He held the journal in his hands, heavy and worn, and flipped through the pages anxiously. Could this be the key to finding what had really happened to his father all those years ago? Page after page, the smell of mildew and dust from years of storage rose up to him. Markus read. The pages flew by, words mixing and melding, none of them making any sense. They seemed to rearrange themselves on the page. He looked up at his mother, confused and uncertain. When their eyes met, she began to transform; her long brown hair clumped and writhed as if it were alive. Her eyes turned cold and empty much like those of a statue. Her canines elongated and sharpened, her thin, split tongue sliding over them as if she were hungry. Markus could feel her cold stare all throughout his body, and found himself unable to move as she lunged, his screams mixing with those of his father from a distant past.
"Gahh!" Markus yelled. The dream alarmed him so much he flew from the tangled mass of sheets. The sudden movement knocked down a tent pole. In a confusion of canvas, the tent folded in on itself
A mumbled "Damn..." escaped from him as he emerged, rubbing his head, from the tent's sad remains, and stumbled up to the fire. It had been almost 3 months since his 17th birthday when Markus' mother had handed him his father's journal; the only thing that had been recovered from the remains of his crew's supplies after they had all vanished. The journal contained maps and detailed recordings of plants and buildings, all leading up to a strange, underground structure. Markus had thought that the curious dreams that had been plaguing him would have faded by now, but he had been wrong.
"Rough night?" Cornelius asked as he prepared breakfast.
Cornelius was an elderly man and had been a part of Markus' life from day one, though they had never been close. He had been on the same expedition as Markus' father and was the one who had recovered the journal. Markus' mother insisted that Cornelius joined him.
"He's been to this place before. He can guide you! Plus," she looked at Markus, her eyes practically dripping with concern. "it would put my mind to rest knowing that you're safe with him."
Markus had agreed only to keep her from bursting into tears and fainting like she usually did when she was nervous. Mom's nearly narcoleptic, he thought to himself. I love her to death, but I don't need any help. How old does she think I am? Vaguely realizing Cornelius had asked him a question, he gave a slight nod and sat down in front of the fire.
Markus often debated telling Cornelius about the dreams. He looked up and studied the man. His pudgy fingers were digging through the food package, his face, although contorted in concentration, was kind and trusting. He was almost wrinkle-free and his brown eyes are like those of a child, warm and twinkling. A triumphant smile spread across his face as he held up the eggs he had been searching for in victory, and threw them into the skillet. Not like he needed the food, Cornelius' striped pajamas were stretched to their limits, buttons ready to burst. Despite being an explorer, Cornelius had enough weight on him to break a horse's back!
"Markus. Hello? Markus?"
"Huh," Markus' head shot up at the sound of his name.
"Do you want anything to eat?" Cornelius looked at him worriedly.
"No," he responded sternly. "I'll make my own food. I'm not hungry now."
Cornelius sighed and continued to cook. The poor boy had been this way since his father's disappearance back in 1907. Five years later, and he was still clinging to the idea that his father was alive. Cornelius had agreed to go on the expedition solely to protect Markus. He was still a child, after all. Even at seventeen, he had the mentality of a five year old, stubborn, impudent, and determined to get his own way. Cornelius' eyes followed the boy as he stomped off into the surrounding jungle.
I don't need him! What was I thinking, letting him join me. He kicked a stone and it flew off into the cold, foreboding jungle. The sound of startled birds lifting into the air rose up and Markus smirked. Stupid birds, afraid of a little stone. He paused to look back at his camp. In the small clearing the battered old tent, which was still a tangled mass from when he had awoken, looked extremely out of place, it's red fabric almost glowing against the murky jungle. The fire seemed brighter than it really was, penetrating the darkness around them. Turning back to the deep, green mass of a jungle in front of him, Markus suddenly felt a cold shiver slide down his spine. He was tempted to run back to the site, but resisted. I'm not giving Cornelius the satisfaction of seeing me running to safety like a weakling! He pressed forward, feeling a little bad for being so harsh on Cornelius, even if it was only in his mind, but quickly shook it off.
A few hours later, the sun began to set and Markus decided to head back to the camp. He was getting tired from walking for so long over such rough terrain. Trying to maintain a constant pace so as to keep warm, Markus searched for the camp. I walked in a straight line, I think... The longer he walked, the more frantic he became. Soon he was sprinting, ducking under the low hanging vines, jumping over tree roots protruding from the ground.
