My Duchess Louise,
The riches which I have recovered for you are the very least I owe to one who has so often bankrolled my travels, yet vanish into insignificance against the wonders which cannot be melted down. Such things lie quite outside the experience of your colleagues in the Secure Containment Initiative — there are some treasures which bear no number, which defy the confines of description. These are the spectacles of the True World, and these I long to show you when my tributes have slaked your thirst for gold.
I enclose with this letter an account of the most obscure and sacred ceremonies of the people which reside in the great forests of the Congo, a land with whose inhabitants I trust you are well familiar; to which I have so often returned in order to enrich your knowledge as you have allowed me to enrich my own.
The Wilds have long since gorged themselves upon my youth, but for you I will return until the Forest has drunk away my blood.
Coming to the Congo for the first time in 1880, I sought trinkets amongst the crumbling ruins of the Old Empires. I had not yet found the True World, that realm of experience beyond science or anomaly. Now I walk the forests of the world to capture that which cannot be removed — the rites and magics of the forest peoples, which on occasion wander far from mere superstition indeed. African or European, seeker or scholar, the jungles will tell you of the power in their depths at the first opportunity. In my profession it pays to take the jungle at its word.
This most recent expedition — 1906 — was organized to test the mightily persistent rumors which swamp any traveler to that country, of a most terrible magic practiced only in the deepest forests of the Congo, a nameless Rite orchestrated by the La'Hamon people which no words could bind.
Capricious peddlers along the shore claimed it was held to keep the sun from vanishing, while Ba'Mabuti elders claimed it was to pacify the spirits of the heavens which might otherwise consume their subjects. The most fanciful of rumors surrounded the ritual and its practitioners, yet all agreed on three points — firstly, that the ritual itself was of the absolute greatest importance; secondly, that it was to be found at the bend in the great River Congo, at which could be found a seat of great magical importance. This supposed seat was called variably the Altar of History, the Spirit Song of the Moon Palace, and the Limbs of the Earth, among others. All questioned made reference to an incredible entity born of the mountains and central to the ceremony. No more than that could be made certain. It soon became clear that a dedicated journey would be required if I was ever to observe it — or at least lay the rumors to rest.
We departed from England in February of 1905. I will spare you, Duchess, the details of how I organized the party; suffice to say that we numbered twelve, all experienced and known to you; with these men and women I pushed down the length of the Congo River and arrived at the bend where the nameless Rite is held by those few who fully know it. The inhabitants of those forests, the La'Hamon, call themselves the People in their tongue, and so it is that I have named them in my account.
For fear that I should impose upon your patience as I have imposed upon your largesse, I shall spare you a description of our journey up the river and into the forests of the People. It is enough to say that fourteen months' journey saw our party and equipment safely deposited in that region of the jungle where the river bends wildly, where the treeline gives way to plains and the Mountains of the Moon disappear into the cloudy distance. Fourteen months' travel and another three ingratiating ourselves into the ways of tribal life, living in their village, earning their trust and, eventually, access to that object of so much pursuit — the People's Nameless Rite.
The Coming of the Rite
Our time of study amongst the People came to a close on the Sixteenth of April. Prior to that day, nearly three months passed as we came to know the People, the events of which are without significance, though we picked up some desultory information about our quarry. Yes, the People possessed magics of great power; yes, that magic was rooted in what they called the Limbs, though we had not yet seen the Limbs, nor the grove in which they rested. I confess there were moments during our months of waiting and observation when some of our party doubted that any such mystery as we sought existed at all; yet the excitement of penetrating into these hitherto all but undiscovered tracts would have provided ample satisfaction even if we had not found the ultimate goal — but find it we did.
According to their beliefs, the People have no special claim over the Rite or its ingredients — they are not even custodians, much less owners — and so could not rightly deny us the chance to see jungle's greatest treasure, the rumors of which had summoned our team out from varied homelands and onto this long journey. Thus, though only recent guests, when the day of the Rite came suddenly upon us we were invited to gather in the grove with the rest of the tribe. It would not have been safe in any case, the eldest remarked, to remain outside when the Rite was in progress.
