John W. Patterson
Word count: 8,585
Priestess of Nycrama
Prologue In the distance is your sanctuary. A woman singing, a man shouting, he beckons wildly. His intensity an infectious fear, an alien plant scape clutches at your faltering form, this inmost dream world erupts, spilling over, searing your senses. Again the urgent impulse, the tyrannical moment, the horror of missing the precise instant of salvation propels you. Damned, falling among roots arisen to receive the doomed ones, you are consumed, and dragged beneath . . . A small boy screams, compressing the past, present, and future into one more New England night cut short. His mother at his side, gently rocks his small, quaking, sweat-soaked torso. They will whisper together speaking of the dawn. Little Howard will dream again. * * * * (The following account is distilled from Dr. Claude Augustus Farnsworth's notes. It is submitted as court's evidence in his defense against the charge of homicide in the disappearance of Dr. Howard Beam Phillips) In October of 1996, Drs. Howard Phillips, archaeo-astronomer, and Claude Farnsworth, ethno-pharmacologist, began a cooperative study of select Venezuelan territory known to the indigenous populace as Neblina-tepui, the cloud cliffs. Neblina, Venezuela October 31, 1996 (miserably humid evening) Howard and I are intrigued by folklore concerning a massive natural tower of anomalous black stone near Neblina. There exist associated references to the same locale from Túcume diggings at the Temple of the Sacred Stone. Howard adamantly believes vague hints garnished from early 20th century monographs on Uxmal ruins, suggest a temple remains evident atop the eleven hundred meter high sky-isle. We arranged to have a helicopter lower us onto Neblina-tepui's most accessible summit for a quick survey. Upon arrival, quiet Asmodeus, our helicopter pilot, shaking his head, crossed himself, and agreed to return in 12 hours. I suppose his "Ricardo" Petty racing cap canceled out the look of worry in his eyes. He offered us a modified gun he called the "Meat Grinder" but we laughed, waving him away before we were discovered. Asmodeus circled us once, hesitant to depart. Reverberating echoes of his metallic dragonfly faded into the white noise roar of the Orinoco's headwaters swallowed by a verdant sea of rain forest nearly a mile below us. Local authorities' interferences and jurisdictional foot-dragging called for a stealthy night drop. We figured a brief look-see would be sufficient to plan an extended investigation once the red tape scenario was completed. Our arrival at moonrise, backfired. An unexpected greeting party descended upon us from the silent shadows cast by mute sentinels of stone. We were swiftly encircled by about thirty men covered in glistening back mud, iridescent with flakes of an unknown mineral. They stripped us of our gear, slinging most of it off the precipice, all but anachronistic refuse to them. A tall, slender woman appeared in the foreground. She drifted closer, staring at us. Her lithe body was also covered in mud paste, a coruscant red ocher and metal-flake bone white distraction. Alternating whorls of color accentuated her obvious femininity. A dangling loincloth of small bones strung together was the only trace of her modesty. Dull, yellowish hair hung stiffly to her shoulders. Later we discovered it was a wig of dried grass. Women kept their heads shaved in this tribe. She reached up carefully and pulled ever so gently at my moustache. Then walking over to Howard, she looked at his overlong legs first, and finally stared up into his face, slowly running her index finger down the whole exaggerated length of his nose. When Howard attempted to voice protest, she placed her hand to his lips, and then to her own. Howard acknowledged with polite silence. Pushing her way between us, she pointed to an opening in a boulder strewn wasteland. She head-jerked a command and strode off into the shadows. We followed the surrealistic, candy cane, gazelle prancing off into the arched cathedral of chaos. Through an incredibly confusing moonlit maze of wind and water carved rock passages, we stumbled just ahead of spear points. I feared for Howard. A man of fifty-nine could not keep up this pace for long. He looked winded but refused rest. At forty-five, and in shape, it was a confused challenge for me to keep up with this rock-nymph. I tried slowing for Howard. Our escort did no violence, only showing a more urgent insistence for us to trudge onward. I was dragging Howard with me as we emerged into a vast grassy clearing and a surprisingly lush oasis of upper elevation rain forest. A ceremony of dancing torchlight and a chorused clicking together of