Sleep might have made me smile at the very beginning, but once my subconscious took over, I tossed and turned amid fits of nightmares in which I was running through an endless maze with a ferocious monster at my heels, or I had to stand by and watch as one friend or another slowly drowned in quicksand, and no amount of effort on my part could rescue them... At one point, I ran up to The Bean in Millennium Park and it suddenly turned into an amorphous blob of quicksilver and swallowed me up... I awoke to the incessant and varied squawks and twittering of strange birds, and the rumbling roar of generators just a hundred yards away.
Jordyn was already up and dressed, and rubbing some taming product into her thick, fluffy hair as she parted it into two large poms behind her head. She grinned at me as I rubbed the sleep out of my skin.
"Rise and shine!" She chirped. "We have some digging to do!"
"Uuuuggggghhh...." I moaned, dragging my body out of the sleeping bag. I dug a patterned tee shirt and some bermuda-length shorts out of my bag and began changing out of my pajamas. As my brain regained focus, I forgot every single disturbing image I had dreamed about, except the one moment that stood out more clearly from the rest. At the very last instant before I emerged into wakefulness, I had clearly seen my mother's face, her dark eyes wide with worry. I could almost feel her hand gripping my wrist tightly as her voice intoned the words, "He's here."
He's here. The demon is here on the island, my thoughts clarified her words. Whether my mom truly had the ability to reach into my dreams and communicate, or perhaps that was my own sane brain trying to confirm the fear that had been brewing underneath all my thoughts ever since we left Chicago, I couldn't really tell. One or the other seemed more likely, depending on which truth I felt like believing!
I slipped on some socks and athletic shoes I used for hiking, and stepped out of the tent into the bright morning sunshine. The archaeological crew all milled around the camp, one group moving out to the trail leading to the dig site while another group gravitated toward the canteen area and the meal tents.
"Good morning!" a cheery voice greeted me, and I saw Alexandros smiling and waving as he walked by.
I waved back, but then the crunch of footsteps behind me jerked my attention toward them.
Professor Silver walked toward me, looking every bit the typical "city chaperone in the middle of nowhere", with his cactus-print polo, ridiculous cargo shorts, safari hat, and thick-soled hiking boots. He wore a grin like a kid about to enter an amusement park. "Ready to get going, Priscilla?"
I finished sweeping my hair up into a loose ponytail. "As ready as I'll ever be!" I said.
The professor gestured toward the canteen. "The guys--or at least Tony and Kayce--already had breakfast with the first shift because they were really excited to start exploring. What say we get in line to grab some food first, and then we'll discuss schedule and meeting points."
"Meeting?" Jordyn asked, coming out of the tent with a book bag slung over her shoulder.
Professor Silver ran a thumb around the rim of his hat. "Yes--this is still an academic excursion, so there are classwork assignments, discussion groups that we'll have each day, just so I can do my due diligence in keeping track of what you all are learning on this trip. We can arrange times within the existing schedule, in the morning and afternoon for the six of us to meet as a group, to have that discussion, do a little debriefing--that sort of thing."
Jordyn and I shared a glance, and she rolled her eyes. Of course college would find a way to work in a bit of humdrum schoolwork into a massive exploration into a landform in the middle of a foreign ocean!
We fell in with the group of hungry workers, feeling like the soft, entitled city kids they probably thought we were. Derrick was already seated at a table with a plate in front of him, though it was clear he was doing much more talking than eating, as the other shift had already cleared out but his plate was still half-full.
I finished my quick scan of the area, noticing Athanasios conducting a similar survey from the shade of the awning just beyond the artifact storage trailer. I tried giving him a smile and a wave when we made eye contact. I saw his crossed arms relax slightly, and he even took a few steps toward us, like he wanted to say something, but his eyes connected with something over my shoulder and he stopped. Professor Silver nudged me forward in line, and I stole a glance over my other shoulder.
Herrin, the commando from the beach access, stood beside the trees at the head of that same trail, watching the whole camp--but especially our group--with a cold glare in his eyes.
He's here, my thoughts repeated, and the cold realization washed over me: if indeed the demon was real, did he have a human form, like my divine parents--or was he possessing someone already on the trip? How could I know the difference?
"Yo, Pris!" Jordyn called from way ahead of me. She was staring back with a face full of concern. "You doing all right?"
I shook off my worried thoughts and trudged up to the table. The choices were bacon, sausage, and pancakes, or oatmeal. I picked oatmeal and loaded it up with the mix-ins.
"I'm okay," I said to Jordyn as she dished herself up from the opposite side of the table. "Just a little slow waking up, that's all." Whether the demon chose human identity or human possession, the mere fact that he could very well be on the island meant that I would need to be very careful who I talked to, and how much information I divulged.
We all sat down at an empty table, and I saw Athanasios walking over.
"Greetings, travelers!" He said in a boisterous tone. While he and the professor exchanged pleasantries, I snuck a glance over to the edge of the camp. Herrin had moved on, and the guard that took his place had no interest in us. Was that why Athanasios felt safe to approach?
