The Chief of the vast underground village stands at the edge of the “Valley of the Snakes.” Slyly, his hands signal for quiet, as he speaks.
Genius quietly translates. “Paraphrasing, he’s reminding everyone of what a great and benevolent Chief he has been, yada, yada, yada.” With an occasional snide, editorial comment thrown in, Genius passes along the gist of the Chief’s dry and insipid speech.
The Ah Mah Lin Say has come to rid the world of the dragon and has brought along a champion to retrieve the glass sword that was stolen from the village. But, because those of “pale skin” have betrayed them so often, Ah Mah Lin Say’s champion must prove himself a true and honorable champion by walking through the Valley of the Snakes.
From across the way, the Chief signals for Genius to move to the edge of the pit.
Genius spreads his hands. “Well, Goddess? Anything?”
“Nothing, I’m afraid.”
“Then, into the Valley of the Shadow of Death I go.”
Genius starts to turn, then, stops and genuflects. “Looks like you’re blessing me or something.”
Amy rests a hand on his bowed head. “Be careful.”
“You can count on that.” Genius looks up and sees the worry creasing her face. “Buck up, Goddess. I’m sacred enough for both of us.”
“Don’t you do anything stupid in there.”
“Who, me?” he replies with a grin. His expression grows serious. “You’re a goddess. Don’t take crap from anyone.” With that, he turns and starts for the end of the pit, where a pair of the snake-tattooed natives stand at the end of the ladder.
Amy peeks over the ledge. Her breath catches in her chest. The first thing leaping into her mind is the line from Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Why does the floor move?”
The pit’s depth looks to be about fifteen feet, but that’s hard to verify through the crawling, squirming, slithering multi-colored mass undulating along the entire floor of the rectangular pit. Green and it’s various shades seem the dominant color, but just about every hue of the rainbow writhes. Her knowledge of herpetology is extremely limited. The movement inside the pit seems measured and calm to her; no frantic movement or fighting.
Genius had carefully avoided looking into the pit on his journey around. Now, he stops and bends to look into it. His eyes dart around and his expression is studious.
Amy takes some solace that he didn’t immediately faint dead away. She remembers something he said. Extraordinary women make ordinary men do extraordinary things.
Genius swings around onto the ladder and begins his descent. With his head still above the edge, he flashes a smile and scans the crowd. His eyes linger on Amy for a moment, giving her a cocky wink. He looks down into the pit.
“Here I come, Boys. USDA Grade-A Prime. The other white meat.” He looks up and grins for the crowd. Suddenly, his eyes narrow. He glances at Amy. There is something almost urgent about his expression.
Amy furrows her brow.
With a hint of frustration, Genius focuses his gaze on the Chief and his entourage. He looks back at Amy and starts to speak, but stops, takes a deep breath, and resumes his descent.
Amy chances a glance across the pit to the Chief and his minions. Nothing strikes her as unusual. What did Genius see? The Chief stands, haughty and aloof. His Chief of Staff maintains his usual sour expression. The leader from their bridge escort seems pensive. Why doesn’t Genius just tell her what he saw?
With several deep breaths, Genius readies himself, makes his face an emotionless mask, and continues down the ladder. A couple of feet from where it disappears into a tangle of snakes, Genius pauses to turn around on the rungs to face the pit’s inhabitants. His eyes scan the pit…
Across the pit, the Chief of Staff punctuates a bit of muttering with a grunting laugh. A few around him chuckle. Genius looks up and makes an abrupt reply. From the speed by which the grin disappears from the Chief of Staff’s face, Amy suspects the translation of Genius’ remark was probably of the ‘Bite me!’ variety.
After a moment’s searching, Genius picks out a landing spot. He edges further down the ladder. One foot reaches out, and with gentle firmness Genius wedges it between the thigh thick bodies of a large pair of motionless snakes, one green, one gray. Carefully, he duplicates the cautious move with the other foot.
As soon as his hand leaves the ladder, a pair of the natives haul it up and hustle around the pit to deploy it at the far end. Amy watches Genius take several deep, calming breaths as his swiveling eyes take in the writhing floor of the pit. She follows his eyes, trying to figure out just what he is looking for, wondering how she might be able to help him.
Within a minute his plan became clear to Amy. Sliding his feet, lifting them only when necessary, Genius began a slow, measured, shuffling trek across the pit, staying as close as possible to the larger snakes. Carefully, cautiously, wiggling and wedging his feet among the reptiles, arms extending occasionally to keep balance, as if he were walking a tightrope, Genius moves with calm persistence across the pit using the larger snakes, often given space from the smaller ones, as kind of stepping stone guides.
Three quarters way through the pit he stops. Following his squinting eyes, Amy sees a seven to eight foot snake of dull green, thick as her arm, slithering across the wide back of an anaconda sprawled out a couple of feet in front of Genius, cutting across his path. The arrow shaped head of the green snake elevates. Its dark, forked tongue flicks at the air. That it makes Genius pause causes a jump in Amy’s heartbeat.
Genius gazes left, then right. He looks beyond the snakes blocking his way at the ladder, a tantalizing five to six feet away.
As if sensing the moment of distraction, the snake lunges at Genius. A collective gasp rasps out from the crowd. Amy starts to cry out a warning.
