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Dare To Take
It as the oldness of the ruins that drew me to them. That stupidly human desire to seek out what is hidden, completed the journey. Now it will be the consequences that send me back for more.
I am an explorer. One of many on this glorious planet, I’m afraid. I’ve seen many things, stolen nearly all of them, and reaped the glory that comes with discovery. My team and I, we specialize in ancient Amazonian cultures; specifically, the gigantic, jungle encroached places in which they shaped their faiths. Unfortunately, the decedents of these supposed civilizations know next to nothing about the fantastic structures we come across. They ogle at such majestic brokenness in the same way we foreigners do.
It must be said that the people that built these temples of sorts, existed an exotically long time ago. This is why it’s a mystery as to how such places were built. Obviously the constructors had no access to cranes and bulldozers. They inhabited the world when it was new, and young. Their surroundings were raw wilderness, with exotic beliefs rising from the watery jungles like the structures created in their honor. Such aliveness there must have been! Such knowledge and tragedy! It is the least one can do, to go about finding the remnants of a previous humanity. This is the work I do, the fame I seek, the danger I face. And when the work is done (for a spell) I come home and share my adventures. I do love a story, especially when I’m the main character. Care to listen?
Picture this: A swamp land full of towering trees- trunks wider than I am tall - And our humble boat, motoring through such intensity. Everywhere there is thick soupy water, dotted with patches of muddy land. The trees sprouted from the water, their roots creating shadows and concaves. Our gear is tight upon our backs, our supplies are fresh, our spirits high as the foliage that blocks the sunlight, casting eerie shadows on the murky river.
The unnerving quietness was like nothing we had experienced before. Usually the rainforest is alive with the chattering of a jillion species, and the water ripples with the presence of submerged creatures. This time, our humming outboard was the only noise for miles. Montana Smith’s reasoning was the jungle equivalent of Sunday and all life forms were sleeping late. This was deemed ‘unlikely’ by the humorless Bareth Bones. Except for his dreary personality, our mood was light, and the day was new, and we were explorers on the path to exploration. All was going well, and went better still when Karma Lee exclaimed, “Rocks ahead! Rocks ahead!” from the prow of the boat.
And there before us, about twenty yards ahead, was a great mass of mossy boulders, shooting up from the murky water. Vines trailed off of them, and draped from the tree limbs high above us. The air was oppressive and damp, humidity at its finest, but we had officially come upon the promised ruins. A silence pervaded my crew, much like that surrounding us. We puttered on, looking around as the ancient realms closed in around us. Great expanding highways of crumbling rock and pillaring plaster rose a full story above the murky water level, supported by columns and more boulders. It was a network unlike any we had ever seen before. Shrouded with the signs of concentrated neglect, the millennial-old architecture bore the weight of the jungle. Still, the winding pathways above our heads were strong and sturdy, like they refused to give way to ageing. It was hard to guess how old they were or what they had been used for, but according to Scarlett Fox (the most intelligent individual on our team) the structures surrounding us were most likely used for daily transportation. The mucky land and waterways we had chosen to travel by was obviously not the best way to get around, and whoever used the passages above were most likely interested in going about life as efficiently as possible. This seemed a well thought out hypothesis, although it was difficult to imagine in some cases. Cruising onward, we saw areas where paths abruptly stopped and started with wide gaps in between. Nothing I couldn’t clear with a running start, but there were other examples as well. Jumping off a crumbling stone road straight onto a rocky, un-barricaded path made of boulders was something no one in the boat was equipped to handle. And while the ‘street’ idea made sense, there didn’t seem to be any destinations. Only ways to travel, and nothing to travel to. Until of course, we came to the temple.
