PREVIEW: FATE OF THE FALLEN
Atlantis Legacy, book 2
“We’ve got to be close,” I said, smacking at a giant, bloodsucking insect snacking on the side of my neck. It crunched against my palm, sending a cascade of shivers down my spine. My upper lip curled in disgust, and I wiped my hand on a towering tree as I passed by, leaving a smear of yellow-green goop on the rough bark. So incredibly gross.
A howler monkey cried out in the distance, seeming to laugh at my discomfort.
Ahead of me, Raiden hacked through yet another bunch of vines with his trusty machete, clearing the trail through the rainforest’s dense underbrush. The loaded pack on his back jimmied and jostled with each purposeful swing of his arm. His neck and arms were coated in a sheen of sweat, turning his tanned skin a shimmering bronze, and his gray T-shirt was soaked through, the cotton clinging to his torso, defining each and every muscle. I would have been able to appreciate the effect a lot more if I wasn’t so preoccupied by my own sweaty body and my general state of misery. The GPS receiver tucked into the holster on Raiden’s belt beeped steadily faster, signaling that we were closing in on our target. Finally...
The sights and sounds of the Amazon Rainforest had enthralled me—at first. The rainforest was alive with the thrumming, buzzing, and chirping of the creatures that inhabited it, the natural orchestra frequently cut through by a croak or howling cry. I had seen dozens of monkeys and even more vibrantly colored birds, but the novelty could only last so long.
The humidity quickly overwhelmed all other sensory information. It felt like a second skin—a suffocating, smothering second skin. My tank top was in a soggy state, and it felt like a sweat-soaked sponge was wedged between my pack and my lower back. The flyaway hairs that were too short or stubborn to be tied back in a ponytail were plastered against my forehead and the sides of my face. A dull headache had started behind my eyeballs. I blamed dehydration. We had only been out here for a few hours, and I had already drained two of my three huge water bottles. I was really starting to dislike this place.
It’s just a short hike through the Amazon, I’d said. We’ll find it in no time, I’d said. Easy peasy, I’d said.
I wished time travel was included in the grab bag of psychic gifts I inherited as Persephone’s clone so I could go back in time and slap some sense into my past self.
The location marked by the holodisk I had found at the end of Hades’ labyrinth pointed to a place in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest. Coming here had been the logical next step for Raiden and me, after we had found our way back through the labyrinth in Rome. Our moms were safe—or, at least, not in immediate danger—and the Custodes Veritatis was hunting us. Getting as far away from Rome as possible, as quickly as possible, was pretty much our only move.
We couldn’t go home, much as I craved the peace and tranquility of Blackthorn Manor. The Order was sure to be monitoring the estate. But they didn’t have any reason to suspect we would go to Brazil, so that was precisely what we did. Besides, we needed to find what Hades left at the location marked on the holodisk before the Custodes Veritatis found it. The Order had already proven its unscrupulous nature, and I agreed with Peri that it would be far too dangerous for any more Atlantean artifacts to fall into their hands.
Plus, Hades owed me some answers. Assuming Peri’s hunch was right and Hades was still alive—as impossible as it seemed—I was determined to track him down and make him talk.
I just hadn’t expected that following his trail would be so damn soggy.
I heaved a deep, miserable sigh. “Please let us be close,” I muttered on the tail of my exhaled breath.
I doubted Peri would have been whining, but then, I wasn’t her. I mean, I was her, biologically. I was her clone, and I carried her consciousness in my head, but none of that seemed to matter right now. I was hot and tired and possibly on the verge of tears. In the showdown between nature and nurture, nurture was definitely coming out on top.
Even Raiden, who was barely four days healed after being shot in the thigh and tweaking his bad knee in a car accident, was handling the slog through the jungle better than I was. I had had my brief, blazing moment of glory in the labyrinth, stepping into Persephone’s kickass shoes, but as soon as I swapped those out for my mundane hiking boots, I had returned to my usual, useless self. I had even managed to reduce her awe-inspiring weapon to a glorified walking stick.
