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The Handle of the Cross
Part Two: The Treasure

 

Treasure Denied

"Ancient Earth monuments of this type are sometimes constructed to admit the light of the rising `midsummer' sun, on June 21 of the Earth calendar. I'll bet Cheritoma followed that custom," Simon speculated. "That explains the small hole in the loop of the cross. It's a pointer."

"But the summer solstice is weeks away, now," protested the Veterator.

"True. But perhaps we can estimate where on this wall the sunlight spot would fall at that time. Can you tell me about where on the horizon the sun rises at the solsticial dawn?"

"Why yes, as a matter of fact, I can. I was here when the place was dedicated to the memory of Cheritoma. His will specified that it be done at just that time. I remember seeing the sun rise above a distant tor."

"Let's go outside and find that landmark, and return to estimate the line-of-sight it makes to the wall," said Simon, enthusiastically. "Then, we'll know which stones to work on."

The party filed outside, and Helmesoviu pointed out the tor to Simon and Lilly. Then, they all returned to the sepulchre.

"Lilly, you're the lightest among us. If you sit on our assistant's shoulders, you should be able to see the tor and estimate its line- of-sight to the wall."

The assistant suppressed a smile at the prospect.

("Sometimes I could strangle Simon.") However, Lilly knew he was right. If she didn't cooperate, they would have to return to the Templara to obtain more equipment.

"Of course, Uncle," she said. The young Assassin linked his hands and held them down for her to put her foot into. Then, he hoisted her to his broad shoulders, where she sat uncomfortably and grasped his head tightly to steady herself. She sighted through the teardrop hole in the entranceway ankh.

"Can you see the tor?" asked Simon, impatiently.

She squinted at the distant landscape beyond the hole in the loop of the cross. "Yes, I see it."

"Try to guess the line-of-sight between there and the wall."

She looked, back-and-forth, between the hole and the wall until she had made a rough approximation of the probable line of solsticial sunrise illumination. "I've got it, I think. It seems to be to the right of and below the sunburst, about halfway to the edge of the wall."

"That sounds logical," opined Helmesoviu. "Yes. Let's start there," ordered Simon. "You can come down now, Lilly."

"Thanks so much, Uncle," she said, as the assistant ducked and returned her to terra firma, his hands lingering at her waist a moment too long. She turned and smiled sweetly at the young man. "Thank you."

"Now what, Mr. de Montfort?" the old man said to Simon. "Yes, Simon. What now?" added Lilly.

Simon drew himself up to his full meter-and-a-half-plus height. He had been cogitating since the sun had illuminated the wall with its distinctive spot of light.

"Well... when I was studying archaeology, a group of my fellow students and I once speculated about hiding places for cremains. We'd been fascinated by the strenuous efforts of the Egyptian pharaohs to conceal their tombs. One of the boys suggested locating the ashes and valuables in a box behind a long, solid stone. The stone-and-box could be pushed out by a telescoping hydraulic ram in response to a distinctive rap on the face of the stone. A special acoustic sensor would trigger the mechanism, you see?"

"A distinctive rap?" queried Lilly. "How distinctive?"

Simon fondled his beard, as he often did when he was thinking. "A respectful one, I believe. Let's try something." He turned to the assistant. "Do you have a wooden mallet in there, son?" By way of reply, the young man fished in his bag, retrieved one, and handed it to Simon.

"Good." He took a monogrammed handkerchief from his pocket. "Now, Lilly, would you spread this before the most likely stone? Stand aside from it as you do."

She spread the handkerchief over one of the stones, in somewhat the posture of a bullfighter displaying her cape to a bull.

WHAP!... Simon struck the handkerchief-covered stone a muffled rap with the mallet.

Nothing happened. Everyone looked at Simon. The Veterator was smirking. "Perhaps you weren't respectful enough, Mr. de Montfort."

Embarrassed, Simon said, "Try the next one, Lilly."

