Dear friends and neighbors, as of 11:30 am today, the first draft of my feature-length screenplay Bunny is complete. Next up: print it out, get to work with the old red pen, and spend the next few days working it from a rough first draft to a presentable first draft.You can find out more about the project here, or check out the offshoot that may still yet come to pass here.
Drill a hole in my head, let all the voices out.
I’ll share salvation with the world; I’m blind in the holy light.
Cut the skin from my flesh, let the poison out.
I’ve stained your soul with my sin.
All the walls come down.
All the words are spilling from my mind.
I can’t stop it now.
The emptiness consumes me…
Drill a hole in my head, let all the voices out.
Drill a hole in my head, let all the voices out.
Drill a hole in my head, let all the voices out.
Drill a hole in my head, let all the voices…
In the morning is the work. There is no telephone or television, just the work. There is no internet or email, just the work. There is no music, no books, no games, no toys of any kind, just the work. Everything that needs to happen today can happen after noon, after the work.
Continued from Part Three
As we penetrated deeper into the mountain’s interior the following day, the air grew warmer and more humid. The fungus on the cavern walls grew into larger shapes of ears, tubes and stools. The illumination from the fungus was as bright as twilight now and our eyes were so well adjusted we had no need for torches any longer save for reading.
We stopped for lunch in a level, open area of the cavern. I took the opportunity to study the fungus while the meal was being prepared and pulled three large fungal ears from the rocky wall. They came cleanly away and I discovered an outcropping of finger-sized gray crystals behind them. I called DePinto over to identify them as Professor Russell was receiving treatment from Dr. Baker for his blistered feet. DePinto approached me carrying an unlit lantern. Finding myself alone with him, I could not resist the opportunity to ask him a question that had been on my mind since first we’d met.
“So DePinto, I must know. How did you come by that wonderful nose of yours?” I asked.
“I was born with it.” He said, thumbing it with a wink. He handed me the lantern then fished in his pocket for a box of matches.
“Of course,” I said. “But it is so exquisitely crooked; surely that’s not solely the work of God.”
“You are very observant, my friend. In my youth, I met a man who endeavored to improve on God’s own design for my comely face using only his knowledge of pugilism and two very large fists.” He pulled a match from the box. “He did not invoke the name of the almighty at the time.” He struck the match and I lifted the lamp’s glass chimney. “But he was rather concerned with the honor of his beautiful fiancé, or rumored lack thereof.” He lit the lamp and took it from me.
“Rumored?” I asked.
“If I remember correctly, that rumor turned out to be true.” He said with another wink. The dancing nearly white light from the oil lamp revealed the true color of crystals I uncovered. They were not gray, as they appeared under the bluish-green fungal luminescence, but deep green. It was DePinto’s opinion they were emeralds and he removed a pencil-sized specimen with a hammer and hurried it over to Russell for confirmation. A moment later, Russell hobbled over in great haste on his bare, bandaged feet. DePinto and Drs. Keith and Baker followed him.
Russell let out a whistle when he saw the outcropping of crystals and he lingered a moment simply beaming at them. He confirmed they were emeralds and told us they were some of the largest naturally occurring precious gems he had ever seen. Dr. Keith let out a holler and slapped his thigh then took DePinto’s sample and hurried it over to Mr. Norman. Keith and Norman returned along with Norman’s granddaughter a moment later. Keith clapped his hand on my back and informed Norman that I had discovered the gems. Norman appeared delighted with the find and had DePinto remove another larger emerald which he immediately gave to his granddaughter. She smiled examining the gem in the lamp light, but it was a queer, closed-lip smile, almost a smirk. I looked at Baker and saw that he too had noticed her odd expression. The other men were distracted by the gemstone and paid her little mind. On reflection, I don’t know if her expression betrayed a foreknowledge of the events that were to unfold over the next few days, and the significance emerald was to have on both her and my future, or if she was simply a spoiled girl, beautiful and entitled to the world’s riches.
Norman pulled another small ear of fungus free from the crystals and looked it. He asked me if I had any specific information on what it was and whether or not it was poisonous or, efficacious. I explained it was an heretofore unknown variety and that I would need to examine it in a laboratory before I could draw any conclusions. Normally toxicity was determined by feeding samples to rats or other small mammals over a period of time but, as we had no animals along with us such a determination would have to wait.
