PREVIEW: LEGACY OF THE LOST
Atlantis Legacy, book 1
“Get down!” Fiona shouted, her voice ricocheting off the cavern walls.
I reacted without thinking, dropping to my belly and making myself as flat as possible. An arrow whizzed past my right ear as I pressed my cheek against cool, rough stone.
On the very edge of my vision, I could see Fiona laying a few feet behind me, one hand covering the back of her ducked head, the other beneath her, clutching the Staff of Osiris. A horde of black-robed goons was pouring out through the gleaming, golden exit of the tomb we’d just raided, some hundred paces beyond Fiona. The sound of their footfall thundered up the cave, echoing off the walls, growing ever louder.
I rolled onto my left side, pulling the pistol from the holster strapped to my thigh. Curling upward, I aimed the gun over Fiona’s auburn ponytail, targeting our pursuers.
Two bowmen fanned out from the head of the horde and settled into firing stances near the cavern walls. We were maybe forty yards from reaching the mouth of the cave. With them firing on us, we would never make it out alive.
Sweat coated my palms, but my grip on the gun remained steady. Just three rounds left. I had to make each shot count.
I squeezed the trigger. The explosive crack of gunfire was magnified by the stone surrounding us, making my ears ring.
My aim was true, and the bullet struck the nearest bowman in the shoulder. He spun around, black robes flaring out, and landed face-first on the cavern floor. His comrades swarmed over him, but thankfully, none paused to retrieve his bow. The action must not have been programmed into them.
Shifting my aim to the right, I focused on the other bowman, nearest the tomb, and pulled the trigger.
“Shit!” I hissed as the bowman ducked behind a massive stalagmite. But I didn’t lower my gun. I had one round left. I couldn’t miss. If I did, we were dead.
I inhaled deeply and held my breath, and waited. Seconds passed. My pulse hammered in my ears. The horde drew ever closer.
The bowman finally peeked out from behind the stalagmite, and I didn’t hesitate. I squeezed the trigger, blinking reflexively.
In that fraction of a second, the bullet struck the bowman in the abdomen. He stumbled back a few paces, then dropped to his knees and keeled over.
I watched him for a moment, making sure he was really down. Belly shots were tricky. But thankfully, he didn’t move again.
Blowing out my breath, I shoved my pistol back into its holster and rolled onto my belly. The horde was halfway to us. We were running out of time.
“Let’s go,” I yelled to Fiona, scrambling up to my feet.
As I lurched into a dead sprint, I could hear Fiona’s boots slapping stone right behind me.
The mouth of the cave, a bright beacon just ahead, beckoned us onward. Our pursuers were close on our heels, but daylight—safety—was mere paces away.
I spared the quickest glance over my shoulder, the corner of my mouth raising in a faint smirk. They were too far behind us; they couldn’t possibly catch us, now.
When I returned my attention to the way ahead, my eyes widened. The mouth of the cave opened to a sheer cliff high above the glittering Nile.
I skidded to a halt, barely stopping myself from hurtling over the precipice. I thrust out my arm, sucking in a breath to warn Fiona to stop.
“It’s the only way,” she shouted, ramming into my arm and grabbing on with her free hand.
I screamed as she yanked me over the edge, and down, down, down we fell….
“Cora?” Fingers touched my shoulder through the cotton of my T-shirt. Real fingers, not virtual ones.
Startled, I jumped out of my chair, tripping over the stocky pit bull lying at my feet. I stumbled into the desk off to the right, the cord of the virtual reality headset pulling tight between me and the console, and the jerky motion yanked the headset clean off my head. I lunged to the side, barely catching the headset by the cord before it crashed onto the hardwood floor.
Roused from her slumber, my dog, Tila, ambled past me, snorting derisively. She settled down near the dormant fireplace in the patch of rare March sunlight filtering in through the window, shooting me a baleful glance for the unwelcome disruption.
“Fio!” I said, voice raised, fingers fumbling with the VR headset to angle the microphone toward my mouth. “I’ll be right back. Hang on…” I tucked the headset under my arm, pressed the button on the back of my interactive gloves that would withdraw me from the game, and turned around to face the intruder.
Emerging from the virtual world was always a disorienting experience—for anybody. But for me, the jarring transition verged on painful. In the virtual world, I could be whoever I wanted to be. Go wherever I wanted to go. In there, I could have adventures that felt almost real. But out here, in the real world, simply leaving the house for a quick trip to the grocery store felt like a life-and-death excursion.
Out here, I had to face the truth of my pathetic existence: for the rest of my life, I would never really go anywhere, and I would never really do anything. I was twenty-six going on ninety, a prisoner of my own body. Of my own mind.
Emi stood behind the discarded desk chair, petite and poised, hands upraised and expression appeasing. “Sorry, Cora,” she said, angling her head to the side. Her long, sleek braid slipped over her shoulder, and the light from the desk lamp lent a golden gleam to the gray streaks in her black hair. “I shouldn’t have touched you—I know,” she said, “but I couldn’t get your attention, and—”
I raised my eyebrows. Emi knew better than anyone how dangerous a simple touch could be to me. It could trigger an episode. An attack. It could leave me bedridden, trembling as I fought to break free from the prison of my own mind. I pressed my lips together, thinking she’d better have a good reason for playing fast and loose with my sanity.
