The Pit of Decay
In all that time, no one saw Kurtis. It seemed the earth had swallowed him up - nothing unusual in his case, after all.
“Lara.” The Turkish girl murmured nervously as she reviewed for the umpteenth time a kilometric list with everything they needed. “We need logistical support.”
“Yes, we need technical support. Someone who knows how to tinker with computers and can get in touch via Internet or phone within seconds. Cappadocia is an isolated wilderness, you know, where we won’t have many luxuries...I need an expert in computers and communications to keep us in touch with the rest of the world. Ivanoff has offered to be our remote library if we need information about the Nephili - in these years he’s grown to become an expert... and of course, as there’s no way out of Bran for him, we must overcome the barrier...well.” She concluded, hysterical. “Do you know someone who can lend us a favour?”
Lara was smiling for a while, inspired. “Sure. I know the perfect person.”
“He’s named Zip.”
“Zip? That’s not a name!”
“True, and he’s kind of a clown. But he’ll do. Trust me.”
After two weeks, despite Selma’s despairing, everything was ready.
Zip appeared when they were about to leave, arriving late as usual. He got off the bus with a jump, carrying his new laptop, a backpack, and nonchalantly chewing gum. Selma was startled at seeing him: “Where did you find this guy? The Bronx ghetto?”
But as he approached, Zip saluted cheerfully: “Well, well, Lara! How long it’s been, girl! Seems like only yesterday we screwed with old Von Croy with the Iris robbing, huh? And you as pretty as ever!” With an intolerable brashness, the man smacked two sonorous kisses on Lara’s cheeks and then turned to look curiously at Selma: “Speaking about beautiful women, what are my eyes looking at? From which harem has this odalisque escaped?”
“Name’s Selma Al-Jazeera, and I’m your boss.” She replied sharply, outraged by his brazen attitude.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, the doll got spirit! Happy to be at your service, beautiful Selma.” He said, kissing her hand slyly.
“Told you.” Lara said moments later, while rummaging around in the Jeep. Selma didn’t answer. When she looked at her, Lara found, in surprise, that she’d blushed to the ears.
It was the second time Lara visited Cappadocia, but its beauty hit her like the first time her eyes scanned over those impossible rock formations, those mounds of volcanic rock rubbed and worn down by time. Selma sat back and closed her eyes, remembering...unfortunately, not every memory was nice.
“So this is Cappadocia.” Zip muttered, while chewing gum, from the back seat. “And we’ll have coverage here?”
“Hopefully.” Lara said, turning the wheel to avoid a cow cast on the road. “People live here, after all.”
The archaeological dig was terribly neglected. When they arrived, Selma rushed to air out all the barracks for accommodation. Lara came to the entrance of the necropolis, expecting to see the door barred. But to her surprise, the tunnel was open.
“I’ve been taking a look.”
Lara whirled. There he was, lounging against his rusty motorbike. How had she not seen him before? His stealthiness was irritating.
“Selma was right.” He continued, puffing on his cigarette. “It was worth disappearing to see you running after us.”
She was determined not to let him irritate her, and said as if casually: “Where have you been?”
“Why, M’lady? Did you miss me?”
Tight-lipped, Lara held back an angry reply. He’d have to work harder to provoke her. Ostentatiously turning around, she prepared to enter the tunnel, when Zip’s cry stopped her: “Hey, Kurt! What the hell you doin’ here?”
Lara turned around, shocked. Zip had trotted down the slope and warmly greeted Kurtis, who was also stunned to see him there. “Glad to see no Gorgon got ya! How’s life?”
“Wait.” Lara interrupted. “You know each other?”
“That’s what I was gonna ask.” Kurtis muttered, looking from one to another.
“Who doesn’t know the beautiful Lara Croft? I had the honour of working with her a while back...you’re a lucky girl to have a guy like Kurt! Now we’re safe for sure hahaha...”
She didn’t stay to hear the end of the sentence. Furious, she entered the tunnel, leaving them behind. So they know each other! Just what I need!
