The young Englishwoman gazed out over the deep, mist-filled gorge. The mountains crowded in on all sides, their grey flanks dyed red in the rising sun, while the valley below was so deep and so narrow that what little could be seen through the breaks in the blanket of mists was lost in shadow. It was as though she were looking down upon a second sky.
She stood a moment upon the edge of the cliff, as still as if the light had turned her into a carved figure of ivory. Then with the quick, precise movements of a bird gathering its treasure, she swung the heavy pack off of her shoulders and pulled out a sketchbook and some pencils. Seating herself crosslegged upon a rock at the very edge of the precipice, she began to draw the scene, seemingly heedless of the thousand-foot drop immediately before her.
This – though perhaps few of her acquaintances in London would have believed it – was Lady Emma Worthing, and she looked as out of place sitting on a rock on a mountain deep in the Peruvian jungle as it was possible for a person to look. Every line, curve, and tone of her spoke of fashion, society, and elegance, from her perfectly fitted, custom-made clothing to her upright, well-trained posture.
She was tall and graceful with a fine figure. Her face was aristocratic, with a Roman nose (one she thought a trifle too big) and large eyes that glittered like opals whenever she was eager or excited. Down her back ran a long, tapering line of braided hair that was so deeply black as to appear blue in places.
Her clothing was entirely done in varying shades of white, save for the black of her hiking boots (now sadly scuffed from many days of walking), and she wore a white pleated skirt in lieu of trousers. This had raised many eyebrows and several people, including her hired guide, had tried strenuously to talk her out of it. But she would hear none of it.
“A lady must always look her best, whether in society or the jungle,” she’d insisted.
When Lady Emma sat down to commence her sketch, the two men accompanying her took off their own packs and stood waiting for her to finish. By now this had become quite a routine. During the course of their three day trek through the jungle, Lady Emma had already stopped at least a dozen times to make sketches and notes for paintings she might like to make once she had the chance. That she should do so even now, just as they had reached their destination, was only to be expected.
One of the two was an elderly, upright figure with heavy jowls and a fringe of perfectly white hair under the rim of his hat. The other was young, handsome, and with the lean, lithe air of a wolf about him. He smiled rather fixedly on the young woman as she sat sketching.
“Do I take it you came all the way to the Sombra Gorge merely to draw it, Senorita?” he asked
“One might do worse,” she answered carelessly. “Though as it happens, I have something else in mind. But do be quiet; I want to catch this light. One must be quick about such things.”
The Peruvian cast an expressive look at the old man, who did not return it.
“As you wish,” said Malveda, with a shrug. He leaned back against a tree and began to roll a cigarette, watching the young woman as she drew. Truth be told, he didn’t much mind the interludes. He still had no idea what had possessed this English lady to insist on being brought all the way here to this little known and less visited formation in the mountains, but she had money, and as long he was being paid, he wasn’t about to complain. Besides, a man might have to go a long way to see a woman better worth looking at.
The other man was George Nicholson, butler to the Worthing estate. He had watched over Lady Emma from the time when she had been young enough to believe his name was “Nibbles’em,” and he accompanied his charge wherever she went, always as straight-backed and dependable as he had been as a young batman to her father in Burma some forty years before.
Emma’s pencils flew over the paper. She wished, as she always did in such cases, that she had more time. There were always details she was missing, always some element of the scene that didn’t quite come out. But then, that was the nature of beauty: one never could quite catch it all.
At last she decided the sketch would have to do. She put the last stroke to it, packed up her pencils, and stowed the whole apparatus back into her pack.
“There we are,” she said, producing a small compact mirror and examining her face. “Oh, bother this humidity….”
“Now that we are here, senorita….” Malveda began.
“Yes, yes; I did promise to explain once we reached the gorge, did I not?” she replied, brushing some dirt from her forehead and shaking her head at her own reflection. She snapped the mirror shut and tucked it into her pocket. “It isn’t anything especially exciting, I’m afraid. You see, I am something of an amateur antiquarian. It is a hobby of mine to recover rare and lost pieces of art.”
“Is that so?” he answered. “And you think you will find such a thing in the Sombra Gorge?”
“More or less,” she said as she unfolded a compact, single-strap bag from the large backpack she had been carrying. “Nibs, be a dear and get this ready for me, will you?”
