Blood Moon

Chapter 3: The Ruins

Thankfully, Rick found that of all this things were still in his car. Against his better judgment, he stashed the gun in the glove compartment before considering his next course of action. He considered wondered momentarily about what type of fisherman would hand out firearms before the next thought butted out the prior train of thought like a battering ram. The inexplicable calling to explore Upal had seemingly vanished, but Rick's own curiosity had replaced it. While not as compulsively magnetic, he still had the capricious urge to tour Upal before sunset. After all, tourists from all around the world had braved the oppressive heat and putrefying humidity to behold the magnificent works of the long-vanished ancients.

Rick noticed that his was the only car in the forsaken lot by the side of the road, and believed any thieves won't bother with a worthless wreck like the one he had rented. Even if they did steal it, it would not take them very far before requiring a tune-up. As he walked down the road, he spotted a trio of SUVs parked in a line that seemed like more suitable targets for any thieves. It was when he was three kilometers down the road he realized he forgot both his gun and machete, but pressed on regardless. This time, he planned on simply running like hell if he encountered the White Wolf again.

This time, Rick had the opportunity to savor the advance to Upal. The path took him along an old Mayan road, where the stones from antiquity still laid beneath his feet. He wondered who else trod upon the ancient thoroughfare in ages past, imagining Mayan residents, invading Spaniards, fleeing slaves, and desperate refugees might have both graced and cursed the city with their presence. In each peculiar rock or misshapen stone, his mind projected a shattered idol, stele, or dwelling worn down by the relentless march of entropy.

His idle flights of fancy were hammered by the majestic splendor of the ruins that greeted him. Like an awakening god, the central plaza of Upal loomed before him in the shadow-less glory of high noon. The lack of tourists provided a haunting desolation he would not find in busier seasons. Parallel rows of pillars, each bearing a panoply of grotesque and horrifying figures, stretched before him like saluting soldiers. One of them had cracked and leaned slightly to the side, kept from toppling over by a metallic brace of unmistakably recent manufacture. Grass and scrub brush sprouted chaotically from openings in the cracked and worn sandstone tiles that once covered the plaza, a reminder of nature's gradual reclamation of the flat valley.

Elevating his gaze allowed Rick to gaze upon the wonders that dominated the skyline. The green hills rose around the ruined city like emerald spires that he could not help but compare to the teeth in a jawbone. As distant as they were, he could immediately see the defensive value of the terrain. Below the hills but no less grand were three pyramids that dominated the remaining skyline of the city. Two of the monolithic structures were paired step pyramids of four terraces, positioned directly across from each other. Beyond the twins, was a building that could easily pass for their inspiration and parent.

The Temple of the Moon was glorious to behold in all of its cyclopean magnificence. Rick did not bother counting the terraces, but he knew it was greater than the two pale imitations that stood before it. Made of blocks hand-hewn and carved centuries before Europeans arrived here, he beheld the ancient behemoth as though he were the first explorer to see it. While many victims had undoubtedly died upon the enclosed altar that crowned the top, he could not help but feel the intensity of the forgotten rituals so long ago. The grandeur and opulence of the archaic architects was slightly marred by modern electronics and devices positioned along the edges of the structure. Power cables snaked down from loudspeakers searchlights, flowing downwards like serpentine rivers of molasses.

Rick briefly wondered why such devices might be placed around the pyramid and could only think of speculative and unsatisfactory answers. He thoughts the speaker might an announcement system in case of emergencies or lost children, and the reason for the inclusion of search lights was to prevent the impact of low-flying aircraft. Instinctually, he knew that something else was occurring late at night around here, and the White Wolf was probably involved.

Before him, he saw movement along the edge of the pyramid. A figure descended from the top terrace with two others following behind him. He walked with his chest held high and shoulders back, imitating the regal bearing of the long-vanished nobility and a paltry entourage of two ragged men in lieu of a train of servants. He descended at a brisk pace down the side of the pyramid, staring before him with a laser-like gaze. Rick could easily imagine the man as a Mayan noble or priest in another life, now disappointed with banal modernity.

