Cultic Problem

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Partial Transcript of the Meetings held at St. Michaels Basilica during the Summer of 1668 concerning the Cultic Problem.

In attendance at the symposium were the following worthy scholars:

The Libyan government, not exactly on the best of the terms with the Papacy, sent a letter indicating that they could not spare a representative at this time but that they would support any punitive actions that the symposium recommended.

Soon after the first meeting was called to order by Chigi, the shouting and accusations started:

"This entire affair is a useless waste of time," snarled d'Artain of Occitania, "there are no cults, there is no hidden evil, this is just an attempt by the notorious Kingdom of Sweden to obscure its own espionage operations throughout the world!"

"What?" the Swedish representative looked up in amazement, "haven't you heard any of the testimony so far? It's as obvious as your fat Gaelic nose that there is something going on around the world. It's exact nature may be open to interpretation..."

The English Protector broke in on the mild speech of the Swede with a harsh laugh.

"Interpretation!? There is no interpretation you lax Nordic worm, there are forces of utter and damnable evil working against the true Faith, against all of us." His black gloved hand swept over the various representatives sweating in the hot room. "I have seen the evil with my own eyes, I have waded through the catacombs of tormented bodies, my boots caked with blood. I have pitted sword and sinew against the mortal tools of the demon gods!"

d'Artain shook his head in amazement. He looked around at the others, in their eyes he saw fear, disbelief, even amusement. His gaze lingered for a moment on the dark clad figure of the Maliax lord, only the dull gleam of his eyes visible in the darkness of his hooded face. d'Artain shook his head to clear the sight of the Afriqan's red-dyed fingers slowly caressing the silver skull that adorned his wooden cane.

The Frenchman turned back to Chigi, who sat in a stiff-backed chair at the head of the long table.

"Father Giolio, you have already said that you have proofs, evidence of these events and this threat that the Englishman speaks of. I pray you, speak of them and show them, if you can."

Chigi nodded and rose from the chair, his long lean body unfolding slowly. He smoothed his long velvet robes down and fingered his neat gray beard. d'Artain sat back down in his chair between Blancetnoir and Parros.

"I relay to you gentlemen", said Chigi, "today, the words as I myself have heard them from his Holiness, the Pope Alexander. Aside from myself and a scribe, no others have ever heard the fullness of this tale before. As many of you know the Holy Father was blinded some years ago - before his captivity in Venice - while praying before the Shards of the True Cross that our Swedish brothers maintain in Stockholm. He was blinded, gentlemen, by the full force of divine revelation. After his vision he has had no further use for mortal eyes, yet he sees as well as your or I, to this day!"

At the back of the room, behind the chairs of Lord Tukun and the hunter Deerslayer, Jacob Hammerstein bent over his notebook, furiously scribbling. Though his realm had foundered under the Marôcain wave, he continued to carry out his duties.

"What the Holy Father saw," continued Chigi, "was a vision of our world as none have ever seen it before. As from a vast height, he looked down upon the roundness of the world and saw not the lands and mountains that we are familiar with, but rather a surface of great shining diamonds, trapezohedrons and multisided shapes. For the greater part these shapes, these facets that formed our world, were clear and unblemished, gleaming with the glory of the True God. But some, my friends, some were not."

It was quiet in the room, only the slow susurration of the ceiling fans stirring the torpid air to break the silence.

Hammerstein looked up, a slow bead of sweat crawling down his hand to the parchment below. From his vantage he could see the profile of the Armenian Sviodo, his restless eyes making a slow circuit of the room. Their eyes met and Hammerstein was suddenly chilled by the realization that the gangly Armenian stood ready to kill anyone in the room that made a sudden move. Then the pale hunter's eyes passed on, searching for some unknown danger.

"Those facets that were not touched by the light of the Lamb were broken, shattered like the pane of a window, and behind them were lit the very fires of hell itself. Darkness spilled through, my friends, darkness of the very devil himself. We have seen the work of that darkness already, since the inexplicable rupture of these panes that - we believe - have long shielded our world from the reach of Hell. The servant of Lucifer, Kror, has already come, wreaking ruin in the Americas."

"Yes," interrupted Deerslayer, his thin lips tight around his mouth as he spoke, "our holy men have seen the face of the enemy in their dreams. He has a thousand heads and a million eyes. His temples were long covered by jungle and earth but now they are open to the sun and at night he comes down from the stars, hissing and buzzing, to feast upon the spirit of the sacrifices that are offered him." The Huron fell silent, and though the others waited for him to continue, he did not do so.

