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by James Rollins
HarperCollins, 2000

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Excerpt from Excavation

 And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

-- Genesis 2:7

Andean Mountains
Peru, 1538

There was no escape.

    Crashing through the misty jungle, Francisco de Almagro had long given up all prayers of ever outrunning the hunters who dogged his trail. Panting, he crouched along the thin path and caught his breath. He wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. He still wore his Dominican robe, black wool and silk, but it was stained and torn now. His Incan captors had stripped him of all his possessions, except for the robe and his cross. The tribal shaman had warned the others not to touch these talismans from his "foreign" god, both respecting and fearing any insult to this stranger's deity.

    Though the heavy robes ill-suited his flight through the dense, cloud-draped jungle of the upper Andes, the young friar still refused to shed his raiment. They had been blessed by Pope Clement when Francisco had been first ordained, and he would not part with them. But that did not mean he could not alter them to better suit his situation.

    He grabbed the hem of his garment and ripped it to his thighs.

    Once his legs were free, Francisco listened to the sounds of pursuit. Already the call of the Incan hunters grew louder, echoing along the mountain pass behind him. Even the screeching cries of the disturbed monkeys from the jungle canopy overhead could not mask the rising clamor of his captors. They would be upon him soon.

    The young friar had only one hope left -- a chance at salvation -- not for himself, but for the world.

    He kissed the torn edge of his robe and let it drop from his fingers. He must hurry.

    Straightening too quickly, his vision darkened for a heartbeat. Francisco grabbed the bole of a jungle sapling, struggling not to fall. He gasped in the thin air. Small sparks danced across his vision. This high up in the mountainous Andes, the air failed to fill his lungs adequately and forced him to rest frequently, but he could not let his shortness of breath stop him.

    Shoving off the tree, Francisco set off once again down the trail, stumbling and weaving. The sway in his gait was not all due to the altitude. Before his scheduled execution at dawn, he had suffered a ritualistic bloodletting and had been forced to consume a draught of a bitter elixir -- chicha, a fermented drink that had quickly wobbled the ground under his feet. Now escaped and running, the sudden exertion heightened this drug's effect.

    As he ran, the limbs of the jungle seemed to reach for him, trying to trap him. The path seemed to tilt first one way, then the other. His heart hammered in his throat; his ears filled with a growing roar, washing away even the call of his pursuers. Francisco stumbled out of the jungle and almost toppled over a cliff's edge. Far below, he discovered the source of the thunderous rumbling -- frothing white waters crashing over black rocks.

    A part of his mind knew this must be one of the many tributaries that fed the mighty Urabamba river, but he could not dwell on topography. Despair filled his chest, squeezing his heart. The chasm lay between him and his goal. Panting, Francisco leaned his hands on his scraped knees. Only then did he notice the thin woven grass bridge. It spanned the chasm off to the right.

    "Obrigado, meu Deus!" he thanked his Lord, slipping into Portuguese. He had not spoken his native language since first taking his vows in Spain. Only now, with tears of frustration and fear flowing down his cheeks, did he fall back upon his childhood tongue.

    Pushing up, he crossed to the bridge and ran his hands over the braided lengths of ichu grass. A single thick cord hung over the river, with two smaller ropes to either side to assist in balance. If not for his current state, he might have appreciated the engineering feat of the bridge's construction, but now all his thoughts dwelled on escape -- putting one foot in front of the other, maintaining his balance.

    All his hopes lay in reaching the summit of the next peak. Like many of the mountains of the region, the Incas revered and worshipped this jungle-fringed heights. But to reach his goal, Francisco needed to first cross this chasm, then climb out of the cloud forest to the crag's rocky escarpment above.

    Would he have enough time?

    Turning to listen once again for the sounds of pursuit, Francisco could hear nothing but the crashing tumble of the river below. He had no idea how far back the hunters remained, but they could not be far. He dare not tarry or cower from the drop below.

    Francisco ran a sweating palm over the stubble of his shaven scalp, then grasped one of the two support ropes of the bridge. He squeezed his eyes closed for a moment and grabbed the other cables. With the Lord's Prayer on his lips, he stepped onto the bridge and set off over the chasm. He refused to look down, instead fixing his eyes on the bridge's end.

    After an endless time, he felt his left foot strike stone. Sagging in relief, he clambered off the bridge and onto solid rock. He almost fell to his knees, ready to kiss and bless the Earth, but a sharp call barked out behind him. A spear struck deep into the loam near his heel. Its shaft thrummed from the impact.

    Francisco froze like a startled rabbit, then another cry shouted forth. Glancing behind him, he saw a single hunter standing on the far side. Their eyes met briefly across the chasm.

Predator and prey.

    Under a headdress of azure and red feathers, the man grinned at him. He wore thick chains of gold. At least, Francisco prayed it was gold. He shuddered.

