The three cousins left the prairie, where their regiment had been massacred, for a landscape like crumpled cloth. Steep ravines made travel even more nightmarish than when the officers’ whips had slashed across the bark of their backs. At midday they paused in a glade to drink and rest. Those officers were all dead now. Hickshaw had decided to forgive and forget.
Fawcett rooted his muddy toes into the soil and pulled his wine flask from his pack. He tilted it to his mouth and a single drop came out. “What? Empty?” He turned to Hickshaw. “Your fault. You like us stupid, don’t you?”
Hickshaw smiled sadly. “I know, it’s not ideal. But would you have deserted otherwise? Or joined the regiment in the first place?”
“I didn’t like the regiment,” said Fawcett.
“Me neither,” said Chawkins.
“They gave us names,” said Hickshaw.
“It doesn’t matter. Names aren’t real. Why would we need names?” Fawcett tucked his empty flask away. Hickshaw scanned his cousin’s eyes—dull as raisins. Hickshaw’s would have been dull too, had he not broken into Chawkins’s pack last night, before they’d left their guard posts and the regiment had been destroyed, and drunk her flask dry. He also had one last mostly full flask stashed at the bottom of his own pack. Not to be imbibed until they were at the Pyramid. No point wasting wine on just walking.
Chawkins was tugging down the blade-like leaves that grew from the crown of her head and trimming them with a short, hooked knife. Hickshaw, admiring the cracking of the bark around her waist, plucked a flower from a vine and chewed it into a pulp. Sap and the last of Chawkins’s wine swirled in his brain. He was thinking of the man who had told him about Bacconyus.
A year ago it was, Hickshaw had come across the man, an “explorer,” after the man had explored too incautiously in the vicinity of Hickshaw’s rope snares. He was hanging by his ankle from a limb. He must have smashed his nose when springing the trap, for blood dripped down his inverted features, off his hair, and spattered the leaves below. Hickshaw, dry and mean, had slapped the man around a bit to wake him up, and when he awoke, had slapped him around a little bit more. Eventually the man regained his voice.
“You, leaf-head, I’m an explorer, from—” and he produced some combination of syllables that Hickshaw’s desiccated brain couldn’t follow. “If you cut me down from here, I will make it very worth your while.”
“I was going to use your blood,” Hickshaw had said, “to make myself a pudding.”
“Very, very worth your while! If you cut me down from here, right now, I will tell you of treasures, yours to collect, which, if you find even one of them, will let you afford to buy a million puddings!”
Hickshaw had blinked several times, then taken up his flask and swigged a long swallow. “I am an uncomplicated being. Do I look like I need treasures?”
“What is it you want, then? I can offer it exactly. Mechanical maidens carved of geared gemstone? No? Rings to make you invisible, and not at the loss of your soul? No, you probably don’t have a soul. A magic shovel, a magic bird cape, the magic goblet of Bacconyus, which never empties of wine, to wash down your puddings?” This last had been offered in a spirit of desperation, however—
“Wine?” Hickshaw had said. “Tell me about that one.”
The explorer’s blood had made a mediocre batch of pudding. The man had had the stink of excessive travel, undertaken without enough ease. But each time Hickshaw sampled it, he remembered the man’s story, and by the time he finished the last helping, he had decided to find the Pyramid of Bacconyus and plunder it with the help of his cousins.
Wherever it was they were, they began to walk again, away from there. Sunset passed, and midnight, and dawn was approaching out of the frozen stars. At first light, the cousins stood on a bald peak, and Hickshaw scanned the horizons. His head felt filled with chaff, his eyes dry and sore, and yet he didn’t dare drink from the hidden flask while the others were watching. Besides...
“There it is,” he said. The Pyramid of Bacconyus shimmered in the dawn’s haze. It was massive, to be seen from so far away, and incongruous in the woody scrubland.
“Walk,” said Hickshaw.
With the last shreds of another red and gold sunset dripping below the horizon, the cousins arrived at the Pyramid. This close, the structure seemed older than the surface of the earth, like some ancient chthonic bone revealed through recent erosion. A deep hum arose from the surrounding soil, resonating in the rocks and trees. Hickshaw decided to ignore it.
“Well, what now?” said Fawcett.