Now, I and my crew, we’ve seen a great many temples. Underground, mountainous, half submerged, booby trapped, breathtakingly beautiful, and downright disgraceful. This one was fantastically huge. Imagine a full sized shopping mall sitting on stone pillars as tall as an apartment complex. There had to be at least three stories of space between the water and the building’s first floor, and the roof was hard to see in places, it was that high up. We were beholden an incredible construction. It was made of intricately carved stone piecework that had been put together like a jigsaw puzzle. No, it looked like one of those intricate 3D puzzles on steroids with cement-like paste holding some kind of sports arena together. It was absolutely immense, I tell you. And it was so well preserved that entire trees were growing through the foundation without any compromise to the ancient house of worship. All the raised walking platforms ran straight to it, which made a lot of sense. For my no-frills team of seven (self-included) it would take at least a week to scope the place out. We’d stash our gear with Francisco, whose age prevented him from intense exploration, and peruse the temple equipped with only the necessities for our first entry- Flashlights, water, trail mix, walkie-talkies, flares, and hatchets- nothing more nothing less. If the bounty within proved worthy, we’d make extra supply runs and call in the locals for assistance. This was a place of mystery; something that big couldn’t be empty. We were in the midst of an adventure, and the possibilities were endless!
We tied the boat to a low clustering of mossy boulders big enough to set up equipment and tents, then got straight to work. My satchel (or ‘man-purse’ as Zachary Saanen calls it) already contained the essentials, with plenty of room to store relics and samples. Only when the danger is over, can we use the heavy duty tools and bulging packs, but it is important to explore with exceptionally lightweight supplies. While Francisco assembled his lab and readied his weapons, we toured the strange stone highways. It was difficult to reach them, but Montana scaled the pillars using a tricky climbing pattern on the exposed outcroppings. We all followed suit, and slowly but surely, I made it to the top. Karma Lee poked fun at my slowness and reminded me once again that I had a slower mile time than her. We walked along the stones, careful not to trip on giant tree roots or find ourselves stuck in massive, but mostly abandoned, spider webs. Everything was damp with dew or covered in moss. Vines grew without restraint, and I had to use my hatchet in many circumstances. We minded the road, keeping the massive temple in sight. The opportunity to enter the old, enormous place, was soon impending. Following in the footsteps of extinct, secluded people, we were led straight into it.
Saanen switched on his GoPro camera, and we all took a minute to gaze in wonderment at the beauty before us. For the entrance to the temple was just as spectacular as the partial view from the boat. Erected in the shape of a yawning mouth, stones were arranged to frame the opening with teeth. Embellished by crumbling features and craggy, moss filled, crevices it was as if the temple had a face. A ridge of smooth, round material bridged the protruding dome shaped entry, and the same stuff impersonated eight eyes in a ½ circle around it. The effect was tantalizingly strange, the perfect way to begin an adventure! The six of us switched on our flashlights and tightened the straps on our boots and belts. Accidents can happen within temples, but it is best to prevent them as much as possible. We then advanced through the cavernous passage into the temple. The first thing I noticed was the rank scent of the place. It smelled like mildew, but pungent and bitter. Almost like wet dog, or perhaps… urine. Bareth Bones agreed to the later, plodding along beside me. We cast our flashlights onto the walls, catching only the same repetitive stones again and again. Instead of ornate carvings and strange furnishings there was only floors made of smoothed stones and unpolished rock. Water had seeped into his corridor, and Zachary was the first to step in an ankle-deep puddle of water. We watched our steps more carefully, and plodded on.
The tunnel eventually widened into a great, triangularly shaped room. So large was it that I couldn’t see very far into the other three other wide-mouthed halls. Unfortunately, the chamber was airless, dank, and horrifically empty. We all shared the disappointment. A temple without treasure is like a queen-sized bed without pillows. We looked around, breaking into groups of two to make sure nothing was missed. Karma paired with Scarlett, Bareth with Zachary, and I with Montana. Eager to uncover some gold, or at the very least some moldy old fittings, we felt around the floor. Perhaps there was some secret trap door that would lead us to the treasure that lay hidden either beneath or above.
Booby traps are common in temples, specifically ones designated for the more violent gods. Because of this, it behooves one to know how to tell a treacherous immortal from a peaceful one. The temple’s location is a surefire indicator. The more dangerous the landscape, the more foul tempered the worshiped one. In the heart of the Amazon, with poisonous insects and savage creatures at every turn, one could expect many pitfalls within the walls of a temple situated within such a wilderness.
