“She’s got something special in there, I can feel it,” said Oscar Val Hagen. He flicked a metallic lighter and fired up his cigarette, followed by a quick swipe over the tufts of greying hair clinging to his clammy forehead. He set the handle of his pick axe against the eroded stone wall. “The instinct never lies. You remember the time I won the Norsden Horserace by picking the absolute worst nag in the lineup? What happened?”
“You won five consecutive races and everyone cried fix! I’ve heard this story before, Oscar. You’re lucky to’ve left with the hair on your head,” said Manius Staden, his colleague.
Oscar laughed. “Ah, you remember! Just as old Gleighman’s Pride ran his heart out, so did I to the exits. That was the angriest mob in history—Great grandfather said the first Eupharian War was dreadful!”
Manius nearly choked on his cigarette smoke, laughing. “God, he must be turning in his grave.”
“His soul was the first to be blessed after my victory,” Oscar said, holding up his fingers.
The two men sighed while reminiscing, having only recently been brought together after traveling from their homeland in the northern hemisphere. Manius fanned his hat over his chiseled face while Oscar pulled out his pocket watch and gazed through his spectacles. “Seems night is on the horizon. Should we call it a night at eight?”
“I think the team is due for a reprieve. Personally I feel I’ve inherited a third wind,” Manius said excitedly.
“That, my lad, is the essence of the hunter’s spirit. The secrets beyond these walls beckon us to shed light on them! The egg of archaeology is an impenetrable shell of mystery, the golden yolk reserved only for those brave and smart enough to crack through.” Oscar took a final drag and snubbed his cigarette, then walked around the barren chamber in the ruin, passing through the beams of their flashlights on the ground. “Reading books is only useful when you apply what you learn.”
“In what ways?” Manius said.
“What happened back in university?”
“I remember your essay about Norsden aborigines and the unexpected show-and-tell that followed. I’m still baffled you managed to exhume their remains.”
“Manius, my boy, I disproved a decades-long dispute. Researchers speculated the aborigines settled in Caephron, but I refused to believe it. I never had the chance to test my hypothesis, but by golly, I ignored my peers and trusted my instinct!”
“You’re an intrepid hunter, Oscar. Nevertheless, the Caephron disputes were based on scientific evidence—things that actually existed. This time, even I’m not convinced of this lost world you speak of. Even if we do find something here it’s unlikely we’d even know what to do with it.”
Oscar grabbed his flashlight and pulled a small leather-bound notebook from his sweat-spotted cargo shirt. “That’s where the laymen would stop their search. True to my nature, however, I dug further.” He flipped through its pages and showed Manius some notes and diagrams. “As it turns out, I read about some people who—”
“Mr. Val Hagen!” a man called.
“Dr. Starkey?” One of Oscar’s proteges, a blonde-haired, late-twenties boy came stumbling from the pitch-black corridor at the end of the chamber. Oscar and Manius covered their eyes from the frantically bouncing light in his hands. “Gentlemen, we found something.” Gunnar Starkey eagerly led them down the corridor, laden with dank crevasses where graves and other artifacts lie within.
Manius rolled his ankle stepping over a bone fragment and tripped into Oscar. “Come now, lad, you’ve seen enough bones in your career. The brink of greatness awaits us!” Oscar said.
The trio came across a woman wearing a dusty lab coat near the end of the hall, shining her lantern towards them. She stood outside the entrance to another chamber, a circular room. A muddled mix of banter emanated from inside, where Val Hagen’s excavation team roamed about.
“My dear, what have you found?” he said to her.
Heidi pushed up her glasses. “A dead end.”
“What?” Oscar and the others ran into the dark room, becoming bathed by the high-beam flashlights and lanterns around them. He waved his light across the room, where not much exhibited itself but some old cryptograms on the walls and the remains of totems and pillars. “Dr. Starkey, what was it you found, my boy?”
“Come this way, but watch your step.”
They and some of the other diggers gingerly traversed the room, eventually coming to a gaping break in the floor that led to a deeper level of the ruin. Oscar hunched down and shone his lantern down as far as he could see. Nothing but dust crept across the warm air below. “The floor…did this just happen?”
“No, but we did almost lose part of the crew there,” Starkey said, sharing some of their chagrin.
“I can’t see the bottom from here. But I wonder what caused the floor to cave in as it has.”
