It took a tremendous effort to get Ms. Amy Bierce to leave her beloved seaplane, The Osprey, unattended on the turquoise waters of Lake Titicaca. Her argument for staying with the plane was that someone might steal or damage it, which Howard had assured her was not only unlikely but somewhat preposterous.
“The people of Puna are not savages, Ms. Bierce. They’ve had a railway some six decades now – since 1870, if I’m not mistaken. Furthermore, should someone decide to steal your seaplane, I sincerely doubt that they would have the technical training to get it up in the air.”
“Her,” Amy responded, chewing her gum menacingly.
“I beg your pardon?” Howard did not look up from the map he was consulting, which depicted the 16 kilometer journey south to a location marked “Arama Maru” as a line drawn in blue pen across a field of green. He squinted against the brightness of the newly risen sun and adjusted his wool scarf. He had not expected the high plains of Peru to be so cold in the summer.
“The Osprey ain’t an ‘it,’ Professor. She’s a lady. It’d be in your best interests to call her by her rightful name if you plan on leaving South America after this little bug-hunt of yours. ” Amy slowly blew a large pink bubble with her gum and deflated it. Her cheeks were flush from the early morning chill and nearly matched hue of her brilliant red hair.
“Yes, quite – give The Osprey my sincerest apologies.” Howard pushed his glasses up his nose and looked up at the Quechua boy he’d sent to bring them pack animals, who was just now arriving with two llamas and a satisfied grin. Howard took the llamas by their leads and paid the boy in four crisp 5-sole bills.
“Solpayki, Urpichay sonqoy,” Howard thanked the boy as he ran off.
Amy eyed the llamas warily, and chose this moment to offer up her second argument for staying with the plane.
“I have about as much interest in riding those things as I do in slogging through the Andes to help you capture bugs,” Amy said. Her llama, shaggy and roan colored, thoughtfully chewed its cud and stared back at her. Amy swallowed her gum.
“I must again insist that you cease referring to all insects as ‘bugs,’ my dear. Based on what I’ve gathered from local legend, I believe the insects we seek are not members of the ‘true bug’ order Hemiptera at all, but are more likely to be members of the Coleoptera family,” he said. “As a counterargument to your dogged determination to stay with the plane, I submit the following – I’m only contractually obligated to pay you the full week’s wages if you accompany me to the Arama Maru. You agreed to keep me safe the entire trip.”
“Fine, but call me ‘my dear’ one more time and I’ll shoot you.” Amy pushed back her bomber jacket and placed her hands on her hips, revealing the matte black Colt revolver at her side.
“Duly noted, Ms. Bierce. Now, if you’re done threatening me, it’s best we set off while the day is still young.”
Within the hour, they loaded the llamas with water and supplies for the trip. When they finally left the town of Puna, the sun was shining warmly and each distant little island on the lake seemed to glimmer like a jewel.
As they led their llamas down from the high plain where Puna was seated, the landscape quickly gave way to the lush valleys of the Andes. Howard grew quiet as he struggled with the map, and hours passed before either of them spoke.
“So,” Amy said, “what makes you think you’ll find anything at this Arma Mara place, anyway?”
“It’s the Arama Maru, Ms. Bierce. To answer your question, the local legends claim there have been what people describe as ‘balls of blue light’ creeping about the walls of Arama Maru, which my research suggests may be a bio-luminescent subterranean insect.”
“Or ghosts,” Amy said.
Howard adjusted the weight of the satchel that hung at his side. “I sincerely doubt there will be any ghosts.”
Amy shrugged and gently tugged on the lead for her llama, who was gently navigating the rocky valley floor. The incline downhill was getting steeper.
“What is this place, exactly? A temple or something?” Amy asked.
“Honestly, I have no idea. I’m an entomologist, not an archaeologist. My interest is less historical and more biological, but my research indicates the site was believed by the ancient Inca to be a ‘gateway to the gods.’ Realistically, it seems more likely that it is a subterranean storage for…” Howard caught himself, and went silent. Amy perked up considerably.
Howard flinched and collected himself. From what he had gathered of the lovely Ms. Bierce on the flight into Peru, her interests were less scientific and more fiscal. He surmised there was no use in hiding the possibility from her.
