Chapter 1

The wind whistled through the gap in the tent door as Mari Gopal zipped up her parka. She pulled the hood up over her short-cropped blond hair. The moment she stepped outside a blast of icy mountain air seemed to cut right through her, feeling as raw as an open wound. It had taken her several days to adjust to the high altitude at the archeological site. Finally, she was able to breathe without the need for a dose of oxygen every few hours. Now at last Mari would find out if she had hit upon a prize-winning story—or news more suitable for the tabloids.

Professor Haliday was already waiting for her at the entrance to the cavern. The ofttimes arrogant and condescending man kept checking his watch while impatiently tapping his right foot. A habit Mari found just a teensy bit annoying. This morning, the professor promised that he would show her what she'd traveled thousands of miles to see. Mari decided she could put up with the man if it meant the possibility of a career breakthrough for her.

One of her former classmates from university had introduced her to Professor Haliday. Mari had been working as a features reporter for the The Defender for six years. And in that all that time there seemed to be no hope of breaching the ramparts of the forth floor of their London office block. That was where all the real news—the front page stories, were written. Tired of writing stories about ice sculpting contests, alpaca breeding and Elvis impersonators, she was thrilled that she might finally have latched on to an actual news story. If this panned out Mari hoped, perhaps she wouldn't have her work buried on page six of section G or J or whatever, of the Sunday paper. She felt cheated when she saw something she'd worked hard on lost among the big sale adverts for Asda and M & S.

Two weeks ago, Professor Haliday sent Mari a confidential e-mail stating quite firmly that he had made an amazing discovery high in the Andes. Something, he hinted, that could change the world virtually overnight.

Now she was here, camera phone and tape recorder in hand, to see this 'amazing discovery' for herself.

"Please put this on, my dear." The elderly, but still spry and handsome professor said to her. "It wouldn't do to have you injure your brain before you can tell the world about my discovery."

The man practically sneered down at Mari as he handed her a cavers helmet with a light attached to the front. She choose to ignore his superior affectation, deciding right from their first meeting that the man was probably some sort of emotionally backwards control freak.

Professor Haliday also put on a helmet and then aggressively fastened his anorak, frowning up at the sky as if he blamed it for the freezing weather.

"I do hope you appreciate that I'm giving you an exclusive, Miss Gopal. I had planned on contacting National Geographic. But somehow it seemed more appropriate to give the story to a publication from my own country. The Americans do have this repetitive tendency to treat anything even remotely exciting into some kind of media fun fair. Complete with the fortune tellers and the two-headed pig. Don't you think?"

Without waiting for her answer, the professor led the way into the rear of a small cavern tucked into a fold of the mountain. Mari balefully eyed the climbing gear in his hand as they stood next to a long crack in the rock, merely a yawning black space. She looked down-a long way down, she surmised, when she dislodged a rock and didn't hear it hit bottom.

After twenty minutes of abseiling into the underground crevice, often only three meters wide, Mari was thankful that she was still extremely fit for a woman in her mid-thirties. They had descended to small ledge. Beside it was another opening in the cave wall. It wasn't as cold down here, though they both could see their breath. Little puffs of white fog drifted upwards in the glow of their lamps.

"You'll have to mind your head here." The professor said as they entered what appeared to be a round, narrow tunnel, almost perfectly hewn out of the solid rock. The two of them had to bend down and walk single file, in order to negotiate their way through.

'This is...simply...incredible." Mari stammered, stunned by the perfection she saw in the construction. She touched the walls. They were perfectly smooth, as if some machine had bored through the rock and then sandblasted the exterior. Her journalistic instincts kicked into overload. "Was this some sort of mine? How on earth could anyone manage to get a machine in here? Is there another entrance? When did they stop operations? What were they looking for anyway? Gold? Silver? Iron ore?"

"This isn't a recent construction, my dear. What would you say if I told you this place was made thousands of years ago, by an unknown tribe of people?"

