I wake to the sounds of scraping stone, giving my sleep-addled mind a sharp spike of adrenaline, considering all that has happened to me so far. I push my way up, wincing at the numerous bruises and scratches that are littered over my thin frame. The fire we’d assembled atop the tomb still burns bright, allowing me to look around the cavern at the haunting shapes created by the dancing shadows.
I find Professor Nickels crouched over the tomb’s seal, hammer and chisel in hand, lightly tapping away at the edges of the four-foot circular disk of stone. Hunched over in the darkness, the old man makes me think of the stories of gremlins, incomprehensible creatures that would come into your home at night and hide your shoes. The old man is goofy looking not because of his wild mane of hair sprouting from the side and back of his head instead of the top, nor because he wore glasses that had adjustable nobs on them to move lenses in and out of the frame, allowing him to examine things “in better detail”, while essentially looking like the King of the Insane Beetles.
He was goofy because he didn’t care what everyone else thought of him, and despite his low social standing amidst the Historical community, he churned out peer-reviewed research like clockwork every six months that furthered our knowledge of ancient cultures. So the eccentric midget was tolerated, and asked only to teach two classes a year, when the icy chill of winter would spread over Southern Texas.
“Professor, what are you going?” I ask, leaning heavily on my shining sword, which had taken quite a bit of work to get to this poor level of shine let me tell you. The Professor, after looking it over, had declared it to be from the same time period of the Ubaid people, but not of their make (metallurgy was beyond them), theorizing it came from a group that “displaced” the Ubaid through warfare, eventually creating the Sumerian culture some five to seven hundred years later.
“Joshua, my boy, come down and help me move the seal!” He calls to me, still squatting impossibly low for a man of his advanced age. “The mind is willing, but the flesh is withered and old; I need a young strong back to move the seal so that we can continue our explorations!”
I sigh and walk over next to him, dropping to my knees and taking as firm a grip as I can at this awkward angle and begin to shove with all my might, slowly moving the three to four-hundred-pound slab inch by inch. After moving it halfway open, he calls for me to halt, giddy at the smell of the musty old air rising from the crypt below us.
“Why didn’t you just break the damn seal so we could just go down? Now my back feels like it’s been run through a sausage grinder.”
“Call it vanity on my part, but once we’ve cataloged what’s in the primitive tomb, I’ll want to bring that seal with me, as a souvenir.” He said with a grin. “Don’t worry; you won’t have to be my porter for that one. Plus, if we discover something down there that could be called ‘The Mother of All Evil,’ I’ll be wanting that seal intact to cover it back up.”
“The Mother of All Evil?” I repeat, looking at the spry little dwarf of a man as he flipped between lenses on his glasses, peering into the darkness beneath the seal.
“Oh my, it looks like we’ll need some rope… perhaps a hundred or so feet of it.”
“What’s down there that’s so important that we need to go deeper into this crypt Professor?” I ask, curious to what he can see with headgear. He looks up at me, all of his additional lenses flipping back at once, rolling back into their separate compartments.
“What I’ve been looking for my boy, what I’ve been looking for.” He says with a grin, hopping from foot to foot gleefully at the discovery. Rolling my eyes, I climb back up to our campsite to retrieve the rope and the climbers gear. Hammering in three pitons (safety first!) I loop the knotted silk rope around them and tie a harness about myself, as well as a smaller backpack rigging that I planned on carrying the good Professor in. He happily tucks himself into the makeshift backpack, jabbering on about how important this find was, and other such nonsense.
I just wanted to live through this now, like I said.
“Professor, mind if I take your Pistol, for the time being? I feel a little… unsafe walking around with just a sword.” I ask, trying not to sound too desperate in my plea.
“You’re a young strapping buck, Joshua,” He said from his safety harness on my back, patting my padding over my kidneys. “A sword should be fine enough for you. I never lend anything, my boy, anything at all! That’s how you lose your favorite books and good pens, you know.”
I ignore the urge to just throw the little man down the hole and make my final adjustments with the rope and the pitons, ensuring their driven deep into a solid section of stone and not just some piece of loose tile. Strange, there are several other holes in the stone similar to the ones I’m hammering in, almost a ring of them surrounding this pit. I pay them no mind as Professor Nickels urges me to move forward.
“The ropes seem fine Joshua, just fine! Now let’s get a move on!” Professor Nickels whined from my back.
“Hey, I’m just making sure this will work alright? Whatever’s been down there had been down there since before the pyramids, according to you, it can wait another five minutes.” I snap at him, still trying to figure out how to carry my sword (which is essentially the same size and weight as the good Professor) while shimmying down a rope into a darkened tomb. I reach in my side satchel and pull out a flare, cracking it against the stone floor to ignite the magnesium and sawdust held within it, the foot-long rod now glowing as brightly as the sun.
“What’s that?” Professor Nickels asks, sounding somewhat worried. “Are we being attacked?”
I can feel him pulling his rifle closer to his chest and quickly snag the butt of it with my armpit. “No, I’m just throwing a flare down in the hole, relax.”
“What? Why on earth are you wasting a flare when I already told you it was perfectly safe?” He demands, struggling to break my ironclad grip on his rifle.
“Because I can’t see in the dark as well as you can, you old loon.” I curse and, before he can reply, tuck the flare into the rope about my waist (the fiery bright end up against the boiled strip of leather I used to protect my kidneys whenever I practiced boxing in between classes) before jumping down into the hole, feeling the roughened silk rope slide through my leather clad glove as the two of us scream at our rapid descent.
I ditch my sword when I see the ground is coming too quickly and grab the rope with all my might, turning us into a swinging pendulum a good ten feet from the dusty ground. My hands sting from the sudden friction, and I thank God for the fact I’d brought along all of my fighter’s gear, just in case. My leather handgrips had just prevented my palms from becoming a bloody mess!
Professor Nickels undoes his rigging, dropping to the floor lightly with a fit of giggles. “Good God, what a rush! It’s a shame we can’t do it again, eh?”
I pull the flare from my belt, holding it up high to take a look at what this chamber held as the good Professor undid his harness, falling to the floor with an undignified quack. It was built in the shape of a bell, the base much wide than the top, with flaring buttresses and smooth stone sloping up the walls. A surprising lack of murals for such a wide chamber, but as I approach one of the walls I can tell why: hundreds of slats running along the walls, perhaps a foot deep and a foot wide, are filled to the brim with human bones.
Professor Nickels wasn’t joking when he called this a tomb.
He hobbles up next to me, studying the architecture with glee as he jots down note after note in his small moleskin journal. “Very nice, very nice indeed!” He said happily. Looking around at the vast collection of bones. “This must be a room where those sacrificed were to be placed.”
“Wait, how do you know that?” I ask, looking around for any sign of writing or any indication that this was a religious room.
“Well the only entrance is nearly a hundred foot drop, and while you may not have noticed, the center stone directly beneath the hole is made of much more durable granite, polished to a fine shine.” He said with a carefree smile. “The bones were placed into the walls after the victim had been thrown down here. I would also like to note, just to keep you alert, that none of these skeletons, no matter how incomplete, seem to have suffered any major broken bones.”
“That means something was down here to, what, sort the dead?” I ask, looking down at Professor Nickels.
“No, I believe this is just a hobby for whatever it is they trapped down here some few thousand years ago.” Professor Nickels replied while eyeing the varying states of decomposition between the bones. “Grab your sword Joshua… we might still have need of it.”