"Yes, yes, it is as I have said," Hammer whispered, "the Aztecs are fully in the clutch of the fell ones. For a time their Emperor Kulhuz was in our care; he promised us peace if we aided him in his escape from his enemies in the Imperial Court. He told us much, but now we believe that he had already gone to the darkness before he came to us. Those who ministered to his wounds say that he had taken hurt that would have killed ten men, yet he lived."

"Huh!" interjected the Persian Ubaida, "he is dead now, by all accounts, and you need not fear him, eh?"

"If he is dead," snapped Hammer, " he was dead before and he came back. His flesh knit over any wound, his skin was proof against iron, he was of the undead when amongst us! We believe that he has faked his own death so that he can work his plans without public scrutiny." Hammer sat back down, his faced flushed.

D'Artain sighed in disbelief. "Do you have proof?" he asked, his hands held wide.

Hammer looked up, slowly, his dark eyes hooded.

"Would you believe it, if you saw true proofs?"

"I can be convinced - if these proofs are valid."

Hammer glanced over at Chigi. The Archbishop inclined his head, hands folded before him.

"Our English friend has some proofs," said the prelate quietly, "I have seen them, but none other here has done so. I have urged Master Hammer to withhold this evidence to protect the souls of those here."

"You mean," interjected the Mongol Jian Li in a quiet, level, tone, "to keep these secrets to yourself and out of the hands of those of us who are in the secret employ of the enemy."

Everyone looked up in surprise, then furtively eyed their neighbors. The Charruan Duke growled and rose out of his chair, right hand darting to an empty scabbard. The Tatar lord, Tukun, reached over and shoved the Frenchman back into his chair. The Maliax, Glee, laughed at the by-play, his voice deep and rolling like the long tolling of a great bell.

"Yes," Glee rumbled, "there are doubtless some amongst us who are not as they represent." His dark eyes roved over the now suspicious faces of the attendees.

"But they are not to be feared, not here at any rate." He paused, his large hands resting on the head of the cane. He continued, his voice cynical; "in my backwards country we are familiar with the Aztecs and their ways, we spring from that same bloody soil, and we well know of the old gods that our forefathers worshipped. But these gods are long dead, and their worshippers who still remain are few and poor, reviled by all.

"We have long watched and waited, sending our spies and agents about the world, and we have seen a more mundane truth, my colleagues, but one of greater threat than that which the Holy Father speaks. There is a conspiracy afoot, a vast one, fueled by great wealth, driven by base cunning of such age and experience as to be almost an evil god. I speak, of course, of the Assassins of Alamut."

Bjorkstrup laughed aloud at this, slapping his knee in delight. All turned to stare at him in amazement. The Assassins were well known and feared throughout much of the world.

"A fine tale," said the Swede as he removed his glasses and wiped the tears from his eyes, "but a little late in the telling. The Assassins have been destroyed for almost two hundred years, my fine Afriqan friend, and despite feeble attempts by many powers to resuscitate them, they are no more." Bjorkstrup grinned and even his fat and placid face now seemed fey and cruel.

"Sweden has a special interest in these matters, for our memories are long and we do not forget the past. There are no more Assassins. There are criminals aplenty, but they do not presume to the grandiose nature of what we have seen and heard."

"Pah, enough rambling on," barked d'Artain, "I would see these proofs that the Englishman offers, and judge them for myself." He stood up, placing his hand on his hips. "Bring them forth."

Chigi eyed Hammer speculatively. The Englishman also stood and gestured to a side door to the chamber.

"I will show them to the Frenchman here, if it pleases your eminence."

"This is meet," said Chigi, "would you like a witness?"

"By all means," quipped d'Artain, "after all he might overpower me and eat my brain!"

Chigi did not smile at this sally, though Blancetnoir blanched and was forced to sill the trembling of his hands on the table. The Englishman gestured to one of the guards at the chamber door and a large wooden crate was brought in, bound about with leather straps. The other representatives stared in open calculation at the box as it was carried into the adjoining room. It was clearly very heavy.

"Wait!" blurted Hammerstein from the back of the room as Chigi, Hammer and d'Artain moved to enter the other chamber. "How do you know that Lord d'Artain is not one of the enemy? Should he not show proofs of his own that he is as he represents?"