I grabbed the pair of discarded gloves off the desk and tugged them on, covering my hands and forearms with the thinnest, softest leather. They were custom made by a glover in Italy, a guy my mom found years ago during one of her trips. I had a pair for every season, plus a few dozen extra. My “episodes” were triggered by skin-to-skin contact, but cotton and other knits had proven to be an unreliable barrier. Latex, rubber, and pleather worked well to prevent an episode, but they made my hands sweat like crazy. So, leather it was.
“You have a package,” Emi told me. If that was her excuse for risking touching me, it wasn’t nearly good enough. Unless…
A surge of excitement made me all too eager to forgive and forget. Emi had been careless, but no real harm had been done, after all. And I had a new toy to try out—a full-body virtual reality suit meant to translate the sensations from the virtual world into the real one. It was the latest, greatest gadget on the gamer scene, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
“Where is it?” I asked, giving the bedroom a quick scan. The box would be large. Hard to miss.
Emi stepped to the side, rolling my abandoned chair out of the way right along with her and revealing the brown box resting on the foot of the four-poster bed. It was smaller than I’d been expecting—barely larger than the standard shoebox, but not nearly large enough to contain a whole VR suit. Had they only sent part of it?
I started toward the bed, but my steps faltered. The box didn’t bear the tell-tale logo of Techtopia; the massive online tech retailer didn’t miss a chance to advertise, which meant no box ever left their vast warehouses without their logo stamped on all sides. This box, however, was dented and battered, with no identifying markers other than a hand-scrawled address and foreign-looking postage markings on the top. This was definitely not a package from Techtopia.
Frozen in place, I furrowed my brow. I glanced at Emi, then back at the box.
My name—Cora Blackthorn—had been written hastily on the top in black permanent marker, along with the rest of the address for Blackthorn Manor. But that didn’t make the handwriting any less recognizable.
The writing was my mom’s.
The small surge of excitement from moments ago melted, warping into dread. The unsettling sensation pooled in my belly, leaden and sickening.
The only other time my mom had ever sent me a package while she was away on an expedition, she hadn’t expected to return home. She had sent me the package because she’d wanted the invaluable artifacts within to have a chance to make it to safety, even if she couldn’t. I hadn’t seen or heard a thing from her for nearly two months after receiving the package. I was twelve, at the time, and I thought mom was dead. I mourned her.
When she finally surfaced, more than a little worse for wear, I gave her the silent treatment for another two months, hoping my cold shoulder would force her to rethink her constant need to gallivant around the globe in search of adventure. Hoping she would, for once, choose me.
And it had worked. She’d stayed home. For a little while.
I stared at the package on the bed. How long would I have to wait for her, this time? Another two months? A year?
“Emi…” I looked at my mom’s best friend, my chin trembling. “When was the last time you talked to my mom?”
Emi and her son, Raiden, had lived in the hill house on the edge of our estate, Blackthorn Manor, for as long as I could remember. She and my mom were incredibly close, often fighting like sisters. Emi was a second mother to me, caring for me when my mom was away. Sometimes she seemed more like a mother than my own mom. It wasn’t unheard of for my mom to call Emi when she was away, but not call me. But it was unheard of for Emi not to share word of the call.
Emi’s dark eyes glistened with unshed tears. I could understand now why she’d risked touching me to get my attention. She hadn’t been careless, at all; she’d been afraid. Afraid of what was in the box. Afraid of what the box meant.
I had a feeling I wouldn’t be rejoining Fiona in the game anytime soon.
Emi gripped her onyx braid with slender fingers until her knuckles blanched. She shook her head. “I haven’t spoken to Diana since her call a couple weeks ago,” she said. “You know how she is—always so bad about checking in…”
I had spoken to her then, too. Weeks ago. She’d been in Brazil, hopped up on the adrenaline of a promising lead, certain she was days away from discovering Z, the lost city made famous by Col. Percy Fawcett’s obsession and resulting disappearance in the 1920s.
My mouth went dry, and I swallowed roughly. What if that brief phone conversation was the last time I ever heard my mom’s voice?
“Be careful,” I’d said for what had felt like the millionth time over the last two and a half decades.
My mom’s response had been the same as ever. “Always.”
I cleared my throat, eyes glued to the package. “What’s in it?” I asked, fully aware that Emi couldn’t possibly know, because the box remained unopened.
Emi moved closer to the bed and reached out, skimming her fingertips along the top of the box. Her eyes met mine, and she gulped. “Only one way to find out.”
Fighting through the paralyzing fear, I moved closer to the bed and, gripping the carved wooden post, sat on the edge. I released the bedpost and reached for the package, hands trembling.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Emi gripping the top of the chairback tightly, her delicate fingers digging into the cushioned leather.
I moved the box to my lap and started picking at a corner of the packing tape. Despite being roughly the size of a shoebox, the package was light—lighter than it would have been had it actually contained shoes, even sandals.