Soon the camp was placed on the dusty plain at the foot of Cappadocia’s rock formations. A team of workers trained by volunteer students and young practitioners, masterfully conducted by Selma, were responsible for removing the dirt and clearing the way for Lara and her equipment. In total they were a group of over twenty people, including Zip, Selma, Kurtis and Lara. The hacker, convinced that all he’d have to do was to spend all day aside in front of his laptop screen, was shocked when also asked to dig.
“Whaaaaaat?” Protested Zip. “I’m a nerd, I ain’t no archaeologist, field work ain’t for me...”
“Seal it, Zip.” Answered both who heard him.
The first task was to clear the tunnels and galleries of the necropolis which had been sealed after the last campaign, and try to reach the legendary city below - the city of the Nephili, where the Lux Veritatis once fought and defeated Eckhardt.
The first weeks were almost exclusively for the team of volunteers. Lara, who couldn’t stand being idle, oversaw all work together with Selma, until everyone got used to having two rather than one patron. Kurtis was considerably helpful because of his muscular build. The only lazy one to guilt there was Zip, who spent many days having fun with his new laptop until Selma found an interesting task for him, consisting of carrying buckets of earth to sift them into a nearby creek.
At the third week they were able to access the first burial chamber. Lara stroked those concave niches and said to her partner: “Shouldn’t we remove them?”
“Too expensive.” Selma sighed. “And not sure if it’s safe...I prefer not to risk it.”
The volunteers watched the bare bodies in awe and some took notes excitedly. Lara saw a nearby tunnel and said: “Look, this corridor was where I met Kurtis after meeting you. And here we set the trap for Gunderson’s men.”
Selma laughed, remembering the details of that event.
“And where we found manticores.” A deep voice said behind her.
Lara’s smile faded. “Do you think those bugs are still here?”
“Probably.” Kurtis said. “And that’s why it’s better both Lara and me go together, just in case.” He added, looking at Selma.
Once again, Lara felt upset. Although Selma was officially the leader of the excavation, it should be assumed it was Lara who made the decisions there, not Kurtis. However, she bit her tongue to hold a rough rebuke, since, after all, he’d been sensible.
Three days after an excavator announced they had located a tunnel, which abruptly ended in a black abyss where no light beam reached – fitting with the map mark - so it was time for Lara to get into action.
“You sure?” Selma murmured, helping Lara to adjust the last harnesses to descend through the hole, while some volunteers were illuminating them. The young archaeologist was doubtful because from that pit came such a horrible stench of putrefaction that no one wanted to imagine what could be rotting down there.
But things like that couldn’t scare Lara. “Don’t worry.” She said. “We may be on the walls of the city. No time to lose.”
Kurtis, also equipped, was squatting by the edge of the hole, making everyone nervous with his reckless attitude. They didn’t know Kurtis was able to fall from great heights without injuring himself, but even if they had known, they wouldn’t have believed.
Lara finally stood up, satisfied, and cast her eyes around, smiling at those young workers pressed against the tunnel wall and covering their nose and mouth with cloths, unable to bear that grave stench of which she was more than used to. Among them she saw Zip, who seemed about to faint.
“Won’t you wish me luck?” She said sarcastically.
“With him as a partner, you’re more than safe, babe.” He replied in the same tone.
Lara groaned at the inconvenience of the comment. Fortunately, Kurtis didn’t seem to hear that. He was staring into the blackness of the pit, as if the strong smell didn’t bother him either.
At the end, she’d her reasons to go down to the city, but which were Kurtis’ reasons? What was he looking for down there? Fighting the creatures of the deep? He was as tired of that as anybody could be.
Lara vowed to find out without seeming too interested in him. However, right there she was still the explorer, and with this comforting thought, she smiled self-sufficiently to all those present before descending into the pit. Kurtis climbed down parallel to her, and finally lost sight of everyone’s tense faces: Zip, Selma, and the rest standing at the edge of the pit.
Meanwhile, the smell of death became stronger.
