Skylar turned her face up to the full moon and stared at the bright, glowing orb hanging high above the medieval Sant’Obomono Church of Rome. She wondered how many had stood at this exact spot over the centuries and looked to the sky in wonder. Too many to count, she thought, as she lowered her gaze and glanced around the archaeological dig site that had already revealed over seventeen different cultural occupations. Despite the beauty of the star-packed sky, the dirt beneath her feet intrigued her even more.
She’d been here two months and was still amazed that the grounds next to the church had hidden the ancient twin temples dedicated to the pagan goddesses of Fortuna and Mater Matuta. The structures had been destroyed around the time the Etruscan monarchy of Rome had fallen, yet hadn’t failed at offering up some empirical evidence of time long past.
Peeking over the thick fencing surrounding the fifteen-foot deep hole that had finally revealed Fortuna’s base, Skylar felt her skin shiver. She had no idea how the archaeology students could stand to stay for hours inside that enclosure and sift through thick mud as they’d gradually revealed the stones. Knowing that only sheets of metal held back the Tiber River sludge as they worked gave her an idea of how dedicated they were to their craft. Damn, they were working seven feet under the water level with the massive river only a hundred yards away and still kept crawling inside the trench. Snorting, she backed away and determined they were crazy—plain and simple.
Nope, staying above ground and digging next to some solid walls was the way to go in her book. Working thirty feet away from that accident waiting to happen was already too much to ask. Every day, she expected to hear the Tiber groan in discontent right before it knocked the barriers down and buried them all alive.
Jumping down from the scaffolding, Skylar marveled at how different the site looked at night. It was eerily quiet without hundreds of people milling around. She often wondered if it was her imagination or if the Earth indeed retained the fragrances of long ago. When any new level was revealed, she swore she could smell aromatic spices still clinging to the numerous pottery shards discovered, even days after they’d been catalogued and carted away.
Errant clouds decided to cover the brilliant moon and cast a gray dimness to the grounds, instantly making the site look like an unattended graveyard. It was beyond spooky, and she asked herself for the hundredth time why in the hell Dr. Martin had called and asked her to meet him here. She should be passed out in bed and ready for another grueling day in the sun tomorrow, not traipsing around out here as if she was just waiting for her school friends to show up with stolen beer and a Ouija board.
The sound of rattling metal drew her attention and quickly answered her burning question. Skylar grimaced and shook her head when she spotted her old professor, and now her employer, dragging two light tripods through the door of his office. She scurried over to the portable building and met him at the top of the stairs. She grabbed a stand from his arms before he could fall over and kill himself. He needed at least one hand free so he could grab his pants before they slid to his ankles. The poor man was forever forgetting his belt.
He’d always reminded her of Einstein in his charming clumsiness, but he was a genius of the dirt instead. His white hair stuck out in a multitude of directions, only slightly tempered by the red ball cap he constantly wore. Spotting the handle of a long dusting brush sticking out from the front pocket of his favorite, stained blue shirt, Skylar released a resigned sigh. She could just imagine him impaling himself on the damn thing when he inevitably tripped over whatever lay in his path.
“Dr. Martin! Why didn’t you ask me to meet you in the office instead? I could’ve helped you carry these out here. I’m your assistant. Let me assist.” She snatched the tool from his pocket and smiled when he paused long enough to shove his wire-framed glasses back up his thin nose and peered at her with twinkling blue eyes. He was such a sweetie.
“Oh, dear, I guess that would’ve been best. I was too excited.”
She trailed beside him as he made his way over to the dig site they’d started the day before. She rolled her eyes when she realized he wasn’t going to elaborate. Perhaps he’d already forgotten the conversation.
“Excited about what? You’ve got my curiosity at full tilt.” She waited patiently as he halted at the deep trench, set his tripod aside, and stepped up on the makeshift walkway. She’d learned over the years to just bide her time. He worked at his own pace, and sometimes in his own dimension. He studied her for a few moments, bent forward, and tweaked her nose.
“You remind me of your mother. She was full of questions and demanded immediate answers. You look like her, you know, especially with the moonlight bathing your face.”
Skylar felt a familiar warmness settle in her chest. Dr. Martin had known her family long before she’d been born. He’d said this very thing to her on more than one occasion, and she wasn’t about to remind him. Any mention of her mother, even if repeated, was welcome.
“You’re hair in particular. She complained of her inability to ‘tame the beast’ and was forever threatening to cut it off.” He made a snipping motion with his fingers, and she laughed at his antics.
“Your father had to talk her out of actually performing the deed. You have no idea how many times Richard hid the scissors from her. He loved that it fell to her waist and would have mourned its loss.”
Passing her hand over her unruly dark-blonde locks, Skylar could picture the familiar wrinkle between her dad’s brows growing deeper as he chastised his wife. She’d been on the end of that look many times. God she missed him.
