Episode XIII: Faces In Pillars
The secret to a fantastic burger is to sear the surface while preserving the juices inside. The center should be pink and moist, warm but not bloody. The cheese should be melted enough to droop but not to run. The bacon on this burger would be crispy, so as to add a texture variant to the meal. Others prefer a pliable strip, but the consensus is that bacon makes everything better.
“No, you idiot, that’s the way we came!”
And, of course, the buns would be buttered and toasted. And what to drink? Whatever it would be, it would have to be cold, icy even. Coke would do in a pinch, but barley and hops would be mana from the goblet of Zeus.
“Where are we going?”
Or was that a mixed metaphor? Maybe, but it would still be delicious, a cooling draught to relax the muscles and the senses. The moisture built up on the bottle would fall onto the hand while savage teeth ravaged that tender beef patty.
Latakia opened his eyes to blackness and felt his succulent dinner replaced with dried saliva. He sighed, shoved his pipe into his mouth and lit it. The flame from the match showed nothing but the bowl. No walls, floor, ceiling or friends.
“You know, the drier this tobacco gets, the easier it is to smoke.”
He drew on the stem until a plume of smoke billowed out. And then he paced, stepping and smoking, walking a circle in the magma floor. He watched as the soldiers blanketed the darkness — front, back, left and right — with the brilliant, yet still inadequate, illumination of their flashlights. He watched and he puffed and he thought, and the thoughts were coming easier somehow, but he still hadn’t found that one to move them forward.
While the others hurled suggestions like insults and dodgeballs, Latakia sipped his latakia. He listened; he considered; he smoked. The darkness surrounded him, but he found some light in the strangest of places, inside his brain. Without a word to the others, he walked with purpose to the bash brothers and grabbed both their flashlights. He held one in each hand and lifted them skyward, grateful he still knew which way was up. The light fell on volcanic rock, magma that matched the floor below it. Nooks and crannies, straight out of an English Muffin, filled most of the ceiling, but not all of it. It spread out before him, almost low enough that he could touch it without any more than a reach, but behind him, the ceiling curved quickly skyward.
“If I was looking for a big treasure, I’d head to where the room is bigger,” he said, and he returned his attention to his pipe. “Boy, do I like this thing.”
Jose and Asia glanced at each other and shrugged with a “what the hell could it hurt” expression. Latakia spun on his heels and shot his finger into the darkness.
“Alright, on we go!”
He marched, the ringmaster leading the parade into the big top. The parade followed reluctantly and more cautiously than the baton twirler at the front. Latakia took no notice of the pillars that kept the ceiling away from the floor, but Asia checked them over for markings. The pipe-led hero strolled by rocks and holes and possible hiding places without looking twice, but Rose and Gylden checked for anything lurking. He walked straight into the light of one flashlight, while the others fought for the second one.
And then he stopped.
The flourish was definitely unneeded, but that’s why he did it. The spin, the deep bow with hat in hand, it was overkill at best. At worst, it was… Well, Latakia didn’t even consider “at worst,” first, because he thought it was funny, and, second, because he now stood with his back to an enormous staircase leading into the darkness and certainly on to their destination. To complete his miniature victory celebration, Latakia spun silently back to the steps and began climbing.
His companions were equally silent. For Rose and Gylden, it was probably a lack of vocabulary, but Asia and Jose were not known for their stoic composure and hesitation to speak. They were, however, predisposed to extreme disbelief in their cowboy friend being more capable in these conditions than they fancied themselves. Latakia had disappeared and Rose and Gylden were nearly vanished when Jose finally turned to Asia with words in his mouth.
“After this, you can have him. I don’t have enough room for me and his head.”
The stepped quickly to catch up, despite Jose’s persistent limp.
“I wouldn’t want to break up a happy marriage,” said Asia. “And you two are so cute together.”
Jose blew a facetious kiss at her. Then he squeezed her shoulder.
“Hurry up, you guys,” Latakia’s voice erupted from above their heads and beyond their sight. “You won’t believe how right I was.”
Totems are just gargoyles in layers, but there is something more ominous about them when lit only by flashlight. The deep shadows in every crevice gave the carved eyes sharp contrast, exposed the razor-sharp wings, and added a glisten to the stone. Asia’s startled shout echoed off the chiseled faces.
“They sure are ugly, aren’t they,” Latakia quipped.
Jose stepped up next to Asia.
And he screamed.
“Oh, it’s just you, Latakia,” he said. “Hey, nice carvings.”
Chris laughed at Asia. Asia laughed at Jose. Jose laughed at his own joke. Rose and Gylden might have laughed on the inside, but they didn’t let it show. That would have been unprofessional.
Latakia was still puffing on his pipe and looking quite satisfied with himself over it. The smoke danced in the flashlights’ glow as Latakia turned his attention back to the statuary.
“We have what looks like a sun here,” he said, “and combined with the expression on these faces… hmmm.”
Asia stared at him, her hands on her hips and a look of amusement she couldn’t hide.
“This line here,” Chris continued, “this is the most important, the way it curves up and then down and then up again. It reminds me of a squiggle. From this line, we can determine that this is the entrance to an ancient Aztec temple.”
