Dirk yawned in the morning light, glad that they would at least be approaching the bottom of everything. The last few trees thinned out before them, the tomb emerging before them. A massive cathedral built partially into a hillside with faÃ§ade decorations befitting a metal concert.
Surrounding it were tranches and holes meticulously dug by the archeologists, several of whom were still plying their trade on the far side of the clearing, large floodlights connected to a bank of generators by the trail head.
But what Dirk noticed most of all were the platoons of soldiers drilling in every spare inch of space. About forty of them, though it seemed like an entire army division to him.
â€œWhatâ€™s with all the muscle?â€ he asked, looking back at Ivan
â€œJust in case, we have our training grounds by the entrance.â€
â€œIn case of what?â€â€™
â€œI think you should ask him.â€ He said, pointing to a small man huddled on the front stairs.
A grey haired Mediterranean looking man in filthy rags sat in the fetal position, staring, eyes plastered open, at the trailhead. Dirk approached the man cautiously, seeing a glint of madness in his gaze. When he reached the bottom of the stairs the man began speaking.
â€œTraveler you have come to a cursed abyss. The demons shall rise from this place soon enough and defeat God, the Son, and all his creations to bring about a reign of blackness as all bow to the sleeping one.â€
â€œUh, ok then.â€
â€œWho are you?â€ Tarcia asked, pushing past Dirk and walking right up to the figure.
â€œMy father gave me the name Ramon Martinez Salazar, in the year of our lord fifteen hundred and thirty two, 16 April; the time of The Lord: two Kâ€™ankâ€™in, three Ish, fourteen Kin, Five Winal, Twelve Tun, Fifteen Kantun, Eleven Baktun.â€
â€œAre you mad?â€ Dirk asked quietly.
â€œI have seen the truth, gazed upon the unholy nature of reality itself, lead by the fool Fernando, may he boil in the pit of the one who devoured his flesh. You must turn back, fool, or else risk understanding.â€
â€œFantastic,â€ Dirk muttered, â€œAre you sure you want to go in there Tarcia?â€
â€œNo, you must not, least you face beasts of the black corruption that flows through this place like the blood of the false god.â€ Ramon paused, looking at something behind them. â€œOh, hello Ivan, how does your research progress?â€
â€œSwimmingly, though I have a suspicious feeling that the Americans might know about our projects.â€
â€œYes, Pedro foresaw such events,â€ Ramon said, holding up a tattered copy of the bible. â€œFor he glimpsed the library of eternity.â€
â€œPedro?â€ Dirk asked, taking a step back.
â€œThis is Pedro,â€ Ramon replied, tapping on the bible, â€œmy only companion for the long centuries of my cursed existence, my guide and eternal friend.â€
â€œAlas, I downed a gulp of the corruption, allowing me to escape from the lobster snakes that dwell in the deepest depths. I can never leave this place, not so long as the sun and moon continue their dance through the sky.â€
â€œYes, our friend here unfortunately had to sit on these temple stairs for four hundred years, and the first people he encountered shot him.â€ Ivan said quietly, â€œTime has not been kind.â€
â€œWhat is this, corruption of which he speaks?â€ Tarcia asked quietly. â€œAnd, and lobster snakes?â€
â€œIn eighteen years weâ€™ve only excavated the first floor, so I know nothing of lobster snakes, but Iâ€™ll show you the corruption.â€
â€œWait, wait, Ivan, you cannot let these people inside.â€ Ramon protested, â€œThey carry the scent of doom. Pedro suspects they are plotting at this very moment.â€
â€œI can handle them, my old friend.â€
â€œI shall prey to Ashera and Baâ€™al that you are correct.â€
With that, Ivan mounted the rest of the stairs, beckoning the others to follow. Dirk and Tarcia eagerly followed him into the cavernous entryway.
Ahead of them was a massive doorway that was already propped open. Gas masked guards, armed with Ak-74s, marched around the room, their eyes constantly on the move, darting from corner to corner. They passed by the doors, which were adorned with skulls and other bones formed into an elaborate mosaic.
