“I take it the ‘monster’ has horns?” Sully asked.
“Like a bull,” Melissa said, nodding happily. “Yes, it does.”
While they continued to marvel over the tablets and translate certain bits, Drake turned to the other side of the antechamber. A single stone block had given way, but given that each one weighed about fifteen hundred pounds, putting it back in place would be a great deal of work. Sand from above had filled in that corner of the room, and he saw the brushes and other implements that Melissa and Guillermo had been using to free the tablets and other artifacts that had been discovered in this antechamber. The walls were covered with glyphs and paintings here as well, but what drew Drake’s full attention was the vase caught in the packed sand.
Melissa and Guillermo had unearthed about half the vase. It was intricately painted, and he knew that without a doubt, the contents of the labyrinth would constitute one of the greatest historical finds of the modern era—perhaps the greatest. The vase was incredibly well preserved.
He picked up a brush and took a closer look. A figure had been partially revealed—that of the Mistress of the Labyrinth, he thought, since it matched the figure on the base of the altar in the worship chamber. She held a jar or chalice in front of her, proffering it to someone whose hands were visible, though the rest of the other figure was covered with sand.
Drake had a pretty good idea who that other figure must be.
He started to brush at the vase. Some of the sand was tightly packed, and though he was careful, he had to brush a bit more vigorously. He needed a little elbow grease, so he leaned his knees against the piled sand, which had remained undisturbed for thousands of years.
“Hey, dude, get away from there,” the grad student Guillermo said angrily, ducking his head back into the antechamber.
Melissa turned to stare at him in annoyance. Drake smiled and held up his hands.
“No harm done. But I think I found—”
The sand gave way. He started to tumble forward and caught himself by planting his hands on either side of the vase, feeling triumphant because he hadn’t damaged it. Triumphant for half a second before the vase and all the sand around it dropped as if sucked into the floor.
Drake let out a yell as he fell after it, spilling into a shaft.
Hands grabbed his legs, then his belt. As the sand sifted around him, trying to suck him down, whoever had hold of him prevented him from falling into the shaft after the vase and the granite block it had sat on and at least a few other tablets that he glimpsed before they were swallowed by the darkness below. He heard something crack and knew he had just broken a piece of history.
“Whoops!” he said.
“You stupid son of a bitch!” Melissa snapped. “What did you think you were doing?”
The upper half of Drake’s body still hung down inside the shaft. The hands started to pull him out. In the dim reflected light from the bulbs strung in the antechamber, he saw a painting on the wall of a figure that he could not mistake for any other.
“Guys?” he said. “You’re gonna want to take a look at this.”
“What did you find?” Ian Welch asked.
Drake grunted as they dragged him out, and he turned over, lying on the sandy floor, to find them all staring at him. But when he spoke, his focus was on Jada.
Drake looked around for something to lower himself down into the shaft. He glanced at Sully and Jada, saw the gleam of discovery in their eyes, and knew they didn’t have a moment to lose. Henriksen might be there any moment, with the authority to throw them out or even have them arrested. Whatever the dig turned up would be his to do with as he wished. There would be restrictions—the Egyptian government would see to that—but wealth had a way of bypassing rules. If the secrets Luka had sought were here, not to mention treasure, they needed to hurry.
“Welch, I need a rope or a ladder and a light,” he said.
Melissa had been bent over, shining a heavy-duty flashlight into the shaft, examining the painted Minotaur on the interior wall. Now she glanced up sharply, and she and Guillermo exchanged an uncomfortable look.
“Sorry, Professor Merrill,” Melissa said to Drake, shaking her head. “You’re an observer. We can’t allow you to—”
“Guillermo,” Welch interrupted, staring at the shaft. “Run out to the breach and get one of the ladders the workers use.”
Even the photographer, Alan, seemed surprised. “Dr. Welch, you’re not going to let him descend the shaft?”
They were all hesitating. Welch turned toward Guillermo and gestured for him to hurry.
“Go quickly. Come on, move it!”
With a worried look toward Melissa, Guillermo dashed away. They heard his footsteps echoing along the corridor. The tension between Welch and his associate was palpable. Melissa looked as if she wanted to speak to him in private, but there was no privacy to be found in such a cramped space. Even if they went out of the worship chamber and around the first corner, whispers carried in this place like the voices of ghosts.
Alan set up his camera and started to take photos of the open shaft and the paintings in its gullet. Sully had continued to investigate the antechamber, searching for any other secrets the place might hold. Jada gave Melissa an awkward, apologetic look, and Welch only stood, vibrating with anticipation and the need for Guillermo to be swift. The way things had turned out, he would never be able to hide the fact that Jada Hzujak had been here or cover the lie about Sully and Drake being from the Smithsonian. He might be able to pretend he had been duped by them, and if it would help, Drake would be happy to back up the lie. But chances were good that unless they could uncover the truth about Luka and Cheney’s murders, Ian Welch had destroyed his career today. If there were secrets below, he was damn well going to get them before Tyr Henriksen did.
“Listen,” Drake said to Melissa, “we’re not amateurs. Once we’re in the chamber down there, you can pretend we’re shadows on the wall. We won’t get in the way.”
Melissa gave him a look normally reserved for alcoholic circus clowns and reality TV stars with delusions of grandeur. “Really?” she asked. “You’re not amateurs? Then what do you call the crap you just pulled?”
Drake winced, glancing at the shaft and thinking about the vase and other priceless artifacts he’d probably just destroyed. He saw Jada give a single nod as if to say, She’s got you there.
“I call that discovery,” Drake replied, trying for a charming smile, an effort that obviously fell short. “You had no idea the shaft was there. This could be the breakthrough you’ve been waiting for.”