We heard a general commotion in the camp behind us as speculation arose regarding my discovery. Keith sent DePinto to spread the word that all was well and he would be announcing good news over lunch. Indeed, his announcement did much to buoy the group’s morale as he declared our expedition a success and that each man would receive a substantial bonus once commercial mining commenced on his claim.
After lunch our descent was slowed as the path grew steeper and more treacherous. In many places, Tanner had to set up safety lines before we could proceed downward and by the time we made camp around 7:00 PM, everyone was exhausted from the increased physical exertion, and ready for supper save for two of the natives who appeared to be full of energy. This was particularly odd as both men were porters and had been carrying very heavy loads on their backs all day.
I noticed the two men speaking at length with Norman and his granddaughter as the others were setting up camp and going about the business of preparing the meal. After some time the pair approached me. I recognized the taller man as one of our interpreters and he asked me if I would be so kind as to point him toward more of the fungus that I had discovered earlier that day growing on the emeralds. I asked him what interest he had in it and he explained that he and the other man had eaten the ear that Norman had collected and that they believed it was the reason for their increased vigor and stamina.
I was shocked at the revelation and asked him why they had eaten a potentially deadly mushroom in the first place. The interpreter explained that they had used it to flavor their lunch and found it to be quite delicious. I told him such behavior with unknown fungus often proves to be fatal and that they were lucky their experiment had not killed them. He asked again if I would help them and I declined telling them I was busy with my work and that they should not, under any circumstance, be eating anything we find in the cave. The interpreter started to argue with me and I dismissed him, instructing him to take his friend and make himself useful with setting up the camp. Instead, they returned to Norman and soon Norman was approaching me.
“Why the devil don’t you point out that mushroom for them?” he asked me with a scowl.
“It’s dangerous. There’s no telling what effect the fungus will have on them long-term.”
“Clearly its beneficial,” said Norman. “Look how energetic they are!”
“How did they come by it in the first place Mr. Norman? Did you tell them to eat it?”
“Certainly not,” he said running his finger over his mustache. “I left it on a table without a thought before lunch and was unaware the two had taken any interest in it until The English speaker approached me moments ago. He told me he and the other man made a lunch of the thing and that they now wanted more. I suggested they speak to you about it.”
“They are not lab animals, Mr. Keith, they are human beings.”
“Of course I know that,” said Keith raising his voice. “But they’ve already eaten it once with no harm done, why not let them continue? There are treasures more precious than emeralds beneath this mountain and you yourself will share in the rewards.” He was smiling at me but I didn’t like the look of it.
“It’s too dangerous. Besides, months or years of laboratory work will be required before our discoveries can be proven safe and brought to market, Surely it’s not worth risking the lives of these men just to get an early glimpse into the future.”
“They’re just mushrooms!” he said, and then he turned and walked back to his tent.
The following morning it was clear my warnings had fallen on deaf ears as I witnessed the two porters harvesting large glowing mushroom ears from the cavern walls and giving them to the other natives. I hurried over to Dr. Keith and urged him to forbid the men from eating the fungus as they were under his employ. He shrugged and told me it was too late. The natives had been up before us and had already been feeding on the queer mushrooms for half an hour.
A shot rang out from across the camp followed by a shrill screeching and bleating sound. A man yelled and Dr. Keith and I drew our revolvers and rushed toward the sound. More shots followed and a chorus of screeching echoed throughout the cavern. As we closed the distance I was struck by an horrific, rancid fishy odor and upon approaching the commotion, saw a man on the ground squirming in a pool of inky-black liquid. Bowers stood near him, firing a Winchester repeating rifle into a mass of undulating tentacles that was ascending the cavern wall. Another repugnant creature lay dying a few yards away clacking its beak-like mouth. It aimed what looked like its face in our direction and let loose a stream of its fishy smelling ink which landed harmlessly to our left. I put a bullet through its eye and it fell still.
Doctor Baker arrived and I noticed the man in the black liquid had ceased moving. “Help him!” I shouted, and then I took aim at the creature climbing the wall and emptied my pistol into it. It clung to the wall a moment and then fell and landed with a wet crunching sound. Its loathsome tentacles writhed for a few moments then it was still.
