It was another three watches, or six hours, before the darkness set in. The team had gathered their things, began to make their way down the slope and back through the forest. They crisscrossed their steps over more vine traps, emerged on the far-side of the mist-covered plain that had receded in the darkness. They headed west for the mountains, cut a straight path through the plains until forced to curve around a large lake. Water rushed between the banks of a stream that wound from the lake beneath the mist.
It was two hours after nightfall when they’d made the five kilometer trek between the forest and the mountains. They rose from the ground to high peaks that were by the high darkness. Everywhere about them were large, coniferous trees, similar to yews. Their trunks were wide– fifty meters at the smallest– and stretched a hundred or more meters into the air. The larger yews, it seemed, were close to that in width but doubled in height. All seemed clad with the same, iron-hued bark they’d seen elsewhere. Some of the trees had shed their coil-like bark as a snake might shed its skin, large broken pieces of it cluttered the ground, trampled the grasses. As always, each tree they found glowed from the luminescence created by their unique photosynthesis.
They stopped at the base of a smaller mountain that still dwarfed them as though they were ants, to take rock and soil samples. Raymond examined a piece of the mountain in the light of his torch, called to Elliot. She rose from the brush, closed the few steps to him.
He held out the sample he’d just collected, “Elliot, these are limestone mountains.”
“Shouldn’t they be?” She asked, dully.
“Yes, if they’re mountains,” he replied with emphasis. His face reflected a deep concern, uncharacteristically agitated. He explained, “The entire theory I’ve concocted in my head relies on these being stalagmite speleothems– in other words, enormous, natural stalagmites composed from calcium run-off of the ceiling above. I figured their size was simply attributed to the age of the cavern. But now? Age has nothing to do with it.”
Elliot shook her head, “I’m sorry Raymond, I just don’t understand.”
His tone was critical, “They’re mountains, Elliot. Mountains within a cavern, within a mountain. There’s tectonic activity here.” Her face blanked. Raymond voice grew more grave, “If there are plates here, it’s only a matter of time before they quake.”
“You’re telling me it’s only a matter of time before a massive quake hits this place?”
He grimaced,“Yes, and judging by the amount of activity lately, it’s could be catastrophic.”
For the first, she saw fear in Raymond’s eyes, his confidence shaken. Anthony called her name, pulled her attention away. He motioned for her to follow, led her beneath and around a tree, to an opening in the mountain. It was small, cramped, enough that they were forced to hunch to at the entrance. The faint, orange glow that had illuminated the valley through-out the day shimmered from the small cave’s entrance.
Anthony knelt at the wall, near a patch of the light, scraped some of it into Petri-dish, “It’s some kind of moss.”
“Moss?” She asked, alarmed.
He capped off the petri-dish. It filled with mist, exhaled in vapors from the moss to cloud out its light. He passed it over, the glass hot in her hand.
“It’s heating up?”
He nodded. The Petri dish warmed fast, burned her hand. She dropped it to ground. The glass shattered with a puff, like smoke released from burning room. Liana entered the cavern called for her. She stopped mid-turn as her wrist vibrated. She glanced down feared the inevitable; “SGSM READS EARTHQUAKE MAGNITUDE 8.0: EURASIAN-ARABIAN PLATE: SHOCKWAVE ETA 12-MINUTES TO CURRENT LAT-LONG: ADVISE APPROPRIATE MEASURES.”
“We’ve gotta’ move,” Elliot said, without further explanation.
Liana looked to Anthony, panted in a lean, her abdomen clutched, “SGSM?”
He shrugged, hurried past her and out of the cave. Elliot was helping Raymond pack his samples into his bag.
“Eight-oh,” she said.
“Then we need to get out of here,” he replied as he shouldered his pack.
“Any idea where were going to go?” Chad asked belligerently.
“Jungle?” Ellie asked.
Raymond winced, “If you think its best,”
“Do we really have a choice? We need whatever we can get from there, and the Jungle’s furthest from the fault, right?”
He started forward, “Theoretically but the fault’s probably a few miles wide. There might not be anywhere safe down here.”
They followed his lead. He’d neglected to say his thoughts aloud; even if they survived the quake, it could collapse any number of passages they’d taken from the surface. Elliot didn’t need him to say it though, it was at the forefront of her mind. The earthquake might produce several shock-waves; the first would be the most violent, but the subsequent shocks would be a danger for hours. She wanted to be gone from this place by then, have as much ground crossed as possible before the first wave hit.
They doubled their pace, Liana’s weight redistributed to compensate for the severity of her injuries. Even still, she lagged behind. They were only able to traverse half the kilometer to the jungle, when the quake hit.
They pushed themselves harder, fought opposing forces from the waves that built to a slow climax. Each step threatened to topple them. Shrieks and growls echoed from the jungle ahead, the creatures within awakened prematurely by the ground that rolled beneath them. The trees shook, fern-leaves rustled in a torrent of violence. Flashes of fast-movements sprang between the trees, gave only glimpses of tails and wings in profile.
