Deep in the wilderness of the Peruvian Andes lies a monument hidden for centuries. Who were the builders? Why was it abandoned? What secrets does it reveal?
In 1953, an amateur rock climber makes a startling discovery. Overwhelmed by the choices he must make, the mountaineer completes his ascent deciding he will document his findings and present them to his superiors as soon as possible. It will take another fifty years before anyone reads what he wrote.
In 2004 news of the strange revelation reaches Drake Alexander. He will become involved whether he likes it or not. People very dear to him are plunged into a nightmare of avarice, impairment and death. Using all his skills as an ex-soldier, with accomplices he can trust, can he save his tormented friends from the raiders that thirst for the secret that lies within the mountains?
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The Andes, Peru Early summer.
Father Suetonius Graft is no ordinary priest. Presently he has his left fist jammed vertically in a horizontal crack that splits the granite face he is ascending. The open seam stretches upward for seventeen meters or more, tapering to a sliver that is still seventy meters away from the top of the mountain. His toes nip a five centimeter ledge, left over from a stone slab that split from the heaving rock millennia ago. His calves, like the rest of his lean body, are chiselled muscle. They strain from holding his weight on his toes. He reaches up with his right hand to search for another hand hold; there is nothing he can see. Needing to rest, he needs to find a better position than he is in now. He’s been climbing since early morning, stopping only when he absolutely has to.
His fingers search for a grip as he brushes his hand across the flat surface. A familiar feeling of unease touches him, as it has since he was a boy. He closes his eyes for several seconds and asks God where his hand should go, thanks Him for His guidance and if there is no hand-hold to be had, thanks Him for his life. Prayer has never failed him, not in the thirty-seven years since he scrambled up a rock pile when he was five. He had gotten stuck then. A boyish prayer to his guardian angel had given him confidence to find a way back down. He feels the same presence that rescued him then. He waves his hand over the hard face once more. This time his fingers sweep away ancient debris from an indent in the rock with enough room for four fingers up to the second knuckle. He latches on to the hold just as his lower legs begin to quiver from exertion. Taking most of his weight on his hands and arms, he relaxes his legs. Semi relief is instantaneous and he hangs there motionless for five minutes, his sweaty forehead pressed against the warm rock, thanking the Lord for His benevolence, for delivering him one more time.
As he clings to the sheer plate that rises over two hundred meters from the forest floor, the afternoon sun ricochets off his ebony skin, defining the musculature of his lengthy frame. His upper body is clad in perspiration that makes thin rills down his back, his chest and under his arms. The blue handkerchief with white polka dots, folded and tied around his tight curls, stops the flow from his smooth brow. He wears tattered climbing shorts that cover his thighs to the knees, all six pockets bulging. At his waist along his back, attached to a thin leather belt, is a pouch that holds climbing chalk. Powdered handprints left on the route up attest to the bag’s contents being well used. A white t-shirt is tied around his midsection. His legs end in thin wool socks tucked into custom, rubber-toed climbing shoes he designed. No other gear is attached to him: no pitons, no hammer, no clips. Around his neck hangs a polished, golden, curb link chain. Between his chest and the stone is a gold cross that his father gave him when he was ordained. He never, ever takes it off.
As his arms begin to weary, he looks up, trying to see a more appropriate spot where he can rest. Shadows creep up the mountain behind him as the sun begins its descent. Suetonius can see an opening about ten meters above to his right. A section of the plates that form these mighty mounds have created a crevice. He hadn’t been able to see it from below or with the sun shining directly on it. From where he hangs now, it looks to be wide enough for him to sit in. He sighs with relief. Concentrating on his next move, he sights an approach to the cavity. Once he is clear on his route, he pulls up with his hands, his arms straining until he can reach his foot into the same crack he has a taped fist in. He wedges his toes in sideways, pushing up to test its grip. As his body slowly rises he wiggles the lodged hand out and forces it as high as he can reach. It will be the last fist hold he uses because the crack starts to widen from there. But he knows it is all he will need.
With deft manoeuvers and risky placement, he is on the ledge forty-five minutes later. He can stand upright in the cleft, it being wider, with more head room than he originally thought. He leans back against the rock, which is refreshingly cool. The lip of the outer slab covers him from the sun. Studying the grain of the granite in front of him, he glances overhead at the slab at his back, marvelling that the two faces have identical marks and slices. Obvious they were one piece sometime in the past. He is in awe at the massive force that would have pushed these imposing mountains from the earth’s crust, cleaving solid rock as easily as if it were wood. He crosses himself in respect for God’s ways.
