They’d been trying to tame the continent since they knew there was something there to harvest. For years, there had been little point in trying to cut through the dense jungle to get to the other shore; once airship technology had gotten them above the trees, they could simply fly across, away from the dangers that were hidden inside. The routes were well established and the cargo wasn’t terribly heavy. The lighter airships could make the trip in 3 days if all the conditions were right. Occasionally, an airship would be attacked by raiders from the desert with their lightning ships, but only if they strayed off course.
It wasn’t until a scout ship had crashed in the jungle that anybody actually considered exploring it. Very few people knew much of anything about what was in there or the people who lived near it. Only one lone professor had made an incursion of any note. He’d returned with strange animals and stranger tales then promptly changed his field of study. The expedition to find the downed airship started at his laboratory and followed the path he’d cut, and had maintained, years ago when he’d gone in searching for answers. Answers to what, he wouldn’t say.
The path was worn and the native guides refused to stray from it when the explorers wanted to try a shorter route to the downed airship. Based on the maps they had, it shouldn’t have been more than a couple days journey to the craft, a week if they were forced to cut their way through the vegetation. The path was safe, the guides told them, the path would take them there eventually, if they were patient.
Unused to being denied by the less civilized people they encountered, the explorers began to make plans to set out on their own once they got the chance. The first explorer went missing shortly after the lunch break, announcing he was going to step off the path for a quick moment. When he didn’t return, one of his compatriots offered to go look for him. As the explorers slipped off one by one, the guides offered to take all of the rest of them to search for the lost expedition members.
They were found, not very far off the path, staring in awe at a grimacing face that had been carved into a brick wall and overgrown with tree roots, vines and moss. The wall extended as far as the eye could see and the face was the height of three men.
“This is a very bad place,” the guides told the explorers. “We must go from here quickly.”
“What do you mean?” The lead explorer asked. “You knew this place was here and you were taking us away from it deliberately?”
“We are taking you to your ship that crashed. This place is not for you. We must leave.”
“Now, wait just a moment! Yes, we need to find the ship but this is a momentous discovery! We must take the time to explore it, document what we find and take back samples with us.”
“No, no, you leave everything here. They do not like people here.”
“Who don’t like people here? Some kind of spirit?” The explorers laughed and the guides became increasingly nervous.
“Yes, spirits, very angry spirits. That’s why they carve faces like this into their walls, to scare people away.”
The lead explorer chuckled. “You primitive people are so superstitious. Obviously this wall is a relic from a long ago age, probably from your ancestors, who knew things you couldn’t even possibly hope to understand with such primitive ways of thinking. We must explore for the sake of science.”
As he was talking, a mist began to flow around the men, making the guides nervous. Once the mist reached waist height, the guides dropped to their knees and began babbling prayers in a language they didn’t understand. Tiny bolts of lightning leapt from the mist and shocked all the men who were still standing, who promptly fell to the ground in spasms. Small shapes solidified in the mist and began dragging the men off, leaving the guides alone.
When the men woke, they were in a large stone temple, decorated in more grimacing masks and polished until the stone looked like bone. Lining the walls were tiny creatures that were more mist than solid and they flashed with the occasional tiny bolt of lightning. Other animals entered the temple, some looking more human than the explorers had thought possible, and all of them speaking in a language that shouldn’t have been able to come out of their grotesquely formed mouths. Finally, the most human looking figure walked in; he was nearly twelve feet tall with six arms, horns and tusks and white fur covering his entire body, which was only barely covered by a loincloth made of red silk and cloth of gold.
“Humans,” he rumbled, in deeply accented tones. “You were found trespassing. We have a long-standing agreement with your people that our lands are to be left alone. What do you plea?”
The leader of the explorers looked around him and at his people. “It’s my fault, I am their leader, but we didn’t know! How could we know?”
“Some among you knew and you chose to ignore their warnings. I appreciate you taking responsibility for your men. For that, you will be allowed to choose one to return and tell your loved ones about your demise.
The leader looked at his men, not wanting to be the one to make this decision, and finally chose the youngest of them to go home.
“He will witness and return to tell his story, and he may take what knowledge he gains from his time here. You must be brave, gentlemen, for the sacrifice you are about to make is for science.”