Last week, Medas paid a visit to Antonios in the night, and the sense of an otherness in the camp grew. This week, as day breaks in the darkness two terrible calamities visit themselves unto the party.
The next day, the diggers set about excavating the great tunnel with a strange blend of alacrity and apprehension once more. Helena had rallied her team in the morning and told them to carry on working to honour their fallen comrade, Maria. Even so, the mood was tense. Alexis was conspicuous by his absence, and Medas and I were uneasy about the situation. Neither of us mentioned anything of our midnight soiree, but I decided to keep my eye on her rather than the dig. The slight preternatural circumstance of the dig, the death of one of the workers and Medas’s own fragility perturbed me greatly. I would have to work extra hard to keep my wits about me and protect her. I decided that it was indeed a good thing that I had come on this venture. The thought even occurred to me that I was perhaps supposed to be here. Albert, meanwhile, had no such inhibitions or doubts, and continued gaily in supporting and encouraging the diggers some way ahead of us. When he invited me to accompany him, I declined.
In truth, excavation was not quite the way of it: a corridor, forty feet high, the floor of which was covered in a layer of rubble, debris and thick webs of dust that had accumulated over the centuries. Most of the hard graft had taken place back at the sinkhole to clear the mess away from those great doors – now the work was a more delicate matter. A dozen or so of the workers had furrowed a path through the dust and debris on the ground along the corridor, being careful to sift any items of interest along the way so that they created a giant rut along the middle of the corridor that ran off into the darkness. This corridor was truly gargantuan, even if not made for the Giants themselves, for it ran perhaps two hundred metres underneath the Acropolis. Occasionally we were handed bits of treasures, artefacts or unknown items: mainly bits of pottery among the debris. Most were decorated with some representation of the Olympians in combat: Zeus wielding his thunderbolt, Athena her Gorgon shield, and so on, yet occasionally we would find pictograms of the Giants again, usually depicted on their knees in subservience. Rarely would a piece be unbroken. Medas and I appraised many interesting yet underwhelming discoveries, but my attention was drawn elsewhere, not in the seen, but in the unseen. During a break in activities I took her to one side.
“What is this monster they are talking about?”
“Perhaps they mean the Giants, the Gigantes themselves,” she said, coyly.
I made my best incredulous face at her, practised through years of Stoical scepticism. “They don’t mean that, and you know it.”
“Hey, you asked. I presume you asked because you were bored of looking at shard after shard of ancient Athenian pottery. Look, here’s another one. This one shows a part of a thyrsus. Ooh!”
Again, my incredulous face. “Why did you wake me last night? Are you alright? I confess, I think we may be better off leaving.”
She straightened up and put the pottery prop aside. “We signed a contract. We are obliged to complete the dig. And I feel very comfortable here. We are on the cusp of breaching the very limits of our understanding. We stand on the brink, Antonios.”
She turned away but I took her arm. “When you said something unnatural was down here, I scoffed. But now I’m inclined to agree; this – all this – is very, very far from normal. But you sound like you think there is something…” I found the word I was about to say sounded quite sour in my mouth. “…something supernatural down here.”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t believe there is a monster down here any more than you. Maybe they believe it is Hades, or Achilles reborn, I don’t know. I woke you last night because…” she turned and looked, somewhat vacantly I thought, towards the workers scooping up dust and debris on the floor of this cavernous place, “… because you were the only person I could tell.”
She turned back to me and gave me a strange look, her nose half wrinkled and her eyes creased at the ends with something approaching her trademark anger, but perhaps tugged back at the last by some sadness deep within her. “It’s sick,” she said, almost at a whisper. “It needs to be cleaned out.” She took my hand and clasped it tight before pulling me down to her height and whispering in my ear. “I do not trust Alexis.”
I pulled back gently to see her face and spoke softly. “We are cleaning it out. And I would have come here regardless. I don’t trust Alexis either, but I don’t think he is evil. Yes, it is dangerous here, but then so is life.” I paused.
She shook her head. “Not this place. This place has a purity, a power.” She nodded upwards. “Up there.“
I decided that this had gone far enough. “You need to get out of here, Medas. Contract or no contract, let the bastards sue me. This place, your research… it is making you sick, and I do not like it.”
At that moment, there was a cry up ahead from the workers. Alarmed, we ran forwards a few dozen yards to see one of the diggers – a man – being chastised and laughed at by his peers. Suddenly, from apparently nowhere, Albert appeared at my side, chuckling away.
“He says he saw a monster, the poor sod,” he said, dusting down his lapels as he laughed. “A monster with yellow eyes and cold breath.” Albert allowed himself another little chuckle, then cast his mirth aside. “Silly fool.”
“What did he see?” asked Medas, more interested in this new event than my intervention.
