Cavern of Mist
Oliver Lucas wiped his forehead and blinked to clear the sting of salt from his eyes. The back and underarms of his khaki shirt were stained with sweat and clung to him uncomfortably. Up on the surface, the trade winds continually swept across the island, carrying away the worst of the humidity, but here, a quarter mile into the side of a volcanic mountain, the air was still, hot, and thick with moisture.
Ahead the gray stone took a sharp dip downwards, concealing the source of the rushing, gurgling sound that he had been following for the last ten minutes. The passage was illuminated by a flickering blue light, which emanated from notches cut into the right side of the tunnel at intervals of about a dozen feet. In each notch a short gout of flame burst forth from a narrow metal nozzle with a soft hissing sound.
“I’d kill to know how they did that,” Oliver muttered, pausing to examine the ancient gas lamp. The Chinese had used bamboo pipes to deliver naturally occurring gas to heat steam baths and forges for over a thousand years, but all of his research indicated that this tunnel had been cut into the side of the mountain by precursors of the Māori and other Pacific Island people, none of which had been known for their use of gas lighting.
Oliver shook his head in wonder and ran a hand through his mop of short red hair, pushing it back from his face before turning from the gas lamp and carrying on down the tunnel. He moved in a slight crouch, the tunnel was just barely too short for his six foot frame, sweeping a powerful flashlight back and forth across the floor of the tunnel in front of him. The gas lighting was nothing short of amazing, but it was far from perfect. Oliver knew from long and bitter experience that many ancient designers of tombs and temples had used subtle tricks of light and shadow to conceal deadly traps. He might wonder at the gas lamps, but he would not depend on them for lighting.
As he moved cautiously down the tunnel, Oliver never allowed his right hand to stray far from the gun hidden in a concealed pocket just inside his vest. He hadn’t seen anyone else in the hours since he had departed the beachside resort, but that did not mean that he was alone under the mountain. Other treasure hunters might have followed the same trail of ancient legends to this underground passage or, even if no other humans were nearby, there was always the risk of encountering a wild animal or some sort of supernatural guardian.
The sound of rushing water grew louder as Oliver crept nearer to the downward slope, which he could now see descended in a series of wide steps chiseled into the gray stone. Thick sponges of green moss, speckled with bright red fronds, grew in the corners and hollows of the stairs. Shining the beam of his flashlight down the steps, Oliver watched it pierce through a dancing haze of water vapor, which boiled upwards from the base of the steps.
Oliver paused at the top of the steps and surveyed the mossy stones for a moment, then fixed his flashlight on a spot where the green moss had been scuffed aside.
“Damn it,” he breathed.
He slipped the gun from its hidden pocket and pulled the slide to chamber a round. “You’d better be a wild boar, or a monkey,” he muttered, gripping the gun firmly and pointing his flashlight down the steps. “If I came all this way only to be beaten by a few hours…”
The passage angled down for about fifty feet before flattening out again. As Oliver descended the steps the roar of the water grew continually louder until he could hardly hear himself breathing. About half way down, squinting through the boiling mist, he spotted the lintel of a narrow doorway set into the stone wall just below the angle of the ceiling.
Oliver paused. He stepped sideways and pressed himself against the wall, then slowly slipped down into a crouch, watching the doorway over the sights of the gun as he moved. His flashlight beam played across the interlocking spirals of Koru engraved in the stone surrounding the doorway. The ornate triple lines and fractal curves twisted around and through smaller symbols which Oliver recognized as the storytelling glyphs employed by the Māori people who had dwelled on this island in the sixteenth century. As his flashlight beam moved away from the carvings the flickering light of the gas jets played across them in an eerie dance of shadows and blue light. Through the doorway Oliver could just make out a narrow ledge, beyond which the clouds of water vapor churned up like steam from a boiling pot.
He took a deep breath and sighed with relief. He didn’t put his gun away, but lowered his hand and allowed himself to believe that he might be alone in this place.
Oliver turned his attention from the room beyond and looked to the steps as he picked his way down to the doorway, searching carefully above, to each side, and around the edge of the stair for any sign of a trap before stepping through.
Beyond the carved stone frame of the doorway, clouds of mist continued to boil up from an unseen river, obscuring his vision. Oliver sidled up to the opening and darted his head out, then back again. Seeing no sign of other people, he stepped into the doorway and inspected the scene before him.
The noise of rushing water he had followed came from an underground waterfall, which spilled out of the shadows high above Oliver’s head on the left side of the cavern. The water tumbled down in a cacophonous sheet, bursting out into showers of heavy mist where the falling water struck against outcropping rocks, and disappeared into a wide cleft that cut across that cavern floor.
Oliver put his gun away and got a grip on the ornately carved frame of the doorway, then leaned out into the cavern to get a better view. The ledge on the other side of the door was only five feet wide. A hundred feet below, the waterfall thundered into a roiling stream of water, only barely visible through rising clouds of mist, and rushed out of the cavern through an opening somewhere under the wall to Oliver’s right. The entire scene was illuminated in a continually shifting flicker of refracted rainbows and moving shadows cast by the flickering gas lights set into the wall. The facing wall on the far side of the cavern, only about fifty feet away, was carved in a series of knotted shapes and twisting human figures surrounding a doorway, through which Oliver could see a solid wall of stone.
There was no sign of another person, living or otherwise.
“All right. Let’s see about getting past this,” Oliver said.
Talking to himself while exploring ancient ruins was a habit left over from his first adventure into the jungles of South America. On that expedition he had been accompanied by his cousin, Amber, who had continually pressed him to share his thoughts as they wound their way through the twisting mazes of a Mayan temple. These days Oliver tended to work alone, but he still felt the urge to talk through his discoveries. At times he would even share them with Amber, sending her encrypted e-mails or posting messages to a private Twitter stream so that she could both follow his adventures and serve as an emergency backup if he disappeared while in the field.
Oliver ran the beam of his flashlight over the door frame, the floor, and the walls, searching for any sign of hidden triggers or tripwires. There were none. He slipped through the doorway into the cavern, eyes flicking to the dark corners of the open space, then turning upwards to search the darkness above for any sign of danger.
Again, nothing that he could see.
This was all feeling too simple. Sure, there was the matter of the forty foot wide hole in the floor, the bottom of which was certainly a swirling deathtrap, and the apparently blocked-up doorway, but such obstacles were little more than entertaining challenges to Oliver. He lived for solving puzzles like this, which was part of the reason he carried only a small charge of explosives tucked away in a hidden compartment of his vest, as a backup plan if he were trapped. Unlike some treasure hunters he had met online, Oliver didn’t believe in blasting his way through hidden doors. The way he saw it, if he couldn’t outwit the designers of this temple, then he didn’t deserve the prize that lay within.
Oliver pulled a ruggedized digital camera body from one of the large pockets on the front of his vest, then reached into a padded pocket to retrieve a compact zoom lens. Working quickly to avoid getting too much mist into the camera body, Oliver unscrewed the protective caps on both the camera and lens, then slotted the two parts together and locked the lens into place. He flicked the camera on and crouched down against the wall, using his knees to stabilize the camera and flashlight as he searched the shadows on the far side of the cleft.
On the camera screen, the wall on the far side of the cavern leapt into focus. The carved lines of stone stood out in sharp relief in the bright light of his flashlight, glistening with droplets of condensed mist, deep shadows flickering through the hollows each time he moved his hand or shifted his legs. This was far from the optimal situation for taking salable photographs, with poor lighting further complicated by the constantly shifting haze of mist, which played havoc with his camera’s image sensors, but the image was more than sufficient for him to pick out the threads of the story told in swirling lines, twisting bodies, and gaping faces.
Oliver sat on that ledge for nearly an hour, alternating between peering at the carvings through the camera lens and looking down to his phone to consult the research notes he had meticulously compiled over the years. He moved his lips, whispering the tale to himself in meandering fragments as the story of these people, progenitors of the Māori who had landed on this chain of islands east of New Zealand as a loosely knit band of fishermen and pirates, only to emerge two hundred years later as the first recognizable members of a powerful people. It had taken him years to piece this together, working from scattered fragments of myth, obscure archaeological records, and more than a little guesswork. Even with all of his preparation, it took Oliver a long time to understand what he was looking at as he sat there, scanning the curving lines of Koru, attempting to first understand the meaning of the carvings, then place them in context of his research into the history and mythology of the Pacific Islanders.
Much of the difficulty stemmed from the fact that the symbols carved into the wall were not so much sentences as a series of highly contextual icons representing characters, events, and emotions. They were not intended to represent spoken language in the way that the Roman alphabet did for European written languages. Instead, these symbols had been carved to serve as mnemonic aids for tribal elders and keepers of tales. Despite having a rich culture, this particular civilization had never developed a purely written language system. Rather, they had relied on a strong tradition of oral storytelling and songs, supplemented by ideographic totems carved into wood and stone, which served to remind the viewer of the sequence of events and characters in the story they depicted, but did not convey the full depth of the tale in themselves.
“Okay,” he finally said aloud. “I think I’ve got it.”