“And we could’ve waited another few days while we explored this chamber properly,” Melissa said, her irritation only growing. She turned to Welch. “Ian, please. I know these people are your friends, but—”
“That’s enough, Melissa,” Welch said coldly.
Welch rounded on her. “That’s enough!”
It brought her up short. His voice echoed in the chamber. Alan’s flash went off and they all blinked the brightness away, but the tension did not dissipate. Melissa stared at Welch, clearly wondering what had come over him. This was not the demeanor she had come to expect from any colleague, but it was clear she’d had particular affection for Welch, which was now shattered.
Then she glanced from Welch to Jada, from Jada to Sully, and then to Drake. He could actually see the moment when suspicion entered her eyes.
“What’s this about?” she asked, pushing her dusty, unruly ginger hair from her eyes. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Welch seemed about to crumble with regret. “Melissa—”
“Hey!” Sully interrupted.
He had sunk down onto his belly in much the same position Drake had been in when they’d pulled him out of the hole. The photographer glared at him impatiently, waiting for him to move out of the shot, but Sully wasn’t budging. Shifting on the sand, unmindful of priceless antiquities that might be breaking beneath it, he pulled himself a little farther, his head dipping into the shaft.
“Does anyone else see light down there?”
“Of course there’s light,” Alan snapped. “It’s coming from up here, reflecting off the walls of the shaft.”
Sully swiveled his head to shoot the guy a look that silenced him. “I’m not an idiot,” he growled. “You’re the photographer. Aren’t you supposed to know a thing or two about light sources and angles? Get down here and have a look at this.”
The fight looming between Welch and Melissa had been short-circuited. Drake glanced once into the worship chamber, wondering what was taking Guillermo so long with the ladder and then realizing that the tunnels would be hard for him to navigate—especially with any speed—carrying a stepladder under his arm.
They all watched Alan set his camera aside and move gingerly into place beside Sully.
“This shouldn’t be happening,” Melissa said. “Their weight on the sand could—”
“I know,” Welch said. When she glanced at him, he reached out a hand to touch her arm, his eyes pleading for understanding. “I know, Melissa. But there are forces at work here that you’re not aware of yet.”
“What forces?” she asked. “Talk to me, Ian. We’re throwing protocol all to hell.”
“Melissa,” Alan said, looking up from the shaft. “He’s right. There is another light source.”
“How can that be?” she asked. “The only light sources possible down here are our lights and the sky, and you can be damn sure it’s not sunlight or we’d have found that point of entry already.”
Alan stood up, brushing off his pants. Sully stood as well but didn’t bother.
“It’s your light,” Sully said, and he pointed into the worship chamber. “The angle’s from in there.”
“There must be another shaft,” Jada said.
“Spread out,” Sully barked, and no one argued about who was in charge.
All six of them worked their way through the worship chamber, running their hands over the walls and floor. In less than a minute, Jada called out.
“Here! I think I’ve found it.”
Drake turned to see her kneeling in front of the altar. A sliver of a gap existed between the base of the altar and the floor. He spun and saw the lights hung from the wall behind him and nodded to himself.
“Everywhere else there’s either a tighter seal or some kind of mortar,” Jada said, glancing up at Welch. “But it looks like the altar is just resting here.”
Melissa crouched on the other side, and they all heard her swear under her breath. “There are scrapes on the stone here.” She rose quickly and glanced around, argument forgotten. “Keep looking. There’s got to be a trigger.”
“You think there’s a shaft under the altar?” Sully growled.
Welch grinned. “Don’t you?”
“I love the ancient Egyptians,” Drake muttered to Jada as he joined her, the two of them running their hands all over the wall. “Sneaky bastards.”
Long minutes passed during which the air in the worship chamber seemed to become thinner and dustier, and the rock and sand over their heads closed in, growing heavier, until Drake thought the whole thing might come crashing down on top of them if something didn’t break the silence and the renewed tension of their search. Alan and Melissa had no idea what the hurry might be, but they felt the urgency and acted accordingly. Melissa apparently had decided that since Welch was technically her boss, she would let his boss worry about breaches in protocol. Drake thought it had a lot to do with her own sense of discovery. The urge to see what was beneath their feet was powerful.
“Come on,” Jada whispered.
She turned and stared at the altar, causing Drake to do the same thing.
“What?” he asked.
“There’s got to be some clue. Something Daedalus put in so that anyone coming from one of the other labyrinths to this one could find the trigger for whatever mechanism moves the altar.”
Welch froze. He hurried to the altar and put his hand on the symbol in its center—the etching of three interlocking octagons within three circles.
“I’ve seen this somewhere else here. I’m sure of it.” He turned to Jada. “If there’s any symbol here that hints at Daedalus’s presence, his design, it’s this. The rest is all Egyptian, but this is clearly meant to represent his three labyrinths.”
“I feel like I’ve seen that, too,” Alan said.
“Look around,” Sully rasped. “And be quick about it.”
They stopped testing every stone in the room and started examining the images and symbols instead. Drake watched them, frowning, certain that if the symbol had been in this room, they would have noticed it in their search just now. He stepped outside the worship chamber and studied the door frame and lintel and saw nothing like the triple-octagon symbol. A thought occurred to him, and he reentered but passed through and into the antechamber.
It took him only seconds to locate the symbol, carved into the bottommost stone in the exposed corner of the room. Drake used the toe of his boot to put pressure on it and frowned when nothing happened. He tried again, pushing harder, hands braced on the wall. Frustrated, he dropped to his knees and began to feel around the edges, and he felt it give a little on one side.
The stone hadn’t been built to slide inward. The architect had installed it to turn.
He pushed hard on the left side of the stone, and it shifted, turning clockwise. The stones on either side had been carved at sharp angles to allow for the freedom of movement of this keystone. Drake rotated it a quarter turn until it clicked into place again, this face of the stone carved with the same symbol.