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Francisco de Orellana stumbled the last steps toward the cliff ’s edge. At the lip of the precipice, he fell to his knees.The wide desert plain spread far below him. As the sun sank, he stared across that parched and rocky landscape, a reﬂection of his own soul. From this height he saw strange pictures carved into the desert ﬂoor, monstrously large, stretching many leagues across the rocky plain, giant ﬁgures of monkeys, insects, snakes, along with ﬂowers and strange angular shapes.
It was a God- cursed and demonic land. He should never have come.
Francisco tore the conquistador’s helmet from his head and tossed it behind him. While the sun gave up its last light, he planted his sword deep into the hot, sandy soil. The Spanish pommel and grip formed a cross against the setting sun.
Francisco prayed for release, for forgiveness, for salvation.
El dios querido, me perdona.
But there could be no forgiveness for the murder he had committed.
Blood bathed his gilded armor, dripped from his sword, and soiled his breastplate. The blood came from his own men, slaughtered at his own hand.
With his gold dagger, Francisco had slit the throats of the twin brothers, Iago and Isidro. He had used his sword to gut Gaspar like a pig and had come close to cleaving Rogelio’s head clean from his wide shoulders. He had stabbed Oleos in the back as he tried to ﬂee; the same with Diego, cutting him off at the knees. The last man’s screams had chased Francisco to this perch atop the cliff.
But all had fallen silent.
The slaughter was complete.
Francisco clawed at his face and dragged deep gouges. The command ﬁlled his skull. He sought to dig it out, cursing himself and the trespass he had committed. It would not let him go. The urge cut through his entrails like a rusted hook. It dug deeper than his spine, hooking him and trapping him.
For weeks he had ﬂed that cursed place, sure he had escaped with a wealth to challenge kings, with wonders that would make queens weep. He had chests of gold and silver, another full of rubies and emeralds. A boat waited only a few days away, ported in a deepwater cove.
He sank around his sword, begging for release. As this day had dawned, he had ﬁnally succumbed to the command etched into his bones. With each step away from that accursed valley, the word had grown louder in his skull. There was no escaping it. At last he found it impossible to continue, to take another step toward his ship. He became trapped in amber, unable to move forward. Only one path was left.
His men felt no such compunction. They chattered like boys, excited to return home, reveling in how they’d spend their wealth, full of grand schemes and great dreams. They would not listen when he spoke of going back. They had fought him, urged him, and swore at him. They meant to take the treasure and continue to the ship, even if it meant leaving him behind.
And Francisco would have let them.
But in their greed, the men moved to take that which belonged to Francisco alone. That could not be! In a blind rage, he had cut them down like a scythe through wheat. Nothing must stop him, not even his own men.
Now he was alone at last.
Now he could go back.
As the sun dropped below the far horizon and night fell, he gained his feet, retrieved his helmet, and pulled his sword from the soil. He turned, ready at last to obey the command. He headed down the dark slope–but movement drew his eye.
Below, ﬁgures shifted out of shadows and from behind tall boulders. They rose from holes and crawled from the limbs of twisted trees. They climbed toward him from all directions. He heard the knock of naked knees and the clop of stony heels.
An army, stripped of ﬂesh . . . made of bones.
He paled and backed away, knowing now he was truly cursed.
The living dead closed toward him.
Come to drag him to Hell.
Where he truly belonged.
Still, he screamed to the night sky–not in terror, but in anguish, knowing he was forever damned. For he had failed, failed to obey the command burning in his skull. Merciless, relentless, the dead advanced toward him. His scream ripped into the night, but all Francisco de Orellana heard was one word.
Yucatán Peninsula, 1957
Each stone told a story.
He edged on his stomach across the circular ﬂoor. Its surface had been carved into a Mayan calendar: a massive wheel made up of concentric rings of glyphs dug deep into the rock. Ahead, in the center, rose a large statue of a serpent’s head, cowled by stone feathers, its fanged mouth stretched wide, ready to swallow the unwary. The opening was large enough for a man to crawl through.
But what was in there?
He had to know.
If only he could reach it . . .
He tried to go faster, but the roof pressed against his back. He could not even lift up onto an elbow.The chamber required the supplicant to slither across the ﬂoor like a snake, perhaps in representation of the Mayan god, Kukulkan, the feathered serpent. Except this current worshipper wore no feathers, only scuffed khaki pants, a faded leather bomber jacket, and a battered brown fedora.
Covered in mud, he crawled across the limestone ﬂoor. It had been raining in the Yucatán for the past week. The sun was just a distant memory. And now a tropical storm was due to strike this night, threatening to drive them away from the jungle- covered Mayan ruins that hugged the Yucatán coast.