Oliver stood and stretched his back. After an hour sitting in the cavern his already damp clothes were now soaked through, but the waterproofing on his camera and phone had kept them safe.
Oliver returned to the ledge and turned to face the wall. He searched the carved face of the wall to the left of the doorway until he found the symbol, vaguely human in shape but with a twisted, angry face, which represented the hero of the story he had just read on the far wall.
The story told of a boy named Māui who stole knowledge from the goddess Ro’e and delivered it to his tribe. Many of the symbols, and the names and concepts that they represented, were familiar to Oliver from the shared mythology of the Pacific Island peoples, but the specific details of this tale were new to him. That happened a lot when Oliver explored some hidden cavern or lost temple. Details that had been lost to time, or even intentionally erased from a tale, often awaited him at the heart of abandoned places.
Oliver touched a finger against the intricately carved stone and traced down from the carving that represented Māui about a foot until he found the depiction of Ro’e, here encircled with a knot of seven lizards, their tails and bodies braided together, which Oliver was reasonably certain represented her guardians. He felt bile rise up in his throat and his pulse quicken when he saw that the thin layer of moss covering the third lizard’s back had been brushed away.
Someone else had definitely been here.
A scuffed up bit of moss on a step could be the work of an animal or someone who had stumbled into the cave accidentally, as unlikely as that seemed after it had remained undisturbed for over fifteen hundred years. Someone had clearly brushed the back of this stone lizard clean some time in the last few days, recently enough that the moss had not grown back. That could only mean one of two things: First, that another relic hunter had beat Oliver to this ancient place, or second, that there was still an active cult, guardian order, or tribal religion focused around this place.
“Oh, no. No, no. Please, don’t be gone,” Oliver groaned.
He pulled out his phone and consulted his notes again.
Then he smiled.
To the best of his understanding, this place had been used exclusively for sacrifice and initiation rituals. It was unlikely that such elements of worship had survived over the centuries, and if they had, the people who came here for worship certainly would not have disturbed that particular glyph.
He pressed the third carved lizard.
The floor shook under Oliver’s feet. A thrumming vibration that was accompanied by the sound of rumbling stones and gushing water. A tongue of volcanic stone, so pitted with holes that Oliver judged it to weigh less than a quarter of what one might expect for a stone of its size, emerged from the cliff face before the doorway, spanning the cleft from side to side with a bridge nearly three feet wide. Looking across the cleft, Oliver saw that the doorway on the side of the cavern opposite from him was now open.
Oliver waited, patiently listening to the roar of the waterfall as he watched the stone bridge and counted.
After about five minutes the floor shook again and a gout of water spurted out from the cliff face below the bridge. The stone trembled, then slowly retracted back across the cleft to disappear into the cliff. On the far side of the cavern a heavy stone slab slid down to block the doorway again, coming to rest with a thud that reverberated throughout the cavern.
Oliver lay down on the stone floor and peered over the edge of the cliff. Only two feet down he saw the hole into which the stone bridge had disappeared and, several feet below that, a round opening from which water still trickled.
“Hydraulics. Seriously impressive stuff for any culture this old,” Oliver said. He nodded his head in appreciation and waited another minute to see if anything else would happen.
Eventually, he arose and returned to the carving of Ro’e and her encircling lizards. He inspected them again, consulted his notes, and muttered, “It’s all about timing, isn’t it?”
In the story, Ro’e would have willingly granted Māui the knowledge he sought if he had been patient and waited until she deemed him ready to understand it. The impatient youth labored three years in the service of Ro’e until the opportunity arose to steal knowledge from her. As he fled from her island in a boat, the stolen knowledge clasped to his chest, she had stood on the shore weeping, for she knew that he had stolen only the knowledge, but would not have possessed the wisdom to understand it for another four years.
The story did not say what had become of Māui, but Oliver thought he got the point.
Oliver brushed his fingers across the rough surface of the stone, causing bits of lichen and moss that had grown on it over the centuries to flake away, and counted silently to himself. When he reached the head of the seventh lizard he paused and glanced around. There was no sign of anyone in the cavern. Whoever had been here before him had either turned back here, or crossed over and disappeared into the doorway on the far side of the cleft. If they had ever returned from that journey, and managed to pass the sealed stone door, they would have found the bridge gone.
“I hope I understand this,” he muttered, then pressed hard against the head of the seventh lizard.
The floor shook and the stone bridge eased out to span the gap once again.
Oliver stepped up to the ledge, knelt, and poked at the stone bridge. It felt solid enough. He sat on the ledge and pressed against the bridge with both feet, assuring himself that it was solid, then stood upright. The bridge held him without shifting. Oliver nodded, took a deep breath, and strode forward into the curtain of mist that wreathed the bridge. The black volcanic stone beneath his feet was so riddled with holes that the swirling mist did little to make it slick and Oliver had no difficulty keeping his balance as he crossed to the far side of the cleft.
Oliver couldn’t be certain how long the bridge would stay in place. If his interpretation of the story was correct, it would remain extended until he returned and pressed the tail of the seventh lizard, but there was an inherent danger in trusting interpretations of ancient myths to provide guidance through tombs and temples, especially when one’s understanding was assembled from a dozen different folktales passed down by tribal storytellers, rather than a set of instructions.
Though the stories drawn from oral traditions were often richer and more textured with human emotion, as far as Oliver was concerned, he had found that few things were more comforting in their accuracy than a coldly detailed and textually corroborated written account.
Stepping up onto the stone slab of the far side, Oliver pulled out his flashlight and gun, then dashed across the open cavern to press himself against the wall beside the doorway. He peeked one eye around the carved frame, not expecting to see anyone, but prepared to pull back and bring his gun up if any threat appeared in the dimly lit corridor.
The passageway was illuminated with flickering blue flames, just like the one which he had followed from the hidden entrance high on the mountainside, and tunneled into the rock only a dozen feet before taking a sharp turn to the left. Inspecting the door frame, Oliver found a groove carved into the inner sides of the frame, the stone within the groove polished to a slick sheen. Above, a wide slot was cut into the lintel, in which he could see the base of the wide gray stone that had blocked the doorway.
Oliver pulled back from the opening and leaned against the wall for a moment, breathing deeply, then swung around the corner and sprinted down the hall to the next corner, keeping his flashlight low and watching for the glint of a tripwire or any sign of trigger stone set into the otherwise solid floor of the passage. He reached the turn in the passage without incident and paused, back against the wall, to listen. The roar of the waterfall still echoed through the passage, but he was reasonably certain that he could not hear anyone around the corner. This was confirmed with a glance and Oliver rapidly covered the twenty feet to the next turn in the passage without incident. He continued moving in this manner for another five turns, twisting and turning through the heart of the mountain until the last turn revealed another doorway which opened into a vast dark space.
Oliver approached the doorway slowly, keeping his body pressed against the wall and his flashlight beam low. His entire journey thus far had been illuminated by the bluish glow of the gas lamps set into the wall, so his arrival at a place that was completely dark made him nervous. He slipped up to the corner of the doorway and glanced around, but the faint light of the tunnel lamps showed only a small patch of floor composed of tightly fitted blocks of stone. The remainder of the cavern was completely dark.
As long as there aren’t any undead, Oliver thought. I’ve had enough of them for a while.
He turned and dropped to one knee in the doorway, shining his light into the cavernous space and following the beam with the glowing sights of his gun.
“Oh, god. Why did it have to be you?” said a voice from the darkness. The accent was vaguely Swedish, by way of British English. “I’d rather have starved to death down here.”
Oliver swept his light across the cavern until it found the speaker. He was a short man, with pale skin and short hair so blond it was nearly white. He was dressed in jungle camouflage and sat cross legged on a pillar that jutted up from the darkness, leaning his elbows on a large backpack that rested across his knees. Oliver pointed the light at his face, causing him to squint and hold up a hand to block the light.
“No cause for that, Oliver. I didn’t mean it,” the man shouted.
The face and voice were familiar to Oliver, but he knew the man couldn’t be a friend. In his line of work you didn’t exactly make a lot of friends who shared the same profession, except for the occasional retired relic hunter who enjoyed sharing stories, or less than scrupulous museum acquisitions directors who would be happy to share a drink and listen to stories that they would forever deny hearing.
No, this was a rival, someone who Oliver had met at least once before.
“Don’t recognize my voice, Oliver?”
It clicked. “I recognize you. Leo, right? From Iceland.”
“That’s me,” Leo replied, resting his arms on the backpack and grinning at Oliver.
“I don’t have to tell you that I’m not happy to see you.” Oliver called back. His memory was clear now. “I was hoping that you’d been murdered by your associates in Iceland. Those guides I hired from you were worse than useless.”
“Now that was a fun little diversion, wasn’t it?” Leo said, still grinning.
“They tried to kill me,” Oliver said, keeping his gun aimed at Leo, even though he was clearly trapped on the stone pillar, which stood alone in the dark room at the center of a wide chasm.
“Yes. They did fail at that, didn’t they. No matter. That’s all in the past now and you seem quite healthy. Successful, even, to have arrived at this place so shortly after I did myself,” Leo said.