Markus was sent sprawling into the cool dirt when his foot struck a strange rock. Groaning in pain, he rolled over onto his back and looked up at the green canopy above his head. Through the small gaps in the leaves, stars twinkled and the moon shined. The throbbing pain in his ankle forced Markus to sit up and investigate what he had tripped over. Scrambling around on the ground, he searched for the stony culprit. Finally, his hand fell upon an astonishingly warm rock. Leaning in to examine it closer, Markus noticed the irregular carvings in the stone. There were symbols in an ancient language, long since dead, and pictures depicting epic battles and heroic deaths. One picture in particular caught his eye. Brushing away the grime covering it, Markus unveiled the strange carving. It was a large snake, its fangs sharp as knives extended towards a man. There was more to the image but it had been eroded beyond the point of recognition. Were those arms on the snake? Markus felt his eyelids grow heavy. I should get back to camp.
Markus sat up, jolted awake by the sound of Cornelius' voice.
"I'm over here! I think I found something!"
The sound of sticks snapping and vines tearing under Cornelius' massive weight neared until he was standing right over Markus. Markus simply pointed at the stone and Cornelius kneeled in the dirt with a gentle thud as he began to examine it. After a few minutes he sat up straight and pulled the journal out of his coat. Flipping through the fragile pages, he stopped towards the end, looked back at the stone and then at the journal again. More page flipping, more inspecting and some mumbling. Markus shifted impatiently. Suddenly, Cornelius began digging around the stone. Markus just stared. What is he doing? He wondered in bewilderment. Cornelius felt Markus' stare and looked up.
"Come help me, boy!"
Markus tentatively pushed his hands into the ground, grumbling about the pointlessness of it all, and began digging as well. They dug and dug, their fingers savagely scraping at the moist earth beneath them. The stone, it seemed, went down a good half a meter or so before widening out into a larger circle. Every inch was covered by those mysterious carvings.
"What is it?" Markus asked
"I...I don't believe it," Cornelius whispered, "Markus, this is it! This is the temple described in your father's journal!"
It took awhile to sink in. They had really found it! Markus couldn't believe it. He sat there in the dirt, sweaty and tired, trying to comprehend what they had just found. Cornelius placed a hand on his shoulder and suggested that they return to camp to get a good night's rest and attempt to enter the temple tomorrow. They walked back to the camp in silence, each wondering what would be found when that door was opened.
The journal, the transformation, it was all the same and yet, completely different at the same time. After Markus' mother attacked, he was normally woken up, but not this time. This time the dream transported him to a small stone room. It couldn't have been more than five feet around and the ceiling was only a little higher than Markus' head. The entire room was lit by a strange orange glow yet, despite this warm colour, it felt cool as ice. Markings similar to those on the temple door covered the walls. Eyes glued on the pictures, Markus followed them. They seemed to tell a story. He continued walking, his footsteps muffled by the soft sand littered across the ground. Markus was so absorbed in the images on the wall, he didn't notice the large statue in front of him. He walked right into it and it wobbled dangerously, threatening to tip at any moment. Markus caught the statue and stopped for a moment to observe it. It was so detailed, so lifelike! It took his breath away. He could've sworn that he had felt a heartbeat beneath its solid exterior. He moved his eyes up the statue's body and reached the face. Unlike the rest of the statue, which seemed to be in a relatively passive stance with its arms at its sides and muscles relaxed, its face was contorted into a silent scream. Markus stared. That face, it looked so familiar. Where had he seen it before? Suddenly, there was a sharp pain at the back of his head and Markus released the statue, hands scrambling to find the source. The statue fell in almost slow motion and shattered to a thousand small pieces on the ground. Blood mixed with the sand.
Markus didn't open his eyes at first; he sat there in the darkness trying to hold onto the details of his dream. The statue he had seen, who was that? The harder he tried to keep the image in his mind, the faster is seemed to fade. Within seconds it was gone, and Markus rolled out of bed to get dressed. By the time he was out of his tent Cornelius already had two packs ready to go and was frying up some more eggs. They ate in silence, each studying maps and parts of the journal in hopes that it would in some way prepare them for whatever was beneath that door. Ten minutes later, they were trekking through the jungle in search of it. It didn't take long to find, thanks to the trail Cornelius made the day before while searching for Markus. They sat there looking at it for a while before either one of them spoke.
"So," Markus said, shattering the silence surrounding them, "How do we open it?"
That is a good question, Cornelius thought, this door is unlike any other. It's circular, in the ground, almost screw like.
"That's it!" he exclaimed, "You twist it! Like a screw."
