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Mysterious Mynds

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“It is my belief... founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”  --Arthur Conan Doyle


 

                “What’s the big hurry?”  Morgan asked Prentiss, as she ushered him into the conference room.  “I thought we didn’t have any major cases on the table.”

                Prentiss just shrugged, making her way to her seat.  “Don’t know much more than you, I’m afraid.  Hotch just called and said he was coming down, and to get everyone in the conference room NOW.  He didn’t say what it was about.  It sounded like he was in the middle of talking with someone else.”

                “Must be why he’s not here yet.”  Morgan noted, looking around the room.  Reid was leaning back and studying the ceiling with an air of profound interest.  Rossi was just sitting quietly, his hands folded in his lap.  “Is JJ still...”

                “...here.”  The blonde pushed her way past them.  “Emily, why didn’t you tell me we had a meeting today?  It’s all dead out there, I was starting to wonder if you’d already left on a case.”

                “I... didn’t know you were here.”  Morgan and Prentiss exchanged glances.

                Reid looked up.  “Hey JJ.  Back already?”

                “Yup.”  JJ took a seat.

                There was a short silence.  Clearly troubled, Reid started to say something, than stopped frowned, and turned away.  Morgan, Rossi, and Prentiss looked very carefully blank.

                JJ coughed.  “Where’s Hotch?”

                “A number of tourists have gone missing in the deserts of Eddy County, New Mexico.”  Hotch said, as he paced into the room, dropping files on the table.  “No bodies have been found yet, but between coyotes and vultures, the local authorities don’t expect to find any.”

                “How many?”  Morgan asked, as he opened the file.

                “The initial report was two.”  Hotch answered.  “Part of a local small-towns tour across America.”  Reaching the head of the room, he turned and saw JJ.  His brow knitted.  “JJ, don’t you still have a week or more of vacation left?”

                “Yes.”  JJ nodded.  “Hotch, It says here that both disappeared at the same time.  Are they sure this is a serial killer?  Two seems like a small number for us to get called in on.”

                “...Yes.”  Hotch agreed, turning back.  “And when they began to investigate, authorities considered it an isolated incident.  But when questioning the locals, they discovered something far more troubling.”

                “Are...”  Reid, far ahead of the others in his reading, stared at the paper in his hands.  “Are these figures accurate?”

                Hotch gave a grim nod.  “Apparently it’s not unusual for tourists to vanish in that particular area.  None of the locals expressed any surprise on hearing of the missing couple.  Even the sheriff seemed unusually apathetic about the matter.  One storeowner said, quote: ‘folks disappear in the desert.’”

                “Still... one hundred-thirty-seven?”  Reid pressed.

                “That they’ve managed to confirm.”  Hotch nodded.  “There may be more, they’re still getting names from motels and gas stations.”

                “That... hardly seems possible.”  Morgan said, reading through his file in disbelief.   “You could maybe pull that off in the early days, when people hardly knew what serial killers were, but these days people know what to look for.  How could the unsub get away with so many?”

Hotch shrugged.   “Apparently most of them were solitary travelers.  This is the first time our unsub has targeted a member of a larger group, or at least the first time he’s left the rest of the group to report it.”

“Growing reckless.”   Rossi frowned, looking up.  “Shows increasing confidence, instability.”

“Perhaps he WANTS to be noticed,” theorized Prentiss.

“Odd impulse to get, at this stage.”  Morgan objected.  “The fact that the unsub’s been so careful about killing so many indicates this is more a deep-seated personal need.”

“Most serial killers motivations ARE deep-seated  personal needs.”

“But this one isn’t egotistical.  He wants it to satisfy something inside him, not to soothe some insecurity.  Why the sudden need for attention?”

“Something recent must have happened to him,” nodded Reid.  “Maybe he learned of a terminal disease and wants to leave something behind. Or something happened that made him feel suddenly insignificant.”

“Implying that previously, he felt significant.  A man of influence who lost his position?”

“It would explain the townspeople’s behavior.”

“We’re still gathering information.”  Hotch held up a hand to forestall further brainstorming.  “Garcia’s working on compiling a general profile of the area and statistics regarding the townspeople.  But right now it’s important we get out to Carlsbad as soon as possible.  Wheels up in twenty.”


 

                “Population of less 54,000.”  Morgan raised his eyebrows. 

                 “And almost half of that is in Carlsbad, which is nearly seventy miles from this place” pointed out Reid.  “It’s a pretty large county.  Says here it averages twelve people per square mile, and if you take the Carlsbad population out of that, it’s more like six and 2/3rd’s people per square mile.”

                Morgan looked at him with a frown.  “Why do I get the feeling you’re not rounding that?”

                “And we’re going a good hour or so out from Carlsbad itself.”  Emily chewed her lip.  “REALLY out in the sticks.”

                “What locals did authorities even talk to?”  Morgan asked, turning to Hotch.

                Hotch did not take his eyes from the screen as he answered.  “There’s a diner/gas station that the tour group had stopped at.  From there they spoke with a few ranchers who own territory nearby, and also some truckers who frequent that particular diner.”

                “Nothing particularly suspicious about any of them.”  Reid said, speed-reading through the profiles.  “All of the truckers have alibis for many of the disappearances, several of the ranchers moved to the area sometime AFTER the first disappearances, and the other one never goes to that particular diner.”

                “But somehow knows of the disappearances.”  Prentiss pointed out.  “Maybe he has a grudge against the owner and is killing off his customers.”

                Frowning, JJ shook her head.  “News travels fast in a small community like this.  I’m interested in the diner owner and his wife... the disappearances only start AFTER they move to the area.”

                “Interesting, but that’s more likely a data problem.”  Rossi said, lifting his head for the first time from the file.  “Recall that most of these names are taken FROM the diner receipts.  We have no way of knowing if the disappearances started at all before then.”

                “Even then, why would the owner save ALL the receipts?”  JJ insisted.  “Going back four years?  That goes BEYOND tax purposes.”

                “It’s definitely suspicious,” agreed Reid, nodding at her.  “Something to ask about when we get there.”

                “But what about...”  Morgan started.

                As the team started a second round of brainstorming, Hotch looked over at Rossi.  As unobtrusively as possible, the team leader crooked a finger at him, and the senior agent leant forward.

                “I need your opinion.”  Hotch muttered.  “How is she?”

                Rossi did not bother to ask who.  “She seems capable enough.”  He shrugged.  “So far her analysis of the case has been reasonably accurate.  I’d say she seems fit for duty.”

                “Working in the aftermath of a personal tragedy is a sign of avoidance, a reluctance to confront loss.”  Hotch responded, his voice low.  “Is coming back to work so soon... healthy for her?”

                Rossi once again gave a subtle shrug.  “You’ve known her longer than I have.”

                “You’ve been profiling killers for longer than I have,” countered Hotch.

                A sigh was Rossi’s answer.  “It depends on any number of things, not least of which is how this case affects her.  I would have rather had her stay off of work for a few days more, just to be on the safe side, but I think she should be fine regardless.”

                “And you base this assessment on... what, exactly?”  Hotch tilted his head.

                Rossi gave a little smile.  “She is surrounded by friends.”


 

                “We’ve updated the list to one hundred seventy names.”   The state trooper informed Hotch.  Hotch and Rossi were in the lead car of a caravan of SUV’s, headed out into the desert.  “It’s slow work... we’re basically going through every receipt and record in the area and trying to locate the credit card owners.  We’ve been working with your agency and the Missing Persons’ Bureau on it, but it will take some time.”

                “Good.  Put every man you have on it, we need to get an idea of what we’re dealing with.”  Hotch nodded, looking over the new names.  “Anything the victims have in common?”

                “Not that we’ve noticed.  But then, that’s why you guys are here, right?”  The trooper grinned ruefully at Hotch.  “Most of them are loners, tourists on vacation.  We’re interviewing what friends they had... so far it seems a lot of them were going through mid-life crises.  Though that seems an odd thing for a killer to zero in on.”

                “Not even something a killer would know about.”  Hotch shook his head.  “Probably just the nature of the data—I imagine most people who travel out this way are going through some sort of personal crisis.  The tourist angle might be something—a concern for how tourists are destroying the region—an environmental obsession, or perhaps an associated nostalgia for the community.”

                “Or just good sense,” Rossi put in.  “Tourists are less well-known, have fewer immediate connections, and when they go missing folks just assume they moved on to the next town.”

                The trooper coughed.  “It’s also possible that’s just a data anomaly.  We’ve only been looking at roadside diners and gas-stations so far, so tourists are the ones that come up on our radar.  We’re now checking to see if there were any local disappearances during the timeframe.”

                “Check earlier.”  Hotch recommended.  “No telling when this guy got started.”

                “The tourist fixation does fit with the townspeople’s strange apathy,” pointed out Rossi.  “They’d be more worried if one of their own disappeared, but so long as it’s an outsider...”

                Hotch nodded.  “What else do you have for us?”  He asked, turning to the state trooper.

                “We’ve been holding on to diner owner and his wife since this investigation began,” reported the man.  “Can’t hang onto them for much longer without charging them, but we figured you’d want to take a crack at them, see what you can learn.”

 


 

 

                “The owner’s a no-go, he knows practically nothing.”  Morgan concluded, entering the observation room.  “His wife handles all the customers, he just does the cooking and supply.  He knew folks were disappearing, but he claims that as no one else in town seemed too worried, he figured it wasn’t anything dangerous.”

                “So that leaves us with the wife.”  Hotch stared through the two-way mirror.  An overweight, frumpy-looking woman with greying brown hair sat on the side of a cold metal table.  Her arms were crossed, and she looked very annoyed.             “What do we have on her?”

                “Baby-girl says she’s a local, lived in the town her whole life.  Father died when she was young, she was raised by near relatives.  Income records indicate she’s had to work hard at one job or another over the years.”  Morgan reported.  “Her husband’s a local too—childhood sweetheart, from the looks of things.  The deed’s in his name, but it cost more to get that place started than he could have raised on his own.”

                “They both put their heart into that place.”  Hotch nodded.  “That’s an angle we can use.”

                “So far, the profile doesn’t scream serial killer.”  Morgan shrugged.

                “Official records only tell half the story.”  Prentiss stepped closer to the glass.  “Look at that jutting lower lip, the slight crook in her nose, the way she folds her arms defensively.  This woman’s been through some hardship.”

                Morgan frowned, considering.  “Her husband seemed like a demure, quiet sort... Then again, repression can lead to violence in private.”

                “I doubt it’s her husband.”  Prentiss shook her head.  “I can’t tell how old that broken nose is, but the postures are habit, not recent.  Besides, this is a defiant woman, not a broken one.  If her husband had beaten her, she would have left—or beaten him back.”

                “Indicating a history of abuse, but nothing current.”  Hotch nodded.  “But our killer isn’t gender-specific.” 

                “Right.  Which means this woman ISN’T our killer.”  Prentiss turned around to look at the men.  “Did you see her when they were bringing her in?  She HATES men.  Doesn’t trust them, doesn’t like them.  Her husband might be the only man she doesn’t actively resent.”

                “Maybe not even him.” Hotch frowned.

                “Lesbian inclinations?”

                Prentiss rolled her eyes.  “Please.  You guys are such pigs, your mind goes ONE place.”  Shaking her head, she continued.  “No.  This isn’t a sexual thing, it a power dynamic.  She’s been oppressed by men her whole life, apart from her husband, who I imagine SHE dominates.  Right now, she sees what’s going on as a male power play on her life’s dream.”

                “So...”

                “So if she’s going to talk to anyone of us three, she’s going to talk to me.”  Prentiss concluded.

 


 

                The heavyset woman glanced up and frowned as the door opened.  “I ain’t saying nothing to nobody until I see my lawyer.”  She snarled.

                “We called her.  She’s on her way.”  Prentiss sat down across from the lady and flipped open her file.  “But you do realize that insisting on a lawyer makes you appear somewhat suspicious.”

                The woman snorted.  “Half those men out there have made their mind up about me already.”  She answered.  “Why bother about appearances?”

                “Because men are all about appearances,” responded Prentiss, give a smug little grin back.  “They don’t tend to look at facts.  Like these receipts you have.  All they can say is that it looks weird for you to save them all like that.”

                “Oh, for the love of...”  The woman threw up her hands.  “That’s Earl’s little mania.  Never throws anything away.  But do they suspect HIM?  Of course not.”

                Prentiss smiled.  “You’re right that they don’t think your husband has the guts to pull it off.”

                “Guts?  They would think that.”  There was something a trifle protective about the woman’s snort.  “More like the gall.  Earl’s can be plenty gutsy when he has a mind to, just not about killing folks.”

                “So who would?”  Emily asked.

                “No one.”  The woman stuck out her chin.  “We’re decent folks out here.  Not like you city slickers.”

                “You’re not so fond of urban centers, out here, are you?” smiled Emily.


                “Damn straight.”  The woman’s chin stuck out even more.  “All you high-falutin’ folks, passing through this fine little town like it ain’t as much as a bump on the road.  Beautiful place we got here, full of fine people, but do you care?  No.  More interested in bare rocks.  All the same, city folks.”

                Emily’s eyes quivered just slightly.  “Like the disappearing visitors?”

                “Those people,” grunted the woman.  “Come into the diner and barely buy a drink, most of them.  Shiftless, moving about like devil-may-care, not bothering with where they’re going or what they’re doing like they got all the time and money in the world.”

                “You said they were interested in rocks?”  Emily pressed.

                “Only thing they WERE interested in.  Come out of nowhere and head out into the desert like it was the only thing.  Leave their cars in the lot, most of them.  Others, they’d keep coming and going in and out... never bother with the town, just back and forth with the desert.”  The woman spat viciously.  “Weeks and weeks they’d be out there, but would they bother staying at any of our town’s fine hotels?  No!  Just the desert for them.  Spend less and less time, even at the diner.”

 


 

 

                Morgan threw Hotch a look.  “Sounds like not all the disappearances were sudden.”

                “Might explain the townspeople’s apathy.”  Hotch rubbed his chin.  “Didn’t think the tourists were dead, just off in some survivalist commune.  The xenophobia might contribute to it too, if it’s typical across the town.”

                “So then the question becomes: what was going out in the desert?”  Morgan mused, turning back to the window.

 


 

               

                “You say they all went out to the desert... any idea where?”

                “Oh, heavens if I know,” snapped the woman.  “Shiftless, those folks.  Never even knew where they were going.  Hippies, the lot of them, going on about this ‘dream’ they had.  John would reel them in like fish... shameless hustler like he is.”

                Emily leant forward just the smallest bit.  “John?  Who’s he?”

                “John Travis.  Little better than a bum, that man.  But he knows how to lead city slickers on.  Clean them out with promises to show them their dreams and such.”  The woman waved her hand.  “He was always hanging around the diner, looking to take the next shiftless preppy boy out for a ride.”

 


 

                Hotch rapped on the door.  “John Travis?”

                “Coming!” rasped a voice from within the trailer.   There was the rattling of a lock and then a thin, dirty face stuck out of the door.  “Somethin’ I can do for ya?”

                Hotch held up his wallet.  “Special Agent Aaron Hotchner.”  He gestured off to the side.    “This is Special Agent Spencer Reid.  We’re here to ask about a Nicholas and Jane Harper.”

                Surprisingly, the man rolled his eyes.  “Not this again.”  He muttered.  Opening the door, he gestured.  “C’mon in, then.  They want to come too?”  He asked, pointing at the row of SUV’s in the road.

                “No, that won’t be necessary.”  Hotch turned and gave a sign.  He saw Morgan, peering over the hood of the lead SUV, give a nod in answer.  Morgan would tell the SWAT teams hidden behind the cars to stand down. 

                Morgan’d been all for crashing in the front door and taking down the man, but Hotch had vetoed that plan.  The fact that some of the tourists had come back out after going for a ride with Travis suggested that he wasn’t the unsub they were after.  Plus, a quick check by Garcia had revealed that Travis had already been checked out once by the Missing Person’s Bureau, and they had cleared him.  So instead it was just Hotch and Reid, going in for a friendly chat.

                It was crowded and stuffy in the trailer, and Hotch was fairly certain he caught the scent of marijuana.  That could be useful leverage.  A cat hissed at them as they entered and then leapt off an oddly-placed laptop computer perched on the stove.

“Have a seat,” said the man, going over to a beat-up dresser.

Hotch and Reid eyed the threadbare, grease-stained couch and looked at each other.  “Thank you, but this shouldn’t take long.”  Hotch said.  “We understand you were the last person to see Nicholas and Jane Harper.”

“Yeah, I remember ‘em.”  The man said, not turning as he opened a drawer on the dresser.  “Offered to show them the sights of the desert.”

“They’re missing.”  Reid said.

                “Course they are.  And you’re here to see if I’ve stowed their bodies under the porch, right?  Harper, harper...” muttered the grungy man as he rummaged through the drawer.  “Here we are.”  He produced a slim brown wallet and a turquoise purse.  “Harper.”

                Hotch took it.  “You expect me to believe you this couple just... gave you all their belongings?”

                Shrugging, John Travis shambled over to the laptop and booted it up.  “Believe what you want.”  He answered.  “But nine times out of ten, the second they get to that ranch, they practically toss me their stuff.  Lessee, they were just last week, right?”

“This past Thursday,”  Reid answered, staring into the drawer with fascination.  “Hotch, this drawer is full of wallets.”

                “And ain’t none of them with their credit cards maxed out or identities stolen.”  Travis called, clicking away at his computer.  “I know enough not to push a good thing.  Here.”  He opened a window and pushed his chair away, gesturing Hotch forward.  “Take a look for yourself.”

                Hotch studied the screen.  The shot was of a truck interior.  Travis and a young, dark-haired man in khaki shorts and a white t-shirt  were visible in the front seat.  Every so often the camera jostled and caught sight of a similarly-dressed brunette in the back seat.

                Hotch glanced at the man.  “You take videos of all your passengers?”

                “After one of them earned me three weeks of questioning, yeah.”  Travis snorted.  “S’a little dash-mounted camera.  Still in the truck, if you want to take a look.”

                Hotch wondered.  Serial killers were known for taking trophies—and videos.  This man seemed like a perfectly textbook example.

Still there was the irrefutable evidence that the couple in the video was very much alive, and apparently under no threat of coercion.  “200 dollars.” Travis was saying. 

                “Hm?  Oh, yeah, yeah.”  The man handed Travis his wallet.  He seemed to be staring off at something in the distance.  “Just uh.. uh...”

                “My word, honey,”  said the woman, leaning forward over the backseat eagerly, staring at the same thing.  “Just... my word.”

                In the video, Travis paused from thumbing through the wallet.  “There ain’t no change in this wallet, man.”

                “Oh, take... take my card.”  The young man waved vaguely, struggling out of his seatbelt and opening the door.  “Just... not more than you need.”

                “There’s cash in my purse in the back,” added the woman, shoving the chair forward eagerly and scrambling out of the back.

                “Right.”  Travis called out after them.  “Any messages you want me to pass on?   Hey, kid!”  Grumbling, the Travis in the video reached toward the camera.  The view lurched suddenly and swiveled toward the windshield, showing the couple man running across the desert toward an extinct volcano.

                “And that was the last you saw of him?”  Hotch asked.

                “Sure was.  That’s the last I ever seen of any of them. They...”

                “Hotch.”  Reid’s voice was strangely sharp.  “Hotch, you’re going to want to see this.”

                The senior analyst looked over at the gangly agent with a frown.  Reid was standing unnaturally stiffly, his face was pale, and his lips were drawn.  In his hand was a smooth brown wallet.  Hotch took it without a word and opened it up.

                A very familiar driver’s license jumped out at him.  Jason Gideon.

                Hotch slowly lowered the wallet and looked at Travis, who was glancing from one to the other in mild puzzlement.  “This man...”  He said, his voice low and level.  “Did you take him where you took the others?”

                Travis took the wallet and glanced at it.  “Oh yeah.  Him.  I remember him, real friendly guy.”

                “Did you take him to where the others disappeared?”  Hotch repeated, a hint of stress creeping into his voice.

                “Yeah.”   A few more clicks on the computer, and a new video came up.  Gideon’s wrinkled, weary face came into focus.  He was staring out the window in disinterest as the truck sped along down the road.

                “Gideon.”  Reid breathed.

                “And you dropped him off at this place?”  Hotch asked, staring at the screen. Gideon had started suddenly, he was staring off at something in the distance.

                “Yeah.”

                “And you never saw him again?”

                Travis just snorted.  “I told you.  I never see any of them again.  They go off to that mountain, and they don’t come back.”

                Hotch stood back and lookedat Travis.  “Show me.”

 


 

 

                SUV’s came roaring over the hill, tearing through the thin wire fence and kicking up enormous clouds of dust as they sped toward the volcano and the tiny camper at its foot.   With a crunch of sand and gravel they ground to a halt, surrounding the camper.  Black-suited SWAT officers  jumped out of the vehicles, followed closely by the BAU team.

                In the middle of them all sat a portly old man in a hawaiian shirt, sitting on a lawn chair in front of the trailer.

                He lowered his book and blinked at the guns pointed in his direction.  “Hey there.”  he nodded.  “I’m Zandi and I...”  He paused, and frowned at them.  “...I have no idea why you’re here.”

 


 

Life is really simple, but men insist on making it complicated.”  --Confucius

Chapter Text

 

“Nothing resembles an honest man more than a cheat.” –French proverb


 

 

                “So you say these people come here all the time?” 

                The portly man nodded pleasantly, almost as if he were talking philosophy with a man at the bar, not handcuffed and sitting in the back of an SUV.  “All the time, agent.”

                Hotch glared.  He really didn’t like how well this man was taking everything.  “And you do... what?”

                “I set them on the path,” answered the man.

                “And what path is that?” Rossi cut in.

                Zandi smiled.  “The path of the Grower.  The return of the Least.  The seven journeys.”

                Hotch and Rossi exchanged glances.  All around them, the police officers and FBI agents were fanning out across the ranch, searching  the firepit, digging up suspicious-looking piles of dirt, rappelling down into the strange canyon just beyond.  So for, nothing had come up.

“Where is this path?”  Hotch tried.

                “I told you.  Listen to the message.  Find the seven journeys, then... enter the tree.”  Zandi gestured, a difficult action when your hands were cuffed.  “I’m not really here to give you... answers, you understand.”

                “No, I’m pretty sure that’s EXACTLY why you’re here.”  Hotch shot back.  “And believe me, you will give me plenty of them back at the station, one way or another, so start thinking some up.”  He gestured to the driver.  “Take him away.”

                Rossi glanced at him as the car sped away.  “We don’t really have enough evidence to arrest him, Aaron.”

                “He’s hiding something.”  Hotch argued.  “We can hold him for at least 24 hours; after that we can hit him with ‘obstruction of justice’ and see if that loosens his tongue.”

                Rossi considered this.  “He might not be ABLE to loosen his tongue, Hotch.”

                “He’s not insane.  Odd, definitely, but more perverse than insane.  I get the feeling this isn’t the first time he’s done something like this, and he ENJOYS the mysterious answer routine.”  Hotch turned as Prentiss came walking out of the camper, accompanied by several officers.  “Well?”

                She shook her head.  “Lots of books and old records, but no guns, chainsaws, or anything remotely resembling a serial killer’s setup.”  Prentiss answered.

                “See any repeats of that odd hand symbol he’s got on the back of his trailer?”  Rossi asked.

                “One ratty old shirt in the closet,” shrugged Prentiss.  “From the looks of his camper, I’d profile the guy as a laid-back sort, a prematurely retired man.  There are signs he’s used to living larger—gourmet foods in the fridge, a few tuxedoes in the closet—but he’s settled down to his means.”

                “The books?”  Rossi asked.

                “Some archaeological, some puzzle, some ones I don’t recognize,” answered Prentiss.  “They’re kind of a mix—I’d say he at least used to be a scholar of some kind, but now he reads mostly for recreation.  And he loves puzzles, they’re littered all over the place.”  She shrugged.  “Right now, I’m going with disappointed heir of old money who’s bored and feeling unfulfilled, so he starts killing tourists to prove himself.”

                “This isn’t Batman, and our unsub isn’t the Riddler.”  Rossi shook his head.

                “Just saying.  If I had to spend days out here, I might go crazy too.  I mean, there’s NOTHING out here.  Why would anyone come this way?  Why would Gideon come this way?”

                “Maybe he picked up on the missing persons angle and wanted to look it up himself.” Rossi suggested.

                “Gideon stopped working because he was sick of the business.”  Hotch shook his head.

                “He might say that,” Rossi allowed, “but we both know the profiler never really stops working.”

                “Maybe.  But even so, Jason would know...” The ring of a phone cut him off and Hotch reached into his pocket.  “Garcia.”  He said, pressing speakerphone. “What do you have?”

                “Ask and you shall receive, Keemosabie!”  Penelope Garcia’s voice laughed from the device.  “I did some checking up on your Jeff Zandi character.  Get this.  PROFESSOR Jeff Zandi is the only son of the late Elias Zandi.”

                Hotch just blinked.  “Who?”

                “The millionaire archaeologist?”  Rossi asked, moving a step closer. 

                “That’s the one!  Used to collect southwest artifacts, eye for the strange and unusual.  Died back in 1996 of a heart attack, but didn’t leave his son anything outside of the bare land you’re standing on.”

                “See?”  Prentiss smirked.  “Daddy issues.  Wanted to prove himself.”

                “Trying to give value to the worthless land his father gave him?”  Rossi considered.  “I could see it.”

                “Garcia, what about the handprint on the back?”  Hotch asked.

                “Stiiillll working on that, oh wise one.”  Garcia sounded slightly less enthusiastic.  “But not much has been coming up yet.  All I’ve got are a few cave drawings and some designer shirts, and neither seem to be the original thing.”

                “All right.  Keep on it.”  Clicking the phone off, Hotch turned to an approaching police officer.  “What is it?”

                “Sir, you may want to come out by the gate,” said the man.  “We have a... minor situation.”

 


 

                “Reid, let it go.”

                “You don’t understand.  These bones can NOT exist.”

                “So they don’t!”  Morgan gestured at the giant ribs and skull poking out of the sand.  “Let’s just call them plaster casts and move on!”

                “But they’re NOT plaster!”  Reid darted about the bones, glancing at the teeth, feeling the texture of the eye socket, tapping the jagged ribs.  “The texture, the feel, the consistency is all wrong for plaster!”

                “So what do they feel like?”

                “Like bones!”

                “Well okay, maybe they are bones!”

                “Morgan, these bones correspond to no known species of animal, living or otherwise!”  Reid shouted, throwing up his hands in frustration.  “I am familiar with the skeletomuscular system of every living and fossilized creature, and this does not fit into any of them!”

                “Familiar with... oh c’mon.”  Derek scoffed.  “Look, let’s narrow it down some, okay? What would you say if you had to—bird, mammal, or lizard?”

                Reid backed up and took a long look.  “Fish.”  He decided.

                “Fish?  Seriously?  In the desert?”

                “It’s the only thing that fits!  The density and structure is consistent with that of a small whale.”  He studied it some more.  “With tusks.”

                “Tusks.  Right.”  Morgan shook his head and glanced upward.  “And how’d it get out here?  Fall out of the sky, Douglas Adams style?”

                “Fish falling from the sky is NOT unprecedented,” answered Reid defensively.  “A typhoon picks up fish from the sea, brings them up into the air, and then rains them down far inland when it’s lost its energy.  The first recorded instance was in Singapore in 1861, but even as recently as 2012, there was a instance of it in the Phillipines.”

