Denise is in the shower, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to send you one more report before breakfast. If you’ll recall, I had just come out of an intense dowsing trance, and pulled a Nukpana out of the dream. I was disoriented and a bit light-headed, so it took me a moment to realize that something about the creature had changed in the transition: he no longer had the head of an owl. Instead, he was wearing an owl mask, crudely formed out of some sort of cocoon-like substance, and decorated with paint and feathers.
But this is the way of the Nukpana. They’re half-spirit creatures, with one foot in the dream and the other in the waking world. Are they an early human off-shoot, shaped by an affinity to the World Beneath the World? Or are they spirit creatures, anchored to the waking world by human blood? I couldn’t say for sure, and the Alo, if they know, have not been forthcoming on the subject.
Cheveyo does tell me that they seem to come and go like ghosts. Many in the tribe hold them sacred, as well, because of all the service they’ve offered. In the past, they kept the Alo alive through many a harsh winter, providing food when there was none to be had. But they’re also a nuisance. They frighten people, and his men are called out a few times a year to remove pairs of Nukpana rutting in someone’s back yard.
“Plus, they shit everywhere,” Hototo added. There’s not an Alo alive, it seems, who hasn’t cleaned up piles of Nukpana dung in their life. They’re called “The Holy Burden” by some, and Cheveyo made it clear that we had to keep our captive a secret. If the wrong people found out we were holding him, we’d be forced to let him go.
We had a more immediate concern in the short term, however: when caught, the Nukpana had been trying to escape into a cave. That cave sat gaping before us now, and none of Cheveyo’s men, in spite of their familiarity with every inch of the Alo reservation, knew it existed. It’s all a matter of angles, I think. It’s hard to see from above, and is fronted by a large rocky outcropping, making it impossible to see from below. That makes it an ideal hiding place, if you know it’s there, and if you’re capable of landing flat-footed after a 30-foot leap straight down. That’s something the Nukpana are tough enough to do, and I’d imagine that the Black Mirror Brute wouldn’t even blink. How I did it, I still don’t know. But what’s life without a little mystery, eh?
The mystery of that cave was one we decided to investigate immediately, however. The Nukpana was trying to escape into it when I caught him, so it seemed imperative that we find out why. After retrieving a couple of flashlights from the Rangers’ trucks, Cheveyo and I went in. What we found, at first, seemed utterly unremarkable. Just a cave, perhaps fifteen feet across and twenty feet deep, and just tall enough for us to walk upright. But when I played my light along the back wall, something caught my eye. Something reflective, and moving.
It was writing. A seething mass of alien letters that writhed across the wall, squirming and shifting beneath our eyes, written in a spidery hand with a translucent snail-slime substance that steadfastly refused to yield up its secret shape. Or it refused to yield it up to me, anyway. Cheveyo was apparently under no such prohibition, because he
I’m sorry, sir. Denise is out of the shower, so I’m going to turn the rest of this report over to the Somnambulists. Our conversation in the cave may be of interest to you, and what we found at the other end is of definite importance.
– Agent X-23, signing off.
[Somnambulist transcription of discussion between Agent X-23 and Captain John Cheveyo of Alo Rangers, inside Mount Pannawau. Somnambulist impressions and those of Agent no longer distinguishable from one another. Said condition may be due to engorgement of Agent’s pineal gland, which has begun to sprout webs into the forebrain. More on growth as we observe it.]
Cheveyo: Otahnookay… Pahnoowaa. Konahkinah… Otahnookay Pahnoowaa. Esoonatahkinho… Wehteenahkay… Estraginaw… Otahnookay Pahnoowaa.
X-23: What the hell is that?
Cheveyo: Old Alo. It repeats a lot, but it basically says “Walk the Liar’s Path.”
