“But all their children?”

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Maggie crossed to the woman. She cradled her arms and rocked them in the universal sign of baby. “Wawas… wawas…?” she asked, using the Quechan word for baby. Maggie then pointed to the woman’s large gravid belly.

The woman’s eyes widened with shock, then narrowed with anger. She held a hand pressed to her belly. “Huaca,” she said firmly, and spoke rapidly in Quecha.

“Huaca. Holy place,” Denal translated. “She say her belly be home now only to gods, no longer children. No children here for many, many years. They all go to temple.”

The woman turned her back on them, dismissing them. Clearly offended by their line of questioning.

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“What do you suppose she’s talking about, Sam?” Maggie asked.

“I don’t know. But I think we have another reason now to seek out that shaman.” Sam waved Denal and Maggie to follow him. “Let’s go find Kamapak.”

Their search ended up being harder than Sam had thought. Most of the men had gone to work the fields or hunt, including the shaman. Denal managed to glean some directions from a few of the villagers who had duties within the town’s limits. Sam’s group soon found themselves trekking down a jungle path. They passed groves of fruit and avocado trees being harvested and pruned. And a wide plowed meadow where fields of grainlike quinoa alternated with rows of corn, chili pepper plants, beans, and squash. Both men and women worked the fields. In an unplanted area, men were using tacllas, or foot plows, to turn the soil, while women helped, using a simple hoe called a lampa. Maggie and Sam paused to watch them labor, amazed to see these ancient Incan tools at work.

“I can’t believe this,” Sam said for the hundredth time that day.

Denal nudged Sam. “This way,” he said, urging them on.

Sam and Maggie followed, still looking over their shoulders. They reentered the jungle and within a short time came upon a clearing. The shaman stood with a handful of other men. Cords of hewn wood were stacked on sleds. The gathered Incas could have been brothers, all strong, muscular men. Only the shaman’s tattoos distinguished him from the others. Kamapak, at first, was startled by their appearance, then smiled broadly and waved them all forward. He spoke rapidly.

Denal translated. “He welcomes us. Says we come in time to help.”

“Help with what?”

“Hauling wood back to town. Last night, at the feast, the many campfires burned their stores.”

Sam groaned, his head still pounding slightly from his hangover. “Emissaries of the gods, or not, I guess we’re expected to earn our keep.” Sam took up a position beside Kamapak, taking up one of the many shoulder straps used to haul the sled. Denal was beside him.

Maggie walked ahead, helping to clear chunks of volcanic stone and make a path.

With six men acting as oxen, dragging the sled proved easier than Sam expected. Still, one of the men passed Sam a few leaves of a coca plant. When chewed, the cocaine in the leaves helped offset the altitude effects… and his hangover. Sam found his head less achy. He wondered if the leaves might help Norman’s fever and pain.

Feeling better now, Sam conversed with the shaman as he hauled on the sled. Denal translated.

Sam’s inquiry about children was met with the same consternation. “The temple receives our children from our women’s bellies. This close to janan pacha”—again a nod to the towering volcanic cone to the south—“the god, Con, has blessed our people. Our children are his children now. They live in janan pacha. Gifts to Con.”

Maggie had been listening and glanced back. Sam shrugged at her. Con was one of the gods of the northern tribes. In stories, he had epic battles with Pachacamac, creator of the world. But it was said that it was the god, Con, who created man upon this earth.

“This temple,” Sam asked, speaking around his wad of bittersweet leaves. “May we see it.”

The shaman’s eyes narrowed. He shook his head vehemently. “It is forbidden.”

From the man’s strong rebuff, Sam did not pursue the matter. So much for being emissaries of the god of thunder, he thought. It seemed Illapa was not high on this village’s totem pole.

Maggie slipped back to Sam’s side. She whispered, “I was thinking about Denal’s observation about the missing children and got to thinking about the village’s makeup. There is another element of this society that is missing, too.”

“Who?”

“Elders. Old people. Everyone we’ve seen has been roughly the same age… give or take twenty years.”

Sam’s feet stumbled as he realized Maggie was right. Even the shaman could not be much older than Sam. “Maybe their life expectancy is poor.”

Maggie scowled. “Life is pretty insulated here. No major predators, unless you count those things down in the deep caves.”

Sam turned to Kamapak and, with Denal’s help, questioned him about the missing old folk.