Markus looked down at the door. I could've figured that out, I just didn't get the chance. Determined to prove that he could do this on his own, he knelt down by the stone and grabbed it. He pulled it to the side, putting all his weight into it and just managed to get it to move. Inch by inch, the door turned the sound of stones grating against each other echoed throughout the quiet jungle. Dust rose into the air and a strange smell was emitted from some unseen depths. Soon the door was completely unscrewed and Cornelius came over and helped lift it to the side. It must've weighed almost as much as Cornelius himself, for it took a great amount of effort to lift. After much struggling, they finally tossed the heavy door to the side.
"I can't see a way down!" Markus called out. He grabbed a small rock and tossed it into gaping hole. There was nothing for a while, and then a quiet tink as it hit something. "There's no way we would survive that fall either!"
Cornelius pulled a rope out of his pack. "I don't know if it's quite long enough, but it should make it a bit safer." He wrapped the rope around a nearby tree and tied it tight. As he was about to toss it into the opening, Markus stopped him and tied a lamp to the end.
"I want to be able to see what we're getting into."
Slowly, the rope was lowered. The lamp's dim glow didn't help much, but they could just see a platform only a short distance below it. Markus shifted his pack over his shoulders then slid down the rope. When he reached the lantern, he dropped down. Shortly after, he was joined by Cornelius. They considered their surroundings. The first thing they noticed was how much brighter it was from the inside. There wasn't an identifiable source of the light; it was almost as if the walls themselves were emitting the strange orange glow. These walls were miles high and had ivy-like plants growing down them. The dome ceilings had etched millions of carvings into them. All very similar to those seen on the door, but these were far more detailed.
Marcus and Cornelius were standing on a long bridge, surrounded by enormous, crumbling arches, and pillars. Below them, hundreds of bridges interwove with one another lead to countless rooms and halls. Every now and then the sound of the earth shifting echoed throughout the temple's chambers. It was followed by a light showering of dust and pebbles raining down on their heads. Putting out the lantern, not wishing to waste oil, they began walking down the bridge.
"Markus! Careful!" Cornelius shouted, throwing his arm out to stop Markus from walking over the edge. The bridge had been crushed by a large boulder, which could be seen one level down.
"We have to find another way around."
Markus grimaced; did the old man think he was an idiot? He saw the edge. He would've stopped in time...probably. Cornelius had already started walking to the other side of the bridge. Markus decided to take a moment and look over the edge. Lying on his stomach, he crept up to the break and looked down. The light seemed to fade out about half way down, making it impossible to see. A gentle breeze drifted up to him, carrying with it a strange smell, roses mixed with something else. Something much less pleasant. Inhaling sharply in an attempt to identify the second scent, Markus was overcome with a feeling of nausea. The darkness below rushed up and he could've sworn that he heard laughter. A firm hand on the back of his collar pulled him to reality.
"Come on boy."
It was Cornelius! They walked away from the broken bridge and down some stairs at the other end. Marcus looked behind him as they began to descend, and could've sworn that he had seen something dart into the shadows.
Minutes dragged on into hours and hours stretched until they seemed like days. Markus shuffled across the ground, leaving two long lines next to Cornelius' evenly spaced prints.
It's amazing, he thought to himself the man is more than twice my age and yet he seems to have more energy than me!
Nothing seemed different from the normal Cornelius, who would start sweating at even the sight of an incline; he was still pudgy, and he was still old. He looked the same.
I guess if you really want to be picky, he is a little paler. Actually, he's not just a little paler! The man is almost grey.
After finding this, Markus began to notice other oddities that hadn't been present before. Cornelius was moving in an almost mechanical way, his joints barely bending and never altering his pace. He seemed to be putting a lot of effort into lifting his feet, almost as if they were weighed down by an invisible stone.
"Cornelius? Are you OK?" The words of concern felt alien to Markus. When did he start caring?
Cornelius turned to face him. Markus involuntarily jumped back.
His eyes, He thought, a shiver rattling him to his core. They're so...dead. Cornelius' empty eyes were made only more terrifying by the smile plastered on his face which didn't reach them.
"I'm fine Markus, do not worry." His voice was cool and calculating.
There was more to it though. If it had just been that, then Markus could've blown it off. No, it was what was behind the voice. A subtext which made Markus' blood run cold.
It whispered to him "Run Markus! Run!" It was in his empty eyes, his artificial smile and monotone voice; a warning of what was to come.
Every part of Markus' being pleaded to heed the warning and bolt out of this God forsaken temple. Something, however, held him in place. He felt...actually, he didn't know what he felt, but it was strong enough to keep him firmly planted in his spot on the dusty old bridge.
"Come Markus. Let us not delay further progress into the heart of this temple." He waved his hand in a hollow gesture towards the path they had been pursuing. Markus' eyes followed the hand. It was one solid shade of grey with chips and cracks along the joints. The entire effect was almost stone-like.