As the sun set on the appointed day, we were summoned by a general call to the heart of the village. From there, the whole of the tribe accompanied by our expedition, departed for the Hidden Grove — a circle of stones five hundred feet in diameter, about half way between the village and the spot where the trees give way to wide plains. Near the edges of the forest, the canopy is not so thick, the vines not so aggressive. At the center of the ring there lay a sort of cave, and within that cave slumbered the Limbs of the Earth — an enormous suit of armor of which I'd never seen the like.
We of the expedition were of course riveted; now either we would see that entity whose coming rocked half the continent, and touch once more the sublime perfection of the True World — or face disappointment presently too horrid to bear contemplation.
Gathering around this pit, the People began to waken the Limbs from their deep sleep. By this I mean they began to unearth, one after another, the components of that suit and pile them in the center of the clearing. As one, soundless, five hundred hands — every adult La'Hamon, man or woman — hoisted the first of the Limbs from its murky resting-place — a great stone cuirass, a chest-plate hewn from the Mountains of the Moon and fit to armor a giant. It and the companion pieces which followed wore the black of oldest granite, bare of all adornment and without trace of human artifice.
I watched the junglefolk as they continued the laborious lifting — faces we had known for weeks now bore no trace of their former kindness and character. Eyes human and otherwise glowed from the ferns surrounding the sacred circle and the calling birds seemed to redouble their efforts as each new piece of the mighty armor rose from the pit of sacred slumber.
We did feel a stirring in our hearts; an echo, perhaps, of some imperceptible sound meant for quite different ears.
The Three Chimes of the Forest
The Limbs of the Earth were heaped high before our party, the hollow shell of the people's ineradicable deity. Helm, greaves, gauntlets and more, each of naked stone and proportioned for a Goliath. When the last piece had been settled into place, the laboring arms paused. At some unspoken command a waiting woman loaded her flare gun — a rather modern addition to the proceedings — and launched a crimson bolt skyward, as a signal to more of the tribe stationed in the plains beyond the tree-line. Now the Rite had begun in earnest, and even fire would not speak again until it had concluded.
Out on the plains far from the forest's sheltering canopy the rawhide drums, cued by the flare, began to call and thunder, answered by brassy cries and animalistic bellows from deep within the inner groves. Leather drums, steel bells, stone horns — such was the voice the People gave the forest. Picked men had placed the instruments in hidden places the night previously. This cacophony was the first of the Rite's three Chimes, and the only one to be sounded by human hand and breath.
Reader, you may find altogether inadequate my explanation of subsequent events, for it is now that the animals began to come, summoned through a mechanism as yet quite unknown to me. I ask you to persevere as we did.
Procession of the Dignitaries
The drumming rose into the sky and woke the denizens of the land. Solid ground began to convulse with the passage of numberless insects, a tide of instability rushing in from the outskirts of the encampment and crashing upon the rocky boundary of the Holy Grove. The insects and the birds had come to honor the Rite, bound, the People say, by its strange powers. They were not the only ones.
High above what daylight still shone through the leafy peaks vanished beneath a sudden living cloud; the vivid colors of the jungle flock transformed into a swirling vanguard for the tireless geese and eagles, condors and falcons, which tore at the sky with the fierceness of their passage. I saw these creatures with naked eye, a hundred strains quite foreign and indeed totally incapable of surviving in these tropical climates; saw the flashing shadows of their imposing Liege within the flocks that made new clouds in the cloudless sky. At the center of this tumultuous plumage soared the magnificent Bird of Paradise herself, Lady of the Hurricane and Queen of All the Birds.
A creature born of wind and wreathed in fog, she swooped low beneath the flocks above only once, her passage shaking leaves from the trees and frightening the forest antelopes. Her opal eyes flashed once at the peak of her descent and darkness fled. I could make out the serried nephrite of her breast set at intervals with rubies, emeralds, and sapphires as large as oranges. One jeweled feather was worth a palace which her tail's gilded streamers could have purchased a kingdom to accompany. Then her survey was completed and the Bird of Paradise withdrew to the midst of its flapping host to await the other comings.
