“All right my young apprentice, let’s get a move on!” Professor Nickels shouted as he leaped from standing pillar to standing pillar, ignoring the darkened recesses far below them. The portly man, miniature in stature, never seemed to have any problem moving along in the strange halls of ancient architecture. Jake was hardly happy with jumping between the wobbly stone pillars over who-knew-how-far a drop.
“Professor Nickels, how are we going to get out of here?” Jake called, sweating as the column he stood upon shifted beneath his weight.
“That’s the thing with most ruins of ancient Olmec origin, m’lad, they often have two entrances, one on each side. Supposedly, the ancient Olmec, and to a lesser extent the Aztecs, believed this place to be the nine hells, better known as Mictlan. At least, that’s what they call the bottom. That’s where they supposed all the souls lived, at the least.”
“And we want to descend into Aztec hell, why?”
Professor Nickels backed up, giving Jake plenty of room to land. “Elementary, my dear Watson! The Olmec and Aztec were renowned goldsmiths, and they would no doubt decorate their final resting place with some convincing artifacts to two curious explorers such as us.”
“So, we’re coming down here hoping these long-dead people left gold lying around?”
“It is a fair assumption. A good number of Aztecs fled into these tunnels when Cortes came about, fearing he was a vengeful god coming to bring about the end of an age. They were right.”
“A fat lot of good it did them,” Jake grumbled, holding his electric lantern high to shed light down the rest of the tunnel. Cobwebs and intricately carved stone floors and walls were all that greeted him. “Is it strange that we haven’t come across a single skeleton yet?”
“What’s that?” Professor Nickels asked, walking forward as he pulled a pipe from his inner jacket, slowly packing it with some leaves.
“I mean, you said many people came down here, right? Well, where are they?”
“I imagine they died of starvation deeper in or fell into the depths we traversed,” Professor Nickels replied, pulling a match from his breast pocket and lighting it along the roughened edge of his pipe before sticking it into the bowl. Puffing, a few times, he heaved a sigh. “Let’s keep moving, shall we?”
“I guess…” Jake said. The bulky, short-haired student had little choice in the matter, as he was doing this to maintain his scholarship with Texas State University. He’d taken Professor Nickels’ course and had somehow flunked it, but the diminutive man had offered him a choice: either retake the class or go on an expedition into Central America, all on the professor’s dime.
It’d seemed like an easy decision.
Now it seemed like it would have been better to have just taken the class in the coming fall as exploring the ruins of ancient civilizations with this man was maddening! He had almost no regard for personal safety, always carried a pistol on him, and seemed to irritate almost every person he spoke to, all in their native tongue. How many languages the small man spoke, Jake couldn’t even guess.
He gave up counting when he heard the fourth one.
The long hall slowly turned into a slope, gradually on the decline. After a while, the slope turned into rough-hewn steps that the professor took two at a time. Jake was having trouble keeping up with the little man, huffing and puffing when he first heard it. The tinkling of stones falling on each other, of slate grinding against the slate.
“Professor!” Jake said in a hushed whisper.
“What?” the professor replied in an equally hushed tone, blowing smoke rings slowly.
“I think I heard something.”
“Oh, you most definitely did.”
“You heard it too?” Jake asked, surprised.
“No, but I know there has to be something down here guarding whatever treasure there is to be had.”
“Guarding? Like a monster?”
“Well, a monster is kind of stretching it… I suppose you could call it such a thing, but that is such a broad characterization, I don’t think it’s exactly fair.”
“Fair. You know, giving the creature due justice for its own unique status in the world? I went over all of this in class. See, this is why you failed, you never listen!”
The tinkling echoed once more, slate stones falling from someplace high and breaking on their way down. The clack of something hard joined the tinkling upon stone. Looking behind them, Jake could just make out the edges of a shadowy lump crawling out of sight, back down the corridor from which they came.
“Professor… what did you say about guardians in class?” Jake asked slowly.
“If you’d listened, I said they were the remnants of the civilization, be they undead or constructs left behind to keep people at bay. Now, in this region, you must worry more about the undead than anything else — and with the Olmec, woo boy did they get creative.”
“Creative?” Jake said, dreading the word.
“I went into a set of ruins once where some skeletal archers had been sealed on a second floor and rained down rusty arrows on any that tried to pass through the atrium. Damn good aim too: I have a scar on my shoulder if you’d like to see …”
“No Professor, I don’t want to see your scar. I want to know what is behind us.”
The small man smiled, puffing on his pipe, giggling as it drifted down around him. “The same thing that’s in front of us, my boy. A grisly demise followed by a painful reanimation into the guardian that patrols these halls.”
“How can you possibly say that and stay calm?”
“Because I’m smoking coca leaves, that’s why. Soothing.”
Jake stopped, turning to look at the man with wide eyes. But his eyes didn’t stay on the professor for long as they soon beheld something far worse than a drug-using midget.
Clacking and clambering down the hall was a roiling wall of spinning, twisting bones of hundreds of humans, none of which formed a whole skeleton. Instead, the swarm rolled like a tidal wave down the narrow tunnel, dozens of skulls bubbling up to the surface to scream with unholy delight, their eyes blazing red as they surged onward. Long arms, made from multiple tibia and ending in long-fingered hands drug the mass along, while clattering maws of ribs with snapping tongues made from elongated spine snapped at the surrounding air, seeking something soft to sink their sharpened edges into. Hundreds of individual hands crawled like spiders along the wall ahead of the swarm, scouting out as they leaped from wall to ceiling to floor.