“There’s treasure in there?” asked Chawkins, peering through a narrow doorway under a massive lintel stone carved with bunches of grapes.
“Yes,” said Hickshaw. There had better be, or he would be very disappointed. Perhaps it was just that he liked to drink stronger wine than was traditional, but he had never been willing to spend the rest of his life in the village, in the shade of the fat tree that had birthed all his cousins, planting terraces, trapping and bleeding animals, harvesting berries and fruit and fermenting them, and then, when he was old enough, forgoing all drink and swelling to harden into a sessile giant, content never to move his limbs—boughs now—except with the breeze... well...
“Look,” said Chawkins. A glimmer of yellow chased itself around the dark mouth under the lintel.
“Someone is coming,” said Fawcett.
Footsteps came out, followed by a man, stooping under the stone, obscured at first with glare from a lantern.
Hickshaw curtsied with a rustle of leaves. “Hello.”
“Good evening,” said the man. “You have come to the end of your journey, I think?”
“I hope so,” said Fawcett, “is this the Pyramid of—” He stopped when Hickshaw’s arm wrapped around his woody shoulder, and Hickshaw’s fingers bit into the joint there.
“Can we stay the night?” asked Hickshaw. “We are very tired. We are travelers.”
“Oh; you must,” said the man. He backed away from the doorway and gestured with his lantern. “Precede me inside, and we will get you settled.”
Fawcett and Chawkins immediately set off into the hole beneath the lintel, Hickshaw behind them. They walked through a tunnel low enough that their head leaves brushed and bent on the ceiling. It and the walls were stone, once gilded and now mostly bare, though glittering specks still shone in the crevices. The man behind them, like a cork being pushed firmly back into the neck of a bottle, did not allow them to linger. His lantern’s beams danced ahead between their limbs as they walked, arm-in-arm with an army of shadows.
While they walked Hickshaw tried to remember what the explorer had told him about the layout of the Pyramid. He had claimed the treasure repository was on the lowermost level, at the bottom of a tremendous staircase which rooted into “the guts of the earth.” It should be easy enough to find, Hickshaw supposed—just keep going down until they couldn’t go any further.
Their shadows, venturing out before them, melted away in a wash of light. They emerged into a well-lit square chamber whose walls and floors were covered with brown rugs. “Wait here,” said the man with the lantern, and then moved off through a door, which he closed, and, to judge by the click, locked behind him.
“What now?” asked Chawkins.
“Now be quiet,” said Hickshaw. “Don’t say anything unless I tell you to. Actually even then be quiet.”
A different door opened and another man came out. He was someone important, to judge by his extravagant white and brown garment that was covered with pronged extrusions like the horns of a stag beetle.
“Welcome to the Lodge,” said the man. “You may call me Professor Varel.”
“Welcome,” said Fawcett.
“We were thinking of it more as a Pyramid,” said Hickshaw.
“It is a pyramid in shape,” said Varel. “But it is a Lodge in function; the Lodge of Xiczarthotep. We are always eager to incorporate new Initiates into our Lodge,” said Varel. “Even ones as... different in appearance as yourselves.”
“Thanks,” said Hickshaw.
There was a long pause. Both Fawcett and Chawkins tried to speak but Hickshaw silenced them with glares that he hoped Varel, being unfamiliar with the facial expressions of their kind, could not read.
“You are here for learning?” asked Varel, stepping closer to Hickshaw. Hickshaw thought the professor looked like he wanted to reach out a hand and touch the leaves of his head. If he did, Hickshaw would reach out and ruffle Varel’s hair in return. “And worship?”
“Yes?” said Hickshaw.
“Very good,” said Varel, and clapped his hands twice. A third man came through a different door. He was dressed in brown and black, with small nubs on his robe’s shoulders where Varel had serrated canes. “Viggins,” said Varel, “dispose of their luggage, please.”
“Yes, Professor,” said Viggins. He moved behind Chawkins and none too gently started to take her pack.
“My knives are in there!” said Chawkins.
Varel’s smile was miles and ages away. “As Initiates you may own nothing.”
Chawkins, mouth agape, let Viggins take her pack, and then Viggins took Fawcett’s and Hickshaw’s too.
Hickshaw almost asked him to wait, to take out his wine, but he didn’t want his cousins to see it and try to share it, so...
