and The Pirates of the Mystic Caravan.
Chapter 13 - The Gate of Mithra
The Black Eagle hovered above an arid landscape, mostly flat with the occasional undulation like some vast ripple over a red-brown plain dotted with ragged greenery. Away to the south-west the girls could just make out a milling group of animals and several figures tending them, waiting it appeared for the return of Surban and those accompanying her on foot.
The depression line that was Wadi Al Ubayyid crawled away east and west. A cloud of midges or mosquitoes hummed by in the heat of the day. Otherwise nothing but a shimmering haze that dazzled the eyes, moved.
'So O.K. Where's your pal Buggy? I'm guessing that he's a donkey or a buzzard or some little rodent and not an actual tracking devise that you somehow stuck on Surban before she left. You already told us that Buggy picked them up after they left the Jordan airport.'
'And well spotted Miss Priscilla! Give yourself a brownie point there.'
'Oh Harry, do tell. After all we haven't got very much time,' said Belinda, an edge to her tone.
'That's just it, there's a seven hour lag between Iraq and Australia; ten-thirty at night back home where you're all supposedly tucked up in bed and about three-thirty in the afternoon here, so that gives you maybe four or five hours. Though from the information I have to paw, Surban is still in no immediate danger, but considering that you have all hopped back in time seven hours, may be soon.'
'Well we have to get down to where she is Harry. Stop being so mysterious and take us there!' demanded Monique.
In answer, the Black Eagle tilted slightly and proceeded to lose altitude, moments later coming to rest on an abutment of gravelly terrain along the bed of the Wadi.
'See that swarm of insects?' Harry asked, as the persistent cloud buzzed the viewing portals. 'That's Buggy. Wave, say hello. Don't feel silly girls, just wave.'
The four girls clamped their eyes closed, shook their heads and then blinking, looked at each other as they waved at nothing in particular.
'Harry's an alien. Aliens are allowed to be screwy,' Priscilla managed as her eyes began to see a formation in the cloud.
HELLO HUMANS. COMPANY BUGGY HERE. YOUR TARGET IS THIS WAY.
The letters formed and disappeared like a running crawl, ending with the cloud of insects swarming toward a depression in the crumbling bank of the wadi.
'Ohh my gosh!' exclaimed Narenda. 'This is like something out of those crazy cartoons on television. Next those creatures will form into the shape of an arrowhead pointing the way.'
'Not required, but a nice touch, ' said Harry's voice from the Black Eagle speakers. 'Arrowheads are keen, but hovering is good too. Buggy is showing you where it's at. And that hole in the wall is where you get in. Unfortunately it's also where the Black Eagle doesn't get in. I'll keep it here waiting for you, but you girls now have to choose who goes after Surban and what to do. Hand activators and night-sight goggles are ready for you on your mission. Toilet first anybody?'
'Why do you have this fixation about going pee-pees Mister Harry?' Narenda, last of the girls to visit one of the Black Eagle's cubicles asked, still looking astonished that everything proceeded without her having to do more than the basics.
'Well dogs tend to spend a lot of time doing just that, and besides, it's precautionary. Now, having all four of you check in tells me that you're all going. That the way you guys think?'
'We haven't talked about it Harry. We're girls.' said Priscilla.
'We are BlackEagle Girls,' added Belinda.
'Our collective intuition tells us what to do,' said Monique.
'We are all going, yes please.' said Narenda, collecting an Activator and Night-sight goggles.
Priscilla and Monique struggled over the cracked stones to finally peer between slanted, broken slabs.
'Some hole in the wall!' gasped Priscilla. 'Looks like steps cut into the rock down there. Very narrow. Maybe this place was near water a long time ago or a lot of feet wore the stone so smooth. Two, three thousand years back who knows what could have been here? A lake maybe, with a stream flowing down from the Euphrates?'
'Whatever, we need to go inside Harry,' Monique said urgently into her Hand Activator. 'Surban is somewhere down there and now that she has found the way here, they may have no further use for her. Her life really could be in danger.'
Meanwhile Priscilla had already scrambled through the gap and was peering down, beckoning Monique to follow.
'So could yours,' cautioned Harry's voice from the Activator. 'Of course you have the advantage of invisibility, but don't push your luck. Kill all the sensor buttons. Full Silent Running.'
'In that case we aren't staying outside while you have all the jolly fun,' said Belinda, scrambling up behind Monique with Narenda on her tail. 'Righto, in you go Mon.'
The moment Monique's feet touched the dusty stone steps she felt a sudden, strange sensation. It was as if she had ventured into another world or perhaps another time. 'How can this be?' she said, awed. 'The outside is only a moment away, and yet in here it feels as if we are somewhere else, another place, another time. Do you feel this too Cilla?'
'I can feel it very much,' said Narenda at the rear.