"Are there any questions you would like to ask?" The dig chief prompted, looking around the table. "Anything you would like to know before we get going?"
"I've got a question," Derrick said, sitting down to join us at our table. He'd already disposed of his dishes, but he was still licking syrup off his fingers. "Are you really still looking for the temple, or have you found it? I noticed nobody was really talking about it yesterday."
"The temple?" Athanasios rubbed his mustache. "It is not a secret thing--we are looking for the temple, and the portion of land we have uncovered already is more of the communal village the worshippers stayed in--much pottery there, and shards of cloth, even some skeletons, bones and the like." He leaned in closer and his voice dropped to near-whisper. "The place these people want to find, though, is the actual place of worship used by the people--not just the statues they erected in honor of the gods, since we found the pedestals in a central location among the village houses, but the inner sanctuary, said to house all of the treasure dedicated to the gods over the generations of worship."
That got everybody's attention. I even felt a small tingle rush over my skin, raising goosebumps.
Professor Silver tilted his head curiously. "How much treasure are we talking, here?"
Athanasios shrugged. "There is no telling how much. The more powerful the gods, the more people could be persuaded to part with as much valuables as possible to appease them. Judging by the number and quality of coins we've already found, without discovering the literal sanctuary that was supposedly the resting place of the gods, where the ancient tabernacle was kept... we could be talking an entire room packed with the most valuable artifacts known to man." His voice dipped to a near whisper as he finished, "Whoever found this place would be the most powerful person to walk the earth."
Or most powerful demon, the voice in my head added.
"Hey guys!" A shout from Greg broke the transfixing energy of the moment. We all turned to see him waving from the middle of camp, dressed in a plain tee and khaki cargo shorts. "Ready to see the actual dig site?"
"We sure are!" Professor Silver responded. Our group dispersed to clear the table and gather around Greg.
Greg had Athanasios lead us down the dirt road rutted with tire tracks from ATVs running back and forth between the site and the camp. Athanasios pointed out different plants and landmarks to explain their historical and cultural significance. Some bends in the road had been flagged, and the dig chief explained that it wasn't so much due to the terrain, as it was the direction of the winds that buffeted the island. According to some legends, worshippers of the wind goddess Auraea believed that a breeze blowing on your left side was "unclean", so they took care to turn the very roads they walked on and frame the switchbacks across the precarious slopes so that the right side was more exposed than the left side. It felt a little awkward at times, but Jordyn did experiment with going off the beaten path a ways. She returned with surprise on her face.
"Wow, it might not have been originally intended for avoiding unstable ground, but it definitely feels that way now. The ground all around this path is really soft and would have required a lot of digging to shore it up enough for hundreds of people walking back and forth every day."
Athanasios glanced back as she said it, and I saw his eyebrows raise, and his expression seemed to indicate unintentional interest--but he said nothing and kept on walking.
"That's what Drea was saying the other day," Greg nodded his approval.
We came upon small groups of people working on things by the sides of the road.
"We must be getting close," Professor Silver remarked.
Greg swung off to the side and gestured further down the road, where the groups got bigger and thicker. We heard the rumble of an engine, and stepped to the shoulder just in time to let a loaded ATV down the narrow road.
"We are close," Athanasios confirmed. "The dig is just ahead."
"Greg! You're just in time!" a woman just opposite us called, waving as she did. Beside her, three men worked very carefully around a large stone with plenty of markings etched into its surface. It had been chipped in some places, and worn down in others, but most of the marks were there. The woman beamed proudly and wiped a dusty hand across her brow, leaving a rust-red streak. "Look what we found!"
The crew finished rolling the waist-high rock onto the road. The woman ran her fingers lightly over the surface. "A way-marker! We're headed in the right direction for sure!"
Greg rubbed his finger over it. "Wow, Laila--nice find!"
"Question from the back!" Derrick hollered, waving his hand in the air. "What's a way-marker?"
Jordyn scooted forward, her eyes wide. "It's a direction-finder, right? Way-markers were placed on important paths, as signals to stop and perform some kind of ritual at certain stages along the path, but mostly as route-markers in case the original path washed out, right?"
Laila nodded, tucking loose hairs up under the dingy ball cap she wore. "Yes, exactly--it totally makes sense that an island dedicated to the worship of wind and sea-storms would have measures in place to withstand the constant barrage of weather!"
Greg huffed as he helped the workers load the stone onto a pallet for easy access. "Yeah, except for the fact that weather on the Aegean Sea is relatively mild for most of the year!"
I leaned in close as Laila began copying down some strings of symbols from the rock's surface. I recognized some of the Greek letters, and a few symbols that I had definitely seen on the map of Fourtouna from Mom's office--just how close had these people gotten to whatever Mom and Dad wanted to hide?
Behind me, Jordyn piped up. "On the other hand, maybe there's something to the legends surrounding this island, after all--there was that freak storm that came out of a windy blue sky on our way here!"
