Mere hours earlier I had thanked providence for the, I so believed, increased chance for success that my not having to travel alone accorded me; as I traveled with a group, albeit small, of seasoned warriors, I felt the probability greater that I would locate the temple to which the old woman had directed me. Now I saw those hopes dashed. The attack from the natives had seen to that. Now we could not spare the men for an inland trek; we could not leave our ship unguarded, and guarded by a sufficient force, at that, lest the black men with their painted skull faces return and destroy it in our absence. Without our ship, it seemed doubtful in the extreme that any of us would survive the grueling trek homeward on foot.
The beast would survive, I supposed. But it would of a certainty return me to the village of the Marmorca alone. My comrades would perish, one by one, in the forests. If I must travel alone, then, let me travel thus now, I reasoned, and not waste the lives of these brave men. I determined to set out for the witch’s temple alone. Those brave men, however, my comrades, were also stubborn men. They refused to head homeward without me. Oran, alone of them all not a seasoned fighter, spoke the loudest in protest.
“Where you go, I will go!” he declared.
“You would be following me to certain death,” I replied.
“If that is God’s will.”
“It is not His will, nor is it mine, you fool! Don’t I have enough on my conscience without you determined to die in my service?”
The others weren’t much more sensible.
“We will carry out our orders,” one spoke, and the others assented. “We will divide our forces. Half will remain with the ship; the other half will accompany you to the temple.”
“And all of you will die,” I told them.
“We have our orders.”
“Let your blood be on your hands, then!” I said. “I have tried. I have done all that I can do to dissuade you!”
“Do not try to convince me to stay with the boat, my lord,” Oran said. “I am going with you.”
“You might as well,” I said. “You chances for survival will be as good with me as they would be here, which is to say, you have poor chances either way. The natives, when they return to attack the ship, will do so with a larger force, and they will find less of us waiting to defend it. The bulk of their numbers, though, will be in the woods, waiting to ambush us or pick us off at their leisure.”
“Where is your faith, my lord?” Oran asked me.
“I have seen its throat torn out by bloody teeth,” I replied. “If God truly watches us, He seems content to do so without offering any aid.”
“Then I will have to have enough faith for the both of us,” Oran said.
“Praying fool,” I uttered, though I confess that I also prayed, silently and in my thoughts. Not for success in this venture; I somehow felt this up to me alone, my task at which to succeed or fail. Rather I prayed that some of my comrades, most of all Oran, might be spared the inevitable. “Do not lay more weight upon my conscience, Lord,” I prayed. I did not expect Him to listen, and if He did see fit to answer, I did not expect so grand a miracle—no parting of a sea, no sun remaining fixed in the heavens, no calming of storms or angelic rescues—as to spare the lives of all my men. In fact He did not.
He did, however, assist me, without my asking, in finding the temple. How else to explain it? A full two days’ march from the river, following a crude, half-legible map drawn for me by the witch, a map lacking in many landmarks, and yet I came across it as if I had been traversing a footpath leading right to it. I have learned in the years since never to doubt providence, but also never to try to predict or understand it.
The natives of the forest did not attack us during those two days, though I felt their eyes, hidden in the undergrowth surrounding us, often upon us.
In truth I am surprised to have recognized the structure at all, when we did come upon it. The forest had all but reclaimed it. Dirt had been piled—by wind? Water? By human hand?—against its walls almost to their tops, and on these false hillsides had grown all manner of brush and saplings, with gray moss covering the few bare spots and vines snaking, intertwining over them like veins prominent just beneath a man’s skin. In those places where the walls remained exposed, tress had grown up between the stones, splitting them, in some places casting them down, so that entry into the structure proved no great difficulty, required no searching for a door. We climbed over a jumble of broken rocks and went inside, myself and Oran and the six others we had brought with us.
A sense of dread lay over the place, palpable, a feeling of oppressive menace. What long-gone race had constructed this place, in what bygone age and for what purpose? I sensed the answer to that last question, though not a specific answer. For whatever reason this structure had been reared—the worship of some lost, primitive, bloody god, I suspected—I knew nothing save evil workings had ever been done here. You could taste it in the air.