Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter 14

Once Eric was out the window, I helped Huana and then Christine, and followed them. For a moment we crouched on the soft grass hidden behind a flowering bush at the base of the palace. Eric then moved to the right, along the wall, letting it and the vegetation screen him. At the corner he stopped and stooped, surveying the long open field that separated us from the steps that led up and into the jungle.

“Isn’t there another way to do this?” I asked Christine in Spanish.

She shook her head. We could either move deeper into the Inner Earth by crossing through the town, or we could try to get to the river that would probably lead us out. And right now it was important for us to get out.

Eric looked at us, waiting for someone to say something. I finally told him, “It’s never going to get dark. Now is as good a time as any.” Mentally, I added, “Especially with those guards lying dead in our chambers.”

Eric shrugged and then took off, running across the open field, his long legs eating up the distance. Huana chased after him, falling to the rear as she struggled to keep up. Christine left next, soon caught Huana and passed her. I brought up the rear, but stayed close to the slower woman, ready to help her if she needed it. The problem wasn’t that she was out of shape. She just had no speed. Her arms and legs were pumping as she tried to run faster, but she just couldn’t move any quicker.

Ahead of us, Eric had reached the stairs cut into the side of a cliff. He stopped and crouched there, watching us, and searching the area behind us, looking for a pursuit. As we approached, he started up them, taking them two and three at a time. At the first landing, he stopped, bent over, breathing hard. We finally caught him there and took a break.

Neither Christine nor Huana seemed to be terribly worn by the run, but Eric looked as if he was on the verge of collapse. Sweat poured from his face and soaked his clothes as quickly as if he had been running through the rain. The breath rasped in his throat as his chest heaved. He looked at me, as if wanting me to make some rude comment, but I didn’t have it in me. The run had sapped most of my strength too.

Then, behind us, came the shrill blast of a trumpet. It sounded like a horn warning of a coming storm or of an escape of prisoners. I glanced back and saw that the plaza was filling with running people. Guards and soldiers swarmed from the pyramid, almost as if it had been more than a religious structure and prison that we knew it to be.

“We’d better get going,” said Eric more calmly than I would have. He didn’t wait for a response. He began a rapid climb, leaning forward so that he could use his hands as well as his feet. He ran up the stairs looking like a pale primate from our distant past.

The bedlam below increased. More trumpets blared and I could hear shouting behind us. I looked back and saw a dozen soldiers racing across the long grassy field, heading toward the steps. When I looked a third time, there were fifty people behind us and a few had reached the steps.

Eric stopped again, let us catch up and then said, in a voice tinged with exhaustion, “I don’t think we’re going to make it.” With that he spun and started to climb again.

We kept going up. I felt the pain build in my lungs and radiate outward like a fire that was consuming me. It hurt to breathe, the air suddenly hot and quite humid. My throat was filled with razor blades and my legs ached. With each step, I thought I was going to collapse and found the strength for one more. Upward, I ran, like a man caught in molasses. It was slow motion and when I glanced at the top, it seemed to be farther from me than it was when I started.

And still we kept going. At a landing, I had to rest. I went to one knee and stared at the ground by my foot. Suddenly I was hot, the sweat drenching me. There was a shout below me. A shout of triumph as the soldiers chasing us saw me resting there. It inspired me. I was up again, running forward, finding a reserve of strength that I didn’t know I had.

It was just enough. I staggered the last few steps, but found myself at the top. Eric was sprawled on his back, his eyes closed as his chest heaved. He sucked in the air greedily.

Christine was on her hands and knees, trying to rise. Huana had found a large boulder and was trying to force it to the edge of the cliff. I saw what she had in mind and tried to help her, but my muscles had turned to jelly. Still I pushed on the rock. Christine joined us and all three of us were able to roll it to the cliff.

We shoved it over. I saw it hit the steps once in an explosion of dust an then it bounced. The men chasing us scattered, trying to avoid the stone. Two of them lost their balance and fell, the screams of terror rising to us.