Genius’ hand is a blur, and almost faster than Amy’s eyes can register, Genius, having anticipated the strike, is gripping the snake, just below the head. The gasp of the onlookers turns into a babbling ‘ah!’ of disbelief… Genius, a wry grin creasing his face, displays the snake for everyone to see.
Despite the thudding of her heart in her chest, Amy is unable to resist looking across the pit at the Chief’s entourage. Among the sea of faces displaying shock, the expression of the Chief of Staff stands out with sour dismay.
Casually, but forcefully, Genius tosses the green snake far across the pit. Its landing is greeted by hissing and bared fangs. In an instant, slithering, coiling living ropes entwine and bury it.
Refocusing on the task at hand, Genius sucks in a deep breath, then, releases it, and studies the ground between himself and the ladder. His furrowed brow hints at the gauging of distances, angles. Thinking of jumping to the ladder, Amy realizes. With another sigh and a brief shake of his head, Genius decides against that strategy. Carefully, he lifts a foot and eases it across the wide back of the anaconda blocking his way.
As his foot descends downward Genius freezes, foot hovering. A flash of brown and green erupts from the other side of the anaconda. Genius has just enough time to start to pull back, but not fully out of range. The gaping mouth of the snake misses his foot, but hits and attaches itself to his shin. Genius lifts the leg and snatches the snake from where it dangles by one fang just above his ankle. Gripping it just behind the head, Genius lifts the snake to study it. Its tail immediately tries to coil around his arm.
Simultaneous with a expletive from Genius, the on looking natives let out a collective gasping moan. That mournful sound, and the curse from Genius, tells her all she needs to know about the four foot brown and green snake dangling from his fist. Poisonous. Perhaps, deadly poisonous.
With another curse, Genius hurls the snake away.
Genius gives his shin a cursory glance. Quickly, with less caution, he steps over the anaconda. Then, he leaps to the ladder. It lets out a protesting crack against his sudden weight as he lands on the second rung, but it holds.
Amy hurries around the pit and reaches the ladder just as Genius clears it and throws himself on the ground in a sitting position to examine his wound.
Amy kneels at his side. A small puncture wound oozes a drop of blood above his ankle. Beside it is a red scratch from where the other fang scraped but did not penetrate. “It doesn’t look too bad,” she notes.
“No,” Genius agrees. “It’ll take a while longer to kill me than normal.”
The crowd pressing over them parts on one side to allow the Chief and his entourage access. Amy notes that even the dour Chief of Staff shows a bit of concern in his expression. The Librarian was apparently also the Medicine Man, as he edged between Amy and Genius to kneel down and peer expertly at the wound.
The Librarian/Medicine Man looks up at the Chief and shrugs. The Chief asks a question, which elicits another shrug.
“A lot of help you are,” Genius tells him.
The Chief signals to two natives and barks out an order.
Genius raises a hand. “No, just him.” He points to the man who led their capture at the bridge and makes a short remark in their language.
The man hesitates, his expression showing… fear? But, then, the Chief insistently beckons him forward. The man complies, bending down to slip an arm around Genius and help him stand. They swing around and start moving, Genius putting as little weight on his injured leg as possible.
Amy hurries around to confront them and ask, “Where is he taking you?”
“To what they call a ‘death’ hut.” Before Amy can ask, he adds, “Yeah. It’s just what it sounds like. A place for me to die.”
A stupor descends over Amy as she follows Genius and his helper through the silent, subdued crowd that parts reverently. She is afraid to ask Genius if he is kidding because a large part of her believes, this time, he isn’t.
The ‘death’ hut is one of three identical grass structures, about the size of garden sheds, set off a little ways from the rest of the village. It consists of a single room covered by dozens of multi colored woven mats. Fresh, fragrant herbs dangle along the walls, filling the small room with a rich, heavy sickly sweet scent … to cover the stench of previous deaths, Amy realizes.
After helping Genius to a sitting position on the mats, the Kidnap leader turns to leave. Genius grabs his arm. To Amy, he says, “Is there anyone hanging around out there?”
Genius nods toward the doorway. “Out there. Is anyone by the door? Come on, Goddess! Get with it! We don’t have much time.”
Startled by his sharp tone, Amy is snapped from her lethargy. She steps to the narrow doorway to look out. Knots of somber, murmuring people, in groups of four or five, gather several yards away, as if afraid to come too close to the hut.
“Anyone close enough to hear us?” Genius asks.
“Well, no.” Amy turns. “But its not like they could understand what we say.”
“No,” Genius agrees. He reaches up and yanks the arm of the Kidnap Leader. “But, I don’t think our friend her wants it known around the village that he understands, and probably speaks English.” Genius yanks his arm again. “Right, buddy.”
The native pulls his arm from Genius’ grasp and rubs his wrist. His wide face pinches for a contemplative moment, then he sighs and nods.
“Okay. You got me. Yeah, I understand, and speak, English.” He pats his shoulder, indicating the tattoo on his back shoulder. “I’m the leader here of what you would call the local branch of the Brotherhood of the Blood Orchid,” he tells them in precise, unaccented English. Turning to Amy, he tells her, “I was the one who gave the order to get you.”
TO BE CONTINUED