“What is it?” Danica asked.
Hayden looked down at Danica’s Smartphone and reexamined the symbol. “The map tells us to turn left, while the symbol tells us to turn right.”
Carlos interrupted. “Go with the map. Remember, the tribe who guards the island doesn’t want people on it. So they will use any trickery to deceive the searchers. The tribe’s chamber you found were not concerned with the original mission, only the story, so I will assume theirs to be correct.”
“That and you’re not giving the tribe many points for intelligence.” Danica pointed out.
“How so?” Hayden replied, shocked at her assumption.
“Ever hear of reverse psychology.” Danica retorted. “Show someone something with the intention they do the other. Deception One Oh One.”
Hayden had to chastise himself as she was right. ‘I won’t tell her that though.’
Carlos directed Hayden and Danica to the recent scuff marks on the ground. “Plus it appears the Thornes went right as the tribe noted, so they trusted the symbol before us.”
Hayden smiled. “Then left it is.”
Over the next three hours, the group descended downward, slow at first, but getting steadily faster at certain points.
Danica caught her hand on a rock as she climbed down over an outcropping of jagged stones, which Hayden leapt over with some ease.
Carlos followed suit.
So far, the trio had not used any of the ropes or rock penetration equipment. Obviously the tribe over the centuries had smoothed out the path for easier traversing. This was evidenced by the fact a large pile of boulders had been brought down to fill a small chasm before them.
Danica imagined it would have taken months, if not longer, to carry that much stone down here, but then again, the tribe, if anything, had time on their hands.
Danica’s Smartphone chirped from the front.
“What’s that?” Danica queried.
Hayden held the device aloft. “We just lost our cell phone service.”
Danica continued her forward motion. “Did the bars at the top of the screen vanish?”
“No.” Hayden replied. “My call with Mistress Kitten was cut off mid-sentence. She was about to tell me I deserved a spanking. By the way, are there roaming charges on 9-7-6 numbers for your phone?”
Carlos suppressed a grin.
Danica on the other hand was thinking. ‘More like deserving a good punch.’
The trio maintained their pace for another three hours, making their way down through the maze of caves, descending two more sets of natural stairs, ignoring carved signs depicting certain directions which were in direct opposition to the three dimensional map they carried with them, past hidden corridors, dead ends and the occasional pitfall on their course into the depths of the earth.
Twice they shimmied along rock ledges and once had to jump over a small crevice with thin rivulets of steam rising out, laced by a foul scent of dead animals.
“I’m surprised there are no bats.” Hayden commented.
“For God’s Sake....” Danica snapped. “The last thing I need to be worried about is bats. Let’s try to avoid talking about other monsters down here besides the Horror.”
“I highly doubt bats qualify as monsters.” Hayden rebutted. “Most don’t even drink blood.”
“But they love hair.” Danica noted, pushing the strands of her hair up and under her cap.
The trio continued on.
Surprisingly, the deeper they got, the easier the trail became to transverse, with the exception of being extremely long. The paths got much smoother with less gaps, cracks or openings to fall into. But they were making good time.
Hayden had to admit, now in the cave system, had they not had the map, it could have taken weeks to make their way down and they’d have probably given up long before succeeding.
Hayden reached the next junction and stared at the new symbol inset into the wall with dismay. He double checked Danica’s Smartphone screen. “This is odd.”
“What’s odd?” Danica asked stepping to the front.
Hayden gestured to the symbol. “The past dozen or so we passed directed us in the wrong direction. This one is telling us the correct one?”
“Reverse, reverse psychology.” Carlos inserted. “Once you pass some signs and follow them blindly and then you realize each time, you were going the wrong way, what would you do next?” He pointed to the signs direction. “More likely than not, you would ignore the direction on the signs going forward and do the opposite. But at this point, with the signs now being accurate, you would eventually have to assume none of the signs can be trusted, and of course, even more time wasted.”
Hayden grinned. “I’m starting to like this tribe more and more.”
The trio resumed their course, this time, in the direction the sign pointed.
Four more hours and they had to stop for food, drink and more importantly rest to recharge their reserves. At least Hayden and Danica did.
Carlos was standing as Danica and Hayden munched away on bags of nuts, raisins and dried fruit. “I find one thing curious Doctor Lattimer.” Carlos posed the question as the trio rested.
“And what is that?” Hayden replied.
“Your skill set. Based on your tribal knowledge and interpreting skills, you would think you would be more suited to the study of anthropology as opposed to archeology.” Carlos stated it as more of a fact than a question.
Danica turned to listen, chewing on a mouthful of granola.
“I studied both facets.” Hayden responded, not thinking anything of it. “But I found the ancient study of tribes and their ancestors to be more intriguing from a structural perspective. The physical discoveries of their civilizations were more attractive than the evolutionary growth of their cultures. So I focused more on the archeology side in that regard.”
“I see.” Carlos responded.
