It was unthinkable that the lush, fertile landscape could be so deadly, but Diego Alvarez de Castile knew that hell lay concealed beneath the green illusion of paradise.
It was their fifteenth day since the battle near the city the Spaniards had called el Gran Cairo—so-named for the towering pyramid-like structures which loomed above the stone houses — thirty-nine days since the expedition set out from Cuba to explore new lands and capture slaves to work the mines and fields of the new Spanish territory. The first meeting with the Indians had gone well. A small party of natives had rowed out to meet them and there had been an exchange of food and other gifts, but the next day, when the Spaniards had made landfall, the Indians had shown their true colors, attacking the landing party with arrows and stones.
Although the members of the expedition were not experienced fighters they had anticipated treachery and were armed with muskets and crossbows, and wore steel armor which offered greater protection than the cloth armor worn by the natives. They had held off the attackers long enough to regain the safety of their ships, taking three Indian captives, though at a cost of two Spaniards dead and several more wounded. Still, it had seemed like a victory, particularly when one of the captives began telling — or more precisely, pantomiming — tales of the magnificent riches in the interior. While the main expedition had continued along the coast of what they believed to be an island larger even than Cuba, Alvarez had taken a party of twenty-five able-bodied men to scout the interior and see for themselves if the stories were true.
Thus had begun the journey into hell.
A third of their group — nine men — had perished, lost to the perils of the jungle: wild beasts, venomous snakes and insects, fevers resulting from seemingly insignificant wounds. All who remained were suffering from lesser afflictions that would, if something did not change, eventually destroy them as well. The one danger they had anticipated and prepared for — attacks by hostile Indians — had not materialized, but then neither had they encountered any of the fabled riches. The significance of this was not lost on Alvarez.
He confronted their guide, the Indian hostage they had taken to calling Balthasar. “You tricked us,” he raged, knowing that his wrath would be more comprehensible to the native than his actual words. He made a cutting gesture with his hand. “You led us into this wilderness to die. There is no gold. It was all a lie.”
Balthasar quivered in fright, understanding only that the man intended him harm, and waved his arms to placate his captor. He pointed straight ahead, shaking his hand emphatically.
Just a little ways further.
He started in that direction, pulling Alvarez along with him.
“No.” Alvarez shook himself free of the other man’s grasp. “No more of your lies.”
He raised his eyes, looking for the sun through the thick jungle foliage. The expedition had sailed west. If Alvarez turned north now, the small scouting party would reach the coast in a few days, and perhaps find their countrymen waiting. “We go this way.”
Balthasar’s face twisted into a mask of apprehension, and when the party started in this new direction, he resisted, moving only when Alvarez threatened to drag him along at the end of a rope.
They hacked through the thick vegetation, advancing only about fifty pasos—the length of a determined man’s stride — before the deepening gloom signaled the approach of dusk. Alvarez set half his men to the task of establishing a camp, while the remainder continued blazing a trail in the waning light.
They barely coaxed a cooking fire to life when one of the advance scouts hastened into the camp. “Señor, come quickly.”
Alvarez could tell by the man’s eagerness that whatever they had discovered portended well, so he took Balthasar’s rope and pulled him along up the trail. They did not have far to go. Just fifty pasas from the edge of camp, the thick jungle seemed to both open up and fall away, sloping down into a lushly forested valley. A wide pool dominated the middle of the valley, sparkling in the setting sun, and close to it, a crumbling partly overgrown monolith that looked like it might have been the ruins of a mezquita—one of the pyramid temples where the Indians worshiped their heathen gods.
“Cenote,” Balthasar whispered.
Alvarez knew the word. They had encountered other cenotes along the way; sinkholes that had filled up with water, like natural wells. The Indian seemed to revere them, casting small offerings into each one they passed, but something about this cenote inspired only terror in their hostage-guide. He began gesticulating wildly and whispering in his native tongue. “Kukul’kan.”
“What are you trying to tell me?” Alvarez hissed, waving his hands. “What is it that frightens you?”
With an effort, Balthasar got himself under control, then he began making an undulating motion with his hand.
“Snake?” Alvarez copied the pantomime, cupping his hand like a striking viper.
