“We’re breaking through!” shouted Henry Jackson to the diggers. To the men with rock axes he said, “hold it there a moment.” They put their tools down, resting on shovel or pick-axe handles, wiping dust from their craggy faces.
Sand splattered as Henry pounded down the slope towards the too bright, white tent. His newly arrived half-brother was resting after the journey, sipping a cool drink and lying on the single cot, looking quite nonchalant as he signalled to his brother – two fingers above the glass.
Henry clapped him on the shoulder to wake him. “We are almost through.” His excitement was palpable. It had been a tough morning, sweat streaked the dirt on his sun-browned visage.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Robert rubbed his eyes, moving his head out of the sunlight that streamed into the tent. He had had a rough journey to get to the site, at least, he deemed it so. Ever the lazy one! “In any case, why the panic. You’ve done this before!”
“Well,” Henry replied in a shirty manner, “it’s your dig too. I thought you would want to be there. And it isn‘t just another tomb. It just looks different somehow.”
Robert yawned. His jaw clicked as he opened his mouth too wide and stretched his lean sinewy arms high above his head. The brightness inside the tent from the open flap made him squint. “I have been having second thoughts lately.”
“Not that old chestnut,” declared Henry. “Plenty have been opened since then. Has anything bad happened for a long time?” It was the old fear. First in, first out – feet first!
“No, it isn’t that. Boring, is what it is. I have seen so many of these, they are all the same, lately. I want to go somewhere else. Try other things. Don’t you feel the same way, even a bit?” Robert gave his half-brother a quizzical look.
“No! You were doing this a long time before I joined you. It’s exciting for me.” Henry left it there. If this was an important tomb, then it would his first major opening.
Getting up from the camp bed, Robert brushed out the creases in his rumpled shirt. Less than two hours! Not much sleep. Certainly not enough to rest him after that bone-shaking journey from base camp. Why did these places always have to be far from civilised towns? Grabbing his sun visor he made ready to move.
“Oh well, if you’re not interested……..”
“I suppose I will have to come. Lead on.” His brother looked askance at him before moving through the tent flap, out into the bright sunlit vista. The red mountain loomed above. He could see figures, the diggers, he presumed, moving about way up on its slopes. Against a violet sky, the colours oddly blended.
Henry trudged back up to the cliff where the men were resting, Robert wearily following. He gave the order and the men began the painstaking final breach. They brushed away dust as it fell. Fine silt that clogged eyes and nostrils. Robert quickly pulled a cloth from his pocket, swiftly covering vital areas. Even a cough, at this point, could damage the remains. They had to be so careful. This red dust was a choker. It clung to everything, like a maid to her virginity. A person could hold a handful, squeeze, and the stuff stayed that shape. Like Earth sand with the sea swelling it, except that here there was no moisture. No sea either!
“There’s a crack now. Take care,” came a muffled cry as Henry pushed through the face workers to examine the rock. He was dedicated, making sure the workers did what they were supposed to. Often, new workers came and had to be taught from day one, then they made mistakes. It was very frustrating! But this time, Henry had signed up a good crew. They were hand-picked by Henry back at base. Paid well, they worked in unison. Followed orders, like stopping when told to stop.
Waiting until the breeze had blown the dust away, he gently pulled the scarf from his jaw trying not to disturb the thick coating that clung to the weave. Then, taking his own pick, he struck, wedging it so that he could put pressure on to lever the crack wider.
After a few moments, the men were waived aside and he beckoned Robert to come closer. “Put your face by the crack,” he ordered. His brother gave him a hard look but did as he asked. “Can you feel anything?”
Robert started to shake his head then held his hand up. “No! Wait a minute! It isn’t just the breeze, I think I can feel a murmur.” It was the only reason Henry let his brother in on this excavation. He was a good listener. Heard more than most once the cavern was breached.
“Out of the way,” declared Henry. “Let me feel it.”
Henry placed his cheek against the crack, daring to hope that it would be true. There it was. A whisper of something ice-cool caressing his skin. He sniffed, his nostrils hard up against the tiny pin-prick. Looks as though I’ve picked an important one, just as I surmised, he thought to himself. Pleased at this revelation, he sniffed again.
The odour was unmistakable! That smell of rankness, of air enclosed for centuries, gases formed from items placed as offerings that had decomposed. They all had it, that smell of ancient civilisation, the reek of heavy perfumed oils splattered over everything that had somehow lasted until, as was now happening, someone came to disturb the dead.
“I am going to widen it now,” declared Henry. “Make sure you’re not in the path.” He stretched his arms wide to ease Robert out of his way. Didn’t want his half-brother to get knocked over as the gases escaped, it would send him reeling down the sharp incline. He knew anyway, most digs were on sharp inclines. Robert nodded and moved to the left side. His hand burnt as he touched the sunlit quartz. Gloveless again! He was getting forgetful. This stuff burnt like hell in the mid-day heat.