“Here,” Emi said, drawing my gaze as she plucked a pair of scissors from the ceramic utensil cup on my desk.
Emi held the scissors out for me.
“Thanks,” I said, accepting them.
I hesitated for a few seconds, scissors opened wide and one pointed blade poised over the seam of the package. I licked my lips. Maybe there was nothing to fear. Maybe this was just a souvenir. Just some trinket.
My gut told me that wasn’t the case.
I pressed the blade against the packing tape, sinking it into the seam. The adhesive strip resisted for a moment, then gave with a gentle pop. Breath held, I slid the scissors along the length of the package, then cut the tape along the sides.
I exhaled slowly, then drew in another breath as I slid my thumbs into the opening and lifted the flaps.
The box was filled to the brim with wadded-up newspaper. I took out a ball of newspaper and unfurled the sheet. The words printed on the page weren’t in English. The language was easy enough for me to identify—Italian, one of the three foreign languages I’d mastered during my homeschooled studies. I was also fluent in Spanish and Arabic, and I was currently working on a fourth language—Gaeilge—courtesy of Fiona, who got a kick out of my butchered pronunciations of her native, tongue-twisting vocabulary. It’s amazing the skills you can master when you have no place to go and nothing but time on your hands.
I balled up the sheet of newspaper and tossed it onto the floor, then closed the box so I could see the postage mark.
Rome. Shipped out eleven days ago.
Anything could’ve happened to my mom in that span of time.
“What was she doing in Italy?” I wondered aloud, glancing at Emi.
This was supposed to have been a South America trip. A few months in the Amazon rainforest. Back by the end of March.
Emi’s grip on her braid tightened, and she shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said, a haunted cast to her eyes.
I stared at her for a moment longer, trying to decipher her expression. Small but mighty, Emi was always cool composure and unshakable nerves—no doubt a result of the shadowed military past she shared with my mom. But she was shaken now, and seeing her like this frightened me almost more than the arrival of the package itself.
“Well,” I said, turning my attention back to the box, “what did you send me, Mom?”
I pulled out sheet after sheet of crinkled-up newspaper, opening up each to ensure it was nothing more than filler. During my careful unpacking, I unearthed two newspaper-wrapped bundles, one the size of a baseball, though much lighter, the other small enough to fit in my closed fist. I set them beside me on the bed and continued the search.
At the very bottom of the box, I found a receipt, folded in half, and then folded in half again. There was handwriting on the back, the thick black ink easily visible through the thin paper.
“It’s a note,” I told Emi as I unfolded the receipt. Once again, my mom’s distinctive semi-cursive handwriting was unmistakable. “It’s from her.”
“What does it say?” Emi asked, stepping closer. She eased down onto the foot of the bed, craning her neck to see the words.
“Cora,” I read aloud, “I screwed up.” My heart lurched and my voice failed, and I had to clear my throat in order to keep reading. “I’m so sorry,” I read. “These should help. You won’t have to live in fear anymore. I wish I’d figured this out sooner. Everything could have been so much easier for you. Better late than never, I hope. I’m sorry, sweetie. I love you.”
When I finished reading, I closed my eyes, fighting the tell-tale sting of tears. My nostrils flared as I attempted to regulate my breathing. I clenched my teeth and opened my eyes, staring at the note but not really seeing it.
“May I?” Emi said, reaching for the slip of paper.
Numbly, I handed the receipt to her, then picked up the smaller of the newspaper-wrapped bundles. It was the heavier of the two, but by no means heavy. The majority of the bulk was paper, and unwrapping it seemed to take forever. But finally, I reached the core.
It was a necklace. An antique one, by the looks of it. The links of the gold chain were heavier than was fashionable for women’s jewelry these days. A golden, teardrop-shaped pendant hung from the chain, about the size of a silver dollar. Delicate, intricate designs had been etched into the metal surrounding the smooth, round stone set into the center of the pendant. The stone was the color of yellow amber but devoid of any imperfection, and it had a strange, incandescent quality.
“It’s beautiful,” Emi said, her voice hushed.
I nodded. “And ancient.”
It wasn’t that the necklace looked old or worn or anything like that; rather, it appeared to be in pristine condition. But it felt old. I couldn’t explain it, but instinct told me this pendant was older than anything I’d ever touched before.
“Here,” I said, handing the necklace to Emi. “Take a look.”
When she took it, I reached for the second bundle.
“That’s interesting,” Emi said, holding the pendant on the palm of her hand and letting the chain dangle.
“Look,” Emi said, angling her palm toward me so I had a good view of the pendant. “It must be some kind of a mood stone.”
It took me a moment to register her meaning. But then I saw it. The stone was no longer amber; it was clear, devoid of all color.
I frowned. “Weird,” I said, returning my attention to the second bundle as I unwrapped it.
The final layer of newspaper pulled away, and an orb as smooth as glass settled in my palm. It was filled with some sort of liquid, more viscous and far lighter than water, cut through by ribbons of glittering, gleaming turquoise that slowly shifted and swirled, ever-changing and never stopping. I was either looking at the world’s most hypnotizing paper weight, or something else. I was leaning toward something else.
