CULT OF THE DEAD
Lois H. Gresh
Lois H. Gresh is the six-time New York Times best-selling author and USA Today best-selling author of 28 books and 60 short stories published in 22 languages. Titles include Dark Fusions: Where Monsters Lurk! (PS Publishing, 2013) and Eldritch Evolutions (Chaosium, 2011). Current stories are in Black Wings III, The Madness of Cthulhu, Searchers After Horror, That Is Not Dead, Expiration Date, Darke Phantastique, Mark of the Beast, Eldritch Chrome, A Mountain Walked, Mad Science Café, and others. Lois has received Bram Stoker Award, Nebula Award, Theodore Sturgeon Award, and International Horror Guild Award nominations.
THE LIGHT WAVERS, THEN TWITCHES ONTO A RIBCAGE, one of dozens studding the wall. A femur trips her, and she stumbles, clutches at the ribcages—all small, must be children— and recoils as her fingernails scrape bone. She almost drops the flashlight along with her sack of tools, but steadies herself—living with the dead for six years, been dead all my life, what’s there to be afraid of?—and ducks beneath the arch encrusted with bird shells. She claws her eyes, but the itch just won’t go away. It’s as if the garua fog follows her everywhere. Outside, it’s the brume exhaled by the brown-shit sea, a foul breath that smothers all of Lima. Inside it’s a paste, like the white of an old man’s eyes as he dies, and the cold penetrates straight to her bones.
She wobbles forward, glances into the right pit at the thousands of fibula arranged with skulls to form flowers. Beautiful. Then she glances into the left pit at the flattened dust of the family buried hundreds of years ago. Crook of an elbow, baby held close, skirt etched in grime, husband huddled nearby; what was it like for this woman to have a family? Quilla Saparo can’t imagine, she with her burning eyes, her orphan past, her miserable now, her nothing tomorrow.
Whatever she heard, possibly a small animal, whimpers again. There’s no way anyone could have slipped past her. Nobody, not even Diego Toribio, administrator of the Lima Monastery, has ever ventured beneath the first level of the catacombs. This second level is Quilla’s private sanctuary, her home.
No time to waste. She has to find out who, or what, is down here with her.
She crawls into the tunnel that she has carefully excavated over the years. As she enters, the tunnel shudders, and then it wheezes; and it’s like sliding into the mouth of a beast, one that has swallowed something alive, something that now sounds like a little boy—
“Go away,” he whines. “Leave me alone. Let me go.” Quilla can’t quite place his accent. Hers is from a mountain village outside Cusco, the result of thousands of years of Incan Quechua language merged with modern Peruvian slang. She escaped at thirteen to become a guide in the catacombs.
She flattens to her belly and wriggles through the passage. It slopes downward, twists left, straightens, then slopes again toward the third subterranean level. Bones jut from the walls, the bones of Spanish Catholics.
She can’t imagine how the boy got into the lower levels. Nobody is allowed down here without a guide. People come in small groups, no more than ten at a time. It’s all carefully controlled.
This boy could expose her and cause trouble. If Diego learns that Quilla stole the keys to the catacombs, dug beneath the first level, and worse, sleeps here, he’ll call the police and have her imprisoned, beaten, raped, maybe even killed. You don’t fool around with the Lima police.
She crawls past holes filled with toe phalanges, illiac fossa bones, hip joints, metarpals, and ulnas, everything arranged in intricate patterns. Eyes, tentacles, flying cats, three steps leading to four windows, then four steps leading to three windows. These are the patterns of the paracas mantles, the funerary blankets wrapped around the corpses of the royal Incans.
The boy is crying now, terrified, and she pictures him being smothered by the garua.
The tunnel groans and contracts, then spasms and squeezes her again. She tries not to breathe, to make herself smaller, but it’s as if she’s being swallowed by a snake. Her ribs hurt, any moment, they’re gonna crack.