The man's features were clearly Caucasian, although tanned and ruddy from years in the tropical sun. He had hard blue eyes, icy like mountain glaciers. His nose was long and darkened as the rest of his face, but Rick could barely register any expression of emotion. Parted and smooth brown hair peaked out from underneath a fedora too small for his head. He wore a blue denim shirt and brown khaki pants marred by sweat stains and dirt. Sheathed around his belt was the hilt of a saber or machete in the likeness of one, but Rick did not care to find out. As the man descended, he locked eyes with Rick for a handful of awkward seconds before he blinked.

Rick looked upwards at the fedora-wearing man's associates. Both of them leisurely followed behind their clear superior, speaking in hushed tones like gossiping teenagers. Both of them dressed vastly different to each other and their boss. Rick noted the one on the left had brown eyes, sandy curled hair, and a slight growth of beard. He resembled an extra from a Western film, as he was dressed in a button down shirt and blue jeans with a Stetson on his head and brace of large revolvers on his hip. As he approached, Rick could hear hints of a Southern accent in his half-whispers. The last one was the least dressed, clad in only a white muscle shirt and shorts. He had long golden hair and blue eyes, half-concealed by the sunglasses perched just above his nose. He bore no firearms or visible blades, but Rick felt he was being sized up nonetheless. Rick barely noticed the bullwhip coiled around his waist like a cobra ready to strike. Rick dubbed them Cowboy and Blondie in his head.

"Hello?" Rick asked the blank-eyed man leading the trio.

The man half-staggered forwards a step before responding to Rick's query. "Hello there," he said in an unidentifiable North American accent as he waved. "I'm Dr. Grant Walker. Pleased to meet you."

"Rick Landon," he said as he extended his hand, to be met with a vice-like grip that nearly crushed his fingers.

The man's demeanor suddenly changed, as if he had been made aware of his surroundings. His face flushed a vibrant red, as if he had been caught naked. Rick took a brief step away, unsure of what would happen. His two associates ran down the remaining steps to help Dr. Walker up.

"Sorry, I've been ill recently," Dr. Walker said. "But nothing serious."

"Are you with the University?" Rick asked, hoping to break the awkward silence. Something inside his guts twisted his stomach, indicating a fear born of slight suspicions.

"I used to be, but those hacks wouldn't fund my archaeological research here."

"So, you research out here?"

"Of course! I've spent over two decades here, hiring excavation teams and cataloging sites they never anticipated," Dr. Walker said as his posture relaxed. "But they haven't given me a damn cent. Thankfully, Ralf Metzger here donated some of his own funds to help me."

Blondie grinned and waved at Rick from behind Walker, perhaps proud of hearing his own name mentioned. Dr. Walker pointed to Cowboy. "That is my associate Bill Walker, my security and labor organizer."

"Well, what's your specialty, Dr. Walker, if you don't mind me asking?" Rick asked as he began instinctively scanning for exits. His inner nervousness was decreasing, but he still wanted to be prepared.

"Postclassical Mayan history. In particular, the decline and eventual abandonment of Upal," Dr. Walker said. "But just call me Grant."

"Sure, Grant. Can you summarize of what you've found?" Rick asked, trying to keep him talking. Somewhere within, his unease was turning into a voracious curiosity.

"Upal was constructed sometime around the fifth or sixth century, reached its peak around the eleventh century and early twelfth century, faced at least one civil war, and weathered the wars that destroyed its neighbors. Despite that, the site gradually fell into disuse. It was not fully abandoned until Montoya crushed what was left of the local tribes in the sixteenth century. Even then, many continued their resistance from the nearby hills. Spanish control of this area was always weak, and even the British baymen and American filibusters fared little better."

"Interesting. Seems like a tough little country."

"Oh, that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg," Grant said. "My primary dig site is behind the main pyramid. It's out of sight for most tourists, and I have a small crew working on it now."

Grant turned to Bill. "Bill, can you tell the crew we might have a visitor coming by?"

"Sure thing, boss," Bill said before vanishing around the base of the pyramid.

"And what's there?"

"The most promising finds of this century," Grant said before pausing. "Irrefutable evidence of a hypothesis those fools in the University mocked me for."

"Oh?" Rick asked. His own curiosity again overrode his sense of danger, but his instincts remained constant in their apprehension.

"Ralf, can you the sound system's working? I think he'll enjoy our special recording."

"Ya," Ralf said, briefly throwing up a military-style salute before sprinting up the stairs of the Temple.

