We had been going only a few hundred yards when we heard a sound from the undergrowth. Something streaked from the bushes to one side of us and one of Roberts’s men fell with a glistening, gore-filled hole where the back of his head had been. I know a club strike when I see one. But whatever struck him was gone as quickly as it had come.
A tremor of fear ran through the crew, who drew their swords, pulled muskets from their backs and snatched pistols from their belts. Crouched. Ready.
“The men native to this land will put up a fight, Edward,” said Roberts quietly, eyes scanning the undergrowth, which was silent, keeping its secrets.
“You willing to push back as is necessary? To kill, if needed?”
I engaged my hidden blade.
“You’ll hear from me soon.”
And then I crouched, rolled sideways into the jungle and became a part of it.
The natives knew their land well, but I was doing something they simply would not expect. I was taking the fight to them. The first man I came across was surprised to see me, and that surprise was his undoing. He wore nothing but a breech-clout, his black hair tied up on his head, a club still gleaming with the blood of a buccaneer upon it, and eyes wide with shock. The natives were only protecting what was theirs. It gave me no pleasure to slide my blade between his ribs and I hoped his end was quick, but I did it anyway, then moved on. The jungle began to resound with the noise of screams and gunshots, but I found more natives and dealt more death until at last the battle was over and I returned to the main party.
Eight had been killed in the battle. Most of the natives had fallen under my blade.
“The guardians of The Observatory,” Bartholomew Roberts told me.
“How long have their kind been here?” I asked him.
“Oh . . . at least a thousand years or more. Very dedicated men. Very deadly.”
I looked around at what remained of his group, his terrified men, who had watched their ship-mates picked off one by one. Then we continued our journey, climbing still, going up and up until we came upon it, grey-stone walls a dark contrast with the vibrant jungle colours, a massive building rising way, way above us.
How had it not been seen? I wondered. How had it remained invisible?
“This is it, then?”
“Aye, an almost sacred place. All it needs is a drop of my blood . . .”
In his hand appeared a small dagger and he never took his eyes from mine as he used it to make his thumb bleed, then placed the red-beaded finger into a tiny recess by the side of the door. It began to open.
All six of us looked at one another. Only Bart Roberts seemed to be enjoying himself.
“And the door opens,” he said with the voice of a showman, “after almost eighty thousand years.”
He stepped to one side and ushered his men through. The nervous crew members looked at one another, then did as their captain ordered and began to move towards the door . . .
Then, for some reason known only to himself, Roberts killed them, all four of them. With one hand he buried his dagger in the eye of the leading man and pushed his body aside at the same time he drew his pistol and fired into the face of the second man. The last two crew members had no time to react as Black Bart drew his second pistol and fired point-blank into the chest of a third man, pulled his sword and ran the final man through.
It was the same man who had brought the chest on deck, who’d looked to Roberts for some words of praise. He made an odd, choking sound and Roberts held him there a second, then slid the cutlass home to the hilt and twisted it. The body on his blade went taut and the deck-hand looked at his captain with imploring, uncomprehending eyes until his body relaxed, slid off the steel and thumped to the ground, chest rising once, twice, then staying still.
So much death. So much death.
“Jesus, Roberts, have you gone mad?”
He shook blood from his cutlass then fussily cleaned it with a handkerchief.
“Quite the contrary, Edward. These wags would have gone mad at seeing what lies beyond this gate. But you, I suspect, are made of sterner stuff. Now, pick up that chest and carry it hither.”
I did as he asked, knowing that to follow Roberts was a bad idea. A terrible, bloody idea. But I was unable to prevent myself from doing it. I’d come too far to back out.
Inside it was like an ancient temple. “Dirty and decrepit,” said Roberts, “not quite as I remember. But it has been over eighty millennia.”
I shot him a glare. More mumbo jumbo. “Oh rot, that’s impossible.”
His look in return was unknowable. “Step as if on thin ice, Captain.”
On stone steps we descended through the centre of The Observatory, moving into a large bridge chamber. All my senses were alive as I looked around and took in the vast openness of the space.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Roberts in a hushed voice.
“Aye,” I replied and found I was whispering, “like something out of a fairy-tale, one of them old poems.”
“There were many stories about this place once. Tales that turned into rumours, and again into legend. The inevitable process of facts becoming fictions, before fading away entirely.”
We entered a new room altogether, what could only be described as an archive, a huge space lined with low shelves on which were stacked hundreds of small vials of blood, just like the ones in the coffer—just like the one I had seen Torres use on Bartholomew Roberts.
“More blood vials.”
“Yes. These cubes contain the blood of an old and ancient people. A wonderful race, in their time.”
“The more you talk, man, the less I understand,” I said irritably.
“Only remember this; the blood in these vials is not worth a single reale to anyone anymore. It may be again, one day. But not in this epoch.”
We were deep within the bowels of the Earth by then, and walked through the archives into what was the main theatre of The Observatory. Again it was astounding and we stood for a second, craning our necks to gaze from one side of the vast domed chamber to the other.
At one side of the chamber was what looked like a pit, with just a sloshing sound from far below to indicate water somewhere, while in the middle of the chamber was a raised dais with what looked like a complicated pattern carved into the stone. As Roberts bade me put the chest down a low noise began. A low, humming sound that was intriguing at first but began to build . . .
“What’s that?” I felt as though I was having to shout to make myself heard although I wasn’t.