It started with just a tickle in my mind. The buzz of invisible mosquitos. It grew louder, until whispers filled my ears. Thousands of voices. Too many to distinguish one from another. Too many to ignore.
My mind suddenly felt fuzzy, my eyelids heavy. The room tilted to the side, then started to spin and darken as the voices grew louder and louder.
An episode. I was having an episode, I realized distantly. This one felt different. Strange. But it had to be an episode. It was the only explanation my hazy mind could come up with.
I thought I could hear Emi, but she was too far away. Her words were drowned out by the mass of voices, all shouting to be heard.
I was grateful for the darkness closing in around me. It promised peace. Quiet.
And thankfully, it delivered.
I woke in a daze, mind groggy and memory jumbled.
“Cora?” It was Emi. “Are you awake?”
It took some effort, but I managed to crack my eyelids open. One look at the brass and bronze light fixture on the ceiling, and I knew I was lying on my bed, stretched out on top of the comforter, from the feel of it.
I blinked, then opened my eyes wider and really looked around.
Tila lay stretched out beside me, a none-too-dainty snore rumbling the mattress with every inhale. Emi was perched on the edge of the bed near my right hip, her upper body angled toward me, close but not touching. She was cradling the glass orb in one hand, absentmindedly rubbing her thumb against the smooth surface.
“What happened?” I asked, then coughed gently to clear my throat.
Emi frowned, her eyes shifting from me to the glassy orb and back. “I was just about to ask you the same thing,” she said softly.
Groaning, I propped myself up on my elbows, my stare fixing on the orb. It was empty, looking like nothing more than clear glass Christmas tree ornament.
“It’s empty,” I commented.
Emi’s brow furrowed. “There was something in it?”
I looked from the orb to Emi and back. “Yeah, the blue swirly stuff…”
“Oh.” Emi frowned. “I didn’t see that.”
It was my turn to frown. Had I imagined the swirling ribbons of blue? Had it been a hallucination, just an early symptom of the mounting episode?
“So, was that an episode?” Emi asked, the concern in her voice palpable.
I swallowed roughly, finding the implications that touching the orb had caused an episode extremely disturbing. Up until this point in my life, the debilitating effects of my condition—the hallucinations, seizures, and on occasion, loss of consciousness—had only reared their ugly heads when I’d had human contact. Skin-to-skin, for the most part. Animals were a safe zone.
But if touching things was going to start triggering episodes now, I might as well just seal myself off in a bubble. No food or water, thanks. If I couldn’t touch anything anymore, I wouldn’t want to live that long, anyway.
“It felt kind of like one,” I admitted reluctantly. Speaking the words out loud made the horrific implications seem that much more real. That much more threatening. What would trigger an episode next? Tila? My computer? The VR headset? A glass of water? The air?
I let my elbows slide out from behind me and dropped back down to the bed, exhaling in a huff. After a second thought, the few days it would take me to perish in that bubble would be too long to wait. Better to just end it now.
The worst part of it was that my mom wasn’t even here to talk me down. If the package and its ominous note were anything to go by, it was looking like my worst fear about her was coming true. She might never return.
The tears that had threatened earlier were closer now, making my eyes sting and my chin tremble. Sure, my mom was gone half the time, but she was still the most important person in my life, and I couldn’t imagine her being gone for good. Being gone forever.
I rolled onto my side, away from Emi and curled into the fetal position, knees tucked against my chest. I’d never been a fan of putting my misery on display. I was damn good at sucking it up, and my stiff upper lip had been perfected a long time ago. Both my mom and Emi tried so hard to make me feel normal—each in her own way—and I never wanted them to know just how far short they’d fallen.
As I moved, something metallic slid out of the V of my T-shirt and landed in front of me on the comforter. It was the necklace my mom had sent. Emi must have put it around my neck while I’d been unconscious.
I raised one hand and curled my fingers around the pendant, enclosing it in my fist. The stone felt warm against my skin and, somehow, strangely comforting.
The bed shifted as Emi stood. “I found the number for the shop where the receipt came from,” she said softly. “No answer, but I’ll keep trying.” I heard a dull clink as, I assumed, she set the orb on the nightstand. “Get some rest,” she said. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”
Her footsteps were soft, quiet. Barely audible. The sound of the door’s hinges creaked once. Twice. And then she was gone. I was alone.
I squeezed my eyes shut and, chest shuddering, gave in to the tears.
Sitting at my desk, I fingered the pendant hanging from a chain around my neck and stared out the window, watching the rippling sea.
Well, technically it’s a sound, an ocean inlet too large to be a bay, too wide to be a fjord, and too deep to be a bight. It’s East Sound, to be exact, not to be confused with West Sound on one side of the island or Rosario Strait on the other. I knew this—had a brain packed full of useless, obscure knowledge—because I had no life. Because this place was my life. This place, along with my mom and Emi—and Raiden, once upon a time—were my whole world.
I’d only stepped foot outside of the San Juan Islands a few times. This archipelago was my home, Orcas Island my safe haven. Unlike Raiden and the other kids who’d grown up on Orcas and the surrounding islands, I hadn’t taken the interisland ferry to Friday Harbor on neighboring San Juan Island to attend school past a single, disastrous week of kindergarten.