“There were more of them. They crawled in there,” said Bowers pointing his rifle at a crevice in the cavern wall about fifty feet above us. “At least three more. What in God’s name are they?”
Baker dragged the wounded man out of the black pool and was doing his best to wipe the ink from his face. “Water,” he yelled toward the camp. A porter loped over with a jug which Baker took and uncorked. He hefted it and poured its contents over the wounded man’s head and face. I could see it was DePinto by his unmistakably crooked nose. “Help me get his shirt off” said Baker.
“Keep on the lookout,” I said to Bowers as I knelt down. I put a hand on the back of DePinto’s neck to hold him upright and Baker ripped the ink-soaked shirt open and pulled it off of him. His upper body was completely black with the stuff.
“It’s poison…” said Baker, “…a paralytic.” He doused DePinto’s torso with water again and wiped away as much of the ink as he could with his bare hands, then he sat back, holding his hands up. They were completely limp. I saw his eyes roll back in his head and then he toppled over, unconscious.
I lay De Pinto down then rolled Baker over onto his back and loosened his collar. My own hands were going numb where they had touched the ink and I washed them off, then poured water over Baker’s hands and called for another jug. I heard screams coming from the other side of the camp. I tried to stand up but instead, I toppled over next to Baker.
I closed my eyes and soon was completely paralyzed, lying face down on the cold rock. I heard more gunfire, screaming and shouting. The sounds slipped farther and farther away as I fought to maintain consciousness then there was nothing.
To be continued…
Continued from Part Two
Early the following morning I was awoken by a thundering sound coming from the mouth of the cave. Everyone rushed to see what was happening and we found the entrance was sealed by an avalanche. The landing outside the cave was over thirty feet wide meaning we’d have at least fifteen feet of snow and ice to dig through to clear the breach.
One of the porters said his brother had been outside when the avalanche occurred. There was no sign of him in the first few feet of loose snow. Tanner told us late spring avalanches such as this were not uncommon on mountains such as this and our best course of action was to leave the work of clearing the entrance until we return from our journey. The missing man was either buried beyond our reach and already dead or carried down the mountain with the avalanche. His brother was inconsolable and continued to dig at the massive frozen wall with an ice axe and hand shovel. We left him to it and returned to breakfast and break camp.
Baker and I discussed our situation over cups of black coffee and oatmeal. As we finished he checked to make sure no one was eavesdropping and then confided in me that Dr. Keith had not told the whole truth the night before. Dr. Baker had been chosen for the expedition partly because of his expertise in creating medicinal tinctures from minerals and herbs. Maxwell’s scrolls told of aquatic plants and cave fungi the inhabitants of Atlantis used to extend their lives almost indefinitely. Keith believed much of the island’s early wealth came from trading life-extending elixirs with regional rulers and tribal leaders. This explained why many of the people in the Old Testament lived for hundreds of years while later generations, born after the fall of Atlantis, had normal lifespans. He believed this was the real reason Mr. Norman was with the expedition. He was a man with far fewer days ahead of him than behind and he was painfully aware that all his money could not buy him more time, perhaps, until now.
I told Baker I was beginning to have doubts about Dr. Keith’s motives and was finding his secretiveness unsettling. Clearly Professor Abbasi was no common thief as Keith claimed and his pursuit of Keith’s maps and scrolls was directly related to his membership in the Protectors of Atlas. Keith would have known this when I contacted him, yet he remained silent. Also, I saw a link between Keith expecting to find gold and emeralds in the caves below and the fact Abbasi and his accomplice wore pendants made of gold and emeralds. Baker agreed there was reason for concern but thought there was little we could do now that we were sealed in the caves besides be on our guard.
The steep descent into the interior of the mountain began without fanfare an hour later. Tanner led the group. The native mountaineer and his assistants followed readying the path for the rest of us. We were each roped to a companion for safety and instructed to wear our spiked crampons on our boots until instructed otherwise.
