Episode XIV: Right and Wrong
Three doors and one chance, and eeny, meeny, miny, moe just didn’t seem like it would cut it.
“The eagle snatches the serpent, the serpent strikes the wolf, and the wolf stalks the eagle.” It was becoming a mantra, and Asia repeated it in her head much more frequently than she did aloud.
The problem with this rock-paper-scissors idea was that any of them could be right at any given time. She looked again for clues, but there were none. Against her better judgment, she tried eeny, meeny, miny, moe, throwing in what her “mother said to pick”, just for good measure. At the end, her finger pointed to a picture of a snake biting a wolf. Latakia had said they just needed to pick a door, so she reached for it.
“That’s not the right one.”
Asia had almost forgotten Latakia was in the room until his voice pierced his own cloud of smoke.
“And I suppose you somehow translated all the glyphs in this place to learn the right answer?” she shot back at him.
“Didn’t need to.” He kept smoking, as if there wasn’t a discussion going on at all.
“So which one is it?”
“The eagle, of course.”
“And by what stretch of logic brought you to that conclusion?”
Latakia stood up as tall as he could, pushing his chin up and his shoulders back. He held his pipe at his chest in his best Sherlockian pose, as if he had been practicing for just such an occasion.
“The figures of the eagle, the serpent and the wolf appear nowhere in the temple carvings, but the predominance of the solar image indicates this to be a sky-worshiping people,” he said in his most scholarly voice. “Therefore, we can deduce that the eagle would be a sacred animal and the adornment fitting for a door leading safely along the path.”
Asia took no effort to hide her gape-jawed expression. Jose filled the chamber with echoing laughter.
“A Cowboy picks the Eagles to win!” he roared. “I’ve seen it all now!”
Latakia smirked, shook his head, and walked over to the door. Calmly, he stood facing his friends, extended a hand backward, and pushed the door open.
A rumbling erupted from the other two doors, as they watched the counterweights lift into the air. It was followed by the sound of something heavy thudding into the dirt. Without trying, they knew they couldn’t open those doors now.
No one moved, turning purple slowly as they held their breath, waiting for something else, anything, to happen. Latakia rolled his eyes with impatience, and, with a sigh, stepped through the doorway. Still, no one followed. From the other side of the door, he called back to them.
“I guess there will just be more treasure for me!”
The soldiers inched forward first, aiming their flashlights as if they might try to shoot them. They slid through the open doorway and examined the room. Rose’s flashlight fell on something hanging from the ceiling, and he grunted something to Gylden. Suspended above the unopened doorway was a large, hinged set of spikes, carved to an excruciatingly pointed tip, and there was a second next to it, both ready to fall if someone opened either of those doors.
Latakia turned in time to see the illuminated death trap and gasped for air. He had no doubt that he’d have been able to overcome any little obstacle they put in his way thousands of years ago. If he had chosen the wrong door, he now realized, he would have also been mistaken about his chances to survive it.
Jose and Asia, knowing Latakia best, and therefore trusting him least, were the last through the door. They wouldn’t have been the least surprised if St. Peter was standing on the other side to welcome them to the afterlife. He wasn’t. Neither was Lucifer, so they breathed easier and let their hearts slow the tempo.
This cavern showed no evidence of carving. It was a gift of the mountain, a natural extension of the tunnel. Nature had given the workers a break.
Numerous wooden baskets, the first evidence that humans had actually been here, that these caverns were any more than inexplicable geological accident or the result of some alien or deist intervention. To Asia’s practiced eye, the few tools — basket and polls and pulleys — appeared as if they had been used for transporting rather than constructing. Whatever the reason, there had been activity here.
Jose, having found the walls adorned with torches, was lighting every other one.
“Just in case we need some on the way back,” he said.
The light was brighter than their eyes could take. A couple flashlights provided a substantial glow in the pitch, but a half dozen torches blanketed walls and ceiling and floor and faces.
But the flame didn’t illuminate every corner, every nook and cranny. There were still corners, deep corners where shadow still ruled. Jose still wasn’t fond of shadows. He didn’t trust them and wanted them all destroyed, but a few torches and a pair of flashlights won’t do that for you, not all at once. So Jose took it upon himself to tackle the shadows one at a time.
Latakia was on one knee, examining some lines drawn in the dirt. They were straight lines leading away from the temple. Parallel lines on the left and right appeared and vanished, but the “center” line, which alternated to the right or left of the pattern without actually moving, remained as straight and constant as the arrows that had flown at them outside the mountain.
Jose had covered about half the nooks, exposing them with the brilliantly white flashlight. He hadn’t found anything but stone and dirt. His inability to find anything, though, hadn’t kept his breathing calm or his heart beating andante.