“As you wish, your ladyship,” Nicholson answered. He wore a look of faint disapproval, but his charge seemed not to notice it as she checked the knife and the revolver buckled around her waist.
“It is said that no one has ever entered the Sombra Gorge alive,” Malveda said.
“I should think leaving it alive would be the tricky part,” Emma answered, peering into the depths. “But I do not intend to go all the way in. If my information is correct, there is a small cave in the cliff wall a short ways from here, around the other side of this hill.”
She nodded at the looming side of the mountain that overshadowed their little shelf to the north, forming one wall of the narrow, doubtful pass they had traversed to find the gorge.
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of the Javias people? They occupied these mountains many centuries ago and were conquered by the Incas. It’s said they had a certain temple that they kept an absolute secret, and then when the Spanish came….”
Malvedas’s whole attitude changed abruptly. He stiffened, like a dog that had caught a scent and look sharply at his employer.
“The Temple of the Night? The cursed idol of Yectclo? That is what you seek?”
“Oh, you have heard of it,” Emma said, drawing a long coil of rope from one of the packs and slinging it over her shoulder. “Yes, that’s the one.”
“Who in these mountains has not heard that legend? But…but what makes you think it is here?”
“That’s rather a long story, but the short version is I came across some notes by a Professor Luis Rondon, who pieced together the information back in the 1890s. He, unfortunately, never returned from the jungle, but I think his reasoning was sound. I’m merely following his footsteps.”
A hungry, wolfish look slowly spread upon Malvedas’s handsome features, like the dawning of some evil sun.
“And the idol,” he said. “Is it true what they say, that it is as a valuable as a mountain of gold?”
“It is supposedly an absolutely unique piece of ancient artistry,” she answered. “One can’t really put a monetary value on that, though certainly I would pay a good deal for it. In fact, I would say I am doing so,” she added ruefully, wiping the sweat from her face. “Sacrificing my poor, poor complexion in the name of preserving art. Are we ready, Nibs?”
Nicholson handed her the bag.
“May have a word with you, your Ladyship?”
“Of course. Malvedas, will you see to the tents? Back a ways from the cliff, if you don’t mind.”
Malvedas nodded, his eyes still gleaming wolfishly as he carried the packs a little ways down the trail.
“Are you quite certain of your plan, Lady Emma?” Nicholson asked once they were alone.
“I hardly would have gone through the discomfort of the past few days if I hadn’t been sure enough,” she answered, slinging the bag over her shoulders. “Do you have something to say, Nibs? If so, please do so. I’m in rather a hurry to get started.”
Nicholson hesitated, his jowls growing perhaps a trifle more pronounced as he frowned at her.
“Only this,” he said. “Do please, please be careful, your ladyship.”
“I am always careful.”
“With respect, you certainly are not,” he answered. “You are, if you will permit me, far too reckless. I have said it before and I shall repeat myself now: there was no reason whatever for you to undertake this expedition on your own.”
“If you mean I should have invited Lord Peter to come and hog all the credit….”
“I mean that you take far too many unnecessary risks, and late though it is, I must beg you to promise me that you will not take any such during this endeavor of yours.”
Emma gave a slight, musical laugh.
“How can I promise such a thing, Nibs? I don’t even know fully what the risks will be!”
“And how shall I ever face your father when my time comes if any harm comes to you?”
Emma’s smile vanished and she blinked in some surprise. Just for a moment a breath of guilt swept through her heart. Nicholson had promised her father on his deathbed that he would keep her safe. Now she was about to go and risk her life where he couldn’t be there to make good on that promise.
The feeling passed almost as quick as it came, leaving nothing but a slight chill. Her smile returned, warmer than before, and she hugged him.
“Nibs, dear, you’re doing all you need to. And for your sake I will promise to at least not run any unnecessary risks. But really, if you didn’t let me enjoy a little danger now and then I should die of boredom. I really should. Now don’t you worry any more of those lovely white hairs away: you’ve not got many left to spare.”
He did not look mollified, but his face softened a little.
“Just be sure you come back safe,” he ordered.
“Naturally,” she said. And with that she set off along the edge of the cliff, following the curve of the mountain.