Even as we craned our necks, searching for the shortest glimpses of that heavenly procession, more terrestrial rumblings drew our notice downward. Out beyond the warding torches moved many-clawed somethings, each no doubt fit to shred our party to pieces, but bound by a compact stronger than any lion's claw or leopard's lunge. Great cats of every description now prowled around the outskirts of the sacred stones, their misty breath seeping from the forest in fetid clouds. The awed muttering of the soil announced these sacred guests; two hundred leopards, a thousand panthers, and one fierce tiger — the entourage of bold Sycorax, eight-legged Lion of the Wind and King in the North.
Some thirty hands high at the shoulder, with teeth more suited to clash on armored knights than wildebeests' soft flesh, with decadent mane continually infused with the gory remnants of past prey — here we found our Landed Dominion. Four pairs of striding legs were each a guarantor of the Monarch Terrestrial's mastery over all that walked and crawled beyond the human gaze. Those iron claws and metaled furs brushed up against the People's higher law and grew docile.
Our tremendous consorts answered no call, responded to no summons — this Rite within the trees was not ordered, it did not even occur — at most one could say that all within the Hidden Wood simply was in accordance with that Will which tolerates no description and bursts the boundaries of all adjectives. That Will which was the entity we had come to see, perhaps even catch. Mundane thoughts, utterly unsuited to what we found instead.
The Force of the Will
Supplicated, the Limbs of the Earth stirred. We had heard these relics called the Altar of History, the Armor of the Before, but what I saw in that grove knew no name's mastery. Drum calls poured in from the plains and merged with the lamentations of the bells. The armor summoned its Wearer, as the Wearer had summoned all of us. All rose, all swelled in a pulse which banished reason. The second chime.
Acknowledge, my reader, that I make no use of metaphor or literary artifice in rendering you these scenes! What I say is as it was — completely. Here was the purpose of the Rite now before us; the labors of the La'Hamon, the confluence of the animals, and all the rest were slaved to the single purpose of invoking what was both an entity and far more. Drumming turned to roaring, calls to siren shrieks. There came before us now the Indomitable Will of the Earth.
A creature, a thing, the soul of our very planet — no name is adequate. Whence, why — ask not! I tell it to you as it was witnessed and no more. I beg again your patience and tax your credulity. Our tongue is tried heavily by the task before it.
I should not say we waiting watchers were joined by the Will, the Bearer of the Limbs — we joined It. That last word is meaningless as well, for the Wearer neither has gender, nor lacks it — but to explain further I am unable. Not even the La'Hamon understand that which is both older than and quite beyond the bounds of human thought.
We animals stepped back in unison as the Will donned Its assembled regalia, taking up the plates' stony bulk as easily as the wind lifts the leaves, though even now language itself buckles under the weight of the event's mere description!
What had brought forth those leaders of the beasts now produced the Laughing Herald of the Four Winds and the Blazing Champion of the Sun, whose roaring gusts and stinging beams of light threatened to scour the flesh from our bones and ignite the still-sodden trunks of the rainforest. Yet I cannot linger over their description, for at their arrival the jungle cats and taunting birds sent up a paean, a song of triumph of such great volume that the total sound of the whole ritual prior bore a greater resemblance to silence, than to this new pandemonium.
Only now was the Stony Crown of Nations raised to the highest by that Will which did not raise it. The climax of the ceremony was upon us and the World-Soul quivered. The granite helm lowered on to the incomprehensible brow of that Foremost Strength. Amidst combustuous ruin and clarion call the Rite Without Words birthed a third stupefying pulse which banished language.
When our tongues returned to our heads, we of the expedition left the village and returned to our homes. We had seen a marvel without equal. A phenomenon to sate an enormity of wanderlust and fit to confound any number of representatives from those adventurous organizations which seek to police the stranger things on earth.
Behind us, the orbit of history continued. The stone armor, once more inert, was laid back within its burrow. A year, perhaps three if not a hundred, would pass before the People came to wake it once again.
My Duchess, I have traveled far at your behest and brought you many treasures. There, by the Bend of the River, the fabric of the world soul was revealed through a phenomenon which I have described as fully as speech allows. As for the how or the why of it, the name of the land from which those beast-lords hailed, or of the Stone Armor's divine sculptor; to all such questions I must say let it be enough that I saw these deeds, and can relate them to you — of explanations, the True World has no need!