sparking stones came from the far edge of the clearing. A throng of worshipers surrounded their ceremonial edifice. Howard quickly regained his wits as we neared the cacophony of the scene. Nearly there, two more women came forward, gesturing for us to sit on a small granitic knob. Our seat was exquisitely carved with the same concentric patterns adorning the women leaning over us. I looked Howard's way to speak but held my tongue. I had never seen him so silently fascinated or so obviously paralyzed by fear. As I turned back to watch the spectacle, a man stepped out of nowhere, standing a few yards away. A three-tiered necklace of what appeared to be human teeth and other teeth carved of red stone hung prominently about his blackened neck. Beneath the necklace was a tunic with human jawbones woven into a tapestry of coiled snakes or worms. He held an obsidian knife in his left, three-fingered hand, and a small hollow figurine in his right hand. Raising both to the moon, then to the altar, and then back to the northern horizon, he began slicing his thumb. He bled himself, letting it drain into the head of the figurine. The clatter of clicking stones rose to a near deafening din. As this devilish brujo mixed his blood with what liquids were in the figurine chalice, the priestesses ringed the altar standing at the edge of the huge stone platform. "This is beginning to worry me beyond words," Howard broke his fast of words, mincing them from the corner of his mouth. I answered softly, "Listen, above us, I think-" A thumping roar filled the sky and a blinding light pushed the darkness back into the rocky jungle's edge. Howard and I looked up smiling, the shaman walking toward us with his homemade blood pudding. "It's Asmodeus!" Howard cried out, jumping to his feet. Instantly men rushed us, forcing Howard to sit. The figurine chalice was first pressed close to my lips, the shaman opening his mouth, displaying his intentions for Howard and me. Naturally I was hesitant to sample the free drink but a bloodied obsidian blade riding the heartbeat swells of my carotid was about to persuade me. Asmodeus' copter's prop wash whipping our squinting eyes and the brujo's confusion in his haste, was a synergistic godsend. Our hellish bartender turned away slightly and I deftly aided his dropping the figurine, jerking my jaw away from his green blade. Enraged, he prepared to bleed me. An infuriated priestess shouted him aside, raising her hand to strike as he scurried away. It was quickly silent and dark again. For some reason Asmodeus pulled away and left. A spear, a stone perhaps, had struck his bird. Howard and I were on our own again. Several women fell to their bellies and writhed worm-like across ancient tiles to the base of a marbled stone monstrosity beside our front row seat. Lambent flames of green leaped from skull bone braziers set on the periphery of the courtyard. The amorphous sculpture seemed alive in the play of flickering shadow and moonlight. Around the lower edges of this standing stone totem, small holes were systematically arranged in confusing patterns. The women slowly placed their fingers in each of these holes. An odor of spent gunpowder and sulfur wafted from the center of the spectacle. Then a haziness reminiscent of a shimmering heat mirage arose obscuring our view of the now kneeling women. Suddenly from the priestesses arose an unearthly, high-pitched, ecstatic singing. "I'm not so sure that we are meant to be awake, and seeing all this," Howard whispered. "I don't think they really care about that at the moment," I added in concern. Swirling images began to rotate around the courtyard. The enigmatic bulk of altar stone loomed taller. The ground beneath our feet became transparent! The priestesses and the whirlpool of torch lights faded away. They vanished as ripples of light on the pools of memory. There remained nothing but the courtyard and a misted jungle surrounding us. Howard exclaimed, "Claude, what just happened? Where are the women? Look at the courtyard!" "I see it, Howard, the carvings appear freshly hewn, unmarred by time. We have been given a new day as well." Flecks of dawn were cast across the inverted terrain of clouds overhead, the moon dipping beneath the tree line. Howard continued, "Look at the lowered ground level about the edge of the courtyard and our sitting stone extending down beneath us! How-where did the night go?" "I prefer this quiet morning to last night. Don't you, Howard?" I reasoned, swinging out my dangling legs. "Forget the dry wit, Claude!" Howard snapped back, unnerved by something horribly familiar about this place. I broke the tension, thinking out loud, "Our little seat has become a substantial