“Are we going there?” Joan asked. “To this temple?”
“No… we’re going somewhere even more astounding.”
With Carlos still leading, the group traveled the maze of passages. Henry noted the occasional wooden footbridge straddling open sections of the stone floor. At first, he attributed them to regions where the ancient Incan stonework had succumbed to earthquakes or simple wear. Then, as he crossed another of these bridges, he realized they were too regular and the pits too square. He suddenly suspected where the group traveled.
“This is the place of the pit!” Henry blurted out, staring back at the warren of hallways with their many twists and turns.
“So you’ve heard of this place?” Ruiz said with a smile.
“Place of the pit?” Joan asked.
“An underground labyrinth. A hellhole where Incan rulers tossed their most hated enemies. It was fraught with booby-trapped pitfalls lined by razored flint. They’d also throw in scorpions, spiders, snakes, even injured pumas, to torment the prisoners.”
Joan studied the walls around them. “How awful…”
“It was one of the Incas’ most infamous torture chambers. The Spanish conquistadors wrote extensively of it. It was supposed to be here in Cuzco, but it was believed long destroyed.” Henry turned to the abbot. “Apparently it wasn’t.”
Carlos stopped at a bend in the corridor. He stood stiffly by a bare section of stone wall, almost at attention. From his narrowed angry eyes, the friar plainly did not agree with the abbot’s decision to bring the captives here.
Abbot Ruiz stepped beside Carlos. “We’ve reached the center of the labyrinth. The Sanctum of our order.”
Henry glanced up and down the corridor. All he saw were stacked granite blocks. There was no sign of a door.
The abbot approached the bare wall and pressed his large ruby ring against a small stainless-steel plate embedded in a shadowed cubbyhole. Then he stepped back as the grind of gears sounded from behind the bricks.
Henry tensed, not knowing what to expect.
Suddenly a section of the granite wall slowly dropped away, sinking into the floor. Bright light blazed from within, its effect almost blinding after the dimness of the dark hallways. With a groan, the section dropped fully away.
As the glare faded, Henry stared openmouthed.
Joan gasped beside him.
Ahead lay a large chamber, the size of a small warehouse. Starkly white and shining with stainless steel, it was an extensive state-of-the-art laboratory. Beyond the windows and vacuum-sealed glass doors, a legion of figures, dressed in sterile suits, labored at various stations. Muffled by the glass walls, the strains of Beethoven floated out from the laboratory.
Henry glanced back to the Incan stonework labyrinth, then back to the technologically advanced laboratory. “Okay, you’ve got my attention.”
The expected attack never came. A full hour had passed by the time Sam stepped away from the large bonfire, rifle held tight to his shoulder. The dark necropolis rose to shadowed heights all around them. Firelight splashed across the nearest tombs, but most of the city of the dead was shrouded by an inky blackness. Only the towering gold statue at the center of town reflected the flames, a blazing pillar of brightness in the midnight cavern.
Nothing moved out there.
“Maybe they left,” Norman whispered.
Sam disagreed. “They’re still out there.”
“It’s the flames,” Maggie finally said, her voice sharp but quiet, drawing the men’s eyes momentarily from the tense vigil of the necropolis. “They tried to destroy the first campfire, hurling that big rock. But it was only chance that lit the stack of other mummies by accident. If the fire had failed us completely, we’d all be bloody dead.”
“What do you mean?” Norman asked.
“They fear the flames,” Sam said, realizing Maggie was right. He looked at her with renewed respect. “That’s what’s holding them back.”
She nodded. “From the lack of pigment on the one we saw, it’s clearly not a creature of sunlight. Most likely a cave dweller.”
“But what was it?” Ralph asked.
“I don’t know,” Maggie snapped. The tension was making everyone edgy. She pulled Denal to her side. The boy’s eyes were huge with fear, both real and superstitious. “But whatever it was, it was no spirit. No mallaqui. It was flesh an’ blood. I don’t know… maybe it’s some type of bald gorilla or something.”
Ralph shook his head, repositioning his own rifle slightly. Sam could guess the large man’s arm was getting as tired as his own. “There are no large apes reported on the South American continent.”
“But many parts of the Andes still remain unexplored,” Maggie countered. “Like this place.”
“But it looked almost human,” Norman said.
Sam would not have used that term to describe the misshapen and bent-backed creature that had been caught in the flashlight’s beam. He again pictured the beastly face armed with razored teeth. Definitely not human.