It must have been the correct interpretation, for Balthasar next pointed to each of the Spaniards in turn, and then wiggled his fingers as if to simulate walking.
Walking snake, Alvarez thought. Snake man, perhaps?
Balthasar now pointed to the cenote, or perhaps to the ruined pyramid, and then to the ground behind him… No, Alvarez realized, he’s pointing to his own shadow.
“Valle de sombra,” whispered another of his men, who then proceeded to cross himself.
“Snake demons and a valley of shadow,” Alvarez said. “He is trying to frighten us from the correct path with imaginary dangers, while leading us to ruin. Look for yourself. There are no fields. No cooking fires. No one has lived there in a hundred years. Perhaps there we will find the treasures we seek. Tomorrow, we will cross this place of shadow, and you will see.”
Balthasar continued to chatter urgently, and the return to camp only made him more restive. He kept repeating the same phrases over and over again. “Bo’oy. Kukul’kan.” He pulled at the thick rope knotted around his neck, as if trying to drag Alvarez back down the jungle trail, quieting only when Alvarez threatened to beat him with a stick.
During the night, Balthasar used his teeth to tear open the veins in his wrists, spilling his lifeblood on the jungle floor.
The suicide cast a pall over the camp. Alvarez acted quickly to stifle the rising chorus of discontent and fear. “A trapped animal will tear its own flesh to escape a snare. This is no different.”
“It is different,” challenged Diaz, Alvarez’s second-in-command. “He took his life rather than face the Valley of Shadow. And you would have us blindly go in.”
“He took his life because his heathen gods demanded it,” Alvarez countered. “We who serve the true God have nothing to fear. Do you not remember the words of the Psalm? ‘Aunque ande en valle de sombra de muerte, no temeré mal alguno.’”
“Are we to call you Fray Diego, now?” Diaz shot back. “You will lead us to ruin.”
Yet Diaz’s tone had lost some of its defiance. In quoting scripture, Alvarez had challenged his men to demonstrate that their faith was stronger than their superstitious fear. There would be no mutiny. But that did not mean the men were happy about it.
They struck camp quickly, leaving Balthasar’s body where it lay, and started down into the valley. Their progress was slow at first, but it was not long before they encountered what appeared to be a road, paved with white stones, snaking through the forest. Although the jungle was encroaching on the path, enough of it remained clear to speed them along. By noon, they had reached the valley floor. The trees obscured the ruin, but the road seemed to lead in that direction, so Alvarez kept following it. Not long after, they reached the edge of the city.
At first, they saw only the foundation stones where houses had once stood, but further along, they found standing walls of stacked stone. Alvarez ventured into one of these, and found a large tree — an oak, he thought — rising up from the floor. From its size, he guess some thirty years or more had passed since the acorn first took root, but he sensed the house had been empty far longer than that. Nothing else remained of the people who had once inhabited it.
“This is a fool’s errand,” Diaz said when Alvarez came out. “The people who once lived here took everything with them when they abandoned this place. There is no treasure. There is nothing here.”
“You are wrong, my friend,” Alvarez insisted. “The Indians worship their gods by throwing golden baubles into the cenotes. They may have left, but they would not take back their offerings. Perhaps that is why Balthasar did not want us to come here, and even took his own life. He knew that we would plunder the riches given to his false gods. He must have feared their wrath.”
This seemed to pique Diaz’s interest. “And how would we recover this plunder?”
“One thing at a time. First we must find it. And we are close. I can—”
He was interrupted by a cry of alarm from further along the trail. He and Diaz hastened forward to discover one of the men on the ground in the throes of a seizure. The stricken man’s face was scarlet under his beard, and his jaws were clenched, his teeth bared in a rictus. Spittle frothed from between them.
“What happened?” Alvarez demanded. “Was he bitten? A viper?”
Before anyone could answer, the man hissed out a final breath and then was still. The rest of the men began warily searching the vegetation, looking for the venomous serpent that had taken yet another of their number.
Suddenly, Diaz let out a howl of dismay and swatted at his own cheek. “Stung,” he rasped.
Alvarez saw something fall from the other man’s beard, not a wasp or spider, but simply a sliver of wood, a thorn, perhaps.