“Only because I wounded one and left them both behind in the ice cave,” Oliver replied, edging to the left so he could get a better look at Leo’s hands. There seemed little chance of the man attacking him as, at the moment, Oliver was probably Leo’s only hope for rescue before the traitorous bastard starved to death.
The cavern was nearly a hundred feet in diameter, with a ceiling that arched a hundred feet overhead and was spiked with dozens of long stalactites. The doorway through which Oliver had entered opened into the cavern about half way up the wall. A raised walkway of carved stone jutted out a dozen feet into the room before terminating in a sudden drop to the floor fifty or more feet below. Looking down over the edge of the platform, Oliver saw the vicious tips of a hundred stalagmites thrusting upwards. The rippling red mineral deposits were damp with dripping water and humidity that made them appear coated in a sheen of fresh blood. Across the floor of the cavern, the field of stalagmites was interrupted by rings of black stone, out of which jutted pillars of various heights. The pillar on which Leo stood was the highest of these and sprouted from the floor at the center of the cavern.
“Yeah, it’s a nasty puzzle,” Leo said.
Oliver flicked his flashlight back at the man and saw that he had risen and now stood, his backpack supported between his feet, a hungry glaze in his eyes. “I thought I’d solved it, but the pillars only stayed up until I reached the center, then they all dropped back into the floor again. Not that I had much warning, what with them rising and falling the whole time.”
“Serves you right,” Oliver snapped. He inspected the pattern of circles set into the floor, searching for the most likely path through the maze.
“Really, Oliver, you think anyone deserves to die alone in a cave?”
“It’s what you paid those guides to do to me, as I recall. If I hadn’t insisted on going into that cave myself they’d have killed me and brought the artifact to you.” Oliver focused his flashlight beam directly into Leo’s eyes and smiled as the man flinched and looked away. He didn’t plan to kill Leo, but he certainly wasn’t opposed to leaving him down here for a while longer, assuming that he could work out a way to bypass him and get to the far side of the cavern without becoming trapped himself.
“That was all, what, two years ago?” Leo said.
“More like fifteen months, but who’s counting,” Oliver replied. He turned his back on Leo and began searching the walls surrounding the doorway for any sign of Māori carvings or hidden levers set into the wall.
A bright light clicked on behind him, casting his shadow against the wall like a puppet in a play. “Come on, Oliver. All of that was in the past. We can help each other now.” Oliver turned to see Leo holding a large flashlight and sitting, legs dangling, on the edge of the pillar. “Just let me out of here and I’ll help you. You can even keep whatever we find.”
Oliver chuckled and shook his head in amusement at that. “Nice try, Leo, but no thanks. I should leave you here to rot and let your bones remain as a warning against other grave robbers.”
“First of all, it’s a temple, not a grave. And second, you’re just as much a grave robber as I am.”
“Quite true, but I’ve got a different proposition for you. Here it is: You give me something that’s worth your life, and I let you out of here when I’m finished. Otherwise, I’ll get past this puzzle all on my own and leave you behind.” Oliver flashed Leo a wide grin and turned away from him to inspect a section of wall that had caught his eye when Leo’s light lit up the room.
A circular section of the stone wall had been carved into an inset panel, about the size of a generous medicine cabinet, with gently curving sides and a polished back. A variety of polished stone pegs protruded from holes drilled into the stone. They were carved from a variety of different stones, some solid in coloration, others displaying a cross section of variegated reds, whites, blacks, and greens. At the center of the collection, a single large rod of polished white stone stood out above all the others.
“That deal doesn’t sound especially good to me,” Leo called.
Oliver continued to inspect the assembly of pegs. “Then enjoy watching your flashlight batteries die. There don’t seem to be any of those little gas lights in this part of the cave, so you’ll die here in the dark. Maybe I’ll come back and ‘discover’ your body in a few years. It’s not as if anyone would know that I just left you to die.” Oliver slipped his gun back into the inner pocket of his vest and rested his flashlight on the floor at his feet, then pulled out his phone and swiped through several screens until he found the document he wanted. Without turning away from the puzzle set into the wall Oliver said, “I think I’ve got the solution to this little riddle all on my own, so you’ll need to offer something more.”
“Yeah, well, so did I,” Leo spat.
Oliver gave a derisive laugh and shook his head in mock sympathy. He knew that Leo was smart. He was, in fact, something of a legend in their small and secretive community of relic hunters, but it was clear that in this situation Leo had overestimated his skills. “I suppose you thought that you had the stone bridge figured out also?”
“Obviously. You’re welcome, by the way.”
“For solving that little puzzle. I don’t mind telling you that it took me a good while to put that story in order and figure out how to extend the bridge.” Despite his desperate situation, Oliver could hear an edge of pride slipping into Leo’s voice.
Oliver grinned wickedly at the prospect of blunting the man’s pride with some hard truth, then he felt guilty and swallowed the sarcastic response that had sprung to mind.
Then he chuckled and decided to say it anyway.
He called back over his shoulder, “Oh, so you think I walked right over the bridge that you left open for me?”
“Obviously,” Leo said.
“Hate to tell you, buddy, but that bridge retracted about two minutes after you crossed it.”
Oliver reached up and pulled a green peg out of the wall, considered the array of holes for a moment, then slipped it into a new hole. He moved two more pegs, then paused and compared the arrangement of colors to some notes on his phone. The key, he was certain, lay in understanding how each peg represented a particular tribe. If Oliver was correct, the correct holes indicated the positions of the various Pacific islands that the tribes would later colonize, relative to the position of the island on which he now stood.
Satisfied with his solution, Oliver put the phone away, picked up his flashlight, and turned back to face Leo, who was still sitting on the edge of the tall pillar, his face as hard as the stone around him.
“Like I said, I’m willing to help you,” Oliver called out. “You just need to offer something that’s worth your life.”
“Like what?” Leo spat. He pulled himself to his feet and stood, arms spread, glaring at Oliver. “I’m stuck in the middle of a deathtrap with nothing but my exploring gear. You want a few more chemical lights? How about a new poncho? How about my backpack, I bet you could use a new backpack for hauling around all your fancy camera gear.”
“Funny, Leo. You know what I want,” Oliver said.
Leo glowered at him for a long moment, then hissed back, “Well you’re not going to get it.”
Oliver shrugged, doing his best to appear nonplussed, though inside he was seething with anticipation. What he truly hoped to get out of the deal was Leo’s collection of research notes. His own collection was his most valuable asset, which was why all of his own full copies, whether on his phone, his home computer, or in one of his secure backup locations, were heavily encrypted. To the private relic hunter, a well organized and detailed set of research notes was second only to a solid client list in importance.
“Have it your way then,” Oliver said.
He leaned heavily against the post in the center of the peg panel.
“No, wait!” Leo shouted.
The sound of rushing water came from deep in the stone walls. Oliver stepped quickly to the side to avoid the several jets of cold water that spurted out from the empty holes in the panel. The floor shook as the rumble of heavy stones shifting deep underfoot echoed through the cavern. Oliver shone his light out into the open space and saw Leo had dropped to his belly on the stone pillar and lay, legs splayed out, one arm gripping his backpack to him as the hand of the other grasped at the edge of the pillar.
The pillar began to sink towards the cavern floor.
All throughout the cavern, Oliver could see dozens of other pillars rising and sinking in a chaotic dance of impossibly shifting stone. Every few seconds a pillar would drop suddenly, followed by the echo of heavy stone slamming into other stones, sending out violent tremors that shook the floor, walls, and ceiling of the cavern. Several stalactites shook free of the cavern roof and came hurtling down to shatter in bursts of sharp fragments. Oliver threw himself into the doorway and braced himself beneath the thick lintel, waiting for the tremors to pass.
When the noise stopped Oliver stood, dusted himself off, and shone his flashlight into the cavern. The beam cut through a haze of dust to reveal a meandering line of pillars rising up from the floor of the cavern. None stood directly beside another, but many were now close enough that a daring person could hop from one to another with little difficulty, assuming that they had a good sense of balance. He shone the light towards the center of the room and saw Leo still clinging to the top of the central pillar, which had now sunk to the point that the top rested only about twenty feet from the floor of the cavern.
Oliver smiled, strode to the ledge by the nearest pillar, and jumped across the gap. He spotted the next pillar about three feet away, and hopped to it. After a few more hops he paused to survey his surroundings and rest his legs. He was now almost halfway across the cavern. At the closest point, the meandering path he needed to follow would take him within ten feet of the central pillar before it swerved away towards the side walls of the cavern in a wide arc.
“Going to rethink your position, Leo?” Oliver called out.
Leo pushed himself upright and made an obscene gesture at Oliver. “You could have killed me,” he growled.
“Unlikely,” Oliver said, shrugging. “I didn’t anticipate the movement being so violent, but you had a nice wide place to hold on to. Now, are you going to take my offer or not? A couple more jumps and I’ll be at the best place for you to pass me your notes. After I pass by, well, I guess you’ll be glad of the reading material until all your lights burn out.”
