Perhaps I will get out alive. If I do, I have made some valuable discoveries, most of them found in the ruins of a burned hut. A strange village, Eldiente de Naga, obscured in low and angry clouds, didn't announce itself so much as it huddled against an extinct volcano and waited for us to set upon it. Slowly we approached, still, three men were killed quickly with traps, one man fell screaming into a pit of jagged animal teeth and bones, ripped up only to be impaled at the base of the trap. We could not look save to make sure there was nothing to save.
The village was long deserted. In truth locals had denied it existed, exchanged strange looks and told us we must leave before we brought with us evil winds through the mountain passes.
"You are already an ill omen," one woman told me. "You are already an announcement of some evil that will be visited upon us but I do not hate you for it." Panzito asked her if she would cook for us. "We will pay you well," he said. She refused. "I must be able to say I did not help you," she answered, "this might be a thing that allows me to survive." An older woman who did not care anymore cooked for us. She said she would send our money to the Church. She told us that if we continued into higher altitudes we would encounter something that would teach us to respect evil. "You will die understanding at least." Staring at the ripped flesh of the first dead man of our journey, I felt I already knew too well. But then why do I continue? What is it that I pursue, save perhaps proof of my own mortality? My own immortality? Ah, Cpl.! These are discussions we must shelve for better days, when we share a bottle of good wine along the northern Superior coast! I dream now of those Lakes and the flat skies there, in the early spring, when you feel the birds approaching once again from the south to take up residence. It is still cold then, but the wind does not bite anymore, it is a vitalizing thing.
We approached this village, itself an enemy, unyielding and petulant. Another man was dragged up into a tree and hacked by knifes that fell upon him. A third man ran screaming at this point and was quickly eaten by the earth. We could only hear his screams, for the earth had him and he was no longer visible. The silence that descended was awful and we gathered together. The village needed no men to protect its secrets, it would put up enough of a fight. "I will not stay," one man said. Two other men nodded their heads.
Panzito looked at me. "Go," I said. "Live for your daughter."
"What? And leave you? She would never again look me in the eyes."
"Don't tell her. Tell her I sent you away."
"She would know I lied. You know that."
The three men left at this, for they had their own children, and I think they wanted to leave before Shame set upon them and offered them death for their honor. Panzito and I were alone against the village of Eldiente de Naga.
"Tell her I asked you to go, as a favor to her."
"You are clever, bearded one, but she is not a princess. She would not want that gift."
"I will protect you Panzito," I said. "You will live if it means my life."
He hugged me. We drank something fermented and strong. We looked around. A wrong step meant a death we did not care to contemplate. And why had I led men here to die? I looked over the landscape. Innocent-looking and abandoned, the huts offered cold comfort from a steady wind, but I suspected they were designed now as coffins, full of death to shield what it was that had been left here.
Cautiously we approached. At one point I felt a give in the earth and stopped, pointing silently down. Panzito nodded gravely and stepped carefully in another direction. Grimly, he pointed toward the earth as well. We had fallen silent now, on approaching closer to the village, and communicated the way we once did, Cpl., as snipers in a Liberian church. I could not help thinking of that, and of all the circles of hell earth holds. I thought of Cody in Shanghai and willed myself to live so that we could once again run the dawn streets of that city and keep these hells at bay.
My pen is weary, but I will pick up this tale tomorrow and take it to its conclusion. The stars are bright in this harbor town, and I can hear the drunken sailors and music from the taverns along the water, mixed in with the warehouses. The women, most of them prostitutes, laugh and scream in feigned delight. It is that time of the night, and in the darkest part of the sky there is that deepening which is itself, the first sign of dawn.