subdued fire, as if in all directions distant towns were burning. However, it almost seems that the light actually has its source in the rich silken robe worn by the man beside her.
There is an object in Alexander’s hand, an object which he lazily tosses skywards and catches as it descends, tosses and catches.
“I found this in one of your pockets,” he remarks. The dusky pink fruit rises in the air, then descends and slaps back into his grasp. “A strange vessel for magic. So tell me, what is it meant to be – a gift of some sort?” Marilyn’s jaw tenses as she watches the Chaosphere rise and fall. She can almost sense it throbbing with anger, pain and black energy, surely only just contained by its blushing peel. “I am sure it cannot be a weapon to use against me – after all, you approached with peaceable intent to speak with me, yes? So it must be a gift. Very generous. You must share it with me.”
Okada Tokutaro is sitting with his back to the tree, staring dully at his master’s feet. He struggles to command his faculties as the fruit is tossed into his lap.
“Just peel this, will you, Okada? You can use the knife.”
Groggily obedient, Okada reaches forward and takes up the knife that rests on the ground. Marilyn recognises the slim hilt which she had last seen jutting from Tokutaro’s shoulder. Breathing heavily, the little diplomat takes a moment to wipe the sheen of his own blood from the blade, then clumsily sets about breaching the peel of the fruit.
There is a deafening hush, a wash of invisible whiteness. Something sighs soundlessly from the heart of the fruit and floods the rosy air like a poison gas. Then it is gone.
Very slowly, Tokutaro slumps to the ground. Alexander leans forward and takes the fruit from his unresisting hand.
“Well, he has broken the peel for us.” He lowers his head to blow gently upon the pomegranate, then braces his thumbs on either side of the tear in the peel, and with one motion tears it in half. Although she succeeds in maintaining a stony countenance, Marilyn is surprised to see that the fruit shows no sign of rotting from the effects of negative energy. Indeed, it does not even seem to have dried out as much as she might have expected considering how long it has spent in Maddy’s luggage. The pith is still startlingly white, the flesh that encases each seed as smooth and translucent as rose quartz.
“Once, long ago, I led an army across the desert, and our supplies failed us. Every man was parched to the bone. At last a few of them chanced upon a small pool, which held only enough water to fill a shell – scarcely enough for a single man. They brought it to me, and I was about to drink when I learned that there was not enough for my men. I poured the water away into the sand.” Alexander pulls one succulent, pink seed loose from the fruit, then another. “I believe in sharing with those that follow me.”
He places six seeds in her hand, and watches with a smile as she eats them.
Judith and Graham arrive back at the hotel a little before the others, and find that Sherry is conscious. They discover her standing at the bathroom mirror, gingerly peeling at the plaster on her face and trying to get a look at the wound underneath.
“I mixed myself a drink, is that OK?” She swirls the glass in her hand, rattling the ice. There are still shadows around her eyes, but she has lost her shrunken, forlorn appearance. “So – what happened? Is Dex…”
“He’s fine.” Judith says quickly. “I mean, a little strangled, but not much the worse for it.”
As if to confirm her statement, the door opens at that point, and Dexter walks in. His face flushes with relief and pleasure as he catches sight of Sherry standing next to Judith in her dressing gown.
“Thought you’d decided to get your own back on me for leaving you on the train,” he remarks gruffly. “It looked like you weren’t coming back for a bit there.”
“Oh, you don’t get rid of me that easily.” The sticking plaster leaves Sherry’s smile a little lop-sided, but it is a welcome sight nonetheless.
“Sherry – I think we’re overdue for a talk. A private talk.” Judith and Graham take the hint and leave the room. Dexter seats himself on the side of the bed, and half clenches his large hands on his knees. “You’re seen enough to know that none of us are what we seen, and that we’re facing some very dangerous people. Your face and probably your name is now known to them, so it’s probably too late to pack you off home,” he smiles slightly, “so I guess on that score you win. You’re now in as much danger as the rest of us, so I think you have a right to know more about what is going on.
“Everything I’m going to say will sound pretty daft. It always does at first, until you experience it first hand. I don’t ask you to believe any of it, not yet. I just want you to listen…”
“How is she?” Judith asks, when Dexter returns to the group. He gives a noncommittal shrug.
“She’ll deal with it. She’s a fighter.”
“I still worry about her a little,” remarks Judith. “First she’s glad to be free of her husband, then at the kite festival she’s talking as if she’d like to be your wife, Dexter. If there is a marital theme to our Ylids’ plans, then Sherry might be something of a sitting duck. It just struck me as rather a strange and sudden change.” She utters a low sigh. “Although right now we have other more worrying transformations to worry about.” Judith and Graham give an account of their encounter with Leda.
“Well, to me it sounds bloody obvious that one of our Ylids is trying to use Leda to locate the artefacts.”
“If so, then I really believe that it’s occurring without her consent. Graham and I have done a little to win her trust. I managed to have a brief word with her about her ‘changes’ just before Luke Pearl drove us back, and she agreed to meet with Graham and myself tomorrow afternoon. This might be a good opportunity to try and overpower her, away from the dig.”