“That might slow them,” I said, “but we’ve got to get going. The river?”

Christine point at the trail and I shook my head. “Too easy. They’ll catch us.”

Huana reached around a lacy fern, and pointed. “Through here,” she said.

Eric, with a Herculean effort, got to his feet. He stumbled forward, and stepped around the bush. He caught his foot on something, an exposed root or stone, and fell heavily. Again he got up an pushed on. Huana ran passed him, showing us the path.

I let Christine go first. I held back, looking for signs that we had decided to go cross country, but the fern hid our trail well. I hoped the soldiers would believe that we had followed the path and chase down it without stopping to look for signs that we hadn’t.

Huana had found some kind of game trail. The vegetation wasn’t as thick as it was through the middle of the jungle, so we made good time. Vines and branches grabbed at us, snagging our clothes and scratched our exposed skin. In minutes my shirt was shredded and the backs of both women were slick with sweat and blood from a hundred tiny cuts.

We halted for a minute to catch our breath and listened for the sound of a pursuit. I stripped my shirt and draped it over Christine’s shoulders. She smiled as I did it. I think she was surprised by the kindness.

Eric nodded his approval and did the same for Huana. When it was obvious that no one was after us, at least on this trail, we started off again, moving slowly. Now it wasn’t so important to hurry. It was important to be quiet. We didn’t want to give the enemy a clue as to our whereabouts.

As before, the deeper we moved into the jungle, the darker it became. Even with the sun overhead and rarely any real clouds, the vegetation was so thick that sunlight couldn’t easily penetrate. We were moving through a densely packed area of dim green light, steaming humidity, and oppressive air. We closed the gaps among us so that we wouldn’t lose sight of one another and even with Christine only three or four feet in front of me, she was just a vague shape in the verdant twilight of the jungle.

After thirty minutes, Eric halted us. I crept forward to see what the problem was. He pointed across the game trail and up into a tree where there seemed to be black pods three or four feet long hanging under the branches. I shrugged, telling him that I didn’t see a problem.

“Vampire bats,” he said, nodding at Huana who’d given him the information.

I felt a chill on my spine. These were not the small, nearly harmless things of the South American jungle. These were the huge creatures of which horror stories were made. These were the things that had swooped in on the plaza as the children were sacrificed. These were why there were so many blood rituals here and I knew that waving a cross at them would do no good.

“What do we do now?” I whispered, afraid that I would wake them if I spoke too loud.

“Back track quietly and veer to the right, away from them,” he said.

I nodded, doing as he told me. As I reached Christine, there was a high pitched scream and the flapping of leathery wings. The granddaddy of the vampires spread his wings and let go of his upside down perch. As he swooped down, turning and twisting to avoid the trees and branches and bushes, I saw that his wing span was ten or twelve feet. He landed on the game trail, his eyes roaming over it as each of us froze, hoping to avoid that blood thirsty stare.

That creature was six feet tall, if it was an inch. The face was hideous, covered with brown hair. It had a pointed snout and pointed ears so that it had a wolf-like appearance, but there was something in the red, glowing eyes that suggested insanity. I couldn’t pull my eyes from those of the creature and remembered Bram Stoker’s tale of Dracula. He had the power to hypnotize with his steady gaze.

Behind me I heard Christine whimper. A quiet, heartbreaking noise. The beast heard it too because it turned to look in her direction. Slowly, I raised the barrel of my pistol, feeling that the bullet would do no good. If there was a supernatural explanation for vampires, I was staring it in the hideous face.

The last thing I wanted to do was shoot. The sound of the shot would awaken the whole colony. Hundreds of them, probably lusting after fresh blood, would be in the air. We wouldn’t be able to fight them all.

And if that didn’t stir them, it might alert the soldiers who were chasing us. My gun would be good only to kill ourselves because to pull the trigger would be to sign our death warrants.

