An Excerpt from Dawnkeepers

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Bidding on the thirteen hundred year-old Mayan statuette started at two grand and jumped almost immediately to five. At fifty-five hundred, Alexis caught the spotter’s eye and nodded, then leaned back in her folding chair, projecting the calm of a collector.

It was a lie, of course. The only things she’d ever collected were parking tickets at the Newport marina. She looked the part, though, in a stylish navy pinstripe pantsuit that nipped in at the waist and pulled a little across the shoulders, thanks to all the hand-to-hand training she’d gotten in recent months. Her streaky blond hair was caught back in a severe ponytail, and she wore secondhand designer shoes that put her well over six-feet. A top-end bag sat at her feet beside a matching folio, both slightly scuffed around the edges.

Understated upscale, courtesy of eBay.

In her previous life as a private investment consultant, the look had been calculated to reassure her wealthy friends and clients that she belonged among them but wouldn’t compete, wouldn’t upstage. She’d played the part for so long prior to last year’s “oh, by the way you’re a Nightkeeper” revelation that it’d been second nature to dress for this gig. But as bidding on the statuette topped sixty-five hundred and Alexis nodded to bump it to a cool seven grand, she felt a hum of power that had been missing from her old life.

I have money now, the buzz in her blood said. I deserve to be here.

It wasn’t her money, not really. But she had carte blanche with the Nightkeeper Fund, and orders not to come home empty-handed.

“Ma’am?” said a cultured, amplified voice. It was the auctioneer now, not the spotter, which meant the dabblers had dropped out and he had his two or three serious bidders. “It’s seventy-five hundred dollars to you.”

She glanced up at the projection screen at the front of the room. It showed a magnification of the statuette, which rested near the auctioneer’s elbow, top-lit on a nest of black cloth.

Described in the auction catalog as ‘a statue of Ixchel, Mayan goddess of rainbows and fertility, carved from chert, c. 700 AD, love poem inscribed in hieroglyphs on base,’ the statue was made of pale green stone that’d been carved with deceptive simplicity into the shape of a woman with a large nose and flattened forehead, her conical skull crowned with a rainbow of hair, and her large hands cupping the swell of her pregnant belly. She sat upon a stone, or maybe an overturned bowl or basket, and that was where the hieroglyphs were carved, curved and fluid and gorgeous like all Mayan writing, which was as much art as a form of communication.

Love poem, Alexis thought with an inner snort. Not. Or rather, it was eau-de-Hallmark read one way, but according to Jade’s research back at Skywatch, if they held the statuette at the proper angle under starlight, a new set of glyphs would show up, spelling out one of the demon prophecies.

Aware that the auctioneer was waiting on her, Alexis said, “Ten thousand dollars.” As she’d hoped, the advance jumped the bid past fair market value by enough to make her remaining opponent shake his head and drop out. The auctioneer pronounced it a done deal and she felt a buzz of success as she flashed her bidder number, knowing there would be no problem with the money.

The Nightkeeper Fund, which had- ironically- been seeded in the eighteen hundreds with the proceeds from her five-times-great-grandparents’ generation of Nightkeepers unwisely selling off the very Mayan artifacts they were scrambling to recover now, had been intended to fund an army of hundreds as the 2012 end date approached. That, however, was before the current king’s father had led his warrior-priests into an ill-fated battle and the demons and wiped out most of their culture. Only a few of the youngest Nightkeepers had survived, hidden and raised in secret by their winikin until seven months earlier, when the intersection connecting the earth, sky and underworld had reactivated from its two-decade dormancy, and the king’s son, Strike, had recalled his people.

Yeah, that had been a shocker. Alexis, dear, you’re a magic-user, Izzy had pretty much said. I’m not your godmother, I’m your winikin, and we need to leave tonight for your bloodline ceremony and training. And oh, by the way, you and the other Nightkeepers have a little over four years to save the world.