“Well, it is a matter of historical record that the Incas were rather fond of hiding their treasures in subterranean tunnels.”
Amy moved so quickly to Howard’s side that her llama stumbled to keep up with the pressure on its lead. Howard kept his eyes on the meager trail headed southwest as she maneuvered into his field of vision.
“Treasure? You never said anything about lost Inca treasure, Professor. Are you trying to chisel me here?”
Amy leveled her gem-green eyes directly at Howard and he stopped abruptly. So abruptly, in fact, that his llama failed to stop walking and bumped into him just hard enough to thrust him forcefully into Amy. The impact caught them both off guard, and they lost their grips on the leads as well as their footing.
They tumbled awkwardly down the grassy valley floor, rolling over one another several times on the way down the hill. When they finally did come to a stop, Amy was entangled in Howard’s scarf and Howard was entangled in a mix of joy, injury, and embarrassment.
The llamas looked down on pair with stoic indifference. Gasping for breath, Howard was the first one to speak.
“Are you alright, my dear?”
In one fluid motion, Amy shot bolt upright, disengaged herself from Howard’s scarf, snapped her pistol from her waist and pressed the barrel into the tip of Howard’s nose.
“I told you to stop calling me ‘dear,’ didn’t I?” she growled.
Howard’s eyes widened considerably and he threw his hands up. They locked in this position for several seconds, until Howard wordlessly gestured with one finger past Amy and made a small, helpless noise. Amy hesitantly looked over her shoulder, never taking the gun off Howard.
Behind her, the face of a great stone hill rose up some twenty feet or more. The hill’s escarpment was perfectly smooth, with one exception. Cut into the center of it and surrounded by veils of flowing vines was a t-shaped alcove tall enough for a man to stand in. The late afternoon sun cast a golden sheen over the smooth red stone.
Amy gasped softly and lowered her revolver, much to Howard’s relief.
“I believe this is the place,” he said.
Howard stood and reverently approached the structure, the creeping undergrowth crunching under his careful footsteps. Amy blinked away her awe and climbed up to where the llamas stood listlessly chewing their cud and led them down to the valley floor.
As the animals walked over the mossy ground, she sensed their uneasiness. She shared their hesitancy. Howard looked back at them and motioned with an open hand to her as he stepped forward.
“Come, Ms. Bierce, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Amy stepped forward just as Howard plunged out of view, crashing through the vegetation and revealing a dark entrance below-ground. The brown llama made a shrill noise of alarm and Amy rushed over to peer into the hole.
“Howard! Are you alright?”
Just five feet below, Howard was getting back to his feet and brushing himself off. He pushed his glasses back into position and looked up at her, a wide grin spreading across his face.
“Coming, Ms. Bierce?”
Amy laughed brightly, stood and tied the llamas loosely to a nearby tree. She lowered herself down the rugged stones that lined the pit and reached Howard’s side just as he pulled flashlight from his pack. He switched it on and the beam illuminated a dusty stone hallway heading back further than the light could reach.
Amy nudged him slightly, and her voice echoed down the hallway.
“There aren’t going to be any booby traps or anything, right? I didn’t sign up to deal with any booby traps.”
Howard had already begun to walk down the hallway, and he laughed gently.
“Ms. Bierce, I do believe you have been reading far too many pulp novels. No matter how fine Inca engineering may have been, everything here has been left without custodial maintenance for several millennia. The odds that there are any traps set to ward off interlopers is miniscule as best.”
As they proceeded through the cool dark corridors of the subterranean tunnels, it seemed to Howard that the grade of the tunnel was bringing them upwards towards the surface with every step. As they walked, he pointed his flashlight at various patterns on the wall and made small sounds of affirmation. Amy kept close behind, watching him survey the tunnel walls. Shapes reminiscent of spiders or insects danced in the narrow spear cast by Howard’s flashlight.
Howard stopped abruptly when the beam revealed a tight grouping of several distinct holes in the wall. He nodded sagely.
“See this? Surely you assume these to be a primitive crossbow trap or other such rubbish, but it is far more likely that these were cut to allow fresh air to flow into the lower levels of the shrine.” Howard stepped forward as he spoke, and laughed. “Traps, indeed.”