Something tucked under the winding roots of a nearby tree caught my eye, and I stopped mid-step. “Raiden!” I exclaimed, planting the butt of the doru into the soft earth and pointing to a small pile of shoebox-sized stone blocks with my free hand. The blocks of stone were weathered and worn, their surfaces almost entirely covered in a combination of lichen and moss, but there was no mistaking the perfectly rectangular shape. There was nothing natural about that shape. These blocks had been made.
As Raiden moved closer to the rubble, I scanned the area surrounding us. It didn’t take me long to find more evidence that people had once inhabited this place. Based on the aged state of the evidence, once was a very long time ago.
What appeared to be a half-collapsed wall off to the left was shrouded in vines and half-consumed by the underbrush, and when I squinted just right, an enormous boulder up ahead took on the unmistakable shape of a human face. Or, at least, a humanoid face.
“Is this it?” I asked, glancing back at Raiden who was crouching in front of the pile of stone blocks. “Is this what we’re looking for?”
Raiden checked the still-beeping GPS receiver and shook his head. “Unless these ruins spread out for miles…” He looked at me as he stood. “Sorry, Cora. We’ve still got a ways to go.”
I let my head fall back and groaned in disappointment. But as we continued on, the increasingly elaborate ruins were enough to take my mind off my general state of misery. For a little while, at least.
The bones of structures left behind by people many centuries ago became more numerous and apparent until, suddenly, they were all around us. The soft earth and underbrush gave way to paving stones, and once massive stone structures soon surrounded us, bent and bowed by time. Tall kapok trees grew atop the buildings and free-standing walls in places, while the dense rainforest canopy concealed the ruins of the ancient city from anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of the Amazon’s secrets from above.
We slowed considerably as we made our way through the long-abandoned city, taking it all in. I couldn’t help but wonder if my mom had ever been here. Or was this a truly lost city? Was this the fabled city of “Z” or possibly even the mythical El Dorado? When I spoke with her on the phone this morning, she hadn’t mentioned finding anything like this during the Brazil portion of her latest, ill-fated trip. But then, she and Emi had been more preoccupied with issuing warning after warning of all the ways the Custodes Veritatis might try to track or trap us.
“Can you mark our location?” I asked Raiden. I wanted to make sure we had it noted, both so I could ask my mom about it later and, if the opportunity arose, so she and I could return together and attempt to uncover some of the secrets hidden here, finally fulfilling the mother-daughter expedition she’d desired for so long.
Raiden pushed a button on the GPS receiver, and the device issued a single, lower-pitched beep. “Marked,” he said without looking back at me. His eyes were constantly moving, less out of awe over our surroundings and more from increasing wariness of the dangers that could be lurking in the shadows and beyond, in the places he couldn’t see.
“Who do you think built this place?” he asked as we continued on our current path through the city.
I paused, falling behind, and frowned as I studied the decoration at the base of a broad stairway branching off our path. Two huge snake heads had been carved from stone, their mouths open and fangs bared, like they were guarding whatever lay at the top of the stairs. The architecture looked nothing like what I had seen in photos from Machu Picchu or any other Inca sites. This reminded me more of the temple ruins of Ta Prohm in Angkor, what with the intricate stonework and the kapok trees invading the ancient city, their roots growing over and through the ruins. Except Ta Prohm was in Cambodia, clear on the other side of the world.
“Cora,” Raiden called back to me. “We should keep moving.”
After one last glance at the snake heads, I turned to follow Raiden, jogging to catch up.
“I have no idea who built this place,” I told him as I fell into step beside him.
Another ten or fifteen minutes of walking, and we passed through a partially crumbled stone gateway. The rainforest floor soon overtook the paved path, and vegetation hid all remaining signs of what must once have been a thriving civilization. As I ducked under a leafy branch Raiden was holding up to clear the way for me, I looked back one last time. But then Raiden released the branch, and the city was, once again, hidden from view.
We found a game trail that carved a path through the rainforest in the general direction we wanted to go, but after following that for a mile or two, we were back to bushwhacking.
“Hold up,” Raiden said, raising a hand, fingers curled into a tight fist. I recognized the hand signal from countless movies and TV shows, but mainly from Stargate SG-1, the source of most of my knowledge about the military.
