Closer to God: Episode Four

 

Ebony Labyrinth

 

Clarke’s hike to the Northern Sentinel followed the path he’d worn between his camp and the stream. Beneath the surface of the jungle’s canopy there was little light to use for guidance, so, for the first stretch of his journey, he relied solely on memory to lead the way. He could barely make out the trunks and branches around him and the mostly black slate of his vision served as a chalk-board upon which his imagination sketched nightmares. The periphery of his sight ignited with life as every shifting shadow took on the presence of some terrible beast. He lurched continually forward, dodging perceived assailants and trusting his line was straight and that it would deliver him to the stream.  When he finally bumped into the familiar form of the gnarled tree he stepped back to admire its grotesquely twisting limbs, feeling a slightly more than negligible sense of security knowing he’d returned to the spot and had therefore reestablished his link to the real world.

Skirting around the tree, dragging his hand across the ragged bark, he emerged into a world of blue light. He cursed himself for not thinking of it before. He could have followed the stream all the way up from the beach, using the same path he’d first found while running from the faces of the Men of the Earth. There were was no canopy above the ravine and the sky was open, its light falling down to bounce off the rolling water. It would certainly have been much easier to walk beside the brook as opposed to blindly wandering the ebony labyrinth of the jungle as he had just done.

When he’d first come across the stream, Clarke was certain it lead to a body of water near the true base of the volcano and now he would test that theory. The ravine itself was already slanted uphill and he predicted it would become substantially steeper as it neared the Northern Sentinel. He would use the brook, his compass, and the dull embers of the night sky to get himself as close to the volcano as possible. He could not see the mass of rock at that moment but he could see, and somehow smell, the smoke rising from its crater. It plumed in great pillows and stretched vertically into the dark above where it slowly dissipated amongst the stars. It was star dust heading home and it carried with it forces Clarke was only vaguely aware of.

Passed the deformed tree, he climbed down into the ravine and knelt next to the stream to fill his water bottles. He did not know how long it would take him to arrive at the volcano and he had no idea what he would find there. A ceremony? A sacrifice? Or a tribe of friendly, mud covered men? As was so often his tactic, he decided to avoid such anxiety inducing questions. He took out the letter that had survived the burning of his journal. He’d read a bit, then continue on his way.

 

Page One

 

Dear Clarke,

We need to meet. Now, today, before you go anywhere near that island.

I spoke with Emily, after she resigned from your team. She told me about the way you’ve been acting. Her description of your recent behavior was the last straw. Something is wrong with you, I can see that now. I wish I could’ve done so sooner.

I know we’ve had our competitive differences in the past and our jobs often take us to many of the same places, however, I have always viewed our professional relationship as one of friendly competition. Never a race to better each other. But with Libris it seems like that is what this has all become for you. A rush to slap your name on this place and claim it as yours.

Libris was my discovery and my research uncovered it. It’s not like that gives me ownership of the island or anything, you were more than welcome to become a part of this. In fact, when I first heard you’d taken an interest I was excited that we may actually work together on something for once. But you’ve crossed the line. Claiming you’d discovered this island, that you should be the first to arrive here. Neither of us are the first Clarke, and you and I both know you are lying.

If all that wasn’t enough to raise suspicions, what Emily told me certainly was. You cannot actually…

 

He’d read only the first page of the letter but Clarke’s mind was suddenly caught in a storm of flashing neurons. He’d been sitting, ignorantly, in the calm eye of the storm only to have the mass of weather overtake him once again. Hands shaking, he managed to fold the letter in half and slide it within the envelope which he slipped into his back pocket. He would’ve continued reading it was he not so overwhelmed by the contents. And the chanting voices, constantly thumping against the exterior of his skull like a migraine assaulting his head from without, made it hard for him to concentrate.

Conflicting feelings accompanied returning memories. Jasmine was right, it was her research that pointed him to Libris. Yet he’d done all he could to remove her, and everyone else from the equation. How could he have been so headstrong? So self-centered?

But no, she was wrong, he was the only one who deserved to step foot on Libris. He needed to be the first here. And now he was.

As if to leave his thoughts behind, Clarke started hiking again. The climb became steeper and the angled sides of the ravine erected themselves into sheer walls. Emily, he remembered Emily. A graduate student who he’d decided to bring along, Libris was to be her first field expedition. She’d left? Yes, she had left before they’d disembarked on the fishing boat. Clarke had conflicting memories of her as well. Her bright smile and excitement spreading contagiously to the rest of the team as well as himself. Her joy at the chance to accompany and assist them on such groundbreaking work. But the longer they’d sat and waited idly on the mainland the quicker her enthusiasm drained. She started looking at him not with a smile but with sadness and, was it fear? She’d not wanted to leave but his actions had forced her to. His preoccupation with the island and its inhabitants, his misguided plans for landing on these beaches, Emily was the only one on his team who’d managed to speak up. And she was right. No, she was wrong. She left because she was nervous and scared, didn’t think she could handle the work. All the better, with her and Jasmine surely half way across the Atlantic and the rest of his crew at the bottom of it there would be no one to stand between Libris and him.