“And how, exactly, can you tell that,” said Asia, no longer able to hide her incredulity.
Latakia stepped through the gateway and lit a match, holding it to a wooden torch on the wall. As he walked, he stopped periodically to light a new torch, and Asia stared in silence as the emerging light revealed twenty-foot-tall monoliths bordering a large room with an altar at its center.
“How… What…” Asia found that, in her astonishment, she couldn’t buy a complete sentence. “I…”
“You know he was probably already in there,” Jose said, but Asia was too flustered to notice.
Gylden bit a smirk from his lips. Jose saw it and smiled, but he let his friend keep this secret from Asia.
The monoliths stood tall and smooth, without ornamentation, which was in stark contrast with every other inch of carvable surface. Asia tried to mentally capture the images, but her memory was quickly overwhelmed. This find was worth a fortune, academically speaking, and she could spend a lifetime drawing the wealth from these walls.
Jose stood at the altar, probing it with his fingers.
“If they ever used this, they cleaned it really well,” he said.
“Well, Latakia, you’ve proven yourself worthy of a nickname,” Asia said. “I can’t believe you actually found it!”
Chris’s voice echoed from somewhere toward the back of the temple. “This isn’t the treasure!”
He was met with silence, and he waited through it until he felt their irritation.
“If I was going to hide a treasure, I build Disney World in front of it,” he said. “Consider this Space Mountain.”
Jose laughed. “So where is the treasure?”
Latakia stepped into the light, intentionally going for the dramatic effect. “It’s through the back door.”
He walked out of view, taking his torch’s light with him. The remaining adventurers fumbled for torches of their own, coming up completely empty. The soldiers, however, were prepared as always. Both of them filed out of the temple with flashlights blazing, and Gylden offered Asia a flare. With the added red glow, Asia saw the carvings in stark contrast. She outlined them all with her eyes, tracing the contours and taking guesses at their meanings.
“Jose, is that a falcon or a…” She turned, but Jose was gone. Her voice echoed off the walls for nobody but herself. Her eyes darted frantically for that back door. She found it tucked in behind two pillars, and she ran through it.
The tunnel walls were smooth, without anything more than a scratch, as if the walls were signifying she had changed direction and was now heading away from heaven’s embrace in the temple and straight into the jaws of hell. If it was hell, it didn’t want her to see anything, because the red glow on the walls was turning a dark maroon that Asia could barely see through.
And then the light went out.
Without letting an arm’s length between her and the wall, Asia let her hand guide her along, trusting the stone rising on both sides to guide her, eventually, to someone with a light. Remembering how quickly the ground fell away after her slide, though, Asia was taking her time, trying to feel the ground with her feet before taking the step. She hoped she’d catch up to them soon. She tried not to think about them already at the bottom of a pit somewhere ahead of her.
Just as she was getting settled in her system — rub hands, scuffle feet, take a small step, repeat — the walls disappeared. Of course, she already couldn’t see them, but now she couldn’t feel them either. She spread her feet, dropping gradually into a split, hoping her toes would find the walls that her hands couldn’t. She sniffed back a sob, and a moment later, the cave did the same. Maybe, she thought, just maybe she could channel the powers of a bat and find the walls through her own echoes.
“Hello?” she asked the darkness. Her raspy voice reflected off the cavern but gave her no clues.
“Hello,” she said, a little louder than before. Her echo was clear, but it told her nothing about where she should go.
“Hello!” she shouted, waiting to hear her voice come back to her. Instead, she heard only the flapping of wings and felt a rush of wind around her head. A high-pitched screech accompanied the onslaught, and Asia screamed along with it, cowering in the darkness.
A light blinded Asia. She pressed herself low to the ground and shielded her eyes. The light grew brighter or nearer. Either way, it was impossible for her to look at it directly. If she could have seen, she would have noticed that, behind the bright light, there was a dim red glow.
“I never realized you thought so highly of me that you’d bow at my feet.”
She looked up and could faintly make out the form of Latakia Billows, from his boots to that cowboy hat she hated so much.
“Not if you were the last man on earth,” she spouted.
“Not if you were the last man on earth, sir,” Latakia corrected.
Jose helped her to her feet, whispering some sort of apology, as Latakia and Rose’s flashlights turned back to the doorways they had been pondering.
Asia waved smoke away as she looked over his shoulder at three decorated doorways, each one adorned with a pair of animals. Asia took them in from left to right.
“The eagle snatches the serpent, the serpent strikes the wolf, and the wolf stalks the eagle,” she said. “It’s like a riddle.”
“More like a game of rock-paper-scissors,” Latakia said, “and it looks like there’s no best out of three.”
Rose lifted his flashlight above the door to show three large counter weights.
“As best we can guess,” Jose said, “when we open one door, two of the weights come down and seal the other doors.”
“Can we open all three at the same time?” Asia asked.
“We’ve tried,” Latakia said. “They won’t open if we push on more than one.”
Asia stared at the puzzle some more.
“So what do we do?”
Latakia took a puff on his pipe and filled the room with smoke.
“We pick a door.”
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