The creature now stood only a few feet from me, its black wings still wrapped around it like the cape demanded by the legend. It was still for a moment, its head cocked to one side as if listening for something.

Then there was a flash of metal and the vampire’s head flipped into the air. Blood spurted in a great fountain of red as the trunk of the beast collapsed to the jungle floor. Behind it, Eric stood, holding the hilt of a short sword in both hands like it was a baseball bat.

His solution had been brilliant. He had killed the creature without giving it time for a warning cry. The others slumbered on, unaware that one of their number had been killed. I stepped from hiding to look at the body. There were so many human qualities about it that it was frightening. If one of these had gotten loose on the surface, the vampire legend would be confirmed to the horror of the whole world.

“Let’s get out of here,” he hissed as he stepped over the fallen creature. Huana didn’t need further encouragement. She started back down the trail at a trot, glancing repeatedly over her shoulder.

After we had gotten far enough away from the vampire bats that I felt we were safe, I stopped. The last thing we wanted was to return all the way to the edge of the cliff. We had to turn to the right and through the thickest part of the jungle, at least for a while.

Eric understood that but Christine and Huana wanted no part of it. They seemed to be more frightened of the terrors in there than the soldiers searching for us, or the vile creatures we had discovered already.

There was a whispered argument with Huana. She kept telling us that there were things in the direction we wanted to go that were more horrible than any we had ever seen. I liked the sound of that because it meant that not many people would have traveled that part of the jungle. We would be relatively safe in it. Safe from the soldiers who were chasing us and I didn’t know what could be more horrible than the colony of large, human-like vampire bats we had found. Without having to worry about the soldiers, I figured that a big fire would hold the bats at bay.

Finally, on the threat that we were going to leave her behind for the vampires and the soldiers, Huana agreed to accompany us. She was badly frightened, that was obvious, but she couldn’t tell us what scared her the most. It was some vague monster that lived in that portion of the jungle and ate babies. Having seen the murder of children in the rituals held on the ramp of the pyramid, I couldn’t understand her terror at some unknown creature that feasted on infants.

With Eric in the lead again, we worked our way through the jungle. It was slow going because we didn’t have machetes to chop our way through the thick clinging vegetation. Eric used his sword sparingly because he didn’t want to dull the blade. We found ourselves crawling under the obstructions, sliding around them, or climbing over them. Trees that had fallen, huge bushes covered with razor-sharp thorns and vines that grabbed and held us were all in the way. Invariably, one of us would become ensnared and would have to be cut free before we could continue. It made our pace maddingly slow.

I thought of the soldiers who were chasing us, hoping that they were still on that jungle trail, or if they had circled back, were now following the game trail we had abandoned. If they had found our tracks through the jungle, they would surely catch us.

But they didn’t. We kept moving, resting periodically, sipping at the wine that Christine carried in the decanter we had stolen, or eating some of the fruit that I had stashed in the makeshift ruck sack. Huana showed us how to steal the water from the broadleaves of some of the plants by rolling one into a slender tube and then sucking on it like it was a straw.

For hours we kept at it, wanting to lie down and sleep, but afraid of the soldiers who were giving chase. We pushed on, the rest periods becoming more frequent and longer. At last Eric sat at the base of a huge tree and said, “We need to sleep.”

Although I agreed with that, I said, “Then we post a guard and rotate that guard every hour or two.”

Eric nodded tiredly. “Granted. Every time we have failed to post guards, something has happened to us.”

I wasn’t sleepy. Tired, yes, but not sleepy. “I’ll take the first watch. If I hear anything, Ill wake each of you and we’ll decide what to do then.” I repeated the instructions in Spanish for Christine and Huana.

I moved off a short distance, finding a good spot to stand guard. It gave me a view of the surrounding territory including the way we had come. By sliding either right or left, I could hide completely.

