Scorpion Archipelago Base Camp October 31st 1997 12.20am
Once again, as the inflatable had whined off in pursuit of the other boat, looking as fragile as their hopes when it bounced on the waves, the Professor had been close to giving in to despair. He saw now that the loss of his daughter would succeed where all other setbacks in his life had failed; it would destroy him. No amphora was as precious as her life, returned safe and sound to him and nothing more ridiculous than ambition in an old, tired heart. Jim had placed a hand on his shoulder and said:
“That Cobus is a tough nut. I’m sure he and Pete between them can bring her back; if indeed she has been taken.”
Then Jim had wandered off towards the box of guns. A wise idea, thought Sutch; keep yourself busy. At least one of them was thinking straight. Jim had an old head on young shoulders, or better put, a practical one, since an old head had got them all into this mess. Had he taken the same liking to her as she had to the young photographer. Was the feeling mutual? Was Jim now going through his own private agonies, albeit nothing compared with Sutch’s?
Now he watched Catalina go to sit with Jim. The girl had been very quiet during most of this trip. She might have thought of herself as intrepid prior to this, but once the proverbial had hit the fan she had discovered otherwise. She had lost a friend and might lose another. There was every chance she was rethinking her ambitions for the expedition and they panned down to one stark aim – stay alive. Sutch wished he could give her absolute reassurance and security, but he was having a tough time just keeping himself together and it was no surprise that she sought strength instead in the company of a younger man, who was loading a gun; who lived in the present, not the past.
With that, Sutch returned to his tent, to continue with something he had started earlier, but abandoned, perhaps unwisely. Why had his mind refused to accept that myths and legends had an inevitable a core of truth? Had that not been the basic tenet of this expedition? He knew, now, he had just been acting like the three wise monkeys rolled into one. So he pulled out Tariq’s letter and started to read it again in detail, or at least the first page; the one he had concealed from the others after skimming through its contents.
This part was not so much a letter as a brief history written during the merchant’s final voyage and Sutch saw, too late, that keeping these details from the team had been unwise, even though they might have been dismissed as some fairy-tale. He saw, also, that the amphora brought with it a legacy of lies. From the moment he had set eyes on it, he had withheld information from people – Candice, Dirk, Arthur, the team. Did the amphora turn you from the path of truth? Tariq had lied, or at least bent the truth, on more than one occasion. As he considered the consequences of his own actions and read again the details in the letter, Professor Edward Sutch regretted that he had proved a worthy heir.
“In the anticipatory excitement of reaching my journey’s end, floating towards my Valhalla, and in the hope that you will find my body, here is the true story of how I came to be who I was on the day you met me. My people fled, not for the first time in our history, from persecution in the fourth century after your Christ was born, led by a mighty king and his powerful shaman, who promised that for us there would be, somewhere, a promised land. We preferred to take our chances with the sea than try to withstand the forces of so-called progress. We left what is now called South America and perhaps half of us were lost before our ships beached upon the archipelago, on which you now stand if you are reading this. We might have landed better elsewhere, but freedom, and land beneath your feet, count for so much.
Most scratched a living together, but man being man, some things cannot change. The priests chose to inhabit a separate island, the largest one at the end of the chain that is now named Escorpion Archiepelago. Here they discovered a perfect place to conceal their secret, both wonderful and terrible, like so many hidden treasures. They wandered deep into the network of mountain caves and found a spring of fresh, clear water; a suitable place to build their altar and continue with their dark practices. Once more they could channel and corrupt the power of the Earth goddess.
