The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

Et In Arcadia Ego
Chapter 9

The house, Rennes-le-Chateau

11am, 12th August

Looking at the others, Jake smiles broadly and slams his hand on the table. "I told you Sophia was part of the riddle, remember? Baphomet and the Atbash Cipher?" He pauses and frowns. "But Paul, who the hell is he? The only Paul who has even a slight connection to Christianity is St Paul, that is assuming we are still looking for Sauniere's documents."

"Paul died before human records began," Blaize cuts in. "I doubt there's any connection with St Paul or anyone else."

A short pause follows this.

"If Paul died before the start of human records," Nate begins, "then how…"

"How do we know about it? Trust us. We do." His voice rises in pitch again. "I cannot stress how important this is. You cannot afford any mistakes from here on. I doubt your Interpol story will hold up to much scrutiny so you may have the police after you again before long. We'll do everything we can to support you, but you have to move fast. I'll phone you again this time tomorrow. If there's anything else we can do, let us know."

"There is something," Sonja interrupts before he can hang up. "Do SITU have a lip reader who can inspect the tape of Sandrine's autopsy for us? Presumably a lot of the information will be the same as you discovered when you looked at Sandrine's corpse, but there may be other vital information on it."

"Good idea. We'll get onto it."

"And what can you tell us about Ylids?" Judith asks. "In general terms. How long do they live, and are they likely to stay in the same place for a very long time."

Blaize pauses a moment in thought. "They have lived since before the earliest humans so as far as we are concerned they are immortal. They can be killed but none have died of old age to our knowledge. As for where they live, it depends on their circumstances. They seem to prefer staying in the same place, but they will move if it suits them. They build up a power base by feeding off the earth's natural power augmented by the beliefs of ordinary people. Where there is a strong cult of superstition their power is greater and so they are more likely to remain there than move. That doesn't mean they will stay in the one building all the time. They may move around an area, or may have several bases within it. You'll have to find out which is true in Sophia's case."

He hangs up. Dexter sits back with a groan. "Oh great. First it's Freemasons, now it's be friendly to Ylids week… It's enough to make you long to be in sunny Wales!"

"I'll need to do some more research," Louis frowns. "Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom. Paul is a Roman name. But there are countless references to Sophia and Paul in ancient history. Something there might give us a clue."

"What we need to do is find out what she's after," Liza says. Her voice is slurred and she pours herself another glass of wine as she speaks, waving the bottle vaguely in Louis' direction. "What is the treasure? Can't be immortality 'cos Ylids live practically forever anyway. An' she doesn't need money so it can't be wealth either." Yuri removes the bottle from her hand and she glares at him before continuing. "Might be knowledge." She smiles brightly. "I know. What if the knowledge is how to make a Ylid child. Her husband's dead and she doesn't talk to the other Ylids so she's probably lonely. She could be trying to make a child so she can raise it and have a suitable mate."

The others don't look quite convinced. But no one disagrees out loud so Liza takes it as encouragement to carry on. "Here's the far-fetched bit," she says happily. "Maybe the last successful experiment happened two thousand years ago with a young woman called Mary. All this business of angels and things could just be hallucinations brought about by the Ylid. Maybe Jesus did marry and produce children. Surely if she could trace that line she may be able to find the right person to experiment on. Maybe that's why she is in this area." She drains her glass. "If Jesus was the result of a Ylid experiment, this could account for the rising from the dead, and the stigmata afterwards. If he is the result of an experiment, the treasure may be his family tree, or notes on why the experiment was successful. Could the secret brought back from the Holy Land by Bertrand de Blanchefort be a Ylid or the results of the experiment?"

"It makes a certain kind of sense," Yuri agrees. "But how do we find the treasure?"

"And don't forget we need to contact Sophia herself," Judith reminds them. "I think Liza might be a good bet for that. We know she's dangerous. Nate and I witnessed her power when she disposed of Corbu, but she didn't hurt us then, and we'd just stolen her portrait, so there must be some hope of befriending her. And I'm still not convinced that we shouldn't do a controlled explosion on the statue of Asmodeus. He's still giving Liza trouble."

"Forget it," Liza mumbles. She sets her glass down and stands unsteadily. "Blaize said we had to investigate. What are we going to do first?"

Dexter's first mission is to do some shopping. Checking where the nearest hardware store is he buys himself several pick handles, a large sledge-hammer and the biggest petrol-driven chainsaw they have. Thankful that his complete lack of French saves him having to explain what he wants it all for he escapes to the car. He stares suspiciously at the people going about their shopping. Any one of them could be a Freemason, could be watching him this very minute. He slings his purchases into the back of the car and stands, breathing heavily. He has to be prepared.

