An Excerpt from Crystal Skull

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Chapter One

Deep in a rain forest south of the Mexican border

“For an archaeologist who’s made the discovery of her career, you don’t seem all that happy,” Javier said from the far side of the underground cavern, where he was systematically photographing a panel of carved hieroglyphics. Wearing jeans, scarred boots, and a UFC T-shirt, the ex-wrestler handled the high-tech camera as expertly as he wielded their portable excavator and the double-barreled shotgun that was his constant companion out in the field.

Natalie grimaced. Should’ve known he wasn’t down here just to take pictures. Her grizzled dig coordinator—and good friend—wasn’t big on being belowground. The others must’ve deputized him.

Settling her headlamp more firmly over her dark ponytail, which was damp at the ends from the cool condensation that slicked everything inside the ancient temple, she focused on the painted clay pots she was supposed to be examining. “I’m just tired.”

Which was true. The members of her six-person team had been pulling double shifts ever since she had discovered the cave two days earlier. They were racing to catalog the artifacts before things hit meltdown territory with the locals. Which was imminent.

She had all the necessary permits, but the residents of the nearby village had stopped caring about the paperwork the moment she had peeled back the overgrown vegetation to reveal a cave entrance carved with images of winged, humanoid creatures that matched the local legends of the bloodthirsty bat-demons known as camazotz.

Add to that the approaching equinox—which was supposedly when the creatures came up from the underworld and terrorized the villagers—and the fact that a local jaguar had recently developed a taste for livestock, and she had herself a village on edge. There was real potential for a pitchfork-wielding mob to descend on the dig at any moment. They probably would’ve been there already, if it hadn’t been for her connection to American ex-pat and local hero J. T. Craig.

And how much did that reminder suck?

Javier snorted. “Girl, you showed up everyone who said you were crazy for turning down a season at Tikal and bushwhacking out into the middle of nowhere instead. But you did it. You found a new freaking ruin. Tired or not, stressed or not, you should be happy-dancing from here to base camp and back again. So what gives?”
She shrugged, the motion pulling where her lightweight camp shirt stuck to her skin. “There’s no such thing as a ‘new ruin.’ It’s an oxymoron.”

“You’re the moron if you think I’m letting you change the subject. So give. What’s wrong?”

“I’m—” Fine, she started to say, then cut herself off because she knew that wouldn’t fly with Javier, especially when she wasn’t fine. She was restless and stirred up, itchy and twitchy. “I just keep thinking that I’m missing something, that I’m not where I’m supposed to be.”

And wasn’t that the story of her life?

“We’ve gotten this far following your instincts, so I’m not going to dis them now.”
Which was true. Others might think she was too brave for her own good, going off into a particularly volatile section of rain forest based on her gut feelings and the devil that kept pushing her to do more, be more, but Javier and their teammates followed her without complaint.

Still, though, his tone had her glancing over to where he was fiddling with the tripod-mounted camera and attached laptop. “Why do I get the feeling there’s a ‘but’ coming?”

“But if you’re feeling off, are you sure that it’s about the dig and not about—”

“Don’t say it,” she interrupted, scowling back at her pots.

“Somebody has to.”

“Or not. I’ve never let my personal life interfere with the work before, and I’m not going to start with J.T. Weren’t you the one who told me that I’ve got the dig-site-boyfriend thing down to an art?”

He hadn’t meant it as a compliment, either. Ever since he’d married Nikki, the team’s bubbly computer guru, he’d been busting on Natalie’s long string of short-term, no-harm-no-foul relationships. He had seen her ten-week relationship with the gray-eyed ex–Army Ranger as a step in the right direction.

Or not.

“This time was different. You and J.T. were—” He broke off when someone shouted his name from topside, the word echoing along the stone tunnel that led down to the sacred chamber. “What?” he bellowed back, setting up a reverb that made Natalie wince.

“We could use you up here,” Aaron shouted back.

Natalie breathed a sigh of relief at the interruption. There was no point in talking about her and J.T. What was done was done . . . and they were way done.
Javier scowled. “Dang it. I just finished setting up this shot. Couldn’t the crisis du jour have waited a few minutes?”

They both knew he could’ve shot five frames in the time it had taken him to set up this one. He’d been stalling so he could push her some more on why she’d ended things with J.T. What he didn’t know was that it had been the other way around.
Waving him off, she said, “Go ahead. I’ll take care of the pictures.”

“Come topside when you’re done. You should eat something.” The and we’re not done with this conversation was implied.