Professor Rondon, following God alone knew what ancient sources, had pieced together a detailed supposition of the temple’s position and layout. In the Javias mythology, the night god was the master of magic, divination, and other mysterious arts which only the initiate were permitted to know. Therefore, his temple, where the mystery rites were performed, was hidden where none could find it and only the bravest could approach.
The summit of the mountain was only a few hundred feet above the pass where they were making their camp, and Emma was able to circumvent it fairly easily, keeping as far from the sheer drop as she could. On the far side there were several stout young trees growing near the cliff’s edge. Emma took hold of one of these and against leaned out over the cliff to peer down into the gloom.
Just as she had hoped. About forty feet down from where she stood there was a very narrow ledge, no more than two or three feet wide if that. Harsh grasses and small plants eked out a grim existence in its soil. It ran along the line of the cliff to where the side of the mountain curved around in a kind of oxbow, forming a narrow bay between its steep grey walls. There, barely to be seen beneath an overhang of the cliff, was a cave.
That cave was her destination, and the only way to reach it was the ledge. For here the mountains became so steep as to be impassible, and no one but a mountain goat could have found his way up and around to a spot directly above the secret cave.
Emma took the rope from her shoulder and made it fast about the tree, tested it, and swung out over the thousand-foot drop. She climbed down, hand-over-hand, her feet braced against the cliff-face. She was an excellent climber and soon set her feet upon the narrow, downward-sloping ledge.
Even as she stood with one hand on the rope, trying once more to squint down into the gloom to catch a glimpse of the ravine floor that it was said no living man had ever set foot upon, she was uncomfortably conscious of the tug of gravity pulling her feet towards the edge and seemingly endless empty space below. With its covering of mist and unseen bottom, Emma had the suddenly idea that if she fell, she would be falling upwards, into the endless depth of the sky.
The thought thrilled more than terrified her. Emma was not and never could be afraid of heights. From above, everything took on a new aspect and a new loveliness, lending beauty even to things that looked quite commonplace and squalid from the ground. Nothing that did that could ever frighten her.
And besides, as she had told Nicholson more than once, she rather liked danger. All things, life included, had their own proper beauty, and to her mind a dash of peril now and then added just the right texture to life.
She released the rope and keeping one hand on the cliff wall began to walk along the slopping narrow ledge, putting one nimble booted foot ahead of the other. The wind was high here, compressed by the canyon walls and it whipped her skirt about her legs and at times felt as thought it threatened to tear her from the wall. Here and there the ledge narrowed so much that she was obliged to creep along sideways, her back pressed to the wall, her feet half hanging over empty space.
Then came her first real check. About halfway along the cliff she came to a gap of perhaps four or five feet where there was no ledge at all.
Emma paused a moment, considering. The ledge both here and on the other side of the gap was about as wide as it ever was, though it looked to be steeper on the far side. To her left was a solid, sheer wall of rock. To her right was empty air and racing wind.
What was behind her didn’t matter, since she didn’t consider going back for even a moment.
Emma squared her shoulders, lifted her skirt, took three quick steps forward, and jumped. She soared deer-like over the empty shadow and landed lightly and nimbly on the other side. She stumbled for one breathless moment as her feet slid on the inclined surface, then she caught herself on the extreme edge of the precipice, sending several small stones tumbling into the mists below.
She let out a long slow breath, looked back, and gave a satisfied nod. The ballet training she had received as a girl served her well yet again.
The cave drew nearer without appearing to grow much larger. Emma found she had to duck to enter it. As soon as she did so she was conscious of a foul, musty odor. Switching on her electric torch, she played it around the walls of the cavern and soon found the source. At first glance, it looked like a moss-covered rock. But there was something off about the shape. She edged closer and nudged it with her boot.
It was a bag. A very old bag, almost completely rotted in the jungle humidity. Nevertheless, Emma felt obligated to open it, though she shuddered at the touch.
It came apart almost at once and a large number of insects spilled out, agitated by the sudden disruption of their damp home. Emma grave a cry of disgust and stepped back, brushing a few off that had gotten onto her clothing. The bag, it seemed, had once been full of tools and rations, but everything was mildewed, rusted, and molded to the point of being utterly useless.
This, she thought, must be Professor Rondon’s bag. So he had gotten that far at least. But that meant it had been lying there for about ninety years.