Cheveyo (shrugs): There’s more, but that’s all you need to know. Now, if I’m reading this right…
[Cheveyo runs hand along wall, over letters, muttering the words to himself again. At last “Otahnookay Pahnoowaa,” his fingers slip into a crack. Audible click sounds from somewhere inside rock, and back wall of cave swings open. Beyond is a tunnel of smooth carved stone, leading off deeper into the Mountain. Agent and Cheveyo exchange glances.]
X-23: Shall we?
Cheveyo: Most definitely.
[Silence, for a time, as they follow the Liar’s Path.]
X-23: So… Old Alo.
X-23: Does everyone know how to speak that, on the Mountain?
Cheveyo: We teach our children some of the words in school. Whatever they need.
X-23: But you read it.
X-23: And… That’s unusual, I take it?
Cheveyo: Part of my Ranger training. It’s something we need, so we learn it.
X-23: I see. And… Why do you need it?
Cheveyo: Because sometimes we have to deal with the things that still speak it.
X-23: Things like the Nukpana.
Cheveyo: No. They communicate with clicks and hoots. But other things know the Old Alo.
X-23: I saw an old man with the Nukpana who brought Ruth Omusa to rest beside her boyfriend. Ancient. Dressed in a silver robe. You think he speaks it?
Cheveyo: It’s possible. Was he dream-walking?
X-23 (hadn’t considered it): I believe so.
Cheveyo: Was he Alo?
X-23: Is it just me, or is the tunnel heading east? And down?
Cheveyo: Yes. But don’t change the subject. Was he Alo?
X-23: I just thought it was interesting. And yes. He was Alo. I’ll give you a full description when I’m not distracted.
Cheveyo (looks around): Nothing here but us.
X-23: What would you say if I told you that I was half-aware of dozens of Nukpana dream-walking all around us?
Cheveyo (hand strays toward holster): I’d say we need to get the hell out of here.
X-23 (that got him): These walls. Man-made, wouldn’t you say?
Cheveyo (nervous): Yes. Looks like early Alo work. What the hell, Matthews?
X-23 (pleased): Not Nukpana work, then?
Cheveyo (reaching for gun): Dammit–
X-23 (alarmed): Don’t! Keep it calm, Cheveyo. They’re leaving us alone. But I don’t think we want to threaten them.
Cheveyo: Leaving us alone? Why? Do they know you can see them?
X-23: They do now. But they seem… afraid.
Cheveyo: Afraid of what?
X-23: Me, I think. They keep… looking at my head… and recoiling.
X-23: They’re terrified. Not running away, but… not attacking, either. Are there… alcoves along the tunnel?
Cheveyo (utterly confused): No, but… Alcoves? Clint, what–?
X-23: Alcoves! Little side-caves! Not part of the man-made path! Do you see any?
X-23 (absently): Liar’s Path… Cheveyo, I think we’ve found where the Nukpana live. We’re trespassing, and instead of driving us out, they’re… cowering in their caves. Hiding. From me.
Cheveyo: Caves? What– Dream caves?
X-23: Evidently. I’m seeing them all over, like they’ve been dug out of the stonework. And if you’re not seeing them…
Cheveyo (looking around, distracted): They have to be in the dream. Huh. All my life, I wondered where they go when they’re not trying to feed us horrors. And now here I am.
X-23: You said this looked like Alo work?
Cheveyo (detached): Yeah. Yeah, there’s stone work in the early Pannawau settlements that looks like this.
X-23: Pannawau. Pahnoowaa. (laughs) Is this place really called the Mountain of Liars?
Cheveyo (chuckles): Yeah. We don’t usually spread that around, though.
X-23 (still laughing): Might be bad for tourism.
Cheveyo (full laughter now): Not to mention our reputation.
[Events become hard to read at this point. Agent indicates pursuit of some kind, but his impressions of the surroundings are a blur. Regardless, they run until they reach the end of the Liar’s Path. A dead end.]
Cheveyo (out of breath): What… now?
X-23: I’m not sure, I… I didn’t expect…
Cheveyo: Are they… still coming?
X-23 (distracted): What?
Cheveyo: The Nukpana. Are… they still chasing us?