It's just your imagination, Markus thought. He tried to shake it off, but it stuck in his mind and wouldn't let go.
They continued on, Markus' shuffling and Cornelius' mechanical steps were the only thing disturbing the silence throughout the temple. It was almost eerily quiet. The sound of the earth shifting around them had long since stopped, leading Markus to wonder how far beneath the surface they were. Replacing the familiar creak and groan was a strange sliding sound. The sound made when one drug a heavy bag through the sand. Every now and then, this noise would be followed by a low, malicious laugh. Markus told himself that it was just the wind. Cornelius didn't seem to notice.
It had gotten too dark to see more than a meter beyond where they were standing. Markus took out the lantern, though he hated the idea of wasting the precious oil, and lit it. It cast a faint yellow glow which just barely mimicked that of the mysterious lighting in the upper levels of the temple. It flickered in an imaginary breeze. Scanning the halls as they walked, Markus noticed the sudden increase of statues around him. At first, there had been only the occasional small cat or bird. Once he even saw the statue of a snake, after nearly trampling it into the dust.
As they progressed, however, the statues grew in size. Not just in stature, but in species as well. The cats became dogs, dogs to wolves, and wolves to large game and predators. So absorbed in studying the statues around him, Markus didn't notice that Cornelius had continued on without him. He also failed to notice the large statue of a bear and nearly walked into its gaping jaws. Startled, Markus leapt back, almost extinguishing the delicate flame within the lantern. After establishing that it was nothing more than a statue, Markus began to take in the incredible amount of skill to carve such a great beast. Its huge teeth were barred, lips drawn back into a hungry snarl. Every single hair stood on end. Even the bear's empty eyes were full of a terrifying, animalistic hate. Only the slight cracking and flat, grey colour gave away its lifelessness.
Leaning in to further examine the details of the mouth, Markus could've sworn he had heard a low growl escape the bear's throat.
No, wait. He leaned in closer, turning his ear to the bear. I do hear growling.
Looking up at the statue, Markus' brow creased with confusion.
Before he could think of an explanation, the bear turned a vibrant blue. Markus fell back in alarm, smashing the lantern and successfully putting out the flame. His mouth fell open in shock and awe as he witnessed an exact replica of the bear statue recreated before him in a semi-transparent, blue energy. The only difference was, this one could move.
Cornelius stopped dead in his tracks, the cry waking him from his trance-like state. Had that been Markus yelling? Looking around, Cornelius realized that he had been walking alone for quite some time. He reached up to scratch his head, only to feel the coolness of stone in its place. Bringing it down to eye level, Cornelius felt a very detached form of fear as he turned his hand and examined it. It weighed greatly on his arm, making it difficult to move. The stone was slowly spreading up his forearm and rendering his left side almost useless. Judging by the weight in his boots, his feet had befallen the same fate.
Cornelius looked up just in time to step out of the way as Markus shot past. Turning to see the cause of all this ruckus, Cornelius found himself face to face with a monstrous blue bear. It uttered a low growl then opened its jaws, releasing an ear shattering roar. Vaguely realizing that now would be a good time to move, Cornelius turned to follow Markus a quickly as his rapidly deteriorating body would allow.
Sprinting down the halls, Markus glanced back to see Cornelius following him and the spirit bear in close pursuit. He had to move faster. He faced forwards again and pushed himself. The bear released another deafening roar. The walls shook, statues fell, and Markus nearly lost his balance, tripping over a statue of a wolf. After stabilizing himself, Markus began running again. He failed to notice that the wolf had begun to glow much like the bear had. The glowing spread from statue to statue. Their spirits filled the halls, illuminating the darkness with an ominous blue glow. Some joined the chase, others just stood around. Through the transparent crowd, Markus saw a small door hanging slightly ajar. In one final burst of energy, he bolted into the room. Cornelius joined him only seconds before the door was slammed shut.
Gasping for breath, Markus and Cornelius fell to the floor. Resting their backs against the cool stone walls, they listened as the animal cries faded into the distance. Even after they were gone, it was a while before anyone spoke.
"Are you OK?" Cornelius asked. His voice was still flat, but the concern seemed genuine.
Markus nodded and stood up to search the room they were now trapped in. It was fairly large with walls eight feet high and around the same in width. There was very little in the way of decoration besides a few torches, thankfully lit. Seeing how they no longer possessed a lantern, the only lighting they had would need to be supplied by the temple itself. At the far end of the room, there was another door. It was much larger than the door they had come in through and visibly older as well. The wood was rotting at places and seemed to be slightly waterlogged. The metal bands holding the door were rusted beyond the point of being useful. A large ring, also very rusted, served as the door handle. On either side of the door was a statue of a guard. The one on the right was in armor that looked as if it were from ancient Rome! He was holding a spear around 4 feet long pointed towards Markus, as if he were trying to impale him. His face was contorted in what could only be a battle cry.
