THE IDOL OF BAPHOMET

Chatoyant, 3985 RM

Summar took a deep breath dove off the cliff. He closed his eyes as the wind rushed against his face. In part it was to stop them watering, though it helped him relax, also.

     The waters of the Orrida hit him hard, engulfing him in their warm embrace. He was kicking and paddling hard, already going deeper. His eyes were open, taking in what light penetrated the dark waters. Below, the seabed was coming into focus, tendrils of seagrass drifting eerily in the currents. There were few fish and the few he saw were solitary creature, large, their heads bulbous and covered in uneven growths. They ignored him. To them he was just another fish, one that appeared suddenly from above, rummaged in the grasses and left. 

     He was on the bottom, eyes bulging, chest filled with air. A hand held on to piece of kelp as the other fanned through the thicker grasses. A handful of translucent shrimp scattered from the chaos. He ignored them as he searched. After a while, he felt something. 

     His hand brought forth an oyster from the growth. He gave it a cursory look and popped it into a seaweed rope cage he carried on his waist. He continued looking.

     After a few minutes, he’d found three oysters, all small. He doubted he’d find anything of worth inside them, but kept them anyway. 

     When he felt his chest begin to strain he kicked out and returned to the surface. His head began to ache even as the pressure behind his eyes slowly dissipated. And then he saw their faces.

     It was the same thing every dive, dozens of times a day. The faces of friends who’d died returning to the surface, haunting him. Or warning him. He didn’t know. He didn't care. He ignored them as the light above grew more distinct. 

     He broke the surface of the water and took in a huge gulp of air. A quick look around reoriented himself to his surroundings and he swam to the shore, the small cliff he’d springboarded from not far off. He sat on the rocks, busying himself prying open the shells with a flexible knife, as feet dangling in the water as doctor fish stole nibbles of dry skin.

     The first one was empty, but the second produced a small irregular pearl. It was nothing of note, but he pocketed it, taking care to secure it lest it fall out in future dives. The third was empty. He ate the skin - elsewhere a delicacy of great value. But to him and the people of Chatoyant, it was nothing. He kept the shells - their nacre would be used to make buttons, jewellery or tiles used in the mosaics across the city - and dove again: the second of many dives that day. 

     By mid afternoon, he’d found sixteen oysters and two pearls, only one of them worth anything of value. Not a wasted day, but far from a good one. He slid some oyster flesh down his throat before diving again. 

     He was beginning to run out of breath when he caught a green glint in the corner of his eye through the grass. He swam towards it and pushed the weeds away, revealing a bronze coin, heavily weathered by the water. He grabbed it as he began his ascent.

     He sat down and inspected the coin in his hands, his nails scratching at the calcium encrusted on it, trying to remove it. He saw a face in profile, and words that were obscured beneath the layers of sediment. He turned it and saw the other side which was clearer, the letters legible, but they were in a language he didn’t understand. He pocketed it and looked to the water. 

     Wonder if there’s any more, he thought. He looked up to the west. The sky was cloudless and the sun was dipping rapidly towards the horizon. Soon the direct light would be gone and he’d be blind in the depths. Could he risk another dive or was he safe leaving it for tomorrow?

     There were no other divers around. Pearl diving was a dead vocation in Chatoyant. Pearls were now harvested in oyster farms in shallower waters. It was safer, more economical and generally easier. But the pearls were of inferior quality. A real pearl of good iridescence and regular shape was worth fifty times a harvested pearl. But they were rare. 

There were only a few of the old divers left and few youngsters were willing to inherit the old traditions from them. Twenty years ago this area might have been full of other divers, were it not a new area Summar had started swimming recently. 

     He threw caution to the wind and allowed the water to swallow him again.

     Below the surface the water was already beginning to darken. He found the spot and pushed close to the seabed pulling at the wavering kelp and grasses. He found the spot where the;d picked up the coin and began searching. 