Inside the tomb proper was a long vaulted hallway, which stretched out into the distance. Scaffolding made form hefty tree trunks reinforced areas with even the slightest sign of decay. After going a few yards into the place Dirk felt a chill run down his spine. A sense of unease filled him.
â€œYouâ€™re probably getting nervous about now,â€ Ivan said offhandedly, â€œIâ€™ve been in here in and out for eight years, and I still canâ€™t shake the feeling.â€
Along with the scaffolding, floodlights illuminated every inch of the hallway, and the side rooms they passed. A work crew passed them on their way out, all looking relieved to be exiting. A hundred feet in and Ivan diverged to a side room. Inside were several fountains, molded skulls puking out a black fluid up a central spire.
Dirk approached, and tapped one of the skulls hesitantly. He felt a tiny amount of relief when he found it to be made of stone, but this faded the moment he looked closer at the fluid. It flowed out like runny tar, an acrid smoke wafting from the streams and the pool below.
Curious, he put the tip of his finger under the flow, regretting his decision instantly. The stuff felt like solidified smoke and burned his skin. He yelped with pain, jumping back from the fountain of death. Ivan chuckled, dawning a gasmask and gloves.
â€œYou could have warned me,â€ Dirk protested, waving his stinging hand through the air.
â€œAh, but you see, we use that as an idiot test,â€ Ivan said, holding a colander under one of the streams. Id gave off a rattling noise. â€œIf you were a prospective worker, youâ€™d be reassigned on the spot.â€
Dirk shook his head, examining his finger. An odd dark grey film had formed over his skin and stung like crazy as he peeled it off. He pulled out a small length of cloth and wrapped it around his raw skin, suddenly realizing that he might have done long term damage.
â€œUh, thatâ€™s smoke-tar, right? What are the long term consequences of touching it?â€
â€œThe knowledge that you will one day perish in a stupid manor,â€ Ivan replied, â€œseriously; the worst was that one guy who had his hand amputated, but he fell into the stuff.â€
â€œThe Spaniard mentioned drinking the stuff,â€ Tarcia said.
â€œWouldnâ€™t recommend it, since his mind is bit on the spongy side, at least as far as specifics go. Also, our tests suggest that would be less than survivable.â€ Ivan said before pulling the colander out. â€œThis is the prize, though, Byi crystals, formed in the streams smoke tar. Or just happen to float in it, weâ€™re really not sure.â€
â€œHuh, so, thatâ€™s where you mine them from.â€
â€œExactly, they come from deep inside the earth, far down into the labyrinth below.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s down there?â€
â€œNo idea, havenâ€™t gone that far down, nor do we really intend to.â€
â€œArenâ€™t you curious?â€
â€œSure, but the Nazis acted on their curiosity, and, weâ€™re here and theyâ€™re not.â€
â€œI want to go lower.â€ Tarcia said, locking her eyes with Ivan. â€œI need to know the truth.â€
â€œRamon knows the truth, and youâ€™ve seen how well that worked out for him.â€
â€œHave you found my grandfatherâ€™s remains, or any of his team for that matter?â€
â€œNo, they likely descended deeper,â€ Ivan said tersely. â€œIf they hadnâ€™t, then the fourth Reich might by now be conquering the last resistance in China.â€
â€œTake me there.â€
â€œArgh, a Fucking Spetznaz team went down there, full bio-chemical gear, radios, flashlights, and even they got freaked out enough to pull out and risk Siberia rather than complete the exploration of level two.â€
â€œNot my concern.â€
â€œAlright, if youâ€™re really determined to kill yourself, Iâ€™ll show you to the entrance.â€
At the end of the long hallway stood a pair of pillboxes, two teams of soldiers manning machineguns aimed at what looked like a well. The circle of stone was in the middle of a room larger than the corridor. Columns ran along both sides, a carved image of a three headed beast glared at them from the back wall.
The well itself was covered in razor tape, and had five separate floodlights pointed directly at it, all connected to different cables leading back down the hall. Several jittery soldiers saluted Ivan as he approached, looking suspiciously at the four strangers.