“Don’t get me wrong.” Hayden defended. “I still studied anthropology. As I needed it to understand the foundations of the culture and more importantly, their language. I can’t use a map if I can’t read it. Archeology taught me how to locate the physical history first and use that to delve into the anthropology second.”
Carlos nodded, satisfied with the answer.
After a good half hour of rest, the trio resumed their course.
The last leg of their journey was only an additional forty-five minutes as they reached the base of the seventh set of stairs.
Hayden was impressed they actually appeared like stairs, many of which seemed to have been smoothed down by wear, tear and hard work.
At the bottom, they could see a large opening in the rock face before them. It was a gaping yaw shaped like a giant upside down “U”, a rounded point at the top and widening to ten feet at the ground. The entire portal was carved with numerous etchings, symbols and drawings.
“What do they mean?” Danica asked, already suspecting it as they approached.
Hayden barely paused as he glanced up and resumed his course. “Several statements, written in numerous ways, but basically all saying the same thing. ‘Turn back now or forever forfeit your life.’”
“Or at least thirty years of it.” Carlos softly added.
Hayden and Danica decided not to comment on that.
The trio walked under and through the upside down ‘U’ and found themselves frozen in their tracks, staring up and around in absolute astonishment.
Even Carlos who had been there before was mesmerized as the last time he was here was well over a hundred years ago.
The cavern was enormous in size. The gloom and darkness vanishing in every direction. Even the trio’s powerful lights were sucked into the blackness like luminesce consuming parasites filled the air. The grey sand and rock covered ground ran in every direction for miles. Dozens of large stone pilasters, naturally formed, some several feet in circumference and in immediate proximity, grew from floor to ceiling, creating a base of support for the roof far above. More could be seen in the distance. So many more, Hayden lost count.
As the trio continued forward, they could hear the gentle bubbling of cooking water. They cautiously advanced, unsure of the source until the lights of their combined headgear converged and revealed the lake before them.
The lake was equally as large as the cave, completely filling the space in front of them, circling off and into the night. The water was yellow in colour, exactly as depicted in the chamber model, with a somewhat mucous appearance to its tint, milky and cloudy beneath, with pockets of bubbles bursting up at dozens of individual points along the surface, filling the room with hot air and the stench of rotten eggs.
“It’s awesome.” Was all Danica could state with stunned shock.
Even Hayden found himself hard pressed not to whistle. “You can say that again.”
Carlos stepped to his friends’ side. “This cavern is over five miles wide. It took my men over five days to scout the area. The lake is approximately four miles across in almost every direction, but not a complete circle” He took a breath as the memories trickled back. He actually found himself shaking with nervousness. “I swear the memory just came back to me and for some unknown reason, I know it to be right.”
Danica smiled to Carlos, gently touching his forearm. “I believe you.”
“And our island?” Hayden asked, interrupting their moment.
Carlos pointed across the lake, into the nothingness. “It’s out there. Half a mile and like everything else, it’s big. It’s about a mile and a half wide and equally as tall.”
Hayden stared into the blackness. “Lovely.”
“Not the word I would have chosen.” Carlos replied with precision, offering nothing more, as his memories were thinning now.
The trio turned in the island’s direction. Even with the combined luminesce of their six optical beams; the light was quickly absorbed, revealing nothing of the mysterious island.
Danica looked skyward at the dozen or so rock columns close to her as their tops were sucked into the twilight of the ceiling above. Several more columns in their visual range grew up from the lake itself, all tasked to hold up the gigantic structure. Though not a structural engineer, she found the creation of a cavern this size and being supported for this long inspiring. She pivoted her gaze downward to Hayden and Carlos. “So how do we get across? I recall the Elder making mention of some boats.”
Carlos turned, his lights lowering to the water’s edge, near to the left.
Positioned comfortably were three watercraft.
Each boat was seven feet in length, two feet wide and well built. All three boats appeared to be crudely carved canoes, each sporting two oars and a stick, the purpose of the stick was unknown. They had drag marks running from the water’s edge, in numerous deep rooted grooves following up to the rims, clearly denoting the boats were used recently.
Carlos casually walked over and lifted one with ease. “It’s very lightweight.” He ran his hand over the bottom. “The base is soaked with a thin crystal medium, embedded into the wood to make it more durable and resistant to the heat of the lake.”
Coming to the lip of the water’s edge, Danica smelled the heated liquid. Her nose scrunched up. ‘Sulfur?’
Hayden knelt down beside her and stared into the bubbling yellow froth. “I can barely see through it. It looks like chicken soup.”
“Don’t scoop up yourself a bowl.” Danica commented. She reached for a handful of gravel off the ground and tossed it forward onto the top of the water. It landed and for several seconds, it seemed to float, followed by it slowly sinking into the broth and vanishing beneath the yellow depths. “It has a small amount of viscosity, meaning it is somewhat thicker than water, but not by much.” She stood. “Technically speaking, a living thing could tread in it, but not for long. The prolonged heat would drain the swimmer of energy pretty fast. That and combined with its mild density, it would make swimming more laborious than in natural water.” Danica had one positive point to add. “The advantage of the water’s consistency is a boat would be less likely to sink in it.”