“Indiana!” The call came from the stairs behind him.
“Little busy here, Mac!” he yelled back.
“The sun’s gone down, mate!” his friend urged, his British accent thickening with worry. “The winds are kicking up ﬁerce. A coconut ﬂew right past my head a minute ago.”
“It’s only a tropical storm!”
“Indy, it’s a hurricane!”
“Okay, so it’s a big tropical storm! Still busy down here. I’m not leaving till I see what’s hidden in the center of that statue. It has to be important.”
Indy had discovered the secret entrance to the temple two days earlier. It lay beneath a Mayan city complex on the central coast of the Yucatán. Hours of careful digging had been required to open the chute that led down to the inner chamber. Jungles still shrouded most of it, keeping it hidden for centuries from prying eyes and the sticky ﬁngers of robbers.
Indy read the calendar wheel as he worked across the ﬂoor. The outer ring told the genesis myth of the Maya, as related from the Popul Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya. It listed the birth date of the world as:
22.214.171.124.0 4- Ahwa 8- Kumk’u
In the Gregorian calendar, this corresponded to August 13, 3114 BC. The inner rings continued the story of the K’iche Maya tribe, who had mostly settled Guatemala. Their writings were never seen this far north. The tale told of the birth and rise of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent god.
Indy ignored the ache in his knees and continued his crawl toward the innermost ring and the strange sculpture in the center.
The last ring spoke of the end of the Long Count calendar, the end of the world itself: December 21, AD 2012.
Fifty- ﬁve years from now.
Would the world truly end that day?
He continued onward. Plenty of time to worry about that later.
Indy reached the snake god’s head and lifted his lantern between the stone fangs. A small chamber opened beyond the mouth–but it had no ﬂoor. A pit dropped, like the dark throat of the stone serpent itself. It was deep, too dark to see the bottom, but a whispery rush echoed up to him.
Indy squirmed into the mouth and lowered his lantern. He caught a glint of silver, but it was still too dark to make out any details.
“Indiana!” Mac called from the stairs. “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
“It looks like you’re being swallowed by a snake!”
Indy shuddered at the thought. It was his worst nightmare. He twisted around and loosed his bullwhip from his shoulder. He tied the end around the handle of his lantern and lowered the light into the pit. The darkness fell back as the lantern descended. The walls of the well appeared to be raw polished limestone.
At last his light revealed the source of the silvery glint: water ﬂowing past the bottom of the pit. The hole opened into one of the numerous underground rivers that ran through the porous limestone peninsula of the Yucatán. Hundreds of miles of such rivers and tunnels riddled the underworld here. The Maya considered such openings to be pathways to the next life.
Indy lowered the lantern a bit deeper. The river surged fast and ﬁerce, storm- fed by the weeks of rain and the current typhoon. But through the rush of crystal- clear water, his lantern’s glow revealed a ﬁnal glyph, carved into the bottom of the river channel.
He could almost make it out.
Indy sidled farther into the statue, half hanging into the pit, his arm outstretched. The glyph came into better focus. Indy recognized it. He had seen the same carving on the lintel above one of the temples outside. It was a ﬁgure of a man, upside down as if falling, symbolizing mankind’s birth into this world.
Or maybe it was more literal: a warning to be careful.
Too late. The lip of stone broke away under Indy, and he went tumbling down into the pit. His heart jammed into his throat, choking back a yell of surprise and fear. His hands scrabbled against the walls, his legs splayed, trying to stop his plunge. But the walls were too smooth.
“Indy!” he heard Mac scream behind him.
The lantern hit the water ﬁrst and was doused. Then he struck. The icy chill cut to the bone, tried to squeeze the air from his chest. He forced himself to hold his breath as the hard current grabbed him and shot him down the river tunnel. He rolled and turned in complete blackness. He fought to keep his legs out in front of him as he was swept along.
That’s what I get for playing with snakes.
The small army crept through the dark, storm- swept jungle. Winds battered palm fronds and whipped branches from trees. Rain pelted like hail, stinging any exposed skin–then the next moment, the downpour fell in heavy sheets that threatened to drown a man with a single breath. It was a torturous slog, but the lights of the camp glowed through the forest, beckoning them onward.
Dressed in goggles, helmets, camouﬂage, the assault team moved like clay soldiers, half melted by the storm.
Nothing must stop them.
The leader of the team had his orders.
Secure the key.
Kill everyone else.
Flushed through total darkness, Indy held his breath.
