The Pacific Ocean, East of Micronesia. June 1936.
Calder Motram gripped the railing, knuckles white with effort. Only the force of his will kept him standing. Despite clinging tightly to the rail, he could barely keep himself upright. His heart raced, but not from the exertion. The intense feeling of anticipation was enough to overcome even his physical infirmity.
Across the bay, his goal was visible. At a distance, the temple ruins resembled the bones of a dead animal decaying into the jungle. It was an ugly sight, but he’d seen enough of the glittering blue waves of empty sea and the deceptively pretty waters of the Pacific Ocean had lost their charm.
Lenora pressed up behind him, and the chains at her wrists rattled as she offered support.
“Sit down sir. Please. You are overtaxing yourself.”
Calder’s strength dissipated in a sigh and he allowed her to help him back into the chair they’d fixed to the upper deck for his benefit. The difficult months of the search had only speeded the decline of his health, but he couldn’t give up now. The real work was only beginning.
He could hear the Captain on his way up now. Something about the sound of his boots on the stairs had a distinctive ring to it. Calder understood scum like him, jackals, respecting only strength – and Calder’s strength was almost spent. If it weren’t for his Nauru Islander guides, he’d be dead already. He couldn’t afford that. Who would take over his work? His only hope was to make the Captain understand that they still needed each other.
The Captain would have come closer, but Noah, the old islander warned him back. He, and the others, they understood the Captain as instinctively as they knew how to navigate the treacherous ocean with little more than the wind and the swell as their guide.
Noah frowned. The dour expression suited him. The tight-stretched brown skin on his bald head resembled the desiccated flesh of a mummy more than that of a living man. Scars twisted on his face as he glowered at the Captain, who took a step back.
The Captain was wary of Noah and the other islanders, but his crew were easily as vicious. For now, the two factions held to an uneasy truce, but it could all too easily explode into a frenzy of throat slitting and bludgeoning.
The Captain squinted at the sunlight. There was a hint of Chinese about his eyes, though he was, more-or-less, a white man. The depths of his tan might have led a careless observer to guess otherwise. The long black hair that he’d kept neatly braided all voyage now hung loose around his shoulders. That was undoubtedly important, but what did it mean? His dealings seemed transparent, but some of the man’s predilections were a mystery deeper than the ocean he sailed.
The Captain nodded towards the island. “I’ve found your blasted temple. Not a moment too soon eh?”
“Not my temple,” Calder began, then dissolved into a fit of coughing.
A peculiar smile played across the Captain’s lips while he waited silently for Calder to regain the composure to say his piece.
Calder put his handkerchief away without looking at it. He didn’t need to see the blood. “How soon can we be ashore?” His voice came out weaker than he’d hoped.
The Captain stroked his smoothly shaven chin. “We won’t be able to go in close. There’s no hope of rescue if we run aground. I’ll have the small boats readied.”
“If you’re thinking of stealing my books and taking everything for yourself, you would be wasting your time. There is no other scholar alive who can read those texts, and without them you’ll find nothing in that temple but an agonizing death.”
The Captain smiled, batted his long, almost feminine eyebrows. “Ease yourself Mister Motram. I’m not thinking of doing that.” He gave a laugh. “No. I plan to collect the second part of my payment as agreed. The larger part. That’s enough for me.” He paused and his gaze shifted to Lenora. She trembled, setting her chains jangling. “More than enough if you can keep your promise. Besides, the inbred murderers and cannibals from that pariah family seem to think you are some kind of god. They might take ill to me throwing you over the side to make a swim for it.”
Calder glanced at Noah. There was no doubt he understood the provocation in the Captain’s words, and yet he showed no signs of it. His stoic frown remained unchanged.
It was true in part of course. The islanders were outcasts from Nauru, their entire extended family exiled for crimes that Calder could only guess at. Without their knowledge he would never have found the island, or the temple. Without their help he would never have dared negotiate passage with a rogue like the Captain, and nobody else would undertake such a long and speculative search without a much larger sum up-front. Without their faith in him, he might have despaired and lay down to let the tuberculosis finish him off over a year ago.
“But you might contrive to send enough of them ashore that you can safely dispose of those left on the ship.”
“I could negotiate a new deal in that case, yes? But you are too clever Mister Motram, so we shall have to be careful to keep the numbers even shall we not?”
“And you will come ashore with me,” Calder said.
The Captain’s poker face revealed nothing. “Of course. If that is what is required.”
If he could, Calder would have set off straight for the ruins as soon as they landed, but they had all agreed, the journey to the temple would take too long. Night descended suddenly in these tropical parts, and the daylight was lost before they’d finished setting up camp.