Viggins left with their packs, and another robed man came through the same door, carrying three dark bundles in his arms. He handed one to each of the cousins. The bundles unfolded like flags in their hands: smock-like garments with loose threads at the hems. “Don these. They will be your garments for the next six cycles of the moon, until we have judged your sincerity in joining us for worship of the Sublime Xiczarthotep.”
“But can we—” said Hickshaw.
“Silence,” said Varel, “is now your duty. Only in silence will you be able to absorb the teachings of myself and the other Professors. Don your garments now, Initiates, and then follow Zigmon here to the Initiates’ Dormitory. When it is time for the evening lesson the Prime Initiate will show you the way to the lecture hall, and following that, to the Great Stair for a night of worship.”
“First, though—” said Hickshaw. Chawkins and Fawcett were struggling to pull their ragged smocks over their head leaves.
“Silence is your only duty now,” said Varel. “Am I clear?”
Hickshaw nodded. The three cousins followed Zigmon through one of the doors, which swung shut behind them. They followed him down another hall, which was carpeted in burlap. Zigmon never looked back, plodding onward with his head lowered, from pool to pool of light shed by small round lanterns set in the ceiling.
They were passing doors, turning corners, moving down narrow flights of stairs. At some point Hickshaw thought it might be a good idea to start counting doors, turns, and steps, but after counting a few, he realized that since he hadn’t been counting from the beginning it was useless, and he stopped. They were descending, so that was something.
Eventually Zigmon opened one of the doors and pointed them inside. Hickshaw peered through, keeping his body in the hall. Zigmon shoved him without warning and he stumbled in, milling his arms, his ragged Initiate’s garment flapping with the motion. Chawkins and Fawcett strolled through under their own power after a moment, and the door closed behind them.
Hickshaw glanced around the huge dim room. It reminded him of the barracks where the regiment had sometimes overnighted during their campaign. Along each wall was a rank of narrow cots. In the middle of the room were five strips of carpet over the stone, and along each carpet lay rows of what Hickshaw supposed were Initiates of the Lodge. About twenty in number, they lay on their stomachs, with their faces pressed flat onto the ground and their arms held tight to their sides.
One Initiate, lying at the nearest end of the carpets to the door, turned her head when they came in, and after a moment, clambered to her feet. It seemed that her body was stiff from lying in the same odd position for so long, though her stretching, as she walked to greet them, was furtive.
“Welcome,” she said in a whisper.
“I thought we were meant to be silent,” said Hickshaw.
Her gaze traveled up and down his body. She looked like she wished to reach out and touch his barky skin. He prepared himself to resist the urge to bat her hand away if she did.
“We may speak here, if we keep our voices low, until you are familiar with our rites and duties,” she said. “My name is Lurdna. I am the Prime Initiate, at least until I advance down to the next Step in three weeks’ time—Xiczarthotep willing, of course, that my learnings have taken root and I can pass the exam.”
“I heard once about a god called Bacconyus I thought lived in a pyramid around here. Does he share this pyramid with Xiczarthotep?”
Lurdna showed her teeth. “This weak godlet you speak of is no more. The Great Devourer Xiczarthotep ate Bacconyus when It took up Its temporary residence in our dimension.”
“Oh,” said Hickshaw. “Well. I guess we’d like to visit this Xiczarthotep anyway, if that’s alright.”
“By no means can you visit It so soon, only after extensive study and worship! Many of Xiczarthotep’s followers have been studying for decades, and have only advanced toward It halfway down the great Stair. Any faster, without preparing and blanking their minds, and they would be driven insane by the very presence of the Otherworldly One, and Its numerous children who linger on the lower steps.”
Hickshaw waved a frondy hand to take in the carpets and rows of initiates. “What’s happening with all this here?”
“We are meditating prior to the evening lecture. We hope to relax our minds to make us permeable as possible to the knowledge of the Professors.”
“Oh, sure,” said Hickshaw. “And after that we get to worship on the stairs?”
“The uppermost step of the Stair, that’s correct.”
“Well, show us how it’s done!”
Lurdna bowed her head slightly, then led the three cousins to an empty swath of carpet. “First you lay down on your stomach like this.” She demonstrated, craning her head back up at what must have been an uncomfortable angle for someone with an articulated spine. “Then you press your face flat on the floor, like this.” Having done so, her voice took on a muffled quality.