We shuffled along, analyzing the tiles of wood and polished granite that were arranged in triangular patterns on the floor. Nothing gave way to a room full of precious metals. Even more unusual was the lack of human evidence. We theorized as to why. There had obviously been no natural disaster to wipe out the temple’s congregants because the structure itself was still standing, so bones and debris weren’t to be expected. Scarlett had suggested disease, because in the days of a medieval Amazon, those who were gravely ill would probably seek help in their local temples. This was ironic because that’s how diseases could spread-sickly people asking for divine assistance among the other already dead and dying people who came to do the same thing. A temple of this size was probably an obvious choice for many, and that’s how the population would crumble to a deadly epidemic. But when everybody is dead the temple doesn’t stay this tidy. When preparing to kick the bucket, ancient people didn’t first think, “Oh I should totally get rid of every damn artifact in this ginormous room I’m dying in.” Because that would be stupid, (not to mention morbid.) The better hypothesis as to why we weren’t seeing evidence of human involvement was that they had all left and taken their stuff with them. Bareth shut my idea down, saying the temple was too big and artfully made to just leave it. Even if they had to, the residents would have put up a fight. And war is the kind of thing that leaves heavy indications, battle scars for explorers to read centuries later. Karma had a good point too. Perhaps something had eaten everyone? But that was also lacking in evidence. Monstrous creatures aren’t picky, but they’re even less neat. There could defiantly be creepy remains- like old fossilized bones and destroyed storage rooms. Also, creatures don’t typically consume the furniture and possibly gold-plated relics that we weren’t seeing. I stood by my own reasoning. Maybe those ancient people got fed up with the bugs and humidity, told their gods to worship themselves, and found another place to live.
Montana told our team to shut up and keep looking. He’s plenty smart, Montana Smith, but completely uninterested in talking while exploring. (I’m more of a spur-of-the-moment-explorer myself. Whatever distractions occur, I chase them down.) We continue to inspect the floor décor, crouching to finger the high reliefs. With the toe of my right boot I felt at the worn rounded stones that lined the space where the walls met the floor. The equivalent of baseboards, I thought. There was only three corners in the triangular room, three well-scoured corners. As the clock encroached upon noon, we became completely fed up with the same three walls of stone and moss. As a dejected Zachary said, “If there is any more stone and moss in this God-forsaken temple I’m going to explode.” In summary, there is nothing more explorers hate than standing still and looking at the same damn things for an hour. Which is funny, considering the stuff we find sometimes ends up in museums where people pay to do exactly that.
We decided to break into groups of three, and head down the two other tunnels to see what we could see. We’re a pretty tight team after all we’ve done together, but when separating into groups us guys can get a little feisty. Karma and Scarlett are practically inseparable, but every man on our squad pines after Scarlett Fox. It pains me to say it, but I like her too. She’s got these fantastic eyes that shift between pale greens, coffee browns, and splashes of blue, but mostly remain all three colors at once. Her face is a perfect mess of freckles and her strawberry blond hair is in a perennial ponytail. She has these little tufts of hair by her ears- like feminine sideburns- that she often complains about but really defines her spunkiness. Her ski-jump nose and everlasting grin complete her face. She has a perfect figure, yet she’s super strong. Scarlett could pick me up and throw me around like a rag doll if she wanted to, her arms are well defined beneath her shirts and if you poke her stomach your finger hurts. Her crude sense of humor, puzzle-solving brilliance, and easy-going fairness complete her image. Not to mention her aversion to make-up, jewelry, or swanky clothes. Scarlett dresses simple, and simple looks good on her. This sets her apart from say, Karma Lee, who wears bright colored satin shirts, billowing bohemian style pants and always has her hair done up in some crazy twist. She’s also very opinionated and easy to pick a fight with. The guys say I have the best chance with Scarlett because I’m Irish and I have red hair like she does. Unfortunately, my hair was much redder fifteen years ago, and is now a dullish bronze. Also, I am only ½ Irish. My mother was from Spain.