The garua swarms around her, and it squirms into her eyes. The tunnel hisses like a steam vent, and from far ahead is the clap of a thunderstorm. She starts wriggling backward, but something crashes up ahead—a boulder?—and bone powder roils down the tunnel and consumes her, and she chokes. She’s completely blind now, straining to hear the child. Is he dead?
“Fertility, sacrifice, and the cult of the dead. The three things that matter. Humans, the dead royals who are supernatural gods, and the realm of ordinary dead. The three layers of being.” A voice scratches like an old record and reverberates down the passageway. The words are in the ancient Quechua language.
The powder of a thousand bones dissipates and settles to fine gray dust, and Quilla claws again at her eyes. Three meters ahead, skulls leap from the dirt walls and clatter into heaps, and in their midst stands a creature, clearly not human. The body is a bloated grape covered in tufts of hair the color of scars. The face is oval, the nose flat, the eyes black: almost Incan. Naked, its genitals hidden by abdominal folds, the creature is covered in tattoos, the patterns the same as in the bones Quilla passed. Bird claws, flying cats, tentacles, sun rays tipped with serpent or octopi heads.
The garua coagulates, the larger lumps tinged green like infected pus. Her eyes ache, if only she could shut them …
Behind the creature, the boy’s arms flail, his body trapped in a thicket of bones. His skin is brown, his eyes dark, his face flat, his nose wide: indigenous Incan.
Quilla inches closer, one eye barely open. She is at the lip of a large hole from which shoots the garua. The creature bristles, its scar-hair erect like porcupine needles, and Quilla smells a death more ancient than any death in the catacombs. “Are you—” Her voice cracks. “Are you human, dead, or supernatural god?”
“I’m not of the three realms. Not human. Not dead. And not a supernatural god.”
“Then—” Quilla’s mind races. There is nothing else. “Then what?”
“I’m of the fourth realm. It lies beneath the realm of the dead. You can come here, but only you.”
“No,” she insists, “you’re crazy!”
“It’s been centuries since we’ve seen one of your kind. Royal Incans, the entire bloodline, you never guessed, did you? Despite all the patterns, despite all the fears of any dollop of space unaccounted for in your three-realm scheme, you never realized … ”
The boy squirms. “Get me out of here!”
“Patience.” Quilla lowers her voice to a whisper. She’s thinking. The Incans believed that all three realms were in constant communication via offerings and fluids. The dead could have sex with the living. The supernatural could toy with both the living and the dead, or bless them. What if there was a fourth realm, and what if it communicated with the other three via the same mechanisms? Offerings and fluids.
The boy continues to scream as she peeks into the hole to the third level of the catacombs. It contains the usual pits of Spanish skulls and femurs, but then she sees it, a fourth level exposed by whatever has crashed from the ceiling of the tunnel. Gold funerary masks, the types worn by ancient Incan rulers. Gold ear plugs and nostril plates, the types attached to Incan royalty when they died. Gold urns, gold-plated tunics and crowns, weapons of death: silver clubs with spikes, cleavers, and balls.
“Tahuantinsuyu, land of the four suyus, provinces. There have always been four realms of being. Why the ancients didn’t realize … why you didn’t see … ”
“What do you want?” Quilla asks, her voice as steady as she can make it.
“I want nothing. Remember, you’re the one who came to us. You opened the second and third levels. The boy tampered with the tunnels. It was only a matter of time before the structure collapsed and let us out. We’ve been waiting on the fourth level from the dawn of time, coming out in trickles, in feeble streams.” It’s true, what the creature says. The monastery has known of the second and third levels, and possibly of graves even lower, but they’ve excavated only the top level for fear the monastery itself would collapse. Quilla’s digging has been careful and quiet, bit by bit throughout the years. “The garua fog?” she asks.
A chuckle. “Yes. That’s why it’s nowhere else in the world, only in Lima. We are the garua. The Others. The Old Ones. Older than the Incans, and older than time.”
That’s why the fog has been thickening since Quilla started digging. She’s been releasing The Others from the fourth realm without knowing it.
