I could barely keep from collapsing as I ran through what seemed to be the never-ending darkness of these godforsaken catacombs. When I’d first signed on to serve as Professor Nickel’s field assistant, I’d assumed that the shrunken old man and I would spend days crouching over a blanket of dirt, sifting through broken vases and old bones in search of some lost relic that the old fart would be hunting for.
He was always ranting about the “lost civilizations” and “how they need to be better explored by those with vision!”
All I’d cared about was walking away with a passing grade.
Now all I cared about was living to tell the tale!
We’d gotten separated some time ago, the old loon hopping down from a leaning column to the top of what he claimed to be a Sumerian tomb, telling me to keep up. How the old man moved like he did, I had no idea, but the jump was easily a twenty-foot drop.
Yeah, not doing that. I’d thought with disdain, having thought of the horrors my knees would face from such a height had I made a similar jump.
Now I was running for my life from some ancient Sumerian creatures that had crawled from the cracked awning of some ionic pillars, great shark-like maws wide in anticipation for what I could only assume to be dinner.
It didn’t matter if they were really out to just kill me instead of eating me as the creatures chasing me through the utter darkness were outright terrifying. From what I’d seen, they were essentially unwrapped mummies that ran along the walls like spiders. Hissing in their ancient language innumerable insults at me as they chased me around the catacombs, howling with laughter like sadistic chimps as they swung from high above, their aged claws scraping away bits of ancient stone with their passing.
Running with two satchels of archaeologist’s tools, I quickly roll under a fallen column and soldier-crawl my way beneath a toppled statue, doing my best not to hack and cough at the dust I was kicking up.
I almost shriek when I one of them land on top of statue, the other landing on all fours some distance away, prowling just within the light of my dropped flashlight, giving me a decent look at them.
They were obviously once human, but centuries of decay had changed that, turning them into something far worse. What funerary bindings they still possessed seemed only to exist to hold the carrion beetles that crawled all about their yellowed bones together. Their mouths were no longer even comparable to what I possessed, being cracked down the middle and held aloft by the pink tendrils, giving them a wide, toothy grin. Their arms were covered in faded tattoos, highly intricate looking dark ink that had meant something significant. Now all I could do was stare at the leathery hides in horror, waiting for them to find me.
The one on top leaped down next to its compatriot. This one held an old sword awkwardly with its left hand, handling the cracked leather-hilt as if it were poison.
Whatever this monster had been in life, it was obviously not a soldier. It held the sword awkwardly, offering it to the other with a shrug, the two speaking in their gibberish language.
Oh, good lord, they’re thinking…
I fish into my satchel as quietly as possible, for something that I could actually use as a weapon. One satchel is nothing but books and brushes, so I look into the other, finding my great savior!
Six inches of sharpened steel connected to a wooden handle. That was all I had to separate me from death.
I shuffle about beneath the stone figure, like a sleepy turtle trying to find a comfortable spot, squatting behind several tons of rubble in hopes of keeping the creatures far enough away from me actually to make a break for it. I slink around the corner as best I can, trying to figure out where the hell I actually am in the damned ruins. Pulling a compass and a smaller flashlight, I frown as I notice North is in the exact opposite direction I wanted it to be.
My only warning that I was discovered was the crumbling of mortar from abopve, one of the hissing cadavers perched atop the column, wielding the ancient looking sword within its cracked leather casing. It howls at me in rage as it leaps down towards me.
By reflex I respond by ramming the trowel up into the creature’s chest, the steel cracking through the creatures sternum with the sound of dry timber snapping. It doesn’t seem to mind as it swings the sword at me with clumsy fumbling. We both tumble to the dust, me stabbing at the creature madly as it howls in agony, its claws scratching at my shirt feebly as I vent my frustrations out on the unholy being. I finally silence it with a thrust into it's face.
My victory is short lived as two more come bounding around the corner, caterwauling like a pair of mated tigers after the people who stole their cubs. I feel empowered seeing as the monsters obviously can’t fight worth a damn. I scoop up the leather ensconced sword from my attackers twitching talons. The two creatures run towards me, moving more like wolves than men. I raise the sword high, bringing it down to the crown of one of the undead, hammering its skull more than cleaving it.
The leather cracks away as I tear away the creatures head. The second creature has jumped onto my back, pulling on my arms as it encapsulates my head within its engorged mouth, the separated lower jaws forming a tight noose around my neck. I feel a sudden pressure against the back of my head like I’d blocked off a water pipe. Then the nightmare begins again as it disgorges thousands of scarabs and carrion beetles over me, their feathered legs leaving long shallow cuts wherever they fall.
