The rumbling settles into silence. If shock hadn’t numbed me, I might’ve screamed. Might’ve called for help. But I lay flat on my back, knocked down by the falling stones, and all I can focus on is trying to figure out if I’m still alive.
Pain? Double check.
I start to sit up, but white hot sparks shoot up my left leg, stealing my breath and sending me back down again. With a trembling hand, I grope for my backpack, separated from me when the cave-in occurred. I almost sob when my fingers close on one of its straps, and I yank it close, my only lifeline in the dark. I tear into it, frantically seeking the flashlight buried in its depths. Its thin beam brings me little comfort.
My leg is pinned beneath rubble that I have no hope of moving on my own.
“Hello?” I call, trying to ignore all the fear I’ve managed to pack into that single word.
I strain my ears for a response. Surely someone else must have survived. Someone has to be nearby! But the longer I listen, the more aware I became of the quiet.
Deep. Dark. Terrible.
My body rings with it. I can feel it down to my marrow, a subtle vibration singing for me to get up and run. A second attempt to dislodge myself leaves me gasping through grit teeth. A closer look with the flashlight reveals torn flesh and the jagged edge of splintered bone.
Nausea turns my stomach. I distract myself from the growing agony with bitter curses toward the damned letter, inviting myself and others from my department to a newly uncovered archeological site, and the hubris I’ve never let myself acknowledge. That was really why I came. A history professor making history. It had finally been my time to outshine my colleagues. My turn to get the recognition I deserved after years of being overlooked. What had I been thinking?
The air is getting warmer, stuffier. It coats my throat with dust and desperation. I claw uselessly at the rocks weighing upon my broken leg.
I don’t know if what I hear is a voice, or my mind trying to fill the soundless void with something familiar. For a moment, I allow myself to become hopeful. I swing my light around, searching for the source, praying someone has found me. All those I had thought beneath me, now the ones I long for most.
At first I’m sure my eyes are playing tricks on me. There’s no way the painting of the hooded figure is slithering up the wall, vanishing into the shadows of the ceiling.
The whispering swells.
From where the painting disappeared, a creature scuttles down the wall on four long, spindly legs that don’t seem enough to support its size.
Whatever is connected to those legs is hidden within a crab-like shell of its own making: human heads, their features twitching, mottled, decayed, all skewered on bony spikes protruding from their host. All whispering. The monstrous thing turns toward me, huge and slow, and I’m staring into its shell’s cavernous opening.
A dozen black eyes, glittering in the flashlight’s glow, stare back.
As its fleshy pincher extends towards me, the scream I’d been unable to voice before finally erupts.