                “New Mexico isn’t some Pacific Island, Reid.”  Morgan pointed out.  “And it’s been years since any hurricane came this way.  A fish skeleton doesn’t belong here.”

                Reid rounded on him.  “THIS fish skeleton doesn’t belong ANYWHERE.”  He insisted.  “I’m telling you, this skeleton doesn’t fit with any known species!”  Turning back to the bones, he started to inspect the inside of the sizeable jaw, continuing:  “And it can’t be a fossil, because it’s out in the open and exposed to the elements!  It would have rotted or...” He paused suddenly.

                “What?” asked Morgan.  “You solve the mystery of the missing fish?”

                “Not so much.”  answered Reid.  “But I did find something interesting.  Here, take a look at this.”

                Morgan came around the skull to see what Reid was talking about. 

                Attached somehow to the interior of the skeleton’s jawbone was a piece of rough canvas, emblazoned with a rough painting.  Four short stalks extended from a slightly oblong spiral to form a stylized, tribal-like symbol of a hand.

“Hey, that’s the same symbol we saw on the back of Zandi’s trailer.”  He noted.

                “On the same sort of cloth, too,” agreed Reid, fingering the stitching.  “But why stick a symbol like this to a skeleton, fake or otherwise?”

                “Ritualistic, maybe?”  Morgan suggested. “These bones could have been part of a sacrifice of some kind.  Or—saying these bones are fake...”

                “They are.  They have to be.”

                “Right.  In THAT case, then maybe someone drafted them as the relics for a new cult of some kind.  Say these are the remains of the fish god who fell from the stars or something.”

                “And decorate it with the cult’s emblem.”  Reid nodded.  “It fits.  But most cults use rather derivative imagery, and err on the side of detail, particularly for an object of worship, like these bones.  This hand is remarkably simple... not even that big, really.”  He stretched his own hand out along it to indicate.

                There was a strange sound like a droning hum, and a portion of the cloth lit up.

                Reid jerked back his hand as if it had been burnt, stumbling away and crashing against the other side of the fish’s jawbone. 

Morgan just gave him an odd look.  “Reid.  It’s freaky, but it’s not THAT freaky.”

                “Sorry.”  Reid managed, pushing himself back to his feet.  “It just... felt really... strange.”

                “Strange?  Like how?”

                “Like I was being... pulled... well, no... more like it was... marking... well, it..."  Reid said.

Morgan stared at him.

"Just... forget it.”  Reid sighed.

                “O-o-kay,” answered Morgan, still eyeing him strangely.  “Suppose we should get forensics down here to look at this cloth, see if it’s some sort of touch or heat-sensitive pad under there.”

                “And WHY it’s there.”  Reid pointed out.

                Morgan nodded.  “Should probably check the one on the trailer, too, see if it does the same thing.”

                “Not just that...”  Reid was staring at the cloth with renewed concentration.  “I’ve seen another one of these.”

 


 

                “Sir, trespassing on a crime scene is a serious offense.”  Hotch informed the man.

                “I know, I know.”  The man smiled, holding up his hands.  “Believe me, I have no intention of interfering in official business.  But I just wondering... perhaps I take a look?  With your permission, of course.  Just a quick look. I bother no one.”

                Hotch eyed the man.   He spoke with a faint Eastern European accent, but even a foreigner should have known how ludicrous such a request was.  “Why is it so important you look around?”  He asked.

                “Well, it... it just...”  The man laughed, scratching the skin under his polo shirt in an embarrassed fashion.  “Is hard to explain... volcano is just... just... like something I remember.”  He smiled.

                “Have you been here before?  Are you familiar with the area?” pressed Hotch.  Perhaps this man could give them information.

                “Oh, not me.”  The man shook his head.  “I come to America on vacation.  My friends, they say I crazy to go to New Mexico and not New York.  But...”  Again he looked longingly at vacation.  “Something calls me here.  I come to see...”

                Hotch’s attention was suddenly caught by Reid and Morgan, who had come up silently during the conversation and were now inspecting the half-fallen sign leaning against the fence.  “Excuse me.”  He said, holding up a finger to silence the man.  “Reid.  Morgan.  What is it?”

                Morgan looked up at him, while Reid continued to study whatever-it-was on the back side of the sign.  “Hey Hotch.  We found another one of those hand-symbols on some bizarre skeletons out in the desert.”

                “Skeletons?”  Hotch’s eyebrow shot upwards.

                “Not human.  Some kind of animal...”

                “NOT an animal.  Not any possible kind of animal that I’VE ever seen, anyway.”  Reid cut in.

                “...they might be fakes.”  Morgan threw Reid an exasperated look.  “Anyway, the hand thing sort of lit up when Reid touched it.”

                Hotch closed his eyes.  “You realize we have a forensics lab for a reason.”  He said.

“When have we ever used forensics?”  Morgan scoffed.  “We checked the cloth on the trailer and it did something similar, and then Reid remembered he’d seen another out here...”

                “Just out of the corner of my eye, when we first arrived.”  Reid answered, turning the sign around.  There, fixed tightly to the metal, was another cloth bearing the strange hand sign.

                Hotch frowned.  “Odd place to stick something like that.”

                “Secret sign of some kind,maybe?”

                “Too blatant for a secret sign.”  Rossi shook his head, coming alongside Reid to study the symbol.  “No, it’s meant to be overt, tacked over the sign like that, but why?”

                “Show them how it lights up, Reid.”  Morgan suggested.

                Reid nodded.  “They seem to have differing responses.”  He informed the others.  “The one at the skeleton only lit up this far.”  A quick jab at the symbol indicated his meaning.  “The one on the trailer lit up a little farther... about halfway up the spiral.  Not sure yet what this one will do.”  He pressed his hand to the cloth.

                The entire spiral that made up the lower part of the hand lit up with a strange glow.  Hotch, Rossi, and most of the surrounding officers studied it with interest.  “Significance?”  Hotch asked.

                Rossi shrugged.  “An elaborate  scavenger hunt of some kind?  Markers, maybe for different hiding spots?  You could say ‘the complete spiral’ and no one would know which you meant until they pressed the cloth.”

                “They could memorize the locations.”

                “Not if they rotate the markers.  It’d be random.”

                “That would imply a higher level of organization than what we’d supposed.”  Hotch muttered, staring off across the desert.  “We’d taken this to be one man, perhaps...”

                “Hey!”  An outraged shout cut him off, and Hotch spun round to see the European tourist, halfway across the fence, shoving past a police officer to press his hand against the cloth.

                “Get him out of here!” snapped Hotch, as the officers finally pushed the man away.

                “Look! Look!” cried the man, pointing with delight.

                The same cloth lit up, but now only to the edge of the thumb.

                The Analysts stood dumbfounded.  “Perhaps it... alternates?  According to how many times its been activated?” Reid hazarded.

                Hotch shook his head.  “Officer Ramirez.”  He said, pointing.  “Please escort Mr. Benyskouy off the premises.  Sergeant Briscoe, get forensics out here to take a look at this thing.  See if they can work out the programming and who built it.  And,” he said, turning to the team, “I think it best if from now on we wear GLOVES while examining those cloths.  There are likely some fingerprints on some.”

                “More likely too muddled to make anything out.”  Rossi warned.

                “Still, we should take precautions.”  Hotch answered.  His phone beeped, and he snapped it open.  “Emily, how’s the canyon coming?”

                “Hotch, you better get down here.”  Prentiss’ voice came through.  “You have to see this.”

 

 


 

 

                “Okay, we’re here.”  Morgan said, grunting as he squeezed into the narrow cave room.  Between five BAU agents and three forensic specialists, it was getting pretty crowded.  “Now what’s so important that we all had to come down here?”

                Prentiss, standing near a bizarre metallic construct positioned on a low stone shelf at the far side of the room, looked over at him.  “Well, I just called Hotch, but... it’s best you all see it.  I’m not sure you’d believe me otherwise.”

                “What is it?”  Hotch asked.

                “Some sort of message.”  Prentiss answered.  “Apparently left behind for anyone who comes here.  I think you’ll find it interesting.”

                Reid elbowed him as Prentiss began to fiddle with the machine.  “There were three more of those hand-print cloth things down here.”  He whispered.  “One in another room, another on a bucket, and another one on the back of the door to this cave.”

                “Yeah, I saw it.”  Morgan nodded.  “I’m more curious as to who the hell puts automatic doors on a cave.”

                They fell silent as Prentiss pressed the glowing blue button in the center of the apparatus.

                The lights flickered, and then all the agents gave an involuntary step back as the shimmering image of a woman appeared in their midst.

"Shorah,” said the woman.  She was tall and brown-skinned, with long dreadlocks and a blue face tattoo.  She was dressed in equally exotic garments. “...reKUan treKleft...”

Reid waved an arm through the image.  It passed through with no resistance.  “A hologram?”

“Damn.”  Morgan was impressed.                                                                             

            

“...preniv legloen b'rem...”

“Rossi?”  Hotch looked to the elder agent, who shook his head.

The girl suddenly slapped her head.  “Oh, yes. Not in Dunny. They won't understand.” 

“Slight Arabian accent.”  Reid noted.

“No duh.  What’s Dunny?”  Morgan asked him.  Reid shrugged.

“Once again the stream in the Cleft has begun to flow.”  said the woman, her hologram starting to move through the cave, it’s form ghosting through the crowded agents. “It was dry for so long. The water is flowing in from the desert. The storm is coming.”

“Looks like we were right about the cult.”  Morgan smirked.

“Definitely sounds like it.”  Rossi nodded, but his face was troubled.  "Odd she mentions an endgame.  The killings suggested a more continuous timeframe.”

Hotch leaned in toward Prentiss.  “This is the second time you’ve seen this.  Does it make any more sense to you?”

Prentiss shook her head.  “Apart from the obvious—that the woman’s delusional and has some sort of Messiah complex—I can’t understand a word of what she’s talking about.  Silent cities and quests and such.  It would be easier if she wasn’t continually speaking in metaphor.”

 “Have you heard of the city?” asked the holographic woman, staring past them out the door. “The deep city, the ancient uru? Where there was power to write worlds.  For thousands of years the city lived, lived beneath the surface. Keeper of the secret; keeper of the power; keeper of the ages. Always keeping. The city grew proud and then it died.”

“Convenient, that.”  Morgan muttered.

“Classic myth-building.”  Rossi nodded.  “Promise secret ancient power, balance with a cautionary fable that also explains why this power isn’t readily available.”  He glanced to Hotch.  “This girl could write a book on cults.

“She said ‘beneath the surface.’”  Reid noted.  “The ‘hollow-earth’ theory proposes that...”

“The water flows where it wills.”  said the girl again, now coasting through the room almost playfully. “It seeks its own path uncontrolled, except that it flows downward, always downward.”

“Back to metaphor.”  Hotch frowned.  Prentiss nodded sympathetically.

The girl stopped in the middle of the floor.  “Dunny, the city of ages, of other worlds, died.”  She stated. “But now it breathes again. It awaits. Some will seek that destination, but you should seek the Journey. It's as a fine tapestry. Complex beyond comprehension, but now torn.”

“The distinction between groups...” Morgan muttered.  “Victims vs. acolytes?  Those who fail go straight to the underworld city, while those who focus on ‘the journey’ stick around and get more?”

“My god.”  Rossi looked like he’d just been struck with a thought.  “The ones that came out of the desert... they were devotees.”

The girl had stopped by the far wall, where (Reid noticed with surprise) another of the hand-cloths was located.  “We will show you remnants, pieces of the tapestry.”  She said, indicating the fabric. “Pieces of the Journey. Find these remnants, these Journeys. Seven. Seven in each age. Seven here in the desert.  Consider it a quest...”  She paused.  “No... a request.”

Morgan closed his eyes.  “Seriously?”

“At least that tells us how many there are to look for.”  Reid shrugged.

“The water flows downward, and there it pools and collects, and finally, once again, it reaches the roots, and the tree begins to grow again.”

“Sounds like she’s wrapping it up.”  Hotch got out his phone.  “Well, that explains a lot.  Now if we can identify this woman...”

“I am Yeesha.”  The girl announced.  The agents stared at her in dumbfounded silence as she continued. “My parents brought me to this place. We... will bring you."

The hologram flickered away, and for a few moments a tense silence hung over the cave.

“That... sounded a little bit like a threat.”  Reid observed.

 “Well,” said Morgan, clapping his hands.  “That gives us a face, and a name.  More than we usually have at this point.”

                Hotch nodded.  “Did she leave anything here?”  He asked, turning to Prentiss.

                “There’s a letter to her we found in one of the adjoining caves.”  Prentiss handed him a sheet of paper, neatly enclosed in an evidence bag.  “Written from someone named ‘Atrus,’ claiming to be her father.”

                “No last name, I suppose.”

                “No.”

                “Those aren’t exactly common names.”  Morgan pointed out.  “Let’s call up baby-girl, see what she can do with that.”

                “Ask her about that city of Dunny, too.” Hotch nodded.  “It seems like an important motivator in whatever’s driving our unsub.”

                “Right.”  Morgan pulled out his phone.

                Reid eyed the projector atop the stone pillar with distrust.  “Seems odd to bother with a projected image like that.”  He mused.  “Why not a simple note?  Or a video?”

                “You think THAT’S odd.”  Prentiss smirked.  “See that cloth on the wall back there?  When we started up this projector, it wasn’t there.”

                One of the forensic team snorted.  Hotch glanced over at him.  “Something amusing, Agent Dawson?”

                Agent Dawson coughed, a little embarrassed at being caught.  “Well, it’s just that... you all are missing the point.  Compared to the projector itself, a hidden cloth, touch-sensitive or otherwise, is small potatoes.”

                “Really?”  Reid looked over.  “How expensive is one of these things?”

                Dawson gave a little laugh.  “I don’t know, because I’ve never seen one before.  To be honest, before Agent Prentiss hit that button, I didn’t know something like this existed.”

                The agents looked askance at him, but the other forensic agents were nodding.  “Holographic projectors are available on the market, but generally speaking they stay in one place—over the projector,” volunteered one.  “Something like this... that can project the image anywhere in its line of sight... well, it’s unheard of.”

                “So this is an invention of our unsub’s design?”  Hotch asked.

                Agent Dawson shrugged.  “I don’t know where else she would have gotten it.  The bigger question is why she would hide it down here—you could sell the designs to a company and make an easy million.  More than that, if you decided to market it yourself.”  He rubbed his hands in anticipation.  “I can’t wait to take it apart and see what’s inside.”

                “Hold that thought.”  There was a commotion at the door, and several of the forensic agents moved aside as JJ pushed her way into the cave, clad in a dark suit with slacks.  “We can’t damage any of these artifacts until we get the Apache, Navajo, and Zuni representatives out here to give the ok.”

                “Seriously?”  Morgan asked, turning as he snapped his phone shut. 

                “The artifacts just in this room are distinctly different from any sort of native American culture,” protested Reid, caught in the act of lifting a strange leather belt from the rock shelf.  “The carvings, textiles, and symbology are wholly inconsistent with any known tribal culture.”

                “Plus, there’s the electronic cloths, the windmill, the automatic doors, and the holographic projector.” Prentiss pointed out.

                “I agree.”  JJ nodded.  “But it doesn’t change the fact that there are protocols about these things.  Any artifacts found in the desert have to be examined to determine who they belong to.”  She glared at Reid.  “Which means you should probably put that belt back, Spence.”

                Reid seemed not to hear her.  He was too busy frowning at the satchel that hung from one side of the belt.  “What could this possibly be used for?”  He pondered aloud.

                “I suppose I should call off the drill team, then.”  Hotch muttered, looking slightly annoyed as he pulled out his phone.

                JJ glanced from him to Prentiss.  “Drill team?”

                Shrugging, Prentiss answered, “For the door under the tree, at the far end of the cleft.  The man we have in custody said something about ‘entering the tree,’ and it’s got another of those hand-prints on it, so we’re pretty sure it’s important, but we can’t get it to budge for anything.    And it’s stone, so a battering ram wouldn’t do much either.”  Without much hope, she looked at JJ.  “I don’t suppose it’s possible that destroying things in the area is permitted.”

                “Sorry.”  JJ offered an apologetic smile.

                “Don’t worry about it.”  Hotch said, as he snapped his phone shut.  “Clearly our unsub has a fascination with technology and cryptic riddles. And Prentiss noted he has a fondness for puzzles...  There is most likely some sort of key about the cleft that can open the door.  We just need to locate it.”

                “Given the similar symbology, I’d say it has something to do with these cloth panels.”  Reid suggested, frowning at the one on the wall.  “Counting the other ones we found in the cleft, this makes seven.”  Slipping a glove over his hand, he pressed it to the cloth and smirked triumphantly as the entire hand lit up. 

                Rossi raised an eyebrow and looked at Hotch.  “’Seven journeys,’ eh?”

                “I told you he was enjoying playing with us.”  Hotch answered.  “Reid.”  He gestured.   “Let’s see if the door recognizes your handprint.”

 


 

 

                It took them a few moments to get out of the room and down to the canyon floor.  It wasn’t a large canyon—in fact, with all the agents swarming over it, things were rather crowded—but it had not been designed for ease of access.  Several of the bridges had collapsed, and though the forensic team was working on a solution to that, the team still had to practically climb down the cliff face to get to the ground.

                Reid helped her to the floor.  “Careful, JJ.”

                “Thanks, Spence.”  She answered with a smile.

                But she could see in his face that he wasn’t fooled.  As much as JJ loved the team, one of the things she HATED about profilers is that they were always watching you and appraising your actions.  Right now, she could feel all their eyes on her, studying her face, her walk, the way her hand trembled slightly when she pushed back her hair, the goddamned pants she was wearing.

                “Slacks, huh JJ?”  Morgan observed, as he dropped to the ground.  “That’s a new look.”

                Bingo.  “We’re in the desert, Morgan.”  She grinned at him.  “A skirt didn’t exactly seem practical for climbing over rocks.”

                Morgan nodded and smiled, but she could still seem him watching.  It didn’t really matter what she said.  Or at least, it didn’t matter except to the extent that it helped them appraise why she was lying.  She wondered why Morgan thought she was wearing slacks.  Physical protection to compensate for emotional vulnerability?  Attempt to move on past tragedy by reinventing oneself?  Lack of concern for personal appearance, suggesting apathy and a slow degeneration of character?

                “What’s in the bag?”  That was Prentiss. 

                “Can’t quite remember, to be honest.”  Actually, she wasn’t being honest.  Flashlight, sunblock, bugspray, three water bottles, a coil of rope, a compass, a map of the area, a pack of energy bars, and a flare gun.  But listing them out would only give her friends more to work with.  “I threw it together when I heard we were heading out to the desert.  I had an uncle who got stranded out in Texas once... all they ever found of him was the vultures picking dry his bleached skeleton.”

                There was a sudden silence.

                “I’m KIDDING.”  She said, throwing them a mock-glare.  “They found him after two days.  He was fine.”

                The team broke into some relieved chuckles, and JJ allowed herself a little smile.  Yes, she was hurting.  But for as much as she was hurting, there were people out there DYING, and neither they nor Henry could last if she chose to have a nervous breakdown right now.  Of course, having a whole team of people constantly watching you for signs of said breakdown was NOT helpful.  JJ gave a little kick at a stone and instantly regretted it—that was probably one of the signs.

                “Reid.”  She said, in an attempt at distraction.  “What is this place, exactly?  Doesn’t look like any cavern I’ve ever seen.”

                “Strictly speaking, this isn’t a cavern.”  Reid answered, his lecture-voice taking over.  “A cavern is a large underground region, a large cave, if you will.  This could more accurately be considered a canyon, a narrow chasm with steep walls.  But generally people think of much larger regions when they think of canyons.  The precise term for this sort of formation is ‘diatreme,’ a sort of volcanic vent or fissure, which...”

                “Volcanic?”  That was Morgan.

                “I’m practically certain it’s extinct.”  Reid assured them.  “There hasn’t been an eruption in this area since the 1500’s, according to geological surveys.”  The others looked at him strangely, and he shrugged.  “I looked it up on the way over here, okay?  Living so close to a volcano represents an adventurous spirit, which contrasts with the underground nature of the complex—geographically, underground dwellings indicate a fondness for establishment and rules.”

                “So perhaps a risk-taker who follows certain rules of his own?” suggested Prentiss.  “Definitely an unorthodox, creative sort, given all the artistry on the walls and the simple fact that they set up shop in this ‘diatreme.’”

                “Not only that, but living beneath the surface like this shows that the unsub, or at least the original designers of this place liked secrecy and isolation.”  Reid seemed to consider for a moment.  “Though I guess you could get that anyway from the desert surroundings.”

                “Wonder what it would be like to lay in here at night and just look up at the stars through the crack.”  Prentiss mused.  Her voice had an odd, almost sing-song tone to it, and her head was tilted back to look at the sky.

                “Dark,  probably,” answered Morgan.

                Awakening from whatever world she was in, Prentiss slapped the agent on the arm.  “You haven’t an ounce of romance in your soul, Derek.”

                They had reached the door.  JJ was surprised by the size of the tree—its roots reached along either side of the circular stone door, and its trunk craned all the way out of the cleft, spreading its leaves out in the open air.

                None of the other agents seemed particularly interested in the tree right now. They simply watched as Reid placed his hand on the symbol set in the center of the stone.  The symbol glowed briefly, and then, with a rumble, the stone door raised upwards.

                Reid threw her a smile.  “Got it.”

                “What’s back there?” Morgan craned his head around, trying to see past all the others clustered around the opening.

                “It’s a hole, and there’s a ladder leading down into it.”  Reid answered.  With sudden abruptness, he moved forward and started to clamber down the ladder.  JJ noticed, with faint exasperation, that he had the belt from the cave slung over one shoulder.  “Let’s see what’s at the bottom!”

                “Whoa, hey, Reid, maybe let someone with more weapons experience check it...”

                “I’m on the floor!”  Reid’s voice called up.    “Wasn’t much of a climb at all.”

                JJ dug into her bag and pulled out a flashlight.  “Here, catch.”  She called, tossing it down.

                Reid caught it, but he gave her an odd look.  “It’s... not really dark down here, JJ.  They have lights.”

                Oh.  Well now she felt stupid.  “I’m coming down.”

                As she stepped off the ladder, Prentiss already climbing down after her, JJ took the flashlight back and stuffed it into her bag as she glanced around.  They seemed to be in a subterranean passage.  It didn’t seem to be going down at all, but it was heading away from the cleft, which meant...

                “Spence.”  She asked, stepping just a little further away from the ladder, so Prentiss would have room.  “Are you SURE that volcano is extinct?”

                “Reasonably.”  He answered.  “Why?”

                Without answering, she dug out a compass.  “Because this path is headed straight for it.”  She answered.

                There was a little creak as Prentiss paused in mid-climb.  “You couldn’t have mentioned that while I was still at the top?”

                “I’m telling you, it’s perfectly safe. This volcano is as extinct as they get.”  Reid walked a few steps down the path to prove his point. 

                And jumped back as the walls of the tunnel suddenly lit up.  “YAAH!”

                “Huh.  That’s interesting.”  Prentiss stepped off the ladder.    The sides of the tunnel were now covered in glowing runes.  “More techno-magic tricks?”

                “This one looks to be pretty simple... some kind of phosphorescent algae.”  JJ answered, studying the designs.  “Though it must be something of a trick to get them to stay in one place.”

                “Emily, could you move away from the ladder?”  Morgan, still at the top, called out.  “I’m getting tired of hanging here.”

                “Right, sorry.”  Prentiss moved away, and soon the whole team stood in the tunnel.  Hotch studied the algae thoughtfully.  “An odd mixture—the mystic and the techno-geek.  And now this algae.”

                “We may be looking at an organization, remember.”  Rossi noted.  “Perhaps they all contributed to this complex.”

                The tunnel led them to a small room at the end, covered in the strange algae-pictures, with a small book on the pedestal in the middle.  Reid, by default, went for the book, while the others examined the pictures on the walls. 

                “Some... guy in a gas mask?”  Morgan hazarded, looking at the blocky figure on his wall.

                “Perhaps a miner.”  Hotch glanced over another sign.  “This seems to show an underground cavern of some kind.  Thoughts, David?” 

 

 

 

                Rossi was busy studying a diagram of a tall pointed shape, something like a truncated pyramid.  “That one over there is fairly obviously supposed to be that ‘city of Dunny’ the girl mentioned  in her recording.”  He remarked.  “Morgan’s gas-mask man is probably their messiah figure.  This...”  he tapped the symbol, “... puzzles me.  It’s clearly an illustration, not a symbol, but it’s a very simple one.  I’d guess this is a temple or monument that features largely in their mythology.”  He turned around.  “I imagine the book explains it all.  Reid?”

                “That would seem a reasonable hypothesis, and I imagine you’re correct.”  Reid answered, already examining the tome.  He flipped through the pages rapidly.  “But... it’s filled with gibberish.  A code of some kind.”

                “More likely a fictitious language, the way our unsub works.”  JJ pointed out, peering over his shoulder.

                “Possibly.  There are some patterns that suggest...”  Reid paused suddenly in his rapid flipping.  JJ blinked at the page and stepped back.  “Huh.”

                “What?  What is it?”  The other’s pressed in close to see.

                “It... ah... it...”  Reid stared at the page before him, not so much as turning to the others. “Well there’s a picture here, but it’s... rather odd.”

                “Symbology?  Some kind of icon or metaphor you can’t interpret?”  Rossi hazarded.

                “No, the picture itself isn’t strange, it’s just a house on some kind of plateau, surrounded by mists. The architecture is odd, possibly Indonesian, though the climate wouldn’t match with that...   But the odd thing is... the picture’s moving.”

 

 

 

                “It looks almost more like a window.”  JJ agreed.  “Like we’re actually...”  She shook her head.  “Gotta be a video panel or a hologram of some kind.”

                Reid turned the page over.  “Doesn’t look like it.”

                “A projector?”  Morgan glanced around the cave.

                “This is probably their ‘Bible.’”  Rossi noted to Hotch.  “This whole place is an initiation ground of some kind... people find the signs, come down here, and read the ‘Bible,’ complete with magical illustrations.”

                “So that’s what the man meant about ‘helping them to find the path.’  Makes sense.”  Hotch nodded.  “But all our missing persons came to this initiation.  Where are they now?”

                Rossi shrugged.  “Nothing new about suicidal cults.  Or even sacrificial ones.  Maybe the whole point of recruiting new acolytes is to provide new people for the unsub to kill.”

                The discussion was broken by JJ.  “Reid, what are you doing?  I told you not to touch any of the artifacts.”

                Reid didn’t listen, continuing to tighten the belt around his waist.  “I think I figured out the purpose of this equipment belt.”  He explained.  “There are some hooks of some kind on the back of the book that line up with the loops on the satchel.  So the satchel rests on your hip and the book...”  He slipped the book neatly in place.  “There.”

                “These guys need to come up with fantasy bookbags, too?”  Morgan glanced to Rossi, who shrugged.

                “There must be a reason for it.” Reid insisted, opening the book slung on his hip.  Craning his neck, he tried to see the pages he was flipping through.  “Maybe the code only makes sense from this angle...”

                “Reid, take off the belt.”  JJ ordered, tugging at the strap insistently.  “I need to clear it with the representatives before we can use it as...”

                “JJ, wait!”  Reid grabbed her wrist with one hand, as his other pressed the book to his thigh. 

                By sheer chance, his hand came down on the glowing picture.