“This whole set up sounds as if we have two Ylids with a sort of uneasy truce or pact between them, who are dead set on digging up a certain artefact. Everyone agreed?” Kass has changed her clothes, and is busy towelling her wet hair. “So, the question is, why does our girl Ylid want the artefact, and why is our boy Ylid willing to let her have it?”
“From what he was saying, I don’t think he is – this was after you left, Kass.” Heather recounts the conversation with the Ylid in the red robe.
“So who is he? Shiva? Yashimoto?”
“It doesn’t sound to me like he’s either of them,” opines Judith. “I think we have a reawakened Alexander the Great, inhabiting the body of Robert Montague Flint. Look at this.” She hands across the page of automatic writing in red pen. “With hindsight, I think this section is warning us against allowing Alexander to get his hands on some memories. Unfortunately, it seems that he has now done just that, and I must confess I really can’t see what can be done about it, short of separating Alexander from Flint’s body somehow.”
“Does the automatic writing give any more clues?”
“Well… there seems to be something helpful like a reference to the end of the world, but not much more than that.”
“If the world’s about to end, I vote we report it to Blaize,” says Kass. “I don’t see why he should have a relaxed Christmas.”
“In the meanwhile, if those alien scum are digging around for this artefact, we’ll just have to find it first,” Dexter announces. “So, does anyone have a good idea what we’re looking for?”
“Did those who visited the site notice anything of interest?” asks Yuri.
Judith bites her lip, opens her Burberry backpack, and draws out the unicorn seal, and the little male sculpture. “I found a photograph of this sculpture in my book. Apparently, they think it represents a priest-king, or something like that.”
“Kass, what about you? Did you notice anything interesting?”
By way of answer, Kass draws a box out from under the bed. Inside are a number of clay beads, in which are embedded tiny spheres of gold. She spreads her hands in a shrug.
“What can I say? They’re gold. Gold has always been my favourite shade of interesting.”
“Alright, did anyone not nick something?” asks Heather, incredulously.
Graham blushes, and slips a hand into his jacket. It emerges gripping a slender tablet of white stone, in which a few runes are inscribed.
“Luke Pearl turned his back on me to make me tea,” he says sheepishly, by way of explanation.
“Maybe we need to go back to the dig and just grab everything we can find,” suggests Dexter.
“Well we hardly need to bother, do we?” Heather gestures curtly towards the antiques littering the hotel floor. “We’ve already walked off with half the site!”
“Maybe we’ve already got the artefact here, but chances are we haven’t,” continues Dexter. “Unless we can work out what we’re looking for, we don’t have much option but to either try and steal everything they’ve dug up, or destroy them all so they can’t be used by those bastards.”
“I was starting to wonder whether the green automatic writing was recommending that we destroy the unicorn seal,” remarks Judith.
“There you are then,” Dexter says, firmly. “Damn – this would be a lot easier if we had some way of locating the thing. Where’s that blasted pixie when you need her?”
“Yes – what did happen to Maddy?” asks Judith. There is a slightly uncomfortable pause.
“She went with Alexander.”
“Alexander took Maddy prisoner?”
“Yes. No.” Heather shrugs and shakes her head. “She went with him. Sort of willingly. No, that sounds wrong.” She glances up at Dexter and Yuri, who look similarly nonplussed and reluctant to speak. “She may well have done it to try and save our necks.”
“Or it is just conceivable that she saw a way to save her own,” Yuri says, very softly.
“She was on the right side of the burning rain when it came down,” admits Heather. “But that just doesn’t sound like Maddy.”
“Maddy didn’t sound like Maddy back there,” Dexter points out.
“True. It was weird. You were talking about transformations, Judith. Well, suddenly it was like Maddy wasn’t the same person. She was someone sharper, and older, and colder…”
Geoff Blaize listens in silence to Kass’s report. After she finishes describing the encounter with the Ylid by the riverbank and the group’s conclusions about him, there is a long pause.
“Oh, my God.” The whisper is so faint that Kass scarcely catches it.
When Blaize manages to muster his usual stream of the usual bluff, encouraging nothings, there is something uncharacteristically shaky in his tone.
Kass replaces the phone, and finishes the task of attaching stiff wire to the insides of her forearm sleeves.
Leda arrives at the agreed meeting place with impeccable punctuality.
“They serve decent European food here,” she explains, pushing the door of the restaurant open. “I don’t choose to eat too much spicy food if I can help it. I have an English stomach, and there’s little point pretending I haven’t.”
Over a course of passable omelettes, Leda, Judith and Graham engage in a guarded discussion of Leda’s ‘changes.’ It emerges that they have been taking place for about a week and a half, with ever increasing severity.
“I have heard of… symptoms a bit like this before,” Judith says, carefully. “All I can recommend is that you stay away from the site. I have no doubt that your current condition is connected with your work there.”