Sometimes, on weekdays when my mom was home, the two of us would head into town for ice cream and some light shopping. The town of Eastsound was next to dead on weekday mornings, especially mid-week, when tourist traffic was nil. Only the shopkeepers posed any kind of a threat to my tenuous sanity, but they knew me—the Blackthorn girl—and rumors abounded about what ailed me. I was sick, or insane, or both. They knew enough to keep their distance, which was all I needed.
Those were my favorite days.
And if my mom never returned, those days would be a thing of the past.
My mom wasn’t alright. The package pretty much guaranteed it.
Emi had spent the afternoon tracking down my mom, or trying to. She’d managed to get a hold of the shop owner, but the woman on the phone had claimed she didn’t remember my mom coming in. Emi also called just about every governmental organization, both US and Italian, but everyone told her the same thing: they couldn’t help.
Apparently, there was no record of my mom entering Italy, let alone leaving Brazil. There was nothing for any agency, foreign or domestic, to use as a starting point in the search for her. No way for anyone to help. We’d been advised to file a missing person’s report with our local law enforcement agency. Fat lot of good that would do.
Swallowing the growing lump in my throat, I focused on a distant ferry gliding across the water’s silvery surface. For minutes, I watched the ferry, following its slow, steady path, until the mounting fear and frustration dimmed into the background of my mind and I had better control over my emotions. Ominous looking clouds were rolling in from the east, coloring parts of the water a duller, darker gray. A storm was moving in. The swells would be high tonight.
Movement caught my eye in the yard below, out near the edge of the grounds, where the subtly manicured landscaping met up with the sandstone bluff that dropped straight into the sea. It was Raiden, Emi’s son, picking up the branches that had fallen during the previous night’s storm and piling them in a wheelbarrow. He limped slightly each time he took a step.
I rose from the chair and moved around the desk to stand near the window.
Raiden had been my best friend, once. My only friend. But that was years ago. Now, he was practically a stranger. He barely resembled the boy who I explored the wooded grounds with as a child. The boy who I taught to hold his breath underwater, despite being a few years younger than him. The boy who helped me build Fort Blackthorn from driftwood on the beach. The boy who had always been able to make me smile, even during the bleakest of times.
I was three years behind Raiden in age, and he joined the Army straight out of high school, even against his mom’s protests. As a teenager, he’d been eager to make a difference, to fight the good fight. He had wanted to change the world, but it seemed to me that the world had changed him.
Raiden had always been a big, solid kid, taking after his father, I supposed, though I had never met the man. Emi’s husband was Hawaiian, allegedly, and must have been huge to make Raiden dwarf his mother the way he did. Raiden was even bigger now than he’d been when he left. Stronger, and harder.
But it was the changes inside Raiden that seemed most drastic to me. He left the islands a boisterous, fun-loving young man, filled to the brim with confidence and ambition, ready to right the world’s wrongs. He returned subdued and somber, the light in his eyes dimmed by whatever he had seen out there. By whatever he had done. Things I could only imagine.
Raiden had been back for a few months, but I more or less avoided him now. He was more dangerous to me than Emi or my mom, my mind ready to fill in the unknown with all manner of horrors should contact between us trigger an episode. The horrifying hallucinations I experienced when I bumped into him in the kitchen shortly after his return had left me bedridden for a solid week. I didn’t want to experience that again. Once had been enough. More than.
But even in his seemingly damaged state, I envied Raiden. He’d made it out. He’d had adventures. If his mom went missing in Rome, he would have gone after her. He would have been able to find her if she was still alive—to save her—and he would have been able to avenge her if the worst had happened. He was everything I wanted to be…and everything I never would be.
Bile rising in my throat, I hugged my middle and turned away from the window. It was pointless to pine for such things.
My gaze landed on the receipt that had been tucked beneath all of the wadded-up newspaper pages in the package. It was sitting on my desk in front of my laptop, flipped over to the back, displaying the note from my mom.
I narrowed my eyes. Just because I wasn’t as outwardly capable as Raiden didn’t mean I was completely useless. Maybe I could track down my mom—save her if she needed saving—in my own way.
I walked around the corner of the desk and settled in the chair. I opened my laptop and flipped the note over to reveal the receipt side. I typed the address at the top of the receipt into the internet browser’s search bar, then clicked on the map of Rome that popped up with the location of the address marked by a yellow star. Maybe the shop owner didn’t remember my mom, but somebody else might—maybe another worker or shopper or just a passerby. Or maybe a street camera had captured her leaving.
It was time to unleash my inner Veronica Mars and get to sleuthing.
I scanned the map, noting the various landmarks surrounding the location. The receipt had been printed in a shop near Vatican City, just northeast of the tiny sovereign nation in what the map informed me was the Prati neighborhood of Rome. The shop appeared to be a convenience store of some kind, but didn’t have a phone number listed. No matter. Emi had already found the number; I could get it from her.
I pursed my lips and repeatedly tapped the nail of my index finger on the keyboard.