He turned away from the embers of the small campfire. There was no need for additional heat. Even with the sun gone, the humidity was crushing. Leaning on his walking sticks, he hobbled to his tent. A last glance back revealed Lenora on her knees, taking some islander’s cock in her mouth. He envied the man, recalling with bitterness the day that the pretty slave’s best efforts could no longer bring him to attention.
Taking out the key that he kept hidden next to his skin, he unlocked the metal case containing his books. Tomorrow, his knowledge of the temple would need to be flawless. The volume fell open at a page that showed one of the Josephan “tarot”. An omen? It was the one he called the Priestess. The story of how Josephus came by these images was outrageous at best, but that was only part of the reason why the images unsettled him. No. Unsettled was too weak a word for the creeping unease that chilled him to the bone, despite the oppressive jungle heat. There was no doubt that the engravings were first among the reasons his father had kept these books hidden – why he hadn’t donated them to the British museum, as he had the others.
Calder’s vision blurred. Headache stabbed through his eye like a knife, exploded in a white starburst of pain. Examining the books often had this effect lately. Pain was becoming a familiar companion, almost unremarkable. There was no alternative but to endure it. He should have copied out translations and left the work of locating lost temples to stronger, younger men. Alas, the disease had come on too quickly, and complete translations would be the work of a lifetime – a lifetime he no longer had to look forward to. Yet if these words were lost, civilization might be doomed.
He turned the pages, deliberately forcing himself to consider the image he dubbed ‘the devil’. The thing was female, bat-wings, forked tail, crowned and with spiralling horns. She crouched, not upon a plinth, but upon the globe of the world, her oversized genitals unleashing a stream of urine upon her chained minions. With one hand she presented a breast, licking the nipple with a serpent’s tongue, in the other hand she held a sword.
Considering its features, the image was merely disgusting. Shocking at first glance perhaps, but hardly the stuff of nightmare. The true devil lay in the seemingly infinite detail that formed the larger whole. The image emerged from a complex chaos of dots, revealing different shapes and patterns with every glance. It played tricks. When he had first viewed it, it had seemed made from a mosaic of grinning skulls. Tonight, he could see overlapping images of debauchery. Grotesque women with gaping orifices being fucked in every way possible by men with massive cocks. He closed his eyes and looked again. He could swear the image was overlaid with the image of his own face, dead and rotting, a giant centipede crawling from an empty eye-socket.
He shuddered and hastily turned to another page, finding one with only text. Here it was, the description of the temple. It might hold the cure to his disease and hope for humanity and the world. But when viewing it, from the ship, the temple had not seemed like a place of hope. It was more like a graveyard. The people that had lived here had vanished without a trace leaving only folktales of dark sorcery. What was it that had driven all human settlement from the island? The information in the book was two-thousand years old. Was he mad to chance so much on it?
He checked his diary. The date was suspicious. Or perhaps auspicious? Tomorrow would be the first of November. Today was Halloween. By calendar date at least. Here, it was nothing like the dark winter of his childhood, instead it was the cusp between the dry and wet seasons. Soon it would be cyclone season, likely forcing him to abandon the search. It seemed beyond coincidence that he would be on the verge of success now, on this singular date.
Too many signs in alignment. Was he making a terrible mistake? No. He’d made his choice already. It was too late to turn back now.
Calder looked up from the book. It was late, and the camp was deathly silent. He closed his eyes and tried to rub away the exhaustion. When he opened them, Noah was standing in front of him.
“Temple. Now,” he said.
Calder nodded. If Noah said it was time to leave the camp hastily, in the middle of the night, then the man would have a good reason for it. Wasting no time, he packed the books back into the case. Before he could lock it shut, Noah hoisted him up and over his shoulder, then grabbed the case with the other hand.
When Calder was in his prime, Noah would have been six inches shorter than him. He was so emaciated now that the wiry islander was able to carry him over his shoulder and still manage to lug the books as well.
Noah charged straight into the darkness of the jungle, running breakneck through a tangled mass of roots and branches – snags that by rights out to have sent them both sprawling, or ripped them to shreds. He ran for five minutes straight, carrying Calder all the way.
Calder found himself placed on his feet and grabbed hold of a nearby sapling for support. Three other islanders were there besides Noah. Short of breath, each of them gave a hasty report in words that Calder couldn’t follow.
Noah turned to him. “The rest dead. Men from ship in more boats.”
The Captain had played his hand. Eleven of the islanders were dead, and no doubt some number of the crew had fallen in the process. The rogue’s lies were more reliable than most men’s truths. Calder had guessed that the Captain had been attempting to make him drop his guard earlier. He should have found a way to act first, but it was too late to dwell on the mistake now.
