Authors: James Rollins
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Historical
Trent studied the narrow valley. It seemed to have no bottom. Down below, a black pine forest rose out of a sea of fog. Sheer cliffs surrounded all sides. While he had packed ropes and rappelling harnesses, he hoped he wouldn’t need them.
But that wasn’t what was truly bothering him.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be going down there,” he said.
Charlie cocked an eyebrow at him. “After climbing all day?”
“What about that curse? What your grandfather—”
A hand waved dismissively. “The old man’s got one foot in the grave and a head full of peyote.” Charlie slapped him in the shoulder. “So don’t go crapping your pants. The cave probably has a few arrowheads, some broken pots. Maybe even a few bones, if we’re lucky. C’mon.”
Trent had no choice but to follow Charlie down a thin deer trail they’d discovered earlier. As they picked their way along, he frowned at the back of Charlie’s crimson jacket, emblazoned with the two feathers representing the University of Utah. Trent still wore his high school letterman jacket, bearing the Roosevelt Union cougar. The two of them had been best friends since elementary school, but lately they’d been growing apart. Charlie had just finished his first year at college, while Trent had gone into full-time employment at his dad’s auto-body shop. Even this summer, Charlie would be participating in an internship with the Uintah Reservation’s law group.
His friend was a rising star, one that Trent would soon need a telescope to watch from the tiny burg of Roosevelt. But what else was new? Charlie had always outshone Trent. Of course, it didn’t help matters that his friend was half Ute, with his people’s perpetual tan and long black hair. Trent’s red crew cut and the war of freckles across his nose and cheeks had forever relegated him to the role of Charlie’s wingman at school parties.
Though the thought went unvoiced, it was as if they both knew their friendship was about to end as adulthood fell upon their shoulders. So as a rite of passage, the two had agreed to this last adventure, to search for a cave sacred to the Ute tribes.
According to Charlie, only a handful of his tribal elders even knew about this burial site in the High Uintas Wilderness. Those who did were forbidden to speak of it. The only reason Charlie knew about it was that his grandfather liked his bourbon too much. Charlie doubted his grandfather even remembered showing him that old deer-hide map hidden in a hollowed-out buffalo horn.
Trent had first heard the tale when he was in junior high, huddled in a pup tent with Charlie. With a flashlight held to his chin for effect, his friend had shared the story. “My grandfather says the Great Spirit still haunts this cave. Guarding a huge treasure of our people.”
“What sort of treasure?” Trent had asked doubtfully. At the time he had been more interested in the
he’d sneaked out of his father’s closet. That was treasure enough for him.
Charlie had shrugged. “Don’t know. But it must be cursed.”
“What do you mean?”
His friend had shifted the flashlight closer to his chin, devilishly arching an eyebrow. “Grandfather says whoever trespasses into the Great Spirit’s cave is never allowed to leave.”
“Because if they do, the world will end.”
Right then, Trent’s old hound dog had let out an earsplitting wail, making them both jump. Afterward, they had laughed and talked deep into the night. Charlie ended up dismissing his grandfather’s story as superstitious nonsense. As a modern Indian, Charlie went out of his way to reject such foolishness.
Even so, Charlie had sworn Trent to secrecy and refused to take him to the place marked on the map—until now.
“It’s getting warmer down here,” Charlie said.
Trent held out a palm. His friend was right. The snowfall had been growing heavier, the flakes thickening, but as they descended, the air had grown warmer, smelling vaguely of spoiled eggs. At some point, the snowfall had turned to a drizzling rain. He wiped his hand on his pants and realized that the fog he’d spotted earlier along the bottom of the ravine was actually
The source appeared through the trees below: a small creek bubbling along a rocky channel at the bottom of the ravine.
“Smell that sulfur,” Charlie said with a sniff. Reaching the creek, he tested the water with a finger. “Hot. Must be fed by a geothermal spring somewhere around here.”
Trent was unimpressed. The mountains around here were riddled with such baths.
Charlie stood up. “This must be the right place.”