“You see, throughout history the priests moved from tribe to tribe, race to race, holding the people in thrall by dint of their immortality, and one, the high priest, whose name, even now, I cannot utter, seemed to have existed since the beginning of time. It was rumoured that he was the oldest man alive, and had fled civilisations from the earliest of times when fear had led men to revolt against his power. For, unbeknown to commoners or kings, he possessed an object for which secular men would kill had they ever learned of its existence. Though his strength was beyond that of other men he was still mortal, and would not have withstood the onslaught of an army raised to seize his prize. The artefact, called a k’ib in my native tongue – meaning water jug, but not to be confused with your amphora – seemed able to harness the universal structures, truths and life-giving forces that are inherent in water, endowing all who drank it with these gifts. And more; it took that innate power and charged with its eldritch energies the very air one breathed, though there was a limit to its reach – only those on Temple Island would have felt that strange effect – and it relied on water to awaken it, just like a vampire needs blood.
The k’ib enabled the priests to perpetuate the myth of their holy powers as they continued with their claim of being able to bless water with life-giving forces. The high priest himself said this grail – I use the word advisedly, if technically it is incorrect – was a gift from the gods. None of us knew enough to disagree.”
“More half- truths, Tariq, more lies.” Sutch shook his head. “You said the spring itself imparted the powers.” Even as he muttered to himself, the Professor grew more desperate, feeling like he had been lured by the beauty of a web, only to discover its deceit – every way he turned now he was held by more strands. And Tariq, though it pained Sutch to admit it, had spun the threads. Perhaps he had been powerless to do otherwise. Perhaps it had been inherent to his nature, just as a spider is driven by instinct to lay its trap and perform its gruesome rituals, because it was clear to the Professor that Tariq must have been a priest. He told here of things ‘unbeknown to commoners or kings’. It seemed to Sutch that the water of life, rather than the amphora, was the breeding ground of lies. So having drunk of it for more than a thousand years, was Tariq powerless to do other than deceive? Because despite everything, the Professor still believed the old merchant had been, in essence, a good man.
“Now the high priest forbade all settlers other than his acolytes to live on the sacred island. The ordinary people feared the ageless priests and did their bidding without questioning, so that the high priest grew more powerful than the king. At first there was an uneasy truce. The people of the archipelago, while quarrying for stones, stumbled upon caves full of rocksalt. Everywhere, except on Temple Island where certain slaves were employed in carving an edifice fit for the priests – they mined it in vast quantities and the king sent them forth to trade, building great ships from the plentiful timber around us. I believe that time and legend has transmuted the rocksalt into precious stones, but as you know, salt was of enormous value back then. As a result we wanted for nothing. Here, too, the myth of the priests was perpetuated, for they supplied water for the departing ships, knowing their crews would always return; eternal life is a delicious poison. And a priest would travel on every ship to ensure no man dared betray our kingdom.
Likewise, the inhabitants of our citadel were granted a ration of blessed water that kept them young and healthy, but not as strong as the priests. Still, as with all kingdoms that grow rich there was a desire for overall power amongst the leaders. Ambition attacked; a cancer thriving on the healthiest cells. Certain ancient religious practices were resumed, notably human sacrifice. Throughout our history there was a fear amongst the priests that our lack of children would give away our dark secret because they would not age, and how do you raise a child for all eternity? It was a terrible darkness that hung over us – to have to live without the joy of new lives amongst us – and I regret deeply my part in it. This was one of the reasons the king commanded the building of the walled citadel; so that his people could choose to raise a family and the priests could not simply go among the people and claim the young. But still they would come to the wall of the citadel and demand one life for each full moon.
The unfortunate volunteer – or terrified victim – would be chained at the appropriate time to a pillar down at the harbour, on top of which a fire would be lit to signal to the priests to collect their booty.”
Sutch shuddered as he recognised the marker he had found. There had been no fire, no victim held in chains, but he had been summoned just as surely to claim his prize.
“The high priest himself had almost passed into mythology during the course of a thousand years. Some said he had become dark and terrible to behold; others that he would not leave the object that gave him his power and stalked the tunnels of the temple. Yet more said that his heart and the k`ib now pulsed in unison. Whatever the truth, the cave beyond the magnificent temple they had built was turned by the priests into a labyrinth; some said it was to prevent the theft of the k`ib, others that it was to keep the dark lord contained.
