Sam realized Maggie thought he had been referring to her incident in Ireland, using her own trauma to knock aside her arguments. “I… I didn’t mean it that way,” he tried to explain.

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Maggie pulled Denal to her side and turned her back on Sam. Her words were for Norman, dismissive. “Don’t get yourself killed.” She stalked off toward the row of homes.

Norman stared at her back. “Sam, you’ve really got to watch that mouth of yours. It’s no wonder you and your uncle are bachelors.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“Yeah, I know… but still… next time think before you speak.” Norman led the way around the edge of the plaza. “Come on, James Bond, let’s get this over with.”

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Sam watched as Maggie ducked into her room; then he turned to follow Norman. His heart, on fire a moment ago, was now a burned cinder in his chest. “I’m such a jackass.”

Norman heard him. “No argument here.”

Sam scowled and tugged at the brim of his Stetson. He passed Norman with his angry stride. “Let’s go.”

As the celebration raged around them, they reached the squat two-story home. It was clearly the abode of a kapak, the nobleman of the Incas. The windows and door were framed in hammered silver. Firelight blazed from the uncovered windows, and muffled voices could be heard from inside.

Sam searched around to ensure no one was watching, then he pulled Norman into the narrow alley beside the home. It was cramped, allowing only enough room for them to move single file. Sam crept along first. Ahead, flickering light could be seen coming from a courtyard which was closed off by a shoulder-high wall. As they neared, Sam spotted small decorative holes piercing the walls: star-shaped and crescent moons. A perfect place from which to spy.

Waving Norman onward, Sam slunk up to one of the holes and peeked through. Beyond was a central garden courtyard, rich with orchids and climbing flowering vines. Sleeping parrots rested on perches, heads tucked under wings. Amid the riotous growth, a fire pit blazed in the center of the courtyard.

Two figures stood limned against the flames: Kamapak and Inkarri.

The shaman touched one of his tattoos with a fingertip, mumbling a prayer, then opened his chuspa pouch and cast a pinch of powder upon the fire. A spat of blue flames chased embers higher into the sky. Kamapak spoke to the king as he stepped in a circle around the fire, tossing more powder into the flames.

Norman, positioned at a neighboring spy hole, translated. His lips were near Sam’s ear, his words breathless.

The shaman spoke. “As I told you, though they are pale-skinned and came from below, they are not mallaqui, spirits of uca pacha. They are true people.”

The king nodded, pensively staring into the flames. “Yes, and the temple has healed the one. Inti accepts them.” Inkarri stared back at Kamapak. “Still, they are not Inca.”

Kamapak finished whatever ritual he had been performing and crossed to one of the reed floor coverings and folded himself smoothly to the floor, legs crossed under him. “No, but they do not come with murder in their hearts either… like the others long ago.”

The king sat on a woven mat beside the shaman. His voice was tired. “How long has it been, Kamapak?”

The shaman reached to a pouch and pulled out a long string of knotted rope. He spread it on the stones of the courtyard. Sam recognized it as a quipu, an Incan counting tool. Kamapak pointed to one knot. “Here is when we discovered the Mochico in this valley, when your armies first came here, five hundred and thirty years ago.” He moved his fingers down several ropes. “And here is when you died.”

Sam pulled back and stared quizzically at Norman. Died? The photographer shrugged. “That’s what he said,” Norman mouthed.

Frowning, Sam started to return to his eavesdropping when a shouted bark startled him. Torches flared at either end of the alley. Sam and Norman froze, caught red-handed. Harsh orders were yelled at them.

“Th… they want us to come out,” Norman said.

Sam touched the rifle’s stock, then thought better of it. He’d wait first to see how this all played out. “C’mon.”

He pushed past Norman and slid down the alley toward the waiting guards. Angry faces met them at the plaza. A circle of men, some bearing torches, all bearing spears, surrounded them. The music had stopped. Hundreds of sweating bodies stared in their direction.

From the doorway, the shaman and the king appeared. A spatter of words were exchanged between the guards and the shaman. The king stood stoically at the doorway.

Finally, the Sapa Inca lifted his staff, and all grew silent. Turning to Sam, he spoke in strained English, “At the temple, Inti whispered your tongue in my ear so I could speak to you. Come then. Learn what you seek in dark corners.” He turned and reentered the stately abode.

Kamapak frowned, clearly disappointed with them, and waved them both inside the same courtyard upon which they had eavesdropped.

The Sapa Inca gestured to woven rugs on the floor.

Sam and Norman sat.

The king strode to the fire, speaking to the flames. “What be it that you seek?” he asked.