“Do you know that you’re descended from Manco Capac?” asks the creature.
First ruler of the Incans. No, Quilla didn’t know it nor does she believe it.
“Yes, you’re the only direct blood descendant that remains.”
Voices echo from far away. Quilla thinks she hears a door creak open and then shut. Monks? Nuns? Diego Toribio?
Apparently, the creature hears the noise, too, and its quills bristle again, an apparent sign of agitation. The eyes never blink. The mouth never moves. Nor does the creature appear to breathe through its nose. Quilla wonders if the creature has presented itself in an anthropomorphic manner to dampen her fear.
Another squeak from above, and the creature slides into the hole.
Quilla has been flatlined forever, with no today and no tomorrow, and in Quilla’s short life it’s been people who have been cruel to her, not the dead and certainly not a figment of her imagination…or whatever this creature represents.
But for now the creature is gone, and the boy still shrieks and flails, and above them in the monastery, people are awakening, possibly for their meals, for prayer, or for the lively drunken parties they secretly have when they think nobody hears them.
She scrabbles over to the boy, grasps his arms, and yanks. He pops from the tangle of bones, panting, and stares at Quilla. His clothes are in tatters, filthy pants coated in mud and what looks like dried blood, the shirt no better. He’s emaciated and tiny, no more than seven years old.
I’m sick, I’m sick, she thinks. My eyes are weak, and I’m dizzy, my head’s spinning. Maybe a rock hit my head when the tunnel collapsed.
But the boy chatters about the creature, too, as they squeeze through the tunnel back to the second level where Quilla sleeps. The boy knows the catacombs well, but never before have they crumbled or fallen on him; and as with Quilla, this is the first time he has seen the creature. She learns his name. Topa Cusihuascar. “I come from the jungles in central Peru. We still have the Shining Path there, and they killed my family, so I fled to Lima. I follow the cats through the city, eat what they eat, sleep where they sleep. It’s how I found the tunnel. I followed a cat down a hole behind a garbage bin outside the monastery. I found a tunnel to the catacombs.” He’s been living there, with a dozen cats, for the past year.
So he squirreled in from above ground. This is why she never noticed him sneaking past her.
They emerge from the tunnel, scramble to their feet, and breathe deeply. The cold drills into her bones, and she drapes her heaviest alpaca blanket over her shoulders and shivers.
“It would be easy to die here,” he says. “They could make it look like the tunnel collapsed on you.”
Quilla switches on a fresh flashlight and eases Topa onto another alpaca blanket, and she rests his head on her childhood pillow. “True,” she says, “but why would anyone want to kill you, Topa?”
“You already know why.” They exchange a glance, Quilla and this little boy, who already knows the bitter truths of life just as she knew them at his age. People like Quilla and Topa, with their pure Incan heritage, don’t matter to people like Diego Toribio. The old prejudices are alive and well in Peru, where most of the indigenous population remains unemployed, impoverished, bullied, condemned.
Voices rumble over their heads. Doors creak. It must be Diego and his security guards, off to dinner in the large room where they serve meals to the poor once a month. Diego won’t be drinking thin soup. Oh, no. He and his staff eat very well: broiled fish and fried pork, strawberry juice, corn and meat pies. Quilla sneaks the scraps out of the kitchen at night.
“Is Manco Capac really your ancestor?” Topa asks.
She pours chicha, a purple corn juice, from the urpu jug she keeps by her blankets. Eagerly he drains the cup, and she refills it and offers him bread. “I don’t know anything about my own family,” she says, “much less Manco Capac.”
“I don’t know about my family either,” he says. “Say, how do you think the family died, you know… the family in the pit?”
She shrugs. Maybe it was plague. Maybe it was war. Why do people die? The old ways are gone, and the dead are no longer connected to the living, so there’s no way to know.
Topa bolts up, knocking over the juice cup. He grabs one of Quilla’s digging tools, a pick. “Listen! People! They’re coming!”