Raiden sheathed his machete and pulled the GPS receiver from its holster on his belt. The handheld device had gone quiet.
“Are we here?” I asked, sidling up to Raiden so I could get a look at the screen. I had assumed that once we reached our destination, the GPS receiver’s beeping would bleed into one long tone, not stop altogether.
Much to my chagrin, the screen was black.
“It’s dead,” Raiden said, his voice gruff. He smacked the side of the device with an open hand, then shook it a few times.
I swallowed, thick saliva like paste coating my throat. Unable to hold out any longer, I propped the doru against the nearest tree and shrugged my pack off my shoulders. Squatting down, I pulled the remaining full water bottle free from one of the bag’s side pockets.
“The battery died?” I asked as I stood and unscrewed the cap. I brought the bottle up to my mouth. “Didn’t the guy in the shop say it was supposed to last seventy-two hours?”
“The battery didn’t die,” Raiden said, a hint of defensiveness in his tone.
I raised my eyebrows.
“At least, not on its own,” he added as he tucked the defunct GPS receiver back into its holster and turned his wrist so he could see the face of his enormous, multi-function watch. Eyes glued to the timepiece, he turned toward me, frowned, and then turned back around.
“What?” I asked, lowering the water bottle. The dull headache was annoying, but the knots forming in my stomach told me we had a bigger issue. I could rehydrate later. “What is it?”
“My watch is dead, too,” Raiden said. “And the compass needle is going crazy.”
I narrowed my eyes, an idea tickling the edges of my mind. Back in Rome, when I first entered the labyrinth and found myself in near absolute darkness, I had pulled out my phone, hoping to use the built-in light, but the phone’s battery had inexplicably died. And later in the labyrinth, when looting a corpse had landed me an antique compass, I recalled being intrigued by the way the needle spun around and around, endlessly searching for North.
“This is it,” I said, my voice ringing with absolute certainty. “We’re here.”
Something about the technology Hades had built into the labyrinth—as well as whatever he wanted us to find here, it would seem—didn’t jive well with modern electronics.
At Raiden’s quirked eyebrow, I explained, “It was the same in the labyrinth. Didn’t you notice it there?”
“I was a little preoccupied at the time,” Raiden said as he lowered his wrist. He scanned the endless expanse of trees and vines and overgrown underbrush surrounding us. “I don’t see any ancient alien buildings, so…”
I planted my hands on my hips, lips curving into a smirk. “That’s because you’re looking in the wrong place.” I waited for him to look at me, for his eyes to lock with mine, and then I gave the rainforest floor a pointed look.
“Huh,” Raiden said, scratching along his jawline. “Say you’re right and whatever we’re looking for is beneath our feet—how do we find our way in?”
If we hadn’t stopped here, I never would have noticed it—the glint of gold beneath a swath of vine-like roots and massive fern leaves maybe a dozen paces away. I touched my fingertip to the pendant hanging on a chain around my neck, tracing a circle around the large, amber stone set into the pendant to deactivate the regulator. The stone shifted from subtly glowing amber to brilliant, electric blue, and the ancient device stopped suppressing my latent psychic powers. In a rush, my psychic senses awakened, and the world became so much richer than it had been just a few seconds ago.
I closed my eyes, taking a moment to quiet the sudden rush of foreign thoughts and feelings flooding into my mind from Raiden. Skepticism. Excitement. Worry. Determination. And much to my surprise, each and every one of those emotions floated on a deep ocean of contentment. At his core, Raiden was happy. Because he was with me.
My heart seemed to swell in my chest, and I opened my eyes, fully intending to tell him I felt the same. But when my eyes met his, a flush rushed up my chest and neck, overheating me further, and my heart lodged in my throat, blocking the words. I had a lot of weaknesses, but this budding relationship Raiden and I were maybe in had to be the thing I was the absolute worst at. Not like this was really a great setting for declarations of feelings, anyway.