Hickshaw pushed Fawcett and Chawkins down, then lay down himself. He pressed his face to the floor, so that his leaves splayed out sideways.
“Now breathe deeply, to cleanse the deepest nooks of your soul, concentrate on the hum in the bones of the earth, imagine the day when your mind has been prepared and you are able to descend the stairs fully and meet Xiczarthotep, and It consumes and digests you and then secretes you out perfected into the next universe.”
Hickshaw snoozed for a while, and eventually the Initiates finished their meditations. They stood and formed a line at the doorway, so the three cousins joined it, at the very end. The Initiates shuffled with a pious lack of speed down another long, sloping hall. Hickshaw was looking around for any loose swords that might be lying in a place where he could grab them. It would be nice to have a sword in case things got tricky. If there was just one sword, he’d keep it for himself, but if there were three, he’d give one to Fawcett and one to Chawkins. If there happened to be just two... he thought for a moment. Definitely he would give it to Chawkins.
All in a long kinked chain the Initiates came into a slanted room with pews tiered down to a small stage. Hickshaw and his cousins followed the other Initiates to the highest tier of pews, which was set behind a brown velvet rope. Senior members of the Lodge began to populate the lower rows, and when they stopped, the rows of seats were about half full.
A door opened on the stage behind the podium, and a man came through who Hickshaw recognized, for it was none other than Professor Zural. Zural stepped up onto the podium, and the Lodge members raised their arms in some kind of shivering salute. Lurdna looked over and saw that the newest Initiates weren’t raising their arms, and she gestured vigorously until Hickshaw raised his arms. He kicked sideways at Fawcett until Fawcett raised his arms, and then Fawcett kicked at Chawkins until she did too.
Professor Zural began to speak, and Hickshaw realized that it was a woman speaking, not Zural—another Professor, perhaps. She wore the same complicated brown and white garment, a knobbed surplice which hung straight to the podium. Her voice was leaden, and it made the stiff and sore Hickshaw even sleepier. The room was warm and moist, and it reminded him of the steamy grove where he’d bloomed and been born, a memory of mist and vapor; he nothing more than a bright taut fruit hanging in a protective nest of thorns. He had bloomed at the midpoint between trunk and open air, the best possible place, because those born too close to the trunk were starved of light, and those too close to the air, prone to being snatched and devoured by birds. But he had grown safe and fat on his stem, behind a shield of thorns.
This Professor, Zourk her name seemed like it might be, was droning about responsibility to Xiczarthotep, and how the Lodge-members’ every thought should concern the eventual final gulp when Xiczarthotep would consume the entire world and pass it through Its ineffable gut into the next higher universe, where, if we are worthy enough, and studious, we might find the next manifestation of Xiczarthotep, and form a community for Its reverence, in whichever deep ravine or cleft of the earth It might have chosen to repose, and thereby continue the chain of being... Hickshaw’s eyes popped open. Zourk was talking about legs, Xiczarthotep’s uncountable panoply of legs, which were a symbol for something, for walking, maybe. His eyes slid closed again, and then Lurdna was tapping at this shoulder.
In the slow bustle of the audience departing the arena, she must have felt it safe to talk, if only to chastise: “Shame on your inattention, Initiate.”
“Come with us now to the Stair you were so eagerly awaiting. Or was that all a lie, and you merely wish to nap in the presence of the Holiest One?”
“No,” said Hickshaw.
“No,” said Fawcett, “we’re gonna take—”
Hickshaw stumbled backwards into Chawkins, who fell back against Fawcett, who said no more. “No,” said Hickshaw again, and wiped a mess of greenish sap from his mouth with his sleeve.
Through a multitude of carpeted halls the crowd in the lecture hall melted away, and by these private channels trickled downward to the Great Stair. As they came closer to the entrance of the Stair, Hickshaw discovered a reek in the air, a mixture of brine and incense and ancient corruption.
The Initiates moved slowly, in the patient fits and starts of crowded worship spaces, onto their designated uppermost step of the Great Stair. Even on their step the initiates organized themselves by seniority, which meant that the cousins were pushed to the back, but this made it all the easier for them to stare at their surroundings.