“Take it easy.” She hopes her voice sounds lighthearted but doubts it. “They’re just eating dinner. They’re pigs, but they won’t hurt you.”
“No! They’re coming! We have to hide.”
But she is interrupted by the clink of keys on the monastery door that leads to the catacombs. And then boots are thumping down the stone stairs.
“They’re on the first level,” she whispers. “Shhh. They never come down this far.” She curls up with Topa beneath the blankets. His head is on her shoulder, his skinny arms wrapped around her waist. Silently he weeps, the tears soaking into her threadbare shirt.
A bone drops somewhere. She hears a clunk on hard earth, and it is followed by another clunk, and now another.
Bones keep dropping from the ceilings and walls. And now more, and more, until it sounds as if a light rain has burst into a storm.
Bone cracks against bone, and the tunnel moans and wheezes, and directly above Quilla, the ceiling splits and screaks. Topa clings to her, curls into the crook of her elbow, the same as a baby curls into the elbow of the mother …
Is this what children do when they’re scared?
But she’s scared, too, and what do women do when they’re all alone from birth till death, with every day a fight to survive? Who comforts us? Who cares?
The garua wraps like gauze around her. She’s a wound smeared upon the earth. She’s a disease, an infliction, a scab. Not worthy of life, not good enough for death.
The packed dirt of the ceiling throbs, bones dislodge and hurl themselves at her. They penetrate the garua, gash her head, shoulders, and legs. Despite the cold, sweat streams down her body as the pain crashes through her. The pain is steady now, a thrum, and it calms her. Topa is unconscious.
She smells Diego before she sees him. Beneath the heavy monastery robes, layer upon layer of rich velvet, his body has the rankness of one who rarely bathes. It is his smell. Always. It’s as if his flesh is fermenting on his bones.
He stands over her, and flanking him are two guards in official uniforms: camouflage pants and shirt, military boots, bulletproof body-length shields, and, of course, the accouterment that goes with all official uniforms in Peru—machine guns.
“Look what you’ve done to our catacombs, my dear. It’s a felony, worthy of execution, to dig beneath the first level. You’ve destroyed centuries of Lima’s heritage and national treasures.” A fat hand clad in a red silk glove gestures at the gap above her, where the ceiling has swelled and then ruptured like a blister.
I didn’t do this. Topa did it. He dug in from the outside. He’s a child. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.
But she’s not going to turn Topa in to Diego and certain death.
“Who’s the boy?” asks Diego.
Quilla eases Topa off her shoulder. She sinks against the wall. Diego can kill her, she doesn’t care, she’s been dead forever anyway; but Diego can’t have the boy.
“Take him.” Diego’s cheeks wobble as he snaps his head toward Topa, and one of the two guards lowers his Uzi and wrenches Topa off the blankets. The garua gauze breaks apart, filaments flake and drift, and settle on the blankets and packed earth.
Topa awakens and shrieks, but the guard clamps a fist over his mouth. Topa writhes and tries to punch the man, but the man just laughs, releases his hand, then slaps the boy’s face, hard. Blood seeps from Topa’s nose and streams from his mouth.
Quilla’s pick is propped by the wall, and she grabs it. One flick of her wrist, and the pick will fly through the garua and lodge itself in the guard’s neck. Diego is slobbering, pig grease dribbling off a lard chin, and she wants to kill him, but in the end she loosens her grip on the pick, for she’s no killer, is she?
“It’s not his fault,” she says. “Another guide must have let him into the catacombs. Not me. I’d never do that, of course. But someone else…”
“There’s only one other guide. She’s eighty-five and has been with the monastery all her life.” Diego turns to the guard who is holding Topa. He thinks for a moment, then says, “Put the kid back down. He doesn’t matter, but I may want to arrest Quilla Saparo. Illegal breaking and entering into a government-protected national historic site, illegal residence in said site, destruction of national treasures.”