Jacob stopped, suddenly aware that he had spoken out of turn, and that all were staring at him.

"Worry not, lad," said Chigi softly, "I have the proofs I need."

The three men entered the room and were within for almost an hour.

While the three men were closeted, the others stood and stretched, drinking a little wine and speaking softly amongst themselves. Bjorkstrup came over to Hammerstein, who guiltily closed his notebook as the chubby Norman came up to him. Bjorkstrup laughed softly.

"It's allright, lad," he said, placing his hand on Jacob's shoulder, "we all have our secrets. What puzzles me, however, is who you expect to report to, now that the Templar realm is in ruin?"

Hammerstein looked away, sighing.

"No one, I suppose, I had already left the Defender when the Marôcain attacked the city. I've been here since, just getting by on what money I did have."

"Then why bother?" The Swede had a bland and puzzled look on his face.

Hammerstein eyed the northman suspiciously, for he had taken the Mongol's words to heart.

"Personal reasons," he muttered. Bjorkstrup smiled mildly and wandered off to pour himself a goblet of water from a carafe on the table. Jacob breathed a sigh of relief. That was close, he thought.

On the other side of the room the Mongol, Avar, Georgian and Tatar emissaries had gathered by one of the narrow casement windows. All were uncomfortable here, amongst so many Christians.

"I wonder, as we sit here," started Ubaida, "at the seeming wealth of information about this 'enemy' that the Papists have uncovered. It seems somehow convenient..."

"Aye," said Svoiodo in a low voice, "the moral depravities of the Christians are well known, perhaps these 'cults' are an inevitable manifestation of their fall into sin." The Avar nodded slowly while he fingered his long pointed beard.

"We have encountered a number of problems within our own realm caused by their agents and provocateurs. Some have been spreading these kinds of stories, even breaking into tombs and coffins in some places."

"Really," gasped Jian Li, his voice filled with a horrid anticipation, "they have violated the burial places of your forefathers?"

"It is so," replied Ubaida, "and they have taken away the bodies for unknown purposes."

Lord Tukun stood silent through this exchange, his face impassive, yielding nothing of his thoughts.

The door to the side chamber opened suddenly, banging against the bookshelves that lined the meeting room. A breath of fetor crawled out, driving back those who had been standing near the door. The Occitanian staggered out, his face white with horror and his hands shaking uncontrollably. He lurched to his chair, clutching at the armrests to steady himself. Parros, the Islander captain, pushed a full wine goblet over to him. d'Artain gulped it down, then shoved it away from him with a look of revulsion. Chigi and Hammer came back into the meeting room, their own faces drawn and pale. The guards were heard crating the box back up and then they carried it out of the meeting room. Everyone sat back down, staring curiously at d'Artain.

The Occitanian covered his face with his hands, his nails biting into his scalp. A thin trickle of blood began to seep out.

"I... I believe," he stuttered, his voice weak and thready. "I believe it all. God. God help us."

"God," said Chigi, his voice sonorous and full, "helps those who look to their own aid. We have approached this matter in a piecemeal fashion long enough, gentlemen, let us address each of our own concerns in turn and see what may be seen."

The others nodded agreement at this, save for Lord Tukun and the Deerslayer, who had moved to the back of the room and were speaking in whispers. Chigi looked in their direction for a moment, trying to catch their attention, and failing that, turned to Blancetnoir and motioned that he should begin.

The Burgundian stood, arranging some papers on the table in front of him;

"Colleagues, I am the head of the Religious Studies department at the University of Lyons. As such I receive all sorts of strange news and rumor from throughout our duchy. I have also traveled with the armies of the Grand-Duke and have seen, firsthand, the atrocities and events in the Low Countries.

"In these things I have become acquainted with the adherents of the Goddess of the Pale Bone, a cult - or edro as the late Doctor Crane would say - and have seen that her followers believe that she has powers equal to or exceeding that of our god. These denizens of the wastelands, known in the popular press as 'flesh-eaters' are the survivors of the destruction wrought by the Freikorps, or Free Companies. In the fierce winters that occurred during the destruction of the Netherlands Republic, many thousands of survivors, unable to till the soil or seek assistance elsewhere, fell to the abominable practice of consuming human flesh to live. We believe that this practice was actually begun by the Freikorps commanders themselves, for many of the aspects of the worship of the Goddess seem to have sprung from the refugees aping the custom of the conquerors."