Trust nobody, he repeats to himself. Trust nobody.

"The local archaeologists the police mentioned must be from the Toulouse university," Jake suggests to Louis. "No one else in the area is qualified - except for the two of us. What was the name of that student who helped us out?"

"Marc," Louis supplies. "Maybe we should take a trip into Toulouse. We can talk to Charles and I'll do some research at the library.

They're not the only ones to take a trip into Toulouse. Sonja, Dexter and a slightly more sober Liza decide to go along so they can pay a visit to Sioux and collect the information she has. Meanwhile, Nate, Judith and Yuri agree to keep watch on Corbu's house to see what happens there.

"Since Corbu was the Prieure's man in the area they'll probably send in a replacement very soon, Jake warns. "Perhaps even Plantard himself. I'm not entirely sure what we can do about it, but we should be prepared anyway."

Charles greets Louis with the usual broad smile. "Come in, both of you! We are very busy, but you are welcome to join us."

Louis wastes no time on pleasantries. "Rumour has it you had quite a find last night," he says. "Care to comment on it?"

Charles laughs aloud. "The coffin, yes. It is supposed to be top secret, but I should have known you'd find out. The police said they disturbed a group attempting to excavate it from the tomb of Les Bergers. An interesting find. We are examining the contents now. The inside is solid gold, would you believe it. Solid - not just gold leaf."

"It's a pity you were never allowed to excavate the area before," Jake comments dryly.

Charles shrugs. "We have had plenty of other work to do. Anyway, the police have told us we may have the coffin to study today but tomorrow it must be returned to the grave." He looks at them both sharply. "You would like to see it, no doubt."

He doesn't have to ask twice.

Dex checks the address they were given then raps on the door sharply. "Sioux sent us," he says.

The door opens at once.

Spider grins at them nervously. Without Sioux beside him he looks unsure of himself, half frightened, but he stands aside to let the group file in.

"Sioux said I had to give you a list," he says. "You can look at the other things too if you like. Call me if you need anything."

He leaves them in a small room. The contents of Plantard's safe are set out on a table under the window, neatly arranged. A few thousand francs in notes - loose change for Plantard, Dex reckons - a set of small ornaments made out of silver and set with gemstones. "Freemasonry stuff," Dexter mutters. He looks sick as he handles them. He pushes them aside and picks up a sheet of paper. The others crowd round to read.

It is as Sioux said - a list of women's names. Sonja scans down them quickly. Fleur Cuvier, Claire Dutetre, Anna Chapin… twenty-three names in all and the last one is Sandrine Bellaire.

Dexter pulls round a chair and sits down. "We need to check dates of death of all these, and when they were buried. But first… That's interesting." He points to the Harvest file on infertility research he has open on his lap. None of the experiments have any names attached to them, but glancing down the list mark as failures he sees there are exactly twelve entries. The last one is dated as beginning December 20th and ending August 10th.

"Wasn't August 10th when Sandrine died?" Sonja asks.

The coffin somehow looks more prosaic, less exciting under the glare of the laboratory lights. The gold is untarnished, gleaming through the rotting wood. It appears to be one solid piece, melted and poured into a mould rather than beaten into shape.

The skeleton is that of a man, six foot three from head to foot, intact. Remarkably intact. Often adult skeletons will bear marks of previous injuries, breaks in the bones and so on, but each bone of this one is perfect, unmarked, a pale, creamy white.

"How old is it?" Louis asks.

Charles scratches the back of his head and frowns. "That's the problem. We haven't been able to tell. We've run all the usual tests and the readings we get are all over the place. Our best guess is the skeleton is between two years and seven thousand years old.

Jake looks through the table of results so far. Charles isn't exaggerating. Tests that should be able to date the thing to an accuracy of fifty years have thrown up wildly random conclusions.

"Timeless," Charles says. "Interesting. We've checked our equipment and nothing's wrong there so it must be a problem with the actual skeleton. Well, we have until tomorrow morning to find out what the problem is."

Corbu's house is the scene of much activity throughout the day. Watching from the road outside, Nate, Yuri and Judith see police arrive and depart, the housekeeper come out with a packed suitcase, other people - forensics probably - take pieces of equipment in and out.

"If Sophia was living there she's not getting much peace today," Judith comments. "She should be getting quite nervous now that her protector is dead."

"She was the one who killed him," Yuri reminds her.

Some of the locals pass by at various times throughout the afternoon. Many of them are curious, stopping to stare through the gates until the police chase them away. There is no sign, though, of anyone coming in to take over Corbu's place at the Villa.

Eventually Nate gives up. "I don't think anything much is going to happen here today. Let's get back to the house. Liza wants me to get my film of last night developed. There may be something on it."