According to the thirteenth prophecy, since Strike had refused to sacrifice the human woman who became his queen, the countdown to the end-time had begun in earnest. Info from their archivist, Jade, indicated that they’d passed into the four-year cycle during which seven of the Banol Kax would come through the intersection one at a time, each on a cardinal day, and seek to perform a task described in the ancient Mayan legends.

If the task was fulfilled, the demon would return to the underworld, Xibalba, and the barrier between the worlds would thin to a degree determined by the demon’s power. If the task was blocked, however, the demon would be destroyed and the barrier would strengthen by the same amount. That was what had the Nightkeepers hustling to find the seven statues that were supposedly inscribed with star-script prophecies that supposedly explained how to defeat each of the demons.

Make that six statues, Alexis thought, grinning. Because I just bagged Ixchel.

“Excuse me, please,” she murmured, and rose, snagging her folio and bag off the floor.

She stepped out into the aisle while the discreet auction house employees whisked her statuette off the podium and set up the next lot, and the auctioneer launched into his spiel. When she reached the temporary office the auction house had set up in the hallway outside the big estate’s ballroom, she unzipped the folio and watched the cashier’s eyes get big at the sight of the neatly stacked and banded bills.

She handed over her bidder’s number. “What’s the total damage?”

“Let me check,” he said, but his eyes were still glued to the cash.

The two items she’d bought- the statuette and a Mayan death mask that had been an earlier impulse buy- wouldn’t be the biggest deals of the day by far, but she’d bet they’d be among only a few handled in paper money. Granted, she could’ve done the remote transfer thing, too, but she quite simply loved the green stuff. She loved the feel and smell of cash, loved what it could buy- not just the things, but the respect. The power.

And no, it wasn’t because she’d been deprived or picked on as a child, as someone back at Skywatch had unkindly suggested. Nor was it a reaction to the idea that the world was four years away from a serious crisis of being, as that same someone had offered, or a rejection of destiny or some such claptrap. In fact, she’d decided it was simple biology.

The Nightkeepers were bigger, stronger and more graceful than average humans, pumped with charisma and loaded with talent. At least most of them were. Alexis had somehow gotten the bigger and stronger part without the grace, and while she’d worked long and hard to camouflage the klutz factor, and most days managed to control her freakishly long limbs, the effort left her pretty low on charisma. So far she was decidedly average in the talent department, too, having gotten the warriors mark, but no inherent magical talent beyond the basics.

Ergo, her enjoyment of the occasional power trip. She liked living as large as possible. So sue her.

“This might take a minute,” the cashier said finally, looking away from the cash to bang a few keys on his laptop, and scowling when the thing bleated at him. “The network’s being glitchy today. I don’t know what’s wrong with it.”

“No rush.” she flipped the folio shut and turned away, figuring she’d use the brief delay to check in- which consisted of powering up her phone, text messaging Izzy that she had the statue and was headed back to Skywatch, and then powering off the unit without checking her backlogged messages.

She wasn’t in the mood for the chatter, hadn’t been for a while. That was a big part of why she’d jumped on the chance to fly out to the California coast for the auction. The quick trip had given her a chance to breathe air she wasn’t sharing with the same twenty-plus Nightkeepers and winikin she’d been cheek-by-jowl with for the past half year.

Besides, she could guarantee the messages on her cell were nothing critical, because she wasn’t in line for the important assignments yet. Strike had his advisors- Leah and the royal winikin, Jox. The three of them handled the heavy-duty stuff, and delegated the lower-impact jobs.

For now, anyway.

Alexis had her sights set higher. Her mother, Gray-Smoke, had been one of King Scarred-Jaguar’s most trusted advisors, holding political power equaled only by that of her nemesis and co-advisor, Two-Hawk. That pretty much figured, because Two-Hawk’s son was Alexis’s own personal nemesis, i.e. the someone who’d been driving her pretty much nuts over the past few months, ever since he’d dumped her ass right after the talent ceremony, and then acted like it’d been no big deal for them to go from burning up the sheets to a quick nod in hallway-passing.

Damn him. And damn her for falling right back into her old, bad guy-habits just as she was starting her new and improved life.