At last it came to the ears of the king that the high priest was planning to come forth and take both the citadel and the kingdom from him. One priest, sickened by the reawakening of the sacrificial cult, broke ranks and betrayed the high priest’s plans and the secret of the source of his power. So the king, an enlightened leader and a brave warrior in his time, led an army across to Temple Island. The priests bade him enter the temple and take the k’ib for his own. He was never seen again.
Then the priests, numbering but fifty, took on the king’s force of five hundred men and slaughtered them. At once they boarded boats and headed for the citadel. I was lucky. Along with my friend the fisherman, we were amongst the few who escaped. From the ocean we watched powerless as the priests scaled the walls with ladders they had prepared and the citizens fled, some choosing to hurl themselves from the cliffs, rather than face the wrath of the holy men. Others we saw captured and led back to the boats. Their fate I know not, but I can guess. With the power of the k’ib keeping them alive, they would have fulfilled the requirements of many a full moon. I care not to dwell on it.
I return now to honour the dead by dying among them; because I escaped while they died; because this wild place was my home for a thousand years; because I have wandered too much since, for any other place truly to be called home. And I return in the hope that, with four thousand full moons having passed, the gruesome banquet of the priests might be over and they will have died at last.”
Sutch knew in his gut that Tariq was the one who fled the priesthood, driven by the shame of human sacrifice; that he had brought the corruption of the cult to the attention of the king. How the Professor wanted…needed to believe that.
And then, any sadness about Tariq, or his lies, or his fate, was pushed aside with a jolt that might have stopped his ageing heart.
Temple Island is alive!
Oh God, let it not be so!
Had two more lives been sacrificed, as surely as if Sutch himself had dragged them down to the harbour by a full moon?
He read the last words on the parchment that shook in his hands.
“Please believe me, my dear Professor, when I say that I have agonised over whether to allow you to find this place. But every man must find his dream and the dead must be allowed to speak again.”
Now Sutch was shivering. He was beyond redemption. What had he let those boys head off into? He had been even more of an arrogant fool than he had known.
Could it really be so? No – he would not allow himself to believe it. Hobgoblins and dark lords and waters of eternal youth. He tapped the paper, needing to feel something real. There, Tariq himself summed it up; all the precious stones of legend were nothing more than good old prosaic rocksalt. So what if the king was never seen again? Small wonder, when he walked into a network of cave tunnels. Probably got lost and fell to his death somewhere. Human sacrifice – for sure, that was real enough in South American culture and elsewhere. The rest were bedtime stories; that was all.
There were other anomalies too. If indeed those shamans had survived, how the hell had they managed it, trapped in the anachronism of their ancient ways? Had they kept some of their prisoners alive as slaves; sent them to fish; made them till the soil; held them in unending bondage? Or had modern civilisation somehow drifted onto TempleIsland and left enough of a footprint to enable it to stand its ground alone?
But as his finger continued to tap on the paper his fears, like ancient priests, would not go away. This document was found in the hand of a dead man who had been writing with a twentieth century biro; a man with no guarantee his words would ever be read. Why would he have continued to lie?
Where the hell was Jane?
He shook his head, angry with himself for allowing his thought to wander from her plight.
The occasions when he had been around to read her to sleep were too few, yet there had always been a strong bond between them. It might have been forged in the fires deep beneath the earth’s crust, but had found its ultimate expression in a shared love of discovery and a shared perspective – that everything about man was transient. Jane would have acknowledged that each time she dug up the ruins man had built on the surface – yet another crumbling example of the Ozymandias principle, just as he knew it for sure, whenever he sat on, or sank below, the vastness of the ocean. Perhaps their love had been strengthened by absence; the privilege of the father who comes home to the clean and well-behaved child. But Candice never complained.
Darling Candice, so far from here.
