Excavation

The woman’s eyes were wide with fear as she stared back at Sam across the six yards of floor. Sam could see a glaze of panic beginning to set in. What was he to do?

Suddenly the entire room shook violently. A thunderous roar accompanied it. Sam was thrown to the floor. Maggie ducked, covering her head with her arms. Two metal tiles dislodged from above and crashed with loud clangs.

Only Denal managed to keep his feet. The Quechan boy glanced toward the room’s entrance. Dust and clouds of silt rolled toward them. “The temple! It falls!”

Sam rolled back to his feet as the floor settled. “Oh, God… Norman and Ralph…”

As if hearing his call, two figures suddenly burst through the cloudy silt. Coughing, Ralph skidded to a stop beside Sam. From head to foot, the large black man was grey with granite dust, as was Norman behind him. The photographer sneezed loudly.

Ralph was out of breath. “It’s all coming apart!”

The groan of shifting stones seemed to come from all around them. Occasional loud crashes still erupted regularly, as close as the antechamber next door.

Norman wiped his nose on his sleeve. “There’s nothing above us now.”

Ralph pulled Sam to the neighboring wall of the short passage. “Feel.”

Sam placed his hand on the wall of stacked granite stones. It trembled under his palm as the stresses from the tons of granite blocks and clay strained these last bulwarks. “All that’s holding this place together is a lick and a promise,” Sam realized aloud.

Norman suddenly drew their attention with an urgent call. He pointed toward the patterned floor. “Maggie!”

Sam swung around. Across the tiles, he spotted the Irish student sprawled on her side on the same gold tile. Her limbs twitched and spasmed. She was having another seizure.

“What the hell is she doing out there?” Ralph asked angrily.

“I don’t have time to explain.” Sam unslung his rifle and passed it to Ralph. “Stay here!” He darted onto the gold tiles.

Denal yelled a warning, but Sam ignored the boy. Sam danced from silver to gold as he climbed the staircase pattern toward janan pacha. Reaching Maggie’s tile, he knelt beside her and cradled her head in his lap. His touch seemed to calm her slightly. Using this cue, he stroked her hair and called to her softly. Her trembling limbs quieted. “Maggie… if you can hear me, come to me. Follow my voice.”

A small moan escaped from her lips.

“C’mon, Maggie… we need you… this is no time to be napping.”

Her eyelids fluttered, and then she was staring at him. “Sam…?”

He leaned down and hugged her tightly. The smell of her hair and sweat sharp in his nose. “Thank God!”

Maggie pushed from his embrace and quickly took in the scene. “You shouldn’t have come out here,” she scolded, but there was no heat in her voice, only relief. “The temple?”

“It’s comin’ down around our ears. This is the last level intact.”

Maggie glanced up at Sam, an unspoken question in her eyes.

Sam answered, “An hour at most, I’d guess.”

“What are we to do?”

Helping her to her feet, Sam stood. Maggie had to lean on his arm for support, her legs still weak. Her palms were hot on his bare skin. “You got me thinking earlier. Just why did the Moche or Incas build this room so it was one-way only?”

Maggie shook her head.

Sam glanced to the far wall. “It makes no sense… unless… unless there was another way out.”

“A secret passage?”

“There must be more than just this booby-trapped room. Why the dire warning from the mummified friar? There’s nothing here. Something must lie beyond this chamber.”

“But if you’re right, where’s the entrance?”

Sam pointed to the large statue of the Incan king. It seemed to glower at them, gold against the dark stones. “If anybody would know, he would. A clue must lie with him.” Sam met Maggie’s eyes.

“So we’ll have to cross over there,” she said, swallowing hard. She offered Sam a wavery half smile. “One last puzzle.”

The roof again rumbled ominously. “Right. We either solve it, or we kiss our asses good-bye.”

Ralph called over to them. “What’re you two doing? We’re running out of time!”

Sam quickly related what they planned to do.

“That’s insane! You’re risking your lives on pretty thin guesses!”

Sam nodded toward the roof. “I’d rather take my chances than just wait for the sky to fall.”

Ralph had no answer. He just shifted from foot to foot nervously. “Okay, boss, but be careful,” he finally conceded.

Denal stepped onto the tile floor, his face ashen. “I come with.”

“No!” Maggie and Sam called out in unison.

Denal just continued onward. “I know old stories. I help. I no die without a fight, too.” He followed their path to join them. He glared up at Sam. “My mama, before she die, she teach me to be brave. I no shame her.”