WHAP! ... Scritch, scritch, scritch...

"My God!" Helmesoviu gasped as, with a rasping sound, the stone began to move out of the wall. "It worked," shouted Lilly. The young assistant gaped in amazement.

Simon beamed. "All in a day's effort," he proclaimed, triumphantly.

Rock dust sprinkled onto the gravel floor of the chamber as the stone was extruded from the wall at chest-height -- then fell heavily to the floor -- to be replaced at the opening by a stainless-steel strongbox similar to a safe-deposit tray. Then, the mechanism stopped.

"We'll never get that stone back in, again," joked Lilly.

Simon flourished the mallet and cried. "The remains of Master Cheritoma!... And, perhaps, the end of my quest.... Will you do the honors, Veterator?"

"Of course." Hastily recovering his administrative dignity, he moved to the box, inserted his fingers into the recessed handle, and lifted the lid. A mini-striplite in the box turned on, illuminating the interior. Everyone stepped forward and peered into the box.

 

Cryptic Message

"How grotesque. Is this all he left of himself?" asked Lilly.

On a red-velvet surface rested a mummified hand, clenched into a fist. It seemed to be concealing something.

"I recognize that ring. It was Cheritoma's," said Helmesoviu.

"And in that hand is what we've come for, Veterator.... May I?..." Simon reached toward the box as he looked at the elderly Assassin.

"Please do, Mr. de Montfort." It was clear that he looked upon this particular task with distaste.

As Simon's hand approached, the one in the box suddenly unclenched and spread its fingers.

"Agggh!" Simon yanked back his hand, reflexively.

"It's been bionically modified. How clever," assessed Lilly, professionally. "But what's that in its palm?"

Resting in the palm of the open hand was a small, embossed-metal coupon similar to a soldier's "dog tag."

Simon concealed his intense disappointment by his silence. ("Where the hell is the FlameStone?... Maybe the tag says.") He reached for it with a hesitant, shaking hand -- as if he expected Cheritoma's bionic remains to suddenly close again, seizing his fingers in a macabre grasp. He snatched the tag from the relic and brought it to his anxious eyes. He read it, then raised his eyes to the zenith.

"Why?!" he screamed. "Why do the possessors of the FlameStone have to be so perverse?!... Yoy, Senefru, Gradalis, Lamakeele!..." He beseeched the arched ceiling of the tomb. "Oh, Lord, why?!

Lilly took the tag from her uncle's hand and read it aloud.

"`Ask the Overlord,'" she read. She looked at Helmesoviu. "Who is `the Overlord' he refers to?"

"Yes! Who?!" shouted Simon, accusingly.

The Veterator's face took on a slight expression of alarm. He controlled himself well, though, in his Assassin-trained way.

"`Overlord'?... I don't know." He managed to hold eye contact with Simon.

But both Simon and Lilly knew he was lying.

 

The Overlord

"I can't leave here without knowing!" Simon struck his open palm loudly with his fist to emphasize the point. He had become increasingly agitated as they had packed their suitcases to leave the Guesthouse. "I don't give one damn about the Order's secrets, but I have to have a lead on the FlameStone."

"Careful, Simon. You'll crack the opal in your ring. We're lucky to be able to leave, at all. I think we've stumbled onto a big Assassin secret. I'm not sure what it is, but I have a nagging suspicion."

"Mind sharing it, Lilly?"

"I'm sure you've guessed it, too: the Assassins are controlled by a nonhumanoid alien."

Simon nodded. "Yes. It has to be that. If this `Overlord' were human, he'd just be another Assassin bureaucrat. And he wouldn't be called `Overlord.'"

"There's nothing in the open literature on the Order that even hints that the Master isn't the Order's top dog. There is an Advisory Council of senior Assassins, of course. But -- whoever he is -- `the Overlord' must be well behind the scenes," Lilly contributed.