The first climax came, knocked Liana to her knees. Elliot shout the others forward, doubled-back to retrieve her. She struggled to her feet. Her equilibrium failed from unstable ground. She slipped back down. Elliot pulled her up hard. They planted their feet against the pitch and roll of the grasses. She planted her feet on the ground, stepping forward one foot at a time. The unmistakable crack of trees sounded in the distance. The Earth gave a massive lurch.
The shock-wave had triggered a separate quake from the cavern’s fault. The treeline boucned through their vision, their steps thrown to and fro. A stomach-curdling vertigo overtook Elliot as the cavern’s quake fought against the opposite shock-waves. Dirt and roots snapped, ripped with the surge of Earth as it rose. Elliot risked a look back to see gigantic trees felled near the mountains.
She and Liana managed to make the jungle as the second quake climaxed, toppled limbs and trees over the path the other three had made. A scream sounded from one of the men, beneath the deafening shrieks and growls of the jungle’s residents. Elliot forced Liana forward through the foliage. Ferns and thorny shrubbery tore at their faces, arms, punctured their wet-suits, and shredded their bandages.
The quake’s waves began to low. Its rumbles quieter as it died out beneath them. They stopped short of the screams from the three men, stuck in the depths of a pit-fall trap. A thick, cloudy fluid stuck bubbled up from the bottom of the trap, began to fill it. Massive, thorn-like teeth on the sides of the walls folded in, like a Venus fly-trap that readied to enclose them.
In a flash, she had a climbing rope out, anchored to a tree. She lowered it to them, drug the rope up with it wrapped tortuously around her wounded arms. Anthony’s head became visible, he fell out of the hole, threw himself to the side, to scramble up and help. Raymond was pulled up next; he laid his weight into the rope, managed to slide Chad up and out of the hole just as the teeth snapped shut on the trap.
They fell about in various states of exhaustion. The suits at their ankles sizzled away, pocked their skin with smokey burns. The digestive acids seared their flesh.
“Vinegar,” Elliot shouted. “Then water.”
Luck was with them for once. The vinegar neutralized the chemicals, water washed away the severed bits of boot and neoprene. They readied to bandage Chad, when an ominous, low grumble sounded around them.
“Go,” Chad insisted. “I’ll just slow you down.”
“Don’t be a drama queen,” Elliot spat. She slipped his arms under one of his shoulders, called to the others, “Get him up!”
Anthony and Raymond helped to lift him. The growls sounded louder behind them. Anthony and Raymond bolted with Chad between them, left Elliot to un-sling Liana’s rifle from her back, pass it to her. Elliot readied the pistol.
“Firm grip,” Liana grunted, pained and fatigued.
Elliot nodded. She’d never fired a weapon before, never even held one; yet, here she was, ready to try. They backed up, around the trap, away form it. The growls were louder, more than before– at least five now. A sick scent of blood wafted up their nostrils. They back-stepped as red-eyes appeared through-out the darkness. Had Liana not seen its glowing eyes she would not have seen it at all. A flash of light glinted off a transparent body, a large dog, but with a boxed jaw. It prowled forward complete with spiked, sharp teeth and a chameleon-like stealth.
Liana fired in a burst, killed the first animal. Pairs of eyes began flickered open before the eerie light of the trees. The creatures stalked, ready to strike. Liana flicked a lever on the side of the weapon, firing single shots at them. Two fell. The others bounded forward.
Liana and Elliot fired together. Rhythmic blasts sounded with an erratic beat as they backed away in their crouch. The gun recoiled in hard in Elliot’s hands until her grip was firm enough. She managed to hit a creature as it jumped away. She attempted to aim, pulled back on the trigger, hit another. It bounded for her, unfazed.
Liana finished it off, shouted, “Move. I am behind you.”
Elliot didn’t question it. She turned, sprinted down the path the other three had created. Liana’s gunfire followed after her in cut-time. New shrieks and growls sound from the beasts that were slain behind her. Elliot tripped, fell forward smacked her head into something hard. Her face fell into the soft dirt, her mind dazed from the impact. She recovered, scrambled back on her hands and knees. She run smack into a lumbering creature as it crossed the path in front of her. It was as tall as her on four legs, its skin the color of pus, with large spikes on its back for protection. It glanced sideways with a prehistoric snout, gave a smelly grunt, then continued forward.
Her heart skipped a beat, but was spurred to speed by gunshots that drew closer. The trees rustled, parted as Liana appeared and the creature ambled past into the jungle’s depths. Liana pulled her up, shoved her along the path. An abrupt silence fell over the jungle while Elliot’s legs regained their speed, charged her through the brush to a small, circular clearing.
From the far, left-side, Raymond and Chad looked on in horror as a bipedal creature pulled its claws from Anthony’s gut. Four other bipeds had encircled them. Elliot froze. Liana stopped, confused, turned to see the scene that unfolded before them.