Diaz stared at the object for a moment, then went rigid and started to topple over. Alvarez reached out to catch him, and as he did, he heard a soft huffing sound. Something flashed past his face, missing him by less than a hand’s width. Alvarez now realized what was happening.
“It’s an attack!” he cried, wheeling in the direction from which the projectile had come. As Diaz collapsed, twitching on the forest floor, Alvarez unlimbered his crossbow and aimed it into the nearby thicket. Muskets were all but useless deep in the jungle; the pervasive moisture rendered powder and match wick too damp to ignite. Before he could loose the bolt however, there was a rustling in the leaves and Alvarez caught a glimpse of green scales, like the skin of a viper.
Snake-men! Balthasar’s warning came back to Alvarez.
He heard more of the soft huffing noises, and the shouts of alarm became shrieks of pain. From the corner of his eye, Alvarez saw more of his men going down.
They were being wiped out, without even seeing the face of the enemy.
“Follow me,” Alvarez called out, raising his sword and charging toward the thicket where he had glimpsed the scaly figure. He swung the Toledo steel blade before him, and as the vegetation fell away, he saw the creature again, all glistening scales, with a crest of bright plumage. The snake-man was facing him, pointed teeth — like the teeth of a shark — bared in a fierce grin. The creature then hurled something at him.
Alvarez slashed at the object, deflecting it away from his head. His blade rang with the impact. The snake-man turned away, disappearing into the jungle again. Alvarez maintained his charge, hacking at the dense foliage to lay bare the white stone path.
All of a sudden, he found himself in a clearing — a plaza, paved with white stone that stretched a hundred paces to the base of the crumbling pyramid. The cenote formed the edge of the courtyard to his left. There was no sign of the snake-man.
Alvarez turned to rally his men, but to his dismay discovered that he was alone. He waited in silence, straining to hear the sound of footsteps or battle, or even the screams of the dying, but there was nothing. Not even a whisper.
But something was moving in the jungle behind him. Sinuous shapes, slithering through the vegetation, silently closing in on him.
He turned and ran, sprinting down the length of the plaza. If he could reach the mezquita, climb its flanks and perhaps even reach the summit, he would have the high ground, and his foes would lose the advantage of concealment. If there were not too many of them, there was a chance — a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless — of survival.
His armor grew heavier with every step until he was no longer running but shuffling across the pavement. Halfway to his goal, he paused and turned to see five of the snake-men advancing, hunched over like stalking beasts preparing to pounce. He steadied himself, taking careful aim with his crossbow. The snake-men continued forward, seemingly oblivious to the danger the weapon presented. He let the bolt fly, and one of the creatures let out a yelp as the quarrel struck home. Alvarez threw down the weapon, then turned away and resumed running, the brief respite giving him just enough energy to reach the base of the pyramid.
He clambered up onto its flanks, hauling himself up the crumbling exterior. He tore his helmet off and would have removed his breastplate as well if doing so would not have required precious seconds he did not have. Something cracked against the stone beside him, a hurled stone that bounced away. Alvarez kept going, his heart hammering, arms and thighs burning with the exertion.
A blocky stone structure had been erected at the apex of the pyramid, but time and neglect had taken a toll. The roof was gone and the upright columns that had once defined the entrance were broken or missing altogether, revealing an altar. The back wall still bore faint traces of the painted bas-relief that had once adorned it, a bestial face that might have been a lion or perhaps a wild dog, stylized in the grotesque fashion the Indians favored. In front of it stood a similarly weathered stone altar, and upon it, a small figurine, presumably the likeness of the same creature, resting on its haunches like a sphinx, a shallow cauldron between its front paws. The relic was about the size of a man’s head, blacker than charcoal or shadow, but adorned with rings of gleaming gold.
Here at last the treasure he had sought. Despite the urgency of the moment, Alvarez advanced into the ruined temple and reached out to the relic.
It seemed to crumble at his touch, and for a moment, he feared that it was as illusory as the dreams of wealth that had drawn him into the emerald hell, but no… the blackness was just a fine layer of dust or perhaps ash. Beneath the black film, there was creamy green jade.
This prize was real.
He left it on the altar and turned to make his stand.