Sitting down on the rough ledge, his feet hang over the edge. Breathing deeply of the unsullied air, the scent of cold stone pleases him; the silence is complete. He looks out over the Peruvian scenery that poses before him. The narrow valley that leads back to the Malaga Pass is a mere indent in the landscape. Mountains, many gigantic, many shorter and greener fill the horizon. The smaller mountain he is perched on, a short distance east of Ollantaytambo, west of Machu Picchu, is over three hundred and fifty meters from the valley floor, over three thousand meters above sea level. The face he discovered is obscure, its access hindered by dense forest and abundant ancient scree. He felt led to this particular dome and he relishes the difficult work he’s accomplished over the past month to finally get where he is at this moment.
As his body rests, his thoughts sweep back to the rocks of his youth – the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, the Appalachians that puncture the southeast states. He climbed for the sheer joy of contact with the stone. It was at those moments he felt closest to God, when he felt his calling into the priesthood, when it opened his heart to possibilities, to humbleness, to majesty, to sharing and giving. When he clings perilously to a sheer stone wall, there is never any fear of falling, only a pure sensation of rising above the bounds imposed by gravity, above the bounds of personal limitations. To this very day, his best sermons are those that come from his moments with the open sky and the silent crags, and the peace that comes from times alone. His days off are often spent climbing or scouting for climbs. A grin crosses his slender face as he thinks how far he has come from a dormant village in Tennessee to the mountains of Peru.
His parents come to mind, both dead for the last three years, his father went first, at seventy-six, from cancer; his mother two years later at seventy-four. How he loved them. He was so proud of them, his father the first black fireman on the town of Raven Hollow’s pay roll. He recalls the marvellous sight of his Pap in his new uniform, buttons and brass as polished as his pure black skin. His Spanish-speaking mother was Cuban. She was originally a domestic, had shown a natural dexterity for numbers. She worked for the same employer all her life, first as his wife’s personal maid starting when she was only fifteen. But when she was twenty, she moved into the offices to learn bookkeeping, retiring many years later as office manager. They taught him and his five siblings to persevere, never give up on their goals. He missed them.
With that last thought, he rises from his seat thinking to scale the final stretch to the top, not too worried about time. He still has five or six hours of sunlight. He wants to check the rock overhead, looking for the best route up, and he backs into the crevice so he can see past a slight overhang just above him. He doesn’t look behind him because the inner slab looked to be part of the outer slab that forms the walls around him. But when he steps back, he feels a weak breeze stirring behind him. He looks past the back wall to see an opening that rises ten meters off the split but it’s only twenty-five centimeters wide. He isn’t a caver, a spelunker, so openings in the rock face hold little interest for him. Attempting to ignore it, a shiver prickles his skin, telling him to take a look. Removing a small flashlight from his pocket, he clicks the button to reveal a sharp, straight beam.
Poking the ray of light into the darkness, it is swallowed six meters in. The walls seem to open, moving apart from each other. The ceiling is nowhere in sight, too high and too dark for the penetrating glare. Rocks litter the floor, small and large; cobwebs in the hundreds decorate the interior, and the acidic smell of bat guano is present. The spooky emptiness is oddly inviting, like an entity that calls to him. An aroma of cold dust and aged memories wafts through the black passage. Father Graft tries to ignore his inner voice’s prodding, about to give up on the cave when his sweeping light falls upon something familiar, the skeleton of a human hand.
The bones are projecting from the base of a large boulder as if reaching for freedom. The curled finger bones are intact, tarsal and meta-tarsal pointed to the roof. Suetonius stares at the sight for many moments, never having considered that he’d not been the first to climb this face. His curiosity takes him deeper. Behind the boulder, the skeleton continues, two sets of tibia and fibula with feet attached complete the scene. The man or woman had been crushed by a falling rock. Who it was would never be known. What he may have been doing here would soon become evident.
Father Graft moves his light in a pendulating arc across the floor. The cavern widens out; narrow cracks punctuate the floor that he realizes is too smooth and level to be natural. He carefully watches where he walks. Stones of every size litter the passage, a reminder that the mountain’s insides are unstable, probably not safe. Shortly the ingress takes a sharp turn, opening into a wider grotto. He continues a short distance until the point of his torch touches upon something familiar on the floor to his right: a crude hammer. Its stone head is attached to a wooden handle, with curling strips of dried leather binding the two together. Holding the light directly on the implement, he stares at it for several moments; its obvious antiquity stuns him. What he is about to discover will floor him.
He lifts the light to the right, discovering a stone shelf that runs along the wall to disappear into the pitch. It comes almost to his waist. The width varies with the roughness of the stone it has been carved out of. It is cluttered with many more hammers of different sizes, with metal chisels clothed in verdigris. Odd implements he doesn’t recognize and loose rock fill the space. The spider’s traps are abundant. Scanning the collection, he tries to estimate the historical significance of what he has uncovered. He senses they are very old. But how old? Are they Incan, Quechan, Chanca? Why here? What were they building? The discovery uncovers so many questions. He checks his watch, sees he has been in here for only twenty minutes. He decides he will look around another half hour before leaving.