After a long, thoughtful moment, I turned my attention back to the receipt. Assuming it was a genuine receipt from a purchase my mom had actually made and not just some scrap paper she’d fished out of the garbage, she had physically been in the shop at 10:19 the morning of the same day the package had been postmarked, and she had purchased four things: a box, a newspaper, a bottle of water, and a lemon. The total had come to just under eleven Euro, and she’d paid cash. Useless details, at first glance, but I couldn’t help thinking there was more to it.
I blew out a breath and ran my fingers through my hair. It was longer than usual, the dark brown waves reaching well past my shoulders, and it was starting to drive me crazy.
I twisted my hair up into a bun that I secured with the tie I’d been wearing around my wrist. I pinched my bottom lip, my gaze drifting above the computer screen to the window behind the desk. The ferry I’d been watching earlier was long gone, and a seagull was swooping lazily over the bay, just beyond the bluff at the edge of the yard.
“What happened to you, Mom?” I asked, the question barely audible.
How long after mailing the package had she gone MIA? Had someone been chasing her? Had she been injured? Was she an unconscious Jane Doe lying in a hospital bed somewhere in Rome? Or was she awake, but suffering from amnesia? Or was she in a ditch somewhere? Or face-down in a river? Had she been abducted? Was she being held prisoner? Was she being tortured?
Was she even still alive?
The sun set while I considered all of the horrifying, mind-numbing possibilities, and the view through the window faded to a deep, inky darkness. After a while, all I could see was a ghostly reflection of myself sitting at the desk in the dim bedroom.
Sighing, I reached across the desk to pull the chain dangling from the antique banker’s lamp sitting near the corner. The halogen bulb flared to life, the brightness momentarily making me squint, and I angled the lamp’s green glass shade downward so the direct light would be out of my eyes.
I shut the sleeping laptop and picked up the receipt, turning it over to reveal my mom’s message, once more. I moved the thin paper into the pool of light from the desk lamp. My mom’s words were the same as ever, but I still felt like I barely understood their meaning.
I screwed up.
So she’d made a mistake of some kind. What, exactly? And, when?
I’m so sorry. These should help.
Somehow, the necklace and orb were supposed to rectify her mistake. But what had she “screwed up” in the first place? And how could two such seemingly random objects help with anything?
I shook my head, not even close to understanding.
You won’t have to live in fear anymore.
Because of the necklace and the orb? Was my fear—my condition—the mistake? Was I the mistake?
I wish I’d figured this out sooner. Everything could have been so much easier for you. Better late than never, I hope.
“What are you talking about?” I wondered aloud. The more times I read her words, the less sense they made.
I’m sorry, sweetie. I love you.
My eyes burned as I read my mom’s final words. It sounded like a goodbye.
Absently, I rubbed my thumb over a faint brownish smudge near the corner of the receipt.
Much to my surprise, the smudge appeared to darken under the friction rather than clear away.
I squeezed my eyes shut, thinking I’d been staring at the receipt for too long. So long that I was starting to see things. But when I opened them again, not only was the smudge still there, it was definitely darker. And if I wasn’t mistaken, it was looking more like two smudges than one.
I moved the receipt closer to the lamp’s bulb and leaned in.
The smudges not only darkened the longer the thin paper remained near the bulb. They grew.
Into letters. Into words. Into a hidden message.
“The lemon,” I mouthed, eyes widening as I sat up straighter. “Of course!”
It had been right there in front of my face the whole time; I’d just been too blind to see it. My mom had bought a box, a newspaper, a bottle of water, and a lemon. She must have used the juice from the lemon to create a rudimentary invisible ink, hidden until enough heat brought whatever else she’d written to light.
I waited not-so-patiently as the blurred letters became darker and more defined. As the hidden message became clearer.
And then I blinked, and I could make sense of it—a message meant for my eyes, and my eyes alone. A single line. A clue.
Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.
I read and reread the line, over and over. It was a quote from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
A slow grin spread across my face. My mom wouldn’t have included a hidden message if she wasn’t still out there. If there wasn’t still hope. If she didn’t want me to find her.
And thanks to that message, I knew exactly what she wanted me to do.
After that brief, abysmal stint of kindergarten when I was a kid, my mom had pulled me out of public school, opting instead to home school me right here in Blackthorn Manor. Emi had helped out in the math and science departments, her particular specialties. They’d been an excellent teaching team, finding ways to make learning feel like an adventure, an endless quest for knowledge. In fact, they’d been so good that I hadn’t understood why Raiden was constantly complaining about his classes and homework. All of my work was homework. And I’d loved it.
My mom’s specialty was history, of course. And languages. And, oddly enough for someone who wasn’t even remotely religious, she knew a ton about religion, especially the Judeo-Christian family. I never really understood that.
All of my studies had been interdisciplinary, with history at the core of almost every project. When tasked with creating a model of the solar system, I also learned about the lives and times of the pioneering astronomers who’d honed our understanding of the universe over the millennia, as well as the rich Greco-Roman mythology behind the Western names of the various celestial bodies. When studying the Golden Ratio, I was tasked with photographing as many examples of it in nature as I could find on our property, as well as learning about the pyramids of Egypt and Euclid, Fibonacci, and Da Vinci, who’d all incorporated the Golden Ratio into their work. And during the year I spent executing a series of Mendelian pea plant experiments in the greenhouse, I also worked through an interactive digital simulation of Darwinian evolution and read On the Origin of Species.
