We hadn’t agreed to climb the most dangerous peak in the hemisphere for recreation purposes. We did it for science. And no one else wanted the job, because not one person had ever survived an ascent to the top of Demon-Rock Peak, though determined climbers keep trying — and keep going home in body bags.
Those hapless mountaineers are always defeated by the rock demons that live on the slopes. These are not the creatures of fantasy novels or video games, or fanciful beasts devised to scare children and amuse tourists. Nor are they “made of rock” as many disbelieving travelers say with a wink and a smile, ignoring the warnings of the locals before heading up the mountain to meet their demise.
No, this uncatalogued creature — for no biologist has examined one yet — hides in crevices of cracked stone and feeds on whatever or whoever climbs by, then heaves the grisly remains down the sheer cliff. Or it lies in wait and jumps out at climbers to scare them into losing their grip, just for the sport of watching them fall. A nasty business all around.
And yet, when a group of geologists asked if we would install a seismometer at the top of Demon-Rock Peak, you had immediately said yes. I wondered why.
“Something no one knows about,” you confided to me, “it’s hollow inside. That’s the only way to the top.”
“Is this old native lore? Or a rumor?”
“My uncle told me about it,” you said. “He was in Guatemala getting intel on that recent pyramid discovery.”
“On a secret assignment?” I knew about your uncle. He wasn’t an archaeologist.
“He wouldn’t say — naturally. But he found out about the entrance into the mountain. That’s the secret.”
So we signed up for the job.
In their defense, the geologists did suspect Demon-Rock Peak wasn’t solid all the way through, which was why they wanted to measure its resonant frequency and modes of vibration. But none of them were keen on risking life and limb to set up the necessary equipment. Fortunately, their research budget allowed for hiring outside help, though not for providing accidental death insurance.
“We won’t be in any danger,” you insisted, “once we get inside.”
“Once we get inside. But before then…”
“We’ll have to watch out.”
The day we arrived in town the sky was in a mood, but so were we — tired out from a long train ride and a four-hour bus trip through winding mountain roads. Clouds loomed overhead in warning, and we dodged the rain as we hauled our luggage to the hotel.
“Well this is gloomy,” I said, not at all pleased.
“I agree it’s rather foreboding. We need it to be sunny if we’re going to find that entrance.”
The instructions your uncle had sent us — after you cajoled him into it — gave the location of the entrance into the mountain, translated from an inscription on the newly-discovered pyramid: Look for the point of the shadow of the tallest spire on the east side of the peak at sunrise on the equinox.
“Which equinox,” I had asked, after deciphering the string of prepositional phrases, “spring or fall?”
You paused in thought. “Does it matter?”
I paused as well. “No, I guess it should be the same.”
That night in our hotel room we packed for the climb. I was to carry the seismometer, you had most of the other gear.
“Shall I let you go ahead of me tomorrow,” I gallantly offered, “so you can be first up the mountain?”
You threw the coiled rope at me. “You look tasty enough for a rock demon. I wouldn’t want to deprive them.”
The weather cleared overnight and the sun was obliging. We took a taxi to the east side of the peak, as per the instructions. The driver looked at us funny, since most climbers approach from the west, where the road goes right up to the base of the sheer rock wall. We’d have to hike though a kilometer of jungle before reaching the rocky slope that formed the skirt of Demon-Rock Peak. He also wondered why we both had full backpacks and lacked the usual array of climbing equipment, but that was our business.
“Watch out for jaguars,” was all he said when he dropped us off, then muttered, “and other creatures.”
We were both armed — I with my long hunting knife, you with a pistol and extra clips of ammunition. You had also bought a short, broad saber — which you called a cutlass — from a merchant in the city where we caught the train. Neither of us knew if having such a weapon was legal there, but details like that rarely bothered us.
We took turns going first — through the tropical forest, then up the rocky slope where we wound our way between huge boulders that had splintered off the mountain and lay in great piles. We didn’t need the rope.
The tricky thing was, we had arrived many weeks after the September equinox and had started our hike after sunrise, being reluctant to encounter dangerous creatures in the dark. That meant the spire’s shadow wouldn’t be pointing anywhere near the fabled entrance.
But once we found the spire, we’d just need to see where its shadow lay against the side of the peak and do a little trigonometry. You left that to me, since I had looked up the details of the sun’s position throughout the day and had written them down in my journal. To locate the entrance we’d also need the spire’s distance from the peak — that was our unknown, which I labeled d in the diagram I had sketched.
Another unknown was how long it would take to find this particular rock sticking up from the base of the mountain, and whether our search would be delayed. We heard calls from farther up the slope: keech-keech and chickety-chickety-kech, followed by a chattering of teeth, tik-tik-tik-tik. Not a good sign.
I unsheathed my hunting knife. You already had your pistol out. We stepped a bit warier then, wedging our way through the boulders, pausing at times to listen and get our bearings. I glanced at the sun. It was still low in the morning sky, but well above the horizon.