Sam sat straighter. “Answers. Like who you really are.”

The Sapa Inca sighed and slowly nodded. “Some now call me Inkarri. But I will speak my true name to you, my first name, my oldest name, so you will know me. My birth name be Pachacutec. Inca Pachacutec.”

Sam furrowed his brows. Pachacutec was a name he knew. He was the ancient founder of the Incan empire, the leader who expanded the Incas from their sole city of Cuzco to a dominion encompassing all the lands between the mountains and the coast. “You are a descendant of the Earth Shaker?” Sam asked, using the Incan nickname for their founder.

The king glowered. “No, I am the Earth Shaker. I am Pachacutec.”

Sam frowned at this answer. Impossible. Clearly this man had the delusions of all kings—that they were the embodiment of their ancestors, the dead reincarnated in the living.

Kamapak spoke up in his native tongue. The shaman’s hands were very animated. He picked up the length of knotted rope, the quipu, from where it had been left. He shook it at them.

Norman translated, “Kamapak claims everyone here in the valley is over four hundred years old. Even their king.”

“So this Sapa Inca believes he’s the original Pachacutec.”

Norman nodded. “The real McCoy.”

Sam shook his head, dismissing all this Incan mysticism. But in a small corner of his mind, he pondered Norman’s cure and new abilities. Something miraculous was definitely going on, but could this tribe have lived for that long? He remembered his own thoughts about a fountain of youth. Was it possible?

Sam asked the question that had been nagging him since arriving here. “Tell us about this Temple of the Sun.”

Pachacutec glanced to the sunburst symbol on the staff in his hand, then to the bonfire. His face suddenly took on a tired look, his eyes so old that for a moment Sam could almost believe this man had lived five hundred years. “To understand, I must tell stories I hear from other mouths,” he whispered. “From the Mochico who first came to this sacred place.”

Sam’s heart clenched. So the Moche had been here first! Uncle Hank had been right.

The Sapa Inca nodded to the shaman. “Tell them, Kamapak, of the Night of Flaming Skies.”

The shaman bowed his head in acknowledgment and crossed to the fire’s edge. His voice took on a somber tone. Norman translated. “Sixty years before Inca Pachacutec’s armies conquered this valley, there came a night when the skies were ablaze with a hundred fiery trails, bits of flaming sun chasing each other across the black skies. They fell from janan pacha and crashed into these sacred mountains. The Mochico king ordered his hunters to gather these bits of the sun, finding them in smoking nests throughout the mountains.”

Sam found himself nodding. Clearly this was a description of a meteor shower.

Kamapak continued, “This gathered treasure was brought back to the Mochico king. He named the pieces, the Sun’s Gold, and ensconced his treasure in a cave here in this secret valley.”

Pachacutec interrupted, “But then I come with my armies. I kill their king and make the Mochico my slaves. I force them to take me to this treasure. I must kill many before the way be opened. Here I find a cave full of sunlight you can touch and hold. I fall to my knees. I know it be Inti himself. The god of the sun!” The king’s eyes were full of past glory and wonder. It seemed to revitalize him.

The shaman continued the story, as Norman translated. “To honor Inti and to punish the Mochico for imprisoning our god, Pachacutec sacrificed every Mochico in this valley and the village below. Once done, Pachacutec prayed for seven days and seven nights for a sign from Inti. And he was heard!”

The shaman opened his bag and, with a mumbled prayer, tossed a bit of purplish dust on the fire; blue flames flared for a heartbeat. Then he continued, “As reward for his loyalty, a wondrous temple grew in the cave, a huaca constructed from this hoard of Mochico sun gold. In this sacred temple, Inti healed the sick and kept death from those who honored the sun god.”

Sam had to force himself to breathe. Had these ancient Indians truly discovered some otherworldly fountain of youth? Sam only had to stare at Norman, healed and translating, to begin to believe.

“Pachacutec gave up his crown to his son and retired to this valley, leaving the governing of the Incan empire to his descendants. He and his chosen followers remained here, worshiping Inti, never dying. Soon, even the children born in the valley were made into gods by the temple’s power and given as gifts to janan pacha.”

With these words, the king’s eyes flicked toward the south, where the tall neighboring volcano loomed. A certain brooding look grew in his eyes.

Sam had to admit a perverse internal logic to the story. If these valley dwellers never died, then sacrificing children was good population management. The resources of this volcanic valley were not unlimited and continued births would soon overwhelm the resources. The tale also succeeded in explaining the lack of elderly residents. No one aged here.

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