City of Nippur, location of modern-day Iraq. 3239 B.C.
Ghadra felt all of his eighty-two years with each step. He had begun this war an old, but capable, man—now he just felt old. As he approached, the guards touched hands to chest and opened the doors to the Star Chamber. The other delegates were already seated.
“My apologies,” Ghadra began. “I received an Aqramthi Talaris in my chambers just before I came.” You could almost feel the spines in the room stiffen. He frowned down at his hands. “Aqramthi has fallen.”
The room collectively deflated.
Ghadra felt deflated too. “Let’s get on with our business,” he said. “Minister Baat, please read the resolution.”
Baat activated the light-tablet in her hands and cleared her throat. The placidity of her face was incongruous with her voice. “For as long as the sacred pathways have existed, their use in warfare has been strictly forbidden. The First Law of War—insisted upon by the gods—was that pathways never be used for martial purposes.” She looked at those gathered before continuing. “It is confirmed that those aligned with the Enki race have repeatedly violated this law, bringing soldiers and weapons through the sacred pathways. Many have fallen thereby.”
Baat paused for a moment, as if not speaking the final sentence would obviate its need. When she spoke again, the sadness in her voice was shared by everyone in the chamber. “This Council orders the destruction of all sacred pathways,” she read. “The Chief Talaris of each nation, Keepers of the Pathways, is hereby tasked with their destruction.”
There was silence. For millennia, the pathways had allowed humanity to expand, to connect and trade with each other all across the Earth. Even the most warlike empires understood that to jeopardize all of this for a tactical advantage in some fleeting war was a devil’s bargain. Humanity would never recover from this loss. But the Enki weren’t human.
City of Quetoxoa, location of modern-day Colombia. 3238 B.C.
Nimmursag arrived in Quetoxoa just past midnight. He’d intended to remain unseen during this mission, but changing circumstances dictated a change in plans.
The temple guards spoke in unison when he appeared. “Be praised, Worldstrider,” they said, bowing and touching their foreheads and then their hearts in greeting.
Nimmursag returned the gesture, but spoke without preamble. “This city is under attack,” he said. “Wake the Talari and sound the alarms. The Akkadians will be here soon.”
The guards didn’t seem to comprehend and just froze, looking at him without moving.
“Did you hear me?” Nimmursag said. “Akkadian troops are approaching from the south. Sound the alarms and wake everyone in this temple, Talari first. Go. Now.”
The streets were a mass of screaming people running in all directions. Soldiers began to rush towards the battles and clashes were all around now. He had to get out. As terrible as the fall of Quetoxoa would be, if he didn’t complete his mission, more than just cities would fall.
Habitually, he checked the pouch at his waist, confirming that its contents were still there. He wanted to stay and fight—Quetoxoa was his birthplace—but he had to complete his mission first. He was tasked with hiding the contents and encoding the designated Patrons with the location, but this attack changed everything. He knew he wouldn’t make it to the original location, but he had to get as close as he could.
Creeping through the emptiest streets he could find, Nimmursag moved further away from the sounds of war and closer to the forest. The west exit seemed the most promising, and as he approached it, his fatalism began to recede. He quested outward into the forest and felt the return signal he was hoping for—the Patron was still nearly five miles away, but right where he expected it. He compelled it to come to him and felt it start to move.
Nimmursag turned into the final alley before he had a clear path from the city and ran smack into a squad of enhanced Akkadian infantry—three shock-lancers and two shield-bearers.
Before the Akkadians could react, lightning sprang from Nimmursag’s staff, throwing the nearest shield-bearer headfirst into the wall. The soldier crumpled instantly, leaving a wet spot where his skull cracked against the stone. Shock-lancers wore insulation to protect from electricity, but he could still break bones.
Nimmursag pushed his energy field outward as violently as he could, throwing the remaining soldiers back. He blasted the remaining shield-bearer before he could recover, stopping his heart in seconds. Two down.
Then the long knife one of the soldiers threw took Nimmursag between the shoulders, just an inch to the left of his spine. Pain seared his body and blood exploded from his lips. He heard the soldiers whoop as he went sprawling in the dirt. Gasping for air, he reached around, vainly trying to grab the hilt to pull the knife out. Even as he faded, he looked up to see a glossy shimmer of darkness sprinting toward him from the jungle. His Patron.