“That’s what Luke keeps saying. He’s heading back to Hull in a day or two, and he says that I should go back with him for a change of air, or a bit of a holiday. But that’s not really a very useful attitude. Most people seem to believe that if you run away from work then it will just disappear, instead of accumulating and waiting for you when you get back. And I can’t leave Dr Massey in the lurch.”
Other gentle attempts to persuade her not to return to the dig find her intractable on the subject. Leda is distressed and confused by her ‘symptoms’ but the abandonment of her responsibilities seems to be unthinkable to her. As they rise to leave the restaurant, Graham sees Judith give him a meaningful look, and his heart swoops to a place between his knees.
Judith’s mind is racing as she tries to recall the moves from her judo lessons. Casting a quick eye up and down the street, she ascertains that no one is watching.
The throw is imperfectly executed, but Leda is small and lightly built, and is utterly unprepared.
“What did you do that for?” She appears too surprised at finding herself on her back to be afraid. Graham, uncertain what else to do, drops to his knees next to her and throws his jacket over her head, and then tries to grip her arms to her sides while she struggles. Judith draws out a short length of wood she had been brought along as a makeshift cosh, and hesitates. It is one thing to strike out reflexively against an attacker, and quite another to have time to consider how best to batter the head of a helpless captive without crushing the skull. After a few moments she does bring cosh down on the head of the smothered research assistant, and is rewarded with a little gasping cry of surprise and pain. “Ow! That really hurt!”
“Oh – let’s just get her in the Land Rover…”
A few hours after dark, Heather, Kass and Dexter drive away from the hotel, and leave the Land Rover half a mile or so from the dig. All are dressed in dark clothing, Kass also wearing a studded leather collar.
“As far as I can make out, that hut’s a kind of cafeteria,” Kass whispers. “That cluster of buildings over there, all living quarters. All the goodies are in those long buildings, there and there. Last night, they had a guy with a torch strolling around, but not too stealthily, so we should see him coming.”
“Let’s go,” mutters Heather, and ghosts her way to the door. Once there she pauses, holds up a hand to signal to the others that they should wait, then runs silently back to join them.
“There’s something wrong. I think the security guy with the torch is in there, but if he is it looks like he’s dropped his torch and he’s not picking it up again.” All three return to the door, preparing to run if required.
A torch is indeed lying on the room, painting a dull yellow triangle of light across the floor. The security guard is arched backwards like a limbo dancer, his back resting upon the long table, his legs dangling over the edge, his feet resting upon the floor. A dark crease is visible across his throat. In one hand he holds the smashed remains of a pot, as if he had attempted to use it club his assailant in his last moments.
Most of the artefacts on the table are untouched, but a collection of items at the far end appear to have been attacked with a frenzy. Here the tabletop is strewn with fragments of a pale, clay-like stone, some still bearing traces of carving. Dexter examines one such fragment.
“Unicorn seals,” he says. “They smashed all the unicorn seals.”
“Quick! The other building!”
The three interlopers approach the door to the second building with caution.
“Any sign of a disturbance?”
“Hard to see. Looks OK. Maybe they didn’t know there was a second storeroom.”
“Or maybe they panicked after killing the security guard. Or…”
Four figures in pale clothes silently rise to their feet from different hiding places among the shadows of the storeroom. The face of each is muffled in a kerchief.
…or maybe they heard us coming and hid themselves….
A sixth figure stands and approaches, the white silk of her loose suit softly luminous in the darkness. Rina Shekar holds out a fistful of white stone fragments and shakes it, powder trickling like chalk through her fingers.
“Where are they?” she hisses, in English. “Where are the others?”
There is a rap at the door.
“That can’t be them back yet,” says Graham, concerned.
Yuri goes to the door.
“Er… hi.” Maddy is standing outside the door. “I’m, like, back. More or less. Can I come in?”
10 pm, 28th December 2000
Judith, Graham, Yuri and Maddy are at the hotel
Dexter, Kass and Heather are at the archaeological site
Maddy: You do not have very distinct memories of your time with Alexander. Even more worryingly, now that the Maddy personality has surfaced again, you are aware that a change has taken place. Maddy no longer has a strong sense of Marilyn’s presence in her mind – the state is vaguely reminiscent of the time that Maddy was amnesiac and had no access to Marilyn’s memories. It’s also rather as if, for some reason, the Marilyn part of your mind is trying to shut you out.
Basically, in out of character terms, the gamble that Alexander would find it difficult to deal with your somewhat divided psyche was partially successful, but only partially. In short, Maddy is not compromised (she, after all, while less steely than Marilyn has more potent emotional reasons for opposing Alexander) but Marilyn is (since she was the ‘personality’ in the ascendant at the time that Alexander decided to use his influence upon her).
As things stand, if the Marilyn personality asserts itself again, it is likely to have been convinced by the arguments and promises of Alexander, and to be working for him. As yet Maddy is unaware of this.
I’m willing to give you a fair bit of freedom in how you play this. Hope this is alright.