Bethany's Sin Chapter 1

Author: Robert McCammon

Genres: Horror , Mystery




The woman's shadow, falling across the diagrams spread out on a folding metal table, made the men look up.

In the air were the thick smells of heat and dust, sweat, sweet Turkish tobacco; the sun baked the droppings of the stray, slat-ribbed dogs that occasionally yapped around the timber-enforced excavation, and dark circles of flies danced above the men's heads, nipping at unprotected ears and cheeks. Had it not been for the large timber-stilt-supported roof of corrugated tin over the excavation, the sun would have driven the men insane weeks before. From the main excavation, a rectangle that sloped from six feet to over twenty, trenches snaked out in all directions, angling around huge boulders and mounds of broken stone. There were the noises of digging: picks striking rock, shovels pushing aside coarse, stubborn earth.

Occasionally the wind brought the sharp salt tang of the Black Sea rolling across the pit like a breath from another world. It was hot July, and the sun was the blazing eye of a cyclops in a face of azure.

"Good morning," Dr. Vodantis greeted the woman, nodding his head slightly. Sweat had collected in the pockets beneath his dark-rimmed eyes. He had been at the site since six-thirty, and while the Hotel Imperiale in the four-mile-distant village of Caraminya was hot, it was nothing like the heavy heat out here in the hill country.

He felt scorched and covered with dust, though his khaki suit was relatively clean compared to those worn by the others.

The woman returned the nod. She was tall and large-boned, with a deeply tanned face framed by a well-groomed mane of loosely curled hair the color of midnight shadows. She wore old, faded denims and brown work boots, a cotton blouse, and a simple gold chain around her throat. An olive-green backpack was strapped around her shoulders.

"Here. This is what I wanted you to see. Excuse, please." Dr.

Vodantis leaned across his young field assistant and turned one of the diagrams toward the woman. There were distinct lines to indicate the trenches and the central pit, and broken lines in circular and rectangular and oblong shapes. He traced a finger along one of the trenches. "Here" he said. The finger angled to the left and tapped at a broken-lined square with a question mark at the center of it. "It's perhaps...oh...a hundred yards from this amphitheater. One of the Turkish workers found it yesterday morning."

The other men watched her. Her eyes - stunning, deep sapphire against the darkness of her flesh - narrowed very slightly. In the distance there was the rumble of a bulldozer. "I see," the woman said finally. "An opening? Into what?"

"How far back into the mountain it goes we don't know yet,"

Dr. Vodantis said. "Dr. Markos's assistant crawled into it for a distance yesterday." He glanced across at Dr. Markos, a gaunt man with a shock of white hair and a bristle of beard.

"For only four meters," Dr. Markos said, addressing the woman.

"I called him back because I feel the tunnel is too dangerous to explore fully yet. The ceiling is unstable; we'll need hydraulic supports before we can send anyone in."

"What did he find?"

"That it has a gradual downward slope. It began to constrict before he turned back." He tried to keep his gaze steady, but it was difficult because in this woman's eyes there was a piercing kind of...yes, power. He knew her reputation well; he had worked on a Crete dig with her three years before, and though he did not like her techniques, he respected her intelligence. He'd seen firelight reflected in her eyes once, on a night when the stars were strung like a vast tapestry across the sky and the voices of ghosts whispered in the corridors of a ruined temple; some dark and awesome determination had crept across her face, shadowing her features, and he had thought in that instant that the spiderish hand of the oracle had been laid upon her shoulder. "Before I send any of my team in,"

he told her, "I want to make certain of their safety. A shift of stones could bring the mountain down into that tunnel. After all" - he smiled slightly while the woman's face remained expressionless -

"whatever lies inside has been there since 1200 b.c. I think it will wait." He glanced over at the others for support.

"An approximate date," the woman said quietly, her eyes expressionless. "And it would seem to me as an archaeologist you would be take necessary risks."

"Necessary. Ah. there's the key word." Dr. Markos took a chipped briar pipe from a breast pocket, struck a match, and touched it to the already charred tobacco. "Has it occurred to you that it might be a natural cave with no connection to these ruins at all? If that's the case, there could be a drop-off, a wall of solid rock, a winding labyrinth of passages from which no man could ever find his way out again. I find nothing about that particular site so remarkable that it merits a hasty and dangerous exploration." He tapped another square on the diagram. "Now, here where the weapons were found..."

"I disagree," the woman said, still calm. "I say that the city was built in a semicircle around the mountain's base for two reasons: strategy, in case of attack, and..."

Dr. Markos raised his eyebrows; a tendril of tobacco smoke wound itself above his head.

" protection," she said, "perhaps for what lies within that tunnel."

