The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

The Three Faces Of God
Chapter 7

The Hotel Valentina

15th July 1pm

"…You caused my people a lot of trouble last night," Lalina says severely. "Now, what can we do to resolve this madness?"

"That depends." Eric clears his throat and sits forward, shooting a quick glance around the others. "What do you want out of this, Lalina - revolution, to overthrow the entire Mexican government? Or succession, and setting up another Central American state with Merida as its capital? Or do you want something short of either?"

Lalina stares at him, a little taken aback at the question. She frowns for a moment before answering. "I will tell you the truth," she says at last. "For your help, you deserve that. There are some in my group who would wish to see the government overturned, and maybe they carry the strongest voice. But we want to do it alone. Whatever these creatures are, the representations of our old gods, we do not want their power." She smiles briefly. "Not after last time. As for me, I want greater freedom for my country. It will only happen when the political system changes."

"Last time?" Steven queries.

"The attempt to raise Cukulcan," Sean explains. "The leader of the Zapatistas had some mad idea that it would give him the political power he needed."

Martin Keyes giggles, causing Eric to give him a sharp look of concern. "Cukulcan being Quetzie, right? Oh good." His blue eyes are bright, making his skin look unnaturally pale.

The silence is broken by the sound of T.R. putting the skull down on the table. Slowly, it swivels to face the direction it had before. Everyone watches it, fascinated.

"Is this a set-up?" Sean wonders. "I don't like this thing about Astrid at all. Though it's nice to see someone else having women troubles." He grins at Lalina, then sighs. "Something was happening in the cave, some sort of power struggle, I think, but I don't know what. Martin, why on earth did you have to hit Reconvaco with that bloody skull? We could have talked our way out."

"You wish," Belle-Marie mutters. Keyes gazes at them both expressionlessly.

"Yes, I will lifting, lifting, lifting shrimp under the computer."

Belle-Marie stares at him. "Pardon?"

Eric moves to sit beside him and takes hold of his wrist lightly. "He's healing fast," he says. "But he's still confused. Whether from the injuries or because the skull affected his mind I don't know."

"Mad or not he couldn't cause us any more trouble," Aberg comments drily. "Sean, I'm going to need some more ammunition." He takes his gun out and checks it as he speaks. "It seems the only lead we have for now is to follow the skull, but it's a strong lead. I suggest we change hotels again, shift to somewhere central with lots of tourists - Reconvaco might be less eager to try anything with a load of witnesses around. And then we should get on with tracking down Quetzie."

The others react with dismay to the thought of moving everything again, but they all agree. As Steven sets to work dismantling the computer equipment, T.R. turns the skull round again. It turns back again almost at once. He shakes his head. "Damned if I know how the thing works," he mutters.

"I should go on a recon mission with the skull alone," Sean says. "I'm the best qualified for it." He is shouted down at once.

"We should all go," Eric says firmly. "You may think you're best qualified, Sean, but we may well need the talents of everyone here."

"I will come too," Lalina says. The scowl she gives Sean says she won't be argued with. Then she smiles suddenly at him, making him flush. "I can be useful too, Sean. And I want to see this through to the end."

Sean nods. There's no point telling her it will be dangerous: she already knows that. "All right," he says, "but Reconvaco's mine." He glares at Keyes. "I killed people last night, and I don't like having to kill needlessly. And next time we come across Jaime we will have to kill him. He's not going to be too friendly after that bump on the head."

There is silence for a moment. Eventually, T.R. stands up. "It's settled then. Lalina, can you have your people searching for Astrid and her son? Steven and Martin, do you want to organise moving us to another hotel?"

Eric gets up too. "George, I'll have a word with you, if you don't mind," he says to Kelsall.

The two men leave the room to Keyes' parting comment. "Dr. Alnes, you have a huge booger hanging from your left nostril."

"Hernandez?" Kelsall says. "He's been linked to SITU ever since the last mission here. He was unwillingly involved in the ritual to summon Cukulcan. He turned to the SITU group for help just in time and they managed to stop it. He never became a member of SITU but Blaize considers him a useful link."

"I see," Eric says, unconvinced. It was Swahn that was in charge of the previous mission, he recalls, and he knows Swahn's methods were very different from the current head of the organisation, Geoff Blaize. Blaize believes in openness, in sharing of information, which Swahn has always argued was the biggest risk to SITU's security. The more our people know, the more the enemy can find out, Eric remembers him saying.