                There was a strange sound.

                “Reid?”  Morgan asked, as the two suddenly froze.  “Reid, you’re looking...”

                “JJ!”  Emily cried, pushing forward as the two forms became transparent.

                All the rest of the team could do was gape in disbelief as Reid, JJ, and the strange book all vanished into nothingness.

 


 

 

                Reid and JJ felt as though their bodies were melting, transmuting, flowing into the image on the page, the words, the ink, the very paper.  It was impossible to tell whether they was shrinking or the book was growing, only that they were being pulled into it—or was it through it?  Through, to another...

                And suddenly they were again themselves, refreshingly solid on refreshingly solid grass, with a bright sky overhead and a cool wind on their faces.

                “Owwowowowwww!”  JJ hissed.

                “Sorry!”  Reid let go of her wrist, suddenly conscious that he was gripping it VERY tightly.  “I just... when that happened...”  He stopped, looking around.  “...when...”

                JJ’s eyes traveled around her, slowly realizing that something was very, VERY wrong.

 

 

                They were no longer in the cave.  They were on a grassy plateau, with nothing to be seen for miles but an ocean of rolling mist.  A small hut was built against the side of a tall jutting rock on their left, while on their right, four strange pillars were placed in the ground.

                For all its strangeness, it was a horribly familiar scene, and it was with a sinking heart that JJ turned to look at Reid, his blank, staring eyes telling her that he had come to the same terrifying conclusion.

                “We’re in the book.”

 


 

“There is nothing so powerful as truth, and often nothing as strange.” –Daniel Webster

Chapter Text

 

Chaos is a name for any order that produces confusion in our minds.

George Santayana

 

 


 

                “No.”  Agent Dawson shook his head.  “I’m sorry sir, but we can’t find anything.  No trapdoors, no projectors, nothing.  It’s just an ordinary cave.”

                “Clearly it’s not, because two of my people just disappeared in front of me.”  Hotch snapped.  “Now I need you to go over it again, and KEEP going over it until you can tell me how that happened.  Go over it with jackhammers if you have to.”

                “But the Native American representatives haven’t...”

                “There is no way in hell this is anything associated with the local tribes.”  Hotch shook his head in exasperation.  “Take pictures of everything, try not to destroy any evidence, but tear this place apart.”

                Dawson eyed him worriedly.  “Strauss won’t like that very much.”

                “I’m past caring about Strauss,” answered Hotch savagely.  “Just get me some answers.”

                “Where are you going now?” asked Dawson, as Hotch turned on his heel toward the tunnel exit.

                “To get some answers from someone else.”

 


 

 

                “Don’t even think about it, JJ,” Reid called, looking over the edge at the rope that disappeared into the boiling mists below.  The other end was fastened to one of the strange stone half-pillars behind him.

                “It can’t be THAT much further down,” JJ’s voice floated up to him.  “I mean, we’re not really cold up here, and it’s not hard to breathe, either, so it’s not like we’re on top of a mountain or anything.  Plus, with all this mist, it might be just a lake down there.”

                “Or an ocean!”  Reid insisted.  “Or a boiling hot spring or a tropical rainforest or...”  He shook his head and regained his composure.  “It could be anything down there.  And we don’t have to be THAT high for the fall to kill you, or even just badly maim you.”

                “I’m gonna just drop a rock and see if I can hear it land.”

                Reid pressed his face into his hand.  “Why did I let you go over the edge?”

                A light laugh echoed upwards.  “Because it’s MY rope, and because I’m the only one of us who ever bothered to go rock-climbing at the gym.  I’m dropping the rock now...”

                There was a long, long silence. 

                “Damn, how high up ARE we?”

                “Definitely too high for you to survive a fall.”  Reid felt it important to emphasize that point.

                 “Fine, I’m coming back up.”

                Sighing with relief, Reid grabbed hold of the rope and pulled.  JJ was a fine rock climber, and they’d thought the rope would only be a safeguard, perhaps to be abandoned later.  But they’d found that the cliff-face was curiously smooth, and foiled nearly all of JJ’s attempts to secure a handhold.

                It’d been bad enough for Reid, gradually lowering her down before.  Now, trying to haul her up, it was a nightmare.  JJ tried to help wherever she could, but still it was mostly  all on Reid.  He heaved, struggled, and nearly lost his grip several times, but at last it was done.  JJ came crawling over the edge, Reid helped her up over the last bit, and then, without a word, they both collapsed next to each other on the grass.

                For a while, they just lay there, breathing hard.

                Reid sighed.  “There’s got to be SOME way down from here.  I mean, they got the building supplies here somehow.”

                JJ nodded, but couldn’t help but feel discouraged.  They’d searched the entirety of the island but found nothing resembling a way down.  There were books, they’d discovered, hidden in the four pillars, but neither had dared to touch them.  There were books in the house, too... indeed, books were practically the only thing IN the house, apart from a large empty wardrobe.  JJ still wasn’t sure what THAT was there for.

                But aside from that, there was nothing on the island but rocks, trees, and grass, and on all sides the plateau dropped sharply away into the mists.

                Sighing again, Reid stepped back and dropped to sit next to her.  “Well.”  He muttered, checking his watch.  “It should be night soon.  That should at least give us an idea of where on earth we ARE.”

                JJ gave a little snort.  “You seem confident enough that we’re in your watch’s time zone.”

                “What?  Oh, no, I just checked my watch to see how far off the time we were.  See...”  Reid’s lecture tone entered his voice again.  “The sun hasn’t appeared yet, so that means we’re either very early or very late in the day.  But if it were early, there’d be dew all over the grass, given the climate.  So it stands to reason that we’re nearing the end of the solar cycle in whatever region we’re in, which given that it’s only three o’clock in Arizona where we started, I’d say that we’re probably far to the east.”  He glanced around.  “Probably Africa, given the climate.”

                “Africa, huh?”  JJ looked out over the misty expanse and couldn’t help but feel that it did NOT look like Africa.  “Well, that’s something.  How long should it be?”

                Reid shrugged.  “An hour.  Maybe two, but that’s stretching it.”

                “Perfect.”  JJ let herself fall back on the grass.  More from boredom than from any real expectation of success, she checked her phone for what seemed like the twentieth time.  She frowned.  “Still no bars.”

                Reid nodded.  “Africa.”

                Groaning, JJ pressed her hands to her forehead.  “I am SO suing Verizon when I get out of here.  Them and their stupid ‘Can you hear me now’ ads.”

                “There’s only like 140,000 cell towers in all of Africa.”  Reid frowned.  “And those tend to be centered around urban areas.  West Africa is pretty well wired, so we must be further east yet.”

                “Terrific.”

                For a moment there was silence.  Real, complete silence.  It struck JJ that there wasn’t even the sound of waves lapping or birds singing or even insects chirping.  There was only the sound of the wind, whistling over the island.  It was... eerily quiet.  More quiet than anything she had ever heard.

                Finally she couldn’t take it.  “Any ideas as to how we ended up in East Africa?”  She asked.

                “Not necessarily east.  We could be in the Northern or Southern regions too, or even on an island off shore.  And really, West is still a valid possibility since there are plenty of areas in...”

                “So you DON’T have any idea how we somehow came from New Mexico to the other side of the Atlantic.”

                Reid bit his lip.  “It’s possible...”  He stopped.  “Well, assuming that...”  Again he stopped.  “I think... well, I consider...”  He wagged his head from side to side, his fingers playing with each other feverishly.  “Not... really.”

                JJ looked at him.  “Really?  No idea at all?”

                “The only explanation that makes sense is that we were somehow drugged... a toxin laced onto the pages, maybe, or an odorless gas that was released...”

                “Really, Reid?  Odorless gas?”

                “...and it knocked us out and we were... somehow transported here.”

                JJ waited, but it seemed that was all that was coming.  “And they did that... why?  Just for kicks and giggles?”

                “You know, that statement originally came from...”

                “And they reset your watch and both our phones just to convince us no time had passed?”

                Reid winced.  “The other option is that, again, we were drugged, but it was a hallucinogenic.  In which case, this island, that house, and you are all probably just figments of my imagination.”

                “Really.  Well, I can tell you the FIRST problem with that theory...”

                “See now, if you’re going to say that you’re NOT a figment of my imagination, than that’s exactly what my figment version of you would say.” Reid cut her off.

                JJ stopped, looked at him suspiciously, then continued, “Okay, then the SECOND problem with that theory is that if this whole place...”  She waved her arms vaguely, “...is just a creation of your mind, than your mind is VERY boring.”

                Reid looked around him.  “Well, that depends what you mean.  In some respects, this is a VERY creative mindscape, though it’s possible that it’s just a result of that strange picture being the last thing I saw before the drugs took effect.  From a psychoanalytic perspective, it might be interesting to surmise what it says about my subconscious that I’m now having dreams about being stranded on a desolate island with a...”

                “Reid.”  JJ stopped him.  “The sky is blue.  The grass is green.  Gravity and physics in general seem to be functioning precisely as they’re supposed to.  Neither one of us is in our underwear.  For a hallucination, this one seems very... plain.”

                Sighing, Reid gave a rueful nod of agreement.  “It definitely seems more grounded than most of my previous episodes.”  He admitted.  “And it doesn’t feel the same, either... usually when I’m on a high, I’m either paranoid or blissfully apathetic.”

                “So what are you now?”  JJ looked at him.

                Reid looked back.  “Stressed”

 


 

               

                The door to the interrogation room crashed open and a grim Hotch stalked in, followed by a dark-looking Rossi.

                “You seem stressed,” noted the heavyset man on the other side of the table.

                “Stressed?”  Hotch raised his eyebrows.  His voice was low and dangerous.  “I’ve got  a hundred possible homicides, a vast cult-like network, and two agents who just vanished in front of me.  Taking all that into consideration, yes, you could say I’m stressed.”

                “Hmmm.  I was afraid something like that might happen.”  Jeff Zandi scratched behind his ear ruefully. 

                “Afraid?”  Rossi questioned.  “You didn’t mean for the cave to be found?”

                “No, you would have found the cave eventually.  I just... didn’t think you’d touch the book.”  The man shrugged.  “Usually you official types are so careful about handling artifacts.”

                “’Official types.’  You’ve had problems with the authorities before?”

                Zandi smiled.  “I watch a lot of crime dramas.”

                “What about your father?” Rossi pressed.  “Did he watch crime dramas?”

                “Not so much.  He was more from the Perry Mason era anyways,” answered Zandi.  “Dad was an archaeologist, he went more for the historical shows... hated Indiana Jones, though.  Said it was too fanciful and made archaeology to be a joke.”

                Hotch and Rossi exchanged a quick glance.  There’d been no noticeable reaction at the mention of the father.  “I can assure you, Mr. Zandi, I am not laughing.”  Hotch took up the thread.  “That cleft, and those caves... that’s not your father’s work, is it?”

                “You kidding?”  Zandi blinked.  “That stuff there is what my father spent his life for!  Although...”  he seemed to consider a moment.  “...I suppose you’re right.  In a way.  I mean, my father and I both have a fascination with ancient cultures, particularly the Dunny culture, but I suppose that he wouldn’t approve of... what I’ve done with it.”

                Dunny.  There was that word again.  “I’m something of a researcher myself.”  Rossi said.  “Why don’t you tell us about this ‘Dunny culture,’ Zandi?”

The man shook his head, still smiling.  “Sorry.  It’s not something that can be described, only discovered.  The Dunny culture is too complex and rich.”

“And what have you done with it that your father would disapprove of?” asked Hotch, leaning forward.

                “Left it all out in the open, for one.”  Zandi shrugged.  “Dad would have tagged every object—well, he DID tag every object in that cleft—and put it all behind glass in a museum somewhere.  But that...”  A peculiar smile lit up his face.  “That wasn’t my way.”

                “If your father put it all behind glass, how’d you get it back?”  Rossi asked.  “Our records show he left you nothing but the land itself.”

                Zandi looked confused, then his face cleared.  “Oh, you think THOSE are artifacts in there now?”  He gave a light chuckle.  “Goodness no.  I mean, the windmill perhaps,  but that place was all empty when she arrived.  All that stuff in there is hers.”

                “She?”  Rossi raised an eyebrow.

                Now Zandi looked surprised.  “Oh come now.  You must know who I’m talking about.  Yeesha.  The Desert Bird.  The Grower, who will restore the Least to Dunny and return it to its old glory.”

                “Sounds like something of a Messiah.”

                “Messiah is... a bit strong.”  Zandi frowned.  “But she is the sign of the re-awakening of Dunny.  Already the gathering is beginning... soon all the scattered will return to their home.”

                “Because of Yeesha.”  Rossi said.

                “Of course.  She calls them.  They all hear the dream, they all come, they all seek the journey.”  Zandi smiled.  “And they all enter the tree.”

                “And disappear, like my agents?” asked Hotch.

                Zandi waved away the menace in the man’s voice.  “Be assured, your agents are quite safe.  I am surprised to learn that two of them linked out, but it poses no problem.  They have embarked on the great journey of the ages, and when they return, they will be much changed.”

                Somehow, this was even more disturbing.  Hotch leant fully over the table and stared into the man’s eyes, their faces inches apart.  “Where. Are. They.”  He hissed.

                Zandi frowned in thought.  “To be honest, I’m not quite sure.”

 


 

 

                “What time is it?”  JJ asked, still staring up at the sky. 

                The grass slightly rustled as Reid sat up to check his watch.  “Five o’clock in New Mexico.”

                “Shouldn’t the sun have gone down by now?”

                “Yes.” 

                There was a long silence.

                “Henry will be wanting his supper right about now.”  She murmured.

                She heard Reid turn to look at her.  “I didn’t even think about... I’m sure Hotch and Emily will...”

                “I left him with his aunt before we flew to New Mexico.”  JJ closed her eyes.  “He’ll be fine.  It... was just a thought.  I hope Strauss doesn’t send out any reports to our families, though.”

                Reid gave a little chuckle.  “Hotch must be having a great time explaining this to Strauss.”

                “Hotch probably isn’t explaining anything to anyone right now.”  JJ pointed out, eyes still closed. 

                There was a silence.  “Of course...”  Reid nodded.  “...in order to take us away, they’d need to incapacitate the whole group... a small, enclosed cave like that could function as a gas chamber very well.”

                “Or at any rate, if we DID get...” it sounded ridiculous to say ‘sucked into the book’ “...magically teleported somewhere, maybe they got teleported somewhere too.”  JJ took a deep breath.  “They might be as trapped as us.”

                Another, much longer silence.

                “So.”  Reid swallowed.  “No rescue party.”

                “At least not from our team.  There were lots of agents there, though, I’m pretty sure SOME of them must have escaped to get the cavalry.  But still, I wouldn’t...”  JJ opened her eyes and sat up as Reid’s stomach gurgled loudly.  “Sounds like you’d like some supper yourself.”  She grinned at him.

                Reid had the grace to look embarrassed.  “I didn’t have much of a lunch...”  He confessed.

                Still smiling, JJ grabbed her survival pack and rooted around in it.  The smile on her face slowly vanished, but she still managed to produce two energy bars, one of which she handed to Reid.  “Here.  Eat up.”

                Reid looked at the energy bar disconsolately.  “That’s all?”

                “There’s maybe four more bars left in there, but that’s it.”  JJ pointed out.   She looked a little nervous, and just a touch grim.  “That won’t last us more than a day or two, Spence.  If we want food and water to last longer than that...”

                Reid closed his eyes.  “We’re going to have to go through the books.”

 


 

“Necessity is the mother of taking chances.”  --Mark Twain

Chapter Text

 

Exploration is what you do when you don't know what you're doing. -

-Neil deGrasse Tyson

 


 

                “Native American representatives have looked over the cleft and the artifacts we found there and determined conclusively that none of them belong to their culture.”  Prentiss stated.  The team was using a small conference room in the local New Mexico police station to hold their quick meeting.  “Doesn’t mean Strauss is going to let up about you destroying that cave, but it does give us a freer range with what we can do.”

                “Fine.”  Hotch nodded.  “How are we coming on destroying that cave?”

                “Just heard back from the forensics team.”  Morgan was hunched over in his chair, bent over his hands folded on the table before him.  “They’ve got a crew going at it, but so far there’s nothing.  Cutting through rock is slow work, and according to Agent Dawson, that rock is all natural.  No sign of concrete or anything man-made.”

                “Keep at it.  Something in that cave is wrong, we have to find out what.”  Hotch turned to look at the others.  “What else do we have?”

                “Well, that word you said... ‘Dunny?’”  Garcia’s face smirked from the screen of a laptop on the table.  “It reminded me of something I’d found when looking up your friend Zandi.  Turns out his father, Elias, didn’t give Jeff any money because he left it all to something called the ‘D’ni Restoration Council.’”

                “Interesting.”

                “Oh, it gets better.  Turns out most of your missing persons either belong to or are loosely connected with this D’ni Research Council.”

                “Disinherited son becomes obsessed with the organization that took his father’s billions away from him, begins to kill off their members one by one.”  Rossi nodded.  “Makes sense.”

                “Except for one TINY detail.”  Garcia held up a finger.  “All of the members joined AFTER they disappeared.”

                Hotch blinked.  So did the rest of the team.  “What?” managed Morgan.

 


 

                Reid and JJ sat in the hut, considering.  Before them on the floor lay the four pillar books, open.  As expected, they contained the same gibberish and the same “moving picture” as the one in the cleft.  Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, none of them showed the cleft itself.  There was no going back that way, at least not yet.

                “So which looks good to you?”  Reid finally asked.

                JJ frowned.  “This one looks too much like a desert to be of much use.”  She said, pointing at the far left one.  “This one is just a solid room of stone, so I don’t see how that can help.  This one looks promising—a house interior.  We’d almost definitely find food there.”

                “We might find MORE than food there.”  Reid argued.  “Don’t forget, we’re dealing with a cult of some kind here, possibly of serial killers.  That house could be their living quarters.”

                “We’re a little past serial killers.”  JJ frowned.  “But I suppose it would be best to avoid whatever inhabitants this place might have until we know a bit more about them.”  She studied the books again.  “That just leaves this one, with the stone path and the... pillars, looks like.”

“Right.”  Reid sat back and considered, then nodded again.  “That’s definitely where I feel we should start.”

                “You’re the geographic profiler.”  JJ shrugged.  “I’m more interested in our chances of food, and I can’t quite see how this place can help us with that.  Unless it’s some kind of cold cellar.”

                “We’ll take the book with us.  If it turns out there’s nothing there, we can go back and try one of the others.  Which brings me to the next point."  Reid stood up, picking up the book with him.  “We need some way to... figure out exactly what’s going on with these books.  How they moved us, where we are, and what the books actually do.”

                “If you’re thinking you’re going in there without me...”  JJ frowned.

                “I’m not ‘going in’ anywhere.”  Reid rolled his eyes.  “But I’m going to touch the book, and I want you to stand by and observe what happens.”

                “What if it vanishes with you and I can’t follow?” asked JJ, still frowning. 

                “If you’re not after me in five minutes, I’ll go back with this and we can repeat it.”  Reid picked up the book and readied his hand.  “Here goes...”


 

 

                At first Reid didn’t quite understand what he was seeing.  He seemed to be standing on a surface of blue-grey stone, surrounded by massive blue-grey pillars that towered on every side.  The whole was lit by a pale sort of moonlight, and the air was still and quiet.

                Then a leaf fluttered past his face. 

                Reid looked up... and up... and up... and up.  And FAR, far overhead, he could just make out a dark latticework of leaves that sprouted from the barely-visible tops of the pillars, casting a permanent shade over the land.

                There was a sound behind him, and JJ appeared.  “That still feels weird.”  She panted.  Catching his look, she followed his glance upwards.  And stared.

                “We’re in a forest.”  Reid observed.

                “A MASSIVE forest,” agreed JJ, a slight tremor to her voice.

                Reid glanced at her.  “Are you okay?  Because I know forests creep you out and quite honestly this is the mother of all forests here...”

                “It’s also the strangest of all forests.”  JJ looked down and closed her eyes.  “I’ll be okay.  I just... I’ll just try not to think about it too hard.”  Drawing in a breath, she looked at him, smiling wryly.  “Besides, not like we have much of a choice, right?”

                “No.”  Reid answered.  “So, the book stayed there?”

                “Yeaaaaah.  And... what happened was really weird.”  JJ frowned.

                Reid nodded victoriously.  “Hallucinogens.”

                “No...”  JJ shook her head.  “That was the thing.  It was all very ordinary, but at the same time... very weird.  You touched the picture, and then you sort of froze in space, and then you just... faded away.  Like...”  JJ gestured desperately.  “...Like I could see the back of the hut through your head, and then you weren’t there at all.  I swear the book stayed floating in thin air for a second after you vanished, and then it just fell to the ground.”

                Reid frowned, eyes darting about rapidly.  “That... doesn’t make any kind of sense.”

                “You’re telling me.”  JJ nodded.  “Next time, YOU observe and see if you get anything out of it.”

                “If there IS a next time.”  Reid looked around the towering trees. “This doesn’t look any more familiar than the island.”

                “Still no reception.”  JJ checked her phone. 

                “Better turn it off for now.”  Reid suggested.  “Doubt we’ll find an outlet anytime soon.”

                JJ snorted as she pocketed the phone.  “Didn’t bring my charger anyway.”

                Reid blinked at the blonde as she strode decisively down one of the paths.  “You brought a knapsack with rope, flashlights, water, nutrition bars, and flares, and you didn’t bring your phone charger?”

                “Well no.”  JJ turned at the curve in the path, giving him an odd look.  “Why would I?”

                “I...”  Reid shut his mouth as he realized the idiocy of the question.  “Right, sorry.”

                The path was fairly easy to follow... in fact, the path was the only thing one could follow.  The trees were so large and so close, they practically formed a wall on either side of the cobblestone path.  Even had they not, the lack of roots at their base caused Reid to suspect that actually, the true bases of the trees were below, and the path they were on was actually elevated some distance above the ground.

                This theory was rather suddenly proven as they rounded a bend and came on a circular courtyard.  Or at least, it would have been a circular courtyard, if large portions of the cobblestones had not fallen away to reveal the yawning chasm beneath.  A partially ruined stair rose to a stone gazebo in the center, with a pedestal at one end and a strange device somewhat resembling one of those tourist viewfinders.  Through a gap in the trees, a curious circular symbol could be seen, suspended from an arch of stone.

                Reid froze at the entrance, eyeing the gaping holes in the floor, but JJ stepped forward curiously to the edge.  “Seems steady enough.”  She bounced up and down a bit on her heels to test the floor.  “Yeah.  Surprisingly solid.”  JJ picked up a loose pebble and tossed it into the hole, listening for the drop.  “Wow.  That’s deep.”  Glancing up at the trees, she commented, “Bad stonework’s not the problem here.  I’ll bet a branch broke loose up above and crashed through the floor.”

                “That would make sense.”  Reid nodded, making his way toward the broken stair.  “Actually, it’s somewhat surprising that MORE branches and leaves haven’t fallen down.  By the look of these ruins, the path should be covered in decomposed leaves.”

                JJ gave a small huff as she leapt across the narrow chasm to the other side of the stone courtyard.  “Maybe these leaves work differently.”  She commented, looking up.  “You don’t recognize them, do you?”

                “No.”  Reid narrowed his eyes at a leaf drifting innocently by his head.  “None of this makes any sense.” 

                “More things in heaven and Earth...”  JJ’s voice trailed off.  “Hey, Spence, there’s one of those cloth hand-mark things on the wall over here!”

                “Really?”  Reid glanced over and stepped to the edge of the gazebo.  “Exactly the same?”

                “Looks the same to me.”  JJ answered, stepping back so Reid could see the cloth.  “Think they’re linked to the ones we found in Mexico?”

                “Hard to say.”  Reid clambered down the stair and ran around the courtyard (the long way, which involved no jumping over bone-crushing depths) to JJ’s position.  “Here, let’s see.”

                Reid pressed his hand to the cloth.  Again the strange sound, the bizarre sensation, and then the thumb lit up.

                “Hmm.”  Reid stepped back.

                “We had the whole hand lit back in New Mexico, right?  So... this is similar but not connected.” JJ frowned at it.  “Think we have to find seven of these here, too?”

                “It makes sense.”  Reid nodded, stepping back away from the wall.  “The cleft is an initiation, a training ground.  You learn what’s expected so you can do it later here.”

                “Great.”  JJ sighed, also pressing her hand to the print.  She shuddered as the hand lit up.  “Wow, you’re right, that does feel wierd.”

                They returned to the central gazebo.  “This viewfinder seems to be aimed at that circular symbol.”  Reid observed, gazing through the eyepiece.  “Not just that, but these controls... huh.”

                “Spence, there’s a book over here.”  JJ noted, studying the opposite pedestal.

                “Yes, I noticed.  I’d prefer not to jump into any more drug-induced mazes until we’ve solved this one, though.  JJ, this is interesting, I can rotate the different sections of the symbol with these controls.  It must be some sort of combination lock...”

                He turned.  She was gone, and the book was open.

 


 

 

                JJ did not turn as she heard the strange sound.  “Hey Reid.”

                “You could have warned me.  I was supposed to observe, remember?”

                “You can observe when we go back.  There’s a book in the middle there that shows the courtyard we just left.”  JJ gestured over her shoulder.  “Spence, what do you make of this?”

                They were standing in a gallery of some kind... a largish hall of marble and gilded designs.  Four large rose pillars were in the center around a pedestal with the book JJ had mentioned.  Along the left and right wall were hung four stained glass windows, and in the front of the gallery were five small columns beneath a metallic design.

                Reid glanced around the gallery, taking in the different stain-glass windows.  They were, mostly, abstract pieces.  “This is... different.”  He frowned, studying a long window with three circular designs arranged in a column.  “Why the connection between these two places?  Not exactly much in common.  Maybe this is a visitor’s center of some kind?”  He glanced around at the others:  a window with some triangular pictograms, a deep-blue circle with a bizarrely-shaped shard cut out of it, four colored rectangles suspended in space, surrounded by a rotating wheel...

                “Reid?”  JJ’s voice sounded odd.  “Take a look at this.”

                Turning, Reid blinked.

                On the one hand, it was a very simple object.  Reid had seen thousands of such objects, practically as a backdrop in his day-to-day life, and never thought anything more of them.  And that was precisely what made it so odd, that such a commonplace and pedestrian object should be found here, among all this bizarre, exotic imagery.

                “It’s... a construction barrier.”  Reid managed.  “They use them for designating construction sites, usually indoor because cones are so much cheaper to use outdoor and those things are pretty small, and in fact even indoor these days they tend to use tape.”

                “I KNOW what it is, Reid.”  JJ answered tightly. 

                “Sorry.”

                “But what the hell is it DOING here?”

                “Perhaps...”  Reid blinked at it.  “Perhaps... well, perhaps... probably...  that is to say... it was maybe...”

                JJ shut her eyes and took a deep breath.  “Whatever.”  She turned around and strode back toward the book in the center of the room.  “Let’s just get out of here.”

                Reid turned just in time to see her hand on the book.  He watched, dumbfounded, as her form slowly faded away.

                “Impossible.”  He muttered.

 


 

                He arrived back on the stone platform to see JJ tinkering with the viewing port on the far side of the courtyard.  “Hey, check this out.”  She called.  “This is aimed at that weird window over there, and there’s a set of controls that rotate the different circles.”

                Spence looked.  Among the towering trees, there was a pair of crumbling pillars.  In between them was set a stone circle, with a strange metal design inset.  As he watched, the different segments of the metal design shifted and changed.

