The sun was high. A balmy wind and a measure of shade from the woodlands accompanied it, though one could still feel the heat on their skin prickling like tiny insect bites. Tinka had worked up quite a sweat on the ship. Errands had a way of creating themselves when one was idle, and while the big man could have easily accompanied the expedition inside the temple, well…it wouldn’t have been right to leave the ship unattended. Surely, his decision had had nothing to do with his intense dislike of caves.
He stayed industrious in the meantime. Backed by the ship, facing towards the river, and with the temple in the foreground, a man-made canopy of russet-colored tents extended across the ground. The gods above only knew how many days their party would be there searching for the key; best that they make camp outside and leave the cramped cabins aboard the Dimetria for airborne travel only.
Though it was warm, they would need a campfire later, and the airship pilot had found unlikely aid by way of a fisherman in his dinghy passing by, albeit he used the word “fisherman” loosely. Nor the man or his disheveled companions looked anything like the Persians that typically fished along the river. Tinka eyed the second one’s appearance in particular: a lopsided Egyptian wig paired with ill-fitting Turkish wear.
He supposed he’d seen odder types.
“An earthquake, you say?”
“Oh yes, very much so,” the taller stranger said, smiling broadly. He was handsome, distractingly so, in a way not often seen beyond the city limits where the Persians squirreled away their best and brightest and prettiest. When he had shaken Tinka’s hands earlier, it had come to the captain clear as day: this man had never cast a fishing net in his life. Tinka did not let on that he considered his story to be…how did the Persians put it? Like a lion’s feather?
“We felt it way back up the river and just wanted to make sure everything was alright.”
“Is that so.”
“Oh yes. Splendidly so.”
Tinka shifted, glancing away. “Well. Didn’t feel nothing out here.”
“What about those in the temple?”
The wrong question.
Small and beady, Tinka’s eyes snapped back to the man with sudden ferocity. It occurred to him then that he could clout at least one of them easily before the other two could so much as draw their blades. The other man apparently realized the same at just the right moment, and he immediately put up his hands in a defensive stance, chuckling.
“Now, now. I ask because I’ve been looking for someone. Habbas Al-Farsi–you know him, of course. I asked him to meet me here.”
“And you are?” Tinka replied, stubborn as can be.
The stranger smiled.
Instinctively, Habbas’ hand shot out and latched Errol to him, even as the very foundation he strove to give the boy trembled from the ground’s quakes. Something had happened; somewhere, somehow, the temple had been triggered into activity, awakening like a great stone giant at the pricks of insects. The illustration of Belatsunat leered from above them; was this her doing? Was it the will of the mad queen that no one breached her prison confines?
"Look behind you Agha. That bowl. It is… sinking!"
The bowl! The professor spun, eyes searching.
It was nearly gone now, having descended from the stone palms into the very bowels of the earth. A pit of a hole had emerged in its absence; it closed then, like a widened maw, sealing beneath the now empty hands.
The torch he’d placed there. It couldn’t have– no, the very notion was ridiculous. But Araia had once been called the light giver. He wondered…
“Wait!” Habbas shouted to Alim. The panic stood in stark relief against the Turkish man’s skin, but Habbas himself was resolute. The maddened quaking of the earth was beginning to subside, and with it the cacophonous noise of grinding stone was fading. With the calm came the settlement of body, fears, and thought. The professor finally released Errol, glancing around.
The wall where the spectral image in red had shone was gone. Indeed, the entire slab of clay had given way, revealing in its wake the shadowed and murky entryway to what looked to be a staircase leading down, down into a pitless dark.
Habbas stepped forward to the precipice, but no further. He yanked a torch from a nearby sconce and held it before him, his frown deepening as the steps continued to multiply. Down, down, down they went…
“Asra. Errol. I want you two to go down the East Hall and to regroup with the others. Make sure my daughter– make sure everyone is alright, and then bring them right back here.”
Habbas’ free hand now rested on his sword. He raised his light aloft, casting Alim a look.
“Come, Alim. Let us lead the way.”
At the very least, they could illuminate the stairway, though whatever traps it may have held within were as of yet undiscovered. The professor’s face turned grim at the prospect, though he pushed forward still into that dank space, the silence held like a waiting breath.
In Naudar’s own naive defense, never could he have imagined that the words of a simple worship guide would be enough to bring alive an ancient god.
Properly rebuked, the student scholar had fallen into fearful silence in the roaring echoes of the quakes, his energy instead going to staying on his feet–unsuccessfully. He fell, more than once, helped only by Emry’s aid. Then he was cuffed like a lion cub. His eyes swung wildly in Hama’s direction.
What? The offering chamber? What on Earth did that have to do with–
Never mind. The temple still trembled with vengeful wrath, and he could understandably think better in a more safe locale. He ran with Hama, sparing no glances back from whence they had come. Only the friezes and statues watched, never moving. Except…
Ah, surely in the chaos, it had gone unnoticed. The figures’ arms had always been raised and pointed, no?
What had once been a small temple so easily explored before had been warped into a nightmarish twist of never ending halls. The mind concocted strange things in a state of panic. As the ground shook and the ceaseless drone of grinding stone burrowed into one’s skull, one felt the insurmountable expectation of the entire temple collapsing upon them. Indeed the walls curved inexplicably in one’s imagination. Hooves and feet alike quickened, fleeing from before the mocking sculptures alongside them. That low howl that sounded ever so barely like words cut through the noise once more, and Naudar slowed to listen, distracted, until he was yanked forward once more by his yoke.
They were forced to a stop just as the irascible shaking of the temple began to subside.
“A dead end?!” Naudar sputtered, stating the obvious.
What should have been the entryway directly to where Habbas and the others stood was now barred by a brute, ancient wall that most certainly had not been there when Melania and her brother had passed through with Kaveh before. In fact, the only continuance of the darkened space at all veered left, off towards an unlit path. Naudar stumbled off that way, stopping when his torch laid bare a crumbled staircase leading down into nothingness, the darkness beckoning. To their right, another path branched away, though it was significantly smaller in width than the stairway. An alternate way back to the offering chamber, perhaps?
“I-I don’t understand. The guide didn’t mention any of this in his journal…And that voice was saying..."
As Naudar muttered to himself, flipping through the pages, their own purported guide, Kaveh, glanced around their group. He was evidently taking stock; of course, he looked for Melania and Pan first, and then the other recently acquainted members. He noticed first what the others were too distracted to realize.
Emry was gone.