Once he was gone, she tried to clear her mind and focus on the work at hand. She took the picture he had set up, then started to move the camera to frame the next set of glyphs while the attached laptop added the image to the composite they were assembling of the entire carved panel. But instead of setting up the next shot, she found herself shifting aside the camera so she could get up close and personal with the hieroglyphs that made up the huge, intricate text.

For a moment, she let herself imagine the artisan who had chiseled the words into the cave wall. He would have known who he was, where he belonged within the hierarchy of the ancients: The scribes had been more than peasants but less than royalty, falling roughly equal with ballplayers and engineers. On some level she envied that—not the stratification, but the identity.

He had probably been a priest, given the religious overtones of the cave. He would have worked in there, hour after hour, painstakingly carving each symbol and pictograph of a language that had allowed its users to embellish at will, turning words into art.

So beautiful, she thought, trailing her fingers along the carved panel.

It was also an enigma. Everything else in the room belonged to the good guys: The altar on the opposite wall was a carved chac-mool that honored the rain god; the winged serpent motifs on the walls represented the creator god, Kulkulkan; the carved and painted rainbows up near the ceiling were a reference to the goddess Ixchel; and the ball-game scenes painted on the clay pots she had been examining paid homage to the sun god, Kinich Ahau. All sky gods, positive influences.
The glyph panel, though, was different.

The nine rows of text—for the nine layers of the underworld, Xibalba—looked like normal Mayan hieroglyphs . . . except that in every pictograph that should have contained a human or animal figure, there was a bat-demon instead, a camazotz, with sharply pointed ears, tricornered mouth, pushed-in nose, long fangs and talons, and strangely tattered wings.

The locals believed the ancients had built the temple to appease the camazotz, and that she risked awakening more of the creatures by excavating the sacred site. But although Cooter, her crazy-brilliant Mayanist mentor, had harped on the value of trusting the natives to know more about their homes than any visitor—however well educated—could, logic said that the legends of the camazotz had come from the temple itself, and maybe costumes worn by the members of the bat cult that had probably worshiped there. Not the other way around.

“Chicken and egg,” she murmured, trailing her fingers along the writing.

The wonky glyphs meant that she couldn’t read the text. Instead, she would have to farm it out to an expert, which was why the photographs, tracings, and other records were a top priority.

So get back to work. But the same gut instinct that had prompted her to turn down the safe-bet Tikal project and disappear into the jungle, and that had eventually led her to the cave, now rooted her in place.

A chill prickled across her skin, an almost electric crackle that was how her gut feelings sometimes hit her. She was missing something. But what?
Frowning, she stared at the panel, touched the carved surface. The silence in the echoing chamber amplified the small sounds of her breathing, making the air seem to throb with the quiet. Her fingertips scraped along the carved stone, from ridge to dip, from one bat-faced demon to the next, the next, and—to something else.

She froze, her pulse going zero-to-sixty as the shape jumped out at her.

There was a bird among the bats.

And it wasn’t just any bird. It was the bird.

The parrot’s head sat atop three stacked circles and wore a flaring headdress of curling feathers in a glyph that was achingly, acutely familiar. Yet the parrot’s head didn’t correspond to any pictograph in the historical record. She knew that for a fact . . . because she had been searching for it ever since her thirteenth birthday.

“Holy. Shit.” She touched the small silver pendant she wore around her neck. She had found it!

All the restless, edgy energy that had plagued her since she’d first set foot inside the cave—hell, in the forest itself—suddenly concentrated itself in her chest. A hot, hard buzz seared through her system, saying: Do it.

But do what?

Swallowing hard, she touched the parrot’s-head glyph, stroking a finger along the feathered headdress and down the curved beak. It was really there, really real. It was—

“Ow!” She yanked back her hand and stared at her fingertip, where a thin slice oozed blood. “What the hell?”

Getting in close to the wall, she squinted at a gleam of . . . was that glass? Impossible. The ancient Maya might have built pyramids and carved intricate writing and art, but they had done it all without using metal or wheels, never mind glass. They had been knappers and carvers, mostly, which left her with . . .

“Jade,” she breathed, seeing the faint blue-green sheen to the material of the thin blade that had been inset into the carving, almost as if its maker had wanted to punish the person who dared to touch the strange glyph.

Or . . . take a blood sacrifice from them. Blood had been the basis for many of the rituals of the ancient Maya. And even, some said, their magic.