                Something about that design looked familiar.

                “Wait.”  He called out.  “Rotate the outer circle left.  Now the middle one right.  Now...”

                “Spence, I can’t move the inner ones without moving the outer ones.”  JJ said, taking her eyes from the viewer to give him an odd look.  “What difference does it make?”

                Reid pointed.  “That circle look familiar to you?

                JJ squinted at it, then peered through the viewfinder again before nodding.  “It’s the same design as on one of those stained glass windows.”

                “That room must have been a key of some kind.”  Reid’s eyes flitted about the landscape.  “There were three of those circle designs, so there should be another three of these.  But where do the other windows come into play?”

                “Guess we’ll find out.”  JJ shrugged.  “Come on.”

 


 

“Recall that a lot of our missing persons weren’t reported missing, or at least, not reported in a timely manner.”  Garcia reminded them, as the screen filled with website pages and images.  “Yet for nearly all the receipts we’ve managed to gather from the Carlsbad area, about 83% of them are entered into the DRC registry a few months after the date of the receipt.  No other record of them doing anything else during that period.”

                “Doesn’t make sense.”  Prentiss mused.

                “Not necessarily.  The diner manager did say that some people came out of the desert.  These could be the survivors—cult members following ‘the Journey’ instead of going straight to the underworld destination.”  Rossi speculated.

                “Except the members also include plenty of confirmed disappearances who never resurfaced.”  Garcia put in.  “It’s not identical to the list of victims we have already, but it’s more similar than is healthy.”

                “Clearly the DRC knows more than they’re letting on.”  Morgan looked over at his chief.  “Could they be the cult we’re looking for here?”

                Hotch rubbed his chin.  “Garcia, go through their website with a fine-tooth comb, see what you can find.  In the meantime, I think we need to pay these researchers a visit.”

                “Easier done than said, mighty one.”  Garcia’s voice was gleeful.  “As it happens, they’ve been hammering at the FBI’s doors since you seized that ranch.  Demands for interviews with you have been skyrocketing like there’s no tomorrow.”

                “They’re hiding something.”  Rossi observed. 

                “Oh, ya think?”  Morgan snorted.  Rossi threw him a mild glare. 

                “Set up the meeting for tomorrow.”  Hotch ordered.  “As high in their structure as you can make it.  We can start cracking the smaller nuts later if we get a good picture for what the larger nuts have in mind.”

                “Trust me, not straining my ultra-powerful-luckdragon skills here.  The founder and current president, Dr. Richard Watson...”

                The sounds of a commotion broke through from outside.  The team members turned to see a portly middle-aged gentleman in glasses, flanked by a lawyer in an immaculate suit,  arguing with the cop at the front desk.

                “...flew into the city about half-an-hour ago. He’ll probably be there soon.”

                “Yeah.”  Morgan nodded, staring at the man.

                Hotch stood up.  “Morgan, get out there and escort Dr. Watson to one of our interview rooms, then let him stew there for a while.  In the meantime, Garcia, forward all information you can get on the DRC to this office for Prentiss to look over.  Rossi... you know anything about archaeologists?”

                “They’re not generally serial killers,” Rossi shrugged, also standing.  “...but they’ve got a few psychoses.  I’ll give it a shot.”

 


 

                “This must be the second one.”  Reid bent to look in the second eyepiece, positioned atop a tall platform of stone surrounded by four pillars, right up against a tall wall of stone.  The granite-like trunks towered on every side, blurring the line between stonework and woodwork.

                JJ, a step below Reid, looked around.  “There’s another of those handprint things.”  She touched in and grinned in satisfaction as the symbol lit up.  “Four pillars, just like the gallery.”  She added, glancing at the ruins towering around the platform.  “Definitely supports the idea that they’re linked.”

                “Call it a hunch, but I’m guessing that each one of those windows in that place corresponds to puzzle here.”  Reid answered, twisting the controls on the eyepiece.

                “And here’s us without a camera.”  JJ smirked, walking around the platform .  “Thank goodness for that eidetic memory of yours, otherwise we’d need a notebook or...”  She stopped. 

                JJ had gone around to where the platform met the back wall.  As in many places, the stonework had collapsed, leaving here a small dark alcove.  But what caught JJ’s eye was the rough tablet of stone resting in the alcove.

                It was small, rectangular, and flat, like a clay tablet that past civilizations would have used to record events of import.  But instead of any sort of heiroglyphics, a scrap of rough canvas was attached to the tablet.  And on the canvas was painted...

                JJ leaned closer.  It was the same sort of picture as in the books, closely detailed and almost moving, though the texture of the canvas made it harder to make out.  It seemed to be a balcony somewhere overlooking an ancient and curious city street.  But there was something odd about the lighting... JJ frowned.  There was no sun or moonlight.  Indeed, the only light seemed to be coming from the lights in the town.

                Where was this?  JJ wondered if it the picture would work like the ones in the book.  She reached forward...

                “JJ!”  Reid called her from her study.  “I think the third eyepiece is over there!  Come on!”

                “...right.”  JJ answered, casting a last look at the tablet.

 


 

                Dr. Watson looked up as Rossi and Hotch entered the room.  “Finally.”  He grunted 

The lawyer sitting at Dr. Watson’s elbow spoke up was more vocal.  “Matthew Thornberry, attorney at law and special counsel for the DRC.”  He stated, standing to confront the FBI agents.  “If this is what your police force means by cooperation, I’d say it’s rather unbalanced.  My client and I have flown halfway across the US specifically to meet with you, and then we’re kept in an interrogation room like some sort of....”

                “Special Agent Aaron Hotchner, FBI.”  Hotch stated briefly, sitting down.  “This is Special Agent David Rossi.  We’re with the Behavioral Analysis Unit.”

                “Behavioral... I’m sorry, what?”  Dr. Watson blinked.

                “We’re somewhat obscure.”  Rossi gave a pleasant smile.  “We use psychological research methods to build a profile of criminals based on the sort of crimes they commit.  There’s not many of us.”

                “Generally, we’re called in when there’s a string of serious crimes without much tangible evidence to work from.”  Hotch answered, opening a file on the table.  He looked straight up at Dr. Watson.  “Serial killers, most often.”

                Dr. Watson blinked.  “Serial killers?”

                “Fascinating career description, agents, but I’m afraid it simply leaves me all the more puzzled why your agents are all over our ranch.”  Thornberry snapped.

                “According to the state office, it’s not your ranch, it belongs to Jeff Zandi.”  Hotch answered.  “Who we currently have in custody.”

                “You’ve taken Jeff into custo... why?  What on earth has he done?”  Watson half-stood.  “I need to see him!”

                “Why?  He’s not a part of your little DRC club.”  Rossi shrugged.

                Watson gave him a cold glare.  “Hardly a club.  As for Jeff, his father was an old and dear friend of mine.  And while his son is somewhat irresponsible, he certainly does not belong in a police station.  And his ranch, while perhaps not owned by me directly, is nonetheless of great interest to me personally.”

                “Really.”  Hotch and Rossi shared a look.  “Why don’t you tell us a bit more about that ranch, professor...”


 

                “There!”  Reid looked up from the third eyepiece.  “See?  Line up the windows right, and the pillar rotates to reveal an entrance.”

                “Wonder what all the puzzles are for.”  JJ stepped through the door.  “There’s a hallway back here, leads to some chamber at the end, looks like.”

                “The unsub loves puzzles, remember.”  Reid said, following her.  “Either she or her cult has something to do with this place, probably to... what are you doing?”

                JJ looked up at him.  “I’m going to see what this button does.”

                “What if it sets off some sort of...”  But JJ had pressed the button already, and the pillar behind them again began to turn.

                “Hah!” JJ crowed triumphantly.  “Another of those hand-print things!”  Running in, she pressed her hand to it.

                “I’d really feel better if you didn’t experiment with every potentially deadly thing we encounter.”  Reid had a queasy look on his face.

                “It’s worked out pretty well so far.”  JJ shrugged, brushing past him.  “Let’s take a look at this chamber, shall we?”

 


 

 

                “Elias was... a good man.”  Dr. Watson said, somewhat reluctantly.  “A trifle... extreme, perhaps, in some respects, but his heart was in the right place.  They called him eccentric but...”  A smile passed over his face.  “...well, they didn’t know the truth.”

                “I’ve followed his work.”  Rossi nodded.  “An archaeologist of some note interested in Southwestern artifacts.  Known for spending fortunes on items no one else would touch.”

                “Yes.”  Dr. Watson nodded.  “We went on a few expeditions together, back before... well.”  He smiled.  “We were friends.”

                “You must have admired him a great deal.”  Hotch observed.  “So when he asked you to come to New Mexico...”

                Dr. Watson gave a sudden chuckle.  “I was skeptical, but Elias was an old friend.  But what he showed me...!”  His voice broke off, and he sat silent for a while, trying and failing several times to speak.  “...it... was like finding myself.  After years of being lost.”  He managed.

                “He died in 1996, I heard.”  Rossi observed.

                “Yes.”  Dr. Watson nodded.  “Massive heart attack.  Terrible thing.  The doctors had been warning him for years, but the work was too important.  He left his entire fortune to the organization we had built together.”

                “Even so, he left the ranch to his son, not you.”  Hotch  pointed out.  “Why was that?”

                “No idea.”  Dr. Watson frowned.  “Truth to tell, I thought he and his son had parted on poor terms... Jeff was in some ways even more extreme than Elias.”

                Hotch and Rossi again exchanged glances.  “And Yeesha?”  Rossi asked.

                Dr. Watson’s face froze.  “Where did you hear that name?”

 


 

 

                JJ smirked in triumph as the stones began to sink into the floor.  “See?  Told you that was how it worked.” 

                “Fascinating.”  Reid breathed, jogging down the steps to join her.  “The lights show you where to step.  This is like Indiana Jones.  But why...?”

                “I know.  If this was supposed to be a lock of some kind, why have such an obvious set of clues?”  JJ huffed as the last flagstone sank down all the way to reveal a door.  “This is like... I don’t know.   A kid’s park or something.”

                “It’s a test,”  Reid asserted, stepping down the stairs after her to the door.  “I think I figured out what’s going on.”

                “Oh?”  JJ cast him a look over her shoulder.

                Reid nodded triumphantly.  “This world is too surreal, too contrived.  I think it’s an artificial world, constructed in some kind of giant bubble, for the purpose of deluding new inductees to the cult.  That’s why that cone was in that room.  The island where we came from is probably one too.”

                “What, like The Truman Show?”  JJ scoffed.  “Seems awfully complex.”

                “For a cult?”  Reid questioned.

                “For people they’re planning to kill, yeah.”  JJ answered, as they made their way down the stone tunnel.  “Even as an initiation ceremony, building worlds like this would take a serious amount of cash.  I doubt they’d waste that much on...”  Her voice trailed off.

                The stone tunnel had ended amidst more of the massive trees, and now she and Reid stood on an open stone platform, with ruined arches and pillars half-crumbling about them. The trees had finally fallen away to give them a clear, unimpeded view.

                And the view was magnificent.

                A cloud-choked sky of smoky blue and dusky gray faded to meet a rising purple mist.  Impossibly tall trees, thin and elegant, stretched up through the mist to spread their leaves to the sky.

                “Wow.”  JJ breathed.

 


 

 

                “There was a message in the cleft at the ranch.”  Hotch answered, spreading out pictures of the hologram.  “A woman named Yeesha recorded it.  And there was a note in one of the caves, too, with her name.”  He pulled out the note, now in a plastic bag, and slid it across the table toward the white-faced professor. 

                “Know anything about that, doctor?”  Rossi asked, watching him closely.

                Dr. Watson pushed the photos away.  “Nobody.”  He insisted.  “Nothing important.  A historical figure, nothing more.... Jeff’s sadly obsessed with her, I fear.”

                “We gathered that.”  Rossi nodded.

                “How obsessed?”  Hotch asked grimly.  “Obsessed enough to kill?”

                “What... that’s ridiculous!”  Dr. Watson fully stood this time.  “Jeff, kill?  The man wouldn’t hurt a fly!”

                “Any of these names look familiar, doctor?”  Also standing, Hotch picked a whole sheaf of papers out of the folder and shoved them at the doctor.

                “What... I don’t...”

                “You’re harassing my client.”  The lawyer broke in.

                “These are people—tourists—who’ve gone to that ranch and haven’t come back out.”  Hotch snapped.  “Over a hundred names, doctor.  What do you think’s killing them, the coyotes?”

                “This... this is preposterous!”  Dr. Watson threw the papers to the table.  “Utterly preposterous!  That ranch is a historical site, nothing more!  It’s perfectly safe, there’s nothing that could harm anyone to...”

                “Then how did two of my best agents disappear in front of me!?”  Hotch roared, stepping forward.  “What sort of ‘historical site’ has books sitting around that make people vanish into thin air?!!”

                “Enough of this!”  The lawyer said, shoving himself between Hotch and Watson.  “My client and I are leaving.  You’re behaving in an intimidating manner, Agent Hotchner, and making unfounded accusations which my office is under no obligation to handle.”  He pulled at Dr. Watson’s arm.

                Dr. Watson went, but paused at the door.  “The book...” he said, half-turning at the door.  “...was it small?  and green?”

                Hotch and Rossi exchanged glances.  “Yes.”  Rossi nodded, after some thought.

                Dr. Watson nodded and turned to the door.  But even as he walked out, the two agents heard what he muttered.

                “Damnit, not again...”

 


 

                “Still think this is a bubble world?”  JJ asked.  She and Reid were resting against one of the massive trees, staring off at the purple-smoke twilight.  They’d scouted the surroundings—they appeared to be on another thin shelf of rock, the tree trunks still continued down a ways.  There was a blue stone pyramid with a gleaming black sphere atop it just off to the side, but neither analyst felt much like exploring it just yet.

                “More than ever.”  Reid nodded.  “This is way too weird to be anywhere real, and this...” he nodded toward the skyline,  “looks like a textbook landscape painting.”

                “Landscape projection.”  JJ amended, watching a flock of bizarrely-colored birds take flight and drift into a passing cloud.

                “With some real elements” Reid nodded.  “Those trees are probably real.  But the sky... that’s just to make us think this place is much larger than it is.”  He glanced at JJ.

                “Still seems awfully convoluted.”  JJ shook her head.

                “You have a better idea?”

                JJ shrugged.  “Not really.  But it doesn’t explain the books.”

                A furrow appeared in Reid’s forehead.

                JJ sighed  and shifted position, bringing her a little closer to Reid.  “Well, I suppose we’ll have plenty of chances to figure it out.  There are three more books, after all.”

                “We did find water.”  Reid pointed out. 

                “A very limited supply of water.”  JJ looked with faint disgust at the puddle under the stone arch.  “And not very hygenic.  Promise me you won’t touch your canteen until we’ve had a chance to boil and test the water—if that’s even what it is.”

                Reid looked at her in disbelief.  “You think they’d come up with a wholly new liquid compound just to screw with us?  Doesn’t that seem a bit elaborate?”

                “Hey, you’re the one who came up with the bubble-world theory.” 

                Reid grunted and leaned back.  The action brought his shoulder into contact with JJ.

                Almost reflexively, Reid pulled back.  JJ straightened up and scooted a little ways away.

                There was an awkward pause.

                “Want to check out the pyramid?”

                “Yes!”  JJ gave a decided nod, hopping to her feet.  “Whatever this place actually is, there’s got to be something important in there.”

                “Agreed.”  Reid nodded, picking himself up.  “All the puzzles seem to point to it and we still have two windows from that gallery to decipher.”  He glanced at JJ and blinked.  “You’ve... ah... got something stuck to your...”

                “Huh?”  JJ twisted around to see a piece of paper stuck to her rear.  “What?  How’d that...?”   She picked it off.  “Must have been sitting on it.”

                “A message of some kind?  Or a code?”

                “Nothing so easy.”  JJ turned the paper around, considering it from various angles.  “It’s some kind of picture.  A tree, looks like.  Very stylized.”  She handed it to Reid to study.

                Reid looked at it, then the skyline.  “Odd.”  He mused.  “They don’t look anything like the trees here.”

                “The artwork is similar to the stuff we found in the cleft, though.” JJ pointed out.

                “Diatreme.”  Reid corrected.  He slid the paper into the book.  “We’ll have to take a closer look at it later.  Maybe it’s a clue to a later puzzle.”

                JJ shook her head as they made their way toward the pyramid.  “Something tells me I’m going to be reaaaaallly sick of puzzles by the time we’re done here.”            

 


 

                “Get anything?”  Prentiss asked as Hotch and Rossi came back into the room.

                “Not exactly.”  Hotch shook his head.

                Morgan raised his eyebrows.  “Think we should put some pressure on him?”

                “He’s got too many lawyers around him for that to work.”  Rossi shook his head.  “The little pressure we exerted just now only motivated them to spring Zandi.”

                “They took him?”  Prentiss glanced up in shock.

                “Tried.”  Hotch shrugged.  “Watson’s lawyer, Thornberry, was saying our ‘obstruction of justice’ charge didn’t stick because Zandi wasn’t mentally competent.  Zandi didn’t like that, though, and vetoed him.”

                “Wouldn’t have worked anyway.”  Morgan smirked.  “Too many psychologists in the building.”

                “It’s only a matter of time before they pull out their own to declare Zandi insane.”  Hotch warned.  “The clock’s ticking.  What do we have?”

                Garcia’s image blinked into existence.  “Ran the names ‘Yeesha’ and ‘Atrus’ through every database I had and came up with zip.”  She reported.  “But!  Decided to take a chance on the names being so crazy-weird and just plugged them into Google.”

                “And?”

                “I was deluged with a sea of useless and irrelevant information that would have blown a lesser mind.”  Garcia smirked.  “Fortunately, I am not a lesser mind, and found the needles of truth in the haystack of mindlessness.”

                “Kinda mixing your metaphors there, baby-doll.”  Morgan frowned.

                “What sort of needles are we talking about?” Hotch asked.

                “Very murky ones, particularly with Yeesha.  Forum posts, online chatter, isolated references, mostly from the DRC boards or affiliated groups.”  Garcia seemed to check another of her screens.  “It’s weird, it’s like they all know who she is without ever talking about her.”

                “Her message was at the initiation site.”              

                “But the DRC has nothing to do with the ranch.”  Rossi objected.

                “If we believe Watson.”  Hotch shrugged.

                “She seems to be a charismatic figure of some sort.  The DRC doesn’t like her, but different members keep going over to her side.  But as to why, or what she’s teaching, or where she can be found, there’s nothing.”

                “What about Atrus?”

                “More needles, less hay.”  Garcia adopted a more satisfied expression.  “He’s the author of a series of journals that feature very largely in the DRC’s ‘archaeological studies.’  Apparently lived over 500 years ago.”

                “And this Yeesha claims to be his daughter.”

                “Oh that’s not the weird part.  The weird part is that they talk about him in the present tense.  Like he’s still around.”

                “Death cult.”  Morgan nodded.  “Founder’s dead, but he’s still alive.”

                “So... someone... say Elias Zandi, starts a cult based around his obsession with Southwestern artifacts and a series of fake journals he concocted, probably using his archaeological experience.”  Prentiss theorized.  “He bases it out in the middle of New Mexico where no one will see it.”

                “Right.”  Morgan nodded.  “Maybe it’s a death cult at first, maybe it’s just a ‘spiritual’ one, but whatever it is, eventually this girl claims to be the daughter of their god, jump-starting a more extreme, more proactive section of the cult.  Getting Elias’ son on board just gives her more legitimacy.”

                “Elias dies broken-hearted, his old friend Richard Watson takes over, trying to shield Jeff Zandi because of the friendship with the father.”  Hotch nodded.  “It all fits.  But it doesn’t get us any closer to finding Yeesha or finding Reid and JJ.”

                “Watson knows.”

                “He isn’t talking.”

                Morgan bit his lip.  “Hotch, I don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly feeling like waiting for the cultist to give us information.”

                “I don’t feel like it either, but I’d rather wait than blow a hundred-plus people’s chance for justice on the off chance that the head of a death cult is afraid of death.”  Hotch’s eyes bored into Morgan.  “Neither Reid nor JJ would want it.  Right now, we have a better chance of finding information by following his movements.”  He jerked his head toward the door.  “You and Prentiss get a team together and track him.”


 

                “So we started off by the trees, and then we went down in the room with the lights.”

                “Correct.”

                “And then we found the combination, and went a little further down.”

                “Also correct.”

                “And then we found the secret symbols in the pyramid floor, and we went down even farther.”

                “Yep.”

                JJ grunted and glared up at the high arching ceiling.  “Suppose it was inevitable we’d have to go up at some point.”  She grumbled.  “Only...”  she consulted the compass.  “It seems like this shaft would run into one of the other downward shafts, given how much looping around we’ve been doing.”

                Reid turned from his study of the counterweight system.  “Really?  How close are we?”

                “Well, I haven’t been measuring the distances exactly, but this shaft easily reaches back up to the floor height of the lights room, and we practically turned back on ourselves to get here.”  JJ shrugged.  “We can’t be more than a few feet away from it.”

                “Really?  Interesting.  A compact, self-contained structure, indicating a need for control and an almost obsessive level of egotism.”  Reid glanced around again.  “Most interesting.  Though after all the ‘magical’ devices we’ve been manuevering through, I don’t see why they suddenly bother with this very basic counterweight system.”

                “Actually a lot of this stuff has been pretty mechanical, if you think about it.”  JJ pointed out, pocketing the compass.  “The circle windows, the pyramid rotation... even the light room could have been a simple pressure trigger.”

                “But not the books.” 

                “No.  Those do rather mess everything up, don’t they?”  JJ frowned.  “Well, might as well keep at it for now.”  She pulled the lever on the far right once more.

                Reid winced as the thunderous grinding of chains rumbled in the underground vault.  “I don’t see why you’re trying to get up there!”  He shouted over the roar.  “I told you, the window in the gallery gave a very specific combination that had nothing to do with that opening on the wall!  That’s a diversion at best and a trap at worst!”

                JJ threw him a smile.  “C’mon, Spence!”  She shouted back.  “Haven’t you ever wanted to explore?”

                Reid shook his head.

                The counterweights sank, and correspondingly, one mighty flagstone rose up like a column, revealing the metal ladder inscribed in its side and raising itself up neatly to join the other three columns already arranged to form a sort of massive staircase to the aforementioned opening, three-quarters of the way up the wall.

                “Here.”  JJ tossed Reid her pack and jogged toward the ladder.  “Be right back.  Sit tight.”

                Reid sighed and leaned against the back wall of the shaft, watching JJ mount the ladder on the first column.  And then the second column.  Then the third. “Sure I like to explore,” he muttered, watching her disappear into the opening, “Not in a death-cult-manufactured-killer-world.” 

                Minutes passed.  Reid got up and took a few steps toward the center, craning his neck to see in the opening.  He stepped back.  He paced back and forth a little, bouncing up and down on his heels.  He started toward the ladder, turned back, rested against the wall.  His breath exhaled in a long sigh.

                Suddenly, the wall behind him rumbled into life.  Reid yelped, jumped away, and half-stumbled over the rough cobblestones as he scrambled to draw his sidearm.

                The wall rose up to reveal a giggling JJ.  “Spence...”  she chuckled, her shoulders shaking.  “Spence... it’s just... it’s just me.”

                Reid let out a huge sigh of relief and his knees sagged.  “Don’t do that again.”  He pleaded.

                “What, open a door?”  JJ was still giggling.  “I didn’t even know you were on the other side until you screamed like that.”

                “Just... next time I’m going with you.”  Reid poked his head  in and looked up.  “So this passageway leads back up to that opening, huh?  Anything useful?”

                JJ shrugged.  “Another of those hand prints.  That makes six, we’re nearly all the way there.”

                “Right.”  Reid stepped up to the levers.  “Then let’s align these properly and the last should reveal itself.”

                Levers clicked up and down.  Counterweights fell.  Columns rose.

                “Are you sure about this, Spence?”  JJ shouted at him.  The columns were forming a rather irregular shape, more like a bar chart than a staircase.”

                “Positive!”  Spence shouted back. “Those symbols in the gallery must’ve denoted some sort of number system!  Those numbers were all on a wheel surrounding the fourth window in the gallery, and there were colored... look, just trust me, okay?”

                The counterweights touched the floor.  The central column stopped rising. 

                Silence hung over the room.

                And then, with an even louder rumble, the ceiling began to unravel.

 


 

 

                “Everything all right, David?  Hotch asked, as the door closed behind the other two agents.  “You’ve been very quiet.”

Rossi sighed.  “That interview with Watson.”  He said.  “You ever feel like you asked exactly the wrong questions?” 

                “David, you literally wrote the book on profiling and interrogations, and you’ve got more experience than nearly anyone else still in the field.”  Hotch passed a hand over his eyes.  “You know what sort of questions to ask better than anyone else.”

                “Too much intellect blinds us to the truth.”  Rossi mused.  “I can’t help but feeling we’re taking entirely the wrong tack with this case. “

                Hotch frowned.  “How, exactly?”

                “We deal in human minds.”  Rossi answered.  “Thoughts, obsessions, complexes, psychoses.  But what we’re dealing with now isn’t about minds.  It’s a religion.”

                “Religions are about beliefs.  Beliefs are about minds.  Again, David, you wrote the book on this.”  Hotch’s brow was furrowed in intense confusion.

                “Maybe I should re-write it.”  Rossi stared at the tips of his fingers.  “Hotch, at least in part, this is a religion of objects, not of minds.  Artifacts, items...”  Rossi shrugged.  “...from the way that message went on about landmarks, it might even be about landscapes.”

                “What are you saying?”  Hotch asked.

                “I’m saying we don’t know enough about this ‘D’ni’ world of theirs.”  Rossi looked up at the other agent.  “I’m saying we should be looking at the foundation and not the buttresses.  I’m saying, Hotch, that we have no idea what we’re dealing with.”

 


 

                JJ let out a small huff of frustration.  “Spence, I get it.  It’s impossible for that big, box-shaped vault to be dangling  in mid-air from two dozen cables, however thick.”

                “Not just impossible, it makes no real sense, unless you were...”

                “BUT.”  JJ held up a hand to stop him.  “The last handprint, and quite possibly our way home, could be in that vault, and we both know the clue was probably in that gallery, and we both ALSO know that I wasn’t snapping pictures the last time we were in there.  So.”  She gestured to the control board resting outside the vault.  “Either you use that giant brain of yours to figure out what this means and how we should open the damn thing, or we should start hiking back to the gallery so we can look it all over again.”

                Reid held up his hands.  “Okay, you’re right, and I agree, and I’ll get started on it in a minute, but please just tell me you understand the significance of a vault that can’t actually be hanging there.”

                JJ shrugged wearily.  “I don’t know... new materials?  false shells?  hallucogenic drugs?  magic?"

                Reid paused, his hands hovering over the control panel.  “False shells I hadn’t considered.  That’d be a fun idea—a vault that’s not nearly as heavy as it looks.”  He stopped to look at it again.  “You know, maybe it is possible after all—“

                “Spence.”  JJ closed her eyes.

                “Right, sorry.”  Reid hurriedly began to work the control panel.  “It’s just... it is just barely possible for that thing to be hanging there.  My engineering degree may not be a doctorate, but I can tell that much.   Those cables have to be just barely holding it up, and it makes no sense for it to be suspended in mid-air in the first place—you want to set a vault deep in the ground or something, to keep people from getting at it.”

