The Postgrad Adventures

Cave of Trials

When Eric Eisenhardt came to Hohenheim University to earn a doctoral degree in engineering, he imagined he would be spending his time in the lab. He did not imagine he would be sweating his ass off in a hot cave somewhere under Central America. His brown hair was covered by his miner's hardhat, and his grease-stained lab coat and tool belt was now covered in sweat and dirt he futilely attempted to brush off. He examined a set of vine-woven ropes on the floor of the cave, placed where the unwary would trigger them.

"Why must we waste our time in this cave when I could be conducting infinitely more useful research?" complained a raven haired, pale skinned dual medical and doctoral student, Lisa West. "Especially in an environment such as this. I would prefer gathering specimens in the jungle or conventional dig site, not deep in a booby-trapped cave."

"Oh, Lisa, how can I forget you were originally the one to talk us into it?" came a third, nasally voice. "Oh, it would be a grand idea, you said, coming down to study the exotic flora and fauna, maybe learn a bit about mummies in Pre-Columbian cultures."

Eric turned to see the other member of his research group, Thaddeus Crowe, wrapping himself in his light blue cloak made from old nightwear. Arcane sigils glowed softly, eliminating the near for him to use a flashlight or headlamp. The English major had a tome of spells partially stuffed into his enchanted bathrobe's pocket.

"I did not anticipate our advisor would be as blatantly disregardful of our safety has he currently has," West shrugged. "But no matter, I hope we shall encounter some of this tribe's famous mummies within. Observing how a lost culture preserved their dead is always useful towards the advancement of medical science."

"Will both of you be quiet?" Eric replied. "One false move with these tripwires, and some lethal booby trap gets tripped. Whoever made these primitive booby traps built 'em to last."

"Odd, especially considering rope and vines would decay over the untold centuries," Lisa mused.

"I sense mild enchantments preventing such decay," the occultist and English doctoral student noted. "I could remove them, but there is a strong chance of this entire structure collapsing upon us due to age."

"Or at least trigger all of these traps," Eric mused. "But don't worry, I've got an idea! I can cut a few of the tripwires, and keep the nastier traps from springing."

Eric pulled out a multi-tool from his belt, pulled out a pocket knife, and hacked through a bundle of tripwires in his hands. A deep rumbling was heard from within the cavern, as if an artillery strike had hit. "Eh, sorry, wrong set of tripwires," Eric mused, covering his head and cowering in a corner.

"You fool! Run!" Lisa looked behind her. A massive boulder rumbled through the narrow tunnel at them, barreling downwards like a freight train.

Eric looked behind him, and ran like a bat out of hell. Behind him, he saw Lisa and Thaddeus struggling to keep up as the boulder bore down on them. Unlike the others, Eric was glad he worked out on a regular basis. For a split second, he noticed the distribution of cracks on the boulder and realized something was not as it first seemed. Improvising, he reached into his belt and pulled out his prototype laser pulse pistol and set it to its highest power setting.

"You! Man of science! Do you not have some gadget to save us from getting horribly crushed by this rampaging sphere?" Thaddeus shouted.

The rolling rock thundered down the tunnel like a bowling ball, about to crush Thaddeus and Lisa into paste. "Watch out!" Eric shouted as he unloaded several explosive laser pulses from his pistol.

Each pulse resounded like a howitzer in the enclosed tunnel, illuminating the cave for a split instant. Several shots came out, each striking the boulder. A final shot shot caused the rock to explode, scattering fragments all across the passageway.

"That was no natural boulder," Eric picked up a fragment of the sphere and looked at it under the glow of his miner's helmet. "It was just an elaborate ceramic sphere, hollow and made of clay. Durable clay and still able to crush us to death, but once I detected the stress and strain patterns due to the cracking, I knew exactly where to hit it to destroy it. Anything humans build, we can destroy."

Thaddeus, now covered in sweat and panting heavily, looked up. "Your mastery of crude matter has prevented me from embracing oblivion this time," he nodded. "I must thank you for using those toys, at least in this instance."

