It was a grave...
A bundle of stones had been hastily packed together in a primitive pyramid which, like its ancient cousins standing guard over fallen empires, had begun to collapse into a pile of misshapen rubble. Tumbled down beside the ailing monument was a bleached skull cracked in three places with an arrow head embedded deep within its bone. Helen retrieved her torch, smacking it against her hand until it clicked obediently back on, bathing the object in light.
She knelt down and traced her fingers lightly over the skull's smooth surface. Nikola sighed heavily, wishing she wouldn't interact with every sinister object of curiosity. He crossed the shallow stream and came up behind her, shifting his gaze nervously around the enormous cavern as if the very walls were watching them. He didn't want to delay in the darkness – best they move through it as quickly as possible.
"Helen..." he whispered, his voice laden with chill and reverence. "Do you believe there's any credence to those stories about the caves around here being passageways to the underworld?" Nikola may not have been able to see her face but he felt her eyes roll. "Just checking," he mumbled. Maybe she was right about him – maybe he did read too much.
"You are supposed to be the scariest thing down here," she straightened and shone the torch straight between his eyes. He flinched irritably. "So start acting like it."
She handed him the skull – which he dropped immediately and furiously wiped his hands on his coat in disgust.
"And why are you so pleased?" he finally gave in and asked after they had followed the meandering creek for a while. She had done nothing but grin and hum since they had entered this horrid place whose high, spiked ceilings and distant black walls gave Nikola the shivers.
"That skull belonged to Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett - greatest explorer who ever lived - went missing in the Amazon when we were still working for that uncle of Watson's."
"Are you trying to comfort me?" He shook his head then tripped, rolled his ankle on a loose river stone and had to make a rather ungraceful recovery. "How you can tell that from one nondescript skull I will never know..."
Helen promptly stopped, spun slowly and revealed a gold locket laced around her hand with an elegant set of initials engraved on its front.
"Stealing again..." he muttered. "Isn't that –" Nikola stopped, pointing to a faint glow ahead of them where a figure stirred, barely more than another mysterious shadow.
They found John crouched at the edge of a pool of water, staring up at a mighty set of wooden doors carved with all kinds of terrifying things that could be thought of by the primitive tribes that carved them. He couldn't help but admire it - the beauty in the danger.
"I take it the front door didn't work," John dipped one of his fingers in the water as the crunch of feet approached. A faint shimmer of gold left its residue in his skin making it glisten for a moment until the water dried and the gold fell off back into the water like dust.
"No sign of Ashley..." Helen had to step back to take in the enormity of the doors which were more like gates to the underworld itself. Maybe Nikola had been right after all...
"I followed her tracks to the water," John prodded at several intents in the ground.
"And you just - stopped..." Nikola was pretty certain there was only one place that Helen's daughter could have gone and yet, here John was, pondering eternity by the side of a lake.
"Well I would have continued only I heard the two of you bickering miles away and decided to wait."
"We do not bicker," snapped Helen in a whisper, even though it was not the first time she had endured the accusation.
Nikola looked from John - to the door and then back again. "Aren't we going to just..."
John breathed heavily - or it could have been his favourite – drawn out laugh he used to disturb victims before the kill. "Oh yes, Nikola, as much as I would love to let you materialise inside a solid object I suspect Helen might disapprove. We will have to swim."
Nikola fancied a swim about as much as he fancied Thomas Edison.
"What's the matter," John de-cloaked and rolled his shirt sleeves up, "electricity and water not mix?"
"Like love and murder, Whitechapel..."
There was an almighty splash and they both ended up in the water – crawling on their hands and knees as Helen stepped over them with a look of long-suffering detest.
"Just stop!" Helen sloshed past them and vanished under the water, leaving a trail of bubbles in her wake.
Joe risked a shaky step backwards as his father approached. The others were swooping and creeping behind, circling impatiently as Joe's father lifted a clawed hand up into the air, prepared to rip the flesh from Joe's body and end the intrusion into their world.
"Father - please..." Joe held the torch higher into the room so that the flames roared into a fresh layer of oxygen. "I have come to free you," he insisted, "all these years, I promised I would come back for you and I have. Don't give up now, you can't."
Waves of sand tumbled around the room. The coffin at the centre protruded like a wall of sea-rock, steadfast against all the ages time could muster.
His father was barely alive. The skin around his features was stretched tight, sunken and cracked. There were long locks of grey hair twisted up together and tossed over his shoulder while a deep scar cut diagonally from his forehead to his cheek. Though it had healed decades ago, it kept a record of the torturous years lived as one of the most hated creatures in existence.
Joe's strength dissipated when he saw bone protrude from beneath the tattered rags of clothing, the remains of the brown pants and white shirt he had worn on his final dig. Finally, the truth unfurled and Joe realised that he had come back to save a dream - nothing more. All that remained of his father had withered away and he, forever a foolish child, had held onto a vision of something he could never have back.
"Father..." he whispered, with tears dripping down the side of his face and into the sand. Joe was content. He would die down here, with his father. The freedom overwhelmed him. "It was good to see you," he said, slowly closing his eyes to the world, replacing all its darkness with a picture of his father waving goodbye through the glare of the desert.