"Pure speculation," Dr. Markos said, smiling slightly.

"I'm sorry, but I'll have to agree," Dr. Vodantis said.

"You have a right to disagree with me," she told them. "I have a right to believe in what I feel is true. Dr. Vodantis, I'd like to see that opening now." Without waiting for him, she turned her back on the group of men and began walking down into the pit toward the trenches. Each step took her backward in time. Teams of Turkish and Greek workers huddled around the gradual, painstaking uncovering of rough, time-etched brickworks; there were tables of chalk-numbered stones and fragments of stones, each part of the multilayered puzzle of this ancient place. At the far side of the pit a long stone stairway was beginning to emerge from the earth. Dr.

Vodantis stepped in front of her.

"This way, please," he said, entering a trench that sloped downward at a thirty-degree angle.

The earth has moved in its wary sleep, the woman thought as she followed Dr. Vodantis down; the earth has shrugged its shoulders, drawn a deep breath, shifted beneath the harsh touch of nature and the harsher touch of men. On each side of the trench the brickworks were slowly asserting themselves again through the walls of yellow dirt. There were windows and doorways, clogged with rock and ancient debris; on one of the walls there was a great black scorch mark, the signature of flame. The woman paused and touched it, her eyes glittering. And then she followed the man into the maw of time.

Her blood was racing. High above her there was an open space in the makeshift ceiling, and she could see the blinding blue sky and the ominous, purple black outline of the mountain towering overhead. Something dark sailed across her field of vision toward the rim of the nearest cliff. An eagle, flying to its aerie overlooking the emerald plain of the sea. "Watch your step, please," Dr. Vodantis said. "A wall's just taking shape here." They stepped over black-crusted rubble and continued down.

Who has walked here before me? she asked herself. Whose flesh and blood moved through the narrow corridors of this sprawling fortress? For that's what it was; she'd known as soon as she'd read the excavation progress reports and seen the diagrams and photographs at her hotel. A huge walled fortress with its back to the mountains and its stern face to the Black Sea. Built by whose hand?

This city would have remained lost had it not been for the earthquake in December, a tremor that had jarred most of Caraminya into rubble and killed more than thirty people. Now the streets of Caraminya looked haunted and silent, just like this centuries-older place. A split in the earth had uncovered a single wall of ancient bricks, blackened by flame but with a soul jarring story to tell.

For the woman already knew.

Not just hoped, no, because hope had an element of fear in it as well. And she was not a person to feel fear. She knew.

She had the sudden feeling that the mountain was looming before her like a huge house of solid rock. A house waiting to welcome her home. A cloud of flies hovered greedily above her head, as if their collective genetic memory recalled a heap of rotting, sunbaked, sword-hacked corpses lying in these pathways. A stagnant breeze, filled with the breath of the dead, blew across her and then was gone. In its wake she thought she heard the clash of weapons and the harsh, high laughter of warrior hordes, but it was only the noise of shovels scraping stone and two of the university volunteers laughing over a private joke.

"Here," Dr. Vodantis said.

Where the trench ended lay a jumble of large broken-edged boulders. A pile of irregularly shaped stones had been marked with chalk and covered with a sheet of clear plastic, and two young workers in denims and T-shirts were busy brushing the loose earth away from an emerging wall; they glanced up and nodded at Dr.

Vodantis. He motioned toward the jigsaw of boulders. "You can see where the opening's been cleared," he told the woman.

She moved closer to it. There was a dark, triangular hole between two of the largest stones; she knelt before it and reached in with one arm, feeling the jagged rocks wedged together at the ceiling. She shrugged off her backpack, unstrapped a compartment, and withdrew a plastic flashlight. Switching on the light, she peered into the tunnel. It continued far beyond the light's range, like an empty eye socket leading into the black recesses of a time-ravaged skull; jagged teeth of stone glittered, and she saw that the tunnel was perhaps two feet high and barely the width of her shoulders. "I'm going inside," she said after another moment.

"Please," the man said, stepping toward her. "I can't allow that.

At least wait until the safety equipment arrives, perhaps three days at most..."

But she hadn't heard because she was already moving forward.

Before Dr. Vodantis could stop her, she had slipped into the opening, working her shoulders in and then pushing with her legs. In another moment the ribbed soles of her work boots had vanished into darkness.

"God in Heaven," Dr. Vodantis muttered, shaking his head from side to side. He felt the eyes of the student volunteers on him, and he turned toward them and threw up his hands in frustration.

