It was a long flight of stairs. Really long. And the only illumination came from Lucien's small lantern. All Charlotte could tell for certain was that everything seemed to have been carved from stone. Finally, they reached the bottom, and Lucien led her to a stone bench to sit a moment, while he walked to the center of the small stone room. Opening the lantern, he picked up a stick, though she couldn't see where it came from. He lit it from the small flame in the lantern, and used it to light some kind of large stone brazier, which shed a bit more light on the room. It was still dim, but at least one could see to the walls, in all directions. As she had thought, the room was fairly small, and unremarkable. Really, there was nothing of interest, aside from the staircase, the brazier, and the bench on which she sat.
Except for a door set in the opposite wall. She stood up and walked toward Lucien, and nodded at the door. "So, we go that way, I take it?"
He just nodded, left the lantern sitting on the edge of the brazier, led her to the door, and opened it. And light poured in. She followed him through the open door, and then stopped.
She looked around in absolute, unmitigated awe. The cavern in which they now found themselves was expansive, but what was most shocking was that every part of it seemed to be covered with, or carved from, various precious metals, jewels, and crystal. There was no visible exit other than the door they'd just come through. No connection to the outside world, no way for sunlight to come in. The cavern had to be illuminating itself, though she saw no fire, no possible source of illumination of any kind she could think of.
"Where the hell are we?" she finally asked.
"Sotu en Goas Calus."
She wouldn't have thought it possible, but this simple declaration forced her to look away from the wonderment before her. She turned to stare at him. "You're joking."
A small smile began to creep over his face. "Not at all."
"But... it's a myth, a legend. Even if it did truly exist... it... no one's seen it in nearly 2000 years. If it existed."
"Do you doubt your own eyes?"
She turned away from him again, let her eyes sweep the... the city. If it was Sotu... then it was the greatest city ever constructed by Man. It certainly was big enough to be a city. And it certainly looked like she'd expect Sotu to look. Grudgingly, she asked, "How'd you find this place? I assume you built your mansion over it intentionally, after finding it..."
"Oh, I've always known it was here. I didn't have to find it."
Her head snapped back to face him again. "Don't be absurd! No one knows where Sotu was. How could you possibly have known without... somehow finding it?"
"Because I built it. My followers and I. 1700 years ago."
"Your followers...? Oh, right, of course. You're that Lucien. I should have known. Look, ami, this place is super-swell and all, but uh... I think I should be going..." She began to slowly back toward the door.
"I'm not crazy. Listen, Charlotte, would you just... let me tell you my story? You don't have to believe any of it, but at least listen to it. Even if I'm crazy, you know you're certainly in no danger."
"Oh, I don't need you to tell me your story. I know it already. You came from another universe, when it imploded, and so did some wacky disembodied entity who'd been doing the same thing since the first universe, long before yours. That guy steals people's bodies, and pretends to be God, and secretly tries to direct the course of human history, while you try to stop him. Listen, Lucien, I like the STUs because they tend to espouse peace, at least moreso than the Verilies. But that doesn't mean I believe in their ludicrous religion. Both religions are like... science fiction! It's nonsense!"
"Which is why I didn't think you'd believe me without proof."
"Proof? You mean this place? Okay, Lucien, so maybe it existed, maybe it exists, and you found it. I can't say it isn't pretty damn surprising, but upon reflection, I wouldn't put it past you to have found Sotu en Goas Calus, and kept it a secret all these years. It doesn't prove you're the Devil!"
"I never said I was the Devil. He says that of me, Ol' Shifty."
"I thought Ol' Shifty was supposed to be the Devil?"
Lucien sighed. "No. I know you never paid much attention to religion, never went to church or anything. I don't blame you for your confusion. Here's what happened. This other being came to this universe with me, and he claimed to be God. Rather he called it, claimed the role for himself at the start of a new round of an eternal game he'd invented to amuse himself. He said if he was God, that would have to make me the Devil.
"Later, when a new civilization had begun, he played at being some character called 'Shifter,' causing much havoc. Many thought of Shifter as a Devil, which allowed me to organize people to oppose him. But they eventually came to think of me as a god, despite my best efforts to maintain a secular perspective of myself.