Henry re-tied the scarf. He had no wish to ingest anything that escaped when he broke the seal. Holding the pick with his left hand, he felt for his hammer, raised his arm and drove the solid wedge home. It hit the pick squarely on the head. Henry jumped clear, heading to the right side. He landed badly and a sharp pain shot through his ankle. He hoped he had hit hard enough, knowing he would not be able to do it again.
His reward was the sight of a stream of thick oily gas escaping into the bright sunlight. He could see it against the clear sky. They waited interminable minutes for the last of the projections to cease. At last Henry felt that it had come to an end and moved towards the entrance. As he put weight on his foot, a searing pain shot through the ankle, and he swore loudly.
“Hurt yourself?” inquired Robert, more interested in the opening than his brother‘s damaged ankle.
“Jumped badly,” stated Henry. “Might have broken it. Can you carry on? I have to splint this ankle, just in case.” He hopped to one side, grabbing what purchase he could on the rock face.
“You go. I’ll break through. Come back when you have dealt with the ankle,” said Robert, a trifle worried at his brother’s misfortune.
Robert watched two of the men make a chair and carry Henry down to the tent. Pity, he thought. He was so looking forward to being the first to enter. It would have been kudos for him. Robert on the other hand, had seen these before. He had been the first one ever to break in. How long ago was that now? He could not remember, there had been so many.
Testing the crack, he realised no more gas was escaping, just the stench. That could not be avoided. He began the task of widening the splits in the seal. When, after some time, he had chipped his way around the seal, he let the men take over. It was hot work, there was no doubt about that.
Robert moved away to rest, wiping the sweat from around the back of his neck and all over his face. It was hard work. He had forgotten just how hard. The only reason he came back was because of the chance that this one might contain a prize piece. He had hopes! Henry could have all the kudos, that didn’t matter to Robert. The prize was all he was after. Not for itself. Not for the worth. He would never sell any of the objects he found. Research, museums. His finds went on display all over. His largest so far was a roughly worked emerald. Obviously something acquired, for there were no emeralds found on this world.
As always, a huge tablet blocked the inner way. It was wrested from the entrance by the workers, just as a limping Henry was being helped back up to the tomb.
“You O.K., now?” Robert queried Henry. Henry nodded a reply. I’ll go first then,” stated Robert clicking on a bright hand-held shiner. “Mind that foot of yours.”
“I don’t think it’s broken,” whispered Henry as they started to descend the steps inside. “Just sprained, probably.“ Darkness went before them like a thick black velvet blanket that seemed to lay upon their shoulders and heads. Henry pulled a small shiner from his own pocket and flicked the switch.
“Good,” Robert muttered, stopping for a moment to play his shiner over the walls and roof. There were designs on the descending walls this short way in, he was sure they had found an important site. He gazed around, yes, this was impressive. Were they on to a winner? Wouldn’t be long now to find out.
Lighting the steps once more, Robert moved further down the descending pathway into the first entrance hall. Henry had brought along an air cylinder and both now took deep draughts to top up their oxygen levels. The rankness had settled like thick mud at this level.
“Looks normal so far.” Henry felt some of the incised designs as he held on to the stair wall for support. Robert shone a light around the chamber, searching for the trigger. Having opened so many, he knew it to be somewhere discreet, somewhere you would least expect. No two tombs were alike in that respect.
“There it is!” Robert spotted the design they sought and walked over to the recessed pedestal. “Easier than we hoped for Henry,” he stated, smiling.
“I can’t believe we are getting so lucky. The others were much harder to find!” Henry watched as Robert prepared to trigger the next set of doors.
“So far, so good,” sighed Robert. “Are you ready?”
It was Henry’s turn to nod and move aside. Robert placed his hand over the marks and pressed. Jumping clear, he joined Henry who turned on the cylinder and they both breathed from the rubber mask. A great hiss assaulted their ears and more of the putrid gas blew from this new opening. Henry wished he had the foresight to bring two cylinders. He didn’t expect the one they carried to last at this rate.
When the air cleared as much as it was going to, they moved further into the tomb. The first one ever that Robert had broached, laid down a blueprint for all the others. That made this break-in easy, once inside the outer compartment. Henry hit it with his pick. A hollow sound rewarded his forethought. Was it empty, after all? The blow reverberated through his arm, right down to his damaged ankle. Another bout of swearing filled the atmosphere.