Jake screamed, pulling the pistol from Professor Nickels’ holster, aiming into the oncoming swarm of calcified bone, firing three rapid shots. Nickels continued to smoke, watching this all passively as he adjusted his glasses and smoothed back his brown-and-grey hair.
The shots blasted apart a skull, fractured a rib, and shattered a spine which sank into the swirling mass of animated bones only to be replaced seconds later with unbroken pieces. The skulls howled in their ancient language; the noise echoing down the long tunnel.
“Come on, Professor,” Jake said, reaching out and grabbing the man’s hand, dragging him along as he ran from the oncoming onslaught of stretched bones and sharpened claws.
They pelted down the steps, coming out into an open cavern, high enough to where they couldn’t see the floor. High columns of decorated stone held aloft the steps while great spires rose up around them. Hearing the chittering of the creatures behind him, Jake grabbed the professor around the waist and ran down the steps as quickly as he could, hoping to find an area where the swarm of bones wouldn’t go. Looking back as he turned to the crumbling stairs, he watched as the opening to the tunnel they exited exploded with a flurry of movement, the grasping claws and packs of skulls chattering as the massive centipede of bones surged forth like a skeletal tsunami, coiling around the stairs and the columns as they moved along the path. Great fans of interlocking hands and wrists allowed manta-like wings to flap up and down as the swarm steered itself along the narrow pathway.
“Professor, I think I see the landing just below us!”
“You do my boy, keep running!”
Sprinting down the stairs as fast as he could go, Jake only looked over his shoulder to stare at the swarm of bones as they swirled ever closer, countless skulls snapping at his heels while hands raked softly along his back, desperately trying to get a hold of him. The landing was in sight, a small passageway leading deeper into the tomb that was what Jake was looking for!
Leaping from the last three steps, he landed just at the opening with a sickening crunch, his ankle snapping like dry timber. Tumbling forward, dropping the professor in the process, Jake turned onto his side, aiming the pistol at the writhing storm of bone as it reared up like a serpent ready to strike.
“Move back, Professor,” Jake said, casting a sidelong glance at his diminutive friend as he stood up, brushing off his slacks as he did, pipe still smoldering between his teeth. “Try and get in the tunnel where they can’t reach you.”
“Oh, they’ll be able to reach me, but they won’t try,” Professor Nickels said with an air of authority, walking out and towards the swarm, garnering its attention.
“What are you doing, get away from there!” Jake yelled, aiming the gun and firing two more shots into the mass, to no effect.
The swarm focused on the professor, several spines lacing out sinuously to pat him down as skulls leaned forward and gazed at him with their ember-filled eyes. Roaming hands moved around him, poking at him as they hopped back and forth. Slowly, the swarm moved up into its coiled position; the skulls casting a baleful glance at Jake.
“What?” Jake said, amazed that the undead terror hadn’t attacked the professor.
“The Olmec and Aztec would never attack one of their own. The easiest thing to do was small like royalty or one of their priests. Thus, the coca leaves,” the professor explained, puffing on his pipe as if to showcase his point. “This thing has yet to attack me before.”
“What do you mean before?” Jake asked, staring at the mass as it slithered closer, bony arms dragging the mass forward.
“Oh, I come down here once a decade ago and returned with a few choice artifacts that I could use to write papers on for a few years… you know, keep up the academia and whatnot.”
“So, you knew what was down here?” Jake demanded, looking at the professor with growing hate.
“Oh yes. I didn’t expect you to last this long, to be honest, but that bit where you grabbed me must have gotten smoke on you. The creature is mostly docile now… though I doubt that will last much longer.”
“And why is that?” Jake spat, holding himself up on his elbows to stare at the professor, his eyes darting to the eldritch horror crawling ever closer.
“Oh, the Olmec and Aztecs believed in blood sacrifice,” Professor Nickels replied, pulling a knife from his pocket and expertly throwing it into Jake’s leg, causing the young man to yell out in pain. With blood bubbling from his wound like water from a font, the swarm moved swiftly, slamming into him with the force of a train, a multitude of arms pulling Jake up into the center of the mass, surrounded by skulls, their crackling ember eyes glowing faintly enough to create a dome of bright red light.
As he hovered in the air, arms holding him from all directions, Jake groaned as he saw a maw of ribs open before him, hundreds of hands pouring forth, chittering in anticipation of the meal they were about to get.
“God, I hate graduate school…” Jake muttered just as the arms pulled him in, spearing him with sharpened ribs, hands roaming over him, stripping him of flesh and muscle. Below, Professor Nickels puffed on his pipe, casually watching the blood dribble down over the yellowed bone, chunks of red meat falling through the cracks of the swarm.
“Hmm… now what to take home this time,” Professor Nickels said, leaning down to pick up the electric lantern and his pistol, holstering it as he checked over the dropped items Jake had left behind. Looking up, he smiled as he watched the red skeleton slowly get split into separate parts, being pulled around in the swarm to fit the needs of the host creature. “Pity that. It was one of my finer blades…”