pillar and the courtyard a great pedestal. You will also notice this rock the priestesses provided us to sit upon is connected down there to the base of the larger edifice. Howard, it is my guess this is some ancient device that those women ritually began and here we are, sent to this, ump . . . alternate time or perhaps" Howard countered, "Don't start with all that alternate time line drivel! Dunne's theory is just that and nothing more. I prefer simple answers first." "And what is the simple answer? I suppose this is not really happening? Are we both asleep and dreaming?" I asked. Howard then stared wild-eyed beyond me, his jaw dropping. I spun about to behold his vision of horror. Towering over us was a mangled mass of vine, leaves, thorn, moss, bark, and dried mud. Yet it moved! Stopping some distance away, quivering and shaking itself in small spasmodic twitching, it appeared to be looking us over. It leaned forward and fell toward us. A dust cloud of mold rose to smother us as we toppled backwards off into the lush vegetation breaking our fall. Dazed and bruised we wriggled ourselves free of vine and each other. Stumbling headlong into the high grass, we regained our footing and senses. A continuous crashing and thrashing noise behind us assured us the botanical abomination was nearing. "Wait, please wait! Don't leave me alone in this cursed place! Stop!" came someone's shrieking echoes from the face of the jungle before us. "That's a woman's voice, Claude! Hold on a minute!" Howard and I slid still watching a woman run past us jackal-fast into the thick of the undergrowth. "We're here!" I cried out. Spinning about and staring, she stopped as if shot. "You speak English! Thank God! We have little time! Follow me back to the portal!" this strange woman called to us running straight back to the clearing. "Portal? Hey! Wait! There's some life form after us!" Howard blurted out. He stood, arms akimbo, watching me chase after our hostess of the inhospitable. "Come on Howard! She acts like she knows what's going on! That's more than we can say!" I yelled over my shoulder, sputtering in exhaustion. We each arrived back at the twisted pile of the plant psuedomonster, breathless, leaning on our knees attempting to speak to this vision of Diana towering over us, sitting atop the stone pillar. She found words first. "Sorry to have frightened you two so badly with my alter ego just then," she pointed to the plant and mud effigy. "An effective ruse, Miss-" I started. "Smythe, Mrs. Endura Anne Smythe," she elegantly rolled her name down to me. "Why that's impossible! You're not the same-" Howard started. "Howard, kindly let her finish. Who are we to say what's not possible after what has already happened?" After introducing ourselves briefly, Endura continued to explain to us how she and her husband Professor Wheatley Ashton Smythe had come to South America in 1918 to investigate outlandish reports of certain explorers. The Neblina-tepui region was claimed to be home to giant flora and fauna found nowhere else on the planet. "After weeks of expedition we found no signs of saurian beasts nor man-eating mushrooms but were then led to these cliffs in the clouds you as well came to explore, I presume." "Yes, yes, please go on," I urged. "Wheatley insisted if anything of interest were to be salvaged of our wanderings, we would find such in these marvelous towers in the mist. We found much more than we wished for. Secretly we observed a tribe living near a blackened set of these monoliths. After Wheatley's endless note taking over five days, he was finally prepared to attempt contact. We then witnessed the start of some religious rite. A young male was drugged or made drunken as best as we could ascertain. He began singing a curious string of phrases we first took to be nonsense from his stupor. Then he shouted and pointed to a distant peak we had not noticed as it was always obscured in thick clouds. During the twilight moments the humid winds unveiled this spire of foreboding. Approaching carefully we followed, at a distance, a procession of priestesses and villagers as they made pilgrimage. As you both know, the ascent was arduous-" "We flew in using a helicop-" Howard began. "Howard, not now, please! Let her continue," I said. "We watched a bizarre ceremony and saw that young boy simply vanish from the stone of travel, as I now call it. I foolishly gasped in shock and we were found out. Our bearers and guides were horridly poisoned with a liquid that issued from crushed frogs. My husband went into a frenzied fit of yelling at the women about how he was to be a servant to Nycrama. His terror heightened when he discovered a necklace of his was dropped and lost