The soldiers had seen Nimmursag go down and slowed to a jubilant walk. The chance to take down a Talaris was rare. That staff he dropped would be worth a lot of coin, they reasoned, and there were probably more valuables on his body. Some people thought that eating a Talaris’s eyes would give special powers. They were so wrapped in thoughts of looting that they didn’t notice the jaguar creeping up until it was too late.
She sprang from behind, leaping onto the first soldier and clamping down on his neck. Severed arteries sprayed as the jaguar twisted back and forth, snapping his neck. The other soldier blasted her with his shock-lance, which ran the cat off, but he lost sight of her in the dark. He stood there, peering into the night, while his dead grandmother’s warning about attacking Talari played in his mind.
Whoever does harm a Worldstrider by hand
Shall be meat for the beasts of the air and the land.
A minute later, the jaguar sprang again and blood sprayed once more.
Nimmursag stayed alive long enough to sense the Patron attacking his assailants, but he knew his own wound was fatal. Even if the city held, he wasn’t going to survive. He wasn’t going to make it far enough to hide his pouch in the jungle, but he couldn’t let anyone find it on his body.
Drawing on all the energy he had remaining, Nimmursag dragged himself to his feet and staggered on. The aqueduct that carried sewage from Quetoxoa was just a few hundred yards away. If he could get to it, he could salvage something from this mission. He made it almost halfway before the world began to spin.
His own choking woke him after just a few minutes. The knife still burned in his back and each inhalation felt like shards of molten metal. He had to keep going. Struggling to breathe, Nimmursag pulled himself upright and stumbled on. When he fell again, he crawled until he made it to the aqueduct.
The sewer was a deep, rock-lined trench. It flowed out to the river where it slowed and pooled. The stench was unbelievable, but Nimmursag pulled himself to the edge. He checked his pouch one last time, fingering the purple gems within. He weighted it with rocks and tossed it in.
He quested out to the Patron and gave it a new mission: protect the pathway. Then he called it to him, holding tightly to what life remained. He just needed to touch the Patron to transfer the message he carried. He repeated it to himself, like a mantra willing himself to stay alive for just a few more moments. Just needed to touch it.
The jaguar felt the connection dim, and as she neared, the scent of blood overpowered what remained of the faded signal. She watched for a moment, silhouetted by the burning city, but when she approached, the summoner was already gone. She nudged him where he lay, slumping his body further, before she sniffed his body and instinctively licked the fatal wound. The sun was fully risen before the sounds of approaching men finally drove her from her summoner’s body, and deep into the jungle.
Miami, Florida, United States
Nothing about the man and girl who’d gone through security ahead of me was right. I was already running late and barely going to make my flight, but the way he yanked her by the arm as soon as she finished tying her shoes rubbed me the wrong way.
He spoke to her tersely before he dropped her arm and walked off. She fell in behind him with her head down. I watched them over to the first gate—E18. My flight was leaving from the same concourse, but several gates away. E18 wasn’t boarding for over an hour and there weren’t many people there other than the couple I was following. I had barely half an hour before my flight departed, but decided to grab a seat behind them to eavesdrop anyway. Maybe I could alleviate my suspicions, book it down the concourse, and catch my flight all in 20 minutes.
All the girl was carrying was a purse and the denim jacket and t-shirt she was wearing was fine for Miami, but it was February, and gate E18 was headed to New York.
She looked to be in her late teens and the guy was probably in his forties. That in itself didn’t mean anything, but it was weird that they didn’t speak at all as they sat there. He played on his phone and she watched a spot on the floor.
I was trying to look at the guy’s phone over his shoulder when the girl flipped her hair and I saw the barcode tattooed on her neck. I tried to get her attention without him noticing. I was 99% sure of what I was seeing, but there was still that little bit of doubt.
Then his phone rang. He answered, then listened.
“Same deal,” he said. “Money came through. I’ll have her there tonight.”
I weighed my options. Call the police? Grab her and run? They were all messy.
I had to get him away from her. I’d heard before that traffickers terrorize their victims so badly that as long as he’s there, they won’t even accept help to escape.
While I was thinking about what to do, the guy stood up.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” he said. “You want anything?”
She hesitated for a moment, and then quietly: “A Coke?”
He nodded, then leaned forward to whisper to her. “Close your eyes and pretend you’re asleep. If you talk to anyone again I will fuck you up.”
She did as she was told and he started walking away. When he’d gone about thirty feet I stood and followed him as I heard “Delta Airlines paging Nathan Carter…final boarding” on the PA overhead. There’d be other flights.