                “In some ways, putting it in thin air makes it pretty tricky to get to also.”  JJ observed, brushing hair out of her eyes.

                “My point was, the second we step on that thing, those cables are likely to snap and send us plunging into... that.”  Reid indicated the gulping chasm just beneath them.

                JJ’s face altered.  “That does explain the hanging-in-air part.  Sink your valuables rather than let someone else have them.  But seems like the person would have a false combination do the same thing.”  She glanced at Reid with sudden alertness.  “You sure you know the combination?”

                Reid’s brow was furrowed, he was changing the last couple buttons.  “Only one that makes sense...”

                The last button clicked down, and a thunderous rumble shook the shaft.  Reid and JJ glanced around nervously, half-expecting the ground underneath them to give way.

                Instead, the massive door to the vault at the head of the path split down the middle and slid open.

                Slowly, Reid and JJ looked at each other.  Despite everything, Reid couldn’t quite keep himself from giving a triumphant smirk.  JJ shook her head and punched his arm.  “C’mon.”  She said, shouldering her backpack.  “Let’s see what’s in this booby trap.”

                It took them only a few moments to get to the vault’s door, but even so the short trip taught them two things.  One, the vault(and it’s cables) were MUCH bigger than they had appeared at a distance, and two, the interior of the vault looked to be much smaller than its outside.

                “False shell.”  Reid nodded confidently as they climbed the path to the door.   There was a small rise that kept them from seeing the floor of the vault, but the walls looked to be lined with all sorts of things.  “Not nearly as heavy as it looks.  Perhaps conceals mechanisms or detection devices or...”

                Reid stopped at the very crest of the path.  “JJ.”  He said carefully.  “Looks like there’s nothing in here.  Maybe we’d better try elsewhere, see if we can find...”

                “Oh, come on, let’s at least SEARCH the place properly.”  JJ pushed past him, walking straight up to the door..  Glancing around the artifacts lining the walls, she let out a whistle.  “Looks pretty full to me.  There should be something we could... oh!”  She gave a little jerk back. Turning, she glared at Reid.  “A little warning about the skeleton on the floor would have been nice.”

                Reid shrugged as he followed her.  “I tried to stop you.”

                “Reid, I run cases for you guys.  A skeleton is refreshingly tame compared to some of the bodies I’ve seen over the years.  Just...”  She sighed. “...surprised me.”

                “Wonder how long it’s been here.” Reid craned his neck to look at the body, careful not to actually step into the vault.  “Maybe that’s the trap.  Step in and the doors slam shut behind you.”

                  “He’s got a book right there.”  JJ pointed out.

                “Which apparently didn’t work.”

                Rolling her eyes, JJ dug around in her pack and rooted out a water bottle, which she tossed into the vault.  It sailed through the air, rebounded off a Persian-looking vase, thudded against an elaborately woven carpet, and crashed onto a pile of coins.

                “Well, that didn’t set anything off.” 

                “Could be triggered to a specific weight.”  Reid warned.

                “That body’s been here a while.”  JJ shook her head.  “Here.  Give me that little green book.”

                Reid unhooked the book from the leather straps and handed it to her.  JJ opened it up and looked again at the odd little mesa.  She held it up at chest’s length and poised her fingers over the glowing picture. Then, taking a deep breath, stepped into the vault.

                Nothing happened.

                JJ laughed.  “Wow... you really had me going there for a bit, Spence.”  She chuckled, closing the book and glancing around the room.  “Here, c’mon, take a look.”

                Reid stayed out of the  vault.  "I think... I’ll just stay back here.  In case the doors close.”

                “Okay.  I’m not sure I’d remember it anyway.”   JJ turned all the way around, surveying the chamber.  “There is a LOT in here, Spence.  It’s like one of those Pharaoh’s tombs.

                “Those usually had traps.”  Reid reminded her.

                “And sarcophagi.”  JJ knelt next to the body.  “Doesn’t seem like he was planning to die here .  But then there’s the book...”

                “Can you tell how long he’s been dead?”

                JJ shrugged.  “Hey, none of us are forensic scientists, Spence.  Years, probably, this guy is more decomposed than most bodies in Westminster Cathedral.”  She wrinkled her nose.  “Wonder what color this robe was when he put it on.”

                “Pretty sure it’s a fake anyway.”  Reid noted from the doorway.  “No way a corpse would denigrate that much in an airtight vault like this.  You’d need rats or bacteria or something to aid in the process.”

                “You’re forgetting.”  JJ glanced at him.  “We’re not the first to have gone through this world.”

                Reid considered that.  “Still...”

                “Anyway, the body looks plenty real.”  JJ stood up. “But you’re right about the decomposition... even if others have been here before, it would take a long time for it to get to this point... certainly longer than the timeframe for the cult suggested.”

                “Some one could have exhumed their ancestor and put him in here.”  Reid suggested.

                “Possibly.”  JJ looked around.  “Wonder where they got all these artifacts from, then.  Unless they’re fabrications of some kind.  Hello.”  She bent and picked up a piece of paper on the crate next to the body.

                “Anything interesting?”

                “Mostly some kind of gibberish.”  JJ frowned at it.  “Fake language, probably.  Different from the fake language in the green book, though.”

                “Really? What about the book he has?”

                JJ knelt again and flipped through the book beside the body.  “That looks like the same.”  She opened the green book and compared the two.  “Yes, same sort of writing.  But different than this paper.”   She waved it for emphasis.  “And there’s some marginalia too... modern English.  Somebody’s made some notations on it.”  She folded it up and stuck it in the book.

                “Anything else in there?”

                “Nothing that I can... oh.  There’s the last of those hand prints.”  JJ jogged over to one of the walls.  “Let’s see now...”  She pressed her hand to the cloth.  It lit up, showing the palm, the thumb, and all four fingers.

                Nothing happened.

                “Huh.”  JJ let her hands fall to her sides.  “I really thought that was going to do something.”

                “Guess not.”  Reid shrugged.

                “So... if that doesn’t...”  JJ turned around.  “Why do this?”

                “It does seem odd.”  Reid agreed. 

                “I mean, what’s the point?”  JJ raised her hands.  “They send us through all these wacky puzzles and strange ruins, they have these handprints all over the place, and then... nothing?  Just a vault full of fake treasures and a dead body?

                “If we’re looking at it as a training ground,” Reid suggested,  “perhaps the cult used it to teach a particular lesson?”

                “What?  Like ‘the path to riches is hard, tricky, and ultimately ends in death?’”  JJ asked. 

                “’My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.’”  A smile curved Reid’s lips.

                “’Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’”  JJ finished the quote.  “It fits with the ruins.  But kind of a heavy-handed way to make a point, isn’t it?”

“It’s a death cult.  Subtlety’s not their strong point.”  Reid shrugged.  “Maybe they intended to glorify death by putting it in this setting?  But that’s not really the impression the body gives... a masoleum or something would work better.”

                “Whatever.”  JJ sighed.  She looked at the hand print again, shook her head, and turned away.  “I only know that there’s no food or water here, and definitely no way home.  There’s nowhere further to go here, and we checked every avenue there was on the way.”

                Reid nodded.  “And given that the world seems to be designed around this vault, I imagine there’s nothing more here.”

                “Then there’s nothing for it.”  JJ sighed, stepping out of the vault.  “Let’s go home, eat and rest.  We’ll try one of the other books tomorrow... Maybe we’ll have better luck there.”

 


 

 

        Reid knew, the second he felt the firm ground under his feet, that something about the mesa had changed. 

It took him a moment or two to work it out.  The house was still there.  The pillars were still there.  The mist still stretched away for miles on every side.  The sunless sky still shone done, its light glinting off the leaves of the small trees that dappled the island...

Reid blinked.

Trees?

JJ was studying one of the six or so saplings that was scattered on the island.  “Spence, do you recognize these?”

“No...”  Reid looked them over.  They were short--probably chest high—and thin, but they had to be several years old.  The leaves were oddly shaped, and there were small berries ripening on the branch—these were fruit trees, he realized.  Fruit trees of a kind he had never seen before, and yet there was something very familiar about them...

Reid’s eyes widened.  His hands grasped at the book hanging by his side, he flipped it open, searching quickly through the pages.

There, about halfway through the book, was the paper that they had found in the ruins, the same paper he had so carelessly stuff in the book at the time.  Only now, it was a part of the book, the page sealed to the binding as if it had always been there.

And the strangely-drawn picture of a tree, the stylized tree that was inescapably meant to resemble the fruit trees dotting the island, was glowing faintly.

 


 

               

If you are sure you understand everything that is going on, you are hopelessly confused.
-Walter F. Mondale

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.” –Warren Buffet.


 

            “I can’t believe you just popped those berries in your mouth without even knowing what they were.”  JJ scolded.

            Reid, now on his hands and knees, studying the base of one of the fruit trees, shrugged.  “It’s not like you have some kind of toxicology set in that bag of yours. You know we were going to have to eat them sooner or later.”

            “Later would have been better.”  JJ insisted, picking berries off the trees.  “As in, later when we were sure we weren’t finding any other, more recognizable food OR finding some sort of way home.”

            “You took my temperature and blood pressure.  You know there’s no sign of adverse symptoms.”  Reid protested, frowning at the tree’s roots.  “Besides, it would be inconsistent for the cult to poison the trees.  They’re meant as a reward for getting through the first maze.  You should probably wait a few more days, though.”  He added, almost as an afterthought.  “The effects might take a little bit longer to show.”

            “Twenty-four hours.”  JJ compromised.  “I’m not going to starve myself on nutrition bars much longer.  Learn anything from those roots?”

            Reid stood up, brushing dirt off his jeans.  “Just another thing that makes no sense.”  He grumbled.  “The grass is grown up all around the tree.  No sign of digging or planting... it’s like it’s been here for over a year.”

            “And yet it wasn’t here yesterday.”  JJ shook her head, dropping the berries into one of the emptied water bottles.  “So... what?  We went to a completely different island, with trees on it?”

            “Only explanation that makes sense.”  Reid answered

            “Apart from the fact that my suit jacket is still hanging up in that wardrobe and there’s wear marks on the pillar where we tied the rope.”  JJ folded her arms.  “Though I suppose that’s easy enough to fake.  But seriously Spence, doesn’t this seem awfully elaborate, even for a cult?”

            Reid frowned as he looked about the island.  “It does seem like there should be a more... straightforward way to go about this.”

            “Really, so far as impressing possible initiates goes, most of this ‘magic’ has been remarkably non-flashy.”  JJ observed, also looking at the grass creeping around the roots.  “Seems like it wouldn’t leave as much of an impression.”

            “I agree.”  Reid nodded, a forlorn look across his face.  “This makes less sense by the minute.”

            JJ sighed and brushed her hair back from her face.  “All right, well, for the time being, let’s worry less about it making sense and worry more about finding ourselves a way home.”

            “Or a source of fresh water.  Those puddles won’t last forever.”

            JJ frowned.  “Let’s be optimistic Spence.  Let’s pretend we might get out of here before the puddle runs out.”

            “Right.”  Reid looked like he wanted to say something more, but whatever it was, he kept it to himself.

            “So what book do we try next, Mr. Geographic Profiler?”  JJ asked, turning to Reid with a light smile.

            Reid considered for a few moments.  “The desert one.”  He decided.  “It has to be the desert one.”

 


 

            “What is it with cults and deserts, anyway?”  Prentiss grumbled, staring out the window of the SUV. 

            Morgan, sitting on the other side, shrugged.  “Isolation, desolation, heat?  I’m not actually sure there’s a correlation there, Emily.  Cults pop up all the time in cities, and beyond Branch Davidians and Mormons, I’m struggling to come up with any real desert cults.”

            “Mormons aren’t a cult.”  Prentiss objected, shading her eyes.  “They’re too big.”

            “Because that’s what makes the difference.”  Morgan frowned at her.

            It was Prentiss’ turn to shrug.  “Might as well.”  She argued.  “I’m just saying—why would you want to come out to the desert?  There’s nothing here!”  She paused for a moment.  “Why would Gideon come out this way?”

            Morgan looked over at her thoughtfully.  Gideon’s unexpected departure had surprised the whole team—Reid in particular—and in some ways had felt like a betrayal.  Morgan knew, intellectually, that that’s not what it had been, but having the old memory drudged up so unexpectedly had made him realize that he too harbored doubts and questions about Gideon’s sudden resignation.

            Sighing, he laid the folder aside.  “Emily,”  he started, looking at her.  “You read his letter.  Gideon left because there’s only so long you can gaze into the void.  He got tired of studying and obsessing over the darkest and bloodiest minds in the nation.”  Morgan shrugged.  “He had one too many cases go bad, and he wanted to go to a world where he could believe in happy endings again.”

            “I get why he left, Derek.”  Prentiss looked back at him.  “Goodness knows we’ve all been close to that point at one time or another.  I just don’t see why he came to the desert and got tangled up in a cult.”

            “Heh.”  Morgan smirked.  “Would you be able to stay on vacation if bodies started turning up?”

            “I might.”  Prentiss insisted.  “If the stakes were high enough.  But I wouldn’t come out to the desert in the first place.”

            “Because you still like people.”  Morgan pointed out. 

            “You’re saying Gideon didn’t?”  Prentiss looked at him.

            Morgan gave it some thought.  “I’m saying... I think Gideon got tired of always knowing what people were thinking.  I’m saying Gideon wanted to take a break from humanity, and headed out to the most deserted portion of Americana to find some sort of solitude.”

            “And instead of that, he stumbled across a crazy death cult.”  Prentiss shook her head, turning again to look out the window.

            “Crazy thing, Life.”  Morgan observed.

“That it is.”  Prentiss sighed.  Glancing away from the window, she frowned at the sheaf of papers in his lap.  “What’re you doing, anyway?”

            “Filing paperwork.”  Morgan answered.  “With everything that’s been going on, we haven’t really had a chance to file reports or anything.  I told Hotch I’d do it while we were on stakeout duty.”

            Prentiss frowned at him.  “Really?”

            Morgan nodded, still looking at the papers.  “Doubles as a way for me to look over all the information we have on the ranch.”  He said, flipping through a thick wad of papers.  “Looks like they took that holoprojector apart.”

            “Anything useful?”

            “Not to our study.”  Morgan frowned, placing the paper aside. “Now this is more interesting,” he noted, picking up another file.  “A transcript of the Yeesha speech.  I pick it up whenever the reports start to blur together.  Keeps the mind fresh and engaged.”

            “Should  just learn to concentrate, Derek.”  Prentiss shook her head, looking out the window.

            “It’s a proven study technique.”  Morgan threw her a wounded look.

            “Whatever.  So what did you learn?”

            “Apart from the messianic delusions and fondness for metaphor you noted?  There’s a strong...”  Morgan’s voice broke off.  “What is he doing here?”

            Special Agent David Rossi was stepping out of a gleaming black sedan in front of the hotel.

 


 

 

            “This is a surprisingly lush desert.”  JJ noted, gazing up at the thick vines and cacti-like plants clustered on the red rock.

            “There’s a waterfall over in that direction.”  Reid pointed out, peering from the crest of the ridge.  “It probably provides most of the moisture these plants feed off of, probably through air humidity.”

“Or through these steam vents that are everywhere.”  JJ frowned at the plume of gas bursting out of a nearby hole. 

Reid cast her a doubtful look.  “Those vents leave no moisture behind.  I’m inclined to think they’re compressed air, rather than steam.”

            “Spence, I’m no geologist, but even I get that water...” nodding toward the distant waterfall, “...plus lava...” gesturing at the foot of the cliff, where a red-hot mass bubbled and frothed, “...equals steam.  And you don’t get compressed air without some kind of pump.”

            “You’re assuming this is a natural world.”  Reid admonished her.

            “What makes you so sure it isn’t?” JJ challenged him.

 “The lava, for one.  It should not be in a deep ditch like that.  Lava cools as it reaches the air, eventually the flow hardens and becomes rock, and then more lava flows on top of that.  It builds itself up, that’s why you get volcanoes, volcanic islands, and diatremes.”  Reid frowned at the geological impossibility in irritation.  “This flow should have topped over the ditch years ago and overflowed onto the path.  Instead, it seems to have eroded the stone, a process more consistent with lava than with water.”

“Between weird fruit trees and teleporting books, I’m willing to overlook it.”  JJ shrugged.  She glanced toward the ‘steam vents’ again.  “In any case, I’m not testing that ‘compressed air’ theory of yours by going anywhere near those holes.”

“I wasn’t... I didn’t...”  Reid started.

“C’mon.”  JJ turned away and started down the path.  “Natural or not, that water’s clear and fresh.  I’m pretty sure we found what we were looking for.”

As Reid turned after her, something caught his eye.  “You see that handprint cloth up there?”  He asked, pointing at a small object halfway up a standing rock.

“I see it.”  JJ continued walking.  “Let’s go.”

 


 

 

            “I’m calling Matthew.”  Dr. Watson pulled a phone from his pocket.  “I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want me talking to you without him here.”

            “Probably not.”  Rossi nodded.  “Honestly, though, I’m not here to talk about the case.  Something more personal... off the record.”

            Dr. Watson raised his eyebrows as he put the phone to his ear.  “Nothing is ever ‘off the record’ with you people.  I’m calling him.”

            “As you please,” shrugged Rossi.  He glanced around the room as Watson spoke quickly into the phone.  Several coats were hanging in the closet, along with several dress shirts.  On a unfoldable ironing board, there was a clothes iron warming up, and the remains of a half-eaten lunch were position on a small gurney near the door. There was a laptop charging on the desk, next to the charger for another.

But what drew Rossi’s attention was a thick, elegantly bound book sitting dead center in a specially cleared portion of the dresser.

Rossi stepped toward the dresser.  He casually lifted the edge...

“Don’t touch that.”  Watson’s voice snapped with uncharacteristic sharpness.  “It’s an old and... er... rare volume.”

“I apologize.”  Rossi let the pages fall and held up his hands placatingly.  “I didn’t realize.  It’s beautifully bound... calf-skin leather?”

“Of a sort.”  Watson waved him to a nearby chair.  “Matthew will be joining us shortly.  He’s checking through the local psychiatrics, trying to find a suitable third party to examine Jeff.”

Nodding in vague disinterest, Rossi sat down.  “Of course.  But as I said, I’m not here to discuss the case.  Now, I imagine you don’t believe me.”

Watson shrugged as he sat down.  “Let us say I am skeptical.”

“Fair enough.  I certainly would be.  But as it happens, it’s a subject I imagine you’re eager to talk about anyway.”  Rossi leaned back in the chair.  “The other day, you started talking about Elias’ life’s work, this ‘Dunny’ culture.”

“D’ni.”  Watson corrected.

Rossi nodded.  “Now, it wasn’t the time to indulge in personal hobbies, so I let it go.  I was more focused on Jeff and Yeesha.”

“Jeff is...”  Watson started...

...but Rossi raised his hand. “Like I said, I’m not here to talk about that.”  He insisted.  “The fact is, though, I’ve always found ancient cultures fascinating, and I’d never heard of your D’ni before. So.”  Rossi spread his hands wide.  “This visit is more me indulging a... private interest.”

“And to indulge this personal hobby, your supervisor allowed you to drop work on an active investigation into...”  Watson’s brows knitted.  “What is the FBI investigating here, exactly?”

Frowning, Rossi leaned forward.  “It’s not that I mind repeating myself, it just doesn't seem to actually do any good.  I’m not here to talk about that.  As for my supervisor...” he shrugged, “...given that Yeesha’s delusions are apparently bound up in this D’ni culture of yours, my supervisor thought it prudent that we hear the story from your side.”

Watson said nothing, blinking at the BAU profiler behind his thick eyeglasses.

“So, Dr. Watson... who—or what—is the D’ni?”

 


 

 

            “Wonder what these wooden platforms all over the place are supposed to be.”  Reid mused, glancing down.  “They’re always right next to the compressed air vents...”

            “Steam vents.”

            “...so they must be related somehow.” 

            “I’m sure we’ll find out if we need to.”  JJ, high atop a pile of rocks, called back down.  “Hey, check it out.  There’s all sorts of tubes and stone pillars and things on this side.”

            “What, like the pressure mechanism for the compressed air vents?”

            “Doubt it.  They look more decorative than functional, they’re all bent over in arches.”  Glancing down, JJ offered him a hand.  “C’mon, take a look.”

            Reid looked dubious, but took her hand regardless.  Some puffing, blowing, and clambering later, he also sat on the rocks beside her.  “Hm.”  He squinted.  “Fascinating.  It’s like they’re lining an... avenue of some kind.”

            “I was thinking it was like some strange sort of rock garden.”  JJ tilted her head to look at the avenue.  “Like those Japanese places.  Except with natural rock formations instead of boulders and pebbles.”

            “Then it’s not a rock garden.”  Reid eyed her in puzzlement.  “The term ‘garden’ implies artifical agency and maintenance—which I agree with, by the way—but making an artificial garden out of natural rock is by definition impossible.”

            “You could.”  JJ argued.  “Redirect water streams, dig ditches to make sure it flowed in the direction you wanted it to.”

            “Over several hundred years, yes.”

            JJ sighed and slid off the rock.  “I’m just saying.”  She insisted, watching as Reid slid down.  “These rocks aren’t plaster or concrete, and I don’t see any sign of jackhammers.”

            “No... that’s true.”  Reid admitted, dusting himself off..  “I suppose you could use jackhammers to do the majority of the erosion and then redirect the streams later.”

            “It would work.  But how would they get the rocks in here in the first place?”  JJ looked at the cliffs towering on either side.  “I mean, this isn’t brickwork either.  You couldn’t cut up a mountain and put it back together.”  She stepped up to the rock wall on the left side and ran her fingers over it.  “Not this neatly.  There’s not even a sign of any crack.”

            “I understand that, but I’m telling you, there’s no way this place is natural.”

            “And I understand that.”  JJ gave him a look.  “But I’m telling you, there’s no way this place is artificial.”

            Reid groaned.  “That is by definition impossible.”  He pointed out.

            JJ smiled.  “I know.”  Turning from the wall, she strode past him.  “C’mon.  That waterfall has to be just around the bend.”

 


 

 

            “The D’ni Empire achieved its height around 1000—500 BC.”  Watson’s voice was easy, like a lecturer, as he showed Rossi a series of pictures on his laptop.  “Technically the empire itself never occupied more than the capital, but they had a vast and far-reaching trade network that spread their influence over a much wider region.”

            Rossi studied the amulet in the picture.  “I see Moroccan influences, and possibly also a touch of Meso-American culture.”

            “Ah.  Well, it would be more apt to say the D’ni influenced them.”  Watson’s laugh was just a touch patronizing.  “The D’ni as a culture far predate the development of any recorded art in the Middle East or the Americas.”

            Rossi’s brow knitted.  “I see.”  He answered carefully.  “What can you tell me of their religious practices?”

            Watson shrugged as he leaned back.  “A lot of generalities but very few details, I’m afraid.”  He answered.  “There were various religious groups and sects, but they were largely monotheists... followers of a deity known as ‘Yahvo.’  Information on him is tantalizingly scarce, however.  There’s a bit more information on a prophesied “Grower” who became popular in the days of D’ni’s decline... people said he would restore D’ni to his former glory.”

            Rossi simply nodded.  “And how would he do that?”

            “The prophecy is conveniently vague on that point.”  Watson shared an understanding smile with Rossi.  “There are mentions of a Kadish, a guildmaster, who purported to be the Grower, but his methods involved clever engineering, parlor tricks, and a co-opted nutrient feed.  And he was exposed.”  Watson shrugged.  “Messianic figures were fairly common in the D’ni culture, one of their oldest legends was that of the ‘Great King’ who would save D’ni.”

            “King?”  Rossi raised his eyebrows.

            “Ah yes, I should have mentioned.”  Watson shook his head.  “The D’ni were ruled by a monarchy, but not very strictly.  Most power rested in the Guilds...  Maintainers, Architects, Surveyors, Miners, Writers...”

            “Writers?”  Rossi was certain he saw Watson wince.  “That seems odd.  Was writing important to their culture?  Or was it more religious.”

            Watson’s laugh was a trifle forced.  “Not religious no, no.”  Rossi’s quick eyes caught an involuntary glance toward the book on the dresser.   “It’s curious, we’re not sure ourselves why writers were so well-respected.  Possibly a cultural obsession, they left behind a great many records and journals.”

            “Such as Atrus.”

            Watson blinked.  “You’ve looked into this, I see.”  Recovering, he clicked around on his laptop.  “Atrus is the most prolific—and most recent—writer that we have records of.”  He said, bringing up an image of a manuscript.  “The journals we’ve recovered are from 500-300 years ago, shortly after the fall of the D’ni civilization.”

            “You’re saying the civilization fell that recently?”  Rossi frowned.  “Shouldn’t there be more records, if that were the case?”

            Smiling, Watson nodded understandingly.  “I understand your skepticism.  The lack of records is a direct result of the civilization being largely based underground.”

 


 

 

            It was a cave, JJ realized.

            She was staring at another of the strange cloth-tapestry-affixed-to-clay-tablet objects.  Reid was off somewhere behind her, filling their water bottles from the clear, glistening waterfall and pool they had discovered.  There were even fish in it—and fishing traps—in the water.  Neither JJ nor Reid felt like trying to catch fish just yet—particularly as they’d yet to get a good look at the animals—but it was nice to have the option.  And the water, of course.

            JJ was supposed to be filling the water bottles she had, but she’d caught sight of a tablet propped up on a rock beside the lake, and once again found herself fascinated.

            It was once again a curiously photorealistic image, once again of an odd-looking city of stone, and once again there was the odd artificial luminesce lighting up the whole.  JJ had been puzzling over the lack of sunlight or moonlight when the obvious solution occurred to her.

            She was looking at an underground city of some kind, lit only by such lights as the inhabitants could devise (and perhaps phosphorescent algae).  That was why all the buildings were stone, and why there was no sunlight or moonlight available.

            “What’s that?”  Reid was behind her with the water bottles.

            JJ picked up the tablet and handed it to him.  “Not sure.”  She said.  “Looks kind of like one of those books, except it’s clearly not.”

            Reid squinted at the image.  “Some sort of stone city?”

            “Underground, I think.  See how dark everything is?”

            Reid’s eyes grew vacant.  “’...the city lived beneath the surface...’”

            JJ blinked.  “Huh?”

            Shaking his head, Reid handed the tablet back to her.  “That’s what the message back in New Mexico said, remember?  From that Yeesha woman.  ‘For thousands of years the city lived, lived beneath the surface.’”

            “’...The deep city, the ancient Uru.’  Of course.”  JJ nodded in realization.  “Rossi noted how the connection with ancient lost cultures was typical.  It was the centerpiece of their cult.”  Looking at the cloth, something else occurred to her.  “Wait.  She said something about tapestries, didn’t she?”

            Puzzled, Reid nodded.  “Yeah... ‘Some will seek that destination, but you should seek the journey.  It’s as a fine tapestry.  Complex beyond comprehension, but now torn...’”  His voice trailed off in realization.

            “There are hers.”  JJ held up the tablet, indicating the fabric tacked to it.  “And probably the hand-print cloths too.”

            “That’s so obvious.”  Reid’s eyes darted back and forth.  “She even called the hand-prints ‘Journeys’ in the desert.  I should have seen the connection sooner.”

            JJ shrugged.  “There’s a lot been going on... but whatever the reason, I’m betting these ‘Journey’ cloth-things are key to whatever initiation ritual the cult has going on.  There was another of these tablets in that last place.”