He had to plan quickly.
“We must make for the temple. The Captain will be headed there. We are sure to meet him. Sooner or later,” Calder said. “Better if we are there first.”
Noah nodded. He spoke little English but he understood more than he could speak.
The men took it in turns to carry Calder. Would the burden mean that the Captain arrived ahead of them? He was weak, and all he could do for now was slow them down.
They arrived at the temple steps. The weathered stone glowed a luminous green in the bright moonlight. They paused briefly, watching from the cover of the jungle. There was no sign of the Captain’s men.
The lintel above the door was cracked and sagging. It was probably little short of a miracle that it was still possible to enter this way. Calder hadn’t expected to gain access without digging. On each side of the entrance, a plinth with a deep stone bowl stood, remarkably well preserved.
Looking left and right, expecting to be shot down, or set upon any moment, they advanced up the crumbling stairs. At the top, Calder paused to peer into the bowls before moving on. Darkness writhed and slithered in each one, the sound of something alive. Perhaps it was as he’d hoped all along? Or was he just imagining it?
He had to know, no matter the risk.
He struck a match, shielding the light with his body the best he could. He dropped it into the bowl where it landed with a hiss. Before it went out, he saw exactly what he’d hoped for.
The bowl was filled with a crawling, squirming mass of giant centipedes.
The truth sank in. It had been one thing to read about these things and imagine them as remote possibilities that might not be real. Now he knew it was real, and everything he’d staked on was no fantasy. Now, about to enter the temple in the middle of the night, with bloodthirsty pirates close on his heels, he banished all distraction. He dare not fail.
It took every ounce of his determination, every shred of his courage, to point the way forward into the darkness.
He might be afraid, but he couldn’t let this power fall into the hands of a man like the Captain. Who would save humanity then? He’d inherited this cursed destiny and he would see it through or be damned trying.
Once inside the tunnel, one of the men brought out a storm-lantern and lit it. The little yellow flame smoked and cast long shadows down the corridor. The floor was covered with rich earth, and the roof was low enough to make them all duck.
They moved forward slowly. He walked instead of being carried, leaning heavily on Noah. The walls were thick with carved writing, worn and damaged. It was mostly illegible through the actions of time and jungle vegetation.
As they moved in deeper, the writing grew clearer and the vegetation started to disappear. He didn’t need to pause to read any of it. He instantly recognized the words written on these walls.
He’d memorized the map of the place, over and over again. He felt a peculiar thrill at exploring it in reality. He’d expected the place to be a nest of snakes, giant spiders and rats, thick with cobwebs and bat droppings. It was strangely devoid of such inhabitants. There was nothing here but the plant life and the rich smell of earth. Once they had turned a couple of corners even the plants gave up. Nothing lived here in the deep darkness. Soon, the dirt on the floor was gone and they could walk upright, but they moved forward more slowly than ever.
They came to the bridge. He’d been expecting this. The earlier caution had been warranted, for here, the floor fell away without warning into an abyss. One of the islanders let a handful of grit fall into the depths. Calder countered twenty before the splash. His heart was beating in a rush, but even counting fast, it was deep.
The bridge was made of black stone, different to the surrounding material, six inches wide and thirty feet long. They would be wise to cross it one at a time.
Two of the men crossed, and then it was Noah’s turn. He picked up Calder, shouldered him like a sack and started the crossing. His feet moved quickly but with smooth caution. Dead centre, an ominous crack sounded from the stone. Was the thing about to give way?
Before he knew it, Calder was across and Noah was lowering him back onto his feet. The last of the islanders was already crossing. This one was a bulky man, heavy with muscle and shaped like a menhir.
Too late, Calder called out for him to wait. Multiple cracking sounds came from the stone and the man began to run. The bridge crumbled behind him. He tried to leap for the edge but it was too late and too far. Clutching with empty hands, he fell into the darkness and was gone.
They all counted the length of the drop before the echoes of the splash echoed through the tunnels. The man’s scream was cut off suddenly. The tunnels were silent again.
Without a word, they turned and made their way forward. The great chamber would not be far ahead now.
They turned a corner in the final corridor, and saw light ahead, the bright flickering of torches.
“Come along Mister Motram. No point hesitating now eh?” It was the Captain’s voice.
Noah froze, then after a moment continued on, apparently resigned. His throat would probably be the first to be slit, but he walked towards his death with demeanour of stoic resolve, supporting Calder’s frail form as if nothing had changed.
Calder had a poor view of the room at first, and Noah led him to a large stone seat near the entrance before he could see that the Captain had ten men armed with swords and rifles. They carried torches that would also serve as clubs. The Captain himself had a revolver tucked in his waistband.