“Whoopee.” Hayden raised his thumbs with a sarcastic twist.
Carlos remained standing. “How does a lake turn into…?” He paused to frown. “..into this?” He gestured to the steaming water, small condensations of fog running over the top and escaping into the distance.
Danica waved her hand and swept it up and around the lake within her view. “Most likely, due to the depth of the earth we’re at, I’d suspect a strong magma flow underneath us.”
Hayden’s eyes widened as he stood up quickly. “Are you referring to a volcano?”
“Absolutely not.” Danica replied countering the argument before it could begin. “Magma is always flowing beneath the crust of the earth. Just in this case, probably a little closer than most. And with the flushing heat, it probably causes large amounts of natural geothermal power to be excreted. Most of the energy and heat would be absorbed by the rock and displaced, but energy always seeks out the path of least resistance and with a water based medium nearby such as this lake, it would be a perfect target.”
Carlos found himself impressed with Danica’s scientific knowledge.
Danica drew from her pocket a thin strip of blue paper, no bigger than a matchstick.
“What’s that?” Hayden asked, moving around to watch what Danica was doing.
“Litmus paper.” Danica replied.
“You carry that everywhere?” Hayden queried curiously.
“Of course I do.” Danica answered confidently. “I’m a scientist.”
Hayden whispered to Carlos. “If I haven’t told you yet, she’s a bit of a nerd.”
“I heard that.” Danica shot back. She dipped the paper in and quickly drew it back out. The portion that had been submerged had turned light red, closer to pink.
“What does that mean?” Carlos asked, genuinely interested.
Danica rose and tossed the paper aside. “It means this entire lake is some type of natural occurring acid. Unsure what kind. Not a very strong PH level, but I still wouldn’t swim in it.”
“An acid lake?” Hayden mocked. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Danica moved toward the boats, motioning for Carlos to help her drag it toward the water. “It’s not all that uncommon. In fact, in Indonesia, there is the Kawah Ijen Lake. The water has a turquoise color with emerald tints. According to documentaries, the lake consists of hydrogen chloride, sulfuric acid, aluminum sulphate and iron sulphate. A rather nasty mix if you ask me.”
Hayden stepped in beside her and took a sniff. His nose wrinkled up. “Well this only smells like sulfur.”
Danica lifted the rear end of the boat, Carlos still holding the front as they moved toward the water’s edge, Hayden taking up the middle.
Danica continued. “That’s good. The milder the better. The last thing we need is sulfur dioxide in here. Even with a five mile open expanse and likely lots of crevices, cracks and fissures in the rock to dissipate the air, it would be irritating on our respiratory system.”
Carlos looked down at the water as he approached it. “Is it deadly?”
Danica shook her head. “It’s nowhere near the strength of sulfuric acid, but again, no dipping our feet in.”
The trio set the boat in the water.
Danica hopped in first and took to the front.
Hayden held back. “The cool kids are always at the rear.”
Danica thought to herself. ‘So are the assholes.’
Carlos on the other hand, stood at the back of the boat, on the beach. He was breathing deeply and carefully, but not yet getting in. He could feel flitters of memories coming back to him, dancing across his brain, some with flashes and others, he was sure were warnings. He declared, “I’m not sure what I fear most. What is actually there or what I can’t remember and think is there.”
Danica stared forward to the darkness. “Well we know one thing for certain.”
“And what’s that?” Hayden queried.
“Whatever is on that island, this Horror, it must be a living thing.” Danica surmised.
“And how do you come to that assumption?” Hayden looked surprised.
“If it were a ghost, a demon or Legion as you implied, a lake of acid would not be able to contain it.” Danica pointed to the open expanse of the cave with only rock pilasters impeding flying traffic.
Hayden mocked. “I assume you got this from your ’Encyclopedia of natural weapons to use against Biblical enemies.’”
Danica glared in Hayden’s direction. “You know, you can be really asinine sometimes.”
“You don’t need to remind me of my strengths.” Hayden retorted.
Carlos smiled, stepping into the boat, his companions’ arguments amusing him, letting his confidence return knowing who he was with and how safe he felt in their company.
Danica turned back to the blackness ahead of them and replied to Hayden. “I may not know what is on the island, but I do know natural selection. And in my mind, this prison, and that’s what I’d call it, is nature’s way of declaring whatever is on that island is meant to stay there.”
Hayden pushed the boat off the shore and into the water. “Unless it’s an island of vampires? According to myths, they cannot cross water which is constantly running.”
Danica stared at Hayden, her eyes slowly rolling, thinking to herself, sometimes, she felt she picked the wrong ally.
Within minutes, the trio was sailing across the bubbling hot waters toward the island, their boat, oars and lights vanishing into the blackness of the Eternal Night as they approached.
All hoping for the best, but fearing the worst.