            “I’ve been wondering about that.”  Reid glanced all around the rocks.  “Compared to the last world, this one is surprisingly simple.  No complex puzzles, no tricks or combinations to memorize... just rocks and water.”

            “Well, we haven’t been trying to get to the hand-prints.”  JJ allowed.  “And there might have been something going on with all those wooden trap-door things.  But apart from that, this world might be designed to teach a different ‘lesson’ than the other one.”

            Reid looked conflicted.  “Possibly... but it’s difficult to think what.  Ordinarily, deserts signify independence, meditation, a sense of hardiness and isolation, which makes sense, given that we’re in a rock canyon.  but this...”  Reid indicated the pool.  “A lake and waterfall practically conveys the exact opposite.  Opulence, luxury, life, sustainability... it’s an exercise in contrasts.”

            “Of course it is.”  JJ shrugged.  “On the one side of that pile of boulders, you have lava and those steam vent things, over here we have water, fish, and light.  This whole place is a study in contrasts.”

            Reid started to say something, stopped, looked at her, started again, and then shook his head.  “Why aren’t you the geographic profiler?”  He asked.

            “Don’t know that that takes much profiling.”  JJ shrugged.  “I couldn’t say what that reflects mentally.  But even in terms of the air, I’ve noticed this air is a lot more mild and cooler than we had on the other side of the boulders.”

Turning around, Reid studied what he could see of the lofty cliff they’d arrived on.  “Interesting.  So it’s a desert of extremes, not of isolation.  But why?”

            “Unlikely we’ll find out until we get to the end.”  JJ pointed out, standing to her feet.  “That’s how it worked with the last one.  We’ve got the water we want, but as long as we’re here, we might as well check to see what we can figure out about how this cult thinks.  Might be the best chance we have of getting home.”

            Reid nodded.  “There’s a tunnel at the back of those caves behind the waterfall...”

            “How original,” JJ rolled her eyes. “...caves behind a waterfall.”

            “It looks like it runs up there.”  Reid pointed to the height of the falls, where a path could be seen winding its way. 

“Let’s check it out.”  JJ waved the tablet in her hand.  “Should we hang on to this, you think?  Try to bring all the tablets together and form the ‘tapestry?’”

            “No... the tablet shows the city, the ‘destination.’”  Reid frowned.  “The message said to seek the Journey—that would be those hand-cloths.”

            “So we should have been gathering those hand-print things, not touching them.”  JJ tossed the tablet back onto the rock.  “All right.  Let’s see if there are any in this tunnel of yours.” 

“Might not see them even if there are.”  Reid warned.  “It’s dark there, we’ll be feeling our way along...”

            JJ pulled the flashlight out of her bag.  “Honestly, Spence, have you EVER gone camping?”

 


 

 

            “So what were you saying about Yeesha?”  Prentiss turned back to Morgan.  “As long as we’re stuck camping out here while Rossi does whatever-he’s-doing in there, mind telling me if you found anything useful in what she’s saying?”

            “Well, there’s the obvious.”  Morgan gestured at the paper.  “Picturesque imagination, charisma, confidence, disembodied focus, unconventional thinking...”

            “The tattoos and the message itself.”  Prentiss nodded.  “What else?”

            “A sense of self-dissociation.”  Morgan stated firmly.  “Her language was continually focused outward, she barely mentioned herself until the end.  Anything that might be understood to refer to her—the water, for instance—was rendered in metaphor.  The girl has a strong sense of self, but not of body... she’s thinks she’s above the ‘material’ realm.”

            “Makes sense.  Is that our working theory, by the way?  That ‘the water’ that’s collecting and pooling and what-not is actually her?”

            Morgan shrugged.  “One theory.  There’s also the theory that it reflects the cult members—being called from different corners of the world.  I toyed with the interpretation that the water is life, going where it wills, etc., but I couldn’t get that to work.”  He dropped the brief and sighed.  “Just another mystery that we’re going to have to set aside for now.”

            “Tell me about it.  I’m getting sick of having to defer all these questions.”  Prentiss folded her arms and glared out the window.  “When we found that recording, I figured between the name and the face that we’d have everything answered in a few days.  Now here we are, and all we have is more questions.  Usually by this point we have at least SOME concrete answers.”

            “I know.  It bugs me too.”  Morgan agreed.  “Guess Reid lucked out in a way... he’d go crazy trying to figure all this stuff out.”

 


 

 

            “How is that possible!?”  Reid stared at the hand print in barely controlled fury.

            JJ, her own expression markedly annoyed, surveyed the cloth from all sides.  “It’s cloth.”  She observed.  “No signs of nails or staples.  Attached to stone wall presumably by glue...”

            “Damn strong glue.”

            JJ forcibly ignored him.  “...or else attached to a hidden palm-reading device embedded in the rock.”  She scooted to the other side of the hand-cloth.  “So how can we scrape the rock away on all sides of it and yet not come up with a way to pull the damn thing off?”

            “Smooth rock, lightly damp between the dark of the cave all the moisture from the waterfall.”  Reid echoed, feeling the cave wall.

            “That thing should be peeling away like a band-aid in a shower.”  JJ crossed her arms, oblivious to Reid’s shudder.  “Instead...”  she felt at the edge, “...it’s so tight up against the wall we can’t even slide a knife between the two.”

            Reid felt at his temples and groaned.  “Would it kill something in this place to MAKE SENSE for once?”

            “Happy thoughts, Reid.  Think happy thoughts.”  JJ insisted, rubbing her own eyes/.  “There’s no way they’d expect us to gather these things together if they’re this hard to separate from the wall, so at least we can be sure these aren’t part of the ‘tapestry’ we’re supposed to assemble.”

            “So... the tablets, then.”

            JJ shrugged.  “Worth a shot.”  She said, moving toward the exit.  “Let’s head back down to the pool.”

 


 

 

            “We’re going over the cave with infrared lights, x-rays, sonar...”  Agent Dawson shrugged helplessly.  “We’re practically using tweezers to sift through all the rock we’ve jackhammered out.”

            Hotch nodded.  “And?”

            “And the cave consists of igneous substrata sediment that carbon dating puts roughly as 10 million years of age.”  Dawson answered, dropping his clipboard.    “Far as we can tell, it was thrown up with the Rocky Mountain were formed, during the Mezoic era.”

            For a moment, Hotch was silent, digesting this.  “So what you’re saying is that it’s the exact same kind of rock that’s all over New Mexico.”

            “That is what I’m telling you, Special Agent Hotchner.”  Dawson agreed.

            Hotch sighed.  “Anything useful?”

            “We won’t know when or how the cave was formed until we hear back from the lab, and the algae came back as fairly normal cave mold,” answered Dawson, consulting his clipboard again.  The tree’s a mesquite, the cover stone is solid granite with no sign of a palm reader...”

            “What about those hand-print cloths?”  Hotch asked.

            Dawson winced.  “Ah, yeah.  About those...  We’ve been trying to get at them from day one, but they’re surprisingly... stubborn.  We ended up simply cutting the metal around the ones on the sign and trailer, and the bones were being taken to our lab anyway...”

            “How’re those bones coming?”

            “Still waiting on word.  They’re apparently something of a puzzle to the lab boys.  Anyway, we also cut out the ones on the door and bucket, but we only finally managed to pry the one off the cave wall today.”

            Hotch raised his eyebrows, but said only: “And?”

            “And it was... kinda scary, sir.”  Dawson gave an involuntary shudder.  “Just... um... yeah.”  He glanced away.  “Creepy.”

            Hotch waited for elaboration but it seemed none was forthcoming.  “So now that you have all of them together, have you found anything new?”

            “Well, they seem to light up the same regardless of being attached, so there’s that,” shrugged Dawson.  “We can’t identify the fibers, but they’re from some kind of plant... no metal in there.  The ink used in the print is strange too... working on that.”

            Hotch breathed a sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose.  “So what HAVE you worked out?” He asked, a little more testily than was strictly warranted.

            Dawson looked worried.  “Well, one of the boy’s a geology nut with a thing for volcanoes, so he...”  The phone rang, cutting him off.  Muttering an apology, he fumbled to switch it off, then froze.

            “Sir?”  He said, holding up his phone.  “Maybe you should see this...”

 


 

 

            “It’s another book all right.”  Reid called.

            “Huh.”  JJ slid the stone tablet into her bag and jogged over to him.  “Any idea of where it leads?”

            Reid was flipping through the pages.  “Not anywhere familiar.”  He noted as the picture page came up.  It showed an earthen path arching over a glistening pool, the path guarded on either side with metal railings.  It looked barren—less harsh, perhaps, but in any case certainly not New Mexico.

            JJ considered for a moment, then shrugged.  “Well, let’s give it a shot.”  She reasoned.  “Worst case scenario, it’s a dead end and we can use the green book to get back to base.”

            “That’s not really the absolute WORST case scenario, you realize.”  Reid frowned.

            JJ swatted him.  “Happy thoughts, Spence, remember? Look, chances are there are another of those tablet thingies...”  she jostled her bag meaningfully, “...in there, and the sooner we get all those collected the better.”

            For a moment Reid seemed doubtful, but then he nodded.  “Agreed.  Besides, it’s always possible that they’ll be another book there that goes home.”

            “Hold your breath if you feel like it, I won’t.”  JJ grinned.  And reaching out, she touched the page.

 


 

 

            The SUV’s came to a screeching halt outside the now-familiar ranch.  Morgan and Prentiss leapt out of the car and jogged over to a white-faced Agent Dawson.  “What’s going on?”  Morgan asked.  “Where’s Hotch?  We didn’t catch much of what he said except to get down to the cleft, fast.”

            “He’s... ah... he’s... uh... down there.”  Dawson waved vaguely at the cleft.  “It... well...”

            “I hope this is important.”  Rossi joined them.  “I was making serious progress with Dr. Watson.”

            Dawson passed a hand over his forehead.  “Perhaps... you’d better just see it for yourselves.”

            Exchanging puzzled glances, the team climbed down the ladder and into the cleft.  Various forensic specialists were milling around, talking in hushed voices.  They all seemed congregated around the tree and its gaping entrance.  Morgan, Rossi, and Prentiss ducked beneath the tree’s roots and dropped into the hole.

            The cave beneath the cleft had changed drastically since the last time they’d seen it.  It was taller, wider, and deeper by nearly five feet from the last time they’d seen it, and the glowing algae pictograms had been replaced with stenciled facsimiles on white sheets, hanging where the cave walls had once been.  Rubble was piled everywhere, and a few generators in the corner powered a score of blinding floodlights and half-a-dozen assorted geological appliances.

            The scene might have felt bleak and desolate, if the cave had not been teeming with a crowd of investigators.  They were scanning the walls, checking figures, piling away rocks.

            In the middle of the bustle stood Hotch, his back to his team, his immaculate suit strangely contrasting with the rubble of the cave and the white clean-suits of the investigators.  He was facing a pile of rubble at the center of the cave, arms crossed.

            “Hotch.”  Morgan said, pushing his way through the crowd of researchers.  “We got here as soon as we could.  What’s... going...”

            His voice trailed off as Hotch turned toward them, revealing the pile of rubble he’d been studying.  It’d been stacked with a neatness too trim to be natural, the ragged shards and rough edges piling in an approximate geometric pattern that was strangely elegant.

            And on top of the pile was a small, green, book.

 


 


"Each thing is of like form from everlasting and comes round in a cycle." --Marcus Aurelius 

 

Chapter Text

“...we spend much of our lives seeing without observing.” –Andy Warhol


 

            JJ blinked.  She was standing on the earthen bridge they had seen earlier.  It stretched from one low cliff to another over a glistening pool, with metal rods joined by metal chains lining the sides, and ending on the other side between two low hills that kept her from seeing any further.  The landscape was barren, but not rocky or sandy, and the air was pleasantly cool.  The sky was thick but not dark with clouds, glowing with the light of whatever celestial light was on the other side of its dense mat.

            There was a strange noise and suddenly Reid was next to her.  “I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to that.”  he moaned, clutching his stomach.

            “Let’s hope not.”  JJ grinned.  She peered over the edge at the pool.  “Looks like there’s a path down there across the water, and a small cave.”  She noted. 

            “That’s probably where we’re supposed to end up.”

            “Probably.  Be sure to keep an eye open for those tablet things.”  JJ reminded him, hefting her bag.  She froze suddenly, then slung the bag off her back and zipped it open.

            “What’re you doing?”  Reid asked, watching in puzzlement as she rooted through the bag’s contents.

            JJ sighed, sat down, and stared at the sky a few moments, eyebrows drawn, lips tight.  Then she looked at Reid.  “The tablet’s disappeared.”  She told him.


 

            “So any idea how this thing teleported back to its old spot?”  Morgan was leaning against the wall, arms folded, eyes glaring at the small green book in the bag labeled “Evidence” on the desk.  “Or appeared out of nowhere in full sight of three different forensic specilaists?”

            Prentiss shrugged.  “I’m open to suggestions.”

            “I can search the web for teleporting books, but my inner eye of wisdom foresees I’m not going to find anything useful for you guys.”  Garcia intoned from the laptop.  “Also, I’m not getting anything on its image... no pictures of this book anywhere on the web.”  She tried a smile.  “Guess you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

            Dead silence.

            “Sorry.”

            “Thanks for the effort, baby girl, but it’s getting a little frustrating over here.”  Derek rubbed his eyes.  Glancing over at Hotch, he asked, “Shouldn’t we turn this over to forensics, have them cut it apart and see what’s inside?”

            “In due time.”  Hotch answered, also eying the clear packet.  “Their tests will take time, and I don’t know how much of the book will be left once they’re done.  Before all that happens, I thought it would be best if we learned as much as we could from the whole.”

            Prentiss picked up the bag and felt the book through the plastic.  “Hardback.”  She observed.  “Leather bound.  This book is special to its owner, intended to last a while.  Decorative and functional.”  She turned it over.  “The slots on the back look hand-made.  The pages...”  She fumbled to turn the pages through the plastic bag.

            “Enough already.”  Rossi snatched the bag out of her hands in irritation.  “Stop treating the thing like it’s some sort of biohazard.”  Opening the bag, he reached inside.

            “David, I don’t think...” Hotch started to say.

            “If we’re going to analyze this thing, we can’t do it through a glove box.”  Rossi grumbled, picking up the book and taking it out.  “Reid handled it for five straight minutes, and I’m pretty sure whatever it did was activated by his touching the picture.” 

            “We can’t be sure about that.”  Hotch answered grimly, watching the senior agent warily.

            “There isn’t much we can be sure of in this case, Aaron.”  Rossi glanced up at him.  “Sometimes you have to take a risk.  Now.”  Opening the book, he observed the odd island with its odd hut and half-pillars.  He fingered the edge of the page.  “These are very old-fashioned... high-quality paper, possibly vellum.  The cover... I think you’re right, Emily.  Leather, or something very like it.  Calf-skin, possibly.  It looks like the pages are actually sewn into the binding.”  He flipped through a few more pages and raised his eyebrows at the flowing script.  “Very close, neat writing.”

            “Writing as neat and as small as that indicates a precise, exacting nature.”  Morgan noted, looking over Rossi’s shoulder.

            “Look at the font.”  Prentiss objected, looking over Rossi’s other shoulder.  “The hand is flowing and smooth, no signs of abrupt starts or stops, no hard lines at all.  That indicates an artistic mind, more flexible and open to improvisation.”

            “Perhaps the combination of the two implies that we are dealing with an unsub with an eye for details,” suggested Hotch, staying well away from the volume.  “That enjoys very precise, detailed artistic work with added layers of complexity.”

            “That would make sense, given how this book is put together.”  Rossi nodded, feeling the leather again.  “Nothing left out.  Nothing skipped over.  Every last detail accounted for and lovingly hand-crafted in full.  Even the hand writing.”  He indicated the script again.  “I could be wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was written by a quill pen of some kind.  And it’s an archaic style, if in a completely unknown language.”

            “Made-up language.”  Hotch corrected.  “Let’s not forget that what we’re observing about the book is precisely what the unsub wants us to observe.”

            “We’re a bit more skeptical than most, and we’re approaching this far more analytically than most of his victims would.”  Rossi objected. 

            Hotch glanced at him.   “You’re thinking of something.  What is it, David?”

            Rossi shut the book.  “Suppose,” he answered, “that we show this book to an expert in the field.”

            “A librarian?”  Morgan suggested.

            “An expert in the field it’s supposed to be in.”  Rossi looked a little exasperated.  “Suppose we show it to Dr. Watson.”


 

            “Calm down, JJ.”  Reid’s hand was firm on her shoulder.  “You knew there was a good chance it wasn’t going to work.”

            “I know.”  JJ sighed, leaning back against his legs.  She was still sitting in the path, the bag before her, Reid behind her.  “It just... I thought we really had it worked out, for a minute there.”

            “I think we’re close.”  Reid suggested.  “There’s probably just another step that we’re missing.  I’m sure it’ll become clear soon enough.”

            “It better.  I’m getting tired of wandering around without any idea of where we’re going.”  JJ stood to her feet and slung the bag over her back.  “All right, let’s see what this place has to offer.”

            The two of them walked across the bridge and turned at the end of the path.

            There was a garden before them.  Not exactly a flowery or a grassy garden, but nonetheless the benches, pavilions, and pagodas marked it out as a garden.  A large grey tree was in the center of a clearing, with a thick plot of bamboo-like plants straight ahead and a fountain on a raised platform to the right.  On the far left side, the path continued through the light-grey stone.

            “Huh.”  JJ managed.

            “Study in contrasts.”  Reid nodded.  “This age is linked with the last—it’s artifice and opulence contrasts with the others wild natural format.”

            “At least this one makes better sense.”  JJ shrugged.  “No lava formations.  Although... does that tree look real to you?”

            “It looks real.  It doesn’t exist in any sort of database, but it looks real.”  Reid glared at the plant.

            “I wonder if it has...”  JJ took a few steps forward, but something caught the corner of her eye and suddenly she took off running, completely skipping the garden and dashing off further down the path.

            “JJ!”  Reid was taken off-guard by her sudden rush, but he quickly hurried after her down the path.  It skirted the edge of the garden and continued into a close canyon of sorts.  Reid could see it turn off to the left and enter a sort of tunnel, but JJ was standing by a large black circular stone set into the stone wall on the right, so Reid jogged up to her to see what was so interesting.

            JJ turned as he came panting up, and her eyes were alive.  “I think I figured it out.”  She grinned, and indicated the stone.

            Set into the middle of the black stone—which, Reid realized, looked very similar to the door they had opened in the desert—was a stylized spiral handprint.


 

            “It’s not a D’ni artifact.”  Dr. Watson made no move to pick up the green book.

            Morgan lifted an eyebrow.  “Seriously?  You expect me to believe you can tell that without looking at the thing?”

            “I saw it.”    Watson answered.  “The D’ni civilization collapsed over five hundred years ago.  This book can’t be more than a few months old.”  He looked away.  “Besides, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve seen one.”

            “So you do know what it is.”  Rossi nodded.  “I thought as much.  We have our lab technicians looking into it now, so you may as well tell us—what is it, and how does it work?”

            “I don’t know.”

            Morgan and Rossi exchanged glances.  “Fine.”  Morgan pulled a paper from the file and handed it across the table to Dr. Watson, who took it uncomprehending.  “This is a federal warrant for all records and artifacts relating to the D’ni culture, ordering them to be turned over to our labs for investigation.”

            “What?”  Thornberry seized the paper and gave it a quick read-through.  “This is intolerable... ridiculous.”  He growled, looking up at them.  “You can’t just seize the sole remaining vestiges of a mighty culture, that’s like getting a court order to seize the Chippewa museum!”

            “Let’s just say that the state department isn’t totally convinced that the D’ni culture is a real thing, given that your organization is the only one with access to their ‘artifacts.’”  Morgan shrugged.  “If our tests conclude that the artifacts are indeed genuine, then of course we will return them with apologies...”

            “Having in the interim done irreparable damage to priceless historical treasures!”

            “Fine, fine, fine.”  Watson waved Thornberry to a seat.  He sighed.  “All right, agents, I see where this is going.  What do I do to get you to drop it?”

            Rossi prodded the book.  “This.  You say you’ve seen it before?”

            “Of course.  And a hundred like it.”  Watson shrugged.

            Rossi and Morgan blinked.  “A hundred?  There’s more than one of these?”

            “Yeesha’s followers use them.”  Watson explained.  “There’s a different book for every believer.  Which means, by the way, that this...”  He tapped the cover, “...is not the same one your fellow agents picked up.”


 

            “It’s exactly the same as the one in the desert.”  JJ was staring at the stone door.

            “How could we have missed that?”  Reid shook his head. “That was the entire point of the handprints in the desert—they provided access to the door in the tree.  We find the handprints—going through the ‘journey’ of each world—and that opens the door.” 

            “But there wasn’t a door like this in the last place—the one with all the puzzles and stones.”  JJ objected, turning to look at Reid.

            “Maybe.  Maybe not.”  Reid’s eyes had gone slightly vacant.  “I think I may have seen something... back in that room with the vault.  The only question is, what’s behind the door?”

            “One way to find out.”  JJ glanced back down the path.  “Shouldn’t be too hard to find the ones here.”

            “Be quicker to go back to the stone world.”  Reid objected.  “We marked all the handprints there already.”

            “Quicker?  With all those puzzles?”  JJ threw him a disbelieving look. 

            “Tell you what.”  Reid raised his hands.  “I’ll go back to the stone one we were at and check that, you keep exploring here until you find all the handprints for the door.”

            JJ frowned.  “I don’t know... I don’t really like the idea...”

            “We need to check sometime.”  Reid shrugged his bony shoulders.  “I know I’m not suited to this rock-climbing stuff... do you really want to do those puzzles?”

            “No.”  JJ dropped her bag to the ground and rooted out the small green book.  “No way I’m going to remember how those go.  Plus, I guess you’re the only person who knows where you think that door is.  Fine, head back to the... house-place-thing and teleport to the stone vault world from there.”

            As Reid put his hand on the picture and faded from view, JJ couldn’t help but have the nagging feeling that they were forgetting out some important detail.


 

            “All right, so it’s not the same book.  Where is the real one then?”

            Dr. Watson shrugged.  “With your agents, I should imagine.”

            “Then you know where they are.”  Morgan stated.

            “Goodness, no.”  Watson held up his hands.  “I only know that each one of Yeesha’s followers has their own.  If your agents picked up one of her books, then that is the one they will be carrying around.”

            “But you DO know how this thing...”  Morgan prodded a finger at the book, “...works.”

            “No.”  Watson shook his head.  “Yeesha’s books are quite unlike anything the DRC has.  We don’t understand why they work the way they do. She does things that... shouldn’t be possible.”

            “You mean like the disappearing act.”  Morgan raised an eyebrow.  “You’ve seen it before?”

            Watson chuckled unexpectedly.  “Oh, there’s far more to it than that.”


 

            JJ had wandered all around the grey stone garden, searching for handprints.  So far, she’d found four.  She’d also found a book that looked like it went back to the red stone desert, but that didn’t exactly help her, any more than the several stone tablets (all still showing the underground city) that she’d found.  It’d also rained—several times.  For whatever reason, there seemed to be five-minute patches of rain every ten minutes.

For the moment she was standing in what looked like a classroom ampitheater, staring at the paintings on the grey stone wall at the front.  They looked curiously abstract—unless she simply wasn’t understanding what she was seeing—gears and blocks in a circle, a strange compass-rose like symbol—it was all beyond her.

            These two drawings, though, bore some promise.  The one looked to be a large dome of some kind, with a city inside and a smaller dome atop it, with two strange pillars inside.  At first, JJ had taken this to be the underground city referenced before, and the smaller cave a chamber hidden in its ceiling.  But she had discarded that as soon as she had seen the second painting.

            The second painting had the second smaller dome with the two pillars, but unlike its partner, this dome sat atop nothing at all.  Instead, beneath it was a mass of dotted stars.

            JJ wasn’t sure what to make of it.  A spaceship perhaps?

            Shaking her head, she turned away, back toward the garden.  She tried to ignore the huge block of stone levitating above a monument on the far side of the garden, and also the giant gourd-like plants inflating and deflating off to her left.  On the whole, she decided, it was best that Reid had left when he did.

            Something new caught her eye, and she bent to pick a piece of paper off the bench.  It was a drawing... very similar in style to the one she and Reid had found in the stone ruins.  But instead of a stylized tree, this one indicated a mountain with a bunch of squiggly lines drawn inside.  Like a volcano, or a waterfall.

            The sudden juxtaposition of the images took her by surprise, and JJ laughed aloud, suddenly realizing where the other handprints were.  Contrasts!  That’s what this was all about.  The grey stone garden contrasted with the red stone desert.  The constant rain and carefully arranged vegetation of the one was meant to contrast with the dry air and bare stone of the other, just as the lava had contrasted with the waterfall.  The two worlds constituted a whole.  That was why there was a book to return to the red stone desert.  JJ felt certain that that was where the last three hand-prints were.

            She was just turning to run down the path when she heard the scratching.

            It was a dry rasp, like the clicking of nails on stone.  JJ might have missed it, under the rumble of yet-another encroaching rain shower, except that it corresponded with a tiny flicker of movement she’d caught out of the corner of her eye, and slowly, she looked up.

            It was like a great black beetle, roughly the size of a scottish terrier.  JJ would not have thought that so big in a movie, but in life, it was terrifyingly large—too large to be real, and yet the tapping of its claws were undeniably life-like.  The thing perched, crab-like, atop the shelf of rock on the far side of the garden, and seemed to be contentedly munching on the lichen that lined the rock.  It was paying no heed to her or anything—indeed, JJ realized, with a thrill of horror, she had probably walked right beneath it several times without noticing.

            A rain-drop on her head startled her from the shocked-still stupor, and JJ bolted down the path, away from the dog-sized insect and toward the book that would carry her back to the red-rocked desert.  But even as she did so, the thought sprang unbidden:

            I’d like to see Spence explain THAT.


 

            “Books... similar to these were common in ancient D’ni culture.”  Watson’s voice had adopted a faintly lecture-like quality.  “It’s why the Writer’s Guild was so prominent.  They had whole worlds, or ‘Ages,’ open to them through their books.”

            “These books would teleport them to different places?”  Morgan’s face clearly expressed his scepticism.

            “That’s actually a point of controversy.”  Thornberry spoke up.  “Traditionally, yes, the  concept of the Great Tree of Possibility held that the linking book simply teleported you to the world you described...”

            “The, er, finer points of the process are somewhat obscure.”  Watson held up a hand to forestall Thornberry.  “Suffice to say it’s a whole field of study in and of itself.  The important thing to know is that Yeesha’s books operate differently than most.  For one thing, they teleport with the user, while traditionally such books stay in the age they were placed.  But more than that, Yeesha’s followers claim that she is able to change the conditions of an Age by changing the writing... an extreme taboo in D’ni society.  Moreover...”

            “Look, I don’t care what magic stuff the records say D’ni could do back in the day.”  Morgan interrupted.  “Where do they teleport TO?  New Mexico?  Canada?  Turkey?”

            Watson stared at him a moment.  “He doesn’t... you don’t understand.”  He insisted.  “There’s no way of telling where the Ages are.  No way of getting to them, except through the books.  The books take you to whatever sort of world is described in the writing.  Whatever conditions the Writer describes, that’s the Age you link to.”

            “Meaning what?”  Morgan had a bad feeling.

            “Meaning they could be anywhere.  Not just on the world, but in the universe.”


