Was there an actual reason why jungles were so unbearably hot?
Anna couldn’t think of one—not right then, anyway. A bead of sweat rolled down her temple and dripped from her jaw. She looked up, glaring at the cutout in the ceiling. Perhaps if a certain builder had not added that splendid feature, she would not be sweating quite so terribly right now.
Not yet noon and already her clothing stiffened with sweat. Anna rolled her sleeves past her elbows and unbuttoned her shirt to her sternum, abandoning her leather underbust altogether. There wasn’t much more she would be willing to part with, not even in this heat.
God, this must be what it felt like to live in an oven.
Narrowing her gaze at the ground, Anna cocked her head. Her focus slid from the safety of the jaguar next to her boot to the line of pictographs just on the other side. They ebbed and flowed like a well-fed stream between the animals that marked some of the tiles. She followed the trail of phrases and prose to the far wall.
The writing itself was indiscernible, just a scrawling of pictures posing as letters, but Anna knew what had been carved into the stone. The khan’s accomplishments and adventures, even the ones which ended in agony. They painted him a hero, a destroyer, a lover beyond compare. There were thousands of tales—too many for any man to have lived in a hundred lifetimes—and each one smiled upon the khan.
Anna had come across much of the same in his other temples and pyramids, in all the other places that once belonged to Granbaatar Khan. But one infuriating fact remained: None of those places had contained the famed builder.
Just booby traps.
Lots and lots of booby traps.
Anna would find the old chap eventually, there were only so many places he could hide. She took another slow step forward, watching which tiles her boots landed on. Nudging a vine with her toe, she squinted down at the picture beneath. Eagle. Bugger, she couldn’t walk there.
“Did you find him?” Batu called from behind.
“No,” she exhaled, gaze focused on the task at hand. “The khan remains as elusive as ever. I did find a very pretty kitty, though.”
Another step, another heavy pause where even the step pyramid seemed to sigh.
“Careful,” he whispered.
“I am being careful,” she replied, fingers stretching. Not close enough. Anna slid another foot forward, her focus on the dusty floor. Was that another jaguar or a monkey? “I’ll have you know that careful is my middle name.”
Batu snorted. “Temple of Dogs?”
Anna blew a stray blonde curl from her face. “That was one time two years ago. When the warning said, ‘Prepare for drowning,’ I did not think the floor would drop away into an underground river. Though, considering we were in the middle of the desert during a summer drought, it was a splendid surprise. Cool water, strong current, an excellent life guard.”
“You and I remember things very differently.”
“Say what you will, Batu, I had a lovely time.” Anna shifted, crossed her steps. The stone jaguar sat within reaching distance. Licking her lips, she glanced down and reached forward, its gold eyes staring down its nose at her.
What a pretentious little thing.
It could be haughty all it wanted, she was still taking it—and before the looters caught whiff of its gold eyes, too. Normally the nasty little buggers followed her like carrion birds and it was a bit surprising she hadn’t found evidence of their ilk yet. There were little tells, things like supplies askew or new tracks in a chamber she hadn’t explored yet. The devil was in the details and she always noticed.
Once the jaguar was firmly in her grasp, she paused and surveyed the room.
The ground remained intact. The walls stood. Not even the heavy vines draping the walls changed, their itty white flowers blowing in that infernal breeze. Swallowing, she lifted the stone jaguar from its resting place and paused, squinting about the room.
Surely if something had to go terribly wrong, it would be now. But nothing came, not for her and not for Batu. Anna half expected the tiles to drop away into a bottomless pit or, God forbid, another underground river. But here she waited, looking silly standing as still as the stone statue in her grasp.
Frowning, Anna reached for the buckles of the satchel at her side and tucked the statue under her arm as she turned. Something about this was entirely too easy, but she wasn’t one to complain about a rare stroke of her brother’s good luck.
“See, just like I told you, Bat—”
Anna froze, mouth open.
Four men stood in the dark depths of the corridor behind Batu, one with what looked like a pistol in his hand. That was a bit of relief, at least these looters hadn’t gotten their hands on any revolvers yet.
Batu’s hands shook in the air next to his head and sweat poured down his face. It soaked the front of his shirt and stained a sizable area around his armpits.
“Looters?” she asked, squinting at the men in their mismatched brown clothing and floppy hats.