His answer was just as cryptic. “The temple nurtures us. The gods protect us.” From the singsong way the words were spoken, it was clearly an ancient response. And apparently an answer to most questions. When Maggie made her own inquiries—into health care and illness among the members—she received the same answer.

She turned to Sam. “It seems the old, the young, the frail, and the sick end up there.”

“Do you think they’re being sacrificed?”

Maggie shrugged.

Sam pondered her words, then turned to Denal, trying a different tack on this conversation. “Try describing those creatures we saw in the caves.”

The boy frowned, tiring of his role as translator, but he did as Sam asked. The shaman’s brows grew dark with the telling. He called a halt to the sled. His words were low with a hint of threat as Denal translated. “Do not speak of those who walk through uca pacha, the underworld. They are mallaqui, spirits, and it is ill to whisper of them.” With those words, the shaman waved the sled on.

Sam glanced at the volcanic mountain to the south. “Heaven up there, and hell below us. All the spiritual realms of the Inca joined in this one valley. A pacariscas, a magical nexus.”

“What do you think it means?” Maggie said.

“I don’t know. But I’ll be glad when Uncle Hank arrives.”

Soon the team of haulers and their load of wood reached the village’s edge. By now it was well past noon, and the workers tossed off their harnesses and began meandering into the village proper. The spread of homes once again was full of chattering and happy people. It seemed even the workers in the field had returned for a midday rest.

Sam, Maggie, and Denal wandered back to their own shelters. Ahead, Sam noticed that the women who had been cooking at the stove were now spooning out roasted corn and stew into stone bowls. He smiled, suddenly realizing how hungry he was.

“We should wake Norman,” Maggie said. “He should try an’ eat.”

Denal ran ahead. “I get him,” the boy called back.

Maggie and Sam took their places in line before the stove. Other ovens around the village also steamed into the air, like mini volcanic vents. Like most Incan townships, this village was broken into distinct ayllu, extended family units or groupings. Each ayllu had its own open-air kitchen. Among the Incas, meals were always eaten outdoors, weather permitting.

Reaching the head of the line, Sam was handed a bowl of steaming stew topped by a ladle of mashed roasted corn. Poked into it was a small chunk of dried meat, charqui, jerked llama steak.

Sam was sniffing at it when Denal burst from the nearby doorway and hurried toward them, his boyish face drawn and serious.

“What is it?” Maggie asked.

“He gone,” Denal glanced around the area. “I find his blanket and straw all messed up.”

“Messed up?” Sam asked.

Denal swallowed hard, clearly worried and scared. “Like he fighting someone.”

Maggie glanced to Sam. “Before we panic,” he said, “let’s simply ask.” Sam waved Denal back to the pregnant women dishing stew. The boy interrupted her serving.

Denal spoke rapidly. The woman nodded, a smile growing on her face. When Denal turned to Sam, he was not sharing her smile.

“They take Norman to the temple.”

By late afternoon, Joan found herself ensconced with a young monk in one of the many laboratory cubicles deep in the heart of the Abbey. Faithful to his word, the abbot had left orders that Joan be treated as a guest. So her request to observe the Abbey’s researchers at work was grudgingly allowed—though her personal guard dog was never far away. Even now, Joan could see Carlos through the observation window. He rested one palm on his holstered pistol.

A young monk named Anthony drew back her attention. “Of course, we all have our own personal theories,” he said matter-of-factly, his English fluent. “It is not as if we let our faith cloud our experimentation. The abbot always says our faith should withstand the vigors of science.”

Joan nodded and leaned a bit closer to the man. They now stood before a bank of computers and monitors. Several technicians worked a few cubicles down, dressed the same as they were, in sterile white lab suits, but otherwise they were alone.

Anthony logged onto the computer. Near his elbow was a tray of minute samples of the Incan metal, row after row of miniscule gold teardrops embedded in plastic wells. Fresh from the freezer, a slight fog of dry ice still clung to the tray. She had learned the lab was trying to learn the nature of the metal in an attempt to accelerate their desired goal of bringing Christ back to earth. They had already developed methods to rid the metal of contaminating impurities, heightening the miraculous abilities of the substance.

Joan studied the teardrop samples. To test her own theory, she needed one of those pearls of gold. But how? The samples were so close, but with so many eyes watching, the tray might as well have been locked behind iron bars. Joan tightened her fists, determined not to fail in her mission. She needed just a moment’s distraction. Taking a deep breath, she readied herself.

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