Maggie persisted. “All across the world, people report seeing strange hidden creatures in highland haunts—the Sasquatch of the Sierras, the Yeti of the Himalayas.”
Ralph snorted. “Great. And we’ve discovered the abominable snowmen of the Andes.”
The camp grew quiet again, the pressure of their situation discouraging any further talk. Total silence fell, except for the occasional pop or crackle from the fire. After a while, Sam began to hope Norman’s first statement was true. Maybe the strange creatures had left.
Then, from deep in the cavern, a sharp bark erupted, followed by a guttural grunting from all around.
Everyone tensed. Sam fingered the trigger of his Winchester.
“The natives are growing restless,” Norman whispered.
The coarse calls and gibbering escalated, echoing throughout the cavern. It sounded like hundreds of the creatures surrounded them.
Sam’s eyes tried to pierce the darkness. “Fire or not, they may be gathering courage to attack.”
“What should we do?” Norman asked.
“Two options,” Sam answered. “One, we hole up in one of the tombs. Light a huge bonfire near the entrance and wait them out. Hold them off if they attack.” Sam jiggled his pocket. “I’ve got maybe a dozen shells. And Ralph has around thirty.”
Maggie glanced to the narrow entrance of one of the neighboring tombs. From her pinched expression, it was clear she did not care for that idea. “We’d be trapped in there. We could be swamped with no means of escape. And I’m afraid their fear of the firelight may wane.”
“And what if the fire goes out?” Norman asked. “If we run out of mummies while holed up in there, who’s going to go wandering out for more?”
Sam nodded at their concerns. “Exactly, not a great choice. So there is also option number two: We try to find that way out. We use Norman’s light meter to guide us. We go armed and bearing torches. If flames scare them, then wielding burning brands may hold them off—at least long enough to get our asses out of here.”
Ralph stood with his head cocked, listening to the growing howls. “Whatever we decide, we’d better hurry.”
“Like I said before, they’re growing more confident because we aren’t doing anything,” Maggie said. “But if we began moving, taking the fire with us, that ought to spook them again. Also maybe this cavern is their home. If it’s a territorial thing, by moving, showing them that we’re leaving, they may not attack.”
“That’s a lot of maybes,” Ralph countered.
Maggie shrugged. “I’d rather keep movin’ than pin ourselves down. I don’t think it’s wise to stay in one spot too long. I vote for leaving.”
“Me too,” Denal quickly added, his voice small and scared.
Norman nodded. “We’ve overstayed our welcome here.”
Sam eyed Ralph.
The large ex-football player shrugged. “Let’s break camp.”
“I’m for that.” It heartened Sam to hear a unanimous decision, but he prayed it was the correct one. “Ralph and I need our arms free with the rifles. Everyone else grab a torch.”
As the beasts shrieked and screeched, Ralph and Sam maintained a watch on the black necropolis. The others hurriedly worked at constructing torches. Another mummy was dragged from a nearby tomb, and its limbs were broken off, one each for Denal, Maggie, and Norman.
Norman stepped back, brandishing a thin mummified leg. “I’ve heard of pulling someone’s leg, but this is ridiculous.” His face shone with sweat from exertion and tension. The photographer crossed to the bonfire and lit the foot in the flames. “Something tells me I’m going to Hell for this.” He glanced around the necropolis. “But then again, maybe I’m already there.”
Ignoring his nervous chatter, Maggie and Denal followed his example. Soon each held aloft a flaming limb.
“I’ve got a spare torch just in case,” Maggie said, pointing her thumb to the broken arm protruding from under the straps of her shoulder bag. “We can collect more on the way as we need them.”
“If worse comes to worst,” Norman said, “I also have a strobe flash on my camera as a last resort.”
“Then let’s head out,” Sam said. “I’ll take the lead. Norman’s with me. We’ll need his meter to guide us. Maggie, can you manage both your torch and the flashlight?”
“Then you follow us with Denal. Ralph will guard our rear. We’ll cut through town first. We know there’s no exit behind us… so our best bet is to move forward.” Sam stared at the others. No one voiced any objections to his plan. “Let’s go.”
The team set off. The avenues between the necropolis’s tombs were wide enough for them to cluster together. Norman walked to one side of Sam, reading his meter, shielding the unit from the torchlight with his body. Maggie marched on Sam’s other side, her flashlight pointed forward. Denal kept to Maggie’s hip. Only Ralph did as Sam had instructed earlier. He hung back and watched their rear.