Though that had been my first time reading the entirety of Origin, it hadn’t been my first exposure to Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking foundational work. My mom was a big fan of Old Charlie, as she called him, and as far back as I could remember, she’d been pulling quotes from Origin to qualify any myriad of topics or explain away the mysteries of backward thinking over the span of human history.
“Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”
That particular line had been one of her personal favorites. Once, she even used it to justify why my education was so history-heavy. The one and only time I complained about it, whining that studying the past was pointless—I blame emerging teen angst—my mom had relied on Old Charlie to set me straight.
I was twelve at the time, and we were in the library, deciphering the symbols on a 300-year-old nautical chart.
“Do you know what the light is?” she had asked me after reciting the line.
I had rolled my eyes, possibly even going so far as to groan. “I bet you’re going to tell me…”
“Knowledge, Cora,” had been her response. “Curiosity. The search for truth—that is the light.” Her words were laced with gentle vehemence, the blue of her irises alight with quiet intensity. “We must always keep searching, seeking the light, or we risk falling into the darkness.”
Unable to resist, I had asked her what was in the darkness.
She had looked away, her gaze growing distant and filling with ghosts. “Monsters,” she had whispered, that single, hushed word laden with more fear than any scream or shout.
I never asked her about the things in the darkness again. They scared my mom, the bravest person I knew; that was enough for me to want to stay far, far away.
I wasn’t sure I could keep my distance any longer.
Armed with the receipt from Rome and the cryptic message my mom had hidden in invisible ink on the back, I rolled the chair away from the desk and stood. I grabbed my gloves, quickly pulling them on up to my elbows. I didn’t usually wear them when I was alone, but after that latest episode, I figured I couldn’t be too careful. Emi was in the house, after all—she’d long ago taken to staying in the guest bedroom three doors down from mine when my mom was away.
Tila, dozing on the foot of the bed, roused at my movement and raised her head, watching me with interest.
“Come on,” I told her, moving closer to the bed to scratch behind her short, floppy ears. “It’s time for an adventure.”
She inhaled deeply, sighed as she exhaled, and stood, getting in a good, long stretch before lazily slipping off the bed. She shook her head, her ears making a clapping noise against the side of her head, then looked at me.
I patted the outside of my thigh, and she fell in step behind me. Dog at my heels, I crossed the room, eased the bedroom door open, and slipped out into the dark hallway. As quietly as possible, I made my way along the corridor that led to the library deep within the heart of the old mansion. The discovery of my mom’s hidden message was still so fresh, I wanted to keep it to myself just a little bit longer.
Blackthorn Manor was huge and old, or at least old by Pacific Northwest standards. It was built in 1906 by my great-great-grandfather, a prominent shipbuilder of the time, and the century-old teak flooring creaked and groaned with each footfall, no matter how softly I stepped.
There was nothing gothic about the nautical-themed mansion, but I felt in need of a long nightgown and a flickering candle as I crept along the dark hallway, ghostly memories lurking in every crack and corner. It almost felt as though my mom were there with me, guiding me toward whatever it was she wanted me to find.
I slid open one panel of the library’s enormous, teak pocket doors, slipped into the cavernous room and waited for Tila to join me, then turned and closed us in. The heavy darkness was punctured by the exterior lights shining through the maritime stained-glass window on the far side of the library, the patches of light tinted amber and blue from the colored pieces of glass. The pipes of a massive, two-story organ climbed up the walls to either side of the decorative window, the brass gleaming silver and gold in the filtered light. Two spiral staircases connected the main floor to the mezzanine, one on either side of the room.
I’d spent more time here in the Blackthorn library than I had in the virtual world—which was really saying something—and I knew the layout of the room better than the back of my hand. I cut a path through the center of the library, angling slightly to the right to circumvent the four-foot-tall armillary sphere my mom had added ten years ago.
Some people redecorated by changing up the curtains or paint color or by purchasing some art, but not my mom; she redecorated by hunting down antique astronomical instruments and other historical artifacts to put on display. She’d collected so many pieces during her seemingly endless string of expeditions over the years that Blackthorn Manor was as much a museum as it was a home.
I made a sharp left just past the armillary sphere to avoid the senet table and accompanying pair of armchairs, then made a beeline for my mom’s desk. It was a beastly thing of brass and carved walnut. It had been custom-built for the house, and so far as I knew, had never been moved from its place beneath the stained-glass window.
When I reached the desk, I pulled the cord on the small Tiffany lamp set in the corner, lighting the library with the lamp’s muted glow. The surface of the desk was as sparse and pristine as ever, not a paper in sight and not an antique accessory out of place.
“Stay here,” I told Tila, patting her muscular cheek.
She sat, head cocking to the side.
“Good girl,” I said, turning away from both dog and desk.