The restroom he went into was one of the smaller ones on the concourse. There was a small sink area and around the corner were five urinals and two stalls. The asshole I was after was at the urinal on the end. He had his phone to his ear yapping away while he pissed. The only other guy present flushed and headed out. It usually disgusts me when people don’t wash their hands, but this time I was glad the dude just left.
I checked to make sure the stalls were empty and then I stomped my size 13 boot so hard in his back his phone went flying. He pissed all over himself as he fell into the urinal. I didn’t give him a chance to react.
“What the fuck?!” he shouted as I grabbed his head and slammed it into the wall. His hands flew up to protect himself, so I yanked him back by the neck and hammered his face. He shrank from the attack and fell to the pissy ground, still trying to cover his head. I kicked him in the ribs and he howled, instinctively curling into a ball.
“What’s the girl’s name?” I asked as he cowered on the floor.
“What?” he stammered.
I kicked him two more times and heard ribs crunch. “Her name,” I repeated.
“What are you doing with her? You pimping her?”
He didn’t answer, so he got two more swift kicks. More crunches.
“Not pimping! Selling!”
I stepped on his face and pressed down. “You’re disgusting.”
He tried to scrabble away, but he was already backed up against the wall so he grabbed at my boot.
“Get your hand off me or I will kick your fucking skull in,” I growled.
He moved his hand, but I kicked him in the mouth anyway. His lips were a bloody mess and my tread was imprinted on his cheek. I went to where his phone had landed and picked it up. “Kelly ain’t for sale no more,” I said. I kicked him in the balls for good measure and he groaned almost soundlessly.
The whole thing hadn’t taken more than ninety seconds, but I was lucky no one had walked in. I hurried out and put some distance between myself and the restroom. The girl, Kelly, was still sitting at the gate with her eyes closed.
A gorgeous brunette in a pilot’s uniform was walking by and I got her attention. “Can you help me?” I asked. “That girl over there is being sex trafficked. Her name’s Kelly.”
Her eyes went wide and she looked to the girl, then back at me. “Are you sure?” she said.
“I’m 1000% sure. I’d call them myself, but I just beat the shit out of her trafficker in that restroom right there,” I said, nodding. “And, I kinda don’t wanna talk to the police right now.”
She looked at me for a few long seconds—probably trying to decide if she was going to help me out or rat me out. My good luck held.
“Go,” she said. I gave her the phone and she nodded to me, then ran to call the police.
I got away from that concourse as fast as I could and saw that I’d already been rebooked on a later flight. I laid low at the bar for the next couple of hours, feeling nervous that any minute the police were going to roll up and arrest me.
I didn’t fully relax until we got to cruising altitude, at which point I ordered 2 mini bottles of scotch. After the earlier events of my day, the flight itself was uneventful, and an hour after landing in Cartagena, I was on a local flight south to Chocó to meet up with Luis, my guide.
I hunted rare plants—orchids primarily—for wealthy collectors. I’d majored in biology at UVA and planned on being the next Steve Irwin, but it turned out to be harder getting that kind of job than I expected, so I took a “real job”.
Almost five years in, my girlfriend left me and I got laid off for the third time. I was discouraged, broke, and heartbroken. I sold everything and went on a backpacking trip through Europe and Asia. I stayed on the road for nearly a year—sleeping on couches where I could and doing odd jobs to make money.
In Berlin I met a guy who ran a survival school in the Everglades. When I got back I went through his course. I struggled, but I learned how to survive in harsh environments. I loved it. Not long after, I talked a wealthy couple I’d met in Paris into hiring me to hunt the rare orchids they collected, and a new business was born.
I developed a name among people who collected such things and they started hiring me to hunt orchids all around the world. I’d recently been hired by a small research company interested in understudied plants with medicinal potential. In particular, they were interested in plants in the Orinoco basin. So here I was.
Luis was my go-to guy for anything in this part of the world. We’d gone to high school together. He was born and raised in Maryland like me, but his dad was from Colombia, and Luis had gone to live with his grandparents when he got in a little too much trouble during our junior year. It seemed counterintuitive to me to send a misbehaving kid to Colombia, home of cocaine and Pablo Escobar, but Luis said it was just what he’d needed to straighten him out.
At first he’d been miserable in Colombia—he missed his friends, he missed the conveniences of American life—but after a couple of months, he fell in love with the place and ended up staying. Now he ran a business guiding foreigners on fishing and hunting expeditions. Luis was quick to crack a dirty joke, loyal, and down for anything—he was someone you’d want with you in the trenches. It made him great at his job, and one of my best friends.