The descent lasted only ten minutes. When the rope ladder was over, both were drenched in sweat and felt twinges in their joints. The smell then was so pervasive they felt nauseated... and a strange sound reached their ears. A series of whistles and clicks, gurgling and all sorts of nasty whispers that made the sweat dry on their backs.
“What’s that?” Lara gasped. “Manticores?”
“No.” Said Kurtis. “Of course not...sounds like...bugs.”
“Bugs?” If she hadn’t been tired, Lara would’ve laughed. Taking a flare from her backpack, she lit a torch and bent down... “Oh, Yuuuuuuuuuuck!”
They were bugs indeed. A lumpy, sticky mass of throbbing, comprising thousands of tiny creatures that crawled and walked, a sea of nasty insects and worms feeding on a rotting mass of...of several corpses.
“Oh, damn!” Lara gasped, containing a spasm.
Everything else seemed now in slow motion. She saw Kurtis jumping from the ladder and landing on that - he sank to his knees with a nasty gurgle. Like expecting a new body to feed from, a cloud of insects began to climb up his legs. But he, looking at her with some irony, reached over and above the rustle of insects and muttered: “C’mon, M’lady. We don’t have all day.”
Lara saw herself taking his hand and jumping to land in that swamp. Almost immediately she began to notice the movement of hundreds of tiny paws, claws and suckers, nasty creatures that climbed up her legs and clung to her thighs. And the rotten stench that grew steadily. She held back another spasm.
Clutching his arm, Lara tried to advance in the midst of that putrid pit. There were human bodies – but also something far more terrible. At the dim light of the flare, her eyes wandered around. The pit was huge and there were not dozens, but hundreds of corpses in various stages of decomposition. She saw maggots squirming in empty eye sockets of skulls and mosquitoes sucking on fleshy jelly eyes staring into space with dismay; she saw cockroaches running around between the ribs of empty rib cages and huge moths flapping between other rotting bodies’ lips.
That was enough. She bent over herself and vomited.
“Lara!” She heard Kurtis murmuring in her ear. “We’re sinking. You gotta move!”
Now that putrid mass reached their waist, and Lara didn’t want to think about the noticeable slugs slipping into her clothes. She raised her pale face and saw, far away, an exit near the top of the pit. Drawing strength from their own weakness, they dragged away, tossing chunks of corpses and spiders from their arms and face. It couldn’t be so far away...it couldn’t...they were almost there...
Kurtis was the first to feel the vibration beneath his feet. Of course, the thousand and one vibration of the wings of flies, mosquitoes and insects down there had distracted him, but now he was sure there was something big under their feet, beneath the mass of piled up bodies.
He moved faster, pulling Lara to that exit, almost furiously throwing away those hundreds of bodies that blocked their road. The output was too high for them, half-submerged in that crap, to reach it. Before Lara could protest, Kurtis grabbed her waist and lifted her up until she reached the opening and grabbed its edge.
Then the creature crawling under their feet attacked.
Lara, hanging over the exit’s edge, was trying to pull herself up when Kurtis felt the mass of corpses and insects growing and growing, swelling like a boil about to burst, giving way to an octopus-like long tentacle, which directly attacked Lara.
It brutally beat her like a slap in the face, picking her from the exit’s frame and throwing her several feet backwards, to finish landing on her back over the putrid mass. As if waiting for that moment, another tentacle emerged between the maggot-covered bones and wrapped around Lara’s waist, and pulling down, began to submerge her.
Lara’s scream pierced the walls. Twisting like an eel, she tried to reach at least one gun holstered on her hips, but it was too slippery from slug mucus and she couldn’t grasp it.
Kurtis couldn’t move, as he was sunk to his chest, but it was enough to take out the Chirugai and sank one of its blades in the bulbous flesh of another tentacle that had sprouted from his left - for the creature, angry, grabbed him and threw him to the other side of the chamber, only this time he struck the wall and fell on a pile of bones.
He got up and ran as fast as he could towards Lara, whose head was just the only thing visible, and the only reason she hadn’t sunk completely was because her squirming and kicking made it difficult for that thing to suction her.