He directs the flashlight beam across the floor, checking for cracks, when off to the far left it reveals a stone berm. The delicate and precise crafting can only have been made by the most skilled of artisans. It is obviously Incan stone work. He has been in Peru for almost three years; Incan history fascinates him. He visited the ruins, listened to the lore, and devoted his reading time to their history. Their skills with chisels and wet sand astonish him. Reflecting on that, he judges this is the same work that he saw at Machu Piccu, likely over six hundred years old. He lifts the sliver of light upward.
There is a stone pedestal on the berm that holds what appears to be a tremendous slab almost like a wall rising into the bleakness above, it has to be three to four meters high, he estimates. He flashes his light briefly inside the cavern ahead of himself to see berm, pedestal and slab continue beyond the reach of his light. He brings the beam back to the wall in front of him. When he moves it up, he steps back, eyes wide in shock at what he sees. Even through the dust of ages, through the fine patina that masks the surface, he can detect, carved ornately into the facade of the flat wall, a huge warrior with battle axe raised above his head. Fine detail riddles the helmet fitted on his head. The figure stands with a fractured shield, armour dressing his lower limbs. One leg is raised, with a sandaled foot resting on a fallen foe. The body of the fighter’s enemy lies at his feet, the severed head close by. Father Graft wheezes into the gloom, “It’s a wall of war.”
Focusing the light down the wall, he can see other battles, other defeated opponents depicted in gruesome realness. The enormity of this definitive carving, an epic battle etched in something solid by hand, is too much. His heart races, his breathing becomes shallow. He has to sit down, he tells himself. And then he almost faints. His legs buckle; he drops to his knees, trying to control his breathing. His dropped flashlight rolls up to the berm and goes out.
He panics briefly but control learnt from his climbing calms him. He slowly moves into a sitting position, never taking his eyes off the spot where the light came to rest. The berm is less than two meters away, but the darkness is almost complete like on a moonless night. Very little light comes from the opening. He trembles lightly. He speaks to God in a small voice: “I’m humbled that you chose me to discover this relic, to find this evidence of Peru’s tumultuous past. I can only be your servant. I have no idea who to tell, where to go, but I will follow your lead, dear Father. Please show me what to do. Amen.”
His soft inflection barley echoes in the chamber.
He returns to his knees and creeps towards the wall until he touches the lowest stones. Shifting his hand to the right along the base, he finds nothing. In the opposite direction he hits the bottom of the light and it blinks two or three times. He grabs the flashlight with relief. As he shakes it gently, the light flashes again. Checking the battery cover, he finds it loose and gives it a twist. It springs back to life.
Rising, he walks towards the opposite end of the wall. There are three other warriors in similar battle array, similar poses, with defeated men who have all succumbed to hideous wounds. The victors bear different weapons: a bow, a sling, a spear. He notices each soldier is posed in a victorious stance, his attention focused towards the center of the grand wall. He recognizes them as Inca soldiers.
Seven meters in from where he started, an even larger figure rises taller than all the others. Suetonius shuffles closer, shining his light upwards. The carving is of a robed man. Taking root from the neck of his tunic are two heads bearing crowns. From each, the same face stares out at the girded greeting at his sides. The tip of his spear looms over his head, extending above the top lip of the wall. Father Graft stares deeply at the faces, which are stoic and unemotional, not at all war-like. The body of the man is wonderfully formed. It is hard to fathom that it was carved by hand. His bewilderment is intensified with every sweep of his eyes.
Another stretch of the wall, displaying carvings of equal skill and dexterity, is of mighty men still at battle. Each Incan warrior fights a different enemy. Some of their opponents wear odd dress, some wear none at all. All convey killing weapons and fierce glares. Father Graft notes that the carvers, likely Incan, paid respect to their enemies by not featuring them as weak. He retreats to inspect the fallen men on the left panel again, noting that on this wall also the enemies are different. It’s a marvellous display. Could it be a monument to the central figure, he asks himself? Why is it hidden in this mountain?
His questions are many, creating a traffic jam in his skull. He closes his eyes again, shaking his head. He feels dizzy for a moment and reaches out to catch himself as his arm automatically lifts towards the monolith. Where his hand comes to rest on the cold plate, he can feel the roughness of the carving. He reaches up with his other hand to hold his cross tightly in his grip as he tries to think what to do. He remembers he only has so many hours of sunlight to reach the mountaintop and he has yet to walk back to his car. His mind clears thinking of the climb before him. He knows concentration is vital. He pushes himself from the wall, checking his watch. He’s been in here for over an hour. He should go.
Turning to head, he glimpses the flash of his light reflected by the spot where his hand brushed away the patina. He gapes at what he sees and slowly focuses on the blotch.
“It can’t be!” He exclaims. “It’s unimaginable.”
To confirm his analysis of what he thought was stone, he turns the ray of the flashlight at the cross on his chest. The reflection is the same.
“Oh, dear Lord. It’s gold!”