Luckily, I was able to go along with Karma and Scarlett. Bareth, Montana, and Zachary took the other route. We switched on our walkie-talkies and steeled each other for more disappointment and intriguing mystery.
The tunnel was straight and uninteresting. More stone, more moss. I pictured Zachary exploding, his GoPro flying off his head as he disintegrated into a million flesh-colored flying sparks. I distracted myself from that disturbing thought by making small talk with Scarlett, taking care to include Karma Lee. The passage was longer than expected, and far smellier. Now I was certain- the disgusting aroma was feces and urine. It was similar to the fragrance of a monkey house, but far wetter due to the dampness of the place. A flooded monkey house, maybe. Onward we traveled, aiming the flashlight beams at the paved section before us. Conversation was dull and our gait was swift.
Lo’ and behold, the hallway widened and emptied into an even larger triangular room. Our voices echoed much louder than before, and there was a greater amount of natural light. Vines hung from the ceiling, twisted into great green tendrils. The skin of a snake lay in a flakey coil on the branch of a protruding tree. There was no sound, because we had ceased to make some. This was due to the sight of an idol.
A small golden object stood on a tree-shaped stand in a pool of liquid, its metallic sheen creating contrast from the dulled browns, greys, and greens we had seen so far. The figure was of a little frog-like man, probably a religious figure. Its position was crouched, like the being was squatting, its webbed feet short and wide. Golden fingers clasped the large, rotund head that appeared to be modeled after a pumpkin. The statue’s teeth looked much like the entrance to the temple, and its eyes were similar in that regard as well. There were carvings in an ancient dialect all over the backside and rear of it, and it sat on a triangular piece of granite atop a wooden platform of woven vines that is shaped like a tree.
It wasn’t life-like or horrid in any way, shape, or form, but the initial verdict was ‘solid gold.’ Ergo, I took on the ridiculously savage responsibility of an explorer and pick it up.
Now, as a representative of my beloved profession, I will inform you that all adventurers, explorers, archeologists, hunters, and the like, all fall into an extraordinary class of thieves. We take items from places. We receive money for them on occasion, sometimes there is price to have obtained them. To put it bluntly, to be an explorer on the lookout for fantastical objects in fantastical places, we are trespassing and then stealing. And that is what I did. The little golden figurine seemed to stare at me, daring me to take him. I answered him, inside my head. Yes, I dare to take the idol. So I held it in my palm like a criminal. Then I glanced behind me, where the rest of the team had come in. I was grinning like everyone does upon success and expected them to wear similar expressions.
They seemed extremely tense, like a child knowing they will be caught doing something naughty. But this wasn’t just anxiety. Upon closer examination, their faces were of pure fear. Three grown men, visibly shaking, their mouths open, their eyes round. At first I didn’t get it. I almost questioned their frozen state, but what stopped me was her scream. Shrill and long, like a dog whistle. Loud too, magnified in the cavernous room. My ears actually vibrated. I was staring at Montana when Scarlett Fox screamed, and at first it didn’t resonate. I could not whirl around to see what the matter was because the matter presented itself to me. There was a muffled ‘thump,’ overhead, and a careful shifting of vines, as if someone had slipped up after trying to not be seen or heard. I looked up. And there they were, far, far above our party, but still so appallingly near.
Horrid, black feathered beasts had appeared on the vines overhead, clinging to the jungle vegetation like great apes. They were slightly bigger than I, with rounded shoulders and enormous, muscular arms. Their coats were glossy, but had feathers in place of fur, and paws with four curved fingers, claws extending from them. Their legs were strong too, but they had slim waists. I did not see any tails, although I was not looking for any. Their ghastly faces demanded all attention. Pale as bones, a skull-shaped feature covered their noses and surrounded their eyes. It looked thick, like the natural armor one sees in dinosaur images. The jaw protruded from there, terribly strong jaws with double rows of teeth- sharp like a surgeon’s utensils. Deadly as a firearm, maybe more so. For unlike one of Francisco’s guns, these creatures possessed intelligence. You could see it in their eyes, dark as soot, with star-shaped pupils. Irises so large there was no white. This was a species of deadly brains. I clutched the golden idol in my right hand and stared into the face of terror after turning to face the one behind me. I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. I have no idea what I would have said anyway.