The night passed quietly. Or rather, I should say that the rest period passed quietly. I heard cries of animals in the distance, and once there was a crashing through the jungle like a herd of elephants was stampeding, but I didn’t see them and they didn’t come very close. Christine took over the guard duties from me and then Huana replaced her. Eric had the last round and when he woke me, he said that everything had been quiet. It seemed that we had shaken the soldiers. It seemed that our immediate troubles were over. It seemed that way.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter Thirteen

The old rulers were lifted to the shoulders of the bearers and carried from the arena to the wild cheering of the crowd. A dozen of the black garbed soldiers, each holding a great spear of pure gold, broke from the formation and surrounded us almost like an honor guard. An officer, wearing the black uniform, a scarlet cape and a gold trimmed helmet, approached and asked that we follow. As we departed, the cheering increased, as if the crowd was on our side and not that of the high priest.

We were led through a wide gate, set in a stone wall, and out onto a plateau that overlooked the city. We turned toward a low, open building that had smoke rising from the roof. The grass was neatly trimmed and led to four steps that ran along the front. Every ten or fifteen feet there were doors. Between the doors were wide windows.

We were escorted to the top of the steps and as we reached them, two men and two women came out. The guard fanned to our right and left, as if protecting the structure from assault.

The newcomers didn’t speak. They led us into the interior that smelled of sulfur. We passed though a couple of doors and stood facing a huge pool of steaming water. There was no roof over us that the whole place was open to the sun. Marble steps led into the water and there were benches of marble scattered around the edge of the hot springs.

Without a word, one of the women began to pull at my clothes, trying to remove them. I pushed her hands away and turned to look over my shoulder.

Christine and Nuana were naked. Their bodies were covered with soot and ash from the fire. Their hair was sweat damp and hung straight. Neither seemed to think a thing about the situation. Both moved to the steps that led down into the water and descended until they were neck deep.

“When in Rome,” said Eric, helping his female assistant remove his clothes.

I didn’t like this at all. The two men had moved to the rear and were watching the women. Eric, now nude, entered the water swimming along. He stopped and stood up. “Come on, Dave. Water’s wonderful.”

I shrugged and glanced at the woman who stood near me waiting patently. I unbuttoned my shirt and dropped it to the marble floor. Slowly, I took off the rest of my clothes, and feeling somewhat embarrassed, had to be careful that I didn’t run to the water to cover myself. Once I was in to the waist, I found that I was no longer embarrassed and that no one was really paying any attention to me anyway.

For a few moments, I stood there quietly, the water up to my chest. I felt good. Better than I had since I had awaked in the boat and found that we were drifting in a fog bank. I turned and saw that Christine was studying me. She came closer and touched the scars on my back, as if fascinated by them.

“What happened to you?” she asked in Spanish.

I turned and stared into her eyes, noticing that there were icy blue. I wanted to reach out and brush a stray strand of blond hair from her face, but didn’t. Instead I just said, “It was the war.”

“War?” she said.

I knew why she was confused. In warfare conducted using sword and arrows, the wounds leave scars that look different than the ones on me. Shrapnel from an artillery round tends to shred the human body.

When she reached out again, to touch my chest, I grabbed her hand, holding it away from me. She moved closer to me, looking up into my eyes.

Her unwavering gaze made me uncomfortable. I looked away and saw that Eric and Huana were locked in an embrace, pressing against one another tightly. Christine slid to the side and then was behind me, her hands massaging my shoulders. As her fingers worked, I felt the tension drain from me and I turned.

Ignoring everything around me, the men and women who stood outside the water, watching, the open roof that allowed the sun to stream in, the guards who we could see through the open windows, I pulled Christine close. Our lips met, almost tentatively, as if we were afraid of hurting each other. The kiss held and grew in intensity. All I could think of was her wet body pressed against mine as her tongue probed, searching for mine.