He wonders what Swahn thinks of Blaize's direct attack against the Ylids, whether he'd agree with what is happening here. There is no way of telling, but somehow he feels that Swan would have wanted a more subtle approach.

"When was the last time you heard from Hernandez before the skull turned up?" he asks Kelsall.

Kelsall considers a moment. "About six months, I think. Why?"

"No reason. Eric leans back and looks at him directly. "So, what do you think of SITU as an organisation?"

The question makes Kelsall blink. "They're efficient, I guess. Good at rescuing people. And now Blaize has taken over from Swahn, things are picking up." He grins. "Don't get me wrong: Swahn had taken the organisation as far as it could go they way he wanted things. We needed an extra push and Blaize has provided it. Even Swahn has to agree that it's working."

In the hotel room, T.R. and Sean are fighting over who is going to look at the skull next. Lalina watches with interest as it turns itself about. Keyes giggles from time to time and when Sean gets up to leave the room he tries to follow, stopped only by the others pulling him back. Martyn Aberg sits in the corner of the room, seemingly oblivious to everything else as he goes through the digital footage he has recorded so far. Shots of dark passageways, and then the sudden opening out into the cavern where the cultists gathered around Reconvaco. Keyes grabbing the skull, Reconvaco turning, both of them too far away for the camera to have picked up their faces clearly. There is nothing more to be learned for the moment. Aberg runs off a couple of copies for himself and Steven and goes back to wondering what to do next.

Finally, Steven comes in. "We have a new hotel," he announces. "Are you ready to leave?"

"Who dresses you in the mid afternoon?" Keyes asks Belle-Marie.

They are in Steven's hired car. T.R. has the skull in a box on his knees and gives Steven directions every so often as it turns. Gradually, they find they are heading out of the town towards the coast.

"I hope George Kelsall will be all right at the hotel," Belle-Marie worries. T.R. smiles at her reassuringly.

"I'm sure he will be. Like he said, someone had to stay there. Go left here, Steven."

Eric is busy reading a fax from SITU

"Dr Hernandez: Archaeologist, current head of the Yucatan Institute. Studied in Mexico and America. Many papers published world-wide. His speciality is Mexican religious architecture and artifacts. Personal details: little know. No immediate family; he has never married. Records show he is the only child of a Mexican couple, both now dead of the most natural cause in the world - old age.

Hernandez is well-respected in academic circles, his work has always proved reliable. Since the Cukulcan mission he has been in sporadic contact with SITU and has proved a useful source of information, especially on the matter of the crystal skulls."

Sitting, dozing in the seat beside him, Martin Keyes' thoughts wander. He ought to go back to Astrid's bar, he thinks. She must be there. In a dream, he hears the bartender speak to him. "Senor, are you ill? Are you drunk?" He smells bitter coffee. The scent clears his mind and he gets up and goes outside.

"There you are, Senor Marty," Astrid says. "I knew you would be drawn back to me." Martin stares at her, stunned. The look of heavy tiredness is gone from her face. When she smiles again she looks no more than twenty years old. She takes his hand. "Marty, I'm sorry. But I needed your help. I had no choice. I have to have the skull back. Do you understand? If I do not have it, he will kill me."

"Who will kill you? Quetzacoatl?" The light from her eyes is so bright Martin can barely think straight.

She lifts her hand to his cheek, leans forward and kisses him gently. "Help me, Marty."

Then she is gone.

Martin's eyes come open at once. He is in the car, wedged between Eric and Sean. In the doorway of a house a woman stands and smiles at him. "Astrid!" he screams. Eric drops the paper and grabs at him. He pushes him off. "I'm not mad. Steven, stop the car!"

The vehicle jerks to a halt.

"Over there," Keyes insists, pointing. They all look. There is no one there. Only a red car turning off down a side road.

"I don't see anyone," says Belle-Marie doubtfully.

Keyes shakes his head. The doorway is empty. He was sure, a moment before… But now he's not sure whether what he saw was real or part of a dream. He sighs and slumps back in the seat. "I think I'm feeling better now, anyway," he announces unhappily. Quickly, he tells the others about his dream. They are silent when he finishes.