Leo glared at Oliver in the harsh light of their flashlights. His jaw worked with barely repressed anger and Oliver knew that the man would like little more in that moment than to kill him, even if Oliver represented his best hope at escape.
“Fine, it’s yours,” Leo snapped. He began rummaging through the contents of his backpack.
Feeling it prudent to be prepared for a desperate attack, Oliver dropped to one knee and pulled out his gun, aiming it at Leo while he searched for whatever he kept his research notes on.
Leo looked up, hands still in his bag, and froze at the sight of Oliver’s gun. “How do I know you won’t just shoot me when I give this to you?” he asked.
Oliver shrugged, keeping his gun pointed at Leo’s chest. “You don’t. But if you know enough about me to know my real name, and my business, then you should know enough to recognize that I’m no killer.”
“You’re threatening to kill me now.”
“There’s a difference between threatening and carrying through with a threat. If you pull a gun out of that bag, sure, I’ll shoot you, but that would be to defend myself. I promise you, Leo, if you toss me your notes and wait calmly for me to finish my business here, I will help you escape.”
Leo seemed to consider this for a long moment, then shook his head in resignation and stood, holding a large book wrapped in thin oiled leather and bound up with a leather strap. “This is years of my life.”
“You’ll have many more years ahead of you to put your notes back in order. Besides, I highly doubt you’re foolish enough to keep just one copy. Am I right?”
Leo shrugged noncommittally.
“That’s what I figured,” Oliver said. He put his gun away and hopped to the next pillar. “All you’re doing is giving me a bit of a leg up on finding the next shard, or some lovely relics, assuming that I can even interpret your notes. You won’t even be out of the game, just a bit behind me again.” He jumped twice more and paused at the pillar closest to the one on which Leo stood. Oliver rested for a moment with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. The last few jumps had taken more out of him than he had expected. After a minute he shook his head, looked up at Leo, and said, “Now, let’s have it.”
Leo took a deep breath and gazed lovingly at the notebook containing his research notes, then straightened and prepared to throw. He weighed the book with one hand, gave it one last longing look, then tossed the book towards Oliver’s waiting arms. Oliver caught the volume and clutched it to his chest, a smile breaking out across his face.
He quickly undid the leather ties and flipped through the journal, giving it a brief inspection to ascertain that it did indeed appear to be Leo’s research notes. The book was nearly full of a tight scrawl, neat diagrams, and pasted-in photographs. Tattered sticky notes clung to several pages which, on a cursory inspection, appeared to bear notes about the Māori civilization. Oliver wrapped the volume and once more tied the straps, his grin growing wider as he thought about all the valuable clues he might find in the book.
“No need to gloat about it,” Leo groused.
“Spare me. If the situation was reversed you probably would have killed me by now,” Oliver replied. He pushed himself to his feet, then his head spun and he stumbled and nearly fell off the pillar. He dropped back to one knee and breathed in deeply, but he couldn’t seem to catch his breath. He shot a look at Leo, immediately suspecting him of somehow poisoning him, perhaps with a skin-permeable toxin on the pages of the book, but Leo was looking back at him with a confused expression.
“Oliver! Are you all right?” Leo called out. “Don’t fall now. I need you to get me out of here.”
Oliver ignored Leo’s cries and, moving sluggishly, pushed himself back to his feet. He felt his breath coming more easily then. Turning his back to Leo, Oliver leapt to the next pillar, which was positioned about three feet away and a foot higher than the one on which he had crouched to receive Leo’s journal. He landed hard on his hands and knees, still clutching the journal in his left hand, then struggled to his feet. His breath came easier and Oliver began to feel his head clearing. His heart, which had been pounding against his chest, started to slow and ease back into a more normal pace.
This seemed a good time to rest, so Oliver paused long enough to shrug out of his backpack and drop the journal into it. As he rummaged through the bag he spotted his spare water bottle. He pulled it out and glanced back at Leo, who was sitting on the edge of his pillar, watching him.
“You have any water left?”
Leo shook his head.
Oliver held up the bottle. Leo held out his arms and Oliver tossed the bottle to him. He caught it, unscrewed the heavy plastic lid, and took a deep drink before looking at Oliver again.
“Thanks. I still hate you.”
“Likewise,” Oliver said. He turned away from Leo, took two more deep breaths and, convinced that he was not about to collapse, jumped to the next pillar.
He continued hopping from one pillar to the next until he reached the far side of the cavern. Once there, Oliver turned the beam of his light to survey the perimeter of the cavern. He saw the now familiar notches cut into the wall, where blue light should have flickered from the lead nozzle of a primitive, but ingenious, gas lamp. All of the lamps in this room had been extinguished.
Oliver turned from the darkness of the cavern, ignoring Leo’s shouts for him to hurry, to the dark doorway set into the wall. Shining his light into the passage, Oliver saw a set of wide stairs which climbed upwards for at least fifty feet before ending at another dark opening.
“Let’s see if there are any more traps,” he muttered, and began climbing up the steps. Unlike the steps he had descended at the cavern entrance, these steps were almost completely bare, with only a thin layer of dust covering the polished black stone.
Ascending to the top of the stairs without incident, Oliver reached the heart of the mountain. He sank to one knee, chest heaving from the climb and a lingering sense of breathlessness, and gazed through an ornately carved doorway, the edges worked in carvings of beasts and heroes from the depths of Māori myth, which opened into a narrow chamber that glittered in black and refracted rainbows. This chamber had been carved out of a single massive block of black volcanic glass deep under the mountain. Oliver played his light across piles of decayed vegetables, carved sculptures in stone and crumbling wood, chunks of uncut gems, and the stained bones of fish, birds, and men.
Oliver’s face broke into a wide smile.
The place had a feel to it, an ancient and dark majesty that he had experienced before in secret chambers and long lost temples, which made Oliver feel safe. In places like this the traps were more like challenges, which served to test those who would dare to enter and weed out the unworthy, those who lacked adequate knowledge or faith, before they could attain the inner sanctum. It was altogether different from the feeling that he got from tombs, which also had a different atmosphere from decrepit castles and their dungeons and treasure vaults. He approached the doorway and shone his light into the depths of the chamber, hoping that the prize he sought would still be there.
At the far end of the chamber, about thirty feet from the doorway, a shard of glittering silvery metal rested on a raised shelf above an altar of glittering black volcanic glass, which appeared to have been sculpted from the glass at the time that the room itself was carved. Oliver felt his pulse quicken as he approached the altar and stood, gazing down on the shard. The air in the chamber was far cooler than that at the surface of the island, which was to be expected so deep underground in a region where all volcanic activity had ceased several thousand years before, but it was certainly well above freezing. Despite this, a delicate tracery of ice coated the glass shelf on which the shard rested, condensed from the air and frozen by the chill that emanated from the shard. A puddle of meltwater had collected in the basin of the altar, and Oliver wondered whether the basin had been carved to collect sacrificial blood, or if the ancient people who had worshiped this shard had known that water would collect here.
Oliver extended a trembling hand towards the shard and paused just before he would have grasped it, fingers prickling with cold and anticipation. It was unlikely that any poison would have remained on the shard after so many years of it collecting and freezing atmospheric vapor, and he didn’t see any way in which a trap could be concealed in the flawless, unbroken expanse of volcanic glass. But still… He glanced around nervously, searching the shadows at the corners of the room for any sign of supernatural guardians waiting to spring upon him.
“You’re starting to get superstitious,” he muttered.
He shook his head to drive away the fear, then grasped the shard.
The moment Oliver’s fingers touched the shard, he felt an uncomfortable warmth rise inside his shirt, pressing into his chest with a heat and subtle vibration reminiscent of grasping the lid of a pot filled with boiling water. He gasped and dropped the shard, letting it clatter and splash into pooled water of the altar basin, then clutched at his chest. The heat faded away immediately, leaving a prickling sensation in his skin. Oliver set his flashlight on the altar and quickly unbuttoned his shirt, heart pounding, half expecting to find the pinprick of a poisoned dart in the center of his chest. Pulling his shirt apart, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. Just the skin of his tanned chest and, resting against it, the fragment of polished and smoothly curved heartwood that had fallen out of the staff of Moses when he had shattered it, a little over a year before. The wood was wrapped in a tight knot of oiled leather and hung around his neck on a loop of the same material.
“That was strange,” Oliver said, shaking his head in bewilderment.
He reached down into the water pooled on the altar, which was already beginning to shiver with curls of ice spreading out in white fractal curls across the bottom of the basin, and plucked out the shard.
The instant his fingers touched the shard, the knot of glistening heartwood hanging around his neck pulsed hot against his skin. The surface shifted in luster, as if a surge of oil had pulsed to the surface of the wood, bearing with it the scent of olive wood and the heat of a glowing ember. The heated wood pressed against his chest like a brand, flushing his skin red and threatening to raise a blister. Oliver flinched and gritted his teeth, but did not drop the shard again. His hand darted to the bag at his side and he deposited the shard into it alongside the book he had taken from Leo. The heat faded as soon as he released the shard, but the skin of Oliver’s chest was now flushed red with a mild burn.