And what had happened to its owner?
That Emma felt queasily certain she would soon find out.
At the back of the cavern was a pit, more like a well than anything else. Emma leaned over it, squinting into the deep darkness. She got out a small flare and dropped it. It fell about twenty feet, disturbing a number of bats that came fluttering up and once again caused her to back away in disgust as they flittered about, seeking to escape the light.
Once the bats had departed, Emma secured a rope to a stalagmite that stood not far from the well’s edge and climbed down into the Temple of the Night, the flare casting its red light up at her.
At the bottom, her feet landed not on bare stone, but on a carved floor, unweathered by the many centuries that had come and gone. Emma drew out her torch and looked around her.
Demon eyes glared out from every direction. The light of the flare and torch sent a riot of jagged shadows upon the carved walls, while the jeweled eyes of figures long lost to knowledge gleamed as if alive.
“Gentlemen,” she said in a voice with only a sleight tremor in it. “You will please excuse me: I’m only passing through.”
Emma dusted a few cobwebs off of her shirt (trying not to think of the state that her hair and clothing would be in after this, nor about the possibility of a spider or two having hitched a ride) then examined the chamber she had dropped into. It was fairly small, perhaps ten feet square. The stone was primarily black, or perhaps a dark blue in color, edged here and there in white. A similar coloring prevailed upon the floor.
On three sides the walls were covered in carved geometric imagery, similar in style to that used by the Incas, though in a heavier, more angular style. Between these figures were lines of strange, eerie designs: not exactly writing, but not quite pictures either. They were spiky, almost spidery marks that made the hair on Emma’s neck prickle. She almost thought she could detect human figures among the designs, though what they were meant to be doing she couldn’t begin to conjecture. They were mixed with other, stranger characters that she thought must represent writing, being too odd and too spindly to depict anything that could exist in real life. She resolved, if there was time, to come back after she found the idol and copy some of these images for further study.
The remaining side of the room consisted of an incline leading up to a doorway flanked by stone figures. Both figures were holding their hands up as though in warning.
Emma made straight for the doorway, her sharp eyes alive for any sign of a trap. The legend said that it was death for any but the priests to enter the Temple of the Night, and she had long since learned to pay special heed to such legends.
The doorway seemed to have been carved through about two feet of living rock. On the other side was a rectangular chamber some twelve yards long. Here too the walls were carved in flat, intricate designs, with the same dark colored stone, and here too jeweled eyes gleamed in the torchlight at the invader. The floor was checkered in an intricate pattern of green, blue, and white tile in alternating patterns, so that one row would show red, blue, then white, and the one next to it white, red, and blue. This made a rather kaleidoscopic impression in the narrow light of the torch.
As she entered the chamber, Emma’s foot landed on something hard and round. She stepped back at once, looked down, and clutched her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream of horror. What she had stepped on was the skeletal remains of a human hand!
A skeleton, dry and covered in dust lay before her, its hands outstretched as though reaching for the door. Its skull was crushed and most of its bones broken, its dried up clothes half rotted away. The dead man seemed to have been cut down in the very act of fleeing the room.
Professor Rondon, I presume, she thought. My God, what happened to you?
Slowly, she played her light around the chamber, but saw nothing that looked as if it could have killed him. All was silent and empty, unless you counted the glittering eyes of the carved figures on the walls.
Emma felt a stream of ice run up and down her spine. For a fleeting moment, she wondered whether those stone images had come to life and struck down the man who had dared to trespass in their domain, guarding the secrets of the dark priests even centuries after their disappearance.
She chided herself for thinking such nonsense, but drew her revolver nonetheless. There was some kind of trap here, some protection against thieves. She could feel it. As she crossed the room, Emma kept her keen eyes wide and alert to any sign of danger.
She was not quite careful enough.
She was about halfway across the chamber when she felt a tile sink slightly under her foot. There was a heavy click, and a moment later a low rumbling sound, like a huge mill wheel grinding flower. Emma looked behind her and cried aloud as she beheld a stone door lowering over the entrance from whence she had just come. She turned and darted back, seeking to escape before she sealed in, but she was far too late. The door settled into place even as she reached it and beat the butt of her gun futilely upon it. There was neither handle nor keyhole; it was nothing but a solid block of cold gray stone. Turning around, Emma saw that the exit had similarly been sealed. She was trapped!