The trek that day was unremarkable until the early afternoon. The air grew warmer and more humid as we descended and soon a soft blue-green glow shown from the crevices below us. We wound our way downward and found bioluminescent fungus lining the cave walls. Closer inspection revealed heretofore undiscovered insects living among the fungus. I was delighted and in a matter of minutes, gathered and cataloged many specimens. Dr. Baker inquired on behalf of the party if I believed the fungus was poisonous and fouling the air. I told him it was unlikely given that it appeared to be the food source for the insects as many of them had taken on its characteristic glow. The party was relieved at this and after a short break, we continued onward and downward.
A few hundred yards further and the caves were so well illuminated that we scarcely needed our torches. Even the dimmest crevices were as bright as if under the radiance of a full moon. The guides in front continued on with their torches burning but the rest of us found having two free hands more beneficial than the additional light.
Around 6:30 PM we made camp on a wide plateau over a gaping chasm. I was assembling my tent when Bowers whistled and shouted for a torch bearer to join him near the ledge. Moments later he called the rest of us over. He was kneeling over a pile of debris and raking through it with a utensil. “Ash, from a campfire,” he said. “Looks recent too. Weeks, maybe months old.”
“Are you certain?” asked Russell. Bowers picked up a blackened lump, snapped it in two and handed it to him. It was clearly some kind of wood.
“May I,” I said. “I studied up on the local flora and fauna on my way to Cyprus.” He handed me the pieces and I examined them in the torchlight. “Pinus Brutia, Turkish pine.” I dug a thumbnail into it. “It’s fresh, certainly no more than a year or two old.” I put it to my nose, “Smells of kerosene, or some other solvent.
“Dr. Keith?” said Bowers looking up at him, “anything you’d care to share with us?”
“Don’t be absurd,” said Keith. “I’m as surprised as any of you.”
“Are you?” said Bowers getting to his feet and dusting off his hands. “Old Tanner here is doing a marvelous job of leading us below. It’s almost like he already knows the way.”
“I’m a professional mountaineer Mr. Bowers,” said Tanner. “Finding the fast, safe path is what I do.”
Bowers shook his head. “I’ve been on climbs before. I’ve never been on one where we didn’t have to double back at least once, and descents are usually harder.”
“Bowers, we have a map. You know that,” said Keith.
“Yes, I’ve seen it,” said Bowers. “It’s not very detailed.” He looked at our native mountaineer. “What about you? You’re from Kuzun, aren’t you? You’d know if anyone came through, poking around the mountain recently.”
“No English,” said the man shaking his head, and he looked at one of the interpreters. The man translated and the mountaineer looked at Keith for a moment. Keith shook his head and the man looked back at Bowers and shrugged.
“Of course,” said Bowers. “Look, I know you’re up to something Dr. Keith, I have for a long time now. You and a few of the others, hell, maybe all of the others, you’ve got your secrets, and your plans.”
Dr. Keith interrupted, “You are mad if you believe…”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re all trapped here now, together, come what may. I just wanted you to know, that I know you’re up to something and you can’t be trusted – wanted everyone to know. Now they do.” Bowers walked back to his tent. Dr. Keith shook his head.
“It could have been anyone a year or two ago,” said Keith. “Strong, you said the wood could be two years old, right? Why would I…” I nodded and he looked around the group. No one spoke. Maxwell was looking away. Norman pulled at his moustache looking from man to man.
A horrible scream came from the cliffs above us, a human scream, and something else then, a bleating, a gurgling. “Farid” Yelled one of the natives getting to his feet. There was a great commotion as men rushed to arm themselves with pistols, ice-axes and knives.
The scream grew into an awful death wail which was choked out by a queer chattering sound. We heard the shrill bleating again and a mewing sound that sent a deathly chill up the spine of every living soul on the plateau. We were frozen there some in shock, others in fear, waiting for the ungodly noise to stop.
I grabbed an elephant gun and torch and called for Drs. Keith and Baker to join me, then told Russell to take charge of the party and set up a defensive circle near the campfires until our return. I handed the torch to Keith who was armed with a revolver and lead the two men up the path, my elephant gun at the ready.