“Ma’am? You’re all set.” The cashier held out her paperwork. “I have a couple of messages for you, too. She said it was important.”

“Thanks.” She took the slips, glanced at them and tucked them into her pocket. Just Izzy mother-henning her. The winikin would’ve gotten the text message by now, so they were square.

A security guard set a metal case on the table and flipped it open so she could see the statuette and the death mask nestled side-by-side in a shockproof foam bed. At her nod, the guard shut the case and slid it across the table to her, rumbling in a basso profundo voice, “Dial the numbers to what you want, and hit this button.” He pointed to an inset red dot. “That’ll set your combination. If you don’t want to bother, just leave it all zeros and it’ll just act like a suitcase. Got it?”

“Got it.” A whim had her dialing in a string of numbers and hitting the red button, and there was something satisfying about hearing the click of the locks engaging. When they did, the readout zeroed, which she thought was a nice touch.

Once outside, she found herself under the clear blue sky of a perfect February day in NorCal, the sort that made her wish she’d opted for the convertible when she’d rented her car. But it’d been drizzling when she landed, so she’d chosen a sporty silver BMW that hugged the road like a lover. Convertible or not, the silver roadster ought to be automotive muscle enough to entertain her on the way back to LAX.

Sure enough, once she was on the road with the metal case in the passenger seat beside her, the feel of engine power and smooth leather lightened her mood, sending a victory dance through her soul. She had the statue, and she wasn’t technically due back at Skywatch for another day. There was a sense of freedom in the thought, one that had her cranking the radio to something loud and edgy with a heavy backbeat as she pulled away from onto the narrow shoreline drive that led away from the lavish private estate that was being sold off, piece by piece, to settle the owner’s debts.

Alexis had thought it a stroke of luck that the sale had come up just as they’d started tracking down the lost artifacts, but Izzy had reminded her there wasn’t much in the way of actual coincidence in the world. Most of what people thought of as happy accidents were the will of the gods.

The thought brought a quiver of unease.

“They’re just dreams,” she told herself, sending the BMW whipping around a low-G curve that dropped off to the right in a steep embankment and a million-dollar view of the NorCal coast.

Still, dreams or not, she didn’t like the way the nightmares had stuck with her over the past few months, or how they kept changing, evolving, each time showing a new detail of the same scene. In it, she wasn’t sure if she was herself or the mother she’d never known, wasn’t sure if the shadowy figure of a man wearing the hawk medallion was supposed to be Nate or his father.

“I’m not a seer, damn it.” Needing to prove it yet again- to herself, to the gods- she unbuttoned her right sleeve and shoved it up to her elbow, baring her forearm. On the inside, just beyond her wrist, she wore two marks: the curling b’utz glyph representing the smoke bloodline, and three stacked blobs of the warrior’s talent mark that had given her increased reflexes and strategic thought, along with a power boost and the ability to call up shields and fireballs. “See? No itz’aat’s mark. I’m not a seer, and those are just dreams.”

And if she told herself that a hundred or so more times, she thought as she yanked down her sleeve, it might even play like the truth.

“Damn it,” she muttered, and hit the gas too hard going into the next curve, which was a blind turn arcing along a sheer cliffside drop. Easing off and shaking her head at herself for getting all tangled up when she was supposed to be enjoying the satisfaction of a job well done, she nursed the car around the corner-

And drove straight into a wall of fire.

She screamed and cramped the wheel as flames lashed at the car, slapping in through the open windows and searing the air around her. Worse was the power that crackled along her skin, feeling dark and twisted.

Ambush!

Her warrior’s instincts fired up; she fought the urge to slam on the brakes and hit the gas instead, hoping to punch through the fire, but it was already too late. The car cut loose and slid sideways, losing traction when all four tires blew.

Heart pounding, she fought the wheel, fought not to inhale. Smoke burned her eyes and throat, and the exposed skin of her wrists and face. Then she was through the fire magic and back on the open road, but it was too late to steer, too late to correct if she even could without rubber on the rims.

Alexis screamed as the BMW hit the guardrail and flipped.