Her heart hammered and her breathing came fast. Buried alive, left to suffocate in an airless tomb! That had been the fate of Professor Rondon…or had it?
For she suddenly became aware that the low rumbling that had accompanied the closing of the doors had not ceased. As she puzzled over what it might mean, she felt something drop onto her head. Reaching up, she found it was a little bit of stone or gravel. Then she turned her torch upward.
The ceiling – the vast, solid, stone ceiling, as black as the night sky – was descending slowly, but inexorably over her head. It had been about twelve feet heigh when she’d entered. Now it was closer to ten.
“Oh, my God…”
A flash of panic blazed through Emma’s mind, but only a flash. She caught herself before it could take hold of her. Now, if ever, she needed every ounce of wit she possessed.
Furiously, she tried to think. She examined the edge of the door, but there was not the slightest possibility of her lifting it or breaking through it. Rondon had tried that. He had died clawing at it.
Emma glanced at the crushed remains of her predecessor. Soon, she thought, that would be her fate: smashed to jelly under that massive weight with nothing but the pitiless eyes of those stone devils for company. Left to rot where no one would ever find whatever remained of her body.
And what will this do to poor Nibs….
Suddenly, she caught hold of something in her mind. Rondon had sprung the trap and died beneath it. Yet she had been able to enter the chamber. That meant the trap had somehow reset in the meantime.
Had someone, some hidden guardian of the temple come and restored the chamber? No. Even if that were at all probable, they would have removed the body. That meant – it could only mean – that there was some mechanism for automatically resetting the chamber.
Emma struggled to think while the destroying stone mass continued to descend from overhead. The skeleton was crushed, but not crushed all the way. The narrower bones – the arms and legs – were intact. That meant the trigger, whatever it was, had to be such as to be sprung when the ceiling was perhaps an inch or so off the ground. It have to be some kind of lever or spring that would be pressed when the trap reached a certain point. If she could find it….
Emma began searching along the wall, shining her light upon the floor, looking for anything that seemed to rise above the level of the stone tiles. The thought occurred to her that the trigger may well be somewhere in the upper reaches of the destroying machine, built with God-only-knew-what ancient engineering techniques. She pushed the idea aside and focused all of her considerable powers of concentration upon the search.
Meanwhile the descending stone was now low enough that she could have reached up and touched it.
With a cry of relief, Emma found what she sought: a stone foot belonging to one of the square demons that stuck out perhaps six inches from the wall and three high. A closer examination revealed that it did not rest upon the floor, but sank into it.
Emma dropped to her knees and pressed her full weight upon it. But it didn’t so much as wobble.
For a second, she doubted: might this not be the trigger? Then she came to her senses. Of course, the designers of the trap would have considered the possibility of their victims doing exactly what she was attempting to do. The trigger was built to be moved by the immeasurable weight of the descending stone. But by the time the stone reached it, Emma would certainly be dead.
Unless she could trigger it early. Even just a little early.
She rose to her feet, ducking as her head brushed the descending stone. Throwing off her bag to make herself as thin as possible, she darted back across the chamber to where the skeleton lay. With no time for niceties, she grabbed a handful of his dried up arm and leg bones and scrambled back to the lever. She was now bent almost double: less than five feet to go…
Breathing quickly to try to steady her hands, Emma wrapped the strap of her bag around the bones and braced them upon the lever – if lever it was.
Then there was nothing to do but wait as the descending death closed the final few feet to the topmost bones. From having seemed terrifyingly quick while she was racing about trying to find a means of salvation, it now appeared to her agonizingly slow as waited for it to render a final verdict upon her plan.
The bones were, of course, all different lengths. The longest two, the leg bones, were reached first.
They splintered and fell from the mass. Emma lay flat on her front, holding the grisly bundle with all her might. In desperation, she drew her hunting knife with its thick, steel blade and ivory handle and jammed it in alongside the bundle to lend it every bit of strength she could give it.
Crack! Crack! More bones broke away before the destroying roof. There was barely more than a foot of clearance. Emma pressed herself against the floor and whispered a prayer. She felt the cold, heavy stone settle onto her back….
