Sweat ran down Marshall’s forehead and stung his eyes. He wiped at his face with frustrated strokes of the handkerchief, and jammed it back in his pocket. How did they live in this heat, let alone work in it he wondered to himself. Long lengths of twine outlined various parts of the dig site. The locals they had hired to augment his university's team were more than eager, and they had made incredible progress. But to what?
A small unassuming man sidled up to Marshall, and gave him a quizzical glance.
“You look like someone who’s research team didn’t just find an ancient ruin on a hunch from some old text.” the small man said with a smirk.
Marshall grabbed the handkerchief and briskly ran it over his forehead again before stabbing it deeper into his pocket. Marshall was more than a full head taller than the smaller man, and the two made an odd sight together in this dusty field strewn with tools and detritus.
Marshal opened his mouth to speak and closed it again. Staring across at a particular dig pit where a local worker was hoisting a small bit of rusty metal out as carefully as any archeologist could hope for.
Marshall threw his arms out.
“Was this what we came here for John? Some bits of rusty metal?”
He scoffed and turned on his heel, storming off.
“Oh come on! Marshall, it's ancient…” he stammered for a moment “well it’s an ancient something!”
But his words were lost to the dust blowing through the dig site.
The oppressive heat had given way to a cool evening breeze, and the small towns residents were seemingly revitalized as the hazy sunset faded from the horizon. Towns folk were darting here and there as John Alard made his way to the place he knew he’d find his eccentric colleague.
Marshall was grinning ear to ear when John Alard entered the tavern. Marshall gave him a chin bob as he saw him enter, and ushered a young boy to a table in the back of the noisy room. John shook his head in disapproval, but picked his way through the crowd nonetheless.
Marshall and the boy were speaking in conspiratorial tones when Alard arrived at the table. Marshall had managed to pick up an impressive amount of the local language in the short time they have been here. But things like that didn’t impress John about his friend any more. Mostly.
“The work at the dig site went well today.” John said with a pregnant pause.
“The work at your dig site…” he added with emphasis.
Marshall turned to him, and with genuine enthusiasm started in.
“That's great old buddy, just smashing!”
John was not amused and stood, arms crossed.
“Well listen, I have quite a proposition for you…” but John cut him off.
“No! Absolutely not, I won’t hear it.” he erupted, arms flung out in exaggeration.
“Marshall, this is your expedition! You sold the university on it! You sold me on it! It was your reading of the text that brought us here!” He exclaimed, getting red in the face.
Marshall slid out from the booth, his arm already around John’s shoulders. Smooth as silk.
“I know, I know, and things are going so well! We’ve already discovered enough artifacts to keep the dusty old crowns back there busy for years!”
Marshall paused, excitement in the air about him, but John still simmered. He knew this dance.
“But...” John said.
“But indeed.” Marshall retorted with glee in his voice.
“Listen. My readings of those texts may have been… less than definitive.”
John looked truly alarmed now.
“No no, listen, you know how the funding committees are, I was sure of what was in those old scraps of paper, but the facts being the facts, would have been hard for everyone to understand. To see what I saw.” Marshall continued in an almost sing-songy tone.
“I had to juice things up a little to get everyone on the same page, and hey look, we’ve already found so much good… uh… stuff.” He raised his hands to the ceiling.
“There are a lot of good Artifacts, out there Marshall” John said resolutely.
“I know, I know. And so this is already a success, I can already imagine your lecture series on the scrap of metal they pulled from the sand today.”
John glared daggers at him, but he moved on too quickly to notice.
“So, imagine my surprise when I happen to wander into this fine establishment this afternoon, and be approached by this young lad here with quite a tale!”
Marshall grasped the boy’s shoulder and shook him a bit. The boy had the cock sure expression only teenage boys and fools can conjure.
John rolled his eyes in an exaggerated fashion and then exhaled “Whatever he’s selling you, it’s just a tall tale to part you from some coin.”
Marshall grinned even broader “Right, that’s what I thought as well.”
Then he gestured John into the booth, after a moment's resistance, his curiosity got the better of him, and he took a seat next to Marshall and the boy.
Thick smoke curled around them from the nearby patreons, as the din of increasingly lubricated conversation swelled. Marshall pulled a copper colored disk from his satchel and held it for John to see. The world around John shrank to just the booth and this mysterious disk. He sat dumb struck for a moment. Then frantic, looked around to see who else had seen this.
“What are you doing with that! Don’t show that in here you’re going to get us mugged! Is that metal? How much copper is that? Do you have any idea how much that is worth?”
Marshall held up his hand to slow his friend down and he quietly slipped the disk back into his bag. They sat in silence for a moment, Marshall with a juvenile grin plastered across his face. The boy looked at their faces, trying to divine what if any decision had been made.
“Were those the markings from your studies?” John finally asked.
“Yes.” Marshall replied.
John sat deep in thought for a moment. Then finally “Okay, where are we going?”
Marshall pumped his fist. The boy clearly understood the implication and let out a whoop of celebration.
“Okay, the dig site can operate without us for a few days.” Marshall began, more serious now, but John interrupted almost immediately.