He pulled the leather strap over his head and inspected the heartwood. The heat had dissipated and he could see no sign of damage to the wood. He nearly put it back around his neck, where it had rested for much of the last year, but at the last moment he slipped it into a zippered pocket on the inside of his vest. The question of why the heartwood had burned him would have to wait for safer surroundings.
He pulled several battery powered lamps out of his backpack and positioned them throughout the chamber, hiding them behind the piles of offerings and clusters of carved wood and stone idols. The light spilled from the lamps in dramatic bursts, which reflected from the chipped walls of the chamber in glittering bursts of color and cast deep pools of shadow upon the path that led up the center of the room. He unpacked his camera and began to carefully photograph the chamber. This adventure was already a massive success as far as he was concerned, what with his capture of the shard and the added bonus of Leo’s journal, but that was no reason to neglect his cover story. These photos would sell well to any number of magazines and websites, and should be sufficient evidence for him to sell the directions to this temple to one of his more respectable, though not completely scrupulous, contacts within the archaeological community.
Eventually, Oliver packed up his equipment, added a particularly dazzling stone carving of a figure he believed to be Māui to his backpack, and set off back down the stairs to the cavern of pillars.
He reached the cavern and found Leo still sitting on the central pillar, a glum look on his face.
“You get what you wanted?” Leo called across the darkness as Oliver emerged from the staircase.
“More than you could imagine,” Oliver said. It felt wrong to gloat, but his blood was still rushing with the hot glow of discovery and, at the moment, he didn’t care.
“Good for you. Now, about getting me out of here,” Leo raised his right arm, a small handgun gripped in his fist. Oliver noted that his gun arm was shaking rather badly. “Thought I was helpless, didn’t you? I just didn’t see much point in burning my only bridge, but since you decided to poison me…”
“Poison?” Oliver shouted.
“Yeah, that’s right. Poison.”
“Leo, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I certainly didn’t poison you,” Oliver said.
“Explain this then!” Leo shouted, lurching to his feet and brandishing a half-empty water bottle in the hand that was not pointing a gun at Oliver. “I was feeling just fine until you showed up here. Then you come along, mess with the pillars, toss me this bottle, and now I can hardly breathe.” Leo stopped shouting and coughed deeply, nearly tipping over the ledge of the pillar, then he caught his balance and fixed Oliver with a deadly gaze.
“Leo, I didn’t…”
“Save it. You’re going to get back over there and reconfigure the pillars to get me out of here. Make one wrong move, try to get away, reach for your gun, anything like that, and I’ll shoot you dead.”
Oliver wasn’t sure he believed that Leo could reliably shoot in the right direction, let alone hit him in the dark room, but it wasn’t worth the risk. “I’ll do that. I was planning to all along. Can I move now?”
“Yes. Get over there now,” Leo growled. He dropped to one knee and settled into a kneeling position, elbows resting on his backpack for support, and trained his flashlight and gun on Oliver. “I said go!”
Oliver moved cautiously to the edge of the platform, keeping one eye on Leo even as he approached the ledge. He paused to cinch his backpack straps, glanced at Leo again, then jumped to the first pillar. It didn’t take Oliver long to navigate the twisting path back across the cavern. As he approached the center, half way through his journey, he kept both hands well away from the pockets of his vest. Leo tracked him with the flashlight beam, though he directed it sluggishly, hardly keeping up with Oliver’s pace across the cavern. It was clear that there truly was something wrong with Leo, but Oliver knew that he hadn’t poisoned the man. A dull ache settled into Oliver’s chest as he crossed the low pillars at the center of the room and he was soon panting for air again. Last time he had assumed that the exertion of jumping from pillar to pillar so rapidly was more strenuous than he had anticipated, but as he pushed onward through the pain and began ascending towards the exit, and felt the pain in his chest lessen, Oliver was struck with a terrible thought. He turned it over in his mind, inspecting all the elements and trying to find another explanation, but nothing else seemed to fit.
He arrived at the balcony of cut stone that thrust out from the cavern wall before the exit door and turned to face Leo. The man had risen to his feet again, having been unable to keep Oliver in his sights while remaining seated, now that the pillar had sunk towards the floor.
“Right. Now change the pillars so I can get out and we’ll both walk out of here alive,” Leo said.
“I’ll do that, but first I really need you to put that gun away,” Oliver replied.
“Like hell I’m putting my gun away. I just wish I’d had it out when you showed up, then I could have made you let me go long ago.”
“Leo, I need you to understand, if you shoot that thing in here we’re both…”
Leo’s whole body jerked as he stiffened his gun arm, aiming somewhere above Oliver’s head.
He opened his mouth to shout something and pulled the trigger.
He scrambled for the mouth of the passage back to the waterfall, running as fast as he could, even as the sound of the shot shattered the stillness of the cavern. The crack of the gunshot was instantly eclipsed by the roar of thousands of cubic feet of natural gas igniting in a hellish conflagration of blue fire.
“The blast threw me clear into the waterfall room. I skidded across the damp stone, scrabbling for a handhold, and plunged off the edge. Just as I thought I was going to fall into the underground river and drown, the fingers of my left hand snagged on an outcropping of rock and I jerked to a stop so hard that I nearly dislocated my shoulder.”
“Hold on a minute,” Hank said, setting his wineglass down with a harsh ring of glass stressed nearly to shattering. “I thought you said that the passage between the waterfall and the pillar trap zigzagged.”
Oliver grimaced and pushed his stool back from the patchwork surface of the salvaged marble bar in his cluttered loft apartment. The fragments of marble were of all different colors and shapes, bonded together with strong stone epoxy. It looked a bit rough, but he liked things that way. As far as Oliver was concerned, too much of the world was sharp edges and clean lines, the sort his parents had been so enamored of during their seemingly endless remodeling projects in their northern Virginia plantation house. He turned away from Hank, took two steps, and buried his head in the refrigerator that rested opposite the bar, beside a wide sweep of countertop.
“Don’t hide from me in there,” Hank chided him, wagging a finger at Oliver as he used a finger and thumb of his other hand to tear off a chunk of bread from the loaf that had sat between them and dip it into the plastic tub of dressing. He crammed the sodden bread into his mouth and chewed contentedly for a moment, his eyes softening with pleasure at the taste of the freshly baked bread and perfectly seasoned dressing. He swallowed and said, “I’ve been listening to your stories since we were boys, Oliver, and I know when you’re lying.”
Oliver straightened and turned from the refrigerator with a bottle in each hand, kicking the refrigerator door shut with one slippered foot. “I’m not lying, Hank.”
“You mean to tell me that the blast picked you up, bounced you back and forth down the tunnel like a ping-pong ball, and deposited you safe and sound beside the bridge?” Hank asked, laughter bubbling just under the surface of his voice.
Oliver proffered a chilled bottle of red wine to Hank, who pressed his large stomach against the bar and leaned forward to accept the bottle with a grin. “Don’t think that this is a bribe to keep me from asking you again. I’ve listened to all your crazy stories over the years and believed most of them because you had evidence.” He paused to grunt as he pulled the cork from the bottle with the characteristic squeaking pop of synthetic cork, sniffed at the red-stained rubber dubiously, then smiled to himself and tipped the bottle into his glass.
Oliver twisted the lid off of a bottle of cider and took a long drink, purposely keeping his eyes averted from Hank’s face. The memory of the events in that passage, deep under the mountains of a remote Pacific island, still haunted his dreams. In the week since he had returned, Oliver had repeatedly dreamed of the wave of blue fire, rolling over him and slamming him to the rough-hewn floor of the passage, the heat prickling against his skin as he curled into a ball and screamed at the realization that this was how his life would finally end. He would awake tangled in the sheets, prickling flesh covered in a sheen of hot sweat that had soaked into the bedclothes.
Hank was talking again, gesturing with his wine glass and a single immaculately manicured finger. Oliver realized that he had slipped back into the memory and lost track of the conversation. He took another swig from the bottle to cover his inattention and focused on Hank’s words.
“…Together for years, you tracking down relics, me helping you smuggle them back into the country with my ingenious little devices. I think you can trust me with what really happened and not feed me some ridiculous story. Next you’ll be saying you survived by hiding in a refrigerator and letting the blast throw you to safety.”
Oliver exploded in laughter. Cider surged up his nose, choked him, and turned the laugh into a coughing fit. He stumbled to a stool, set his bottle on the bar, and pulled himself up onto the seat. He continued to cough and splutter foam from his nose as Hank looked on disapprovingly over the steel rims of his glasses. Finally, Oliver managed to get a breath down his lungs without gagging. He sat up and wiped his face and eyes with the collar of his t-shirt, then pushed his red hair back on his head and gave Hank a wide grin. “Actually, I escaped the fireball by pulling out a bullwhip and using it to chase back the flames.”
“Ah, I should have known.” Hank’s eyes narrowed and he set his glass down on the bar and began tapping the rim with a single dark, carefully manicured finger. “So, are you going to tell me about it? I can tell you’re carrying a burden, Oliver. Allow me to help you with it.”