After meeting up on Friday morning, Luis and I connected with our hired boatman, Armando. Over the years, I’d heard Armando utter about a dozen words. But if you asked me, a man who knows the river and every tributary like he did doesn’t need to talk much. He loaded our gear into his old Toyota minivan—a model that was never sold back in the States—and we drove out to the nearby boat launch. By early afternoon, we were headed downriver.
It was just past 6 p.m. when we rounded a bend and Armando steered the canoe onto the bank. We’d arranged for him to check for us at the same spot in two days, and for another three days after that if we weren’t there. With a final warning of “no llegues tarde, ‘jueputa” (loosely translated: “don’t be late, asshole”), Armando motored off.
Luis took stock of our gear and I took some soil samples. We’d come ashore no more than fifty feet from the river bend, but when Armando disappeared around it, the sound from his outboard motor disappeared too. We decided to make camp and start inland the next day.
The next morning I walked along the riverbank to do a little recon. About 150 yards from our position I came across a fresh set of jaguar prints at the water’s edge. The animal was missing a toe on its front right paw, but there was no mistaking the distinctive print. I looked around, but didn’t see it, and I didn’t want to be there when it came back.
We set off hiking as soon as I got back to camp. After about three hours we came to a small clearing and I spotted a mass of purple orchids growing on a tree on the other side. This was the place. By early afternoon, I had multiple samples of leaves, roots, and barks—all neatly labeled and vacuum-sealed.
With my collecting done for the day, we wanted to see if we could catch anything in the nearby stream, so after setting up camp we rigged a couple of poles with jerky as bait and set out. It took a while, but we eventually caught a few decent-sized fish, and then moved further down the bank to a spot overlooking a deep pool. The water was unusually clear for this part of the world, and when I peered in I could see that the bottom wasn’t muddy. It was covered in leaves and twigs, but it appeared to be made of tile, and if I looked at just the right spot, I could see something sparkle.
“Luis, how deep do you think this water is?”
Luis squinted into the pool. “Maybe twelve or fifteen feet. Why? You’re not jumping in there, are you?”
“There’s something sparkling down there. I wanna see what it is.”
Shaking his head, ‘no,’ he said: “I would not recommend that. You don’t know what’s in there. Have you never seen River Monsters? Animals in this river are vicious.”
“I know,” I said, stripping off my outer clothes. “But I can see to the bottom. I don’t see anything in there but little fish anyway.”
Over Luis’s objections, I tied fishing weights to my canvas belt and strapped it around my waist to cut down on buoyancy. I tied a rope to the belt and gave the other end to Luis. “If I tug on this, pull me up,” I instructed.
Luis reiterated his objections with a short and curt “you’re an idiot,” but agreed to man the rope.
I barely made a splash when I broke the plane of the water. The bottom was only about ten feet down, and with a couple of strong kicks I was there. I was able to see the sparkling object easily. A quick sweep of my hand brushed away the leaf litter and revealed some kind of opaque, purplish crystal carved in the shape of what I assumed was a mushroom. I grabbed it and realized that it was a pendant on a thin, silver chain. There were two other gems just like it.
My first thought about the floor of the pool was correct—it was covered in leaves and silt, but it was definitely a stone floor. I pushed off the bottom at the same time as I tugged on the rope and I shot upward, propelled from my own kick as well as Luis pulling me up.
“You’re crazy,” Luis said as I climbed back onto the bank.
“Maybe,” I said between breaths, “but look what I found.”
Heading back to camp we came upon an animal-crossing near the riverbank. Luis pointed out the cloven hooves of a peccary and the four-toed prints of a capybara. The other jumbled-together imprints were harder to make out, but there was another that Luis pointed out—a jaguar. And unlike the others, its prints showed it coming out of the water, not walking towards it.
“How old do you think these jaguar prints are?” I asked.
Luis examined them more closely. “No more than a few hours. But there are capybara around. The locals say that man doesn’t really have to worry about jaguars when there are capybara around.”
I grunted in response and looked back at the tracks, trying to count how many capybara had passed by. I wasn’t a particularly skilled tracker, but I did notice something I hadn’t seen before. The jaguar’s prints veered off into the grass shortly after it had come ashore. And almost hidden in the grass was one last print from the cat—with a missing toe. The thought had crossed my mind when I first saw the prints, but I didn’t want to consider the possibility.