Although the slope grew ever greater, forcing Clarke to start climbing on his hands and knees, the walls of the ravine were shrinking in height. The jungle to either side of him was noticeably thicker like the trees from below were also traversing the hill, pushing towards the volcano, and gathering to join the ceremony. The stream of water rushing past his feet had changed as well. It had more volume and more power, he was nearing the source.

He heaved himself forward a dozen more yards then let out a grunt as his hand, clawing for rocks above him, swiped air instead of dirt and he collapsed onto his stomach. The ground had leveled out and he was lying half over a ledge, beyond which was a circle of flat ground not unlike his base camp. He looked up for the first time since reading the letter and noticed he was nearly on the bare, ashen ground that was the true base of the volcano. There was a reflective surface that took up most of this miniature plateau, its glass like mirroring of the sky rippling with the sound of rushing water. It was a pool of sorts, sitting at the mouth of the now foot tall walls of the ravine. The water that overflowed from the top of the filled pool was rushing downhill, forming the stream Clarke had been drinking from. There were also curved walls circling around the unnatural pond so that the water could only escape in the direction of the brook. Set into the encompassing walls, apparently running from within the base of the volcano, were pipes from which the water flooded. A man made stream after all, and one that controlled his water supply.

It was not until Clarke bent to dip his hand into the pond that he saw the reflection of the yellow eyes. He jumped back and turned about to look at the tribesman standing behind him. But, there was no man behind him and water splashed from the pool as the eyes rose and burst forth from underneath the surface. A Man of the Earth emerged from within the water. His body was toned, his tanned skin the color of mud. Like no other color Clarke had seen on a man. The tribesman looked like he was covered in mud but was only covered in skin that seemed to be made of dried mud, or ash, or blood. This close to the yellow eyes Clarke could peer into them and he saw they were more golden then yellow. With flecks of red, green, and blue sprinkled about the irises.

The man said nothing and Clarke was unsure of what to do. He went to grab for his GPS but the man lunged forward and stopped his hand. Clarke held still and the tribesman slowly lifted the satchel off his shoulder. He held the bag in front of him, atop both arms like he was a waiter carrying a dinner tray. He turned and took a few steps towards the volcano then beckoned Clarke after him with a nod of his head.

Clarke followed and they walked around the outside of the walls surrounding the pool. The sound of water continued to send soft waves into the air which Clarke noticed diluted the chants that had been assualting his ears all night. At the far edge of the circular plateau the tribesman stopped. They both looked up the slope of the Northern Sentinel. It was nearly vertical and impossibly smooth. Unclimbable. After a moments pause, the tribesman walked through solid rock and Clarke tumbled backwards in shock. He stared at the face of rock the man had disappeared into. Slowly, an arching shadow revealed itself. He walked forward, tentatively holding his arms in front of him. His hands hit no surfaces and he passed into the cave.

The cave was, in actuality, some sort of tunnel. There was no direct source of light inside, but once Clarke crossed the threshold separating the inside and the out, the tunnel was lit up as if torches lined the walls. The interior looked like the stone Clarke could remember seeing in the jungle, just past his camp site. It was splintered with jagged lines of tar that were dusted with golden flakes. It was these flakes that cast off the light, shining like foil in the sun. There was no burbling brook to mull over the chanting any longer. The voices filled the tunnel with an immensity of echoes, vibrating Clarke’s vision, bones, and skin.

The floor of the tunnel, while occasionally taking on a slight incline, remained relatively flat. Apparently, they were traveling straight into the heart of the Northern Sentinel. The pond of water and irrigation system had been impressive but Clarke wondered if a tribe that had never been contacted by the outside world could have managed to construct such a perfect tunnel. The walls, ceiling and floor were as smooth as a granite countertop. If they hadn’t built it, it was certainly an odd, if not impossible feature for a volcano to develop on its own.

Finally, after what seemed like minutes, and after what seemed like hours, they reached a steep uphill climb of the tunnel. The tribesman stopped, turned to Clarke and held up a hand. On his palm was a symbol, a hieroglyph of sorts. It was octagonal in shape and within its borders it held strange lines. It was a language, maybe, and it looked a bit like Arabic, but Clarke had certainly never seen such writing before. Yet, he guessed, or knew, that it meant stop. He understood the tribesman was telling him stop and when the Man of the Earth turned and kept walking, he stayed put.

Clarke stood alone in the tunnel and watched the man disappear out of sight. The man had taken his satchel so Clarke pulled the letter from his back pocket. If he was going to finish it, now would have to be the time. Who knew if he’d even be alive to read it later.

