Henry returned to staring at the temple. He mumbled, “The structure must be using geothermal heat as its energy source. This is amazing.”
“More like horrible. I can see why Friar de Almagro called this thing the Serpent of Eden. It’s seductive, but beneath its charms lies something foul.”
“The Serpent of Eden?” Henry furrowed his brows. “Where did you come by that expression?”
“It’s a long story.”
The professor nodded toward the temple. “We have the time.”
Maggie nodded. She tried to summarize their journey, but some parts were especially painful to recount, like Ralph’s death. Henry’s face grew grim and sober with the telling. At the end, Maggie spoke of the beasts and creatures that haunted the neighboring valley. She explained her theory, finishing with her final assessment. “I don’t trust the temple. It perverts as much as it heals.”
Henry stared down the long corridor toward the distant sunlight. “So the friar was right. He tried to warn us of what lay here.” Now it was Henry’s turn to relate his own story, of his time with the monks of the Abbey of Santo Domingo. His voice cracked with the mention of the forensic pathologist, Joan Engel. Another death in the centuries-long struggle to possess this strange gold. But Maggie read the additional pain behind the professor’s words, a part of the story left unspoken. She didn’t press.
Once done, Henry wiped his nose and turned to the temple. “So the Incas built here what the abbot dreamed. A structure large enough to reach some otherworldly force.”
“But is it the coin of God?” she asked, nodding toward Sam. “Or the blood of the Devil?” She glanced to the next caldera. “What is its ultimate goal? What is the purpose of those creatures?”
Henry shook his head. “An experiment? Maybe to evolve us? Maybe to destroy us?” He shrugged. “Who knows what intelligence guides the temple’s actions. We may never know.”
Muffled voices and the scrape of heel on rock drew their attention around. It was too soon for Norman and Denal to be returning. Flashlights suddenly blinded them from the tunnel’s entrance. An order was shouted at them: “Don’t move!”
Maggie and Henry stood still. What else could they do? There was no escape behind them. But in truth, neither was willing to abandon Sam. They waited for their captors to approach. “Do whatever they say,” Henry warned.
Like hell I will! But she remained silent.
A huge man, who from the professor’s story could only be Abbot Ruiz, crossed to the professor. Maggie was given only the most cursory glance. “Professor Conklin, you’ve proven yourself as resourceful as ever. You beat us here.” He frowned at Maggie. “Of course, the tongues you needed to free were a little easier than ours, I imagine. These Incas proved themselves quite stubborn. Ah, but the end result is the same. Here we are!”
The abbot stepped past them to view the chamber. He stood, staring for a moment at the sight. Then his large form shuddered, trembling all over. Finally, he fell to his knees. “A miracle,” he exclaimed in Spanish, making a hurried sign of the cross. “The sculpture on the table appears to be Christ himself. Like in our vault at the Abbey. It is a sign!”
Maggie and Henry glanced at each other. Neither corrected the abbot’s misconception.
“See how it trickles down from the roof. The old Incan tales spoke of the mother lode. How it flowed like water from the mountaintops! Here it is!”
Maggie edged closer. She knew, sooner or later, the abbot would discover his mistake. She could not let these men interfere with Sam’s healing. She cleared her throat. “This chamber is just a trinket,” she said softly.
The abbot, still kneeling, turned to her. His eyes still shone with the gold. “What do you mean?”
“This is just the temple, the entrance,” she said. “The true source lies in the next valley. The Incas call it janan pacha.”
“Their heaven?” the abbot said.
Maggie nodded, glad the man had some knowledge of the Incan culture. She glanced to Henry. He wore a deep frown, clearly guessing her plot. He didn’t approve, but he remained silent. Maggie returned her attention to the abbot. “This temple is just a roadside prayer totem. A gateway to the true wonders beyond.”
The abbot shoved to his feet. “Show me.”
Maggie backed a step. “Only for a guarantee of our safety.”
Abbot Ruiz glanced down the corridor. One eye narrowed suspiciously.
“Heaven awaits,” Maggie said, “but without my help, you’ll never find it.”
The abbot scowled. “Fine. I guarantee your safety.”
Frowning, Abbot Ruiz touched the small gold cross hanging from his neck. “I swear it on the blood of Jesus Christ, Our Savior.” He dropped his hand. “Satisfied?”
Maggie hesitated, feigning indecision, then finally nodded. “It’s this way.” She headed down the corridor.
“Wait.” The abbot hung back a moment. He waved to one of his six men. “Stay here with the good professor.” He crossed toward Maggie. “Just to keep things honest.”
