They halted in their tracks, pausing to listen, straining to hear anything.
When no sound followed, Danica asked with a whisper, “Why did you stop us?”
Hayden pointed to the wall before them, which seemed to divide their route into two equal paths, one left and one right. And because Hayden could see around the wall on both sides, both paths led to an equally large room behind.
But that was not what had attracted Hayden’s attention.
Directly before him was a large stone tablet with inscriptions deeply engraved and painted or repainted recently. The first thing he noticed was unlike all the previous inscriptions he had come in contact with by the tribe or its predecessors, this one was not done as a part of the structure itself. Nor was it bolted, attached or engraved into the wall, but it was done as a separate and individual slab leaned up against the outcropping of solid rock in which it rested, a few feet into this particular cave. It was composed of a lighter coloured mineral, with speckles of crystal, which stood out significantly as not having originated here.
Hayden cautiously approached, knelt down on one knee and began to examine it. He ran his fingers over the edges, around the sides and brushed away bits of dried sulfur powder and salt from inside grooves and where it had dried onto the previous wet paint.
Carlos and Danica stood back and waited patiently, as much as they could, but due to where they were standing, even fully armed, it was a tall order.
After a good two minutes, Danica was feeling a slight tremor of annoyance, laced lightly by fear, so she asked Hayden, impatience in her tone. “Does this thing have any significance or what? I mean, I’d really like to get this show on the road? Don’t you?”
Hayden, without turning, held two fingers up, gesturing to give him a few seconds. After a good minute, he replied. “Unlike the carvings above, this message was carved first and brought over here.”
“So?” Danica queried curiously. “Is it important?”
“Well, it says a lot to me.” Hayden stated, rising from his kneeling position. “It means whoever placed this here had no desire to be sitting here for any length of time doing the carving. They wanted to have it finished before coming to the island. This way, they could drop it off and leave it… and likely, very quickly.”
“Another good reason we shouldn’t be dilly dallying.” Carlos threw in, still tempering his fear, keeping the barrel of his shotgun high, unsure why. “Let’s get what we came for and get the Hell out of here.”
Danica turned to Carlos, trying to sound sympathetic, but knowing she had to state a fact. “We still have to go deeper you know?”
“I’m aware of that Doctor Swift.” Carlos bristled. “And that we came here to prevent your employers from getting the prize, and I plan to see it through. But standing here at the entrance and reading an ancient warning will not help us in the least.”
Danica turned back to Hayden. “Is that what it says?”
Hayden shrugged. “Pretty much. Same standard warning that the fluid of life comes at a high cost.” He gestured to the lower text. “But it also makes a special mention, which to me, almost reads like a fortune cookie.”
“What do you mean by that?” Danica asked.
Hayden repeated what he translated. “It reads, ’Ask yourself the value of an extra year or an extra lifetime and weigh it against what you find. You may discover, death offers a sweeter release than survival.”
Danica’s face scrunched up with surprise. “If I ever got a fortune cookie with that message, I’d probably shove it up the waiter’s butt.”
Carlos nodded. “I second that. Not a future I would look forward to.”
“It ends with, ’Let this Fountain of Life forever be forgotten.” Hayden finished.
Danica curled her left eyebrow. “It almost sounds like they are referring to the Fountain of Youth again?”
“I assure you, it’s not.” Carlos said emphatically.
“I agree. But I think the message is supposed to denote a different meaning.” Hayden responded.
“And that is?” Danica asked as she turned to Hayden.
Hayden hesitated and then offered his translation. “Paraphrased, I think it aims to say, ’Some things were never meant to be found.”
At that, Carlos turned to stare at Hayden’s face, realizing he was speaking seriously. He turned to the tablet. “It appears, even over the centuries, all who visit seem to voice the same thing.”
“And here we are, looking for it.” Hayden pointed out.
The trio remained quiet, none saying anything else.
What could they say.
They resumed their course into the cave.
As they moved, the trio changed up their positions. They maintained their triangular formation; now with Carlos at the front, Danica in the middle and Hayden at the rear as they delved deeper into the second cave system.
The flickering of the torch outside and orange glow on the stone walls started to pull back and fade away as they vanished deeper into the dark rocky expanse.
The trail inside was far less worn and beaten down than the one they took to get down to the lake. It was naturally jagged at points, smooth at others, with large bubble shaped pits the size of basketballs pressed deep in the rock face, both to the sides as well as the top and bottom, as though having been dribbled continually in a unending game until the divots were left as its signature.
The cave corridors were also smaller in size as the trio had to take most of them single file. Others were more narrow, enough so as to allow easy contact with both hands as they passed. At one point, they had to turn to their sides to slip through, Carlos muttering about lowering his bread intake when he returned home.