 

            Reid had arrived back at the island without incident, and teleported to the stone-ruins easily enough.  Going through the puzzles again was simple, if a touch repetitive.  Finding the hand-print cloths was slightly harder—he hadn’t always been paying attention when JJ had found them—but far from impossible.

            And now he was standing on the path to the vault, just having come back from touching the last hand-print, and he was realizing a simple flaw to the whole plan.

            The door he was supposed to enter was a good twenty feet below, on a narrow shelf above a bottomless chasm.

            It had seemed so simple in principle, he mused.  He’d remembered the door’s location well enough, he just... hadn’t quite made the logical leap to the literal leap that would be required to reach it. If he’d just remembered to ask for JJ’s rope... but no, that would be more necessary in the desert.  There, real climbing would be involved.  Here, he just had to fall.

            But that was only the start of his worries.  As Reid stared at the far-below door on the narrow shelf, with no obvious path up or down, he had to wonder:

            What if this doesn’t work?


 

            JJ smiled triumphantly as the stone hand-print in the center of the door lit up.  With a rumble, the door before her sank into the ground, revealing a long, dark, tunnel.  JJ grabbed her flashlight and strode confidently forward...

            The flashlight died, there was an odd sort of croaking, and suddenly JJ felt the now-familiar sensation of being teleported somewhere...


 

            JJ found herself kneeling on a rough rock surface, with bits of pebble and gravel undergoot.  Getting up, she looked around.  There was ample light from a series of flaming lanterns nearby.  She was in a small, dome-shaped cave, on a small shelf of rock, above a great dark chasm.  She could see three other such shelves in the cave, each on a separate wall, each with its own pillar.

            Pillar.  JJ studied the one on her own shelf.  It was just before the edge of the shelf, covered in strange, scrolling figures and ornate images.  About shoulder-height on her, it ended in four curious horns at the top.

            “Your journey has begun.”

            The voice came out of nowhere, and JJ whirled around to confront the speaker, but there was no one.  Only on the wall behind her was a glowing picture of a vaguely humanoid figure with stick-like arms, carrying a staff and wearing a gas-mask.  Beside it on the wall was another handprint.

            “You can’t imagine how these small things affect the future, but someday you will; you will return.”  The voice continued as JJ stepped forward.  “Many paths have brought me to this place.  The path of my great-grandmother, bringer of destruction.  The path of my grandfather...”

            JJ tuned the woman’s voice out as she studied the figure.  It looked familiar, and she wondered where she’d seen it before.  Experimentally, she touched the handprint on the wall.  It lit up, but did nothing more. 

            “...and of my father, my dear father, the caretaker of burdens.  And I knew that at the end of such great...”

            JJ touched the glowing gas-mask figure.  The voice suddenly fell silent.

            Odd.  JJ mused.  Mystical, and yet with a weird sort of logic.  Was this meant to be Yeesha?  It didn’t look like the hologram they’d seen.  But what kind of cult would give you an off-switch?  She touched the image again.

            “Your journey has begun...”

            JJ groaned and moved away from the wall.  There was a symbol on the ground beneath her feet too, she noticed, some sort of elaborate x-shape in a box.  It vaguely reminded her of the beetle and she shivered.

            “...the Cleft to find it.”

JJ’s head jerked up, and she suddenly wished she’d been paying better attention.  The voice continued.  “The Cleft.  The fissure in the desert, the wound in the Earth, the path to things beneath the surface.  It was there I sought to find my purpose.  It was from there I came to know the dead underground city of D’ni.”


 

            “Where is this underground city?”

            Watson pressed his lips together and said nothing.

            “That sort of information is private and extremely unrelevant to this investigation.”  Thornberry snapped.

            “The hell it isn’t relevant.”  Morgan scoffed.  “We’ve got friends who are missing, that according to you were kidnapped by some sort of ancient artifact that teleports people away. Seems to me like the capital city would be a logical place to send them.

            “And don’t bother telling us that you don’t know.”  Rossi interposed.  “Interrogations get irritating when people start lying to us.”

            “We do know where the capital city of D’ni is, yes.”  Watson admitted.  “But we’ve kept its precise location under wraps while we’re working on renovations. The last thing we want is a bunch of...”  he waved his arms vaguely.  “Amateur tomb robbers or Indiana Jones wannabes running through the place destroying priceless cultural artifacts and going off willy-nilly to every random location.”

            “We’re professionals.”  Rossi assured him.

            “Extremely curious and motivated professionals.”  Watson sniffed.  “What happens if I tell you a certain location is too dangerous to look in, or ask you not to open a particular millenia-old tomb?  You wouldn’t destroy the place accidentally, you’d tear it apart purposefully.”

              “You seem to be an intelligent man, Dr. Watson, but I’m not sure you understand your situation.”  Morgan  leaned back in his chair.  “Two FBI agents are missing.  Have you any idea what sort of effect that has on the federal system?  I can make a phone call and get subpoenas from a federal judge on every single file that the DRC has, to say nothing of your ‘secret city.’”

            “Certainly, so long as you’re willing to testify before the judge that the basis of your suspicion is seeing two people vanish into thin air.”  Thornberry smirked.

            “I’ve got plenty enough to convince a judge without ever mentioning that.”  Morgan countered.  “Would you feel comfortable airing your grievances about how federal agents destroyed the culture of a magic underground civilization that no one has heard of?”

            Thornberry and Watson exchanged glances.  “Perhaps something could be worked out.”  Watson allowed, tapping the binding of the book.  “But we would need to secure the right papers.”

            “Are you sure, sir?”  Thornberry studied the archaeologist.

            “Perfectly.”  Watson nodded.  “This back-and-forth questions game was getting irritating, and we cannot allow obstructions to our work.”

Nodding, Thornberry rose.  “I will... make some calls.”  He answered.  “But you may not question or intimidate Dr. Watson in my absence.  Remember that you have nothing official to charge us with.”

“Yet.”  Morgan answered, also rising.  “So long as you continue cooperating, I see no reason to add ‘obstruction of justice’ to the list.”

“How generous of you.”  Thornberry snorted, and passed out the door.


 

            “Many stories were there for the D’ni to learn from, but they didn’t hear them...”

            JJ sighed.  The dialogue was beginning rather to drone on, and it’d yet to say anything of real interest.  She’d hoped, when the voice had mentioned the cleft... but it just went on and started talking about life lessons and the D’ni.  Nothing about getting home or explaining what was going on.

            “...the Garden Ages of the proud are beautiful, but they are built on the backs of the Least.  The Ages like Kemo and Gira are a sampling of the playthings of D’ni...”

            Pushing herself off the wall,  JJ walked to the edge of the stone shelf.  She could see where the wall dropped away on the opposite side of the cavern, so there was some sort of pit beneath them, but she was curious if it was too deep to see the bottom.  Or who knew, maybe there would be some sort of ladder on the side or...

            JJ peered over the edge, and into a gaping abyss of gleaming stars against the blackness of space.

            JJ’s hand flew to her mouth and she stumbled backward, her arms flailing.  By pure accident, one of her hands brushed the ornate pillar on the edge of the cliff.  Without warning, the pillar turned black and broke apart into little gleaming specks that dropped to the floor and trailed off the cliff’s edge like water.  They vanished into the star-studded void below.

            “...And now to these pillars,” said the voice around her cheerfully, as JJ stood, frozen in shock. “These four pillars around you are the very being of the Bahro. You must take them. They will bring a great treasure to Relto, your Age, the Island in the Clouds.”

Relto.  JJ’s mind caught onto that.  So that’s what they called that place.

“Relto will be their keeper for only a brief time,” said Yeesha’s voice, and then fell silent.

JJ groaned.  If only the voice hadn’t taken so long to get around to the actual point...  She shook her head.  Well, there was no use moaning about it.  She couldn’t exactly un-break the pillar, and honestly she wasn’t sure how she would have “taken” it back with her to the island anyway.  Or if she wanted to.  What the heck was a ‘Bahro’ supposed to be?

One thing was clear, and that there was nothing further to be done in this cave.  JJ looked down at the stars again and shook her head.  She could hardly be looking down at the sky, and yet there was no way for those stars to be a reflection—the ceiling above was hard and rocky.  Perhaps they were glowing crystals set in the rock—but they certainly didn’t look like it.

It didn’t matter.  JJ took out the small green book and opened it.  She noted with satisfaction that the volcano/waterfall page was now grafted into the binding, as the previous one had been.  Touching the picture, she felt the familiar feeling of teleportation...


 

...and again the familiar feeling of the ground under her feet.  JJ looked around at the island—relto, she internally reminded herself—with interest.  The mountain at the back didn’t seem to have turned into a volcano, so they probably had a waterfall somewhere, and there was a pillar floating above the....

            JJ froze.  There, in the middle of the island, the same pillar she had seen in the cave was floating above one of the half-columns.  As she watched, it slowly levitated downward and melded with the half-column.

            JJ blinked.  Slowly, she walked around the pillar, studying its intricate carvings from every angle.  There was no sign of a split where the pillar met the half-column.  Tentatively, she touched it.  Nothing happened.

            Standing back, JJ considered this development.  Okay, so that’s how you were supposed to bring the pillars to the island.  She didn’t quite see the point, but that would probably be explained later.

            Dismissing the floating pillar for a moment, JJ looked back to the mountain.  The waterfall could really only be in one place.  Quickly jogging up the hill, she smiled at the sight of a spring bubbling out of the mountain’s peak, cascading down to collect in a small pool before spilling down the edge of the island into the murky mists below

            Despite everything, JJ could not suppress a smile.  Food and now water.  And more than just drinking water—the waterfall made for a natural shower, and it even looked pretty warm.

            A noise made her turn around, and she grinned again to see a new pillar, floating in the air, descending to join its partner half-column.  So things had gone well with Spence, too.  He should be here soon, it was a pity he’d missed the physics-defying pillars...

            JJ’s hands flew to her mouth as a terrible realization seized her.

            Reid doesn’t have a book!


 

            Hotch looked up as Rossi and Morgan exited the interrogation room.  “I’ve got Strauss on the line.”  He said, indicating the phone at his ear.  “As soon as Watson gives us the location I’ll have federal agents converging on the location.”

            “Better get some archaeological specialists too.”  Rossi recommended, peering through the glass at the pudgy doctor.  “To help us handling any artifacts we find.”

            “C’mon, Rossi.”  Morgan shot him a look.  “You really think these guys have real artifacts?”

            “I think I don’t want them suing the bureau because we didn’t take the proper steps.”  Rossi answered, looking round.

            “I don’t think I need to remind both of you that we’re not likely to find Reid or JJ anywhere near that city.”  Hotch pointed out.  “If Watson was in any way involved with their disappearance, he never would have given us the location.”

            Morgan nodded.  “But it’s a start.  We can find more people to talk to, maybe someone more directly associated with Yeesha’s group.”

            “Plus, studying this ‘D’ni culture’ of theirs, real or not, will give us a better idea as to the cult’s mindset and obs...”  Rossi broke off.  “What’s Watson doing?”

            Dr. Richard Watson, in the interrogation room, had the small green book open on the table in front of him.  As the agents watched, he placed his hand on the picture, and dissolved away, book and all.


 

            “The bones of Guildmaster Kadish speak louder than words.  His bones are the bones of D’ni...”

            Reid sat hunched against the back wall, considering.  He’d listened to Yeesha’s speech about three times now.  He’d thoroughly inspected the walls and the floor, even lain on his belly to stretch out way over the edge and see where the stone shelf ended.  He’d touched all three symbols—the gas man, the hand print, and the circle left by the dissolved pillar—in all the different possible combinations.

            Nothing had done any good.  He was still stuck on a narrow rock shelf, in a cave somewhere, above a sea of stars.

            “Guildmaster Kadish built Ages to protect the extra, and when the Fall came, he clung to his possessions over all else.  And so you see only death in his vault.  Extravagant death.  It is an image of D’ni.”

            Reid sighed and punched the image of the gas-masked man, plunging the cavern into silence.  He supposed he could wait for JJ to show up with the little green book—he could see the missing spot across the chasm where she had presumably found the other pillar.  JJ would remember how to do the puzzles, it shouldn’t take her long to work all the way back to the door. 

But would she know where the door was?  Reid realized he’d never really mentioned where he’d seen it.  And even if she did, what if the doors only worked once?  What if, after you grabbed the pillars, the doors didn’t open?

  He glanced at one of the two shelves still sporting pillars.  Those must be for the worlds they hadn’t yet visited.  Even if the doors didn’t work, JJ should be able to get to them.  But what good would that do if he was over here?

Reid eyed the distance between the two shelves.  It was big, but not un-jumpable.  Theoretically, anyway.  Now that he thought about it, Reid realized he didn’t exactly have a good idea of how far he really could jump.  Still, there was no time like the present to find out.

Backing up a few steps, Reid dashed forward and leapt into thin air, scrambling for the far side.

He missed the opposite shelf by about ten feet and fell, screaming, into the starry abyss.


 

            Reid didn’t know how long he’d been falling when he landed face-first onto a very solid object.

            And oddly enough, it didn’t even hurt.  It was a very soft fall, as if he’d stumbled and toppled onto the grass.

            Opening his eyes cautiously, Reid saw, yes, grass, and yes, dirt, and also some pebbles and some stone pillars and a hut and it was the island again.

            Reid sat up and looked around.  Hut.  Pillars.  Mist.  Fruit trees.  The waterfall was new, but aside from that, it was very plainly the same island.  He’d fallen into a sea of stars, and landed on the exact island he’d started on.

            It wasn’t something he did often, but Reid felt an impulse to break into hysterical laughter.  Of course he was here!  Of course falling into space brought you to this island!  Why not?  Why should things start making sense now?

            All of a sudden, there was the now-familiar sound of teleportation, and JJ appeared, eyes red and face tear-streaked.  When she saw him, she let out a little cry and rushed forward, seizing him in a hug.

            Reid was too surprised to do anything but hug back.


 

“The doorman at the hotel says Thornberry went in, but there’s no one in his room.”  Morgan voice was thick with disgust.  “No sign of the book Rossi mentioned either.”

            “I thought Watson said the normal ones didn’t teleport with their users.”  Hotch looked to Rossi.

            The elder analyst shrugged wearily.  “Maybe he was lying.  Maybe someone else picked it up.  Who knows?  It’s gone now.”

            Hotch breathed a long sigh.  “So, not only have we lost our two major persons of interest, we’ve also lost the only two concrete leads we had in this case.”

            “Maybe not.”  Prentiss reported, coming forward.  In her hand was a file of land records.  “I think I know where D’ni is.”


 

“See everything, overlook a great deal, fix a little.” –Pope John XXIII

Chapter Text

 

You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.

Naguib Mahfouz

 


 

            “I kept coming back to the ranch, wondering what was so special about it.”  Prentiss explained to the team, once again gathered around the table.  “So I did some digging.  Zandi bought it back in 1987 after visiting it alongside private contractor, Branch Logan.”

            “Right.  According to our working theory, that’s where Zandi would have found the diatreme and fitted it out as the centerpiece of his little religion.”  Morgan nodded.

            “Oh, but there’s so much more than that.”  Garcia piped up from the computer.  “Emily asked me to look into the news from that period.  Zandi and Logan spent entire months out at that ranch with no one seeing them.  And Zandi brought in tons of supplies, manpower, and equipment out there.”  She wagged her eyebrows suggestively.  “And guess what kind of equipment they brought out there?”

            “KGB mind-wiping tech.”  Morgan hazarded.  Garcia giggled.

            “Equipment to craft the cleft we visited, obviously.”  Hotch mused.  “Assorted electronics, cement mixers, jackhammers...”

            “A lot more than jackhammers, Hotch.”  Prentiss passed over an itemized list. “Industrial drills, raise borers, and dynamite.  We’re talking heavy-duty mining gear.”

            Rossi’s eyebrows lifted. “You’re saying this ‘City of D’ni’ might be under that ranch?”


 

            “You’re not looking, are you?”

            “No.”  Reid called back.

            “You’d better not be looking.”

            Reid started to reply, stopped, then answered, “You realize that by continually insisting that I not look at you, you increase the subconscious urge to look.”

            There was a splash.  “Don’t!”  The voice had an edge of panic.

            “I’m not.”  Reid answered wearily, letting his head sink back against the wall.  He had been banished to the small house on the island while JJ took advantage of the new waterfall to take her first shower in days.  After that, it would be Reid’s turn.

            JJ had been... jumpy ever since he got back from the pillar cave.  For a long time she’d just hugged him, crying, and then without another word had rushed off to wash her face in the pool.

            And that was all the talking they’d done about that... hug.  That strong, passionate, intense hug.

            Reid’s mind was already busy rationalizing it.  It was perfectly understandable, given the circumstances.  He was the only other person on the island, after all, there was probably heightening dependence coming into play, a strange form of Stockholm’s Syndrome.  Then too, there was what had happened to Will... 

“By the way, got any explanations for the steaming-hot waterfall pouring out of the mountain?”  JJ called.

            “A couple ideas.”  Reid’s eyes drifted to the switch for the window shades.  Shaking his head, he looked away.  “The heat suggests it could be like a hot spring, or a geyser.... perhaps a caldera of sorts below us, that forces the water up through a combination of steam and pressure.”

            “Reid, I can’t say I’ve ever taken a shower in a geyser before, but I imagine they’re a lot warmer than this.”

            “There could be an outlet for heat or steam elsewhere.”  Reid shrugged.  “But yes, that’s an issue with that explanation.  Also, since the opening is so small, and it wasn’t there yesterday, it seems likely there should have been some kind of minor eruption, only...”

            “Only there are no signs of anything like that.”

            “Right.”  Reid blew the air out through this nose in frustration.  Again he glanced at the window shades.  “And I could be wrong, but I think the rock even shows signs of slight erosion.”

            “I noticed that too.”  JJ came in the door of the hut, fully dressed, her hair wet and her clothes still slightly damp.  “Maybe a month’s worth of erosion, in a day’s time.”

            “Which messes with the obvious solution that it’s simply being pumped up from below us, like a fountain.”  Reid sighed.  A thought seemed to strike him.  “Unless the erosion was there before.  I never really looked at that part of the island.”

            “Beats me.  I can’t remember.”  JJ glanced around the hut.  “We don’t have a towel or a spare shirt or something, do we?”

            Reid blinked.  “Not really, no.”

            “It just figures.”  JJ ran a hand through her tangled hair.  “When this dries, it’s going to be a horrible mess.”  She grumbled.

Reid sent her a quizzical look.  “A bad hair day is a little low on our list of priorities, JJ.”

“Give me a minute to be a girl, okay?”  JJ  sighed.  “Right.  We’re doing fine.  We have fruit, we have water, and most importantly, we have a goal.  For the first time we set foot on this place, we finally know what we’re supposed to do.”

            “What the cult wants us to do.” Reid corrected warningly.  “We need to be careful we’re not sucked into their way of thinking.”

            JJ gave just the tiniest wince. “Right.  Anyway, what they want us to do is to find all the handprints in each world, then go through the weird stone doors that take us to the space-cave so we can teleport the floating pillars to the island.”

            “I still want to see how it does that.”  Reid turned to look at the square of four columns, two of which now sported the horned pillars they had collected from the other ages.

            “Yeah, it’s gonna freak you out.”  JJ smirked.  Her face changed.  “Any idea why they want us to, by the way?  Apart from making us listen to a disembodied voice in a cave, there really doesn’t seem to be any indoctrination going on.”

            “Technically we don’t even have to listen to the voices.”  Reid pointed out.  “You can stop the recording or jump down the star-pit right away.”

            JJ closed her eyes.  “And then there’s that.  Any theories?”

            Reid shook his head.  “Honestly, I gave up on the teleportation thing a while ago.”

            “Mm.”

            “In terms of what the cult is trying to teach us... I agree, I’m not seeing a whole lot.”  Reid frowned in thought.  “The first place you could argue was teaching about how even the greatest structures fall and how all the protection and wealth in the world can’t save you from death.”  He shook his head.  “But it’s so indirect and vague a message as to be useless to a cult.”

            “Definitely doesn’t seem like an indoctrinatory doctrine.”  JJ mused.  “Those other two places we went to... I don’t know.  They honestly seemed pretty straightforward.”

            “The beauty and destruction of nature?”  Reid suggested.

            “Maaaaybe.”  JJ’s frown was growing.  “I could see it, with the themes of duality and the harshness of the one...”  She shook her head.  “But here’s the thing.  You could get that from any old desert.  You could get that from a fallen tree.”

            “Just like the theme about the entropic nature of reality could be derived from any set of ruins.”  Reid nodded.

            “Exactly.  I wonder if these themes are actually there, or if we’re just reading them into the landscape.  Either way, it’s not exactly strong indoctrination.”

            Reid hesitated.  “It... might just be very gradual.”  He suggested.  “I mean, we don’t know how many of these worlds there are.”

            “There are only four books.” 

            “But one of those led to another.”  Reid pointed out.  “What if the last has six or seven books inside?  Or what if collecting all four pillars simply takes us to another island?”

            There was a horrible silence while both of them contemplated a seemingly endless succession of worlds and puzzles wearing down their minds in the service of a death cult.

            “We... we don’t know that.”  JJ said, forcing the vision away.  “Anyway, we need to keep exploring if we want to find a way out.  And there are still two more books.”  She jabbed a finger at the door.  “You go and wash up, and after that we can talk about what one we’re going to next.”

            Reid nodded and pushed himself up off the floor.  “For the record,” he said, heading for the door, “my vote’s on the cabin-interior book.  It’s time we started looking for these people.”

            “Agreed.”  JJ nodded firmly.


 

            “Under the ranch?  Seriously?”

            “They had to do something with all that mining equipment.”  Prentiss argued.  “It certainly wasn’t all used on that little cleft.”

            “Come to think of it, that fits with something Agent Dawson was telling me.”  Hotch frowned.  “He said one of the more geologically-oriented of the forensic team was poking around the volcano... he said there were signs of an entrance leading into the crater.”

            Morgan blinked.  “Into.  The crater.  As in, down into the volcano?”

            “We should really pay that forensic team more.”  Prentiss muttered.

“It might not lead into the magma.  This area of Arizona is known for its cave network.”  Rossi shrugged.  “There’s the Carlsbad Caverns close nearby.”

            Morgan’s brow was knitted in thought.  “But would a volcano leave a natural entrance into a cave system like that?”  He asked.

            A series of shrugs greeted his question.  “Not sure.” “Maybe.” “Seems like lava would cause problems with that.”  “I could... google it to find out.”

            “We need to get brain-boy back here.”  Morgan sighed. 

            “What are you thinking, Derek?”  Hotch raised an eyebrow.

Morgan shrugged and leaned back. “Maybe we’ve been looking at this the wrong way.  We’ve been casting Elias Zandi as the founder of this whole thing, but suppose it’s his contractor, Logan, who started it.”


 

            “The sun moves along the horizon.”

            “Let it go, Spence.”  JJ glanced up from the console she was fiddling with.  The periscope-like viewfinder she was staring into was attached to a bizarre, flower-like structure with a sprouting solar panel, pointed horizontally along the horizon.

            “I’m not sure you’re quite grasping how impossible that is.”  Reid insisted.  “First of all, it demands that the side of this world be constantly pointed at the sun, which means the other side must be frozen solid.  Then, the fact that the sun is making a full circuit of the horizon every twenty minutes means that this planet must either be orbiting the sun at a blistering speed, or it is itself rotating at a blistering speed.  And then...”

            “Look, what if it’s just a three-month day, like they have in Sweden sometimes?”  JJ suggested.

            Reid snorted.  “Does this look like Sweden to you?” 

            “No.”  JJ admitted, looking around.  “No it does not.” 

            She and Reid were standing before a towering column with a small, flower-like dish at the top, all contained on a raised metal platform above a foul smelling swamp,.  Attached to the platform was a long metal walkway which extended in one direction off back to a... JJ still wasn’t sure if that was a large wooden structure or an enormous tree stump.  The cabin she and Reid had arrived in was inside it, along with a locked trapdoor and a broken elevator.

            On every side were giant, twenty-foot-tall mushrooms.

            “Can mushrooms grow this large on earth?”  JJ glanced over at a particularly large specimen.

            “They’d be the first I’d hear of.”  Reid shook his head wearily.  “Then again, so would tropical climates with horizontally orbiting suns.”

            There was also that.  A small, glowing orb hung low in the sky, moving across the horizon with dizzying speed.  It ducked behind mountains and clouds, but remained more or less the same distance from the horizon, whipping past the enormous tree-stump (or wooden structure) every twenty minutes.

            Weird as the last worlds had been, this was a whole new level.

            JJ shook her head.  “I have to admit, this is making your ‘bubble-world’ theory more appealing.”  She said as she turned back to the viewfinder.

            “I’m not sure whether to be impressed by the originality or revolted by the ridiculousness of the whole thing.”  Reid  crossed his arms and looked very annoyed.  “Profile-wise, swamps tend to attract the individualistic or the exploitative.  Occasionally also the secretive and introverted.  In this case I’d say exploitative, given all the machinery and hardware inserted into the swamp.  Whoever designed this place appreciates nature only so far as they can take what they need from it.”  He squinted at the horizon.  “As much as they can, too.  In that light, the horizontal sun almost makes sense...  it allows for a 24-hour work day.”

            “Especially if they can exploit that sun as a power source.”  JJ added.

“What do you mean?”

            “Call it a theory.”  JJ answered, fiddling with the knobs on the control panel.  “Obviously this place needs power.  There are three... gear-shaft things going out of here—“  She pointed at the different poles extending out of the platform, “—so this is some sort of nexus... or a power generator of some kind.  And this thing...”  She squinted into the viewfinder, “...seems to be aiming that dish at the horizon, with allowances for a constant rate.”

            “A horizontal solar panel.”  Reid sighed.

            “A horizontal rotating solar panel.”  JJ corrected.

            Reid rubbed his eyes and groaned.  “I can’t even begin to explain how contrived... do you realize how insufficient that panel is to generate energy?”

            “Maybe it’s supposed to be some hyper-conductive material.”  JJ shrugged wearily.  “Maybe it’s not solar energy the way we think about it.”

            A last twist of the knobs, and the platform started to rumble into life.  All three crankshafts began to rotate.  Farther away, other machinery could be starting up..

            “Or maybe it’s just part of the cult’s method of making us suspend all logic and rational thinking.”  JJ stood back from the viewfinder with a look of satisfaction.  “But either way, it’s what we need to do to keep moving.”


 

  “Rossi, you said Zandi was known for paying top dollar for obscure artifacts, right?”

            “Yes.”  Rossi nodded.  “Almost maniacly.  He claimed he felt some sort of connection to certain unusual Southwestern artifacts.”

            “Right.  So this contractor, Logan.  He realizes his boss has this obsession with stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere, and he’s just found this underground cavern in the middle of nowhere.  He sets up a few random huts, and phones his boss to tell him he’s found the source of all the artifacts.”

            “Records do show Logan had an almost suspicious ability for ‘finding’ the peculiar sort of artifacts Zandi craved.”  Prentiss nodded slowly.

            “So Logan was a forger.”  Hotch nodded.  “He milked Zandi for years by feeding him false artifacts, and finally a false city, thinking that his boss’ll make him a millionaire for this ‘secret civilization.’”

            “If that was the plan, it failed hard.”  Garcia frowned.  “Zandi spent all his money buying up the land around that ranch.  Like, we’re talking thousands of acres.  Logan didn’t get anything.”