"Waiiit..." one of the other creatures slipped beside Joe's father, tilting its head back and forth. This one looked younger, more alive and dangerous. The curve of its lip glistened and its sharp pair of blue eyes reflected the light of Joe's torch. Joe's eyes peaked open. "You want your faaather?" its skin rippled.
Joe's heart quickened fearfully. "Yes," was all he managed. As the creature inched closer, the grand room shrank – it seemed claustrophobic and chocked by scented smoke belonging to another time.
"Do something for usss," its words carried a modern accent that matched its surprisingly new clothes. Now that Joe looked closer, he could see the same crest sewn into the breast pocket of the creature's tattered shirt as he had seen on the campsite tents. "And maybee you can leave this place – with your faaather. We are not simply monsssters, you see."
"What do you want?" Joe realised that he had been gradually backed against one of the walls. "I have nothing to give you."
"Surely you have heard," it replied, creeping its claws along one of the walls, as if fascinated by the joinings of the stones. "We are vampires."
Helen emerged from the water first, breached through its freezing surface like some mythical creature breaking free. She ran her hands over her face and down through her hair, wiping the water away. Gold flecks formed a second skin over her own which held a subtle glow in the almost complete darkness of the pool. It was an impressive expanse of deep water. Only the top layer of which was bearable to swim in – whenever she dipped her legs too deep she felt the vicious stabs of cold warning her not to venture further.
Nikola and John surfaced with a flurry of bubbles and coughing – apparently they had been trying to beat each other on distance and thus nearly suffocated in the attempt.
"Extraordinary," Nikola wined, treading water in circles, "this lake is cold and huge."
They crawled out onto the stony edge, Helen and John dragging their heavy coats which had done an excellent job half-drowning them. Helen disposed of hers, throwing it to the side.
"Now we're getting somewhere," she said, pointing at the deserted city sprawling between the cave walls ahead of them. Its derelict condition was somehow made more beautiful by the unsettled mist licking the edges of its walls.
"Precisely how old were those scrolls, Nikola?" John couldn't help but notice the way the remains of the sanctuary crumbled on their approach.
The low stone wall which separated the lake form the city was aglow, softly lighting the edge of the water. They approached it, scrambling over it and onto the abandoned streets of the sanctuary.
"Look!" Nikola pointed to the roof of the cave where a small hole in the rock revealed a crack of the outside world filled by the full moon. The day had ended and night begun without any of them noticing.
"What..." John jarred suddenly, pulling his right shoulder away to find a small arrow embedded harmlessly in the leather, "is that?" he finished, pulling the offending item out.
"Here comes another one," Nikola ducked out of the way allowing it to strike again at John's chest.
"Automatic defence?" Helen offered. "We must have triggered it when –" she watched John remove a third arrow from his coat, growling at the holes. "Is it just me or is it only shooting at John?"
"It's very irritating," said John, sidestepping a small volley of the things which clattered on the floor in the distance. "I think we should get a move on before I am annoyed to death."
Helen, curious, ventured toward the origin of the arrows until one whizzed past her neck, tangling in her hair. "Yeah," she agreed, "let's go."
Joe shivered as his hands touched the freezing stone. The lid was heavy and stuck fast by more than just its weight. He was surrounded by a crowd of sand people, sneering and hissing at each other as the lid made its first crack of freedom. A rush of air escaped the crypt and the lid slipped further opening, nearly off-balancing the detective.
The innards of the coffin were as black and mysterious as its stone. Joe took his torch from the sand creature that had spoken with him and held it over the opening where he caught his first, frightful glimpse of creature slumbering inside.
"It's dead..." announced Joe, his eyes rolling over the decayed skin and bone staring lifelessly into nowhere with surprising glassy eyes. With its lip shrunk back, an impressive line of sharp, tapered teeth protruded from the creature's mouth.
"Oh," hissed the sand creature, inching close enough to sniff the air above the coffin, "he is only sleeping. A long and dreadful sssleep. You cannot imaaagine."
Joe pushed the lid again, revealing more of the creature's body. It was shrunken and racked by age like its face and wrapped in a white sheet of linen bloodied by some ancient conflict. The remains of herbs and flowers scattered through the box collapsed into dust as the fresh air brushed over their delicate forms.
As instructed, he dutifully held out his arm and with a small blade, cut across his skin. The sickening drips of blood spread over the corpse but evaporated upon touching the skeletal form. It took a while for Joe to notice the subtle changes occurring below him.
The creature was waking up, reviving, reforming as Joe's blood continued to fall over it. Eventually it resembled the sleeping man the creature had described and Joe was allowed to wrap his arm in a length of material as they waited.
It gasped, a terrible, strangled rush of air into its lungs.
Joe staggered backwards, shoved aside by the converging crowd of sand creatures who gathered eagerly around the coffin, writhing and whispering in a dozen languages he had never heard before. His father was somewhere amongst them, teeth bared in expectation.