Maggie felt a sick tightness in her belly. She continued down the passage, forcing her legs to stop trembling. She would not give in to her fear. “Th… this way,” she said. “It’s not too far.”
Abbot Ruiz stuck close to her shoulder, all but breathing down her neck. He wheezed, his face as red as a beet. Prayers mumbled from his lips.
“It’s just through there,” she said, as they neared the exit to the tunnel.
The abbot pushed her aside, marching forward, determined to be the first through. But when he reached the exit, he hesitated. His nose curled at the stronger stench of sulfur here. “I don’t see anything.”
Maggie joined him and pointed to the trail in the jungle ahead. “Just follow the path.”
The abbot stared. Maggie feared he would balk. She was sure he could hear her heart pounding in her throat. But she maintained a calm demeanor. “Janan pacha lies just inside the jungle. About a hundred meters. It is a sight no one could put into mere words.”
“Heaven…” Abbot Ruiz took a step into the caldera, then another—still he was cautious. He waved his five men ahead of him. “Check it out. Watch for any hostiles.”
His men, rifles at shoulders now, scurried ahead. The abbot followed, keeping a safe distance back. Maggie was forced to leave the tunnel to maintain the ruse. She held her breath as she reentered the foul nest of the creatures. Where the hell were the monsters?
She took a third step away from the entryway when she heard a rasp of rock behind her. She swung around. Perched over the rough entrance to the tunnel was one of the pale beasts. One of the scouts. It clung by claws, upside down. It knew it had been spotted. A hissing scream burst from its throat as it leaped at her.
Maggie froze. Answering cries exploded from the forest’s edge. It was a trap, and here was the sentinel. Maggie ducked. But the scout was too quick, lightning fast. The beast hit her. She fell backward and used the attacker’s momentum to fling it down the short slope behind her. She did not wait to see what happened. She scrambled to her feet and dived for the tunnel.
Behind her, spats of gunfire exploded; screams of terror and pain accompanied the weapons fire. But over it all, the wail and shriek of the beasts.
In the safety of the tunnel, Maggie swung around, facing the opening. She saw the abbot level his pistol and fire point-blank into the skull of the beast that had attacked her. It flopped and convulsed on the ground. The abbot glanced to the forest’s edge, where his men still fought for their lives. He turned his back on them and ran toward the passageway, toward Maggie. He spotted her; hatred and anger filled his eyes. No one thwarted the Spanish Inquisition.
Maggie backed down the tunnel as the abbot pulled up to the entrance. Heaving heavily, the obese man struggled to breathe. He gasped out, “You bitch!” Then he leveled his pistol and stepped inside.
Jesus! There was nowhere to run.
“You will suffer. That I guarant—” Suddenly the abbot was yanked backward with a squawk of surprise. His gun went off, the shot wild. The bullet ricocheted past Maggie’s ear.
A scream of horror erupted from the man as he was dragged from the tunnel and flung around. A hulking pale monster, another pack leader, had his expensive safari jacket snagged in a clawed fist. The other hand grabbed the abbot by the throat. More beasts soon appeared, more razored fists snatching at the choice meal. His gun was knocked from his grip. The abbot’s scream became strangled as he was dragged away from the tunnel’s entrance. A pale face, mouth bloodied, appeared at the tunnel opening. It hissed at her, then dived to the side, joining in the feeding frenzy.
She swung away and turned her back on the slaughter.
Behind her, a sharp screech of pain died into a wet gurgle. She hurried farther down the passage, toward the torchlight, away from the howling.
At the temple’s entrance, she saw the lone guard. He stepped toward her, gun pointed. “Que hiscistes?” he barked in Spanish, asking her what she had done. She saw the terror in his eyes.
Suddenly, Henry stepped behind him and pressed the barrel of a pistol to the back of the guard’s head. It was the weapon the professor had taken from the monk by the helicopter. “She was taking out the garbage.” He pressed the barrel more firmly. “Any problem with that?”
The man dropped his rifle and sank to his knees. “No.”
“That’s better.” Henry crossed in front of the man and kicked the rifle toward Maggie. “You know how to use that?”
“I’m from Belfast,” she said, retrieving the gun. She cocked it, checked the magazine, and lifted it to her shoulder.
Henry turned to his prisoner. “And you? Do you know how to fly the helicopter?”
The man nodded.
“Then you get to live.”
Suddenly a groan sounded from the next room. Henry and Maggie swung around. They watched the golden umbilicus spasm and the gold coating begin to slide from Sam’s body. Like a large siphon, it drew the metal from his skin, then coiled up on itself, churning and slowly twisting overhead.