He flicked the light over to the next shadow, always starting at the ground. He figured that no matter how tall someone hiding in the shadows might be, they would always have to have their feet on the floor. He let out a nervous sigh as the light revealed absolutely nothing, but he still lifted the beam, just in case.
Knee high… nothing.
Waist high… nothing.
Chest high… nothing.
Head high… not nothing.
Jose fell backward and scrambled in retreat while still trying to keep his light focused on the face. It was black, with white eyes and lips, very much like the makeup used in the 20s when a white men pretended to be black. But there was nothing there apart from the head, and Jose was already keenly aware that he was still the only one to see anyone besides the five of them. He gathered himself to examine it again.
As he walked toward it, he decided it was stone, but it might have been petrified wood. He walked closer, training the light on it at all times, and he could see where time had worn the edges smooth. He pulled his face close, looking at the texture on the chin and jaw. He tried to avoid the mask’s eyes, but it was a battle he lost, and he found himself staring directly into the hypnotic stone gaze.
The mask blinked.
Jose didn’t bother to make sure his feet were touching the ground as he careened across the cavern and into his friends, plowing through them as if they were bowling pins.
Latakia picked himself off the ground to the accompaniment of his own joke.
“I’ll have what he’s having.”
“That only works when you’re talking about someone who’s actually having something,” Asia replied.
“Well, I haven’t seen him do that since some of our wild college days,” Latakia said, “so I repeat, I’ll have what he’s having.”
Rose cleared his throat until he had everyone’s attention. He had reached Jose, who was curled into a ball in the corner furthest from where his mad dash started, eyes covered tightly by his hands and his hat, forcing muffled screams through the brim.
Latakia had made out the word “face” and sprinted in the direction of Jose’s starting point. He found the mask and put his face right next to it for close inspection. It looked rather uninteresting and stiff. He poked the mouth. He prodded the cheeks. He put his finger hard into the eye.
Asia arrived next, offering her scholarly eye on the object.
“It’s a traditional Aztec mask,” she said over her shoulder to a still shaking Jose, venturing closer but hidden behind the two soldiers.
“I swear to you, it blinked!” Jose protested in a shouted whisper. He didn’t want to be the one to wake that thing up again.
Asia and Latakia exchanged a look that said they were worried the caves were getting to their friend.
“I’m not crazy,” Jose blurted, “and I can keep going.”
Defiantly, he marched off into the darkness. The others scrambled to catch up until they found him standing next to a wide underground river. Scanning with his light, Rose found a boat in the dirt next to the water. Asia noticed the sign.
“I think this says danger,” she said, “but it only seems to suggest danger if we go left.”
Latakia had a stick in the water to test its depth, but all he could feel was the current’s pull.
“That’s the way the waters flowing, and fast,” he said. “I wonder which way the treasure is.”
“Well, it’s not across the river,” Jose offered. “There’s nothing over there but rocks.”
“The boat will hold us all,” said Rose, adding his rare contribution to the conversation.
Both soldiers were standing in the boat, and there looked to be enough room for all of them, though maybe with a bit of a squeeze. It looked seaworthy enough, even after all the years.
“Now we see what made those tracks,” Latakia said. “So it would seem no one has walked through here since the boat was put in.”
“Or someone made it look that way,” Jose interjected. “Did you find any footprints?”
“Then who dragged the boat here?”
The adventurers stood puzzled while the soldiers put the boat in the water and anchored it to the shore with a line. It floated. They didn’t care why the boat was there, only that it was there, and they planned to put it to good use.
Timidly, each one stepped into the boat, taking their time to test how it responded to their weight. Latakia was the least careful, though. The last one in, he bounced, and then hopped. Even he wouldn’t go more than a sliver off the surface, though. Asia tried asked the logical question.
“So how do we paddle up the…”
They all looked up, and there, in the beam of Jose’s flashlight, was an unmistakable Aztec Indian holding a bow in one hand and a spear in the other. The soldiers reached for their guns. Latakia drew his blade.
And with one smooth slice, he severed the rope holding the boat, and its passengers, to the shore. They immediately started floating toward what the sign had promised they would not enjoy.
“Paddle,” Asia screamed.
“With what?” Jose shouted back.
“There’s an oar,” Gylden said, stretching out toward the shore to retrieve it. “I can’t reach.”
Latakia tried to tie a rope around his machete, but he wasn’t quick enough. First the oar disappeared behind a rock wall, and then the Aztec. The roar of the river drowned out their profanities, but they did allow a scream to escape. Latakia was pointing a flashlight downstream, but there wasn’t a downstream to illuminate, just some foam and a dropoff. The river was headed deeper into the mountains, the hard way, and they had no choice but to follow it all the way down.
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