â€œThere it is,â€ Ivan said quietly. â€œThe entrance to the second level.â€
â€œI see itâ€™s been fortified,â€ Dirk murmured.
â€œWe take security very seriously, here more so than anywhere else.â€
â€œBut what treasures lay beyond I wonder?â€ Tarcia mused. â€œSurely youâ€™re enticed by the thought of finding the source of your power?â€
â€œNo idea, and not terribly, Miss Jones,â€ Ivan replied. â€œI have learned the harsh lessons of history well.â€
Slowly Tarcia slipped passed the pillboxes and strolled up to the well. Dirk followed after her, as everyone behind them let out a collective sigh. Tarcia gazed down into the well, leaning over the razor tape and peering into the blackness beyond. She licked her lips, a hungry look in her eyes.
â€œLooks dark,â€ Dirk murmured, another chill running down his spine.
â€œOnly because of the artificial lights these backwards philistines have erected.â€
â€œHuh, I guess I have to apologize.â€
â€œI was hired to find your grandfather, and it doesnâ€™tâ€¦â€
A shiver ran through the walls and floor, rattling everything. Flakes of stone and stucco landed on Dirk. He looked up, spotting a dark circle of stone at the top of the domed ceiling starting to move. He jumped backwards, the plug falling down from above crashing through the razor tape mesh and slamming into the chamber below with an earsplitting crack.
Terror flooded through him, as a dark shape appeared above and the sound of prepping firearms echoed from behind him. Dirk dropped to the floor, hoping he wouldnâ€™t get devoured or caught in the crossfire. A small cylinder fell from the hole and moments later a blinding flash of light blinded everyone in the area.
By the time Dirk had regained his senses, a dark figure was standing over him. It was the woman from the previous night, and she looked pissed.
â€œDamn it, who the hell are you?â€ Ivan yelled.
â€œSofia Black, CIA.â€
â€œAh-hah, I knew the United States would one day challenge us.â€
â€œCan it, you delusional Commie. Youâ€™re whole operation could be destroyed with one air-strike.â€
â€œAnd yet we both know no such thing will happen, donâ€™t we?â€ Ivan asked sarcastically, waving his finger at her. â€œWeâ€™re too entrenched now, on the eve of complete legitimacy, and thereâ€™s nothing you can do about it.â€
â€œOnce we cut off your source, that will no longer be an issue.â€
She ripped a second grenade from her waist and tossed it at him, a cloud of smoke enveloping the guards. With a pair of clippers she snipped the razor tape easily and then repelled down to the lower level.
With that hungry look still in her eyes, Tarcia leapt for the opening, grasping hold of the rope and swinging over the abyss. Dirk dashed over to well, grabbing hold of her shoulder.
â€œStop, please, you donâ€™t knowâ€¦â€
â€œGet off me, this is my chance, the truth waits below.â€
As she slid down into the darkness, Dirk lost his balance and grabbed hold of the rope. Teetering over the pit, he felt a strange urge to go after her. Despite everything, he swung over the edge, and slid down after Tarcia, knowing somehow that she was right.
The moment he reached the bottom, a very angry woman grabbed Dirk by the shoulder and threw him to the ground. Sofia looked at him contemptuously, grating her teeth as she did so. She aimed the flashlight beam directly into his eyes, pushing it closer.
â€œWhy didnâ€™t you shoot that Commie when I ordered you to?â€
â€œYou ordered me?â€
â€œOf course I did,â€ she spat, ripping something off his lapel. â€œWhat, did you think you were hearing voices? I gave you ample time to do that job, and you just sat there like a bump on a log.Â Half my team got fried because of you, and now Iâ€™m going in blind.â€
â€œI-Iâ€™m sorry,â€ Dirk mumbled meekly.
â€œIâ€™ll bet you are,â€ she snapped. â€œNow, youâ€™re going to make up for your failure. Youâ€™re on point, little man.â€
She hauled Dirk to his feet, shoving him down a long, back hallway. After a few tentative steps he turned and looked back, reaching his hand out.