"But...the technology to construct such a tunnel...I mean, it's so perfect, professor. How could anyone make this with just simple, primitive tools? "

That's when Mari realized something else. The light in the tunnel wasn't only coming from their headlamps. Somehow, there was a soft, diffused glow coming from the ceiling. She stopped and pointed upward. "What is that? Some kind of mineral residue or something?"

"I have no idea, Miss Gopal. I have taken sample from the ceiling, but nothing has turned up in the tests so far. But don't worry. I'll have it figured out soon, I'm certain of that."

"Is this your big discovery? A natural light source?" Mari suggested. "That sort of green technology would be a boon to the UK. Just think of how much our dependency on coal, oil and nuclear energy would be reduced. We'd save billions while reducing the ozone layer, virtually eliminating acid rain and cutting down on air pollution. That's amazing!"

"Oh, goodness me! Now why hadn't I thought of that, my dear?" the professor answered sarcastically. "That is one part of my find, yes."

"I take that to mean that you've made an additional discovery. What could be more important that this, though?" she asked, gesturing at the ceiling again.

"Follow me and I'll show you." The professor said, walking onward.

The tunnel ended abruptly at the entrance to yet another cavern. This one however, was enormous.

"What...what is this place?"

"All in good time, my dear." The professor said cryptically, "All in good time."

Despite the hush in their tone, their voices still seemed to echo off the vaulted ceiling of the chamber.

Mari looked around the room with her mouth agape. The space reminded her vaguely of some sort of religious temple. The entire chamber was a room hollowed out from the rock. Massive white Doric style columns supported the soaring buttresses of the roof. The floor was paved with giant blocks of pink and gold marbled stone. Again, the space was lit by the same diffused light from above, only this seemed to be more natural, almost like daylight streaming through a window. Mari frowned. That was impossible, of course. They were hundreds of feet underground.

"This way Miss Gopal, this way." He said to her, gesturing impatiently as if he were on a tight schedule. He bustled her forward, like a tour guide showing her some dusty Egyptian temple

The professor lead the way across the floor to a small alcove set into the far wall. Here, the light was much brighter. It seemed to be focused on some sort of alter. The two of them switched off their headlamps. Despite her initial astonishment, Mari shivered. She could almost feel her body tingling with a sudden, unreasoning fear. Seeing the object before her up close, this place felt foreboding, almost menacing, like staring like a cobra rearing its head, its tongue flicking out in warning.

Maybe it was the drawings carved into the walls of the alcove. The images depicted there seemed drawn by some ancient hand. These were simple figures in bas relief, they and the scenes surrounding them painted in red, brown, gold, green and blue. The paint was in nearly perfect condition, as bright and bold as the day as it was first applied.

Though simply drawn, the painted carvings would have been breathtakingly beautiful. Except for the images they depicted. Scores of human figures with arms outstretched, some bodies contorted as if in pain, mouths open in perpetually silent screams. Each figure was surrounded by a green aura. Hovering far above the victims rose an oversized golden sun.

"What is this, professor?" Mari asked in a hushed tone. "Some ancient place of sacrifice?"

"That's it precisely, Miss Gopal. But it is not so ancient. I believe it still is in use."

"Surely not!" Mari said, wheeling about and eyeing him skeptically. "We're miles from anyone up here. There's not a village within seventy-five kilometers."

"Ah, well. If you say so, my dear. If you say so. It's possible I'm getting a bit dotty at my age. Or, perhaps it's the altitude getting to me." The professor gave her one of his patronizing smiles. "You can touch the images, if you like. Here, let me hold that camera for you. I can take a photograph of you for your article. Now, go on. Touch it. Feel how new the images seem to be. As if carved just yesterday." He pointed at the oversized sun. That one there, for instance. Feel how smooth the paint is. The gold as bright as if it were newly minted. No sign of flaking or wear, whatsoever. Quite remarkable!"

As if she couldn't help it, Mari reached out and touched the golden sun. Surprisingly, it moved. There was an audible click, and abruptly she found herself melting away. Before she could scream though, Mari vanished.

The professor casually sauntered away, his derisive laughter echoing off the ceiling.

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