We climbed in silence listening keenly so as not to be taken by surprise by the unknown thing, or things ahead of us. I saw it, only for a moment as we rounded a corner, the torch light glinting in its wide green eyes, off its glistening membranous skin and on its thick writhing tentacles which were tearing flesh from the dead man’s face and feeding it into a shining black beak in the center of its mass. The blood ran cold in my veins at the sight of the hideous thing. It sprayed a jet of fishy smelling inky fluid at us with a hiss and a shudder. The stream doused our torch and, an instant later, the creature was gone over the side of the cliff before I’d even thought to fire my weapon.
“What in God’s name?” said Baker, steadying himself with a hand on my arm. I walked to the cliff’s edge and peered down. There was no sign of the creature, just the otherworldly blue-green glow that we’d become accustomed to accented here and there by deep black crevasses. Keith was unable to relight the torch but there was enough ambient light for Baker to perform a cursory examination of the body. The man was dressed like one of the natives from our group. He had two large openings on either side of his chest a few inches below his collarbone. There was a massive wound on the left side of his head where part of his skull was missing and the brain was exposed.
Dr. Keith looked at the right side of the man’s face which was undamaged and said, “It’s Farid, the porter who lost his brother to the avalanche this morning.” The poor man had apparently given up his hopeless task and, finding himself alone, followed after us hoping to rejoin our group. “We must dispose of the body,” said Keith. “Best not to leave it to be skeletonized and stumble over it on our way back.”
“His people may want to perform some sort of service for him. Are you familiar at all with their customs?” said Baker looking up at Keith.
“Not at all,” said Keith. “Either way, we’ll have to heave him over the cliff afterward. There’s no way we can bury him amidst the solid rock.”
“We have to burn the body,” I said, “right here, as soon as possible. Whatever attacked him now has a taste for human flesh. At the moment, it’s the only one. If we pitch him over the cliff, who knows how many others, or what else will acquire the taste and come looking for more?”
“Indeed,” said Baker. “We’ll need kerosene.”
“We must go for it together,” I said. “It’s no surprise this man was attacked while alone. Most predators prey on the weak, the young and those that are separated from the herd.”
“Tell no one of the creature until we’ve dealt with the body,” said Keith. “We don’t need a panic to erupt while we’re away.” Baker and I agreed and the three of us proceeded back to our campsite on the plateau.
Russell had the group in a tight circle around the campfire and he was the first to address us asking what we’d seen. I told him we would explain everything upon our return but, for now, we needed a fresh torch and a can of kerosene. The group was, understandably on edge and I told them there was no immediate danger and that they should remain calm and in their defensive positions until our return. A porter brought us a can of kerosene and a torch. Baker put his hand out and the porter gestured to come with us. I shook my head and he handed the items to Baker and returned to the group.
The three of us made our way back up the path only to discover the body was gone. Each of us looked at the other but no one spoke. Baker doused the blood stains and remaining bits of flesh with kerosene and set them ablaze. Dr. Keith asked Baker and me to do the talking upon our return so Bowers would not implicate him in a conspiratorial murder plot. Baker suggested we tell the others that we hadn’t gotten a good look at the creature and that whatever it was moved off into the darkness as we approached. This, he thought would be more calming to the group. We all agreed then returned to camp.
Upon our return to camp, Baker told the group the porter had simply been attacked by a wild animal and had not survived his wounds. The creature fled when we approached and we were unable to determine what it was and when we attempted to retrieve the body it fell down the cliff. I had suggested cleansing the scene of the attack with fire so the scent would not attract more animals so near to our location.
The general reaction was relief. While everyone was concerned to be in giant caverns with man-eating wild animals, it was at least something they could understand. Bowers himself said it was no different than being on safari, or in the jungle. I suggested we always travel in groups of three or more and that we post four armed guards around the camp at all time. We agreed that each man would take a two hour shift and the only person exempted was Mr. Norman’s granddaughter Evelyn.
The natives were heartsick at the loss of their two countrymen and asked for an hour after their morning prayers the following morning to perform a religious service for Farid and his brother. Dr. Keith agreed and we all offered them our condolences.
Baker and I took guard duty together later that night. We stood beside a fire at the edge of the camp near the downward path and quietly discussed the day’s events. After one day in the mountain, we were trapped behind a wall of ice and two of our party were dead, one of whom was eaten alive, and yet the only thing that alarmed us was the nature of the creature that had killed the porter. Everyone involved, save perhaps Norman’s granddaughter, knew the danger of undertaking an expedition that required both mountaineering and spelunking into uncharted land. Many of us had survived other hazardous expeditions, some had encountered large predatory animals in the wild before, and still others survived two wars. But the creature that killed and was eating that poor man was something completely unexpected, something from a terrible nightmare.