"Next time I look for ceramics, I'll make sure not to invite you shopping," Lisa remarked as she caught her breath. "Your excessive force was not unwarranted, however."

"Gee, thanks," Eric looked around. "Well, we're a lot deeper in the tunnel than we were before, and there's no indication we're closer to that thing we're supposed to get."

"The Gem of Aquilerif," Thaddeus added. "My arcane senses tell me we are closer to it."

Eric heard a sniffing sound, and turned his head to see Lisa lifting her head back in the air, as if she were a bloodhound tracking a mark. Lisa scratched the sides of the tunnel like a cat clawing on furniture, feeling around inside carved alcoves.

"Found one!" she pulled out a set of tweezers and test tubes, as Eric and Thaddeus peered into the dark niche next to her. A scent like tanned hide came from within. Lisa grinned like a child in a candy store as she removed bits of a mummy embedded in the alcove. The body itself was wrapped in rotting blankets, and nearby was an obsidian-edged sword-club, a macana, still looked as sharp as dragon's teeth. A small cotton shield was placed next to the body on the opposite arm. Whoever this was, he was likely a warrior. "This find is a small bit of compensation for what I've been forced to endure so far. I knew this tribe made mummies, but I think these are the most well preserved one we've yet encountered."

The corpse was almost perfectly preserved, looking as though it had not aged in the centuries. Eric looked at it more closely, noticing a faint powder on the body. "Hey, Thad, any magic on this corpse? I don't know any way you could preserve a body that well. Especially down in a tropical cave full of bugs and fungus."

The occultist closed his eyes, put his hands onto his ears, and hummed. "I sense some blend of magic and some mundane methods to preserve this body," he turned his head. "Wait, I detect others like it, all sharing similar enchantments to preserve them. Such an undertaking would be incredibly complex, especially for mere warriors as theseā€¦"

"Such elaborate preservation attempts mean perhaps these were the most elite and respected warriors of their day," Lisa examined the body with a flashlight and magnifying glass. "Hmm, I detect no signs of injury or violent death. This man may have died from poison, or perhaps from some internal disease. Perhaps he was a sacrificial victim?"

"I'm not liking this," Eric set his laser pulse pistol to max power. "Not one bit. Lisa, Thad, can we move on? We've got some samples, so how about we leave this for another team?"

"Not if I can get a paper out of this!" Lisa pulled out a surgeon's scalpel, and reached for the warrior's outstretched hand. Lisa's formal mannerisms vanished beneath youthful excitement. "I'm going to need more samples of his flesh..."

"Wait, I sense something in the aetheric currents within this segment of tunnel," Thaddeus waved his hands in the air. "There is a presence here, awaiting to fulfill instructions it was given long ago."

"And what are those instructions?" Eric gazed further down the tunnel, his helmet light illuminating other mummy filled niches. He turned to face Thaddeus again. "They wouldn't happen to be something like kill all intruders, now would it?"

"No, the guardian spirit seeks only to destroy those who would violate the sanctity of the dead," Thaddeus turned to examine Lisa, who had just jammed her scalpel into the mummy, attempting to remove more flesh. "Oh, by Hermes Trismegistus the Thrice-Great, we are doomed."

Suddenly, the dead, black eyes of the corpse opened, and a rasping moan came from the dust-filled mouth of the ancient warrior. The mummy reached up at Lisa West, wrapping its stiff hands in a vice-like grip around her arm. Eric saw the other hand of the mummy reach for its macana, and shot it in the head. The undead creature's head burst into charred tissue and ash, and Lisa pulled away from the monster.

"Hmph," she muttered, yanking her scalpel out. "Why must the most preserved bodies in these ruins always be undead abominations waiting to slay the living? I pity those poor archaeologists."

Eric turned to see more undead warriors climbing out of their niches, cotton shields and obsidian edged macanas ready to cut their flesh. Looking at the LED indicator on his laser pistol, he saw that his power was almost depleted. He fired at the closest ones, blasting them to ash. "Hey, anyone else have any ideas? I'm almost out of juice!" he shouted to the other too.

