*Wordcount: 1757 words.
The sweltering desert heat beat down on Arthur, and sweat rolled off his browned brow. He bobbed up and down in time with the camel that carried him. A quiet but useful guide rode on ahead of him, and a colleague of his rode behind him.
Arthur was an archaeologist, of sorts anyways, and normally immensely enjoyed the digs and other explorations. Today, however, the heat was getting to him as well as the fact that they had been riding for hours with nearly no breaks, and he had a headache, so he was in a fairly sour mood.
The guide spoke up, in an irritating voice, “Nearly there.”
Both Arthur and his colleague perked up; they were both still excited about what they might find here.
They were heading to a system of tunnels in the middle of a desert somewhere (Dante didn’t much pay attention to the details, admittedly) that may have been hiding a valuable resource for years: Gold.
Gold was extremely rare (maybe even unheard of) in this area, and the initial claims of large pockets of gold ore were ignored. That is, until illegal excavators starting pulling out sizable amounts.
The owners of the land cracked down and sealed off the remote area, and called in some professionals to take a look.
And with it being gold, Dante was keen to see for himself. If a little went missing, well, who would know?
Not that that Arthur would agree to it, the pansy; but Dante didn’t need him to participate.
More for him.
They rode on a while longer, coming into view of large upheavals of darkened stone. Arthur felt a chill run down his spine despite the heat, and for a moment was unsure if it was excitement or foreboding. Regardless, they were so close!
This would be a good discovery, and fascinating too! A supposedly auriferous tunnel system in this region would be remarkable, and would most likely have interesting impacts on the surrounding areas. Arthur loved it, living history right in front of his eyes. And the fact that his eyes would be some of the first to witness it imbued him with no small amount of pride.
Eventually, they arrived at the small mountain. A hastily assembled hitching-post had been left behind by the previous, illegal exploiters, which was useful for hitching camels. They disembarked, all of them welcoming walking after riding so long.
The guide set to work caring for the camels while Arthur and Dante went to explore the outer area.
Arthur was eagerly flitting around the entrances to the tunnels, snapping pictures as he went. Of the set-up of the previous excavators; of the darkened, hard rock that rose out of the pale sand; of nicks and scrapes etched into the rock (that one was curious, Arthur noted, but it could be explained by tools of the previous hosts or even natural eroding factors). Arthur felt the same chill from before.
Dante was crouched down, examining the side of the rock near one of the entrances. He brushed away some sand from the rock, revealing something carved into the rock.
Dante had no idea what it was, and hadn’t seen any symbols like this before. Somehow, he found it… comforting.
It was mesmerising.
He examined it some more.
Arthur stared over Dante’s shoulder, at the strange symbol he was clearly very engrossed in. It had been minutes, and he hadn’t moved a muscle.
Arthur tapped his shoulder, then cleared his throat, and tapped the shoulder again, a little harder.
Dante looked up, startled but awoken from his mesmerism
“What is it?” asked Arthur.
“Dunno.” Answered Dante.
They entered the tunnels, slowly at first, each armed with a torch and a backpack of supplies. After about twenty minutes of delving, they stumbled across their first nugget. The deeper they went, the more they found, and soon glittering golden ore streaked the walls and ceiling and ground. Neither of them had seen anything like it.
Arthur agreed to double back and exit the caves, in order to use the satellite phone to contact their boss and get a team sent in. It would take a while, and they would have plenty of time to document the tunnels.
Dante, on the other hand, would press onwards to see what he could see.
Dante was thrilled, all this gold and some time alone almost immediately! This had been worth it, without a doubt.
Dante pulled out a compact hand-pickaxe, and got to work prising and hammering out small bits of gold.
His eyes glimmered in the dark, his torch fixed on the gold in front of him, as a susurration rose around him.
Arthur excitedly told the guide about what they’d found, although he didn’t seem terribly interested. Arthur’s boss had been happier, and informed Arthur that a fully-equipped team would arrive in about two days. That seemed like a long time, but it had taken Arthur and Dante a week to make the same trip, so it was comparatively quick.
Besides, some more time with this fascinating place would be enjoyable, and they would explore and map as much of the tunnel-system as possible.
Arthur breathed in the dry, oppressive air of the desert (which now seemed sweet and fresh), and stepped back into the tunnel.