There was a strange quiet around us, as if the whole world had disappeared. Only a low bubbling of the water as it seeped into the pool disturbed the scene.

I lifted Christine and carried her to the side of the pool. I laid her on the sun warm marble and then crawled out of the water. We lay together for a time, exploring each other, learning about each other.

Later, I would wonder about the desertion of my inhibitions and realize that the situation had destroyed them. The high priest had told us that we would be dead in two days, at the most. While I believed that I could take two adversaries at once, I doubted that I could take three and even if I could, Christine and Huana would be dead long before I could dispatch the soldiers and get to them.

But now wasn’t the time to think about any of that. Christine was there, waiting and wanting. I moved closer to her, felt her shift and slid in anticipation and then moan with pleasure.

Eric and Huana never made it from the water. They stayed in there, holding each other.

Christine and I finally joined them again. She and I took turns washing each other, removing the last evidences of the fire and the sweat. We stayed longer than necessary, enjoying the imagined privacy of the bath. We knew, when we left, that the guards would surround us again, taking us to the palace.

Finally, we climbed from the water and rather than toweling dry, we let the sun wash over us, evaporating the water slowly. Then, sleepy from the sun, we searched for our clothes.

Christine’s short, white skirt had been replaced by a clean, fresh one. Huana’s clothes were new too. I found that my clothes had been washed but not pressed. They were wrinkled badly, but they were clean and I relished them as much as any I have ever put on.

Fully clothed, we left the bath hand in hand. As we passed through the doors, the guards formed around us again with their officer leading. He turned toward the palace, crossing the grass of the lawn to reach a marble staircase built into the side of the hill.

When we reached the palace, we were escorted to our room on the second floor. As we entered, the door was closed and I heard a bar slide into place so that we couldn’t get out again.

Eric dropped Huana’s hand and stepped to the table where there was another load of fresh fruit and cold wine. As he poured himself a glass, I asked, “You going to trust that again?”

He shrugged. “What’s the point now? We know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Would they want to deprive us of our last day on Earth? Or maybe I should say, ‘Our last day in Earth.’”

“Who would have thought they would burn the women at the stake while trying to kill us in combat?”

Eric dropped into one of the chairs and hooked a leg over the arm. He drank deeply from the cup and set it on the table. “David, my man,” he said, “it is time to talk of ships and kings and ways to get the hell out of here.”

“Over the railing, through the garden and into the jungle,” I said, looking out into the city.


I shot a glance at Christine. I didn’t want to leave her behind because that meant she would die. Probably burned at the stake without anyone to free her. Besides, we would need a guide who could help us once we were outside the city. A translator who could talk to the natives around the city and who could help us avoid the worst of the jungle.

Eric nodded and said, “I know what you’re thinking and I like it. We can’t just leave the women behind, not after all that has happened. They’ll be killed.”

“But do we say anything to them?”

Eric grabbed an apple and crunched into it. “If we just walk out onto the balcony and drop over the edge, they’re going to see us go.”

Suddenly I wasn’t worried about that. I knew that Christine would go with us. She would like the opportunity to improve her lot in life. But the weapons. They had taken our knives and machetes the first day, our rifles in the prison and finally our pistols as they understood the value of them. I didn’t want to face the jungle with giant snakes and aggressive spiders without our weapons. I said as much to Eric.

“Then ask,” he said.

I turned and said, in Spanish, “Where are our weapons?”

Christina shook her head and said, “I don’t know.”


“They have been given to the Emperor. I do not know where he might have taken them.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Eric. “We can’t waste time searching for them. Once we’re outside, we’ve got to make tracks.” Then grinning, added, “Or make no tracks. Just get away from here as rapidly as we can.”

I sat down at the table and said, “Before we do that, we’d better have some kind of plan. A goal.”

“I would think that it would be obvious. We get into the jungle and head for the river. In the worst case, we might have to just toss logs into it and drift with the current. At best, we’ll find some kind of boat and can use it to get out.”