Within the cramped tunnel the woman crawled behind the thin beam of light. Dr. Vodantis was a fool, she thought; worse, he was as much a coward as Markos. Archaeologists all, and on the verge of a discovery that might very well rock the world. It was foolish not to take necessary risks to uncover the truth, if it was the truth these men were seeking. She worked her way deeper. The walls and ceiling were ragged rims of rock; something caught at her sleeve, and with her next movement she heard the cloth rip. Farther ahead the tunnel turned to the right, and she was aware of descending, a degree every few feet. Poised above her like a waiting juggernaut was the mountain, all the many thousand tons of it, and she could smell the cold, iron-dry smell of the rock itself. The tunnel began to constrict gradually; rock scraped her shoulders with every movement until her raw flesh screamed. In the distance she heard a voice, and she stopped, letting the echoes wash over her like ocean waves. It was Dr. Vodantis, calling her name from the tunnel's entrance. She hunched her shoulders together and continued on. For ahead of her, buried in tons of stone, buried by the deceptions and lies and crooked paths of time, lay the past. And today she would uncover the truth.

She stopped after a few meters because her shoulder had scraped something strange. She shone the light on the wall to her left, ran a hand across it. Smooth stone, cold to the touch. A wall fashioned by human hands. Before thousands of years of rockslides and earthquakes, this had been a passageway into the heart of the mountain. The hand of mystery was on this place, and as she crawled forward she thought she could hear the powerful voice of a Jason shouting orders to his Argonauts, the thundering gait of a Heracles striding a battlefield, the rumble and clash of a storm of armored warriors fighting face-to-face in a sea of carnage. Her blood was singing ancient songs. A cold chill grasped her spine and slowly worked its way through her.

For ahead, outlined in the cold touch of the light, was another hole.

The breath hissed through her teeth. Shoulders scraped and bleeding, she pushed herself toward the tunnel's end. There was another jam of rocks, and the hole was so small she couldn't look into it and probe with the light at the same time. A musty, dry reek of age hung within that hole, beckoning her with a skeletal finger. She realized she was having trouble breathing because of the denseness of the air, and she was going to have to work fast. She placed the palm of her hand against one of the smaller stones bordering the hole and pushed against it; it wouldn't budge. She tried another. There had to be a keystone here, a rock that would slide off balance and loosen the others so she could move through into...what? Her heart hammered. She put her shoulder against stone and pushed, the effort raising beads of sweat across her face. Harder. Harder. It was solid; there was no way. Her shoulder and spine ached, and she planted her feet against the tunnel walls for more strength. Something shifted.

She gasped, held her breath, pushed again. There was the noise of rock grinding over rock.

And when it gave way - abruptly, as if something on the other side had suddenly ripped the stones away in an effortless grip - she fell forward, unable to keep her balance within the tunnel. Rocks, both large and small, crashed down around her in a thunderous cacophony, and curtains of crushed-rock dust descended on her in yellowish folds. She dropped the light, opened her mouth to cry out; a rock struck her elbow, numbing her arm; her chin hit stone, clicking her teeth together and opening a small gash in her upper lip.

She had fallen onto a smooth surface, and for a long while she lay and let the echoes of the rockfall thunder around her like marching armies; dust whitened her hair and flesh, and to her it smelled like sweat and blood.

Before her the flashlight's beam was splayed across an unbroken stone floor. When she was ready to move again, she crawled to the flashlight, gripped it in a white-knuckled hand, and rose to her feet.

Slowly, she shone the light in all directions; her eyes glittered above it.

A long, smooth walled chamber. Swirls of dust around shadowy forms.

She had left the outside world - that place of automobiles and towering skyscrapers and huge ocean liners - and stepped into the world of the ancients, so different and stunning it made the blood icy in her veins. And so silent. So very, very silent. She moved into the chamber, and before her the waves of dust undulated.

There were figures on either side of her. Life-size statues, frozen in poses of combat, bearing spears and swords. Impassive, blank-eyed faces stared back at the light. "Beautiful," she heard herself say, and the voice echoed beautiful-beautiful-beautiful a hundred times over, each time fainter than the last. These statues had been carved of glowing marble, and as she neared one of them, playing the light along its surfaces of battle dress, she saw that they were -

Her blood trilled.

Yes. Yes. They are. They....are...

The flashlight trembled in her hand, making the shadows dance darkly.

With another few steps she saw the remnants of battlefield murals on the walls, cracked by age but still retaining some of the original, bold reds and greens and blues: warriors raising swords over the fallen; huge war horses trampling down rows of armored enemies; archers firing arrows toward the sun; scenes of slaughter -

broken limbs and decapitated heads with ragged necks, slaves bound by chains and dragged behind golden horses. Her heart pounded in her head; the air smelled of ancient, secret, terrible things, but she could not bring herself to leave this chamber, with its exquisite beauty and horror.