“I think that wine is making you even more grandiose than usual, but just on account of our long friendship, I will tell you. Just, please, don’t ask me to explain it.”
“You have my word of honor,” Hank said, fumbling his wine glass over into his left hand, then holding up his right hand with three fingers extended. “One Star Scout to another.”
Oliver smiled, took another sip of cider, and leaned forward to rest his elbows on the bar. He looked past Hank to the painted brick of the living room wall, letting his gaze rest upon the heavy oak bookshelf that concealed the door of the large safe, in which he had placed the shard. The others, he had captured five in all now, were hidden in bank vaults throughout the country, along with paperwork for the various false identities that he had established to use when traveling through dangerous territory. This mystery had consumed almost his entire adult life and, after nearly fifteen years, he was no closer to understanding the origins of the shards. At least he thought that he knew their effect, if not their cause, and that was enough to make him keep searching.
He took a slow breath, turned to look at Hank, then said, “The gas ignited, just like I told you, and the whole cavern filled up with fire in an instant. I was blown down the passage and slammed into the wall at the first turn. All around me the world was on fire. Everything, Hank. I couldn’t even see Leo through all the flames, but he must have been knocked from the pillar and burned to a cinder because after the flames were gone I went back into the cavern and I couldn’t see any sign of him.”
“Wait just a minute,” Hank said, holding up a finger between them. He stabbed at the air as if nudging pieces of information into place on an invisible abacus, then fixed Oliver with a befuddled expression. “I’m slipping towards drunk here, but I’m not stupid. Did you just tell me that the whole cavern exploded, killing your rival and sending blasts of fire down the passages, and you walked out unscathed?”
“Not exactly unscathed, I did drop my flashlight when the blast hit me and when I found it the plastic lens had melted off and the LED was fused. I had to use my spare to get out of there.”
Hank blinked twice and sat back in his chair. His mouth worked soundlessly, disturbing the neatly combed hairs of his black goatee as he tried to reconcile the story Oliver had just related with reality. Oliver waited, quietly sipping his cider and occasionally tearing off a bit of bread, dipping it in the dressing, and chewing it as quietly as he could. This was exactly why he had come up with the lie about being thrown into the waterfall room by the blast. Sure, that story was not especially believable, but it certainly beat claiming that he had survived a blast of fire hot enough to singe stone and melt plastic. He decided that it was a good thing he had not yet told the full story of this adventure to anyone besides Hank. When the time came to tell Amber, he might just have to leave out the bit about the zig-zag passage.
Hank leaned forward again and set his wineglass on the bar delicately, then poked a finger at Oliver’s face. “You’re not lying to me again, are you?”
“And you’re sure that you’re still alive? I only ask because after all the tales you’ve told me I wouldn’t discount talking to your ghost right now.”
That made Oliver smile. “I assure you, I am alive, well, and sitting here in this room with you.”
“I suspected as much,” Hank sighed.
“I don’t understand it any more than you, Hank.”
“Could it have been one of the relics that protected you? You had both the heartwood and the shard in your bag.”
Oliver shook his head and sighed in frustration. “That’s the only explanation I can think of, but I’m not eager to test it again.”
“Obviously.” Hank lifted a plastic lid from the countertop and snugged it down over the tub of dressing, then shifted his bulk off the barstool, snatched up the loaf of bread, and rounded the corner of the bar with an elegant pivot that belied his three hundred pounds. He set the bread in an antique wood and tin breadbox beside the stove, put the dressing away in the refrigerator door, and began rummaging through the refrigerator shelves. “What about the interaction of the shard and the heartwood? Have you experimented with that further?”
“Yes. It’s really strange,” Oliver said, turning in his seat to watch as Hank pulled a cutting board from the wall and began dicing sausages. “The shard doesn’t appear to have any reaction to the heartwood. It remains still and cold no matter how close the heartwood comes to it. On the other hand, the heartwood reacts violently to the shard. If you move the shard towards it, the heartwood will slide away, as if it was being repelled by a magnetic field. If you force the heartwood towards the shard, it will begin pushing back. Keep pushing for too long and it will get hot.”
“It is. I wish that I knew the cause, but since I don’t even know for sure that the shards are…” Oliver trailed off, eyes losing focus as he recalled the burning heat of the heartwood searing his chest when he lifted the shard from the altar. If only he knew the source of the shards, Oliver thought he might possibly be able to deduce the cause of the violent reaction between the two relics, but for all that he had devoted over a decade of his life to tracking down the shards, he still knew remarkably little about them.
Oliver had discovered the first shard among his uncle Bernard’s possessions in the attic of the family estate in northern Virginia. The shard had been hidden in a wooden puzzle box, which he had found at the bottom of a battered footlocker. It was that box of documents, and the clues that he found while perusing them over the next few months, that had introduced Oliver to the mystery of the shards.
“I thought you believed the shards to be fragments of an ancient mechanism,” Hank said, interrupting Oliver’s reverie. He had finished cutting the meat and was melting a generous helping of butter in a heavy pan.
“Yes, that’s true. Something like the Antikythera Mechanism, but perhaps with a more mysterious purpose, one that would cause, or require, the parts to be imbued with a supernatural power. The Antikythera Mechanism was essentially a hand-cranked computer, built by the Greeks for calculating astronomical positions fifteen hundred years before Europeans were even constructing mechanical clocks. I have no idea what purpose my mechanism might have served, but it was certainly important.”
“So you’ve got a machine of unknown purpose and origin, created by persons unknown, at a time unknown, and you’re still hellbent on finding all the parts, the number of which is still unknown, and putting them back together,” Hank said. He turned from the stove and blinked at Oliver expectantly through the round lenses of his glasses. When Oliver didn’t reply, Hank sighed and turned to the cutting board to begin dicing potatoes. “I’ll trust you that this machine, whatever it might be, is important, but I just wonder if there’s a reason it was broken and scattered across the globe.”
Oliver pondered Hank’s words, considering the implications as he watched his friend cook. It wasn’t the first time he had confronted the mysterious origins of the shards and wondered if he ought to give up his quest to capture them all, but even as he wondered how he might go about reshaping his life if he abandoned the search that had been so central to his existence for fifteen years Oliver felt the unquenchable urge to know rise up within himself.
“I mean, think of this Oliver: You know where the heartwood came from, and I don’t think there’s any argument that it’s a good thing, right?”
“So if the heartwood, a fragment of perhaps the most unquestionably good relic you’ve ever found, shows a demonstrable dislike of the shards, perhaps that is a sign that they aren’t the safest thing in the world to be collecting.” Hank said, not looking up from the pan on the stove.
“You think I haven’t wondered about that?” Oliver finished his cider and tossed the bottle into the bin beside the refrigerator. “I can’t explain it, Hank, any more than I can explain why I’m still alive right now. I just need to know the truth.”
“I’m not going to try and stop you man, I’ll even keep helping you smuggle the shards into the country, I just want you to think carefully before you assemble them, all right?”
“I’ll do that.”
“So what about that other thing you captured? Have you taken a look at the journals of the late and unlamented whatever-his-name-was yet?” Hank asked, turning from the stove and leaning his large frame against the counter. He held out a hand and Oliver passed him the wineglass that he had left on the bar.
“Oh, you bet I have. Hell, I was reading through that thing the whole flight back here. Some fascinating bits of information.”
Oliver leapt from his seat and strode into the open living room space, which was cluttered with book cases, boxes, and piles of artifacts. Along one wall stood a wide glass-topped desk, sitting opposite a worn leather sofa and beside a large television monitor and a rack of computers. In the center of the desk rested the leather-bound book that Oliver had taken from Leo in the cavern of pillars, only an hour before the chamber had been shaken by a fireball that shattered several of the pillars, leaving them broken and scattered across the floor, and killed the previous owner of the book. Oliver grabbed the journal from the desk and carried it back to the bar, where he began flipping through pages.
“It’s more than just a research journal. Leo kept all of his hardcopy notes in this book.” Oliver flipped to a page covered in a tight scrawl of handwriting, then another on which Leo had pasted several folded photocopies of ancient texts. The space between each folded paper was occupied by dozens of notes in different colors of ink. “Here are his notes on the myth of Māui and Ro’e, the same story that led me to the island cave. He approached the problem from a different angle, but in the end we arrived at the same conclusion regarding the common origin of Māori legends.”
“I’m still astounded that you were able to track down an artifact that had remained hidden for over a thousand years,” Hank said.
“It wasn’t easy, but the truth is that you just have to know what to look for. My uncle Bernard spent his entire career researching the origin of Mayan civilization and only stumbled onto the first shard by mistake. It took him over a decade to uncover the location of the second shard, and he never even managed to find it before his whole team was killed. Well, everyone but Amber, that is. Since then I’ve become more adept than him at tracking down the shards, but only because I’ve developed something of a system.”
“Care to share it?” Hank asked as he turned the hash over, unleashing a riot of mouth-watering scents and a sizzle that set Oliver’s stomach rumbling. “Unless it’s some deep dark secret. Maybe you sell a bit of your soul for each shard?”