Eric looks worried. "It might be an after-effect of your injuries, playing tricks on your mind."

"Or maybe he's seeing what he wants to see," Sean grumbles. "The gallant hero, rescuing the fair maiden." He seems oblivious to the fact he's playing out the same role himself.

The skull shifts position again. With no sign of Astrid, no reason to think she ever was there, Steven shrugs and drives on.

"The caves," Aberg says. "Of course."

They have set the skull down in its box and watch it for any sign of movement. It makes none. Staring in the direction of the tunnel, it appears to be waiting for something to happen. In the end TR picks it up and starts forward. "Might as well get this over with," he comments.

Belle-Marie follows him. "Any idea what we do when we find Quetzie?"

"None whatsoever." He smiles down at her. "One thing, though. I think I owe you an apology for the things I said in Oxford. Maybe there really is something more going on here than just superstition and sleight-of-hand."

The skull glows faintly in the dark. Belle-Marie watches it uneasily. "I think there is," she agrees.

They walk on. Martyn Aberg, having been through some of the cave system already, leads the way for most of the time, noting their path on the map as best he can. Mainly, though, they just follow the skull's leading, turning down new corridors whenever it turns. The silence is broken only by the sound of their footsteps and Belle's quick, nervous breathing and the dim, white circles of the flashlights only serve to make the shadows darker around them.

"The skull's getting warm," T.R. says. "I think…"

He stops.

A peculiar sense that this has all happened once already. The tunnel widens suddenly in front of them so they are standing at the mouth of an underground cavern. Columns of frozen black hang down, touching their shoulders. Others rise up to meet them: uneven spears growing out of the rock. A cold wind cuts through Sean's hair, making him shiver. He loosens his gun in its shoulder holster, ready to draw it. In the unnatural light everything is black and silver. And in the middle…

In the heart of it all, a circle of fire, silver and green and blue leaping up against the black, the flames thrashing to and fro like forest branches in a storm. Now and then they part so for the briefest of moments everyone can see what lies beyond.

A low moan comes from Lalina's throat.

The body of a god, lying trapped in sleep on a rock ledge in the centre of the fire. He is naked, his skin pale gold, dark hair curling down his shoulders and into the fire that warms him. Even asleep his breathing fills the silent cavern with a sense of such power that a whole minute passes before anyone is able to move.

T.R., eyes fixed on Martin Keyes, steps forward slowly. The skull vibrates, taking on the colours of the fire that surrounds the sleeping Ylid. And then the flames part, leaving a path clear right up the rock where he is lying.

"Don't wake him, for god's sake," Aberg mutters. His voice sends light spinning across the cavern.

Another voice answers his. Deep, resonant, seemingly part of the rocks that surround them.

"Ahuantepec. She has sent you to destroy me. Why?"

The skull twists in T.R.'s hands, turning to face Keyes directly. Looking into the blank eye sockets, he has the uncomfortable sensation that his mind is being pulled out his of body. TR pulls him back as he stumbles.

"It is her doing, not mine," the voice rumbles. "Ahuantepec, the betrayer. She will use you, then steal your hearts and minds, every thought out of your bodies. This thing you carry is linked to me, but it is also linked to her. When she is done with you, she will take it back." An unexpected note of humour comes into the voice, warming the wind around them.

"Who are you?" Sean whispers. His right hand is clenched tightly around his gun although he has not drawn it.

"I am the wind god, the Feathered Snake," the air sings to him. "I am he that awakens and brings peace." The voice changes again. "I suggest we talk," it says briskly. "Ahuantepec has sent you to kill me. Did she tell you that were she to come herself, her presence would wake me at once and I am strong enough to defeat her, and lock her in this same sleep? Or did she tell you that were you to bring the skull through the flame and place it over my face I would also wake, and in the instant before its touch killed me I would destroy every one of you?"

T.R glances at Martin. He has gone white. "Why tell us this now?" he shouts.

Soft laughter answers him. "To show you a measure of trust. There must be trust between allies, must there not?" The singing of the flame fills the cavern. "You know where Ahuantepec is. Maybe Tezcatlipoca too; they are old friends. I have the means to deal with them both. Do you?"

A light flashes at Steven's wrist. He raises his hand and lets it fall with a groan. "I hate to be the bearer of more bad news, people," he says, "but someone has just broken into our vehicle outside."

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