Could it be following us?
But in front of me now was what looked like proof—this was the same animal that had left the prints back where we started. I didn’t want to seem alarmed, so I didn’t point it out. I just said, “Capybara or not, I’d rather get back to camp.”
Back at camp we cleaned our fish and roasted them over the fire. I kept my rifle beside me the whole time, which earned me a few teases from Luis, but I didn’t care.
Despite all the small and irritating bones the fish were delicious. Surprisingly firm for their size, they weren’t fishy tasting like freshwater fish can sometimes be. I brought up the jaguar while we ate. “I think it’s the same one from before,” I said.
“Why?” Luis asked. “There’s jaguar all through this jungle. We’ve probably walked past ten of them and didn’t even know it.”
“Maybe. But the prints I saw when we first landed had a toe missing. And this one is missing the same toe.”
I could see Luis trying to think of a rational explanation, but he couldn’t come up with one. “You sure?” he asked quietly.
“I don’t think it necessarily means anything that it’s the same jaguar,” I said. “I don’t know how big their ranges are. We walked this far in a day, maybe it’s normal that it did too.”
Luis nodded. “And we haven’t seen it. It’s not like it came right up to our camp or anything. It was down at the water with a bunch of other animals.”
“I agree,” I said. “But I’m still sleeping with my rifle.”
“No argument from me,” Luis said.
We stayed by the fire for a while after dark, marveling at the sky. With only our campfire for light, the Milky Way was perfectly visible and it was easy to see why so many ancient cultures had stories about constellations and beings coming from the sky. The glowing eyes watching from the forest were still unnerving, but what was most disturbing was when those glowing eyes suddenly disappeared. No sooner had I begun to speculate on what might be the cause than I heard snarling and a crash in the forest. “Alright, that’s enough for me,” I said, heading into my tent.
I woke a few hours later to the sound of something padding around outside the tent. I lay still and listened closely. Whatever it was walked all around the tent, but never came all the way up to it. I could hear it rooting around in the area where we’d buried the leftovers from our dinner, and it was gone after a few minutes. I felt safe enough inside the tent, but the fact that something had come into our camp had me a little anxious.
We were both up before dawn, and as soon as I had the fire going I took a look around the camp. Luis had slept through the whole thing. Our tents were pitched on dry ground, so there were no pawprints to tell what it could have been. We packed up and got ready to move, then sat down to eat breakfast.
Our fire was blazing, but the stars were still clearly visible as we sipped instant coffee. Then we heard the same snarl as the night before. I couldn’t see it, but I was sure it was the jaguar. And it was out there in the direction we’d planned on going.
After talking it over, we decided to go back rather than go further in. After about an hour, we passed through another clearing and stopped on the far side to rest. I looked back, and standing just inside the treeline on the other side was a big, spotted cat.
Luis followed my eyes. “It’s stalking us,” he said.
“Let’s keep to the middle of the clearing to rest,” I said. “We don’t want it sneaking up on us.”
The animal watched us for a few moments, then slipped into the forest. I scanned my memory for anything I could remember about big cats hunting humans. I’d read that tigers and lions usually became man-eaters because of some injury that made it hard for them to hunt their normal prey—humans were simply slower, weaker, and easier to catch. There was a tiger that killed 430 people in India in the early 1900s. When someone finally shot it, they realized it had two badly broken canines. A pair of brother lions that had killed almost fifty workers building a bridge in Kenya both had dental infections. And the jaguar stalking us was missing a toe.
We didn’t stay long before moving again. The jaguar followed. It was getting bolder now and coming closer.
“It’s trying to find the right ambush location,” I said.
Luis agreed with me now. It started raining and the forest got very dark, very quickly. I looked back and the jaguar was there, eyes glowing in the gloom. I shot at it, but missed, and it leapt, snarling, into the brush.
We had to get back to our pick-up point, but hiking through the forest would be even more dangerous now that it was dark and raining. But looking off to the side, I could see a break in the vegetation ahead. The forest floor sloped downward and there was a rocky outcropping at the bottom. A spray of woody bushes with white flowers grew around the rim of a circular hole in the earth. When you looked down, the hole was lined with rough inset slabs of rock that almost seemed to have been placed there intentionally. From the floor of the hole, they led a few feet east into a low opening that went down into the hillside. I pointed it out.
“No way,” Luis said. “I’m not going into some uncharted cave in the middle of the jungle.”
