Excavation by @Gazbow120503

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Prologue

Sunrise

Andean Mountains

Peru, 1538

There was no escape.

Crashing through the misty jungle, Francisco de Almagro had long given up all prayer of ever outrunning the hunters who dogged his trail. Panting, he crouched along the thin path and caught his breath. He wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. He still wore his Dominican robe, black wool and silk, but it was stained and torn. His Incan captors had stripped him of all possessions, except for his robe and cross. The tribal shaman had warned the others not to touch these talismans from his "foreign" god, afraid of insulting this stranger's deity.

Though the heavy robes ill suited his flight through the dense, cloud-draped jungle of the upper Andes, the young friar still refused to shed his raiment. They had been blessed by Pope Clement when Francisco had first been ordained, and he would not part with them. But that did not mean he couldn't alter them to suit his situation better.

He grabbed the hem of his garment and ripped it to his thighs.

Once his legs were free, Francisco listened to the sounds of pursuit. Already the call of the Incan hunters grew louder, echoing along the mountain pass behind him. Even the screeching cries of the disturbed monkeys from the jungle canopy overhead could not mask the rising clamor of his captors. They would be upon him soon.

The young friar had only one hope left—a chance at salvation—not for himself, but for the world.

He kissed the torn edge of his robe and let it drop from his fingers. He must hurry.

When he straightened too quickly, his vision darkened for a heartbeat. Francisco grabbed the bole of a jungle sapling, struggling not to fall. He gasped in the thin air. Small sparks danced across his vision. High up in the mountainous Andes, the air failed to fill his lungs adequately, forcing him to rest frequently, but he could not let shortness of breath stop him.

Shoving off the tree, Francisco set off once again down the trail, stumbling and weaving. The sway in his gait was not all due to the altitude. Before his scheduled execution at dawn, he had suffered a ritualistic bloodletting and been forced to consume a draught of a bitter elixir—chicha, a fermented drink that had quickly made the ground under his feet wobble. The sudden exertion of running from his captors heightened the drug's effect.

As he ran, the limbs of the jungle seemed to reach for him, trying to trap him. The path seemed to tilt first one way, then the other. His heart hammered in his throat; his ears filled with a growing roar, washing away even the calls of his pursuers. Francisco stumbled out of the jungle and almost toppled over a cliff's edge. Far below, he discovered the source of the thunderous rumbling—frothing white waters crashing over black rocks.

A part of his mind knew this must be one of the many tributaries that fed the mighty UrabambaRiver, but he could not dwell on topography. Despair filled his chest, squeezing his heart. The chasm lay between him and his goal. Panting, Francisco leaned his hands on his scraped knees. Only then did he notice the thin, woven-grass bridge. It spanned the chasm off to the right.

"Obrigado, meu Deus!" he thanked his Lord, slipping into Portuguese. He had not spoken his native language since first taking his vows in Spain. Only now, with tears of frustration and fear flowing down his cheeks, did he fall back upon his childhood tongue.

Pushing up, he crossed to the bridge and ran his hands over the braided lengths of ichu grass. A single thick cord stretched across the width of river below, with two smaller ropes, one on each side, to assist in balance. If not for his current state, he might have appreciated the engineering feat of the bridge's construction, but now all his thoughts dwelt on escape—putting one foot in front of the other, maintaining his balance.

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