My sleep that night was fitful and I awoke twice shaking and in a cold sweat. Waking to the eerie otherworldly glow of that deep cavern was like waking up deep underwater and my sleep addled mind struggled at first to make sense of where I was and that I was still breathing air.
Continued in Part Four
Continued from Part One
Abbasi tucked his revolver into his coat and lead the way out into the hall. The brute shoved me and I followed Abbasi.
I waited until we were in the hallway with my apartment door shut before I drew the derringer from my coat pocket. The Persians had been foolish not to search the garment before putting me in it but likely were lulled into complacency by their total domination of our interaction up until that point. The pistol was small and light enough that neither man noticed it in my stiff, heavy overcoat. While it only carried two small caliber bullets it was quite deadly at close range and would, at the very least, even my odds against them. Being in the hallway offered me two advantages: First, the confined space would give them less area in which to avoid my attack once I produced the concealed weapon; second, the tiled hallway floor would be much easier to clean than the carpet in my room.
I spun and lifted the pistol to the brute’s left eye. His hands were coming up when I pulled the trigger. The crack of the report sounded like a hammer on hardwood and I turned back to Abbasi who himself was spinning to face me and pulling his own pistol free of his coat. The derringer was at his right temple when I squeezed the trigger. After verifying both men were dead I sent for the police.
Detective Dawson’s inquiries regarding Abbasi with local universities and the Iranian embassy in New York were met with firm denials. Both Abbasi and the brute were carrying expertly counterfeit identification and were never positively identified. Each man was also wearing a solid gold pendant around his neck. The design was of a triangle that contained five sets of twin emeralds surrounded by three jagged concentric circles. Local and state experts were unable to identify the design’s significance or place of origin but a professor of ancient history from Miskatonic University named Ferdinand Ashley identified the symbol as being a glyph representing an ancient Mesopotamian proto-cult that was active around 2100 BC called the Guardians of Atlas. As far as he knew, no information about them survived beyond their name and the strange symbol.
I sent word to Dr. Keith about my run in with Abbasi and warned him to be on his guard should the Persian have more accomplices on his trail. Early in April I received word back from him explaining that he knew of Abbasi and the man was no more than a common thief acting above his station. He congratulated me on dispatching the villain and suggested I should not concern myself further with the matter. In his correspondence he included an itinerary and travel bookings for me through to Cyprus. He asked me to make one last go of persuading Hawthorne to join us but Hawthorne would not be moved, and once again, urged me not to go myself.
Three weeks later I was in a breezy open room in Cyprus sipping a local desert wine and meeting the remaining members of our expedition over lunch. Professor Russell, soft and potbellied was our geologist. He had a particularly high pitched voice and loose wisps of corn silk colored hair ringing his otherwise bald head. His assistant De Pinto, whose boxer’s nose took an unexpected turn in the middle, was the youngest of our group. He had an athletic build and was generally the most enthusiastic of our group. He spoke with a Brooklyn accent and was wise enough to listen more than he talked which was not the case for our pinch-faced chemist, Bowers who didn’t have a college degree and was “damn proud of it.” Bowers had worked in his field for over twenty-five years and, by his own account, knew more about it than any chemistry professor anywhere. He was fiftyish, lanky and had a habit of checking his wristwatch whenever anyone else was speaking. Our European climbing expert was a mountainous swede named Tanner whose blond hair was so long it reached down to his shoulders.
The man who rounded out our party, and was to become my closest friend during the expedition, was a middle aged medical doctor named Martin Baker. He had a well-waxed moustache that curled up neatly at each end, was graying at the temples and looked to be very fit for a man his age. I knew we would get on famously when, during Bower’s first impromptu lecture to the group on why higher education was a waste of time, Baker looked me in the eye then looked over at Bowers and shook his head ever so slightly.
After lunch Dr. Keith informed us we would be delayed in Cyprus for a week or so while he secured final approvals for our expedition from the central government of the Soviet Union. Bowers grumbled about the inconvenience and we were all assured we would be remunerated for our time and told to enjoy the opportunity to get to know Cyprus and rest before we continued on.