Anthony was on the ground, the lead biped hunched over his abdomen. Elliot screamed obscenities, raised the pistol. The beast rose, mad a slow turn. Anthony’s flesh hung from its clawed hands, blood dripped from its muzzle-like mouth onto large, armor-plated muscles across its torso. The muffled gurgle of blood signaled Anthony’s screams, forced the pistol to bark until it clicked empty. The animal stumbled backward, jolted by the force, but uninjured. The bullets fell to the ground, crushed by the impact.
The other creatures seemed confused, began a slow advance on the two women. Grunts and growls turned to roars in steps with their short gait. Liana flicked a lever on the rifle, its magazine fell free. Its impact with the ground startled the beasts for a moment, but they soon continued their slow advance.
In a blink Raymond and Chad sprinted off. Liana slapped in a new magazine, sprayed ammunition at the bipeds. They stumbled back in shock, gave the women enough time to make for Anthony. They each grabbed an arm, drug him away at top-speed. He spit up blood, tried to scream, writhed and shook. They forced their way to the path on the other side. The bipeds suddenly screamed with a deafening plethora of frequencies that rasped over the jungle. The biped’s feet pounded the soft ground, then charged after them. A low rumble sounded off in the distance; a second shock-wave had begun.
Ahead, the jungle opened onto the rock shore-line. Raymond and Chad beckoned them from the water’s edge, shouted for them.
“Help her,” Liana yelled, releasing Anthony.
The others rushed toward Elliot as the ground gave a violent lurch. In a flash, Liana’s hands produced the white, clay blocks, tossed them into the jungle.
She shouted, “Down!”
She dove against the throbs in her abdomen, landed with a glance back. Three of the bipeds were within steps of the white blocks. Her hands were ready with a small box and switch. She flicked the switch. An explosion light the darkness, rained fire on the tree-line, and propelled the bipeds into the air. Their bodies and limbs were torn asunder, cooked to a crisp as debris from the jungle expelled with them.
Beneath them, the ground rocked with a second violent tremor that Liana fought to crawl for the others as they gathered around Anthony. He clutched at Elliot’s arm. Tears dripped from her face. She sniffled hard, gripped his hand. A final gleam from his eyes rolled way, and the life left his body.
Elliot’s heart ripped in two, shattered by the quake of the Earth beneath her and her own guilt. Animals shrieked, cried from the jungle as the fire spread rapidly along the tree-line. Even so, she didn’t hear it, too numb to feel anything but the hands that clasped her shoulder, maneuvered her around to face Liana. She mouthed a word Elliot didn’t hear, but read, “Dive!”
They divided Anthony’s gear, as she kissed his forehead, and slid a bloody hand over his eyes to close them. A moment later, they dove into the water as the last of the quake trembled into nothingness beneath them. Elliot gave a final, last look at the fiery horizon, cursed her vanity and the “lost world,” and dove in.
The surviving members of the team reached the surface without difficulty, and on time for their departure. They said goodbye to Liana, whom promised to attend Anthony’s funeral, but said little else the rest of the trip. John was elated at their discovery, seemed to regard Anthony’s death as a sacrifice for science. Elliot felt otherwise.
Upon presenting the evidence to John, they learned that Anthony had taken up filming after Chad’s initial injury. He had managed to capture everything they had experienced during the final hours, including the bipedal creatures and sounds of his final breaths. Elliot released the tape to the public, warned of the dangers of a return expedition. There was a resounding silence before the media and the masses exploded, most with questions most directed at John and his museum’s ethics.
While the resulting recognition afforded Elliot and the others several, considerable research grants concerning the samples they had retrieved: The moss alone was considered as a replacement light and heat-source if the luminescent chemicals could be extracted, synthesized. Despite the academic community’s insistence that they spear-head the research, Elliot and her team refused, turned the work over to another team, and set about other avenues of work.
True to her word, Liana ventured to America for Anthony’s funeral; a small service that consisted of an empty casket, and hallowed earth watered with tears. In his honer, the National Science Foundation, established a substantial foundation to be awarded each year to select, graduate students in paleo-sciences for doctoral research. And though Liana had only ventured to America for a short time, with plans to return home, the worsening relations between Abkahzia and Georgia forced her to reconsider. She was soon offered, and accepted, a position as head of security at a newly established research facility headed by Elliot and her team.
Although the team vehemently protested each time, several new expeditions were outfitted to attempt to breach the cavern. Each team that left failed to return. When one finally did, they reported that the underwater passage Elliot had marked on the maps was blocked off, likely by the recent increase in tectonic activity registered by SGSM. The passage that had allowed them entry was, as Elliot hoped, now permanently sealed. While new species of marine life continued to appear within the Black Sea, requests for further search-efforts for entrances to the Lost world were futile; everyone, including Elliot and her team, knew the passage should remained sealed, the remaining secrets of Krubera forever concealed to man.
The Lost World had been found, and so far as most cared, that was all that mattered. Whatever had yet to be discovered there was little more than with man’s vain hope to understand what he ought not to. It was a realm where neither Humanity, nor its progeny, was welcome– one that should be allowed to forever carry out its curious machinations without them. Until, perhaps, it was once more lost to the annals of time that had so long ago buried it deep within the Earth, and hidden it from all who might seek it.