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The Temple of Atoa

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Deep in the mountains of Colombia, shrouded by mist and surrounded by thick, unexplored rain forest, researchers on the search for new species of flora and fauna instead made a strange, yet exciting, discovery.

It was an old stone tablet, engraved in an unknown language. A short search revealed more of them. Some were broken, but no piece was left without a match.  All of them were the same size, and while many had more writing on them, others had pictures. The images were of strange beings, taking on forms that resembled no animals known to man.

This news quickly caught the attention of archaeologists all over the world, but one man in particular was captivated by the tablets. His name was Gregory Barber. After being invited to check them out, he was determined to learn more about the civilization that had created them. He wanted to know who they were, what they did, where they went and what the tablets were about. More than that; he wanted to discover more of their artifacts, uncover their temples, find their treasures and be the man responsible for resurfacing an entire lost civilization.

He copied the ancient writing down in his notebook, spending several minutes on each symbol to make sure it was perfect. With permission, he was able to take one of the picture tablets back to his lab in Augusta, Maine. He chose the one of the creature he was most fascinated by. It looked like serpent, but with small legs like ones on a millipede, and a large, round, staring eye that took over its entire head. It must have been some sort of deity, but of what?

The three years that followed was full of painstaking work and research. Translating the tablets was impossible, but he was at least able to figure out that this civilization used a script similar to hieroglyphics, using symbols in place of letters. He made several trips into Colombia to look for more artifacts and to speak with some of the native tribes-people that lived nearby. During those trips, he found more tablets, including a larger one that appeared to be nothing more than a simple a star map.

He had also met a native who spoke a little bit of Spanish. She did not seem to recognize any of the writing, but was able to give information about the strange, legged serpent. Gregory himself could not speak Spanish, but his translator, Mateo Dias, told him she was talking about a local myth.

The serpent was supposedly a goddess responsible for both creation and destruction, named Atoa. She carved the Amazon River with her enormous tail, and resided in cavern deep in the Cordillera Oriental mountains, yet still was said to have had a temple built for her. The woman was unable to tell them where this temple was, to Gregory’s disappointment, but she did have more information on Atoa’s personality.

“She is a jealous and vengeful goddess,” Mateo translated. “When she feels slighted, she punishes the culprit very severely.”

Gregory was an atheist, and so this story was nothing more than an interesting bit of myth to him. What he really cared about was the temple. He believed it must have been stocked with treasures and ancient art, and if it wasn’t, he was still eager for the fame that would surely come with being the first person to uncover a long-lost creation from an unknown civilization.

Based on the story he was told, he assumed the temple would be in the rain forest, but didn’t rule out the possibility of the site being in the mountains instead. Surely the tablets would give him a clue, but without being able to decipher the language, he was stuck. It was only when he took a second look at the star map that he began to find a clue.

The circular image was split into twelve equal parts, which he guessed had to do with the twelve months of the year. With that in mind, it was now looking more like an astrology chart than a star map. There was different constellation in each section, and one of them resembled a serpent.

After making a sketch of the chart, he returned to Colombia one last time. Specifically, he went back to the place he had found the original astrology tablet. Gregory studied the chart. The constellation of Atoa was on the sixth section, counting clockwise. That would stand for June. After calculating where the sun would peak that month, he journeyed to the zenith point. It was a long trek through untamed wilderness, but eventually, he found exactly what he was looking for.

The structure was standing on a high hill, encircled by large, carved stones. He couldn’t make out what was on the stones, however, due to the weeds that had covered them. The temple itself appeared to be built from the same stone as the tablets. It was covered in tangled ivy and overgrown plants, and he could see visible cracks in the walls, which made it all the more remarkable that it hasn’t succumbed to nature’s forces just yet. The temple also appeared to be rather small from the outside, only about a few yards in each direction, which disappointed him. Still, he thought, I found it.

His heart racing, Gregory stepped inside. It was dark, and everything smelled of mold. He looked around with his flashlight, which revealed more of the symbols. They covered every inch of wall. As he curiously traced their shapes with his finger, he suddenly felt a strange shiver down his spine and stopped. He assumed it was just because of the silence and the darkness, but as he looked around, he felt an odd sense of foreboding. It was as though something was telling him he shouldn’t be there. But he could not let his curiosity fail him now. He’d come this far, and he was going to uncover the secrets of the temple no matter what. The tricks of fear would not stop him.

He walked until there was only empty space under his foot. He slipped into the hole before he could react, and landed with a hard thud on the stone below. He was in a tunnel just a few feet below the surface, and suddenly, there was a lot to explore. Though he wasn’t sure how he’d get himself out, that wasn’t important at the moment.

There were two sides to choose from. Basing his choice solely on his gut feeling, Gregory walked down the right side of the tunnel before reaching a forked path. He went to the left, this time without having to even hesitate. It was as though his feet were simply guiding him on instinct.

The deeper into the tunnel he went, the stranger things got. Gregory began to hear noises. Whispers, really. He couldn’t make out what was being said, and realized with a bit of shock that he might have been hearing someone, or something, speaking in the language of the tablets. The sound grew louder as he continued through the tunnels, and he followed them into a large, circular chamber. The voice was now practically shrieking in his ears. Every alarm in his brain was firing. This wasn’t right. He had to go. It was more than just his mind messing with him. He wasn’t alone in this chamber.

Yet, when he pointed his flashlight at the center of the room to see a stone pillar topped with a large emerald, Gregory’s greed overtook his common sense. The determination to succeed in his quest came back with a vengeance. He dashed for the treasure as the shrieks continued.

Upon touching the gemstone, his body became overwhelmed with a sensation. It felt like static shock, but it took over every fiber of his being. His heart started beating at a frightening rate, and his head felt like it was being crushed by something huge. At the same time, his vision blurred. The room seemed to be contorting and moving, but somewhere in the back of his mind, Gregory was conscious that he himself hadn’t moved a muscle since he touched the emerald. In fact, only a second had passed, but to him it felt like several minutes of agony. The last thing he saw was a giant, golden eye staring back at him, before everything turned black.

But he wasn’t dead. He could still move, and he could still think. He was conscious, but following the sensory overload came sensory deprivation. He felt nothing, saw nothing. Everything was dark, and though he could vaguely feel himself walking, there were no footsteps to be heard. When he paused, he realized he couldn’t even hear his own breathing or heart beat. In fact, Gregory realized with a panic, he didn’t even have a pulse, and he wasn’t breathing.

If it weren’t for the fact that he could still think, he would have had no way of knowing if he were dead or not. Though he easily could have been; as far as he knew, this was hell, a place he’d never believed in until then. But it certainly wasn’t the hell of the Devil. The only thing it could have been was the hell of Atoa.

He knew she was a vengeful goddess; he was told as much. But he had no reason to believe in her at the time, and had never considered that her punishment for wrongdoers would be to send them to a realm of pure isolation. Simply for trying to steal her treasure, and perhaps for refusing to have faith in her existence, he’d been sentenced to a realm where only he existed, and where he would continue to exist for the rest of eternity.