“Let me do the hitting from now on, Henry,” Robert told him
The gas was low, but they found the final chamber. All the way along, the paintings, the decoration, the statues became more prolific. Now they had arrived in the burial chamber. This one far surpassed any that Robert had seen before. The walls glittered in the beam of the light, so many different hues. Crushed gem stones, used like paint, to colour the drawings that denoted the high status of the one buried there. Gold too, abounded as outlines and decorations.
The gas was worse here as the bodies of worshipers and servants were hunched up on every available seat. Desiccated, of course. These had been alive when the tomb was sealed whereas, in most of the others, they were dead and wrapped. Made the find all the more important in Robert’s eyes.
Robert never quite got over the eeriness in the centre of the tomb. It felt like someone was willing him to stay, whenever he tried to leave. Only one thing changed that feeling. The large pieces. Now he started his search.
Henry sat on the floor to rest his ankle. The plaster, meant for transportation of some of the minor statues or small findings they wanted to remove, had been put on his ankle in case there was a break. But the ankle throbbed just the same. He suddenly needed air and gasped at the last puff from the cylinder.
“How is it coming?” he asked Robert.
“Still searching. But I bet there is a big piece here somewhere.” All Henry could see was his brother’s shadow and sometimes the light source. He was feeling queasy. Air was all gone, so he sank down to the floor where what air there was, the air was a little clearer.
Robert searched in the usual places and came up empty-handed. He played the shiner over every corner of the room, not recognising the paintings here. No wonder he couldn’t find it. Oh, he could read the directives. He had studied them now for some time, they said the same as always, but these pictures?
Ignoring a shudder that suddenly touched his spine like an icy hand, he continued his search. Even practical men have their Achilles heel. The feeling that he was a thief never quite went out of his mind, though he could not think why. Dead and buried for aeons and none to ask for redress. He turned to the stone that should hold the dead one, feeling its smoothness, searching for an indentation, a crack. At last, his searching fingers found a slight depression. Going on instinct, he pushed hard. A grating sound, slight at first, alerted his ears. Stepping back, he looked for the opening, finding it on the far side.
Gingerly feeling inside the opening, his fingers touched its soft glassy surface. Gently grasping the object, he withdrew it slowly, savouring the growing excitement. He fondled the object, still in its wrappings. I knew it was here, he thought.
“I’ve found it, Henry. And it is a big one.” His voice echoed, reverberated right through the tomb.
“Let’s have a look.” Now it was Henry’s turn to shudder as he felt a prickling in the back of his mind. Goosebumps rose on his bare arms. Flesh tingled. He wasn’t normally a man to scare easily.
Robert brought the statue over to where Henry was sitting, covered in the silt that littered the floor. He held the light behind the statue. The light pulsed red, deep red.
“This one,” said Robert, “is a ruby, a blood red ruby”. There was awe in his voice as he almost jealously caressed the icy cold gem, felt its shape so lovingly crafted.
“That’s the first ruby you’ve found, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is, but just look at the size of it. Enormous, compared with all the others.” Robert fondled the piece, caressing every cut, every line. No! It wasn’t for what he could sell it for. He just wanted it for its beauty, its craftsmanship. When he held one of these, it was as if it were talking to him, wishing him to stay. But then he took a good look at its shape.
He turned to Henry. “Look at it! It’s the same as those wall paintings over there. Not like the others at all.” There was a gleam in Robert’s eyes, dark as it was in the tomb, Henry could make it out.
Henry studied the statue in the dimming light from the shiner, then compared it with the drawings on the wall. “You are right. I don’t like the feeling I am getting!”
Robert also gave the statue an even closer look. It wasn’t humanoid like the others. The ruby statue was carved in the shape of a two-legged reptile with wings that hugged its shoulders. He was reminded of those flying foxes enclosed within their leathery wings and hanging, just hanging but without the fur and the gentle face. Definitely reptilian!
At its knee were carved two worshipers. Robert suddenly ran for the cylinder. Found it empty. In his panic, he grabbed at his brother. Henry slid into a foetal position, his breathing regular.
Now Robert smelt the gas.
Retrieving the fallen ruby statue, he held it close to his chest, stroking the strange curio. He smiled as his fingers felt the oddly warm stone, fondled the contours of its shape. How smooth, so exciting and yet, his body felt a lassitude he had not realised was there until this moment. As he drifted into a dreamless sleep, the statue slipped from his hands, no longer any use to him.
He never heard the grating of the opening sarcophagus.
Never saw the awakened creature, restored and hungry after an elongated hibernation period.
Could not realise that the figures, humanoid, were not worshipers at all but sacrifices, ready for slaughter as the first meal.
© Copyright. Evelyn J. Steward. November, 1995.
(Edited and Amended Sept. 2012 and April 2013)
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