            “Because Elias makes a cult around the place, which eats up all his finances.”  Hotch nodded.

            “I take it Logan’s dead?”  Morgan asked.

            “...yeah.  In 1991.  But the details are... sketchy.”  Garcia frowned at another of her screens.  “Huh.  It looks like they never even found the body.”

            “Logan asked for money, Elias got mad for him tainting his new religion, he had him killed off.  In the process of rationalizing it, the cult becomes a death cult.”  Morgan finished.

            “Or Jeff.”  Hotch interjected.  “The father’s obsession would mean they would never be very close; the underground city would have worsened it. Jeff might have resented Logan for that—and if he found out Logan faked the whole thing...”

            “Jeff and Logan fight, Logan is killed, the stress drives Jeff off the edge.”  Prentiss nodded.  “He starts killing off the members of his father’s cult.”

            “Several problems with that, you guys.”  Garcia sounded regretful.  “The DRC wasn’t really a thing until several years after Logan’s death.  Jeff wasn’t involved at all at that point.  In fact, so far as I can tell, the only other person who was connected to it was our friend”  Garcia paused. “Richard Watson.”


 

            “Nice apartment.” JJ noted as she stepped off the elevator, taking in the bed, desk, fish tank, and half-dozen stacked boxes.  A couple tinted windows were opened out on a view of a small swamp behind the tower.  “What sort of person owns it, you think?”

            “Obsessive note-taking, but definitely not OCD.”  Reid eyed the mass of papers and figurines that made up the desk.  “Emphasis on acquisition and storage of knowledge.”

            “In a material format.”  JJ pointed out.  “This apartment belongs very much to a materialist.  He’s obsessed with storing and possessing things.  It’s not about the control, or else he’d organize his possessions better.  Just having them is enough for him.”

            Reid nodded absentmindedly.  “What do you suppose that room on the lower level was for?”

            “The control-room-slash-observation-tower-slash-granary-unloading station?”  JJ shrugged.  “Not entirely sure.  It looked like they were harvesting something from the water, something they’d want drained. and dried.  Some sort of lake-bottom creature, maybe.”

            “Or soil, or vegetative undergrowth.”  Reid nodded, but his forehead was furrowed.  “But it doesn’t make sense.  You couldn’t support a facility like this on that alone.  If this place is supposed to be some sort of sludge-harvesting plant, there should be hundreds of those bucket-things, all with different unloading rooms.”

            “Well... there might be.  We still haven’t seen what’s under that trapdoor.”  JJ shrugged.  “What’s bothering me is this room.”

            “What about it?”

            “It’s a little at odds with the geographic profile you gave.”  JJ crossed her arms and glanced about the room.  “This man appreciates nature—you can see the drawings and models on the desk, to say nothing of the fishtank.  But he’s not obsessed with control—the mess.  And it doesn’t seem like he’s very exploitative either.”

            “The man who lives here might not be the same person who built the facility.”  Reid pointed out.

            “I’m saying it doesn’t work with your bubble world theory.”  JJ objected.  “You’re assuming someone lives here, but by the bubble theory, this whole place—including the room—is fabricated.  They should reflect a consistent mindset.  And the fishtank.”  JJ tapped the glass.  “Where does this thing fit in?  Everything here is bizarre, exotic, and nonsensical, but this is a store-bought fish-tank complete with a light bulb and a bubbler.”

            “Well, one way it fits is that it at least verifies the man is secretive.”  Reid stood up from a perusal of the desk, a manual in his hand. “According to this, that fishtank is actually a safe.”

            “What?  How’d you work that out?”

            “Note from the supplier.  There’s a mailing address too, we’ll have to look into that later.”  Reid had crossed over to her side of the room and was bending over the fishtank.  “Let’s see, there should be a button right...”

            A hidden panel in the cabinet slid open.  Behind it was a book.


 

            “Dr. Watson.” The team exchanged significant looks. 

            “Suppose Watson realizes his old friend—and his son—are being tricked by Loft, and it’s destroying their lives.”  Morgan realized.  “HE kills Loft, and...”  He paused and frowned.

            “And what?”  Prentiss shrugged.  “We’ve already established Watson leads the more moderate faction, and Yeesha and Jeff the more extreme.  How does Watson killing Loft make him more moderate?”

            “Maybe we misread the situation.”  Morgan considered.  “Maybe Watson’s been leading the death cult all along.”

            “Or perhaps Jeff caught Watson killing Loft, Watson made up a religious explanation on the fly,  Jeff bought it and took it too far.”  suggested Hotch.

            Rossi shook his head.  “Watson’s a true believer.  He’s not making up anything, he truly believes everything he told us.  But he doesn’t strike me as extreme enough to lead a death cult either.  I think we’re making a mistake by fixating on Loft’s death as the formative event in the making of the cult, if Garcia’s right, he died long before the whole trouble got started.”

            “But Watson IS the most likely suspect for killing Loft, since he was the only other person besides Elias involved at the time.”  Morgan argued.

“No wonder he ran, then.”  Hotch mused.

            “Except he didn’t run.”  Rossi had a deep frown on his face.  “He vanished in front of us in our own interrogation room.”

            The team winced.  “Gonna be honest, I was hoping to avoid talking about that.”  Morgan sighed.

            Prentiss scoffed.  “Why?  So we can pretend it didn’t happen?”

            “Because we have absolutely no context for talking about it.”  Morgan answered, giving her a look.  “Behavioral analysis textbooks have very little to say on disappearing acts.  And who wants to bet that forensics has as little to say as they did on the cave?”

            “Leaving us exactly where we started.”  Hotch’s jaw clenched ever so slightly.  “Still with no idea where anyone is.”

            “Not quite.”  Prentiss raised her hand.  “Yes, we still don’t know where Reid and JJ are, but I’ll bet anything you want that Watson’s going straight to the DRC.”

            “Especially if they’re based in D’ni.”  Rossi nodded at her.  “We threatened his artifacts after all.”

            “Right.”  Prentiss agreed.  “And whether those freaky little green books teleport to other worlds or not, D’ni the city, at least, has to have a physical location in the real world.”

            “Which is under the ranch.”  Hotch tilted his head, a new look of determination in his eye.  “All right.  So what are we likely to need?”


 

            “So THIS is the office.”  Reid glanced around the room.  “Much more neat and professional.”

            “Not used very much, though.”  JJ ran a finger disapprovingly through the dust on the desk.  “And the desk is still something of a mess.”

            “Pictures, art, drawings, maps...”  Spence glanced around the walls and suddenly frowned.  “JJ.  Notice anything weird about this room?”

            “Besides the bizarre creatures depicted, the exotic furniture, and the solid rock wall?  No, not really.”  JJ answered.

            “There’s no door.”

            JJ glanced up from the desk, looked around, and blinked.  “Huh.  That’s... weird.  There’s a window over there... maybe he climbs in through a ladder.” 

            “Or maybe this place is supposed to only be accessible by one of those books.”  Spence argued.  He walked over to the window JJ had mentioned.  “This place just makes less and less sense.”

            “My word, Spence.”  JJ was no longer listening.  She was instead flipping excitedly through one of the notebooks on the desk.  “This... these are detailed journals!  They have names, dates, places...”  She squinted at an entry.  “Even the New York Yankees!”  She glanced over to Reid excitedly.  “This is the break we’ve been looking for!”

            Reid did not move from the window.  “JJ?”  He said, his voice a little strained.  “I think you’d better come and look at this.”

            Puzzled, JJ gathered up the notebooks and slid them into her pack, then strode over to stand with Reid at the window.

            It was the subterranean city from the tapestry.  But it was large—so much larger then they could have anticipated.  Hills upon hills of massive stone structures towered beneath the yawning roof of an immense cavern.  Elegant, mosaic-like streets wound their way through the city.  Everything was lit by a faint glow from the undersea lake that could be glimpsed surrounding the city, and in the far distance, Reid and JJ could see a very familiar arch.

            “That’s... the arch from the painting in the cave.”  JJ breathed.

            “Where this all started.”  Reid nodded, as if in a daze.

            JJ’s eyes drifted downward and her breath suddenly hitched.  “Spence... there are people down there.”

            Sure enough, now that Reid looked, he could see that the city was alive.  Lights were flickering on and off in many of the windows, and down below in the streets he could see tiny shapes milling to and fro.

            “You think... this is the cult’s headquarters?”  He hazarded.

            “I think we should leave before we find out.”  JJ answered, already groping for the little green book.


 

            “Where did you say the path was?”

            Agent Dawson looked a little uncomfortable.  “Rachel said it was past the fence, on the far side of the volcano.  You have to basically go into the crater to find it.  But are you sure you want to...”

            “Yes.”  Hotch cut the forensic specialist off.  He turned to the man standing next to him.  “Mr. Simmons?”

            Mr. Simmons, a grizzled old man fully decked out in a miner’s helmet, kneepads, and elbowpads, nodded and signaled to his crew, who pushed past the fence and began to scour the mountain.

            Hotch turned to his team, all of whom had ditched their usual outfits for similar spelunking gear.  “I don’t need to remind you that it’s imperative we move slowly and cautiously.”  He warned them.  “We have no idea what to expect down there.  Follow Mr. Simmons’ directions at all times—he and his team know what they’re doing.  They’ll take the lead and scout out the tunnels and paths we’re likely to follow.  Captain McNinch and his men will follow them and clear the tunnels of any hostiles.”  Hotch nodded to a dour-faced ranger.  “We are to stay behind them at all times and not get in their way.” 

            Morgan, Prentiss, and Rossi nodded.

            A call from the top of the mountain caused Hotch to look up.  “All right.”  He said, putting on his own helmet.  “Let’s go find a lost city.”


 

            “This journal belongs to a man called ‘Douglas Sharper.’”  JJ was flipping through the notebook excitedly.  “Apparently he was in charge of restoring this ‘Age,’ as he calls it.”

            Reid looked doubtful.  “Then these are supposed to be time periods, rather than separate worlds?”

            “No, I get the feeling it’s just a term.”  JJ answered.  The two of them were threading their way through a tunnel deep beneath the trapdoor they’d finally opened.  “But he talks as if this world has an entirely separate history of caretakers and owners—as if he thought everything here came from that ‘Dunny’ city that the hologram mentioned.”

            Reid pondered this.  “It makes sense.  Members of the cult would naturally believe that these bubble worlds were real.”

            “But someone—several groups of someones—would have to know the secret, to maintain them properly.”  JJ argued.  “And if the man in charge of running the facility didn’t know...”

            “Whoah.”  Reid drew up short. 

            JJ glanced up.  On the wall of the tunnel were some very strange paintings—similar, in some ways, to the ones she’d seen in Eder Kemo.  They seemed to be very stylized stick figures, but their poses were very strange.  Some of them seemed to be walking hunched over, others were standing straight up with their arms stretched overhead.

            “That’s... odd.”  Reid managed.  He glanced up and down the tunnel.  “What... do we think this tunnel was for again?”

            “No idea.”  JJ answered, checking the journals again.  “Sharper mentioned something about the ‘back side’ to this place, but so far I haven’t seen anything but vague suspicions.  Apparently he was told this place was some sort of mushroom farm, but even he didn’t think that made sense.”

            “Well, they don’t seem to be farmers.”  Reid frowned at the figures.

            JJ could do little but nod.  “Maybe it’ll make sense further on,” She suggested, glancing ahead.  “It looks like the tunnel opens up.”

            After a moment, Reid nodded, clearly reluctant to leave the mystery of the pictures.  “These bubble worlds do seem to have an internal logic.”  He agreed, starting to move forward.  “The cult clearly wants some sort of lesson to be derived from each, so they generally explain most elements found... within...”  His voice died away.

            He and JJ had exited the tunnel into a large open room.  Surprisingly well-lit for being so deep underground, the floor was strewn with rocks, wood, and assorted animal bones.  A low rock shelf formed a natural bench around the perimeter, and two barred doors stood at the far end of the room.

            Chains dangled from the ceiling.

            “A dungeon.”  JJ noted tersely.

            Reid’s mind suddenly made the connection to the drawings.  “For slaves.”


 

            “No, this volcano’s been extinct for quite a while.”  Mr. Simmons assured Hotch, as the latter lowered himself to the crater’s floor.  “I doubt it erupted more than once.  We should be fine.”

            “Should?”  Morgan had been a little bit ahead of Hotch, and was already on the crater floor.

            Simmons’s wrinkled face creased in a smile.  “There’s always a risk with these things, agent.  But don’t worry.  I’ve rappelled into much more active volcanoes than this.”

            “Oh joy.”  Prentiss muttered, a little above Hotch on the rope.  “I feel so much better.”

            Simmons seemed not to hear, he was already turning to look at the cave on the far side of the crater.  “Honestly I’m not sure how much you’ll even need me, it looks like there’s a solid trail that has already been cleared away.”

            “Let’s hope we won’t.”  Hotch said, landing and moving aside to let Prentiss and Rossi through.  “In the meantime, let’s just keep going.”


 

            “Amazing.”  JJ shook her head, staring out over the glistening sea.  “So much beauty and so much evil in close proximity.”

            She and Reid had cleared the dungeon with surprising ease—Reid had noted that probably there was usually a guard to ensure that the slaves would not be able to unlock the gate themselves—and from there had followed a ramshackle boardwalk outside to a low rock shelf and tower overlooking a silent bay.  The sea stretched away for miles ahead of them, mirror-smooth and glowing in the light of the rotating sun.

            “It’s beautiful here.”  Reid dropped down to sit next to her.  “I just checked: on the other side of that tower is the swamp where we started, with all the mushrooms and rusty walkways.”

            JJ smiled.  “Maybe that’s why they built the tower... so that they didn’t have to see what they’d done to the place.”

            “Possible.”  Reid agreed.  “There was some sort of wall they had up between the swamp and the ocean.  I lowered it down—maybe getting the water flowing will clear out some of the stagnant water in that swamp.”

            JJ half-turned to look at him.  “You’re beginning to talk about this place as if it were a real ecosystem.”

            “I think the cult wants us to treat it as an ecosystem.”  Reid insisted.  “As a symbol of man’s exploitation of the environment.”

            “And of himself.  The slave pens.”  JJ reminded him.  Heaving a long sigh, she stared out over the ocean.  “I suppose you’re right.  It’s a beautiful illusion, though.”

            “It is.”

            “It... reminds me of Lousiana.”  JJ said suddenly.

            “The ocean?”  Reid asked, scratching his side distractedly.

            “And the swamp.  And the heat.  And the deserted slave pens, in a way, but mostly, yes, the ocean.”  JJ blinked out at the gleaming water.  “Me and... and Will.  We used to go to the ocean in Lousiana.

            Reid glanced at her but said nothing. 

            “We used... to go out on late nights, and just...”  JJ swallowed, “...just watch the waves.”  Her voice hitched a little.  “I’d bring Henry, dandle his feet in the water a little.  He’d laugh and Will would chuckle and... and say... he’d say...”  JJ choked and could not finish.

            “JJ...”  Reid said, in a low voice.  “We...”

            A low sound interrupted them.  It was something like a cross between a low moan and a trumpet blast, a thunderous hummm that rose up and down in timbre and echoed over the waves.

            JJ and Reid both started upright at the sound.  “Was that...?”  JJ asked.

“It sounded like a whale.”  Reid observed, unnecessarily.  “But what...”

Then they saw it.

It was far off at sea, at first, no more than a tiny undulation on the horizon.  Slowly it swelled to a bump on the near-still surface of the water.  As they watched, the bump grew, changed perspective, and swam toward them.

It was a vast red-gold creature, like a whale in shape, but with hard plates on its back like some sort of crab or turtle.  It floated half-in-half-out of the water, and steered itself with three webbed pairs of segmented limbs that sprouted, bug-like, from its side.  As it approached, it lifted its head from the water, and let loose again the crooning scream they had heard before.

JJ and Reid stood, petrified by the sight of the bizarre creature.  It barely seemed to notice them, but continued swimming past the former dam, intent on the mushrooms inside.  Its scaly underbelly glinted as it rippled past them, flexing with muscle.  It disappeared into the bay, and a few minutes later they heard the crash of a mushroom falling into the water, and the sounds of something chewing.

JJ recovered first.  She turned to Reid and, after a moment, gave him a gentle prod.

 “I... may have to re-evaluate my theory about this place.”  Reid whispered, distractedly.


 

            “Perhaps it’s premature, but I feel like we may need to come up with a new theory.”  Morgan grunted, squeezing through a narrow cleft in the rock.

            “It does seem like it would be hard for Zandi to move much equipment down here.”  Prentiss admitted, squeezing after him.  “Certainly couldn’t drive a truck through all these rocks.”

            “What, this?”  Simmons, pondering a mass of boulders up ahead, turned to look back at the BAU team.  “This is all recent.  Cave-ins, mostly.  Sure, it looks pretty well sealed, but this floor—“ his foot tapped the stone meaningfully, “—is smooth and level.  There was a tunnel here once.”

            “Twice, I’d say.”  Another of the spelunkers was frowning at the ceiling of the tunnel.

            Hotch squeezed through the tunnel just in time to hear.  “Twice?”  He echoed questioningly.

            “Once, I get.”  Again Simmons tapped the ground.  “This floor was drilled out and leveled fairly recently—there’s even some signs of flaking concrete where they tried to even the path out.  But twice?”

            “Does it seem likely they’d drill so badly half the tunnel would collapse like this?”  The spelunker at the ceiling looked down disdainfully.  “There’s two kinds of drill marks up here.  I’m betting someone made a small, well-supported tunnel, then some other fool came along and widened it to allow a truck through.  Only they didn’t support it properly.”  He gestured at the boulders.

            “That... would make sense.”  Simmons agreed, casting his eyes up and around the tunnel.  “Amateurs, most likely.”

            “None of that explains how we get those boulders out of our way.”  Morgan pointed out.  Behind them, Captain McNinch’s team was struggling to fit through the crack.

            “Don’t need to.”  Simmons pointed at the far left corner. “The cave-in doesn’t fill the tunnel.  Some of my boys already went through the crawlspace up there to scout out what’s—“

            “BOSS!”

A thin, helmeted figure with goggles and a flashlight came scrambling through the hole and half-fell down the boulder pile. Barely stopping, he dashed up to Simmons and grabbed his arm.  “Boss, you need to... you’ve got to...”

“The hell, man?”  Simmons tore his arm free, staring at the spelunker.  “What’d you find?  Where’re the others?”

The man cast a glance backward.  “Still over there.  They’re looking at the... the...” he seemed to be fumbling for words and gave up. “Sir, you need to come, I can’t explain, it’ll sound crazy, I don’t even know what they ARE...”

“What’d you find?” demanded Simmons, but he was already scrambling up the rocks after his man.  “Animals?  People? Bones?”

“Cave monsters?”  Morgan muttered, climbing up behind them.

There was a sharp intake of breath.  Simmons was half-kneeled in the crawlspace, staring into the space beyond, his headlight shining on whatever it was within.

“What is it?” Morgan asked, but Simmons had already scrambled into the hole, and from the sounds was tipping and sliding down the cave-in on the other side.  Grumbling, Morgan climbed up behind him and peered in.

It took him a moment to realize what he was seeing.  Beyond the cave-in, the tunnel continued on.  Looking, he could see what Simmons was talking about, there was a clear tunnel, larger than ever, but it was nearly entirely choked with boulders, great curiously round stones nearly twice the height of a man.  Simmon’s spelunker team was clustered around them, their head-lights flashing and flickering over the surfaces of the shining rocks...

Morgan blinked.  The light was glinting off those rocks far too much for them to be stone.  And now that he looked more closely, he could see little pieces jutting out, glowing in the lamp-light, jutting out with too much of a pattern to be natural.

Details impressed themselves as Morgan’s eyes grew more accustomed to the light.  The one closest to him looked something like a squat scarab, or perhaps a great crab.  He could see vast arms folded against its armored sides, the black metal gleaming dully through the stone dust that covered it.  Part of the tunnel had collapsed on top of it, but it seemed unharmed by the massive boulders resting on its carapace.  On its side were massive arms that could only be used for drilling through rock. For a moment, Morgan wondered, bizarrely, if they were alive, some sort of vast subterranean insect.  But as soon as the thought occurred to him he recognized the glint of metal. 

Not creatures.  Morgan’s mind swam.  Machines.


 

            “It... could’ve been an animatronic.” Reid passed a hand over his head, still staring out at the sea.  “A floating vessel with pneumatic joints and...”  He shook his head.  “No, no, it was too smooth for that.”

            “Reid, did you even hear what I said?”  JJ asked gently.

            Reid waved as if to dismiss her.  “Yes, yes.  Last handprint.   We can open the door now.”  They were in a look-out room of some kind atop a tower just next to where they had seen the whale.  JJ’d hunted through the room and found a few items of interest, including a not-half-bad shirt and a fishing net, but the most interesting thing to her had been the handprint.

            Reid, on the other hand, still seemed distracted.  “Couldn’t have been a hologram, that’d require too complex of rendering.  And it was so close, I could have jumped on it if I’d wanted.”

            “Don’t.”  JJ said sharply.  “Jump on it.  Just stop thinking about it, Reid.”

            Reid turned to look at her, his gaze just slightly vacant.  “Just stop thinking about it?  JJ, what makes you think I CAN?  That... thing, it was an impossibility, an abnormality, an anomaly!  It can’t exist, and it does exist, and it can’t possibly be faking existence, and that means this whole place...”

            “...isn’t important.”  JJ cut him off, fiercely.  “I don’t care if it’s real or fake or an amusement park ride or a giant video game the robots put us into to turn us into batteries.  Nothing has changed.  It’s not home, and our friends aren’t here, and neither is Henry.” 

            Reid stared at her, mouth open.

JJ took a step toward him.  “Look, take this and go back to the island.”  She said, slapping the green book against his chest.  “I’ll handle the pillars.”

            Reid’s eyes suddenly cleared.  “No.”  He pushed the book away.

            JJ closed her eyes.  “Spence, you can’t stay here, and I can’t...”

            “No.”  Reid grabbed at her arm.  “No, let me go through the door.”  She looked at him uncomprehending and he pleaded.  “Please.  I need to see.  I need to observe.”

            JJ blinked at him.  “You’ve already seen...”

            “Not like before.”  Reid insisted.  “Before, I was looking at it as an illusion.  I need to see it again, see it fresh, see if there’s anything I missed.”  Quickly he found and pressed his palm against the handprint cloth in the room.  It lit up all the way.  He turned to her.  “Please, JJ.  I’m trying to understand.”

            JJ studied him for a second.  “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”  She whispered, her eyes glazed with concern.

            “I have to try.”  Reid shrugged.  “Please, JJ.”

            There was silence, then JJ sighed. 

            “Go ahead.”  She said, moving away.  “I’ll head back to the island and wait for you there.”


 

            “These things aren’t on the market.”

            Hotch glanced at Simmons coldly.  “Yes, I can see that.”  He was facing one of the massive cutting arms of the drilling machines on the left.

            “I mean they’re not on any market.”  Simmons protested.  “Anything.  Open, black, industrial, government... I don’t think anyone’s even thought about machines like these.”

            Hotch pinched his nose and rubbed his eyes.  “Mr. Simmons, I can assure you, that’s standard for how this case has been proceeding, so instead of telling me about how you don’t know what the metal’s made of, or how the machines are powered, tell me what you DO know.”

            Simmons cast another glance at the machine, but reluctantly continued.  “Well... they’re too big.”  Hotch raised an eyebrow and he hastened to explain.  “Like, way too big, at least for closed mining like this.  Must mining gear tends to be as small and flexible as possible, to maneuver in small tunnels, to make small, controlled, precise excavations that won’t jeapordize the integrity of the mine and will go only where it’s supposed to go.  These things...” He nodded in turn at all four of the machines around the tunnel “...would need a truly massive space to work in, or even turn around in.  Trying to drill with one of these in a tunnel like this would be like using a backhoe in a sewer.”

            Hotch nodded contemplatively.  “So these are designed for above-ground excavation, you think?”

            Simmons cast a nervous glance back.  “Well... that’s the other thing.”

            Hotch cocked his head, uncomprehending.

            Simmons leaned closer.  “They’re... they’re facing the wrong way.”

            Hotch looked sharply at the workman, then at the machines.  His face cleared with instant understanding.  The machines, as Simmons had said, were too large to turn around in the tunnel.  But all of them were facing the agents, with their enormous drilling mechanisms pointed back up the way they had come.

            These machines had been drilling TO the surface.


 

            JJ didn’t immediately use the book to return to the island.  She’d noticed an odd mechanism back at the slave cages and wanted to toy around with it and see if it did anything.

            She never got there.  As she was passing through the lower chamber, her eye was caught by a stone tablet, resting on a small crate.  She and Reid had agreed, of course, that such things were distractions from their main work and not worth wasting any more time on, but JJ couldn’t help but be curious as to what sort of city this tablet showed.

            To her surprise, they showed no city at all.  This time, the faded tapestry was adorned with the image of a small stone chamber, with a narrow window showing a glimpse of green jungle growth beyond.

            JJ wasn’t quite sure why she did it.  Perhaps it was the jungle, which was the most normal-looking thing she’d seen yet.  Perhaps she assumed that, as she had the book anyway, she could always go back if it was dangerous.  And a part of her was curious, of course, as to what the heck these strange tablets were for, anyway, if they weren’t part of the solution.

            Before she could stop herself, she reached out and touched the parchment.  In a moment she found herself caught up in the usual teleporting sensation...


 

            JJ found herself as she had foreseen, in a small stone room.  There was a bed inset into one side, and some sort of low stone toilet into the other, but no other notable accessories that she could see.  A dusty old blanket and a scattering of assorted items crowded the room, but aside from that it was really very disappointingly plain.

            There was... something odd, though, JJ noted.  About the floor.  There was just the faintest sense of being pushed, of a sort of force pulling you to the wall with the window.  It was barely noticeable, but as soon as you tried to take a step you could feel it.  JJ’s first few steps had her stumbling around a little awkwardly.

            Aside from that, though, everything seemed fairly normal, and JJ was disappointed, on glancing around, to realize that the room had no door and could really not conceivably be considered to lead anywhere.  She dug out the small green book, glancing at the window as she did so.

            Trees, rocks, and waterfalls rushed past her window.  For a moment JJ was astounded by how smooth the ride was, then several things clicked into place, and suddenly the force from the floor made sense.  Rotation.  She was in a rotating building, and like a gigantic merry-go-round, the centrifugal force was pushing her to the edge.  Slow, so the push was not great, but it was still there.

            Book still in hand, JJ stepped up to the window, pressing up against the bars—apparently this had been some sort of jail cell—in an effort to look outside.  She saw lush, green vegetation on the slopes of a cavern of greyish-blue rock, with gushing waterfalls roaring past.  Mist swirled deep below, but she thought she caught a momentary flashing glimpse of another building, at the end of a long bridge.  It was almost like...

            JJ caught sight of the creature.

            Almost on reflex, she jerked away from the bars, stumbling against the faint push of the building’s rotation.  The small green relto book tumbled from her hands, bounced against the windowsill, and, as she grappled at it madly, fell down on the wrong side of the window, dropping out of JJ’s sight.

            As she heard the diminishing sounds of the book bouncing and reverberating off a hundred unseen objects on the other side of the window, JJ turned, slowly, taking in the small room and its distinct lack of a door.

            She was stuck in the maximum security prison of an ancient civilization, deep in a mysterious jungle on an unknown world. 

And she had just lost her only ticket home.


 

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

Edward Abbey