â€œCould I have a flashlight?â€
â€œNope, keep going.â€
Deflated, Dirk hung his head and marched out front down the long corridor. The walls were carved with intricate reliefs and complex glyphs, scenes of giants towering over tiny bowmen, skull creatures breathing fire upon seaside villages, and trees holding the starry sky aloft adorned both walls, recounting legends lost to the mists of time.
A low rumble emanated from deep below, his heart skipping a beat. Then the corridor split in half, two paths veering off in either direction. An ugly face stared at him from the divider, a dim glow emanating from its eyes.
Sofia brushed past him, aiming her light down the corridor on the left. As she did so, Dirk noticed a small object laying against the ugly statueâ€™s feet. He cautiously scooped it up, realizing that it was a book. Before anyone could steal it away, he tucked it into his jacket, eyeing the others suspiciously.
â€œThis way,â€ Sofia called, starting down the corridor.
As Dirk hurried after them, Tarcia bumped into him, shining a light from her palm.
â€œWait, what isâ€¦â€
â€œA headlamp,â€ she whispered, â€œI brought a couple of them, just in case. Now, what did you pick up?â€
â€œNot sure,â€ he replied, pulling the book open, â€œA journal, I think.â€
â€œLet me see,â€ she snatched it from his grip. â€œHmm, itâ€™s in German. Damn.â€
â€œFive January, 1945. A miserable day, the captain insistedâ€¦â€
â€œWow, you can read this?â€
â€œI can, but letâ€™s not get lost now.â€
He snapped the book shut and hurried after Sofia. At the end of the corridor they reached a large burial chamber, about sixteen sarcophagi in two neat rows. As Sofia moved down the centre of the chamber, Dirk moved along one wall, spotting something in the darkness ahead. There, in a heap, he found two bodies lying against the wall. One of them held a Lugar in his hand, giving a hint at how he met his end.
As Dirk examined the two, a strange noise, barely perceptible, began filling his ears. It was like rushing water in a pipe, yet slightly off; as though the fluid was somehow lighter than he should have been. just as Dirk began lifting the manâ€™s arm a bright light fell upon him.
â€œWhat do you have there?â€ Sofia asked, leaning in.
â€œA pair of corpses,â€ he replied, sliding the Lugar out of sight. â€œNazis, probably from the expedition.â€
â€œCurious, but not important, letâ€™s get a move on.â€
Beyond the burial chamber was another corridor, though this was considerably narrower. The flowing noise grew louder as they advanced, the walls slowly coming closer as they went until they were scooting along sideways for the final stretch.
They emerged onto a large balcony overlooking a gigantic chamber. A vaulted ceiling towered overhead, bearing inscriptions of tentacle, multi-headed monstrosities almost beyond comprehension. On the opposite side stood a waterfall of the black effluent, flowing from a barely visible slit running across the base of the dome.
Two stairwells wound down from either end of balcony, ending next to the pool where the waterfall terminated. A light burst from just ahead as Sophia lit a flare and tossed it over the edge. Dirk cautiously approached the precipice, his eyes following the small flare as it fell. For a single second it illuminated a mural of two figures locked in battle, a stream of effluent flowing between them.
Then the torch fell into the effluent, a quite pop echoing from the depths.
Apparently satisfied, Sophia started down the stairs. The decent seemed to take longer than Dirk thought it would, even with their slow pace. Upon reaching the bottom of the chamber, they found it was far larger than it had appeared from above.
The effluent pool was the size of an Olympic pool, walls twice as high as any of them holding it back. The stream was a large aqueduct separating the statue of liberty sized warriors. It sloped towards a large corridor leading downwards into the earth. Dirk looked into the dark mouth and felt a shiver. The air itself felt heavy and pressed in on them from all sides.
He coughed, the hair on the back of his neck standing up. He looked back, spotting Sophia inspecting the effluent pool wall. Wanting to put as much distance between himself and the corruption, he bid a hasty retreat to the far side of the chamber.
The journal beckoned him and he drew it out of his coat and propped it open. His light arrived moments later, Tarcia slumping down beside him as expected. She held out her lamp and shined it onto the pages, a hungry look in her eyes.