"Finally I just went with it. I thought if I was God, that would mean Shifter couldn't be. I was doing pretty well there, for awhile, and seemed like I might pull ahead in his stupid game. But eventually, he rose, the head of a new religion, calling himself God again, and calling me a false god. He even made me out to be the historic 'Shifter,' who the world hadn't seen much of for hundreds of years, by that time.
"His people called themselves Followers of the One True God. My followers responded by calling themselves Seers of Truth Unmasked. Each side claimed to represent the truth, but really neither side was right, because neither of us is truly a god. In the centuries since then, both of our religions have evolved, sometimes beyond our control, but their names and core principles remain the same. In the past couple hundred years or so, the name 'Shifter' has mutated in colloquial stories to Ol' Shifty, although he hardly shows himself much at all. At least not as Shifty. He's still around, and he still shifts, but mostly he only appears as a human, just as I do. I don't believe either of us could have any direct control over our religions. I don't think anyone would believe either of us if we claimed to be the gods they worshipped. It's kind of ironic, having millions of followers and not really being able to lead them."
Charlotte sat down on the ground, her back against the outside wall of the small cave. "It's insane. It's impossible. It's unscientific!"
"On the contrary, it's entirely scientific. That's the point, there's nothing spiritual about it."
Her head was spinning, and she was having trouble breathing. She sat there in silence, with her eyes closed. After a few minutes, she stood up. "Okay. This city isn't proof. I need proof. How can you prove it?" She thought a bit. "I know. The stories about Ol' Shifty... can you shift? You said you're not him, but... can you?"
He sighed again. "Yeah, it's one of various tricks he's taught me." She looked at him quizzically. "Our relationship has always been... complicated." He looked around. "Let's see, there used to be eyries around here... I don't see any reason why there wouldn't still be birds..." Suddenly he spied a bird flying overhead. "Ah, there." He sat down a short distance from Charlotte. "I'm going to leave my body now. Don't freak out, or anything. I'll possess that bird up there," he said, pointing. "I'll fly down here, and you can give me directions. If the bird follows them, would that be proof enough for you?"
Suddenly his body slumped, and a few moments later, the bird flew down a few meters in front of Charlotte. "Woah," she said. After collecting her wits, "Um... fly to the left." The bird flew to the right a bit, then stopped. She was puzzled for a moment, then laughed a little, rolled her eyes, and said, "No, my left." The bird flew to her left. "Fly up and perch on that outcropping over there," she said, pointing. The bird did so. "Okay, now fly up a few yards, do a few loop-de-loops, dive down, and land on the ground in front of me." The bird squawked almost as if in exasperation, but complied. When it landed, it gave a little bow, with one wing in front and one behind its back.
She laughed more openly this time. "Okay, now tousle Lucien's hair." The bird flew onto the head of the limp body and used its feet to mess up its hair. Then it fluttered off to a nearby perch, looked at Charlotte, and shrugged, as if to ask "Enough?"
She smiled and nodded. Suddenly the bird's head swung back and forth in confusion, then the bird flew off, and Lucien looked up. He started smoothing his rumpled hair, then winced a bit. "Ahh," he said, and brought his hand down in front of his face to examine his fingers. "Bit of blood. Must've nicked my scalp with the damn talons. Nothing serious."
Charlotte looked at his fingers, then examined his head. "Oh, I'm sorry!" She wiped away some blood with her sleeve, kissed the spot, and said, "You're right, it doesn't look bad, though."
They sat and looked at each other with loopy grins on both their faces for a minute, before Charlotte stood and said, "I'd really like to take a closer look around this place sometime, but right now... I think I want to get back to more familiar surroundings. I think I'll be more comfortable trying to get my head around all this... in a living room. With a sofa. And some wine."
"Sofas certainly are more comfortable than stone..."
"I didn't mean physically comfortable. But yeah, that too."
Looking up at her, Lucien nodded and said, "You go ahead. I'll be up in a few minutes, there's... more we need to talk about. But I haven't been here in awhile. I'd like a little time alone to compose my thoughts. I'm sure you could use the same."
She nodded, turned, and headed back upstairs.
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