“Nothing so dramatic, though the image of a crossroads at midnight is something we can work with. Picture it, then: A crossroads where weary travelers meet along two ancient roads that cut across the grasslands of some ancient land. As night settles, people mingle between camps, sharing stories, encountering long forgotten friends, meeting new companions. Before long they start sharing stories. A young storyteller wanders up the fire carrying an old scroll that he found wedged under a rock at the crossroads and tells everyone that the scroll contains a story he’s never heard before. He reads them the story, we’ll say it’s about a dwarf named Doug who found an uncommonly fine gem and all the trouble it brought him, and everyone agrees that it is a fine tale. The young man returns the scroll to the nook in the rock where he found it and goes to bed. At daybreak the camps at the crossroads break up and all of the travelers depart to the four corners of the land, bearing with them the tale of Doug the Dwarf and his Diamond of Detriment.”
“I’m not seeing how this relates to your little quest to find the shards of some ancient machine,” Hank interrupted.
“You’ll see it in a moment,” Oliver promised. “My point is this: How do you find the source of the story after a couple hundred years have passed?”
Hank pondered that question for a few moments as he pulled plates from the cupboard and set them out on the patchwork marble of the bar. He pulled the cork from the bottle of wine and refreshed his glass, then stood in the center of Oliver’s kitchen, swirling the wine in his glass and imbibing its aroma through his wide nostrils. Oliver did not hurry him. He had known Hank Thornton since childhood and, while their lives had taken significantly different paths during their college years, they had remained close friends. He knew that Hank preferred to quietly puzzle through a situation and arrive at a fully considered conclusion before speaking his mind, an attitude that stood in contrast to Oliver’s own habit of talking through almost everything.
Hank began shoveling the contents of the frying pan onto the plates as he said, “I imagine that you might ask each person they encountered where they heard the story, then follow those clues back until you find a region in which everyone seems to know the tale.”
“That would make sense if they still had the scroll, but remember that the young storyteller returned the scroll to its hiding place after reading it to the group gathered around the campfire.”
Hank placed two plates of steaming hash on the bar and pushed one towards Oliver before hefting himself into a tall chair opposite. He stirred his plateful of hash with his fork a few times, then lifted a forkful and poked it towards Oliver saying, “So, if a concentration of stories doesn’t indicate the origin point, how could you find the source?” He put the food into his mouth and chewed slowly, savoring the flavors as he waited for Oliver to respond.
“You need to find several different locations where there are concentrations of a particular legend, story, cult, whatever. Once you find those locations, you need to learn as much as you can about regional trade routes and historical migrations of peoples. With that information you can start looking for an empty place in the map, somewhere near the middle of everything that you’ve uncovered, where the people have drifted away and all the stories have dried up, such as in the ancestral homeland of a culture that has moved away and established a new capital somewhere far away.”
Oliver stopped speaking and pulled his plate closer. He began enthusiastically shoveling food into his mouth. It had been months since he had enjoyed one of Hank’s meals.
They ate in silence for a while, then Oliver set down his fork and went to the refrigerator to retrieve a fresh bottle of cider. He took a swig, then returned to his seat saying, “Of course, that only works when the shard hasn’t been found and moved recently. People have been searching for these things for at least five thousand years, ever since the Creed scattered them. That’s why the last one I found, the one in Iceland, was especially difficult to track down. The Creed had discovered it before me and moved it to about the most remote location they could.”
“You’ve mentioned them before,” Hank interjected, “but I’ve never been able to pin down what you mean. What is this Creed thing?”
“I don’t entirely know that, any more than I know where the shards come from. All I know is that at least five thousand years ago the shards began appearing all over the world. In places where the shards came to rest there was a brief explosion of culture and technology, which was soon followed by either a sudden decline or the people scattering outwards across the world, carrying their newly invigorated culture with them, but leaving the shards behind. This cycle repeats itself as the shards are captured, discovered, and carried from place to place, until about a thousand years ago.” Oliver paused to wet his mouth with another sip. His fingers drifted towards Leo’s journal. He had rarely explained his theories in such depth.
Years ago he had given a single presentation to his doctoral advisory board, one semester after returning from the Amazon with a shard that had been lost to the collapsed wooden empires of the lost city of Z. That presentation, and his refusal to abandon the radically unorthodox theories of cultural and technological development which it had expressed, had been the genesis of Oliver’s downfall from academia. Since then he had only opened himself up to his cousin Amber, who had accompanied him on the expedition to the Amazon, and Diana, a sometimes girlfriend with similarly mad theories. Both of those confidants were less than easily accessible these days, though, as Amber had married and settled down to a relatively calm life in northern Virginia, and Diana had managed to secure an additional year of funding for her research at the Louvre in Paris.
“You still haven’t explained what the Creed is.”
Oliver took a few bites, chewing them thoughtfully and staring at the pattern of patchwork marble in silence. It was one thing to say that he believed that the shards were somehow related to unexpected growth in culture around the world throughout the last few thousand years, to his mind that was no more unusual than claiming that cities tended to be built up around mines and wells, it was quite another to posit the existence of a global conspiracy that had spanned thousands of years. He finished his last bite of the hash, savoring the warm burn of spices in his mouth, then looked up at Hank. “I only have a few vague references to back this part up, and given what my former colleagues thought about my supposed evidence, calling this sketchy is probably the world’s greatest understatement.”
“I’m still here, Oliver. Just spill it.”
“A few years back I was searching for evidence of shards in Europe. With all the developments that took place there in the last thousand years I thought that there couldn’t help but be a shard there. Instead of finding anything like a solid clue, I ended up wasting six months collecting vague rumors that just ran me in circles. There were just too many things happening all in one place, everything overlapped and I couldn’t find an origin point. What I did find, though, was indications of someone working against people like me. Whenever I thought that I was getting close to a solid clue, I would find that some key record had been burned, or a castle destroyed, or a pagan shrine gutted and refashioned into a church.”
“That’s not so unusual in Europe. The Catholic church alone had enough internal strife, and that’s leaving out the inquisition, the reformation, the church of England, the crusades, and every bit of political intrigue that went on independent of the church.”
“I’m aware of the complexities of European history, Hank. This was different. The holes in the historical record were so precise that you could almost use them to track the shards, which as it turns out is exactly what I did. I started looking for other people who had uncovered the secret of the shards, both throughout history and in the present day, and I realized that there have been dozens of us over the last couple centuries. Different searchers encountered different levels of success, but one thing is clear: assemble too much of the puzzle, and crow too loudly about it, and you’ll end up dead.”
“You’re still alive,” Hank said.
“I don’t talk about the shards to many people. As far as my private clients know, I’m just a relic hunter, one of thousands throughout the world. As far as the world at large can tell, I’m just a travel photographer with a knack for getting into secluded historical sites before the archaeologists come and start digging holes everywhere.”
“So you keep a low profile because you’re paranoid that a shadowy conspiracy is going to kill you.”
Oliver shot Hank a look. He would be the first to admit that his theories bordered on the paranoid, but it hurt to hear it from one of his few confidants.
“Hey, I’m just painting in broad strokes here. You’re not giving me a lot to work with,” Hank said, his tone walking a line between defensive and joking.
Oliver sighed and pushed his empty plate away. He was not doing a good job explaining the situation and he wasn’t even sure how he could improve the picture for Hank. “Maybe I’m being too specific, too personal. You don’t need to know how I know all of this, especially since a lot of it is vague to even me, you just want to know what I’m facing.”
“I believe the Creed to be a loosely organized collection of individuals sworn to protect the shards and keep them from ever being reassembled into the original mechanism. I know for sure that they have existed since the middle-ages in Europe, working against Renaissance thinkers like Leibniz who attempted to collect the shards, and I strongly suspect them of infiltrating governments and religions throughout history to direct people away from finding the shards. I even have an account of a priest from medieval Belarus who was the sole survivor of a massacre, which I believe to have been caused by members of the Creed attempting to wipe out everyone who saw one of the shards.”
Hank nodded thoughtfully, sipping at his wine as he contemplated Oliver’s words. Oliver watched his face closely, waiting for a sign that Hank’s apparent disbelief and uncertainty had slipped into disdain. It was a familiar experience for Oliver, that appearance of scorn on the faces of people he respected.
Finally Hank shrugged and took another sip of his wine before saying, “I don’t understand it, but I’m not going to call you crazy, Oliver. If you’d told me all of that a few years ago, I would probably have said that you’re paranoid. That said, I’ve seen a shard or two myself and I can’t deny that there is something strange about them.”
Oliver pulled Leo’s journal back in front of him and flipped it open to a page somewhere near the middle. He turned a few pages, scanning the tight scrawl of handwriting, searching for the beginning of a series of notes. “Here it is,” he said, turning the notebook to face Hank. “Speaking of believing in something now that you would have called insane a few years ago, take a look at this.”
Hank leaned forward, resting his elbows on the bar, and peered at the journal. His brown eyes flicked back and forth behind the glinting lenses of his eyeglasses as he scanned the notes. “May have found evidence that the eye is real,” he muttered, reaching out to turn a page. Oliver waited, not wanting to taint Hank’s opinion of the text any further. The index finger of Hank’s left hand idly traced a sketch of a tree in the margins of the page as he read, “This ritual may open the gate to Yggdrasil itself.” He drummed his fingers on the countertop, then turned another page in silence.