Lights began to dance across his vision. At ﬁrst he thought it was due to the lack of oxygen. His lungs screamed for air. Why keep ﬁghting? Then he realized that the light was real. It glowed ahead, something brighter than the pitch darkness of the storm- swollen channel.
Since falling down the pit, Indy had held on to one slim hope.
The jungle- shrouded ruins lay only ﬁve hundred yards from a remote section of the Yucatán shoreline, set high atop steep cliffs. There was a good chance that the underground river emptied into the sea somewhere along the coast.
He forced himself to keep holding his breath, banking on this one hope.
Suddenly the darkness fell away into a murky storm- light. The tunnel widened into a small cavern. The top was high enough for Indy to get his nose above the water. He gulped air into his starved lungs. He also caught a brief glimpse of an opening ahead, the end of the river. Stormy skies ﬁlled the view, framed by jungle vines.The water poured out of the rock in a heavy falls. He heard its roar over the rumble of thunder and pound of heavy surf.
He was still high up.
There was no ﬁghting the current. Like a cork in a champagne bottle, Indy blasted out of the exit, shooting from the face of a sheer cliff. He caught a brief glimpse of sharp rocks and churning white water below.
Swinging in midair, Indy twisted and lashed out with his bullwhip. The lantern had long been shattered away, but he had kept a death grip on the whip’s leather handle. With a skill that was born as much of panic as practice, Indy snapped out for a tangle of stubborn tree roots protruding from the cliff face, exposed from years of erosion by rain and wind.
With a satisfying kuh- rack, the whip lashed onto the roots. Indy clutched the handle with both hands and swung back toward the cliff. He got his legs up in time to bear the brunt of the impact. Still,
he smashed hard, bruising his entire left side.
He hung there, gasping.
Wind and rain thrashed at him. Thunder boomed, felt down to his aching bones. He had no choice but to keep moving. Indy fought his way up, climbing and hauling. The storm pounded his back and sought to rip him from his perch. Black skies churned overhead. The cliff was deeply pocked, offering decent footholds. Still, it took him a quarter hour to reach the summit and beach himself atop the cliff.
He lay facedown, hugging the earth.
He pictured his course on the river underneath him: ﬁrst swallowed down the serpent’s maw, then swirled through its snaking belly, and ﬁnally shot out its end. The waterway formed the complete shape of a serpent.
Indy shuddered as he remembered Mac’s words. Looks like you’re being swallowed by a snake. Well, perhaps he had been. He glanced behind him, picturing his dramatic exit out the back end of the snake. Mac would not let him live this one down. He suspected his British friend would use a word more colorful than shot to describe Indy’s explosive exit from the snake’s rear end.
Still, he was out.
Indy groaned and pushed to his hands and knees.
He’d deﬁnitely had his ﬁll of snakes for one day–slimy ones or stone ones.
With every ﬁber of muscle on ﬁre, Indy gained his legs and headed away from the cliff. His back ached, and his legs wobbled. He had taken a couple good knocks to the head, too. He’d be feeling that ride for a few days.
As the storm worsened, he slowly made his way across the ruins. Step pyramids and stone homes spread out in a complicated pattern. His camp lay on the far side of the temple complex, buried into the edge of the dense jungle. With the wind wailing at his back, Indy hiked toward the ﬂickering lights.
Thunder pounded, and massive raindrops hit the ground and exploded like mortar shells. He skirted the edge of the ruins and headed straight for camp. Mac would be sick with worry.
At least, his friend would be thrilled to see him.
Bone- tired, deafened by the storm, Indy had entered the camp before he realized anything was wrong. He almost stepped on the ﬁrst body, sprawled facedown in the mud and half buried in it. He fell back with a gasp.
The sharp crack of a riﬂe blast cut through the thunder.
It came from the center of the small camp.
Followed by a chatter of automatic ﬁre.
Had to be grave robbers or a local guerrilla group.
Indy cursed and retreated to the jungle’s edge. He had no weapon, except for his whip. If he circled, ambushed a straggler, maybe he could steal a pistol or riﬂe–
As he turned, darker shadows slipped from the rainy forest. Soldiers, muddy, wearing goggles, pushed into view. Weapons leveled at his chest. A ﬁgure was shoved out into the open. The man fell to his knees, bloodied, clothes torn.
It was Mac.
He was followed by a giant of a man wearing a helmet and goggles and layered with mud. He bore no insignia, but he was clearly in charge.
Still on his knees, Mac gaped up in shock. “Indy! How . . .? I saw you swallowed by a bloody snake!”
“Apparently I gave it indigestion.”
Indy crossed to Mac and helped him to his feet.
Mac sighed as the soldiers closed in all around them. “I think you were better off with the snake.”