The guard on the right looked less like a guard, and more like an English naval officer. He was not holding any sort of weapon and did not look very menacing. In fact, he looked surprised. He had the look of a child who had just been caught with his hand in a jar of sweets. This child, however, must have been caught by a ghost. For the man's eyes screamed in terror.
Chilled by the contrast and shaken by the realism, Markus hesitated in opening the door. He looked back at Cornelius. The man was nearly the same grey as the statues, his eyes were those of a deadman. He stood behind Markus looking both dejected and blank at the same time.
What's happening to him? Markus thought. Is this what happened to these guards? What about the animals. The idea of Cornelius trapped here, in the cursed temple forever, filled Markus with sadness previously unknown to him. I would've never gotten this far without him. I can't let him die.
With a new sense of determination, Markus pulled the door open and stepped into the room.
Once inside, he pulled the door closed. It made an immutable thud as it did. From outside, Markus could faintly hear Cornelius nearing the door and slid the bolt in place, keeping it closed forever. He turned from the door, his one chance at escape now gone.
How strange. He thought as he scanned the room. I could've sworn I'd seen this place before.
Indeed, there was something familiar about this place. The walls were only just higher than the top of Markus' head. It was only five feet around the edge of the entire room. The air was heavy with a distinct smell that he recognized from that first bridge. Roses and that second smell. It had been much less noticeable before, but here, in this room, it nearly overpowered him. The smell of decay, of death.
Markus shuddered at this realization and began walking around the room's perimeter. The walls were etched with carvings such as those seen throughout the entire temple. These were different though; they were newer and looked almost familiar. Following the story, it dawned on him.
This is me.
The jungle, the stone, the statues, it was all there. This was the story of the journey he was on now! At the very end of the third wall, he saw his dream. The room, the statue, the blood.
How could someone know this? I never told anyone about that dream!
A sudden cold swept over him, causing the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. In the back of the room, the story seemed to continue. Wiping the dust from the wall, Markus read.
This isn't me. I never did any of this.
The back told the story of a man and his crew. They were all depicted in their early thirties. They, much like Markus, had found the temple by mistake. As the story progressed, the group seemed to shrink. From fifteen men to ten, ten to three. By the end there was only one. That last man had been in this very room where Markus now stood. That was all there was. There was nothing of the man leaving. Nothing of him getting home safe.
Feeling oddly saddened at the story, Markus turned to find himself face to face with his father.
"No," Markus' voice waived and cracked as he spoke. "No, no, no! This can't be happening!"
He had fallen to the floor, clutching the sides of his head. How could that be his father? Cold and unmoving, so artificial. He didn't believe it. His dream, that statue had been his father. That was where he had seen this all before. Was this all just a dream?
"No, no, no." Markus rocked back and forth, whimpering.
He couldn't take it anymore. Standing up, Markus ran for the door. In the process, he knocked the statue to the floor.
When the statue shattered, Markus felt as if he had shattered as well. Enduring the pain, he slammed into the door.
"Cornelius! Cornelius! Help!"
Markus pounded his fists into the door over and over. Remembering the lock, he slid the bolt out of place. Pushing against the door, he managed to open it just enough to know that he was never getting out. The stone form of Cornelius blocked the doorway. He shut the door again and turned to face the room. When his eyes fell on the statue's remains Markus shrieked in pain. The room began to go white as his vision faded.
Clawing at his eyes, Markus fell beside what was once his father. A cruel, poisonous laugh filled the air. That sliding from before traced a path through the sand towards him. The smell of death growing stronger and stronger. A cool, bony hand with long, yellow nails fell upon Markus' face. He stopped writhing and just lay there whimpering. He did not dare to open his eyes.
A low voice, smooth as silk whispered to him, "Join them, Markus. Join Cornelius. Join your father."
Markus felt a single nail tracing down his cheek and under his chin. It pressed into his throat and pulled him to his feet.
"Open your eyes, Markus. Open your eyes and face your doom"
Markus' eyes flew open, forced by some unknown power. A face, pale as stone, filled his vision. Those empty eyes he had seen so many times before seemed to stare into the very core of his being. Snakes where her hair should be twist around her gaunt face. She opened her mouth and a shrill, piercing scream filled the room. She lunged for him.
Blood mixed with the sand and the stone.