I headed for the spiral staircase on the left side of the library. Hand on the brass railing, I carefully made my way up to the mezzanine. I’d made a full 360 by the time I reached the top.
I didn’t pause as I stepped foot onto the mezzanine. I followed the railing around to the far end of the library, toward the two bookcases that housed my mom’s most prized volumes. Her copy of Origin was among the books stored there.
As I stopped in front of the bookcases, the light was almost too faint to read the titles on the spines. Almost, but not quite.
I found the leather-bound edition of Origin near the center of a shelf just below eye-level. When I pulled the book free, I peeked at the top before even cracking it open. The ribbon marked a page near the beginning, in the exact place the line from my mom’s hidden message should be.
My heart beat a little faster, and my hands trembled. In mere moments, I would find out whatever it was my mom wanted to tell me but had been afraid to write directly.
I slid the nail of my index finger between the two pages separated by the ribbon and opened the book.
A single word was scrawled in pencil in the outer margin on the left-hand page, beside the quoted line. Or rather, a name: Hypatia.
I blew out a breath. I hadn’t reached the endpoint of this mystery, just a stop along the way. Apparently, my mom had set up a secret scavenger hunt meant just for me, and there was no saying how long the hunt would take or what the purpose would end up being.
There were better ways for me to be spending my time, like trying to figure out what happened to her in Rome, rather than following a path she’d laid out before she’d even left. Before she’d gone missing.
I blinked, lips parting and eyes opening wide.
If my mom had set this up before her trip, then she’d known it might end badly. Hell, she’d expected it to. What, exactly, had she gotten herself into? And moreover, what did she think I could do about it from here? Something, evidently, but what?
Motivation refreshed, I shelved the book and rushed back to the spiral staircase. I raced down the steps, hand gripping the brass railing tightly. When I reached the bottom, I headed straight for the Classics section on the other side of the room, near the opposite spiral staircase, Tila falling in step close behind me.
Hypatia was an ancient Roman Neoplatonist scholar who’d lived in Alexandria during the fourth and fifth centuries, this side of zero. She’d been a brilliant mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer, going so far as to teach and even advise prominent Alexandrian men, something that was extremely uncommon for women of her era. Unfortunately, Hypatia had been caught up in a period of religious and political turmoil and had been murdered by a Christian mob for her pagan beliefs. She’d become a martyr to philosophy, and many centuries after her death, she’d been turned into a feminist icon.
My mom viewed Hypatia with the same sort of reverence Catholics viewed the Virgin Mary. As I skimmed the book spines, searching for any volume of Hypatia’s work, I recalled the deep sadness that had shown in my mom’s eyes as she expressed what a pity it had been that none of Hypatia’s writings had survived the centuries.
Which explained why I wasn’t currently having any luck finding anything authored by the ancient scholar on the bookshelf. There wasn’t anything to find.
“Moron,” I admonished, shaking my head as I turned away from the bookcase.
I followed the wall of books away from my mom’s desk, seeking out the biography section six or seven bookcases down. I wasn’t looking for something written by Hypatia, but about her. I had no idea what I would find in the collection. Biography was one of my least favorite genres, and I was entirely unfamiliar with the books lining these shelves.
When I reached the section, I slowed my search, taking my time to read each and every title. I didn’t know if I was seeking a book about Hypatia exclusively, so as I skimmed the spines, I looked for any sign that the book might either be about Hypatia, or even just reference her. To complicate matters, the books were organized by author, not subject matter, which didn’t help me at all. My frustration mounted with each successive shelf.
“Come on,” I muttered. “Where is it?”
Second shelf from the bottom, five books from the left. Hypatia, written by someone with the last name of Kingsley. The volume was bound in black leather, with gold writing. The book was far from new, the black finish on the spine was worn, peeling in some places to reveal the leather’s warm brown hue.
I felt a spike of excitement the moment I spotted it. I was one step closer to figuring this all out.
I reached for the book, curling a fingertip over the top of its spine, and slowly pulled the volume toward me. It tilted out maybe a third of the way, but then it stopped, seeming to be stuck.
Brow furrowing, I gripped the spine of the book and tugged.
There was a faint click from somewhere within the wall behind the bookcase.
Tila stood, a low growl rumbling in her barrel chest.
A moment later, the entire bookcase sank into the wall, then swung away from me with the soft creak and groan of shifting wood, revealing a passage. A secret passage.
“Wow,” I whispered, mind frantically processing what I’d found.
There was a genuine, honest-to-God secret passage right here in Blackthorn Manor. In my own home. It had been right under my nose my entire life.
I was utterly flabbergasted. It seemed crazy and impossible, like something straight out of one of my video games. Then again, the house had been built by a man who’d thought including a massive pipe organ was a logical design element for a home library, so maybe I should’ve expected something like this.
I shot a quick glance over my shoulder, taking in the comforting familiarity of the library, then took a deep breath and stepped into the passage. Into the unknown.
Thanks for reading this preview of Legacy of the Lost! You'll be able to read the rest of the book when it releases on November 1st.
If you haven't already, be sure to snag your free copy of the prequel, Sacrifice of the Sinners.