by Graham B.
Two adventurers find an ancient source of wisdom.
A bullet whinnng-ed off the rock Joe Marston was crouched behind, echoes of the last shots fading into the desert. Joe peeked and saw the black-clad Bedouins wheeling their horses about and thundering back toward the distant dunes.
"Had enough, had ya?" shouted Joe as he quickly reloaded his revolver. "There's plenty more where this came from!"
"I doubt that your prowess in battle is what frightened them off," said Lyanna Patel from behind her own rock.
Joe looked behind him, to the west, and saw a spire, rising like a spear piercing the desert.
"We're already there," said Lyanna, standing up and dusting her trousers off.
"You mean, we're at the ruins?"
Lyanna nodded at Joe's rock, and for the first time, Joe noticed its straight edges and faded carvings. Rocks poked above the sand, all in a straight line.
"This is the perimeter," said Lyanna. "There was a large wall here. The ruins are buried beneath our feet."
The slender archeologist began walking toward the spire, her oversized rucksack jangling with equipment. Joe trotted to catch up.
"So, Doc, why do you think they turned back?" he asked, scratching his grizzled jaw.
"They believe in the curse," said Lyanna.
"You're not worried about this curse? I thought your kind believed in that sort of thing."
Lyanna turned her large, dark eyes on him, anger concealed beneath a carefully crafted countenance.
"My father is from Calcutta," she said. "But he saw to it that my upbringing was secular. I do not hold to supernatural beliefs."
"Didn't mean to offend, ma'am. Anyway, you're the brains here, with the fancy degree. Just figure you'd know a lot more about these things."
"I make a study of ancient cultures, Mr. Marston, but I don't entertain their beliefs."
"Will you please, call me Joe? You sound like my sixth grade teacher at the boarding school I was kicked out of."
It was Lyanna's turn to smile, a sight that made Joe's heart skip a beat.
"Very well, Joe, seeing as we've known each other since Shanghai."
"Aaand, for all we've been through since."
"I particularly admire how you duped those Japanese soldiers."
"I had to improvise there. And don't forget about the Nazis in Tunis."
"Nazis! Nasty fellows. But for you, I would be in a prison camp. I should think..."
"What is it?" asked Joe.
Lyanna pointed and Joe saw columns rising over the desert near the spire. The sun was now low in the sky, throwing ominous shadows through the ancient pillars.
Lyanna began a brisk walk, causing Joe to once again trot to catch up.
"The carvings," she said. "they look familiar, almost like cuneiform."
They were among the columns now, impassive arches hanging overhead. Near the top, worn carvings of figures jutted in all directions. Beneath their feet, some flagstones peeked through the sand.
"We should be careful," said Joe. "I've poked around places like this before..."
"This shouldn't be here! The geography is all wrong."
Lyanna dropped her rucksack and rummaged through it until she found a leather-bound book. She thumbed through the pages with diagrams and rubbings of arcane hieroglyphs, frowning and shaking her head.
"This must be it!"
Taped to the page was an unremarkable photograph showing a woman in a riding outfit standing next to a stone pillar. The pillar was a maze of lines marked by wedge-shapes. The woman looked strikingly familiar.
"Who is that?"
"That is my mother, and that pillar is what she found near the Euphrates River, north of Baghdad. Note the carvings. The Sumerian influence is clear!"
Lyanna squatted next to her pack and looked up at the pillars.
"So, what's the verdict, Doc?" asked Joe.
"I - honestly don't know."
She flicked her black hair from her face and stepped closer to the nearest column.
"If this is pre-Sumerian, then it represents an undiscovered culture..."
Sand began to shift beneath Lyanna's feet.
Joe lunged, and grabbed Lyanna by the arm. The shifting sand yawned into a gaping maw, and sand and flagstones rushed toward it in a whirl.
Lyanna and Joe were swept into the darkness, followed a torrent of sand and debris.
They fell through silent air and landed hard on a pile of sand. Dust rose, choking them and scattering the faint light from overhead.
Coughing, Lyanna stood, only to have Joe send her sprawling to the side as the contents of her rucksack rained down, followed by the pack itself.
"Are you okay?" gasped Joe.
"I can't believe I didn't anticipate this!" cried Lyanna.
She looked at Joe, and the corners of her mouth turned up a bit beneath the layer of dust.
"Once again, Joe, I owe you my life."
"Hey, that's what I'm here for," he replied.
Joe pulled his pack off and extracted a torch. He banged on it until it grudgingly cast a pale, yellow spot on the wall.
"Hold!" said Lyanna.
She hurried to the wall, where the torch had illuminated more carvings.
"These are like the ones above, but the workmanship is different. I can't quite decipher them..."
Lyanna retrieved her book from the sand pile and opened it to the picture. Joe glanced around, trying to get a feel for the room's size. As his eyes adjusted, he saw a square room, fifty feet on a side, and twenty to the ceiling - and to the hole they had fallen into. The hole grew dimmer as the sun sank, along with his hopes.
"It's definitely not Akkadian," muttered Lyanna. "Strange! There are pictograms, but most of the carvings are archaic cuneiform script."