Mr. Norman arrived a day later by way of England accompanied by his granddaughter Evelyn. She was twenty one, beautiful with long black hair and sapphire-blue eyes. She had a cultured air about her and a casual disregard for others that only comes from growing up with privilege. Dr. Keith informed us individually that she would be accompanying us on the expedition as Norman’s personal secretary and biographer. He also told us to keep away from her and that any transgressions would have “serious consequences.”
Dr. Baker and I decided to make the best of the delay by spending our time in cafes indulging in the local fare and enjoying each other’s company. We dined on kebabs and calamari. He drank Ouzo with water while I preferred imported beer. He’d served in the Great War but did not wish to talk about it. Instead, he told me of his exploits in Paris and Amsterdam and how friendly the women were to Americans after the war. He was greatly interested in my shooting skills and we discussed my training methods at length. He enjoyed hunting and was hoping to take part in a big game hunt in Africa after our expedition.
Four days after Keith received final approval for our expedition from the Soviets we were in Azerbaijan in the village of Kuzun which was eight miles north-east of Mount Shahdagh. It was there we completed our party with the addition of several locals who served as guides, porters, cooks, laborers, and translators. In foreign countries, the more locals you have on your payroll, the easier your life will be and they all seemed to be good, hardworking men, many of whom had families of their own. We set up camp west of the village, as there was no suitable lodging available among the native dwellings, and began our final preparations for the expedition.
The peak of Mount Shahdagh was clearly visible from the village. It loomed up over the other mountains in the range and looked like an enormous clenched fist ringed by thick white clouds. The villagers called it “solğun dağ,” – Pale Mountain purportedly because of its light limestone color but after our first supper together, and a good deal of wine, one of our translators confessed the mountain was so named because “pale is the color of death.” The mountain was nearly inaccessible and no one had ever reached the summit which was estimated to be close to thirteen thousand feet above sea level. Higher elevations were only accessible during winter when the many waterfalls that ringed the peak’s sheer cliffs would freeze solid allowing climbers to make their way up the walls of ice.
Dr. Keith’s map showed the mountain surrounded by a large earthen moat and our guides confirmed Shahdagh was encircled by two rings of tall sheer cliffs separated by a deep craggy depression. They explained the mountain was further surrounded by three more nearly concentric rings of marble and limestone outcroppings that demarcated two naturally occurring moats which had long ago been filled in with soft earth. Native folklore warned of ancient gods who slept beneath Pale Mountain and said they had carved the moats into the earth to keep the villagers from disturbing their divine slumber. While none of the natives in our group actually believed these bedtime stories, many in the village were apprehensive about our expedition and refused to trade with us, take our money, or aid us in any way.
After two days of planning and preparation we were ready to begin our expedition proper. We set out for Mount Shahdagh just after dawn the following morning and our caravan reached the outer cliffs around noon. It took us the rest of the day to make our way down into the wide ravine then up the other side. By sundown we had established a base camp at the foot of the Pale Mountain. Our party was in grand spirits and we celebrated the completion of our first day with dinner and much wine. The natives sang us songs from their land and danced around the large campfire. I still remember the faces of the four men we left behind to tend the base camp. They were happy and laughing and full of life and the thrill of adventure as we all grew closer that night, bound by our shared experience. I am truly grateful my final memories of them are happy ones.
The following morning we began our ascent stopping briefly to investigate a cluster of caves at the foot of the mountain. From there we climbed straight on until near sundown when we discovered the high exterior cave entrance that was marked on Dr. Keith’s map. It did our spirits good to be out of the stinging winds that buffeted the mountain. Our guides made camp around a turn in the cave so we were protected from the elements. We opened tins of kerosene and quickly built two camp fires. Professor Maxwell and Dr. Keith busied themselves with studying the artifacts collected from the lower caves earlier in the morning. De Pinto and the natives gathered pails of snow from outside the mouth of the cave. Two were set over the fires and a hasty stew was assembled from dried meat, beans and a few fresh vegetables. Four other pails were set aside to melt so we could refill our canteens in the morning.