     He found nothing,

     He widened his search. And moved farther out and there it was: a pile of green and grey metal. Encrusted in sediment and growths. He reached for it and pushed at the items. They slid apart in a cloud of dust. He waited for the dust to settle before picking up one of the pieces - a crown, delicately carved and topped with, of all things, a gigantic pearl. He put the thing into his bag and reached out for the rest, picking up as many as he could before having to worry about the weight holding him down.

     He kicked upwards and swam to the surface.  

     He appraised his find in the dying light. Bronze idols, green like the coin, stared up at him. They varied in size from six inches to perhaps a foot though were all of the same generic form. He’d never seen anything like them. He picked one up and turned it over in his hands. Any detail had long ago been claimed by the sea’s corrosion, but there was enough to tell what it depicted:  a goat's head perched atop a four-armed winged human body that tapered into a fishtail.

     Summar looked around, like a predator that had just downed its prey, and turned his gaze back to the items. Amid the idols were a few more coins and the crown and… he found his gaze lingering on one of the idols. It wasn't the largest one, but it was the most unique. Where the others had that distinctive green patina, this one was a duller colour, almost grey, smoother, as though it hadn't aged as badly. He lifted it absently and stared at it. 

     His eyes focused on it even as the rocks behind it blurred into nothingness. Soon he could not see anything other than the idol. Its colours seemed more intense, its details suddenly stark - faint lines denoting scales on the tail; lines on its face indicating a smile or sneer; writing in verdigris ink going down its back. Hollow eyes staring at him. 

He shook his head free of the reverie, noticing a dull headache. It happened sometimes after long dives. He thought nothing of it.

     He gathered the items and stared out to the horizon, the just set sun lighting the sky in a myriad wondrous colours. What do I do with these, he thought? 

 

*   *   *

 

Summar was looking around, a pained look on his face. Indifferent bodies were shoving their way past him as he looked around. He was looking down at the market arena from the stepped periphery. People moved in a tangle of costumes and colours between awnings and stalls, with large baskets and carts breaking the flow of the crowd. The calls of hawkers filled the air even as the braying of struggling pack animals filtered in the background.

     He hated it. The noise, the chaos, the stink of it all. He had only been there a handful of times in his life: every time to the market to sell pearls that were too large for his town. But he’d never caught anything quite like his last catch before. 

     He walked around, looking at the signs outside the arched shops and peering into gloomy interiors, hoping for something that might be useful. He was looking for dealers of object d’art or antiques, though didn’t find anything. He’d probably have to go up-city to find that sort of establishment. 

     Reluctantly he left the market and made his way to the north. Narrow dirt roads gave way to flagstones and wider stepped streets as the city moved steadily uphill, leaving the lower quarters behind. Where before the many doors he passed had been open, now they were fewer and locked, with flowering creepers adorning the walls. What windows he passed were tall and narrow, framed with nacre mosaics and barred with pregnant frames that lent an imposing air to the streets. The beast-hauled carts that were common below were replaced here with litters and carriages with passengers hiding unseen behind curtained windows. 

     He knew from its reputation that there was a school in the walled district, but had never ventured close enough to see it. Some locals had given him directions and he was standing inside a square courtyard facing a large double staircase that led to an upper storey loggia. A small fountain stood at the centre of the courtyard with four orange trees around it.

     A silk robed man rushed down the stairs towards him, “A member of faculty saw you from above,” said the man informally as he crossed the courtyard towards Summar. He gave him a quick once over, and, with pursed lips, continued, “The campus is not open to visitors in a traditional sense.”

     Summar, unsure of how to address the man, introduced himself, “I was wondering if you have anyone here who might appraise some items.”

     The man raised an eyebrow and placed his hands together, as though in prayer, “You might find someone more suited to the task in the market.”

     Summar was busy removing the grey idol from its wrapping, “I think a historian would be more suited to the task,” he said, producing the idol.

     “I really don’t see...” started the man, but his words faded as his eyes clasped upon the idol. He took it, turning it around in his hands delicately. “This is most interesting.”

     He gave the item back to Summar, and gestured for him to follow.