'I don't know what I feel,' Priscilla replied. 'It's like something old and mysterious that tells me we shouldn't be here and something else that feels like we should.' She took several cautious steps down the narrow path. 'I'm glad your all with me. On my own it would be scary. Come on.'
'I know what I am feeling, ' said Narenda quietly at the rear, 'and it is awarragh!'
'Narenda! What is it!' cried Belinda, whirling about.
'Here!' shrieked Narenda, indicating a human hand close to where her own had been moments before. 'The fingers are still warm. What does that mean?'
'Is it still attached?' asked Priscilla, pushing back between Monique and Belinda.
'Yes. Yes!' said Narenda shivering. 'Look on the ledge. It is a man's body stuffed in there. His throat is covered in blood!'
'And that's an old rifle jammed under his legs,' Belinda offered. 'Was he a guard?'
'Buggered if I know,' muttered Priscilla. 'Moni, what should we do, do you think?'
'Alright Cilla,' Monique's beaming face loomed out of the darkness, ' you da Girl, I just the little missy tailin' along behind wid tha others.'
'Bitch! Why do I have to make all the decisions?'
'And just what decision do you have to make?' countered her friend sharply.
'Yep, right! There is no decision. They can't see us. They can't hear us. Not like the poor guy here with the slit throat. Now we know. They mean business. Come on girls!'
'How's it going down in there?' Harry's sudden voice out of nowhere caused the four of them to check their descent.
'Do you have to do that Harry!' said Priscilla, peeved.
'Well yes actually, I've just been thinking about the dead man on the ledge up near the surface.'
'Me too,' said Priscilla, biting her lip as she started down again.
'So have I,' said Belinda.
'Also me,' chimed in Narenda, her left hand on Belinda's shoulder and her right feathering along the rough wall surface as they passed.
'And I would guess that we all have come to a similar conclusion,' said Monique. 'Who was he? And who could have killed him? Did he come with Surban's group or was he here already? If he was with the group, why would they kill him, if he was not, how did they get past him?'
'By his clothes and ancient weapon he must have been a native,' offered Belinda.
'And perhaps he was caught unawares and murdered by one of those with Surban.' said Narenda.
'Well if he was a guard, how come? I mean since when are there guards of holes in the ground way out nowhere?' said Priscilla, waving her hand into a void at her right. 'This is a turn off!'
'Really Priscilla, you are becoming the most moody bitch, and I say that as a dog with great respect.' said Harry via the Hand Activators.
'Ha har! And I'll treat that shot with dis... dist...oh! I'll ignore you. This here, right here, is another tunnel that heads off into the dark. What now?'
'Since you have no other data and I cannot give input, you girls might be forced to split up and explore separately,' suggested Harry with a hint of exasperation. 'You each have Activators and can see well enough with your night goggles, and sorry, no burgers and fries awaiting, but you all are carrying water bottles so you can top up your batteries, but be sparing. Over to you kids, and remember...'
'Yeah! Every step of the way you aren't here with us as bloody usual! You know, sometimes a little black, furry alien-dog might be useful and also comforting.' Priscilla complained.
To her annoyance Harry made no reply.
'Right!' she managed, feeling the faintest, slinking breeze curl through the newly revealed corridor. 'Narenda and me this way. Mon, Belinda. You go that way. Travel slowly and keep in touch. If anything seems wrong, tell us. O.K. Group hug, right now!'
The four BlackEagle girls embraced briefly, then separated into pairs.
Every ten to fifteen minutes later they checked in, still descending the countless, rough hewn steps.
After what seemed hours, but was in truth less than one, both groups made the same discovery. They had emerged onto a flat lower level.
'Pretty dark, even with the Night-sights it's so gloomy,' said Priscilla, in answer to Belinda and Monique. 'What can you two see?'
'Not much... Oh wait! Something!' came back Belinda's voice. 'Off to our left. A dark patch, slight movement. Monique is investigating...'
'We got some action here too,' Priscilla replied, 'Coming at us from the rig... all right! that you Mon?'
'It is me my roomy and dear friend. Seems like we were all travelling the same road by two separate routes.'
'Why would that be?' said Priscilla, grabbing at Monique's arm.
'Best you try turning around and looking up,' said Belinda, who had moved out into the open away from the walls.
'Umm, hard to see properl... Oh my Go..!'
'Do not say what you are about to say!' Narenda interrupted grasping Priscilla's shoulder. 'You must not make the mistake of crying aloud the name of the one of your faith or any immortal being in this place. There are very many other gods who might be offended!'
Priscilla was too busy taking in the vision that soared into the darkness to argue. 'Moni, just look at that will you? It's unbelievable!' She was staring up at two massive carven legs that led aloft to a pair of flared wings, cut in relief into the stone above, and something that seemed to be the bearded face of a man; a creature with the legs of a goat, eagle-winged and human headed.
'What is it?' she asked, in genuine awe.