"From the depiction, I would say that figure is Enki, an ancient Sumerian deity. He seems to be granting a boon to a mortal."
"That mortal doesn't seem too pleased to get it."
"Gifts from the gods were often like double-edged swords."
"Gifts with a catch?"
She examined more of the wall.
"I'm not sure, but it looks like Enki is bestowing the gift of truth. The man is shown recoiling, covering his eyes."
A faint tremor rattled through the room, making dust rain down from invisible cracks in the ceiling.
"We need to get out of here," said Joe.
He began shining the torch about, looking for egresses.
"The find of the century!" said Lyanna, "And we are about to be buried with it for eternity."
She sat down on her pack. Joe illuminated her with his torch, and saw her eyes, glistening in the light.
"It makes no difference, Mr. Marston, whether I'm to be buried here, or buried in obscurity back in London."
"What are you-"
"A half-breed woman, with an Indian father. The academics at Cambridge would take credit for my discovery and laugh me out of the room!"
Joe sat next to her and fiddled with his hands, wondering how he would console a woman with an intellect that dwarfed his own.
"Look, you will make them listen. You're the smartest girl I've ever met. Smartest person. They can't ignore you, or this."
Lyanna shook her head.
"I've dealt with this all of my life. And besides, as the situation stands, this discovery will never see the light of day."
It was Joe's turn to hang his head.
"It was my job to get us in and out safe, and I can't even figure a way out of here."
Joe glanced back up at the hole where stars had begun to appear.
"I improvise because I never go in with a plan!"
Joe stood and began pacing back and forth.
"The story of my life, Doc. I make it by the skin of my teeth, and smile, but some day, it's gonna catch up with me. And that's the truth."
Lyanna's eyes widened.
"Truth..." she whispered. "That's it!"
"The curse is to reveal truth to all who enter this chamber," she said. "That includes the hard truths that would trouble us the most. The truths that shackle us."
"I thought you didn't believe in that superstitious stuff," said Joe.
"I don't, but there are lessons contained here."
She pointed at the carving of the man recoiling from Enki's gift.
"In the end, we all must face the truth, especially in dire situations like this. But this isn't the end!"
Lyanna looked up at the hole.
"Truth is not necessarily fate, and we can build on it. Let's get out of here, Joe."
"That's over twenty feet up, Doc. And I don't have ladder."
"Think, Joe! You must have had to deal with something like this!"
Joe looked up, considering his options. He saw the silhouette of the column, and suddenly made for his rucksack. He pulled a coil of rope from his pack.
"I had a situation once while doing a job with a gaucho in Patagonia," he said as he began fashioning a lasso. "Stuck in a ravine trying to get away from some banditos."
The trembling returned, bigger this time. Sounds of crumbling stones interrupted Joe's anecdote.
"Long story short, the gaucho threw his lasso up, caught the branch of this skinny little tree. It was enough for us to climb out and get away."
Joe hurried to the hole as more flagstones fell inside.
"I wasn't as good at this as that gaucho was."
"Please, Mr. Marston, just try!"
"Call me Joe."
He whirled the lasso and threw.
The lasso sailed into the night. At first, Joe thought he missed. He could barely see the shadow of the lasso as it flew up toward the column far above. Slack line fell back into the hole, then went taught.
"Were in business! Start climbing!"
"My things!" said Lyanna, looking back at her rucksack.
Lyanna began pulling herself up the line. Joe looked around one last time, and saw the book lying on the floor. He stuffed it into his waistband and caught up with Lyanna halfway up the rope.
"Get a move on, Doc!"
"I'm not exactly an athlete, Joe!"
Lyanna shimmied up further and stalled at the top.
"I said move it!"
Joe reached up and shoved hard on her backside, eliciting a squeal of outrage and propelling her over the edge. The tremors had become deafening, and more flagstones fell into the hole. Joe scrambled to the top just in time to see the column he had lassoed begin to sink into the sand.
The two explores sprinted until they found themselves outside the wall. They turned and watched as the columns sank into the sand, followed finally by the spire. In seconds, there was nothing left but broken wall fragments to indicate that anything had ever been there.
"Well, there's something to tell the kids about next to a warm fire!" said Joe after the rumbling had faded away.
Lyanna had sunk to her knees and was looking mournfully at the expanse of sand where the ruins used to be.
"I was so close, Joe. So close! Now I have nothing."
"You have this."
Joe pulled the book from his waistband.
Lyanna's face erupted in that smile that made Joe's heart sing.
"You went back for it, even with the place coming down around your ears?"
"I thought you would want this, Doc, maybe as a souvenir?"
Lyanna took the book and held it to her chest.
"Joe Marston, you are the best research partner I have ever had," she said, and kissed him on the cheek. "But don't think you can put your hands on my bum any time you please. I might be worldly and well-travelled, but I'm still a lady."
"You're a lot more than that, Doc," said Joe, wiping the sweat that had suddenly sprung from his brow.
"Well, we are in the middle of a desert in the Kingdom of Iraq, with no supplies," said Lyanna. "What do we do now?"