The worship step was actually more of a landing, broad enough to easily hold all twenty initiates. More landings were visible below, down a series of narrow staircases with high risers. The steps and landings continued down a huge chute leading into the earth. Billows of air, smelling of smoke, sweat, and mold, a hot, heady mixture, came up from below. The Initiates were swaying, sweating, eyes shut, mouths open.
Along the walls hung brown banners covered with geometric patterns that hurt Hickshaw’s eyes to look at—something was wrong with the hideous woven pictures—they seemed to flicker, though motionless, now a left-facing rabbit, now a right-facing duck...
Farther down, where the greater part of the darkness was unbanished by the braziers of coals on each landing, there clustered cliques of Professors in overgrown brown and white vestments, weird limbs and protuberances waving in the shadows. At the very bottom of the Stair the spot where all the landings were facing was a blurred sheen of darkness. There, the explorer had sworn, with Hickshaw’s pruning knife at his throat, would be found the treasure house of Bacconyus, stuffed with riches beyond imagining, including the miraculous goblet.
Each landing, with its smaller crowd, swayed in place, each piece in motion, like the hairs on terrified human flesh. Hickshaw thought of the knob of cartilage at the explorer’s throat, sliding and bobbing as the man gulped terrified promises. He was sleepy, and his body and limbs felt like they were comfortably swathed in spiderwebs. He saw himself sitting on a mountain top far away from his birth tree, warm rain dripping down his head leaves, soaking into the spongy lump of his scalp. In his sodden dream, his brain raced with all the wine he wanted, and his thoughts chased one another like high black crumple-bottomed clouds during a summer storm.
Time passed in comfortable convulsions. Brown robed stumps all around—he thought of the Initiates as stumps who’d just run out of the energy to keep walking and had sat down to mumble and tremble in place, all their leaves fallen to the ground, new buds sprouted from their rooted limbs, finally blissful at last...
“It is time to return to the dormitory,” said Lurnda.
“No!” Hickshaw said.
“It is time!” Hickshaw said.
“To go down!” Hickshaw said.
“And take what’s ours!” Hickshaw said.
“We need arms, my cousins!” Hickshaw said.
Heads several landings below craned around in reproach, and Chawkins and Fawcett began rustling around at the waists of the other Initiates looking for weaponry to steal, finding nothing but irritation. Hickshaw, blind stumbling sober, took a moment of support by leaning against the dusty eye-bending tapestry, and felt something hidden behind it. He ripped the cloth down from the wall and revealed three niches containing golden statues. On the left was a naked man holding a bottle in one hand and a corkscrew in the other. On the right was a naked woman raising a garland of grape vines. Between them was the bearded godlet Bacconyus, bearing a bunch of grapes in each of his four hands and a vast erect phallus. To the consternation of the Initiates, Hickshaw began snapping extremities off the statues for the cousins to use as bludgeons.
“Let’s get gone!” Hickshaw’s voice echoed back from below. A gust of hot filthy air rose up as the three charged down. One of the brown-draped stumps whirled when he collided with it. It had a round white flesh mask with bugged eyes, and he swiped out with the male statue’s gold leg, planted a great bloody bruise across its face. Blood flew up like drops of wine, and Hickshaw smiled, throttling his club, clumping down five steps, then five more steps to the next landing. Close enough to rasp his heels came Chawkins and Fawcett.
At the next landing the stumps were more elaborate. The walls were crusted with branches, whorls and knots of leaves. Sapling spines rattling with aggrieved motion. Hickshaw shook his club, shedding bright drops. He bashed a stump in the side, felling it with one blow. It sang shrieks as it rolled down the steps. A few stumps were trailing them, so Hickshaw set Chawkins spinning to guard their backs. She swerved to bash loose gouts of blood and flesh with the female statue’s golden arm, glints of gold in a red spray. To Fawcett: “Smash down front.” “Yaaaaarrrrrhhh—” The gold phallus of Bacconyus fell and rose, dripping gore.
Ten more steps down, there were larger stumps, twice again as tall as the others, with wobbling weak heads. These stumps were scared of the cousins, shrinking back to sit on large chairs with eight legs each. Hickshaw released his peoples’ traditional fear of furniture like a squirrel from a trap. Who’s afraid of a skeleton? He smacked a chair with his legclub, producing a hollow note, a foul salty exhalation, a splintery scream that reminded him of the time his great-uncle was eaten by termites. He waved his empty arm forward, and they went down ten more steps.