She thought she heard Dr. Vodantis calling her name again, over and over, but in another instant the sound had faded into the walls and she was alone. She stepped forward, into darkness, the noise of her footsteps echoing as if someone followed close behind. Someone or some thing, avoiding the light.

And at the far end of the chamber the light fell upon something that gleamed blackly. A large, dark, rough edged slab of stone, waist-high. The woman moved forward, her shoes stirring more of the thick dust, and then stopped. She aimed the light down at the floor.

Scattered about were dozens of crudely forged metal objects, rust flaked and falling to pieces, recognizable only to a trained eye. The hilt of a sword; what might have been the point of a spear; a few ravaged helmets, one of them completely flattened; scarred and rusted fragments of armor, bleeding in the mounds of white dust.

She searched with the light, moving it back and forth: more weapons, lying as if suddenly discarded, among them the ragged remnants of ax blades, dully reflecting the light into her eyes. She blinked; the beam of light tripped and fell over something on the floor She found it again in another moment.

A bone.

And now, as she moved toward it, she began to see other bones lying among the weapons and dust. A scattering of bones, lying intertwined in the long and terrible darkness. Here a broken skull grinned at her. She moved the flashlight up above the bones, saw that the walls and ceiling were thick with black char. And then she staggered back a step, drawing in her breath with an audible gasp.

For there was a pedestal jutting out from the far wall, above that black stone, and another figure stood, arms seemingly outstretched to her. Frozen, to watch forever over the dead. The eyes of the idol were upon her, and the statue was so lifelike and intricate, the woman thought for an instant that those sightless orbs moved.

Shadows fled the light. And she was certain she heard her name called now; Dr. Vodantis calling for her from a strange time and place. No. Not Dr. Vodantis...

But another. A rustle of shadows, gathering shape, gathering strength. She drew a lungful of air, found it bittersweet and...strange.

Whirling, she played the light on the honor guard of statues. Had they moved? Had they drawn themselves toward her? Had those heads turned slightly on their marble necks? One of them, a figure armed with a bow, seemed to be watching her. The blank white gaze burned through to her soul and marked it with fire.

A whisper. Her name, spoken from vast distances.

Poised above the black stone - an altar? - the protective idol seemed to be waiting, and around it the dust spun and swirled like something alive. A voice, clearer now, borne to her by a cold wind that stirred dust into patterns that merged and broke and remerged kaleidoscopically, scrawling strange shadows before the path of the flashlight. The language was unfamiliar - no, it was some kind of garbled Greek. A crude, ancient Greek, a dialect filled with a rising urgency and raw, brute strength. She dare not let the light fall to the floor, but it seemed a tremendous effort to hold on to it. She could understand only fragments of the message, above the pounding noise in her head that sounded like the beat of an army's war drums.

Backing away from the black stone, from the idol poised overhead, she swung the light from side to side; the voice was stronger now, imploring, becoming many voices, powerful and inescapable, echoing from all sides. She cast the light upon those haunted faces, and when the voice came to her again, it carried a power that made her stumble, fall onto her knees in supplication to the idol; in that instant she thought she saw the idol's head turn slightly, very slightly, and she thought she saw blue flames flicker across those marble sockets, there and then gone in the briefest of seconds.

And something moved within the thick, smoky folds of dust, like someone slowly walking out of a fire. The figure, a thing of shadow and light, dust and stone, approached the woman with vaporish strides and undulated before her; where the face would have been there was a dark outline. Orbs of glittering blue, like burning diamonds, flashed with a power that rocked the woman's head back; she felt that same terrible, awesome power wrench at her heart, exposing blood and bones and muscle. Ages passed between them, and when she opened her. mouth to cry out, she failed to recognize her own voice. The figure wavered before her, and the shadowy outline of what might have been an arm brushed past her face, leaving the odors of dust and dry, brittle age. And then the dust welled up again, an ocean of it, obscuring whatever it was that the woman had thought she'd seen; she found the strength to rise to her feet and began back ing away, her senses raw and screaming. The voice - no, many voices merged into one - fading now, gradually, back beyond the wall it had slipped through. And finally gone.

Reaching the opening to the tunnel, she pulled herself up through it and sucked at the fresher air until her lungs were filled.

Her body felt strange; her nerves vibrated, and her muscles twitched as though she had lost control over them. She wanted to look back into the cavern, to see for one more moment the commanding murals and the black stone and the protective idol, but there was no room to turn her head in the tunnel; she began to crawl back toward where Dr. Vodantis waited for her, toward a world of madness and pollution, crime and brutality.

The voices were gone, but in the depths of her soul she could hear the echo, again and again and again...

Flames of electric blue danced briefly through the woman's eyes, and she followed the tunnel back to where the men waited.