“Not much of a plan,” I said. But then, the whole expedition hadn’t been all that well thought out. And it was a plan, no matter how loosely structured it might be.

“There is one thing,” said Eric. “The whole point was to find out what happened to my family.”

That stopped me for a moment and then I said, “They’re not here.”

“How do you know?”

“Because, if they were, we would have learned about it by now. They would have stopped the fight somehow. They would have been there to welcome us or to watch the ceremonies. They would be here now, trying to help us escape.”

Eric was silent for a while. He was staring out, looking at the jungle beyond the city limits. Finally he said, “They’re somewhere in here. In the realm. Maybe not here, but somewhere.”

I didn’t say what I was thinking. If they were here, they probably had gone through the same ordeal that we were facing and they didn’t survive. The search for them in this city was over, but I didn’t mention that. Instead, I said, “Okay. We escape. When do we go?”

“Well,” he said, grinning, “we won’t wait for dark. And I don’t think we should try it now. I think that we should eat a big meal, arrange a way to carry some of this food and the decanter, and see if an opportunity presents itself. If not, we’ll wait until we see little activity in the gardens below us and then we’ll get out.”

“Makes sense,” I said. Except, once again, we weren’t taking control of the situation. We were letting the situation dictate our actions. That was how we had gotten ourselves into the mess in the first place.

“Tell the women,” said Eric. “They’ve the right to know and we’ll have to count on their help.”

Although I didn’t say anything I knew that he was right. Without their assistance we wouldn’t be able to get very far. So, in Spanish, I outlined what we wanted to do. Christine greeted the idea with enthusiasm, but Huana was reluctant to go along. Her status in the society hadn’t been quite as bad as ours. She had been selected with dozens of other youths as a sacrifice to the gods. She was to die gloriously and speed her way into the afterlife. Except that burning at the stake would prevent that. She couldn’t understand her sudden fall from grace, unless it had been her association with us and the belief that she was no longer pure enough for sacrifice. Not that any of that mattered now.

Christine said something to her in their language. I could understand none of it. It wasn’t a romance language or based on Latin. It was as different as anything I’d ever heard. As they spoke, I thought that if I concentrated hard enough I would be able to pick up something. It was tantalizingly familiar, or almost familiar, but I didn’t understand a word.

The argument between them turned momentarily heated and then Huana raised her hands, almost in surrender. Her voice was quiet, subdued and finally she just nodded her head.

Christine turned to me and said, “We are now all set. She has agreed to help.”

I got out of my chair and walked to the sleeping area. Unlike the cots in the cell, the beds were piled with cotton and silk material for comfort. I spent an hour making a backpack and then stuffing it with food.

Then there seemed to be nothing to do. Eric walked to the bed and laid down. Huana followed and laid beside him. Neither of them spoke or moved, the day was still hot and humid, but all the days were hot and humid and never-ending. I began to wonder about that because we had yet to see a rain storm and we were in a tropical environment. Of course, I realized it was a closed system so that a little rain would be all that was needed.

The sound of music drifted to us and I walked out on the balcony. In the distance, in the plaza, I saw several dozen musicians lining the ramp that lead up into the pyramid. Some held brass horns, or maybe they were gold, with long bells that wrapped around the arms to that the end hovered over the head like some kind of halo. There were flutes and drums. And there were people dancing. Women throwing flower pedals and men leaping high in the air in some kind of celebration.

Christine joined me and I pointed to the celebration. She nodded and said, “Day two of the festival of the sun. Started about the time that you were brought in. It winds down slowly and then explodes into the festival of the moon.”

When she said it to me it made good sense. After all, it was mid-afternoon for all intents and purposes and there were a dozen ancient societies that worshiped the moon.

I hadn’t thought about it then, but these people have never seen the moon. They knew nothing about it, except for the knowledge that someone had to have brought to them. They had an eternal sun, but they had no moon and that told me that there was some contact with the outside world. It was knowledge that I thought important, though I didn’t know how I would ever use it.