After an hour’s rest and two cups of stew I collected and cataloged three vials of cave scrapings. Dr. Keith called an evening meeting of the expedition’s principals to discuss our future. Both Maxwell and Keith were highly animated and the heretofore irritable Norman looked positively giddy which seemed odd to me considering his age and strenuousness of the day’s climb.
Once we were all seated around the fire, Keith spoke. “Gentlemen, our course is set. Professor Maxwell has translated the runes discovered in the lower anterior caves and they confirm what I expected months ago. We are standing above the ruins of the richest and most famous lost city in all of antiquity. Tomorrow we continue on the most important journey in ten millennia. The next leg of our expedition leads us into the very heart of Atlantis.” There was silence as we each pondered his announcement.
Professor Russell cleared his throat then said “Dr. Keith, I’m no expert in Atlantean legend, but wasn’t Atlantis presumed to be somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean?”
Keith nodded. “Plato thought it was west of Gibraltar at the gates of the Mediterranean Sea. Other scholars postulated it was in the middle of the Mediterranean, but their knowledge came from stories passed down orally for over nine thousand years. In Byblos, I discovered written documents from 2000 BC that spoke of this place, and the god of the oceans, and his human bride, and much more.”
Maxwell spoke up pointing to a glyph carved into a round stone. “Look, we found this in the caves this morning. It’s the symbol of Atlas encircled by another symbol that means island – the island of Atlas, known to the modern world as Atlantis.”
“Let me see that,” I said. Maxwell handed me the stone and I regarded the markings carved into it. “Back in the states I was attacked by a Persian man who called himself Abbasi. He wore an ancient symbol similar to this signifying membership in a group called the Guardians of Atlas…”
Keith interrupted, “In 9600 BC Atlantis was the ultimate power in this hemisphere. It had technology rivaling that of our own today, weapons of pure energy, means of transportation the likes of which we can scarcely imagine. Atlantis, where legend has it Poseidon carved a mountain into a castle for his human lover Cleito and ringed it with three giant moats, two eroded away over the millennia but the innermost remained and we ourselves traversed it yesterday to reach this very mountain.”
“But Atlantis was an island. How did it end up under a mountain?” asked Russell.
“We don’t know,” said Maxwell. “It’s one of the mysteries we hope to solve in the caverns below us. But the mountain was mentioned prominently in both Plato’s account, and the scrolls from Byblos.”
“What else haven’t you told us?” said Bowers.
“What?” said Keith. “What do you…”
Bowers stood and took a step towards him “You kept Atlantis to yourself, what else are you keeping?” He turned to Maxwell, “Exactly what else was in those scrolls of yours?” He looked around to the rest of us. “What did they tell you…” he pointed to Russell, “or you?” he pointed to Baker.
Dr. Keith spoke up, “I told each man why I needed him and nothing more. If you’d like an inventory Bowers, then here it is. I told Baker we needed a doctor, Tanner we needed a mountaineer, Russell, I needed an expert geologist because the scrolls speak of vast deposits of gold and emeralds, Strong is here to study the hordes of creatures that reportedly thrived under the mountain ten thousand years ago, Maxwell can read a dozen dead languages, you are here, Mr. Bowers, because of your knowledge of both chemistry and physics which I will need should we discover any ancient weapons or other amazingly advanced artifacts, Mr. Norman is here looking after his investment and I am here, in my capacity as an archeologist to discover the most import lost civilization of all time, and in my capacity as the leaders of this expedition, to make each and every one of us richer than you can possibly imagine.” The two were nearly nose to nose.
Bowers shook his head. “Nice speech, but I don’t buy it. I told you in Chicago I don’t like surprises. I don’t like secrets. It’s a sign of mistrust, or worse, disrespect.”
“You have my respect Mr. Bowers. Each of you does. If you prefer to divorce yourself from our expedition, if any of you do, you can go in peace in the morning. I’ll send a guide to take you back to Kuzun.”
“No more secrets,” said Bowers staring down Dr. Keith.
“I have none,” said Keith.
But the mountain had secrets, deep, dark, and ancient, and we were all at its mercy. Unfortunately for us, it had no mercy for the living. One man alone would make it out of that cave the next morning and he would never be seen again.
Continued in Part Three