But even as she did, the lever shifted at last. A moment later and there was another heavy click. The ceiling ground to a halt, pressing Emma to the floor. She gritted her teeth, eyes shut tight, unable to move even if she had wanted to, scarcely able to breathe.
Then the rumbling resumed, and her heart skipped a beat. But now the ceiling was ascending, rising as slowly as it had sunk. The terrible weight lifted from her back, and Emma let out a long, slow breath. Only then did she realize that she had been holding it.
She rose to her knees, trembling and trying to catch her breath. That had been much too close, even for her taste!
Once again at liberty to be conscious of what she was holding, she laid the remaining bundle of bones upon the floor with a slight shudder and wiped her hands gingerly against her skirt.
“My apologies, professor,” she said with a deprecatory gesture towards the crushed remains at the front of the chamber. “Under any other circumstances, I would not have dreamt of taking such liberties. I’m sure you understand.”
Then she sheathed her knife (now considerably blunted), holstered her gun, and gathering her pack and torch made her way to the far side of the room. She carefully felt each step as she went to avoid triggering any further traps.
Passing through the far door, Emma found herself in what could only be the holy of holies, the central chamber of the temple. The roof was high overhead, and there was a long, narrow shaft through which a faint ray of sunlight, brought from who knew how far through the side of the mountain cast a dim, twilit glow upon the room.
And there, on a pedestal in the middle of the chamber, was the idol of Yectclo.
It was completely different from any Mezoamerican idol that she had ever seen. In place of the heavy, squared-off shape that so many of those had, this one was more slender, more curved, the form more naturalistic. It was overall in the shape of a human being, though the head was shaped like a crescent moon, curving back over its shoulders like a cresting wave. The features were carved with remarkable skill, the god seeming to gaze upwards in contemplation of the heavens, its slender, almost-stick-lick arms crossed across its chest, its palms held up and outward to either side. From either shoulder the figure bore great, curved wings, like those of a moth, and its legs, which were drawn up to its elbows as though it were squatting, were very long and very thin.
The whole figure was perhaps nine inches high. Even in the dim half-light, it shone silver and bright, as though it were illumined from within, save on the inside of the wings, which appeared to be lined with obsidian and had the same spindly semi-pictorial writing she had seen in the entry chamber carved upon them and inlaid with silver.
Emma approached the figure, awed by its beauty and craftsmanship. Though even this work of art couldn’t quite eclipse the fright she had just had, and she went cautiously nonetheless. But no traps sprung in this chamber, even as she walked straight up to the pedestal and gazed at the statue.
Seen up close, the strangeness and uniqueness of the image increased. She had thought at first that it was made of silver, or more likely of stone or wood lined in silver. But she didn’t think so anymore. The material was not quite the color of silver: its white had more of a pinkish tone to it, and it seemed far too lustrous in the half-light.
Whatever else it was, it was an exquisite work of art.
Carefully, she took hold of it and lifted it gingerly from the pedestal. It was much lighter than she had expected. With a leap of her heart, she stowed it safely in her bag. She had done it!
But even as she slung the bag back over her shoulder, Emma realized that something was wrong.
There was a heavy thud, as though of a great stone gear sliding into place. Then, at the far end of the chamber, the wall buckled suddenly. The stone cracked, and from every fissure rivulets of dirty brown water clawed forth, advanced tendrils of the monster to come.
Emma understood what was happening in an instant and she wasted no more time. Turning like a deer that has scented a predator, she raced from the chamber and back into the trap room. She was halfway across before another terrible roar behind her warned that the wall was giving way.
But she didn’t dare look back, for in the wildly waving light of her torch she saw the stone door was descending once again. In her haste, she must had triggered the trap once more without realizing it. But this time was different. This time she had a head start. She could make it….
A rush of water poured in, half stemmed by the descending door on the far end, but enough to nearly trip her up. She caught herself, saved once again by her excellent balance, and put on a burst of speed. The door was descending rapidly. It was halfway closed, but she was almost there. She dove forward, sliding on her front upon the wet floor beneath the descending stone and into the entrance chamber. She just had time to whip her legs out of the way before the stone settled into place, sealing the chamber once more.