I watched the dancing for a while. Soon the adults fell away, leaving the center of the plaza open. From all four corners streamed the youngsters, all dressed in the white translucent material. They walked slowly, their heads held high proudly. The four groups met in the middle and began to circle one another until there were four concentric circles dancing around each other.

The high priest, again dressed in his robe of bright colors came down the ramp, followed by several women, probably his high priestesses. As they reached the foot of the ramp, the children stopped dancing and fell to their knees facing the ramp. The priestesses raised their arms skyward and their dark robes opened, revealing their naked bodies. Each clutched a golden dagger in her hand.

“What’s going on?” I asked, not really wanting to know and fearing the worst.

“Sacrifice of the virgins to the god of the sun,” she said in a calm voice, making it sound as if the murder of children was the most natural thing.

I glanced at her, surprised at her indifference and then realized that this was her culture and her society and she had learned about life through them. She was used to seeing people, children, killed for the greater glory of their gods. To me it was repugnant, but then, I considered myself to be enlightened.

And then I thought about the war I had been in and realized that our ritualistic killing was more proficient than theirs and normally only involved the young males. Sometimes they volunteered for the privilege and sometimes others selected them. It was all a great lottery and those of us with some luck survived long enough and then the elders decided that the war would end. Our system could kill a million a day and theirs only a couple of dozen, maybe once a year.

In the plaza, the children had risen and were marching up the ramp until there were two parallel lines of them from the foot of the ramp up to the very apex of the pyramid, each of them facing toward the plaza, their backs to the top of the structure.

The music died then and the musicians moved away from the lines of children. As they did, people began flowing from the streets carrying all sorts of manufactured goods. Bolts of cloth, golden and wooden idols, tools, metal pots, and baskets of food. Fruits gathered from the abundance of the trees, baskets of fish and meat, and roots pulled from the ground.

All was carried to the middle of the plaza and tossed down on wooden platforms until there were heaps of it. As the piles grew higher, logs were laid on top. High priestesses carrying torches descended from the apex of the pyramid, passing between the lines of children. When they reached the ground, they tossed their torches into the offerings and stepped back. Black smoke began to curl upward from half a hundred torches as the offerings caught fire. It was such a waste.

As the smoke began to billow, drifting to the left, the high priest stepped behind the first of the children at the bottom of the ramp. He clasped her around the chest and then cut her throat. As the blood splashed, there was a ragged cheer from the people assembled. Unceremoniously, he dumped her body to the ground and then reached down soaking his hand in her blood which he wiped over his face and the chest of his bright, white robe.

I was sickened by the spectacle. I felt my head spin but when I glanced at Christine, she was watching the grisly show with complete fascination.

When I looked back into the plaza, the whole religious order was on the ramp, killing the children just as the high priest had done. Their throats were cut to the riotous cheering of the assembled multitude. As each body was dropped, the people chanted and kept at it until fifty of the children were dead, their blood soaked bodies littering the ramp from the stone base to the marble top.

I thought there was nothing more horrifying that they could do, but they had one more gruesome trick. When they reached the top, four men wearing loincloths, appeared. Two of the men knelt and two stood behind them. One of the high priestesses shed her robe so that she was completely naked. She turned, facing the plaza and as she did, the kneeling men seized her ankles, holding them so that her legs were slightly spread. The two standing behind her grabbed her arms, holding them out straight. They seemed to be holding her so tightly that she couldn’t move.

The high priest danced in front of her and then his knife flashed. When he turned, there was a gaping hole in her chest. He held her still beating heart over his head and then crowd roared. Her body was dumped from the ramp. It hit the side of the pyramid and slid to the stone floor of the plaza leaving a bright red streak on the rock facing of the pyramid.

