Weird Tales Winner: Bewildering art and alien script - who could have left them?
A confident voice warmed her. "Miss Phillips, it is so good to see you here. Your thesis on the Lower Kingdom was simply marvelous. We are graced to have one of your prominence with us at the conference. The scenery here is beautiful once, but I have been here many times. I must thank you for providing a topic of more enduring fascination."
Charissa's eyes rolled upwards, but she smiled despite herself as she lifted her glass. "Oh, you must have something novel to recommend, even if the city has begun to bore you."
"Oh, I do", Mr. Jackson answered, though he hesitated a moment., "Perhaps you can even help me, though you must be discrete."
Charissa lowered her lashes. "I am nothing if not discrete, Mr. Jackson, but should I be concerned?"
"Not at all!" the dark-haired man answered, smiling down. "Look out beyond the rocks, past the sandbar in the distance. With the construction of the dike, there's a structure that's been uncovered with inscriptions unlike I've ever seen. I've kept it secret, but they'll let the water in again soon, and I've made no headway with it. You, on the other hand - "
She could feel her sapphire eyes glow. "Show me, Mr. Jackson."
"Please, call me Chadwick."
Charissa ran her hand along the stone reverently, as her colleague had spoken truly. The fallen pillar was covered in drawings and pictograms, and she didn't recognize a one. If that weren't shocking enough, the subject matter was odd even for a coastal civilization: fish and tentacled creatures without a biped or domesticated animal among them. Perplexing. "May I borrow your pocket knife?"
"Of course," Chadwick responded, "but be gentle."
"Certainly," she replied and then began digging in with a will. There was a line to the right of the pillar that looked like a fissure, and she aimed to uncover it. Faint heart never won fair lady, and this mystery needed some wooing.
Still, she was a shocked as he was when the door - it was a door - swung open with a groan and a rush of water.
"Amazing," Chadwick gasped.
"Shall we?" Miss Phillips replied breezily and stepped in. Chadwick, carrying a walking stick, followed after.
The sight of the room took her breath away. Rough-hewn walls glowed with a blue-green bioluminescence, opening into a cave below. It was broad and filled with craggy stalagmites and a wet, sandy walkway. At the back, unrecognizable water-plants grew in even clumps, marked by bursts of color, surrounded by dazzling growths of spiny coral. "It's like a little garden, but how? I thought you said this place was usually flooded?"
Mr. Jackson nodded, perplexed. "It is. This should all be several feet below, but they've pumped the area out. These plants should have grown wild or died. Or not be here at all, since who could come here to grow them? What strange joke is all this?"
"Not all of the water is gone," Charissa noted, shivering and pointing to two deep salty pools toward the rear of the room. She had left her coat on the boat and begun to regret it.
Chadwick nodded and led the way, moving briskly toward the back center wall. It was another mystery, lovely and fascinating, with gems of every variety embedded in the pictograms within the wall. A stalagmite just before it was inlaid from top to bottom with alien symbols, and the top was stained, as if dyed, though the line of darkness was irregular. "Look how worn the symbols and stones in the walls are, by the water apparently. If so, this is ancient. Impossibly ancient - thousands upon thousands of years. It doesn't make sense. None of this makes sense!"
The scholar's shocked outburst reverberated through the room, and Charissa paused from her examination of one of the two pools - no, tunnels into the seawater - to stare at him in annoyance. And then she shrieked, louder than she ever had before. In a blink, she was raised high into the air, grasped by tentacles dark and cold and stronger than life, its suckers painfully marking her skin. Some kind of monster, a squid man or giant squirming octopi held her, dragging her slowly to the darkened spire tall in the center of the room. All around, coming from the tunnels to the depths were more, too many more.
Chadwick suddenly charged and gallantly thrust his staff forward into the great eye of the sea-thing. The world spun and then Charissa was dashed bleeding and bruised against the hard sand. She scrambled to her feet with awkward haste to see a creature slithering toward her - far too quickly, but she couldn't tear her gaze away from brave Chadwick, who struggled desperately against two squid things that had wrapped tentacles around his weapon.
With a sob, Charissa staggered back up the sandy slope to the door, heedlessly smearing blood from her sliced and battered hands upon the glowing rocks, propelling herself forward. Breath ragged even as she screamed, she tried to close her mind to the horrors behind as Chadwick, brave Chadwick, began to cry out in pain. Suddenly she was out of the door.
Tears streaming down her cheeks, Charissa risked a glance back - into a single unblinking eye. Then with an agony that would haunt her for her entire life, she slammed the horrible rocky door shut and dove into the waiting rowboat. All was silent but for the surf and her own regret.