“A few days!”
Marshall stared back at him, and after a moment John threw up his hands in surrender.
“Go on,” he said.
Marshall continued “Haru here” he looked at the boy for confirmation.
The boy mouthed with exaggerated lips “Ha - Ru”, Marshal nodded, and turned back to John.
“He says it should be about two days by horse, the trail is too rough to take by car.”
John, already sold on whatever this was, was now just along for the ride.
John Allard stared at the saddle bag containing the mysterious disk bouncing against the side of Marshall's horse. The boy hadn’t immediately abandoned them once had had been paid for the artifact. At first John had felt relieved, that it was proof the artifact was real, and this wasn’t all a ruse. But now, over a day into this journey, he began to worry it was just part of a larger con, to bring them out here and kill them, and take everything. It made perfect sense, keep the money, and the artifact. He squinted at nothing as his mind fell deeper down the rabbit hole.
“John, come along side here, you’ve got to hear this.” Marshall's light tone clashed with the dark thoughts in John’s head. He shook his head as if to shake off the darkness, and prodded his horse gently to catch up to them.
“Haru here was just telling me about the people at the village we’re heading to, it’s truly fascinating, apparently they...” but John cut him off, addressing Haru directly.
“Where did you say you got this plate from again?” he asked pointedly.
There was silence for a moment as Haru parsed the foreign words.
“He told you already, he got it from his Father.” Marshal answered in a conciliatory tone.
“Right right. And his father was totally fine with him taking this and selling it to some strangers?” John threw the barb at Haru, who was understanding enough of the foreign tongue, but also tone of voice, to understand the implication.
Haru answered in a sullen voice “My father he…” Haru looked to the ground, searching for the words “He” And then he made a bottle motion with his hand and pretended to drink.
“He no uh, no good. He drink. I try to...” Haru made other hand motions to his mouth, this time with chewing.
“Feed yourself.” Marshall added. Haru nodded. “Yes, feed my... “ He paused again, and then hugged himself and swayed back and forth for a moment, and then looked at Marshall.
“Ah, feed your family.” Marshall added. Haru’s eyes lit up. “Yes, family, family.” and he nodded some more.
John shrank back on his horse, wishing no one would remember he was there, but Marshall turned a withering glare to him, that he pretended not to notice.
They rode in silence for a few minutes, John feeling less dark about the whole endeavor now, and a fair bit guilty. Then with genuine curiosity he leaned forward and addressed Haru again.
“How did your father come to possess this artifact?” He asked the young boy.
Haru looked to Marshall for help, and Marshall translated the question as best he could into the boy's language.
Haru thought for a moment, and then replied in his native tongue, Marshall nodded along. When he was finished Marshall turned to John, his face slack and less excited than before.
“He says when his father was a young man, he went on a long range hunting party, one year when the rains did not come. They encountered a strange village, and an abundance of animals, but they were not allowed to hunt them by the villagers. So they continued past the village against the villagers wishes.”
Marshal paused in thought, and then continued.
“They came to a queer land, with funny hills. Then at a stream bank that had cut into a hillside, they found several of these disks.”
Marshall stared into the middle distance now, and the darkness in the pit of John Allards stomach returned.
“They took some, hoping to melt them down and sell them. Each man that took one is now dead, save for Haru’s father. Haru thinks it turned his father mad.”
Haru listened to his story in the unfamiliar tongue, but understanding every word.
The three rode on in silence, foreboding, clouding John Alards mind once again.
They slowed their horses to a trot as the dirt road entered a small hamlet. A few towns folk going about their routines looked up at the sound, but seemed to be deliberately avoiding eye contact with the newcomers.
Marshall grentley spurred his horse to continue deeper into the town. He looked back toward his traveling companions and noted the trepidation he felt was written across their faces as well.
The town was odd, all of the structures were of crud construction. But the street they rode on was made of immaculately cut stones, placed so precisely the cracks between them could hardly be discerned. It was worn from untold decades of travel, but still looked to be in better shape than any town he had been to in this country.
The houses also seemed to be built on top of ruins. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but he had seen places like this in previous expeditions and knew what to look for. A new town sprouting up on the ruins of some ancient megatropolis.
As they rounded a heavily treed bend in the road they came face to face with a structure so far advanced from the thatched huts that surrounded it, it was as if god himself had placed it down amongst this primitive village.
They slowed their horses instinctively, now three abreast and taking up the entire street, they stared in wonder. It was clearly of similar construction to the road, but it had been spared whatever calamity had befallen the rest of the ancient structure that surrounded it. And further, it was clearly well maintained by it’s current occupants.
Lost in their thoughts, they scarcely noticed the robbed figure approaching from their side.
“You have come seeking the disks.” an old monotone voice said from under the hood. It was more of a statement than a question.
Marshall was well attuned to this type. He had had to deal with village elders many times, and he always managed to befriend them, or at least pay them enough to satisfy their greed.
“You speak the common tongue here, that’s great.” Marshall said while flashing his ten thousand watt smile. “We are admiring your stunning old buildings here, from what age do you know that they are from?”