Dante was not sure where he was. It was dark, and he ached all over. His torch was broken, or so it would seem, and so darkness it was for now.
He tried looking up, but there were only silhouettes over darker silhouettes, which was not helpful.
They had both packed an extra torch, but Dante had discretely discarded his outside, temporarily, to make room in his backpack for the gold. He had removed a number of other things too, but they would not likely be as helpful without light, so he didn’t sweat those.
With the gold in mind, he checked his backpack. The gold he had collected so far clinked heavily in his bag, and relief gripped him.
At least it was okay.
He remembered the fall, more of a tumble, down the hole. He hadn’t been looking down; he had been fixated on something in front of him although he couldn’t remember what.
He’d gotten a little overstimulated, and he supposed he couldn’t blame himself.
In a place like this, surrounded by golden streaks…
He felt a little light-headed even at the thought of it, and sat down.
He wouldn’t have to wait long at least; that puissant Arthur would be back soon.
Dante didn’t notice them, but the whispers had not stopped.
“Dante?” Arthur asked into the short-distance walkie-talkie. In caves like this, there would be a lot of interference, so Dante would have to be close for this to work. But he had agreed to just continue on ahead, so Arthur walked along and spoke into the walkie-talkie every now and then.
Dante’s eyes shot around wildly, as shadows melted around him and leapt towards him, before furiously melding back into themselves.
His walkie-talkie crackled, but he didn’t hear it.
Whispers filled his ears, stultifying his thoughts, and he wept.
Eventually, Arthur heard the crackle of the walkie-talkie in the darkness ahead of him. He was more than a little worried by now, it had been minutes and he had heard no response. If he was close enough to hear the walkie-talkie, he had been within range for a while.
Then again, Dante didn’t seem like the most talkative person, and Arthur didn’t know him well enough to correct that assumption.
Whatever the cause, Arthur felt like hurrying.
He moved quickly, but carefully, inspecting his surrounding in case.
Arthur saw the hole well before there was any risk of falling down it, but upon peering down he noticed Dante’s backpack lying at the bottom.
It didn’t look like a dangerously deep or steep drop, so Arthur set to work securing an anchor into the ground outside and preparing to repel down.
At the bottom there was no Dante, although there were definitely signs of him. His backpack and torch were lying on the ground, as well as his walkie-talkie. Arthur checked the torch, which was working fine, and wondered why Dante had left it.
He had to have been well enough to walk away, but this was odd.
Then, it hit Arthur. There were carvings etched into the walls and floor all around the chamber, although they didn’t seem to make much sense.
Odd symbols and eccentric lines with gentle gradients and sharp curves, and Arthur found it all a little unnerving.
These tunnels were strange enough with the gold, this was beyond bizarre.
Arthur followed a passage forwards, hoping to find Dante fast.
The blood covered the floor, and walls, and ceiling. It dripped and wept down the walls and from the ceiling.
Arthur was holding back vomit, gagging on the sight of the gore.
Smatterings of Dante covered the room, and Arthur hated spotting them.
A clump of hair, a burst eyeball, a jaggedly torn-off finger.
Arthur had no idea what could have done this, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He wanted to leave, he was sure about that.
Although, he noticed the carvings carried forwards into this room. He could see them under the coat of his colleague’s blood, and something about them seemed inexplicably calming.
In the shadows of the room, at the far back, something hungrily clacked its claws.
Whispers flooded the room.
Outside, it was getting dark. The guide had thought they might take a while, but it had been hours now. He had set up a modest camp outside, and was normally content with waiting.
But, and it was the strangest thing, the camels had become listless, and he worried if they were sick. It was unusual, and nothing from his experience helped him identify what was wrong.
Being helpless made him restless, and he almost considered going inside to see if his charges were alright.
A foolish idea, he knew, so he forced himself to stay outside and ward off the chill of the coming night.
He had heard tales, no more than stories, of ancient desert spirits warding off travellers or haunting ruins or even the odd oasis. He put no stock in them, of course, but something about this place reminded him of the tales.
The wind picked up, kicking up waves of sand. He retired to his tent, chilled and anxious.
He could’ve sworn that, tonight, the wind sounded like whispers.