Page Two

 

… that I was planning to land on Libris? Not only would that be highly unethical of me but it’s unethical of you to even think that is even a possibility. Emily told me that’s why she left, you kept saying I was going to try to land on the island and that you had to beat me there. You had to be the first to step foot on the island and meet the Terra Homines.

     When I heard that I knew something was seriously off. That’s beyond competitive and beyond reckless and, to be honest, beyond you. You can be a hard colleague to work with but I know you are a professional. And I know, you of all people, would be drastically opposed to making contact with this tribe.

     Something has gotten into your head Clarke and, whether its an idea or something more sinister, I hope it’s not too late to get it out. You wouldn’t listen to Emily but please listen to me, stop this, now. We all know there’s something not quite right about this place and, so far, Emily is only one to say it. But now’s the time the rest of us wake up. You really think no one has ever been here before? Is it not strange the only records of this place’s existence are local legends and myths? Myth’s that are almost always based around some sort of truth, no matter how ridiculous.

     Here’s my offer Clarke. If you leave, I’ll go with you. Let’s call this thing now and forget this island was ever here. Both of us will say our research proved to be a dud. We were wrong, no proof of a tribe of any sort, just an uninhabitable island with a dormant volcano. Hell, if you want you can blame our failures on me. 

     Just, please don’t take that boat out Clarke, don’t do something you’ll regret. You’re not thinking straight, and we need to leave this place. I hope, if you’ve read this, you will meet me. Tomorrow, café across the street, 9 sharp. We can talk this out.

Sincerely,

Jasmine Croft

The same contradictory feelings returned to Clarke. But this time he could see more, remember more, than he had before. He had been wrong… and he knew it. What had he been thinking? He hadn’t wanted the credit for discovering the island nor did he care about being the first outsider on the island. He’d known there were others before him and would be others after. He just wanted to be here, to know the island like no one else knew it. To understand it and to be a part of this tribe. He used Jasmine’s presence as an excuse to try and land on the island. He did not care whether his crew followed or not but they all has, except for Emily. And they’d all lost their lives, except for Emily.

For once, his memories of the truth outweighed the side of his brain that, he realized now, had nothing to do with his brain and had taken him over since he’d first heard of the island. He finally saw, truly saw, where he was standing and what was occuring. There was something wrong here, something disturbingly wrong. The memories he kept losing, his unexplainably intimate familiarity with the island. The strange powers he felt every night, building inside the volcano and driven by the chants of the Terra Homines, exploding outward and washing away everything in its path, and then returning to the Northern Sentinel and dragging him closer and closer. He panicked, he needed to leave. He’d almost met with Jasmine but walked by the Café’s entrance at the last second. He wished he hadn’t and now it was too late. There was no returning to that Café, no chance to talk down the utterly foreign and invading presence in his mind.

Footsteps sounded up ahead, Clarke let the letter slip from his hands. The same tribesman appeared, still carrying the satchel. He saw the letter on the ground, looked from it to Clarke. He placed the satchel on the floor, picked up the letter and its envelope, and placed them inside the satchel’s front pocket.

Clarke watched him, all memories receding and a sense of excitement taking over. He’d done it, he was on the island and he was about to witness a ceremony no one outside the tribe had ever witnessed before. The tribesman held up the same hand as last time. But now a spiraling, twirling arrow replaced the octagon. Follow, it said but did not say, instead imparted. And Clarke followed, up the incline and to the mouth of the interior side of the tunnel and out onto a platform, a railing-less balcony, hundreds of feet below the volcano’s mouth and hundreds of feet above a rising floor of lava.

It was daylight inside the volcano and night without. The glare of the lava was bright and hot, its heat stacking upward upon itself. Stone stairs led down from the platform that Clarke was standing on but he did not take them. Instead, his guide and him froze and listened. The chanting, coming from the dozens of tribesman below, sounded like it was coming from thousands as the words echoed off the granite like smooth walls of the volcanos interior. The chanters, revelers, stood on a stone walkway that ringed its way around the crater. One man stood above them all, on the very edge of the mouth at the volcano’s peak. It seemed as if he was the center of the ceremony yet not at all involved with it. He did not chant but watched, his body swaying slightly back and forth.

Clarke stared into the rising lava below. He did not feel he was in danger, nor was he afraid, happy, melancholy, or excited. He felt nothing except for a growing fatigue as if his life’s battery was draining with each slight rise of lava. Although he’d heard it many times and could recite the unintelligible words by memory, Clarke still did not know the chant so he refrained from speaking. Instead he lost himself in the embers of the volcano’s blood and…

The voices finally ceased as the lava reached the walkway the tribe stood on. There it stopped, just before overflowing the edge. Light shone, not only from the volcano but from the sky outside, and the sun was just starting to rise. Clarke’s eyes had been transfixed below the entire ceremony, watching the lava rise with every incantation of the chant. When he finally looked up, the man at the mouth of the volcano looked down at him before quickly turning and disappearing from view. Clarke’s escort turned to him, and showed him the same follow symbol. Clarke followed.

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