A hand tapped on the flap of his tent and he heard Catalina’s voice. “Professor? They’re coming back.”
He looked at his watch and saw that he must have slipped into some kind of reverie. And now he could hear the distant, mosquito-like whine of the inflatable.
He came out in time to see the boat scrape to a halt in the surf. At least the two men were alive and appeared unharmed. Then his stomach lurched as he saw them reach into the boat and lift out a third figure. But he knew with horrible certainty that it wasn’t Jane. Something was wrong. He heard Cobus shouting:
“Get one of the spare sleeping bags, quick!” As they carried the figure across the Afrikaner continued: “Put it by the fire. I don’t think this poor bastard’s got long left. Let’s make him comfortable.”
As they brought that bag of bones towards the fire, Pete looked across at the Professor approaching and said: “I think we found your Temple Island.”
“And my daughter?”
Like a Hydra seized by remorse, all heads looked down.
“No sign,” said Pete at last. He glanced at Cobus. “Nor of Robbie. But that’s better than…”
“Yes,” said the Professor, the light and shade flitting across his features; feigned optimism in a windblown sky, “yes, of course. No news is good news.” He reached them, looked around, distracted, before turning to the figure they had brought ashore and winced. “Who is this poor creature?”
“Got absolutely no idea,” said Cobus. “Like Pete said, we found what we assume was a temple. At the back of it was a network of tunnels, like a labyrinth. He seemed to be hiding there. We’ll fill you in on everything in a minute. First, while we’re trying to save his life – though I think we’ve passed the point of no return – let’s see if we can make out what he’s trying to say.” Cobus looked at Catalina, whose face bore the exhausted lines of utter mental defeat. She was staring in horror at the dying man. “Catalina.” No reaction. “Catalina!” She dragged her eyes away from the horror towards her friend. “You’re a bit of a linguist. He’s saying a couple of things over and over. Can you make them out?” She hesitated. “C’mon sweetheart.”
Gathering her scattered wits and slippery courage with visible effort, the girl stepped forward. They had eased their guest’s body onto the sleeping bag – getting him into it seemed a task too far. His eyes kept rolling upwards. Catalina knelt by him and listened. She bent her head closer, seeming caught between pity and revulsion, but academic curiosity won out, as she struggled to interpret his dry whispers. “There are sounds,” she said, “similar to some Central American languages, but the inflexions are different.”
The man’s gaunt skull was turning from side to side, his skeletal fingers resting on his chest, but picking at the air.
“I suspect he’s gone quite mad,” said Pete, “and if he’s been where we’ve just been for any length of time I’m not surprised.”
Catalina raised her hand to silence him as she strove to hear what the man was saying, her ear almost pressed to his mouth.
“He’s not just gone mad.” It was Jim’s voice. He had been standing silent; the Professor noticed how his eyes had been scanning the forest. But now he was looking at the figure and they all gasped as they saw how its condition was worsening, impossible though that seemed. “He’s dying before our eyes.” The remaining skin was desiccating and creasing even as they watched. Sutch could see Tariq’s description of the old fisherman’s death brought to substantive reality – to life seemed an inappropriate phrase under the circumstances – and knew at once that this man before him had lived for centuries. In God’s name, or the devil’s, how much of that life had been spent lost in the labyrinth of which the others had spoken? Could he be…? Of course!
Catalina backed away in revulsion. “What’s happening to him?”
“Time is catching up with him.” The Professor looked at the fading figure with sadness.
“What do you mean?”
Sutch said nothing, though he felt questioning eyes turn towards him.
“Did you catch what he’s saying?” asked Cobus.
Catalina shivered. “It’s hard to say, but I might have got lucky.”