“Look up there,” he said, pointing up the walls. Upon the ledge was a gargoyle in the exaggerated form of a wolf with a serpent’s legs, with holes carved into its eyes and mouth and apparently a hollow head which, inexplicably, acted as a sconce for a live torch of fire. There it burned, fire, as though it had been burning for the last three thousand years. But, of course, it had not.
“Albert, that’s fire,” I said. “Who put it there?”
“One of the workers, I suppose, as a gag,” he said, smiling. “Don’t be such a grumpy Stoic, Antonios. Good grief, is this what you’re like all the while with this lovely young lady?” he said, gesticulating with a grin towards Medas who, I am sorry to say, enjoyed his flippant English patter, and rewarded it with a smile of her own.
One of the diggers, a young lady who introduced herself as Kat, approached us humbly and requested our advice.
“On what, my dear?” asked Albert, now perhaps overconfident in his abilities to impress younger women with his academic élan.
“Professors,” said Kat. “There is something more. The corridor has ended. Dr Papidou has said you should look at what we have found.”
Medas looked at me, perhaps in a silent request to restore some gravity to the situation (always rely on a Stoic for that), or perhaps to humour her some more, or perhaps even a grin of triumph. “Come, then, show us what you have found.”
What they had found was that the corridor, this great hall, had simply ended. It had bent around to the right for perhaps four hundred metres in total, bending so much that the great doors were no longer visible at the other end.
“It’s a dead end,” I said, disappointed, before we’d reached the wall itself.
“Yes, but there is something here,” said Kat, and beckoned us on. Medas stayed behind me, looking this way and that, as if untrusting of the surroundings.
Ultimately, we arrived at the very end of the corridor, a blank wall that scaled up to the ceiling, forty feet high, as it had been this whole time. The only distinguishing feature was a type of tabernacle set into the wall, this time merely at a man’s height, some four feet off the ground. The tabernacle once may have held water, or some other liquid, but now it was dry. Stooping over it was a large wolf on its haunches, much like Lupercalia, its head and facial features grossly exaggerated to gargoylesque proportions, as if daring the onlooker to use the tabernacle. Its eyes were jet black, deep holes gouged out of the stone, offering a glimpse into the soul of the beast.
“Extraordinary,” whispered Albert, pushing past the diggers to get a closer look. “Come here, Antonios. Look, the eyes are hollow. I wonder…” He leant over the wolf’s head, stuck two fingers into the eye sockets, and there was a loud click that echoed around the hall. One of the dig team gasped and pointed at the wolf’s head, stepping back as he did so. From my vantage point, just to the left of the tabernacle, I squinted in disbelief, but what was happening was clear: an orange light began to throb behind the eyes of the wolf. Albert, intrigued, knelt in front of the stone creature and peered into its brightening eyes.
“Extraordinary…” he said.
The whoosh that came next, and the puff of light and smoke accompanying it, sent me staggering back, and I was still blinking away the brightness when the screams came. First came just one, faintly familiar, and then came others. Thumps from my heart echoed in my ear as the smoke cleared, and my throat constricted with horror as the scene became apparent. On the floor, on his back, screeching, his hands convulsively scrabbling about his face, lay my old friend Albert. Perhaps half a dozen thin wooden sticks, each a foot long, still glowing orange with the terrible heat from the innards of that wicked stone wolf, protruded from Albert’s eyes. Frozen with horror, I found nothing to say or do that seemed adequate, and simply stood agog, terror dragging my feet into the ground. People pushed past me, a couple armed with first-aid boxes and lights. For a few seconds chaos reigned, as the diggers clamoured around for a better view, and then howled with fright and tried to get away altogether. As the entirety of the dig team began running back towards the entrance, no doubt to besiege the helicopters, up among them went cries of sabotage, of bloody murder, of booby traps, and I swore for a second above it all I heard the voice of Alexis, screeching, but then it was gone. A spasm wrenched my shoulders as I was knocked off my feet by a fleeing man. I almost leapt out of my skin when a hand gripped my waist. I rose up, heart hammering, ready to strike whoever had accosted me, only to see Helena standing behind me.
“What happened?” she asked, as the air cleared, and only a few of us remained.
“Albert,” I said, the words somehow not seeming real. “Albert’s been blinded.”
“Blinded? My God!”
She was about to run to see him, but I grabbed her arm and pulled her back. “Wait! Do you…” and at that pointed I almost admonished myself for the absurdity of the conjecture I was about to utter, but in that moment of frothing madness it forced its way out of me. “Do you, perhaps, sense that we are not merely explorers here, but trespassers?”
She looked at me with a funny look, and my grip relinquished.
“What is it?” I asked, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking past me, over my shoulder, watching the dig team flee this place, her eyes wet with despair. I looked over my shoulder and felt my jaw sag. I tried to cry out, for what logical reason I cannot say, but before the sound left my mouth it was drowned out by a gargantuan groan of ancient stone. The ceiling, not fifty metres away from where we stood, back towards the entrance from the sinkhole, collapsed. By the time I realised I too was screaming, the darkness was absolute.