Scarlett, now finished screaming, was the only one who thought in terms of survival and was the first to escape the danger on foot. Breaking my gaze of frightened amazement, I turned and fled to the tune of her frantic shouts. “Run! Run! Get away!” The monsters, triggered by our movement, flung themselves from the dangling vines and shook the whole temple as they landed in unison. Karma Lee was halfway into the first triangular room by the time I started running. I found her, crouched in a corner catching her breath, but I did not break stride. I could feel the stones vibrating behind me, the horrific feathered animal’s right on my tail. They were silent except for the rustling of their feathers and pounding footfalls. I pumped my arms and legs faster than I ever could before, recalling the trick I had once used as a schoolyard boy, “Run like there is a bear after you.” This was far worse than a bear. Bears loose interest after they’ve asserted dominance and driven an intruder away. This was a pursuit to the death, but I wasn’t sure yet whose.
Glancing behind me wasn’t an option, but I could picture their ferocious, hell-bent gaze. I knew the fiends would rather die of exhaustion than have me live. Ahead of me was Karma, and I knew if anyone could, she would run out our frantic pursuers. Out onto the stone platforms we raced, I with the idol, Karma with her long, speedy legs. I could hear Scarlett nearby, her panting breath and strong, sure, steps. My lungs and chest seized up, and my throat was so dry I didn’t waste the energy swallowing. My legs ached from exertion and adrenaline, my eyes teared up from the oppressive humidity. The terrain wasn’t helpful either. The path was completely overgrown with tree limbs and roots. I had to vault over natural obstacles tall as I am, and avoid pesky roots pervading the stone. The minute I tripped up or careened into the ornately carved, crumbling, barricade, the wretched brutes were upon me; their loafing strides advancing on my overworked legs. My boots clobbered the ground, and I sped past Francisco, who was taking aim at the fanatical savages from our half-erected base. They never screamed as animals will, but I watched as one of them slumped into a tree trunk, blood as red as my own spilling from its feral side. Eyes closing for eternity, as it heroically gave up its chase. I almost stopped at the sight of such divine serenity. It was sadistically beautiful. Still, my feet worked the stone, treading moss, scaling bark, and generally trying to save the only life I had. Within seconds, I forgot all about my teammates.
The above-water pathways turned sharply to the left and right, a complicated route for my escape. My heart nearly stopped when I narrowly ducked the clawed paw at my left ear, swerving at a fork in the ancient road. The humid air was not exactly of service, and I wasn’t capable of thinking about the others. Karma Lee was so far ahead and Scarlett Fox too far behind. I didn’t know if Bareth Bones, Montana Smith, and Zachary Saanen were still alive. I only thought of riding myself of the beastly swine. The wild venery through the swamp was nary of fun. Where the egress had fallen apart I had to jump across the murky water, with no time for error. The things tracking me weren’t the least bit deterred. They simply followed suit in terrorizing flawlessness. When the course crumbled away altogether, I leapt off a manmade cliff onto a wooden gangplank of sorts. Just inches from the water I clutched the idol and hoped for the best. To my horror, the boardwalk was equipped with old trip-wire snares; obvious due to decay and vine growth, but just as deadly. Hurdling these I crossed the same obstacles as before, as well as sliding underneath whole trees that had grown across the route. Once the original thoroughfare was in sight, and I sprung up from the wooden rails onto the decrepit pillars and shimmied up quicker than Montana Smith himself.