“Well, the Maya spoke any number of languages. There wasn’t a Mayan language as such. But one of the languages I do recognise is a variation of Tzotzil, and I’m almost sure that’s what he’s using; as sure as I can be, anyway.” She looked at the others. “I thought I heard ‘king’ or ‘kingdom’, ‘darkness’,” she shrugged, “‘kingdom of darkness’ perhaps. And ‘lost’. ‘The lost kingdom’? I’m really not sure.”
Just then, a smile seemed to form on the skeletal face. Perhaps it was just the approach of the death rictus, but there was the faintest hint of serenity on the tortured features.
Sutch was moved: “It’s as if, after all he’s been through, he welcomes death, here, under the stars, by a campfire, surrounded by concerned faces.” The Professor bowed his head, thinking of Tariq.
Suddenly, Jim shuffled his feet in impatience and hefted his rifle. “Why are we wasting time here? We haven’t found Jane…or Robbie.” The latter name seemed, to one set of ears at least, to have been added as an afterthought.
The Professor felt a flush of anger rising in his cheeks. “If I, as her father, can take a moment to show respect for what I fear this man may have gone through, so can everyone else.”
“Yes,” said Pete, giving Jim a pointed glare.
Sutch felt Cobus watching him and heard him say: “And what do you believe he’s been through, Professor?”
Sutch held up a rolled parchment. “Despite everything, I’ll allow myself the time now to tell you. I couldn’t bring myself to believe it, but faced with this, I think I have no choice. Furthermore, I think it’s important that everyone understands what we might be up against.” He unrolled the parchment and started to read.
“Let me get this straight,” said Pete. “You believe this dying man here was that king? You, the world-renowned scientist, believe that out there, on that piece of rock, is the secret to eternal youth.”
Sutch could not be sure whether Pete was settling old debts by ridicule, but decided he couldn’t blame him. So he tried to give an objective answer. “I don’t know that for sure, but based on the words we think he might have been saying, it could be true.” He looked at them. “You haven’t told us what you saw.”
Pete stayed silent, but Cobus spoke up. “Hard to say for sure, but we did see a group of men. They were chanting in front of some sort of altar. I…didn’t look for long.”
Pete interjected. “We kept our heads down. Didn’t want to risk being seen.”
Sutch almost bristled with vindication. “So we have a labyrinth, and we have a group of men who appear to be worshipping something. I’d say there’s a fair to middling chance Tariq’s story might well be true. Then we have a seemingly ancient man who is wasting away before our eyes and – possibly – whispering something about a king. Is this him? Was he lost in that labyrinth for a more than a thousand years? Did the priests who invited him to enter and search for their ‘grail’ post guards to prevent him ever leaving. Imagine eternity in the darkness; the power of that grail keeping you alive; no food; no water; unable to do anything but run and hide – eventually too weak except to crawl – and hope that you might find your way out.” Sutch exhaled shakily. “Surely death would have been preferable.” He saw the glance exchanged by Cobus and Pete.
“It could be worse than you think,” said Cobus, shuddering as he thought of the labyrinth.
Catalina was shaking. “Worse than that?” she said, close to tears. “When death already seems better?”
“We felt something when we were in there.” Cobus looked down, as if he did not want to face it again, or let others see its impact in his eyes.
“Something?” questioned Sutch.
“Ja” He groped for the right words, but settled on the simplest. “Darkness; evil. They might sound dramatic, but the words fit. We felt it approaching in one of the tunnels, and I’m not ashamed to admit we also hid. I can’t be sure, but it seemed to stop at the entrance of our crawl hole, and then moved on.” He pointed. “And that’s where we found our friend here.”
Catalina sank to her knees. “Oh God, how awful.” She was weeping. Pete reached down and placed a hand on her shoulder, then lifted her to her feet. She buried her face in his chest and wept. Pete looked uncomfortable, distracted even, but put his arms around her. He whispered in her ear. The gesture made Sutch feel ashamed. He might well have been guilty of not giving his son-in-law enough of a chance; not seeing through the brashness.