As they pressed on, not finding anything of note, the dread started flowing through their veins, both the fear of having found nothing and the concern they will. The sensation had a warm feel in their circulatory system, which resulted in the cooling of their outer skin, causing goose bumps to form. It also slowed their pulses and agitated their nerves erratically, causing the trio to become antsy, on edge, but ready to defend themselves.
Hayden had to set his safety back to the ‘on’ position, fearful he might pull the trigger at a wrong sound or someone in front of him coughing.
As they dropped over the next dip in the cave, almost immediately, Hayden raised his hand to his nose, lightly pinching it closed. “Do you smell that?” He sounded like he was speaking through a tube.
Danica turned back to him. “Why, did you express yourself?”
Hayden cocked his head with a grin, not releasing his nostrils. “If I did, you wouldn’t have to ask.” He paused to give her time to check for herself.
Both Carlos and Danica took a small whiff, afraid to breathe in too deeply. Both their noses scrunched up causing them to grimace.
“Wow. That is pungent.” Danica declared, putting her hand to her face. “It smells like a combination of food going bad and or moldy cheese.”
Carlos frowned, having a sudden feeling of Déjà vu, but no images came with it. “I smell something too, but it does not remind me of old clothes.” He took another small intake of air through his nostrils. “And not a cheese I would be serving to any guests.” He took one more small breath. “I can’t say for certain, but it reminds me of body odour… And not the good kind.”
“Is there ever a good kind?” Hayden asked.
Danica smiled. “You’d be surprised how a hot male body can smell alluring.”
Both Carlos and Hayden snapped a look in Danica’s direction.
“What?!” Danica glared at them both. “You asked.”
Hayden turned away, trying to force his one eyebrow down in intrigue at Danica’s last remark. He took another softer breath. “Whatever it is, it’s everywhere. It’s coming from practically every direction.” He pointed to several holes in the rock for air to pass above and beside them, too small to use for travel, but too large to ignore.
Danica suddenly felt fearful. “Like we’re surrounded?”
Carlos put his hand on Danica’s shoulder. “No. There’s no sound with it nor is the scent shifting in a way to denote an assailant in motion. With a smell such as that, if there was movement, it would heighten and lessen with its approach and egress. So whatever it is, it’s stationary and creating the off-putting stink.”
The trio tried to imagine what could generate the smell so powerfully and so easily.
No ideas came to them.
The trio continued deeper, trying very hard to ignore the stench.
Once around the next bend, to the right of the fork, Carlos placed his hand in front of Hayden to prevent him from stepping forward, gesturing to the ground.
Hayden stopped mid stride and looked. He knelt down and examined what Carlos had prevented him from stepping in.
It was one of the basketball holes which littered the entrance, but this one was filled with a blob of white jelly, slivers of yellow laced within it, extended up and out of the grove forming a bubble like lip around the edges.
Hayden tilted his head. “It looks like a balloon filled with a white liquid or something. And as it was half covered in dirt, it makes me think it was set as a trap.”
The trio immediately looked around for the unknown Sentinel. After thirty seconds, they determined they were alone.
“I don’t think it’s a liquid.” Carlos pointed to the ceiling.
Hayden and Danica looked skyward. There were two more such white pools, but upside down, not pouring out, glossy and shiny under the beams of their lights.
Danica stepped forward because this was more her area of expertise than theirs. She examined both pockets of white and then returned to the closer one on the ground. She extended her open hand and asked Hayden for one of his dirt brushes he used in excavation.
Hayden paused and handed it over reluctantly, unsure what she planned to do with it.
Danica wiped away most of the dirt, carefully caressing the top with the bristles, leaving the white half globe sticking up and in the air. She looked around the entire ball and surmised, “It’s gelatinous it seems on the inside, whatever it is.” She ran her finger over and around the edges, being very careful not to touch it. “But it’s encased in what seems like a permeable shell. Clear, soft and probably easy to break. The substance inside could be a liquid, but then again, it could be a gas. And who knows what would happen when exposed to air.” Danica stood up. “And I’m not too keen to puncture it in these conditions without knowing more about it.”
Hayden was not listening. He was reaching for the second one on the ceiling.
Danica grabbed his hand and pulled it down with a violent tug. “What are you doing?”
Hayden jerked his arm away a bit miffed. “I was…”
“You were going to do what I just suggested might not be wise?” Danica cut him off with authority. “Plus how do we know that’s not the Horror itself?”
Hayden dropped his hands to his sides. “I doubt it.”