As if Marshall had not spoken at all, the robbed man continued.
“You will not find what you seek here, and you may pass no further. Turn around and go back to where you came. And tell others nothing. Pray that they stop coming, and forget our name.”
A bemused bewilderment took hold of Marshal, many thoughts flashed through his mind, among them that he was pretty sure he could take this old man in a fight if that is what he was implying. There was no way they were going to turn back now, this was clearly the find of the century that they came all this way for, and now this old man was going to stop them? Then he realized his mind was set and he really might have to fight this old man, would that be ethical?
A sharp pinch on the back of his arm broke Marshall from his revelry, John had siddle closer and was now gripping his elbow, staring daggers at Marshall.
“Lets. Go.” Allard said through gritted teeth, clearly having at least some idea of what was going through Marshall’s head at that moment.
Marshall looked around, at John, at the magnificent ancient structure, and at the old man, and then slowly began nodding his head.
“Okay. Okay then.” Then with a smirk and an audible laugh as he began turning his horse around he added “It was really great meeting you, maybe next time we can do tea at our place.”
Clearly satisfied with himself he led them back through the primitive parts of the village and out of town for a mile or two before they stopped for the night to make camp.
They all sat silent around the fire that night. John Allard quietly scribbly in his notebook, until finally he seemed satisfied, and looked up.
“Well thanks to my impeccable memory I think I can describe that building in exquisite detail.” he said, clearly impressed with himself, but no one responded, so he continued “So at least this wasn’t a total loss eh?”
Marshall cut in “Loss? Are you kidding me? This just confirms we’re onto something! That Haru here wasn’t just telling us a story!”
Haru looked at him, not quite understanding.
“Oh no” John started to say, but was cut off again.
“Oh yes! As we were coming down the hill toward town yesterday, I got a pretty good lay of the land.” Marshall began. He grabbed a stick and began drawing in the dirt.
“There was a river that followed the ridge line, keeping away from the town as far as I could tell. We’ll follow that, and it should converge back toward where we were heading after the town.”
He finished drawing in the sand and looked up.
John thought about resisting, about respecting the indiginous peoples rights, but knew it was futile. Marshall was decided about this, and maybe some small part of John Allard didn’t care about the indiginous peopl’s rights. This could be something big.
It took most of the next day to pick their way down to and then along the river. With no trail to follow the horses bucked and resisted every step of the way. John felt forbidding, like they had been given their chance to turn back and had spat in the face of fate. He would push these thoughts out as soon as they entered his mind. Silly superstition, this could be a career defining find, they had to press on.
Finally as the sun was getting low in the sky, the trees began to thin, and the underbush relented. It was easy going as the heat of the day began to ease off. Then without any of them noticing, they were in a small clearing, the river descending sharply into a gentle valley below, which opened onto a wide plain.
They beheld a bizarre sight: unnatural land if they had ever seen one. It’s almost perfect flatness was punctuated by periodically spaced mounds. Part of this unnatural plain was cut through by the river and that is where John Allard’s eyes settled. After a moment of silence he looked over at Marshall who returned a knowing look, and they spurred their horses out of inaction in unison.
Haru was caught off guard and had to gallop to catch up.
Haru had to shout over the galloping horses “Sirs what is this place, where are we going?”
Marshall barely glanced over at John “Fill him in” he shouted over the horses.
John’s gazes didn’t stray from the rough ground they were now covering but he shouted over the galloping so Haru could hear him.
“That river is new, it probably diverted upstream into this field only a few decades ago. See how the edges of the river are severe, steep sides of loose dirt?”
He didn’t wait for Haru to answer.
“That means the river recently cut into the geography of this area, it quickly swept away the unconsolidated dirt making those steep unstable sides. Given enough time they will erode further and round out. But the river has found a hardser substrate on which it now flows down there. Probably bedrock.”
Haru thought for a minute, a look of understanding creeping across his face, as he replied.
“It’s doing your digging for you, finding your treasures without any shovels”
“Bingo” Marshall exclaimed and spurred his horse on faster.
They had been scrambling around the loose dirt for maybe an hour when John shouted for them. Marshal and Haru rounded a bend in the steep river canyon and stopped dead in their tracks.
Sticking out from the dirt was a massive geometric spike, several times the size of a man and black as night. Marshall's eyes probed up and down the length of it, from where it protruded from the dirt to it’s impossibly perfect tip. It was three perfectly flat sides, and it’s tip, undulled by the ages, looked like it might run a man through if he so much as brushed against it. A reflexive part of his brain immediately felt danger when looking at the sharp end of the spike.
John was standing at the base of where it came out of the dirt holding something.
“Look at this.” he called to them.
Both Marshall and Haru looked at what was in his hands, it was a perfect copy of the disk Haru’s father had brought back.
Marshall's eyes widened and then he let out a woop and thrust his fist in the air. Haru’s face went ashen which caught John Allards attention, and he watched as Haru performed his peoples hand gesture across his body that they did when they were in fear of the supernatural.