'A guardian, I would imagine,' Narenda replied reverently. 'A supernatural being in the style of the Babylonians who dwelt in this region. About two and a half thousand years ago they were a mighty empire.'
'Then O.K. Where the heck are we? What is this place and why hasn't anyone found it before? It's not like it was hard to discover. If a girl with a pot of dead coals and a bunch of insects called Buggy can track it down why hasn't anyone else?'
'Good question,' said Harry from their Activators. 'Of course you might like to consider that the entrance you came through was probably not the actual front door. That, most likely is long gone, destroyed by war or perhaps flood or earthquake. Whatever, Surban knew how to find the place because her parents had that information, and they must have gotten it from others of their people who had kept the knowledge secret over centuries.'
'Why would they have done that, I wonder,' said Monique.
'Why? Well because this could be the place where their primeval fire originated. Maybe that's why the Babylonians built some sort of edifice here.' Harry offered.
'What is an edifice?' asked Narenda.
'Just something to mark a place of importance, but even the biggest things get worn down by time here in your world.' Harry replied.
'We'll be getting worn down by time too if we don't get moving,' said Priscilla, coming out of her reverie. 'We still have to find Surban. Where to now?'
'Through here I believe,' suggested Belinda, pointing the way between the carved legs. 'It appears to be a further stair leading down.'
'How far down can these steps go?' Monique asked as the girls descended ever further.
'Feeling colder or warmer,' Harry enquired from the Hand Activators.
'Fairly warm with all the exercise of stumbling down these bloody steps! What would you think?' Priscilla managed, puffing.
'Yep! And remember, you all have to get back up again. The BlackEagle can't break through to get to you. How are you holding for water?'
'We still have most in our drink bottles, only taking little sips,' Belinda answered.
'Wait!' said Priscilla, who was in the lead. 'Is it my imagination or is that a faint glow?'
The others drew up about her, staring fixedly into the depths. 'Yes, I believe it is,' whispered Monique, although with the sensors of their Activators turned to mute she could have screamed the words.
Minutes later the glow had grown to illuminate an opening beyond the tunnel of steps.
A single oil lamp, placed on a crumbling ledge proved to be the only source of light, yet it was enough to show the wall above and the relief emblazoned across it.
'Well Expert, what's that?' Priscilla asked of Narenda.
For a moment Narenda was silent, gazing at the cracked and broken image carved above. Then she said, 'This, I think, is a seal of Zoroaster.'
'So what does that mean?' asked Priscilla. 'Like what's the big deal?'
'It is important because we have come down a level in time. We are now beyond that of Babylon to that just above the Mesopotamians. This is the circle spread over the extended tail-feathers and wings, bestrode by Ahura Mazda holding the ring of cosmic kingship, his other hand raised in blessing. We are looking at something so special that probably very few, since it was made, have ever seen, thank-you very much.'
For some moments the four girls lingered, staring at the ancient stone carving. About them all was silent. Only the slight heat-haze of the oil-lamp swayed the image before them.
'Yeah, looks wicked, just one little thing girls. We have a mission, or have you forgotten in amongst all this checking out of the ancient world? Like we got Surban to get out of here?'
Priscilla!' said Belinda, snapping out of her trance. 'Let's get going. Seems that is the way, beneath the seal and through.'
Once again the girls descended steps in a spiralling passage. The feeling was of slow suffocation, so narrow was the going and so low the ceiling, and they were again travelling in darkness aided only by their Night-sight goggles. The air began to feel dry and slightly gritty in their throats.
'Got to drink some water,' said Priscilla, her voice sounding husky and hollow in the cramped confines.
'I do hope we do not encounter anyone coming toward us in here,' said Monique.
'If we do, we'll just have to pull in our tummies and let them squeeze by,' said Belinda attempting some light humour, which fell completely flat.
'Girls,' said Narenda, who had ventured past Priscilla. 'we do not need to worry about being caught in this tunnel. Here it opens out into a wider place. Quickly, come and look.'
The three girls joined Narenda, stepping out of the claustrophobic tunnel to stand together, peering into the dark at what appeared to be a tiny gallery of sorts.
'Look!' she said, pointing up at an inscription of strange lettering driven into the stone on their right. 'I know what it says. I have seen this before in my studies. It tells us that it is "dar-i Mihr," The court of Mithra!'
'And what exactly does that mean?' Belinda asked as she and Monique carefully began exploring the boundaries of the area about them.
'It means that we have come to a place of importance to the followers of Zoroaster. Here is a little hall of Mitra, as some of my people call him, or Mithras as he was also known. Perhaps it was a sanctuary for ritual or prayer.'
'Well down here is a little open door of Mithras, or at least something that leads us out of this cramped space,' called Belinda, peering into a darkened corner.
'I was wrong!' said Narenda breathlessly as she, Priscilla and Monique gathered around Belinda. 'The inscription "dar-i Mihr" also means The Gate of Mithra. We must take this path!'
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