“Well, old girl,” said Pete to the top of Catalina’s head, “it’s not going to get easier in a hurry.” He gave a slight nod in Cobus’s direction.
“Ja,” said the Afrikaner, “we came back to get armed. We need the semi-automatic rifles and pistols, lots of ammo, and the explosives.” The Professor felt a moment of atavistic regret, but he suppressed it. Some things just had to be. It would be another sad episode in modern man’s response to the ancient and unknown, but on this occasion the time for understanding was short. One way or the other, he needed to know if they had his daughter and Robbie. He saw Cobus looking at him. “I’m sorry, Professor.” As if the young man had read his mind. “But I’m sure you’ll agree – saving a good life now is worth a thousand bad ones. And if we are looking at a race that possesses the sort of gift, or curse, you’re describing we might need one hell of a lot of weaponry to kill them.”
“Absolutely,” agreed Sutch. “How many did you say there were?” In all that had happened, and with time short, there had only been a disjointed exchange of information so far.
“About fifty, but we can’t swear there weren’t others – maybe on some of these other islands; who knows? But somehow I don’t think so, especially having heard Tariq’s letter now. Perhaps there were more priests, but they ran out of sacrifices and started eating each other.”
“Tariq didn’t say they ate each other.”
“Nah, you’re right. I meant it as…never mind, it was inappropriate.”
Sutch felt for the young man, who looked like he wanted to find the nearest and quickest route to the earth’s core. “That’s ok, Cobus. I know you were just trying for some comic relief. Sorry I picked you up on it. This is all too heavy for words, isn’t it?”
Indeed the Afrikaner had touched on a fundamental question; one they were all avoiding answering. If Jane and Robbie had been taken, then why? What was the raison d’etre of the priests? They had once been shamans to a civilisation, but what were priests without worshippers?
Cobus made a swift move onto safer ground. “Anyway, we go over there and we take the bastards out. And we blow up their fuckin’ temple…sorry Professor…” even now the apology was for swearing, “…and their grail with it.” He hesitated. “After we find our friends, of course. Jim, Pete, c’mon. let’s load up.”
“I’m coming with you,” said Catalina.
“No,” said Pete, a firm word accompanied by a glare, “you stay here.”
“Way. With due respect to the Professor here, we can’t take him with us and we’re not leaving him on his own here.”
“I’ve backpacked in the Outback; I can fire a gun.”
“Catalina, sweetheart,” said Cobus, “you’re not coming. Some of us have shot more than dingoes.” He caught the look she gave him and said with as much encouragement as he could: “But as you say you can handle a gun, guard the camp and the Professor,”
The three men headed towards the boxes of weapons, but then Pete hesitated long enough to stroke Catalina’s hair. “I know you’ve been through a lot and I’m sorry for being abrupt, but you know it makes sense. And make no mistake, you have a responsibility here.” Then he pointed. “Oh, and by the way, I think he’s just died.” They all turned and looked at the figure on the sleeping bag. “Think that sums up the seriousness of our predicament, that we just failed to witness the death of one of the oldest men on earth.” Cobus, Catalina, the Professor and Jim all crossed themselves. “But unfortunately, it’s possible he’s not the oldest, so we still have a problem.”
“Peace at last,” said Sutch. As he bent forward he realised there were no eyes to close, so he took his bandanna and placed it over the skull of the king, whose reign of perhaps sixteen hundred years on this archipelago had just ended. “What have we come to,” asked the Professor, his voice full of reproach, “when we argue while a man dies a few feet from us?
“We’ll give him a decent burial when we return,” said Cobus.
“No,” said Jim. The others looked at him. “This may sound strange under the circumstances, but we should take him back to civilisation with us. In the meantime let’s put him into that sleeping bag and let his old bones at least rest.”
“He’s right,” said Sutch. “I know my daughter would want there to be something positive and ground-breaking to come from this expedition. This man’s bones may yet have an extraordinary tale to tell.”