in the scuffle. He called out to some Avalzant to have mercy. That necklace, by the way, held an amulet of a trophy stone Wheatley unearthed at Uxmal years earlier. I was more shocked at Wheatley's behavior than all the happenings up to that moment. I believe his mind had snapped. My poor Wheatley was bound, beaten, and readied to be sent to this very same place we find ourselves. He was drugged as the ritual began anew. Soon after this, the priestesses began showing a perverse interest in me and especially so in their repeated stroking of my long hair. I guessed then, they had never seen blond hair before. I was taken to that ugly stone slab there and pushed to the top. The women began their chant and to my horror Wheatley chimed right in with them. I saw my poor husband sobbing, rocking, and mumbling like a demented child. Then he began to fade and flicker out like the last light of a spent candle. I could stand it no longer and I leapt over the heads of the kneeling throng. I raced across the courtyard to stop Wheatley from serenading himself into oblivion. I pushed him off this pillar, I'm standing upon, and regained consciousness just over there," she pointed to a spot just crossed by Howard's monotonous pacing. "So you came here to this parallel time instead of the intended Professor Smythe then?" I interjected. "This place!" Howard insisted, resisting my ad hoc hypothesis. "Unfortunately so and I never saw my Wheatley again after that penultimate moment of madness," Endura sighed touching the void in her soul. "Blast it all! None of this makes any sense!" Howard broke in, walking back and forth around the carved column, hoping for answers in its interwoven glyphs coiled beneath his scrutiny. "Mrs. Smythe, Endura if I may, what of our urgent need to return to this portal as you call it?" I asked. "The moment has come and gone," Endura whispered softly. "What moment?" Howard implored standing perplexed, a blind beggar, his arms uplifted to the oracles of our private Delphi. "This place, the stones speak to me somehow," Endura gestured about her, leaning closer to us. "Oh good grief!" Howard sighed, his eyes shut tight, searching inside for the patience he'd left back in Boston. He began a mock woodpeckering of his forehead against the pillar. I reached over and grabbed Howard, shaking him, admonishing, "Get a grip on yourself and let this poor woman finish without your rude and inappropriate skepticisms. I bet all your Prozac went over the cliff with our supplies." He let out a long deep breath, "OK, already, OK, I am so very sorry Mrs. Smythe." "Continue Endura, please," I eased the conversation along. "Yes, by all means continue," Howard nervously added. "You see, I have always been something of a seeress, a sensitive. In this place I have experienced a surge, a renewal of this sense. Things happen and I realize I felt it happening long before. I just know about certain things outside your usual time sense. I felt your coming and ran to the stone and waited. My alter ego frightened you off just as it has spooked so many who came before and never returned from the jungles and rocky maze around us. I have searched this cliff's vast plateau and found no one but myself here and no way down. I have but only once seen a break in the clouds surrounding this black pinnacle and what I glimpsed -" she trailed off in exasperation, her face in her hands, then stroking down her neck as she turned away. "What did you see?" I asked. "You'll think me madder than a-" Endura started. "No, no, go on, and consider us all mad and dreaming as well. Nothing you could tell us could in any way distance you from us in this already compl-" Howard cranked up again. "Endura, please excuse Howard's untimely verbosity," I insisted, glaring at Howard. Howard stood shaking in steeped silence, fists and teeth clenched. He was losing control. Endura spoke again, "The cliff's base extended further than I could see and beyond that was a vortex of stars, a storm of light spewing forth from the center. I could not discern whether the stars were whirling in or out. Then the clouds took their place again below me. I felt as if it was something forbidden to see. It was my glimpse of birth and death, the beginnings of, and the finish of chaos, twistedness, and rebellion." None of us spoke for a space of time and we sensed a deep vibration beneath us, the very stones crying out of some forgotten truth. Howard's eyes were darting to and fro. "That happens all the time. I have found trees toppled in the jungle and boulders slipping into the ground," Endura informed us trying to ease our sinking spirits. "This is not comforting news at all! Drug crazed savages that drop in ad infinitum, visions