The guard flings Topa to the ground, then aims a cocksure smile and a cocked gun at Quilla. His Uzi rests at his side. She’s too weak to run. She can’t even stand without clutching the wall.
Diego gestures at the other guard and tells him to crawl through the tunnel and see what’s there.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” says Quilla.
“Well, you’re not me, are you? Go on,” he snaps to the guard, “I’ve heard there’s Incan gold down there. It’s just a rumor, but if there’s any truth to it, I want to be the one to find out.”
“I can’t get into the tunnel,” the guard says. “It’s narrow and all caved in.”
“Damn. Well, there’s always tomorrow, I suppose. Bring them both up.” Diego grunts and waves a hand, and the guards drag Quilla and Topa up to the monastery, search them, and lock them up for the night. They take her keys, blankets, childhood pillow. In the morning, they toss Quilla and Topa onto the streets outside the monastery. The black iron gates clang shut.
Topa ducks his head and averts his eyes from the shuttered storefronts. He slips into an alley near the bright yellow monastery. Quilla hobbles after him. Cats scamper from their path. And now she sees it, the garbage bin by the crumbling blocks of an old house. Behind the bin is a hole just large enough for a cat or a boy, and possibly for an underfed nineteen-year-old girl.
“We need to eat first,” she says. “I don’t have the strength to go back in. Not yet.”
He nods, then squats and pulls several chipped dishes from beneath the garbage bin. They contains molding bits of meat and cheese. The food left for the stray cats of Lima. She tells Topa that they have to go to the richer section of town to eat from the garbage; then tonight, when it’s dark, they can return to the tunnels and to the catacombs. His stomach growls loudly. Her own feels concave.
They hitch rides on the back of laborers’ trucks and semi-doze past the elaborate Spanish cathedrals, angel wings spread over them, Catholic saints staring down from pedestals blasted into granite and marble, giant wooden doors embellished with spikes. Inside the cathedrals, she knows, is all the Incan gold, melted down by the Spanish conquerors and transformed into elaborate altars to their own gods and saints. Curses upon Francisco Pizarro, conquistador del Peru y fundador de Lima. Nacio en Trujilla de extremadura Espana 1478, and murto—she spits—en Lima el 26 de Junio de 1541.
Finally they’re at the bluffs overlooking the sea. Fancy shops and restaurants perch at the top of the cliffs, surfers ride the waves far below. The white sky undulates over the water. The garua sticks to her skin.
She and Topa scrounge for food in the trashcans, and, as she figured, they find the food garbage of rich people and tourists. Half-eaten sandwiches, corn breads, squashed fruits. They eat until her belly is swollen and aches. And then they drag themselves down the stairs and the winding road to the sea.
Her hands dig into the black gravel. Her fingers are bloated, her palms large and scabby. The sea is a murk of silt, black and gray, and lumps of shit rise on the froth, stick to the gravel, then sweep back with the undertow. Topa stares, hypnotized, and his brown skin is the color of the cliffs…or has her sight dimmed so much that she now sees nothing but black, gray, and brown? Is the static white of the sky real, or are her eyes playing tricks on her?
By evening, Topa is starving again, Quilla knows what they have to do. “Let’s go back,” she says, “and swipe a few trinkets from the catacombs. They won’t be missed. Just one or two gold pieces.”
“We can sell them!” His eyes light up. “We can live in a real house, and we can eat fresh food, whatever we want and as much as we want!”
“That’s right,” she says, “and why not?”
They hitch rides back to the old section of Lima, grab what’s left of Topa’s digging tools, and slink behind the garbage bin. This time the cats don’t scamper from their dishes. Instead, eyes glare at her, whiskers sharpen, teeth glow, and animals hiss.
With picks and shovels, they slip into the hole, some four or five feet down, a sheer drop, then scramble horizontally several yards. They crawl until they reach a tapered area, where the walls vibrate and wheeze. Quilla’s eyes burn from the dust and the garua. “It’s dangerous here,” she whispers to Topa. “The tunnels can collapse,” and she remembers what he said, how easy it would be to die here.