I could take no more of the show. I had seen horrible things in the war. I had seen men blown apart by artillery and shot to pieces by machine guns. I had seen things that turned my stomach and made brave men weep, but I had never seen anything like this. The wanton killing of so many children. So many beautiful and healthy children. The destruction of so much that could be used to benefit everyone in that society. And then the ritualistic sacrifice of the woman. It was all so outrageous that I could barely contain myself. I wanted to scream at Christine. I wanted to demand answers from her, but knew that she was no more responsible for the murders of the children than I. Neither of us could have stopped it. Not when so many in the population seemed to approve of it.

I turned and entered my chamber, trying to put perspective on it. I wanted to look on it as a scientist would. See it as part of a culture and not the disgusting and sickening display that I had seen.

On the surface, I knew there were many societies that condoned and practiced human sacrifice. The Thuggee in India, the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in South America. But must of those had been abolished as the “civilized” world have rolled over them.

I stepped to the table and poured myself a healthy slug of the wine and downed it in one long pull. It was a hell of a way to keep the population down. If they had sacrifices of this magnitude often then would soon run short of subjects.

Christine tried to explain it to me, saying that a failure to provide a sufficient sacrifice would be to anger the gods. They had been angered once before and the price had been the near destruction of the civilization. That, like some of the other things she said struck a chord in my mind, but I failed to put it all together. The spectacle in the plaza had overwhelmed my sense of reason. All I wanted was to escape, regardless of the consequences.

As I thought of escape, I heard the bar across the door being shifted. I looked at Eric and he was suddenly sitting upright, a finger to his lips. Both Christine and Nuana scmapered across the floor, standing in the open where they could easily be seen by anyone entering.

Without a word, I jumped to the wall. I had my back to it, my head and eyes turned toward the door as it opened.

For a moment, no one entered. Then the officer of the guard appeared holding Eric’s pistol in his hand. Two men followed him. All stopped, facing the women. The officer said something to them that I couldn’t understand.

As they spoke, Eric and I struck. I clubbed the man in front of me with my fist. I hit him in the back of the neck as hard as I could. I heard the bones snap as they shattered and he collapsed, dropping his sword with a clatter. I stooped to pick it up. As my hand touched the hilt, I froze. The officer stood over me, grinning widely, the barrel of Eric’s pistol pointed at my face.

Everything was suspended in time. I heard the grunt of the other soldier as Eric kicked him to the floor. I heard Christine scream and the officer laugh. He jerked his hand, as if wanting to throw the bullet at me, but nothing happened. He was trying to will the weapon to fire. He didn’t know how to pull the trigger.

I exploded into action. I grabbed the hilt of the sword and came up swinging. The officer had the sense to duck, but he tried to shoot me again, unable to fire the strange weapon. As he shook the pistol, I thrust, the blade of the short sword cutting through the cotton padding of his black armor. There was a stench of bowel and a spurt of blood as he died.

Eric ran across the floor and pushed the door shut. He turned and looked at me. I had plucked his Mauser from the floor and discovered that the safety was on. I grinned, made sure a round was chambered and waited.

“Seems like the best opportunity we’ll get.”

I nodded my agreement, handed a sword to Cristine and a dagger to Huana. I shouldered the makeshift backpack and joined Eric at the door. He didn’t ask for his pistol back and I didn’t offer it to him.

He glanced at us and then peeked through a crack in the door. When he saw that the hallway was empty, he opened the door and stepped out. We all followed him, closing the door behind us in the hope of buying a few more minutes for our head start.

We rushed down the stairs, but instead of fleeing through the main door, we turned toward the rear of the palace. Eric stopped at a large window that overlooked the garden. Maybe he was remembering our last escape attempt or maybe he was waiting for the right moment to leap.

As we climbed to the sill, crouching there, all I could remember was the trap we had fled into the last time. I hoped this wasn’t going to be repeat of that because I doubted they would take us alive again after all that had happened.