Emma scrambled to her feet, breathing hard. Another much too close call, and now she was soaking wet with badly scrapped arms and, what was more, in absolute darkness, her torch having fallen from her grasp as she dove for safety. But at least the trap chamber would hold the destroying water back for a time. With luck.
She felt her way across the lightless chamber to where the rope still hung and began to climb. A short distance up, then back along the cliff, and it would all be over. Over and successfully done!
Emma pulled herself over the edge of the pit with deep sigh of relief, thankful especially for the faint light coming in through the entrance. She rose to her feet, trying in vain to knock some of the dirt off of her clothes.
As she lifted her head, she was suddenly dazzled in the light from a torch. Squinting and holding her hand up to try to shield her eyes, she realized that she was looking down the barrel of a pistol.
“Malveda!” Emma exclaimed. “What on earth do you….”
“Did you get it?” he demanded.
“What do you mean?”
As her eyes adjusted, Emma saw that the man’s face was flushed and his eyes were gleaming with that wolfish light. He was breathing hard, and the hand holding the gun shook slightly.
“The idol,” he said. “Do not play games with me! Do you have the idol?”
Rapidly, Emma’s mind began to work. She would certainly never be able to draw her own gun in time. Once Malveda had the idol, he might well shoot her anyway. In fact, that would be the only sensible thing for him to do. And she doubted he would believe her if she flat out denied it.
The best play was to stall for as long as possible.
“See for yourself,” she answered. Slowly, so as to give him no reason to fire, she unslung her bag and set it on the floor.
Malveda hesitated, looking from her to the bag as though making up his mind whether it was a trick. Then, before he could decide how to proceed, Emma made her desperate play. In the split second his eyes were off of her, she grabbed at the gun, trying to twist his away from her. There was an ear-shattering bang as the weapon went off. Malveda was far the stronger, but Emma was stronger than he had expected her to be, and that was enough to break the gun from his grasp. It bounced upon the stone floor and clattered away into the pit.
With a snarl of angry Spanish, Malveda drove his body against Emma’s shoving her backwards. She felt the ground disappear beneath her and clutched out for the rope, catching herself about halfway down, crying aloud as the rope burned her hands.
Emma had barely had time to steady herself when she saw the guide looming over the edge, his face appearing almost monstrous in the harsh electric light, his machete in his hand. She had only just enough time to realize what was about to happen before the blade fell and the rope went slack in her hands.
She fell straight down, curling her legs under her to absorb the impact. She landed, rolled, and tucked her head. The experience of landing was no joy, but nothing broke. Trying to catch her breath, she looked up to see Malveda blow her a kiss.
Emma cursed him in the strongest language she knew, but he was already gone with the idol, leaving her in total darkness.
After all her work, that precious idol would be sold for mere money like any common trinket. More pressingly, any second now the door would open and a wave of rushing water would sweep through the door and slam her against the rocks. It was certainly possible that she would survive uninjured, perhaps even be able to ride the rising tide up the shaft. But she didn’t intend to risk it, or to spend the time. Not while she still had one more card of her own to play.
Quickly, Emma unbuckled her skirt and slipped out of it. True, her primary reason for insisting upon wearing it even in the jungle had been aesthetic (trousers were simply too drab for words), but it was not wholly impractical, despite what some thought. The skirts she wore on such occasions were all custom made and of her own special design. They were, in fact, not single sheathes of fabric, but rather constructed of row after row of a light, strong material held together by strips of velcro. With a quick tug, the coils of fabric came loose one after another, and with a twist the belt buckle was turned around to form a hook. What she now had, in place of her lovely white skirt, was a long, strong line of cloth with a grapple at one end.
She swung the buckled end around, and with a practiced hand hurled it up to where she knew the stalagmite lay. Her aim, even in the pitch dark, was true. The hook caught. She pulled it tight…
And just then, she heard the grinding of the stone door as it opened, unleashing the many tons of pent-up water upon her.
Emma just had time to get above the level of the initial onrush. The water surged about her, tearing at her boots and causing the rope to swing wildly. The spray drenched her still further, but she was able to keep climbing, hand over hand, as quickly as any acrobat in the circus, heedless of the pain in her hands. The water rose beneath her, but she rose faster.
A moment later she was in the cavern. Her own revolver was in her hand and she rushed to the mouth of the cave.