"Got to be," Simon sighed and resumed his packing, after checking the opal in his ring for cracks. Then, he stopped and faced Lilly. "You know, of course, they're listening to our every word. If we're right about this, we probably won't be allowed to leave -- or our remains will be sent home in a tray like Cheritoma's."

Lilly contemplated this in silence, afraid to say more.

Then, the roomcomm chimed, as if on cue.

"Yes?..." Simon called out, weakly, fearing the worst.

From the speaker, the calm voice of Veterator Helmesoviu addressed them. "Before you leave, Mr. de Montfort, I'd like you to see someone."

"The Overlord," Lilly whispered.

"Just so," replied her uncle.

*   *   *

Simon, Lilly, and Helmesoviu exited the liftube on the gallery floor of the Great Hall of the Temple -- and stopped in their tracks. Ahead, standing on an ornate, carpeted riserbox and leaning over the railing was a little ...being... with his back to them. He was pale and bald, and was dressed in a simple white robe which dropped to the box, concealing his feet.

The scene was sunlit from the large skylight above. The marble walls and floors of the immense space softly rumbled with a continuous reverberation, even after their footfalls had died away. Then, Helmesoviu reentered the liftube and descended, leaving them alone with the alien.

Simon and Lilly stood fast and stared at the little being's back, uncertain of the protocol the situation required. Seconds passed, heavily.

Then, the alien raised an arm and beckoned them forward. Lilly noticed that he had no fingernails. Slowly, they moved up to the polished mahogany railing, one of them on each side of the figure. They peered over at his face, which was tilted downward to the seats of the empty Great Hall. Without looking at them, he spoke in a little piping voice, in a Universal accent that his guests had never heard before.

"I never tire of this view. You should be here during one of their ceremonies." He glanced quickly at each visitor.

He had a lined, near-humanoid face with large dark eyes, a minimal nose, and small mouth. He was apparently hairless. He could almost have been mistaken for a dwarf Homo sapiens.

"You're the Overlord," asserted Simon, boldly.

"One of them. I sit on the Advisory Council to guide the Assassins."

"Where are the others, sir?" inquired Lilly, respectfully.

"Oh, they're harvesting crops and caring for the stock -- things like that. The things we did before the Assassins came. There aren't many of us left, now."

Simon rested his arms on the railing, relieved to find the alien so accommodating. "Did the Assassins come in peace, Overlord?"

"Call me `Thuse', Mr. de Montfort. No need to be so formal." The little alien accompanied this request with a slight smile, which he then aimed at Lilly. "The Assassins didn't come to Laagulaan, uninvited. We imported them."

Simon wrinkled his brow. Lilly raised an eyebrow.

"You see, long ago, we decided there was only one way to defend our beautiful world from those who would take it from us. Oh, we have our own special powers, of course. But not sufficient to repel a determined invasion. To guarantee that humanoid imperialists would avoid Laagulaan, we established the Order of Assassins. We made selected humans into ruthless killers, feared throughout the galaxy But we also made their services available for hire to anyone.

"We guessed that nobody would dare to invade the homeworld of the Black Order. Time has proved us correct. We control the Assassins and we live our simple lives. That's the sum of it. You and your niece are among the few outsiders to know this," he concluded, ominously.

He watched Simon carefully for his reaction. The archaeologist chose his words carefully.

("Now's the time for real finesse, Simon,") begged Lilly, silently. ("We don't want a sample of their `special powers.'")

"We didn't want to know this," Simon replied, gravely.

"Well, the Assassins wanted to eliminate the two of you because of what you learned, but I convinced them that, after a confidential explanation, we could trust you to be discrete."

"Yes, Overlord Thuse. We will be." Simon's gratitude was effusive, but genuine. "We're not concerned with the Order of Assassins. We seek only the FlameStone. In a way, Master Cheritoma sent us to you. So, here we are."

Thuse reached into a pocket of his robe and extracted something shiny. He handed it to Simon.

"You're looking for something like this, then?"