Now that he was alone with Rick, Grant sniffed the air. He walked towards the edge of the pyramid beside Rick, a confident grin beckoning him onwards. Around the edge of the pyramid, he pointed to a relief carved into the pyramid base. Rick gazed upon the ancient wall as his own mind screamed in recognition. He took some solace in the fact that his mind could hold and remember the strikingly vivid artwork he had seen before the White Wolf had nearly killed him.

The artwork upon the wall was nearly a simulacrum of the mural burnt into his memory. Even at midday, the weathered figures seemed to cast shadows as Rick's eyes traced the stylized pictographs. Unlike the stone tapestry from the jungle, the carvings appeared in worse condition with chipped stone and rough edges marring the original carver's intent whether by deliberate defilement, simple neglect, or some combination. The bestial carvings stared at Grant and him like the dark eidolons stalking them through the corridors of time.

"Even after the other city-states vanished, Upal still stood strong. Other scholars believe it to be mere fortune that Upal's leadership after their civil war consisted almost entirely of unusually farsighted warrior kings," Grant explained, referring to his peers dismissively. "But these glorious pictographs show far more. See the jaguar-headed warriors? They're depicted here defending the city from invasion."

"I think I remember reading about elite Aztec warriors dressing in jaguar hides. Did they do the same?"

"The others believed so, but I think you know better."

"Huh?"

"Follow me," Grant said as he gestured forwards.

As Rick continued further around the edge of the pyramid, he saw a mound of soil piled high near the corner. Beyond that, he saw an open expanse stretching for almost a hundred meters. The sight and sounds of sweat-soaked laborers digging trenches made him recall a documentary on the First World War. He counted about a dozen dark-skinned workers, all having bodies far more muscular than his own. He momentarily wondered if his transformed body could defeat them in a fist fight. Standing over the trenches with a briefcase was Bill, the Western movie reject from earlier. Grant removed something from the briefcase, which he could only tell was preserved in a glass jar.

"The workers that Bill gathered from the local village generally treat relics with respect," Grant said. "But one of them almost foolishly discarded this. Ralf saw to it that he was...disciplined."

As Grant brought it closer, Rick saw it was a bone blanketed in tooth marks. He instinctually and immediately connected the relic with a recollection of how bones looked after his pet dog had gnawed on them. He was unfamiliar with what type of bone it was, but he corrected assumed that Grant would soon enlighten him as to its origin.

"This is a broken human femur gnawed by a type of predator not native to the region," he explained. "A predator I presume you know about, but I am getting ahead of myself."

Rick had his theories, but remained silent. Grant handed the specimen back to Bill.

"My two assistants helped me confirm this bone was probably chewed on by a lycanthrope," Grant said as he watched Rick's eyes grow wide. Any other person would've been incredulous, but Rick was intrigued whether Grant had simply lost it or was onto something else.

"The wise warrior-kings of postclassical Upal were lycanthropes. The others believed these bones can be attributed to deliberate defilement of bones or snacking by scavengers, but the teeth-marks are too human. Most Upalites never found cannibalism appealing, but the lycanthropes might be a different story."

"What are you talking about?"

"Predators have to be smarter than their prey, or else they would go extinct. Lycanthropes are no exception to this. The disease that infects them grants them tremendous powers at the cost of an allergy to silver: a virtual halt to aging, incredible regenerative abilities, heightened senses, lateral genetic transfer of prior hosts' memories, and the ability to transform into a predatory hominid by an unknown mechanism," Grant answered. "Their abilities made them natural rulers, strong and wise philosopher kings in the Platonic tradition."

"Wait, so you're saying that werewolves ruled Upal?"

Grant turned to Rick, a radiant smile on his face. "Exactly."

Before Rick could launch into a set of questioning, Grant walked back towards the mural. He pointed to the jaguar-men from earlier. Rick heard static crackle over the nearby speakers. "There is cursory evidence for this in other cultures' stories as well. The Romans reported tales of wolf-men, and in fact, Patient Zero for the dominant strain of lycanthropy was likely a Roman soldier. The Norse had stories of were-bears, from where we get the word 'berserk' from. There are Chinese, British, Spanish, and Polynesian sources as well, but these are sadly fragmented."

"Were-bears? So there's other kinds of lycanthropes?"

"No. The strains may have mutated over time, but I believe each culture simply compared the infected to the dominant predator in their worldview. The Norse may have seen ursine features, or the Mayan natives saw feline ones, but we see lupine."