“Hot spots like this are sacred to my people. So it only makes sense that they would pick this place for an important burial site.” Charlie headed out, hopping from rock to rock. “C’mon. We’re close.”
Together, they followed the creek upstream. With each step, the air grew hotter. The sulfurous smell burned Trent’s eyes and nostrils. No wonder no one had ever found this place.
With his eyes watering, Trent wanted to turn back, but Charlie suddenly stopped at a sharp bend in the creek. His friend swung in a full circle, holding out his cell phone like a divining rod, then checked the map he’d stolen from his grandfather’s bedroom this morning.
Trent searched around. He didn’t see any cave. Just trees and more trees. Overhead, snow had begun to frost on the higher elevations, but it continued to fall as a sickly rain down here.
“The entrance has got to be somewhere nearby,” Charlie mumbled.
“Or it could just be an old story.”
Charlie hopped to the other side of the creek and began kicking at some leafy ferns on that side. “We should at least look around.”
Trent made a half-assed attempt on his side, heading away from the water. “I don’t see anything!” he called back as he reached a wall of granite. “Why don’t we just—”
Then he saw it out of the corner of his eye as he turned. It looked like another shadow on the cliff face, except a breeze was combing through the valley, setting branches to moving, shadows to shifting.
Only this shadow didn’t move.
He stepped closer. The cave entrance was low and wide, like a mouth frozen in a perpetual scowl. It opened four feet up the cliff face, sheltered under a protruding lip of stone.
A splash and a curse announced the arrival of his friend.
“It’s really here,” Charlie said, sounding hesitant for the first time.
They stood for a long moment, staring at the cave entrance, remembering the stories about it. They were both too nervous to move forward, but too full of manly pride to back away.
“We doing this?” Trent finally asked.
His words broke the stalemate.
Charlie’s back stiffened. “Hell yeah, we’re doing this.”
Before either of them could lose their nerve, they crossed to the cliff and climbed up into the lip of the cave. Charlie freed his flashlight and pointed it down a tunnel. A steep passageway extended deep into the mountainside.
Charlie ducked his head inside. “Let’s go find that treasure!”
Bolstered by the bravado in his friend’s voice, Trent followed.
The passageway narrowed quickly, requiring them to shuffle along single file. The air was even hotter inside, but at least it was dry and didn’t stink as much.
Squeezing through a particularly tight chute, Trent felt the heat of the granite through his jacket.
“Man,” he said as he popped free, “it’s like a goddamn sauna down here.”
Charlie’s face shone brightly. “Or a sweat lodge. Maybe the cave was even used by my people as one. I bet the source of the hot spring is right under our feet.”
Trent didn’t like the sound of that, but there was no turning back now.
A few more steep steps and the tunnel dumped into a low-roofed chamber about the size of a basketball court. Directly ahead, a crude pit had been excavated out of the rock, the granite still blackened by ancient flames.
Charlie reached blindly to grab for Trent’s arm. His friend’s grip was iron, yet it still trembled. And Trent knew why.
The cavern wasn’t empty.
Positioned along the walls and spread across the floor was a field of bodies, men and women, some upright and cross-legged, others slumped on their sides. Leathery skin had dried to bone, eyes shriveled to sockets, lips peeled back to bare yellowed teeth. Each was naked to the waist, even the women, their breasts desiccated and lying flat on their chests. A few bodies had been decorated with headdresses of feathers or necklaces of stone and sinew.
“My people,” Charlie said, his voice croaking with respect as he edged closer to one of the mummies.
Trent followed. “Are you sure about that?”
In the bright beam of the flashlight, their skin looked too pale, their hair too light. But Trent was no expert. Maybe the mineral-rich heat that had baked the bodies had also somehow bleached them.
Charlie examined a man wearing a ringlet of black feathers around his neck. He stretched his flashlight closer. “This one looks red.”
Charlie wasn’t talking about the man’s skin. In the direct glare of the beam, the tangle of hair around the dried skull was a ruddy auburn.
Trent noted something else. “Look at his neck.”
The man’s head had fallen back against the granite wall. The skin under his jaw gaped open, showing bone and dried tissue. The slice was too straight, the cause plain. The man’s shriveled fingers held a shiny metal blade. It still looked polished, reflecting the light.