The men behind Batu shared his medium brown skin, a stark contrast to the warm honey of Anna’s. Her tan had absolutely nothing to do with heritage and everything to do with the time she spent in the sun. These men were locals, most likely from the village that had sprouted up on the outskirts of the jungle.
The man directly behind Batu hissed a sentence in Haidenian. It was tonal and rough but Anna understood the words easily enough. Understanding was one thing, speaking was entirely another.
“He—” Batu’s throat bobbed, the whites of his almond-shaped eyes visible. “He said—”
“I know what he said,” Anna replied calmly, putting the jaguar on the ground and sliding it in their direction with her foot.
She wiped her sweating hands off on her breeches, focusing on the approaching man. He brushed vines from his path, picking his way to the jaguar. She stared at his feet. One misstep and he could solve this problem for her. Then again, one misstep and he might bring all three steps of this pyramid down. A bead of moisture meandered down her spine, her heart nearly beating its way through her chest.
But the looter stepped exactly where she had, using the places where her boots disturbed the blanket of dust along the tiles as a road map. So, they weren’t complete idjits. Splendid. While extremely relieved the looter wasn’t about to incur the wrath of a dead khan, Anna was also slightly disappointed. She glared at the man and his grubby little fingers as they roved over the stone jaguar.
“Take care of that,” she said quietly. “I’ll be taking it back shortly.”
The looter sent her a blackened smile and tipped his hat, exchanging a quick conversation with his partners. In her experience, looters were never friends. Friends did not shoot each other in the back for the chance at a larger cut of the deal.
Anna paid them and their pointless conversation little attention; instead, she busied herself watching their hands, following the jaguar as it passed from one to the next. She marked the looter it ended up with. One of his boots was taller than the other, his was coat short at his wrists, and as he turned she noticed the back of his jacket was split down the middle. It flapped at her, looking like it waved goodbye.
She didn’t see what happened next, but she heard it.
Batu cried out and Anna spun to him. He clutched at a bleeding wound on the back of his skull. His eyes pinched shut from the pain and he stumbled forward. Good God. Anna’s eyes widened and she threw her hands in the air, yelling for Batu to stop, to look where he stepped, to—
His foot landed on a tile, one which had remained tucked tightly beneath a blanket of dust.
A plume of stale air wafted up like smoke and the tile hissed as it slid an inch into the floor. He lifted his foot, staring at Anna with wide eyes. Breathing deeply, her gaze skipped from one side of the chamber to the next.
The step pyramid buckled.
Anna careened left and then right as dust and debris rained down and clogged the air. She wiped the grit from her eyes and spat it from her mouth. She couldn’t breathe and she couldn’t see, but she knew what direction she had to run. Anna sprinted across the path she had carved earlier. Batu remained on the ground, hands over his head.
“Come on, Batu! Now is not the time to be sleeping on the job!” she said, fingers tight around his bicep.
Batu stumbled to his feet and shook her off, hardly able to run in a straight line. Blood dripped from beneath his thick, straight hairline and between his eyes. He glared at her fiercely, his gaze nothing but dark pinpricks. “You are an omen! This is the last time I work with you, Miss Savage.”
Anna laughed, unable to contain the giddy buzz from the adrenaline flooding her veins. “That’s what you said the last time, Batu. And look at us now!” She grinned, sliding around the first corner in the corridor. “Out-running certain death yet again.”
Batu continued to grumble beneath his breath between deep, wheezing gasps.
He was not in the best of shape.
She focused on the coat flapping just around the corner in front of them. The looters might have the lead, but Anna had lived in this ruin for a week. She had breathed its stale air and walked its deserted halls. No one knew its twists and turns better than she did.
Not the looters.
Not even the rats.
Anna slid as she rounded the next corner. The hall opened into a straight away and there, half-way down, the looters faltered and shuffled as the ground shook beneath their feet. She bent low and scooped up a sizable rock—a bit of the ceiling, Anna realized at second glance.
She tossed it, testing its weight and glared at the men before her. Searched for the mismatched boots, one taller than the other. The short sleeves. That despicable coat. Rock connected with flesh. The looter screamed at the impact, from surprise or in pain, Anna wasn’t sure—nor did she care.
All was fair in love and looting.
Her mother had made sure she learned that much.
