As Norman returned the boy’s embrace, tears rose in his eyes.
Off to the side, Pachacutec groaned. He switched back to his native tongue as he bowed before the temple, rocking back and forth, praying. He was beyond consolation. Blood ran from under his robes and trailed into the golden chamber. He looked near death himself.
Henry crossed closer to the king. If Maggie’s story was true, here knelt one of the founders of the Incan empire. As an archaeologist who had devoted his entire lifetime to the study of the Incas, Henry found himself suddenly speechless. A living Incan king whose memories were worth a thousand caverns of gold. Henry turned to Sam, his eyes beseeching. This king must not die.
Sam seemed to understand. He knelt beside Pachacutec and touched the king’s robe. “Sapa Inca,” he said, bowing his head. “The temple saved my life, as it once saved yours. Use it again.”
Pachacutec stopped rocking, but his head still hung in sorrow. “My people gone.” He raised his face toward Sam and the others. “Maybe it be right. We do not belong in your world.”
“No, heal yourself. Let me show you our world.”
Henry stepped forward, placing a hand on Sam’s shoulder, adding his support. “There is much you could share, Inca Pachacutec. So much you can teach us.”
Pachacutec pushed slowly to his feet and faced Henry. He reached a hand to the professor’s cheek and traced a wrinkle. He then dropped his arm and turned away. “Your face be old. But not as old as my heart.” He stared into the temple, his face shining. “Inti now leads my people to janan pacha. I wish to go with them.”
Henry stared over the king’s shoulder to Sam. What could they say? The man had lost his entire tribe.
Tears ran down Pachacutec’s cheeks as he slid a gold dagger from inside his robe. “I go to join my people.”
Henry reached toward the Sapa Inca. “No!” But he was too late.
Pachacutec plunged the dagger into his breast, bending over the blade like a clenched fist. Then he relaxed; a sigh of relief escaped his throat. He slowly straightened, and his fingers fell away from the blade’s hilt.
Henry gasped, stumbling back, as flames jetted out from around the dagger impaled in the king’s chest. “What the hell…?”
Pachacutec stumbled into the temple’s chamber. “I go to Inti.”
“Spontaneous combustion,” Sam whispered, stunned. “Like the cavern beasts.”
Maggie nodded. “His body’s the same as the creatures’.”
“What’s happening?” Henry asked, staring at the flames.
Maggie explained hurriedly, “The gold sets off some chain reaction.” She pointed to Pachacutec. Flames now wound out from the dagger and coursed over his torso. “Self-immolation.”
Henry suddenly recalled Joan’s urgent message to him in the helicopter. She had warned him of a way to destroy Substance Z. The gift stolen by Prometheus. Fire!
Turning, Henry saw Pachacutec fall to his knees, his arms lifted. Flames climbed his raised limbs.
Henry grabbed Sam and Maggie and shoved them toward the tunnel’s exit. “Run!” he yelled. He kicked the kneeling guard. “Go!”
“What? Why?” Sam asked.
“No time!” Henry herded them all onward. Denal and Norman ran ahead, while Henry and Maggie helped Sam on his wobbly legs. As they fled, Henry recalled Joan’s final warning: Prometheus packs a vicious punch! Like plastic explosive!
Her words proved too true. As they reached the tunnel’s end, a massive explosion rocked the ground under their feet. A blast of superheated air rocketed the entire group down the path, tumbling, bruising. The passage behind them coughed out smoke and debris.
“On your feet!” Henry called as he bumped to a stop. “Keep going!”
The group obeyed with groaned complaints, limping and racing onward. The trail continued to tremble under their heels. “Don’t stop!” Henry called.
Boulders crashed down from the volcanic heights. The shaking in the ground grew even worse. Below, hundreds of parrots screeched and flew out of the jungle canopy.
What was happening?
As Henry reached the escarpment below the cliffs, he risked a glance back up. A monstrous crack in the rock face trailed from the tunnel straight up the side of the cone.
Sam leaned on Maggie, both catching their breath. The others hovered nearby. Sam’s eyes suddenly grew wide. “Oh, God!” he yelled. “Look!” He pointed across the valley.
Henry stared. The original steam vents had become spewing geysers of scalding water. New cracks appeared throughout the valley, belching more foggy steam and water into the sky. One section of the volcanic cone fell away with a grinding roar. “It’s coming apart!” Henry realized.
Maggie pointed behind them, toward the volcanic peak to the south. Black smoke billowed skyward. The scent of sulfur and burning rock filled the valley.
Sam straightened. “The explosion must have triggered a fault. A chain reaction. Hurry! To the helicopter!”