of hell's gates, and now the earth slouches up to swallow us! What's next?" Howard screamed, fast approaching an all consuming neurosis in his banter. "Here you need this," Endura pulled at her side, offering Howard a taste of some bluish, pear shaped fruit, "This will relax and refresh you. I don't know exactly what it is but it has kept me going these years." Howard at first refused the offer then ate slowly, approvingly. I quickly scanned the clothing Endura had fashioned from leather, tattered pieces of cloth, and woven grasses. Not much was left of her boots that she had modified into a sort of Roman sandal. She had braided vines to make laces that wrapped around her legs up to her knees. She looked less the tourist to this world than Howard and myself. At her side hung a blackened rapier of volcanic glass lashed to a stock of bamboo. Brittle as obsidian may be, I'd just seen it adequately split flesh. Deftly handled it could pierce, slash, and disembowel the skeptical offender. "I presume you have survived on fruit and plants alone?" I asked. "Yes, and I drank of this constant mist collected in bromeliads hanging here and there. I am sick of tasteless grubs and salads with no decent dressing," she chuckled vacuously, continuing, "Six miserable years of existing and every month or so another boy comes through the portal and runs off singing into the shadows. For a time, I quit scaring them and in a daze they'd race past me. They are bewitched lemmings running to that pit of oblivion past the bottom of the cliff. When I do feel like searching for them, I find no bodies, no clothing, not even a stinking bead! It baffles me. Seventy or more of them have come and vanished in these jungles." "Fortunately, we escaped being drugged, Endura. I cannot begin to explain anything to you but you need to understand something that may shock you as well as it worries me now," I began and continued. "You came here to Venezuela in 1918 and we arrived in the year 1996. The ill-fated Smythe expedition was chronicled as lost some 78 years ago and you claim to have been here six years. I can attest with Howard that your beauty is not that of a woman over 100! Time appears lagging behind in this place. Every month here is thirteen months passed back from where or when we first came. Each day we stay here we lose almost two weeks time in our own world-line as Minkowski would call such. Endura muttered, her voice trembling, her hand pulling back sweat into furrowed brow, "My New England, my family, my time, all gone? I've nothing left to go back to, only to leave this nightmare for another." "Endura," Howard spoke softly, standing now to reach up and console her. She reacted instantly, her sword whipping free, and poised, a cat startled awake in the midst of dream hunting. "WO, hey I'm sorry!" Howard stiffened, adding, "I don't see how any of us can go back now. Maybe we can find a way down from this accursed place and work our way to civilization be it millennia behind or not." "Ah, Howard, you are softening on the alternate time line explanation," I laughed. Howard's normal pallor was well flushed. He spat out a piece of fruit and his contempt. "There is a way back or at least out of here," Endura spoke jumping over to the larger pedestal. "When the sacrificial lads come and disappear like zombies, I have felt compelled not to follow them but to sit upon the stone there. Always there's a tingling, a resonance, like a warmed engine you could say. At those times the song of the vile priestesses seems to echo in my mind and somehow I see them as they walk back to the village. It's all a faint hint of a dream now. When the portal is again alive, the images become fresh in my mind. Once soon after a transport, I placed a piece of leather on the sacrificial stone and tried to sing the phrases as they surfaced in my mind. The scrap of hide flickered out for an instant and then came back! I believe I can send us all home during the time of the next sacrificial rite. I would never try this on my own for fear of sending myself back to suffer death or far worse at the hands of the priestesses." "How can we be sure of returning to the right time or place? We could be trapped in some timeless limbo or-" Howard once more started his diatribe. Endura jumped to her feet. She began howling at us, sweeping the mist aside with her blade, "Gentlemen, this is a timeless limbo, there is no way down, and that which lies at the base of this pinnacle is very likely the maw of hell itself! You can stay here if you like but now I would rather risk the trip back alone than to be driven insane by this endless whining! Years of solitude have not taught me patience!" Endura walked to the