Oliver slipped wordlessly from his stool and crossed the room to his work table. Once there he pulled a battered old notebook from the small shelf beside the table, on which he kept notes and references that might prove useful to his current line of inquiry. This particular notebook was a collection of his own research notes from over five years ago, before he had begun keeping as much of his work as possible in electronic notebooks that could be easily encrypted and backed up in remote locations, or transferred to his phone for easy access in the field. Many of those old notes had been scanned and added to his digital library, those which he had deemed relevant to the ongoing quest to find the shards, or which had proven necessary to track down a more mundane relic for a client. This particular notebook, however, had never been so distinguished.
He settled into a padded chair and thumbed the switch to turn on the desk lamp, then opened the notebook and began paging through it. Oliver had an exceptionally good memory, but it had been years since he even considered the theories described in this notebook. He continued to page through the book until he heard the creak of springs announce Hank lowering his bulk onto the sofa behind Oliver. Without looking around he said, “So, what do you think?”
“It’s no more unlikely than anything else you’ve discovered,” Hank said.
“What about that bit about Yggdrasil?”
“I don’t know that I can take it literally, but how much more unlikely is it than the Creed, or the story you just told me about walking out of an explosion unscathed?”
Oliver smiled at that. He had to admit that his own stories were no less unbelievable than the clues he had uncovered in Leo’s notebook. Sometimes, as he stood at the gates of some ancient temple, or when he had trouble sleeping at night, Oliver wondered at the direction his life had taken and tried to imagine how his childhood self would react to knowing what lay in store. He turned to face Hank and tapped the open page of the notebook he had been perusing. “I only ask because of this,” he said. “Shortly after I got involved in the relic hunting game, I uncovered what I thought to be an ancient scroll from a monastery in Scotland.”
Oliver pulled a photograph from his notebook and flipped it to Hank. Hank examined it, squinting at the photo and turning it to different angles as he attempted to read the faded lines of oddly squarish letters drawn on the ancient scroll in a precise hand. “That’s old English, so don’t worry about making out what the words mean,” Oliver explained. “I spent a month translating that text, then another four months searching for corroborating texts and unusually precise legends that had already been translated into modern English.”
“What is it?” Hank asked.
“An unusual version of the myth of how Odin lost his eye.”
“How is it unusual?” Hank asked. “I’m familiar with the general story: Odin is a powerful god. He trades his eye for a drink from the well of wisdom. Now he is very wise and has a raven that flies around gathering information for him.”
“Close, but not quite right,” Oliver said. “Odin had two ravens. One was named Hugin, the other Munin. Each day the ravens fly out from Valhalla to survey the whole world, from the deepest roots of Yggdrasil, where dragons lurk in the shadows, to the farthest corners of Midgard. They return each evening to settle on Odin’s shoulders and whisper news to him.”
“I had it close enough for someone who isn’t planning to use his knowledge of ancient myths to track down relics in ancient tombs,” Hank said.
“True enough, but as you pointed out I’m a relic hunter who needs to get all the specifics right in order to work out the differences between reality and myth, especially when I’m trying to work out the aspects of the myth that are based on real events and relics. This text is unusual because it tells the myth of Odin surrendering his eye for a drink from the well of Mímir to gain wisdom, but it makes no mention of the ravens.”
“But you just insisted that there were two ravens,” Hank said.
“Precisely. Every account I’ve ever read of Odin’s journey to the well of Mímir includes mention of his ravens. Children’s tales in translation, old books in middle-English, ancient texts written in dead languages on the bleached skin of a goat. They all speak of Odin’s ravens. Every account, that is, except this one, and this particular text not only lacks an element that is present in every other, but contains specific references to the location of the well of Mímir.” Oliver leaned back in his swivel chair, crossed his legs, and pulled his old notebook from the desk to his lap. He began paging through it, reviewing his notes and thinking back to the weeks he had spent bent over ancient texts, searching for clues to support his theory that the absence of the ravens in this particular text indicated that the directions to the well were real. After a while he looked up and saw Hank watching him.
“You think the well is real, don’t you?” Hank said.
Oliver shrugged and flipped the notebook closed. The notes in Leo’s journal had unsettled him, perhaps more than unexpectedly surviving the explosion in the underground temple. The evidence surrounding the well had been as strong as that which led him to the shards, but key parts were missing and he had been forced to abandon the search after nearly a year of fruitless inquiry.
“And if you do,” Hank continued, “what are you going to do when you find it? Pluck out your own eye and toss it in?”
That was enough to make Oliver laugh.
“I’m serious. I don’t want your next story to be about how you earned an eyepatch while trying to duplicate the efforts of a Norse god.”
Oliver shook his head and, with considerable effort, hid his grin away behind a serious expression. “I promise, Hank, I’m not going to pluck out my own eye. I don’t even know if I believe the well itself is real. What I suspect is that there may be a shard of the mechanism somehow linked to the origin of Odin, and that’s where Leo’s research journal comes in.” He stood and walked over to the sofa, reaching a hand out towards Hank, who held up the leather bound book. Oliver took the journal and began turning pages until he reached the page that had renewed his interest in the myth of Odin’s eye.
“This passage here, where Leo has translated a document that he stole from the collection of a neopagan priest in Germany. ‘The unenlightened choose to believe in the trappings of myth, of magical hammers, ever-dripping serpent venom, and talking ravens, but the true servant of Odin knows the truth behind the accreted lies of the ages.’” Oliver read, turning the page so Hank could read the words scrawled out in Leo’s precise handwriting. “That was written nearly five hundred years ago, if Leo’s notes are correct.”
“I saw that.” Hank said, tapping the passage with his finger. “And I read on to the bit about, what was it, ‘The path to true knowledge will carry the supplicant to the heart of Yggdrasil, and in the midst of its roots they will find the waters of wisdom.” He looked at Oliver over the rims of his glasses, one dark eyebrow raised in skepticism. “You don’t really believe this, do you? It’s only been, what, a year since you returned from Egypt with a genuine biblical relic, how can you believe that the Norse gods were as real as that?”
“I didn’t say that I do,” Oliver said. “And for your information I don’t believe that the Norse gods were actually gods, any more than I believe the world was formed from the body of a giant hung on the branches of an ash tree. What I do believe is that there are powers in this world that nobody truly understands, some of which are linked to the shards that I have been collecting, some to the Hebrew god, and some to things that I can’t even give a name to. I don’t know the answers to everything, Hank, but I keep finding clues and that’s why I keep searching for the shards of the mechanism.”
He turned a page of the notebook in Hank’s hands and pointed to a pasted-in photograph of an ancient parchment. “This look familiar?”
Hank pushed his glasses up on his nose and squinted down at the photo. He held out his left hand and snapped his fingers, then opened his hand to receive the notebook that Oliver placed in it. Oliver was actually rather surprised that it took him pointing out the connection before Hank spotted it. Hank’s work repairing vintage cameras and, for a few select clients, engineering hidden compartments into everyday items, had developed in him a strong eye for spotting details in objects.
Hank glanced back and forth between the notebooks several times, then looked up at Oliver and said, “They’re from the same parchment.”
Oliver nodded. “I photographed that document in a museum in Berlin fifteen years ago. Leo stole his from the collection of an Aeser priest in Munich about two years ago, apparently while searching for clues that might lead him to a shard hidden somewhere in Germany.”
“Aeser?” Hank asked. “I’ve never heard of that before.”
“German neopagans. Started in the early twentieth century as part of a general surge in interest in European folk history,” Oliver said.
“I see. So what does this tell you, Oliver? It’s certainly interesting, both of you finding fragments of the same document hundreds of miles and many years apart, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
Oliver returned to his seat and settled deep into it, twisting around and swinging his legs up so his bare feet rested on the edge of the worktable. He steepled his fingers under his chin and tapped his pinkie fingers silently and he thought about Hank’s question, trying to decide how he should respond. According to Leo’s journal, the parchment Leo had stolen was only one of a dozen similar pieces, all related to Nordic culture. If he could arrange to inspect that collection he might find exactly the clue he needed to revitalize his search for the well of Mímir and Odin’s eye.
After a long moment he sighed, slapped his palms against his thighs, and sat upright, swinging his feet back to the floor. “I think I’m going to Germany,” he said. “I need to find the owner of this document and try to get a look at the remainder of their collection.”
“That might prove difficult, seeing as you learned about the collection from a thief,” Hank said.
“It’s worth a shot.”
Hank shook his head and gazed down at the notebooks on his lap, as if he didn’t know whether to argue with Oliver or compliment his tenacity. He ran a finger down the page of Leo’s journal and tapped on an entry, written below the translated text. “Your colleague noted the name of the man he stole this from. I’ve got a few contacts in Germany, collectors of antique cameras, who might be able to set up a more legitimate meeting for you, if you’re interested.”
Oliver nodded and grinned at Hank. “That would be perfect.”