When she was around other academics, she snorted at the idea of true magic. The Mayan shaman-priests had been experts at misdirection, using hidden doorways and polished stone mirrors to make the kings and masses believe that they could teleport themselves, move objects with their minds, and summon fire with a thought. Privately, though, she had hung on Cooter’s stories about ancient magicians, wishing they were true.

And right then, there was nobody in the room but her.

Do it, her instincts said, coming suddenly so much louder, so much clearer than they ever had before. What have you got to lose?

There was magic in blood, at least according to the stories the crazy old Mayanist had regaled his students with, year after year . . . until he disappeared into the rain forest. Logic said he’d had an accident or been killed by bandits. Inwardly, though, she had preferred to think he’d found the magic-wielding warriors he had sought. She and Cooter had been very alike—both out of place, both searching for something. She wanted to believe that he had found his place in the end.

Do it.

Senses spinning, heart pounding, she pressed her bloodstained fingertip to the parrot glyph. The moment she made contact, the restless, edgy energy inside her went supernova, and a strange, soundless detonation thudded through her.

She reeled back. “What the hell?”

Her hand was vibrating, sending pin fires streaking up her arm and leaving her struggling for breath. Then she simply stopped breathing, freezing dead as the carved stone making up the parrot glyph shimmered, rippling and pulsing as though it had suddenly come alive.

Moments later, the glyph and the surrounding stone disappeared, revealing a shallow niche that contained a small, lumpy something.

Holy shit, was all she could think. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.

That hadn’t just happened. It was impossible. Unbelievable.

Only it had happened. There was a hole in the wall where the parrot had been. What was more, the humming restlessness inside her had become a warm, satisfied glow, one that had stopped saying, Do it, and now urged, Take it.

“I can’t,” she whispered. She had to document the object from every angle before she touched it, had to investigate the trick door. Because it had to be a trick door. The alternative was . . . impossible.

Take it, those deep-down instincts whispered. This is for you alone. You found the parrot glyph. Your blood opened the door.

Hand moving almost without her conscious volition, she reached in and touched the solid, lumpy object. It shifted, suddenly gleaming luminous amber as the overhead lights caught the stone.

Maybe an inch in diameter, the clear yellow crystal had been carved with perfect detail into the shape of a human skull.

Take it. Hard, hot possessiveness washed through her. She wasn’t aware of making the decision, but suddenly she was picking it up. Cupping it in her palm, she raised it to eye level. The sockets were dark with shadows, save for two pinprick gleams reflecting back from her headlamp, making the skull seem to stare back at her as it warmed against her skin.

Holy. Shit.

“This is a joke, right?” she said, trying to interject logic into a situation suddenly turned incredible. Javier and the others were trying to cheer her up with a gag, riffing off the legendary crystal skulls that were supposed to help save mankind from the so-called 2012 Mayan doomsday.

But how had they managed it? If they found the trick door, they would’ve said something, she thought, glancing back at the wall. It’s a huge—
Her mind blanked at the sight of a solid wall, with no sign of the niche. The carvings were back in place once more . . . but the parrot’s-head glyph was gone.

In its place was a screaming skull.

Oh, holy shit times a million. The screaming-skull glyph wasn’t supposed to exist, either. It represented—according to the doomsday nuts, anyway—a group of warrior-magi who were supposed to save mankind from the rise of ancient horrors at the end of 2012: the Nightkeepers.

“Impossible,” she whispered, staring at the screaming skull and feeling the warm, solid weight of the crystal in her palm, the fading sting of her sliced finger.

“Natalie?” Javier called.

She jolted, flushing. “I’ll be up in a minute.” Her heart hammered in her ears and the rush of blood through her veins had taken on a strange humming sensation.

“I don’t think we’ve got a minute. We need you up here.” Javier’s voice was too tight, she realized suddenly.

Something had happened topside. Oh, crap.

She hesitated. What now? Stay and investigate the skull glyph? Go up and tell the others what she had found? Go up and tell them nothing? Something told her that the skull was hers alone. A secret.

“Natalie, now!”

“Coming!” Her hands shook as she tucked the skull into an inner zippered pocket of her tough bush pants. Then she bolted up the tunnel. An odd, almost tribal rhythm pounded through her veins, making her feel tough and capable, strong enough to take on doomsday herself. Not that she believed in the end-time. That had just been another of the stories.

Then she stepped out into the late-afternoon sun, and a cold dose of reality slapped her right across the face.

Suddenly, crystal skull or not, she was nothing more than a five-three, hundred and fifteen pounds’ worth of brunette better described as scrappy than scary . . . and she was facing a dozen armed villagers who were holding her teammates at gunpoint.