The man tumbled and rolled, unable to catch his balance between the bucking floor and the stone she had thrown. The jaguar cracked against the stone tiles and spun ahead of them, one of its feet flying off into the distance. A section of flooring popped up, throwing Anna to the ground as the ceiling above cracked and split, then collapsed.
A gust of dirt and wind washed over her with enough strength to tear some of her pale blonde hair from its bun. Anna blinked rapidly, trying to clear the stars from her eyes.
Which way, which way?
White noise buzzed and a bit of blood dribbled from her nose.
She coughed, clearing her throat, looking for that damn—
The jaguar laid directly in front of her face, its golden eyes gleaming in the pyramid’s newly-minted skylight. The underside of the jaguar faced her, a single pictograph inscribed on its belly.
Anna squinted, lifting to her elbows and licking her lips. Its meaning didn’t immediately register. She crawled closer. It wasn’t from this region, but it was very old, probably cousins to what she had seen in the woman’s little chamber earlier. In the best of cases, this particular dialect would have been spoken and written by Granbaatar Khan’s priests, and in the worst of cases, by none but the khan himself.
Tracing its flowing lines, its edges and curves, she searched for meaning in the deep depths of her memory. Nothing came. Not immediately and not otherwise. Anna should know what this symbol meant, which word it translated into, no matter how obscure or archaic. It should have waved like an old friend in passing, and yet it hadn’t.
Bugger it all to—
Anna cocked her head.
Was that an E?
She sucked on her teeth and nodded slowly. It had to be—
The pyramid belched out another gust of putrid smelling detritus, reminding Anna of her priorities—laying prone on the floor of a dying temple certainly wasn’t one of them. She pulled to her feet, sliding the stone jaguar into her satchel. The floor steadied to a slow rolling, rumble but Anna still held to the wall for balance. “Batu, it’s time to—”
Her voice cut off and she dug her nails into the stone, something dark and tight welling behind her ribs. Batu laid beneath a section of ceiling along with two of the looters. The other two were just starting to rise. Wiping her stinging eyes, Anna spun and set off down the remaining section of hall. Compared to some of the other chambers, it was a relatively straight-forward dash from the top of the pyramid to the exit down below.
The distance wasn’t at all the problem.
The problem was the pyramid’s integrity.
Walls blew out in whole sections as the pyramid crumbled in earnest. She ran with her hands up to shield her head and eyes. Obscenities followed her down the hall, screamed from the men that chased her. She ignored the cobwebs and spiders, skipped over fallen stonework and torch holds. A mosaic spread out beneath her feet, relieved of dirt and grime, showing yesterday’s interest.
A shadow stretched before her, two or three times the depth of her own. One of the khan’s pits. Anna’s lips thinned at the sight of its dark expanse, about the length of a man lying down. She knew what waited at its bottom; sharpened sticks or rocks and the skeleton of every victim it had ever claimed. Inhaling deeply, she leapt the abyss.
For a second, the chill below clung to her skin, grazing and scratching like a lover’s fingers.
Her feet hit the ground on the other side; she tucked and rolled back to her feet. A body in motion remained in motion and she didn’t have the time to stop. A scream followed her and then a grunt. Anna turned, squinting into the dusty haze that trailed her. Only one of the looters had made it over.
She scanned the ground as she ran, boots falling lightly against the blank ceramic tiles. This hall turned several times, zigging and zagging back and forth at a downward slope. The wall on her right erupted and a chunk of stone slammed into her ribs. Anna cried out, sliding from the momentum. Her foot came down hard on a ceramic tile.
A cascade of grating clicks tore through the air, the clacking of stone work and metal permeating just above the growling of the pyramid’s death throe. Anna hit the ground, eyes prickling with tears, hands over her head. Arrow ports opened in the walls and stone-tipped arrows with red fletching flew above her head like spurts of blood.
She ignored the whistling of arrows and the scream of the last looter, crawling forward on her forearms and stomach until the narrow corridor opened into a vast hall. The stone staircase had never looked so beautiful. She stood just at the top, looking down at what felt like a thousand steps each time she climbed them.
Anna winced on the next inhale, holding her ribs, and plunged down, taking the stairs two or three at a time. Pillars carved in the shape of men with jaguar headdresses lined either side. Halfway down, the stone men no longer supported the step pyramid, instead they held intricately carved beams overflowing with flowers.