Sir John looked around at those seated at the table. He pushed back his thinning white hair and turned over several of the pages on the tabletop before continuing.

"In the years that followed, while war continued to rage around them, it seems that the survivors developed a new theology to explain the dreadful world that surrounded them, and the Goddess loomed large in that new faith. Before their recent destruction by the Danish general Stamma, the hidden cities of the Low Countries had developed a complex and encompassing culture revolving around the worship of the Goddess and the means of sacrifice and supplication that she requires.

"I believe that the unexpected savagery of the Freikorps campaign, and its wanton destruction of entire cities and populations, with its peculiar rituals and ceremonies, was nothing less than a large scale attempt by some unknown, human, power, to invoke into our world the very Goddess of the Pale Bone herself." Blancetnoir's voice had now become strident, hectoring. He turned to face Chigi.

"I believe that the architects of this attempt to bring ruin and damnation upon us are here, now in this room, and all around us. Yes, sirrah, I accuse the Catholic Church of conspiring with the very princes of Hell to destroy us all, solely as a mechanism, a tool, an arrow of war aimed to destroy the Hussite faith!"

Chigi leapt to his feet, his face red with rage.

"I say thee nay!" he howled, his hand stabbing at an equally livid Blancetnoir, "Guards! Seize this man!"

The entire room was suddenly filled with violent motion. The two guards by the door leapt forward, shortswords drawn, faces filled with anger. Blancetnoir, for his part, jumped back to the wall of the room and draw a small pistol from his shirtsleeve. Hammer, d'Artain and Bjorkstrup hurled themselves to the floor, rolling under the table as the pistol boomed. The right eye of the first guardsman exploded, spraying red mist back to spatter on the narrow face of Chigi, blinding the archbishop.

Everyone scattered, save for Hammerstein who tried to hurl himself upon the Burgundian, but was tripped by Tukun's outstretched boot. The lad crashed to the ground, his vision momentarily filled with stars. In his place, the Deerslayer's hand whipped a narrow lariat of braided leather out that snared Blancetnoir's hand as it discarded the used pistol and darted to fetch another. The Huron was right behind the snaking rope, and his fist clouted the Burgundian like a hammer in the temple, laying him out like a light upon the stone flags of the floor. The other guardsman skidded to a halt, marveling at the speed of the Indian.

"Enough," grated Raptor Glee from the center of the room where he surveyed the scene. His cane, now exposing a metal cylinder at its base, idly drifted in a circle around the room. "Fighting amongst ourselves, taking rash action or accusing each other baselessly will gain us nothing." The Maliaxians cowl had fallen back, revealing the sinuous tattoos on his shaven skull.

"I do not believe in this 'gate', it is an illusion of weak minds, but I would still like to hear what each man has to say. We are all here as heralds under truce, let us act the part."

Glee sat down, drawing the Dark cloth over the intertwining mesh of worms that were picked out in light ink upon his head.

The rest of the day passed in a less dramatic fashion. Blancetnoir was taken to his chambers and kept under guard. The other delegates rose and spoke in turn. Few of them offered any proofs or evidence. Many reported that they had heard many rumors and kept a vigilant watch for untoward events. The Mongol, Jian Li, bore reports of Krorist activity amongst the Gobi tribes and word of a mysterious Inverted Pyramid organization, but no more. Cardinal Illos reported that the agents of the Swedish Empire were quite active in the Khirgiz realm, but no more than that. Bjorkstrup shrugged and smiled as if to say that it was only business as usual. Despite having brought various packets with him, the Swede now declined to reveal their contents, stating that they held nothing new that had not already been reported.

Some discussions continued for the next days, but the death of Alexander brought all activity to a halt. After hanging around for a day or two, the delegates parted ways returning to their various homelands bearing what news they had gathered.

Jacob Hammerstein, now rootless, took passage on a ship for London, hoping to find some employment as a clerk. His manner was despondent, and he seemed to lose care for his personal appearance. The Tatar, Tukun, and the Indian, however, forced some coins upon him, that he might eat on his voyage. Blancetnoir was taken under heavy guard to his ship and returned to Burgundy, though the Papal officials indicated that he would not be welcome in the Azores again.

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