She trains her flashlight into a slender crevasse and to the glimmer of gold below. And this gives her renewed energy, and she and Topa dig—carefully, they dig—inching their way toward the glimmer.
“Now,” she says, squeezing through the widened crevasse and falling to the gold below. She lands on a pile of necklaces and headdresses, and the boy falls beside her. Her flashlight flits over stone sculptures of the three sacred animals, a bird from the heavens, a cat from the earth, and a serpent from the subterranean dead. Then the light shines on a fourth sculpture, a bloated grape covered in tufts of hair: the creature from The Others.
Around her the royal Incans, her ancestors, lie as dust in their graves. Heaped on the scattered bones and flattened remains are gold and silver nose ornaments, headdresses, and ear plugs carved with tentacles and eyes. Ceremonial vessels, urpus, are everywhere, and all bear the Incan symbols of water worship and blood sacrifice. Tiny cat heads form the spouts.
“What would your ancestors do about all this?” asks a voice, and before she swivels Quilla knows it’s the creature, The Old One. “Remember the Extirpation of Idolatries?”
Quilla nods. Even Topa knows how the Spanish destroyed the sacred objects and the mallquis, bodies of the dead Incans. In this way the Spanish destroyed the Incan civilization. There no longer was the tie between humans, supernatural, and dead.
The Cult of the Dead. It’s all around Quilla, here in the fourth level.
“You can’t rob your ancestors’ graves,” says the creature. “It makes you no better than the conquistadors.”
“But we’re starving. Why can’t we have just one piece of gold?” Topa’s little fingers clutch an ear plug.
“Because we’re not Span—” Quilla starts to say, but before she can finish her sentence the ceiling caves in, and a huge body wrapped in red velvet slams against a rock wall, then crashes on Topa and rolls off.
Quilla digs through the debris, grabs Topa’s body, and shakes him. He’s dead, his skull smashed by a large rock that now rests between him and Diego Toribio. The administrator howls in pain. His left leg is skewed, broken at the knee.
Quilla throws down her flashlight. In her right hand is her digging pick. She screams and hurls herself at the fat Diego, whose face glows from sweat, eyes bulging from fear. “No!” he yells. “No, don’t do it! Take all the gold you want! You’ll be rich!”
She pauses, the pick mere inches from his face. She’s not a killer Can’t do it, can’t do it …
And there’s poor Topa, dead at seven, he with his orphan past, his miserable now, his nothing tomorrow. The Spanish have killed another of her Incan people. Topa.
She must take care of her people.
The garua is a paste, the white of an old man’s eyes as he dies. It smears her eyes, nose, and lips. Her hand shakes.
From the shadows, the creature says, “You have already unleashed the fourth realm. Now complete the ritual and restore Incan rule to Peru.”
All that is needed is an urpu of blood, the sacrificial offering that opens communications among the three—no, the four—realms of being.
Diego weeps hysterically, “No, please, I beg of you, no, please don’t kill me.” He’s blubbering, the old fool, more frightened of death than a little boy. She sees him for what he is; and he might be worse than the murderers of the Shining Path. He represents the Spanish oppressors who destroyed all Incan civilization and all her people.
She places a gold headdress on Diego and one on herself. She thrusts a spiked club into his hands. “Now fight me, old man,” she hisses, but Diego remains in the dust, crying. He’s injured, and it’s not a fair fight, but was it fair when the conquistadors showed up and mass-murdered her people?
She rips the headdress off him, hears a rasp from the creature, knows she’s done the right thing. It’s the ancient way. The Cult of the Dead. The funerary ritual. And who better to do it than Quilla of the royal blood? She reaches for a ceremonial knife. It glitters in the dark.
She’s not a killer. Can’t do it …
“Take the gold, be rich…”
These are Diego’s last words.
And Quilla Saparo screams a Quechua curse, and she raises the knife with both hands and slams it into his neck, and the blood gushes into the urpu.