“It seems like a place for sacrifices, doesn’t it Mister Motram?”
Calder sighed. “Do you really understand what you’re doing here? Let me guess? You’re a member of a secret society? Some petty snake cult in all likelihood. You think you are initiated into secrets. I can assure you, that you understand nothing of the true import of this. It is far beyond any mystery you have seen up until now.”
The Captain’s expression darkened, eyes narrowing. “Nothing you say?”
Calder searched for a place of calm inside himself. Things were at their worst. The Captain had clearly headed straight here while sending other men to attack the camp. He hesitated, picking his words more carefully. “Not nothing perhaps, worse in fact, what you know is dangerously wrong.”
“What do you know of me Mister Calder? This place should have been destroyed long ago, and now I’ll seal it with your blood. I’ve known your mad intention from the start, you sick madman. I am not the cultist here.” He spat out the word. “Look at your so-called guides.”
“Would you throw away the secret of immortality so easily? Would you cast aside the power of a god?” Calder raised his voice, finding strength from some untapped reserve.
The Captain spat on the carved stone floor. “What sort of men put their faith in a diseased sorcerer carrying his spell books under lock and key eh? Who would trust promises from a man who has put his own sister in chains and made her into a slave whore?”
Calder saw red, but he pushed it back, seeking that calm centre. He hadn’t made Lenora what she was. She had chosen her own position against his wishes, and to serve the cause that they both knew to be all-important.
There was a clank of chains and one of the Captain’s men bowled a tangle of blonde hair and chained limbs along the floor, like a ball. Lenora was hobbled hand to foot, her chains pulled tight and secured by the simple addition of a single lock. She was completely helpless. Her skin was covered in scratches, and there were many bruises already old enough to have darkened.
“She has no part in this, at least let her live,” Calder said.
One of the men handed the Captain a long knife, worn thin from much sharpening.
“An exchange. The old one goes quietly and I’ll let her live.”
“That’s up to him,” Calder said.
Noah threw his club on the floor, then his knives, and stepped forward, arms spread wide, as if about to embrace the Captain. In a flash, the Captain struck and slit his throat in a blow so brutal that it almost took off his head. Noah’s body toppled forward, gushing blood onto the intricately patterned floor.
Without delay, the Captain drew his revolver and shot the remaining islander in the gut. His men closed in and finished him with their clubs. He clung to life and screamed for longer than Calder would ever have imagined possible. At last, he was nothing but a bloody mass on the stone floor, the last of Noah’s family.
Calder looked at the Captain and slowly shook his head.
The Captain looked up.
Had he reacted a moment later, it would have all been different, but he saw the descending length of the golden centipede before it could drop onto his back. He dived and rolled, striking with his knife.
The golden centipede was cut cleanly into two parts. The Captain threw himself backwards even further, putting distance between himself and the thing.
For an instant, his men were paralysed with surprise, gawping at what their Captain had just done. Then they all looked upwards.
Calder took his chance and propelled himself off the chair. He fell onto his face, barely able to slow what was more of a fall than a dive. He reached out and grabbed the writhing head end of the golden centipede. Razor sharp legs dug into his wrist. The pain was unbelievable. His veins turned to liquid fire in an instant.
He forced his way through it. He had become used to pain. Yes, there was that calm centre.
He pushed the head of the centipede into his mouth. Its jaws locked on his tongue. It could still bite despite being cut in half.
It was only pain. Only agony. Only fire that burned like a fire burning his very soul.
He could bite too. The tough carapace burst asunder in his mouth. Some gland popped and released a sudden spray of liquid. Bitter fluids made him gag as he swallowed, coughing and choking, but he couldn’t do anything else.
As his vision darkened, the last thing Calder saw was centipede after centipede raining down from the dark space above them, descending on the crew, the Captain, and Lenora like a rain of poisonous biting death. The men jerked around, flailing helplessly as they were bitten again and again by dozens of black centipedes. Lenora, helpless and chained, unable to defend herself, tore against her bonds, teeth clenched, shrieking in agony.
The next morning, Calder emerged from the temple into the oppressive humid heat of the forest. He had known the layout by heart from the map, but he had been forced to climb up a shaft. It had taken him hours.
He would need to find a way to go back for Lenora. He had given her the gift and saved her life, but was still chained and helpless. Despite his new strength he had been unable to carry her while he climbed.
For now, she lay within, bound, and in total darkness, with only the centipedes for company.
They would ensure that she did not die of dehydration or starvation almost indefinitely, but the survival of her sanity was another matter entirely. The pain of so many bites may have broken her in a way that her servitude had not.
Still, she was his sister. He would not abandon her, even though there was important work to be done. Very important work...