As he placed one foot in front of him, something clicked. From somewhere above and nearby, an unknown mechanism stirred for the first time in centuries.
A great stone tablet wrenched free of the ceiling and crashed down several feet to Howard’s left. Guttural groaning noises issued from the bowels of the structure. Howard looked at the man-sized slab of stone in shock.
“Howard!” Amy tackled him with enough force to throw him to the ground just as another slab of stone fell from the roof. The pair staggered to their feet as the ceiling of the tunnel began to collapse behind them.
As they sprinted down the tunnel, the walls and ceiling seemed to unravel. Huge slabs of stone crashed down, throwing clouds of dust in spirals that were momentarily illuminated by the bobbing circle cast by Howard’s flashlight.
“You said no traps!” Amy shouted as she dodged a falling tile that cracked the stone floor as it crashed down. As they fled down the hallway, a familiar series of holes in the walls issued a spasm of darts. Howard twisted awkwardly to avoid them.
“I seemed to be mistaken, Ms. Bierce!” The tunnel swerved left and then right, and the crashing of stones gradually came to a stop. Howard and Amy came to a stop, winded.
The tunnel behind them was sealed with debris, and the flashlight barely illuminated the way before them through the cloud of settling dust. Howard turned to face Amy.
“Are you alight, Ms. Bierce?”
“We could have died, you putz!” Amy shouted between gulps air.
“Yes, that’s true. My apologies,” Howard said between spasmodic coughs. Amy gasped, and pointed past him.
About twenty feet beyond a curtain of slowly settling dust, the tunnel opened up into a wide chamber. At the light’s edge, an azure blue haze dimly illuminated the room with a dream-like quality. As Howard slowly advanced into the chamber, he pulled his insect collection kit from his satchel and stepped forward.
Crawling across the stone walls of the open chamber were countless orbs of phosphorescent light. Each one shuddered and skittered as Howard moved slowly forward. Amy stepped into the chamber behind him, and caught her breath.
Only a single column of silvery sunlight penetrated the room through a hole in the ceiling, and when Howard flicked off his flashlight, the walls pulsed with a dim glow. He slowly unscrewed the cap of an insect collection jar and approached a lone orb of light. It moved a few inches across the wall as he approached, but in one quick movement he swept it into the jar and clamped the perforated lid down.
Inside the jar, a blue beetle crawled aimlessly, pulsing bright blue light from two spots on the back of its carapace. With scientific precision, Howard collected three more specimens, placing each jar gently into his satchel.
Amy finally managed to whisper, “They’re beautiful.” After safely stowing the insects, Howard allowed himself a deep breath. The beetles pulsed gently as Amy approached him. “Are they worth anything?”
“Oh, yes, Ms. Bierce. Fame and recognition throughout the entire world of entomology.”
“Good, because I don’t see any gold down here.” Amy sighed dejectedly, then looked up to the low lying ceiling. “Can we get out this way?”
Amy motioned towards the manhole-sized gap in the ceiling.
Howard looked about the room, then climbed on a rectangular stone dais. He motioned for Amy’s to come closer.
“I’ll boost you up,” he said, offering his linked hands for her to stand on.
Howard boosted Amy up to the ceiling. She scrambled through the hole, then turned and offered her hands to him. He passed up his satchel first, eliciting a sigh from her. With some effort, Howard squeezed through the hole and they found themselves atop a great stony hill, looking across the valley they had passed through.
In the distance, Amy could make out the shape of two indifferent llamas. The sun was just beginning to set, casting amethyst and gold waves across the sky as the pair gently climbed downhill.
When they finally reached the llamas, the cool night of the Andean summer was creeping upon them. They set up camp, and in the flickering campfire light Howard inspected the jarred specimens.
“They’re beautiful. What are you going to call them?” Amy asked. Howard gave them a long look, then smiled at Amy.
“I was thinking Coleoptera Biercei. Or, to the layman – Bierce’s Beetle.”
Amy smiled and leaned in close to Howard, her eyes glimmering like emeralds in the firelight. She pressed the cool barrel of her gun to his chin and whispered.
“Just pay me, Professor.”