I throw my weight back, slamming my insect-filled foe into the column behind me, a disgusting squelching noise similar to the sound of rotting pumpkins being thrown from an overpass marking the creatures end. It falls to the ground in a heap, wheezing out a steady stream of insects that seem to have decided to turn on him rather than me.
Thank God, because I can feel a few dozen finding spots all over my body, beginning to claw through my epidermis, seeking the warmth of the womb that my body would provide. The undead I'd hammered before stands up, ruined eyes peering at me as it begins to swell in preparation of vomiting it's own nasty contents.
Two shots fired from Professor Nickel’s personal hunting rifle tag the creature, once in the temple and again in the right shoulder. While old, senile and eccentric, Professor Nickels always carries two guns with him at all times, something he’d suggested I do as well, once I actually earn some money to buy something. Slinging his Sharps Buffalo Rifle back over his back, I can just barely make out the holster to his M1911 pistol, something he told me that “one should always keep loaded when on an expedition, just in case.”
I’d assumed he’d meant bandits!
“Joshua!” He calls out from half way across the rubble-strewn room, hopping to and fro like a bullfrog after a fat firefly. “Did they get any on you?”
“Yes!” I all but screech as I feel three particularly large beetles wriggling their way through my flesh. Three red blotches begin to form over my clothes, two over my stomach and one over my right thigh.
“Quickly, drink this!” He says, shoving a glass bottle into my hand. After several seconds of nervous fumbling, I growl and slam the top end of the bottle across an old mosaic next to me, breaking the bottle open wide enough for me to begin guzzling the foul smelling liquor held within.
“The larvae will die quickly enough if you’re sauced to the gills,” Nickels explains, his wrinkled face crinkling further as he smiles at me as I continue to drain the bottle, a faded paper label bearing the words “Ever” before being too rubbed out to see. With my throat on fire and my insides wriggling with parasites that are continually burrowing into me, I drop to the ground gasping for air.
“It'll hurt like hell in the morning, let me tell you,” Nickels says with a smile, patting me on the shoulder with a gnarled hand. “The alcohol will drive them out of your body, or kill them. You’ll have to pay a nice doctor to drain your infected wounds once we get back to Baghdad in a few weeks.”
I sputter at the thought, my head spinning. “A few weeks? Did you not just see what we had to deal with?”
The old man waves his hand in the air at me as if a foul odor was passing. “Merely temple guardians, looters that fell prey to the traps around here and found themselves as guards for tombs and the like. But I have a good feeling on this one lad, a good feeling!”
“However so?” I ask, leaning heavily on the sword as I stand.
“Well, that sword for one thing!” Nickels says with a wide, toothless grin. “The Ubaid weren’t known for their iron-working abilities, merely their domestic advancements; I’ve long since held belief that there was a civilization here before the Ubaid, based on their legends of metal men and the like, and that sword is quite a piece of history, if I do say so myself.”
“Well at the moment it’s my cane because I can feel a goddamned roach burrowing deeper into my gut,” I hiss, but he pays it no mind.
“The tomb I found, the one that you wandered away from, well it is just what I was hoping for when I saw great seal over it!” He crows, dancing about me like a mad little leprechaun. “The seal predates the Ubaid by at least five hundred years, and it has markings similar to the ones the Sumer used to mark royalty. I think I found myself the crypt of a King of an Empire not yet recorded!”
“Bully for you…” I grumble, limping alongside him.
He looks up at me with a discouraging glare. “Don’t tell me you’re going to be this much of a whiner the whole expedition, are you? Because if you think those petty guardians were anything worth talking about than you don’t even want to know what is probably lurking down in that tomb we’re going to be breaching in the morning.”
I could barely keep from collapsing as I felt the first of my burrowing playmates begin to spasm from the strong alcohol I’d ingested. My head swimming with drunken vigor and mild blood loss, all I can do is glare at the old man as we settle into a campsite. Our camels are at a small oasis some two miles East of here with a tribe of nomads that Nickels seemed to be on good terms with.
Drunkenly leaning back, I decide to take a solid look at my walking blade, brushing away the flaking leather to examine the iron beneath. It's in near pristine condition, a few touches of age here and there, but no actual structural damage to the blade itself. I knew for a fact that the museum back in London would pay me an easy ten thousand grand for the thing, more than enough to pay off any outstanding loans I have hovering about my head at the local gambling houses.
Despite the crazed dead and demented midget, this dig might not be so bad at all.