“There are some pointy rocks over there,” I said, after we had rounded a bend.
“Head for the tallest one. Maybe that’s it.”
We reached a gathering of boulders that had been sheared off the mountain and jammed into the ground, pointy end up. One especially tall and narrow splinter stood out from the rest, throwing its shadow against the side of the peak, and a check of the compass showed it to be directly east. We had found it. As we approached, we both agreed that the spire-to-mountain distance was about ninety meters as the crow flies.
We set down our packs for a brief rest. I pulled out my notes to do the necessary calculations, while you unstrapped your cutlass to have it handy. Before we had a chance to catch our breaths, we heard a clattering of shale and the scurrying of many feet coming from the direction of the slope. The bushes nearby rustled and three rock demons rushed straight at us.
You fired a shot — pow! — and two more — pow! pow! One of the creatures sprung at me. I swept my arm up to knock its claws aside and stabbed at its back, but its tough scales deflected the blade. It clawed at me again. I flipped the knife in my hand and thrust upward, deep into its soft neck. It jerked back and went down, writhing in pain and oozing a brownish liquid from the wound.
You had killed the first creature with your pistol. That left one more, which you were fighting off with your cutlass, to save ammunition. You slashed at its head and neck. It ducked, leapt sideways, and lunged. You pivoted as it charged, avoided its bite, then finished it off with a well-placed jab in the side. All three attackers were down.
But we were far from safe. The mountain was full of these creatures, and now they smelled blood. We could hear several more coming our way.
“Hurry up and figure out that entrance,” you said. “I’ll stand guard.”
As I sat and picked up my journal, I surveyed the scene. The rock demons resembled giant horned lizards the size of baboons, covered in spiky scales. Their heads were protected by a prickly helmet that grew out of their skulls, and their gaping mouths had rows of teeth that could chomp through rock — or flesh and bone. Unlike lizards, their legs were long and apelike, though heavily scaled and equipped with razor-sharp claws that easily tore through thick pants and the skin underneath, as I had just learned.
They weren’t the first deadly creatures we’ve encountered in our travels. Fortunately, we were prepared. Most climbers don’t come to Demon-Rock Peak so well-armed — and we’re experienced with this kind of thing. I put our chance of survival at more than fifty percent.
The next assault came while I was plugging in numbers.
I didn’t look up when I heard your shots, assuming you had things under control. I checked the time, found the position of the sun from my list, got an approximate angle — then wham! — a rock demon slammed into me from the side. It must have slipped past while you fought three or four others.
I could smell its rancid breath and felt teeth scraping against my scalp as I toppled over with the beast tearing at me. You whirled around and whacked it with the cutlass, stunning it for a second. I pushed it to one side and rolled away, out of the line of fire. You shot it in the head and it slumped to the ground.
A thought occurred to me as I sat up. “I hope these things aren’t considered endangered.”
“Right now we’re considered endangered!” You turned back toward the attackers and fired two more shots. I went back to my calculations.
A minute later I had the answer. I squinted up at the side of the peak, gauging the distance and angle I had just figured out, and noted where we’d have to aim for — higher and to the left of the shadow’s current position. I stood up, then stopped to watch you for a few seconds.
You had the pistol in your left hand and the cutlass in your right — shooting at rock demons still several paces off while slashing at creatures that got too close. You raised your left arm to take a shot and swept your other arm down in a graceful arc to fend off an attacker, stepping lively to the side then pirouetting in a half turn, shooting again across your front and swinging the blade overhead in a smooth and swift motion, as your hair whipped around your face in the bright sunlight, like a modern warrior princess performing a fierce dance. It was beautiful.
And effective. The creatures got the message and backed off, then slunk away, leaving their fallen comrades. You had defeated them — for now — and bought us some time. We bandaged our wounds and you reloaded your clips, then we hoisted our packs.
I pointed to where the entrance should be. “It’s to the right of whatever that foliage is, near that vertical sort of stripe on the rock face.”
“Can you walk?”
I had three nasty gashes on my right shin — along with deep scratches on my head and arms — but could put most of my weight on that foot. “Sure. You?”
Both of your legs had been clawed, and the bite marks on your shoulder could probably have used stitches. You flexed your knees and winced. “I’ll be fine.”
A half hour later we had made our way safely up the slope, scrambling over boulders and scree, climbing up natural stone steps, until we reached a ledge that ran along the side of the steep mountain wall. We were nearly at the height of where the entrance should be, but still to the south of it.
I went first along the ledge while you watched our backs. The path sloped gently upward into a patch of thick bushes. I borrowed your cutlass and hacked a way through, working up a sweat in the warming sun. Beyond the bushes the ledge ran into a towering slab that jutted straight out from the mountain.
“It’s a dead end,” I said. Then I looked closer, and smiled.
I had been fooled by a trick of light and color. The play of shadows on the vertical grooves created an illusion that made the barrier look solid. I put my hand against the stone and moved it toward the mountain until I felt an edge.