Up and running again, I allowed myself to slow the pace, glancing behind to see if I had outrun them, taking the time to transfer the idol into my leather satchel. Within minutes the degenerate louts were fast encroaching, leaping up onto the stone and moss like something out of a video game! Needless to say, I sped away towards even more treacherous blockades. I Dodged, vaulted, slid, I weaved around trees, and roots. I scrambled through broken-up sections of raised pavement, narrowly missing a steep descent into the water. The strangest obstruction I came across was a narrow, raised trench full of oil, with space to slide underneath. I spotted several more in front of me. Deviously, I dug a flare from my satchel and lit the oil, causing it to burst into flame as I ducked beneath it, the breath of devilish entity in my ear. The death defying abscond continued. Lighting the oil distanced them from me, but not by much. They did not seem to grow weaker. Perhaps they ran with the same determination as I did, only for a different, more complex reason. Onward I went, seeking shelter this time, for I could not go on much longer. The idol in my bag seemed to grow heavier and heavier with each stride, and igniting the arched troughs became a terrible struggle. My vision was blurring, breath was scarce, and I looked up at the tree-filled sky with the face of a man near defeat. Was this my last adventure? (I can assure you that it was not because here I am to tell you this exotic and woeful tale.)
Out of nowhere the terrain changed and I felt myself treading boulders. I threw the flare over my shoulder and ducked under an overpass of tree roots. Clinging to the disgustingly damp, ant infested bark, I caught my breath and waited for my hunters to attack. Although I saw their silent shadows and heard the muffled vibrations of their approach, I did not see them invade my vicinity. Someone saved me first.
I peeked around a root and saw Scarlett Fox, beautiful, crafty, and strong, beating the shit out of the monsters. She had a large flat object in her hands- a plank of wood it looked like- and her face was a freckled grimace. Her perennial strawberry blond ponytail hung in dirty wet tendrils, and her clothing looked soaked. That didn’t stop her from swinging hammer fists at the bony faces of jungle reprobates and smacking them upside the head with her improvised weapon. It was then that I recalled something the miraculous women had put in her resume pre-admission to the team. “I am a third degree black belt in Karate, and can swim quite capably.” Such abilities had more than come through in my hour of need. One by one I watched the ravenous villains fall in to the water, all eight of them. As their bodies splashed into the swamp they emitted the only cry I believe they could make. Recognition of defeat. It was a hollow echoing sound, full of sadness and longing- an exclamation of deep frustration. Scarlett continued to defend herself until the last one fell. Her movements were graceful and effective, yet once or twice I saw her falter, and sucked in my breath, and I held my breath.
When the coast was clear I slunk out from beneath the tree and approached her with caution. I was ashamed. All my life I’ve expected to save the princess, get the girl, but in this instance, it was the other way around. A woman had completely saved my ass, and I had been too beating to help her defend against supernatural temple demons. She whirled around, her fists at her ribcage, prepared to clonk the living daylights out of me. I saw her face soften as she cursed at me.
I nodded with all the stupidity one can muster.
“Those things… They died for that idol.” She continued.
“Died?” I asked. Surely she hadn’t KILLED them.
“Yeah,” she stated in wonderment, “They disintegrated when they hit the swamp.”
We peered over the edge of the boulders. Sure enough there was a distinct lack of horrifying skull faced beings. To this day I wonder at their existence in correspondence to my actions within the temple.
“I am resigning.” Scarlett said then, her dazzling rainbow eyes hardening to a stony dark greenish brown.
“What!?” I eked out, “But we need you.”
“Sure you do. But I’m still resigning.” She explained with dignity. Scarlett looked capable of having me meet the same fate as those disappeared beings, so I didn’t further the conversation.
Twenty minutes later Francisco brought the boat around; I had had to walkie-talkie him our location to him. We wasted no time in policing up Bareth, Montana, and Zachary before getting the hell out of that jungle swamp. As our boat motored away from the temple, our ears were infinitely pleased to finally hear the sounds of the animals around us, chorusing my team’s departure from that Godforsaken place.
In case you are wondering, I still have the idol stolen from that temple that housed those beasts. They chased me in pursuit of it, but today I hold it in my palm. If you look at it closely, your reflection in its glossy golden sheen will not be yours, but that of a skull faced creature with sleek black feathers and a menacing, deadly jaw. I suppose that is its purpose- to show one who the monster really is.
That is my story, thank you for listening. You know if you ever want to hear another, I’ve got an arsenal.