Simon gaped at the thing in his hand. It was a model of the fabulous FlameStone, perfectly formed in clear synthetic rutile. Its flat base rested securely on Simon's open palm. The facets of its old-fashioned dome-cut surface sparkled and flashed colors at the slightest movement in the sunlight. He looked at Thuse for an explanation.

"We found that among Cheritoma's possessions when he died. He kept it as a memento after he sold the genuine article to get funds for his tomb. By the way, we didn't know about the tag he placed in the mummified hand. His little jest was not in the best of taste.... Anyway, I'll give you a copy of his secret sale-record so you can resume your search. And you can keep that flashy bauble. It'll help people understand what you're looking for."

Still staring at the faux FlameStone in his hand, Simon was speechless with relief -- and disappointment.

"Thank you, Thuse. We're very grateful." supplied Lilly. She smiled sweetly at the little alien.

"You're welcome, Doctor. You know, I do wish I'd seen the great orange gem -- its flaming fluorescence, and all. I never did."

With that, the little alien turned, stepped down from the riserbox, and walked to the liftube, his robe sweeping the marble floor. He disappeared into it, without looking back.

 

Onward

"What is about us that inspires people to trust us with their secrets, Lilly?"

"In this case, our certainty they can get us if we blab. Also, I suspect that the Overlords are now an open secret to the powerholders of the outerworlds. It may be a while before they make it into the textbooks, though."

"Probably. But I ask you: Who else could come to the homeworld of the Black Order, probe a Master's tomb, discover their darkest secret -- yet leave in triumph?" he crowed.

"With a piece of rutile," she teased.

Simon and Lilly were in their yacht, preparing for departure. It was a traditional time of reflection for them. "I'd like to know something," she added.

"What?"

"How you knew how to reveal Cheritoma's remains? I don't believe that story about you and your pals in Upper Alpland sitting around and dreaming up just the right kind of hiding place."

"How cynical, Lilly. It happens to be true. One of the boys just up and came out with it. We thought it was a nifty idea."

"And how strangely applicable to our situation, here," smirked Lilly.

"Yes, it was. And for a good reason, one I didn't mention while we were with the Veterator. By the way, I checked my Latin database. Among other things, `Veterator' means `an old fox': a fairly good description of Helmesoviu, I think."

"That suits me. I don't have to seduce elderly foxes -- do I, Uncle?"

"Well, let's not foreclose any avenue of action, Niece. Our greatest challenge could be just ahead, what with the Stone having been sold to an alien autarch on the mysterious World of Ten Thousand Fires, Ufai t'Nakt Ruvaam... et cetera. Such a long name."

"Great. That sounds like a lovely place with friendly people, all of whom look like the Devil Incarnate, no doubt."

"They are a bit... scaly. But there's a nice air-conditioned trading settlement for repulsive aliens like us. We'll begin there to see just what the situation is."

Lilly finished keying their initial course into the autonav. "And end up in a volcano, maybe.... So, what made your old schoolpal's nifty idea so applicable to Cheritoma's tomb?" she asked, belatedly.

Simon smiled that twisted smile which meant that he was about to launch a revelatory petard. "The boy's name was Orvon Cheritoma -- Master Cheritoma's son!... When I found out that the Stone might be in his father's tomb, here, I couldn't believe my good fortune. I knew the old Master's goods had to be hidden as Orvon had conceived it on that schoolday, long ago."

"Why did it *have* to be that way?"

"Because, Lilly, I would have been most disappointed, otherwise." Simon beamed, avuncularly.

"God forbid, Uncle."

"One must try to have a positive attitude, Lilly. Now, let's get the heck out of here before the Assassins change their minds."

"A `positive' attitude, you said?"

"When it's called for, of course."*

 

Story copyright © 1998 Frederick Rustam <frustam@CapAccess.org>

Artworks "Fingerpointing" & "False Discovery" copyright © 1998 Romeo Esparrago <public@romedome.com>

 


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