I flashed Raiden an awkward smile, clearing my throat as I reached for the doru. I tucked the end of the staff under my arm and aimed the focus crystal atop the weapon at the roots covering the spot of glinting gold. If this was an Atlantean site, then it was safe to assume the buried artifact wasn’t gold at all but nearly unbreakable orichalcum, the same metal that both the regulator and the doru were made of. Energy charged along the length of the ancient weapon, tickling my palms and humming through my arms. With the merest thought, I sent out three tiny energy bursts.
Blue fire blasted a pathway through the underbrush, sizzling over the roots and fern leaves, burning them down to little more than ash. When the smoke cleared, the golden object was barely visible, buried under a heap of soot.
Hurriedly, I picked my way through the smoldering underbrush, ducking under a branch here and a singed vine there. I crouched in front of the golden object, sweeping away the ash to get a better look.
I grinned. It was orichalcum, just as I had suspected. Which meant this really was an Atlantean site. Whatever Hades wanted us to find—and whatever I needed to protect from the Order—was here.
The exposed part of the orichalcum object, roughly the length and width of my forearm, had a curved symbol engraved into its face and was half buried by the singed earth.
I dug my fingers into the dirt. The energy blasts had heated the ground, leaving it hot to the touch. Gritting my teeth, I scooped the soil away, over and over, until I could see the rest of the symbol and make out the general shape of the golden object.
It seemed to be a solid block of orichalcum, symmetrical in shape but narrowing as I dug deeper. A quartzite block bordered it on either side, the stone glimmering a subtle pink beneath the dirt smudges. The symbol inscribed on the face of the orichalcum block looked an awful lot like the Greek letter beta. But I knew better. Thanks to Peri’s presence in my mind—even at times like this, when she seemed to be slumbering—I could understand her long-dead language. This symbol wasn’t from the Greek alphabet; it was Atlantean.
“What is it?” Raiden asked, close behind me, and I jumped. I had been so focused on digging out the mass of orichalcum that I hadn’t heard him approach.
I turned my head slightly so I could see him in my peripheral vision, but never really took my focus off the gleaming symbol. “I think it’s a keystone,” I told him.
“Like at the top of an arch?” Raiden said, putting two and two together.
I nodded as I turned my full attention back to the orichalcum block. “You know how much Hades loves arches…” The labyrinth had been lousy with them. I traced the groove carved by the symbol with the tip of my finger. “Hopefully we just found our way in.”
I stood and backed up a few steps, studying the ground around the keystone. “Nothing the doru can’t handle,” I said, thinking a dozen controlled energy blasts would create a deep enough crater to clear the dirt away from the front of the arch. “Come on,” I said, turning and starting back along the trail I had burned through the rainforest.
I didn’t hear Raiden following. He could be catlike in his movements, but out here, that didn’t equate to silence like it did indoors.
“Cora…” The way Raiden said my name made it sound like a warning.
I spun around, shifting the doru into a defensive hold.
Sidearm in hand, Raiden swayed where he stood before crumpling to the ground. His head missed the uncovered keystone by mere inches.
“Raiden!” I exclaimed, taking a lunging step toward him. “What—”
Another monster bug chomped down on my neck, and I raised my hand to swipe it away. Instead, I pulled something long, hard, and cold away from my neck. I glanced down at the weird-shaped bug as I took my next step toward Raiden.
Without warning, my leg gave out, and I tumbled face-first into the scorched underbrush. I couldn’t raise my hands to stop my fall. My arms weren’t responding to my brain’s order to move at all, and I hit the ground with a grunt, the doru slipping from my grasp. My other hand flopped out in line with my face, and a slender dart rolled onto the singed ground.
My thoughts grew fuzzy, darkness creeping in at the edges of my vision. The words tranquilizer dart formed in my dazed mind, but the logical part of my brain balked at the conclusion. Tranquilizer darts didn’t work this fast, at least not in real life. Two-second tranq-outs were a myth relegated to the world of fiction. TV. Movies. Video games.
But not even the last few threads of reason and logic could prevent the inevitable, and darkness consumed the world around me.
If you haven't already, be sure to snag your free copy of the Atlantis Legacy prequel, Sacrifice of the Sinners.