“A few reasons,” another excavator said, “poor construction, trespassers, or maybe this place is finally dying of old age.”
Oscar stood up, wiping his husky face with a handkerchief. “All good explanations, but in the case of trespassers, it makes me wonder if perhaps we’ve come too late.”
“What do you propose we do next?” Starkey said. “Should we pick up tomorrow morning?”
Val Hagen slumped off his backpack and pulled out a spool of rope. “The sun may have abandoned us, but my faith does not!” The others watched him tie the rope to a nearby column, then toss another spool to Manius. “Here, you’ll follow. Gents, lower him down behind me.”
Manius reluctantly tied the rope around his waist. Oscar turned on the light on his helmet and bravely climbed down the rope into the abyssal pit. Manius gradually lowered behind him, nervously shining the flashlight into the depths.
“I wish he’d stop talkin’ like that,” one worker whispered to the others.
The two explorers sank into the darkness, brushing past cobwebs and smog until their lights could barely be seen from above. The group gathered around the edge, anxiously listening to their muffled voices.
“Ah, the ground awaits us,” Oscar said. He hopped down and hit the ground, waving his arm to disperse the settling dust.
“You’re down safe?” Manius said.
“With a gentle kiss of the soles, my friend.”
Manius tugged the rope twice, signaling the others to stop lowering. He hung a few feet above the floor, beaming his light towards the walls. Oscar walked carefully along the floor, observing the spacious nooks in the walls high above. A withered old candle sat atop the column at the end. He retrieved the crusty candle and sparked it with his lighter. The room lit up a little more, and he kept lurking around.
“See anything interesting?” Manius said.
“Mostly graves, judging from those crevasses. Looks like an old crypt.”
Manius swallowed his nerve, and kept a watchful eye on their surroundings. “What’s in there, that urn?”
Oscar approached the thick, stone relic and hefted the lid off, where inside lie droves of human remains and skulls. “Ah, seems like another vessel for these people. Strange how some are kept in coffins and others in such crude capacities.”
“Commoners, perhaps?” Manius suggested. “Maybe the sarcophagi were reserved for higher beings.”
“Likely, which intrigues me. Were these old people related, hence they were buried together? Or were they sacrificed?”
“Who even were they?”
“That, my friend, is where this gets interesting.” He rejoined Manius and opened his notebook. “As I was saying, there are people who lived in this old world. I believe this to be one of their ancient dwellings.”
“How are you sure?”
“Look at these diagrams.”
Manius surveyed some of the indecipherable images. “They somewhat resemble the ones in here. Could they be the same people?”
“My gut tells me that this catacomb is the next marker in my search! Based on my sources, these ancient civilizations formed numerous tribes all across the old world.”
“Let’s just say I may’ve discovered a living fossil…”
On the main floor, Starkey and two others investigated the other ends of the chamber. Their colleague Heidi lingered outside, observing the shallow graves in the walls. “I’ve never seen markings like this,” she said. “Even after so many years and so many books, there’s still so much we don’t know.” Heidi ducked down and crawled into one of the nooks, the webbing clinging to her brown hair. A dirty relic lie in the dust, and her fingers ran over its jagged inscriptions and tarnished, metal surface. It appeared as an old necklace with a little purple gem embedded within it. She carefully put it around her neck and kept searching. She encountered a stone sarcophagus ahead of her, whose lid lie firmly over the enigma inside.
“What’d you find?” a voice abruptly called.
She gasped, and looked over to see her blonde-haired ally, Jenks. “Looks like someone’s tomb. Look there.”
Jenks climbed in after her, and they shared a brief glance. “Wanna see what’s in there?” he said, somewhat daring.
“You think I wouldn’t?”
He leaned closely, letting his warm breath fall on her cheek. “If you’re afraid, I’ll be more than happy to be the man here.”
Heidi raised an eyebrow, and nudged him aside. “Shh, we’re not getting paid to grab ass here.”
“I’ll be the only one grabbing, you’ll have your hands full with…other things,” he said, caressing her thigh.
“Oh shut up, creep!” Heidi rose onto her feet and leaned down to slide the dense lid off the coffin. “Hey man, little help here?”
He smirked, and helped tug the lid off, the heavy lid slipping from his hand and clonking onto the floor.
“God, how did you even get a degree?” Heidi said.
“Hey, I’m just too much man.”
Heidi scoffed, and poked her head inside the coffin. “Holy…Jenks, look at this.”