Malveda had not gotten far. He was still edging his way along the inside of the cliff, the bag slung over his shoulder. He had not yet reached the gap.
“Malveda!” she shouted as she started onto the ledge after him. Her right hand gripped the wall. Her left held her revolver.
He looked back, and his face showed blank shock as he saw her. She shook the damp black hair out of her face and walked toward him, her feet firm on the narrow surface.
“Put down that bag,” she commanded. “I’m willing to forgive a momentary lapse in judgment, but I will not trust you with that artifact.”
“How did you…”
“That is not your concern at present. Put the idol down on the path. Carefully.”
He stared at her. He had lost his own gun, and to rush her with his machete on this narrow pathway would be tantamount to suicide. Even so, he seemed to be calculating his odds.
“You will not shoot me,” he said. “You will not risk its loss.”
“Much as I would hate that, I will risk it if you force me, and be all the gladder to be rid of you,” she answered. “Or do you care to bet your life that I wouldn’t? Put it down.”
As she had done mere minutes before, Malveda seemed to have made his judgment. He crouched over the narrow ledge, unslung Emma’s bag from his shoulders, and placed it upon the path, leaning it safely against the cliff wall.
“Very good,” she said. “Now back away from the idol.”
Malveda took a few steps back, holding tight to the cliff and still watching her.
Lady Emma advanced, one sure, slim foot in front of the other, gripping the cliff with her right hand and covering Malveda with the revolver in her left. The warm jungle wind drove against her, catching at her hair, but she didn’t take her eyes off of him for a moment.
She reached the idol. Slowly, she crouched over it. Now came the difficult part. With great care, she took her right hand off the cliff wall and reached for the bag. Her eyes dropped to look at it.
Malveda struck with the speed of a springing wolf. He seemed to swarm up the path and kicked at the gun. Emma cried out in pain as his foot connected with her hand and the weapon flew free. Instinctively, she snatched the bag up in her right hand and darted back up the path, leaping away from him as advanced, trusting to her nimble feet and superb balance to avoid plunging into nothingness.
The man lunged after her, but as he went his foot landed on a loose stone. He stumbled, tried to grab at the wall, missed, and with a terrible scream he was gone.
“Dear Emma!” Nicholson cried as she arrived back at camp, pale, bruised, and bleeding. “What happened? I heard screaming. Where is Malveda? He said he was going to watch for your return.…”
Emma allowed him to pull her into a warm, fatherly hug before attempting to explain.
“He didn’t just wait. He came down after me and…and he fell, I’m afraid.”
Nicholson looked at her sharply and his keen eyes swept over her.
“You are injured.”
“Where’s your skirt? And your gun?”
“I…had to use them,” she said with a grimace.
“Did he…hurt you?”
“He tried quite hard to,” she admitted. “But don’t you worry about that: I’m all right and he’s gone to his reward, poor soul.”
Nicholson shook his head.
“I never liked the blighter,” he grunted. “Never trusted him either. Well, too late for that now.”
He seated her firmly upon a stone he had set beside the campfire, draped her in a blanket, and set about bandaging and tending to her many scrapes and cuts.
“Did you…get it after all?” he asked.
Emma smiled, set the plate aside, and lifted the idol out of her bag in triumph.
“Yectclo, god of the night, at your service,” she said. She set it upon the ground, the two of them gazed at it from all sides. The sun had gone behind the clouds, but even so it seem to blaze with cold, silvery fire, its strangely-shaped head fixated upon the sky.
“By George, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Nicholson.
“Nor I,” she replied. “Nor, I wager, have any mortal eyes for over five hundred years, and very few before that.”
She gently caressed the figure, drinking in the strange, almost eerie effects of color and shape. The more she looked at it, the more unique and precious it seemed to become.
Emma got out some old cloth and wrapped the idol carefully in it. There would be plenty of time to formally examine the piece when they got back to civilization. She had had more than enough excitement for the time being. Now she was looking forward to warm beds, hot baths, and most of all, clean, beautiful clothes.
“My goodness, Nibs,” she said, eying her many bandaged wounds, her soaked, blood-stained shirt, and the bare, scrapped legs beneath her shorts. “Am I glad that you are the only one who can see me! I must look an absolute nightmare. Be a dear and fetch my vanity kit.”