“There’s a crack here. But we’ll never get through it.”
You came up beside me, tapped my shoulder, then pointed a few meters above our heads where the crack widened into a black opening — the entrance, hidden in the shadow. No wonder it was a secret. We’d need the rope after all.
We took off our packs and I made a short climb up — wedging my fingers in the crack, bracing one foot against the wall and the other against the slab — then hauled up the packs on the rope. You stood guard again, watching and listening, but the rock demons were still deathly afraid of you and left us alone. Once I had secured the packs you holstered your pistol and pulled yourself up.
“We don’t have to worry about being attacked in here, do we?” I asked as I coiled the rope.
“Those creatures aren’t adapted to the dark any more than we are. They’ll stay outside.”
We put on headlamps and entered a narrow tunnel where twists and turns prevented a single ray of light from getting in. It seemed to be a natural formation — a fissure perhaps — that had been further carved out by ancient Maya architects. After several minutes the passageway opened up into a chamber whose walls and ceiling were beyond the reach of our lights.
We had entered the hollow core of Demon-Rock Peak.
I resisted the urge to shout hey! and listen for the echo, but then you clapped your hands twice and waited. The sound faded into the distance and never returned. The cavity was enormous. It must have stretched a few hundred meters across and at least a thousand meters high — about the size of the peak, minus the thickness of the walls.
“There’s supposed to be a stairway,” you said. That was also part of the legend. We turned and followed the wall to our right.
“Rock demons may not like the dark,” I said, “but something might live inside this cavern.”
“More likely several things, if there’s to be a viable ecosystem in here.”
That didn’t make me feel better. I kept one hand on my knife, ready to pull it out. As it was, we didn’t run into any more creatures, not even bats. But we did find the stairs.
The steps were carved right out of the rock, winding around the inside of the peak all the way to the top — the world’s largest indoor spiral staircase. There was no railing, though the architects had thoughtfully put a low, ankle-height wall running along the left edge of the stairs.
We began our ascent. The wide steps were worn smooth from centuries of use long ago, and the wall on the right had a layer of soot from a time when the way was lit by torches.
The air was surprisingly refreshing, invigorating even, like the smell of trees in springtime after a rain shower, though we never saw anything growing in there, nor did we see or hear any flowing water. Still, the air had rejuvenating powers — my injuries felt better and I had more energy, which made the climb easier. You mentioned it as well.
And so we continued up and up, step after step, around and around the interior of the cone whose walls grew ever closer the higher we climbed. We occasionally passed a landing — a small flat area next to an alcove that often featured a stone bench, for resting we assumed, which we sometimes took advantage of.
“Well,” I said, “one thing the Maya knew how to do — build steps.” I thought of the neatly-carved stairways running up the sides of all those pyramids in the region.
“I believe they had a few other accomplishments.”
It was early afternoon when we reached the top. The stairs ended and we crossed a long platform that led to an archway framing a smooth, flat stone.
“I guess this is a door of some kind,” I said. There was no handle on it. “Maybe we need to utter a magic word to make it open. What’s the Mayan word for friend?”
“We could just try opening it normally.”
Good idea. We pushed against the door. It groaned in protest as it swung outward on some kind of hinge, allowing just enough room to squeeze through. You slipped out and I handed the packs to you, then followed. We were on a wide patio near the top of the peak, surrounded on three sides by a rock wall in which were carved several seats and what seemed to be a fireplace, with a lovely view of the tropical forest below.
“You know,” I observed, “with a few pine torches here, a tray of hors d’oeuvres and a beverage cart, this could be a nice—”
“This is perfect. You can set up the seismometer over there, and I’ll put the transmitter here by the edge.”
We had lunch, then got to work. I still thought it would be a nice place for a soirée — and I bet the ancient Maya thought so too. We saw no signs of rock demons, and suspected they didn’t come this far up the peak, since there’d rarely be anything for them to eat.
Once we got the equipment set up and working, we immediately prepared to head back down. We wanted to be off the mountain before dark, knowing we’d be cutting it close. We squeezed back through the opening, put on our headlamps, and pulled the stone door shut. Neither of us was looking forward to the trek down the long staircase, followed by another round of fighting off rock demons.
“Are we ever going to tell anyone about this place? I don’t even think your uncle knows what’s in here — he just had some cryptic translation about a legendary entrance.”
You adjusted your pack. “Maybe some archaeologists would be interested, and those geologists. But once word got out there’d be tourists swarming up here, leaving trash everywhere and scrawling graffiti on the walls. And they’d want to get rid of the rock demons.”
“You were doing a pretty good job of that yourself.”
“Only a dozen or so! No, the authorities would exterminate the entire colony, once tourist money was at stake.”
I believe you had developed a soft spot for those noble creatures, while I rated rock demons the same as mosquitoes on the desirability scale. “Yeah, we don’t need the extinction of a species on our conscience. We’ll keep quiet then.”
“People will find out someday, but not from us.”
We started down the steps.