“Daddy said I have her eyes, too.” The comment earned her a brilliant smile.
“The brightest, sky-blue eyes I’ve ever seen, outside of yours. Truly lovely.” Seeming to remember where they stood, he batted his hand in the air, turned around, and peered over the side of the railing.
“My, my. How wondrous. I wish my old body could handle a trip down there. I’d love to see the makeup of the stones. Pictures just aren’t as good as the real thing. It’s sad that they’ll be filling it back in tomorrow.”
“They are?” She grabbed the tripod he’d forgotten as he scurried away. She caught up to him easily.
“Yes. The committee finally decided the risk was too great, and they have enough documentation. This is the reason I called you out tonight. It’s going to be very packed tomorrow when they bring in the crane to remove the metal sheeting. I didn’t want to wait a full day before I could get back to our find.”
“What’s so important that it couldn’t wait?” When he waggled his brows, her stomach flipped and her voice reflected her astonishment. “You found something?”
“Oh, yes, right after you left. I stayed until the sun started to sink. I spotted a small lip of stone that doesn’t appear to match with the wall, and it’s definitely not just a raised design. I thought you should be here when we discover whatever may be behind the panel. It could be nothing, but I couldn’t deny you a chance to find out.”
Skylar patted him on the shoulder.
“That’s sweet of you, Dr. Martin, but I think we should wait. It’ll still be here when we can get back in.”
Setting the equipment up in front of the five-foot wall, Dr. Martin flipped the lights on and pointed to the section that he’d industriously uncovered since she’d seen it last.
“Nonsense, life is too short, my sweet girl.” He pulled a small hammer and chisel from his pants pocket and starting lightly striking against the lip of stone.
“Well, I can’t argue with you there.” Kneeling down, she gathered up anything that fell away and set it in one of the collection tubs he’d left behind. She’d only managed a handful of the shards before a large wedge crashed down and scattered around her knees.
Startled, Skylar batted at the plumes of dust swirling around her head. When the debris cleared, she looked up and gasped. Right at nose level, she’d spotted a purposefully carved out portion of the thick wall. A darker slab of rock about the size of a child’s shoebox nestled snuggly within the surrounding material. She could see a sliver of green toward the back of the tight enclosure.
“Dr. Martin! Look. There’s something inside. It has color.” Sliding back, she reached up and helped him to kneel. She could feel his thin arms trembling with excitement.
“Outstanding! This is most fortuitous.” He chuckled and swept his hand through the air, indicating the entire dig site.
“What am I saying? The very goddess of fortune and luck is obviously gifting us. This was meant to be.” Grasping the edges of the darker stone, he attempted to pull it away from the niche, but it remained tightly lodged. He struck at the edges with the small chisel, yet it refused to budge. Setting the tools aside, he rose, hitched his pants up, and started to walk away.
“Wait, where are you going?” She smiled at hearing the jubilant voice drifting over his shoulder.
“To the office. More tools, my dear, I need more tools.”
Looking back to the artifact, Skylar shook her head in amazement. Someone long ago had felt this item precious enough to stuff into a wall and cover for all of eternity. She couldn’t wait to find out what had been so important. Her curiosity won out.
Reaching forward, Skylar touched the dark slab and immediately pulled her hand back as an image flew through her mind so quickly she was unable to comprehend the message. Stunned, she glanced around, half expecting some ethereal being to be leaning over her shoulder. Nothing, yet her skin still crawled, as if a silvery web had enclosed her in its embrace.
“Oh, shit. Not again.” It’d been several years since she’d gotten a message that clear, or as energized. She’d thought the ability had finally decided to give up on her for lack of use—obviously not.
Taking a deep breath, Skylar reached out to the stone again and forced her hand to stay in place. This time, the image remained long enough for her to understand that it was a view of the wall, higher and to the right of the enclosure. Looking up, she narrowed her eyes when she spotted another thin line of raised stone, similar to what Dr. Martin had found. However, it wasn’t as pronounced as the other side.
“Well, hell.” Grabbing the tools he’d left, Skylar rose up and tapped on the edge. She felt no surprise when the remaining wall covering immediately fell away. It wasn’t until she took a closer look that her breath caught in her lungs. Grabbing the dusting brush, she flicked it across the uncovered surface with great urgency. With each revealing stroke, her eyes widened and her heart threatened to burst from her chest.
A brilliantly colored wall painting containing several small representations of ancient events rested inches from her hand. It was unheard of to locate this type of artifact dated within the Hellenistic period. This was a find of the century, so why did she suddenly feel fear and sadness grip her senses in a tight vise?
Knowing she should be feeling elated, not fighting an urge to cover it, Skylar forced herself to look closely at the pictures. A quick glance from the first vivid image to the last told her just enough to make the fine hairs stand upright along her skin. Her strained whisper floated on the light breeze and found no one to listen.