"Back up for a second," Rick said, raising both arms in front of him. "How do you know all of this?"

"Research. But most intriguing was how they'd use the site for a very important ritual," Grant said. "Once every few decades, a new leader was needed. This temple was the cornerstone of that ritual, and the capstone of my research."

Suddenly, an infrasonic pounding struck Rick's eardrums. The low rhythm reverberated through his skull like a jackhammer, but was followed closely by a high-pitched squealing like pigs skinned alive. He staggered backwards, as if thrown against the railing of a listing ship. He made out the feral cries of a wolf interspersed with the primordial, chaotic tempo. Adrenaline coursed through Rick's mind, narrowing his vision on the red-blushing face of the archaeologist. "You see, Mr. Landon, they fought to find the strongest. Every pack needs an alpha. I have recreated part of the ritual, and broadcast it worldwide."

A rhythm began to pour for from the speakers as aggression whipped Rick into a sense of hyper-realization. The tropical colors became brighter, the humid air became denser, and his breath became deeper. An instinctual arousal triggered within his mind as unfocused aggression searched for a target. He wanted to slip into his second skin and rip up something. The workers cowered in the trenches, shivering and covering themselves with dirty hands. He saw Bill no longer had the briefcase, but instead his free hands hovered near the grip of his revolver. Grant raised his hand, and his assistant slowly shifted his hands away from the pistol.

"Mr. Landon, your actions have just confirmed what I suspected. Only the strongest lycanthropes can perceive that range of sounds over a long distance. I'll admit I'm still unsure of how it works, or if it has any relationship to the caves underneath the temple, but as I am sure you recognize that cry as a challenge."

Rick tried to quell the anger within him as the music gradually subsided. Grant stood with an exuberant grin on his face. "Mr. Landon, you've undoubtedly come a long way. Some of the others make it here, only to lose their minds ripping each other apart, especially during the full moon," Grant explained. "But you are special, one strong of body, mind, and will. Perhaps if you lived during the Mayan era, you'd have made a good king."

"What are you getting at?"

"I want you to join us, Mr. Landon. To finish my research, I'll need evidence. Something that cannot be laughed off like my prior attempts to go public. This temple, the ritual, and the strongest werewolves that it calls, are part of that," Grant said. "Of course, there are advantages. You'd be comfortably lodged in a sizeable estate and receive a regular stipend, all in exchange for some occasional odd jobs."

Rick considered the offer for a long time. Grant sensed his indecision and took a step into his personal space. He extended his open palm towards Rick as he grinned confident he had found a new associate. His instincts, however, shifted immediately from curiosity to caution. The fact Grant's other hand hovered near his blade's handle was enough to set off alarm bells in his mind. He considered playing along for a moment, as it seemed too good to be true.

"Can you give this to me in writing, as well as details about the work? I need more time to think this over."

Grant stepped back, his mind unprepared for such a response. "Much of our supplementary work and organization is informal, but I have something to show you."

Grant took another step back and drew his blade. He let Rick observe it for a moment as he tried to identify it. It was a slightly curved sword, likely a cutlass or cavalry saber. The razor-sharp edge shimmered in the tropical light as Grant longingly held the blade at arm's length, as though ordering a frontal charge. He turned it towards Rick, holding the blade in one hand while rubbing the other down its spine.

"Francesco Montoya used a blade like this, with the edge tempered in a silver alloy. He knew his enemy, but the others ascribe his choice of weapons to mere vanity."

"That must've been expensive."

"Oh, but it was important. Few bitten by a werewolf are exposed to enough bodily fluids to spread the disease, and even fewer are able to contract the disease. Montoya never contracted the disease, but he did become the alpha of a pack with nothing but a silver sword and his wits," Grant said as his expression of sublime confidence melted into something sinister. "And unless you follow me, I will enlighten you in every gory detail."

Grant pressed the blade against Rick's stomach, forcing his back towards the pyramid. Caught unaware by the archaeologist's quick reaction, he felt muscles tensing as he pivoted on the balls of his feet. Grant staggered for a split second before bringing the blade around, but Rick had already leapt out of its arc. He sprinted as fast as he could, trying to put distance between himself and his foe. Behind him, a panicked look over his shoulder caught Grant whistling with his fingers. It was then Rick finally succumbed to his instincts and began to shift. Reinforcements would arrive soon, and he did not want to be around when they did.