Here the stumps quaked and shook, rooted. Peaked tables crowded the landing’s edges. Hickshaw tested one with his club and it lurched backwards out of his way, its legs bending like articulated stems. A clamor filled the open space, above and below them, mostly above, before and behind them, mostly behind. They charged through the last landing, crowded with asymmetric stepstools and flowery gibbets, and then they were at the bottom of the Stair.
Bulky furniture danced all around, just out of reach of their weapons. The drawers were hissing, threads had come out the front of them, out of keyholes with toothy edges, flicking about, tasting the air. Hickshaw saw before them a shimmering black curtain which stretched from the ceiling and reached almost to the floor. It bellied in and out. He thrust with his legclub and the fabric of it split. “Chop with me!” Fawcett and Chawkins stepped forward, slashing up and down, and soon the curtain was a row of rags, curling guts of cloth, and the three cousins stepped through to the other side.
The clamor behind them faded. The air hummed between its cells, desperate. A tremendous room, long and egg-shaped, stretched away from them, dark but for reflected glimmers and made to seem tiny by the way it was filled almost to the ceiling with a strange item: a sleeping couch, standing on hundreds of thin fussy clawed legs, atop heaps of moldy skulls and gold things like cups and plates and saucers. The couch’s legs rose to a waxy rim, layered with scale like a flower about to burst from the bud. Its bulk rose and fell like the breathing of a sleeping beast. The air was fertile with the smell of rot.
Hickshaw walked closer over the clattering treasure and picked up a skull. There was a round hole at the crown. “Look at that.” He pegged the skull at Chawkins, and it shattered on her shoulder.
Chawkins and Fawcett staggered around picking up plates and skulls and daggers, but they couldn’t hold more than a few items at a time, and they kept dropping the extras, which clattered down off their knees.
“Should have brought some bags or something.”
“Looking for a magic goblet...” sang Hickshaw.
The shadows crept close and dense beside and around the massive couch that puffed up to near the ceiling. Hickshaw found himself walking closer to it, staring up at it, trying to imagine its purpose, or who would build such a thing, but the effort was too great.
Above the rim the couch’s legs came out of were billows of stuffed fabric, pink, puffy, wrinkly and shiny, like crushed satin. In vertical rows along the upholstery were sphincters where clusters of long tapes emerged to whip around, lashing the shadows. Broad arms above the clusters of tape, a ring of them like Hickshaw’s own crown of leaves, curved, many-jointed arms, which moved in a manner both lewd and predatory. Like an orchid vibrating as it is reamed by a bee, or a sweet blossom that tempts a fly and sucks it into a striped bladder. But Hickshaw’s brain was desert dry, immune to the hypnotic humming and resistant to symbolic suggestion.
However, he still took a step back, shattering a skull underfoot. The couch was rocking back and forth. If Hickshaw could have imagined a titanic piece of furniture with unimaginable intelligence he might have thought the couch was mad at him, he might have turned and fled, or he might have collapsed, his mind broken by sheer wrongness. Instead he stepped sideways, then stopped to nudge aside a shattered skeleton.
Under the pelvis was a golden goblet whose thick stem and wide, deep bowl were carved with a pattern of grape vines and a sprawling orgy. He scooped it up, brought it close to his eyes, sniffed it—was that the smell of the fermented grape? He looked down into the bowl again, his fingers clenched tight around the stem, and found a small purple puddle there. He squeezed harder, the fibers of his fingers creaking, and shimmering wine welled up in the goblet.
A toothed tape fell from the couch’s rim, draped across Fawcett’s shoulder, and ripped him in half. A cloud of dry splinters, behind it half-Fawcett laughing in shock. Hickshaw’s goblet was half full. Fawcett dragged his torso over greenish gold. “Plant me quick, cousin, I can’t feel my legs!” The goblet was three-quarters full. Another tape, covered with drooling suckers, spooled down and noosed around Chawkins’s neck. It curled tentatively, lifting her up to the ceiling. “Glkk!” she said, then managed to detach her head with her thrashings. The goblet was full. Hickshaw watched his reflection dance for a moment inside the wine, and then he drank.