"Judging by the embalming residue used on the corpses, I have a lysing agent which may counteract it," Lisa pulled out a tranquilizer gun and jammed in a dart from her pocket. There was a silent cough as the dart exited the gun and entered the head of a nearby mummy. The flesh began to rot and drip off, exposing a naked, grinning skull underneath. Lisa fired again, hitting the leg of the skeleton. Rotting tissue dripped off like puss from a wound, and the shambling warrior fell helplessly to the ground.

Eric fired until he was out of power for his laser pistol, and reached into his belt for another tool. Pulling out a large wrench, he charged at the closest mummy. The undead creature raised its macana for a slash, and Eric brought the heavy wrench down on the weapon, shattering it into splinters of wood and obsidian. The mummy reeled back in disbelief, before charging the engineer with an obsidian dagger. A dart hit the mummy in the thigh, melting its legs into weeping pus and liquid carrion.

She fired the weapon at the nearest mummy warrior, causing its flesh to congeal into a pool on the floor. The skeleton left behind crumbled into a pile on the ground. "Ah, the extra strength concentration works even better," West grinned. "Foul, irrational phenomena is thwarted by mere biochemistry."

Eric was about to comment when his stars erupted across his vision, and he felt the warm trickle of blood down his face. He turned to catch a glimpse of a mummy with a bloodied macana, raising its hands for the killing blow. Lisa was frantically trying to shove another dart into her gun when a mummy slammed her in the stomach with the flat side of its macana. Clutching her stomach and wincing, Lisa waited for her own deathblow.

Suddenly, a pair of gunshots resounded like a cannon. Eric saw a hole appear in the forehead of the mummy closest to him, and another drop the one above Lisa. Eric turned to see the gunman. Thaddeus held a smoking, ornately carved Luger pistol in his hand.

"In the name of the Crowe family, I command you to rest," Thaddeus fired his family's heirloom pistol with grim accuracy, taking down the undead guardians and reducing them to dust.

The mummies began to charge towards him en masse, but Eric was able to focus and recover. He smashed the nearest mummies with his wrench and pistol handle, breaking their ancient weapons like toys and crushing bones like dried wood. Lisa pumped toxin darts into the monsters, melting them into bones and sludge. After several long minutes of combat, the warrior mummies had been reduced to broken heaps, melted puddles, or ash piles.

"That could have been more dangerous, had we not experienced such events before," Crowe placed the ornate weapon into his coat. "Such as that time we attempted to recover your long lost relative's work, Lisa."

"Thaddeus, could you not have avoided the altercation by informing the guardian spirit I was only removing a small amount of tissue from the mummy carcass?" Lisa rubbed her stomach. "And saved me a few bruises in the process."

"You were not seeking a small amount of tissue, Lisa," Crowe narrowed his eyes. "Just that time in the late Dr. West's lab or that Transylvanian castle, the slumbering undead to not respond well to autopsy attempts."

Eric ignored the two bickering and walked forward, looking for more tripwires and mummies. He continued ahead of the others until he came to an obstacle in their path. A massive stone wall filled the passage, covered in cracks and faded etchings of skulls. The art design went with what they had seen so far, imagery relating to death and morbid themes. Eric wrapped on it with his fingers. The wall was solid stone, not just weak ceramics.

"Ah, this simple stone barrier vexes us," Crowe mused. "I sense the Gem is behind this wall. Does either of you have a solution?"

"Inorganic substances are not my problem," Lisa shook her head.

"Don't have the enough explosives or the right tools to smash through," Eric shrugged. "And my laser's out of power."

"Ah, so the practitioners of the hard sciences are stumped when confronted with the simplest of brute force obstructions," Thaddeus grinned smugly. "Fortunately for you untrained in the ways of the arcane, I have a simple solution. The bindings on this door require spellcraft to release, which I shall provide."

Power glowed from the occultist's fingertips. He closed his eyes, bowed his head, and hummed to himself as he chanted. "Through the power of the Thrice-Great, I invoke the power of Gaia to take back this structure!" he shouted as he pressed his hands against the wall. The wall crumpled to dust, vanishing into a pile of pebbles on the floor.