    Not hesitating, Francisco slipped a silver dagger from inside his robe. The weapon, stolen from the shaman, had been his means of escape. It now must serve him again. He grabbed one of the bridge's balancing ropes. He would never have time to hack through the main trunk of the span, but if he could sever the side ropes, his pursuers would have a hard time crossing here. It might not stop them, but it could slow the chase.

    His shoulders protested as he sawed at the dried grass braid. The ropes seemed to be made of iron. The man called out to him, speaking calmly in his heathen language. The friar understood none of his words, but the menace and promise of pain were clear.

    Renewed fear fueled Francisco's muscles. He dug and sliced at the rope while hot tears streaked his muddy face. Suddenly, the rope severed under his blade, snapping away. One end grazed his cheek. Instinctively, he reached a hand and touched the injury. His fingers came back bloody, but he felt nothing.

    Swallowing hard, he turned to the second support rope. Another spear struck the rock at the cliff's edge and fell away into the chasm. A third followed. Closer this time.

    Francisco glanced up. Four hunters now lined the far side of the chasm. The newest hunter held a fourth spear, while the first hunter deftly strung a bow. Time had run out. Francisco eyed the untouched rope support. It was death to stay here. He would have to hope that severing the one braid would slow them enough.

    Turning on a heel, he sped back into the jungle on the far side of the chasm. The path climbed steeply, straining his legs and chest. Here the trees were less thick, the canopy less dense. As he struggled, the forest grew thinner with each hard-earned league. While glad to see the jungle begin to thin, the lack of foliage also made him an easier target for the hunters. With each step now, he expected an arrow to feather his back.

    So close … Lord, do not forsake me now.

    He refused to look ahead, concentrating at the ground below his feet. He fought one foot after the other. Suddenly light burst around him, as if the Lord himself had pushed aside the trees to shine his Glory down upon him. Gasping, he raised his head. Even such a simple movement was now difficult. In a single step, the jungle was now behind him. Raw sunlight from the dawning sun blazed across the red and black stones of the barren peak.

    He was too weak even for a prayer of thanks. Scrambling up through the last of the brush, he used his hands and feet to fight for the summit. It must happen there. The Incas would only respect him if it was done on their sacred site.

    Crying now, but deaf to his own sobs, he crawled the final distance. Reaching the top, he collapsed back upon his heels, face raised to the heavens. He cried out, not in prayer, but in simple acknowledgement that he yet lived, casting his voice for all to hear.

    His call was answered. The sharp cries of hunters again echoed up from the pass below. They had crossed the chasm and had renewed their pursuit.

    Francisco lowered his face from the blue skies. Around him, spreading to all horizons, were the countless peaks of the Andes. Some were snow-tipped, but most were barren as the one upon which he knelt. For a moment, Francisco could almost understand the Inca's worship of these mountain heights. Here among the clouds and skies, one was closer to God. A sense of timelessness and a promise of eternity seemed to ring forth in the heavy silence. Even the hunters grew hushed -- either from respect for the mountain or from a desire to sneak upon their prey unawares.

Francisco was too tired to care.

    His gaze settled upon the one other type of peak that shared these heights. Below, to the west, were two smoldering peaks, volcanic caldera, twin craters staring up at the same morning skies. From here, the shadowed pair were like two blasted and cursed eyes.

    He spat in their direction and raised a fist with his thumb thrust between his two fingers in a ward against evil.

    Francisco knew what lay within those warm valleys. From his mountaintop altar, he christened the twin volcanoes. "Ojos el de Diablo," he whispered … the Devil's eyes.

    Shivering at the sight, he turned his back on the view. He could not do what must be done while staring at those eyes. He now faced the east and the rising sun.

    Kneeling before the blaze of glory, he reached within his robe and slipped out the cross that hung from around his neck. He touched his forehead against the warm metal. Gold. Here was the reason the Spaniards had struggled through these foreign jungles -- the dream of riches and wealth. Now their lust and greed would damn them all.

    Francisco turned the crucifix and kissed the golden figure nailed upon its surface. Here was why he had come here. To bring the word of the Lord to these savages -- and now his cross was the only hope for all the world. He brushed a finger along the back of the cross, fingering the etchings he had carefully carved into the soft gold.

    May it save us all, he prayed silently and nestled the cross back into his robes, resting it near his heart.

    Francisco raised his eyes to the dawn. He had to be certain the Incas never took the cross from him. Though he had reached one of the Inca's sacred sites -- this natural mountaintop altar -- one final act was required of him to insure the cross's safety.

    Once again, he slipped free the shaman's silver dagger from his robe.

    With a prayer of contrition on his lips, he begged forgiveness for the sin he was about to commit. Whether he damned his soul or not, he had no choice. Tears in his eyes, he raised the knife and slashed the blade across his throat. Lancing pain dropped the dagger from his fingers. He fell to his hands. Blood poured from his throat across the dark stones under him.

    In the dawn's light, his red blood glowed brilliantly against the black rock. It was his last sight as he died -- his life's blood flowing across the Incan altar, shining as brightly as gold.

Copyright © 1999-2000 by James Rollins. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted With Permission.

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