“What choice do we have?” I said. “We can’t outrun it. We can’t escape it by climbing a tree. Our best bet is to go into this cave. Hopefully it’ll come in after us and we can take it out in a confined space.”
“I don’t know,” Luis said. “Look at that drop. If we go down there, how are we gonna get back out? And it’s raining. I say we keep going. We can make it to the river in an hour and be right on time for our pick-up.”
“At this pace?” I asked. “Creeping along and breaking our necks looking around at every sound? It’s gonna take us more like three or four hours and it’s getting dark. I’m not walking through the forest in the dark. We go down in this cave, we have natural shelter. We have food and water. We can build a fire and be assured it can’t get us from behind. We keep going tomorrow. It’s only day two,” I reminded him. “Armando promised to check at the same time for three days. We can wait until tomorrow.” Luis grudgingly agreed.
I went in first. I took off my pack and dropped it to the ground below, then dropped myself down. Luis handed me his pack then jumped down too. Tangled vines hung from the ledge above, obscuring the entrance, but cool air flowed from the dark mouth in an obvious stream—I would’ve been able to find my way in even with my eyes closed. I used a stick to push some of the vines aside—squinting at them to make sure no spiders or snakes fell on me—and I peered inside.
The first thing that struck me was the complete absence of sound. I hadn’t gone more than a couple of steps in and it was like I’d entered an isolation chamber. Coming in from the heat and humidity of the forest, it felt like being in air-conditioning. The chamber we were in was maybe twenty feet wide, with a seven-foot ceiling. As my eyes adjusted, I was able to see that the floor sloped down gently towards the back, but the roof stayed the same, so the space grew more open as you went further back. I pulled out my flashlight and shined it around.
Luis was looking around with the same look of wonder that I probably had. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. He started walking down the slope, looking up at the ceiling and the walls.
“Watch your step,” I said. “This is sinkhole country.”
He nodded absentmindedly. After a moment he said, “Look at these walls. This isn’t limestone. This looks like granite.”
I set about unpacking what I needed to make this cave home for the night while keeping an eye on the entrance.
“Hey, turn your light off for a second,” Luis called out.
“Turn off my light?” I asked.
“Yeah, just for a second,” he said, “I wanna see something.”
I checked the entrance again, then closed my eyes before turning off my flashlight. My eyes adjusted quickly and I peered into the darkness where I last saw Luis. Suddenly, I understood what he’d wanted to see.
“Is there light in here?” I asked.
“I think so.”
I couldn’t make him out clearly, but I could sort of see him as a darker shape in the darkness. He walked down the slope a little and disappeared around something that I hadn’t even noticed. “This is amazing,” he said.
“What?” I asked, walking over to see what he was looking at. It wasn’t visible from where I’d been standing, but from this viewpoint, I could see that there was another chamber down the slope and to the right. There was a roughly triangular opening about waist high, and emanating from it, a faint purplish glow.
“What the hell is that?” he asked.
“I think it’s mushrooms,” I said. I was already walking towards the glow, collecting kit in hand. The opening into the glowing chamber was too small to climb or reach through, but I crouched down and looked in. My first guess had been right—the glow seemed to be coming from mushrooms growing on a column in the chamber. The light was too dim to make out much of what was in there, but considering that it was coming from a few mushrooms, it was pretty impressive.
“Despite what most people think,” I said in Luis’s general direction, “cave dwelling mushrooms are extremely rare. And a bioluminescent one…that’s beyond rare. This might actually be an unidentified family. We gotta get into that room. Let’s finish setting up camp and find a way in.”
“If cave mushrooms are so rare,” Luis asked, “what’s this one doing here? How does it live here? What’s sustaining it?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “Maybe it gets nutrients from the rock, or from water that seeps in from above. Really weird ecosystems and organisms develop in isolated places like caves. Its bioluminescence is interesting too. Purple is a very unusual color. I can’t think of any other purple bioluminescent organisms.”
As I was clearing away a space to build the fire I noticed that underneath all the dirt, the stone of the floor was perfectly smooth. As I looked more closely, it became apparent that the stones were arranged. There were pieces missing, but it was a pattern. I looked around at the walls and the ceiling and looked more closely at the column in the middle of the chamber we were in. It was way too even and smooth to be natural.
“Luis, you said it’s unusual that this cave is hard rock, right?”
He nodded, noticing now what I was looking at. “Holy shit,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “This isn’t a cave. These are ruins.”
“Holy shit,” he repeated.