“Wow, you think it means Val Hagen is onto something?”
“Maybe. It could be one of those people he read about.”
Jenks wiped some dust from the slab. “Look at those markings.”
A small inscription appeared at the head of the coffin.
“Wait, I’ve seen that symbol,” she said.
“Here, these two figures…the way they spread apart.”
“Never seen carvings like this. Looks like a kid drew them.” Jenks scooted further into the niche while she observed the unusual markings. He hunched over and dragged his flashlight across the floor. Tiny sparkles littered throughout the area caught his eye. He swept his hand through the dirt and picked up some loose old coins and arrowheads. “Now we’re talkin’…” Ahead of him, two green twinkles glinted in the darkness. He stepped over to them, and halted when a scurrying rodent came darting from the depths. Jenks jumped briefly, dropping some of his loot.
“What’re you doing?” Heidi said from the other end.
“Nothin’, just saw something down there,” Jenks replied, shaking off his brown cargo shorts.
She came over and slapped his back. “I saw it too. Scared of a little rat, huh?”
“No, just a little startled. I got distracted by those lights there, and—”
“What lights?” Heidi looked over to where he pointed, but didn’t see anything under the shadows. “Come on, we better get back.”
Jenks inched further inside. “I swear I saw them.”
Another shrill noise caused them to stop.
“What was that?” she said.
The green lights reappeared before them, drifting nearer.
“Come on,” Jenks said.
They backed away towards the end of the niche, and the source of the green lights caught some of the outside light. A human skull floated before them, suspended by a supernatural force.
Heidi gasped. “Oh my God!”
A high-pitched screech came from the old skull as it hovered past them. The two panicked excavators dove out of the crevasse and cowered on the ground.
“What the hell was that?” Jenks said.
Heidi nervously got to her knees and looked back inside the subset. A clicking noise tingled up their spines. From within the coffin arose a skeleton, piercing the darkness with a nightmarish green stare. It lifted its arm, and the scattered bones on the floor stood creepily upright. The bones flew towards them, striking her in the head.
“Take my hand!” Jenks said.
They hurried back down the tunnel with the bony menace clanking after them, shrieking.
“Was that Jenks just now?” Starkey and a few others bustled through the chamber threshold and saw their colleagues fleeing. “What in the world?”
“That thing’s alive?” another woman said.
“Guys, pull ‘em up! We’re under attack!” Starkey exclaimed.
After having caught wind of the frightening occurrence, the others tugged the rope to pull Manius back up.
“Oscar, we’re pulling you back, we have to leave now!”
“What?” Manius said.
Oscar extinguished the candle and put his notebook away. “Something’s not right here.”
“Come on, pull!” the guys said.
As they struggled to pull Manius up, the skeleton entered the room, thrashing an old, rusted scythe during its tirade. It slashed one of the mens’ backs, causing him to fall.
“Shit!” one of them shouted.
“What’s going on up there?” Manius said. The men broke apart, dropping Manius in the process. All they could hear from the bottom were frightened screams and footsteps. “We’re in danger.”
The crew reached the main chamber of the ruin, dispersing rapidly.
“What about Val Hagen?” Starkey said. “We can’t leave them.”
A few others ran back into the tunnel, only to be surrounded by the possessed beings rising from the graves in the walls. Their green eyes shot into them like laser beams, boring white-hot holes in their bodies.
“There’s no time,” Heidi said.
“The money’s not worth dying for,” Jenks said.
He grabbed her hand and they sprinted toward the main entrance. While they ran, a dismembered arm bone on the floor suddenly seized Jenks’ leg. As he fell, a hidden spiked rod shot through the floor, impaling his face. Heidi’s screaming filled the room, prompting the others to make haste for the doorway. Spiked wooden poles erupted from the floor all around them while they evaded. During the chaos, the skeletons viciously mauled some of the other crew. One man came and jerked one of the skeleton’s arms, pulling the bone from its socket. His partner managed to get away, while the other grappled with the dismembered limb. The bony hand wrapped around his neck and squeezed, eventually choking him to death. The remaining diggers escaped the ruin and ran through the Matherland jungle, not once looking back.
“Back to base camp, everyone!” Starkey said as he scrambled through the brush.
“What about Val Hagen?”
“If they survive they’ll be back, but there’s nothing more we can do tonight.”
They turned off their lights and made as much distance between them and the ruins as they could.
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