“I doubt it too.” Danica stated. “But since we still have no idea what IT is, let’s not go poking anything we don’t recognize until we’re certain.”
Hayden chastised himself for what he almost did. ‘Good advice.’
Danica shook her head and they got back into formation.
The trio carefully stepped over the bubbles of white and continued downward until they found a pile of old ripped and torn clothing in front of a dark cave opening. It hung haphazardly on the ground, looped over an outcropping of rock.
Danica moved to the front of the group, dropped down and examined the strange patch of material. She picked it up using the wooden pointed end of Hayden’s brush.
It was a deep cherry red, not bigger than a small hand towel, with white stitching, worn down from years of wear, with several rips and holes in it. There were several small holes and with each opening, a dark stain surrounded it.
“It’s old.” Danica noted. She held it up to her face and sniffed lightly. “It smells like… copper.”
“Copper?” Carlos asked. “From the lake?”
“Could be, but unlikely.” Danica rose. “But I more suspect its blood. Not entirely fresh, but not too old either.” As she stood, she took a gentle step back, unaware of the loose shale beneath her tread. A small chunk of stone collapsed beneath her heel, taking her off balance. Danica fell backwards into the cave opening, disappearing into the darkness, rolling back over shoulder, three full rolls, her shoulders taking the full brunt of each rock she passed over, until she came to a complete stop at the bottom with a muscle wrenching crash.
Carlos and Hayden were in quick pursuit, chasing her spinning light beams down the forty-five degree incline until they found themselves at her feet.
Carlos extended his hand and helped Danica up.
It was then they realized they were standing in a much larger chamber than the rock corridors they had traveled down to get here.
It was as wide as half a football field, the ground clear of debris, but smelling of animals.
Hayden noticed it right away. “Now it smells like a barn. Combined with B.O.”
Carlos had not noticed, more concerned with other matters. He asked Danica. “Are you okay Doctor Swift?”
Hayden suddenly realized. “I’m sorry.” Feeling genuinely remorseful at his tact. “Did you hurt anything?” Looking to Danica.
“Just my pride.” Danica had picked herself up, brushing off dirt and rocks. She noticed a corner of her shirt had ripped. She put her finger through the tear, but before she could examine it, they all heard it.
Deep, slow and heavy. Very clearly, something breathing. A lot of something breathing. Laboured, tight and from all around them.
And it was easy to determine, it was not their own.
Within seconds, all three had their weapons drawn and at ready. They triangle stance formed, each staring out in a different direction, but covering off any form of frontal assault.
All three of them aimed their lights upward and around the huge cave, dimly illuminating the entire structure.
The chamber was massive as they suspected. Standing at over one hundred metres tall, dry and yet muggy, it was an odd combination of shapes and worse, smelling of animals.
The walls were filled with holes, crevices, caves and exits to both deeper into the island or higher into the mountaintop. It looked like a combed hive with the exception there were no honey or bees.
Carlos was looking for it, having heard the intake and outtake of breaths, yet holding his own. His body shivered uncontrollably. He quickly grasped at his arm to regain a semblance of control, but moreover, to prevent himself from pulling the trigger.
The trio stood back to back and waived their lights over the holes. Many of them were filled, all with large furry balls, moving up and down in a slow repetitive pattern, bodies of animals breathing, sleeping deeply, all facing inward into their natural dug homes.
Hayden let his beam settle on the closest one. “You’ve got to be kidding me? Bears? The Horror is a mountain full of bears?” He laughed quietly. “And they’re not even big bears. The biggest one I see is about the size of a Labrador at best.”
Carlos on the other hand was trying to remember. He had no recollection of bears being on the island. But then again, he could not remember anything. If anytime was a good time to have a flashback, he was hoping for one now.
Carlos theorized if there were enough of them, they could be a murderous pack, chomping and ripping away on his flesh, but he doubted he would have been institutionalized for decades because of bear attacks.
Combined with, how would they have anything to do with his miraculous survival? It did not make any sense.
Carlos whispered to Hayden. “Do you think it’s wise to be beaming our lights into their sleeping quarters?”
Hayden replied. “You heard the tribe. They sleep for months at a time. Plus bears are extremely heavy sleepers. Most hibernating animals are not disturbed by light.” He lowered his goggle lights, seeing it was disconcerting to Carlos.
Carlos shivered. “Well for the sake of decorum, let’s try not to wake them up.”
Danica on the other hand stared in quiet contemplation, her eyes squinting under the beams of her lights, slowing running her examination over the forms, some too high up even for the best bears to climb, the hairs on the back of her neck rising.
Something was wrong.
Terribly, terribly wrong.