Two hours research time in the university of Toulouse library doesn't shed any more light on the current situation. Louis was right - there are hundreds of references to Sophia and Paul in ancient writings. Sophia was always associated with wisdom. There were never any Greek goddesses called Sophia, but wisdom was worshipped as a concept. The earliest major reference to Paul he can find is St Paul of the Bible, but there is no connection between that Paul and Sophia, apart from Paul's promotion of the wisdom of God. In any case, Blaize said St Paul wasn't relevant.

Jake, meanwhile, is reading through the SITU briefing notes again and then following up the legends of Chateau Blanchefort. If the Prieure de Sion is the current form of the Knights Templar they would have a very definite interest in the lost treasure. It is fairly certain to his mind now that the treasure exists, but the legends give no better indication of what it might be. They all seem to be thinking in terms of real treasure - gold, money. But maybe Liza is right and the treasure is actually knowledge - something that is vital to the Ylid.

"I wanted to talk to you about reflections," he says, breaking Louis' concentration. "What I think is the Ylid can prevent us seeing her or her abode directly. Perhaps we'd have more luck if we tried infra red or ultra violet. I'm sure Green Dawn can help out with night vision gear. If all else fails we can try going round looking at everything in a mirror. You know, some stuff has no reflection and some stuff that's 'not there' will have a reflection."

Louis closes his book. "It's worth trying. We have to look at the grave again tonight. Once the coffin is replaced and it is sealed over it will be harder than ever to do."

The dates match.

Checking through the church records back in Rennes-le-Chateau, they find that the end date for every one of the Harvest experiments corresponds to the date of death of one of the women. All of them are buried in the churchyard - except Sandrine, of course - and all of them died young. The oldest was twenty-seven, the youngest just sixteen.

Liza wanders outside and heads into the ruined area of the priory. If the Ylids can induce hallucination, she thinks, maybe it never fell into disrepair.

"I disbelieve the illusion," she says out loud. "This is an illusion and I don't believe it."

A few people look at her oddly but the ruins remain stubbornly unchanged.

Maurice Perez looks positively terrified when he opens his door and sees Sonja standing outside. She smiles at him brightly.

"Just a few questions and I'll leave you alone," she says. Looking past him she sees a suitcase open on the table, belongs piled inside. "Planning a holiday?"

"A business trip. I leave tonight."

Sonja walks past him into the room without waiting to be invited. "Who introduced you to the Freemasons?" she asks. "It's not something you get involved in by accident, is it?"

He looks around nervously. "Corbu's dead, you know that?"

"I know. I'm sorry."

Perez runs a hand through his hair and sighs. "I got involved while I was in Paris," he says reluctantly. "A colleague of mine introduced me. It was nothing to do with Corbu or anyone here. I didn't meet him until after I was already a member."

"How are your company linked with them, then?"

He shakes his head. "It's a big company, and the Freemasons are a big organisation. They have people everywhere. It's no more sinister than that. Anyway, I'm not very high up. I don't know too much about how things are organised. I just…"

"You just do what you're told," Sonja finishes for him. Even if it means seducing a girl and letting people experiment on her. She forces herself to look at him. "Did you attend meetings? How do they contact you when they want you - and how do you contact them?"

"There are meetings." Perez laughs nervously. "I've attended them in Paris. None here. My only contact here was with Corbu. Believe what you want, but I'm telling you the truth." He takes a deep breath. "I had a phone call earlier today from someone high up - he didn't tell me his name, and I wouldn't tell you if he had. He said the test that was done on Sandrine was harmless and wouldn't have caused her stigmata, or her death. I believe him. And now, if you don't mind, I have to finish packing."

"Hello?" the voice comes. "M. Plantard's office, this is Amy speaking, how may I help you?" Her English is good, fluent. Judith breathes a sigh of relief.

"I would like to arrange an interview with Monsieur Plantard," she says. "I am a making a report on the Merovingian Line for the BBC. It is believed that the Princess of Wales may have been in that line and wanted to know his views on the matter."

There is a pause for several seconds while Amy consults someone else in the office. "I'm sorry," she comes back, "I really don't think M Plantard will be able to help you. His diary is fully booked for the next three months. Besides, he believes the Princess of Wales should be allowed to rest in peace now - I really don't think he'd be prepared to discuss her with you."

"Give me the phone," Dexter mutters. "Listen. Amy. You tell your boss that we know what he's doing and he's going to answer for it one way or another. He should talk to us."

"And who are you?" She sounds annoyed now, suspicious. Judith grabs the phone back.

"Thank you so much. You've been a great help." She hangs up and glares at Dexter. He stares back angrily. Bloody Freemasons messing with people.

