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X. INTO THE UNDERWORLD


Friday, 29 February 1680

Tobias lay upon the straw in the gloom of his cell, weakly staring at the small square of sky high above, his sole view of the outside universe. Not that he really needs it anymore. The images flooding his fevered brain are enough.

Memories, visions, dreams churn together there in a fantastic stew, an unceasing pantomime, but it means something; it always does. When the blue Lady first came and comforted him in visions after a fit and those horrible headaches so many years ago, he hadn’t understood. How could he? Then he was but a scarcely literate shepherd boy – he knew the mysterious movements of the stars from long nights watching in the fields, but spirits? Intuition is a poor guide to understanding the affairs of devils and angels and the strange stories they told.

Now of course, he knows far too much. Once he allowed himself to listen, the spirits never stopped talking. Tobias is well familiar with their many voices, tones, and arguments by now; he knows which lie incessantly, which merely misdirect, and which few cryptically tell the truth. But his time is growing short.

His can feel his life slowly ebbing away like the tide. As it fades, long-forgotten memories rise in his mind like a mist. Once again, the terror and wonder of the first Vision which so changed his life touches him, along with the strange sudden certainty it would return the following night, as indeed it did. That was the first time it happened, but his inner sight grew with experience. Solitude first in Maureven and years alone in prison honed it like a knife.

But the key to the mystery Tobias seeks is not in that memory. Nor is it in other fragments that rise unbidden from the mad times and the bad times. The adulation of the crowd; his search for solitude, finally accepting what God decreed, and oh, the first tender virgin who offered herself and the countless others following, their faces and forms blurring together in ghostly procession.

Ah, the discipline and the delights, the bound hands raised in painful prayer and the ecstatic release which followed… Odd how he recalled those pleasures long gone far more vividly than the more recent agonies which followed his betrayal and arrest, and the sharp questioning of the officials.

The king’s men tried their best, with the most modern tortures to break him, but his years of discipline prepared him well. They finally walled him in here, allowing time, privation, and solitude to finish their dirty business for them. But stone walls cannot contain the images and words burning his mind. For the Lady has often been her messenger’s guest and generous with her favors.

“Oh Merciful Lady, torment me no more! Let me glimpse the last secret, please,” he prays. The roiling images subside. It is as if a curtain of smoke blows away. As always, the vision comes as a riddle, symbols written in fire. He sees the roundel of Earth from the South Transept, glowing, transforming into the beloved landscape he knew so well. Yet this time, the mental picture warns of dangers, and a false and fatal hoax, an Unholy Basin of Death, and traps surrounding it.

Could it be that it was all a lie? Horror gives him the strength he needs. Tobias finds the hidden scrap of parchment and his quill. He cuts himself with a shard of glass for his lifeblood is his ink. Weak as he is, writing is difficult; his handwriting, never good, is a broken scrawl trying to get it down. “…Behind the unbroken wall of light lies the truth,” he writes, desperate to convey the last desperate warning hidden in the puzzles of his visions. He must ensure that all his suffering has not been without purpose.

He can do little more than drag his useless body to the wall. A string he’d made from threads of his blanket hangs from the window. Laboriously, he rolls up the scrap and somehow ties it to the end. Hopefully, the brethren would find it.

He has tried to warn them as best he can. Tobias rests, gazing up at heaven through the bars, tears blurring his sight. He never saw such a beautiful blue before, except for the Lady, of course. Praying with his last breath, he closes his eyes.

There would be no answer when his contact arrived and hooted like an owl, but the message would be received if not understood. So Tobias the prisoner, once a heretical prophet who abused and pimped his disciples, and long before that a barefoot shepherd boy of Haute Maureven, quietly dies.

Enough followers remain to publish the Red Pope’s peculiar poetic testament, The Tears of the Virgin and the Garden of True Delight, almost a decade later. But the message on the parchment is too portentous to be included.

With mass arrests after a Vision of the Holy Tub the following year, many of Tobias’ remaining male devotees perish in the galleys while female followers starve themselves to death en masse in protest. The few survivors go literally underground, taking the revered parchment with them.

But the outlawed cult hiding in the catacombs beneath the cathedral does not own the underworld. Despite their fearful reputation and their jealous zeal to find it, others join in the subterranean search for the Holy Tub, adding to the dangers. Competing pothunters leave scattered pits as well as traps and obstacles. Tunnels are hidden and others dug, directions carved into rock and altered. Thus the dark realm beneath the cathedral grows ever more perilous.


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“And so I alone
returned
from the underworld
as if reborn,
with only these stone bones of dragons
from before the Flood
to prove my tale.”

Don Yago Ionas,
the Reliquarian,
1782

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