Sam stared for a moment, then clapped the boy on the shoulder. “Thanks, Denal.”

He smiled weakly, but his eyes kept flicking between the Incan king and the patterned floor. With shaky fingers, he fished out a bent cigarette from a pocket and slipped it between his lips. He caught Sam eyeing the unlit cigarette and stared back defiantly. “Let’s go.”

Sam turned to leave. “You know those things will stunt your growth.”

“Not if I don’t light them,” Denal said sourly.

“You find a way out of here,” Sam said, “and you can smoke your lungs black.”

Maggie trailed behind them. “Keep moving. This roof isn’t goin’ to last forever.”

Sam continued in silence. Each step onto a new tile brought an ever-growing sense of dread. But nothing happened. Between Maggie and Denal, they seemed to have solved the riddle of the tiles, but what then?

Sam came to the midpoint of the floor and froze.

Maggie called from a couple rows back. “Why’ve you stopped?”

He stepped aside so she could see.

“Oh.”

Sam was extra careful proceeding onto the next gold tile. The blood made the surface slick. He was mindful not to touch the torn and fouled body of Juan that shared the tile. The dead man’s eyes seemed to track him as he passed. Sam glanced away, but the smell was strong this close, the metallic tang of blood mixed with the more earthy smell of decay. He continued on, sighing loudly once he stepped onto the next tile.

For a few rows, he sped faster, glad to escape the dead man. Neither of the other two spoke as they followed. Only the scuff of boots indicated they continued behind him. Farther across the room, he could hear Ralph and Norman mumbling nervously, but their words were too quiet to make out.

At last Sam stepped onto the four gold tiles that made up the pictograph of janan pacha. Bending in relief, Sam leaned his hands on his knees. He closed his eyes and thanked the heavens for his safe passage.

Maggie and Denal joined him.

“You both okay?” Sam asked, straightening.

Maggie could only nod. Her face shone with a sheen of sweat. Denal’s cigarette trembled between his lips, but he bobbed his head, too.

Sam glanced to the wall. They were now grouped at the upper left of the pictograph. The last row of tiles was all silver. Only the statue itself, in the middle of the wall, stood upon a gold tile amid a small pile of gold and silver trinkets and offerings. “Now what? How do we reach the statue from here?”

Maggie turned in a slow circle. “Listen.”

Sam frowned. “What—?” Then he realized what she meant.

Denal did, too. “It stopped.”

Sam cocked his head. There was no trace of the ticking machinery that geared the booby trap.

“It ended as soon as we arrived here,” Maggie said.

Sam nodded. “Our following the path correctly must have deactivated it.”

“So it should be safe to follow the silver tiles to the statue?” Maggie asked, glancing toward Denal.

The Quechan boy shrugged. “I no know.”

Sam took a girding breath and stepped off the gold tiles and onto the row of silver. He cringed for a heartbeat, but nothing happened. He glanced to Maggie.

“The gears are still silent,” she said, meeting his eyes. “It must be okay.”

Sam continued tile by tile to the golden statue. The others followed. Soon they stood before the Incan warrior. He seemed to be glaring down at them from under a headdress. The three studied their adversary.

The statue stood almost a full two yards taller than most men, posted with his back to a narrow silver archway in the granite wall. He bore a staff in one hand and a typical Incan bola in the other, three stones slung on llama tendon.

“Look at his llautu crown,” Sam said, pointing to the figure’s braided headdress topped by three parrot feathers and a fringe of tassels. “It definitely marks this one as a Sapa Inca. One of their kings.”

“Yes, but the facial detail an’ depiction of realistic musculature is unlike the Incas’ usual stylization,” Maggie whispered. “It’s as perfect a work as Michelangelo’s David.”

Sam leaned closer to study the ancient king’s face. “Strange. Whichever Sapa Inca is represented here was clearly worshiped as no other.”

A step away, Denal cleared his throat. “The wall… it is not stone.”

Sam turned away from the statue. The boy’s gaze was not on the golden idol, but the black wall behind it. Sheer granite spread all around. “What do you mean?”

Maggie gasped. “Denal means it’s not stonework. Look there are no seams or joints. It’s not stacked stone blocks like the temple.”

Sam moved to the rock and ran a palm along it. “It’s a wall of solid granite.”

A voice called from across the room. “Did you find anything?” It was Norman.