     The man had left Summar in large square room filled with heavy tables and chairs. The walls were covered in faded framed paintings: portraits, landscapes, maps. A single large window looked out on a small garden and a high wall beyond separating the college from the city.

     The door opened and another robed man came in. Where the man who’d greeted him was dressed impeccably, this man’s robes were scuffed, stained and covered in patches of white dust. He seemed distracted as he took a chair and sat down facing Summar. “Well?” he asked.

     Summar produced the idol, only hastily rewrapped now, with parts still visible. 

     Without introduction, the man slid it over the table towards him and unwound the tarp.

     His expression changed immediately as he saw the statue, he reached into a pocket and took out two delicate linen gloves which he donned hastily. “Where did you find it,”

     “In the Orrida, where we dive for pearls.”

     The man looked up absently and looked at Summar appraisingly. “No many alive who still do that. Does it pay?”

     Summar nodded

     “Fascinating,” suggested the scholar. 

     “What do you know about it?”

     “It’s old. I’ve not seen a figure take this form before. It’s a strange amalgam - man, fish, capriform, bird. It might be from an old religion or cult. Maybe a nature god?”

     “Old? Like from the reign of two kings?” said Summar, referring to a period in Chatoyant, about 150-years ago. That would likely make it valuable.

     The scholar looked at him. “No. I mean old, as in before the days of the ageless empire. When the shores of the Orrida lapped at the walls of this city and beyond, and the scrublands were forests. Older than you can fathom, I’d wager.”

     Summar blinked. He knew the oceans of the world had been more expansive in the past - he could tell by the pale shells embedded in the limestone formations outside Chatoyant, by the crumbling ruins of old harbours dozens of miles from the coast. But those were little more than echoes of distant times, ignored by all but the most esoteric of scholars, of which Chatoyant had few. It mattered so little that Summar had never really thought about such things before. 

     He thought for a moment of the idol and the things it might have seen - the slow dwindling of empires and nations, creatures once numerous fallen into extinction, the changing and slow dying of the land. What would it tell him if it could?  

     “The head: the horned goat, reminds me of something I once read of the ancient mortal tribes, though I can’t remember. I’ll need to read up about it but I doubt there’s anything as vague as that in the libraries here. I’d need to go to the Library of Daaz. Obscure.”

     “So you can’t help me?”

     “What exactly is it you want?”

     “To find out more about it.”

     “So you can sell it?”

     Summar did not answer. 

     “I think you are mistaking me - us - for diviners. Appraising a historical artifact is not an exact science. There’s a lot of guesswork, particularly with an item so curious and old. I could check with my colleagues, but we would need to keep it here, at least for a few days.”

     Summar was reticent to let go of the item. The college was a well-known establishment but he wasn't sure if he could trust its people. “Will it cost me anything?”

     “I wouldn’t expect so. Consider it an exercise to sate our scholarly curiosity.” 

     The man gave his name as Samed and, reluctantly, Summar left the idol with him. It was the last he would see of the Idol of Baphomet, or, indeed, Samed.

*   *   *

“Gods it’s hot,” said Samed. He rubbed his face, squinting in the dying candles-light. He replaced one of the spent candles with a new one. It was the fourth one that night.

     He sat back and stared at the statuette. Lifeless green eyes stared back at him, into him. The room had transformed into gloomy shapes of pale light chased by shadows, painting the figure in an eerily animated light that enthralled the disciple. 

     It was odd, he thought. He hadn’t thought much of it when the pearl diver had brought the thing to him, but now… there was a magnetism about the statuette that he couldn’t deny. The more time that  passed the more he found his thoughts wandering to the idol.

     He stood, noticing a growing headache. He poured himself a glass of water, drunk from it and sat down again, attentions renewed on the papers and books in front of him. 

     He was leafing through an old treatise on heretical religions and extinct cults, looking for mention of the goat-headed statue or anything thematically similar. He’d found a few hints indicating the loss of an idol in the Atramentally-tainted mountains bordering the Kharkharadontid desert over 10,000 years ago, though the claims were circumstantial at best. And the conversion between the different calendar systems used allowed for a large degree of error that couldn't be improved. There were just too many variables and not enough certainties. There couldn’t be, not over such large spans of time. 