edge of the pedestal and towered over us, tears streaming, mingling with perspiration running down her strong cheekbones. Howard and I were without words, offering no excuses, and awaiting the fiery jade gaze of her angry eyes to diminish. She sniffed in a renewed calm, sheathed her weapon, addressing us one by one, "Howard, Claude?" "Yes," we both answered humbly. "You must do as I say. The moon waxes full and another boy will be sent through at moonrise. I must repair my alter ego to scare him off as I have done for my six and your 78 years as you say and be ready to send us back through the portal. Our combined voices singing the chant on the pedestal and my sensing of the precise moment of transfer should enable us to leap to the stone of travel. With the grace of God we will return from this jungled fever dream tonight." We began in earnest in mending the huge green scareman. Spectrally ambient light diffused by the moonlit clouds drifted up from the treetops. In the distance Howard struggled, collecting fresh vine. He froze in place clutching at his chest each time another tremor shook the plateau. In the tall grasses of the clearing he appeared more mirage than man. I imagined swells of Bartok to fit this scene's soundtrack. Instead, Howard began mumbling a P.K. Dick quote, "The dead shall live, the living die and music shall untune the sky." Turning to Endura beside me working I stopped short of speaking, looking at her in admiration and pity mixed. She was a bronzed Amazon, her blond hair tied back with leather straps, her strong, veined hands methodically working the vine. Her green eyes intent, determined, the expression of a survivor. My heart went out to her plight. Fate had robbed her of time she could never regain and left her with years of anguished isolation. I never cease to be amazed at human nature. In the midst of this craziness I found myself straightening my shirt and hand-brushing my thinning gray hair. I wondered how my well-trimmed moustache appeared. For a man of forty-five, I was proud of my muscular, six foot build, and level of stamina. Yeah, the stomach wasn't exactly abs. of steel but I hoped to look somewhat swarthy and heroic to this mysteriously attractive Endura. Looking back at the ungainly, tall, clumsy, and gaunt Howard, I surmised, if worse comes to worse, I would be Endura's choice over the nasal timbred whiner. Forgive me, Howard. "Endura, I'm sorry about Wheatley and all this happening to you. When and if we get back I-" I spoke, hoping to edge her my way. "Stop, please, not that now," she bit her lip and tightened the lashings. Startled, she gripped my arm as I winced. "Something's wrong. They're sending someone now! It's too soon. The moon isn't up yet, but I hear the ceremony! Get this thing up on its feet and get behind it. Quick!" Endura screamed. I wasn't afraid of a drugged boy but cooperated just to be sure. A form began wavering, oscillating into view on the stone of travel. We stood sufficiently breathless. It was Asmodeus, our helicopter pilot! Bleeding, beaten, and staggering to his feet, he babbled the infernal cadence. He was obviously drugged as professor Smythe had been but poor Asmodeus had not escaped transport. Perhaps he saw the viney alter ego. We weren't sure. Screaming, he ran away, a scared rabbit slipping into the night. Howard bolted after him. "Howard, don't go! You'll never find him! Come back! The portal is ready for us now!" I called into my own echoes. Endura stared lightyears past me, sighing in a monotone, "Claude, I feel we have lost Howard. I don't see him on the stone as we hoped," her arm raising gradually, she motioned stiffly toward the jungle, "That which has been calling souls to this place comes now to claim ours as well. We must begin the song of Nycrama." "The song of what?" I asked with no reply. I peered off into the darkness, hearing the screams of Howard rise to drift across fog shrouded forms encircling the courtyard. "Howard! Give it up! Come on!" my appeals lost in his wailing. "Claude, leave him! Begin the chant with me here on the pedestal of power!" Endura begged, pulling at me. My trust in her waned. She took my hands in hers and the night gusts whipped her hair free in the cloud-strobed moonlight. It was a corona of topaz fire about her head, her eyes opened wide, transfixing me. She coaxed me into the song of sorcery. She instinctively intoned what seemed to be Spanish mixed with gibberish, "Cerro la neblina, Neblina-tepui! Atrave del tiempo, la cancio , la cancio del templo! Nycramaaaaaahhhh! Yamil Zacraaaa! Yuzzzzh! Gran regreso de sue o largo!"
END PART ONE!!
Priestess of Nycrama THE FINALE!! .
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