I let out a gasp and tore my eyes away from peeking over Laila's shoulder, in case anybody happened to notice me--but they were all looking at Jordyn, especially Athanasios. I couldn't quite read his expression behind his bushy facial hair, but I had a sinking feeling it wasn't good.
"That's interesting," Greg mused, regarding the young geologist with an air of fascination. "A storm on your way? That would have been yesterday morning... We had no such dramatic weather shift here on the island."
Jordyn shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny, and she dipped her head, digging the toe of her shoe in the mud at her feet. "I dunno, I thought it was weird too."
"All done!" A machine beeped, and one of the workers gave Laila a hand-held scanner of some sort. She gestured to them. "Okay, you guys can put that back exactly where you found it. I'm going to take these scans back to base and see how much of it we can translate." She clutched the notebook and the scanner to her chest with a cheery grin. "I love my job!" she gushed.
Athanasios and Greg watched her fairly skipping back to camp, and then the dig chief turned back to us and nodded. "Shall we keep going?"
Professor Silver gestured onward. "Lead the way."
We moved down the dirt path, past more groups who were busy combing the area for more artifacts and evidence of the island's previous residents. I saw workers making heaps of tiny, dirty coins, a few digging out pottery shards, and still more of those "way-markers" and other stones bearing similar markings to the one Laila was translating even now.
Finally, Athanasios reached an abrupt ledge with plenty of caution tape strung on wooden stakes around it, and stopped. He gestured wide with his hands. "Behold--the Sacred Village of Fourtouna!"
The whole clearing was about the size of six city blocks, sectioned off into about ten squares within it, at various levels deep. Different groups worked around the remnants of crumbling walls denoting the dimensions of different houses arranged in lanes, where they were busily uncovering pottery--both whole pots and shards--and every so often, small pieces of shiny jewelry. One of the sections had a whole pile of various bone shards stacked next to it, awaiting their turn to be carted away to the cleaning station off to the side of the village site and identified, tagged, and packaged back at the camp.
Just like the map had shown us, I could see the trailheads marked on various paths out of the village and further into the jungle, with different colored flags.
"What are the different colors for?" I asked Athanasios.
He bobbed his head and rubbed his chin again. "The FRED team uses a different color for each new attempt at finding the path to the Temple. Each flag has a distance marked on it, saying how far they attempted to clear a path into the jungle before they encountered some difficulty that forced them to stop."
"What kind of difficulty are we talking?" Derrick wanted to know. "Like, they ran out of time? Or the path wasn't clear enough? Or--"
"Well," The burly dig chief rubbed his hands together. "Let me put it this way. The team who placed the white flag there," he pointed to one of the stakes, headed east into the jungle, "made it about five miles into the jungle when they encountered a nest of tree vipers. Three of the ten people bitten that day ended up dying by the time they made it back to the mainland."
"Vipers?" Jordyn gave a visible shudder. "Yikes!"
Athanasios nodded sagely. "The green flag there?" he pointed to a path directly across the village from our position. "I went with them--they had about six people and a map that promised to take them on a direct path to the Temple's position. We made it about an hour."
"What was it this time?" Professor Silver joked. "Spiders? Bats? Killer monkeys?"
Athanasios looked him straight in the eye, and there was no laughter. Only confusion, and fear. "To be perfectly honest with you, Professor, ever since that day, I have never been able to understand what exactly went wrong. Our vehicles had full tanks of gas when we left the village and started down the trail. One hour later, on the dot, both vehicles came to a dead stop. We could not move forward. We had to abandon our rides, and we attempted to push through on foot, but we couldn't make any headway through the jungle at all. We gave up trying after a dozen or so attempts to make it any further." His eyes lost focus, as the memory resurfaced. "We tried and tried, but nothing worked. It was as if we had run into a wall of some kind, an impassible barrier that we could not see or feel. We walked back to camp."
I stared down the shadowy trail, as if I had the ability to see the two ATVs still sitting in the middle of the trail. "What happened to those vehicles? Did you ever recover them?"
To our surprise, Athanasios nodded. "Oh yes! They brought a truck with a tow hitch, intending to drag the vehicles back for inspection, but as soon as they got both transports turned around and faced back toward the village, they started right back up again, like there wasn't anything wrong at all."
"What?" Derrick hooted. "How does that even happen?"
The Greek dig chief shook his head. "I cannot tell you."
Below us, a motor started up as a group of workers climbed into the back of a pickup truck and headed back toward the camp. We heard the faint klaxon resounding over the camp speakers.
Athanasios squinted in that direction. "Ah, it is time for lunch already. We ought to head back to the base camp."
Professor Silver coughed. "Ah, yes, you're right--and students, we'll have our first educational meeting this afternoon, right after lunch. I think we've had a pretty exciting and informative morning, what would you all say?" He nudged Jordyn with his elbow, and she gave him a half-smile.
"Boy, I'll say!" Derrick agreed. "Invisible walls and poisonous snakes, a hidden temple--this trip just keeps getting better and better!"