This is the final part in a four part series. Here are parts one, two, and three. The coals from the first fire had never died. Ned Bowles kindled a new flame from them while
The coals from the first fire had never died. Ned Bowles kindled a new flame from them while the others dressed and skinned the beast we had slain. The low, steady drumming and constant drone of Joseph’s chant lulled me towards sleep. I was exhausted, and if not for all my aches and pains, I might have dropped off. Roger sat beside me, his arm in a sling, staring into firelight.
Darkness fell. The bear had been rendered down to bloody parts, and an altar built facing the east. We two wounded joined the others, listening as Ned stood and incanted words whose meaning I did not know, but which I felt in my bones were sacred. There was fire on the altar, and he set certain organs in the midst of it. They hissed and popped, and slowly burned.
The smell was pungent, an odor of charred, over-cooked flesh that should have been sickening. But I was not in my right mind. I was somewhere beyond that, in a land of dreams and spirits, a place not quite natural. The smell was right. It was right that the organs burned. It was right that the smoke went up.
After a time, Joseph’s chant and his beating drum grew louder. Ned turned to me, carrying another effigy pot. The bear on this one was snarling, and there was a snake coiled around its head. He took my hands and lifted them before me, palms up. Then he poured, and I understood. This was the blood of the bear, and it was on my hands.
When they were thoroughly drenched, he dipped his finger into the blood on my palms and anointed my head with a sign. Then he pointed to the mountain.
“Now you will learn the ancient wisdom.”
Still caught up in that altered state, I walked in the direction he had indicated. The others came, a procession with torches and the ceaseless sound of the drum. The wind was caught up in the music, tossing leaf and branch on the darkly wooded slopes. My steps were in time with the drumbeat, the throbbing pulse of life. I ascended the mountain. All life was ascending with me.
The cave of stars was as I remembered it, but there was no screen. As we entered, Ned and Roger and all the others joined their voices to Joseph’s, ululating cries of joy, of victory, of strength, of courage and challenge and greeting. It rebounded and echoed, and I felt it descend into the hollows of the earth. I followed it across the cave, and into the tunnel beyond.
The passage was wide enough, but its course was more confined than the broad chamber, more inevitable. It was swallowing me. On I went, deeper, and the light of torches and the sound of voices and the beating of the drum went with me.
On we went into a second chamber, smaller and near perfectly round. Its circumference was broken into thirds, our entrance forming the first point, a descending tunnel to the left was the second, and the third was a short ascent to the right, which twisted out of view. Despite that twist, despite our depth, despite the torches, the light of moon and stars shined down and the wind howled in from the world above.
“Where do I go?” I asked.
“You sit,” someone said. I did.
The drum faded, the voices tapered off into silence. The torches popped and crackled. Then came the growling words in a tongue I did not speak, and their shadow in the mouth of my translator.
“Long ago, when this Earth was young, the stars were told that Man had been formed. This word came to my people, and we rejoiced, for he would be our cousin and brother. We traveled the trackless gulfs between the stars, where all is light and the strength of Heaven. We came to see these Lords of Earth, and found them.
“But another came before us, from the worlds about a different star. This was the Horned Serpent, called ningush-teda, may his first name be forgotten by all that live. Ningush-teda had poisoned Man, and all that domain which Man was to inhabit. We came to see this people, to honor the Lord of Earth, but Man was sick with the poison, and turned it upon us.
“This is the way of the poison. It is a spirit of evil, which haunts and corrupts. It haunts the higher life, and makes it lower. It haunts what is beautiful, and makes it ugle. It haunts the noble, and makes him cruel. Ningush-teda lusts after all life which dwells under the sun. He runs in the blood of every man born. When he sees one who knows him, who will cast him out, he rises in the blood, and bends men to dark deeds, to harm their brother.