"It's worked, for once," Lisa mused.

Behind the door was a small niche, a simple opening carved into the stone wall. A brilliant emerald flashed under their lights, dazzling them as they observed it. Thaddeus approached it and picked it up. "Behold, the fruits of our quest, the completion of our expedition!"

"Ahem," Eric tapped him on the shoulder, cleared his throat, and pointed to another mechanism, a button underneath the gem. Without the weight of the gem to hold it down, it began to rise slowly and ominously. "Should have let me check, first. I think it's about time we make our getaway."

The tunnel started to crumble, as if on cue, and dust and pebbles began falling from the ceiling. Small flecks of dust broke away, and larger chunks of ceiling began falling down. Eric ran as fast as he could, holding his helmet as chunks of rock came crashing down. Stones and boulders fell like geological hailstones, smashing into the passageway below.

"Assist me, I'm stuck!" Crowe cried. Eric looked behind him to see the mage pinned underneath a slab of rock. He laid prone, with the Gem in one hand. He saw Lisa stop for a moment, head back, yank the emerald out of his grip, and sprinted away. "Now is not a suitable time to commit petty theft!"

Eric ran back, and tugged Thaddeus free from the wreckage, ignoring the medical student now sprinting by. Pulling with all his might at the optimum angle, he yanked the English major free as a boulder landed right where Crowe's head was seconds before.

"Close one," Eric mused.

He grabbed Thaddeus by the hand, and towards the entrance of the tunnel with his comrade in tow. He forced himself through the falling debris, and saw sunlight ahead of him. With a final burst of speed, he yanked Thaddeus out as the Earth tried to entomb them early. Eric pressed onwards, and came staggering out of the cave covered in sweet. Looking down, he saw Thaddeus had lost control of his bladder. Still speechless, Eric set his comrade down on a bed of grass. Eric wanted to direct his anger at Lisa, but saw her sitting despondent on a stone near their boss.

Ahead of them was their advisor, Doctor Dirk Derringer, capering in front of a camera crew. He was a tall, muscular man, skin tanned bronze from years in the sun and clad in glasses, a pith helmet, and a khaki shirt and pants. On his belt was a pair of revolvers in cross draw holsters, and he held the gem proudly in front of the camera crew.

"This is the legendary Gem of Aquilerif, one of the few artifacts recovered from a long lost tribe in this area," he held up the gem closer to the camera lens, before turning to the rock-chocked passage of the cave. "Just moments ago, I risked death and injury when the cave containing it collapsed. As you can see, the dust has not even settled yet."

Eric noticed their advisor ensured the camera did not catch there was three sets of footprints leading into the cave. Ignoring the film crew, he instead approached a dejected Lisa.

"Why'd you yank the gem from Thad and leave him?" he asked. "If you'd helped him, we could present the gem to him together, and get all our names in a paper. You've worked for him for longer than I have. You should know he'd just swipe it if there was only one of us there."

Lisa looked down. Whether it was shame or fatigue, Eric could not tell. "I know that," she replied. "I just panicked."

"Next time you panic, don't leave someone behind," Eric replied. "We're all in this together. As much as I want to just build robots in my lab, we have to collaborate sometimes. It's easier to do it when we're not worried about the others backstabbing us."

"Yes, we are not law students, after all," Lisa smirked, and stood up. "Next time, we shall present a united front to Dr. Derringer."

"I'm sure there will be a next time, Lisa," Eric gazed at the professor holding his prize. "Without us, I doubt he'd get much done."

"True," Lisa nodded in agreement. "Now, I have some samples to analyze. This trip wasn't completely worthless."

Eric sighed and walked back to his tent. While he would be leaving soon, he knew he left a complete disaster behind him. A priceless historical site damaged for some trinket, the resting places of people from a lost culture were destroyed, and primitive ingenuity at its finest was buried under tons of rubble. Compared to other errands of theirs, it ended better than some.