X-23: Oh! (peers back down tunnel) They… seem to have stopped.
Cheveyo: What? Why?
X-23 (turning back to dead end): Couldn’t tell you. Oh! Here!
Cheveyo (shines light up wall): Is that a ladder?
X-23 (with enthusiasm): It would appear so. Shall we?
Cheveyo: Anything’s better than here.
X-23: You first. I’ll keep an eye out for pursuers.
Cheveyo: Sure. (climbing) Any sign of them?
X-23: None. What have you got?
Cheveyo: Feels like a door.
X-23: Can you open it?
Cheveyo (grunts): Way ahead of you– Gah!
X-23: What- Ugh! That light! Forgot it was still morning!
Cheveyo: What the hell?
X-23 (climbing): What?! I can’t see a damn thing with this– Oh. Is this a cabin?
Cheveyo: Shack, I’d say. Looks like some kind of low-rent hunt club.
X-23: The deer heads would point that way, yes.
Cheveyo: Get up here, will you? I think we can lock that door.
X-23: Right, right.
Cheveyo: You don’t sound too concerned.
X-23: I am, it’s just that I don’t think– Is that one of Edna’s biscuits on the table?
Cheveyo: Huh. Yeah, must be. Nobody else around here crams together that much cheese and dough.
X-23: This hasn’t been here that long. The ants have gotten to it, but there’s no mold.
Cheveyo: Edna’s not going to be happy somebody let her work go to waste.
X-23: It does seem like a violation of the three-biscuit rule.
Cheveyo: Matthews. Back here.
X-23: Well well well. Ever seen a kidnapper’s den before, Cheveyo?
Cheveyo: Yeah. Looked pretty much like this.
X-23: She was tied to the chair here. Huh. Ropes have been cut.
Cheveyo: Doesn’t look like the bed got much use.
X-23: No. No, they kept her here in the chair. By the table… (sniffs) Ugh! Whatever was in this cup wasn’t coffee. Same color, though. No ants. (sniffs again) Oh, that’s repugnant.
Cheveyo: Let me see… Mm. Osceola.
X-23: What’s that?
Cheveyo: Osceola. The Black Drink. It’s… The Nukpana make it. They say it’s made of spirit tears and dung. This has turned, though.
X-23: So it’s not normally that disgusting?
Cheveyo: Only in concept. Some of the holy men put it in their coffee before going on dream walks.
X-23: Some kind of psychedelic?
Cheveyo: Couldn’t tell you. I wouldn’t drink that stuff with your mouth.
X-23: Looks like she didn’t like it, either. It’s spattered across the table. On the floor, too… Spirit tears, you say. It would take a lot of tears to fill that cup.
Cheveyo: The Nukpana are not kind hunters.
X-23: I did see one butchering something while it was still alive.
Cheveyo: Yeah. That sounds like them. Look, I’m gonna go lock that trap door.
X-23 (still looking around room): Good idea.
Cheveyo (eyebrow raised): They weren’t chasing us, were they?
X-23 (not looking up): No.
Cheveyo: Then why were we running?
X-23 (walks over to cabinet, still not looking up): Seemed apropos. Walking the Liar’s Path inside the Mountain of Liars… When in Rome, as they say.
Cheveyo: Humph. You’re lying again.
X-23 (finally makes eye contact): Only halfway. We were trespassing, Cheveyo. Whatever’s happened to me, it scared the Nukpana out of their minds. I… just didn’t want to see another frightened child, I suppose.
Cheveyo: Plus, it was fun.
X-23: No comment. (opens cabinet) Well, now. Take a look at this.
Cheveyo: What is that? A cigar cutter?
X-23: I’m not touching it til I’ve got some gloves, but no. I don’t think so. It’s too big, and too sturdy. Looks like there might be some blood on it, too. Get Hototo on the phone. It’s time to figure out where this shack is, and get some crime scene equipment down here. We’ve found where they held Alexandra Melmoth. And that, I think, is what they used to cut off her finger.