“When ningush-teda came against us, my people were cleaved into three kinds. Some repented and the poison was drawn out. We remain to oppose him. Others mated themselves to it, and became as that which you slew. Cunning and cruel are they, and dwell in wild places. The rest were corrupted, and their souls sleep. Their lives are as a winter, without beginning or end. To slay them is no great evil, but neither does it harm ningush-teda.
“We who repented, who oppose the horned serpent, are brothers to the Lords of the Earth. In ancient days, from the time of our fathers, we taught them to mark the course of the stars and to know the seasons which they foretell. From us they learned of the things which grow, which are safe and which are evil, and how they are used. From us they learned how to hunt, and to fish, and where to seek the honey of the wild bee. By this knowledge, poisoned Man was able to live by his toil upon the earth
“But that was in our father’s day. Now, let our secret be kept, for the Horned Serpent, ningush-teda, grows strong in the heart of Man. If he sees us, he will bring his power against us, and we will be slain. Who then among mortals will oppose him?
“For this purpose, you were cleansed. For this, you were set apart. This is the ancient wisdom—to see the serpent, and oppose him. Have you brought the heart of the fallen one?”
Ned placed the bloody heart of the bear in my hand. Up he guided me, around the bend and out of sight of the others. Then he gestured to the ground, and I set the heart upon it. Where was the voice that had asked for it? Was it just a little further? If I looked further around that curve, what would I see?
But I knew what must be done. I followed Ned back to the circular chamber. A few moments passed in silence, and shadow and light played on the solemn faces of my companions. They were my companions, my brothers. They had gone before me, had done and heard and seen the things that I was doing and seeing and hearing even now. They had been changed. They, like me, had been reborn.
A distant shout echoed down the tunnels. The procession continued, and this time I was in the back, and the drums were silent. We ascended, going round the bend, even further than I had gone. The heart was not there, and no one waited in the tunnel. Eventually the passage ended, and we emerged on the side of the mountain.
Heaven save me, that was when I saw what I cannot unsee.
We stood on a ridge, looking down into hollow walled on every side by steep slopes. In the midst there was fire, and it threw figures into silhouette. Some sat near the flames, and others danced to the sounds of beating drums and shrilling pipes. One came into their midst from our high cavern entrance, and others gathered to follow it.
The figures were not human. I swear by everything men call holy, they had the shape of bears.
I am reminded of a moment when I first learned a close friend had died. It is a kind of unreality, a dreamlike state mingled with horror at the fact that you will not wake. The unreal thing persists. You are forced, moment by moment, to accept it.
That is what I felt, standing on the ridge and looking down into the hollow.
Make no mistake—these were not men in costumes, nor hybrid forms. Their proportions were, as near as I could tell, exactly the same as the animal we have all seen a thousand times in videos or at the zoo. If they walked upright with more ease than common bears, it was not by much. Their vocalizations were articulate, but not far different from those they make in the wild. The greatest difference was an opposable thumb, for they carried spears.
Ned had translated for me before, but there was no translation now. Shrill piping and heavy drums underscored the strangeness of inhuman voices. The bear-priest called, and the others answered. Words thundered through the hollow, ascending to heaven with smoke and incense. The bloody heart of our victim was raised up, an offering to ursine gods. Then it was placed on an altar, and consumed.
The smell of it is still with me.
So are their shapes, in my dreams.
I make this record with a clean conscience, and leave it in the care of a friend in England. I have found him trustworthy in such matters. I have revealed occult secrets before, both pseudonymously and under my own name. That is not my intention here. This knowledge is too dangerous.
“Too dangerous.” In writing that, I admit to myself that I believe what I saw and heard. It was no hallucination.
I believe that if this information is made public, the spirit which is said to half-possess so many of us may awaken and destroy one of the few beings who can oppose it. For this reason I deposit this record into my friend’s care. Should anyone attempt to reveal things such as I unwittingly uncovered, let this stand as testimony and exhortation, that you may know why such precious finds are better left lost to time.