Unable to gain access to the Villa Bethania, Jake has to content himself with surreptitiously measuring the inside and outside of the church and the Tour Magdala. Everything seems to match up, although there are still parts of the tower that the public are not allowed into and even pleading that they want to do some filming in the locked parts doesn't work.

"We'll have to come back some other time," Louis mutters to Liza. He's already thinking up a plan of action. Liza doesn't answer: she too is making up plans in her head.

"Did you recognise anyone last night?" she asks Yuri, looking up. The big Russian shakes his head. She sighs. Nate's photographs didn't manage to include any of the policemen either, so there's no way of finding out whether any of them were freemasons or not.

Sonja suggests they should X-ray the statue and Marie Denarnaud's tomb. Luckily the caretaker at the church hasn't got a clue what the equipment is really for and readily believes Nate's assurances that it is the latest type of television camera. The statue simply shows up as a solid pieces of stone with a few minor flaws that Jake and Louis say are perfectly normal. The tomb holds nothing unusual either. They make out the shape of the coffin, plain wood this time.

Liza goes back to the church and gives the statue of Asmodeus a final, malevolent glare before the group head off.

The sunset is blood red that night and even at midnight the sky seems tinged with crimson. The group creeping up the hill to the tomb of Les Bergers are cautious. Dexter is glad that the air is cold enough to stop him falling asleep. All the others have been messed with in their dreams and it must be his turn next. He cannot afford to sleep, not until this mission is over.

The grave is cordoned off but open, like a wound in the ground.

"I believe the skeleton in the coffin was Sauniere's," Jake says, still a little annoyed that no one would go along with his suggestion of doing the digging work in the day under the cover of a BBC tent. "It's the King Tut scenario where you leave a little treasure on the surface while the real trove is hidden below."

He insists on taking his place at the excavation site, and with Louis off on another errand he's the only one qualified to do it. Sonja joins him while the others take their places on the roads around to keep watch, remembering what Louis said about Harvest owning the police so they can't afford another run in with the local gendarmerie.

"Here goes," Jake mutters. He lowers himself into the empty grave and starts to dig.

Louis has been sitting within sight of the Tour Magdala since sunset. He watched the fading light glance gold off the windows. Using night vision equipment he studied the whole area and then he turned his back and stared into a mirror, looking for any sign of movement.

Midnight passes. A darkness clutches at his heart, for he believes he knows what the Ylid is trying to achieve here in Rennes-le-Chateau. The pieces of the puzzle there before him. Cloning experiments in Harvest. The stigmata and pregnancies of the girls of the region, Ylid DNA crossed with human. An immortal creature who lost her husband millennia ago, now searching for treasures or secrets of the Knights Templar…

He forces himself not to think of it. He has to keep the knowledge secret, even from his colleagues. The creature can read minds after all, and if she knew the group was forearmed in such fashion, she might choose to kill them all where they stood.

He stiffens, breath catching in his throat.

In the tower a light is moving, shining pure gold from window to window, slowly rising until it passes beyond what must be the public levels. Louis tears off his night goggles and immediately all the windows are dark again. But looking through them, definitely there is light.

Liza waits for a moment until everyone else is out of sight and then she begins to run. She's done this before, fleeing in a panic the night before. But then there were people chasing her. Now she is free to do as she likes. And she knows exactly what she must do.

She hid the sledgehammer under a hedge before they left the house that night. It is still there, along with one of the bottles of brandy she bought to keep her courage up. She takes them both and hurries to the church.

The statue is there, evil, watching her. She stands before it for a moment then with a cry she raises the hammer and brings it smashing down with all her strength.

"I've got the edge of it," Sonja says. She and Jake pull together. Slowly, the weight of stone shifts and comes free.

Jake catches it and lays it flat. His flashlight shines over rough stone, filthy with mud. He scrubs at it with his fingertips, disappointment souring inside him as he realises there is no inscription.

But Sonja calls out in excitement. "Jake, look!"

Where the slab was is an opening. Roughly oblong and easily big enough to squeeze through. It appears to go down a long way.

The statue is in pieces. Shards of stone everywhere. Liza sneezes and rubs dust from her eyes. The sledgehammer falls from her hands.

Broken, harmless. She almost laughs aloud with relief. With a rush her mind is free. The statue can't hurt her again. She begins to sing softly to herself as she picks up the brandy bottle and turns to leave.

The Magdalene blocks her way. Her hair is shining gold against the night sky. Tears are on her cheeks. "You have broken it," she sighs gently. "Why are you trying to hurt me?"

Louis watches. The light reaches the top window of the tower and flares to brilliance. Something seems to pass him, a presence that he can't see but that leaves a touch on his mind, words that are not his.

"I want to talk to you. Later."

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