Kurtis’ arms sank at her side to hold her by the shoulders and pulled her with all his strength. Between him pulling her up and that thing pulling her down, Lara felt like she was going to be tore in two. However, the possibility of sinking into the disgusting mass panicked her. She looked at Kurtis’ face, covered in sweat, and had the feeling he was struggling with something more than his physical strength.
Finally, the tentacle seemed to lose its grip on her. Flipping, Kurtis took her out. “Run!”
Lara didn’t need to be asked twice - she darted back to the exit, but then the whole pit stirred and began to sink, dragging corpses and vermin with it. Lara could see, in the corner of her eye, what was happening and let out a cry of horror. By the side of the chamber appeared a series of huge, sharp blades she quickly identified as teeth, a row of huge teeth which began to rise on both sides while the mass of bodies was slowly sinking.
The creature who had been dozing under its own victims was now closing its huge jaws to swallow what it couldn’t before its long slumber - and wanted to swallow them too. It wouldn’t let them go.
Kurtis understood this very well, since, as every time he’d faced creatures like those, he could hear the creature’s thoughts. And this one, normally satisfied with corpses, was going to devour them out of pure hatred and resentment for them jogging on its jaws; and although it was tired of rotting flesh, it was going to gobble them anyway.
He felt the flow of its violent thoughts and fought against them. In silence, he confronted the creature, using only his mind and his ability to speak with the thought, trying to control that thing which tirelessly intended to devour Lara first.
Let her go, he ordered with all his might. Forget her. She’s not for you. Let her go! Leave her alone!
He felt the monster’s wrath, its resentment. His will, human and superhuman at the same time, was stronger than the monster’s. The tentacles relaxed around Lara’s legs and released her. She turned to look at him, surprised. But moments later, she again rushed to the exit using one of those rough teeth as footstool. She reached the edge and finally climbed it, sweaty and exhausted. Already in the tunnel, she turned and saw her partner also trying to reach out - but the creature was willing to let out one victim, but not both. Two tentacles had clung to Kurtis and dragged him down, away from safety.
“Kurtis!” Lara shouted.
He looked at her and shook his head with exhaustion. Suddenly, Lara felt as if she was back at the Strahov, and the creature was Boaz and Kurtis himself was again about to sacrifice himself to help her escape while he stayed...to die.
Mechanically, she grabbed the rifle still attached to her back - how could she forget it? Controlling her trembling arms, she pointed with accuracy to one of the tentacles dragging Kurtis, and fired. The bullet pierced the viscous meat and the whole limb shrank. There was a high-pitched squeal that seemed to come from the thing hidden under the rotting mass, and the tentacle let Kurtis go. Lara didn’t stop then - she shot two, three, four times, until Kurtis was free and calling back his trusty blade - which was nailed to the wall, broke through cutting the re-emerging tentacles, and reached the exit.
Now the huge jaws were nearly closed, finishing the process that monster had developed slowly. Kurtis jumped up, pushing with all his might, but injured his leg on the edge of one of those teeth. But he was now safe - Lara grabbed his proffered hand and raised him, then he dropped next to her.
Down in the pit of decay, the two rows of teeth were closed, that huge mouth crushing and grinding now with an awful sound the remainder of bones, rotting flesh, and insects. Pale, Lara stared a long time at that horror, until Kurtis gently pulled her away and they retreated to a hidden corner of the tunnel, where they rested against the wall.
“What was that?” She murmured after a while, touching her back, looking for a slimy caterpillar that crawled by her neck.
Kurtis leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. His leg was bleeding through his slightly torn pants and some flies came to rest on the wound, but he didn’t seem to notice. “Not a clue, Lara. Can’t know everything.”
She leaned to shoo the flies - then she twisted, disgusted.
“God...I think I’ve bugs all over.”
“Don’t ask where I’ve one...” Kurtis whispered, then laughed as if this was very funny. Then he fell asleep, exhausted more for the mental effort in dealing with that creature than for physical fatigue. Before losing consciousness, he heard Lara talking to herself: “Can’t be...some corpses were fresh...people who’d been here recently...how could they...how did they get here?”