Charlie swung his flashlight in a slow circle around the room. Matching blades lay on the stone floor or in other bony grips.
“Looks like they killed themselves,” Trent said, stunned.
Trent pointed to the only other feature in the room. Across the chamber, a dark tunnel continued deeper into the mountain. “Maybe they were hiding something down there, something they didn’t want anyone to know about?”
They both stared. A shiver traveled up from Trent’s toes and raised goose bumps along his arms. Neither of them moved. Neither of them wanted to cross this room of death. Even the promise of treasure no longer held any appeal.
Charlie spoke first. “Let’s get out of here.”
Trent didn’t argue. He’d seen enough horror for one day.
Charlie swung around and headed toward the exit, taking the only source of light.
Trent followed him into the tunnel, but he kept glancing back, fearing that the Great Spirit would possess one of the dead bodies and send it shuffling after them, dagger in hand. Focused as he was behind him, his boot slipped on some loose shale. He fell hard on his belly and slid a few feet down the steep slope back toward the cavern.
Charlie didn’t wait. In fact, he seemed anxious to escape. By the time Trent was back on his feet and dusting off his knees, Charlie had reached the tunnel’s end and hopped out.
Trent started to yell a protest at being abandoned—but another shout, harsh and angry, erupted from outside. Someone else was out there. Trent froze in place. More heated words were exchanged, but Trent couldn’t make them out.
Then a pistol shot cracked.
Trent jumped and stumbled two steps back into the darkness.
As the blast echoed away, a heavy silence was left in its wake.
Charlie . . . ?
Shaking with fear, Trent retreated down the tunnel, away from the entrance. His eyes had adjusted enough to allow him to reach the chamber of mummies without making a sound. He stopped at the edge of the cavern, trapped between the darkness at his back and whoever was out there.
Silence stretched and time slowed.
Then a scraping and huffing echoed down to him.
Trent clutched his throat. Someone was climbing into the cave. With his heart hammering, he had no choice but to retreat deeper into the darkness—but he needed a weapon. He stopped long enough to pry the knife from a dead man’s grip, snapping fingers like dried twigs.
Once armed, he slipped the blade into his belt and picked his way across the field of bodies. He held his arms ahead of him, blindly brushing across brittle feathers, leathery skin, and coarse hair. He pictured bony hands reaching for him, but he refused to stop moving.
He needed a place to hide.
There was only one refuge.
The far tunnel . . .
But that frightened him.
At one point, his foot stepped into open air. He came close to screaming—then realized it was only the old fire pit dug into the floor. A quick hop and he was over it. He tried to use the pit’s location to orient himself in the darkness, but it proved unnecessary.
Light grew brighter behind him, bathing the chamber.
Now able to see, he rushed headlong across the cavern. As he reached the mouth of the tunnel, a thudding, tumbling sounded behind him. He glanced over his shoulder.
A body came rolling out of the passageway and sprawled facedown on the floor. The growing light revealed the embroidered feathers on the back of the body’s crimson jacket.
With a fist clamped to his lips, Trent fled into the sheltering darkness of the tunnel. Fear grew sharper with every step.
Do they know I’m down here, too?
The tunnel ran flat and smooth, but it was far too short. After only five scared steps, it widened into another chamber.
Trent ducked to the side and flattened against the wall. He fought to control his ragged breathing, sure it would be heard all the way outside. He risked a peek back.
Someone had entered the mummy chamber with a flashlight. In the jumbling light, the shape bent down and dragged his friend’s body to the edge of the fire pit. It was only one person. The murderer dropped to his knees, set down his flashlight, and pulled Charlie’s body to his chest. The man raised his face to the roof and rocked, chanting something in the Ute language.
Trent bit off a gasp, recognizing that lined and leathery face.
As he watched, Charlie’s grandfather raised a polished steel pistol to his own head. Trent turned away but was too slow. The blast deafened in the confined space. Half of the old man’s skull exploded in a spray of blood, bone, and gore.