From the corner of her eyes, Anna caught glimpses of the jungle. Her thighs ached and her knees wobbled but she buried the discomfort deep and focused on her heart. The furious, excited thumps. She felt them with every step, heard them with every breath.
Several grinding cracks resounded loud enough to drown out the growling from the temple. Anna looked over her shoulder and stumbled. Bugger. The pillars had cracked in half, trembling from the additional weight of the collapsed temple. Swallowing, she stepped backward, gaze fixated on the stone men. One exploded and then another. Anna whipped around with a groan. Stone pillar after stone pillar erupted behind her, tumbling to the ground like dominos.
Anna ran straight through their camp, little white shells crunching beneath her feet. She jumped over the fire pit and wove between two tents. One blink revealed their climbing supplies and in the next, Anna saw their pots and pans, even the little stone bowls Batu insisted they used.
The ground beneath her feet rumbled. Looking down, Anna tightened her jaw. The thousand-year-old woman with the apology note had been hundreds of feet beneath the step pyramid. If there had been more chambers and the khan had rigged them to collapse…
“Oh, you absolutely brilliant ass,” she coughed.
Anna was halfway to the jungle line when a sound like mountains colliding roared from behind her. The next percussive blast threw her forward through the air and straight onto her hands and knees.
She didn’t dare turn around, instead pushing herself to her feet. The ground splintered before her eyes, fissures opening and forcing sections of earth up. She looked back, only able to see a cloud of dust.
If this step pyramid didn’t kill her, the Board of Antiquity very well might.
The jungle proper started in small bushes and colorful plants with large paddle-like leaves. It quickly grew into towering trees and snaking vines the size of her thigh. Sliding to a stop, Anna sucked a breath in and immediately regretted the decision as coughs wracked her. Swallowing past the grit in her throat, she turned around and froze.
It was gone.
The sheer amount of devastation—she had never seen anything quite like it. The maw that swallowed the step pyramid was deep enough that she couldn’t see if anything remained of it. Thick clouds of dust billowed upwards on strong drafts, looking like plumes of smoke.
Anna wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand. Despite her brother’s penchant for unbelievable tales, Markus wasn’t going to believe any of this, but if anyone could appreciate a story about treasure, it would be him. Perhaps not all the harrowing, life-threatening portions, but he’d enjoy the rest of it.
Anna slumped to the ground and kicked her legs out in front of her. Her knees were skinned, breeches torn, and every breath was a minor agony, but she lived.
Which was more than she could say for others.
After several minutes of listening to birds settle and the terrified brays of donkeys in the distance, Anna looked to the sky. She had plenty of time to make the trek back to the village. But it would take twice as long without the donkeys. Hearing them was one thing, finding them would be another.
“I hope you were worth it,” she said, glancing down at her satchel.
The pictograph she’d seen on the jaguar’s belly fluttered before her eyes, there between blinks. She pressed her lips into a thin line, rustling around in her bag until she held the stone kitty in her hands, its belly facing her.
Anna blew at the symbol, rubbing away some of the grime and dust with her thumb.
Well, well, well, what was this?
Not just one pictograph, but one carved on top of another.
She squinted, sifting from one language into another, and then finally into a language that, frankly, didn’t make any damn sense.
“That can’t be right,” she muttered.
But there wasn’t anything else it could be.
It was a name, one that wasn’t from this region. A frown tugged at her lips. An Aepith name, a seafarer’s name. But what was it doing here in the middle of a jungle that wasn’t really a jungle? Try as it might, this bit of foliage wasn’t a jungle at all, but the largest oasis on record, tucked away in the center of a desert, surrounded on three sides by mountains.
Anna set the jaguar back in her satchel and pursed her lips at the greedy abyss before her. What was she going to tell the curmudgeons on the Board of Antiquity? That she had collected a stone relic belonging to the khan with an Aepith name on it, but had decimated the step pyramid in the process?
Months of work, of research, of writing proposals and requesting grants—all a waste. She blew at a stray hair, that dark sadness tightening behind her ribcage once more. The effort she had put into this expedition hadn’t been the only waste. It had been the least of them, actually. Batu hadn’t…
She shook her head and closed her eyes.
Everything could change and it could do so between blinks.
But that was life, wasn’t it?