Norman chimed in with even more good news. “We’ve got company, folks!” He pointed to the smoking tunnel.
From the heart of the enveloping blackness, pale shapes leaped forth like demons from hell. The creatures piled and writhed from the opening, screeching, bellowing. Claws scrabbled on rock.
“The explosions must have panicked them,” Maggie said. “Overcoming their fear of the tunnel.”
From the heights, black eyes swung in their direction. The keening wail changed in pitch.
“Run!” Henry bellowed, terrified at the sight. “Now!”
The group fled across the rough terrain. Chunks of basalt now rattled upon the quaking ground, sounding like the chatter of teeth. It made running difficult. Henry fell, scraping his palms on the jagged stone. Then Sam was there, pulling him to his feet.
“Can you make it, Uncle Hank?” he asked, puffing himself.
“I’m gonna have to, aren’t I?” Henry took off again, but black spots swam across his vision.
Sam lent him an arm, and Maggie suddenly appeared on his other side. Together, they helped Henry across the rough terrain to the flat meadow. Ahead, Norman was already pulling Denal and the abbey guardsman into the belly of the chopper. The photographer’s eyes met theirs across the meadow. “Hurry! They’re at your heels!”
Henry made the mistake of looking back. The quicker of the pale creatures already flanked them. Not far behind, larger creatures bearing clubs and stones bore down upon them.
Henry suddenly tripped and almost brought them all down. But as a group, they managed to keep their feet and continued running. Henry found himself beginning to black out here and there. Soon he was being carried between Sam and Maggie.
“Let me go… save yourselves.”
“Yeah, right,” Sam answered.
“Who does he think we are?” Maggie added with forced indifference.
Everything went black for a few seconds.
Then hands were pulling Henry into the helicopter. He felt the rush of wind and realized the helicopter’s rotors were already twirling. A loud metallic crash sounded near his head.
“They’re lobbing boulders,” Norman called out.
“But they’re not coming any closer,” Maggie added from the doorway. “The helicopter has them spooked.”
A second ringing jolt struck the helicopter’s fuselage. The whole vehicle shuddered.
“Well, they’re damn close enough!” Norman turned and hollered to the pilot. “Get this bird off the ground!
Henry struggled to sit as the door slammed shut. “Sam…?”
He felt a pat on his shoulder as he was hauled into his seat and strapped in. “I’m here.” He turned to see Sam smiling at him, Maggie at his shoulder.
“Thank God,” Henry sighed.
“God? Which one?” Norman asked with a grin, settling into his seat.
The helicopter suddenly shuddered again—not from the bombardment of boulders, but from a hurried liftoff. The bird tilted, then rose slowly. A final crash on the underside rocked the chopper.
“A parting kiss,” Norman said, staring out the window at the cavorting and gamboling throng down below.
The helicopter then climbed faster, beyond the reach of their stones.
Henry joined the photographer in staring over the valley. Below, the jungle was on fire. Smoke and steam almost entirely obscured the view. Fires lit up patches of the dense fog. A view of Dante’s Hell.
As Henry stared, relief mixed with sorrow in his heart. So much had been lost.
Then they were over the cone’s lip and sweeping down and away.
They had made it!
As the helicopter dived between the neighboring peaks, Henry stared behind them. Suddenly a loud roar exploded through the cabin; the helicopter jumped, rotors screamed. Henry flew backward. For a few harrowing moments, the bird spun and twisted wildly.
The pilot swore, struggling with his controls. Everyone else clutched straps in white-knuckled grips.
Then the bird righted itself and flew steady again.
Henry dragged himself up and returned to his observation post. As he looked out, he gasped, not in fright but in wonder. “You all need to come see this.”
The others joined him at the window. Sam leaned over, a palm resting on his uncle’s shoulder. Henry patted his nephew’s hand, squeezing his fingers for a moment.
“It’s strangely beautiful,” Maggie said, staring out.
Behind the helicopter, two twin spires of molten rock lit up the afternoon skies, one from each volcano. It was a humbling sight.
Henry finally leaned back in his seat. Closing his eyes, he thought back to Friar de Almagro and all his warnings. The man had given his own life to stop the evil here.
Henry whispered softly to the flaming skies, “Your dying prayer has been answered, my friend. Rest in peace.”
Sunday, August 26, 3:45 P.M.
Cuzco International Airport
The small, single-engine plane, an old Piper Saratoga, dipped toward the tarmac. The city of Cuzco spread below the wings in a tangle of streets, a mix of gleaming high-rises and old adobe homes. Though it was a welcome sight, Sam turned from the window. It had been a long day of flights and plans.