     He considered the statue again, hiding in the shadows, its eyes catching the merest glint of the candle’s flickering light. For a moment it looked as though the thing were alive. His headache was getting worse, prodding behind his eyes. He rubbed the side of his face, allowing the statue’s gaze to penetrate his own.

     He felt a murmur beneath the throbbing in his head, like a slow wave moving towards his brow, growing steadily sharper, until it became unavoidable. Then it was gone. In its place was a sibilant whisper. Little more than an annoying buzzing it first, it was only through the numbing act of repetition that he begun to understand what he was hearing.

     Baphomet.

     The fluttering of wings in the rafters above brought him back to present. It was dark.

     His headache was gone, though so too was the light of the candle. How long had be been staring at the statue, he wondered? Had he fallen asleep?

     He fumbled, lit another candle and sat, that alien word still ringing in his thoughts.

     Baphomet. It lingered there like a stale aftertaste. Had he dreamt it?

     He stood, went to the statue and picked it up. He could picture it in its prime, gleaming under a young sun that shone on a fertile world that had not yet begin to die. Stood on a pedestal before millions of bodies prostrated in reverence. Behind it a pall of shadow and a temple that to generations was the centre of their world. All stood beneath a clear sweltering sky. Carrion birds circled above.

     Their chants resounded across the land with a solidity that frightened the scholar. Every inflection multiplied by a million filled the air. It was a monstrous thing, to see that mass.

     Nine priests stood in front of the crowd, their baroque hats a mirror of the statue they worshipped. They were leading the masses in prayer, their arms gesticulating animatedly, their expressions strained beneath the conviction of their performance. 

     The acolyte couldn’t understand their words, but he too could feel that conviction. Every person there, to the weakest child and the oldest woman spoke with utter belief in those words. Their emotion was palpable, easily as noticeable as the heat around them, if not more-so. Heads lifted in perfect step and dipped together, touching the ground as one. The sound was unlike anything the acolyte had ever heard.

     He was in the room again, panting, a tear trickling down his cheek.

     Where had that come from? A simple rumination had turned into a vision. No, he thought. No, something far greater than that. He could still smell the arid air, the hint of desert herbs gently carried in the warm breeze. He could see the eyes of those people, wide, trembling, as they prayed, their voices repeating the same syllables over and over again. 

Though he couldn't understand them before, he remembered the words vividly now: Baphomet, moulder of worlds, deliver us. Baphomet, creator of life, protect us. Baphomet, guardian of all, take us. Baphomet. Baphomet! BAPHOMET! 

     “Baphomet,” he whispered. His eyes and the eyes of the statue were one. The numb ache in his temples returned. The darkened room dissolved into nothingness and he was in a black wasteland, violet lightning smiting the dust. Twisted pillars of blackened glass reached painfully to skies pregnant with clouds. Distant mountains bordered the scene like a continent-spanning crater and in its centre, before him, was a monolithic structure of basaltic rock: the size of a mountain, its form reminiscent of a recumbent body petrified and weathered. A foul black rain battered it even as roots and silent creepers slowly writhed at its base. 

     The acolyte was standing, his skin stinging under the rains’ acrid caress, looking up at a promontory that might have been a head. A flash of lightning revealed two pinnacles of rock that, in the right light, might have been mistaken for horns. He looked away and found, entwined in the roots hundreds of skulls - not all human - some shattered and splintered, others gruesomely while, vacant eyes staring into him.

     “Samed!”

     The acolyte was in the room again, staring at the door, and a fellow standing there, an exasperated look on his face. The acolyte turned back to the statue, and as though in perfect mirror of the rock formation he’d been looking at was the idol’s face, its green eyes lifeless. Yet not. 

     “Baphomet,” whispered Samed, before turning to his fellow. “I am coming.”

*   *   *

©2018 by Nate Mangion